Similar to my brief semester in the city, Mark Twain lived in Berlin for a few short months in the Fall of 1891. His was a time spent before the construction of the Berlin Wall, before the Nazi regime and the Holocaust, and before World War I. Daily, I observe this work-in-progress city, this collage of culture and memory and progression; I chose to read “A Tramp In Berlin” to try to get a sense of what Berlin’s identity might have looked like prior to their harrowing series of physical and psychological ruptures.
Interestingly enough, Twain couldn’t truly put his finger on the city’s identity either, if in fact it had one at all. He writes, “The bulk of the Berlin of today has about it no suggestion of a former period. The site it stands on has traditions and no history. It is a new city; the newest I have ever seen” (132).
If it was new in 1891, does that make Berlin old today? It simply can’t be. Berlin is continuously rumbling with the rebuilding of their landscape and culture from the bombings of World War II and the existence of the Berlin Wall. Having practically started again from scratch, Berlin’s history is relatively young, and this made me wonder if and how I even imagined Berlin before I moved here. What is the city even known for? Perceived traditions and stereotypical mannerisms often take centuries of refinement and persistence to become legendary to the place; there cannot be a ‘way it has always been’ if there isn’t first a clear and definable ‘always’.
This can become almost like a trap to outsiders, who – without concrete historical guidance and evidence – quickly form their flawed ideas of of significance and insignificance when traveling somewhere new. When describing Berlin’s prominent monument, Twain wrote, “The golden angel on top of the Column of Victory…It is one of the unpleasantest angels that I have met. I believe I have not seen anything really unpleasanter in this line…” and called the whole structure “a blemish” (94).
But arriving in a city with too heavy of a historic background or a handful of hefty expectations doesn’t allow you to be present, or to truly be anyone in the city at all. The constant comparison of what is the ‘same’ and ‘different’ to your home and to your hopes removes you from what actually is. Observations certainly guide the initial design of a sense of place, and Twain’s interminable list of complaints and descriptions could be categorized as such. But during my reading, it became quite clear that Twain made a serious mistake in his thinking: he failed to ask why. Why are the police officers so patiently persistent? Why have the streets been designed with a width that allows for breathing, cleanliness, and efficiency? Why do people come, live, work, love here?
No, Twain could not have foreseen the troubles that awaited Berlin in the coming century, and perhaps Twain was not physically present in Berlin long enough to make complex, comprehensive interpretations about his space; but I suspect he didn’t even try.
There is a time for observations, but those observations must almost immediately make the transformation from an assumption of fact into a question of meaning.