Sunday, 19 July 2015

Berlin #3: the 'real' Checkpoint Charlie

So I'm in Berlin, doing research for book #4. I have vowed not to "do" Checkpoint Charlie.

Waste of time. Give it a miss. Sure hasn't it been done ("to death" I almost added, before thinking twice) in gazillions of films and spy novels and documentaries?

But Checkpoint Charlie is (again, if you'll pardon the term) inescapable. You have to pass it to get from Friedrichstraße station to my hotel at the far end of Zimmerstraße.

Known as Grenzübergang Friedrichstraße in German, Checkpoint Charlie was the border crossing for military officers and non-Germans. Germans had to use other crossing points.

If I were more naive - or if this were 30 years ago - what would I expect?
Alarms and Alsatians, barbed wire, chicanes, cobblestones, contraband, flags, jeeps (hold on, this is turning into one long alphabetical list) and passport checks, armed guards in watchtowers with searchlights, escape attempts, Stasi agents, spy exchanges, subterfuge and betrayal, Michael Caine, Richard Burton, Ian McEwan, Douglas Kennedy, the "YOU ARE NOW LEAVING..." signs, the wooden observation platforms for the tourists to have a good gawp at monochrome life on the other side of the Wall in East Berlin...
Checkpoint Charlie is nothing like that today of course. The original structures are long gone.

The day they took the real guardhouse away, 1990

In their place came "replica" guardhouses, in various shapes and sizes over the years. The latest tiny hut is dwarfed by a tall canyon of modern buildings, many of them of glass and steel.

At ground level it's an underwhelming razzmatazz. A motley crew of street hawkers and gawkers, and snappers and actors posing in US, French and Red Army uniforms in front of the sandbags with flags and a collection tin for the "contributions". In other words, your classic Tourist Trap.

Sometimes we take holiday snaps To Prove That We Were There (file that away for a plot). So I take a few snaps of the Trap. Of tourists snapping other tourists. Of souvenir stalls and the Trabants everywhere; they seem to be breeding like, well, Trabants.

Of course it's nothing like the old Cold War images in my memory. The Checkpoint Charlie shrine for tourists is simply an extension of Friedrichstraße -  central Berlin's equivalent of Dublin's Grafton Street, or Váci Utca in Budapest, or London's Oxford Street.

Some of the "soldiers" at the tiny replica hut wear a sort of sporran showing their "rates" for being snapped. Just before the photo is taken the sporran is reversed to become an officious-looking clipboard.

The tourists posing with the actors are holding shopping bags with designer labels and global brands. A nearby McDonalds competes with a Checkpoint Charlie museum for their holiday euros. Because capitalism won that particular war, remember?

I will return, to the museum perhaps, but probably not to the Checkpoint Charlie circus outside with its virtual shrine of actors and scutty sentry boxes.

The place was always far bigger than that. It has become a shorthand for many other things and has taken on a mythical status. This particular border crossing and the Berlin Wall were - and sort of still are - the most famous, most visible symbols of the Cold War in Europe, even though most of the physical structures are long gone and almost everything looks so different now.

Besides, Dublin once had a Checkpoint Charlie too. It was in Smithfield Square. And sometimes, somehow, the replica checkpoint in Smithfield will always be far more "real" to me.

Daft, huh?