Like every Monday, I spent the early afternoon listening to the growlings of a lecturer on the subject of Medieval Romances. As I walked out toward Friedrichstraße afterwards, I saw the tides of people walking down to Unter den Linden and let myself be swept up in them. I knew the date, November 9th, 2009, but I somehow had not thought this day would loom so large. The world had changed twenty years ago, and today they felt like remembering. There were security checkpoints long before Brandenburger Tor. I wondered if any of the police found irony in putting up their own little walls so we could celebrate the demise of a larger one.
Inside were the stands one would expect, selling beer, sausage, spiced wine, French fries, and noodles. It was not yet crowded, but it did not take a university education to figure out that would soon change. I had dinner right there and listened for the languages in the air. Both tongues and accents from Norway, France, Britain, America, China, Spain, Russia, Poland, Italy and a half dozen more foreign lands warbled around me. Television stations had set up towers behind me, and I observed a pair of English women trying to figure out where the press access area was. Even Germans had come. From behind the fence meant to keep the crowds back, I watched the empty orchestra pit wait for musicians and giant dominos, looking tiny to my badly placed eyes, standing lonesome all in a row. It was still hours before the show was to begin.
I stood silently as the crowds continued to build. I did not wish to give myself away; even with all the other invading foreigners in attendance, I almost felt guilty for being there. It seemed that this day was not really for me. What I was really there for was to watch others remember how it was to be the center of the world for a few moments. I tried to remember that night. I was only four years old. If my parents were acting excited, I had no way of understanding why. I think they told me sometime that they stayed up late watching the news. Maybe they opened a bottle of champagne. Maybe they cried a little for the wonder of what they were watching. It was one of those things I grew up hearing about as one of the most significant events of modern history, but I felt no relation to it. Now here, mere meters away from where a symbol once stood, its path still marked out on the pavement all across the district, I could not help but feel something. I looked around me to see if I could find anything in the faces of strangers. Some were younger than I was. The older ones looked bored, making disparaging comments about the people responsible for organizing the night's event. Well, they were Berliner.
I was suddenly struck by the thought that I needed new shoes. I could feel my socks soaking up the ground's moisture through the gaping holes in my loafers. Then the rain began. 100,000 people raised at least 80,000 umbrellas. I tried to squeeze under the edge of one, but its owner shifted too much to keep me very dry. I don't rightly know how he managed to move so much. I could barely lift my arm enough to scratch my own nose by this point. Still, we waited.
At some point, the concert began. Wagner, Mozart and I don't know what else were played. Somehow, the cold and rain seemed to make it more beautiful. The haunting sonic recreation of Kristallnacht, the night the synagogues of this very city were desecrated, took my breath away. Then they brought out a local favorite for a surprise ending, an ode to the particular qualities of the berlinisch air. I could not help but sing along to the chorus as I picked it up.
Then the speeches began. There were hosts from MTV or something, you know, to add that extra sense of dignity to the occasion. I caught glimpses of the politicians: Merkel, Sarkozy, Medvedev, Brown, Clinton and a whole gaggle of cronies and politics men. The air erupted with a sarcastic 'ooooh!' when Sarkozy and Medvedev tried to lace their speeches with a bit of German. The other foreign speakers seemed content to let translators do their jobs. All the grand rhetoric would have seemed less bland if the same words and phrases did not come up so often. Changed the world, tyranny, freedom, liberty, wall, greatness, around the world, etc… How did these compare to the speeches seeking to tear it down in the first place?
At last came the main event of the night. Stone slabs two meters tall stood lined up all across the central district, little walls waiting for a push. We were to have our own fall. Of course there had to be more interviews and speeches concerning the dominos themselves. This was exactly why I stopped going to baseball games.
Most of us couldn't see much from where we were standing. It was all displayed on a gigantic video screen up by the gate. The start of the dominos lay elsewhere in Mitte, and we could see far more people lined up along the domino route than our measly hundred thousand. At last we saw them topple over, one by one, a sprinter running along in their wake. Suddenly, they stopped. Another one fell, failing to knock over the next. Was it a fluke? This was not immediately obvious as our hosts saw fit to go to another round of speeches, a song, and a documentary, seeming to completely forget about our dominos. At last we returned, only to cover about another third of the whole line. Now I was getting angry. We'd been standing out here for hours in the cold, I was starting to have vague concerns about frostbite, and these bozos did not seem to know how to shut up and let us have our spectacle.
Even Bon Jovi got an interview. But I could not leave if I wanted to. I needed the resolution from that last slab toppling over, the reenactment to be completed. We all have our barriers, the things that hold us back, hide us away. If some angry urban dwellers in bad eighties fashion wouldn't let riot police keep them from bringing down that wall, why would I let my social anxieties keep me from striking up conversations with strangers or following my ambitions? I wanted to feel it.
The last line of dominos slammed down one after another. I saw the last few poised, ready to go down. At the final slab, it stopped. The block stood fast, refusing to go down. They told us it was because of the North Koreans. They still had to deal with tyranny, so we weren't allowed our closure. No walls were coming down today. It was over, without satisfaction. What happened to memory? To celebrating battles already won? We went home instead. Outside the police barriers was another crowd. The two bodies met each other, east and west. We all went east this time.