Berlin Memories

Today, November 9th, is the 25th Anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall. It brought back memories of a time my wife and I visited a memorial section of the Wall.

Several years ago a young doctoral student in Berlin read about my research on car sharing when he was studying for his doctorate in Germany. Not long after, he traveled “all the way” from Berlin to meet me. We talked and I agreed to help him with his dissertation.

It was hard work as his written English was an editor’s nightmare. We spoke daily by phone one summer when I was in Italy as he was finishing up, and afterwards I went to Berlin for a few days to serve on his dissertation committee.

The routine of the dissertation committee in a German university was everything you might imagine—formal, austere, unsmiling, tough, and yet conducted in English, perhaps for my benefit. At the end, I was asked for my opinion. What could I say?

He passed the exam, a gang of friends marched in with a bountiful supply of food, and we had a few remarkable days in Berlin, as he and his then-girl friend took us around and treated us royally.

It was enjoyable, Berlin was prospering, and it felt as modern as any contemporary metropolis. I was surprised by how pleasant, how normal it was because being in Germany had always been a difficult experience for me.

This was true in 1954 during my first visit when rubble from the War was still on the streets. It was even more difficult in 1960 the night I stayed with a graduate student friend at his father’s home outside Frankfurt. He wasn’t the least bit friendly and that led me to think or imagine he might have been a Nazi sympathizer.

While lurking in the background of my thoughts, we never spoke of the War during my recent visit to Berlin. It was as if the Holocaust had never occurred. The student and his partner were thoroughly delightful. The same was true of their respective families that we met at a celebratory dinner in a nearby village.

He returned to Portland a few days ago on a leisurely trip of around America with his current girl friend. It was fun to see him again, learn what they were each up to, and recall our times together.

Knowing of my love of Florence, a few years ago they called me after they had climbed to the top of the Duomo. Here I was in Portland, talking to a friend on the top of the Duomo in Florence.

I recalled the long, very steep and dangerous narrow stairway to the top, the wind blowing, the fear of toppling over, with a view out to the fields of Tuscany.

And as I thought back about the experience of helping this student from Germany, it was one of those recollections that continue to astonish me. Could it have been me? Did I really do that? Did he come all the way from Berlin to work with me? What has happened to me in the ensuing years?