Sent: Monday, September 15, 2008 12:50 PM

Subject: Alex Flachsbart– 2008 Ramsey Great Ideas Tour– final recap
Continued from Italy…

From Cinque Terre, I made straight for Frankfurt, where I arrived just in time to head to Berlin with my cousin for the big Fourth of July shin-dig that the State Department was throwing for the opening of the new American Embassy next to the Brandenburg Gate. And what a shin-dig it was. We got in on the morning of the 4th and were greeted immediately by huge banners most of the friendler embassies saying “Welcome Home,” etc. China and Russia left their welcome banners at home, but for the most part we were greeted with nothing but good will. The plaza in front of the Brandenburg Gate was cordoned off for speeches from George the Elder (H.W.), the new ambassador, and Angela Merkel; those that I could understand were relatively entertaining, but I’ve got to admit that seeing the Star Spangled Banner played by the Berlin Philharmonic while the flag was being raised over the embassy was pretty moving. That is, the American in me was pretty moved. I had to wait until later on that night for the Alabamian in me to be equally touched. After watching the speeches, we wandered around Berlin for a while; we walked through the egg on top of the Reichstag and made the circuit in the park next door. It was odd, though, seeing the odd jumble of old and new that comprises Berlin’s new skyline. And after seeing so much modernity in the core of the city, it suddenly hit me: we’re responsible for this. Berlin could look just like Paris or Prague but for the fact that we bombed the living daylights out of it for most of the tail end of the war. The modern architecture wasn’t so much a choice as it was a necessity. Nowhere was this more evident than at the Blue Church, a seemingly ancient shell of a cathedral that looked more like something in Rome until you went inside what remained of the sanctuary. The original church was completed in the late 1890s and was a centerpiece of the First Reich. It sustained three or four direct hits late in the war, reducing much of it to rubble. It was slated to be torn down, but the local community decided to preserve it in its husk-like form as a memorial to how most of Berlin – and, for that matter, most of Germany – looked in late 1945. It gave me an entirely new outlook on just how much the German people have had to endure over the course of the past seventy years; we talk about the fall of the Berlin wall as if the focal point of the victory was here in America, yet completely forget that for millions of Germans, it had an instantaneous and drastically positive effect on the quality of daily life. But I digress. On the evening of the 4th, the ambassador had arranged a massive fireworks display directly over the Brandenburg Gate. (After all, what 4th of July is complete without some┬áset of coordinated explosions?) Apparently, he gave the order to synch the show to music, and what song should come on just before the finale but “Sweet Home Alabama.” That’s right. Sweet Home Alabama, synched to fireworks, eating cotton candy, next to the Brandenburg Gate. It was the closest to home I’d come in months. (And, as an aside, despite my best efforts to the contrary, the Germans around me couldn’t quite get the hang of inserting “Roll Tide Roll” in between “Sweet home Alabama” and “Where the skies are so blue”…). We spent two more days in Berlin poking around the museums and tracing the path of the wall, all of which was highly entertaining and made possible by my cousin (whose German is about as good as my English). I loved the city; walking through Alexanderplatz and seeing a Starbucks firmly planted where once the Stasi had had a listening post was just phenomenal. And the modern architecture was rather tasteful for once. It looked about ten times better than London to say the absolute least.

Continued in France…