Travel writer and novelist Paul Theroux once remarked that souvenirs serve no other purpose than to show you’ve arrived somewhere. Granted, he made this comment when he was confronted with fake shrunken heads in Mexico, but what is it about travelling that makes us buy things we wouldn’t want for free at home? Finding a souvenir that somehow captures the essence of a place is on the wishlist for many travellers, and keepsake hunters are spoilt for choice in Berlin.
Berlin’s battle scars pull in more and more visitors every year. When the Berlin wall, one of the Cold War’s most powerful symbols, came down and David Hasselhof gave a concert prancing triumphantly on the ruins (though I hasten to add that he played far less of a role in Germany’s reunification than he likes to think), Berlin began to reclaim its glory. While it is now a self-consciously modern city, its role in the events of the previous century never fails to fascinate visitors. The Ostalgie movement of the last few years provides us with scores of quirky keepsakes that are a more rewarding bounty than the usual fare of doorstoppers and spoons.
Berlin and Ostalgie
Ostalgie is a yearning for life and culture under the socialist German Democratic Republic (GDR) which spawned a fascination with objects associated with GDR life. The word is a combination of ‘East’ and ‘nostalgia’. While the flames were fanned by media hype, the movement was also rooted in genuine disillusionment with the new world order, caused by economic hardship in the East. After a decade of free market capitalism, some in the former East Germany felt they had more job security under the GDR. Ostalgie peaked in 2003 with the release of the film Goodbye Lenin, and a wave of TV programmes and shops which celebrate the fallen republic.
As the phenomenon grew, so did the debate about whether it is appropriate to be sentimental about life under a regime which shot those who tried to escape.
In Goodbye Lenin, 20-year old Alex tries to protect his mother from learning that her beloved socialist state is no more after she wakes up from a coma in a fragile state.
He feeds her only GDR products, switching the labels on jars of imported gherkins so his mother thinks she is eating the local brand, and recycles old news programmes. While the film is very funny and casts an affectionate gaze towards some aspects of day-to-day life in the GDR, it does not sweep the more sinister aspects of the GDR under the carpet. It is a tragic film that, more than anything else, examines the struggles of a family that never fully recovers from the political realities of life in the GDR. Politicians were up in arms about the GDR achieving cult status, but Ostalgie is more of a fashion trend than real political sentiment, and so the market for fondly remembered GDR objects is thriving for natives and tourist alike.
Shops like ‘Ossiladen.de’ and ‘99% Ostprodukte’ specialise in products from the former East Germany, selling anything from egg holders and football kits to honey, wine and hand soap. You can also hunt for GDR trinkets at the ‘nostalgia market’ along the south bank of the ‘museum island,’ where gruff men sell hats, army coats, flags, and buckets of Soviet army badges like abandoned loose change. There must be thousands of old uniform buttons. Where do they all come from? “Russia, GDR, you know,” says the man. I’m not sure he really knows either. I ask another vendor, who says he buys them wholesale on trips to Russia. I want to find out if they come from abandoned uniforms, personal collections or other flea markets? He shrugs. I guess I’ll never know.
But is it art?
Artists flocked to Berlin from all corners after reunification, attracted by cheap rent and rapid cultural and social changes. In the early 1990s, Berlin was definitely the place to be. The city still has a thriving arts community, with artist collectives like the Kunsthaus Tacheles in Berlin Mitte, where you can buy art at four in the morning if you want to. ‘Tacheles’ is the Yiddish word for ‘straight talk’, a reference to its location in the old Jewish quarter. The building itself began life as a department store in 1907, but is now run by a group of artists and performers. In the 1980s it was an arena for covert criticism of the GDR, but it really took off as an artists’ mecca after reunification in the spring of 1990. The exterior is missing a wall, which makes it look like a giant, graffiti-painted dollhouse. Now it is a music venue, a club, a bar, art galleries and cultural centre all in one. A row of shops attached to it sell unique postcards, canvasses and sculptures made by local artists, and there are free exhibitions and gigs late into the night.
Cement On Sale
Checkpoint Charlie, the former border crossing between the respectively Soviet and American-run sectors of Berlin, attracts the bulk of the wall-gazers because of its museum and souvenir shops, where you can buy chunks of the wall and scale models of wall sections with some of the wall’s most famous murals, which you can see in living colour at the East Side Gallery near the Ostbahnhof. The gallery, which is the longest part of the original wall (1.3km) that still remains and is effectively a mile-long open-air art exhibition, has over a hundred paintings by artists from all over the world who came to Berlin to decorate it in 1990. Most of these old paintings are still there and are regularly restored, while some are recent and made by local artists. Probably the most fascinating piece of the city, it is an imposing and beautiful structure, and only seeing it life-size makes you realise how ridiculous it really was.
Trabant cars are another fondly remembered piece of GDR life. ‘Trabant’ means fellow traveller in German and was inspired by the Russian satellite ‘sputnik’, which launched in the same year as the little car, in 1957. These cars can be found, large or small, all over Berlin. Under the GDR, people waited years to get one and so took great care of them, becoming skilled at repairing and maintaining them – the average lifespan of a Trabant was 28 years. You could buy them for only a few marks after reunification and though they are still cheap they are now collectors’ items. The green ones are the most popular as they are said to bring good luck.
Little Green Men
Created in 1961 by a traffic psychiatrist who thought people would respond better to a friendly symbol than an impersonal figure, the distinctive GDR traffic light man or “Ampelmaenchen” now has entire shops dedicated to reproducing its squat form. A little man in a hat, (which the creator feared might be too “petit bourgeois”) people campaigned to save it when, after reunification, there were moves to standardise traffic lights to the West German model. The green man became another mascot of the Ostalgie movement, and some towns in Western Germany have now adopted it, along with a female counterpart. Ampelmaenchen shops offer bags, t-shirts, hats and keyrings – standard souvenir fare, admittedly, but then those of us who live in other cities have to make do with the conventional green man.
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This post was written by Alexa Van Sickle