There is still hope in the world
Berlin and Germany offer plenty to write about, sometimes much of it unpleasant. As we approach the New Year, none of it is burningly new or urgent. Bargaining on forming a new government will last well into 2018, with little prospect thus far of change for the better, or of hope generally. So, with this a holiday season for so many, I decided to stray briefly from politics – if you will permit.
As an old birdwatcher, absence from my U.S. homeland meant losing friends of my young years, birds so common they were taken for granted. Among the friends I lost were robins, blue jays, cardinals, redwings, hummingbirds – and breathtaking rarities like the scarlet tanager. Over the many years I missed such winged friends almost as much as some of the human ones.
But, by and large, I accepted my new home, all the more happily thanks to my wonderful wife and my sons, and all the more hopefully, especially during the first decades, thanks to many achievements I saw around me. Those achievements during the years of the socialist German Democratic Republic were not in evidence everywhere and they did not come without blunders and blemishes. In so many ways, however, they pointed to the possibility of a happier human future.
During those years of hope I gradually became friendly with the fauna here. No tanagers, warblers or hummingbirds, but I could rejoice to see a tiny kingfisher dart suddenly, in a swift, straight, bright blue flash, across a wooded stream. Or I could smile at the big white storks, clacking their beaks on rooftops in lucky villages or striding with dignity behind a farm machine, hunting unearthed mice or worms. What a treat it was when a skylark flew high, high into the sky –a mere dot – while twittering its joyful melody. And nothing could surpass, by day but most wonderfully in an otherwise silent night, the melancholy sobbing beauty of a nightingale song.
But, growing older, I did far less traveling and had fewer opportunities to visit the countryside. Raised largely in Manhattan, I felt comfortable even near the center of East Berlin, and the new housing behind our building was scattered spaciously, with a large kindergarten and nursery play area, framed by ever taller, beautifully blossoming chestnut trees, ringed by countless lilac, forsythia, and a dozen others shrubs whose names I never learned. But urban bird life here was limited to less than a dozen species, with only rarely the surprise of a less common visitor.
My attention could not be limited to birds, of course. The years, and a series of tumultuous, if bloodless events, often less than a mile away, brought many, many changes including major ones. The chestnut trees and lilacs remained, but the school and playgrounds, refurbished at first during the GDR years, were then allowed to deteriorate. The wading pool, once filled with joyful children, many unashamedly naked, was closed down. While rents soared, our jolly semi-annual communal clearing and prettifying of lawns and shrubbery was forgotten, as well as the occasional house get-together, feast or outing.
Even before the big change here – in German "Wende," or U-turn – local retail shops were in retreat before supermarket advances. But then this speeded up, and the new supermarkets were no longer publicly or cooperatively owned but became links in three or four giant chains, like Aldi and Lidl, which offered a broad new expanse of commodities, some hitherto unavailable or even unknown. The new chains could provide customers with out-of-season tropical delights because they were linked to places where exploitation of workers is the norm. Our old communal coops had no such advantage, of course.
Our main streets, after the "Wende," now offered new cafes and foreign restaurants –and I had always missed the Chinese, Italian, Indian, and other foreign dishes. But on the sunshades of even the nicest cafés, we were urged to try Lucky Strikes or Camels. I had never imagined in the GDR days that in a new "united" Germany there would be far more whirring helicopters and fighter planes overhead in the sky than we ever saw before.
I never imagined in those GDR days that in a new "united" Germany the muted appeals I hear now daily, appeals for small change, from women standing outside supermarket doors. I never imagined then the figures of sleeping men I see now bundled up on hard cold subway floors. The "generous" new Berlin city government allows them this obscene privilege in the icy cold of winter.
But let me not grow bitter, especially not in a holiday message! I have a fair pension and was never in need. New technology is available now (in my case almost only a computer), and travel to all the world is allowed now too. After 42 years and the success of progressives who battled anti-communism in the U.S. I was able to go back and visit my homeland.
Like all who were able to, I have made the best of life and enjoyed what I could. And there were certainly things to enjoy. One of them was surely unusual – and here I return to my avian interests. Crows are not many people's favorite birds, but for me the autumn return of the rooks, a form of crow, brought an annual joy. The handsome birds, with a violet-metal sheen under the black color, invade Berlin and really take over, waddling around, digging for food in all the lawns, and eying passersby from less than a yard away sometimes. The arrogant challenge in their beady eyes demands to know, "Who permitted you to trespass here on my territory?!" With luck, early in the morning or at the right time late in the afternoon, one could watch swarms of them, circling together beautifully in ever-larger numbers, often in the hundreds, then flying off to cross the city and spend nights in the woody central park, the Tiergarten.
One year ago I waited in vain. All winter long I saw less than a handful. My almost subconscious reaction was, I confess: "My God, with their climate warming or whatever they have even taken our rooks away! They are staying in their far-off breeding areas and no longer coming to us, like American "snowbirds," for their winter vacations!" (This year I might have been led to wonder, instead, if those to blame were "those Russians" and maybe even Putin himself.) Whoever was to blame, however, I missed them on my daily strolls, and even moped a bit.
But hurrah! This year they are back again and are here now, cawing away while adorning almost every second lawn with their gracious presence. Yes, there is still hope in the world, was my illogical feeling as I happily stared back at them.
In March or April they will leave again, like every year. But I will have new hopes then, spring hopes that my other favorites, the skimming, tweeting, amazingly swiftly fluttering chimney swifts will be back, also dark against the sky, darting and twisting while speeding near my kitchen window in their search for mosquitoes and other creatures, unliked by us, enjoyed by them. And for me, somehow, their joyous twittering flight is also a symbol.
With rare luck, I might even hear, a second time, loud thrilling calls and look up to see a group of migrating cranes flying high above me, another hopeful symbol of purpose, togetherness and freedom! Yes, despite everything, I am moved to a spirit of hope for 2018. Good things may happen or be won – although, I am well aware, not by bird-watching. Yet the fights which must be fought and difficulties endured may perhaps be a mite easier and lighter if accompanied by occasional deep breaths of nature with its simple joys, and the freedom hopes, the values and solidarity I sometimes find there. Here's hoping that similar enjoyments by many good people will contribute to strengthening their fights for the good cause everywhere!
May it indeed be a hard-fought but sometimes successful 2018, with occasional joys and pleasures for all my friends, relatives, and readers.
The author is a journalist from the U.S. now living in Berlin. He is the author of the acclaimed book "Crossing the River. A Memoir of the American Left, the Cold War, and Life in East Germany". The views expressed are strictly personal.