Berliners throw off gloom, soaking up sun and beer

FOREIGN CLOSEUP

May 04, 1993|By Carl Schoettler | Carl Schoettler,Berlin Bureau

BERLIN -- Berliners, who spend their dank, dark, dismal winters fighting depression, are luxuriating in one of the warmest, sunniest springs of the century.

Berlin this spring is a surpassingly green and watered city, laced with rivers, canals and lakes, full of parks, playgrounds and promenades, outdoor cafes, flower gardens and liegeweisen -- resting places for people who just like to sack out on a lawn.

With a week of temperatures hovering around 80, Berliners popped out of their apartments, blinking in the sun like groundhogs at Punxsutawney. They immediately packed their porches with flowers and greenery and jammed the Tiergarten park with illegal grills, frying kebab, shashlik and chicken.

On the sunny May Day weekend, 10,000 or so Communists and anarchists turned out in Kreuzberg for a fairly subdued version of their annual tussle with police. They marched under anachronistic banners emblazoned with portraits of Karl Marx, Friedrich Engels, Vladimir Lenin, Josef Stalin, Mao Tse-tung and occasionally Che Guevara.

But thousands of other less political citizens showed up at the traditional May Day Dampfer Korso of the old Weisse Flotte at Treptower Park.

Dampfer means steamboat in German. The excursion boats that have plied the waters of Berlin for decades used to be steamers, and they're still called dampfers today.

Berliners love to flop onto one of the benches on these low-riding dampfers and float gently away, beer in hand, soaking up the sun, bemused by the waterside view of stuff they know intimately ashore.

A million Berliners a year do just that.

The May Day Korso, a procession of dampfers, may once have had political overtones. They did sail past a memorial to Marx. But now folks just want to have fun.

A May fair of multicolored stalls sprang up along the embankment where the boats berth, just past a bridge that takes elevated trains over an appendage of the Spree River called Rummelsburger See.

The canvas stands sold everything from bratwurst to leather crafts to Jagermeister, an herbal drink that tastes like something your grandmother made you take for colds.

But there was a distinct tilt toward things American. An enthusiastic Dixieland band played "Sweet Georgia Brown," "All of Me" and "Lady Be Good," all sung in English by the saxophone player.

Red and white stands with the Coca Cola logo did, indeed, dispense Coke. Every second person seemed to wear a T-shirt touting some U.S. sports team, Bulls, Broncos and Cowboys being among the favorites. Sometimes the Redskins appeared, but careful research turned up no Orioles.

One stand sold Confederate and U.S., but also German, flags. Many of the U.S. flags bore that good old jingoistic slogan, "America -- Love It or Leave It."

What that means deep in old East Berlin remains a mystery.

Lots of truckers' caps were for sale, including some embroidered with "West Point U.S. Military Academy," some with "America No. 1" and some, inevitably, "Born to Kill."

But people also lined up for Thai food, Berliner Kindl beer and eels smoked before your very eyes.

The Monbijou, a low-lying, white dampfer with red and blue stripes, sailed at 1 p.m. with a load of little families, sun-seeking young lovers and plenty of folks just drinking beer.

The Monbijou tooled quietly along the lush green banks of Treptower Park. A Lutheran church thrust its tower out of the greenery, and farther off in the distance a Ferris wheel turned a lazy half-circle over the line of the trees. Immaculate swans glided in haughty elegance beside the boat.

The Monbijou passed under a bridge once barricaded by Communist authorities, past factories made superfluous by the unification of Germany and now being dismantled. Scrap metal awaited the workboats that also ply this waterway.

The White Fleet, like much of the rest of the old East Germany, is mired in privatization. A deal for the takeover of the fleet by a Western dampfer company ran aground on the number of employees to be kept.

The Monbijou and the other dampfers of the White Fleet are being kept afloat by a state subsidy. The future is murky, a small dark cloud on a bright, sunny May Day in the warmest spring Berliners can remember.

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