You know those word association games? The ones where you hear a noun and say the first word that comes to mind? Like Peanut, allergy. Or Christmas, tree. Or Haughty, cat. Stuff like that?
For me, when I hear the word Berlin, the first association that pops to mind is: WALL.
As an amateur history enthusiast, the Berlin Wall holds a special degree of significance as an iconic symbol of Col-War divisiveness. I first read about the Berlin Wall in our family’s World Book Encyclopedia after the events of 9/11. Dad was struggling to impress upon my befuddled middle-school brain just how significant the collapse of the WTC towers was as we watched endless footage on CBC in the basement. He compared the terrorist attacks to the dismantling of the Berlin Wall and the ensuing reunification of Germany. It was a moment that would forever change the world and he claimed that sometimes “you’ll go to sleep and find the world is different than when you awoke.” He claimed that I’d always recall the moment I first heard of the 9/11 attacks in the same way that his generation reminisced about where they were “when The Wall fell.”
When I learned that we were spending a weekend in Berlin, I instantly became excited to see the colourful remnants of the wall that had played such a vital part in modern European history. Although other sights like the Reichstag, Holocaust Memorial and the Brandenburg Gate were appealing, most of my enthusiasm was channeled to visiting the East Side Gallery, the longest remaining stretch of wall covered with refurbished street art from the 1980’s.
As we trooped through Berlin, reminders of the wall were everywhere. Bricked lines in the street followed the haphazard outline of the partition and served as a memorial of the partition. Spray-painted chunks of the wall were sold in tourist shops alongside postcards and books emblazoned with black-and-white photographs of the militarized zone and Checkpoint Charlie. It seemed clear that memory of the wall was still fresh in the minds Berlin’s people and the tourists who visit.
As we arrived at the East Side Gallery, the wall, from a distance was underwhelming. It looked exactly like what I suppose it really is: a bald concrete wall plastered with graffiti scribbles in a weathered part town. As I got closer though, I began to recognize some of the restored murals and my long-lived appreciation for street-art and history took over. There was “The Kiss”, the blue Volkswagen and half a dozen other pieces I recognized from pictures of the wall in the nineties from my frenzied encyclopaedia-research after Dad’s post-9/11 explanatory talk.
As we strolled the length of the gallery admiring the politically-charged artwork, I couldn’t help but ponder the torturous consequences that this wall had for the thousands of families and friends it divided. I remembered a short documentary I’d watched in high-school about the tragic story of Peter Fechter, an eighteen-year-old bricklayer who was shot and killed as he tried to escape East Germany. The East Side Gallery was both a sobering reminder about the costs of totalitarian ideologies and a testament to the power of art to combat them. I realized I wanted a piece of it.
At the very, very last minute before leaving Berlin, I admitted that a piece of the Berlin Wall was required for my blossoming collection of random statuettes and mementos on my shelf in Paraguay. I knew it was cheesy. I doubted that the spray-painted concrete chunks on display in the stores were genuine. But the possibility of owning a piece of the Berlin Wall was tantalizing for reasons I still can’t quite explain. After a frantic 10:00PM search for shops that were still open, I purchased a small chunk of concrete for twenty euros. I can hear my sister’s mocking laughter now… My chunk of concrete is currently siting on my wooden bookshelf boasting its origin with the etching Berliner Mauer in its glass pedestal.
It is interesting how, of all the things we did in Berlin, visiting the East Side Gallery and the ensuing hunt for the concrete-souvenir stands out most in my memory. The desire to own a piece of history isn’t new or unique. In fact, one of my favorite travel-memoir anecdotes from Mark Twain, The Innocents Abroad, frequently satirizes the desire of “relic-hunters” to vandalize, deface and chip away at famous sculptures and landmarks. Twain tells one frustrated, “reptilian,” hammer-wielding member of his party who vainly tried to break off a piece of the Great Sphinx in Cairo that he “might as well have attempted to deface the moon.” I didn’t set upon the East Side Gallery with a hammer and stone-chisel, but I don’t think my urge to own a small piece of history is any different from eons of souvenir-seekers in the past. I suppose that my mini-exhibit of the Berlin Wall is evidence of my membership in the clan who, as Mr. Twain jokes, “never resist a temptation to plunder a stranger’s premises without feeling insufferably vain about it.”
I guess I’m okay with that.
 Or something along those lines…I don’t remember the exact wording. It probably doesn’t do justice to my father’s natural eloquence!
 Before visiting the East Side Gallery, we visited Checkpoint Charlie, the site of the famous 1961 tank-standoff between the Americans and Soviets. It was probably the closest the Cold War superpowers came to all-out war (well, except the Cuban Missile Crisis a year later). Full of kitschy stores and faux-soldiers in period American and Soviet uniforms demanding money for photographs taken with them, Checkpoint Charlie was one of those places I am happy to have visited but wish to avoid raving about.
 It turns out, they are. An East-German entrepreneur saw an opportunity in 1991 and purchased over a hundred of sections of the Berlin Wall. Apparently, he has around 40 sections left but he’s certainly made a tidy profit considering how much they sell a chunk of concrete for! The guy was brilliant!