Ruins and riches

Semperoper, Dresden DE
Semper Opera House, Dresden

The Americans arrived in Dresden at five in the afternoon. The boxcar doors were opened, and the doorways framed the loveliest city that most of the Americans had ever seen. The skyline was intricate and voluptuous and enchanted and absurd. It looked like a Sunday school picture to Billy Pilgrim.

This is how author Kurt Vonnegut described his character’s (and his) first view of Dresden, Germany, in 1944.

My recent impression of Dresden’s cityscape was much the same.

The Old Town is a fascinating cluster of ornate palaces, churches, theaters, museums, monuments, and squares. Its dense arrangement of royal buildings is among the grandest in Europe.

But in the time between Vonnegut’s first look and mine, all of it was erased.

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Streets of Berlin

Reichstag DE

In late September I joined forty-four thousand fellow visitors for a tour of central Berlin.

As participants in the Berlin Marathon, we circled the inner city clockwise and, over the course of a few hours, passed several historic landmarks spanning centuries.

The race starts in Tiergarten, a central park much like New York City’s. After World War II, residents of Berlin planted potatoes in the park in an effort to stave off starvation.

Their dire situation was caused by both the devastation of war and the Soviet blockade of West Berlin. The hunger was somewhat abated by the Berlin Airlift from 1948 to 1949.

Altes Museum DE
Altes Museum

In response to the Soviet siege, the Allies launched hundreds of thousands of flights into the city to deliver food, medicine, and fuel.

At the rescue mission’s peak, planes were taking off and landing every ninety seconds. Some of the pilots dropped chocolates to Berlin’s children.

The airlift was based at Tempelhof Airport. Now out of service, the airport was put to use as the venue for the marathon expo. To pick up my race bib, I walked through the deserted terminal, past ghostly check-in desks, empty baggage carousels, and blank departure boards.

Next to the expo, a Douglas C-47 transport plane was parked on the tarmac, a reminder of the airlift.

Douglas C-47 DE
Berlin Airlift plane at Tempelhof

A couple of days later, I lined up at the start with runners from 150 countries. The sky was overcast and threatened rain, but the participants were anxious to begin.

Berlin’s course is flat and record-eligible. In 2018 Kenyan Eliud Kipchoge ran the fastest ratified marathon ever run in a time of 2:01:39.

I just wanted to finish.

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