The traveler’s great temptation is to fix a place with a phrase and then be done with it. Sometimes, despite all the possibilities for error, a phrase does work: Florence lives in its stones, as Mary McCarthy saw; Paris remains the capital of the nineteenth century, as Walter Benjamin knew. Offering such a phrase for Berlin, though, seems riskier because what happened there happened so much more recently. It is a place where history is not yet history, or, more exactly, where the past has a way of returning just when it seemed safe to file it away as dead and gone.
When Berliners asked me last summer, usually with some apprehension, how I liked the city, they would immediately understand my response that “like” was not the word for the place. But that easy point made, one still needed to talk about the city. At such moments, I fell into a phrase that seemed to satisfy Berliners and that allowed me to evade the force of their question. I would say that Berlin was history...
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