Out of Germany: Dream line takes Berliners back to reality

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BERLIN - 'Ode to U2' proclaimed the headline in the east German Wochenpost. However, this was no homage to mere pop megastars. The subject was much more sublime: the fate of a Berlin underground line.

The Wochenpost's tone of wonderment was unusual in a press where world-weary self-confidence predominates. For the U2 column touched on a subject that has become almost taboo. Four years after the Wall came down, you can search long and hard for the merest hint that the situation in Germany today is an improvement on the nightmare that came before.

At the end of last year the main underground line between east and west Berlin - Line Two of the U-Bahn, known simply as U2 - finally reopened. Alexanderplatz and Pankow in the east came together again with Wittenbergplatz and Zoo Station in the heart of the glitzy west.

For many, on both sides of what was the Wall, that was a matter of indifference. Disillusion and disunity now dominate the agenda. Germans emphasise the lack of mutual understanding. The 'wall in the heads' is real.

For all that, though - indeed, because of that - the underlying magic of the re- opening of U2 (originally completed in 1902) should not be ignored. When I lived as a student in West Berlin, the Endstation of my U-Bahn route into town stopped dead, like every other route, before reaching the Wall. As a Westerner, you could pick up the other strand of the line, and travel in the east. What you could not do was travel from one end of the line to the other.

As the Wochenpost columnist noted, this is the Traumlinie, the dream line. 'We (East Berliners) all had this dream. That the U-Bahn goes on, that one is suddenly in the West. This dream, between heaven and hell . . . Thousands of verbal declarations of unity are nothing, compared with the feeling, on a Tuesday morning or a Saturday night, of being in the U2.'

Potsdamer Platz - pre- war Piccadilly Circus, then East Berlin death-strip, and now in the process of becoming a gigantic building site - is just one of the stations that is being revamped.

Sure, everybody wept when the Wall came down. After German unity in 1990, there was a swift desire to create the impression of business as usual. After 1945, there was a Verdrangung, or repressing - an attempt not to face up to the evil in the country's recent past. Now there is a different kind of Verdrangung, where many seek to forget how much things have changed, for the better.

The Wochenpost columnist described an incident barely five years ago when her colleague came rushing into the office one morning. 'You can believe me or not, but I've been in the West]' He had accidentally got into an empty train which took him to the forbidden territory of Potsdamer Platz, directly under the Wall. The border guards briefly arrested him, but quickly threw him off their patch to avoid potential complications from on high. Already, that grim surrealism is mostly forgotten. In the words of one east Berliner, 'Everything was so abnormal, before - and yet, we got used to it. Now, we don't want to unsettle everything, by reminding ourselves of that abnormality.'

Even with the union of U2, the west-east tensions have continued. The East Berlin G-Icoaches, known as Giselas, have kept breaking down, causing heavy delays. As Die Zeit noted, 'Unexpectedly, a purely technical problem became a matter of east-west relations. Suddenly they were all there again - the difficulties, the prejudices and the insults, which come with the unification of two systems.'

Thus, U2 can symbolise the problems of Germany. Above all, it marks the forgotten miracle of normality. Much has gone wrong, and more will go wrong in the future. But none of Germany's difficulties can detract from the extraordinary ordinariness of U2.