“You’re not going to be able to bring that in.” The fat blonde girl, American as her blue jeans, is pointing at Barbara’s shoulder bag. “They said you can’t carry anything in.” She waddles off into the human stream before we can find out who actually “said,” and how ”they” are going to keep a 500-plus-acre park free of handbags, anyway.
Barbara, an old friend from L.A., has come up from Stuttgart, where she’s lived for the past five years. I and everyone else on her contact list receive occasional e-mails encouraging us to do whatever we can to get Barack Obama into the White House. When she learned that the senator’s only public appearance in Europe is to be tonight in Berlin, she took the overnight train to be here.
We arrive from the S-Bahn station northwest of the Siegessäule, the rather phallic 225-foot tower in Tiergarten park that happens to be the epicenter of Berlin’s busiest queer cruising zone — and where the candidate will address the crowd. But we find ourselves redirected into a meandering 1.5-mile journey that somehow takes us back to the station, across the river, along its bank and back across the river again. The route brings us alongside plenty of fencing, security-camera posts and police — though, considering the mass of humanity descending here on this sweltering afternoon, far less than would seem adequate should things take a disorderly turn. After 25 minutes, we finally reach an open gate.
Outside the entrance, a young Russian guy holds a sloppy sign bearing the message “Friend to Gay Obama/Traitor [to] Jesus,” in green and yellow Day-Glo paint. Barbara and I trek across meadow and foliage, following the sound of the PA, playing the Stones’ “Sympathy for the Devil.”
We wait, sweat-soaked, for the better part of an hour. Around me, I hear not just American English and German but Spanish, French, Italian and more. Demographically, the crowd of 200,000 skews young and female, and a 19-year-old girl from Denmark asks me to please make sure to tell the people in America “how important Europeans regard nuclear disarmament.” There is also a sizable contingent (for Berlin, anyway) of blacks — American, African and German. Here and there, someone waves an American flag. Others have brought homemade signs, many executed in English as Second Language syntax. “Barack Obama is Best for USA” reads one, which also bears the unintentionally apt postscript “Vote B.O.”
Suddenly, with no fanfare or gushing introduction from some pompous local official, the candidate appears on the screen, ambling toward the podium. “Thank you, thank you, thank you,” he says to the now-erupted crowd and launches right into it.
Many have come to see this inspiring figure they had read so much about and to find out what relief might be expected from Bush America. When Obama introduces himself as a “fellow citizen of the world,” they are ready to be transported. Three lines later, however, he thanks Chancellor Merkel, and people are already groaning. Then come some Cold War/Berlin Wall clichés, and a series of talking points on terrorism, global warming, economic cooperation, etc., and the feeling that one might be present at something exceptional or historic evaporates.
It’s hard to tell if the clapping I hear at one point is for Obama’s recognition of “the importance of Europe’s role in our security and our future” or because a bunch of guys on a lamppost just unfurled a banner reading “Troops out of Afghanistan.” His evocation of Hamburg as the city where some 9/11 hijackers had studied leaves the audience without a clear way to react, except for one beer-swiller who simply shouts, “Yeah, 9/11!”
A mere 20 or so minutes after those first “thank you’s,” Obama waves goodbye and it’s over. Although Barbara admits that “it wasn’t a great speech,” it doesn’t change her opinion of the candidate. Among the Euros we encounter, the word is nearly the same. “It didn’t quite inspire the crowd, but I guess it did the job,” says Geraldine deBastion, a speechwriter for the BMZ, Germany’s Ministry for Economic Cooperation and Development. Anyway, she says, “it’s cool to be around so many people who are excited about change.”
“This commie stuff, it was like 30 years late,” says Jan, a 30-year-old music student from Berlin, who joined a group of friends interested in seeing the man they hoped would be the next president of the U.S. “It has no actuality in our lives.” Still, he believes, “it was good that [Obama] came.”
The old man working the Berliner Pilsner wagon complains with less restraint. “There wasn’t a single word in German!” he huffs in his native tongue. And while an “Ich bin ein Berliner” would have been over the top, many Germans I speak to think a simple “Meine Damen und Herren,” would have gone a long way. Most recognize that outside of a few morsels tossed out for European consumption, the address was pitched over their heads and toward the cameras that would beam it back to America’s undecided voters.
The photo op now in the can, the park quickly empties, leaving a mess of beer cups and “No to Death Penalty” placards. It’s time to leave. The long summer afternoon is fading into night, and Berlin’s bears and leathermen will soon return to reclaim their symbol.