Berlin’s Festival of Lights and Britain’s headless seagull

In a wondrous celebration intended to greet the onset of winter, the Berlin Festival of Lights is currently illuminating buildings across the German capital. It’s a special year, as the city marks the 30th anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall. Many projections follow a theme of peace and unity against the odds. The history of the divided city, the Cold War and reunification, are played out on the Brandenburg Gate and the Foreign Office of the Federal Republic, amongst others.

It makes for a fascinating series of light projections of iconic moments from the period when the city was ideologically and physically divided. There are scenes of the wall being built, watchtowers searching for East Germans trying to escape to the West, the Berlin Blockade, and Allied air lift that was a lifeline for West Berliners. JFK delivers his famous speech, Willy Brandt and Ronald Reagan make an appearance. It’s another sign of how Germany has owned its history.

Brandenburg Gate, Berlin Festival of Lights, Germany
Foreign Office, Berlin Festival of Lights, Germany
Berlin Festival of Lights, Germany
Foreign Office, Berlin Festival of Lights, Germany
Brandenburg Gate, Berlin Festival of Lights, Germany
Brandenburg Gate, Berlin Festival of Lights, Germany

The message is clear, together we are better. That is doubly emphasised by the ever present flag of the European Union accompanied by a simple message: Europe United. The British Embassy is taking part in the Festival of Lights this year (it was noticeable by its absence last year). As I left the euphoria of Germany in 1989 at the Brandenburg Gate behind and turned the corner towards my own embassy, I hoped for an equally compelling message of hope.

Actually, 10 metre high letters spelling out the words “We’re Sorry” would have been enough for me. What I wasn’t expecting was a chilling insight into the current state of British society and politics. There, high above me, was a montage of British landscapes, including a sheep and a headless seagull. Intentional or not, is there currently a more accurate metaphor for Brexit Britain? Whatever led to the British projecting a headless seagull next to a sheep onto their embassy, it definitely seemed political.

I had to stop myself from explaining this theory to two young Americans who walked past. American number one looked at the embassy building and said, “What it it?” To which American number two cautiously said, “I think it’s a seagull.” The response of American number one was both unerringly accurate and damning of the British body politic. “That’s rubbish,” she said. It’s not easy being British in Europe right now, but I wasn’t about to disagree with that withering assessment.

The Festival of Lights is one of the best moments in the city’s calendar, and hundreds of thousands of people make the effort to visit. It makes the main sights pretty crowded, but also gives Berlin a carnival atmosphere. It’s fun joining onlookers as they make the slow progression from one place to the next. This has been helped by unseasonably hot weather. I was wearing shorts and flip flops at ten o’clock at night. For an all-too brief moment you can pretend Berlin is on the Mediterranean.

Foreign Office, Berlin Festival of Lights, Germany
British Embassy, Berlin Festival of Lights, Germany
British Embassy, Berlin Festival of Lights, Germany
Berlin Festival of Lights, Germany
Consumer Justice Ministry, Berlin Festival of Lights, Germany
Consumer Justice Ministry, Berlin Festival of Lights, Germany

The festival isn’t about politics – and I’m not even sure the British Embassy was trying to be controversial – but, in a year when Germans remember a divided past and look to a united future, it’s hard not to start dwelling on Britain’s attempts to isolate itself from Europe. I lost myself and my thoughts amongst the crowds along the Unter den Linden, as I headed towards Humboldt University and another grouping of light projections in Bebelplatz.

8 thoughts on “Berlin’s Festival of Lights and Britain’s headless seagull

  1. A headless seagull? My father told me headless chickens still running around for a last steps. (No offence of course). I’m sure the ambassador or the consul didn’t think twice about it. But As Freud would have said it could be an “acte manqué”. Or a seagull is just a seagull.
    A sad walk home on Unter den linden I imagine.
    Chin up. Anything can still happen, and maybe not the worst.

    1. I cycled past the British Embassy one evening and they’d fixed the problem. The seagull had a head – and it turned out to be a puffin.
      As you say, Brian, anything can happen, unfortunately I’ve had to reconcile myself to Brexit and having Boris Johnson as PM for at least five years.
      Hope all’s well?

      1. And the next day the puffin turned into a muffin. 🙂
        5 more years now? No way? Has the election been held yet? 😉
        (I flatly refuse to be hooked up on News again.)
        All good thank you. Installing heating in the house starting tomorrow. November and December can be chilly at night. I know it’s ridiculous compared to Berlin. 😉

  2. Oh Lord but that has depressed me! As someone who recalls exactly where I was and what I was doing – as well as the joy I felt at the time – the whole Brexit debacle depressed me profoundly as I watch my country isolate itself for the benefit of a bunch of slimy hedge fund managers, all because they convinced a bunch of ignorant ill-informed voters that foreigners and not our own government were to blame for everything that’s wrong with their lives. I want asylum in Berlin!

    1. Hopefully they’re offering asylum now the the British Struwwelpeter has got his deal. I feel a sense of doom as my rights (and 64 million other peoples’ rights) are about to be stripped away.

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