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Wider than Bay Bridge, it links E. Shore to Berlin


BERLIN -- Question: So what's so unusual about young people from Berlin assembling in the city's big, redbrick City Hall?

Answer: They're from Berlin, Mass.; Berlin, N.J.; Berlin, N.H.; Berlin, Ohio; Berlin, Pa.; Berlin, Wis.; and, of course, Berlin, Md.

"There are 35 Berlins in the United States," said Jane Helmchen, who's counted.

She's project leader for Initiative Berlin-USA, a youth exchange program founded six years ago during Berlin's 750th anniversary celebration.

"We have about 15 Berlins in the program," she said, not to mention a couple of New Berlins.

The program's called "Brucke der Jugend," Bridge of Youth. Berlin likes to call things "Brucke," after "Luftbrucke," the Berlin airlift that saved West Berlin 45 years ago.

"We bring about 100 students and young professionals here every year from Berlins in the United States," she said.

"They're 18 to 25. They stay with German families. That's the whole point -- to get to know people on a personal level so Berlin doesn't remain a cliche."

To complete the bridge, the program also sends young German Berliners to the U.S. Berlins.

"Most of the American Berlins are very small," said Ms. Helmchen, a U.S. citizen who has lived in Germany for many years.

And so the Berlin Initiative fudges a bit: This year they invited for the weeklong visit young people from Kansas City, Mo., and Los Angeles, cities with which Berlin, Germany, has exchange programs.

Maryland's Berliner was Andrew Perry, a 20-year-old junior at Salisbury State University. And it turns out he's not from Berlin, Md., at all.

"Actually, I'm from Ocean Pines," he confessed during his recent visit. "I'm originally from Reisterstown."

Ocean Pines is a relatively recently developed town near Ocean City and about five miles from Berlin, a distinction no doubt lost on Germans, who often have a hard time locating Baltimore.

Mr. Perry answered an ad in the Berlin newspaper, and here he was. Berlin, Germany, even picked up half of the $450 fee usually charged.

"Berlin [in Maryland] is exactly like Mayberry," the TV town policed by Andy Griffith, he said.

"Berlin [in Germany] is great," he said. "I love it so far. The best part is that I'm staying with a family near Treptow Park. That's East Berlin.

wanted to see the GDR [Communist German Democratic Republic] influence," he said.

He finds the past fading.

"It looks like it has become westernized very fast," Mr. Perry said. "I still can't get used to seeing Woolworth's and McDonald's. I knew they were here. But I didn't think they would be so predominant."

He thinks the family he's staying with was pretty well off in the East German days. The father was an engineer, the mother a nurse. They had two cars and a fairly big apartment. The father's selling insurance now.

"They have mixed feelings about everything," Mr. Perry said. "They're not really sure.

"They expected they'd be thrown into post-World War II America. People associated capitalism with that era. We don't even have that in America anymore."

The Brucke Jugend went to Berlin's City Hall, the elegant Rotes Rathaus, for a reception with Sen. Christine Bergmann, a member of the city's parliament.

She told them that Berlin was a symbol of freedom, but that the euphoria of unification had disappeared, replaced by its difficulties. "It is painful to unite again," she said.

They visited the old Checkpoint Charlie site, the Berlin Cathedral and Alexanderplatz, took boat trips on Berlin's lakes and rivers, toured Germany's biggest newspaper and had a part in discussions at the Aspen Institute, a German-U.S. sociopolitical think tank.

"I thought that was really interesting," Mr. Perry said. "Everything is changing in Germany."

"I thought it was boring," said Joe Wadde, a 16-year-old non-Berliner from Kansas City. "All they talked about was politics."

Eric Seafolck, who's 23 and from Berlin, Ohio, said, "Everything is beautiful. Especially the pubs."

He hung out with Sebastian Dietzman, 19, a member of the program he met in Ohio.

"We've been pretty busy," Mr. Seafolck said. "There are a lot of pubs."

Andy Perry thought the night life was OK, too: "There's more life in the night life here than in Ocean City."

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