My stay in Berlin was short but definitely the most dynamic of any stay I’ve had so far. I wasn’t sure what to expect. All I knew is that I’ve always wanted to go, and I’m so glad I finally did.
When I first landed and got into the city, I stopped by my hostel to check in and drop my bags off, but they weren’t accepting check ins until 2pm. It was 1:15. So after checking some quick wifi (you can never be too grateful for free wifi when you have no other way to connect) I actually took my bag on my back and headed for the free Berlin tour meeting point. Our guide was this spunky blonde German girl from Dresden and she took us on 3 long hours of history and walking around the city’s main attractions. I’m glad I went since I got to see some sites and hear stories about them that I probably wouldn’t have known otherwise. (That the hotel balcony right in front of the Brandenburg Gate, for instance, is the same balcony where Michael Jackson hung the baby. Crucial info I know.) I met a lot of other travelers, a girl spending the day in Berlin before taking the night train to Poland, and an older woman from Australia traveling on her own for 2 months.
After that, I schlepped myself to a couch surfing meetup across town. I say schlepped because, in Berlin, everything is farther than you think. What looked like a quick stroll through the huge Tiergarten was really a trek through the entire forest. It reminded me of Rock Creek Park in DC, which is a great thing- but it still felt long as I saw myself being later and later to this meetup. But I’m glad I did make it, because at the very end as I was about to leave, I met a girl from New Zealand who immediately agreed to come around with me the next day. So that was it. In the 2 days, we went to the Jewish Museum, the Topography of Terror, walked to the East Side Gallery, even went on a Cold War Bunker tour and took a free Alternative Berlin street art and culture tour with a musician/artist who’s been in Berlin for 15 years now. He showed us pictures of Berlin, the same bustling streets we were walking down, in 1990, bombed and empty. One 5-story building was known for squatting then, with up to 70 artists sharing rooms just 25 years ago, along with rats, drug dealers, bars… Now that building is going to be a 5 star hotel. This sort of summarizes a lot of Berlin right now- the insanely recent history of the city, the rebuilding, but also the anger against corporations and big businesses changing Berlin into too unaffordable and “clean” of a city.
Bakery recommended by Sarah- definitely worth it for the long bus ride to Munich!
Everywhere I turned, it blew my mind how recent everything was, especially the Wall. I was almost born when this city was still divided and that in itself is kind of amazing to me, and hard to wrap my head around, especially in the middle of this continent where everything is hundreds if not thousands of years old.
It did surprise me in some ways how much, at least in terms of monuments and memorials, is there to commemorate and almost apologize for the past. Hitlers suicide location, for example, is now just a parking lot, with barely a sign to mark it. One block away, done intentionally, our guide said, is the Memorial to the Murdered Jews. I couldn’t help but think how this would be in the U.S. Would we really try to purposefully erase the horrifying aspect of the history and try to commemorate the lives lost. There was something endlessly apologetic about everything, and I wonder if Germany will ever move on, just as the U.S. will always have the history of slavery.
I have to say, I think my favorite part of Berlin was the alternative tour. It showed a bit more of the underbelly of Berlin, past just WWII and the Cold War as we know it, but more of how Berliners lived during that time and then recovered from it- the punk rock, the techno, the politically charged, but also just funny, street art. Berlin is still an enigma to me, and probably also to many Berliners, confused on how big a role the history of the city should have in day to day life.
Being able to talk to someone who’s lived there for so long, it seems like that dark history is not something that crosses people’s minds too often. Berlin has 3 sides: the government side, the startup side, and the art side. Sometimes people were able to mix and meld the two, but mostly, each side respects the other from a distance. Of course, a startup, once successful, would inevitably become something Berlin hates, right? It’s all about image, she explained. As long as the company doesn’t get too big, and still seems involved and young and hip, the people of Berlin are happy to have them. I guess that goes along with the history as well- any huge interference from abroad is feared, just like any city cameras monitoring activity are as well. The Google map cars were completely attacked and graffitied when they came to town, he said, because it represented an invasion of privacy and a reminder of the secret police of not too long ago. In that sense, Berlin seems much more on guard and aware than almost anywhere else I’ve been.
Overall, I really loved the city- for its intricacies, the mix of old history and new history, awareness of the past but also new beginnings. I look forward to coming back, if only to see how much it changes, which I definitely would hope it wouldn’t too much.