Thursday, May 20, 2010

Ich bin ein Berliner

Guten tag from Germany! Just a word of warning, this German keyboard I'm typing on is a little bit different than a normal keyboard, with the most notable difference being that the 'y' and the 'z' are flip flopped (you'd be surprised how often you use the letter y!), so just bear with me if there are any typos! We've been in Berlin for the past 3 days, and it's been really great! I didn't really have as many expectations or preconceived notions for Berlin as I did for some of the other cities on our itinerary, and I've been really pleasantly surprised! The city is HUGE! Much bigger then I thought, and it's fairly spread out, in a weird way it reminds me of Chicago? The past 3 days have been quite the history lesson for me, and it's really fascinating the role that Berlin has played in German history for hundreds of years. One thing that Cam and I keep talking about as we tour all these different historical sites is how little we really know about European history; I feel that in high school I learned a ton about American history, but on a lot of the details of European history, I'm pretty hazy. I guess I didn't realize that Germany didn't become a unified nation until 1871 (prior to that it was a bunch of seperate little states), and I'm basically clueless on Prussian history. But here in Berlin we've gotten to see it all, from Prussian architechture to Nazi headquarters to famous Cold War sites to the abundance of modern developement that has taken place in the last 20 years since the fall of the Berlin Wall.

We arrived in Berlin at 5 am on Tuesday morning after taking a night train from Amsterdam-sidenote, I LOVED taking the night train! It's like that feeling of being a little kid and falling asleep in the car, but instead of being uncomfortable because you're sitting upright, you have your own little bed to lay down in. Cam said he only slept about 3 hours, but I was basically in a coma the whole train ride, it was awesome. Anyway, we got in to the enormous Hauptbahnhof train station in Berlin, and I was amazed how many stores were in this train station. (It was basically like a mall with train tracks, housed in a very modern building, very cool). We killed time drinking coffee and eating German pastries at the train station, then headed out to go explore the city. We got to the Reichstag right when it opened at 8 am, and were able to climb up to the top of it's beautiful giant glass domed ceiling. The Reichstag currently houses the German legislature, but it has had quite the interesting history. In 1933, the building was set on fire, and this is just when Adolf Hitler was coming on the scene, and he blamed the event on the Communists, and used it as an opportunity to seize power, even though many believe he was actually the one who started the fire. Then when West and East Germany were divided after WWII, the building sat unused. Today, it has this really cool column of mirrors in the center of it's huge glass dome, and we were able to get a great 360 degree view of the city. Next, we decided to go on a walking tour to help us get more familiarized with the city, as we had been told that it was a great thing to do in Berlin. We did the Original Berlin Walks tour, which wasn't one of the free walking tours, but it was the one that Rick Steve's recommend in his Best of Europe guidbook, and RS never steers you wrong. The tour was great! Our tour guide, Holly, was an American who has been living in Germany for the last 9 years, and she was extremely knowledgeable and knew a ton about German history. She basically took us all around the city and helped to place all the builidings and sites she pointed out in Berlin's long history. It's amazing the big, bustling city that Berlin is today because a large majority of it was completely flattened in WWII, and anything that didn't get leveled is full of bullet holes. We visited one of the only remaining sections of the Berlin Wall, saw Checkpoint Charlie, and she told us stories of the many escape attempts as people tried to get over the wall from East Berlin to West Berlin. For me, the 2 most interesting sights she took us to were memorials relating to the devestation caused by the Nazis. The first was a memorial to commemorate the book burnings of the Nazis in 1933. They burned 20, 000 books in the square right across from Humboldt University to demonstrate to the people of Berlin that no one was going to read anything that didn't support their agenda. Today, there is a glass plate laid in to the cobblestones in the square and when you look down into it, you see tons of empty bookcases, and our tour guide said there the artist who created the memorial made enough bookcases to hold 20,000 books. The second memorial we saw was a Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe; the memorial consists of all these tomb-sized concrete slabs, which vary in height. They start out shorter, around knee high at the edge of the memorial, then as you move towards the center, the slabs get taller and the ground starts becoming uneven, so by the time you are in the center of the momument, the slabs are much taller then you. Cam and I actually got seperated for a few minutes while looking at the memorial, and it was kind of scary because there are all these huge, gray, imposing slabs of concrete around you, and it just creates a feeling of total isolation, confusion, and gloom. The artist wanted the memorial to be very text free to leave visitors to interpret it in their own way, and I thought that he did a really excellent job at evoking emotion with his design. One other sight we saw on the tour wasn't a sight really, it was a just a patch of grass, but our tour guide told us that underneath us was Hitler's giant bunker in which he committed suicide. There is a small sign with info about the bunker near the area, but the German government wants to really downplay Hilter related sights that would be of any interest to Neo-Nazis groups, however, our tour guide did provide us with a lot of info about the rise and fall of the Nazis in Berlin. The walking tour took up a lot of our afternoon, but it was so worth it as we were able to see a ton of the city and I learned a lot!

We conveniently ended our tour right near this famous chocolatier with a huge shop and a elegant cafe, so Cam and I really enjoyed having an afternoon cup of hot chocolate there, so delicious. We had heard a lot of great things about the Jewish Museum, so that's where we spent the remainder of our afternoon, and I'm really glad we went there. The museum showcases 2,000 years of Jewish life in Germany, and it's housed in a building with a very modern design, an ariel view of it sort of looks like a twisted silver Star of David. One section of the building is dedicated to the Holocaust, and it features a concrete tower that is designed for reflection. The tower is extremely tall, and the only light comes from a tiny slit in the roof. There is such a sense of despair and hopelessness when you step in this tower, but you can hear the echo of the traffic from the street through the window way above your head. I felt very small and trapped, and all I could think was, there are people up there on the street, but no one knows I'm in here! Obviously the Tower might evoke different emotions for everyone, but for me it was very moving and I still am just in awe how such a horrific tragedy could have occured in the Western World so recently and years went by before it was stopped. I can't begin to imagine the way that the Jews here in Europe felt during this time, but I thought the Tower at the Jewish Museum did a really good job of making you think. After the museum, we got dinner at a traditional type German restaurant and it was delicious (but super filling!) Then we finally made our way back to our hostel, which was in East Berlin. It was a little bit confusing to find, but once we got there, it was awesome! It's funny, a lot of the buildings in East Berlin are quite plain, very much Soviet style architecture from the outside, but then you get inside and they are really modern and updated. Our room in the hostel was huge, and it had a TV in it that actually got English CNN, score! (Except it wasn't the American version of CNN, it was like this weird less professional English version of CNN that was actually really funny)...

The next morning, we headed over to Museuminsel, or Museum Island in English, which is basically a section of Berlin with a bunch of museums right next to each other. Before our day of museum hopping, Cam and I got an amazing brunch at this place called the Opernpalais, an adorably fancy little restaurant right across from Museum Island next to one of Berlin's opera houses. After brunch, we first headed to the giant Altes Museum, where we saw Berlin's collection of Greek and Roman antiquities. After that, we went right next door to the Alte Nationalgalerie, or Old National Gallery in English, which was another huge museum where we saw a variety of paintings and sculptures from the Classicism and Romanticism periods. Because the museums are all clustered together on Museum Island, it makes it really easy to go from one to another, so after the art museum, we headed to the Neues Museum. The Neues Museum houses a lot of Egytian artifacts, but their most well-known piece is the bust of Queen Nefertiti. The bust is 3300 years old and extremely well-preserved; it was really cool to see this beautiful artifact in person! Then after three museums in a row, we were starting to get a little burned out. It turns out the place we had gone for brunch is actually famous for the cake buffet that they have every afternoon, so we decided to go back and check it out. Similar to the way that the Brits have tea and scones and such in the afternoons, we were told that there is a custom in Germany called "kaffe and kuchen" where at 4pm, Germans like to have a piece of cake and cup of coffee. That sounded like a great idea to us, so we were able to indulge in this tradition back at the Opernpalais, where we had a huge selection of cakes to choose from. I'm pretty sure that we were maybe 1/3 of the average age of the majority of the people in this restaurant, but oh well, we enjoyed ourselves! After our afternoon snack, we took the U-Bahn (German subway) to the Western part of Berlin to see the famous KaDeWe department store. I had heard that it was like a German version of Herrod's in London, and it basically stood for capitalism and the West while Berlin was divided. It's an ENORMOUS store, you can buy every possible item you can imagine there. I didn't think it was as cool as Herrod's, it wasn't quite as ornate and luxurious, but it was still a lot of fun to see. We spent the rest of the evening walking around the streets of Western Berlin, where we saw the Kaiser Wilhem church. For dinner, Cam really wanted to try currywurst from a street vendor, as it was supposed to be one the things that you have to try when you're in Berlin. I was a little skeptical, as I'm not a huge fan of curry, but it was actually really good!

One our last day in Berlin, we started the day out by walking around the Alexanderplatz area in East Berlin, not too far from our hostel. One of the things that's a little different about Berlin is that, in large part due to it's turbulent history, there really isn't one city center, rather, there are mulitple squares in different parts of the city that each serve as a hub for that particular part of the city. Alexanderplatz had lots of stores and restaurants and seemed like a nice area to hang out. We jumped on the U-Bahn and headed up to the Documentation Center for the Berlin Wall. This is an interesting little museum that has all different things relating to the Berlin Wall. However, the most interesting part about this museum is there is a tower that you can climb up that allows you to see the only remaining section of the Berlin Wall that still has both the inner and outer wall. This was something that I was really unaware of when I heard people talking about the Berlin Wall, I didn't realize that it was actually two walls, and the space between the two was a "no-man's land" and Soviet border guards were instructed to shoot anyone found in this area. Being on top of the this tower at the documentation center allowed us to see both sections of the wall, the strip of land in between, and the guard tower that was used to monitor that portion of the wall. It's so strange to me to think that this was something that was actually in use during my lifetime. After this museum, we went to Postdamer Platz, or Berlin's time square, and enjoyed the hustle and bustle of all the actvity of all the great stores and restaurants in this area. In the afternoon, we visited an exhibit called Topography of Terror. This is a museum that sits on the rubble of the former headquarters of the SS and the Gestapo, the main two forces of repression in the Nazi regime. The actual buildings were destroyed in the war, but the modern museum that now sits on the ruins is extremely detailed (with a ton of info in English), explaining the role that the SS and the Gestapo played from Hitler's rise to power to the fall of Nazi Germany. The museum was very interesting, however, after 3 days in Berlin, I was really starting to feel a little depressed learning so much about the Nazis and the Holocaust. There is no doubt that this was one of the very darkest chapters in human history, but learning so much information about this time period is extremely heavy. After the Topography of Terror, Cam and I decided to head back to Museum Island to see the other 2 museums we weren't able to get to the day before, as we had bought a museum pass that gave us admission to basically all the museums in Berlin. We saw the Berliner Dome (which is right by all the museums), a giant Protestant cathedral that was supposedly built in an attempt to outdo St. Peter's in Rome. It definitely wasn't anywhere near that grand, but it was still a beautiful church, and we were able to hear the organ being played which was cool. Afterwards, we went to the Bode Museum, which is known for housing a lot of beautiful older paintings and scultuptures. Then finally, we went to the Pergamom Museum, home to the famous Pergamon Altar and the beautiful Ishtar Gate from Babylon. We had dinner at a really cute restaurant called 12 Apostel, or the 12 Apostles, and they had amazing pizza and a great atmosphere.

If you're thinking that we spent a lot of time at museums, it's because we did. And a big reason for that is because the weather the entire 3 days in Berlin was windy, rainy, and cold. We have honestly had terrible weather this trip, it's much cooler and wetter than Cam and I anticipated. Talking to locals in each of the cities we've visited, they said that the weather is really unseasonally cold right now, and that it had been nice basically up until we got here. Awesome. From checking weather reports and our experience so far, the weather seems to be nice when we get to a city, and then it turns terrible, and then gets nice again when we leave. It was kind of frustrating because Berlin has a lot of lovely outdoor spaces, but we spent a lot of our time indoors due to the weather. I'm trying to let myself get to frustrated with the conditions, and on the upside, we're not even halfway done with our trip yet, so we're thinking that this cold snap can't last forever, right?

All in all, we both really enjoyed Berlin. It was fascinating to learn about all the different layers of history that make up this city. In a way, I was thinking that Berlin really didn't seem like that "German" of a city. It's such a huge metropolis with tons of shopping, modern architecture, and food from all over the world, I definitely didn't feel like I was at Frankenmuth! However, I think what most Americans think of as "German" is really more the Bavarian part of Germany, so I'm thinking that we'll get our fill of beer gardens and lederhosen when we go to Munich. The more I started to think about it, the more I think that, in fact, Berlin, is probably the most "German" city. It's the place where the country has been both unified and torn apart multiple times, and since the country's reunification 20 years ago, it's the place that really the city that's defining where Germany is going as a country, all the while keeping a constant memory of where it's been.

Ps: The title of this post is in reference to JFK's famous speech in West Berlin where he meant to say that he was a fellow Berlin citizen in an effort to sympathize with the people of Berlin, but he used the wrong article while saying this sentence in German and he accidentally called himself a Berliner, which over here is what they call a jelly donut. We actually had a Berliner while we were there, along with a lot of other deliciously heavy German pastries....people in Berlin weren't quite as svelte as the people in Paris...hmmm...we're feeling a little bit like donuts ourselves after all the amazing foods we've been eating on this trip :)

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