Just got back from five days in Berlin and immediately slept for 15 hours. I think that’s how trips to Berlin ought to end, especially if they span New Years (Silvester) which is celebrated there unlike anywhere else. I was really lucky to have a “local” tour guide, my friend Nga, who is doing research at the Max Planck Institute. We took two semesters of introductory German together last year at Agnes Scott College, and it’s crazy to think that we were learning numbers and greetings not so long ago, and now we both live and communicate (more or less successfully) in German speaking countries.
She is renting a room in a West Berlin apartment, owned by “Opa,” who has lived there and changed literally nothing since the 1970s. Stepping into the apartment is like stepping back in time (so is talking to Opa). He was so excited to host me because, unlike Nga, I am not a vegetarian. Opa doesn’t speak English, but he does speak German in a very slow and correct manner–and if your German isn’t so good, he isn’t afraid to correct you. Our very first conversation went like this:
Me: Hallo! Ich bin Molly.
Opa: Du heißt Molly.
Oops. But he was so kind, cooked us great food, and told me so many stories about living in West Berlin over the past seven decades. One of the most memorable was a long rambling tale about how they almost killed and ate his pet rabbit during one hungry winter during World War II. Comi-tragic and idiosyncratic–he really is West Berlin.
Nga and I took the city by storm, starting by spending six hours in the Deutsches Historisches Museum, learning about over a thousand of years of German history. Then we visited an underground jazz club, like the cool cats we are.
The next day, we took a free walking tour focused on street art in Berlin, and I met such memorable characters as Tina Berlina, who offers advice to tourists.
There were plenty of incredible works and interesting stories. For example, the guy who just paints the number 6 all over Berlin (according to him, over 600,000 times). I particularly liked this massive, beautiful ode to Anne Frank.
As you can tell, a lot of the street artists in Berlin create their pieces in studios on large pieces of paper and paste them on walls. This allows them to have more time to work on their pieces, and has a much smaller fine if the artist is caught.
We also visited KaDeWe (Kaufhaus des Westens), the largest department store in Europe, and hung out at one of the last remaining Christmas markets, along west Berlin’s big shopping street, Kurfürstendamm.
We visited the Jüdisches Museum (Jewish Museum), which I found artistic and reflective, rather than shocking and provocative (like the Holocaust museum in Washington DC, for example). This isn’t a value judgment, I think there is a place for both kinds of historical interpretation. But I really respect the thoughtfulness of this museum, the way it offers both context/information and places for remembrance.
We also visited the Topography of Terror, a free exhibit with much information about the acts of terror committed by the Stassi before and during World War II. The simple presentation of facts accompanied by photos and documents was stark and appropriate. I would say that both the Jewish Museum and Topography of Terror are necessary stops on any trip to Berlin.
But putting our historical education aside, the highlight of the trip was, of course, New Years Eve. We headed out around 9 PM, dressed warmly, and with little bottles of champagne in tow.
When we arrived at the “Party mile” between Brandenburger Tor and the Victory Column, it had just shut down to capacity (around 100,000 people). But we were able to get within 300 meters of the Tor, just on the wrong side. There we waited, along with several thousand others and many officers of the Berliner Polizei (who were in great spirits about the whole thing, drinking hot wine and laughing with everyone). The combination of the setting and the police barricade led to the inevitable comparison, with more than one person shouting “Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall!”
After midnight, they did indeed “tear down the wall,” and we flooded into the West to drink champagne (sold by enterprising individuals on folding tables everywhere) and dance until the wee hours of the morning.
While the official fireworks at midnight were impressive, we definitely didn’t have to wait. All the grocery stores have been selling fireworks for weeks, and as far as I can tell, there are no regulations about setting them off whenever and wherever you want. So, we were treated to about four hours of continuous fireworks going off right above our heads. As the night went on, it got a little more dangerous, with constant panicked shouts of Zurück! (Back!) when fireworks were lit by more inebriated hands. Still, the whole atmosphere was jubilant. I didn’t see any fights, just celebrations of this new beginning.
On New Years Day, we didn’t have much energy for anything other than an afternoon amble around the gardens at Schloss Charlottenburg, which was lovely (and only a ten minute walk away from the apartment).
On my last day in Berlin, we visited a classic black-and-white photobooth, I ate my first currywurst (delicious, if you don’t think about it too much), and we wandered around Kreuzberg, before I took the nine hour night bus back to Vienna.
All in all, it was an awesome trip, made a thousand times more fun by hanging out with a great friend. It also gave me a vantage point to reflect a little on where I stand in this whole European adventure.
I have finished my two-months-long crazy traveling adventure stage (visiting London, Rome, Vienna, Budapest, Nuremberg, Berlin and many places in Upper Austria). Now, I am beginning my “building a life” stage, from regularly working (remember, I’m here as an au pair?), taking an intensive German course, volunteering at an English-language school, and trying to make some friends. Of course, I’ll still be traveling, but my focus is shifting to the everyday aspects of living in a new country. My new years resolutions are two: Speak More German and Swim More. I’m keeping it simple. Let my year in Europe begin!