Berlin: A City Divided

Berlin: A City Divided

Germany is one of my favourite places in Europe, and in 2013 some friends and I embarked on a Euro-trip which ended in Frankfurt. The dream was to get to Berlin, and this summer I finally made it. I considered it my graduation gift to myself.

Berlin is a wonderful oddity of a city. It embodies strange dichotomies between the past and present, East and West and commemoration and creation. It’s a huge sprawling metropolis that feels more North American than European, and then you stumble upon winding streets and huge churches. There’s an abundance of art and history to be explored and yet most buildings still bear the scars of the war.

Berliner Dom
Berliner Dom (restored after a bomb was dropped through the roof)

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There was a big gang of us, which made for a good dynamic; there was always someone to chat to and the group could split if people wanted to do different things. We also bumped into a few pals who also happened to be in Berlin at the same time which was awesome.

On our first full day we went on a free walking tour around the main sites of Berlin. Our hostel was located in Mitte, close to many sites of historical interest and Museum Island. We had an engaging tour-guide called Richard who told us some local legends and gave us some tips about good places for Berlin food and drink. We looked at Hitler’s bunker, Checkpoint Charlie, wandered around the Tiergarten and checked out the majestic Brandenburg Gate.

Checkpoint Charlie
Checkpoint Charlie
Brandenburg Gate
Brandenburg Gate

We had a more sombre experience the following day when we went to the Berlin Wall, the Topography of Terror, the Memorials to the Homosexual and Sinti and Roma Victims and the Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe. Whilst I had studied the history of Germany and particularly the Holocaust, the exhibits provoked a strong reaction within me and I found the whole experience deeply troubling. There were parts which included reading desperate last letters and a darkened room where almost endless lists of names were read out with scraps of collected information about a life. It raised questions I’ve often considered about commemorating the dead and memorialising history, which I think comes across strongly in terms of Berlin’s collective consciousness.

Berlin Wall
Berlin Wall
Memorial to the Homosexuals Persecuted Under Nazism
Memorial to the Homosexuals Persecuted Under Nazism
Memorial to the Sinti and Roma Victims of National Socialism
Memorial to the Sinti and Roma Victims of National Socialism
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Each stone represents a page of the Torah
Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe
Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe

We went to several clubs and bars, including one which had self-service beer pumps, but my favourite was a wine buffet in Kreuzberg where you paid €2 for a glass, drank and then paid what you thought it was worth at the end. It was incredibly chill and no one took advantage of the system, and it made me sad that something like that in Britain just wouldn’t be viable because of the different relationship we have with alcohol.

A Turkish market by the river which was an absolute feast for my eyes and taste buds. I love European markets because of the shiny handmade trinkets, everything is so delicious and cheap, and there are a ton of free samples. Later we went to the DDR museum, which is a fully-interactive experience about life in the GDR. Rather than expressing ‘ostalgia‘ (nostalgia for Soviet-Era Germany), it does a fair job of trying to present facts neutrally. I’m incredibly tactile so I literally went around playing with everything. There was a great bit we faffed about with which asked you to create (almost like Sims) the ‘perfect Soviet citizen’.

All the food in Berlin was pretty fabulous, but I really enjoyed a restauarnt in Kreuzberg which had homely food and was recommended by a local. We found a restaurant called Hofbräu Berlin, which was absolutely hilarious. There was a band playing what we assumed were tradition German songs, and the menu was 99% meat and beer. The place was huge and raucous, and the staff were dressed in ‘traditional’ Bavarian costume. It was pretty kitsch but wasn’t full of tourists, although I particularly enjoyed when someone started a huge conga line on the dance floor which weaved across the entire restaurant.

Palace of Tears
Palace of Tears

We decided to get a 3-day museum pass which allows you to access to a ton of museums for just€12 for students. I took a day to hang out mostly on my own, which was quite liberating. I went to the Knoblauchaus, which is one of the only remaining 18th century townhouses in Berlin. It was lovely and titchy, and the staff were extremely nice. After that I went to the Palace of Tears, which is an unassuming building near Friedrichstraße. This was one of the checkpoints that divided East and West Berlin, and was given its name because of the tearful partings and reunions took place there. This had lots of interviews and archive footage with people from families to lovers explaining their experiences of the Wall and Berlin’s division, which I found incredibly moving. There was also a fascinating exhibit on propaganda and media bias which compared news footage from East and West Berlin. One of my highlights was the Berlin Philharmonie open day, which happens once a year. Some of our group were big music enthusiasts; I got to see the Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra led by Simon Rattle, and they were as gorgeous as they sound on the radio.

Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra setting up
Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra setting up

I went to the Jewish Museum which was this huge maze of a building, where the architecture was supposed to reflect the lengthy windy history of the Jewish people. There was a room called the Tower of the Holocaust in the skeleton of the building which was bleak and silent, save for the sound of the industrial door shutting behind you. I know very little about Jewish history and culture outside of the Holocaust, and the exhibits went chronologically from pre-Middle ages up to the present day, so it was pretty overwhelming. Later I went to the Computerspielemuseum, which was pretty much a dream come true. It was all about the history of video game technology and culture and you pretty much went around reading and playing everything. There was everything from old arcade games to fancy next-gen console games. I loved seeing a dance mat and was pretty embarrassed/incredibly proud when someone complimented me on my skills which are still as sharp as they were in 1999.

Oh hai there childhood
Oh hai there childhood

We went to the Alle Nationalgalerie, which housed many 19th century paintings and was utterly fabulous. We also went to the Pergamonmuseum which has some stunning artefacts from antiquity, the Middle East and Islamic art. We also went to the Bauhaus Museum which is pretty much “Ikea before Ikea” to quote one of our gang. I’ve never been very into audio guides in museums and galleries, as I usually prefer to wander around and read things on my own, but I actually found it edifying and informative as some written information was in German, so by having my English audio guide I was almost overwhelmed with information.

It pains me so much that my German (and by extensive my foreign language skills) aren’t better, and I’m so grateful that Germans are so helpful and ready to communicate in English, although we did try our best to speak the native language. Several time wandering around locals would stop and ask if I needed help, and I had some great life chats in broken-English-German with some Berliners. I left Berlin having experienced so much and yet feeling like there was so much more I wanted to do, which really is the way every holiday should end.

Gorgeous street art
Gorgeous street art
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Summarises Berlin

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