January 19th, 2015
If you haven’t noticed the theme yet, you will certainly note now that pretty much every new city is started out with a walking tour. For the price of a voluntary tip, its the best orienteering and history class you can ask for in a new city as a young backpacker. And so here we are again, a grey Germany morning trekking through the streets of the city with a cheerful guide that is likely a local theater student or history buff. We wind through the streets, visiting a church that Mozart once played at, marveling at the Brandenburg Gate, and then, unexpectedly, we arrive in a small yard that appears to be part of an apartment complex courtyard. Here, our host informs us, deep below our feet is the entombed remains of Hitlers infamous Berlin bunker. Filled in with concrete years ago, it was erased from the landscape so as to not attract macabre tourists and Nazi sympathizers to it as some sort of holy pilgrimage. We are quiet for a minute as we take in the gravity of the spot that a man who terrorized Europe finally took his own life on.
From there, we head not far to the Berlin Holocaust Memorial. It is a veritable field of thick granite pillars of different heights. It is abstract and overwhelming. It resembles a graveyard, but one that can swallow you up amongst its pillars. Our guide goes on to explain that this place is often treated without the respect it deserves, the Instagram generation using it as an abstract art piece for yoga poses and other self-promotion. We quietly wind through the pillars and take it in. This is already one of the most sobering tours I’ve ever been on.
After the memorial is another memorial to dark history, the remains of the Berlin Wall. A small stretch is scratched free of graffiti to show the wall as it was first erected. It stands next to the Topography of Terror museum, a museum dedicated to reminding people of the horrors of the Third Reich and the terrible acts they carried out leading to and throughout the war. The air practically vibrates with the history here, as the museum is constructed directly on top of the site that used to be Hitlers’ SS Headquarters. After taking this in, we thankfully move on to more cheerful sites.
We end the tour at the Berlin Concert Hall and talk about the great value Germany has always held in the arts and sciences. The Berlin museums are some of the best in the world, holding thousands of pieces of unique artifacts, paintings and sculptures. We part from our guide here and I set off to re-explore some sites on my own.
I wander back over towards the Brandenburg Gate and wander around a bit because, to my surprise, Berlin Fashion Week is upon us. Models trot in ridiculously high heels between the main event stage just past the gate to the Starbucks in the square. Its much smaller than fashion week in NYC, only a dozen or so photographers are present wandering around and shooting their models against the city backdrop. I sip my latte and watch the pony show, chuckling as the obvious couture clashes with the very utilitarian and practical fashion of the everyday Berliners around them. As tourists wander around the square, I watch little boys attempt to get cash by pretending to be deaf and walking around with sheets of paper for people to sign essentially promising a “donation” to them. When someone doesn’t bite, the boys curse at them in German and move on.
Alexanderplatz S-Bahn Station, Berlin
After a full day of walking around, I head to meet up with Vero and a bunch of people from the Couchsurfing community for a community dinner. I have little idea of what to expect, I just know that anyone can drop in and get a hot meal and socialize. I meet her in what looks like a quirky artist neighborhood. We head inside a small row house where a long table is laid out that takes up the entire open floor of what looks like could also serve as an artists studio. In the back kitchen there are older women chattering in quick and emphatic German. A large variety of food is laid out on tables lining the wall. Just as we arrive, a young German couple comes in the door with a giant sack of breads that they say were donated from a bakery, what’s left of the morning goods. Every age group is represented here, there are older folks that look like they may be truly homeless and young artists clearly looking for a cheap dinner. The food is all homemade and much of it I find out is made from donated foods. An older German lady rushes out from the back to greet us with a big smile on her face and begins speaking to us in rapid German. Vero smiles and slowly explains that I’m American and have no clue what she just said. She laughs, clasps my hands and gives me a warm smile, then motions to the food with the universal “Eat Something!” gestures. I take a moderate portion of food and Vero and I sit down as she chats with a few of the young folk there. A young man strikes up a conversation with me in very halting English and I appreciate the effort as most folks here speak only German or other European languages I also cannot speak. Yet another day I kick myself for not learning a second language. Despite this, everyone is warm and welcoming and you can feel a thick sense of true, unbiased community here. Bellies full, we soon head back to Vero’s where we chat until late and then head to bed.