Experiencing Berlin

Coming from a city in the midst of a rebuild, we were interested to see how our next stop was looking 30-and-80-odd years down the track. We took great heart from their example; when you’re remaking a city it is obviously normal to take large amounts of time, thought, debate and dollars. That they still have points of heated debate and empty swathes of land puts Christchurch’s progress into perspective: We aren’t doing too badly.

Our accommodation was perfectly sited for a fleeting visit (200 metres from the main doors of Berlin Hauptbahnhof, the largest railway station in Europe).

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We liked this sculpture in front of our hotel

Looking over Europaplatz from our fifth floor room, Farm Girl asked why Berlin was bombed during the war.  She expanded that to her it didn’t make sense that the “Germans” had bombed themselves. The realisation that the damage to Berlin was caused by the Allies shook her little world; “goodies” and “baddies” suddenly became a massive grey area for her; Just as it should be, if you ask us.

We employed our usual tour guide.

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Ever wonder where all those ancient buses you can charter for next to nothing go when they are deemed unfit? Our pick is they’re bought by the Berlin City Tour company. Despite the aged fleet, the tour was as good as ever at showing off the city highlights.

The wall was fascinating; In some places shrieking statements at full volume

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and in others…

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it’s just another wall.

For us and, gauging by the speil on the buses, most other tourists, Berlin has two historic big deals: World War II and the fact that it was head office for Nazism, and the Berlin Wall. Berlin is at pains to tell you it is a very liberal, open-minded city pointing out the famous Bruderkuss and never-ending list of embassy buildings as firm evidence. It’s certainly hip and trendy and full of buzz, but we found it a little less tolerant towards us. Whilst it is a city happy to embrace and even celebrate diversity of religion, sexuality, gender, lifestyle, and general entertainment, it came as no great surprise to us that it has more single occupant dwellings than any other European city. In Berlin, everyone is an individual and families…well, they just clutter up the footpaths and take too long at the cash register. Berlin taught us the art of passive aggressive tipping; the ruder you were about our need to order six sandwiches, the more you swore about us (some words are international), the more you rolled your eyes, sighed, grumbled, or bitched: the more we tipped. It was worth it to see you squirm, blush and splutter your ineffectual thanks; Shout Out to Ben at Einstein Koffee in the Haupbahnhoff.

But enough of that. In all all, we found Berlin both beautiful and unnerving. Seeing those landmarks so familiar from history lessons was surreal but the jumble of consumerist decadence, blood-chilling history, beautiful park land, rubble-strewn sections, guilded statues, awesome sculptures, sparkly windows, classical lines, minimalist, ornate, hip and trendy, and traditional was energizing and exciting.

We chose to spend a large chunk of our time at the DDR Museum and were really glad we did. Seeing just what “normal” looked like on that side of the wall was a bizarre experience.

We also visited The Memorial to the Murdered Jews, a life-changing experience. I am ashamed I could not make it past the very first exhibit, feeling I owed it to the people who were subjected to this horror to face up to its evidence and outcome. I simply couldn’t.

It has taken me a long time to finish this blog and, even with all that time, it is still a disjointed, confusing, contradictory effort.

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A bit like Berlin itself.




13 thoughts on “Experiencing Berlin

  1. Yes, a thoughtful guide to a complex city, one with a very dark past. Still, cultures can turn themselves around. Look at Scandinavia, with its history of murdering, thieving, raping vikings, Now it’s one of the most progressive areas in the world. All right. It took a while. But they changed.

    • Above all else, Berlin is dealing with its history in an open honest way. It is a very cool city but I reckon it, like a lot of trendy places, could do with remembering everyone needs their Mum and no man is an island

  2. Ah! Guilt trippers! We have the opposite problem here on a Friday. We always know when a bulk order for 20 fish and chip suppers has gone through by the look of the cowed and broken but uncomplaining people in the queue in front of us! 😉

  3. Isn’t this the point of this kind of travel? To be exposed to whatever is outside our own box labelled “way of thinking”. Our own upbringing and cultre dictate how we experience these things too – does someone from crowded Hong Kong feel about Berlin the way you do? Is there anyone on the planet with no knowledge of the role of Germany and Berlin in the 20th century who perhaps sees the wall in a way most people of European background can never perceive it? I’d say while Berlin may not have been everyone’s favourite part of the Grand Tour it may well prove to have big impact, since as you say, personal experience will now colour forever what most learned in textbooks and some have yet to fully learn. And I understand about the difficulty getting it written – I struggled a couple of years ago to describe our experiences in Cuba which I found both fascinating and disturbing. I hadn’t thought of Berlin as being still in the process of rebuilding, but of course it would be; glad you found encouragement for Christchurch in that.

    • Absolutely! Berlin was proof absolute of that old adage travel broadens the mind. There are so many different ways to live and so many different “normals”; something I find absolutely fascinating – those little unconscious things that outside your culture/country/community cause quizzical glances 🙂 The whole handing over of money at cash registers was one of them for us…in some places they took it out of your hand, in others you had to drop it on the counter (some had special dishes for the very purpose) and in others, like ours, you deposited it in their hand. A silly example, but one which caused a great deal of coin-rolling throughout the countries we visited 🙂

  4. Hi, It was interesting to read that Farm Girl hadn’t grasped that in situations of war, all parties attack each other. I guess part of growing up is learning that life is complicated with moral dilemmas aplenty. I also think that one of the lessons of Berlin is that even after terrible conflict, there can be reconciliation and healing along with the physical rebuilding.
    I can also understand your reluctance to view the exhibits in the Memorial to the Murdered Jews – some things are too terrible to contemplate.

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