Ich bin ein Berliner

How do you begin to describe Berlin?    Berlin is complex, layered.   Berlin comes with big, fat baggage.

We bussed in on the overnighter bus, and man, that is a trip.   Another story.    We worked out the bahn situation and bought a ticket to the stop nearest our hostel.        Our hostel was in Prenzlauerberg, Berlin and, after the Amsterdam Christians, it was definitely a step up.

The escalators were
the escalators were not operational

We bag dropped as it was still too early to check in, and headed to the Mauer Park Sunday market for a currywurst and some warm strudel and beers at a beach bar (not at the beach – but there was some sand).  Welcome back to Germany.    Did I mention Berlin is a little different, Berlin is the St Kilda of Germany, with the alternative culture alive, well and very much a part of life.   We listened to some performers, shopped for sunglasses (they had a massive stall of glasses, all prescription, but with no marking as to WHAT the prescription was, so you spent your time there trying on various magnifications and trying to walk over non-existent hills,  ending up with a massive headache.  Steve bought a pair, walked around for half an hour, with hands extended and a weird knee marching action, realized that everything was further away than it should be, had to return them and take another pair, which you will see featured in photos until we inevitably lose them.  We returned to our hostel and headed out for dinner.

Now the great thing about Berlin is that it is full of immigrants.  Immigrants who bring their food with them and, to our great delight, Vietnamese cuisine (along with middle-east food) to the forefront.  Pho it was.

As I am stingy and we had bought a day ticket, I felt that we should wring every ounce of value from that ticket, and so off to the Brandenburg Gate we went.  We have undertaken many a misguided (or not) journey on the basis that I want to use the ticket to death – even if we go with it.  After a heated debate on which direction to exit the station,  we successfully negotiated the furthest possible point away from the Gate – which is a repeating theme.   However, no matter if you approach it from what seemed like 5 kilometres away, it is an imposing and iconic sight.  I was to learn of its history later, but it is definitely a sight to behold.    We spied an ABC film crew and chatted a while, they told us that Malcolm Turnbull (Australian PM) was staying over the road basically killing time with Angela until attending the Villiers-Bretonneux commemoration.  Running man was spotted, and was infinitely more interesting than Malcolm.  One interesting moment, when the cameraman absent mindedly handed the reporter a muesli bar, forgetting in the excitement of meeting us, that the reporter had a severe nut allergy.   Our guide the following day, told us that the hotel that Malcolm was staying at, most likely in the presidential suite, went for €26,000.00 a night.   Did you just splutter out your tea?   It was also the site of Wacko Jacko hanging the baby over the balcony.

The following day we attended our ritual free walking tour, which was taken by an ex-teacher, and  history enthusiast.    I have always enjoyed these tours, some guides are better than others, but they are all great, giving you amazing insights and breathing life into the surroundings.   Our tour took us to the Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe.  The memorial takes the forms of concrete blocks of various heights in perpendicular rows.  The corridors between the blocks have varying floor heights, so in some rows the blocks tower over you, restricting sound and light.  The ground drops away.  No explanation is given, the viewer is left to form their own impressions.

An interesting note, they refer to the “murdered – et mordet” Jews.    I have to admire this, especially in Berlin, as there is no backing away from their past history.   Hats off, in my opinion, own it, admit it, learn from it.  And they seem to have done so – there is a massive refugee/immigrant component to the population.   We had thought that in some ways it is in atonement for past history, however since then we have been told there is a massive labour shortage and they are trying to increase the working population by means of immigration.  Just a catch to that though, refugees are made to apply for asylum in the FIRST  EU country they land in.  There is no way they can get to Germany in this way.

We saw the rebuilt Gendarmenmarkt, which was basically destroyed in the war and has been rebuilt to replicate the original, which is the case for many of the stately buildings here.  Berlin was a cultural, tolerant city for so many years, and an insane blip on the radar turned it all to shit.      We saw the Bebelplatz, a square where the university, St Hedwig’s cathedral and the Opera House sit.   The square was the site of the infamous Night of Shame, where books written by Jewish authors, or containing any content that did not sit well with the indoctrination, were taken and burned.    Albert Einstein was one of many such authors, and was a professor at the University.   There is now a memorial, which was a little difficult to see, in the square, where empty bookcases are visible underground.    Students hold a Tuesday book sale at the front of the university to remember the obscenity of the book burning.

We were also taken to the site of Hitler’s bunker, where he killed himself and his body was removed.  It is a nondescript carpark, purposely so, with a children’s playgroup adjacent and a sandpit over the top.  Interestingly, the guide noted, that when he does tours on the 15th April (Hitler’s birthday) there is always a candle and some flowers placed there.  The bunker is in place, untouched, underground.  Discussion took place within the group (as it does in broader society) as to whether this should be so.

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As is the case in many cities affected by the madness,  plaques have been placed at the door of the  last chosen place of work or residence of people murdered in the holocaust.  Initially, this work was carried out by one man, he has a list of people (family etc contact him with details).  When he has funding, he takes the next name, researches it, and makes the block, which is inserted into the pavement outside.  In Prague, these are called “stumbling stones”, I am sure there are other names for them.   I did a quick look up about these and I believe the work is now being carried on by other people and organizations.  They are very touching.  The three pictures are smack at the doorway of the Apple store in Berlin.

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Of course, the aftermath of the war, the division of Germany and the commencement of the cold war and eventually the iron curtain, has left another layer to the history of this city.  By the way, we were amazed (If the google figures are correct) that Berlin is smaller in population than Melbourne.

Checkpoint Charlie, of course was visited.  It is actually a replica now on a very busy intersection.  There are enormous portraits of  the last American and Soviet guards facing the direction they would have spent many hours looking at.  Tourists posed for photos and two “guards” stood at the checkpoint I guess for photo opportunities.    All over Berlin there are photographs of how the city looked at various times, during the Cold War and during WW2 and before, which is so intriguing.  The one at Checkpoint Charlie shows the view down toward the East, and the convoluted way in which you would traverse the checkpoint.    In questionable taste are the touts with various uniforms you can don and be photographed in…not something I think is appropriate, but you know, its all about the photos for some folk.

Let’s talk about that wall.    The city had been partitioned for some time, but there was still traffic to and fro …much of it fro.  Too fro for the Soviets.  I can’t remember the figure but the East Berlin population decreased so dramatically that the Soviets took measures… like building a wall.  The East Germans woke up one morning to find barbed wire stopping them from leaving the East Berlin area.  Shortly thereafter a more substantial wall was erected, with a no mans’ land tract between the outer and inner wall.  The wall has now been down longer than it was up, but the scars through the city are still visible.    I won’t go into the human side of the segregation too much, but heart wrenching scenes of people holding up babies from 100 metres away and waving at grandparents once a year kind of tore at me.  People had their windows blocked over if they overlooked the wall, as it went right up to apartment blocks.  Doors were nailed shut.

As we traversed the city, I was always looking to see if we were in the East or the West.  A good way (not 100% accurate) is the street crossing signs.  The Amplemann traffic character is a good hint you are in the East.  Our accommodation was in the East.  The Brandenburg Gate was in the East.  Malcolm’s hotel was in the East.    The location of the wall is marked with a two stone wide inserted into roads, paths, parks etc.   a

I kept wondering what life was like where we were.  We went to a daily life museum showing the shopping situation.  You would attend the shops and look at what was available.  Today we have a box of nail brushes, oh, well, you would have thought, better get one, seeing they’re available.  Nothing else to buy in any case.  If you were lucky and waited about 10 years, you may get to own a Trabant.  There are many around still, doing tourist drives, or being towed back from doing tourist drives.  You can hear them coming a long way off, before the exhaust smell hits you.

Berlin has a comprehensive and wonderful transport system, again putting Melbourne to shame.  The underground train system was of course operational way before the War and the descent of the Iron Curtain.  Our nearest station was Nordbahnhof.  We traversed it for a few days, and I commented to Steve that the signage seemed a bit old and forbidding (nazi) looking.  During the years of a divided Berlin, this station, along with a few more, became  Geisterbahnhöf  “ghost stations”.  No trains would stop there, and any traversing this area from the west would see only ageing posters, barriers and armed guards.  Friedrichstrasse Station, next up the line was the site of the Trains to Life/Trains to Death sculpture, and was also the “border” between East and West via train.  Unbelievably complex routes to get East and West Berliners through the station whilst not encountering each other were set up.    A building adjacent to the station became the immigration office, where you would need to show your reasons for coming/going, and is now called “The Palace of Tears” in remembrance of the farewells that took place there.

We also visited Charlottenburg Palace, built on the order of Sophie, wife of someone or other, for her summer love shack, who inconveniently then died 5 years after it was completed.  Geez.   Nice gardens though – I could enjoy my summer hols there.    Running man attempted a visit, however the videographer failed miserably and shot her feet instead.  Good help is very hard to find.

Strolled through the Tiergarton, the city’s public park, which was strangely (for Germany, we thought) unkempt looking.

I wanted to see the Lion Bridge there, however one of lions was missing, so not quite the view I wanted.   The city Zoo, and strangely, many of the Embassies are located in this park.  In the War I understand it was almost deforested by the locals for fuel, and many cities donated trees for replanting post-war.  I believe the animals in the zoo had an unhappy time(end) as is the case in any such conflict, which saddens me beyond words to think of their suffering.  We saw the Kaiser Wilhelm memorial church, left in ruins after the war and kept that way, where the ground floor is a museum of sorts with the most beautiful mosaics.

We were given some excellent advice from Ros, Elaine Bank’s daughter -a resident- of some places to take in, and I think we missed one of her suggestions, but did all the rest.  One particular gem we visited on more than one occasion was the East German bar, Eselsbrücke.   We caught the tram and negotiated our way through quiet streets to the corner bar, tried to get in the wrong door (always a crowd pleaser when you are a tourist entering a local haunt), stumbled our way through to a table – I say stumbled as there are no electric lights in use (any time we went there) and random steps where you least expect them.    Candles in the old wine bottles did the trick.  The dark timbers and memorabilia on the walls – the cigarette machine was actually in use, rather than a quaint prop – had acquired their  brown patina over at least 50 years of interior smoking.    The barman took our order and then magically reappeared when the drinks got low.  The next time we went, he just poured them.  We said that he had a good memory, he replied without humour that it was his job.     We sat there and wondered (again) what it would have been like in those bad old communist days.  Plots and counterplots being discussed in earnest whispers.  Fantastic.

We packed up our hostel room and left the bags with the hostel for storage.  Brilliant Hostel, private room shared bathroom but there was always a free one and they were always sparkling clean, thanks to the nonverbal cleaners.  Headed to the Reichstag building, but as we hadn’t booked, were not able to enter.  We visited the memorial to the Roma and Sinti (gypsy…for want of a better word) victims of the Holocaust, and then made our way to the station, where we got lunch supplies ready for the bus to Dresden.  About two metres apart, Steve ordered a kebab from a chap who had fled Syria, I ordered Vietnamese.   These two food stalls were busy with lunch traffic and folk commuting to and fro, and goes to show that no matter if you have issues with immigration, food is always the way in.

Goodbye Berlin….

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Is it too late to have a gap year in your late 50s? To take back some time from our day to day working life to travel - unplanned, unescorted, unfettered? To take that leap? It was a defining year - liberating, challenging, humbling, scary. It was many things, but it wasn't a holiday.

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