When we arrived in Berlin for our bittersweet four-day European excursion finale, Rebecca and I had one initial coordinated thought. “Wow, that was easy.” Our first impression of the capital of Germany was formed in Tegel Airport after our mini-flight from Paris touched down. I call it a mini-flight because we spent only a little more than an hour in the plane. That’s how I like my flights. Take off, peanuts and diet coke, land. After we walked from the airplane to the luggage retrieval area, relieved at the sight of mid-afternoon clear, rainless skies, we were shocked to see our two bags pop out of the tenebrous cavern that is the luggage carousel first. That’s right, the first two bags! ”German efficiency,” I declared like an idiotic American. We then rolled our bags to the waiting area where we were met by Rebecca’s cousin’s husband. We stayed with them during our sojourn.
So here we are. We have explored the jubilee of London, the delectable awe of Paris, and now Berlin. When Rebecca and I were planning this trip, I was most unsure of Berlin. I misjudged the city, the people, the food, the atmosphere…just about the everything. I misjudged this all because I didn’t know what to expect. On our third night in the city, we were dinner guests at Rebecca’s cousin’s apartment (we stayed next to their apartment at her cousin’s art studio – packed with poetry and classic music, much to my delight). Her cousin’s husband is an excellent chef (used to do it for a living) and he made this extraordinary meal that included juicy white asparagus (the seasonal vegetable at the time). I also had around 10 glasses of sweet wine…okay Matt, stick to the point. At the dinner was a New Yorker who had just recently moved to Berlin and we got to discussing American tourism, because, as Americans, we are required to discuss the land of the free in other countries. To be fair, this was the only mention of America during our stay in Berlin. And, if it wasn’t for some rude, misinformed, bloviating fools on our English-speaking tour of Versailles, we would have avoided any of that junk on our trip…Rebecca and I were forced to ignore those individuals. The new Berlin resident mentioned that not many American tourists come to Berlin, besides from those that just want to get in on the underground party scene.
But, why? Why do American tourists frequent Paris, London, Italy, Spain, and even Prague (the study abroad paradise), but not Berlin? In my opinion, it is a mixture of ignorance and generalities. I mentioned above that Berlin was bittersweet for Rebecca and I. We are Jewish. Berlin’s recent history is noxious. Perhaps one of the worst incidences of Western genocide and mind-blowing conformity occurred on the streets we walked. And then, after losing the war, the city was split in half, and a wall was constructed by Soviet-controlled East Germany to entrap their civilians. You all know the history. The history before the wall and the two monumental wars is widely unknown, though. After the 30-years-war in the 17th century, the Great Elector, Frederick William, promoted religious tolerance and helped populate the city of Berlin. The city became a bustling center of immigrants and tolerance. For almost a 150 years, the kingdom of Prussia reigned through the industrial revolution and the creation of several palaces eventually ending in the unification of Germany in 1871.
That’s the end of the history lesson. What I’m trying to say is that there is much to see in Berlin, and, for some time, it was one of the few places where Jews found safe haven. And then the unthinkable happened. The city may never be able to shake the scars. And, as people who had relatives affected by the Holocaust, it was a little difficult walking through the city, especially in the old Jewish quarter with the newly repaired 19th century New Synagogue. All you have to do is look down. Thanks to a creative project of which Rebecca’s cousin told us about, there are gold markings on the ground outside apartments and homes where Jews were deported during World War II. The names of where they were deported are familiar. Auschwitz, Treblinka, Buchenwald, every mention like a dagger. Was it difficult walking the streets of the city and not getting a little emotional? Yes. But even with that all in mind, I felt less like a tourist in Berlin than in London and Paris, and as Rebecca and I shared seats with Germans on the S-Bahn and U-Bahn, I felt comfortable and accepted.
Rebecca’s cousin quickly pointed out something about Berlin when we first arrived. The city is very green. It is full of sprouting forests, good for relaxing walks and picnics, and city residents take advantage of the greenery by tucking themselves away in biergartens, where I sampled the local Weizenbier and a soft bretzel (I bet you can guess what that is) on our first night. The largest urban garden in Berlin is the Tiergarten, which at 520 acres is the second largest urban park in Germany (it’s dwarfed by Munich’s 1,030-acre Englischer Garten). We explored the Tiergarten on our second day in Berlin and before taking the U-Bahn to the old Jewish quarter, we had our first traditional German meal at the Teehaus in the park. That is me at the beginning of this piece smirking at my pork sausage meal. It was scrumptious. The bread was thick and hearty and the creamy mustard (that I continued to have in Berlin) was the best mustard I have ever had.
Later in the day we went north to the Berlin Documentation Center which, as you see, still has a large piece of the wall standing. It also has a thought-provoking, somber memorial for individuals who lost their lives attempted to escape East Berlin. It’s almost impossible to imagine an entire city split in half, and I must admit even through my best attempts to envision the scene I could not.
This is one of my favorite images from our trip. Why? I think it looks like an alien spaceship is about to take off from the top of the building. I can assure you, though, the top does not feature spaceship controls, unless they are hidden in the kitchen. That’s right, the top of the TV Tower is a restaurant, and because of our wonderful hosts, Rebecca and I sampled the food high up in the sky. The restaurant rotates slowly (no, it is not the drinks) and gives diners a magical view of the city of Berlin at night.
After visiting around 100 museums (give or take a few) in London and Paris, we only visited three in Berlin. Rebecca and I are museum nerds. We love institutes of independent learning. We love walking slowly through exhibits and enjoying what they have to offer. We had our fill on this trip. The other two museums we visited were the Neue Synagogue museum and the Jewish Museum (where we spent around three or four hours…seriously!) What you are seeing above is a shot of the restored Pergamon Altar, a monumental structure built in the first half of the 2nd century BCE by King Eumenes II in the Greek city of Pergamon (present-day Turkey). It is a spectacular structure to observe and is quite fascinating. The prime real estate for museums in Berlin is Museum Island, the literal northern half of an island on the river Spree that features five museums (Pergamon, Altes, Neues, Alte Nationalgalerie, and Bode). Across from the Altes Museum is the Berlin Cathedral which dwarfs Rebecca in this photo.
Sometimes, after doing a lot of travelling and exploring, you need to take a break. Rebecca and I rested our sore legs at a diverse market in Alexanderplatz which is to the east of the Brandenburg Gate and the Tiergarten (if you want a marker). The market (spanned a couple of weeks I believe or just one week) featured several vendors including Ethiopian food and craft stands. There was also a vegan sausage stand that Rebecca (as a Vegetarian) made sure to sample. I spent five euros on a bratwurst and a pilsener. Look at my face.
It will go down (with fish and chips) as one of the greatest lunches I have ever had. It was a warm day, and a nice cold glass of beer with my condiment smothered meat-treat put me on a cloud above cloud nine.
On our last day in Berlin, Rebecca and I took the S-Bahn to Potsdam (around a 30-minute train ride), and if you read this and are inspired to take a trip to Berlin I must stress that you go to Potsdam. Rebecca’s cousin suggested we check it out and thank goodness for his suggestion. The city is rich with history (where the Potsdam Conference with the big three took place), and features some beautiful Prussian palaces. Beautiful is the word of Potsdam folks. I must have said it around 30 times during our mini bus-tour around the city.
I photoshopped Rebecca into this picture when I got home. Just kidding. No, that’s real. It doesn’t look real. Heck, the castle looks plastic. But, no, that is just one of the magnificent castles that you will see when you visit Potsdam. Because you are now going to go, right?
Well, that’s it. A trip that opened our eyes to new cultures, foods, and history. Next stop, South America?