19 Sep 2011

Berlin Day 1 – Sunday, September 18, 2011

Posted by Deborah

(by Seth)

The previous night we’d decided to give ourselves a morning to sleep in since our main event for the day was a “free” walking tour that didn’t start until 1 p.m. We’d planned to be ready to go by 11 a.m. in order to check out of our room. (Even though we were staying another night at Pfefferbett, we had arranged to switch from a four-person dorm to a private double.) We thought we’d have plenty of time, but that went straight out the window when Deb woke me in a panic at 10:45. We scrambled to get showered, dressed and packed while holding off a very persistent housekeeping dude. We finally made it downstairs around 11:30. Not TOO late 🙂

We killed time working on the computer in the lounge until the tour guide, Espin, came by the Pfefferbett at 12:40 p.m. That turned out to be less convenient than it seemed because we ended up tagging along as he rounded up more tourists at three other hostels. For a while, we were both worried that the tour would be a bust since we’d been walking for at least 20 minutes in intermittent rain showers and Espin hadn’t said two words about the city.

Thankfully, Espin proved us wrong once he officially launched into his shpiel, starting with his personal connection to Berlin: Originally from Yorkshire, he moved to the city six years ago to pursue his music career. He works as a tour guide by day, dedicating nights to his band, The Gecko.

Berlin is a very young city in two different respects: it’s only been around since the 14th century, which is unusual for a European capital, and the actual population of the city is very young. It’s stunning how many young people you see walking around. There’s even a disproportionate number of baby strollers from all the young parents. It’s the diametric opposite of Munich in that sense. It’s also Munich’s opposite architecturally, as everything built since the fall of the Wall is modern.

Espin gave us a nice overview of the city and its history as we stood before a cluster of museums on the appropriately named Museum Insel (Museum Island). He pointed out which museums to check out and which to pass on (crucial in a city with over 190 museums). On our way past even more museums, we stopped at an impressive memorial to those who suffer in war. It was a statue of a mother cradling a dying child inside an otherwise empty rectangular building. Beneath the floor lies an unknown soldiers’ body and the ashes of Holocaust victims. To complete the stark, gray scene, the artist left a circular opening in the roof above the figures, leaving them vulnerable to the elements – an extension of their suffering. I found it to be very moving.

The highlight of the walking tour was Espin’s small but enlightening dissertation on life in divided Berlin. Under an awning at the Topography of Terror exhibit, he busted out a homemade map of Germany and its neighbors during the Cold War. He explained how the desperation of East Germans to escape to West Berlin was primarily driven by the massive economic disparity between East and West. Putting it in this context immediately brought to mind the present day U.S./Mexico border. It even has some parallels to the new wall that Israel has built to divide itself from the Palestinians in the West Bank.

We eventually made our way to the relatively new memorial to the Jews murdered in the Holocaust. It’s a fascinating, massive expanse of undulating concrete blocks aligned in parallel rows. No two blocks are exactly the same size or cut at exactly the same angle, which means any given perspective of the memorial is unique. The design intentionally makes no direct reference to the Holocaust or any aspects of history, leaving the interpretation entirely up to the viewer.

It was intriguing from the outside, and both of us found it quite powerful once we began walking through it. As you follow a path through the taller blocks you begin to feel more and more cut off from the outside. Eventually, the only way you can really see out is to look skyward. It evoked a connection to what camp prisoners must have felt when they looked up to the sky as their only visible path to freedom. While the memorial is understandably controversial due to its abstract form, we came away with an appreciation for what the artist achieved.

We wrapped up our tour at a rainy Brandenburg Gate. It was pretty amazing to compare the current state of the square in front of the gate to 50 years ago when the landmark was rendered completely inaccessible between the inner and outer Berlin walls.

Since we were close to the Sony Center, we decided to head over there to take advantage of its free WiFi. We spent an hour or so doing Philly Dance Fitness work while downing a tasty ice cream and yogurt sundae. Then, we took the train back to the Pfefferbett area in an attempt to find one of the three local Weinerei. Supposedly, you can go into one of these places, pay a euro for a wine glass, and then taste and or drink as many wines as you want. When you’re done, you pay as much money as you think you should. We were both quite excited because we’d planned to find the Weinerei that also had food options served the same way. Unfortunately, all we could find was the storefront where it *should have* been. We later learned that it had just closed down a few weeks prior. We eventually popped into a bar called 103. The waiter there was very helpful, as he proceeded to basically translate the entire menu for us. I ordered a rump steak and Deb ordered a pizza/kugel thing. The waiter’s original description mentioned cheese, onions and tomatoes. He left out one minor detail: it also had bacon in it. This made it extra delicious but Deb couldn’t eat it. So she took the lead on my steak and I took her tasty “pizza” off her hands. We both cleaned our plates.

While we were eating, we heard pretty much all American musical selections including songs from Pulp Fiction and Kill Bill. However, things got crazy once the Michael Jackson came on. I got a full on reprise of this summer’s Michael Jackson Hip Hop Workshop courtesy of Deb. I’m guessing the staff was amused because our friendly waiter insisted that the chef would prepare us a creme brule for desert even though the kitchen was clearly closed at that point.

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