Hallo Berlin

Exactly 24 years after watching the Berlin Wall topple from my tiny bedroom TV in suburban America, I walked along the remnants at the Eastside Gallery.   On November 9, 1989, I was mesmerized while watching the media coverage–only 9 years old yet mature enough to understand the importance, moved by the emotions.

The world was changing.  Just a child who still played with Barbie dolls within her peach-colored walls, I knew I was experiencing history.  I felt the joy.  Some time later, I received a map in the mail along with my National Geographic Junior subscription: the new Europe.  I unrolled the scroll along with travel dreams, taping it in my bedroom where it still remains today.

4 years later in 8th grade, we read Night and learned about the horrors of the Holocaust.  I wanted to know and understand more about this time in history.  I wanted to know how it happened.  Why?   I wondered what Germany was like today, wondering how have they moved on after such a painful past.   In college, I studied abroad in England where I read Goodbye to Berlin, a novel by Christopher Isherwood, set in Berlin’s eerie prelude to World War II.  The protagonist said, “I am a camera,” wanting to just record the events as they happened, to remain a detached observer.  Yet he soon realized that you can’t remain detached because you become involved.  You care.  This novel turned into a screenplay which eventually led to the hit Broadway musical Cabaret, later a film starring Liza Minnelli.

My interest grew.  That semester, I visited Germany for the first time, exploring the Rhineland with a friend, impressed by Germany’s amazing culture and beautiful landscape.  I liked Germany.  I liked the Germans.  History was clearly history in this country that has moved on. Don’t mention the war.

In 2006, I ventured “beyond the Iron Curtain” for the first time.  Ok, the former Iron Curtain, but growing up in the 80s, it was hard not to view Eastern Europe without thinking of life before the fall of the U.S.S.R.  As I crossed from Austria to Hungary on the train, I felt a chill and a thrill, going somewhere that seemed so forbidden as a child, memories of long lines for food and basic necessities– then the long lines at the first McDonald’s. Here I was now, crossing borders into free countries.  On that trip, I explored Budapest, Prague, Cesky Krumlov, and then headed down to Dubrovnik before back to Switzerland and home.  I truly enjoyed my time: learning much, spending little, and exploring fueled by a decade of curiosity of life in Eastern Europe.  Things were changing.  Prague was modern, hip, cosmopolitan.  Cesky Krumlov was a little gem along a river — fresh air, a valley, restored and inviting medieval streets with few tourists.  It was absolutely lovely.  But Budapest. . . Budapest bothered me.  The facades were destroyed at street level.  Buildings that once looked like Parisian architecture were cemented over, painted uniformly gray.  To see the beauty in Budapest, you had to look up.  And that just made me even more sad, grieving for what history has ruined.  Pockmarks from shells, bullets, and grenades marred the buildings and streets.  Tracks from the tanks scarred cobblestones.  The stores didn’t offer much.  The city was clearly poor, struggling.  This was 2006. They just needed a bit more time.  Decades later, Budapest is apparently doing much better, and I’d like to visit again.   But I’m glad I saw Budapest then — it helped me get a feel for how grim the past was.

Always a travel addict, I devoured armchair travel when I was not on the road, watching episodes of Rick Steves and Samantha Brown, learning about Berlin’s progressive attitude, high quality of life, vibrant art scene, and general good vibes as well as the abundant museums.

Berlin might not have the jaw-dropping scenery of Italy or the quaint charm of Bavarian cities like Munich, yet it had so much to offer from a cultural and historical perspective.  I had to go. Once I moved to Italy, it topped my list for a weekend visit.  This year, I made plans to meet there with my friend Ashley (who resides in Düsseldorf).  We planned for a weekend in November, my first available after much fabulous fall travel.

Saturday, November 9, 2013.  Ashley and I strolled around the neighborhood outside our modern hotel until we reached a nearby palace.  Next, we headed to the Eastside Gallery as it was a must-see for both of us.  Here, we strolled along the remnants of the Berlin Wall, featuring graffitied murals.  I walked up to the giant slabs, touching them, touching history, feeling an overwhelming connection to the past, almost dizzied by it.  Did that 9-year-old girl ever think she would be here?

touching the Berlin Wall for the first time

touching the Berlin Wall for the first time

As we walked along, posing for pictures, reflecting, we ended up walking in front of some television cameras while someone was announcing things in German.  We wondered what it was about but kept walking along, snapping more photos.

IMG_6063 IMG_6059

IMG_6068Then on the way back, I stopped to pose in front of one mural featuring a car with today’s date on the license plate.  November 9, 1989.  “Is today the anniversary?” I asked Ashley.   A quick search on google confirmed the answer, and then I was really in awe. What a fortuitous travel coincidence.

24 years later

Later that day, we explored an alternative hippie playground that reminded me of the vibe in Christiania in Denmark, as I wrote about here.   When we spotted it from the train, a local said, “It’s like a playground for adults.”  A giant cat statue peeked above the trees, so we vowed to find “Cat House” later.  We followed the cat across the river, although once we arrived, we were clearly not welcome.  There was some kind of cool party going on inside, but when we tried to enter, they said they were closed.

After departing, we grabbed a yummy currywurst  (I learned all about these from Samantha Brown).  We then walked to the Jewish museum, which was a celebration of Jewish history and culture as well as a sobering remembrance of the horrors of the Holocaust. There is an art installation where you enter a pitch-black unheated space, hearing only the echoes of those breathing around you.  Quite an impact.

*  *  *
With Berlin’s cosmopolitan vibe, I was excited to explore multiple food options since in Genoa it’s mostly just Italian food.  We had an excellent Greek dinner followed by drinks at the hotel before heading to sleep in our 7th floor room overlooking the train station.

The next morning, we hopped on a bus tour.  While some scoff and mock them, I love bus tours because you can learn a lot, easily and efficiently see all the major sites, and be carted around for a nice relaxing break.  Travel can be so much go-go-go–especially after yesterday where we walked almost all day, and Ashley blistered her poor feet.  After the tour, we visited the Brandenburg Gate and Checkpoint Charlie, two more iconic images from the media during my youth.

Brandenberg Gate

Brandenburg Gate

Check Point Charlie

Check Point Charlie

At Checkpoint Charlie–the most popular crossing between the American and Soviet sectors–I posed with some Germans in US military uniforms, then we went to the museum, as featured in this episode of Rick Steves.

The museum was filled with information, way more than I could read during our hour there.  It was absolutely fascinating to see all the ways people tried to smuggle others from East to West Germany.  The museum had cars with hiding spots carved into the floor, metal machinery, and even two suitcases that were held together, used to transport a man’s girlfriend on the train.  The museum highlighted the struggles, success and heartbreaking failures of those who were so desperate to escape that they would risk their lives.  I just couldn’t fathom that.  As I watched Reagan’s Speech, I was moved to tears.   “Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall.”

The next room featured a whole dedication to Reagan’s life.

As we left the museum, I had plenty to reflect upon.  I only saw 3 of Berlins 200 museums and barely scratched the surface of this vibrant, artsy, creative city.  I had to return. The air was crisp and invigorating as we made our way back to the hotel and eventually to the airport.  As Air Berlin whisked me back to Milan, I relished my freedom to easily hop borders.

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