Tuesday, May 11, 2010

'Berlin is Poor by Sexy' - Part 1

After only an hour and half flight from Riga, I grabbed my suitcase and hurried out of the luggage area because I was excited to see my boyfriend, Joseba (pronounced yo-say-buh), who had arrived in Berlin about an hour before me and was waiting in the greeting area! After not seeing each other for two weeks it was great to be back together and in a new place. Joseba had never been to Germany and I although I'd been to Germany I'd only been in the south and had no idea what to expect from Berlin.

We took a taxi ride to our 'apartment' for the week. Instead of doing the hotel or hostel route we decided to rent an apartment for a week - live like Berliners live. We decided on a studio in Prenzlauer Berg - a neighborhood in East Berlin just north of the Mitte ('center' in German). We found the apartment on craigslist - kind of like an online classifieds - and contacted the owner and showed up on faith that she would be there and that we would have a place to stay, and it worked out. We were living in East Berlin for an entire week!

With flights and time changes, we spent the first day just poking around our hip little neighborhood. Full of little botiques, cafes and random restaurants, we were happy just getting lost among the pastel apartment buildings. We made our way to the center of Berlin, trying to orient ourselves with the city. We had a Berlin guidebook that I had found at a book exchange in a bar here in San Sebastian, so we had some idea of where we were, but what we wanted most was to find a good walking tour for the next day. In the center we stopped off at a small café, packed with tourists, and looked up a few of the tours the guidebook suggested. With our Spanish cell phones, it is quite expensive to call another country from another country so we opted to call the number to find out the times and prices from, get ready, a payphone. Like the top bunk 'feeling' from Stockholm, I again can't recall the last time I used a payphone. I see them in Spain and kind of wonder why they still exist in a world saturated with cell phones, but apparently they are still there for people like us haha. We rang up Brewer's Berlin Tours. I was convinced that it was a company that offered Brewery tours - basically just drinking your way through the city - but as it turned out, it was an 8-hour walking tour (with stops of course) with a guide for only 12€! Such a deal! With that plan in mind for the next day we considered our day productive and continued wandering around.

Around 10pm we decided it was finally Spanish dinner time. However, I guess we should have figured it out sooner, the silly Germans eat dinner around 6pm! We had passed so many delicious looking restaurants but when the time came that we were hungry, the majority of them were closed. We resorted back to the main street in our neighborhood - Kastanienallee - because when we strolled down it earlier, there were lots of places so we thought atleast something would be open, and luckily we found a little place with 'alles' pizza - meaning all types of pizza for only 3€. Again, we had found a good deal and shockingly the pizza was quite good. The funny thing was that the water we ordered was actually more expensive than a pizza! Note to Amanda and Joseba - bring your own water or order beer (it's cheaper!)

The next morning we woke up to sunshine and quickly got around to make sure we left ample time to get lost on our way to the tour guide meeting spot. I mean, we had a map, but its such a big city and not all the roads are perfectly straight, and half of them have names that include like 10 letters, so getting lost wasn't so farfetched. Luckily we arrived and seemed the one of two couples waiting for the tour. Right on time, the guy showed up and introduced himself and of course asked us all our names and where we were from. The other couple was from Australia and a few more people came - England, New Zealand and a mother and son from Los Angeles. When I introduce myself I usually say I'm from Seattle because I feel like it's the most known city in the NW and no one is ever going to know where Kelso is, but this guide happened to be from Oregon so he asked my city and I said Kelso and he was from Astoria - so throughout the tour we had some good banter between WA and OR. Such a small world!

The tour started with this blog's namesake - 'Berlin is poor, but sexy'. In 2003 the mayor of Berlin said these lovely words about his city, and we were soon to find out that it is true. While it wasn't the most beautiful city I have ever seen in my life, it had something about it that gave it its appeal.

The first main building we stopped at was the New Synagogue. Built in 1866 with the capacity to hold 3,200 worshipers, it quickly became a symbol in Germany. During Kristallnacht (The Night of Broken Glass), Nazis took to the streets by destroying Jewish property - burning shops, smashing windows and robbing left and right. They attempted to break the windows and torch the New Synagogue, but by the grace of one local police officer, they were turned away. The lone officer told the Nazis that this synagogue was a city building and not private property like the other buildings and shops they were damaging and that they would be punished if they harmed the synagogue, and by these orders the Nazis left, leaving the gorgeous building intact. Sadly it didn't survive as easily throughout the entire war, and in 1943 was hit by a bomb, but the facade stayed pretty much the same. Now, after repairs, we were able to note which bricks and parts of the building are new and which are from the original facing and marvel at the onion domes (both of which are from after the war). If you look closely at this photo, you can see that there are parts of the building that are a brighter yellow (this is the newer part of the building) and the parts that are dark brown and aged, are from the 1866 building.

Walking along Oranienburger Strasse we came to a building that was set far back from the road. Turns out that the front half of the building was bombed during the war, but that the building that was bombed actually used to be quite a cool place. When the telephone was invited, it seemed like all Berliners wanted to own one, but obviously they were very expensive and only reserved for the elite. Some smart Berliner took note of this and made a restaurant that had a bunch of telephones. Each booth had a phone, and you could call from one table to the next, or place your order over the telephone to the kitchen. People were in love with the idea of the phone and so excited to be able to be talking on the phone! It sounds like a fun idea, something that would have been a good night out back then, but now a vacant courtyard stands in front of the entrance to the old kitchen of the restaurant that is now used as a bar.

At this point I kind of got lost. We had been wandering through courtyards and down streets we hadn't walked on the day before and before I knew it, I was completely turned around. I did appreciate the gorgeous courtyards though and didn't really worry that I had no idea where I was. When Berlin was set up as a city, many large apartment buildings were built in the interior area of the block and then a large courtyard separated the packed apartment buildings from the apartments that line the streets. The interior buildings obviously house many more residents and are less glamorous than the exterior buildings, but it seems they also have the benefit of not have the street noise in a city of 3 million. No matter which side of the courtyard you live in, everyone can equally enjoy the tree-decorated and sometimes even grass-covered open spaces between the two worlds. With small curious shops set up in the first floor of the buildings, these courtyards were a great reason to wander in and out of streets.
Carrying on on the tour, we headed back towards the center of town, to see one of the most iconic places of Berlin – the Brandenburg Gate. When the Wall came down, this ‘gate’ was the scene of East Berliners rushing through to West Berlin to find family or friends or just because they finally could. We walked the long wide street leading up to the gate – Unter den Linden, which means Under the Linden trees. Our tour guide made sure to point out that along the tour we would see many things that the Germans named that aren’t very creative but instead very accurate. This street was named Unter den Linden for the precise fact that the street lies directly below some Linden trees.

The Gate was one of the 18 gates that used to lead into the city and was used as a toll house and a place to pay taxes. Atop the gate sits Nike, Goddess of Victory. In 1806 Napoleon defeated Germany took Nike as his war prize back to Paris for all to see. However, a few years later, in 1814 she was returned to Germany and a few things were changed. Originally, Nike held an oak wreath, symbolizing peace, but after she was hoisted back on the gate, this time it was with an iron scepter symbolizing victory. The funny thing is that she stands tall and looks over Pariser Platz (Paris Square) and her victory scepter actually now points directly at the French Embassy. I’m sure the Germans love that the goddess of victory is always there reminding the French of their loss. While talking about the history of the Gate, our guide passed around some old photos of the Gate as it was over 50 years ago. It is kind of surreal to look at a photo that was taken during a time of war when the Gate stood for something so different than it does today and to be standing in the exact same location. It kind of gives you chills to know that if you were standing here 60 years ago it would have been because you were a German trapped in East Berlin, gazing across your country to West Berlin whereas now, we coolly stood there and were able to freely walk through it.

And because we could, we crossed over to West Berlin, easy as that, for a short part of the tour. Throughout the city runs a gold line that shows where the Wall used to stand. We took some time to jump from East to West Berlin and see if we could feel a difference. I didn’t. Haha. Right across the Gate was the House of Parliament. Past the government buildings we walked towards Tiergarten – a garden area larger than Central Park that used to be the hunting grounds of the Royal Family. I don’t know if all Germans are as bad of hunters as the Royal Family were, but when they used to go ‘hunting’ in this massive park, the aides would pre-trap the animals and then empty them out into a small part of the park for Royals to easily shoot them. I guess when you are a King or Queen you have that luxury.
After some time of walking, we had tired legs and had worked up an appetite and stopped at a kebab shop to eat. Before going in the kebab shop though, our guide wanted to show us something I guess you wouldn’t normally read in a guide book and he took us down in the metro station near the restaurant. There, in this random subway stop were walls covered in gorgeous red marble. It seemed like any other metro stop, although it was quite ornately decorated, until we found out where the marble was before. As it turns out, the marble used to be in the building from where Hitler ran the Nazis. When the building was demolished they retained the marble (because I mean, it is quite nice) and now it is in some non-descript underground place. Kind of strange but I guess recycling is good right?

After a disappointing kebab and sparkling water, which both Joseba and I hate, we learned that if you want water in Germany, it’s most likely going to come as gas water. Shame. Regardless, we were full and headed towards our next Berlin stop - the Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe. A city block full of different-size cement blocks, the artist, when asked about what the memorial is meant to symbolize, said ‘nothing’. He said he wants it to mean something special to each person and for that, he created it with no meaning in mind so that each person can have their own reaction to it instead of being told what it means. With undulating pathways that create a wave-like appearance of the cement blocks, to me it somewhat created a reaction in me of anonymity. During the war there were some many wrongful deaths of Jewish people that no city block could ever be big enough to have a block for each person lost, but walking amongst the blocks – some taller than me some not – it seemed to me that the blocks could be any one of the nameless people that were victims of the war. Before we started, our guide didn’t tell us what the statues were part of, so Joseba and I kind of walked through unknowingly, but when we met up with the group again, he informed us of why it was constructed and allowed us to walked between the blocks again, this time with new eyes. Even more eye-opening was this interesting and conflicting information: because the blocks are made with cement, they are an easy target for graffiti, so the artist contracted a chemical company to create a clear paint that covers each block and makes paint unable to stick. So, when people graffiti on the monument, it makes it easily cleanable and it quickly goes back to new. Sounds good, except that the chemical company that made this dream product is also the same company that made the chemical used in the gas chambers of the Nazi concentration camps. Unsettling to say the least – and kind of ironic that the company that contributed to so many deaths of Jewish people is now using a different chemical to honor them.

With that in our head to ponder, we continued with the WWII theme and walked to the place where Hitler committed suicide. Now it is a bunch of apartment buildings, but during the war, it is where Hitler spent his last days - scared, paranoid and unable to believe Germany was going to actually lose the war. When he learned that defeat was imminent, he asked his doctor what was the best way to commit suicide and was recommend cyanide with a shot to the head to finish him off. On April 29th, he married his girlfriend Braun and about a day later they committed suicide together when they heard the news that the Soviets were close and they didn't have enough ammunition to survive the night. In a way I think it was somewhat appropriate that the man that brought fear and death to so many people died in similar fashion.

On that note, I will close this blog - have much more to tell you but an 8-hour tour and 6 extra days in Berlin are way too much to fit into one blog! Hope you enjoyed a short little tour through a 'poor but sexy' city - and don't worry there is definitely more to come!


1 comment:

Ron Trembath said...

The chemical thing is extremely eery. And the water thing, yeah I found that out during a few pit stops in Leipzig. Beer is much cheaper than the "orange" flavored sparkling water I had. But, nothing helps you sleep on a 9 hour plane ride like a few travel sized bottles of Absinthe!