Berlin was not originally a destination on our itinerary; we simply figured stopping somewhere in Germany on the way from Amsterdam to Switzerland made sense. During our travels, when people asked us where we were headed after Amsterdam, our standard answer became, “We don’t know – maybe somewhere in Germany? Where should we go?” Berlin came up most often as the place to go if we were only visiting one city in Germany, and so it was.
We really had no expectations of Berlin. This usually turns out to be a good thing in that unless a place is truly awful (which we’ve never experienced) , we like it. Berlin was no exception. The first thing we noticed as we walked from the bus station to our host’s apartment was what I like to call the “grittiness” of the city. There was a comforting informality about it. This started with graffiti (more on that later), which we hadn’t seen much of on this trip. It was much more than that though; it was in the way people dressed, carried themselves, and how they “decorated” themselves. To start with, we saw people wearing jeans! You might not understand my surprise if you haven’t spent much time in London, Paris, and Brussels, where women seem to wear dresses as their daily attire, even when doing casual things on the weekends (and I thought I only had to worry about being under-dressed in Italy). We saw people wearing t-shirts and women wearing casual, supportive shoes – something impossible to find in Paris, for example, when my original shoes broke in half. We saw relaxed hair-dos and women without make-up. Of all the European cities we have visited so far on this trip, Berlin already appeared to be the city most like what we’re used to at home in the States. (I had to wonder if some of the similarities are because we live in an area of the USA where many people hail from German backgrounds.) We even saw tattoos and piercings.
Berlin was as down to earth and “real” as it seems to get in any European city we’ve visited. We had been thrilled in Amsterdam at the low prices we found inside the grocery stores – in Berlin these low prices spread into the restaurants. One of our best finds was the Middle Eastern place our host took us to on our first night, where we enjoyed a huge shwarma sandwich for only €2.50. The same size sandwich from Subway at home would cost us twice us as much and taste half as good. I can’t even tell you how exciting it was for us to realize we could eat out over and over in Berlin on our stringent budget for no more than we’ve been paying in grocery stores up until now! And this place wasn’t unusual – there were plenty more where you could easily get very large portions for under €3.50.
We sat in a park with our shwarma, getting to know our host that first night, and he explained to us the reason for the particularly large crowds of people that evening. There was a demonstration going on; something about the concert venues increasing prices by 500% for the entertainers. To us, the demonstration seemed more like a party – tons of people out in the park, many eating their food like us, music playing, and some people talking on microphones once in a while. It was a good feeling to see how involved people are there in what affects their lives.
When it came to sites, the thing we were most excited to see in Berlin was the Berlin Wall. Ironically, our first host who at first glance appeared to live way outside of the center of the city, lived only a couple blocks from the East Side Gallery. The East Side Gallery is a 1.3km-long section of the original wall containing approximately 106 paintings by artists from all over the world. Some are poignant, some are weird, some are just art. Many are about freedom. One of our favorites simply had every year that the Berlin Wall existed written out , and on each year there was a rose for every person killed trying to cross the wall that year – 136 in total.
The other big sites we saw in Berlin were the famous Brandenburg Gate and Checkpoint Charlie. After immersing ourselves in the history of the Holocaust at the Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe, we plunged right back into the shadowy side of history at Checkpoint Charlie. There was a ton of information all about how Berlin (and Germany itself) was divided up after the war, and how tensions simmered between the Soviet Union and the West, and how things nearly came to a head right there at that little crossing.
It was stunning to us to realize that the Berlin Wall was not built so much to keep people out, but as a desperate bid by the Soviet Union to keep people *IN*. (We were later told that the US was not totally innocent as they had been busy pumping money into Western Germany in order to entice people out of the East…) No matter the politics, the idea of a wall suddenly going up one day dividing life as you know it in half, seems pretty awful. We tried to imagine what life must have been like for those people under the communist regime as they walked along the wall knowing that freedom (and sometimes even family members) existed just on the other side, but unable to get to it. We wondered what they must have felt as they looked over the wall from the upper stories of buildings in the east and could see people enjoying a life they couldn’t have.
So much 20th century history happened right there in Berlin, and most of it wasn’t so pretty. We were glad though that we took some time to check out this city and see both sides of it.
A note on the GRAFFITI!
Amazingly, we’ve seen very little graffiti on this trip. I don’t think we came across much of any in the UK – then maybe a little here and there in Paris, but very little – then I found myself a bit dismayed to see it pop up more often in Amsterdam, a bit like what we’d see at home in Philadelphia. Berlin took graffiti to a new level – a level I have never experienced before. It was everywhere; not just on walls of buildings but in tunnels and parks and even on windows. We’ve included some photos.