Posts Tagged With: Berlin

Street Cred

There are a few things that I have to get used to all over again whenever I come back to Germany.  One is differentiating between the proper/formal way of saying “you” (Sie) and the informal way (du).  Other things are more exciting, though, even life threatening.  Take the following example, for instance:

Bike Paths

What are these dangerous zones, you might be asking yourself.  The former “no man’s land” between east and west Berlin?  Nah – something much more dangerous.  They’re bike paths.

Oh yeah, that’s right – instead of having bike lanes on the side of the streets, part of German sidewalks are reserved for folks on bikes, which is like every fifth person.  All of these death machines are equipped with a sweet little bell on it to let innocent pedestrians know that they’re about to have tread marks up their back.   I remember the first time that I ever went to Germany, I had no idea why part of the sidewalk was marked off.  Later, I learned to fear that bell, that passive aggressive dinging.  Because bikers don’t slow down or even slightly veer out of the way.  Hell, no!  You’re in their lane. Once, while I was still in the fog of my first case of jet-lag, the incessant dinging didn’t register quickly enough, and some Deutschbag’s handlebars clipped my elbow.  I don’t know how it didn’t jerk his handlebars to the side, sending him sprawling onto the pavement.  Obviously, that wasn’t his first rodeo.

Even when I got here a month ago, I had to retrain myself to stay away from the bike lanes.  On my second or third day, I found myself walking along a sidewalk without paying 100% attention (heaven forbid!) when a bike nearly plowed into me.  I escaped without physical harm, but I did get a quick Verpiss dich! (piss off!) from the friendly biker as she peddled on.  But don’t worry about me – I’ve learned my lesson again.  Now I don’t even have to think about it when I hear a bell ringing even a quarter-mile away.  My legs just atomically jump out of the way, leading me to safety.  It’s like a nightmarish version of Pavlov’s experiments.

But don’t you worry – the bike lanes aren’t the only comment-worthy aspect of German street life.  What can be so exciting about German streets that I’d blog about them?  Street-crossing signs.   In America, we have a white outline of a man and a big, orange hand that flashes to tell us when we can and can’t cross the street.  Hell, sometimes, it’s even more straight forward and it’s just spelled out for us:  “WALK” and “DON’T WALK.”  In Germany, there’s a little green and a little red man.  In Berlin, the situation’s a little unique though – because the former West and East sectors of the cities had different Ampelmännchen, little street lamp men.

In the West, they were pretty straight forward and nondescript.  In the East, however, both Red and Green sported a fancy hat.  While the wall has since come down, the different Ampelmännchen still patrol the streets.  Or, maybe “rule over” is a better phrase for what they do, because in Germany, these red and green men are like gods.  They dictate when you cross the street, and they are not to be disobeyed.

Seriously.  It’s almost funny how Germans will not cross the street unless there’s a green man telling them it’s okay.  Forget that you have eyes and a brain and can deduce on your own that, if there’s not a car in sight, it’s okay if you cross the road.  NEIN!  Red man says NEIN!  I’ve lost count of how many times I’ve seen crowds of Germans waiting at an empty intersection, glaring at the red man for not letting them cross.  I guess no one wants to be “that guy” and take the first step across the street and out of line.

I once crossed a street on red, and I heard a mother telling her young daughter, “See that’s what you’re NOT supposed to do, okay, sweetie?”  That’s no joke.  I would like to see these folks in Boston, where even my little heathen self cringes at the sight of pedestrians and automobiles playing a game of chicken at every intersection.

East Ampelmann

Meet the East Berlin Red and Green Men

West Ampelmann

And here you have the West Berlin Red & Green Men

And to end my post on peculiar aspects of German streets, I leave you with this picture.  Don’t worry, you’re just as dumbfounded as I was, and still am.  It’s on the side of a building in Berlin, near Checkpoint Charlie.  I think it’s meant to be art.


The man’s….ummm….extremity goes on for another two stories.

When I stopped to take a picture of this masterpiece, a few other passers-by also took notice.  My favorite moment – maybe from my whole stay in Berlin – was when a probably 85 year old woman giggled and told her best friend, “Oh my goodness!  Talk about an elephant trunk!”  

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Strolling Around

I’ve been in Berlin for almost a month now, and this is my last week.  Time really has raced by, and I haven’t gotten everything that I need out of this archive yet.  But, that’s why I’ve decided that I’ll be coming back in February to finish up.  Knowing that I’m coming back has kept me from getting upset that I’m leaving on Saturday, because I have come to love Berlin.  In fact, I can easily say that it’s my favorite German city, which is ironic being that – in so many ways – it’s not very German at all (I have to be careful when granting the “favorite city” award, because Marburg, a city with ancient charm – holds a special place in my heart ever since it was my home for a year just over five trips around the sun ago).

I’ve been impressed while walking around Berlin’s city center, with its sprawling government structures, monuments and war memorials.  I’ve taken a couple of strolls down the perpetually-under-construction Unter den Linden, and down Friedrichstrasse, Berlin’s swanky shopping district.  The cheesy Christmas Market (complete with mobile log cabins and fake snow in the shadow of Berlin’s modern, glass, Deutsche Bahn tower) was a weird, yet fun, place to have a Bratwurst and Glühwein.  And I’ve spent nearly $15 to go see a movie (Catching Fire, which was awesome!) in the futuristic Sony Center at Postdamer Platz.

Those places are cool and all, but I really love Berlin for the places like Kreuzberg and Neuekölln.  My bus to the archive goes straight through Kreuzberg, another multicultural, young district of Berlin.  When I leave the archive at 6, and my stomach starts growling, I have to drive through streets lined with temptation:  sushi joints, Italian pizzerias, Indian restaurants, Malaysian street food, kebab stands, schnitzel shops, Chinese takeout…you name it – if you spin a globe and stop it with your finger, chances are there is a restaurant in Kreuzberg that’ll serve food from there.  So, needless to say, on more than one occasion, I haven’t made it home for supper – after my mouth waters for several stations, I can’t take it anymore, and I push the stop button on the bus, hop out, and take my choice.  One night, the pun of the burger joint called “Kreuzburger” tempted me, but I decided to go with Mexican instead.  I’m not sure why I thought German Mexican food would be a good idea since I’m a Mexican food snob, but hey, it was happy hour, so that made up for it.

In fact, since I’ve been here, I’ve only had “typical” German food once – sausage, potatoes (with a bit of salad thrown in for good measure) and beer – doesn’t get much more German than that.


Guten Appetit!

I’ve already written about my neighborhood, Neuekölln, so I won’t take up more space on it here.  I’m going to miss it, but what I could tell from the 24 hours that I’ve spent in Köln (Cologne, which is where I’m heading on Saturday), it’s pretty diverse as well.  So, maybe not all is lost.

Here are a few more shots of my neighborhood, Neuekölln:


Heading to the archives. Despite spending 80 Euros on a month pass, I have yet to have a single person check for my ticket.


An Indian restaurant 25 steps away from my house. I’ve gotten spoiled on good, homemade Indian food, too, so – like Mexican food – I always find myself judging on whether it’s “real” or not. (Yeah, I know: snobfest.) I guess German tolerance for spice is even less than American, so the food lacked the typical Indian kick, BUT the Gulab-Jamun (think, balls of fried dough soaked in syrup!) made up for it!


The soul cat bar didn’t have any soul on Sundays, though.


Second hand vinyl shop, with a touch of German graffiti and a dash of the typical half-shredded posters


Sometimes the graffiti can be pretty good, though.


I love this: The Rosa Parks Elementary School


Rosa Parks Elementary School: Play together, Learn together, Live together. A pretty fitting motto in such a diverse neighborhood


And then right next to the Rosa Parks Elementary School, we have the Tempest Anarchist Library.


Neuekölln recycling


One block over, there’s a “free time colony” where people garden and grow things in the middle of the city. But, from the looks of it, they’re pretty selective about who gets in and who gets out.

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Grad Life: A Story Etched in Stone

During my research year in Germany, I came across a number of epic statues around the city, and they spoke to me.  Below is the story of graduate school as depicted by the sculptors of old Europe.

In the Beginning


This depicts your undergraduate advisor, guiding the young, naive, and still idealistic version of yourself to the hallowed grad school applications.

The First Semester


You enter the arena that first, exciting fall semester, and are armed with the basic history-grad student essentials: historiography, the latest edition of the Chicago/Turabian manual, cheap alcohol, and a diminishing sense of self-worth.  If you’re lucky, a more advanced warrior (otherwise known as “ABD student”) will take you under his or her wing and help shield you from some of the pressure of the academic battlefield: conference deadlines, seminar presentations, nagging undergrad students, and absentee advisors. 

In the Valley


Woe unto you: You enter your readings/qualifying exams year with determination, only to emerge as a shell of your former self 9-12 months later, barely clinging to an ABD status and letting all other accomplishments and pride fall to the ground.  Exhausted and with your soul crushed, you begin to wonder why flipping burgers or sleeping under a bridge is such a bad thing. Luckily, the angel known as Jack Daniels is there to lift your spirits and give you the motivation (delusion?) to carry on.



Supported by research grants, significant others, friends, family, and more whiskey, and armed with the spear of bitter determination, you finally slay the dissertation beast that has ruled every waking moment of your life for the past decade.  Having been safely sheltered inside the confines of the Ivory Tower during the entire duration of your epic quest, your doctoral committee signs off on your dissertation and you pass your defense.  At long last, you receive validation of your life’s purpose! 




You can finally sheathe your sword, for you are done.  Now that you are [far too] old and wise – symbolized by an awesome, manly beard – Academia places the honor of three little letters behind your name. (The actual ceremony involving hoods, cloaks and funny hats sounds just as fantastical as this statue is epic).  Now you are free to face the world as a revered Doctor of Philosophy, free to lead some other innocent soul to grad school applications. 

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Die Wäsche Waschen!

The front door to my apartment building in Neukölln, Berlin.

The front door to my apartment building in Neukölln, Berlin. My favorite part is the second “5” peeling off the address label. But, through this door and up 87 stairs, is a quaint little apartment that I call home!

I’ve been in Berlin for a week now, and I’m finally settling in.  I know my way around my neighborhood, so I feel comfortable with standing at a street corner and thinking, I should be able to cut down this street and end up on Sonnenalle.  And then, I follow my gut and end up exactly where I thought I would!

(By the way, you can click on any picture to zoom in and get a better look.)

A glance down my street.

A glance down my street.

A burger joint that would make American chains jealous, the BerlinBurger International (BBI) name is a play on Berlin's over budget and delayed project to build a new airport, Berlin-Brandenburg International (BBI)

A burger joint that would make American chains jealous, the BerlinBurger International (BBI) name is a play on Berlin’s over budget and delayed project to build a new airport, Berlin-Brandenburg International (BBI)

On the other side of this bar, there was another sign that said "Had a good day?  Have a drink!"   Either way, you're having a drink!

On the other side of this bar, there was another sign that said “Good day? Have a drink!” Either way, you’re having a drink!

Moreover, I was at the Hauptbahnhof (Central Train Station) yesterday and decided to walk to my archive.  It was a 20 minute walk, a little longer than I anticipated, but I didn’t end up lost in Poland or anything, so I take that as a victory.

Berlin's billion euro, glass Hauptbahnhof.

Berlin’s billion euro, glass Hauptbahnhof.

When you walk inside, there are trains coming and going above, beside, and below you. And of course, you can get a taste of America's finest cuisine: McDonald's, Burger King, & Starbucks.

When you walk inside, there are trains coming and going above, beside, and below you. And of course, you can get a taste of America’s finest cuisine: McDonald’s, Burger King, & Starbucks.

VERBOTEN: Damnit, you can't grill out on the front lawn of the Reichstag (the seat of Germany's parliament).  The Germans take the fun out of everything.

VERBOTEN: Damnit, you can’t grill out on the front lawn of the Reichstag (the seat of Germany’s parliament). The Germans take the fun out of everything.

But, this is the State Institute for Music Research, and I think this high-stepping, dancing Federal Eagle makes up for the ban on grilling in front of the Reichstag.

But, this is the State Institute for Music Research, and I think this high-stepping, dancing Federal Eagle makes up for the ban on grilling in front of the Reichstag.

But, that’s not to say that I haven’t had my moments of utter confusion here in the Bundesrepublik.  And one might think that an episode at border control, or instances of digging though archival material, or even trying to maneuver Germany’s trash/recycling system, might provide some moments of confusion.  But, NEIN!  I’ve got those down pat by now.  The two things that have completely stumped me are far more sinister and complicated than that.

Come, let me spin you a tale…

I’d just spent 4 hours, pouring through German newspapers, journals, and leaflets in the archive, and by the time I got home, I was tired and just wanted to plop on the couch and catch up on The Voice.  So, instead of cooking anything, I pulled out the trusty frozen pizza from the freezer, set the oven to preheat, and then went to get my computer set up so I could just veg out for the rest of the night. About ten minutes later, I headed back to the kitchen to plop the pizza in the oven only to realize that the oven’s not hot.   At all.  At first I thought that the whole thing was broken, but I refused to give up so easily.

Now, let me back up a second.  This stove/oven is German, which means that it’s overly-complicated and you must be able to control it to the EXACT specifications of your choice (Ordnung muss sein!).  To even get to the knobs that control the heat, you push these little buttons, and the knobs for the stovetop or oven pop out. I found the one for the oven, and turned the temperature to 200 Celsius.  But, like I said, nothing happened.

But, upon further inspection, I realized that there was a sixth little button, so I pressed it and another knob popped out.  And then, tears welled up in my eyes as anger and frustration took over, because I didn’t want to answer these riddles – I just wanted cheap, unhealthy, frozen Hawaiian Pizza!

Oven from Hell slash Germany

The encrypted oven from hell/Germany

There were 9 different options for this new knob (10 if you’re counting the off position), and being that the manufacturers of this wunderbar machine decided to go back to hieroglyphics instead of the written language, I had no idea what these settings did.  There were options for a mountain range, two mountain ranges, what I could only guess was melting snow, then there were some Tetris lines, something to do with nuclear fusion, and bio-hazard symbols next to mountain ranges.

So, as much as I hate to admit it, I had to come back to my bedroom and Google “How to use a German oven.”  Again, Germans just need to control exactly how their food is cooked, I guess. Because, as it turns out, these are controls for regular heat (but it can come from the top, the bottom, or both), convection oven (by itself, or with regular heat from top, bottom, or both), and broilers (you got it – from top, bottom, or both). So, once you get that all set and call Cape Canaveral for clearance, you can choose your temperature and then it’s go for throttle up.

Luckily, the pizza was worth it.  Plus, the folks I like on the Voice nailed it, so I was done being bothered by over-complicated German contraptions.   Until the next morning.

Because the next morning I decided to do the laundry (die Wäsche waschen).

I thought that I was so smart because I had planned ahead:  most Germans don’t use a dryer, so I knew that I couldn’t wait until I was completely out of clothes because it’d take a day or two for my clothes to dry since the sun has decided to go on it’s winter hiatus.  Feeling smug in my intelligence, I shoved my clothes in the washer, and then finally paid attention to the control panel. Familiar pangs of frustration rose from deep within…

Ordnung muss sein!

Ordnung muss sein! (There must be order!)

Damnit if there weren’t an infinite number of setting combinations for your washing.  I’m used to “Colors, whites, or delicates” and “start.”  There was no way that I was going to Google “How to use a German washing machine” (though, I was kind of hoping that the NSA would be snooping on me and send someone to help out!).  So, I just opened the drawer to pour in the detergent.  And, you guessed it: over-complicated.


So, I just did a quick game of eeny-meeny-miney-mo, poured the detergent in, pushed a couple of setting buttons (I chose “Energy Saver” in the hopes that the German gods would grant some of their green, eco-friendly love and favor down on me), and just hoped for the best!  The machine ran for a little over two hours, so I was sure that my clothes were being ripped to shreds or merging into one, greyish color.  But, as it turns out, they’re alright!  They’ve been hanging on their drying rack near the window for two days now and are almost 40% dry! At this point, I’ll get to wear them again next week.

I consider myself a rather intelligent person (if, at any point, I feel my intelligence threatened, my go-to defense is: Oh, yeah?! I’m working on my PhD!), but these machines damn near had one up on me.  Advanced degree or not, waschen the Wäsche can be a humbling experience!

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From Boston to Berlin

It’s a nasty day here in Berlin – cold, gray, and drizzling  – that kind of drizzling when you can’t see it from your window, but by the time you take two steps outside, you’re already wet and wishing you had brought an umbrella.  In other words, it’s a typical fall/winter day in Germany.  In a few hours, I’ll have to bundle up and head out there, on my way to the Schwules Museum archives.  Until then, I’ll sit in here where it’s warm and wish I had bought some coffee to brew this morning.

My apartment is in Berlin’s Neukölln district, southeast of the government district.  I’ve only been here a couple of days, but I could tell from the moment I stepped off the bus, jet-lagged and dragging my bag behind me, that it’s an alternative, young, multicultural place to live.  And when I first arrived at the apartment building, stepping over dog shit to unlock the graffiti-covered front door where one of the 5’s of the building’s “55” street address was peeled off and barely hanging to the wall, I thought Well, this is going to be an interesting month.

But, after sleeping off my jet lag, I took a stroll around the neighborhood, and it’s awesome (or “the hammer” as those crazy German youths say).  Neukölln is a hodgepodge of cultures.   According to Wikipedia, the god of instant, albeit sometimes questionable knowledge, about 60% of Neukölln’s population is ethnically German, and the other 40% are immigrants from all over the place: Europe, the Middle East, China, India, America.  When I left home, I was worried about not being able to eat Indian food for the 5 months I’ll be in Germany.  A half a block to the east of me, there’s a cheap Indian restaurant (whether it’s good or not, I’ll have to find out soon!) and two blocks to the west, there’s an Indian spice shop so that I can cook Indian at home.  Between here and there are an American burger shop, French pastry bakery, Taiwanese food, a pizza joint, a milk shake shop, Greek food, a hookah lounge, and a handful of bars, cafes, and, of course, döner shops.  There was one restaurant where everything was in English, and nothing but Americans and Germans speaking English in British accents sitting out front, huddled under the canopy while smoking their cigarettes.  Most of these little places are barely large enough to fit five people (and their dogs) in, and I love it.

To make things even better, I can hop on a bus right outside my door and get off 25 minutes later right outside the archive.  Or, I can take another bus and be at Potsdamer Platz in 10 minutes.

And now for a little advertisement:  If any of you travelers out there haven’t heard of or tried yet, you should really check it out. This website allows individuals to rent private rooms or whole apartments for various lengths of time.  How it works: People who have spare bedrooms, own vacation houses, or folks who will simply be out of town for a while and want to make some extra money, rent out their room, apartment or house via the website.  You, as the customer, can book the space just like you book a hotel room: go to the site, select a city and put in the arrival and departure dates, and presto! you have a list of housing options.  You can even customize the search by selecting only private rooms, shared rooms, or whole apartments, and you can set a price range, too.  It’s really convenient that you can often choose to pay by the night, week, or monthly.  The people on both sides of the deal have to go through an identification process to make sure that you are who you say you are.  This helps eliminate fraud on both parties’ part.  Payments are also made directly through the website’s secure system.  With locations in over 34,000 cities in 192 countries, you’re sure to find a spot that meets your criteria.

That’s how I found my apartment here in Berlin – and it’s great.  Since you’re travelling, you can’t bring everything that you need/want to feel comfortable while you’re away: sheets, towels, pots & pans, etc.  So, why not use someone else’s apartment that’s fully furnished and fully stocked?  All I’ve got to do is go grocery shopping and stock up on the food I like, and I’ll feel right at home.


Last night, I was thinking: I had just gotten finished with a Skype call to home, and I realized that I had complained about my flights from Boston to Berlin.  The first flight was delayed due to mechanical issues.  We were given a new plane, but experienced turbulence across the entire Atlantic.  Despite my attempts to fall into a medically-induced coma for the trip, the woman beside me (who told me at take off that she was petrified of flying anyway) kept waking me up so she could, I assume, run into the bathroom and cry hysterically.  The lines for immigration and security at London Heathrow Airport were so long that, despite a 2.5 hour layover, I almost missed my flight to Berlin’s tiny Tegel Airport.

But, as I lay there last night at almost 2am (realizing that I definitely had not gotten over my jet lag yet), I thought:  What am I complaining about?!  Look at what I just did:  I sat my fat, white ass in a huge hunk of metal that FLEW THROUGH THE SKY AT ALMOST 600MPH and took me to another continent…in 6 hours.  Then I used public transportation (the directions for which I already had in my pocket, thanks to a computer/Internet program that essentially has the whole globe mapped out, able to provide personally-tailored, real-time directions), to arrive at an apartment that I had booked two months ago without ever getting out of my pajamas.

Then I thought to myself: Self, when you put it that way, I don’t guess there’s much to complain about!

And then I thought: I don’t have coffee for in the morning.  

Life’s a bitch. 

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Ich bin ein Berliner!

In 1963, two years after the construction of the Wall, as a symbol of U.S. support, President John F. Kennedy visited West Berlin, an island of democracy surrounded by Communist East Germany.  In a speech before thousands, he stated that all free men, wherever they may live, are citizens of Berlin, and then as a free man, he proudly proclaimed, “Ich bin ein Berliner!”  I am a Berliner! 

Kennedy’s statement was met with cheers, but also with good-mannered laughs.  He said the phrase in German as a way to reach across the language barrier, but was unaware that a “Berliner” in German is a jelly-filled donut.  The word now, of course refers to a citizen of Berlin, just as a “New Yorker” refers to someone living in the Big Apple. 

I had been looking forward to going back to Berlin, the Bundeshauptstadt Deutschlands (Federal Capital of Germany), ever since I left the city over two years ago.  When I last visited, it was with a big group of friends and during 2006 as Germany hosted the World Cup.  The weekend that we went, Germany was playing Argentina in Berlin (Germany won) and so there were millions of people packed into the capital city.  It was an incredible time, and Berlin was draped in Red, Black, and Gold, Germany’s national colors.  I had loads of fun taking part in the celebration, and it’s an experience I wouldn’t trade for anything, but ever since then I’ve wanted to go back when I wasn’t distracted by millions of screaming soccer fans.  I wanted to meet the real Berlin.

So, when my friend asked if we could visit Berlin when she came to Germany, I believe my answer was something to the effect of “YES!”  And so, during the stress of studying for finals, I would always tell myself that my reward would be a trip to Berlin.

As I’ve already said, as luck would have it, I started getting sick about four days before we headed to Berlin.  Well, when we woke up on Tuesday morning, I felt pretty miserable.  So, I went tearing through my toiletries bag and medicine cabinet to see what I had (since the medicinal tea was working too slowly); I was NOT going to be sick while I was in Berlin.  And to my surprise, I found a sleeve of Sudafed Severe Cold formula.  I had to make a decision: there was only enough for me to either take it slowly during the four days in Berlin, or just take one full day of it and hope to knock it out.

I decided on the latter choice and, the entire day I launched an assault of alternating Sudafed-Advil on my cold, and it seemed to be a good choice.  I think the cold/sickness/disease had gotten rather comfortable in my body and put its defenses down since it thought that all I had in my arsenal was herbal tea.  So, my surprise attack bombarded it and knocked it out and I felt just fine for my stay in Berlin.

After an almost two-hour delay, we arrived at the Berlin airport Tuesday evening and took a bus to the Hauptbahnhof (Main Train Station).  Oh man was I excited to step into the absolutely massive, glass complex!  It’s brand new, just finished in May 2006 to handle the influx of visitors coming into Germany for the World Cup.  The main portion is four stories tall (with the office towers on each side continuing up to 6 stories), and when you walk in, there are full sized trains arriving and departing under your feet and over your head; there is every imaginable type of shop located throughout the entire edifice.  Did I mention that it’s HUGE?  And since the whole thing is made out of glass, whether you’re coming from the subway below, or exiting your train on the top floor, the first thing you see is the city of Berlin all around you.

the Berlin Hauptbahnhof

By this time, night was falling pretty fast, so we took an S-Bahn (“Street Train” – which are different from the underground U-Bahns) to our hostel, which was in the former East Berlin.  The city of Berlin is very large and spread out, so the train ride to our hostel lasted about 25 minutes from downtown Berlin.  Once we checked in to “the Generator” (the same hostel where I stayed last time), we made our way into our room, which was painted lime green and blue.

Sandy decided to stay in the room and go to sleep early in an attempt to save up her strength for the next day.  It was only about 7pm and I knew there was one thing that I couldn’t sleep without seeing.  So, I zipped up my jacket, wrapped my scarf tight, and headed out into the Berlin night.  I squinted as the piercing wind whipped around the buildings, but grinned a little as I heard the snow crunching beneath my feet.  I hopped on an S-Bahn and a short while later arrived back at the Hauptbahnhof.

As I left the south exit, I couldn’t help but smile.  The night was terribly cold, but it felt good against my skin; it made me feel alive.   I thrust my hands deeper into my pockets and then walked with a mission.  Something was calling my name…

After several minutes, I was standing in absolute awe, in front of my goal:  the German Reichstag.  I fell in love with the building two years ago on a hot, busy July day.  And now, seeing it lit up on a freezing February night, snow all around, I was speechless.

the German Reichstag

The building was constructed in 1894 to house the Imperial Parliament (Reichstag) of the newly formed German Reich (Empire).  Today, since Germany is no longer an empire, the parliament or congress is known as the Bundestag (Federal Parliament), however the name “Reichstag” has stuck with the building.  The inscription above the entrance reads, Dem Deutschen Volke . “To the German People”

In 1933, four months after Adolf Hitler was sworn in as Chancellor of Germany, the inner governmental chambers were burned.  A radical communist was arrested as the arsonist, but there is still debate as to whether he worked alone or if there was also Nazi involvement.  The Nazis and Communists were bitter enemies, so why would they work together you might ask?  Well, Hitler used the Reichstag Fire to show that the Communists were trying to take over the German government.  So, many historians believe, with some evidence behind them, that Hitler and high-ranking Nazi officials had the Reichstag burned and pinned it on the Communist as an excuse to crack down on all political opposition and help secure total power.

Hitler restored the building, but it was again badly damaged by the bombing of the Second World War.

After WWII, the building was slowly restored and in 1999, the newest addition to the Reichstag was completed:  the glass dome.  The dome provides a 360-degree view of Berlin and from the top, one can look down into the main governmental chamber of the Parliament below. Because of the dome, some Germans call the Reichstag the “big washing machine.”

The architecture of the dome, however, has its symbolic significance. The dome is open every day to visitors, free of charge. You can take an elevator up to the base of the dome and then walk up a spiral walkway to the pinnacle.

With all of the glass, and the ability to look down into the governmental chambers, the message of the dome is that anyone should be able to walk in off the street and watch their government at work. They should be able to sit above the congressmen and watch them carry out their duties. Along the same lines, should the congressmen ever forget who they’re working for, they need only look up and see the People.  Government should be transparent. For many, it symbolizes the heart of democracy.

I had told Sandy that I would wait for her to go up into the building’s Dome, but while I was standing there, there was no line at all, whereas during the day you can easily wait several hours to get in.  I looked around me at the few people walking by; maybe they were Berliners, or maybe they were just visitors, like me.  I looked back up at the building, with its façade lit up against the dark and overcast sky, and it just felt like it was calling me in.

And so I walked up the gargantuan steps and went through the stringent security before being allowed to ride up to the Dome.  That high up, the sting of the wind was worse, so I quickly scurried to the protection of the Dome’s glass.  It provided for an awesome view of Berlin by night, and though there were no congressmen at work (it was 8pm) it was neat to see the governmental chambers from above.

After about an hour, I left the Reichstag, walked back to the Hauptbahnhof, and rode back to the hostel feeling very content.

At first I wasn’t sure why I am so fascinated and in awe of the Reichstag, but I knew that I had some kind of ‘connection’ with it.  I knew it’s not just because of the sheer size and appearance of it, either.  No, it’s something a little deeper than that.  After thinking about it for a while, I think I’ve figured it out.

To me, that building acts as a symbol for Germany and Germans.  It was built, in all its splendor, as the seat of the Reich Parliament.  In 1933, its insides were burned and the democracy of the Weimar Republic died along with it.  Hitler revived the building, but no functioning parliament resided in its halls.  Then, the building was once again mangled, but this time by Allied bombs.  Now, over 60 years later, Berlin is again the capital of a united Germany.  The Reichstag and its glass dome, in a nation plagued by its tyrannical past, now acts as a symbol of German Democracy.

And for me, the building acts not only as a political symbol; but also as a symbol of German resilience.  Germany has been destroyed more than once, and was divided for one-third of its existence, and yet, each time it faces its obstacles and then carries on.

And so, I guess that’s why the Reichstag holds me spellbound; because it embodies the German spirit.

The next day, Sandy still wasn’t feeling well enough to face the cold, so I took a day trip to a Wannsee, a lakeside region that can best be described as a suburb of Berlin.  The locality gets its name from Wannsee, a large lake in the middle of the community.  I had heard that Wannsee was pretty, but there was something very important that happened there during the Nazi reign, something that drastically shifted the course of history.  And that was what I was going to see.

The S-Bahn ride to Wannsee took about an hour, and went all around the outskirts Berlin, so I was able to see some of the more residential areas.  Once in Wannsee, I left the station and had a pleasant, twenty-minute stroll around one edge of the lake.  The entire lake was frozen over and there were even people ice-fishing out in the middle. I left the main road and began winding my way through the residential streets, heading towards my destination.  Most of the houses, which butted up to the lake, were essentially small castles.  If I’m not mistaken, Wannsee was always a place where rich aristocrats and royalty kept residence outside of the city life of Berlin.  The area still looked to be a very rich neighborhood and I imagine that these houses have been passed down through the family lines.

Finally, I stopped at a very large house and I had to ring a buzzer to be let through the large, iron gate.  The official name of this estate is no longer important; it’s simply known as “das Haus der Wannsee Konferenz” the House of the Wannsee Conference.

The house itself is beautiful; it sits well off of the road and its wooded grounds make it easy to forget that you are not secluded in the middle of the country.  The back of the house has a breathtaking view of the Wannsee Lake.

But in contrast to its beautiful appearance, the house unfortunately has a dark stain on its history.

It was here in this house, in January 1942 that top ranking Nazi officials met to come up with a “Final Solution to the Jewish Question.”  It was the first time that representatives from each branch of government met together to discuss the topic.  They sat around a conference table, occasionally taking a break for lunch or tea or a cigar, and discussed the most efficient way to kill a man.  The conference, in truth was a farce, simply a formality to help assure that each branch of government felt that they had a voice.  In actuality, Reinhard Heydrich, the man in charge, had already made up his mind and Hitler had given him free reign; he decided that shooting was too expensive, time consuming, and too demoralizing for the soldiers who had to carry out the orders.  His solution: gassing.  At the Wannsee Conference he informed everyone that they were to work towards the establishment of vast camps, apart from the concentration camps, which would be located outside of Germany-proper, and who’s sole purpose would be to efficiently manufacture death.

With this in my mind, I walked down the driveway and pushed open the heavy oak doors into the Wannsee House.  I walked into the foyer where the officials would have given their coats to servants as they arrived.  I then made my way into the room where the extensive lunch was set up for those present to maintain a full stomach, while millions in camps thousands of miles away starved. I then stopped at the open doors of the conference room and got chill bumps as I truly realized who had walked through those doors 67 years before me.

I stood where the table would have been and listened, wondering if I’d be able to hear any whispers of the past.  I then walked over to the window that looked out through the trees to the lake, and I knew that this view looked very similar to what it would have looked like on that January day in 1942.

About that time, a school group came in and the silence was broken, so I got my jacket and walked out onto the house grounds.  I sighed; silence again.  One of the things that made the Wannsee House one of the better historical sights to visit is the fact that it’s outside of Berlin, and thus away from the hordes of tourists.  I was able to stand there, in the back garden, alone and think about how that day in 1942 altered history.

But, I must admit that I was disappointed by the House’s exhibition.  It had essentially been turned into a museum; all furniture had been removed and large, modern tablets full of information had been fastened to the walls.  I know that the act of Informing is, in itself, a memorial; it’s a way of remembrance.  But every line of information which hung on that wall (apart from the series of plaques that detailed the journey of one family) could be found in any library.

Informing is important, but it has its place.  There, at that house, the world had a gem of an opportunity:  most Nazi structures were destroyed during or after the War.  But, here is the very house in which they implemented their infamous Final Solution.  I believe that the House would be much more powerful and effective if it had been preserved and set up to look exactly the way it did on January 20, 1942; if the conference room looked like everyone in it had simply stepped out for a smoke, and food was still set out, ready for their return.  It would make the entire thing more memorable.  Perhaps those students who were too busy laughing and texting to listen to their guide would have been more interested if they could really see with their own eyes just how civilized genocide can be.

I thought all of this as I stood out back and stared at the lake.  I was standing in nearly the exact same spot that Reinhard Heydrich was when he allegedly told one of his colleagues, “This house is magnificent, is it not?  I think I shall live here when the war is over.”

He was right; the house is magnificent.  It’s just too bad that it will always be tainted by the horrific actions that transpired within its walls.

After I left the Wannsee House, I took an S-Bahn back into Berlin to find a café that Dr. Johnson had recommended to me as his favorite place to eat in Berlin.  After a little searching, I found it – Café Bleibtreu.  I walked in and started to go for a table in the back, but I stopped and decided to take the table in the window.  That way I could have a good meal and watch people walk by on the street at the same time.  I could tell why Dr Johnson loved it so much; it was decorated in American pop culture (which is one of his specialties).  Posters of James Dean and “Breakfast at Tiffany’s” were hanging above my table.  I took a walk around the place and it was filled with pictures of Dirty Harry, Scarlett & Rhett, Marylyn Monroe, and such icons.  There were a couple of antique Coke iceboxes and even a red, antique phone booth in the room next to me; the Beetles were playing over the speakers.

I spent two hours there sitting, eating, people-watching, and more sitting.  I had a delicious pasta dish named after the café and, of course, a tall, German beer.  After that was done and I sat some more and then finished the evening off with a cup of coffee.  By the time I left, it was dark, so I decided to start heading back to the hostel.

On the way back, however, I got sidetracked.  As I was riding on the S-Bahn, I noticed something out of the window, so I got off at the next stop and walked back to the building that I had caught only a glimpse of.

And when I rounded the corner and saw the building in its entirety, it took my breath away.  It was the Berliner Dom, the Berlin Cathedral.

the Berliner Dom

It is one of the most impressive buildings I’ve ever seen due to its sheer size and intricate detail.

It was built between 1895 and 1905 and is the largest Protestant church in Germany and one of the most lavish Protestant cathedrals in the world, second perhaps, only to St. Paul’s Cathedral in London.  Before my trip to Germany, I never knew the difference between a cathedral and a church.  Apparently, cathedrals are usually Catholic and are large, lavish, and extravagant.  The Catholic Church’s idea behind the cathedrals was that if you are building a house for God, it should be worthy of his glory (even if people were starving around them).  The Protestant Reformation (which was led in Germany and has deep roots here in Marburg) broke away from such ideas of the Catholic Church, and held the belief that people should live simpler lives.  That is why it is rare to see a Protestant Cathedral such as the Berliner Dom.  I wanted to go in and see the inside of the cathedral, but they were charging admission, and I didn’t feel like I should have to pay to enter a church, so I simply admired the outside of the enormous building.

Afterwards, I made it back to the hostel and that ended my first full day in Berlin.  The next morning, Sandy still didn’t want to leave the room, so I made sure she had enough medicine, juice, and soup and then got ready for my second, and last full day.  That day, Thursday, it started snowing again, and with the wind blowing so hard, it made it pretty hard to see.  Still, I took it as an adventure and walked out into the cold.

My first stop of the day was the largest remaining segment of the Berlin Wall.  There are smaller segments of the wall all around the city, but this one is probably ¾ of a mile long and is intact, except for a few driveways that now punctuate it every now and then.  I was able to see a bit of the Wall the last time I went, but it was blocked off and I couldn’t get close to it.  This section, however, you could walk right up to, touch it, add your own graffiti, essentially anything you wanted.  There were no barriers.  I walked down the sidewalk for the whole length of the Wall, pondering all of the graffiti along the way. There were many elaborate scenes painted on the concrete, but one thing that caught my attention was a simple phrase, hastily scribbled in red spray-paint.  It said, “Abschlussreise 2007.” I stopped to stare at it for a moment.  It was the equivalent of writing “Senior Trip ’07!”  To me, it underscored the stark difference of the Wall’s meaning 25 years ago, and its meaning today.

From there, I headed to a place I had really wanted to see two years ago.  But as I stepped out of the S-Bahn station and caught a glance of the enormous stadium, I knew it was worth the wait.  I had finally made it to the Olympic Stadium, sight of the 1936 Olympic Games.    By this time, Hitler was both Chancellor and President of Germany and instead of cancelling the already planned Games, he saw it as a chance for Germany to step back onto the world stage after World War One.  He had the Olympic complex built and hosted one of the most elaborate ceremonies up to that point (I believe China this past year wins the prize for best ceremonies).  During the time of the Games, Hitler gave the order to take down or hide all anti-racist and anti-Jewish propaganda. Nazi swastika banners, however, were ever-present.   (Another FYI: Hitler started the tradition of carrying the Olympic torch from Greece, around the world and to the sight of the hosting city.)

the 1936 Olympic Stadium in Berlin

The entire complex of the Olympic grounds was more than remarkable and, true to Nazi architecture, it all looked like something out of ancient Rome.  Indeed, the stadium itself looked like a slightly smaller coliseum.  Acting as the main gates to the grounds were two, enormous pillars, easily 200ft tall each, with the Olympic Rings suspended between them.  Standing there, you just felt so miniscule.  I’ve noticed that about Nazi structures that I’ve seen:  Their architecture doesn’t use intricate details; instead there are bold, powerful straight lines made of sturdy rock.  It’s usually about size and power.  And I have to say, it’s very impressive.  I can see where, if 70 years go, someone told me that such structures were for me and the glory of my nation, it would be hard not to get swept up in some kind of emotion.

Unfortunately, because of the weather, I wasn’t able to go inside the actual stadium, but I did stay and walk around the grounds for about an hour and a half before moving on to my next destination.

What I visited next is known as the Tiergarten, a huge wooded area, comparable to New York’s Central Park.  I entered the Tiergarten on its western edge and decided to walk through its heart and come out on the other side at downtown Berlin.  Perhaps I read too much into it, or over emphasize it, but I feel that the Tiergarten acts as a perfect symbol for the German reverence for Nature.  I mean, Germany may be one of the most technologically advanced nations in the world and perhaps the leading power in Europe, but in the center of their capital is the Tiergarten, a 630-acre park that runs right up to the streets of the government district.  It says to me that Germans may have the development of the Western world, but they are still going to have their trees, grass, and Nature right in the heart of their capital.

I’ve heard that Berlin is the world’s greenest capital, and not because of its eco-friendliness, but because of its color; in other words, because it has so much plant life throughout the city.  In fact, while I was walking through the Tiergarten, I forgot that I was in a city; it felt just like walking through a forest.  And the snow was just too tempting; I couldn’t help but make a snowman.

In the heart of the Tiergarten is the Victory Colum, the Siegessäule, a 220ft tall tower commemorating the formation of Germany in 1871.   *Cue history lesson*: Before Germany was united, the area that is now Germany was a collection of smaller kingdoms. The two most powerful were Prussia (in the north) and Bavaria (in the south). Prussia, especially towards the end of the 1800s was a military powerhouse in Europe. In 1864, this Tower was designed to commemorate the Prussian victory in the Danish-Prussian War. However, by the time it was inaugurated in 1873, Prussia had also defeated Austria and France. In 1871, the Minister-President of Prussia, Otto von Bismarck, united the “german” kingdoms into one nation state, and Germany was founded. The same year, a man by the name of Wilhelm was named the first Kaiser (Emperor) of the now united German Reich (Empire). So, the Victory Column commemorates the formation of the German Reich, and as such in 1871, it was decided (contrary to the original plans) to place a 27ft high, 35 ton sculpture of Victoria, the Roman goddess of victory at the top of the tower.

Berliners, with their fondness for giving nicknames to famous buildings call the statue Goldelse, “Golden Lizzy.” The Column was originally located in front of the Reichstag, but its location got in the way of the Nazi’s plans for the remodeling of Berlin, so they moved it to its present day location.  During WW II, the column was relatively unharmed because during that time, radar was nowhere as good as it is today (and there definitely wasn’t such thing as a satellite guided bomb) so the tower acted as a guiding point for Allied bombers to make their way down the main street and bomb the city.

Two girls and I were the only ones brave/stupid/eager enough to climb the 275 spiraled steps to the top of the tower.  The view from the top was a good one, but you couldn’t stay up there for too long, unless you wanted to become a human popsicle.

After I climbed down the tower, I finished walking down the main street that divides the Tiergarten, and ended up at the base of the Brandenburg Gate, perhaps Germany’s most recognizable structure.   *Time for another short history lesson*:  The Brandenburg Gate was built in 1788 and was commissioned as a symbol of peace. It is a former city gate of Berlin, and during the division of East and West Berlin, it acted as a main checkpoint.  On top of the gate is the Roman goddess of Victory, in a chariot, being led by four horses. When Napoleon conquered Prussia (the sight of modern day Berlin) in 1806, he took the statue back to Paris as a trophy. When Prussian forces defeated France eight years later, they brought it back to Berlin.  During the Nazi’s time, the Gate was used as a symbol of power.  And in 1987, President Reagan stood at the Gate and called, now famously, “Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall!”

After seeing the Gate, it was getting kind of late, and I decided that I probably should go back and check on Sandy.  But, instead of using the S-Bahn station that was only a few blocks away, I decided to take a “detour” and use the Hauptbahnhof; that would take me by the Reichstag again.  I stopped for a while and watched the people make snowmen on the lawn in front of their nation’s capital and then I headed back to the hostel.

The next day was Friday and our last day in Berlin.  Sandy had to get out of the room because we had to check out at 10am and our flight wasn’t until 7pm.  So, she decided to take a tour-bus around the city; at least she’d be warm.

I, on the other hand, had one more thing to see; something that I had left for the last day.  I made my way under the Brandenburg Gate and towards Postdamer Platz.  After only a couple of minutes of walking, I reached my goal:  the national Holocaust memorial.

I had seen pictures of it, so I recognized it at once:  an entire plaza full of 2,711 concrete  stelae, or columns, of varying height.  There is no entrance or exit to the memorial; one may enter or leave the grid of pillars at any point.

a picture of the memorial, from the Internet, to show the grid pattern

If you didn’t already know it was the Holocaust memorial, you wouldn’t be able to tell just from looking at it.  In fact, that’s the point.  The memorial doesn’t dictate what you should think.  It is a break from traditional memorials in the fact that it doesn’t use symbolism; you must simply experience it.  And it doesn’t matter how many times you leave or enter the memorial, or how long you stay amongst the pillars (some of which reach 13ft tall), you don’t get any better understanding.  After all, how can you truly understand something like the Holocaust?

I had read that the pattern of columns is only a grid at first sight.  And I have to say that when I was first saw the memorial, I was a little perplexed, because even though I knew to look for something other than a perfectly aligned gird, that is all that I saw.  But once I entered the memorial and made my way deeper into the pillars, a chill ran down my spine; it became unsettlingly apparent that the columns were neither straight nor level.  Some leaned towards each other while others slightly angled themselves away.   This uneven layout is no mistake.  The architect, on the layout: It suggests that when a supposedly rational and ordered system grows too large and out of proportion to its intended purpose, it in fact loses touch with human reason. It then begins to reveal the innate disturbances and potential chaos in all systems of seeming order.”   To me, this symbolizes the bureaucracy of the Nazis, the way they orderly and methodically carried out everything they did.  It was an Order that had lost touch with humanity and reason; it was an Order based on efficiency – the efficiency of killing.  It was an illusion of Order; it was essentially veiled chaos.

Even though you are in the busy government district (the memorial is built on the ruins of the Nazi Chancellory) of Berlin, the columns block out all of the sound, and once you are inside, it becomes eerily quite and you can’t help but to feel alone.  The only sound to penetrate the silence was the crunching of the snow beneath my feet, echoing off the pillars.  I found myself wondering if that’s how the people in the Camps felt:  cold and alone.

One of the reasons I think the memorial is so effective is because there are no plaques of information visible.  The memorial is not a museum.  The Information Center is located underground, below the memorial.  So, visitors do have the ability to receive information, but it is not the main focus of the memorial.

I have to say that the memorial is very powerful, and though I know nothing of architecture, I think that the architect of the memorial is a genius.  The way that the memorial is open and doesn’t tell people what they should think sparks discussion.  And discussion is a way of remembrance and a way to help assure that something like that, on that scale, doesn’t happen again.  In that sense it’s not the 2700 concrete pillars that are the actual memorial; in that sense, the true memorial is what’s in the mind of the visitor; it’s what the pillars inspire.

the Reichstag, Brandenburg Gate, and Holocaust memorial

And so, that was my trip to Berlin.  I can honestly say that Berlin is my favorite city that I’ve ever been to.  It offers so much:  The city itself is large and spread out.  And it’s so diverse.  You can see relics of the forging of the German Reich alongside some of the most modern buildings in the world.  The city is a History student’s heaven, and is full of culture:  cafés, universities, museums, operas, and symphonies.  But it also provides for its young, student inhabitants as well by offering some of the best nightlife in the world.  You can take a stroll through a forest, or step into its Hauptbahnhof, an edifice of steel and glass where one steps off the train and feels that you’ve arrived in the future.

Those four days in Berlin were some of the most exciting, humbling, and deeply fulfilling of my life.  I’ve found that for me, traveling is almost a religious experience.  You leave your Home, your sphere, and you venture into a new area, a foreign sphere, and you are at that city’s mercy.  There is so much excitement and adventure, and yet at the same time a little anxiety or reserve.  And it’s all caused by the same thing:  there are new, unfamiliar things to uncover.

That is why I enjoy traveling alone.  I need (at least once) to get to know the city; to see what it has to offer.  I need some one-on-one time to discover the city’s unique persona and aura.  I can go at my own pace, and not just take from the city, but interact with it as well.  Luckily, I was able to do this with Berlin and it made its way into my heart.

I know I could now go back with friends, maybe even to party, and I’d feel right at home.  But that’s only because I was able to spend some time alone with the city.  I feel that Berlin and I now share some type of unseen, perhaps unknowable connection.  What I do know is that a piece of me will always reside in Berlin.

46 years after Kennedy, I visited Berlin.  As I rode to the airport to head back to Marburg, I already found myself missing Germany’s capital.  Though my motivations and those of the young U.S. President may not have been exactly the same, in my heart, I proclaimed: Ich bin ein Berliner!

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“Ich bin ein Berliner!” by W. J. Newsome is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 3.0 Unported License.

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