Wandering Around Germany: Berlin

There is still a lot more to talk about in Rhineland-Pfalz, but today lets talk about the Deutsche Haupstadt, Berlin.

I’ll skip the account of multiple GPS debacles in favor of this photo of us eating french fries at the Hauptbahnhof at 10:00 at night:

We walked out the door and were greeted by a guy playing guitar and a bunch of people standing around. He was singing in English.

The guitar player didn’t make it into this picture, but you can see how impressive the Bahnhof is!

Then we made our way (on foot) back to the Gasthaus. I’ve honestly never felt so safe in my life. The city was quiet, although there were few people here and there as we made the half hour trip back to the Mauerpark area (the old Wall was literally right outside our guest house). As we walked I felt like I was drinking in the city. When we arrived at our room, we got ready for bed and I was in tears knowing that we had one day left on our trip, and only one day to spend in this amazing place that I had originally been somewhat apprehensive about.

Why was I apprehensive about it? I guess I had pictured Berlin to be a place that was fraught with poverty, racial tension and, like many capital cities, an overwhelming sense of chaos, noise and confusion in general.

While I’m sure those things exist, that was no longer my perception of Berlin. Sure, there are poorer areas that we did not have the opportunity to explore (we did enter the city in Wedding, which is one of the historically poorer districts), but the city seemed safe and well ordered, as you would expect any German city to be. It was peaceful. And as we walked through the streets at night, it was even quiet.

Bahnhof in Wedding

Like many major metropolitan areas, Berlin is extremely diverse. I’ve ready many times that the German capital is not very German. In some ways this may be true, but it didn’t strike me as vastly different from other parts of Germany that also have a wide diversity of peoples and languages. I heard many different languages in Munich, for example.

Berlin does have the largest Turkish population in the world outside of Turkey itself. That has given way to a major German street food tradition called Döner. I found this ersatz recipe from German Girl in America, which is quite good, but you haven’t had Döner until you’ve had it in Germany! It has permeated every German City and many towns, so by the time we arrived in Berlin we didn’t feel the need to have it again, but I’m quite sure this is where to get the best.

We did, however, have Currywurst. It’s not hard to make at home. Apparently you just mix curry in with your ketchup and spread it over a white Bratwurst.

For the 36 hours we spent there, I certainly felt like I became intimately acquainted with this storied city. “You can go to many places in Europe and see a beautiful city, but when you go to Berlin you see an incredible amount of history which took place in a very short period of time.” I can’t take credit for that sentiment: it came from our tour guide, Tom. An expat from Ohio who immediately finished my sentence when I said “We’re from Roch–,” he’s been living in Germany for over 20 years and has definitely become a European. Further, he probably knows the ins and outs of the city better than most Berliners.

Here are some highlights from our only day in Berlin, and our fabulous tour:

On the way to the meeting place, we crossed the Weidendammer Bridge, which still bears an old Imperial/Prussian Eagle.

We ended up in a small tour group of about six people including our guide. He started off the tour by sitting us down on the bank of the Spree and giving us an extended explanation of German history dating back centuries. While I’ve been busy immersing myself in German history for over a year and a half now, he has decades of study under his belt and yet synthesized it in an animated, fascinating, humorous, and yet respectful way, helping us to understand the Germans better as a people group.

The Spree River in the heart of Berlin

Because of the not-so-distant past (which was little more than 12 years out of two thousand years of history) Germans have learned to tread lightly when it comes to being proud of who they are. But truly, theirs is a vast and rich history, much of which is overlooked by outsiders, yet should not be.

The Bundestag (historically referred to as the “Reischstag” building). After suffering heavy damage during the Battle for Berlin, and laying in disrepair for decades, it was restored after Germany reunified. The dome at the top was completed beneath a shroud and revealed in 1999. Along with a 360 degree view of Berlin, people can walk around and look down on their legislature as it works for them and makes their laws.
Shortcut through Tiergarten (the city’s major park)
Like the building in this image, which still bears scars from the Battle of Berlin (1945), the city itself is pockmarked with history.
It was important for me to touch the building’s scars personally. While it may not appear in Book 3, and I don’t have a clear outline for Book 4 of the GMU Series yet, I fully intend to write about the Battle of Berlin at some point.
As an aside, in Sani, Freddie Smith was originally going to end up in Berlin at the end of the war. However, some quick research informed me that the Americans were not interested in claiming victory over the Hauptstadt, because they knew that it would eventually go to the Soviets anyway. They did, however, make it as far as Leipzig. I knew I wanted Freddie to encounter an American, therefore, to Leipzig he went!
Quite a bit of history at a quiet corner outside the Ministry of Finance on Wilhelmstrasse.
In 1953, workers protested here against the political and economic situation in East Germany.
Soviet tanks were brought in to bring an end to the demonstration, but it led to further strikes and uprisings around the nation.
A famous piece of Socialist artwork that has been preserved at the square.
This is a photo of Anhalter Station, one of the main train stations in Berlin before the Second World War.
Anhalter was severely damaged by Allied bombing during WW2, yet remained operable into the 1950s. Germany has allowed some of the ruins to remain as a memorial.
The memorial to the July 20 conspirators. Hundreds of men were implicated, and though I was familiar with the role Dietrich Bonhoeffer had played in the famous plot to kill Hitler, I had not yet taken time to familiarize myself with von Stauffenberg’s story. Tom highly recommended the movie Valkyrie, and we watched it shortly after returning home.
The photos I had seen online of the Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe did not truly do justice to this sobering piece of artwork. Yes, it is massive, but from this perspective, it looks like nothing but concrete blocks of various sizes.
As you begin to walk into it, the floor descends, and suddenly you are alone between towering, thick concrete walls. Occasionally, you will catch a glimpse of a stranger passing by down the line. It is surreal and disorienting, to say the least. You may begin to make a turn, only to find that a gate bars your way. Brian and I started at the same point but quickly lost each other as we tried to make the trek from one corner to it’s diagonal opposite.

Not only did we take a walking tour that became far more than we paid for and ended in us taking our tour guide out to lunch, we opted for going around on foot instead of trying to figure out the public transportation system. I may have gotten lost and taken us on a very roundabout route back to the Brandenburger Tor, but it was nice to get to see more of the city. Unfortunately, when we did circle back, we were prevented from getting a decent shot of the Gate by a routine cleaning…

We’d have to come back later. Continuing our zig zagging through Berlin, we decided to spend a couple of hours at the Topographie des Terrors (besides the Mauer, this was the one thing I had pinpointed wanting to see as I cut down our time in the Hauptstadt by 3 days in favor of lingering at other locations. I don’t regret giving up time in Berlin, it just encourages me to come back.)

The Topographie is a former Gestapo and SS headquarters that was excavated and preserved as a place of teaching. There is an immense research library that I did not have time to visit, but also indoor and outdoor exhibits. My poor husband, who was exhausted by this time, spent a good deal of time sitting at a table in the cafe figuring out the best way to get from our guest house to the airport the next morning since we’d already turned in our rental car. I walked around the exhibit some more.

A lengthy outdoor exhibition on the history of National Socialism.
The exhibit lies among the ruins of the destroyed headquarters.

We also passed a parking lot full of old Trabants which deserves mention. For those who don’t know, the Trabant was the iconic East German car.

The Trabi museum is on the bucket list for when we revisit with the children.

A section of the Wall also exists adjacent to the Topographie.

In the background you can also see the former Luftwaffe Headquarters (now the Ministry of Finance. Interestingly, this building was so well built that in spite of the heavy bombing inflicted on Berlin during the war, it only sustained minor damage in one corner.)

When we finally headed back to the Brandenburg Gate, thank God, our timing was perfect. And I do mean perfect ❤️

Alas, I wanted to save time for the Wall, and therefore, we headed back toward our Gasthaus and spent some time in the park across the street. It was very surreal to walk so easily through a place where you could have once been shot for trying to do so.

The portion of the wall that ran alongside the street our Gasthaus was on.
In some places, they have removed the wall but leave these in place to remind you where it once stood.
The wall surrounded West Berlin entirely.
A memorial for people who were killed trying to cross from East Berlin into the West.

I long for Berlin. I am sure that part of it is because I have been reading a book that is set in Berlin in 1961, the year the Wall went up. Recently, I read a scene that takes place at the Soviet War Memorial. I remembered so vividly standing right in the midst of that memorial, then walking back through the Gate, and down Unter den Linden. If you know me, you know I started tearing up.

The Soviet War Memorial.

If you want to familiarize yourself with this part of history, I highly recommend this book:

Berliners is written with young adults in mind but it is captivating for an adult reader, and it is well-researched. The author also included some of her beautiful illustrations. I’m only about halfway through but I’ve been enjoying an online book club with the author and about ten other people where we talk about it in depth. It has been of great value. She presents history with honesty through the lives of two teenage boys, Rudi and Peter, as well as examining the past through the lives of the parents of their parents, Rudolf and Ilse, who met during the final days of the Third Reich. This book was just released in October and I believe it’s going to be hugely successful.

I mentioned Wedding earlier. As I said, we didn’t take time in that part of the city. It has always been a poor area, and was even a slum back in the early part of the last century. From what I’ve read, and feel free to correct me if I’m way off, it sounds like it is experiencing a little bit of urban revival because rent is cheap and younger professionals are able to afford to move in, and others come in to start businesses.

I don’t know if this would be a place conducive to starting a little coffee/tea shop, but allow me to indulge while I fantasize about renting a space and doing just that, including a little stage where people can play music and read poetry. Maybe I would name it CofTea (or KafTee) like I used to talk about with my Uncle Kevin. Maybe we could have a little language club where people could practice their English. Oh, and a corner for a little church to meet, a la the Gemeinde in The Prodigal Sons, although not in a living room…

But I digress. Thank you for indulging me. Moving to Germany may not be in the plan, but returning is.

This is me not wanting to leave, and planning how we can get back next year.

Until next time, readers! Auf wiedersehen!

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