Tuesday, March 13th, 2012
Berlin was so awesome! Like, seriously. So awesome.
As I write this I am sitting in the bar of my new hostel in Amsterdam. I arrived about an hour ago and have just settled down for a beer and some map gazing to acclimatize myself to Amsterdam. This post however, is going to be about looking back at my all too brief time in Berlin.
Berlin was really, really cool. I may be repeating myself, but I really want to stress this. Where to start? First of all, I am finally (FINALLY) back in a country where I can reasonably expect to be able to communicate with anyone in English. I would compare this feeling to the feeling of taking a huge breath of fresh air after being in a particularly dirty turkish prison washroom. What I mean to say is, it is a relief. So with a new-found spring in my step (and thoroughly enjoying the mild ten degree above weather) I set out to explore Berlin.
My first day was spent settling in to my hostel (shower, shave, map gazing – much the same as what I am doing right now in Amsterdam). After I got settled I went for my customary recon walk. Consulting my map, I figured I could follow the river Spree, which runs though the heart of Berlin, all the way to Tiergarten Park. At the time I was totally unaware of the significance of this area – I just like parks. I got there and made my way to the Brandenburg Gate. Not entirely ignorant of European history (but almost) I had at least heard of Brandenburg gate and knew it was a historical monument of some significance. I’d like to just quickly mention that during my time in Berlin I learned a great deal about the city’s history and the significance of its many buildings and monuments. I will not elaborate on the history of these places in this entry for two reasons 1) if you are interested in learning about these places a simple google search of their names will tell you way more than I could and 2) I am terrified of making a mistake and feeling foolish when I discover my error after all my family and friends have read it. That being said, if there is a monument with a particularly poignant meaning or humorous anecdote associated with it I may relate that to you. Right then, on with my account of Berlin. The Brandenburg gate was interesting not only for its historical and cultural significance, but also for the awesome people watching opportunities it provided, being surround by tourists at pretty much all hours of the day.
After the Gate I walked a short distance and found the Reichstag. The Reichstag was a singularly fascinating building, made even more so by the fact that it is yet another building that I have visited in a videogame. As I gazed at the imposing architecture, munching on the absolutely delicious giant pretzel I had just purchased, I reflected on the time I (virtually) stormed the stairs of this building in the climactic final level of Call of Duty: World at War, before being repeatedly burned alive by the flamethrower-wielding Nazi who would jump out from behind one of the pillars near the entrance as I approached. I saw some young children frolicking towards that very pillar and I broke into a dead sprint, attempting to reach them before the flamethrower Nazi could cause them harm, when I was brought to my senses by the metal barriers and ticket windows that blocked my path.
The next day was Sunday and I decided to visit the concentration camp just north of town. Sachsenhausen, as it is called, was a forced labor camp composed of mainly political prisoners, common criminals, Jehovah’s Witness and of course, Gypsies and Jews. While it was not an extermination camp like Auschwitz, it was still a solemn and disturbing place to visit. Even though the extermination of Jews was not the objective of the camp, random violence, torture, human experimentation and murder did occur on an apparently shocking scale. I had never been to a concentration camp before, but I have to say Sachsenhausen lived up to my expectations of what a visit to one of these sites would be like. What brought it home for me more than anything I saw or read during the tour was how half of my tour group – including the guide – was choking back tears at several points in the tour. Even after all these years and being as far removed from the horrors of that time as we (the young people of my generation) are, the site was still able to stir up such powerful feelings of sadness and empathy for the victims of the place even after 3 generations.
For day three of my stay in Berlin I decided it was time to take one of the free tours that are offered in many European cities. The tour lasted about 4 hours and covered a lot of awesome sights in Berlin. I really can’t go into detail about all of them, because I simply don’t have enough time or enough beer left in my glass. Let me cover a few of the highlights that I would tell anyone who was planning a trip to Berlin that they simply must see. First is the Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe. I recommend taking a second to google this, or else wait a few weeks for me to post the video of my trip and then watch it. The memorial was a huge area (maybe the size of a building) that was essentially a field of gray concrete blocks of various heights. The monument comes with no explanation or description – it is left for each person who visits it to decide how to think and feel about it. Another site we saw is the place where Hitler committed suicide (it is now a parking lot, if you were wondering). The bunker he was in when it happened was too well-built to be properly demolished, so the area above ground is not suitable for the foundation of a proper building, concordantly Hitler’s place of death is now a parking lot. Another place that will stick with me is Bebelplatz. This is the location where the Nazis burned thousands of books after their rise to power. The monument in this place is really thought-provoking. Beneath the sidewalk there is a huge white room with floor to ceiling white bookshelves (empty bookshelves that could contain up to 20,000 books). The room is totally sealed but you can look down into through a glass window set into the sidewalk at the empty space and the hundreds of empty shelves and reflect on the loss of the 20,000 books they could have held.
Having thoroughly enjoyed my time in Berlin I woke up this morning and used the incredibly efficient and punctual public transportation system (Berlin’s transit system might be one of the only transit systems, in any country that I’ve been to, that I would be happy to rely on) to get to the airport for my flight to Amsterdam. I’ve only been in Amsterdam for a few hours now, but already I have the feeling that this city will be more exciting and involve much more drinking than any other stop on my Europe tour. For one thing, I am planning on visiting the ‘Heinenken Experience’ – which is a tour of a former Heineken brewery (two drinks included FREE with admission!). Secondly, my hostel is clearly a party hostel – the table I am sitting at faces the glassed-in smoking room (and it isn’t cigarette smoke that wafts out at me when someone goes in or out) – and there is a bar in the basement.
Unfortunately you will have to wait a few days for my update on my adventures in Amsterdam! Stay posted though!
That’s all for now