So, here I sit at the end of Day 3, which involved nothing more than eating, hanging out with girl friends, and experiencing a German spa day, which, while definitely interesting, challenging, and very, very different from my normal comfort zone, isn’t something I want to discuss much on this blog, since, well, my parents and colleagues read it. 🙂 I did have Schnitzl at dinner. It was amazing. So, check that one off the list. Gluhwein has yet to be consumed.
So let’s go back to yesterday and the safer ground of being a tourist in Berlin. Sarah and I decided to take a 4-hour excursion via Original Berlin Walks, which I highly recommend. Our tour guide, Torben, was native German, but grew up in Long Island, and was full of facts and opinions about Berlin’s history. He took us all over the center part of the city, mostly on the Eastern side, dizzying us with the changes of regimes, and chancellors, and ministers, etc. We saw Museum Island, the Reichstag, the Branderberg Gate, Checkpoint Charlie (now a joke of a tourist trap), a glimpse of the Wall, and lots of palaces and grand buildings, most of them under construction.
In fact, it felt like the whole city is under construction. It’s hard to fathom how much change has been wrought here…through wars and revolutions…and I found myself marveling at the fact that, despite everything being in flux, this city is still pretty vibrant and interesting. Our tour guide put it best when he said that (paraphrasing) each generation negotiates it’s history. With every tale of a grand building that was built, bombed, restored, razed, and built again, I wondered at how hard it must be to define what it means to be German today. We Americans and our foolish national identity issues need to get over ourselves.
I was also struck at how there is probably nothing of the Berlin I visited back in 1997 left…at least not in the tourist sections. They’ve replaced the “American Sector” sign with a replica…I suspect I didn’t even see the real thing then. I remembered nothing…even the Brandenberg Gate seemed different.
The most moving places were Neue Washe, one of the saddest memorials I’ve ever seen, dedicated to the victims of “War and Tyranny.” (It’s had many names and this seems to be the latest one.) And then, Babelplatz, the site of a 1933 burning of 20,000 books by students inspired by Third Reich fervor. This one struck me particularly hard, mostly because of the understated nature of the memorial (empty bookshelves buried underneath the grand plaza) and because I can feel the pressure of those, even now in my country, who are just a few steps away from such insanity.
But the moment where I felt a ghostly shiver up my spine came when we stood in the Brandenberg Tor subway station, and our tour guide told us the tale of how trains from the West would come through these stations, which had been sealed off to prevent East Berliners from escaping to the West, slowly and carefully chugging through, not stopping, while the occasional guard patrolled or empty platforms slid eerily by.
It’s hard to fathom the lengths that the East German government and the Soviets employed to keep this sector of the city walled off. In retrospect, it seems like a colossal waste of time and energy, and a completely false and unnecessary division perpetuated by pride and foolishness. But it was very real. It did very real things to the people of Germany. I guess I just felt like we shouldn’t bandy talk about “building walls” too casually when this history isn’t even a century old.
Enough with the soapbox…let’s talk food! Sarah and I had a lovely Chinese/asian late lunch/early dinner at Chi Chi Kan – Berlin is pretty cheap, such a nice change from Boston! Tip for those traveling here – the unwritten “rules” are that you have to ask for your check before you will get it, you should tip about 10% if the service is good, and you will need to tell the server how much you want them to take from you, rather than wait for them to bring you change and the make up the tip from the change.
Anyway, later on in the evening we met up with Jenn for snacks and wine at another cute/cozy (seriously, Europe has that combination down, no question) restaurant, and I marveled again at how the freshness and gorgeous presentation of food here can make even tiny little bits of food seem substantial. We actually sent our bread basket back, and I wasn’t too sad about it. That’s big for a carb-o-holic like me.
Tomorrow, we’ll be back out being tourists and I’m sure I’ll have more pictures to share. Thanks for coming along to Berlin with me.