Berlin. What can I say?
You’re really nice. Really. You’re cool and dark and edgy. But the fact is that I’m just not going to love every place I visit. It’s nothing personal, it’s just that my artistic romanticism feels crushed by your stoic demeanor. I hope we can still be friends.
I’ll admit, I don’t love Berlin. I don’t hate it or anything; it’s just not a place I click with. I came in with a good attitude and an open mind, but after the magical beauty and historic charm of Prague, Berlin just…kind of fell flat.
The city itself gives me a slightly cold feeling. There have been a number of places I’ve visited that feel like they blend historic architecture and modern amenities seamlessly. In Belgrade, Budapest & Dublin, it just works. In Berlin, it feels forced.
New Berlin has recently emerged as an alternative contemporary with edgy street art and a burgeoning music scene. But walk through the city and you’ll see construction everywhere as they work to rebuild historic buildings, which just don’t fit with the rest of the city’s ambiance.
Not that I’m not having a good time. I’m Couchsurfing with a wonderful host who cooks gourmet meals for his guests just because he likes to make people happy. So far I’ve had duck l’orange, sausage & veggie fritata, a fruit-filled crepe with reduced red wine & whiskey sauce, and tandoori masala chicken with shiitake mushrooms chopped in bacon. Yeah, it’s a far cry from the cheap street food I’ve been living off of for the past month.
I’m staying next to a little biergarten that has live music most nights. There’s a U (subway) right on the corner, and Berlin does have easy-to-use public transportation. There are cool things like clothes dryers that dry my clothes in 7 minutes (I mean…whaaat?!) and you can get a liter of wine for 3 euros. I do like the little neighborhood outside of the city that I’m staying in, but for some reason I’m just not that inspired by the city itself.
And really, it’s not Berlin’s fault; I take full responsibility. A girl I was Couchsurfing with said “Berlin is best at night,” and I have to agree. Problem is, I’m not much for nightlife these days. I enjoy loud, smokey clubs about as much as a nice root canal without Novocaine. Techno, house music & electronica give me migraines, and I loathe crowded dance floors where I have to touch people I don’t know (yes, I know, I have a weird hangup about touching strangers, but it’s just one of my idiosyncrasies).
But hey, I figured, I was in Berlin so I’d give it a shot. The first night we went to (err, tried to go to) the famous underground. I was not impressed. It was basically a madhouse of dirt, public intoxication, smoke, drugs, and swarms of people. And every single club had a minimum 2 hour wait to get in.
I’m sorry, but unless Ryan Gosling is waiting in there to make out with me, there is nothing that could possibly be inside a graffiti-covered concrete building worth standing in line for 2 hours.
Patience is not one of my virtues. Finally, around 4:30 am, we gave up after using a dumpster as a bathroom. Again.
The next night we decided to go to a real club. One with its own bathroom. We found a reasonably upscale-looking place, the E4 Club Berlin. I tried to put on my happy face for the rest of the group, but I’ll admit, my attitude was not great. My idea of a good time does not include paying $15 to get into a place with absolutely nowhere to sit down unless you spring for VIP. Or paying $5 for the world’s tiniest warm beer.
(It was around this time that I realized my whole “go wherever other travelers suggest” philosophy might need to be modified to take age and priorities into consideration. As in, I should probably stop taking travel advice from 20 year-old, club hopping Inter-railers. No offense.)
I’m not meaning to trash this club, because I’m sure it’s a very cool venue if you enjoy this kind of thing. They had some talented dancers breaking it down on platforms and white balloons strung up all around the balcony railings. Taking them off and watching them float down to hit the dancers in the head kept me occupied for an hour or two. Nelly, my co-Couchsurfer, informed me that the music was really good. I was just proud of myself for staying awake until 5 am TWO nights in a row. I survived the club scene.
Next stop, the Topography of Terror (former headquarters of the Secret Police & the SS during the Third Reich, now a museum) and the Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe. Obviously not pleasant experiences or great photographic opportunities, but undeniably important parts of Berlin’s history. I was surprised at how moved I was by the memorial tributes. I’m not easily shocked but reading a letter written by an SS soldier to his wife in which he describes shooting babies out of their mothers’ arms will haunt me for the rest of my life.
I saw the Berlin Wall East Side Gallery and the Warsaw tribute. I meandered through Alexanderplatz, the bustling center. I explored Charlottenburg Palace and the exquisite gardens, and took a free walking tour provided by Sandeman’s, which was the most interesting and informative tour I’ve been on yet. But, even a beautiful palace and a fantastic tour guide weren’t enough to make me love Berlin.
While I may not exactly love Berlin, I do have a great respect for the city. The ugly parts of German history are never forgotten or swept under the rug. Rather, they are exhibited as a constant reminder of past mistakes. Schoolchildren are taken to the concentration camps and not spared the gritty details. This is not done to shame, but to educate.
This is what impresses me most about Germany in general. Many countries try to deny or forget past atrocities. I can say that, as an American, I’ve often had the attitude that sure, slavery was a bad thing, but it didn’t have anything to do with ME. My personal ancestors never kept slaves or anything, so why should I feel guilty about something other people did years ago?
Berlin has helped me to understand that the point of remembering isn’t to transfer guilt; it’s to make sure that it never happens again.
“Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.” – George Santayana
So…Berlin isn’t my favorite city. But even though I can’t say that I connected with it, I still gained a lot in terms of knowledge and understanding. I also had some invaluable practice in dealing with personality clashes, but more on that later. 🙂
I don’t mean to offend or discourage anyone from visiting the city. I know lots of people who absolutely love Berlin, and just because I didn’t “get it” doesn’t mean you won’t!