Sunday, February 24, 2013


I'm Tweeting the Oscars, because I'm all up on social media and whatnot. Also, I have wine. That was the other significant factor. Come play with me - @newglitterati

Touristy Things - Berlin

I'll preface this by saying that it's 1:45pm on a Sunday, and I am still in my pajamas. 

Drinking a beer.

It's been a long couple of weeks.

I'm drinking a Koko Brown Ale brewed with toasted coconut while listening to the Bailamos! music channel on Direct TV and fantasizing about the fact that, 30 days from now, I'll be lying on a beach in Mexico. My delicious brewed treat and the "spicy, hot Latin rhythms" are wistful attempts at trying to cure my serious case of Seasonal Losing The Will To Live, a phenomenon that affects myself and pretty much everyone I know, usually occurring in late February and lasting until Daylight Savings Time ends or one finds oneself facedown in a basket of Cadbury Eggs and jelly beans. This year seems to have hit me particularly hard.

Maybe it's because it's my first winter with my boyfriend living overseas, and winter sucks anyway. Maybe it's because it has been so freakishly cold in Baltimore this winter that I have had NOT ONE BUT TWO frightening bloody noses during long outdoor runs. Maybe it's because my skin feels like a lizard's, my hair is so staticky that I can charge my cell phone on it, or because I have somehow had the two busiest work weeks I think I've ever had in my entire life. Maybe it's because I miss my boyfriend, no one (including me) wants to leave the house because it's miserable outside, and I'm caught up on Downton Abbey and Glee and have already read March's Book Club book, crocheted two scarves, baked all of the old brownie mixes I could find in the cabinet, and JUST WANT IT TO BE F*CKING SPRING ALREADY. 

Yep, it's probably that.

My upcoming trips to Albuquerque to visit The Gentleman's family and then our subsequent week-long vacation to Cancun are still just far enough away to feel like a distant fantasy. For now, despite my attempts to create a little spring break feel with coconut ale and Tito Puente jams, I'll stop feeling miserably sorry for myself and take you back to our post-New Year's Eve trip to Berlin. Because nothing breaks you out of a nasty spell of Seasonal Losing The Will To Live like reminders of the Holocaust.

After spending five days in Prague, The Gentleman and I boarded a train on January 2 and headed to Berlin. I finally got to resurrect my rusty German language skills by ordering drinks in the diner car, and we traded in our Czech Kroner for Euros. 

It had been ten years since the last time I was in Berlin. In 2002, I was still in college and thought there was nothing potentially life-threatening about staying in shoddy hostels. I was in love with another American exchange student and trying to convince him to break up with his long-term girlfriend while simultaneously making him jealous with Christian, my German pseudo-boyfriend who followed me around and later air mailed me long letters in German that I only half-attempted to translate. On that trip, we toured Potsdam Palace, Buchenwald concentration camp, Irish pubs that catered solely to American college students, and every Burger King that was still open after midnight.

This time, ten years later and at 30 instead of 20, we stayed at a Marriott, ate free breakfasts in the Executive Lounge, and went to bed before 11pm because we were tired from going to museums all day. 

It was quite a different experience.

While Berlin is still a city in transition, what struck me on this trip is how deeply committed this city is to preserving the, quite frankly, horrifying memories of the past. Berlin is unapologetic about the horrors that occurred here in the sense that while the rest of Germany sometimes seems comfortable with focusing on the rich history of Germanic culture viewed in pastoral garden scenes, Berlin is a living museum of scars it has incorporated into the cityscape. There are pieces of the wall displayed everywhere, reminders of a divided city. There are signs and memorials, and shadows of bombed buildings that will purposely never be repaired but left to stand as reminders.

Cranes are a default part of the cityscape of Berlin.
That's not to say that Berlin is still war-torn. In fact, I have been to the city three times (1999, 2002, and now 2013) and seen, over the span of that 14 years, how much Berlin has grown. There are cozy, beautiful little neighborhoods that seem more like the East Village, with cafes and pretty lights strung in trees and artwork in the windows of small galleries. There are lively, touristy jazz clubs and inviting bars on every corner. There's upscale shopping and a luxury district boasting labels that declare Berlin a fashion capital like Milan or Paris. Berlin is an industrious, busy, fast-moving city with a LOT to offer.

But smack in the middle of things are monuments, plaques, photos, museums, and even beer gardens dedicated to never forgetting one of the darkest periods of modern human history. Berlin is New York City with graveyards never completely out of the line of sight. It celebrates human ingenuity and creativity and offers the best that all great cities have, but it will never stop reminding you of what happened here in the last century. Nor should it.

There were two newish museums/memorials that we had the great fortune of being able to get to on this trip - the Topography of Terror Museum (opened in 2010) and the Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe (2005). 

The Topography of Terror Museum is located about a mile to the south of the Brandenburg Tor and is easily walkable. In fact, we only used cabs to get to the hotel from the train station, once late at night to get back to the hotel, and then to go to the airport. The rest of the time, we used the subway (or U-bahn) system. I'm not gonna lie - Berlin is not an English-friendly city, and unless you know a handful of German, it can be a little difficult to interpret the subway system. Mostly because the streets are all called things like "Friederichsburgstrasse" which is completely different from "Freiderichsdamstrasse" which is completely different from "Friederischplatzstrasse." But most major sights are within about a mile radius of the city center, if you map the center as the Tor. Even though it was freezing cold and rainy the entire time we were there, we still hoofed it the majority of the time. This also allows you to pick up mulled wine (because YES THEY TOTALLY SELL THAT ON STREET CORNERS HERE, TOO!) and walk around with it. 

I don't think I'll ever get over the travesty that Baltimore doesn't have warm, to-go alcoholic beverages on street corners.

Speaking of travesty, maybe I should stop digressing with the First World Problems and focus on the horrors of human history:

The Topography of Terrors museum is a an outdoor memorial with an accompanying indoor exhibit. The site is where the Gestapo and SS offices existed from 1933-1945, and the exhibit walks you through the timeline of Nazi rule of Germany.

Running alongside the outer perimeter of the outdoor exhibit is a preserved section of the Berlin wall atop the  existing cellar walls of what was formerly the Gestapo and SS offices. 
Preserved section of the Berlin wall showing the construction of  the wall. This is most likely a piece of the "Fourth Generation" wall, which was the fourth construction made to resist people attempting to drive their vehicles THROUGH the wall. 


I didn't take any pictures inside the Terror Museum - and now I can't remember if it was because you couldn't or simply because it was packed wall-to-wall with people. The exhibit inside is an in-depth narrative told through pictures, newspaper articles, propaganda posters and text that explains the seepage of the Nazi regime into powerful positions and eventually into complete control. Nazi ideals were at first embraced and accepted to some extent, or at least piqued the curiosity of German citizens, because it promised jobs, health care, productivity, and a beautiful nationalism that had been shattered in the first World War. This fact astonished me with its familiar parallels of the infiltration of Communism. In fact, much of the propaganda (posters showing athletic and pretty young German folk engaging in hard work, exercise, or ritual love of country) looks pretty much the same. Just a different logo. And the whole "Jews are the devil" mentality thing. 

I mentioned before that travel during the holidays in Europe requires getting up early, and Berlin is no exception. We tried to go to the Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe when we arrived on Wednesday afternoon around 4pm, and the line was a 45 minute wait ( the rain) just to get into the museum. When we came back the next morning at 9am, we got right in and enjoyed the exhibit without ten million people.

But you can walk around the outside part of the memorial at any time. It's a confusing labyrinth of coffin-like structures, and standing in the center of it, it's almost completely void of any signs that you're in the middle of a major city. It's eerily quiet, dark, and very much like a cemetery.

As you walk, the pathways dip so that at times, the coffin-like  "stelae", which are traditional funeral commemoration structures. But there are no names, and no information about the millions of murdered Jews on any of these "stelae." It's an enormous, anonymous graveyard.

 The anonymity of the outside memorial is completely shattered with the exhibit inside. The primary theme of the museum is to put a personal and human face on the Holocaust, and focuses on the stories of individuals and families. Photographs, diary entries, interviews with survivors, and an incredible collection of facts about the concentration camps, the horrible tortures Jews from all over Europe were forced to face, and personal accounts of truly terrifying events are displayed in an incredible museum. The architecture of the museum, which is located directly below the outdoor memorial, reflects the stelae above. The ceilings rise and dip with stelae dropping down where they extend up on the street level. So much thought went into every inch of this memorial and museum. I highly, highly, HIGHLY recommend getting the audio tour. It's 4 Euros and adds another dimension and guide to the exhibit, which can be a little overwhelming at first.

There are far more disturbing parts of the exhibit - like the stories of women and children being asked to take off their clothes and stand in front of a pit that they've just spent exhausting hours digging, and then being shot so that they fall into the pit which becomes the mass grave site. There are stories of families with only one or two surviving members, postcards thrown off of trains by prisoners headed to death camps, diary entries by children separated from their parents, witnesses of "gas vans" that drove through the cities and murdered Jews in mobile death chambers.

It was definitely a change from the first half of our vacation, which had consisted mostly of street meat and copious liquor. 

One of the museums we visited is an old favorite of mine - I've been twice before, and it's one of the most fascinating (albeit cramped, crowded, and overly heated) museums I've ever been to. Checkpoint Charlie is located at what was once the crossing point from East to West Berlin, which you might recognize from this infamous signage (a replica):

A festive holiday tree sits where, at one point, there was a "loophole" for Eastern bloc citizens to escape to the West. You can get some fun passport stamps at this site for about 10 Euros. My nerdy boyfriend was incredibly excited to get his passport stamped up with defunct country stamps:

The Gentleman attempts to make the crossing. By paying 10 Euroes for this actor in a former Bloc uniform to stamp up his passport. Ahhhh, touristy things!

The Checkpoint Charlie museum is hot, crowded, and fascinating. It's full of replicas and original pieces of all the crazy contraptions people built to attempt to scale, dig under, ram through, or otherwise get over the Berlin Wall. It also is a museum dedicated to telling the story of the Wall's inception, political circumstances, the Cold War, and has an entire room dedicated to Ronald Reagan. Apparently the diplomacy behind yelling at Gorbachev to "TEAR DOWN THIS WALL" earns you a room to yourself in a museum.

Piece of the wall preserved at Checkpoint Charlie


And don't forget to tip your server.
You can't go to Berlin and not see the Brandenburg Tor or the Reichstag. You just can't. It is verboten.

We didn't actually get to go inside the Reichstag, because we got there too late in the day and the lines to get in were hours long. At some point, I'll make it in there!

Ahhh, 1970's-era Eastern bloc cars. Actually, these could be 1980's Western luxury cars for all I know. I just thought they were cool.

Since The Gentleman and I enjoy going to the tops of very tall things, on our last night in Berlin I insisted that we hop a train up to Alexanderplatz to go to the top of the Fernseh Tower.

Fernseh Tower photobomb

Like most tall-building excursions, this involves very expensive tickets, getting a time ticket, waiting in a long line, and getting into very fast and cramped elevator to go to the top.
But UNLIKE other tall-building excursions, this one has a bar at the top!
There is a restaurant too, but you have to make reservations about ten years in advance. I'd recommend making a reservation now if you're planning a trip to Europe before 2023.

We were there at night, which made for an incredible in-person panorama and terrible photos.

The top is a giant circle you can walk around. With a bar in it. Berlin doesn't want you to get thirsty. 
Oh, Berlin. How I love you.
On this trip, we only had three days in Berlin and I wish we'd had more. It was such a different experience to visit the city as an adult where my tastes have shifted away from dancing until 4am at diskoteques and more towards the disappointment that we didn't get to go to Ganymed Brasserie for drinks or spend much time in the artsy districts. Ah, well. Next time.

And now, while I go crack open another Koko Brown and turn the heat up to 80 degrees so I can walk around in shorts, I'll leave you with some photos of various places in Berlin.

AMAZING club/bar near the Fernseh Tor where we waited until our turn to head to the top

Inside a subway car

Curry is awesome anywhere, but why not try some at the Wall?!

Multi-cultural festive tree outside of Checkpoint Charlie

Drinks at Catwalk

Train Station at Potsdamer Platz

Night street scene near Potsdamer Platz

Apparently this is an event venue. Freiheit means "freedom" in the sense of "liberty" in German. I don't get it.



Speedy U-bahn

Christmas market outside the Potsdam train station featuring a snow tube hill!

All good things must come to an end. And by end, I mean drinks.

Speaking of - the next installment shall be all about alcohol. Hooray!