Thursday, September 15, 2011

Berlin, Abruptly

The debacle of the end of my holiday notwithstanding, my few days in Berlin were amazing.  The city is, apparently, famous for its wild and crazy nightlife; I, of course, didn't know this, and my evenings were correspondingly relatively tame.  The days, naturally, were filled with culture and history.

On our first day in Berlin we went to an open-air Turkish market (the Germans have a very complicated history with Turkish immigrants, who make up the largest minority group in that country) where we wandered the stalls and watched some buskers playing folk music until it started to rain on us.

We also visited the Jewish Museum.  The museum's narrative starts almost two thousand years ago, when Jews first settled in what would become Germany, and it traces the stories of German Jews from medieval times all the way through to the present day.  Of course, there is an concentrated focus on World War II and the Holocaust, and the first exhibition you go through traces the horrors that German Jews faced in the mid-20th century.  The architecture of the museum, especially below ground, is really interesting; the most powerful room was the "voided void" which is oddly angular, unheated, and unlit except for a sliver of natural light that falls from a corner of the ceiling.  The room - and indeed the museum itself - is supposedly open to interpretation, which I think makes the experience even more intense.

We spent Wednesday morning in the Pergamon Museum, which is world-famous for its trove of archeological findings.  People who look at art only through their camera lenses really bug me, so I didn't take many pictures, but I did snap one of a simple Egyptian sculpture that I loved:

That afternoon, we stopped by a few vintage clothing stores - I was teased by a gorgeous pair of cowboy boots that I unfortunately couldn't afford - and in the evening we grabbed Italian for dinner and stopped by a smoke-filled bar which was populated mostly by desperately attractive boys in skinny jeans.  (The jury's out on whether it was a gay bar or not - my gaydar is terrible in Europe, where men are generally trendier than they are in the States regardless of their sexual orientation.)

On Thursday I joined a hostel-led 6-hour bike tour of the city.  (The next day: ouch.)  We went all over the place and I learned a ton.  Did you know that 95% of Berlin was bombed during World War II?  In London, you'll find pre-war buildings right up next to modern structures; a bomb would fall on one house but not its neighbor, which means that London, especially in the south and east, is very interesting architecturally.  You do see that a bit in Berlin, but the Allies were very thorough.  One building still standing is the former headquarters of the Nazi airforce - it was used as an arial landmark for bombers, and so they couldn't destroy it because if they did they'd lose their orientation!  Also, I learned why East Berlin is the hip and happening part of town: because the Americans more or less controlled West Berlin, it was rebuilt immediately after the war, whereas East Berlin wasn't really free for experimentation until the wall came down in 1989, which means that it's a lot funkier.

We went to Checkpoint Charlie, which is a total dramatization of the actual thing as it was torn down two decades ago.  There are horror stories about people trying unsuccessfully to flee to West Berlin from East Berlin; the worst I heard was that while attempting escape a 17 year old boy was fatally shot in the dead zone and because he was right in the middle of the two sides neither the Americans nor the Russians would go to help him and he bled out right there on the ground in front of the soldiers.  There are success stories, too, of course; there was one about a young man who helped his East Berliner girlfriend into West Berlin by finding a car that was so small it could fit under the barriers at the checkpoint and they drove right through.  The wall itself, nowadays, is very unimpressive and most of it has been taken by souvenir-hunters, but I took a photos of what's left for posterity's sake.

We biked through Mitte, the central district, and walked through the Brandenburg Gate to the Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe (more commonly called the Holocaust Memorial).

Again, the architect of the Holocaust Memorial says that its design is open to interpretation; I like the idea that the slabs are gravestones.  When you walk through the memorial you feel completely isolated, and in the middle there's even a slight shift in temperature and sound, as if you're not where you started in any sense.  It's very powerful.

We also visited the Reichstag - just the outside, as you need to book way in advance if you want to go in for a tour - and another war memorial and museum island.

I was a bit touristed out on Friday, and so spent the day wandering around Prenzlauer Berg, which is sort of the Notting Hill of Berlin.  I was entranced by the gorgeous apartment buildings on quiet tree-lined streets - lovely!

I stayed in Prenzlauer Berg on Friday evening, and I found the opening concert of musikfest berlin 2011, which was in a beautiful church.  I heard Wolfgang Rihm's reqiuem Et Lux; composed in 2009, it was greatly influenced by the work of the 16th century Italian compose Gesualdo.  The octet of singers, accompanied by a sing quintet, was sublime.  We all applauded enthusiastically - and then awarded all concerned a standing ovation when Rihm himself appeared out of the audience and greeted the maestro and the musicians!  It was a truly beautiful evening, and I have to say that I really found a welcome sense of peace in the music, although it may have simply been resignation to the situation in which I found myself.  Regardless, I'm glad I went to that church; it was centering.

I flew back home at the crack of dawn the next morning and - well, I think you're mostly caught up on that now, aren't you?  I might take a day off so that Jon and I can have a long weekend to celebrate our anniversary next month, but other than that my next holiday isn't till Thanksgiving, when we head back to Washington.  If I can find even a few days to be somewhere hot and sunny in the next six months I'll be a very happy woman!


  1. So glad to see your Berlin holiday was so productive! Just wanted to chime in and say that I *loved* Berlin, so I love it when other people appreciate it, too! Such a unique place, ya know?

  2. I have to book our flights soon (maybe this weekend?) for Thanksgiving in DC, too! Kind of dreading it, gonna cost a mint! Otherwise looking forward to turkey, pumpkin pie, family, and my old friend the District of Columbia. :-) Good luck sorting out your November trip!

  3. Fun! I would love to spend more time in Berlin -- I was only there a few hours. Sounds like you had a blast!


I love reading your thoughts and suggestions! Please do leave a comment so we can get to know each other better.