My biggest hope when booking a mid-March trip to Berlin had been for positive temperatures. I had not expected I’d be able to forego wearing tights. Springtime in Europe happens quickly, and out of season.
On a sunny afternoon in Brussels, I boarded the hot airport bus from Schuman, which took 15 minutes to pack on all its weary evening passengers. As the next – empty – bus drew up alongside us, lines from that infamous Alanis song came to mind. I gripped the bar and prepared for a 30-minute standing journey on the revolving platform in the middle of the bus. I didn’t care though – sunshine in March and a four-day weekend lay ahead.
Thanks to supercheap EasyJet flights, I had my first experience of Brussels main airport. I’d never been out this way before. Passing the Peugeot caryard reminded me of Dad, and thoughts of home again arose seeing the huge dunes of sawdust (?) at the factories and mills along the way, similar to the drive from Tauranga city to Mt Maunganui when I was young.
The airport was an obstacle course, even without having to check in or check luggage. When she came to visit me in January, Claire gave me a vivid description of the place that had frankly scared me – neverending travelators, multiple levels, and a fight to get out. It’s all true. With security the way it is nowadays you have to undress and pack and re-pack your luggage about three times as well, so it was with relief that I finally sat down to a coffee at Starbucks (small selection at the airport). The relief faded somewhat when I realised I’d paid almost 5 euros for coffee without free wifi (step it up, Starbucks!).
After more stairs and queues and being told to squash everything into one bag (to my amusement, the loudspeaker repeatedly announced that “EasyJet policy is for only one handbag or ladypurse!“), I watched the red ball sun sink in the clear spring sky, tuning out the voices of the young Americans on holiday behind me having the same conversations I’ve had once, many times before with my own friends. Turning away from the sky for a moment in the scramble to get a seat, I missed the sunset – it sinks so fast near the end.
Five hours after leaving work in Brussels and one fight with an antiquated German ticket machine later, Claire and a visiting Australian met me at Alexanderplatz station. Claire wasted no time in showing me her favourite bars.
First stop was Weinerei, where you pay an initial 2 euros for an empty glass then pour yourself a full one from a selection of open bottles on the bar (tasting is encouraged). At the end, you decide how much to pay based on what you think the wine was worth and how much you’ve consumed. Seems like a fairly loose concept to me but the bar was pumping on a Wednesday night and business is apparently only getting better.
After some vino and speed talking, we carried on to Claire’s other favourite place, Kim Bar. Newly renovated and with a reasonable clientele for the evening, we chatted to the owner while Steely Dan played over the sound system (“Steely Dan is great in a bar”, the owner smiled). I learnt that if your bar is small enough in Berlin, people can still smoke in it (not that anyone appeared to pay attention to the four-year-old smoking ban anyway), based on the rationale that it’s too much of a cost to build a separate smoking room for customers. I’m so glad New Zealand has left this tradition behind and I don’t have to wash everything I’m wearing after going out to clubs. Around 2am, we decided it was probably time for me and my little suitcase to settle down for the night, and took a taxi home.
Claire had to work on Thursday, so it was a good day for me to see all the touristy things she didn’t want to see for the hundredth time. I walked past the Siegessaule (‘ziegerzoiler’ is how I thought of it – no aptitude for German) through the Tiergarten and to Brandenburg Gate, where a free walking tour started in front of Starbucks. (True story – the same coffee order that I’d had at Brussels airport cost 2 euros less in Berlin.)
For the next four hours (!), we were confidently led around some of Berlin’s key tourist sites by an Irishman with some excellent stories. While it was grey when we started, the sun came out to play by the end.
The memorial to the murdered Jews of Europe (by Peter Eisermann, 2005) is made up of 2,711 grey stone blocks, all with the same “footprint” on the ground but of varying dimensions. From our guide, I understood that the point of its relative “bareness” is that it’s open to interpretation – it can mean what you want it to mean. It reminded me of gravestones, and someone said it was like a maze you can’t get lost in – much like the Jews may have felt in Occupied Europe. The memorial would need to be replicated 2,241 times to represent the six million Jews on a one-for-one basis. The German word Vergangenheitsbewältigung was mentioned as an impetus for the memorial: it loosely translates to “the phenomenon of the struggle of trying to come to terms with the past”.
The Berlin Wall, which was more like an enclosure of West Berlin within East Germany, actually constituted two layers. Officially called “the anti-fascist protective rampart, construction of the outer layer (above) was started in 1961 with a fence and became concrete by 1965. In 1962, a second, inner fence was laid, creating a death strip no-man’s-land covered in sand, to readily identify footprints. The wall was finished white, so that potential escapees could be easily spotted against it, and the top of it was a smooth tube, making it difficult to grip.
Our guide explained that only 150 people had died from crossing the wall, and 5,000 had escaped. He told a great story about a guy who had worked as a janitor in the East German authorities’ building right next to this piece of the wall, who escaped to West Berlin by ziplining in an office chair with his wife and child from the top of the building. This really illustrated to me the lengths people went to to escape the into the west.
From the end of the tour, I walked across the river Spree and through Hackescher Market (terrible pizza). Headed for the war memorial, I walked through street after uncrowded street of pastel-coloured housing blocks and cute cafes.
The war memorial is impressive. I like the large scale of it – as well as remnants of the wall and various sculptures, huge black and white photos from particular periods have been printed onto the white space of buildings along the route, in the manner of a projection. There’s free audio explanations in at least German and English and lots of photographic material too. At one point, there’s a mock-up of what the East Berliners saw when looking toward West Berlin.
The memorial ends at Nordbahnhof, which was one of the “ghost stations” during the Cold War – trains coming from East Berlin didn’t stop there and subway entrances were bricked off. Now back in full use, there’s a really interesting exhibition inside, but by that point I had reached information saturation point and couldn’t quite take it in. I find this idea fascinating though – imagine if you suddenly couldn’t access a metro or tube station you’d been using regularly, and not because of works on the line but because another country was in charge of that station now, and you couldn’t go there anymore.
We returned to Mitte for a hot drink at Cafe Fleury, then I was treated to a delicious pea and zucchini risotto for dinner – and a yoghurty Ritter Sport for dessert! (We also tried to watch The French Lieutenant’s Woman but it was too existential for us – I remember the book being a lot better.)