After the Fulbright Conference, I had Easter break at school. For me, the break meant three weeks of traveling. I also had a visitor: my soon-to-be relative, Amanda!
How will Amanda and I be related? Well… she’s the fiance of the brother of my father’s wife. Basically, when she gets married, she’ll be my step-aunt, but since a.) step-aunt isn’t clear and could mean a few different kinds of relations (my step-parent’s sister, my uncle’s second wife, my step-parent’s sister-in-law), and b.) I’m four years older than she is, “step-aunt” seems weird. That’s why I go with “relative.” (Sidenote: the English language is not yet equipped for modern familial relations. We either need new words, or to stop labeling.)
Amanda had spent two weeks in Munich during college and loved it. (Klar. Germany rocks!) Once she had heard that I was going to be here, she made plans to visit. That’s how I ended up on a night train from Osnabrück to Frankfurt Airport one Sunday night on my way to meet Amanda and begin our common adventure.
Note: If you’re thinking about killing time in Osnabrück’s train station cafe from 11:00 pm until 1:00 am when your train leaves, think again. Everything closes. Everything, that is, except for the McDonald’s just outside the train station. That’s how I found myself eating a McRoyal with cheese and drinking a small Coke in the middle of the night. (A real small, too, not that bucket they now pass off as a small in the US. Do you remember when “small” was actually small???)
I managed to find Amanda almost without incident. Although the email she had received and forwarded to me with flight information was clearly marked “Lufthansa,” she had flown United, which Lufthansa now owns. This would not have been so bad, since all I had to do was look for the flight coming from Washington D.C.; However, whoever was in charge of the arrivals board that day was unaware that Washington D.C. and Seattle, Washington are two quite different locations. So you see, when one goes to look for the Lufthansa flight from Washington D.C. sees only the United flight from Seattle, it can be hard to locate a person. After asking for information at THREE different counters, all of which were marked with the “i” for “Information,” I finally got the information I needed and found Amanda. Then, it was off to Berlin!
I was excited to be in Berlin just a few days after I had left. I had maps, a guidebook and knew my way around the subway/commuter train system somewhat. I was also glad that I had booked us a decent youth hotel and had had the chance to give it a test run the week before. Plus, Berlin is a fantastic city. It is constantly changing. Fifty percent of the people living in Berlin right now did not live there three years ago. Despite constant change, Berliners cling to the visual markers of their city’s/cities’ history/ies. The fonts on the street signs still reflect an East/West difference. Right in the middle of Berlin, across from the Dom, is the future site of the Humboldt Forum. This site has also been the site of heavily contested battle for visual historical representation between and East and West Berliners. The Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe is gigantic and important, but wasn’t even there when I visited Berlin the first time in 2003. The Kaiser-Wilhelm-Gedächtnis-Kirche that I had marveled at in 2003 was completely covered in scaffolding and cloth, invisible from the outside. The city is the seat of national government, yet is teeming with artists and subversive activity. But that’s Berlin. The city itself is like a living organism that consumes, voids and breathes. It’s impossible not to get swept up in it almost immediately; indeed, the city inhales you.
We arrived in Berlin around 3:00 pm, checked into Aletto Schöneberg. Amanda was jet-lagged and I had ridden a night train for 6 hours, aka had not really slept. We toyed with the idea of staying in, but decided to shower and see how we felt. Luckily, the showers perked us up enough to go get some food and walk around Schöneberg at least until dark. We quickly learned that Schöneberg is a good neighborhood be in, even if it is kind of a pain in the ass to get to via public transportation. The main drag looks sort of cold and boring, but go back just one block, and the neighborhood’s true character emerges: well-kept, upper middle-class, gay-friendly. We strolled through parks with fountains, cute shops and nice restaurants and cafes. After that, we went back to the hotel and fell asleep immediately. Our sleep schedules normalized and we were good to go.
I was really excited to discover some of the “Places of Remembrance” public art installation by Berlin artist couple Stih & Schnook sprinkled along our walk that night. I had heard the couple talk once at Virginia Tech found them really provocative and straight up cool. The installation consists of 80 signs hung throughout the Bayerisches Viertel/Bavarian Quarter. On one side of the signs, there are simple pictures. On the other side, there are descriptions of the ways in rights were slowly removed from Berliner Jews and other undesirables under the Nazis. The whole thing is meant to remind passersby that even in a nice neighborhood, terrible things can happen, and that if one is not paying attention as rights are slowly removed, society as a whole can completely disintegrate. I have photos of a few of them in the slideshow below, but there is a map of each one on their website. (link below)
The time we spent in Berlin was jam-packed. We strolled along Unter den Linden, from Pariser Platz with the Brandenburg gate to Alexanderplatz with the Television Tower. I had booked us access to the Bundestag, the German Parliament building. They have a glass dome on the top with a lovely 360 degree view of Berlin. We saw the Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe and the corresponding museum, the Memorial to Homosexual Victims of the Holocaust, the Book Burning Memorial, and the Neue Wache Memorial (see my first Berlin post for photos). We saw Museum Island, the World Clock, the Siegessäule, and the Rote Rathaus. We saw a fountain being restored, a punk bagpipe group, and the Kaiser-Wilhelm-Gedächnis-Kirche. We saw Hannah Arendt Straße, the White Cross Memorial to Victims of the Wall, Bernauer Straße, and Potsdamer Platz. We visited Checkpoint Charlie, the Mauerpark and the Kaufhaus des Westens (KaDeWe). We ate at Hofbräuhaus Berlin, Curry 36 and Mustafa’s Gemüse Kebabs. We learned that although the S-Bahn and the U-Bahn may share a station of the same name, it is not necessarily in the exact same place. (Nor is it always clearly labeled.) We sang “Happy Birthday” to a girl with a cake on the subway, and later, on the same train, saw a guy with an all-terrain tire on his unicycle and heard another guy rocking out on a banjo. In short, we saw, heard, touched, and tasted as much as we possibly could in two and half days.
All of the time we spend in Berlin was great, but there were certainly highlights. I loved hearing the banjo player on the subway. Amanda went cuckoo for the punk bagpipe group. The best part for me was the food on our last night. My loyal readers know that I have a thing for Currywurst, and I couldn’t wait to introduce it to Amanda. It is, after all, a Berlin institution. At the Fulbright conference the week before, we met with the head of the Berlin senate. He told us that the best Currywurst was at Curry 36 at the Mehringdamm U-Bahn stop. I had waited to visit until Amanda arrived, and we headed off to Curry 36. We had a delicious Currywurst (without skin, natürlich) and fries. When we came out of the subway, however, we noticed a giant line outside of a food truck. I asked some folks who were waiting what the deal was. They told me they were waiting for the best döner in Berlin. After Amanda and I finished the Currywurst, we bought some beer, waited in line for an hour and got one of Mustafa’s Veggie Kebabs with both yogurt sauce and spicy sauce. Oh. My. God. It was delicious! It was so worth the wait. It’s basically a wrap filled with deep fried mixed vegetables, sheep’s cheese and your choice of sauce. The spicy sauce was actually spicy and oh-so-good. Let this be a lesson: No one waits in line for terrible food.
As we got to know Berlin, we also got to know each other. We had only met at family functions a few times before this trip, and I think we were both a bit nervous about how it would turn out. Luckily our shared affinities for Virginia, pork, potatoes, beer, high-SPF sunscreen and travel helped us bond quickly. I ignored her frequent bathroom stops, and she ignored me when I got tired and cranky. The weather was nothing short of glorious. From my end, it couldn’t have gone better.
Next stop in the Adventures of Heidi and Amanda: Krakow, Poland!
All told, I took over 1200 photos in three weeks. Here are some of from Berlin:
- Curry 36: Click on the “Menu” button (“Speisekarte”) for pictures of their offerings!
- Mustafas Gemüse Kebab
- Aletto Youth Hostel and Hotel: Clean, good breakfast, free wireless internet, free coffee & tea, owned by a man from Damme
- Deutscher Bundestag: The German Parliament building. Access to the dome is free, but you have to reserve your day and time online ahead of time and bring the letter with you.
- Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe and the Homosexual Memorial
- Hofbräuhaus Berlin: touristy, and not typically Berlin, but still a good time
- Museuminsel: The Museum Island, containing The Pergamon, The Old Museum, The New Museum and The Bode Museum.
- Pure Origins: Coffee shop located behind the Humboldt Universtiy. Cheap, delicious coffee, teas, foods and baked goods. Bonus: They sell American-style iced coffee here!
- White Crosses Memorial: For victims of the Wall
- Kaiser-Wilhelm-Gedächnis Kirche: Church built for Kaiser Wilhelm I in 1895, which later suffered a lot of damage in the War. The Neue Kirche (New Church) stands next to it now.
- Stih & Schnook: The artist pair who did the “Places of Remembrance” memorial art installations in the Schöneberg and Charlottenburg neighborhoods.
- Museum Haus am Checkpoint Charlie: Museum of escape attempts and information about Checkpoint Charlie
- Mauerpark: formerly part of the so-called “Death Strip” between the inner and outer Walls. Now a place for hipsters to hang out with their dogs the site of a flea market.
- Gedenkstätte Berliner Mauer: Place of remembrance for the Berlin Wall
- KaDeWe: ritzy shopping
Information on the fonts for the Berlin Street Signs:
- For free bathrooms, go into the university buildings. The one in the Humboldt’s Law School building was lovely. The coffee shop across the hall from it has gigantic cups of coffee to go for very low prices.
- Bus 100 is a regular bus in the public transportation system, but it happens to go along a really nice route. It’s a good way to start your trip, to see where the main attractions are in relation to each other, and to learn some things from the actual Berliners who use the bus to commute. If you have a day/week card for public transportation (highly recommended), it’s free. Just watch for pickpockets.
- If you go to the Bundestag dome, be sure to leave your pocket knives and $1 Cabella’s multi-tools at home. You’ll get it back at the end, but who likes making a scene in a foreign government building? Whoops.
- Do not go to a museum 30 minutes before it closes and expect to get in. Whoops.
- U-Bahn = subway
- S-Bahn = commuter train