Divided History: Berlin, Germany

After studying abroad in Spain for a semester, my friend Alayna and I planned to stay in Europe two weeks after to travel. We deliberated where we should go during the first couple months of studying abroad and decided upon Germany and Austria. Originally, we considered adding more cities in Germany and Austria plus in Hungary and Switzerland, but ultimately, we stuck with three major cities–Berlin, Munich, and Salzburg–over the course of 11 days. One of the most important pieces of advice I would give to anyone traveling or studying abroad is not to rush through a laundry list of cities in a short period of time. Give yourself time to enjoy the cities you visit and really get to know them. Plus, you don’t want to spend a large portion of your travel time at airports or train stations in-between your destinations. Alayna and I were certainly tired at the end of this 11-day backpacking excursion, but the choice of three cities turned out to be just the right amount. Plus, it was cheaper for us to book a flight back to Sevilla (from which we would return to the US) with an overnight layover on the Spanish island of Mallorca rather than flight directly to Sevilla, so we got a little extra R&R at the end of the trip. What a terrible layover, huh? 😉

To begin our trip, we took a 1:00 AM bus from Sevilla to Madrid to save time and money on an extra flight. Our flight out of Madrid was not until 5:00 PM, so we did have to spend a large part of the day in the airport, but we amused ourselves by coming up with our own Harry Potter and International Relations independent study class, as any cool nerds would do. Finally, we landed at Schonefeld, the smaller of Berlin’s airports.

Fun moment of not speaking the language where you are traveling: there was only one woman working in the train station area in the airport, and she was in a distant control box and also did not speak English (yes, a lot of people in Germany do speak English, but especially outside the main cities, you should definitely not assume that you can use English). I made the most pathetic attempt to pronounce the metro stop near our hostel, but… German words have so. many. letters. I am hoping to study a bit of German this summer actually, so I’ll have to go back and give the pronunciation another go! But on my first trip, my pronunciation was a disaster that thankfully happened to result in us getting on the right train. (Tip: “ß” is like “ss,” not “b.”)

After spending most of the semester in southern Europe, I was excited for a change in architectural scene, and Berlin did not disappoint. Berlin is a rich and eclectic blend of history and modernity, and although Alayna and I saw a lot in a couple of days (cut a bit short because this is the one place I was sick all semester), there are so many neighborhoods and streets to explore the varied faces of Germany’s capital on future trips. Our first stop was the Kaiser Wilhelm Memorial Church, which survived air raids during World War II. We didn’t make it inside due to a mix-up in the hours posted online and the actual hours, but the outside was beautiful. There’s a more modern sanctuary next to the memorial church with very peaceful royal blue mosaic walls–definitely more simple than the insides of the cathedrals that I spent most of the semester visiting.

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Continuing our theme of WWII history, Alayna and I next headed to the Jewish Museum, which takes visitors on an in-depth journey from early Jewish history and culture, to oppression during the Crusades, to the Holocaust and present-day. You could easily spend half a day in this excellently-curated museum, but since our time was limited, we tried to share our time between the early and modern history sections. In the early history/cultural section, I learned that second-most important book in Jewish culture, the Talmud, contains interpretations of the Torah as well as conventional wisdom, and that education for all is considered to be of utmost importance (I completely agree). We also wrote wishes on paper pomegranates to hang on a wishing tree.

The modern history section contains a frighteningly powerful memorial put together by Daniel Libeskind, a Polish Jew whose father is a Holocaust survivor. Libeskind said of the memorial: “What is important is the experience you get from it.” There are three axes of the building–the Axis of the Holocaust, the Axis of Exile, and the Axis of Continuity–and along each there are dark exhibits in which you peer through small glass circles filled with photographs and belongings of survivors: Star of David patches, letters, silverware confiscated by the Nazis, etc. With each item was a written account of each owner’s experience in the Holocaust in order to drive home the point that these were real individuals who suffered. The museum also has a section called the Holocaust Tower, which I was completely unprepared for when I opened its large concrete door. The tower is a tiny, sharped-edged empty room with very tall ceilings and one tiny sliver of sunlight in the corner. When the door closes, you feel trapped. And that is precisely the point. The point of this museum is not to have “fun,” but rather to learn important details about the horrors of the Holocaust, to remember the circumstances leading up to Nazi rule so as to recognize and stop similar behavior in the future, and to learn about the beautiful culture of Jewish people.

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From the Jewish Museum, we fast-forwarded in history to Checkpoint Charlie. The museum next to the checkpoint was not my favorite to visit because the volume of text on the walls in four languages relative to the number of images/items is a bit overwhelming, but I did learn a few fun facts. For instance, Winston Churchill gave his “Iron Curtain” speech in my native state of Missouri! At the checkpoint itself, someone dressed in an old US military uniform stands guard at this point where the Berlin Wall once stood to “keep the Russians out, Americans in, and Germans down” (NATO Secretary-General Lord Ismay).

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After a history-filled morning, Alayna and I headed to Gendarmenmarkt for some of the best potato soup I have ever tasted. Nearby, we took in the plaza scene, where two cathedrals, one French and one German, look like twins, and between them sits a gorgeous, red-carpeted concert house. For dessert, we went to a huge chocolate shop called Fassbender and Rausch, where I was amazed at the chocolate sculptures like the one below of the Kaiser Wilhem Memorial Church. My personal favorite from our sampler was a champagne-filled chocolate, no surprise 🙂 Unfortunately, my first full day in Berlin was cut short when being ill finally caught up with me, but that has only strengthened my resolve to return! Shoutout to my travel partner Alayna for standing in line to get us tickets to visit the Reichstag the next day while I was fading.

After sleeping off sickness, day two in Berlin was a lot of fun. We began the morning with a walk along the Spree River. Along the way, we spotted a statue of Marx and Engells, Museum Island (to which we later returned), the Berlin Cathedral, and a National Geographic photography exhibit under a bridge. I absolutely love how much Europe displays art publicly.

A bit of walking and a metro ride later, we explored a different kind of art at the Berlin Wall on the east side. The East Side Gallery was one of my favorite parts of the trip. Every section of the wall was its own work of art and gave viewers something new to think about. Here are a few of my favorite pieces:

After stopping at Alexandrplatz, a neat plaza with a view of the famed TV tower and a world clock, we returned to Museum Island. Berlin holds a vast amount of old and important art, but to avoid getting burned out and to allow ourselves to explore other parts of the city, we decided to pick just one of the art museums. The Bode Museum houses sculptures from the ancient, Baroque, and Renaissance periods. It was a large museum and a bit overwhelming, but nonetheless interesting to explore for a little while!

We spent the rest of the day around the Tiergarten area, first stopping at the Brandenburger Tor, where the wall divided Berlin. Inside the park, we found a Soviet War Memorial and a memorial to the Roma victims of the Holocaust. The Holocaust Memorial is also in this general vicinity. The huge expanse of grey blocks on uneven ground is intended to symbolize feelings of loss, hopelessness, and having nowhere to turn. It is a powerful reminder of a history that we must guard against repeating.

Because seeking out gorgeous sunset views is a core tenant in Alayna’s and my travel philosophy, we opted to spend dusk in the glass dome of the Reichstag Building, which was used by German legislatures prior to WWII. I definitely recommend this sunset-viewing locale, as you can enjoy a 360-degree view of Berlin. You will have to stand in line the day before to get tickets for a specific date and time (bring your passport), but it is totally worth taking the time. After descending the dome, we set off for a late dinner at Potsdamerplatz, a colorfully modern area of the city.

Alayna and I certainly packed many an adventure and learning experience in our two-day Berlin trip, and I am already looking forward to returning! Germany is on my short-list for potential dissertation fieldwork locations, so that trip may be in the near future. I better start practicing my German now!

-Steph

 

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