Hallo from Berlin!
Yesterday was by far my favorite day of the trip thus far. We went on an all day tour through Prenzlauer Berg, a neighborhood in Berlin with tons of architectural and other history. I am by no means an architecture person, though I try and must be for this trip. The most interesting part was when we would come across these little memorials in the most random places. It was better than any large museum and somehow more rewarding, especially since this OPTIONAL tour lasted around 7-8 hours and we were walking for the vast, vast majority of that time.
Many of them we came across were in the courtyards of the old mietskasernen (apartment buildings from the industrial era). The way these buildings worked was that one would have apartments from the street back and they surrounded square courtyards. One could go farther away from the street from courtyard to courtyard. The deeper one went into a block of units, the less sunlight there was, or there might be no sunlight at all. Many of these were destroyed or not as large as before because of other construction/restoration projects. The courtyards today are sunny and beautiful little islands of German history that have somehow managed to survive endless historical criticism and the [sometimes] selective memory of the German public, probably because they are so far removed from the public eye or so well hidden, even though not on purpose.
In one courtyard, all the way up an approximately four-story wall, we came across a long list of opposites: happy and sad, lucky and unlucky, guilty and innocent, etc. It was slightly covered up on the bottom by a metal box of some sort tacked into the wall, covering the bottom few. That’s all it was. Opposite words separated by ‘and’. Part of the symbolism was that the opposites are linked together rather than separated by an ‘or,’ just like Berlin itself. Berlin brings many cultures together but has a huge, metal fence around the New Synagogue with, I kid you not, guards with machine guns at the entrances just in case of an attack by Muslims. The wall itself looks like something straight from a concentration camp. Berliners view the past as the past but there are older people who still refer to ‘East’ or ‘West’ Berlin in public. Everything here is the opposite of itself while being itself at the same time.
Another hidden treasure, and my favorite thing in all of Germany, is the East German Fernsehturm (TV Tower), that big, metal ball on a stick hovering ominously over the Berlin skyline like it’s watching everything. I wouldn’t be surprised to find it hovering over my shoulder in my bedroom mirror at home we see this thing so much and it sees us. The planning that went into placing and sizing it had to be extraneous because of how it picturesquely fits into the windows of bombed-out church memorials, hovers over every single church in ALL of Berlin, and even shakes its head over the shoulder of the Berliner Dom, the beautiful church on the Museums Island. I now use it as my landmark for measuring where I am. I might be directionally challenged but I know that we’re not going to find whatever we’re looking for if we’ve been walking for over an hour and the Fernsehturm has quadrupled in size as we approach a train station over four stops away diagonally from where we started.
Tomorrow we will go to the Checkpoint Charlie Museum, talk with someone who survived the abusive side of East Germany, go to the German Historical Museum, and then finish our time together with a group meal. I can’t wait, especially now that the coldest temperature on record in Berlin seems to have warmed and we all mostly survived it, whether or not we will ever feel our hands, feet, faces, legs, torsos, lips or ears again. I can now say I’ve survived both extremes of Berlin: the blistering heat of July and the deep freeze and six inches of snow in December. I can guarantee you, no matter how warm, cold, icy, snowy, sticky, rainy, gross, smelly, sunny, or dark it is, Berlin is definitely more than worth the trip. You fall in love with the city from the moment you step off the plane and you crave to be here again from the second you step into the taxi picking you up to go to the airport. It won’t be the big things that stick with you, but these hidden treasures Berlin hands you in courtyard shadows, graffiti, and passing glances. Your feet will leave the city streets but you will forever walk in Berlin as you can’t stop thinking about returning until you come back and you can’t ever think of leaving, just as I now have to return to the city streets to go back to the hotel and finish writing the essay, which is due tomorrow, under the protection of the Fernsehturm.
Bis dann! (“until next time!”)