I can’t seem to get enough of Germany. There is just something about this great country that I find fascinating. It might be that everything here is so much cheaper than the rest of Europe, that transportation is wonderfully efficient, that a beer cost as much as a bottle of soda, that the food is spectacular, or that the people here are so welcoming, but damn if I'm not in love with this country. From Ireland, I booked a cheap flight to Oslo for €20, but once I realized how absurdly expensive Norway is, I was not keen on spending the next month of my life hemorrhaging money in Scandinavia. I debated returning to Germany, until a friend of mine from the US, Jon, told me he had one week off between jobs and wanted to visit Berlin. I was all too happy to skip my flight to Oslo and book a new flight to Germany at the last minute.
See what I get for planning in advance?
I absolutely love Berlin, but it is one hell of an enormous city! Just gigantic! Jon and I stayed at one of his friend’s apartments near the old abandoned Tempelhofer Airport in the southern part of Berlin. Looking at a map, both of us assumed it was a relatively short walk to the city center, but we were beyond wrong. The trek to downtown Berlin took us nearly of two hours - and that only for one way! For the duration of our trip, we were repeatedly deceived into thinking the distances in Berlin were far shorter than in reality and ended up walking an average of 18 miles per day!
Thanks to Jon for showing me this damn pedometer app. It’s like crack. Just one more reason to check my phone now.
I’m thrilled Jon is such a fan of walking, I can’t think of many people who happily spend hours on end walking literally across the entire city of Berlin. During our stay in the city we saw the usual attractions like the Reichstag Building, Brandenburg Gate, Tempelhofer Airport, the Soviet War Memorial in Treptower Park, the East Side Gallery, Museum Island as well as a few biergartens and participated in a techno pub craw, but there were three attractions in particular that stood out to me.
The first is the Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe. This is an incredible memorial that is surprisingly moving yet wonderfully simple in its execution. The memorial takes up an entire city block just behind the Brandenburg Gate and consists of a grid of 2,711 slabs of concrete, or stelae, jutting out from ground. There is not a single statue or even (from what I could see) a plaque dedicating the site, just a field of concrete slabs resembling unmarked tombstones to those who lost their lives in WWII. The architect, Peter Eisenman, intentionally did this so that visitors are free to make their own interpretation and experience the memorial in their own way. From a distance, the space appears completely flat since all of the stelae appear roughly the same height, but as you wander into the memorial, the ground begins to sink and the concrete slabs slowly begin to rise around you until a sudden feeling of claustrophobia strikes you.
Anyone who ever lived/worked in the Manhattan Financial District knows this feeling all too well.
Walking between the imposing concrete towers is an incredibly moving experience I've never encountered in a memorial before. The stelae are laid out in a grid fashion so I could see an exit from every intersection, but as I wandered into the memorial I experienced a remarkable feeling of confusion. I immediately became separated from Jon and became uneasy as I unsuccessfully attempted to locate him again. Deep in the middle of the memorial I could barely see the sun and each of the innumerable stelae are ice cold due to the lack of direct sunlight coupled with the perpetual chilly breeze that races through the narrow alleyways. Each of the spaces between the stelae felt like the entrance to a prison cell and the rows of concrete gave the impression of never-ending corridor in a detention center. I quickly found myself lost in a cold, unwelcoming, and unforgiving maze.
Once the feeling of depression, sadness, and claustrophobia fully set in I realized there is no way for me to get out of the memorial quickly. If I simply began running for the exit, I'd invariably slam into an unsuspecting tourist since I couldn't see around the multitude of narrow corners. I was forced - albeit temporarily - to endure the feeling even though I could see an exit in every direction. For me, it was a feeling of being locked in one of the concentration camps, I could see the exit, but I couldn't escape. Unlike any memorial before it this one generated a remarkably feeling of anxiety where I remember consciously telling myself to take a deep breath.
Never have I experienced such a moving memorial in my life and I highly recommend it to anyone visiting Berlin.
The second highlight of my tour through Berlin was the bunker where Hitler committed suicide at the end of the war. I'll admit this is more for comedic reasons more than anything else, but even though the site is located just two blocks away from the Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe, it could not be more different. You can’t actually visit the subterranean bunker as the Russians demolished it years ago, but I found it entertaining that the site is currently a parking lot. The German government has designated the site as a place of "historical significance” but not of any “historical importance,” and as such, there is no memorial, no plaque, nothing to indicate the site other than a small patch of grass surrounded on all sides by asphalt, discarded litter, and few parked cars. I could easily spend my entire life in Berlin and never once notice what was there - a fitting tribute (or lack there of) to such a despicable man.
The third highlight of my trip was our visit to the Berlin-Hohenschönhausen Memorial and the former site of an old Stasi political prison. After the WWII ended, the Stasi was the official state security service for the German Democratic Republic (GDR) also known generally just as East Germany. While entrance to the prison itself is only allowed through a guided tour, the free exhibition is exceptional in my opinion. I heard stories of all the spies and intelligence gathering that was done in East Germany after WWII, but I was amazed to find out how efficient this single organization was at collecting information about the population and the remarkable power it held to ensure conformity.
It’s fascinating and unbelievably unsettling to see this organization's single minded focus on coercing confessions out of political prisoners based solely on hear-say, partial information, or often blatantly inaccurate/fabricated accusations. The dedication to completely eradicating any opposition againts the government and ensuring conformity among the East German population is nothing short of terrifying. What I found most chilling was a thesis paper from a student who graduated from a “Stasi College” that analyzed the most effective ways of securing a confession from prisoners. To hear some of the first hand accounts of what when on in that prison were startling to say the least and overall what is known about what went on in that prison is absolutely reprehensible. Both Jon and I left the exhibition feeling disgusted.
This isn't something that happen thousands of years ago nor even just a few hundred, this is recent history that occurred less than 70 years ago!
Germany continues to surprise me and I’m so sad that I must now leave this great country; even after five days here in Berlin, I've only just begun to explore this great city. Much to the astonishment of my German friends, this country ranks as my favorite so far on the trip. I’m so happy I had the opportunity to spend so much time in Germany and I’m still kicking myself that I never visited while I was studying on exchange Milan all those years ago. My regret was well justified and I’m glad to have been able to right this terrible wrong in my life. I'd like to thank Jon for accompanying me on this leg of my trip and would like to apologize for getting him (and invariable Tam) sick. Consider it a little German souvenir from your traveling friend! :)
Farewell Berlin and farewell Germany, I loved my time in this great country. I will be back!