Berlin ist Arm, aber Sexy.

Trip Start Sep 07, 2010
Trip End Aug 21, 2011

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Flag of Germany  ,
Wednesday, March 30, 2011

When Jess and I stepped off the cheap Ryanair flight and onto Berliner soil, we had no idea what was in store for us. Neither of us really knew what to expect of the German capital except a list of sites to see and a general knowledge of this thing called WWII.

Today, Berlin boasts the second largest population in Europe after London at around 4.4 million people.  Jess and I were soon to learn that it is also at the forefront of "weird" and “strange” European art and expression.  By comparing my Hamburg entry to this one on Berlin, you'd have no idea that both cities were in the same country.  Berlin is truly a unique city filled to the brim with unique residents.

The first thing Jess and I set out to do was join a tour of the artsy side of Berlin hosted by Jess’s friend from undergrad Jonny.  He was able to show us around and give us a different perspective of the city that most simple tourists would probably overlook.  The tour began with him taking us to a place called Tacheles.  A former department store in the Jewish quarter of Berlin, it now serves as a starving artists haven.  The building was partially demolished in the 80s, but it was saved in the 90s where artists from around the globe came together to squat and create their arts.  However, the future of the site has come into question lately as the lease on the property expired in 2008 and plans for demolition have been in order but halted due to the recession.  Now the side of the building states, “How soon is now?” in reference to the fact that the building could go at any time.  Frankly, the place is full of hippies (and I, by no mean, enjoy hippies); however, I do support their art and expression, especially at such a unique and historic place.

Graffiti is part of Berlin, and I must say, some of the graffiti is quite good and artistic; however, there also seems to be an urge to spray paint “penis” and similar words over the good art so you’ll have to do some careful looking to find what’s good.  Literally, everything within arms reach is covered in graffiti of all kinds and variation.  Some artists paint bananas on things that they like while others slap painted fists in strange locations.  Other artists use stencils to run around and quickly spray a design on the wall while others create their work at home and slap them up on the buildings of Berlin with glue.

The tour concluded with a stop by the East Side Gallery, a series of murals painted on the east side of the west portion of the Berlin Wall.  All of the murals signify the reunification of Berlin and Germany and a hope for peace and happiness in the coming years.  The significance of the murals being painted on the east side of the west portion of the wall because, while the walls were still standing, this side of the wall would not have been able to be accessed by anyone (unless they wanted to die).

On our second day of touring, we decided to hit the more mainstream sights such as the Branddenburg Gate (the only remaining gate to the old city of Berlin) and the Reichstag (the building that holds parliament).  Nearby, we wandered into the aptly name “Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe” (or “Denkmal für die ermordeten Juden Europas” in German).  The memorial consists of 2,711 concrete blocks of various height neatly arranged as a grid across an entire city block.  When walking between the blocks, the ground slowly sinks you beneath their heights, leaving you with a narrow field of vision and many directions in which to turn.  It is here that the power of the memorial is evident.  An uneasy feeling accompanied with a bit confusion washes over you, and, even though the entire memorial is carefully constructed and ordered grid, you can’t help but feel lost.

As Jess and I continued our journey southward towards remaining parts of the Berlin Wall, we passed a little monument that was essentially a red carpet running quite a long way down the sidewalk.  We were soon to learn that Los Angeles and Berlin have been sister cities since 1967, Berlin’s only sister city for twenty years.  To commemorate their special relationship, Berlin has set up a large red carpet with a Walk of Fame of German television and movie stars.  Of course, I had no idea who any of them were, but at each star they had a viewfinder that you could look through to see an outline of the celebrity standing on their star. 

Adjacent to the Walk of Fame there was a little outline along the road and sidewalk where the Berlin Wall once stood.  We followed it across the streets and down the sidewalk, around buildings (through buildings), until it met up with an existing portion of the wall at a museum called the Topography of Terror.  This free museum was actually one of our favorites sites.  The detailed and picture oriented museum told the stories of SS soldiers during WWII, their lives before, during, and after the war.  Generally, they were executed after the war.  The pictures would show SS officers happily picnicking at concentration camps, posing and laughing in pictures knowing perfectly well what was going on within the walls of the camps.  The story these pictures tell you is that they were completely oblivious to the atrocities being committed at their own hands.  Surely they must have known that their actions were wrong, but you would have never known based on the pictures and letters left behind.

Past Checkpoint Charlie, one of the notorious passages from East Berlin to West Berlin, we headed to the Jewish Museum.  The museum is large, extensive, and contains many holocaust memorials in it.  The museum itself has no doors to the exterior and must be accessed by entering a neighboring building and proceeding through a tunnel underground.  In addition to a detailed history of the Jewish population in Germany since the dawn of time, they also focused on the daily life of Jews in the years leading up to the war.  One of the memorials, in particular, entitled “Fallen Leaves” is made up of over 10,000 iron cut faces that fill a space known as the “the Void.”

Upon leaving the museum, Jess and I made some other stops throughout town before returning to our hostel.  After two days in Berlin, we were sure of one thing: it was ugly.  The city is covered in graffiti and run-down and unattractive buildings, and, with a history such Berlin’s, you have to admire that the city even functions and persists today.  It’s appearance was something we would have expected from a more eastern European city, certainly not a capital city.  That being said, we never felt unsafe there, and the unappealing cityscape is made up for in serious innovation, free expression, and culture.

P.S. The title refers to a quote the mayor of Berlin said about the city, which in English means “Berlin is poor, but sexy.”  It is most certainly one of those things.  I’ll let you decide.

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