Tuesday, September 23, 2014

Eastern Europe, or
Everyone knows I am not a doughnut

I started studying German my freshman year of high school, and that was when I discovered my immense love for learning foreign languages.  Frau Glazner...wo ist sie jetzt?!  And now, finally, after all these years, I actually found myself in Germany.

OK, so it was a brief trip, but it was a whetting of the appetite for all things Deutschland. On my way to Poland for my Habitat for Humanity volunteer trip in Poland, I had a ten-hour layover in Berlin. Even allowing for airport time, that is still a full day to see a new city! By new, I of course mean, new-to-me, a city I haven't seen before. And what a city Berlin is.

And let me just say that if you ever have a ten-hour layover, or an eight-hour layover, or maybe even a four-hour layover, at Berlin Tegel Airport, I recommend that you, too, hop into the city, because that is one small airport with very little to do. I was like -- are we really in a world capital here? It was more like a Bali or Manila kind of airport, with fewer palm trees. There was a Starbucks, and cafes and stuff, but it was weird -- it was, you know, small and not carpeted and outside-y. AND, the best part is, it is super-duper easy to hop on the TXL express bus, which runs between Tegel Airport and Alexanderplatz. I hopped off at Berlin Hauptbahnhof, which you absolutely cannot miss, and which is a big train station close to the Reichstag, Brandenburg Tor, etc. and consequently a perfect place to hop off the bus. Did I mention the bus costs only 2 euros 60 euro cents each way? Basically, you have no excuse for not checking out Berlin on your layover.

The Reichstag building, where the Bundestag meets, has a famous and symbolic dome on top that you can visit, provided you register ahead of time (which I did do, online from the U.S., but more on that in a sec). It is symbolic because it is transparent, and the people can walk around it and look out at Berlin and also look down on the Bundestag, the government, representing the people, and the legislators can look up, and see the people watching them, and be accountable...isn't that nice? Anyway, I gazed upon it and saw the people walking up in the dome, but I ended up not going inside as instead I did a free two-hour walking tour of Berlin that turned into a two-and-a-half-hour walking tour, thus causing me to miss my Reichstag appointment. So, this whole Free Tour thing is now totally a thing, I have learned today. What will those millennials think of next? A young man (from the U.S., who lives in Berlin) led me and about 20 other people from a slew of nations on a tour (in English) from the Brandenburg Tor all around the area and he talked about the history of Berlin and it was, I must say, quite enjoyable. At the end, you donate whatever you feel like, and that's how the tour guides get paid. Lo and behold, upon my arrival in Warsaw, I find out they have Warsaw Free Tours as well--this company is totally doing its thing, and I daresay I approve.

Anyway, among the things I saw on my tour were the Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe, sometimes shorthand called Berlin's "Holocaust Memorial" although technically that's not correct because there are separate memorials to the murdered gays, the murdered Roma, the murdered disabled/handicapped, etc. The memorial is very interesting, and controversial. The architect did not want something that told people what to think so he created this space that is very interesting and moving, and you really are forced to kind of grapple with it. I am not sure I really want to explain it, because the artist apparently took that into account, that once someone reads a description or sees a picture, they feel less like they need to go experience a place, and I get what he's saying. Let's just say it's not really sculpture, more just like walking through stone slabs, and it is not a traditional display at all. I loved it.

We also saw "Checkpoint Charlie," which my tour guide called the "Disneyland of Berlin" although I find that insulting to Disneyland as it is actually the Times Square of Berlin, i.e., concocted for tourists and not real. Like, there's a sign there saying "You are entering the American sector" but it's not the original sign, and there are random people dressed up as U.S. soldiers (is that even legal? some people I know on Facebook would probably have a coronary at the sacrilege) so tourists can take pictures with the "American soldiers" at the checkpoint ... um, no. Just no. There were some interesting informative displays there, though, with pictures of all the dudes at the Potsdam Conference and stuff.

After my tour, when I was left to my own Berlin devices, I walked some more, strolled the Unter den Linden, had a currywurst for lunch, checked out a gallery with a nice display about Willy Brandt (former West Berlin mayor, activist leader, and Nobel laureate), walked around the Tiergarten, and basically enjoyed more gazing upon Berlin.

And then my whole flying-to-Europe-one-or-two-hours-of-sleep-it's-the-next-day-what-time-is-it? hit me and I was suddenly SO tired that I headed back to the airport at 2 p.m. instead of pushing it 'til the last minute for my 5pm flight. Flight to Poland! I am in Poland now!

And so far Warsaw is lovely, but I will tell you more about that in future days; for now just note that you should totally check out Berlin for a day because it's pretty and fantastic. And Germany is totally grappling with its history in a way that some other entities don't seem willing/able to do.

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