As a birthday present to myself, I decided to treat myself to all the wonderous DBGs that the German bakeries could offer. On the way to the Jannowitzbrucke station, I bought myself one such Delicious Baked Good.
The plan was to walk around the city and catch the big attractions, like the Brandenburg Gate, the Reichstag, the Holocaust Memorial, and the dozens of others that make up Berlin’s almost mind-numbing array of historical sites.
First up was the Reichstag, which is Berlin’s government house. A glass dome arose out of the atrium, designed by Norman Foster, and aside from its beauty and imaginative design, it supposedly offered some great views. However, the line for it extended far outside the building and onto the mall, even before the place opened.
From there I went to the Brandenburg Gate, the last remaining of the 18 or so tors that surrounded the city. The Berlin Wall ran just outside of the gate, and the years of communist occupation following the war saw the gate and the area around it severly neglected. Today, however, the gate is a major tourist attraction, and Pariser Platz has been restored to meet and almost exceed its original beauty.
Some kind of public statement/exhibition was taking place right outside the gate, and dozens of female mannequins were set up, all wearing similar blue t-shirts with quotes on the back. Unfortunately, the quotes were in German and I was excluded from the message.
As I walked through the gate, which is blocked to vehicles, I noticed rows of lights on the floor near the columns. I suddenly remembered something I had read in a backpacking magazine in CK, starting the night before Berlin was celebrating the Festival of Lights, where major structures around the city such as the Gate will be lit up.
I passed the British Embassy which, like everything else in Berlin, has a long history behind its current location (fortunately, the city was nice enough to put information plaques in the popular tourist areas giving you the history of that particular area). Further along was the Holocaust Memorial. The exact name is the Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe, but not only is that a mouthful to say (type) each time, it makes me cringe.
The memorial consisted of thousands of stone monoliths, some almost tomb-like, varying in height and width, covering a square block. I think the desired effect was to make the area look almost like a cemetery, or a rippling field of tombs. The museum, or memorial exhibit, was underneath the square (again, under the graves, the theme of death). It was around lunchtime and there was a formidable line to get in. There was no entrance fee, but they only let about 10 people in at a time to avoid overcrowding.
I walked further away from the Brandenburg Gate and looked around for Hitler’s Bunker. This was where he made his last stand, a very heavily fortified underground panic room, with space for all his pals, like Himmler. I made a wide loop around the blocks near the Holocaust Memorial, waiting for the large “Hitler’s Last Stand” sign with a big neon arrow. Well, maybe not, but something like that. Finally I found myself facing a large placard with information about Hitler’s Bunker. The description went into great detail about the fortification itself complete with illustrations, and it was even very interesting. Unfortunately it didn’t say anything about where the bunker used to be. I say used to be, because even after discovering the bunker at the end of the war, they didn’t bother keeping it around for history’s sake. Not surprisingly, they wanted to destroy it, and they did. I finally learned that what’s left of the last building Hitler occupied is now a nice patch of grass and a parking lot in front of some apartments.
I walked back to Unter den Linden, the main street going from the Gate and Pariser Platz towards the Berliner Dome and the center of the city.
When I got to the Berliner Dome on Museum Island I was immediately approached by a women wearing what looked like a Muslim head scarf. I thought she was a lost tourist asking for some help with her map since she seemed to have a piece of paper in her hand. She asked if I spoke English and I said yes, then she showed me what she was holding. It was a postcard that had something scribbled on it about being in this country for two months with children, needing money, etc. I told her I didn’t have any money and walked away. As I sat on a bench and took some pictures of the dome, I saw others wandering around approaching tourists and giving them the same routine. As I sat on the bench, a young girl approached me and asked me if I spoke English. “No.” “Deutsch?” “No …” “Espagnol?” “No” “Francais?”
At this point I had to bite my tongue to keep myself from laughing.
Finally she walked away and I was left thinking, if you can speak all those languages, what in the world are you doing begging for money?? I should be asking you …
I kept walking past Museum Island towards Hackescher Markt, an area of restaurants and shops near the main Alexanderplatz. I stopped at another bakery and had a disappointing French bread pizza type thing, and a remarkable streusel pastry. I don’t remember the exact name, I think it was something like Schenkestreusel, but it was amazing. It was like a Honey Bun with the buttery, crunchy topping of a cobbler or crumble. As you can see, I really like baked goods.
I searched unsuccessfully for a toilet around Hackescher Markt, so then I walked to Alexanderplatz and found one in a large shopping area. It was a pay toilet, but frankly I don’t mind those, at least you know the place will be reasonably clean. After, I sat outside the great TV Tower, read, and took pictures of a church (some church, I stopped making a note of the names a long time ago). Before I left the area I ran back into the shopping mall and bought a pastry from a bakery there. It was what the New Zealanders and Australians would call a “slice”, or what we would call … we don’t really have a name for it, but it’s a soft filling sandwiched between two crunchy biscuit like layers. This one had a chocolate-coconut-hazelnut filling and even though it was good, I started feeling a little sugar-sick by the end of it.
From Alexanderplatz I headed North towards the trendy area of Prenzlauerberg. I popped into the East Seven hostel, and booked a room for the next three nights. I didn’t want to stay in the Singer109 ghost town any more than I had to. I walked back past A-platz and then onto the hostel, making a brief pitstop to pick up some laundry detergent.
The plan (I use this word lightly — as we all know, my “plans” tend to go the other way) was to do laundry and then head out for the night. The hostel had the ultimate backpacker freebie: free washer and dryer. It’s the the El Dorado of amenities, the one hassle that every traveler must deal with, and dreams of those days back home, back when it was something you just take for granted. It sounds silly, but it was the only reason I chose that hostel over any of the other ones.
The problem was (there’s always a problem) that there was no dryer, only the washer. The machine was out of order and there was only a drying rack available. Since I only had until the morning to make sure everything was dry, it wasn’t going to happen.
After some R&R, I got ready and headed out. I took the train all the way back to Friedrichstrasse, near the Reichstag, and walked towards the building to see they ways in which it was lit for the Festival of Lights. But by the time I was out of the station, I had to use the toilet. I didn’t see any public ones, and I wasn’t about to get caught peeing on a government building in Germany, I ducked into a very posh looking restaurant, had a drink and used the toilet. The Reichstag wasn’t decorated at all, and it was disappointing to have walked all that way. I went to the Brandenburg Gate, which was fortunately decked out in trippy changing colours.
The only problem was that there were about 200 other people standing in front of the monument, trying to take pictures. Just as I was about to take a picture from a perfect angle, a small car pulled up right in front of the lens, and a photographer with a tall tripod jumped out and found a position.
From there I walked down Unter den Linden (again), stopping for another beer at a kiosk that ran along the tree-and-bench lined median. The trees along the street had been lit as well, and I admired the view from a bench as I enjoyed my beer (Germany, along with most other European countries, allows you to drink in public. And you can buy beer from pretty much anywhere).
I also stopped at the Berliner Dome (where along with the photo below, I took the current Header Picture), a theatre house and a set of neon lights for the festival itself.
I walked to Hackescher Markt and all the restaurants and cafes, stopping again at a very cheesy beach-themed bar, complete with a sand floor. I chose the cafe with the most German menu and found a table outside. I ordered a glass of wine and some manner of ‘wurst’. I started chatting up the maitre ‘d, who happened to be from the States — Oregon, I believe — though his accent revealed a birthplac somewhere in the Carribbean. I’m still a bit shady on the details, though I only started questioning my memory as I got to know him better, but Richard claimed to be a medical school student in the city, and had been living here for a couple years.
I ate my food and talked to Rich some more, asking him about good places to go out, what it was like being an expat in Berlin and his plans for the future. By the time I finished the meal, his shift was almost done so we decided to get a drink at a bar in Kreuzberg, a very trendy and popular part of the city, and the centre of post-war West Berlin.
As we walked to his car, Rich — who turned out to be quite the talker, especially when the conversation was about himself, usually started by himself — explained to me that his passion lay in music and freestyling rap and rhymes. Oh yes, you heard me correctly.
In fact, as we drove towards Kreuzberg, not only did he treat me to bits of information about the city which I made sure to Wiki-fy later and confirm their veracity, but he would frequently break into homespun lyrics in time with whatever happened to be on the radio. And it was just really awful. All of his attempts seemed to start with “One for the money, two for the show, three to get ready …” And so on. I wanted to tell him that the early 90s called and said he could have those lyrics. They don’t want them anymore.
It was starting to get awkward. Rich seemed genuinely nice, energetic and friendly, but the whole ‘budding rap artist’ thing was starting to get to me, and he seemed quite full of himself. We walked around to a few bars, but since it was a Wednesday night, most of them were closing. We finally found a small, cramped pub and had a couple beers. By then I was dead tired from a full day of walking around, so after one beer I was ready to call it quits.
Rich told me about a club that was playing reggae music the next night, and asked if I wanted to come. Eager to experience the Berlin nightlife, despite the less-than-ideal company, I agreed to meet him at the end of his shift the next night.
I realized that it was the first time I had spent my birthday away from friends and family, and the difference was noticeable. As much as we all say “it’s just another day,” I think secretly we love spending that time with people we care about and who care about us. Particularly ones that don’t rap.