Thursday, March 17, 2016

Berlin, Germany

January 27-29, 2016

Guten Tag! (Good day!) This is my last post from my Europe trip in January. Even though it’s taken me a while to get around to writing about Berlin, I am grateful that I have the time to collect my thoughts and process them here. So here it goes.

Like the previous two cities on our trip, we stayed in Berlin, the capital of Germany, for two days. This decision was dictated by our university’s draconian rules, as well as my roommate’s discomfort in crossing the line and potentially getting in trouble As I mentioned in a previous post, getting permission for winter break from our administration was an uphill battle. I like following rules, but I also liking taking risks where appropriate. This is a situation where I don’t think the world would have crashed had we stayed in Berlin for four days instead of two. In other words, I don’t think the school would have cared if we stayed Friday through Sunday, but Alex felt otherwise so we ended our trip early. The good thing about coming back early was that we got to relax that weekend. Alas, it is what it is: we stayed in Berlin for two quick evenings and made the most of them.

We took an overnight bus from Amsterdam to Berlin. It was Casey’s birthday that midnight, January 27th, so Alex and I sneakily bought him a cake from a convenient store before boarding our bus, and surprised him on the bus by singing him a birthday song and presenting the cake to him. We arrived to Berlin in the middle of the night, and we stayed with Casey’s friend Jesse who has been living in Berlin for a few years now. He was a very hospitable host, offering not only his house but also his time to show us around. We thanked Jesse with the chocolates I had won from volunteering at the Brussels chocolate demonstration.

Before I dive into the specifics of what we did, I would like to say that Berlin was by far my favorite city that we visited. This is because it had such an interesting culture of where the past met the future. There is no doubt that Berlin is a significant historical city, but it is also a city full of rebellious and defiant street artists who invoke a progressive culture. The mix of the two was a breath of fresh air. The confusion of the two was just plain beautiful. I cannot speak any German but if I learned the language, this would probably be a city I would like to live in one day—or at least visit for longer than two days for sure.

Walking Tour – On our first day, we took a walking tour of Berlin. We met at the Television Tower (368 meters tall) and were led by a young lady who took donations at the end of the trip. It was nice to have a really knowledgeable guide who was able to tell us about the politics of the hip city that is Berlin. We saw a lot of beautiful street art and graffiti on walls, buildings, and rocks. There was even one that read “Refugees Welcome!!!” near a river. According to the guide, there is rivalry between street artists who try to promote their artwork through expressive and provocative political statements. This “underground” world fascinated me; even though the government knows about it and has tried to crack down on vandalism, I think they, too, know that Berlin would not be the same without these artists. What was also interesting to learn on this tour was the development f Turkish neighborhoods throughout the city. Turks are apparently the largest ethnic minority in Germany. This is because there was a large-scale migration of Turkish citizens to West Germany developed during the Wirtschaftswunder ("economic miracle") of the 1960s and 1970s. At the time, Germany was suffering from a labor shortage because of the economic boom, and the West German government therefore negotiated a trade of labor agreement with Turkey. Turkish workers moved to West Germany to fill in this void, and worked primarily in factories to do simple repetitive tasks. I smiled every time I saw restaurants for “Adana kebab” or “Döner kebab,” or I recognized a Turkish word on a sign. As is true with any group migrating to a new country, it’s only natural to bring your culture to your home. Second and third generation Turks in Germany, who have never visited Turkey, probably feel an identity crisis similar to the one that second and third generation ethnic minorities, who are born in America, feel. Some things in life transcend national borders, sense of identity is one of them.
Berlin Wall – The famous Berlin Wall is something, let me tell you. It’s hard to believe that Germany was actually divided into an East and West side during World War 2. The pain of separating families and communities by a physical barrier seems like a ridiculous idea, absurd even. Makes you wonder how crude politics truly can be. Presidential hopeful Donald Trump promises to build a wall on the Mexican border and have the Mexican government pay for it. Does history teach us nothing?! Is the Berlin Wall not example enough for the social, psychological, economic, and political destruction that these structures can bring? And the decades-long consequences they bear! Sorry to go off on a tangent, but as I walked along the Berlin Wall, I could not help but try to imagine life in a war-torn Germany, international turmoil at the time, and the horrific Holocaust all happening at the same time. Here are some photos I snapped.
Meeting Christine – It was such a privilege to meet Christine, my Maine host parents’ first international exchange student. Christine, who is now married with two children, went to the United States for the first time when she was in high school. It was so nice to meet her and learn about her experience of growing up with Rani, David, and Sarah (Wanda and Erv’s children) at Brunswick High through her exchange program. We shared stories of the kind-hearted Snyder’s and joked about my soon-to-be "over the hill" age of 25. The weather was quite cold, so we enjoyed warm coffee at Wohzimmer Bar, which had a nice antique feel to it, with colorful couches and chairs from all decades. I promised Christine I would return to Berlin for a longer period next time, whenever that may be.
Meeting other Fulbrighters – Turkey Fulbrighters are everywhere! We ran into quite a few of them in Berlin. We ate Mexican food in a Turkish neighborhood and caught up about each other’s lives. Some folks had been out and about for winter break for over a month, some had just started. My vegetable burrito was delicious!
Famous Tourist Sites – On our second day, Jesse was our personal guide and showed us Berlin’s famous tourist sites, including the German parliament building of German Bundestag, the Brandenburg Gate, the Berlin Victory Column, and the concert hall buildings of Konzerthaus. These buildings had architecture similar to the ones we saw in Brussels, Amsterdam, and Paris. Fair to assume that all of Europe has Roman and Greek influences of architecture. Jesse is a history buff so I learned so much about each of these famous buildings and structures. The Victory Column, for example, was designed by Heinrich Strack, after 1864 to commemorate the Prussian victory in the Danish-Prussian War. I’ll try not to sound like a history book, so I’ll encourage you too look up the other places yourself if you’re interested. Oh, I forgot to mention that I got my passport stamped with Checkpoint Charlie—what a souvenir!
Holocaust Memorial – We also visited the chilling “The Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe,” also known as the Holocaust Memorial. It had a solemn atmosphere. We walked through the concrete slabs (stelae), arranged in a grid pattern on a sloping field. According to Wikipedia, “the stelae are designed to produce an uneasy, confusing atmosphere, and the whole sculpture aims to represent a supposedly ordered system that has lost touch with human reason.” You can see a video in the next blog post.
Mustafa’s Gemüse Kebap – Our wonderful Berlin trip came to an end on a very lovely note, bringing us full circle: Turkish food. Mustafa’s Gemüse Kebap’s is a very famous food shack located at Mehringdamm 32. It draws locals and tourists alike for cheap yet super delicious döner kebab sandwiches. The sandwich was more delicious than any döner I’ve had in Turkey thus far! I got very excited when I practiced my Turkish with the stand owner who was pleasantly surprised and pleased to acknowledge my attempt. He added extra döner on my sandwich, smiled and winked at me.
Visiting Poland – On our last evening, Jesse took us to Frankfort (the town, not the big city) for a small gathering with his girlfriend’s friends. It was nice to mingle with new people, real Germans. But the highlight of the evening, in my opinion, was when we crossed a bridge and touched down in Poland. This was completely unexpected, but at least now I get to say “I’ve been to Poland!” We took a group picture next to a sign that read “Polska” in case someone wanted to proof later…you know what they say nowadays: if there are no photos as evidence, then it didn’t happen.
We caught an early morning flight out of Berlin, and then an afternoon flight from Istanbul to Antalya. We crashed as soon as we got home! We used that following weekend to relax and catch up on sleep as well. I can now check off “backpacking through Europe” off my bucket list.

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