Travelogue L: Berlin Impressions

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 July 20, 2015 Writing any sort of neat summary post about Berlin is more or less impossible. As I have written before, the very nature of the city defies all attempts at synopsis: historically and architecturally, it is a place of metamorphosis and not of stability. One minute you are walking down some gorgeous boulevard surrounded by theaters and old restaurants, the next you are standing in front of a construction zone, with half the street torn up and posters of what it all looked like before 1989 hanging on the chain-link fence beside you. But the constant shift is what makes it all so exciting.

And it is exciting. You ride the U-Bahn and S-Bahn (subway and overground) uptown, downtown, to some tiny restaurant in the Friedrichsstraße and back again to the Brandenburg Gate. You wolf down a plate of  peppers and couscous at the Turkish Market on the river. You stand for an hour in the line outside the National Gallery to see the Expressionists, in sunshine so penetrating that the museum staff passes out umbrellas. You talk until two, three, four in the morning about God and Eros and Art–after the Theater, in the hotel bar, in some gorgeous tiled courtyard at the Hackescher Markt. All through a haze of movement and wine and overstimulation that is both heady and exhausting.

“Man kann ja schlafen, wenn man tot ist,” I say. You can sleep when you’re dead.

Central Station.

Central Station.

This time around, it was Berlin’s infrastructure, and specifically the city’s massive public transportation system, that struck me the most.

The whole place runs on a great tangle of S- and U-Bahn stations, some works of art in and of themselves, some rivaling Frankfurt for dirt and stink. One has the feeling of being within a great machine–no, more than a machine, in some sort of living and breathing organism. The Central Station, five stories of glass and steel, serves some 1,800 trains and 350,000 travelers each day. The energy that pervades the rest of the city is felt in every station in the Innenstadt: a new train roaring in every three minutes, throw yourself on and then off again, stand because all the seats are taken.

Above all, I was shocked at (and perhaps more than a little proud of) the relative ease with which I was able to maneuver through it all, after a year abroad. It’s a feeling of accomplishment, of power even, to sift through thousands of connections and timetables, to get on the right train, and to know exactly where you are and where you are going. If only the rest of existence was that simple.

Still, it’s all something that can be learned. A year ago I didn’t even know that you had to push the “Stop” button the bus if you wanted to get off at the next station. But things move forward. The Mädchen vom Land (country girl) is now thriving in the European jungle, folks.

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Mirror image in the Central Station, S-Bahn platform.

The position of the Berlin Wall is marked throughout the city, even though it doesn't exist anymore--a line drawn through buildings, across streets, behind the Brandenburg Gate.

The position of the Berlin Wall is marked throughout the city, even though it doesn’t exist anymore–a line drawn through buildings, across streets, behind the Brandenburg Gate.

Inside the Ständige Vertretung.

Inside the Ständige Vertretung, a restaurant on the river that serves as a sort of shrine, in the best sense of the word. to pre-reunification Germany.

The Holocaust memorial--direct in the heart of the city, inescapable.

The Holocaust memorial–direct in the heart of the city, inescapable.

The seat of Hitler's bunker in Berlin, where he committed suicide and where Goebbel's wife killed her six children--a parking lot and utilitarian appartments. The lack of any sort of monument is just as fitting and unsettling as the massive memorial to the Jewish victims of the Holocaust across the street.

The seat of Hitler’s bunker in Berlin, where he committed suicide and where Goebbel and his wife poisoned their six children–a parking lot and utilitarian appartments. The lack of any sort of monument is just as fitting and unsettling as the massive memorial to the Jewish victims of the Holocaust across the street.

In the S-Bahn.

In the S-Bahn.

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Willkommen in Berlin. Welcome to Berlin.

In the end, after three days in Berlin I was completely and utterly exhausted. But I think that was more from the talking-till-four-in-the-morning than from anything else. Dialogue at its most intense is one of the most beautifully draining experiences on this planet.

Travelogue III: Berlin

IMG_0144Berlin Wall

18. Juli, 2014 If Munich is all stability, conservatism and settledness, then Berlin is its polar opposite–restless, scandalous, disparate, a miss-mash of old and new, renewal and decay. It’s thrilling, though I think I will always prefer Munich’s particular beauty and stateliness.

IMG_0192A typical Berlin skyline–old and new together, everything in transition, always with a dozen cranes from construction sites in the background.

We arrived late last night, and got on a boat this morning to take a tour of the city. We docked at the Turkish Market, and climbed a flight of stairs to the street. Suddenly, we weren’t in Germany any more, but in some open bazaar in some city to the South and East–rugs and bolts of silk and glass beads and vegetables and Doener, all being hawked with utmost enthusiasm in Turkish, brilliant colors everywhere.

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Bolts-of-fabric-on-display

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On the way back, we looked up events for the evening in a local newspaper. The professor and I found a baroque concert in Schloss Charlottenburg, and went to hear a Vivaldi concerto and early Mozart arias, surrounded by Berlin’s most wealthy and privileged.

schloss-charlottenburgSchloss Charlottenburg

19. Juli, 2014 Unbearably hot the entire day–I came early back to the hotel, blessedly one of the few with air conditioning in the entire city, and slept till early evening. Then off again, with the entire group this time, to the Deutsch-Französisches Fest–sponsored by the French Embassy, held in front of the Brandenburger Tor. “This is a good time for my country,” said the professor, “when the French feel that they can come to the most German spot in the most German city and throw a party. I find that very hopeful.” And the French know how to party–packed open-air tables, food and wine and German beer, drinking songs and dancing and then a performance by a Berlin rapper who is apparently insanely popular in France.

One has the feeling that Berlin is 10 cities instead of one. Crazy, that 24 hours ago I was sitting in evening-wear in a pristine concert hall, listening to Italian arias and drinking Champagne–and that 36 hours ago I was trying to figure out how to pronounce Gözleme, surrounded by Turkish housewives haggling over the price of fresh fruit or fish or bolts of fabric. And now I’m being deafened by an open-air rap concert at a table with 15 of my new best friends, eating French pizza and wishing I could dance.

brandenburger-torBrandenburger Tor, minus a bunch of very happy, very drunk French partygoers, and a very bad German rapper. 

In Munich, too, but especially in Berlin, the internationality of it all is staggering–in the Turkish Market, we might as well not be in Europe at all, in the tiny Italian cafe in Gendarmenmarkt, the couples at the other tables are from Australia, Holland, Italy. At the French-German Fest, we solve all the world’s problems at a table with Maria from Ireland, Jean from France, and the friends they had just met from Spain. With a shared bottle of rosé and a tarte flambée from the stand across the square, all screaming to be heard over the music, speaking in a mixture of German and English and very bad French. It’s all playing with language, with cultural differences, with stereotypes and idioms and bad jokes. Maria teaches us phrases in Gaelic, we all learn a French drinking song because the people at the next table haven’t stopped singing it for hours, and the American students give the German professors an education in modern American slang–“trolling,” “mosh pit,” “duckface.” Very important vocabulary, that.

To me, this is all so new–my childhood in small-town New England and undergrad in the conservative Midwest, wonderful as they were, didn’t really lend themselves to this sort of dialog. And here, I am loving it–a thousand perspectives and ways of thinking, a dozen new languages. If you listen hard enough, with a little Latin you can start picking up French and Italian within a few minutes.

And the pace, too, is so different from anything I am used to, here in one of most vibrant cities in Europe. Even with the conservative professors, you go out to eat AFTER the concert, not before, and then to a cafe for another glass of wine, and then back to the hotel to sit in the garden and talk and laugh harder than you have laughed in months. If you make it back to the room before 2am, it’s an early night.

20. Juli, 2014 In the morning, we take a tour of the Reichstag, the seat of German government. Only the outside is original–everything inside was re-built post-reunification, to match Germany’s new emphasis on transparency and clarity. The building is part art museum, part memorial, part politics, all glass and efficient clean lines. It’s possible to look right through the entire structure, through the parliament room and offices to the heaven on the other side, as our tour guide tells us. It is obvious that this is the political seat of a country that is peaceful and successful and at least half-way intelligent.

IMG_0136Reichstag from the river-side.

IMG_0186From the front. The inscription: “To the German people.”

IMG_0139The past is still very much felt–bullet holes left over from WWII.

10_57d8c64005816c718c79d310e001675aParliament, unfortunately minus Angela Merkel

IMG_0190Dome above the building, with views of the city on all sides and of the parliament room below.

IMG_0194Inside the dome

In the afternoon, it’s too hot to look at art. “I think I would have a panic attack if I had to see a Kandinsky right now,” says the professor. So I, who am always so uptight and driven and have to be doing doing doing, sit for four hours in a cafe at the beautiful Gendarmenmarkt, sometimes talking about literature or the funny things the students said last night, but mostly in silence. It’s a privilege, this.

cafe-gendarmenmarktGendarmenmarkt

Afterwards, the train ride back to Wuerzburg is pretty hellish. Delays on both ends, unbearably hot and sticky on the slow train to Hannover, missed connections and resulting loss of seat reservations between Hannover and Wuerzburg. But when we finally arrive in the tiny train station at 11pm, the clouds open and the heat finally breaks, with thunder and wonderfully cold wind on the way back to the dorms.

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Note: for a less-rambly post on Berlin from two years ago, with lots more pictures and infos, click here.