I’ll share something with you. For years, I’ve taken to saying that Berlin is my favourite European city. That’s right: better than Paris, Rome or London. And still my experience in Berlin was a meagre three night stay, back in 2005, in which my main focus was not museum hopping or hitting alternative bars, but running the famous Berlin marathon.
Still – there was something that gripped me. Hard to pinpoint, but for years I could vividly remember the sense of wonder seeing a bar in what appeared to be a building in ruins somewhere in Prenzlauer Berg or enjoying the atmospheric cafés in Kreuzberg. More tangibly, I thought of Berlin each time I put on the coolest jacket I’ve ever owned, which I picked up at some vintage clothing shop on Oranienstrasse.
Well – guess what. Over 15 years down the road, my perhaps unwarranted claim was proven true. Berlin IS my favourite city in Europe, by a long stretch. A town which, I’m afraid, speaks more to me at this stage of my life than my Asian home, Krung Thep, aka Bangkok.
But the strange thing is this. I was somewhat expecting to have a blast museum hopping with my 12 year-old son, also a contemporary history aficionado. It made sense that I’d relate to the fragmented, patched up quality of Berlin, as seen from the dome of the reichstag, for example. What an image of an adult life, at least mine.
What I was not expecting is to be emotionally moved several times in the trip. And I don’t mean stunned – the way you might be by the beauty of Paris from a boat in the Seine. No, I mean personally and emotionally engaged. What follows is a brief account of the when and where of those moments of deep connection to the place.
1. Day one. End of a guided intro walk to Berlin. Brandemburg gate. Corny, eh? Well, sounds like that, but let me explain. In the last part of our walk with walkative (totally recommend), we were shown an example of Nazi architecture (Minstery of aviation), then a building with one of those naive and deeply hipocritical socialist murals, then a parking lot where Hitler had his bunker and, finally, the memorial to the murdered Jews of Europe.
I don’t know. Maybe it was the effect of so much history juxtaposed in so little time. Or maybe it was our guide, J.R. sharing the story of how Berliners came out en masse to boycott a far right demonstration by blasting techno music and then partying the day away.
But being next to Brandemburg Gate at that moment together with my son felt immensely right.
2. Views from the Reichstag. Still on the corny side, but there was something mesmerizing about walking slowly up the ramp circling the dome. My son tried to keep the audio guide in sync with the views described, while I enjoyed the labeled panoramic photos on the brochure, walking as slowly as I could possibly could.
Protestant and Catholic churches, buildings harking back to Prussian times, a Soviet memorial, the Tiergarden, communist inspired housing estates, many a train station, 4 sectors…It’s hard to pack in a more historically diverse views in so little time.
3. Pergamon museum. This one I don’t quite get, really. I was never that partial to Sumerians, Hittites, Assyrians and the like. And, don’t get me wrong, I have been to the British museum, and the Louvre, which dwarf the Pergamon’s collection. But hey, maybe it was the combination of a helpful audioguide, a small and accessible collection, and the sheer size of the Gate of Ishtar and, next door, the equally majestic hellenistic Gate of Miletus.
4. Topographie des terrors. A free museum, located in the very setting that designed and executed terror during the third reich, and which details its rise and machinery. Again – a very easy to follow museum, with a helpful audioguide.
And a photo that haunted me more than no others – the staff from Auschwitz partying away during one of their weekend retreats.
The smiles. As if.
I pray to God that each and every supporter of a fascist or ultra nationalist party will get a chance to visit this place one day.
5. Last day, alternative Berlin free tour, Kreuzberg. The street art was great. Then I recognized cafes where I’d been in the last trip. I loved the guide’s view that why the hell would Starbucks or chain stores open up there if no one would patronize them.
Then we kept walking, past squats, reflecting on gentrification and how towns all over now look alike. We kept walking. The Bethanien Art center beckoned, but we had to move on. My son and I were freezing when we got to YAMM, the end of our tour. What more Belin-esque way to finish a walking tour than to hit a beach bar in such dreary weather?
As we saw the place from the bridge and only dreamed of how the same sight would feel in the Summer, I felt like I just wanted more of me in this place.
It’s as simple as that.