Sunday, March 28, 2010

It's all German to me...

Planning a trip for spring break was one of the most hectic things I had ever experienced while living out here. So many countries to choose from, so many famous sights to see, and so little time. I considered going to multiple countries, just to mark them off my "places to visit" list, but I didn't think I'd get much of a chance to get to know the cities as well as I'd like to. It was a huge dilemma and I was losing sleep over that and that did not sit well with me. Luckily, I have befriended some really awesome people out here and they were extremely helpful in the decision process. A friend from New Hampshire, Alex, planned to go to Berlin, Germany to visit his girlfriend and invited me and another friend, Christina from New York to go along. Without hesitation, Christina and I agreed to go and there it was - a trip to Berlin was put on our agenda.

Alex, Christina and I left for Berlin with excitement and relief. Midterms had proven to be stressful for all of us. As we arrived in Berlin, Alex's girlfriend, Katrina met us at the airport. We all got our five day passes for transportation (a great thing about Europe - the public transportation is INCREDIBLE) and went straight to our hostel. On the U-Bahn (underground train in German and pictured above and please do not ask me what the sign means, it was the the name of the stop where our hostel was haha), I realized that this was the first time in my life to be in a country where I do not speak the official language. I felt incredibly powerless and began depending heavily on Katrina and Alex (they both speak German fluently and it is super impressive). The first German meal we had was at this small, cute restaurant and it served the most amazing authentic German food. I cannot tell you how happy my stomach was that night. I had been starving in London because the food isn't exactly ideal and it was a true blessing to eat German food. I had a whatchamacallit (it started with an 'm' and for the life of me, I can't remember it!) which is similar to a ravioli, it has meat and spinach mixed together in a noodle, like a ravioli and the kind I ordered came with tomato sauce and cheese. It was excellent. I only wish I ordered another one. The picture below is a sign we passed along the way. It says something along the lines of "We are all one people" or something just as equally powerful :)

Our first day in Berlin happened to be on the day of my 22nd birthday! whoo hoo! I actually wanted to bungee jump to commemorate my birthday properly. To my dismay, bungee season begins in April. I guess I'll have to hold up the birthday festivities and wait until I bungee jump!Christina, being the greatest friend, bought me some sort of German sweetcake (pictured below) and it was delicious. Did I mention, German food rocks?

Amazingly, there is this company that gives free city tours and these tours are phenomenal. The tour guides are from all over the world and they take you around the city on a 3 hour walking tour and you get to see most of the sights and get some of the historical background at the same time. So, for my 22nd birthday, I learned 800 years of Berlin history in 8 minutes! Not too shabby...our tour guide was from Ireland and he rocked. During the tour, we saw the holocaust memorial which is in the heart of the city of Berlin. Finn, the awesome tour guide, explained that the memorial is in the heart of Berlin to serve as a constant reminder to never let something as horrific as WWII happen again. The artist's objective was to keep the memorial as abstract as possible, to allow maximum interpretation. We walked through the memorial and this place is huge, it takes up nearly half a block and as you get closer to the center, the walls get much taller and more intimidating. I thought it was symbolic to how the politics of the Third Reich started, small, and eventually, it became so overwhelming, people got lost in the midst of it all. As we walked through, I noticed that it was raining a little bit and I looked up one of the pillars and noticed the rain flowing down the side, it looked like tears were being shed. My heart ached for the pain that my family's ancestors have had to go through for just being who they are and for standing up for their beliefs and I felt the hope for future generations to always remember and try to make the world a better place.

Some stops we made along the tour: the Reichstag (Germany's Parliament building), the Berlin wall, Checkpoint Charlie (where American control began), the Bradenburg Gate (a gate that has lasted through so much violence, separation, and destruction and now serves as a symbol of unity between East and West Berlin), we stood on top of Hitler's underground bunk and as Finn said, Germans take their dogs to the spot and make sure their dogs pee on it. We passed so many museums and historical buildings, it was really fascinating and eerie at the same time. I could not believe that I was walking on the grounds where one of the biggest Fascist groups reigned and shocked the world.

The first picture above is the Bradenburg Gate, a symbol of unity between East and West Germany. The second picture shows the brick outline of where the Berlin Wall used to be, I thought it was quite powerful how cars, bikes, and people can easily cross over the bricks like it's nothing. The third picture is the ground where Hitler's bunk lies below. According to Finn, it is used as storage or something of the sort. The fourth picture is the remains of the Berlin Wall in its original form, grey and boring.
We actually stood at Bebelplatz, the place where the first (I think) Nazi book burning took place. There is a memorial set up there and what you see is a window on the ground and looking through the window, you see white shelves filled with nothing, to symbolize the books that have been burned and will never return. There is a quote (of course, it's in German so I had my friends translate) which says, "where books are burned, in the end people will burn." The picture below is the plaza where the book burning occured, the building in the back is the university where the books came from.

The tour itself was exhausting, but totally worth it. At the end, we all tipped Finn for doing a job well done and moved on to find more good German food! We ended up at a brewery and had a great time eating and laughing.
The next day, we went out to a fleamarket! I could not believe my eyes when I went through this fleamarket. Cameras from the 1920s, old old keys, door handles, WWI helmets, letters from the war era, you name it, they had it. I enjoyed laughing and trying to take pictures without ticking off the sellers. It really was something else.
After the fleamarket, we went to Berlin's own times square for lunch. We saw more of the Berlin wall and this time it was covered with graffiti which made it so different and cool. We also heard some German music out in the middle of the square, kind of like that naked cowboy we all get to see in New York Times Square, only this was a band and they were not naked. Katrina translated some of the words and apparently, they were singing, "Everybody wants me, everybody wants me so bad..." Riiiiigghhhttt

I am straddling on the Berlin Wall line, on my left is East Berlin and on my right is West Berlin. Afterwards, we headed over to the Reichstag because they have a dome that's on top of the building and you get a really great 360 degree view of Berlin. The philosophy behind this dome is that it is completely in glass, making everything visible, including the floor below you. This glass floor is directly above the German parliament's commerce room, which serves as a reminder to Germany's representatives to continue making decisions for the people and to never let anything like the Third Reich's dictatorship happen again. Also, the people peering down on the German parliament helps them remind that Germany belongs to the people.

Katrina and Alex cooked us the most amazing chicken dinner. It so was scrumptious, I devoured everything and had thirds. Tells you how much I am eating out in England - not so much! Later that night, we went out to a jazz concert! It was my first one and I must say, the first of many. I enjoyed listening to the piano, cello, and drums through the night.

The next day was really busy as usual, Christina and I went over to Katrina's apartment for breakfast. They cooked us an authentic Bavarian breakfast which consists of sausage, bread, spicy mustard, and completed with beer. It was SO DELICIOUS and I couldn't believe I was sipping beer at 9 in the morning...I guess we all have those moments. Then we went out to see the Olympic stadium that held the 1936 games and the very same place/games where Jessie Owens dominated track and field. I felt absolutely proud to be there and know that this was where USA dominated :) At the entrance, there is a single tree and this tree's leaves were used to make the "crowns" that were given to the medalists of the 1936 Games. Each medalist received seeds so they could grow a victory tree wherever their home is. Pretty awesome, huh?

The victory tree whose leaves were used to make the "crowns" for medalists is pictured below.

Right after that, we went to the East Side Gallery, which is one of my favorite places. This gallery is not the typical art gallery, it takes place outside, on the east side (duh) of the Berlin Wall and it is 1.7 km long (1/2 mile). After WWII ended, the Russians and the Americans had some tension and split up Germany into two parts, East and West Germany, the line divided up Berlin as well. In 1961, Russia built a wall to keep East Germans from moving to West Germany. The wall stood for 28 years, until 1989. When the wall fell, it was so earth shattering for Berlin and Germany. East Germans rushed over the West Germany (West Germany was much more successful and prominent than East Germany). Interestingly, while the wall was up, bananas were so rare that some people had never seen bananas before and when East Germans ran over the West Germany, some were seen eating bananas with the peel. The East Side Gallery displays art that sends out a message to the world as a reminder to keep peace, unify the people, and to always remember.

The picture above was one of the most powerful murals I found at the gallery. It displays the Israeli and German flag painted as one and just looking at this sent chills down my spine. It is a reminder to me that even though the history of Germany is tainted with blood and tragic deaths, I should not associate Germany with the holocaust, most Germans had no idea what was going on.

The weather in Berlin was not ideal, it was windy, rainy, and it even snowed. So the East Side Gallery was extremely cold and we had to rush through some parts of the wall to try to revive our toes. The next place we went to was the Jewish Museum. This place was overwhelming for me. It talked about the holocaust, the history and the traditions, customs, and cultural aspects of Judaism. My favorite is the wedding customs, I have always loved going to my cousins' weddings.

I was sad to leave Germany so soon, especially when I finally learned how to pronounce thank you in German. But I also looked forward to spending the rest of my spring break in London, where my dad and brother were anxiously waiting for me! The entire time I was in Germany, I could not lip read anyone other than Katrina, Alex and Christina (because they spoke English). I felt extremely powerless there. When I was explaining this to a friend, I said that it was really weird not being able to lip read other people and she said, "Yeah Allie, your superpowers don't work there, in Germany you are just a mere mortal."
Most of the traffic lights have a little man, which is Germany's beloved Ampelmannchen, an image that was developed in East Germany during the Berlin Wall period. It is one of the most affectionate aspects of East Germany.

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