When you think about a trip to Berlin, what do you see? What feelings do you think Berlin will wake up in you? Most people close their eyes and see a hipster vibe, some interesting food, and an amazing nightlife. I felt that way before going, too. But now, after the trip, I know Berlin is all about acceptance.
Have I ever told you about our godparents? I think I did. They’re the reason I got to see Athens and my husband got to see Dublin. They’re the reason we should have seen Tenerife, then Barcelona, but we ended up seeing Cape Verde. And they’re the reason we got to see Berlin this year.
Because they have a baby, the coolest baby, I might add, we initially thought about going on a vacation together somewhere peaceful and quiet. You know, babies need that sometimes. But, after our trip to the Maldives, we realized we had enough peace for this year, so we decided to enjoy a city break together, and they would go for a quiet holiday by themselves.
We discussed also Copenhagen, but that city felt expensive when we looked into it, and the time was not exactly right for this. We had also settled that we’re going to use the 1st of August Swiss bank holiday, as we did in Sicily because we lack vacation days for this year. So we couldn’t have gone to the South of Europe due to high temperatures.
Berlin felt like an easy option. It’s close, it’s affordable, it’s easy to reach for both families. We also speak some German by now, but it’s not like we were relying on our language skills while visiting. And it was on our list for a long time already.
The flights were interesting. On the way in, there were 3 flights in the morning to which I could have used by benefits from work. On the way out, we didn’t have any flights in the evening, so we switched to our usual travel partner, EasyJet. Of course, we didn’t buy the inbound flight tickets, because we’re rebels and we’re flying standby.
While the time to go was not in such a far future anymore, we realized our rebel approach had some flaws. Since it was the 1st of August, which was a Thursday, lots of people were using this bank holiday to have a long weekend trip.
And since people in Switzerland speak German (sort of, I won’t get into the details now), a big number of Swiss people decide to enjoy their vacations in Germany.
This meant that Berlin was a pretty crowded destination that weekend. It also meant that we had 0 chances in making it on a flight. We also didn’t have any other options directly from Basel, or the prices were through the roof due to the supply and demand balance.
So we had to get creative. By creative I mean we opened Google maps and searched for other airports in Germany that were close enough to Berlin that we could cover the remaining distance by train, but obscure enough to not have lots of people going there for the long weekend.
Leipzig was the winner in this contest, with a convenient flight in the morning that seemed like it would have two available seats for two cheap losers like us.
Before the actual trip, we had everything ready. Our godmother had the itinerary all set up, we reserved two nice rooms in a hotel, we even had train tickets from Leipzig to Berlin. The inbound flight was the only variable, but who’s counting?
So, on the D day, we went to Zurich, got to the airport, arrived at the gate, and started waiting. Luckily, we got on the flight this time too, and we got the amazing chance of sleeping for at least half an hour before take-off.
Because of course, our flight was delayed. And of course our train ticket was still valid, but we had to search for other trains now since we wouldn’t have made it on the initial one.
We got to Leipzig airport and wanted to reach the city. But come on, why would it be easy when it can be difficult? The train station had 4 platforms, and none of them had any signs to tell you where should you go to reach the city. We wandered around the area for a while, probably missing a few connections, but in the end, we managed to get to the city.
Here, we found our first connection available in a few minutes. We got to the platform, waited, and kept on waiting for a while. The train never appeared. No idea where it went, we just didn’t see it. After 15 minutes of waiting for an imaginary train, the Deutsche Bahn app let us know the train was canceled. Still, no idea where it disappeared.
Our next connection was due an hour later, so we had some time to explore Leipzig a little bit. For whom it may concern, Leipzig used to be a progressive trade-oriented city over time. But after intense bombing during WW2 and being part of East Germany for around 50 years, Leipzig doesn’t have it easy on recovering.
Like all former East Germany. For those of you who don’t know, after WW2, Germany was split into two parts: the West Germany, GFR (German Federal Republic), under the administration of US, English and French forces, and East Germany, GDR (German Democratic Republic), under the administration of the Russian forces, communist at that time.
After the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989, Germany was reunited again. And East Germany started a strong rebuilding process since the last 50 years were enough to imprint a large difference between the two republics. Even today, German people from former West Germany pay a tax that is used to help former East Germany to get to a certain level of economic and social welfare.
And Leipzig carries the signs of the not so distant history. The streets have a communist vibe to them, gray is the favorite color for buildings and you can feel the ongoing work of making it newer and better. It will take time, but this city will get back to its once flourishing success.
The hour passed pretty quickly and we had the honor of getting on a full train with no empty seats. We barely found a place to put our luggage for the hour-long trip and cursed the rebel initiative that made us go through this experience.
The first day in Berlin
The first impression was not as good as I would have thought. I’m sorry to say this, but Berlin seemed dirty. Like, on the streets there were areas where I had flashbacks to our Indonesian adventure). Also, it feels crowded and noisy.
There are lots of people, lots of bikers, lots of cars in traffic. The ambulance sirens are so loud you still hear them a few days after you got back home.
The traffic didn’t seem that optimized either. The bike paths are all over the place, either on the sidewalk or on the street, so you always have to be very aware of your surroundings. Cars are plenty as well, and the green light for pedestrians is so short, you can barely get to the other side of the street before drivers start honking and wishing you all the best.
As you can already guess, we registered for a Sandeman tour for Berlin. The meeting point was at the Brandenburg gate, at this was the perfect opportunity to learn why this area is the one that triggers plenty of emotional reactions from Germans all over the world.
A pretty interesting experience is a “walk” through the Memorial to the murdered Jews of Europe. Just, trust me on this, you want to do it. Take your time, let your camera down for 15 minutes, and wander around the gray blocks by yourself. All alone, just split the group for a few minutes, you won’t die.
Look around and see how you feel. The author didn’t provide any information about it, so you cannot go wrong with your result. Do you feel comfortable? Do you feel safe? Do you feel sad, or happy? Do you feel there’s still hope in the world? Do you feel love around you?
Take these feelings with you. Remind yourself of what you felt here. And then think of what did those people think when they were deported to Auschwitz or Dachau. And please, please don’t climb the blocks or take pictures with you doing the splits around here. Imagine you’re surrounded by victims and think about how you should behave in this context.
All around Berlin you can see where the Berlin wall used to be. There are still a few parts that were kept intact, but everything else is now demolished. There’s only a line that’s crossing the entire city, no matter where you are you can see it or feel it. It crosses parks, streets, sidewalks, even buildings. This line doesn’t care. As the wall didn’t care at that point.
Also, if you pay attention, you can feel the difference between East and West Berlin all across the city. The buildings look different, the streets are not the same, even the traffic lights are a good indicator of where you are.
All around the city you can also see former Nazi buildings. They were kept for very pragmatic reasons like these buildings were the few that survived the war. After a war, you need all the help you can get to rebuild a nation. So anything that was still standing up and sometimes having running water went through a “denazification” process and became useful again.
There’s a place you won’t see while in Berlin. This is the place where Hitler had his headquarters and the bunker where he eventually died. This is due to a very sad reason: they don’t want to give neo-nazi people a place to gather to like pilgrims do.
Unfortunately, it looks like we never learn from the past. Although, having them gather around and then sending them for a few days to visit a concentration camp with the doors shut and no plan to take them out doesn’t sound like a bad plan. But, you know, bigger person and all that.
Checkpoint Charlie is another representative place for Berlin. Just ignore the massive guys that ask for your money to take a picture with them, and think about what this point is all about.
Imagine that any crisis or any diplomatic sparkle that could have started a new war 70 years ago, would have probably appeared here. Think of it: a few square feet that could have blown up the world.
After this, we went to Bebelplatz, which doesn’t look like more than a public place now. But here, you can catch a glimpse of the dimensions of the whole thing. Two extremes collide in this public place.
A few centuries ago, Berlin was the place to be to feel included. It was one of the most progressive cities in the world. You could come here no matter your religion, your sexual orientation, your color or even your political views. If you feel left out where you were at the moment, then Berlin was the right place for you.
Less than a century ago, this was the place where Nazi members burned books from the biggest library in the world at that time. Like burning people during the inquisition, or burning cities in ancient times, burning knowledge is also a sin that should trigger an alarm.
And the signs were clear. The books they have chosen were not random at all. The authors were either homosexual or of “inferior” provenance. The books were about communist ideologies, about inclusion and acceptance. And this were students, the most open-minded people of them all, you would think. But the propaganda was too strong for everyone.
Because let me tell you, it’s easy for us to say “How could this have happened? No one saw this as a problem from the beginning?”. Unfortunately, and lots of social experiments can prove this, we are SO easy to trick into doing awful things. We are so easy to manipulate, we don’t even realize how weak we are.
I can point you to some reference to back up my words if you like. You can watch The wave, which is based on a true story, by the way, and see how it works. You can also watch Das experiment, which is also based on a true story – I’ve studied this experiment in college. You can read all sorts of books about this, and you will realize just how weak we are in front of highly educated people that are up to no good.
So this public square perfectly encapsulates why Berlin is about acceptance. Once, Berlin was about accepting everyone. And one day, just like that, it was about accepting no one, all of a sudden. Acceptance and tolerance are not given to us. We always have to work to maintain this healthy attitude, because it has proven to be SO easy to lose.
Now, Berlin is again about acceptance. Berlin could hide all signs of what used to be the Nazi regime. But it doesn’t. And the German nation as a whole does this. Instead of claiming “It’s all in the past, let’s just forget about it!”, they just say “Yes, this happened here. It was awful! THIS is what happened!”. They show to everyone each horror detail they still have available.
And then they say: “Let’s all be aware of this and NOT repeat it!”. They accept what their ancestors have done and they openly admit it. This is another side of acceptance, quite a difficult one, I might add. Standing by your mistakes is a strong suit that doesn’t suit everyone. But it suits them in such a way that you must become aware of the consequences if it wouldn’t have.
So keep this in mind when visiting Berlin. The history here is rough. Those walls have seen stuff. Everything here has a past. But the future is so bright ahead of it. The new Berlin is as inclusive and tolerant as it gets. And it will stay like this. The Germans will ensure it stays like this.
Let me finish this parenthesis with a funny note. If Berlin would not have been to open-minded at the moment, we wouldn’t have had 5 Englishmen having a party in their hotel room, and we wouldn’t have been awakened by two of them jumping up and down their twin beds shouting: “We are fucking gaaaaay!”. This wouldn’t have happened.
The second day in Berlin
As we had the cutest baby joining us for this trip, we had to also cater to his needs. For this reason, we planned half a day for a visit to a zoo, claiming the baby wanted to see the pandas. All of us wanted to see the pandas, but we blamed it on the baby.
The zoo was an occasion for me to see a crocodile again – I have seen another one in Basel and I initially thought it was made of plastic since it stayed SO still for 10 minutes. Also, I could put my nose against the glass wall that split us and some sharks. The baby was quite embarrassed, I think.
We left the zoo and were planning to remake the tour from a day before to share some cool information with our godparents. But, all of a sudden, the biggest rain started. We barely managed to get to a covered alleyway, at least to keep the kid dry.
We had umbrellas and raincoats, but it was not enough for that monster of a rain. The streets got flooded in the whole neighborhood, cars couldn’t reach the area where we were, and there were also people getting out of their apartment blocks complaining about their flats being flooded.
In the meantime, the baby was sleeping the most peaceful sleep possible due to the fresh air, and we were trapped in that alleyway with some other random people. Uber was not picking orders in the area since the cars couldn’t get there anymore, and we couldn’t have gone away on foot since the water was too deep on the streets.
This intense rain lasted for 3-4 hours. Even when we finally managed to leave, it didn’t stop, it was just less messy. And we got to leave with the Uber driver that decided to shout to another traffic participant that he was a pig, just because he didn’t allow him to pass on a red light. But hey, at least our German was good enough to understand what he said. #standards
Guess when the rain stopped! Please, take a guess. You’re right, of course, it stopped raining the moment we got to the hotel. And of course, it was too late to do anything else for the day already, since the baby also needed some time to get ready to go to sleep.
The third day in Berlin
Since the previous day was brutally changed to a quiet time, we had to take advantage of our last full day in Berlin. So, we started with a visit to the Topography of terror exhibition, where I annoyed everyone by telling them the whole story of the WW2. Yes, again.
As I said in Prague: you don’t know a country until you know its history. This is how the people got to where they are now. This is how you explain how a city looks like, why their food is as it is, and sometimes even their national anthem starts to make sense.
After the Topography of terror, we presented everything we could to our godparents, mixing and matching what we found out from the tour and what we knew from very reliable sources like Wikipedia and my memory.
While looking for a place to eat, we encountered an area where we could start a river cruise. This was an interesting idea since we could see a lot of new and old Berlin at the same time. The baby was also very happy to play around the boat and to wave to everyone that was passing by.
We managed to also squeeze in the West side wall, that part of the Berlin wall that was kept intact just to celebrate the fall of the rest of it. This is like an open-air modern art gallery. From various representations of freedom and openness to nifty, not-so-subtle innuendos that God is a woman, you can find it all here.
This area of the wall is like a mix and match of color and creativity. It’s like a Rio carnival for freedom of speech but in Germany. It’s like an explosion of arts and ideas that happened here and no one took the time to clean it up. And it’s for the best, in my opinion.
After enjoying the fresh breath of tolerance near the former less tolerant area of the city, we strolled to the Television tower, called the Fernsehturm. Yes, the German language is…challenging. This is the word we decided to use since we started learning it. Here, we just managed to send the guys to stay in a line, only to get tickets for the next day.
I know we’re usually better planners, but it was lucky for us we didn’t plan this visit. Think about it: we could have put it for the time it was raining. The view would have been awful at that time, and we wouldn’t have made it anyway. So, judge away, we stay by our right to be as rebels as we want. We can still complain about it though…
Leaving Berlin was not easy. Especially after we finally got in the tower and enjoyed a bird’s eye view of it all. From here, the city felt so small and vulnerable, like you could conquer it just by looking around.
And this is something I realize just now: before we went there, I expected Berlin to feel imposing and cold. I came back surprised, which always happens to me and I’m always happy to be surprised like this. Berlin, in the end, felt alive. This is the extent of it.
It was not cold, not untouchable, not out of line. It was just alive. It’s like it’s saying that if you come here with an open heart and less prejudice, you will enjoy it. You’ll start living through its veins and recharge from its infinite spring of power.
We had to split up after the tower visit because our godparents had an earlier flight than we had. But, due to the big distance that we had to cover, we couldn’t fit anything else in the rest of the day except for Charlottenburg. We wanted to be sure to see something from Berlin since before.
Before what, you ask? Before it became a war zone. Before it became a hate zone. Before it became a victim. And I always do this when I go to a place that has a sad history. Because I want to remember that place as what it used to be before we started to become shitty human beings to each other.
Charlottenburg reminded me of a time when “Ladies and gentlemen” was not only a way of starting a speech but an actual way of addressing a crowd. Because it made sense, they were ladies and gentlemen at that point.
It reminded me of ballrooms, and waltzes, and proper etiquette when addressing a countess or a baron. It showed us a time when collecting and painting china was an important hobby for people and a time when having gardens and parks around was a big plus for a castle.
When we left this place, it was like we were still under a spell. Which was probably obvious and that’s why a nice lady offered to help us to get to our hotel. As usual, we seemed like we were lost, so random nice people offer to help us. It happens quite often that we’re helped by people without even asking for it.
I’m going to finish this here, on this note. I want this to be my last feeling about our trip to Berlin. It’s all about acceptance, and tolerance, and openness to everything. And it’s all in our power. It’s a choice we can make: and I choose to be the nice lady that offers her help to people.