Back to the homeland

Trip Start Mar 23, 2010
Trip End Jun 09, 2010

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Saturday, April 24, 2010

4/24 - Berlin - Day one
I probably shouldn't say back to the homeland, seeing as how I've never been there before, but that's certainly what it felt like arriving in Berlin. And I didn't realize that fact until the moment I checked into my hostel on the first day of what would become one of the greatest, if not longest, weeks of my life. The day started with a 9am flight out of Heathrow, which actually wasn't too bad. Lesson one: don't believe all the travel hype. This trip was a tiny miracle for me in and of itself. With the looming ash cloud of volcano mjdhrgjkudhgik or whatever it's called, the fear of not even being able to go had been steadily growing. The people around me were freaking out more than I was though. I refused to make alternate plans, or even think about it, until the Thursday previous to my leaving. Thursday morning the ash cloud started clearing up. I was then told that even though flights were going out, Heathrow was so backed up that i still might not make it out (it ended up being the least crowded flight I've ever been on. I was completely surrounded by empty seats.). Then I was told that, even though my flight was going out, that Heathrow itself would be a zoo, and I would have to be there 4 hours before my flight. I got there with 45 minutes to departure, and still had time to grab a croisant and a coffee. Don't believe all the hype. Now, back to Berlin. I didn't check any baggage, so I was out of the terminal and through security with impressive speed. I bought a tiny pocket guide to Berlin, and then I set about the daunting task of navigating my way to my hostel. The thing is, I've found that anytime you're in a foreign country, and you don't know your way around, if you don't freak out, and you just stare at your map, you will eventually figure out where to go, and how to go about doing so. Once I finally got to my accommodations for the weekend - the behemoth Generator Hostel - it was only around noon. The feeling of belonging hit me at the check-in desk. Normally anytime I give my surname I automatically spell it out, but this time, as I was in the midst of spelling "H-I-R..." it was at that moment that I realized I didn't have to spell it at all. I was giving a German name to a German in Germany. And sure enough, the receptionist comments, "You're a German, ya?" said more as a statement than a question. This was the first of many many times in the following four countries I would go to that someone would feel the need to point out to me that I was in fact German. Also, side note: the room I thought I was buying was a "4 twin bed dorm." My room actually had 8 twin beds. I inquired the next morning as to the discrepancy, and was answered with, "Ya, four twin beds, that's 4 x 2, which equals 8." Huh? But it didn't matter too much. You only use your room for a few hours for sleeping anyways. I quickly dumped my belongings in my assigned locker and hit the street. The plan was to leisurely stroll through the city on my way to the newEurope free walking tour meeting point (anyone who doesn't know about them, should. If you're planning on going to Europe, they give free, very thorough walking tours of many major European cities. They pretty much made my trip for me. Love newEurope.) So, I grabbed my map, oriented myself towards the TV tower, and started walking, taking pictures of any sign that included the word "Hirsch" or "Ausfart" - "exit" in German. And yes, I'm that mature. Hours later, and much German window-shopping later, I got to my destination: "20 minutes to go...but wait. Where's the Starbucks? Hm...lemme just open my map up....oh. damn. wrong place." Yes, I was across town at the "Alternative City Tour" meeting spot rather than the free tour meeting spot. The next twenty minutes involved me speed walking/jogging to the correct location. I made it there with time to spare. The tour was great. I had Max. He was nice, short, and had a lumberjack's beard. Max took us everywhere a Berlin tourist would want to go. We started with an introduction to the very square we were standing in - Pariser Platz which is home to the Brandenburger Tor - a lovely gate which has become one of the quintessential symbols of Berlin. After a brief history lesson we moved on down the road to the Holocaust Memorial, which was amazing and I would thankfully have the privilege of exploring it further in depth later on. The memorial consists of 205,000 square feet which has hundreds of giant concrete slabs, that seem to grow and loom larger as you work your way through their maze. The designer deliberately intended that the meaning of the memorial would be left up to the individual to interpret. Some say the blocks represent graves, others say they represent the vast ocean of people's lives that were lost; whatever the reason, it's difficult to deny that there is a definite depth and meaning to what you are viewing. We took a break here, which allowed us to wander through. Once on the other side we discussed the building process, a project which was completed very recently, in 2005. Around the time of the opening of the memorial it came out that the manufacturers of the anti-graffiti glaze that was painted onto the blocks had also been the makers and suppliers of the gas that had been used in the gas chambers of the death camps. Of course, when this was found out it created a huge PR nightmare for the memorial, and for Berlin tourism, but eventually the company supplied the glaze for free (something I think they should have done from the beginning). Max shared a few other tidbits of interesting info. Apparently BOSS Hugo Boss was the supplier of the Nazi uniforms. And Coke didn't want to sell their most famous drink to the Nazis, so they developed a new drink that they sold specifically to them: Fanta orange. Never drinking Fanta again. We went further down the street to a small, unassuming parking lot. Turns out it used to be the site of a Nazi bunker - which is actually still there under the parking lot, and was also the site of Hitler's suicide. So it actually makes sense that there are no monuments or memorials to the site, though apparently Max said that every once in awhile when he's taking a group through they will see flowers placed there. After a couple more stops including the June 17th memorial, which basically marks a day of uprising of the people of East Berlin, we arrived at the second largest piece of the Berlin wall. This portion is fenced off and has been chunked away at. I would visit the largest portion later. Next we went to Checkpoint Charlie, which was the most famous checkpoint that people had to cross through during the Cold War. It's a total tourist spot now. There is a Soviet soldier and a U.S. soldier - fake ones, actors - that stand there for you to take pictures of, or with. Next we had a break. I went to Aroma Cafe and had the best mocha milkshake ever, while I talked to two other girls on the tour who are currently studying abroad in Prague - my next stop. I got some tips on what to see there from them. After our stop we went to the Koncerthaus - home of the Berlin Symphony Orchestra. We also took note of the Franzosischer Dom and the Deutscher Dom, which are two, almost identical looking buildings on the opposite sides of a courtyard. The French one was built for the Huguenots, the German one, to one-up the French. Then we went to Bebel Platz where an infamous book-burning took place. There is now a translucent panel in the ground which looks down on a room of empty, stark white bookshelves, which, if full, would hold the amount of books that had been burned. Across the street was Humboldt University - where Einstein taught for 20 years, among other famous students and teachers. Then we went to the Neue Wache, which is the memorial to the victims of fascism and militarism. There is a reproduction there of the Pieta sculpture. It sits solitary in the middle of a large, empty room. Above it there is an opening in the roof, which lets in whatever natural elements are falling from the sky, making it a pretty powerful piece. We ended the tour at Museum Island, which is exactly what it sounds like. We sat on the steps of the Berliner Dom and Max finished up the tour with a nice little story about the falling of the Berlin wall, concluding our amazing 4-hour tour of central Berlin. After I paid him a tip and said goodbye I walked around the city for a couple hours and then headed back to the Generator for a very unpeaceful night of rest - if you can call it that. My roommates were loud. And obnoxious. And inconsiderate. The sleep debt started to mount here.
4/25 - Berlin - Day two (thought I'd say now that this entry talks in detail about a trip to a concentration camp, so if you're very sensitive, maybe skip it)
By the second day I already began to be aware of just how much I would think to myself, "God, I think my legs are going to fall off.....yes, yes, I'm sure of it now. They're going to fall off." That would play in my head constantly as I wandered around these strange cities, exhausted from the hours on end of walking mounted on top of a lack of sleep due to noisy hostel mates, or disgusting rooms - as I would have in Prague. But I could sleep when I was back in London, this kind of week only happens once. So it was push push push for me, and my second day in Berlin started with a visit to the East Side Gallery, a.k.a. the largest intact piece of the Berlin wall. It stretches for a long ways, and is covered in every kind of art from artists all over the world that came in to commemorate the wall with their interpretation of the events surrounding the fall. I walked the entire length of it, enjoying what was probably the coolest "art gallery" I've ever been to, and certainly the most historical. Once I got to the other end I hopped on the underground (thank you Europe for being so developed in your transportation systems) and went to the meeting point for another newBerlin tour. Berlin's newEurope is really developed. I think it may have originated there, so they have a lot of focused tours available. Today I would take what I thought to be the most important one, because of my limited time there, a very serious and emotional one - a tour to Sachsenhausen - the concentration camp that all the others were modeled after. Ben and Stephanie would be our guides for the day, later on they would split us into groups to make navigating easier. I would have Stephanie. Both of the guides were great, Stephanie was especially sensitive in the way she handled the subject matter, and Ben was very professional. He was actually responsible for co-creating the Prague location of newEurope, the other creator being a guy named Justin, who he told me to look out for when I was in Prague. I did. And I got him, but more on that later. First, Sachsenhausen. If I didn't already love newEurope before, this sealed it for me. I cannot sing the praises enough of these guys, but before I turn into an infomercial for them, let me explain. Sachsenhausen is a bit far out from the center of Berlin, so our guides ferried our group there. From the train station we had the option of taking a bus, but they had us walk. The reason being that this was the very same route that the camp prisoners had walked themselves, as they had come in from the same train station. It's easy to forget sometimes that this was a war that happened scarily recently, only 70 years ago, and something like a train station can last that long, did last that long, and is now still standing and still bringing people into its city... After the walk which lasted probably 30 minutes we were split up and began the tour. It was a depressingly beautiful day. I don't know...there's something about visiting a concentration camp that makes you feel like the blue skies and chirping birds are mocking their environment. This was not a "death camp" in that it was not a place where prisoners were sent to be murdered. It was a "work camp" where the prisoners did menial slave labor. But that did not mean that people were not killed. Thousands died here. And to put that in perspective, the deaths were so high that for the duration of the camp, about 15 people died a day, from the conditions, from being killed in cold-blood, from sickness... It was horrendous, but the number of deaths were not high enough to constitute the purchase and installation of a gas chamber, so instead, guards would have the other prisoners pile the bodies in a room, where they would then wait for there to be a "truck-loads worth." At that point, they would load the bodies up and take them to another camp to be burned. There was one instance where the truck careened off the road, crashing, and spilling the bodies into the street. Now remember that at this time there was a horrible amount of denial on the part of the Nazis, as well as self-denial on the part of the German's, and much of the rest of Europe, as to what was actually happening at these camps. Hence propaganda photos that were shown to the public which often depicted prisoners in livable conditions. Searches were also done by the Red Cross. The really messed up part of that was that the camps were given months of warning in advance, and once again, there was a kind of front that was put up when the Red Cross actually visited, so much so that they deemed it "harsh but livable conditions." Insane. At this time the German people (so these are your average citizens, not those brainwashed by Hitler) were also being told that the only people in concentration camps were miscreants, rapists, and murderers. So Germans were happy that these people were locked up. They also were blissfully unaware of the amount of deaths occurring. The whole thing is mind-boggling. There are two barracks still standing, and this is only after extensive work has been done to keep them that way. The reason being that buildings in these camps were not built to last, they were supposed to be short-term structures for Hitler's "final solution." The two buildings that are still there now act as museums, and house a host of materials and artifacts from that period. Included are a minimal amount of shoes and glasses, some art work by the prisoners, a pair of the infamous striped pajamas that a prisoner would wear for the duration of his life at the camp, but mainly there is starkness everywhere. There are photographs in the museums, but for the most part, especially the rest of the camp, it is left bare. This is especially startling when you come to the infirmary and....the large empty space that served as the aforementioned "dumping ground" for the bodies. I had mixed feelings about that. I almost feel that this shouldn't be on view. Our guide didn't go down to this location with us because, as she said, "one time was enough." I agree with her. You're looking at a huge expanse of a room that basically served as a wastebasket. A place that human lives were thrown away and tossed aside with the amount of importance as a used Kleenex. And dear God, there are still blood stains on the floor. I promptly turned around and walked up the stairs as quickly as I could go. But there was probably nothing worse for the prisoners than being sick at a concentration camp. If you were the recoverable kind of sick, then they would, ironically, nurse you back to health and get you back to work. If you were in no condition to work anymore, you were used for medical experimentation, where they would research seemingly legitimate questions in the most inhumane ways possible. They would do things like test the ability to revive someone after they have drowned. Well, of course this would involve drowning the prisoner first, bringing him to the brink of death, reviving him, and repeating. They also tested the spread of gangrene. To do this they would cut a hole in a prisoner's arm, stuff it with rancid meat and yard waste, and then sew it back up, following the development until eventual death. There were so many horrible things these prisoners had to endure, it's tough to relay them now. But there was one nice thing we got to see while we were there, which was a memorial to the anniversary of the liberation of the camp, which had happened very recently before our visit. Besides that, Sachsenhausen remains a very dark and grim place, but it is important for its history and its mark on the holocaust as a whole and I truly hope everyone I know gets the chance to witness and experience a place like that at least once in their lives. There are many more stories I could relate from my visit there (such as the remains of the gas chambers that the camp had to eventually install because of the sheer mass of deaths occurring at the camp) however, I am done with this subject. And I can imagine that if you have read this far, you may be too. What I can say is that by the end of this trip, those 9 days, I had experienced something very profound, both personally and on a grander scale. I had had no idea the kind of ties I would feel to Germany, and I was also ignorant of the ties that went between the four countries I would visit, how they related with one another, and the similar histories that they shared. The ride back to the center of Berlin felt especially long as I thought about what I had just seen... I feel somewhat awkward now transitioning into relaying the story of the rest of my day, much as I felt awkward that day as I actually went on to do more things. However, I was still a tourist, and I was still working on limited time, so the show had to go on, despite the heavy beginning to the day. So, once I got off the train I made my way to the very famous Reichstag. And actually it felt like a very appropriate way to the end the day. I grabbed a bratwurst from a street vendor (best of my life) and got in the line to enter the building. About 40 minutes later I was in. This was a considerably short line, by the way. They normally run 2+ hours. Once inside, you take an elevator to the top of the building, and are then let out to the rooftop area. I wandered around, enjoying great 360 degree views as I went. Then I climbed the spiral staircase and looked through the glass dome's windows at the ever-increasing range of view. It was around 7pm when I finished my wandering, but I decided that what I really wanted was night views from the dome. So, I went to the roof-top restaurant, which was a swanky, white-tablecloth sort of place (like the equivalent of going to the Space Needle for dinner). Luckily there was a cancellation, so I was able to get a table. It was a bit too expensive to get a real dinner, but what I did do (making the wait staff very happy, I'm sure) was order a cup of mango gelato. It was delicious. Which is good, considering a couple ounce scoop was about $15 American. Yeah...but now I can say I ate there, plus I was able to rest, and most importantly, I was able to pass the time until nightfall without having to stand in the line again. So, I made my way up the spiral again, waited until dusk, took some more pictures, and then waited some more until night, and experienced some of the most beautiful views of the city possible. Berlin day 2 had come to an end. Lesson 2 learned: make sure you get to see the night side of a foreign city.

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