As I type this, my younger sister is in Berlin, and my other sister is planning her return to this vibrant city. It seems Berlin is a magnet for the three of us, and all for the same reasons – we agree it is a bigger, cooler, historically-richer version of our home city in Australia, Melbourne.
B and I visited Berlin in July 2012. The weather was a welcome relief from the long, hot days of Budapest, which we spent sweating, swimming, sunning ourselves, and occasionally hiding inside with a fan on. Berlin, on the other hand, was perfect weather during the day and cool at night. I think the hottest it got was about 25 degrees Celcius. We decided against flying over there as B was, at that stage, still without an EU passport (thanks to the Hungarian bureaucracy), and his 3 month tourist visa in his Australian passport had expired. The downside of being a dual national, I suppose…
The train journey was 12.5 hours each way and went through Slovakia and the Czech Republic before entering Germany. Needless to say, given it was summer, the train was completely over-booked and we were lucky to board at the start of the journey and maintain our seats. In typical Hungarian post-communist style, the train was lacking the comforts of the Austrian or German railway services (oh, ÖBB Railjet, how we loved thee) and apparently it was typical for seats to be double booked or reservations to be muddled up.
In Bratislava, a group of women were most unimpressed that we were in “their” seats, which in fact, as the tickets showed, were ours too. The conductor managed to speak to us in Hungarian and the women in Slovak (impressive), and offered them seats in First Class. We saw many people come and go from the train and were squished in most of the time.
At one point I was so sick of it that I decided to walk up to the restaurant carriage for a coffee to stretch my legs. (Mistake number 1) We were about four carriages down from this and navigating through hoards of backpackers sitting on their packs in the aisles, the passageways next to the booths and between carriages was insane. I was literally climbing over people. It was hot, smelly and overcrowded to the point where I realised our “squished” position in a slightly more roomy and airconditioned carriage was in fact a blessing. The restaurant carriage served Nescafé instant cappuccino (mistake number 2, the powdered milk makes me a bit queasy) and only accepted cash (mistake number 3, I was running low on cash – never assume credit cards are accepted everywhere… I should really have known this after 5 months of living in Hungary, where cash is king.) So I had trawled all the way up through the belly of the snaking train, stumbling over people who were attempting to stay sane on a long journey with no seat, I decided I’d make the most of the seating being different and I tried out every position I could to ease the numbness of my arse.
A group of English backpackers were drinking cheap champagne, sitting around a large table playing cards, talking about their money running low and their parents not giving them any more. I felt as though I had stepped into a murder mystery novel set on a train; the carriage was all red velvet, dark wood and brass, but poorly maintained, well-worn and irregularly polished. The menu was tattered, in four languages, prices in three currencies, conversion rates completely off kilter. The greenery whizzed past me and my awful coffee clinked and wobbled. Two men, travelling alone, sat at separate tables reading newspapers in languages I could not decipher from my position. The English lads continued to order the champagne and I heard one say it was worth the dent in his budget, just to make the journey more bearable. I admit, had I had more cash I might have done the same.
We managed to read, snack (thankfully, in my usual “what if there is no food?” panic, I did pack some snacks but we had to ration them), sleep and talk our way through the 12 hours. B scowled at people, silently fuming. I wriggled uncomfortably, smiling at strangers and engaging in small talk with backpackers who were shifting from seat to seat as they became available, albeit briefly, between stops.
From the cramped and stuffy confines of a communist era train, we stepped into the wide openness of Berlin in the evening. The Hauptbahnhof itself was a maze of steel and glass, elevators, shops (oh, those bakeries!), modern trains and screens and screens of departures and arrivals. In the same way that I am fascinated by airports, I am too by large train stations. They are a bubble-world. If I had to be trapped in a train station, a main German one would be my choice.
We were smitten by the modernness of Berlin almost instantly. It was like no other European city we had visited – a lack of the narrow streets and laneways, none of the street after street of stunning old buildings – and it did not take long to realise that because Berlin had been essentially flattened during WW2, it had also been gloriously rebuilt. Some of the older buildings were restored or rebuilt after air-raid damage, but most of Berlin is quite modern.
The spaciousness of Berlin as a result of its rebuilding is so appealing. Green grass in the city, incredible public transport, wide streets, pedestrian and cyclist friendly, and a fascinating history that I could not get enough of whilst there (it’s coming back to me as I type but I am Google-searching for facts that I have forgotten since we were there!)
I was so fascinated by the Communist history of Hungary and how it connected to Berlin that I read (devoured, in fact) Anna Funder’s Stasiland whilst there, and on the train home to Budapest. Interestingly, this text was on the list for VCE Year 12 Literature which I taught the previous year. At a teacher’s conference, I was curious as to what this text was all about but did not pursue it until I was in Europe and surrounded by the places and histories referenced in it.
A stunning mix of old and new – exactly what I love about Melbourne, I love in a more intense and magnified way about Berlin.
I managed to find a good deal on a nice hotel in a wonderful neighbourhood – what happened to be the gay district of Berlin, complete with “Mr B’s Leather and Rubber Store” – and checked into the Quentin Design Hotel in the Schöneberg district. We enjoyed exceptionally delicious Vietnamese food, wine, gourmet burgers and friendly locals in this neighbourhood. It felt safe, as though you could move in there immediately and blend in.
Keeping in mind that in Budapest, Vietnamese food was hard to come by (OK, impossible), I rarely felt as though I blended in, though that was probably all in my head, and I was on-guard a lot in my first few months there; to suddenly arrive in a city that I instantly felt at home in was met with blessed relief and excitement.
Above: A park in the Schöneberg neighbourhood we stayed in. Families were playing a mini game of soccer whilst young people and lovers sat and smoked cigarettes on the rocks.
We had no plan when arriving in Berlin. We rarely planned anything when we travelled. At times this was to our detriment – we missed the “must-do” things that others asked about – “did you do this? Did you do that?”… met with a sheepish “no” – but we always managed to discover something else along the way. The only thing I wanted to see was remnants of The Berlin Wall. I was keen to do a bike tour, and one had been recommended by a friend. I wanted to experience the city, to live amongst people going about their day, to walk, watch, try, eat and absorb it all.
Not having a plan allows for spontaneity but you do have to be aware that you will miss certain things. The flip-side is, when you do have a list of things to see or do, inevitably some won’t come to fruition.
Plans for the bike tour were made for a few days down the track, and we decided to get our bearings in the city by taking a basic bus tour. We were also quite tired on that first day (all that sitting around on the train the previous day…) so some passive touristing was perfect. Bus tours are a good way of checking out the sights and deciding what you want to revisit and learn about in more detail. After five months, we were pretty much done with old churches, buildings and monuments. Berlin still has some, despite its war wounds (many were hidden away to be salvaged later, and relocated around the city after the war) but mostly the tour was of the newer sights of the city, and of course Checkpoint Charlie and the remainder of the Wall.
The more I read of Stasiland and the more Google searching I did when I found wifi, the more I understood how the city came to be divided by such an enormous physical barrier. What we imagine about something so bizarre is often incorrect – it wasn’t until I saw a postcard with a diagram of the Wall, including the Death Strip, that I began to understand how it worked, and how it was a symbol of the politics of Germany and greater Europe at the time.
Part two is yet to be written – more ramblings on Berlin to come!