The transition from Krakow to Berlin felt like our first real “nomadic” venture. We had to check out of our Krakow hostel by 10:30am, and our overnight train to Berlin was not departing until 10pm. We paid about $3 to store our bags in secure lockers at the train station and headed back into the town, with no place to call “home”.
This lack of a “base” was an odd feeling. I inadvertently found myself throughout the day likening our current lifestyle and situation to that of the peoples of the steppe. They were often nomadic tribes who moved from place to place to allow their horses and sheep the best nutrients for grazing, almost in the fashion of crop rotation but for animals. While our situation obviously isn’t equivalent, I could appreciate some of the obstacles that lifestyle presented.
Upon arrival in Berlin, we trekked 2 miles to our hotel. This was actually a big deal for us, we rarely get to stay in a place as nice as a hotel. Our room was not ready, so we located a nearby coffee shop. To our surprise, it had tulumba, our new favorite Turkish honey-churro pastry. We ordered one to share and a cappuccino. We both lost ourselves in books for a while before packing back up and checking into the hotel. After getting settled in, we looked up popular food experiences in Berlin and set out for dinner. The first was a place called Curry 36, which is a Berlin chain serving currywurst. It was delicious. The standard is 2 sausages and fries covered in curry powder, then ketchup. Mayo also comes on the fries. It is delicious, savory, and heavy.
The following day we set out with ambitions of a full day in Berlin. The architecture is Berlin was polarizing, much like other former Communist cities and countries we had visited.
For every tall glass, modern skyscraper, there was a drab, grey socialist styled building. The divisions between West and East Berlin were less apparent than I expected. One of the supposed dividers is the “walk” signal on stoplights. East Berlin shows a blocky green walking man wearing a hat called “Ampelmännchen”, while West shows what we are accustomed to seeing.
We also viewed various segments of the Berlin Wall. The texture and colorful façade were remarkable. The rusty, red rebar juts out of the crumbling concrete like the rib cage of the dying beast that was Communism. The wall is also adorned with chewed gum, new age edgy artwork, and political messages. Further back in history, it likely also bore the occasional stray bullet slug or blood spray from the over 138 East Germans who died at the hands of East Berlin guards while trying to escape from the 1950s to 1989. Outside one segment of wall is the museum called “Topography of Terror” which was a history of Nazi inception by nationalist sentiment in a time of economic depression, followed by a development and listing of their atrocities through the end of the war. We spent quite awhile reading through it and looking at documented pictures of the times.
We also spent part of an afternoon viewing the Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe. This was an in-depth exhibit showing the personal stories of those killed during the Holocaust. One area traced approximately 12 families and their history from pre to post WW2. Another gave detailed information about separate extermination camps all through Europe. Another described the mobile extermination vans where a flip would be switched and the back cabin would be slowly filled with exhaust to kill the inhabitants. It was very informative and very heavy. As I walked through the exhibit, the stories were filled with stomach churning, emotion tugging cruelty. It displayed the very worst of humanity. I was happy for some sunshine and a contemplative walk when it was over.
A block away from the memorial stood a small information plaque that displays the schematics to the Fuhrer-bunker where Hitler met his demise. It showed that the current apartment building was built above where various parts of the bunker once laid. The bunker had been destroyed by the Soviets and fortunately that chapter of history closed, with the world left to heal and rebuild.
On a separate and happier note, Berlin reminded us both of Houston, Texas with the exception being that it is much greener in Berlin. The area our lodging was in had a vibrant, diverse community and the cuisine matched that cultural density. At a glance, Asian, Middle Easter, and African food were easily available along with traditional German dishes. We tried a type food neither of us had experienced so far: Nepalese. I tried to think of a good way to describe it and all I thought of was a fusion of Thai and Indian with heavily savory flavors. If you get the chance, try it!!
Berlin’s approach to alcohol consumption is different from other places we have visited. Locals frequently walked around with open cans or bottles of beer. We gave that a try on a long walk back from a Marktvalle (Market Hall). Locals milled about the stalls, eyeing the fresh sausages and aromatic cheeses often with a glass of wine or beer. Others ordered prepared food from vendors while their children played on the indoor playground.
We found that Berlin had an interesting complexity. It had the big city feel of a capital, spread far and with the usual bustling center. Conversely, it was evident that small communities were thriving among its streets, celebrating their own cultures and traditions. Berlin bears the reminder of past mistakes and liberation at every turn, but also appears well established in modernity,
PS: A quick gallery of some Berlin Wall art on the East side of the city.