Ich Bin Ein Berliner
meliorism n. The belief that the world gets better, that humans can improve it.
I’m not one of those people who really gets swept away in the romantic ideas of certain cities. I know a lot of people have lists of cities they would love to visit, a list they keep next to their change jar to motivate them to save up enough money to travel one day. Not me. All places in the world are enticing to me because they all offer something different and so I don’t see much point in become obsessed with only some of them. Plus, I find that if you over-hype a place in your mind, you can’t help but be disappointed. I have two exceptions to my rule, however. Two cities that captured my heart for some reason or another and instantly made me say, “I’m going to go there someday.” Fortunately, I’m doing both over this trip. The first is Halstatt, Austria, but more on that later when I get there. The second is Berlin.
I’m not entirely sure why the idea of Berlin captured my attention long ago, but I think that says something about travel in and of itself. Sometimes, places resonate with us, no rhyme or reason required. Looking back, I think it has something to do with the fascination I find in places where you can so obviously see signs of struggle and social upheaval. It’s a lot of why I loved Bosnia so much. I love seeing evidence of tragedies in the not-too-distant past and seeing just how much a place can rebuilt itself and recover in the time since. Berlin is nothing if not a symbol of a resilience of mankind. Predicting what I would find there, I was excited for Berlin, and not just for the amazing party scene every young person who visits there brags it to be. Let’s be honest, can you really picture me out a techno dub step Berlin club crammed wall to wall with high sweaty people from all across the world? Not likely. No, I was excited for the history and the horror, the struggle and the triumph written quite literally on its walls (or Wall, to be more accurate).
But history would have to wait. Hostel first. The bad thing about Berlin is simply its size. It’s an absolutely massive city and unlike a lot of other European cities that have Old Towns in which most of your main sights are centered around, Berlin is incredibly wide-spread. But if you look at it’s history and the vast divides in the city post-WWII, it’s easy to see why. However, as a result, my hostel, the Sleep Cheap Hostel, was located extremely far from anything worth seeing. As my bus arrived in late afternoon, I knew it wouldn’t be worth it even trying to go into the city until the next day. For the night, it seemed as though I would be confined to the hostel and the surrounding area, but honestly, that was okay with me. The bus ride from Gdansk could be described as long and tedious at best. Split into two parts, I first had a five hour ride from Gdansk back to Poznan where I waited around at the bus station another hour for the second leg of my journey, another five hour bus ride to Berlin. And considering the only food that had sustained me over all that was a peach and a tub of yogurt, my first priority was food, followed shortly by sleep.
One would assume that finding food in a place like Berlin, which I would soon discover to be the king of kebab shops, would be easy, but alas and alack. You know what they say about assuming. It wasn’t finding the food that was the issue, but rather finding a way to pay for it. I had used up the last of my euros in Lithuania and as Poland had its own currency, I hadn’t had the opportunity to withdraw more. As I wandered the blocks surrounding my hotel, it became glaringly apparent that I was not going to get to withdraw money from this part of the city. Finding an ATM was all but impossible. Okay, fine, I’ll just sue my card. Well, after being told by six different restaurants and food stands that they didn’t accept cards, that option was also looking very bleak. By this point, I was beyond hangry, to the point that I felt lightheaded, and each failed attempt to get food brought me closer to the verge of tears. That’s how much I love food, guys. Finally, one of the food carts was able to direct me toward an ATM, one located at a Shell gas station about ten minutes away. As I didn’t have any other options at that point, off I went. That giant yellow shell was a welcome sight and finally, with an abundance of euro in my pocket that I hoped would last me well into the next euro based countries so I could avoid this whole ordeal again, I retraced my steps back toward my hostel and, more importantly, a kebab shop right across the street.
At that moment in time, that giant spicy falafel kebab was just about the best thing I had ever tasted, and I have to betray Solomon’s and Allie’s both by thinking it was better than either, St. Anne’s Specials included. As I was sitting there, eating my kebab, dropping bits of lettuce and onion all over myself and not really caring, one of the kebab shop workers came over and started talking to me. I use talking here rather loosely. His English was broken at best, but even that was better than my German, which topped out at, “No sprechen sie deutsch,” and, “Danke schoen.” At least, unless you count the various German songs I’ve sung in choir before, which is actually my favorite language to sing in. But I hardly think that any of the words from Brahms Requiem would have helped me in this situation. If I had started spouting, “Wie lieblich sind deine wohnungen,” he probably would have looked at me like I was crazy.
Instead, we tried our best to converse, using a lot of smiling, nodding, and over the top hand gestures. He did give me a free cup of tea during that time so that was worth it. Eventually, he asked me if I had a map. I pulled out the one I had grabbed at the hostel. He spread it out on the table and began pointing to places that, from what I could understand, he recommended that I go see. “Berlin…” He spread his hands in an explosive motion. Big, gotcha. “No car, hard to see.” I nodded, “Yeah I don’t have a car but that’s okay.” He started thinking then suddenly looked at me and said, “You come here at,” he held up his index finger, pulsed it at me two times, then pointed to his watch. “You mean, 11?” I asked. “Yes. You come back eleven and I drive you.” Did he mean eleven that night, eleven the next day? I didn’t know, but either way I didn’t really want to take him up on the offer. Remember how I was talking about trust and getting into guys’ cars when hitchhiking back in Gdansk? Well, this was one of those cases that my gut said, “No.” I politely rejected his offer, pointing to my hostel, and then using my hands to make a pillow and miming sleep. “Ah, yes sleep, okay. Then tomorrow night eleven.” Not wanting to hurt to his feelings and also not wanting to be part of this draining conversation anymore, I muttered some form of agreement despite having no intention of going back the next day. That was probably a pretty shit thing to do and I hoped he wouldn’t wait around for me the next night thinking I would show up, but at that point, I just didn’t have the energy to convey to him that I wasn’t interested in the offer. I bid him farewell and returned to the hostel where I went nearly right to sleep.
With a full night of sleep below my belt, I woke up ready and rearing to go, which was good, considering I knew I would need a lot of energy to see everything I wanted in Berlin in only two days. Even I didn’t quite know how much. I had mapped out the distance between my hostel and center Berlin, but 12km on paper is vastly different from 12km on foot. After about 2 hours of damp drizzling rain, I finally emerged from Tiergarden, a massive park in the center of Berlin, to find myself in front of Nuremberg Gate. Just beyond the Gate, I found a square of rather unexciting things, namely a bunch of different embassies, including the U.S. one. However, in a very typically dry German sense of humor, the person riding atop a chariot pulled by four horses on top of the gate stares directly at the French embassy since the French can’t be trusted. Across from that, is the Hotel Adlon, the most expensive hotel in Berlin. I single night in the presidential suite costs 20,000€. I’ll be crossing that off my list of potential accommodation should I ever return to Berlin. However, it is also the hotel where Michael Jackson infamously tried to recreate the opening scene of The Lion King with his then infant son.
I had just made it in time for the start of the free tour I planned on taking. Our tour guide was a young Irish man and for the next couple hours, we talked around the center area of Berlin as he gave us a brief history lesson and pointed out some of the main points of interest, like the entrance to old American sector of Berlin, nicknamed Checkpoint Charlie, a contrasting mural and photographing depicting the ideals of socialism versus its reality, and little gold plaques on the sidewalk as part of the Stepping Stone Initiative, marking the places where Jewish people lived before being taken out of their homes. Along the way, we passed tons of totalitarian style buildings, concrete blocks that made up for what they lacked in color and windows with harsh right angles, a product of both the socialist and Soviet regimes meant to inspire fear.
At one point, we stopped at what looked to me like nothing more than a parking lot, until our guide told us we were currently standing 12 meters above what used to be Hitler’s bunker. It was there where Hitler spent the final days of the way and married Eva Brown, who was Jewish, in irony above ironies. Right after their wedding, Hitler basically said, “Oh, and by the way, we’re going to kill ourselves now. Too bad for you.” And so, the happy couple bit down on cyanide tablets and, just in case that didn’t work, Hitler also shot himself. The guards left to dispose of their bodies burned them above the bunker, but ran away as Soviet troops began marching into the city. When the Russians used dental records to discover the burnt remains were in fact those of Hitler, they kept that bit of information to themselves, refusing to tell any of the other Allied Powers. It was not until much later that Hitler’s remains were finally recovered from an unmarked grave and floated down a river in Germany, so that the ashes would be scattered leaving no place for people to go and worship him.
We also walked through the haunting Field of Stelae, a field of memorial concrete blocks meant to commemorate the Jewish people killed during WWII. Over 6 million Jewish people died, and when you factor in the mentally ill, gypsies, and battle deaths, the death toll of WWII comes in around 70 million. The memorial stretches across a concrete block, displaying 2,711 concrete blocks of equal size. They don’t look it however. Instead, they exist in a wavy texture, mimicked after a Jewish cemetery in Prague that mounds due to the many piles of bodies buried within it. The blocks less visible on top plunge underground and emerge like stalactites from the ceiling intoJewish memorial museum build underground. None of these blocks are engraves with any name, date, or other personal information, to convey how Jewish people were thought of as numbers during the Holocaust. Walking through this maze-like structure was a strange experience and I found my head spinning from the grid lines all around me, or perhaps it was from the very idea of what the place represented. It’s a very eerie and solemn to see so many people, so many deaths, converted to something so harsh and visceral. Being there was as heavy as the concrete slabs themselves. This memorial is located right next to Nuremberg Gate, right in the center of Berlin, specifically placed there so they can’t forget the horrors of Nazi Germany. It’s easy to villainize the Germans for their role in WWII, and while their actions at the time were inexcusable, I must say I really respect their brave and honorable approach to their past. Though reparation will never be entirely possible, they don’t attempt to hide their mistakes. They own up to them and face them head on, which is more than some countries (cough cough America) can say.
All in all, a lot of heavy and grim stuff, but that’s kind of to be expected in Germany. But finally, we saw the one thing that I had been especially looking forward to: the remains of the Berlin Wall. History lesson time: Since most of us have been told the story of WWIIand essentially shown pictures of Hitler with giant red X over his face since the time we entered grade school, I’ll skip WWII and jump straight to the bits we were unfortunately not taught, at least not at my school. I’ve always hated how American history classes spend so much focus on insignificant things like the Incas and Aztecs. Sure, it’s good to know, but isn’t the shaping of the modern world even more important? And yes, the Revolutionary War is important but again, why spend months and months on it and ignore other important aspects of history.
Essentially, after the conclusion of WWII, our history lesson stops. But hey, what about Soviet Russia? Yeah, Hitler was terrible but that doesn’t mean we should ignore the fact that Stalin actually killed more people than Hitler ever did. And what about Vietnam? We’re not taught that because it’s a huge black mark on U.S. history. We fucked up and God forbid we have out youths seeing America as the bad guys for once. What about the Cold War and the fact that we are basically repeating the exact same mistakes we made with the Red Scare as we are with the War on Terror? First off, you should know I hate term, because war rhetoric has done nothing but destroy out country (thanks Reagan and you’re stupid war on drugs). Second, you should also know that I didn’t learn about any of these things in any history class I ever took. I learned about them in criminal justice course and English classes above all else. When people say English is an easy major, I say, “Bullshit.” You need to be more well rounded than most degrees because in order to understand literature, you need to understand philosophy, psychology, sociology, culture, anthropology, and history at the very least.
Okay, I got a bit off topic, on “my soapbox” as my mom would call it, but I mean to make the point that history, particularly recent history, is important and it is crucial for people to educate themselves and understand the true nature of the world so they can make informed decisions about its future. Don’t be a sheep who bleats about the greatness of America without actually knowing its past. So. Rant over.
On to a brief history of Berlin post WWII. After the death of Hitler and the official end of the war, Berlin was divided into four sectors distributed among the Allied Powers, though this division eventually led to a two way split in 1948 between East and West Germany, the Federal Republic of Germany in the west and the German Democratic Republic of the east, which was mostly led by the SED communist political party. East Germany thought of itself as the “better Germany” and rejected responsibility for Nazi crimes. For the next decade, tensions rose between these two sides until, in 1961, a chain link fence was erected around West Berlin essentially overnight. People got stuck where they were, regardless of where they lived. Over the next few months, this chain-link fence was developed into a full concrete wall, running crookedly 155km. This Wall did two things; First it placed, West Berlin outside of Soviet control though Berlin itself was in the communist controlled East Germany, and second, it placed East Berlin under severe restrictions on all aspects of life, including travel. People were not even allowed to visit West Berlin to see their families living on the other side let alone other countries. The dissent and dissatisfaction with life on the East side was heavy and escape attempts were tried frequently. This pent up dissent eventually sparked the Peaceful Revolution. By the time it fell in 1989, marking the end of SED rule in Germany, the Wall had been standing, separating friends and families, for 28 years. While Germany as a whole wasn’t the focus of the Cold War, those in East Germany still lived under a repressive regime and its fall eventually became a symbol for the peaceful overthrow of a dictatorship and the end of communism in Eastern Europe.
Honestly, upon first seeing the Wall, it’s a bit underwhelming. Standing at 11.7 feet high, it’s not nearly as big as you would imagine, but once you take into account all the bombs and spike pits hidden in sand traps on East side and the constant patrols of guards who were rewarded for shooting attempted escapees with one free day of vacation, you again realize why it was so difficult to get over. In the time that it was standing, 5000 people got through from East to West Berlin, but around 200 died in the attempt. As you know, I collect a small stone from every city I visit, and I could think of no better souvenir from Berlin than a piece of the Wall. While I knew I could very easily go to a nearby gift shop and purchase a piece of it, I wanted my bit to be genuine. I wanted to be a Wall Pecker, the nickname given to those who came out after the fall of the Wall with hammers and chisels to aid in bringing the wall down and collect some pieces of it for themselves. Easier said than done. Obviously, I think they would have frowned upon me hammering away on what has now become a historical tourist attraction, but where this bit of the wall ended and the road began, I managed to root through the grass and mud just under the bottom edge of the wall and find myself my own genuine bit of it.
When I wasn’t collecting my bit of the Wall and taking photographs, I was jotting down notes for my blog. “What are you writing?” an Australian voice suddenly asked me. I looked up to see a short girl walking in stride next to me. People see me taking notes while on these free tours and they must think me either completely mental or some extreme nerd. Now I’m not denying either of those accusations, but once I explain to them that I’m a travel writer, and they instantly understanding why I’m taking notes. I don’t know when it happened but at some point I started referring to myself as a travel writer. Is that vain? Presupposing? Egotistical? Probably a bit of all those but I believe all writers have some chord of vanity within them. Why else would we be so confident to assume anyone else would want to read our writing? Even though I don’t get paid for this blog (although I do accept both cash and check, if you were wondering- kidding…sort of), this is still what I want to do with my life and so, to me, I’m a travel writer. I travel; I write about it; whether I get paid doesn’t really seem to factor in. People call themselves a lot of things they don’t get paid for so why should writer be any different. As of this point, I’ve decided that I am no longer an aspiring writer. I don’t want to be a writer, I am a writer.
That aside, I started talking to the Australian girl and soon found her name to be Beryl. At the conclusion of the tour, we decide to hang out for the rest of the day, as neither of us were traveling with anyone and neither of us really had any definite plans. We first returned to the Topography of Terror, a museum right next to the portion of the Wall we had passed earlier, so that we could actually stop and go inside. Between the wealth of information inside the museum itself and timeline of WWII presented on clear glass panes along the remains of the Wall, we sent about an hour there, reading all the signs and learning even more about the history of Berlin. For the next several hours, we wandered around aimlessly, returning to Checkpoint Charlie for a closer look at the area, checking out the Berlin Concert Hall, peering into the occasional church, and sampling chocolate at the German chocolatier Fassbender and Rausch. They’re famous for their chocolate replications of Berlin monuments. Their model of the Reichstag, or Berlin Parliament, is made of an impressive 285kg of chocolate.
But the most incredible thing I saw that day (yes, even more incredible than the chocolate) was an exhibition right near Checkpoint Charlie called Wall Panorama. As the name might suggest, it was basically a large, circular building with a giant panorama image of the Wall and what life was like living near its borders. It sounded intriguing but nothing too special until we actually got inside. Since we were going after 4pm on a Monday, it meant that the price decreased from 8€ to pay what you want. We felt as though 2€ was a bit more of a suitable price to us as students. The exhibition was split into two rooms, the first of which was a grungy, crescent shaped room with concrete walls covered wall to wall in photo grids and graffiti. In other words, my kind of place. This section of the exhibit was titled “Contemporary Witnesses” and it contained 200 photos and short little statements from 50 different people who lived in either East or West Berlin when the two were divided by the Wall. The photos and stories were hopeful and triumphant, depicting everything from little children with small hammers proudly holding up pieces of the Wall, to crowds of people standing on its peak in celebration of its fall. A particularly inspiring set of photos depicted two brothers and their friend, one of which showed the three reuniting on a visiting day after six years apart and the next with the three standing in the exact same spot 25 years later, after the fall of the Wall.
The room itself was art not limited to the photos. With cups of colored markers hanging on the walls, it encouraged visitors to leave their own marks along the walls as well. The challenge was finding free space. I saw some people sitting on each others’ shoulders in order to reach high up places where the concrete was still bare in places. I claimed a small corner within a frame someone else had drawn. Taking up a bright pink marker, I traditionally spread the wisdom of Chris McCandless to yet another city.
Beyond that was the main cavernous room with the actual Panorama. Artist Yadegar Asisi, who lived in Berlin during the days of the Wall and wanted to convey exactly what life was like, designed this life size representation of the wall. Since I believe his words explain his purpose better than I ever could, he writes of the exhibition, “When people ask you about the Wall today, you can easily show them where it stood, explain how it was built, but the life we led in those days is more difficult to put into words. If someone asks me what it was like back then, I always try to tell them about how you got used to the presence of the Wall, how you no longer noticed that were living in an unbearable, terrible situation, about the indifference, the normality of what an abnormal state of affairs. This is such an important aspect of that period in history. We lived in a huge village and had simply come to terms with it. The intention of tis panorama is to make the shocking normality palpable. If you really want to comprehend history, I believe you have to look at people’s everyday lives. That is the only way to understand unthinkable things. The things that people do to others and to themselves.”
I believe he accomplished just that. From the ground level, the Panorama is impressive, but still artificial, but then, when you climb onto the crude scaffolding platform, it suddenly becomes real and alive. Looking out the giant scene in front of us, illuminated in the soft purple light of dusk, I couldn’t help but think how real everything felt, how visceral. I half expected people to start moving, the guy leaning out his window to disappear back into his apartment, the people posing in front of the American sector to break and move away. That’s how real it all seemed. We each took photos standing down among the edge of the Panorama itself and unless you knew exactly what you were looking at, you could easily play a guessing game of “which one is real and which is fake?”. And even more shocking was just how familiar parts of it felt. Berlin was this entirely alien world during the days of the Wall and yet there were still so many things that seemed normal even to me: the Shell gas station just like the one I had withdrawn money from the previous day, the little cafes lining the streets, the ads and billboards hanging from the buildings. You see those things and you realize how shockingly recent and close to home the tragedy of Berlin actually was, and that’s scary.
Over the natural noises of the street and everyday life programmed to play at a constant loop, the exhibit also played important recordings and speeches from the time, John F. Kennedy’s famous “Ich Ben Ein Berliner” speech being the only one I could actually understand. But even in German, the words were powerful in that setting. For all I know, they could have been yelling about cotton candy and ice cream but with the image in front of me, I got chills nonetheless. We left the exhibit rather silently, each consumed with out own thoughts that everything we had just seen inspired in us.
Eventually, however, our silence and introspection gave way to hunger as we realized that neither of us had really eaten anything all day, save for small samples of chocolate. I had my dinner planned. Multiple times throughout my journey, I ran into people who said, “When you go to Berlin, you have to eat at Mustafa’s!” So, off to Mustafa’s we went. When we reached the little kebab cart positioned in the center of the sidewalk, we looked and found the queue to be stretching about 50 meters down the sidewalk. Well, on one hand, a queue of that length had to be a good sign, right? We shrugged and joined the line. We had already gone all day without eating. What was another half an hour? Well half an hour turned into a full one by the time we finally reached the front. I was surprised to find their menu contained only three things: durum (wrap kebab), hahnchen donor mil gemuse (pork kebab), and gemusekebap (veggie kebab). Seeing as my decision was essentially made for me, I ordered the one vegetarian option then waited my mouth watering. Beryl and I moved out of the line, kebabs in hand, and sat down on a concrete wall just a few feet away. We raised our kebabs and took an eager bite. Remember how I said that kebab I had eaten the night before had seemed like the best thing in the world? Well, this kebab absolutely blew that out of the water. Maybe it was that fantastic psychological phenomenon of effort justification kicking in after queuing for an hour, maybe it was all the walking I had done that day, but Mustafa’a gemusekebap was hands down the most incredible thing I had ever tasted in my life. It was a toasted shell of crunchy bread filled to the point of overflow with three different sauces, grilled vegetables, potato, fresh lettuce, tomato, onion, and cucumber, and topped off with handfuls of goat cheese. Beryl and I fell into the complete wordless silence that can only fall on two people who are so engrossed in their food that they completely forget about the company they are in. When we had finished, we looked at each other and agreed that the wait had been entirely worth it.
Having already walked somewhere around what I estimated to be 30km that day, I was not about to walk another 14km or so home. Instead, I decided to take the metro. Beryl and I parted ways at the station, each wishing each other luck on the rest of their travels and exchanging emails addresses to stay in touch. Back at the hostel, I found two new roommates, in addition to a young Danish couple that had been there the previous night. This one was an old Welsh man named Billie and his granddaughter, whose name I regrettably cannot remember. Spurred by the common thread of the UK between us, we started talking, though he had less love to express for Oxford than I did. “There’s nothing there!” I refuted his statements for all I was worth but quickly learned there was no changing his mind. He, however, had been stationed there while in the military and not as a student, and I had to admit that most of Oxford’s draw came from the inclusive little student community it provided. If one were to be outside that, I’m not sure how exciting it would actually be. Our opinions on certain cities differed as well. I loved London, and he thought it was the worst place in the world. On the flip side, he thought Rome was the most spectacular city in existence and I could only meet his thoughts with an unenthusiastic, “Meh…” When our talk eventually led to politics, I was surprised to find someone defend America over the attacks of the actual American in the room, but as I tell most people I meet that generally dislike America (aka the rest of the world), “No one hates America more than my generation of educated Americans.” But overall, I had a great time talking to him but eventually disengaged myself so that I could get some sleep after an exhausting day.
I was not about to repeat my mistake of walking. While I had seen much in center Berlin the previous day, there were still a fair number of main points on my “To See” list that lay even farther away. Walking there would simply waste too much time. So, for 10€, I decided to rent a bike from the hostel and off I went. About five minutes into my ride, it started to rain. Little did I know this rain would not let up, not even once, for the next five hours. It would only fluctuate in how heavy it was coming down. Thinking I might be able to wait it out, I stopped at a little bakery and bought myself some pastries for breakfast and sat there reading. When it became clear that it was going to get no less than a drizzle, I stepped back out into the rain, dried my bike seat with a tissue (a gesture that would soon become utterly pointless), and kept on. The further I got into town, the heavier it rained. My own degree of increasing wetness was directly correlated to decrease in my overall mood. By the time I reached the Wall Memorial on the north edge of center Berlin, I was in an incredibly foul mood, topped off by my dropping my bike on my leg while trying to take a picture and making a considerable gash on my ankle right by my Achilles tendon. I was bleeding but I didn’t have any Band-Aids and I honestly couldn’t even be bothered to care at this point. What was a bit more discomfort in my condition? And so I let it bleed.
The Berlin Wall memorial was at least a reprieve from the rain, and I stalled in there longer than I might have normally, reading through every single plaque and photo caption while I waited for the rain to let up. When I had exhausted the memorial, I found a coffee shop and warmed myself up with a coffee as the rain continued to decrease… slowly but surely. As it is for most things, the coffee was an instant improvement to my mood. Once the rain had let up to slight sprinkle again around 1pm, I cycled off to make a large loop around the outskirts of center Berlin on a road that would eventually take me to East Side Gallery. For the first time that day, I actually found myself enjoying the ride, especially as the sky brightened behind me and the rain finally quit, save for a few more light showers that would happen throughout the day.
As I neared the Spree River, along which the East Side Gallery ran, I was first distracted by low pit of what looked to be abandoned buildings covered in graffiti just off the main road. Being the lover of sketchy areas and graffiti that I am, I lugged my bike down a long set of stairs and, camera in hand, began documenting all this incredibly cool street art scrawled over top crumbling brick and rusted iron buildings. I would call the collection, “I Find Cool Graffiti in Sketchy Areas: The Sequel.” It was most definitely not the safest place in the world. Upon first getting down there, a guy came up to me and asked if I needed help, as if he thought I was clearly lost. I assured him I was fine. “Are you sure? You don’t need something? You let me know if you need something.” After promising I would about a million times, he finally left to my business. Just a hundred meters down the road, I was approached by yet another young man, with red puffy eyes and a goofy strung out smile. “My name Mohammed. You want some weed?” Well hello to you too, person I don’t know at all. “Uhh… No thanks,” I said, edging away from him. “You sure?” Again, I assured him I didn’t want any and went on my way. He seemed harmless enough overall, but I still kept an eye over my shoulder and I was secretly thankful for the presence of the scattered construction works carting away some old debris from the area. When I felt I had gotten deep enough for my own level of comfort in the scrawl of hovels, I turned back, hoisted my bike back up the stairs, and continued on across the river.
And there it was: the famed East Side Gallery, 105 paintings painted on the East side of the remains of the Berlin Wall shortly after its fall in 1990. It is currently thought to be the longest lasting and largest open air art gallery in the world. I spent the next two hours there, first walking its entire length, all 1.3km of it, then walking it back again, shifting my focus from the overall picture on the first walk by, to the more detailed scribblings on the walls on the second. It was easily one of the most incredible (man made, at least) things I have ever seen in my life. The East Gallery is a tribute to freedom and a celebration of overcoming tyranny and oppression through the sheer endurance of human will. Parts of it are quite grim, depicting artistic renderings of the horrors of the world, not just in Germany. It reminds all who look upon it just what terrible things mankind if capable of and what comes from “the persistence of ignorance.” In many ways, it is haunting, a reminder of just how delicate freedom is, and how easy it is to lose. With quotes like, “None, but who have lived it can understand the real meaning of this wall. What really scares us is, how’s easy to lose our freedom,” I began to once again see my own privilege written as boldly and plainly as the paint on the Wall.
I complain about America, maybe more than I should, and it’s no secret that America has its share of corruption and major problems, but at the same time, it’s like JFK said in his famous speech to West Berlin: “Freedom had many difficulties and democracy is not perfect, but we have never had to put a wall up to keep out people in, to prevent them from leaving us.” So yeah, America has problems, and we do have a wall of ignorance and a dangerously exceptionalist attitude that surrounds our country, but at the very least, it is not a physical Wall.
Despite the grim undertones of the Gallery, it was overall very hopeful. Born of the euphoria and excitement that came from the fall of the Wall and the uniting of Berlin, many of the images show the pure unbridled creative power of people and express hope for a better future, not just of Berlin, but for people all across the world. And the fall of the Berlin Wall wasn’t the end of the battle. It was a small victory in a larger war and as I paced its length, I found myself reminded that while Berlin was liberated, many countries of the world were still not. Again, I refer to JFK’s speech: “Freedom is indivisible, and when one man is enslaved, all are not free.” The Berlin Wall is a testament to the possibility of overcoming oppression through peace and holds an important lesson about our power as humans; that creativity cannot be confined by Walls and human spirit cannot be crushed by cement.
My next stop was even farther east outside the city, an old abandoned amusement park called Spree Park. The legend of Spree Park is that it was once opened and run privately by a Polish guy. One day, he just disappeared and, not knowing what to do with the place, they were forced to close it. No one has ever seen or heard from him since, but the park still technically belongs to him so it’s now all fenced off to the public. Well, we know how I feel about fences and places I’m not supposed to go. As I cycled around the edges of this fence, determined to find a way, I ran into a French guy who was also looking for a way in. I told him I wasn’t sure it was possible and we continued on our way. But a little ways later, we ran into each other again, and he said he had found a way in but chickened out once he got inside, a high spot on the fence with a divot in the ground below it just wide enough to squeeze through by laying flat on your back. He showed me the spot where he had got inside and said he would be willing to go back in and explore more if I was. Was there really any question to that? I laid down on my back on an old car floor mat to help feel some of the mud off my clothes and pushed myself through. We set off into the park and it wasn’t long before we found the image of images for this park: an old rollercoaster track entering the mouth of a giant brightly colored cat surrounded by overgrown trees and ivy. It was incredibly cool and haunting.
I should mention, the signs posted outside the fence said more than a entrance forbiddance. The whole English translation read: “Do not enter! Violators will be prosecuted! Guarding with dogs! Danger to life and limb!” Now when you see a sign like that, you generally think they’re exaggerating. ‘Oh yeah, dogs, right, uh-huh, I’m sure.” Even the French guy said he ran into someone else and when he asked whether it was possible to get in, they said there weren’t dogs or anything. Well, this sign was definitely not lying. Just after snapping a photo of myself perched upon the rollercoaster track right at the mouth of the cat, a truck rolled by and despite our attempts to quickly hide, two guys got out yelling at us in German. From inside the truck, we could hear loud ferocious barking and a giant black dog who looked like he’d sooner snack on our bones than a dog treat came into view. We explained to them that we were French and American. “IDs!” the first guy yelled. His face was horrendously scarred and I couldn’t picture a single scarier person to catch us in such a situation. Thinking he would need a passport, I explained that I didn’t have my passport with me. Even if I did, I wouldn’t have given it. Important rule of travel: Never surrender your passport to authority you don’t know (other than border police) because you might not get it back. “IDs or police!” he yelled. Well, shit. I found myself remarkably calm as we both apologized profusely. “We’re so sorry, we didn’t know it was that big of deal to come in here.” He looked at us and said, “There are signs outside. And a fence.” Well, he did have us there, but we continued acting as remorseful as possible. If there are three thing I have learned about such a situation it is this: 1) Act sorry, 2) Play dumb, and 3) Look innocent. Of course, there is unwritten fourth rule that if rules 1-3 fail, just start crying. Had it resorted to him calling the police, I have no doubt that I would have. My French friend, whose name was Lucas, said that he had his ID back at the bikes and he would go get it. The guy gave him permission to go get out bikes while I waited. Somehow, I felt as though I had gotten the short end of the stick in that circumstance. I didn’t know this Lucas very well. For all I knew, he could completely ditch me and cycle away scot-free.
But while Lucas was gone, the guy softened up. “You want to take some pictures while we wait?” I stammered, “II didn’t think that was allowed any more.” He waved and said it was fine. I was already there, after all. I then found out just a student ID would suffice. Luckily enough, I did have my Oxford Bod card on me and I handed that over, knowing there was absolutely no identifying information on it outside my name that could be traced back to me. He filled out a sheet of paper with my name and made me put my address and birthday on there, but literally nothing else. When Lucas returned with our bikes, restoring a bit of my faith in the honesty of humanity, he too filled out the form. The security guard explained to us that these forms would essentially go into a pile and be thrown away. It was simply a procedure he had to go through. “Because you are French and American, it’s no problem. If you were German, it would be big problem. Big fine.” I found it strange that they were more forgiving of foreigners than their own citizens but I wasn’t about to complain. The guard walked us to the gate and closed it behind us, waving goodbye to us as he walked away. We stood in silence for a moment, reflecting on the last fifteen minutes and how lucky we were. Lucas looked at me, “Want to grab a beer?” I answered, “Hell yeah.” We had definitely earned that much.
We both took our bikes and cycled back toward Berlin where we found a nice little outdoor pub located right on the banks of the Spree, just across from the very Berlin typical expo building that was literally just an old rusted warehouse. After a bit, we were joined by one of Lucas’ friends, another French guy named Dmitri, and the three of us sat chatting for quite some time. Who’d have ever thought, an American making friends with two French guys. It surprised the hell out of me, that’s for sure. We actually talked about that stereotyped rivalry a bit and according to Lucas, French people don’t really hate Americans anymore. That was more of a 2000s sort of thing back when they saw us as complete idiots for electing Bush into the presidency. “Well, you realize that none of us actually liked him either, right?” I asked. “Then why did you reelect him?” Trust me, mate, I’ve been asking myself the same thing for years. But my friendship with them, I felt, definitely took me another positive step in the direction of global connections.
Eventually, we found ourselves starving. I for one, knew I was going to eat at Mastafa’s again that night. There was no question about it. I told the guys about it and invited them along. They agreed and off we went. When we arrived, the queue was about twice as long as it had been the night before. “No way,” Dmitri said. “I’m not queuing up that long.” I completely understood. Looking back, it did seem completely mental to queue for an hour and half (which is how long I ended up waiting this time) for a kebab, but I reminded myself that these weren’t just an kebabs. These were Mustafa’s kebabs. I bid farewell to my new French friends as they went off to find somewhere I bit more instantly gratifying to eat and I remained dedicatedly in line. By the time I received my kebab, I was actually hesitant to try it. What if it wasn’t as good as remembered? What if the greatness embedded in my taste buds really was the result of hunger the previous day? What if this time would taint the wonderful memory I had of Mustafa’s? Well, I had waited an hour and a half so there was no turning back now. I took a big bite of my kebab and found it was just as good this time around. They say magic can’t occur twice, but Mustafa’s proves that statement wrong. The downside to my wait was that it was now dark and I had about an hour of cycling ahead of me to get back to the hostel, but as Berlin is such a bikeable city and much of the route was either designated bike path or wide sidewalks, the ride wasn’t much of an issue. In fact, it was quite enjoyable, as I sped through the night, watching the city lights reflect on the wet pavement as the warm, fresh air streamed along my face and poured into my lungs. When I returned, I calculated my route and determined that I had biked a total of 50km that day, thankfully on a wide and comfortable bike seat that would hopefully not leave me regretting my day on the morrow.
One thing I did very successfully while planning this second stint of backpacking was make it so most all of my buses left at reasonable times that didn’t require me to get up stupidly early. Nothing is worse than waking up to a bunk full of sleeping people who cared a lot less about being rude to you last night that you do right now, finishing up your packing in the dark, and having to sneak out of a hostel while trying not bang the giant tumorous growth on your back against the metal lockers of the rooms as you make your exit. No, on this trip, I had everything sorted so that I could wake up at my leisure on most mornings, have until check out to pack my stuff, and meander down to the bus station. I really relished in the joy of that in Berlin. As I was packing up the next day, slowly rolling all my clothes and stuffing them down into my pack, I got talking to my Welsh friend Billie, and a newcomer to the hostel room, a young guy from Australia named Mimo. In further discussions with Billie, I found out he was involved in youth travel exchange projects and as such he a bunch of contacts all across the world. When he found out I would heading to Budapest in a week or so, he offered to put me in contact with some of his friends there in case one of them might be able to let me stay with them. Whether or not that ends up working on this trip remains to be seen, but he is yet another amazing contact to add to my list of world acquaintances.
That’s another thing I love about travel. By meeting all these people from across the world, I am slowly building a repertoire of people from so many different countries that all say, “If you’re ever in [insert place here] look me up and you’ll have a place to stay.” And it’s so amazing to witness how kind and generous we all are with each other. I find it quite funny how quick we are to make friends with fellow backpackers. Unlike with other friendships, trust is not something to be earned in these cases and thus we surrender our life stories within hours of meeting these people, partly bolstered by the confidence that we may never see them again and partly by the strange bond we instantly feel. After the three of us checked out of the hostel, Mimo and I decided to go grab lunch at the kebab place across the street where I had eaten the first night (thankfully my German friend wasn’t there), and we began talking about this strange easiness of making friends with fellow travelers. “It’s like, you know they’re just like you,” Mimo said. And that’s what it essentially boils down to. Backpackers are all of the same common blood, the same crazy fiber that drove them away from normal societal paths. No one understands you and your experiences like one is also experiencing them. Even when we go home and see our friends and loved ones again, there is still that missing piece of empathy and understanding among them, something you can only get from those who have lived as you have. It’s funny to think that, to an extent, these total strangers I encounter on the road can actually understand some aspects of me better than those I’ve known my entire life. In a perverse sort of way, we travelers make up an unpolished little extended family, and when you think about it that way, you never feel very far from home, no matter where you are in the world.