Last week, I was in Rust, Germany for the a conference at Europa Park. While I have, in my heyday, made my way to EuroDisney, I had no idea that Europa Park existed.
During the few days I was there, however, I learned that it’s the biggest theme park in Europe and, apparently, still family-run. There was an adorable element of kitsch that I appreciated, and it was fun to spend some time in a part of Germany I don’t think I ever would have explored otherwise.
Since we rented a car from the Frankfurt Airport, we took a quick ride out to some nearby towns during a free moment of the day. They were small, pretty, and the residents were very astute in figuring out that we weren’t from there immediately.
After the conference, I took a side trip over to Berlin for the weekend. I stayed with this super sweet couple via Airbnb, though I think I saw them for about five minutes the entire weekend. It was cold and gray and sad out but I was determined to see as much of the city as possible.
I’ve long been a Soviet history nerd. In fact, when I first started university, that’s originally what I wanted to study. Visiting Berlin has been on my list for a long time, especially because of the history between East and West Germany. So, unsurprisingly, my first stop after arriving in Berlin was to the Checkpoint Charlie Museum, which was about a ten minute walk from where I was staying.
I wandered up and down Friedrichstrasse for a few hours, exploring Mitte, and adjusting to the severe sleep deprivation that comes after any conference. I finally gave in and slept for a long, long time in my Airbnb so I could get an early start the next morning.
A little bird mentioned that there were free tours available in Berlin, and while I had a list of things I wanted to see, I find that taking a tour on my first day in a city is a great way to get a lay of the land from which to explore more in-depth. Still sleepy, I dragged my cold, cold feet over to the Starbucks in Pariser Platz to meet the Sandeman’s New Europe tour guides.
In the process, I learned that Berliners are not early risers and if you want some coffee and/or food before 9am, you’re out of luck. Related: German sounds about one thousand times harsher on an empty stomach.
The free tour was a nice introduction to Mitte, the historic district in Berlin. We visited a few World War II related sites, most notably the parking lot above the bunker where Adolf Hitler committed suicide, as well as the Holocaust Memorial. One of the most notable things about visiting Berlin is the harshness of its history, and how present that history is today.
While a lot of buildings have been destroyed, both during the war and after, it seems as though Berliners have made a conscience decision not to run from ugly parts of their past. Rather than denying it, they’ve chosen to keep these dark, sinister times in front of them so they can move forward from a place of understanding – at least, that’s my interpretation.
The tour guide’s words as we walked through the Holocaust Memorial, which is made up of concrete slabs that you can walk through like a labyrinth, continue to ring in my ears. “Sometimes you lose people in here.” It seemed so apropos for what the memorial was commemorating and the loss the world suffered during that time period.
After the free tour, I decided to sign up for an Alternative Berlin tour, which focused on street art in the city. Most buildings in Berlin are new, with 80% of the city having been destroyed during the war. Many of those buildings were built in the communist-era, which means they consist of efficient, harsh, straight lines. It’s not cozy, it’s not warm, it’s not welcoming.
In spite of that, street art continues to flourish here. In a weird way, Berlin reminded me of New York about twenty years ago, back when we still had squats and graffiti and a different kind of activism. Possibly back when things were still accessible. Just like New York, Berlin is gentrifying quickly. After the wall came down, many residents were suddenly faced with rent at market value, as opposed to simply paying for the maintenance of their buildings. Those effects are long-term.
Strangely enough, one of the highlights of the trip for me was visiting the Ramones Museum. I fell in love with New York and punk music at the tail end of the time when the Bowery was still the Bowery. When there were still empty lots and graffiti and garbage and all the things you find in urban areas. Back when New York was still, arguably, accessible – not to everyone, but to more people than now. This New York, paired with a newfound love of The Ramones, is where I found my voice. So walking through the Ramones Museum made me smile and brought back so many fantastic memories from when I was a young teenager. (Well after the Ramones had broken up, but nevertheless, the memories are the same.) It reminded me of the New York I grew up with, and will never see again.
I also had the chance to meet up with a new friend, born and raised in Berlin. The sites I saw on my own were fascinating in and of themselves, but being shown around by a local Berliner made the city more personal. One of the coolest things was going to the Weinerei Forum, a bar where drinks operate on an honor system where you essentially pay what you want, plus cover. The idea behind the place, as well as the crowd and atmosphere inside, seemed so uniquely Berlin to me, I don’t think you could find anything like it anywhere else.
All in all, it was an interesting trip, full of lots of sites and information and a little bit of culture shock. (Where is my warm, Mediterranean comfort zone?!) It feels like a great jumping-off point for exploring other areas of Europe, particularly Eastern Europe. Berlin is different from the US, and different from the rest of Germany. I don’t quite understand it yet, but I definitely experienced it. It’s so unique, so incomparable and I only scratched the surface.