Seeing Berlin with Sandeman

We slept late the next morning, and took our time waking up and preparing tea. There were only a few biscuits left from the day before that we made our very meager breakfast. Neither of us felt any real urgency to get the day started. Peter would be at work until that afternoon, and there was nothing Mom and I had our hearts set on seeing that day. Without Peter we felt rather lost. He had, however, mentioned a “free” walking tour that took you around a bit of the city and showed you some of the bigger landmarks and tourist hotspots.

We were too late for the 11 o’clock group so we planned to get a late breakfast and catch the 2 o’clock group instead. After getting cleaned and dressed we walked through the park to the bahnhof and took the U-Bahn into town. We got off at the Brandenburg Gate. It was from here the tour would be leaving. Before we went off to find breakfast, we found the red umbrella that marked the ticket line. We waited our turn and got our numbered tickets before we started walking down the street looking for a place to eat breakfast.

Unlike Fort Collins, and Edinburgh to a degree, Berlin did not have a coffee shop every ten feet. There were, however, two or three within a few minutes of the Gate. I made some arbitrary decision as to which one looked best. A minute later we were walking into Einstein’s Koffee. The place was alive with early morning energy…or was it the lunch rush by then? Anyway, Mom and I stood in the doorway for a few minutes, scoping the place out and looking for a table. There was no hostess stand and no one approached us to seat us. Mom tried to ask someone how things were supposed to go but she didn’t really get an answer. So as soon as we saw a table open up we snagged it.

The dishes from the last customers were still on the table. It took several minutes for our waitress to come and clear them and bring us menus. She seemed to be having a bit of a day so I wasn’t going to hold it against her or give her a hard time (something I rarely do anyway). At one point she came over and said something to us in German. Mom responded with a friendly, “Okay.” As soon as the waitress was out of range, I looked at Mom incredulously. “You have no idea what she just said. And you agreed to it.” There were only so many things she could have said, of course, given the situation, but it was just funny to so readily agree to something you couldn’t understand.

The menu at Einstein’s was not the least bit vegan friendly so we went with a Parisian breakfast. If you’re not familiar with the Parisian breakfast it is basically bread, bread, and more bread…and some jam. Mom got tea while I ordered hot chocolate, which was served in the most unusual way. It was a three-part deal. There was an empty cup on a saucer along with a saucer for the whipped cream, and the actual chocolate itself in a small porcelain pitcher. It was still delicious but just came with more parts than I was used to.

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The breakfast was enough to keep us full through the tour, but after two hours of walking we were going to be ready for more. We paid and left Einstein’s, heading back to the Brandenburg Gate with a few minutes to spare before our tour would begin. There was a sort of plaza in front of the Gate, and we had been told to meet there for the start of our tour.

In twos and threes and fours people began to congregate on the plaza. A man in a tan coat came over with the red umbrella we had seen early to indicate the meeting place. Soon another man joined the group, a tall fellow with brown hair and a knee brace. This was Paul and he would be our guide. He said a few words about the time span of the tour as well as how much walking would be involved. He welcomed questions at any time and gave a short list of some of the places we’d be seeing. After that we were off.

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We crossed to the left side of the street and moved a bit closer to the Brandenburg Gate. This was our first stop. Paul started to tell us about the history of the Gate as well as that of the statue perched high atop the columned structure. At the same time, a man at the center of the plaza began giving a speech through a loud speaker. This made it rather difficult to make out all that Paul was saying about the Gate. Talk about bad timing, eh? Some big marathon was taking place the following day so there were all sorts of pre-marathon events going on the day of our tour.

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Here’s something I do remember Paul telling us. The Gate used to be a symbol of a divided Berlin. From here, citizens of East Berlin could catch a glimpse of the world outside their own, see that there was still light on the other side of the Iron Curtain. The Gate’s meaning changed after the reunification of the city, shifting from one of division to one of unity. It has undergone a couple restorations and reconstructions, both after the War and after it was officially opened to traffic in December of 1989.

The Quadriga sitting at the top of the Gate is a representation of the Goddess of Victory. Originally it had been Eirene, the Goddess of Peace. But then the statue was stolen in 1806 as a Napoleonic spoil of war. After its recovery in 1814 it underwent a redesign, a task undertaken by Karl Friedrich Schinkel. The Brandenburg Gate now serves as a Prussian triumphal arch, with the Goddess Victoria, equipped with eagle and iron cross, looking down from on high.

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After the Brandenburg Gate my order of events goes out the window so I’ll just tell you about the things I remember. We left the Gate, and the annoyingly loud presenter, behind. Go figure that once we left he finished speaking and silence reigned again on the plaza. C’est la vie. We moved into a part of the city where the buildings lining either side of the street were much closer together compared to the large open area in front of the Gate. Throughout the tour Paul continued to point out to us the two-wide strip of bricks set in the pavement that marked the location of the Wall. It ran throughout the city wherever segments of the Wall no longer stood.

We stopped at a small square of grass just outside an ordinary strip of apartment buildings. This, Paul told us, was were Hitler’s bunker was located, the very one where he killed himself, his wife killed herself, and I’m pretty sure he also killed his dog there. Hitler wanted to make sure he was good and dead so not only did he ingest a cyanide capsule but he also shot himself in the head immediately after taking it. One of Hitler’s fears was what would happen to his body were it found by the Allied Forces, so he gave orders for his men to destroy his body once he was dead and make sure it wouldn’t be found. His men did succeeded in burning Hitler and his wife’s bodies, and then buried them in a shell crater. However, in early May, the remains were discovered by the Soviet Army and moved, one of many relocations to corpse would experience.

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We turned up more streets, visiting former Nazi buildings, seeing various embassies, including the U.S, U.K, Russian and French ones. We took a stop at the Gendarmenmarkt, one of Berlin’s most well known squares. It boasts a trio of beautifully constructed buildings. Two cathedrals, one French and the other German, flank the square and at its center is Schinkel’s Konzerthaus, or concert hall, if you couldn’t guess. The square was part of King Friedrick the first’s plan for the emerging quarter of Berlin called Friedrickstadt. Today it plays host to a Christmas market and ice rink from the first of Advent to the New Year.

We traded one square for another as we walked to the university and the long rectangular plaza where the book burnings took place. This stop had particular significance to me. I’ve made clear my love of books and the written world throughout my journey. To stand on those stones and think of all the pages that shriveled and burned at the hands of madmen struck me at my core. Today, it is a place of learning and knowledge, and to see that gave me hope that with time we could overcome our troubles and misunderstanding and live together in some semblance of harmony.

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A memorial to the books lost had been constructed in the square. The memorial was inaugurated in March of 1995, and is the creation of Israeli artist Micha Ullman. The piece is called “Library.” If you weren’t looking, you would miss it. It is hidden underground and can only be seen from the surface through a small, square window. There were shelves. Enough shelves to hold up to 20,000 books. The same number of books burned by the Nazi’s in 1933. The works of journalists, philosophers, writers and scientists were burned for the mere fact they threatened the Nazi ideology; they were burned for how they “undermine the moral and religious foundations of our nation” and because they acted against the German sprit.

It was a terrible thing to do, and I think the quotation set into a bronze plaque at the memorial sums it up best.

That was only a prelude, there


where they burn books,


they burn in the end people.

-
Heinrich Heine 1820

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Let’s move on to something less depressing, shall we? My favorite thing on the tour is a toss up between the site of the book burning and the memorial to the Jewish people murdered during the war. Did I say less depressing? I lied. I did a bit of reading on the memorial once I returned home and found that there is a good deal of controversy surrounding it. Half of the people that visit seem to be disappointed by it, not really understanding what it is supposed to mean or represent. Others find it is a disrespectful way to honor the lives that were lost and think it could’ve been done better. Still others find it moving and thought provoking.

The memorial sits on a plot of land not far from the Brandenburg Gate, and is located right in the city administrative centre. It is constructed completely of large gray slabs of concrete set up in a grid pattern. Every slab had the same dimensions, varying only in height as they move down the slopping plane. The area lacks any sort of symbolism or marker as to what it is. To the uninformed observer it is just a field of 2,711 gray rectangles in the middle of Berlin. After picturing this scene in your head you can maybe see why some people have a dislike for the memorial.

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The memorial’s architect, Peter Eisenman, says that the pillars are designed in a way meant to create an uneasy and confusing atmosphere, with the aim of the entire sculpture being to represent a supposedly ordered system that has lost touch with human reason. That is not how my experience of the memorial started. On the outer edges, where the blocks are set low and the air around you is clear and open, the place feels like a picnic spot or a very unimaginative playground. People were all about, sitting on blocks, have a quick bite; children were climbing on the blocks. Then I began to descend.

Paul set us loose in the pillars, saying we would meet up on the other side. I drifted away from Mom, trying to find isolation where I could in the crowded memorial. The ground slipped away so subtly I didn’t really become aware of it until the shadows began to press in around me. The air grew colder the lower I went. People suddenly began to disappear. All I could catch were brief glimpses of them as the appeared from behind one block and vanished behind another. I flinched whenever I nearly bumped into someone around a corner.

I kept turning, never walking in a straight line for very long. The pillars towered overhead. Many were streaked with thin tendrils of moisture, some faint, just ghosts in the concrete, others dark like blood from a freshly cut wound. I wasn’t entirely sure what I had felt down in the maze, I’m still not really sure today. The whole place had the feeling of a graveyard, the pillars great stone coffins set on top of the earth rather than buried below it. It was disorienting, unnerving, the way people were there one second and gone the next. The progression down to the bottom of the hill and back up again felt like the rising and fallings of life itself. And always hanging in the back of my mind was the great loss this place represented, the stinging injustice that is still felt today. People can think what they want, that was Eisenman’s intent when he built the thing, but I will always remember the profound effect it had on me.

The tour ended on Museum Island, which is exactly what it sounds like. It is home to a collection of five world-renowned museums. Mom and I wanted to visit the Pergamon museum, home of the Market Gate of Miletus, an ancient city that existed in what is now Turkey. This giant marble gateway was excavated in 1903 and piece-by-piece brought to Berlin where a building was quite literally built around it. Sadly, we were there just before it was about to close for a five-year renovation, and we didn’t have enough time to get there after the tour finished. Guess we’ll just have to come back in five years! The island is also home to the Berlin cathedral, a massive stone building accentuated with soft teal statues and domes and topped with a gleaming gold spire atop the highest dome.

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Paul gave his last history lesson before thanking us all for choosing Sandeman’s Tours. After a quick round of applause the group dispersed. A few people stayed to ask Paul some questions or say their thanks. Mom and I pulled out about 15 euro to give Paul and we said our thanks as well and how much we enjoyed the tour. We stepped away from what was left of the tour group, and a minute later Peter called. He would be leaving work shortly and wanted to see where we were. I told him we had just finished up on Museum Island, and that we were both ready for a good meal. We made plans to meet at this street market that was roughly half way between ResearchGate and Museum Island, and from there we would head to Burrito Baby.

With one last look at the behemoth buildings all around us, we left the island and walked the few blocks to our meeting place. The afternoon was slipping away into evening. The many buildings were splitting the rays of the sun, and most of its light was muted, setting the streets in a dull gray light. This made the market place a bit of a shock when we finally turned the corner on it. It was contained within a moderately sized square and flanked by rows of retail shops. Most of the stalls were constructed of sturdy looking wood and each was filled with a multitude of items. Some had fudge, others had strands and strands of kielbasa and other meats; there was also popcorn and other stalls with knickknacks and trinkets of all kinds. At the center of it all was a fountain we could only see parts of, and bright yellow lights hung over the whole scene. It was a splash of vibrant color and sounds after a drab street canvas.

Mom and I crossed to the far side of the square to a couple of steps outside the entrances to the adjacent shops. It was nice to sit after those long hours of walking on pavement. I passed the time waiting for Peter to arrive watching people come and go and half listening to the conversations of people sitting nearby. I was mid-zone when Peter swept in from my peripheral vision on a city bike and hopped off the petals to a stop in front of us. We walked back the way we had come so Peter could return his bike before we all boarded the U-Bahn.

We took seats (if we could find them), and Peter commented his surprise that the tour had taken us so long. Paul had mentioned he had gone a bit long by taking us onto the actual island but the timing seemed to have worked out well. If it had been any shorter, we would’ve been waiting that much longer for Peter to get off work. The train started to move. Peter nudged my shoulder and pointed down the length of the train. I leaned forward to look. The other day Peter had mentioned there was a train that wasn’t made up of separated cars but instead was one long continuous car. This made for a very mesmerizing U-Bahn experience. You can look down the center aisle and watch the whole train bend and curve with the tunnel. I know, doesn’t sound that great but it is actually a very neat sight.

After the train ride we walked through darkened Berlin streets to the second tiny restaurant I visited during my stay. Burrito Baby was bigger then Oases by far but it still didn’t allow for a whole lot of patrons to sit in and eat. Seating wouldn’t have been a big deal if it was just Mom, Peter, and me, but we were also meeting up with Peter’s friend Emma. It was probably a good thing his friend Jakob couldn’t meet up with us until later or one of us would’ve had to stand and eat.

It turned out a couple of people were leaving just after we ordered so we snagged their booth and an unused seat from another table and squeezed ourselves in. Emma showed up a few minutes after we did and Peter introduced us. I, and Mom to a degree, was rather quiet both before and after the food arrived. This was mostly due to fatigue. All we’d had to eat that day was our Parisian breakfast. Peter and Emma were chatting about this and that, so I was happy to just listen while Mom asked the occasional question.

Once I had a burrito in my hands all bets on talking were off. Peter had wanted to bring us here, one, because he said it had fantastic food and two, because it was vegan friendly. It was a good burrito. I kind of wished I had been paying more attention as I shoved it into my face. I’m not a foodie by any means, so I wouldn’t have gotten that detailed about a burrito any way, but it was just what I needed that day. When we were all finished we stood up to pay then filed out onto the sidewalk.

Peter was back on his phone trying to get in touch with Jakob and see where he was. He turned out to not be that far away so we waited around outside Burrito Baby until he showed up. It couldn’t have been more than a few minutes we stood waiting but it was chilly that night and my long sleeved shirt and zip-up hoodie weren’t quite doing the trick. At last a lone figure in a gray jacket appeared down the sidewalk. We had introductions again and quick deliberations about where to go get a drink before setting off. Mom and I, being the foreigners as it were, were simply along for the ride.

Don’t ask me what the place was called. It was a bar, that’s all I know. We grabbed a table that was a bit closer to the door than I might have liked, and of course I took the seat closest to the door, but it wasn’t bad unless someone came in and didn’t pull the door shut behind them. Thank goodness for Jakob. He was very good about getting up and closing it when the new arrivals didn’t. Drinking in a new place, even drinking at home to an extent, is always a bit of an adventure. You have no idea what the beer is like or how good a brewery is. Heck, I couldn’t even pronounce half of the drink list!

All the beer was fine though. Peter is my fellow beer enthusiast, so if he was drinking it, it wasn’t going to be that bad a beer. It was a night out very much like a night out at home would be. We sipped our drinks and talked and laughed a cheers’d, only in Germany you say “prost.” Some live music started in a side room a short while after we arrived. We could hear snippets of it drift out the slender entryway and over the chatter of the bar. The first round was finished and Mom and I found ourselves scrapping for more cash. We managed some but Peter offered to spot us the money for a couple more drinks.

I hadn’t thought about how many beers I’d actually had until Jakob commented that I didn’t seem that drunk. I remembered then that I was drinking much closer to sea level. Had I drunk as much back home I would’ve been too far-gone to drive or walk very straight. Regardless of my newfound drinking abilities, I didn’t have more than three drinks, though a couple of them were larger than your typical pours back home.

The night was going just fine up until the moment I had to go to the bathroom. Going to the bathroom in a new place always give me a bit of anxiety but going in a place where I felt sure I wouldn’t see “Men” and “Women” on each respective door was even worse. The only person I could admit my fear to was Mom. Luckily, she had already gone so she had the scene scoped out. I tapped her leg under the table, leaned over and admitted my rather silly concern. She laughed, of course, that was fair and expected. She told me it was the door on the right. Now that I was prepared, I could walk to the bathroom in confidence.

Apparently, though, my brain was just drunk enough that I decided to make something that should’ve been easy and straight forward complicated again. As soon as I was outside the two doors, my brain whispered in my ear, ‘Did she mean right when you’re facing the doors or when you’re facing away? Eek!’ So I opened the one on the left. Fortunately no one was in there. I came face to face with a sink, a stall, and a urinal so I was pretty confident that wasn’t the right one (ha, get it?). I moved over to the door on the right, just like Mom had said. I looked down and noticed, among lots of other graffiti, large blue letters spelling out “Boys fuck everything up.” How did I not realize that was the women’s bathroom?

With that crisis dealt with, I returned to the table with a happy bladder. When one in the morning began creeping closer we decided it was best to leave the bar and move in the direction of bed. We parted ways with Jakob at the bar. His night was going to continue. The four of us walked towards the U-Bahn station. Conversation had all but died out on the journey home. We said our goodbyes when our stop came up and wearily shuffled the short distance back to the flat.

~Ren

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