Blissed out in Berlin
As you may recall, when I wrote about my trip to Berlin at the end of December/beginning of January, I mentioned that I didn't feel a lot of pressure to see and do everything in my first trip. The reason for this was that I already knew for sure I'd be returning to Berlin in the spring for Fulbright's Berlin Seminar, a multi-day conference held every year for American Fulbright grantees in Europe as well as for German Fulbright grantees about to head to the U.S.
I finally got that second opportunity of seeing Berlin last week. The conference was held from March 23-27, and I decided to arrive the weekend before, giving me about six days of exploring and hanging out with old and new friends, punctuated by occasional conference events. It was without a doubt one of the best experiences I have ever had in Germany, and I am so, so grateful to have had the opportunity to attend.
I left for Berlin early on a Friday afternoon and arrived around 3:30 p.m. Unfortunately, I had some work to catch up on once I arrived, so I wasn't able to go out until the evening, but I had the chance to meet up and share some beers that night with a small group of other teaching assistants whom I hadn't seen since our orientation in September.
On Saturday, I met up with my friend Chase to do some proper exploring of Berlin. I was in luck, because Chase was one of the (seemingly) few TAs who had not yet been to Berlin, meaning he was still down to do some of the more touristy activities. We met up just after 10 in the morning and headed to the DDR Museum, one of Berlin's more interactive museums (or so I've read; I guess I don't have the firsthand knowledge of Berlin's museums to say that for sure).
The museum focuses on the history of East Germany, but it has a different take than most museums that tackle this subject. Rather than focusing on the history and politics of the divide, the DDR Museum focuses on showing people what everyday life in the DDR was actually like. There were exhibits on the school system, clips from DDR TV shows, a set up of what a typical living room would have looked like, etc. It might sound banal, but I found it totally fascinating, especially when you consider how recent this history really is -- some of the people in the museum probably DID grow up watching these TV shows, listening to this music, participating in these youth groups.
The one downside to the museum (which was frequently repeated in its online reviews) is that it is fairly small and typically very crowded. We tried to circumvent this by arriving around 10:30 (it opened at 10), but by then the place was already packed. I'd hate to see what it would've been like around 1 p.m.
After the DDR Museum, we went to the nearby Berliner Dom, Berlin's flagship church. I had wanted to go there when I was in Berlin last, but I had forgotten my student ID and I didn't want to pay the full admission price. It's hard enough to accept paying to go into a church in Germany when so many are free; I wasn't about to pay full price. This time, I came prepared, though I still wasn't overjoyed at paying 4 euros to enter a church.
In hindsight, I really should have done my research on what admission to the church actually gets you, because there was a lot more there than I realized. As usual of fancy German churches, it had a beautiful interior, although the style was very different from anything I had ever seen in Germany. The church itself is not very old, so the interior was done in a very classical, stately style -- lots of regal marble and dignified ornateness; no Baroque gaudiness or Gothic austerity.
After exploring the ground level of the church, we followed signs downstairs to the crypt underneath the church. It turned out that this was actually the wrong order for doing things, because we ended up accidentally exiting the admission area and had to have one of the staff let us back into the area we needed to be in. We then noticed on signs that they tell you what order you're supposed to go through the different parts, and we went from number 1 straight to number 7. Whoops.
Anyway, the crypt was cool to a certain extent. It reminded me a lot of the Hapsburg Crypt that I saw in Vienna with my parents. In both cases, there is something to be said for seeing the final resting places of some well-known, extremely influential individuals from German/Prussian history (in this crypt there were members of the Hohenzollern family, basically the Hapsburgs of Prussia). And some of the coffins were quite ornate and interesting to look at. But also in both cases, the setting wasn't that exciting. When you hear "crypt," you think of somewhere dark and dusty, with winding, confusing underground passages. Perhaps that's how they were in olden times, but nowadays, these crypts are just large, reasonably well lit underground rooms full of a bunch of coffins laid out with a general sense of order and chronology. Still cool, but maybe not what you'd initially expect.
After the crypt, we worked our way back up the multiple levels of the Dom, through a couple small exhibition halls. Eventually we ended up at the very top of the Dom, where there is an outdoor walkway from which you can look out at the city. At this point I really felt quite dumb for griping about the entrance price, because I had no idea it included getting to go to the very top of the church. Unfortunately, it wasn't a particularly nice day (and it's not like Berlin itself is any great beauty), so it was a very grey, drab scene, but still a worthwhile view.
We grabbed some lunch at a Nordsee and waited for the rain to move out, then we made our toward the Brandenburg Gate. On the way, we stopped at the Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe, one of the city's most well-known Holocaust memorials. This is the memorial that features rows and rows of blank concrete slabs that quickly increase in height as you walk through them, to the point that very quickly all you see around you are the stone slabs towering above you and the small paths that lace through them.
As is to be expected with this kind of an exhibit, many people there treated it more as an attraction than a memorial site -- there were plenty of people, young and old, racing through the stones, playing hide and seek and laughing. That said, there was still a sort of disquieting peace you could find in the middle of the memorial. One thing that particularly struck me was the complete lack of graffiti I saw there -- as anyone who has been to Berlin knows, this is quite impressive. I'm not sure if that's due to guards doing a good job of preventing people from even having a chance to do it to begin with, or if it's more due to people just knowing this isn't the place for such acts. I suspect it's a little of both.
After taking 10 minutes or so to explore the memorial, Chase and I continued on to the Brandenburg Gate. Both of us had been there before (me in January; Chase the day previous), but in both cases neither of us felt like we had had sufficient time to take it all in. In my case, I went there right after New Years, meaning the stage setup from the previous night was still there and thus that the western side of it was completely blocked off. So this time I was actually able to see the gate on a normal day, as well as able to walk around the perimeter of it. It's not like the gate is so spectacular that it warrants a visit every time in you're in Berlin, but now I finally feel like I've seen it properly.
We walked around the area near the gate and ended up at the Memorial to the Sinti and Roma victims of National Socialism, one of the newer Holocaust memorials in Berlin (I think it's such a testament to Germany's commitment to never forgetting its past that they are constantly erecting new memorials, even now). It was a simple and dignified memorial, featuring a shallow black pool with a fresh bouquet of flowers in the middle. Stones were embedded into the ground around the pool, some of which were inscribed with the names of concentration camps.
From here, we made our way over toward the east side of Mitte, near where my hostel was. We split ways for a few hours, as I went back to my hostel to rest up and Chase met up with other Fulbrighters. We went out as a group later that night, and I got to see even more familiar faces that I hadn't seen in a while. My excitement for the seminar was reaching a fever pitch -- I was already having a blast, and the conference hadn't even started yet!
The next day I left my humble hostel near the East Side Gallery and traded it for a much snazzier four-star hotel just off of Alexanderplatz. Now things were really starting! After navigating the massive throngs of Fulbrighters to check in for the conference and then more crowds to actually check into my room, I took some time to breathe and get settled. Then it was time to go off again. The conference technically didn't start until the evening, but Fulbright gave us the option of signing up for one of three free city tours. Ordinarily, I'm not much of a tour person, but since it was free, I figured why not. I opted to go on the Cold War tour, which focused on Berlin's history as a source of tension between Russia and the West. The overall tour wasn't particularly notable.
Probably the most interesting thing we saw was the "Tränenpalast" ("Palace of Tears"), a former train station turned museum that marks one of the former border crossings between East and West Germany (the only one that was a train station). The station got its name from the often tearful goodbyes residents of East and West Germany shed as they parted, uncertain when they'd see each other again. One of the museum guides gave a short talk on the history of the museum, and then we had about 20 minutes to explore the exhibits on our own (not a lot of time, but it's also not a terribly big space).
We hit a few other areas, like the Topography of Terror and Checkpoint Charlie, but overall the tour was a bit of a blur. It was free, so I can't really complain, but I didn't necessarily learn as much as I would have liked.
That night was our first official Fulbright event, a catered dinner with an open bar (!!!) that gave us a chance to catch up with friends as well as meet some of the American grantees in other countries and the German grantees heading to the U.S.
The next few days consisted of various panel discussions, workshops an presentations designed to give us a better idea of what our fellow Fulbrighters were doing with their grants as well as a chance to discuss some larger issues, like working as a teaching assistant or issues of immigration in Europe. A couple of the highlights were the Opening Ceremony at the Universität der Künste Berlin (another open bar!) and an afternoon session inside the Rotes Rathaus, Berlin's lovely 19th-century town hall.
The overall experience was incredible. I can say without hyperbole that I have never before been surrounded by so many intelligent, interesting and impressive individuals. Moreover, Fulbright was extremely generous with the event, from the hotel, to the meals, to the free drinks... It was an experience to be savored, and I'd like to think I made the most of it.
The conference ended Thursday morning, as we all rallied from the previous night's Abschiedsfeier to enjoy one more free breakfast in the hotel before going our separate ways. I was honestly surprised how sad I was for the conference to be over. I had met so many wonderful people, and many of them I'll likely never see again without significant effort. Even just among Germany TAs... I still have three more months of teaching, but with 140 assistants spread throughout the whole country, it's not like I'll be able to easily see most of them again. I'm trying to make plans to meet up once more with many of them, but I know I won't be able to see as many as I'd like.
My train left Thursday evening, so I spent the rest of the day darting around Berlin. I wandered around the Gendarmenmarket a little bit, a lovely square that was the site of the Christmas market where I celebrated New Years earlier this year. It was nice to see it open and sunny, since the market made it hard to appreciate the actual space. I had a meeting in the afternoon with a grad school in Berlin I'm interested in attending, and later I wandered over to the Mauerpark.
The park is located in the Prenzlauer Berg district of Berlin and is named as such because it used to be site of the Berlin Wall and its "death strip." Today, a portion of the wall still remains at the park and, in true Berlin fashion, it is a hub of activity for local graffiti artists. There were several people actively working on adding new designs to the wall when I was there, which I thought was sort of cool -- how typical Berlin is it to go to a park and watch people spray paint their designs onto a former symbol of oppression and division?
From the park, I slowly made my way back to Alexanderplatz on foot, enjoying the chance to amble mindlessly through Berlin, taking in more and more of the city.
In my last post on Berlin, I described my visit as merely scratching the surface. Upon my second visit, I definitely have more a feel for the city, but there's still so much to see. From a straightforward tourist perspective, there are still a lot of WWII and Cold War-related sights I'd like to see, as well as museums (namely the Pergamon Museum). I also still need to see Potsdam, which is (so I'm told) a lovely city just outside of Berlin.
From a broader perspective, I still feel like I haven't seen nearly enough of Berlin outside of its central district, Mitte. There are 11 other districts, most of which I've barely wandered into, if I have at all. I am already looking forward to my next trip and having the chance to continue my exploration without the pressure of seeing the major tourist attractions.
Overall, I couldn't have asked for a better six days in Berlin. The city was beautiful, the company unbeatable and the experience unforgettable. I am truly blessed to be a participant in this incredible program, and I am so excited to make the last three months of my assistantship truly count.