I liked Berlin when my friend and I arrived in the sprawling German capital a week ago. Our hostel was in Friedrichshain, where our cab driver told us – in heavily German-accented English – is a “good area with lots of clubs. If you come to Berlin to party, you are in the right place!” In fact, the hostel is directly across the street from a club, as well as the S-Bahn – one of the two main railways in Berlin. Not only that, the infamous Berlin Wall that divided East and West Berlin for nearly 30 years until 1989, was just a five-minute walk away.
The East Side Gallery of what remains of the Berlin Wall displays the work of artists from across the world.
In search of breakfast one morning – I hadn’t seen an egg in almost two weeks; plenty of beef, pork and pastries though – we stumbled into the Kreuzberg neighborhood. A gritty enclave which, in appearance, reminds me of Queens, New York with the train rattling on rails up above, graffiti-painted apartment buildings and restaurants serving up cuisine from different nations. Sadly, we didn’t consume any eggs that day. December 26th is a holiday in Germany and as we discovered, many businesses closed up shop.
On a 2.5 hour walking tour our second day in Berlin – on the coldest day we experienced on our trip so far; Z worried her frozen pinky toes would die and fall off – we consumed what our New Zealander turned Berliner guide, Stephanie, told us amounted to “800 years of German history in one afternoon.”
After the walking tour we sought warmth at the charming Christmas market, or Gendarmenmarkt, in a beautiful square between two impressive cathedrals.
The next day, in search of an eggy breakfast once again, we ventured to the adorable Café im Literaturhaus near Kurfürstendamm (Ku’damm). If Kruezberg is Queens, Ku’damm, Berlin’s glitzy shopping avenue – like a Champs-Élysées sister – is the Upper East Side in Manhattan. Boutiques, shops, restaurants and cafes line the over two-mile long destination, along with seasonal Christmas pop-up stands shilling roasted chestnuts, crepes, Glühwein and sausage wursts, among other goodies. People packed the shops and the “queues” for dressing rooms and cash registers wound through doors and around corners.
On the train ride to Ku’daam we witnessed an old couple go off on young Arab woman because the old woman tripped over the woman’s foot.
The woman and her husband berated the bewildered young woman for minutes in harsh German tones. We have no idea what they were going on about, but that would not have been me sitting there. No sir. Not gonna yell at me with some nonsense. We shared sentimental looks with the woman. That couple was out of line.
Unfortunately, we arrived at Literaturhaus minutes too late for breakfast. Foiled again! As we were waiting for our server to clear the table she led us to, a tall dirty-blond haired man moved my friend with a slight push to her back and said tersely, “you have to get out of the way.” I looked askance at his back as he exited the restaurant, shocked at his rudeness.
People behaving like jackholes aside, we enjoyed lunch instead and followed it up with a bit of shopping on the avenue.
I finally saw eggs of the scrambled form the day before we left Berlin when we returned to Literaturhaus the following day. Yippee!
Berlin’s reputation as a party city, with one of the world’s largest New Year’s Eve celebrations, is why we chose it for NYE festivities. To get a taste of the Berlin nightlife in prep for the over-hyped holiday eve, one night we piled on our multiple layers of clothing – sexy – and headed out tor Clärchens Ballhaus in Mitte, because who doesn’t want to go dance it up with Germans in a ballhaus/biergarten/dance club/restaurant?
The clientele was a mix of people I couldn’t figure out: a tall white-haired couple knocked back Berliners (the local beer) like pros; a female couple dance seductively nearby; assertive to the point of nearly-aggressive men stared lasciviously at women whose gaze met theirs and tried to find ladies to bump and grind; other couples – both straight and gay – danced and sang to American songs sung by a fun German cover band. They performed “Hey Ya” by Outkast among other popular former American Top 40 hits.
The kitsch of the place made the evening fun, but if I lived in the area I am not sure it’d be a regular haunt.
Like Copenhagen, smoking in bars is legal, which for this non-smoking Californian is tough to endure for too long.
On another night we joined a pub crawl which Z and I both agree was a boring mess. I’ve had more fun at the dentist. At least my dentist tries to make conversation with me, unlike the surprisingly unfriendly Australians on the crawl with whom I attempted to make conversation. Also unlike the three crawl hosts who spent more time socializing with each other than the group. Two French women we talked to betrayed the French reputation for rudeness and were polite and conversational. Unfortunately between their somewhat limited English and our limited French (a few years of French as a kid only gets you so far), conversation grew stilted. We chatted up an American couple from Texas and New Jersey who commented multiple times about how unfriendly they found Germans.
As thankful as we were to meet the outgoing American couple, we were so put off by the group’s lack of cohesion or attempts to remedy it, along with the hosts’ subpar socializing job, we left the pub crawl at the second bar and set off on our own. I wasted a cute outfit and risked a hangover on a lame evening – I doubly resent the pub crawl.
We alternated between walking (an average of 4.5 miles a day), taxis and the U-Bahn and S-Bahn to get around. Buying tickets at the train station amounted to playing a live action “hurt as many people as possible” video game of which you are the main character. Your goal is to buy a train ticket without getting shoved, pushed, hovered over or yelled at. To be fair, whenever someone spoke to me in German I felt like I was being lectured even if they were saying “I like ponies.”
A woman shoved me out of the way at the train station one morning as I was waiting in line for the ticket machine. It left me feeling which left me feeling disrespected. After not quite five days in Berlin, during which both our moods drifted toward “blah,” we realized the overarching sense of misery and general sense of displeasure in the Berlin atmosphere was bringing us down. I tired of either being stared at or ignored. I even had nightmares every night!
A couple of hours later we agreed to a detour in our travel plans and decided to leave Berlin early and spend New Year’s Eve somewhere more pleasant. First though, we visited a place of historical importance, even though it certainly wouldn’t boost our spirits: Sachsenhausen concentration camp.
The train ride to Oranienburg, where the Sachsenhausen former concentration camp exists as a museum and memorial, is about 50 minutes from the center of Berlin. The number of passengers aboard dwindled the further north we traveled, with only a smattering of riders remaining at the train’s last stop. As Z commented to me, “they really did ship people out to the furthest place they could.” Every muscle in my body suddenly seemed to weigh double.
As sunlight gave way to moonlight, we arrived at the snow-covered entrance to one of the most depressing places my mind and body have ever been.
Sachsenhausen operated as a prison, work camp and extermination center from 1936 to 1945. The camp housed close to 200,000 prisoners including criminals (murderers, rapists), Jehovah’s Witnesses, gay people, Jewish people and communists.
We didn’t stay long. I feel nauseated the deeper we trekked into the recesses of the grounds. The remaining empty barracks, lit from within, served as a spooky reminder of the purpose they once served. The invisible stench of human depravity leading to human misery hung in the already cold air. Z felt the hairs on the nape of her neck stand at attention. No amount of thought-wangling will make me understand how people can be so disgustingly cruel to each other.
And yet…some people still managed to take photos of themselves smiling in front of the memorials.
The next morning, we boarded a train for the 4.5 hour ride to Prague, Czech Republic in search of warmer people and lifted spirits.