Berlin: Concrete and Steel

I’d expected Berlin to look old and stately, but the city is filled with glass and steel and construction.

A cathedral that was bombed in WWII survives in a fragmented condition today, encased in boxy glass like a museum piece:

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The atmosphere in Berlin didn’t feel like history; it felt like a mixture of dystopian fiction and ordinary neighborhood life. The East Berlin soldiers cut through a cemetery and blocked off Underground passages to put up the Berlin Wall. When the wall came down, people rediscovered Underground entrances that had been hidden so long, their presence had passed from the people’s collective memory. I found a long stretch of partially intact wall by my hostel, and was chilled to find fresh flowers at some of the memorials for people who had died along that stretch of the wall. The only surviving sections of the Berlin Wall are those broken pieces kept up for remembrance and tourism; the people were so eager to tear down the wall at last.

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It’s an odd city– for all its monuments dwelling obsessively on the past, it seems like a city more modern and urban than historical. Today, Berlin is considered the hip place to live for young people. Of all the cities I visited, Berlin was the most green– there were trees everywhere, and the parks and green spaces were incredible small oases of countryside in the middle of the city.

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I made a beeline for the Brandenburg Gate the moment I arrived in Berlin. That put me beside the Reichstag, the German seat of government, and memorial after memorial for the various groups who were persecuted by the Nazis: gypsies, socialists, homosexuals, and of course, Holocaust victims. This last group had the largest memorial, the likes of which I’d never seen. The uneven pathways and staggered heights and widths of the concrete blocks that make up the Holocaust memorial in Berlin are fitting, I thought, for a remembrance of the overwhelming and senseless loss of life. Anywhere I stood among the rows of concrete, the memorial seemed to go on and on and on. And there were people everywhere, all along the memorial.

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I milled around Potsdamer Platz, a lighter way to spend the afternoon after being immersed in history, and perused the contents of the flea market. I found old German gas masks, rusty Soviet medals, vintage books, beer steins, jewelry, old photos, any hundreds more items that fit under the “one man’s junk is another man’s touristy trinket” maxim.

01-IMG_2210The next day, I wandered around former East German Alexanderplatz, where I relished the retro feel of the Soviet-era World Clock (at 3am PST on my little brother’s 19th birthday!) and the whimsical nature of the Neptunebrunnen/Neptune fountain.

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There were some wackier moments of my Berlin exploration: Erdbeerhof (strawberry cart), street crossing symbols, and (not pictured) the time I got harassed by some Gypsies in the park.

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Berlin still bears the signs of a divided recent history. East and West are both vibrant now, but not discontinued from their turbulent past.

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