Complete set of photos available on Facebook.

It’s not exactly easy to wake up after 3 hours of sleep, especially when you’ve spent the previous 16 hours writing a final course report and rush-packing a bag for a weekend getaway. It’s also not so easy to check-in and print tickets when you bought the flights through a German website. Additionally, I’d argue that it’s rather difficult to forgive a drunk Danish friend for knocking on your door and cutting 3 hours of sleep to two and a half. But I did all of the above, and then at 5:00 Saturday morning, I hopped on a bus to the Copenhagen airport. Final destination: Berlin

You’d think I could use the flight to supplement at least a few minutes of my poor sleep planning, but tail winds from a mysterious storm in the North Sea cut the flight from 1 hour to 30 minutes. By 7:30, Paul and I arrived at Berlin-Tegel Airport. Despite being my German friend in Denmark, Paul anxiously agreed to travel to Berlin with me a few months ago. He hadn’t visited Berlin in over 5 years; I’ve traveled through Bavaria and Munich, but never to Berlin. Thus, with Paul’s older brother Benni also living in Berlin the trip seemed like a convenient and obvious adventure for both of us.

By 9, Paul and I caught public transports to Benni’s flat on the southeast side of Berlin. I regret to write that I shockingly pointed at a Dunkin Donuts in one of the main stations and Paul liked the idea; my first taste of Berlin was a DD hot chocolate and two very American donuts. I’ll lie and say I didn’t like it. Despite the inconvenience of a late night and early flight, the arrangements allowed for a full first day in Berlin.

I waited a few minutes while Paul and Benni got haircuts, then Benni joined us in central Berlin for some brief guidance of the area. He offered lots of historical information and showed us Humboldt University, where he has been preparing for his German bar exam, then wished us a fun adventure.  Berlin is well known for it’s currywurst, sausages dressed in a curry-ketchup combination. Paul and I didn’t waste any time using our day-long transport passes to find lunch at Currywurst 36, one of the more famous establishments in Berlin. Two lunches for six euro? Not bad!

We had picked up a flyer in a Starbuck’s earlier in the day, when my memory triggered a reminder that we might be able to find a free city tour. The 24 hour pass brought us to Pariser Platz just in time for the 1 pm tour with Sandeman’s New Berlin tours. For the next 4 hours, Kim enlightened a large group of Berlin’s history, obstacles and achievements alike, and presented a clear picture of the city’s evolution. Despite being an Australian with only seven months experience in Berlin, Kim’s had researched culturally and historically rich facts to present the story of Berlin. Perhaps because Sandeman’s Free Tours’ guides make a living only from tour tips, Kim’s genuine passion was evident and she had clearly done her studies of Berlin, whether by books or museums. Besides remembering the name “Sandeman’s” or “New Europe” next time you find yourself in a large European city (try to find a Starbuck’s and ask where the tours meet), why’s the tour important to you? What did Paul and I see?

  • Pariser Platz – home to the Branderburger Tor, the majestically iconic gates of Berlin, as well as the French and US embassies
  • The Reichstag – home of the German parliament, the Bundestag, this building miraculously survived WWII and has been modified today. The most significant change is the building’s dome, which is now made of glass. Visitors can tour the building and climb the dome to look over the legislative chambers. As Kim said, if the German government ever forgets the harm done to so many people, they just have to look up and realize the people are watching them. With that being said, the tragedies will never be forgotten.
  • The Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe – this artistic and sometimes controversial plaza houses a grid of hundreds of concrete blocks with varying heights. Without and words or names, the monument is open for interpretation. I found that no matter which corridor I stood in or corner I turned, the arrangement gave me no place to hide.
  • Checkpoint Charlie, the Berlin Wall, the SS headquarters, and the ground above Hitler’s bunker – having studied WWII and the Holocaust at the young age of a third grader, I’ve maintained a fascination for the complex and mysterious procedures of the government and the fortunate downfall of Hitler’s sick propaganda. It hurt me to see the barriers built between social ranks and the thought of standing above an underground concrete mansion chilled me just as much as the bed of rocks that now marks the former Gestapo headquarters.
  • Gendarmenmarkt – this square temporarily houses one of Berlin’s many Christmas markets and permanently glorifies nearly identical French and German cathedrals as well as the Concert House.

        

Along the tour, Kim pointed to many other important buildings and Berlin impressed me with it’s ability to create a city healed from 90% post-war destruction. We ended our tour on “museum island” and Kim shared a little more about why she loves Berlin. Most memorable to me was the emphasis on change and growth. The richness of Berlin’s history parallels other European capitals but supersedes its rivals in the extremity of the obstacles. Berliners attest to the fact that the city can’t be recognized when you leave and return. “Paris will always be Paris, but Berlin is always becoming Berlin.” With Kim’s advice and escort, Paul and I joined 8 other international students (based in Paris) for an evening in “The Pub.” The coolest part of the pub was the electronic display for the self-serve taps with individual measurement systems. You know how much you drink and you pay exactly for how much you want.

Just to put this out there: Brian, from Yale, you epitomized the stereotype of an Ivy-Leaguer. You did not impress Paul and I with your false-facts, beer “knowledge”, or inability to rile our table to defeat the rest of The Pub’s patrons in drinking the most during Happy Hour. Calm down and get off your high horse.

For the rest of the evening, Paul and I had dinner in an Indian restaurant and then sampled a few bars in Friedrichshain. Later, we walked through some of the day’s early historic sites, taking a different perspective in the dark, and then returned home before 2 a.m. Given that the day started around 4, sleep was much needed and Sunday’s first morning alarm was quickly ignored.

Given that Kim had introduced us to almost all of Berlin’s major attractions, Sunday allowed free time for more exploration, after breakfast, of course. For any touristic foreigners, Hofbrauhaus is a staple for visiting Munich. The Bavarian brew house serves delectable cuisine and drinks, and thankfully they’ve just opened a branch in Berlin. Paul and I arrived with the intention of ordering the opening special: a mass (0.5 L) of Hofbrau original, Bavarian white sausages, and a pretzel. Sunday brunch. 10 euro. No more words. For the next hour and a half, we sampled everything German’s love for breakfast, lunch, and dinner. Pretzels, brotchen, potatoes, meat, cheese, sausages, puddings. Needless to say we were fat and happy, and it was time for some exercise.

We rented bikes from Fat Tire Bikes in Alexanderplatz, home of several Christmas markets and the iconic Soviet “TV Tower”. I felt free riding a bike along Berlin’s major streets, threw the pillars of the Brandenburger Tor, over the bricks marking the former wall, and into Tiergarten, one of Berlin’s major parks. We locked the bikes and took a pit stop to climb Siegessäule, the Victory Column that overlooks Tiergarten and many sites of Berlin. The 67 meter monument pays tribute to Germany’s contributions to victory the 1871 Danish-Prussian War. Unlike many pre-WWII structures, the tower has survived with restoration but is not unmarked by bullet holes and a story of being transported across the city during war.

Between bike trips through the parks and street of Berlin, Paul and I also visited the memorial to the Soviet soldiers of WWII and returned to the information center and museum at the site of the former Gestapo headquarters and a major piece of the Berlin Wall. Despite the rush to return our bikes, hatred for the Nazi reign overcame my elementary school nostalgia. So many people, not just Jewish, were hated just for being real. Hitler has been the worst of the world’s bullies.

With a few minutes to spare, we raced back to Alexanderplatz, returned the bikes, and spent a few hours strolling through the Christmas markets, while tasting the famous Glühwein. In the evening, we joined Benni and his girlfriend at a Lebanese restaurant in Kreuzberg and then spent some time socializing before returning home to sleep.

Monday afforded time for an even more relaxed schedule, considering we’d seen most of Berlin’s famous sites. With pretzels and pastries in hand, we caught the train to the west side of town to Kurfurstendamm, the home street of many upscale shops and homes. After some walking and browsing, we found the KaDeWe empire. As Europe’s second largest department store, Kaufhaus des Westens offers 8 floors of clothes, homegoods, electronics, art, souvenirs, and groceries! We took a quick tour of each floor by combination of escalators and elevators, then we navigated our way back to the street level.

Later in the day, we strolled the vacant airstrips of the former Tempelhof complex, which was closed as an airport in 2008. The runways and tarmac spaces are being gradually converted into a large city park. I felt like an ant when I realized how wide and long a runway is. After a quick lunch kebap, we headed to the technical university, where Paul wanted to collect some information about the study opportunities. After asking some questions, we found a nice cafeteria at the top of a nearby skyscraper and sipped on hot chocolate before the sun could set. Knowing we had a late flight and a little time to spare, Paul and I agreed that one of Berlin’s museums deserved our attention. In a toss-up against the “new museum” that houses Nefertiti, we chose to visit the Pergamon, home of many Middle Eastern artifacts, and namely the Ishtar gates. Despite only having an hour in the exhibitions, the age of the items and their partial restoration carried my mind into another world. Beyond imagining each artifact in its original form, I felt small contemplating the survival through hundreds and thousands of years, being repeatedly transported across Europe as trophies of war and icons of history.

Coats were retrieved at the museum wardrobe; we hopped on the train to Benni’s flat and grabbed our luggage; we took the loop train toward Tegel, and back to Copenhagen we flew. And there was Berlin, in all her beauty. For nearly three full days, I was consistently impressed and stimulated, visually and intellectually. If you’ve ever seen Inception, it’s like thousands of unique designers simultaneously project the streets of Berlin from their minds, creating an ever-changing landscape. Culture and architecture clash. Cuisine and language lie in suspension. Yet, the people love it all, because Berlin has no identity, except for your self-identification. It’s not exactly easy to understand something so simple.

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