There are places I look forward to travelling to as I age — In New Mexico and Arizona I’ll collect turquoise jewelry which will look glorious against my long silver hair. In Tuscany I’ll drink wine in the afternoons before walking across the street to dinner, feeling no guilt about going to bed at 7:00pm. But there are other places where youth is a prerequisite to a plane ticket. Places that seem to build themselves around the twenty and thirty somethings and cater to the 2am crowd. This is Berlin.
Berlin is for the beautiful. The stylishly waifish. The obnoxiously artsy. For those who can make cigarette burned tee shirts look cool. Those who ask the question “what’s next?” when midnight rolls around.
We arrived in the city mid-day on Saturday and I must have had a jet-lagged-blackout on our subway trip into Kreuzberg because I don’t remember a lick of it. It was only when I saw the döner stand in front of our Airbnb that I came to, and my immediate thought upon seeing the meat tornados stationed between a record shop and a bank with a broken window was “oh I’m going to like it here”. The apartment walls are stark white and each room filled with sunlight. A balcony overlooks everyone else’s balcony. The window in the bedroom is six feet tall and when it opens it floods the room with morning.
Too excited to nap we head towards the most iconic place in the city (or what’s left of it):he Berlin Wall. Once a symbol of oppression, the wall is now an outlet for street art. The young have used their post-wall pain to rebrand the concrete slabs into “The East Side Gallery”, a near mile stretch of murals using the wall as their canvas.
Immediately I’m met with “Get Human” exploding off a background of red and gold. Dali-esque surrealist landscapes surround “The Kiss”, the wall’s famed painting depicting the Soviet politician Leonid Brezhnev giving the East Germany President Erich Honecker a full-on kiss. The light changes as we pass from mural-to-mural, watching the crowd just as much as we take in the works.
And suddenly, we realize we’re starving. With nowhere in particular to venture towards we meander through Görlitzer Park and pass dozens of young men trying to sell us weed. The sellers should try harder to disperse, because when we heard someone in front of us offer blow to a bro in shorts, they were met with the response “dude, I literally just bought some from him” said while motioning towards someone fifteen feet away.
Cafe Gri Gri nearby offers up a decent yet unremarkable dinner, but we were wanting German food, and German food we got. A lover of spätzle (a comfort food I’d liken to mac & cheese), I was convinced I’d order a dozen renditions of this dish in the country. The thing about German food though, is that you can get real tired of German food real quick. While delicious, it’s incredibly heavy and there are only so many pork knuckles, fried meats, lard toasts and cheesy pasta dishes one can eat over the course of a week without feeling weighed down.
To our delight we were introduced to “spargel”, an asparagus dish that appears on special menus all across Germany in the late Spring. Spargel is a pile of white asparagus, commonly topped with hollandaise or cured meat and served with potatoes. At Gri Gri, the spargel was served with a gravy boat full of browned butter. Ja, ja, a thousand times ja.
Walking in the evening I learn something about Berlin that I never knew, and have since adored — The city is full of canals, dozens of canals. And even better, those canals are frequently filled with swans. Not squawking, hissing, shitting geese, but regal, graceful swans that float by in silent bevies.
I stand admiring the twilight swans and a drunken gentleman stumbles up to us and starts explaining something wholeheartedly. I’m completely lost in translation, but Carl is smiley and responsive, so I take in the view as the man grabs Carl’s shoulder and clutches his own chest. When he finally bumbles off into the night I ask what that was all about, and Carl says he came up to talk about the swans. He wanted to recant how just the other day he watched the flock fly from one side of the canal to the other. And when I asked what he said that made him hold his hand to his heart in earnest, Carl’s translation was “This I promise you. They did fly from there to there”. Wherever you are sir, I believe you.
We awake early Sunday morning and hit the streets looking to get a cup of coffee and a feel for the city in the am. The sun is still new and is bathing the city in that glow that can only be found in metropolises where the light has to ricochet from window to window until it finally sneaks its way onto the sidewalks. A quintet in their mid twenties are sitting on a nearby corner, clearly still out from the evening before. The women in their group wear short black dresses while the men don expensive looking sneakers. They look haggard and happy and sit smoking by a gutter.
An SUV stops at a nearby light and the group run towards the vehicle. I wonder if we’ve landed into Berlin during some sort of Purge-like period, but after a brief conversation between the driver and head of the group, a woman with blonde hair that’s spun out into one large knot, the driver raises the radio volume til I can hear it pulse across the street. This is clearly the desired outcome and the youngin’s back away as they clap their hands and dance with wolfish grins on their faces. The song? Bette Davis Eyes.
I love this scene of playful debauchery and find remnants of it throughout Berlin — piles of beer bottles are stacked in parks and along canals. Left from groups out the night before. Seemingly rude, but this allows for the down-on-their-luck to cash in on the recycling rewards instead of them having to hunt through the garbage.
Trash cans explode their contents onto the street — the receptacles themselves are suspended above ground for easy access, but come Saturday night when everyone is out and about, the cans become overwhelmed with weight and the bottoms release their belly-worth of bottle caps, coffee cups, chip bags and half-eaten ice cream cones.
Between the stones on the cobbled streets are dozens of cigarette butts, forming a mortar from stone-to-stone. Every street is coated in graffiti as high as the arm can reach. Ivy scales walls.
Youth consumes Berlin. Because the people and places sets trends it can be easy to forget this city has a past. But Berlin doesn’t let you forget about its past for long. It makes a point to remind you. And I love it for that.
During an evening walk we stroll towards a beautiful church, only to find that the middle has been bombed out. A hollow facade remains. Bordering the ever-so-touristy Tiergarten lies the Holocaust Memorial which translates as “Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe”. Words are not minced in its name.
I’d seen photos of the Holocaust Memorial before and upon seeing them, I didn’t “get” it. From afar it looks like a bunch of slabs of granite. Looking at pictures I thought “maybe each pillar represents 10,000 victims”. I tried to ascertain a meaning from a photograph. That doesn’t work here.
What you can’t see from afar is that the ground beneath the memorial fluctuates — it rises and falls, and because there are so many blocks in your sight you don’t understand what’s happening until you’ve taken your step in. This place swallows its visitors. You could be ten feet behind the person in front of you and still watch them disappear. And because all you need to do is move a few feet to the left or the right and you’ll be obscured by a pillar, you lose those you love within moments. Carl and I were never more than twenty feet apart and I still had to call his name to find him. When you reach the middle, when you’re really inside of it, you don’t see anyone else. You’re alone. All there is are mammoth blocks. They’re cold and they’re all the same and there’s nothing human about where you are. You don’t even understand where you were minutes ago that got you here. All you know is you’re in an environment that’s indifferent to you and you can’t touch who you were with when you arrived and then suddenly the group rises again and you’re walking into the sunlight and you need to catch your breath.
Sitting in the sun upon my exit I watched a biker surface from beneath, jetting towards the Wilhelmstrasse, and I wondered how someone could treat this place as a shortcut and not think about what they were passing through. But that’s the thing about war and about memory — there’s a fight to remember and a fight to forget, especially during wartime. That’s how death camps could be built on the borders of towns.
It was on Memorial Day when I visited Sachsenhausen and its eponymous concentration camp, located just 45 minutes from the Berlin city center. 200,000 political prisoners passed through the camp’s gates during WWII. Half died there. Entering the camp each prisoner would have seen “Arbeit Macht Frei” (“Work Liberates”) cast into the metal gate. How they died was gruesome and awful and I won’t go into that here, but I will mention that German tax dollars are what pay concentration camps to remain open to the public. For free. The country won’t let itself forget, and puts it upon its own citizens to keep the camps open as functioning memorials. It’s through forgetting we allow ourselves to relive our worst moments over and over (vaccinate yo’ kids).
From Sachsenhausen the walk back to the train station is quiet. The ride is quiet. As Vonnegut says in Slaughterhouse-Five, written about this very war in this very country we’re now taking the commuter rail in, “There is nothing intelligent to say about a massacre”. The space for words is limited. It can only let out meek sounds of “Why?” and “How?”. The space for feeling is unending. I watch buildings and apartments flash by from my window and I recognize their shapes, but they render themselves in waves of white — They roll off my mind immediately.
At the apartment we sit on the balcony and open a beer. My Instagram feed tells me that in the states friends are celebrating memorial day at barbeques and bars. From where I’m sitting I watch people in neighboring balconies water plants or hang up laundry. Though it’s getting on towards evening and the sun is becoming muted, it’s still warm. My silence is a celebration. It’s remembrance. Looking over at Carl we give each other knowing smiles. Clasp hands. When we head indoors we shut the glass door behind us and light fills the room.