I’ve so far avoided being an actual tourist on this trip. I mean sure, I am touring around, and yes, I’ve gone to some tourist spots, and pulled out my camera and snapped pictures. Guilty on all those charges. But so far, I haven’t actually taken a real-life tour. I’ve followed audio guides and podcasts, and self-guided walking tours. But I haven’t been part of one of those groups I always see around LA, either walking or riding a bus or riding segways or whatever, following one guide who’s lamely following some script and trying to earn his wage.
When I stayed at the hostel in London, the map they give you is put together by a company that runs tours just like that — they’re walking tours around the various cities, targeted at young Americans who don’t know any better. FREE TOUR, the brochures trumpet, and when you read the fine print, you learn that you’re meant to pay for the tours, but only by tipping whoever’s giving them. This usually turns out to be another student, or someone who just happened to know English or Spanish or French or whatever language the tour is given in, who then walks the hostel group around the city in question, going through the script.
In London and Paris, I skipped these completely — I had lists of things I wanted to see, and I already knew more places in those cities than I even had time for. I didn’t want to rush by the sights — I wanted to really dive into those cities and see what they were like when no tourists were around, see how they were different from St. Louis, and Chicago, and New York, and Los Angeles, and San Francisco, and all of the cities I’ve personally spent any serious amount of time in already.
Berlin, however, I know nearly nothing about. Yes, I know about East and West Berlin, and I know there was a wall, and JFK said “Ich bin ein Berliner” somewhere around here. I know Hitler ran his war from here, though before today I couldn’t honestly have told you if he’d spent any time in Berlin (he actually didn’t spent much, though as I’ll tell you in just a bit, the time he spent here was significant. And very final). I wanted to see the city, obviously, but unlike London and Paris, there wasn’t anything I wanted to run out and see. I wasn’t quite sure what to do.
So when I pulled into the hostel last night and saw FREE TOUR yet again, I decided to relent. If only for the sake of comparison, I would give the free tour a shot. I woke up early this morning, grabbed the free breakfast at 8, and then stood outside the hostel to meet the tour guide on time at 10:25.
The tour itself meets in front of the Brandenberg Gate, which as I learned has a history long before the Berlin Wall itself — it was the original entrance to the city, and it’s the entrance that Napoleon paraded through when he conquered the place. It was a quick bus ride over there with a few other people from my hostel, and then after being given a number (ugh, I thought — I’m already being herded), I stood there for a while and was eventually divided off into a group of about twenty.
Our guide was a young English guy, thin, with a crazy mullet. He reminded me of my brother, actually — he’d studied history in London, had lived in Berlin for two years, and when he’s not doing tours, he told me, he’s producing techno music and hitting the great clubs here. He introduced himself to the group, and herded us over to talk about the Gate and the Pariser Platz, the square that it’s in. So named, he also told us, because of Napoleon’s history with the square, and sort of an inside joke about Germany’s long rivalry with France.
The guide (whose name was Zabi, I think — a nickname, I believe) showed us the French embassy, the DZ Bank building (designed by Frank Gehry, who of course I know all about from living in Los Angeles). And then he showed us the Hotel Adlon, told us that rooms there cost 9500 euros a night, and then pointed out the balcony, on the third floor, where Michael Jackson famously held his kid out of the window.
I almost walked away right then and there. All of my worst fears about these tours, confirmed. If I wanted to see celebrity sights, I would go for a walk around my neighborhood at home.
I stayed, though. The guide was half joking with it — even he realized that the group wasn’t here for sights like that. After the quick look around the square, we stepped inside a nearby building, and then got down to business. “I’m going to tell you about 800 years of German history,” he told us, “in twelve minutes.”
And, God bless him, he did. Berlin was originally founded on a swamp. It was eventually owned by the Prussians, who got involved in a series of wars with France — France won, they won, and so on. World War I happened, and Berlin (and Germany) got so poor that inflation was way out of control, and then along came Hitler, charismatic and promising to fix the terrible economy. He didn’t, obviously, and he did a lot of other stupid things as well. Finally, America and the Soviet Union marched into the city, and they decided to divide it up. That’s what led to the famous wall, of course, and then in 1990 (which is one of the very few parts of history that I’ve learned about on this trip that I’ve actually been alive for), the wall itself finally came down.
That’s what probably most struck me about Berlin today while walking around it: It’s still building itself. London and Paris are of course old, mature cities. Paris even moreso than London, but both of them have centuries and centuries of history. Heck, even their history has history — as I’ve said, the Louvre itself is historic for being a museum, and the Tower of London has been a tourist trap almost longer than America as a whole has been around.
But Berlin, because of all of the nonsense that it’s been through, is right in the middle of its history. It’s still trying to figure out what it is. Later, after the tour today, I walked around the Prenzlauer Berg neighborhood, part of the communist East Berlin side, and huge communist bloc buildings built in what must have been the 1960s were situated right alongside the Paris-style houses from the 1800s (most of those got bombed out during the wars, but a few still remain). Berlin almost feels more like Detroit or Portland in the US — it’s got the vibe of a city in transition, that’s had trouble but is pulling on through it as powerfully as it can.
The next stop on our walking tour was the Holocaust Memorial, and I won’t talk much about it today, because I’m coming back later on this week. I will say that our guide asked us, fittingly, I thought, what the memorial made us feel, and one of the members of the tour said it felt “somber.” I can’t think of a better word that that one. More later, probably tomorrow.
Then south, to a little gravel parking lot surrounded by more of those communist block buildings. “You’re probably wondering why I brought you to a car park,” our guide joked. He (or maybe just that script) was very jokey — I had to pick past the silly fluff on the tour, and try to dig down into the real history. The real history of this car park, apparently, is that it’s sitting right on top of where Hitler’s Fuhrerbunker was, and where he killed himself with a cyanide tab and a pistol to the head.
When the Soviets arrived in Germany to end the war, Hitler waited until they were only a few blocks away to die “honorably.” I know all of this, of course, because I’ve seen the German movie Downfall. After they invade and then dynamited the bunker, the Soviets found it was harder to destroy than they thought — some of the walls were three fit thick down there. So instead, they flooded it, and then covered it up with concrete of their own, sealing it off forever. Until a couple of years ago, our guide told us, there was no signifier at all on site that the bunker was down there, and back in 2006, the government finally added a sign on the spot, stating that this was where the bunker was buried, along with a map. It was strange to think of the flooded bunker down there (complete with old maps, Nazi books, whatever else you keep in a bunker that you’re running a losing war from, all sunk in water) in such a tame, mundane environment as that car park.
I asked the guide, while walking to our next stop, what the Germans now thought of Hitler and the Nazis, and he told me they’re still very cautious — history is taught (“sometimes overtaught,” he told me) in schools from an anti-Nazi perspective, and in general, Germans don’t joke about it or take it lightly. The reason the Germans haven’t marked out the car park site with anything more than that sign is that they don’t want to create a memorial to Hitler himself, and in all of the time he’s been in Berlin, he said, he’s never heard or seen of any marker on the site at all — not one flower, one candle, anything. Even the most rebellious Germans, it seems, would rather just have Hitler forgotten.
Next up was the Berlin wall itself, or at least one of two parts of it still left standing for memory’s sake. We saw the wall and the famous Checkpoint Charlie, and this was where our guide really won me over: Everything at Checkpoint Charlie, he told us, is as fake as anything at Madam Tussad’s, just a made up bunch of props to attract tourists. Even the soldiers standing there are actors, like Batman and Spiderman over on Hollywood Boulevard.
But Checkpoint Charlie was of course a real place (named Charlie because it was the third checkpoint in the wall, after Alpha and Bravo), a checkpoint which separated West Berlin’s communist center from the American quarter of Berlin. The wall itself was built to keep East Berliners from escaping the communist regime into the western land of the capitalists (and to keep the evil capitalist influence out of East Berlin, if you listen to the propaganda of the time). Checkpoint Charlie was one of the easiest checkpoints to escape out of (by hiding in a diplomat’s car, or simply driving right through the gate when you could), and it was also the place where most of the tourists came in and out, so it’s become very famous over the years.
We took a quick break in the tour, and I grabbed a bratwust from a street vendor, and oh man, it was so good.
From there, it was back up through the city, towards Museum Island (which, you’ll never guess, is full of museums). We saw the beautiful Gendarmenmarkt Square, where the German Dome and the French Dome buildings compete for attention, and heard about the history of them while a violin busker played Ave Maria in the sunny spring afternoon. We visited the Bebelplatz, where there’s an empty underground library to remember a bookburning that Joseph Goebbels oversaw. “Where they burn books, they ultimately burn people,” says a quote on the plaque there, attributed to Heinrich Heine in 1834, a full century before the Nazis brought their horrible scheme to fruition.
We didn’t get much more than a look at Museum Island, but I will be back there in the future. And then, after sharing with us the story of how the wall actually came down (the communists accidentally read the wrong notes at a press conference, he said, though I have to check the veracity of that one myself), he ended the tour. He did say that yes, the tour was free, but tips were sort of expected, and despite all of the silly jokes, I have to admit the tour had some solid information, and gave a good overview of the city. I wouldn’t depend on it as my only sightseeing, but I figured it was a useful way to spend my first three hours wandering the city. I gave him 15 euros.
There was a Radisson Hotel right there where the tour ended, so I ducked inside, and enjoyed the use of the lobby restrooms and wi-fi for a little bit. I’ve gotten pretty good at making use of big hotel chains in my travels to various gaming conventions, and I was happy to find that even over here in Berlin, my skills translated pretty well. If I’d wanted to, I could probably have walked over to the concierge, told him I’d forgotten my room key, and even scammed my way into a room.
I didn’t, obviously. I instead returned back out to the streets, and started walking around what used to be communist Berlin.
It’s hard to imagine what things would have been like back then. Obviously, communist Russia would be very different, and I won’t have a chance, on this trip, to see what that’s like. But still, as I said, you can tell what it looked like, at least. There were long buildings of rooms all exactly the same, plain and gray and cheap. Today, of course, little restaurants and video rental stores and boutiques dot the landscape (which, again, reminded me of Los Angeles) with a little bit of color. But that’s all just drops in the huge canvas of concrete that make up these blocs.
At the top of Prenzlauer Berg, I found a quiet little neighborhood, full of what you could tell were much older buildings, much more like Paris’ lovely streets. Near Kollwitzplatz (so named for a female artist named Käthe Kollwitz, whose statue sits in the little park there — that’s it above), there were a bunch of little shops full of great German food, and I couldn’t ignore them for long. I went into a bakery, picked up something called a Quarktasche. “Quarktasche, bitte,” I told the cute shop owner, and then asked her, “what is quark?” She laughed at being made to speak English — her English was almost worse than my German. “Yog-hurt? Something like,” she replied. “It’s ok,” I said. “I’ll just eat it.” I did — it was a very good sort of cheesecake-like pastry.
I kept walking, and suddenly, it started raining, though half the sky was still sunny. I ducked into a doorway to wait it out. It was one of those delicious spring rains, that only shows up for a few minutes, so I sat there for a little while, watching Germans ducking raindrops. It happened to be right at six o’clock, and to my left and to my right, each about a mile or so away, there were two different churches ringing their bells in the middle of April showers. The smell was … well, you know the one.
It let up a few minutes later, and I walked on wet streets through a market that had just closed — vendors were pulling back tarps they’d quickly thrown over their wares, loading them all up into vans and trucks, and laughing at chatting in German as they did so. The cafes had tablecloths out in front of them that were still wet from the short showers, but people crawled out of the woodworks fast. I passed a park full of kids, most of them splashing in shallow puddles.
My last stop of the night was a little food stand, across from a former brewery that now serves as a “Kulturbrauerei,” literally a culture brewery. I have heard about curry wurst for years, but never had a chance to try one, so when I walked by this place, I happily payed two euros for one. I was asked if I wanted fries with it (no — I was planning to eat elsewhere later on), and if I wanted skin. I didn’t know what “skin” meant, so I just shrugged, just to say that I would eat whatever. The guy didn’t like me for that one, but he grunted, so I guess he got the message.
The wurst I got did in fact have “skin” on it — it appeared to be deep fried. In fact, here’s how you make a curry wurst: Get a really great pork sausage, or a “wurst,” in German. In this case, deep fry it in a thin coating of batter. Then slice it up into pieces, drown it in ketchup (yes, ketchup), and sprinkle curry powder over it.
Gross? Maybe. Delicious? Very. It’s supposed to be everywhere in Germany, and indeed I’ve seen quite a few places selling it. I thought the curry may have come from some Indian influence (curry is big in Britain, as well, but of course that’s because India has ties to the British Empire). But no, apparently some lady in Berlin got some curry powder from the British, decided to combine it with two things she had a lot of, ketchup and wursts, and there you go. I won’t lie: I will probably have another one of these before I leave this town.
And then I headed back here to the hostel, where I’m typing this up in the bar … while a Barcelona/Madrid soccer game is going on. Every time that ball even comes close to the goal, this place has exploded — my ears have seen better days, and the game has only been going on for about 20 minutes.
In fact, I better close up the computer and grab a drink of my own. Tomorrow: The Reichstag.
Posted on Sunday, April 22nd, 2012 at 2:23 am. Filed under general.