Berlin

I was excited to visit Berlin again after a positive trip in 2014. Ka-Hing and I planned to stay in Kreuzberg with some recent San Francisco expatriate friends, Duy and Priya, who graciously hosted us. We had a few hours to kill before they returned home from vacation in Italy, so we dumped our bags in the Berlin Hauptbahnhof station lockers and headed for Checkpoint Charlie. The site itself underwhelms, but the nearby Checkpoint Charlie Museum stays open late. My heart sank as we explored the bottom floor and I worried that we wasted €15 on tired memorabilia. However, the upper levels were cavernous and detailed escapes from east to west using a variety of technologies: balloon, car trunk, and homemade airplane! The museum has expanded several times over the years and discusses North Korea, Ronald Reagan, and NATO. Afterward, we had a forgettable pan-Asian meal then navigated over the train and bus to Kreuzberg to meet Duy and Priya and then crashed from exhaustion.

I woke early from an abbreviated night’s sleep and decided to go for a run. Pre-exploring via Google Maps I discovered that Tempelhof Feld, the site of the Berlin airlift, was close by. This area turned into an unusual park where one can cycle and run and also recently hosted Syrian refugees. I misunderstood the entrance and lost my way in a Turkish cemetery and appreciated the irony of its wall separating me from my goal. Eventually, I hit the tarmac and my feet learned that a runway can be as short as 2 km. The former terminal feels like a throwback with its spectator seating and an overhang to act as an umbrella for passengers while alighting.

Returning home Ka-Hing and I headed out for and failed to find a Turkish breakfast, instead having some small pizzas and a strange sesame biscuit. We continued onwards to see the Berlin Wall memorial, the third section I have visited and home to several apartment ruins which escapees used to get to the west. Some escapees merely jumped out of their windows to freedom. One detail I learned was that the USSR installed spikes on the ground next to the wall to impale jumpers, colorfully named Stalin’s lawn. Next, we went to the Deutsches Historisches Museum where I hoped to learn about German history before 1900. This museum has a massive size and scope and I misjudged pacing, abbreviating some of the pre-World War I material and totally skipping the modern era and the temporary exhibition. Germany has a Heinz 57 past, with fluid borders and multiple incursions from the Ottoman Empire and Napoleon. More positively, Germany has a strong scientific tradition and at one point won one-third of all Nobel prizes.

We stopped for a coffee to evade the rain and did some knick-knack shopping, including buying a German-language birthday card. Finding the correct nuance in another language is tough although Google Translate helps! We returned to Kreuzberg for a home-cooked Indian meal, good conversation, and perhaps too many drinks. Duy and Priya moved to Berlin almost a year ago and six months ago, respectively. They answered many questions about their neighborhood, work, insurance, and immigration, all of which seem easy coming from the States. Priya has made some effort to learn German although Duy claims to have forgotten more German than he learned since moving due to working on an international team. Kreuzberg has gentrified in recent years and the neighborhood has similar tensions to the Mission in San Francisco, manifest in the anti-Google signs.

Wednesday began with a viewing of the Wall’s East Side Gallery, a section dedicated for certain artists to paint. I have previously visited and felt like the state of the art of graffiti has improved in the almost 30 years since its dedication. Another shower and seeking shelter we had a forgettable lunch then parted ways for Ka-Hing to visit the DDR Museum which had previously visited. Unfortunately, I went to a lesser site, the Stasi Museum, which covers the secret police spying and collaborators over the 40 year period. While the populace generally disliked the Stasi and living under this oversight must have felt claustrophobic, I did not take much away from it. However, outside the main building hosts a temporary installation which tells the history of East German resistance and eventual revolt which I enjoyed! The East German environmental and hippie movements contributed to eventual reunification, albeit with many contributing factors. I learned about the White Rose group which hoped to educate university students about Nazi war crimes and this information eventually was smuggled westward.

I had struggled to book transit to Wrocław, my next destination, and decided to stop by Ostkreuz station to talk to an agent. Previously I had identified several buses and trains but could not buy them online for whatever reason. This was literally an exercise in frustration as I circumnavigated the station to find an entrance, largely due to construction but also poor wayfinding. Lacking German ability proved a hindrance as I could not communicate with the representatives and spent some time trying to navigate the ticket vending machine, a fruitless task. Again frustrated I gave up and met Priya for a walkabout around some former warehouses near Warschauer Straße. I found Haubentaucher, a massive club which includes a swimming pool! I watched some rock climbers scale an old building while I sipped a coffee, curiously giving a €1 deposit for the mug. Several outdoor bars work on a deposit system for glasses and some try to turn an extra profit by vending themed pins as a kind of seigniorage.

Priya and I planned to meet Ka-Hing, Duy, and Gordian, the latter a common friend and an actual Berliner, for dinner later so we stopped for a beer at Tante Lisbeth. I prefer beer darker than Germans drink but worked my way through the two taps, or vom fass, and one curious copper keg of Pilsner Urquell. Something was lost in translation but this was some special recent addition, although in the end its still just a light beer. Bars permit smoking, including Lisbeth, which disgusts me although this one at least offers a non-smoking sections. Allegedly there it has a subterranean 9-pin bowling alley, or Kegeln, in the basement although I missed it. Gordian joined us and caught up on the last three years, including winding down his involvement in geodesic domes and spinning up his own startup. We continued on for Moroccan dinner at Baraka, serviceable but unremarkable, and the topic turned to politics. My visit coincided with Theresa May’s snap election, a topic I previously had no background in but found myself immediately engaged, typical American. We ended our evening at Wild at Heart and caught a few songs from the last band. I enjoyed the decor and discovered a strange reserved sign at one of the tables; our table was only to be used by specific people and a relic of old Berlin. Having a bit too much to drink we wobbled home and I passed out.

Thursday I insisted that we eat a proper Turkish breakfast and I returned to La Femme where I visited a few years ago. My breakfast included eggs, cheeses, and a medley of dips for oversized sesame donuts. Priya joined Ka-Hing and me for the German-Russian Museum Berlin-Karlshorst, a history of World War 2 from the Soviet perspective. I appreciated this resource since America tends to ignore the tremendous sacrifice the Russians made and the atrocities Nazis committed towards non-Jews. I felt that the narrative was not coherent, covering the military actions in only a few rooms, but different sections talked about everyday life, photography, prisoners, and work camps. One big attraction is that the museum is the site of the armistice and we sat in the room where the four parties signed the treaty.

Unfortunately, the museum is quite far east and we took three trains and one bus to reach. On the return trip, we stopped for empanadas at La Despensa in one of the far left-wing neighborhoods, home to many squatters. Afterward, I hoped to reach the Hatch Sticker Museum which was closed so instead Ka-Hing and I went shopping for baklavas near Kreuzberg. I had never seen so many types before and the per-kilogram price confused me. We had a late dinner at Azzam, a standard Turkish diner, and were amazed by the portion sizes which included a half dozen pitas each. I had a standard falafel plate which included fried halloumi, a brined paneer that I had not previously tried. We headed for the comedy show and witnessed some strange fight where one man tackled another then the second ran around shouting for some minutes. He attracted quite a crowd but we were not able to determine what was going on! Chuckleheads, a comedy show at Deriva, was OK, not surprisingly performed in English by mostly ex-pat talent. Few people even spoke German and I wonder about the resentment towards these western migrants. Some comedians had solid stage presences and act-outs, a few bombed, but mostly the evening proved to be a pleasant end to our Berlin stay.

Ka-Hing and I parted ways on Friday, with him headed back to Prague and eventually Stockholm and me continuing on to Wroclaw in Poland. I had finally booked a DB bus, thankfully departing from the close by Berlin Hauptbahnhof and not the further main bus terminal, and had a lot of confusion about where to board. Eventually, I wandered outside and asked several drivers about their destinations. It turns out there was a small placard but easy to miss! The bus itself is arguably more improved than the train, at least having wifi, although ride quality is low and I could not communicate with the driver or conductor. They seemed to have some upset about not printing a ticket and I could not discover where to sit! Recommend taking the more expensive train. I continue to hold Berlin in high esteem and will consider moving here in the future.