Bewildering Berlin: Portrait of a Complex City

Berlin made my brain hurt right from the moment I stepped off the U-bahn in the Kreuzberg neighborhood.  It was madness:  honking cars, exploding fireworks and drunken cheers assaulted me from every angle.  Brazil had handed Germany a place in the World Cup final and the city was celebrating in the streets.  It was an exhilarating way to be greeted by a new place.

The following day, after a surprisingly good night’s sleep in a 16-bed dorm, I relocated to a flat with Uli, a host from  She very graciously welcomed me into her life for the next few days, starting with dinner at an Indian restaurant with her boyfriend Benny.  I talked incessantly about the differences between the U.S. and Europe while the two of them patiently answered my questions and gave context to my random accumulation of observations.

Afterward we bought wine and beers and sat in the street watching the Netherlands-Argentina match on the corner shop’s outdoor screen.  The tradition of watching matches at such shops started in 2006 when Germany hosted the World Cup.  Drinking in the street felt very foreign to me.  I had to shake the habit of looking around before surreptitiously taking sips from my bottle.

On the way home the conversation turned to all the flags in the city.  In honor of the World Cup the bold black, red and yellow stripes were hanging from balconies everywhere I looked.  Uli insisted it wasn’t normal, that Germans painstakingly avoided nationalistic behavior after the 1980’s.

An example of the ever-changing street art in Berlin.

An example of the ever-changing street art in Berlin.

The next day I set out to meet Dorothée, a digital acquaintance from Twitter.  We hit it off well, perusing the city’s street art and grabbing a coffee in a funky alley café.  Afterwards she ran an idea by me:  “You like old, run down, shabby buildings, right?”  Yep, she nailed it.  So off we went to check out a section of town where the effects of two world wars followed by a totalitarian dictatorship could easily be seen.

Building with damages from WWII

Building with damages from WWII

We soon found ourselves staring across the street at a building with exposed brickwork and a sordid past as a collection point for elderly Jews before they were sent to concentration camps.  My mind was spinning thinking of the terrible history of that place, and yet the thought that surfaced and left my mouth was, “That’s real?  Did you know we paint buildings to look like that in the U.S.?  We try to make them look old by painting exposed bricks and cracked facades on them.”  Here it was because nearly-bankrupt Berlin couldn’t afford to fix it.  Dorothée considered the damage an eyesore.  I considered it a poignant example of the different histories of our two countries.

That night I was granted a view of yet another one of Berlin’s many faces.  The weekly street food market in Kruezburg was filled with artisan food stalls and chatty people wandering around with their hands full of fresh sandwiches and glittering glasses of white wine.  It was a perfect summer night, and the gregarious people of Berlin were embracing it wholeheartedly.

Gedächtniskirche in Berlin

Gedächtniskirche in Berlin

On my final day in Berlin I followed an itinerary made for me by a friend who had lived in Berlin a few years ago.  She first had me wander through her old neighborhood, a charming section of town where retirees sat on benches and smiled amiably at families on their lunch breaks.  I then continued on towards Tiergarten, the massive park in the heart of the city, and along the way Berlin threw me more curve balls.  First there was the Gedächtniskirche, a church sticking out of the modern skyline like a gawky teenager at a college party.  It had been hit in WWII and part of the steeple was missing.  Instead of tearing it down, the city stabilized the church and left it standing as a reminder.  A reminder of what, exactly?  Of Berlin’s terrible past or how well it has moved forward and claimed its future?

Statue of Queen Luise in Tiergarten, Berlin

Statue of Queen Luise, Tiergarten, Berlin, post-WWII and today

After an hour of idle meandering through the lush and dripping Tiergarten, I accidentally came across a statue of Queen Luise.  An information board showed a picture of the statue at the end of WWII, the only thing standing in an otherwise decimated wasteland.  I was stunned.  It made sense, of course, that Tiergarten was razed during the war, but (yet again) it was a harsh reminder of a past I couldn’t wrap my mind around.  I stared dumbly at the bullet holes in the base of the statue while groups of chatting Berliners walked past me on their way to a picnic.


Bullet holes from WWII in the base of the statue of Queen Luise

Berlin knocked me silly again just half an hour later when I stood before the Brandenberg Gate and again compared the modern scene to a post-WWII photo.  In the photo the only recognizable landmark is the gate itself—the rest is a mess of rubble and dead grass.  I tried to imagine the bombs falling, men shooting at each other, the years of war; then, on war’s heels, a mighty wall with a modern and wealthy society on one side, a deprived and struggling populace on the other; then that same wall coming down, torn apart in an emotional night of revolt.  All of that happened not 100 meters from where I stood.  I blinked in disbelief.  I simply couldn’t imagine it.

Brandenburg Gate post-WWII and today

Brandenburg Gate post-WWII and today

A final dinner of pizza with Uli and Benny helped me get my head back on straight.  I asked how often they think about West versus East Berlin, about the wall and about their city’s past.  “Not that often,” Uli replied.  “I see landmarks that show where the wall was, small differences, but I don’t dwell on it.”  Benny agreed.  He was aware of where he was in the city, but it didn’t change anything for him.  I was struck again by the amazing attitude of Berliners, their unwillingness to be dragged down by the past of their city and country.  That’s not to say they ignore their past—the past can’t be ignored in a place like Berlin—but rather that they have chosen to learn from it and move forward.

The next day, as the train whisked me from the regimented and slightly rundown eastern Berlin neighborhoods to the modern and shiny areas in the west, it wasn’t Berlin’s divided past I was focused on, but rather the uniformly wonderful people I met all over the city.  I can’t wait to go back.

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  1. Sarah…..your photo of Berlin street art . . . is that Anne Frank on the left? I have decided you are R.H. reincarnated. You write with a flourish and a style that is so reminiscent of him. Yeppers, Germany just won the World Cup – must be beer and bedlam over there. Enjoy the moment! Take care!

    • That is a huge compliment Judy, thank you! And yes, that’s Anne Frank on the left. The street art in that alley changes every week except for the Anne Frank piece–no one touches it.

  2. We too found Berlin to be full of surprises, and wonderfully vibrant. It’s also unlike any other place we’ve been in Germany. A place of extreme contrasts for certain.

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