through the centuries
From the Netherlands, S and her family flew to Berlin for a four-day visit with another foreign exchange student, Laura. S had been to Berlin once before, but the visit lasted a mere 24 hours, which was not enough to even scratch the surface of one of Europe’s biggest and most iconic cities. Coming from Amsterdam, Berlin offered a stark contrast of urban chic. A pillar of the fashion, art, design, and music avant-garde, it exudes a spirit of innovation and experimentation while also offering reminders of Germany’s turbulent history at nearly every turn.
The tour through time starts with a visit to the Charlotenburg Palace, the only surviving royal residence in the city, and the more central and prominent Brandenburg Gate, which dates back to the period of Prussian glory. The palace, with its exotic, baroque interior and rococo décor that is modeled on Versailles is beautifully situated among large gardens surrounded by woodland. It was a charming place to stroll on a cool, crisp afternoon.
A visit to the Judisches Museum, which tells the story of Berlin’s Jews through the centuries, is a must. This was S’s second visit and she found the museum poignant as ever. Designed by American architect and artist Daniel Libeskind, the Judisches Museum experience draws on the haunting effects of the space to achieve a powerful effect that the city’s Holocaust memorial noticeably lacks. Shaped as an exploding Star of David, the voids left in each of the corners tell almost as much about the Jewish experience in Germany as the documents and artifacts themselves.
Moving forward in time, the East Side Gallery and Checkpoint Charlie preserve a vivid reminder of the tense Cold War era. Though the Wall was mostly demolished in 1990, several restored stretches remain. Whereas graffiti has been removed from the northern section of the Wall, the one-mile stretch known as the East Side Gallery was repurposed. Shortly after 1989, artists were invited to paint political murals on the Wall’s remnants, creating the world’s largest open-air gallery. Visually stunning, the gallery has often been wrought with controversy. While some Berliners are upset that the murals have been destroyed by graffiti and vandalism in recent years, others argue that even this small fragment of the wall should not have been allowed to remain in the first place. And then there are those who take a more pragmatic approach and advocate for the removal of the wall in order to make room for the construction of luxury apartments.
S’s favorite part of the visit was the Wall on Wall exhibition by photographer Kai Wiedenhofer, which occupies part of the East Side Gallery. It documents the walls that separate other peoples worldwide, including those in Baghdad, South and North Korea, Cyprus, USA and Mexico, the Spanish cities of Ceuta and Melilla from the rest of Morocco, Israel and the Palestinian Territories, and Belfast.
As for the tourist center at Checkpoint Charlie, it was at once overwhelming, impossible to navigate, and fascinating. The house-turned-museum was originally a prime perching locale for journalists and human rights advocates. It is not curated, per se, but rather is littered with newspaper clippings, short films, and a collection of gear used in escape attempts. For all the disastrous and heart-wrenching stories of families split up and escape attempts cut short by fatal gunshot wounds, there were a plethora of success stories. The museum is very much a living, growing space that traces human rights violations and impingements on freedom throughout the world today. It is unique in not only serving as a testament to the past, but also as an evolving reminder of present-day struggles.
Finally, S and her family took Europe’s fastest elevator for panorama views on the 25th floor of the Kollhoff Tower in Potsdamer Platz and visited the Reichstag, home of the German Parliament, to get a taste of the post-reunification, forward-looking Berlin. The latter was renovated by a renowned British architect who designed the unique glass roof structure to light the building. The open roof also provides an amazing vantage point to look over the city.
Berlin has a palpable energy running through it, day and night. It’s young and feisty, yet also wonderfully relaxed. This likely owes to the city’s history and its ability to bounce back, reinventing itself time and again. Abandoned buildings are constantly being repurposed to make alternative spaces for new art galleries, street markets, and nightclubs. Berlin is famous for its non-stop parties and clubs that one can enter on Thursday and not exit until Sunday. One night, while S’s parents went to a beer garden, Laura took S and her sister to one of her favorite techno spots, right on the river Spree — an adult playground of beach-shack style bars and multiple dance rooms in an abandoned warehouse trimmed with neon Alice and Wonderland-themed street art. S put in a good effort and stayed out until half past three in the morning, though she could not keep up with her younger sister and Laura, and returned to the hotel without them.
After brunch the next morning, Laura took S’s family for a stroll through a couple of Berlin’s many street markets, which were much more vibrant and interesting than the ones they had visited in Amsterdam. What struck S the most about Berlin was how this immense multicultural metropolis also could have the unpretentious charm of a village. Berliners are at heart laid-back and, as Laura underscored, somewhat outside the norm of the typical German stereotype.