Day 1: Gearing up in Germany

The road to Tegel Airport
A lot of people see going to bed at 9 p.m. as an unattainable ideal. This past Thursday, I saw it as an unattainable necessity.

I was due to wake up at 3:30 a.m. on Friday in order to pull on some clothes, make myself decent, drink a coffee and cut a path through the still streets of London to get to school. There, a coach would be waiting on my classmates and me to jumpstart our class field trip to Berlin.

Everything went as planned. Sort of. I went to bed at 11:30pm, got up at 3:30am and showered, listening to the freshly pressed remix of Lorde’s “Homemade Dynamite” record.

For all my wee-hour grogginess, that sure helped perk me right on up. Do you want to see my eyes shine? Ask me how I feel about Ella Yelich-O’Connor and all she’s done for music and young people and femmes and the world.

In honor of the joyous event, I sat back and listened to Lorde’s “Homemade Dynamite” playlist on the bus ride to Heathrow. There’s something special about riding around in the city (when we all should be asleep, really) and listening to some dreamy, sultry, melodic bops.

When we got to the airport, however, the check-in process wasn’t nearly so romantic. Quite a few of us had issues checking in via the kiosks. So, we shuffled into the massive, never-ending snake of a queue that sprawled in front of British Airways. And waited, and waited, and waited.

The process took at least 45 minutes to an hour, depending on where you were in line. And the whole time we were there, I couldn’t take my eyes away from the two big screens running non-stop Dior ads. There would be this grand, vivid, sumptuous one with Natalie Portman, a la “Malibu” by Miley Cyrus or “Perfect Places” by Lorde, playing.

There would also be this one with Adwoa Aboah, Fernanda Ly and Ruth Bell. Which, as numbingly repetitive as it became waiting in that queue, actually gave me life.

Once we all finally made it past security, we had a bit of down-time to grab coffee and breakfast. And then we were off.

Finding food in Berlin
By the time we got to Berlin, it was about mid-day and a bit chilly, as I had anticipated. We hopped onto another bus and came to our hostel not too long after. Since our rooms weren’t ready for us, we dropped off our luggage and we were set upon the town to scavenge for food.

So even though we had just arrived and were set to do a guided activity soon, we had time to take it all in independently. Strolling along the cobblestone streets, we took in the stillness and crispness of the Berlin air. It was mostly pretty quiet, with birds and the occasional baby in a stroller and outdoor cafe chatter to punctuate the silence.

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Photo of a Berliner bakery by Roman Kraft

We rolled up to a few restaurants, but had a hard time deciding what kind of food we were in the mood for. Some of that indecision was mediated by the lack of English on menus or from restaurant employees, of which some kids complained huffily.

Sure, I wasn’t entirely sure what a given restaurant was serving beyond context clues gleaned from interior decor. But the thing is, we were in Germany. If you didn’t come for German menus and tongues and cultural fabric, then what did you come for?

A big part of traveling across boarders is difference. But instead of making people the strange Other, I think travel is best done when you celebrate that difference.

The biggest point of contention was that most places accepted cash exclusively. That caused a major hiccup in any grubbing plans, but a lesson well-learned from that point forward.

Of course, before our group even got to that point, we had a bit of an… incident.

We were down on our luck when it came to cementing solid lunch plans. Again, nowhere seemed to have clear-cut English language menus. And the places where we thought we could get by with gesturing at the food case? Most of us still didn’t have cash. So we went to a grocery store.

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Photo by Peter Feghali

Let me tell you something about German grocery stores. Or at least, about grocery stores in that neighborhood in Berlin, anyway. They are small. Not just “they only have a few things here and there” or there’s a limited variety of foods to choose from. The aisles are physically narrow. Slim.

So never mind our noticeably American form of dress or nasal, bubbling voices. If you have a big group of people, who have never been in your grocery store and are examining every item with apprehension and wonder, blocking the aisles with their frenetic, panicked curiosity? People are going to notice. With our accents and our general Not From the Neighbourhood vibe, we were highly visible.

And we got stares. Of disdain, never pity. And it got even worse when we tried to abort mission and leave. Oh no, leaving in a quiet and orderly fashion would have been too easy and too good. We had the absolute hardest time figuring out where the exit was.

The door was obvious, but the food and the cash registers both were flanked by little gates. We tried to determine from visual cues if we could exit without buying anything. Why wouldn’t we be able to? I don’t know, but we were all generally frazzled. And even then, the slimness of the aisles made the process even more difficult.

In the U.S., you can cleanly slide past customers being rung up and their carts to leave. Or to put spare change in the Coinstar machine or buy a lottery ticket or rent a film from Redbox or buy a glow-in-the-dark yo-yo or whatever your American heart desires.

These lines were so thin that you absolutely had no chance of secretly sliding past a customer to leave. So, eventually, we did figure out which gate to exit out of. But not before a cashier snapped at us and we did a walk of shame, head hung and cheeks aflush, out of the grocery store.

With the time remaining, we settled on a cafe for our sustenance. Then we joined our bigger groups and went to our first event.

Getting a taste of the city’s hard history
This was a tour of “Berlin yesterday.” We hit all of the spots important to the goings-on of pre-WWII and the Nazi era.

One of the places that sticks out to me is Bebelplatz, previously known as Opernplatz. It’s where, in 1933, students filed outside into the university square to burn books by authors displeasing to Nazi ideology.

The “un-German” writers targeted included Jewish authors Franz Werfel, Max Brod and Stefan Zweig. Some other names among 25,000 books burned are Karl Marx, Ernest Hemingway and Erich Maria Marque, who wrote “All Quiet on the Western Front.”

There are two modern markers of the event. One is a plaque from German-Jewish poet Heinrich Heine reading, “That was but a prelude /Β where they burn books /Β they will ultimately burn people as well.” Heine clocked that in 1820.Β 

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Photo by Visit Berlin

The other is an art installation by Micha Ullman, an artist from Israel. There’s a little glass window in the ground where you can peer in. It’s a room, done in all white, lined with book shelves. But the shelves are bare.

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Photo by Wikipedia Deutschland

We also visited a fraction of the Berlin Wall and the Lustgarten, which has been around since the 1500s. It was revamped by Friedrich Wilhelm I in the early 1700s, repurposed by Napoleon Bonaparte during French occupation in the 1800s, used as a protest ground against right-wing extremists in the 1920s, as a rally ground by Nazis in the 1930s and bombed throughout WWII. Before it was Schlossplatz, it was called Marx-Engels-Platz at one point to honor Marx and Friedrich Engels.

Safe to say, we got our steps in. And only a small part of this was facilitated by Berlin’s public transportation system, theΒ U-Bahn. That in itself is a political symbol: certain stations and lines were blocked off when the Berlin Wall was built in 1961.

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Photo of the U-Bahn by Soroush Karimi

The vibe of the U-Bahn is distinct from the Tube or even D.C.’s Metro. I’ve compared those two in the past.Β Comparing this Berliner system to London’s, the construction is similar in that you sit facing inwards, knee-to-knee (more or less) with strangers. The U-Bahn is different in that people are even chattier. It feels more cheerful. Although, that might have something to do with the sunny yellow permeating the U-Bahn and the cute little Brandenburg Gate print all over.

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Photo by And Berlin
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Photo by And Berlin

We got pretty close to the Brandenburg Gate, which is also crucial to understanding European history. That’s where Napoleon and his troopsΒ rode in when they occupied Berlin. That’s where Adolf Hitler rode in when he and the Nazi Party were ascending to power. Riding in under that gate sends a message.

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Photo by HΓ₯kon SataΓΈen

And last but not least, we visited the Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe. There is no sweet-sounding name for this place.Β Peter Eisenman called his memorial for what it is and I like that. The nameΒ is frank and blunt, like the memorial itself. No sugar coating it.

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Photo by Visit Berlin

On a strip of land where you might expect to see a playground or park are 2,711 gray stone slabs of varying height. When you look out across the memorial, it seems as if the stones simply vary from the ground up.

But as you walk through the almost maze-like structure, you realize that difference in height from stone to stone is dramatically different. You begin to walk into a pit. You look around you and the stones get taller and taller, blocking out more sunlight. It’s colder and quieter in the center.

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Photo by Maxime Le Conte des Floris

There are so many interpretations to be had here. The obvious association is with a graveyard. The slabs sit like headstones. Or as I saw it initially (especially with the varying heights), as burial sites themselves. Once you get to the middle, where you are so far beneath the top of the slabs, it feels like being underground.

As I completed my walk through the memorial, I ended up with a different impression. Catching glimpses of people, known and unknown, as I passed from stone to stone put me in the headspace of being in a concentration camp. What must it have been like to be moved from building to building, not knowing quite what was happening, but feeling this overwhelming sense of malaise? Isolated and alone? Or mingling with strangers? Or running into the odd person you know, by accident, in this darkening space?

The tour guide recounted a similar interpretation he heard, but within a deserted, Nazi-occupied city. One of my classmates saw it as a metaphor for the political climate at the time. You may have known the situation was ominous, but you don’t understand to what degree until you really get to the center of it. Until you’re forced to confront it in the most graphic way possible.

I left the memorial feeling unsettled, but different from how I would feel unsettled the next day visiting Sachsenhausen concentration camp. On the second day, I would feel more disgusted. But for the first day, I just felt heartbroken.

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