Berlin: For Me, The Third Time’s the Charm

For the recent holidays my family and I took a two-week trip to Germany that included visiting with friends in Berlin and relatives in Dresden and Weimar. It was a once-in-lifetime adventure for all of us. Today I will share some photos and impressions of Berlin which I have now visited three times and grown to love.

Berlin is not an easy city to get to know. It is sprawling and public transportation, although readily available, involves long walks to stations and lots of stairs to climb to train platforms. Like New York, there are neighborhoods throughout Berlin that can be best be discovered by walking them. Most people are somewhat familiar with some of the more well-known monuments: The Reichstag, the Brandenburg Gate and the Fernsehturm (television tower) which you can see from practically anywhere in Berlin.

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Much as I enjoyed revisiting these amazing sites, this time I enjoyed even more just relaxing with our friends and hanging out with them in various neighborhoods. The area we stayed in is known as Freiderichshain; it was part of East Berlin before the wall came down. Notice the cobblestone streets and tile rooftops which are fairly common in East Berlin.

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Our friends’ apartment was brand new and designed by them to be a minipenthouse with a broad view of Berlin from the windows. Ahhh…the windows! I am in love with the windows that almost everyone has in Germany (and many other parts of Europe). This is their livingroom and a balcony just off their dining area:

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Spending time with our friends and their daughter’s new baby in their chic but cosy apartment was as much fun as sightseeing. I love the German baby clothing and the fact that all the children speak and understand German. Aren’t they clever? Here’s my son with Linus, the newest addition to the Berlin family.

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One night after a rigorous day of sightseeing, we ended up at a local favorite of our host, bei Schlawinchen, a real Berlin dive in trendy Kreuzberg that’s open 24 hours and is indescribably funky! Check out the ceiling below.

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Here’s my daughter and our friends’ daughter downing a pint of that good German beer at Schlawinchen!

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A night on the town is always topped off with a doner kebab, which is Germany’s equivalent of a souvlaki sandwich often bought and eaten on the street. It is Turkey’s greatest gift to Berlin!

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No visit to Berlin would be complete without a glimpse of The Wall. There’s almost nothing left of it. There is a good piece still intact on the Eastern side of the Spree River (which runs through Berlin). It has been turned into a colorful outdoor exhibit known as The East Side Gallery by graffiti artists.

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On New Year’s Eve, we celebrated in a cozy Austrian restaurant situated just across the river facing the Eastside Gallery. Also in view was the amazing Oberbaumbrucke, which I think is the most picturesque bridge in all of Berlin. The fireworks going off all around it were awesome!

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There’s so much more I could write and show you, but there’s one thing more that must be included…the Weinachsmarkts (Christmas markets), which is how I got the urge to go to Germany at Christmas! I wanted to see the markets for myself. We saw five of them! Two in Berlin, two in Dresden and one in Weimar. Each has its own distinct character and each one was equally enjoyable. The most enjoyable part was drinking gluhwein at frequent stops throughout the market. Delicious! Here’s my family and I enjoying our mugs of gluhwein.

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And last but not least, I found Santa Claus in Berlin. In fact, I found several Santa Clauses as we were leaving a local bar one night. They were merry and a bit younger than I thought Santa would be!

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Next stop…Dresden!

What I Learned While Spending the Holidays in Germany

In the depths of winter I finally learned that there was in me an invincible summer.
Albert Camus

I just spent two weeks with my family visiting friends and relatives in Germany for the holidays. This was a celebration of my recovery from cancer one year ago. I knew I was taking a chance by traveling abroad while still in recovery, but cancer teaches you that you must live every day to its fullest.

Today, the first day back home, my head was swirling with sights and sounds of Germany, so I decided to take a walk to ground myself. While walking along the beach, I thought about what I had learned during my visit. These are the thoughts I want to share today.

Travel: Everyone who can should travel to an unfamiliar place whenever possible. It does wonders for the spirit to have all one’s senses on high alert while taking in the sights and sounds of an unfamiliar locale. What everyone is doing, the language that is being spoken, the unfamiliar routines, the sights and sounds of an unfamiliar place all become very vivid in comparison to our familiar everyday life at home. Comparisons are inevitable, but the real joy in traveling is allowing oneself to become part of the flow and engage with the new venue as much as possible. It made me feel very alive to be somewhere new and different.

Language: For me so much of the flavor of a place depends on the language spoken there. I really wanted to make an effort to begin to learn German so I could communicate better with friends and family. My experience was so much richer for the efforts I made to do so. Everyone appreciated my “baby German” and was very kind and helpful. I felt like much less of an observer and more like a participant in my new surroundings. I was excited about each new word or phrase I mastered.

Commonalities and differences: I read a very touching article in the New York Times today written by a Turkish immigrant speaking about his first impressions of America. When he first arrived, he thought the little red flag on everyone’s mailbox indicated an unusual degree of patriotism, until he figured out that those who had mailboxes with raised flags were actually able to send their letters without even leaving home. To him this was a revelation and a sure sign that America is an amazing place to live! As I compared small details in everyday life, I, too, was amazed by how ordinary things like doing the laundry could be so different. It is refreshing to learn that we do not have the final word on ingenuity; there are many ways to make a pot of coffee.

National character: Stereotypes prevail, it is said, because they are somewhat true. I have lived abroad in two countries, France and Germany, and in both cases found the people to live up to their reputations to a certain extent. The French are smug and stylish and not always friendly to Americans. The Germans are less vain and more serious. They, too, do not always find Americans to be charming as you will learn in the next paragraph.

We had just entered a charming bar and were “borrowing ” an unused chair from another table to accommodate our party of five. This invoked the wrath of the manager. My son, who spent a year living in Germany explained that we should have politely asked if this was permissible. Lesson learned. There are differences to be understood and respected. After all, as Americans we have our own idiosyncrasies, don’t we?

National shame and pride: For most of my adolescence and young adulthood I felt shame about my German heritage because of the events of WWII. I even avoided visiting Germany the first two or three times I went to Europe. Then my son, who studied German at Georgetown University, decided to spend his year abroad studying in German at Humboldt University in the heart of Berlin. When we visited him there we got to know the family he lived with which completely changed my feelings about being Of German descent. The family members were well educated and well informed and they acknowledged their tainted history with humility. But they were committed to the idea that the German people, who had also suffered a great deal during WWII, were trying to remember the past while rebuilding their future. Their current leader, Angela Merkel, who was born and raised behind “the iron curtain,” insists on a compassionate approach to the refugees from the Mideast now arriving daily by the thousands. Many young Germans, including two daughters of the family we stayed with and my son who is spending an extra week with them, are volunteering in the Syrian refugee camps in Berlin.

Cafe culture: What I knew I would miss most upon my return home is the cafe culture of Europe. Everywhere we visited in Germany, whether a small town or big city, there is always a bar or cafe you can stop in for some respite, conversation, and food and drinks. And no one chases you out! You are welcome to stay as long as you like, provided, of course that you are behaving appropriately. My German friends explain that this is part of their culture and they even have a word for it: gem├╝tlichkeit. This means being comfortable and cozy in your immediate surroundings. In these cafes and bars people were not glued to their IPhones; instead, they were talking to each other animatedly, young and old, clearly enjoying each other’s company. I think we here in America would benefit from less technology, which is driving us apart, and more opportunities to relax together and share our interests.

All in all, I did feel rejuvenated by my travel experience, even in the dead of winter. I promise to share photos of our trip next week!