Postcards From Berlin
There’s nowhere quite like Berlin. My trip to the German Hauptstadt was a whirlwind of seeing and doing and walking and eating and drinking. My aunt and I marched all over the city until our legs ached (Berlin is HUGE) and enjoyed the brief moments of morning calm in our hotel room before venturing out for the day. We danced through the night and laughed all day; filled our hearts with joy, our stomachs with good food, and came back with amazing memories and new laughter lines. Three days and a half well spent, dare I say. And, of course, I still have Berlin on the brain. I felt instantly at home when I stepped of the plane. The visit re-awakened my love for Germany and the Germans, for a country whose history I know almost better than my own.
I've studied German History for the past few years, and it's always something I was fascinated by. Yet I did not recognise the memorial when I stumbled across it. Rushing through the web of grey pillars I stood – dizzied – at its centre, wondering where I was. Then I thought back to the dozen blogs and travel guides I had read about Berlin before I came here and it hit me: the Holocaust memorial – a vast network of concrete stones. Germany is no stranger to remembrance, and this is Berlin’s answer to its history: the Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe.
2711 slabs of stone stand in the the middle of Berlin, a place where the past paints the present. Just round the corner from the Brandenburg Gate, another set piece of the nation’s recent history, the memorial’s location is symbolic – in the heart of Berlin, it promises: we will not forget. The stones bleed into the landscape, reminding us that the Holocaust happened not only in Auschwitz, Birkenau, Belsen, Majdanek. It happened also on these streets, in this city, in that house, just next-door. On the horizon the lines between city and concrete stacks blur – as did the moral boundaries that led everyday Germans to turn a blind eye. Never have I felt so many emotions, many conflicting. More so, surprisingly than when I visited Auschwitz last year. To see and read, in such graphic and unadulterated detail, the goings-on of that place; it was truly moving and exhausting, all at once. Each room felt like a prison for souls. I stood outside each door, battling duelling emotions: one that I should not enter such a place, and the other saying that I must, to honour the people who died there. To be in a place that contributed to the death of six million people almost broke me, but to stand among the memorial made me see.
I too, had almost walked past. Everything I had studied and I too could have turned a blind eye. The sun shone confidently on the forest of stone. I was struck by the life radiating from every corner: couples sat unhurried, some kissing, atop the hunks of concrete. Hip young Berliners sunbathed and children leapt from stela to stela. Locals cut through on their way to work. So did tourists en route to Unter den Linden, one of the city’s busiest thoroughfares. It seems to me that this is the best way to remember: to fold the very act into the business of the present, to allow memory to give way to life.
I trace back history on a red bicycle, of Berlin in the Third Reich. It is so interesting. Our guide Cian is Irish and he's amazing. It is one thing to read about these happenings in a history textbook, it is something else altogether to stand atop of them.
That first night we decided to celebrate. Outside the sun was shining, celebrating the longest day of the year. Men in Bavarian-blue shirts shovelled schnitzel into their mouths as they sat on stools at the bar, thick legs dangling. I ran my hand across the counter, tracing the indentations in the wood with my palm, watching the cigarette smoke outside the window float through the air. I am eighteen and I spent the rest of the weekend dancing in celebration of this milestone in my life, sidestepping puddles in the streets, recounting history and falling in love with Berlin.
I’m a little bit drunk walking through the streets of Berlin. I'm drunk on the atmosphere, the music, the hustle and bustle of a new city, a new vibe. I write postcards to my brothers in their respective cities on the bank of the Spree and tell them as much as I can fit onto the card. We're on the U-bahn headed for Alexanderplatz and a jazz band step on the train and begin to play. It's upbeat and unexpected, and I think that sentiment sums up Berlin for me. I've spent these last few days falling in love with another city, with history, with life. I’m watching the tops of buildings pass by in the puddles of rain collected in the ancient streets. I’m feeling the warm breeze shoot down the alleyways right through my t-shirt. I smell cigarettes from passerby’s and I feel this sense of being free. I have no plans here. No friends wanting to meet up. I am lost in a foreign sea of an unfamiliar language.
I’ve been thinking, now as I sit waiting for my delayed flight back to Glasgow of the city’s wide boulevards and grafitti-smothered walls. The rattle of the U-Bahn, its windows emblazoned with the small insignia of the Brandenburg Gate. The Baroque splendour of the cathedral twirling up from the ground. The skeleton of a bombed-out church rising resplendent along the Kurfürstendamm. Schloss Charlottenburg in the sun. Hands entwined outside Friedrichstraße.
There’s something about the German capital: something electric, something that – like a hand on a frosty window – leaves its imprint and lingers. Berlin has been through it all. Battered and bruised, it's taken a lot of hits. Yet, against all the odds, Berlin has risen from the ashes and today it is a city marked as much by the future as as it is by its past. It is a city of a thousand histories: a place where stories float through the streets like cracks in the pavements. Each era is visible in its boulevards, buildings, walls and windows. Berlin is a living, breathing, writhing behemoth; an urban sprawl like no other, streaked with stories of past and present. Here, then, there, now, when, why: all piled high on top of one another and, somehow, the madness works.