A German Christmas Story – Day 1 in Berlin
Ich bin ein Berliner. Those were the first words used to introduce me to the conflict in Berlin, and indeed, the Cold War in general. Since I was only five years old when the Berlin Wall was torn down, I have no memory of the Cold War tensions. My eighth grade social studies teacher said that quote and that people thought it meant, “I am a jelly doughnut”. I did a bit of research on that to see what the deal was – did Kennedy actually say he was a jelly doughnut? The answer is, no, he didn’t, not if one breaks down the language structure at play. Read the Atlantic’s article about it here.
This same teacher had a chunk of the Wall that he passed around to the class. He talked about practicing for potential Soviet nuclear bombings in school – though I’m still trying to sort out how a school desk would protect you in the event of a hit. This was my early introduction to this time period, and here I am, nearly twenty years later, sorting through my piecemeal memory of learning those few tidbits, whilst I walked through the frosty, Christmas-laden streets of Berlin, hoping that it would reveal its past as I ambled along cobbled streets and listened to the clopping hooves of carriage horses disappear into silence of the thickening December fog.
We had a three week Christmas holiday this year, and I became determined to visit Germany for part of that time – partly for its famous Christmas markets and partly for its World War II and Soviet history.
I arrived very early in the morning from Hong Kong via Abu Dhabi, early enough that the sun hadn’t risen yet (8:15, Berlin? Really!?). We got dropped off in the middle of the airfield, and my coat and winter effects were in my checked luggage. After all, you know, I do like to anticipate arriving at a gate. I’m finding that’s less and less the reality the more I travel.
Anyway, I walked out of the plane and was nailed with a blast of “I’m Dreaming of a White Christmas” air, and there’s nothing more amusing to a plane full of Germans than watching me cursing in surprise and shiver all the way into the bus like, “Did you not check the weather before going?”
To be fair, Hong Kong was still balmy in the 60s and 70s when I left, and there were nights when I still put the air-con on to cool my flat. So, the low-30s with no sunshine was a bit of a shock to my system!
Tegel Airport is simple enough, though I had to ask where the luggage storage office in Terminal A was. In case you weren’t sure, it’s tucked between some shops, down a hall or two, and yeah, it’s a bit of a labyrinth to find it. When I did, I dropped off one of my bags and went about my other errands – namely, changing out my pre-purchased Berlin Welcome card email for the real deal and also getting some Euros out of the geldautomat (ATM in German). It was at the tourist stall for the Welcome Card I realized I had left all pre-printed tickets and my Lonely Planet Berlin guide in my left luggage.
Damn. I cannot go anywhere without my Lonely Planet guide. They are my lifeline.
I made my way back there. The office was deserted. The same man who had helped me earlier was still in there. He looked up when I came in and nearly sighed aloud.
“I forgot my tickets.”
“You forgot your tickets?”
“Yes – tickets for things around here. And my book.”
I swear his eyes were on the ceiling. I only thought teachers could do that. I’ve peeled my eyes off the ceiling more than a few times lately, what with a full moon and holiday break coming up.
Without too much fuss, he came around with my suitcase. I dug out my book and tickets, right where I knew they’d be, and carried on with my Christmas adventure with a simple, “danke schön.”
I was lucky that my hotel was ready for my check-in at 8:30 am. I melted with relief onto the bed for a bit. I had been flying since 6 PM the night before after a rather Fast and Furious race from work to the airport in time for the flight. A flight replete with a man scoring a soundtrack for Texas Chainsaw Massacre with his inventive snoring. At least he could sleep.
My stopover in Abu Dhabi had been from about 11:30 PM until 2:40 AM, so I had to fight off tiredness. I had crashed on my flight to Berlin, but intermittently. Everytime someone walked by, I woke up. Urgh.
However, I’m not one to waste a day with sleep, so I bundled up with what I thought would be okay – Under Armour shirt, cotton scarf, ear mitts – and ventured out into the cold to visit Brandenburg gate and a few other sites.
Well, I got to the end of the block, walked around the Gendarmenmarkt near my hotel, and hauled my frozen arse back to the hotel to bundle up with with a woollen scarf, a second pair of socks, Under Armour trousers, and a proper winter hat. I mean, I made it outside in 30 degree temps for all of fifteen minutes before giving up and getting a hot chocolate with rum from a nearby chocolaterie.
After two years in Hong Kong, I seemed to have lost my ability to cold.
Now completely bundled from head to toe and still freezing, I ventured along Friedrichstrasse to Under der Linden, one of the popular shopping streets in Berlin. I admired Christmas decor, the many trees displayed, and the old and new architecture of the lanes.
Now, Brandenburg Gate suddenly showed up at the end of the lane, a massive Christmas tree obscuring my first sight of it. However, this was the first time I saw loads of tourists, so I knew it had to be just around the tree.
I wound around its pillared base for a while when I noticed an assembled crowd around a cart. It was a pretzel (or bretzel, one of the few English-German crossover words I could figure out). A hot, toasty pretzel. That seemed like a good idea, until I had to eat it without a glove on and nearly froze my hand off. But at least I wasn’t hungry any more.
Heading south from the gate brought me to the Denkmal für die ermordeten Juden Europas – Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe. In the dim, frosty afternoon, the stone stelae rising in undulating waves across the barren landscape showed people vanishing between the rows as if in a maze. There were around 2,700 stone stelae in the memorial center, some short, some tall, the land curving to show the deep shadows between the stones. I wandered amongst them for a time, disappearing between the taller stelae and attempting to find a way through to the visitor’s center.
After all, my historical travels in World War II were meeting in a nexus in Berlin – the heart of the Nazi regime. Germany does not shy away from the Holocaust and the implicit role of the people in helping the Nazi cause. Each corner of the city bleeds with the knowledge of what happened – and the Memorial’s long, cold shadows bring to mind a massive mausoleum. The visitor’s center details the people and the families who were killed during the Holocaust and the many memorials around the world. It walks through, slowly, the steps leading up to genocide.
Take into account, too, that Hitler’s former bunker, where he and Eva Braun committed suicide at the end of the war, was not very far from the memorial site. It was an apartment parking lot now, just quiet and concreted-over, belying the secret bunker network that used to extend throughout Berlin.
And, what should scare us all the most is the insidious deceptiveness of the beginning of a genocide. The Holocaust didn’t start with Auschwitz. It started with simple laws here and there. It started with propaganda and dividing the population. It started with book burnings and desecrating houses of worship. It played on old prejudices.
Dear countries of the world in 2016 – be really damn careful.
I ended up at a supermarket near the Mall of Berlin to grab an early dinner before finishing my day at the Reichstag building, the German Parliament. I wasn’t entirely sure what to eat, so the man beside me suggested the enormous pork knuckle and a Berliner beer. When in Rome, I guess …
A visit to the Reichstag was really interesting – but my views from the massive dome were blurred by heavy fog. I could barely see the buildings and parks which the audioguide was pointing out to me as I wound my way up the gently-curving walkway to the dome’s summit. In order to visit the dome, tourists have to book ahead of time, get a confirmation email, and bring along that letter and a passport to the security area about a half hour before the time on the letter. I had hoped to see the sunset, but I watched instead as the lights of the city came up and cut through the thickening fog.
Some views aren’t so bad, after all, such as these of Berlin at night: