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Swamp City

Exhausted and heavy-hearted over leaving, but overall pleased with my final night in Munich, I headed to the airport. Luckily I’ve been to the airport often enough to make the journey practically in my sleep since that was pretty much what I was doing. I sleepwalked through the airport procedure and slept from takeoff to landing, waking when the wheels touched down and feeling somewhat more alert than I had before. I managed the bus into East Berlin close to where I was staying though I got a little lost getting from Alexanderplatz to Rosa-Luxembourg Platz and the St. Christopher’s hostel I was staying at. After I dropped my bags off I gave Julie a call.

Julie is my friend Clara’s former roommate in Washington D.C. We had been “friendtroduced” to each other by Clara via e-mail way back in January and had kept up a semi-steady string of correspondence and online chatting since then, punctuated by an unfortunate lack of meeting up in either Munich or Berlin. Even now she was getting ready to leave for a trip back to the States for a wedding, giving me a very limited chance to hang out with her that I was determined to take.

I arranged to meet up with her for brunch (a Sunday event Berliners take very seriously) not far from my hostel by bus. She was there with several of her friends and I met them while getting my own meal. I didn’t have too much to contribute to the conversation as it was also a sort of goodbye for several of them who had finished their year in Berlin and were moving on (often reluctantly). They all worked for the Jewish community and gave me an interesting insight into that world. I’d felt rather disconnected from that part of my life for the last six months so it was pleasant to hear the familiar kinds of stories wash over me. After the brunch was over, I made arrangements to meet up with Julie later for dinner and went off to explore Berlin.

I went to the famous Berlin flea market first. I might have enjoyed it more were it not so hot and sunny that it was almost painful just to walk around. I did have corn on the cob though, so it wasn’t a total bust. I next went down to the East Side Gallery, where murals painted on the Berlin Wall are displayed for the public. Some of the murals were very moving, others less so, a bit like the story of the wall itself. Maybe it’s just that history seems less romantic from up close, but the story of the wall being built and it’s early years are far more interesting to me than the story of the decline of the DDR and the wall’s collapse. It doesn’t feel important when it has David Hasslehoff involved I guess.

After wandering about some more I went back to the hostel to rest until Julie called and I met up with her and her boyfriend nearby to go to a little Mexican restaurant Julie knew that she said was really good. It took a while to get there and even longer for seats to open up but it was totally worth it as Julie was right, the food was incredible. We were also joined by another friend of hers, recently moved to Berlin, named Stephen, she mentioned that he was from Seattle too, but I didn’t recognize him until we got down to discussing who we might know in common. I mentioned Thea’s name and his response of “She’s my best friend!” led me to riposte with “No way, she’s my best friend too!” Somehow, two of her good friends were meeting for the first time thousands of miles from her. Of course we had to call and leave her a voice mail, and I like to think it both pleased and startled her to receive it. After dinner, Julie had to go home and pack. I was already tired from my previous night’s exertions so I headed back to the hostel and fell quickly into a dreamless slumber.

I still wasn’t feeling gully rested when I awoke on Monday but decided to not sleep in too much because I wanted to go on a tour of Berlin, the free one that I had taken versions of in Paris and Prague. Despite some reservations based on possibly incorrect information given during the Paris tour, I was still interested and eager for the experience. Sitting down with a  roll and jam (the basic part of the free “breakfast” offered at the hostel) I struck up a conversation with a guy sitting next to me. Mike, a fellow American who had just finished studying in France for a year. Conveniently, he was also planning on going on the tour and since the tour picked up people from the hostel before going to the main meeting site it worked out quite well as we headed toward the Brandenburg Gate with the guide. Once there, the milling mob of people wanting a tour (even larger than the one in Paris, let alone Prague or the groups I’ve seen in Munich) was organized by the guides into groups of twenty five people to a guide. Mike and I ended up with a Canadian guide named Victoria. While not as informative on everything as I might have liked, she did nanage to rap Berlin’s history to 1918 and share a lot of other interesting bits of history as we went along. I chatted with others as we toured, including a couple of nice Australian girls who were going to Munich and who I gave plenty of good suggestions to. When the tour ended alas they vanished. Still, Mike and I got to know a few Canadian guys in the tour group and went with them to the German History museum, which was incredibly absorbing., We were there nearly three hours and only left because it was closing. Afterwards, we went back to the hostel to change and relax a bit before meeting up with them and a couple of other friends of theirs at their hostel, from which we proceeded to a Vietnamese place they had seen nearby for dinner. It wasn’t too bad although not my favorite cuisine. When dinner was over we all wanted to go see the Reichstag and try to get on the roof but even though we ran the last bit of the trip it was closed, or so it seemed. It turned out later we had just gone to the wrong entrance, live and learn. We went back to their hostel and hung out but I called it a night early, hoping to recover the rest of my energy.

As we had planned the night before, Mike and I woke up early on Tuesday to go to the Reichstag right when it was opening and avoid a long line. There was still something of a line but not too bad and we got up to the rood without much difficulty. Unfortunately the glass cupola was closed but we were still able to get a wonderful view of the Berlin skyline, such as it is. Rather than do another tour that day with New Berlin, I took Rick’s advice and Mike and I went to meet with Original Berlin Walks for their tour of the Saxenhausen concentration camp. It was an intense trip. Though different in many ways from Dachau, the sheer horror of what went on there, especially the way it was mechanized, tore at me. The fact that really stood out to me though, was how after the area was taken over the Soviets and the prisoners liberated, Stalin simply reopened the camp as a political prison, putting hundreds of people he disapproved of inside, including a Polish man who had actually escaped from Saxenhausen when it was run by the Nazi’s, a very unlucky man. Seeing the pictures of the medical experiments that went on was also very hard, troubling me much as the ones at Dachau still do. Not a fun trip, but necessary I think, for anyone visiting Berlin to experience. Our guide told us a bit about Germany’s history of dealing with its Nazi history as well, a fascinating look into the evolution of the current confrontation attitude of Germans to their unpleasant past. I mean I have German friends and to think that their grandparents or great-grandparents more likely, were Nazis is…disturbing, especially since chances are they have no idea or think they were the “not-really-bad” people in the regular army as opposed to the SS or SA. It leaves me thoughtful about how close that kind of horror is and how important fighting against it is, and makes stories like the thousands of Germans who turned out to protest a few hundred Neo-Nazi’s demonstrating even more heartening.

After that, Mike and I weren’t really up for much else, plus he had to pack to leave the next day so we relaxed in the hostel’s bar for a few hours and talked about languages, books, traveling, and related topics. A quiet evening, but a nice one, and it gave the memories of the concentration camp a chance to settle.

The next morning I felt really refreshed for the first time since I arrived. Unfortunately, with all the people I knew gone that day I had to go alone to meet up for the tour I wanted to Potsdam, right outside of Berlin and home to several palaces used mainly as summer retreats from the city by various rulers. I wanted to go with the same company as the day before but unfortunately they didn’t offer it that day so I went with New Europe (the free tour providers). At first our guide was worried we wouldn’t have enough people until the enormous group from the West Berlin pickup arrived and suddenly we had plenty. I met a nice guy named Marty who was traveling alone for the first time at eighteen. Though not by any means as nerdy as I was at that age, he still had a real naiveté and innocence about him that recalled my bygone days before I drank or did anything else of questionable morality. We also met a few other nice guys around his age on the train ride out there.

Potsdam itself was beautiful. Despite the intense heat of the day I very much liked seeing all the gardens, old houses (some owned by German celebrities) and of course palaces that filled the area. Our guide was quite good too, expanding on the history of different German kings and emperors and how they and their historical impacts could be seen reflected in the architectural grandeur around us. Though I liked it, the tour was really long, over six hours (including a brief  break for a snack/lunch in the town itself. It was especially amazing how long it lasted considering we didn’t even go inside any of the palaces and only a few of the other buildings. Things that stood out to me on the tour included the palace where the Potsdam conference between Truman, Stalin, and Churchill was held (and the red star in flowers planted by the Soviets at the American entrance) , the palace built specifically to show that one king was not out of money after a costly war, and the general sense of peace and natural beauty that reminded me of the wilderness outside Seattle (minus evergreens).

I was quite tired by the time I got back to the hostel, but sill game to go out and do a pub crawl, a favored pastime in other cities I’d been to, so I pulled myself together, changed and headed to the first bar. After buying my ticket I found myself walking with a couple of Australian guys and started chatting with them about how Australians are absolutely everywhere in Europe. The first bar was mostly a backyard covered in sand and had a sort of hard rock meets white trash barbecue feel. The first hour or so included free beer which, needless to say, was not very good, but I had fun chatting with the two Aussies, a couple of other guys we met and, when he arrived, Marty as well (he looked a little uncertain all night although less so after he started drinking). We moved bars a couple of times, first to a real dive bar, where I tried the Berlinerweiss beer (it’s okay, what makes it different is the shot of syrup they add, a strange custom). One of the Austalians, Nathan, and I started chatting up these two girls living in Britain as teachers. One was of course also Australian, but the other had a strange mix of British/French heritage but born and raised in Chile. Nathan and the other Aussie, named Catey, very quickly became quite friendly. The Chilean girl, Claudia on the other hand was besieged almost constantly by friendly guys, usually five or six at a time. As she was drunk I don’t know how much of the situation she took in but it was very amusing to wander by on occasion and drop a whispered comment in her ear that made her laugh and the guys around her grimace. The next bar was a fancy cocktail place yet outside it there stood, contrary to expectations, many of the famous Berlin “techno-prostitutes” (as Rick Steves calls them) in their semi-legal and semi-uniformed way (pink shirts with black everything else including fishnets and scary tall boots). Getting solicited by a woman speaking four languages was a surreal moment, their lingual talents alone (not to mention their general attractiveness) would I think guarantee them better jobs (or at ones least ones with better hours) yet the one semi-friendly one who spoke to us said she preferred making a lot of money with just a few hours work a night. To each their own I suppose. My American prudishness made me very uncomfortable but a Berlin local I asked about it said it’s no big deal, no stranger than taxis idling at the curb apparently.

After one more bar (and the crazy dancing/make out session it inevitably became), I was once again exhausted, more from the long, hot tour than the bar-hopping I think. Nonetheless I called it a night, promised to make Facebook contact with my new friends, and went back to the hostel.

On Thursday I was understandably tired so I slept in a bit longer than I had intended and had to rush to make it all the way across the city to the zoo where I met up with the same tour group that took me to the concentration camp, this time for a tour of some of the Third Reich sites in Berlin. Most of the remnants of the Nazi regime are either destroyed, obscure, or so altered over the past sixty five years that it takes a guide (or a good guidebook at least) to find them. Our guide was a very knowledgeable woman who coincidentally had gone to Pennsylvania State for her undergraduate degree, a school I had just been turned down by for a job. She was an excellent guide though, happy to answer all sorts of questions and resolve some of the inconsistent rumors about the Nazi regime, especially its end, that I had read and was unsure about. The tour took us all over, some of the sites, like the former Luftwaffe headquarters that became the Ministry of Ministries under the Soviets and was now the financial department, I had already seen, but there was quite a bit of history just along streets of former parades, destroyed buildings and so on, not to mention she had several pictures with her to show us not only what Berlin looked like then, but also some of the plans Hitler and his favorite architect Albert Speer had in mind.

The tour ended outside the Topography of Terror museum, a free exhibit on the SS and Gestapo, that was full of information to make anyone with the least bit of conscience feel upset and even angry. I saw several school groups in there as well, an admirable part of the German education about the Nazis as I had learned on Tuesday. When I was done at the museum I wanted to see something a bit more uplifting so I walked to the New Synagogue and learned about how it was saved from much damage during Kistallnacht by a courageous German policeman, how it had grown during the rise of Jewish prominence in Berlin in the nineteenth century, the fate of the Jewish community during the Holocaust, and its modern revival. It was sobering, but inspirational in a way, to see how the Jewish community had risen again after the fall of the Berlin Wall. In a better mood, I went to explore West Berlin, looking at the damaged church that is kept that way as a reminder of war and various other sites near the main western train station.I also wanted to get more travel books by Rick Steves so I went to a book store he claimed would have his books. Much like in Munich, he was wrong and they had never heard of him. It was a bit frustrating, but I resolved to check again in Stockholm. After all this walking, I was tired and it was getting late, so I headed back to the hostel. I spent the evening packing and chatting with a few people in my hostel room, including an Australian (of course= girl who told me she had graduated high school, spent eight months just traveling, gone home for a few months, and was now traveling again before trying to get a job in Britain. Someday, I told myself, I will do something like that. It was tricky repacking everything but somehow I made it all fit and went to bed ready to arise early and make my way to Sweden.

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