In “A Tramp Abroad”, Mark Twain describes some observations he had while in Germany, and I feel that as I depart, I want to remember some of his pearls that I read along the way.
“My philological studies have satisfied me that a gifted person ought to learn English (barring spelling and pronouncing) in thirty hours, French in thirty days, and German in thirty years. It seems manifest, then, that the latter tongue ought to be trimmed down and repaired. If it is to remain as it is, it ought to be gently and reverently set aside among the dead languages, for only the dead have time to learn it.”
“The Germans are exceedingly fond of Rhine wines; they are put up in tall, slender bottles, and are considered a pleasant beverage. One tells them from vinegar by the label.”
Both cities I visited in Germany had the privilege of hosting the Olympic games, Berlin in 1936 and Munich in 1972, and both occasions are remembered for their dramatic events and circumstances. The Hitler Games in 1936 were particularly controversial as only members of the Aryan race were permitted to compete for Germany. However, despite this glaring indication that Nazi Germany was heading down a dangerous path, other countries looked the other way, a feat made easier because the Nazi party removed their slanderous signs including those stating “Jews not wanted.” The Olympic Stadium itself contained Roman elements as Hitler aspired to lead a nation similar to that of Ancient Rome; however, most decorative aspects prevalent in Roman architecture were removed leaving behind square columns and clean, flat surfaces. With the rest of the world in Germany in 1936, there was an opportunity for anyone to recognize the signs of what was to come. There was the “cleaning up” of the gypsies as they were sent to camps. There was the no-Aryan rule. There were remnants of the discriminatory practice against the Jews. In an event meant to symbolize nations coming together to compete on the highest and fairest of stages, the German activities of the times did not embody those sentiments.
The Berlin Olympic Stadium
The Munich games 36 years later also had their share of turmoil. Known as the Munich Massacre, a tragic event involving the taking hostage and murder of 11 Israeli athletes by Palestinian gunmen overshadowed the games. During an Olympics designed to move forward from what had transpired during the Hitler games, this event achieved much of the opposite effect and continued to tarnish the German Olympic-hosting legacy.
Outside the Munich Olympic Stadium
While in Berlin, I venture out of the city and visit another concentration camp, Sachsenhausen. This time, despite being prepared for what to expect and what to feel, the experience was still equally chilling and disturbing. The camp, which was used for mostly political prisoners, had a similar structure and daily routine to that in Dachau, but the simple idea that this concentration camp model was repeated and spread throughout Germany and Eastern Europe is powerfully frightening in itself. The systematic nature of the Nazi regime in everything they accomplished from their rise to power to their execution of their enemies makes me think of them as more robotic than human.
As I have been visiting these many cities, my pace is usually quick and my energy high, but I find that when I stepped through the gates of these two concentration camps, my pace slowed considerably as I struggled to comprehend everything that had occurred on the ground below my feet only 70 years ago.
Potsdam is a small town not far from Berlin and easily accessible by train. Its palatial landscape can be attributed to Frederick II the Great, who lived form 1712 to 1786. Sanssouci, Freddy’s summer palace was intended to rival Versailles when originally built. It was built to encourage relaxation and while visiting, I can understand why. The gardens are far reaching complete with fountains and flowers, and the rooms are more than elaborate. A style very popular with Freddy the Great known as Rococo can be seen throughout this castle as well as the others buildings scattered around the park. Before the afternoon is over, I am able to visit four palaces, get trapped in the rain once, and stop several times for snacks. The combination of the natural green with the grandeur of the castles suggests fairytales, and when it occasionally rains, I feel like that tale is reaching its dramatic climax where good must fight evil eventually culminating in the “good guys” living happily ever after.
Both the Jewish Museum and the Holocaust Memorial in Berlin make an architectural statement equally strong to its exhibits. The Jewish Museum, designed by architect Daniel Libeskind, starts on the bottom floor as a series of zigzagging hallways. These hallways then help to divide the museum into three areas– Continuity with Germany history, Emigration from Germany, and the Holocaust. This is all compounded by the empty spaces, irregular windows, and interactive exhibits. Although I am clearly biased, the Jewish Museum or Jüdisches Museum is a highlight of my Berlin experience and I recommend Jews and non-Jews alike to go at least for a quick look.
Designed by another great architect, Peter Eisenman, the Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe (the Holocaust Memorial) sits on a 5-acre site and consists of thousands of concrete slabs. These slabs of varying heights are arranged on a rolling landscape in a grid-like pattern. Eisenman leaves the interpretation of these slabs to the viewer, and not having one “correct” interpretation of the memorial forces individuals such as myself to stop and think for much longer what each slab may symbolize. The site may represent a cemetery or maybe train cars used to carry the Jews. The disorientation of the slabs may reflect the feelings of Jews during the time of the Nazis. In addition, there is little signage indicating the purpose of this site or even that it is a memorial. The subtly of the memorial just like its openness to interpretation add to its value and to its uniqueness. Finally, below the memorial is a small museum discussing the stories of specific individuals and families that suffered during the time of the Nazis. Individualizing the Holocaust is a saddening experience because I start to learn how real families suffered. That said, personalizing the Holocaust is effective when trying to explain the atrocities committed under Nazi Germany.
Soon after arriving in Berlin, I realize that I would like to walk up to the top of the glass dome above the Reichstag. The Reichstag is Germany’s parliament building that was burned down in 1933 and rebuilt. The idea of the glass dome is that the German government is supposed to be transparent and when the parliament looks up at the ceiling, they can see the citizens of their country walking above them. Unfortunately, it is probably more often that they see citizens from everywhere else walking the spiral ramp around the dome.
I go to visit this popular Berlin landmark and am turned away because the Reichstag is currently under a terrorist threat. They allow people to visit by reservation only, and reservations can only be made online. Back at the hostel, I try to make an online reservation; however, inconveniently, the english translation of the website does not have the required page. Therefore, with the help of the hostel staff, I navigate the german site and eventually sign up for a time slot. I feel that the challenge involved in seeing this site only made it more desirable for me to try and go, but I am not entirely ready to admit that.
On the day of my reservation, I venture back to the Reichstag, go through the necessary metal detectors and scanners and eventually find myself at the base of the dome. There is a great audio tour that recognizes where I am standing and lets me know what I am seeing when I look out over the city. And when I look downwards, I can see Parliament working below. In addition, the architecture of the dome is as impressive as its views. There is even a shade that rotates with the sun to ensure that Parliament is never faced with unwanted glare. The day is relatively clear, the dome uncrowded because of the hurdles required to visit, and the Berlin cityscape shines from this high perspective.
Berlin’s art, music, museum collections, and memorials all sum together to create an atmosphere that includes something for everyone. Although there is much I could mention on this topic, I will describe one encounter I have with said culture on a night I decide to go to a nearby jazz club.
This contemporary jazz club, B Flat, located not far from my hostel, received good online reviews and I figure while in a city that offers so much entertainment, I should at least try to take advantage. I arrive at the club shortly before the performers begin, I find a close seat so that I can watch the pianists fingers on the keys, I order a cold beer, and I watch the sky outside move from dusk to dark. The music begins. It is hard to find a beat to tap my foot to, but I search for it anyway. Nonetheless, I am impressed by the modernity of the song’s introduction. One minute passes, and I start to feel that the introduction is a bit long. Two minutes pass, and I begin to realize that this is an entire introductory song and not just a couple notes. Five minutes pass, and I think to myself this song is a bit long for what it is. Fifteen minutes pass, and I notice that the temperature in the bar is a bit warm. Thirty minutes pass, and the musicians are still on their first song. I am still looking for a beat for my foot. The pianist enjoys standing up and occasionally scraping the strings in the piano with various tools he has brought along. The trumpeter continues to make seemingly unmelodious and untraditional sounds escape from his instrument. Sixty minutes pass, and I still feel that they are on the same song because there has not yet been a break for the audience to applaud. Finally, 80 minutes pass, and the musicians begin a ten minute finale.
I walk back to my hostel trying to find news ways to appreciate what I have just witnessed. This is when I realize that even if the music was not completely my exact genre of choice, this experience still proves the creativity and openness of the Berlin music scene. From these performances all the way to Las Vegas style shows, Berlin has an expansive repertoire of evening entertainment, which is just one of many of the city’s attractive traits.
Berlin is a very livable city, and by this, I mean there is so much to see and do for both locals and tourists, that it seems it would never become dull. If something one day brings me to Berlin for an extended period of time, I will not complain. Its full history, albeit very controversial at times, has created a city complete with a diverse cultural scene, a young vibe, and a population proud to call themselves Berliners.
My first day running around the city, I start at the famous Brandenburg Gate and stroll my way down Unter den Linden. I quickly run into Tim and Adam, two friends I met in Munich who had been staying in the hostel next door. We continue onwards to the city park as we all enjoyed our afternoons. Basing myself at the Wombats Hostel in Berlin, I had easy access to the subway, which in turn makes getting to any other landmark uber convenient. From the moment I arrive, I am excited to to spend several days in this very alive city.
There are two museums in Munich in which I let my inner-nerd come out, the Deutsches Museum and the BMW Museum. The Deutsches Museum, the world’s largest museum of science and technology, is too big to handle in one afternoon, but I run around anyway spending extra time in the New Technologies section, the Transportation section, and the Materials and Production Section. Specifically in the Materials and Production area, I have a fun time looking at the power machinery of old. The exhibition is laid out in chronological order demonstrating the development of machine-tools and engines. On a different afternoon, I visit the BMW Museum, which is adjacent to the BMW headquarters and factory. Not only do I enjoy learning about the history of the BMW brand and its many cars over the years, but equally impressive is the unique and design conscious architecture of these many buildings. Through these two afternoons, I have at least received a flavor for the excellence of German engineering.
I get to know Munich through the NewEurope Free Walking Tour. At first, I am skeptical of the tour as a large number of people make their way to Marienplatz. Large groups, soft speaking tour guides, and crowded cities are all part of an equation that usual pushes me towards a self-guided tour. However, I’m with a couple friends I met at the hostel, and I decide to wait it out a little before making a decision. Before the tour starts the group gets divided up several times eventually placing me in a group of about twenty-five. It is still a sizable number; however, the tour guide can project her voice and as a result, I become more optimistic about the tour to come. By the end of the tour, I would highly recommend this activity, which is offered in several European cities by Sandeman’s NewEurope Tours. The tour is free with the guides expecting tips based on their performances. This, in turn, creates a great incentive for the guide to provide an excellent tour complete with jokes, fun stories, and a lot of entertaining background as we walk around the city.