the days following hamburg and oldenburg flew by. berlin is truly a unique city, one that views like a good book reads, where each successive chapter continues to build and surprise, and just when you think you’ve seen it all, it surprises you again. when i had initially started outlining last summer what countries i wanted to visit on this trip, berlin was just a city that had made the list because it was simply on the way to other places I wanted to go and it would have seemed idiotic to leave out. i knew that i would be interested in the history, but i didn’t really know why else i was going. this thought occurred to me on the train over from hamburg.
an old friend from my youth had seen some of my instagram photos pop up on his social media account and, having a few weeks for himself to do some traveling, decided to join me for a couple weeks. he chose berlin as the rendezvous point. i suppose reuniting with an old friend after more than a decade seemed only appropriate in a city like berlin, but that comparison is probably eye-rollingly obvious. i was more than grateful for robert’s arrival, as i was still a little shell-shocked from the language barrier/loneliness issues from paris, and i was worried of a repeat performance in germany (now that i was truly out on my own and had no more options of meeting up with old acquaintances and friends from my past). plus, when you’re exploring new places, it’s always more fun when you have people to explore those areas with. you get to share the experience with someone else, see the things they see that you missed, see the world through their eyes, get their perspective. you also have the added benefit of external opinion. one of the toughest things about traveling alone is, ironically, decision making. i thought this would be the easiest thing, because i am a decisive person and i do not have to worry about accommodating anyone other than myself. but on the contrary, the problem is one of surplus of choice: you have too many options. sometimes having to appease someone else’s wishes and desires is actually really nice, because making the decisions (or even caring) can often be a daunting task for yourself, especially if you don’t always know exactly what you want. game-planning is something i have always been good at, but when you’re doing it all the time, it gets exhausting. arriving somewhere new and trying to figure why it is cool and what you need to go see, what you need to eat, what you need to drink, who you need to meet, and trying to fit all that into a window of three to six days becomes a juggling act in a revolving door.
so i was glad to have a friend along for the ride. robert and i became friends through a long-disbanded group of buddies that all used to play a particular computer game together. it was called “delta force: blackhawk down” and it was a 1st person shooter that mimicked the types of battles fought by troops in the crisis in mogadishu in the 90s (made famous by the movie of the same title). our group had a “clan” which we’d cleverly (read as: immaturely) named “cleavage.” each member of the team had a code name or “call sign” that fit within the theme. an exclusive club, we really only had 2 criteria for membership: we had to know you personally and you had to be funny. some examples of “call signs” on the cleavage clan were as follows: left breast, right breast, perky breast, saggy breast, fake breast, etc. et al. the members of our team would log on together from our own computers at home, join the same team, and then we would wage war against other doritos-eating-mountain-dew-downing-teenagers until the wee hours of the morning. and we were good. our team members had different roles to play within the team, and we played them well. rarely would we lose, thanks to aggressive domination from the likes of core members andreas, terry, ardy, Robert, cody, and myself. it was good clean fun. mostly.
anyway, robert is a complex individual with a firm grasp of who he is in the world and what he likes. a coffee enthusiast, he’d modestly tell you that he’s only just learning how coffee really works since he’s only been in search of the perfect “flat white” for a couple years now. but in the time I’ve been traveling with him, i’ve learned more about coffee than i ever desired to (i don’t really drink coffee, i know that will cause me to lose touch with a couple readers. sorry. i am what i am) in just a handful of conversations with him at cool coffee houses that he somehow locates with some sort of coffee bean sixth sense. he also knows more than most people i know who drink starbucks religiously.
robert is a front-end software engineer who has found his way into freelancing as a way to help him balance out his need to travel off the grid from time to time, but still stay connected to the tech world in silicon valley and beyond that his career has tied him to. i’m a little envious of skills and abilities in programming as I think if I was able to “freelance,” i’d probably live the rest of my life on the road, rambling from town to town, only stopping to work whenever I found a reliable wifi signal and a contract i liked.
we met up at a little hostel in the mitte neighborhood of berlin. it’s a cool and clean neighborhood that some might call “yuppie-ish,” and they’d probably be right, but it’s got a great charm to it. it’s pretty safe and is handily located next to a few metro stops so it is easy to get to and from. once we got our bearings, we wasted no time at dissecting the city, knocking out tourist mainstays like the brandenburg gate, the reichstag building, and checkpoint charlie within the first couple days. when we were done with those, we would wander for hours through random neighborhoods that robert had found while searching for his hipster haven coffee shops. while i don’t really partake of this pursuit of his, i’ve been thankful for it because it has often led me to places i probably would not have found on my own. often times while in search of a cappuccino shop that robert had seen good reviews for, we would wander down some random wrong street and find some ornate clocktower that wasn’t visible from the main walkways. Or we would see some really cool graffiti that one would have no clue was there had they never left beaten path.
speaking of graffiti, berlin has to be the best city in the world at embracing its graffiti. they don’t even fight it. in the US, if graffiti ends up on a wall somewhere, it’s rarely clever or intelligible, and it is usually covered up or painted over expeditiously, and the eyesore is gone before you know it. in berlin the graffiti is EVERYWHERE, and often times it has a very clever message about consumerism, or it pokes fun of itself, or even makes you think deeper thoughts about your own existence.
everywhere i went, i found myself really enjoying graffiti even more so than some of the sights. i even began to notice some of the taggers’ calling cards. i could tell which neighborhoods belonged to which artists. and when a commissioned piece had adorned a wall in giant mural fashion, there seemed to be a respect among the taggers. they would usually leave those walls alone. or, if that wall was tagged, it would be tagged around the mural, so as not to disturb the art, and the new tagger would only hit an area that was empty and unoccupied by paint.
my guess is that a lot of this acceptable culture comes from the acceptance of living with a giant wall running right down the middle of the city for 30 years. the amount of decoration and graffiti that came to adorn this monstrosity likely spilled over into the rest of the city as years wore on, and now its just a badge of pride. but that wall is something else. i can’t even describe how i felt as i walked along segments of it during the week i was in berlin. trying to put myself the shoes of someone living in this city during the soviet reign made my head spin countless times. the thought that i could be living on one street corner one day and the love of my life might be living on the other side of the street, and the next day a giant wall went up between us and i might never see her again… this scenario kept resurfacing in my mind for days, until i saw the following scribbled on a section of the wall near checkpoint charlie:
i knew that it had happened to someone at some point; it had to. but the reality of loved ones being separated during this conflict suddenly became real to me when i saw a heartbreaking message scrawled onto the wall with the words “to astrid: maybe someday we will be together.” i stared at the message for at least 10 minutes while the light rain fell around me. i was overcome with sadness, despite the fact this tragedy had occurred decades ago. eventually i moved along, but this moment has stayed with me during my trip.
this city grew on me every day that i was there. if a trip to europe was a march madness college basketball tournament, berlin was the dangerous 14 seed that was starting to upset all the mainstays and work deep into the tourney. berlin was the darkhorse.
i think one of the things i liked about it so much was that everywhere you looked, there were old remnants of painful memories of the city: the past was never far. just like people, i like them better when they have a story to tell. especially if that story hasn’t been all sunshine and rainbows. the pain of berlin no longer holds its citizens back, but it is always lurking in the shadows warning just how far a city or a person can fall if they are careless with the world around them.
or maybe that isn’t the message waiting to be interpreted. for the life of me i couldn’t decipher what the history and identity of berlin was. was it the powerhouse city of the north that was a haven for the nazi empire that crumbled and has been slowly rebounding ever since? or was the city a victim, that had been subjugated by a radical aggressor in the nazi party and was then taken advantage of by another meddling power in the soviet union, which then suppressed and abused the people and city for decades, and now they were finding their way out of the dark?
or is the identity something completely different altogether? perhaps berlin is a place that, through ages of darkness and consequence, knows the weight of action and reaction, and now uses that knowledge to its advantage to help shape its future and rebuild a brighter and more prosperous outcome (which it is easily succeeding at)? surely this is the identity, and the longer i spent in the city the more confirmation i received. berlin is a bastion of hope, and one need nothing more than to walk its streets for a day to see why. it exemplifies that no matter what happens, no matter how grave the circumstance or the situation, nothing is completely beyond saving. one need only the will, the discipline, and the desire to restart from the bottom, and any height can be achieved.
today’s ear candy is a new single by zola jesus, and i. love. this. song. can’t get enough of it. this girl can sing, but she has this brooding, deep baritone pipes that just strike a chord in all the right ways for me, probably because she sounds so different than most singers out there in pop music. i first heard her sing on the first track of the m83 album “hurry up, we’re dreaming” that blew up the whole world a couple years ago but i confess i never really sought her out to see what she was doing on her own. i can tell you now, however, that her new album is fantastic from top to bottom. enjoy the video…