Letting Go 06: Germany

Thursday, September 28. 2006
I sat most of the day on trains to get there. From Gdansk to Szczecin (try saying that three times Hell, try saying it at all) was the longest stretch, there I changed some Zloty for Euros, keeping a handful for later. I bought the next ticket and got on a train for Angermunde, over the German border. It was a short ride, the line was pretty much to ferry people over the border. Neither city is much of a place, they just happen to be near the border. In Europe these border areas are not much, always underdeveloped, unless there is a strong historical reason for it being otherwise.

From there, it was a fast ride into Berlin.

Into confusion, too. I heard later that the station I got off at is the largest in Europe. Wouldnt surprise me if were true but it might be a reason to sign it better, yeah? I guess the natives are pretty used to it, they know how to get around. Cant make these things too easy for visitors now.

I found the S-Bahn line, bought the wrong ticket and failed to validate it, then got to the station I needed to without being checked. The end result was that I spent one Euro twenty I could have held onto. Doesnt sound like much but it might have made a difference after what happened.

The hostel was huge. Its always a worry, getting off at an unfamiliar station and then bumbling around looking for the place. This time there was no issue. The place was huge, you couldnt see out of the station because it took up the entire view. So it was close, too. Stepping inside I found plastic-fantastic pre-packaged backpacker experience. All computerised booking, sleek plastic everything else, uniforms Drunk Aussies all over the place. It was total commercialisation. Everything backpacking really shouldnt be like but in the really popular places, this is the absolute personification of what it is. I hated it from the beginning. But it was the cheapest place there, so it had won.

I had just enough Euros to pay for one night and get a kebab. I had changed only just enough money to get by. There would be no checking the city that night, not would there be more food, or beers. There wasnt enough to pay for a ticket the next morning on the way to the Amex office so while I made it without getting checked, I was greasing it the whole way.

But back to the hostel. It has all the info you could want about other hostels and tours and all that shit, all in a special room for such enterprises; lots of computers (internet access costing three Euros for a half hour, even with your own computer); bar; enough room for almost 800 people. You got that right, no typos here eight hundred people. It was like a hotel except without the good bits and loads cheaper. I felt violated, like someone had marketed the whole backpacking thing and served it up. It was just wrong. But cheap, so aside from my ideals as a true travelling man of the world, it appealed to my wallet.

Heres the other thing. Eight hundred people, Im in a dorm with room for twelve, but its divided into three parts. It used to be a ten person room and two rooms for two people each. They took the doors off and voila, a fourteen person room. I was in one of the ex-twin rooms. By myself. Potentially eight hundred people and I am all alone. So theres not much to do, no money, no drinking, not even people to meet. It happens, I suppose.

The next day, after getting to the Amex, I wander around. I didnt realise that Id come to the most touristy part of town, since I know absolutely nothing about Germany, and walked past a lot of the big sights without knowing. I stumbled upon the German History Museum and spent the next few hours re-living it all. It says a lot about not just German history, but European history as a whole, that even with a long and colourful story like Germanys, a huge museum like that still has to dedicate nearly a third to the two world wars. Id even say that WWII gets about a quarter all together, once you count the parts about the rise of national socialism more if you count the direct post war stuff. This was the first inkling about the sheer insanity that that city has seen over the years. Not just the world wars, but the divided years and the wall, two things that are still visible in the landscape.

I walked some more and ate some food. Then walked some more. I wandered through Checkpoint Charlie (now a tourist trap) and to the site of the old Gestapo building, which is in the process of being excavated and renovated, but there is a temporary exhibit going on. Scary stuff. All the terror that happened, the concentration camps and holocaust, was planned out there. Dark dealings. Then I walked some more again.

Tours are not my thing. As a rule, avoided like the plague. But given that I had nothing to go on about Berlin, I went along to a free tour. I knew there would be a catch, but it couldnt be too bad. The one I aimed for was a bike tour, but not enough people turned up so we were handballed over to the walking tour. Which was good enough. We saw things Id gone by the day before and things I hadnt seen yet. Brandenburg Gate, the Monument to the Murdered Jews of Europe, the old Luftwaffe building The greatest hits. There is some crazy stuff out there, I tell you. Hitlers bunker, even though its just a parking lot now, it still there. The places where the wall used to run is marked on the ground with cobblestones. Too many stories to recount here.

The tour was free, you just had to tip what you thought it was worth. A sort of civilised guilt trip, but I will admit here that I weaseled off without parting with a cent. Hey, they said it was free.

A look inside the Berlin cathedral, plus access to the roof to take some photos, followed by me going to the hostel to gather my things and going to meet Sven. Sven, who I had met in Latvia, had come good with his offer of accommodation, just he couldnt help me until then. That was cool with me, I take what I can get. After a little confusion about the subway station (I might have gone to the totally wrong place) I finally found him and we went to his place. I got the couch, which he had designed and built himself, and it was very comfortable. We looked at photos and had a few drinks, talked some crap and talked some more. Great guy, in all. Went to bed about three in the morning, which is cool for me because I dont have to go anywhere, but he had to work Poor guy. Not like I kept him up or anything.

I went back to the bike tour the next day, but again there were not enough people. So instead I saw a few things with one of the other disappointed people and had a good old day of it. There really is a lot to see in Berlin, you know. The Olympic Stadium was pretty impressive and the Jewish Museum is incredible. Not just an amazing piece of architecture, but the displays and such tell the story as accurately as I imagine they are and the parts dedicated to the holocaust and exile of the Jews (minimal, in the overall scheme of the museum, because they are but small parts of the story) are awesome. The Garden of Exile is a series of giant concrete blocks set in rows, the paths in between set with uneven stones. The blocks reach into the sky and it is almost like a maze. The blocks lean over slightly and the paths are very hard to walk on. The entire effect is incredibly disorienting just like the Jews who had to leave Europe after the war would have felt. The holocaust tower is even more awesome. A dark room, almost totally silent, with high walls and a small window at the far top. The experience is designed to be as lonely as possible and after only a few seconds you feel fear and panic set in; but it is nothing compared to what a concentration camp must have been like.

After that I had to go back to Svens so I could clean my stuff up before he got home. Didnt want to be a bad guest. I made it and he was happy when he got home, so I can assume he liked my company. Good for me. We made jam after that, then had Turkish food for dinner. Then he drove me around the city so I could see it after dark, see things without people there, see things all lit up. It really is a nice place, Berlin, and it has many faces to it. While it sits these days on the plastic end of the scale (the other end being stone) there is enough going on to make you sit up and notice. The divide between east and west is still apparent, still visible in certain ways. The east is generally cheaper, so it is student oriented and favoured by immigrant groups. It attracts the night life and fun side of things. The west, however, is where you find people wearing suits and making money. Stick to the east.

Then there is the wall. Only left in sections now, it once cordoned off the entire of West Berlin. Insane as that seems today, with the city now fully integrated, it was only 15 years ago that it came down after forty odd years of division. The story is truly crazy, that it came to building a wall to keep people from escaping, that the communist leaders of East Germany could turn a blind eye to reality for such a long time The end game moral is that the people will always win out, no matter what obstacles are there, the people who live in a place will be the ones who eventually win control of the situation there. It takes time and it takes other events to start things moving, but the people always win.

What is left of the wall is mainly in three places. There is a long, mostly undisturbed section next to the old Gestapo building site, protected because it is on the same land, so it was never broken up or destroyed. Then there is the East Side Gallery, an even longer section that has been turned into one big canvas and is covered in art. The art is covered in graffiti, so it is one big community project and truly amazing. The last notable section is in Potsdamer Platz. This was one of the more happening parts of the city in the pre-Nazi days, all dance halls and night clubs and such. Like all places in Berlin it suffered during the Nazi days and went into hibernation during the war but never had a chance to wake up, because some crazy fucker built a wall through it. So from one of the livelier parts of a livery city, it became a wasteland, a no-mans land because the mentally retarded bastards who had East Germany by the testicles couldnt bear to lose any more citizens. All it was good for was the viewing platform that let West Berliners take a gander into communism. These days it is back to some kind of glory, as a commercial district full of glass skyscrapers and hotels. You wouldnt recognise it from 15 years ago and you can check if you like. The famous footage of the first section if the wall to fall was in Potsdamer Platz. The first section comes down and people come through freely. That section has been put back as a reminder, right where it stood dividing and destroying the city, in the middle of the scene of the greatest recovery. A constant reminder to the insane times the place has seen.

I stayed with Sven for two nights, but he had to go somewhere so I said my goodbyes to him and spent the last night in Berlin in another hostel. I went there and it was pretty nice. I met an Italian guy and we had a few beers. The next day, my last, I just walked from one end of town to the other. I made it back to the hostel just in time to get my bags, jump on the train and get to the bus station just in time to get out of there. Just in time.