With the end of our “year abroad”, flyingsquid2012 also comes to an end.
We want to send a huge THANK YOU to our friend Hal who enabled our travels by house sitting and cat sitting for us. We couldn’t have done any of this without you.
Thanks to our friends and family who read the blog. We loved sharing with you and hearing from you.
Thanks to our tumblr followers and to the thousands of people who read, liked, and reblogged our posts. We’re humbled by your interest, and your encouragement kept us going picking, editing, and posting our pictures even at the end of long, tiring days.
All the best,
Eric, Cristie & William
Alaska, New York, Hong Kong, India, Seychelles, Dubai, Barcelona, Paris, Switzerland, Berlin.
These ten places made up our “year abroad”, which is now over. Looking over our blog to pick the images for this post, I was stunned to see how much we’ve experienced, and realized how much I’d already forgotten.
Apart from the pictures and memories, did we learn anything?
Our number one personal take-away, which we didn’t fully realize until we lived in New York last fall, was that we are big-city people — and that we would be happy living in New York, Paris or Munich (where we spent a summer two years ago).
More generally, I think we’ve learned that geography is destiny for so many people — the person carrying bricks on their head in India for $1 a day has just as strong a work ethic as the supermarket cashier we met in Switzerland who makes $85,000 a year. The healthy person who walks around Paris or New York could be the unhealthy person who drives everywhere in suburbs. The same person who was depressed in a cubicle in New York is happy as a fisherman in Alaska. Pick your place carefully, because your place determines who you become.
I was wondering when this year began if we’d be traveled-out by the end of it, or if we’d be turned into permanent nomads. For me, anyway, it’s definitely the latter — back home for just two days and already dreaming of going back to some of the places we’ve been, and eager to see new ones. Reviewing our thousands of photographs, and already itching to go out and take more!
Our top impression of Berlin is that it’s an incredibly young city. Obviously there must be older people hidden away somewhere (after all this is the seat of Germany’s government!) but the impression you get on the streets and subways is that 80% of the people are in their teens and 20s.
Undoubtably they’re drawn by the incredibly low prices (everything costs half as much as in Paris), and by Berlin’s reputation as a party town.
There are concerts, festivals, dance clubs, “beach” clubs, karaoke clubs, bars, cafes with music & events, flea markets with live music, etc.
The action begins at 2 am, we’re told.
Berlin is an incredibly varied city — some parts are a yuppie paradise indistinguishable from Park Slope in Brooklyn. Others are a hipster/immigrant mashup just like the Mission District in San Francisco, with Turks standing in for the Mexicans. Other parts are standard-issue capital city with big architectural projects and the requisite museums, concert halls, national library etc.
Each of the images above conveys a feeling of this place.
We’ve mostly come to Berlin to experience the city as it is now. But we also came here to learn more about 20th century history.
In the last few years we’ve been to tons of places rich in older history — Japan, Bavaria, France, Spain, India — and we’ve seen enough ancient castles, palaces, cathedrals, and temples to last us a while.
What’s unique to Berlin is the way this city dwells on its dramatic 20th century history — the rich scientific and cultural world that existed here before World War I, World War I, the unstable 1920s, the Nazi era, World War II, Communism/the Cold War, and the end of the Cold War.
While the neighborhoods where most people live and play are pretty free of reminders of these events, the downtown / government / monument / tourist area beats you over the head with it.
The pictures above show three examples.
The first three pictures are from the first thing you see when you enter the Tiergarten, Berlin’s central park. It’s a monument to the Soviet Soldiers who “liberated” the city in the 1945. It features the first two tanks to enter the city. The Soviets made the East Germans build it as a giant “screw you”, and while neither the Soviet Union nor East Germany still exists, modern Germany maintains the monument. To be fair, there are over 2000 Soviet troops buried right behind it.
The next three pictures are down the road a bit in the park, of the “Victory Tower” built by the Germans in 1871 to celebrate their victory over the French. The French very much resented this war, because they saw themselves as collateral damage in an intra-german power play by Prussia to unify Germany under Prussian control, and because of the huge, impoverishing, “reparations” France had to pay after losing the 1870/71 war.
During the Battle of Berlin at the end of WW II, the friezes on this monument were riddled with bullet holes which you can easily see in our pictures. The French as one of the four occupying powers in Germany demanded that the whole monument be taken down. This request was denied, so the French took down the monument’s friezes themselves and took them away to France. It wasn’t until 1987 that the French cooled off enough to return them to Berlin to be put back on the monument.
The final two pictures are of a building in downtown Berlin. Here, in its entirety, is the text on the plaque in front of the building:
In 1890 the Royal Prussian War Ministry at Leipziger Strasse 5 was enlarged by the construction of a big extension in Wlhelmstrasse. In the Weimar Republic it housed offices of the Reich Defense Ministry.
In 1933 the newly formed Reich Aviation Ministry headed by Herman Göring moved into the building. Göring had the complex demolished in 1935 and a monumental new building designed by Ernst Sagebiel with over 2000 rooms was built on the site. The ministry was actively involved in the plans for a “Pan German Reich”, in waging the war and looting a murdering entire population groups. Three days after the pogrom of November 9, 1938 a conference led by Göring met in the room which is now the Euro Hall and resolved to demand a thousand million Reichsmarks from the German Jews for the damage caused by the pogrom.
But the building was also connected with the German Resistance through Harro Schulze-Boysen, who worked in the Intelligence Department. From the fall of 1940, he and his resistance comrades Arvid Harnack and Adam Kockhoff gave information to Soviet Intelligence about Germany’s plans to attack the Soviet Union.
After the war the building housed the Soviet Military Administration following by the National Economic Commission. On October 7, 1949 the communist German Democratic Republic was founded in the great hall of the building. Up to 1989 the building was the East German House of the Ministries. The complex bordered the Berlin Wall which was erected in 1961.
From 1991 to 1995 the building was used by the Treuhand Anstalt, the trustee organization for privatizing former East German state enterprises. Since 1999 it has housed the German Ministry of Finance.
These three examples are more than enough — but we’ve seen much more just on this short visit — WW II bunkers, Cold War nuclear bunkers, The Berlin Wall memorial, The “Palace of Tears” checkpoint between East & West Berlin, the “Topology of Terror” site where Nazi dungeons have been uncovered, the Monument to the Murdered Jews of Europe, and countless other plaques, monuments, and statues of various people and events from 20th century history.
You can definitely live or party in Berlin without dwelling on all this, but it’s impossible to do the visitor circuit without all this history front-and-center.
Because so much of Berlin has been rebuilt in the modern period, much of it very recently, the visual cues are totally different than in other European cities.
In Paris or similar cities your eye learns to seek out baroque decorations, human forms in fountains and statues, colors in stained glass and other historic motifs.
In Berlin, instead, you begin to look for patterns from the late 20th century — repetition, abstraction, stark symbolism, and commercialism.
Ostalgie (nostalgic feelings about East Germany) is a controversial topic here, but it’s undeniable that tourists want to see a bit of that lost exotic world, that older people feel some nostalgia for the world in which they were once young, and that some young people are interested in vintage communist clothes/furniture/toys/records etc. ironically.
You see this most prominently in the Ampelmann brand. East Berlin’s iconic be-hatted traffic signal guy now decorates anything and everything.
Trabi Safaris take visitors on tours of Berlin in one of East Germany’s cramped Trabant cars which are otherwise completely gone from the roads here.
But aside from these sorts of touristy things you do see things that make you pause, like the chips shop photographed above that shows Erich Honecker, the last East Germany leader, enjoying their food (notice the Trabant behind him). What’s that about?