I couldn’t wait to reunite with the city that I was most charmed and fascinated by on my first trip to Europe. Berlin didn’t just meet my expectations, it turned out to be so much more than I thought it was. I wish we had had more time to explore it the first time we were here. Even though it wasn’t supposed to be the highlight of this trip because we had a lot of new places to explore and hopefully be blown away by, I was happy I would be able to pay another visit to this city which I felt so connected to. In my previous piece I gave a detailed account of how this city made me feel and to me was actually what a city should be like and what kind of vibe it should offer both to locals and tourists.
After enjoying a trip on Autobahn and some German radio, I found myself here again. This time round I wasn’t reflecting much on many years back when there was a bloody devastating war between the USSR and Germany. As I’m writing this on May,9 which is for us, people born in the USSR territories, a day to remember and reflect, references have to be made to what we call the Great Patriotic War but this time round I wasn’t travelling to Berlin thinking of what it felt like to the USSR people who were there to hoist the USSR flag on the Reichstag. I was thinking of what it would feel like to be back to where it felt so good and the vibe was so amazing.
I knew we would have some time to ourselves while in Berlin so I did some research to make the most of our second visit here. I was amazed at how much there was to discover and I knew we wouldn’t have enough of the city and would be longing for more when we leave. As I was reading stuff on Berlin sights, I was picturing myself walking this area that I was briefly introduced to on my first visit. So in the end there was a plan in place and we were hoping we would see it through as much as we could.
Berlin was just as we left it a year ago, a lovely combination of busy and queit and I instantly picked up on the Berlin vibes and couldn’t wait to leave the coach and go on our little Berlin adventure. The first stop was a must-see for every Russian on a visit to the German capital city. That was the Treptower Park, a place which commemorates Soviet soldiers who fought in the WWII. That is one of those places where you feel acutely proud of your national identity, proud to be Russian and it doesn’t matter that you’re miles away from home. We felt privileged to come here again and have another moment to take in the serene beauty of the place and, more importantly, to feel humbled by where we come from and our nation’s glorious past. And the fact that we could safely be there and just embrace life was I think what this war was won for. I was once more astonished by what I thought to be the Germans’ way of trying to make it up for what happened years and years back. And I hated to think that where I was at the moment was a pet hate of Soviet people and instead was taking comfort in the thought that there was no more war and that gorgeous park was a place to reflect on where we were and that long way we have come as a nation. Without worrying about taking pictures as much as we did the first time round, we were walking and staring at the main monument which we approached as close as we could. I heard some other tourists from our country shouting something and I thought that was such a disrespectful thing to do especially for a Russian… As we were leaving the park, I think we were all wondering if we ever get back again because who could have thought we would be back that time and feel incredibly proud to be Russian in Berlin again.
We got back on our coach and made our way to the city centre. The city was waking up to a new day but there wasn’t much commotion. We drove by the Berlin wall which we saw and even left our little marks on when we were here last year. I felt sorry for the rest of the tourists because that was their first time to Berlin and seeing this iconic landmark of the Berlin history through the window was just as much as they could get. The Spree River bank, the statue of molecular men I described in my first report of Berlin were still there of course. These feelings you experience when you come somewhere as significant and vibrant as the German capital are certainly different from what you were experiencing when you were here first. I don’t think I can describe what exactly makes them different but all I know is that it is different. It’s more like revisiting your own memories and adding new flavours and emotions along the way. So you end up with a whole different memory of the place.
The one thing which I think will always be true of Berlin is reconstruction works taking place almost everywhere you go. It felt as if the city was always in quest for something new. Surprisingly enough, what looked like a new tube station being under construction caused no disruption to the traffic! As we were driving through the city, I was figuring out the itinerary for our walk and it looked quite clear even to me knowing I’m not good with directions, which is a huge setback for a traveller.
The first stop was the Reichstag. On our first visit here all we had time for is to take a quick photo of us outside the building and now we were here for a longer visit and actually we were going to get inside all the way up to the Reichstag Dome! What a marvellous place to be in Berlin (even if no references are made to 1945)! We went through security and we felt a bit tense because we were aware of the significance of the building we were just about to get into! As far as I understood, a certain amount of people were allowed in in certain periods of time and as we were making our way inside, we were stopped with quite a strong gesture by one of the guards which gave us a feel of how the security was observed. Then an enormous elevator took us up to the Dome and here we were! From up there the whole of Berlin seemed just in front of us and felt as if we could reach out and touch it. The roof was getting busy and I was starting to experience one of the perks of travelling up there. There were all sorts of people taking pictures or just basking in the early morning sun, different languages were spoken (which was a huge treat for me) but mostly it seemed to be German and I was happy it added more authenticity to our visit. Of course it’s a notoriously touristy place but in Germany you hear and see a lot of people who speak German so for me it was the indication of German people being quite patriotic even though getting around is so much less of an issue to them than it is for us. The Brandenburger Gate, Tiergarten, the TV tower and much much more were visible and I could switch my view by just turning my head! What a lovely morning European style! That was just what I was saying to myself up there and I knew I should seize the day and make the most of the city! I was wondering if the Parliament was being at work while we were up there. A couple of guys cleaning the glass definitely were. I texted Dad to tell him where we were and he replied with something like “You should hoist the Russian flag up there!” Well, I thought that was a bad joke and that would be the last thing I wanted to do up there. As we were on our way down, we got hold of some free books about the Parliament and I’m proud to say I have my copies both in English and German and was able to read the German version, which shows my German isn’t too rusty so far!
As we left the Reichstag, we posed for some photos and decided we would rest our feet sitting on the grass just in front of it. The grass didn’t look so green and well-looked after as I expected and I was astonished to see some cigarette butts lying around and had to remind myself we were in Germany! But that wasn’t a big deal and we were relaxing there for a bit admiring the view and thinking how lucky we were to be living this moment and listening to some girls close by having a conversation in German!
We headed off to grab a drink to cool off and popped into one of the places just across the road. It wasn’t as pricey as you would expect a place like that to be and me and my friend made use of our German while asking the shop assistant to open our bottles for us and never in the world would I have thought I still remembered what the German for “bottle” was! That is what communicative language teaching is all about I believe! After enjoying our drinks, we went along the park there and had another German specialty, which is Brezel. It is kind of a round pastry. And there I managed to remember what the German for “cheese” was! That was my passionate love for cheese kicking in! It was all gut as we were sitting there stuffing our faces and people watching! The next stop was the Brandenburger Gate.
I couldn’t wait to cross the safe street and see it close up! I love this iconic sight of Berlin! It was crowded just like it was the first time we were here but I was loving the fact we had some time to spend here now and pose for some photographic evidence of our stay in Berlin of course! To me it’s one of the most vibrant places I’ve ever been to so far! It’s packed with tourists as you would expect it therefore it’s nothing short of authentic but to lots of people around the world it sums up Germany. I was standing there trying to take in every little detail of the structure – gigantic colums, horses on top! I felt like reaching out my hand and touching one of the colums to get me “in touch” with the story the Gate had to tell! And that’s been a long story which was several centuries long… There were some tourist “traps” here such as people dressed like bears (symbols of Berlin which are featured in a lot of advertisement boards of the city) posing for pictures with tourists some of whom might have no idea they would be asked to pay. There were also some Wurstchen sold from stalls. So that all made it a busy and hot place and I was loving the vibe and the diverse crowd.
We were about to make our way to one of the sights we missed out on seeing on our previous visit and that was the Holocaust Memorial which was just around the corner across the road from the American Embassy with a funny bear welcoming visitors at the entrance. I should say that is quite a complex piece of architecture. To some people it might not even look like a monument at all, it’s more like a series of long mazes among which you can go for a pensive walk to experience another side of the Berlin history. Pensive is exactly the word to describe the way I was feeling while I was taking in the monument. The topic of war somehow always resonated with me, probably because of the books I read in my childhood which introduced me to what a small child could make of a great human tragedy that WWII certainly was. Anyway, to me it didn’t feel like a war monument at all, so “confused” is probably another word I would use to describe my emotions at the time. It was hard to figure out what these massive marble stelae stood for, I loved to see them as black boxes of our minds where a memory of those who lost their lives must live on… We saw a sign for a monument honoring homosexuals persecuted under Nazism and it is certainly not something I would see back home because we have to admit we’re homophobic as a nation even though I don’t want to start a political discussion against the backdrop of the recent anti-gay laws that got the rest of the world talking. So, this monument was somewhere close by but we had so much more to see that we left back to the Brandenburger Gate where we admired the glory and grandeur of this monument which is so fundamental to the German national identity. It’s like the Kremlyn to us…
After a while it was time to make a move and take a stroll along the famous Unter der Linden. This boulevard got its name thanks to linden (lime) trees that used to line up this long wide street. You can’t see a lot of trees here these days though but it’s quite a posh street where there are a lot of embassies and business centres. I wasn’t surprised to see the Russian embassy looking the most extraordinary and posh and that was a little piece of home. We walked by another posh building which looked like a luxury hotel welcoming new visitors. We popped into a souvenir shop, posed with a lovely yellow symbol of BERlin.
People-watching has to be one of the things I love most about travelling. As we were walking along this fabulous street with lots of people enjoying a walk just like us, we spotted a very handsome man resting on the stairs of the building which sign read “Deutsche Bank”. He looked like a person working there. I don’t know if that was the setting or this particular guy but almost a year on, we still can’t forget him… We even took a quick photo of him… We don’t get a lot of men like this in this country so we know a really attractive man when we see one.
It was getting really hot as we made it to the monument to Friedrich II and were about to cross the street and find ourselves near the Humboldt University where I knew I would get a couple of books this time. There were all kinds of books and if my German was a little better, I think I would have got more. I ended up buying two books on what it’s like to be a Berliner. I thought those were perfect books to take back home from Berlin.
We passed by Deutsches Historisches Museum to get blown away by the beauty of the Berlin Cathedral. On my first trip I was genuinely moved by it and here I was again. It has to be one of the most beautiful pieces of architecture I’ve seen so far. There were some amazing pink flowers outside it and it looked like a postcard photo, it was so perfect.
We had to keep walking because there was another thing on our list of things to do in Berlin. We wanted to take a boat trip along the Spree. There was one boat just about to depart and we were hesitant if we should take this one. A man in charge saw us and I guess he understood what we were here for and I asked him in a mixture of English and German how long and how much the trip was because we had to make sure we were coming back to this exact place. We assured us that was a round trip. Whether it was the heat, the charm of the city, exhaustion from several days of travelling or all of these, we couldn’t think straight and stood there struggling to make up our minds. I wonder what kind of attitude we would have got back home… But this man seemed perfectly patient and we realized everyone on board was waiting for us to make a decision… That shows how important customers are for Germans. We boarded the boat and handed 10 Euro notes to this man and he said “Perfect!” in American accent. That made me giggle to myself. So the trip began. We got a close look at the dome of the Cathedral and it was massive! There were a couple of dozens of tourists on the boat and it was boiling hot! I wish I had a hat to put on. Our captain (the one who welcomed us aboard) was providing a running commentary of what we were observing. It was both in German and English and I was savouring the moment. How authentic it was to be sailing by the iconic sights of Berlin and having a quite nice German man speaking about them. I was surprised I could understand most of what he was saying. Berlin is known to have more bridges than Venice we were to visit later on our trip. So we passed by several of them. One was so low that we were asked to bow our heads when we were crossing it. We had a GUT view of the sculptures outside the DDR museum of naked bronze people sunbathing and then there were some real clothed people enjoying a hot Berlin afternoon on a beach! You would think that beaches and Berlin don’t mix but turns out, they do! Berliners know how to have a GUT time! People lounging in the sun under palm trees, DJ’s playing some funky music… I believe we also got a view of a huge conference centre and yes, Berlin sounds like a good place to do business. But this wasn’t what we were doing as our trip went on with us seeing and crossing beautiful bridges and basking in the Berlin sun. This hot sun was making me a bit dizzy but I was loving Europe and this wonderful city! Our boat trip was coming to end and as we were unboarding the boat, our captain said «До свидания!» to us which is the Russian for „Bye!“. Ah dear, how could he have known we are Russians?! He might have heard us talking while we were trying to decide if we were taking the trip… I’m absolutely amazed by how good people in Europe are at distinguishing languages and how comfortable they feel speaking other languages… I think English teachers here have an easier time because people are motivated to SPEAK and interact with foreigners!
Amazed and a bit flattered we had got some special attention, we made our way to the bus stop to take a bus to Potsdamer Platz where we were supposed to get a panoramic view of the city by taking Europe’s fastest elevator. I had never been on a double-deck bus before and it was exciting to be sitting on the upper deck watching Berlin. We made sure we were getting off at the right stop and here we were in what looked a bit like Times Square to me. There were hugeeee skyscrapers all around and we made our way to Sony Centre where we were to stop for a meal German style. We entered and found ourselves in a hugeee futuristic building with a large fountain in the centre. That was a really busy place with a cinema theatre, cafes and restaurants. I was loving it! That urban feel to it was so appealing! We had no difficulty finding this place I looked up on the Internet called Lindenbräu where as the name suggests, we would sip on some lovely German beer which is a must while in Berlin! We picked a table on the upper balcony and from up there we got a fabulous view of Sony Centre! I’d never had a meal with a view before! There were lots of German specialties on the menu and we made sure we tried Sauerkraut which is traditional sour cabbage. For drinks, we ordered what was called „1 meter bier“ which contained eight samples of four kinds of beer. The way it was served looked like nothing I’d seen before! Eight 0.2 litre glasses were served on a meter ruler which spread all across our table! How GUT it was! We saw a group of fellow countrymen just across the table and realized there is nowhere in the world you wouldn’t meet people from Russia. They were enjoying some potatoes which looked just the way we have them back home and we started craving some as well! Without further ado, my sister asked the waiter to bring us “potatoes like this” and I was afraid he would bring us a huge portion because we didn’t specify how much we wanted! But he looked like he was OK with that… The service was really spot-on and quick! The portion he brought us was just OK! A group of Russians enjoying potatoes in Berlin… I wished we could spend a bit longer here because it felt so relaxing up here and we were like a bunch of Europeans sipping on our Bier (never mind, we were in a touristy centre though!). Our meal was a really good value so you don’t have to pay a hefty bill for good food in Berlin!
There was one last thing we wanted to do in the capital city of Germany. We were to get a panoramic view of the city in the building just across the street. We saw what looked like Walk of Fame in Hollywood. I was enjoying the square and how empty it was! We got our tickets and got into the elevator greeted by another lovely man. That was a super quick ride! The view of the city was magnificent! My sister and friend weren’t too excited about getting up here but for some reason, as I’m not afraid of heights, vintage points like this give me an extraordinarily liberating feeling as if I own the city… We saw some familiar views at a totally new angle and I didn’t really want to leave… My sister and friend attempted to straddle what looked like an ox and got some weird looks from people walking up and they did look funny on that ox! We stayed up there for a while and it was time to make our way back down to the ground. We got back into the elevator accompanied by that lovely man again. He pressed the button saying “I’ll be your captain for today!” I guess I was the only one chuckling at this.
We had enough time on our hands to get to the Zoo where we were to meet up with the rest of the group. We waited a bit for a bus to take us there. I was amazed by how short bus stops are in Berlin! What would be one bus stop here was about three stops in Berlin! We got off at the Zoo but as we realized, we weren’t on the right side of it. We tried not to panic and asked a passer-by for the directions. She was very nice and did her best to help. We did find the side we needed and did some food shopping outside the Zoo. My sister kept grumbling she didn’t have time to do some shopping and that was really annoying and it was sad to leave. I was proud of myself though for doing some research back home so we ended up having a really good day in Berlin all on our own! Our adventure wouldn’t have been so exciting if we hadn’t got lost a little… It seemed to be just part of the plan. We had an overnight trip ahead of us… As we were driving through the city, I took some last peeks at it and wondering if I’d ever get to come here for the third time. I wish I had a crystal ball to tell me… When we were outside the city, we stopped at a shop where I got some German newspapers. The royal baby was all over the news! It was nice to read a German language coverage of the event. Berlin totally stole my heart probably not by how beautiful it was but by how comfortable and at the same time buzzing it was. That sounded like a perfect combination to me!
I was asking myself “Will I get any sleep on the coach?” “Probably not…” Anyway, Guten Nacht, Berlin and it was time to get ready to say Bonjour, Paris! in the morning…