Berlin Visit 2 (Es war so gut und unvergesslich!!!)

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.SAM_3734

SAM_3738
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.
SAM_3744
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!
SAM_3747

SAM_3749

SAM_3757

SAM_3759

SAM_3766
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!
P1000880
SAM_3772
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.
SAM_3782
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.
SAM_3799

SAM_3808

SAM_3810
SAM_3832
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…
P1000903

P1000904
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.
SAM_3835

SAM_3843
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.
SAM_3845
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.
SAM_3858
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!
SAM_3863

SAM_3870

SAM_3877
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!
SAM_3886
P1000921
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. SAM_3903
P1000928
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…

A Bit of Royal Beauty (Potsdam)

Here is a short story of our brief visit to Potsdam. It is a town just about 20 km outside Berlin. It is easily accessible by bus or train. I wasn’t sure if that was a right decision to go as we didn’t have much time on our hands in Berlin as it was and this would make just a couple more hours for us in Berlin after we came back from Potsdam and this would be it for us in Berlin. But there were no regrets as Potsdam gave us a chance to feel like a bunch of Berliners looking to escape the bustle and hustle of the city for a couple of hours as it was a perfect place to get away indeed. Our guide said a visit to Potsdam would make our stay in Berlin so much more worthwhile.
As we were driving to Potsdam, which took us some forty minutes, I started taking a kip. The views we had from the window didn’t seem too appealing and I needed some time to let the Berlin impressions sink in. The first views of Potsdam made it seem like a really nice and quiet place and made a big difference from Berlin which, compared to that town, then struck me as a vibrant and hustling city. It seemed also like a perfect place to live as living in a big city you might feel that all the tension and stress become too much but, in contrast, living in a small place like this you might get bored, so whenever you want a day or a night out, you know a big city and all the fun and entertainment it has to offer are just around the corner. So Potsdamers seem to have the best of both worlds. As we drove further into the town, there were fewer and fewer cyclists and more tourists who seem to come from different parts of the world. Everything looked more like a fairytale land and we were submerging into depths of incredible green.
SAM_7136
Our first stop was Sanssouci. It was a summer residence built during the reign of Frederick the Great (Friedrich der Grosse). I made a brief reference to this person in the part describing our stay in Berlin. He had a tremendous impact on Prussia where he was the King and the whole of Germany as we know it to be now. The idea behind this palace and the park surrounding it was to make it a private solitary place rather than a place to show off aristocratic extravagance and pomp. Sanssouci translates from French as “without care”, “carefree”.
SAM_7145
Frederick the Great disliked the German language for its rather confusing and complex syntax so this might be the reason why he chose to name this place in French that he seemed to be passionate about. We were standing there near the garden façade of this rather small and plain palace the roof of which read “Sanc, Souci.” For an instant, I felt like a royalty taking a leisurely stroll along the park and enjoying the sizzling sunshine. SAM_7138
That also felt a bit surreal as if we were on set making a movie about royal families. That made us all look a bit inappropriate and out of place as our outfits were most sure not up to the royal standards. Anyway, I tried not to think too much and enjoy the view that was marvelous. This part of the palace that was standing on a hill that overlooked a stunningly beautiful terraced garden with a speсtacular fountain in the centre of it. They call this place a German rival of Versailles and as I was marveling the beauty of the place, I heard someone in our group say Sanssouci was unrivalled by the latter, which made me even more proud to be here.
SAM_7142
We were shown a place where Frederick was buried. His resting place was in the terrace of the vineyard where some of his favorite dogs are buried as well. He was known to be a huge animal lover. He wasn’t buried here until the early 1990s when Germany was reunited and finally the funeral took place after the nightfall just according to the last will of the king. Frederick was also famous for improving the state of the Prussian economy that suffered a significant damage during the Seven Years’ War and introducing some new crops like potato. There were some potatoes lying on his tomb, which was brought to our attention by the guide. That caused me to giggle a bit as I was ambivalent about potatoes. I love cooking and eating them but planting them is a bit of a nightmare for a person like myself who obviously is not known to have green fingers. This burial palace looks really sentimental and made me wonder how on earth a king would want to have his dogs buried next to him. I wasn’t known to be a dog lover either. But this dedication to pets melted my heart away.
SAM_7152
I couldn’t wait to make my way down 120 steps to the garden. The garden was absolutely breathtaking and perfectly landscaped. We were lucky to come here in the summertime to see the garden in its blooming splendor. I was blown away by this so-called “Frederician Rococo” and embrace the light-heartedness and serenity of the place. The incredibly green garden seemed to dominate the view making the palace tiny and small. It epitomized the romantic ideal of harmony between man and nature. All those well-maintained flower beds and lawns now made it seem like a paradise and a perfect place to get away and mellow out. I should think some people were tempted to take one of the flowers back home with them as a reminder of our trip but I don’t think anyone would dare to.
SAM_7162

SAM_7164

SAM_7168

SAM_7169
We took a short stroll along the park and saw people sunbathing and enjoying a lovely summer day. All the flowers were said to be the same as back when Frederick came here and accepted his privileged guests, like Voltier with whom he was known to have an intimate friendship with, to name a few. The whole area stretches miles and miles away but since we were pressed for time as usual, we got to see only some parts of it.
SAM_7174
The next stop on our magically green way was the Chinese House. That was a gild decorative house also used for social events. It took the longest to build due to the Seven Years’ War. It was fairytale-like as well. I wish we could stop for a lovely cup of tea here but we had to make our way further. We also saw a gazebo which was a sort of a pavilion structure which was both practical and ornamental and was again a brilliant combination of art and nature.
SAM_7175

SAM_7181
SAM_7193
SAM_7195
SAM_7205
IMG_20120731_142223

IMG_20120731_142236
SAM_7215
We got back to our bus to make our way to the Russian colony of Alexandrowka, which was originally a residence for a group of Russian emigrants. Actually, the only thing I knew about Potsdam prior to my trip there was that was the location of the Potsdam Conference with the leaders of the Soviet Union, United Kingdom and the United States meeting there to discuss what a post-war world would be like. Being in that spot and location was like taking a trip in a time-machine. That was our second Russian experience in Germany. Cecilienhof was the name of the palace where this conference took place. It now houses a museum and a hotel. We got in to get some souvenirs. Some of them were wonderful mirrors, fans. There was also some Potsdam conference memorabilia featuring pictures of Stalin, which was a bit creepy and made it feel like his watchful eye was following us even miles and miles away from home. I got my lovely cuddly Berlin bear there as I feared I might not have time to back in Berlin. I also had a chance to say a few words in German and I loved how the shop assistant smiled at me when I said “Vielen Dank” (Thanks a lot). Me speaking a bit of German seemed to come as a surprise to her. I was enjoying my German experience. When we got out, we found that the rest of our group and the guide were already gone. We were standing by the red star outside the palace waiting for them to show up but then we decided we would have to find our way around if we didn’t want to get lost. It would be embarrassing to have the rest of the group waiting on us in the coach. So, to add more thrill to our trip, we had to take a jog to where the coach was parked. If only we knew our way around! I think about nine people having exactly no idea where they were running to in a foreign country where people were taking leisurely strolls made a pathetic view. But anyway, totally out of breath, we made it to our coach, we found out that the rest of the group were not back from the walking tour. We were breathless but chuffed to make it on time. Now we were waiting for the rest of the group and then it was time to say goodbye to the lovely Potsdam. It could well make for a day trip and again we made a wish we would be back here one day to bask in the sun and enjoy the green beauty of art and nature coming together. That felt like a light-hearted romance that we knew wouldn’t last long. We were jealous of all those locals riding their bikes and had to go back to Berlin listening to our guide telling us about a dire financial situation in Germany and still secretly wishing we lived here. The next stop was Dresden.

Ich bin ein Berliner (Part 3)

I had that incredibly breathtaking moment. I had tears coming to my eyes when we were driving past Berliner Dom (Berlin Cathedral). It was stunningly beautiful! I was thrilled to get off the bus and take a closer look at this phenomenal piece of architecture.
SAM_1726
For a moment after I saw double-decker buses, I thought I was in London. Berlin is certainly one of the major tourist spots in Europe but it didn’t feel like it was too crowded, which made my stay there so enjoyable and liberating. First we went on a short tour of Hackesche Hofe which is a fancy courtyard complex with a lovely tranquil atmosphere. It looked so classy and European. I was picturing people coming here for a cup of coffee to take in the atmosphere of the place. There were lots and lots of shops but we were pressed for time as always.
SAM_1692
SAM_7075
Our next quick stop was Deutsches Historisches Museum (The German Historical Museum). It was a shame we didn’t get a chance to visit any of the exhibitions but the hall of the museum was large and beautiful. We got our first souvenirs there as we were waiting on the rest of the group. To my surprise, I felt comfortable speaking a bit of German with a sales assistant. I was happy to embrace this truly European country.
SAM_7046
I loved the way people passing by looked like. They had a nice fashion sense. We were having a walk along the bank of Spree when we approached the Berlin cathedral which survived the destruction of WWII. It was truly phenomenal! It bore resemblance to Isakiev’s cathedral in St. Petersburg which is one of the cities in Russia that are definitely worth a visit. But I haven’t been there yet. The cathedral looked spectacular and it was another moment when I wished the time had stopped. There were amazing picture opportunities as well.
SAM_1747

SAM_1762
SAM_1760
Berlin is home to a great number of museums. Berlin’s Museuminsel (Museum Island) is a one-off collection of amazing museums. Visiting them is a huge treat to art enthusiasts. Actually, there is something for everyone in this city. This is where we were at the moment. We took some pictures of Alte Nationalgalerie (Old National Gallery), Altes Museum (Old Museum), the Bode Museum, the Pergamon Museum. Being in this completely different part of the city made my heart glow. Before we headed off to Potsdam, we had these two iconic landmarks of Berlin to visit.
SAM_7050
SAM_7039
SAM_7057
SAM_7087
SAM_7102
We also took a short walk along Unter den Linden and stopped at Humboldt University where we saw lots of books on sale at 3 Euro each. I was tempted to buy one but there was no time to decide so I ended up buying none. But it was an honor to be there as Humboldt made a great contribution to linguistics as we know it now.
SAM_7107
The first defining sight of Berlin is the Reichstag building. This is where Soviet soldiers flew our flag in May 1945. That was a massive imposing building with lots of history. The view made me more keen and enthusiastic about improving my German, I was on a high as if I had just seen Big Ben in London. It was funny that I got to see the Reichstag (German was minor) but I’ve never got to see Big Ben yet. That was another moment to capture and remember. There was no other way for me rather than to capture the view with my mind as my camera had died by the time we got there. The next time I’m in Berlin I know the first thing I will do is to my book a visit to the dome to see the German parliament at work.
SAM_7114
We were short of time and had about ten minutes to go take a quick look at Brandenburger Tor (Brandenburg Gate) which was just across the park. We were scared we might get lost as there was no time to lose and decided to ask someone for directions. My friend was brave enough to speak up but ironically, this man we addressed turned out to be American and didn’t understand any German. He started talking in English and for an instant it felt as if neither me nor my friend had a degree in English as our minds went totally blank as we didn’t know what the English for Brandenburger Tor was. But he was faster to understand us and we finally made our way to what to many people was actually Berlin. The place was touristy but it didn’t feel too crowded. The gate was pretty small and not quite what I pictured but I had to struggle taking a picture of it. Unfortunately, taking a couple of pictures is all we had time for as we were to meet our group to head off to Potsdam. Later last year as I saw my favourite band perform at the Brandenbur Gate on New’s Year I was proud I have been there and was sure to say that a visit there was the highlight of my year.
SAM_7129
SAM_7120
As we were leaving for Potsdam, we caught a glimpse of the imposing building of the Russian embassy, Tiergarten (they say it is the equivalent of Hyde Park in London), Sigesaule (Victory Column)…
After we came back from Potsdam (which is going to be a different story), we had a couple more hours to spend in Berlin. We had a typical German meal at Kurfurstendamm which is one of the most famous shopping venues in the city. As we were through, we finally had some time to ourselves. It would be a crime not to go on a bit of a shopping spree and enjoy the ultimate shopping experience Berlin style. We also did some souvenir shopping but I already had my cuddly bear which I got in Potsdam as I feared I would have no time for that when we get back. I was loving the vibe, the people and didn’t want to say goodbye. We had some more time to take some more pictures as we approached the Zoo. As I was posing, I had some man shouting out something to me out of his car… I wish my German was better because I will never know what it was… I hope it wasn’t something inappropriate after all… We also had a quick chat with some of the Zoo staff as my friend was eager to have a picture taken with. She said she couldn’t leave without taking a piсture of a German but this man was obviously Turkish but never mind…
SAM_7219
SAM_7228

SAM_7223

SAM_7224

SAM_7227
Berlin is such a complex and controversial city which lives a life of its own. I think this king named Friedrich der Grosse (Frederick the Great) whose resting place we visited in Potsdam really described Berlin as we know it now. He had a huge love for art and romance but later in life emerged as a great warrior. I believe that these two opposites describe Berlin and all people no matter where we are in the world. As I was leaving, I wanted to say what U.S. President John F. Kennedy famously said as he came here on a visit in 1963 (even though it was meant as a protest against the Soviet Union policy). He said “All — All free men, wherever they may live, are citizens of Berlin. And, therefore, as a free man, I take pride in the words “Ich bin ein Berliner.” (I am a Berliner). I felt free and happy and wanted to scream out loud (in Berlin you are free to do whatever you please) “Ich bin ein Berliner”. The next stop was Dresden.

Ich bin ein Berliner (Part 2)

As we were driving further into East Berlin, I was being amazed by the tranquility of this part of Berlin that used to be socialistic back in the day. As tranquil and serene as it was, with a few people enjoying a brisk morning run or a leisurely ride on a bicycle (which made my friend incredibly jealous of Berliners having such a lovely environment-friendly means of transport), I could feel something socialistic linger in the air (when you were born in the USSR, you know a socialistic thing when you see it). I was under the impression that this part of Berlin was a thriving construction site, with buildings being demolished and new ones emerging at an increasingly rapid pace. It felt as if Berliners were making a mammoth effort to move on from its horrific past when this gorgeous city was oppressively divided into two parts by a formidable barrier that we were to see later on our trip.

SAM_1539
SAM_1542
Another wonderful piece of architecture came to my attention as we were driving past the Eisenbrücke. That was a memorial of the Molecule Man that commemorates the reunification of Berlin’s two parts. It was a 30-m aluminium statue which features triangulated men facing each other with hands joined in the middle. Only a closer observation reveals that there are actually three men because when you’re looking at it a longer way off, it seems like there are only two. Russian tourists have a running joke of calling this monument “A Party for Three”. This was one of the moments when quirkiness and ingenuity of Berlin struck me as the idea behind that monument was that this tiny molecules or holes, as the architect who designed the monument put it, represented people coming together to create unique things.
SAM_1619
SAM_1623
People in East Berlin seemed friendly and cheerful. As we stopped at the lights, we effortlessly caught the eye of some construction workers who seemed to be enjoying a break from work. When they saw me and my friend, they raised a bottle of lovely German beer to us. I was a bit embarrassed by this gesture but that made surely my Berlin experience more authentic and memorable.
SAM_1634
SAM_1635
It didn’t seem long before this array of ruins and newly designed high-rise buildings led us into the Berliner Mauer (Berlin Wall). This is another must-visit in Berlin. It didn’t look as I had expected it would. I thought this would be a massive concrete wall that would convey the scale of pain suffered by Berliners as this structure emerged in 1961and tore families and loved ones apart. In a documentary I saw on Berlin I heard countless heart-wrenching stories of people dealing with the oppression and pain caused by this horrendous division. What was a poignant and lasting reminder of Berlin’s dark past was a thin wall (it seemed just as high as the one I see out of my window back home). We saw the section along the river Spree opposite the O2 arena (this was where I first met a lovely cuddly symbol of Berlin – a bear). Actually, two similarly pronounced words – beer and bear – sum up Berlin. I enjoyed all the pieces of art but to me they were looked as if they were inspired by tremendous pain felt by people coming here from around the world. Later, we came across chunks of this wall on sale in many souvenir shops but I couldn’t quite believe those were real ones. We were so excited by these quirky pieces of art that we were astonished to find out it wasn’t against the law to write our names on it, which we sure did. I was sad to hear about the plans to take this wall down. It just didn’t seem right to demolish what came to signify a huge part of Berlin’s history and was there for almost thirty years. I also had plans to come back here again to see if our names were still there.
SAM_1648
SAM_1655

SAM_1654
SAM_7009
SAM_1658
SAM_1663
Our autographs on the Berlin Wall
We made our way further into what was one of the main hubs of East Berlin. That was Alexanderplatz. Here we saw a brick building of Red City Hall (Rotes Rathaus), the Neptune fountain and the Ferhsehturm (TV tower) which was so massive that I had to look up really really high to take a picture. I was almost dizzy with excitement and joy. This tower dominates the city’s skyline and is visible from many areas. It was now time to go to West Berlin. I was wondering if it was going to be a big change from what we saw here in East Berlin. I felt so in touch with this country and especially its language as I was reading the signs, advertisements… They all seemed pretty clear. This city struck me as truly lacking a structure of any kind but this fact obviously lent it some charming appeal. I think at that moment I had no clue where we were going. West Berlin seemed to have a bit of a structure to it, though there were also construction sites everywhere. This part of the city was home to some really iconic images of Berlin which I was looking forward to seeing later that day.
SAM_1681
SAM_1698
SAM_1700SAM_1704

Ich bin ein Berliner (Part 1)

The next morning we were ready to get back on the road and head off to Berlin. That was a brand new day and a brand new country. I was much excited on that brisk morning and hated to say goodbye to Poland but I knew I was going to be back at the end of my trip. I couldn’t wait to experience Germany. The fact that I did German as my minor at the University added to my excitement.
So we hit the road again. As the night before we were staying at the hotel near the Poland-Germany border, German was just about 10 minutes’ drive away. When I saw a German autobahn sign, I knew it was time to have a ride German style. Everything around us seemed to be clean and well looked after. Germans are generally famous for loving Ordnung (order). I was bubbling over with excitement as I saw signs for Berlin. The German language seemed so easy to read (which is obviously not true) after spending the previous day in futile attempts to figure out quirky Polish words. It felt that I was more at home here in terms of the language which I’m sure can make or break a trip. I was thrilled to get a chance to practise my German (which proved to be not as easy as it seemed at that moment as we were enjoying our ride on the pristine German Autobahn). Needless to say, this road was a far cry from what we have in Russia.
Zeichen_330.svg
During the course of my trip, I made a point of taking these drives in between the cities and countries as a chance to reflect on things. On my way to Berlin, I started contemplating history again. There was something that enhanced my sense of national identity and made me want to embrace what I am (Russian) as I was about to arrive in Berlin. We might be all just a sum of experiences of our ancestors because at that moment I couldn’t help but wonder what it felt like for Russian soldiers making their way here for the final battle of Berlin in 1945. Even though people of my generation are becoming increasingly ignorant of WWII (or what we call the Great Patriotic War here), one will make no mistake in saying that what started as Operation Barbarossa in 1941 and gave rise to what the generations to come would know as the most genocidal and bloodiest conflict in history, still lingers in this country. A Russian must have a heart of stone not having this page in history resonating in them. I know there’s so much controversy surrounding this war and its picture is not black and white as we might like to think. Some people in the West say this Battle of Berlin which ended with Soviet soldiers hoisting the Soviet flag over the Reichstag (German Parliament) was the case of one totalitarianism trampling over another.
Le drapeau de la victoire
Unfortunately we can’t go back in time and resolve the issues people have been hugely divided on since the day that iconic image of those soldiers flying the Soviet flag over the Reichstag was published in Soviet newspapers. My perspective of this war can be largely subjective and biased as I was born and brought up in the country deeply affected by the Nazi regime. I guess there’s something in my DNA that makes me want to hold on to the belief that it was the Soviet Union that led the way in overthrowing this vicious and deadly regime. We know for a fact that there wasn’t one family unscathed by the war and millions of people were killed or starved in concentration camps. My family was also affected as my great great grandfather was brutally shot by Nazis as he was too poor and frail to leave his village when the Nazis seized it. As much as I resent Stalin as a leader (even though I know my granddad was shocked at the news of his death in 1953 and had the leader’s portrait in his hands with tears running down his cheeks), I’m genuinely outraged at attempts to equate Stalin and Hitler, which I think is a blow to all people in this country. With the Russian casualties in mind, how can one possibly have debates over who started the war which was a “crime against humanity”? I know there were atrocities perpetrated by our soldiers as they encircled and shelled the city of Berlin in 1945. But again with all the atrocities in mind, can one truly blame them for doing bad things which were obviously in the name of a good cause?
I was happy in the knowledge that there will be no shelling or bombing as another group of Russian tourists make their way into this city. This trip to Berlin sparked a flurry of questions in me. Which is more, I knew our first stop would be the Treptower Park with one of the largest Soviet memorials in Berlin that commemorates the death of thousands of Soviet people in the battle of Berlin. This is definitely a must visit for any Russian coming to Berlin. I never knew I would feel the way I felt when I entered the park. It was like a perfect pristine piece of Russia along the Spree River.
SAM_1550
SAM_1559
SAM_1558
The atmosphere was somber and calm and as it was early morning, we had the park to ourselves. I physically felt proud to be Russian as I was standing looking at a remote 70-ton bronze statue of a Soviet soldier holding a German girl in one hand and a sword slashing swastika under his feet in the other and the monument of mother Russia on the left. This memorial was also home to bodies of thousands of soldiers killed in the bloodshed of 1945. The enormity of the park was breathtaking and I got really emotional and incredulous to believe I was actually in Berlin. For a moment I thought Germans were probably bigger in this conflict as the construction of this monument showed the dignity with which they dealt with their Nazi past. At the end of the day, it all comes down to learning from the mistakes of the past and acknowledging them. I was wondering if what we saw in front of our eyes was the German’s way of saying sorry for what had happened years and years before.
SAM_1568
SAM_1567
SAM_1590
SAM_1562
SAM_1595
This fondly maintained area, beautifully landscaped trees made me want to whisper (I couldn’t dare to scream so as not to break the peace and quiet of the place) that the apology (was it the whole nation that had to say sorry in the first place?) was taken and it was time we put this all behind us and moved on paying tribute to millions of people of different nationalities who were killed in the war. It was a shame that we were given so little time to spend here as we had so many other places we needed to see in the space of one day. My limbs went literally numb as I wished I could make the world stop spinning and stand there taking in the lovely peaceful sky gliding over this magnificent grand monument. I wish every Russian had a chance to come here just once to pay tribute to the enormous sacrifice made by our ancestors. I wished the time would stop. With all those birches around, I actually started missing Russia, yet at the same time no matter how many miles we travelled from our home country, a part of it was right there in front of us. Before we had to leave (luckily, we had enough time to actually get to the foot of the main monument which seemed a long way off as we entered the park), I turned back again to capture what to me as a Russian was more than just a magnificent piece of architecture in case I never get to come here again. Such was my first encounter of Berlin.
SAM_1602

SAM_1603
SAM_1610