I awake this morning and have absolutely no idea where I am. It’s dark. Then again, it’s dark here from about 4:00pm until 7:00am. Tough for a girl from the “Valley of the Sun.”
I’m staying on the west end of Kurfürstendamm Street, otherwise known as the Ku’daam. It’s a long boulevard considered to be the Champs-Élysées of Berlin. Jen has already told me that I can go straight down the Ku’damm via the 19 or 29 buses. It’s great to know some regular routes when taking public transportation. I’ve downloaded the VBB app on my phone which is helpful to plan my public transportation route. The only challenge is that I’m working off of Wi-Fi as I haven’t figured out whether to pay the money to get my phone unlocked. Free Wi-Fi was much more available in Ireland (even the museums had it) and in Mexico (it’s free in the central squares throughout Merida). Still, there are many Starbucks here which one can depend on for free Wi-Fi pretty much worldwide. In the meantime, my trick is to use the app. to plan, when I have Wi-Fi, and snap it into a photo on my phone. I then just scroll through my photo’s to view my route when I need.
Today, my route takes me to the Mitte. Meaning “middle” or center” this is the central part of Berlin. It’s the area to see lots of museums, and famous sites. It’s also a wonderful place to wander around and people watch or look at architecture. To get there, I walk to the S-Bahn station – “Bahn” meaning “Train” and “S” for “Stadtschnellbahn” meaning “city rapid railway” (There’s also the U-Bahn – the “Untergrundbahn” or underground – and buses). The app. tells me to take the S41 to the S5. It’s a challenge to figure out the train system (especially for a girl missing her Mazda 6) in a language I do not speak. The street names here are very long and my memory is very short; and then there’s the whole figuring out the direction. For €2.60 you can take a combination of trains and buses, as long as they’re heading in the same direction. Sounds good if I don’t miss my stop and have to head back. When I get to the station, with my map in hand and, after looking around with a completely confused look on my face, I catch a man heading down the stairs and use the only useful German phrase I know, “Sprechen zie English?”
“Yes,” he says, clearly not happy that I’m bothering him.
“Can you tell me which platform is the S41 to Halansee?”
“It’s there,” he points. “Read the sign!” he says angrily.
“Um, okay, thanks,” I reply, hoping it gets easier.
I step over to the ticket machine and somehow figure it out (many machines have the option of an “English” button).
As I’m boarding, I meet a man from England and his wife. I ask about the Halansee stop and where to board the S5 towards Friedrichstraße (note, the ß sounds like “S”). They tell me it’s the next stop and, as we pull in, they point to the track I must go to (thank God for kind Brits).
I, not-so-confidently- board the train to Mitte and, about twenty-minutes later, we pull into Friedrichstraße station where I note there’s another Christmas Market. It’s almost like the Glüwein is following me. I exit the train into the huge station where the first thing I see is McDonalds (like Starbucks, they’re everywhere). As I step outside, I attempt to get my bearings by looking at a map that has writing smaller than my forty-nine year-old eyes can handle.
I finally find what I’m looking for; the Visit Berlin office located in the Radio Tower (Funkterm), a Berlin landmark. I consult with them on the best transportation pass for my time here. I choose the 5-day Berlin Welcome Card which costs €32.50 and includes free travel on all public transportation (I can now get lost free of charge!), as well as discounts on tours, museums, activities and more. I think about taking the elevator up the 126 meters (413 feet) to the observation deck of the Radio Tower until I hear the announcement that, if you purchase your ticket now, your scheduled time to go up is in about five hours. Instead, I head out the door towards the Christmas market.
When I arrive, I decide it’s a great time for a bite and order up a pretzel, which seems as German as bratwurst. I ask if they have mustard. Apparently this is an American thing (at least for pretzels) as I’m told, “No, no mustard or ketchup.” (Ketchup on a pretzel? That’s crazy talk!) I stroll through the market mesmerized by the two-story carousel (I want to ride but, as I already feel judged by asking for mustard on my pretzel, I restrain myself for now). I shop for a candle, trying to remind myself of the scents of home, but they all smell like bad air-freshener, a scent I’ve never enjoyed, even in the U.S. Somehow I end up at the refreshment area where, lo-and-behold, there is Glüwein. Kayla, Jen’s Brazilian roommate, has said that she could live solely on Glüwein (I like her). We’ve decided that if we were ever marooned on a deserted island, the only thing we would need to live on would be Glüwein. As the salty pretzel has sucked the last bit of moisture out of my mouth, I look at a cup of Glüwein as a medical necessity (I wonder if my insurance will reimburse me). I stand at the high, wooden tables surrounding the refreshment stand and people-watch while enjoying the warm, mulled wine. It’s 1:00; not a bad way to spend an afternoon.
After drinking down my glog, I begin walking. To be honest, I’m not really sure where. One of the guides which I received from Visit Berlin tells of the Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe. I decide to walk toward this. On the way, I pass an indoor Christmas market. It looks cozy and people are actually drinking Glüwein with their coats off. I make note and continue on past lovely shops and restaurants. I walk for a really long time – luckily I’ve brought my umbrella as it seems to rain some every day (Note: if you’re here in the winter, bring your umbrella wherever you go, even if it isn’t currently raining).
Eventually I arrive at the memorial. It’s rainy and cold and seems fitting for what I’m seeing. After two-years of building, the Memorial to the Murdered Jews in Europe opened to the public on May 12, 2005. It was designed by American, Peter Eisenman, who also designed the University of Phoenix Stadium in Glendale, Arizona. The 19,000 cubic-meter memorial contains 2,711 concrete blocks with an information center below; the meaning of the blocks is up for interpretation. The architect has given different answers including the “illusion of order” while others have commented that it implies “what loneliness, powerlessness and despair mean.” Still others see it more literally as images of caskets. Honestly, it’s less about what you see and more about how it makes you feel as you walk on the uneven concrete between the blocks ranging from knee-height to well above your head. As I’m here on a dark rainy afternoon, the rain dripping down the sides of the slick blocks reminds me of tears being shed.
After some silence walking through the gray, concrete forest, I walk to the stairs of the underground Information Center to stand in a short line of people hiding under umbrellas to wait for the red, velvet rope to be pulled aside for us to enter. While the site is free, they allow people to enter in groups as, at the bottom of the stairs everyone passes through an x-ray machine as well as having their bags x-rayed. Security at Jewish sites in Berlin is tight.
I pass through security and approach the information desk, where they offer headsets for free audio tours. After overhearing someone being told that the audio tour translates the written text posted in German and in English at each display into a variety of languages, I continue on.
The first room is actually a hallway filled with a timeline of policies and events from 1933-1945. If you wonder how this could have happened, this makes an attempt to explain the unexplainable. While walking through, I’m watched over by some of the faces of the victims looming large at the end of the hallway. When I reach the end of the display, I enter the “Room of Dimensions.” For me, this is the most striking. In lighted cases in the floor I see diaries, letters and last notes of victims. They’re very personal and make it clear that these people, even the children, knew exactly what was about to happen to them. It’s interesting that, although the artifacts and translated texts are within the floor and covered with clear glass which one could walk on, out of respect, nobody dares step on them, instead, walking down the rows between.
It’s after this room that I decide I must leave as, well, it’s getting late and I have to get back to feed Ziegfried the cat (it’s a responsibility of the whole pet sitting deal) though, perhaps it’s a bit of an excuse. I’m overwhelmed by what I’ve seen so far and decide a break is in order. I plan to return again tomorrow.
Helpful link on other museums like this in Europe http://memorialmuseums.org/eng/laender/europe
Tomorrow – A return to the memorial and a backhanded compliment.