First (10 day) visit to Berlin

By Caitlin Kelly

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The lobby of my hotel, the Savoy.

 

I’d heard so much about Berlin I wanted to give it some time, so it was the longest one-stop stay of my six-week journey through Europe.

I didn’t see all the official sights — it was very hot this week, and I have an arthritic right knee, so long days of walking in the heat were unappealing to me.

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I did visit the Holocaust Memorial, which is built on oddly, (I assume deliberately) undulating land, a huge mass of blocks on an unshaded corner. It is, as it’s meant to be, brutal and disorienting.

Loved the legendary Pergamon Museum, with spectacular Babylonian tiled murals and Islamic art.

Took an hour’s boat ride on the Spree, a great way to appreciate the city’s many bridges and some beautifully designed buildings.

Walked the Ku’damm, the city’s main shopping street.

Saw multiple stumble-stones, small incised brass markers amid the city’s cobblestones, reminders, mostly, of local Jews killed in the Holocaust, an ongoing project that began in 1992.

 

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Ate a very refined, delicious but spendy lunch (69 euros!) at Pauly Saal, which has a Michelin star.

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Loved lunch in the garden at Literaturhaus, a few blocks up the same street from my hotel.

Shopped at KaDeWe, a luxury department store that opened in 1907.

Marveled at Walter Konig bookstore, just one of many amazing Berlin bookshops, specializing in art, photography, architecture and design; I bought books twice here.

Ate sausages, drank beer.

Loved this cafe, a block from my hotel on Fasanenstrasse in Charlottenburg, and ate/drank there often; (they have wifi.)

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This cafe is amazing — with a stunning selection of coffee, tea and chocolate — on a quiet, shaded street in Charlottenburg, in the quieter, more staid part of the city.

Took lots and lots of photos, my favorite activity.

Some random impressions:

— It’s really hot!

To my surprise, (and I admit, discomfort and dismay), air conditioning is not much done here. My room, in a 60-year-old hotel, the Savoy, (which I love) gave me a small rotating fan on my first night and it’s been a godsend.

Stores, whose frigid interiors offer reliable relief in most North American cities, are no better, usually with one fan aimed at the poor staffer. A long day of walking on hot streets without much shade is enervating.

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— Parks! Lakes! Nature!

My favorite day here, and one of my happiest days anywhere, ever, was Sunday, when  — with thousands of others — I took public transit to Schlachtensee, a lake just outside the city limits. Berlin has many such lakes, clean and accessible, and this was the perfect place to rest, snooze, sunbathe, picnic and swim.

One guy near me showed up with an entire inflatable raft, which, un-inflated, he carried home in a massive blue Ikea shopping bag.

People were there in rowboats, paddle-boarding, on floats and rafts, of every age, from babies learning to walk to seniors. I was impressed with how well-behaved people were, even lying within a few feet of one another on the grass.

Tiergarten is simply amazing — a huge central park where you can sit by a lake, rent a rowboat, enjoy one of several beer gardens (serving very good food), picnic, wander, even stare at some of the animals next door in the Zoo.

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— Bicycles rule. Look out!!

Like Amsterdam, Berlin is a city of cyclists: ladies in pretty dresses (no helmet); men in elegant suits (no helmet) and many hapless tourists like me, who’ve rented a bike for the day for 12 euros. Locals go really fast and are pissed off when people like me (the rental bikes are sub-optimal) wobble or stop suddenly in a narrow and busy bike lane.

— It’s a massive city

City blocks here are often very long, so your map can be misleading.

— Safe, quick, clean public transit

It operates on the honor system, (with a 60 euro fine if you cheat and are caught). You buy a ticket, validate it and get on, with a two-hour limit for transfers. But (oddly?!), there are no conductors or station agents, so you better figure it all out for yourself.

— Anything goes

Lots of tattoos and half-naked people. Lots of suited businessmen. It’s a busy place, pop. 3 million, but with a relaxed attitude, a nice change from Paris, where elegance really matters.

— Great architecture, whether classic/baroque or starkly modern

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— Rudeness hinging on what-the-fuck?! aggressiveness

I wanted to love Berlin, and I liked it very much, enough to want to return, but holy shit, people can be shockingly mean! I’ve lived and worked in/near New York City for decades, but have rarely seen behavior with this kind of nasty edge there.

Be warned!

It even has an official name, Berliner Schnauze. Here’s an explanation of it from a local blog:

In New York City, it’s often said that the locals are actually quite friendly. Provincials who arrive to New York are the ones who insecurely perform the stereotypical New York sass. Being in the City, in the anonymity of the metropolis, is an opportunity to insult your fellow citizens indiscriminately, when they get in your way or you don’t like how they look at you. After you’ve exhausted your creative vocabulary, you can really feel like you belong. The line between “acting like a local” and la violence gratuite can be awfully thin. I sometimes wonder how many of those Berliners who give you sass aren’t from here at all, just like Claire Waldoff.

This leaves us with a number of aperçus: Berliner sass is a problem of historic proportions, insult masqueraded as humour (ok, I might just admit it’s funny), a commercial invention packaged as a local speciality in the 20s, a stereotype sold by the provincials to the capital, yet somehow linked to the city’s local dialect. Berliner Schnauze is a sham, but it bites you in the ass all the time.

Overall, I’m really glad I came and gave Berlin so much time.

I’ve made new friends and left plenty of things still to explore for next time, preferably some September, when it’s cooler and less crowded, to see more of it with Jose.

If you’ve never been, I recommend it highly!

28 thoughts on “First (10 day) visit to Berlin

    1. It did feel like that!

      The main train station is amazing — spotless!!! I wish the U.S. could get its act together, but it never will (due to the $$$$ spent by the automobile/gas lobby) to create and maintain such efficient elegance for public travel.

  1. it sounds like a city full of life, with so much history and a reputation to boot . i think, much like people, a city has its own life and personality. you’ve captured it very well here.

  2. I’m glad you loved Berlin so much! And that you visited the Holocaust Memorial. It is pretty unnerving, isn’t it? I always thought they looked like a bunch of mausoleums made with the usual German efficiency, a good metaphor for the Holocaust.
    Speaking of which, the Memorial was the only place I remember Berliners being rude. A bunch of teens were passing through the memorial, and they heard me say to a friend of mine, “I know, right?” They decided to make fun of how I talked as they walked on. I just assumed they were being teenagers.
    So what’s next for you now that you’ve seen Berlin?

    1. Now in Budapest! Had a 12 hr train journey (no screens!) as we rocketed across the Czech Republic and a bit of Slovakia. I arrived alone and my BFF from freshman English class (!) is now here with her daughter, who’s been studying in Vilnius for 6 months. We have 2 days together, then I have one day alone — and a 6 hr train trip (my last) to Zagreb.

  3. I’m glad you enjoyed Berlin – it’s one of my favourites. That meaness that you speak of – I have encountered it as well, and in other parts of Germany besides Berlin. I noticed it happening more after reunification (many west Germans would say it’s the uncouth easterners) but it’s also partially the fact that Germans can be quite brusque anyway. I have sometimes handled it by barking back – that turned things around (I see the whole polite Canadian thing as a stereotype).

    Now you are off to Budapest – have really enjoyed that city too. 🙂 What a great trip you’re having. 🙂

    1. I certainly did bark back! (Hello, 20+ yrs of NYC training…)

      Thanks! Now in Budapest for 4 days…it’s super hot and full of bro’s! But enjoying it.

      It’s also so good to be far far far away from the daily insanity of American politics and violence. It’s so exhausting.

  4. my youngest son (26) is touring Eastern Europe for 28 days and his favourites have been Krakow and Berlin…..he’s been to both Auschwitz and the Holocaust Memorial (my husband who has Polish parents and hid Jewish families during the war has never been able to visit Auschwitz). What’s impressed me the most is his observations of both, illustrate that he’s emerged from the cocoon we tend to wrap our children in here in the west and experienced very deep realizations of our place in the world. We live in the beaches in Toronto and it can be a very insular community…but Brendhan’s eyes have been opened to such an extent, I’m really looking forward to his return next week. He’s currently in Amsterdam and he’ll be visiting the Anne Frank Museum and taking the Heineken tour…..needs to get a bit of beer drinking in there, too!

    1. Sounds like a terrific trip…and at good age for it.

      I now have my BFF from freshman year at U of T with me (and her 24 yr old daughter), who normally live in B.C. with me in Budapest for 2 days. They just spent a few days in Krakow and they did tour Auschwitz and Buchenwald. Found it (of course) overwhelming.

      Yes, getting out of TO (and the lovely Beaches) is a real eye-opener. Glad he is having such a long/good trip!

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  7. Interesting to hear your impressions of Berlin. I know someone who has lived there since he finished uni – judging from what I’ve heard about it, Berlin seems to be a ‘hip’ city with a kind of edgy, urban cool (think techno music scene, tattoos, graffiti…).

    I think air conditioning is generally less widely found in Europe compared with the States. So it can get uncomfortably hot, especially at night when you’re trying to sleep!

    Re: Germanic bluntness. I have encountered that too, and while I detest stereotyping people and places, I wonder whether it is part of the culture there. I wouldn’t fit in somewhere where people are constantly brusque – I like it when people are friendly!

    1. The whole edgy thing leaves me cold…I lived through the 80s and punk rock, so…whatever. I’m not a fan of tattoos or graffiti and, given how much bare skin I saw everywhere, people are HUGE on tattoos.

      I don’t miss the Berlin bluntness at all. Finding Croatia, so far, welcoming and kind.

      1. ‘Urban cool’ isn’t my thing either – it simply doesn’t appeal to me.

        Glad you’re enjoying Croatia. I’ve heard good things about it, especially the city of Split and the coast in that area.

  8. I don’t get why people have to be so rude. A bit of empathy can go a long way to understanding each other. I used to be a very impatient driver. Then I gradually saw how my elderly father would drive – slowly and very carefully.

  9. What a great read! Thanks for sharing your experiences in Berlin. Would have appreciated a few more pictures though.
    It seems like you are on a Europe trip, so I have to ask you, how did you plan the trip, that is the Europe trip, and Berlin in particular?

    1. I have lots of photos — but want to spend the bulk of my time enjoying my time OFF, not blogging about it!

      The next post tomorrow will answer your question. 🙂

      But I have always wanted to visit Berlin and never wanted to do so in the depths of cold, dark winter, hence now. My trip is a big circle: Paris-Berlin-Budapest-Croatia-Venice-London (flying home from there to NY.) It’s mostly focused on big cities, obviously, as I live in a suburb and miss urban life. I’ve lived and traveled throughout Europe since I was small, (lived in London ages 2-5), so I wanted a mix of familiar (Paris/London/Venice) and new-to-me.

      The five-figure total budget is a pile of $$$$ I have worked for many years to save; most hotels about $100/euros/night. Not an Air B & B person.

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