I’m sitting in a semi-dilapidated lounge room. The wind is howling outside the window beside me, and there’s a small teddy bear in an aviator’s outfit looking at me from across the room. It’s been a weird twenty-four hours in Berlin.
Berlin is the last stop in our Germany tour. It started with the adorable mountain town of Mittenwald, after which we parted ways with my parents and headed north to Freiburg. Here we explored perhaps .000001 percent of the black forest (it’s not that we were lazy, it’s just very big) and soaked up some sun as we walked around the active university town. Then it was on to Bamberg where our accommodation was not only exceptional but came with free pasta (which Holly was very excited about) and a lolly jar (which I was very excited about). Bamberg proved to be a delight. Beautiful wood and plaster buildings sat astride canals, breweries were spotted everywhere, and an old and mostly empty castle sat on a hill overlooking it all. The days were hot and pleasant and full.
Then it was onto Berlin, where we had five whole days to explore the historic city. We arrived to heat. We stepped off the train, laden with backpacks, into thirty degree sun, our accommodation a four kilometer walk in front of us. We sweated our way there but were relieved to find the key where we were told it would be and gain access without too much trouble. Until we found the apartment occupied. Not with people, just things. Clutter. Rubbish. I was sure we had somehow entered the wrong place and that the real homeowner would come home any minute, confused as to why two Australian backpackers were standing in their living room. Holly checked the details, no, we were definitely in the right place, it just turned out the guy hadn’t felt the need to clean his apartment before renting it out. The place was a mess. Two big bags of recycling lay in the kitchen, as did cutlery and plates that looked like they’d been put away dirty. The bed had not been changed, the towels were questionable, and he had junk lying around everywhere. Then we opened the fridge. It was full of expired food and smelt like it, mostly thanks to one particularly old chunk of parmesan.
He will not be getting a good review.
We had two options; find a new place to stay or get cleaning. We got cleaning. Luckily the place had a washing machine, which we put every piece of linen through. We did a number of trips down to the bins on the ground floor to get rid of all the trash, including most of his fridge items. The kitchen got a full do over, and we moved the junk out of the way where we could. It wasn’t perfect, but it was livable, and at the very least felt a lot cleaner than when we’d entered. That night, to reward ourselves for our hard work, we cooked a delicious meal of chicken and salad and watched a movie about hobbits.
While we slept, winter descended. Well, actually autumn, but it felt like winter due to the sudden shift in temperature. It went from thirty degrees to six degrees overnight. I left the apartment the next morning in a t-shirt, not quite realising the extent the weather had changed. That did not last long.
We made our way towards Brandenburg Gate, where we were meeting up for a walking tour. As we walked I took in the city for the first time, without heat or backpacks weighing me down. Berlin is not a pretty city. Despite having such a long and intense history, little of it is depicted in its architecture like other European cities–this is of course due its aforementioned history, with over eighty percent of the city destroyed by bombings during World War Two. I found the surface of Berlin to look rather grey, its buildings large and boxy, with greenery lacking.
But that was just the surface. There is a depth to Berlin, one deep and stratified. Scratching the surface I realised that in fact Berlin’s history was present in its architecture. Unassuming lines of cobblestones that twisted and curled through the city’s streets were actually guidelines showing where the Berlin wall had once stood. The pedestrian crossing-light man, a funny little character in a hat known as Ampelmann, was also a relic from that time, one of the few vestiges of East Berlin that remains. Over here was a statue soldiers had once hidden behind during World War Two, bullet holes still evident in the marble. And over there a monster of a building, now tax offices, once part of the Nazi headquarters. And in that direction the location of Hitler’s bunker, now unadorned and unmaked, a car park to apartment buildings. Then there was the holocaust monument. Over two thousand blocks of grey concrete of differing sizes, some the size of my foot, others towering above me, a maze that demanded its occupants walk single file, an environment that forced me to think about what it stood for. It was ugly, yet beautiful, alluring and thought-provoking. It was Berlin.
We left the city center and walked outwards, towards a location some friends had recommended, and discovered another layer to Berlin. Multicultural streets, emphasis on the culture. Vietnam turned into Thailand, which then became little Turkey, except it wasn’t that little. It was all a bit of a shock to me, not because it was unwelcome, just because everywhere else we had been in Germany had been, well, Germanic. Gone were the biergartens and timber filled eateries. No steins or lederhosen existed here. It was like walking into a different country, a number of different countries, actually.
Then we made it to our location and found yet another layer to Berlin. The hipster scene. Admittedly we had already noticed this earlier as it was written large in the odd little cafes and bars, the style of the young (and not so young) locals, the shopfronts selling things from the quirky to the outright odd. But it was here, further out from the city that we reached its peak; literally and figuratively. We entered a fairly standard looking shopping mall, tiers of artificially lit stores towering above us, and, following the instructions of our friends, Erica and Brian, moved straight to the elevator, where we had been informed to go up to level 5, a parking lot, and then follow the stream of people. We went up and exited. We tailed, at a distance, two alternative looking gents round to the other side of the car park where a curved ramp led us up to a rooftop bar that practically screamed, smelled, and tasted of hipster. It was amazing. We ordered two beers, sat, and looked out at the oddity that is Berlin.
Drinks finished, we moved on to our final location for the day, yet another layer, an abandoned airfield, now enormous park, full of families, food trucks, and festivities. This weird and wonderful place had been recommended to us by a number of people but we were there, in particular, for one very special reason. Family/friends, Dom and Nikki, who had travelled with us earlier in the trip had also visited Berlin three weeks prior. Knowing we would be winding our way there after them I asked, mostly joking, that they leave something for us to find. They succeeded in this mission in a big big way. A few days prior Dom had sent us cryptic clues to solve which had led us to the airfield. Then we had received instructions and photos which would take us to the treasure. We made our way off the main runway down a small goat trail, and past three skinny white trees. Behind that was a small hill, with a number of large rocks at its base. After some discussion about which rock was our rock, we pulled one back to find a small zip-lock bag, a discoloured note and new best friend hidden inside. The note informed us that our new friend, a tiny bear in an aviators outfit, was called Flysie McFly’s-a-lot, and that he was in fact a protector, tasked with keeping us safe for the rest of our travels. I lost my mind. A treasure hunt was exciting enough but to know that this bear and note had been lying under a rock for three weeks, waiting for us, as who knows how many people passed it by, blew me away. I thought it was beyond cool, and still do, but then the weird coolness was about to increase. In the distance we noticed something in the sky. Many somethings. Kites, of all sizes, shapes, colours, and designs, moving in spirals and waves, a crowd of people underneath them. A kite flying festival had been scheduled for that day and we’d been lucky enough to stumble upon it. Flysie was very excited.
After being spellbound and shocked by the events of the day we made it back to our dirty-now-clean apartment, where I am writing these words to you.
We have spent just over twenty four hours here, but already I feel I can say this: Berlin is a place full of history and hipsters. A city older than some, and yet feels young. It is a city of layers and dirt, containing secrets and mysteries and hidden treasures.
Or at least, that was my impression of it. No doubt it looks a little different to everyone who visits.
I wonder how it would look to you.
P.S. We also got Flysie a little drunk to make up for his weeks hiding under a rock…