Long Study Tour Part 1 – Berlin

I’ve decided that I need to split my study tour into two posts. Or it might be better to say a minimum of two posts. There was just so much that happened during these six days. Since Berlin is where we went first that’s where we will start.

My study tour experience started with me waking up around 5:30 AM on Sunday.  I guess that might be inaccurate; my study tour experience might have started when I went to sleep around one or two the evening before after procrastinating on packing. I include that in the study tour experience because getting hardly any sleep was a consistent theme throughout the tour. Looking at those on the bus with me early on Sunday morning it seemed safe to say that I wasn’t the only one starting off the trip with a sleep deficit. To our credit I don’t think a single one of us complained about being tired until we were on our way back to Copenhagen six days later. How could you when there was so much to do?
After a bus/ferry/bus ride totaling about six hours we arrived in Berlin. From the outside the hostel looked like most of the other buildings that we had seen as we entered the city. It was big, rectangular, and gray. Next to it were a few buildings that were big, rectangular, and gray. And across the wide street was a bigger building that was rectangular and gray. Welcome to Berlin. That isn’t fair. Berlin is more than bland blocks of concrete, though at the time I didn’t know it.

Our first order of business after unpacking was to go on a tour of the Berlin underground bunkers. The problem was getting there. A group of nearly thirty of us wandered around the subway looking for our tour. Eventually we found it. Two guys in black t-shirts standing in front of a dark green door built into a wall tiled the color of key lime pie right across from an escalator between the bottom and middle floors of the subway. Behind that door is one of the bunkers that was used as a shelter for the people of Berlin during World War Two. I could go into all sorts of history right now but I wont. You can look up some information on WWII yourself. The tour itself was interesting. I was a little confused by the tour guide. What he was saying was perfectly clear, instead I was confused by him. He appeared to be in his mid-20’s, transitioned from English that was free of the stereotypical German accent to German very easily, and he was Israeli. The Israel thing was the confusing part. Our whole group seemed more than a little surprised. It seems strange to find an Israeli in Berlin, and even stranger for him to be working in a museum dedicated to the lives of the families of the men who would have at one time killed him and his family on sight. I admit that I am not an expert on Israel, or the Nazi’s, or anything relating to them. Maybe my lack of knowledge is confusing me, but I am pretty sure that was unexpected. I found the situation extremely interesting. Apparently it is less interesting to anyone living in Germany, because the Israeli population is growing rapidly along with the middle eastern and communities and other groups that the group that once held power there would hate. Anyway, the tour itself was fine. It was stuffy and hot and made me feel tired afterwards. I can’t imagine what it would be like to live there for a night or more.

After the tour we booked it over to our restaurant, and, after getting lost a few times, we arrived. DIS treats us well on study tours. Anyway, being in Europe we didn’t leave the restaurant until around 10 or a little later, at which point we were on our own for the evening. Unfortunately we knew nothing about the city or its layout and our hostel was at least two trains away. Berlin can be a big and confusing place when you don’t know what you’re doing.

In the end we all made it back to our beds in time to drag ourselves out of them for them for our only full day in Berlin. By 9:30 we sneaking glimpses over our shoulders at remnants of the Berlin Wall as we were being hurried into the headquarters of Deutsche Bahn. Our meeting in this glass covered building was in a large conference room high above Berlin. It was hard to focus on the presentation when you could turn your head slightly and see the whole city. Somehow I managed. The presentation on the corporate strategy was interesting and I knew that I would have time after to explore the city from this vantage point once we were done.

From here on the day became much more interesting. We passed the Wall remnants on our way to the next stop – Brauhaus Mitte. Yes, the restaurant was located in a mall, from my seat I could see a walkway with cheap stores as well as a McDonalds, and yes the Bavarian flag decorations did seem a little cheesy, but the pork leg and potatoes were both delicious so I completely forgot everything else. Apparently our professor had really wanted us to have this traditional Oktoberfest meal and I am glad he did.

Do you know what doesn’t sound like a good idea after eating a leg of pork ? Movement. Do you know what we did right after we ate? Went on a bike tour. Despite what a lot of us had imagined, it worked out almost perfectly. The pace was slow and we had some movement to help us digest. It’s a good thing I didn’t feel terrible during this tour because that might have ruined one of my favorite tour experiences of the whole week. The weather was absolutely perfect, the biking aspect was relaxing, I got to fulfill a lifelong dream of biking through a major city in a suit, and we learned quite a bit. Again, I won’t go through and give you a tour of Berlin but I will write a few things. First, Berlin does have beautiful buildings. Before I mentioned the gray blocks that I saw, well, that was not in the center. The center has the same beautiful architecture as any old European metropolis, though nearly all of it is a replica and less than 60 years old. That might be the most interesting thing. All of this was destroyed at some point and rebuilt. Luckily Hitler knew that the city would be bombed so he had statues removed from churches and concert halls and hidden in the countryside or submerged in lakes. At least he managed to do something right. Second, Berlin is building a castle. They are attempting to rebuild the old royal residence on Museum Island. It would cost an immense amount of money. Even more when you consider that Berlin is heavily in debt at the moment. Our tour guide hated the idea and let us known it pretty clearly. If someone who relies on beauty and tourism for his livelihood dislikes this idea so strongly, then I wonder what everyone else besides the politicians must think. Finally, the Berlin wall was a letdown. Yes, the tall blank barrier can still give you chills if you take the time to think of the stories associated with it. If you think of all of the lives affected over the course of the 28 years that it stood there. But it can be nearly impossible to do that at the wall itself. There are  people everywhere getting their passport stamped with an East Berlin Visa by some teenager in a fake uniform, buying food from “Snackpoint Charlie” or the “Cold War” ice cream shop, and avoiding the men standing on the street selling replica Soviet paraphernalia. The magic of the wall doesn’t seem to exist here. Maybe that’s just me. Maybe I am simply to removed to understand. It doesn’t affect me enough to make feel. But when I see something like this, I certainly feel something. I guess things change. Sometimes rapidly and for the better after decades of wait, and sometimes gradually until the reason for the change is left behind. I can however appreciate the extreme capitalism that has taken over the area that used to be the East Berlin side of Checkpoint Charlie. That is pretty ironic.

After the bike tour, while I was still sorting through my first interaction with the wall at Checkpoint Charlie a group of us were headed to the Wall. We were going to another area, the East Side Gallery, the largest stretch still standing. I was headed to the area that I had imagined when I thought of the Berlin Wall. After all, this is the area where artists created a memorial to freedom in 1990, not even a year after the wall fell. These were people exhibiting their new-found voices on a wall that had held them or others in for years. This was an outpouring of emotion and pent-up frustration in the form of pain on concrete. People came afterwards, not just to see this, but to experience it, to write their message of freedom on the wall. It doesn’t feel like that now. The 1990’s originals were damaged by all of the graffiti and many were re-painted or simply painted over by new artists within the past few years. You can’t see the messages that people wrote for their dead loved ones after the wall came down, you can’t see the exultations of freedom scribbled across the wall, you can’t see any emotion. Now what you see is a penis drawn on an angel, or an accusation of racism, or a “Paul wuz here Spring Break 2011!!!” That kind of thing. I’m not saying this wasn’t present on the wall before, I’m sure it was, but It seems more present than I had imagined. There was nothing really inspiring about the wall unless you want to say that we have moved so far forward that the wall is no longer even a symbol, but just a wall. Yea, I’m an optimist, let’s go with that.

For dinner I had the obligatory sausage and the best pretzel of my life. I have nothing else to say and I wouldn’t have mentioned it at all but it was something very German and therefore important enough to share. Plus it was my first experience with a stereotypical semi-rude, semi-incompetent, European waiter at an outdoor cafe. Overall the meal was exactly what I had been waiting for in Europe.

After enjoying dinner and the company I lucked into an experience. Son, one of the other students, had done some research on Berlin before we went and decided that he wanted to go to the German government building, the Reichstag. It’s an incredible building made even more magnificent by the enormous glass dome on top of it. I happened to be online while he was looking into it and asked if I wanted to go. I looked at a picture and of course agreed right away. Being the seat of the government you can no longer just walk in, you have to schedule a time and provide a name and birthdate for anyone who wants to enter. Son took care of all of that for us and we received our clearance via email after the bike tour Monday afternoon. That night, at 9 PM, the four of us who had registered were inside an enormous glass dome overlooking the city of Berlin. I admit that the view wasn’t perfect; Berlin doesn’t have the most dramatic skyline, and it lacks the illuminated castles and cathedrals that make touristy Europe so beautiful. But the architecture itself was interesting and the view was still impressive. Among the sites was the Brandenburg Gate lit up in the night . Seeing that I could only imagine what it must have looked like from my point of view even just 25 years ago. At that time I would have been on the border between East and West Berlin and the gate would have been illuminated not by spotlights – but by searchlights. How things change.

The city reflects this change in almost everything. The government offices next to the Reichstag are designed so that the side of each office is a window which can be seen into from the park. The Reichstag dome where I was standing was made entirely of glass and mirrors so that, while in session, any citizen or tourist can look down and see what their government is up to. The bred mistrust can be seen by the attitude of outsiders as well. The French embassy in Berlin next to the Brandenburg Gate looks nearly identical to a bunker complete with slots for guns in case the statue of Victoria, goddess of Victory, decides to stop staring at the French from her perch atop the Gate and take action again.

By 9:00 AM Tuesday, just  41 hours after we arrived, we were essentially done with Berlin. At this time we were on the bus, in business attire, with our luggage packed below us headed for Air Berlin, our final business visit in Germany. Air Berlin wasn’t exactly in the heart of the city, which is why I can say that we were basically done with Berlin at this point. After seeing seat and lounge mock-ups that Air Berlin was implementing followed by a brief presentation and lunch we were on our way to Prague.

I was excited, but if I had known what I know now, I would have been even more so.

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