We spent Easter weekend in Berlin with Kesha and her giant husband (who, by the way, looked quite reasonably-sized among the Germans). I lived in Berlin for the summer of 1997, and hadn’t been back to the city since 1999, so I was eager to revisit my favorite parts and see how the place had changed in the past seven years. Here are some of the highlights from the trip.
Biennial. This large-scale art show was installed in a variety of buildings along Auguststraße in Berlin-Mitte, including private apartments, a ballroom, and a former Jewish girls’ school that has been abandoned for 10 years (and was re-opened just for this exhibit). It was the kind of exhibit that gets into your brain and makes you think, but doesn’t necessarily give you anything intelligent to say. For days afterwards, I went around critiquing almost everything I saw as art.
At the very start of Auguststraße, where it intersects with Oranienburgerstraße, I had the chance to briefly re-visit Tacheles. Back in 1997 it was a mostly gutted and bombed-out shell of a building that had been turned into a couple bars and a cinema by squatters. We used to go there often to see undubbed movies in English, and to drink cheap beer while watching the crazy variety of people around. Today the building has been renovated and glassed-in, but the remnants of the bombed-out part were left there (although cleaned up a bit).
Walking, drinking, more walking. We spent the better part of Saturday wandering through the heart of East Berlin. We started with some shopping and lunch in the hip neighborhood around Hackescher Markt, and then meandered towards Museum Insel, an island in the Spree River which is home to several museums and the magnificent Berliner Dom, an imposing, gorgeous neo-renaissance cathedral.
On our way to Alexanderplatz, the center of East Berlin and the home of the Fernsehturm, we visited the Ampelmann store, which was full of kitschy souvenirs featuring the adorable little guys from the East-German walk/don’t walk signs.
Next we headed to the Nikolaiviertel, an adorable little medival-style area that was created by East-German architects in the 1980s. There we found a nice outdoor café and I forced Kesha to try Berliner Weisse, a bizarre drink that is technically beer, but thanks to the sweet syrup flavoring (you can have “red” or “green”) it tastes more like something that should contain an umbrella. She actually liked it enough to order it again that night.
Afterwards we walked back towards Museum Insel and continued on along Unter den Linden, the showcase of East Berlin. This street, which leads to the former border crossing near Brandenburger Tor, was über-maintained by the GDR to show just how wonderful things were behind the iron curtain. Along the way we stopped to see the memorial at Bebelplatz and the fancy Peugeot design showroom (this is the boys’ fault), and also wandered through a couple random souvenir shops.
Reichstag Dome. When I lived in Berlin, the Reichstag was still under construction (and the federal government had not yet moved from Bonn), so it was fun to see the finished product. We had to wait in line for about an hour to get in, go through the metal detector, and hop in the elevator that whisked us up to the roof. The dome was actually a really nice piece of architecture, and we could look down upon the eagle that dominates the German parliament, which I had last seen in Bonn when the government was still there.
Film Museum. This brand-new museum presented the surprisingly interesting history of German cinema from before Metropolis to after Lola Rennt (Run, Lola, Run). The stories of the many German actors and directors who fled to Hollywood to escape the Nazis were fascinating. Plus, Marlene Dietrich is a babe.
Stasi Museum. On Sunday we sent our friends off to see the museum at Checkpoint Charlie (a must-see on your first trip to Berlin) and ran off to the Stasi Museum. Situated in the former headquarters of the East German secret police, deep in the heart of East Berlin, this museum is a fascinating reminder of the not-too-distant past. The exhibit is almost exclusively in German, so if you don’t speak the language, make sure you bring along someone who does. Some parts are understandable even without translation, such as the rooms full of various objects designed to hide spy cameras and guns, such as watering cans and briefcases.
Another remarkable thing about this museum is how old the actual Stasi offices seem, even though they were in full operation through 1989. There are no computers, no electric typwriters, and only the old manual-style telephone switchboards (not to mention 60s-era décor), mainly because the last head of the Stasi was an extremely paranoid man, who was convinced that if he used an electric typewriter, someone could find out what he was typing through the power lines.
You can also pick up an application to receive your Stasi file here; all East Germans are allowed to request their Stasi file and find out which of their neighbors were spying on them back in the day.
I was delighted to find that the café in the museum served Rotkäppchen Sekt, an East-German brand of sparkling wine which I remember fondly from my days in Halle. After drinking a bottle ourselves and grabbing another to bring back to Kesha the birthday girl, we headed back out into the cinderblock sub
urbs of East Berlin and took a subway back to Potsdamer Platz.
Potsdamer Platz. The whole area was just a giant Baustelle (construction site) when I lived in Berlin in 1997, so I was excited to see what it looked like now. It looks like the cross between a newly-built city business district and a newly-built American-style mall. But for some reason I liked it.
OK, the part I liked best was the martini bar in the lobby of the Marriot hotel at Potsdamer Platz. Not only were they beautifully presented, but they were delicious, too. My girl-drink-drunk husband thoroughly enjoyed his appletini (served with little marinated apples) and his cosmo (served with dried cranberries). I was ecstatic to learn of the existence of another kind of dry martini that was almost as yummy as a dirty martini – called a ‘salt and pepper’, it was made with Absolut Peppar and served with a salted rim (and blue-cheese-stuffed olives). Yum.
On Monday morning, Scott flew back to Zurich and I hopped on a train to Halle, a city deep in the heart of East Germany that had been my home for three years.