As of this coming Tuesday, I’ll have been in Europe for two weeks! Part of me feels like I’ve been away for a long time and another part of me feels like I just arrived yesterday. My first week in Berlin has been a whirlwind of activities. I arrived early Sunday morning and have barely slept or just relaxed since then. Between classes, exploring the city, and checking out the social scene there hasn’t been a dull moment. One cool thing about living in a city vs only staying for a couple days is the unique perceptive it gives you. You start to become familiar with the bars and restaurants near the hostel, discover your haunts around the city, and the baristas start to remember your daily morning coffee order. You also are able to see the stuff that is usually left out on a trip because now you have the time to see more things. I have definitely checked off a few of the places on my “to see” list this week but the great thing is that I don’t have to rush; I have a whole month to see and experience everything!
My hostel this time around is much more like a hotel than the last one. I share a room with two other girls in my program and we have a pretty large room with its own bathroom and extra beds. We have key cards to get into our rooms, which makes me feel safer and more confident that all my stuff isn’t going to get stolen. The overall hostel is huge! There’s a bar/café with indoor and outdoor seating, a couple hangout rooms, and a rooftop bar. The outdoor patio then extends to a general outside hangout area with a little blow up pool and lots of lounge chairs. There’s a room with a foosball table so we have had lots of foosball games and are planning on making a little program tournament! From the rooftop there is really good view of the city. The skyline wasn’t the most beautiful I’ve seen since there is a proportional number of cranes to the number of buildings. I have noticed through my exploration of Berlin so far that a good portion of the city is under construction. The area near the Berliner Dom is lined with old beautiful buildings but they are all under construction. The hostel is near our school, the Hertie School of Governance. On a good day if I wake up early enough I make the 15-minute walk to get to the school. The street to get there is lined with shops and restaurants and always very busy. So far though we have all been taking the metro to get to class in the morning. Even in the one week I have been here I’ve used the public transportation every single day. Its great here! Very easy to navigate and all over the city. Berlin is a pretty big city where walking everywhere like in Amsterdam is just not realistic. At most you wait 5-6 minutes for a train and it gets you to where you want to go in no time. The metro stations are places to see in and of themselves. The station at Alexanderplatz, a major hub, is a huge building with various stores, restaurants, and little food stands. Many musicians play in the metro stations because the acoustics are great. The other day there were two violinists who were playing and the sound carried all the way out of the station onto the street.
While I do love solo travel, I have really enjoyed walking around the city with all the new friends I’ve made in the program so far. My classes are Monday through Friday and end around 12:30. On the first day after class a group of us went exploring around our Hostel. We found a cute park and hung out there for a bit. I found the Waldorf School in Berlin, which is the same school I attended in Atlanta. We happened upon a mall called the Alexa (where all the American chain restaurants are located) and played foosball. I swear this guy is a professional or something because he played solo against 6 people on an extended length table. He destroyed us!
We were able to go on a special tour of the Bundestag, which is the German Parliament. To get in we had to present our passports. The building was burned and the entire interior remodeled not too long ago. There are many conspiracies relating to who burned the building. Our tour guide wouldn’t tell us what her personal opinion was but did mention that there are only a couple theories that most historians support. We walked through all the building and saw where the parliament meets when they are in session. I think the coolest part of the tour was hearing about how the parliament’s value of transparency is illustrated through the architectural and artistic design of the building. Each of the main art installations was commissioned from the allied states and reflects values of the parliament. For example, the art piece by the American artist is a streaming of all of the speeches given in parliament. The idea is to show the public that they have access to this information and that the parliament is not trying to hide anything from the public. There are gallery seats in the main room where the voting takes place for anyone to attend. There is no dress code or special requirements for going, they only ask that you stay quiet and do not wear anything with political references. A fun fact about the Bundestag, their chairs are blue because it is a politically neutral color in Germany and the specific color is protected, meaning that no one else can use that color without the permission of the Bundestag. However, to make sure that the color appears the purest blue on television, the actual chairs have a purple hue.
On of the days I went to Potsdamplatz to see remnants of the Berlin wall and walk along where it used to stand. I made my way to the Holocaust memorial, which was incredible. It consists of over a thousand concrete blocks that you can walk between. The ground is sloping and when you get further into the memorial you are overcome by the seemingly endless rows of concrete blocks boxing you in and towering over you. I think that the memorial was very well done because its sheer size demands your attention and is more representative about the effect the Holocaust had on the world. Most times memorials are these little statues that one could easily pass by and pay no attention to. This memorial takes up a whole block and can’t be passed by without drawing your attention. One thing about Berlin that is very interesting is how the effects of World War II are everywhere. In America all the events we hear about in our textbooks and history classes are very hard to actually image because everything happened a world away. A good amount of buildings in Berlin were bombed during the war, making the scars of the war very visible. I think that everyone should visit Berlin or someplace directly affected by the World Wars. We all study them in history but cant truly grasp its consequences without seeing first hand the effects that are still visible decades later.
We also visited the Sachausen concentration camp, which was intense. The audio tours they provided gave personal narratives and lots of information about the logistics of the camp and the events that occurred there. Many people at the time did not know about the horrors that occurred in the concentration camps because the commanders twisted the truths to make the camp seem like a reform working camp. However, even the higher up commanders participated in the mistreatment of prisoners here. Hearing about the things that these officials did makes me wonder about the psychological implications. It’s just impossible to image how people could carry out these types of atrocities. Sachausen was considered the model concentration camp and many later concentration camps, such as Auschwitz, were built to look like it. It is hard to describe how it feels to stand in a place knowing all of the atrocities that occurred there. It is a very surreal experience. I think that visiting Sachausen in particular has increased my understanding of World War II and given me a more grounded and tangible grasp of its effects. The camp is about an hour train ride outside of the city and I would highly recommend making the trip out there if you ever have the time.
I promise I am studying as well! Classes are interesting for sure. There is nothing like taking a class relating to something that you care about with other people who feel the same way. All of the discussions I have had with everyone else on my program have been intellectual and engaging, we each can challenge each other in the best ways possible. The other night before bed, one of my roommates and I were comparing the views of immigration in the US to Europe. Just your usual bedtime kind of conversation! I am in class back to back each morning. The great thing about these classes is that the class is a max of 17 students so asking questions and actively discussing the subject is very easy. One of my teachers sends us articles from the news that day which relates to our subjects. The hands on experience we get for what we are learning about it super cool! On that note, I should probably go finish my reading for class tomorrow! auf Wiedersehen!