I have been spending some weeks in Austria, mostly seeking peace and quiet to write (my family is currently residing overseas so I had a flat all to myself). But being on the continent meant missing out on the monthly Sewol protest that I have been attending & photographing for a while now in London (see here, here and here). With no similar event anywhere in Austria, I took that as an excuse to finally make my first visit to Berlin ever and even managed to convince a friend to come along all the way from Spain.
While the London Sewol protest is a “silent” one, the Berlin group reaches out to people passing through the Pariser Platz (right in front of the Brandenburger Tor) by telling about the disaster via a microphone. They often also organise events (canvas painting, drummers or similar). There wasn’t anything special on the programme for July, although Yang Hyeri continued with her “17 seconds” project, photographing individuals in front of a yellow panel while they reflect about the drowning victims.
Floods of people – most of them tourists – pass through the Pariser Platz and under the Brandenburger Tor. It is strange to imagine that until twenty-five years ago this area was a complete no-go zone as it lay right on the fault line of East and West.
These days, Berlin is a cosmopolitan European city that seems more like London or Paris than any other place in its own country. English is constantly spoken. Half the town’s residents seem to be non-natives from every part of the world. Restaurants cater to every cuisine. Arts and culture (mainstream and fringe) flourish. Although this globalised sameness is persistent, digging deeper will uncover other things – which, in the case of the German capital, means the deep, historical scars of particularly two events: the Holocaust and post-war division of Berlin/Germany/Europe into east and west.
Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe
This is probably the best known memorial to Jews in Berlin – I imagine most people will have seen photographs of it already. I found it impressive, but even more so I found it bizarre: in these modern times, rather than inspiring solemn reflection in remembering atrocious events, it seems to lure selfie-taking tourists that pose and flash big grins at smartphones. Some jump from one stele to another, although the guards of the memorial will stop them if they notice. Sitting on the slabs and sunning yourself, meanwhile, seems to be perfectly within the rules. Was WWII so long ago that it has vanished from our living memories? With seventy years since the end of the war having passed, this thought is not all that far-fetched, but I don’t think that – or only that – is it.
Memorial to the Sinti and Roma Victims of National Socialism
A holocaust memorial for the Sinti and Roma that were killed. There is not much to see here: a circular, shallow pool, with a triangular slab in the middle, and a pattern of tiles – every now and then with the name of a concentration camp etched in – arranged geometrically around it. My friend didn’t quite see the point, but I found the simplicity of the memorial rather powerful, particularly when venturing to the far side of the pool to observe the tourists loitering around from a bit of a distance.
Berliner Mauer (Berlin Wall)
Traces of the Mauer, which was built in 1961 and finally fell in 1989, can be found all over the city as it ran right through the middle of Berlin (with a division of 60/40 between west and east). There is an official memorial in the Bernauerstraße, but there are plenty of other locations throughout the city where one can either see the foundation lines of the wall or actual slabs, including a stretch at the very pretty Oberbaumbrücke, a former check point between east and west. These days, the bit of wall left there has been turned into the “East Side Gallery” with murals (some funny, some inspirational, some serious).
Here too, we find relentless hordes of tourists snapping one selfie after another. It’s all a bit of a spectacle, a colourful, strangely giggly circus, no different from the one at the Holocaust memorial, except that in this case the ‘almost gone from living memory’ argument doesn’t fly. But, perhaps, even a quarter century is so long ago, we can no longer relate? Watching bits of a documentary (in German only, though here’s a 6-min snapshot in English) on the Mauer, it certainly feels like the stone-faced politicians and robotic border guards are wallowing in a delusion that seems, to me, beyond belief.
And yet, patches of wall that remain remind us that this reality we barely seem to grasp anymore still persists elsewhere in the world. When will the two Koreas be united? When will Israelis and Palestinians tear down their wall?
One of the Sewol group members invited us along to the Mauerpark (literally “Wall Park”), which is located in an area that was once the militarised “death strip” along the wall. These days, there are no walls here at all but the place pulsates with the life of cultural and social events that bring people together. On weekends, there is a flea market. People wander about, peruse jewellry and get their hair braided.
In one corner, karaoke takes place on a huge stage, in front of dozens and dozens of people (I would die of embarrassment with that many people watching, but I would die of embarrassment even if there were only one or two persons).
Perhaps one of my favourite places in Berlin – maybe because it’s not a tourist attraction but where the locals relax on sunny as well as cloudy days. Once upon a time Tempelhof was an airport, now it has been taken over by runners, dog walkers, terrasailers and gardeners.
Places for food & coffee
The Barn is a specialist coffee roastery, which also has a store outlet. Not to be missed for those that are particular about their coffee (like me). It has its loyal fans for sure, even Tigger patiently waits on Saturday morning before the shop opens.
There are many more coffee places, although I had no time to visit them all. Five Elephant and Café CK seem to feature on all the “Top Cafés in Berlin” lists (here’s one), but I didn’t manage to stop by either. I did go to Westberlin (Kreuzberg), which is close to Checkpoint Charlie on the very commercial and tourist-overrun Friedrichstraße. In these sorts of locations normally one only finds Starbucks, so in that sense Westberlin is very much a delightful oasis. However, I found the café quite noisy (the music more so than the people), cold (ceiling fans blasting) and the WIFI not working so somehow I only half-enjoyed my coffee. They don’t roast their own beans either but source them from different providers, including Five Elephant. If you are in the area and desperate for a cup, I’d say stop by, but I certainly wouldn’t go out of my way like I did for The Barn.
If you are seeking something other than coffee, Two and Two (Neukölln) is a secret gem: apparently the product of a marriage between a French-Japanese couple, it’s a place that advertises itself with “Französische Leckereien und japanische Schreibwaren” (French delicacies and Japanese stationery). Coffee is actually available, but I went for a matcha latte and avocado onigiri instead. And I had to buy a Japanese pen that I didn’t really need of course.
As for food: we were fed by the lovely Sewol-Berlin people, snacked (more Korean food) at the Mauerpark stalls, had cake (chocolate – amazing, blueberry – too sweet frosting) and chai at Rootz (Kreuzberg) when caught in the rain and breakfasted at Treibholz (Neukölln, lovely foccacia, chai & juice, ok coffee) because it was right around the corner from where we were staying. But the best discovery was Mmahh (Neukölln), a place we stumbled across when heading home from Tempelhof. We almost skipped it – having already eaten mandu that day – but something called out to us. Mmaah is a little stall that sells, in the warm months of the year, Korean BBQ (bulgogi and chicken) and mandu (veggie or kimchi, both vegetarian/vegan options), although they have a restaurant with a slightly more extensive menu somewhere else too. It’s fast food but only in the sense that you receive it within minutes of ordering, because quality wise it’s tip-top (and we’re not alone in that opinion).
What else to see
- The Reichstag, specifically the dome (this requires advance booking, which I didn’t realise before this trip)
- Lots of museums (didn’t visit any of them, just passed by)
- For the more daring, some of the abandoned places of Berlin
- The Holocaust Memorial for homosexuals
- The Alexanderplatz is a bit of a let down – once a skater hangout, now a completely commercialised sell-out. The Sony-Centre has interesting architecture, but it’s a mall – so not much to do there other than to take the exact same photograph that lots of others have already taken.
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