Let’s be honest, most Americans have a singular view of German history: Hitler. I don’t want to minimize Hitler’s impact on Germany, but reducing German history to the years around 1930-1945 is a little like reducing American history to the Reagan years.
Berlin has seen it all and for any traveler interested in history, Berlin is a must stop.
Travel inside Berlin has some challenges for a non-German speaker, but people are generally helpful and most speak excellent English. For me the public transportation is a challenge. Whereas London, and Paris have systems that I find easy to use, Berlin is a complicated mess. Now, I am certain that the locals all know how everything works, but to me the S system and U system need a bit of work. I was told that the S system is above ground and the U system in underground, but that isn’t always the truth. Coming off a U train and having to find an S train is a sometimes difficult. Couple that with Germany’s directional signage problems and you have a lot of lost tourists. (I found that almost all the signs got you 70% of the way, the last 30% is supposed to be intuition.) The number of times I started one direction, came back, and then finally figured it out are too many to mention. I don’t believe that Germans care that you get lost, and frankly who can blame them a lost tourist is a comical person to watch: The map flapping in the wind, the confused look, the orientation of map to streets, and the joy of knowing where you are going is a great example of Schadenfreude. I’m not saying that Germans are purposely being mean, they just seem to get a little more joy from your discomfort than other people.
Berlin is also the best place that I know of to see chunks of ancient history, WWI and WWII history, Cold War history, and European reunification. London has a lot of this same history, but it is seen from a longer lens, in Berlin it happened in the streets beneath your feet. The greatest example is the brick line that cuts through the street in front of Brandenburg Gate.
Today cars drive across this little brick path, but just twenty-five years ago there was a wall separating East and West Berlin and a large chunk of ground between the two cities called the dead zone. This is now completely gone and the two cities are now one large metroplex of a city. Most cities grow around a center (I like to think of it like the yolk of a fried egg), but since Berlin had two centers for so many years it is like one of those two yolked eggs. There is the Western center of museums and culture, and then there is the Eastern chunk. When it comes to Berlin’s museums I will admit that I like the stuff the East had stolen better than the stuff the West had.
I think one of the most important aspects of Germany’s history is that they do not hide from their mistakes. It is not difficult to spend your whole day visiting Hitler sites and reviewing the horror of the Holocaust and WWII. Much of this history could have been revised, but Germans have done the more difficult thing, and that is to brush off the dust of history and show people how a country can take the small steps that eventually lead to inhumane acts of genocide.
How did I end up buying the ugliest shoes in Berlin? Well, my blister problems have been well documented during The Summer of Jon, but I finally decided that I would do whatever was needed to find shoes that did not cause me blisters, so as soon as I arrived in Berlin I struck out to find a shoe store. The good news is that my hotel was near one of the major shopping areas in Western Berlin, Ku Dam. So, I hobbled up along Ku Dam until I reached a shoe store and looked for a cheap pair of running shoes. I found some that met my requirements: not too loud, on sale, and in my size. I bought the shoes, asked where I could put them on, and then found out that the shoes I bought were too small. I took the shoes back to the register and talked to the salesman. He said they normally don’t carry shoes bigger than 45, which is close to an American 12. I normally wear a 12.5 so I asked if there were any shoes in my size, the salesman said that they don’t get many shoes that size but he would look. He came back with one pair of bright yellow shoes. “These are the only ones we have in your size,” he said. These shoes only met one of my three requirement–they fit. Everything else was wrong. Florescent yellow is not a shoe color in my opinion, and the shoes were not on sale. My desperation forced me into buying some epically ugly shoes and these shoes have not gone unnoticed. Germans are probably better at making disapproving faces at strangers than any other culture. I got a lot of looks. I know that I am probably just a trend setter, and that everyone is jealous of my cool shoes.
When booking hotel I take into consideration many things, location, ratings on TripAdvisor, cost, and whether breakfast is offered. Sometimes I make a mistake. The biggest mistake would be the first time my family visited Iceland. There were not many hotels to choose from and prices were high for a family of four. We ended up in a place called the Flying Viking (pronounced Flying Wiking.) It was a little like a garage, a little like a hostel, and a lot like a place that my family universally hated. I was less concerned about the ratings of a hotel on this trip as saving money was the primary priority and because of that I didn’t mind staying in riskier hotels that were centrally located. Berlin has lots of hotels that do not cost a ton and I found one called Hotel Pension Kima just off Ku Dam and surrounded by expensive shops. It sounded like a no brainer to me. I booked it. My hopes were pretty high until I stepped into the elevator. The elevator resembled a painted wooden box that moved up and down the shaft by means of a hamster powered engine. It was the type of elevator that when you step into it, it sinks three inches. This did not make me feel safe, the sign next to the elevator did not reassure me. What does this sign mean? Be careful when passing the flame? Hell is located close by? Stand with your arms straight when the box catches fire?
After I got my key and headed up to my room, I was confronted by the uncomfortable fact that I was staying in a dive. The bed looked clean and that was really the only important thing, but I wondered how many people had died in this very room. Berlin is an old city and I estimated there were probably at least five people who took their last breath here. There was also the possibility that no one had died here because it was actually a broom closet until it was converted into my room. I dealt with the situation like most travelers, I spent as little time in the room as possible. I slept there and then spent the day out and about. This might be the best reason to stay in a dive, it forces you to get out of the hotel.
The other part of the hotel was the morning breakfast. I looked forward to it since German baked goods are very good. Apparently my hotel did not get the memo about feeding me German baked goods. We had coffee, orange juice, a couple cereal choices, cheese, meat, hardboiled eggs, and very bad breads. I tried to eat my usual 5,000 calories on the first day, but it was forced, and on day two and three I was eating a small breakfast and then paying for a large lunch. The good news was that I was able to eat cheaply since Berlin is a reasonably priced town, and beer is certainly not frowned upon for lunch.