Tuesday, September 29, 2009


September 26-28, 2009

Ali, Anneliese, and I went to Berlin for a long weekend and had an AMAZING time! We rushed to the train station after our Friday classes to catch our train, and when we boarded the train it was PACKED! We didn’t know we needed a reservation to get a seat in a cabin, so once the train arrived it was a free-for-all to find an open seat. Needless to say, we didn’t get seats together on the train, and I didn’t get a seat at all! I had to sit in the hallway! But after about 2 hours people began getting off the train, and for the last 2.5 hours of the ride, Ali, Anneliese and I had our own cabin, which was nice.

We got to Berlin, and after some struggle figuring out how to get to Mitte (the city center) where our hostel was, we finally made it. We stayed at Wombats, a youth hostel, and it was so much nicer than we excepted. The rooms were really clean and they gave us sheets for free, which is pretty uncommon in hostels. Charlie and Kinnon met us at the bar at the top of our hostel—they had been in Berlin for a few days at this point—and we made plans to go out. We found out that “Modeselektor”, a German house/electronic DJ duo which we like a lot was playing at a club in Berlin, so that was a great surprise! We went to WMF, the club where they were playing, and it was so cool. There were 3 floors with different DJs/bands playing on each floor and crazy lights all around. It was packed! It was really cool to get the Euro clubbing experience since there really isn’t anything of that magnitude in Praha. So we stayed at WMF until about 5 am partying and dancing the night away…

We made it back to the hostel around 5:30 and immediately crashed in bed. The next morning we woke up (feeling not so well) and made plans for the afternoon. We went on this great tour called the “Alternative Tour” which was so cool. It took us around the city and taught us about the alternative suc-culture which has flourished in the city since the fall of the Berlin wall. We learned a lot of interesting things and saw some really awesome street art. A lot of the tour taught us about graffiti, which was legal in Berlin until 2005 through a loophole in the government which said that if you find a building to be unaestheticlly pleasing, you have the right to “redecorate” it. So you could literally be caught by the police with spray-paint in your hand, and if you say you are “redecorating” you wouldn’t be breaking any law. However, the government eventually realized they were spending $30 million Euros a year removing graffiti from public buildings, so in 2005 this loophole was removed. However, graffiti is still insanely popular in Berlin, and Berlin has become a Mecca of sorts for graffiti artists around the world. There’s this one guy they call “Mister 6” who just spray-paints 6s around the city. It’s estimated that there are over 600,000 6s around the city!! What’s cool is that this graffiti is not vandalism- it is an art form, and many of the pieces have a very political message as well. In fact, the largest remaining stretch of the Berlin Wall is now called the East Side Gallery, and it is divided up between artists where they can display their art as murals on the wall. It’s quite spectacular.

We also visited various squats around the city. When the Berlin Wall fell, many East Berlin residents left because they finally had the freedom to travel outside the wall. As a result, many buildings- both commercial and residential- were left empty. So, the government made an amnesty with the people saying that anyone could squat in these vacant buildings until someone claimed the land. Some groups of people even got leases on these buildings for super cheap—like $5 a year—until 2030 or later. So whole communities of like-minded people have set up squats at various locations around the city; there’s an artists’ squat, an anarchists’ squat, even a vegan lesbian squat! I’ve never seen anything like it before.

Another, more depressing, thing that we learned on the tour was this movement called “Media Spree” happening in Berlin. The River Spree runs through the city, and currently the river is lined with many public green spaces and a number of squats. These green spaces are really integral to the city, as it is some of the only land where city residents can enjoy nature and bring their children to play, and the squats are home to thousands of people as well. However, this “Media Spree” is a movement where all of the big-name media companies (Universal, Sony, MTV, O2, amongst others) have come together to form a huge conglomeration, and they are developing all the land along this river. This means that the public green space will be developed, and the squatters will be kicked out! There are also many “beach bars” (really just bars on the river with some sand to look like beach!) and other businesses that have become sort of institutions in the city that will have to close when the developing begins. One of these parks is called YAAM, or the Youth African Arts Market. We stopped by here and it was such a cool place, it is such a shame it is closing! It is right on the beach, and it serves as a public community center for Berlin. It was initially begun as a place for social workers to bring children in the system to play sports and have a wholesome community safe environment. They have giant tee-pees and huge stretches of sand to play in, and there are adults from various African countries grilling out and playing music and having fun. YAAM had such a positive, loving, and energetic atmosphere, and it is such a shame that it will be shut down because of Media Spree. It has been a safe haven in a city of tumult for about 30 years now, and it will be gone by the end of this year. And the worst part about it is that there is nothing we can do to save it.

On Sunday we did the New Europe Free Tour of Berlin (yay for free!), and lucked out and got the same tour guide that took us on the Alternative Tour. It was a great tour and I really learned a lot about the city. Jack (our tour guide) started the tour by making a really good point- Berlin as a city and government has many of the same problems as any 19-year old would have. It’s struggling with its new independence, still making lots of mistakes, and has things (in this case, buildings) popping up all over its face! And in a way, I think Prague is also kind of similar. Anyway, we started our tour at the Riechstag, which is the seat of the German Parliament. The original Riechstag was plowed down by Hitler and his army, and was rebuilt in 1990 after the fall of the wall. What is really cool is that they have built this spiraling glass dome above the Parliamentary chamber, and it is free for people to go up into this dome and look over the Parliamentary meetings. So, while Parliament is in session making laws and decisions, they have people looking down on them from above, symbolically reminding them that the people are above the government.

Next we went to the Holocaust memorial. I had heard a lot about this memorial and it has been a source of controversy within and outside Berlin since it was built. It was built in 2005 by Peter Gisman, a NYC architect. Basically what it is is hundreds of concrete pillars of different sizes in a grid. It’s interactive, and you can walk between the pillars like a maze. There are no names or symbols or anything on the memorial, so people can have their own interpretation. It’s built on some sort of hill, so the further you walk into the grid, the higher the pillars get until they are towering over your head, but on the surface they all appear to be relatively the same size. Also, the further you walk into, the colder and darker it gets because the pillars block all of the sun. So I really interpreted it as representing something that starts off small, but then snowballs and becomes a huge problem because people ignore it and just go about their everyday lives. It’s in the heart of the city, so people must walk by it every day. As a result, people must face the reality of the Holocaust every single day, and it forces you to remember it so that nothing like it can ever happen again.

What’s cool about Berlin is they have had some really dark times throughout history, and rather than ignore all of the horrible things that have happened there, they memorialize it though various monuments and pieces of art. The city by no means glorifies these times, but it forces citizens and tourists to recognize what has happened, pay respect to those who lost their lives and fought for freedom, and make sure that history doesn’t repeat itself.

Another really cool memorial was the Nazi Book Burning Memorial. There was a movement of book burnings in 1933, when the Nazis burned any books that did not follow Nazi ideology. Humbolt University, in Berlin, fell victim to these book burnings. The Nazis burned over 20,000 books in their library, including original pieces by Martin Luther, and works by Einstein. To memorialize this event, an Israeli artist created a piece called “Library”; there is a hole in the ground, covered with plexi-glass, above the library where the burning took place. You can look through the glass down into a room that is empty, except for bookshelves. There are enough bookshelves to hold about 20,000 books—the number of books that were burned in 1933. The room is hermetically sealed so no one will ever be able to go back in there. These empty shelves in a room no one can enter represents the presence of absence, and is there to remind us that we’ve lost some treasures that we will never be able to get back. And for what?

So, how did they memorialize Hitler? The Germans tried to blow his bunker up, but as it was a bomb shelter, that wasn’t very effective. So, they put a dog park on the land over his bunker, which was where he hid out during his last few weeks and where he eventually killed himself. There is nothing that identifies the location of his bunker- the Germans chose to memorialize Hilter by allowing their dogs to defecate on his home and safe haven. I thought that was hilarious.

I also learned a lot about the history of the Berlin Wall, and the most interesting part—that it fell all by mistake… So, the Berlin Wall, was actually 2 walls. It started as just a barbed wire fence separating East and West Berlin but eventually that was made into a thicker, higher, fence, and then eventually 2 walls- interior and exterior. Between these walls was the “Death Strip” which was patrolled by soldiers with a shoot to kill policy. On top of the walls was sewage piping, which just so happens to be wide enough in diameter that a human cannot wrap his/her arms around it, so they just slide back down. 236 people died trying to cross this wall, but there were 20,000 successful attempts. And the whole reason the Berlin Wall fell in the first place was all by mistake—and I had no idea! Apparently a German political spokesperson Gunter Shabowski had the task of giving a press conference related to new rules/regulations about the Berlin wall. Well, needless today, he did not prepare himself for this speech and did not bother to read these new rules, so during the press conference, he made the mistake of announcing that the border would be open effective immediately! And that’s how the Berlin Wall fell…

Overall, I had an AMAZING weekend in Berlin. It is such a cool city with so many interesting bits of history that really defines it as a city and makes it unique. But what I loved about it the most is the way they use art to memorialize various aspects of its history…. whether it is an empty void of a room to remember the Nazi book burnings, or a neon sign of a never-ending rock-paper-scissors game to represent the clashes of neighborhoods, to the street art you see everywhere. This weekend in Berlin is one I’ll never forget, and I hope I will be able to visit it again!

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