Berlin Reflections

Bergmannkiez Kreuzberg – Tagesspiegel

I’m approaching two months in Berlin and there’s still more to see and learn. Each city has personality, and Berlin is uniquely difficult to describe. I’m not a fast-moving tourist, so that shines a different light on things. It’s a complex city with a young population and immense history and nuances – nothing is quite what it seems…

Kreuzberg Apartment Building

Kreuzberg

At first, I was looking for an apartment in Mitte – known as Berlin’s “historical heart”. I ended up in less touristy Kreuzberg formerly part of West Berlin and an area of great urban energy and diversity. It’s south of the River Spree and was once enclosed on three sides by the Berlin Wall. Today it’s a haven for artists. Emily Bland’s entertaining video below describes nearby places and Kreuzberg streets I experience every day.

One interesting street – Bergmannkiez – is a favorite a few blocks from my apartment. The buildings, shops, and restaurants are fabulous. During warm weather everyone sits outside, but over the past week I’ve noticed deserted tables, despite woolly blankets draped over each chair.

Facades in Bergmannkiez Kreuzberg

My first week was a semi-catastrophe. I got lost often. When I found someone who spoke English and asked for directions back to Kreuzberg, first they corrected my pronunciation and then their eyes went blank. Someone finally told me how huge Kreuzberg was and that it’s impossible to give directions without a specific street and cross street. I learned to identify my flat location by the nearby underground station called Gneisenaustraße – still can’t pronounce it. I also learned to never leave my apartment without a fully charged phone and Google Maps!

Bergmannkiez

Language and Communication

Few speak English in Berlin. Many know it but chose not to speak it because, depending on their circle of acquaintances, they really don’t have to. Occasionally some kind soul may take mercy on you and translate – generally you’re on your own. Menus and food labels are the most confusing. Learning German is essential for anyone who wants to live long-term in Berlin. It’s a difficult language.

Flower Shop Zossener Straße Kreuzberg

I’ve visited Germany several times, including Frankfurt, Munich, Düsseldorf, Wiesbaden, Stuttgart, Heidelberg, Cologne, and smaller towns along the Rhine River like Rüdesheim. Those trips were before I began a travel journal / blog and I was traveling for shorter periods of time with other people. My clouded memories are mostly of traveling companions, not the places we visited. Short term travel is more for enjoying yourself, not focusing on the deeper aspects of a country’s culture and history.

Aerial View of Kreuzberg – Wikipedia

I wrongly imagined more English would be spoken in Berlin. It seems in cities like Rome, Lisbon, Prague, Istanbul, and Budapest it was easier to communicate, but I’m not complaining – well, maybe a little :o(

More Kreuzberg Apartment Buildings – GPSmyCity

Communication or the lack there of can become more of an issue when traveling solo. I like the challenge but unless you seek other Americans – that defeats the purpose of travel for me – you must learn to adapt and survive in an unknown and sometimes unfriendly environment. It’s exciting and at the end of each day there’s a feeling of accomplishment.

Huh???

Immigration

Germany is the second most popular destination for migrations – after the US – and Berlin is a diverse city of immigrants. Kreuzberg has a large Turkish population. At times it feels like you’re on a street in Istanbul.
These days, German immigration is complicated. I did cursory research on the process and decided it wasn’t for me. Schengen visa requirements will change in 2021, allowing extended tourist travel (more than three months).

Street Art Kreuzberg – commons.wikimedia.org

Germany encourages immigration of “highly skilled professionals” and “scientists”. There’s no market for unskilled workers. I’ve heard the process of obtaining a permanent visa is daunting, with application reviews backed up for six months or more. I’m not sure what people do while waiting for their immigration review, but they must prove financial independence and learn German before obtaining a permanent visa.

Bergmannkiez Building

While traveling on public transportation, I’ve seen and heard immigrants from all over the world – Africa, Mideast, Asia, South America, and other European countries. They often stick together and speak their own languages, not German or English. They seem content and settled although some have sad-looking faces, maybe indicating they’ve experienced deep trauma and tragedy in their lives. They’ve been helpful and kind – more than most Germans.

Bergmannkiez – welt.de

Early one morning I was awakened by a buzzing door bell. My apartment building is huge, and since I don’t know that many people in Berlin and wasn’t expecting a visitor, I ignored it.  A few minutes later there was loud knocking on my door. I looked through the peephole to see four policemen and quickly opened the door. They were polite, asked several questions, and looked at my passport. They showed me photos of a Syrian couple they were looking for – not sure what crime they committed and didn’t ask. I didn’t recognize them.

The massive front door to the building closes slowing on a heavy hinge, so anyone determined to get inside could wait outside and sneak through – especially at night. I find that slightly unnerving and usually wait to make sure the door has closed completely behind me. Even with the lights on, the stairway to my flat is dark and slightly creepy.

Bergmannkiez Market

Economy

The economy is bustling and Germans are avid consumers and into their professions and making money – you don’t find many loose ends. Berlin is full of high-tech. Almost every other car is a sparkling Mercedes. So far, I haven’t noticed any homeless encampments. A few drug addicts and panhandlers roam the streets and subway.

Blog Only Apartments Kreuzberg

Of course the Berlin apartment I rented is not quite as wonderful as the photos… That’s the chance you take when renting in a foreign country. I’ve experienced “apartment reality versus advertisement” before. However, hotels are way too expensive for a long visit and I’m not a fan of hostels. The apartment suits my purpose and is warm and private. Except for one loud all-night party, it’s been mostly quiet. I’m prepared for late-night holiday festivities and have ear plugs. Maybe one of the neighbors will invite me to join a party, although most Germans are not overly friendly – holiday markets merrymakers being the exception.

Street Art Kreuzberg – Urban Presents

Short-term rentals for less than three months are not allowed. In 2016, Berlin implemented some of the world’s strictest laws for vacation rentals.

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“With few exceptions, Berlin made short-term rentals on platforms such as Airbnb and Wimdu illegal, with fines of up to 100,000 euros (about $123,000) for hosts who violate the law.”

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It’s called the misappropriation prohibition law (Zweckentfremdungsverbots-Gesetz), and the German government enforces it. Compared to New York, San Francisco, London, or even Munich, rental prices are reasonable.

Angela Merkel – thepressproject.gr

Politics

I’m still trying to figure out what’s happening with German politics. There are changes in the air with Angela Merkel’s recent resignation as leader of the ruling Christian Democratic Union (CDU). Some of her policies are unpopular. One of three people is considered her likely successor as CDU party Chair in December –  Annegret Kramp-Karrenbauer, Jens Spahn, and Friedrich Merz.

Kreuzberg Church

Music and Arts

Music and arts are the major jackpot in Berlin with extremely talented artists and everything you could imagine or desire! I like art galleries but am not great at touring museums, and after a few hours find them overwhelming. I still have many to visit in Berlin.

River Spree Kreuzberg – Adobe Stock 81684539 1000

I’ve posted several blogs about live performances. There’s variety and high quality, and I’m getting my fill of theatre and first-class classical and jazz. People in the jazz clubs are fun and friendly – blog post to follow. During the last month I’ll focus on museums, Christmas markets, and more music – enough to keep me occupied. Ballet and opera performances are of interest but tickets are pricey – $100+.

Back View from My Apartment

Food

Not a foodie, I still appreciate a good meal. Some Berlin restaurants are disappointing, but I’ve found a few I like and keep returning to them. The choices around Kreuzberg are endless, but it can be somewhat uncomfortable dining alone on weekends when most restaurants are busy and usually fully booked.

dean & david – karriere

Menus aren’t in English – and in some restaurants, asking for an English menu is downright painful… When I’m really hungry, my favorite “go to” restaurant is a little place called dean & david where they serve fresh food and make incredible salads! The atmosphere is friendly and comfortable.

Bergmannkiez – Photography ProdJo

Weather

Weather during October and the first half of November was heavenly. It’s turning cold now and gets dark by 4 pm, but I came prepared. The shops and stores are super-heated so if you’re shopping for longer than a few minutes it’s almost unbearable inside, and you start taking off layers. The cooler temperatures will be good for outdoor Christmas Markets where you can buy hot drinks to keep warm.

Berlin Kreuzberg Map

Next Stop Dubrovnik
My next stop is Dubrovnik Croatia – a non-Schengen country. Although I traveled around Croatia for several months a few years ago I didn’t get enough time in Dubrovnik, so booked a small apartment for January 2019. By December 29, I’ll have exhausted my 90 day Schengen visa limit and can’t re-enter any Schengen countries until April 2019. Hopefully the weather in Dubrovnik will be a little warmer than Berlin. Haven’t decided which non-Schengen countries to visit after Croatia. I’m considering Albania, Cyprus, and Romania.

Typical Kreuzberg Street – Sound Vinyl Store

There are tons of stories about my Berlin experiences and the challenging time here, but this post contains enough rambling. I haven’t taken many photos. Berlin isn’t known for its beauty, although some older buildings and streets are exquisite as are the parks, canals, and rivers. I’m not into selfies and it’s complicated getting your picture taken when traveling solo. It’s easy finding someone to take the photo, but the result is rarely good. Before leaving Berlin, one way or another, I’m getting a photo in front of the Brandenburg Gate!

More later…

Potsdam Germany UNESCO World Heritage Site

Schloss Sanssouci Potsdam – http://www.isango.com

Yesterday I took a day trip to Potsdam, capital of the State of Brandenburg 15 miles south of Berlin. Scenery during the train ride changed from graffiti tagged concrete walls to colorful autumn trees and stately mansions in Berlin’s wealthy west suburbs. October weather has been phenomenal with warm sunny days, but it’s getting colder. Light rain didn’t hamper the beauty of the area, but it wasn’t great for photography.

St. Nicholas Church

I talked with people on the tour – mostly English-speaking Millennials from other countries who were interns or employees of German film and video game companies. They shared their challenges learning Berlin’s public transportation system and said it took them 6 months to acclimate. They thought it would take a long time to learn German in Berlin – versus a small German village – primarily because of the many versions spoken within diverse cultures. I’m slowly picking up German words and phrases – important because many Berliners don’t speak English.

Russian Orthodox Church Alexandrovka © Hans Bach

Get Your Guide, a group I’ve used in other European cities, led the tour. Potsdam is a UNESCO World Heritage Site with baroque architecture, world-famous palaces, gardens, historic quarters, parks, lakes, and estates. The area was once the residence and garrison town of Prussian Kings and German Kaisers. Our guide was from Lisbon Portugal, but he’s lived in Berlin for over 4 years. As with most tours, it was fast-paced and full of details – a good introduction to the area.

Potsdam Church of St. Peter and Paul

Marble Palace Near Sacred Lake New Garden Potsdam

Potsdam’s palaces aren’t as grand as Versailles or Vienna, but it’s an impressive area with a fascinating combination of old and new. In the summer Berliners visit the lakes and parks for hiking, biking, swimming, boating, and nude sun bathing. The gardens are more natural than the manicured ones embellishing most European palaces.

St. Nicholas Church Dome

Potsdam Attractions

These are summaries of Potsdam’s best known attractions. During our six-hour walking tour we passed by attractions but didn’t view interiors – that’s a separate trip. My favorite park was once a royal hunting ground near Grunewald Hunting Lodge.

Hunting Lodge

Brandenburg has a chain of beautiful lakes – Havel Lakes – that surround Potsdam and include Dampferfahrten, Templiner, Fahrlander, Griebnitzsee, and Schwielowsee. A boat trip with a water view of the castles, churches, and parks sounds interesting.

Museum Barberini – Museums Heritage

Sanssouci Palace – constructed in 1747 this palace was the summer residence of Frederick the Great. The name translates from French to “without a care”. Sanssouci and Potsdam were where Frederick escaped busy Berlin.

House Potsdam

Dutch Quarter – is the largest Dutch housing development outside the Netherlands. Potsdam is surrounded by water, so Frederick brought builders from the Netherlands to construct his palaces because they were familiar with similar soil conditions.

Filmmuseum

Cecilienhof Palace – last castle built by the House of Hohenzollern – and the Historic Site of the Potsdam Conference. When fighting ended in Europe, the three major Allies of World War II –  American President Harry S. Truman, British Prime Minister Winston Churchill and Clement Attlee (his successor), and Soviet Premier Joseph Stalin – met at Cecilienhof to establish a Council of Foreign Ministers and central Control Council.

Cecilienhof New Garden

Alexandrovka – is a Russian Colony in northern Potsdam. Frederick brought Russian singers and dancers to Potsdam to entertain his guests. Many relocated permanently.

Dutch Quarter

Filmmuseum – encompasses the media city Babelsberg, including Studio Babelsberg – the oldest film studio in the world and the largest in Europe – Film Park BabelsbergRadio Berlin-Brandenburg (RBB), the Film University Babelsberg Konrad Wolf, Babelsberg Film School, and the Film University Babelsberg.

Potsdam Windmill

Barberini Museum – a privately donated art museum in Potsdam’s Old Market center housed in a reconstructed Baroque palace. The museum’s benefactor is billionaire Hasso Plattner.

Bridge of Spies

Bridge of Spies

Bridge of SpiesGlienicke Bridge was built over the Havel River in 1907 to connect Berlin’s Wannsee District with Potsdam. During the Cold War, the US and Soviet Union exchanged spies over the bridge. Steven Spielberg’s 2015 film – Bridge of Spies – tells the story of lawyer James B. Donovan who negotiated the release of Francis Gary Powers, an Air Force spy plane pilot shot down over the Soviet Union in 1960. Powers was exchanged for Rudolf Ivanovich Abel, a convicted KGB spy held by the United States.

Lindstedt Castle and Park

Einstein Tower – is home of an astrophysical observatory for studying magnetic fields related to solar spots. The tower is named after Albert Einstein. From 1929 to 1932, Einstein and his wife lived in Caputh, a village near Potsdam. Today, the Leibniz Institute for Astrophysics – part of the Leibniz Association – manages the observatory.

Potsdam Old Market © Barbara Plate

Potsdam Brandenburg Gate – in the centre of Luisenplatz in downtown Potsdam is an original mock-up of Berlin’s grand gate on Pariser Platz.

Alexandrovka © Michael Lüder

Church of St. Peter and Paul – restored Catholic church that suffered serious damage during WWII bombings.

Schloss Sanssouci

St. Nicolas Church – the beautiful neo-classical Protestant church on the Old Market in Potsdam is listed as a sacred building.

Hunting Lodge

Berlin-Potsdam UNESCO World Heritage Area

Due to their “uniqueness, influence on art history, and proven association with historically significant events” the “Palaces and Parks of Potsdam and Berlin” joined UNESCO’s World Heritage List in 1990.

Marble Palace © Ulf Böttcher

Sculpture Sanssouci

The Berlin-Potsdam World Heritage area extends from Peacock Island on the Havel River in the east to beyond the New Palace in the west. It includes the Berlin, Brandenburg, and Saxony-Anhalt areas with their villages, castles, and parks – Sacrow, Glienicke, Babelsberg, Sanssouci, Charlottenhof, Lindstedt, and New Garden.

Boat House Near Hunting Lodge

There’s so much to explore in Brandenburg and the tour peaked my interest. I’ll be returning. Unbelievably :(, I got lost on the way back to my apartment in Kreuzberg. Our train from Potsdam stopped in Charlottenburg and it was difficult finding the hidden U-Bahn connection (a 10-minute walk). The train, underground, S-Bahn, bus, and tram connections are still confusing – at least to me.

Frederick William I Hunting Lodge

Exploring Berlin

New Synagogue

Learning to navigate a large city requires patience and perseverance – ha… Berlin’s heated pace is both daunting and exhilarating. I’ve gone from being hopelessly lost to feeling ecstatic while blending with locals and making successful transport connections!

French Cathedral

Navigating Berlin

As a point of comparison, Istanbul’s 14 million population makes Berlin’s 4 million seem small, but to me, Istanbul’s public transit system is easier to learn. Switching between the U-Bahn (subway) and S-Bahn (suburban train) is confusing. My U-Bahn station is Gneisenaustraße – still trying to pronounce it correctly. During my first subway outing a Berliner helped by providing directions involving a U-Bahn to S-Bahn transfer. There are various transfer options and this one turned out to be complicated (for a tourist), somehow leaving me in the middle of nowhere at night, terrified!

Wilhelminian Style Architecture

When will I learn the lesson about not asking locals for directions – a basic rule that continues to elude my travels? Essential elements of getting around seamlessly and independently in foreign countries include MapsMe or Google Maps and a power charger for your smartphone. In Berlin, speaking German is also helpful…

Gendarmenmarkt – Deutscher Dom, Französischer Dom, Berlin Konzerthaus

Berlin Opera House St. Hedwig’s Episcopal Cathedral

Berlin Tours

I’ve booked some interesting tours and decided to make “dry runs”, to eliminate 11th hour drama reaching the starting point on time. Berlin is a city of striking images, but I haven’t taken many photos – dangerous while still getting your bearings.

German Cathedral

Berlin Cathedral

Yesterday I joined a six-hour walking tour led by Berlin Like A Local. As with most of these outings, there was too much detailed information provided. The tour lasted most of the day – with a 30-minute lunch break and a few moving caffeine stops. We walked at a fast pace with little time for photos or chit-chat. Since then, I’ve downloaded self-guided tours to my smartphone. The next walking tour will be at my pace, and I can replay the commentary as many times as necessary :o).

Jewish Cemetery

Holocaust Survivors

Checkpoint Charlie – Getty Images

The group included tourists from Amsterdam, Zürich, London, and New York City. They were in their 20s – 30s and good fun. Most of them were visiting Berlin to experience its vibrant techno nightlife scene. The Londoner shared pointers about Albania – possibly my next stop. One young couple was on their way to Prague.

German Museum

Berliner Dome During the Festival of Lights – Shutterstock

Our Australian guide from Melbourne had lived in Berlin for over 4 years while attending university. He majored in subjects which make him an expert on European history and a powerhouse of information. His commentary was funny at times, e.g., he told us “you can take a dog or a beer anywhere in Berlin”…

German Bakery

Attractions and Landmarks

Some of the sites we saw are listed below – more for my benefit than readers of this post. Each site has its own unique history and compelling story. We began in the east near River Spree at the Tränenpalast Museum (Tears Palace) and ended at Brandenburg Gate in the west.

Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe

The stark Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe designed by Peter Eisenman is graphic and impressive. It consists of 2,711 cuboid concrete stelae (slabs) and encompasses an entire block near the Brandenburg Gate. We walked respectfully through the controversial memorial. It’s difficult to describe the feelings of isolation and helplessness as the concrete blocks grow taller and a slanted pavement adds to the disorientation. Eisenman’s brilliant work gets your attention and makes its brutal point.

Retro look Unter den Linden, Berlin

Unter den Linden Boulevard – 123RF

Brandenburg Gate

We took a break on top of Hitler’s underground air-raid bunker where he and Eva Braun committed suicide. It’s now blended with the landscaping of a modern apartment complex. Another interesting spot was the exterior of Angela Merkel’s flat in Prenzlauer Berg where she no longer stays. Trendy Prenzlauer Berg has old Wilhelminian-style buildings and fashionable cafés and shops. The apartment rents for € 65 per night.

River Spree

During the 1990s, the fall of the Berlin Wall brought extreme euphoria, wild partying, and a “chaotic, anarchistic mood”. Since then, Berlin has experienced major change! This was a cursory tour. Over the next few months I will look deeper and gain a better understanding of Berlin’s fascinating past and bright future. Although not always immediately obvious, Berlin’s dark past and present intertwine.

Bebelplatz

Memorial to George Elser – Hitler’s Would Be Assassin

Mitte Side Street

Memorial to Nazi Burning of Books Bebelplatz

Clear autumn weather in the 70s is to continue this week. I’m besotted with Berlin and the adventures so far. Happy to be staying in the Kreuzberg / Neukölln area, a vibrant community rich in diversity and character.

Kaiser Wilhelm Memorial Church

Mehr später…