Berlin Reflections

Bergmannkiez Kreuzberg – Tagesspiegel

I’m approaching two months in Berlin and there’s much more to see and learn. Each city has its own personality, and Berlin is uniquely difficult to describe. I’m not a fast-moving tourist, so that shines a different light on everything. It’s a complex city with tremendous history and nuances and it takes time to explore.

Kreuzberg Apartment Building

Kreuzberg

At first, I was looking for an apartment in the Mitte District – known as Berlin’s “historical heart”. I ended up in non-touristy Kreuzberg. Kreuzberg was part of West Berlin and is an area of great diversity and energy. 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. The video link below describes nearby places and Kreuzberg streets I experience every day.

Facades in Bergmannkiez

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

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 quickly learned to identify my flat by the nearby underground station called Gneisenaustraße – still can’t pronounce it properly. I also learned to never leave my apartment without a fully charged phone and Google Maps!

Bergmannkiez

Language and Communication

Few people 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 will take mercy on you and translate – generally you’re on your own. Menus and food labels are the most confusing. Learning German is necessary 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. During those trips I was traveling for a shorter period of time with other people. My clouded memories are more of interactions with traveling companions and not the places visited.

Those trips were before I began a travel journal / blog. I wrongly imagined English would be spoken widely in Berlin. It seems to me that even in cities like Rome, Lisbon, Prague, Istanbul, and Budapest it was easier to communicate, but I’m not complaining – well maybe a little :o)

Kreuzberg Apartments – 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 many immigrants. Since I use public transportation, I’ve seen and heard immigrants from everywhere – Africa, Mideast, Australia, 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 indicating they may have experienced deep trauma and tragedy in their lives. They have been helpful and kind – more so than many Germans. Kreuzberg has a large Turkish population and some side streets could be in Istanbul.

Street Art Kreuzberg – commons.wikimedia.org

Germany encourages immigration of “highly skilled professionals” and “scientists”. There is 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

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 peep-hole to see four policemen and quickly opened the door. They were polite, asked several questions, and requested 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.

Bergmannkiez – welt.de

The massive front door to the apartment building closes slowing on a heavy hinge, so anyone determined to enter the building could wait outside and manage to sneak through. I find that slightly scary 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.

These days, German immigration is complicated and difficult. I did cursory research on the process and decided it wasn’t for me. When Schengen visa requirements change in 2021 extended travel is possible and will meet my needs for future trips.

Bergmannkiez Market

Economy

The economy here is bustling and Germans are into their professions and making money – you don’t find many loose ends. Every other car in Berlin is a sparkling Mercedes. Berlin is full of high-tech. So far, I haven’t noticed any encampments or homeless people living in the streets. There are some alcohol or drug addicts.

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 a foreign apartment. 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, private, and cozy. Except for one loud all-night party, it’s been quiet. I’m preparing for holiday festivities and have ear plugs ready.

As a tourist, it’s not possible to rent an apartment in Berlin for less than three months. The German government enforces the rule. Compared to New York, San Francisco, London, or even Munich, rental rates are reasonable.

Angela Merkel – thepressproject.gr

Politics

I’m still trying to figure out what’s happening with German politics. I know there are many changes in the air, with Angela Merkel’s recent resignation as leader of the ruling Christian Democratic Union. Her refugee policy has long been unpopular.

Kreuzberg Church

Music and Arts

Music and arts are the major jackpot in Berlin with everything you could imagine or desire! I’m not great at museums and after a few hours find them overwhelming, so I still have many to visit in Berlin, and the list is growing.

River Spree Kreuzberg – Adobe Stock 81684539 1000

I’ve posted several blogs about live performances attended. There’s great variety and quality. I’m ecstatic and getting my fill of theatre and classical and jazz music. During the last month I’ll focus on museums, Christmas markets, and more music – enough to keep me occupied. Ballet and opera are of interest but pricey ($100+ per performance).

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 fully booked.

dean & david – karriere

The menus are never 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 always friendly and comfortable.

Bergmannkiez – Photography ProdJo

Weather

Weather during October and the first half of November was heavenly. It’s turning cold now, 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 the Christmas Markets where you can buy hot drinks to keep warm.

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 there and booked a small apartment for January. 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 country to visit after Croatia, maybe Albania.

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. I’m not into selfies and it’s complicated getting your picture taken when traveling solo. Before I leave, I’m focused on getting a photo in front of the Brandenburg Gate!

More later…

 

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…

Hot Oregon Summer – Berlin Next

Gendarmenmarkt Berlin – depositphotos.com

Gardening and Wildfires

It’s been a restful, contemplative summer in Oregon working in my garden with deer, wild turkeys, annoying yellow jackets, and a stray Gothic-looking black cat. Sadly, dry and windy conditions combined with record-breaking heat resulted in raging wildfires all around us.

Garden Visitor

Cute Stray Cat

The massive Carr Fire near the California / Oregon border created terrifying “fire tornadoes“. They occur when a fire acquires “vertical vorticity and forms a whirl”. Fire tornadoes can “grow to gargantuan size with winds of over 90 mph”.

Fire Tornado – zmescience.com

Carr Fire Chopper – The Mercury News Bay Area

The Carr Fire ignited in late July. A month later, after “torching more than 200,000 acres,” it’s about 90 percent contained!  Smoke from fires in Oregon, California, Washington, and nearby Colorado and Canada creates a surreal aura, bringing an eerie atmospheric haze, poor air quality, and vivid sunrises and sunsets.

Wildfire Sunset San Francisco Bay – Fstoppers.com

Wildfire Smoke at Sunrise – Jonathan Hayward Canadian Press

Brave Wildfire Fighter – Charlie Nash Photography

Next Long Trip

I’ve started getting into the specifics of my next travel adventure. No matter what, this time I’m traveling with one piece of luggage!

Berlin Boroughs and Districts

Like in 2017, I’ll begin in Europe and eventually make my way back to South Africa. I decided to start in Berlin – a new city for me. I’ve studied Berlin’s East and West boroughs and have a few leads for rental apartments in well-located areas near attractions and transportation – Mitte, Charlottenburg-WilmersdorfFriedrichshain-Kreuzberg, and Neukölln. Rents are reasonable, and the apartments look comfortable.

Museum Island River Spree – Stock Photo

Return to South Africa

I’m apprehensive about violence in many parts of Africa – Congo, Mali, Zimbabwe, Sudan, Kenya, Uganda, et al. Although I’ve never experienced violence during my travels in Africa, six cities in South Africa – Cape Town, Durban, Port Elizabeth, Pietermaritzburg, Rustenburg, and Johannesburg – made the top ten list of the most dangerous cities on the African continent. Xenophobic related violence in South Africa is disturbing. Here in the US, we clearly have our own problems and brand of political tension, civil unrest, violence, and a vast chasm between “left versus right” ideologies…

Berlin Cathedral – Wikimedia.org 

Thankfully Day Zero in Cape Town’s drought is now pushed out beyond 2019, but the government’s move toward land expropriation without compensation is a concern. More than two decades after the end of apartheid, land ownership remains a “highly emotive” subject for South Africans – that may be an understatement. According to the ruling ANC government, white people own 72 percent of private land, black people 4 percent, and other ethnic groups 24 percent.

Berlin Cathedral at Museum Island – 123RF.com

Land expropriation is said to be “the most pressing social issue in the country”. However, some think high crime, corruption, and the “triple-time-bomb of poverty, unemployment, and inequality” are the issues keeping South Africans awake at night.

Kayelitsha Township Outside Cape Town – Dan Kitwood Getty Images

Julius Malema Leader Economic Freedem Fighters (EFF) -blouinnews

Julius Sello Malema Leader Economic Freedom Fighters (EFF) – blouinnews.com

The ANC-led government and members of the militant, aggressive Economic Freedom Fighters (EFF) party differ in their approach to land expropriation. The EFF – founded in 2013 and led by outspoken Julius Sello Malema – is a self-proclaimed “radical leftist, anti-capitalist, anti-imperialist movement that draws inspiration from the broad Marxist-Leninist tradition.

Mmusi Maimane – Leader Democratic Alliance

The Democratic Alliance (DA) – the ANC’s official opposition and second largest political party – accuses both the ANC and EFF of “misleading the public on land expropriation”. They claim to have the best land-reform plan. DA leader Mmusi Maimane says, “there can be no new dawn for South Africa until the ANC is out of power“.

My extended South African visa expires in 2020 – a regular entry (tourist) visa issued at the airport is good for 90 days. I haven’t decided whether to pursue the rigorous renewal process. The “retirement visa” has allowed me to make long trips (up to five years) to explore and better understand South Africa. I especially enjoy the Western Cape, hiking Table Mountain, volunteer work with young children, and vibrant Cape Town – a special and dear place to me. South Africa is a strikingly beautiful but complex and sometimes difficult country that can’t possibly be understood without spending extended time there.

Unter den Linden by Night – 123RF.com

During this period of rapid change, the National Development Plan (NDP) is the country’s detailed proposal addressing key issues for uniting South Africans.The lofty NDP goals to eliminate poverty and reduce inequality are to be implemented by 2030. What little I know of the NDP, it seems overwhelming, but I’m digressing – back to Berlin

Clouds Over Table Mountain from Signal Hill Cape Town – Erik Pronske Getty Images

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The NDP’s goal is to “unite South Africans, unleash the energies of its citizens, grow an inclusive economy, build capabilities, and enable the state and leaders to work together to solve complex problems”…

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Staatsoper Unter den Linden

Berlin State Opera Staatsoper Unter den Linden – Wikipedia

Berlin This Fall

I plan to arrive in Berlin in September. Their fall weather is much like Oregon’s with cool but mild temperatures. When winter comes and it starts getting really cold, I’ll move south – not sure where yet. I’m considering exploring new places versus returning to more familiar areas. New countries of interest include Romania and Albania, but Italy and Spain also have moderate winter climates.

Berlin Brandenburg Gate at Dusk – pond5.com

I’m looking for a three-month rental apartment in the Berlin-Mitte borough, the central section of former East Berlin. “Before the war and division of the city, Mitte was the center of Berlin. It’s regained its former pre-eminence to such an extent that many visitors never see the western side of the city.”

Bode Museum Mitte – Wikimedia.org

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Mitte is the oldest and most historic part of Berlin with many cultural attractions and “ever-expanding restaurant, club, and arts scenes”.

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Strandbar at Bode Museum Mitte

Mitte begins at Potsdamer Platz and the Brandenburg Gate on the east side of Tiergarten Park. The grand boulevard, Unter den Linden, is lined with 18th- and 19th-century palaces and monuments.

Mitte – VanDam StreetSmart Maps

Tiergarten Park – berlijn-blog.nl

Komische Opera House Berlin – operawire.com

I’m excited to attend theater performances and the Berlin opera! Berlin is teeming with performing arts theaters, cabarets, and clubs. The Staatsoper Unter den Linden, Berlin’s main opera house, and the Komische Oper, the third largest, are both in Mitte. Berlin’s Philharmonic Season begins in late September. Other major attractions in the area include Gendarmenmarkt, a neoclassical square, Berliner Dom (Berlin Cathedral), and Museumsinsel (Museum Island) with five major museums. Frivolous activities that top my list are – mingling with locals, hanging out in cafés, overnight side trips, and exploring less-traveled backstreets.

Christmas Berlin – efcollegebreak.com 

Germany’s festive Christmas Markets are legendary. These are the top five:

  1. Weihnachtszauber at the Gendarmenmarkt
  2. Berliner Weihnachtszeit at Roten Rathaus
  3. Wintertraum am Alexa
  4. Winterwelt am Potsdamer Platz
  5. Weihnachtsmarkt am Gedächtniskirche

Christmas Markets Berlin – classictic.com

I don’t speak German but am learning key phrases and pronunciation rules hoping I don’t butcher the language too much. During past travels in Germany, English was spoken everywhere. Mehr später…

Monbijou Park Embankment River Spree