Saturday, October 12, 2019

Berlin - Gritty, in a Good Way

During her semester abroad in Copenhagen, Ellen visited many cities in Europe.  The place she most wanted to return to and explore in depth was Berlin.  She applied for an internship at ExBerliner, an English-language culture magazine in Berlin.

ExBerliner hired Ellen for a three-month unpaid internship from August through October.  Ellen had the idea that she would do some low-level work for the magazine and have time to explore Europe. Not so much.  Ellen was immediately thrown into reporting and writing.  She has been kept super-busy U-bahning all over Berlin to review cafes, museum openings, theater performances, dance classes, and other news items.

If the downside is that she hasn’t been able to leave Berlin, the upside is that she has thoroughly explored Berlin, and now has 15 articles on the ExBerliner website and in the print magazines.

Larry and I went to visit Ellen in September.  At her suggestion, we booked an AirBnB in Prenzlauer Berg, a neighborhood in former East Berlin that is now flush with funky restaurants (Israeli, Nepalese, Vietnamese) filled with young German families.

Berlin was bombed extensively in WWII.  Add to that the destruction of anything deemed “capitalist” in communist-era East Berlin, and I expected the city to be boring and gray with bad infrastructure and ugly buildings.  I was wrong.

One of the first things you notice is all the trees.  Berlin is remarkably green (at least in September!).  There are hundreds of parks, large and small.  The river Spree runs through Berlin and there are many canals and lakes.  We took an enjoyable tour-boat ride on the Spree through the city center, complete with steins of beer and English-language headphones.

It is actually very hard to tell which parts of Berlin were on the East German side of the Berlin Wall.  Since the Wall fell in 1991, Berliners have made a concerted effort to re-unify the city and to spruce things up.

One of the notable aspects of Berlin is all the graffiti.  It is everywhere, and maybe not to everyone’s taste, but I liked it.  There are also still empty lots and construction and some of the parks are unkempt.  Ellen says that Berliners want to city to appear gritty and edgy so that the rents will stay reasonable.

Overall, Berlin is an extremely livable city, with a relatively low cost of living and a truly excellent public transportation system.  There are little späti (late night grocery stores) everywhere, so you never have to go more than a few blocks before you can refresh yourself with a bottle of Berliner Kindl beer and a Wunderbar (my favorite German candy bar).

My guidebooks strongly suggested a trip to Potsdam, a city 45 minutes outside of Berlin where several of the Friedrichs built palaces and resided.  (We went to a lot of museums and attempted to absorb some Prussian history, but mostly what we learned is that all the Prussian nobility were called Friedrich something.)

The palace I found most interesting was Sanssouci.  It was built around 1745 as a country retreat by Friedrich the Great, who was definitely gay, for his lads-only parties.  The baroque decorations are over-the-top, with lots of statues of nude men wrestling and depictions of Bacchus, the god of wine.  There is also a large Roman bathhouse.  (nudge nudge, wink wink)

Friedrich had a sumptuous music room, because he played and composed flute music.  I’m not saying that’s an exclusively gay thing to do, but it certainly didn’t please his extremely militaristic father, Friedrich the Soldier King.

In fact, the Soldier King disapproved of Friedrich’s “ummanly” pursuits so much that as a young man Friedrich tried to escape Germany with his tutor.  They were caught and his father made him watch his tutor be executed. Yikes.

Unsurprisingly, after his father’s death, Friedrich indulged his unmanly interests to the max and built himself a lavish party palace dedicated to poetry, music, and wine-drinking.

The palace grounds are extensive, and unlike every other cultural venue in Berlin, open past 5 pm.  Larry, Ellen, and I wandered the grounds, peeking in at the windows of all the closed outbuildings and palaces.  Then we stumbled upon a food truck in the crook of a stream that was selling beers and Aperol Spritzes.

The appropriately named “Eden Café” had a few tables but also provided a stack of lawn chairs and blankets that you could take out into the grounds.  This is the sort of unexpected pleasure that makes travel so rewarding.

We spread out a blanket along the burbling stream and enjoyed our drinks as the sun set, surrounded by adorable German babies and sheep.

After neatly folding and returning our blanket and glasses (very German), we continued to wander our way to a bus stop on the far side of the grounds.  There weren’t any restrooms, so we each had to dart into a copse of trees and relieve ourselves.  Somehow it just felt right and democratic to pee on grounds that were once the exclusive domain of the nobility.

Berlin is a great city and I would love to return some day to explore and drink more excellent beer.  Ellen has another few weeks there and she is already sad about leaving.  As it says on all the Berliner Pilsner advertisements, “Berlin, Du Bist So Wunderbar”.

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