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I’m Emily. I’m a writer living an unexpected expat life fueled by coffee and adventure. Home is where my art is.

(Currently: Brussels)

City Break: Thinking About Walls in Berlin

City Break: Thinking About Walls in Berlin

Sometime back in December we looked at the upcoming three-day weekends and consulted the Oracle of Airfare (aka Google Flights). She dangled ridiculously cheap tickets to Berlin in front of us for MLK Day and there was never a question where we’d end up in January.

I was excited to explore a city known for its fashion and design scene. Joe was thrilled to be headed back to Berlin after 15ish years since his last visit.

When we booked, there’s no way we could have known that we’d be boarding a plane several weeks into the Great Shutdown of 2019 with no end in sight (at the time).

Looking back, I wonder if the Fates thought it would be funny to send us to a city known for a wall just as our own destinies seemed inextricably linked to another one that hadn’t even been built yet.


Dates
19 Jan - 21 Jan, 2019

Travel to Berlin
It was impossible to pass up €16 return trip tickets to Berlin for the long weekend, even if those tickets were on Ryanair. {There’s nothing wrong with budget airlines. However, most Ryanair flights from Brussels are actually out of the Charleroi airport to our south. The parking fees and the extra hassle don’t usually make it worth the cheap fares for us.}

We “splurged” by getting one assigned seat (€4) so that we could sit together on the outbound and exit row seats (€9 each) on the way home. Round trip: a whopping €54 (apx. $62) for the two of us to get to Berlin and back again. {Those familiar with Ryanair will notice that we opted out of baggage fees by sticking to one under-seat bag each.}

From our very first stop — the Topography of Terror — Berlin demanded reflection.

From our very first stop — the Topography of Terror — Berlin demanded reflection.

What we saw, what we did, and what we ate
Saturday
We arrived mid-morning after taking an 8am flight. It’s an easy S-Bahn ride into the city and we were quickly in the Mitte district to drop off our bags before heading out to explore. Because it was within walking distance of the hotel, we cruised past Checkpoint Charlie but already knew we didn’t want to linger at the tourist trap. Our first real stop at the Topography of Terror site made me realize this trip probably wasn’t going to be as light and fluffy as some of our adventures are.

We were both a little quiet as walked through the memorial site and thought of the Holocaust remembrance work we did back in our university days. The mood certainly didn’t lighten as we made our way up to the section of Berlin Wall that still remains standing at the memorial. Looking through the cracks between the old east and west, the irony wasn’t lost on us that we were literally standing in front of one of history’s most (in)famous walls while we metaphorically stood in the shadow of another.

We needed a break and some lunch, so we walked the short distance to the Mall of Berlin where the food court didn’t disappoint — cheap, fast and diverse options. People watching and comparing notes brought a bit of levity our way, which we didn’t even realize we’d need before our afternoon.

“Not fluffy” would be one way to describe our tour of Berlin-Hohenschönhausen. “Completely unnerving” would probably be a better description of the 90+ minutes we spent at the memorial. The horrors experienced there — first in the Soviet “camp” and then in the Stasi remand prison — still seem to linger in the air, even 30 years later. Almost two weeks have passed and I’m still grasping for words to adequately describe just how easy it was for me to imagine exactly how the Stasi elicited confessions.

We were both pretty quiet as we made our way back towards Mitte. By the time we got to Alexanderplatz, it was long past time for a currywurst and a bit of fun. Luckily, Joe spotted a thrift store to bop into. If you’re in Berlin and looking for a vintage fur or leather coat, make a stop at the Humana just a block or so off the Alexanderplatz U-Bahn station. I wish I could say that I scored a perfect find, but the hunting alone was enjoyable and it was cheap entertainment.

For dinner, we went searching for phở. Berlin, like my adopted hometowns of Minneapolis/St. Paul, has a large Vietnamese expat community and I suspected I could find some good food that tasted like home. I was right and, while we didn’t end up at the restaurant we were aiming for, we made a fortunate mistake by accidentally walking into VAN ANH. Lovely ambience and even better food — my soup itch was thoroughly scratched for about half the price we’d pay in Brussels.

After a long day and more than 20,000 steps, we were tired but not so tired to skip a nightcap. Joe enjoyed a couple of craft beers at Pfefferbräu while I discovered Thomas Henry “Spicy Ginger,” a new German soda to fall in love with. And then we trudged our way back to the hotel. I’m pretty sure I was asleep before my head even hit the pillow.

Sunday
We’re not brunch people. But a long Saturday called for a Sunday lie in and we rolled down to the hotel’s breakfast buffet later than we normally would. We took a leisurely approach to our muesli and eggs while we figured out what we were doing for the day — aside from the trip to the Stasi prison and our plan to visit the Reichstag on Monday, we we traveling in our normal go-with-the-flow style. (Read: we had nothing planned.)

Joe suggested we check out the flea market at Mauerpark — if you find yourself in Berlin on a Sunday morning, it’s worth a trip to check out the stalls with interesting artisan goods and random flea-markety finds.

From there, we headed towards the Berlin Wall Memorial and almost missed the fact that it actually spans several city blocks. If you only have a short time, start at the Documentation Center. We explored the entire memorial with the exception of the Visitor Center which we completely missed. I was already in a reflective mood, but our time at the memorial pushed me further into it.

A few hours later, we were ready for another breather and a late lunch so headed out to find Cô Cô, a bánh mì deli that I’d discovered via a travel blog. Recommendations from the internet are usually hit or miss but we weren’t disappointed: cheap, fast and DELICIOUS. “11/10” as Joe put it.

And then, continuing our less-than-lighthearted approach to the weekend, we headed to the Berlin Jewish Museum. We were actually surprised to find that the museum — which certainly does devote plenty of space to the atrocities of the Shoah — left us feeling relatively hopeful.

We filled our evening with a stop at one of the Burgermeister outposts, some more bumming around the city via transit and foot, and a stop for a nighttime selfie at the Brandenburg Gate. Somewhere around 19,898 steps, I gave up for the day and begged a respite for my weary feet.

Monday
Pintrest is my travel guide and it didn’t point me wrong by helping me find the link to pre-register (several weeks in advance) for a free tour of the Reichstag Building. I just wish somebody would have warned me that our official invitation for 9:00am would advise us to arrive by 8:30am in order to clear security. When Google maps gave us the choice between a 25 minute walk versus a 22 minute U-Bahn ride, we took the better option and rented Lime bikes.

One really hasn’t lived until they’ve taken their first electric bike ride through Berlin’s morning rush hour traffic. It was thrilling. And by “thrilling,” I mean it was somewhat terrifying to be zipping down a busy street, sometimes without a bike lane, trying to stay caught up with Joe. (Who, by the way, acted like we hadn’t just risked our lives in order to see where German democracy lives.)

The tour was fascinating — we learned plenty about the building’s history (including some of the more sordid parts) and the deliberate attention paid to fostering transparency in its current incarnation. We even got to spend some time in the gallery of the plenary chamber marveling at the 60m wide eagle that keeps watch above the Bundestag. Fun fact: the building’s architect wasn’t a fan and called it a “fat hen.” (The nickname fits.) The tour’s climax is a climb up the building’s iconic dome for a panoramic view of the city below. It’s possible to skip the tour and just visit the dome but you shouldn’t.

From the Reichstag, we made a pilgrimage to KaDeWe — literally the “department store of the West.” I couldn’t convince Joe that we might actually need a €200 toaster, but I did manage to do a bit of damage in the stationary department. It wasn’t my fault: there was an entire bookcase of LEUCHTTURM1917 journals just begging to come home with me!

We rode out the rest of our long weekend by spending a rather unremarkable afternoon simultaneously soaking up the sun and bracing against the suddenly frigid wind. While we we weren’t really ready to leave the city, we were plenty cold enough to be glad when it was time to make our way to Schönefeld. In the saddest airport lounge this side of capitalism, we drank a few “free” lattes before making our way out to the tarmac and climbing up the ladder to the no-frills jet waiting to carry us home.

The dome at the Reichstag is cool. The tour of the building is even cooler.

The dome at the Reichstag is cool. The tour of the building is even cooler.

Lodging
Courtyard Berlin City Center. We broke our usual “no [American] chains [in Europe]” rule for convenience, price and a breakfast-included bonus deal. After all, we do have to earn those Marriott points every now and then… The hotel was exactly as you’d expect — clean, comfortable and nothing particularly special to write home about.

Getting around town
Berlin’s transit system is relatively easy to navigate and the trains run on time. We did the math and figured out that day passes would get us the most bang for the Euro at €7/day (or €7.70 each on the days we needed to get to/from the airport). You won’t find fare gates to get in/out of the stations but be ready to show a valid and validated ticket if you’re lucky enough to get audited by fare enforcement. (Schwarzfahren – riding without a ticket – may be a bit of a national pastime, but do so at your own peril. We’re veteran transit riders and still didn’t spot the plainclothes Kontrolleurs until they were asking for proof we’d paid).

His and Hers top Berlin travel tips
His: Forget schweinshaxe, Berlin has incredibly diverse food options including excellent Vietnamese food.
Hers: When it comes to Berlin fashion, black is the new black. Much like in NYC, you’ll fit right in if you decide to embrace your dark side. But those incredibly chic and just-a-little-punk engineer boots you bought specifically for the trip? Maybe break them in before trekking all over — Berlin’s a big city and your feet aren’t as tough as they’re dressed up to be.

Would we visit again?
The real question is, would we move there? (The answer is probably yes.)

Lipstick and purpose.

Lipstick and purpose.

10 Ways to survive a shutdown.

10 Ways to survive a shutdown.