I found myself asking that question repeatedly throughout my stay in Berlin (and throughout this essay). At first I didn’t see why it enchanted so many people who, after visiting as a tourist, decided to become permanent residents. It’s not hard to see what the city has to offer from its various photos under Google Images, the Wikitravel page, or countless other guides. Hell, Wikitravel has a page for each section of the city, allowing you to organize your travel by neighborhood. In them, they mention must-see historical sights like Museum Island, Tiergarten, some various streets like Unter den linden and Friedreichstraße (who thought of this idea? Why are shopping streets now must-sees?)—oh, and we mustn’t forget the Bradenburg Gate, Berlin’s icon.
Like a good little traveler, I did my homework before leaving to see the city for the first time. I researched before, but this time I in more detail where I realized Berlin is HUGE. So I made a list and then set off to tackle it like a shopping list. Reichstag—check, found in aisle two; Gendarmenmarkt—check, hidden in between Checkpoint Charlie and Museum Island in aisle five. I’ve done this type of travel before in Madrid, tourist traveling, and it worked then. Unknowing at the time, I thought Berlin required the same out of me as Madrid. But no. As a larger prize, it required a larger effort out of me.
At first to me, Berlin was just a city staggered with its World War II history (or, you know, history in general. Looking at you, Cold War): its countless Jewish memorials, the red, two-brick line tracing where the Wall used to lie, the preservation of the actual wall remains. I was running around like crazy, using the hell out of the day pass I would’ve bought had I known they were “strict” about it. Where there wasn’t tangible evidence of its past, there were museums housing memories that aren’t meant to be forgotten: the Topography of Terror, the Jewish Memorial Museum, the DDR Museum, the History of Berlin Museum, etc; all placed in common tourist areas so as not to be missed.
Don’t get me wrong, I was impressed at all the beautiful architecture and, say, the Reichstag. But there had also been beautiful architecture in Barcelona, Madrid, Avignon, and Marseille. What made Berlin so different? I can’t count the number of times where I’ve rounded the corner of a building obstructing a historical, beautiful, [overused tourist adjective here] sight only to experience a mini anti-climax. Oh, it was built very well, I’d think. And then I’d move on. I’d begun to think that a week was too much time to discover a city, but…
Around the middle of the week, when I was meandering around Alexanderplatz, I wandered under the S-bahn tracks and was gifted by a musician hosting a private concert in the nook between the foundation and the first pole. His clothes were well-worn, perhaps multiple times without wash, near the feet of his smudged jeans was a half-empty beer bottle. He obviously chose his placement with great care; anywhere else and his voice would’ve petered flat in the open air near the Christmas market booths. But under the bridge, his voice reverberated huskily. I was mesmerized for the length of two songs. He was probably pissed off because I’d been filming him the entire time without signs of future donation—little did he know I was paying in smiles. Kidding.
It was around this time that I realized that I’d been in Alexanderplatz about 10 times so far. First for the tourist checklist, second as a meeting point for one of various free walking tours that I’d gone on, and the other times as a central hub only because I knew the locations of a few free toilets in the area. And, despite my supposed familiarity with the plaza, I really had no connection with it; it still seemed as foreign to me as it had been when I first arrived. (I can’t say the same thing for the toilets though; I got to know those very well.) Same goes to the Bradenburg Gate, the various memorials, and the wall.
Of course, this changed the more I stayed in the city, otherwise I wouldn’t be writing this. This changed so much that I may have gotten a bit upset when an Australian couple from my hostel in Munich advised another girl against going to Berlin—it wasn’t that special, they said. BUT IT IS, I said.
As I continued discovering more and more about the communities in Berlin, places started to take on emotional meaning. The hidden nook near Hackescher Markt is where my first host showed me she liked to have coffee in the summer, home also to a giant metal monster made by one of many of Berlin’s artists; the cheap, cozy Thai restaurant where we shared dinner; the string of small dive bars that I went to after a Couchsurfing event where I met the coolest community of expats and locals. The delicious schwarma place where a guy told me about Berlin’s most famous club where it’s almost guaranteed you have sex that night… or for the next two nights after since the club is opened all weekend. All these glimpses into, interactions with local life helped me, more so than Berlin’s historical monuments, form a clearer picture of the city I was temporarily residing in. Yes, Berlin was quite a large city, but the communities there were actually quite welcoming, manageable, familial. Suddenly, a week wasn’t enough time at all to discover Berlin! What had I been doing for the first half of the week, throw my time out the window? Had I been taking my time for granted?! I needed a do-over!
It’s funny because before heading off to Germany, I expected to spend a majority of my time alone; it was a solo-trip after all, being alone was the logical state of this journey. However, surprisingly, I found myself searching for times to be alone—not often because these Berliners were cool!—what conversation I missed while wandering around Berlin was fully repaid when one of my hosts invited me back in for the night.
In these interactions, I was able to ask locals, “why Berlin?” Its people are generally earning below what they would ever earn anywhere else, the unemployment rate there is double that of Germany’s average, yet… because of its affordability, their salaries were more than enough to live off of AND to sponsor their hobbies; their quality of life here surpassed what they’d known back home. People defiantly declared Berlin their city; the responses I received were generally the same—I had been touring Berlin on a backpacking trip through Europe… and I knew I had to come back. It’s the people of Berlin that make it what it is.
And I’m here to tell you exactly the same thing. Berlin gives off a very specific type of vibe that, unless you put in the time and effort to find, will pass you by. It’s too easy to mistake it as a historical place that is sometimes dirty, often very cheap, and very young. (Actually, did you know that Berlin’s unofficial slogan was ‘poor but sexy’?) Don’t go to Berlin for its history—I mean, sure, do the necessary historical tours of the city and whatnot; you are a tourist, after all, and you can’t leave without seeing such iconic sights. But for me, Berlin’s history is only the environment that houses some amazing communities that I met during my week there. What’s more, it was a place where I really liked who I am.
There will never a point where I feel like I’ve “conquered” Berlin; she learns from her past and continues to progress. There will always be awesome people that I have yet to meet there. There will always be more of myself to discover—to better—in that specific environment. I already know that I’m going to end up back in Berlin at some point for my do-over.
Over the next few weeks, there will be essays on what the hell I did abroad over winter break (maybe spread throughout updates about what I’m currently doing). Through the series, you’ll get to meet new friends, see new sights, and, if I do my job as a writer well, understand why Berlin captivated me the way it did in 7 days. In the meantime, sit back and enjoy this poorly-made monstrosity I made when I was feeling cheesy (all the time since this is my fourth video… ).