My first time in Deutschland was great. Berlin is a fascinating place, not least because of its fractious history and subsequent, phenomenal regeneration – less than three decades since the falling of the Wall, barely 70 years since the end of WWII, and it’s a thriving capital within Europe’s strongest economy. Germany’s continued innovation and dedication to a better future is inspiring and astonishing.
Not only was it fun to practise my pidgin German, but I found the people friendly, the transport system efficient, and an ambience which was both multicultural and distinct.
Berlin reminds me of London in terms of geographical size, but its vast green spaces, three rivers and population of less than half of the UK capital’s make it seem a lot more spacious. Quite frankly, it feels like an industrial wasteland at points – yards of graffiti-splashed abandoned buildings and machinery; unloved metalwork laid bare; crumbling brick chutes left to withstand the elements astride train stations.
But it’s still, undoubtedly, full of life. I didn’t go out, so I didn’t experience the ’24-hour party’ culture that the city is reputed to have. I did, however, find a wonderful Ethiopian/African restaurant named Blue Nile, about ten minutes’ walk from the Jewish Museum.
It was kind of like an enlarged version of my favourite London equivalent, Kokeb, with a full bar, lovely authentic decor, and ambient music overhead. People of all nationalities were sat around piles of the staple bread, injera, with delicious-looking dishes which I obviously ordered in abundance.
Of course, it tasted amazing – I was chuffed to have found an Ethiopian so close to where I was staying. There are some other Ethiopian restaurants in the city, too, according to Google Maps. The strong presence of my favourite cuisine has definitely cemented Berlin as a top city in my view.
Aside from sampling the culinary offerings, I spent some time in the eminent Jewish Museum, which was helpfully close to my Airbnb apartment. It was humbling to the bone. It is extremely informative, and the building itself has been beautifully crafted by Jewish architect Daniel Libeskind to reflect the sense of loss which permeates ‘Jewishness’ today. I believe my adult ticket was €12, and it was absolutely worth it.
Jewish history is achingly sad, full of prejudice and endless persecution at the hands of so many. Their reputation with regards to finance actually stems from a medieval law in Europe which prohibited the accumulation of interest for Christians, and also forbade Jews from working in ‘normal’ jobs, leading many of them to become money-lenders – or ‘bankers’ – one of the only occupations open to them at this time. It’s in part this legacy which has led to the success of Jewish families like the Rothschilds, whose banking dynasty made them the wealthiest family in human history.
Jewish tradition has always placed incredible value on education: when Christians educated only their boys, Jews determined that every child, male or female, must become literate that he or she might have the ability to read their own Hebrew Bible. This may be another reason that Jews have been historically successful, and perceived – however incorrectly – to be money-hungry.
The Jewish Museum didn’t shock me the way my visit to Auschwitz did three years ago. But you can’t fail to be moved by the collective experience of this amazingly resilient race/religion, and the way that it’s been interpreted in the sculptures of Libeskind; it leaves you feeling cold, hollow and yes – a bit depressed.
But the survival of Judaism and Jews (I make the distinction because of its interesting blurring of race/religion) is also humanity’s greatest success story, in a way. Like the nation of Germany, Jewish people have somehow found the strength to pick themselves up. In spite of everything, they’ve continued to survive – and thrive, no less -reaching the upper echelons of almost every profession, be that in medicine, law, acting, music, finance or the media.
Just a few to get you started: Mark Zuckerberg (Facebook founder), Jesse Eisenberg (actor), Sergey Brin (Google founder), Bob Dylan (musician), Steven Spielberg (filmmaker), Dominique Strauss-Kahn (former IMF MD), Ben Bernanke (economist), Simon and Garfunkel (musicians), Michael Bloomberg (founder of Bloomberg Media), Steve Ballmer (Microsoft CEO 2000-2004), Roy Cohn (lawyer), Tony Kushner (playwright), Sacha Baron Cohen (comedian/actor), Lucian Freud (artist, grandson of Sigmund), Woody Allen (director/actor), Jake Gyllenhaal (actor), Daniel Radcliffe (actor), Mila Kunis (actress), Jon Stewart (presenter), Ben Stiller (actor), Dustin Hoffman (actor), Natalie Portman (actress), Brian Epstein (the Beatles’ manager), Patricia Arquette (actress), Peter Sellers (actor), Adam Levine (musician), Kate Hudson (actress) … the list goes on and on.
Later that day, I headed over to the other side of town to pay a visit to Tempelhofer Feld in the cool area of Kreuzberg (the Hackney of Berlin, perhaps?). This enormous airport, formerly Flughafen Berlin-Tempelhof, was shut down for good in 2008, and it’s taken on a life of its own since – serving as an open air concert venue, fitness arena and leisure park.
You can stop and have a drink and some chips in the Biergarten:
Even on my whistle-stop tour, I noticed that Berlin has small pockets of charm within its vastness – I suppose this is the kind of thing I’d come to love if I ever lived here.
I spotted café-lined canals and artistic installations in the East, as well as beautiful architecture on a sunny day in Kreuzberg, which in itself is a really charming area.
Another fab museum I went to is the DDR Museum near Alexanderplatz. The area around it is very pleasant, too; the river meanders past a large cathedral (the St Paul’s of Berlin, perhaps), and there are lots of places to sit along the river’s edge.
The DDR Museum is small, but presents information in a concise, interactive and amusing way. I loved learning about East Germany and was surprised to find out that it wasn’t all doom and gloom – in fact, Soviet-ruled Berlin had some positively progressive policies, such as free childcare for all and a free summerhouse for every family (!).
But above everything else, by far the coolest thing I did was visit Badeschiff, the floating (and thankfully heated) swimming pool which sits atop the River Spree in the East of the city.
It was a cold and breezy day, and upon arriving I was horrified to hear that the pool would be closing in less than 10 minutes – so clothes were stripped, costume donned and in I jumped to enjoy it as much as I could in the remaining time.
It was the highlight of my trip. I’ve never swum in such a pool before, and being almost eye-level with swans gliding along the river feels quite bizarre. Not least, the view of the city is fantastic – you can see right along the river.