Now I don’t like to talk ill of the dead, but I think we can all agree that dangling your newborn baby from a hotel window several stories above ground is a sign of weak parenting. It also, apparently, has become a tourist destination in Berlin. The infamous dangling baby suite, where Michael Jackson waved the body of his young child from the balcony of the Adlon Hotel, was the first stop on my free walking tour of Berlin. Brandenburg Gate be damned; pop cultural history had to come first. This hotel, perhaps the most expensive in the city, has a particular executive suite, which for a mere €15,000 a night can be yours. It also, coincidentally, is the suite Jackson resided in while engaging in questionable paternal activities.
Mic, my tour guide leading the five hour walking tour of the city, felt compelled to share the details of the Jackson story for two reasons. One, he argued, to teach us what not to do should we choose to have children and take them on expensive Europeans vacations. And two because the suite itself– in addition to hosting Jackson– has hosted a variety of important political dignitaries and presidents, making it both a historical and culturally relevant landmark.
On a personal level, it gave me something to aspire to. As a 20-something traversing the European continent with little to no money, my travels were colored by hostel beds and breakfasts. Souvenir shopping was reduced to €0.50 postcards. And the only museums worth visiting were ones that were free to students. The Adlon Hotel and all those who were fortunate enough to spend a night there reminded me that there were people with money, and perhaps someday I might graduate from hostel living to a more comfortable sleeping arrangement.
Now don’t misunderstand, I completely enjoyed my low-budget form of wanderlust indulgence. In fact, I feel that your first experience in a new place should be on a small budget. When you have little money to spend, you are forced to go out and experience the city– the urban landscape; the parks; the museums; the outdoor cafes. You cannot hide away in the comfort of American commercialization. In my case, I chose to take an extended free walking tour of the city, even though it was January and Berlin was covered in a thin sheet of ice. And though by the end of the tour I had little to no sensation in my fingers or toes, I felt I had acquired something quite valuable– a basic cultural understanding of Berlin before and after World War II and the Cold War.
Perhaps the most moving moment on the tour was at the Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe, which featured a variety of blocks– all the same color, but assuming different shapes. Designed by Peter Eisenman, the memorial is composed of exactly 2771 of these concrete blocks that eerily seem to consume you as you make your way through it. My tour guide let me linger in the memorial, and challenged me to consider the following: if it appeared that these blocks extended interminably, consider how much space would be required for 6,000,000 blocks– one for every Jew that perished. The enormity of the number struck me, and I started to tear. For the first time since my arrival in Europe, I recognized an ugly reality about humanity. However, Mic, the ever-attentive tour guide, was quick to note how far Germany had come since the war and the efforts it had made to ensure that a similar history would not repeat itself.
In fact, in order to ensure that his faithful tourists would not depart the tour with tears frozen to their icy-red cheeks, he thought it only appropriate to act out the story of the fall of the Berlin Wall in front of the German Parliament. To say his theatrical performance was epic is to under-estimate his value as both a tour guide and historian. His detailed divulgence of the fateful November night, combined with his ability and agility to run and slide across the snow-covered stairs of the government building made his history lesson more enjoyable than any one I ever received in school. And that says something, as history was my favorite subject in elementary, middle, and high school. I felt I could finally grasp the importance of the historical event– and after having viewed the Berlin Wall itself on the tour– the story of its downfall had that much more meaning.
History, I learned, comes alive in the places it which it has transpired. My only recommendation– save the history lesson for warmer weather, or at least wait until the ice melts.