When JFK visited Berlin in 1963 he famously proclaimed, “Ich bin ein Berliner!” to show his support for the city and all of West Germany two years after the Berlin Wall was constructed by the Eastern side. Unfortunately, what this actually translates to in English is, “I am a jelly-filled donut.”
I visited Berlin for the first time this summer, with high expectations. I must admit, I’ve always had a soft spot for Germany. I studied the German language briefly in school, and my father lived in the country for more than two years doing postdoc work. He remembers his time there with great fondness; he became nearly fluent in German, had a sexy German girlfriend who got him into smoking, and became convinced that Germany was cleaner, more interesting, and more prosperous than England.
Fittingly, it was my dad who met me in Berlin at the train station. It was the first time I had seen him in six months. He gave me a warm hug, and told me that I should brace myself- we were about to get on the metro and apparently it was more confusing than calculus. I felt rather spoiled by the metro system in Prague. It’s not the cleanest or prettiest, but with only three lines, it’s pretty easy to figure out. The one in Berlin was not. We were fine once we were on the right train, but working out the map of the metro and determining which direction to take was a nightmare. Once inside, it was all so German- clean, swift and efficient. But during my entire trip I could see very little difference between the metro map and a twisted ball of string.
Finally, we made it to our hotel, which was right next to Checkpoint Charlie, the famous crossing point between East and West Germany during the Cold War. I greeted my stepmother, who was sprawled out across her bed in her nightie, looking like she would never move again. The journey to Berlin, she explained, was very uncomfortable because their train seats were stolen by an extremely rude and rotund Bulgarian woman, so they had to stand. We relaxed and chatted in our rooms for a bit, then went out for dinner at a nearby sushi restaurant. The sushi was a bit boring, but it was wonderful to eat fresh fish (a rarity in Prague) again.
I only see my parents about twice a year, which is fine, because it makes our time together special rather than stressful; there are many laughs and few arguments (so far). They had just finished a long Baltic cruise, stopping in Tallin, St. Petersburg and Stockholm along they way, and they were exhausted. I told them all the latest news from Prague; my trip to Slovenia, finishing my job at the Kindergarten, my awesome week teaching in Zamberk and my general excitement about next year. They seemed pleased, and said that everyone back in the states always asks them when I’ll be coming home. Their answer was always the same: “I think she is home.” After dinner, we tried a beer at a nice pub next door, then headed back to the hotel to sleep.
The next two days was all about sightseeing. We visited the famous Pergamon Museum with the amazing Gates of Istar, browsed the markets, explored the errie Jewish Museum with a room devoted to victims of the Holocaust, tried German sausage and Berliner Weisse beer (which looked and tasted like a beer cocktail). A long bus tour of the city took us to most of the major sights including the remains of the famous wall.
On my first day, I wasn’t sure quite what I thought about Berlin. For such an important city, I was surprised by how ugly it seemed. It had none of the pristine beauty or atmosphere of Prague. And where Prague was small and walkable, Berlin was huge, complex and sprawling. There were old buildings in tatters next to shiny new modern ones, monuments next to walls, museums around the corner from strip clubs. What a weird place.
But the more time I spent in Berlin, the more I grew to appreciate the city as a completely different place from Prague. It was not beautiful, but it was exciting. The place had been destroyed and rebuilt so many times, and so much had happened here, it gave me the sense of a grand city that had risen from the ashes of an old one. The Germans wanted to preserve the history of the city- that was what was most important to them.
Although I only spent a short time there, I would gladly go back to see more- there were countless interesting things to see. And yes, I would definitely claim, “Ich bin ein Berliner!” Even if that makes me a donut.