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After the door clicks shut, it is dark, save the slit of gray light streaming in dully from the top corner of the room.

This empty silo is shaped like the steeple of a church, or the hull of a boat, but jaggedly cut, and stretches 79 feet high. Between hushed footsteps and a weighted silence comes the distant sound of air swirling. It whooshes and whistles and twirls like ribbon around a spool. It makes the silence all the more noticeable and uneasy, the void oppressive and haunted.

This is the Holocaust Tower, located in the zigzagging complex of the Berlin Jewish Museum. Its architect, American-born Daniel Libeskind, designed it with this emptiness in mind as an homage to the tumultuous German-Jewish history. The freestanding building is primarily underground, needing a lower level passageway to reach the permanent exhibit, and is a perfect representation of Berlin as a city and as a history. I began here while visiting, in the axes that orbited around Jewish people living in Germany between the ’30s and ’40s: the Axis of Exile, the Axis of the Holocaust, and the Axis of Continuity.

The Axes

In a crisscross manner of angled windows and walls, where direction doesn’t seem to exist, it is as disconcerting to maneuver as it is to humanly wrap your head around the heaviness of this history, which saw foundations and developments right in this city. Behind glass sit collections of things. I don’t say things for lack of a better word, or to denounce their worth, but because that’s what most of these preserved pieces of people’s lives are: things. They are ordinary kitchen utensils, family photos, sculptures. They are menorahs and letters. But they breathe with lives that shared in moments, big and small, with them.

The uneven structure demands attention and caution. It is, in a way, the injustices mirrored in the floor plan that also houses everyday treasures of lives affected and, ultimately, desecrated by blind hate.

The Garden of Exile

At the end of the Axis of Exile is a door that leads visitors out to the Garden of Exile, executing the same, uncomfortable disproportion with 49 tilted towers of concrete that rise in strict rows. I tripped in places, and steadied myself in others, trying uselessly to center my balance but knowing, here, there was no such thing. and admired the olive willows that fanned out over the tops of the columns. It is the only place in the museum that creates a perfect square.

It’s similar to the Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe in Berlin, where the feeling of being in a maze overcomes, and one whose minimalism leaves the most room for reflection and understanding. Even with others around, and colliding at intersections, it hushed and isolated. But the olive willows the bloom above leave room for hope and a tomorrow that climbs above the past.

Cherchez La Femme

While I was there, a new exhibit on the next floor up, Cherchez La Femme, featured. It explored the customs of religions around the world and the controversy regarding headscarves. I’ve never considered that they are a universal tradition, worn by nuns and brides as well as women in the Muslim order, and I was happy to be made aware of that. We are more interconnected as humans than many would like to believe.

There were points made on the contradictory argument about how a woman chooses to dress herself, whether she is wearing “too little” or “too much” clothing, and testimonies through photos and videos of why women decide to wear headscarves, all of which converged at the societal uprising based on independent thought and choice. Displayed were posters from the women’s international marches following Donald Trump’s inauguration, and political cartoons of the xenophobia that has seized people globally.

I think a lot about how we are living in a juncture of history being made (seemingly) daily, and always right before our eyes. We are witnesses of the present, and bearers of the past for the future. Being surrounded by contemporary cultural and social protests, their influence on display in a museum, was and remains surreal. To look at it is to see the now, and the ghosts of eras gone, as they bleed together. But the exhibit reclaimed female identity and empowerment: it not only educated, but revived.

The Shalekhet Installation

Within the museum’s Memory Void is the Shalekhet installation, also called Fallen Leaves. Over ten-thousand open-mouthed faces, carved from iron plates, lay piled on top of one another and spread into an expanse of darkness. They symbolize the innocents victimized by violence and war, maybe scattered along the floor for that state of vulnerability. If you made a noise, it would bounce between the walls, settle into metallic faces, and return to somberness.

The Permanent Exhibit

Upstairs is centuries’ worth of Jewish history and tradition as people migrated through Europe. At the top landing, a set of stairs runs into a white wall, the story incomplete and, despite the cycle of oppression and intolerance, continuous.

A wish tree greeted me at the entrance, where a concealed staircase allows visitors to climb up among the branches and, finding a red balloon and pencil below, hung a wish of my own in the leaves.

Traditions of bah mitzvahs and Chanukah, tales of designers and artists, and various artifacts from the Holocaust took me through the religion and the tragedy–a bookend, in a sense.

I loved immersion in a religion that I really didn’t know much about at all before visiting. Most of my knowledge stems from history classes, but only those delved into the Holocaust. The context of the faith holds so much more importance to me now, and to understand their customs was a beautiful revelation.

The Berlin Jewish Museum

Lindenstraße 9-14

You can purchase tickets to the Berlin Jewish Museum here. I recommend reserving about 3 hours of your day to this museum, but if you have longer, certainly there is plenty to see here that you can satisfyingly stay longer. If I’d had another day, I would have gone back again.

Directions that best suit your route to the museum can be found here.

The Berlin Jewish Museum is, by far, my favorite thing that I did while in Berlin, and I can’t wait to pay a return visit.

Have you been the Berlin Jewish Museum?

One of my dad’s life mantras, absorbed into my own, is “if it’s free, it’s for me!” I know that free doesn’t always mean the best quality, like a free swipe into the dining hall of any given college, but it can be awesome, too. So when I was planning for Berlin, I began researching for free walking tours. I had done one while on a trip to Edinburgh, Scotland, and as that one had proven spectacular, it seemed fitting to try again.

My first full day was spent in part taking a free walking tour.

I recommend one to anyone who feels overwhelmed by the thought of deciphering the code of a new city (read: everyone. Even if intimidation isn’t a factor, it’s nice to see the lay of the land and listen to the history. Tour guides are storytellers, here to further the narrative of a place, and bring insight that you wouldn’t gather otherwise.

Granted, there are plenty of facts that I could have easily Googled (like Berlin not becoming the capital of Germany until 1871), but if you’re presently in the middle of the history, why ask the internet when you can hear it firsthand from a knowledgeable person?

I love listening to stories, so standing, staring at my surroundings, and being recited tales of the past at said surroundings is, in my opinion, one of the best ways to engage with place. Even as an avid reader, I can only focus on so much history on the screen and in front of me at once.

So I reserved a spot with the Original Free Berlin Tour.

After circling the general area of the meeting point, finally found and stepped into the crowd of other tour-goers at the one80 hostel, near Alexanderplatz. There was a commotion of chatter, of visitors and guests of the hostel and a confusing blend of two tour groups, mainly comprising of Americans, huddled as one, and one guy came up to me to confirm that he was in the right spot.

We chatted for a bit, he from Texas and traveling across the continent for two weeks, flying by the seat of his pants as to his next European destination. I wish I had the same wherewithal, but my indecisive and overthinking tendencies would probably result in me staying up all night, scrolling through the endless options of places to go the next day, shutting down from too many options and trying to not even think about what my activities would be, and ignoring it all in the name of cake.

He mentioned Copenhagen, and I beamed, having just returned and still on a high from its beauty. “It’s expensive,” I said, repeating myself in emphasis, “but so, so gorgeous.” He would consider.

Two guides from the Original tour appeared, checking off names and ensuring us that we would be departing shortly. A few minutes past 10am, running more on Irish time than German time, we left. I had run to the restroom in the limbo of waiting, guessing I would be safe in hurrying off for three minutes, and upon returning to the lobby found it empty. I sprinted out of the hostel, catching a pack of twenty headed down the sidewalk to my right, and partook in my least favorite form of exercise to meet them. Along the way, I passed one of the two guides from the hostel and he looked at me, saying brightly, “Don’t worry! They just left!” Breathless, I thanked him and, on attaching myself to the group, trailed along as we made our way to Alexanderplatz.

Our tour lasted about three hours and twenty minutes, 2/3 of it spent under a hot sun, the last third blanketed in clouds (and, 35 minutes after we wrapped up, the likes of a tropical storm-sized nor’easter). Our guide, a German woman in her early 20s who, like many in Berlin, moved here, showed us every nook and cranny of the city. We began at the world clock, a phenomenal turret-style clock displaying the time of every country in the world. In the distance stood the TV tower, which we were told stands 40 meters taller than the Eiffel Tower.

Insider knowledge doubles the curiosity of a place.

If I were simply exploring Berlin via museums, visitor centers, and bicycles, I probably wouldn’t have learned that most of the squares look as they do because of bombing during World War II, and may not have noticed the hundreds of bullet holes that characterize columns, pillars, buildings. The knowledge that the city’s oldest church is only the oldest by default–the oldest was decimated in the war–wouldn’t have been mine. I would see the juxtaposed architecture, the grand Berlinerdom (built in only ten years and colored in ash because of, again, bombing) standing proudly beside buildings of the mid- to late- twentieth century, and probably only gaze in wonder at the blend of styles, not at the need the city had for rebuilding.

 

Berlin is, in part, the way it is because of the war, and the daily attacks they received.

It has reinvented itself as an international hub, creating in its wake a unique, modern, and wholly unbeatable culture. In a way, I think, it was made over by the disillusioned, those in question of society, the ones wanting something flashy and exciting without ever leaving its roots behind. Many monuments and buildings aren’t in their original locations anymore, but still they stand.

While walking along the Spree River, our guide pointed out a grand building in the middle of construction. It is to resemble Versailles, which the original structure in that spot first was modeled after. It was torn down, and two other buildings have stood in its place until the government grew tired of the look and sent them crashing to the ground. When it’s done, it will display Prussian artifacts.

With our guide, we crossed paths with Brandenburg Gate (where the Berlin Wall once ran, and on each side of the wall, concerts would be hosted to out-entertain the other), the Reichstag, Checkpoint Charlie, the Currywurst Museum, the site of Hitler’s bunker, what were formerly the Nazi’s headquarters, and the Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe. We visited the site of an underground library, which can be viewed from a square of glass in the ground, and where Nazis would gather to burn books they deemed dangerous to the regime.

It was eye-opening to be in a city whose history is so deeply aligned with the Third Reich and the Holocaust, because there remembrance and twinges of shame are evident. It isn’t a shame directed at the city, but at the events that unfolded in and around its boundaries. In those areas, silence feels appropriate and encouraged. The city doesn’t hide into itself: it doesn’t spare the grisly details. It is simultaneously sparse and whole.

Opting for a walking tour was the best choice I made while there.

The rest of the time, I could explore with a new light drawn on the city, recalling moments and events that made Berlin feel even more complex, raw, and beautiful. It is unrecognizable in places, sharp and soft rolled into one; and hurt; and healing; but still it remains. Always it remains.

BOOKING INFORMATION

You can reserve your spot on the Original Berlin Free Walking  Tour here. Tours last between 2.5 and 3.5 hours, with a 15-minute lunch/restroom break.

I have had such a hard time putting my time in Berlin into words. It was four days as multilayered as the city itself, engulfed in history, expats, and affordability. My curiosity about this sprawling metropolis and those lost generation-ers among us who have given Berlin its claim to fame made for the perfect storm of a trip there. Though I wasn’t daring enough to take on their illustrious nightclub scene, I left, for lack of an actual word (see what I mean?), whirlwinded.

So my way in today? Food. And beer.

Schillerkiez, Berlin

I was staying in an AirBnb in Schillerkiez, the third rental I’d made as the previous two cancelled on me within a week of confirming my stay. Superstitious me initially took it as an omen, but optimistic me settled on it being the way things were supposed to work out. And, seriously, it couldn’t have been a better endgame. Berlin is a mass of eclectic neighborhoods with their own flare, every one a puzzle piece that, together, create the elusive and attractive Berlin.

Schillerkiez is a quiet, trendy labyrinth of cobblestoned streets and delicately framed buildings and residential complexes that, on one end (my end), is home to Tempelhof Field; the other opens out onto the main road and a hub of eateries and shops. I wound my way in and out of its streets, locals chatting around tables spilling out onto streets and smoke curling up into the summer air. I’ve never been to Paris, but it seems fair to call this place its hipster sister.

Most of my day to that point was spent in the airport, having come from Copenhagen (and on a delayed flight), so after arriving at my rental, I swapped jeans for shorts and headed back out into the lingering summer solstice sun in search of dinner. On the corner of my street was an unassuming restaurant, Engels, and I popped my head into the front door, where I was greeted and told to sit anywhere.

I grabbed a table outside, sunlight glinting off of the windows above me, and decided to order a beer.

You should know that I am no beer connoisseur. I’m not even a beer drinker. Before this trip, I could count the number of beers I’d tried and the total number of beers I’d had on one hand. I’m 96.5% sure that I’ve had the drink as many times as it’s been said in this paragraph. Cider is more my style. But I couldn’t leave the country satisfied without going for a national treasure at least once.

So when my server came out to take my drink order, I asked for a beer recommendation, compelled to also admit my beer shortcomings. Holding up a finger, he said he’d be back with a sample size of something. A few minutes later, he returned with an eight-ounce glass of a sweet beer, a thick layer of foam topping the bubbles, whose name I can’t remember (and wrote down in my phone but that has definitely been erased), but that the server labelled as such and, according to him, was just like me. Well, when he put it like that, I knew it had to be my fermented soulmate.

I ordered a plate of bratwurst, and it didn’t disappoint. Sauerkraut, draped over fingerling potatoes, that once, up to that point in my life, I wrinkled my nose about, actually had me wound around its finger. I haven’t found that same enjoyment for the pickled delight since. Nor would I go so far as to call any deviation from this specific recipe a delight. (Sorry, Germany.)

It was the first official day of summer, and I was basking in it.

The months leading up to now had been hectic. A semester of running to and from class, work, my internship, meetings, dance rehearsals, the printer, and the nearest outlet to work furiously on my thesis; my impending graduation, and the shift from student to “adult” with the internship I had excitedly been offered a job with; the decline in my grandfather’s health and the coming to terms with my paired fortune in the 22 years I had with him and grief in not having more; the abrupt end of a relationship that wasn’t teeechnically a relationship but whose finale confused me all the same; a weekend family gathering of laughter and love  that, under different circumstances, would have been better welcomed. And a trip to New York City with my sister which included theatre, late night cheesecake, and making Gavin Creel swoon. The first six months of 2017 felt like the end of a Zumba workout where I couldn’t catch my breath, equal parts beautiful and painful. My Green Period, I’ll say.

That night, sitting among happy cafe dwellers and letting the beer become my blood as, newly lightheaded and even giddier than before (and slightly cross-eyed), I followed the tops of the buildings around me as they were painted gold in the sun, the quiet chatter of passersby, and the way the breeze warmed the neighborhood around me.  The weight of school and the past were not mine to feel burdened by any longer. I was alone, blissfully alone, doing something I’d dreamed of doing forever and now lifted from the wait. I was in a city that speaks to dreamers, that doesn’t decide your route to understanding its complexities for you; you get to it all by yourself.

And being by myself, it spoke to me.

It was truly peaceful, and peace-of-mind bearing. Even after stuffing myself further with creme brulee, and accepting a cup of espresso that I didn’t worry about giving me jitters or keeping me up all night. Even after I received my check, which was given to me with a pair of M & M candies, and an older man walked by, glanced at my treat, and asked if he could have them, to which I, stunned, said yes, and handed them over. Berlin, or at least this corner of its world, felt like that kind of place: soft, gentle, sweet. Like the beer-who-could-be-named-but-isn’t-because-I-lost-it.

The morning of my first full day, I sat barefoot on my private balcony and watched the passage of kids running off to school, trucks rumbling off to a delivery, and early risers strolling in the cool air before I headed out. I stopped at a corner cafe, the Kale Back Shop, ordering what I’m pretty sure was a pecan roll, glazed with icing and crunchy between its perfectly filled rolls, and a coffee. I missed the sugar and milk inside the first time, so after sitting outside enjoying my pastry and wondering between sips of black coffee how people enjoy it that way, I slipped back in and found the station at the far end of the display case. It made for a helluva good cup to commute with.

A Legendary Dish

I was preparing that day for currywurst, a Berlin specialty. I’d read about it, heard it gushed over (and over and over), and passed by its very own museum later that day. It was a lunchtime routine that I continued for the next two days, one I could have justified easing into dinnertime, too, and I kind of wish I had. Served with a roll and doused generously with the special sauce, curry ketchup–sweeter than its already sweet brethren, Heinz, and spicy enough to clear any hidden sinus problems. My face and neck probably reached a temporary fever of over 100 degrees, but I couldn’t have been happier mid-bite.

I’m not the first to say that currywurst is an of course dish for Berlin, but I hope to be the first to eat my way through every currywurst establishment there is and write a book about it.

What blows my mind is the fact that beer is cheaper than water. And though I abide by the Laws of People Who Know Stuff About the Body and drink my recommended eight cups of water or more a day, I drank my assigned dosage in Berliner Pilsners, instead. They’re interchangeable, right?

From the first sip, I loved it. The way its bubbles exploded at the surface, a tiny fireworks display that I savored from sight to swallow. After miles walked and biked, museums extraordinary and draining, earfuls of languages that clashed but melted together like an orchestra, they felt deserved and right. But when in Berlin…

A bubbling pot of culture

Alongside said beers, I consumed copious amounts of pizza and Indian food. Which, I know, aren’t “traditional” German fare, but there is seemingly nothing traditional about Berlin. It’s proud to flaunt that, too. It’s a melting pot of a city, with the appropriate cluster of cultures that converge together. A community all its own, that much was clear.

I have a passion for cafes and local haunts. When a blogger suggested checking out Cafe bRICK, a hole-in-the-wall with great food and cute decor, I jotted the name down everywhere I had lists for this trip, and screenshot the directions here. I missed it a few times, doubling back and peering down a few different streets before finally finding the place. It was cozy among the mismatching chairs, the books and succulents propped on the windowsill, and the baristas that mostly spoke English among themselves and actually greeted newcomers in the same tongue.

A bagel with mozzarella, rocket, and tomato spread called out to me, and I paired it with their ice brew. They kept on keeping on with the chilled out atmosphere, the birdcage light fixtures, the single exposed brick wall. The coolness enveloped me, putting me in it and making me a part of it, scrawling away in my journal and eating a breakfast sandwich. This was the outskirts, the edges of Berlin that were, in some (*cough, cough* food) ways, more important for me to see.

Where Iced Coffee is Hard to Find, But Easy to Accept in All Its Forms

On my last day in Berlin, I stopped for breakfast at Cafe Haus, just off of Alexanderplatz, one of the city’s major shopping hubs. It was modern, a black-and-white affair, with floor-to-ceiling windows, and kind staff members who disappeared as fast as they came. I ordered an iced coffee and their Belgian waffle, knowing that iced coffee was a rarity in Europe but still not grasping its generally extravagant presentation. What arrived at my table was three-quarters of a glass of iced coffee, topped with vanilla ice cream and whipped cream. I spread most of that topping onto my waffle, a sugar rush I was guilty of and also empowered by. Unexpected, the way Berlin likes to throw you off.

Berlin is a city of transplants, a city that is so not-German that, even though I’ve never been anywhere else in the country (besides Munich, but we’ll get to that another time), actually probably carries more of the country’s vibrancy than I know. They sell beer like it’s more vital to survival than water, anyways. I didn’t need to hit all the big and small places as recommended on various blogs and TripAdvisor threads to know that I experienced Berlin the way it’s meant to be experienced: individually, as uniquely and personal as the city is itself. Berlin screamed freedom, at precisely the moment I began to stop feeling stuck. It encouraged me to just try the damn beer. It was exactly what I didn’t know I needed.

P.S. I wish I had spent more time swooning over the slices of cake and cones of ice cream I inhaled, but I’ll leave you some photos and simply say my gosh were they momentous.

What’s your favorite dish in Berlin? Let me know in the comments below!