Berlin was not a new exploration for us on this trip. We’d visited Berlin in 1998, eight years after reunification. Berlin was still a work in progress, with broad swathes of cleared land where the Wall had been, and construction projects everywhere. Despite the mess, when we first saw the Brandenburg Gate, my Dear Husband and I were deeply moved. The time when Berliners had suffered the division of their city, and the oppression of the citizens of the eastern part, was still so close.
Back then, we traveled with our children, and stayed in a youth hostel so edgy it was actually unfinished. The use of everyday objects was constantly under reexamination and re-purposing. Theater seats could become a sofa! Mangled street lamps were statues! Prisons could be monuments to freedom! And the remains of the Wall were an artist’s canvas.
During the early years of reunification, when the German government found itself owning all the residential and commercial buildings of the former East, bargains were to be had in real estate. The task taken on by the former West Germany, of bringing the former East up to its standard of working and living, would have daunted any other country. Being a landlord was not the business of a government struggling to unify two public transit systems, to train young and retrain older workers for viable jobs, and to win the hearts and minds of those eastern citizens who had actually kind of liked the old ways of socialism.
The government may have lost a few euros in selling off properties back then, but it gained much in the way of livability and excitement. We found a hotel in Prenzlauer Berg, a neighborhood in the former East Berlin still in reconstruction, but starting to seem almost bourgeois. Of course, there are still bars of every description, and art is everywhere, but the best nightclubs and parties are in other, less reclaimed, parts of the city.
We had to visit the fragments of the Wall, of course, although we have little comprehension of the art that decorates them now. Near the longest section, along the river Spree in the Friedrichshain neighborhood, we found a “beach” club, created in what was perhaps an old train station or storage lot. The remaining buildings had been repurposed as stages, volleyball courts, and Jamaican food stalls, or whatever was necessary for all-night, outdoor dancing and partying. We saw posters urging fans to lobby city officials not to close down the club and take possession of the property. It’s not just club for fun, it’s a communal expression by a minority, whose rights are sacred in Germany. Berlin may be becoming accustomed to reunification but the kinks haven’t yet been worked out.
But it’s still not like any other city. For one thing, its museums are simply stunning. History buffs like us are just floored by the Temple of Pergamon and the Ashtar Gate of Meospotamia, recreated inside the Pergamon Museum. The Altes Museum’s collection of antiquities was top quality. The Picture Gallery at the Kulturforum had world-class paintings. And monuments, like the relatively new Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe, provoke both thoughtful and emotional responses. There was no way we could visit every one of Berlin’s museums and sights, or even a quarter of them. You’d have to spend a month in Berlin to see them all, and have better shoes than we did.
You’d also have to have better health! I’d come down with a severe sore throat on our way to Berlin, so I had the opportunity to experience German health care. A pharmacist near our hotel gave us the address of a local doctor who spoke English; we waited less than half an hour to see him. After a brief examination, and patiently listening to all the home treatments I’d tried, the doctor wrote a prescription for penicillin, and charged me about 25 Euros. The prescription cost me about 12 Euros. Altogether, it took about an hour, and cost less than 40 Euros. Beat that, American Health Care.
I was more able to enjoy the city after seeing the doctor, but stuck to soft foods for most of our stay. We were in Berlin during the annual Reunification Day holiday, and enjoyed people-watching from a picnic table at the city’s party in the Tiergarten. Usually, festival food is sausages, but this was Berlin! So I enjoyed my first bowl of German split pea soup (with sausage) at the festival.
Germans we’ve met outside Berlin are always curious to know what we thought of it, and pleased (and a little surprised) to learn that we LOVED it. To us, it’s a highly livable and beautiful city, trams and cafes everywhere, with a compelling history and the museums to beat those of any two other cities. For non-Berliner Germans, it’s an important city, now the capital, but bringing it back to life reunified has been and will continue being very expensive. I guess when foreigners express their appreciation, the cost is easier to bear.
German Split Pea Soup
Soak one pound dried green or yellow split peas in water overnight. Next day, render the fat from 1/2 thinly sliced bacon, and soften a minced medium onion in the fat. Add the softened peas with their fat, and a smoked ham hock, or leftover meaty hambone, and bring to a simmer. Add a teaspoon of dried marjoram or basil, or both, and 3-4 peeled and chopped potatoes. To improve the vitamin content, include a minced carrot, some celery and a chopped leek with the peas and meat. Simmer about 45 minutes until the peas are softened. Remove the meat and bones. Mash or puree the soup, but leave about half the peas whole. Chop the meat from the bones, and return to the soup. Add about half a pound of smoked sausage, cut in bite-sized pieces. Garnish with chopped parsley. Serve piping hot with crusty bread.