East Berlin: when the nightmare becomes a friendly ghost

As it has happened many times in the past, I discover more about the city I live in when I have guests. My desire to learn more and their curiosity of the parts unknown compliment each other nicely, assuming of course that you don’t have a miscommunication and get lost in the crowds. Berlin is particularly crowded at the moment, tourism reaching its peak with tour groups, exchange students, and expats moving to this crazy city. The European Union may have declared Brussels as the center of Europe for administrative purposes, but if you ask me it’s a toss-up between Paris and Berlin for the true core of the EU. London has taken itself out of the running with Brexit, so that leaves the two cities which in my opinion have the most fascinating historical quarters a city can offer, the most obnoxious waiters, and the rudest bus drivers. Paris has changed a lot over the years and you will find much more willingness to speak anything other than French in terms of tourist information and other local services. In Berlin, the days when Russian was the second most popular language spoken in the city are long gone and you will find a plethora of languages being offered here, perhaps due to all the international students who stayed on, or the influx of expats over the years. In any case, Berlin has pulled itself together and tries (and I am not saying it has achieved it) to be a world capital.

Coming to Berlin as a tourist, unprepared for German culture and Berlin history is a huge mistake. I can’t even begin to tell you how messed up it can be if you don’t possess even the basic knowledge of modern history to appreciate this city that I despised so much but find myself living in for the second time around. Berlin occasionally makes an iota of sense to those of us who live here and deal with the day-to-day nonsense that surrounds the inhabitants. It makes no sense, however, to those parachuting in for a wham-bam-thank-you-mam type of visit. Three days are not enough, and neither are three weeks, and if you ask some, not even three years. It all depends on how much sleep you are willing to sacrifice and how sturdy your shoes are.

Berliner Funkturm with Neptune Fountain at Alexander Platz ©MTHerzog

I’m no tourist guide and I am certainly not about to give you the top ten must-see sites because there are plenty of apps you can download for that. I see Berlin as I experience it, through the eyes of a returning resident, observing the changes that have taken place after 11 years, and no place offers the most drastic transformation as the former East Berlin. The demarcation line for me is the Alexander Platz, where the TV tower stands tall and proud, and if you are there at the right time, staring up at the sphere you can witness the legendary “Pope’s Revenge” (Rache des Papstes), when a cross-shaped reflection shines bright over the former socialist city. I missed it by an hour this time…

A taste of the former East at the East Side Gallery ©MTHerzog

Make your way to the East Side Gallery to stroll down the remnants of the Wall. This open-air museum is close to impossible to photograph without anyone photobombing your shot, no matter what equipment you use. Believe me when I tell you that rain doesn’t stop the hoards of people from milling around the famous “Kiss” mural.

East Side Gallery ©MTHerzog

You will find the usual kitsch but also question a lot of political decisions of the last 30 years, not only as a German, but as a citizen of the world. Was the partition really necessary? Could East Berlin have been spared somehow?

Oberbaum Brücke ©MTHerzog

Take the S-bahn (tram) from somewhere in West Berlin all the way to Warschauerstr. and watch the scenery change dramatically after Bahnhof Zoo. When you get off at Warschauerstr. it feels as though you stepped into a low-budget movie that decided to scrimp on the set and the post-editing. The drab buildings and dreary facades give you a superficial impression of what life was like behind the wall. Instead of turning towards the East Side Gallery right away, take the time to walk under the Oberbaum Brücke, to me one of the most interesting bridges in Berlin – an architectural nightmare in terms of style, but life under the bridge is definitely something to write home about. There are musicians, hobos, vendors, skaters, drunks, tired tourists, confused walkers and annoyed photographers at any given time there. In most European cities you will always find a spot where visitors leave locks and promises, at the Oberbaum bridge I found shoes dangling from the ceiling beams instead, reminding me of a scene from Harry Potter when Luna lost her shoes.

Dreams Beneath the Bridge ©MTHerzog

There are more restaurants and cafes in the area to choose from, each with its local flair and peculiar charm. Easily overlooked, but what I consider a huge mistake if you do, is a spot called the Rio Grande on the left side of the river, opposite the more popular Pirates Cave. The outdoor facade is covered in graffiti, and is run by a grumpy Austrian woman who looks ready to turn you into a toad if you ask the wrong question. Never judge the book by its cover though – the food and service are acceptable, it’s a quiet spot on the banks of the river almost at water level, and you see the changing scene of the former East between the Daimler Benz and Zalando buildings, and a myriad of construction cranes. In about 10 to 15 years years from now the horrors of the former East will have faded into urban legends and will be categorized by photographers and tour guides as “lost places of Berlin”.

Karl-Marx-Allee & Frankfurter Tor ©MTHerzog

No exploration of East Berlin is complete without a stroll down the Karl-Marx-Allee towards the Frankfurter Tor. When I last saw this avenue the reconstruction was just beginning, and it still felt very much as though you had stepped into Moscow. Now, 11 years later, it is still an imposing sample of architectural dominance that is impossible to judge as ugly or beautiful, but the transformation is fascinating. Gone are the suspicious looks from the abandoned gates or the hollow echoes of a city that bowed down to a different type of democracy. In its place is an avenue that has been drawn into the European Union, strong and flamboyant, with a character of its own.

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