I had been warned by Alix that Berlin is a gloomy and rainy winter city, so I was hardly surprised to be greeted with clouds and stormy weather when I landed in Berlin. Thankfully, I had remembered to pack an umbrella so I didn’t get too wet on my way into Berlin. Getting to the city itself was also pretty easy. My previous trips to Germany meant that I knew Google Maps would work with the public transportation system, and sure enough it only took a few clicks on my smartphone to look up a fast and easy way into the city. Once I had that planned out, it was easy enough to buy a ticket and board the next train. My prior experience in Munich meant that I paid special attention to actually buying a ticket and validating it (there are red boxes for this along every platform), something that worked to my advantage since my ticket was checked on my way into the city.*
I had decided to arrive in Berlin a day before the conference (which started on a Sunday), and I spent most of my first day walking around and trying to familiarize myself a bit with the city. That being said, I did manage to accomplish two major things my first day. The first was getting a SIM card. Thanks to my college roommate, Julie, the one I stayed with in Munich, I was told that I could easily buy a SIM card at a Saturn electronics store. I dutifully made my way over to the nearest store and quickly realized that I couldn’t even begin to understand the phone advertising in front of me. Bowing to the inevitable, I asked a store representative for help (the first thing he did was kindly informed me that I had actually been looking at iPad SIM cards instead of phone SIM cards), and after getting a bit of help, I walked out of the store with a brand new German SIM card with 250 MB of data–not bad for €5.
After that, I spent most of my time wandering around. Alix had warned me that in Berlin graffiti does not necessarily denote crime, and I enjoyed having the time to myself to look around and appreciate both Berlin’s street art and its architecture.
Through my wanderings I really noticed that Berlin is a city with a remarkable relationship to the past. It is a place that is caught in inbetweens, for although it is clearly a modern bustling metropolis, it is also surrounded by monuments to the past. Some of the scars the past has left behind are more obvious, remnants of the Berlin Wall, Checkpoint Charlie, etc., while others are more subtle, the concrete buildings that pervade what used to be East Berlin. And while this was something that I picked up on more and more as I spent time in the city, the first time I really noticed this grappling with the past was on Museum Island, where most of Berlin’s most prominent museums are located.
Walking around Museum Island is stunning. The island itself is quite small, but the buildings on it are impressive. Many of them have undergone some sort of renovation since World War II, but you can still see the marks that World War II has left behind. There are plenty of chips in buildings’ facades and old bullet holes in the colonnade.
I particularly noticed this in the Neues Museum (pronounced Noy-es), or New Museum. The Neues was my second big triumph of the day. Now the Neues is a bit of a contradiction. Although it is called the “New” Museum, it was originally built between 1843 and 1855 and designed by August Stüler. The museum was severely damaged in World War II, and this resulted in it closing for 70 years. It was finally reopened in 2009 after undergoing a redesign by David Chipperfield. Like much of Berlin, the museum embraces parts of the old, while trying to integrate it with the new. The result is amazing.
While the Neues is well known for its Egyptian artifacts, I was much more blown away by the building itself. Chipperfield did a wonderful job redesigning the building and many of the rooms were purposefully designed so that they echoed ancient structures, for example some rooms would mimic the floor plan of an Egyptian temple. In my mind, the museum itself was its own work of art.
That being said, there were still a number of impressive things housed inside the museum. I admit that my favorite was the bust of Neferiti. It was amazing to see in person, and the attention to detail was stunning. One thing that surprised me was that the museum even had a replica of the bust that the blind could feel. Unfortunately pictures were not allowed, but feel free to check it out on Google Images.
Although the Neues is perhaps most well known for its collection of Egyptian artifacts, this is only a fraction of the museum’s entire collection. I enjoyed walking around their Greco-Roman collection, and actually found it a bit funny once I started to read the descriptions around the room. Many of the information plaques talked about Heinrich Schliemann, a German adventurer who discovered the original site of Troy. However, Schliemann got into trouble for illegally smuggling some of his findings out of Turkey. He was later fined by the Ottoman Empire and eventually paid triple the fine in order to legally own his smuggled goods. Unfortunately, many of these artifacts were later taken by the Soviet Union, something that the Germans have clearly not let go of due to the number of sentences in the museum like this “In 1945 the bulk of the Trojan treasures were taken as booty to the former Soviet Union, where most of them are held to this day in breach of international law.” A bit ironic considering how the treasures first found their way into Germany. But then again questions of proper ownership are always interesting in museums.
After that I went back to my hostel to meet up with Iman, my hostel roommate and an Italian Fulbrighter who I met when I was in Rome. Because Iman got in late, we didn’t really do much other than get dinner together. We ended up being seated with a group of five men at a seven person table. About 45 minutes into our dinner conversation the man next to me interrupted me and the following conversation happened:
Man: Excuse me I couldn’t help but overhearing, but do you live in Norway?
Me: Yes I do! I’m based up in Trondheim for the year.
Man: Oh wow, we’re all from Norway! From Ålesund.
Me: No way! I’m hoping to visit Ålesund later in the year.
Iman later told me that she was amazed that 1) it took them almost an hour to ask me if I lived in Norway 2) that I didn’t realize that they had been speaking Norwegian. To be honest, I was actually surprised that the men sitting with us had said anything at all. Norwegians are renowned for being a bit anti-social. It’s actually not uncommon for Norwegians to go out of their way to avoid people, so I was surprised that they even mentioned being from Norway.
As for not recognizing the language, Norwegian actually has a large number of cognates with German, so I simply assumed that they were speaking German.** Clearly I haven’t picked up a lot of Norwegian since moving to Norway.
But the day ended on a high note and Iman and I enjoyed a late nightcap at the hostel bar before calling it a night.
*I was asked for my transportation ticket three times when I was in Berlin, so I would recommend getting and validating all transportation tickets when traveling around the city. That being said, the fine for being caught without one isn’t horrendous (€40), or at least not when compared to the ones you are subject to in Norway (~$150).
**My favorite language misstep happened with the word “ostbahn.” In Norwegian “ost” means cheese and I knew that “bahn” meant train. My gut translation was that “ostbahn” was the “cheese train” instead of the “east train.”