It's funny how sometimes you can have an excellent experience with hostel roommates and other times you can have the least friendly of roommates. Berlin happened to be the former. I lucked out with the best possible combination of roommates. Immediately upon entering the eight-bed mixed dorm room I was greeted by a friendly Canadian guy who had been couch-surfing Berlin for a week. He was enjoying this city before hopping off to Barcelona and then back to Canada.
Soon after I met two other bed occupants. These two guys were from the United Kingdom—Sam and Freddy—and they were quite the boisterous handful. Immediately we were exchanging jabs at each other's cultures. I was the over-excited American with a credit card and they were the posh Brits with Charles Dickens accents.
Just as the four of us began diving into a discussion about the status of illegal drugs in our home countries, a fifth roommate walked in. Kelsa was a Canadian girl studying abroad in the U.K. This made for the perfect combination of the other three guys. Our sixth roommate was an older man from Australia, he didn't talk much but was very friendly when he did. Number seven was a Chinese girl who was only there for the night and preferred to talk on her phone and number eight only rolled into the room at 4 a.m. after we had all been long asleep.
The next morning I woke up full of energy to explore the city before me. I messaged Sam (the female one) and we arranged to meet downstairs for the walking tour at 10am. By the time I returned from my morning shower the other four roommates I had chatted with all night were waking up and discussing their plans for the day. I cheerfully suggested everyone pile into the walking tour and surprisingly everyone agreed.
Once downstairs our entire group walked towards the market where we were to meet our tour guide. Our guide was Alex and he was an American who had studied German history in Germany for ten years. He was brilliant and funny and very entertaining. He gave us a number of facts and figures throughout the tour, ranging from recommendations for free bathrooms to a five-minute presentation of all German history. All morning we walked around the city. We saw lots of museums and historical buildings, many were hundreds of years old but had to be restored after WWII.
I think the most interesting faucet of the tour was learning that there was currently over 3 million euros worth of construction projects going on in Berlin. Most of this was all in a centralized location and meant to be finished by the year 2023. Our group decided we would reunite at that time and make old-timer comments like, “I remember when they were building that museum!”
Berlin is actually one of the only major European cities without a structured city-center. With all the past years of war and destruction, it's easy to see why they are still building and rebuilding their culture and economy. The current construction projects were meant to shape a city center. There would be a five-museum complex and even a huge beautiful building that was completely open to suggestions for its use.
At one moment during the tour we found ourselves in an old Roman-style piazza built by Frederick the Great. He wasn't the best of German rulers and he didn't care too much for Berlin or his job for that matter, thus he built a palace for his brother stay in while he visited Berlin. This abandoned palace was later turned into Humboldt University which later employed Albert Einstein until his retreat to the USA in 1933.
Later that same year there was a famous book burning of jewish works in front of this university. Some 25,000 books were burnt and blacklisted under the new Nazi government. Today the square contains four plaques that commemorate this horrific event. Each plaque includes a quote from one of the Jewish writers who were defamed on that night. The best memorial though, is the whole in the ground with a window around it. I had to squat down to see what was on the other side of the window. It was a solid white room full of empty white bookshelves that would house the exact number of books that were burned.
Another great point of the tour was coming across Checkpoint Charlie. I was surprised to hear that the majority of our group had no idea what this famous checkpoint was. Thankfully our tour guide gave an excellent explanation as to why this was such a historical site.
There were actually three checkpoints in Berlin: Alpha, Bravo and Charlie. Charlie is the most famous because it separated West Berlin from East Berlin. This was the only point at which westerners could visit the east side but of course Easterners could not visit the west because of communist control. Here our tour was interrupted by a downpour of rain and a thirty minute lunch break. Our group opted for a German bakery where we talked about all that we had learned and once again made light-hearted jokes about each other's cultures.
Back into the rain, we journeyed on to a very symbolic place of the Berlin Wall. It was one of the only portions untouched because it naturally sat on federal land. Beside the wall we saw the building where East Berliners rallied against their communist government and subsequently where the government displayed a huge mural of happy and free Easterners.
Beyond the wall we found a memorial where Hitler's Bunker would have been, though it was no longer there. Today all around the bunker area there are dozens of beautiful apartments, all part of the forget-and-move-on model of rebuilding after the war.
Around the corner from these beautiful apartments we saw a nice garden that led into a huge area of concrete blocks. This was the Holocaust Memorial. Our guide explained that the idea behind the memorial was very abstract and that almost nobody wanted to design the memorial because of its taboo nature. What eventually was constructed is a huge area of uneven ground covered with small concrete tiles and huge solid concrete blocks with no markings or no decoration. The meaning of the site is unknown but we all took stabs at it.
After walking directly through the exhibit, I felt as though I partially understood the artists' intent. Alex said they wanted to integrate the site with the park and the surrounding area, they wanted know markings or indication that this was a separate memorial site, but for it to naturally flow in and out of the city surroundings.
At first it seems natural to walk into the site but once I entered the middle portion I noticed the blocks were really tall and the ground was quite uneven. It was almost a bit scary being surrounded by tall concrete blocks but I walked on and eventually the blocks shrunk and the ground flattened and I was back in the middle of a beautiful park.
I think the experience is meant to bring understanding of what happened. No one can understand how or why it happened, but one has to remember that it did happen. Just as quickly as the nice small blocks grew and overwhelmed me, the Socialist Party grew and overwhelmed its people. The German people were tricked, abused and misled into obeying the Nazi Party and just when they thought it couldn't get any worse, they were safely led out of harm's way and into the hands of the allies where regular life presumed.
Every single block is different in the exhibit. There is a nonsensical number of blocks. Though the blocks are perfectly symmetrical, the ground is uneven and the plot around it is not a perfect circle. There is no point at which you can see the entire exhibit from the ground and therefore the entire thing is abstract and nonsensical, yet concrete and realistic much like the events that took place years before.
Our tour ended at the famous city gates where many historical pictures have been taken. I recognized it from my education at the Nuremberg Documentary Museum. After Hitler was elected chancellor the Socialist party staged a huge parade through the gates and used it as propaganda to ensure the public how excited everyone was for change.
As we tipped Alex, told him goodbye and received our instructions on how to get back to our hostel, we noticed there was a roll of red tape being put up around the gates. Suddenly lots of police cars were filling the area and a crowd took shape around Hotel Adlon (which is actually the hotel where Michael Jackson held a baby over an open window.)
The six of us were pinned with curiosity and so we found ourselves in the middle of the crowd with our camera phones ready to capture whatever exciting event that was to take place. Here I had to laugh because while Freddy took to Google and Twitter for information on what was happening, Sam asked folks in the crowd. Almost instantaneously they both informed the rest of us that it was the Prime Minister of India and Angela Merkel who would be leaving the hotel shortly.
For those of you who don't know, Angela Merkel is the chancellor of Germany. She is quite the feisty character in the news right now. In fact, just the day before she was quoted as saying Germany didn't need to look to the US for protection anymore. The quote was both a dig on Trump and a statement showing Germany was moving forward as a nation.
Eventually our two celebrities arrived. I got a quick video but didn't have time to snap pictures in between the cheering crowds and the security guards. Still, everyone in our group was pleased with our unexpected celebrity spotting. After which we found an English bookstore and decided it was definitely the best day ever.
On our walk back to the hostel the recent terrorist attacks on Berlin and Manchester were brought up in conversation. I asked Freddy, Sam and Kelsa--who were all currently living in the UK--how they felt about the attacks being so close to home. The three of them agreed it was a bit startling but that there was nothing they could do within their power. Kelsa said one of her friends was boycotting all large groups and big cities but Freddy and Sam commented that you can't live life in constant fear. You still have to make the most of life and that was why they continued to travel, despite the state of unrest.
We all agreed that war was a very realistic possibility in our near future. That morning I read that North Korea had launched another missile; while the US was the focus of the attack, it was Europe who was getting attacked by ISIS. When the two Canadians said Canada was safe from attack, the point was made that it was also one of the only countries in between the US and Korea, therefore it wasn't safe. That left us all to sarcastically agree that the midwest would be the safest place for all of us to flee.
In between naps and showers we discussed the fact that although all of the Europeans and Canadians were convinced in the greatness of Obama, I assured them that our country was completely disappointed in his presidency. I explained the problems of Obamacare and how it made health care extremely unaffordable, especially for middle-class and rural citizens.
The Canadians were appalled that we had to pay for our own healthcare. They insisted on their own system which was free healthcare for all through taxes. They each had a health card that they presented upon visitation to a hospital and treatment was covered 90% of the time.
In contrast I explained that a simple nose break in 2014 cost me close to $6000 out of pocket and that was with insurance.