East Side Gallery
Another day, another iconic part of Berlin to explore! This time, I wanted to check out the East Side Gallery near Kreuzberg. As someone who definitely has shaky knowledge of the metric system, 1300 meters seemed a small length. However, it is actually quite a long stretch, hence being known as the “longest remaining part of the Berlin wall.”
Funny story about these cars, known as Trabants, pictured above: during the Cold War, East Berlin and West Berlin had very different types of cars. Since East Berlin was under Soviet rule, they weren’t able to get their hands on the same type of materials that West Berlin was. Because of this, their cars, like the ones picture above, could only reach about a certain speed, something ridiculous like 30km/hr—half the capability of cars found in West Berlin.
Once the wall fell down, however, East Berliners were allowed to finally cross into West Berlin and drive on the same highways that they were able. You can imagine how funny it was driving 30km/hr on the autobahn, smoke streaming from the rear. These cars are obviously not produced anymore, but they remain symbolic of the fall Communism and the Cold War in Berlin. There are even annual parades with the remaining few left.
The graffiti was mostly done in the 1990s but since then, the art has reached iconic level. Especially the one with the car crashing through the gate, the pro-gay Russian mural, the heads by Thierry Noir. There was even a section that had a very heavy French influence whose pictures you’ll see below.
What I found most interesting about the Berlin wall was the overall attitude and philosophy of the graffiti artists. Understandably, after the fall of the wall, society lashed out against what had just passed historically; artists are usually emblematic in their roles of putting societal opinions into tangible expression. The ideas expressed in graffiti on the wall can be surprisingly progressive, and unsurprisingly hippie at times. Naturally, I enjoyed every bit of it.
What surprises me most about the Berlin wall is that it was just erected in 1961—and not even the final brick-with-metal-bars version that we know so well today. To me, the Cold War and the Berlin wall have always been spoken of on the same timescale as the first World War… but that might just be my brain. To me, anything in the past happened in the early 20th century. However, the Cold War is not so far in the past for others as it is to me. There was a lady on the Sandeman tour that couldn’t believe she was actually seeing the wall; for her, the wall was something real from her youth, something she saw on the news as a child. “It’s much smaller than I thought it would be,” she whispered, her gaze transfixed on it. I couldn’t help but wonder if it was almost pointless for me to tour the Berlin wall as a tourist because it has no personal meaning to me; I have no memories associated with this period; I have nothing that I associate the wall to. I thought of my grandma, who had also watched the events of the Cold War broadcasted on the TV.
Before leaving earlier that morning, I promised Ilze that I would meet her at Hackescher Markt before heading to Museum Island together. Unfortunately, my french phone didn’t work in Germany. How did we all do without phones as teens? There are so many questions you need to hash out before you try to meet someone, I realized too late.. as I stood there with many of these questions running through my head for the first time. How long are you going to wait for them before both of you abandon ship? Is there a landmark you want to stand at? Who moves and searches while the other stays put?
“I’ll find you!” she had promised but at that moment, I had my doubts.
I chose the wrong answer for all three questions. I waited about 10 minutes before I started moving even though I knew it was statistically less likely for us to find each other if both people were looking for the other. At the exact moment I went back up the stairs to the platform, she arrived from the other exit to see if I was there. Eventually, by pure chance we found each other.
She took me to this little cave near the S-bahn stop which looked super hip.
This cute little monster thing actually stands about 8 feet tall. There’s a coin machine next to it that reads “I may do something if you feed me coins… you are welcome to take the risk!” Surrounding this monster is a cool-sounding (I say that because of the music coming from it) dive bar and yet another cafe. I imagine in the summer, this is one of the best places to chill with some friends and drink some beer, as the Germans are wont to do.
If you meander through these little alleys, you’ll find a lot of cute shops that are usually unknown to tourists. One is a cute stationary and household items shop, which is a must-see for stationaryphiles like me.
Originally, I wasn’t going to visit any of Berlin’s museums. I’ve expressed before that museums for me have never been quite the exhilarating experience that others seem to have. However, when visiting Berlin in the winter, museums should almost definitely be a part of your plan. Why? Because the sun sets around 4PM in the winter. So unless you want only 6 hours of daylight to explore the city, you should maybe head to a museum in the afternoon.
I was so proud of myself for figuring this out until we reached the Pergamon, Berlin’s most famous museum—and one I pretended to have heard of when Ilze asked me. The Pergamon is known for its collection of original-sized building parts that people have recovered from the middle east and Egypt, etc. Where were we? Oh yeah, I was proud. In front of the museum was the longest queue I’d ever seen for a museum… possibly rivaling the length of the line at the Vatican during off-season. Which is still pretty damn long.
“Oh, fuck this,” Ilze muttered. Because she was a Berliner, I can’t say I blamed her for not wanting to stand in line. “Why are they so stupid?”—one of her favorite phrases—”by the time they get in, they’re going to have to leave! It’s a waste of time!”
So instead, we headed over to the museum on the left, which contained the Nefertiti bust, and were turned away because I still needed a ticket to enter and you couldn’t purchase them inside. Lonely Planet should write a whole guidebook just on how to tackle Museum Island. Glancing over at the ticket line, almost as long as the entrance line, I was ready to call it quits (mostly because I was still uncertain whether I wanted to buy the museum pass). But Ilze grew determined to show me one of the museums she loves. If you buy the pass from any museum, a museum that has NO line for example, you can skip ahead of the whole process and find yourself in a less-popular museum in no time!
We had a bit of fun along the way…
90’s-themed birthday party rager —the beginning of my time in real Berlin
“Oh, by the way, we’re going to be hosting a party tonight,” Ilze told me in between bites of her peanut-Thai stir fry. I had originally asked her where I could eat some really good authentic German food at a moderate price but being the Berliner that she is, she only knew good ethnic cheap eats. Seeing as how the rest of Europe sucks at good ethnic food, I jumped at the opportunity to once again satiate my multi-ethnic American appetite.
“Oh! Ok, sweet. Am I invited or do you want me to go somewhere else?”
“No! You’re definitely invited. It’s a 90’s rager so I’m trying to think of some ideas for what I’m going to wear.”
With my advice, I’d say it turned out pretty nice.
Even though I’d already been in Berlin for 3 days, I’d have to say that this night was the beginning of my time in real Berlin.
At first, I was completely nervous about who I would be talking to. Generally speaking, no one really makes an effort to talk to the only person who can’t speak the native language, so for the first hour or so, I sat by myself in my room all ready to go. Luckily, Ilze’s American roommate, David, sought me out and we talked into the morning.
The people that came to a party, although not all knew each other in the beginning, became fast friends in the end. They were all very welcoming; although many spoke broken English or were a bit shier with their English, some sought me out to find out more about the strange Couchsurfer that chose to go to somewhere alone rather than celebrate Christmas with her family.
David and I looked up. A friendly-looking guy in hipster glasses was walking through the doorway.
“Hi!” I said, reaching out my hand to shake his outstretched one. He was the cutest thing ever and his German accent won me over.
“I’m Johan! You’re the couchsurfer, right? What’s your name? Where are you from?”
“Yep, I’m Michelle from Chicago!”
“Ahhh, Chicago,” he said with satisfaction, sitting further back into the couch. Out of the corner of my eye, I see too late the pack of feminine hygiene products (ahem) that he was parking his ass on. I look to David, which is when I notice my other pack of product lingering by my ass right at his eye-level. After an internal struggle of whether or not to move the one under Johan’s ass and draw his attention, I decided to do it.
“Oh! Sorry!” he says, and casually leans so that I could retrieve them. Had I been in the states, this would’ve meant ridicule for the next 10 minutes and complete public embarrassment. In Europe, that embarrassment is solely personal and private.
Completely undisturbed, he then launched on to talk about the year he spent in Chicago as a part of a missions’ group church, continuing on to discuss the strange practices that he found in the American church sometimes. We went on to chase all the tangents this discussion brought us until everyone was called into the birthday girl’s room for cake and presents.
Together, we watched as the birthday girl unwrapped a gift from one of her guy friends—a leather skirt.
“You know,” David started, “you really have to wonder whether that gift is actually for her or for himself.” The three of us died with laughter.
I retired around 1AM not because of lack of company, but because I had an “Alternative Tour of Berlin” that I was unsure of but wanted to try for. The party continued until 6 AM and I fell asleep around 4AM, the time that I reached a level where my exhaustion drowned out the noise of the thumping music.
Despite being severely deprived of sleep for a night, I had never felt happier. These glimpses of local life in Berlin was making it harder and harder for me to say goodbye to the city; the ties that I made with its people made my departure in a few days’ time the day where I’d have to leave friends behind.