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Published: July 18th 2022
Mein Gott, hilf mir, diese tödliche Liebe zu überleben
This iconic mural was painted in 1990. It was based on an actual photograph of Honecker and Brezhnev kissing. I photographed this just as these two guys kissed in front of the mural. The funny thing is, many conservatives today would probably be saying variations of "My God, help me survive this deadly love" in the face of marriage equality and rising LGBTQ visibility.
Like many other people my age, I grew up fearing nuclear annihilation, communism, and a host of other perceived existential threats. Of the many theatres in which the Cold War played out, no other city fueled my imagination as much as Berlin did. My imagination was further colored by an eclectic mix of films such as Cabaret
, Atomic Blonde
, The Bourne Supremacy
, Hedwig and the Angry Inch
, as well as Marillion’s somewhat melodramatic track Berlin
. More recently, I've been fascinated by how Germany seems to be looking forward without denying its past, and how Merkel, with her understated leadership style, seems to have steered Germany into becoming a beacon of liberal democracy as the United States moved in the other direction under Trump.
My main goal of this summer trip was to accompany Jeff as he competes in the World Masters Diving Championship in Rijeka, Croatia. Rijeka isn’t exactly an international hub, and only a small handful of leisure-focused airlines operate seasonal flights there. Looking at my options for intermediate stops, one stood out: Berlin! I gleefully booked our flights to Berlin hoping to connect with the city that shaped so much of my world view as a teenager and
Simon James Park
I love this odd little structure in Simon James Park along the banks of the River Spree. I especially liked this kid playing with the armadillo.
We landed at the new Brandenburg Airport 18 hours behind our scheduled arrival thanks to a flight delay that had us stranded at Heathrow for the night. Our first interaction with Berlin was an inauspicious one: the ticket vending machine did not have a good user interface, and so we were stuck trying to figure it out. The woman stationed there to assist arriving passengers wasn’t much help. For some odd reason, the two machines on one side of the landing were not accepting anything other than €5 and €10 bills, and they weren’t processing our cards either. Jeff had to return to the money changer to get smaller notes. We then went to the machines on the other side of the landing, and those worked fine. Thankfully, that was the only negative experience we had in Berlin, but it wasn’t fun to start off on this footing.
We each bought the €9 monthly pass - quite a bargain - and we hopped onto the Airport Train. Here came our first surprise: the train station did not have a fare gate. In fact, we never saw a single fare gate at any station
The iconic hut, preserved in the middle of a street, surrounded by fast food joints and souvenir shops. Ugh. I did not like how disneyfied this scene was. It should have been more respectfully preserved. At the very least, the street should be closed to traffic.
we went to. We were impressed that the entire transport system seemed to operate on an honor system! Other than the Netherlands, I cannot recall any other public transit operating in such a manner.
We got to our station at Alexanderplatz and then made our way through the unseasonably cold streets to our hotel in nearby Hackescher Mart. Hotel Zoe by Amano turned out to be a real gem for the price we paid. It was centrally located, it had a cool vibe, and we had a rooftop lounge with great views of the city!
After a quick freshening up, we made our way on foot to nearly Simon James Park, crossed over the Spree River, walked past the museums and Humboldt University, and then over to Checkpoint Charlie. Our first impression of Checkpoint Charlie wasn't great - the hut itself was preserved, but it was surrounded by fast food joints and souvenir shops. A long line of tourists waited to have their pictures taken. Some of them made gun gestures with their hands while posing for photos. Overall, the vibe was similar to Time Square. I was a tad disappointed that the checkpoint wasn't more respectfully preserved.
Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe
This thought provoking space consisted of over 2,000 concrete blocks of varying sizes and heights, and the ground was uneven. It was designed to disorient and separate people.
Our next stop was lunch. I wanted to patronize one of the restaurants operated by refugees, and I had previously researched Kreuzberger Himmel, a restaurant serving Syrian food that was associated with the Be An Angel group which helps refugees integrate. The restaurant itself was just opening at 2pm, and there were only a handful of other patrons. The food was good, but I've never been a major fan of Middle Eastern cuisine. I suspect the restaurant gets livelier in the evenings.
After lunch, we returned to the subway and headed to the Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe
. This is a large square with over 2,000 grey concrete blocks of varying sizes and heights. The ground between the blocks sloped in unpredictable ways. The main point of this memorial is to disorient. Groups of visitors who explore the memorial would get split up and they would rarely come out in the same place, an experience that mirrored what happened to Jewish families in World War II. It was a thought provoking experience that was marred a little by people sitting on the blocks - that just didn't seem respectful.
Sandwiched between the Memorial and the Brandenburg Gate is the US Embassy.
Dancing panda and kid in unison. If you look behind the panda to its right, you will see a woman playing an electric violin.
As with other US embassies the world over, this embassy is an imposing structure presumably meant to communicate the US' (self-perceived?) stature in the world order. This embassy, in particular, stood out for me because it is situated in a prime location right next to two potent symbols of Germany's past. I was stoked to see the Pride flag flying underneath the US flag at the embassy. I recalled that under the Trump administration, US embassies were ordered to not fly the Pride flag during Pride month. I can't even begin to recall how many times my heart (and sometimes my spirit) has been broken since Trump got elected, and now, even with him out of office, the country seems to continue sliding backwards thanks in large part to his three Supreme Court picks.
Our next stop was the Brandenburg Gate, built in the late 18th century to commemorate Prussian victory over an uprising. The scene here was lively. On our return here after visiting Tiergarten, we saw a large panda (there was probably a person inside it) dancing to an electric violin played by a woman behind them.
Looking west from the Brandenburg Gate, we spotted the
David Hasselhoff Museum
Located in the basement of the Circus Hostel, this shrine to the ever popular (in Germany at least) star of Baywatch and Knight Rider was a kitschy delight.
Victory Column, and we decided to walk through the Tiergarten towards it. Our main connection to the Victory Column is Wim Wenders' Wings of Desire
, yet another film that colored my perception of Berlin. Along the way, the first sight we encountered was the Memorial to Persecuted Homosexuals Under Nazism
, which is a monolith-like block with a viewing window that showed a looped video of struggles, persecutions, and triumphs of the LGBTQ community. Other sights we saw en route and back included a playground (Jeff climbed the rope structure), a war memorial to Russians killed in Berlin in World War II, various statues, and a circle of stones Jeff nicknamed "Germanhenge".
After Tiergarten, we made our way back to our hotel on foot, stopping at the Simon James Park near our hotel to soak in the vibe as lots of people were sat out in the park facing the River Spree. At first, we thought there may be an outdoor concert, but we learned from internet research that more and more Berliners are hanging out in parks as a cheaper alternative as prices of practically everything have risen thanks to Covid and the invasion of
war in Ukraine.
After a quick stop at
This mural outside the entrance to Monster Kabinett gave us a foretaste of the weird and wonderful experience ahead of us.
our hotel, we headed out again to the nearby Haus Schwarzenber Street Art Alley
which is a narrow alley filled with murals. Our main goal, however, was to see if we could visit Monster Kabinett
located inside the alley. We had just missed the last scheduled show of the day, but we were told to return at 9.40pm as they were putting on an additional show then. So, with about 90 minutes to kill, we headed to the Circus Hostel, which houses the quirky David Hasselhoff Museum
in its basement. David Hasselhoff is huge in Germany, and this tiny shrine housed memorabilia from Knight Rider
, as well as memorabilia of his relationship with Germany. It was a fun little diversion. On our way back to Monster Kabinett, we ate at a cute little vegan burger joint where I had a really good schnitzel-like patty.
Back at Monster Kabinett, a delightfully unhinged (and impressively bilingual) man named Pilo guided us into a basement and put up a show featuring avant garde, yet home-made crafty steampunk mechanical monsters. Words fail me as I try to describe the creatures we encountered. There was Mr Four Eyes, Orangina, a massive spider, and a pop-corn eating robot with an
The food stalls located in Preussian Park served a good spread of authentic Thai food.
exploding head. Photos were not allowed, so I only have photos of the ticket and a signboard outside.
After a fun day of exploration, we had a good sleep.
We woke up pretty late on Saturday, just in time to make our way to Thai Park
via subway for an early lunch. When researching things to do in Berlin, I googled to find out if there is a Chinatown in Berlin as I like to see how Asian immigrants live. To my surprise, I discovered that there isn't a Chinatown in Berlin - maybe it is testament to how well integration take place? Regardless, what I did find were several articles about how the Thai community congregated in Preussian Park on weekends to share food, and how locals started asking the Thais to sell food to them. The authorities tried to regulate the stalls. If you know Thailand like I do, you know how futile that is.
At Preussian Park, Jeff and I wandered around for a bit before deciding on appetizers. Jeff opted for tofu satay while I went to a woman Jeff labeled "Thai Eartha Kitt" for haw mok
(steamed fish curry in
East Side Gallery
Greeting (or, more likely confusing) visitors to the remnants of the Berlin Wall is The Neigh-Kid Horse. Taking a cue from Times Square's Naked Cowboy (and taking it a step further, I might add), this was certainly an unexpected sight.
a small banana leaf cup) and thawd man pla
(fried fish cakes). Thai Eartha Kitt missed a beat when I spoke to her in Thai; I guess she expected me to speak in German. I found out she was from Bangkok, while her fellow stallholder was from Rayong. The wannabe journalist in me wanted to find out more about their journeys to Berlin and how they have integrated. Thai Eartha Kitt's steamed fish curry was good but her fried fish cake missed the mark. Next up, I salivated at bamee moo dang
(egg noodles with barbequed pork). I'm not much of a meat eater, and during my most recent trip to Bangkok
I resisted eating this treat even though it was everywhere on the streets of Bangkok. This time round, I really wanted to eat this dish and it really hit the mark - the broth was spot on. Jeff ate vegetarian pad thai
. After this, it was dessert time - we had kluei khaek
(banana fritters) and khao niao ma muang
(mango with sticky rice), and then we topped it off with ice cream and coffee.
My next sightseeing objective was nearby. If you've been following me since my 2017-2018 Midlife Crisis Flashpacking Trip
, you may
recall that I talked about how Simple Minds' Empires and Dance
album is my all time favorite album, and that I associate this album with the beginning of my wanderlust during a school trip to New Zealand that changed my perspective on life. One of the tracks on that album is Kant Kino, a short, bizarre instrumental with random noises and melodies thrown together. Well, Kant Kino
is actually the name of a cinema in Berlin which used to host small concerts in the 1980s. I knew all I would see is a facade but I didn't care; this was a pilgrimage I had to make! We walked about 2km to the cinema, took photos, then went to a nearby outdoor mall for bubble tea. After that, we ducked into the nearest subway and made our way to the East Side Gallery.
In 1989, while serving in the military, I watched in disbelief as the Berlin Wall came down, and the world order as we knew it changed forever. The East Side Gallery houses remnants of the Berlin Wall. Many new murals have been painted on the wall. Most of them promote peace, although some also commemorate the horrors associated
The famous television tower juxtaposed against an old church.
with the wall. The one standout piece, though, was Mein Gott, hilf mir, diese tödliche Liebe zu überleben
(My God, Help Me Survive This Deadly Love), a famous 1990 mural based on an actual photograph of Leonid Brezhnev and Erich Honecker in a fraternal kiss on the lips that was apparently common among communist leaders. Rather serendipitously, I photographed this mural just as two men kissed in front of it. The irony was not lost on me; many social conservatives today must be reciting variations of "My God, help me survive this deadly love" with marriage equality and rising LGBTQ visibility. The other standout in the area was a guitarist known as The Neigh-Kid Horse who was clad only in underwear (his jeans were bunched around his ankles) and a horse head mask who was there to entertain and confuse the crowds. Near the East Side Gallery was the Oberbaumbrucke - the bridge made famous by Run Lola Run
, which is yet another Berlin-based film.
After East Side Gallery, we made our way back to the area around our hotel and we walked along the River Spree and enjoyed people watching. We attempted to visit the DDR Museum but the
This massive flag was draped over a building facing the River Spree.
ticket seller was involved in a conversation with his coworker and he ignored the people lined up for tickets. We turned around and left. Next up, we made our way up to Alexanderplatz, and then made our way back to our hotel. We enjoyed various monuments along the way.
The next morning, after a hearty breakfast, we made our way back to the airport for our onward flight to Rijeka.
Berlin far exceeded my expectations. There is a lot of history and culture (both high and low) to enjoy here. Public transport is amazing, and it was surprisingly easy to get around. The people were friendly, and so many people were effectively bilingual. I knew Berlin would be multiracial and multicultural, but I was pleasantly surprised by how well everybody seemed to be mixing. This city definitely deserves a longer and more in-depth visit!
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