Two weeks ago, I arrived in Berlin, Germany, the city of hole-in-the-wall cafes and miscellaneous shops, historical monuments and tourist attractions. The city where graffiti paints the streets, which are lined with well-dressed twenty-somethings smoking cigarette after cigarette.
The city where people young and old gossip over coffee, talking late into the night, until their coffee fades into wine. The city bursting with history – where every grand, old building comes with stories about the war and battles that ensued years ago.
And it was this city, that, for those two weeks, I was lucky enough to call home.
I was going to stay with a woman named Alda, my mom’s best friend and an old family friend. She took care of me when I was a baby, but I hadn’t seen her for eight years. I had no idea what to expect.
The second I boarded my plane in Portland, it hit me. I had an 11 hour flight ahead of me, I was going to a foreign country – a different continent – and just then I realized what I was truly getting myself into. I didn’t speak a word of German, and already on the plane, everything was in a foreign language.
When I stepped onto that plane, still in the U.S., I stepped out of my comfort zone.. And looking back, it was the best decision I could have made.
Eleven hours and two flights later, I landed in Berlin. It was late afternoon local time, but for me it felt like the middle of the night. I was in the middle of a busy, bustling airport, and I knew no one. I felt like I was in a movie, in one of those scenes where the camera just pans around and around, turning all the commotion into one big blur.
I finally spotted a familiar face – Alda’s housemate, Bogdan, a 26 year old from Romania – who was there to pick me up. We took the metro back to the apartment – public transit is the most common form of transportation in Berlin. Over the few weeks, I learned to navigate the various subways, busses and trains.
It was about 45 minutes from the airport to the apartment. On the ride, Bogdan told me the ways of the city – where it was cool to hang out and where to avoid – and he pointed out the various attractions that make Berlin the city it is.
I got my first glimpse of the Berlin Wall, as well as the Berlin TV Tower, which, aside from being a TV Tower, is also the tallest building in all of Germany. It looms over the city, and, I learned, can be seen from almost anywhere. It resembles the Space Needle, with a huge sphere about halfway up, in which there is a restaurant. Anyone who is lucky enough to get aboard the elevator gets to go to the restaurant, which supposedly spins slowly, providing diners with a 360˚ view of the city. Sadly, I was not among those who were lucky enough to get that experience.
However, there is no doubt in my mind that I lived Berlin to its full extent.
Back at the apartment building, I discovered that Alda lived on the fourth floor. That meant eight flights of stairs, and 88 stairs exactly – I counted. I soon grew to despise those stairs. Somehow, we managed to lug my suitcase up all eight flights, and after countless hours of traveling I had finally made it.
I was so happy to see Alda after all this time. She herself never had kids but took care of me, so I’m like the daughter she never had. She obviously remembered me better than I did her, though we grew much closer over the following weeks.
During my first week in Berlin, Alda had exams, so I was mostly on my own. We ate breakfast and dinner together, but for the majority of the day I was left to explore the city.
I didn’t know a thing about the area, but with a map in one hand and a transportation ticket in the other, I set out.
Alda lives in East Berlin – the more laid-back, hippie side of the city. My first day there I fell in love with the vibe – the people, the culture, etc. – everything and everyone was so relaxed, and anything seemed to go. I fit right in.
Over the next few days I explored various neighborhoods, and got a feel for where I was and what was near me. No matter where I went, there was at least one coffee shop on each block, and an abundance of cute shops. I did some shopping, and I think, at this point, I was made of coffee.
I fell in love, however, with one particular part of town. It was about a 15 minute metro ride to get there, to this one funky street, where the buildings were plastered with years of peeling posters, and graffiti coated any open surface. This street had shops and restaurants from all cultures, and littering the streets were every type of person imaginable.
Next to this street was the Spree River, a river that flows through Berlin. This one section though, was my favorite. Berlin is filled with bridges, but the one that crossed here, the Oberbaum Bridge, was by far the most beautiful. On one side of the Spree River was this street, and on the other side was a portion of the Berlin Wall, and the East Side Gallery, an open air art gallery created by the wall itself.
Between this street and the wall, this river was my favorite place to spend time. I liked to sit at the waterfront, at a little park filled with people laughing and talking, drinking and just relaxing.
I brought a journal with me on my travels – a leather-bound book filled with all of my thoughts and observations – where I’ve documented every single thing I’ve done. I take it with me everywhere, and it was in this neighborhood, at the waterfront, that I most enjoyed writing.
While I spent a lot of time walking through streets and exploring shops, I also spent a lot of time in parks. I visited multiple throughout the city, and all were beautiful. I loved to just sit and write, as well as people-watch and take in everything around me. It made me feel connected the city and everything around me.
A few days later, Bogdan’s brother and his friend came to visit. They were two 20 year olds, and so the house was full. (Alda has yet another housemate – Daniel – but I rarely ever saw him, so he doesn’t really count.) I didn’t spend too much time with them, given that they mostly spoke in Romanian, but one night we went to this city-wide pride party, and it was an experience, to say the least.
That day, Berlin had held its annual pride parade, known as Christopher Street Day, so naturally there was a party afterwards. It was to this party that everyone filtered after the parade, and it was filled with characters. There were countless people dancing and singing, people in crazy costumes and lack thereof. It seemed as if the entire city was there. The party was celebrating pride, but people of all shapes and sizes, and from all backgrounds were there – people just came to party. It was crazy, and an experience I’ll never forget.
My second week here I was able to spend more time with Alda. She insisted I see all that Berlin is made of, so together, we explored all that it encompassed.
We did some “touristy” things – we went to museums, and saw famous buildings and monuments; we even took a bus around to see some of these features. I had to have one day of being a true tourist.
There was more to my stay, but if I wrote each and every thing I would end up with 100 pages. But to sum it up, I got to see and learn about history, meet friends, new and old, eat incredible food, and just overall, experience Berlin.
And I don’t think there’s much more I could have asked for.