Berlin: A City of Contradictions
Berlin, a city full of rich history and a grim past thrives today in sort of a way that is the proverbial middle finger to the policies that attempted to destroy her and the rest of Deutschland. Many have forgotten that not much time has passed since the Berlin Wall was dismantled in 1989, which has left an impression on Berliners. Travelers will pick this up once they are on the Bahn, riding through the contrasting and vibrant districts. Remnants of the dichotomy between the West and East neighborhoods still exist. For the most part, I spent my time on the Westside and I made Wedding (pronounced VED-ding) my home for a week. Surrounded by bustling cafes and the ever-so-green Schillerpark it felt like a completely different city, modern and hip. Charlottenburg had a similar vibe and it's where I found the famous Rogacki deli.
I didn't quite understand it until I ventured out to Kreuzberg, Friedrichshain, and Mitte. Some call the east, the ‘real' Berlin and to me was exactly what I had imagined: a concrete jungle splashed with art to peak all the senses juxtaposed against a backdrop of historic relics and monuments, döner and currywurst stands sprinkled conveniently permeating the air with the smell of spices like turmeric, paprika, and peppers, while the sounds of electronic music and boisterous drunken men filled the remaining air space. Walking from one zone into the next at times felt like a gag reel, and I had to stop and do a double-take just to make sure I didn't accidentally step out of the city limits. With each day, Berlin morphed into something new and exciting. After a week, I thought that I had seen everything Berlin had to offer and yet I know that I probably only scratched the surface. Despite my short stay, Berlin captured my heart through its food, culture, and people who might I add are exceptional conversationalists.
On my official first day, which was supposed to be my traveling resting day I ended up taking off in the evening to meet up with Couchsurfing buddies. Between shoddy T-Mobile reception and the underground stations, communication was still surprisingly uninterrupted. Purchasing a week pass for zones ABC and with the Deutsche Bahn mobile app on my phone, I had all I needed to go out and explore. If you know your colors and numbers, you should be fine. Should you get off at the wrong stop, don’t fret. There’s another train coming within minutes and this is where German punctuality is a godsend. By sheer luck, I ended up at Berlin’s most famous and busiest train stops, Alexanderplatz. I could hardly contain myself because now I was closer to the tallest structure in Germany, the Fernsehturm TV Tower. I looked over and there was a fucking KFC sign. Ugh. Damn you globalization!
After hopping back the train we ended up at Rosa Luxemburg Platz at a place called Volksbar. It was my first restaurant experience in Germany. The server came by with menus that resembled flip books. It didn’t matter anyway, I could only make out a few things and I wanted to keep it simple and non-alcoholic. We all ordered Cokes and the server came back with a pint full of pretzel sticks, which she slammed ferociously on the table. In the States, this would probably be met with “What the hell was that all about?!” Apparently, the sentiment was written all over my face, when one of the guys turns over and says, “Don’t worry, she wasn’t being rude. It’s just how it is here.”
The rest of the evening consisted of more train-hopping through Berlin and finally ended up at a Kreuzberg cocktail lounge, and after checking in on Yelp! promptly received a message from a worried friend who said I had accidentally checked into a clinic that just happened to share the name. With house music blasting into my ears and the drinks flowing this could have very well have been taking place in Los Angeles or San Francisco. Once outside I was reminded it was indeed Berlin. A farmer’s market at 1 am next to the subway station? Crazy.
Potsdam: Schnitzel and Sanssouci
Each night I went to sleep with the sounds of police sirens and woke up to them alongside church bells and techno. Heaven. At this point I had only planned my trip to Wolfsburg because I didn’t want to derail my plans by going out of Berlin; however, if I have learned in anything in life is that spontaneity always rewards you. Therefore, I skipped out on the Polyglot Gathering and stayed on the train. “Surely the line ends here,” I said to myself after each unrecognized bahnhof. The train never seems to run out of track and I wanted to see how far my bahn week pass would take me.
At the Brandenburg station, the train line came to an end and I would have to wait for the next train to Potsdam. Oh dear, am I going to get hauled off by the ticket kontrolleurs for using the wrong ticket? Kontrolleurs are the station agents in plain clothing that will do random ticket checks on trains. In other words, DO NOT think you’ll get off easy if you are caught without a ticket or you will be labeled a schwarzfahrer or ticket dodger, pay a hefty fine on the spot and have the discriminating looks from travelers.
“YES! It's still in zone C!”
It brought me joy to know that the ticket I purchased a few days ago gave me transit access to a city outside of Berlin. All I knew was that there was going to be a castle of some sort and I was on a mission to get schnitzel and beer in a ridiculously large stein considering I had failed to secure those two items on two separate to trips to the biergarten. To save my crappy iPhone battery life and to fully immerse myself and bask in the sun and soothing green forests outside of the window, I turned my phone on airplane mode intermittently recording video of graffiti on platforms, buildings, and stone walls. The last time I was in a place this green was Seattle, the Emerald City. Arriving at the Potsdam Hauptbahnhof (Central Station), there wasn’t any time to look disoriented. After all, the herd of people making their way up the stairs made sure everyone kept it moving. I was starving and rather than risk becoming a chalk outline of my former self, I went for the first place that caught my eye, Heißer Wolf. The women behind the counter looked like they could choke slam me if I didn’t properly address them. In Berlin, I could at least get by with broken German before someone just spoke English to save me. Here, I wasn’t so lucky and resorted to hand gestures and singing Kraftwerk’s “Numbers” before ordering food.
“Zwei: schnitzel, ummm…pommes frites.”
“Alles?” (literal translation is ‘all’ or ‘everything’ and is commonly used to express, “Is that all?”)
I noticed a small tray on the counter. This is where your coins are placed and the cashier then takes them. I went to sit down by the window. The restaurant was situated above the train platforms and I watched the trains go by. Nobody was going to bring the food to me, so I went back up to the counter to see if it was ready realizing I hadn’t ordered bier I got the other counterperson’s attention. She became increasingly flirtatious after I asked for a large beer.
Returning to my table, it appeared I had company. Another table was brought closer to mine and for a moment I was miffed then realized I wasn’t in my home country and reminded myself to enjoy the experience whether good or bad. Making my way to the counter for a second time, my plate was waiting for me. The older woman grunted and walked away. The second woman playing coy and flashing a Cheshire cat smile handed me the stein. On my way back to my seat I felt eyes on me. Only the men were drinking beer, in smaller portions. It gave me a boost of confidence and internally screamed, “‘Murica!” The couple next to me moved two seats over and were replaced by a young bearded man whose backpack was as tall as him. We both raised our glasses and took a nice swig.
Walking through Potsdam on my way to Park Sanssouci froze time. It was roughly 2km (1 mile and some change) while uncovering gems along the way. Renting a bike is preferred since once you arrive there are plenty of trails to check out. Wear some comfortable trainers, don’t forget your sunscreen, bring lots of water and pack a lunch because I promise you once you have laid your eyes on the acres of forests and gardens you will not want to leave. Palaces, monuments, and a UNESCO heritage site! Word. The best part? Admission is free.
Wolfsburg: The VW Motherland
I debated for weeks about this side mission. While still at home, I looked at every possible route but would end up closing the browser contemplating if it was really worth giving up one day in Berlin. Every VW enthusiast I knew told me I had to do it, it was a rite of passage as a vintage Volkswagen owner, and I would receive a lot of flack for it if I didn’t go. On the other hand, upon arriving in Berlin, everyone I spoke to had an opposing opinion.
“There’s literally nothing there!”
“Don’t waste your money going there, go to Potsdam, or Leipzig instead.”
“It’s just factories, why do you want to go?”
…and so forth.
Had it not been for my stubbornness, I would have returned to the States wondering about the VW plant, and the Wolfsburg Castle. Shutting out the noise is the best thing for your soul. On Thursday, I decided to just buy the damn ticket for Saturday. I created a Deutsche Bahn account, paid with my AMEX card, and received an e-ticket. Don’t you just love technology! FYI: Whichever card you used to purchase your ticket, must be presented to the train kontrolleurs upon request. No exceptions! When Saturday morning rolled around, every moment inching closer to Wolfsburg was special. From grabbing a sandwich and latte macchiato at Le Crobag, to anticipating the moment my train boarded, every second felt like a milestone. It’s something that until this day I cannot explain. Perhaps this is what children feel when they know they are going to Disneyland. I enjoyed the train ride west, it felt and looked completely different than going to Potsdam. For example, going west one will see turbines generating electricity using wind power, minimalist train stations, wide-open spaces, and communities filled with the traditional mitteldeutsches Haus (Middle German house) made with timber. Unlike the concrete city of Berlin or the delicate architecture of Potsdam, Wolfsburg is the industrialist cousin with a hint of traditionalism. Indeed Wolfsburg consists of mostly car factories, and despite being one of the richest regions in Germany it fights to find its identity in the modern era.
Pulling up to the station, I tried my hardest to fight every emotion. I had my phone ready to capture the moment. Again, this was a place I was debating on visiting and I did not expect this type of reaction. Back home my VW bug Ludwig von Volkswagen was sick and I felt like a horrible mother. Definitely not worthy of any of it; yet, I felt like it was my duty as a vintage VW owner to pay the Motherland a visit.
“Look Lou, your haus!”
I made my way out of the station following the signs out to the Mittelland canal. The VW factory smoke stack quartet rendered me speechless. All I could do was stare and stare some more. I found a seat, took out my sandwich and admired it for the next half hour.
“Am I really here?”
“Omg, I’m here. I’m really here.”
“I’m seeing this. Am I really seeing this?”
“It’s so beautiful.”
It was then followed by a nice walk along the canal. With a huge smile on my face I greeted every person on passing barges.
On my right-hand side I saw billboards depicting Mr. Bubblehead in a suit, then what looked like a Type 3 Squareback, and other Wolfsburg attractions. I wasn’t even sure where I was going, I just kept walking. Then I saw a Tiguan ready to tip over. This must be the obstacle course I read about. I stood there for about 5 minutes hoping to see it tip over, but also hoping they would make it out safely. As I kept walking I found the signs leading me outside the Autostadt compound and to Wolfsburg city proper. Located across from Wolfsburg Hbf is the Volkswagen Arena home to the city’s soccer team, Verein für Leibesübungen Wolfsburg. Further down the road following the bike and pedestrian trails, Schloß Wolfsburg and the Stiftung AutoMuseum Volkswagen on Dieselstraße. Regardless of proximity to one another, I made a rookie mistake and only allowed one day for Wolfsburg. The Autostadt alone is a one-day minimum, which is why I had to forgo it to visit the ‘real’ VW museum. Besides, if I wanted to see performance vehicles I can go to a car expo in the States. I was here for vintage Volkswagens!
The castle has been under renovation, but it did not deter from its beauty. I have seen it many times illustrated on car badges; yet, to see it up close was truly jaw-dropping. Immediately I went searching for the coat of arms and became jubilant when I found them on pillars at the entrance. Even so, my camera could only capture what I was seeing. A range of emotions as I walked through the castle’s grounds almost as if I was absorbing its past, made for some quiet moments to myself staring at every piece of stone in the complex. Now I had been to the castle displayed on my horn and I was primed for Stiftung.