31 Mar Berlin: Kaffee & Kuchen
In recent days, I’ve been off on another one of my Mainland European trips, this time with my mum and to a country I’ve never been to before: Germany.
We’d decided to go to Berlin as it is (in a very loose sense) ‘in the middle’ of where we both live, and we both fancied a little adventure.
The last time Mum had been there was in 1989/90 when the Wall came down, (technically I’d been too but wasn’t a fully-formed human at the time) so this un-walled Berlin was a new experience for both of us.
I was admittedly not all that excited right before going, as I’d been busy with work and various bureaucracy issues (of course) and frankly hadn’t really had time to think about a holiday until it had crept up on me, but after reading the entire guidebook from cover to cover on the first night in Deutschland, I summoned my enthusiasm and was an avid adventurer once more.
Berlin wasn’t as I’d expected it at all (although the airport did smell like sauerkraut). In my mind, the German capital was going to be a large-scale version of Camden market; ‘cool’, a bit rough around the edges, quite graffiti’d, full of ‘alternative’-looking people, market stalls, and the odd drug dealer, but the beer in the pubs would be served in tankards rather than pint glasses and pretzels would be available on every corner. As it turns out, Berlin is not like that at all.
What I had heard about but really wasn’t prepared for was the efficiency of everything and everyone. There were no train strikes and no out of order ticket machines, and when we bought tickets for the underground a helpful stranger was always on hand to remind us to validate it at the machine. We passed offices on the train at night and saw hordes of people still working hard, and when many inches of snow fell overnight, by the morning the streets were clear as clear can be. Coming from Italy, it really was extraordinary, and I can tell you from first hand experience why Germany isn’t crumbling under the economic crisis.
I didn’t have a great first impression of Geneva on my brief trip there recently (although I didn’t really see much of it, to be fair). Much like in Berlin, everything in Geneva worked perfectly; drivers stopped to let you cross the road without a menacing look in their eyes, public transport ran on time, and things were appropriately signposted, but I felt like something was missing there, like it was a bit lacking in soul. Berlin, on the other hand, was bursting with personality. And I loved that.
My mum were happy to wander around the city fairly aimlessly, and came across so many little alleyways covered in beautiful graffiti and artwork, lots of completely unique and beautifully laid-out boutiques, and numerous cute cafés serving coffee and cake.
Obviously, almost everybody spoke perfect English, and even those who didn’t were keen to help us when we approached them, lost or in need of advice. There were no areas (that we went to, at least) that I would have been scared to walk around in the dark, and everything was, of course, spotlessly (Germanly) clean.
One thing I wasn’t a huge fan of (and being English, I really must mention this) was the temperature. I knew Berlin wouldn’t be as warm as Italy, but I wasn’t quite prepared for just how cold it was. It snowed ridiculous amounts for the first couple of days, which was quite cold enough, but when the clouds cleared and the blue sky popped out to say hello, a biting wind came along too and every time I got my camera out I thought my fingers might drop off. Luckily, they didn’t, but I’m sure it was a close-run thing.
My biggest fear was that my 5 days in Germany would subject me to vast quantities of insipid, potato-based food, but I hadn’t really considered that capital cities are always full of foreign restaurants. In the end, we tucked into yummy Vietnamese, Spanish and Thai cuisine, amongst others, and avoided currywurst entirely. I felt like I spent the entire 5 days stuffing my face with delicious food, but am sure I could go back and eat in another different and delicious place every night for the rest of my life.
I was also not previously aware of how good the Germans are at baking. They are wonderful, so much so that I ate enough cake during my trip to genuinely feel at risk of turning into one. The place is absolutely full of signs offering kaffee und küchen, and often that invitation was too hard to ignore.
We, of course, managed to be ‘proper tourists’ too, seeing most of the sights and many, many painted bears despite the abundant snow, and diving into museums (or Starbucks) when the cold just got too much.
The very famous Jewish Museum was actually less great than I was expecting. The layout was a fairly confusing and only very loosely chronological history lesson, featuring absolutely everything from the beginning of time and some pickled fish (because somebody Jewish collected them once – a tenuous link at best) to a kosher Haribo vending machine. After haphazardly explaining everything about being Jewish, there were a couple of rooms dedicated to the Holocaust, but it all just felt a bit insincere, and I found it a bit of an odd and awkward experience.
Not to be deterred, we headed to the National Art Gallery on the Museum Island, which was, well, a nice art gallery; to the East Side Gallery (the old Berlin Wall covered in graffiti-style paintings by famous artists) which was a must-see, even though it must be said that a lot of the graffiti elsewhere in the city was much more beautiful; and also to the Topography of Terror Museum, an exhibition sapce built on the site of the former SS and Gestapo headquarters, which was fascinating and really, really well done.
The street art was probably the highlight of the trip for me, as I’ve always harboured secret hopes of quitting my job and painting the sides of buildings for a living. The graffiti in Berlin was undoubtedly some of the best I’ve ever seen, and my mum and I even went on a graffiti tour around various parts of the city, which was an incredibly cold but interesting experience, taking us around areas of the city that we never would have found by ourselves. After that, we took part in a graffiti workshop, learning how to make stencils and use spray paint (harder than you’d think, I guarantee), and both came away with a little canvas covered in our own spray-paint creations. At one point during the course, I turned around to see my fifty-something year old mother scribbling away with a black marker – when I asked what she was doing, her response was, “I’m practicing my tag!”. Cringe.
So now we’re back in our respective homes, not needing to eat for many, many weeks, and relishing the above-freezing temperatures (well, in Italy at least).
But after another fun mother-daughter trip, I’m sure that if any new graffiti appears on the side of Gloucester Royal Hospital, I know who’s been doing it…