Berlin and I have had a rather fleeting relationship.
I first met Germany’s capital city nine Junes ago on what could arguably be called a “Berlin in a Day” tour. Herb and I had been traveling on a Baltic cruise that stopped for about twelve hours in Germany’s port of Warnemünde. We’d signed on for the ship’s tour of Berlin that day – two-and-a-half hours each way by bus. It wasn’t an ideal situation for getting to know a city, but certainly a better alternative than never having met at all.
The tour offered a terrific overview of Berlin’s highlights and history, but even with an excellent guide, I didn’t really connect with the magnificent city I was passing through. I didn’t feel that I understood its soul or its heartbeat. Berlin seemed to be one of those places that takes a bit of time to reveal itself. And time was something I simply didn’t have.
And now here we were again, with only a couple of days to get to know each other. A day and a half, really, if you factor in the haze of the first night’s jet lag. The difference this time is that we have two very personal tour guides – our son Andrew and his German husband Mark, who recently began dividing their time between Los Angeles and Berlin. A kismet of a second chance to experience the city through their eyes, to look at life in Berlin like a local rather than a traveler.
We began our reintroduction to the city near Unter den Linden, the main boulevard in Mitte, Berlin’s most central neighborhood. It was surprisingly warm for early June, with a wisp of humidity hanging in the air. Our first stop was the Gendarmenmarkt, an elegant square dating from the 1600s that serves as home to a trio of architectural gems – the French Cathedral, German Cathedral and the Konzerthaus, Berlin’s concert hall.
The Gendarmenmarkt buildings were severely damaged during World War II and later restored to their former glory. Renovations were back in full force on our visit, with construction fences surrounding parts of the square, and buildings hidden behind scaffolding. We had just started our walk, and already I was reminded of the war, a phrase that hovers over this city like a ghost, no matter how many years have passed.
Our next stop was the Brandenburg Gate, possibly the first image that comes to mind when thinking of Berlin. Commissioned in the late 18th century by Prussian king Frederick William II, the former city gate was inspired by the Athens Acropolis. In 1961, the gate became a symbol of division when the Berlin Wall was constructed, prohibiting travel between East and West Berlin. When the wall was destroyed in 1989, Brandenburg Gate became a symbol of unity.
Spree Riverfront and Nikolaiviertel
A quick ride on the U-Bahn subway brought us to Museum Island, a complex of five museums on Spree Island. We hadn’t planned to spend any time indoors on this whirlwind of a day, and based on the three-hour wait time at the Pergamon Museum – our choice in case of rain – I was relieved that the weather had been on our side. We stopped by the Berlin Cathedral for a quick photo and crossed the river to Nikolaiviertel.
Nikolaiviertel is one of those places that looks completely different from what I’d imagined. I’d read that it was Berlin’s oldest residential neighborhood, with merchant houses from the Middle Ages. But what I’d neglected to learn was that most of the area, like so many parts of Berlin, had been rebuilt after the war. Even St. Nicholas Church, the oldest in Berlin – dating to the 13th century – has been reconstructed. Once again, that haunting phrase…the war.
Back on the U-Bahn we headed to Friedrichshain, the neighborhood Andrew and Mark call home in Berlin. On our walk to the East Side Gallery – the longest stretch of the Berlin Wall – we turned down a street that gave off an artsy, hipster vibe. Mural-covered brick buildings, cafés and a complex called RAW-Gelände seemed a world away from the traditional shopping and dining venues we had seen in Mitte.
But it was a small telephone booth-sized structure called Teledisko that stopped me in my tracks.
“That’s from the Berlin episode of The Amazing Race!” I practically shouted to our group. The reality TV show that features two-person teams completing challenges in various places around the world has been a staple in our family since our kids were teenagers. I couldn’t believe we had happened upon something that would have been so easy to pass by.
The idea behind Teledisko is to create the world’s smallest nightclub. You select a song from a list on a screen, drop a coin in the slot and head inside to the disco. “We have to do this!” I said to Andrew, unable to contain my enthusiasm.
And then a wave of fear suddenly swept over me. What if it was claustrophobic? What if the door locked behind us and we couldn’t get out? What if…? But the extroverted traveler inside of me was hearing none of it, having quickly taken over my normally more mild-mannered, introverted self.
The walls inside Teledisko were painted neon green and decorated with a hodgepodge of stickers, notes and pictures, undoubtedly left behind by previous visitors. Vertical rows of round vanity-type light bulbs filled the corners, and a kitschy silver mirrored disco ball dangled from the ceiling. As soon as we closed the door, ABBA’s Dancing Queen resounded through the disco. Lights flashed, pulsating the small space with colorful beams. Andrew and I began laughing and singing as if no one else were around, completely captivated by the moment and unaware that Herb and Mark and anyone passing by outside could hear us.
“You can dance, you can jive, having the time of your life…”
Andrew pulled his iPhone from a pocket and immortalized the moment with a brief video. I will not be posting that here, but I will share a screenshot!
The Rest of the Day
The song ended and we spilled back out into the sunlight, giddy with the unexpected joy of our Teledisko moment. For the rest of the day, ABBA’s melody swirled around my entire being. I felt lighter, as if my self-imposed goal of trying to understand this vast, complicated city wasn’t as important as I’d originally thought.
Our afternoon was a wonderful blur of spending time at Andrew and Mark’s apartment, getting a glimpse into their life in Berlin, exploring the tree-lined streets of their neighborhood. That evening we stopped at a beer garden before dinner. “You have to have a pretzel while you’re here,” Mark insisted.
I laughed to myself. A pretzel…of course! No matter how many monuments or famous sites we visit, it’s the little things we remember about the places we travel. Like sitting around a table with the people you love on a summer evening in a Berlin beer garden. Or the crazy serendipity of sharing an unforgettable moment with your son at a place called the Teledisko.