Saturday, March 26, 2011

Going back to Berlin

What I remembered most about Berlin was the cranes. They towered over the city, sprouting from blocked-off squares and empty lots and half-finished buildings. It was almost a decade after the fall of the Berlin Wall and to a wide-eyed visitor, the city still seemed to be in the messy middle of ripping itself up and starting again. The ruined tower of the Kaiser Wilhelm Memorial Church stood amid broad and empty avenues; the crumbling path along the remaining part of the wall, painted with faded murals, was eerily deserted. Berlin's scars had not yet healed, and in the scant day or two I spent there on my first trip abroad in 1998, I was moved by the way there seemed to be an agreement not to cover them all up.

When I had the chance to return in 2010 to cover an environmental conference, the cranes were gone, their work done. People strolled through parks, lined up to see the view from the Reichstag's glass dome (top right), rode their bikes along the spruced-up East Side Gallery (bottom right), ate Thai noodles in sleek restaurants, and drank in a beer garden in the shadow of an abandoned-department store-turned-prison-turned-artists-collective. I was saddened to learn that latter spot, the Kunsthaus Tacheles (left), is at risk of being shut down, and I could see how people who had loved Berlin through its tough times might feel that its gritty uniqueness has largely been lost. But coming from crowded, grimy Istanbul, it was hard to see much to dislike in this green, cultured, cosmopolitan -- and completely transformed -- city.

While wandering one day, I found myself in the vicinity of the Brandenburg Gate, a former barrier between East and West Berlin and an iconic symbol of the fall of the wall. What I saw there, though, looked so small and sedate that I had to ask at a nearby souvenir shop to confirm that it was actually the place I remembered. The area around the gate, like so much else of central Berlin, was attractively refurbished, pedestrian-friendly, and rife with outdoor cafes. I wanted to like it, but I didn't. I missed seeing cars whip between the once-barricaded columns, emphatically demonstrating that people were free to move and the city was one again.

NOTE: Revisiting favorite places can be comforting, vexing, or bittersweet. Check out other Lonely Planet travel bloggers' experiences with return visits in the Blogsherpa Blog Carnival: Going Back, hosted by Natalia and family at No Beaten Path.


David from Quillcards said...

Ah, this is so heartfelt. I feel the same way - give me the rough and un-manicured any time rather than the gentrified.

Vicki Sleet said...

hi Jennifer, apologies for leaving a comment rather than mailing you but i can't seem to find your email addy anywhere on your blogs? I am also a freelance journalist and am your Cape Town counterpart on Simon Seeks. I am visiting Istanbul in a few weeks as a guest of the Design Biennale committee and to research and write a design-based story for a local magazine here in South Africa. Would you mind if i picked your brain about one or two things? I have a list of hotels that i want to contact about booking my stay but i'd love to get some insight form a savvy local before i make the booking. Likewise re areas that i should be hitting. Your guide is great so i'm obviously gleaning a lot from there...thank you!! From Vicki (

ginger beirut said...

I really understand where you're coming from. Your piece really evoked the changes for me.

The Turkish Life said...

Thanks, David and ginger beirut. Don't get me wrong, I really liked the new Berlin... but there was something quite bittersweet about it too.

Vicki, I've responded to you by email!

break in Berlin said...

It is a weird feeling to see how a city has changed in your absence and I think that Berlin in the last couple of decades is a terrific example. I am looking at break in Berlin for a trip later on this summer and can't wait to see the changes