Berlin: Tourism and the “Big” Things

There’s a lot to see and do in/around Berlin. Berlin manages to simultaneously pay homage to its edgy present and harrowing history, which made me think a lot about my role in the histories being made today. Here’s the tl;dr on my tourism and other “big” events during my six weeks in Berlin!

Weekend 1 (9/5-9/7): Whirlwind Tourism with My Parents

My parents visited during my first weekend in Berlin. They greeted me at Berlin’s main bus station when I arrived on Saturday evening, and we settled into the Oranienburg cottage together. Anne was really sweet in welcoming us. She’d clearly put a lot of thought into setting the place up, even buying us a loaf of bread to eat for breakfast the next morning. The next day, my parents and I did some whirlwind tourism, and in the evening I met my cousin Shravan (who lives in Berlin) for the first time. I dropped my parents off at the train station on Monday before heading to the Ecologic Institute to get set up. The Ecologic office and people were all really nice!

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Weekend 2 (9/12-9/13): Alternative Berlin and Mauerpark

I had an amazing time at the Alternative Berlin Tour on Saturday afternoon. Our guide, Alex, seamlessly wove both Berlin’s history and its modern alternative culture into his stories as he took us around his favorite neighborhoods.

My favorite story from the tour: A part of the Berlin Wall was built in the wrong place, about a block east of its planned location. As a result, part of what was technically East Berlin was on the west side of the Wall. This “no man’s land” quickly became a dumping ground, until a Turkish guy finally decided to clean up the area — by hand. He planted a garden there and built a treehouse. East Berlin used apparently used this treehouse for propaganda. They leaned over the wall to take pictures of it and told East Berliners that if they escaped to West Berlin, then they’d all be living in treehouses. The Turkish guy, now in his 90s, still lives in the treehouse today.

We ended the tour at Yaam, a Jamaican beach bar on the Spree River. I hung out there with three friends I’d made on the tour: Isabela (a Brazilian exchange student), Remy (a Belgian computer scientist), and Luisa (an Italian economics/business student doing an internship on — get this — renewable energy and electric grids). Afterwards, we headed to the East Side Gallery and the Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe.

The next morning, Isabela, Remy, Luisa, and I met up at the Mauerpark. There’s a flea market there every Sunday morning, but more importantly, there’s an event called Bearpit Karaoke — basically, karaoke in a completely filled outdoor amphitheater. I was initially indecisive but finally ended up singing. It was scary, but a lot of fun!

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Mid-Week 2 (9/15-9/16): FINESCE Utility 4.0 Final Conference

I got to attend the final presentation for FINESCE, an EU-funded project dedicated to developing open IT-infrastructure for the energy sector. (I found out about the conference through Dr. Antonello Monti, one of my Aachen interviewees and the project’s Technical Manager.) Details to come in another post!

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A discussion panel at the FINESCE Final Conference.


Weekend 3 (9/19-9/20): Oranienburg and A Night Out in Berlin

On Saturday morning, Anne took me to Oranienburg’s Schloss (palace), the Schlossmuseum, and “Apfelfest” at the Schlossgarten. We had a lot of fun hanging out. My German, while still quite rudimentary, had improved rapidly through my interactions with Anne, so we were able to communicate without too much trouble!

Luisa and I spent the night visiting some cool theme bars with Alternative Berlin. The tour ended at Brunnen 70, a club in an old furniture warehouse with some fantastic live music and dancing. We later watched the sun rise at Renate, a club with a beautiful outdoor courtyard and fire pit. Needless to say, I spent most of Sunday asleep!

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Mid-Week 3 (9/23-9/24): S3C Project Final Conference

At the FINESCE conference, I found out about another EU-funded project called S3c, which focused on energy system end-users. The final conference was also in Berlin, so I got to go! Details to come in another post.


Weekend 4 (9/25-9/27): A Photography Show, Spandau Citadel, Berliner Dom, and Sachsenhausen

Friday night, I spontaneously ended up getting dinner with Robin (a fellow S3C conference attendee from the Netherlands) and his two Colombian friends Juliana and Juan (who happened to be vacationing in Berlin). We went to Zur Haxe, which was a typical Bavarian restaurant (read: meat) but had good vegetarian Spätzle as well. We then went Juliana/Juan’s friend’s photography show, my first exposure to the “sophisticated” part of Berlin’s art scene.

On Saturday, I did some assorted tourism with Luisa. There was a deaf-mute festival going on near her house, which was really cool to walk through because it was simultaneously silent and alive. We then headed to Spandau Citadel, Berliner Dom, and Museum Insel. In between, we ate at W-Der Imbiss, an Indian/Mexican/Californian/Italian fusion restaurant that I’d highly recommend.

On Sunday, Luisa, Anne, and I headed to the Sachsenhausen Concentration Camp. It was a really emotional experience. The vastness of the camp and the horror of its physical and historical contents really hit you when you’re there.

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Weekend 5 (10/3-10/4): Viktoriapark, Reunification Day, and the Topography of Terror

On Saturday, I picnicked in Viktoriapark with Gwendolyn and then stopped by the German Reunification Day celebrations at Brandenburger Tor. Before heading home, I once again stopped by the nearby Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe. While the memorial is usually filled with chatty locals and tourists, that day it was eerily silent despite the music booming just a few blocks over.

On Sunday, I met up with Alice Paul, a fellow Harvey Mudd alum who happened to be in the area for a conference. Together we went to the Topography of Terror. One quote there really struck me:

“Presumably, the [Nazi] regime’s Jewish policy was not popular among the population. But neither was it a subject of primary concern; there was after all much that disposed people to excuse Hitler and his crowd their ‘mistakes’ or ‘excesses’ in other areas. Given the constant stream of great political events and the improvement of the social and economic lot of most Germans, the regime’s policy towards the Jews seemed an aspect that was marginal and of little importance in the face of the Nazis’ successes. More than anything else, this indifference and readiness to accept the persecution of the Jews, and to ignore it as unimportant, characterized the attitude of the ‘normal Germans’ toward the Jews in those years.”
-Ulrich Herbert, Historian, 1998. From a Topography of Terror exhibition board.

This quote really made me think, in particular because it’s not just part of some distant past. Even today, all of us are complicit in violence against and exploitation of marginalized populations. Many of us, given our adequate “social and economic lot[s,]” tend “to ignore [this violence] as unimportant” to our daily lives — but is that acceptable?

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Mid-Week 5 (10/7-10/9): Kassel and Wolfhagen

I visited a rural city called Wolfhagen to learn about its 100% renewable energy initiative. While there, I visited the beautiful Bergpark Wilhemsöhe and the new Brüder-Grimm Museum in nearby Kassel.

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Weekend 6 and Start of Week 6 (10/11-10/13): Potsdam, Alexanderplatz, and Ecologic Institute Celebration

On Sunday, I went into Potsdam with Gwendolyn. It’s a beautiful city. We first went to Schloss Sanssouci (which means “without worries,” i.e. “Hakuna Matata”). We initially started at the “wrong” end of the Schlosspark, so a really nice guide gave us a ride and a tour on his golf cart (for free!). Afterwards, we walked around the rest of Potsdam.

On Monday, I got the opportunity to meet two Syrian refugees, Rashid and Mahmoud. They told me about some of their experiences in Syria and while in transit to Germany. I was struck by how casually they mentioned some of the traumatic events they’d been through, and in awe of their strength in the face of these events.

On Tuesday, I finally went to see the World Clock in Alexanderplatz after a meeting nearby. In the evening, I attended Ecologic Institute’s 20th Anniversary Celebration. It was held at Silent Green Kulturquartier, which used to be a crematorium!

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Weekend 7 (10/16-10/19): Festival of Lights and Tempelhofer Park

My last weekend coincided with Berlin’s Festival of Lights, an annual celebration during which Berlin is completely illuminated. I went twice — on Friday with Luisa and on Saturday with Rashid, Mahmoud, and group from their refugee center.

On Sunday, I explored Tempelhofer Park. The site used to house Tempelhof Airport and was going to be developed when the airport was closed, but Berliners protested. (Classic Berlin!) Now, it’s an eccentric public space with lots of grass, skating and biking areas, dog play areas, and community gardens.* It was a great place to spend my last full day in Berlin.

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* According to Wikipedia, the park was declared an emergency refugee camp in September, but it was still a park as of when I visited. If anyone reading is in Berlin, I would love updates about this! [back]

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