Friday, November 13, 2009

My changing view on Berlin

This is an essay I wrote for my humanities elective, Historical and Cultural Berlin, and I figured, it would save me a blog post of the same subject later down the road. Don't criticize my writing skills too much, I wrote this in an hour and a half on minimal sleep and listening to Dark Side of the Moon. One week left, just finished all my other deadlines minus studio, which is breathing down my neck for the next week. Enjoy.

When I first signed up for this program, I expected Berlin to be like any other European capital. During my years in high school, I had a travel program that took me to Europe for a week. I went from Paris to Nice, then from Montecatini to Rome, with several stops along the way. I got a first-hand look into what I thought most European capitals were like then, with Paris and Rome. Little did I know how Berlin was, my assumptions were the complete opposite of what my experience here turned out to be.

In high school I took an interest in history, however my class schedule focused on math, music, and design. My classes in history became limited to prehistoric times up until the first centuries A.D., and then United States history, so I never had a formal class that focused on recent European history. Because I was taking a college-level US history course, I studied deeply the events that happened in Europe only as they pertained to America. I knew some history of the Third Reich and the Nazi party; I was very interested in war films and novels at the time. I knew about the Berlin wall, but less about the division of Germany, and the coming and going of whole Cold War era was before my time, and I grew up in a world where communism had already faded away (albeit China).

My thoughts on Berlin prior to my trip over here were somewhat optimistic; I knew that the city had incurred much destruction in World War II and was divided for about four decades after that, so my assumption at the time was that there was heavy rebuilding of the city in that period, and that when the two halves became whole after the reunification, the gap was filled as the city became complete again. I knew it was one of the largest populated cities in Europe, and going after my logic with Paris and Rome, assumed that it was a bustling friendly city where a lot of commerce was going on, and four million people lived together fairly peacefully. A lot of history had happened there, and after I decided to take a semester abroad and try something new, I read ‘The Ghosts of Berlin’ by Brian Ladd, hoping it would give me some better insight about the city’s history prior to my trip. As I got an idea about the urban development and overall growth of the city, the dark times came about and I started to understand more the affect the industrial revolution had on the city, and the political struggles of Germany following the first World War. My thoughts still assumed that the city was still a very redeveloped world urban center, and that I would enjoy the time I spent there as an architecture student.

After our first 10-day travel elective, our group was exhausted and eager to arrive in Berlin to what would be our new home for the next three months. It wasn’t exactly what my initial thoughts had led to, however it helped that the weather was beautiful at the time, and our bus ride to the apartments along the U-1 overhead railway gave me a parallel to something I had seen before in New York. I think when I turned on the television set that night I was surprised to see how much of American programming had made its way over to Germany, and I thought it would feel familiar, but the lack of English speaking channels (other than CNN and occasionally MTV) quickly set me back into the reality that I was living in a different culture and I would have to get used to it. The next morning we went to the grocery store and it was probably the first bit of culture shock that I got. My first thoughts were: “Okay, nothing in English, and I don’t know much of any German; Hmm, beer is cheaper than soda; I had never seen so many types of sausage in my life; Wow, I can’t read any of this; They don’t keep milk refrigerated; Why isn’t there any Peanut Butter; I guess I’m eating pasta and oven pizzas for awhile.” Then of course, they don’t bag your groceries, which I was warned about ahead of time, and you pay for grocery bags, though stuffing my backpack worked the best. I figured, okay, I’ll get used to this pretty quick, I’ll try new food and maybe I’ll start being less wasteful with bags and recycling when I go back home.

The next part was getting on the subway, and the fact that there is no ticket check was the first really confusing part to me, but I guess an honor system is something that promotes less traffic jams going through checks and buying tickets, but I was planning on getting a bike to ride to studio and learn the city a little better anyway. The first week or so on the subway taught me that German people, Berliners in particular (I’m assuming) generally keep to themselves, and I’ve never had a quieter subway experience in my life. Generally, those of us who got on together were carrying the only conversation in the car. Later I found that by going to places to buy supplies or to get food, Germans in general seemed a bit cold. I think it has a lot to do with history and how they were brought up within division, especially in the communist East Germany, where you really had to watch what you said, so even now I can understand people not being so open to freely expressing themselves. Berliners are a true working-class group of people; they’re quick, to the point, very direct in what they say and it sometimes comes off as rude, but that’s just the way people are, I don’t blame them for it, but perhaps their society has made them that way.

Once I had gotten a bike and we were taking trips around the city with our classes, I noticed that Berlin wasn’t really the giant urban metropolis I had expected. The city is on a very human scale, different to something like New York where it’s super-human scale. The street walls were generally not higher than 5-6 stories, and in urban centers or major boulevards contained the more prominent buildings, but were generally not higher than 20 stories. There was also more green space than I thought, and after learning to the extent of how badly Berlin was damaged at the end of World War II, you could tell that once a long row of apartment buildings suddenly had holes here and there, pieces seemed to be missing, and it all made sense that they were left after destruction and still not rebuilt. After going to many museums and memorials, I started to take in how much history this city has seen in the last century. It started as the industrial capital of Europe, an ever-growing center to central Europe and the skies were the limits. However, involvement and defeat in World War I left the economy in pieces, and though it was able to rebound in that sense, political reform saw the ride of a power that was thought to be the answer to restore Germany to its former greatness, but it ended in darkness and destruction as that leader sought European domination and the destruction of a major religion and its people throughout it. I feel bad for the citizens of the city who watched the city’s destruction and had to live with picking up the pieces and moving on. But they couldn’t do that, as the world political powers led to the division of the city and of its people for nearly four decades. And when things fall apart there and everything comes back together again, how do you deal with the past, with everything the city and its people have dealt with in the last 80 years? You can put it behind you, but memories of hard times will always remain, and they can be used as example for future reference so that such a hardship on a country’s population won’t ever happen again. In this sense, I can see why Germans in general are sensitive about there past, and want to put it behind them and move forward as if nothing happened. So they come off as cold, not very social and in general just keep to themselves.

In general, now my view on Berlin is one that it is a major re-growing power in Europe, and soon again it will be what it once was before war and oppressive governments crushed the spirit of the people. I think it has a lot to do with the coming generations becoming educated and continually making the advancements in technology and society happen, keeping Berlin and Germany the leaders of innovation and engineering in the world. It was hard for me to find my way in this city for someone who doesn’t speak German, but in reality you can get by okay without it. I have enjoyed my time here and hope to visit again someday; this trip has broadened my view on the major cultural differences between Germany and the United States, and I will go back knowing (somewhat) how to live like a Berliner.

Tuesday, November 3, 2009

Italy, part two

So, two weeks go by and then we head back to Italy with the whole group for six days. Originally it was six days of Rome, which would have been awesome, but they decided to include a day in Siena and a visit to another small mystery Tuscan town.

We flew out on a Thursday morning, though the day beforehand was our studio mid-crit, so Tuesday night pretty much no one slept. Under the power of caffeine and adrenaline we managed to get through Wednesday, however our good friend Brendan thought it would be a good idea to go out and party that night. I didn't think anything of it, I went back to apartments and passed out around 8:30 after I burned one oven-pizza by taking an extra 20-minute nap. The next morning, we all get up expecting about an hour to get to the airport via subway/bus. Wrong. We go two stops north on the subway, and hear over the speaker "Alexanderplatz - bus service to Tegel Airport." So the group of 8 that we had gets off and makes our way over to the bus, thinking it will be fast. Wrong. It stopped about every block, and we got to the airport fifteen minutes late to meet our professor. He looked really concerned, and I said that "we're sorry, we didn't know how long the bus would take." Then he said, "well, where is everyone else?" Go figure we were the first ones to get there. So everyone else trickles about 10 minutes later, but no Brendan. He ended up going out and staying with another one of friends in Berlin that night, had to run around in the morning and got to the airport about five minutes too late to check-in. He ended up paying about $750 out of his pocket for a later flight that day.

So we landed in Rome Fuimicino (I don't know why Florence...) and hopped on the bus to Siena. This trip really killed about three days just by travel, I wish it was planned alot better. By the time we got to Siena on Thursday night, it was getting dark and we just missed the supposedly beautiful Tuscan sunset. Checked into the hotel, and then went for a night-time city walk.We made our way through the city over to Piazza del Campo, the shell-shaped public square where they hold the horse races. Our Urban Studies talk commenced there for the night and we stayed there to finally eat dinner. The food was... okay, you would think a place with an amazing location would have something good. At least the wine was good.We wandered the Campo and then over to the Siena cathedral, which, like every other major cathedral in Europe when it's not summer, was undergoing renovations. So there was a big crane right next to the church, I don't know if that's as bad or better than having half the building covered in scaffolding. It was getting late by this time and Siena doesn't really scream 'party place' so we headed back to the hotel to watch Quantum of Solace and pass out.
The next day we checked out of the hotel and wandered back to the Campo to work on the Urban Studies assignment, sketching the way the space works and whatnot. We had a decent amount of time, so I decided that going up the Torre del Mangia was a worthwhile trip.
You may think, "wow that looks like the tower in Provincetown!" when really, this predates that tower by about 600 years. So its the Pilgrim Monument that looks like the Torre del Mangia, not the other way around. Needless to say, the climb up this one was a little tight, I'm 6'2" and parts of the stairway had maybe a 4'6" clearance height. Nevertheless, the view of Tuscany at the top was spectacular.We headed over to go inside the Siena Cathedral, which was of course very big and awe-inspiring as most old European cathedrals are to Americans. One thing I really liked was how it was decorated with the stripes of Siena, black and white. I thought about going up the bell tower there, but in the end it pretty much would have been the same view there as was on the Mangia, so I saved my 6 euro and got me some pizza for lunch and hopped on the bus for somewhere.
So the mystery Tuscan town turned out to be Pienza, which nobody knew anything about. Another small commune of medieval and renaissance buildings, a central square and an awesome view out over the hills, kind of typical, but still worth it for many reasons. While wandering the side streets, we came across a friendly cat, and it distracted us for a good 10 minutes at least. We only spent maybe two hours or so there, but it was a good stop. Amazing views are usually worth it. After that we hopped on the bus for another 3+ hours to Rome. Bus time is good time, you can catch up on some sleep, even if it is pretty uncomfortable. Rome is a marathon in itself, so I'll save that for part three.