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So, at the risk of sounding like a guidebook …

The few days we spent in Berlin barely allowed us to scratch the surface of the city. Everybody raves about the culture there, but I didn’t really get a feeling for it. I think a few things contributed: EPI being sick meant that we couldn’t spend a lot of time wandering around because it was freaking cold, and there wasn’t really any sort of street life. I’m sure going there in the summer would yield a completely different experience.

My impression of Berlin this time around was that it is a hard nut to crack. It lacks the ebullience of New York [people seemed fairly reserved], the seductive beauty of Paris [much of Berlin architecture is unspectacular – so much was destroyed during WWII and a lot of soulless buildings were built in their stead] or the charm of London [the Berliners don’t exactly excel in the social graces]. However, Berlin has a remarkable undercurrent, and I got the sense that with a bit more time to delve beneath the surface [and to hang around in pubs and cafés], I would experience something entirely different.

At the end of the day, what makes Berlin fascinating is its history and the sense of how it manifests in its vibe. For those who don’t know, West Berlin was an island in the middle of East Germany, geographically isolated from the West while still enjoying all the freedoms of the West – and then some. West Berlin had some laws that applied only there; for example its residents were exempt from military duty, meaning it attracted draft dodgers from all over West Germany. The Berliners were renowned for their liberal attitudes so the city became a magnet for subcultures: artists, intellectuals, drug users, homosexuals … all gravitated towards West Berlin. That alternative, bohemian energy is still very much evident; in fact returning to Iceland with its rampant consumerism and materialism, its snobbishness and small-town attitudes, really had me yearning for the Berliners’ lack of concern about appearances. It was really very refreshing to spend a few days there.

The city’s most exciting [and trendiest] area today is without question Prenzlauer Berg, a neighbourhood in the Eastern part of the city with its own unique history. In the former GDR [East Germany] it was a slum, a melting pot of artists, bohemians and ex-convicts, who when they were released from prison were allocated flats in Prenzlauer Berg. The place fell into disrepair, most people yearned for flats in the newish suburbs of the city that had separate bedrooms and a toilet, as opposed to the old Prenzlauer Berg flats where the toilets were out in the hall, so Prenzlauer Berg became a haven of the displaced. Perhaps unsurprisingly, the area was the seat of the resistance against the East German regime and was essentially where the protests began that eventually led to the crumbling of the Wall. Today most of the buildings have been restored to their former splendor [although there is still the odd one that is a throwback to the GDR] and it’s filled with cafés, trendy little boutiques and amazing restaurants. AND it has cobblestone streets.

So yes – history is everywhere, monuments are everywhere … and I found none more disturbing than the frequent reminders of Jewish persecution during the Third Reich. Walking around one day, we came across small plaques embedded in the sidewalks … they were hardly noticeable, but on closer inspection we saw that they gave the names and dates of birth of the Jews that lived in that location, the date of their deportation, and the name of concentration camp in which they were murdered. In one instance that we came across, the building these plaques referred to – just behind them – was still covered in bullet holes. A grave and powerful reminder of the horrors of the holocaust.

However, by far the most chilling testament to the persecution of the Jews in Germany was in the Jewish cemetery that EPI and I unwittingly came across in Prenzlauer Berg, just as we were emerging from the U-Bahn [subway]. The cemetery was laid to waste by the Nazis during WWII and it has been left pretty much untouched since then. Many of the gravestones have been defaced, and many are shattered and scattered on the ground, overgrown with vines. Standing there in the midst of all that destruction was an overwhelming experience. To be able to ravage the holiest of ground like that is indicative of such a deep lunacy that it simply boggles the mind. It was unreal.

Anyway. I was deeply shocked. And at the risk of seeming disrespectful, I’m going to segue from that very grave subject matter into something infinitely more trivial: our much-discussed toilet situation at the hotel. There turned out to be no cause for concern, everything was very decent, and in fact our hotel was fabulous in every way. We had a corner room on the 23rd floor with a panoramic view [windows on two sides] and while the bathtub was somewhat curiously situated sort of mid-room and had a clear glass pane looking out into the room itself [for the exhibitionists in the crowd] there was a curtain that could be drawn [after the applause had ended]. The toilet was in a separate cubicle [phew] closed off by a frosted glass door, and while the whole thing was kind of OPEN [i.e. the bathroom was not a separate room] it was quite tolerable. Although I probably wouldn’t have wanted to share with someone that I didn’t feel comfortable sharing a bed with. Just … as a benchmark.

I promise to return to Niceland very soon, next post in fact shall be brought to you from dear old Reykjavík. In the meantime the weather: it continues cold, temps 0 to -8°C with winds 5-13 metres a second, stronger at the south coast. Today it was windy with flurries; currently it is 0°C [32F] and sunrise was at 7.09, sunset at 7.59 pm.