When I grow up, I want to be a tour guide in Berlin. I want to share my passion for this place with others and be part of their discovery of its magic.
Four visits in, and it’s still interesting, heartbreaking, and enjoyable to be here amongst the history, the action, and the atmosphere that make this capital unique.
Berlin is a city of contrasts. The Reichstag Building, finished in 1894, wears its glass dome proudly like a finely milled hat. Added over 100 years later, the modern structure is strikingly different to the old stone building, yet works with it in perfect harmony, as if to say: I remain what I was, and I am something new.
The relationship between old and new is a recurring theme in Germany’s capital. Partly because many of the old buildings are nowhere near as old as they look having been rebuilt or restored following the destruction during the Second World War. I first came to Berlin a decade ago, and one absolute constant is cranes and construction.
Vibrant and buzzing, much of Berlin is alive with coffee shops, bars, restaurants and all the usual humdrum associated with a seat of government. All this sits against the modern history that is alive on every street and every corner leaving even the most inattentive visitor aware of the dark days Berlin has seen in the last century.
And all this contrast works. Berlin has its squares and parks with their grand buildings, expensive restaurants, and concert houses; and it has its noisy, graffiti-covered streets full of quirky shops, cafes, and bars selling food from the world over.
And in contrast:
The pull to Berlin is two fold. There is always the feeling that something is happening. There is a youth and a vibrance about this city. From bands to industry, stuff is going places and that place is forwards. Then there is the stream of reminders of how it was. Torn apart by dictatorship, torn to pieces by war, and torn in half by a wall, Berlin captures and ignites a passion for the past.
Remarkably perhaps, this musuem-like preservation of parts of the city avoids feeling dusty or relic like. Maybe it’s because life just goes on around it, or because so much of it is open air. It’s there to be passed with little thought whilst being present and confronting for reflection. Just today, I’ve crossed the double – cobble stone line marking the Berlin Wall’s course countless times. When I was born that would have been a complex and difficult task, if not impossible for some.
And that’s where the magic lies. In 30 years, this city has changed remarkably. Today, a section of the East Side Gallery is given over to a photo display about the horrendous tragedies and stories from Syria. Looking at the photos of ruins, injured children, and families divided in a place that has experienced tragedy, injury and division gave me hope that today’s conflicts might be resolved yet.
The Nazi past and the deeply horrific nature of the Holocaust are remembered and recognised consistently too. The stories of victims and perpetrators is neither hidden nor washed over, but openly acknowledged in memorials and information for us all, stark reminders of how awful the world can be, held up to help us all be more tolerant, more peaceful.
Berlin, then, captures me because it provokes a spectrum emotions. It educates and inspires. Yet it has an energy and a modernity that I’ve never found anywhere else. It has the ability to remember the past and build the future in perfect balance.
And, you know what, it’s also a damn cool place to hang out.