Tuesday, September 17, 2013

Berlin! (Bonus: Surprise Celebrity Sighting!)

Der Brandenburger Tur
Last night I arrived in Berlin to great fanfare and joyous celebrations. They rolled out the red carpet as my escorts and I arrived at the Hauptbahnhoff and were quickly ushered to the nearest 5-star hotel.

Then I woke up to find we had actually arrived at the station, and i was a little ashamed that I had fallen asleep on a commuter train with literally everything I own on my lap. Horror stories of stolen cameras had prevented me from sleeping until the very end of the ride, but fortunately I made it without incident. My friend Kaira picked me up and helped me with my luggage towards the bus station.

My first impressions of Berlin were, 1) REALLY impressive, modern, cosmopolitan train station. A ridiculously high glass ceiling covering the several floors of seemingly moving glass and metal made for quite the spectacle. 2) Just outside the station a pavillion was set up with some hokey German music coming out of it. Except it wasn't German music, it was a German cover of "Country Roads," which, honestly, I found kind of hilarious. Not only did it sound silly, but what the heck are a bunch of Berliners listening to Country Roads for? Sure, it's a decent song... about West Virginia! Maybe it was nothing but tourists in the pavilion, but I took it as a sign that Berlin was a modern and international city.

This prediction has since been validated (in my mind, at least). The city couldn't be more different from Amsterdam. While Amsterdam was understated and quaint, Berlin is as grand and contemporary looking as any western city. People of every race, style, and walk of life roam the wide boulevards lined by shops ranging from Vietnamese restaurants to hipster coffee shops to Turkish cell phone companies.

The dwellings too, mirror the feeling on the street. The buildings have large windows and doors, even on the inside. The ceilings are high and the rooms are excessively spacious. Compared to the cramped houses and apartments of Haarlem, the apartments of Schöneberg might as well be luxury apartments fitted with dojos.

The Russian Embassy on Unter Den Linden
The weather here today was a perfect fall day - sunny, cool, breezy. I went for an hour long run at Templehof airport to take advantage of it. Templehof is an out of use airport famously used by the US military to bring in supplies during the blockade of West Berlin in 1948. It now functious as a large open space for recreation. While running through I saw people flying kites, walking their dogs, biking, inline skating (does anyone do that anymore? The Germans do), and even practicing ballet. Afterwards I had lunch in a Vietnamese restaurant with Kaira. Amazingly, utterly Amazingly, in this Vietnamese restaurant I heard the unmistakable instrumental notes of an all too familiar song, albeit in a thoroughly Asian restaurant sort of tone. The song was Country Roads. Immediate face palm. We whiled away the rest of the afternoon drinking coffee at a hipster coffee shop, complete with blankets so you can sit outside on a chilly fall day.

On top of the Brandenburg Gate
In the evening I trekked on my own to "Der Mitte" (downtown... more or less) which includes "Unter den Linden," a famous boulevard in the former East Berlin, the "Bundestag" (the capitol building), and the main attraction, the Brandenburg Gate. I practiced my amateur photography skills as I wandered the main thoroughfare and the "Tiergarten,"an English Garden that functions more or less as an equivalent to our National Mall in DC. In it were monuments to Germany's greatest heroes of both history and lore, among other monuments. The park is vast, and I saw only a fraction of what was to offer.

The highlight of the day occurred in the Tiergarten. As I sized up of a photograph of a monument to Beethoven, I saw someone running out of the corner of my eye. I lowered my camera and glanced over. Then I took a double take. I couldn't believe my eyes.

Just imagine that Beethovern's eyes are watching Vince Vaughn run
It was Vince Vaughn. VINCE VAUGHN. He was jogging through the freakin' Tiergarten in Berlin. I stared in amazement for a second as he passed, and I stupidly blurted out "Vince Vaughn?!?!?" He said, in typical Vince Vaughn fashion, "What's up buddy?" He continued running and I managed to say "Hey, have a nice run, man!" He responded with "Yeah have a good day, buddy." He trotted off into the woods and I stood there looking around wondering if this event had actually occurred. My consternation was doubled by the fact that I had no one to whom to tell my story. At the very least I could have taken a photograph of his flailing jog, but I was too busy gaping wide eyed.

So I trudged on, and finally found the main attraction I had been looking for - The Soviet Memorial. This memorial is incredible for several reasons. First, somehow I had never heard of it. Maybe most people who think it's important think that I must also know it exists, since I would find it important, and they neglected to mention it. Or maybe people have kinda forgotten its importance since it's kind of old. Second, this monument is AWESOME! The Soviets erected it immediately after they conquered(liberated?) Berlin and it towers over the main avenue of the Tiergarten. Twin Soviet T-34s (supposedly the first two to reach Berlin in 1945) stand guard on a stone wall before two large Soviet artillery pieces. At the back of the memorial is a series of columns representing each of the branches of the Soviet Army that took part in the victory. On the monument are inscriptions wishing "Eternal glory to the heroes of the Soviet Union." At the top of the enormous stone structure stands an equally enormous Soviet infantryman, gallantly and ruggedly gazing over Berlin. Viewed from a certain angle, the soldier towers over the (then ruins of) the Bundestag/Reichstag in an utterly perfect symbolism of the defeat of Nazism (single-handedly) by the Soviet Union. 
I win
"Eternal Glory to the heroes who fell in the battle against the German-fascist invaders for the freedom and independence of the Soviet Union"
Veni, Vidi, Vici... Jetzt gehen Sie aus!

   I lingered for a long time around this memorial taking photos from different angles. Behind the memorial were plaques with historic photographs and additional information about the role of the memorial in Berlin's history these past 68 years. As I left the memorial, I watched as a young man clambered on top of one of the T-34s standing sentry over the road and posed for a photograph taken by his girlfriend. On the one hand, I couldn't help but think of my professors Jes Therkelsen and Alexander Prokhorov, who taught me to examine how people interact with "places of memory." On the other hand, I couldn't help but smile at the fact that these tanks, these epic pieces of machinery that played an enormous part in a critical, although by now old, part of history, now stand as a steed for the casual tourist to take a humorous photograph. Finally, it is moving that although the Soviets, like the Nazi's, are also gone from Berlin, their victory monument continues to dominate a central tourist area of a formerly conquered city. I have a feeling that such a state of affairs is rather unprecedented, and my hunch is the monument remains because, just how could one possibly justify taking down a monument that represents the defeat of the most evil government the world has ever known? 

With these thoughts lingering in my mind, I took one last photo of the Bundestag, purchased a small Berlin shot glass, and made my way back to the train station. Dodging the crowd of tourists taking pictures of the Brandenburg Gate, it floated across my mind that, yes, I had actually just seen Vince Vaughn jogging through a park in Berlin. Wow!

1 comment:

  1. It should also be stated that the last film you viewed in America was Swingers, starring none other than Vince!