I lived in Europe in the mid-70s, and but didn’t visit Germany on principle. The Holocaust was only 30 years old. That’s like 1989 in our money.
But speaking of money, there aren’t even Deutschemarks, let alone Reichsmarks, anymore: they use euros. Things have changed. And my middle daughter, Elena, had visited Berlin two summers before and loved it.
So, on our trip to Italy last May, we tacked on a few days in Berlin.
I hired a tour guide for a few hours for the first morning. His name was Jan, but it’s pronounced “Yan,” which I learned after greeting him with the name of the middle Brady Bunch sister.
I’ll admit it. I liked Berlin better than I liked Rome, or even Venice. I felt more at home there: most of the city is new, for reasons that are probably obvious. (If not, google “Battle of Berlin.”) Also, it’s a very cosmopolitan city, cosmopolitan in this case being dog whistle for “immigrants.” The barista at Starbucks (of course there’s a Starbucks—on the same street as our hotel!) was Asian, and for entitled American visitors such as we, she has to learn not only German, but English.
And people are friendly. There was a particularly nice lady at the flea market who, although I speak no German and she spoke no English, seemed to be complimenting me on the color of my (dyed) hair. Then again, when I can’t understand someone, I am wont to assume they are giving me a compliment.
But back to Jan: He was a fun and knowledgeable guide, and I guess he didn’t hold it against me that I began our acquaintance by calling him by a girl’s name. He started us off with some historical monuments that survived the war, or have been reconstructed, and then, inevitably, moved onto more recent events: the buildings that housed Gestapo offices, you know, cheerful stuff like that.
Then he escorted us down a nondescript street, where we stopped at a square of unpaved ground. “Look down,” he said. “this is where Hitler’s bunker was.” He told us about Hitler’s last days, stories I was mostly familiar with, but which were all the more powerful coming from a native German.
He also explained that they (“they” in this case being either local authorities, or the German government, or somebody in power, anyway) purposely did not mark the spot, lest it become a shrine for neo-Nazis.
We were moved, and reassured, by this, though later I thought, he could have taken us anywhere and said that Hitler’s bunker was beneath us. Good story, though.
I didn’t tell Jan that we’re Jewish. I didn’t want to make him self-conscious. Granted, with the last name “Levin,” I might as well be wearing giant Star of David earrings, but the reservation was under my husband’s name, and though my husband is Jewish, too, his name is one of those ambiguous ones that can be German, or even Nordic. There’s even an Ibsen play, Pillars of the Community, in which the main character has the same name as my spouse.
However, about three-quarters of the way through our tour I let the expression “oy vey,” and therefore the kippah-wearing cat, slip out of the bag. Jan didn’t react: maybe he thought “oy vey” was a quaint California thing, like surfer-slang for “these waves be high, Dude,” but more likely, it was obvious we were Jewish from the beginning.
After this first guided tour, my daughters and I took ourselves around on Berlin’s enviable public transit system. I paid for day passes for us, to the tune of 60 euros, but you don’t punch the ticket, or hand it to anyone. It’s crazy: for the whole time we were there, no one ever asked to see proof that we’d paid. It’s done entirely on the honor system. Can you imagine how that might work in the U.S.?
Only when I was back home did it occur to me that this is a cultural phenomenon. Germans play by the rule. In other words, they follow orders. I guess when it comes to public transit, it’s a good thing.
On our second day, we spent a couple of hours at the Berlin Wall museum, which is central to the tourist’s experience. It was sad to see the stories of the people who died trying to get to West Berlin only months before the wall came down; also sad to see how families were divided for decades. I watched the wall come down, on television, at least, in 1989. Hey—weren’t we just talking about 1989? What a coincidence!
The funny thing is that I started this piece intending to write about how Jan asked me to post a review of his guideship on TripAdvisor. I did, and now I’m being bombarded with emails from TripAdvisor encouraging me to write more, so I can claim my reviewer badge. What is this compulsion to write reviews of everything, from paper towels (I like the “select-a-size”) to traffic lights (“Too long on the Spruce Street side!”)? My conclusion: many of us are way too high up on Maslow’s hierarchy of needs.
By the way, there’s no hotel tax in Berlin. All is forgiven.
Photo by Levin [no relation]/Unsplash.
Donna Levin is the author of four novels, all of which are available from Chickadee Prince Books. Her latest novel, He Could Be Another Bill Gates, was published this month; it’s available on Amazon, Barnes and Noble, or at the bookstore right across the street from your home. Please take a look.