Is two weeks after the fact too late to blog about a two-week stint of backpacking in Europe? Regardless, I hope that some of the following stories, accounts, pictures, and occasional advice will be helpful to any readers who might harbor interest in the prospect of going to some of these places.
Let me begin by saying that I and my travel group were backpacking in the sense that all our belongings were in backpacks as we shifted from hostel to hostel, underground station to rail station, airport to bus stops, etc. We were not backpacking in the sense that we had to sleep outside, create our own fires, or use leaves as nature’s toilet paper.
I would also like to add that I write this from the perspective of an amateur and college student, thus a lot of things were fairly budget-friendly to the wallet of a college student. We weren’t on a five-star vacation.
Alrighty then, here goes!
Out of the five cities we managed to cover in thirteen days, Berlin was my favorite. Contrary to what I was led to believe, Germany was surprisingly quite affordable. Other added bonuses: EXCELLENT public rail system, most everyone knows English (although I did make myself look like an idiot a few times when I would gesture to whatever food item in the café I wanted, and then hold up a number on my hand, just in case they didn’t speak English. You either run the risk of seeming arrogant for assuming that everyone knows your native tongue, or seeming arrogant for assuming that they don’t. Such a Catch 22!), the city is REALLY clean, and – not that I’m biased or anything because of some German roots that run in my family – but the people are rather attractive.
There’s only so much you can do in Berlin in three days, but I’m pleased with what we were able to manage – Brandenburger Tor (which is stunning at nighttime), Berliner Cathedral, Charlottenburg Palace, the Jewish Memorial, the Reichstag and of course, the Berlin Wall.
We also got to see the site where Hitler committed suicide, which is currently a parking lot. I give a lot of credit to whoever’s idea this was – thank you for not making the place a memorial for him.
Perhaps the most important part of the Berlin experience was visiting Sachsenhausen Memorial. One “must” item on my lifetime “must-see/do” list was visiting a former Holocaust concentration camp. A sharp contrast to our other, more fun Berlin excursions, seeing Sachsenhausen was what I most wanted to do. I would agree with my dad, who believes that if given the chance, remembering one of history’s most devastating atrocities on the grounds where it happened is something everyone needs to do. Sachsenhausen gave me a lot to think about – how the role of faith plays in such a circumstance, how easily the mind can be manipulated into carrying out such terrible deeds and the importance of remembering the past. As I treaded through Sachsenhausen, all I could see were the images of past prisoners.
Despite how heavy that day was, I love Berlin because of its acknowledgment of its dark past. Germans don’t try to sweep any of it under the rug – rather, they admit to what happened and use reminders of its mistakes in history to keep from repeating those mistakes again. This resonated with me as a sort of phoenix metaphor; a city that could rise from the ashes and become something beautiful.
Perhaps another reason why I enjoyed my time in Berlin so well was because we coincidentally ran into about half our APU study abroad cohort – which made exploring the city and trying out the bratwurst all that much more enjoyable.
As a sidenote, I’ve heard many people say that German is not a pretty language; that it sounds angry. I would like to counter this. Obviously any language will sound angry if it’s said in an angry tone. I found Deutsch to sound very fluid – simultaneously strong yet fluid.
The dos and don’ts: DO take advantage of the public “bahn” system in Berlin – Berlin is the size of some small countries, so you will definitely be getting around this way. DO experience both the fun, touristy aspects of Berlin as well as places like the Berlin Wall that force you to think. DO try the bratwurst. DON’T take out more euros than you need – especially if your bank charges international fees. DON’T be that person who takes selfies on sacred memorial grounds. DO enjoy yourself. It’s “der” fun!