Not sheepish, but individ-ewe-al (livredor) wrote,
Not sheepish, but individ-ewe-al
livredor

Northern Europe Tour 2007 – Part II: Deutschland

I have barely had time for LJ at all in the last couple of weeks, but part of the reason it's taken me a while to get round to this post is that I'm finding it fairly difficult to write. Particularly if I don't want to offend people. The thing is, visiting Germany freaked me out a lot more than I expected. Or to be more precise, Berlin did my head in. Let me try to write down a factual account of what I got up to, and try to include as much of my response as I can put into words.

I landed in Rostock at 9:30 in the evening, and hadn't quite realized how much faff it was going to be to get into the centre of town from the port. So it was late when I reached my hostel, the Hanse Hostel, which was lovely, with a very sweet motherly woman in charge. I wandered a little in Rostock itself in the morning, which is a very pretty town with classic Hanseatic architecture; I almost wish I'd arranged to visit it properly rather than just as a stopover.

I had booked a hostel, the Schlafmeile in Berlin that was similarly selected randomly from the internet. My first impression was that I'd accidentally ended up in a somewhat dodgy area, with a lot of graffiti, derelict buildings and very obvious squats. I wasn't too distressed by this, but as I explored further I realized that almost the whole of Berlin is like that, even within a stone's throw of the shiniest business areas and the major tourist destinations. It's probable that living in egalitarian Sweden has made me more sensitive to these things, but in Berlin the wealth gap was so blindingly obvious that it made me rather uncomfortable. They promote the city to tourists with some amount of pride in the "street art" and "thriving subcultures" and yes, some of it is genuinely cool and alternative, but lots of it is just shabby and dirty and ugly in the unique way that hopeless poverty is ugly.

My plan to take the city on its own merits and not approach it in a morbid way didn't work very well. I absolutely did not go to Berlin looking for Holocaust stuff; if I'd wanted to depress myself I would not have skipped over Poland on my whirlwind tour of the Baltic. But that bit of history turned out to be absolutely unavoidable, partly because of the general principle that making a deliberate effort not to think of a particular topic never works, and partly because Berlin seems to have discovered Holocaust tourism in a big way (as far as I could tell this is a recent phenomenon). I picked up one of those free tourist maps and the first page proclaimed in huge letters an UNFORGETTABLE LIVING HISTORY EXPERIENCE!!!!! tour of the Sachsenhausen concentration camp SPONSORED BY STARBUCKS AND DUNKIN DONUTS!!!!! A second glance told me that the two banners were not actually connected, but even so.

The thing is that Eisenman's murdered Jews memorial itself is extremely sensitive, moving without being mawkish, and it's absolutely right that its presence in Berlin should attract tourists who want to study and remember the Holocaust. I don't have a problem with providing other activities and information for such visitors while they are in the city, and I can't even completely object to finding ways to encourage them to spend money in Berlin, because all tourists need places to eat and sleep, no matter the purpose of their visit. But all these things add up to a feeling of being bombarded with Holocaust memorabilia of various sorts, as if every single location in the city was shouting out its connection with the Nazi era. (There's also a bunch of almost-nostalgic marketing of the Communist era and the Berlin Wall, centred around Checkpoint Charlie which is basically a tourist bazaar. The ubiquitous stalls selling tat with Soviet and Russian military branding made me feel a little queasy, but mainly on the grounds that this kind of thing is not cute or funky, rather than having a problem with the subject being mentioned at all.)

I went to the Pergamon museum, because it was high on my list of places I absolutely need to visit at some point in my life. And yes, I was reminded of how Nazi ideology twisted and misused the Classical heritage, just as the modern art gallery reminded me how the Nazis banned modern art and the photography gallery had an exhibition of Holocaust-related photos and so on. Setting that aside, though, the museum itself was just as awesome as I expected. I hadn't realized that in addition to the amazing Classical stuff they have some really incredible ancient Near East exhibits, including a large part of the actual fortifications of Babylon. As well as the really stunning artefacts on display, the museum is well put together with really informative exhibitions about things like the history of writing, and how archaeologists make deductions about culture based on what they can find. I really wanted darcydodo and lethargic_man with me for this one!

Since I didn't have a lot of time in the city, I decided that the best use of the rest of it was to go on a free walking tour. This proved to be an excellent plan; the guide was a vacationing (English) history student who was extremely knowledgeable and enthusiastic. We did manage to see some impressive neo-classical architecture and learn quite a lot about the general history of the city, interspersed with all the Holocaust and Communist period stuff. As well as the more obvious tourist sites we saw a chocolatier which had made scale models of the former out of chocolate!

But it was very very hot (expect when we were caught in a sudden and intense downpour), and all the constant Holocaust references were getting to me. Some of it was silly stuff that is in no way Berlin's fault: the fact that the German that most easily comes to my mind is the vocabulary of bad Nazi thrillers, or the fact that it's not easy to distinguish punks from skinheads, at a glance. There were also odd things like a poster for some vampire-related cultural event which was making explicit the connection between vampire mythology and anti-semitic imagery, which in another context I would probably have barely noticed, but in this situation just contributed to my weird mood. I ended up doing something which I never do, namely drinking alcohol to get out of my head. That was pretty foolish and shouldn't have worked, but as it happened spending an hour or so nursing a very nice piña colada over a light meal in a gimmicky tourist bar (with swinging wicker hammocks instead of chairs) did break up the destructive thought patterns.

It's a fair distance from Berlin to Cologne, but German trains are amazingly fast, efficient and comfortable. I had a really lovely evening and day with monanotlisa, who is a fantastic hostess. We ate really well, one meal out at a delightful French restaurant and one meal of Thai curry that she cooked. And we had lots and lots and lots of good conversation, in between exploring Cologne. The cathedral is very impressive, and one of the few big European cathedrals I've visited that actually feels like a living place of worship rather than just a pretty tourist monument. And there are fun pretty Mediaeval bits.

I discovered that Swedish has absolutely driven all traces of German out of my head. I can still understand German fairly well, but I can't speak even simple phrasebook sentences, because by the time the Swedish word has come to mind, and I've worked out that I don't want that, I want its German cognate, the moment has passed and I look like an idiot. This led to things like getting chatted up by some stupid teenagers; searching for German words, I wasn't fast enough to tell them to go away (which I could have done in English if I'd been sensible). Rather amusingly, they eventually asked me my age, and ran away in horror when they discovered I was 28 (that much German I can manage!) rather than the 12 (!) they had assumed.

I want to go back to Germany for a more extended visit, preferably when I'm in a better headspace.
Tags: tourism
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