The Summer of Jon

TSOJ: Berlin, like a local (who speaks no German)

East Berlin

East Berlin

When you are in Berlin during the summer you will get a whiff of something unpleasant, something that smells like a sewer and that is because it is the sewer. I don’t know why the sewer smells like it does, but it is one of those distinctive aspects of Berlin that are inexplicable. In a country with the infrastructure like Germany one would think that moving human waste without having the odor escape from the sewer might be a priority, but apparently it is not, but after a few days in Berlin I did not notice the smell any longer. The only thing I did smell was on a particularly hot day I got on a subway and smelled what can only be described as Atomic B O. I wondered who on the subway needed a shower, the good news was that the person in need of a shower was the dude wearing my shirt. The best part of me stinking up the subway car was that I really didn’t care. Yep, I should have put on more deodorant, but I didn’t and now it is too late. I was trying to conserve a little travel sized deodorant for the whole month-long trip, but I was now running low and in my effort to conserve I probably went a little too far. (I have since come to my senses and purchased another lump of deodorant.)

One of the best things about going to Berlin was seeing someone I knew. Aristea was a Berliner and had been a student at my school this past year. My first words to her when I met her in the summer were, “Your city smells.” (I’m all class, all the time.) Despite this first encounter, she agreed to meet with me while I was in Berlin. We met at the Jewish Museum (after I found it, I got lost twice thanks to 70/30% rule of German signage) and I met Aristea’s friend Chloe who was visiting from France. We wandered through the museum for a little while trying to understand what was going on, but I was struck immediately by the use of one word in all of the descriptions of the Jewish people in the exhibits: murdered. Almost all of the Holocaust/Jewish museums I have been to say things like, “Issac perished in Auschwitz, or Issac was executed in Auschwitz, or Issac died in Auschwitz.” Murdered is a personal word, it is not a word used to describing mass killings. I am certain that this word was used purposefully, to personalize the deaths of these innocent people, but also to hammer home the deaths were intentional and not accidental or part of the machine of time.

The modern wing of the Jewish Museum.

The modern wing of the Jewish Museum.

Another beautiful day in Berlin.

Another beautiful day in Berlin.

Several of the exhibits were just experiences. I stood in a large room looking up at a shaft of light, there was no explanation, but to me it seemed like the hope of the Jewish people during the Holocaust. They could see something in the distance but were surrounded by darkness and the light was very far away.

That light was way, way up there.

That light was way, way up there.

The next spot was a little courtyard with large rectangular blocks of cement. At first everything seemed normal, until you stood in the courtyard. The blocks provided a visual illusion that you were standing upright, but the ground was actually on a slope and it was difficult to walk because the visual cues were telling you one thing, but the reality was different.

Looks straight up, but it isn't.

Looks straight up, but it isn’t.

We eventually got upstairs and began the history part of the museum. I thought I knew a little about Jewish life and beliefs, but it did not take long for me learn about five times as much as I had ever known. I learned about traditions, about Jewish beliefs, about Jewish history, and about stuff I hadn’t ever considered. We were there for two and a half hours and we could have stayed there twice as long.

Aristea standing in front of a sound wall. The headphones picked up different voices as you moved around. No one spoke English, but a few times I recognized a name and age from the voices.

Aristea standing in front of a sound wall. The headphones picked up different voices as you moved around. No one spoke English, but a few times I recognized a name and age from the voices.

The Tree of Wishes. Grab a paper apple, write a wish, hang it in the tree. I put, "I hope the Cubs win the World Series." That is a lie, I put up a little hippie note about love and peace.

The Tree of Wishes. Grab a paper apple, write a wish, hang it in the tree. I put, “I hope the Cubs win the World Series.” That is a lie, I put up a little hippie note about love and peace.

Large glass courtyard set aside for eating and thinking after the visit.

Large glass courtyard set aside for eating and thinking after the visit.

After the Jewish museum we were off to eat Thai food. I love Thai food, but I also suffer from the idea that the best ethnic food can be found in America. Why did I believe this? Primarily ignorance, but a little of it was buying into the idea that America is a melting pot of many cultures and everywhere else in the world is pretty much a collection of mono-ethnic cultures where people don’t mix. This is not the case, the world is incredibly diverse and while America has good Thai food, so does Berlin, really good Thai food.

We met Aristea’s mom at the restaurant and got seats outside along the street. I really love the relaxed attitude of eating outside in Europe, it is one of the great pleasures of life. At our table to eat Thai food, we had a French woman, two Berliners and an American, it was very international, the best news was that everyone spoke excellent English. It was so nice to be able to be taken care of by my German-speaking hosts. They ordered, picked up the food, and picked up the bill. I had some duck and curry. It was very good, and I got to try a mango drink that was also very nice. I spent a lot of time talking to Aristea’s mom about the United States about her travels. After I told her about my harrowing experience climbing the tower in Copenhagen, she told me that it was possible to climb up into the tower in the center of the Tiergarten. I hadn’t planned on climbing anymore towers, but this one looked pretty safe compared to the one in Copenhagen. After dinner, we walked to a coffee shop and had some caffeine and cake to top the evening off. It was one of those leisurely evenings that seem so hard to accomplish in America. Culturally we could learn a lot from the Europeans when it comes to eating and relaxing. Imagine eating a meal for two hours in America, it just doesn’t happen, but it should.

At the end of the evening, Aristea’s mom drove me back to my hotel by way of all of the places I should visit on my last day. I managed to make it to all of the locations on my final day in Berlin, but nothing was better than the evening that I got to pretend I was a local.

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