I spent three days in Berlin, which is not enough time to get to know a place and make dramatic pronouncements like, “Berlin is the Johannesburg of Europe.”
But I’m saying it anyway because that’s how I felt when I was there.
Of course there are the obvious differences. Berlin is in Europe and Joburg is in Africa. Berlin is wealthier and cleaner and has far less poverty than Joburg. Berlin certainly has less crime and is safer to walk in at night. Berlin has superior public transportation to Joburg. Berlin is gloriously flat, making it an excellent city for cycling, and doesn’t have any mine dumps.
Unlike Joburg, I hear Berlin has horrible weather in winter.
And yet there are so many similarities.
Street art by Various & Gold on the former border of East and West Berlin. The concrete wasteland behind that fence was once a parking lot for cars passing between East and West Germany. Street art in a concrete wasteland…very Joburgian, no?
Both cities are full of immigrants.
A Turkish restaurant where I ate my first dinner in Berlin. I could just as easily have been eating in Istanbul.
Both cities feel chaotic in their own ways, and are considered atypical compared with other cities in the same country. Both cities are artistic, creative hubs.
Courtyard of the Haus Schwarzenberg, an alleyway filled with secret cafés and graffiti.
Both cities have beautiful graffiti and an anything-goes kind of vibe. Both cities have incredibly friendly people who seem to provide inexplicably unfriendly service.
Both Berlin and Joburg have painful, tumultuous histories and their people were victimized by repressive, brutal regimes that lasted until the recent past. Both cities have supposedly “moved on”, but the scars remain.
Checkpoint Charlie, the most touristy spot in Berlin. The photo looming above the square portrays a Soviet soldier who would have manned this line between East and West Germany during the Cold War. There’s a photo of an American soldier on the other side of the placard.
A portion of the Berlin Wall that still stands as part of the Berlin Wall Memorial.
Stolpersteine, or stumbling stones, which appear all over Berlin. These small brass blocks commemorate individuals who were killed or persecuted by the Nazis during the holocaust. The blocks mark the spot where each individual voluntarily lived or worked before being killed or deported to concentration/extermination camps. Each block includes the person’s name, year of birth, year of death, and where they died. All four of these people died at Auschwitz.
Both cities have changed dramatically over the last few decades. Both cities are quirky, hard to fathom, and kind of make no sense.
Berlin’s historic Tempelhof Airport, which closed in 2008 and is now a public park where people can cycle or walk or otherwise ambulate around on miles and miles of unused airplane runways. My friend Jeroen and I cycled joyously over these wide open runways for 30 minutes or so, then branched off onto a garden path where we found a bunch of people under a tree playing folk music. Oh, and Tempelhof is also now a refugee camp. The white buildings in the middle of the photo are refugee houses. Because Berlin.
Both cities are beautiful but the beauty must be uncovered.
St. Michael’s, one of countless beautiful churches in Berlin. The facade looks pretty normal but when you walk around to the side of the church you’ll see the inside is missing and open to the elements. The church was bombed during World War II and never rebuilt.
Getting to Know Berlin
As I mentioned previously, my friend Jeroen lives in Berlin and knows everything about the city. I spent two days cycling the streets with Jeroen and learning everything I could.
We spent the first day cycling along the path of the Berlin Wall. Jeroen explained the history of this crazy structure.
I can’t believe how little I knew about the Berlin Wall before this trip. I’d always imagined it as a straight wall dividing the city neatly in half, with the western half of the country on one side and the eastern half on the other.
In reality the Berlin Wall meandered, zig-zagging haphazardly to separate the districts belonging to East and West Germany. When the wall was built in 1961 (so recent!), it divided streets. Buildings standing on the edge of the East Berlin side were closed off, the west-facing windows and doors filled in with bricks. People tried to jump out of those windows before they were filled; some jumped to their deaths. Churches along the wall were closed and eventually destroyed.
Couples got married on the streets below the new wall so their parents on the other side — who suddenly couldn’t cross to be with their children — could witness the wedding.
I never knew before that Berlin was not actually the dividing line between these two “countries”. In fact, the city of West Berlin was completely surrounded by East Germany — in the same way Lesotho is completely surrounded by South Africa — a small island of “freedom” in a communist sea.
None of it made sense. How could anyone have ever thought this made sense?
The Berlin Wall came down in 1989, the year before Nelson Mandela was released from prison.
I could go on and on about the history of the Berlin Wall and how astonishing and violent and non-sensical it was. Much like I could go on and on about the history of apartheid for basically the same reasons.
This post is getting long though. Let me just share a few more pictures of interesting things I saw and did in Berlin.
The Reichstag building.
The stunning and poignant Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe.
Prinzessinnengärten, a real-life German beer garden surrounded by an actual garden (where plants grow and stuff). I loved it.
Eisbein (pickled ham hock) served over a mountain of sauerkraut with mashed peas and boiled potatoes. Thanks to my Berliner friend Stephan for making sure I experienced this classic German dinner. (It was great but once was enough.)
Berlin is my kind of city. I guess that’s another thing it shares with Joburg. I hope to go back soon.