2 Days in East Berlin: What to do and See

I spent the first day of my trip to Berlin trying to get to acquainted with the city, zigzagging across the not-so-invisible boundary that used to divide the German capital into two halves. But on the second day I want to go beyond the wall, beyond the former border, where the memory of the pain is not gone despite the scars being no longer visible to the naked eye.

When I get off at Ostbahnhof, I cannot miss the mishmash of old and new: the station of the east, with its red-brick facade and the wrought-iron vaults on one side, and the ultra-modern, bright coloured blocks of flats on the other. I walk along the Mühlenstrasse towards the starting point of the East Side Gallery, which is probably the biggest open-air art gallery.

The wall is still intact along the East Berlin strip of street where hundreds of artists have left their brush strokes at the beginning of the Nineties. The nearly one mile long section of concrete is a powerful celebration of freedom against hate and oppression.

The works of art are ironic and colourful, like Birgit Kinder’s iconic Trabant crashing through the wall. Russian artist Dimitrji Vrubel copied the famous photo depicting Leonid Brezhnev and Erich Honecker hugging and kissing to celebrate the DDR anniversary in 1979. Mein Gott, hilf mir, diese tödliche Liebe zu überleben, reads the tagline under the graffiti: My God, help me survive this deadly love. A deadly love that broke a country into two: this is how the liaison between the German Democratic Republic and the Soviet Union is often described.

A bunch of tourists are taking turns in posing for selfies next to the graffiti, maybe without seeing the awful sadness behind the bright colors on the wall. And it’s embarrassing how people fail to understand the true meaning of the picture.

I walk along the street until I reach another landmark of the east-west division: the Oberbaumbrücke, the red brick tower bridge. It’s imposing, with its lower bay supporting the street, and the upper one sustaining the railway lines. The red bridge is yet another symbol of a divided city, where one of the several checkpoints was set up during the Cold War.

From the Oberbaumbrücke I take a tram to Grünbergerstrasse. Months ago I read an article about some café that apparently hasn’t changed much since the era of the German Democratic Republic: a place where you can still bask in die Ostalgie, the communist regime nostalgia. But there’s no way of finding it: the article I had read was published about a year ago, so maybe the place has closed down.

I reach Boxhagener Platz, where the Flohmarkt, the flea market, takes place every Sunday. It’s the mirror image of many other street markets in other cities: its smells like dust and incense smoke. People walk lazily, like if they have no particular destination, rummaging through second-hand clothes and crochet handbags. Strolling along the side streets is much better, especially since it’s sunny and not that cold.

But there are more things I want to see, starting from the Karl-Marx-Allee, just round the corner. The monumental avenue runs through Friedrichshain and Mitte. There’s nothing particularly remarkable, but what makes me want to see the 300-foot-large, multiple lane street are the buildings and the so-called brutalist architecture of the Soviet Union.

I have never been to Russia, but the avenue matches the image of the USSR that I have made up in my mind: the two twin square towers, the imposing nine storey blocks of flats overlooking the avenue that until 1961 was know as Stalin-Allee.

I leave Stalin behind and walk to the Fernsehturm in Alexanderplatz. I remember seeing photos dating back to the Cold War, and in particular a black and white image of a man and a kid – possibly a grandfather with his grandchild – walking in the fog, with the Television Tower and the World Clock in the background.

The only other person was a man looking like a soldier, or at least dressed like one. The contraposition with this Sunday afternoon is so painful that it feels like a completely different place. The Nike’s, McDonald’s and Dunkin Donut’s neon signs are an eyesore.

It might be a different place, after all. I choose not to climb to the top of the tower because the line for the elevator goes round the block, so I walk to the Rotes Rathaus, the red city hall, which was the seat of East Berlin city council.

I cross the road from the city hall and find myself in Nikolaiviertel, the borough named after St. Nicholas’ church. Should I come back to Berlin, I could easily do without seeing this area again: the seemingly ancient feel of the houses and the streets is nothing but a swindle, since the entire district was built in the Eighties in mock 18th century style.

Other than the Nikolaikirche, everything else screams a tourist trap – from the souvenir shops to the breweries whose waitresses are dressed up as Bavarian kellnerin. The set up is as unconvincing as a version of the Oktoberfest taking place on the French Riviera. Or like a Christmas parade on Bondi Beach.

My last stop of the day is the DDR Museum, just opposite the Berlin Dome. I am not sure whether the choice between the Dome and the museum is the right one, because I doubt that visitors really get the message the exhibition intends to convey.

For sure the Italian family made up of mommy, daddy and three screaming kids do not even figure out that there’s a message at all: because of them there’s a mile long line of people waiting to get on a restored Trabant. They seem to be under the impression that this is the Ferrari Museum or the Micro Machines theme park: the kids are on a roll, and so are the parents who keep suggesting that they should go faster.

I will never know what a Trabant smells like or how uncomfortable its seats are, but at least I know what the people’s apartments look like.  I walk through a static elevator coming from one of the actual council flats of East Berlin. I get a glimpse of what life was like back in the DDR times, when people were told what to wear, what to eat and what to do with their time. From the furniture, to the choice of kitchen appliances to the – scarce – food: everything was imposed by the regime.

This was how people in East Berlin were compelled to live until about fifty years ago, not centuries ago. They didn’t choose that kind of life, nor did they choose to wear the clothes hanging from their bedroom closet or to embellish their dining room with the yellowish blanket strewn across the sofa armrest. Choices were made and imposed on them. The message is loud and clear: life in the DDR was a synonym of hardship, near-starvation, repression and fear. Something that no human being should ever be forced to experience.

3 thoughts on “2 Days in East Berlin: What to do and See”

  1. Just wanted to comment on some of the dramatizations in your article:

    Despite the GDR doubtlessly being a regime of illiberalism and repression, the government never told people what to wear or what to eat. Choices of clothes were merely limited by the market, which was not free. So if you managed to smuggle an Adidas track suit or your FRG relatives sent you sexy lingerie or whatever, nobody stopped you from wearing it. The only thing that could happen is that you wouldn’t get a job in public (service jobs, representative jobs). Same goes for food: you could have whatever food you wanted, as long as you could get it. Also, while it is true that there used to be shortages of certain foods on a very regular basis (to an extent that it apparently became very common to see people standing in endless lines because one of the shops had a shipment of rare goods coming in), even during the worst times (around 1986) starvation was never an issue, as opposed to other eastern European countries like Romania.
    Also, I’m not sure what you’re referring to when you say that people were told what to do with their time.

    About “Ostalgie”:
    The case of actual nostalgia towards the actual regime exists, very very rarely though.
    The more common “Ostalgie” results from a certain nostalgia to the products, events, lifestyle. To understand this, you have to understand that all the experiences, truths, companies, culture became worthless within the blink of an eye, which led to people feeling like second class citizens. This again made them start to long for the past…

    For the timespan: The GDR existed until about 30 years ago. Crazy, right?

    As for the Trabant: Given you live in Italy, you kind of know what a Trabant smells like: like any dirty two-stroke scooter. Exactly the same. The seats are very uncomfortable if you are taller than 170, also they’re not reclinable or anything.

  2. Love the flea market at Boxhagener Platz, I admit to being a little obssessed. Coming back to Berlin on another extended work trip so I’m going to do the co-living option vondereurope.com/location/Berlin again, I recommend it to anyone who will be staying for a bit longer and doesn’t want to be stuck with a choice of hotels or the impossible Berlin apartment finding hell.

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