When I first found out that with the AHA program, we get a ten day break half way through the semester, the entire map of Europe began swimming through my head. Places I had always dreamed of visiting and things I had always wanted to do began clouding my head. Prague, Paris, Germany, Sicily… the possibilities (not the funds) were endless. As I was daydreaming, I realized how badly I missed my German family, the Guth’s. This family had entered my life four years ago and every since then, they have been nothing but wonderful.
It was four years ago when a girl named Ann-Kathrin came to live with my family through an exchange program. Over the course of the next four years, the Guth’s visited often, allowing their second daughter, Maryvonne, to live with us as well. We took family vacations together, shared side-splitting laughter, and became wonderful friends. This family was one that I realized I missed: my two beautiful German sisters and their amazing parents. The 10 day break turned out to be an easy decision after all and after an okay from my parents, I was headed to Germany!
October 23 rolled around and after a restful couple of days with my roommate Eva, I had my alarm set and all of my travel details checked. I then double checked, and even triple checked (I had my folder, labeled with its contents of traveling papers; it may be uptight, but I was not about to get stuck in a foreign country!). Enrico, our usual cab driver, arrived at 6 am sharp Monday, October 24, ready to drive me to the nearest airport in Ancona. Properly trained by the United States airport system, I planned on getting there two hours before my flight. The good thing about Italy being so different, two hours is more than necessary and I had plenty of time to sit around and do nothing. I boarded my flight on the famed (and defamed) RyanAir with no problems and two hours later, arrived at the Weeze airport in Dusseldorf, Germany. Walking through the gate, I saw the most wonderful smile I had seen in awhile, one from the lovely Ann-Kathrine Guth.
The Weeze airport is located in an old army base, in the middle of nowhere so I was extremely happy that Anna-Kat came to pick me up. We exchanged the usual hellos and girly squeals that were expected and got on our way. Merging onto the highway seemed like no big deal until I realized I was on the autobahn, a highway I had always dreamed of experiencing. At that point, there were more squeals and looks of amazement from me as Anna-Kat just laughed. There was something about being on a highway with an unlimited speed limit that hit my adrenaline button. Besides, I have gotten my fair share of speeding tickets, and being on a highway where you can only get a ticket for going too slow, I was thrilled.
About 45 minutes later I arrived at the Guth’s beautiful home and got the grand tour before we headed off to explore the area where the girls have grown up. The small villages were adorable, filled with German bakeries, little shops, and beautiful churches. The littlest things amazed me about Germany. Maybe it was because I have been in Italy for so long and Germany is so westernized, but the giant grocery store (about the size of Walmart), over abundance of McDonalds, and the warm showers almost brought tears to my eyes. Something I realized over the course of the rest of my trip was that Italy and Germany, even though they are within hours of each other, were as different as two worlds could be.
Tuesday morning, Anna-Kat and I woke up ready for our German road-trip. We grabbed some pastries for breakfast, boarded the autobahn, and headed to a city on the west side of the country, Berlin. The European road-trip was a fun one, filled with Bruno Mars, European music, too many sweets, lots of chatting, and plenty of dancing.
Along the way we stopped at the checkpoint where the country used to be divided into East and West Germany. Lights that could bring daylight and rows of trailers that were once full of troops, guns, and waiting citizens now lay quiet and barren. Whenever people wanted to pass through, pre-1989, they had to go through extensive searches and forms to be allowed from one side of their country to the next. I thought this was a little extreme but I obviously had no idea what was in store in the next few days. The history of this beautiful country, a history that shaped the world, was about to be unfolded before me. Sure, I had gone to history class from elementary school through college, but as I’ve realized in my time in Europe, learning about history paints a completely different story than seeing history.
Driving into Berlin, it looked like any other city going through growth. Construction spots littered the city while old and new buildings lined the streets. After checking into our beautiful hotel, located in the middle of the city (so much thanks goes to Mr. and Mrs. Guth), we set out with the goal of exploring what we could before it became too dark. Our first stop was the Brandenburger Tor, a giant gate like structure built in 1971, before the division of the city. Years after the construction, the city was divided just outside of the gates, forming an iconic view of the segregation when the wall was still standing. I did not think much of walking between the giant pillars until Anna-Kat pointed out that walking under the giant gate was really something of privilege. It was so simple, twenty-something steps from one side to the other. However, 25 years ago, those twenty steps would have been means of getting arrested or worse. It was at this moment that I began to realize how blessed I am to live in the United States and how blessed the world is that this former wall fell. Lucky for me, the shock and awe of it all was only beginning there.
For the rest of the night, Anna-Kat and I wandered the streets of Berlin, getting our bearings and seeing what we could regardless of the missing sunlight. We saw the Memorial for the Murdered Jews, which is located just next to the Brandenburger Tor. The memorial is made of over 2,700 dark cement slabs, all of different heights and gridded together. They are supposed to give the look of waves, flowing over the open plaza. It was interesting to walk among the cement blocks, some towering over us and some I could take a simple step up onto. I knew I wanted to come back later to take pictures, but just to see my first monument, one built for a relatively recent event, was a bit of an experience.
Anna-Kat and I walked around more after this, grabbing some subway passes and making our way over to KaDeWe, the Herod’s of Berlin. Knowing that Forever 21 is more my price range and style did not stop me from exploring the life of the rich and famous at this giant department store, bug-eyed the entire time. We soon left empty handed and found some dinner at a small Italian place closer to our hotel (I grabbed a German beer for the sake of being in Germany). After, we settled in for a full night’s sleep back at our hotel; we knew we had so much to see the next day!
Day two in Berlin started off wonderfully with a HOT shower and an actual breakfast with a full cup of coffee. The actual breakfast was only a sandwich but that was better than “il postre” that you’d get here in Italy. Checkpoint Charlie was only a few blocks away so that was where we pinpointed our first stop. That is also where Anna-Kat explained the workings of the divided world that was so recent, yet seemed so foreign to me. The idea of a divided city, fear induced when trying to pass from one side to the next, was an idea I never really had to imagine. Checkpoint Charlie was the American checkpoint in the middle of Berlin where it could be regulated who crossed from one side to the next. The informational display along the road explained the transition in Germany from Hitler’s reign to the ruling of the Soviets. It gave stories of heroes, those that risked and sacrificed their lives to give freedom to both their loved ones and complete strangers. It gave examples of men and women who did whatever they could to be out of the terror of the East. What kind of world this must have been, to risk everything to escape. The saddest part to think about is that this kind of fear and desperation still exists today, only now it is in other parts of the world.
Anna-Kat and I decided to go inside the Checkpoint Charlie museum, a small museum that is well worth the money. Inside were more stories of escape, even displaying an original car that was used (the engine was taken out of the front and moved elsewhere in the car to fit a person in the hood) as well as a home-made hot air balloon that two families built to escape together. Stories of torn apart families were shown throughout the rooms and the realization that some of these families never came back together was terribly saddening. One woman’s son was taken from her, never to be seen again. He would now be only in his 30’s, still such a young age. The museum was not all sad though. There were stories of survival and triumph, people coming together from different nationalities to see the survival of the suppressed.
Next on our to-do list was to see the Eastside Gallery. This gallery, located only a couple subway rides away, is located along the river. It is made up of part of the original Berlin wall that has been painted over by artists from around the world. The individual panels revolve around the wall, its meaning then, its meaning now, and the idea of freedom. There were a couple things I noticed about this wall as we walked along its made-over surface. One was the height of the wall: too tall to jump over, short enough to be possible, but impossible because of the merciless guards. It was at the most taunting height. The other was the beauty and individualism that covered this once tyrannical and cold wall. We had to stop every few steps just so I could take another picture, just so I could capture what each artist was possibly trying to convey.
After exhausting every piece of art, we walked over to see the only remaining part of the wall that is still intact today as it was 25 years ago. The raked sand (to monitor footprints) and two walls still stood, along with barriers for trapping vehicles and the guard stand. Anna-Kat and I just stared at it, imagining this communist sandbox weaving throughout the city.
For the rest of the afternoon, Anna-Kat and I wandered around, trying to see everything we could. We saw the New Jewish Synagogue, a gorgeous piece of architecture. It had been bombed in the war and after much work and determination, was rebuilt; its gold detail now stands out against the grey German sky, especially on the rainy day we were there. We walked around the museum campus as well, becoming completely overwhelmed by the Berlin Cathedral that towered above the green lawn in front of it. The sun began to set around that time, casting a pink hue over everything the light could reach. It was absolutely beautiful, especially after such a rainy day. As if on cue, a full rainbow appeared over the cathedral as we were visiting another church only a couple blocks away. I wish I could exaggerate this, but I can’t; it was just a moment of happiness.
For lunch that day, Anna-Kat and I decided to experience a real currywerst, an original creation of Berlin, so to keep with the “original Berlin” idea, we got Doner Kabob for dinner. Doner is another Turkish dish that was created in Berlin and is a lot like Pita Pit. It is a pita stuffed full of gyro meat, lettuce, coleslaw, tsatsiki sauce, and onions. We have a Doner here in Macerata but I had been holding out for the real thing. I will be the first to tell you, it was so worth it.
Berlin was an incredible city and as Anna-Kat and I walked around after dinner, I knew it was a city I would have to return to someday. Its busy-ness and modern society seems to refuse to be held back by its rocky past, wanting to remember it but not be suppressed by it. Granted, this point of view was only from a tourist’s perspective, but that is the only view I have to go by.
We got back to our room kinda early that night, knowing we had to leave the next day to go back home, but not before the couple stops we wanted to make. The next day, Thursday, I wanted to see the Jewish memorial one more time before leaving the city, and then make a stop that not many people have the privilege nor the desire to see.
Thursday morning, after a short walk around town, visiting the memorial again and doing some trinket shopping, we loaded up the car and headed north. We were about to go see Sachesenhausen, a Nazi concentration camp just outside Berlin. Anna-Kat and I both grew quiet as we came closer to the site. Our nerves were a result of not knowing what to expect as well as knowledge of generally went on at these sites so many years before. We purchased our audio guides and walked to the entrance of the camp, uneasy before we ever entered the gates.
There were two levels of entrances to this camp, each prisoner humiliated before walking through the gates. The words on the second set of gates seemed particularly cruel reading “arbeit machtfrei” or “work will free.” We walked into the camp, still unsure what to expect and just stood, quiet and still, by the gates. The camp stretched out before us, designed for optimal vision of the prisoners from the gates, where the men in charge worked. The grass lay dead and an eerie quiet blanketed the acres of seclusion. I had heard that nothing lives in concentration camps, that neither living plants nor animals are not seen there; it is just full of morbid emptiness. This concentration camp was not very different from that prediction: a few trees stood between where some of the barracks used to stand and the only living animals I could see were a few black crows. No birds were ever seen flying overhead.
I won’t go into too much detail here about the concentration camp (if you want to know more, just ask me), but I will say it was an incredibly moving and life changing experience. Like I said before, learning about history and standing where history was formed are two incredibly different experiences. After Anna-Kat and I left there, we found it extremely difficult to complain about much of anything at all. Suddenly, our hurting feet and our empty stomachs seemed so petty and trivial compared to what these poor people had to experience. If anyone ever gets the chance to visit a concentration camp, I highly suggest you do. Yes, it is depressing and hard to digest, but it is important to see. It is important to see the evil in the world; I have never felt more grateful for the country I have grown up in and the freedom I think so many of us take for granted every day.
Anna-Kat and my drive back to Dusseldorf started off a bit quiet but soon enough we were jamming out, being goofy, singing at the tops of our longs, and laughing all over again. It was a long 5 hour car ride but I was so happy to be trekking across the country with her. I knew that the next day I would get to see the whole Guth family and that was enough to bring a smile back to my face!
There is so much more to my trip to talk about so I’m going to go ahead and make a part 2 so it’s not so long. So that is all I’ll write for now, I know this blog was incredibly long, but it was such an incredible 10 day trip. I am so grateful to my parents and the Guths for giving me this experience; it was something that will never leave my heart or memory.
Much love to everyone,