Be ready to own your ignorance. This is the lesson I’ve repeatedly learnt while travelling in countries where I don’t speak the local language. As a tourist in a foreign place, you have to walk the tightrope between the appalling rudeness of expecting everyone to speak English, and being too timid, too silent, mumbling and swallowing your words so that the locals couldn’t understand you even if they were perfectly bilingual. Sometimes this balance is hard, but I’ve found that a quick study of everything between “Hello” and “do you speak English?” is a great help.
The most common response I get from Germans when I ask them (in an apologetic tone) “Sprechen Sie Englisch?” is the rather charmingly modest “Ja, a little bit.” I say that this is modest because these same people will usually go on to answer all of my questions in a perfectly comprehensible and quite serviceable English, which leaves me wondering what someone who speaks a lot of English looks like to them.
In Berlin, this is particularly true, owing presumably to the cosmopolitan nature of the capital. My experience there began with a midnight arrival by plane, a trip to a pizza place for a very late dinner, and settling into the extremely quirky apartment that I would be renting with my friend for the next few days. This place reminded me of nothing so much as the Paper Street Soap Company, albeit much more hygienic. Fortunately.
People did tell me Berlin was particular, and I think that’s true. It’s a weird and wonderful city.
While not as well known as it once was, one of the draws for me in Berlin was the Museum für Naturkunde, a respected Natural History Museum which was – and apparently continues to be – the centre of much innovation in different types and techniques of preserving specimens. In real terms, this means taxidermy, and wet storage. Both of these are very well represented inside and – although the exhibitions are a little gruesome in parts – I actually found myself learning a lot.
In fact, I think the highlight of the museum for me was the cavernous “wet room”, filled floor-to-ceiling with thousands of preserved animal specimens, some hundreds of years old. I enjoyed it because it was something I’d never really considered before – certain types of glass go opaque with time, for example, whereas plastics become brittle and break. Some types of lid eventually rust, whereas others form an imperfect seal and speed decomposition. The evolution of storage and labelling techniques over time is absolutely fascinating.
A part of the museum more enjoyable for the faint of heart is the atrium, which contains perhaps the two most celebrated pieces in the museum’s collection. The first of these is the enormous, mounted display of Giraffatitan brancai, a huge sauropod dinosaur originally identified as a species of Brachiosaurus. The largest of its kind in the entire world, it dominates the space and is stubbornly resistant to being photographed. I tried anyway.
Second is the display of the world’s best-preserved Archaeopteryx (Urvogel) fossil, a transitional fossil between feathered dinosaurs and modern birds. Such pieces are inestimably valuable in the understanding of evolution, although this piece was apparently originally sold to an innkeeper in 1876 for the value of one cow. While I admit that it produces notably less milk, I think I’d rather have the Archaeopteryx. Being aware of its long and important history, I found it a great privilege to go and see it up close.
After a long day spent taking the metro and the bus to most corners of Berlin – walking, walking, walking and taking in the sights – my friend and I headed down to the Reichstag building for a visit to the glass cupola. The Reichstag has been the seat of German government several times throughout history, with the longest interruption being during and after World War II, as it was destroyed by arson in 1933 and not fully restored until the 1990s, following the reunification of Germany. Today, it’s where the German parliament meets, which perhaps goes some way towards explaining why the security going in is so strict. For example, they confiscated my (sealed) coke bottle and gave me a good telling off about trying to smuggle it in. Perhaps Angela Merkel is allergic?
The tour itself is very interesting, talking about the history of the building as well as the aspects of its restoration, which are generally themed around openness, transparency and environmental friendliness. The night-time views over Berlin are also pretty special, and made me glad we decided to visit in the evening.
Evidently, Germany has no shortage of history. It’s surprising, therefore, that they should try to cram it all into a single museum, but this is exactly what the Deutsches Historisches Museum (German Historical Museum) proposes to do. At a four euro student entrance fee and having entered from the less impressive side of the building, I honestly expected this place to be a little dry and unengaging. I was wrong – terribly, terribly wrong.
The museum is enormous, as well it might be since it proposes to tell the story of the German people all the way from pre-history up to the present day. My expectation was that I would walk through fairly quickly and only idle on occasion when I saw something particularly interesting, but instead I found myself captivated by the expertly mounted displays that were absolutely charged with information. I only had the morning free, and it simply wasn’t enough time to see it all – I think I got up to about 1960. A few thousand years in a few hours isn’t bad, but I would love to go back.
I was particularly impressed by the frankness and honesty of the exhibitions about the two World Wars, which don’t pull any punches regarding the brutality and horror of either conflict, nor about the historical circumstances that preceded them. The descriptions neither lay the blame entirely at the feet of pre-war Germany, nor do they attempt to explain away the actions of the wartime leadership. I think this is an attitude to be proud of, and it made me reflect on some of the ugly history that is sometimes downplayed or ignored in my own country.
History, history, history. I don’t mean to be a broken record, but there’s just so much of it to be had here in Europe, and especially in Germany. Even I couldn’t help noticing the irony of leaving the history museum for my next activity, however – a guided walking tour of Berlin, with the theme of “The Third Reich”. Just for something different.
I’m so glad I decided to do this tour – it was easily one of the highlights of my visit. It lasted four hours with a short break in the middle, and with a group of about a dozen, the guide took us to places like the former site of Hitler’s bunker, the various war memorials, the former headquarters of the SS and several others. It was a fantastic tour, at least partly thanks to the guide, who was an absolute wealth of information and enthusiasm. In particular, he was very good about grounding the rise of the Nazi regime in the historical events which preceded it and discussing some of the myths, controversies and major personalities in an honest and insightful way. I feel like I learnt a lot, and got to see more of the city at the same time.
While this was only my second time in Germany, my impression of the place is extremely favourable. People were patient and kind, the food was a delight (currywurst, schnitzel, spätzle, sauerkraut, etc. – I spent a lot of time eating) and I thoroughly enjoy the sound of people speaking German. I’d like to learn a bit more than the basic pleasantries before my next visit, and should I have the opportunity to learn another language, I’m almost sure that will be it.
Ultimately, I think Berlin is a very cool town and one which is so saturated with historical significance that one can feel the weight of it everywhere. Walking along the preserved section of the Berlin Wall that has become the East Side Gallery, I couldn’t help comparing the city to Paris – and the comparison is not unfavourable. Berlin is kind of ugly, a little weird and full of odd contrasts, but it shares the French capital’s feeling of innumerable things to do. However, it’s much less traditional, more alternative – it feels modern, and yet I learnt more about history there than in a dozen other cities I could name. People were right – Berlin is particular. I can’t wait to go back.
To see a gallery of my photos pertinent to this post, click here. If you would prefer to learn a little about the lifecycle of the Mealworm – which is not a worm, but the larva of the Darkling Beetle – then educate yourself here. I could definitely see this information coming in handy.