I got to explore a bit of Berlin before my conference began and enjoyed getting to know this vibrant, global city. Berlin is the largest city in continental Europe and only London is larger in the wider region. The greater metropolitan area has a population of almost six million people. It is the capital of Germany since it became unified in 1990 and is truly a world-class city, with a high standard of living, incredible fine arts and cultural opportunities and a huge service and IT and business sector.
The city started on the banks for the Spree River and has been an important part of the various German/Prussian kingdoms for over 1000 years. In reading a bit of the city’s history, I learned that the Germanic tribes ousted Slavic tribes in the 7th century AD. 20th-century history is more on display in the city of course, with Berlin serving as the capital of Hitler’s Third Reich. Berlin was destroyed in World War II and not much is left, thankfully, of the Nazis here. Germany does acknowledge publicly the horrors of WWII, much more than in Japan.
My biggest interest in the city was considering the Berlin Wall, which divided the city during the Cold War. It started being built suddenly in 1961 to stop the flow of defectors leaving East Germany and didn’t come down until 1989.
Two of the major icons of Berlin, the Brandenburg Gate and the Reichstag were not used during this era because they were in the “no-man’s land” near the border between east and west. The path of the former wall is marked on the sidewalks near the area. Today it is a really well done public space along the river and huge parks and plazas surrounding them. The Reichstag was renovated in the 90s and a glass dome was added to the roof and is a huge tourist draw. The tour was fully booked during the time we were in the city.
The highlight for me was seeing the remnants of the wall near the train station of Nordbahnhof station and Checkpoint Charlie. We read many poignant stories of people successfully escaping the Iron Curtain and also, tragically, stories of many lives lost because of the wall. People were so desperate to get out that they tried all sorts of risky methods of leaving including homemade hot air balloon, makeshift zip lines, and hidden compartments in cars. It was so sad to hear how families were separated from each other in the division of the city. I highly recommend spending time in the Mauer Museum at Checkpoint Charlie.
I have not been in Europe since leaving Belgrade in 2014 and it was so nice to feel the vibes of life in a European city. It is so different from life in Japan. The wide streets lined with thousands of huge trees and the old, but well-kempt, solid apartment blocks, make it a very different cityscape than Japan. I sampled the famous Berlin currywurst on the Pariser Platz. I noticed thousands of tourists from all over the world, not as diverse as New York City, but still, tourism is a big business here and the city receives more tourists than Rome.
This was the most time I’ve spent in Germany, with my previous visits to Frankfurt and Munich, were either short business trips or overnight stays during transport. The Germans certainly are big, both men and women, and it was in stark contrast to the diminutive Japanese I am used to. I didn’t notice a large immigrant population here. Our taxi driver was from Somalia and there were Middle Eastern commuters on the trains. I was curious to see the impact of immigration. I read articles that the right was growing in strength in German politics, somewhat based on the fears of large immigration.