How do you celebrate fifteen years of friendship? A friendship that has known its ups and downs. A friendship that has known times where we would see each other every single day, do everything together and could finish each other’s sentences and times where college and differing interests drove us slightly more apart. A friendship that, to this day, remains one of the most important relationships in my life.
For us, celebrating this friendship, could only ever be done one way: travelling.
About five years ago, when we were poor and penniless students and celebrating our ten-year anniversary, we’d wanted to go to Berlin, but lacked the funds. So this time, with both of us leading semi-adult lives with actual full-time jobs, we decided to visit the capital of Germany.
So it was that on February 5th of this year, I found myself sitting on the red and white tiled meeting-point at Schiphol airport, waiting for Rebecca to get there so we could start our weekend away. And as I sit there, I start to think about how all of this started fifteen years ago, when we were still young girls. About how I’d moved from the big city of Rotterdam to the (in my eyes) provincial hamlet of Almere and had found myself standing at a schoolyard with a bunch of people I didn’t know and had no care to get to know, because I just wanted to get passed the final six months of primary school and into high school so I could start over – never realising that I could start over right then and there. About how Rebecca had come up to me with two other girls and I’d though she was just a mindless tag-along and she’d thought I was an arrogant bitch. About how circumstances changed and not six months later we found ourselves to be inseparable. About how we’d stayed like that for the next six years, spending hours and hours together, talking about our homework, families, puppy loves and everything that happened as we grew into young adults. About how we went to college in different towns and followed different paths while there, so that for a while, we seemed to be drifting away like so many people do when they start college. About how we somehow managed to keep our friendship going strong by focussing on quality over quantity and about where our lives stood now. On the brink of actual adulthood that neither of us feels ready for or likes, so we just keeping doing fun and crazy stuff so long as we feel like it.
And then I look up to see Rebecca standing in front of me, so we make our way to the gate, arriving classically early and chatting over a cup of coffee and talking about this and that. I give her the book I’ve just read (My life on the road by Gloria Steinem), because this is what I do when I’m enthusiastic about a book. I lend it to her and she accepts in good humour, sometimes actually reading the books, sometimes not.
After what seems like more time than actually passes we board the flight and then we are actually on our way. The plain makes a weird sound as we are getting into the air, like a drill or electric saw or maybe even a weird dog, but we joke it away and thankfully it disappears soon after. We chat some more, read our books or magazines and look out the window. Because we’re flying at twilight and the deck of clouds is remarkably flat we can see the sunset from the plain as we travel from light to dark into a freezing cold night.
We arrive at Berlin airport in good time, again ignoring the weird sound the plain makes as we’re descending and make our way over to the train that will take us to the city centre. It is at this point that we realize our clumsiness hasn’t diminished at all, nor our apparent ability to make the same mistakes: we’ve both forgotten to bring our toothbrushes. This happens after we’ve tried to scan our tickets while they needed to be stamped, so we figure this is further evidence of just how clumsy this weekend is going to get – I’ve also already dropped my phone on the plain and repeatedly banged my head trying to get it from the tiny space it’s gotten stuck – but neither of us minds. We’re used to it by now and can only laugh about it.
We get to the hotel – after having taken a wrong turn first, of course – near Wallstrasse and find that it is aptly decorated, with a dollar-print on the floor of our room, chocolates shaped like euro’s and, best of all, handkerchiefs printed like one-hundred-dollar bills. Now Rebecca, who’s got a bit of a cold, can blow her nose on dollars this weekend – how decadent!
By then we are starving, so we decide to find a restaurant near the hotel. As we’re walking towards the part of town where, according to the receptionist we can find more restaurants, we get lost in a little park and only then notice how quiet the streets are. We are supposed to be in the centre of the city that is famous for its day-round partying.
Puzzled, but to hungry to really care, we make our way to a restaurant that looks sufficiently German but cheap enough for our wallet. As we are seated I notice what I’ve noticed countless of times while being in Rebecca’s presence: a group of guys, clearly ogling her as she walks by, apparently oblivious to the effect she’s having. It used to bug me somewhat in my teenaged years, but by now I can laugh about it and I tell her about it as we are ordering traditional heavy German food.
As we are devouring our food and washing it down with some good German beer (what else?) we make a plan for the next morning. We decide to sleep in a bit and then do one, maybe two walking tours of historical Berlin and the infamous Berlin wall and to eat at a place with the wonderful name of Burgermeister that supposedly serves the best burgers in town. We see that this place is near the east-side gallery, a must-see according to friends who’ve been here before, so we decide to squeeze that in as well. We leave the decision of whether to visit a bar or not for the next day, anticipating it will be a tiring one. So it is off to bed for us, after all the necessary chitchat that accompanies a sleepover where two chatty girls are involved – of course.
The next morning, I wake up well rested – an aberration for me as I usually don’t sleep too well in a new bed. I listen to the birds singing outside the window, feeling happy that spring appears to be arriving. Rebecca wakes up as well and when I ask her how she’s slept, she answers it was fine but “those birds were awfully loud”! We laugh about the comment and I’m secretly happy to have a different outlook on these particular birds.
We take our time before breakfast, doing the usual girly stuff we get up to when we are on a trip; hair, make-up and what to wear with the cold weather but keeping in mind the pictures we’ll take to remember this trip. It may not be the most cultural thing we do this weekend, but we’re having fun anyway.
WALKING TOUR I
After breakfast we head to the starting point of our walking tour. Because we are only here for two days, there is no way we are going to pretend not to be tourists and just wander about aimlessly – something I don’t enjoy anyway as I always want to GET TO places (I should work on that) – but we are going to obediently follow the lonely planet prescribed walking tours.
We brace ourselves for the cold, knowing full well we’ll get warm from walking around and start by strolling through the Nicolaiviertel that is just around the corner and across the bridge from our hotel. For the next two hours or so we look at the beautiful Berliner Dom – sneaking in on a tour and learning more about the devastating tactics used to bomb this area in WOII – walk into a nespressso shop – for me to try some coffee, for Rebecca to also buy some as she is lucky enough to own a nespresso-machine – make our way through the museum Island with it’s myriad – duh – museums (none of which we visit) and finally end up at the famous Brandenburger Tor.
PROTESTERS AT BRANDERBURGER TOR
In front of the gate, a protest is going on. We are surprised to see a protest so near an historical landmark with no police around, but the atmosphere is friendly and people appear genuinely interested in this protest. As such, I feel bold enough to ask one of the protesters what they are protesting about. He tells me it for a Kurd-like peoples living in Pakistan and India that apparently are being oppressed, but get non of the attention the West gives other oppressed peoples. Although the cause itself cannot grab my attention as much as it probably should, I feel my activism rekindle.
This kind of activism – of which we see a few more examples over the weekend – excites me. There is no aggression in it, just a plea to be heard, to be seen and to get the help they feel they need. None of it feels intrusive and the man talking to us seems way more genteel than the commercially hired students trying to get me to donate money every time a walk through I big city back home. Perhaps this is what Berlin is about, a kind of activism and rebellion without any aggression and as such, it fits me. Of course I am in Berlin for way to short a time to make these kinds of statements, but maybe one day I’ll be able to figure it out.
WALKING TOUR II
As we continue on, weare slowly getting to the most famous – or infamous really – part of Berlin: The Wall. But not before we pass the Holocaust memorial. Reading about this memorial, I didn’t get it. A bunch of concrete cubes placed in neat lines with undulating pathways? However, as I walk through the cold and quiet memorial, catching glimpses of people walking past and hearing laughter that I’m unable to reach, the symbolism of it makes itself clear. Walking around turns out to be a profoundly unnerving experience, but I’m glad we came here.
Yet again we walk on and we are now at the point where the infamous Berlin Wall once stood, but for the untrained eye, nothing much remains. We decide to “Walk the Wall” (as again described in my trusty little Lonely Planet), but first, time for some lunch a.k.a. pie! We get a cup of coffee and a piece op pie each, but it’s so much larger than we anticipated that it turns into our lunch!
Afterwards, we walk our sugary meal off towards Potsdamer Platz.
Apparently this used to be a big chunk of empty land between
the East and West, but now it looks like a modern city, reminiscent more of New York than Soviet-era cities. We continue on and finally get to Checkpoint Charlie. It’s hard to imagine the tense exchanges and transfers that must have happened here in the past. We can see a busy shopping street (the M of McDonalds visible right behind the sign stating we are entering the West), a load of tourists gawking at the two remaining (and fake?) signs and quite a lot of girls giggling as they walk past the two “so
ldiers” guarding the checkpoint – who are collecting a fortune in exchange for posing with these girls.
At this point, we’ve already done more than we thought we could, so we are able to go to the east-side gallery and take a leisurely stroll there. As such, we have more time to really look at the graffiti in stead of just walking past it. I try and read most of the sentences – in all kinds of languages – and while reading one about communication devises simply connecting the lonely people in this world, Rebecca snaps a shot of us with our shadows holding hands – I love how this day is filled with little symbolic moments like this!
With a little time to kill we walk around the neighbourhood of Kreuzburg and now find a bit of Berlin that is not “romantically shabby” (most of the streets we’ve seen have this weird yet beautiful combination of old buildings and somehow fitting graffiti) but that just feels like a ghetto (being it a relatively “light” or safe version). So we make our way to the Burgermeister for – apparently – the most famous burgers in Berlin. The shop is situated under the metro-way which ads to the underground atmosphere and does indeed serve very tasty burgers. If you’re ever around, try one!
As if we haven’t seen enough yet, we decide to go out for a cocktail. Rebecca finds a bar that sounds fun: an Alice in Wonderland inspired cocktail bar called “fairy tale bar” within walking distance of Alexanderplatz. This way we can even squeeze in the famous television tower!
Making our way to the bar, we begin to have our doubts. This looks like a rich suburban neighbourhood, not really the place for a bar that is safe for two relatively young females traveling in a foreign city. We joke about accidentally walking into some kind of SM-party, but continue on any way. We find the address and as it has a light on the ground stating “follow the white rabbit” we assume we’re in the right place. We ring the bell, wait an eternity, almost decide to leave and then we are welcomed into the most wonderful bar I have ever been to!
The amount of detail that went into the concept of this bar is mind-boggling. From the bartender dressed as the queen of hearts, mixing cocktails in old fashioned silver teapots and serving them in frosted glasses of all shapes and sizes, to the dressed-up waitress that hands us our menus that are really books with the cocktails pasted alongside pictures of actual fairy tales and that have paper butterflies flying out of them. From the bathroom that has playing cards as indicators of the male and female side, a handheld mirror that makes a sound when you lift it – consequently giving you a heart attack – and a mirror that gives you squares in your eyes to the amazingly detailed and myriad decorations – a white bunny holding a watch, a table shaped like a shoe, flamingo’s on sticks (like the stick-horses young kids “ride”), a pop-up book of Alice in Wonderland that shows a different page every time the waitress has walked past. This is the kind of bar I can see myself visiting very often.
The atmosphere is not riotous as a lot of bars can be on a Saturday night, but instead invites intimate conversation and really just looking around. The cocktails are delicious and the waitress a good judge of alcohol character as she dissuades me from getting a cocktail with a lot of whiskey in it. We somehow manage to stay for a few hours with only two cocktails as we are so completely mesmerized by the entire ambiance. A perfect end to a perfect site-seeing day.
That Sunday we only have a half-day, but since we’ve visited most of the places we wanted, we take our time getting ready and enjoying a nice hearty breakfast. We are allowed to leave our bags at the reception so as to enjoy our day unencumbered and so we set of for our final day.
We decide to head over to the flea market at the Mauerpark. My previous experience with a flea market abroad (Paris; sadly it was mostly a tourist trap) left my expectations low, but since it was described as having a perfect vibe and came highly recommended, we decided to go anyway. Thankfully, we were not disappointed!
Described as a “wild and wacky urban tapestry where a flea market, outdoor karaoke and artists provide entertainment”, this place provides the perfect background to our Sunday morning. With a crispy blue sky and a rising temperature, we happily peruse the flea market (buying little, seeing a lot) and listen to some wonderful music.
The flea market does not disappoint. It has the perfect mix of hippy handicraft, vintage furniture and cutlery and bookish things to provide interest for everyone. As Rebecca states, places like these are the reason for the term knick-knacks. We stroll about a few times, sipping Glüwein and then make our way to the stone platforms where artists can display their musical skills.
We end up listening to a band called the Trouble Notes – a band that meshes Celtic violin sounds with a pop-like ease and something more authentic – for a while, enjoying the sun (no more coats needed!) and our drinks, lamenting the fact that we haven’t found a place like this back home. We’d love to sit there longer, but we want walk around the city a bit more and in the afternoon we have to start heading back to the airport.
It ends up being a somewhat useless move. We’d probably have been just as happy staying at the Mauerpark seeing as the Window of Remembrance – a section of the wall, flanked by a rusted steel wall memorial of victims who tried to cross over to the West, but crossed to another world all together – somehow cannot capture our interest. Perhapse we’ve simply seen enough in the little time we had in Berlin.
Leisurely we make our way to the hotel to pick up our bags and over to the airport. Here, we find out why our tickets were so cheap. The flight crew appears to be totally inapt, insisting on Rebecca checking in her small suitcase even though we are one of the first people to get to the gate and later on allowing much bigger suitcases to be taken on as on-board luggage. Not a big deal in itself, but the rude style of communicating really gets both of us riled up. Sadly, though, getting angry won’t get us anywhere and we have no choice but to accept the situation. Oh well, we’ll be home soon and everything forgotten.
After a short flight, without further incidences, we get back to Schiphol airport, where we are met by my boyfriend Erik. From there, it is only a short drive home, filled with chatter about our trip that must drive Erik insane. Rebecca and I say goodbye, promising ourselves we’ll soon repeat this and then the celebratory weekend is over. Another year friendship celebrated and another year started. Who knows what it’ll bring? One thing is for sure, it’ll keep our friendship going yet again!