Monday, May 07, 2012

Matkani Berliiniin (My Trip to Berlin)

Me at the Brandenburger Tör.
At my school in Finland there is a week in April right after Easter called “projektiviikko” (project week). During this week students can choose from several opportunities for activities to do. As much as I wanted to be in the sky diving course offered, I travelled to Berlin with seventeen other students and two teachers. I am not very familiar with modern world history (the World Wars, Soviet Union, etc.) as a result I learned lots of new things from the trip. I would say it is probably the most educational school trip I have ever gone on. Just a warning in advance, this post is a little lengthy.
Our hostel - City Hostel Berlin
It started early Tuesday morning, the bus left from the school parking lot at five. I slept. After a few hours of driving, we stopped at a rest station for some breakfast and then back on the road. The airport was pretty much uneventful. It was an airport; stuff was expensive. The plane ride to Berlin was too short to watch a movie on so they played an episode of both “Friends” and “Cheers”. I watched them and I tried really hard to hold back my laughter when there was a good joke. There were no Finnish subtitles so no one else was watching it. As we stepped off the plane onto the runway everybody was given a chocolate heart from the airline. Thank you Air Berlin! We caught public transit to the hostel: a bus and a metro. I stayed in a room with three other guys from my school: Niko, Joni, and Matti. After we got settled in, we went to get something to eat at a little Turkish restaurant that served pizza/pasta/kebab (aka döner). Then Niko and I did some exploring in the area around the hostel. For anyone who knows Berlin, we were situated a couple of blocks on the eastern side of the former wall about halfway between Brandenburger Tor and Potsdammer Platz.
The soccer game.
All of the guys (eight students and one teacher) spent the evening of the first night at a football match. Berlin’s club BSC Hertha played, and lost, against SC Freiburg. The game was held in the marvellous Olympic Stadium used in 11th Olympiad. The Olympic bid had been won by Berlin before the reign of the Nazis but in 1936 Hitler used the event as a form of propaganda to show the world that Germany was thriving under his “leadership”. The game was pretty uneventful as I am not a huge soccer fan, but it was really entertaining to watch the fans with their jerseys, massive flags, and painted faces.
Me at the memorial to Jews murdered in the Holocaust.
On Wednesday we had a bus tour (in English) of the highlights of the highlights of Berlin. We drove by Checkpoint Charlie, which is the only remaining official checkpoint of the Berlin wall and was operated by American Forces. We also stopped at the East Side Gallery, which is the longest remaining segment of the Berlin Wall and has been painted with murals each depicting its own artist’s representation of freedom. Some other sights included Alexander Platz, Brandenburger Tör, and the Reichstag (German Parliament) among several others.
That evening we went to an interactive museum named “The Story of Berlin” which lives up to its name and told us the story of Berlin in a multimedia presentation. The most fascinating thing was a tour of one of the largest bomb shelters in Berlin which could house over three thousand people for an estimated two weeks in complete seclusion from the outside world. After the museum, Niko and I went on a little self guided walking tour back to the hostel. We walked through the Tiergarten, to the Reichstag, and past Brandenburger Tör. I am glad I convinced my friend to do this with me on the second day, when our feet could still handle a bit of mileage.
Checkpoint Charlie.
Thursday morning we visited the museum at Checkpoint Charlie all about the Berlin Wall and the division between East and West Berlin. It was very crowded and there was lots of information to read. I think I was definitely the person to get the most out of it, as most of the Finns I was with were disinterested in reading everything in English and because of this they quickly made their way through the entire exhibit. There was a very large group of Canadian students who came through the museum at the same time we were there. They had been part of the large anniversary celebration at Vimy Ridge, one of the greatest battles in Canadian military history. I really only talked with one teacher who was from Nova Scotia. That afternoon we went to another exhibition called “Topographie des Terrors”. It was about the rise and fall of Nazi Germany. When I was reading the information I felt very sick to my stomach because of all the horrible crimes committed under Hitler’s dictatorship. Afterwards we went to Potzdammer Platz to eat and shop. It’s an interesting, and new, centre of the city because much of it was in the death zone of the Wall.
Me chillin' with Einstein.
On Friday we all went to Alexander Platz and went up the Ferseturm (Television Tower) which at the time of construction was considered to be a marvel of Eastern engineering, even though most of it was designed by Swedes. It is still the tallest building in all of Germany. Why in most major cities is there some huge building with an observation deck? The next place we went was the largest church in Berlin, the Berlin Dome which is surprisingly a protestant church; it’s surprising because normally the largest churches in Europe are Roman Catholic in denomination. After the church I walked with Niko to Madame Tussaud’s Wax Museum. We went inside and took several pictures with celebrities both from nowadays and from many years ago.
The Reichstag.
We had an appointment to tour the Reichstag (the house of Germany Parliament) on Saturday. This building is a very unique fusion of modern and aged architecture. It was built in the late 1800s but suffered tremendous damage from a fire at the beginning of the Nazi rise to power. This being said, the outer shell of the building is still the original façade, but the inside is has very modern, almost futuristic feel. Near the beginning of our tour, the guide asked several questions, most of which I answered (of course after waiting to see if anyone else wanted to respond). After the third time she pretty much told me to shut up and let other people have their turn. She of course was under the impression that Finns are people who answer questions; this being something that I have known is false since my first presentations at the beginning of the school year. But I shut up like she asked, and I let her endure the silence after she asked a question. There were some neat things in the government building, like some charcoal graffiti left on the walls from after the Russians won the Battle of Berlin. At the end of the tour we got to walk up to the top of the glass dome which provides light to the parliamentary chambers. After parliament we walked to the back to the Brandenburger Tör for a group picture, except for Niko who went back to the hostel because he was feeling ill. The afternoon was spent shopping, except I didn’t buy anything because I’m not really a shopper.
The execution wall at the concentration camp.
Sachsenhausen is the name of the concentration camp which we visited on Sunday. It definitely was not a very fun visit, but in my opinion it is a good thing that we went. I have always wanted to see a concentration camp because I’ve been curious about the terrible conditions of living to which those considered enemies of the state were forced to go. It was every bit as depressing as I had believed it would be. Almost all of the buildings were gone and each of the former bunkers was marked with a bed of stones. It was only a short visit, but well worth it. That evening the entire group ate together at the Hard Rock Café.
The return home on Monday was pretty uneventful. We showed up at the airport a few hours before necessary. In other words we sat waiting for a long time in the airport terminal. I tried to teach some of my Finnish friends how to play cribbage, my favourite card game, but it was too complicated for them. For most of the flight and the following bus ride back to Kauhava I read my Harry Potter book in Finnish. We arrived back home at about 11:30 pm. I didn’t go to school the next day.
Niko and me posing with a giant teddy.
Berlin was a really neat city because mostly everything was very new and modern, even thought the city has been in existence for centuries. Also, the divide between East and West Berlin is almost non-recognizable; in the very unlikely situation that you didn’t know any history of Berlin, I think you wouldn’t have guessed that the city was divided for years.
One really interesting thing that I noticed during the trip was that I think I have a “kielipää” or language head. English is my mother tongue. I spoke Finnish with my schoolmates. We all heard lots of German but spoke English to the Germans. And sometimes I read a sign or piece of information in French just to remind myself that ‘yes, I do still know French.’ I actually think I can still read French better than Finnish, but I am sure I can speak Finnish (and maybe even write it) much better than French. I almost felt sorry for my classmates because there was absolutely no information in Berlin written in Finnish. On a couple of occasions I was asked by some classmates to translate something or to order their food.

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