My face was half-tucked under my hood; heart trembling from the lashing cold that seeped deeper than my Northface jacket; my lips sucked the last breath of a dying cigarette; my eyes had forgotten to blink before the yawning sunrise. There was no one around to ask me where I was and why, so I stood there, like a shadow of something, staring at the bulging neon lights of the strip club across the petrol station until our bus was pumped full of fuel. The engine moaned, the travellers snored as I returned to the sleeping Rebecca who had talked herself to exhaustion over our plans for Berlin.
It was mid-afternoon when we reached Berlin, decoding German signs one letter at a time, escaping the suspicious glances of a toothless beggar in a tattered jacket, and dragging our suitcases down the stairs, we finally managed to catch the train that swished us to Rosenthaler Platz, where we reunited with our friends who had flown in from America. The monolithic structures tossed amidst cafes, boutiques, and the triangular, steel-frame buildings in Mitte Berlin did not strike Rebecca as much as the simple sight of our friends, Arnav and Andrea. Dashing across Weinbergsweg Street she had already locked their necks in a frenzied embrace by the time I was finished hauling both our luggage at the entryway of The Circus Hostel. We retired to the berry velvet couches of the half-circus, half-comic book themed hotel that had trunks instead of tables, man-bun waiters and a basement museum dedicated to David Hasselhoff. A group of Argentinian hipsters in tie-dyed shirts with no belongings but guitars and vapes, invited us to the mini-brewery where we sprouted plans to visit a nearby gallery beofre the city tour began.
The air of hidden alleys guarded by gothic neighborhoods seemed to me so light that it could barely penetrate the lungs. Here in an unseen corner, a frail-looking blue-eyed man opened the doors of his house and placed canvas upon canvas on his floor and walls for us to spectate. The work was a rudimentary play on shades of grey, very reminiscent of post-war blues, and we left with nothing interesting but the memory of a conversation on the physics of light and shadows. By this time we had been abandoned by the flock of hipsters and like lost sheep wandered into a café hungry for German chocolate cake. Our porcelain mugged espresso left a bitter-sweet aftertaste as did our exchange on the construction of a city that had been bombed to ashes less than a century ago. Yet its green copper domes stood, gloating with all their melted gold and glass embellishments as if nothing had ever dared touch them. The reborn city Berlin resembles the consciences of its inhabitants who have managed to wipe clean the devastation and tragedy of the Holocaust that had shaken all of history like nothing else before it. To them, no blood was ever spilt. They, like that café, offered nothing but cakes and milk.
Our tour guide was very German, both in his captivating charm and detail-oriented address on Hitler’s life. Hitler loved dogs, I learned. He could not bear the sound of a dog whimpering, I repeated to myself while witnessing the most beautiful aggregation of architecture humans are capable of – the Museum Island. Pillars lined with silver rose to support maroon arches crowned with domes so divine they seemed to have stolen all their glory from the sun. And yet, they were brimful of memorabilia that archived horrors from World to Cold War. How can a person love a dog and nothing else? How can beauty be in a structure and nowhere else?
Passing Bode Museum, Alte Nationalgalerie, Altes Museum and a million other museums whose names I did not care to remember, we took shelter in a Viennese style café, Einstein Stammhaus. Although the thronging crowd was deceptive, the association with the physicist Albert Einstein nominal, and the coffee subpar, it was enough to energize us for, what could in the very least be could be called an overwhelming visit to the Holocaust Memorial. Hiding the bodies of the murdered Jews of Europe, 2,711 concrete slabs protruded like grey scars off a still-aching wound. We remained silent, and Rebecca, who is Jewish, drifted away and wept tenderly as if she had known and loved each and everyone who died for her faith. The tour ended near a narrow sewer at the end of an abandoned parking lot, and it was at that nameless spot that looked nothing like Berlin that Hitler’s skull was discovered long after he shot himself.
In the coming days we would gasp at the Brandenburg Gate and spend hours sauntering next to the Berlin Wall, but neither the magnificent grandeur of neoclassical monuments nor the wrenching stories of how desperate mothers tossed their infants over the wall from East to West Germany in hopes that may escape the turmoil of a politically faltering country managed to pluck at our hearts as the walk along River Spree that midnight blue. Cycles whisked past, the moon-colored lamps lit the river so that it reflected all of Mitte Berlin on its surface. Rebecca and Arnav whispered into each other’s ears, and Andrea lagged behind google-mapping our path for us. Nocturnal wanderers, us. This city was not ours; its people snarled at us; its language betrayed us at every sign board, yet we had never felt more at home. Perhaps there is a certain peace in abandoning everything once known and loosing oneself.
Read part 3 Alone in deserted Dresden here
Our nomadic strolling finally culminated at the heavy wooden gates of Mogg, a former Jewish Girls’ school turned deli. Milky lights poured over sugary laughter punctuated only by pastrami bites and matzo soup sips. It was one of those dinners heavily laden with comic anecdotes, gentle clanking of wine glasses and future plans that drown as soon as they leap off the tongue. It was Halloween and dressed as three blind mice we assimilated with a rambunctious group of young adults, chugging beer and howling our way to the infamous Matrix Club Berlin. Cutting the line, flirting with the bouncer to get in, dancing in rainbow lights under glitter balls, brick arched basements and electrifying foreign glances was all we anticipated. What we did not anticipate was waking up in deserted Dresden, a conservative eastern German town.