Did you know that I went to Berlin two years ago? I did. I spent a little over two weeks there, on the cusp of winter. It was unbearably cold, and dark; it looked like 9:30am all day until night fell in mid-afternoon.
I arrived in darkness after an 11-hour train ride, during which I tried and failed miserably to commit to memory the incomprehensible combination of letters that is basic German vocabulary. From the magnificent wall of windows of the Berlin Hauptbahnhof I saw the lit dome of the Reichstag, and for the first of many times throughout my stay I said under my breath, “Holy shit, Berlin.”
I gave the taxi driver a scrap of paper bearing the address of my friend, and we rode in silence through the quiet, frozen city. When we arrived he unloaded my bag, pointed to the front door, shook my hand, and drove away. I stood there for a moment, utterly stupefied that I was alone on a street in East Berlin in the middle of the night. It was something that for half of my life was unthinkable. Holy shit, Berlin!
And thus my unending recitation of profanity continued, right up to the day I left. I holy-shitted my way through Checkpoint Charlie, the Brandenburg Gate, Tempelhof Airport. After my friend explained to me that the quirky brass cobblestones outside the doorways of Mitte in fact noted the number of Jews rounded up from inside, I said, “Holy shit.” And my utterances during a trip to Sachsenhausen, a concentration camp just outside the city, were in two languages and are frankly unprintable.
What prompted this sudden descent into the blue? Well, there are a few reasons, but they all fall under the label of preconceived notions. Usually I try to be a kind of blank slate when visiting a place for the first time, but I knew from the moment I booked the trip that there would be no shedding my idea of what Berlin was to me. Even when I looked at some research, none of it made a bit of difference. But instead of fighting my preconceived notions, I decided to just go with them, and use them to find a Berlin I had created.
First, there is the Berlin that I consider to be the epicenter of the Cold War spy world. Since I was absurdly young, I’ve always wanted to be a spy. I used to carry a go-bag of tools and homemade spy accessories. I read the diary of Mata Hari when I was about eight. I had a whole set of Spy Guidebooks, a series made for kids with cartoon illustrations, which I treated like the books of the Bible. In fact, I will confess this embarrassing secret to my tens of readers: To this day, I’m literally always expecting a recruiter from the CIA or Interpol to approach me at any time. It makes for awkward moments when someone sincerely just wants to use my lighter or ask for directions.
So, clearly, standing alone on an East Berlin street in the middle of the night was a holy-shit-Berlin moment for me.
And then, on an infinitely more serious note, there’s the Holocaust. I don’t have nearly enough hubris to think that this blog is the forum on which to discuss how the defining event of the 20th century had an impact on Berlin, but I can tell you how it shaped my preconceived notions of Berlin, and why I knew it was futile to suppress them in the name of “pure” discovery.
Many years ago, I took a train from Paris’s Gare de l’Est to Bregenz, Austria to see a friend. In the station was a marble slab that recognized the number of Jews who left from there destined for concentration camps, and the heartbreaking few of them who returned. It brought what I’d thought of as “history” – the dusty past that made me drowsy in late-morning classrooms – directly to my feet, and it shook me to my core.
And then, when I arrived and was visiting with my friend’s Austrian mother-in-law, she apologized for seeming out of sorts; the town had been testing their emergency siren earlier that day, and it brought back hurtful memories of the war. She’d been barely older than a toddler then, and told me with a vulnerable shame of her innocent desire to have a Hitler Youth uniform because it came with a red purse and a shiny belt. Again, history was in front of me, and it was complicated and messy and its wounds seemed unbearably fresh.
Which is why, unlike the iconic Colosseum or even Jack Ripper’s London, putting Berlin into historical context brought with it some baggage for me. Not to be flip, but some serious shit went down in Berlin. The unimaginable atrocities that touched the lives of hundreds of millions of people – people I love, families I know around the world – were conceived where I was standing.
It was impossible for me to reconcile, at least while visiting for the first time. And it’s part of the reason why I haven’t written about it until now, which brings me to the real reason for this post.
In October, I’m going to Dublin for TBEX Europe 2013. It’s a four-day conference of the Travel Bloggers Exchange sponsored by Blog World; along with three other travel writers, I’ll be speaking at a writing workshop to what I hope is a packed room of fans of good writing. The focus of my presentation is the consideration of tone and direction when writing about a place, which is a subject near and dear to my heart. I’m excited about it!
So that’s all well and good, but what does it have to do with a city it took me two years to write about? Well, first, there’s the fact that it took me all this time to realize that I was never going to write about Berlin hotspots, war monuments, cuisine, or the much-vaunted arts scene. I knew I had a personal story to tell, and I had to respect it. Anything else would ring false to myself, and to the reader.
The other thing that made me think of my trip to Berlin when I sat down to write about TBEX Dublin is that Ireland, as a whole, is another place about which I have preconceived notions – not nearly as intensely as with Berlin, but they’re there nonetheless, and they’re just as personal. Between the memories of my Irish grandmother’s polite disdain of the British and my dislike of both beer and whiskey, I’m not quite sure what to expect from Dublin. But my experience in Berlin has taught me that my preconceived notions of a place can help me have a unique experience in a way that no best-of slideshow or “hidden gems” hack job could. So for now, I’m embracing my preconceived notions, and will follow them wherever they lead me.