For the last couple of years, I’ve spent several months a year living and working in the German city of Hamburg; and despite the fact that collectively those months add up to a significant amount of time, until this Autumn I’d never actually seen anywhere else in the whole of Germany. Which is pretty ridiculous, considering I’m someone who likes to get out and about exploring new places. In my defence, I normally only get one day off of rehearsals a week, which tends to be spent recovering and running errands, but I will admit that I was starting to feel a tad ashamed of myself for my lack of motivation to see anything more of what’s actually a pretty large and very explorable country, as European countries go. Enter: my pal Rachel. Now there is one motivated individual, highly skilled at making the most of every minute, and also a person who actually has ventured outside of Hamburg. And where was the obvious place for a first time visitor to The Rest of Germany such as me to travel to, spurred on by encouragement from Rachel? Clearly Berlin, capital of the country. Clue’s in the name of this post, duh.
Lesson 1: Pre-book your trains
I arrived at Hamburg Central Station early in the morning, although it was already getting busy with people leaving or entering the city. I waited on the walkway over the platforms below trying to spot Rachel’s red hair but mostly just sighting a sea of people in almost identical grey and brown outfits, interspersed with the odd group of German lads in their twenties and thirties dressed in full Lederhosen. I wasn’t sure whether they were beginning their trips or ending them, but it was amusing to watch all the same. If you think Germans don’t take Lederhosen and Dirndls seriously: you’re wrong. They really are a big deal around here.
Eventually we managed to locate each other and headed for the ticket office to get our golden tickets to Berlin. My level of German is currently at a rather basic level, and Rachel’s is somewhat better, having put a significant amount of effort into studying the language, but still when we went to the machine and read the price of a return ticket as €160 we presumed that we must’ve misunderstood some of the German and decided to head to a window with an actual human face inside it instead. An actual human face would give us the real ticket price.
He did give us the real ticket price, and as it happens there was no problem with our understanding of the German ticket machines at all! Clever us; it really was €80 each way, Lord in the Heavens!! We’d only known for sure at the last minute that we’d both have a day off at the same time, so there was no way it could’ve been avoided, but the moral of the story is: if you know the dates you’ll be travelling by train, it is most certainly worth booking in advance to save your pennies, pals. Having reluctantly handed over our cold hard cash, we were on our way to Berlin on a two hour journey through the German countryside, just as the sun was rising.
Lesson 2: It’s okay to drink shots at 11.30am, because Sandi says so
Part of the reason that we were heading to the city (aside from the obvious: seeing Berlin), was to meet our friend Sandi, who we’d worked with a year earlier on a ship. Sandi is a dresser extraordinaire, a wizard with hair and genius teacher of inappropriate German that I will hopefully never have cause to actually say in a real life situation, because it’s all pretty terrible and disgusting stuff. What a living legend! Sandi lives in the Prenzlauer Berg area of the city, and had invited us to stay for the evening; when we arrived at Berlin’s ginormous Central Station, there she was looking like a proud big sister, full on cheerful at the fact that we’d come to stay. (Don’t get me wrong, we were similarly downright ecstatic to be hanging out with our pal again after a whole year, it’s just that there’s something particularly lovely about having someone meet you off of a train looking so happy to see you and show you around their little slice of life)
Sandi took us to the ticket machines of the S-Bahn, helped us buy our tickets, and off we set towards her flat. I knew for certain that she’s a true gem at some point between the moment I complimented her on the Barbie doll floating inside a fishbowl sitting on her dresser, and when she offered us both welcome drinks of peppermint schnapps at approximately 11.30am whilst sitting around the kitchen table and sharing stories of our strange times living on our respective ships. Shots having been downed (“It tastes just like mouthwash!”), we set off shortly after to find some waffles and coffee down the road.
Lesson 3: It is illegal to kill a wasp in Germany
True story. Waffles having been obtained at the very cute retro-themed coffee shop Kauf Dich Glücklich, we tucked into these absolute TREATS outside the coffee shop…and pretty soon had to relocate inside, because in late Autumn, wasps were all around, and I mean ALL. AROUND. If you’ve read my previous post from Greece featuring the story of Rachel and the Phantom Wasp of the West Country, you’ll know that wasps really are not The One for my pal. And when there seem to be entire swarms of them around like there were for some reason in Germany this year, neither am I to be honest. Sandi was having a right laugh I tell you.
The thing about wasps is, in Germany it’s actually fully against the law to kill a one. Swat one away, and end it’s life either accidentally or accidentally-on-purpose in the process and technically you’re liable for an actual real-life fine. Wasp-drama averted, and after a quick rummage through a vintage shop in which I almost bought a jumper from the 80s featuring a giant jellyfish made out of several different appliquéd fabrics, (it’s probs for the best that I talked myself out of that one), Sandi dropped us off at the beginning of a footpath running along the length of what was once the Berlin Wall, and cycled off to her job at an ice cream parlour, calling out “Don’t talk to strangers, don’t do drugs, have fun!”
Lesson 4: What Actually is the Berlin Wall
Call me an ignorant fool (seriously do, I won’t mind), but prior to my visit to the city I hadn’t actually had any idea what the Berlin Wall actually was. I knew it was a wall that divided the city obv, it’s just that I wasn’t too certain what the actual purpose of that division was.
So in a nutshell, a few years after the Second World War, East and West Germany became two separate countries: East Germany was officially named the German Democratic Republic and run by Soviet forces, although control was gradually handed to German Communist leaders, and West Germany was known as the Federal Republic. East Germany was all about that Socialist lifestyle, whereas West Germany was, well, not. However, if you know anything about your German geography, you might be aware that the capital city, Berlin, is technically located in the Eastern part of the country. AWKWARD. Young, educated East Germans were starting to crave a better lifestyle and more freedom, and were starting to emigrate out through West Berlin. And that, pals, is when the GDR had the grand old idea of building a wall, to keep West Germans and their Capitalist ideals out, and to keep East Germans in. The wall went up in 1961, splitting up families and leading to the deaths of many who tried to escape, finally coming down in 1989.
When I say the wall came down– parts of the wall have been left up, to remind people of what went down back in the day, and we walked part of the length of the Mauerweg – which literally translates as the wall walk- to the Berlin Wall Memorial at Bernauer Straße, where all the way along you can read and hear stories of the people who were affected by this oppressive concrete construction. It makes for a pretty harrowing read/listen, and combine that with the pathways marked out to show the pathways of the tunnels that were dug underneath the wall and the plaques to commemorate the people who didn’t make it, and all in all you’ve got several rather insightful examples of why walls don’t benefit anyone at all.
Lesson 5: A lesson reiterated- if you hear music in the distance, it always pays to run towards it
Museum Island is located right in the centre of the city, and is actually the Northern part of an island in the Spree river, packed to the brim with museums galore which all look very majestic and resplendent, crowned with the magnificent turquoise dome of the Berlin Cathedral. We headed over via the U-Bahn (that’s the name of the city’s subway network) after our visit to the Berlin Wall, and were immediately blown away by the golden leaves of Autumn that were floating slowly down from the trees around the area. When we heard the echoes of a trumpet on the breeze, I’m not embarrassed to say that I began to run as fast as I could towards the sound.
A small brass band had set up in front of a backdrop of the columns of the Altes Museum, and call me crazy and highly over-enthusiastic but I was a BIG fan. It was still warm enough and not too damp to warrant sitting on the grass of the Lustgarten spread out in front of the museum, appreciating the sunshine and the triumphant fanfare of the music. What a glorious time! In fact, it was so glorious that we abandoned any notion of stepping foot into any museum as the atmosphere was just so lovely.
Back to Lesson 3: No really, it really is illegal to kill a wasp
Fast forward to sitting outside a restaurant next to the river, waiting for our dinner whilst sipping from a rather ginormous serving of pink gin and tonic. Enter: the wasp.
The wasp was either rather up for supping from the lake of pink gin, or having suicidal thoughts, and so it landed on an ice cube and then crawled headfirst into the liquid, slowly drowning itself in the alcohol despite my best efforts to rescue it using a cardboard beer mat. Alas, but the time I fished the poor guy out he was a goner, and I placed him on the table, not really sure what was the proper thing to do with the body. That’s when the waitress came over and stopped dead in her tracks- “Did you kill that??”
“NO!” We both replied a little too soon.
“He killed himself.”
The waitress narrowed her eyes. “…really?”
“Yes! In the gin.”
She looked from Rachel to me, paused, and then left.
Was she about to call the police??? Can you call the police to report the killing of a wasp??? We hadn’t even killed the wasp, so why were we even worried!? Actually mainly we were worried because the maximum fine for wasp-killing is €50,000 so we ate as fast as possible and left toot-sweet.
Lesson 6: Photo booths are kind of a big deal around here
Old-school photobooths- or photoautomats, as they’re known in Germany- have seen a massive resurgence recently, thanks to a couple of clever entrepreneurs who decided it would be a great idea to find and restore as many analogue booths from the 60s as they possibly could. There are now booths hidden in corners all over Berlin, as well as cities across the rest of Germany, printing out strips of inky black and white photos for €2 a go (which is frankly a bargain, let’s face it), and when we spied one outside an Italian restaurant we knew that destiny was calling and we should have a retro photo taken on the double. All I’m saying is- down with the selfie sticks!! Photoautomats are evidently the way forward!!
We sat eating an ice cream and listening to a woman singing some very improvisational-sounding opera (I’m 99% sure she was making it up on the spot) while we waited for the ink to dry and planned our next steps for the evening.
Lesson 7: Lesson reiterated- the world is a village
It’s one thing to arrange to see someone, and then travel to their city to do so. But it’s altogether another kettle of fish when a second mutual pal sees via social media that you’re in said city and decides that they’ll come and meet up as well. (Like the time we went to Budapest and spontaneously spent an evening celebrating our Hungarian pal Marian’s birthday with a motley crew of Hungarians, a Ukrainian, one American and me) This is is one of the aspects of working on a ship that I do appreciate.
Our TV operator pal Jörn had literally just disembarked from the ship he’d been working on, arrived back in Berlin that day, and declared that he simply must come and find us. And that is exactly what he did. What a legend. After meeting Sandi from work and going onwards to buy slices of pizza which we ate in her favourite park whilst pondering over whether Sandi’s relatives had memories of life in East Germany (in hindsight, I’m not actually sure any of her relatives ever lived in East Germany at all), we made our way through the deckchairs of an outdoor cinema to the bar in one corner which is where we awaited Jörn. The seats on the little balcony of the bar were perfect for someone with the proportions of a ten year old child, so as Jörn is someone who’s well over six feet in height with legs that closely resemble those of a grasshopper- they were also perfect for adding an element of physical comedy to the whole scenario. Poor Jörn.
After a visit to one more bar and an all round beaut evening catching up, we bid farewell to Jörn and headed back to Sandi’s flat through the very quiet streets of the city.
Lesson 8: How to make the perfect midnight snack
The incredible thing about Sandi’s fridge is that, as well as peppermint schnapps, on the night in question it contained just three key ingredients: tomatoes, butter, and feta cheese. (Many a pack of feta cheese.)
Contrary to what one might think- it turns out that this is pretty much all you need!!! Sandi laid out a splendiferous spread of knäckebröd (Swedish crispbread), with feta and tomatoes, plus some peppermint schnapps for luck, and all was well in the world. There was something pretty satisfying about eating copious amounts of knäckebröd and feta cheese, checking out the surprisingly silent city with the silhouette of the TV Tower standing guard over everything. Berlin’s famous for being a massive party-place, but mid-week when we were there it doesn’t quite have that vibe (and that’s exactly how I preferred it, soz!). The only people on the street were a couple who we began to seriously consider might be vampires until they finally got a move on and went their separate ways. Yikes.
The next morning in the style of a true proud sister who’s not actually your sister, Sandi packed us some sandwiches for the train (made out of yep, you guessed it, knäckebröd, feta and tomatoes), showed us to the train station this time via tram, and sent us on our merry way back to Hamburg. It was a very fleeting trip, and although we didn’t do a massive amount of city sightseeing, I wouldn’t have had it any other way- somehow I still felt like I’d seen a tonne of things, because that’s always the way when you’ve got a pal to show you around their hometown! Fewer crowded spaces filled with fellow tourists, and more favourite bars, parks and gardens, combined with good old-fashioned pal-time.
- Cost of train travel between Berlin and Hamburg varies greatly depending on time of day and how far in advance you book, and can be anything from €20-€80 each way. Go to the DeutscheBahn website to check times, prices, and to book, or if you’ll be travelling a lot within Germany it’s also worth downloading the app which can store all your tickets.
- A day ticket for unlimited travel on all public transport in zones A and B in Berlin costs €7 per person, or a single ticket within the same zones is €1.70. Remember to validate your ticket before you use it!