I was already excited about Wendy, Eloise, and me jumping on Dad’s trip to Berlin. It’s a city with a lot of history and we had never visited anyplace like it before. The last time we joined him on a trip to Mexico City, it was one of our best journeys ever. Plus Berlin has the Ramones Museum. It wasn’t until I discovered that the legendary punk band’s first manager, Danny Fields, would be giving a talk at the location that I got really amped about our week in Germany. I love the Ramones. And it turned out that like Paris (where we saw a Moebius retrospective and Murakami takeover of the Louvre), Venice (an exhibit of Kubrick’s early magazine photography), or Mexico City (the cradle of lucha libre), Berlin is one of the Great Cities of the world where something cool is happening all the time.
Perhaps it was slightly cruel to drag my jet-lagged family to the cramped and crowded Ramones Museum on our first night in Berlin. But it was worth it to meet the namesake of “Danny Says” and hear him talk about not only managing the Ramones but taking pictures of them to supply the weekly papers. He knew Johnny, Joey, Dee Dee, and Tommy were important but didn’t expected that his photography would eventually be shown at art shows and be collected in a hardcover art book. We got to hear a lot of great stories from a humble and funny person who happened to know a lot of cool musicians. (He had previously worked with The Doors, MC5, and Stooges…) We also made friends with Flo, the guy who runs the Ramones Museum, and even had lunch with him later on. He told us that he opened the venue only because his collection was too big for his apartment!
Of course, Berlin is better known for its heavy-duty history, from the Nazis to the Cold War to the Wall falling in 1989. It made an impression on me that the city’s whole story–the good, the bad, and the ugly–is laid out in monuments and museums all over the place. It reminded me of the Civil Rights Museum in Memphis, which was constructed at the Lorraine Motel where MLK was shot, but spread out citywide.
Not far from the Brandenburg Gate, where Nazis and then Allied troops marched before and after WWII, are a purposely disorienting Memorial to Murdered Jews and a more somber Memorial to Homosexuals Persecuted Under Nazism. Not far away and running alongside a surviving section of the Berlin Wall is the Topographie des Terrors, an outdoor museum built at the site of the old SS headquarters that features a detailed timeline of Hitler’s rise and the country’s fall into fascism. Politicians building up power, breaking down unions, scapegoating minorities, and celebrating the master race–German kids who grew up post-unification probably get sick of hearing about it but every detail hit us American tourists like a ton of bricks, made in the U.S.A. Seems like the only shameful piece of history that isn’t carved in stone is the site of the Führerbunker, which is now covered by a dusty parking lot marked by just a few modest signs. (Appropriately not worth the walk.)
Traveling easily, mostly by train and sometimes by bus, in a city where English is used almost everywhere, we packed in a lot of other touristy stuff. Checkpoint Charlie features actors pretending to be American G.I.s in front and has a McDonald’s in back (as well as a stand that offers vegan currywurst down the street) but is still something to see, and we went to a ton of museums as well. Museumsinsel (a.k.a. Museum Island) is UNESCO-approved beautiful and the various structures hold plenty of important Egyptian artifacts and European paintings. The post-unification Kulturforum complex is impressive, too. But I liked the Berlinishche Gallery the most. It reflected a century of German history through art–from formal to surreal to dark to experimental. I especially enjoyed the Kienholz: The Art Show 1963-1977, with its roomful of sculpted art lovers checking out the gallery scene circa hippie days complete with vintage commentary that can be heard via lo-fi transistor devices installed on each figure.
We found David Bowie and Iggy Pop’s old apartment (where Lodger, Low, and Heroes were written) and also attended an Iron Maiden concert at Waldbühne (Legacy of the Beast!). It was pretty wild to hear Winston Churchill’s voice and Eddie’s fighter plane open up the show at an equally gigantic and gorgeous outdoor pavilion that once hosted Nazi rallies. Some of my other favorite places were the Schloss Charlottenburg’s super opulent, Orientalism-on-steroids room with carved caricatures of Chinese people and monkeys on the walls holding hundreds of imported tea sets as well as the truly psychedelic, Tiger Balm Gardens-esque Chinesisches Haus at Potdam. King Frederick was really into collecting Chinese things–gong!
We got to hang out with some locals, too. My dad has an online pal that practices English with him while he brushes up on his German. On a river cruise, over lunch, and then while visiting her pad out in the country, she shared memories of growing up in East Germany and even played some old timey faves on her piano for us. In return, Eloise played Beatles and Beethoven. We met her daughter for dinner later on (Mediterranean food because locals go out for French, Italian, Tapas, etc. and German food reserved for street stands and biergartens) and she talked about being in the first graduating class after the Wall fell. Her older classmates were out of luck but she was able to reap the benefits of reunification. To her young teenage son, East Germany is ancient history just like Nazi Germany.
We travelers reaped some benefits, too. Berlin is heavy and cool and we would go back in a second.