After a thoroughly enjoyable weekend in Frankfurt, I headed to Dresden and Berlin with my German friends Sebastian and Sarah. As we journeyed east, the suburbs of Frankfurt gave way to rolling hills dotted alternately with a McDonald’s or a crumbling medieval castle.
As soon as we crossed the line that once separated the two Germanys, however, I started to see the lasting results of Cold War isolation. The cheerful buildings of the western countryside gave way to drab Soviet-style apartment blocks in the small cities along the highway (in Soviet Russia, apartment block you!) When we finally arrived in Dresden, even speech patterns were much different—at least according to my Frankfurter friends, who found endless amusement in the accents of their eastern counterparts, whom they jokingly referred to as citizens of “Dark Germany,” or Dunkel Deutschland.
Previously, I knew of Dresden only as the target of a merciless firebombing campaign during World War II. Upon arriving, I was amazed to find the city filled with centuries-old regal cathedrals and opera houses, all of which survived the war because of their sturdy stone construction. Many of the buildings had a charred look to them, but I couldn’t tell whether that was due to the scars of war or simply the accumulation of soot.
After a misty afternoon wandering the streets of the old city, we spent the evening in a district that reminded me of Austin or New Orleans imbued with Soviet grit—plenty of edgy-looking bars with smoke and music wafting from open windows. We happened upon a performance by the Lena Sundermeyer Band, an extremely talented group of musicians who had the misfortune of choosing a name now monopolized by Europe’s newest pop princess.
The next day we headed to Berlin. The western part of the city was like any wealthy European city, full of grand promenades and ornate six-story buildings. The eastern part still bore the marks of Soviet occupation—vast, dreary apartment blocks and streets named after Marx—but East Berlin was alive with an artsy hipster scene that would make even Brooklyn jealous. After the fall of the Berlin Wall, the mass westward migration left East Berlin virtually empty, and low rent lured droves of artists from all around Europe (even today, you can find reasonably nice one-bedroom apartments for about 200 Euros per month).
Cheap real estate still enables East Berlin’s beatnik vibe, most notably in the abandoned building-turned-Bohemian-mini-mall where we went after dinner. A graffiti-covered hallway opened into a sprawling backyard complex filled with tiny bar areas and food stands where the aroma of roasting sausages mingled with the scent of marijuana. Upstairs, through another vestibule blooming with spray can art, artists sold canvases bearing their latest abstract work. In the hallway, a girl slept on the floor next to three empty beer cans. There was only one part about East Berlin, aside from the unbelievably cheap real estate, that separated it from the trendiest neighborhoods in New York or California: the profusion of prostitutes roaming the main drag. They seemed to have agreed upon a uniform of thigh-high boots, short skits, and, curiously, fanny packs.
We spent the rest of our time in Berlin doing touristy things – visiting the Reichstag, the old parliament building from which a glassy new dome now erupts (above); the remaining sections of the Berlin Wall, which has been covered in surprisingly-corny murals; and a bevy of monuments and memorials explaining how sorry the Germans are about the Holocaust and World War II (very, very sorry). A great example is the Brandenburg Gate, where a statue of a chariot once pointed toward Paris to connote German supremacy was actually flipped around after the war so that it would point in the opposite direction.
Perhaps my favorite discovery in Berlin was learning that John F. Kennedy did not, in fact, call himself a jelly doughnut when he uttered the famous words “Ich bin ein Berliner,” at least in the eyes of the Berlin residents watching him in 1963. Though “Berliner” is indeed the German name for a particular sort of jelly doughnut, the citizens of Berlin call it a pfannkuchen, which means “pancake” to the rest of Germany.
My final stop in Germany was a Jay-Z performance at the Rock-am-Ring music festival – more on that in my book – before heading to Dubai and Abu Dhabi, where there are indoor ski slopes in the middle of the desert and gold bars are sold in vending machines. Stay tuned!