Visiting Berlin had been in the back of my mind for as long as I can remember. Likely because I was exposed to images of the city and its symbols (the bear, the Brandenburg Gate) since my childhood. My paternal grandparents were born and raised in Berlin, only immigrating in the early 1950s to Canada (and, subsequently, the US). But the Berlin of my childhood had two distinct images. The first was the idyllic capital city captured in photos and paintings in my grandparents’ home. The other was a city behind a wall, closed off to the rest of the world. This was a city where jeans were hard to come by, even in the West – my family would often send articles of clothing (notably jeans) to our relatives in West Berlin because these were not items they could easily find. There were clipped stories about the past, about family and friends still in Germany.
The Wall came down when I was 7 years old. I don’t really remember the reaction from my grandparents or how this changed any of the stories told in their home or among our family. It was only later, as I learned more in school and eventually from my grandparents, that I truly understood how both WWII and the Cold War had vastly impacted their lives. And it was only as I got older that my grandparents became increasingly comfortable telling stories about their childhood, about being a teenager in a destroyed Berlin and fleeing the city with nothing, about making the decision to move halfway across the world to Winnipeg of all places.
My grandparents’ trips to Berlin were infrequent and I sort of hoped that one day they would invite me along on their trip. I say “sort of” because I really don’t think I wanted to travel with my grandparents, especially once I reached a certain age 🙂 But I did want them to show me their city and share their stories. I wanted to see it through their eyes rather than as just another American tourist. This invite never came and so I finally took it upon myself to book a trip to Berlin. Alone. My first solo trip. Visiting Berlin felt like something I needed to do on my own, I wanted to be a tourist while also blending into the city, to see if there was some sort of familial connection to Berlin that I had inherited from my grandparents. I wanted to know their city and I wanted to do it on my own.
I thought my grandparents would be thrilled that I was going to Berlin. But when I told them about my upcoming trip, they were a bit confused and surprised. Why would I want to go to Berlin? Their interest and excitement around my trip didn’t happen until I returned, when they couldn’t wait to ask me about what I thought of the city, and what I had done while I was there, and how I had navigated my way around Berlin, and how it was not speaking German…
And I couldn’t wait to share everything about my trip with them. All of the places I went and the photos and the history and the U-Bahn and the sausage and the Christmas markets and the mulled wine…All. Of. It. Because I did feel a special connection to Berlin, I had recognized so much of my childhood in the sights and the smells and the food that I ate. Even my Airbnb host Claudia reminded me of my grandmother in the way she spoke. I felt immediately at home in Berlin, a city that feels like a blend of my two US homes (NYC and Chicago), but also a city that felt like it was deeply rooted somewhere in my past and in my family’s history.
Berlin is a city that merges the old with the new rather seamlessly and, to me, it felt like a city bridging my past and my future. Every moment brought my senses back to my family and my childhood, but also sparked something else in me, a renewed desire to consider living abroad and to learn a new language (German). I felt as comfortable and as at home as I do in New York, but there was an edginess to it – not just of being in a foreign city, but of literally being on the edge of something much bigger in my own life.