Earlier this year, I visited Germany’s capital city on a whim. It seemed everyone I knew had been or was planning to go so being the naturally curious kitten that I am, I wanted to find out what all the fuss was about. And it didn’t disappoint.
Travelling solo is good for the soul and forces you to come out of your comfort zone which is a necessary thing to do from time to time. I have travelled alone before, but it is the first time I have visited a place where I couldn’t speak the main language. Similarly, and rather selfishly, I also decided to travel solo because I just wanted to disappear, immersing myself into another culture without having to compromise – just a straightforward, disappear and do-what- I-want sort of holiday.
The trip was so enriching in many ways; East Berlin is incredibly vibrant with a very youthful and creative energy. A friend of mine described it as ‘painfully edgy’ comparable to Shoreditch, East London.
Berlin is a relatively multicultural city including a huge Turkish population and is also varied architecturally with some truly beautiful buildings to behold.
Berlin was ridiculously affordable (compared to London) from dining out to the range of touristy activities on offer, many of which were free. I had a whole host of recommendations from friends (thank you) but only managed to do a few things given that it was a short break. I planned one thing a day and then left the rest open to whatever opportunities presented themselves.
“Sprechen Sie Deutsch?”
Most people I met were friendly with almost all being able to speak English. However I really wish I’d made an effort to learn a few German phrases. I am not fond of the incredibly arrogant way of travelling and assuming everyone speaks English which unfortunately I did on this occasion. Also not speaking the language meant I missed opportunities for meaningful interactions with German natives.
On one occasion I was sat on a train making my way to a friend’s church on the other side of Berlin. This guy, who looked slightly rough in appearance, kept staring at me. I wasn’t offended or scared as I sensed he was harmless – more intrigued than hostile. Eventually I offered him a sweet just to break up the intense staring. He refused politely then proceeded to speak in German. I couldn’t answer back and he seemed a little disappointed by it but kept staring at me until I got off. I would love to have known what thoughts lie beneath…
As usual on the arrival I had a slight panic. What am I doing in this city, where I don’t know anyone and I don’t speak the language? But then I took a deep breath, reminded myself that I am a grown woman, only 1.5 hours away from ‘home’ and that the whole point of the trip was to explore, be patient with myself and come out of the ‘known’.
In all honesty I was concerned about experiencing racism (historically Germany has a track record) and not having the language or wherewithal to respond. I was also worried about my inability to speak German. To appease the panic I returned to the familiar and sat in a local McDonald’s for Wifi and for comfort.
With a shortage of tables, a white woman, middle-aged, friendly faced asked to sit down across from me. I said yes and then she began to talk in German to which I couldn’t reply. For the duration of her lunch, she sat and looked at me, my face and hair in particular – with a semi smile resting on her face.
When God just hooks you up
I stayed in a lovely combination hostel and hotel called Plus Berlin which I would highly recommend due to its location (not far from the Eastside Gallery), amenities and affordability. I absolutely love staying in hostels for short city breaks because of the instant community and the potential to meet different people from around the world.
The first of the serendipitous moments happened when I arrived at the hostel. There was a concert I wanted to go to, part of the reason I came to Berlin, but I didn’t book any advance tickets. Through a chance conversation with the receptionist, one of his colleagues was planning to go and invited me along. However I did end up going on my own (and met him there) but I also met some other wonderful people including a young American female drummer and a fellow Nigerian creative (journalist, dancer & curator) who I immediately clicked with. We all swapped notes on the cost of living in our respective cities and what it means to be Nigerian in our various lands (UK and Germany respectively) as well as hopes for the future etc.
I danced the night away and as if things couldn’t get any better, because of these newly forged friendships, I got to meet the legend and Afrobeat pioneer, Mr Tony Allen (Fela’s drummer), who was incredibly gracious and warm. He even tried to talk to me in Yoruba (my father’s native tongue) when I told him my name but unfortunately ( no thanks to my parents but I still love you) I can’t speak the language! Golden opportunity missed.
Some of the other highlights of my short trip included:
Walking tour – Everyone I knew recommended the walking tour and it was brilliant. Different companies offer them – I went with Original Berlin Tours. The tours are free (although it’s courteous to tip the guide at the end) and lasted for 2.5 hours. Our tour guide was a young, Irish guy who was passionate and knowledgeable about modern European history so the tour was very well informed.
Walking tours are a good way to meet people if you are travelling solo and I happened to meet some wonderful people including a young woman from London who began solo travelling for much the same reasons as I (the freedom and differing ideas of what constitutes a good holiday compared to her friends.)
The walk covered most of the major landmarks including Checkpoint Charlie, remains of the Berlin Wall, the Holocaust memorial, the Brandenburg gate, the location of Hitler’s bunker and other weird, wonderful and sobering locations. Towards the end of the tour I stumbled across the Room of Silence– powerful and thought provoking which I would highly recommend even if just to escape the frenzied tourist activity.
Tiergarten – a refreshing oasis in the midst of the hustle and bustle – Tiergarten is the equivalent of London’s Hyde Park – a beautiful sprawling space includes a beer garden, statutes of famous German composers (including one of my favourites Uncle Beethoven) and is surrounded by important landmarks such as the Bundestag and the Brandeburg Gate.
Tasting Turkish food– There are lots of Turkish food places with a significant number located near Kotbusser Strasse. I visited several during my short stay the food was that delicious and affordable. I do also recommend trying some German cuisine- a friend of mine who was raised in Berlin but lives in London, recommended I taste a Currywurst- a sausage covered in curry sauce which was quite tasty.
Tempelhof– Formerly an airport, I visited this quirky and wonderful park by accident. It was a hive of activity when I went with numerous sunbathers, cyclists and people having BBQs. Lovely space and worth visiting to see how the space is being used.
People watching / Bottle collecting – I know it is an odd one ( I promise I am no voyeur) but on several occasions I noticed grown men picking glass bottles out of bins so asked my friend why this was the case. He mentioned that bottle collecting was common amongst some, usually older people, as a means of supplementing their income. Essentially they can earn extra money if returned to a supermarket as part of a deposit scheme.
Eastside Gallery – you just have to go just because it is so culturally and historically important.
Bundestag– I visited the German parliament building at night and it was spectacular especially the panoramic views from the rooftop. It’s free and really worth going to see especially if you are into architectural design.
Church– I was meant to visit Mauer park, a popular Sunday hangout (again highly recommended) but ended up going to my friend’s church instead. The church was very multicultural – with an American pastor, lovely and welcoming. After the service, a group of us visited a Latvian restaurant for lunch providing an excellent opportunity to get know them properly. The group consisted mainly of international students from Ecuador, Canada, Latvia, Brazil and England all developing their German language skills and making the most of the study abroad experience. I couldn’t help feeling inspired by their experiences- I didn’t study abroad as part of my degree- which I regret, but I do believe it is never to late to cease the opportunity to travel and live abroad (even if for a little while) if that is what your heart desires.
Can’t be all good, can it?
In terms of travel, Berlin has a good, organised and affordable transport system. It is also a cyclist’s city, so refreshing to see people of all ages cycling around as a way of life. I made a few faux pas during the trip mainly getting confused between the S-Bahn (the overground trains) and the U-Bahn ( like the London Underground) which led to some frustrating episodes- like missing trains but they were fairly frequent so an easy problem to rectify.
The only down side to my trip was on the third night when the new roommate arrived. A lovely and friendly older woman when awake but a terrifyingly loud chronic snorer by night (resembling the sound of a small freight train) making sleep for the last two nights somewhat elusive. Thankfully I only had two nights of left but at one point wondered if this was part of the hostel’s conspiracy to get guests to upgrade to a hotel room!
In terms of costs I bought cheap return flights for £40 through Easyjet. My accommodation for 4 nights worked out at approximately 85 euros (£70) which included a shared en suite bathroom. (These prices were pre- Brexit decision) so could be subject to change. And I took a fair amount of spending money but still ended up with a considerable amount left.
In a nutshell: great city+ great people+ great value = Berlin.