My host family is amazing. They make me feel so welcome and comfortable! I think they are enjoying my company so far, and I am very happy about that...it is the best and most important thing to me since I am fortunate enough to be a guest in their home (which I love, by the way)! I have a host mother, father, two sisters, two brothers, & two dogs. I love feeling cared for and also invited daily to delicious dinners with the family! We speak only in German all the time, so my German is continuing to get better and better! Here is a photo of the view from the balcony off my room :) Also, here's the woods nearby where I walk one of the family's dogs, Filou-who is actually in one of the pictures! Of course, things look a little different now since the weather is starting to warm up and melt away the snow :)
About my Berlin discoveries:
To try and discuss all that I have uncovered and experienced here in Berlin so far would be too much like a textbook! I have gained a lot of knowledge about Germany and of Berlin's past, present, and somewhat unpredictable future. Three notable quotes which I have been told (more than once) are:
"Berlin ist arm, aber sexy." (Berlin is poor, but sexy) -Klaus Wowereit
"Paris is always Paris and Berlin is never Berlin!" -Jack Lang
"Berlin ist eine Stadt, verdammt dazu, ewig zu werden, niemals zu sein" (Berlin is a city damned forever to becoming, never to being) -Karl Scheffler
Basically, these short blurbs illustrate the reality of Berlin. It's a city where money isn't really the root of all happiness. New York is definitely the kind of materialistic city you would consider rich. I think of Berlin as rich in culture, diversity, and in the ability to accept people of all shapes, sizes, colors, and origins. I've crossed paths with nothing except genuinely nice people here in Berlin. Also, the Paris quote hints at the fact that no particular population dominates the city or determines its direction. There are so many small niche groups that make up the city as a whole. I mean, less than a century ago Berlin was destroyed in every way possible. It has been rebuilt from the bottom up with the intentions of starting fresh and with solid footings. The only real dilemma is that Berlin will--in a cultural and political sense--never be set in stone...Perfect for people like me because as an outsider, you're actually right where you belong :) My program leader said, "Berlin can change you, but you too can change Berlin." We'll see about that, haha. It seems a little ambitious, but I am always up for a challenge!
I love learning about the city via tours, films, museums, etc...But what has truly been the most valuable are the people themselves. You cannot get an accurate feel for Berlin's disturbing past with historical sites alone. The DDR museum is memorable, but nothing beats talking to people who were alive during World War II. I was privileged enough to meet Günther Schaefer, one of the first artists to paint a portion of the official artwork on the Berlin Wall! His work is on the wall at the East Side Gallery. My program group went on a tour with him and even got to go to his private home/studio and hear a short biography about his life. Those kinds of human interactions absolutely top a museum. I could really feel the emotions he had about his childhood growing up in a divided Germany. His recent artwork insinuates that those experiences are still prevalent and influential in his life today...And to think he's only one of many here in Berlin who have their own stories from those hard times...Here's some pictures related to the wall, and also a few of Günther!
About other noteworthy Berlin sights:
On an excellent city tour with my CIEE group, our guide named Dennis was really entertaining! He was funny enough that you paid attention, but he was also thoroughly educated on the sights and could answer every question he was given. We went to points such as the Reichstag, Brandenburger Tor, and walked a fairly extensive stretch of where the Berlin Wall once split family-filled neighborhoods right down the middle. Certain stories were almost comical, for example why Victoria, atop the Brandenburger Tor, is looking towards the French Embassy in Pariser Platz. She was named 'victory' (instead of 'peace') when she was returned to Germany after Napoleon stole her. The plaza was deemed 'Pariser,' so that it symbolized 'Victory over Paris/France.' I think it's pretty clever and even funny that she was re-sculpted to stare right at the French Embassy. Anyways, there were also other stories that touched my heart and brought me close to tears. A prime example is the story of Ida Siekmann. She is known as the first 'victim' of the Wall...There are lots of other people who literally 'fell' victim to the wall's erection, as they sometimes tried jumping over and out of buildings to reach the other side. But since Ida's the first, here's her story. The Holocaust Memorial evoked lots of thinking as well. I was told the artist made it with no real, concrete, or intended meaning. It is what you make of it, so any and every interpretation is valid and acceptable. One detail I find interesting is that the actual Jewish Victim Memorial lies beneath the dozens of stone columns--almost as if to remind us (present-day visitors) that the past for Jewish people in Germany is always going to be dark and considered something most people prefer keeping hidden...
Above: Me in the midst of the Holocaust Memorial columns, an appropriately dark and grim photo depicting a portion of 'No Man's Land,' a portrait of Ida near where she once lived, the Reichstag, an up-close view of what a person might have seen when peering into 'No Man's Land' (fantasizing about what lies beyond the Wall), and the Holocaust Memorial from afar.