I’ve threatened to take this trip before, had a close call last month, and then decided to take the plunge. In sort of a pre-birthday, cathartic adventure.
Berlin has long been on my list of cities to visit. It has a rich history, modern flair, and delicious German men. I mean food. (And men.)
My trip started with the good and the bad— I decided to leave directly from Seattle, heading to Paris where I would connect on Air France. A ZED (Zonal Employee Discount offered to airline personnel) fare would only cost ~$60 from Paris to Berlin, leaving roughly an hour after I landed in Charles de Gaulle. Look, I was content, but miffed, that I missed Delta One to Paris by just one seat— free travel is a luxury. But as I was accepting fate in seat 35J, the greatest words ever spoken were told to me: “Mr. Barnhart, we have an upgrade for you. You’re now in 12B.”
When I am graced with the pleasure of riding in a premium seat, I have a routine. With my dinner courses, I watch a blockbuster film, one recently released. Then I sleep for a few hours, only to wake up for breakfast— that’s when I watch a classic film. I hadn’t seen The Shape of Water, which one practically every Oscar, so I made my way through it— I found it confusing and bizarre, but I was tipsy and drifted into a slumber. When I woke up, I watched the comforting and familiar All About Eve and enjoyed my frittata as we entered European airspace. But my fears quelled as I learned via Wi-Fi that Air France was going on strike; the loads for my Berlin flight had gone to hell, and there weren’t many options getting out of Paris. I made an executive decision to leave via train after waiting in a hot and stuffy customs hall for over an hour— eight hours and 143€ later, I rolled into Berlin Hauptbahnhof, tired and happy to make it to my intended destination— life is a journey, eh?
I got to my Airbnb, lucky that my host was still awake. I opted for an Airbnb because I
was not trying to live the hostel life on this adventure, and hotel rooms are often exorbitant in Europe. I ascended the spiral staircase to the artist loft in a courtyard, and Mushtaq was waiting for me. Meeting him was the highlight of my trip; he’s a 65 year old Indian native, living in Berlin for some 40 years. He is a supremely talented artist, and his space adorns his works— some paintings, some multimedia, all very impressive. Even the piece he was working on throughout my stay changed drastically over three days!
Mushtaq and I spoke the same language— English, sure, but he was also a gate agent for Pan Am back in the day. His stories of travel and helping passengers far exceed mine in geography and flair (once, he helped Tim Curry track down a missing wig in time for a performance in Berlin). And his overwhelming generosity made my stay so heartwarming. “Young sir,” he said as I started to rise in the morning, “Would you like to join me for a coffee?” And we would, as he helped me plan my day.
The problem I face when I visit Europe is my overwhelming desire to live on the continent again; I studied abroad in Madrid circa 2013, and it was the most life changing experience of my life. It solidified my vagabond wanderlust, my yearnings to go, see, do, explore, and meet people and places of all kinds. Mushtaq talked about his becoming a cosmopolitan, and I pondered that word— all of my friends from my study abroad programs are exactly that, American born but living in all corners of the earth. I don’t think I could give up my citizenship, but I certainly subscribe to a higher notion that I am not completely American, that my personhood supersedes the borders of our nation.
If my chosen profession and industry could give me the option to do such a thing, I would. And I will, once I find a way to do it. If I get based on the east coast and bid my schedules heavy for half a month, while retreating to Europe for the other half, that would be my utopia. I would also have to make a ton of money to swing that, too. Notwithstanding, the continent calls my name.
Berlin itself was mesmerizing— a city marred with political grief and stature. I walked 30+ miles over the course of three days, and my ankles just now have healed to a point where it doesn’t hurt to walk anymore. I trotted all over the city, occasionally using public transport to cover the long distances. My first day, I started off in Mitte where I was staying, and I traipsed all the way down to Brandenberg Tor and the Reichstag building. After that, I made it to Checkpoint Charlie where the US policed the comings and goings between East and West Berlin.
The second day, I went to Tempelhof Airfield. It’s more or less abandoned, but the city is in the stages for revamping it as a common space— even though I’m an aviation fanatic, I got weird vibes from the place; my German roots were uncomfortable. So I ate my way through those feelings by having the best kebap in the city, as recommended by my friend Jay, with whom I met up later.
We went to this incredible rooftop bar, very scene and scenic as the sun set. Jay and I met through NGPA, and he’s completing his Master’s degree abroad— a great source of jealousy for me! We caught up, and I reveled in the delight of having friends abroad.
On my last day, I did two somber things on a perfectly cloudy day— I visited the East Side Gallery, the last remnants of the Berlin Wall. I thought I would go there for a few minutes, “see it,” and then leave; but I ended up walking the entire thing twice. I was in awe of the art, most of it making political comments in a stunning way. The bright colors, the visceral notions, and raw emotion of it drew me in. I also went to the Monument for the Murdered Jews of Europe, a place where I wish I could have spent more time, despite the morose nature of the site. Some people left flowers, others left notes of sympathy. That there are people in this world who believe the Holocaust never happened boggles my mind— and this monument holds a bold reverence for their ignorance.
And just as soon as I got there, it was time to leave. I took the direct flight from Berlin to Newark on United, and I was treated yet again to a first class experience.
I lead a bougie, globetrotting life at my leisure— and it’s not without shortcomings. I schlepped back to Seattle in middle seat economy, the flight time nearing that of a transatlantic crossing. And the very next day, I started a trip for work. Exhausting? Yes. Worth it? Ja, absolut!
Appropriate German soundtrack that was in my head throughout the entire trip: Nena – 99 Luftballons