germany

Some trips offer more than just the chance to see the sights, but also valuable life lessons and insights into other cultures. On a recent trip through Germany, where I focused on exploring Berlin Wall history, I experienced just this.

For me, Germany’s rich history alone made it a truly special place to visit, the type of destination that constantly shifts your perspective. As the 25th anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall approaches on November 9, 2014, I thought it would be relevant to share these lessons, and allow you to further understand the country and its heritage for yourself.

Without further adieu, here are 10 lessons I learned traveling through Germany.

1. There’s More To German History Than WWII

When people talk about German history, it’s inevitable the discussion shifts to WWII and the Holocaust; however, there’s so much more to it than that. My first time visiting Germany in 2011 I visited Dachau Concentration Camp, the Holocaust Memorial, the Jewish Museum and the Topography of Terror Museum. This time, however, I decided to focus on another important aspect of the country’s history: the Berlin Wall.

As stated above, November 9, 2014, marks the 25th anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall, the catalyst to Germany’s re-unification — the Berlin Wall had separated the country into East and West for 28 years — and a unified Democratic government.

What’s great about Germany is the majority of the museums will fascinate even the most skeptical museum-goer. There was not a single Berlin Wall-related museum or memorial that I visited that I did not find absolutely fascinating. While Leipzig captivated me with it’s Forum of Contemporary History, complete with life-sized rooms and displays that made me feel like I was walking through history, the Stasi Prison Museum in Berlin took me through the actual once-prison to show exactly what these prisoners went through. Sites like Checkpoint Charlie’s Black Box, the Palace of Tears and the Berlin Wall Memorial & Museum further told the story of Germany’s tumultuous past.

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Labskaus, a traditional North German dish. Photo courtesy of Jessica Festa.

2. There’s More To The Food Than Beer & Sausage

While I highly recommend partaking in the beer and sausage on a trip to Germany, there’s much more to the cuisine than just that. Regional dishes like seasoned beef dumplings (Frikadelle) in Bavaria, Labskaus in Northern Germany, and Veal Rouladen rolls in Baden are just a few delicious examples. You also can’t go wrong with traditional German sauerbraten.

Moreover, Germans love wine, mainly because Germany is a world-class wine-producing country, especially from regions like Mosel-Saar-Ruwer, Rheingau, Rheinhessen, the Pfalz (formerly Rheinpfalz) and Württemberg. Top varietals coming from the country include riesling (aromatic with notes of apricot and honeycomb), gewürztraminer (aromatic and sweet with lychee notes) and müller-thurgau (low acid and fruity) for whites, as well as spatburgunder (pinot noir), blauer portugieser (light and acidic), dornfelder (fruity and good acidity) and trollinger (light and slightly sweet) for reds.

If you like wine, here’s a fun tidbit for you: not all riesling is sweet. In Germany, you’ll find a variety of dry rieslings, as well, so ask your server/bartender for a recommendation if this is what you enjoy.

3. The Power Of The People

While the Berlin Wall’s ultimate demise was caused by a series of events, the catalyst was actually a non-violent protest — known as the Peaceful Revolution — in Leipzig. Despite there being armed Stasi police officers watching, 70,000 people circled the streets to protest the Wall. Miraculously, no shots were fired that night. And one week later, the Wall was taken down.

Like I said, this is just one of a series of events that took place that led to the fall of the Berlin Wall, but it’s a truly inspirational happening that shows just how important it is to stand up for what you believe it, and how change can happen, even if it takes awhile (in this case, 28 years).

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Me, riding an odd but fun eTrike. Photo courtesy of Jessica Festa.

4. It’s Okay For Adults To Ride Tricycles

I’m not talking about the type of tricycle with a woven basket adorned with flowers and ribbons. I’m talking about the eTrike. Offered by Berlin on Bike, this funny-looking three-wheeled stand-up “trike” is thumb-operated and provides a fun way to see the city. Some of their top tours for culture carnivores include Street Art Berlin, Berlin Wall and East Berlin Unplugged.

5. There’s A Bit Of Brooklyn In Every City

In Hamburg I found it in the Ottensen neighborhood of Altona. In Berlin I found it in Kreuzberg. As a Brooklyn local, it’s nice to go abroad but still find reminders of home: ironic fashions, Masor Jar cocktails, organic dishes, slow-drip coffee, gourmet food trucks, indie bands galore, sandwich board jokes you don’t quite understand and reclaimed spaces that retain an industrial or urban farm feel. I should also mention I saw Brooklyn Brewery beer served at more than one location.

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East Side Gallery. Photo courtesy of Jessica Festa.

6. That Silence Is Powerful (But We All Want To Be Heard)

During the time of the Berlin Wall people in East Germany were scared into silence, never speaking their minds and not able to express themselves through their choice of art or music. But that didn’t stop people from expressing themselves underground. In Leipzig I visited Galerie Eigen + Art, a contemporary art gallery that’s been around since 1983, during German Democratic Republic. Moreover, if today you look at the east side of the Berlin Wall — called the East Side Gallery — you’ll find 101 inspiring murals dedicated to themes like freedom and democracy. Not even 28 years of silence can stop people’s desire to express themselves.

7. That You Can Play Music With Electricity

During Leipzig’s annual Festival of Lights this year, they went all out to mark the Peaceful Revolution’s 25th anniversary. During times of GDR people weren’t allowed to fully express themselves or enjoy the art forms of their choice, especially alternative music.

To celebrate the fact that in modern times there is no limit to the forms of expression that exist, performers played unique forms of music in Richard Wagner Platz. This included something I had never seen before — the creation of music using electricity. At first I thought the female musician was playing air piano as she poked and scrunched her fingers. That is, until she demonstrated how her “instrument” worked. Two transmitters sat on either side of her, sending electricity waves to each other, which she could then manipulate with her hands to make sounds. Interesting.

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Berliner. Photo courtesy of Poly Liss via Shutterstock.

8. Things Always Sound More Exotic In Other Languages

Anyone who reads Epicure & Culture knows my love of chocolate and desserts. When I arrived in Berlin, I was told by numerous locals that I had to try a Berliner, a local specialty pastry. With a name like Berliner, how could it not be a Berlin specialty?

When I finally found time to hop into a bakery at the end of the trip, my anticipation for the treat was akin to a child on Christmas. I didn’t even try to look at the counter to see what a Berliner was before ordering.

Confidently I walked up to the bakery counter and stated, “I’d like a Berliner, please.”

“Cherry or plum?”

“Cherry.”

Oh! There she went, reaching into the case, pulling out my gooey, sugary, delicious Berliner. I threw the paper bag hiding it from view away manically, taking a giant bite.

Huh?

I knew this pastry. It was a jelly donut. Don’t get my wrong, it was delicious and I’m glad I tried it in Berlin, where apparently it’s a specialty, but… it was exactly like a jelly donut.

Later on when I saw my local guide, I couldn’t help but share my findings.

“I had a Berliner today. So delicious. Back in New York we call that a jelly donut.”

“It’s not a donut,” he replied. “There’s no center hole.”

“Well, I guess you’re right. But, we still consider it a donut.”

“It’s not a donut. It’s a Berliner.”

Okay then.

9. To Value My Freedom

As I explored Berlin Wall history, I heard so many personal stories. One went like this: On May 23, 1962, a 14-year-old boy named Winfried Tews ran for dear life. Scrambling over the walls and jumping into a canal, desperation propelled him forward. Despite the dangerous situation, despite the people he was leaving behind, despite the guard who was killed in the crossfire, despite the East German border guards shooting at him — hitting their target 17 times, including in his lungs — Tews didn’t stop until he made it to the other side. The Western side of the Berlin Wall. He made it, albeit badly wounded, but he made it.

Another was the story of a baby boy crossing secretly with his family. When the baby started to cry, the mother pressed her hand over the baby’s mouth, not realizing he had bronchitis and couldn’t breath through his nose. Both parents survived and succeeded in reaching the West; however, the infant was accidentally suffocated and died.

While I’ve certainly had my fair share of (at least what I consider) hardships in life, not a single one could at all compare to these stories. As we’ve seen throughout history — and even in today’s newspaper — freedom isn’t always given as it should be. Just because something is your “God given right” doesn’t mean those in power will grant it.

Value what you have — especially if you’re lucky enough to have freedom — as you never know what will happen tomorrow. Because while the Berlin Wall technically wasn’t built in a day, the oppressive barbed wire perimeter that people woke up to without warning was.

10. The Joys Of A Clean Transport System

NYC is the land of opportunity. You have the chance to do and be anything you want. Any interest you may have can be pursued here. Amazing restaurants, innovation, shopping, theater, museums, art, cultural centers, bars, festivals can all be enjoyed.

But, with that comes a decreased quality of life in other ways, mainly rent prices, living spaces, the (non-)niceness of employees and the cleanliness of the transport system. I can’t tell you how many horrors I’ve seen on the train, from projectile vomitting to a woman selling bows made of cat hair — with the cat in a stroller beside her! I’ve been harassed, sat in spilled coffee, sweat nearly to death, overheard death threats and had someone call me a “C-U-Next-Tuesday” for asking for subway directions.

Well, you at least you can count on New Yorkers to always speak their minds.

In Germany the train was a different experience. Not only were staff helpful and nice, but the seats were comfortable and clean. Nobody wheeled their baby grand piano on then barked at you for not tipping them. Nobody called their cousin and threatened to kill them. Nobody cursed out their girlfriend. People sat quietly, chatting with smiles and reading the paper.

I did encounter one rude and inebriated guy who was quickly reprimanded by train staff.

For once, the train became something I enjoyed rather than something I loathed.

Have you ever visited Germany? What lessons did you learn? Please share in the comments below.

Also Check Out:

Epic Brewcations: Top 8 International Beer Experiences

Sommelier Certification: The Not Always Sweet Story Of German Wines

WANDERLUST [Travel Quote Print]

Jessica Festa

Jessica Festa is the editor of Epicure & Culture as well as Jessie on a Journey. She enjoys getting lost in new cities and having experiences you don’t read about in guidebooks. Some of her favorite travel experiences have been teaching English in Thailand, trekking her way through South America, backpacking Europe solo, road tripping through Australia, agritouring through Tuscany, and volunteering in Ghana.

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2 Comments

  1. You ordered a “Berliner” in Berlin and got a jelly donut? It’s a bit hard to believe, since a “Berliner” is a pancake in Berlin. However, you will actually get a jelly donut if you order a “Berliner” in Hamburg. 😉

    1. @Hannes: Interesting. I was definitely in Berlin and this was definitely very similar to a jelly donut ha. Maybe it was just an unusual bakery? It was near Brandenburg Gate.

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