I kicked off my Easter Break vacation with three days in the German capital, where I oddly enough did NOT fall as in love with the city as everyone seems to tell me is inevitable. I’m sure three days doesn’t do it justice. I’m also sure that I am not hip enough to set foot there.
It’s undeniable that Berlin deserves its many fans. I really loved learning about the history of the city—we took a fantastic free walking tour that took us to the major sites and explained in depth many fascinating insights about WWII and Communism. To hear about Hitler’s final days while standing on the ground covering his bunker makes connections that college level World History courses cannot. Learning about the peaceful collapse of the Berlin Wall while two feet from the real deal is education unparalleled. I appreciated the rest of the sights, including tourist traps like Checkpoint Charlie and the Brandenburg Gate, but also the East Side Gallery and the DDR Museum (an interactive look into life under Stasi control). Strolling around the river and Tiergarten was a relaxing and scenic break from the big city atmosphere, and I can see why people say they love it in Berlin. Not to mention that the German capital is so diverse that I could satisfy every food craving I’ve had in Spain since September.
But you know what? What I really took away from Berlin is that I’m happy in Bilbao.
Berlin, to me, was a nice city, rich in history, but very little difference from any other big city in the U.S. Because it was almost completely bombed in WWII, very little of the typical “European charm” remains. It has remnants, of course, and it’s not every day in the U.S. that you can walk down a street and stumble upon a massive late-Renaissance/Baroque structure, like you can with the Berlin Cathedral in the Mitte district. But between its hot war destruction and its Cold War construction in severe Soviet style, Berlin is not Europe’s beauty queen. It gets its personality from the people that make it up, but the city in itself seemed like just that to me—a big city.
For months I’ve been back and forth about whether to stay in Spain another year or move back to the States. I’ve run through 20,000 scenarios in my mind, all involving me moving to one city or another—San Francisco was always the dream, but now with Google rents, I even tossed around Austin and Chicago, two places I’ve never been. While I like Bilbao, I haven’t stopped to fully appreciate my life here, and have instead been idealizing a hypothetical life back home (which, my internal therapist of a self has come to realize, has a name: “homesickness.”) I’ve been dreaming about big-city American life, even though I’ve always grown up in a 13,000 person suburb and went to college in a secluded little paradise of a student ghetto. I’ve been taking for granted my Bilbao existence and have put Starbucks venti coffees and New York skyscrapers on a pedestal.
I’d forgotten what big cities were actually like.
And then it hit me in Berlin: Swarms of people, wide streets, high-rises, 45-minute metro rides just to cross town, and a prevalence of American food chains aren’t really my thing. They are for many, and maybe one day they will be for me, but right now I’d like to keep my neighbor count to below 500,000.
And my God, I need me some cobblestone streets.
So I liked Berlin for its fascinating history; its vibrant culture; its blonde Deutsch lads and cute cafés. But I loved it for convincing me that it’s OK if I don’t rush back to the U.S. just quite yet. Bilbao may not be the grandest or most diverse and hell, I can’t get a latte bigger than my fist here.
But that’s fine by me for now.
Have you ever found a city that doesn’t quite live up to its hype? Does traveling usually spark personal insights for you? And most importantly, DID I MISS SOMETHING IN BERLIN? SHOULD I RETURN TO DO IT JUSTICE??