Reflections on a Week in Germany (Munich and Berlin)

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When I was a teenager in Florida, on a Jewish Community Center trip to EPCOT, I remember running past Germany as fast as we could. “Germany, ahhhh!” we yelled, racing past the Bavarian buildings over to the Norway ride with the trolls and the waterfall. As naive as we were, there was something instinctual about our resistance to Germany. We were Jews growing up in a generation where the Holocaust was hammered into us daily; in Hebrew school, in history class, on TV, in movies, everywhere we went, we were reminded that 6 million Jews were killed by Nazis in Germany. “Never forget” we were told again and again. No wonder we ran so fast.

Going to Germany, then, was never high on my bucket list–even as I got older. A few things piqued my interest–mostly the culture of the Cabaret era (I’ve been reading Christopher Isherwood’s Berlin Stories)–but not enough to ever plan a trip there. Then Craig was invited to the Munich Film Festival and because I was going to be in Europe with him anyway for the Edinburgh Film Festival, I decided to make my way over to meet him there after he came back from the Nantucket Film Festival. It wasn’t until I was changing trains in Stuttgart, though, listening to the gruff announcements over the P.A. system, that I really let it sink in that I was in Germany. No running past it this time.

Upon arrival in Munich, Craig took me to a beer garden (pretty much an inevitable first stop):

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We shared a Flammkuchen, also known as a Tart Flambee, which is a cracker-like pizza topped with creme fraiche and speck:

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The scene at the beer garden was lively, especially because of the World Cup:

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But the rowdiness and the occasional group of men bursting into song did little to quell my Germanophobia: wasn’t it at a beer hall just like this that Hitler staged his Beer Hall Putsch that landed him in prison and began his rise to power?

As we made our way into the main square and beheld lovely sights like this:

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And this:

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I couldn’t really connect with their beauty or architecture. Instead, I was thinking “this is where Nazis held their rallies.” The whole place felt positively haunted, as far as I was concerned, with its history; a history that I’ve been thinking about and living with (like so many other Jews) for the large majority of my life.

Which is why it came as a huge relief to discover, as we began to make friends at the festival, that Germans are well aware of their history. They struggle with it on a daily basis; it’s something they start learning about young too. Most of the people our age talked about going to concentration camps on class trips from a very early age. They talked about national shame; about German players not singing their national anthem at the games, how only recently have they been allowed to wave the German flag.

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It was the people that we met, those first few nights in Munich, who really opened me up to Germany. Starting with Ina, our Festival liaison, a totally delightful person full of energy and intelligence and a willingness to talk about anything, especially German history (that’s her on the right; Kitty, on the left, made a documentary about the Ukraine that sounds totally fascinating):

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Ina toured us all around Munich; taking us to a Bavarian restaurant for dinner:

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(Notice the Dirndl on the waitress.) Where we ate pretzels:

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I had a delicious pork knuckle with sauerkraut:

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While Ina had a Bavarian salad which was, hilariously, almost all meat:

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For dessert, we shared a perfect apple strudel:

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The next day, Ina took us all over Munich. We went to the Viktualienmarkt in the center of town, where we saw lots of sausages:

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Hid from a rainstorm:

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Saw Edelweiss (made me want to write a song about it; title suggestions?):

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Beautiful vegetables:

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Turkish delight:

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Which Craig sampled when the sun came out:

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We also saw a beautiful church with paper birds suspended from the ceiling:

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That afternoon, at the festival, a woman named Irene–who’d seen the movie the day before–came back to see it again, she enjoyed it so much:

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Christina, a local TV personality, conducted the Q&A with Craig after the movie:

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The German audience was very respectful; applauding only after the credits ended and asking very thoughtful questions:

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That night, we went with Christina and her boyfriend Lou to dinner at the Hofbrauhaus, a Munich institution:

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Here’s Lou and Christina at the table:

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Here’s a pretzel with a mixture of butter and cheese on it, a mixture known as Obazta:

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And a platter of sausages and sauerkraut that Craig and I shared, with excellent German mustard:

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It was there, at that dinner, that we really got into it about history. Christina talked movingly about German shame, about the challenge the country faces of confronting its history while also trying to move ahead. At some point, I mentioned that I’d been thinking about going to Dachau–only a 30 minute train ride from Munich–but that I was on the fence about it. I felt like I’d seen so many movies about the Holocaust, read so much about it, that going to a concentration camp would probably feel similar to going to the Holocaust Museum in D.C., something I’ve done several times. Did I really need to go in person?

Christina said “absolutely yes.” So, the next day, Craig and I decided to make the journey to Dachau.

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It’s strange to write about this on a food blog, especially since the overwhelming feeling I had there was one of nausea. It was so overwhelming, going there. Nothing could have prepared me for it. Until you walk through those gates, with those horrific words written there (translating to “Work Makes You Free”), you can’t really know how it feels to stand in a place with such a gruesome history. It made me feel physically ill, it really did. It wasn’t a spiritual or psychological feeling, just a physical one. I felt so sick there.

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These pictures don’t do it justice. There were so many awful things to confront there. A gas chamber. A crematorium. Most haunting of all, at least for me, was a video a soldier made who helped liberate the camp. It’s a color video, playing in the main museum, and it’s real footage of what he found when he and his fellow soldiers entered Dachau at the end of the war. What you see, when you see that, is true horror. The images are unshakeable; unbelievable, worse than the worst thing that you can think of.

Leaving the camp, I didn’t feel a sense of catharsis. I didn’t feel healed or like I’d reached a new understanding. I mostly still felt sick; sad and sick.

But I also, somehow, faced the elephant in the room. After feeling hypersensitive to the history under the surface everywhere I went in Munich, we had confronted that history head-on. There it was, for everyone to see.

It set the stage for the second half of our trip, a half that I enjoyed so much, I can’t wait to tell you about it; that was our trip to Berlin.

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Perhaps it’s symbolic, I don’t know, but the first meal that we ate in Berlin was a meal at our hotel at an Israeli restaurant called Neni.

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Hummus, a carrot and beet salad, and a cured salmon salad:

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Eating Israeli food as our first meal in Berlin gives you a sense of the city’s stance: it’s a city that’s aware of the past, but a city that’s far more interested in the present.

It’s a truly hip, modern city. Hard-edged, artistic, open, exciting. Our hotel–the 25 Hour Hotel Bikini–definitely set the stage. Luisa recommended it and we instantly loved it:

Everything about this hotel, from the room:

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To the bakery downstairs:

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Was sleek, stylish and cool.

At the top of the hotel, is a super popular bar called Monkey Bar:

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So called because it overlooks the monkey cage at the zoo next door:

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We spent lots of time watching those monkeys and baboons from an outdoor promenade that connects the hotel to a hipster mall.

That first night, we walked to a restaurant that I discovered on Luisa’s Berlin restaurant blog; a place called Renger-Patzsch:

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Going here, I felt like we’d hit the jackpot. A real, authentic Berlin restaurant overrun with locals. Not a tourist in sight (except for us).

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We ordered a set menu for $32 Euros that came with pike perch, vermouth, tarragon, and leeks:

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“Roasted suckling pig shoulder from the Hohenloher pig with mustard sauce, mountain lentils, and potato noodles.”

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And a chocolate tart with apricots and vanilla ice cream:

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All of it was scrumptious and lovingly made; like the food you’d get at a talented friend’s dinner party which, for me, is the highest compliment.

The next day, we did some sightseeing:

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Went to the DDR Museum and learned all about East German history (boy, Germans have lots of dark history) which led us, eventually, to the Berlin Wall.

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There, we watched videos of people trying to escape through windows of houses that were right on the border. That was a whole other element of our trip: hearing first-hand stories of growing up in the east, of the Stasi, arrests, etc. History is unavoidable when you go to Germany.

To lighten things up, I bought this Angela Merkel juicer from a store close by:

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And took this picture of currants and gooseberries which were oh so pretty:

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That night, we met up with our friend Anke who lives in Berlin (we met her through our friend Chris in New York) who took us on a walk around Krumme Lanke (Lake) near the Grunewald Forest.

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It was positively gorgeous, though, once again, history reared its head: it was near this lake that Hitler and his cronies came up with the Final Solution. A fact that somehow had extra resonance when we saw this on a bench (though Anke quickly translated it for us; apparently it says “No Place for Nazis.”)

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Dinner that night was on the lake, at a lovely spot where I ate pickled herring with cream sauce–a total delight (and similar to something that my dad loved eating growing up):

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Craig loved his whole-roasted trout:

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Thank you, Anke, for such a great night.

The next day we were real lucky ducks because the previously mentioned Luisa of The Wednesday Chef, and author of My Berlin Kitchen, cooked us lunch!

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I felt especially lucky to be there because Luisa–well at least the book version of her–was my constant companion on the first leg of my trip; I devoured My Berlin Kitchen all through Edinburgh, London, and Paris. It’s a really moving book; especially moving for me because I knew her back in New York, during the unhappy section of her story, and now here I was seeing her in her happy place, here in Berlin.

The lunch was a stunner: homemade focaccia that positively gleamed, it was so gorgeous.

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It comes from the Saltie Cookbook (I’m a huge Saltie sandwich fan) and chances are Luisa will blog about it soon. We sliced open our bread and topped it with hard-boiled eggs and a lively mixture of olives, beets, parsley, and capers:

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Luisa hit it out of the park with this one and then gilded the lily with a trifle for dessert made with roasted strawberries and German yogurt:

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That meal was easily a highlight of our whole trip to Germany. Thanks, Luisa; so honored to have been in your Berlin kitchen.

From there, Craig and I checked out the extraordinary David Bowie exhibit at the Martin-Gropius-Bau:

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And that night had dinner at Katz Orange, a restaurant recommended to us by several friends:

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It’s a fun place with great atmosphere. The food is good too:

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Next day, our last day in Berlin, we did the must-visits: the Brandenburg Gate.

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The Reichstag:

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The Holocaust Memorial:

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At this point, though, I couldn’t take much more grisly German history.

Which is why our final two stops were so perfect. Stop One: KaDeWe, a Department store that seems pretty generic from the outside.

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But ride up to the food floor, and you’ll want to stay there forever. Look at all these sausages (and this is just one of several cases):

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It’s a food lovers paradise. Vegetables galore:

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Chocolates, champagne, ice cream… you name it, they have it.

Our second stop, basically our final stop in Berlin, was dinner at Lokal in Mitte (recommended by Not Derby Pie). Our walk over was colorful:

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And the spirit of the place captured everything there was to love Berlin. People–gay, straight, male, female, black, white, latino–spilled out the door:

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The hostess, unfazed by the crowd, asked us what we wanted to drink and quickly brought out our new favorite summer beverage (which we experienced all over Germany): an Aperol Spritz.

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My bowl of pasta–homemade noodles, zucchini, tomatoes, etc.–was tasty, if a bit greasy, but it was the atmosphere that made us fall in love with the restaurant; so open and welcoming. At some point, an animal ran past and we all shrieked in horror with our neighbors, debating through the language barrier whether it was a cat or a rat. We said cat, they said rat. “It’s a cat, all right,” said the woman, “only a cat with an ‘R.'”

On our walk home, we discovered this mural of Anne Frank on a wall in an alley:

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Haunting, yes, but somehow–weirdly–hopeful. That’s the main takeaway of my trip; Germany is a place where awful things happened–to all kinds of people–but it’s a place that doesn’t repress that past. The past is right there in the open for all to see and all to learn from. It’s a past that still resonates today, in all kinds of ways, but a past that shouldn’t condemn a country and its people to ignominy forever. Going to Germany may have been low on my list of things to do, but it turns out to have been one of the most meaningful things I’ve ever done.

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