There are some similarities among the big cities of Europe. Settled/invaded by the Romans; experienced a period of rapid growth/decline; crippled by plague/fire; divided/united over Catholicism/Protestantism; partially/completely destroyed during the war and later rebuilt/not rebuilt with traditional/modern buildings. Of course that's an overgeneralization, but you get the idea.
Berlin's story is a little different.
You see a strip of undeveloped area and wonder why. It's because until 20 years ago there were two parallel walls in Berlin, 100 meters apart, with a trench between them that was regularly raked so they could see if anyone had tried to escape. It was called the Death Strip.
You see bricks in the road, through neighborhoods. Until 20 years ago, that's where the Berlin Wall stood.
We were in front of the Brandenburg Gate on a gorgeous, sunny Saturday afternoon; runners in the Berlin Marathon would cross the finish line here the next day. Until 20 years ago, the Berlin Wall cut right in front of the Gate. Ronald Reagan gave his "tear down this wall" speech here 22 years ago.
We walked on to the Holocaust Memorial -- officially named the Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe - a full city block of 2,711 concrete columns of varying heights. It's rather abstract, and I heard a few different interpretations, many of which make sense. In the center of it, where the the concrete towers over you, it's cold and dark, and gravity - figuratively, and what feels like literally - weighs heavy. On the walls of the information center is a quote that comes with its own gravity: "It happened, therefore it can happen again."
We had plans to go to Rosh Hashanah services at the 19th century Neue Synagoge; I went along, naively thinking it would be neat to attend my first synagogue in such an old, historic building. Of course, the original synagoge was completely destroyed before and during WWII; the facade and domes are a reconstruction, and the original 3,000-seat main hall exists only as an outline. Instead, we went through a chain fence, past armed soldiers, through metal detectors, up two flights of stairs, and through narrow hallways to reach a 75-seat synagogue. There, the rabbi -- a woman -- welcomed us herself and offered us English translations of the German and Hebrew service, and we watched as the small, close-knit congregation came and went throughout our two hours there. The cantor sung the Psalms in a melodic tenor voice that I could have listened to all day. I was wrong, it turned out: It was absolutely amazing to celebrate the new year in such an old, historic building.
I expected to see mohawks and black clothes and rebels and piercings. I didn't expect to go to an artists' community that developed when squatters took over an old, half-destroyed department store after the wall came down; see an artists' premiere in a former public toilet; and attend an opera, Mozart's Die Entführung aus dem Serail.
The reason for the trip was a ladies' weekend -- part of a group of us that started in DC and has now spread out, to Berlin, Paris, Zurich, Cambridge, and more. All of us are in our mid-30s in fairly similar genres of jobs. I expected to have a good time; I didn't expect how much I needed some bonding with peers. What a positively fantastic group of ladies.
Everything about Berlin, from the place to the people I met there, defied and exceeded my expectations. What a fantastic surprise.