Two teenagers, one trip, 35 years apart: The past is a pres­ence dur­ing a mother-son va­ca­tion in Ber­lin.

The Washington Post Sunday - - TRAVEL - BY BRIGID SCHULTE AND LIAM BOW­MAN travel@wash­ Schulte is a writer based in the Dis­trict. Her web­site is brigid­; find her on Twit­ter at @Brigid­Schulte. Bow­man is a stu­dent in Eu­gene, Ore.

On our first night in Ber­lin, my son, Liam, and I ducked into a cozy pub in the quaint Niko­lai Vier­tel neigh­bor­hood for a famed Ber­liner Weisse wheat beer and a bite to eat. It was so crowded that the waiter waved us into a dark wood­pan­eled back­room and mo­tioned for us to join an­other cou­ple at a small ta­ble. I hate to ad­mit this, but we both felt im­me­di­ately un­com­fort­able. We de­cided to or­der some­thing small with our beers and find din­ner some­where else, where we could have some space and, like clas­sic Amer­i­cans, sit alone.

We were jet-lagged and tired. I had come to Ber­lin to give a talk and headed to the con­fer­ence straight off the plane that morn­ing. (Liam, a lover of his­tory who jumped at the chance to come with me, slept most of the day.) Though I studied Ger­man in col­lege, I hadn’t spo­ken it much in 35 years. And to be hon­est, I still had wound­ing mem­o­ries of the last time I sat in a pub not un­like this one in what was then East Ber­lin, in 1981, not much older than my son is now.

Then, wear­ing my bright blue and or­ange Nikes and ma­roon con­spic­u­ously la­beled Columbia ski jacket, I stood out like a riot of of­fen­sive color in what was then a drab, gray, ghost­like town. I re­mem­ber it was so quiet you could hear the sound of East Ber­lin­ers’ shoes clack­ing on the side­walk. No one talked, or laughed, or smiled. Least of all at us un­ruly Amer­i­can col­lege stu­dents bar­rel­ing through Check­point Char­lie out to see the world and ven­tur­ing into what was then enemy ter­ri­tory at the height of the Cold War.

In 1981, you could get a one-day visa from West Ber­lin, but you had to buy about 25 East Ger­man marks and spend them all by the end of the day. The prob­lem was, there wasn’t much to buy. So, af­ter a day of ex­plor­ing, tired and hun­gry, my friends and I, all study­ing in Aus­tria for the year, sat at a pub and tried to or­der a meal.

Not a sin­gle soul would look at us, much less talk to us. Or take our or­der. Not the waiter. Not the peo­ple at the nearby ta­bles. It was as if we were in­vis­i­ble. That evening, pass­ing through the armed guards and re­turn­ing to the wall-en­cir­cled en­clave of “free” West Ber­lin, we left our un­spent marks at the bor­der.

This time, it was dif­fer­ent. The at­mos­phere in the pub was noisy and fes­tive. Out­side, the now-uni­fied Ber­lin was bustling with new con­struc­tion, renovations and ri­otous color ev­ery­where. And our table­mates were smil­ing at us. Af­ter nod­ding po­litely at them, Liam and I quickly or­dered what looked like a cheese­board, though the only word I rec­og­nized in my rusty Ger­man was käse.

Out came a plate of slabs of mal­odor­ous yel­low Harzer käse with car­away seeds and dark brown, soft buns that I took to be the schus­ter­jun­gen of the menu. Plus a pot of what I as­sumed was a whitish kind of but­ter.

Puz­zled, I spread some of the stuff on the roll. Our table­mates shifted in their seats, smirk­ing, and eyed me. I took a bite. Gah. Not but­ter. Our com­pan­ions burst into laugh­ter. “It’s fat. Pork fat. Grieben­schmalz,” said one smil­ing, not un­kindly. “How do you like the cheese?” asked the other. I shrugged. Liam wouldn’t touch it. “It’s very pop­u­lar in the coun­try. It’s like cheese for farm­ers.”

And we were off, talk­ing about how it’s made from sour cheese curds. How aw­ful it smells. How it re­minded me of a cheese we’d dubbed stan­genkäse, or stink cheese, in our butchered English-ified Ger­man back in col­lege. “Yes!” they said, “It is called stan­genkäse!”

If the ride into vi­brant, newly re­con­structed Ber­lin from the air­port hadn’t con­vinced me that the now uni­fied city had thor­oughly changed, this bond­ing over stinky cheese and pork fat cer­tainly had. It was the first of many some­times jar­ring sur­prises I’d en­counter in our five day trip to this nearly 800-year-old city where the past is still very much alive in a very dy­namic present.

We headed out of the pub, only to find out later that it was the famed Zum Nuss­baum, an old inn built orig­i­nally in ei­ther the 16th or 18th cen­tury, de­pend­ing on the in­ter­pre­ta­tion of a cel­lar in­scrip­tion.

The guide­books said Niko­lai Vier­tel, the old­est res­i­den­tial area in Ber­lin, was founded in about the year 1200, and holds St. Ni­cholas’ Church, the old­est in the city. It sits in the heart of what’s now called Mitte, or mid­dle, but what had been East Ber­lin, just off the River Spree and not far from Mu­seum Is­land, a UNESCO World Her­itage site, and its five ex­tra­or­di­nary mu­se­ums, in­clud­ing the Perg­a­mon, which houses the Ishtar Gate of Baby­lon and the mas­sive Perg­a­mon Al­tar, built in what is now Turkey in the sec­ond cen­tury BCE. (The Perg­a­mon Mu­seum was closed for re­mod­el­ing dur­ing our visit, and is not sched­uled to re­open un­til 2019 or 2020.)

I re­mem­ber vis­it­ing the mu­se­ums in 1981, pass­ing de­cay­ing build­ings that, if my mem­ory serves, had trees grow­ing out of the roofs. But I don’t have any rec­ol­lec­tion of this charm­ing lit­tle pedes­trian quar­ter.

That’s be­cause it wasn’t there. The me­dieval al­leys, wind­ing lanes, churches, shops and tidy build­ings in Niko­lai Vier­tel were com­pletely de­stroyed by Al­lied bomb­ing in World War II.

The then-East Ger­man gov­ern­ment de­cided to com­pletely re­build the van­ished neigh­bor­hood in 1987, in time for the then still-di­vided Ber­lin’s 750th an­niver­sary. The eight-year un­der­tak­ing was de­rided by some as “Ho­necker’s Dis­ney­land,” af­ter for­mer East Ger­man leader Erich Ho­necker, be­cause hardly any of the build­ings were re­built in their orig­i­nal lo­ca­tions, in­clud­ing Zum Nuss­baum.

Ep­cot-like or no, we were drawn con­tin­u­ally to wan­der the lanes and, af­ter the pub, we found Ephraim’s Cafe-Restau­rant, which serves tra­di­tional Ger­man fare, that soon be­came a fa­vorite. Eating at Ephraim’s, which sits right above the Spree, is like eating in a fa­vorite ec­cen­tric aunt’s par­lor. We sat on cushy chairs by the fire­place un­der a floor-to-ceil­ing book­case. The ad­ja­cent room boasted a piano. And Liam ate the first of what would be about nine wiener­schnitzels over the course of the week. The warm ap­ple strudel, with a dol­lop of cool vanilla ice cream, was di­vine. It felt so like home that Ephraim’s be­came the place we went for din­ner each night.

Liam and I had gone on col­lege vis­its to­gether, but this was the first big trip we’d taken to­gether, just the two of us. And to be hon­est, I was re­ally look­ing for­ward to break­ing out of the of­ten dreary rou­tine we’d fallen into. Our con­ver­sa­tions usu­ally con­sisted of me nag­ging him about home­work or col­lege ap­pli­ca­tions or anx­iously pep­per­ing him with well-mean­ing ques­tions, only to be greeted by a grunt, his eyes never lift­ing from his phone. As for Liam, he just wanted to go to Ber­lin.

There were chal­lenges: I was rar­ing to go in the morn­ings long be­fore he deigned to crawl out of bed. (I’d work out and read in the lobby.) He kept eating the ex­pen­sive choco­late in the mini bar. (Even when I asked him not to.) And at night, he was ea­ger to go out and ex­plore the city and its nightlife on his own. Each night, I’d watch him leave, the ghost of my for­mer self, while all I had the en­ergy for was stream­ing Ber­linthemed movies on my lap­top, such as the Cold War clas­sic “The Spy Who Came In From the Cold.”

But the trip and the city brought us to­gether in new ways. Liam was con­stantly sur­pris­ing me with his deep knowl­edge of his­tory and his will­ing­ness to ex­plore to­gether. “You weren’t act­ing all moth­ery,” is how he put it. He was ea­ger to hear what my ex­pe­ri­ence in Ber­lin was like decades ago, when the world felt ex­plo­sive and I, like him, was won­der­ing with both awe and ter­ror what choices I’d make and who I’d be for the rest of my life.

Ev­ery evening, af­ter din­ner at Ephraim’s and be­fore part­ing ways for a few hours, we’d sit by the fire in the lobby of our ho­tel, Novo­tel Mitte, talk and laugh about the ad­ven­tures of the day, and plan ones for the next day over steam­ing cups of hot choco­late.

The key to most of our ad­ven­tures were the three-speed bikes we’d rent from the ho­tel ev­ery day for 10 eu­ros each.

We sought out mark­ers of the city’s Nazi past: The To­pog­ra­phy of Ter­ror, a pow­er­ful, sober­ing modern mu­seum that sits atop the for­mer SS head­quar­ters, charts Adolf Hitler’s rise to power and the chill­ing, slow creep of in­tol­er­ance, big­otry and will to dom­i­nate. The mov­ing, labyrinthine Memorial to the Mur­dered Jews of Europe that en­gulfs you the fur­ther you ven­ture in. Nearby are the me­mo­ri­als for the ho­mo­sex­u­als and Ro­mani, or Gyp­sies, who were also vic­tims of the Holo­caust. The Re­ich­stag build­ing has a no­table his­tory be­cause it is where World War II be­gan and fin­ished. The 1933 fire that burned the Re­ich­stag down was pos­si­bly the most im­por­tant event in Hitler’s rise to power, and its cap­ture by the Rus­sians in 1945 sig­naled the end of the war. As we climbed to the top of the im­pres­sive glass dome that now crowns the build­ing, we learned that the glass through­out the build­ing in the Re­ich­stag, now home to the Ger­man Bun­destag, or par­lia­ment, is de­signed to be a clear re­minder of the im­por­tance of trans­parency in gov­ern­ment.

One day, at Liam’s urg­ing, we took an In­sider Tour four-hour Third Re­ich walk­ing tour and saw not only Hitler’s bunker — now paved over and the site of an un­re­mark­able park­ing lot — but also the place where Wehrma­cht of­fi­cer Claus Von Staffen­berg and his fel­low con­spir­a­tors were ex­e­cuted af­ter their failed at­tempt to as­sas­si­nate Hitler. Liam re­marked again and again that one of the most sur­pris­ing parts of the tour was see­ing that many beau­ti­ful old build­ings are still scarred by bul­let holes in a con­stant re­minder of the city’s tur­bu­lent his­tory.

We didn’t have to cy­cle far to see very clear re­minders of the era I re­mem­ber best — the Cold War: Check­point Char­lie, a site of real fear in 1981, is a silly, touristy replica, with ac­tors dressed as Amer­i­can and Soviet of­fi­cers, a parade of boxy old East Ger­man cars put­ting by on a “Trabi Sa­fari,” and a McDon­ald’s nearby. Check­point Char­lie was also the site of the Ber­lin Cri­sis of 1961, where U.S. and Soviet tanks were in a stand­off for 16 hours, and was the clos­est the su­per­pow­ers ever came to war un­til the Cuban Mis­sile Cri­sis one year later. We stood in si­lence be­fore the Ber­lin Wall Memorial, with a sec­tion still in­tact of the once 28-mile­long ring of drab, con­crete-and­barbed-wire-topped wall, the men­ac­ing watch­tower and the open air “kill zone” be­tween the in­ner and outer walls on the East Ger­man side. Al­though the wall is now gone, a ring of bricks em­bed­ded in the street shows where it once stood. One late af­ter­noon, I cy­cled across town to the East Side Gallery, the largest sec­tion of the wall that still stands.

But per­haps the ultimate bik­ing ex­pe­ri­ence came when we de­cided to join the Fat Tire Day City Tour. For 28 eu­ros each, it’s more than worth it. We made great loops around the city on cruiser bikes, flying through the im­pos­ing Bran­den­burg Gate, stop­ping for lunch at the won­der­ful out­door beer gar­den, the Sch­leusen Krug, with chan­de­liers that hang from the rafters of the nearby porch in the grand park, the Tier­garten. As we ped­aled, we learned more about the city’s tu­mul­tuous past that lingers so heav­ily in the air. Yet we would turn a corner and whiz past packed cof­fee­houses, clean, well-lit shops and restau­rants that served Egyp­tian, Korean, Is­raeli, Syr­ian, Pales­tinian, Viet­namese, Thai or Turk­ish fare — all hope­ful re­minders of how things can change, how an an­cient city, no mat­ter how “poor but sexy,” as the say­ing goes, can keep rein­vent­ing it­self.

For me, the trip was a hope­ful re­minder of hu­man pos­si­bil­ity and the power of change against seem­ingly in­sur­mount­able odds. It was also a bit­ter­sweet re­minder of just how much time had passed since I wore my hair in long braids and looked out tour-bus win­dows in wide-eyed won­der at the world. And for Liam, it ig­nited some­thing else, a de­sire to learn more, to go deeper. When we got home, he de­cided to study in­ter­na­tional re­la­tions and his­tory in col­lege. And signed up for his first class in Ger­man.



FROM TOP: The Bran­den­burg Gate in Ber­lin; the for­mer Check­point Char­lie, the of­ten­fright­en­ing cross­ing point be­tween East and West Ber­lin dur­ing the Cold War, now serves as a prime photo op­por­tu­nity — with a McDon­ald’s nearby; co-au­thor Liam Bow­man, 17, hoists his bike in front of the for­mer Re­ich­stag build­ing, now the home of Ger­many’s par­lia­ment.


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