I got back from Berlin late on Monday night, having gone there for a history trip with my school. Ever since then, I’ve been exhausted but also so happy. On that trip I learned so much, made new friends and had the best time I’ve had in a very long time.
Prepare for a long post. I’m going to be recounting, as best I can, what happened in the four days I was in Germany. I’m still tired but I’ll do my best! My memory may be a bit sketchy because we did so much!
I was so excited on Thursday but I’d convinced myself I should go to bed at7 to get some good rest. Because I’m a moron, I got 5 hours of sleep that night: I went to bed at a stupid time and got up at 3 but the night before, I’d cleared up a situation that had been bothering me for a long time. We arrived at Gatwick at 4:30 and, upon me realising I’d forgotten to bring my Euros (wow), my dad and I did a mad dash to the shitty money exchange rate point. I was so tired even then; then I met up with my class and we went through security. It was so boring, including the fligh there despite my panic at take-off. Luckily I sat next to a girl who used to be in my old French class who has now become a great friend of mine. I’ll get onto the interesting part now.
There were 16 of us going on the trip, all of whom I liked or at least could talk to if I needed. Our two history teachers went, +a tour guide called Rob who was fantastic but walked at a ridiculously fast pace. When we were on the plane, I got an idea of what it would be like: people took the piss out of each other and laughed; that was an ongoing theme throughout the trip. One of my best friends, who I call Red, went too, as well as the other Head Girl.
We weren’t afforded rest when we landed. Oh no; it was straight into the activities: we were carrying heavy bags and had to travel to the hostel on public transport, jumping on trains until I felt faint. Perhaps that was also because I had intense stomach cramps and hadn’t eaten in ages (at one point my vision completely went, which was honestly a terrifying experience and I don’t want to think about it). After dropping our bags – it was about midday at this point – we went on a ‘walking tour’ of the city. That involved a Karl Marx statue, my friend taking out a communist manifesto which he had decided to bring, learning about the Burning of the Books in 1933 and being so tired I could barely think. We went to a museum and because I’m visually impaired, I was allowed to touch some artifacts using special gloves – for instance, a centuries-old cannon. I nearly screamed with excitement; I would have if I was able to muster up the energy to speak loudly. Usually, I feel stupid because people know more than me about historical context but I got to ask our museum guide a lot of questions.
In the evening, we got back to the hostel, had dinner and I was all ready for sleep. I shared a room with the four other girls and straight off, I made friends with the other Head Girl as we fangirled over books, discussed the day and the gruelling pace Rob had made us go at and laughed explosively. The other three were amazing because they helped me without me even asking; they seemed to understand I wanted enough freedom to feel human but that I did need help with some things and they never made me feel stupid for it. Even though we were tired, as soon as we got into bed we were utterly alert. I listened to them gossiping, managed to actually join in on the conversation and didn’t make a fool of myself.
Honestly, the first day was easy compared to the rest because it was an introduction. It made me feel at home in a foreign country and left me feeling wholly happy because I wasn’t pretending.
We woke at 7 that day, my legs aching from the previous afternoon. However, I knew that this day would be challenging emotionally as we were visiting Sachsenhausen Concentration Camp, an hour’s ride on public transport from Berlin. We arrived late downstairs but I think we all knew that this was nothing compared to the enormity of what we’d feel later.
Going to the concentration camp was so incredibly moving. It was a work camp and we walked the route of the prisoners, looking at the barracks which – by the end – had 400 or so people in a relatively small room. The atmosphere was quiet, horrified, above all when we saw the outline of what was a gas chamber, the only one in the camp, and the gallows. This particular camp wasn’t like Auschwitz: not as many executions took place. However, it was a huge concept to take in. Until you’re there, it’s difficult to realise just how awful the Holocaust was. I think that everyone should learn about it and just understand the sheer scale of the horror.
In a similar emotional idea, in the afternoon – instead of going to the Olympic Stadium as was planned, we visited two Holocaust memorials. The first was comprised of stone blocks, varying in height – all in rows, it felt like they represented the different victims and stories. I felt disconnected and terribly sad as I walked through, trailing my hand along the rough stonework. However, the one that made me feel incredibly emotional was the memorial to the Roma and Sinti. Flowers were laid on a platform in the middle of a little pond, uneven stones on the ground engraved with names of concentration camps. Birds chirped overhead and it was a memorial to something awful surrounded by nature; it made everything feel real and terrifying. As well as that, we visited the Topography of terror, which documented the horrors of the Nazi regime in pictures. The history teacher which will teach us about that walked around with me, talking to me about the photos.
At night, we had dinner outside a lovely restaurant and in contrast to the heavy emotions we’d felt earlier, we lightened the mood by the best medicine: laughter. I was literally crying at one point because of various innuendos that were made; a bird landed on my tray; I managed to get food on me and it was genuinely so nice because I was on a table with the people who were quickly becoming friends of mine if they weren’t already. I felt so close with everything. After that, we went to the Reichstag – the government building, rebuilt after it was burned down in the 1930s. I spent time walking with my old French friend, as I like to call her; we got so fed up with the audio guide at one point that we just walked around the dome, taking in the atmosphere of the whole place with the historical context owe had.
Before we went to bed, we had an impromptu disco – the teachers had gone to bed, exhausted probably from the events of the morning when a drunk person had spoken at length to one of the history teachers and Rob had set the pace even higher. They put music on in the basement for about 5 minutes, after I came back in awkwardly after having been left by one of my friends by accident. It was certainly more tiring than Friday, for sure, made better by the yells of music of my friends.
Sunday was really, really hot but that was probably because we were walking around all day. I wore light trousers and so was sweltering; we went to an art gallery outside Berlin in the morning. Red described everything to me, taking a picture of me outside in the garden – I think I smiled; I just found it all so beautiful. The house in which the Final Solution was planned was heartbreaking though; we learned about the stories of individual people, in addition to the fates of those in attendance at the meeting, who weren’t prosecuted for their part and after the war, often remained civil servants.
In the afternoon, we visited Potsdam; I went on a tram for the first time. Even though it was hot, we took a walk in the park and saw Kaiser Wilhelm II’s childhood home, as well as Frederick the Great’s castle – one of the people in my class is obsessed with him, something which I find hilarious. Walking up so many steps took a toll, yet the fountains, shade and resting places added a lovely touch to something so historically significant.
By that time, I was more tired than I cared to admit. We went bowling after having had dinner, the meal filled with the laughter that I felt was now customary. I came joint last (5th place according to him) with Red; I acted very strange because I was so exhausted and I felt emotional because it was our last night. For example, I screamed when I knocked down all but one pin, yelling “YAAAAS!” on various occasions. The teacher who teaches us the English Revolution section helped me to refine my “technique”. I adored that evening, even if we got back to the hostel at 10 and didn’t sleep until 12, a security staff member knocking at our door to tell us to shut up.
The last day was focused on the Cold War. When I woke up, I was surprised to note that I didn’t feel as tired as I thought I would be. I had packed on Sunday; we left the hostel at 9, the banter of the people in my class increasing as the day wore on. In the morning, we visited the Stasi Prison, one of the most moving things I’ve ever done with the only amusing thing being that Red got stuck in a rose bush. There were two prisons; one was reserved for physical torture and one psychological. It was horrifying. When you’re told about people who now work at the prison to do tours who have gone through Hell, imprisoned for crimes against the state they didn’t even commit, it fills you with this crawling sense of terror and sadness. I admire the people who can now go back to that prison to educate us, the younger generation, on what conditions were truly like. No sugarcoating. No hiding how it was.
We went to Checkpoint Charlie near to lunchtime, the seriousness in the morning then being balanced by shopping. The girls and I, as well as one of the boys, went to Zara and when we ran out of time, we went to get food. I managed to eat it in 10 minutes whilst running back to the meeting point, which made me feel more sick than ever. I laughed, shouted and gasped for air when the heat was too oppressive.
Going home was a sad affair. I didn’t want to, most of all because I would miss how free I felt and also because I didn’t want to return to the dreariness of school. We collected our bags, me complaining about how exhausted I was – luckily not wracked with cramps. In the airport, I discovered that someone had hand-written the word “blind” on my passport but had missed out the I, the pun pointed out to me. As I laughed so hard that I had tears in my eyes, people must have thought I was crying.
Berlin was more beautiful than I could express. The thing that meant the most to me was the help and support I got from, well, everyone. When I asked the girls to help me with something, they always did. I was treated like a human, like I belonged – it was a shock to come back to school and to not feel so complete: I even missed walking fast and the joking of the people around me. Everyone in Germany talked to me with no filter. Even the teachers relaxed, telling me at the end that it was amazing to have worked and talked with me. I was near tears.
I’m never going to forget it. Even if the specifics fade, I’ll always remember the kindness, laughter and the feeling of togetherness. When some of the boys were being their usual selves, I grinned and laughed and smiled. When I wanted to contribute something to a conversation, I could.
Sometimes, taking a chance and putting yourself out there can help so much with your confidence. It has for me and despite the fact that I was tired and irritable at some points, I wouldn’t have changed anything about those four days. They were worth every penny.
Have you ever been to Germany, or to a historical location that changed how you feel about things?
From Elm 🙂