I’m truly blessed. As the youngest of six children, growing up in a modest neighborhood in Montevideo, Uruguay during the 1960s, I dreamed of one day being able to explore the world. That dream definitely came true.
Most people would’ve predicted that my life would be lived in the Uruguayan capital of my birth. Our parents, who were everything to us, had passed away too soon. My father died in 1961 and my mother only a year later, leaving three girls and three boys alone to take care of themselves. I was a month shy of my fourth birthday when my mother died, but my oldest sister was 25. She and my two other sisters, the oldest in the family, raised the three boys. It would seem like I had a very sad childhood, but my oldest sister was like a mother to me, and it was exciting growing up with all those siblings.
As a child, I used to daydream about being an airline pilot or an astronaut. The sixties were the time of space exploration. It was also a time of Cold War tensions around the world. Even though I lived in South America, I paid attention to European news. And Berlin was always in the news. This city had played a central role in two world wars and now, in the communist era, it was still in the headlines because of the wall that had bisected the city since 1961.
When I was little, my oldest sister told me the story of the Graf Spee, the German battleship that brought a bit of World War II to Uruguay. Disguised as a mercantile ship, the Graf Spee had sunk numerous merchant ships before it was stopped by British and New Zealand forces near our shores. My sister told me how my grandfather witnessed the strike on the Graf Spee. That family connection with world events increased my fascination with Germany and Berlin.
As I got older, my daydreams lit upon places I wished I could visit and places I thought I’d never be able to see. I actually kept two travel bucket lists, one for places that were open to the free world and the other for those that were not — East Berlin, with its razor-wire topped wall, was definitely on the second list.
Fast forward to 2008. In the intervening years, I immigrated to the United States along with the rest of my family. I joined Princess Cruises and married another longtime Princess employee, Cece, and became a proud stepfather to her two children, Ashley, then 18, and Ethan, 12. I was able to check many places off my bucket list – but not Berlin.
Over coffee one morning, Cece noticed that Crown Princess’ upcoming Baltic cruise had room for a family of four. One of the ports was Warnemunde, from there we could take a day trip to Berlin, so we jumped at the opportunity.
It was a hot, sunny July day when we arrived in Warnemunde and boarded the express train to Berlin. I tried to keep a straight face most of the time, I wasn’t going to let the kids see that I felt like I was going to Disneyland for the first time — to them, I’m a sophisticated and well-traveled professional, you know! So during our train ride, while the kids were sleeping, I was glued to the window watching the scenery pass by, thinking to myself, ‘I can’t believe I’m here.’
Once we pulled into Berlin, we boarded a motor coach and for the next six hours, I was transfixed. As we drove through the city, I noticed the differences in architecture between the former West Berlin and East Berlin. Because the city was heavily bombed during World War II, and subsequently re-built, both parts of the city are actually quite modern, but East Berlin still appeared more utilitarian to me.
Walking through today’s Berlin on a sunny summer’s day, I was reminded of the history that took place on these very same streets. No matter what your background, race or culture, you’ll feel a thousand different emotions run through you in Berlin. That was certainly the case for me at the Allied Museum, which houses the original Checkpoint Charlie as well as actual airplanes used during the Berlin airlift, when the Allied forces dropped humanitarian supplies into the Soviet-controlled east.
Another emotionally gripping place was the open-air Holocaust Memorial, 4.7 acres of vertical gray slab after gray slab, 2,711 in all, that evoked such emptiness and loss. It felt like a somber and desolate maze, where one could easily get lost.
The iconic Brandenburg Gate is the monumental entry to Unter den Linden, the boulevard of leafy linden trees which used to lead to the palace of the Prussian monarchs. Today it’s a place for all, full of street performers, tourists and anyone who wants to share their political views. It reminded me of the promenade at Venice Beach in Los Angeles, just with a little more history behind it.
Not far from the Brandenburg Gate, we stopped at a standing section of the Berlin Wall. It’s also quite a scene. Tourists can get their picture taken there or leave a message on the wall. I wasn’t carrying a pen or pencil with me, so I had to leave that for another visit. Most of the wall has been torn down by now, but where the wall once stood, a double row of cobblestones now runs through the town, marked with plaques at different intervals that read “Berliner Mauer 1961 – 1989.”
Ready for lunch, we stopped at the Hotel Concorde, located off the fashionable Kurfuerstendamm, for a delicious lunch of meatballs and potatoes, cooked with bacon and onions, and my first German beer. Feeling re-energized, we toured the west side dotted with busy outdoor cafes and genteel shopping areas, and drove by the Reichstag, home to the German government.
After an emotionally exhausting day, the bus dropped us off, across the street from Berlin’s Hauptbahnhof, or Central Station, a very crowded intersection. In a bit of a daze, waiting for the light to change, I was taken aback when a group of kids, dressed in typical punk style with spiked hair, chains and leather, approached. I was dressed as a tourist, wearing a huge Nikon camera around my neck.
For the first time during this visit, I thought, ‘uh-oh.’ One of the punk rockers asked me where I was from. “Los Angeles,” I hesitatingly replied. He then said I had a very nice camera, and did I buy it in Europe or the United States? My assumptions were suddenly pierced as he asked me how I liked the city, and then very politely, he thanked me for talking to him.
That blew me away. He and his friends, like any citizen of any place, wanted to make sure their visitors had had a good time. They were proud of their city and didn’t want to give a bad impression. It was then that I realized that everyone I met in Berlin that day had been warm and friendly.
Berlin was more than its past. It is also the Unter den Linden, the west side’s charming cafes and shopping streets, thoughtful memorials and optimistic civic buildings. It’s mothers with children, polite punk rockers and government workers going about their days.
On the way back to the cruise ship, I was already dreaming of when I would return again, hearing a little voice recall the quote made famous by President John F. Kennedy on June 26, 1963 – “Ich bin ein Berliner” (I am a Berliner).
Dreams do come true, both for me and this wonderful city that has moved into the modern age from its divided past.