My four day business trip to Berlin culminated with a city-wide bike ride that allowed me to mix among the natives and enjoy Germany’s capital city from a different perspective. Note to self: estimated times marked on Google maps for distances traveled on bike are based on a Tour de France performance – I wish I’d been on a Colnago, instead of the clunker that I rented for 12 Euros. Thankfully, the reduced speed gave me a chance to absorb the details of this eclectic town and its unique personality.
This almost antique bike became my private tour guide as the city magically unveiled itself to me each time I pushed the pedals. I bravely navigated through the back streets of East Berlin, trying to find hidden neighborhoods turned into some of the hottest spots in town, as well as the Wall Memorial set up to commemorate the victims of communist tyranny. I passed through a glorious park – or I should call it a small forest in the middle of the city, given the million trees it houses – that was once a hunting ground for German royalty. While I was pedaling hard, uncompromising local bike commuters raced past me on the bike path, the effect of which was amplified by 20 German police officers wearing futuristic white helmets driving by in a motorcade with the German president.
A mile down, I slowly passed by the glorious setting of the reception area of a gorgeous palace where the president was apparently welcoming his Estonian counterpart. Seeing the German president while pedaling hard on a clunker bike: check.
I came to Berlin for a meeting with our client Babbel, a leading online language-learning app that is headquartered in this marvelous city. Our agency handles public relations for Babbel in the U.S. Their communication message is based on the innovative, cool approach Babbel implements to teach individuals a language in a fast, fun way. Spending time in Berlin helped me better understand the soul of Babbel. Berlin is hip, innovative, unapologetically fun, fast and smart. It is a city that has embraced many cultures, where some of the most “in” neighborhoods are those flush with immigrant minorities. Babbel, a start-up that has redefined the language learning experience and taken the industry by storm, shares the cool factor with the city it was born in. When you learn a new language, new horizons open, senses are awakened and layers come off revealing a culture that you may have otherwise known only superficially.
Berlin had the same effect on me. I am not sure whether it was the invigorating street art or the way Berliners have managed to transform their painful past into an inspirational cultural oasis, but Berlin awakens one’s senses and penetrates one’s soul.
The Wall is a symbol of a tragic history that has divided this city and cost the lives of many. Berliners have responded to this by turning the remnants of the wall into a canvas where artists come and paint over each other’s creations. Other walls in the city echo the vibrant creations on the former Berlin Wall. Walls of any building or behind any garden in the street are all canvases for street artists who take pride in showcasing their work while somewhat preserving their anonymity. Whereas many cities may take offense at the borderline graffiti being produced in their streets, Berliners have not only made it a decorative part of their urban landscape, but turned it into a main tourist attraction.
Similarly, bunkers that would otherwise be haunting reminders of World War II are turned into cultural centers. A converted bunker that was once home to terrified Berliners escaping from air raids in Berlin-Mitte, and then later used as a night club, was bought by an art collector who transformed it into a museum where contemporary art is displayed.
Now known as the The Boros Collection, getting an entrance ticket is tricky. You need to reserve it weeks, sometimes months in advance. So, I took my chances and showed up hoping there was a cancellation in one of the groups and they would let me in.
After all, every time I needed help and some flexibility, Berliners had gone above and beyond so far.
My experience at The Boros collection was no different and I got in!
The tour guide in the museum gracefully welcomed me to the tour and took us through an unforgettable journey of art that pays homage to the bunker’s architecture and history. A cold, impersonal space symbolic of a horrible past is turned into raw material for creation and art; the perfect backdrop for installations, sculptures and paintings. In addition to my life in PR, I studied fine art in school, and I’ve been a painter for many years. As such, I could appreciate this wonderful exhibit from a variety of perspectives.
My last day in Berlin, Babbel communications head Christian gave a tour of their office. Their trendy, open collaborative space definitely reflects Babbel’s innovative and creative culture. We ran into Babbel’s marketing director who was in his running gear and from the looks of him, had just come from a power lunch run. Minutes later, showered and looking crisp, he was exuding infectious energy generated no doubt from his mid-day exercise, ready to attack the remainder of the day. No wonder Babbel is taking over the language world.
I like working with Germans. They are quick-witted, smart, creative and hard working. They are strategic and willing to take calculated risks. They appreciate good work and are results driven.
During our visit, Christian offered to take us to a Turkish restaurant. I was proud to order Adana Kepob in Turkish and delightfully watched Christian enjoy Turkish cuisine. Turkish culture is a big part of Berlin. Turkish neighborhoods and restaurants are scattered all around the city and a visit to Turkish neighborhoods or eating Turkish street food is considered a highlight in alternative tours of this jazzing city.
I am a big believer that sufferings in life create deeper, richer emotions, enable us to learn to live in the moment and make us appreciate life.
As I biked through the streets of Berlin, I saw how the harrowing past of the city fueled its creative soul. Berlin does not cling on to life but grabs it by the horns. It does not deny its past, but uses it to paint masterpieces over and over again. It proudly embraces the cultural richness foreigners bring to different neighborhoods. It is a wondrous city that somehow has managed to be reborn from its dark past, illuminating, inspiring and invigorating its citizens and visitors alike. Innovation comes out of these kind of places, and I now understand why Babbel’s home is Berlin.