My first ever trip overseas was when I was a summer exchange student in Germany. It was a reciprocal exchange program--meaning that the family I stayed with had a kid who was my age--he came to stay with us in the spring, and I stayed with him and his family in the summer. Part of my summer in Germany was that we spent a week in Berlin.
I'm super duper old, so when I first went to Berlin it was 1985. That was at the height of the cold war (or at least it seemed like the height). Ronald Reagan was President, demanding that Gorbachev "tear down this wall." There was hot debate about a proposal to launch satellites into space that could shoot down Russian missiles before they hit US soil (the so-called "Star Wars" plan--RIP Carrie Fisher). And Berlin was still a divided city--West Berlin was an island of capitalism and democracy surrounded by repressed, communist East Germany and East Berlin.
I loved my time in Germany as a teenager, and actually went back to visit my host family again a couple of years later when I was in college. But then I hit a stretch where I wasn't really able to travel. Saddled with student loan debt (undergrad and law school) and working for a not-for-profit meant that travel took a back seat for quite a few years. (If I'd only known then what I know now about traveling on a budget...)
Then when I finally started to travel again, I realized that the world is such an incredible place with so much to see and do that I adopted a different philosophy of travel--find a new, exciting destination for every trip, and try to set foot on every continent (including Antarctica) by the time I was 40. While I was focused on that, the Berlin Wall came down and Germany changed a lot. A LOT.
I finally returned to Berlin for work, twenty-five years later. I made it out and about on that trip (in-between my work meetings) and was floored to see how much Berlin had changed. And yet, I was surprised to see how much that I remembered from 25 years before was still there.
That was just a short visit to Berlin, but about a year later, David got into the Berlin Marathon, and we planned a trip that wasn't connected to my meetings for work.
Back in high school, we stayed in Berlin at a youth hotel (a half a step up from a hostel) that was right on the Potsdamer Platz. In 1985, it overlooked the Berlin Wall.
See that? that was the view from our youth hotel. The wall, adorned with graffiti, and on top of the wall was a giant cement cylinder--the last line of defense if you had ideas of escaping from the East. If you managed to scale that last wall, the cement cylinder was designed to roll back on top of you. Of course, that assumed that you made it across the "no-man's-land" with barbed wire and tank traps and past the gun turrets with snipers. Oh, and there was another wall on the eastern side, too, of course.
So, here's what Potsdamer Platz looks like today.
Crazy, no? I mean, imagine returning to Berlin after 25 years and seeking out the place that you stayed as a kid in high school. I actually came out to my best friend in that youth hotel. Well, that hotel, which was so significant for me as a young person is long gone. It's been razed to create the "Times Square" of Berlin. It's a weird kind of nostalgia to experience to be honest.
Here are a couple of other things you don't see in Berlin anymore:
No Communist sports parades. No jackbooted soldiers. No wedding parties paying tribute to some weird military monument on the happiest (?) day of their lives. No sad little side streets where the government would prefer that you not go. (What was once East Berlin is now Hipster Berlin.) No commemoration of people who died trying to escape to the West (I think the crosses have been moved. I mean, I looked and had a guidebook, but I couldn't find them.) No barricades preventing access to the Brandenburger Tor. In fact, you can (and should) walk right through.
Visiting Berlin today is a wonderful experience. It's a fun, happening city, and compared to New York, London and Paris, it's surprisingly affordable. You can still learn about the history of divided Berlin at the Checkpoint Charlie Museum and other museums and sites. But if you first went to Berlin before the wall fell it's really hard to reconcile your memories with the city, today.
I'd be eager to know from our readers--what was the first big trip that you ever took--the one that instilled a love of travel and changed your life? Have you been back? Do you want to go back? Are you prepared to have that weird kind of nostalgia where you have to make your peace with the fact that the experience you had lives only in your memories?
That's the best reason to travel, if you ask me. You can collect all the souvenirs you want (and you should). You should take all the photos you can (and you should). But ultimately, the transformational things that happen to you when you're away from home, in a new place, with new people and surrounded by new and exciting things...? Well, that lives forever in your memory, and it's yours. Forever.
By the way, we can book a return visit for you to the place that was your very first "trip-of-a-lifetime." Just let us know about the trip that changed your life. We can help you get back to see how much some things have changed, and what's stayed the same.