Barely managing to evade an inelegant descent into alcoholism in the oh so affordable Czech Republic, I caught the Sunday bus to Berlin via Dresden. We rolled through beautiful Czech and German countryside, passed castles and lakes and all manner of pretty things before at last we reached the Autobahn! But the Autobahn on a bus is so sad. You stay in the far right lane at 85km/h—with the smart cars. Yes, there was a SMART CAR on the autobahn. Having ridden in one on a normal Canadian highway, I cannot imagine the absurdity and feeling of insecurity entailed in taking one of those little Fischer-Price models out on the highway of highways!
Once we arrived in Berlin, I was out into the city headed vaguely in the direction of the salsa party where my Berlin-buddy Simon was set to be playing that night. Fortunately, I’m super skilled when it comes to directions so I only got a little incredibly lost in the delightful lack of free wi-fi or affordable data. I eventually got myself on track and found a bit of wi-fi, which was just enough to discover that Simon was able to meet me before the event so that I could leave my things at his rather than hauling them to dance. Between the heat, the backpack, and the frustration of data roaming, I almost didn’t make it, but thankfully Berlin’s U-Bahn is excellent and so I was soon bouncing around the underground under the guidance of Simon en route first to find food, then to drop my things and change, and finally to dance. Suffice to say I used up the full 2 hour duration of my transit ticket! But, let us take a moment to talk about the food before I dive into the dance.
I had always naively assumed that döner kebab was exactly as Turkish as every other type, but apparently it’s not. Döner was invented in Berlin and good god do they do it well. From the rich, tender meat to the perfectly soft yet crispy bread it’s wrapped in, it was a gustatory pleasure of the highest order. It was also a lot of food which was fortunate as I would soon be dancing my little heart out with actual On2 dancers who actually knew what they were doing to a live band! Talk about an intense intro to a city. In less than 6 hours Berlin threw me tiredness, heat, confusion, sweat, and frustration, quickly followed by heavenly food, good company, good dancers, and the ability to say “yeah I’m friends with one of the guys in the band.” It was quite the afternoon. I can’t rightly say what time we left but the band was done, the night was nearly over, and I was absolutely soaked in sweat so I must have had fun.
The next morning was dedicated to the delights of laundry and catching up on two years of adventures in Ireland, Canada, and Berlin. Once my laundry was on the line, however, I set out to see some of the city. My first stop was a relatively nearby park which contains two of Berlin’s wonderful WWII flak towers. They are rather imposing big blocks of concrete but unfortunately they face north away from all the best bits of the city so the view is a bit of a disappointment, especially when you’ve climbed through stifling heat to get there. Fortunately, back down on the level, the park also provided a very pretty little rose garden where I sat and read until I was dry and presentable enough to head to hipster coffee ville: Bonanza Roastery. Much to my chagrin they had no cakes on offer and so my fika plans were somewhat spoiled, but I forgave their lack of sweets the instant their coffee touched my lips. I’m a sucker for a flat white and the heat was such that only iced would do so I ended up sipping a smooth, creamy iced flat white over ice and listening to a delightful mix of South American and generic hipster music. It was lovely.
After my little refreshment break I wandered off to see the Berlin wall memorial and brush up on a bit of cold war history. It is an utter mystery to me how anyone could think that it would be a good idea to split a city up and hand the ownership of each part to a separate country with it’s own external interests, but then I suppose post war politicians so seldom think of the little people left where the enemy and his army used to live.
All throughout Mitte, there are plaques describing the tragic failed escape attempts of so many Berliners who tried to jump over to the west. There is also a small section of the wall still preserved with its imposing outer wall capped with round pipe sections to prevent climbing, a line marking the old signal fence, and a graffiti covered inner wall. It was quite an impressive construct and it destroyed not only lives but also a great swathe of city including homes, businesses, and churches all of which were caught in the death zone between the inner and outer walls.
Rather dampened by the tragic stories surrounding the divided Berlin, I set off to aimlessly wander past churches and through neighbourhoods where I soon decided that Berlin is, above all else, a city to live in. The prices are manageable and the entire city is packed full of interesting boutiques, bars, cafes, and restaurants. It has all the amenities you’d expect of a major city and all the culture and alternativeness but there is also a certain sort of warmth and neighbourliness wrapping around it all.
Soon it was back to the U-Bahn to meet Simon and seek pizza. We ate ridiculously cheap, delicious pizza with every topping from artichoke and salmon to cheese and eggplant on a busy street corner in another lovely hipster-y part of town.
On the way back to the flat we were detoured by a rather expansive police blockade. We were able to get into the flat by the back way but we never did find out why the whole street had been closed off and sadly Berlin lacks the delicious, dirty tabloid style papers that report on every scandal and every crime, so I may never know what went on behind the police tape.
The following day I made a very shocking discovery. Because I’d been looking at visas country by country, I had managed to develop the naive misconception that I could stay for up to 90 days in each EU country. Apparently that’s not exactly the case. Instead, I have 90 days per 180 days in all the Schengen countries total. Cue massive replanning of EVERYTHING! Needless to say I spent most of the morning in a heap of frustrated irritation mixed with a fierce desire to avoid adult responsibility. By mid-afternoon I was mostly sorted and in sore need of caffeination and a walk. We set out to find what I had been assured by a certain coffee loving Norwegian would be the best coffee in Berlin: The Barn. It was so unmarked and hipster that we initially walked right passed it, but once we found it, we were in for a treat. I had the most divine iced latte and a big toothsome slice of gooey carrot cake. Half the cafe is a wifi free zone and our barista was either a transplanted Aussie or a German who’d managed to acquire a perfect down-under accent on his English. Either way, it was becoming obvious to me as I encountered another English only menu and mostly English speaking staff and clientele, that Berlin’s hipster cafes are a first-language-English-area. It’s a bit strange but rather convenient for me.
After lingering over my latte as long as was acceptable, we left the hipster haven and I settled in to write the monstrous long blog that was to encompass all my adventures in the Czech Republic. Some hours later, I was eating Risotto A La Simon with a pretty well poured weißbier (though the head wasn’t quite as dramatic as the picture on the box suggested). And then the lazy, cheap backpacker spent the rest of the evening attempting to learn more about latin music and jazz theory. No matter the patience and persistence of the teacher, I am continually drowning in all the information and experience that I have yet to assimilate.
Wednesday in Berlin began with a trip to Mitte’s Oslo Kaffebar which took the hipster up another notch by not listing espresso drinks by their common names but instead by ratios of milk to espresso. Trust Norwegians. Although I really shouldn’t blame the Norwegians because near as I could tell the staff were mostly Canadian and American and the owner seemed to be German. In the interests of nor embarrassing myself with failed ratios, I decided to go for the bottomless filter coffee option. They had an El Salvadorean coffee which, of course, had me at hello. I stopped myself after two cups of delicious black coffee and a big slice of cheesecake lightly scented with lemon and cinnamon and set out to see more of the city.
I drifted past the Neue Synagogue, which I was surprised to find complete with police guard and a small exclusion zone closing off half the sidewalk before it, and on down to Unter den Linden. There I found myself standing amidst an impressive melange of grand old architecture, construction sites, and tourists in every direction. I was delighted by the classic exterior of the Humboldt University but alas found the interior sadly “modern” in design and completely disconnected with the ornate exterior.
Heading down towards Gendarmenmarkt and Checkpoint Charlie, I quickly realized that I was on the tour group route. Dodging herds of ogling tourists, I slipped through between beautiful old buildings stopping only long enough to read the plaques explaining the architecture and the history of the divided city. I will freely admit however that I absorbed all of nothing at all in the miasma of language that was swimming around me from mouths of tourists and tour guides alike.
Escaping the tour route, I strolled through Potsdamplatz past all manner of glassy edifices including the Sony Centre with its mix of green, glass, and capitalism all rolled into one. Next I found myself at the Berlin Philharmonie which was a little too much of that oh so functional German Modernism for my taste so I barely stopped before noticing a long green-y blue glass wall just between the Philharmonie and the Tiergarten. It was a tasteful little memorial to those who lost their lives in the Nazi Euthanasia killings. It’s easy to forget that the Holocaust did not only target Jews but also anyone and everyone who did not fit the New Socialist mode and that included those deemed mentally ill or anti-social.
My next stop was another profoundly tasteful memorial, this one to the millions of murdered Jews. It is a simple and yet complex design with a gently undulating paved floor that gradually reaches down to deeper and deeper depths before rising again to the other side of the hollow. Atop the paving stones are rectangular columns of dark concrete. At the edges they are low, more benches or tables than pillars but as the ground falls away, the columns get taller and soon you are in a forest of faceless concrete. Between the symbolism of the structure, the play of the light, and the sheer aloneness that it is possible to feel in the maze of stone and concrete, it is a truly poignant memorial. I don’t suppose I can put into words exactly how it made me feel but I can explain exactly how annoyed I was to see selfie takers, and shrieking laughing tourists playing chasing games through the memorial. I recognize that not everyone interacts with history and suffering in the same way and that we must make allowances for the young, but these ere teenagers and they really should have had a bit more respect. As they shouted past me I very nearly turned and gave them what for, but what good would it have done? A handful of Spanish and Italian teens being scolded in English by an ill-tempered Canadian woman? Not exactly promising. Either way, I really do think that people should be taught a modicum of respectful behaviour before they are brought on any school trips to places that pertain to the depth of historic suffering that is relevant to any Holocaust memorial.
Leaving the memorial and returning to the sun, I glided through beneath the imposing Brandenburger Tor and on to the Reichstag. From there, it was into the Tiergarten where I could have (and possibly did, I wasn’t really keeping track of time) wandered for hours. There were statues, and lakes, and a beautiful rose garden all faintly scented and prettily arrayed, and best of all there were oodles of sinuously curving walking paths to keep me endlessly peeking around the next corner to see what I’d find. Eventually I emerged at the victory(?) pillar in the centre of the park and started my wander along the river back up to the flat. I ended up meeting Simon in the local stationary store where we ogled all the papers and envelops in every colour and texture, stared down walls of colourful pens, paints, chalks, etc., resisted buying little notebooks, were baffled by German postcard humour, and, eventually, got what we came for: a fountain pen. Stationary stores are dangerous.
After dropping pen and ink back at the flat we set out for Egyptian food in the great beyond. I think it was in the east part of the city? Honestly, I have no idea, I just followed my host onto the U-Bahn, tailed him across a few line changes, and emerged at a cozy little Egyptian joint with floor tables and tasty, tasty food. The hummus was so rich it felt like a food coma and the baba ganoush? Well, let’s just say I left the place on culinary cloud nine.
With a night bus adventure scheduled in, my final day in Berlin was almost embarrassingly lazy. It was rainy so we sat around the house trading music and chatting. Eventually there was food and I was actually convinced to use a bain marie to make hollandaise—yes, it is better but shush, don’t tell, I’ve only sort of been converted. Sometime around the time that I was starting to get nerves about needing to be nearer where my bus was leaving, we went out in search of food and fell upon a very busy Taiwanese restaurant which is famous for its beef noodle soup. We started the interaction in German while I did a little listen test to see where we stood in the potential for my linguistic skills proving useful. We were in luck, not only were they speaking Mandarin, but their Mandarin accented German was also much easier for me to understand than the standard local variety.
So, once we were finally seated and a server turned up at my elbow, I was ready. It turns out that if you order in Mandarin they know you want the big bowl and you want it spicy. I mean obviously you do! There’s no other way to have it! But apparently when you order in German and even if you ask for spicy, it’s not reliably as hot as the soup that I managed to procure. So we sat eating delicious noodles and drinking tasty cha shui, while I, chuffed with my Mandarin success played interpreter for all the characters on the wall and the ambient chatter from the kitchen and the bustling staff. Who knew I’d be speaking Chinese in Berlin.
And then it was time to go, so I said goodbye to the Berlin Canadian, climbed on a city bus, and set off to find my carriage through the mountains to Österreich!
Racing through the rest of the Schengen,