A Last Day Surprise

(Note: The following post describes details from a previous trip, NOT a current trip.)

Thursday, September 13th.

I start the day a bit out of sorts, which is usually what happens the day before I have to travel anywhere. What it is exactly, I can’t really put my finger on. A sense of resignation? A heightened sense of melancholy/loneliness? I’ve no clue.

I begin my sightseeing on a sober note, at the information centre for the Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe. I have plans to also go to the Topography of Terror. But once inside the visitors’ centre, it’s probably best that things don’t work out that way.

I spend a lot of time in here, and it’s not time that’s wasted. Just reading the stories of families who were almost entirely wiped out – or completely eliminated – not only eresonat with me, but seem hard to fathom.

I see reproductions of letters written to loved ones and colleagues … names of those whose fate was tragic … hearing recollections of experiences … all are quite jarring. What perhaps holds my attention more than anything else, is seeing names and hearing voices of some of the individuals who survived.

Europe, Croatia 316Following the visit to the centre, I collect my thoughts nearby over a currywurst lunch, then hustle off to the Pergamonmuseum. This museum essentially houses fragments and reproduced parts of a specific ancient Roman settlement in a region of what is now Turkey.

It’s certainly interesting. But perhaps my mistake is trying to take on the special exhibitions. This eats up SO much time, I don’t have enough time to see what I REALLY came here for: the Near East and Islamic exhibitions, which I hear are absolute must-sees.

I get as far as the artifacts from Babylon, before I decide I’m too overwhelmed, and I call it a day. And with good reason – I just found out the day before that a travelling friend, Jeremy – whom I met in Spain five years ago – just happens to be in Berlin with his boyfriend. They’re staying in Kreuzberg, and just arrived the week before.

We arrange to meet at Alexanderplatz; Jeremy directs me to meet him under “the big world clock”. Now, keep in mind I’ve criss-crossed that open public space around the train station a handful of times over the past few days, and for the life of me, I CANNOT picture this clock.

So, of COURSE I walk around and around and AROUND, and I can’t find it. And because I can’t get my German SIM card to work (and my phone battery is almost drained) I return to the flat to get some WiFi and message Jeremy to tell him that, well, I can’t find him.

Eventually we figure it out, and I meet Jeremy and Mark on the S-Bahn platform. We take the metro to Fredrichstrasse and find a restaurant along the same strip I’d visited with Jennifer from New York. This time, we pick the Indian restaurant a couple doors down from that Cuban restaurant.

Even though it’s brief, it’s simply great to see someone I recognize – one of the small beauties about travel I cherish and appreciate.

We walk back to Alexanderplatz, passing a string of prostitutes – all in similar outfits, as if it’s some sort of regulatory “uniform”. (Not that I’ve never seen prostitutes in other places, but it’s certainly the first time I’ve seen them on my trip.)

After getting me back to my neighbourhood, we all part ways, and I return to the flat to putter around and pack again, for my next – and last – destination.

My Random Wednesday

(Note: The following post describes details from a previous trip, NOT a current trip.)

Wednesday, September 12th.

Europe, Croatia 293Today, I’m hoping to make a go of Museum Island – specifically, the German Historical Museum, as recommended by my walking tour guide from Sunday.

But I have a bit of a slow start – I think I’ve hit my personal wall, and have realized that I’m supposed to be on vacation and need to SLOW. DOWN.

I eventually make it down to the museum by noon and start from the beginning, sans audioguide.

Here’s the problem with me, when I visit museums: I still haven’t mastered the art of efficient museum-visiting. I somehow have this annoying inclination to look at everything – every single cup, armband, plate and sword.

Europe, Croatia 298As if I’m POSSIBLY going to miss something.

So my intention to breeze through the entire building – or at least, the main wing – turns into a huge time-sucking exercise, which only lands me somewhere around 1830 before I decide to put an end to my visit.

I go to the museum café for a sit-down and a pastry. At first, no one so much as gives me a menu to peruse – and the café isn’t even all that full. So I move from the four-seater to the closest table for two – right in front of the glass case filled with case, and the cash register.

A floppy-haired, moustachioed server comes up to me and says, “Tach!” which startles me. I’ve no idea what my face looks like to the server, but I’m hazzarding a guess that my eyes may have opened to twice their size, and I’m possibly sporting the blankest expression I’ve ever worn since my vacation began.

The server says it again. If the bewilderment on my face was slight before, it’s on full display now.

He finally ends my suffering by explaining it’s some type of casual greeting, to which I was supposed to have replied, “One beer, please”, in German. Sadly the moment’s wasted on me, since my language skills are non-existent; I awkwardly ask for a hot chai and a piece of cake.

By the time I emerge from the museum, I realize I don’t have enough time to visit the Pergamon Museum, which was my other goal for the day.

Europe, Croatia 311So instead, I wander over to the DDR Museum – an interesting and (in my opinion, almost absurd) look into life for East Germans under the Iron Curtain.

This museum is a bit nuts. EVERYTHING – from the fashion, to specifically-made products, to when (and HOW) East Germans vacationed (which includes a diorama-display of naked miniatures), makes the impression these people were under … almost surreal.

And to think: this went on for decades. And it didn’t even end all that long ago, if you think about it.

My museum-seeing day done, I go to meet fellow Fat-Tire tourist Joanna in another part of town – we’re going to try some currywurst and some (apparently) good falafel.

Before we embark on our evening’s adventures, we stop by Joanna’s vacation rental so she can collect something from her guest room. She’s renting a room in the industrial-looking live/workspace of a German couple. The wife is an interior designer; the husband makes furniture.

The whole scenario is cordial, but absolutely (almost painfully awkward). Me, a complete stranger, waiting for another complete stranger, in the kitchen of complete strangers. We make conversation which, as brief and a bit uncomfortable as it is, is not terrible. We speak about the cycling communities in Berlin and Toronto – the couple says in Berlin’s case, it’s actually becoming a problem (although, I suppose, that perspective all depends on whom you speak to).

I even find out that the wife – when she was in high school – did a student exchange program in Canada. In Brampton. I’m not kidding.

The awkwardness ends when Joanna and I take off, for Curry 36 – said to be one of the best places for the famed currywurst. It’s well worth the trek. It is ONE of the tastiest things I’ve never had. I split one with Joanna, then we go to the falafel stand just feet away, and split a falafel (with no onions). Also very tasty! And not filling, which is a nice feeling.

We take the metro to Revalerstrasse, where the warehouses of RAW are located. Compared to seeing it during the day by bike, it looks a bit daunting/sketchier in the dark. As we get closer, though, we see the glow of lights in various establishments.

Europe, Croatia 313Joanna wants to check on this one bar (relatively new to the area), which caters to gamers. The exterior (which we saw the day before) is spraypainted with images of video game characters.

The interior, however, is anime-sleek – a bar at one end; tables for dining, and special sections for playing games out in the open … as well as “VIP” rooms for parties, and another room at the far end, specifically with a roundtable for serious gamers – complete with monitors.

On this night, it’s empty, as it’s only mid-week, and we’ve arrived about 40 minutes before closing. So I get a drink for the road and we continue wandering.

We drop in at another bar, where it’s sparsely populated, and the DJ was already spinning. (I couldn’t tell you what genre, to save my life. It could’ve been drum-and-base, for all I know.)

I order another drink, and we take in the scene before us. The place eventually begins to fill with more patrons, all obviously younger than ourselves. Joanna starts getting into the music and starts moving in the corner we’re occupying. Two female Berliners notice Joanna’s jiving, and obviously start making comments about her dancing abilities, amongst themselves. I see this and think it’s not really warranted. But who gives a shit?

I eventually leave my seat and let myself to move to the music. It’s feels like an eternity since I’ve done something familiar that doesn’t require a verbal language. And it feels good. For a while.

We set out for “home”, but discover that the metro has stopped running. So we split a cab and go our separate ways – with Joanna asking me to remember the cab number, just in case anything happens. (Wait – I get, that it’s all about “safety first” and all that … but are cab kidnappings a thing in D.C.?)

It’s a nice evening out, and finally a chance to get a little taste of Berlin’s nightlife during my stay.

Berlin on Two Fat Wheels

(Note: The following post describes details from a previous trip, NOT a current trip.)

Europe, Croatia 265Tuesday, September 11th.

To change things up a bit, I opt to tackle some of Berlin’s sights – by bike.

I find the offices of Fat Tire Bike Tours, at the base of the TV tower, and sign up for one of their tours, which advertises an itinerary through “contemporary” Berlin (which, I suppose, is pretty much the entire city, since most of it had to be rebuilt).

I meet my tour guide, Sophie – a British ex-pat – and a fellow traveller named Doug (also from Britain). We’re soon joined by a young Australian couple, and rounding out our group is an American woman named Joanna (from Washington D.C.).

Europe, Croatia 259The tour we’re taking is called “Berlin Exposed” – which, I suppose, it is. We follow Sophie along side-streets and occasionally onto main ones, until we reach our first stop.

We pause on the dusty, grubby grounds outside what looks like a power station. But it’s Berghain, said to be one of the most well-known nightclubs (if not THE MOST well-known) in the world.

From there, we follow Sophie into a more populated part of town, where we’re given an introduction to street art in Berlin – everything from tags to cartoons, to stencils reminiscent of Banksy’s style of art. It’s on walls, over doorways, everywhere.

Europe, Croatia 273We venture east, to an area off Revalerstrasse, called RAW. It’s a series of small, sketchy-looking warehouses, but house all sorts of markets, bars and other hosted events – an awesome idea. And there are spray-painted images on just about every surface – including a schoolbus sitting off to the side.

But – as Sophie tells us – a lot of street artists still can get in trouble with police for what they do, preferring anonymity. Fellow Fat Bike tourist Doug finds out the hard way when – while trying to capture a piece of street art in progress with his camera – ruffles a couple of feathers.

We carry on, visiting the enormous Tempelhof Europe, Croatia 285Park (the former airport). As an airport, it was probably tiny for its purpose. As a wide-open urban park/greenspace, it’s MASSIVE.

Away from the section of the park that still showcases some of its former function, the former runways have been transformed into surfaces for biking/walking/running/whatever.

We sort split up for about a half-hour; I stick with Joanna. Chugging along the paths, we see people flying kites, windsurfing on skateboards, and guerrilla-gardening – you name it, it’s probably being done! If someone tried to commercialize this space, it would be a shame. Hopefully it never comes to that.

Crossing from east-end Berlin to the west end, we visit a food/fruit market in the Turkish section of town, and have lunch at another huge park.

On the west side, we spot more street art – these ones with more of a socially-conscious bent – and probably one of the few existing squatting settlements left.*

The tour lasts around six hours, but the time and the ground we cover is well-worth it. An added bonus: I gain another fellow travel-buddy in Joanna. We agree to meet the following evening and do something fun in Berlin at night.

The rest of my evening is plunged back into solitude and “administrative” tasks – ie. getting a SIM card that’ll work in my phone, and finding a local supermarket-type set up to find milk and juice – (success on both counts).

Tired, I return to the flat, plop myself in front of the TV, wolfing down my local pizza and drinking pop, which is followed by some red wine and eating a couple of chocolates while attempting to watch “Amelie” – dubbed over into German, of course.

Tomorrow I’ll tackle a museum or two. But tonight, I let the temporary loneliness (probably exacerbated by the red wine), hoping and wondering if Paris will leave me with a better feeling that Berlin has, so far.

*Note: The settlement that I saw – I believe it Kunsthaus Tacheles – was shut down three days after my visit.

A Change of Scenery

(Note: The following post describes details from a previous trip, NOT a current trip.)

Monday, September 10th.

I’m DONE with this hostel.

Checkout is a breeze, as is catching the metro to Alexanderplatz – the closest station to the vacation rental at which I’m staying for the rest of my time in Berlin.

It was finding the actual apartment – on a street not too far from Berlin’s city hall – that proves tricky, thanks in part to my lousy sense of direction. By the time I arrive to the flat, I’m almost 45 minutes late and a hot, sweaty mess.

Michael – the guy from whom I’m renting the flat – is surprisingly understanding about my situation (as silly as it is). He explains where everything is in the flat (including laundry! yay!) and gives me some suggestions on what to do and see.

After Michael leaves, I take a bit of time to settle (somewhat). I flick on the TV and listen for a while to a little CNN International (it is fairly comforting to hear the sound of English again, if only for a little while), then set off to meet Jennifer in front of Berlin’s Guggenheim Museum (which, according to Jennifer, isn’t very good – but that’s a matter of opinion, right?).

Europe, Croatia 254A brief metro ride and a meandering, roundabout walk eventually gets us to the  Berlinische Galerie (Museum of Modern Art, Photography and Architecture).

The first thing we see – in the open space nearest to the entrance – is this installation with five trees hanging upside-down, in two groups, essentially rotating  around and around as the trees’ needles and branches fall off (over time).

One of the trees has rubbed up against the wall so much, it’s not only left holes in the wall, but has scraped a brown-stained imprint onto the originally white surface, and scratched the paint right off. Each time it scrapes the wall, the branches groan from the friction – a “cry” of sorts.

There are countless other installations and works – films, newspapers, collage, and more traditional forms. But the museum closes before we can see it all.

Jennifer and I then head over to this chocolatier, called Fassbender & Rausch, which has possibly every sort of candy and chocolate under the sky (including chocolate carvings), packed into one shop.

It’s really hard to decide what to choose! But in the end, I get some thank-you cookies for my host Michael, and some chocolates to have with the “welcome” bottle of wine he’s left for me.

Dinner is at this pizza place Jennifer’s been frequenting since her stay in Berlin, where she’s befriended two brothers from Brazil who work at the restaurant. The pizza’s very good, and the brothers – one of whom happens to be returning home to Brazil in a matter of weeks – are so kind.

Tonight’s Jennifer’s last night before returning home, so as we part ways, she kindly gives me her Europe, Croatia 256super-useful map.

On my way home, I finally get a chance to stop at a nearby electronics store to buy a SIM card.

I find the experience extremely frustrating, as the two or three staff members I try to communicate with barely speak English (contrary to what people I know had told me – prior to leaving – about having little difficulty talking to people).

And despite finding a SIM card, the instructions and information is entirely in German. Which, at this point, is about as useful as not having one at all. Sigh.

I return to the flat feeling a bit lonely, but hoping tomorrow’s day of touring around will lift my spirits.

A Berlin Sunday

(Note: The following post describes details from a previous trip, NOT a current trip.)

Sunday, September 9th.

Europe, Croatia 240Sleep has done wonders for my state of mind – I feel much better than I did over the last few days.

First order of business: cleaning some of my smelly clothes. Not so glamourous, I know. But it would be nice not to constantly smell my own sweat.

The desk staff at the hostel direct me to a laundromat (waschsalon) around the corner – filled with retro-looking front-loading washers.

As I sidle up to one of the washing machines and intently concentrate on the fine-printed instructions on how to use it, this little man appears – seemingly out of nowhere – with an overly cheery, “Hallo!” and startles the shit out of me.

He’s wearing this matchy-matchy patterned vest-and-trouser ensemble, tinted glasses (or are they sunglasses?) and a newsboy cap. If Mick Hucknall and Joseph Ducreux had a baby, it’d be THIS dude.

So Herr Waschsalon helps me with my laundry, speaking mostly in German with a smattering of English. And despite my misgivings (and assumption my clothes will end up shrunken and/or tie-dyed), I’m done in about 90 minutes!

The speedy service means I actually have time to walk around and explore. But what?

I decide to check out one of the Sunday markets suggested by the hostel’s “welcome brochure, following that up with a walking tour suggested by one of my work colleagues from back home.

The Sunday market is more like a flea market of sorts – tables of knick-knacks, used objects and the most random items placed next to the odd local merchant selling their wares. I stroll around, but don’t stay for very long.

I make my way down to the walking tour near the Brandenburg Gate – arriving a bit late, since I’m directionally challenged (and got turned around a bit), but I manage to get there during the guide’s introductory spiel.

The group is standing near a building close on Pariser Platz, just adjacent to what turns out to be the Hotel Adlon (a.k.a. where the late Michael Jackson dangled his youngest child – as an infant – over the hotel balcony).

The guide’s name is David, and he’s a British ex-pat living and working in Berlin (as a wEurope, Croatia 249riter, I believe). During the four-hour tour, he is at once a source of fascinating facts, and a man with strong political views, which he doesn’t hesitate to share at a couple of points during the tour.

We start away from Pariser Platz, walking through the Monument to the Murdered Jews of Europe … through a housing complex where, at another point in time, evil once stood … along points where the Berlin Wall used to separate people from their families … and past buildings that at one point in time had been either completely riddled with bullets or completely levelled by shelling.

While moving from site to site, I get to talking with a woman named Jennifer – who, as it turns out, is also American, like Jennifer from Croatia.

The group stops for a 20-minute break; Jennifer and I head to a cafe for some drinks and baked goods. Jennifer has been in Berlin about several days more than I have, and is really helpful in recommending a number of things to do, see and eat.

Of course, in the process of getting acquainted – and waiting for our dessert – we lose track of our tour. It takes a bit of walking around – and Jennifer’s keen senses of direction, deduction and her  super-detailed map – to determine where the group has gone, but we eventually find them.

After the tour, Jennifer and I decide to head to dinner at a Cuban-themed restaurant along Friedrichstrasse. (Turns out this Jennifer is also a picky eater.)

Stuffed from the volume of food, we part ways, making plans to meet tomorrow and check out the contemporary art museum.

Later at the hostel, I try to exercise my social muscle, chatting briefly with a couple of people. But not much more comes of the day. I feel as if I’ve missed that “window” for meeting and establishing friendly ties with fellow travellers. Plus, it doesn’t seem to come as easily as it did five years ago.

I retire to my room and go straight to bed, before that faint pang of loneliness has a chance to ferment.

Hallo, Berlin …

(Note: The following post describes details from a previous trip, NOT a current trip.)

Europe, Croatia 239The journey from Split to Berlin is long and a bit tedious.

Split’s airport is packed; there’s not a seat to be had, so I spend my wait for the plane standing in one place – trying not to smack people.

When the flight’s finally up in the air, I spend it in some (rare) silence, as everyone around me’s speaking German.

By the time the flight lands, and I grab my luggage, make my way through a customs check and board transit to the hostel at which I’m staying, it’s 10:30 p.m. and I’m absolutely wiped.

Even after check-in, I feel a bit out of sorts. Trying to call home via Skype – normally a breeze – is an exercise in frustration. By the time I get relatively settled, my stomach is growling and whining at me in anger.

I step out for some fresh air and late-night food – in this case, the doner stand across the street. I wolf down that doner like it’s my last meal, and I don’t even feel stuffed.

I retire for the night shortly after that, in hopes this cold shrinks, and I can escape the cloudiness enveloping my tired brain.