berlin in the rain

It is currently really, really hot in Dresden [ok, fine, a high of 90 according to the Weather Channel, but it’s stifling in my room] and the air conditioned library is closed today because it’s a holiday… so frequent work breaks are necessary. {it’s so hard to type while fanning oneself with a folded up piece of paper} So here we go.

Daniel flew into Berlin two Wednesdays ago so I took the bus to the airport to meet him. It had been pouring cats and dogs in Dresden for a few days and it seemed to be the same in Berlin, so I brought both of my umbrellas just in case, which really worked out for us ūüôā Despite a bus delay, I made it to the airport just in time to welcome Daniel to Germany for the first time ever! It was so good to see him again; I missed him!

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We caught a regional train from the airport to Alexanderplatz (or Plaza de Alejandro, as I told Daniel so he would understand me ūüėČ ) and walked in the rain to our hostel from there… the whole time I regretted wearing a dress because it was also really cold! Trying to recall those sensory memories right now… our hostel was super cool and built over a bar, the best type of hostel in my opinion! We really should have just stayed at the bar and enjoyed their happy hour deals, but I was driven and motivated to show Daniel as much of Berlin as possible, rain be damned!

So, after a stop at a Hackescher Hof restaurant for sausage, potato salad, and beer [we like the orange beer!] we did some quick drive-bys of all the important sights: Fernsehturm, Museum Island and the Berlin Cathedral, Under den Linden, St. Hedwig’s Catholic Cathedral, the Ampelmann gift shop of course, the Brandenburg Gate, the Reichstag, and the Monument to the Murdered Jews of Europe. That is a lot of stuff. And the whole time we were cold and wet and needing to alternate holding umbrellas with taking photos. Basically it was pretty ill-advised and we should have just gone to a museum or something, but by golly, we saw everything, if only for a few moments before we decided to move on and get out of the rain.

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We did seek respite at a caf√© where we enjoyed some cake… which was not very good, especially after I had spent about 9 months singing the praises of German bakeries to Daniel. We passed by the English and French Cathedrals shortly after our cake break, and continued on to Checkpoint Charlie, which in addition to being an historical crossing point of the former Berlin Wall also has a McDonalds with a free bathroom!

Lots of people dislike Checkpoint Charlie because it is overhyped and kind of touristy, but I really enjoyed the museum there the last time I was in Berlin, and this time I appreciated it as a good jumping-off point for people who aren’t incredibly knowledgeable about the history of divided and reunified Germany (e.g. Daniel).It’s an easy way to connect to the history via the reconstructed checkpoint and actual signs welcoming you to the American and Soviet sectors respectively, and there is a very informative timeline which explains the events between 1945 and 1990 that we perused under the protection of our umbrellas. I know a lot a lot a lot about that time period (thanks almost 8 years of German in high school and college) but it’s always good to get a quick refresher, and it was nice that Daniel was able to learn some of it via a source other than me giving a very enjoyable lecture.¬†I assume it was nice, anyway. He’ll have to speak for himself.

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I remembered from last time that the Topography of Terror was nearby, so we headed there as our last stop before giving up on productive sightseeing. The Topography of Terror is built on the site of the former S.S. Headquarters, and it consists of a library and indoor exhibit (where I’ve never been) and a free history exhibit situated along a still-standing segment of the Berlin Wall. It covers the very vast timeline between the¬†unification of the German empire in 1871 and the reunification of Germany in 1989-1990, focusing greatly on the Nazi party’s ascent to power. We rushed through the exhibit and agreed not to read any photo captions for the sake of our soaked and sore selves.

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And then I noticed a nearby bar that served K√∂lsch, Cologne’s signature beer and one of my favorites! (Houston people… St. Arnold’s Lawnmower is a K√∂lsch and it is delicious!) So we enjoyed a nice half liter (again, for Daniel it didn’t live up to the hype… sigh) and some wonderful conversation before steeling ourselves for one last walk to the U-Bahn station nearby!

The next day it did not rain‚Äďbut it was still cold and I regretted not packing correctly for that! ūüė¶ Also it was Ascension Thursday which I completely forgot about until right before we went to bed so everything was closed except the tourist shops and it was a bit creepy! We started the day with a nice, long walk to the East Side Gallery. On the way, we also saw the Fernsehturm, again, and the Rotes Rathaus (town hall). The East Side Gallery is a segment of the Berlin Wall which was re-imagined as an art exhibit: in 1990, artists were invited to paint murals on the wall to overcome the ugliness of division and war (and the wall itself frankly) with beauty and color. Apparently the last time I was there in 2011, the wall had recently been renovated to remove large amounts of graffiti, so I was surprised at how much the murals have been defaced since I saw them last. Nevertheless, there are some really cool, striking, and beautiful ones (as well as some frankly strange ones).

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We then took the U-Bahn all the way west to Kurf√ľrstendamm, or KuDamm, the biggest shopping street in the city. There are a few sites there, including a Protestant “memorial church” which is frankly really ugly and there was also a service going on inside so we didn’t go in. Also, since it was Ascension Thursday and everything was closed, there wasn’t really a huge incentive for us to walk down KuDamm so instead we continued past the zoo and aquarium and walked to the Victory Column. It was a very uneventful and kind of cold walk, but it was nice nonetheless… plus, I had never actually seen the Column up close!

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We continued down the long boulevard between the Victory Column and the Brandenburg Gate (but for half the time we just walked through the Tiergarten instead). On the way we saw the Memorial to the Soviet Soldiers which I just think is funny and a little creepy, and eventually ended back up at the Brandenburg Gate. It was good to be at Pariser Platz when there were actually other people there!

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I had really wanted to make an appointment to see the Reichstag and to go up in the dome, which I have never done before, but I completely forgot until the day before and you need to register at least a week in advance. So that was sad. Instead, we went down into the U-Bahn station near the Brandenburg Gate that now houses a touristic, 2-stop line in memory of the West German U-Bahn workers during the time of the divided Berlin, and also an exhibit about the history of the Brandenburg Gate. Then we hit up Starbucks for some free WiFi to consult Trip Advisor and we found a Prussian-style restaurant nearby. We indulged in some heavy, heavy German food just to say we did it (pork, potatoes and cabbage… the stereotypes have to come from somewhere, don’t they?). Also, more beer. More true stereotypes. Something went wrong at the restaurant and they forgot about our order for a LOOONG time so we did get a free espresso out of it!

Our next stop was the German History Museum, which we had seen the day before on our walk down Unter den Linden. In hindsight we should have gone right then to avoid the rain, but hey, live and learn. The museum is a really impressive account of all German history starting before the Middle Ages… and because “Germany” wasn’t a thing until 1871, the older exhibits are really all-encompassing. Europe was very interconnected what with the Holy Roman Empire and people conquering different lands and marrying each other all the time… hence, the history was very dense and we spent way too much time in the 17th, 18th, and 19th centuries. So by the time the museum was closing, we were rushingrushingrushing to get through World War I and we never even made it to the separate floor that details 1918-present. Which is some of the most interesting stuff. Oops!! I consoled myself with the fact that we’d done a lot of 20th century historical stuff the previous day.

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We made one last walk through the Museum Island/Berlin Cathedral area, admiring the huge advertisements for the X-Men movie on the way. If the weather had been about 8 degrees warmer it would have been lovely to just lounge in the grass, but it was simply too cold to enjoy ourselves outside for too long. So we headed back to the hostel for some R&R before dinner. That was clutch because we got a good restaurant tip from some other guys in our room: a cheap Vietnamese place around the corner, which ended up being really good! We also took advantage of a stellar Ladies’ Night deal at the hostel bar: I got a free shot of J√§germeister (which I actually do like… probably the only liquor that is semi-enjoyable as a shot) plus a pitcher of Tequila Sunrise for a steal! It was a great way to end our time in Berlin for sure… making up for all the sunlight we hadn’t seen while we were there.

Meanwhile, this was the weather we enjoyed while sitting in a bus to Poland for four hours

Meanwhile, this was the weather we enjoyed while sitting in a bus to Poland for four hours

To be continued…

a second to breathe

Yesterday I was in Prague.

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What a crazy and wonderful weekend! I’d never been to Prague (unless you count sitting in the airport twice during layovers) and it did not disappoint. I drank lots of beer (including the original Budweiser),¬†made some new friends, got to see some beautiful (and old) buildings, and in a hilarious turn of events I even got to lector at Mass at Our Lady of Victory (the church famous for the Infant Jesus of Prague). But that’s a long story and I don’t have time to tell it right now

Because tomorrow I am going to Berlin!

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In the meantime I am resting and trying to kick a sinus infection. Wish me luck…¬†

ich bin ein berliner

*I have pictures to go with this, but WP is being lame and not letting me upload! I’ll put them up later :)*

Berlin was fantastic!!! To be honest, I think I had so much fun because I wasn’t expecting much. When I was planning my time in Germany, I didn’t put too much of a priority on visiting Berlin because I’d heard it was such a big, international metropolis… what would make it any different from New York or anywhere like that? Luckily, I started hearing great things about Berlin from friends who went earlier in the semester, and I decided to take advantage of the long weekend and head to Germany’s capital.

I had such a great time, y’all. I left Thursday morning and finally got to my hostel after 8 long hours of travel early that evening. It was my first hostel stay, and I was a little nervous, but it really was very nice (and supa supa cheap!). My goal for the weekend was to spend each day exploring until it got dark, and then head back… I wanted to soak up as much of the city as possible, but big, dark cities can be scary places for young women traveling by themselves. Luckily, Berlin is far enough north that the sun doesn’t set till 10, so I was in for a few really long days!

My first evening in Berlin, I (kind of) followed the walking tour of East Berlin laid out by my trusty Rick Steves travel book. (*In case you somehow didn’t know, Berlin was divided in two for about 40 years after World War II, with East Berlin following a Communist Soviet model and West Berlin as a capitalist, US-influenced society.*)

I treated myself to some bratwurst and my first sauerkraut (verdict on the kraut: not bad, but I’d rather use my calories on tastier things) before exploring the Berliner Dom (Protestant Cathedral), Museum Island, the TV Tower, the sights along Unter der Linden, which was the grandest and most stately street until Hitler took over and still has a lot of really important buildings, and finally the Brandenburger Tor and Reichstag. Then, I made my way back along the Spree River to my U-Bahn stop and eventually my hostel.

Finally seeing these things I’ve learned so much about in all my years of studying German and German culture was really incredible. That’s what really swayed me about coming to Berlin… how could I spend half a year in Germany and not see the Berlin Wall remains or the capital of Germany’s government? That would be absurd! I found the buildings in Berlin to be a lot more impressive than those in Munich. Even though, as in Munich, virtually everything you see today in Berlin was destroyed in the war, it sure has bounced back… especially East Berlin! Almost every noteworthy thing in the city is in the East, and it’s so full of life that you’d never think that this was the half of the city ruled by an oppressive regime 20 years ago. (I guess it has been awhile, huh? I’m old.)

On Friday I got up nice and early (thanks to the 4:30 sunrise), ready to hit up my most-anticipated sight of my trip: Checkpoint Charlie. I don’t really know why I was so excited for this, but it ended up being pretty cool nevertheless. Checkpoint Charlie was the third (as in Alpha, Bravo, Charlie) checkpoint through which you could request entrance to East Berlin from West or vice versa. It was the site of lots of violence, given that so many East Germans wanted desperately to escape and were shot or otherwise harmed by the border guards in the process, but also a lot of heroism and ingenuity… reading the stories of the people who came up with amazing ways to smuggle their loved ones across the border was really awesome. One man somehow fit his fiancee inside two conjoined suitcases!

I also saw the Topography of Terror, which had a really cool setup: there’s a huge remaining chunk of the Wall running along the site of a lot of destroyed Nazi-era government buildings, so along the wall there’s a huge exhibit detailing the story of Germany from its unification in the late 19th century, through the economic downturn and Hitler’s rise, to the postwar annexation of Germany by the US, USSR, France, and Britain. It was awesome… but it also resulted in me getting a pretty sick sunburn on my back… whoops!

The rest of the day, I kind of bounced around the city doing things that didn’t really fit together in any kind of geographical, topical, or chronological order: the East Side Gallery, the Ritter Sport flagship store (OMG awesome), one of the Turkish neighborhoods, the Reichstag area again, and this one really cool neighborhood to the northeast that’s filled with lots of artists and young people and cool stores. I had dinner there and enjoyed looking through the stores, and then sat in a park there to plan my next day!

Saturday morning I headed to the Jewish Museum, which was surprisingly close to my hostel. It was fantastic. Now, when I first pictured the “Jewish Museum” I figured it would be mostly a send-up to the Holocaust and its victims. While the first floor, which you have to pass through to get to the permanent exhibit, is a really inventive and reflective tribute to those times‚Äďthe persecution, violence, and exile of the past century‚Äď, the permanent exhibit truly tells the story of Jews in Germany… from the early days when many of them were traveling merchants, to Jewish philosophers’ and scientists’ role in the Enlightenment, to attempts at assimilation, to daily Jewish life in the 19th and 20th centuries. It was great.

(I only went to 2 museums in Berlin… the Checkpoint Charlie one and the Jewish Museum. I’d say this was a good choice… though I guess if you’re an art or Egyptian history buff, Museum Island would be interesting, and I’ve also heard the German History Museum is great but I’ve spent so much time learning that stuff anyway, I didn’t want to pay to re-learn it.)

So it turns out that I wore myself out pretty well during my first 24 hours in Berlin because after I was done in the museum, I was content to just chill out for a few hours… I sat by the Reichstag for a while, bought a pretzel, sat by the river for a while, then explored the Tiergarten for a little bit.

For the rest of the day, I got the chance to hang out and explore more of the city with Andy, a friend of mine from back in Sugar Land.¬†He’s studying in Weimar for a few weeks this summer and just happened to be in Berlin with his program at the same time I was!¬†Andy and I met in 7th grade after he joined the swim team I was on, we were lane mates for a good number of years and spent an ungodly amount of early mornings enduring torture together, and we went to homecoming together senior year. (High school dances are a different kind of torture.)

{You know you’re a swimmer when you and your friend, who haven’t seen each other for a year and a half, can have the following conversation at a U-Bahn station in Berlin: “Hey Annie, remember that time you put a whole bunch of Bengay on your arm after practice?” “…No.” “Oh, well you used so much that it started to burn, so then you jumped in the pool to get rid of it.” “Oh, I think I maybe remember that.” “Well, after you jumped in the pool, the chlorine made it hurt even worse… you basically freaked out.” Good times. I definitely did not remember this occasion whatsoever.}

We basically bopped around the city all afternoon, seeing a bunch of things I’d already seen (though this time I got to be in the pictures! Score!) and venturing into West Berlin for the first time of my trip. We also ate a lot of ice cream. It’s not as good in Berlin as it is in Freiburg.

Sunday morning I got up early to go to Mass at St. Hedwigs and then embarked on the long journey home… 7 hours sitting on the floor of a train. Fun times, my friends. Fun times. Someday I will have sufficient funds to travel through Europe with my own assigned train seat! Such luxury!

In summary, this was a really fantastic trip and everyone should go to Berlin because it is amazing!!!