Saturday, December 30, 2017

Naples and Rome

Naples, Italy:

I loved Naples for the exact opposite reason that I loved other European cities: it's NOT a fairy tale. It's gritty, even trashy. The mob still has a large presence in the city, and you can feel in the air that you should keep an eye out. And yet, the beauty still shines through. I went for a run one morning, a fool's proposition if there ever was one, and I breathed exhaust along a curvy, packed road where drivers care not for traffic laws and scooters zip in and out of traffic. Check out this view, though, with volcanic mountains in the background:

Beauty is always there, if you look for it

Naples reminds me of my beloved Valparaíso, Chile - both are port cities, and port cities are rough around the edges, blue collar and unrefined and proud.

Naples in particular shows its long history. It's home to the National Archaeological Museum, meaning I got to glimpse a few mummies and endless quantities of ancient Italian sculpture and paintings.

Apparently the ancients could be crass as well - the museum has an entire exhibit devoted to R- or X-rated artifacts:

I'd also argue that southern Italy has the best food, hands-down. Perhaps surprisingly, Italy is one of the best countries for traveling with Celiac because a relatively high percentage of Italians have developed the disease. I savored this amazing pizza, prepared in a separate kitchen down the street from the restaurant:

On my second day in the city, a large group from my hostel was going to explore "Il Sentiero degli Dei," which translates to "The Walk of the Gods," or as we joking called it, "Diggly Day." It's a breathtaking walk along the Amalfi coast between the small towns of Bomerano and the more famous Positano. To arrive, we took a series of buses from Naples up through the mountains to the coast. The roads were windy, the hills were steep, the bridges weren't quite wide enough to serve two-way traffic, and the bus driver was, well, an Italian bus driver. One devout elderly local woman grew so nervous as we turned a corner and charged a hill that she performed the sign of the cross, with eyes turned toward heaven and lips muttering a prayer.

The hike was beautiful, if steep. The path has lots of stairs, and winds straight up and downs the hills as it navigates between villages perched on cliff sides. Our group met a middle-aged Norwegian hiker named Stan on the trail, but we simply called him "Dad," and he kept up the best of spirits as we trekked along. Some of the group snagged fresh oranges out of the heavily-laden branches which draped across the path. Others played with the cats each time we entered a village. One or two climbed the rocks for the photo opportunities.

Have I mentioned that I'm basic?


Upon reaching Positano, we wandered down to the beach to put our toes in the sand. We also tasted the limoncello in the local distilleries - I was expecting it to taste something like a lemon drop, but it was so strong that the lemon flavor was more of an afterthought. Stan joined us for a few drinks, which was lovely, and we eventually took a train back into Naples.

We got some dinner in a cheap fast food kebob restaurant, and this is where the day turned sour, at least for me. One of the travelers in our group was angry that the "combo deal" wasn't actually a deal because it would have been cheaper to order the items separately. Rather than smugly smiling to himself for an astute realization and ordering everything separately, he began yelling at the owner for trying to rip people off. I hate when people make a scene, so I wanted to leave, but knew it wouldn't be good to travel through this part of the city by myself at night - we were right by the port. By the time the group finally ate and left the restaurant, the metro station had closed. I was the only one in the group who had explored Naples at all, so I knew that the roads were like a tangled spider web. We were roughly a 25-minute uphill walk away from our hostel, so I suggested that we take two taxis. The thrifty travelers in our group refused to spend the money. I felt uncomfortable walking because I was sure we'd get lost. I'm not usually a fearful person, but I knew the reputation of Naples as an unsafe city (in terms of pick-pocketing, mafia activity, etc.) and, more importantly, I had a bad feeling in the pit of my stomach. I refused to take a taxi alone, because I hadn't heard great things about the Napolean taxis either.

So I angrily walked with the group. Rather than leaving me be, they roasted me as we walked through dark alleys in a relatively sketchy neighborhood. "See, this is what's wrong with Americans - they're so fearful, they never go out and do anything fun." I replied that I had been travelling for months alone as a woman and had been just fine, thank you very much, but I had learned to listen to my gut and I didn't like this situation at all. The group said, "Well, the worst that will happen is that you'll get mugged," and proceeded to share stories of when they all had been mugged and been "just fine." This, of course, really helped their case. That, and the fact that we were loudly speaking English in a city where not much English is spoken - might as well put a sign on our foreheads saying "not from here." At some point, I realized I'd do better to shut up, appreciate the beauty of the neighborhoods lit up at night and filled with locals enjoying the evening (we had gotten to a better part of town), and hope the walk would go by fast. We did in fact make it back safely, because our navigators did an excellent job of following their downloaded map. I was fuming at that point, and went straight to bed without saying much else to the group. People ask me all the time if I ever felt unsafe traveling alone, and I usually answer that this night was one of the only moments when I did.

I was only too happy to do my own thing the following day. I rode the train up to Pompeii and take a tour of the ruins. I don't think I comprehended just how large the city was. I also found it fascinating that you could still tell the purpose of buildings - for example, we saw the gymnasium where men swam, the restaurants which were along main roads, and even a brothel.

Edge of the city

Outside the temples
Major road
Brothel and the services offered

An artist's larger-than-life installation in the ruins
Courtyard in a wealthy family's home
I was surprised to hear that a lot of people survived the Pompeii eruption and got away on navy boats, which is why we have an account of what happened. More gruesome were the bodies (a few still on site, for memorial purposes) of those who died almost instantly.

Child's body
After leaving the Pompeii archaeological site, I took a van most of the way up Mount Vesuvius and climbed on a dirt road to the top. It's at most a 30 minute walk, but hey, that still counts as climbing a volcano, right? At the top, I peered into the open, lightly smoking crater. I also appreciated the beautiful views of Naples, while drinking a bottle of Vesuvius-branded rosé. And, of course, I listened to Bastille's Pompeii on repeat.

Rome, Italy:
Rome is massive, and ancient. I'd describe the city as stratified - you can be walking down a city street, and then you see an archaeological site where they are unearthing centuries' worth of history. First thing, I visited the Colosseum, which was as cool as I hoped it would be. You can see the underground passages which transported wild animals and gladiators, who were usually slaves, criminals, or prisoners of war. The Romans didn't just bring lions through there - they brought animals like crocodiles. Can you imagine going out to trap one of those things and then bringing it all the way back to Rome?

Inside the Colosseum

We then walked to the crown of the Palatine Hill, which held Roman palaces and temples along with wild parties. I could have spent hours wandering the ruins, but unfortunately the sun was about to set so they politely but insistently forced us out of the park. I therefore sat by the rows of street artists and performers and ate gelato while the sunset colors stained the ruins beautiful shades of blush and persimmon and violet.

Palatine Hill

I was lucky to meet my friend Kirby for dinner - she and I met in Switzerland, and she was teaching English in Rome. We ate at a delicious local restaurant between my hostel and her home, and she took me to one of her favorite gelaterias. It was so good to see a familiar face and catch up a bit! She also gave me recommendations for seeing the Vatican (book a tour), getting out to run (take the metro toward the river), and the best artisan gelato place (just a few blocks from my hostel).

Working in reverse order, let me tell you about the gelato. First of all, I was so obsessed with gelato that I ate it at least once a day while in Italy, sometime more often than that. Second, the place she recommended was amazing. It was tucked away on a tiny patio in the middle of a neighborhood, and it had the most amazing flavors. One I tried was named "Thumbelina," and it had Sorrento walnuts, rose petals, and violets. Another was called "Pink Venus," and it was a combination of black rice (I don't even know what this is to be honest) and rose buds. Simply exquisite!

Now, for the run. This was a bit more of an adventure than I anticipated. I got off the metro at a station that had a park, which I thought would be promising for getting toward the river. However, the metro stop was in a mall, and I literally ran in circles through the parking garage and looped driveway before a few maintenance workers in the garage asked if I needed help. As was my habit in Italy, I spoke very slowly in Spanish, so that they could get the gist of what I was saying. One of them very generously walked me all the way through the garage and pointed to where I needed to go. I zig-zagged through the park and eventually found the river! I had to figure out how to get down alongside it, however, so I ran along the side of the road for a bit until I saw a staircase. As I dashed toward the stairs, I saw a homeless man lying behind the wall with his pants partially down, most likely pleasuring himself. My brain sternly commanded that I simply keep going and don't look back in case he would get angry for me seeing something I shouldn't have (and really didn't want to see, to be honest).  Once I had distanced myself and was sure that he wasn't following me, all I could think was, "Oh my god, I just saw that man's scrotum." I'm pretty sure I will never forget that sight. Oh, and the views along the river were nice too. I ended up in a plaza, ate some gelato (what else?) and took the metro back.
Finishing my run by a fountain

On to holier topics - the Vatican. Vatican City may be the smallest country in the world, but it is filled with massive buildings. And yet, it's still crazy crowded, particularly since I was there at the end of the Extraordinary Jubilee of Mercy. Pope Francis declared a year-long occasion to focus on pardon and forgiveness for all, lasting from December 8, 2015 until November 20, 2016. This is a special occasion in the Vatican because the Holy Doors remain open, and thousands make pilgrimages to receive mercy. I was there on November 18th, so to say that St. Peter's Basilica was busy would be an understatement. There were few times on the trip when I felt so claustrophobic as I did in that moment.

The Vatican, as seen from the dome on the roof
Gardens surrounding Vatican
In front of St. Peter's Basilica

Do you feel claustrophobic just looking at the photo?

Anyway, the tour was pretty spectacular. Although the Vatican is mostly known for Michelangelo's mural on the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel, there is incredible artwork throughout - various popes over the millennia have had a penchant for collecting artwork. Many wealthy individuals have also donated artwork to the Vatican, including famous artists themselves. Heck, Michelangelo himself designed the dome on St. Peter's Basilica, which is the largest church in the world. I kept thinking to myself, wow, this certainly seems like a lot of wealth and power for an organization which follows a Savior who once preached to "go and sell all your possessions and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven."

Casual Dali painting in the Vatican
Pieta, blurry

I saw a few more things - such as the Trevi Fountain (because how could I be a basic white girl traveling Europe if I didn't),

the Pantheon and Raphael's grave,

the Spanish steps (I have no idea why these are so popular), and the windows of expensive Italian designer clothing stores (I have to say, I admire the quality fabrics and clean lines).

Thursday, December 28, 2017

Amsterdam, Bruges, and Cologne

Amsterdam, Netherlands:

Amsterdam is a hipster’s haven. I stayed in quite possibly the coolest hostel ever – they had a trendy coffee shop in front, an extensive collection of books, an indoor tent set up for movie watching, and an overall incredible aesthetic. The irony came at a cost, however. I selected the largest and cheapest dorm, because in my opinion, so long as you are sharing a room with lots of strangers, it matters not whether there are three of them or eleven of them. Besides, Western Europe is expensive, and my mission was to stretch out my funds. My room was cheekily titled, “Those who want everything but aren’t willing to pay for anything,” or something along those lines. Above each bunk, rather than offering a personal lamp or an outlet, they painted a lamp and an outlet on the wall. That’s right, rather than giving travelers something useful, someone actually took the time and effort to taunt them.

The prettiest hostel kitchen

The hostel had a teepee for movie viewing, of course
Perhaps the best part of this hostel was the people I met there. John, my favorite Canadian, was in the bunk directly above me. He has a fantastic sense of humor – laundry day fell on this part of the trip, so as soon as he saw all of my bras hanging around he quipped that he must have stumbled across a garment sale. We became quick friends and explored the city together with a few other people from my hostel. I also had a great political conversation with a group of women from Quebec, Germany, and the Netherlands. It was just a few days before the US election, so they were all fascinated to know how I as the representative American felt about the situation. We argued agreeably about how a person could come to support Trump or any of the various European alt-right candidates, and the extent to which a person was responsible for shaping their own worldview regardless of their cultural or social background.

One of my favorite days of my entire trip was the afternoon I rented a bike and simply rode around the canals aimlessly, listening to Vampire Weekend and grinning like a fool. There was a forecast of rain, and although it drizzled for most of the ride, I only had to stop and wait under an overhang for a few moments. Amsterdam is an incredibly charming city, particularly in the fall, with the lazy late afternoon light filtering through the leaves and reflecting off the water.

I got to check a very important item off my bucket list: visiting the Anne Frank house. When I was a young girl, her story fascinated me. I used to pretend that I had to go into hiding, or alternately, that I was a citizen concealing a group of Jews from the Nazi. I also remember reading her diary in one of my favorite classes ever, Mrs. Luther’s eighth grade English. The chance to see the Secret Annex was incredible. It’s right in the heart of Amsterdam, and looking from the outside, you would never know of the space hidden within (except, of course, nowadays there is a line of tourists which stretches around the block). But then, past the office space on the entry floor, a bookcase swivels open to reveal a dangerously steep set of stairs. Inside, the space is absent of furnishings. to reflect Otto Frank’s wishes that it be left empty to represent the way in which the Holocaust abruptly and tragically interrupted peoples’ everyday lives. However, you can still see the post cards and magazine clippings which Anne pasted on her bedroom wall. Somehow there was more space than I was expecting, in that there were multiple levels and rooms, although it would still be a soul-crushingly confined space in which to pass years of one’s life. Anne’s original diary, with her handwriting, is on display.

The houses near the Anne Frank house
Another highlight of the city was visiting the Van Gogh museum. As a lover of art, and particularly impressionism, I enjoyed getting to see not just some of his famous pieces (not Starry Nights, unfortunately – that one is in New York City), but also how his work progressed and changed over his career.

One aspect of the city I did not enjoy as much was the Red Light District. I went during the daytime, but even still it was a mildly uncomfortable experience for me. I’m certainly not accustomed to seeing prostitution, and particularly not in such a public and normalized setting. For example, just strolling down an alley, as you look on either side there are women just inches away behind panes of glass. I wasn’t sure where to look. I saw all kinds of ordinary men soliciting their services, including several police officers who may have just finished their shifts.

The windows where prostitutes advertise themselves
Bruges, Belgium:
There's sometimes a pattern in my life that when I cry, the sky cries with me - whether a light drizzle or sheets of rain pouring down. Such was the case in Bruges. I checked into my hostel on November 8, 2016, and went straight to sleep. Since I was 8 hours ahead, I figured I'd just wait to check the election results when I woke up and everything was counted. I had Skyped with my friends that week, and with three of the four of us being out of the US, all three of us were certain that Trump couldn't possibly become President. Katy, the only one of us in the US, was terrified that he might. I remember being so confident that that wouldn't be the case. Unlike most Americans who stayed up all night and watched the election results with growing fear and dread, I woke to a slew of WhatsApp messages and a news alert on my phone saying that Trump had won. It felt like a bad dream, and as soon as the shock wore off, I was flooded with dread and rage. The skies were flooding right along with me - a deluge poured down.

Every cell of my body knew that I needed to run, regardless of the rain. I dressed and walked down in the hostel lobby, where the TV was loudly broadcasting the US election results. People of all nationalities watched, and I wanted to vomit watching Trump step up on stage to give his victory speech. As I choked down sobs, I went to the front desk and asked where one could run in town. "It's very rainy outside, are you sure that you want to go out there?" I nodded and simply said, "I need to." Bruges is a walled medieval town, so they pointed me to the dirt (er, mud) path that loosely followed the wall and passed by all the windmills. "It's 12 kilometers, are you sure?" I was already out the door.

As the cold rain pelted my body and dripped off my face, and the mud coated the inside of my calves, I ran. I thought of all the women, minorities, undocumented - how many people were going to be adversely affected? How bad would this be? My Facebook post from that day sums up what I was feeling at the time:

As I've traveled these past few weeks, I've seen cities which were torn apart by war based in ethnic cleansing - Berlin, Sarajevo, Krakow. I've been to Auschwitz, Schindler's Factory, the Anne Frank House. In years past, I've visited Chilean torture camps from the Pinochet era. Reading and seeing stories from these times in recent history, a few things struck me. First, the way in which the economic concerns and anxiety in reaction to societal change could drive huge swathes of the population to support evil. Second, how many people who survived such times didn't think it could happen in their country, in their time, and their initial unwillingness to realize what was happening. Third, the importance of resistance. Fourth, that peaceful coexistence between religions and ethnic groups, such as that which exists in many of those places today, is beautiful, and worth striving toward.

Earlier this election cycle, I posted about how I felt it was important not to dismiss Trump supporters as ignorant, because they had legitimate frustration with a political system that doesn't listen to them. Clearly, it was right to think that such people should not be underestimated. However, having watched this election season unfold, and having seen what I've seen lately, I modify that statement: many people in our nation who were gripped with fear about the state of our country and our world elected someone who promises to make it all great again through hatred.

It was wishful thinking that the US was somehow above this type of outcome. What is to come is uncertain, but I do think each of us has a personal imperative to fight for human dignity and progress, and to try to prevent the repetition of tragedies that have destroyed so many lives.

After a hot shower, I wandered down to the kitchen and instantly bonded with my new friend Emiliano over our shared sadness. He is Mexican-American in the most literal sense - he works in southern California but lives in Tijuana and crosses our border literally every day. We spoke for hours about our anger and our fear, wondering what was to become of our lives. I then retired to my twin bed and didn't leave for the rest of the day, refreshing my newsfeed and trying to stay calm. The weather was so bad that I wouldn't have wanted to leave anyway, but my emotional state wouldn't have allowed me to enjoy anything.

The next day the rain had all but stopped, and I forced myself to explore the town a bit. I didn't try the Belgian waffles because gluten, but I did get to try Belgian chocolate (heaven) and potato fries (also heavenly, they're fried in animal fat instead of oil and that is why they taste so magical).I've said this about plenty of towns, but it's true about Bruges as well: it feels like a fairy tale with the windmills, the canals with swans peacefully floating on their surface, and the stone walls and buildings.

Cologne, Germany:
When I went to visit my good friend Kieryn in Vienna, her friend Mira invited us to come celebrate Karneval on November 11th. Like Brazil's Carnival or New Orleans' Fat Tuesday, Cologne has a massive rager right before everyone goes clean for Lent. Unique to Cologne is a wild one-day celebration on November 11th to mark the opening of Karneval season.

I missed Halloween, but I made up for it by devising a Karneval costume. When you're living out of a backpack and roll into town 30 minutes before all of the stores close, you have to improvise. In a hurry, I grabbed a children's tiara and wand set, shiny white tinsel, and sparkly little girl's makeup to transform into a fairy princess.

The next day, I met Mira the Ringmaster and Kieryn the Cat Woman at the train station bright and early. They ate a proper German drinking breakfast at McDonalds (i.e. generous portions with lots of fat) and I, stupidly, ate oatmeal. For the Germans do not stop the festivities to eat, and I would grow quite hungry as the day progressed. We then went to get ready at Mira's childhood home because her family generously opened their home to us, and I instantly fell in love with her parents. They are the sweetest couple, and the way they took in complete strangers, one of whom (me) doesn't even speak German - it was truly beautiful.

We then went to a birthday/Karneval party, followed by bars, which had wonders upon wonders. For the sake of propriety, I can't tell you much about this day, other than the following facts:
1. It was very long. We began drinking at 9 am, and most people did not cease until well past midnight.

2. There was a magical fountain which cascaded green liquor which tasted like cream soda.

Kieryn making me laugh, between me talking about serious things and dissolving into a helpless romantic. 
3. Strange men said really creepy things to Kieryn because they thought she was dressed up as a dominatrix, not Cat Woman. It was disturbing.

4. German adults with normal day jobs - lawyers, teachers, etc. - morphed into wild youth. Sexual orientation became wildly fluid, and everyone flirted with everyone, awkwardly. It felt like the most bizarre daydream just watching everyone around us. Kieryn and I would find each other and say, "Oh god, it must be late, things are getting so strange." And then we'd check the time - 8 pm, or 8:30 pm.

5. I earned the nickname "the Resurrection Queen" because I pulled a total American move and died early in the day, only to come back to life after a few hour nap. Since I was napping on a bed in the middle of the party, lots of random Germans came up and checked my pulse to make sure I was ok. I would roll over and use all the German in my vocabulary: "Ja, ja, alles ist gut, danke schön."

The most well-deserved meme I've ever received
6. These people really, really love Cologne. I did too - I don't even speak German, and I could practically sing this song by the end of the day, which is a song about how awesome Cologne and Karneval are.

7. I met a man who dressed up as Trump and wore a sign saying "Horror Clown."

A wallet was lost, and a responsible German citizen found Kieryn on Facebook and returned it to her. However, before they found her on Facebook, we all got to witness the German police report in action. Mira's mother phoned the police, and we could hear her saying, "Yes, yes, of  course there was drinking involved, it was Karneval!" We also got to go to the police station, which was surprisingly brightly lit and orderly.

We ate lunch at a traditional German restaurant, which was delicious, and walked around Cologne. I especially enjoyed seeing the cathedral all lit up by this Christmas tree:

One of the most beautiful moments of my life was when Mira's parents took me to the airport. I offered to take a cab, but they insisted on taking me themselves! Upon arriving, her mom kissed me on the cheek and squeezed my shoulders as she engulfed me in a hug. Her dad handed me my luggage and remarked, "You know, I do think that a Diamond is forever. Best of luck in your travels!" I almost cried, because it had been so long since I had been surrounded by familial love. Just amazing.

Wednesday, December 27, 2017

Prague and Berlin

Prague, Czech Republic:

Prague is a popular study abroad destination at DU, so I had heard many great things about the city. They weren't wrong! Prague is another one of those cities that feels like a fairy tale because it was the seat of the Bohemian kingdom in Medieval times. Also notably, the beer is super cheap. There are several castles in Prague, one of which was visible out the window of my hostel - Prague Castle itself. As luck would have it, there was a tour departing for Prague Castle departing just a few hours after I arrived!

Little did I know that the four-plus hour long "Castle Tour" did not actually go through the castle - we merely meandered toward the castle while our quirky tour guide gave the most thorough yet cynical account of a city I've ever heard. I'm not sure whether to call the level of detail painstaking or painful, to be honest. The only tidbit I remember at this point is that if you look above the doorways in Prague, you can see symbols which indicate who traditionally lived and operated business there. In a time when most of the population was illiterate, trades were concentrated in one part of the city so they would be easy to find. All people of that profession would have the same symbol over their door - for example, tailors would have scissors. In his rather extensive and detailed account of Czech/Bohemian history, our tour guide railed against religion as the greatest evil of all time and blamed it for all of the country's wrongs. Granted, the religious history of the region is full of strife, and religious factions were responsible for a lot of conflict. However, I remember my skin crawling with discomfort at the bile in his voice as he spat against religion.

Our tour guide praised David Cerny, a Czech artist who is responsible for bizarre statement pieces including giant metal babies climbing the TV station skyscraper in Prague, and for floating this beauty down the river in Prague when he was pissed off at the politicians:

Photo credit: Michal Cizek/Agence France-Presse — Getty Images
Cerny sculptures, and the leashed together roaming terrors (description to come)
(if you want to see more of Cerny's work, follow this link)

He took us to one of the oldest pubs in Prague, where the group sat down and drank beers for a good long time. This was actually pretty cool, if drawn out. He pointed out to us the brewery where the Czech claim that Pilsner was invented, although the Germans argue that they invented the Pilsner.

A very old pub
The icing on the cake is that he brought his two little dogs which he leashed to each other but not to him, and they ran all over in tandem and caused trouble. And, the grand finale: after hours of walking, we arrived at the edge of the castle, where he told us that we could wait in line to go into the castle on our own, without him. At this point I had become friends with the other people from the hostel, and we laughed at the absurdity of it all.

In Prague, I was also delighted to meet up with my friends Ian and Grace, who are Americans living in Prague. I met them in a castle in Romania, of all places. Ian's sister Molly was in town for the week, so I got to meet her as well (and got to meet up with her later in London, although that is a different story)! To make up for the awful walking tour I did the day before, we took one of my favorite walking tours ever with a guy named David Christof. Not only is he immensely knowledgeable about the city of Prague and Czech history, but he started a non-profit called Water is Life where he runs marathons and ultra-marathons to raise money to provide clean drinking water in impoverished areas.

Ian, Molly, and I got lunch in a neat basement tavern which served fantastic Czech food, and clearly just stuck a fresh candle on each burnt-down candle:

That afternoon, I waited to see the famous astrological clock of Prague. Some tourist websites have called it the world's most overrated attraction, but if you consider that it was built in the early 1400's, it was very advanced for that time. It features:
-a show on the top of the hour, with dancing puppet-like figures of the 12 Disciples and some of the Catholic church's least favorite sins
-Rotating Zodiac dials showing the position of the sun
-Rotating calendar showing traditional "name days" (each day of the year had a few names assigned to it)

We also saw the John Lennon wall, which locals began painting during the Soviet occupation to express their ideals:

And some swans:

And the night lights:

In case you're wondering, yes, I did make a point of listening to Bohemian Rhapsody on the bus ride out of Prague, even though Queen refers to a different Bohemian.

Berlin, Germany:

Berlin was a sobering city for me. It was a bit disorienting to be in a European city that is so... new. Most of the city was destroyed by WWII bombings and had to be re-built. Gleaming skyscrapers and ultramodern storefronts dominate the western, formerly Ally-controlled side of the city, whereas the formerly Soviet eastern side features dreary no-nonsense concrete-block apartments and offices. The dark recent history was just so palpable.

Trabant (Soviet issue cars)

One of the few old buildings in Berlin, and the Soviet TV tower
My first day in town I wanted to do a free walking tour, but decided to take a chance and do one in Spanish. Seems like a perfect way to practice, right? It had been a while since I spoke in Spanish, so it came out super rusty. The tour guide glared at me and curtly stated, "Look, you should just take the English tour. There is a lot of information, and I speak very quickly, and I don't have time to answer a lot of questions." I never back down from a challenge, so I considered swearing at him in perfectly offensive, correct Spanish, but instead just looked him straight in the eyes and said that I'd be fine. The guide was a Spaniard, but I can't help but think that he selected Berlin as home because he identified with the German efficiency and bluntness. Anyway, I understood a full 90% of what he said, despite his strong Spanish accent and incredibly quick pace, and only had to ask him one question during a break. I think I earned the man's respect!

An interesting theme in the tour was the way in which Germany deals with its recent, dark history. One stop on the tour was in a parking lot outside an office building, which was the former site of the entrance to Hitler's secret underground bunker. The German government decided that they did not want to glorify or memorialize such an evil man in any way, nor did they want to create a pilgrimage site for neo-Nazis, so the place is a run-of-the-mill parking lot. It is a strong statement via erasure, negation.

Site of Hitler's secret bunker
Conversely, the site of the former SS headquarters is now a museum called the Topography of Terror, which in detail describes the people who worked there and the plans which were orchestrated from that site. It's not an easy building to visit, but certainly important - I chose to go there on my own after the tour. A headquarters would be too public to merely erase, so instead a very honest museum was built on the grounds.

Also during the tour, we visited a memorial near the Humboldt University campus to commemorate the book burning which occurred in that location. There is a glass plate set among the cobblestones in the courtyard, and looking down, you can see a series of empty bookshelves - pretty self-explanatory.

One benefit of doing the Spanish-speaking tour is that I met Angelo, another solo traveler from southern Chile (which, of course, is why I struck up a conversation with him). When the tour ended, he and I ate some currywurst, which was my favorite Berlin street food - a sliced up sausage covered in hot ketchup and sprinkled with curry powder, served with a mound of french fries. Then we went and explored Museum Island, which is perhaps the neatest thing about Berlin. Museum Island is a collection of massive buildings, which quite frankly put the Smithsonians to shame. Apparently Germans have been highly interested in foreign and ancient cultures for a long time, and have methodically acquired many antiquities. For example, in one of the museums, they completely reconstructed a wall from ancient Babylon:

This was a palace wall, and it only takes up part of a wing in the museum

Yep, that's a mummy
Yep, that's a famous sarcophagus - and I got in trouble for taking this blurry photo 
I enjoyed my first walking tour of Berlin so much that I decided to do another which focuses on "Red Berlin", or the history of Berlin during the Soviet occupation in the eastern half of the city. We were a brave group - the skies began drizzling, and eventually pouring, freezing rain. No one complained, and none bailed out early. We were in it together, to learn something. Yes, we did in fact visit the Berlin wall memorial, and learn about the many people who died crossing it. The wall was built practically overnight and without announcement, meaning that countless Berliners were separated from families and friends for years. Parents couldn't get home to children, lovers never reunited, extended families were torn apart. As it was being built, a few East Berliners literally jumped out of windows onto mattresses on the streets below. Once the wall was built, it was difficult to escape. "The wall" may not be a correct term, insofar as it was actually a wall on one side, then a courtyard filled with sand and lined with sniper towers, and finally a wall on the other side - it was more of a strip. At the memorial, we saw a few sections of the original wall, and could peer at a short reconstruction to see what the original wall might have looked like. One of my favorite stories was a successful escape for 57 people through a tunnel dug under an abandoned bakery - they filled up flour sacks with dirt as they dug their way deep below and across the wall.

Memorial to those who died crossing the Berlin Wall

Part of the Berlin Wall
Speaking of tunnels, the subways were constructed before Berlin was split in two, and some of the routes crossed between the Western and Eastern halves of the city. Thus, some of the Eastern subway stops were walled closed, and the subways continued to hurtle past them. Armed guards waited along the tunnels to make sure that no one tried to get on or off a train.

I'll leave you with one other fun fact about eastern Berlin. To this day, it has a reputation of being home to the artists, the hippies, and the dreamers, as opposed to the industrious, hard-working western side. For a while there were quite a few abandoned buildings on the East side of the city because most jobs were in the west after the wall fell, so the government said that anyone who lived in a building could become its owner. This is no longer the case, but there are still commune-style communities where the rent is very low, so long as the tenants perform some type of regular community service, such as cooking dinner for the poor.

Nowadays, Berlin is perhaps most famous for its clubs. Clubbing in Berlin can be a multi-day long experience - people will go and not leave for days. You can party at essentially any time of day, if you're hard-core. I'm not, but I was curious to go out. I found a group of guys from my hostel who were going out, and decided to chance going with them since I really didn't want to go alone. Good thing I'm able to take care of myself, because I almost got lost from the group and they're pretty sketchy dudes. The club we went to was dark and loud, and just as I was starting to get into the music and enjoy dancing, one of the guys found me and I took him home because he was in a bad state. Never a bad thing to store up some karma, and pay forward the kind friends and strangers who have helped me when I've been in a bad way.