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.

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