A Travellerspoint blog

Germany

Day 15: Locks of Love to You, Cologne

in which your author bids farewell to another lovely european sojourn

sunny 80 °F

"Like all great travellers, I have seen more than I remember, and remember more than I have seen."
–Benjamin Disraeli

It’s a quirk of my travel blogging persona that I don’t seem to compose my final entry for a given trip until some time after – in this case almost one month – the conclusion of the trip. (If I post it at all, which I never got around to doing on my last trip. Let's hope this one actually makes it to print!) You get back home and so instantly swept up into routine, and the rhythms and energies of a trip, like the lands where one experiences them, seem so distant. As I start teaching tomorrow, I thought I’d close the chapter on this trip as a way to neatly wrap up the Summer of 2016, in hopes of clearing the way for new, homegrown adventures.

[UPDATE! Although I composed this text in early September, I'm finally posting this all the way in October (!), seated at the AERONAUT bar. I suppose with our Allston biergarten finally wrapping up a week ago, the Summer of 2016 is officially officially officially over.]

Now, let’s see what details I recall of this last day, a month later? Day 15 (and its minor satellite, travel day Day 16, which I’ll subsume into this entry) began in Cologne, at Herr Professor’s rather clinical-feeling flat, housed in a tidy-gray building (very German?) adjacent to FitnessFirst for Women. I walk a short distance to a highly-rated, inviting coffeeshop where I sit and compose an entry for Day 10, enjoying a delicious slice of cheesecake and a couple flat whites. I chat up a few locals for recommendations. Like my refuge spot in Lisbon, the café is playing the Buena Vista Social Club soundtrack: it definitely makes it to the soundtrack of this trip.

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I walk in the direction of the cathedral, stopping for a serviceable margarita pizza at an Italian joint along the touristy shopping thoroughfare, after a few minutes arriving at my immediate destination: Köln Opera House.

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Keith Jarrett has been a major influence on my life for about as long as I can remember, so much so that I wrote my master’s thesis in musicology on his aesthetical philosophies on music. By far his most famous album, The Köln Concert, was recorded here in January, 1975. It’s a thrilling musical experience, and the top-selling solo piano recording of all time. (And I believe noted musical connoisseur Dave Matthews’ favorite recording?) I put it on over headphones and walk around the building, sadly completely cordoned off due to construction. Still, it’s a moving experience to be there, all these years after the performance. I’m reminded of what it felt like to listen to Mahler’s Second Symphony sitting at the composers’s grave outside Vienna. I text message a friend who I associate with the album, and continue on my way.

On the way to the Cathedral I stop into a cozy bookshop and have some nice banter with the proprietor. I walk out with two gorgeous books: one, a stiff binded book of German poetry called Das Wandern (feels appropriate, and of course reminds me of the Schubert song from Die schöne Müllerin), and an old, beige, tattered edition of Bach's Notebook for Anna Magdalena Bach.

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Cologne Cathedral is massive and imposing, yet still serene on the inside, even with hundreds of tourists milling about. I’m impressed by the inclusion of a small boat by the entrance, adorned with a story about how Christ is an immigrant on a boat, in need of compassion. (Would that our right wing so-called “Christian,” “build a wall” Americans could begin to realize this. Too subtle by half, sadly.) I take some photos, exit, and walk toward the water. The cathedral is lovely, but after cathedrals in Toledo and Ghent I’m a bit cathedralled out.

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Passing through a tunnel and a somewhat barren, touristy hotel district, I reach the Rhine and call home, catching up with my folks for a few minutes and arrange my pickup time in Boston the next day. It’s so nice to hear their voices halfway across the world – when my father lived in Rome in the mid-1960s, he had to book a semi-annual phone call home weeks in advance.

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The bridge over the Rhine (which I elect not to cross) is a “love locks” bridge and it’s a bit overwhelming to see the thousands (maybe hundreds of thousands? so many) of locks attached with messages of love scrawled on them.

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I walk back toward the flat and grab a nap; I’m set to meet an old friend of my friend (and co-producer) Robin’s for dinner on my last night in Europe.

Dorothee is the epitome of lovely and kind, and we stroll through the busy streets of Cologne in search of a perfect dinner spot. She selects an Italian place with outdoor seating, and we eat delicious risotto and have great conversation about work, life, family, relationships and travel. (I suppose I don’t typically eat at posh places like this; it feels very grownup.) We end up walking in search of a cocktail bar and even though it’s a bit of a walk, I sell the idea of visiting the place I had been to the previous night. The drink is delicious and Dorothee tells me stories about working with George Clooney and Bill Murray; the film Monuments Men was based upon research she helped to compile in a book. It’s such a relaxing and grounded way to end my trip. We part ways – where’s my blue tweed tie, Dorothee?! Please visit the US!

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I pack everything that night so as to make my trip the next morning easier, and the next day goes off without a hitch, as I navigate the subway to the airport, where, as is my custom, I pick up a bit of duty-free booze. On the flight, I chat with Patrica, a native of Dortmund with excellent English, who is coming to the US for the first time and taking a month to explore about a dozen cities! We exchange information, and as it turns out I see her not only the next day, but she crashes on my couch at the end of her trip almost a month later. (We take a day trip up to The House of the Seven Gables in Salem, which I’ve been reading in a gorgeous 1894 edition, so that’s kind of special.) The yellow Dortmund magnet on my fridge (her gift for the exchange of a pull-out couch) is a reminder of the last person I met on this trip. I also bought a nice frame for the Bosch exhibit photo from the Prado, certainly one of the highlights of this trip.

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I don’t know when I’ll get back to Europe again, or when I’ll travel again at all. (I suppose one never does?) I’ve been thinking about upping my level of domestic travel, as there are still so many parts of the US I’ve never seen: San Francisco, Seattle, Austin, the Grand Canyon, even Chicago. I’d also very much love to get to Nova Scotia soon, home of my Scottish ancestors prior to their emigration to the US. And yet there’s something ever-alluring about Europe. As distant as many of these cultures feel from the US, I feel we could learn a lot about the pace of life and, perhaps, its meaning.

And so, it was a charm to get back to Europe this go around, especially given that it had been a few years since my last solo trip, a style of traveling that in a way suits me. That said, I’d love to find opportunities to travel with (the right) person/group of people. I also want to reassess the best use of this blog, apart from documenting the minutiae of my days overseas. I love that six years past my first, lifechanging solo trip (see the masthead!), I can click back to entries posted years ago, over a number of trips – but I wonder whether spending the amount of time it takes me to write these entries is worth taking time away from tourist and/or scholarly adventures? Writing longform, I suppose, is the only way I know.

In any case… I’ll remember this trip as one with an ambitious, loopy itinerary, mixing familiar and brand new spots and cities, meeting new friends and catching up with old ones, and rekindling that adventurous travel bug I first picked up years ago. Serious question: is it possible to rekindle a bug, or to kindle one in the first place? Alas, it’s late and I’m mixing metaphors.

Here’s to the next… whenever that may arise!

Posted by coolmcjazz 16:19 Archived in Germany Tagged germany cologne Comments (0)

Day 14: A Summer Evening in Cologne

in which your author clears his head and finds his rainy way from ghent to germany

semi-overcast 72 °F

Considering my late-night conversation and hang with new friends Wim and Sophie, Day 14 was perhaps my roughest-going morning of the trip. (I suppose I’m entitled one of those on a 2+ week European trip, right?) After waking up, I peered out from the window looking over Ghent, the narrow cathedral towering over the landscape. Wim kindly contributes a toothbrush to my process, and after a shower I say a fond farewell – Sophie has already gone off to work – with hopes of seeing these two in the US sometime soon!

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I make the walk back toward the train station, stopping for breakfast in a supermarket, where I pick up a small bottle of Belgian apple schnapps for a friend. All is uneventful as I make it to the station, although I’m a bit annoyed to discover my round trip ticket from yesterday was only valid for the day of printing, so I have to buy another 9 Euro ride back to Brussels. My train to Cologne – the last stop on this whirlwind trip – is at 1:35pm.

When I arrive in Brussels after a short train ride, it’s raining. I can’t find a cab, and grudgingly I make the walk (probably 1.5 miles?) back to the stunning flat, slightly disappointed I only had one night to spend there. (Meeting new friends was worth it though!)

I pack up, take a few last photos, and head back out toward the train station where I just came from, at this point slightly worried about timing. It’s also near pouring now and I have my heavy bags. After a few minutes of frustration I do manage to find a cab stand, and ride in comfort to the Midi, where I pick up my train to Cologne. I have my ticket on my iPhone, but it does that utterly incomprehensible, frustrating thing where if you hit the screen wrong with an email open it deletes it forever, and apart from a PDF on my laptop (which clearly states it’s not to be used in place of a paper or e-ticket), I can’t find any record of it. I sleep half the short train trip (1 hr, 45 min) to Cologne, crammed in with four friendly middle-aged women chattering in French. Thankfully, no one ever came to check tickets!

It’s nice to be back in Germany; I haven’t been since my first trip, to Berlin, in 2010. There’s a certain efficiency and stateliness about the train stations. I lug my packed bags past the imposing cathedral, toward my Airbnb, again reluctant to take a cab. (File under: cost-saving measures one can take when one travels alone.) It’s a further walk than I would have preferred, probably about 25 minutes. The Airbnb is fine, run by a professor who (somewhat oddly and off-puttingly) makes me sign a waiver that I won’t download pirated movies. (Not that I had planned to?) It’s a room of convenience, and though she’s helpful with directions, the Professor keeps to herself. This wouldn’t be the warm environment I had in Madrid with Isabel or, especially, Mar (and Bimba!), but it will serve my needs.

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After a nap, I venture out to explore a bit of Cologne, grabbing a good slice of pizza and ending up at the Piffgen brewery, known as one of the oldest and most respected breweries in the city. Conveniently it’s only a about a five-minute walk from my place. It’s packed with people, inside and out, and I find a seat at a long biergarten table, ordering a beer – they only serve kolsch! – and some tangy, soft orange German cheese and bread. It’s nice to have an actual kolsch in Cologne – tangy, crisp, and refreshing – especially considering my go-to beer at Aeronaut Allston this summer has been the “Summer in Cologne.” (I take a few pics with an Aeronaut coaster in an actual German biergarten!) The waiters carry trays of thin beers, replacing them with any empty glasses they see, and with every beer, a Sharpie mark is added to your coaster. (I read later the way to let the waiter know you’re done is to put the coaster on top of your glass!) It’s actually a pretty efficient system.

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After one beer, I have to leave to get cash (they only take cash) and after 5 minutes away thankfully my place is still free. I pay up and head back out, making my way through Cologne’s boisterous and somewhat congested outdoor beer garden scene. I’m impressed by the effort Cologne puts in as a bike-friendly city; there are clear, dedicated bike lanes marked on just about every street.

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I read positive things on my phone about one cocktail bar, which ends up being closed for the season, and find another, high-rated one called Spirits, stuffed to the gills. The craftsmanship and vibe there are excellent, but I’m tired, and after one I make my way through the darkened, still somewhat bustling streets of Cologne back to my Airbnb. Not a terribly exciting day, and I’m really worn out and looking forward to getting home at this point – I think two weeks of solo travel, at this pace and itinerary, is about my max!

Posted by coolmcjazz 06:14 Archived in Germany Tagged cologne kolsch Comments (0)

Day 6: A full day in one city?

(really?)

sunny 80 °F

After sleeping later than I had wanted to – the previous evening’s shenanigans made this a touch difficult – I got out the door around 12:00 on Saturday, ready to spend significant hours in Berlin. Walking down to Oranienburger Tor, I stopped for an iced coffee and apfel danish, and walked further along past Friedrichstraße station across a bridge, under which I saw passing boats packed with tourists. I noticed a sign for “Berliner Ensemble” in the distance. Sounded artsy, so I decided to investigate. Exploring the building, I came to realize that I had happened upon Bertold Brecht’s theatre! Not having plans that evening, I checked the schedule, and found out that the show playing that night was… The Threepenny Opera! I confess that I don’t know the work well, but I’m aware it’s probably Brecht’s most famous piece, and Kurt Weill’s music is equally well known. The show is sold out, but I’m told if I come back one hour before the 20:00, I may be able to score a seat. I resolve to do this – seeing this work in Brecht’s own theatre is too good an opportunity to pass up!

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I continue on walking toward the center of town, following signs for the Reichstag, infamous building of Berlin, which I remember hearing lots about in Mr. Twomey’s history classes, ca. 1988! On the way I come across a stunning sculpture of Jewish children being taken to the trains, and for the first time (with the possible exception of seeing the Pieta in St. Peter’s), I actually tear up at the sight of a sculpture. The piece is called “Trains to Life, Trains to Death”; there is a small girl about the same age of the children depicted who is beside the sculpture, holding an orange flower. It’s very moving, and I immediately embrace Berlin as a city who must continually be reminded of its past.

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I continue on toward the Reichstag, passing by many German football fans decked out for the big World Cup match with Argentina, which starts at 15:00. (Those who know me know I’m emphatically not a “soccer” fan… but I will admit it’s pretty exciting to be in a town so wrapped up in the excitement of an "international event.") I notice people queud up to take a lift (the word Europeans use when they mean “elevator,” snark) up to the top of… well, something. I’m not quite sure what, so I ask, and am told it goes to the top of the glass domed Parliament building, the Bundestag, built behind the Reichstag. I decided to give it a go, wait in line for about 30 minutes, and walk the circular path up to the top, taking some nice photos of Berlin on the way. There’s an interesting mirrored section in the middle of the structure and I take some photos of me which reflect off of it. Walking to the bottom, I read about the history of the Reichstag building, which has housed Germany’s Parliament for years, yet is perhaps most famous for the “Reichstag fire” which Hitler blamed on Jews, thus leading to draconian anti-Jewish laws in Berlin, ca. 1938. It’s incredible to see photos of the area surrounding this building, so friendly and nicely maintained now, but scorched and torn apart after the bombings of WWII. Leaving the Reichstag, I take some photos of kids playing in a water fountain – it’s hot here!

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Walking the opposite direction, I come upon the Brandenburg Gate, with the destruction of the Berlin Wall, perhaps the most famous landmark of the city. For years, entrance to the other side of this gate was closed off to Westerners by the communist government. Napoleon famously victoriously marched through this gate, humiliating the Berliners, back in 1806, and even had the “quadriga” statues from the top dismantled and sent to Paris. It’s also where JFK gave his famous “Ich bin ein Berliner” speech, in front of the gate which had been blocked, draped, and adorned with signs protesting the Western bloc.

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At the other side of the gate, I come upon an intriguing sign for a “Room of Silence.” I enter and am greeted by a lovely older woman who invites me in. The Brandenburg Gate, it appears, was initially designed as a “gate of peace,” yet this certainly didn’t transpire, and this room represents an attempt to restore that legacy. Outside the glass door to the room is a sign proclaiming “peace” in dozens of languages. As I pass into the room, two men walk out, so I have the room to myself. I momentarily disregard the “silence” instructions and take some photos, then just sit in silence for a minute or two. Something about this is terribly moving – I’d been running around so much: town to town, street to street, and outside of feeling really good to just sit, the charged air in this town hits me directly. The simple work of art on the wall – what the woman told me represented “darkness turning into light,” felt overwhelming and peaceful. I leave a donation, buy a few postcards, and thank the woman.

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I decide to walk back through the gate in the direction of football revelers, sitting at tables watching the now-started game on large screen TVs. I continue walking and after passing through security, realize I have arrived at the famous “Fan Mile” which my friends from the previous evening had advised me would be the most intense spot to catch the game. And they weren’t kidding – thousands and thousands of colorful characters walking around, drinking beer, singing songs, and generally being really happy, especially given that the Germans were already up, 1-0. I watch a minute or two of the game – and I’m not reneging on this opinion, but soccer (sorry, football), still bores me as a sport – I’m more interested in taking photos of the fans and just being there on such an exciting day of cultural pride for the Germans. During the break (intermission? interval?) between the halves, I walk along a parallel path and see dozens of guys lining up to relieve their beer-bloated bladders in the trees. I ask a few fans to get together for a photo; one fellow asks me in broken English “you are shooting for… New York Times?” Err... not hardly!

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On the way back toward the gate I’m cajoled into buying a beer by some fans, and I stop to shoot some video. Passing through the gate again, I come upon a real find: “Museum The Kennedys,” a tribute to the legacy of JFK in Berlin. I enter and upon reading the dedication from my late senator Ted Kennedy, am again overwhelmingly moved (maybe it was the heat? lack of sleep?) that so far away from home, the legacy of a political family who so greatly shaped my own political outlook also seems a point of pride in Berlin. I pay the entrance fee and walk downstairs to the terrific displays of JFK memorabilia, including his keychain and suit, and all sorts of photographs documenting his life and that of Kennedy family (similar to the JFK museum in Boston), with a special focus on his time in Berlin.

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There’s also a new exhibit by photographer Richard Avedon called “Obama’s people” (he did this for other presidents as well) which features all of the president’s advisors. What a wonderful museum... and I’m the only one there. On my way out, I purchase a book, and ask the two female staff members whether it was true that when JFK said “Ich bin ein Berliner!” he was actually saying “I am a jelly donut?” They smile, but clearly they’ve been asked this before. I leave and stop into a Dunkin Donuts for an iced coffee and “German victory donut” with the flag’s colors expressed in candy sprinkles.

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I’m interested in making it to Checkpoint Charlie, but time is moving swiftly and I want to be back at the theatre by 19:00. Walking further downtown, the joy in the city is palpable: hundreds of fans lining the streets, cars honking horns with passengers draping flags out the window, spontaneous chanting and singing everywhere. I wave my little German flag which I found on the ground at Fan Mile. It’s so neat to be part of all this! I walk faster toward the Checkpoint, and come upon large signs which explain the history of the Berlin Wall. It dawns on me that a silly question asked by many Berlin tourists is probably “Where is the Berlin wall?” Um, they destroyed it, people.

I walk past the Checkpoint, where two costumed American GIs (I can’t tell if they’re actually soldiers or stand-ins) are posing for paid photographs.

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With 19:00 only about 15 minutes away, I start running back toward the theatre, and find my way there by 19:05. After waiting in line, I purchase one of the only tickets they have available – a “standing room” ticket way up in the back, for five Euro. I’m relieved to know I’m going to see this show, but not looking forward to the prospect of standing for three hours. I walk back to Quynh’s place and grab a quick shower, gulp about 5 glasses of water (rather hard to come by around town, and it’s hot out), and make it back to the theatre with a few minutes to spare. Outside, I’m offered a ticket for an actual seat by a woman leading a tour group from a graphic design program based in NYC, and although I can’t get anything for my standing room ticket, I gladly pay her 15 Euro for the chance to sit down.

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This production of was without question one of the finest, most fully realized works I’ve ever seen on stage. The production oozed with visual imagery, with a strong emphasis on groupings of parallel lines. (See the picture with the Die Dreigroschenoper title hanging from a scrim to see another reflection of this design.) The raked stage allowed for a sense of depth that was especially effective from where I sat in the top balcony, and every corner of the stage was used at one point or another. The opening montage sticks out in my memory, featuring a parade of characters silhouetted against concentric, electrified circles of red light, swirling and “burning” at different speeds and directions, with one grandfatherly narrator singing the famous “Mack the Knife” melody. Which really gets stuck in your head! Bulbs of parallel light (mostly white but also blue and red) were in almost constant use, first as stage dividers, and effectively, in the final scenes as bars for MacHeath’s jail cell. The first act alone was 2 hours, then after a short pause, the final act brought the show to just over 3 hours in length – far longer than I think most American audiences generally can deal with – yet the show moved at a brisk pace. (During the interval I have a German cheese-pretzel and a Coca-Cola… what’s with the glass bottles everywhere, Europe?) The acting was phenomenal – all sort of characters, ages and types (I counted 22 onstage at one point), all with a deep physical awareness and infinitely subtle range of motion. I also found the singing, although not flashy or operatic (thankfully), rooted in the acting, a perfect match for the tongue-in-cheek, presentational mode of theatre which Brecht helped to develop. What’s perhaps the greatest testament to this production I could offer, however, is that over that entire 3+ hours of the show, I didn’t understand one word of it. (Except for the lone English phrase spoken in the entire pay: "Don't cry for me, Argentina"... which perhaps had something to do with the earlier victory over the Argentinians?) Anyway, the language mattered not. The show still made sense, although it was interesting to hear the audience laugh on lines where I had to intuit actual meaning based on the physical expression of the actors. At the conclusion I walked around Brecht’s giant theatre taking photos, and thanked my lucky stars the winds had blown me to this town, on this night.

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When I got back to the apartment, I realized that the director of Die Dreigroschenoper was in fact the great American Robert Wilson, frequent collaborator of Philip Glass (they co-produced Einstein on the Beach, the music of which I studied for this original piece last year), and one of the most legendary theatre directors in the world, especially with regard to design. And I concur.

Not wanting to end the day just yet, I ventured out past partying people, prostitutes and pimps, chanting and singing and blaring victorious car horns still, and walked in the direction of Alexanderplatz, an area which I had been advised to see, but in my rush to the theatre hadn’t had time for. It ended up being further away than I had expected, and once I was there it was already quite late, so I walked around, stopping outside Berlin Cathedral and taking some photos along the water. The clubs felt a bit too “Miami” in contrast to the chilled out area I had been in the previous night, so I didn’t stop. I walked back to my home neighborhood and down past Aufsturz, but it was late and there would be no second meeting of the Potato Döner Club.

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By 2:00 or so I headed in, stayed up another hour or so, chatted with my friendly hosts about my extraordinary day in Berlin, and planned my adventure to Prague for early the following morning. I packed my things and collapsed in a heap by 4:00am, with every intention of leaving by… 7:45. Gulp.

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Posted by coolmcjazz 18:26 Archived in Germany Tagged photography Comments (2)

Day 5: Berlin, my true friend…

(where your author discovers unknown powers of extroversion)

sunny 80 °F

Now, where was I? Jokes aside, I left some terrific things when I departed from Amsterdam. I have yet to have any sort of significant interaction with an uninteresting person, and Amsterdam will always remain one of the highlights of the trip – from the host-by-proxy, Rome-born Danilo, and the actual host, Surinam-born Chris (who I didn’t meet until the following morning, and whose terrific place couldn’t have been in a more ideal area, a few blocks from the train station, though those Amsterdam stairs are narrow), to my new Houston, or was it Austin, or maybe Omaha travel buddy Rachel – Amsterdam was an incredible experience, perhaps slightly ironic seeing as it’s the first country in which I’ve traveled alone without knowing the native language.

After sleeping in Friday morning, I walked to the train station to purchase a ticket to Berlin, where I had made my reservation for the next two nights. The queue (this is the word Europeans use when they mean line, snark), sadly, was well over an hour, run by a deli-style numbered ticket system, and therefore I wasn’t able to take my remaining two or so hours before the train to explore some desired activities in Amsterdam, most prominently the Van Gogh museum and a canal cruise. (But still, regrets I have none.) I bought a yogurt shake and a falafel (nice to have one of these in Amsterdam as I’ll be reminded of it next time I’m at “Amsterdam Falafel” in Adams Morgan!) and finally got my space in line. Bought a ticket for the next train to Berlin, which left in 25 minutes, scrambled back to Chris’s place to pick up my bags, and got back just in time. As people are boarding, I stroll up to the conductor and hurriedly ask: “Sorry, can you tell me where my seat is?” The man, with his white grizzled whiskers a true son of Northern Europe frowns and says :”Where are you coming from?” Me: “Amsterdam.” “No, where do you live?” “America.” “Ah, yes, but you are in Holland! And here… we speak Dutch!” Me: “I’m really sorry, I’ve been asking that of everyone, but I was in a rush…” “Well you did not ask it of me. This is your train. Harumph.” (Alright, I added that last part. Still, let’s call this Strike 2 on the Clueless American Quotient.) I felt as though I were paying penance for all clueless Americans who had come this man’s way in the past. After being away from the UK for a few days now, the question “Do you speak English?” – usually said with my hand to heart in a sort of subtle gesture of apology – feels nicely ingrained.

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On the train ride I took in the German countryside, or at least the parts which ran along the train tracks, spotting many windmills and much greenery, and after a short while I started to sense that I was officially “in” this country which plays such a large role in world history, especially for me with my background in classical music. I am happy to report that the German countryside appears exactly as Gustav Mahler wrote it. (Listening to his 6th Symphony on headphones only underscored this fact.) Though it ate up precious battery life on my laptop, I watched some videos about the great songwriter Elliott Smith, and, searching my hard drive for films with a German angle, started what already seems like a terrific movie in The Lives of Others, with deals with spying in a repressive German Socialist government.

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We finally arrive in Berlin and I get out at this enormous train station with a roof impressively designed with a criss-cross pattern and emblazoned with “BOMBARDIER – Wilkommen in Berlin” – which in typing it off the photo I only now realized that I misread as “bombadier” which had struck me as a slightly ironic thing to name your train station given the history of the city. (Clueless American Quotient, point 3.) Passing by, of all things, a Dunkin Donuts, which makes me feel a bit closer to home, I make my way to a map to figure out how to get to my host’s apartment. Unlike the London tube map, which took me about a minute to process, the Berlin subway map seems a jumbled mess of foreign-ness, and it takes me much longer to figure out where I am. (At one point, presented with the situation of having to transfer to one train, but not knowing the direction, I randomly chose one of the two in the station which were about to leave, which turned out to be wrong and I had to turn around at the next station. I did get to experience on that train, however, the slightly jarring scene of a few college-aged kids drinking beer quite openly on the train.)

I make it to Oranienburger Tor, and my host, a lovely young Vietnamese woman named Quynh (pronounced “Quinn”) and her boyfriend Tung, come to meet me at a Subway sandwich shop. Quynh is studying international tourism and Tung works in IT. They have a nice flat on the fourth floor of a building in a great area, fairly close (as I would find out the following day) to the major centers of the city. After getting settled in (and plugging in all my dying electronic devices), I venture out to explore the unknown city. Quynh recommends a place down the street called Aufsturz for good beer selection, and I make my way there, weaving around prostitutes, who are unmistakable. (In fact, that’s my major knock on the city – prostitutes and pimps all very actively work the streets, which although no one gave me any trouble and I correctly avoided eye contact, does lend an impression of at least the potential of danger, especially as a solo traveler with an expensive camera a bit naïvely slung around his neck late at night.)

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At Aufsturz, I ask for “something good and local” for my first German beer and the waiter presents me a Brauhaus Tegernsee Spezial for the whopping total of… 3 euro. Over the evening, I find that it’s true what they say about German beer – all really good, all really cheap as compared with options in America. I sit alone at the edge of a outside table, taking numerous photos of “my first German beer” – I suppose I didn’t need that “I’M A TOURIST, MAKE FUN OF ME” sign after all? At this table, everyone’s speaking German and I start to question this whole “travel alone without knowing anyone” thing.

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Hearing a few English words at a table nearby, I muster the courage to approach a table of five, asking if I can join them. They oblige, and we have an interesting conversation about work, the local scene, and visiting the US. Thomas is studying to be a policeman in Berlin, and tells of working border patrol, and the things that get people in trouble in crossing borders. (I had remarked that I was surprised there was no customs check-in between Holland and Germany, but he explains that the EU has mutuality agreement once one is already inside the country.) I write down my blog link and Thomas says he will check it out – if this is true, Thomas, please leave a comment so I know you were here! And get your butt to the US already! (Also shown in the picture are Marten and his girlfriend Sandra, both very nice.)

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These folks leave and I make my way across the patio in search of other English conversations, with the courage that one successful interaction brings. I start taking some photos and a girl teasingly admonishes me for taking photos without asking permission, which is a good point. I mention, however, that I’m not taking individual shots, but more taking in the ambiance of the place, or something to that effect. I end up sitting and having some good times and some great beers with my new friends including Nicole (how, Nicole, did I neglect to take a photo of you?), Jan, Andre, Anna and Franzi. (I know I’ve forgotten a few names.) Conversation flows freely, and I learn the German for “happy birthday” (which escapes me now, imagine that), I defend Twitter (even over here they incorrectly think it’s about telling people you just brushed your teeth), and I find out that this whole group went to college together, and are reuniting in Berlin for the evening. I feel a little guilty upon discovering that English is the language of choice only because I’m there, and a few people whose English isn’t as good aren’t talking as much. (I very much agree with the overall sentiment that Americans have it easy only having to speak one language!) Everyone’s shooting me beer recommendations, all of which are great, including Berliner Kindl, which seems to be the default late-night choice for many, but one that blows me away is Barbar (meaning “wild one” or “barbarian”), a Belgian brew made with honey, suggested by Jan.

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We close down the place around 2am, and Nicole, Jan, and Andre decide to take the American on a journey to find a place which makes good “döner,” a local sandwich fancied by the late-night crowd. “Döner” is pronounced “dooner,” which is also last name of a college fraternity brother of mine, someone who I would not want to associate anything edible with. I also neglect to tell them I’m a vegetarian!

We find one place across from Quynh’s, they order, and as I’m watching sliced potatoes being dropped into the pita, I hear one of ours whispering – someone grabs me and says “run!” The sandwich makers yell “Hey!” I don’t know what’s going on, I’ve just been told to run and I’m following instructions! One of our group proclaims, “They don’t know what they’re doing. There’s no potatoes in a döner!” We run blocks before stopping, and I'm caught in a riotous moment of inspired juvenilia. We tell the story to each other over and over – why is it so much fun to goof around in a strange city with people you hardly know? We walk toward another happening neighborhood( avoiding prostitutes the whole way), and find another place that does make “correct” döner. I order a falafel and a Kindl and they look mystified, but are fine once they realize I don’t eat meat. On the way back, I have a revealing discussion with Andre, who was fairly silent at the table – he talks of growing up in a city haunted by the legacy of the Nazis, and how although they obviously had nothing to do with it, he says many Berliners worry about how they’re perceived. This is a city of great pride and heritage, and the thuggery of the Nazi era seems universally abhorred throughout the city. We walk past the Jewish temple, which I’m moved to discover keeps two guards slowly striding back and forth across it’s front entrance at all hours.

What a fun night with a new group of friends. Hope to see you guys if and WHEN you make it to the US! And remember… "nobody puts potatoes in a döner!"

Posted by coolmcjazz 02:12 Archived in Germany Tagged photography Comments (2)

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