Tuesday, April 26, 2011

Abenteuer und Haferflocken in BERLIN!

A mere nineteen hours after returning from Poland, I was off again, this time to Deutschland and BERLIN(!), a city I have been desperate to see ever since that sub-section slideshow back in German 101. Thanks to a week (or so) of Easter Break and Ryanair prices, I was able to make this dream a reality.

The adventure began very, very early in the morning when I met Loren outside of my apartment so we could walk to the station to catch a train to meet Simon and catch another train to catch a bus to catch a bus to catch a plane to catch another train to reach the U-Bahn so we could make a transfer and finally (twelve hours later) end up at Loren and Simon's friend Katie's apartment in Kreuzberg (a Berlin neighborhood).  Believe it or not, the eight (or so)-leg trip spanning across Bologna, Milan, Bergamo, and eventually Berlin went off without a hitch and Loren, Simon, and I remained blissfully stress-free for the duration.  The most eventful moment was when Loren found a giant four-leaf clover outside the Milano Lambrate train station. Not too shabby.

Once we arrived in Berlin, our first priority (aside from dropping our bags and taking a moment to chill and catch up in Katie's apartment) was to find something to eat.  Fortunately, Katie lives about a block away from Mustafa's and Curry 36, respectively the most famous kebap and currywurst stands in Berlin.  Döner kebap (literally, "rotating roast" in Turkish) and currywurst are two popular types of street food in Berlin, and McDonald's has nothing on either of them.  Kebap is traditionally made by shaving meat (usually lamb, but in Berlin chicken is equally, if not more, common) off a rotating, vertical spit.  The meat is then served in a flatbread or wrap (dürüm) with a variety of sauces and toppings, such as hot sauce, garlic sauce, yogurt, and either french fries (pommes) or a salad made from some combination of lettuce, cabbage, onion, tomatoes, and cucumber (Mustafa's also adds mint and freshly-squeezed lemon juice).  Of course, if you're a vegetarian like me, you can opt for a Gemüse (roasted vegetable) kebap and skip the meat.  Unfortunately, no such veggie version of currywurst (sliced pork sausage covered with curry ketchup and served with french fries and a dollop of mayonnaise) exists, but having sampled some of the curry ketchup and mayonnaise with a french fry or two, I can state fairly confidently that while currywurst might sound a bit strange, it is actually delicious.

Anyway, while waiting in line at Mustafa's that first time, something incredibly strange occurred.  I ran into Daniel Barsky, another current junior from Wash U who is currently studying abroad in Spain.  We lived in the same building freshman year but haven't seen much of each other since, so an uncomfortable do-I-know-you? stare-down followed by (unreciprocated) recognition ensued.  Once we sorted out who we were, how we knew each other, and why it was weird that we were both in Berlin, I made my escape (dürüm in hand) and Katie proceeded to show Loren, Simon, and I around a bit of Berlin.  We ended up at the Weinerei, a pay-what-you-think-is-right-at-the-end-of-the-night wine bar after walking in a few circles due to contradictory directions and general confusion.  Once there, we sat on fancy chairs, drank wine, engaged in intellectual discussions....and ran into Daniel Barksy again.  Curiouser and curiouser!

The next morning the four of us found omelets at a nearby café before heading over to the area around the Brandenburger Tor (Brandenburg Gates) to fulfill our touristic duties.  We saw not only the Tor, but also the Tiergarten (one of the many large parks in Berlin), the Reichstag (parliament building), and the Jüdisches Denkmal (Holocaust memorial), all conveniently located no more than a five-minute walk from each other.

Brandenburger Tor rising above a sea of Turisten.

Berlin is full of empty space and parks, a result of WWII-era bombs.

Jüdisches Denkmal.

A traditional East German "Ampelmann."

After a sobering walk through the Holocaust Memorial, the four of us headed up to Mitte (central Berlin), where we met up with Katie's friend Maya and explored Tacheles, an artist's squat with an incredible history.  Check out the link for an excellent description courtesy of the Irish Berliner, and check out the photos below for a small sense of the exterior area (unfortunately I didn't have my camera with me when we returned the following night to explore the interior).

An enormous Shepard Fairey mural spanning
the height of the entire building.

The entire hinterhof was a warren of makeshift studios. 

Looking up from the hinterhof.

Wandering through the hinterhof while Katie chills at the "bar."

Photo credit to Loren Fulton.

Once we felt we had spent enough time sitting and chatting out behind Tacheles, Loren, Simon, Katie, and I headed over to a park in Mitte along the banks of the Spree (the river that runs through Berlin) overlooking the Berliner Dom (Berlin Cathedral).

Berliner Dom.

From there, we headed on the East Side Gallery, the longest remaining section of the Berlin Wall (die Mauer).  In 1990, the whole stretch was covered with paintings by international artists, which were then restored in 2000.  On the way there, we discovered several large-scale murals by Blu, which we stopped to check out in more detail on the way back.  It appears that Blu is better represented in Berlin than in his native Bologna!  It must be all of the wide-open space and the abundant canvases.

Blu tackles global warming.

More Blu.  So intricate!

Loren and Katie looking at a stretch of the East Side Gallery.

I suppose this was inevitable.

HUGE double Blu.

Having taken in quite a bit of outdoor art by that point, the crew headed back to Kreuzberg for some grocery shopping and stir-fry and oatmeal at Katie's apartment.  Here's an excellent oatmeal recipe to keep in mind (all credit to Katie for its creation):  cook oatmeal with sliced strawberries and bananas, then combine with plain yogurt, quark (a uniquely German food that falls somewhere in between thick, creamy yogurt and soft cheese), and milk if you'd like, stir, and top with muesli (granola).  Delicious!

We had originally intended to continue exploring that night, but all the delicious food and overall relaxed, slumber-party atmosphere meant that the four of us stayed in and watched Lady Gaga videos instead.  Oops!

The next morning we woke up late and packed sandwiches for a picnic in nearby Gölitzer park.  Once there, we sat in the sun, munched, and people-watched for a delightful few hours before exploring the rest of the park.  We found giant slides, outdoor ping pong, and small rock-climbing walls, among other things.  Katie and I also had a photo shoot because, entirely coincidentally, both of us were wearing floral rompers and black boots.  Who would've thought?

Just being match-y.

After leaving the park, Katie went to pick up her high school friend Jason who was visiting for the weekend from Vienna (the slumber party grows!) and Loren, Simon, and I headed off the the Treptower Park district in search of a labyrinth we had heard about.  After getting very lost (meta-labyrinth, anyone?) and having to ask for directions auf Deutsch, we finally found the bar we had been looking for, Salon zur Wilden Renate.  Unfortunately, the labyrinth within remained unaccessible, as some German guy with a cigarette and an attitude repeatedly told us in English that it was closed for inexplicable reasons and we should just go away.  Fortunately, persistence prevailed and eventually the bartender returned and informed us that while the labyrinth was, in fact, closed that evening it would be open again the next day.  So we took a stroll through Treptower Park and watched the sunset over the Spree instead.  Not a bad compromise.

Outside Salon zur Wilden Renate.
We're hypothesizing Blu.

Simon, Loren, and I in front of the Spree a little before sunset.

By this point we were getting quite hungry, so we headed back to Kreuzberg and Mustafa's, where we ran into some of Katie's friends from Brown, Adam and Kirstin.  After eating and reuniting with Katie (and her friend Jason), the whole crew (all seven of us) went back to Tacheles for some indoor exploration of this incredible reclaimed urban space.  One of the upper floors had an art exhibition by Alex Rodin, a Belarusian contemporary artist.  Check out the link to see some of his work.

The next morning, Simon, Loren, and I headed back to the Jüdisches Denkmal to visit the Holocaust memorial museum underneath.  It was small, understated, and incredibly powerful.  All of us shed tears and none of us were able to speak for at least half an hour afterward.

After taking some time to absorb what we had just witnessed on the lawn in front of the nearby Reichstag, we grabbed a pretzel before taking the U-Bahn over to meet up with Ellie, Parker, and Corey,  who had all just arrived in Berlin.  We all returned (yet again) to Mustafa's for something between a late lunch and an early dinner before splitting up again.  Loren, Simon, and I returned to Treptower Park, where we met up with Katie, Jason, Adam, and Kirstin before returning to Salon zur Wilden Renate and the Peristal Singum labyrinth.  Entry to the labyrinth was one at a time.  I went first, and after the doors shut behind me, closing me into a tiny room, I slid my faceless coin into a slot and waited, unsure of what to expect next.  A short abstract video played on a small screen beside me as I stood still in the dark chamber, and eventually I tentatively gave the heavy, grated door in front of me a push.  It opened to reveal a lopsidedly constructed wooden staircase before swinging shut and locking behind me.  As there was not enough space to stand, I climbed and crawled up the stairs...only to be confronted with nothing more than a pitch-black circular opening.  Now I have a better idea of how Alice felt climbing down into the rabbit hole and letting go, sliding into darkness.  The curving tunnel-slide shot me out into a greenish egg-shaped room with golden vines tracing across the floor.  There was a ladder up and a ladder down.  It was at this point that the real labyrinth began.  The twisting corridors and tight spaces shifted in and out of glowing semi-darkness and pitch black, and the whole while an eerie soundtrack came from hidden speakers.  It was an incredibly intricate, tactile experience, and inside the labyrinth the world outside ceased to exist, except negatively as a vague niggling fear of remaining trapped inside forever.  Eventually, however, I did find my way out, feeling a bit like I had faced down not only Wonderland, but David Bowie's labyrinth.  It was an incredible experience, and definitely one of the craziest I have had.

Once all seven of us had made it through, we explored the nearby, starkly grandiose Soviet war memorial on the way back to Mitte.  There we met up with Ellie, Parker, Corey, and (surprise!) Rachel at a small brew pub, Hops & Barley.  The homemade beer was delicious (especially the weizen), and it was amazing to look around at the group and think about all the coincidences that had led the eleven of us to be drinking beer together in Berlin.

Once we had had enough, the group splintered and those of us staying in Kreuzberg went back to Mustafa's for yet another kebap before bed.

The next morning, I headed out early to help Rachel move her things between hostels.  On the way, we ran into a protest.

Nuclear power? No thanks.

PACE flag!

Then Rachel and I met up with Loren and Simon in Potzdamer Platz.  We walked along yet another remaining section of the Mauer and saw Checkpoint Charlie, which is now located in the middle of the street at a busy intersection.  We then made our way back to Gölitzer Park, where we had planned to meet Katie in time for a silent disco flash mob.  It turned out to be an invisible silent disco flash mob, so we got Thai food at a nearby restaurant instead and continued on the Tempelhof, an abandoned pre-WWII era airport that now serves as yet another public park.  Loren, Simon, Katie, Jason, and I met up with the Wash U crew there.  After entering through a gate in the barbed wire fence, we all lay in the grass, watched people fly kites, and ran around on the old runway.  Yet another surreal experience, courtesy of Berlin.

Berlin Tempelhof.

The entire crew.

Simon and I being airplanes.  It had to happen.

That night, Loren, Simon, and I took Katie out to a Tibetan place for dinner to thank her for hosting us for so long (and showing us around!).  We all shared a few plates of momo while sipping on mango lassis and deconstructing our labyrinth experiences of the previous evening.  Then I thoroughly enjoyed a plate of curried bananas and cheese while we mulled over the idea of how we would create a labyrinth of our own and completely lost track of time.

After dinner we met up with the Wash U crew again at Madam Claude's, a former brothel that has been converted to a bar with furniture on the ceiling and upside-down menus.  Since Loren, Simon, and I had to be at the airport at 6am the next (that?) morning, we had decided to commit to staying up all night.  So, after leaving Madam Claude's we continued on to Der Visionäre, which turns out not to have been the best decision...and not for the reason you may be thinking.  Only a few minutes after arriving (as we were trying to find a place to sit, in fact), I was head-butted by a large, bald, German man when he rather violently and unexpectedly threw his head back.  After watching me be hit so hard that I nearly fell over, Simon and Loren were worried that I might have a concussion.  Consequently, we left with Rachel, leaving Katie behind with some other friends.  After a laborious U-Bahn journey (by this point I was feeling shaky and headache-y and nauseous and required frequent stops to sit) back to Katie's apartment, the three of them wrapped me up in Katie's bed and sat with me for about an hour until 1) I was feeling better and 2) we had to leave for the airport.  The second fortunately didn't occur until after the first, but it was close enough that Simon did my packing for me (thanks, Simon!).

We watched the sun rise over Berlin from the train station as we waited for the Bahn that would take us to the airport.  A fitting ending to a wonderful week.

Photo credit to Loren Fulton.

We made it to our gate with plenty of time to spare, and the journey back was nearly as uneventful as the journey there had been.  The three of us all fell asleep before take-off and awoke only with the landing jolt as the plane's wheels touched the runway.  Back in Bergamo, we walked around near the train station a bit before buying ourselves a GIANT chocolate egg to celebrate Easter the Italian way.'

Easter bunnies have nothing on this.
It was filled with Perugina Baci!

After several more hours on trains and a brief lay-over at Milano Centrale, we made it back to Bologna relatively intact.  Whew.

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