Thursday, April 28, 2011


That's how old I am now.

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.

Monday, April 18, 2011

Zapraszamy do Polska!

So here it is.  My first title not in Italian.  The occasion?  The first time I've left Italy since arriving over three months ago.  This past weekend, I went to Poland!

What a weekend it was.  I went with my friend Jaclyn, and while we only had three full days to spend in Poland, we managed to pack in quite a lot.  The adventure began in, well, Bologna.  We met an adorable little Polish toddler named Miko in the Bologna airport.  He was learning to walk and was fascinated by us and wanted to hold our hands.  Adorable (it's worth repeating).  Once we arrived in Wrocław (pronounced something along the lines of "vrotsh-love"), however, things took a turn for the, not worse precisely, but certainly more confusing.  After having repeatedly assured Jaclyn that we would be fine changing our money from Euros into złoty at the Polish airport, I reached the ATM there only to find that Bank of America had apparently forgotten that I was abroad and had cut off all access to my accounts.  Just as I was beginning to panic slightly about having no access to money or a phone to call the bank in a country where the language is completely incomprehensible to me, Lukas appeared.  Lukas was returning to Kraków, where he was from, from Manchester, where he had been living the past few years, and for some reason decided to take us two lost American girls under his wing.  He helped Jaclyn buy a map and figure out the bus schedule and gave us his phone number in case we ran into trouble or were looking for recommendations later.  This enabled us to save quite a lot of złoty on cab fare and to reach our hostel without too much difficulty.

This is not to say that there was still no difficulty involved.  At one point Jaclyn and I ended up lost in a closing mall, where we were directed by a guy working in a coffee shop there to "go strange," which, as this was accompanied by pointing (in, of course, the direction from which we had been coming), we took to mean "straight."  

Eventually we did find out hostel, which apparently doubles as a marriage bureau, and I was able to use the computer there to send a text message to my mom asking her to get on g-chat so I could explain the situation and she could call the bank.  Ahh, the wonders of technology. 

Marriage and honeymoon all at the same time?

That night, Jaclyn and I did a bit of exploring right near the hostel and ate our first (of many) Pierogi of the trip.  Pierogi are basically dumplings that can be pan-fried or boiled and come with a variety of fillings.  My favorite were the Ruskie (Russian) pierogi with a potato filling, but we also tried spinach and cabbage and (in Jaclyn's case) meat.  

Church by night in a square near the hostel.

Boiled Ruskie pierogi with cabbage.

The next morning we left early to catch our train to Kraków, but we did manage to see a bit of Wrocław on the way to the station.

The view from our hostel in Wrocław.

The train station/castle.

Our interpretation of this sign: "Danger! Robots!"
Jaclyn's Polish friend Piotr's reading of the sign: "Caution! Work at heights"
Our conclusion: "Danger! Flying robots!"

The five-hour trip to Kraków constituted the first leg of our sixteen-hour train tour of the Polish countryside.  It was also by far the most miserable, largely because it had occurred to neither of us to pack food and the slice-of-bread breakfast at the hostel disappeared rather quickly.  Consequently, our first stop in Kraków was a restauracja (restaurant) where we ate delicious potato pancakes topped with mushrooms and sour cream.  The abundant and hearty Polish fare we enjoyed this weekend certainly provided a welcome break from the by-now-repetitive Italian cuisine in Bologna, and Jaclyn and I enjoyed every bite (and many, many bites there were)!

The Kraków train station.

The view from the station.

The teatr (theatre) we passed on the way from the station.
They were currently playing the Wizard of Oz!

After dropping our packs off at the hostel, Jaclyn and I again struck out to explore Stare Miasto (old town) of Kraków.  We were lucky enough to find an Easter fair in the Główny Rynek (main square), which was full of local crafts and even more delicious eats.

The Główny Rynek.

Animal-shaped bread.

Women grilling oscypek (a traditional smoked cheese).

Pisanki (Polish Easter Eggs).

The stand where we ate the best pierogi of the trip...twice.

There is a nearly-identical sculpture by the same Polish artist in
Citygarden in downtown Saint Louis.

"Free Beer"

A cotton-candy stand in the Rynek.

After thoroughly exploring the fair, Jaclyn and I headed a little further afield (although we stayed in the Stare Miasto the whole time).  Our random wandering led us to the Wisła (Vistula) River, Wawel Castle,  and a lovely park that circles the old town.

Doing my best to fall into the Wisła.

A bit of Wawel Castle.

Gorgeous park.

Eventually our wandering led us right back to the Rynek (ah, the wonders of a well-designed pedestrian city).  There we enjoyed some "hot wine" (grazne wino, or mulled wine) and people-watching before heading back to the hostel to grab some sweaters before coming back into the square for dinner (we just couldn't resist the thought of more "hot wine" and those delicious Ruskie pierogi from the stands.

Hippie drum-line in the Rynek.  Note the digirido.

Feeding the pigeons.

We met some Romans on vacation while eating dinner in the square.
This guy wanted a picture with us.
After dinner, the adventures really began.  Jaclyn and I decided to head to a pub for a bit before going back to the hostel, and we ended up choosing an Irish pub right off the square.  After chatting a bit with the heavily-accented and oh-so-very-Irish bouncer ("Can I see some identification, girls?...Oh I'm just kidding.  You all should be flattered!  They make me stand by the door so I'm just trying to do a good job of it), we went in....only to find that everyone in the pub was 1) male and 2) wearing a skin-tight, brightly-colored spandex "SupaSuit."

Oh dear.  Since we felt bad leaving immediately after having had a nice chat with the bouncer but we didn't particularly want to spend time with all of the SupaSuit-ed men, we decided to head upstairs to see if it was quieter up there.  As we were standing by the bar ordering our beers and deciding where to sit, a rather drunk British man came up to us and, after commenting on our selection, told us to come over and sit with him and his friends.  A night full of British accents and hilarity ensued.

It turns out that we had inadvertently crashed a "Stag party" (the British equivalent of an American Bachelor party).  As Rich (the one who found us at the bar) explained, the groom-to-be was "the one with the extreeemely white shoes."  Jaclyn and I began the night by slowly sipping our pints in the corner, but eventually we were drawn right into the middle of things and ended up singing karaoke to gems such as "It's My Life" and "Don't Stop Me Now" with Rich and his friends John and Frank.  The "lads" were all incredibly friendly, if somewhat repetitive.  They each asked us probably fifteen times where we were from, what we were doing there, what they were doing there, where we all were, etc.  We also learned that the group was from Yorkshire ("Yorkshire tea is the best!  I buy it by the boocketful!"/ "You wouldn't understand us if we were to speak Yorkshire") and that Prince William (surprise!) is about to get married (we were probably asked four or five times each, "Did you know that the prince is getting married?" It was cute how excited they all were, although we felt a bit bad for the actual groom-to-be in whose honor the party ostensibly was).  Furthermore, Rich kept insisting that he was "half-American" (to which his friend responded, "You're as half-American as Starbucks is!"  This was a slightly mysterious comeback, as we weren't sure whether the friend was implying that Rich was as British as Starbucks is American or whether Starbucks is secretly much more British than we had previously supposed).  

Eventually John realized that all of his friends but Frank had left, and a rather confusing situation ensued in which a still-quite-sober-after-only-one-or-two-pints Jaclyn and I attempted to take a very inebriated John and Frank home to their hostel (they didn't seem to have any idea where they were staying, but fortunately John had a card with the address in his pocket and Jaclyn had a map).  We made it downstairs with John only to find that Frank had somehow been left upstairs.  We sent John in to go get him and in the meantime made some Scottish friends on the street.  John returned, but Frank was still nowhere to be seen.

"John, where's Frank?"
"Oh, I don't know.  Upstairs?"

This time we sent in Jaclyn to fetch Frank, and he grudgingly came outside, but refused to leave his half-finished pint behind.  Used to Italy where open-container laws don't exist, Jaclyn and I decided to not worry about it.  Unfortunately for Frank, open container laws do exist in Poland and as we were walking down the street a police car pulled over, confiscated his pint, and wrote him a citation fining him 100 złoty (equivalent to roughly 22£).  His response? "What is that? I got arrested!"  No, Frank, you didn't.

We eventually arrived at their hostel, but they refused to go in, insisting instead on walking us home first.  However, after only a few minutes, both of them appeared to have forgotten this entirely ("Where are you taaaking us?"/ "Where aaare we?"/ "I've never walked this much in my entire life!").  Oh dear. Once we arrived, we had to spend a few minutes convincing a now-diagonal Frank leaning on our door and tiredly repeating, "Just let us in.  Come on.  Just let us in," that this was not, in fact, something that we could do.  Eventually the two of them agreed to leave if we would just give them the Italian-style peck on each cheek goodbye so they could "feel continental" (Frank: "I looove feeling continental!").

Once inside, Jaclyn and I had a fit of giggles and just shook our heads at the whole sequence of events.  The next morning, we spent a good bit of the eight-hour train ride to Poznań repeating some of the funnier statements of the night before to each other in our best British accents.  As Rich had reminded us, now we could say for the first time that we had spent a night "hanging out with a bunch of British lads."  

When we arrived in Poznań, Jaclyn's friend Piotr, a medical student at the university there, met us at the station, took us back to our hostel, and gave us a brief tour of the city center ("I think this was important somehow....I have a class in this building...That's the pathology department," you know, useful information like that) before bringing us back to the dorms to hang out for a bit.

Jaclyn and Piotr in the main square.

Colorful former Burgher houses.

A view across the (hidden) river.

After spending some time with Piotr and his friends at a birthday barbecue, Jaclyn and I headed back to the hostel for a bit.  There we met Tatsuya, a Japanese international relations student who was in the middle of a 5-month solo world tour.  He had just recently arrived in Europe after two and a half months in South America.  We were impressed.  He also told us about his ambitions to move to New York after graduating and become a professional hip-hop dancer for a few years before beginning a career doing something in IR.  Pretty awesome.  I also met another group of traveling Romans in the hostel.  One thing I was not expecting to do while in Poland was speak Italian, but there you go.  Twice.

That night we went out for a pint with Piotr in a very red communist-Russia-themed bar.  Jaclyn and I were fairly exhausted after the adventures of the night before and the long train ride, so we called it a night fairly early.

The next day we walked around Poznań a bit more before once again heading to the train station so we could go back to Wrocław to catch our plane to Bologna in the evening.  After enjoying our last meal of pierogi in Wrocław and sitting in the airport for a few hours (we vastly overestimated how long it would take to get to the airport/check-in/make it through security), fly back to Bologna we did.

The surprises, however, were not quite over for the weekend.  When I arrived back at my apartment a little before midnight, I not surprisingly decided to head straight to bed.  But when I turned off the lights and slid under the covers, I was very surprised to feel something cool and, well, leafy under there with me.  Alarmed, I leapt up and turned the lights back on to find a single, slightly squished, long-stem white rose in between my sheets.  I still have absolutely no idea how it got there, and I only have one day in Bologna to investigate before heading off to Berlin(!) tomorrow.  Che misterioso! (How mysterious!)