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29 July 2015 @ 10:02 am
Ich Bin Ein Berliner!  
We did a lot of walking tours in Berlin. Allow me to explain.

When I last left off on Day 30, we were headed for a walking tour. In fact, pretty much as soon as I finished with my laptop! Although first order of business was a quick lunch.

When we were first walking to the Hostel, I'd noticed that there was a Bibimbap place down the street. Now – if you know me, you know I have a deep love of Bibimbaps, so despite the fact it's probably the least German thing imaginable, I talked our adventurous crew into trying it out. Nicole had never had it before, so she opted out and got a non-Bibimbap. The rest of us struggled our way through ordering a set of beef Bibimbaps because we were honestly not sure what was in the rest of the options. (Beef is apparently “reinfleishe” in Germany)

The Bibimbap was fresh and tasty but not particularly surprising. I went a bit nuts with the spicy sauce, assuming it was just siracha sauce, but nope, it was a pretty legit chili sauce. So there go the sinuses clearing!

THEN it was time for the walking tour. So we made our way to the Brandenburg Gate and met our tour guide, who was named Stephanie, and was from New Zealand. I feel pretty grateful for the Krakow tour which specifically aimed to have a local lead us around. I'm appreciating how rare of a treat that is.

Stephanie knew her stuff, though. She's writing a book about the history of Germany from 1910 to 2010, and based on the walking tour: a lot of stuff has happened. Not that I didn't know about some of it, but there's something about going there today, and seeing how directly the repercussions of WW2 and the Iron Curtain are still being felt by the people who live there, that makes it really clear how recent this history was.

I kind of expected my time in Europe to make me feel a sense of permanence, because people have been here for so long, but all I've heard about is fires, occupations, dictatorships, and other kinds of social change. Europe is so much more in flux than anything I've ever known. Or at least the parts of Europe I've been in are. Admittedly Eastern Europe is a touch diffferent from Western Europe. But basically all that being here has taught me is that people in the US and Canada feel very comfortable and very safe that everything will be the same forever in a way that I'm fairly certain that Europeans know better than to be.

Anyway. Stephanie walked us from the Brandenburg Gate to a few different places, mostly Nazi or Communist history related. We saw the site where Hitler's Bunker once was (sort of still is, despite the top half being destroyed) – which is a parking lot, because Germany believes that despite the fact it's a place of significance, it isn't a place that should be memorialized.

By comparison, the memorial to murdered Jewish people is pretty huge. It's a bunch of concrete blocks in the ground. The explanation for it does seem kind of like a cop out. “Whatever you feel about it – that's what I intended” is the artist's statement. But Stephanie explained that basically, while you're sitting there trying to figure out what it might mean, you're being forced to think about and remember all of the people who died. So it's doing its job. I think that's pretty cool.

We saw a piece of the Berlin wall, and some old Nazi offices (now the ministry of finance, oh boy) and some public squares, including one where all the book burnings took place. In general it was yet another depressing tour of historical atrocities!

When that was done we thanked Stephanie and retraced our steps to a store we'd seen earlier, because Nicole and I had spotted a place that sold Christmas Ornaments, and given that that's both of our souvenirs of choice – we couldn't NOT visit it!

The store turned out to be kind of overwhelming in terms of how gorgeous all the ornaments were. We were dithering around for like 45 minutes trying to make a selection. We ended up both deciding on the same one – a little owl holding a pretzel, with a Bavarian hat on. Nevermind the fact we weren't in Bavaria, he was adorable, and also clearly Germany-related, unlike most of the ornaments there. I shall name him Twisty.

Then we headed back to the Hostel, where we were let into our room with the most broken lock of all locks – getting inside was an ordeal every time. Luckily the lock was literally the only thing we could have complained about. The room was beautiful, for a hostel. Huge, with hardwood floors, and a spacious bathroom. These are the benefits when you get given the handicap accessible room! That also meant that it was on the first floor, right next to the entrance, which we worried would be noisy, but wasn't in the least. EasySeven Hostel gets 5 stars from this crew.

Our goal for the evening: laundry. All of us had hit the critical point with our laundry and needed to catch up on our washing ASAP. So we bundled up our clothing and headed out to the nearest laundromat. Here began the adventure of doing laundry: a) in German, b) with no change to our name (people cling to that stuff like it's gold here), and c) on machines that required like three steps to operate.

We managed to get everything washing okay, after jockeying about some change – because this place did not supply a change machine, as we'd been hoping. Then Wolf and I sat and watched the clothes swoosh around while Gal and Nicole went to get us pizza.

The dryers were where it got tricky. Nicole seems to have terrible luck with laundry machines. She tried one, and it was broken (and ate several of her euros) – I tried one, but ran it on cold, so nothing was fully dry. I did like the spin dryers, though. They get things really dry before they even head into the regular dryer.

By the time we were done our pizza, and struggling with our lightly dampened clothing on the way back to the hostel, it was nearly 11pm. So we hung up our clothes all around the room so they'd finish drying and crashed into bed.

Day 31 – Gosh, it's been a month already. It's all going so fast!

We woke up pretty late – around 10 o'clock, and got ready for the day, really appreciating our fresh new clothes after yet another train experience. Despite the fact that it was a fine train experience, you still end up feeling pretty gross.

We took the Metro down to a location relatively close to our tour, with the goal of visiting a place with traditional German food. We found one and settled onto their patio for lunch. We were kind of worried it was going to rain on us, but the fact that Wolf and Gal purchased umbrellas from a souvenir shop that morning seemed to have jinxed us into good weather for almost the entire day, thankfully.

The food at this place was VERY good, and we all appreciate the fact that everything seems to come with a side salad. I had a schnitzel. This does not seem like a food that would be difficult to get right, yet somehow the schnitzel here is genuinely more delicious than any I've had before. Wolf and Nicole had this egg and “ham” which was totally giant slices of bacon on potato bread, which they were raving about, and Gal had currywurst, which is entirely necessary to do at least once on a trip to Germany.

Then it was time for our tour, which was the “Alternative” Berlin tour. This isn't something I would have ever chosen to do on my own, because I am not cool enough for this tour. It isn't my scene. But it gave an incredible view into the current social situation in Berlin, the challenges the City faces, and the street art that is literally everywhere there.

Our tour guide was Leen, who was a street artist herself, specializing in stencils. She was obviously really passionate about her art and the socialist/artistic community in Berlin, and she made me feel... so right-wing. Because man, socialist art communities, I kind of respect your communal living ways and I DEFINITELY think the art you make is very cool, but also you're nuts. I don't understand you at all. We are not human beings who will jive on any level. I am not an artist, and I hold a great deal of value in law & order when they're well-placed, so I... I dunno man. I am more establishment than these guys. So it was cool to learn what's going on with them.

Also cool to find out that Berlin is massively impoverished, never recovered from the war, or its aftermath, and is even still suffering from massive gentrification, despite the fact that ever since the wall went up, half the City's been empty. Because foreign investors keep buying properties they can rent to tourists, and in the meantime, nobody in the City can afford to live there. THAT IS AN UNTENABLE SITUATION DEAR GOD GERMANY THIS IS YOUR CAPITAL CITY, GET IT TOGETHER.

I mean, they're trying, but – uh – if this isn't fixed I can almost picture Germany choosing a new capital soon.

The tour was like four hours long but I can't say much about it without the help of photos, which I will turn to broken Facebook to help me with. Basically: Berlin has SUCH cool street art. That is one thing that Vancouver won't ever be able to compete with, with all its glass windows for walls. It's a little sad. It's something we should see more of.

From there, we took a walk down the East Side Gallery, which was a stretch of the Berlin wall that a ton of artists showed up to and painted down its length so that it would be kept up and maintained as a memorial to that part of Berlin's history. Neat idea, frequently gorgeous art. Shame about all the dumb people writing their names all over the art. The poetry or street art added to the wall didn't offend me, but the whole “Janette was here, 2012 Grad Trip WOOOO” is irritating. If you're going to write all over a monument, at least write something of consequence, whydon'tcha.

From there we went to the nearest station. Our intention had been to go on a pub crawl that evening, but I was already feeling burnt out, and Wolf's sick & aggressively denying it, so that was already at risk. It pretty much died for good when we arrived at Max & Moritz, a traditional German restaurant again. It was like 100+ years old, as I recall. This place did traditonal European dining, alright. Our meal, which included drinks, mains, and dessert, took 3 HOURS.

It wasn't at all unpleasant, mind you, but I don't think any of us were expecting to be sitting there for that long. I had a spaetzel meal with pork soaked in mushroom sauce (SO GOOD), Wolf and Nicole had Schnitzel, and Gal had Sauerbraten. The latter was risky, because she can make that stuff, and she really likes the way she makes it, so I think it might have been a bit disappointing. Overall the meal was very good, though, including the Panna Cotta for dessert and the Cherry Juice I ordered to drink – something I'm just straight up angry we don't offer as a drink at home. Or if we do, I'm pretty sure it has way more sugar than this stuff did. Nice and tart.

Back home, and everybody slowly melted away into sleep. Except me, that is, because I stayed up cursing Facebook's name trying to upload my damn photos, and then fell asleep at about 2am.

Day 32 – A 10am wakeup for us, because checkout was at noon, alas! We can only hope the last place in Amsterdam is as nice.

After checkout, we dropped Wolf's bag off at the train station, because she was heading over to the Germany branch of her company to visit her coworkers, and wouldn't have time to head back to the hostel. Then we went together to a restaurant we had yet to check out – which our guidebook described as kitchy.

Kitchy clearly has a less extreme meaning in the eyes of the author of that book than it does in mine. This place just had a couple of pieces of taxidermy and slightly aged wallpaper. But we had a nice lunch. I had this thing that described itself as pasta squares but really looked more like pasta ovals. Then everybody made fun of me for how I pronounced pasta. We ate, and then kind of... were indecisive about what to do.

I had spotted a festival thing earlier at a station called Alexanderplatz, so I suggested we go there and check it out, which we did! I don't remember the name of the festival, alas, but it involved a ton of food stalls, drink stalls, and little booths selling random stuff. It also had these giant hamster balls for children floating on a pond, which was hilarious to watch. It also had giant sculptures made entirely out of bikes that were also toys you could play with. There was one where you had to pull levers to make the mechanical man pick his nose, and another one where you had to balance the bar perfectly despite the different weight on each side, and another where you had to play at what looked like a ping pong table, where you hit a ball from underneath a net-covered table and into a bucket.

Gal, Nicole and I, now left to our own devices, got ourselves drinks and decided to sit down and appreciate the very civilized notion of drinking outdoors. It was a great way to appreciate the afternoon, and besides, these were the most reasonably priced drinks I'd seen since I've come to the damn Euro Zone.

From there, we left, went to the Hostel, picked up our stuff... and were very distressed to learn that Gal's glasses were not there waiting for us. They'll probably arrive when we get to Amsterdam tomorrow. Sigh!

We then went to the train station, met Wolf, and... I never did ask how her visit to the Berlin office went, hold on a moment. Let me get a quote from her.

“It was good. I surprised everyone. They thought I was not on vacation. Someone heard my voice and was like 'whaaat'”

So that went well! Then we did a rush around the station to each find our own food. I had a currywurst from a fast food place, which I ate in a rush. This older German couple offered me room at their table that I was standing next to, but they did so by gesturing to their stuff that was in the table and saying a good paragraph full of German speech, and thus got a long, blank stare from me- which seemed to confuse them, until I said “Sorry... I only speak English?” and then they laughed and moved their stuff and I joined them. And then startled them by eating so fast. I'M SORRY BUT I HAD A TRAIN TO CATCH.

A train we are now on! We're heading to a mid-point between Berlin and Amsterdam, where we will leap from the train and hop on to our proper overnight train that'll get us in to the city.

This train is crazy. There are doors that open with motion detection, and a dining car with a whole bunch of food options (wish I'd known that before I slammed down a currywurst) and we've got a comfy table setup in a quiet car. We played 45's for a while. Gal destroyed all of us at it. WE'LL GET YOU NEXT TIME, SLEMAKER.

That's all I have to say for now! We get off this train at midnight, so unless something catastrophic happens, I'm handing it over to future self to cover...

DAY 33.

Where we may have been awoken by the conductor making announcements, but we were driven out of bed, yet again, by the police.

This time, they just knocked, said “Hello, Police”, and then showed us their badges through the window and walked away. It was like “Good for you, sir, but you could have let us linger in bed a little longer, our stop isn't for like an hour and a half.”

The train was fine, by the way. Its amenities were similar to hell train, but it was also, like- cold outside. I slept fine. Others found it pretty loud and struggled more with sleep, alas.

Then we woke up, got off the train at the correct stop in Amsterdam, and made our way to our hostel via the autobus.

The hostel seems HUUUUGE. I don't know how many people are staying here, but if the size of the cafeteria is anything to go by, it is a lot.

Of course, we couldn't check in at the time, so we headed into the city for breakfast, thinking that maybe afterwards we'd hit up the Anne Frank House, because it was so close. Our tram pulled up right next to the Anne Frank line up. The Anne Frank House was straight around the block. Honestly, I'm not sure we'll make it in there at all. And after seeing that line, I'm fine with that.

The place we went was called Pancakes! That exclamation point is actually part of the name. It specializes in crepes of both the sweet and savoury variety. Gal and I sensibly opted for savoury, Wolf & Nicole were on team sweet. Gal had a smoked salmon and guacamole crepe with creme fraiche (uhm- sounds SO GOOD) and I had a leek, cheese, ham and mushroom crepe. Team Sweet had a Goat Cheese and Strawberry Crepe, and an apple, raisin and chocolate sauce crepe. Soooooooo good and shockingly filling was the general opinion of the meal.

Then we headed in the direction of Dam Square because we needed to meet our walking tour there – because a walking tour always seems to be a good introduction to a city.

We stopped in a coffee shop, because Gal wanted another coffee, and then Wolf ordered them to stay, so we stayed... and good thing, too!

All of the sudden the sky opened up and it started POURING rain.

Then it stopped, in about 5 minutes. So we finished our drinks and cautiously reemerged.

Just as we made it to the square, another shower hit, so we hid in the bank.

Then another, so we hid in a (REALLY TASTY) cheese shop where I nearly spent all my money.

Then we reluctantly made our way to the tour group, when yet another shower hit.

Yeah, this was going to be cold, damp, and unpleasant.

Luckily our guide, Geert, somehow managed to maintain his energy through the whole tour. He was good at cracking jokes, pausing in the middle of a sentence as a truck rattled by (THE TRAFFIC HERE IS TERRIFYING WE'RE ALL GOING TO DIE) and then picking up where he left off, and had lots of neat insights to share about the Dutch.

Basically, what I got out of it was: the Dutch wanted to be the Socialist-style colonialists, but England got all up in their face and stole their gig. Sans the colonialism. Also, Amsterdam is old, and cool, and generally in the midst of one giant social experiment. Seems far less depressing than Berlin. Apparently it's one of the safest cities in the world, too. Beside Tokyo, which is the safest. Look forward to that blog this fall because IF YOU DID NOT HEAR I AM ALSO GOING TO JAPAN THIS YEAR I know it's ridiculous.

Through Geert I learned that if you want coffee, you should go to a cafe, because if you go to a coffee shop you will get something completely different. I was not aware that pot is not actually legal here, but just granted legal immunity under something called plausible deniability, which is also how the Catholic Church operated here for like two centuries, because that used to be illegal too. GO FIGURE.

Either way, they make 14 Billion Euros per year from the pot industry, so – go Amsterdam, you're doing it right.

After the tour, we came back to the hotel, settled in to our weird room which has two bathrooms, one of which only has a toilet, and neither of which includes a sink (that's in the hallway), a set of cubbies, and five beds. And 30 foot high ceilings with windows that remind me of being in high school.

It's weird, is what I'm trying to say.

Soon we will go eat delicious foodstuffs, and thus life will feel complete again.

The next time I write one of these blogs, these fabulous companions of mine will have departed, and I'll be on my way to Bruges! A town I have to see because I once saw a movie with Colin Farrell where he complained constantly about having to be in Bruges. Go figure.

So – one more time in this blog...

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