Monday, May 26, 2008

Nowhere but here, part 1: Berlin

Thought I'd add some photos of things I've seen and had the sense to take a picture of here, that aren't sights, but are unique to Europe/Germany/whatever city I'm in. Here goes:

This is the Ampelmann traffic signal. You find them scattered throughout Berlin, but most frequently in the former East. See the certainty of his stride? That's how a communist is supposed to walk. I'm not sure if they still remain in other German cities, but after the fall of the wall, when lights began burning out, they were replaced by the "boring" Western crosswalk signs. When the public, attached to the stoplights, complained, the city resumed placing these lights in town. They're now a bit of a novelty........ we see with the Ampelmann shop, selling all things touristy and Ampelmann

Toronto had its Moose, well Berlin has these guys. All over. What's he holding up? Your guess is as good as mine.

I didn't time this right with the rotating ad display. Ads are slightly more racy than you'd see in North America. When I first got off the train in Berlin, I saw about 4 women in underwear standing alongside the walkway, and had to do a double take. If only.

Berlin takes pride in its sewage system. Unfortunately, the city is built on a swamp, giving you nice whiffs of swamp gas as you walk around the city. Also, this drives the water table up, necessitating.........

these pipes to pump water out of construction sites as foundations are dug. You find them all over the city.

My favourite place to frequent. Booze, smokes and porn. One stop shopping for all your vices!

Berlin washroom graffiti kicks Canadian "your mom" comments' ass.

I'm sure the old folks hate all the graffiti in town, but I found a lot of it quite cool. This was one I saw near my apartment in Friedrichshain.

German goth-punk teens near the foot of the Fernsehturm. I had to pretend I was taking a picture of the church behind them or risk them starting to cry at me.

Tischtennis. A lot of parks have permanent tables like this outside. I had no idea it was so popular here.

A sea of bicycles outside Potsdam Hauptbahnhof. Germans love their fahrrädern.

.....I think this one goes without explanation. The used merchandise wasn't exactly flying off the shelves.

This store either sold clothing or condoms....I'm not sure.

And leaving the best for last, Mustafa's Gemuse Kebap. If you have never tried Döner Kebap, you need to. If you are currently in North America, don't bother; what you can find there is not the real thing. However, if you are in Berlin, stop by Mustafa's, outside the Mehringdamm U-Bahn station. We were told it was the best in the city and so we went, and we were not disappointed. It's all about the care they put into it. The twist of lemon at the end alone made the experience, let alone the singing while preparing our order.

Friday, May 23, 2008

Salzsäure - don't put it on your potato chips!

After looking for a while today for hydrochloric acid, probably one of the most common of all laboratory chemicals, and not finding it, I was quite surprised. Turns out that in Germany, hydrochloric acid is actually salzsäure, literally "salt acid". apparently German just as full of silly trivial names as any other language. Take that, stereotype of the careful, meticulous German scientist. Us English-speakers tend to think we're the only ones with the ability to make simple things difficult, but it looks like people everywhere do it. People are people, no matter where you are.

Wednesday, May 14, 2008

Die Berliner Mauer

Growing up, I was roughly aware of this thing known as the Berlin Wall and apparently it had something to do with the fall of communism, but beyond that I had no knowledge of what the Wall was, what it symbolized, or how it really impacted the lives of the people of the GDR.

 DSC01800 Restored/Preserved section of the two walls with Death Strip at the Berliner Mauer Memorial

I didn't realize until I got here in Berlin just how much of an impact these 300 km or so of concrete, rebar, and sewage piping have had on this city, but it is clear and remains to this day. The wall divided a city, a culture, families and friends, many had no communication with each other for the entire 28 years the wall was intact.

DSC01788 Wall mural (restored) in the East Side Gallery

Following the fall of the wall, two cultures, formerly together, then separated for 28 years, were reunited. The scars, however, still remain almost 20 years later and will likely stay for a lot longer. Interestingly, a lot of the coolest parts of the city lie in East Berlin, possibly because of chance/strategy during the bombing raids of WWII, possibly because the communists (GDR) wanted to show off to the Westerners who could see across the wall into East Berlin, or maybe the new construction that has occurred over the last 20 years has focused on building up the East even more, as there is a new opportunity for monumental construction. Very likely it is a combination of all three.


Wall near the Third Reich Air Force Ministry (GDR Ministry of Ministries)

Not a whole lot of the wall is left to see. There are a few places where portions still stand, however. Sadly, the wall has been damaged a lot by tourists chipping off pieces of the wall for souvenirs, destroying it in the process. In several places, the wall has been very badly eroded by "wall-peckers" and is now kept behind a fence. Oh the irony.

DSC01794 Painting (Restored) on the East Side Gallery

An interesting thing to try to get your mind around is that while West Berlin was surrounded on all sides be Eastern Germany, the wall was built to keep the East German people within East Germany, that is out of West Berlin. The wall kept citizens of the GDR within the communist sea surrounding an "island of capitalism" - (Tour guide's words, not mine). It's a unique situation to be put in. People were breaking into, instead of out of, an area.

DSC01762 Unrestored section of the East Side Gallery

All in all the wall serves as a real reminder for how different ideologies can lead down a dangerous pathway ultimately resulting in tragedy. The people of Germany are a people who remember their past, apologise for their mistakes, and move forward into the future determined not to repeat their missteps. Reminders of this are a daily presence that keep the past from repeating. I feel inspired to take the philosophy of the German people with me and move forward, determined to make my mark and bring about change for the better, but always remembering my past.

Tuesday, May 13, 2008


Potsdam is a city southwest of Berlin, distinct from Berlin, but included in the same public transit system, so reasonably close. The city is covered in green space, and hidden throughout are tons of churches, Prussian palaces, and all sorts of cool stuff. That being said, my favorite thing about the city was that it is intensely quiet and slow-paced. The only people who seemed to need to be anywhere were me and all the other tourists (typically much older than the average Berlin tourist, by the way). Here's a small sample of the sights in Potsdam:

Alt Rathaus (Old Town Hall)

Potsdam Bells

Belvedere auf dem Pfingstberg

Schloss Sanssouci

Schloss Cecilienhof - site of the 1945 Potsdam conference

Sunday, May 11, 2008

Er fahrt sehr gut

One of the best things about learning a new language is finding unintentionally funny phrases. There's a lot of German words that sound similar but mean completely different things in English, making for some interesting misunderstandings and some fun language classes. I'm sure that the same occurs when anyone listens to me attempt to speak German.

The nice thing is, this gives me a get out of jail free card. I can walk up to some huge guy, tell him that his mother wears army boots in German, and then say that it was a misunderstanding because I speak English. We can both laugh about it as he beats the living tar out of me.

In fact, it also works the other way too.

Me: "Your mother was a hamster and your father reeked of elderberries!"
Random passerby: "What?"
Me: "Ha ha. Entschuldigung. Ich spreche Deutsch. I meant to say: 'What a nice day for a walk outside!' "

.......and because I can't help myself:

Germans like to fahrt. Many look forward to enjoying long, relaxing fahrts. Often, they will fahrt together and enjoy food while fahrt-ing. There's nothing better to help you forget about work than to just unwind while you fahrt. I am fahrt-ing right now, and have been for more than a week now. I think everybody enjoys a nice, relaxing fahrt.

Edit: Now I actually understand the language, I realize that the word I was looking for was reisen, or perhaps feiren, but not fahren. Let it stand, however, to be proof of my naievetee. And let the last word show that I still have no idea how to spell.

Saturday, May 10, 2008

Start the day off right!

Something about your 80-year-old landlady offering you a beer right after waking up is both slightly embarrassing and extremely awesome at the same time. I love this country.

Wednesday, May 7, 2008

Oh, the Black Swamp

The Reichstag

So Berlin seems to be a city with a lot more history than any that I've experienced before (that's not saying much). With the economic destruction wrought by reparations and subsequent hyperinflation in the 20s, the rise and fall of the Third Reich, and the division of the city by the wall and then reunification, there's been more happen here in the last hundred years than most other cities this size. The city is actively growing, expanding, but at the same time preserving the history present in the city.

Third Reich Air Force Ministry - the typical Nazi architecture

Me, being largely naive to the last hundred years' history sure learned a lot my first day here. Prussian, Nazi, Communist and modern architecture abounds all around. I cross the former wall line on a daily basis to go to classes. The building I live in is truly in the communist style of not having any more space than absolutely necessary for life, and the building seems to be built in the mentality of cheapest possible construction. Headed to the bus stop I pass traditional Third Reich buildings that look like prisons, and tower over you, making you feel truly tiny. It's a humbling experience in general here. My whole experience thus far has been an exercise in understanding how different ideologies can affect the economy, technology, and people of an entire culture.

View from my window into typical East Berlin

Within East Berlin where I'm staying, the population is noticeably older, presumably because the younger left before the wall was built, or shortly after it opened again. It is currently in the middle of massive construction projects all around as the city has been undergoing reconstruction for the past 19 or so years. Its a very exciting time to visit here. East Berlin does, however, have a lot of interesting sites and landmarks, and economically seems as strong or stronger than the former West.

The Fernsehturm (TV tower)

So far I've had nothing bad to say about my experiences here, in fact, it has been awesome. And this is just after 6 days. After four months, I'll probably come home a big Europe snob. I won't speak English anymore, insist on drinking mineral water and complain how no one in North America serves Döner Kebap. I look forward to telling everybody how I'm better than them.

I think my two weeks here shall be too short. Ich leibe dich, Berlin.

Brandenburger Tor by night

Monday, May 5, 2008

Wow, from the plane, the landscape looks almost as real as Google Earth!

Why anyone would want an aisle seat in a plane beats me. Pretty much my whole flight I stared out the window if there were anything to see, and especially when passing over Ireland, England, Belgium, and Germany there was tons. I started writing down what I saw, but really wish I had pulled out my camera. I'll do that on the way back for sure.

Some things I noticed about how the German landscape is different from Canada:
-No wasted space: everything is housing, farmland or dense forest, there's no empty lots, sprawling suburbs or other inefficient use of space
-Terra cotta terra cotta terra cotta: all the roofs (rooves) of houses are clay tiles, or al least that colour, and siding is almost always white, making the houses look uniform, but not in the cookie-cutter suburban North American way
-Canola! Maybe I just caught it at the right time, but about a third of the fields are a rich yellow of canola plants.
-Deciduous trees all seem too light. Maybe its just early in the season, but I'm thinking the trees here just have lighter pigment than the maples I'm used to
-Forests that remain are thick and cluster densely, and much more uniform than the mixed forests at home. I don't think they would be reforested but the trees tend to cluster with like in dense sections.

One last thing: It's easy to forget that no matter how dark it is on the ground, up above the clouds it's always sunny. No wonder pilots always seem so happy. Or maybe it was the couple drinks he knocked back before takeoff.

Thursday, May 1, 2008


So in less than 24 hours I'll be over the Atlantic, on my first ever flight, first time leaving the country*, let alone on my own, first time going somewhere English is not ubiquitous, first time at a hostel, first time navigating a city's public transit alone.....I could go on all day.

As much as it sounds like I should be nervous, I'm really not. Perhaps just because at this point everything is out of my hands. If anything goes wrong, it won't be my fault (and so I can blame someone else :) ). Maybe that speaks for having adequate preparation, but the next closest thing I've ever done was move to university, and then I was nervous about the experience for months beforehand. I think I might just be mellowing out.

Or maybe I'm just naive. We'll see :D

I have definitely found myself saying more and more that I will have to just solve any problems that come up on the fly (like catching trains in Frankfurt and public transit in Berlin), as there is no way I can prepare for the millions of backup plans I would need otherwise. And thank goodness, I think I would have smacked the neurotic me that used to get so worked up about planning.

Regardless of it all, I am getting unbelievably excited for this trip. I can't begin to describe it. I look forward to seeing what life is actually like on the other side of the pond, versus what I've gleaned from tv and books. And maybe I'll see a sight or two while I'm there. You never know.

The next time anything appears here I'll be in Berlin, rockin' hard. Should be good times. Stories will follow.

So.... Tschuss Kanada, Hallo Deutschland!

*I don't count a trip to Kentucky when I was 10