Sunday, January 20, 2013


Berlin has treated us quite well.  Despite our strict budget, we've been able to afford quite an extensive spread of delicious food, including Vietnamese, Indian, German, and Ethiopian.  We've had a fine share of German beers on tap from local bars or bottles from corner stores.  We've met a few new acquaintances and spent time with old friends. 

Eating with friends at an Ethiopian restaurant

Traditional Vietnamese Pho, a spicy chicken soup
One of Berlin's famous street foods- currywurst
 This city is extremely multicultural and progressive.  Walking the streets, you'll pass 20- and 30-somethings crushing gravel with their combat boots and looking like someone took a hole punch to their faces.  A lot of the women don dreadlocks or half-buzzed hairstyles.  But people are still walking their dogs or pushing chubby-cheeked toddlers in strollers.  The buildings are covered in brightly-colored graffiti, but it feels like a city whose inhabitants are simply marking their territory, not vandalizing another's property.  Pushing through any door, be it to a cafe, mini mart, or antique store, you'll feel welcomed.  The people aren't overly friendly; something about the way they react to your entrance makes you feel like you belong.  Almost everyone speaks at least a little English.  The most run-down, crumbling buildings will surprise you with a huge sign for cocktail specials in the window.  A set of rickety old metal stairs might lead to the best currywurst stand in town.

Some interesting characters strolling towards Berlin's Fashion Week festivities

 Berlin seems to have nothing to hide.  Despite the recent ban on smoking indoors, patrons of most bars and pubs feel perfectly comfortable smoking inside.  You can walk through certain parks and have multiple offers for, "Looking for a fun time?" or "Weed... cocaine...ecstasy."  Certain districts host a long line of women scantily dressed calling out to passers by and oncoming traffic, no doubt shivering in the Berlin winter, but putting themselves out there nonetheless.  There is a huge gay scene in the city, even one community is nicknamed the 'gayborhood.' The train system consists of the U-Bahn and S-Bahn, one being a web of underground trains, the other an urban system running above ground from the center all the way to the skirting suburbs.  Perhaps the most surprising detail of this transportation system is not the smooth, quiet and clean trains and railways, but the fact that the system is run on the honor system.  Ticket machines are located at every station and stop, but there are no ticket takers.  You buy your ticket from the machine, validate the time and date of purchase on another small machine nearby, then you're permitted to ride for the next two hours.  No one checks your ticket or tears off the stub.  There are no turnstyles or gates to pass through.  Occasionally undercover workers disperse through the cars checking tickets, and if you're caught without one the fine is something like $50.  However, this occurrence is quite rare and somehow it's worked for years. Much of the city has been quite shocking, but it's part of what makes you feel comfortable, knowing that just about anything goes.  Even more surprising, with all this openness and freedom, the crime rates still rank lower than in the U.S.

Berlin's main train station
To get a grasp of the huge multi-district city, we decided to take the city bus tour, a 2+ hour ride around the main historic sites and attractions of Berlin.  We climbed up to the top deck of the bus, then passed tourist points like the East Side Gallery, the Reichstag, Checkpoint Charlie, the Brandenburg Gate, and Museum Island.  At each point we were able to get off the bus, look around, then wait for the next bus to pick us up and take us to the next stop.  We passed many interesting sites, but quickly learned that most of the city was destroyed during various wars and battles.  To be honest, there's not a whole lot to be seen. On the other hand, being reminded of the immense history that's taken place right where we're stepping is a whole other sort of experience.

The Brandenburg Gate

The Reichstag

Rotes Rathaus or Red City Hall
Every day holds something new and unexpected.  We wake up each morning when our roommates start bustling around.  One is a German girl who is in between apartments as she just started a new job in Berlin.  Another is a guy in his late 20s from Cypress who studies engineering in the UK and is taking his first trip around Europe.  Then there's a thin Lithuanian girl who sits on her top bunk most hours of the day somehow surviving on the same loaf of bread and bottle of orange juice since Wednesday.  Once we're roused, we crack open our locker and start pulling on whatever clothes are at the top of our bags.  We stop in Lidl, the extremely cheap convenient store around the corner for some sustenance and throw around ideas for the day's activities.  One day we tagged along with our roommate from Cypress on the city bus tour.  Another day we spent in Milche und Zucker (milk and sugar), a coffee shop with the best cappuccinos just across the bridge.  Once we wandered around our neighborhood and stumbled upon a flea market.  Some evenings are spent in the hostel's common room, reading, writing, and planning the rest of our trip.  We still have around two weeks left in Berlin and are nowhere near being short of things to do or explore.  I can only hope the rest of our stops are half as inviting.

A flea market in downtown Berlin

Someone gets gabby when he drinks

Kyle having no trouble settling into the Berlin way of life

Tuesday, January 15, 2013

On the move again

Maybe most of you have heard by now, but we've changed location yet again.  Something changed in us between the time when we left Moscow in December and when we landed back in Moscow after our trip home for Christmas.  I'm not sure how to explain it or if it's even worth explaining.  But we packed up, cleaned out the cupboards, and hit the road.  Well, the air.  On Sunday we flew to Berlin, Germany. 

One final snowfall in Moscow

You see, this was the plan all along - spend a year teaching, taking in new cultures, saving our pennies (or won, or rubles...), then start seeing the cities we've been longing to see: Germany, France, and Italy.  Sure, there are dozens of other places on our bucket list, but this is a reasonable start.  Back to the point - we decided to start seeing these places and living the adventures we've dreamed about sooner rather than later.  The original plan was for one week in Berlin, one week in Paris, and one week in Rome.  Now we have eight extra weeks to work with. Eight!

Presently, we're on our third night in our first hostel in Berlin.  The airport is in the northwest corner of Berlin, so we chose a hostel nearby for our first few nights.  Now that we have a slight handle on the transportation system, we're going to move further into the center of the city.  We booked another hostel for the next five nights, then we'll just have to see.

 Life in a hostel is, well, interesting.  In Kiev we stayed in a hostel, but we opted for a private room.  We only had to share a bathroom with the rest of the visitors.  In order to cut costs, and ultimately so we can make it for the next 8 weeks, we have spent the last few nights in an 8-person dorm.  There are 4 sets of bunk beds, a few lockers for your valuables, and a shared bathroom.  We lucked out, as there are currently only three others staying in our dorm.  There's a kitchen on the first floor open to all visitors, so we set a budget and went shopping our first morning here.  To save even more, we brought some food with us from Moscow, like the rest of our tea supply, a bag of rice, some PB&J sandwiches, and mandarin oranges.  Also, Berlin is one of the cheaper cities in Europe, so grocery shopping for a half week only set us back about $15!

St. Mary's Church with the Fernsehtum, the enormous TV tower built in the 60's by order of the GDR in East Germany

The rest of the month and first half of January is a blank slate.  We might visit another city in Germany or stop in one of the lesser-visited cities in France.  For now, our next appointment isn't until February 15 when we must report to a farm in the north of France.  We used to research farms in France looking for volunteers.  You can make your own profile as can farmers, then you e-mail each other based on availability and interest.  We found a retired couple in a small farming village in Normandy looking for help maintaining their land and restoring their old farmhouse.  We've committed to three full weeks of physical labor in exchange for free room and board.  Don't worry, we've warned them fully about our lack of experience.  They warned us that the work takes more labor than skill, and our biggest concern should be getting too bored.  Kyle assured me he has enough books on his Kindle to keep him occupied for the next 10 years.  And I have Pinterest and Facebook. No, don't fall for that, you all know I love reading at least half as much as he does.

Anyway, maybe I'm just kidding myself, but after living in giant, overpopulated cities for the past 10 months, I'm looking forward to life in the country.  The couple has a set of bikes we can take into the little village, and they have offered to take us to any community events that interest us.  Most importantly (at least in my mind), they enjoy cooking with food from neighboring farms and using traditional French methods and ingredients.  We've also been able to read the reviews of past volunteers' experience, and there's nothing but wonderful words written about each experience.

Berliner Dom, or the Berlin Cathedral

I will admit, my first day on the job with Anderson Lawncare keeps creeping into my mind.  Waking up at 6:00 AM.  Sleepwalking to the kitchen for a piece of toast.  Layering up for the crisp morning.  Falling asleep on the ten minute ride to Easton Rd.  Standing around in the mud, while everyone loaded up the trailers and Pork teased me. Falling asleep on the fifteen minute ride to some teeny-tiny cemetery in Bath.  Realizing I'm far too much of a perfectionist to ever use a weed-wacker again in my life.  When we finally finished the first cemetery, I asked my dad to take me out to breakfast then home for a nap.  I don't think I ever got paid for the hour of work...