Monday, February 11, 2013

Ich bin in Berlin

Can traveling purge the negativity and cynicism out of a person? I'm not sure, but if it can, I think that might be happening to me.  Every time we enter a new city, move to new lodging, or take a new tour, I feel my perspective being let out a few inches.  Better than my waistband, although that's heading in a similar direction. 

One definite area of growth stems from being an outsider for so long.  I know now very deeply what it feels like to be out of place, and as a result, I've often thought of my residents in International House at UT, poring over bus timetables to get to a grocery store to hopefully find comfort in familiar food and spices from home.  Or the European travelers I'd serve at First Watch in Naples, who would peer up at me over their menus, smiling sheepishly as they pointed to items they couldn't pronounce.  There are so many different levels of being an outsider, from traveling to a new city in your home country to immigrating alone across an entire ocean.  Though perhaps a bit minor, I've promised myself a hundred times over that I will never roll my eyes or huff at someone because they don't speak English or they are having a hard time getting around.  With a wider gaze, I've been making a conscious effort to think further than my first impressions or attitude towards people. 

Uncomfortable and awkward interactions have caused me to reconsider my actions or analyze different aspects of the exchange after it has taken place.  When twice in a row servers who were genuinely kind and genial throughout our meals stared at our payment a moment too long, then gave the slightest raised eyebrow in confusion, I rushed home to research German restaurant etiquette. (You're supposed to read the total, round it up to a whole number that includes your tip, then hand it over to the server who stands waiting, in case you were wondering).  In the past I would have shaken it off as a coincidence.  Maybe people are rude because they're rude people, or maybe you've done something that offends them without realizing.  Or maybe they're just having a bad day.  Whatever the explanation, giving people the benefit of the doubt or even just a second thought isn't a waste of time.  Even better, I learn a little more about myself and my emotions through this type of analysis.

Even though I don't always behave with the most sanguine disposition, my perspective now includes acknowledging what proper social behavior entails.  Perhaps not proper behavior, but that which leads to desired responses.  I guess what I'm saying is, at age 24, I'm finally truly feeling the value of the Golden Rule. For instance, when Kyle and I bought train tickets from a French attendant instead of a multi-lingual machine, I prodded etiquette tips into his ribs when the woman's loss of patience started getting the best of him.  When I miscounted and handed her too many bills, she gave a you-idiot-just-standing-there-watching-your-boyfriend-do-all-the-work-speaking-French-then-you-can't-even-count-out-the-right-amount-of-money look, I really wanted to glare at her.  I really did.  Instead, I laughed and slipped the bill into my wallet, silly me.  You know what she did? She smiled! Then she smiled again as she handed us the receipt.  Meanwhile, I spent the 20 minute walk home cursing over an e-mail I'd received only hours before... it's a slow road of progress.

What I mean to say, we've reached the fourth city on our list, and I'm beginning to notice myself unraveling.  In a good way.  It's as if I've been coiled up like a spring but this freedom is relaxing the tight, symmetrical curves into a loosely flowing ribbon.  I'd hoped a year abroad would change me in such a way, and though it's taken time, I'm very pleased with the direction I'm headed.

Is all of Europe this beautiful or have we had beginner's luck in our choice of stops?  Berlin was maybe the most fantastic city I've seen.  The last week we spent renting a room of an apartment in a neighborhood called Schöneberg.   We came across a website - airbnb, a fantastic discovery - which allows users to rent apartments or put apartments up for rent.  You can rent private rooms, entire apartments, or entire houses.  Sometimes people have a spare room and are looking to make a few extra bucks.  Other times people have multiple residences and rent one of them when they're staying elsewhere.  We found a great price on a place in Schöneberg and snatched it up.  We spent a couple weeks boarding with a strange middle-aged man from New Zealand.  

Our extravagant rented private room that folded up into a living room each day.
The opportunity to take in such a diverse city over a period of weeks was rare.  It's not often you get to gain a 'feel' for a place; usually after a week it's time to pack up and head home.  A few of my favorite parts were:

1.  Sandeman's Walking Tour (info here): A trained free-lance tour guide walked us around the center of the city, filling our minds with history and facts, culture and folklore.  She was a fast-talking Brit who took one step in Berlin and decided immediately to move there.  We stood over the bunker where Hitler hid and eventually bit down on rat poison.  You'll be happy to hear there is no marking or sign on this spot; it is literally a dirt parking lot covered in litter.

Our guide pointed out the hotel where much to the public's horror, Michael Jackson dangled his newborn out the window. 

Apparently it costs upward of $15,000 a night to stay in this hotel, not including breakfast!

Our guide also wound us through the Jewish Memorial, where several thousand cold, gray concrete blocks of varying heights stand.  Narrow, gridlike paths cut past the blocks, which grow in height as you reach the center.  Curiously, the paths are wide enough for only one person, and with giant blocks every few steps, it's quite easy to lose your companion.  Just like it was easy to lose your friends and family members as the Jews were rounded up throughout Germany.  Through the pathways, you never know who will be around the next corner.  It's easy to run into complete strangers without hearing their approach.  As you head to the center, the walls build up around you, making the paths seem thinner and thinner, and you desperately seek an exit.  The designer was purposely very vague in his explanation of the memorial, which I think is a great idea.  Without having the meaning laid out for me, I've spent a lot more time thinking about what the memorial means, thus thinking of those Jews who died during the Holocaust.

We walked by Checkpoint Charlie, walked along Museum Island, and saw the few remaining portions of the Berlin Wall.  The tour concluded with an amazing tale about Günter Schabowski and his silly mistake which quickly led to the wall being torn down. If you haven't heard about this before, I encourage you to check it out!

A few slabs of the wall reconditioned into pieces of art

In front of one of the only remaining strips of the infamous Berlin Wall

2. The Irish Harp restaurant:  We sought out live music throughout the trip but only came up lucky with a night spent at this Irish restaurant.  A band called Murphy's Law belted out covers of a few of our favorite Mumford and Sons' songs, along with gems we'd forgotten and traditional Irish tunes.  Kyle filled his belly with Guinness while I sipped on Snakebites - a drink of equal parts cider and lager.  I also doused our platter of French fries with vinegar, just like I used to at Geauga Lake.

3. C/O Gallery (info here): I made my first visit to a modern art museum, and this one specialized in photography.  We walked through a disturbing collection by Ulrich Seidl, who depicted three stories of love, hope, and faith through his photographs.  Another collection by Christer Strömholm was displayed including provocative photos from Paris, Tokyo, and the U.S. during the mid 1900's.  The museum was the perfect size for an evening, and I was only sorry that there weren't any prints to take as souvenirs.

No comments:

Post a Comment