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Published: March 1st 2009
My travel companion
The biggest sleeping bag in the world, it even needs its own seat!
Ok, alright, I know...you have been waiting a while for my mysterious tales of adventure ...doesn't that mean they will sound even more fun because you have been waiting so long? On second thoughts, don't answer that.
Anyway, I am going to attempt to finish the story of my travel so without further prattling, here goes...
So, after my trip to Cornwall, which is where technically, I last left you, I stayed in London working hard, vaguely aclimitising to life and generally staying out of too much mischief. Luckily for me I got to head up to Scotland for work so that eased the burden slightly and then after much delaying I finally handed in my resignation from work. Now, although I knew I wanted to stay on the road and keep travelling and I wasn't plotting my scale up the Accenture corporate ladder (I am quite sure I would have gone bonkers if I had stayed in that job) I did feel guilty and sad to be leaving my new-found friends, particularly Ali, Esther and Hannah. It had been difficult living an in-between kind of lifestyle, living and working in London but really not setting up a life
How cute are these?
Cabbage flowers apparently.
there and the homesickness or just plain sadness got a little hard on occassion. Lucky for me I had these guys and Barbara, my super cool housemate, not to mention the crazy CJ lads to keep me on the straight and narrow...well kinda! And the guilt, well that was because I didn't want to leave Ali in the lurch, she being my boss and all, as well as all round great person and giggle partner. I think if I hadn't of left, management may have attempted to separate us just because of the hilarity...well, we thought we were funny anyway.
So, the plotting began...One Sunday morning, I spent some quality time booking flights, hostels and train tickets, even creating a spreadsheet to detail my plans and the costs...sad I know. And after a couple of phone calls I was all set...or at least all planned. The plan was to fly up to Scotland on the Saturday after my last day of work and spend the weekend there with the lovely Steve and Jenny, to celebrate Guy Fawkes in style (aka, blow up as many fireworks as possible) then fly to Berlin, gradually making my way by train to Dresden,
Prague, Vienna and Budapest, before flying back to London for some family time, before heading to Barcelona and going to school to attempt to learn the lingo.
After a very busy week of finishing off all the bits and bobs at work and saying numerous goodbyes, including a memorable evening on bricklane with the CJ lads, which turned out to be the first of three goodbyes, Saturday arrived. Now all packed and ready to go, I was off, but not before heading to the classy RAC Club on Pall Mall for lunch with Sarah and Harold. One of the most prestigious addresses in London and I was heading there, laden with pack and sleeping bag...very elegant! And, once they realised that I wasn't just some Aussie backpacker the security staff relaxed, let me stash my stuff in the cloakroom and I flew under the radar into the plush dining room. It has to be said that my accent hasn't quite merged so I can hide out as a native Brit- as soon as I opened my mouth the security guard looked ready to throw me out!
After a luxurious meal and some wonderful conversation I had to say
The TV Tower
Meant to be a symbol of the effectiveness of East Germany and the Communist reign, this is visible almost everywhere in Berlin.
goodbye to Harold and Sarah and head to Gatwick! In keeping with the decadence, I jumped on the Gatwick Express (please don't even consider converting the cost to Aussie dollars) and scooted up to Edinburgh. What can I say, I love Scotland, although I don't think I would have been able to head back to Australia without saying goodbye -at the very least, Steve wouldn't forgive me! I soon found myself, standing in a muddy playing field, face turned up to the rain, watching the fireworks. And debating the size of the bonfire. Steve and I agreed, we'd seen bigger! But standing there, with the rain washing down my face, I didn't really care how big the bonfire was, or that I was getting drenched in a paddock crowded with Scots, while my shoes got covered in mud. The feel of the rain, that was the key. It was fabulous, like, washing away the crazy past months and readying me for the future.
Cleansed, but somewhat moist, we sped off into the dark, back for some chill out time. There is honestly nothing better than hanging out with friends, particularly those bearing red wine! Hey, you've got to keep
out the icey cold somehow!
Celebrating Guy Fawkes/Bonfire night the next day (ok, we were a couple of days off, but who cares, it is a great excuse for fireworks!) it was time to blow things up. Disregarding my Mum's voice in the back of my mind, warning me of the dangers, we got up close and personal, running up and down from the firework staging platform aka the lawn, working our way through the massive pile of works that Steve had gotten hold of. At one point, one decided to take off sideways, instead of heading straight up. Blowing at right angles into the empty block nextdoor, all I could think of was the fire risk. Yup, I am totally brainwashed. I can't help it. It was ridiculous, but there you are.
Anywho, after feasting, sipping on mulled wine and setting fire to all the fireworks we could get our grubby hands on, it was off to bed...I had to be up early. I was going to BERLIN! The 3.30am alarm got me out of bed, and poor Steve, who super kindly drove me to the airport. This was really the beginning of the end. I knew
I so want to buy a Pergot now!
that it was going to be a while until I saw Steve and Jenny again, or at least made it back to Scotland, and that made the finish line all the nearer. 😞 At least I could hold on to the excitement of the travel to come, so I soon found myself in a sleepy stupour, plodding through all the security checkpoints, will a subdued grin on my face (is that an oxymoron?).
Flying into Berlin, I strained to make out the city, pick out land marks so I would be all oriented. Shame I seem to have given up my nerdy over-researching ways. I don't think I had even glanced at a map! I had spent some time on the flight figuring out the transit from the airport and purusing the LP guide but that was it, I was flying blind! But, lucky for me, the guide was up to date and German efficiency was at it's sterotypical best, so I was soon, on the right train, itching to get started. I even had time to take a pic of my overly large travel companion!
Even when you don't think that you have preconceptions about how a
place is going to feel or what it is going to look like, I always find myself thinking that it wasn't what I expected. Not that I can ever really put my finger on what I think that I was expecting. I was suprised by the amount of graffitti and the flatness of the city. I think large city = highrises in my imagination. But considering the fall of the Berlin wall was only 19 years ago, time and history has created a different landscape.
Successfully navigating the train and the metro and even figuring out which way was north (I was feeling a little turned around that morning...I hate that! Perhaps I should invest in a compass for those rare occasions....), I successfully made it to my home away from home. Staying at the EastSeven Hostel () in what was formerly east/communist Berlin, I was soon headed straight back out to explore. Heading down Unter den Linden towards the Brandenburg Gate, I was struck by how wide the streets were...and how deadly the cyclists are! I am still suprised I didn't end up being run over!
Heading for Pariser Platz (Paris Platz/Square), home of the Brandenburg Tor
(Gate) I planned to take a walking tour to get up to speed and learn more about Berlin. Paris Platz, named in honour of the German occupation of Paris during WW2 (!) and is home to the US and French Embassys, one of which is rather ugly and looks rather like it has just been built on a war time trench (the sand bags are a great installation!) and the other a modern and rather non-descript building. According to regulations, the buildings in the square cannot be built in a way that takes away from the grandeur of the Tor, hence the blandness. Amusingly, the US Embassy has only recently been completed. US policy after 9/11 meant that US embassies need a rather large security perimeter...which would have meant tearing down the Gate! Clearly that wasn't an option for the Germans so the Americans have had to bend their own rules! Next to the embassy is another rather plain looking building. Designed by Frank Gehry, the DZ Bank Building which took 12 years to complete, might look plain from the outside but inside it looks like a giant killer whale is diving through the roof! Just on the square, also
stands the hotel where a certain celebrity dangled his baby son over the balcony. And of course, the ubiquitous Starbucks, inevitable meeting point for tours and tourists, ever seeking out the familiar in their hunt to find the 'truth' about a country or culture. Hrumph! On the plus side, at least there are public bathrooms.
Berlin clearly has an infamous past and unlike a lot of European cities, it's recent history overwhelms it's more ancient past. Seeing the Reichstag, a replica with some modern additions rather than build a new parliament, is a bizarre experience. Visiting sites that hold such significance for the way the world views history and how we see the past as influencing our future, makes things strangely real and more personal. Learning stories of the recent past, both from during WW2 and the division of Germany, you can't help but be amazed at the power that people can hold and the lengths that people will go to for their 'vision'.
It is interesting how places also re-create the past for the sake of tourism. For instance, getting my photo taking with someone dressed as an Allied solider at Checkpoint Charlie doesn't appeal. What is
amazing are the stories of escape and attempted escapes during the division. Stories of a man being smuggled across to West Germany in a fake (trojan!) cow and another of a man simply confounding sentries with a tale of a lost passport paint a picture of the creativitity as well as the lengths that people were willing to go to but nothing ever seems to be able to make real the vast numbers of people that were unsuccessful and the terrible things they experienced, if they were lucky enough to make it through at all.
Stopping along the way for hot chocolate - walking around in freezing temperature for hours will give you a previously unmatched need to consume as much sugar as possible - I wound up spending half an hour playing Uno! I love the fact that boundaries between people are so redefined when travelling, that it is so easy to strike up a conversation or find yourself rediscovering the rules of a kid's card game.
Moving on, as you can see from the pictures, I visited a rather dramatic chocolate shop, complete with large sculptures of some of the major sights in Berlin. Walking on
The German Cathedral
The twin of the French Cathedral.
to the infamous Babel Platz, site of the largest book burning in Berlin. Across the road in front of the University, everyday there are tables set up selling second hand books, to commemorate the significance of what happened and to keep the memory alive. If you look carefully, there is also a memorial in Babel Platz, set under the ground, there is a glass panel amongst the cobblestones, where you can look down into an empty chamber, a white painted room consisting only of bookshelves, all of which are empty. On a bright day, if you look into the space, your reflection on the glass provides you with the real impact of what this is designed to provoke - you are the one that is meant to prevent this atrocity happening again.
Passing the former royal armoury and now the site of the memorial to the fallen soldier, passing the Deutchland Museum, the tour ended in front of the Berlinerdome and the Comtemporary Art Museum - "All art was once contemporary". Did you know that Mr Hasselhoff, super famous in Germany, actually claimed he should be given some sort of recognition for the Berlin Wall coming down? Just when
you think things couldn't get more bizarre...
Heading back to the hostel to rest my tired limbs, I was soon chatting away with my roomies, then heading out to dinner with Jamieson, a spunky young gentleman from Cali. Afer discounting the 'White Trash' joint (talk about great name), we settled down for an evening of chatting and german beer. I have to say, that is one of the best things about travelling, being able to cut through the dross and share a meal with a complete stranger after about an hour of meeting them.
The next day I hung out with Karen, one of my other roomies, hitting the Deutschland museum. Man, this place is great, although totally huge. We had to take a break after a few hours to have lunch, before heading back to absorb the ENTIRE chronological history of Germany. Talk about overload, this place is so intense. It really attempts to give a history of the country and it's roots, particulary regarding how the boundaries have changed over the years. In the lobby there is a great map which lights up different parts of the map of Europe, indicting the land that Germany (or
it's states/regions/etc) encompassed from about 1012 or something, until now. Phenomenal. And yes, I know I'm a history nerd.
So that day was pretty much a bust other than the massive history lesson. That was ok though because it happened to be the day that I had the worst weather in Berlin. Rain, wind, the works. Luckily it dried off in the evening and I tagged along with Karen to what was supposed to be a jazz night, dance-thing, that night. She does the lindy-hop and had missed out on dinner the night before because she was off to a dance workshop. Turns out we ended up in the tiniest bar in the world, listening to a live four-piece play jazz straight out of a kitsch New Orleans club...small world or what? Grinning and bopping away, we were the only non-Germans there, clearly out of place but it was so silly it didn't matter!
The next day I was on my own, so I hit the last places on my list of things to see and tried to soak up as much as I could. I returned to Checkpoint Charlie to read some of the amazing information billboards
The site of the main book burnings.
that make an attmept to tell some of the stories of this amazing place. I couldn't cope with the outdoor photogrphic museum (I can't remember the name unfortunatley) so I strode out to the Sony Centre, and the emerging Christmas market. Randomly, I still had no gloves after leaving my awesome gloves at my Nan's but I still didn't buy any...such a cheapskate...and that is another story for my Prague adventure.
Recovering from the sensory overload, I made my way back towards the Holocaust memorial, or, to give it it's full name, the Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe. Not pulling any punches with that name are they? This amazing site is packed with large, rectangular concrete blocks, all of slightly varying heights and angles so that once you are in amongst it, it can be very disconcerting. After visiting before I couldn't help but go back. Amongst the gravestone-like imagery and the isolating, maze-like discomfort that entering the memorial instills, your emotions run riot and it seems that every person can't help but take something unique and profound away from the experience.
Below the memorial there is a museum that investigates where the people who were
killed came from, detailing the numbers from each area and looking at individual families and nationalities. It is so hard to conceptualise the numbers and worse to hear the voices and see the faces of those killed.
After a quick trek past the Reichstag and seeing the que I headed to the extra large train station to see if I could figure out where I would be catching the train the following morning and to make the most of the afternoon sunshine and visit the East Side Gallery, one of the only remaining sections of the wall. One thing I found remarkable about train travel in Berlin was that there were no barriers or seemingly, any ticket collectors. Feeling slightly outrageous (yup, I am a total radical) I abstained from buying tickets after my first ride! Not quite sure what ushered in that feat of lawlessness, but there you are.
The East Side Gallery is a stretch of wall that has been graffittied and painted on after the collapse. Walking along the communist side of the wall it is amazing to see all the artwork, peeling and aging badly in most places, but the obvious signs of emotion
Contemporary Art anyone?
I love the neon sign - All Art Was Once Contemporary - kinda puts paid to my views on modern art, doesn't it?
and passion that the collapse invoked. Strangely, directly across the road is the O2 Stadium, a reminder of capitalism in the former communist stronghold.
Coming from Australia it can be really hard to conceptualise the cold. Frankly, depsite the rays of sunshine, it was damn cold. Cold that is really indescribable. And not that it wasn't going to get colder on my travels I just didn't have the clothing (or some would say, the consitution!) So, as a last resort, I hit the shops! And lucky for me the Alexanderplatz H&M store provided me with a super warm jumper that became my uniform for the rest of my trip!
Coffee drinking and postcard writing, window shopping, Alexanderplatz is a great area to visit, bustling with people and close the major sights. After my afternoon refreshment and an impending sense of doom (I had to leave the next day 😞) I strode off into the sunset...quite literally. Bound for the Reichstag, I was off to visit the home of the parliament. And as you can see from the pictures, it is quite remarkable. The new building houses a large dome, from which you can see down into the parliament
See what a day at the Deutschland Museum, meant to showcase the entire history of Germany, does to a person.
floor. The theory is, that the members of the house can look up and see the people, keeping them on the straight and narrow, remembering that they are acting on behalf of the people, and so the people can realise there role in governing their country. This is a cool building and the views are quite magnificent.
Sadly for me, I only had three days in Berlin. And I can't wait to go back and visit all the things I missed, hitting all the cool play-spaces. If you ever get anywhere near Berlin...if you don't go, I may kick you in the shins for your stupidity!
And anyway, I have to go back...I stole a spoon so I could eat my yogurt on the train on the way to Dresden! 😊
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