Tag Archives: berlin

na zdraví: Prague, part 1. castles, cheap beer, and street jazz

prague square at night
prague square at night

robert and i had some time to kill before leaving berlin and we both had some minor items we’d wanted to pick up from a large city like berlin before heading into some of the smaller places that might not have the shopping selection options one could enjoy in a massive city like berlin.  we split up and agreed to meet later.  my feet had begun to seriously hurt me on this trip now, to a point where the pain was almost unbearable after walking for 4 hours.  i had begun to get sharp pains in specific points of emphasis under the knuckles of my feet, as well as my arches.  robert had explained to me I likely needed orthotic shoe liners, as my current shoes were not giving me any support.  he confirmed this for me when i told him it didn’t hurt me when i ran, only when i walked for a long time.  having had similar issues in the past, he offered a lot of well-researched information on the subject and so i set out in search of some insoles that could cure my woes.

i didn’t find any, so i found a boutique shoe shop and i bought some nikes, confident that this would fix the problem.  it didn’t, but at least i look hip now.

eventually we met back up and boarded our bus for prague.  it was to be a 4 hour ride, during which i had meant to write as much as possible.  i was successful for however long it took us to get to the Czech border, but once we

warm sunshine blankets the czech countryside
warm sunshine blankets the czech countryside

crossed, i became enthralled by the breathtaking czech countryside, dancing by under a doting sunset, as if the sun and the czech republic were aware that we were arriving, and wanted to roll out the red carpet to their new guests.

we passed by a few very small towns with a little river running through the middle of them.  a castle on the side of the mountain, overlooking the water and the small houses below with the sun setting in the background, it all seemed very pedestrian and unspectacular to everyone else on the bus and probably to anyone living there, but i couldn’t get enough.  i put my computer away and set aside my camera and let my eyes drink in the scenery.

after a few hours we had arrived in prague, and we made our way to our hotel. before we had left, robert had researched accommodations, as he is a little more particular than i am, and after having not been incredibly excited about any of the immediate options, he looked up quizzically and asked me directly “how would you feel about staying on a boat?” i didn’t even hesitate. “book it. don’t care if it sucks. i want to say i stayed on a boat.”

and so we stayed at a place called the “botel albatross,” (how clever) situated right on the river on the north side of old-town prague where the river bends.  it wasn’t particularly incredible, but it was about as affordable as it gets on short notice and it was easy to find.  also, it’s a hotel on a boat on the river, so it needs no further justification. the novelty of it was great.  after checking in and getting settled, neither robert or myself were ready to turn in for the night, so we immediately set out in search of a few cheap sights and more importantly, something to eat.

neither of us really knew anything about prague, other than everyone always saying “oh prague is awesome!” so we weren’t sure what we should be looking for (i think this has become the theme of not only my travels, but my life).  we decided to head for the main square.  within 2 minutes of leaving, we were already impressed by the quaint nature of the town, with cobblestoned streets and narrow walkways that seemed to go whichever way they pleased, all under the careful watch of centuries-old buildings with spires and clocktowers on seemingly every structure (seriously, I’ve never seen so many clocktowers in my life).

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…and now I'm in Prague.

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everything was lit up like a movie set.  every building that needed to be seen was clearly visible at night, with floodlights placed strategically on opposing rooftops and any other vantage point that would give the most flattering view of whatever needed to be shown off.  prague knows it’s beautiful, and it knows how to show off.

telling time in prague square
telling time in prague square

none of this was more impressive than the old town square.  a wide open space with people walking to and fro, brisk in pace or slow with head directed up and marveling at the architecture on display, people were mingling this way and that, musicians were busking, trying to impress enough to earn some change from anyone who would listen, the asian tourists were busily taking photos with their selfie sticks, and british stag parties were loudly consuming beer from large mugs on patios on the sideline.  i saw few cities so easily accessible and interactive in europe as prague was. it was clear to me almost immediately:  i like prague.

after we had gawked enough at everything to see, robert and i realized we had both gotten extremely hungry.  we also had trouble finding anything that looked palatable and non-touristy, or that wasn’t going to take forever to be ready to consume, so we settled on a pizza place a modest distance away from the plaza.  it was decent enough, and the owner there was clearly italian, so we justified not eating something inherently “czech” by assuming the pizza was “italian enough.”  plus it had free wifi.

the next day, robert and i made for the other side of the river, on the north and western banks of the river bend. our goal was to explore the neighborhood and eventually make it up to the castle, crossing 2 different bridges in the process.  we first made for the charles bridge, and were a little dismayed by how many people were already there.  we knew that to truly enjoy the bridge without the throngs of tourists, you had to get there early.  apparently 8:30 – 9am is not early enough.  nevertheless, we slowly made our way through the crowds and the vendors, stopping briefly to enjoy a couple musical performers, including one guy who was a maestro on the accordion, and a folk trio complete with a banjo player, a guitar player with a harmonica, and a percussion player playing the spoons and the washboard.  they were all quite good.

as we made our way through the streets, i was amazed at just how picturesque the city was.  every direction i turned my head looked like it should have a frame around it and be placed above someone’s fireplace.  it might be the most photogenic city i’ve ever seen.  we ascended into the hills, heading in the general direction of the prague castle, but we were generally avoiding the main thoroughfares that the large crowds were following along.  whenever one of us would see some small alley or side street that looked interesting, we’d motion to the other to signal we were deviating from the path in search of something less trodden.  this behavior eventually led us to a large “tv tower” on the western hillside that sported, in my opinion, the best view of the entire city.  these tv towers are indicative of most significant cities in central europe and east, particularly anything that at one point was under soviet control.  imagine an air traffic control tower that you might see at your airport, then imagine it looking a little more like it was from the jetsons, and now you have a tv tower.  these things served as watchtowers that one could see incoming threats and send/receive radio transmission for 360 degrees.

so robert and i paid 5 euros to enter and climb the 200 or so stairs to get to the top and take in the view.  it was magnificent, and totally worth the cost.

the prague riverfront on a hazy morning
the prague riverfront on a hazy morning

after snapping photos and taking enough video, we descended and made our way to the castle.  on our way there, we wandered by a centuries-old underground monastery that now had a restaurant friendly towards tourists (how nice).  i insisted we stop inside so i could sample some of the “blueberry beer” advertised on a chalkboard out front.  i ordered a bowl of goulash to balance out the beer and enjoyed the cave-like structure around me.  it was dimly lit with rounded and arched ceilings that seemed to follow no rhythm except whatever the earth had given the constructors to work with whenever the place had been built.

after the monastery, we wandered by a cathedral and crossed a few more small squares before finally finding the prague castle.  by the time we got there, it was closing time, so there was no opportunity to ascend into the towers or enter into the structure, but i was okay with that.  typically in my experience, when you get to the top of the biggest, coolest point of interest within a city, you lose your ability to appreciate the biggest, coolest point of interest within a city.  i was much happier having found the tv tower earlier (actually a little taller than the castle, but not nearly as impressive looking) and having paid significantly less for my ascension to the top.

that night robert and I found somewhere to eat where robert made a very annoying observation.  well, it was very annoying for him, but for me, it was one of my favorite things about my time with robert.  he became visibly frustrated that, at every single place we had been to in prague (which was probably 5 or 6 restaurants at this point), water was more expensive than beer, usually by at least a euro.  i started laughing joyously.  finally one of my vices was paying dividends instead of costing them.  robert good naturedly picked up on the humor of the situation and this scenario became a ritual of every place we went in prague.  we’d pick a restaurant and he would immediately find the beverages section on the menu and would let out a sigh of exasperation and would read the cost of a water versus a beer aloud, to which i would appreciatively laugh.

robert had tracked our steps that day with a pedometer app he has on his iphone 6.  he mentioned we had walked somewhere around 20 miles that day.  that explained why my feet hurt so bad (coupled with the issues i was starting to develop with my arches).  i had wanted to go find a jazz bar that night after learning that the czechs really like jazz music, but i could barely stand to be on my feet anymore so i elected to do that another night.  on our way back to our

alley jazz in prague
alley jazz in prague

botel, however, we encountered by chance a tiny restaurant down a back alley where a little jazz trio was playing for a small group of patrons.  led by a violin, a guitarist and standup bassist accompanied in the background, robert and i elected to stand and watch for about a minute before i asked if robert minded if we grab a seat for a nightcap and watch them finish their set.  robert acquiesced and we sat down.  i ordered a couple fingers of whisky and focused on the music.

three generations of jazz in prague
three generations of jazz in prague

we were able to watch them play for about 5 or 6 songs, and they did not disappoint.  to this point in my trip and beyond, i haven’t heard anyone quite as talented as these 3.  the violinist was clearly the star of the show, as he stood front and center and adeptly maneuvered up and down the neck of his violin maniacally during each song, never missing a note and channeling gypsy maestros from the 20s and 30s with remarkable ease.  this man could have easily been playing on a large stage or at a city hall with an orchestra, but here he was playing in a dimly lit patio for a few tourists with his bandmates.  i actually think there was a good chance these three were all different generations of the same family, as they all bore a resemblance to one another.  the guitarist being the youngest and the bassist being the eldest, they were all very familiar with each other and knew exactly when the music called for a change-up or someone else to hop in and improvise.  it was excellent jazz, and i was vocal about it, clapping appreciatively or responding audibly after an impressive solo.  no one else in our crowd seemed to understand that this is how you appreciate gypsy jazz, by letting the performers know that you enjoyed whatever it is they just did, rather everyone else sat quietly, waiting to be entertained.  after the first time i offered praise, you could tell the band was immediately glad that robert and i were there, as they began to orient themselves a little more in our direction, and they would smile and nod every time we offered applause, or whenever one of them was about to do something cool in improvisation.

when the performance had ended, the guitar player came over and attempted to engage in conversation with us but his wnglish was extremely limited and both robert and myself and i speak absolutely zero of his native tongue, so the conversation didn’t go very far.  we thanked him profusely for the music and offered a few euros as compensation.  they gratefully accepted and we made our exit.

we wandered through the illuminated streets and crossed through the main square again on our way back to the “botel,” as one can never get enough of looking at those buildings.  eventually sleep’s pull was too strong however, and we turned in for the night.

————-

today’s tuesday tune is a song that’s been kicking around my spotify account for a couple months now (check me out over here if you’re following along:  
and i just can’t get enough of this song.  its what i listen to when i’m feeling happy go lucky.  if i’m wandering a city and i want a break from the sounds of the city, i pop my headphones in and put this song on, put my hands in my pockets, and happily stride down the street.  plus it feels appropriate to to suggest a song called “emperor” when we’re talking about a city like prague, where there are castles and royal looking buildings everywhere.  give a listen to this one when you get a chance.  enjoy…

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guten tag: welcome to germany, pt 3. speakeasies and auf wiedersehen

reighstag in the wind
the reichstag stands strong as winds blow overhead in berlin, germany

during my time in berlin, i stayed at a hostel by the name of pfefferbett hostel up in the mitte neighborhood.  As I mentioned before, the mitte neighborhood is one that appears to be a little yuppie-ish, it’s very clean-cut and extremely safe.  it’s the kind of neighborhood that has the types of upscale bars that are more expensive than i can afford on a traveler’s budget, but too good to resist.  they are the kinds of places where you can find a bartender who knows the value of a strong whiskey pour into just the right mix of ingredients to create a completely new and complex concoction that loosens the screws and lightens your load and just might help you find an interesting conversation or make you a friend or two, whether on your side of the bar or the other.  these are the places with a specific sense of style, where the purveyors know that the environment is just as important as the libation being served. because if i can’t enjoy myself while drinking the cocktail, then i can’t enjoy the cocktail.

so while in berlin i had read of/heard of some bars in the area that were of the “speakeasy” variety, which i found to be particularly interesting.  the reason i find this interesting is because the “speakeasy” is something that is uniquely american.  it calls back to the days of the prohibition era in the US, when it was illegal to consume or possess alcohol.  alcohol was then imported into the US through smuggling operations via Canada and the atlantic coast, as well as sourced locally from bootlegging operations in places like kentucky, tennessee, and virginia.  once the alcohol (most popularly, whiskey and whisky – yes, there’s a difference based on that wandering “e”) was in the borders, people needed a place to consume it in secret.  speakeasies starting popping up in metropolitan locations all over the country, most notably (or notoriously) in places like new york and chicago.  a speakeasy is a clandestine or secret establishment where alcohol is served, often accompanied by music or other forms of entertainment like gambling.  popularized by the movies and typically shown as the type of place that has a secret door or a nondescript entrance point, establishments typically had a “member’s-only” type of regulation where only trusted and proven patrons were allowed entrance.  it was all very hush-hush and fancy, which is why one can see why there has been a re-emergence of such types of establishments in recent years, despite the fact that the volstadt act was repealed decades ago.  people really like themes, people really like ambiance, and sometimes a body wants a little more out of their bartender than someone who can pour beer into a cup and collect your dollar.

Fernsehturm tower stands watch over berlin. almost looks like a jetsons home.
Fernsehturm tower stands watch over berlin. almost looks like a jetsons home.

so you can see why I was intrigued when i heard there was a speakeasy culture in berlin. i had to check it out.  i had a dilemma, however.  despite the fact i had met my friend robert and was no longer wandering alone, robert doesn’t really drink, so there was no way i was going to be able to convince him to accompany me to a place that might charge 10 euros for a cocktail when robert usually pays zero euros to drink none cocktails.  i also have a specific rule for myself that basically says i don’t drink alone.  i don’t ever want to get to a point where i am addicted to alcohol for any reason and in my opinion drinking alone is where this starts.  i merely enjoy this vice as a form of meaningless escapism; a way to enjoy flavor, and taste, and the art that can be created when watching a craftsman construct the perfect spirit.

luckily for me, i made a local friend in berlin.  when i had first checked into the pfefferbett hostel, there was a delightful smiley face working behind the reception.  she was frantically helping about 4 different guests at the same time and i was quite impressed with her ability to keep a positive attitude and an uplifting energy about her during something that would have made me simply get angry and wonder why I was the only one behind the desk during what i’m guessing is “rush hour.”  over the next week while in berlin, whenever i wasn’t sure about what i should be doing or might be missing out on, i’d stroll up to the desk and ask yolanda for her opinion.  it wasn’t always easy, as she could get pretty busy up there, and often times it seemed to be in the times whenever i wanted to talk to her, there would be some huge group checking in after we were about 2 minutes into our conversation (actually this is the only gripe i have about pfefferbett hostel:  they book large groups of kids in the hostel.  and I don’t mean college kids.  i mean pre-adolescents on school trips.  at one point during my stay, there were five different groups of 6th and 7th grade kids staying in the hostel, and each group was at least 30 kids and had no more than 2 or 3 chaperones.  these kids would stay up all night unsupervised running up and down the halls banging on doors and speaking loudly with no regard whatsoever for anyone else sleeping at 3am.  you know, the kinds of things i definitely would have been doing when i was their age.  but i’m not their age and i like to sleep.  so after a couple nights of hearing this even with my earplugs in, i furiously jumped up and ran out into the hall and yelled a few obscenities and told the kids to shut up and go to bed immediately or they’d never see their parents again.  they looked at me like i was a crazy person and immediately retreated into their rooms.  i knew there was a good chance many of them didn’t speak “angry half asleep american english,” so that probably accounted for the weird look they gave me.  or it may be been that the only thing i was wearing were these ridiculous blue-with-pink-trim quick-dry boxer briefs that i’d gotten a good deal for on amazon before i left the US.  they don’t leave much to the imagination.  oops).

a fierce owl in graffiti keeps watch over his street near hackescher markt in berlin, germany
a fierce owl in graffiti keeps watch over his street near hackescher markt in berlin, germany

eventually yolanda and i got a chance to hang out off the clock, and now i had a buddy to explore some of these local cocktail haunts that i’d wanted to sample.  yolanda is originally from the canary islands, off the coast of morocco and a territory of spain.  she is a native spanish speaker who moved to berlin while in school so she could improve her german and work in an exchange program while she studied hospitality for her degree.  she liked it so much that she stayed and has been there for three years now.

yolanda has dark brown eyes and a beaming smile that lights up the room.  she has a huge quaff of extremely wavy hair that she sometimes pulls back tight, but when she lets it loose it expands into a lion’s mane that seems surely impossible to tame.  one of the funniest things about hanging out with yolanda is that sometimes she mixes the three languages she speaks.  sometimes she is speaking english and she will just wander off into german for a couple sentences before she sees the confused look on your face and then explodes into laughter, realizing what she’s just done.  she speaks english fairly well but with a fun accent and i have no idea how her german is since i speak none.  but i never saw her have a problem with delivery or communication any time we were out, so my guess is she is pretty adept.  regardless, i insisted on speaking spanish a majority of the time we hung out.  i jump at any chance i get to improve my spanish, and i’ve realized that where i used to get a little stressed out that i was unable to communicate exactly what i was feeling, now i enjoy trying to construct a phrase in another language.  it’s like trying to put together a jigsaw puzzle, where you know what the end result is supposed to look like, but it’s up to you to make all the pieces fit.

anyway, yolanda was one of my favorite people i met on my journey so far.  she has an ability to put anyone at ease, and she sort of floats effortlessly in and out of social interactions with such grace and enthusiasm that i sometimes found myself envious of her social prowess.  normally i have to amp myself up to turn on the charm, and then i can interact with the world.  this just came naturally to yolanda.  other times i would find myself slightly internally annoyed because i don’t always have the patience to deal with people, like a frustrated 3 year old that doesn’t want to have to say things like “please” in order to have the piece of candy being dangled in front of them.  but once again, this was just my own persnickety cantankerousness making its way to the surface.

one of my nights out with yolanda, she wanted to show me a few of the things i hadn’t had a chance to see yet.  berlin is a really big city, and one can’t possibly hope to overturn every stone in only a week.  one place I had been itching to walk around in was the hackescher markt, in the

elaborate graffiti adorns a random alley in berlin, germany
elaborate graffiti adorns a random alley in berlin, germany

middle of the city.  in my week there, i had gone all around this area but never actually walked around in it. originally a marshy wetland just outside the city walls, in 1750 king frederick the 2nd of prussia ordered a market be installed.  it wasn’t a particularly nice place to be until the reunification of germany, where it has since become a cultural and  social centerpiece of berlin.  due largely to its late night scene and its farmer’s markets on sundays, it is now a place to see and be seen, and one can always find something to do in hackescher markt.

we wandered around for a couple hours, poking our heads into a few bars for a drink, but mainly just wandering the streets, admiring graffiti and people watching.  we shuffled over to the bebelplatz, which was another thing i had wanted to see but hadn’t made time for.  bebelplatz is the small public square area where hitler and the Nazis would hold book burning parades.  since childhood, anytime I think of bebelplatz I think of that scene from “indiana jones and the last crusade” where harrison ford stumbles into the square during a nazi rally and accidentally bumps into the führer himself, obtaining an autograph from ol’ adolf in the process.  that scene was humorously being reenacted in my mind as i strolled through the square (not to make light of the history, as there’s nothing funny about any of the nazi history in germany, but on the other hand it is too easy to get lost in the sadness of what has happened in berlin, so one must find a way to not become depressed about it.  indiana jones is what i recommend) and happened upon one of the most clever memorials i’ve ever seen.  in the middle of the plaza next to the large cordoned-off area due to the neighboring opera house restoration project (half of berlin is always under construction, I’m told.  yolanda had this hilarious song she kept singing, written and improv’d by her with degrees of variance every time, where the lyrics went something like “welcome to berliiiin, where everything is always under constructionnnnsss” – to be read in a thick spanish accent of course), there lays an illuminated window looking straight into the ground.  furnished with thick-paned glass, one can stand on it without worry and peer directly into the hollowed out room below and see the long and large empty bookcases that line all four walls of the empty space. this room symbolizes a grave in memoriam to the countless numbers of books that were burned on the ground just above it decades ago.

eventually, after wandering around a few more neighborhoods, over some bridges, passing by “museum island” (yes the main museums in berlin are on an island on the spree river. top that, world.), and venturing to the top of a hotel to for a fantastic view of the city, we eventually headed out for the main event:  speakeasy time.

beckett's speakeasy looks more like a random apartment in an unsuspicious neighborhood
beckett’s speakeasy looks more like a random apartment in an unsuspicious neighborhood

i had around 7 places marked out that i had found or read about on the internet, and while i knew there was no way i would be able to make it to all of them, i really was happy to just get to one of them.  we started at a place called “beckett.”   we only had two clues in order to find this place:  we knew what street block in the mitte neighborhood it was in, and we knew that the face of old “beckett” himself would be staring back at us when we found it.  despite such nebulous hints, we eventually found it.  after walking past the place, yolanda pointed out that, in an otherwise darkened storefront shop with a blacked out window, an old man’s face was backlit on the window itself, plain as can be.  It’s the kind of thing that you notice when you’re not looking for it, but when in search it is nowhere to be found.  nevertheless, we approached the accompanying door and rang the buzzer.  after a few short moments, the door cracked open and a friendly face  peeked out and patiently waited for me to say something.
“beckett’s?”  i queried.  the door opened and a thin, friendly man let yolanda and me in, ushering us to 2 seats at the corner of a small bar.

it wasn’t very busy, which was fine by me, and the bartender and the manager busied themselves crafting expert cocktails, only engaging in conversation when they were first engaged by a patron, which i happily obliged.  whenever a new person came to the establishment (which didn’t happen many times) and rang the buzzer, there was no sound made, but a red light near

beckett's "playbook" is just a front for a menu of contraband cocktails
beckett’s “playbook” is just a front for a menu of contraband cocktails

the door illuminated to let the manager know someone was waiting.  the whole operation was extremely well orchestrated and not too over the top like often happens in the US, where managers and owners often get lost in the details and forget that the drinking experience is actually more important than making sure your staff is wearing period-accurate-suspenders or that the imported leather chairs are the correct shade of dark black cherry.  after awhile i began to discuss this topic with the manager and i was shocked to learn that this bar had been open for years, and was mainly just a locals-only place (and it would have to be, because it’s not near any other bars) which hoped to maintain the quiet atmosphere and loyal local customer base, and didn’t need to appeal to the masses.  usually places like this in the states will keep up the façade of a “hush-hush” atmosphere for a couple months, but eventually the need to make money wins over and what makes the bar special fades, leaving nothing but a bar where the staff wears costumes.  not at beckett’s, the manager took great pride in the fact that they make a point of preserving the concept and the clientele that they attract.

after a couple fine whiskey concoctions, yolanda and i decided to try and fit one more location into the night.  we headed south for a place called “the butcher.”  literally hidden inside and behind a restaurant, this one was a little more fun to find.  you enter a small restaurant called “fleischman’s” and instead of walking immediately left where the seating area is, you head right and walk toward the bathrooms.  there you can find an old, red, british phone booth.  in the phone booth is a pile of magazines and papers piled on top of a button which rings someone to let them know you’re waiting.  after a minute, a small slot opened in the middle of one of the walls in the phone booth and a pair of eyes stare at you quizzically for a moment before the false wall swings open and reveals an unexpectedly large room modeled like a large walk-in

meat locker.  we walked to the corner and found a seat on a sofa and marveled at our surroundings.  dimly illuminated in low red lighting, the bar area was actually quite large in an L shape in the corner.  instead of having an impressive selection of alcohols all stacked up on high shelving, this place had every bottle of the strong stuff hanging from meat hooks on chains, and it looked really cool.

the butcher admittedly had a less personal touch to the place than beckett’s, and the barkeep at beckett’s was much more talented, but on the other hand the butcher could accommodate way more customers and also had a livelier atmosphere.  it really just depended on what you were looking for in an evening.  all told, i really enjoyed my time at both establishments, and if i lived in berlin, they would both be in the rolodex.  okay, I don’t really have a rolodex.  but i wish i did.

the night had gotten late and yolanda and i had both hit our limit for the acceptable number of cocktails consumed.  we walked the empty streets of berlin in the night air and retired for the evening.  i said my goodbyes, thankful that yolanda had been open to spending some of her time on a friend with an expiration date of sorts. i was extremely thankful for the time that i had gotten to spend with her, as she had a large part in helping shape my experience and cultivate my newfound love for such an unexpectedly amazing city.  berlin had suddenly become what would prove to one of my absolute favorite cities in europe.

but alas, it was time to move on. the next morning robert and i pointed ourselves to prague, czech republic.

a couple girls take a picnic on an exposed water pipe arching over the spree river in berlin

a couple girls take a picnic on an exposed water pipe arching over the spree river in berlin

———-

for today’s audio jam, it’s only appropriate to pick something as uplifting and happy as the person much of the story was about.  this new song from walk the moon is so infectious, i can’t get it out of my head.  or my headphones.  try this on if you’re having a down day or if you just want to jump up and down.

guten tag: welcome to germany, pt 2. berlin, reunification, and graffiti

the days following hamburg and oldenburg flew by.  berlin is truly a unique city, one that views like a good book reads, where each successive chapter continues to build and surprise, and just when you think you’ve seen it all, it surprises you again.  when i had initially started outlining last summer what countries i wanted to visit on this trip, berlin was just a city that had made the list because it was simply on the way to other places I wanted to go and it would have seemed idiotic to leave out.  i knew that i would be interested in the history, but i didn’t really know why else i was going. this thought occurred to me on the train over from hamburg.

an old friend from my youth had seen some of my instagram photos pop up on his social media account and, having a few weeks for himself to do some traveling, decided to join me for a couple weeks.  he chose berlin as the rendezvous point. i suppose reuniting with an old friend after more than a decade seemed only appropriate in a city like berlin, but that comparison is probably eye-rollingly obvious. i was more than grateful for robert’s arrival, as i was still a little shell-shocked from the language barrier/loneliness issues from paris, and i was worried of a repeat performance in germany (now that i was truly out on my own and had no more options of meeting up with old acquaintances and friends from my past).  plus, when you’re exploring new places, it’s always more fun when you have people to explore those areas with.  you get to share the experience with someone else, see the things they see that you missed, see the world through their eyes, get their perspective.  you also have the added benefit of external opinion.  one of the toughest things about traveling alone is, ironically, decision making.  i thought this would be the easiest thing, because i am a decisive person and i do not have to worry about accommodating anyone other than myself.  but on the contrary, the problem is one of surplus of choice:  you have too many options. sometimes having to appease someone else’s wishes and desires is actually really nice, because making the decisions (or even caring) can often be a daunting task for yourself, especially if you don’t always know exactly what you want.  game-planning is something i have always been good at, but when you’re doing it all the time, it gets exhausting.  arriving somewhere new and trying to figure why it is cool and what you need to go see, what you need to eat, what you need to drink, who you need to meet, and trying to fit all that into a window of three to six days becomes a juggling act in a revolving door.

so i was glad to have a friend along for the ride.  robert and i became friends through a long-disbanded group of buddies that all used to play a particular computer game together.  it was called “delta force:  blackhawk down” and it was a 1st person shooter that mimicked the types of battles fought by troops in the crisis in mogadishu in the 90s (made famous by the movie of the same title).  our group had a “clan” which we’d cleverly (read as:  immaturely) named “cleavage.”  each member of the team had a code name or “call sign” that fit within the theme.  an exclusive club, we really only had 2 criteria for membership:  we had to know you personally and you had to be funny.  some examples of “call signs” on the cleavage clan were as follows:  left breast, right breast, perky breast, saggy breast, fake breast, etc. et al.  the members of our team would log on together from our own computers at home, join the same team, and then we would wage war against other doritos-eating-mountain-dew-downing-teenagers until the wee hours of the morning.  and we were good.  our team members had different roles to play within the team, and we played them well.  rarely would we lose, thanks to aggressive domination from the likes of core members andreas, terry, ardy, Robert, cody, and myself.  it was good clean fun.  mostly.

robert on kgb patrol at the brandenburg
robert on kgb patrol at the brandenburg

anyway, robert is a complex individual with a firm grasp of who he is in the world and what he likes.  a coffee enthusiast, he’d modestly tell you that he’s only just learning how coffee really works since he’s only been in search of the perfect “flat white” for a couple years now.  but in the time I’ve been traveling with him, i’ve learned more about coffee than i ever desired to (i don’t really drink coffee, i know that will cause me to lose touch with a couple readers.  sorry. i am what i am) in just a handful of conversations with him at cool coffee houses that he somehow locates with some sort of coffee bean sixth sense.  he also knows more than most people i know who drink starbucks religiously.

robert is a front-end software engineer who has found his way into freelancing as a way to help him balance out his need to travel off the grid from time to time, but still stay connected to the tech world in silicon valley and beyond that his career has tied him to.  i’m a little envious of skills and abilities in programming as I think if I was able to “freelance,” i’d probably live the rest of my life on the road, rambling from town to town, only stopping to work whenever I found a reliable wifi signal and a contract i liked.

i'm clearly a spy. at checkpoint charlie
i’m clearly a spy. at checkpoint charlie

we met up at a little hostel in the mitte neighborhood of berlin.  it’s a cool and clean neighborhood that some might call “yuppie-ish,” and they’d probably be right, but it’s got a great charm to it.  it’s pretty safe and is handily located next to a few metro stops so it is easy to get to and from.  once we got our bearings, we wasted no time at dissecting the city, knocking out tourist mainstays like the brandenburg gate, the reichstag building, and checkpoint charlie within the first couple days.  when we were done with those, we would wander for hours through random neighborhoods that robert had found while searching for his hipster haven coffee shops.  while i don’t really partake of this pursuit of his, i’ve been thankful for it because it has often led me to places i probably would not have found on my own.   often times while in search of a cappuccino shop that robert had seen good reviews for, we would wander down some random wrong street and find some ornate clocktower that wasn’t visible from the main walkways.  Or we would see some really cool graffiti that one would have no clue was there had they never left beaten path.

speaking of graffiti, berlin has to be the best city in the world at embracing its graffiti.  they don’t even fight it.  in the US, if graffiti ends up on a wall somewhere, it’s rarely clever or intelligible, and it is usually covered up or painted over expeditiously, and the eyesore is gone before you know it.  in berlin the graffiti is EVERYWHERE, and often times it has a very clever message about consumerism, or it pokes fun of itself, or even makes you think deeper thoughts about your own existence. 

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Berlin has the best graffiti #Berlin #CheckPlease

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everywhere i went, i found myself really enjoying graffiti even more so than some of the sights.   i even began to notice some of the taggers’ calling cards.  i could tell which neighborhoods belonged to which artists.  and when a commissioned piece had adorned a wall in giant mural fashion, there seemed to be a respect among the taggers.  they would usually leave those walls alone.  or, if that wall was tagged, it would be tagged around the mural, so as not to disturb the art, and the new tagger would only hit an area that was empty and unoccupied by paint.

my guess is that a lot of this acceptable culture comes from the acceptance of living with a giant wall running right down the middle of the city for 30 years. the amount of decoration and graffiti that came to adorn this monstrosity likely spilled over into the rest of the city as years wore on, and now its just a badge of pride.  but that wall is something else.  i can’t even describe how i felt as i walked along segments of it during the week i was in berlin.  trying to put myself the shoes of someone living in this city during the soviet reign made my head spin countless times.  the thought that i could be living on one street corner one day and the love of my life might be living on the other side of the street, and the next day a giant wall went up between us and i might never see her again… this scenario kept resurfacing in my mind for days, until i saw the following scribbled on a section of the wall near checkpoint charlie:

heartbreak at the berlin wall
“to astrid: maybe someday we will be together”

i knew that it had happened to someone at some point;  it had to.  but the reality of loved ones being separated during this conflict suddenly became real to me when i saw a heartbreaking message scrawled onto the wall with the words “to astrid: maybe someday we will be together.”  i stared at the message for at least 10 minutes while the light rain fell around me.  i was overcome with sadness, despite the fact this tragedy had occurred decades ago.  eventually i moved along, but this moment has stayed with me during my trip.

this city grew on me every day that i was there.  if a trip to europe was a march madness college basketball tournament, berlin was the dangerous 14 seed that was starting to upset all the mainstays and work deep into the tourney.  berlin was the darkhorse.

berlin wall madness
berlin wall madness

i think one of the things i liked about it so much was that everywhere you looked, there were old remnants of painful memories of the city:  the past was never far.  just like people, i like them better when they have a story to tell.  especially if that story hasn’t been all sunshine and rainbows.  the pain of berlin no longer holds its citizens back, but it is always lurking in the shadows warning just how far a city or a person can fall if they are careless with the world around them.

or maybe that isn’t the message waiting to be interpreted.  for the life of me i couldn’t decipher what the history and identity of berlin was.  was it the powerhouse city of the north that was a haven for the nazi empire that crumbled and has been slowly rebounding ever since?  or was the city a victim, that had been subjugated by a radical aggressor in the nazi party and was then taken advantage of by another meddling power in the soviet union, which then suppressed and abused the people and city for decades, and now they were finding their way out of the dark?

or is the identity something completely different altogether?  perhaps berlin is a place that, through ages of darkness and consequence, knows the weight of action and reaction, and now uses that knowledge to its advantage to help shape its future and rebuild a brighter and more prosperous outcome (which it is easily succeeding at)?  surely this is the identity, and the longer i spent in the city the more confirmation i received.  berlin is a bastion of hope, and one need nothing more than to walk its streets for a day to see why. it exemplifies that no matter what happens, no matter how grave the circumstance or the situation, nothing is completely beyond saving.  one need only the will, the discipline, and the desire to restart from the bottom, and any height can be achieved.

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today’s ear candy is a new single by zola jesus, and i. love. this. song.  can’t get enough of it.  this girl can sing, but she has this brooding, deep baritone pipes that just strike a chord in all the right ways for me, probably because she sounds so different than most singers out there in pop music.  i first heard her sing on the first track of the m83 album “hurry up, we’re dreaming” that blew up the whole world a couple years ago but i confess i never really sought her out to see what she was doing on her own.  i can tell you now, however, that her new album is fantastic from top to bottom.  enjoy the video…