Tag Archives: wanderlust

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…

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guten tag: germany, pt 1. the ‘burg, beers, and a song from yours truly

i arrived in bremen, germany at 5:30am with a start.  i hadn’t been able to sleep for most of the overnight trip on the bus, so i elected to furiously write as much as I could throughout the night.  but eventually exhaustion caught up with me and i was able to collect a couple hours of slumber during the back end of the ride.  when i exited the bus, the streets were empty, and the only inhabitants were small, roaming groups of drunk teenagers stumbling their way back to the train stations after their debaucherous night at the clubs.  i quickly located the train station, or “hauptbanhof,” and boarded a train.

as my connection pulled into oldenburg, i began searching for the mcdonald’s I was supposed to be meeting my friend daniela at (sarcasm aside, meeting at mcdonald’s is actually pretty practical.  you can always find that golden arch when you need to).  in my sleep-deprived morning blindness, I somehow walked right by the mcdonald’s and out onto the street.  daniela’s directions had been perfect up until now regarding the bus and the train connections, so after walking around for 10 minutes before figuring out that it was indeed my error, i was now worried that daniela had gotten tired of waiting for me and returned home.  the obnoxiously drunk students wandering aimlessly around the station weren’t helping my growing anxiety either.  eventually however, daniela turned up and found me.  she’d had a late night with her friends as well (it apparently was a holiday in Germany that granted most people a free friday), so she was a little late.  i didn’t care at all, i was just happy to see her.

daniela pulls off the look better than i can...
daniela pulls off the look better than i can…

daniela and i went to school together at john brown university for our undergraduate degrees long ago, and she was always a joy to spend time with.  daniela was an international scholarship student from panama who had earned a generous scholarship and decided to study in arkansas, of all places.  her english hadn’t been great when she arrived in the US, so not only was she faced with the adversity of studying abroad, she also had to learn the language while she learned the subject matter.  nevertheless, daniela’s magnetic personality wouldn’t let that get the best of her, as she had no problem making friends at a modest place like jbu.  daniela stands a commanding 5’2” (at most) and is an infectious ball of comical energy.  she has dark features and deep brown eyes that many a helpless man have gotten lost in, and when she speaks she has that intoxicating latin american rhythm to her speech that just draws you in and reminds you how fun life can be.  when she finished school in the US, she returned home to panama for a couple years and then took an opportunity to go work and study further in the northern german town of oldenburg.  She’s been there for the last 3 years.

daniela had graciously allowed me to set up camp in her guest bedroom.  she lives in a modest 4 bedroom house with 2 other roommates, 1 of whom i got to meet whose name is nikky.

having both been up late all night, daniela and i agreed it would be best to catch up on a little sleep before we headed to a friend’s birthday party that she had invited me to.  i retreated to my guest bedroom and disappeared from consciousness for a few hours.  when I awoke we made way to the party on bicycle.

after getting briefly lost on barely lit streets, we eventually found the place, and the party was lively.  There was about 30 people in attendance and a mountain of german beer to consume, along with 2 tables loaded potluck-style with german food.  wasting no time, i grabbed one of everything so i could sample all these new flavors.  i also swiped a beer and sat down somewhat nervously, aware that i was sticking out a little bit and no one knew me.

as daniela made her rounds and exchanged pleasantries with her colleagues and friends, a guy named jan eventually rescued me from my exhile.  he introduced himself and we quickly got to talking about all the usual subjects that come up with travelers, your differences in this, similarities in that, etc.  jan was a funny guy, i really enjoyed talking with him, and apparently other people did too, because it was only a matter of time until half of the party had gathered around, some participating in conversation, but mostly just listening and laughing at the ridiculousness of the comical back-and-forth between jan and i.  I’m sure the beck’s beers we were eliminating probably added to care-free manner with which we were exchanging stories, so thanks to germany’s finest for that.

eventually the beer ran out and the clock ran late, causing the party to dwindle.  we returned home.  the next morning daniela and i changed our plans to travel to hamburg, and elected for a quiet day in, allowing me to catch up on some photo-editing and laundry.  that afternoon I met daniela’s roommate, nikky.  nikky towers over people at around 6’4” (at 5’9” all i can do is guess how tall mountains are) and wears thicker glasses that give him a very intelligent look, and this look is deserved, as nikky is definitely very intelligent.  he studied linguistics for his undergraduate degree and is now in a postgraduate program and working as a professor at the university in oldenburg.  nikky has a very meticulous nature about him, and he commits himself completely to whatever it is that he is learning or doing, relentless in his task until he achieves a perfect result (something I’ve begun to notice about the germans in general.  They don’t half-ass anything.  it’s pretty inspiring, actually).

i found nikky to be profoundly interesting.  very well educated and well informed, i could tell that he didn’t arrive at opinions without thoroughly researching things to make sure he had all the facts, ensuring that he could make balanced, logical decisions.  we talked for hours before eventually we discovered a mutual love for music.  but not just in listening.  also in creating.

nikky had previously been the guitarist in a band, and he enthusiastically shared some of the tracks that they had recorded.  the audio quality was outstanding and the songwriting clever, i really enjoyed it.  it was only a matter of time before i was sharing some of my old recordings, and before long we had grabbed a couple of his guitars and turned the living room in to a practice studio.  we played for a couple hours, figuring out how to play a couple old weezer tunes and some coldplay throwbacks and then performed them for daniela when she wandered downstairs to hear where the noise was coming from.  even threw a little tom petty in the mix before improvising and making up a couple of our own blues jams.  It was so fun, and nicky was a surgeon on his guitar.  any time i gave him the nod to take a turn at improvisation his fingers would fly into an incendiary flurry of musical activity.  fitting with his personality, he was almost perfect, never missing a note and always knowing just how long to go before throwing it back over to me.  I was playing a 12-string guitar of nikky’s that hadn’t been getting much use lately, so needless to say my lead improv attempts were somewhat limited by the burden of having twice as many strings to manage, so I typically focused on rhythm and vocals.  it didn’t sound particularly amazing, but it was a blast.

eventually we got hungry and started preparing our feast for the evening.  we bought steaks, vegetables, bread (always bread with germans. Never take their bread, lest they start a revolution) and wine.  nikky handled the steaks, electing to slow cook them over the stove, while daniela and i handled the chopping and cutting of the vegetables and salad and bread.  When the food was ready, we ate like royalty.

at the end of the evening we retired well-fed and well entertained by a quiet day in oldenburg, germany.

the next day was a quick one, daniela and i boarded an afternoon train bound for hamburg.  during the train ride we caught up on life, what we’d both been doing the last 8 years since we’d last seen each other, we talked about the future, what she plans to do long term, if she’d be staying in Germany, etc.  she tried to teach me some german, which I hilariously could not get a grip on for the life of me.  it’s not an easy language.

eventually we got to hamburg, but it was already getting dark and it was a sunday night, so there wasn’t really much going on.  one problem i had realized with our friendship is that we both like to sleep in, so all 3 days i had spent with daniela had gotten extremely late starts because neither of us was in a rush to get up at any point.  and if someone lets me sleep… I’ll sleep.  and sleep.  and sleep.

anyway, we wandered the streets, searching for the neighborhood where the beatles cut their teeth before they changed the world with their well-honed signature sound.  we poked our heads into a couple bars but were disappointed to find them basically empty.  nevertheless, it was a fun city to walk around in, and one that is also well known for having rather loose laws as it relates to vices.  we walked by the sex shops and strip clubs, snickering at the creepy old men who would linger by the front doors, then glance around furtively to make sure no one familiar was watching, and then dart inside, in search of something unholy and carnal.  eventually we found an old pub with a female bartender and a security guy who were laughing loudly, careless that there was absolutely no one in their bar.  we decided to be keep them some company.

after a couple rounds, the bartender sent a couple more drinks our way, courtesy of the bar.  people started to filter in and then a local acoustic act set up shop in the corner and began playing music for the small crowd that had gathered.  It was decent music, but the volume was way too loud, so eventually we left.  it had gotten late, and i was headed to berlin the next morning.  time to go.

i thanked daniela for the hospitality and the fun, it had been a truly enjoyable weekend, and she had helped set the foundation for what would prove to be a very fun time in germany

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this episode’s music selection is a little different.  i had mentioned in the beginning of this blog that i would be getting back in touch with my creative side, and i didn’t just mean writing prose.  before i left on this journey, i had a sudden surge of inspiration and started writing some music again for the first time in 5 years. i then did my best to record as much as i could before i left for iceland.  the following is a rough recording i put together using my own instruments and cheap recording equipment at home over the course of about a week.  it is far from professional, but very personal, so i want to share it with anyone whom is following me on this journey these past few months.  feel free to offer feedback if you choose or pass along to others if you enjoy it or think someone else might enjoy the message.  or if they just like a good song with harmonica in it…

Why Europe?

last night i was having a drink with someone and we were having this wonderful wandering conversation, drifting from one topic to the next without any specific direction or goal.  it was a refreshing interaction for me, and one that surprised me.  over the last 5 years i’ve allowed myself to fall into a sort of manic style of conversation that you get when you’re trying to arrive directly to the point of the interaction.  you cull the talking points, distill them down to actionable directives, and then you try to do the same for whatever your takeaways from the meeting should be so you know what productive actions should come from the interaction,  all in the interest of saving time and boosting efficiency.  this is extremely important in the corporate world, but the effect this habit produces on the rest of your interactions is similar to removing the color from a painting;  it’s all still there, but you’ve likely lost the very thing that made it beautiful.

as we were talking, we aimlessly drifted to the topic of my upcoming travels. the type of trip i’m taking tends to draw a general routine of questions to which i have my normal “canned” responses.  but this time around i was asked a different question that no one had asked me yet:  “why europe?”

the funny thing is, when someone says they’re going to europe, there’s never a question of “why?”  among most modern, intelligent, forward-thinking americans. i think it’s just generally understood that most people would like to go to europe some day, so when someone says they are going, we just sort of look at them and think “man, that lucky bastard is taking my vacation.”  and then we carry on with the conversation and communicate how jealous we are and how excited we are for them.  but the person i was speaking with likes to play devil’s advocate and challenge opinions to test the strength (something i usually do) of statements, so when i said europe, she challenged me. not in any rude way, but the implication was that europe might be an easy destination for someone to go on a soulsearch, and if i was indeed looking for experiences and answers to specific questions mentioned earlier in the conversation (something i won’t go into detail in this post) then my mission might be better served on a different continent.  and it is a good point.

but the fact is that there is a lot more than history and art that i hope to explore in europe.  and europe is actually something that i’ve passed up multiple times for other destinations, other relationships, other opportunities that in retrospect never really amounted to much but they seemed like the responsible thing to do. the fact is the older you get the more reasons you can find for not doing something outrageous (in my case, going on an extended backpacking trip), and so you handcuff yourself to duty and responsibility, and you find other distractions or other things to spend your money or time on that are easier and safer.  And it’s not until much later in your life that you start counting your regrets, and often by that time, it’s too late.

so part of this journey is reclaiming something that i’ve wanted to do for 10+ years.  i want to see where the civilized world started, and what people are doing with it now.  i want to see how people live their lives, how they appreciate the things around them, or even learn what  they appreciate.  i want to learn, i want to be overwhelmed, i want to be the stupidest guy in the room.  i want to watch a play in Shakespeare’s Globe. i want to stare at a real Michelangelo ceiling and be crushed by a true labor of love.  i want to wander a Prague street after drinking a few too many pilseners.  i want to trek all day to see an active icelandic volcano and be awestruck by the naked power that doesn’t even care if i exist. i want to dance like a fool (and look like one too) in barcelona.  i want to see the things that were in my history books and on my tv, and i don’t want to see them from a facebook post.  i want to experience it all in the 1st person.

and somewhere along the way, i hope it changes me.  i leave for Iceland in 6 days.  i do not have a return flight.