I apologize for the length of the last post. Sandrine directly complained to me on Facebook but telling me to shorten my posts is like telling me to apply myself to math. It’s not going to happen!
Before I jump into Berlin, can I just point out my French Credit Agricole card got eaten by the ATM? I didn’t even know ATMs could “retain” credit cards. Here are the sequence of events that led to this weirdness:
Yesterday it was absolutely gorgeous out and my friend Kathryn and I basically walked all over Toulouse, or that’s what it felt like. It’s actually a 3 day weekend because May 1st is European Labor Day and yes, people protested but I slept in so whatever. Anyways, we decided to go check out the islands in the middle of the Garonne so we metroed our way over there and after some confusion, we found the river and the islands. The area we were in wasn’t as nice as the city center where I live, it was a lot of cement block high rise apartments and a lot of ethnic minorities hanging out in the neighborhood.
We finally got to see the huge stadium in person where I am guessing is where they have the really important rugby matches (Toulouse has a very well known rugby team, think of it as their own baseball teams for you Americans) and there’s a huge sports complex with soccer fields, tennis courts, a swimming pool… I’m not too sure. When I was describing it to my mom yesterday who GoogleEarthed these sites as I talked on Skype, I said “baseball fields” by accident which Mom thought was hilarious. You know, because baseball is virtually non existent over here. So here’s proof that I’m still American, I consider baseball as an international sport.
We passed the “Cite Universitaire” Daniel Faucher (a bunch of dorms reserved for Toulouse college students) and then we finally found the mini island-park we had been looking for. It’s a narrow strip of land right next to the sports complex island and this is also where Toulouse’s kayaking/canoing clubs are based. On one side of this little island, there are some hardcore rapids and we stumbled on what I think was a kayaking rapids class. It was fun watching the people battle the rapids with their head to toe wetsuits. I would sign up for a class if I wasn’t so afraid of rapids.
And then we continued along the little island, sometimes wandering onto the little woody sidepaths and OH I saw 2 red squirrels chasing each other in the trees. That’s the second time I’ve seen them so far during my stay. And the 2nd time ever after coming to France for 21 years. It seems like they show up every time Kathryn and I walk around. It was very pretty in this part of Toulouse and I think I’d like to take a bike ride around here before I leave.
Then we metroed back to the Capitole where some kind of circus act was going on. There was a juggling show though we couldn’t see very well thanks to all the people surrounding the jugglers, we could tell they were doing lots of fancy tricks to entertain the crowds. We sat around for a bit and people watched then we went to our fave creperie right off the Capitole. After a delicious crepe dinner (which I am seriously going to miss, America CANNOT do crepes unless it’s Meli-Melo in Greenwich), I tried to get money out using my Credit Agricole card.
And so the ATM decided to eat my card. I realize it’s my fault since I forgot my pin number and tried to use different PINs to see if they would work. I knew the bank would close my account for security reasons and just figured I’d skip over to the bank on Monday to get my PIN. But no, instead in France when this happens, the ATM refuses to give your card back. WTF? This has happened to me in the US before and the ATM gave me back my card!!!! Not cool you stupid distributeur automatique! So I don’t really know what to tell the bank when I go in on Monday. The machine ate my card? Mom didn’t seem too worried at all by this, she seems to not care what her daughters are up to as long as she isn’t directly implicated. Either that or she was too distracted by Google Earth.
Ok so here we go with Berlin, capital of Deutschland! This country has one of the most hilarious sounding languages ever and I think it’s even more hilarious when you can’t understand anything. Everyone sounds like they are muttering some kind of spell incantations a la Harry Potter or trying to refrain from spitting. Last year, I used to steal Mimi’s (my roommate I lived with last year studying abroad in Bremen this year) German textbooks and mispronounce the German words to Mimi’s great horror because I find the language’s structure so bizarre. It invents letters and sounds that are not supposed to exist. I made no secret of my dislike of the German language while living with Mimi, mispronouncing words accidentally and on purpose because I have not the faintest idea of how to actually pronounce the letters in the first place. However, Mimi doesn’t like French so much either so it was all good in the end.
We only spent 2 days actually visiting the city. That first day we got there, we were all feeling sick and wanted to rest. We figured out how to get to our hostel using the S-Bahn (Berlin’s train system) from the airport. Our hostel was quite a ways from the city center, it was on the outskirts of Berlin and we needed to switch a few times in order to get there. However, the hostel was literally smack right next to our stop so that was stupendous.
After enduring the not so great Italian hostel, we were amazed at how clean and how quiet and just HOW NICE our Berlin hostel was! Can I just point out I picked this hostel on hostelworld and I did a damn good job too. We had our own room this time, even though there were 4 beds in our room. No one moved in while we were there so we had privacy which was wonderful. This hostel also looks very new so that might be why it looks so great.
We then walked over to the nearby supermarket to buy some dinner and stored what we would finish later in the communal fridge at our disposal. And then even though it was early afternoon, we were so tired that we slept for the rest of the afternoon. And trust me, we needed it after the food poisoning. My squeamish stomach definitely needed a break and so did I after non stop walking for 4 days in Rome!
The next morning, after a first class breakfast (that hostel knew how to put on a good breakfast), we S-Bahned it to Potsdamer Platz, one of the main platz (I think that means square in German) in Mitte, which is the central neighborhood in Berlin. As soon as we got out of the S-Bahn, we were greeted by a few remaining slabs of the Berlin Wall which was taken down in 1989. That was unexpected! Before I looked at my guide book, I didn’t even know there were still parts of the Wall still standing. And honestly, I always thought that when people said a wall divided Berlin for 3 decades, that it was more of a figurative thing than a literal thing. But no, a wall really divide Berlin for that long which just blows my mind. I still don’t understand why anyone thought that was a good idea, though I don’t know much about the politics of that era which would probably give me more perspective about the subject.
So Potsdamer Platz was our first glimpse at Berlin and I was very underwhelmed. A lot of the surrounding area was rebuilt to move Berlin away from the Wall era into a more modern urban center. Well, I don’t know who designed Potsdamer Platz but I personally found it to be very ugly and depressing. It looked very industrial and the architecture was stark, imposing, and cold. It almost seems as if Berlin is still recovering from the effects of the fall of the Wall and the suffering that occurred during that time. I just did not find this section or any of the sections we walked through to be very beautiful. From time to time, we would spot a pretty church or a museum which appeared so out of synch with the surrounding modern architecture. Aesthetically, the city disappointed me big time.
However, Berlin has a lot of rich history concerning the Berlin Wall and WWI and WWII. As we moved away from Potsdamer Platz, we came upon the “Memorial of the Murdered Jews of Europe” which to me signifies Holocaust Memorial. The memorial is actually pretty recent and was opened up to the public in 2005. It consists of a couple hundred rectangular concrete slabs arranged in a grid pattern and all vary in height. The outer slabs are shorter and the farther you go into the memorial, the higher the slabs become. It is a weird memorial and I’m not too sure what the slabs are supposed to represent-the dead bodies? According to Wiki, the memorial’s aim is to “represent a supposedly ordered system that has lost touch with human reasoning.” I never grasp the philosophical messages art is supposed to convey. I think that’s ok since I am limited to drawing stick figures.
Right next door, we arrived at Pariser Platz whose entrance is dominated by the striking Brandenburger Gate, a former city gate and a well-known symbol throughout Germany. It is also the beginning of Unter den Linden, one of the famous streets in Berlin. During the Berlin Wall years, the gate became a famous icon, separating East Berlin from West Berlin. There were some street performers here, most of them military in theme.
We then headed to the Reichstag, where the modern German Parliament, the Bundestag, meets. The building was originally built in 1894 in order to house the Reichstag, the former German Parliament. The building fell into disrepair after 1933 when it caught fire and was abandoned until the reunification of Germany. At the top of the building, there is a dome that tourists are allowed to go up for a look at the Berlin skyline. Since it costs nothing, the line was pretty long and we waited about 2 hours to go up. Because it’s a govt. building, security is tight and there is a wait to go up in the only elevator they use to transport tourists up and down. While the glass dome is impressive and has several mirrors at the center reflecting several times, the people walking in circles to the top of the dome, the skyline of Berlin isn’t all that great. We decided waiting for so long in line had been a waste of time and the sky was overcast that day. All in all, the view was less than spectacular. If there is a long line, skip this sight even it is free. You can admire the Reichstag from the outside and take pictures. There is nothing else to see.
After eating lunch at Subway (how German), we walked back to the Bradenburger Gate and after a quick stop in the non-denominational Room of Silence, we wandered into the Tiergarten, the large park in the center of Berlin that spans several main boulevards. We didn’t actually go into the park because Gaelle and Erika were complaining of allergies. They were both sneezing and blowing their noses throughout the entire 3 day trip. Whatever I was allergic to in Toulouse obviously didn’t grow in Berlin because I was absolutely fine.
We stayed on the fringe of the park and bumped into some lonely bell tower called “the Carillon” that has got 68 bells. Not too sure why it is important… and then we came upon one of the many Soviet War Memorials along one of the main roads that cuts through the immense Tiergarten. This particular memorial commemorates the soldiers of the Soviet Armed Forces who died during the Battle of Berlin in April and May 1945. The memorial is dominated by a huge statue of a Soviet soldier pointing down at the tourists with a bunch of messages in German written on the structure. It is flanked by two tanks and artillery looking equipment.
We then doubled back to the Brandenburger Gate once more and walked down Unter den Linden which was more crowded this time. We passed by some random tourist shops and a statue of Frederick II of Prussia astride a horse. We wanted to go into the Berliner Dom, a very majestic and incredible looking cathedral with its 3 aqua domes but opted not to when we learned we had to pay to get in.
We then ended up in Alexanderplatz, home to the Red Town Hall, the bizarre looking television tower that spoils the Berlin skyline, and the Marienkirche church. There honestly wasn’t much to do around here so we turned back and walked back down Unter den Linden, passing by the St. Hedwig’s Cathedral in Bebelplatz (which was closed) and in the distance I glimpsed the Deutscher Dom. The square is infamous for the book burning carried out by members of the SA and Nazi youth groups in 1933. Students at Humboldt University that has buildings right next to the square have a book sale there once a year to mark the anniversary.
We then left Unter den Linden for a bit and walked down a street that runs parallel to it, reaching the sort of famous Checkpoint Charlie, a checkpoint manned by American soldiers and marking the separation between the American sector and the Soviet sector of Berlin during the Berlin Wall years. There is also a whole street with a section of the Berlin Wall falling into ruins that is barricaded off. You can take pictures of it, you just can’t stand right next to it or touch it. They also had a replica of the famous sign “You are now leaving/entering the American sector” written in English, French, German, and Russian.
It’s bizarre because while the Wall represents an important part of Berlin’s history, it is also a reminder of the suffering and restrictive lifestyles East Berlin and West Berlin had to endure. It seems the city is confused as to whether it wants to preserve the few remaining structures of the Wall still standing or whether it wants to destroy them outright to make room for new buildings. At the same time, they aren’t really pretty to look at-just a bunch of concrete slabs rotting away.
After this, we were starving so we decided to pig out on waffles topped with ice cream and then headed back to the hostel. We didn’t eat dinner that night because the waffle had stuffed us to the brim!
And here we go with Day 2!
We decided to go to the Bahnoff Zoo, Berlin’s world famous zoo which is found in part of the Tiergarten. It is one of the oldest and most visited zoos in the world and I found the different enclosures to be rather open. Instead of having high fences separating us from the animals, there were usually deep ravines separating us from the animals and low fences. Animals I saw included alpacas, elephants (including a BABY soooo cute the mini elpehant!!!!!), giraffes, gorillas and other assorted monkeys, a panda, some big cats (lions, tigers, leopards, cheetahs, panthers), a lot of rodents, some really lazy kangaroos, ostriches, rhinos, a variety of birds including some rather deformed looking chickens, wild dogs (white wolves which I took several pictures because I heart wolves and some other cute but probably ferocious canines), some funny looking wild horses, a brown bear, a tapir (not a common animal and I NAIL it whenever I see one without looking at the sign with the info, which is weird since I usually don’t remember what they look like), seals, penguins, and Knut the polar bear!!!!! (pronounced Ka-noot)
Of course Knut is adorable even though he has reached his adult size. In case you have been living under a rock, Knut is the first polar bear cub to be born at the Berlin Zoo in a long time. His mother rejected him at birth and the zookeepers decided to raise him themselves. He attracted worldwide media attention because a baby polar bear is absolutely adorable–a little white bundle of fluff. That actually reminds me of Milou when he hasn’t gotten a haircut in a few months. He now has his own enclosure separate from the other polar bears. Which is weird because we didn’t see the other polar bears while we were there so I guess we missed that tank. So Kanoot is 2 years old now and he is still as playful as… I guess a polar bear cub. He had a bunch of toys with him that he kept throwing around and diving in after to the delight of the crowd of fans lined up in front of his exhibit. I took many pictures as he splashed around and it was refreshing to see a polar bear bopping around and having fun as opposed to the Bronx Zoo polar bears that just lie there like a clump of rocks and stare at the zoo visitors all looking rather bored. I guess Kanoot is still young so he still has that spark of youth in him. Here is hoping that he doesn’t lose it as he gets older. Maybe the zookeepers can find him a girlfriend because to keep him busy and entertained (yes, yes all puns intended), because as of right now he’s all alone in his tank right now. I don’t want him to become another bored zoo animal.
We learned after leaving Berlin some lady got mauled by a polar bear at the zoo the day after we visited. Seriously, trouble seemed to be following us from country to country up til this point: the earthquake in Italy, a polar bear attack at the Berlin Zoo… The article we read described the woman as jumping into the tank during feeding time which honestly is just ludicrous. It seems like it was mostly the woman’s fault and while the picture of the bear attacking the woman was scary, zookeepers were able to distract it while others attended to the woman. The world is full of crazies!
The zoo was fun though I think it’s lost a lot of the hold it used to have on me as a kid when I was amazed at seeing so many wild animals so close together. I’m not saying I don’t like zoos or that raising animals in captivity is cruel. But the bored zoo animals depress me and it’s only when you see animals like Kanoot having fun that you are reassured that any of them have any spirit and enjoy life.
After the zoo, we briefly checked out Kaiser-Wilhelm church-turned-museum in the zoo’s vicinity. The church’s spire was destroyed in the WWII bombing raids and was left the way it was as a stark reminder of the war. It is rather chilling to see where the spire broke off and you clearly can see the church is missing part of its roof. According to my guide book, it’s now some kind of photography museum or something like that.
We then took the S-Bahn to the East Side Gallery, the longest section still standing of the Berlin Wall covered in paintings/murals. When the Wall first came down in 1989, artists gathered together to paint the east side of the Berlin Wall. A lot of the paintings celebrate the end of the division between East and West Berlin and the reunification of Germany. Some of them depict the suffering and heartache the Wall caused. I’ll admit, I was very impressed by a lot of the murals, some of which were partially restored in 2000. A lot of visitors have vandalized these works of art, either by writing over the murals or adding their own graffiti. I hope one day this open air gallery is completely restored one day and that it becomes illegal to add your own graffiti to the Wall. Honestly a lot of the graffiti covering up the murals are ugly and not as creative as the original paintings. If you do go to Berlin, I suggest you check out the East Side Gallery. There really isn’t much to do in the vicinity but it’s a quick S-Bahn stop away from everything.
Then we went back to the hostel and ate dinner finishing up the leftovers we had bought at the supermarket at our fantastic hostel.
So that was Berlin. Overall I didn’t really like it. It is reputed for its nightlife but our hostel was so far from the city center, there really was no point in going out. Actually, we didn’t go out at all while we traveled together which was probably just as well since partying= money which I am in short supply of. (I did go out a little in Scotland with Megan) I’m not saying the people were unfriendly, in fact that seemed the opposite. Some Germans thought I looked German since one girl addressed me in German at the hostel and I had a few other random encounters. We do have a smidgen of German on my mom’s side, or I believe we do. But it doesn’t really count, it’s overshadowed by those annoying Irish roots which is the reason I can’t tan.
However Berlin has a very rich history that extends beyond the 20th century that I know very little about. Maybe I didn’t go see the things you were supposed to see in Berlin. I did read in my book that there was some grand castle outside of Berlin we could have visited and the remains of an actual concentration camp. But we were only there for 2 days and I think we covered the most important sights.
I wouldn’t mind visiting Germany again because I know there is more to a country than its capital. I’m just going to skip Berlin next time and hopefully hire Mimi as my tour guide/interpreter.
I still have Athens and Scotland to cover so stay tuned for further updates, possibly this week.
Until the next update,
your fave European correspondent,
PS. Do you like the new interactive map and live feedjit thing I installed on my blog? Now I can keep track of my readers! There are some random places on the map and feed that surprise me because I have absolutely no idea who those people are. And I’m wondering how the heck they found this blog. I don’t know anyone in Cairo, Egypt or Sweden or even Bulgaria… And while I keep erasing myself on the feed every time I log on, there are other people in Toulouse coming here. So while now I know who isn’t reading my blog, there are some people whom I don’t know that are! Welcome to my blog, I guess!
And Mom, I won’t feel bad if our town never shows up because you and a few select people are getting the email update notifications.