Friday, February 10, 2012

Berlin Beginnings

Things are looking up. The city is covered with snow and I finally gave in and bought myself something more adequate than my Moroccan leather jacket. The news of the unusually low temperatures sweeping across Europe must have reached the United States and I knew I had to give in and buy something warmer when I got an e-mail from my grandmother begging me to.

I'll be in Zambia in under three weeks, so it seemed a bit of a waste to buy a jacket now, but with temperatures colder than they currently are in Burlington, something needed to happen, and I have a feeling I'll keep enjoying this very reduced-price teal number when back in the U.S. next year.

This Vermonter was sick of chattering teeth.

Speaking of Vermonters, things are also a little brighter in honor of my mom as she celebrates her birthday today. My mom is mentioned quite a bit on this blog, so it comes as no surprise to know that she is (by far) the person I have been in closest touch with on this journey (mainly because she'll drop everything at the sound of a gchat from one of her daughters). Through the packing meltdowns of last summer, tearful goodbyes, and frantic phone calls from airports this year, she has been my rock and I truly don't know how I could be doing this journey without her constant love and support. I am so so grateful I am out of my teenage years and can now appreciate what a wonderful mom I have. I am so very lucky.

Speaking of incredible support, I greatly appreciate all of your comments and suggestions as I try to plan my next steps. Yesterday I spent a good few hours e-mailing former Watson Fellows who had traveled in Zambia and received an overwhelming 17 responses. I am so enormously touched by this, and it is so comforting to be reminded that through this fellowship, I've also gained access to such a wonderful network of people who have done this before. I am far from alone. Although I'm still on a desperate search for inexpensive housing in Lusaka, and not much progress has been made, I'm reminded of the attitude I need to have on this journey. I've always been a planner and this year has proved to be a constant reminder to let go a little. I can always book myself a few nights in a hostel and see what comes up once I'm there.

And it's hard to be too angsty in as nice a city as Berlin.

There is art everywhere here. It peeks through the snow and covers metro stops, and is found in the most unexpected places. In some ways, it makes it difficult to be a tourist here because there is an overwhelming amount to see (this is a good problem to have).

Sculpture outside a department store in Alexanderplatz.

My favorite Berlin sculpture (thus far) outside the Marienkirche.

I like it here. In stereotypically German fashion, the public transportation system is efficient and punctual and it makes it remarkably easy to get around (even in -10 degree temperatures where you don't want to be waiting outside for too long). I also like that the city is made up of these lovely little neighborhoods each with their own character, so you can walk around and feel like you're in a little town despite the fact that you're in a big city.

View of downtown Berlin from the Alexanderplatz TV Tower.

Berlin is quintessentially cool. Berliners are not known for their friendliness (though I haven't found this to be a problem), because they have the reputation for being consistently nonchalant. That said, Berlin doesn't feel full of itself. I think it has too recent of a tumultuous history to be pretentious, and it's refreshing to be in a city that is so artistic and hip without being insanely expensive or unmanageable. I heard a story before arriving that the governor of Berlin recently said that Berlin is, definitively, a city that is "poor but sexy." In other words, it's a good place to be a traveler.

My visit is also greatly enhanced by Silke's generosity, and the fact that her apartment is absolutely beautiful.

Silke in the apartment, continuing the German "kaffee klatch" tradition of cake and coffee at 3pm.

Afternoon sunlight in my temporary bedroom.

The outdoor market we attended in our neighborhood last weekend.

I've come to Berlin at the right time. My visit happens to coincide with "Berlinale", Berlin's international film festival. With nearly 500,000 admissions it's said to be the largest publicly-attended film festival worldwide. This means that I'm joined on Berlin's snowy streets by Brad Pitt, Angelina Jolie, Jake Gyllenhaal, and (be still my heart), Meryl Streep. I decided to try to be a true Berliner by waiting in line for tickets last Monday to some of the films. It is a complicated system in which you can only buy certain tickets to certain shows on certain days. After waiting for three hours, most of what I wanted to see had already been sold out. In a desperate attempt I asked the woman at the desk if there were tickets available to the public for some of the "Berlinale Talent campus" events (these are seminars, classes, and lectures meant to be attended by 350 "up and coming" filmmakers around the world). The woman at the desk said there were a few tickets for the public as well and completely on a whim, I said, "How about the acting class with Andie MacDowell?" She typed it into the computer and then informed me that there were exactly two tickets left to the event.

At the price of eight euros, Sunday afternoon will find me in a room with Andie MacDowell, trying to absorb her acting tips while trying to act as nonchalant (and non-starstruck) as a Berliner.

Besides hoping for run-ins with the stars, trying to plan my next moves, and conducting a couple name interviews, this past week in Berlin has found me taking in the many sights and trying to stay warm in museums. There are many to choose from.

Brandenburg Gate.

Potsdamer Platz

Charlottenburg Palace

The Reichstag

Gendarmarkt (said to be the prettiest spot in Berlin, this square is home to the concert house and two French & German cathedrals).

Statue of Schiller in the center of the Gendarmarkt.

The Jewish Museum (my favorite museum thus far).

Alexanderplatz TV Tower and World Clock.

And then there's "currywurst." There's a lot of dispute among Berliners about what the best place to get currywurst is, but the verdict is, it's all good. (Note: it is much more appetizing than it looks).

I also really like this "wall concept" that I ran into on Potsdamer Platz. The Berlin senate in 2005 decided to scatter the remaining pieces of the wall around the city as a way of raising their profile and acting as a memorial for the victims of the wall.

It is impossible not to think about the wall a great deal with living in Berlin. Because, unlike many other people living in the world today, it isn't a part of my living memory (I was born the year the wall fell), I don't think I appreciated how much it impacted people worldwide. Berlin seems to still have an unsettled relationship with this recent history; on the one hand, there are tourist sites devoted to the checkpoints and offering bits of the wall for sale. On the other hand, you are constantly reminded that these are actually, to quote a city bus brochure, "sites of terror."

I think the massiveness of it all really hit me when in the "Checkpoint Charlie" museum. There was a small plaque dedicated to a five year-old that had died in the river. No one had dived in to save him because the river itself was divided between East and West Germany and people were scared if they swam in the wrong part of it, they would be shot by East German border guards.

Most boundaries are invisible. In one of my college seminars we talked about this a lot and we talked about a character in Amitav Ghosh's beautiful novel, The Shadow Lines, who takes her first flight and cannot believe she can't see the border between India and Pakistan, despite all of the controversy surrounding this border.

The Berlin wall is and was so visible. I think Berliners are still (understandably) trying to figure out what to do with it and what to make of it (literally and figuratively).

For now, in typical Berlin fashion, it's become art. The "Eastside Gallery" is the only remaining strip of the wall that's left where it originally stood and on it artists have made their own murals.

Eastside Gallery.

"Next Wall To Fall: Wall Street."

It's a good answer, I think.

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