First (10 day) visit to Berlin

By Caitlin Kelly

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The lobby of my hotel, the Savoy.

 

I’d heard so much about Berlin I wanted to give it some time, so it was the longest one-stop stay of my six-week journey through Europe.

I didn’t see all the official sights — it was very hot this week, and I have an arthritic right knee, so long days of walking in the heat were unappealing to me.

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I did visit the Holocaust Memorial, which is built on oddly, (I assume deliberately) undulating land, a huge mass of blocks on an unshaded corner. It is, as it’s meant to be, brutal and disorienting.

Loved the legendary Pergamon Museum, with spectacular Babylonian tiled murals and Islamic art.

Took an hour’s boat ride on the Spree, a great way to appreciate the city’s many bridges and some beautifully designed buildings.

Walked the Ku’damm, the city’s main shopping street.

Saw multiple stumble-stones, small incised brass markers amid the city’s cobblestones, reminders, mostly, of local Jews killed in the Holocaust, an ongoing project that began in 1992.

 

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Ate a very refined, delicious but spendy lunch (69 euros!) at Pauly Saal, which has a Michelin star.

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Loved lunch in the garden at Literaturhaus, a few blocks up the same street from my hotel.

Shopped at KaDeWe, a luxury department store that opened in 1907.

Marveled at Walter Konig bookstore, just one of many amazing Berlin bookshops, specializing in art, photography, architecture and design; I bought books twice here.

Ate sausages, drank beer.

Loved this cafe, a block from my hotel on Fasanenstrasse in Charlottenburg, and ate/drank there often; (they have wifi.)

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This cafe is amazing — with a stunning selection of coffee, tea and chocolate — on a quiet, shaded street in Charlottenburg, in the quieter, more staid part of the city.

Took lots and lots of photos, my favorite activity.

Some random impressions:

— It’s really hot!

To my surprise, (and I admit, discomfort and dismay), air conditioning is not much done here. My room, in a 60-year-old hotel, the Savoy, (which I love) gave me a small rotating fan on my first night and it’s been a godsend.

Stores, whose frigid interiors offer reliable relief in most North American cities, are no better, usually with one fan aimed at the poor staffer. A long day of walking on hot streets without much shade is enervating.

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— Parks! Lakes! Nature!

My favorite day here, and one of my happiest days anywhere, ever, was Sunday, when  — with thousands of others — I took public transit to Schlachtensee, a lake just outside the city limits. Berlin has many such lakes, clean and accessible, and this was the perfect place to rest, snooze, sunbathe, picnic and swim.

One guy near me showed up with an entire inflatable raft, which, un-inflated, he carried home in a massive blue Ikea shopping bag.

People were there in rowboats, paddle-boarding, on floats and rafts, of every age, from babies learning to walk to seniors. I was impressed with how well-behaved people were, even lying within a few feet of one another on the grass.

Tiergarten is simply amazing — a huge central park where you can sit by a lake, rent a rowboat, enjoy one of several beer gardens (serving very good food), picnic, wander, even stare at some of the animals next door in the Zoo.

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— Bicycles rule. Look out!!

Like Amsterdam, Berlin is a city of cyclists: ladies in pretty dresses (no helmet); men in elegant suits (no helmet) and many hapless tourists like me, who’ve rented a bike for the day for 12 euros. Locals go really fast and are pissed off when people like me (the rental bikes are sub-optimal) wobble or stop suddenly in a narrow and busy bike lane.

— It’s a massive city

City blocks here are often very long, so your map can be misleading.

— Safe, quick, clean public transit

It operates on the honor system, (with a 60 euro fine if you cheat and are caught). You buy a ticket, validate it and get on, with a two-hour limit for transfers. But (oddly?!), there are no conductors or station agents, so you better figure it all out for yourself.

— Anything goes

Lots of tattoos and half-naked people. Lots of suited businessmen. It’s a busy place, pop. 3 million, but with a relaxed attitude, a nice change from Paris, where elegance really matters.

— Great architecture, whether classic/baroque or starkly modern

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— Rudeness hinging on what-the-fuck?! aggressiveness

I wanted to love Berlin, and I liked it very much, enough to want to return, but holy shit, people can be shockingly mean! I’ve lived and worked in/near New York City for decades, but have rarely seen behavior with this kind of nasty edge there.

Be warned!

It even has an official name, Berliner Schnauze. Here’s an explanation of it from a local blog:

In New York City, it’s often said that the locals are actually quite friendly. Provincials who arrive to New York are the ones who insecurely perform the stereotypical New York sass. Being in the City, in the anonymity of the metropolis, is an opportunity to insult your fellow citizens indiscriminately, when they get in your way or you don’t like how they look at you. After you’ve exhausted your creative vocabulary, you can really feel like you belong. The line between “acting like a local” and la violence gratuite can be awfully thin. I sometimes wonder how many of those Berliners who give you sass aren’t from here at all, just like Claire Waldoff.

This leaves us with a number of aperçus: Berliner sass is a problem of historic proportions, insult masqueraded as humour (ok, I might just admit it’s funny), a commercial invention packaged as a local speciality in the 20s, a stereotype sold by the provincials to the capital, yet somehow linked to the city’s local dialect. Berliner Schnauze is a sham, but it bites you in the ass all the time.

Overall, I’m really glad I came and gave Berlin so much time.

I’ve made new friends and left plenty of things still to explore for next time, preferably some September, when it’s cooler and less crowded, to see more of it with Jose.

If you’ve never been, I recommend it highly!

Notes from the road

By Caitlin Kelly

I’m 14 days into my six-week six-nation European journey, much of it solo.

A few notes, in transit:

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Crossing the Atlantic, England to Canada, age five or so…

The kindness of strangers

It’s an interesting experience, as a generally competent and independent adult, to be vulnerable, to need other people to pay attention to me when I need it — like when I got on the wrong train in Frankfurt and, re-directed by a kindly stranger, quickly de-trained.

When transport and restaurant and shop and hotel staff are helpful, even friendly, it matters so much more than when you’re at home, surrounded by the love of friends and family. I enjoy travel, and am happy to do it alone, but rudeness and indifference can sting without the emotional supports of the familiar.

Extra vigilance

I was enjoying a leisurely breakfast in a crowded corner cafe of Berlin’s Ku’damm, a major street, and a spot surely full of tourists like me — when I noticed a police motorbike speeding down the sidewalk opposite.

It was nothing serious, but it could have been.

This trip, I’m spending more time than ever before paying attention to my surroundings and how the people around me are behaving. Without my protective, savvy husband — (a former White House Press corps photographer who spent eight years watching the Secret Service protect the President and his family) — it’s all up to me.

Situational awareness matters now.

The humility of needing translation

I speak French, so Paris was easy. I don’t speak a word of German, (or Hungarian or Croatian or Italian.) Nor do I use apps or carry a pocket dictionary. It is humbling to rely on others’ knowledge, and their willingness to use it to help me.

I was at a gym here in Berlin trying to explain something, when a young man, clearly on his way to the office, stepped in: “Do you need help translating?”

I did. And was so grateful!

Sharing space

People may share tables here, and expect to do so. North Americans are more accustomed to lot of physical room, in public and in private.

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I love this crazy painting in my Berlin hotel, lobby, Hotel Savoy

 

Your memory isn’t my memory

Everyone has their favorite (or not!) memories of the places they’ve been and I’m constantly told to Do this! See that! by well-meaning friends.

But your memory of each place is shaped, as mine are, by many variables: who you were with, how old you were, your budget and tastes, the time of day and year, the weather, even the strength of your currency, in that moment.

We also may enjoy wholly different things!

I like to wander. I’m just not a box-ticking type of tourist, rushing to every must-see or trying every must-do.

One of my loveliest afternoons happened by walking a side street, slowly, and discovering one of Germany’s major auction houses, housed in a gorgeous architect-designed building from the late 1800s. I had a great chat with the woman at their front desk, a former Lufthansa flight attendant who got married — in all places — on Staten Island, New York.

That’s not an experience I could have planned, nor offered by any blog or guidebook.

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Sitting still is key

Travel is, for all its many pleasures, tiring. Your feet get sore and tired from walking. Your arms and shoulders get weary from dragging a backpack or suitcase. You get hungry and thirsty.

You need to think, to make notes, to just stare into the sky for a while.

You have chosen to stop working — and also just need to rest.

Most of my favorite memories are of sitting still for a while, even an hour at a time (!), watching the light shift and the people walking by, possibly sipping a pot of tea or a prosecco.

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There’s never enough champagne!

 

Taking photos is my greatest joy

I started my career as a photographer, so I love finding images to treasure and frame for our home. My husband gave me a gorgeous little Leica for my birthday and I’m making very good use of it!

Everything is visually interesting to me: light, shadows, foliage, the patterns on a bike or a dress.

I’m fascinated by how different my hotel’s street in Berlin — Fasanenstrasse — looks at all hours — the sky is light at 3:45 a.m. (!) and at 7:10 a.m. I suddenly noticed sharp sunlight briefly illuminating a fantastic stone carving in a doorway.

 

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Routine still matters

I found a gym in Berlin, took a spin class, lifted weights — and sweated happily. At home in New York, I’m at the gym two to three times every week and I miss it. I need to stay in shape.

Routine — although deadening when never broken — is also a little soothing when everything else around you is new.

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That little white bear in the very back? He’s along for the ride!

 

So does comfort

Yes, I travel with a very old, very small, very beloved stuffed bear.

And I’m fine with that.

Acquisition versus disposal

I rarely shop for anything at home beyond gas and groceries, and find much of what I really crave too expensive — and that which I can easily afford unappealing.

So I love to shop when I travel.

But I offload as I go; every post office sells stiff cardboard boxes and plastic packing.  I spent 38 euros ($42) this week in Berlin to mail three packages home, things I do want later but don’t need to want to drag around at the moment.

 

 

Leaping Burning Hay Bales At This Weekend's First 'Tough Mudder' Race

Loved this story from today’s New York Times. Take two former prep-school buddies a little bored with their 20s and create a one-day adventure race.

Who’d buy it?

Lots of people:

But on Sunday, the Brooklyn-based Tough Mudder will conduct a race for 4,500 people. Each has paid up to $100 for the privilege of negotiating a seven-mile obstacle course of muddy hills, cold water and flaming bales of straw at a ski resort near Allentown, Pa.

Tough Mudder has six employees and two interns, all in their 20s. It has plans for three more races around the country this year and about 10 in 2011, some projected to have as many as 20,000 participants. It announced itself with little more than $8,000 worth of Facebook advertising and a Web site (toughmudder.com), relying on the extrapolative power of social networking to generate an enthusiastic following. Tough Mudder has about 11,000 fans on Facebook and has attracted potential buyers…

Sunday’s race will feature long slogs up ski slopes, wades through mud bogs, crawls through corrugated pipes and under barbed wire, climbs over vertical walls, traverses on rope bridges and a drop from a plank into a cold pond. The finish line is through a ring of fire — next to the free beer, near the live band.

There is no prize money, and contestants are not timed. The idea of Tough Mudder is not really to win, but to finish. And to have a story to tell.

I love the spirit of this! It’s so defiantly and unrepentantly British — the goofy, have-fun, who-cares-if-you-win vibe that’s so rare in razor-elbowed America, where people are desperate to compete for everything, and win, even through the public humiliation of televised weight loss.

I’m not in good enough shape for this first event, but I’d love to sign up for November.