Thursday, May 15, 2014

Paris and Berlin: Two Cities That Make Me Swoon

Everyone has asked us, "Why Berlin?". That question has a complex answer, but it boils down to:

1) It was relatively easy for us to get visas because of Rahsan's career/talent

2) It is known to be an artistic city, vibrant with experimental artists

3) It is one of the major cities in the world, with easy access to many interesting destinations

But in all honesty, if you had asked me a year ago which city I would most want to move to, I would have said Paris. I'm a romantic, so old buildings with rich history and the mystique of a famously passionate city really draw me in. I visited Paris when I was 17, and ever since, the city has lived in my mind as a symbol of a bigger and brighter future, the epitome of an inspired life, the antithesis of stagnation and lethargy.

I still do want to live in Paris. But my eyes are open just a little wider since our trip to Paris last weekend. I found myself searching eagerly for the colorful graffiti that has already become common to my everyday life in Berlin. I found myself simultaneously fancied and bored with the rows and rows of wrought-iron-balcony-clad buildings. I was entranced with the beauty and yet I began to miss the many different faces of Berlin architecture. Both cities have seen war, but the damage is much more visible in one than the other.

I think that a city and its people mirror each other. So, around me in Berlin I see many fellow struggling and disheveled explorers, and perhaps if I was living in Paris I would see more of what I saw - chic, polished, confident settlers. Berlin is mismatched, messy, in progress. There are abandoned buildings, and there are five-star hotels. In Paris, things are precise, efficient, designed. Basically, Berlin is a city struggling to define its identity, and Paris is a city that is extremely well defined and knows exactly what it is.

Unless we have no choice, we go where we want to go. No matter where we are, we see what we want to see. We do what we can to become who we want to be.


Ok, now for some more observations...

Transit: In Berlin, it's 2.60 for 2 hours in one direction with unlimited transfers between U-bahn, S-bahn, tram, and bus. In Paris, it's 1.70 for 90 minutes in any direction, but you can't transfer between metro/subway/RER and bus/tram. Although there are drawbacks to both, we found the Paris transit system to be cheaper and more liberating. (Disclaimer: the rules are more complicated than this, make sure to read each system's website for yourself!)

Booze: Berlin drinks beer, and it's all of great quality, Paris drinks wine and even the cheap stuff is great.

Bread: brilliant in both cities.

Finely crafted pastries are everywhere in Paris. Again, the bread in Germany is amazing, but I had the the most decadent cheesecake de Jean-Louis and tartelette citron in Paris!

Berlin: boots. Paris: Audrey Hepburn flats.

We have an easier time eating and drinking for cheap in Berlin; Paris was more expensive, no matter where we went (except for the baguettes!).

One of my favorite things about Paris was seeing many more people of African descent than I see in Berlin.

In Paris, I saw much more symmetry in the public spaces - the bridges, the monuments, the plazas, the big boulevards. Always a lion on either side of the bridge, or a statue of a goddess on both sides of an obelisk. In Berlin, since more of the city has been rebuilt, there are more random installations and brilliant modern public art.

In short, both cities are wonderful. I'm thrilled to have visited Paris (and am dying to go back), but I'm proud to live in Berlin.

Everything's working out, man. Everything's working out.

Tuesday, May 6, 2014

First Visitors at Schloss Ekedal

Right after we returned from Dubai, my aunt Liz and uncle Bernard came to Berlin. They had flown in from Milan, and before that had been to Istanbul after a tour of Israel and Jordan. They are travelers by nature, which Rahsan and I understand. They like wine, which we do, and have a spirit that lends itself not only to adventure but to family- safe, secure, and welcoming. We four were drawn to each other, with the hunch that (despite our pretty big age gap) we would have much to share, discuss, and trade. That hunch was proven true as we discovered Berlin together.

Rahsan and I hadn't explored the city very much due to our busy schedules since arriving in Berlin. So we were happy to have an excuse to get out of our new house and explore our new home.

Outside of the Sinti & Roma Memorial
During the week, they stayed in a hotel in Mitte with their friend, and we got together in the afternoons for quick outings. On the first afternoon, we met them at the Reichstag, the German capitol building. It was rainy and windy, so we skipped off to take shelter under the fresh spring leaves of the trees in the Tiergarten. We walked past the Memorial to the Sinti and Roma of Europe Murdered Under the National Socialist Regime (which we visited again the next weekend with Rahsan's mom, and were able to take the proper time to appreciate it- more on that later). Uncle Bernard always takes the role of the beloved tour guide, stopping to share his knowledge (with the help of Liz, of course!) with us eager and wide-eyed children.

We kept walking that path until the Brandenburger Tor (Brandenburg Gate) stood tall before us. We took a moment to appreciate the architectural details of the monument, and snap a couple of photos. But the wind kicked in again so we decided to find a warm cafe to grab some lunch and catch up properly. We found a cute place named Einstein Cafe right on Unter den Linden ("Under the Linden Trees"), which is the Linden-lined street that stretches from the Brandenburg Gate to the Lustgarten. We had the two essentials with our meal - good conversation and beer.
As the sun began to shine again, we left the cafe and walked a few blocks to Gendarmenmarkt, which is the site of the Französischer and Deutscher Domes. Both churches were built in the 1700s, the first for the French Huguenots who had fled from France, the second for the Germans (honestly don't know what denomination). The two domes stand on either side of the massive Konzerthaus, nearly identical. You have to look closely to see the differing reliefs and sculptures.
The next day we met at the Kaiser Wilhelm Memorial Church, which was built in 1891 and nearly destroyed in WWII. They were going to demolish what little was left standing, but by popular demand, they preserved the damaged parts, and around 1960 built a modern companion church next to it. Inside the old church there were gorgeous mosaics on the ceiling and the floor. There was considerable damage, but the repairs have been for safety rather than recreation, leaving the destruction visible enough to transport you to 1943 as the bombs dropped.

Afterward, we walked through the Europa Center shopping complex and watched the Clock of Flowing Time before heading into the KaDeWe (Kaufhaus Des Westens), a massive department store where only the rich and the tourists can afford the clothing and jewelry and 1 zillion Euro crystal elephants. But upstairs there is a whole floor of food markets and cafes, and that was the real reason we were there.  They have candies, chocolates, meats, cheeses, breads, and even a "world market" with different international sections. There's even a US section, but it only had kitschy stuff like Pop Tarts, Cheez Whiz, and mac & cheese - but it wasn't even Kraft, some weird off-brand we'd never seen before. We decided to grab some crepes at one of the many cafe counters. It's a very beautiful place, worth seeing even if you can't afford to shop.

The next day, Bernard and Liz checked out of their hotel and set up camp at our place, relaxing while I worked and Rahsan rested (he was feeling sick). Later we all grabbed some 49 cent falafel and 99 cent schawarma sandwiches at the Turkish joint around the corner. We got them to go and picked up some beer at the Spätkauf (convenience store) on the way back. Again, the two essentials for a good meal were met.

The following day was Saturday, and we decided to see a couple of museums. First, we visited the inspiring Bauhaus Museum, which displayed works from the revolutionary design school of the 1920s. Then, we headed to the Lustgarten, which is a plaza surrounded by museums, monuments, and the breathtaking Berliner Dom (Berlin Cathedral). My aunt and uncle gave us the wonderful gift of annual passes to all of the state museums, and we utilized those to visit the Neues Museum, where we saw the famous bust of Nefertiti, the wife of an ancient Egyptian pharaoh. The bust is so well-preserved, with bright colors and incredibly sensitive sculpting. You can see the personality of this woman, and even her age because of the delicate wrinkles and contours. It is housed in its own room at the museum, darkened except for spotlights on the bust itself. And there is a replica nearby with a Braille plaque, so that blind visitors can touch her face and experience the awe of this piece. After the museum, we walked from the Lustgarten down along the canal and found a brauhaus for dinner. We had hearty German food and a huge pitcher of the house pilsener. More beer. More great conversation.

Then on Sunday, we all decided to take a day trip outside of the city, and we knew Potsdam was nearby. We didn't realize how close, though! It is less that an hour away, and accessible using a normal Berlin transit ticket that only costs 3.20 Euros. We arrived at the Potsdam Hauptbahnhof (main train station) and then caught a bus to Schloss Sanssouci, the summer palace of Frederick the Great. We reserved tickets for the next available tour, and then decided to grab some coffee and tea at the cozy Cafe Repin in the meantime. Right before the tour, we wandered the grounds, marveling in the beauty of the sculptures, landscaping, and pillared courtyard. Inside, we viewed Frederick's ornately decorated private library and bedroom, and the stunning marble reception hall lit not only by the floor to ceiling windows but also by the skylight at the top of the cupola. We also viewed a few guest quarters, each with its own extravagant theme. After exiting the palace, we walked down the grand steps past the many levels of tiny greenhouses recessed into the walls (Frederick grew exotic fruits there). At the bottom is a huge round fountain surrounded by sculptures of Greco-Roman gods. From there we made our way out of the park back into Potsdam's center, where we had dinner at a local brauhaus, with beer and... well, you know!
On the train to Potsdam. Never a dull moment!

Back home we switched from beer to wine, but kept the great conversations going until Bernard & Liz had to get some sleep before an early flight in the morning. It was wonderful to have them as our first guests!

Many more pictures at the bottom of this post!

The following weekend, we had our second guest at our Wohnung. My mom, Sunsong, currently lives near Winchester in the south of England, where she is a teacher. She flew in on a quick Easyjet to Schonefeld Airport. One of the great things about Berlin is that both international airports (Tegel and Schonefeld) are very close to the city and you can travel to both on a normal transit ticket in about 30-45 minutes. We met her at the airport because, unlike Bernard and Liz, mom is a less confident traveler and was nervous about doing the U-Bahn / S-Bahn system without knowing any German.

When we got back to our neighborhood, we had lunch at a little Asian variety restaurant across the street from our flat, and had fun deciphering the menu - that is, until the waiter asked if we'd like to see the English version. So, we caught up over noodles and green tea, and then we relaxed at home the rest of the night, and made plans for sightseeing on Saturday. Bernard and Liz are so knowledgeable that they often acted almost as tour guides, so this time that was reversed and we were able to use what we learned the week before to be tour guides for my mom.

On Saturday, we decided to hit the Deutsches Historisches Museum (German Historical Museum) to learn some context before seeing the sites. We were on our way, but had to transfer at Alexanderplatz, and discovered that there was a big Easter weekend festival going on there. So, we strolled around for a while. There were rides and Easter-themed play areas for kids, and lots of food stands, beer gardens, and gift vendors for the adults. There was an on-site bakery making rustic breads in wood-fired ovens right on the platz, and a super kitschy "American" bar decorated with cheesy Americana images, like Native American chiefs, Route 66, diners, etc. That was a crack up. And they were using the Park Inn hotel tower for controlled bungee jumps. Lots of dudes were going up there brave, and coming down screaming.

Then we finally made it to the Historical Museum, which is at the Lustgarten just like the Neues Museum from the previous weekend. My mom was very impressed by the Berliner Dom and the other huge facades. It was absolutely beautiful there again, sunny and packed with people. The Historical Museum was definitely interesting, but we were already exhausted before we even got to the 17th century, so we had lunch in the museum cafe. My mom sat in a very queenly throne chair and had her first taste of local Berlin beer (by stealing a drink from my glass, that is). Then we went through most of the section on National Socialism and Hitler's rise. That was a very sobering preparation for the next couple of sights.

We walked from the Lustgarten down the Unter den Linden to the Brandenburger Tor. It was packed, and there was another Easter festival happening on the Tiergarten side of the gate. It was funny to see a ferris wheel through the massive pillars as we approached! There were tons of kids just having a ball, riding carnival rides and eating cotton candy and "American" ice cream (soft serve cones, that is), right under the imposing gate.

We sat on the Unter den Linden side of the gate for a while, enjoying the sun, but also looking at old historic photos of the gate on Shannon's phone. This was something she'd been doing all day - looking up historic pictures of the Lustgarten and other places as we passed, to give us a visual context. This was a great way to get a better sense of the importance of what we were seeing. For instance, seeing the contrast between the Lustgarten filled with a Nazi rally in the 1930s against the happy, diverse mix of sunbathers, locals, and tourists in 2014 was fascinating.

Next we walked over to the powerful and emotional Memorial to the Sinti and Roma of Europe Murdered Under the National Socialist Regime. This is a circular pond hidden behind a wall of glass with the history of this tragedy inscribed on it. It's quiet on the inside of the wall, and there is very little to look at except for the water feature, and a single flower on a stone in the center. You're not sure where to go at first, until you notice that others are walking around the pond slowly. When you follow, you find that there are words etched into the stones at the edge of the pool. As you walk around, the words form a short and simple poem by Santino Spinelli that cuts to the bone.

"Sunken in face
extinguished eyes
cold lips
a torn heart
without breath
without words
no tears."

This was written in English, German, and Romany. The way the poem is stretched around the pool forces you to read it very slowly, and that only enhances the impact. Finally, you notice that on some of the stones under your feet are written the names of concentration camps and locations where Nazi crimes took place.

Next we got a proper view of the Reichstag building, that we had rushed by the week before with Bernard and Liz since it had been rainy. After that, we walked back to the Einstein Cafe again to get some coffee and tea. This place had been so pleasant the week before that we wanted to take mom there. The highlight this time was trying a traditional Apfelstrudel mit Vanillesosse (Apple Strudel with Vanilla Sauce). Delicious and went perfectly with a cappuccino.

Finally, we brought mom to the Gendarmenmarkt, because it is so gorgeous that she had to see it, and we of course didn't mind being there again. This was the capper, and we headed home.

On Sunday, we mostly chilled out, but did spend a couple of hours at the Tempelhofer Feld (Tempelhof Field, the old airport that is now a park and redevelopment area). It's so close to our house that it's almost our backyard, and it's an amazing place unlike any other urban park that we've ever seen, if only for the sheer size of it. The runways are still intact, but are now bike and rollerblade paths, and the huge grass areas inbetween are used for kite-flying, barbecuing, and even windsurfing. But our favorite thing was a large, funky community garden that was built in a jumble of handmade wooden planters, benches, and creative installations. You're encouraged to sit wherever you want, and no doubt to start your own little plot if you'd like. It's amazing.

Sunday evening, we watched a bunch of fun old movies, and then we saw mom off in the morning. It was another great weekend!


Liz's smile is infectious!

Sylvan beauty

Kaiser Wilhelm Church, half-covered in restoration scaffolds, with the new tower in the foreground

The lovely Fausta enjoying the mosaics

The Clock of Flowing Time

Inside the KaDeWe

Outside the Bauhaus Museum

Lustgarten, Altes Museum

Berliner Dom and Berliner Beauty

Hide and seek, not boring history

The reconstruction of the Berliner Schloss

Berliner Schloss = Berlin Palace, heavily damaged in WWII and demolished by the GDR in 1950


Bernard's second pretzel in as many hours

The Things of Wonder

A courtyard at Sanssouci

I don't what this was, but it sure was purty

There were a few sculptures of people of color in Greco-Roman dress throughout the complex. We were curious but there was no explanation provided.

This is, apparently, the actual chair in which Frederick the Great passed away.

The view from the palace level down to the fountain

A small church outside of the Park Sanssouci

The old Dutch quarter of Potsdam

40 years our senior, 40 times our energy

"Rio Siesta Motel, The Spur Bar"

"Motel"... something offensive.

See if you can find the tiny speck of black - a bungee jumper on his way down

Bernard would be really sad if he knew this fresh pretzel stand went up a week after he left

"This beer belongs to me! Now take a picture of me on my throne, peasant!"

Riddled with bullet holes

The community garden at Tempelhofer Feld

Someone was keeping bees!

This guy was inflating a huge kite that he would later use to windsurf on the grass