24 July 2005


I officially love Germany (although, considering I've never disliked any country I've visited, this probably shouldn't surprise anyone!). Despite some decidedly "Soviet" weather (gray, chilly, and drizzly- the entire city looked like Cold War-era pictures from behind the Iron Curtain), I had a fabulous time. I don't speak a word of German, but it looks a lot like English and sounds a bit similar, so at least there is some one-sided communication going on. Almost everyone we've encountered speaks some English, however, so the language barrier is smaller than we expected. We'll see what happens in Poland and Slovakia, though!

We stayed with a woman named Ilka, Jason's homestay from last summer, who was an experience in herself. She's in her mid thirties, single, and works as an actress. Her flat was charmingly disheveled, and she was as flighty as they come. She took us to a hole in the wall bar serving (in her words) "left minded people," which essentially translates as "cheap beer." She dated a British man in the past, so she speaks excellent English. Contrary to the popular German stereotype, she was not fanatically punctual or angry- she thought Americans were angrier than Germans, and showed up 4 hours late for a dinner date. She has lived in the East since before the wall fell, and the difference between the two worlds is still blatantly obvious, even today. The buildings still have that block concrete communist look, while all of the upscale shopping, restaurants, and hotels are squarely planted in the West.

Ilka lives a few blocks from where the wall used to stand, so it never failed to amaze me walking out of her house each morning. One of the most subtle, but also most interesting differences was in the crosswalk signs. In the West, the walk/don't walk lights are fairly typical and similar to those in America. However, on the eastern side, the walk man is a distinctive little communist worker energetically walking to work- I bought a magnet with the picture, so ask me to see it when I get back. It's become a symbol of the new culture of the east- no matter how integrated the city becomes, the crosswalks will always stay. Considering my fascination with Soviet culture, I was constantly entralled, and they were handy when trying to remember where we were in relation to the city!

Berlin is absolutely beautiful, on both sides- since it was almost completely rebuilt after WWII, a lot of thought was put into the organization, so there are quaint little parks and tree lined areas throughout the town. Looking around, it's incredible to think that the vast majority of the city is only 60 years old. I did most of the touristy-Cold War highlights- Checkpoint Charlie (and museum), the Reichstag, fragments of the Wall, the TV Tower (although we didn't go up to the top because of the Soviet weather), and the Brandenburg Gate, among other things. As a Cold War history nerd, it was incredible to stand on the site of the Berlin Wall, or at checkpoint Charlie, where the US and Soviet tanks met at the end of WWII. Germany, and especially Berlin, marked the symbolic and (in the early years) physical center of the Cold War, and I can't even begin to imagine what it would have been like to be there for even a fraction of what happened. In the Tiergarten (Central Park of Berlin) is the "Memorial to the Soviet Victory," an enormous memorial the Soviets built to themselves in the immediate wake of WWII. The Germans have since added their own information area behind the monument, and it shows a series of pictures of the monument's development while the surrounding city lay in complete rubble. The resentment of the Russians is still alive and well throughout the city, both east and west.

One surprising aspect of Germany- I love the food! I was expecting to be disappointed here, since I thought I didn't like sausage, but I was quite mistaken- apparently, I just don't like American sausage! The pretzel also has its roots in Germany- you can buy them from vendors on bikes with baskets and sticks full of fresh pretzels for a euro. Since homemade pretzels made my list of foods I missed in Morocco, I did a little happy dance when I first spotted the pretzel biker. Berlin is a surprisingly cosmopolitian and worldly city- I've never seen quite so many different ethic restaurants. The first night I arrived, I had an excellent Vietnamese dinner, and the next day we had Indian for lunch and Italian for dinner. I even got to practice my Arabic here- with a Turkish man at a flea market, and with the proprietors of the ubiquitous Doner Kebab shops, run by either Arab or Turkish men. How ironic that I've encountered almost as much Arabic in Europe as I did in Morocco!

The Doner Kebab is another interesting concept- a huge rotating spit of meat (lamb and/or chicken) and fat in front of a flame, and the outside layer is shaved off to make a pita or sandwich, similar to the Greek gyro. I didn't get a picture yet, but I'm told the kebab is a staple across Eastern Europe, so I'll get one soon. With all of this great food, I'm even more excited about the next few countries. The homeland is up next (via a 6am train...ouch!)- Warsaw, Krakow, and Auschwitz. Update coming soon, in sha Allah!

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