Sprechen Sie Deutsch? Not Even a Little Bit.
From 6 August 2010
Before heading to Germany, I contacted all my friends (mostly from AmaZOOnico) who live in the country. Hamburg was my next stop–yes, hamburgers really did originate here–and, as it turns out, Konny lives there. She offered me a bed and I gladly accepted. However, finding her at the train station was a bit of a pickle. First, I got off at the wrong station. I realized it just as the doors started to close, so I shoved my body in between and asked a lady on the train if this was Hamburg Hbf. Nope. Next stop. Phew. Close call.
When I made it to the correct station, I realized that the SIM card on my phone had run out of credit so I could not tell Konny where to meet me. No phone card shops were nearby, so I tried a payphone.
I only had Danish kronnes, no euros, and I couldn’t figure out how to pay by credit card. This is when a mild panic began to set in. Luckily, Konny called me–I could still receive calls with the mobile, just couldn’t send any. With an overjoyed hug after a year apart, I went to her apartment, along with her boyfriend Lars. They gave me tips on what to see in Germany, and we took a walk with ice cream after dinner.
While Konny was at work the next day, I walked 7.0 km around the man-made lake, Außenalster. I ventured off the path every now and then to investigate buildings, etc. that caught my attention, snapping a photo of Wentzelstraße (Wentzel Street) for my sisters. (We all share the nickname Wenzel.) Sitting as close to the edge of the lake as possible, I ate a schmorgasbord of fruit while a family of coots inched ever closer.
Konny suggested I check out the River Elbe the next day. I made my way to the city center parallel to the harbor. The area is dominated by church steeples, World War II storehouses and an impressive town hall. At St. Petri-Kirche, I climbed (breathing heavily, sweating even more) the tower for a bird’s eye view of Hamburg. Germany was experiencing a heat wave; I think the whole world is in the middle of a heat wave. As any normal person knows, the best way to beat the heat is with ice cream. Europe has delicious ice cream bars called Magnum. I eat them when necessary. That day, Magnum was necessary.
Being the exceptional hostess that she is, Konny took me out to dinner that night. It was our last opportunity to catch up as I had a bus to Berlin the next day. Conversation of course centered on the jungle days but was not limited to the topic. We shared holiday traditions with each other, noting differences in celebrations of New Year’s and Christmas. There’s no sparkly new year ball that falls at midnight for the Germans. On Christmas, Santa takes a break touring the world and lets the Christkind (Christ Child) deliver gifts under the tree in Germany. After dinner, we stood outside the gate of the park’s outdoor concert arena and listened to Buena Vista Social Club, an Afro-Cuban group with an interesting history (Wikipedia it) and outstanding music. Before bed, I said goodbye to Konny, planning on putting the key in her mailbox in the morning before I caught the bus.
Transportation in Germany does not cater to foreigners. I finally made it to the eco-friendly hostel in the woods of Berlin after some minor setbacks with bus confusion. Wait. Back up a second. Woods? Berlin has a forest? Indeed it does, and a rather expansive one at that. The forested region surrounds Grunewaldsee, a lake that happens to be the spot to take your dog(s)(s)(s)(s)(s)(s).
On my walk through the winding, criss-crossing paths, I encountered three people and twenty-three dogs. My first thought was, Ohmigod this is Heaven. My second thought was, Hmm, must be doggy day care. Shortly thereafter, I realized I’d made a mistake. Used to the average American dog owner having only one or two dogs, I couldn’t believe the number of dogs per household these Berliners had. Seven for that lady. Two minutes later, another woman, this time with eight. Most of the dogs were off-leash heading toward the lake for fetch and a swim. I knew that was where I wanted to be tomorrow. I booked this hostel because I needed a break from the city life. That’s why I spent the next day reading, swimming and people/dog-watching on the sand. And on my way back to the hostel, I only got lost for a half hour!
Back at the hostel that evening, I shared my traveling stories with Andy #1. I also met a fellow zoologist! Before checking out the following morning, I talked with some guys in my mixed dorm room, Andy #2 and Mario. We all were planning on going on the free walking tour, so we decided to go together. Andy (from Australia–geesh, these Aussies!) showed me photos and videos from Running with the Bulls in Pamplona, Spain. Only danger-seeking-high-thrill-riding-psychos run with the bulls, and Andy was one of them. I’m glad he survived. Mario had just finished an ultimate frisbee tournament in Prague. He plays for the Mexican national team. Now, he wanted to travel for a bit before returning to Mexico City.
The tour gave me an appreciation of Berlin, which surprised me, because 1) It’s a city and as you well know by now, I’m no city girl, and 2) It is full of history and politics, things that hold little interest for me and of which I am highly uninformed (just ask any of the members of my college improv comedy troupe). But because of reason #2, Berlin turned out to be one of the highlights of my trip. Now that I’m up-to-speed with history and politics, I only need to get up-to-date with pop culture. (I did see the hotel where Michael Jackson dangled his infant child over the balcony. How about a point for pop culture?)
One of the features on the tour that stands out most is the Holocaust memorial next to the Brandenburg Gate which used to be an entrance gate into Berlin. An American Jewish architect designed the memorial which is composed of 2,711 cement blocks of varying heights, arranged in a grid pattern. The artist chose not to have any sign or explanation for the memorial, so tourists don’t usually know the structure’s purpose. Because of this tourists sit and stand on the stones, kids run through the maze, and people pose pretty as if this is the perfect spot for a senior picture. There are supposed to be guards watching the area to make sure people do not stand on the stones, but they are limited in number.
I went back to the memorial the following day to reflect on its impact, then went to a Holocaust museum nearby. I found a spurt of anger rising in me at the disrespect invading what should have been a sacred atmosphere. I had to remind myself they didn’t know better, and the artist intended this. But was he getting his point across? Many people do stop and think, wondering what exactly the blocks are, which is what was intended. Some people find that the stones resemble barracks, others see lines of Nazi soliders, or lines of prisoners. I felt like I was in a tomb. And while many do pause to question, and perhaps reflect, there are still many who do not. So my question still stands: In accordance with the architect’s intentions and the victims it honors, does the memorial achieve its goal?
Andy, Mario and I met two girls from Bosnia on our tour, and after Mario and I threw around the frisbee, the five of us waited in line to enter the Reichstag, a government building with a glass dome through which people can view the Parliament plenary sessions. The wait was long but it was in good company. Sanja and Sabina’s friends from Serbia joined us as well. That night on the bus, the boys and I had a long political/historical discussion, one in which my mind was amazingly present the whole time. I have such a hard time understanding how one man was so persuasive and powerful in such a horrifying way, igniting the Holocaust atrocities. Our political chat went from dictators to terrorism to 9/11, ending with the question of what determines which country is the world leader, its economic or military strength, if you had to choose one? I’ve never been so invested in such topics.
I will end this trip to Germany with Berlin’s East Side Gallery, coordinated and protected graffiti art on a remaining part of the Berlin Wall. The gallery stretches 1.3 km with art by over 100 artists representing 118 different countries. The work,painted from 1989-1990, is supposed to represent the emotions during those years, the fall of the Wall. And, while there were signs every meter noting additional graffiti to be an illegal act prosecutable by law, there happened to be a section painted over in white, now covered with pen and permanent marker. I waited a moment to see if I would stand out writing on the wall, but another man took out a marker and began to write something. As long as he didn’t try to make a joke on the wall, I supported him. That’s why I wrote something myself. “…That freedom never dies. …Remember your dignity.” If you go to the East Side Gallery, I’ll tell you where you can find my illegal words of inspiration. And if you see any German policemen, please don’t tell on me. Because anytime a German yells, especially someone of authority, it’s always ten times scarier.
I returned to Germany later, but first I had plans to reunite with Jacky, the stick-driver rental car friend I met in Portugal. We met in Cologne, Germany and left the next day for Luxembourg. Why there? Because even moreso than Wales, no one goes to Luxembourg.