Wednesday, December 9, 2009

Bavaria Part 1: Neuschwanstein

Well it's currently December, and with a week of nothing to do since I finished finals before finals week actually began (magic - I know), I happened to remember that two trips from my long-lost life in Europe remain to be blogged. Actually, I should probably thank my ever-relentless grandmother for reminding me on a regular basis that she would like to read this (or at least acts like she enjoys reading these since she supports me :). So, without further ado, here's the trip that was Bavaria from last August.

Having lived in Berlin for 9 months, it would be innapropriate to say the least with my traveling lifestyle not to visit the other most-prominent city in Germany. This trip was fulfilled toward the end of August. I can't exactly say that I got much sleep before going to Munich - not that I ever did in Europe - but on this account due to the fact that my friends and I had roadtripped overnight back from our day excursion to Prague. Lukily, we got back in time for me to make it to the airport for my 7am flight south. A group of 5 of us made the weekend trip: Aria, Kendall, Amasia, Jonah, and myself. Unfortunately, after arriving in Munich at 8am that morning, everyone felt like going back to sleep instead of hopping on a 2.5 hour train ride. I say unfortunately not for myself and my lack of sleep - by this time I had more than learned how to run on fumes. Rather, unfortunately applies to the rest of the group as I left them behind for a solo day-trip south to the town of Füssen, home to the Disney-emulated Neuschwanstein castle.

After sleeping most of the way and almost missing my regional transfer mid-ride, I woke up to the sunshine flooding over the northern Alps of the Germany-Austria border. Füssen, a beautiful town that I would later in the day explore, was 5 kilometers away from the infamous Neuschwanstein castle, leaving the option of a bus transfer or a hike through the Alps. Easy choice. Who wants to ride in bus when you can wind your way around tree-lined glass lakes that reflect off their surface the most famous castle in German history? After a leisurely hike through destination wonderland, I arrived at around 3pm at the base of the Neuschwanstein-capped mountain. Originally, I was planning to wait in the ticket line in order to tour the inner grounds of the castle, but after learning that the line was an hour wait and then another 4 hour wait until the next tour would be available, I graciously declined. Lukily, it worked out not to be a problem as tourists can still tour the entire exterior of the castle in addition to the inner courtyard without a ticket. After leaving the ticket line and then hiking 45 minutes to the top of the mountain, I was rewarded with one of the most beautiful views I have seen in Europe. Looking out over the surrounding landscape, perfectly green grass with small little towns surrouded a selection of sky blue lakes to my right, and back to my left spanned the mountains I had just hiked through in addition to the lesser known Hohenschwangau castle. If my memory serves me correctly, I'm pretty sure at this moment I didn't even care to go through the castle and was perfectly content just to sit atop the mountain while I soaked up the view. Eventually, after an unspecified amount of time, I made it to my feet despite the tremendous view and began the trek around the castle grounds.
The castle grounds mostly consisted of the castle's courtyard, being that there weren't many surrounding walkable areas due to the castle being atop a mountain. After walking through the massive castle gate and into the courtyard, I wandered about the thousands of tourists with my neck craned in order to see the skyward-bound structure. To be entirely truthful, the castle is more impressive to see from a distance in the context of its surrounding landscape, but still impressive up close nonetheless. After exploring the castle for half and hour or so, I continued on my journey to the Marienbrücke, a bridge spanning two narrowly seperated mountains that looks back on the castle and the surrounding landscape. Unfortunately, as is almost every man-made European icon that can be classified as famous and old, the opposite side of the castle was covered in scaffolding. However, even though I couldn't see much of the castle itselft, it was still a remarkably rewarding sight. After taking a few pictures here and there on the bridge, I descended to the bottom of the mountain and hiked a different mountain route on my way back to Füssen.
Once back in Füssen, I worked my way through the southern German architecture that I had previously experienced on my Bavarian trip to Bamberg. Colorful wooden-trimmed buildings often adorned with paintings lined the cobble stone streets that housed artisans displaying an array of unique crafts. My favorite shop owner, a wood craftsman, owned a shop hidden toward the back of the small town and confirmed what many had previously told me about southern Germans: they are extremely nice. In contrast to Berlin, where people are nice but mostly introverted, southern Germans are much more extroverted and welcome tourists and locals alike with an overflow of warmth and cheerfulness. I spent literally half an hour talking to the shop owner, who had a son getting ready to leave to study abroad in Chicago. He himself spends all his vacation time in New York, Florida, and the Carolinas, and could not possibly understand why so many European tourists flock to the beaches of Spain or Greece for holidays instead of choosing the US. Not a common opinion among most Europeans I must admit, but pretty cool nonetheless. After finishing our debate regarding the best NBA players, food culture, and other odds and ends, I left the small German town and reluctantly made my way back to the train station. Somewhere along the 2.5 hour journey back to Munich, I'm pretty sure I decided that I liked small southern-German towns quite a bit.

Monday, August 24, 2009


Going over to a friend's house doesn't usually entail leaving 30 minutes later. That would be rude, unkind, disrespectful. Then again, a typical conversation with someone you just met for the first time doesn't usually follow the pattern of: "Hey, I'm Rafa - want to go to Prague tomorrow?" Which therefore leads you to laugh at the idea, absurdity, and bluntness of the posed question, respond by stating your name and asking if they're actually serious, and when you realize they are, leaving to go home 30 minutes later to pack a bag and meet at the car rental place at the bright and early hour of 3:30 in the morning. That being said, at 8am Andres, Rafa and myself pulled into the parking garage of beautiful Prague on a Thursday morning in August for a nicely spent 24 hour trip.

After making the 4 hour drive in the middle of the night, which isn't such a burden when you get to drive the second half of the way while watching the sun come over the mountains as the other people in the car sleep (actually quite peaceful and relaxing), we arrived in the Czech Republic capital the next morning. What is a burden is pulling into the parking garage and 8am, coming to the realization of why the hell did we leave so early - or late - and wondering how you're going to make it through the day on 30 minutes of sleep. Nothing an hour power-nap can't fix. So by 9am we were out on the streets and began walking through the cobblestone walkways, diverse architecture, and tourist-haven Prague. We started off the day in Old Town Square, admiring the cafe-lined streets, arrangement of architectual styles, horse-drawn carriages, and the famous Astronomical Clock. One of the most interesting things about Prague (which starkly reminded me of Porto) is the variation of building design, from the material used for construction to style to age period and so on. It's as if someone who couldn't make up their mind which style was better or more beautiful took an all-encompassing assortment and slapped them together in one city for a big architectual sandwich. And surprising, it's works. Somehow with all the different modern buildings that sit before towering midieval structures there's a sense of fluidity. I'm not sure how it works, but it does. Maybe it's also kind of frustrating too, but I think it achieves more than it takes away. After spending a while walking around Old Town Square, we stopped for an early brunch at an Italian restaurant for some much needed food. Pretty good - nothing special - but definitely feeds the soul when you're working on almost no sleep.

After lunch we made our way to a Dali exhibition, which isn't something I normally do on weekend trips in Europe. Normally I try to stray away from the museums and instead embrace a more outdoors sightseeing approach. But all in all it wasn't so bad to spend an hour wandering through paintings - maybe I'm more "cultured" now because of it. After the exhibit, we walked throughout Prague to a few midieval churches, structures, and eventually to the famous Charles Bridge. The bridge is lined with numerous sculptures that connect the two sides of the city. My favorite part of the bridge was the plethora of street artists, whether it be painters, jewelers, musicians, or some other sort of craft. Street preformers unfortunately were not to be found, but other than that the bridge was pretty satisfying. On the other side of the bridge, we hiked our way up to the top of the Prague Castle, which itself wasn't so spectacular, but did offer a nice panoramic view of the city. The nice thing about Prague is it's so small that it makes it incredibly easy to walk the entire city (or at the least the part of the city worth seeing). From the view at the top, you could see everything - with the mountains on one side, the river, the churches, ect. Something about panoramic views just makes it nice to see where you've been. Comically, after our treck to the top of the castle, I think we repeated the already said journey through the city a couple more times and eventually stopped in an underground tavern for dinner. After a tasty plate of something that I can't remember at the moment, we walked back across the river to the John Lennon wall which is covered in Beatles oriented graffiti. And pretty much, that concluded our 24 hour excursion to Prague.

Prague, if you haven't already heard, has been pronounced as "the most beautiful city in Europe", "Europe's gem", "the one place in Europe you HAVE to see", and so on. For me, I would disagree with most these statements. Prague definitely is beautiful and is absolutely worth seeing, but most beautiful city in Europe?... I'm not so sure. For some reason throughout the day I got this creepy feeling stemming from all of the dark midieval architecture that thousands of people had been tortured at some point throughout this city's history. Probably right out on the streets. Probably for the amusement of the masses. But putting my weird inhibitions aside, Prague is beautiful and is a very cool city - one you should go visit should you ever get the chance. Just wouldn't personally make my top 5 list. But then again, I'm sure the masses that have visited Prague would harshly disagree and leave me to a midieval torture device for thoughts of even making such a comment.

Tuesday, August 4, 2009

Wednesday, July 1, 2009

Goodbye West, Hello East: Meine Neue Wohnung

Hopefully this statement doesn't disappoint, but the travel blogs are over. Finished. Fertig. Kaputt. I've settled down in Berlin for the summer - the same city I have lived in for the last 6 months but haven't necessarily spent all of my time in due to spur of the moment trips in an effort to see Europe. But now that that's out of my system - not that it needs to be - I'm staying in the city I love for the remaining 3 months of my stay, and in turn decided long ago to move to the East, a decision that finally came to fruition a few weeks ago. And now that I have, here's a quick update on my new living situation.

While Charlottenburg provided an enjoyable experience for the spring, in stark contrast to the bland and nothing-to-do nature of Friedenau in the winter, East Berlin easily tops both areas on the "better places to live" chart. Prenzlauer Berg, more specifically, probably sits somewhere on that chart in between "really damn cool to live in" and "just plain funky." Maybe the word funky went out of style quite some time ago, but I'm bringing it back. Due to the hip art crowd, European cafes lining each and every street, unescapable music scene, unending number of young people, and plethora of bars, funky probably works pretty well. It's really not just Prenzlauer Berg, although I would like to claim it exclusively for my own ego, but it's a whole combination of the already mentioned plus Friedrichshain and Mitte - hence: The East. Do not be alarmed, 20 years ago did not magically disappear and simply slide out of the history books. The wall did fall. But as significant to world history as the fall of the wall was, what it was not able to accomplish was to dissolve the cultural difference between the East and West. And thank God for that. The East, filled with all of the afformentioned entities, has a cultural presence, a vibe, a feeling that cannot be escaped. You cannot walk down a street in the East without being bombarded with colorful graffiti lining the walls, street musicians jamming out with a saxaphone or trumpet, people lining the sidewalks enjoying an espresso or fresh baked roll, or some form of weekend festival. The East has a personality and character that can only be imitated in the West, rather a character that is avoided in the West due to pretentiousness and pride. It's not that the West is a bad place at all, or that the people are cold, boring, or uninteresting. It's just that unlike the West, the East embraces a distinct personality - it has a personality - that emits from every corner, every hidden away bar, and every artist that practices his or her craft. If you haven't yet caught my drift, the East is a cool place.

The other distinct difference in my current living situation, beside direct location, is, well, my living situation. Due to the strained and confined rules of my university's program, we were required to live for the school period with a host family. Both experiences were rewarding and I enjoyed both, but as a college student, living with a single lady in her mid-50's is not exactly what one would call ideal. Therefore, I moved into a student apartment comprised of myself plus 3 other students. It's undoubtedly a much more desired situation, much more comfortable, and I actually feel like I live in my own space versus living in someone elses home. The makeup of the group is also quiet diverse: a 30-year old Italian girl, a 24-year old Portuguese guy, and a 22-year old French girl. It's a great, laidback, free thinking and fun group that suits my own personal preferences way better that the elderly and relatively conservative outlooks of my previous living situations. (No offense intended with the "elderly" comment to my loving grandparents back home - you're young at heart). With the four of us in the apartment, combined with the nicely balanced male to female ratio and our multinational dynamic, it makes for great conversations, interesting perspectives, and an exciting group to live with for this summer. It's been a great 3 weeks living here so far and I have little doubt in my mind that anything will change for the remainder of the summer. And, if anything does, I'm still living in the East.

Wednesday, June 3, 2009


It's been a crazy few weeks, so I'm behind on blogs, but here's a quick 2 cents about Stockholm. A little over 2 weeks ago, after spending 3 days in Dusseldorf and Essen for an internship seminar, 5 of us took off for Stockholm for a guys weekend in the Nordic land. The crew: Jake (Flex), Kendall (Speed), Andreas (Slick), Remi (Boss), and myself (Doc). After sleeping Friday night in the airport, we caught a 6am flight and headed out to Stockholm.

Upon arriving, we walked the streets a searched for a hostel, which we finally found. First of all, Stockholm is incredibly expensive, one of the most expensive cities in the world, so we paid 16 euros a night per person for literally a 6x7 ft. room. It was incredibly claustrophobic, stuffy, and no windows, but it was way cheaper than anything else we could find. After dropping off our bags, we walked to Old Town Stockholm and wandered through the cobblestone streets, around the Royal Palace, and chased the blue suited men around for the changing of the guard. We watched the changing of the guard for about 20 minutes and ended up at the front of the Royal Palace. It was quite comical though when Remi, upon asking the guard what would happen if he jumped the gate into the Palace lawn, was told that the real guards would be called to arrest him if he did not leave after being asked politely. Apparently, security is not really an issue in Sweden and the guards "guarding" the Palace are only novices and the real guards sit around somewhere else. After following the changing of the guard, we found a great underground tavern to eat lunch and then left to explore the city more. We went through some very cool independent abstract art galleries, browsed shops, and just hung out in the city. Stockholm is nice for the fact that the entire city is comprised of small inlets of water that surround small islands. Having a city surrounded by water easily makes a city more beautiful, so we walked up and down a lot of the streets along the waterways throughout the day. Around dinner time we headed back to the hostel for a quick power nap before going out to the clubs. The great thing about Stockholm nightlife, or Stockholm girls rather, is that they dance with you. Makes it a great thing when you roll to the club with 5 guys all wanting to dance with the female species - definitely would not work out in Berlin. We ended up having a great night at the clubs that was much better than the club scene in Berlin. One last note - we left the club at 3:30 in the morning and the sky was entirely bright. Due to Stockholm being so far north, it never gets completely dark and you can always see some of the sunshine on the horizon.

Probably the best thing about Saturday night in Stockholm was that we met 2 Swedish girls that agreed to show us around the city the next day. We met up with them at a park in the city mid-day and then walked to a carnival like area where we grabbed lunch at a hamburger spot. Afterwards, we decided to rent peddle boats and go out for a couple hours on the waterways of Stockholm. It was awesome to hang out on the water for the day as the weather was nice and the city is great to see by water. Basically, that was the entire day Sunday. Met up with the girls, hung out in a couple parks, went out on the water, and then called it a day. That night, we had nothing to do so we went to a theater and saw Angels and Demons, a relatively boring but relaxing thing to do in a foreign city. The night, we went to the lounge of our hostel and played cards for hours until catching a 3:45am bus in the morning to the airport for our Monday morning flight back to Berlin. While both our outgoing and incoming flights were at ridiculous times during the day, when you get a flight for 20 euros round trip you're definitely not complaining. Overall, Stockholm was a cool city, a pretty fun weekend, and established the crew known as LXG: Slick, Speed, Boss, Flex, and Doc.

Tuesday, June 2, 2009


We had a few phrases for the week.  One: "We did this trip right."  Two: "I can't believe this is my life right now."  And three, my personal favorite: "We're living in paradise right now, but we actually are in Paradise."  If you can get the double meaning of the third phrase, that one sums up the trip best.  After a week in paradise staying at Paradise Beach, I would say with almost certain confidence that the 3 days spent in Mykonos were some of the best of my life.

Nash, Kendall, Aria, Remi, and myself flew out of Berlin midday Thursday into Athens.  Immediately upon arrival, Nash and I had only a short time between landing and our ferry departure so we quickly hopped in a cab and headed to the port.  Kendall, Aria, and Remi wanted an extra day to see Athens, so they came to the island a day later on Friday night.  For Nash and I, our ferry set sail at 6:30 as we boarded for a 4 1/2 hour ride to the island of Mykonos.  We had deck seating for the ferry so we sat on the top floor of the ship and played cards, ate dinner, and laid around as we made the journey across the Aegean Sea.  The best part of the boat journey, besides the fact that it got us to the island, was that we had the most incredible sunset I have ever seen.  There were clear skies and for probably 40 minutes you could watch the sun slowly dip below the sea level and beyond the other islands as the sky lit up with all sorts of pinks, yellows, oranges, reds, and blues.  I guess I haven't really seen that many sunsets in my life, but I'll be giving a big round of applause to the sunset that one day tops this one.  After a last hour in literally total darkness surrounding the ship, we arrived at Mykonos at 11pm and caught a bus to our beach cabin in Paradise Beach.  Immediately upon arriving, we threw our things in our room, caught a quick shower, and took the 30 second walk to the beach bar.  The best thing about our beach cabin, other than the fact that it was ridiculously cheap, was that we stayed literally 50 meters from the beach.  So upon reaching the beach bar, we immediately started meeting people in what was probably my favorite aspect of the trip: everyone spoke english.  It was not that everyone spoke english when you asked them, but they were already speaking english.  Paradise Beach is a huge party spot full of Canadian, American, English, and Australian tourists, so it was awesome to be able to talk to anyone.  After meeting a few people, we headed to the club around 1 and danced the entire night.  The club had one of the coolest setups I have yet to see: a huge turquoise pool with the dance floor surrounding it, a view right out onto the beach, and some of the most fun bartenders yet.  After a long night of dancing and meeting new people, we got back to our cabin around 5 and crashed only to wake up at 9 the next morning.

While we could have slept in Friday morning, who wants to sleep in when you have a gorgeous beach a few steps away.  So we got up early, had a quick breakfast, and by 10 were laying in beach loungers looking out onto the ocean while sipping on fresh squeezed pineapple juice.  We literally laid around on the beach the entire day, arriving there at 10 in the morning and not leaving the beach once until 8pm.  The beach had tons of great aspects.  First of all, I have never seen ocean water that is actually clear.  On the entire island and at Paradise, the water was completely clear and you could swim as far out as possible and still see to the bottom.  The only negative aspect of paradise beach is that it is a small pebble beach, where as all the other beaches we saw on the island the next day were sand.  This didn't really matter though as we were either laying in chairs, swimming around in the water, or hanging out at the beach bar.  Paradise Beach, especially for college students, is the perfect location.  It's one of the top 5 party beaches in the world, has incredibly affordable housing, and more entertainment than imaginable.  However, while on the beach Friday morning, we were wondering if we just came the wrong time of year or if the beach wasn't actually as cool as we had originally thought because when we looked around at 1pm there was almost no one on the beach.  But at about 2, that completely changed.  The chilled-out beach grooves that the bars were playing turned into club beats, and within about 30 minutes every chair on the beach was taken.  We realized had we not set an alarm this would have been us too after being exhausted from the club the night before.  At 4:30 every day, the Tropicana Beach Bar throws a party which officially starts off the party day at Paradise and doesn't end until the late hours of the morning.  Spending an entire 10 hours on the beach was pretty awesome, especially when you have beautiful views of the ocean, are surrounded by thousands of people your same age, and are in Greece for the first time in your life.  When we finally left the beach at 8 that night, we were wondering if you could really top the first day we had just had.  Luckily for us, that wouldn't turn out to be a problem.  So we grabbed a quick 30 minute power nap, then met up with Aria, Remi, and Kendall as they arrived at 11:30 to the resort.  Once we had the whole crew together, we went back to the beach bar to start off the night where we met some Canadian girls who then went with us into the town of Mykonos.  We first went to small little Australian bar called Down Under which we had heard about through a bartender we met at Paradise.  Plus with the free drink coupons she gave us, there was no way we could not go.  After hanging out for a couple hours, we walked down the street to Scandinavian Bar which is recommended by literally everyone in the town.  So as a repeat of the night before, we danced all night until catching a ride back in to Paradise in the morning where we hung out on the beach for an hour or so and watched the sunrise.  Quite a nice way to end a night of partying, as the sunrise is almost as spectacular as the sunset.  The only downside - going to bed at 7 am and then waking up the next day at 9 does not do so well for your sleep.  But hey, you only live once.

Why did we again decide to get up at an absurd hour the next morning?  Actually for quite a good reason.  The one thing Nash and I decided we had to on Mykonos before we came was rent ATV's.  Paradise Beach, just like our beach cabin, had great prices for all day 4-wheeler rentals.  We strolled over to the rental spot at 9 Saturday morning and rented the ATV's for only 17 euros for a whole 24 hours!  Our plan for the day was to beach hop - just pick out a beach on the map and drive there, spend an hour or so at each, and then go to the next.  Mykonos has just under 20 beaches, and we made it to 7 different ones on Saturday.  My favorite beach of the day was Elia, located on the southeast corner of the island.  It had extremely fine white sand, beautiful water, and cliffs surrounding the small cove that it was set in.  The close runner-up for favorite beach of the day was Super Paradise, set in an extremely deep cove, so it felt very secluded and also made the water warmer than other beaches on the island.  Basically the theme of the day was to cruise the island on the 4-wheelers while enjoying spectacular views and the feeling of freedom that comes with driving ATV's, lay around on the beach while juggling the mini soccer ball that I brought, and in general just enjoying life.  We saw so many beautiful beaches on Saturday, and the experience of getting place to place on an ATV is pretty irreplaceable.  The island is relatively small, so we were able to get from one side to the other in about 25 minutes, that is if we didn't make a wrong turn somewhere due to the complete lack of road signs, road names, or a remotely decent map.  It didn't matter though as every time we got lost we ran into something else, plus it just meant more time cruising around which was great in itself.  We ended the 4-wheeler day by going into the town of Mykonos where we walked the streets, grabbed dinner, and enjoyed the natural scenery.  The town is very typical of Greek architecture: white-washed buildings, blue, green, and turquoise stair railings and window shutters, and grayish stone streets.  Mykonos also has the most beautiful pink flower trees that hang over the narrow walkways throughout the city.  The city itself is much like a maze as all the streets wind this way and that and it's incredibly easy to get lost.  Overall, the shopping in Mykonos wasn't anything special as it was all high-class stores or little all-the-same souvenir shops.  But the town itself was beautiful and completely worth seeing during the day since we had already seen it the night before.  At about 8pm, Nash and I arrived back to Paradise where we took a quick shower and went back to the beach bar to start the night.  This night we met a couple guys from New York, a few English guys, and a huge group of Australian girls.  We all decided to go back into the town and repeat the night before.  So we again started off at Down Under with free drinks thanks again to our bartender friend and then to Scandinavian Bar for more dancing.  After we all decide we were a bit tired of the club, we went back to Paradise in the middle of the night and continued with a beach party until sunrise.  It probably sounds like exactly the same night as Friday, but with meeting new people and having a different group from the night before, it was entirely different.  But another great night, another 2 hours of sleep, and another 9am wake up the next morning.

On Sunday, Nash and I had to get up at 9 in order to return the 4-wheelers by 9:30 so not to get charged for another full day if we were late returning them.  After doing so, we grabbed another quick breakfast and went to the beach (actually breakfast is at the beach so we were already there) to lay around on loungers.  I was actually shocked at how awake I felt, so we played cards for a while, listened to some beach grooves, and just hung out as the beach was again completely dead until about 2.  Aria, Kendall, and Remi met us on the beach at about 1 and we hung out for the entire day again at Paradise, this time under grass umbrella huts since most of us were slightly burnt from the previous days.  After another day of laying around and just hanging out with good company and the people we had met, we left Paradise at 6:30 to catch our 7:00 ferry back to Athens.  It was a shame to have to say goodbye to Paradise, but the memory and legend that Paradise is will live on in my memory forever.

Nash stayed behind in Mykonos for another day before he had to catch a flight back to the states on Wednesday, but Remi, Kendall, and I explored Athens in a quick half-day on Monday before our flight back to Berlin.  We walked from our hostel to the Acropolis and the Parthenon and saw those sights before browsing for a couple hours through the tourist shops and streets of Athens.  Athens as a whole is a relatively dirty city and I would highly recommend for anyone who goes to Athens to not spend more than 1 or maybe 1 1/2 days there.  The main sites to see are definitely worth seeing, but spending too much time there is definitely a mistake.  Go to an island instead and soak up the Greek beaches and beauty, which in my case was absolutely the right choice and I'm very glad I limited my time in Athens and maximized my time in Mykonos.  Overall, Mykonos was an incredible trip and there is no possible way I will ever forget it in my entire life.  I can be 85 years old one day and completely senile and delirious, but I guarantee I'll still be remembering and telling stories about Mykonos.  It was a priceless trip, and like I said before, I was living in Paradise, but I was actually in paradise.  Cheers to you Paradise Beach: Mykonos.

Tuesday, May 12, 2009

Zurück nach Berlin

Between the crazy weekends traveling from city to city, I actually have spent at least some time here in Berlin.  And if you haven't heard my impressions of this city, this culture, and this experience since winter quarter, wow have they changed.  And definitely for the better.  Not that I ever had a bad impression of Berlin or the people here, but with the arrival of spring and warm weather, everything looks different.  So rather than telling a continuous story of my past few months here in my home city, I'll just hit a few key points here and there.

Weather: April was off the charts.  Literally, and I'm not exaggerating, every single day was 70F and completely sunny.  After enduring a ridiculously cold winter with seeing absolutely no sun, the month of April was much needed.  Not to mention all the things I got to do because of the weather...

Parks and Biking: While I now live in Charlottenburg as compared to Friedenau last quarter, you might as well say that I actually live in the Tiergarten or Schlosspark Charlottenburg.  If you look on a map, the Tiergarten is a massive park in the center of the city which is great for picnics, laying out, sleeping, and almost any and all outdoor activities.  There's also a really nice Biergarten that sits on a pond on the southwest corner of the park.  Schlosspark is on the back side of the Schloss Charlottenburg and wraps around a big lake.  Both parks are great to hang out in and I do pretty much all of my work in the parks.  The other weather-inspired part of my life is that due to my excessive biking habits back on Stanford's US campus, I terribly missed riding my bike so I bought one here.  Berlin is incredibly easy to bike as it's extremely flat, so I basically ride my bike everywhere throughout the city.  To the parks, to get groceries, to school, to shops, and the list goes on.  It's great to have a bike because you see so much more of the city than when you ride the U-bahn (it's underground so you miss a lot).  I really feel like I know the city so much better just because of having a bike.

Wohnung: Apartment in English.  I moved to Charlottenburg at the end of March, which is on the west end of Berlin.  I like my new spot much more than my old place in Friedenau.  The entrance to my apartment is in between two restaurant entrances, and my entire street is filled with shops, bars, bakeries, and more restaurants.  It's great to be able to walk 3 blocks up the street and have 3 grocery stores to choose from, a shopping mall, and plenty of other shops.  Plus I'm located a block away from the U-bahn and center S-bahn line, so I can get to the bars and clubs in the east in just 20 minutes and to school in 25.  Basically, it's a great location and I love living there.  Also, my host mom works as a professor at a university in Paderborn, about a 3 hour train ride from Berlin, which means she is only home every-other weekend so I basically have my own apartment.

People:  I have met so many more German's for a couple of reasons.  One, my German is much better.  Even though everyone here in Germany speaks great English, it makes it much more comfortable to talk to people when you can speak their own language fairly well.  As a tourist, you don't mind asking people if they speak English, but since I live here, it's much nicer to just talk in German.  Two, I swear German's are now much more talkative and friendly now that the weather is nice.  Not that they were unfriendly before, but in the winter no one would speak or smile on the U-bahn, but now it's loud and full of energy.  Then again, I've noticed this change in myself being much more outgoing and lively with sun and warmth every day, so I guess it's just a weather thing.  And just like myself, people here in Berlin flood the parks.  I thought that people used the parks when I was in Madrid, but nothing like here.  There are thousands upon thousands of people in the parks every weekend and it's awesome to see so many people outdoors just enjoying life.

Food: I've diversified.  Well, at least from my pizza, pasta, and chicken breast routine.  I've started cooking a ridiculous amount of vegetables, still eat a ton of fruit, and have strayed away from eating out.  Even though eating out is extremely inexpensive here, you still save a bunch of money by cooking for yourself - plus it's been kind of fun to try and make different dishes.

Sports: I've been to 2 Hertha Berlin games at the Olympiastadion.  It's a great atmosphere, and even though there is an olympic track surrounding the field, you don't really feel distanced from the game.  However, Hertha in my opinion is not that good even though they are having an anomaly of a year and are only 1 point back from first place with 3 games left in the season.  It's been fun though to go to a couple games since live is always so much better than watching through the tv.  I've also been to a basketball, ice hockey, and handball game all at the O2 area in east berlin.  Handball is a funny sport and I would not recommend going and watching a game.  The final score of the game I saw was 28-22, which means the excitement of scoring a goal almost completely loses it's effect.  Plus there are an absurd amount of injuries for a relatively low contact sport.  Anyway, I can't take the sport seriously so I won't be going to any more games.  The basketball game was just ok - clearly not the level to that in the states and no one dunks, literally no one.  Another funny thing - when they show highlights of NBA games on tv stations here, they don't even show dunks in the highlight reel!  It's weird that they're completely against dunking.  Ice hockey was very cool to watch and if the season wasn't already over, I would definitely go to another game.  Way more fun that watching it on tv.  Speaking of tv, it's been nice to have more people here this quarter from the Stanford program who love soccer.  It's pretty standard that every Tuesday and Wednesday night we meet at a bar and watch the champions  league games.  That's been a lot of fun, for both watching the games and exploring different bars throughout the city.

Tourism: While traveling throughout Europe in the Winter, mostly to warm destinations, you would always see tourists roaming the streets, but never here in Berlin.  How that has changed.  Especially with the current economic crisis, Berlin's "poor but sexy" motto is raking in the tourists and tourism is actually higher this year than last year.  Now that it's warm, there are tons of tourists taking bike tours of the city, walking the streets, and I hear so much more English when I'm out in the city.  I like having a bunch of tourists here - it mirrors the shift in the city itself between winter and spring - much more lively and exciting.

Kino's: Movies here in Germany are a different experience than in the states.  First of all, the kinos are way more comfortable here with wide seats and armrests for each person.  However, other than that, the US theaters are better.  German movies start with 15 minutes of food previews, then the lights come back on and guys with trays full of food walk up and down the isles trying to sell you stuff.  Then the lights go back off, another 15 minutes of regular previews, and then the film starts 30 minutes after the time on your ticket.  Also, if the movie you are seeing is longer than 2hr 15min, then there will be a 20 minute intermission in the middle.  And by in the middle, I mean exactly in the middle.  The last film I saw cut out right in the middle of an action scene that had everyone's heart racing and adrenaline pumping, and then after subduing the audience for 20 minutes, picked back up.  It sucks for the films because it really ruins part of the viewing experience.  One last detail with kinos - here you pay a Euro more for seats that are not in the first 10 rows, and you have assigned seats.  So, no reason to get there early.  In fact, get there late so you can skip all the food previews.

That's about it that I can think of for now to give an update on.  I'm sure there is plenty more that I have forgotten, but these are just a few details.  Overall, I love Berlin way more this spring than the winter and feel now like I truly know the city.  You know it's a great city when you leave to travel to another country for the weekend and don't care at all when it's Sunday afternoon and you're forced to return due to your flight.  Even though you had a great time wherever you were, you can't wait to get back to Berlin.