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.

Monday, May 11, 2009

Bamberg Bierdiplom

After living here in Berlin for a grand total of 4 months, it's a shame that I had not yet made it to anywhere within Germany besides here in Berlin! However, now I can officially say I have been to 2 German cities now - or maybe 3 if you want to count Potsdam, which is 100% worth seeing but just a 30 minute S-bahn ride away so it feels a bit like it belongs within "Berlin." This spring, a bunch of us here in the Stanford program met a German student named Udo, who goes to the university in Bamberg but is from Berlin and lives at Wannsee about every other weekend. We've been to his lake house many times for weekend barbeques, hanging out on the docks, and swimming in the lake, but never to visit him in Bamberg. So, after a much overdo trip within the country, we rented cars and roadtripped to Bavaria to stay at Udo's apartment for the weekend and ultimately search for the ever-so-coveted Bierdiplom. While I originally thought I was just going to some random German town of only 70,000 people for a weekend of drinking beer and leaving with funny memories, the trip actually turned out to be much more due to the beautiful city in which the Bierdiplom could be obtained.

Bamberg, located in northern Bavaria, is about a 4 hour drive from Berlin and sits in a valley of some very large rolling hills or small mountains depending how you want to look at it. The best part about Bamberg for me was that it was not destroyed during WWII, so it was the first time that I was able to see traditional German architecture. Berlin, which was completely bombed out during the second war, has hardly any traditional German buildings remaining and the city was completely reconstructed after the war. So, when we as American think of the stereotypical and traditional image of Germany from an outsider's perspective, Bamberg is pretty much exactly the image that comes to one's mind. The entire city itself is a UNESCO World Heritage site (like the castles of Sintra in Portugal), so it's pretty significant in the realm of German culture and history. It's also beautiful due to the river that runs through the city center along many of the old German buildings. So after arriving very late at 1am to Bamberg - we went on an all-day bike tour of Potsdam Friday - we crashed for the most uncomfortable night of sleeping I have ever had in my life. While it was awesome to have a place to stay and I'm incredibly grateful to Udo for letting us stay at his place, sleeping on a wooden floor with only a blanket for warmth and a backpack as a pillow definitely does not qualify as sleep! But hey, as a cheap college student, I was happy and grateful nonetheless.

We woke up the next morning, or stayed up the whole night, and cooked an enormous brunch of pasta with sauce and cheese to give us a steady start to the day. It was rather important to eat a big meal since the rest of the day entailed drinking. Bamberg, besides it's architectual beauty and historical status, is also home to the largest density of breweries in the world. There are 9 traditional breweries, plus one modern one, all of which are extremely old and as the world knows, beer is a huge part of German culture so therefore the breweries are fairly significant. The idea of the Bierdiplom is to spend a day going to each of the 9 traditional breweries and trying the house beer from each. In the past, it was an organized tour, not by a tour company but the Bierdiplom was actually a ligitimate beer tasting event, in which each brewery acknowledge that it existed and gave visitors stamps upon drinking their house beer. At the end of the day, one would have 9 stamps for having 9 historic beers and therefore would have complete the Bierdiplom. However, since it was organized, that meant there was a specified order in which to visit the breweries; as one can imagine, the breweries at the end of the list were likely not so happy to always be flooded with locals and tourists alike all completely drunk after visiting 7 or 8 other breweries first. So, the Bierdiplom lost its official status and the breweries no longer acknowledge the event. However, some breweries out of tradition and good taste still give visitors stamps if they have a Bierdiplom paper (which can be created on one's own just as our's were). So that's a short history of the idea behind the Bierdiplom - try 9 beers, visit 9 historic breweries, see the city while walking from brewery to brewery, and ultimately just have a good time with the friends you are with. So after eating an emormous brunch to prepare us for the day, we headed out to arrive at the first brewery at 1pm.

Our first brewery on the list was Brauerei Spezial. We arrived on time at 1 and ordered our first beer. I think a few of us were a bit nervous about having 9 half liters of beer throughout the day, but it actually turned out to be fine with the walking between breweries and a quick stop for pizza between the 5th and 6th. The first brewery brewed a smoked beer - one of two smoked beers we had throughout the day in Bamberg, and is a beer that can only be found in Bamberg. The first one was not really noticable as it was extremely mild, although dark, and did not have a smoked smell to it. Since it would be a bit exhaustive to talk about every brewery and there are a lot of similarities while each being unique, I'll just give a general overview of the day to give feel for the breweries.  So to start, here is a list of the 9 we visited in order and the year they were founded:

1) Brauerei Spezial (1536)
2) Brauerei Keesman (1867)
3) Brauerei Mahr (1670)
4) Brauerei Maisel (1798)
5) Brauerei Fässla (1649)
6) Brauerei Heller-Trum (Schlenkeria) (1678)
7) Braeurei Klosterbräu (1533)
8) Brauerei Kaiserdom (1718)
9) Brauerei Greifenklau (1719)

Relating back to the historical nature of Bamberg, one thing I found really cool about all the breweries was also the sense of history while in each.  All but 2 of the breweries we visited were older than the United States - which for those of you that are dreadfully awful at history means established before 1776.  Germany is also very proud of their beer brewing history and has a law called the "Reinheitsgebot" or the "German Purity Law" which became official in 1516.  Remarkably, the law existed until 1993, but all of the beers we had still abide by the 1516 purity law.  In other words, the recipes for the beers we drank we old, if not ancient.  Another cool think about visiting all the breweries was that your beers were served in an authentic stein, some glass and some clay, and all poured out of wooden kegs.  The stein's were less significant since every beer you order in Germany is served to you in a glass or stein of the same brand, but seeing the beer pouring out of the wooden kegs was a cool experience.  The most unique beer of the day was at Bamberg's most famous brewery - the Schlenkeria.  It was the second of 2 smoked beers we had throughout the day and this time there was no mistaking that the beer was actually smoked.  When we first got our beers, you could notice immediately that they smelled exactly like bacon.  And, unfortunately, the aftertaste was likewise.  It was definitely not my favorite beer of the day - well, actually it was my least favorite, but since smoked beers don't come around every day then I guess that makes it Bamberg's most famous.  Other than the history behind all the beers and breweries, it was a blast to hang out with other German university students for the day while learning traditional German drinking songs and getting the entire rooms full of people to sing along with us.  So after a long day of bouncing between brewery after brewery, we ended the day with a final beer at 11 to wrap up an awesome tour.

On Sunday, we woke up around 10 and made our way back to the city center for an incredible brunch at a sidewalk cafe.  We had waffles, yogurt, juice, potatoes, mushrooms, fish, rice, bread, tomatoes, cheeses, sausage, and the list goes on.  It was incredible and one of the best meals I have had in Germany.  After brunch, we made a trek up the hill to the Old Kings Palace and walked around for a while before finally heading back to Udo's apartment to pick up the cars for the drive back to Berlin.  Overall, it was an incredible trip and one of the most fun weekends yet here in Europe.  For a town that I knew nothing about before visiting, I can't imagine leaving Germany without having seen it.