Various thoughts while getting drunk in East Berlin

It’s hot here, guys. Like stiflingly, deadeningly, damply hot. Like East-Coast-in-August hot. Today it’s about 95° in the shade, and I don’t even want to think about the temperature in the sun.

I guess a positive aspect is that I’m sweating so evenly and so completely in the humidity that I don’t have any specific sweatstains on my clothes. I’m just sort of uniformly damp. Yay?
Earlier today in Prenzlauer Berg a couple boys in their late teens came out of a building, dripping wet, in tiny little swimming bottoms and nothing else, one carrying a big homemade sign that said ‘POOL PARTY!’ and the other carrying a super soaker, with which he proceeded to soak random passers-by. No one seemed to mind in the least, including me.
Now I’m sitting at Renata in Friedrichshain, famous for its surrealist labyrinth. Unfortunately I can’t go inside — I got here when it was supposed to open at 6, but it was all locked up tight. Then I tried to go to the opening night of a modern dance performance but it was sold out — I waitlisted but didn’t get in, so I came back here to try again. This time, at 10pm, the bar is open but the list for the labyrinth tonight is already full and they aren’t taking any more names. The rest of the bar is good, though — it’s very Williamsburg [Brooklyn] in this part of Friedrichshain. This bar is mostly weird garden spaces outside, with some shacks here and there and a couple swimming pools. Good lighting, lots of trees, very gritty but almost self-consciously so. Just down the block I passed another bar that looks like the front yard of a ramshackle house, filled with sand and a ping-pong table and beach chairs. Pretty sure Michael and I went to the same bar once in Williamsburg with Fiona 🙂
I like it.
Back to the dance performance — I must say that my notions of classic German organizational skills have been challenged a few times. Managing a full house and a stand-by line isn’t nearly as difficult as they made it look… I and many of my coworkers could house manage circles around them single-handedly. Ha!
So today I walked by a Haagen Dazs shop. You know me… ice cream is my great weakness, and Haagen Dazs is my favorite. How could I NOT have it on a hot sunny day, in GERMANY?! So I went up to the counter, chose my flavors, and ordered, and had the following exchange in broken English and German:
“Ein scoop vanilla und ein scoop cookies and cream, bitte, in a cone!”
“Ja. For eating here or takeaway?”
(At this point I wondered if he had understood my request for a cone, so I pointed, helpfully, at the cones)
“…Ja… you are sitting here, or walking?”
(How could this possibly matter?)
“Ummm… for sitting down? Bitte?”
“Ja, I bring to you!”
So…. table service ice cream? Ok, I thought, that’s kind of bizarre, but whatever… I went and sat outside, under an umbrella to wait. They really understand cafe culture in Berlin, I have to say. Then, after a surprising amount of time, given that I was the only customer, He brought me my ice cream cone… LIKE THIS (see photo). I mean… whoa. This is a new level of ice cream. STEP IT UP, MOLLY MOON, is all I’m saying. Whoa. He also asked me if I’d like anything to drink, so I ordered sparkling water, and from there on out it was like a restaurant. CRAZY.
Next subject: I’m getting rapidly tipsy on one drink here at Renata. It tastes like shitty vodka, but they pour heavy and also I just realized the only ‘meal’ I had today was a [delicious] bagel sandwich at like 3pm… Yeah, eating regular meals isn’t my forte. But! I discovered amazing chai in Prenzlauer Berg! Which is way too full of families and children for my taste, but otherwise pretty great and seems to have a fair amount of small performance venues.
Related: I discovered in a coffee shop today that I’m missing seeing Iggy Pop and the Stooges in BERLIN by like three days. Shit. That would be AMAZING. Anyway….
I’m now at that exciting point of tipsiness where I have to decide if I’m stopping or continuing — continuing means I’ll have an amazing time and get home sometime around dawn with a vague memory of what happened (hi mom and dad!! Don’t worry about me traveling alone in a foreign land!), while stopping means I’ll cut myself off like a good girl and make my way home shortly. Given that I have an appointment to tour the Reichstag at 8:15 tomorrow morning (the only available time), the second option is probably wiser, but we’ll see. I’m in Berlin, for God’s sake…
But also I’m constantly aware that as a woman traveling alone in an unfamiliar place, there are certain things that are… less advisable. It sucks being a lady sometimes… if you’re a dude traveling alone, sure you should still be careful, but drinking alone in a random pub in an unknown area of a foreign city is infinitely safer for you. As a lady, even as a remarkably self-confident one, it’s… different. I’ve never forgotten what my first real martial arts instructor told me when I was eight: “the first rule of self defense is to not put yourself in a situation where you’ll be forced to defend yourself.” Sage advice. Rule one: don’t be dumb. Rule two: learn how to absolutely destroy anyone who tries to hurt you. Rule three: if you’re in trouble, you should yell “get the police!” instead of “help!” — always give people clear instructions that require minimal thought on their part. Ladies, are you paying attention? Good. Now excuse me while I proceed to get drunk alone in a foreign city where unfortunately I don’t know how to say “get the police!” in the native language. Or “help!”, for that matter. Prost! Salud! Cheers! 😉
Temperature update: it’s 11pm and my thermometer (YES I carry a thermometer, it’s attached to a compass which is clipped to my purse [NERD ALERT but also hey, I NEVER get lost]) says it’s about 87°. Well, the nice thing about backpacking in the summertime is your clothing takes up much less space in your backpack! This is good, because tomorrow is the first day I have to fit everything in one bag (including my purse) for a shitty off-brand intra-Europe flight to London. I pack LIGHT, my friends. SUPER LIGHT. It also cuts way down on my shopping expenses, since I have no room to carry anything I buy… so for anything I add, I have to throw something out. Today I almost bought a dress with the full intention of throwing out another outfit in its place but I couldn’t understand the seller when I asked the price, so I chickened out. Yay budget travel? It was super cute, though 😦
Update: I’m headed home, at 11:30, having chosen safety and sleep over debauchery. Hey, speaking of Iggy Pop – I meant to bring some Iggy to listen to here, but somehow failed to fully sync my phone (SADNESS). I did, however, bring the Siouxsie and the Banshees cover of The Passenger, which I’ve been listening to a lot. I mean, fuck. The horn section. HOW WAS THERE NOT A HORN SECTION BEFORE THIS COVER, is all. It’s PERFECT.
Alright, I think that’s all for now. Gut Nacht!

 

Art!

So after a draining afternoon at Sachsenhausen, I needed art. I went to the Neue Nationalgalerie, which is having a show on modern art from 1945-1968, specifically centered around the East/West divide in Berlin. It’s a good exhibit.
Side note: I’m writing this while eating Döner in East Berlin (thanks to Michael!), and it’s amazing. Imagine super thinly-sliced gyro meat, with every possible delicious fixing, but NOT on a pita. Instead it’s on fantastic Turkish bread and it’s a fucking revelation within the genre. I need this to exist in Seattle, please.
Anyway, art! I had one of the most lovely artistic experiences of my life today. It was so simple but such a great confirmation of the Healing Power of Art and blah blah blah.
If you know me, you know that I have no interest in ‘pretty’ art. You want to make something beautiful? Knock yourself out. But unless it moves me, or tells me something, or changes the way I think or feel, or just stops me dead in my tracks, I’m not going to care. I like my art with lots of meaning and layers and intellectualism and intelligence and talent, but also don’t be too full of yourself or too self-referential, you egotistic bastard.
Of course, any rule I arbitrarily make about my own aesthetics I break every time I enter a museum/gallery/whatever…
“I hate landscapes” hello, El Greco’s View of Toldeo.
“I hate portraits” but two of my very favorite pieces at the Frye are a portrait of this little black-haired girl with the saddest eyes you ever saw, and another portrait of an artist’s family with so much personality and sparkle they look absolutely alive without looking especially lifelike.
“I absolutely fucking hate Picasso” but MoMA in NYC has this early pre-cubist work of a boy and a horse that I totally dig.
“I hate Impressionism” just kidding, Monet is amazing.
Anyway, enough on relative aesthetics. Draining afternoon, concentration camp, needed art. Went to modern art museum. Saw a whole bunch of art, some good, some really good, some meh, but almost all about war, and the aftermath of war, and the fear of war, or a reaction against war. So it was great but not exactly a huge change of subject from the earlier part of the day. I was feeling pretty worn down, and of course I hadn’t eaten much, and I’d been in the sun a lot, and I was thirsty, and my attention was not as full as I like it to be for art. Then I was walking down a hallway, and there was a little side entrance to what would typically be a video installation room, with an angled entrance to keep the light and sound mostly out. I saw a plaque titling it ‘Light Room, I heard a little bit of faint baroque-ish harpsichord music, and I ducked in.
Now, I don’t know if I came in at the beginning. It was on a continuous loop, so there’s no way to know. I decided later that it was the beginning, but that could have been just because that’s when it started for me. I kept wondering where the artist had started it…
Anyway, it was quite dark, and it took my eyes a few seconds to adjust. I was the only person in the room. Just inside the door to my right was a big (3.5′?) cube, slightly raised off the floor, square to the wall and about three feet away from it, super-reflective, covered with regularly-spaced holes, and with a moving light of some sort inside. It was making all these light patterns dance around the walls, sort of like a disco ball only more interesting. There were a few other shadowy shapes in the room, which I started to see as my eyes adjusted and I carefully walked in, trying not to trip over anything. Just then, one of the shadowy shapes in the middle of the room lit up too. It was a very similar cube only about 1/3 smaller and set at a diagonal to the first. They both danced together for a minute while the harpsichord music continued, and then a little baby cube off to the side, with a different pattern, lit up too. They were beautifully choreographed and did some trading, and some duets, and finally a big trio… and then it went dark. Then this big old hulking black thing in the corner (NOT a cube) came on, revved up, and did a little light show of it’s own. Then the first cube joined in, and the big black thing went dark, and we were back to where I came in.
It was… enchanting. It wasn’t particularly deep or meaningful or layered, it wasn’t really making some big social commentary (unless you really felt like talking yourself into it, which yeah, I went to art school so we could discuss the various implications for hours if you really wanted to), it wasn’t intellectually challenging… but it made me so. Damn. Happy.
I must have sat there for a good fifteen minutes. Then I decided to explore the rest of the museum (saw a Joseph Beuys performance piece I’d never seen before called Eurasian Rod I think, pretty good, also lots of other things). After I finished, though, I went back and sat in that little room of light for another 30-40 minutes, just watching that dance. And I felt SO GOOD afterward. Thanks, Otto Piene!
Then I went to Friedrichshain and had a pretzel and döner in East Berlin, which, whoa, it’s like a totally different world over there on that side of the former wall. More on that later, maybe. Also more art!

 

Berlin, continued

I want to mail a postcard but I don’t know what the mailboxes look like and I’m afraid I’ll throw it away by accident, because the trash bins are all colorful and inviting and there are other mysterious orange things that might be for trash, or postcards, or… anything, really.

This is my only real problem so far.
I feel very comfortable in Berlin. I keep forgetting I’m a stranger in a foreign land… and then I try to use my German and they laugh encouragingly and reply in English. “Umm… eine Mandelkuchen, bitte!” “hahaha… for here or to go?”
So I’m feeling slightly crestfallen re: linguistic skills. But I’m learning! I can understand some of what they say! Yaaaay 🙂
The newspaper boy throws the morning paper onto the private balcony outside my bedroom, so in the morning I bring it in to the hallway for my hosts. And yesterday evening one of them, Gunter, knocked on my door to say that he’d accidentally left the ironing board in my closet, and he was so sorry to bother me, but he had to iron a shirt for his husband for tomorrow. So I’m basically living in domestic bliss with a sweet gay couple and their adorable dog.
Now I’m heading out, with provisions, to spend a couple hours viewing a concentration camp, because history is important and also fascinating and in some cases super depressing. “Have fun at the concentration camp!” said nobody, ever.
Attention attention: the subway map is full of LIES. Got on the right train, but then it went the wrong way, so I thought it was the wrong train, so I got off, and went back a couple stations, and then it turns out it was the right train after all. This is where that unlimited transit pass comes in handy — all my mistakes are free now!
Also, the great thing about trains is that, if you fuck it up, you can pretty much always just get off and catch a train going back the other way. This also applies to freeways (usually, except for those rare pesky off-ramps with no matching opposite on-ramp) and ferries (as my mother and I discovered once after missing our ferry stop [I know, I know, how do you miss a ferry stop… well, you just sort of do, sometimes]).
Important note on riding trains in foreign countries where you don’t speak the language: make sure you’re in a car with some locals. That way if the conductor says something over the intercom, you can see what they do. If they ignore it, it was probably “Stand clear of the closing doors, please” but if they all jump up and run off the train suddenly, it was either “The train is on fire” or “This train is now suddenly a different train, please go catch that other train over there instead if you still want to go where you were planning to go when you got on”. In either case, this is an excellent example of a great time to play ‘lost lamb’ and follow the flock.
Another thing about subway maps: since they have to fit the entire system in a neat little square or rectangle, they are not necessarily to scale. In other words, that stop you’re headed to MIGHT be a big train station in Berlin, or it might be 45 minutes away and in an entirely separate village, as was the case today. So I basically just went to, I don’t know, Monroe, only this Monroe has a palace that was built in 1652 (see photo), which I looked at while I ate my packed lunch. It also has a concentration camp, where I will NOT eat lunch, because what kind of a monster do you think I am?!
Update: now I’ve been to a former concentration camp. I don’t really want to talk about it. Going there definitely helps put history in perspective, though, as far as scale etc.
Now I’m going back to Berlin and I feel a strong need for art, so I’m going to spend a few [blissfully air-conditioned] hours in the modern art museum.

 

Willkommen in Berlin!

Berlin.

It’s pretty great, you guys.
So ok, let’s list some negative aspects first, to keep things in perspective…
• It’s flat (I know that could be viewed as a positive thing, but come on, it’s topographically BOOOOORING).
• It’s not close to any large bodies of water.
• The weather is weird (based on today, anyway, when it was alternately hot, muggy, super windy-but-still-hot, sunny, rainy, and chilly-but-still-oppressively-humid).
• Ummmm… yeah, that’s all I’ve got so far.
Positives:
• IT’S AMAZING!
• Details to follow 🙂
Other thoughts, briefly, before I pass out tonight in my adorable homestay with a four-poster bed and a nice gay couple with an adorable dog (“the name is Bootsmann, but she is a woman”) as hosts:
• I bought a five-day transit pass and then spent like five hours walking everywhere today because I wanted to see it all.
• You can sit outside and linger and watch people while eating or drinking at any cafe/restaurant/bar for hours and they don’t mind.
• There are a zillion dogs but they all have perfect manners (thanks to German training efficiency, as Brendan says).
• Everyone rides bikes but I haven’t seen a single person wearing a helmet.
• They have this thing with bears, like as a symbol, and I don’t really get it (must research).
• Oh, the Germans. They get very put-out if you don’t follow the rules. But everyone pretty much does follow the rules, so things generally seem to function smoothly and efficiently (example: the subway system. No turnstiles, no gates, no swiping a card, you just walk in and get on the train. You’re expected to pay, of course, and they do random checks and fines, but basically everyone pays, so they don’t need to force the issue and slow down the system).
That’s all the first impressions for now. More details on adventures later!
Oh, one more. One of my first thoughts while walking around the neighborhood where I’m staying:
“Ooh, there are so many nice German cars here! …Oh. Right. I’m in Germany.”

 

More about Oslo

I’m sitting in the Oslo airport now, waiting for a flight to Berlin. Yesterday I finally got to my destination (after walking for ages, getting mildly lost on curving streets, and taking that tram). I was going to Vigeland Sculpture Park, which is one of the big tourist things and so of course I was going to skip it, but my friend Julian told me it was great. In his words, paraphrased:

“It’s like this giant outdoor museum, right, but it’s one dude. It’s all one guy! He was like ‘I want to make some sculptures — huh, they’re kinda big, maybe they should go in a park — I know, I’ll build a giant park for them!’ It’s this huge expression of one particular artistic vision. You should totally go see it.”
So I did. I went in with that fairly vague idea of what to expect, and didn’t research further. I got off the tram one stop too soon (fortunately!), so I entered the park from a weird side, not the giant grand main entrance. It was the PERFECT way to discover it… So yeah, this guy designed this enormous park (like, probably the size of Volunteer Park in Seattle), and then filled it with his art. So I was walking through this pleasant, tree-filled, grassy, hilly park, looking for these sculptures… I found a couple here and there, and they were fine, sort of tucked among the trees (the guy did almost exclusively life-sized and larger human forms). Anyway, I was starting to feel a little let down. Then all of a sudden I came out on a main walkway, and looked to my left… And WOW. I mean, this was like a giant monument to park design and sculpture and it just went ON AND ON with a bridge fully lined on both sides with sculptures, then a garden, then tiered levels going up to more and more sculptures, then ANOTHER level behind that one, then some giant ones off in a meadow… it was impressive.
Then I took the tram back, had a nice long quiet meal sitting outside at a restaurant, with a complimentary sheepskin for my lap, and a book, and an Australian waiter who made sure he waited to say anything until after I’d ordered as slowly as possible in terribly broken English/Norwegian, and then answered with a little grin and a “No worries, can I get you anything to drink?” (damn Aussies…).
Then I went back to my adorable little Norwegian homestay and went to bed. And now here we are, at the airport, eating some Norwegian chocolate and taking advantage of two hours of free WiFi. Berlin, here I come!

 

Norway!

NORWAY! It’s all covered in trees! It’s verdant! It’s Nordic! I like it already and I haven’t even gotten off the plane yet!
The airport is straight out of an IKEA catalogue. Hardwood floors, Scandinavian furniture, lots of black, white, and natural wood, and paper lamps. Oh, and lots of random, unlabeled art!
This train is glorious. I reeeeally wish that America had trains like Europe has trains. It’s fast and clean and quiet and amazing and has free WiFi, naturally. The countryside is idyllic. There are rolling meadows and farms and perfect red barns and trees and it’s soooo pretty!
UPDATE I found some graffiti; this must be the ‘slum’. Also this whole having-a-headcold-and-sniffling-a-lot is working wonders for keeping an empty seat beside me…
I am in Europe, and I only have a backpack. Therefore… I AM BACKPACKING IN EUROPE! I’ve just clipped my compass to my purse strap and I’m setting myself loose in downtown Oslo. Here we go!!
Handy tip: Oslo is not flat. Also the streets are, unsurprisingly, not straight. This is GREAT for wandering around and discovering things (I found a bunch of neat buildings! And a cemetery with a cafe!), it’s not so helpful when you’re navigating with a compass and no map. East, east, east OH dead end. Ok, north, now east, east, good, oh wait, it’s curving, now I’m going south. Shit. Ok, east, east, and GIANT RAVINE! Shit.
Ah, that marvelous moment in a foreign city when out of the blue you recognize a thing. “Ah! I’ve been here before! I know where I am (sort of)!” See the photo? I’ve now been to that park… TWICE!
One of the things I love most about traveling is how it makes you notice all the little everyday things that we take for granted. I just got on the tram (after failing to note the difference between a bus and a tram, then failing to find a stop for either, then unsuccessfully trying to walk to Vigeland park instead, then giving up and walking back). As soon as I got on I realized that it was missing any visible buttons or cords, and so I had absolutely no idea how I should request a stop. It only made stops when requested, I was able to verify that after a couple stops went by, but for all my surreptitious glances I couldn’t figure out what the other passengers were doing to make it stop. I wound up just sitting back and hoping that my stop would be popular enough for others to request it, and luckily it was, but it’s definitely one of those little things that I take for granted…. How do you make a bus stop? Other than asking the driver directly, of course, which yeah, you COULD…

 

Notes from Abroad

Oh hello! We take a break from our normally-scheduled Walden Cabin updates to bring you this: Notes from Abroad. It seems a fitting venue, since Thoreau really enjoyed travel writing. Also I didn’t want to start a separate blog, since I’ve clearly done such a good job keeping up with this one. Those who have known my long-term blogging history (I’m looking at you, Michael) know that sporadic updates and brief periods of wild enthusiasm followed by months or years of silence is the norm. Why break with such an established tradition?
A couple notes on Notes from Abroad: I’m writing it on my iPhone, during my down time, or in fits and spurts as I think of or see interesting things over the course of the day, and then uploading it at night when I have that magical combination of free time and free WiFi. So there will be typos, and each post may ramble a bit and be fairly disconnected, because I’ll be writing it here and there, and the iPhone doesn’t really lend itself to high-level proofing and editing. Apologies in advance for all that.
I’m on a plane to Frankfurt now. I’ll have an hour in the airport to catch another flight to Oslo, so there’s a decent chance I’ll miss it, but if all goes well I’ll be in Oslo in just about nine hours. Woo! I’ve watched the pilot episode of a mediocre tv show (I don’t know what it’s called, but there were some chatty superficial 20-something girls in NYC and it wasn’t Girls), and about 3/4 of the new Beautiful Creatures (wasn’t there an older movie with the same title?). I don’t have a whole lot of patience for movies anyway, but I was excited to see Jeremy Irons and then (spoiler alert!) all of a sudden there were witches and special effects and a Wise Older Black Lady who was sort of a post-civil-rights maid and who knew Ye Olde Voodoo because obviously, she was the only mature person of color in a movie set in the South so what else was she going to do? Anyway, I gave up on it. Then I read part of a book and tried to store up some text messages in WhatsApp to send later when I have WiFi, but it can’t do that (sadness!). Soooo then I decided to blog, because somehow we’re only three hours in to a ten hour flight, and a certain kind gentleman (that’s right, I called you a gentleman) gifted me a spare battery for my iPhone so UNLIMITED USAGE AWAITS! Oh, and I ate some airplane chicken so if I die of food poisoning we’ll all know why.
Ok, time to go read more! My seatmate is amazing; she seems nice but she hasn’t tried to engage me in conversation yet so she’s pretty much ideal.
This child seems to wonder if it might be possible to scream all the way from Seattle to Frankfurt… so far the answer appears to be yes. The flight screen says we’ve just reached Greenland and the child’s lungs are still holding out. Impressive…
Update: I’m staring out at the endless expanse of the North Sea. It’s quite lovely from the air, and soon I’ll get to see it in person, with Kj! Related: the stated purpose of my trip is to visit Kj in Scotland, and the last two (of six) letters of my flight confirmation code are KJ. Perfection 🙂
Anyway, I flew right through the nighttime on the map, though because of our northerly arc, the sun only set for a few minutes.
I’ve spent a lot of time thinking about airplanes on this flight. How they drive pretty well on such spindly-looking wheels. How this one is weirdly mini-polka-dotted on the inside, which makes it hard to look at it for too long and makes the curves of the inside of the cabin walls more apparent. How over the years I MUST have ridden in some new-ish aircraft, that MUST have been built after they banned smoking on all planes, and yet I’ve never seen an airplane without little ashtrays built in everywhere. You’d think they’d have phased those out by now…
Ooh, now I’m on the plane to Oslo, which we reached via packed bus from the terminal. I’m saddened to report that the same child of prodigious lung-strength (or possibly one that sounds just like it, at comparable volume, which might be worse) has followed me onto this flight. CREEPY SCREAMING STALKER CHILD!