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!