Berlin in Photos

11722346_10100446828553921_5070241060450441911_oI’ve been lucky in the last few months to travel back and forth to Germany a few times—and one of the things that has struck both times I’ve visited is how, as a country, it seems to be poised on the brink. It’s been 25 years since German Reunification, and it’s crazy to me to think that what is now regarded as the powerhouse of the E.U. was once so crippled (and that this evolution happened in my lifetime). Nowhere was that more apparent than Berlin, which I visited in the high days of summer. In winter perhaps the city has the echoes of stereotypical German severity (and austerity), but in summertime, with the sunshine ladled through the trees and the sidewalks alive with people from all over the world, Berlin seemed the very embodiment of Germany’s future.

Reality Czech? : Musings from Prague

With summer winding down and the fall approaching, I can’t help but feel a little wistful. Seems like the perfect time to share a throwback post on wishful thinking.

March, 2009 — Prague, Czech Republic

I’ve been making a lot of wishes lately. I think it’s something that happens when you travel—traveling brings out the magic that all of us had previously forgotten. Standing at the gates of a new city, you can’t help but want to make a wish: maybe to not forget, maybe for someone you wish was there, maybe for yourself and your own adventure. And nothing is a cheaper thrill than throwing a penny into a fountain.

I have thrown pennies into fountains in Riga. In Galway. In London. Today I am in Prague, sitting in a café, resting my feet after a two hour long walking tour over the fiercely cobbled streets. I am in a wishful mood.

Prague is an amazing city. An old city. Older than Riga, and I certainly was impressed by Riga’s age. More amazing that it’s age alone is the fact that it is still so much intact. This is due to the fact that Hitler decided that he liked this place, and therefore avoided exploiting and/or exploding it through his years of power. Never thought I’d be saying “Thanks Adolf,” but there it is. Prague is full of bars and pizzerias, flags draped in so many paned windows, yellow walls that spurt turrets in the most unlikely places, like strange stone fountains. We walked all through the Old City today, winding our way through the packs of tourists to watch the Astrological Clock chime 4 o clock, the golden rooster’s caw almost amusing. We crossed to the bank of the river and watched the sun explode into the clouds over Prague Castle. We wound our way through the Jewish Quarter, where a cemetery the size of a suburban backyard holds the remains of over twelve thousand Jews, buried more than ten caskets deep in some parts. And finally, we walked across the bridge that separates the Old City from the area that previously was reserved solely for nobles and royals.

This bridge is not terribly wide, and was built in the year 1000—a fact that boggles my mind. (Eddie Izzard, the renown British comedian, once quoted: “I’m from Europe…where the history comes from.” You go to cities like Prague and realize just how new America is in the grand scheme of things.) The bridge is bedecked with huge statues of stone saints every ten feet or so. Some are benevolent, and smile. Others gaze down in stern warning, their granite faces grim. The one that is best known, however, is the statue that leaps out halfway over the bridge.

The statue is highly patina-d, and haloed with three gold stars that hover just above his pained face. He is St. John Nepomuk, the patron saint of Bohemia. The myths about the 14th-century martyr say that this priest of Czech king Wenceslas IV refused to divulge a secret told to him by the king’s wife, and was thrown off Charles bridge to his death as punishment. Small plaques at the base of his statue have been worn from bronze to gold with the rubbing of many fingers, with the idea of good luck behind the fingering. We peel off our gloves and run our hands over the raised embellishments on the plaque, wearing the old metal down even further. The metal is warm to the touch, a fact that surprises me. I linger for a second, the tips of my fingers resting on the surface.

I’ve been in need of good luck recently. I’ve spent a lot of pennies on the hope that things will soon settle down, in all aspects of my life. Spent a lot of time staring up at the skies too, willing one of them catch the wishes I throw at them. I look into the face of St. John and wonder if he actually works. If he’ll be the one to grant me the calm I’ve been searching for. I ask for a bit of luck, and remove my fingers.

We’re at the halfway point of our trip. Part of me is really ready to return home. Part of me wishes I could stay for a long, long time. Part of me wants to be alone, part of me wants to be surrounded by people—by the new friends I’ve made here (and so quickly! So easily!). Strange to think that the next time we travel in a group of this size, we’ll be headed for Schipol airport, and the trees, which are barren right now, will be heavy with the buds of spring.

Last weekend I was in London. I played the part of tourist for the first time—maybe because it’s hard not to when you are only spending two days in a city that well-known. I usually try to blend in (most of the time hard to do, for purely surface reasons), and keep a low profile. We’re supposed to be learning how to be travelers, not tourists. I credit KaUaTuahine for teaching me that long ago, and I still wince when I see my fellow Emersonians blundering about Europe with their inappropriate comments and complaints. London was great fun—skipping through the streets, trying out Brit-lingo, watching The Lion King in the West End…we even did that unforgivably touristy thing—riding the London Eye. It takes about half an hour to make a full circle, and in that time you get fantastic panoramic views of the city. A long time to sit and think. At the apex of the ride I took a moment and considered: Could I stay here? People have been considering their future European homes since we arrived—claiming houses on the Prisengracht in Amsterdam, returning from trips to Barcelona with their beach houses staked out. So far I haven’t seen a place I wanted to settle in. But London… Maybe London is what I was looking for in Boston and never found.

Now, in the Czech Republic, I have returned to my state of sojourner, of traveler. I sit quietly and try to remember the Czech words for “please” and “thank you,” like I know my mother would want me to. In the café, I wait for my good fortune to find me, and contemplate when the next time I will be able to wish will be. And what I will wish for this time.


See more photos from Prague here.

Anecdotes from Copenhagen

I did by far the worst job preparing for the first leg of this trip—to be completely honest, I’ve put more effort into preparing a grocery list than I did getting ready for Copenhagen. So while I had a hostel lined up when I deplaned, I had basically no idea how to get there. I got on the Metro, which took me to downtown Copenhagen at least, and managed to snag a Wi-Fi signal long enough to Google map my way from there to the hostel. Google predicted it’d be about a two mile trek—luckily I’m from San Francisco and no stranger at all to walking. 

The walk gave me a chance to gather some first impressions. The city is beautiful. Everything is patina’ed in a milky mint green. Spires twist and turn into the sky like strands of pulled taffy. The sky is huge and high and seemingly endless—and at 10:00 pm the sun was resting comfortably on the low-slung roofs of the block opposite me. 

The sidewalks are less crowded than the bike lanes, which bustle with vintage bikes ridden by well-dressed riders without helmets. Snatches of conversations drift by—Danish, German, English, Swedish. The style is neutral: olive greens, grays, navy, cream. Pops of neon and loud orange. Gauges in ears, tortoiseshell glasses with wide lenses, slicked back blonde hair, arm sleeves of beautifully inked tattoos. Improbably fashionable hats. Neatly laced Converse and New Balance sneakers. I’m dressed to fit in in skinny jeans, cream tee, and a TopShop jacket—but my SF booties give me away as an outsider as I stumble on the cobblestones. 

I cross canals and wide streets. Flat faced buildings with ornate roofs and delicate weathervanes stand shoulder-to-shoulder in colorful blocks. The air is fresh. As I pass Tivoli Garden I can hear the whir of mechanical cars trundling shaking tracks, the delighted whoops and shrieks as a tower rises and drops and drops again. 

My hostel, Urban House, is in Vesterbro, whose red light district history is still evident in the short slews of neon signs and mesh-covered mannequins. I’m told it’s becoming the trendy hood, but the streets I explore are lined mostly with Thai restaurants and liquor stores. My street dead-ends against København H (the train station I would have arrived at had a put in a modicum of effort towards research). Outside is a sausage cart that furnishes my dinner as I wander. 

At one point I pass two incredibly frail old men who are engaged in a verbal spat outside a tiny bar. It quickly escalates into even frailer fisticuffs. A small crowd gathers, trying the wrench the two apart as they flail at each other—all spindly arms and shouted slurs. One of their wives, and equally fragile Thai woman in a pink track jacket, tugs her husband away, snarling insults in a high voice. The entire thing is being filmed by the black-clad bouncer of the establishment across the street, whose black, red, and orange signs proudly proclaim: All nude girls! Every show! He catches my eye and grins. 

Back to the hostel as the streets pale to a blue-grey that perfectly complements the half-litre of Carlsberg sitting coolly in my glass. The hostel is incredibly hip, jam-packed with Brits and Australians on holiday. A German family with four children sits at a table across from me. Their eldest son wears a U.S.A. t-shirt and flips his hoodie over his head boredly. In other rooms, a pile of beanbag chairs below a sign reading: “Hangover Time?”, and endless loop of classic movies, two foosball tables, heaps of trashy European magazines and at least two full sets of Twilight—up for grabs. 

The next day I hit the streets to soak in as much as I can. I start one of the free walking tours that leaves in front of Københavns Rådhus, the city hall. Our tour guide, Magnus, is nicknamed the “Scandinavian Jesus” for his flowing platinum locks and spends every other breath ribbing the Swedes in the group good-naturedly.

I duck out of the tour at the halfway point to head to the Carlsberg Brewery tour, slipping through the city via Strøget, the world’s longest pedestrian street and the main shopping area. I pause for a moment to tour the Lego store, awestruck by the intricate bricked compositions. 

The Carlsberg tour is fairly straight-forward—plenty of placards explaining the brand’s history, and a truly impressive collection of international beer bottles. The tour comes with two beer tickets, one of which I enjoy while admiring the shining copper kettles in the tasting room, sipping the other languidly outside in the sunny courtyard next to the stables. 

No trip to Copenhagen would be complete without a visit to Freetown Christiania, the self-proclaimed autonomous neighborhood (read: hippie commune) and my last stop of the tour. Sitting on the edge of a lake, I take a minute to rest my sore feet. The smell of weed is heavy in the air, almost as intoxicating as the strength of this magnificent Danish sunshine. There are all kinds of bird calls—caws and shrieks fill the air, mingling with rock guitar from an outdoor stage and the far away honk of a train horn. Gravel crunches as people look for a rock or a clear space to call their own, careful not to crowd too close to anyone else unless they receive a vacant but not ingenuine smile of invitation. 

Somewhere, church bells ring the 5:00 hour. The sun is absurdly high, and I’m glad I caught the weather in an upswing—it had rained for weeks before I arrived. The city is lovely in the gold, sparkling cheerfully, as if lifted from a fairy tale. 

Like Cinderella at the ball, the time catches me off guard. I rush back to the hostel to gather my bags and jump onto a train (this time at the right station) to head to the next leg of my trip: Hamburg!