From Hamburg to the Haupstadt

The other day I looked at the calendar and realized it’s been a month since I moved to Berlin. In that month, a ton of things have happened. To whit:


Another move.
Since I was 17, I’ve moved 17 times. Which is kind of staggering. But it also makes the moving process a bit ritualistic. My mom used to tell me the story of how quickly her mom (an Army wife) could reassemble the old stuff in the new house and make it feel like home—a process I’ve come to pride myself on too. But this move (we hope) is the last for at least a few years. We’ve got a guest room, a roof deck, and plenty of space to grow. So this time around, Tim and I are trying to slow the settling into more of a process, and less of an act. The apartment is roughly the size of a small house, which makes this move feel strangely grown up.

Another year older. Speaking of grown up: my birthday was a week after we moved in, but getting older in Berlin feels ironically like getting younger. I’ve been drinking the city in like a Red Bull (or maybe a Mate, if we want to be very trendy). The pace, energy, vibe, and people are such a marked departure from the Hamburg scene; the weirdness, diversity, and originality make me feel like I’ve come back to San Francisco. There’s just something about a proper city that makes you feel like you’ve got a new lease on life—which was a great way to enter the final year of my twenties.

Another All Hallows. My second year of Halloween in Germany. Luckily, Berlin has enough Americans to bring the art of the spook to life. This Halloween also happened to coincide with the 500th Anniversary of Martin Luther (the OG, not King) nailing his 99 Thesis to the door, which meant it was a public holiday throughout Germany. This was awesome for two reasons: one, you could party during the day and still be able to function the following one (which was my first day of work), and two, there were plenty of trick-or-treaters enjoying the time off of school.

Another agency. If you missed it, the reason we moved to Berlin was so I could take a new job with an old standard. I worked at AKQA San Francisco before moving to Germany, so in some ways, taking a job with AKQA Berlin completes a circle. I’m lucky that I got to take my partner-soul brother with me—making this fresh start feel comfortingly familiar on multiple counts. We’re working on a newly-won client pretty ferociously; it feels good to be busy.

This Saturday we’re finishing our kick-off month by warming the house with friends for a Thanksgiving feast. Lots of change, but lots to be thankful for too. Namely, that they sell turkeys in Berlin. 😉

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Culture Shock #6: History is Live

“Ja, Hamburg is full of bombs.”

Three sets of eyes turned towards the voice. It was Ingo, one of our freelance copywriters. He sat, completely relaxed, behind his computer, as the three expats discussed the latest breaking headline: a bomb threat had closed the subway. Only this wasn’t an ISIS threat or a domestic terror attack. It was a (potential) blast from the past.

 


It turns out that we had translated the headline wrong. When the line read, “bomb found”, they literally meant “found”—as in, discovered in a construction site. According to a Guardian article, back in World War II, the British and American Allies pounded Germany with 1.5 million tons of bombs. Officials estimate that 15% of the bombs failed to explode—which means that throughout this country, thousands of live bombs are hidden like Easter eggs, waiting to be found.

Luckily, this being Germany, there is a system in place for when such a bomb is found. This past weekend, for example, we were returning from a visit to see Tim’s family only to find out that a massive evacuation was taking place in Frankfurt, where we had to change trains. In the largest evacuation since the war, 60,000 people were ordered to leave their homes for the day as experts came in to defuse what’s known as a “blockbuster”—a bomb large enough to flatten a whole city block. Over beers and a pizza at the central station (which was outside of the potential detonation radius, don’t worry Mom), we watched the coverage of the evacuation. Uniformed officers went door to door, ringing every bell and ensuring that everyone had properly exited the area. (The Guardian also tells me they used helicopters with heat-sensing cameras to make sure nobody was left behind). Then a team of police explosive experts came in and defused the bomb—and by the evening, everyone was back at home again. Like clockwork.

This type of occurrence is regular. So regular that Ingo didn’t even bat an eye when he heard what we were talking about. But in America, the bombs that fell in Europe in WWII are just lines on a history page. It’s hard to imagine that this type of Frankfurt bomb fell with a legion of others—and harder to imagine the type of flattening damage the bombs unleashed when they did explode on impact.

Amid all of the recent controversy about race and history in the States, I’ve found it so fascinating to see how Germans deal with their blemished past. I think part of it helps that the history is still alive for people to experience. You can still see the signage in Berlin that routed the trains to their different concentration camps. You can visit the camps. Theoretically, you could even be blown up by an active munition. It’s hard to glorify a history that weighs so heavy on you—and that’s one thing that should be appreciated about the German approach to history. They not only allow, but insist on that weight. They refuse to forget. And so history—its evil, its beauty, its danger—doesn’t die. It lives, breathes, and demands to be remembered.

Things We Are Not Taller Than

“Excuse me, would you mind taking our picture? We have a little tradition we do—just hold on and we’ll get into place.”

It started as a little gag—Tim had once put me on his shoulders and I said I was taller than anything else around. When I came to Aachen to visit him, I found a stat on how the Aachen Cathedral, when built in 798, was the tallest and largest structure north of the Alps. “I want a photo of me sitting on your shoulders next to it. It can be something we are not taller than.”

Tim paid it back to me on his visit to San Francisco in December. We drove up to Hawk’s Hill and walked the viewpoint to the Golden Gate Bridge. Onlookers laughed as I springboarded off a nearby log and scrambled onto his shoulder, whacking him in the face with my gloved hands.

And thus came the tradition. Every vacation we go on, we try to find one thing that we are organically not taller than—and someone kind enough to wait while we struggle into position.

For two years and ten countries, this guy has walked beside me, driven me crazy, swept me off my feet, and yes, carried me on his shoulders, both literally and figuratively. We’ve both got road left in our shoes…I can’t wait to see where we end up.

 

Postcard from Edinburgh

A few nights ago, sitting on the couch on a gloomy Saturday night, Tim poured us two glasses of whiskey and we settled in to watch a movie. He’d gotten Glencairn whisky glasses for his birthday; they are specially-designed with a tapered mouth to let you catch the nuanced smells of each pour. While he sipped American bourbon, I’d opted for Jura, a Scotch whisky we’d purchased on our November trip. As I brought the glass to my mouth, the smell instantly transported me to Scotland. This particular Jura is known for its peatiness—the smoky smell and taste that makes many whiskey novices turn their heads (or stomachs).

But this smokiness is exactly what makes me think of Scotland. It reminds me of a roaring fire, a sleeping dog, thick, felty tartan blankets, rain-lashed windows. The crunch of cobblestones. A fine mist dancing across your face and settling on an upturned collar.

I’ve visited Scotland twice now, once with Tim last November on a trip through the Highlands, and back to Edinburgh in April with my friend Alex. Both times the weather was sunny but cold—I kept my coat buttoned to the throat and a flask of whisky in the pocket to ward off the chill. Alex and I didn’t have much of an itinerary (it’s what makes us such good travel companions). We wandered the Prince Streets Garden while munching on buttery, oven-fresh shortbread; flipped through thick books of fabric swatches as she contemplated getting a custom-made kilt skirt; admired the arches and colorful glass windows at St. Giles Cathedral; took tea breaks whenever it struck our fancy.

We finally ended up at Edinburgh Castle and slipped in right before the close, meandering through the sprawling keep in search of the shiny stuff. We found it in a high tower, where bejeweled swords and crowns lay in a thick glass case besides what appeared to be a massive rock.

“What is the rock for?” Alex asked the security guard. He appeared surprised.

“That’s no rock—that’s the Stone of Destiny,” he said. This epically-christened oblong piece of sandstone is also called the Stone of Scone (or in Scottish Celtic, An Lia Fàil). It’s the coronation stone used for centuries by the Scottish kings and now the British monarchs. According to the guard, when Charles ascends the throne, he will sit on the throne chair—but beneath it will be this very rock, brought down from Scotland.

On our last day, we woke early and headed to the base of Arthur’s Seat—a different rock named (according to legend) for a different king. Arthur’s Seat is often mentioned as one of the possible locations for Camelot, the legendary castle and court of King Arthur. At a height of 250.5 m (822 ft), it’s a relatively easy hike that offers fantastic panoramic views of the city. We took our time, chatting and picking our way over the grassy knolls. Shortly before the crest sat a man playing lilting Celtic songs on an acoustic guitar. We paused to savor the moment.

“Do you ever think these moments are our rewards for doing good in this world?” Alex asks me. “The ways that karma manifests for us?” The sun was bright on our faces, the wind crisp and strong. The city of Edinburgh unrolled at our feet, and the roughness of the mountain was cloaked in freshly-sweet heather. I replied with the only answer that occurred to me. “God…I hope so.”

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Everyone is Welcome in LA

With the U.S. currently gaffe-ing about matters both diplomatic and domestic, it’s little wonder the sentiment outside of the States is so wary—especially when it comes to booking travel. But count on California to do something to change that. I love this colorful, bright-eyed ad from LA Tourism, that both says and shows that #everyoneiswelcome. And to be honest—since we’ve acknowledged the population is so varied, I’d love to see such a diverse cast in a “normal” ad too. #goals

Pass or Fail: Updates in the “Visa Wars”

Maybe it’s on your radar, maybe its not—but a few weeks ago the E.U. voted to implement a new policy for American tourists requiring a visa to travel to Europe. It’s the latest development in what’s known as the “visa war”—an ongoing dispute based on the fact that the United States still enforces a strict visa policy for five European Union countries: Poland, Cyprus, Croatia, Bulgaria, and Romania despite agreements not to. In a tit-for-tat move, the E.U. finally decided to strike back and require Americans to get visas when they hop across the Atlantic.

The process for the last few years has been an open-border policy between the U.S. and the E.U. European nationals need to complete a form for travel authorization (the ESTA), which is typically granted within a few days, if not a few hours. And U.S. citizens get a stamp on arrival and unrestricted visitation throughout what’s known as the Shengen region for 90 days. All well and good. But see, reciprocity only works when it’s reciprocal, and leaving certain countries out because of their socioeconomic status is well…not reciprocal.

So now the E.U. is considering what this new policy will look like. While the new policy’s effective date is still undetermined, the reactions to it have been interesting to watch. As Americans, we can enter most popular touristy destination countries with little to no hassle—a simple visa-on-arrival, maybe a minimal fee. I remember a sense of shock when, planning my trip to Brazil in 2010, I realized that I needed to pay $160 for a tourist visa—even thought my trip was less than two weeks long. It’s our typical sense of entitlement: we’re a superpower, so we should have a super-powerful passport.

It’s our typical sense of entitlement: we’re a superpower, so we should have a super-powerful passport.

The experience with my Brazilian passport made me far more sympathetic to those who have to adhere to the stringent tourist visa processes in the States. I was lucky that I had a Brazilian consulate in the city I was living in—otherwise the special trip to get the visa may have scrapped both my travel budget and my travel plans. I recently read a very detailed account of what a Bulgarian national has to go through in order to visit the U.S., and it’s neither cheap nor funny:

I have to fill out a form on the US embassy website, accompanied by a photo with specific quality and dimensions. I have to schedule an appointment at the US Embassy (I either have to fly home to Bulgaria, or go to Madrid, since I now live in Spain). I have to pay a fee of $160, nonrefundable. I have to show up for an in-person interview…[where]…I have to present a body of evidence proving that I don’t aim to immigrate to the United States, but only want to have a good vacation and eat chicken wings in LA’s Chinatown, like any other traveler would. This “evidence” includes my work contract, my apartment lease, an invite from whoever I am visiting in the US with his/her address and a document that proves his/her status in the country (Good luck visiting a non-citizen). I have to specify where I will be staying, how long and provide a phone number where I can be reached at all times.

In comparison, if my friend from Los Angeles wants to visit me, all he needs to do is hop on a plane and get his passport stamped upon arrival in Spain.”

When all the particulars are spelled out…yeah, that seems unfair.

As for me, I have kind of mixed feelings about the “visa war”. In terms of the big picture, it is in some ways cool to see the rest of the world standing up to the U.S. and making us honor our policy promises. On the other hand, in this era of walls and bans and fears of outsiders, it makes me sad to think that another obstacle to moving around and meeting new people will soon be enacted. Americans in general aren’t good at getting out of bubbles—and many, when they do choose to leave the 50 States, will head to Europe because it has a sense of the familiar.

On the other hand, in this era of walls and bans and fears of outsiders, it makes me sad to think that another obstacle to moving around and meeting new people will soon be enacted.

So while I think it’s really important and right to have to answer for our governmental failures, I also worry that Americans will be so turned off by it (though let’s be honest, they will probably be turned off not by the actual policy forms than by the breathlessly overblown news coverage) and hunker down further into their comfort zones, further depriving the U.S. of the broader perspective we so desperately need right now.

Hamburger Sliders: Then and Now

My favorite thing to do when visiting an old city is to see how much of its architectural history is still intact. To wander through these old section of town is not unlike watching a 90-year old grandma busting a surprising move on the dance floor—they have surprising charm, elegance, and even a hipness to them despite the age. So you know I love this interactive feature from the Hamburger Abendblatt (and subsequent opportunity for punning).

Hamburg – eine Fotoreise von 1888 bis heute

What surprised me most about the Hamburger Abendblatt’s interactive feature, however, is not how different Hamburg is today from the Hamburg of 100+ years ago, but how similar it is. Through two World Wars and a lot of growth, you can still see those old bones all throughout the city. And yeah, they still can show the young’uns something.

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