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Getting the Cold Shoulder in Berlin

I liked Berlin when my friend and I arrived in the sprawling German capital a week ago. Our hostel was in Friedrichshain, where our cab driver told us – in heavily German-accented English – is a “good area with lots of clubs. If you come to Berlin to party, you are in the right place!” In fact, the hostel is directly across the street from a club, as well as the S-Bahn – one of the two main railways in Berlin. Not only that, the infamous Berlin Wall that divided East and West Berlin for nearly 30 years until 1989, was just a five-minute walk away.

The East Side Gallery of what remains of the Berlin Wall displays the work of artists from across the world.

Hungarian Santa Claus Berlin
Ran across a Santa Claus from Budapest at the Berlin Wall. When we told him we are from America he said, “Amereecah! I love Amereecah! Caleeforneeya. New Yorkh! Flooreeda! Hahahaha!” He was amusing, but a little much.
Pork knuckle dinner Berlin
For dinner one evening, I tried the popular German dish of picked pork knuckle at Zum Alten Tor, served with sauerkraut and boiled potatoes. The pork was tender and fatty, sauerkraut sour and potatoes were standard. It was good, but I don’t need to have it again.

In search of breakfast one morning – I hadn’t seen an egg in almost two weeks; plenty of beef, pork and pastries though – we stumbled into the Kreuzberg neighborhood. A gritty enclave which, in appearance, reminds me of Queens, New York with the train rattling on rails up above, graffiti-painted apartment buildings and restaurants serving up cuisine from different nations. Sadly, we didn’t consume any eggs that day. December 26th is a holiday in Germany and as we discovered, many businesses closed up shop.

On a 2.5 hour walking tour our second day in Berlin – on the coldest day we experienced on our trip so far; Z worried her frozen pinky toes would die and fall off – we consumed what our New Zealander turned Berliner guide, Stephanie, told us amounted to “800 years of German history in one afternoon.”

After the walking tour we sought warmth at the charming Christmas market, or Gendarmenmarkt, in a beautiful square between two impressive cathedrals.

The next day, in search of an eggy breakfast once again, we ventured to the adorable Café im Literaturhaus near Kurfürstendamm (Ku’damm). If Kruezberg is Queens, Ku’damm, Berlin’s glitzy shopping avenue – like a Champs-Élysées sister – is the Upper East Side in Manhattan. Boutiques, shops, restaurants and cafes line the over two-mile long destination, along with seasonal Christmas pop-up stands shilling roasted chestnuts, crepes, Glühwein and sausage wursts, among other goodies. People packed the shops and the “queues” for dressing rooms and cash registers wound through doors and around corners.

On the train ride to Ku’daam we witnessed an old couple go off on young Arab woman because the old woman tripped over the woman’s foot.

View from U-Bahn Berlin
Brandenburg Gate decals on the U-Bahn

The woman and her husband berated the bewildered young woman for minutes in harsh German tones. We have no idea what they were going on about, but that would not have been me sitting there. No sir. Not gonna yell at me with some nonsense. We shared sentimental looks with the woman. That couple was out of line.

Unfortunately, we arrived at Literaturhaus minutes too late for breakfast. Foiled again! As we were waiting for our server to clear the table she led us to, a tall dirty-blond haired man moved my friend with a slight push to her back and said tersely, “you have to get out of the way.” I looked askance at his back as he exited the restaurant, shocked at his rudeness.

People behaving like jackholes aside, we enjoyed lunch instead and followed it up with a bit of shopping on the avenue.

I finally saw eggs of the scrambled form the day before we left Berlin when we returned to Literaturhaus the following day. Yippee!

Berlin’s reputation as a party city, with one of the world’s largest New Year’s Eve celebrations, is why we chose it for NYE festivities. To get a taste of the Berlin nightlife in prep for the over-hyped holiday eve, one night we piled on our multiple layers of clothing – sexy – and headed out tor Clärchens Ballhaus in Mitte, because who doesn’t want to go dance it up with Germans in a ballhaus/biergarten/dance club/restaurant?

Clärchen's Ballhaus Berlin
Clärchen’s Ballhaus exterior. The outdoor biergarten was closed due to the cold

The clientele was a mix of people I couldn’t figure out: a tall white-haired couple knocked back Berliners (the local beer) like pros; a female couple dance seductively nearby; assertive to the point of nearly-aggressive men stared lasciviously at women whose gaze met theirs and tried to find ladies to bump and grind; other couples – both straight and gay – danced and sang to American songs sung by a fun German cover band. They performed “Hey Ya” by Outkast among other popular former American Top 40 hits.

The kitsch of the place made the evening fun, but if I lived in the area I am not sure it’d be a regular haunt.

Like Copenhagen, smoking in bars is legal, which for this non-smoking Californian is tough to endure for too long.

On another night we joined a pub crawl which Z and I both agree was a boring mess. I’ve had more fun at the dentist. At least my dentist tries to make conversation with me, unlike the surprisingly unfriendly Australians on the crawl with whom I attempted to make conversation. Also unlike the three crawl hosts who spent more time socializing with each other than the group. Two French women we talked to betrayed the French reputation for rudeness and were polite and conversational. Unfortunately between their somewhat limited English and our limited French (a few years of French as a kid only gets you so far), conversation grew stilted. We chatted up an American couple from Texas and New Jersey who commented multiple times about how unfriendly they found Germans.

Mixed sausage plate Berlin
Another dinner – more meat. Mixed wursts plate. I miss vegetables.

As thankful as we were to meet the outgoing American couple, we were so put off by the group’s lack of cohesion or attempts to remedy it, along with the hosts’ subpar socializing job, we left the pub crawl at the second bar and set off on our own. I wasted a cute outfit and risked a hangover on a lame evening – I doubly resent the pub crawl.

We alternated between walking (an average of 4.5 miles a day), taxis and the U-Bahn and S-Bahn to get around. Buying tickets at the train station amounted to playing a live action “hurt as many people as possible” video game of which you are the main character. Your goal is to buy a train ticket without getting shoved, pushed, hovered over or yelled at. To be fair, whenever someone spoke to me in German I felt like I was being lectured even if they were saying “I like ponies.”

A woman shoved me out of the way at the train station one morning as I was waiting in line for the ticket machine. It left me feeling which left me feeling disrespected. After not quite five days in Berlin, during which both our moods drifted toward “blah,” we realized the overarching sense of misery and general sense of displeasure in the Berlin atmosphere was bringing us down. I tired of either being stared at or ignored. I even had nightmares every night!

A couple of hours later we agreed to a detour in our travel plans and decided to leave Berlin early and spend New Year’s Eve somewhere more pleasant. First though, we visited a place of historical importance, even though it certainly wouldn’t boost our spirits: Sachsenhausen concentration camp.

Oranienburg Berlin
Town of Oranienburg. I wonder what it would be like to live there, so close to a former concentration camp.

The train ride to Oranienburg, where the Sachsenhausen former concentration camp exists as a museum and memorial, is about 50 minutes from the center of Berlin. The number of passengers aboard dwindled the further north we traveled, with only a smattering of riders remaining at the train’s last stop. As Z commented to me, “they really did ship people out to the furthest place they could.” Every muscle in my body suddenly seemed to weigh double.

As sunlight gave way to moonlight, we arrived at the snow-covered entrance to one of the most depressing places my mind and body have ever been.

Sachsenhausen operated as a prison, work camp and extermination center from 1936 to 1945. The camp housed close to 200,000 prisoners including criminals (murderers, rapists), Jehovah’s Witnesses, gay people, Jewish people and communists.

We didn’t stay long. I feel nauseated the deeper we trekked into the recesses of the grounds. The remaining empty barracks, lit from within, served as a spooky reminder of the purpose they once served. The invisible stench of human depravity leading to human misery hung in the already cold air. Z felt the hairs on the nape of her neck stand at attention. No amount of thought-wangling will make me understand how people can be so disgustingly cruel to each other.

And yet…some people still managed to take photos of themselves smiling in front of the memorials.

The next morning, we boarded a train for the 4.5 hour ride to Prague, Czech Republic in search of warmer people and lifted spirits.

On train to Prague
Goodbye Berlin, Prague see you soon!

Christmas in Copenhagen

Nisse elf for sale Det Gamle Apotek CopenhagenChristmas is kind of a big deal in Denmark. In Copenhagen giant wreaths adorn formidable wooden doors, twinkly lights border shop and restaurant facades and add sparkle to trees and foliage; wishes of “God jul” (Merry Christmas) in ornamental fonts cover storefront windows, and the requisite Christmas fir trees dot the town. On Strøget, a man with an accordion plays melodies that would make the perfect musical backdrop to a romantic comedy.

Every Christmas season, Tivoli, the second oldest amusement park in the world, transform their grounds into a majestic Christmas wonderland making it a perfect destination for families, friends, dates and tourists alike.

Copenhagen begins to quiet down during the week of Christmas. We took advantage of the calm and boarded a train for a 45-minute ride to the city of Helsingør. The city’s most famous attraction is Kronberg Palace, known also as the setting for Shakespeare’s Hamlet. The expansive grounds are magnificent and the atmosphere serene (aside from the occasional piped-in recorded sounds of incoming Calvary). The surrounding town offered its own bright charm.

Keisha on train to Helsingør

Had we done a bit more advanced planning we might have joined the ranks of the Danish and tourists filling the city’s restaurants for Christmas Eve dinner. Every restaurant we contacted was booked for the evening.

We stumbled around the nearly soulless streets of Indre By looking for signs of restaurant life. We found our oasis in the form of Sultan Palace and soon other hungry, reservation-less diners joined us for the Turkish buffet.

Christmas morning we awoke to a super gift: snow! A fun treat on our last full day in Copenhagen, especially after endless rain.

This city and its people showed us a great time and we’ll miss the more relaxed pace of life and sense of calm. Now it’s on to the next country’s adventures!
Friends in snow Kongsten Have Copenhagen

San Francisco’s Dia de los Muertos 2014

Dia de Los Muertos Skull San Francisco 2014 | The Girl Next Door is BlackSan Francisco loves a good celebration and any excuse to dress in costume. Sunday’s Dia de los Muertos (Day of the Dead) celebration proved no exception. The holiday, which originated in Mexico, honors both the dead and the living – an appreciation of the cycle of life. For a few hours last night, hundreds of people converged in the Mission district – the neighborhood often at the center of San Francisco’s gentrification tensions – for the festivities.

Celebrants erected elaborate altars in remembrance of deceased loved ones. Aztec dancers and musicians in ornate costumes and striking makeup led a procession through the streets. Bay Area residents lined sidewalks to watch the parade. Some enjoyed front row seats from the comfort of their apartments, while others opted to follow along with the roving entertainment.

A sea of bodies of various colors and ages, with faces painted like sugar skullswearing marigold headpieces, dressed as resurrected brides, carrying parasols and candles, many clothed in black and white, ambled down the streets to the sound of rhythmic percussion beats. A comment I overheard aptly sums up the evening: “This is definitely better than Halloween!”