Friday, June 22, 2012


Today was my last proper day in Berlin. Naturally, I tried to get as much out of it as I possible could. For one thing, I had breakfast at Curry 36. The type of sausage I ordered today came with mustard instead of the usual curry sauce. Heinz mustard is dead to me. It is nothing but a neon yellow imposter.

After learning the true meaning of mustard, I spent the rest of the morning packing up until 12, when Mister Minsch opens. Mister Minsch is a small cake shop that I kept hearing good reviews of and kept not having time to visit, despite living only 7 minutes away. Finally, I got to give it a try. It did not disappoint. The choco-choco cake, a dense chocolate confection layered with the thickest and richest frosting I've ever tasted, made me wish I'd never heard of the cafe. Now, I know what I'll be missing.

With a slice of cacao bliss stowed in my belly, I scampered off to St. Mary's Church in Alexanderplatz for a free midday organ concert. I had expected to sit in the pews and just listen. Instead, the organ player invited the handful of attendants upstairs with her to sit in front of the organ and listen to it and her as she explained a bit about how it works. I had no idea how complicated an instrument an organ is. Not only does the player have to work pedals and three keyboards, but she must also push and pull knobs to control which sets of pipes are in use. The organist demonstrated the significance of these knobs time and time again. First, she played a quick piece using only the flute-like pipes. Then, she played a bit with the "brass" pipes. They actually have a piece of metal inside of them which vibrates while being played, adding a buzz to the regular toot. After demonstrating its range and a few other oddities about the nearly 300 year old machine, the organist performed a modern piece. I don't know how to describe it apart from thrilling. It started with just the flutes and built more and more until the music was pouring down on me like a thunderstorm, complete with thunder. For the final stretch, she pulled a knob that started up the Zimbelsterne, tiny stars on the organ that spun and struck chimes with their spokes. I almost wanted to laugh. The organ had spinning rims for goodness sake, but the 4 meter tall growling pipes kept me sober. I don't care that the rest of the audience was 55 or older. I made the right choice with that trip.

Perhaps the best part of the day was that I did not once need to use a map. Mister Minsch is on Yorckstraße in Kreuzberg. St. Marienkirche is on Alexanderplatz. Finding my way back after wandering around various shops in the afternoon was a piece of cake. In short, for practically the first time in my life, I know my way around a city. Now, I have to leave it. I'm amazed by how much I want to stay. It isn't the people I've met; they've been nice, but they won't be life long friends. It isn't the Goethe Institute; as much as I enjoyed it, boot camp is boot camp. It's the city itself, the patchwork metropolis I've come to love. Grammatically correct or not, I'm glad to say:

Ich bin ein Berliner.

Thursday, June 21, 2012

Cake To Die For

Today, I woke up at 10:30, showered, did some lazy yoga in my room, and went to my last day of class, armed with a black forest cake that I bought yesterday. Another student brought Ritter Sport chocolates and a box of assorted truffles. Yet another student brought a bottle of sparkling wine. Needless to say, it was a rather agreeable couple of hours.

Even the subject matter was fun. We read a few of the brothers Grimm's fairy tales and heard interviews with fairy tale researchers. Contrary to popular belief, the brothers never went more than a day's worth of traveling to get their stories. For the most part, they talked to a bunch of women and a few Frenchmen that happened to live in the area.

After class, six other students and I went to a Spanish tapas bar to say our goodbyes over some sangria and dinner. I had a spinach and smoked salmon soup and a spinach cake with cheese sauce. Not exactly traditional German fare, but delicious nevertheless.
Once we finished dinner, we said goodbye, wished each other good lives, and parted ways. I wandered over the the museum island to visit the Alte Nationalgalerie (old national gallery). The art gallery had a large Adolf Menzel collection displaying his paintings of Friedrich the Great. Personally, I found them boring. Historically significant, and well composed, but boring nevertheless. Upstairs, Arnold Böcklin's Toteninsel caught my eye. It portrays the island of death, where Charon ferries the dead. Looking at the painting in person, I found it strange how alluring the island seemed. I wanted to explore it, or at least see what lay beyond the shadowy harbor. The fact that my other favorite painting showed death leading the deceased into the afterlife might just say something about me...

Wednesday, June 20, 2012

Neues Museum

I recently discovered that students 18 years or younger receive free admission at all public museums in Berlin. Fortunately for me, I still have a few months of being 18 left, and I intend to exploit that to the fullest. Today, I visited the Neues Museum on the Museumsinsel. It may be named the new museum, but the building is still over 100 years old. It had essentially two distinct halves, an Egyptian half and a Classics / early Europe half. This meant that you might be admiring Germanic jewelry and suddenly find yourself surrounded by pharaohs.

I found it particularly interesting how the two halves interconnected on occasion. The Egyptian sarcophagi and the European stone coffins displayed in the afterlife exhibit looked rather similar in a few cases. Furthermore, the late Egyptian busts occasionally supported the curly beards of Greek statues. Early Greek statues also borrowed the Egyptian pose where the statue is in mid step, left foot forward.

My absolute favorite exhibit displayed large segments of walls from one of the pharaohs' tomb. I do not recall which pharaoh, or if he had a full fledged Pyramid with a capital P. I do know that the hieroglyphs and depictions of everyday life were incredibly beautiful. Sadly, the centuries had worn away most of the paint, but even in beige the artwork sang to me. I could not tell half the time if something was supposed to be a bird or a bird shaped hieroglyph. Both received equal levels of detail. Interestingly, the purpose of all the artwork was not to depict the pharaoh's life, but to provide for his afterlife. The carved servants and animals would serve the pharaoh in death and spare him from having to take servants and animals with him into the beyond. How considerate!

Tuesday, June 19, 2012


I had to decide today between visiting the Arkaden, a well known mall in Potsdamer Platz, and going for a walk through the Tiergarten. The heat ended up deciding for me. In the time it took me to make my way to Potsdamer Platz from the subway, I had started to sweat, so I took a left instead of a right and walked into the swanky shopping center. My goal was to get a dress that I could wear on semi-formal occasions and did not cost more than 50 Euros. Not all that surprisingly, famous shopping malls are not the best places to go for cheap. I saw many lovely and hideous dressed marked at over 200 bucks.

The food was at least reasonably priced. I came across an Italian ice cream shop and just had to get a scoop. Unsweetened chocolate in a waffle cone. Yum. Some more exotic flavors like tiramisu and strawberry cheese cake also beckoned to me, but today was a chocolate day. Later on, I came across an Ampelmann shop offering shirts, bags, mugs, shoes, and probably underwear plastered with the beloved crosswalk symbols. I couldn't resist picking up a bag of Ampelmännchen gummies.

Eventually, after visiting several shops in Berlin Mitte, I found a place with reasonable prices and flattering clothes called Mango Barcelona. It might not be "German" per say, but it is practically impossible to find a store in Berlin that is. Berlin is nothing if not multicultural.

Monday, June 18, 2012


I attended Bikram yoga again this morning. I didn't hold up as well as on Friday, possibly because the contents of my stomach are different in the morning than in the evening, but I still stayed for the entire class. Afterwards, I tried to strike up conversation with one of the girls in the class. To my surprise, she was from Mexico. Berlin, like New York, is so incredibly diverse that it's almost difficult to find the Germans!

After yoga, I had a few hours to go before my class started. While waiting, a poem started to take shape in my head in German. I wrote the fragment down, then expanded, then revised, then adjusted and fiddled until I had a poem, complete with rhymes. After class, I asked my teacher to review the poem, and she actually seemed impressed. She only had to correction one minor grammatical mistake, and she responded to it emotionally the way I had intended.

A month ago, I don't think I could have pulled that off. It isn't a question of vocabulary; most of the words I used in the poem were fairly basic. Rather, I had to know connotation and what "sounds" right. I have grown so much more familiar with the language during my stay here, and today I got to put that into practice.

Sunday, June 17, 2012


Yesterday just so happened to be the last Sunday of my stay in Germany. It also happened to be the day that a relatively nearby Methodist church held a special worship service. I arrived at five and took my seat in the somewhat small sanctuary. Strangely, the sanctuary was on the second floor. I took a bulletin, a hymnal, and a seat.
The service was gorgeous. The choir really knew what it was doing, and the female soloist in particular had such a fantastic voice. They sang pieces by Schubert, Mendelssohn, Schütz, and Bach. At one point, they all went upstairs to the back balcony and sang from there. Hearing the music coming from behind me just made it that much stronger, like it was coming from the building itself. Better yet, this sanctuary knew not to applaud after the singing finished. Applause should come from the people the music is intended for, and it was intended for God.

The entire church got to sing a few hymns as well, which were of course in German. It was pretty exciting to worship in another language. It was also incredibly difficult. I had never heard most of the songs before, and I had to sing several words that I'd never encountered before as well. Nevertheless, I made it through and could enjoy doing it. All in all, I'd say God knew what he was doing when he had me stumble across that service.

Saturday, June 16, 2012


The Technikmuseum Berlin, located a quick subway ride away from where I live in Kreuzberg, was definitely worth the visit. One exhibit displayed trains in their development from carts on wooden rails to the sleek and speedy cars of today. Visitors even get to walk underneath one of the older locomotives.

Another section featured chemistry and modern pesticides. I found it entertaining that German seemingly has three different words for pesticide; Pestizid (self explanatory), Pflanzenschutzmittel (plant protection resource), and Insektenbekämpfungsmittel (insect fighting resource). The first and last are so wonderfully German.

I also saw exhibits on jewelry making, photography, and textiles. The textiles section I thought did a particularly good job of clarifying how automated knitting and weaving works. After those exhibits, I skimmed the television and radio exhibits. There was still more to see, like the sailing and aircraft exhibits. However, I was too tired to keep looking. I tried to read only the German information placards and as a result was mentally exhausted.

It was about 1 when I finished and decided to get lunch in the restaurant there. Instead of waiting to be seated like you do at most nicer restaurants in America, you seat yourself and wait for a waitress or waiter. I ordered the Boulette with fries, which I somewhat regret since there were more unusual options available, but it tasted good overall. It was strange not leaving a tip, but I've been told that it really isn't expected for small meals.

The rest of today has been a combination of napping and goofing around on the internet. Hopefully, I can figure out how to use the washing machine...

Friday, June 15, 2012

Overcoming Obstacles

This morning, I took a tour focusing specifically on the former Berlin Wall. Naturally, the wall itself no longer really exists, but the ground where it previously stood is marked by either stones or a shallow impression in the street. Interestingly, there was not just one wall but two, one on the inside and one on the outside. In between stood no man's land where attack dogs, barbed wire, ditches, search lights, and soldiers made sure that no one managed to get across to the other side. Of course, that did not stop people from trying. In the early years of the wall, before it had such an elaborate set up, quite a few people managed to make their way into west Berlin.

One man built a makeshift zip line with the help of his western friend and zipped himself and his family to freedom. Naturally, soldiers saw him doing this, but because he had set it up on top of the government building where he worked, they assumed it was controlled by the state and let him get away with it. Another family actually created a hot air balloon. The first time they tried it, they went down to soon, but their second attempt was a success. Once, over a hundred people managed to escape through a tunnel before the soldiers could show up and put and end to it.

In a much less literal sense, I overcame the obstacle of the Bikram Yoga class today. I managed to make it through the entire 115 minutes without feeling sick. Furthermore, I caught far more of the German this time around than I did yesterday. Success!

Thursday, June 14, 2012


I decided to try out the 10 days for 10 euros deal that the bikram yoga studio next to the Goethe Institut has. I got up nice and early so I could give my breakfast time to settle down, put on some nonrestrictive clothes, and headed on over for the 9:30 class. The changing/show/coat room I was directed to had a man in it. I quickly closed the door and looked for somewhere else to put my stuff. In the next room, two women were changing. Apparently that includes changing underwear. I decided to wait a bit before going in.

After safely packing away my bag and jacket, I went up the stairs to the yoga room itself. Now, until today I didn't actually know what bikram yoga was. Thus, I was rather unpleasantly surprised by the blast of hot air from the room. My baggy t-shirt and full length sweatpants were starting to look like a really bad idea. What is more, I unthinkingly chose the spot right in front of one of the heaters in the room. Just lying on my borrowed mat, the sweat began to prick through my pores.

Then the class actually started. The woman leading it spoke quickly and a lot, mostly in German. I understood when she said to come out of a pose, when to inhale, exhale, and when to do something with my feet or hands. That was about it. However, my German understanding did not concern me so much as the nausea slithering through me. I had done most of the poses before and had never found them particularly strenuous apart from the balance challenge. This time, though my muscles said go, my pulse and stomach said no. Half way into the 90 minute class, I was done. I sat in the cool lobby, lay down, drank water, and finally recovered.

I'm going back tomorrow.

This evening, I attended a performance by the Staatsballett Berlin at the Komische Oper called "The Open Square." It was fantastic. The music varied between sharp and violent to rhythmic and wild, to understated and melancholy. At one point, the musicians did nothing but clap, which the choreography played off of well. The dances were hardly traditional. I don't think I saw a single leap or pirouette. Instead, the twenty or so men and women moved in calculatedly unnatural ways. Half the time, they looked like robots, the other half like puppets, and I mean that in the best of all possible ways. After all, the repeated theme of the show was individuality versus conformity. During a particularly hilarious dance, where a group of men hopped about like jack-in-the-boxes, one dancer separated himself and started shaking it for all it was worth. The other men quickly sorted him out with a kick to the backside.

I could prattle on and on about the performance, but I do not have the energy or the time to do so. What I will say, however, is that my German must really be getting better. I understood everything that was said during the ballet! ;)

Wednesday, June 13, 2012

Under Pressure

Yesterday in class, we discussed so called "science for kids" programs, where children can do hands on experiments in order to better learn and get excited for science. Naturally, this led to a conversation about the different school systems in general and the different pressures students cope with.

I think the Japanese girl in the class may have felt a bit singled out. The teacher kept bringing up how much pressure Japanese students are put under to do well in school. Their classes usually go from 8 to 4, and afterwards they are expected to have some sort of extra curricular activity. If I understood the girl properly, private schools have extra classes in the evenings, which can go until 10.

Interestingly, the New Zealand-er said that Japan and New Zealand both have the highest suicide rates for students, but for opposite reasons. In his country, there are no grades, classes end at 1 in the afternoon, and the students have nothing to do. Many fall into depression or get hooked on drugs. They literally die of boredom.

Germany seems to fall fairly well into the middle of the road in terms of pressure levels. Students are expected to work hard, but imperfection is not tantamount to failure. Furthermore, as is the case in many European countries, break years between public schooling and higher education are common and respected, and trade schools seem to be a more viable option, meaning that not everyone is expected to go to a university. I approve of that. Not everyone really needs a college education.

Tuesday, June 12, 2012

Goethe and Art

Today, we read a few Goethe poems, which seemed fairly natural given the name of the institute. We read the Magician's Apprentice, the Fisherman, and the Erlkönig. The latter, my favorite of the three, is a ballad describing a child pursued by the Erlkönig through the woods, though the child's father is oblivious to the elf king. After reading it through, the teacher played a musical version of it written by Shubert and performed by Jessie Norman. I actually got chills.

After class, I attended a lecture on art in East Germany. Almost no east German artists are widely well known now, not because there were no good ones, but because after the unification the eastern art was all pretty much seen as propaganda and nothing more. We discussed four main artists of the time, one working with the state, and three given unusually free reign to criticize the state due to their popularity.
 In all honesty, I found it difficult to concentrate on the presentation. It was not really the presenter's fault, though she did not give the most exciting talk in the world. I just happened to feel vaguely ill, and the paintings didn't help. Many of them unsettled me somehow to the point that I wished I could paint over the art and wipe them out of existence. That was how I could tell they were good.

Monday, June 11, 2012

Fritz Lang

This morning, I had intended to go on a tour pointing out the traces that the Nazi regime had left behind, but I misremembered the start time and arrived half an hour too late. With several hours to go before my class, I decided to watch one of the movies in the media center. One which caught my attention was Fritz Lang's Das Testament des Dr. Mabuse, made in 1933 with sound. I've got to say, I liked it a lot. Crime, insanity, mystery, it was my cup of tea. Better yet, it was filmed in Berlin! I failed to recognize anything, possibly in part because it was made before the bombings. Still, I appreciated the connection.

In class today we mostly talked about a somewhat depressing short story we read about a man trying to keep two relationships going, one of which was superficial, the other narcissistic. I would describe the story overall as grey. It was well written, however, and used mercifully simple language.

Sunday, June 10, 2012

Random Reflections

I did just about nothing today except read a bit of the crime novel I bought yesterday and do a little homework that I'd been procrastinating on. Since I have nothing else interesting to talk about, I figured I list a few of the small observations that I haven't included in other posts.

The Germans I've met really are more blunt than Americans. If they don't like your skirt, for example, they will say so. If you give the wrong answer in class, instead of saying "Mm, that's not it," the teacher will say "wrong." Personally, I prefer this. It might be a bit jarring at first, but it means that the opinion you're given is genuine. It also means that I don't have to worry so much about tact, which I've never been particularly good at.

American television and film is popular here to the point that it's difficult to find something on TV that isn't a dub. To be fair, I only have access to the basic channels. However, it was still a little surprising. It makes the shows slightly easier to follow from my point of view.

The sidewalks in Berlin are all cobblestone, and they almost all have a strip of reddish brick near the street, which is a bike path. I have a bad habit of forgetting that and having to leap out of the way of angry bicyclists. However, when I walk on the proper part of the sidewalk, I find it rather nice. I certainly prefer the stones to the boring cement slabs we have in America.


Instead of going on the official cultural programs today, I decided to make my own personal program. I've wanted to get some books here for a while, so I looked up a few noteworthy book stores and libraries and made a day of visiting them.

1. Büchertisch (books table)

The first place I visited was a second hand book store not far from my apartment here. It lies in a quiet back courtyard and offers books on a wide variety of topics. What I found particularly nice was the free coffee and tea set up for customers. I didn't happen to find any books there that completely took my breath away, although one about dinosaurs wearing latex suits to hide among the humans sounded interesting. Thus, I left empty handed and moved on to the next bookshop.

2. Miss Marple: Die Krimibuchhandlung (Miss Marple: The crime novel bookstore)

I had a bit of trouble at first finding this bookstore, since I had to walk a bit from the subway station, and I got a bit turned around. However, eventually I got to the right street and found the shop. It was rather small, about two bedroom sized rooms next to each other. The second room had a rather nice rocking chair from which readings are periodically given. If I can find someone who'll go with me, I might attend one.

Now, apart from talking to my host and her friend or people at the Goethe Institut, I've had to do relatively little talking with native Germans. Mostly, I just say "eine Currywurst, bitte." Thus, when the woman running the shop asked me if I needed help finding anything (which I did), I was slightly nervous. However, I was able to ask for the type of novel I wanted and understand her response without difficulty. Woohoo! I got a book by Nele Neuhaus called Schneewittchen muss sterben (Snow White must die).


While trying to find Miss Marple, I stumbled across some sort of open air market where all sorts of food and other goodies were sold. I decided to wander around. Among the flowers, fruits, and vegetables were specialty meats, specialty breads, pastries to die for, and one stand offering primarily nuts and dried fruit. I decided to buy a few dates stuffed with assorted nuts, which without any added sugar were still sickeningly sweet. I also picked up a feta and zucchini tart for lunch, which was so much better than having yet another wurst. As delicious as they are, one should not eat exclusively sausage.

3. Jacob-und-Wilhelm-Grimm-Zentrum (Jacob and Wilhelm Grimm Center)

My next visit was to the largest public library in Berlin, named after the Brothers Grimm. From outside, it looked quite serious, and inside it was even more serious. You could not go into the library itself with a coat or bags or books without either putting them in a locker or placing everything in a plastic bag where security could check it. To use a locker, you either had to bring a lock of your own (I hadn't) or use on of the fancy electronically locked lockers. The lockers locked via a chip in a so called Mensa Card, which you had to purchase in the cafeteria. It was quite strange waiting in line with people with trays of food to get a card. Finally, after waiting a while to get an open locker, I went inside the library itself. It was huge.

Every floor had shelves upon shelves of books lining the perimeter while an enormous work room took up the center space. If you look at the picture to the left, it shows the central rooms, which get progressively smaller so that each floor can get some sun from the sky lights. There were perhaps 6 stories, all of which were beautifully organized and perfectly quiet, despite being full of people. That is one of the things I love about libraries, the peace.

4. Bücherwald (Books Forest)

This was one of my favorite places, simply because the idea is so clever. On a street corner in Prenzlauer Berg stand several tree trunks fastened together with nooks cut into them and covered by plastic flaps. Inside these nooks are books, which anyone can borrow and return as they will. People can also put old books there, as long as they contact the project organizers to get registration numbers for the books first. The tiny library is almost entirely autonomous, and yet it works. Since I'm only here for two more weeks, I decided against taking any with me.

5. Otherland

Finally, back in Kreuzberg, I visited a science fiction and fantasy bookstore. It was pretty ridiculously wonderful. Although small, it had a wide variety. A large section had only English books, which I mostly ignored. Instead, I hit the fantasy section. The woman working there helped me find the book Die Stadt der träumenden Bücher (City of Dreaming Books) by Walter Moers. When I asked her about other good German authors (many of the books there were translations), she went wild.

"This author is well known for more epic fantasy," she says, pulling down a book and handing it to me.
"And this author is rather interesting. His books are more unusual." another book.
"This is part of a popular series. It's fairly light." yet another book.

Had she not had to go back to the counter to check some people out, I think I would have ended up buried in novels. It was fantastic, pun intended. I ended up leaving with the Walter Moers novel and one by Christian von Aster called Der letzte Schattenschnitzer (The Last Shadow Carver).

All in all, today was a nice break from the tourist activities I've been doing. I got to speak to locals, familiarize myself more with the city, get lost a couple of times, and finally spend some money on something fun.

Friday, June 8, 2012

A Very Good Reason to Grow Up in Berlin

I took a tour this morning through one of the pricier residential areas of Berlin, Prenzlauer Berg. I learned a bit about the history of the area and the city, but what really hit me the hardest was when the tour guide held up a list of population in Berlin over several centuries. In 1871, when it became the capitol, the population went soaring. It jumped from around 900,000 to over 1,300,000 in just a few years, and it kept on climbing until it dropped by about half between 1933 and 1945. For some reason, seeing the numbers kicked me in the gut a little.

Another particularly exciting point for me was a playground, specifically the Abenteuerlicher Spielplatz. It is a free pedagogical playground focused on crafts, construction, and education. The kids, anywhere from five to young adults, get to help build structures for the playground itself, learn basket weaving, have bonfires, smelt metal, even make and shoot their own arrows. On top of it all, parents have to stay in the so called "parent corner." This is to allow the kids a bit of time  without their parents hanging around them, which in some cases can be very stressful for the kids. If I had been young enough, I would have marched right in and refused to leave. I mean really, who could say no to metal working and hut building?

I did not, as I said yesterday, attend the lecture being offered. I was simply too tired, which seems to be a somewhat perpetual issue. I'll have a bit of alone time this weekend to reboot and hit the ground running next week.

Thursday, June 7, 2012

Another Lazy Day

Today started off lazy on account of the workers that had to come in and check out a waterlogged lamp in the bathroom. I knew I wouldn't be able to use the bathroom for a while, and getting up would mean feeling nature's call, so I just lay in bed for an extra hour or so.

In class, we gave mini presentations on what a tourist needs to know when visiting our respective countries. It turns out, Europeans need to be explicitly told not to take their clothes off in public. Germans, for instance, often change into a swimsuit on the beach while covering themselves with a beech towel instead of going into a bathroom. Furthermore, if you want to sunbath in a park, you can do it in your birthday suit. That is in any park.

I'm of two minds about this. On the one hand, clothes are often uncomfortable, and when God created the world, we didn't have any issues with nudity. We did not need shame. Why should we be ashamed now? On the other hand, thinking I shouldn't feel shame and actually not feeling it are two totally different things. I am incredibly self conscious about my own body, and incredibly repelled by the body of say, an old man. On top of that, if you go around naked in front of anyone, then there is nothing special about being naked with your husband or wife. I have yet to actually see someone going around in the buck, so I cannot yet come to a conclusion. However, I'm currently leaning towards prudishness.

After class, I headed back to my house and slept for another two hours. I don't know where this sleepiness is coming from, but I fortunately have the time for it today. Tomorrow, I plan on taking a tour and another lecture.

Wednesday, June 6, 2012

Home and Film

This morning I had an hour or so to kill before I had to go to class, so I wandered over to Victoria Park, looked at the national memorial to commemorate the German War of Liberation, walked along the trails, and all in all enjoyed myself.

At one point, a man came up to me, presumably wanting to ask for directions or something, and asked "Entschuldigung, Kommen Sie aus Berlin?" That means, "Excuse me, are you from Berlin?" That made me giggle inside. A part of me had been afraid that because I was from America, everyone around could see that I did not belong. No one has given me any reason to think that, but the feeling was still there. Now, I feel slightly more confident walking around in the city.

In class we read worked on more grammar and read a few articles that had to do with the idea of home. What makes a home? What do you associate it? How does traveling outside our home affect our perception of it? We will talk more about the topic tomorrow. What I found particularly interesting was the words Heimweh and Fernweh. Heimweh is literally home pain and refers to homesickness. The second word corresponds to wanderlust (an originally German word). What I find so nice about the term Fernweh is how nicely it complements Heimweh. The feelings they describe are two sides of the same coin, and the words themselves reflect that.

I have more experience with Fernweh than with Heimweh. The extent of my homesickness here and at college has been thinking "I look forward to calling home this weekend." That's about it. However, I wanted so badly to go to Germany that every time I thought about it I had to suppress a giggle. Of Course, that was a desire to go to a specific place for specific reasons, not just a desire to explore new places, which is what wanderlust and Fernweh generally mean. I don't care so much about returning to roots or exploring new places.

Mostly, I want to be where I intend to be later. That means that after high school, I wanted to be at college. I have felt relatively little desire to go back to the high school, although I loved it at the time. While heading back home after the school year ended, I looked forward to getting back simply because that was the next step, and I don't like being halfway between destinations. For quite some time, I've thought about working and living in Germany. I see it as my future, and for that reason I wanted so desperately to come here. This probably sounds unbelievably cold, but then I'm the sort of person who recycles Birthday cards straight after reading them because I don't need them anymore.

After class, I attended a lecture on film in Berlin, both Berlin films and films set in Berlin. The lecturer brought up old silent movies, east German and west German films, a bit about the Third Reich, etc. Here are the films she spoke specifically about.

Das Cabinet des Dr. Caligari:  Germany, 1920

Dr. Mabuse, der Spieler:    Germany, 1921/22

Symphonie einer Großstadt: Germany, 1927

Die Mörder sind unter uns: GDR, 1946

One, Two, Three: USA, 1961

Die Legende von Paul und Paula: GDR, 1973

Solo Sunny:  GDR, 1980

Der Himmel über Berlin: BRD and France, 1987
Das Leben ist eine Baustelle: BRD 1996

According to the lecturer, all of these films are available in the media center at the Goethe Institut. I'm going to see if I can't watch a few of them in my spare time.

Tuesday, June 5, 2012


The Pergamon Museum, a collection of art and architecture from Pergamon and the surrounding area, is a pretty cool place. The tour I took part in did not go through the full museum due to time restrictions. However, the parts I did see reconstructed old architecture into enormous exhibits. A royal blue gate adorned with lions and unicorns, for example, was both a part of the Babylon exhibit and the entrance to it. This functional use of artifacts made the whole experience seem like just that: an experience. My biggest problem with museums has always been that I feel like I'm just looking. It all feels passive. That didn't seem to be the case at the Pergamon.

The Museum is located on the so called Museeninsel, literally museum Island where several other of Berlin's museums reside. This is only a twenty minute walk or so from the Goethe Institut. However, there is no straight way back. The streets in Berlin wind and bend and meet at odd angles. Our tour guide brought us there, but she had no intention of taking us back. Fortunately, I've started building my web as my mom would say. I may not have a very good idea of what the quickest routes are, but if you drop me within view of the Fernsehturm, I can make my way back one way or another. Hooray for not being lost!

Monday, June 4, 2012

One Big Ball of Depressing

Today, after listening to presentations on various Holocaust memorials and giving my own, the subject moved slightly to the topic of Holocaust literature. We looked at two writers, Paul Celan and Wolfgang Borchert. The former, a poet whose parents were killed in an extermination camp, wrote a particularly well known poem called Todesfuge or Death Fuge. It was incredibly difficult to make sense of, in part because of the language barrier and in part because it uses somewhat surreal language like "black milk of daybreak." However, the rhythm and imagery it evokes is powerful stuff.

Borchert, who was born in 1921 and died 1947, apparently helped to reshape the writing style after the war. Earlier, it was common to use long, opulent sentences. With piles of ash and dead bodies lying everywhere, opulence doesn't really fit. Instead, Borchert uses direct and compact sentences in his works. The short story we read from him was so sweet and simple and complicated that I would give it a hug if that were possible.

After class, I attended a presentation on the Sachsenhausen concentration camp. My day has been one big ball of depressing. Even so, I've found it fascinating. I had not known before that the families of the SS officers lived with them in houses built around the concentration camps. I was equally unaware of just how much thought went into the psychological terror aspect of the camps. That wasn't a byproduct of what was going on. They were intentionally designed to create a sense of helplessness and hopelessness in the prisoners.

Maybe tomorrow will have more upbeat subject matter...

(p.s. It's getting harder to remember how to write properly in English. If my grammatical structure stops making sense, please tell me so I can fix it.)


Yesterday, I did practically nothing. I lay in bed, whipped up a presentation that I have to give today, and watched TV. It felt wonderful. I have been running around doing things all week, so I really needed the decompression time. When you study abroad or take an extended trip of any sort don't forget to give yourself time to relax and recover from everything you are doing. Otherwise you might burn out, and that is never fun.

Saturday, June 2, 2012

Sight Seeing

Today I took a tour through some of the art galleries located in Mitte. In one gallery, there were two paintings of a clown holding a plate of flowers and offering one to the viewer. When you looked through a small screen in front of the paintings, they overlapped and created a three dimensional effect. Across from that, a long television screen mounted on the wall played a video from the clown's point of view of people receiving flowers. On top of it all played a soundtrack of whining electronic noises timed to the video. It was...bizarre. If a clown with molecules for hair handed me a flower while making discordant R2D2 noises, I certainly wouldn't take it.

After the tour, I headed off on my own to visit the Brandenburger Gate and the Holocaust memorial that we had discussed in class. As I came out of the train station and into the plaza right in front of the gate, the size of the gate finally struck me. Here was an enormous stone construction hundreds of years old whose primary function is to create negative space. I perceived the vast gaps between its columns just as much as the columns themselves. It is not a gate for keeping out, but for letting through. It moved me more than some of the art I saw earlier today, that's for sure.

Finally, I popped over to the Holocaust Mahnmal. It is an enormous field of smooth stone blocks which start off fairly low to the ground on the outskirts but quickly rise to approximately 5 meters tall. Furthermore, the ground itself dips and rises so that you might see someone one second, and the next they have gone under and out of view. The idea behind all this was to provide a space of reflection and solitary and to demonstrate how something might start off small, but you can quickly find yourself in over your head. It's a nice idea. However, it falls apart when people enter the mix. There are no plaques to clarify the purpose of the memorial, and the information center located underneath it limits the number of people allowed inside at a time creating a line that not everyone (read "myself") is willing to wait in.

As a result, the atmosphere in and around the monument is relaxed, social and even playful. Adults smoke and picnic on the table high stones. Youths jump from one stone to another, going "further in and higher up." Kids play hide and seek crossed with tag on the ground level. I tried to remain serious, to let the memorial's grim message press on my heart, to resist the urge to shimmy my way up between two tall stones and emerge high above the ground. I completely and utterly failed. The most serious thought I could conjure up was that I would not want to be there at night when anyone might be there with me.

Friday, June 1, 2012


We have been discussing monuments in class. There are three different types that we have come across. The first and most general is called das Denkmal. It can be used to commemorate good or bad event and people. The second is das Mahnmal, which stems in part from the word ermahnen, meaning to caution or warn. These memorials specifically commemorate tragedies or mistakes that we wish to avoid. As an example of a Mahnmal, we looked at the new Holocaust memorial, which naturally brought up a discussion of World War II and the Holocaust itself.

Our teacher went on a mini rant about just what made that genocide different from any other. As she put it, the Germans have always been perfectionists. They put as much thought and care into their crematoriums as they do in their cars today. No other land has been so systematic and calculating in its genocides. Because of this, Germany still has a massive guilt complex about the whole matter. The teacher went to America once and met a man who mentioned that his mother came from Germany. "Oh crap, here it comes," she thought to herself as the man went on to explain how they had to leave during the war because it wasn't safe for them. He was quiet genial about the whole thing, but she was trying to make herself as small as possible. Her son once went abroad and proudly reported that no one had noticed he was German. The sins of the father have definitely colored the children's lives.

Now, we have been assigned to visit, research, and report upon different holocaust memorials scattered around the city. There isn't just one. They are everywhere. My very first day I stumbled across a monument in Rosenstraße, where the wives of Jewish men demanded that their husbands be returned to them and actually had their wish granted. (There is a film named after the street that I would highly recommend.)

All this talk about the Holocaust in a city that actually had a hand in it has given me a strangely self conscious feeling. I felt more than a little awkward when I opened my computer in a public area, pulled up the newest xkcd comic, and found the words "Kill Hitler" plastered across my screen...

Thursday, May 31, 2012

Curry and Architecture

I started the day with a currywurst. Yum. Not only was it nice to eat something hot in the crummy weather, but the sauce and curry powder mixed wonderfully, and it only cost 1.95 euros, or about $2.50. Having completed that delicious tourist must, I headed over to the Goethe Institut to take a tour of Mitte, the oldest section of Berlin. I won't repeat the whole tour, but there were some bits of information I found particularly interesting.

Telling East from West

The crosswalk men I mentioned in a previous post no longer properly represent the old east and west boarders. This is because many of the eastern Ampelmännchen were replaced with the western style during the early years after the reunification. Then, a movement to save the Ampelmännchen turned the tide and actually resulted in a few cross walks in West Berlin to be converted to the eastern style. The better way to determine if you are in East or West Berlin is to look for plattenbau buildings made from repeated, identical segments of concrete. These buildings were typical of East Germany, where everything down to the furniture was standardized. You can also look for the streetcars, which were invented in Berlin but almost entirely removed from the west side of the city in an attempt to modernize it.

The Old and the Destroyed

Right in front of the Fernsehturm, a symbol of Socialist modernity and one of the tallest buildings in Europe, sits the St. Marienkirche, the over eight hundred year old catholic and later protestant church. It is still in use today and is in the process of being restored. Its accompanying statue of Martin Luther was allowed to return after a century of exile, but it could not reclaim its former place in front of the church. Instead, it was placed off to the side and behind a row of trees. Just a few hundred feet away is das Rote Rathaus, the red city hall. It was only about 80 years old when it was damaged horribly during WWII. When the communist German Democratic Republic set about repairing it, they fitted the stained glass windows in the front with Soviet iconography. Finally, we visited the ground where the Berliner Stadtschloss, an enormous palace, had housed German Royalty for centuries until 1950. A fire caused by the bombings had made the building virtually uninhabitable. Since no one seemed to want to repair it, a politician decided to blow it up as a demonstration of his loyalty to socialism. Only a small section where Lenin had once given a speech was preserved.

I find myself once again amazed by how much the division of Berlin affected the way the two halves grew. Even buildings centuries old were affected by the soviet presence. It makes me wonder what influence capitalism has had on the western half, which I have overlooked. Moreover, how have the people been shaped by this division? I doubt I'll take a tour anytime soon where the guide says "and on your right, you'll see a Wessi. Please note the distinctive clothing..."

Wednesday, May 30, 2012

First Day

Today was the first day of proper classes. I am in the B 2.3 level, which is just shy of C 1.1. Fortunately, my classes meet in the afternoon from 1:15 to 5:45 (13:15 - 17:45), so I can sleep rather late. The only conflicting events are the cultural programs offered, which occasionally occur around 10 in the morning.

The class sizes varied depending on how many people tested into that level. In my case, there were supposedly 8 students. Only 5 of us showed up. Of those five, one was still in college. The others ranged from mid twenties to late forties, and none of us came from the same country. We spent the first two hours or so introducing ourselves and doing ice breaker activities. Then, we had a half hour break. During the break, water and juice were served and sandwiches and snacks were sold at relatively cheap prices. After the break, my class discussed a controversial monument being constructed to commemorate the German Reunification. Then, we had fifteen minute break and finally did a bit of grammar and received our homework. All in all, I believe I'm in the right class. The teacher is friendly and competent, I'm learning things I've never gone over before, and I do not feel left behind at all.

After classes ended, someone gave a quick talk open to all Goethe Institut students on life in Berlin. Apart from some practical information on transportation and the like, he reached the interesting stuff; food.

Everyone has heard of JFK's line "Ich bin ein Berliner", which inspired this blog's title. It is commonly thought that ein Berliner is a name for a popular jelly doughnut sold in Berlin. That is true for most of Germany. However, there is one place where it is not so named, and that is in Berlin itself. Here, it's simply ein Pfannkuchen, also the word for pancake.

Another Berlin classic is called Currywurst and consists of a bratwurst without a bun, often sliced, and topped with a sauce made primarily from catchup and curry powder. One of the most highly recommended Currywurst stands in the city just so happens to be a stone's throw away from where I'm living. I think I know what I'm having for breakfast tomorrow.

Tuesday, May 29, 2012

The City: First Impressions

Where I grew up, if you said "I'm going into the city," you meant Chicago. There were giant shiny buildings or graffitied stone apartment buildings. Cars purred and rumbled in the streets, people muttered and yacked on cell phones, and the loop threw its rattling cacophony on top. There is nothing small or quiet about it outside of the more residential districts.

Berlin is not like that. I took the subway close to the center of Berlin today, and still the majority of buildings had at most seven floors. Hundred year old houses like the one I am staying in butt up against far younger buildings, creating a somewhat quaint patchwork effect. Furthermore, in the admittedly small area I've walked through, the traffic has been rather light. Bicycles are more prevalent, I suspect in part due to Germany's eco-friendly attitude and the higher cost of gas. Until I have seen the streets at five on a Friday night I'll hold my verdict, but the city seems quiet to me. Perhaps that's to be expected in a country known for being reserved.

Along with the patchwork buildings come patchwork crosswalks lights. This is because some of the crosswalk men are from the previous East Germany, as shown on the right, and West Germany, as shown on the left.
Seeing the East German style on one street, and the West German style on the next made me wonder just how strange it would have been to wake up one day and suddenly find that there is a whole new half to the city you've been living in, and that everything is just a bit different. It would be like opening a door to Bizarro world. That is what I find fascinating about Berlin. It has existed in roughly the same form through four different governments in the last century alone. It has been destroyed and rebuilt, divided, and reunited, and as the capital, it attracts people from all over the world to boot. It's like Frankenstein's Monster, patched together from bits of cities that no longer exist.


Tests are almost always a bit stressful. Placement tests, in my opinion, are doubly so. Not only do you not really know what to study for, but doing too well can be just as bad as doing poorly. That said, the Goethe Institut placement test was extremely low key. It consisted of a multiple choice section, a timed essay, and an interview. After receiving the materials, I was told to just take a seat off to the side and time myself. Once I had finished, the multiple choice was scored in front of my and I proceeded to the interview section. I was terrified.

Tests offer insulation between myself and the grader. When I am taking the test, no one is looking over my shoulder scoring it. I can keep the entire process impersonal. Not so with an interview. Interviews are conversations where, for once, I can be 100% certain that the person I'm talking to is judging me. That's the interviewer's job after all.

Fortunately, the scary scenario where a man sits across from me frowning and demanding that I "describe myself" did not come to pass. Instead, a nice looking woman sat with me and asked me questions such as "How long have you studied German?" or "why Berlin?" or "What are your hobbies?" The answers I gave she recorded for my teacher to reference later. The fact that my answers were being put to use made all the difference. I was not trying to prove myself. I was simply filling out paperwork by proxy. Then, she scored my essay, explaining my mistakes and asking me for clarification when needed. It all seemed so relaxed that I was able to relax a bit myself.

Finally, after I received my final placement (which my interviewer fudged up a bit because she didn't think my multiple choice score was entirely representative of my abilities), I moved on to the table providing information on the cultural program. The woman gave me a map of Berlin, including U-Bahn and Straßenbahn plans, and a packet describing all of the events offered over the course of the four weeks. I have resolved to participate in as many free events as humanly possible. We'll see how well I can keep that up.


As hectic and confusing as the airports were, the Berlin subway system seemed beautifully simple. Bright yellow trains arrive every five minutes, except on holidays when they only come every ten minutes. Signs make it easy to find your way from one train platform to another, and the automatic ticket dispensers work brilliantly (as long as you can figure out which direction to insert your euros.) Of course, having almost never used the subway in America, I can hardly compare my experiences at home with here. Nevertheless, the fact that a completely inexperienced traveler like me could navigate my way alone from my house to the Goethe Institut without incident says something.

Strangely, the majority of people taking the subway never have their tickets checked. I have taken five trains so far, and not once have ticket checkers come along and asked to see my month long pass. This pseudo honor system saves the city money by reducing staff for each ride, and getting on and off is considerably quicker and easier. However, it does make riding illegally for free very easy. A fare dodger is called a "Schwarzfahrer," and I must admit, when the ticket dispenser asked me for 74 euros for my month long pass, I may have been just a little bit tempted.

Another oddity of the subway system is the occasional live performances. One man sang and played the guitar on my first ride. Then later, a man performed violin with accompaniment via iPod. I was impressed not only by his playing but by his ability to keep his balance while the train went around curves. His fevered performance made my day.

Monday, May 28, 2012


Flights can never just be simple, can they? It started off easily enough. I went to the airport, got on the plane, and arrived seven hours later in London after a night of pseudo sleeping. (Jet-lag still hasn't hit me, but the upright chairs and center seat awkwardness certainly made an impression.)

Unfortunately, for reasons unknown to me, my flight got in to Heathrow airport about half an hour late, giving me half an hour to find my transfer, make it through customs, and board the flight for the second leg of my three legged journey. I arrived at the proper terminal and made it through customs with five minutes to spare before my next flight was scheduled to depart, but I couldn't find the flight listed anywhere to give me the proper gate. In fact, ten minutes before when I'd paused to look for the gate number I still couldn't find my flight listed. When I asked someone about it, she replied that it was too late to board and I had missed it.

This was the first, if somewhat tiny, culture shock. In America, you've missed your flight if it has left and you are not on it. In Britain, you've missed your flight if boarding has closed, which seems to occur about ten or so minutes before the scheduled departure. This would be fine if they listed boarding times instead of departure times on the tickets, but they don't. I was far from the only person to have this complaint. Several people waiting in line to find a new flight had similar experiences on their flights.

Fortunately, missing that flight seemed to work in my favor. When I requested new tickets, I took a chance and asked if I could take a direct flight to Berlin instead of taking the originally scheduled detour to Helsinki. I walked off with my new ticket knowing that my life had just gotten much simpler.

Life Lesson: it doesn't hurt to ask, and it can help immensely.

However, this did not end my gripes with the Heathrow way of things. You see, instead of knowing which Gate the plane will go into ahead of time, they wait until it arrives and then announce the gate. This seems reasonable until you realize where I was standing, literally. The board that would eventually show me which gate I had to go to was at the intersection of about four different clusters of gates. The closest cluster took 10 minutes to get all the way through. I had 40 minutes between when I'd be told the gate and when the plane would leave. I had 10 to 20 minutes less time than that due to the early boarding closures. Thus, despite having three hours to kill before my plane arrived, I was still forced onto a tight timeline.

It all worked out in the end, of course. A bit of speed walking on my part and a conveniently tardy plane on the airport's part conspired to give me the time I needed. BUT the adventure doesn't end there. When I arrived in Tegel Airport (which is quite conveniently bilingual in its signs and instructions), I had to find the woman meant to pick me up and be my host. I had emailed her my new flight number, but she had apparently departed without checking her emails. For about an hour and a half, we both searched desperately on opposite sides of the airport for one another. I tried calling her a few times but could not figure out how to use European numbers. Do you enter the plus sign at the beginning? What about the parenthesized 0? What does the 49 at the beginning mean?

Finally, I found an employee who didn't seem busy and asked him to clarify. It turned out, all I had to do was drop the (0) and the + and enter everything else as written. My host and I found one another, took a second to breath, and hopped on the first bus out of the darned airport.

Second Life Lesson: if you can learn something ahead of time, like how to dial a phone, do it.

Overall: as nightmarish as airports can be for an inexperienced person who's had a bit of bad luck, it isn't the end of the world. The employees are there to help, and they generally know what they're talking about. Ask for their assistance as often as needed. Moreover, do as much preparing as you can beforehand to reduce stress, and try to build in a bit of buffer time in case of the unforeseeable.

Tuesday, May 1, 2012

Predeparture Dinner

Yesterday, a number of students that were going or had previously gone to Goethe Institut got together to ask and answer questions. Several rather useful bits of information came up.

  1. A number of banks will in fact allow you to make withdrawals in another country with foreign ATMs. They will just charge a fee of about $3 dollars at each withdrawal. This is better than the fee for using a credit card, which is 3%. While 3% might technically be less than $3 for any given purchase, if you have to make a lot of transactions, it's better to take out a hunk of cash once.
  2. Credit cards may not even work in Europe because many of their cards are not used by swiping. Instead, they have some sort of chip in them.
  3. Tell your bank ahead of time that you are going overseas. If you've been in Pennsylvania, and suddenly your card is being used in Germany, eyebrows will raise and your card might be deactivated.
Travel and Food
  1. It is a good idea to travel a bit outside of whatever city you are going to and look at other places. This can be a bit pricey depending on where you go, but train and bus expenses themselves are generally quite reasonable in Europe.
  2. If you have to provide your own food, go to the supermarket and buy in bulk. This will cut down on food costs considerably.
  3. Sleep on the plane and take naps in the middle of the day to help cope with jet lag.
  4. Free water is not a common notion in Germany. If you want water at a restaurant, you have to pay for it, and there aren't water fountains around. It's a good idea to bring a water bottle with a water filter. Even if you are going somewhere where the water is safe to drink, the different bacteria can still give you stomach aches.
Goethe Institut
  1. The placement test at the beginning is not entirely final. If you do not feel comfortable in the level you are placed in, you can ask to be moved up or down a level.
  2. There will be students from all over the world going there. Try to make friends with people from the different countries. Not only will this give you more cultural diversity, but it will mean that the only language you all have in common is German, so you will be less likely to "cheat" by speaking English.
  3. There will be something planned for students practically every night. In Berlin, they distribute booklets with all of the events listed. In other areas, you may just have to ask about something you're interested in doing and see if anyone can accompany you.

Wednesday, April 25, 2012

The Game Plan

It is one month before my trip to Germany, and I am a mess. On top of midterms, finals, term projects, and housing, I have to make all of the necessary arrangements for my trip abroad. Most of the paperwork on the German side of things has been settled, but there's still plenty to iron out on the Carnegie Mellon end. Pre-departure meetings, scholarship applications, banking and insurance arrangements...

I'll get to all that in a moment. First, I want to explain just what exactly I'm making arrangements for.

For most of June, I'll be studying language and culture at Goethe Institut in Berlin. I have many and varied reasons for doing so. For instance, I want to expand my cultural awareness past the narrow view that I have currently; I want to receive additional summer credits to make room in my schedule for other classes; I want to see what German Chinese food tastes like compared to American Chinese. (I never said all of my reasons were good). However, my most convincing reason, and the real impetus for going, is that I love the language. I'm so utterly smitten that my roommate complains about me speaking German in my sleep! Not visiting Germany would be just plain illogical.

As for what the study entails, the details are all on the Goethe Institut home page.
Essentially, I will have 20 hours a week of classes dealing specifically with language and culture. The rest of the time is left open for exploring and interacting with the city. The Institute also arranges weekend activities for students. For now, I've been left in suspense as to what those activities will be.

Now, I'm neither qualified nor inclined to go over every step of the study abroad registration process. It's different for everyone depending on their situation. However, I can share some tips that I've learned the hard way.

1. The earlier you can figure everything out, the better.

This is fairly obvious, but I know that I repeatedly thought to myself, "It's still a few months away" This thought leads to your doom.

Time You Have < Time Required + Time for Sleep

This inequality is practically always true unless you get ahead of the game and start as soon as possible.

2. Make sure you have a bank account that works in your target country.

I recently discovered that neither of my banks actually operate out of Germany. This is problematic. I have yet to come up with a solution to this problem, partially because I am utterly clueless when it comes to banking, which leads to my last tip.

3. If you don't know, ask.

If you are uncertain on something, ask. If the person you ask doesn't know, ask someone else. Guessing about transportation or financial matters in particular can lead to disaster.

That's it for now. In the next few weeks, I'll post occasionally about my progress. However, don't expect much until my flight out in late May.