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.