Part two of my jam-packed winter holidays. If you have not read part one, you can find it here.
From Carcassonne, I arrived back in Lyon around 5pm on the Friday, and was on the road again by midday Saturday for Paris. Time to unpack my backpack, wash all my clothes, repack, try to sleep, and not much else!
Paris was also a whirlwind visit, primarily a pitstop before Berlin, but we still managed to make it count. The Palais de Tokyo had recently reopened and was open till midnight on Saturday evening so that was an obvious experience not to be missed. The Palais specialises in contemporary art exhibitions, which is not usually my cup of tea. However, I was pleasantly surprised! Simon Evans’ ‘Not Not Knocking on Heaven’s Door’ was an obvious favourite, with very prettily coloured collages of minuscule script. Shana Moulton’s ‘Every Angle is an Angel’ film installation was utterly bizarre, yet totally compelling to watch. However, it was Azerbaijani artist Babi Badalov’s ‘For the Wall For the World’ which really surprised me – it may not have looked like much at face value, but the simple plays on words really made me think. All in all, definitely a worthwhile way to spend the evening!
Berlin was the real focus of this second week, and I was there for five days, while Sarah stayed for two weeks. The purpose: ‘Deutsch sprachen und Kultur lernen!’. Easier said than done. My six months of German lessons at the Goethe Institut in 2015 are basically ancient history as far as foreign language retention is concerned. Luckily for us, Sarah’s cousins who we were staying with had the absolute patience of saints and humoured our wishes despite their impeccable English, and I think honestly 80-90% of the week was spent talking in German which was pretty incredible!
Half the trip was spent museuming, the other half exploring various neighbourhoods with Sarah’s cousins. We also met up with Genevieve, a friend of mine from Wellington – we studied French together, then turned up in the same German class quite by chance! She actually capitalised on this though by moving to Berlin afterwards…
Highlights in roughly chronological order:
Nothing says ‘typisch Berlin’ like currywurst, so natürlich it has its own museum (though, ‘museum’ is a bit of a stretch). It was really cool! Very informative on everything you could possibly want to know about the ubiquitous dish and how it came to be, and full of interactive activities as well – though I’m not sure if giant french fry fights were encouraged, but we got away with it! I would definitely recommend a visit for something a little different/off the typical tourist track. It was quite expensive though, even including the ‘free’ currywurst sample, so try and visit on Monday if you can for 20% off.
The Deutsche Demokratische Republik Museum was a fascinating insight into the weird and wonderful world of East Germany. Again, I was really impressed with just how modern and interactive this museum was – it was packed full of information, but presented in such a way that I think even the most reluctant museum goer would enjoy it. It covered every aspect of the regime you could possibly want to know about, from the obvious politics, surveillance and censorship to architecture, fashion and music. I already knew a little about the history but found it especially interesting to learn about ideas that actually seemed really progressive (the widespread support for nudism springs to mind, or seemingly the liberation of women in the workplace) – only to be contradicted by others that really seemed really backwards.
Exploring with Steph
The next stay was spent exploring with Sarah’s cousin Steph, and turned out to be full of unexpected surprises. We started off at the East Side Gallery, which luckily we had both visited before as it was currently fenced off undergoing major restoration work – and where there was no fence it was totally covered in graffiti. I suppose not surprising, but nonetheless disappointing that this is a problem.
With Steph we explored the second hand shops and little boutiques of Kreuzberg. The first major surprise of the day was when we stumbled across a New Zealand pie shop in the Markthalle Neun! Unfortunately, we had just had lunch. Also unfortunately, I exclaimed my incredulity a little too loudly and attracted the attention of two Kiwis in the vicinity who latched onto us, and we could not escape for what felt like an eternity (but was at least five minutes). One was the pie guy who seemed alright, but the lady was typical country bogan (swanndri and a very thuck eccent in hand) who launched into a diatribe about the Rainbow Warrior as soon as I made the mistake of uttering the word ‘France’. This turned into some weird kind of theatrical performance as they launched from one topic to the next, barely acknowledging us, and also making some questionable comments about Germany while they were at it. Meanwhile poor Sarah and Steph were standing there just kind of stunned with absolutely no idea what was going on. AT LAST we managed to escape and I tried (auf Deutsch) to apologise profusely on behalf of all sane New Zealanders. Luckily they seemed to see the funny side!
In recovery we set off for the promised land of cheesecake at Five Elephant, the first of many Wellington-esque hipster cafes. Everything was going swimmingly, we even managed to snag a table, when disaster struck – the waiter came over to inform us (very sheepishly, it must be said) that there was in fact no cheesecake left! As the backlog of customers had cleared out what was left in the cabinet. It was for their cheesecake reputation that we had gone there, so we glumly accepted a refund rather than settling for anything less. Cue surprise number two! A stranger at the next table came over to say he saw we were gutted about the cheesecake, and he couldn’t finish his so we should have it. Not only was this such a nice gesture but it created a total sense of community as everyone in the vicinity stared in disbelief at this random act of kindness! The Americans on the other side of us were like ‘that NEVER happens in Berlin’. It was actually the perfect size for a taster as well, and lived up to our expectations. Despite our dramatics the staff were actually really lovely so we would definitely recommend supporting them by popping by!
That evening we met up with Genevieve who showed us round her hood of Neukölln, were a copious Turkish dinner cost a mere €2.5! She showed us a great little lookout spot, and we headed to jazz night at a local bar, which was great, however brought with it the news that smoking is still permitted inside bars in Berlin! Once again, this was especially shocking as it just seemed so backward in a city that is otherwise so progressive.
We left around midnight, and you’d think that would be the natural end to the story. Mais non! Time for one more surprise! We had appropriately planned for how to get home, and it was largely just the reverse of how we had gone into town that morning, so all under control…or so we thought. After feeling like we had been on there for way longer than that morning with still no sign of our stop, we worked up the courage to ask a lady next to us where exactly the tram was going. She asked us to repeat in English, and said that it was the M13, not the M10 like we thought. Cue another couple chiming in (also in English as that’s how the conversation had been established), saying no, it had definitely said M10 on it, but that it definitely wasn’t going where it was meant to. Once again we found ourselves sharing a really nice communal moment, despite the fact that it was due to less than ideal circumstances! We found it quite funny that it was us, the tourists, who were the first to notice things weren’t going to plan. Shortly after that the tram stopped abruptly and told us we had to get off, not even at a stop! So something bizarre had definitely happened. Luckily we managed to find our way to a nearby stop and get back on the correct tram in the opposite direction, after a freezing 20 minute wait. We finally made it home around 1:30am!
Getting up the next morning was a bit of a struggle but it was worth it to get to the Bauhaus archive and museum, which once again exceeded our expectations. While it didn’t seem that big it had a fantastic range of Bauhaus objects, and a really informative audioguide to accompany the collection. The Bauhaus was an extremely influential school of modernist architecture and design from 1919-1933, when it was shut down by the Nazis and most of its artists scattered. The collection included furniture, sculpture, painting, maquettes, posters and all sorts. No photos allowed inside unfortunately, so I have borrowed a few from google for a handy visual aid.
Central Berlin is bisected by the river Spree, and in the middle of this river is Museuminsel – Museum Island – which, you guessed it, is an island chock full of five world class museums, as well as the Berliner Dom (which I had visited in 2013). Each focuses on a specific period of history, or genre of art, and we chose to visit the Alte Nationalgalerie, which focuses on 19th century art à la the Musée d’Orsay in Paris. Unfortunately the Neue Nationalgalerie of 20th century art, which I had studied a little more, is closed until 2019 as it undergoes major renovation/reconstruction! So I will definitely be making a return visit in a couple of years’ time. Nonetheless, the Alte Nationalgalerie was a beautiful building with an impressive collection, and once again a very informative audioguide. Unfortunately we only time for the one museum, but you can get a pass for the whole island which is definitely worth it – €18 for all five instead of €10 for one!
From there we met Steph again, wandered down Unter den Linden, Berlin’s equivalent to the Champs Elysées, for an obligatory stop at the Brandenburg Gate, before heading to the Markthalle in Moabit. Here we had the most perfect, hipster, instagram-worthy pulled pork lunch at a little stand called Pignut BBQ which was apparently a favourite of Claire Danes’ while she was in town filming Homeland. Celebrity endorsement aside, it was DELICIOUS, and such great value at €10 all up. The whole market hall was lovely – recently refurbished by the looks of things with lots of highbrow eateries in addition to the usual butchers, cheese stalls etc. Worth the detour for sure!
From there we moseyed around more pretty streets in Mitte and Wedding, by which point it was snowing the hardest I have ever experienced! After exploring the streets, including a very arty lane off Rosenthalerstraße, we at last found closure for our cheesecake odyssey at Princess Cheesecake. I am ashamed to report I had to admit defeat and couldn’t finish my piece! Nonetheless, it was the perfect end to our foodie tour of Berlin’s best kept secrets with Steph.
That evening was my last night in Berlin, and we went out for dinner with our lovely hosts Basti and Charly. We went to Clärchens Ballhaus, a 100+ year old dinner and dance hall. It was no frills, honest food and decor, but really cool with a dance class going on for dinner time entertainment. I believe they hold all sorts of events there, especially in summer. I felt quite sad having to say goodbye as I really felt like I had become part of the family over one short week. However, much like in French ‘Auf Wiedersehen’ is not goodbye but until we meet again- entweder in Deutschland oder Neuseeland!
Overall I would say the Berlin trip was a categorical success, thanks first and foremost to Basti, Charly and Steph for making us feel so welcome, and helping us to discover the ‘real’ Berlin off the beaten tourist track – not always easy to do when travelling! Although I felt like I had no idea where I was half the time, I can definitely say I know the city better than after my 1.5 days there in 2013. What made it really worthwhile though the was the linguistic side of things, which really was invaluable. Despite my abysmal level of German, it was crazy to notice that it only took a few days for my brain to switch over into German mode – I may not have had a lot floating round in there, but it really was German words at the forefront wanting to come out! It was very odd being on the plane coming back and being surrounded by French which sounded so, well, foreign! Even though I have obviously spent time in France deliberately to improve my language skills and seen this pay off, I feel this short spell in Germany was the most dramatic evidence for just how important – and effective – this kind of immersion experience is.
To reward those of you who made it to the end of this epic two-parter, a totally unrelated update. At the end of my last blog before the holidays I cheekily teased that I had some news and I was surprised by the reaction it got – clearly I need to employ such cheap tactics more often! Anyway, the news is that I have scored a job for a month or so over the summer, working on a summer camp in Switzerland as an English teacher/general activity counsellor. Getting the job was definitely a relief, but I still feel I have a lot of hard work ahead of me getting my act together to actually be a ~real~ teacher! So I will be heading back to all my TESOL notes to reschool myself soon.
In other news that is almost equally exciting in my mundane life, I received my carte vitale this week! The carte vitale is the holy grail of the French social security system which basically makes getting medical treatment infinitely simpler than the labyrinthine paper trail involved without it. The secretary at my school said that in eight years this is the first time she has seen the carte arrive for an assistant before they’ve left, so it really is A Big Deal. It’s not more ‘free’ money from the government, but I’ll take it nonetheless.
Et c’est tout! I am still totally drained after those two weeks – physically, first and foremost, but also financially! So March is looking like a quiet month. As usual, I will write whenever I’ve amassed enough petites anecdotes to share.