Excerpt from my journal, 18 February 2009:
Ankunft in Berlin
"I still think it's pretty amazing that it's taken me four visits to Germany to finally make it to Berlin. But - endlich! - here I am. We took a private bus here with a group of international students, many of whom appear to view showering as the bane of human existence. But aside from inhaling BO for the duration of the ride (around five hours), everything went smoothly."
Berlin was exactly how I had imagined it would be. Enormous, modern, creative, complex, and of course, very, very cold. The city has all the tell-tale signs of an exciting metropolis: an extensive public transportation system, trendy clubs and restaurants, an utterly fascinating love affair with the arts, innumerable graffiti-covered walls, dozens of famous museums and collections. Twenty different nationalities can be represented in one given subway car, and shop signs are often written in four or five different languages. But Berlin also has all the signs of a quintessential German city: a towering cathedral, Currywurst street vendors, remarkable visible damage from the Second World War, a bakery on every block. Here, evidence of the massive Turkish immigration into Germany is most apparent; in Kreuzberg, a quarter of the city dubbed "Little Istanbul," menus and advertisements are often exclusively in Turkish, and it is possible to get around without knowing a word of German. The city is under a constant wave of change, and I am sure that when I go back this summer to see the city green and blooming instead of slushed and frozen over, I will already be able to recognize differences. In only twenty years, the gross disparity between former East and West Berlin has already been reduced. The former East, once a place for the impoverished, disillusioned past citizens of the Soviet Union, is now largely a place where students pay cheaper rent to live and where bars and restaurants are popping up all over the place to cater to the new demographic. Of course, there are still many improvements to be made, but that is the very soul what makes the city so progressive. Its inhabitants recognize the need for a transformation and are actively pursuing it through widespread construction, impassioned dialogue, and art, art art.
In just five days, I was both enchanted and exhausted by this energy. The city reminded me at times of how I felt living in Beijing - like I could live there for years and years and never feel like I understood the landscape. I know there are people who thrive on that sort of feeling - the constant motion of a big city. But while I enjoy a good visit every now and then, the city life is not one I would choose with any sense of permanency. I'm thrilled to have gotten to see Berlin, and look forward to returning in warmer weather. But I was also quite ready to board that bus full of unwashed Europeans and head back to my comfortably-sized town of Regensburg for a hot shower and a good night's sleep.
Last weekend I decided to take a trip to Salzburg with a few of my friends from the program. It was to be our first free weekend (and only free weekend in the foreseeable future) so we leapt at the chance.
Bavaria has this fantastic travel deal called the Bayern Ticket. It allows up to five people to take any regional train anywhere within the state of Bayern (and, as it so happens, to one city in Austria) in any twenty-four hour period. Thus, total cost of travel ended up being somewhere around 12 EUR per person. The Youth Hostel we found online ended up being a great choice. Since there were five of us, we opted for the cost-efficient eight-person room. And, lucky us! we only ended up with one person we didn't know sharing the room with us. We dubbed him "Hobbit Man" because he appears to have spent much of his time in Salzburg laying on his bed in the hostel reading Tolkein's The Hobbit. And he also had hairy feet.
The train ride from Regensburg to Salzburg was a short two and a half hours, with only one changeover. The scenery was breathtaking - I was glad to be on a slower train so that I could take it all in. There was snow blanketing the ground the entire way, and we would come across quaint little villages every time we dipped into a valley or climbed a hill. Centuries-old churches stood wise and proud as we passed by, their deep bells inaudible over the rumbling of the train engine.
We arrived in Salzburg around 5 that evening and managed to get from the train to the correct bus to the hostel without any side adventures. After settling in, we decided to explore the area around the hostel for a bit, grab dinner and then head back to the lobby for the evening's showing of The Sound of Music. Erwin, Heather and Anya were planning to go on the "Sound of Music Tour" the next day, and they wanted to be up to speed on the locations in the movie so they could compare them to the tour sites the next day.
Deciding that our $40 could be better spent elsewhere (giant chocolate pretzel!), Leigh and I chose to do some exploring in the Altstadt on Saturday morning while we waited for the others to finish their four-hour tour. We started out at 9 am, trudging out of the hostel and into a heavy snowfall. The city was hushed; a thick sheet of snow on the ground from the night before muffled the sound of our walking. No snow had been cleared, and we found ourselves trespassing in a crystal white world.
The first place we stumbled upon in the Altstadt was the open air market. Vendors were just throwing open shutters on their trailers and setting out the goods for the day as we arrived. Because it was the off-season for travel, Leigh and I had the feeling that we were the only tourists nearby, so we did our best to blend in among the people of Salzburg and get a taste for the everyday life of the city.
We spent the rest of the morning wandering around crooked streets and exploring every alleyway that aroused our curiosity. We discovered a cemetery with graves dating back to the early 1700s and catacombs looming high above us, carved into the side of a massive cliff. We went into the Salzburg cathedral, a baroque wonder with gilded ceilings and mosaic tiled floors. We sat and thawed our feet in a tiny café, and were given a Baumkuchen to sample from an Austrian man excited to practice his English on us. That evening (Valentine's Day), we went to a Mozart concert performed in a baroque palace by just two violins, a viola, and a cello.
Sunday morning we got up early, checked out of the hostel, and headed up to the fortress of Salzburg, which is perched high above the city and visible from almost any street corner. We took a cable car to the top and were free to wander the snowy grounds and peek into the alternating stark and opulent rooms of the castle. That afternoon we caught the train back to Regensburg, feeling like accomplished travelers who had just seen a little bit more of the world.
Week Two in Regensburg has come to a successful close. A few highlights:
1. Sepp Frank (Albert Einstein look-alike and grammar teacher extraordinaire) brought his guitar to class on Friday. We learned several German classics (think "I like to eat, eat, eat apples and bananas," but the German version, which goes as follows:
Drei Chinesen mit 'm Kontrabass [Three Chinese people with a bass violin]
Sassen auf 'e Strasse und erzählten sich was [Sat on the street and told each other a story]
Da kam die Polizei, "Ja was ist denn das?" [A policeman came along and said "What the heck is this?"]
Drei Chinesen mit 'm Kontrabass [...Three Chinese people with a bass violin.]
Like the English version, the vowels are all then changed to sound the same, except that in German, there are far more vowels to choose from (think ö, ü, ä). Needless to say, this was the best class I've had so far. Sepp plays in a band in his free time, and we're going to his next gig (Tuesday). I promise pictures.
2. Friday night was the program's introductory Potluck Party, which I would classify as an enormous success. It was held in the bottom of a very old, quaint apartment building where a few of the students live. The basement resembles a traditional German Keller, with a cavernous ceiling, archways, interior brickwork, and old polished wood furniture. Oh, and a disco ball. The food was also a hit - one person even brought sauerkraut. It wouldn't have been a completely German evening without it.
3. I finally saw an outdoor market! On Saturday, as I was making my way around the Altstadt, I came upon a town square (Neupfarrplatz) turned marketplace. There were homemade soaps, various sausages, cheeses, wine tastings, crepes, and even some musicians strolling around. My personal favorite was the harpist whose repertoire appeared to consist solely of Coldplay songs. I almost proposed to him on the spot. Instead, I had a Regensburgersemmel and called it a day.
Unfortunately, all this fun-having has been taking time away from studying. No longer! I will spend the rest of the evening with my nose in my Worterbuch, trying to figure out how to translate Mark Twain into German. Yes, that is actually an assignment.
Okay, so the truth is, I stole this idea entirely from one of my closest friends, Liberty Sveke. If you want to see the inspiration behind my (not as cool) page, check out www.libertyalexandra.com. I hope mine looks as good as hers someday.
Things are going very well in Regensburg so far. I've already had a week of classes, spent a day in Munich, seen Twilight dubbed in German at the theater, and eaten Schnitzel. I'd say it's been a successful first few weeks.
Interesting fact: The bus drivers in Regensburg are currently on strike. Result: I took a thirty minute walk to school this morning. This would not have normally been a problem, but it's a little cold for that. I'm hoping they'll be back up and running tomorrow morning...