Reflections

It’s been six months since I returned from Berlin, and I don’t think a day has passed when I haven’t thought about, if not talked about, my time there. I’ve stayed in touch with most of the people from my program and a few of us have had some small reunions – the friends I made in Berlin are some of my closest.

I’ve also stayed in touch with Andreas and Evelyn, and they’re very eager for me to come back. Their progressive (compared to the here, at least) philosophy and lifestyle suited me just fine and they are two of the happiest people I know. This is, I think, representative of Berlin as a whole: the first thing Andreas told me about Berlin was the mayor’s inauguration speech in which she said “I am gay, and it’s good” and “Berlin is poor, but sexy.” This display of honesty and realism was refreshing (especially in the wake of this year’s GOP race), and my appreciation of this was only affirmed by my visit to the Reichstag; to see many of the same the ideals and values the US allegedly holds self-evident manifested in the architecture and operations of Parliament was striking.

Of course, Berlin has its problems just like any other city (and they have been hit hard by the global recession), but if Andreas and Evelyn are anything to judge by, I believe that its people are willing and able to make the tough choices to plan for the future that have so paralyzed and divided American politics.

I absolutely feel that I have a second home in Berlin and I absolutely will be visiting again, if not living there, soon.

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Wrap-up

My last few weeks in Berlin were pretty nondescript – I spent most of my time working on my Sustainability project, studying for finals, and being with my new-found friends as often as possible. We spent lots of time in Friedrichshain hanging out and just enjoying our last few days in Berlin. None of us wanted to leave, but being the last one to leave was even harder than leaving itself. My mother visited for the last week I was there, which did well to keep me occupied, but visiting all the sights I first visited with my friends was difficult at times.

I learned many things from my time in Berlin, but I think the most pertinent lessons involved how I think about sustainability: it’s not about driving hybrid vehicles or buying shirts made from soda bottles or how highly LEED-certified our buildings are; it’s about how we live day-to-day. Berliners hardly drive, they support local shop owners, they’ve built their densely-packed homes to do without air conditioning, and their laid-back culture supports arts, culture, and new ideas. Germany as a whole isn’t taking any chances with evangelized nuclear power – Chancellor Angela Merkel has set a deadline of 2014 to shut down all of Germany’s nuclear power plants.

All in all, it seems that Berlin, if not Germany overall, has internalized and promoted many of the ideas and values we environmental students consider common sense, but still “alternative”. Germany has seen the future and is leaving nothing to chance or to greed; she is determined to provide her people with every necessity and continue to do so for centuries to come.

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1-3 July: Leipzig

After class on Friday Seth, Kelsey, Pily, and I left for Leipzig. The past week everyone had been asking us what there is to do there, and all we could say was “Seth has friends there, so hopefully they’ll know something to do…” Most descriptions of clubs in the area included the word “sweaty” – a fact we found, obviously, unappealing – so we weren’t sure of what we would do. Our bus dropped us off at the Leipzig airport, where there was much consternation and gnashing of teeth as we failed to see where any local trains might be located. Finally an airport shuttle bus ferried us to the nearest DBahn station where we were forced to board a regional train to Leipzig-proper. From there the system is practically identical to Berlin’s, but it was an unexpected annoyance we would have rather not had to deal with.

We checked into our hostel and then met up with Seth’s friends Tina (whom we met in our previous adventure to Dresden), Juri, and Stephanie at an excellent Indian restaurant. We didn’t end up doing a whole lot during the weekend – mostly walking around and getting a feel for the place. The lake was a bust as well; cold, sporadic rain and wind were hardly conducive to adventures, and they probably weren’t good for our various illnesses (colds, flu, etc.)

Leipzig is considered a “post-industrial”, “shrinking” city that has lost much of its economic strength. This means there are a lot of abandoned buildings, both industrial and residential. Juri is an architect and some of his friends from school have been squatting a building with the intent of turning it into a studio for architecture students to display their latest projects and to mingle with professors and industry professionals. Over the past year they have made extraordinary progress on the interior: they’ve built windows, replaced beams, floors, and ceilings, and have laid out what will soon be an excellent place for students to work and hang out. Each architect will have a personal space to work on and display projects, as well as access to a kitchen and a workshop. There is an open main floor as well for expositions and various other group functions, giving ample space to collaborate and brainstorm (yay, buzzwords!). All in all, the space is designed in a very open and modular way, giving the opportunity to shape it differently in the future with very little effort. Most of the materials used in renovating the interior are recycled: windows, beams, furniture, and many other parts were salvaged from other renovation and demolition projects in the area. I wish there were more opportunities (or more support) for projects like this back home.

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23 – 26 June: Krakau

Krakow was a whirlwind trip that packed a lot into four days. From the minute we stepped out of the airport, it was obvious we were in a very different place. Deteriorating but maintained remnants of Soviet occupation were everywhere, especially on the outskirts of the city where our hotel was located (the beds were uncomfortable, the air-conditioning was on constantly, everybody in the lobby smoked constantly, and there was never enough coffee at breakfast, but at least the toilets were disinfected; at least that’s what we thought the note on the seat said). The historic city center – untouched by World War II – was beautiful, complete with a large plaza: an enclosed market selling all types of handmade goods like blankets, chess boards, clocks, tapestries, lamps, etc. sat in the center while shops, cafes, restaurants, and offices were located on the periphery. We took a short tour of the city on the first day, then sat down to a dinner of caprese salad, stuffed chicken breast, and pound cake with raspberry sauce – very Polish indeed.

Day two was devoted to a visit to the Wieliczka Salt Mine – a labyrinthine complex of passages over 300 meters below the surface of the Earth. Table salt was produced continuously from the 13th century until the 1990s, making it one of the worlds oldest continuously operating companies and a UNESCO world heritage site. We descended down 54 flights of stairs and spent about two hours exploring the passages, former production shafts, vaulted rooms, and cathedrals (of which there are two). We finally ascended back into the light via two elevators usually reserved for miners; a rickety, palm-sweating ride that left us all very glad to be out in the sun again. Dinner that night was a traditional Polish meal of salad, borscht, a very heavy beef stew, and ice cream (with a flake, of course. Alright, so that wasn’t very traditional. It was still delicious). I described it as “food that will get you through the winter” – afterwords, nobody wanted to do much other than sit and digest.

Day three was a trip to Auschwitz. The mandatory guided tour seemed a little touristy and, I think, detracted from overwhelming feeling one gets when left to experience a place like that on one’s own (for better or for worse). In the morning we visited Aushwitz I, the former Polish army barracks-turned-concentration camp, complete with “Arbeit Macht Frei” gate sign. There were exhibits throughout showing living and working conditions, food, a Gestapo “courtroom”, and, most moving of all, rooms full of the personal affects of prisoners – including suitcases, combs, toys, clothing, and human hair. We visited Auschwitz II “Birkenau” in the afternoon, and I think the group found that much more moving. Other than the main gate building, the railroad tracks, and the monument at the end of the tracks, it was nothing but a fenced-in field of chimney stacks, the last remnants of the thousands of prisoner barracks that once stood.

That evening we toured the Jewish quarter of Krakow, despite the fact that there are only 120 Jews living there today (the country on the whole is 95% Catholic). We ate dinner in a supposedly famous Jewish restaurant (the food was certainly delicious enough) and then hit the diskotek with our tour guide and old friend of IES Marcin.

Overall, Krakow was a beautiful city full of friendly and proud people. It was nice to get back to Berlin on familiar ground (with a slightly familiar language), but I’ve certainly learned a lot about a country that has hardly had an “easy go of it”.

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20 June

Apparently it has been a week since my last entry… Time is moving quickly and days are blurring together. I’m almost half-way through the program and I feel that I only just arrived and that I’ve been here for years, all at the same time. The lack of contact I’ve had with friends and family at home is a pretty good indication of how comfortable I am in this city with these people and with my friends in the program.

I’ve been learning a lot in my German class, using just about everything we’ve been taught and then some. Kelsey is fluent in German, so traversing Germany with her is great for picking up conversational nuances. My sustainability class has been fascinating too, albeit a little scattered. We’ve looked at Dubai, the slums of Lagos, and, most interesting to the various Architecture students in the class, the Philological Library at the Freie Universität Berlin, designed by Lord Norman Foster and opened in 2006. It is a “squashed egg” shape affectionately referred to as “the Brain”. It is a free-standing structure supported by a tubular steel spaceframe between an inner glass-fiber membrane and an outer layer of glass and aluminum panels. Various vents can be opened in the sides of the inner membrane and sides and top of the outer membrane to facilitate air circulation: allowing warm air out and cool air in during the summer, and allowing for fresh air movement during the winter. Heating originates in the basement level where fresh air from outside is warmed in a double floor, then circulated up through the two free-standing concrete pillars that support the three levels of stacks and work stations that utilize radiant-floor heating. All in all, the library uses 38% less energy than other libraries of a comparable volume.

Dresden-

This past weekend (18-19 June), Kelsey, Pily, Seth, Megan, and I took a bus to Dresden to experience the weekend-long street festival and to visit some breathtaking Baroque architecture.  The palaces, bridges, and churches in the Altstadt (old-town) were beautiful – grandiose examples from the height of King August the Strong’s power. In the Neustadt (new-town), a more “alternative” and progressive feel persists. The street festival was full of world music, techno DJs, artists, food from around the world (all of which is delicious), and vendors selling everything from Turkish kitsch to hammocks to ridiculous wigs. The party in the streets went on until around 2am Sunday morning (when the local polizei made the rounds so everyone in the neighborhood could sleep) and resumed around 10am with more booming techno and thronging masses in the streets. We checked out of our hostel, ate a huge brunch, and then spent some time with Seth’s friend Tina before catching our bus back to Berlin at 6pm. The whole weekend feels like one long day.

We’ve begun to settle down into more of a routine, opting to hang out in the park or in town with friends during the week instead of going out to see the sights (partially out of financial concerns, partially out of exhaustion). Our four-day trip to Krakow is quickly approaching, and after that we plan to visit Copenhagen, Freiburg, and possibly Prague; we’ll see how our money holds out (most of us have turned to grocery shopping to cut our spending, myself included – I’ll resort to salami, swiss, and lettuce pita sandwiches for when I get tired of falafel…).

Now that we’re all realizing that we need to slow down a little bit (even though we’re running out of weekends) I’ll be able to update this blog more often, and hopefully more completely. More to come soon!

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14 June

Weekend update:

Saturday –

In a strange twist, we saw all the touristy sights of Berlin without walking across the entire city. I never thought a bus tour would be so refreshing and relaxing. We saw the Brandenburg Gate, the Reichstag, the Berlin Wall, lavish homes once occupied by the Prussian aristocracy, and the Victory Spire.

After that, we all got caught out in the rain and so took refuge in the Oscar Wilde Irish pub for a Guinness before we headed home.

Sunday –

Sunday was a whole pile of crazy. In the morning we went to the Mauerpark Flohmarkt (Wall-park flea market) as recommended by my host parents. Fur coats, vintage Soviet electronics, vinyl records, shoes, used clothing, bicycles, jewelry, hats, and any number of other things we missed. It was an overwhelming and vaguely claustrophobic experience, but it was incredible to see the wide array of people in attendance.

After the flea market, we stopped for lunch (chocolate milkshake) and then made our way to the Karnival der Kulturen. When I first decided on the Berlin summer program, my dad sent me a Youtube clip of a previous year’s parade as a bit of a joke as if to say “Germans are crazy”. Well, he was right. Germans really know how to throw a party, especially one in the streets complete with techno club floats blasting dubstep as hundreds of thousands of people dance behind them for four hours. It was way better than any diskotek.

Once the party disbanded, Kelsey, Pily, Seth, and I went to meet a connection of Seth’s to go see some of the underground/hipster spots to hang. On our way to a club we ran into a man with a disco ball and a stroller full of speakers blaring house beats on the metro platform. The ensuing dance party was indescribably incredible and something I plan on bringing home to the States. Around 2am we eventually ended up at Casseopeia, a small, grungy, outdoor show venue/skate park in a bombed-out, abandoned industrial complex on the Berlin wall. We talked politics with hipsters until the sun came up. This was one of those “What is my life right now?” moments; I occasionally find it hard to believe what I’ve been doing for the past week.

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8 June 2011

I had breakfast with my host parents this morning – warm bread with nutella, coffee, and grapefruit juice. We talked about what my parents do and I realized pretty quickly that it’s hard to explain “IT Security Administrator” and “Director of Networking” to someone who speaks very little English. I learned that Andreas is a freelance social work and Evelyn is an engineer of some kind, although she’s on sabbatical until September.

Most of today was spent doing various orientation activities at the IES center. The only things I learned were the HTH (Highway To Health) phone number and that Germans refer to “Musical Chairs” as “The Journey to Jerusalem”. It’s the little differences, right Vince?

We did another short walking tour and ate lunch at the Mensa Nord cafeteria; curry, rice, quark (thick yogurt that tastes a bit like sour cream), and a sparkling apple juice for 3.50 euros isn’t bad at all. My friends Pily, Kelsey, Seth, and Megan and I spent a good fifteen minutes sifting through the IES guidebook (compiled by former students) looking for good jazz clubs and we’re planning on visiting “Acud” to go see some good jazz and jam sessions. Afterwards, a bunch of us walked to the bank to get out some more cash and to see the sights around Friederichstrasse. Seth and I were immediately caught by a Bentley in the window of a dealership, and sitting behind it was none other than…

After we managed to stop drooling on the window, we all journeyed back for the Welcome Dinner. It was excellent – more spaghetti, brie, kalamata olives, feta cheese, all kinds of fruit, and free cola. We met the professors who then gave their various spiels about the classes they teach.

Classes start tomorrow – 9am to 4pm. Thursdays are great…

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