Thursday, February 25, 2010

Germany for the Holidays

Disclaimer:  Due to the length of time and amount of things that have passed since my last post, this may appear to be a novel.  And it's only the part about Germany.  Take it in pieces, or do it all at once... lo que quieras.  Mostly it's so I remember how great we had it for a couple weeks touring a fabulous European country.

*Pre-departure Tasks:
-Combination birthday/Christmas party (success, but no photo documentation)
-Move to new piso
-Repay Quique with tapas, for his help with everything
-Prepare luggage for the big, wintery trip
-Print boarding passes at internet cafe
-Make it to bus station on time
All of these tasks were completed with relative ease and efficiency, until we came to the last item on the agenda.  Somehow amid moving, packing, teacher Christmas luncheons, repacking, and printing important documents, my roommate and I were left with fifteen minutes to make the (usual) 25-minute trek (luggage in tow) to meet our other friends at the bus station.  We made it in ten.  I don’t even know how it happened, but I do remember feeling like I might be in the filming of an episode of The Amazing Race.  It was exhilarating and exhausting, but we made it on time and thus the trip was off to a good start.
*From there, we spent the night in the Alicante (Spain) airport, caught a Ryanair flight to Memmingen (which is not the same as Munich), took a bus into Munich, and finished the first leg of the journey by train to Nuremberg.  Needless to say, the warm and spicy goodness of glühwein (and a couple of shared bratwursts) made for a lovely Welcome to Germany ensemble for our weary fivesome.  And then it was 8:30 PM and we went to bed.  The next morning we woke up to snow falling, which was a first for Martha, our token Californian.  Our cozy little hostel (which turned out to be more of a bed and breakfast feeling hotel) provided a fabulous and filling breakfast we thoroughly enjoyed while sipping coffee and tea and watching the flurries fall.  The whole city felt more like a little town, and covered in fluffy whiteness it was the perfect place to spend Christmas (if it couldn’t be at our respective American homes).  Our first day we headed out of the city to see the Nazi Party Rally site.  This was the beginning of my attempt to understand just how deep and rich and real history is over here.  I have always enjoyed studying history, and I have a great appreciation for American history, but it is just nuts being present at these sites.  I stood where Hitler stood.  We saw freshly burned books on the ground, reminding us of what was not so many years ago.  The coldness of the air (most of the sites were part of an outdoor walking tour) only added to the eeriness of it all.
On Christmas Eve we attended a Bach-themed service at a local Protestant church, and although it was the coldest church I can remember, the huge stone building filled with German carols and burning candles was beautiful.  They read from the gospel of Luke and even sang some songs I recognized and sang to myself in English.  We finished Christmas Eve in true German style by heading to two of the only places still open: a cheap Chinese restaurant and the local Irish pub.  My fortune was entirely too appropriate at the time, for myriad reasons: “The past belongs to the past, now the time is right for a new beginning.”  Christmas itself was for us a day to tour the city and see some of the quaint sights Nuremberg has to offer: the castle, plenty of churches, Hangman’s Bridge (yes), the Way of Peace...  We spent the rest of the afternoon back at the hotel, watching dubbed Christmas movies on TV and calling home to be passed around various family members gathered to celebrate the season.  Perhaps a bit embarrassingly, we ended the evening at the same two locations as the previous night, but with equal success and happiness shared by all five of us.  Fortune cookie round two: “You need to be more attentive in human relationships.”  This might be one of the best fortunes I can remember getting.  Ha, yikes.  The day after Christmas we packed our bags and headed on to...
*Munich.  We made our way to the Wombats Hostel which was fabulously located right next to the Hauptbanhoff (that’s right I learned some German).  Munich felt especially German with its Bavarian culture, including rousing beer halls, more sausages, spicy beer, lederhosen-sporting musical ensembles, and general friendly atmosphere.  In contrast, our first full day we again made our way out of the main city to see Dachau: the first concentration camp from the WWII era.  I’m not sure how to write about something like Dachau, and I’m not going to try and do justice to the experience except to say that it was breathtaking and mind-blowing, serene and eery, historical and raw.  We used personal audio guides that allowed each of us to go at our own pace, walking “the path of a prisoner,” entering the parts of the camp as those being punished without reason might have done half a century ago.  Added to translated prisoner testimonies was all the real footage provided by the Nazi Party from the time, and it was beyond incomprehensible that they wanted all they were doing recorded on film and in photos.  Taking my own photos of the site as it now remains felt so strange, and somehow wrong.  
Not sure how to aptly exit the situation, we quietly made our way back to the hostel.  That evening we enjoyed the hostel’s happy hour with some beers and a lot of card playing (a pretty common hobby we all picked up for the duration of our trip together, though Torry has yet to remember the rules to any one card game).  The next day we forged our own city tour and saw even more German churches (surprise!), parts of the Residenz, ducks, geese and ice at the Englischergarten, and a few government buildings here and there.  We also saw the sun for the first time in what felt like weeks.  It didn’t eliminate the cold, but it did warm our spirits.  That evening we ate in true Bavarian style at the Haufbrauhaus, famous for its live band, various German beers, and gigantic plates of German sausages and other traditional foods (I tried “pretzel dumplings” and added it to the list of great things you can do with pretzels).  Also popular: spatzle (eggy noodle dish) and sauerkraut (I tried it twice on our trip and wasn’t completely turned off by the taste).
What followed our traditional German evening was a somewhat nightmarish day of travel, but what trip based on inexpensive transportation and lodging is complete without at least one such day?  We woke up and were out of our hostel by 5:00 AM and then proceeded to re-enact Planes, Trains, and Automobiles for the next 12 or 15 hours (nix the automobile and add a bus in its place).  One terribly early bus, one delayed flight, and four confusing but reliable (it’s Germany) trains later, we arrived in...
*Berlin!  We arrived greasy and tired, and the hostel was a bit of a hidden and questionable place (a gem, really), but we were determined to make it out our first night in the big city.  So we headed to a local grungy bar and met up with one of Martha’s friends from college.  It wasn’t a late night, but it was a good one which we finished off with the best Turkish kebop I’ve ever had (if you’re ever in Berlin, find the little kiosk called Mustafa’s... it is beyond worth it).  Our first full day we split up to hit various sights of the city.  The boys and I did a lot of line standing to try and get into one of the museums of Museum Island, but it turned out to be a bust.  We did eventually make it to the Neuegalerie which boasted exhibits devoted to surrealism and abstract expressionism and included artists such as Picasso, Dalí, and others I wrote down somewhere in order not to forget them.  As a whole, the museum provided an interesting link between Europe and America, as well as what is Old and what is New.  To save money, we met back at the hostel for a pasta dinner made possible by REWE grocery, and it was a success except for the tears shared by all due to the strength of the onions.  Kaylin and I paired up later in the evening to find some fun night life around the hostel.  We ended up at a sports bar which showed American football (our first sighting since being here) and ended the night with a Johnny Depp type in the bar right next to our beloved Hostel Aloha.  The playlist for the evening (and really throughout the entire Germany trip) was random but incredible: Get Your Freak On, MJ’s classic Thriller, some Blues, and our German favorite Das Gehtab!
The next afternoon consisted of a mad dash around the city to get tickets to the big Silvester (New Year’s) party, at a place called Kulturbraurei.  There were to be something like 12 rooms, each devoted to different music and each with plenty of dance floor, as well as live music (and more dancing) outdoors in the snow.  We made it to the first ticket hot spot only to find the doors were closed and tickets gone.  We made our way to a second area and were quickly sent to another Information kiosk.  There we did it: three tickets became ours (the boys weren’t so interested).  After a relatively alright attempt at Spanish tortilla for dinner and some good conversation with fellow hostel stayers, we headed to Brandenburg Gate, where Party Mile had already commenced with the evening’s festivities.  Kaylin, Martha, and I got separated from the group early on and ended up wedging our way through two lines of security to get closer to the Gate and stage.  The evening was beautiful: live music, new German friends in straw hats, insanity at the WCs, snow, champagne from plastic water bottles, dancing, trying to speak Spanish with said new friends, and a little peck and fireworks at midnight!  And all of this took place with the famous Brandenburg Gate in sight, which was simply a fabulous experience.  We made a quick pit stop at the hostel and then went on to Kulturbraurei.  The overall atmosphere was a bit different than we’d expected with fewer eccentricities than we’d hoped, but we made our way through most of the clubs and danced with strangers in the snow, and I think it did a pretty decent job getting our year off to a good start.
Somehow we had made the switch to 2010.  It’s always so weird to me how that just happens and suddenly the old year is gone and the new one has begun.  Cliché?  Yes.  The girls and I spent the second half of the day finding “neat” buildings we’d circled on Kaylin’s map.  One of them ended up being Wilhelm Kaiser Kirsche, a beautiful church that was left standing as it was after being mostly destroyed.  In recent years, two other buildings have been added, one on either side, to mark the growth and change that has happened since that time.  We also enjoyed one last Christmas Market (theirs was still open) by browsing souvenirs while eating Asian noodles.  Our tour continued through beautiful, snow-covered Tiergarten and then saw a Soviet War Memorial and the Brandenburg Gate in the middle of its day-after cleanup process.  Then for Jason’s last night we shared pizza and pasta at an Italian place in Alexanderplatz.  We also shared some almost-falls on the ice-covered ground surrounding the plaza.  The next morning we were determined to get inside the Reichstag so we stood in line and froze our toes past numb and back to hurting for about two hours... but!  We made it in.  And then we waited some more.  Then we took a giant elevator to the top and saw the German version of Millennium Park’s “Bean.”  After the lovely Open Air Dome experience, Jason parted ways to head for Brussels, and Kaylin and I made our way to Checkpoint Charlie.  This was one of my favorite sights because of the path they’ve created which has photos and information about the area over the years.  It also hosts a “light box” which portrays a US soldier looking East and a Soviet soldier looking West.  A short (though in German terms, pretty long) walk from there we found a piece of the Wall left standing and a walk-through of the Topography of Terror, both of which further displayed the insanity of pieces of human history.
And then suddenly it was my last night in Germany.  We celebrated (wrong word, I didn’t want to leave) with some wine and chocolate cake with sprinkles.  The next morning Martha and I woke up at 5 and began the trek back to Almería.  And through it all, Ryanair didn’t do such a terrible job getting us between and throughout both countries.  I’m ready to go back... I’d love to see Alemania in the Spring :-)