Monthly Archives: October 2009

The Bare Essentials

When the doors to the crowded S-Bahn train opened, I could smell the stench. It was so overwhelming that it gagged me with every breath I took. I didn’t have to look up from my USA Today to know the odds that a homeless person entering the train car was high. I continued reading as the blanketing-odor grew stronger. When the train began to pull away from the station, a filthy hand joined the pole that was holding a few of us steady. Before I bothered to look up, I looked down to ensure my bag was secure. That’s when I saw the duct-taped shoes.

I shouldn’t have been surprised that my assumption had been correct, yet my stomach took a swan dive at the sight of the thoroughly-used, worn out shoes. The brown leather was barely visible under the frayed edges of the duct tape wrapped around each foot, as if they had been cast. As I moved my glance upward, the attire didn’t get any better—tattered, dirty jeans and an army green jacket kept together by tape and staples. It did little to keep the exuding smells at bay and I could only imagine its futileness in the brisk, chilly autumn air that was whirling through the streets of Berlin this October. My stomach dropped further when I met the man’s unshaven face—he couldn’t have been older than 25—three years my junior.

For a second I made contact with his piercing blue eyes. Their warmth seemed to smile at me briefly before noticing the American paper in my hand and the backpack at my feet. They registered that I was a tourist and not the optimal cliental for the papers he wanted to hawk. His gaze averted, he left the stabilization of the pole to move through the car. You could hear the duct tape sticking to the car floor with each step he took. Wer will den heutigen nachrichten kaufen? “Does anyone want to buy today’s news,” he asked? No one bothered to acknowledge his request and least of all, his existence.

One stop later, the duct-taped shoes left the car to try their luck elsewhere. The smell still lingered, but was no longer gagging. Farther down the track at Gorlitzerplatz, I picked up my bag and headed into the city to find a place stay for the night. I had hoped to Couchsurf, but no replies later, I had to search for a bed. I walked the neon-lit streets thinking of the things this guy and I had in common. We were both in our twenties and liked to use duct tape in the non-conventional sense. In northern Wisconsin, the saying goes, “If you can’t duct it, “____” it.” It’s common to see duct tape holding up the bumper of a car or keeping your windows sealed from the harsh winters. I knew a man who used duct tape to keep his favorite beer mug together.

From there on out, we were starkly different. I had been proud of myself for packing lightly and only bringing the bare essentials with me on this two-week trip. A quick assessment of my possessions had me doing the math. From the new wardrobe, camera and shoes I had bought right before I left, to the expensive iPod, sleeping bag and backpack I was using, my necessities came in at just under $1000. That didn’t even count what I had spent on flight, rail, lodging and beer. With one chance encounter, my pride had been tossed to the curb; trust me, the door didn’t forget to kick it on its way out.

Fifteen minutes later, the gentlemen at the front desk of a hostel informed me that I was in luck—they had room for me through the course of my stay. I would have to deal with the “inconvenience” of switching rooms each morning, but I would have lodging. I headed to my room to unload my recently weighted backpack. I wanted to put my bed together before taking a much needed shower, but I couldn’t stop thinking about the guy from the train. We would be walking the same city for the next few days. The same buildings would grace our horizons, the trains would come and go from the same platforms and the same clouds would cover our sky. Yet, I knew the ground would feel different beneath our feet. We may be walking the same sidewalks, but they led us down completely different paths—his, stickier than mine.

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Beer and the Berlin Wall

Berlin, Germany

October 6, 2009

I truly believe that some of the most interesting conversations to be had will happen over drinks.  Especially as inhibitions lower and curiosity grows greater.  No better place to test my theory than after Oktoberfest in Munich, Germany.  I had left the beer tent I had called home after 8 hours of celebration and was heading to a bar with a group of guys from Munich, when I began one such conversation.

He grew up in East Berlin and was 18 when the Berlin Wall came down.  He had family in the West that he rarely got to see, despite only being a couple miles away from.  He crossed into the West shortly after the Wall came down and left Berlin shortly thereafter.  He doesn’t go home much, but it’s not a place that holds a lot of good memories, so he doesn’t see the point.  He never enjoyed growing up under the Iron Curtain…

It’s hard to believe that when I arrived in Berlin four days later, that it had been almost 20 years to the month that the Wall fell.  A large part of my decision to come to Berlin was the history surrounding the place.  I was only eight years old when the Wall came down, but it’s one of the first major events I remember watching unfold on television (that, and baby Jessica being pulled from the well.)  My father still remembers explaining that Germany, where his grandparents had come from, was a “divided” nation.  Berlin had this wall that divided the city between East and West.   As Americans, we helped control the West and the Soviets and Communists had a hold on the East.  Even in elementary school, the teachers explained to us 3rd graders what was going on.  Our teacher compared the Wall to the Civil War, explaining about how at one time our country was divided between the North and the South—two history lessons with one stone.

So now here I was in Berlin two decades later and there were plenty of reminders that reunification wasn’t that long ago: from the sections of the Wall still standing in Berlin, (the most famous being the East Side Gallery along Muhlenstrasse) to the cobblestone bricks on the road tracing its path.    I made my connection with the Wall along Niederkirchnerstraße.  It was hard to grasp that this chunk of concrete was able to hold so many people from friends, family and freedom.  Men with guns were there to reinforce its existence.  An estimated 5000 people were able to escape to the West; while a confirmed 125 had their dreams and end collide with bullets.  The irony now was that this block of concrete that divided a city for 28 years, was surrounded by a fence to keep souvenir seeking hounds at bay.

Thanks to my conversation in Munich, I learned the history of the Wall, the chronology of the ease of borders in the Eastern Bloc and how Berlin tried hard to keep the East Germans from taking advantage of them.  I was described the places in Berlin to see remnants of the wall and that if desired, a memorial of crosses to those who tried, but failed to cross the wall.  My confidant told me the tale of how one man and a night out managed to bring the Wall down.  I was already aware of how Gunter Schabowski’s lack of preparation before a press conference ultimately led to the fall of the Berlin Wall, but I was intrigued to hear it from the German perspective.  Based on research I had done prior to my trip, I was under the impression that eventually East Germany wouldn’t be able to contain its borders as it had hoped.  The peaceful riots in nearby Leipzig and in Berlin’s Alexanderplatz, had taken its toll on East German leader Eric Honecker, who eventually resigned.  A man named Krenz took over and less than a month later Schabowski took to the podium to discuss new border crossing rules laid out by Krenz.  I laughed knowing that one mans misinterpretation of a memo would be the spark needed for the East to join the West.

I pondered humanity for a long time along this stretch of the Wall.  Despite knowing its history I still couldn’t wrap my finger around what it must have been like.  I was fortunate to grow up with the chance to do what I wanted at will.  Maybe I led a sort of sheltered small-town life growing up, but I had family scattered around the US and got to see them at ease.  There wasn’t a government, watchtower or wall to keep us separated.  Yes, there are still traces of the divide the Mason Dixon Line created in the US, but growing up in northern Wisconsin, that’s a history only seen in books.  But now, with the Wall 5 feet in front me, history was coming alive.

I walked away thinking about the flaw in my theory of interesting conversations over drinks—as inhibitions lower, so goes common sense.  I was fortunate enough to meet a man who would answer any question I had on life in East Berlin.  For two hours we talked back and forth freely, spurred on by beer and atmosphere.   If only I had remembered to ask his name.

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Alpha, Bravo, Charlie, D, E, F, G….

Berlin, Germany

October 6, 2009

While the sections of the Berlin Wall still remaining are a poignant reminder to the past, Checkpoint Charlie, a restoration of the only border crossing between East and West Berlin, brings the Cold War to life. With the museum in the former watchtower, the larger than life photograph of Sgt. Harper and the “American guards” standing at the border, Checkpoint Charlie is a great way to freshen up on the history of East and West Berlin. Lining the intersection of Freidrichstrasse and Zimmerstrasse is an outdoor museum of sorts—picture and text boards line the streets detailing the political, residential, escape attempts (successful and failed) and the bureaucratic red-tape that circled the sector.

I took my time walking through the history of the area by reading through the boards. It was a great way to see the progression of the Cold War and it’s affects on Berlin. You could read up on the famous “tank-off” between the US and Soviet Union during the Berlin Crisis of 1961. I learned that this was when the Soviet Union demanded that the Western Allies withdraw from Berlin shortly after the Wall was built. In addition, the Soviets went against the Potsdam Conference and were stopping Allied Diplomatic vehicles. This eventually led to the day long stand-off with Soviet Tanks on their side of the sector and American tanks an equal distance away from the checkpoint on their side. Kennedy and Khrushchev agreed to withdraw the tanks. If memory serves me correctly, the Soviets backed up first, followed by the Americans, until all tanks were gone.

Further down the boards you eventually got to a section detailing the deaths of those who failed to escape. In addition they also told you of the successful attempts to escape from the East to the West. The story that hit me the most was that of Peter Fechter. The 18 year old was shot trying to reach the West with a friend (who managed to cross the wall), but fell in what was called “no-man’s-land.” Both sides looked on as Fechter lay screaming and dying along the wall. An hour later, his dead bodied was carried off by the East German Boarder Guards. Here, the ridiculous bureaucratic red-tape prevented human decency from doing the right thing. I just can’t imagine standing there and watching someone die just because he didn’t stumble onto your side of the street. Further down Zimmerstrasse there is a marker memorializing the spot where Fechter died. I made sure to head down to read more into what happened.

I ended my tour of Checkpoint Charlie after looking into the life and death of Fechter. The Cold War seemed more like a reality for me after walking through that sector of Berlin. I was able to get a better feeling for the mentality and what life was like during those 28 years the Wall was up. I definitely recommend walking through the streets and reading the history. While I didn’t go to the Haus am Checkpoint Charlie (the Museum in the old watchtower) I will do it my next time in Berlin. So if history intrigues you and you have the chance, go to the intersection of Freidrichstrasse and Zimmerstrasse and be thankful for the chance to walk freely across the street.

…R, S, Tango, Uniform, Victory, W, X, Y, Z…out.

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Dachau Concentration Camp

Dachau, Germany

October 3, 2009

I was going to be heading to Nurnberg today, but I was making a stop off in Dachau to visit the former Concentration Camp first. Honestly, if you just spent a couple days drinking at Oktoberfest and you need to sober up, skip the bloody mary and head to Dachau. It will be one of the most sobering and worthwhile experiences of your life. You start off by walking from the library to the front gate. The magnitude of where I was really didn’t hit me until I got to the gate. There, I saw the infamous words “Arbeit Macht Frie” or “Work shall set you free.” It wasn’t the easiest of steps to take.

Dachau is set up not only as a museum, but also as a memorial to those that were imprisoned there. A walk-through takes you along the path of the new prisoners/arrivals at the Camp. Through the gate you come into the courtyard. To your right is the old maintenance building, now a museum. Once inside you are taken through the history of the camp, certain artifacts, names and faces of the various groups imprisoned. I took a good hour and a half walking through the museum, which ends with a room holding various memorials donated to the memory of specific ethnic groups and people. I walked along the perimeter fence, stared at the watch tower and then headed over to the barracks. Two have been rebuilt as models, while the rest are clearly shown on a detailed map and by the concrete slabs on the ground.     In addition to the camp, there are now 4 churches/chapels on the grounds. I especially liked the Catholic Mortal Agony of Christ Chapel. It was the poignant of the 4 for me.

There were plenty of visitors walking around while I was there. The two that struck me the most was the little boy, maybe 2 or 3, that sat outside the old maintenance building playing in the rocks. For a place that held such tragedy it brought a smile to my face to see someone have fun with the innocence of not knowing the horrors the place once held. Then there was the little old man with the cane. He was walking along by himself across the grounds. When he stopped against a tree to take a rock out of his shoe, those of us around had that look on our faces like we knew he was going to fall. When he didn’t we must have switched over to our shocked but glad faces. He would walk for awhile, stop in front of nothing and stare for a couple minutes. I wish I knew his story and what he had been reflecting on.

While Dachau didn’t house a gas chamber, there was a crematorium. It was the one place I couldn’t bring myself to go into. While I’m a history buff and read as much as I can on WWII, especially on the German front, it’s a different story to see the history in front of your face, rather than as words on a page. It may have been over 60 years ago, but to me the history came alive the moment I walked through the front gate, and there were parts I wasn’t ready accept. Over 200,000 prisoners walked through this “model camp,” while another 25,000+ lost their lives there.

The most we can do now is remember and never forget. Dachau remains to bring a voice to those that it unwillingly suppressed.

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Dude there’s a castle…

Nuremberg, Germany

October 3-5, 2009

I was supposed to head to Nuremberg from Dachau, via train. I got back to the Dachau Bahnhof with about 6 minutes before my train was scheduled to leave. It wasn’t a big station, but I had to run to the locker where I had stored my bag and then make it to my track #7. I saw Tracks 1-4 clearly marked and then the exit. What I didn’t see was the track I was supposed to be catching the train from. I ran back to the timetable thinking I had written down the wrong platform. Nope, it was definitely from #7. As I stood on the Track 1 Platform, I could see the other 3 tracks this side of a concrete wall. By now, my 6 minutes were up and if I learned anything about the German rail system, if it’s a minute past the scheduled departure time, you’re just shit out of luck. Unfortunately, I couldn’t find anyone that worked at the station and when I knew that I had missed my train I started planning out my next best option. I was going to have to take the next train back to Munich and then hope there would be one leaving shortly to Nuremberg. It wouldn’t have been such a big deal, but I was supposed to be meeting my couchsurfing host at the train station in Nuremberg. When I got to Munich, I saw that I had 5 minutes to catch the next train to Nuremberg, which didn’t leave me any time to call my host to let him know that I would be showing up an hour later than planned. When I got on the train, I asked the guy across the aisle from me if he had a cell phone I could borrow. He was a super cool guy from Franfurt who worked in Munich during the week. He was more than willing to let me borrow his phone at no cost (I tried to pay him!). I talked with him the whole ride to Nuremberg.

I met my host in Nuremberg and headed to his place. He had a private party to head to that night and felt bad that I couldn’t join him, so he arranged for me to meet up with other couchsurfers in the area at a local bar, We headed there, but the place was closed and he had no idea where they would be. To be perfectly honest I was ok with not spending the night at the bar after all the drinking I had done at Oktoberfest. Yes, it would have been fun to meet up with locals, but a night in wasn’t the worst option in the world. He headed to his party and I headed back toward his place while looking for a place to grab a bite to eat. It was beginning to get dark, and when I turned the corner to walk up another street I discovered the castle. I remember reading about the castle in a guide book, but since my main motivation for coming here was to see the Courthouse, I sorta forgot about this attraction. After walking around the grounds for a bit, I headed off to find a place to eat. I settled on a Greek restaurant a few blocks away. When I walked in, the front of the restaurant had most of the tables filled, while the back was completely empty. Instead of getting sat up front amongst the rest of the patrons, I was put in the back by myself. I felt like the adult that they didn’t have room for at the adult table during Thanksgiving, so they stick you at the children’s table. Only this time, there were no kids to join me. The waiter didn’t speak any English, but it wasn’t needed for me to order my food and soda. Before my food came though, he came by with a complimentary shot of Ouzo. Since we had a language barrier, I couldn’t tell him I didn’t like the stuff, but I also didn’t want to be rude so I took the shot while he stood there waiting for me.

The food was good, but I couldn’t wait to get to the couch that awaited me.

For the record: Track #7 at the Dachau Bahnhof does exist. You have to walk past Tracks 1-4, through the exit and on the other side of the above-referenced wall you’ll find Track #7. Tracks 5-6 are still MIA.

October 4th-5th:

Carsten, my host, had to be the most accommodating person in the world. He had bought fresh pastries and baked goods for breakfast and had a dinner planned to cook that evening. He offered to give me a tour of Nuremberg during the day. He is everything that is good about couchsurfing. It was nice to have someone not only to walk around with, but to give some local insight on the attractions. We walked around the castle and old town. We went to the towns famous Hauptmarkt, which becomes one of the most popular come Christmas time. I spun the golden ring on the fountain three times for luck. We explored St. Sebold’s, which had been destroyed (as was most of the city) during WWII and then completely rebuilt. We ended the afternoon at the Dokumentation Center. Nuremberg holds a place in history as being the home to the Nuremberg Trials for the Nazi war criminals. The Center used to be a popular place for Hitler and the Nazi Party to hold rallies. It’s also one of the few Albert Speer designed buildings not destroyed after the war. What distinguished this Center from the one in Obersalzberg, were the amount of videos to watch. Almost every one of the 19 exhibits started or ended with a video. Near the end I found myself not sitting for 10 minutes to watch, like I did in the beginning. Carsten had never been there before, so I bought a pass for him to join me, otherwise he would have just been sitting in the lobby for a long time.     That night we had a nice dinner and Carsten helped me figure out how to find the Courthouse the next day. We learned that tours are only offered on the weekends, but I should be able to walk around some on Monday. The next day we said goodbye and I thanked him profusely for his generosity. He was heading to work and I was heading to the Courthouse before heading to Berlin.

The Courthouse was a fair distance away from where I was staying, but it was a nice walk over the river and through the town to make. I found a couple places to stop and look around through before I made it to Futherstrasse, the street the Courthouse would be on. Room 600 is where the infamous Nuremberg Trials were held and is in the Palace of Justice building. While I couldn’t take a tour, I walked into the building and to the window and asked if I could walk around. The policeman on duty let me know that I was free to explore, I couldn’t take any pictures and since Room 600 was under construction for another year, I couldn’t go anywhere near it. That sucked, but I walked up to the floor and hallway leading to the Courtroom. I tested the waters to see if I could get closer, but they had it locked up pretty well. I may have quickly pulled out my camera when no one was around and took a picture…maybe…

Now it’s off to Berlin…

Other attractions in Nuremberg:

St. Lorenz-Kirche—probably the most famous church in Nuremberg, dating back to the 13th century. The main portal is pretty amazing to stand in.

Helig-Geist-Spital—stands for “Hospital of the Holy Spirit.” When built, it was one of the largest hospitals of its time.

Rathaus—the Town Hall.

Germaniches Nationalmuseum (German National Museum)—home to various artifacts from the German-speaking world.

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Oktoberfest minus bier = Munich

September 30-October 3, 2009

To be fair to Munich, I can’t make an informed decision on the city. For the most part, I saw the Oktoberfest grounds. The rest, I hurried through with the thoughts of drinking on my mind. While there were quite a few places I wanted to see, I had my priorities turned around. I had a list of places that I wanted to visit and explore and had allotted the whole day on Friday to tour around the city. I knew I would enjoy myself at the festival, but I didn’t envision my liver giving me the strength for two. It’s not like my time in Munich was void of any attractions, as I did manage to get to Marienplatz to see the world-famous Glockenspiele. However, since I wasn’t by the Neues Rathaus at 11 am or 5 pm, I did not get to see the show it provided. I played frogger across the circle at Karolinenplatz and saw where Hitler’s failed “Munich Putsch” happened at Feldherrnhalle. While in front of the Glyptothek in Konigsplatz, I met Christian. He was from Munich, but was going to school in London. He was home for Oktoberfest, or as he taught me, Das Wiesn. He ended up becoming an impromptu tour guide for a half hour, as we were both heading toward Marienplatz. He gave me some local insight and history on what we were seeing around us. He invited me to find him in one of the tents that night, but I never made it in that direction and never saw him again.

So yeah, that short paragraph pretty much sums up my sight-seeing in Munich. A friend of mine couldn’t believe I never made it the Hofbrauhaus, but I drank enough beer to make up for it!

Sights I should have taken the time to see in Munich:

Hofbrauhaus—the least I could have done was grab a bite to eat in the bier garden.

Residenz—former home to many a Bavarian King.

Ludwigskirche—a striking church with twin towers.

Alte Pinakothek—a world-famous art gallery, or so I’ve been told. I did want to see Rembrandt’s “Descent from the Cross,” one of five paintings he did on the Passion of the Christ.

Schloss Nymphenburg—A palace I didn’t get to see, but planned on. The palace and the grounds are supposed to be amazing.

Olympiapark—home to the 1972 Olympics.

Englischer Garten—I wanted to check out the Japanese Tea Garden. Oops.

Michaelskirche—I did take a few minutes to step inside and look around. The expanse inside is amazing.

Altes Rathaus and Neues Rathaus—the Old and New Town Halls are in Marienplatz, I only saw the exterior of either.

Karlstor—Karl’s Gate, at the end of Marienplatz that I didn’t walk down.

St. Peter’s Kirche—visible from the Oktoberfest grounds. I kept joking around that it was proof that God made beer and therefore was proof that God wanted us to have fun. It’s worth a walk around.

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Das Wiesn

Munich, Germany

September 30-October 3, 2009

October 1st:

I woke up early to head to the Oktoberfest grounds. If you ever head to Munich for this, don’t be worried about finding your way to the grounds. Just follow the guys in lederhosen.

I’m just going to be blunt with you: Oktoberfest is one of the greatest festivals on Earth. I only planned on going for one day, but I ended up there for two. The atmosphere was incredible—the beer, the chicken, the bands, the revelers, the beer, the tough as nail servers, the people from around the world and the pretzels—way too much fun in a 2-day span.

I started out in the Hacker Pschorr tent. The free tables are around the stage in the middle of the tent, so I headed off to find a place to sit. I walked up and down the aisles to find the “best” table—essentially one that looked social enough to have fun at. I knew the moment I saw the guys dressed in pink and dresses, I had found my table. It was a group of Dutch guys from near Eindhoven. They were the only guys I saw in two days that instead of wearing the traditional lederhosen, they opted for the tradition wear for girls—the dirndl. The guys were a sideshow acts of sorts, but they were a lot of fun to drink with. I ended up drinking with them the entire day. A couple friends flew in from Ibiza to meet up with them and we went to a different tent at the end of the night (don’t ask me which one).

The atmosphere was definitely different as the morning went to afternoon and switched to evening. The grounds were a lot more packed and it was a lot harder to find a free table to sit at. The cardinal rule at Oktoberfest is that if you don’t have a table, you don’t get a beer. We got lucky at night when we switched tents because we were in the place for 10 minutes trying to find a table when a whole table up and left and we hopped right up on it. The bands play louder, livelier music and a lot of mainstream stuff in the evening. Of course, every 5 minutes someone is holding up their glass to toast you—”Prost!”

At 10:30 pm the drinking ends and we all ended up going our separate ways. I didn’t want to be too hungover the next day so I thought it a good idea to get some sleep and some water. As I left the grounds, I thought my time drinking there was finished. Damn was I wrong.

October 2nd:

I woke up early on Friday so that I could start sightseeing in Munich. There were a few places I really wanted to hit up—Marienplatz, Schloss Nymphenburg, Odeonplatz, etc. I managed to hit all of those except the palace and gardens in a couple of hours. When I contemplated heading to Schloss Nymphenburg I got the urge to head back to Oktoberfest. So I did. Around Noon I walked into the Lowenbrau Tent, found a table with some Aussies and Englishmen. I drank with them until 4 pm when the table became reserved. I said goodbye to those guys and found a spot at a reserved table with a German guy and a few of his employees. I also had 2 Americans that paired up with me in my search join us. We drank, we sang, we drank, we sang, it was effing awesome. The guys had to leave around 9 to head back to wherever in Bavaria they were from and a different group of German guys took their places. Needless to say, that by the time 10:30 hit, I was pretty good to go. I was going to head back to the apartment I was crashing at, but the Germans invited me to join them at a bar somewhere in Munich. I believe it was a Cuban bar called “Buena Vista.” The next day I couldn’t tell you if I had to take the train to get there or if we walked, or what. I just remember getting to the bar, got a beer and talked to the guys. I wanna say around 2:30 I headed back to where I was crashing.

I had spent 2 full days in Munich and to be honest, I can’t really say I got a real feel of the city. I definitely knew I needed to go back when Oktoberfest wasn’t going on so I could get a genuine impression of the city. Remember my friend I met up with in Zurich, Maria? Yeah, she accepted a research position in Munich, so it looks like I have a pretty good excuse to go back.

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