Here are some of the photos from my time in Berlin and Paris. I’m not sure when I’ll get a chance to label all of them so for now I hope you enjoy them out of context.
Playing a little catch-up here…
Funny thing about the train, toss on some headphones, play some music from home, and look around. You could be in any major US city. Remove the language and the architecture and it’s the same diversity of peoples. I’m sure this will change the further I get from the core of Europe and into the fringes where mobility is more restricted but for now I can believe I’m not that far away.
When I crossed into France several things became apparent. The weather I’d happily left in Antwerp was over France as well. Another thing I noticed was the graffiti had improved dramatically. Sorry Germany but your delinquents are still playing with finger-paints by comparison. The French appear to have the whole box of crayons.
I’m not sure if features of the landscape make it feel as if we’re going faster or we really are going faster. The German ICE was going 200kmh, but that felt pedestrian to the French Thaleys. The ICE also didn’t bank with the turns. I’ve heard the French TGV will do over 300kmh! I’m going to have to try that…
I sat across from a mother with twin boys for 4 hours. You could see the exhaustion in her eyes. She alternated from playing with them to reprimanding them. She was outnumbered but you could tell she really loved these boys whether they listened to her or not. By the end of the trip the man that was sitting across from them, who was rolling his eyes and their energy, was playing with them and even got hugs and kisses from the little boys. I’m sure the mother was also happy to have a little help.
Funny thing about Paris, in pictures all you see is the Eiffel Tower, but when you’re on the street walking around you almost never see it. I’ve seen the majority of sights at this point. The Arc de Triamphe, Notre Dame, Saint Sulpice, the obelisk, the Moulan Rouge, the Basilica Montmarte, of course the Eiffel Tower, and many others.
However, none of these famous and beautiful sights compare to the awe inspiring Louvre. The Louvre is the largest and most amazing museum I’ve ever seen. The collections are awesome, from Italian painters, to French sculptures, to Greek, Roman, Egyptian, and Persian antiquities. Stunning. The British museum in London pales by comparison.
I walked for hours and the only reference I had for where I was in the building was too look out the windows and use the courtyards and streets for reference. I’d guess, but I’d usually be wrong. I would say that in the first 4 hours I covered maybe a third of the total collection and that was without aid of an English audio guide.
This is where you study art history, where the art and history live. Where you can see the chisel lines and the brush strokes.
It’s hard to describe Paris. It’s big, busy, old, dirty, friendly, imposing, helpful, beautiful, etc… It is awash in contradiction. The stereotypes are mostly false as with all stereotypes. The rudeness I was told to expect hasn’t shown itself – except for a gruff café operator. Everyone in every part of the city has been accommodating. Several times I’ve stood at a corner trying to get my bearings and someone has asked me if I needed help finding something.
I’ve found many straight streets since my first night wandering around in the dark. The streets start to make sense when you understand the landmarks and that the street names change when a building gets in the way. It also seems the further south I go the more loosely the traffic laws are interpreted. The walk/don’t walk signals are for tourists and the lines on the street are mostly decoration.
Everything is expensive here. Restaurant food and drinks are the most expensive I’ve found in Europe so far, but the groceries are the cheapest. All that taken into consideration, my benefactors have made Paris extremely affordable and friendly. They have gone out of their way to guide me and make Paris feel welcoming. I’ve taken every form of public transport and other than the man on the bus who chastised me for not covering my mouth while yawning, then threw up a few minutes later, everything has been smooth sailing.
The train arrived in Paris – Nord about 9:15pm and I reassembled my belongings. There was nowhere to put everything in one place so I’d had to spread it out in the entrance and above my seat. The train stopped outside the station so it was a fairly long walk to the main terminal. By the end of a day of standing in lines for tickets and running around terminals the pack really starts to destroy my shoulders. In Paris I will be getting rid of nearly all my books, about half my clothes, and whatever else I can live without.
After arriving I tried to make a call to Thibault but was unable to because most of the phones were calling card-only phones and the one local coin-op phone I found was out of service. I knew the train stop and the address, I’d looked it up on Google Earth and it was only about .6km away from the subway stop. And it really was, that’s just not the route I went.
Somehow I got turned around, not hard to do when you’re in a city that was settled somewhere around 250BC, growth happened, central planning came later, and there may not be a straight street in the city. After stomping around for a little while I started asking people if they knew the street I was looking for. Unfortunately no one did. I made my way back to the metro stop and found a taxi. Even he thought it should be around there somewhere but put it into the navigation system anyway.
The taxi lets me out at the address and I pushed what I thought was the bell. Nothing happened, I push some other buttons, nothing happened. After a little bit I ask a man walking in my direction if he has a cell phone and if I could give him some money to make a call. He kindly agrees, puts in the number and hands me the phone. I get voicemail. Just in case he is screening I say “Thibault, It’s Brad, I’m outside your address if you get this” and hand the nice man his phone back. He accepted no money.
About 30 seconds later as I’m considering my options the large front door heaves open and an exasperated Thibault flies out. Many hugs were exchanged and lots of “how, where, when” questions were asked. We collected all my gear and headed upstairs where I found that there were a few people waiting for me. His girlfriend and his roommate and her boyfriend we’re all in the apartment and there was an intricately set dinner table where it looked like nothing had been eaten. It was now 11pm.
They had prepared a full French meal, with French wines and cheeses, and even French apple pie (no top crust)! I felt terrible that they had gone to all this effort and then I show up some 4 hours after anticipated. The reception was fantastic and I was incredibly happy to be there. We sat down to eat at about midnight and everything was excellent. We all started to fade about 2am and retired shortly after.
First a note on the Hostel I was staying at. I can wholeheartedly recommend the Citystay Berlin Mitte. It is very reasonably priced, has a great central location, friendly staff, and clean facilities. The prices in the 23hr bar/lounge attached are pretty good and they play hip music. By “hip music” of course I mean the music I listen to. The only drawback is that while they have a wonderful courtyard, they fail to enforce the 10pm quiet-time and you occasionally get drunken French girls grunting out classical music until 2am. (name this tune: blah, blah, blah, blah, blah blah-blah-blah blah) Still, I’ll be staying here when I come back through Berlin.
A note on prices in Berlin. I’ve been comfortably getting by on 5 euro a day for food and drinks if I choose not to have a beer. That will blow the budget. For about 5 Euro you can stop by a grocery store get some fruit and yogurt and a bottle of water for breakfast (1.5eur), stop at a food stand for some kind of “wurst” – try the Currywurst – (1-2eur) for lunch and then find a hearty Doner Kebap (2.5eur) for dinner. There is no reason anyone should go broke or hungry while you’re here. Of course, you can spend as much as you’d like on food and drinks. I’ve chosen the budget route which allows me to spend some money on the sights.
I’ve chosen to skip some of the major ones. The TV tower just a few blocks away is 8.5eur for a ride to the top. That, in my opinion, is too much for an elevator ride. I’m sure the view is great but I’ll check a postcard for that. The museums on Museuminsel (Museum Island) just down the street are well worth the money if you are interested in Greek or Egyptian antiquity. Although I have no capacity to remember the names or dates of the major figures in any civilization I do enjoy seeing the progression of art and skill through the ages. They have an English audio tour available, which is helpful since nearly all the placards are only in German. However this does mean that you are subject to the artistic interpretation of the narrator. I found her descriptions of some of the sculptures to be way over the top. Such as “you’ll find this figure with her attentive eyes and regal posture absolutely straining against her robes as if poised for action!” Maybe I punched in the wrong number, but the sculpture I saw was a figure, sitting, hands over closed robe, open eyed, and calm. It was an excellent piece, but I was under no impression it was about to hop up and order a pyramid built.
With its great art and antiques Berlin also has its past to consider. It does so tastefully and with humility. I visited the “Topography of Terror” memorial which chronicles the Nazi reign of atrocities from 1933 when Hitler sized power to the eventual prosecution or execution of their many officers. There are many lessons here for citizens of any country. Get the audio tour and listen to the whole thing.
Like I’d mentioned in the last post the wall is down but not forgotten. There are several memorials: Checkpoint Charlie (the American checkpoint in West Berlin), A section of wall near the Brandenburg Gate, another section of the wall at Potzdamer Platz, and finally all the concrete, asphalt, brickwork, etc. that the wall used to live on has been replaced with memorial markers so that as you’re walking you know where it stood for those 28 years.
There are many more exhibits, memorials, museums, and attractions that I had neither time nor money to see. Plan to spend at least a week there to appreciate it.
I’m off to Paris now and will actually (hopefully) be there at the time of this post. My friend Thibault has offered me a place to stay and is willing to show me a French time. I seriously doubt that my high school French will do me any good. I’ve got the basics, but anything more advanced than “may I use the bathroom” will get me in trouble. There’s universal sign language for that anyway (enter: “the pee-pee dance”). So it will be great to have a guide.
Update on the Paris journey: I went to the ticket office in Berlin’s main station to get my reservations for the trains to Paris. Yes, you need reservations and they cost money. During the journey from Essen to Berlin I was playing a bit of musical chairs as people with actual assigned seats showed up at the different stops. I only had to move twice but I was always waiting for someone to tap me. Like when you “upgrade” your own seats at a concert, hoping the people that actually paid for those front row seats aren’t just stuck in traffic.
Anyway, so the ticket lady gives me a reservation for the first train Berlin to Koln (pronounced like cologne) and tells me that she can’t make me a reservation on the Koln to Paris leg. “Just talk to the conductor” she says. “OK, I’ll do that” and everything is great. Nice train, first class, little monitors, and food service. When I get to Koln I find the ticket director and show him my Eurail pass and tell him what I was told. “This pass is only valid with reservation, and this train is full, go talk to the ticket center” he says. “OK, I’ll do that”
I got the last reservation in the class for my pass… I’m still going to Paris today I’ll just arrive a little later.