30 October 2010


In Germany, I smiled and pointed and smiled and shrugged and smiled and nodded until I picked up some of the language. In Poland, however, "smiling at strangers is seen as a sign of stupidity," according to Lonely Planet. So, after our initial shock that Wroclaw was pronounced "frot-suave" wore off, Merlin and I bought ourselves a translation book and some flashcards. So far we've mastered Please, Thank You, Hello, Goodbye, Sorry, One, Two, Yes, No, Coffee, Beer and Can I Have the Bill, Please.

29 October 2010

Wroclaw Portraits

These children stood and let me take their picture for a good half-a-minute. As we were walking away, I heard them getting yelled at by their schoolmistress. The rest of the portraits were taken unbeknownst to their subjects.
Merlin took this last picture, which I think is just so gorgeous. I've cropped it and zoomed in on the woman so that you can see just how stunning she was, but the original photo actually shows the entire university building door with her figure tucked away in the right corner.

28 October 2010

Wroclaw Trains

There are streetcars everywhere, in lots of cities. I never gave them much thought before today. Something about the streetcar as accent to the fading houses and serious people of Wroclaw made me feel that they were something more. They are symbols of both modernity and the past. They represent progress and successful planning, but also seem quaint. Somehow, in that way, they are like phone booths - though more functional, nowadays. I haven't given it more thought than that, but here are some pictures of streetcars in Poland's fourth largest city. (It's also the second largest Polish city you've never heard of, right?)
Wroclaw is a city that could use a fresh coat of paint. A great deal of the buildings are beautiful - just a little scuffed up. As we wandered out into the area around the center (which is quite spiffy), we were amazed at how many very pretty facades there were. This is going to be a city famous for its looks - once it freshens itself up.
Wroclaw is, surprisingly, the fourth largest city in Poland and it has its share of tourists. Of course, it's not touristy so much as tourist accessible - this is Poland, after all, not Italy. I feel as though they are hoping for tourists, instead of actually hosting them. We haven't heard many people speaking English, but most people we've talked to know how to speak English.
It's nice that people speak English, by the way, because Polish is a mostly impenetrable language. Take the name of the city: Wroclaw. It's pronounced "vrot-swav," with a tricky rolled "R" to make it a little more fun.

The Berlin Wall

"The biggest tourist attraction in Berlin is the one that no longer exists."
That phrase is mostly true, but not completely. Of course, the Berlin Wall does not exist in remotely the same way as it once did, but I was able to visit the longest remaining piece of the outer wall.
I had a map with an icon that said "Wall Monument" on it. From what I had read, it seemed like a tasteful tribute, as opposed to the tourist-ccentric Checkpoint Charlie, complete with actors dressed as border guards.
The memorial site displayed fragments of the wall in a way that was less literal than it was evocative. I loved this section, where they allowed vegetation to just grow up freely between, on and over the concrete slabs. It was like the wildlife was pulling the relics down into the earth, into history.
There was something about the wall fragments, man-made symbols of permanence and order, overcome by the natural chaos of ivy and weeds that was really striking.
Of course, the Berlin Wall was not simply a concrete wall and remnants of the "death strip" that lay just on the other side of it were there to view. There was a signal line that stretched directly across, surrounded by perfectly smooth soil. If someone managed to scale the wall and the barbed wire, this would trigger a silent signal to the guards in the watchtowers, who could then clearly see the footprints of the escapee in the soil. There was a bed of nails, attack dogs and a triggered machine gun before you could reach the other side of the "death strip."

About 200 people didn't make it and those who perished were memorialized here.
While I was there, I saw people riding their bikes home from work, pushing strollers through, strolling across on their cell phones. It made me think, like at Dachau, how strange it must be to live right there amongst these tourist sites that attract people looking to see "Germany" as defined by so much horror - even as their lives move on and their cultural identity redefines itself.

27 October 2010

Hot Dogs: Berlin's Best Wurst?

The fact that German food has a whole lot of sausage variations is something that is pretty much common knowledge. On menus, at deli counters, at imbiss (snack) stands, there were always a variety to choose from and one in each person's hand. Currywurst and bratwurst were the ones we saw most often around Bavaria, Thuringia and Saxony. However, as soon as we arrived in Berlin we noticed that they had another, distinct favorite. Hot Dogs.
They didn't even call them frankfurters! There were hot dogs here, hot dogs there, hot dogs, hot dogs everywhere.
There was Hot Dog World, Hot Dog & Burger World, New Hot Dog World... and Hot Dog Soup?
They probably just should have stuck with the "World" trend, because this name didn't seem all that appetizing.
A lot of them were very American-ccentric. Mr. Miller's had a guy decked out in 1950s drive-through-waiter garb. He seemed embarrassed enough and I didn't want to worsen things by taking a photo of him.
The best part? They ALL offered veggie dogs! After traveling for two weeks around Germany, I felt pretty left out of the whole hand-held meat world. I had also eaten a great deal of sauerkraut on just about everything except a hot dog. So, on my final day in Deutschland, I went right into Hot Dog World and got one with all the fixings: sauerkraut, mustard, ketchup and these crumbled up fried onions. Best wurst ever.

Urban Graveyard

During a stroll through Berlin, we found ourselves trapped in this amazing cemetery. We walked in thinking it was a park - and it took us a while to find a door back out to the street. It's called the St.-Marien and St.-Nikolai-Friedhof, because it is the church graveyard for the congregations of St. Mary and St. Nicholas, obviously.
The interesting thing about it was the vegetation and the general state of neglect. Trees and brush were growing all through it, a number of gravestones had fallen over or were broken and the paths were almost impossible to follow in some places. The walls around the place were crumbling and a number of the mausoleums looked like they were about to cave in.
This is a stack of gravestones, so apparently somebody has cleaned up a little. The reason apparently, that it's in such a bad state: the graves were mostly destroyed during the war. I'm not sure why I didn't think of that.
According to German wikipedia, the headquarters of the Nazi Youth was located next door, and during the bombardments the defending Nazi troops barricaded themselves behind the gravestones. I'm a little confused about how they did that, but it's on de.wikipedia.org, so it must be true. At least in Germany.
It was a very pretty walk, actually, with almost nobody else around. The graves that were standing were quite pretty, and all the vegetation actually enhanced the place. It was peaceful, at least.
Walking back to the hostel, we passed another graveyard, of sorts.

Gose isn't Gross

"Die Gose" is a special kind of beer that is peculiar to Leipzig and the area around it. It's a top fermented beer (which means it's brewed a little warmer, and is exposed to the air as it's fermenting), which gives it a slightly sour taste, and is a little unusual. More unusual, though, is the addition of coriander and salt. It's not bad, but it's not a beer to drink a lot of.
This is what I paired with it. This dish may look appetizing, but it wasn't. It was good enough - but it was exactly like almost every other plate of food that I had consumed up to that point in the trip. I kept trying to order something different, and every time my food ended up being some kind of red meat in gravy with some heavy, overcooked vegetables on the side. At least this dish of roast beef (I thought I was ordering unidentified wild bird!) had pumpkin gratin instead of potato gratin. I am very sick of potatoes.


A few days ago, we were in Leipzig. It's a beautiful city in East Germany, a place that has changed a great deal in the past twenty years, a place that's still changing. It has a lot of beautiful architecture, a lot of ugly buildings and a huge number of building projects. The fragment of wall in the picture above sat in a large construction zone - we weren't sure why they had left it up, but it seemed to be there to stay.
Our route through Germany followed a progression from rural to urban, and Leipzig marked the spot on the continuum just before "metropolis." It was a city, for sure, and it had a lot of great city things to do - but it still felt cozy and small. There were only a couple of areas where people gathered at night, and it was easy to find where they were.
A good part of the city fit the "post-communism punk" aesthetic that is actually somewhat of an unfair stereotype. Despite the graffiti and peeling paint, Leipzig is a prosperous city. People dress well, drive new cars and shop in expensive, boutique food markets.
There are a lot of these currywurst places. Essentially, it's a hotdog in a curry-ketchup sauce. I'm sure Germans would argue that it's more nuanced than that, but I don't know if I could ever understand what the fuss is about.
We stumbled upon this flea market in the south of the city, in a courtyard off Karl Lieberstrasse. There were a large number of vendors selling used children's clothing and toys, which was interesting. It was frustrating for Rebecca, though, because nothing fit her.
Leipzig has a huge zoo, which is famous in Germany and which was over-run with little kids, as zoos typically are. We spent a long time there, even though it was depressing. They had all the usual zoo animals - lions, tigers, bears plus giraffes, monkeys, gorillas, etc. We took a lot of pictures but - predictably - they are all very sad. Nobody wants to see pictures of animals in their pens. The aquarium section was less inhumane, of course, because fish don't have feelings. These carp-type fish were in a special "petting tank," so that kids could grab at them and push them around in the water. It was fascinating to watch.
One of the coolest things about East Germany is the abundance of cool, old cars I'd never seen before. This one is a Wartburg 312 (not a name that would go over well with Americans), and it has a retractable fabric panel over the rear section of the body. Someone took very good care of it, obviously, because it was in great condition. Of course, we joked, it might have been made in 1989.

24 October 2010

Hostel Situation

Our hostel in Leipzig was situated in an enormous old building that was originally a post office. It felt strange to walk into such an old building and have the sliding doors open up to the spacious modern lobby with its neon bar.
From our window, we could see the Hauptbahnhof, the largest station in Europe (going by floor area). Lit up at night, we could even make out trains arriving and departing. Along with the traffic that swirled around it, it was beautiful.
(We preferred our old post office to the new one erected just a few blocks away - though the PO boxes there sure made for a good photo.)

23 October 2010

Cigarette Machines

There is no national smoking ban in bars and restaurants in Germany, a good third of the population smokes, the one public ban that was passed - in 2006 - was overturned after a few days and massive public outcry... yet it still doesn't seem as though German people smoke that much. We go to bars where nobody is smoking, or they are doing it outdoors. Restaurants never seem to allow it. It's actually been quite nice, compared with previous countries - our throats stopped hurting. The only cigarette related phenomenon we've seen has been the prevalence of tobacco vending machines out on the streets. They're everywhere.
There are relatively few "tabak" stores, compared with other countries, which might have something to do with it. Or, it could be that it's just not illegal to sell cigarettes like soda. They do require an age-verification card, which can be an I.D. or a "chipknik" equipped debit card (their cards have little computer chips on them).
This one was set into a very nicely maintained hedgerow outside a nice little house. I was wondering if the person who owned the property got some percentage of the sales or just an annual commission. Or, if he or she just liked having a convenient place to go buy smokes.
Here in Leipzig, the machines tend to be all covered up with stickers and flyers, which makes them look pretty cool, we think.
The person who lives here must have to keep their window closed.

Thuringian Heights

We set off one sunny day in Thuringia to explore Nationalpark Hainach from atop the Beaumkronenpadf (Tree Top Walk).
It looked like a roller coaster from below and the sound of shrieking children rang out in the distance above our heads, further giving the place an 'amusement park' feel. The place was swarming with kids actually, odd for a Wednesday afternoon.
The beaumkronenpfad definitely took the Family Fun approach to tourism, placing puzzles and obstacle courses throughout the walkway.
The view from the top was amazing. They said that the path was 44 feet above the tree tops, but at some points it seemed even higher. Had it not been a brisk, cold day, we would have seen bats, woodpeckers and other wildlife in "the jungle in the middle of Germany" (or so it said in the awkwardly translated tourist guide).
The walkway didn't take as long as we had thought it would and the vibrant foliage had invigorated us. So, we decided to head on over to another Thuringian sight in the sky: Kyffhäuser Denkmal (a.k.a. Barbarossa Monument).The monument was built atop the ruins of an old medieval castle, at the summit of the Kyffhäuser Mountain (1,574 feet high). It's the third largest monument in Germany - and it was also swarming with kids! There must have been some sort of school holiday or something.
Inside the monument was a spiral staircase that you could take all the way to the tippy top. Kaiser Wilhem I, who oversaw the building of the Denkmal looked like a pretty rotund guy and we both doubted that he ever made it up to see the view. The whole day we were bemoaning the fact that we were the only people between the ages of 10 and 60 everywhere we went, but it sure did pay off scaling these steps.
What a payoff the view was. This is looking out over the medieval castle ruins, now filled with sausage carts, WCs, a cafe and a playground.
And this was the view out the other way. I liked to think that Merlin and my heads made up a teeny tiny portion of the top of the monument's shadow, draped over the beautiful Thuringian landscape.