We recently turned in our first official paper for my travel writing class. The assignment was to write about a recent trip or experience we have had in the first two months while abroad. We needed to focus on describing the people we met and places we visited. I decided to write about a trip I took in early February to Berlin. Instead of describing everything I did, I wrote the story in snap shots of events that happened throughout the day.
Saturday 2:33 AM
‘Finally’ I think as the lock clicks open on the door to my hostel. Creeping into the dark bedroom, I tiptoe silently over a minefield of potential noisemakers. Hoping not to wake my three mystery roommates. Carpeting the floor is a scattering of clothes, littered potato chips and bottles holding an unidentified liquid. The heavy smell filling the small room indicates vodka. The mystery roommates are nowhere to be found. I assume they are out enjoying Berlin’s famous nightlife. Sliding the heavy backpack off my shoulders I glance around, seeing what exactly $10 a night gets me.
Walking past the door to the bathroom and row of full, tall lockers, I enter the main space of the small room. Lit up by the hazy moonlight coming in through the tall windows, two beds sit low to the ground with a side table between them. Opposite of them stands a small bunk bed. It’s simple wooden frame comes up to my forehead. Painted a bright cherry red, the bed frames are the only color in the room.
At last my head hits the pillow, the cheap material deflates beneath the weight. A long night of travel begins to melt out of my muscles as I rest for the first time in hours. Settling into my bed, I stare up at the surprisingly high ceiling. Sighing, I begin to enjoy the dark calmness of the simple room. Such a small, familiar pleasure is much more appreciated after hours of navigating strange new places.
Tomorrow will be full of navigating new places. And new people. ‘What am I doing here?’ The thought settles in my stomach. This whole adventure seems like a dream. The whole idea of it started roughly seven years ago. When I was in middle school Steffen came to stay with my family for three weeks through an exchange trip. After staying with us, he went back home to Southern Germany bringing my older brother with him. ‘How will we find each other?’ I don’t even know where we are meeting tomorrow. The last time I saw him I was twelve and he was sixteen, maybe seventeen. My only interaction with Steffen over the past seven years has been via social media. Our conversations limited to wishing each other a ‘Merry Christmas’ or ‘Happy Birthday’ on the appropriate days. I know even less of Jan Steffen’s younger brother, who is my age. He is more like a penpal than Steffen, our conversations zipping across the internet on and off over the years. These thoughts rush around, layering on top of one another. The stack of worries and doubts growing higher and higher. A distant but pounding bass punctuates the space rhythmically as I drift off to sleep.
Saturday 10:05 AM
“Shit”, I think as I look down at my phone. The little blue dot that google maps uses to indicate my location is not where I want it to be. Looking up I try to decipher the signs around me. It’s fruitless. The signs are written in German. A language I haven’t tried to understand since 6th grade. I quickly text Jan, I’m gonna be a little late. Wrong train. Went North not South. A laughing/crying emoji is all the response I get. Great.
Looking at the dirty transportation map covered in graffiti, I try to find my way south. Suddenly I realize how unprepared I was for this trip. My entire plan being that I wanted to meet up with Stefan and his brother Jan. Nothing more, nothing less. My entire knowledge of Berlin is this; its located in Germany, there was something about a wall dividing the city, and a few famous buildings on an architectural history test. That’s it.
Saturday 10:14 AM
Black coat and Nike bag. I scan the crowd. Looking for someone I’ve never met but have know for seven years. The square is full of people. Large tour groups, loud teens, and smiling couples. All taking in the towering movement before them. Finding a single person in the crowd seems hopeless. How on earth are we supposed to find each other? At that moment I was looking for Jan. My only interaction with him has been via Facebook. Of which neither of us are active users.
Then, as the crowd ebbs and flows like a school of fish, I spot a Nike bag. Nervously I walk over, thinking of the time when I was five and walked up to a stranger I thought was my dad. “Jan?”, I tentatively ask the guy before me. His back is to turned to me, covered by the bold logo of the athletic bag. As he turns a wave of relief washes over me. I immediately recognize the long rectangular face with black rectangular glasses from his profile picture.
“Emily?”, Jan asks. Turning around he scans me, registering my yellow hat and plaid scarf. Markers that help me stand out in the crowd. A good foot taller than me, he leans over for an awkward but welcoming hug hello. While exchanging pleasantries, I hear Jan’s voice for the first time. In timidly, with his distinctly German accent Jan confesses, “my English is not so good. Steffen is much better”.
Saturday 1:32 PM
“What do you want to see?” Steffen asks in his perfectly accented English. Their tall frames stand over my short one, flanking me on either side. I try to think over the list of places Steffen just listed off but it seems that my decision making abilities seem to blow away with the swirling winter breeze kissing our bare faces.
“Umm… I don’t know. What haven’t you seen? How about you choose?” Steffen shoots back, “you are the guest, you choose”. Neither of us wants to make a decision. Dancing an awkward tango of politeness. After dancing around the subject we finally decide to walk to a monument. Steffen points to the top of the thin tower. Just below the large golden angle is our destination.
Saturday 1:58 PM
Stepping quickly out of the wind we arrive at the Siegessäule, also known as Victory Column. The monument sits at the center of a long, finely tailored avenue. Streets jut out in four directions. A well developed forest on either side of the streets hides the site but not noise of the city that lies beyond.
A small fee grants us entrance to the even smaller museum at the base of the tower. White walls are covered with cleanly displayed information. We walk through a series of small rooms before arriving at a staircase. As Steffen bounds up the first few steps ahead of me, reality starts to set in. We will have to climb the tight spiral staircase to the top. With Jan coming up behind me, I have no time to think. My legs begin the long climb.
Around and around we go. Climbing higher and higher up the narrow spiral staircase. Three floors turns into five floors which turns into ten floors. Looking up over the banister the spiral above is endless. Steffen continually climbs ahead, seeming to speed up each time he smiles back over his shoulder. His eyes sparkling, teasing us for our heavy breathing. My legs begin to burn then shake. The only rest coming from the terrifying moments we meet someone coming down. With each passing visitor the opposite way you are forced to hug the banister for dear life. Praying the ancient, tarnished metal does its job. Jan puffing from behind is the only thing keeping my legs moving.
251 stairs later, we reach the top. Squinting against the natural light streaming into the tower we step out. My legs begin to shake, not from exercise but from fear. Although the blue-green railing is almost up to my chin my body doesn’t trust it. Looking out over it, Berlin lays before me. A breathtaking view, even on the cloudy day, due to the sheer height of our lookout. The city of Berlin is laid out before me. I feel like a bird. The forest directly below is interrupted by old buildings that eventually make way for distant high rises. “Was it worth it?” Jan teases. We all stand looking out, gasping to catch our breath. “Berlin doesn’t have much of a skyline”’ Steffen states matter a factly, “nothing like New York or Chicago”. Out loud I mumble in agreement, but it my mind I continue to ponder before deciding. My eyes continue to scan the view, amazed by the amount of forest between us and the city on all sides. Yes, it was worth it.
Saturday 8:48 PM
“Here it is,” Jan holds open the ancient wooden door to our destination. The old sign hanging above the door reads “German Bar”. Entering into the dark establishment the owner and bartender greats us. The room is filled with a cluttered collection of peculier items. Obviously collected over the years by the old man. Three mismatched glass chandeliers hang over the bar, giving the room a soft glow of light. With a gentle smile he points us to a seat in the corner. We are his only customers.
“You need to have a Berliner Kindl Weisse! You can’t leave before you have one,” Steffon smiles from across the table, explaining to me that Berliner Kindl Weisse is a famous beer brand. “What flavor do you want? They have raspberry or waldmeister. Waldmeister is… hmm I don’t know what it translates to but it is a synthetic flavor. Both are good”. Google translate can’t come up with a translation for waldmeister so I am stuck with a choice between a familiar flavor or the mysterious cultural flavor. Feeling adventurous I answer, “I’ll try to the waldmeister”. Steffon orders and soon enough our drinks arrive. Placed in front of me in a large, wide wineglass is a bright, Irish green liquid. The foam is settling at the top. Two straws sit waiting. Jan and Steffen laugh at my reaction as I look at my drink. Nervously, I pick up a straw and take the first sip. My mouth fills with the distinct waldmeister flavor. “How is it?” Jan asks. Taking another sip I consider the foreign taste of the green beer. “Certainly synthetic. It covers the taste of the beer. I like it” I answer with a smile. “Well then cheers!” Steffon holds up his glass. Jan and I follow, clinking glass in celebration for our small reunion.
As we sip our beers we start to catch up. “In April we will be traveling to Brazil for a wedding”, Jan says with a teasing smile, looking at Steffen. I turn to look at him for an answer. Steffen explains that he is engaged to a woman from Brazil. They laugh at the clear surprise on my face. I wasn’t even aware he was in a relationship! After asking more about his Fiance, Steffen asks about my family. While giving the highlights of the past seven years, I find out that Steffen and my older brother Andrew have been vaguely planning a reunion trip. Of which I quickly demand I be included. Jan explains what his job is, something I have seen him tagged in online from time to time but never really understood. All too soon our beers are gone.
Checking the time, Steffen and Jan start talking in swift German. It is then clear that our little reunion trip must come to an end. They must catch their train home, but not before making sure I’m safely on a train back to my hostel. Their persistence in making sure I make it back safe almost makes me feel like a little sister. Quickly we pay our tab and are back out on the dark streets of Berlin.
Speed walking to the train station we recap the day. All declaring how happy we are to have seen each other. Bounding up to the train platform with the same speed he climbed the tower, Steffen quickly reads a the map before pointing at the platform to my left. My train will be coming in ½ a minute the sign says. Swift goodbyes are said, followed by warm hugs. All to soon I find myself seated on the train, waving goodbye to my friends.
Sunday 12:54 PM
Sitting down on the flimsy wooden chair with its matching table I take a sip of my Berliner Kindl Weisse, this time raspberry flavored. The fruity flavor covers the bitterness of the beer, making this the first I can honestly say I’ve enjoyed. Steffen and Jan had headed back to Southern Germany. Leaving me to fend for myself in the strange but slightly more familiar city, due to the sixteen miles we had walked yesterday.
I laugh at myself; it’s noon and here I am sitting in the cold enjoying my raspberry beer. The winter wind bites at my bare hands and the cold of the seat seeps into my pants. A scene that would be more fitting if it were a warm summer afternoon, not a cloudy day in February. Looking down the long expanse in front of me I admire my view. Six story buildings line the avenue before me. The avenue is made up of two one-way streets that hug the middle island that pop up cafe I’m seated at rests on. The bare, perfectly trimmed trees lining the road create a perfect frame for the monument at the end of the road, the Brandenburg Gate. One of Germany’s best known monuments. A monument I still know nothing about. Except for its name.
Sitting back, I study the neoclassical features of the enormous gate. Six, dirty beige Doric columns rise up from the worn grey cobblestones. The central passageway perfectly frames the Victory Column far off in the distance. Above the columns is a copper statue. A green, patinated angel steers a chariot pulled by four horses. Her arm is raised forward. Clearly symbolizing something.
Taking another sip of my beer I look around. Swarms of tourists stand looking up at this gate. An endless numbers of photos are being taken. Once again my stomach drops as I realize how little I know about the city I am in. Is it bad I am so naive about the place I am visiting? An insult to both the city and myself for not knowing what I am looking at? A disservice to the centuries of history I am viewing? But then I realize something; I didn’t come here for the city, not even really the country. I came here to see two people and spend time with them. And that’s okay, because sometimes when you travel you aren’t there to see the place but the people. With the place and all it’s monuments being a mere bonus.
Bzz, bzz, bzz. As if to punctuate the end of my thoughts, the alarm on my phone rings. Indicating it’s time to head to the airport, time to pack up and go home. For the first time all weekend, I make an effortless decision. Knowing exactly what I want to do. I sit back and enjoy that last few sips of my beer. Something I didn’t like before coming here.