Wednesday, 12 February 2014

Revisiting old lands and discovering something new

I was kind of at a loss regarding what I should call this post. After a whirlwind touristic and culinary trip to Berlin, I was visiting people and less famous cities. So I just arrived in Milan on Saturday after two weeks in Germany. I have visited Germany on several occasions; once when I was 11, again when I was 14 (on both trips I was with my parents), and then when I was 15 with my school. The first time I had my cheeks pinched in an affectionate manner whenever around  maternal-looking ladies (at the time it seemed as if there were many), the second time a childhood friend and I went crazy for the chocolatey creations on offer and ran and climbed everywhere we weren't supposed to go, the third time I got to meet the youth of the country, as I took part in a sort of cultural exchange in Hamburg. That was an Italianesque sentence, long and it might have left you feeling breathless. I apologise. There. Short and snappy. Besides the picturesque mountains and cute and colourful little towns, during the first few trips I also got to see a few German stereotypes in action, namely:

1. A strict adherence to rules (with a tendency to actively enforce them too). Germans are known to be law-abiding, but such generalisations never seem real until you seem them in action. Germans often wait at zebra crossings if the pedestrian crossing lights are red, even if there are no cars coming. They often come and remind you of the law if you are parking in the wrong place, cycling on the pavement or running in a swimming pool.

2. Beer drinking and sausage consumption. I saw plenty of beer gardens and people enjoying a social pint, this is something you can see all around the country. Sausages are also very common, most seen as street food. A hotel breakfast is also very likely to contain a lot of cheese and meat. These two unsurprisingly add to the stereotype that Germans have beer bellies.

There was one non-conformist guy during my school trip to Hamburg who made me rethink seemingly true stereotypes. It was already quite a revelation that the students were allowed to dress as they pleased. Whilst we had to wear uniforms back in England, this guy wore his baggy jeans, a nose piercing and spiky bracelets. I had once been sent home for dying my hair red for charity, I wonder how my school would have reacted to the following story... One day we went on a historical trip to a little town in Eastern Germany, visited a palace, then had 30 minutes to explore the town. The aforementioned guy came back to the school bus with a blue Mohawk. His teachers didn't blink an eyelid, whereas mine looked a little stunned. Cool!

So I had seen one person break away from this stereotype, but I could hardly just deem this representative of German society.

Over the years I started to hear a lot about how Germany was becoming the best place to be vegan/vegetarian. I also met artists and photographers who swore that Berlin was the coolest, most bohemian city in Europe. Photos appeared of the graffiti found around the city, and I became increasingly aware of the underground movements which had roots in Germany. Less of a novelty-German society is a lot more tolerant of the naked body. Whilst prostitution is legal for pragmatic reasons, people enjoy the freedom they find in the many parks in German cities during the summer, for example the Tiergarten. Saunas are also places to get back to nature.

Facing -12.6 degrees celcius

As always my introduction has become rather long and dissuading. Please keep reading.

I had 3 short-but-sweet days in Berlin. Strangely enough I had previously managed to visit almost all cities in Germany, minus Berlin. It was a little out of the way. Thus, I used the first day to see all the main tourist sites: the holocaust memorial, the Berlin wall, the East side gallery, the deceivingly recent cathedral, the Brandenburg gate and Alexanderplatz. My hostel was well located-Generator mitte is really close to museums like the Pergamon and German history museum. I met two very nice guys from Sao Paolo in my dorm room, with whom I visited many of the main sites. Someone also gave me a breakfast token so I got free access to the breakfast buffet (twice as they didn't take my token the first time). So... I also spent a day in the museums. During the weekend I indulged in a lots of vegan food, from the elusive vegan kebab and felafel to the surprisingly animal-free white chocolate filled crepe at Olàlà. Veganz is a vegan supermarket chain which is fortunately coming to London soon. Friedhrichshain and Kreuzberg kept pulling me back with the promise of dim but cosy candlelit windows, intriguing graffiti and vegan eateries. I played mini golf in an ex-World War II bunker, now illuminated by neon lights and 3D images, brought to life by the 3D glasses. I met up with an old friend, a course mate from Edinburgh, and found some new friends. The Tiergarten was hidden by a snowy blanket and the abandoned airport was a no-go zone with the weather as it was, so instead I promised myself I would make a return trip in Summer.

East Side Gallery


The holocaust memorial


What was left of the Tiergarten...

"Berlin is poor but sexy"

Standing on Hitler's bunker, now an uninspiring car park with no sign, so this site could not become a shrine.

A few vegan culinary experiences...

Vegan doner at Vöner kebab

Vegan white chocolate crepe and quiche at Ohlala

Raw berry and chocolate cheesecake at Goodies

Hoarding vegan products at Veganz

Surprisingly amazing tofu teriyaki salad in some art gallery cafe on oranienburger straße, so sorry I cannot remember the name!

Vegan croissant from Goodies and almond olive cheese from Veganz, apfel schorle, rye bread, organge, coffee, tea etc from hostel breakfast.

 Berlin still managed to live up to its reputation as a cool city. So many different old buildings have been occupied, the most poignant examples being ex prisons, communist buildings and architecture from the fascist era which have been redefined as temples of tolerance and free-thinking.

The next stop was Osnabrück, a city near Münster and in the region formerly known as Westphalia. This sparked my imagination, as I thought about Candide leaving the baron's kingdom and encountering disaster upon disaster. I caught a bus from the ZOB in Berlin, a place annoyingly awkward to get to, especially when weighed down by a semester's worth of bags and dragging them through snow, across road salt and up and down the stairs to platforms. The bus journey lasted five and a half hours, all of which were spent listening to music whilst losing myself in the monotonous autobahn. 

The next part of my trip was conducted for more personal reasons, though Osnabrück turned out to be a pretty little city. It had the stereotypically clean streets that one expects when visiting Germany, the toy-town appearance. There was a nice park and botanic garden, which also gave a little respite from the town life. Despite being a small city, there are many organic shops. Vegetarianism is definitely on the rise, and I noticed that the majority of people living in the student house in which I was staying were drinking soya milk. It doesn't stop with a concern about ethical living; Germans of the 2000s seem to be very concerned about health. Surprisingly German indoor swimming pools seem to be amongst the best equipped in the world. When I visited Iceland I was told about how much Icelanders loved their swimming pools, but in Germany this is taken to a whole new level. The local swimming pool in Osnabrück was massive, boasting a children's pool, a warm pool, several jacuzzis, a "whirlpool", a natural thermal pool outside with salty water, a large pool for swimming laps and diving, a sauna and solarium, and three water slides. One of these water slides was a real thrill seeker's event.




A 5 hour car journey later, and I was in Karlsruhe, a town known for its circular shape, political importance, in that it hosts two of the highest federal courts in Germany, and its early 18th century palace. It is conveniently located next to the Rhine. It is also close to Baden Baden, a place I visited when I was 11 and to which I was eager to return. Here I got a taste more of a taste of German day-to-day life: eating seeded breads with various jams and spreads for breakfast, cycling (tandem style!), going to the cinema, eating in a vegetarian canteen restaurant, browsing aimlessly and walking around. The ZKM gallery (the centre for art and media technology) was pretty cool. It was a large ex-warehouse, now housing various exhibitions. I got to see the media exhibit, which had many interactive installments (including video games and ipad apps) and a surprisingly impressive collection of holograms, some of which looked really life-like and three-dimensional. The other exhibition was on global activism, a collection of banners, films, posters and photos from various global movements. I spent a day in Baden Baden just walking around aimlessly, sitting in the park and trying to put together old images. I also found the maracuja sweets I had been looking for since I had first tried them in Osnabrück. I realized during my stay (and for a while before actually) that the German language does not deserve its reputation as a harsh sounding language. English also has many sounds which can sound harsh to people from more voiced languages such as the romance language family, like the spitting /t/. German can also sound quite nice.

 Karlsruhe Palace

The Rhine

Baden Baden, as seen from the park

In Karlsruhe I also got to try another very German experience-the naked sauna. After an hour in the aqua park area of the swimming complex (and another terrifying acqua rocket), we went to the saunas. As mentioned previously, Germans have a reputation for getting naked when the opportunity arises. Here is an opportunity. Moving from the swimming pool to the sauna came the scary moment when you are meant to exchange your swimming costume for a towel. There were many different saunas, varying in temperature, humidity and smell. The most humid was probably the lemongrass scented roman bath, whilst the hottest was most likely the 90 degree sauna outside. The Finnish saunas were very pleasant, whilst I hardly sweat at all in the 50 degree coffee scented sauna. The most surprisingly pleasant part came when I threw myself in ice cold water after the 80 degree heat for a couple of seconds. The pleasant tingly sensation that rang through my body made me forget I was naked. Between saunas we lay on the sunbeds in the tranquil winter garden, or threw ourselves in the heated pools outside. I noticed that whilst most women were wrapped in their towels, the men were walking around quite proudly. By the end though I also felt a similar liberation, and in my head I started off an age old chain of thought: why are we so ashamed of our nakedness? How would sexual attraction and desire respond if we wore no clothes? There is however something very none-conformist about this acceptance of the human body as it is, without decoration. After the sauna I felt really relaxed, clean and probably had the best nights sleep I had had in a very long time.

 It isn't a cultural observation nor a suggestion for tourists, but I don't think this blog post would be complete without mentioning something horrible which I witnessed on the way to the cinema in Karlsruhe. Cycling along the road we came across a car stopped in the middle of the road. In front of it we saw bags spilled across the road, yogurt pots rolling out. What came next was quite a shock: a man who had fallen off his bike, his head in a pool of his own blood. There were three onlookers. Needless to say we read the next morning that this man died in hospital. Though I didn't know this man nor the circumstances for his death, I felt a great sadness thinking about how one moment he was alive and the next he wasn't, his family's loss and the fragility of the human body. A reminder to stay safe, and well, stop postponing life. If you keep saying "one day", that one day may never come...

After an evening spent in a Berlin style hipster vegetarian restaurant in Mannheim, I got up early the next morning to fly from Frankfurt Hahn to Milano Bergamo. I was sad to leave, but delaying it once I had already gone through the motions of mentally saying goodbye would have left me in a kind of limbo state. 
 I was a little apprehensive about returning to Milan and Italy, hearing Italian again and seeing familiar sites from a new perspective, but so far I have been enjoying myself with my friend Dorothy. To quote a rather bad movie which I didn't enjoy, We have walked a lot, eaten a lot of really good vegan food and the so-called best Indian restaurant in Milan, been to the cinema and explored her local area. I have already sorted out most of the administrative tasks that the Erasmus procedure asks of me, bought a metro card, made a provisional selection of courses, spent way too much money on clothes and started my get-fit regime. I have been running, plan to go swimming, climbing and continue ashtanga yoga. I am moving into my university residence on Sunday, so that will be another change. I feel happy here and actually really excited about life.

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