Ich Bin Ein Berliner
I never thought I would go to Germany. Years and years of Holocaust movies and stories garnished by countless Holocaust nightmares always came to mind at every opportunity possible- whether learning the word “allemand” in French class or discussing my father’s business trip to Frankfurt Reminders of “the Shoah” are even more ubiquitous here in Europe. I guess I should have expected this, as most of the cities I’ve visited this semester were directly involved. I don’t know if I’ve passed a single day here since my arrival without hearing a reference to World War II. I have consciously tried to avoid Holocaust-central works, because I don’t want to have to think about the potential familial culpability of every older French person I sit next to on the metro. But last week, of course right before my trip to Berlin, my host dad lent me his copy of Art Spiegelman’s Holocaust comic series “MAUS,” and I couldn’t put it down. Of course, I did feel awkward at times sitting on the metro holding a book with a giant swastika on the front. I decided it would be wise to not bring the book with me to Berlin, both for how it would look to the people around me and for how it might make me look at them.
It didn’t really hit me that we were in Germany until I woke up to the stewardess welcoming us to “Deutscheland” in that harsh language I’ve always dreaded. I put my guard up immediately- in “MAUS,” the Germans are represented by evil-looking felines. I was practically ready to see the whiskers on their face.
Well-preserved pre-war street.
The first obstacle every trip I take is getting from the airport to the real city to the hotel. Ali* and I gaped open-mouthed at the map, trying to figure out where to catch such-and-such bus to such-and-such metro line at such-and-such metro stop. Immediately, seeing our confusion, a woman working at the airport approached us. With a smile and a heavy German accent, she asked us where we were trying to go and if she could help us. I was shocked at how friendly and eager to help she was- yes, it was her job, but I’ve gotten so used to the treatment of Parisians that this seemed particularly out of the ordinary. And yet this behavior continued throughout our weekend in Berlin: every time we stood on a street corner, trying to make sense of one of the the 10 maps we’d brought with us, a friendly German seemed to pop out of nowhere to send us on our way. (Of course, one time I sneezed on a bus and an old German woman shoo’d me- I had to actively suppress the visions that began swarming my head of her parents as evil cats…)
Brandenburg Gate, emblem of Berlin.
Berlin was not beautiful. The architecture doesn’t match and is often garish and dark. The city is sprawling and it takes a long time to get from one side to the other, not to mention the fact that there is a major lack of directive signs, which proved highly frustrating when we were trying to get places on time. But Berlin is the first city I’ve left while daydreaming about what I would do there during my next visit. It truly is the next up-and-coming city; the neighborhood we stayed in, Mitte (means middle in German), was bustling with new restaurants, funky bars, innovative art galleries, and countless high-fashion clothing boutiques. Thanks to Kalen for the recommendation and showing us around! The area reminded me of the village, minus the charming brownstones à la Carrie Bradshaw (I figured it was about time I used an SATC reference- approval, Becca?) Most of Mitte was under the communist leadership of East Berlin up until 1990 and yet today it is the most hip neighborhood of the city. I have great hope for what Berlin will continue to become within the next ten years.
Mr. Gorbachev, thank you for not tearing down the whole wall.
Ali and I compromised on museum choice, between historical and artistic. We ended up seeing a nice mix: the Modern Art Museum, German History Museum, Gay Museum, Jewish Museum, and some wacky but pretty awesome art show in our neighborhood. At the German History Museum, we decided to brave the controversial Hitler exposition. I was interested in the relics from Hitler’s beginnings, but when I got to the section about the actual Holocaust, the graphic images proved too much for me and I had to leave. The guard almost yelled at me for leaving too brusquely or something, but I think she stopped herself when she saw how green my face was turning. I was glad to get some typical German food after that, although I can’t say it helped too much with the nausea factor. Don’t come to Germany for the food.
At least it was better than Czech food.
Our last day in Berlin, we took the 4-hour free tour. I HIGHLY recommend taking free tours if you travel to any of these cities- this was my second one and I am absolutely convinced it’s the best way to start seeing the city. Our tour guide began with the claim that Berlin has been the most important city in the world, historically speaking, since the 1930s. After visiting an enormous amount of famous sites (including the Brandenburg Gate, The Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe, remnants of the Berlin Wall, the re-created Checkpoint Charlie, the site of Hitler’s bunker where he committed suicide, the site of the Nazi book burning in 1939, and an old Nazi building turned socialist building being used today by the new Berlin government), it was easy to believe the Berlin-centric statement made by our tour guide. The only other time I’ve felt a similar sense of historical significance was during our time spent with Russian Professor Sirge in Saint Petersburg. Every step I took, I found myself thinking not only about the influential people who had walked there before me, but also the influence of world history experienced by the ordinary people who had walked there too. The magnitude of Berlin’s history is nearly tangible, and it is precisely what renders this city an indispensable visit for anyone with any interest in world affairs. I have no doubt that someday I will return to Berlin.
Peter Eisenman’s genius: The Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe.
Now I’m back in Paris for the longest stretch since mid October. In other words, I don’t leave again till November 26. Which doesn’t seem like much time until I consider the fact that Tucci (!) is flying in this Saturday and we have a whole week together in what is by far my favorite European city. Home sweet Paris.
*Name has been changed as per requested.
Rachel Makes em Rire
Rachel Brody is one of those people who has made my semester here in Paris so incredible. (Thanks to Mer Gabriel for the introduction) Of course, I was slightly mad at her for withholding her blog from me for so long, but now that I have access and have spent a good portion of my procrastination time (no I have not figured out how to say this in French) laughing my tucchus off at her blog, I figured I’d share her rendition of my favorite night thus far in Paris.
Friday was rather interesting. See, Hannah, the friend I had met for coffee, and I had decided that Friday would be the perfect day to visit Giverny, the site of Monet’s garden and home about 45 minutes outside of Paris. How wrong we were. After waiting an hour on line at the SNCF ticket counter, we were told the next train to Giverny would not be for another 3 hours and by that time, the museum would be closed. THE GRÈVE STRIKES AGAIN!! We should have realized the ominous quality of the train workers marching in the station. So we bought our tickets for Saturday (ok, not the biggest loss) and headed home.
Saturday was Giverny. The weather held for the most part, minus some light rain here and there. The gardens are beautiful, even at this time of year. I’m sure they’re outstanding in the spring and summer, but the benefit of going now was the minimal amount of tourists. Rather than shuffle through the place, I could take all the time I wanted to wander aimlessly, just the way Monet had experienced it. After returning home, I took a quick nap, had a bite to eat, and met up once more with Hannah and some new friends for the evening’s festivities.
Hannah basically has the coolest host family ever. Both her host parents work in the press and thus have free access to some of the coolest events in and around Paris, including tickets to Nuit Curieuse, an “arts festival” about 30 minutes by train from Paris. I’m guessing they gave the tickets to Hannah because they couldn’t attend, but what luck for me. The festival included art installations like modern video art, photography, a series of music boxes that triggered letters to shuffle around on a computer screen, and a shadow puppet theater for public use. And that’s just the normal art stuff. To view the various short films on display, one could take a dip in the public hot tubs complete with free bathing suit rental (flip flops, towel, and bathrobe included) or lounge in blue and white striped beach chairs, each with its own flannel blanket. If you felt the urge to, I don’t know, have a haircut or massage, there were stations for those things too. Two euro plastic cup of boxed wine? Don’t mind if I do. Take in a 3D electronica concert based on geometry? I’m there. Free burlesque show? Sounds good to me. Oh, I forgot to add that this was all on a farm. Oh, and I also forgot to add that it kind of looked like a Halloween party so Hannah and I were inspired to become flannel blanket ghosts and run around scaring artsy French people. Things were winding down at this point. To sum up: the strangest and most amazing night of my life. Oh, one last thing. We almost stole the band’s ride home. Oops! Good thing they snagged it before we did… even though they had called for it in advance.
A Living Spree
This past week has been one of the best weeks of my life. I don’t have time to write about it as well as it merits (Globalization of Subsaharan Africa quiz tuesday!), but I know I’ll be kicking myself at the end of this whole abroad shebang if I don’t at least make some effort to remember the details. What a week.
Monday, I went to the Monet exhibit at the Grand Palais with my host dad. I’m working on an entry about some of the emotions evoked by this enormous collection, but for now suffice it to say I enjoyed it immensely, especially thanks to the fact that we got to cut the enormous line and then had a guided tour from a woman who knew her shit.
Talk of the Town: People waiting to see nearly 200 of Monet’s paintings collected at the Grand Palais.
Tuesday was spent mostly at Reid Hall, between my two classes and my speaking tutorat, but it the jubilant protest going on all day long added some spice to what would have otherwise been a pretty normal day. Sitting at a computer in the Wesleyan Vassar library (not sure it qualifies as such), I heard drums beating, people chanting, and Shakira blasting from speakers for nearly four hours as the “protest” marched by. (Unfortunately, the Parigots decided to seriously increase the level of their protesting later in the week which seriously cramped my style Friday)
Thursday night I went to a screening of a short film called “Obama States of America” with my host mom. It was a documentary made by a half French half American man who made his way up from New Orleans up to Chicago interviewing people on their opinion of Obama. I was excited about the subject matter but definitely did not appreciate the lack of sensitivity or of context provided to the predominantly French audience who found considerable amusement in the ubiquitous lack of education exhibited in the interviews the filmmaker chose to include. That wasn’t the important part of the night for me, though. Sitting in the audience, I heard the women next to me speaking American English and found out they were from Philadelphia. After briefly discussing the Phillies impending game and the fact that my father somehow weaseled his way into field access for it (still waiting for an update dad), they asked me about my political affiliation. It turns out they organize, under the lead of another woman who was there, for Democrats Abroad. They introduced me to her and a friend of hers who happens to work in TV production and lives in Larchmont, small world, and the five of us went out to a local café for drinks and some good old American politics. It was exactly what I’ve been needing, as my appetite for discussion about the impending elections is whetted on a daily basis through Mike Allen’s Playbook emails, Politico tweets, and of course messages from political guru Marissa Shapiro (hire her). I’m beyond to help out my new friends at Democrats Abroad in France.
Yesterday was the real winner. Three friends and I made the trek (daunting with the strike) out to Vernon to see Monet’s gardens at Giverny. Though the weather was less than perfect, the gardens were truly breathtaking. Rachel and I are both from Westchester, but you’d think we’d never seen flowers before the way we were fawning over all the greenery. Everywhere we looked, we could practically see Monet’s broad strokes overlaid on the gardens.
Hanging out at Claude’s crib.
Upon our return to Paris, the protest was in full swing. On a mission to see Ali Vitali before we hit up Rome together Halloween weekend, I found myself directly in the action at the Bastille metro stop. As I was trying to get out of the metro, people were coming into it through the exit doors, fleeing the madness of the “manifs” going on above us. Thankfully I made it without a scratch to Ali’s hotel, and got to eat some delicious fondue with her and her friends for dinner.
Bracing Themselves: Les Policiers prepare for the onslaught of protestors.
Then came one of the most ridiculous nights of my life. Thanks to an invitation and tickets from my host family, three friends and I took the RER out to a suburb east of Paris called Noisiel. There, on a “farm” called La Ferme du Buisson, was the culmination of an arts festival that’s been going on for the past two weeks there. The night was titled “Nuit Curieuse,” and from 10:30-4 am basically was the artsy, adult version of halloween. Highlights included mini concerts, short films, burlesque performances, shadow puppets, fire pits, hair cutting and massage stations, art exhibitions, and of course, our favorite: outdoor jacuzzis, replete withnew bathrobes and bathing suits. The scene was like some weird mix of Eyes Wide Shut and Jersey Shore, and my friends and I kept looking at each other in disbelief of where we were. Parts reminded me of Wesleyan, and the smell of fall all around us reminded me of Briarcliff. It was incredible.
NuitCurieuse at La Ferme du Buisson.
Tonight Carolyn’s hosting a themed dinner party with her host parents. My life is so great, and I feel unbelievably lucky for everything I’ve gotten to do this past week. It’s been a great way to spend my last weekend in Paris till Thanksgiving.This week will be a little more school-focused, but then on Friday we fly out to Amsterdam! Welcome to the good life.
Love (and fingers crossed for the strikes to end) from Paris,
Last night I went to the Monet exposition at the Grand Palais with my host dad. With nearly 200 works by the famous French impressionist, it is the most popular show of the season. Including paintings from collections around the world, the exposition has drawn international attention (see the NYTimes article here). Though I’m no art student, I found myself moved by the beauty and history attached to the paintings around me. More on this exhibit to come soon.