Tuesday, January 31, 2012

I'm watching you watching me

One thing I have noticed during my time in France is that the French are observers. Not only are they extremely aware culturally and politically, they are incredibly socially aware. Let me explain what I mean by that.

I never noticed how anonymous I felt in America until I spent some time in France. Walking down the street, each person I pass by here gives me the once-over, sometimes almost undetectable in the split second that it happens. However, it happens almost without fail for every single person I pass on the street, in the metro, on the train. They just like to look! And if they know you well enough, they will almost certainly comment on whatever it is they've just observed.

If you have a large lunch one day, it's "Wow, you must be hungry today!" Drop a chickpea on your lap? A little giggle from someone across the table. Yawn slyly to the side? You'll probably get a, "Ooh, you're tired today!" I've since learned to yawn more stealthily while at school.

If you hadn't noticed, French cafés are set up with the chairs facing the street - because the street is a stage! Women passing by one another in the street will assess the other's outfit, shoes, and general sense of style (or lack thereof). People speaking or laughing too loudly will suffer the stares of everyone in their general vicinity. Oohh...did you drop something? Perhaps trip a bit on that section of uneven sidewalk? Look around - someone is watching you!

Now this may be a tad dramatic, but the point is, I am living in a country of observers. Keen observers. Undercover-agent-for-the-CIA type observers. Interestingly, when I went to Berlin for Christmas break, I realized that wonderfully, beautifully, mercifully, Germany seemed to be the opposite. They seemed to be a country of "do what you want"-ers.

I hadn't realized how much I missed that feeling of anonymity, of being able to behave how I naturally do without worrying about the social repercussions. I hadn't even realized I had been behaving in a socially acceptable "French" way until then. This phenomenon was especially observable when I observed French tourists in Germany, like a kid in a zoo; I could spot them from miles away. Everything they said to their friends was in a low voice, like they were telling a secret. They were always looking fabulous, because even dressing is a social activity. You only see sweatpants, hoodies, and sneakers in gyms here! And let's be honest, the French don't really do gyms.

Now this attitude has its charms, of course, and I really enjoy the old-world formality of the French culture.  I love chatting over a café and people-watching with friends. I love how anybody who passes others who are eating will almost always say, "Bon appetit!" I love how dinner and lunch are affairs, not just meals, meant to be enjoyed and lingered over.

Hot baguettes from down the street aren't too shabby either ;-) Nor are mussels caught from the English Channel, enjoyed a few meters away at an amazing restaurant in the beautiful port town of Dieppe.

And I guess dungeons peeking up from down the street are pretty nifty.

With that being said, I am really, really looking forward to grocery shopping in a sweatshirt and yoga pants when I get back to the US.

Tuesday, January 3, 2012

Berlin Blog part 2 – Arrival through Christmas

I am going to start off by saying that I absolutely loved Berlin. I met amazing people, saw some amazing things, and felt comfortable there in a way I can’t quite explain. Although I don’t speak more than 5 words of German, I was able to get around perfectly fine, mostly due to the fact that almost every German person I encountered spoke wonderful English. This also made me feel a bit guilty, but it is what it is!

We stayed at EastSeven hostel, and I cannot say enough good things about it. The staff was so friendly and helpful, it was impeccably clean, I met new friends, they made free vegetarian dinners twice a week for guests (plus one extra for Christmas), and the cost was amazing. I wish we could have stayed longer!

Markers of an escape tunnel 
After checking in, we walked from our hostel to the Berlin Wall Memorial. The memorial spans across West Berlin and is dotted with plaques describing it’s history, what happened in each area, and personal stories of those who escaped, or who had been victims of the wall guards. In several areas, there were small rectangular paths showing where escape tunnels had been. It still blows my mind to imagine a wall being built so suddenly, keeping me from leaving my town or seeing family and friends. Seeing landmarks like these made our trip to Berlin so educational and inspiring.

Next, we went to one of what would be many Christmas Markets! We spent a lot of our time during the week going to different Christmas Markets, shopping for souvenirs, people watching, drinking hot chocolate and Glühwein, and eating delicious food. They were wonderful and beautiful, and helped our trip to feel more like Christmas, as we were all missing being home with our families.

We then visited the Reichstag, which houses the German Parliament. The building itself was topped with a cupola that is beautifully and thoughtfully constructed. It is incredibly energy-efficient and was accompanied by a free audio-guide explaining the history of the building, its construction, and describing the buildings one can view from the top of the cupola. Thanks to Marissa for setting up our visit!

the Brandenburg Gate
Next up was the Brandenburg gate, followed by the Memorial for the Murdered Jews of Europe and its accompanying (free) museum. The latter was an incredible structure, and the museum was beautifully done, with heart-wrenching personal tales, letters, and images of families and individuals affected by the Holocaust. Some of what I read there will definitely stick with me, and I highly recommend going here if you ever find yourself in Berlin!

the beautiful Berliner Dom

On Christmas Eve, we went to a midnight mass at The Berliner Dom and enjoyed the beautiful views and music (while trying not to fall asleep… :-P). 

Christmas was a bit bizarre because it did not feel at all like Christmas. Perhaps it was the sushi for lunch? Or the lack of snow? Regardless, it was wonderful, and included a trip to the Pergammon Museum, a delicious dinner out with our new friends from the hostel, as well as dancing well into the night – Argentinian style! It was a bit like salsa, and though I was told I was not too shabby, I have a feeling they wouldn’t have told me if I was horrendous! It was so much fun, and certainly a Christmas to remember.

Our group at the hostel on Christmas!

That’s enough for part 2, I’ll let you rest before my next installment of Berlin, part 3 J.

Berlin Blog, part 1 – The Voyage

I apologize in advance for the lack of pictures in this post, there are none of our fascinating bus trip. But there are plenty of Berlin to come!

I spent from December 21 to December 28 in Berlin with friends Marissa, Liz and Maureen, as well as Maureen’s friend Catherine for several days. There is so much to say, so I think I’ll divide it into several parts (I’m sure you’re thrilled!). Let’s start from the beginning – the famed 14+ hour bus ride from Paris to Berlin.

Yes, we went on a bus. We saved 20 euro! You can decide for yourself if it was worth it…

The bus left from Paris at 7:30pm on December 20, to arrive around 10am in Berlin. We had one stop at 7:30am in Germany, and other than that, it was a straight shot. We arrived early in hopes that we would get to sit near one another, and that paid off! We had a section of 4 seats, and as we settled in and prepared to leave, we foresaw a quiet overnight voyage during which we could primarily sleep, leaving us refreshed for our arrival in Berlin in the morning.


We had the incredible misfortune of sitting directly in front of a family of 4 who seemed at first to be part of some candid-camera type show where they intentionally tortured us for the fun of seeing how long we’d last. It started off with an incredibly smelly meal, wrapped in what must have been 5 layers of aluminum foil, eaten on and off over the course of the trip, including at 2am. How they were hungry at that time, I did not know.

The man sitting behind me answered his loudly ringing cell phone about 8 times, each time having lively conversations. Even at 3am. He also had a habit of pulling on my seat to give himself leverage to readjust, but each time, he pulled my hair as well. The final time, I turned around and told him to STOP FOR THE LOVE OF GOD, and he waved me away with his hand. I was not pleased.

I also was not pleased when, in the middle of the night, I awoke to him resting his entire leg on my armrest from behind. With my arm on it. Yes, his leg was resting on top of my arm, his gross socked feet touching my hand. At this point, I forcefully shoved his leg to the ground, wondering of my fellow passengers would back me up should I choose to physically harm him.

We also discovered that this man was drinking some sort of liquor the entire voyage after we found it spilled over our bags, scarves, and shoes on the floor beneath us.  We also observed him purchase and drink a beer at our 7am rest stop break. Oh, the bus trip was stressful for you?? I’m sure. Not to mention his getting off to smoke when we dropped passengers off at various stops despite the captain asking everybody to stay onboard. And not to mention his wife playing angry birds until 4am (excuse me, ma’am, but have you head of the MUTE button? You should give that a go).

The bus itself was a bit cramped, and some of the reclining mechanisms were broken on various seats. Liz’s seat would only recline with constant backward pressure, so she attempted to sleep upright for the entire time. Maureen’s seat got stuck completely in the reclined position, rendering me unable to move for about 15 minutes while we tried desperately to lift it back up. We finally awoke the ‘copilot’ to help us (the “service please” button also was apparently useless), he fixed it in about 5 seconds flat; it was a tad embarrassing.

We arrived in Berlin ready to take on the world. And by that, I mean ready to pass out and/or stalk the man to his home and put flaming dog poop on his doorstep.

I am happy to report that the ride from Berlin back to Paris was lovely, and I slept in peace almost the whole way. And we had 3 rest stops to stretch our legs. And nobody had long drawn out cell phone conversations. I simply ask you, Eurolines, to please equip your bathrooms with toilet paper. That is all.

I felt the need to record that for posterity, and now that that rant is out of the way, it’s time to tell you all about BERLIN!!!