Tuesday, 10 November 2015

Germany Part 2: On the road to Berlin

When I first decided I was going to Oktoberfest, I started formulating a plan to stay in Germany and continue travelling, with the intent of discovering more about my family history. 

Fast forward a few months, Oktoberfest was a month away and I had nothing booked. This was mostly due to my Summer of Fun ruining me financially, but in the end I pulled it together, booked some accommodation, in the end staying in Germany for 10 days. This is the rest of that story, after I left everyone in Munich.

Monday 28 September
I did not envy everyone about to undertake the 18 hour coach ride back to London, but I had a fairly sizeable journey ahead of me. It was going to take 6 hours and 3 trains for me to travel from Munich to Dresden, and I settled in as best I could.

Oktoberfest, to say the least, had ruined me. I was exhausted. How I managed to coordinate myself to change trains and platforms a few times is beyond me. I finally arrived at Dresden Neueustadt and started walking towards my hostel which was only 15 minutes from the station.

About 49 seconds down the road, my phone battery died. By now it was almost 10.30pm, and I was not willing to wander the streets this late at night. I returned to the station and started waiting for a taxi. After a long while, no taxi arrived, but I noticed a gentleman had also been standing at the rank the whole time I had been. I struck up a conversation, as I am wont to do.

"Hi there, do you speak English?"
"Yes, yes," he replied, looking up from his smoke.
"I was wondering...as there aren't many taxis - when one comes along, could I please share it with you? My hostel is right around the corner but I don't know how to find my way there in the dark."

He agreed, and we started chatting. He was actually Norwegian, but had married a German girl and now spends his time between the two countries. His son had lived in Australia for some time, and we talked about all manner of things. An age later, a taxi finally pulled up. I tried to explain that we would do two drop offs, with me first. I think it was understood well enough, even though the driver didn't speak much English. We wended our way through the back streets of Dresden, my taxi companion commenting that this was a very nice area, "very trendy." 

When we pulled up at the hostel, I shoved some money towards my taxi friend and he repeatedly refused to take it, and so I thanked him profusely and gathered my things, ready to bunk down for the night. 

Inside my hostel, the night staff were changing over and so I had to sit for a while. When it was time for me to check in, both the boys behind the counter engaged in conversation. "Sasha. That's a boys name! And Oelsner...that sounds..."
"Yes, my dad was German," I replied, sleepily filling in my form.
I stared at the form in confusion. "Um...Oktoberfest has given me brain damage. What year is it?"
The boys looked at each other and said, "2015."
"Oops," I said embarrassed, and crossed out the 2013's I had written in all the fields, replacing it with the correct year. 

Oktoberfest really took it out of me. I didn't even know what year it was.

Tuesday 29 September
I was still exhausted, but I got maybe 5 hours of sleep and felt remotely refreshed. Today I would go into the old part of Dresden and tomorrow I would explore the new part of Dresden (where I was staying). After deciding €4 was excessive for bread and no ham for breakfast, I ventured out into the world. I stopped at an (overpriced) cafe and ordered a Vitamin C juice (because I desperately needed some goodness) and some pancakes as I attempted to map out my day.

In the end, I hopped onto the tram like the lady at reception had told me to do. I had my change in my pocket and I was ready to buy my ticket. On board, I couldn't see anywhere to pay. I noticed the locals sitting down and so I did the same, thinking maybe someone will come along (as they do in Adelaide). A few stops later, no one came along and it was time for me to get off. Well, that was a win. But also very lucky, because I had heard that in Germany they can be particularly nasty if you don't pay your fare.

I walked across the bridge in the bright, clear sunlit day, taking my time as I basked in the view of the old buildings. I realised I didn't know what any of them were. A tour bus was parked on the side of the road and I enquired how much it would be. If you recall, I had my bag stolen at Oktoberfest and so I lost quite a lot of money. I had a little bit on me, but was loathe to spend it if I didn't have to - and I was to get my pay the following day. I decided the tour would be too expensive and used my rapidly-getting-crumpled map to find my way around.

I spent quite a bit of time in the Zwinger, as it had gorgeous green grass and an amazing fountain. I tried to enter one of the rooms. "May I zee your ticket please," a lady asked as she approached me. "Oh..I ..er...thanks!" and turned tail and walked out. I had simply wandered in - I never found out if I needed a ticket or not.

I visited a number of historic sites, took my photos, and then sat in a sunny spot to learn the history of what I had just photographed. I climbed the church tower as I like seeing cities from above and had my lunch in the market below. Each German city, I was to discover, had market squares where wurst and bier and all manner of food and goods were sold. I marvelled at how many people were drinking beer on a weekday. Don't you need to be at work? I thought to myself.  Excitedly, I saw a few stalls selling kartoffelpuffer. 

Say it with me, kids. Kartoffelpuffer.

I learnt this word when I was studying German in highschool and it instantly became my favourite German word. It is a potato cake type thing with large amounts of apple sauce. I had to have one. It didn't blow my mind, but I am happy to say I have now been kartoffelpuffed.

It was now mid afternoon and I was barely able to stand. I found a mall and had a small wander before slowly making my way back to the hostel for a lie down. Oktoberfest really took it out of me!

I had a much needed nap, and while I could have stayed in bed forever, I figured I should probably get something for tea. On the map was recommended a German place serving traditional food and so I opted to go there. At the last second, I piped up to a boy in the room, "If you don't have any plans - do you want to get some food with me?" A moments hesitation (I thought - what have I gotten myself into?) and he agreed. His name was Florian and he was a soft-spoken German metal head.

His English was stilted but he became more comfortable the more we talked (and once we'd had a beer). At the restaurant (it was candle-lit, which was a tad uncomfortable!) we were finally served and I had - of course - the schnitzel. I was very excited. We drank beer and talked until our food arrived, upon which time I had a small panic attack because my meal was enormous. The schnitzel was very nice - simple, with lemon juice, and it was on a bed of what looked like 19 potatoes. 

There was no way I was ever going to be able to finish all the potatoes, so I gave it my best but ended up having to call it a night. At one point, I told him that in Australia, my family were the only ones with our surname. He looked confused. I said, "Here in Germany, it seems like Oelsner is about as common as a Jones or a Smith!" He laughed and agreed, saying it is a very common surname in Germany. 

Strange, especially how there are no others in the whole of Australia. Also strange, as our family had been under the impression that it was not such a common name. 

Two beers and an enormous meal later, I was ready for bed. 

Wednesday 30 September
PAY DAY. I let myself have a pretty lazy morning before packing my things and checking out of the hostel. Leaving my luggage there for later, I was going to explore Dresden Neumarkt this morning and then catching a train out to Leipzig that afternoon. This morning I wanted to find Pfunds Molkerei, famous dairy shop with a gorgeous interior. On the way, I grabbed a delicious and enormous breakfast of fruit and yoghurt and bread and jam and it was exactly the nutrition I needed.

The dairy shop was just around the corner, with quite a few people standing outside taking pictures. I had heard it was the most expensive dairy shop in town, so many people just went there to photograph the incredible porcelain work that adorned all surfaces. As it was PAY DAY, I was feeling happy to splurge and so I went inside. A massive array of cheeses and chocolate was presented to me, and I looked closely at the wares while taking sneaky photos of the interior. In the end, I bought a few bits of chocolate and for myself, a tasting plate of cheese. Mm...cheese.

Dresden Neumarkt is the trendy side of town, and there were quite a few op shops that had been listed in the area. I spent a little time looking at them but didn't find anything either to my taste or within my price range. On my way back to the hostel, I stopped at a large park to eat my cheese selection and watch some kids play frisbee. 

By now, my phone had completely died and so I returned to the hostel to charge my phone a little. While there, I checked the train timetable and realised that a train left in approximately 25 minutes and it was considerably cheaper than following trains.

The hostel was 17 minutes walk from the station, so I quickly paid for my ticket, gathered my things and walked as fast as my little legs could take me. I made it there in a good 13 minutes with my powerwalking and waited, sweating, for the train (which happened to be about half an hour late).

The train to Leipzig was uneventful and I alighted into a large mall, which I spent about an hour perusing (it was pay day after all! Although my only purchase was some german dark chocolate). My hostel was easy to find and very nice, and I checked in a collapsed.

Why did I go to Leipzig? I was considering this trip to Germany to be a small pilgrimage to find out more about my German heritage but pretty soon into researching for the expedition I realised that I wouldn't have a lot of luck in the country itself and was probably better off using Ancestry.com. However, I still wanted to visit Leipzig as it was the town that my father was born in and I wanted to find out if I'd get a bit of a feeling from the place.

What I did find in Leipzig was a soaring re-appreciation for classical music. I had not known that this town had played host to many composers, and I spent my first night (eating German McDonald's with truffle sauce) organising my classical music route for the morrow. On the return to my hostel, I walked through the main square and could hear a familiar piece. Around the corner was a string quartet and they were playing beautiful classical and well known music. I threw some euros into the violin case and stood back to watch and appreciate.

Back in my hostel, the cold I was coming down with blast into full swing. I chatted with an American boy until he bored me quite considerably, and then a very interesting girl joined our room, along with an English boy, and we spent some time talking until I couldn't keep my eyes open any more.

Thursday 1 October
Bach. Wagner. Mendelsohhn. Schumann. Many composers were represented here and so today I wanted to try to visit all of their states, street names, museums, houses and the like. I found myself very close to the Bach Museum so even though I didn't have any breakfast I went straight there. I was a little surprised by the  €8 entry fee, but sucked it up since I was there already.

Bach is actually my least favourite composer. This was a belief passed down from my piano teacher who did not like his music. However, we both conceded that technically, the pieces were brilliant, and educationally, they were essential, but overall, just not particularly inspiring but I still did play a lot of Bach throughout my youth. I know this view point will not sit well with everyone, but each to their own, yes?

To be honest, the Bach museum was the kind of place you stay for quite a long time just to get your money's worth. I did do a little sneaky, though, and took a couple of photographs in the do not photograph section of true, original handwritten scores by Bach himself. I enjoyed the handwritten scores and scribbles - standing there trying to decipher what I was reading - knowing full well that I would never have been able to compose something as intricate on the spot.

After the Bach museum, I wandered past the respective Mendolsohhn and Schumann Houses but both also required an entry fee and I was getting mildly frustrated having to pay entry to everything in Germany. I decided that the next stop would be the Classical Instrument Museum, and along the way I stumbled across a gorgeous little cemetery in which now resides the families of Wagner and Schumann.

I spent more time than I care to admit wandering through this cemetery, the gravestones places sporadically, and whole blood lines buried beneath long, vine-ridden walls. It was beautiful in the early autumn oranges and reds and yellows, and serene.

I discovered the Classical Instrument Museum backed onto the cemetery and made my way inside, once I had my fill of centuries-old gravestones covered in moss. I was the only person inside the museum, and a little old lady (who spoke no English) followed at a slightly-uncomfortable distance behind me. I was particularly interested in the evolution of the piano and marvelled at the insides of many a harpsichord and pianola. The string instruments bemused me too, such as 6 stringed cellos - I found it hard enough to play when it only had 4 strings - and a whole manner of weird and wonderful instruments.

Once I was finished here, I was allowed to go upstairs and have a bit of a play on some of the instruments. They had a piano that was entirely plastic coated so you could see inside at the mechanics of the strings and the pedals. The young man in charge of the room showed me how to use an old organ which created bird songs, water running and other manufactured sounds simply using air.

I was starved by now, and so made the decision to head my way back to the hostel as I was exhausted and had seen as much as I wanted to see. I approached a stall and ordered…something. I had a few minutes until it was ready, and so I grabbed  beer. Soon my meal was ready and I looked at it in dismay. I realised what I had ordered, in my haste. Blood sausage. I thanked the gentleman and took my meal and beer to the nearest table. I attempted to eat the blood sausage while listened to a german man on the stage singing. Every now and then, he would break into an English song…

Love is in ze air,
Everyvere you look around.
Love is in ze air…

The blood sausage grew cold, my beer grew warm, and so I downed the remainder of my drink and walked quickly away from the half uneaten food. No matter, it was an experience! On the return to the hostel I grabbed some strawberries dipped in chocolate and called it an early night.

Friday 2 October
I slept in a little bit and checked out just on time. My train wasn't until after midday, and so I made my way slowly to the station, slowly ate some food, and checked my train app. That's funny, it's not updating. I panicked, and went to the info desk to ask about my train. The gentleman behind the counter just looked at me wide eyed and motioned that he didn't know English. I was in a wi-fi zone, and so messaged Dan who suggested turning it off and on again. Oh. Yes, well, that fixed it.

The train journey was uneventful and I arrived in the crazy Berlin station mall. It was a gorgeous sunny day when I meandered my way along the river, past the Brandenburg Gate on my way to find our hostel. I say 'our' because for this leg of the journey, I was joined by the lovely Daniel, who was to be flying in that evening. Berlin was somewhere I had wanted to visit for a while and was a city that received mixed polar reviews. I didn't want to visit it alone as I had heard it was a party town, and I invited Dan to join me so we could explore the city together.

After my phone conveniently died and I found the hostel, I collapsed in the room - which was awesomely upgraded into an apartment! I was so stoked, and after a short relax made my way back out onto the streets. We had been recommended to visit the Reichstag building but one had to get tickets in advance. They were unfortunately already sold out for this weekend. However, if you were willing to wait in line at the ticket booth there was a chance you could get a few of the remaining tickets.

First I walked in an exit and was quickly ushered out by security guards. I asked about getting tickets for the Reichstag for tomorrow, Saturday, to which I was told it was a public holiday and to join the queue over there. Public holiday? What? I guess that explains all the music and concerts and posters I've seen, I thought to myself. I joined the back of the queue.

The queue grew slowly behind me, and the young lady in front of me turned and asked if I was travelling alone. "Yes," I replied, "Well, no, I have been, but my boyfriend will be joining me this evening in Berlin. What about you?" And with that, we struck up a conversation. At one point, I quickly ducked out of the line (Hold my place, please?) to ask a staff member if it was possible to buy a ticket for someone else, with the answer being yes. Back in the line, Sarah and I passed the time chattering about all manner of things. The line moved rather slowly, and we were there for a good hour.

Soon, it was my turn to enter. Only one of the terminals was occupied, the other having been vacated for a short break just before I walked in. I went to order two tickets for the Reichstag, only to be told that I needed some form of photo ID for Dan - either his passport or his drivers licence - neither of which I had. The lady told me to shut the door, and quickly made out the pass for him and myself based on his date of birth and full name. This was against rules and I was very grateful.

Sarah was waiting outside after I had collected my tickets, and together we made our way over to the Brandenburg Gate to see what was going on. A stage had been set up and there was all sorts of rock-classical music playing, with bright lights starting to show up as the sun was setting. We grabbed a beer and a currywurst and Prost! we cheersed to being in Berlin. As the sun set, it got colder and colder and I had left my winter coat in the hostel as it had been such a sunny day. We parted ways and I wandered back to the hostel to change into warmer clothes, before meeting Daniel at the Berlin Station (complete with German beer in hand, of course!).

I gave Dan the Sasha's Tour of Berlin (which was very brief and mostly consisted of "That's a cool looking thing over there…"), and as we wandered past the Reichstag we realised it was covered in lights. There were posters all along the fencing and we could read 25 Jahre Deutsches Einheit. 25 years German…one…heart? Dan grabbed up his Wordlens app. Unity. Wait…was the public holiday on the morrow the 25th anniversary of the reunification of East and West Germany?

We applauded our good luck for being in Germany on such a momentous weekend, took a lot of photos of the Reichstag lit up with historical photos and wandered back to the Brandenburg Gate, which by now was completely alight and watched until the end of the performance.

Saturday 3 October
We slept in a little and ended up missing the first walking tour we had booked, but luckily they were free so we opted for the second one. A quick breakfast of - you guessed it - jam berliners (simply so I could say Ich bin win Berliner - I am a jam doughnut) before being harassed by wasps, we quickly departed for the Brandenburg Gate to start the free Sandeman's walking tour.

There were so many people doing the tour, we were split into three groups (and I think we got the best guide!) He was half Dutch half American, and spoke fluent basically everything. He had a fantastically dry sense of humour and was extremely knowledgeable - he had gone to Berlin a decade previously for a holiday and never left. 

He explained all about the Brandenburg Gate, Pariser Platz and the statue atop the Gate. We wandered underneath a hotel canopy, henceforth known as the "Blanket Hotel" - where Michael Jackson famously (and dangerously) dangled his baby Blanket out the window.

We stood in No Man's Land, and I felt a chill. The space between East and West Germany. The place where any who had stood little more than 25 years previously would have been shot on sight. We wandered through the stone blocks of the eerie, thought provoking and quiet Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe, before moving onto the Nazi Luftwaffe (Airforce) building (which would then become the Communist headquarters, and which today is, of course, the Berlin Tax Office - and they say German's don't have a sense of humour?). One theory as to why this building remains standing today is that when the city was being bombed, pilots needed a point of reference from the sky.

A quick visit to a portion of the Berlin Wall that is still standing - sections remain all across the city - before a quick explanation of the Trabant (or trabi) car. This car was manufactured during the Communist era and ended up with a waiting list of 13 years. 13 years to wait for a car. We wandered past Checkpoint Charlie but did not stop - it looked like a tourist trap and was overrun with kitsch. Our guide explained that 25 years previously, tours could come to this place, erect a ladder and let the tourist peek over to see Checkpoint Charlie.

And there we were just gawking at a big poster. How times have changed, and in my lifetime!

After Checkpoint Charlie we made our way to the Gerdarmenmarkt, housing two enormous churches and the Konzerhaus, before rounding the corner to the Humboldt University. Here our guide ended the tour with an exceptional explanation of how the Berlin Wall fell. It was a story I hadn't actually heard, and I was shocked, amazed and impressed that history could be changed within the space of six hours and due to (luckily!) the incompetence of one person. Brava to him, though, as he set the wheels in motion to begin healing Germany.

The tour was over, and I was starving and so we sat in the square to have a bit to eat (and a strange pink beer with a straw) and then made our way through Museum Island and to the Berlin Radio Tower. We ummed and ahhed about going up the tower, but decided for now to forget about it.

Hopping on a train, we popped up in the far East Berlin where the last of the days sun was splashed on the Berlin Wall - the graffiti gallery. I was fascinated by the artwork here. 

One section of the two walls was still standing, and this was the thinnest portion of No Man's Land along the stretch - no more than a few metres wide. We were exhausted, so we sat with our backs against the Berlin Wall and relaxed for a few minutes by the river.

Sitting here, we made the snap decision to go up the Berlin Radio Tower after all, so we jumped back on the train, back to Alexanderplatz and into the queue for the Tower. Here, I happened to get wifi reception and discovered that our hostel had put us in the wrong room, and could we return to pack up our things otherwise they would pack them up for us. I was livid, and fuming, knowing full well that they had done exactly that, but I tried really hard to not think about as there was nothing that could be done at this point.

It was about 2 hours before we could go up the tower, and we peeked at the market in Alexanderplatz. We realised, with a giggle, that this was in fact Berlin's Oktoberfest, and it was a far cry from the one we had experienced in Munich. I, as usual, was pretty hungry but I couldn't decide what to eat. We saw a girl carrying some kind of giant basket filled with sausage and chips and decided instantly that was what we were to have. A currywurst basket, with the bread basket edible once the innards were gone. YUM. Next stop: beer. I was desperate to have a shot of jager whilst in Germany, so I ordered a half pint and a jager shot each and we settled down in some chairs to wait until our turn up the tower.

Whilst sitting, Dan and I slowly came to the conclusion that these Paulaner glasses were in fact pretty sweet. Good quality, heavy, and would make a nice matching set… the little klepto's came out in us as we sacrificed the €2 deposit for each glass and stashed them in our bags. Steins seemed to start from at least a good €30, so these were a bargain! ;)

Back at the tower (and our glasses confiscated for the time being) we took the glass elevator up up up (my ears popping) until we reached the top floor. The view was lovely and we could see fireworks going off at the Reichstag. We stayed for a cocktail before making our way back to our hostel.

I was a little bit angry at the staff at the hostel, unfortunately it was the cleaning lady who had nothing to do with it. I'm still pissed off that they went through our things and sent me an email to let me know - they had my number - but I'll just leave this here and won't say any more about it!

Sunday 4 October
We checked out and took our things back to the Brandenburg Gate. This morning we were going to meet a family friend of Dan's for a coffee and a catch up. I had gotten tickets for the Reichstag for this afternoon at 12.15 as any earlier ones had been taken, but after the coffee we wandered past to see if we should join the line.

Luckily, they just let us through early - at about 11.30am, and in the end it was a good thing they did as we spent much longer here than we had expected to! A quick and very painless security check later (considering I had all my luggage from the previous 10 days) and we were in the line to be led into the parliament building.

The Reichstag has a long and varied history, but was not at any time occupied by the Nazi regime. It was bombed, or burned down, or changed structure. These days, it has a dome atop (akin to a dome it had back in the day) and you can go up there to see 360 views of Berlin. The views here were better than from the Tower, and I was incredible impressed.

You could walk around the Dome, as well as walk inside and up the Dome. It was a fantastic modern structure with mirrors and harsh blues and lines, making for a wonderfully industrial feel. We spent a long time here before looking at our watches and realising we should probably make tracks.

There was one last thing I wanted to do in Berlin and that was have a photo in a Photo Booth. Back at the Brandenburg Gate we found one, practiced our poses and SNAP FLASH SNAP FLASH, we had our print-out on a commemorative 25 Jahre paper.

I had a torturous plane ride as my cold caused my ears to block up, which left me writhing in my seat in pain and discomfort. Upon landing, I couldn't really hear, and luckily the border security were lovely and didn't take long about dealing with my passport issues. We were at Southend Airport, which was a way out in the sticks, but the train journey back to London was also a breeze.

Germany, I spent 10 days with you and it was an incredible experience. I found you more difficult than I might have expected - I feel I have traversed other countries easier without knowing the language. I also felt shamed at every turn that I, with German heritage, could not read, write, understand or speak the language and have endeavoured to go forth and learn it. Your food was a mix of utterly amazing and dear-god-what-is-that, and your beers have given me an appreciation for the hoppier beverage. I learnt nothing about my background but reinvigorated my love for classical music.

Thank you, and ve shall meet again.
Auf wiedersehen!