Berlin: Sanssouci Palace and a peek into East Germany

Day 15, 07.08.2009

sansoucciWe left the hotel quite early to catch the train to Sanssouci. Everyone else filed into the same car, but we three musketeers decided it’d be a great idea to steal all the space in the back and be separated from the rest of our group. Unfortunately, the train ride to Sanssouci is about an hour–and 6 stops in, the train was already packed. I struggled to catch glimpses of our group in the front. Fortunately, one of the guys is 6’6″, which made it easier to keep track. My paranoia set in after a while, so I joined the rest of the group in the front. The other two are lucky that I remembered they were in the back and shouted to them that we had arrived, otherwise they would’ve been lost in Berlin forever.

marble statuePalace Sanssouci was stunningly lavish. A conglomerate of courtyards, pavilions, marble and gold. The inside of the palace looked like it had been touched by Midas. There was a different color scheme to each room. The extravagance straddled gaudy and classy–including a beautiful “Chinese” dome that was anything but Chinese. I figured out how they managed to maintain these grounds when I had to use the restroom and paid a whopping €1.50.

After a couple hours of running amok on royal grounds, we took the train back to Potsdam. A lunch cruise down Wahnsee had been planned for us. While most of our group decided to hang around in the cafe waiting, the three musketeers made intelligent decision #2 of the day by spending the 20 minutes before the cruise exploring Potsdam. There sadly wasn’t much to explore. And then began a downpour so aggressive it could rival Niagara Falls. The wind lashed watery whips at our faces.

Scrambling to find shelter somewhere, we finally came across a child-sized picnic bench with a baby umbrella. Unfortunately not enough to cover 3 high schoolers. So we counted to 10 and sprinted back to the meeting place, where there was a restaurant. I was running blind: there was so much water hanging from my lashes.

sansoucci train stop

you can see the clouds moving in…

H. Birkelbach and H. Reynolds greeted us with smug looks on their faces, joking about how warm and dry and comfortable they had been at the restaurant. But they made it up to us by sharing some french fries.

Ironically, it stopped raining about a minute after we reached the restaurant. I was drenched–a wet rag. There is nothing worse than wet undergarments and soggy, squishy socks. And I had to board the cruise 10 minutes later with sopping shoes.

Instead of sight-seeing, we played cards the entire cruise. So I have no idea what there was to be seen from the lake. I ordered some noodles with veggies for lunch, which were…okay. I won several games of president, and lost a lot of games of palace.

After the cruise, we all stopped at this fruit stand and bought fruit. The three of us split a basket of strawberries. I’ve seriously contemplated moving to Germany just for their amazingly sweet, juicy, and fragrant strawberries. They’re so tiny, but good things come in small packages!

berlin murals

some great art in East Berlin!

East Berlin was kind of a sketchy place. Gritty, adorned with graffiti, and home to all varieties of people. Our group split up from our chaperones and our German host siblings. After about 5 minutes of walking together, four of us decided we were interested in different things and split up further.

Three of us went one way and the other girl went off on her own. Our friend entertained us by claiming he could make up a song for any word we chose. One of us chose “rollerskates”, so he started singing something about an old man at a tree and if you skated to him you could see him fart–the actual song was a lot stranger if you could believe it. I chose banana hammock and the song went something like “oh please let me sprinkle cheese! some cheese!” and swinging in the banana hammock. I don’t think he knows what a banana hammock really is…

My friend wanted to buy a gas mask, so we stepped into this store that sold gas masks and Communist memorabilia. While fascinating, the other two of us wanted to keep exploring. So we moved on. East Berlin would be a scary place to get lost in if you were a young girl traveling without parents for the first time (me). Thankfully we didn’t get lost.

We went into the German dollar store to get some water. It was kind of frustrating that even though we’d speak to the cashiers in German, they’d only respond back in English. Just give us a chance!eastberlin

We also saw this giant condom ad–a phallic cardboard cutout–that was advertising vibrators and other unmentionables…And right across from it was a store for gay men with posters of naked men plastered over the display windows. Europeans are so open about sexuality. My friend took a bunch of photos of all this to show to H. Reynolds, because he hates anything that screams “I like men”.

After walking around East Berlin, we all met up and settled on this African restaurant for dinner. I ordered some fried rice dish with some salad and this strange flour-roll thing. It was so, so delicious. I really wish I had taken down the name of the place. There was zebra, crocodile, and impala steaks, just to name a few of the strange items on the menu.


amazing first experience with African food…anyone know where this is?!

We all split up after dinner because the host siblings wanted to go get a drink, one of the girls wanted to go back to the hotel, and the rest of us wanted to explore Berlin a bit more. H. Reynolds took us to the Holocaust memorial, which is something like 1000 blocks of cement rising out of the ground to symbolize the many who died.

holocaust memorial and berlin wall

so much awkward posing…

While a sobering concept, it was a total maze and kind of fun to just walk through. My friend was trying to take a picture, but another was standing in the middle, so he politely asked, “Could you please move?”.  She flipped her head around and yelled, “F*k off and DIE.” It was hilariously unwarranted and we all ended up cracking up–likely coming off as disrespectful, obnoxious teenagers to anyone else visiting the memorial.

Postdamer Platz  was the next stop, where we took turns getting shots of pieces of the Berlin Wall. Then it was time to visit the Brandeburg Tor! My chance to finally get my own postcard-worthy shot of the famous landmark. I also wanted a shot of the Siegsäule [victory column], which sits in middle of the street with a golden figure on top, but that was a bit of a walk away.hitler's bunker

We then made our way to Hitler’s bunker, which is pretty much this small patch of grass with a sign that says “Führers Bunker” or something like that. We also walked down some of Unter den Linden: the upscale, upper class street of Berlin. Some of the guys needed to pinkeln, so they went down some small street and chose some bush. I wonder if public urination is a violation in Germany…

brandenburg gate

simply majestic

As we skipped under the streetlights and past the glimmering lights of Louis Vuitton, Zara, and various other brand names, we all sang “I Feel Pretty”. Very loudly.

My roomies and I had some girl when we were back in our room. We all picked out Breakfast Club-like stereotypes for the guys in our group: the nice one, the quiet one, the know-it-all, the diva, and the rebel.

Berlin: The Ultimate Gypsy Brass Rock Concert

Day 14, 07.07.2009

Disclaimer: This post is best read through the lens of a naive, goody-two-shoes junior in high school who liked [and still does!] to take notes of daily events in excruciating detail. 😉

freie universitatThere was too much excitement bubbling within me that first night in Berlin. I finally gave up on trying to fall asleep at 7am. My roomies and I went down to breakfast and were surprised by the scale of the breakfast buffet for such a tiny hotel. There was fresh bread, cookies, danishes, fresh fruits, a cold-cut and cheese platter, cereals, and Nutella everywhere. I snagged a flaky butter croissant and a cookie. One of my roommates was on a Nutella binge and if she had the time, she probably would have cleaned out the buffet’s supply of Nutella.

a gripping powerpoint on college in germanyAfter breakfast we rode the U-Bahn, then the S-Bahn with the rest of the group to Freie Universität, which I think is the largest university in Berlin (?). Or perhaps the most famous? We didn’t have a chance to tour the college at all; instead, we were all herded into this room where we sat and listened to the admissions people market the university to us for an impossibly long 3 hours. Powerpoints and all. I was bored to death and fell asleep a number of times, jerking myself awake every 15 seconds. My friend and I resorted to playing hangman in German and once we exhausted that option, we began drawing people from our group.

old vs new buildings

I thought the contrast between old and modern was interesting.

It really was a shame that they didn’t give us time to walk around Freie because it has a really pretty campus. By the time the presentation ended, it was time for lunch and all of us were forced to get into groups with at least 1 German host sibling because they had our lunch money. I stuck with Clara, of course. The cafeteria was huge and had a pretty good selection…if you weren’t vegetarian.

I chose a poor man’s minestrone soup and some antipasti veggies, neither of which was very good. The soup was like drinking needles in watered-down ketchup and the veggies were sour enough to be used as bug repellent. The mousse had too much cream and the cake was a bit too dry. The strawberry soda, however, was amazing. Strawberries in Germany are inexplicably delicious–each with the sweetness and juice of a hundred of the sweetest and juiciest. I ended up eating my friend’s french fries and they basically saved me from starvation.

KaDeWe: the premier department store

KaDeWe – the Harrods and LaFayette of Germany

There was a book sale outside the cafeteria, so all of us went to check it out. Lots of classics in German–I think I tried reading The Divine Comedy in German…which is about impossible. And then one of our comrades stole a giant, 1000-page book in Russian. I share the shame for being a silent witness–watching him stuff it into his backpack–but I was genuinely curious if he was serious about leaving the campus with a stolen book. But at 2 Euros, it wasn’t much of a steal anyway.

The reason our unscrupulous friend stole the book was so Herr Reynolds, who worked as a translator in the Army during WWII, could translate. We watched, eyes sparkling with admiration, as H. Reynolds translated the first page and taught us how to say “fight” [pronounced “boi”?] in Russian. He then somehow segued into a story of how he drank so much beer once that he scrambled to the restroom in desperation for bowel relief–only, the cleaning lady had just cleaned the toilets. And I quote, “the porcelain was sparkling…you could still smell the cleaner…and I painted that sucker brown“.

outside parliament


A tour bus picked us up for a drive around the city. The tour guide was kind of a dud. She droned on and on and I felt like I was in a Charlie Brown short. So I turned my attention to snapping photos of the sights. We stopped at Parliament, which is totally gorgeous inside–doric columns, red carpets flowing down a grand set of stairs–only to be shown to a room where we were again subjected to powerpoints and grown-up talking.

Paintings of the fall of the Berlin wall stretched around the walls. I would have much rather walked over to the real Berlin Wall (which was more like 2 panels of it), that was right across the street. Most of the graffiti has been chipped off and sold by street vendors for 5 Euros per small piece. I’m a sucker for tchotchkes and caved into buying one.


As boring as our guide was, I must thank her for informing us of a 150-year old chocolate shop in Gendarmenmarkt: Fassbender. Our bus stopped at a random souvernir store for some odd reason; the only attraction there was this model of the entire city of Berlin. I bought a pretty pack of chocolates with the different castles around Berlin. We, including H. Birkelbach and H. Reynolds, all ditched the boring lady after the store. I have no idea what she ended up doing. But we all took the U-Bahn to the last stop of the day: the Zitadelle.


The Zitadelle used to be a fortress but is now used mainly for big events like concerts. My first non-classical concert! I was pumped. There was an hour or two to kill before they started letting people in, so my friend and I walked around the Zitadelle, while others went to sit by the river and just chill. It was on our walk that I learned that “pinkeln” is slang for “to pee”. Because my friend really needed to and there was no restroom in sight. That was probably TMI; a good word to know, nonetheless.


The Zitadelle, must have been an awfully secure fortress because it floats in the middle of a ginormous lake, with only one entrance. Our walk around the right side of the Zitadelle took only 20 minutes. So I went off by myself to explore the other side of the Zitadelle. I was bored, so I figured, why not? Let me pretend to be a ballerina and do grande jetés. Many stares and odd looks where shot my way from people walking on the bridge some 500ft away.

By the time I got back, H. Birkelbach was handing out the tickets and money for dinner, which was about 20 Euros! We had to go through security check and my Klean Kanteen gifted to me by a dear friend was temporarily confiscated :(. Thankfully, I could pick it up after the concert. As expected, there wasn’t anything I could eat. I wasn’t hungry though (or maybe I just convinced myself I wasn’t). I did, however, need to [pinkeln] and was forced to use a port-a-potty. As a germaphobe, I was sweating at the thought of not being able to rinse my scummy hands, in spite of the fact that I had hand sanitizer. So I spent an unfortunate 3 Euros on a cup of water to do so.

IMG_2466Not going to lie, the music was definitely an acquired taste. But incredibly energetic. I’d ballpark it as the strange lovechild of hard rock, polka, and dance/techno beats. No headline is long enough to fit the names of our fantastic headliners: Goran Bregovic and his Wedding & Funeral Band, and Shantel & Bucovina Club Orkestar. A couple of us stood in the back at first and even sat at a table for a bit, but finally decided to mingle with the raucous crowd. After pushing, burrowing, and squeezing our way through a sea of bodies, we made it to the rest of our group. And then everyone else besides 3 of us decided to go get drinks, leaving us to babysit our spot. Our group never came back.

[ At this point in the narrative, the focus shifts to detailed documentation of a first and close-up encounter of what drunk people are like. Feel free to read on, but I ran out of pictures to break up the text :P. ]

Continue reading

On the road to Berlin

Day 13, 07.06.2009

spree river sunset

Sunset by the Spree Fluß

As my Gastvater [“host father”] was chanting in anticipation of our trip to Berlin with the AATG group, “Berlin! Berlin! Wir fahren nach Berlin!”. Translation: “we’re going to Berlin!!!!!!!!!!!”. Our train was sometime after 10am, so Clara and I still had to go to school before we could head out. With all our luggage. Mine was especially cumbersome to be lugging up and down the 7 floors of the Gymnasium [“high school”]. It was a heavy, large, orange suitcase. Really quite silly in retrospect not to have brought a duffel bag or something collapsible for excursions. A wonderful friend of Clara’s helped carry both of our luggage while we were at school.

I would have hired him for the day’s help if I could. Needless to say, I had my first lesson in weight training heaving this monstrosity all over the streets of Nürnberg. Hungry from all the exercise and with the knowledge that no food would be sold on the train, I bought some fries at McDonald’s. Apparently condiments are sold separately in Europe, so I had to eat my fries dry and without ketchup. Ew.

ICE bahn

Double decker ICE!

It was an amazing experience to ride the ICE aka “Intercity Express” aka Germany’s bullet train. Frau Graunke, my high school German teacher, would always be singing praise about the ICE. And we did indeed ride in luxury. Really expensive, but I would do it again for the immense savings in time. It normally takes about 10 hours to travel from Nürnberg to Berlin, but with the ICE it’s only 3-4 hours.

The seats were big and comfy, and it was so clean and so new. The doors and bathroom facilities were automatic, which was simply mind-blowing 6 years ago. There were even tables for you to eat or do work on!

berlin train station

The Berlin Hauptbahnhof [“main train station”] was stunning

First thing my friends and I did was grab a table to play Kemps. I guess my beginner’s luck had run out since we lost miserably to the rest of our group. Our signals were all messed up and I couldn’t tell if she had Kemps and she couldn’t tell when I was signaling Kemps. Eventually we got tired of playing Kemps and our group broke up to do other stuff. I grew up without having played any card game other than “Go fish”: my time in Germany was like a class in card games, on steroids. Besides Kemps and Mao, I also learned “Spit” and “Egyptian Ratscrew”.

Then we started “Palace” and I legitimately had some curse on me for getting really terrible hands. So more losing. Then we started Mao again and I managed to win twice. However, I was unaware that the Chairman was allowed to make up ridiculous rules such as: requiring players to sing “Funkytown” and say “sandpeople eat little children” or “eat your cookies”. Kids are so weird, I know. That game lasted us until Berlin.

hotel ludwig van beethoven

Our hotel: Hotel Ludwig van Beethoven

After struggling up more flights of stairs to get out of the train station, we finally got on our bus to the hotel. And I realized I had lost my umbrella. Great.

Three of us snagged the triple-bed bedroom, which means none of us had to squeeze together on the same bed. We toasted ourselves with some Mineralwasser [“mineral water”] to a week of awesome that lay ahead. We all met at the lobby around 5pm for dinner. Herr Birkelbach took us to an Indian restaurant, which was…an interesting choice.

I don’t believe I ever had Indian before then and found it odd that they put cheese in curry. I absolutely love Indian food now, but I was not at a point in my life to try exotic things. Unsurprisingly, there was nothing for me to eat since I had cut cheese out of my diet (no paneer! 😦 ).

indian restaurant in berlinThe environment was nice and colorful, though. Service was helpful. I sat across from Jon and next to Mariette and Cory, near H. Birkelbach and to the left of the German kiddies. Everyone seemed to enjoy their meal, but I thoroughly did not. Herr Birkelbach ended up helping me finish, which made me feel like I was being too picky. But it was so incredibly salty and thick–like all they used was salt and corn starch.

The salad was good though, so I ate more of that. My dinner buddy and I started arguing about whether being vegetarian was hypocritical (because “plants and bacteria are living things too”), which escalated to politics and it got heated really quickly. We shockingly finished our meal still on good terms, but neither satisfied with the answers we had provided each other. I also desperately needed to use the restroom halfway through our debate. Even worse, everyone finished dinner and I never got the chance to use the restroom. The next 1.5 hours were spent in extreme discomfort. Luckily my experience in China has led me to develop an iron bladder.

berliner dom

We walked along the Spree River [“Fluß” in German] and I absolutely fell in love with the Berliner Dom. The sun was setting and cast a warm glow on its otherwise dramatic features. There was also a DDR [Deutsche Demokratische Republik, the state of East Germany] Museum on the way, which would have been a fascinating stop if we had the time.

What took me most by surprise on our walking tour was how conspicuous bong shops were. One store in particular was selling glow-in-the-dark bongs–which I guess is cool, but literally the most indiscreet accessory you could have for cannabis-smoking habits.

snapshots of berlin

So we finally arrived at the Fernsehturm [“TV tower”: Fernseh + Turm], at which point I was finally able to relieve myself. Possibly TMI, but that is a memory that shaped my first experience in Berlin.

ice creamWith 20 minutes to kill, it seemed like everyone suddenly had a craving for ice cream. Others of us rode up 207m to the observation tower of the Fernsehturm. I was surprisingly not the one freaking out about heights this time!

We went downstairs after maybe 15 minutes and waited for the others. The guy running the elevator smugly asked one of the guys in our group, “Wollen Sie hier sitzen, eh?” (do you want to sit here?) while patting his knee. Jokingly, of course, and all in good fun.

After we all reconvened, H. Birkelbach treated all 20 of us to two enormous scoops of ice cream!! I got mango and strawberry.