East Side Gallery: Berlin
Where to begin? 5 cities, 10 days, over fifty hours in a bus. Breakfast in Amsterdam, lunch in Brussels, dinner in Paris– when on earth will I ever do that again?
But first, let me explain my reasoning for this seemingly crazy endeavor.
I’m interested in too many things. I want to go EVERYWHERE. Hence why it took me 3 months to settle on Italy for a study abroad destination. I went through an Australia phase, a Prague phase, and to my mother’s horror, an India phase. Ultimately, I chose Italy for the language, culture, and, of course, food. Florence in particular was my favorite city when I came to Italy with my parents two summers ago, and it continues to be where I feel I most belong. But I digress.
Berlin: our first stop (after fifteen long hours- thank goodness for Staci as a wonderful bus buddy). I’m not sure quite what I expected, but it was the city out of the five (Amsterdam, Brussels, Paris, and Barcelona) that I had the lowest expectations for, just because I pictured it as a more bleak, serious city. Although many people on our tour, including myself, described it as “industrial,” it also has a fantastically funky/alternative vibe. Street art is everywhere and is especially thought-provoking in the East Side Gallery of the Berlin Wall.
One of our first destinations was the Reichstag building, a stunning building in which the Parliament meets. The concept of the architectural design is transparency, so that the people can be more involved and directly see what goes on in the government. The wide, winding circular staircase leads to the top of the building from which you can see all of Berlin. It reminded me of the John Hancock building in Chicago, with its sleek, modern design.
Another highlight of Berlin: the DDR (Deutsche Demokratische Republik) museum, which was highly interactive and informative. For instance, I learned how during the Cold War period, East Berliners had different words for objects than West Berliners through a “guessing game” in which you could try to identify which words were which. Staci and I tried to learn how to dance in the traditional way in another interactive exhibit, and we read about how discoteccas weren’t supposed to play American music but did anyway because it was much more popular, and I can understand why after listening to some at the museum.
Walking through the Holocaust Memorial and museum was a more haunting, somber experience. The grave-like descending stones made me feel as if I were in a cemetery, but without flowers or any sort of color. I chose to do the audio tour guide through the museum, which delved
into stories of individuals who were affected by the Holocaust. The first quote within the building is from Primo Levi, an Italian writer who I’d read back at Georgetown. His words resonated with me as I walked through the museum, reading concerned letters to/from family members that somehow survived, even though the people themselves did not.
Berlin recounts its tragic history with this Holocaust museum, but also with buildings that serve as relics, since some architects decided to keep bullet holes intact as a reminder of the violence that occurred. Most memorable for me, however, was the East Side Gallery of the Berlin Wall, in which colorful, powerful images and words revitalize the wall that once divided the city. I found it somewhat ironic that so many people (including me!) were taking pictures of themselves in front of this wall, which is now a tourist attraction in which you can take a trendy picture. In one sense it seems to trivialize the art, yet ultimately for me, I think these pictures remind me of the power of emotionally stimulating art. The part of the wall in the picture above particularly resonated with me, as it reminded me of my home, New Orleans, with its crawfish, music, and jubilant atmosphere. As I travel, I appreciate my “roots” even more, my love for a city in which art flourishes, rejuvenates, and reminds us of life’s pain and its beauty.
Before I came to Amsterdam, my dad compared the city to Venice, except that Amsterdam is a “city with canals” whereas Venice is “canals with a city.” I had the same impression, and I loved the feel of Amsterdam, its quaintness, its architecture, and its relaxed atmosphere. On the first night, we spent several hours walking around the city to acquaint ourselves and found a studio in an area that used to be a parking lot in which the artist, who we met, used different fabrics in her pieces to create a 3D-like effect.
For dinner, we had breakfast: pancakes. These were no ordinary pancakes, however. My “Canadian pancake” was filled with bacon, mushrooms, onions and cheese. Funnily enough, we were surrounded by Italians, since we were at a sports bar type of restaurant and there were two different soccer games playing. It almost felt like home.
The next day we visited the Anne Frank House, which was powerful yet not what I expected. When I read Anne Frank’s diary, I always picture her nestled in her attic, but the principle part of the museum was the annex of their house (although we did get a glimpse of the attic). The most memorable part of the tour for me, however, was the video of Anne Frank’s dad speaking about her, and how her diary showed a side of Anne that he had never known. He begs the question, “Can we ever know our children?” His words made me think about whether we can know ourselves, or every version of ourselves, since with each person we act differently, according to what qualities they evoke from us, or their disposition, etc.
Another thing that struck me in the museum were Anne’s handwritten journal entries as well as the beginnings of her novel, called The Secret Annex. Reading her words made me hyperaware of the tragedy of her premature death, especially since I know she would have continued to be a prolific and profound writer. As one who appreciates language and written expression, I feel especially touched by the story of Anne Frank, a girl who coped with her anxiety, anger, and sadness through writing, a girl I aspire to emulate.
Next we ventured to the Van Gogh museum, an extensive collection that shows his progression as an artist. I’d never been to an art museum focused on one artist before, but I enjoyed it and like the concept. Seeing his early period of more rural paintings and his style become more “radical” or unique with its swirls of color was enlightening, since I had only seen Van Gogh’s famous works. Perhaps my favorite small detail that I learned was that a curator found grains of sand in the painting featured on the right translated as “Fishing Boats at Sea”– Van Gogh loved to work outside when painting. That’s the kind of artist I’d like to be: an artist who gets sand in his paintings, who directly interacts with the environment around him and incorporates it.
We only stopped in Brussels for a few hours, principally for waffles and beer, but I enjoyed the opportunity to explore yet another European city. The architecture of Brussels was beautiful, a feature I hadn’t expected.
But, if I’m being honest, my favorite part of Brussels was the food. I don’t even really like waffles, but when I bit into mine, topped with nutella and a traditional Belgian crumbled cookie spread called speculoos, I was in heaven. It was the best food I ate all trip, hands down.
Magical. The first word that came to mind when, after another long bus ride directly proceeded by a metro ride to the Eiffel Tower, until finally I rounded the corner to see one of the most well-known sights of the world. Before I arrived in Paris, I feared the Eiffel Tower may not live up to my high expectations. Luckily, my fears were unfounded. Against the purplish black sky, the Eiffel Tower glistened and glowed. Time stopped.
Traveling can make the world seem surreal, as if I’m watching a movie of my life unfolding. In that moment, I felt I had to verify that I was actually here, in Paris, one of the most beautiful cities in the world. So I convinced Staci and David to go down to the Tower’s base, almost to establish its (and my) existence.
I practically skipped there and back– for some reason, all of my fatigue melted away when I saw the Tower, ran up to it, and looked inside at its scaffolding. David described it as a “web of steel,” an expression which resonated with me.
As I sat to watch the glittering show of the Eiffel tower, nutella crepe in hand, I couldn’t help but feel again a sense of wonder and disbelief.
It was love at fist sight. In addition to the Eiffel Tower, Paris’s art, gardens, Notre Dame, Arc di Triumph, e ambiente (atmosphere) astounded me, but also reminded me of home, since New Orleans has quite a bit of French architecture.
In Paris I felt more relaxed, especially with the sunny, beautiful weather. After trekking through the Lourve, which is stunning but overwhelming, we relaxed in the gardens nearby. Just sitting down for a few moments felt wonderful after so much time traveling and constantly moving. Perhaps the magic of Paris for me was this: taking the time to soak up the feel of the city and rest my feet.
But of course, there is much to see in Paris, and we only had two days, so we continued onwards to the Arc di Triumph, which we climbed. The view of the city from the top of the Arch was incredible– I hadn’t realized the beauty of the organized streets until I saw them from above. With the wind in my hair and time to catch my breath, I again felt a sense of disbelief, yet of utter happiness.
My experience of Notre Dame was especially meaningful for me. When I walked into the church, the color and light almost blinded me with its exquisite beauty. For me, Gothic churches such as Notre Dame affect me more emotionally than most of the churches I’ve seen in Italy, perhaps because I grew up going to churches with stained-glass windows. On our way out of the church, we passed the candles, which you can light in memory or in prayer for someone. I stopped in my tracks. My cousin Emily died of cancer in June, a tragedy with which I’m still struggling to cope or understand. Especially since she never had the opportunity to study abroad or travel in Europe to see such beautiful things as the Notre Dame. Emily was a beautiful, intelligent, and kind person, like a big sister to me. Lighting a candle for her seemed like a way to have her with me, to share with her this spiritual experience.
Immediately after leaving Notre Dame, I caught sight of a King Charles Spaniel, the type of dog Emily had. For me, it was no mere coincidence; it was a miracle. Using my trusty “trip advisor” app, I looked for our next destination and found a bookstore five minutes away: Shakespeare and Company, which I know Emily would have loved. A cozy bookstore with a quiet “reading room” above, Shakespeare and Company won my heart with its old typewriters, fun staff suggestions, and smell of books, new and old.
Along with literature, impressionist art is another one of my favorite things. Although it was a dazzling, sunny day and everyone else wanted to remain in the gardens, I chose to embark on a solo journey to Musée d’Orsay. Across the river from the Louvre, past the
“Love Lock” bridge, this museum used to be a train station.
I felt as if I were in the movie Hugo, with its huge clock in the center of the exhibit. I was completely satisfied, surrounded by my favorite artists: Monet, Renoir, Degas. Unlike the Louvre, I felt more relaxed, less overwhelmed. I couldn’t take pictures of the paintings, which was actually a relief, so that I could simply gaze at them and not worry about capturing every moment. On one hand it was more relaxing being alone, so that I could go at my own pace, yet on the other, I would’ve liked someone with whom to discuss the art. I face this dilemma often: whether to do things I want to do, even if no one else wants to, or to go with a group and do something I’m not as excited about. In this case, however, I’m grateful I explored Musée d’Orsay, which may be my favorite art museum of all-time.
Paris exceeded my expectations, and I didn’t encounter any outrightly rude Parisians. Maybe it was because the weather was beautiful, but I think it was also because Paris was the kind of place I needed. A place to gather my thoughts, internalize art, and enjoy the moment.
Barcelona held a different kind of excitement for me, since my friend Adri who is studying in Seville met me here. When I saw her getting out of the taxi, I ran to her and had a reunion similar to that with Xime– a VERY long hug with lots of smiles and laughter. There’s nothing like a good friend, who you don’t have to make any effort with at all because they already know and understand you. Throughout the trip I had been meeting new people, and it was such a relief to just be with Adri and not have to try to make conversation but have it flow naturally.
We wanted to be outside, since again, the weather was lovely, so we ambled towards a park that we found on a map. I immediately loved the atmosphere of Barcelona, with its tropical trees, warm-colored buildings, and fruit stands on every corner.
Park Guell is not exactly a park, but more like a huge garden full of architectural oddities, some of which were designed by Gaudi, the famous architect. It was the perfect place for our reunion, since we could chat, sit, and gaze out at the beautiful Barcelona skyline.
Adri was the perfect guide in Spain, since her Spanish is incredible and her knowledge of tapas very helpful. It was funny to hear her talk with some of the Barcelona locals, however, since she’s from a different region of Spain. In Barcelona most people speak Catalan, a language similar to Spanish yet with different pronunciations/inflections. There are also certain foods that Adri wanted me to try that but were specific to Seville. I’ve found it’s similar in Italy, in which every region has its own specialties and pride in its culture.
That evening we went to a flamenco show with our group that was incredible– one male flamenco dancer danced for half an hour, moving his feet in a mesmerizing, tap-dance like manner. Afterwards, we filled up on seafood paella and sangria, which, fun fact, Adri insists that only Americans, not Spaniards, drink.
The next morning after my first full night’s sleep all trip, we went to La Sagrada Familia, Gaudi’s architectural wonder whose construction started in 1882 yet that is still being built. Like the Notre Dame, La Sagrada Familia contains beautiful stained glass, but La Sagrada Familia is brighter, full of natural light. The architecture is astounding– Gaudi, like Leonardo da Vinci, was inspired by nature and constructed the pillars of the church as if they were trees reaching up to the sky.
After seeing so many ancient works of art, it was refreshing to see a more modern piece which is still under construction. La Sagrada Familia not only inspired me spiritually but also artistically, in the sense that it convinced me art, like music, can still be created in new ways and to make us think and appreciate life.
Along with La Sagrada Familia, my favorite part of Barcelona was the Old Gothic section of the city. Adri and I headed in the direction of the beach after La Sagrada Familia but took many detours– the other “Arc di Triumph,” lunch, and a few artisan shops. This was a perfect reminder for me that the journey, rather than the destination, matters most, since some of my favorite memories of Barcelona involve our winding path to the sea. The Old Gothic neighborhood had a certain relaxed yet active, warm ambiance, full of colorful plants and trees. We came across a tree in the middle of a courtyard in this area, on which was written words that loosely translate to “if you walk by a tree but don’t really see it, you haven’t seen a tree.” For me, this tree was a reminder to stop and slow down, to admire the beauty around me, to really see the tree.
Around mid evening, we arrived at the beach, where I immediately took of my shoes and sunk my toes in the sand. For me, the beach evokes childhood memories, since every year my family and I go to Florida, and I lived in Destin for several months after the hurricane. As the sun set, Adri and I sat in the sand together, recounting our day and discussing our desire to remember the small details as well as the large events during our semesters abroad. We found sea glass while walking on the beach, and I realized that keeping these pieces of natural art would enable me to tangibly recollect the way I felt being reunited with a great friend in a fascinating city, unlike one I’d ever seen before.
Insomma, it was a spring break full of new, big cities and small, tangible moments. Nostalgia, excitement, sadness, felicity: a mix of emotions rolled into ten days and five cities. Processing all of the beauty I’ve seen has been difficult, but I hope to retain the images and sensations per sempre.