achtung!

Berlin is an interesting place after dark. The city has always been a hotbed for underground subcultures, and here the gutter punks share dance floor space with everyone from latex-wearing goths to edge kids and everything in between. The years preceding the fall of the Wall fostered the same sort of alternativism. Oppressive conditions tend to breed resistance, the weeds that poked through the homogenous concrete of Honecker’s régime.

Speaking of Herr Honecker, he’d have had us Americans nicked by die Stasi if we’d made it through the Iron Curtain to where our hostel was – Rosa-Luxemburg-Platz just over the line from the West. During the days of the DDR (Deutsche Demokratische Republik or East Germany), Rosa-Luxemburg-Platz was home to the Volksbühne, the East German ‘people’s theater’. Kira and I checked in to our hostel, just across from the U-Bahn and set upon the unsuspecting capital. The U-Bahn was mere steps away and sped us quickly through the tunnels beneath the city and on northward. We disembarked at Eberswalder Straße, and in wandering the streets nearby, found ourselves in a park with a number of spindly stadium lights at the top of a hill on one side and rows of Soviet-era housing blocks on the other. We climbed the hill, watching the increasing amount of people fill up the park with dogs, footballs, and most importantly for Berlin, bottles of beer. The beer in Germany is key, it’s cheap (sometimes less than a euro for a litre) and delicious, and the denizens of Berlin were cracking open cold ones in the park as the heat of the day faded away into the evening.

The top of the hill had a section of concrete wall on it, 30 metres (100 ft.) long and four metres (16 ft.) high. A number of writers were making good use of this canvas (see below), and it was actually encouraged; as we watched, a Berlin cop walked up and admired the work one artist was in the process of finishing. He chatted to the painter for a few minutes, then let him finish the last few sprays onto the concrete.

We had a sneaking suspicion about the origins of this heavily-painted section of concrete, and that night, after some quick research, we confirmed them. It seems we had managed to simply stumble upon one of the largest extant sections of The Wall. The one Roger Waters played the entirety of The Wall in front of after its fall. The one that Reagan told Gorbachev to tear down. That wall. No Man’s Land was just on the other side of the appropriately named Mauerpark (wall park).

And the Wall isn’t the only thing tagged up in East Berlin. Nowhere else have I seen such quantity of quality; nearly every piece of graf East Berlin showed us was remarkable.



Back to Eberswalder Straße now, it was getting dark.

The U-Bahn is, predictably for Germany, fast, clean, and efficient (if a bit boring to look at sometimes). During the days of the Wall, the German capital’s metro, like the rest of city, was diced up according to East and West. Some routes remained entirely in one or the other; others, like the U2 we were on, were cut in half giving some to the East and some to the West. Still others (West Berlin’s U6 and U8 and the S-Bahn’s Nord-Süd Tunnel) ran partially through Eastern territory – though without stopping, leading to the so-called geisterbahnhof – literally ‘ghost stations’. Trains would pass through these dimly lit, heavily guarded stations slowly, giving the western passengers on board their only up-close views of East Berlin. The sole exception to this no-disembarking rule was Friedrichstraße station, which was set up as a transfer point and a border crossing between the Berlins. The building was turned into a labyrinth of corridors, checkpoints, cameras, and armed guards – with some Stasi officers thrown in for good measure. For decades, Friedrichstraße was the biggest hole in the Iron Curtain, the crack through which many of the the 3.5 million East Germans that had left by 1961 (approximately 20% of the population of the DDR at the time) forced their way out through. After the fall of the Wall, Friedrichstraße, along with Potsdamer Platz and many others, was reopened to all Berliners. Potsdamer Platz was built in the Nord-Süd Tunnel, the connector between Berlin’s northern and southern rail lines. The tunnel’s orientation put it smack underneath the Berlin Wall, and as a result Potsdamer Platz shut down for service from 1961 onward until the Wall fell in 1989. It remained unchanged from the way it had been before its closure – right down to the station signs, still in old-style German script (the one outside dates from after the station’s reopening).

A train’s ride away is the famous Brandenburg Gate, built in the late 1700s as part of a wall built for tax purposes (similar to the Wall of the Farmers-General in Paris). The gate stands today as the most well-known symbol of Berlin, complete with its innumerable patches over holes made by shrapnel and Soviet bullets during the final days of World War II. Once again, we were doing nothing but minding our own business when *SMACK* – here comes the broad pimp slap hand of History. It would be coming down hard again very soon, as we walked a few blocks from the Gate to a car park just across from the Holocaust Memorial. It’s just a car park, full of gravel and…well…cars. When the dogs of Berlin need to have a poo, they’re sometimes taken here.

You see, it’s not the innocuous car park that bore any particular significance, it was what was buried underneath our feet: Hitler’s bunker. Remember that history pimp slap?

This sort of thing happened a lot in Berlin. All of these things I’d only learned about in history classes, this was where they took place. It’s a different experience hearing about the Battle of Berlin and actually seeing the gouges in buildings from shell fragments and bullets fired during the battle, or seeing the imposing Soviet housing blocks in East Berlin and knowing that this was a Communist country only 30 years ago. Seeing things like this up close make all of that real. It’s undeniable. It’s everywhere. Berlin has managed to masterfully incorporated this history into the city’s current form, never forgetting where it came from – and where it’s going.

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paris part deux

At the bottom of a stairway next to the River Seine, there’s a chair with a man wrapped a shiny gold sheet sitting on it. People of Paris, meet King Tut.

King Tut Guy was just sort of sitting there in his sheet, wriggling a thank you at the passersby who dropped change into his cup. This is Paris; sometimes…well, a lot of the time, things don’t make a lot of sense. But that’s okay, just chalk it up to the French being French, with their wine and their cheese and their Gauloises. They’re a bit different, right?

Paris, being an ancient city, has its fair share of famous monuments and architecture. I won’t go into depth about all these, since you likely have at least heard of them (and I loathe coming off as a tourist), but I’ll give a few of them a nod as it’s my first time seeing any of them outside of a book or TV show. Consider yourself warned.

Near the Eiffel Tower, little gangs of souvenir peddlers ply their craft, selling the same cheap Eiffel Tower knickknacks from big rings in their hands or the occasional blanket on the ground, ready to swoop everything up and relocate at the first sign of the flics. They have two separate tones of voice reserved; one, quieter and more hurried, is spoken only amongst themselves. The other, shouty and usually in broken English or German, is used to hawk at the masses of tourists under the vaulting, graceful arcs of the Tower. Either way, if it’s a souvenir of your time in Paris you’re looking for, these gents will be more than happy to hook you up.

setting up shop

The Champ de Mars just across the street, however, is (like a lot of the rest of Paris) a completely different story. Here in the park, even in the shadow of one of the most recognizable landmarks in the world, life returns to a more Parisian pace. People dawdle, stroll around, couples stake out their benches and chat. It’s all a wonderful juxtaposition, and it’s not just in the Champ de Mars – it’s all over the increasingly globalized and frenzied city.

Paris is a city best explored on foot or by Métro. The Paris Metro is as much an attraction as anything else in Paris, a perfect example of how public transport becomes deeply intwined with the soul of a city. The Metro is a mirror upon which the image of Paris is projected. It’s not super clean. It’s not fast (the average service speed in the Metro is only 20 km/h (12.4 mph) due to the close proximity of the stations and tight curves in the tunnels). To get on or off the trains, you have to flip a lever or push a button on the doors to release them. Unlike the Underground, there’s no escalators, just miles and miles of stairs. Perhaps this speaks of the French attitude of self-dependence, maybe it’s France’s way of simply sticking up their collective middle finger at the droves of tourists who flock to the city. Regardless, it’s the Metro. It’s a beautiful, sweaty, dirty mess. And it can be, at times, a high-voltage, clandestine playground (if one has the time and the cojones as messieur dsankt does).

As for us, we retired that night to a hostel in the northeast of the city, just outside the Boulevard Périphérique near Metro Hoche. We exited the Metro around midnight, meaning that the neighbourhood we suddenly found ourselves in was, shall we say, less than savory. The nearest cash machine had a lurker prowling near it, never straying far for fear of missing a victim. We booked across the street, sticking out like sore traveling thumbs with our packs. Haste was a good idea. This was a different Paris, a Paris that was not so casual, not so bright. I could feel the pointed stares from the people around us in the shadows, sizing us up, wondering what the bloody hell two obvious foreigners were doing in this part of Paris at this time of night. Finally, a few blocks away lay the hostel, a place that was mercifully less dodgy than the surrounding neighbourhood. Up the unlit stairs were our bunks, spartan and creaky. This was a real backpacker’s hostel, no frills, all business. My kind of place. I was exhausted, and passed out as soon as I hit the pillow.

The next morning, Le Pré-Saint-Gervais had morphed back into Dr. Jekyll. Once again, Paris was Paris, the cafés already drawing their early morning crowds, the street merchants setting up shop near the Metro station. My roommate that morning was a 25-year-old grad student from Los Angeles; I said hello in French and he answered in dude-tinged English. Thousands of miles away from home (and two days out), I had encountered my first American on the road. He’d been out much longer than me; two weeks prior in Italy (where he’d been studying) and Spain, now Paris for the next week. We traded war stories while I loaded my pack, my tales of living in London, his of the last few months spent studying in Siena. Before long my pack was ready to go, I bade my new friend goodbye, and we were off across town to hostel #2, the new St. Christopher’s on the Canal d’Ourcq. We checked in, dropped our gear, and proceeded to do exactly what we’d done so well the last few days: wander aimlessly around the capital of France.

We had lunch that day at a café near the Sorbonne, in the Quartier Latin, so named for the extensive use of Latin in the world of early French higher academia. Cafés are still very important to the French, still very much the centre of social circles, much like the pub is to the British. The tables outside are the best, always facing the street, the world around you, never letting go of the pulse of daily life in the city. Today this pulse was especially strong, as we had only been sitting at our table 15 minutes or so before all of Paris rode past on rollerblades.

Also, if I may, a word of advice. If you go to the Louvre, be warned that the world’s biggest art mosh pit surrounds the most famous painting on the planet:

The banks of the Seine have always defined the city, from the physical separation of the two halves of the city to the more philosophical distinctions between the rives gauche et droite. The river must have a lot of stories; men like Voltaire and Victor Hugo strolled its banks much as we did. It’s all terribly charming, for reasons that I’m sure have been laid out in innumerable forms of media. Every single reason is valid. From the banks, the sound of the traffic on the streets above becomes only a muted whoosh and the world takes on a sort of tunnel vision. Everything takes on a different perspective from here, the colors seem to warm, the sounds of the people near the river seems to amplify. It’s also annoyingly picturesque:

Our last day in the capital of France passed us by, but by no means did we have an easy night ahead. Back to the hostel we went, packing our gear and making a last minute run to the marché for the essentials: wine, potent beer called Beélzebuth (11.8%!), brie, butter, and from a small boulangerie on the Avenue de Flandre, baguette. Perfect baguette, crusty on the outside, soft on the inside. These small wonders would get us through the night ahead: 16 hours on a bus crossing parts of four countries, destination Berlin.

smell the fresh bread right here (in photographic form)