We took the train to Berlin on a rainy morning. The familiar noise of hungover/still a bit drunk posh English girls twanged from the carriage down the hall, and Flavia and I read as we bumped along the Czech countryside toward Germany. Upon arrival at the massive train station we made our way through the various levels, took a metro, then a tram to our hostel. The first thing we noticed about the city is that it is absolutely enormous. The sprawl seems to extend forever and fortunately there is a cheap and very reliable 24 hour transit network of buses, trams, and a metro. Navigating the network at first seemed a bit tricky, but in the fashion we expected, everything was well organized and easy to find. We set out in the afternoon as the rain clouds dissipated and explored some of the tourist spots. We started at the Eastside gallery, a monument to the wall which now has some of the best graffiti in the world. The statements made at the monument were political and compassionate, some profound and some elegantly simple, and we began to get a feel of Berlin; an open, artsy, welcoming façade, with one of the darkest recent histories in Western Europe. As we toured around, we walked a lot; we’re used to walking a lot. I don’t exactly miss having a car, parking, getting lost, paying for gas, but our reliance on public transit as well as foot power has put a lot of strain on our poor feet. I enjoy walking though, you notice the little things that you would miss when driving past.
I think overall Berlin’s sites were a tribute to the last 100 years. Most of the buildings before that was destroyed in the war, and I will say that they have done their best to apologize for the holocaust and continue to put any racist or prejudice past behind them. The memories are still explained, from the vast Jewish museum, to the extremely modern holocaust memorial, the issue is not ignored, instead it’s presented in a way meant to stimulate as opposed to resent. The story of the wall is something that amazed us as well. I always pictured a wall that just cut through the city, dividing it into two nice equal pieces. That’s not it at all though, instead it twists and turns its way through the city, separating neighbors and neighborhoods with indiscriminate concrete. The checkpoints were scenes of death, tension, and desperation. We walked much of the way along the simple park with the two brick wide marker of where the wall used to be, and enjoyed the free exhibits about the wall and German history.
That night we met up with Campbell (from Australia). He is working in Germany and was passing through Berlin for the weekend and we couldn’t miss an opportunity to see him. It’s nice to be back with friends, and Berlin seemed like the perfect place, kind of a home city instead of a tourist one. There are tourists here, but there isn’t really a designated old city or tourist zone like in the other large cities in Europe. Instead, everyone is everywhere, meaning you can get a local meal, at local prices, surrounded by, yah… locals. It’s nice to not feel gouged for looking at an English menu, and the diversity of the food in Berlin almost made us a bit homesick. Not homesick like we missed home, instead Berlin felt like home, with the multitude of restaurants, art, cafes and bars, all packed with young families, art students, and hip 20 somethings, this area kind of felt like Oakland. We ate a quick meal and headed around an area that had a bit of action, perhaps not the best place for us to go out, but we settled into a picnic bench outside of a bar to watch the rest of the night pass.
The next day we met up with Campbell again to explore the city. Heading through the Sunday morning flea markets we smelled Currywurst and mustard, sipped on great cappuccinos served out of a trailer, and I picked up a few t shirts to replace the ones that are in serious need of replacing. The mood in Berlin on that Sunday morning was upbeat, happy that the rain had held off, at least for the morning, and keeping count of the waning days of summer. People were very friendly, quirky and everyone spoke great English. Campbell was in worse condition than we were, as he had a few pit stops on the way home to his hostel to find that at night it turned into a nightclub and therefore the music didn’t stop until well into the morning. We felt good, I really am enjoying a bit of a cool down, it seems to make the cities much more enjoyable to walk around. After some Pho and a trip to a few more monuments, we accompanied Campbell back to his hostel and then sat and had a cappuccino at an amazing network of cafes and bars nearby. The front of this building was held in tact after the rest was bombed in World War II. Instead of tearing down the whole thing, they moved away the rubble of the back half of the building and left the front, with its interesting ledges and cut away stone patios. This seemed like a mix between a transient home and a co-op, with the inside completely covered in graffiti and the outside stuffed with odd modern art style seating, antique barbers chairs on springs, and scruffy patches of grass surrounded by an organic garden. The mix of smells was remarkable, from wonderfully fresh coffee, to stale beer, to piss in the corners and alleyways. This spot screamed Berlin, the rebellious attitude, the multitude of languages, the “everyone in welcome” feel, and youth yearning to change or further the image of the city.
After a full day of walking, we settled for a great meal at a nearby Indian restaurant, then relaxed in the room, resting, taking the first bit of time that we’ve had in a week or so to just sit and not do anything. Since we left the beach in Croatia, we have been going full speed, and we were both in need of a little break. That break came when we arrived in Switzerland to see Wini and Stephan’s smiling faces waiting for us at the Zurich airport. We met them our first week of the trip while we were in Fiji, as they were taking a break from a campervan trip around New Zealand. They were eager for us to come to Switzerland to visit, and we were more than happy to accept their invitation to stay at their homes. We quickly learned that without their help, there is no way that we, or any other backpacker, could ever afford Switzerland. This country is remarkably expensive, nothing at all is cheap. Public transit… expensive, food from the supermarket, expensive, a steak or any piece of meat, forget it! I guess what I’ve learned here is that they do their best to give you nice value for what you get, because everything does have that little extra touch. Also, if you worked here, in a place where a starting teacher’s salary is $80000 per year, then maybe it doesn’t seem so overpriced.
Wini drove us through his town Zug for a quick stop for lunch, followed by a drive down to Luzern where Stephan lives for the night. We wandered the clean and bright streets of old town Luzern where opera chimed from a bridge nearby and shimmering clear water flowed from the stream into their river. The old churched build on the lush green hills gave way into the distance where towering glaciers promised a great winter for skiing. Everything outside of the city is green. There seems to be so much importance on livelihood and health in Switzerland. Everyone is in good shape and rides a bike. The cities are set up to be so bike friendly and outside there are hiking trails and peaks everywhere lined with clean streams, purple and yellow wildflowers and fresh cool air. We shopped for dinner and we were told that we had to try, Raclette. This traditional Swiss food is of course based around cheese. It uses a special hotplate, with a broiler underneath for the cheese. Square cuts are placed into a little tray with onion and topped with spices, then broiled until they are melted and then poured over a baked potato. On the grill plate we cooked up a few sausages and bacon strips and washed everything down with a bit of white wine and beer. Stephan’s house was a perfect example of Swiss made architecture. Painted with a lot of red and white, the house is perched into a hillside with modern appliances that I have never seen in the US, like an amazing induction stove, to an amazing automatic cappuccino maker! There is a large sitting room with modern sofas surrounded by abstract art, and three levels of patios and a pool. There are very strict rules about construction in Switzerland. Outer walls must be 13 cm thick and 20 cm thick in the mountains. There must be three or four types of insulation in all of them and stone or brick on the outside. These sustainable building methods help to keep heating costs down during the brutally cold winters.
In the morning we rose a bite later than planned and cursed the bottle of Fijian Rum sitting on the table while making our way towards breakfast and hoping for a bit of motivation to get us out into the mountains. The plan did unfold, eventually, and we drove through the alps, stopping at a few passes, the Devil’s Bridge, once to take a few pictures with a guy playing the Alps horn (you know the one from the Ricola commercials) and then again for a cappuccino to keep us awake for the ride back to Zug. The highway system in Switzerland is remarkable. They charge to get a pass to drive on the highway system and therefore the money goes to making impressive tunnels and new highways free of potholes that wind through the mountains and passes. The roads are lined with ski areas, now just green hills with lonely chairlifts and ski lodges filled with mountain bikers and hikers. Once back in Zug we took a quick shower and jumped in the car… again… for the short drive to Zurich to meet Frank and Alex (the Swiss couple we met in Australia that were staying at Campbell’s), as they had just returned home from their trip around the world and were adjusting to real life. We had a quick dinner and strolled along the Rhine in the pristine old town of Zurich. This is the most immaculate city we have seen so far on the trip. The wealth here is not hidden, and if you don’t have a luxury or Italian sports car, stay off the damn streets! The buildings are so clean that it seems that everything is painted each year, and the city was preparing for the upcoming street parade where a few hundred thousand descend upon the city to dance and party throughout the weekend. Zurich did seem prohibitively expensive, with hostels asking $80 for a bed in a dormitory, and no meal with entrees under $15, even a street Kebab was $8. I think that in this country, people our age do have to watch their spending even more than in the US due to the cost of living. This country is geared towards the rich, although we learned that the social programs do make up for what the lower classes earn.
We headed back to Zug to spend the night at Wini’s mother’s apartment, who is out of town, and we settled in on yet another late night with an early morning train ride the next day.