Sunday, January 24, 2016

Double-Edged Bike Tours

Hot-Blonde Cousin and I frequently seek out bike tours when traveling to new foreign cities. The first one I ever actually took was still the best one by far: a stunning magical jaunt through the vineyards of the Wachau Valley outside of Vienna. Despite the deluge of rainfall accompanying our adventure, I left the day sufficiently tipsy and having made friends with the Aussie Tour guide who now has to suffer through word vomitous whatsapp messages from time to time (or daily, not that we're counting ; ) In contrast, we went on another bike tour through the Tuscan hills surrounding Florence, leaving me with nothing but angry diatribes and lungs very much worse for the wear, care of the mountainous terrain and unnecessarily perky Italian guide. So when Cousin suggested we hop on bikes again to see the sights of Berlin, I gladly accepted, conveniently forgetting that it was January and we were nearing freezing temperatures.

En route to our meeting spot the next morning, it became increasingly clear that our surroundings were more akin to windy frozen tundra and that taking a bike tour might be the worst possible idea ever. Happily, a good 50 or so other people were equally as optimistic slash idiotic, so we knew we were in good company. Our tour guide was a verbose and witty Irishman, who did his very best to impart his historic wisdom while trying to prevent us from throwing our bikes into oncoming traffic and racing into the nearest heated building. All in all, I was glad for information on the Berlin Wall, the Holocaust Memorial, and the carpark that currently resides on top of Hitler's Bunker. But I was even more glad that Cousin and I had taken some pictures around town the day before because my fingers were so frozen together I couldn't handle more than a second or two sans gloves. 

Interestingly enough, as we made our way back to the hotel so that we could hide under blankets for a few hours, we couldn't help but stop at the icey inner tube slide we had walked past the day before. Climbing to the top of the frozen chute certainly helped us warm up a a bit, and charging down like a rocket brought my heart right up to speed. Even so, it still took me a 30-minute shower, an hour covered in blankets, and a hairdryer blasting on my face to regain feeling in my toes.

This happened just in time for us to jet off to our dinner reservation for the evening. We chose a place called Pantry, which offered a wide variety of European dishes. The presentation was beautiful and the food delicious. Aside from some creepy paintings of children holding guns on one wall, we were completely satisfied and fortified before our final evening about town.

Now, we had originally planned to scout out a bar or two we had read about, until the same Aussie Tour Guide from Vienna told me to hit up a hostel bar because his friend was a manager. He did not, however, inform me that the supposed friend would be working all DAY, night NIGHT. (Strike THREE for Bike Tour guide advice). When we arrived and asked for this possibly fictional character, we were told he would not be in that evening, and we were left to our own devices. Well, after voice memo-ing Aussie friend several times in jesting reprimand. Happily, hostel bars are quite cheap and we were two hot blondes sitting at the bar for a few hours; a recipe for magnetism if ever I heard one.  I know I chatted with some French speaker at one point, though I do not remember where he was from. We spent a good deal of time with a short Argentinean man. And I was ultimately peer pressured into kissing a 20 year old for a few minutes because he couldn't believe how old I was. Word to the wise? Never party at a hostel bar. Or maybe, never (slash always) go on bike tours.

Tuesday, January 19, 2016

Communism Means More Wine

After a relatively lackluster New Year's Eve (and I say relatively because come on, I was still in Berlin!) I woke up far less hungover than I did last year in Edinburgh (thank goodness!). While my cousin still managed to tear herself out of bed in time for breakfast, I had no interest in escaping my blankets food or not, reveling in the much needed sleep I was still craving from jet lag and crazy travel. We then switched positions, however, and Cousin went back to sleep for a few hours while I began to stir from my little cradle, wake up, shower, and start thinking of plans for the rest of the day. Unlike last year, I actually had energy and interest to explore the city a bit, and was anxious to fit in some of the sights before the weekend was out.

Cousin was surprisingly up for a little jaunt around town, so we decided to head toward Brandenburg Gate, the main event we never actually got to lay eyes on the night before. The rains had cleared but the temperature dropped, so we bundled up for our afternoon out. Throughout our wanderings, we also hit up Checkpoint Charlie and a remaining piece of the Berlin Wall. The former is absolutely a tourist trap, set up for the delight of us foreigners who want something to gaze and gawk at. The latter, however, was definitely fascinating for me to observe. When I was younger, I had a morbid obsession with WWII and Holocaust history, so being in Germany obviously brought on a lot of historical musings. My research never really extended to post-war activity so it was interesting for me to learn more about the reasons for the wall and how it functioned. We learned much more about it the next day on our bike tour around the city, but I was glad to have spent a few minutes taking it all in on our own.

So of course after settling into a random Irish pub for some afternoon pints, we went to a Communist-themed restaurant for dinner. One of my good friends in London had given us the suggestion. Apparently there are three locations, all within walking distance from each other, which was a good thing since the one we originally chose (Perlin) was closed! Happily, we strolled on over to the other location (Forum) and found it bright and bustling. Apparently during the day, the establishment functions like a normal restaurant. At 8pm, however, the concept and protocol changes completely. There is no menu or prices. You pay €2 for a wine glass and then are shown several bottles of wine laid out at the bar, where you help yourself and take a seat at your table. There is also a table in the back of the dining room where a buffet is spread out and you are allowed to help yourself as well. You can take as much wine and food as you want, refilling as much and as often as you like. Before leaving, you are expected to pay what you feel your meal was worth. I read online that some workers made it very clear that payment was expected while others do not. Cousin and I had several glasses of wine each and thought the food, while simple, was delicious. One of the gentleman, who may or may not have been an owner, was overwhelmingly courteous and kind, so we paid €20 each, thinking that was more than fair indeed for 4 glasses of wine, a plate of food, a lovely environment, and a sweet staff. All hail communism! We ended up making it an early night so we could be well rested for our bike tour the following morning. While the weather was slowly freezing, my feelings about Berlin were certainly warming up.

Friday, January 15, 2016

Murphy's Is An International Law

After a final night's sleep at my dear brother and sister-in-law's apartment and adieus from a rather disgruntled early morning pre-schooler, I packed my bags and began the journey from NYC to Montreal to Paris and finally to Berlin for New Year's Eve. This of course took many twists and turns, mostly for the, not worst, so much as delayed and mildly frustrating. The first bit of drama was a delay at Montreal Airport. While many flights were being postponed or even cancelled left and right due to inclement weather, mine never wavered from its original schedule. So when I left the bar (having been fortifying myself with a stiff gin martini) to wait amidst a swarm of holiday travelers, we were all rather confused when we consequently kept waiting and waiting and waaaaaiting with no explanation. Finally, an airline worker made an announcement that our plane was arriving late and would still need time to deplane and refuel and all that jazz before we could even begin to board. I swiftly returned to my seat at the bar.

So after a delay of a couple of hours, I was en route back to Paris, where of course I landed late and had to locate my super shuttle which of course had not stuck around. Eventually, I was back in my little Parisian apartment to repack, eat, sleep and get ready for my early morning train to Germany. Now, you would have thought that a train ride would have gone much more smoothly than a plane, but of course you would have been wrong. I had purchased my tickets online and read on the email that I had to withdraw them from a ticket machine at the station, using the debit card I had charged for the purpose. Since I no longer have that card, I arrived early at the station so that I could speak to someone about the issue and receive my ticket another way. Unfortunately, there was absolutely no staff on hand at 5am and the customer service line was also closed. Eventually, I spoke with a train staff member who told me that my reference number would be enough.... Ummm, no. In the end, I had to repurchase two tickets (there was a transfer) to get to Berlin, and ended up having to do the same for the return because there were no ticket machines in the German station. So fun. 

Still, I made it to Germany, utilizing my 8-hour train ride to catch up on some well-needed sleep. Once I arrived, I navigated my way to the hotel where I found that my Hot Blonde Cousin had already checked in. My cousin who, by the way, had also experience delays with her transportation to the airport and was fearing difficulties with her flight as well. Clearly the cosmos was taking issue with our New Year's Eve agenda. 

After some rest and some showers, however, we were rejuvenated and ready to roll. We had purposely made dinner reservations online so that we would have substantial nourishment before our evening out. We chose a restaurant called "Sauerkraut", which boasted a traditional menu in a cute ambiance. As soon as we entered the restaurant, however, the waitstaff told us that they were in fact closed, though the online system had mistakenly taken reservations anyway. Thankfully, they had had a few other guests arrive that night and so kept their doors open just a bit longer to accommodate those of us who were without a dinner spot. It felt a little rushed and as if were were annoying the lingering server at first, but the food was delicious and once we were the last table seated, Cousin had flirted sufficiently enough to nab us a free glass of champagne for a toast... Silver lining.

Finally, we were ready to go out and attend the free outdoor party at Brandenberg Gate. It had tragically started to rain and get a whole lot colder, but we were ready with our little bottles of booze in hand. Little did we know that sometime before 10pm, the hour we arrived at the site, all the entrances had been shut down indefinitely. Apparently there were too many partygoers, even though the streets were blocked so far away from the scene of events that we couldn't see a soul in sight. As the rain continued to pummel down and we did our best to warm ourselves with liquor, my attempts at flirting with a security guard were essentially thwarted and we were left with nothing to do.

Interestingly enough, fireworks in Berlin are completely legal, so everywhere we looked people were detonating their explosives and showering the streets with colorful flames. The effect was equal parts magical and sort of horrifying.  I couldn't help but be in Germany and think of past world wars, so the constant pops, booms and puffs of smoke were making it all feel very akin to a war zone. As midnight struck amidst pouring rain and bursts of blaze, Hot Blonde Cousin and I said auf wiedersehen to our disastrous day and guten tag to 2016.