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Summarizing an Unforgettable Year in Germany

Hello All!
I am currently writing this entry on the airplane from Frankfurt to Calgary, after experiencing a very stressful morning sprinting between gates in Frankfurt. I have made a discovery while on this flight: if you have 8 hours with no internet access and minimal other distractions, blog writing gets a heck of a lot faster!
I could tell I was on a flight to Canada when I noticed someone wearing a lululemon t-shirt at the airport: I have been going to the gym in Berlin for 9 months and haven’t seen a single item of clothing from there. It’s a bit strange to be surrounded by English speakers again, since now I can understand every bit of chatter going on around me. I had gotten used to only understanding bits and pieces of what people said in nearby conversations, since it was always out of context. However, I have had a few conversations with Germans in today’s flights, and I feel that I am way more confident now that I would have been in September. Learning a language is basically an endless process, but I like to think that I am as fluent as I hoped to be when I began taking German classes three years ago.
I set out to write this particular blog entry as a summary of what I have experienced this year. It feels as though my time here has flown by, and yet when I look back at everything I’ve done, it feels like I’ve been here for an eternity. I know that it is practically impossible to summarize my experiences completely, so I’ll try to keep it brief. (Upon my completing this blog and transferring it to wordpress, I must admit that it is anything but brief. Prepare yourself!)
At the end of August 2013, I gathered my courage and boarded a plane to Berlin for nine months away from home. Unlike a lot of people who take on courageous new adventures, I was lucky enough to have my boyfriend waiting for me at the arrival gate. We spent three days in Berlin before driving to Köln (Cologne) so that I could begin my orientation for a year of working at a German High School. I had been part of an orientation the summer before, and was expecting a miniscule group of students; instead, I met hundreds of people from around the world, and got to bask in accents from Ireland, England, Scotland, New Zealand, and Australia. Everyone was welcoming and friendly towards everyone else, and I created a group of lifelong friends. The people from that orientation that I have stayed in touch with has changed over the year; while about 15 of us went to Oktoberfest together, there are about six of us that have remained close. However, I like to think that there are many people that would get in touch with me if they ever came to Canada, and this orientation had a much larger influence on my year than I would have ever expected

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My work contract ran from September 1st to May 30th. In the first month, Sebastien helped me to deal with technicalities such as obtaining a bank account, registering where I lived, obtaining my proper visa, and joining a gym. Beginnings have always made me panic a bit, but everything went very smoothly. The other day, I was able to cancel my bank account without any issues (I like to think “I’m moving back to Canada” is a great reason to give for cancelling a bank account!) and Seb had the foresight to store my moving-out documents in a place where we could easily find them and send them to the right people once I left.
The end of September resulted in a slew of Oktoberfest activities – I went to an Oktoberfest in Berlin for two separate weekends, and also spent three days at an Oktoberfest in Munich. For the longest time, I didn’t think the trip to Munich would happen, because of the expense and the fact that there was hardly anywhere to stay. But thanks to the research of one of my British friends, we were able to pull it off by staying in tents and going during the week instead of on a weekend. The experience was unforgettable (feel free to read my blog all about it, if you haven’t already!) although I don’t think I will ever need to repeat it. Sleeping in a tent in October is not necessarily the nicest experience, and it was amazing how good it felt to sit on a cushioned bus seat instead of a hard bench by the end.
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Since the first two weeks in October were a holiday for High School Students, Sebastien and I took the chance to take a short trip. We had a lot of different options in mind, but settled on Barcelona, Spain. We spent almost three days there, and were able to pack in lots of sightseeing. We hiked to a few good viewpoints, walked through the narrow streets, went to the beach, and enjoyed the fantastic weather. It was a great vacation for the two of us, and ironically enough it was one of the few chances we had to take a mid-week trip together (after that, I would either have work or he would have school).
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At the end of October, I was feeling slightly depressed about missing out on Halloween, but was in for a treat when Sebastien and I went to a German Halloween Nightclub Event. I had always heard that Germans were not as much into Halloween as Americans are, but in general their concept is quite different. Instead of a mixture of all sorts of costumes, the Germans who chose to dress up were all gruesome and frightening. With fake eye-contacts and more fake blood than you can imagine, and a mixture of stapled-on faces and torn wedding dresses, it was obvious that they take their costumes very seriously. It was certainly different from any Canadian Halloween I had experienced!
At the beginning of November, Sebastien and I took a road-trip using his parents’ car. Our first stop was the city of Weimar, where we were able to see the amazing Herzogin Anna Amalia Bibliothek. After that, we continued on to Erfurt for two nights, during which time we went on a hike and were able to walk around the city at night enjoying the sights. The slight nip in the air by then, along with the gradual setting up of Christmas markets, made me start to get excited for the holidays. The next day, we continued on to Eisenach and the fortress at Wartburg where we were able to see where Martin Luther once spent time while translating the bible. I had visited these places once before with my eleventh grade class, but this trip was different – not just because it was only two of us instead of 110, but also because I had learned a lot more about history by that point.

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When I first arrived in Berlin, I had joined an orchestra with Sebastien’s mother, playing the double bass. I had not played this since High School, and even then it was only in jazz bands as opposed to with a bow in an Orchestra. Early in November, this Orchestra hosted a Christmas concert. I played my bagpipes for one song, and managed to keep up with the band on my bass for the rest. It’s been quite a while since I performed, and I forgot the satisfying thrill that comes with playing for an audience. I was presented with flowers at the end, and was so happy to have had this chance to play music.
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I was also asked to play my bagpipes for the Christmas concert at the school where I worked. I was extremely nervous before the event itself, but had a lot of fun getting involved in activities outside of the classroom. My mom was in town for my actual performance, and she accompanied me for my practices and came with me for dinner before the big show. Her and Sebastien were in the audience for the performance itself, and I was once again exhilarated at the opportunity to perform for such a large audience.
As I just mentioned, the arrival of December coincided with the arrival of my mom in Berlin. It was so great getting to explore all of the Christmas Markets with her, and getting to show her all of the different aspects of my life in Germany. During the second weekend of her visit, we went with Sebastien’s parents to Dresden. While this trip was accompanied with extremely cold weather, it was also an amazing cultural experience. It was easy to get into the Christmas spirit with booths selling handmade goods and glühwein, and we walked around the Christmas Markets for hours. We also got to see a bit of Dresden besides the markets though, with visits to churches and a tour of the Opera House. I was sorry that I would not be with my parents for Christmas Day, but it made a lot more sense for my mom to visit a bit earlier in the month. Flights aren’t very hectic at the beginning of December!
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I loved the Christmas holidays in Berlin. While we have a few Christmas Markets in Canada, they are often indoors and involve pricey, artsy works for sale. The ones in Germany are more about being able to grab a seasonal bite to eat, and getting seasonal decorations and gifts. You hardly ever have to pay entry for Christmas Markets in Berlin, and I went to many notable ones over the month of December. When friends from Calgary visited Berlin, we took them to the scenic Christmas Market at Schloss Charlottenburg (I’m sorry that there isn’t a picture of them here, but we had a terrific time!)
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Christmas with Sebastien’s family came along with its own traditions, including opening presents on Christmas Eve instead of Christmas Day. Both our house and Sebastien’s parents’ house were warmly decorated for the holidays, and I thoroughly enjoyed taking part in a new Christmas tradition (although I am looking forward to enjoying my own traditions again this Christmas at home!)
New Year’s Eve in Germany was fairly similar in Canada in regards to the partying…but the major difference was the fireworks! I know that fireworks can be used as a way to celebrate in Canada, but during the few days before the New Year, the purchase of fireworks becomes legal for everyone. Starting early in the day on New Year’s Eve, people start lighting fireworks from sidewalks, street corners, parks, backyards, balconies…our neighbourhood is usually quiet, but you didn’t go long without hearing fireworks all day! We went out to celebrate in the evening, and at midnight the skies went insane. When we went home late that night, there were remnants of fireworks at every step.
The next big event for me was my birthday. Sebastien took me to Tropical Island just outside of Berlin, and we spent the day relaxing inside of a huge, tropical dome. The next day, I was extremely touched by the amount of people that came out to help me celebrate my birthday. Sebastien’s sister also baked me a delicious cake!

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At the beginning of February, Sebastien’s mom and I went to Grüne Woche. This is a yearly event that takes place in a large building, and there are lots of things to see; some rooms sell outdoor goods like fireplaces and watering cans, and there are rooms with huge displays of flowers. There were sections where you could explore different cultural booths, and there were also places featuring animals like sheep, goats, pigs, cats, and dogs. It was a great way to celebrate the fact that Spring was on its way!
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Between November and February, I was able to take part in a German Language Course at Sebastien’s university. In the grand scheme of things, this course was quite short, but I still think that I learned a lot from it. You never know where you’ll learn the words that stick with you, and this course helped me expand my vocabulary a lot. I also think my grammar got a bit better, and in general it was helpful to speak German non-stop for three hours a week (and that’s not counting my Orchestra practices)! I feel like this class was a great bonding experience for everyone involved (there were about 15 students) and it was interesting to meet people from all over the world that had come to Germany for their education. There was one girl that I grew fairly close to, and we continued to get together throughout the rest of my time in Germany.
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Near the end of February, Sebastien and I took a trip to Prague. It was a fairly short trip, but we managed to pack in lots of sightseeing during our time there. Prague is an absolutely gorgeous place, and I loved being able to see a number of historical libraries amongst other sights. We did a fair amount of hiking, and spent a memorable night dancing at Europe’s Largest Night Club. We timed our trip really well, because even in February the city was quite busy – we didn’t want to imagine what it must be like during the warm summer months!
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During a bright and sunny March day, Seb and I took a day trip to Potsdam. Potsdam houses a large historical park (Sanssouci Park), and we enjoyed walking between the different historical buildings. One of these buildings was where the Potsdam Conference was held, where treaties were signed after WWII. Many of the buildings in this park were built for Frederick the Great, who had his summer home there – these buildings include an “orangery” and a Chinese tea room.
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St. Patrick’s Day turned out to be a fairly minimal affair in Berlin. One of my British friends mentioned that there was a St. Patrick’s Day parade going on, and according to the website it was a fairly big event. Seb and I arrived, and found that the parade consisted of the Berlin bagpipe band, along with “St. Patrick” chasing around a big snake (aka: four people under a sheet). There were lots of people walking alongside the parade doing nothing (including us) and the whole thing was slightly silly but still fun. I found out that the Berlin pipeband has a pretty cool bass drum, with the Berlin bear playing pipes.
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At the end of March, my dad arrived for a visit! We took a short trip to Amsterdam, and had a great time there absorbing the culture. We were able to visit both the Van Gogh Museum and the Anne Frank House, and we came home with lots of cheese and tulips.
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During the rest of Dad’s time in Berlin, we made sure to check out all of the tourist highlights, including the Television Tower and the government building.
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Over the Easter Weekend, Sebastien and I took a short trip to Magdeburg and Leipzig. These towns were quite easy to get to, and it didn’t take very long to see everything that we found interesting there. Both of these cities experienced a phase of historical importance, during which they were as popular as Berlin is now (Magdeburg was first, and then Leipzig). One of my favourite things to see on this trip was the Monument in Leipzig, which was erected in memory of the battle of Napoleon that took place there 200 years ago.
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Around Berlin, I was lucky enough to visit a few Easter Markets, which were surprisingly similar to the Christmas Markets. The main difference was the lack of glühwein, and also the weather!
At the beginning of May, I went with Sebastien and a group of others to a Wine Festival going on in Werner, which is a town just outside of Berlin. We went to this festival two weekends in a row, and got to enjoy cheap, fruity wine while taking in the sunshine. There was a stage with live music, and lots of festival foods available. There were also various rides and electronic games, which reminded me of the Calgary Stampede.

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The last trip that Sebastien and I were able to take during this amazing year in Berlin was to Usedom Island, just over a week ago. Usedom Island isn’t very well known amongst Americans as far as I know, but to Germans it is a fairly common vacation spot. While Usedom itself is in Germany, the island contains parts of Poland, and we enjoyed going across the border for our dinners while there. We visited Peenemünde, which is where Wernher von Braun and a team of engineers built rockets during WWII. Besides this, we got to enjoy time on sandy beaches, and also got to see lots of farm animals in the small towns on the island. The trip reminded me of all my favourite things about Portree (Isle of Skye, Scotland), Victoria (British Columbia) and Nova Scotia. It was a lovely, relaxing experience for Sebastien and I, and I am so glad that we had the chance to take that trip before I left.
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So what comes next? In four days’ time, I will go to Nova Scotia for a week-long trip with my mom. While there, I am hoping to take a look at the Dalhousie University Campus, since it is where I will be spending my next two years completing my Master’s in Library Studies. Despite my adventures being slightly less international for the next little while, I am hoping to still write interesting blogs for you to read. I have started a librarian blog as well, and am hoping to write in there more often from now on.
I have no idea when my next trip to Europe will be, but I am hoping it will be sooner rather than later. I’m having a hard time believing that my nine months there has officially come and gone. It has been an unforgettable year, and my life has been enriched for the experience.
Thank you so much for reading this blog. I am sorry that it went on for so long! I did a fair amount of things over the course of the year that I will never forget. I hope that you enjoyed reading about them as much as I did writing about them.
Liebe grüße,
Robyn

 
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Posted by on June 14, 2014 in Travel and Working Abroad

 

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German Farewells: The toughest part of travelling

Hi Everybody!
I am currently writing this post on the plane from Frankfurt to Calgary. Naturally, I don’t have internet access, so by the time you read this it will have been transferred from a word document to my usual blog.
I would like to use this entry as a chance to describe how my last few weeks in Berlin went. To be honest, it’s a bit of a selfish and boring blog, and more for my own memory than for entertainment purposes.
While the goodbyes were sad, I got to create a lot of great memories with the people I have befriended this year. While it is an unfortunate fact that travelling means having to say goodbye often, partings are sometimes a great way to let someone know that they have played an important role in your life. One of the inconveniences of not knowing a lot of German is that sometimes I couldn’t find the right words to tell someone they meant a lot to me; but I like to think that usually I got the message across.
The first goodbye gathering took place during my second-last week of work. A few of the students in my Conversation Course could only make it every second week, so we decided to have a bit of a party that week instead of waiting for my very last class. I brought in cookies that I had baked at home, and the lack of leftovers showed me that they were pretty well received! One of the grade six students was sweet enough to bring me a coffee mug, and two of the grade ten students gathered their funds to buy me more chocolate than I will ever need. A grade seven student brought me a bottle of champagne, which I’m assuming his dad bought. So much of my work this year was as an “assistant” and I spent a lot of time hovering in the background, and yet these students stated that their English was better thanks to the work I had done with them over the course of the year. It was a very memorable class!

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The next day was my last day with my favourite grade six class. When I first started working at this school, I never would have expected that I would enjoy working with younger classes; the idea of trying to keep a group of young kids under control seemed extremely daunting. However, while older students were constantly worrying about the impression they made on their friends, young students were eager to learn and would constantly put effort into their work – no matter how many mistakes they made. There were three or four classes that I worked with a lot over the year (whereas there were other classes which I only sporadically worked with), and I feel like I made a connection with a lot of the students in these classes.
Grade sixes are unfortunately not the best of secret keepers: the teacher I work with had told me there would be a surprise for the last half of the class, and as the students walked in, at least three asked her loudly about when we would get to eat. However, we spent the first half of the class being productive, and then the teacher announced we would be walking to an ice cream parlour nearby. It was a gorgeous and sunny day, and the parlour turned out to be on a pretty street I hadn’t really noticed before.

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The class also presented me with a group photo they had taken the week previously while they were on a field trip – and they had all signed the back. It is such a nice memento, and I think it’ll be great to be able to remember what each student looked like when they were so young.

There was one grade seven class that I consistently worked with throughout the year, regardless of other schedule changes. It was actually the first class I ever taught – it’s quite strange to think back now to how nervous I had been back in September. The teacher of this class was one I really enjoyed working with, and on my last day at work she presented me with a card that the grade sevens had all signed. On my last day (which was Wednesday May 28th, thanks to the holiday that was that Thursday) the English teachers all presented me with a few gifts as well: a coffee mug and notebook for when I go back to university, and a novel and card. I was so happy that they showed this recognition for my work over the year!

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I had two classes on that last day: one with a grade ten class, and my very last Conversation Class. The grade tens also presented with me a card – I really enjoyed preparing material for this class in particular, and I feel like they found me quite relatable as I worked with them this year. Conversation Class was pretty small, but there was one student who had gone home thanks to sickness earlier in the day, but made it to class since it was my last one. I was a bit emotional as I walked away from school that day; it was such an amazing opportunity to get to work there, and I can hardly believe it’s over.

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Besides school, there were other groups of people that I had to say goodbye to. While most months I tried to avoid doing too many costly activities, I didn’t want to miss out on anything in my last month in Berlin. I have a group of friends doing the same work as me, whom I met at the orientation in September. Right before my last week of work, about six of us got together for a night of Indian food and karaoke. There were plenty of cocktails involved, and a lot of laughs. Sebastien and I got home at about 7 in the morning from a night club, and I couldn’t stop thinking about how great a time it had all been.

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After that, we made sure to get together for one last “Sneak Peek” movie night. We actually read online that no sneak peek would be taking place that week, so we decided to go see the newly-released “Maleficent” instead. One of my lovely British friends, Sarah, came over before the movie, and we cooked a tasty vegan meal and watched “Sleeping Beauty” so that we would be all caught up on our Disney references before seeing “Maleficent.” We then met up with the others for dinner, and had a great time at the movie. That evening was my last time getting to see Sarah, as well as my Australian friend Simone. The goodbyes were unpleasant, but I have high hopes that I’ll get to see both of them again soon.

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The more I write, the more I realize that we had a lot of “goodbye” visits…one of my friends left on the same day as my last day of school, and we went out the night before that. Sebastien and I went out for one last “Sneak Peek” (I know I said “Maleficent” was the last one, but by this time there were only two from our original group left) and on that evening I was able to see two more of my friends for the last time. For the record, the movie was “Walk of Shame” and it was a pleasant change from a lot of the intense dramatic movies we had seen lately!
I had one week without work before leaving for Canada, and on June 2nd I had my last band practice with the orchestra I had joined in Berlin. The fact that I was leaving was announced, and we managed to take a lot of great group photos. We wanted to take one of us all posing with our instruments, and someone said that I should stand in the middle since I’m the one leaving – it’s a good thing I thought to lie my string-bass down on the ground and sit beside it, because otherwise you wouldn’t be able to see most of the band! While a few people always agree to come out for dinner after practice, that week a sizable group all came along. We ate at my favourite Italian restaurant, and it was a lovely evening. A lot of people took the time to come up and say goodbye to me individually, which I found touching. I must have heard the joke “well, you’ll have to come back for our concert in November!” about thirty times, but I thought it’s very sweet that they want me to come back!

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During the week I had off of school, I also took the time to do a few “last” events for myself. I went to my favourite Irish pub for lunch, and sat there for about two hours reading my new book. I hear that that pub is insanely busy during the evening, but in the afternoons it’s quiet and relaxing. I also went back to my favourite bookstore one last time. I managed to resist buying any books, but enjoyed perusing the two-floor English selection for quite a while.
This past weekend, there was a Cultural Festival going on in Berlin. Sebastien and I, along with a group of his friends, decided to check it out. It was about 30 degrees outside, and there were about ten of us walking around enjoying the sunshine and the sights. The festival consisted of lots of food and drink booths from all sorts of countries, and at least four different musical stages with live music. My favourite was the salsa/Spanish stage, where performers effortlessly played types of music I’ve only heard in restaurants or night clubs. Some booths were serving coconut drinks straight from a coconut, and by about 4 in the afternoon there were coconuts littering the ground everywhere. The American contribution was mini-donuts and churros, which made me chuckle a bit. There were a lot of vegan options at the festival, since a lot of cultures thrive on this cuisine. I decided to stick with my langos, mainly because once I was hungry it was the first delicious thing I spotted.

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We spent a long time at this festival, but once we left, we headed to a bar with three of Sebastien’s closest friends. We didn’t stay long since we were all exhausted, but we shared a heartfelt goodbye. It makes me so happy to know that these people are my friends too, as well as Sebastien’s – I’ve known some of them for three years by now. I really hope that I will be able to visit again soon!
On Sunday, we had one last dinner at Sebastien’s parents’ house – and we enjoyed our meal outside in the 35 degree weather. I am so grateful to Sebastien’s family: while I am extremely excited to return home to my own parents, I have always appreciated the fact that Sebastien’s family is so welcoming.
Monday was reserved for just Sebastien and me to relax. I did all of my packing on this day (and was able to fit it all comfortably in my suitcases without exceeding the weight limit. Woohoo!) It was hot again, and we went for a swim in the lake nearby. Over the past while I have been asked countless times what Sebastien and I are planning to do since we’re back to long distance; we’ve been pretty good at managing it so far, and I think we’ll continue to do so without any trouble.
The goodbyes I have gone through have been tough, but they’ve provided me with a lovely way to truly appreciate the bonds I have created with different people over the course of this year. There were so many aspects of my life here – work, international friends, the orchestra, and Sebastien’s circle of friends – that I had to enjoy. In my short life, I have been to a lot of places, and been able to meet a lot of terrific people; I consider myself to be the luckiest girl in the world for this. While I hate having to leave Berlin, I am so excited for all of the people in Calgary I will be reunited with – and by the time September comes, I will be embarking on an entirely new adventure.
Sorry for all of the sappy sentiment! Thank you so much for reading this blog. It is because of positive feedback that I continue to write, and I am so lucky to have people that care about what I have to say.
Auf Wiedersehen,
Robyn

 
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Posted by on June 11, 2014 in Travel and Working Abroad

 

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Weekend on Usedom Island :)

Hi Everybody!

I’m sorry that it has been such a long time since my last post. As my year in Germany is slowly coming to a close, I am taking every opportunity to get together with friends and enjoy new experiences, and this means that my blogging has gotten lazy. Also, a teacher at my school recently asked me to copy-edit his sister’s Master’s thesis in English, and I spent a week doing this and not much else. Within the next little while, I will be sure to post a blog all about my last days of work, and other nick-knacks of information such as how it was eating at a blind restaurant. But for now, I’m going to tell you all about my weekend trip with Sebastien.

As of today, I have one week left in Berlin, before I fly home to Calgary for the summer. For our second-last weekend together, Seb and I decided that a trip was in order. At first, we were planning our trip around the prices of busses and trains. However, Seb’s parents generously allowed us to use the car, which opened up lots of new doors for travel possibilities. We eventually settled on Peenemünde, which is in the North of Germany. I had never heard of Peenemünde before (in fact, I think I still fail at spelling it!) but I trusted Sebastien’s skills as an amazing travel planner. In preparation for the trip, I began reading the novel “Dr. Space: The Life of Wernher von Braun” by Bob Ward. Wernher von Braun was a scientist that played a crucial role in putting the first American man on the moon. He was a German-born engineer, and Peenemünde is the place where he and other scientists built and tested rockets during WWII. Sebastien’s initial interest in going to Peenemünde was to see the location and museum showing where these rockets had been built. He also knew that this was far from the only thing we see on our trip: Peenemünde is located on an island with gorgeous beaches, open green fields, and tiny towns.

This trip was quite different from a lot of the others we have taken so far this year, where we went to well-known cities and spent the entire time walking between famous sites. While there were a few specific things we wanted to see on this trip, there was a lot more room for improvisation – we were able to take our time and make it up as we went along. The biggest factor that limited our beach time was how many hours of parking we had paid for!

It took about three hours to drive to the island, and as we got farther north, the roadways became smaller and more lined with trees. Please forgive my terrible photography through the dirty windshield in the next picture, but perhaps it gives you an idea.

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There are numerous small towns on this island, and it doesn’t take an immense amount of time to get from one spot to the other. Our hotel was in the town of Usedom itself, and we started our adventure by walking around there for a little while. We found a small farm with chickens walking around the yard, and then proceeded to a small spot by the water, where there was a restaurant and a few “Trabbi” cars parked in the lot. These cars are from East Germany originally, and aren’t normally being used anymore. We saw quite a few on our trip though, and learned that there was a convention for these cars going on that weekend.

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The last photo I put up is of our view from the hotel room. Not too shabby! The rows of multicoloured houses reminded me a lot of Portree, on the Isle of Skye in Scotland. It had the same sort of small-town feel, and was also on the water.

Shortly after, we decided to head to the beach. We drove to another town, which only took about 20 minutes. The roadways themselves were quite small, which meant that if there was a lot of traffic you wouldn’t get anywhere very far. Lucky for us, the roads were basically empty! The island is very long and narrow, so while we went to the beach that was facing the ocean, you didn’t have to travel very far to get to a beach on the other side facing the mainland. We saw a few more Trabbi cars in the parking lot, and reached a tourist-y shopping area before going to the beach itself.

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It was a lovely day for going to the beach. We had thought about going for a swim, but after dipping our toes in briefly we realized that the water was absolutely freezing. We rolled up our pants and walked along the beach for about two hours, admiring seashells on the sand and listening to the waves (and Seb got to listen to me talk, because that pretty much never ends). We worked up an appetite with all of our walking on the sand, and eventually decided to head to Poland for dinner.

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I’m not very confident of the geography of it all, but part of Usedom Island is Polish instead of German. We drove along for a little while, and suddenly there was a sign stating that we were entering Poland. This was my first time in Poland, so even though I spent a matter of hours there, it was still pretty cool! We were pretty hungry by the time we crossed the border, so we quickly found a place to park our car and then walked a matter of blocks before finding a place for dinner. Because it was so close to the border, there were a lot of advertisements written in German to attract tourists. Poland is known for having relatively cheap goods such as cigarettes and alcohol, and we saw a sign in German for “cheap cigarettes” at a few stores. A lot of places there accepted Euros, despite the fact that they have a different currency (zloty). It was difficult to translate the prices, but eventually we caught on to most of the exchange rates: my 7 zloty soup was about 2 euros. Our meal consisted of two drinks, one appetizer, two main courses and two desserts, and came to 23 euros in total, or about 71 zloty if I remember correctly. Because we were in Poland, I ordered the perogies. The dough casing was a lot softer than Canadian perogies, but of course it’s hard to compare something fresh with something you toss from the freezer into boiling water. The waitress spoke English and German as well as Polish (the table next to us was speaking English, and we mainly stuck to German while ordering) and the menu was in all three languages.

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After dinner, we headed back to the hotel. The next morning we were given a complimentary breakfast, and were pleasantly surprised to find out that there was a sheep-selling event going on that day. We saw an itinerary for the day’s events, and at 3pm there was to be a knitting competition. It was a shame we wouldn’t be around the town at 3! It was all going on at the square just outside of our hotel, and after we had brushed our teeth we headed over to check it out. There were a few goats and sheep, and a sizable market where goods such as yarn and knitted things were being sold, along with homemade honeys and jams. I got to touch a sheep, and my day was basically made.

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After we had roamed around for a little while, we got in the car and headed to Peenemünde. The museum was pretty easy to find, and we started off by seeing the outdoor features. Naturally, the coolest thing to see was one of the V2 rockets. I was glad that I read the book about von Braun, because I learned a lot about all of the work that went into developing these rockets. I think I had a hard time visualizing just how big rockets are; later on when the size of the V2 rocket was compared with the Apollo rocket that put the first man on the moon, it was astonishing to think of how huge it was!

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Among the other things to see outdoors, there was a flying rocket and a train that was used to transport workers. The big contraption near the museum/factory itself was a transport system for the coal that was used to power the entire factory.

We then went inside the museum, and learned a lot about both the Peenemünde camp itself, as well as the history of space exploration. The museum addresses the conflict between Peenemünde’s deadly role in WWII (through both the damage the rockets caused to British cities, as well as the concentration camp workers that suffered there) and the scientific advances that were made there that made space travel possible. One of the questions posed was “What responsibility do engineers and scientists have towards fellow human beings and nature?” I found it really interesting to consider the difference between the book on Wernher von Braun and the information portrayed in the museum. While the book emphasized that von Braun was powerless over a lot of the factors at the camp (such as how concentration-camp workers were treated) and would have been killed if he had taken a moral stand, the museum emphasizes the amount of suffering that concentration-camp workers had to endure – and basically states that the scientists and engineers were determined to achieve their goal regardless of how workers were treated. In a lot of ways, the book and the museum state the same thing, but the book uses several examples of von Braun’s humanism to justify certain periods in his history, while the museum portrayed certain cruelties as black and white. Sorry if you have found this paragraph quite boring, but I do think it’s an interesting example of how you can use different words to make the same story come across differently.

The other difference between the book and the museum was that the museum explored a broad range of the different people and ideas that made space exploration happen, whereas the book focussed on von Braun (this is a bit of an obvious statement: the book was written about him!) The first part of the exhibit talked about different novels by people such as Jules Verne that got the ideas for space exploration going. Then, there are a few photos shown with a description of significant men in rocket development – a lot of these photos feature von Braun and are shown in the book too, but in the museum descriptions he is hardly mentioned.

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One of my favourite features in the museum was one hallway that had a series of long boards. On each board was written a year, between about 1932 and 1945 or so. On the top half of each board, there were several propaganda photos that were being used for promoting the war at the time, along with facts about what was happening that year. On the bottom half, there would be facts about what developments were being made with rockets and the establishment of a plant at Peenemünde. This timeline helped me to put it all into perspective, and I spent a lot of time reading these.

There was one specific room that talked a lot about the actual rockets themselves, including their engine design and the science involved in it all. There was footage playing of some of the test launches that took place at Peenemünde. In the book about von Braun, I was amazed at how long he managed to live considering how many dangerous tests he was involved in for making the rockets. But I don’t think I really appreciated the danger and destruction of it all until I saw those videos. One rocket could hardly get off the ground, and it just fell over on its side instead of getting into the air. The explosion after it tipped over was huge, and there was fire everywhere. No wonder rocket development! requires so much funding! I also got to see an old calculator, which looked like a very small typewriter.

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After this, there were a lot of the facts about the London bombing of the Peenemünde facility, along with the work that was done to move rocket development underground. Questions were also raised about the justification for using rockets; a few V2s were fired on England even after Germany already knew they were going to lose the war. Should “wanting to get back at them” really be an excuse to cause more destruction? I think this question tried to be original, but really the issue of “getting back at someone” is present everywhere in society, especially on television (you killed my father, so now I will kill you!) But I digress.

The museum then described the Space Race, and the role that Germans from the Peenemünde facility played in other countries. There was a good representation of the Cold War using a chess board. Unfortunately, by this time I had taken way too long at all the other exhibits, so we had to hurry along to the factory before our parking ticket ran out.

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The factory was interesting to see, and Sebastien described some of the electricity process to me. We didn’t spend a lot of time here, but it was interesting to see an intact old building such as this.

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Once we were done exploring, we decided that we should perhaps form a plan for the rest of the day. The woman working at our hotel had recommended the upside-down house to us that morning, so we figured we would drive by and check it out. The house is actually upside-down, and all of the furniture is on the ceiling. So if you take a picture there, it looks like you’re the one upside-down! We found this house beside a lot of other attractions for kids: there was a Butterfly Farm (big building where they’re flying around) and a mini-theme-park, and go-karting as well. In the end, we decided against going into any of these places, including the upside-down house, since it didn’t really strike us as something that was worth the money. However, we did find goats! They were part of a petting zoo that was closed for the day – so I couldn’t go inside the fence, but could still watch the goats for a while. There were a few baby goats which made me super excited. Some of them came to say hello, and one or two even stuck their heads through the fence. They figured the grass on my side was much better than on their own. It was quite philosophical, really!

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After I had my fill of watching the goats (I could never have my fill…but we were both getting a bit hungry!) we decided to head back to Poland. We crossed the same border as the time before, but this time we drove a bit more into the actual city before parking the car. One thing I noticed on the island is that there were a lot of outdoor cats. We saw three together one time, and never went long without seeing one walking around or sunbathing. Before dinner, we had been hoping to find a lighthouse that is apparently record-breakingly large, but in the end weren’t quite sure how to get to it. We did spend some time walking along the harbour though. This portion of the trip reminded me a lot of Nova Scotia, where I’ll be studying for the next two years.

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When we started trying to find somewhere to eat, we stumbled upon a square where there was a sort of celebration going on. Winnie the Pooh and other Disney characters were walking around taking pictures with people (their heads were a bit squished though, so I didn’t feel the need to get a picture) and there were bouncy castles and trampolines. Amongst the chaos, we saw a large pub that we instantly figured we should eat at. It reminded me of “The Old Spaghetti Factory” at first glance, although it was a lot more “modern” on the inside. I was able to find a vegan meal (not very easy in restaurants, I’ve come to find!) and Sebastien and I both laughed at all the vodka choices available.

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The waitress spoke a bit of German and English, and also accepted our euros.

After this, we headed back to Usedom, where we walked to the area by the water and discovered an old truck and a magnificent view.

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It was pretty funny to walk back to the hotel at about 10:30pm and not see a single other person out and about. The sheep festival earlier in the day must have worn everyone out!

The next day, we started off with breakfast and then packed up our things and said goodbye to Usedom. We still had a matter of hours before we would have to drive to Berlin, so we started by trying to find a beach in a town nearby. We drove by a few houses that were selling fresh eggs, or honey and jam – you could buy these things and just leave the money in a jar. This system made me nostalgic for both Vancouver Island and Nova Scotia – I love that type of system!

We found one area that was full of vacation cottages, and this led to a small area of water that I suppose could be called a beach. While we were here, I took a few pictures of the straw roofs – this is such a crazy concept to me! I had no idea that straw roofs were a real thing. Apparently it’s fairly cheap, and works very well!

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After this short excursion, Sebastien – being the brilliant travel planner he is – located a place nearby where we could rent a paddle-boat for an hour or two. We found the spot pretty easily in the next town, and found that it was quite the nice area with a restaurant next to the paddle-boats. When we first took off, I was really intimidated by the area of open water we entered. However, we stuck fairly close to the shoreline, and spent as much time lounging in the sun as we did actually paddling. The sun came and went, and even though I sometimes had to put on my sweater, I managed to get a sunburn from the day.

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After we brought the paddle-boat back, we enjoyed lunch at this same spot. We had a great view of the other paddle-boats coming in, and got to give our full commentary on how well they were able to steer and park their boats.

We then decided to head back to the beach we were at on the first day, for one last walk before heading home. I attempted to make an artsy beach-yoga picture, but failed when I realized that standing on one leg is very different on sand than it is on a solid floor.

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After this, we began the journey back to Berlin. There were gorgeous green fields to be seen along the way, which was good because we were stuck in traffic for quite a while. Lucky Sebastien got to hear me playing my chanter for 45 minutes or so to pass the time (I have a competition coming up, so I better practice!)

Overall, it was a fantastic weekend. I hadn’t expected to be able to see so many cute farm animals, so that was a lovely surprise. While different from a lot of vacations we’ve taken this year, it was nice to go somewhere and treat it as a chance to relax and enjoy the outdoors. Seb and I are facing a few busy days ahead of us, since he is back at school and I have to start packing for the flight home to Canada; this trip away from everything was exactly what we needed.

Thank you so much for reading! I will try and post again very soon. I hope you have a fantastic week!

Tschüss!

-Robyn

 

 
 

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Celebrating Spring and Science (and Wine!)

Hello All!

It has been quite a while since my last post, and for this I apologize. After the whirlwind of travelling adventures that took place in April, May has slowed down a bit. However, I’ve still been up to lots of entertaining activities, so I shall take advantage of this blog to write about them!

For quite a few years now, Sebastien has attended a Wine Festival just outside of Berlin during a weekend in late April/early May. I often get to hear about the Wine Festival, but have always been unable to attend thanks to living in Canada. But like so many other things I have finally been able to partake in this year, I was able to come to the Wine Festival! A group of us (some of Sebastien’s friends, along with one of my good friends from England), took the Regional train out to the small town of Werder, where the festival takes place. Apparently this town is extremely quiet for most of the year, but during the festival it goes insane. Reminds me a bit of the Canmore Highland Games in that way, except that the festival goes on for multiple weekends.

The proper name of this festival is “Baumblütenfest,” and it is primarily a celebration of Spring and blooming flowers. A large part of the festival is the fruit-flavoured wine. When we first got off the train in Werder, there was a wine stand selling 1 litre bottles for 5 euros. They had tasty flavours like raspberry, strawberry, rhubarb, cherry, and pear. Sebastien and his group knew to stop and pick up a bottle here, because everywhere else within the festival was selling the bottles for a minimum of 6 euros. By this point, it was about 11am – perfect time for a bottle of cherry wine!

It was quite a long walk from the train station to the area where the primary festival takes place. We walked along a main residential street, and eventually stands started appearing along the sides of the road.

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There had been a lot of people on the train, and as everyone moved towards the festival, the streets got continually more crowded. Once we were in Werder’s more commercial area, there were lots of shops everywhere. Mostly they were selling different foods and drinks, but there were some shops selling jewelry, clothes or other hand-made knick-knacks. I was ecstatic to see that they were selling langos (a thin dough deep-fried and then loaded up with toppings like garlic and sour cream) but didn’t get one on that particular day.

After walking for a while, we eventually crossed a bridge that lead to most of the main events. We veered off to the right, where there were a lot of various rides and games for children (very much like the Calgary Stampede) and we found an area of grass to sit and relax on by the water.

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We hung out here for quite a while, and enjoyed the sunshine. We had been under the impression that the day would be rainy, so it was a pleasant surprise to see blue sky (even if that did mean I was boiling in my waterproof layers!)

After this, we went across to a more adult-themed area of the festival. At this spot, there was a stage where live performances were going on (which would turn into DJ performances during the evening) and there were picnic tables to sit at. The thing that made this an “adult-themed area” was the increase in alcohol-selling booths, and the only ride around there was a crane from which people could bungee jump over the water for 50 euros. Come to think of it, there were also bumper boats, but the bungee jumping was a more noticeable attraction.

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Sorry for all of the pictures all at once! But as you can see, the bungee-jumping crane was situated behind the stage – the picture I took from close up was near the washrooms.

For our first time at the festival, we didn’t stay all that late into the evening. But we decided to go back the next weekend, and once again lucked out on the weather. There were a few different people on the second outing, but we still had a great time. The primary difference between the first and second visits was that I got to enjoy a langos, and we stayed later into the night and danced in front of the stage for quite a while.

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One of the things I love most about Berlin is all of the outdoor events. In the future, I would love to plan trips to Germany around the beginning of December, because that’s when the Christmas Markets are all beginning, but aren’t too full yet. And the Christmas Markets are pretty legendary!

Similarly, there are a fair number of Easter Markets that go on. A few days after Easter, I went to work and found out that I wasn’t needed in my first class because the students were writing a test. Since I had 90 minutes to kill, I headed back to Alexanderplatz (two stops away) and got to look around the Easter Market since it was still going on for a few more days. There were rows of different shops selling candy, cheese, bratwurst, t-shirts, jewelry, and other goodies. Based on my addiction, and the fact that I will probably not have access to any once I’m back in Canada, I bought a langos. There were quite a few beer booths and sitting areas around, but they weren’t very busy since it was still 10am on a weekday by this time.

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The most exciting parts of this Market (besides the langos, of course) were the merry-go-round and the goats. At least, I think they were goats…I’m not quite up to snuff on my different breeds of sheep and goats. But there were also bunnies beside the goats, so in general there were a lot of adorable critters. And the merry-go-round was a double-decker one! In the end I resisted the urge to take a ride – it costs money and I didn’t quite blend in amongst the 6-year-olds. But it was fun to look at and take pictures of!

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But enough about animals and merry-go-rounds. The last exciting thing I wanted to mention in this blog took place this past Saturday, and was the “Lange Nacht der Wissenschaften,” or in other words, long night of sciences. Berlin is known for it’s various “Long Night Of” events, and in the past Sebastien and I have been able to attend both the long night of Museums and the long night of Libraries. The concept is that people pay one fee, and are able to walk in to any number of institutions. On the long night of museums, we were able to make it to about four museums between 5pm and midnight. For the long night of sciences, various libraries and universities were open, and you could go and see experiments take place. Sebastien, being the amazing planner that he is, took the time to make sure that we could hit up a lot of different things that specifically interested us. We started off at the Humboldt University Library, where they were offering tours of the library and a look at some of the “behind-the-scenes” work of a librarian. Of course, the complicated part of this entire evening was that everything was in German; even if my conversational skills in German are now fairly good, my understanding of complex science is pretty terrible! Our first plan was to join a tour of the library, but once I realized that this was the same library I’ve visited with different grade 11 classes at work, I figured that it was unnecessary. After that, Seb and I were able to see books being digitized. We saw how a fancy scanner is used to make a copy of each page, and after that, the librarian adjusts how the pages are seen on the computer before they are made accessible online. I learned a lot of interesting things about how copyright is involved and how this process differs from things like Google books. At least I think I learned these things: Sebastien translated most of it for me once we left!

We then headed over to the Technische Universität to catch a few lectures and experiments. We started out with a lecture on the idea of life on other planets, and this was followed by a lecture on satellites. After this, we went to see various experiments – two of which involved wind and the idea of wind resistance affecting the speed of vehicles. There was one huge hurricane machine, in which wind is simulated at different speeds. A few people got to go inside it individually, and the challenge was to see how long they could hold on to a few boxes as the wind speed increased. This was a lot of fun, especially since I could enjoy the visual experiment and didn’t have to try and understand the German. I also ran into someone that plays in my orchestra there – it’s not very often I see people that I haven’t met through Sebastien! Another experiment we got to see involved a plane turbine. I didn’t understand a lot of what was going on, but Sebastien explained it to me after we left. The experiment itself involved the energy it takes to give a plane speed. So we went into one room wearing headphones and eye protection, and watched a controlled stream of fire. When certain factors in the machine were changed, the sound of the fire got insanely loud as the pressure changed, and I was holding my headphones even closer to my ears in an attempt to drown it out.

At about 11pm, we went to watch a science competition in the lecture hall – different scientists explained their experiments to the group, and at the end we voted for the best one. The guy that won gave quite a good presentation – he was on a team trying to build a robot that could function on Mars, and he made his presentation engaging and funny.

To end off the evening, we headed to the Technische Universität Library for some dancing. You couldn’t hear a sound as you walked up to the library, because everyone on the dance floor was wearing headphones! It was quite the cool concept – there were three DJs, and each person could choose which DJ to listen to at any given time. When you looked around while not wearing headphones, it looked like everyone was dancing without music. But once you put on the headphones, you could join in the party – even if you were off the beat from the person next to you because you were listening to a different station. Who said libraries were just for nerds?

On Sunday, I went to a vegan restaurant for one of the tastiest brunches I’ve ever had, and on Tuesday I am headed to a blind restaurant with a group of my friends. We’ll be eating in complete darkness! It’s been a lot of fun exploring events that Berlin has to offer. I am down to my last three weeks of work in Berlin, and am determined to enjoy every moment before heading home for the summer.

I hope that you have enjoyed this latest blog post. Have a terrific week!

Auf wiedersehen!

-Robyn

 
 

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Magdeburg and Leipzig

Hi there!

I’m going to try my best to make this entry short, since I’m sure everyone reading this has spent a great deal of time reading my entry all about my Amsterdam adventures. However, I wanted to write a few short things about what Sebastien and I got up to during the Easter weekend!

On Friday, we drove to Magdeburg, which is a small city about an hour and a half away from Berlin. We booked a hotel there for the night, and had a fair amount of the day to walk around town. Magdeburg is the city in which Otto von Guericke conducted an experiment in which he put together two large hemispheres, pumped all the air out, and was unable to separate the spheres again even with a team of horses. As a result, there were a lot of decorative hemispheres throughout the city – they reminded me of the Berlin bears, or the cows that can be seen around Calgary. The hemispheres I took a picture of aren’t extremely pretty, but they’re an example of what was around town.

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The city of Magdeburg is about 1200 years old, and used to be considered the hip city of Germany (to put it in today’s terms). We made sure to visit the Cathedral of Magdeburg, which took over 300 years to build, and the construction of which began in 1209. This church is home to the grave of Emperor Otto 1 the Great, who was once the ruler of all of Europe. We were not allowed to take pictures inside the Cathedral, but it was pretty amazing to get to see such an influential piece of European history.

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My favourite part of our trip to Magdeburg was seeing the Green Citadel. Contrary to what you may think, this building is actually pink. It was the last building designed by the Austrian artist Friedensreich Hundertwasser before his death in 2000. This building serves multiple purposes: it has tourist shops, a hotel, apartments available, and even a dentist’s office. There are two open areas within the structure, and you can walk through and admire the pink walls and the fountains, along with the artsy shops. The reason it is called the Green Citadel is that the roof has grass and trees all over it. You can technically walk up one slanted side of the roof, from the ground, but it was blocked off to us. The whole place was vibrant with life and colour, and I loved it.

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Hopefully you get a bit of a sense of what it looks like, based on the photos. However, you can probably also see that the weather wasn’t great for the whole day. At the end of our touring around town, we found a great little Italian restaurant and had a relaxing dinner.

The next morning, we headed to Leipzig, which was about an hour away from Magdeburg. Our first stop was the “Monument to the Battle of the Nations”. When Sebastien had told me we would be visiting a monument, I pictured a small statue on an open field. As we approached it from the other end of the city, it loomed in the distance – it wasn’t until we were fairly close to it that I realized how huge it was in ratio to its surroundings. You could see people walking around near the top, and they were miniscule! In the picture below, you can tell how far back the monument is when you see the tiny people walking on the steps.

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In 1813, a significant battle took place on this spot in Leipzig. Napoleon had been taking over land in different countries and claiming it for France, but he was defeated in this particular battle. This monument was built 100 years after the battle, to commemorate Napoleon’s defeat in Leipzig.

On one side of the monument, tons of people were waiting in line to get tickets – Sebastien and I hopped on over to the museum side and got tickets within seconds, along with a trip through the museum to learn a bit more about the battle. There were a lot of elaborate displays and descriptions, with historical documents and articles of clothing, and scenes depicted with models.

Once we were done at the museum, we began the long climb up the monument. There was a short set of stairs outside, up until the dark square you can see in the photo above – that was the door through which we entered the monument. In the photo below, we’re just outside of that door and looking up at the height we still have to travel!

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Once inside the monument, there were a number of levels that you could visit. There were large stone statues everywhere, and you could look up from the ground floor all the way to the top. Where we entered was the ground floor, and from then on we were facing a very narrow circular staircase to get the rest of the way up. To get to the middle floor (one above the ground) you had to enter from the outside, so we visited that once we were done climbing from the top and then back down.

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The smell and look of the stones reminded me a bit of being inside the Indiana Jones ride at Disneyland. It’s hard to portray through only using these pictures, but every aspect of this monument was larger than life.

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These photos are from the next level up, once we had emerged from the narrow, winding staircase. We paused for a moment to catch our breath, then continued a short way more up the steps, to about where you see the hole in the roof.

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Once we were at this spot, there were no longer two staircases (one for people going up, and one for people going down) but we instead had to wait at one staircase for the people to come down before we could continue upwards. There were red and green lights letting us know when we could go. Once we got to the top, we were on the roof of the monument, and free to enjoy the view. Needless to say, it was gorgeous.

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Once we had enjoyed this view, we descended some of the stairs to another platform that looked out over Leipzig.

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From there, we went back all the way down – and then rose the separate set of stairs so we could be on the level of some of the statues we had seen from above (and below, too).

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After this, we climbed back all the way down to the ground outside, and then entered yet another door to see some of the support structure for the monument.

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After this, we headed back to the car and continued on to Leipzig’s city center. Visiting this monument was definitely a highlight of the trip for me; I had no idea that I would get to explore such a historically-rich structure that day!

Leipzig is sometimes referred to as “Little Berlin”, and the size of it reminds me a lot of Victoria in BC. There is a sizable downtown area, and it has all of the perks of a big city, but you can easily walk through that downtown in the span of an afternoon. One reason it is called “Little Berlin” could be that one particular parliament building looks a lot like the parliament building in Berlin.

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We found a medieval fair going on in a square, and I was able to track down some langos! I learned about langos at a Christmas market – it’s a flat, fried dough covered with garlic, sour cream, and cheese. It’s a lot tastier than it sounds, and I’ve been craving it ever since Christmas, and had figured I would never find it again!

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The whole area was extremely crowded when we were walking around, since it was a gorgeous day outside, as well as a holiday weekend. A few of the other highlights we checked out were the St Nicholas Church, quite a few Bach monuments, and the enormous train station. We were hoping to visit the University of Leipzig campus, but unfortunately it was closed because of Easter weekend.

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By about 5pm or so, we decided to head back to Berlin. The entire trip had been quite short, but it was definitely worth it to see both of these places!

When we got back to Berlin, we went to an Easter bonfire that was going on. I don’t know if that’s as big of a tradition in Canada or not (maybe I just didn’t know about it?) but over here there are often bonfires put on to celebrate Easter. In the small town where Sebastien’s grandparents live, they collect a huge pile of firewood throughout the year, and then burn it on this weekend. The one we went to was put on by the fire department, and was closely monitored, and promptly put out at 10pm.

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On Easter Sunday, we went to Sebastien’s parents’ house for Easter Brunch. The Easter Bunny must know I’m in Germany, because he gave me as many chocolate eggs as he gave everyone else! We had a great day and enjoyed the sunshine. I hope that you all had a terrific Easter as well!

That’s about all I have interesting to say, for now. Thank you so much for reading!

Tschüss!

-Robyn

 

 

 

 

 
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Posted by on April 23, 2014 in Travel and Working Abroad

 

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Adventures in Amsterdam!

Hello Everyone!

Last week I wrote a blog about my Dad’s visit to Germany, and mentioned that we took a short road trip to Amsterdam while he was here. There was so much to write about in regards to this one experience, that I have saved it for a blog all it’s own.

Before my Dad arrived in Germany, I asked him if there were any places in particular he really wanted to see within Europe. It’s such a long stretch to come from Canada to Europe, but once you’re here it is fairly affordable to get from one European destination to another. Dad said that he would be more than happy to stay in Berlin for the entirety of his stay, but out of places he would love to see, he listed Italy, Spain, and Amsterdam. Because I was working during Dad’s visit, we only had about five days in which we could travel. We could leave on the Thursday directly after I finished work, and thanks to a bit of lenience in my schedule, we could return late the next Monday. We decided on Amsterdam, since it can be done as a road trip instead of by flying.

Sebastien and I travelled to Amsterdam about three years ago, with a group of friends. We had a good time, but out of all my travels it was not the most fondly remembered. The canals were gorgeous, we had great weather, and it was interesting to see a completely different culture. But our accommodation was very basic (no toilet paper or soap, and kitchenware only in one building), the trams took forever to get around in, and it felt like no one we interacted with was very friendly. It didn’t help that my German was so bad that I couldn’t really converse with my companions. But I was more than willing to go back with Sebastien and my Dad, even if it was more for the sake of a road trip together than for the destination.

I finished work pretty early on the Thursday, so we were able to get on the road by about noon. Our first stop was Wolfenbüttel, where we admired a historical library (wonder who requested that stop?). We then continued on to Herford, where we enjoyed dinner and climbed up to a fortress as darkness was setting in.

The next morning, after breakfast at our hotel, we headed to a swimming pool that Sebastien had found online. It was pretty spectacular, with a wave-pool and two water slides – one of which went super fast, and the other involved riding in a tube. At first we didn’t see why there were so many more people going for the tube slide instead of the other, but once we experienced it we couldn’t get enough. The entire slide was painted on the inside, with different animals and scenes, and music playing and lights flashing. There were tons of places where you could spin and rock back and forth on the sides of the slide. It’s a bit hard to describe, but the point is that we had a great time.

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After that, we got on the road again. Sebastien booked us a bed and breakfast in Amsterdam that was a bit far from the city center, but much cheaper than anything directly downtown would have been. We had thought that our living space would be in the house of the owner, but he actually drove us to an apartment a few blocks down. The apartment had three bedrooms, but only one other couple was ever there during our stay. The owner stocked our fridge with breakfast supplies, but besides that we were free to cook for ourselves, plus use the big-screen TV in the living room. It turned out to be a great deal! On our first night, we found a grocery store and bought a few things to cook our own dinner, then watched a movie and went to bed.

There was a train-station not too far from our bed and breakfast, and it was an extremely quick way of getting downtown. As soon as we emerged from the station downtown, Dad started taking photos of the scenic canals and bicycles that were everywhere.

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It wasn’t very long before we reached our first cheese shop of the trip. I don’t remember a lot of cheese shops being involved in my last visit to Amsterdam, but they are indeed everywhere! Big huge stores filled with wheels upon wheels of cheese. My first meal downtown consisted of samples at a cheese store – you can sample just about every product they offer, and each one is tastier than the last. It was extremely hard to choose a favourite, but I think it was the pesto. It looked unique since it was green, and I loved the garlicky flavour of it.

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The pictures above that are taken inside a cheese store actually show one of the smallest ones we visited. The “Old Amsterdam Cheese Store” in the last photo is one of the bigger ones, but we didn’t take pictures inside. This cheese store was in the same square as the Royal Palace of Amsterdam, which proved to be a great beginning point for our walk through the city.

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One interesting aspect of seeing the canals in Amsterdam was seeing the amount of houseboats. Instead of buying a house on land, just make room for yourself on the water!

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One of our first stops was the Anne Frank House. I heard from a friend back home that this was a memorial definitely worth seeing, and I wanted to be sure and experience a bit of history on this trip. Unfortunately the Anne Frank House was extremely lined up, so we decided to wait until the next day, and try to get in first thing before it would get too busy. The plan didn’t exactly work, but more on that later.

From there, we decided to slowly make our way to the Vincent Van Gogh Museum. This was the other major historical site I wanted to make a point of seeing. It was a fair hike away, but of course we managed to take in lots of other sights as we walked along.

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There were bikes and people absolutely everywhere. The three of us agreed that it would be quite ludicrous to try and drive a car through downtown Amsterdam, because there are so many pedestrians! A lot of bikes had makeshift ways for passengers to ride along. Some would have a spot in front for someone to sit, some would have a trailer behind, or a seat behind, and some people would just ride along with their bums stuck in a basket. As we walked through the streets, we often heard the dinging of a bell as some biker was trying to get through the crowd. There were a lot of very full streets in which I would have dismounted and given up on biking, but these guys knew what they were doing. I’ve gotten very good at moving out of the way! Another aspect of all the biking was all the parking spots for bikes. Anywhere there was a bit of space, a bike would be parked. The train station was absolutely insane – there was a big concrete structure where people could leave their bikes, and it was completely full. There was even a boat nearby where people could get on and leave their bikes there – and this of course was full as well.

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Anyhow, enough about the bikes. Our big event of the afternoon was visiting the Van Gogh Museum. The line to get in was a little long, but I’m very glad that we endured it. The museum itself had a lot to offer. Different phases of Van Gogh’s life were emphasized on different floors of the museum, and it was fascinating to see how his technique changed as he developed as a painter. He used to do a lot of very dark work, and it wasn’t till later in his career that he began working with bold colours and paint-strokes. I often had to remind myself that what I was seeing was a real painting. There are so many copies of what Van Gogh has done, in the form of purses and posters. It was so hard to believe that I was in the presence of something that Van Gogh had physically painted himself! I enjoyed looking closely at the painting and examining the light shining off the paint itself as it varied in thickness and texture. There was one painting featured that is apparently “newly validated” as having been done by Van Gogh. I found this extremely cool, but my dad found it funny that they suddenly knew every single detail of how he painted it even though it took them so long to figure out he painted it. Going through the entire museum took quite a while, but it was an enriching experience to be sure!

By the time we were finished in the museum, we decided to head back to the bed and breakfast for the evening. The next day, we headed straight to the Anne Frank House…and it was just as lined up as it had been the day before. We decided to do the wait, since it isn’t every day you have the opportunity to see something like where Anne Frank lived. We had to wait in the rain unfortunately, but it gave us a good excuse to buy an Amsterdam umbrella.

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The Anne Frank House was amazing to see. We were able to see the entire set-up of the house, from the offices downstairs to the cramped living space upstairs. The rooms were unfurnished, but there was a photo showing how the furniture had been when the house was being lived in. The bookcase that had been used to disguise the entrance to the secret living area was still there, which I found fascinating to see. I got a lot more than what I expected from this tour; while I had figured I would just see the living area itself, interesting artifacts such as Anne Frank’s physical diary were also on display. We definitely got our money’s worth from this museum.

During the rest of our day, we found a row of stands selling tulip bulbs, and Dad made sure to pick up a few to take home (and as it turns out, one for Seb and I to try planting in our own garden!). We also took a small ferry across the water to another part of town, which proved to be quite suburban. On this excursion, we found a group of elaborate houseboats that were connected to the land with patios and gardens.

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For dinner that evening, we found a great little pub along a side street that sold reasonably priced food. It was really interesting to listen to our waiter as he spoke different language with everyone in the place – English with us, German at the next table over, and Dutch with his friends. It was a nice way to take a little rest while we waited for it to get dark out – we had yet to see Amsterdam at nighttime!

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It was interesting to see sights all lit up at night, and we walked along various different streets – including the red light district. I see now why they call it that: there is indeed a red light glowing everywhere you look! Along this street they have everything from sex shows to “the museum of prostitution” and girls standing in windows waiting for customers. During the day, these windows blend in with every other window on the street, and you’re surprised when you realize there’s a half-naked woman standing there. But at night they have a red light above them, so that you know where to look if you’re so inclined. I feel bad for people that live in a normal apartment along the red light district, because a lot of tourists go oggling into your window while you’re trying to eat dinner or watch TV.

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In any case: the three of us did not do anything more in the red light district besides walk around. Amsterdam has such a shocking culture in general – I think it was pretty awesome to see for a weekend, but there is no way I would want to live there.

The next morning, it was time to begin the road trip home. We had the chance to see a lot of interesting things from the highway, including sheep and windmills (very typically Dutch!). We also took a stop at the dam that was built to keep Amsterdam from flooding. It has been in place for so long that, while the ocean side is salt-water, the other side is fresh water.

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After we had walked around and admired the huge dam for a while, we got back on the road. We stopped briefly in Hamburg that evening, for a walk around and a bite to eat. I was briefly in Hamburg when I was with my high school band in grade 11, and on that trip we had taken a boat tour around the coast. A lot of that trip blends together for me though, and it was great to see Hamburg once again. We spent a lot of time along the harbour, and then we found a restaurant with a great view of the water.

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As the sun was setting, we were able to check out the parliament building, followed by what I believe was St. Michael’s Church (but please don’t quote me on that!) After that, it was time to travel the final stretch back to Berlin.

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I had a fantastic time on our road trip. I hadn’t had high expectations, but had such a great time that I was devastated when we had to drive back to Berlin! It was great seeing what Amsterdam had to offer culturally, and it was nice that we were able to fit so much in to just five days of travel. I’m so glad that we were able to fit in a dream destination on Dad’s list, and am very grateful that Sebastien is such an amazing travel planner. I’m a lucky girl indeed!

Thank you so much for reading about all of my adventures!

Auf Wiedersehen!

-Robyn

 

 
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Posted by on April 22, 2014 in Travel and Working Abroad

 

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Berlin: Dad’s Tourist Experience!

Hi Everybody!

As you may recall, my Dad was visiting me here in Berlin for two weeks. We had an absolutely terrific time, and now that he is back home it is time to tell you all about our adventures! We actually took a road trip to Amsterdam in the middle of his visit, but I’ve decided to make that a whole other blog post since I have so much I would like to say about the experience.

Dad had excellent timing on his trip; he took off from a snow-covered Calgary and was greeted by a sunny Berlin. Over the course of his two weeks here, he got to see everything come to life: trees are now covered in new leaves, and there are gorgeous daffodils and tulips everywhere. It’s hard to believe that there is still snow in Calgary this late in the year…but hopefully Spring is right around the corner!

On Dad’s first night here, we made a schnitzel dinner and gave him a chance to relax after the long flight. In case you’re not quite sure what schnitzel is: it’s a type of meat (usually pork, but we also tried chicken) that has been beaten into a very thin cutlet, and then breaded and fried. Understandably, I have yet to meet a non-vegetarian that doesn’t enjoy it.

I unfortunately had to work during Dad’s trip, but he was able to make himself quite at home around Alexanderplatz while I was teaching. He took a lot of photos of the (East) Berlin TV Tower, and was able to entertain himself in both the huge Galeria there (a large, fancy department store), and the Alexa Mall. He highly recommends the McCafe inside of the mall, since they serve impressively large coffees and have an outside terrace where people can sit.

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On our first day exploring the city together, we took Alexanderplatz as a starting point for what I think of as my “Grade 11 Tour”. When I was in grade 11, my school band came to Germany for two weeks, and we spent about two days in Berlin. We ate almost all of our meals at a restaurant right in Alexanderplatz, and stayed at the Radisson Hotel just down the street. I pointed out to Dad the restaurant where we ate, and also showed him where I had been a waitress for two weeks last summer. We then headed to the Radisson, and stopped at a few touristy shops along the way. The lobby of the Radisson is pretty amazing to see, because there is an enormous aquarium in the center that stretches to the ceiling. You can technically take an elevator up the middle of the aquarium, but this attraction is connected to an aquarium around the block, as opposed to being controlled by the hotel.

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Of course, the Radisson was just the precursor to the amazing Berliner Dom. We only viewed it from the outside on the first day, but Dad later took my recommendation and went inside. The vastness and beauty of the dome’s ceilings can only really be appreciated in person as opposed to photographed. He also took the climb to the upper roof of the dome, from which you can see a large part of the city.

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Unfortunately the weather wasn’t terrific on the day that Dad went to the top part of the Berliner Dom, but I think he still thoroughly enjoyed the experience!

After we had taken a few photos of the dome from the outside, we continued to walk towards the Brandenburg Gate (or Brandenburger Tor). It was a few blocks farther away than I had remembered, but our walking efforts were eventually rewarded. We not only saw the Brandenburg Gate, we also saw a group of dancers doing a routine around a dressed-up border guard. The routine was quite spontaneous and there were no costumes worn, but you could tell the dancers were well trained.

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After this, Dad and I called it a day and headed home. The next day, Dad once again entertained himself while I was at work. For my Conversation Course we watched Sonic Underground, since the students had been requesting it for weeks. Unfortunately, I discovered that the show was not nearly as awesome as I recalled from my elementary days. But after that, Dad and I met up with Sebastien by his university campus. The first thing we checked out was the Kaiser Wilhelm Memorial Church, which was bombed in World War II. This church has been preserved with the hole in the top of it, and is impressive to see.

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We then headed over to the “Kaufhaus des Westens”, which basically means the Department store of the West. It’s an extremely fancy store, and includes pricey brand-names. The main reason we went in was to check out the seventh floor, which houses interesting foods from all over the world. The contribution from America includes pop-tarts, maple syrup, marshmallows, and hot sauce. Of course, each of us had our own favourite part of this floor: I was all over the tea, Dad was into the coffee, and Seb was quite interested in the beer. In any case, it was a nice tourist stop, as well as the fountain which was right beside it.

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After this, we headed to the small town right next to Berlin, in which Sebastien’s parents live. We ate dinner at a large Chinese restaurant there – Seb and I have eaten the buffet there once before, and remembered it being delicious. It’s quite the impressive building from the outside, and on the inside they have a large number of intricate details. Not to mention that they have a small fountain with a live turtle in it, and there’s a crystal chandelier hanging from the ceiling. Definitely a great way to spend an evening! From there, we picked up Sebastien’s parents’ small car to take on our road trip for the weekend.

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On Thursday, I had one shift and then we took off on our Amsterdam Adventure – but I’m going to save that for another blog entry. Just to keep you in suspense!

The first big adventure we had upon our return to Berlin was having brunch in the (East) Berlin TV Tower. I made a reservation for us before Dad arrived, and we therefore had priority treatment when it came to lining up for the elevator both up and down. One neat detail in the Berlin Tower was that the roof of the elevator was glass – so we were able to watch our speedy ascent. If I remember correctly, the Berlin Tower is over twice the height of the Calgary Tower – however, the revolving restaurant at the top is fairly similar. Dad and I got a spot right beside the window, and even though the day was a bit cloudy we had a great view.

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After this, I still had some time before I had to work, so we headed to the East Side Gallery. This is basically a stretch of the Berlin Wall still standing, on which a lot of people have painted art. Dad was quite surprised to see how small the physical wall itself was; but while people make it seem like the wall itself prevented people from going in or out of East Berlin, in reality it was the security surrounding the wall that was more dangerous. The art there now is quite interesting though, and it was a good thing for us to see. There is an interesting bridge at the end of the stretch of wall, as you can see in the pictures.Image

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That evening, Dad came with me to my orchestra practice. We went out for dinner afterwards the way we usually do, and Dad enjoyed speaking with the two English teachers that are members of the band.

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On Thursday, we briefly visited Checkpoint Charlie. This used to act as a checkpoint between East and West Berlin, and there are now two guards that stand representing the checkpoint, and also a museum in which there are various artifacts from this period. I remember visiting this museum on my band tour in grade eleven, but on this day there were way too many school groups for us to go inside the museum.

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That evening, I brought Dad to the usual Thursday “Sneak Peek” Movie Night. It was a lot of fun bringing him to Potsdamer Platz, because it’s a place I’ve started to take for granted since I’ve visited it so often. Dad being there with me reminded me of how cool the whole set-up is, with the roof that lights up at night. The movie of the week was “Labor Day” which was alright, but I don’t think I would bother seeing it again.

The big events of Friday were checking out “Bikini Berlin” and the Audi Showroom. “Bikini Berlin” is a brand new mall that has only been open for about two weeks, and the main reason we decided to check it out is that you can see into the Berlin Zoo. We found a window in the mall that looks into a few exhibits through the mall, and when we climbed onto the roof we could see a few monkey enclosures, and the elephants way in the distance.

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The Audi Showroom was basically a building that contained a lot of movie screens depicting Audis, and there were four different Audis to climb into and check out. I quite enjoyed the one with television screens in the backseat.

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After this, we went for currywurst. It’s basically sausage covered in a curry sauce and ketchup. Dad and I are definitely big fans!

The next day, the three of us went for a bike ride to a historical GDR tower that has recently been restored. It was originally used for looking out over the Berlin Wall to make sure no one tried to cross it, but now you can climb up and see some of the communication tools they had, as well as photos and stories of escapees. There was also a set of binoculars that were extremely powerful – you could see straight across the river into someone’s porch! Our trip involved first taking a ferry across the river and then biking a while to reach this tower.

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Our next big adventure was taking a trip to the Reichstag in Berlin, which is the main government building. On our way there, we stopped at Hauptbahnhof (Main Station) because of it’s elaborate multi-floor train system, and impressive, open set-up.

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After this, we walked over to see the ever-impressive Reichstag, and walk up through the glass dome. This is the first time I’ve visited when the weather has been nice, and there wasn’t rain pouring in through the top of the roof. It was great to have a clear day, and all of the trees were showing their Spring blossoms.

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After our time at the Reichstag, we took a brief stop at the Holocaust Memorial that is only a few blocks away. We didn’t have time to visit the museum underneath, but the Memorial itself was easily accessible. The concept of this Memorial – which is a similar to a maze – is to make visitors have feelings of loss and confusion similar to how Holocaust victims would have felt. Our visit was extremely short, but even then I managed to get lost amongst the solid stones.

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We then went to Sebastien’s parents’ house for a raclette dinner. Sebastien’s parents find it funny that I constantly request raclette every time I go over there but it really is a great way to eat a meal, and it’s not at all common in Canada. Dad really enjoyed it – each person cuts up vegetables, noodles, and potatoes, and puts them in a tiny individual pan, then places cheese on top to melt in a small oven in the center of the table. It’s complicated to try and describe, but it results in everyone taking their time with their eating, and preparing their individual dishes exactly the way they like.

Sadly, the following day marked Dad’s last complete day in Berlin. We started off with a bike ride through the forest to Tegel, where Dad was able to enjoy a donair (which is a very important culinary experience in Berlin!). In the forest, we were lucky enough to spot some boars – it was my first time seeing them in person! There was even a cute little baby boar.

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And so we reach the conclusion of my blog detailing Dad’s visit to Berlin. It really was a great trip! I hope you didn’t find my writing too tedious, or repetitive in regards to my landmark stories. I shall be sure to write my very exciting blog about our road trip to Amsterdam soon.

Thank you all so much for reading!

Auf Wiedersehen,

Robyn

 

 
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Posted by on April 17, 2014 in Travel and Working Abroad

 

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