Saturday, January 17, 2009

The End

Admittedly we haven’t been very good about posting to our blog these past few days, and now that our trip is over we switch back to the past tense. Perhaps we haven’t said much because really we haven’t done much. Our last few days in Berlin were spent just kind of hanging out. The weather continued to get better so we did a lot of walking around, mostly in Prenzlauerberg and Mitte.

On Tuesday we made our way over to Friedrichsein to the East Side Gallery, the longest remaining (nearly) continuous stretch of the Berlin Wall. It is really quite an experience to walk along the wall, to see the now exposed rebar that supports the eight-foot high concrete mass that separated East from West for so many years, to be able to cross back and forth at points, to see both sides at the same time from the same position.

Tuesday evening we met up with Don again and had pizza at Ron Teleski Canadian Pizza. The pizza was quite good, and inexpensive by the slice (by the massive slice, cut from a 24” pizza). A gigantic moose head trophy from which the restaurant takes its name takes up a good part of the space. Ron Teleski is the taxidermist who stuffed the moose head. After dinner we went with Don to staamtisch at a bar in Pberg and then from there we took Don to the Absinthe Depot.

Wednesday was more of the same, wandering around, and we finally made our way to the Gemäldegallerie, which could be considered the Met of Berlin. From there we decided to go back to der Imbiss W for a third time and we have no regrets about that. From der Imbiss W we went back to the Absinthe Depot for a third time and, again, we have no regrets about that either.

Thursday was our last full day in Berlin and we took it pretty easy. We walked around our favorite neighborhoods again and had lunch at DaDa Falafel, which was the best falafel we’ve ever tasted. We paid a final visit to the Absinthe Depot. It was funny to realize that we were becoming familiar with the city and we started to notice that we were passing places we’d been to in our first couple of days in Berlin. We had dinner with Don again at a small Italian place near our apartment, and then we all went to the Barbie Bar, the gay bar that we happened upon without realizing it was a gay bar our first week in Berlin.

As we write this final post, we are sitting very comfortably in business class, about an hour out of JFK. We aren’t sure why we got upgraded, but I suppose we deserve it since our flight out of Berlin was delayed two hours and we missed our 4:30 flight to SFO.

Wednesday, January 14, 2009

Back in Berlin

Our train from Prague arrives in Berlin a bit late, but we make it back to our apartment just after 7:00. We pay Herr Hahn and then head out to der Imbiss W for a fantastic dinner. What we know about the place can all be found in our Lonely Planet: eccentric, tiki-worshipping, Canadian expat living in Berlin making naan pizza, and only one euro symbol (=cheap). Sounds good, right? The place is a tiny hole-in-the-wall in what we’ve decided is the coolest neighborhood in Berlin, Prenzlauerberg; it’s decorated entirely in tiki-themed, mid-20th-century American island kitsch, blasting loungey, classy, Farfisa-organ-driven covers of obscure American hits with a touch of early Tom Jones and Blue-Hawaii era Elvis. The kitchen, which takes up about half of the restaurant space, consists of two wok burners and a tandoori clay oven. The naan pizza is delicious. On the way to der Imbiss W we passed a couple of nicer restaurants, so we back-track a bit for dessert at Papa e Ciccio (which was also delicious) and take a cab home.

We decide the naan pizza was worth a return trip to the neighborhood the next day for a repeat at lunch. We head over at the start of the day, looking forward to a bio-vegan breakfast at Hans Wurst, the café we stumbled upon last week while looking for another that doesn’t exist. Hans Wurst is closed on Mondays. Bummer. That’s okay, it was really Zach’s idea; Danielle is commited to eating meat and dairy in the morning. We consult our trusty LP guide for another option in the area and it turns out there is a nice little café called Fellas around the corner with free wifi. We go in and have a delicious leisurely breakfast.

For the first time of our trip the weather is so pleasant (a balmy 0ºC) we want nothing more than to stroll around and let the neighborhood reveal itself to us. We check out a bag shop down the street and continue from there through the main streets of Pberg, stopping in offbeat clothing and jewelry boutiques, funky furniture stores and vintage shops. The journey ends at Weinmeister Straße 4, also known as 1. Absinthe Depot Berlin. I should say, rather, the journey begins here as Zach’s budding flirtations with absinthe were consummated in a full-blown love affair at this tiny storefront. The shop sells over 60 varieties of the “green fairy”, four of which are available by the glass for guests to enjoy. We had 3 glasses between us, in the company of the cantankerous shopkeeper and a lovely older couple from Perth visiting their daughter who works for a Berlin tour agency.

From here we head around the corner in search of a bag store that seems to have closed, we stop for some coffee to clear the absinthe fog and share a slice of awful, horrible cheesecake, and then walk back over to der Imbiss W for lunch-turned-dinner. This time the owner is cooking up the delicious eats, wearing a fez, a Hawaiian shirt and chile-pepper-print Chefwear baggies, and dancing along to this evening’s selection of eclectic melodies. We share an avocado wrap, a quesadilla and a beer and then walk back up towards main street Pberg for a drink at Rotte Lotte (RL).

RL is a pseudo/neo Victorian parlor with plush couches and chairs, gaudy light fixtures, three dogs, and a soundtrack that might have been a Pandora station titled, “American rock hits, 1986-1996.” We leave RL and head for the subway, but stumble upon Kauf dich Glucklich (KdG) along the way. KdG: waffles, gelato, booze, a sea of mix-matched vintage furniture (not unlike what we encountered at the flea market), and Radiohead. In Germany, the shopkeeper tells us, you don’t order by cup size, but by number of scoops, and then the scooper decides which cup to put your order into. Just outside the font patio area of KdG we encounter a man who appears to be having some physical difficulties with a task that we can’t quite make out. He looks at us and asks if we can help. “English?” he asks. Well, yes English, but it’s not a language issue that is so puzzling, it’s that you’ve just asked us to reach into your inner jacket pocket. As it turns out, he has a broken arm and can’t get to his keys.

Monday, January 12, 2009

Last Days in Prague

So much for Absinthe and adventure. After a couple rounds of Battle Ship we have our nap, but Danielle wakes and her cold is getting worse so we decide to stay in for the evening. We get take-out from the Middle Eastern/North African Dahab just a few blocks from the pension and settle in for the evening.

We wake up on our final full day in Prague, have breakfast and finally locate the National Gallery. As it turns out the National Gallery is a collection that is housed in several locations, the largest is the Veletrzní Palace (VP), just across the river from our pension. Zach’s former professor has fallen ill and has to cancel our meeting this afternoon (but he gives us the contact information for two of his Ph.D. students whom we do not contact), which gives us as much time as we care to take at the National Gallery.

We choose to walk to the VP, which may not have been the wisest decision considering the weather and Danielle’s cold. After we cross the bridge we discover a neighborhood (Holesovice) where everything is much less expensive. We stop for a bite just before the VP at Fabriccia’s for a couple of slices of some very delicious Neapolitan style pizza. (Technical note: somehow Fabriccia’s gets their gas oven to hit 380ºC (just over 700ºF) for perfect Neapolitan crust.)

The VP is a massive “Functionalist” building with a very Cold War feel (whatever that means) to it. It’s five stories of the most eclectic collection of early modern to contemporary art to be found in the same building. The 19th Century European wing includes just about every big name in early modern painting: Monet, Seurat, Cezanne, Van Gogh, Rodin, Picasso, Braque, ... not major pieces but a good representation. Other wings include more contemporary European pieces not unlike what is seen in America but with a decidedly European flavor (if nothing else than a lack of popular themes and techniques characteristic of contemporary American art). The museum also includes a formidable collection of decorative art and architecture, including early blueprints for some of the major buildings and monuments to be admired throughout the city. The museum, bigger on the inside, exhausts us after a few hours and we decide to head back to town for a relaxing lunch.
We were originally going to go back to the Grand Café Orient, even though Zach’s professor was unable to meet us there that afternoon, but on our walk from the museum to the metro we see a few locals duck into a restaurant with a reasonable menu (all in Czech, we’ve decided that’s a good sign) in the window, and so we decide to follow them inside and enjoy what might be our last traditional Czech meal. Par for the course, we both order Smazeny Syr (fried cheese with “chips”), a typical garlic soup starter and beer cheese on toast because we wanted to know what it was. We wash it all down with two very large pivos. Danielle learned on a few prior trips to Prague that Czech food doesn’t settle well if you don’t finish it off with a good strong digestive. The Czechs drink a strong, cinnamony liquor called Becherovka that does the trick. Two of those and we are out the door, headed back to the pension for a battleship rematch and a nap.

After the nap it’s hard to motivate back out the door again, especially given the temperature. We thought we would just go the café we had planned for lunch but getting there just a few minutes before closing, we decide it’s bad juju. Referring to our Lonely Planet guide, we instead head to Klub Architectu, a refurbished 12th century cellar turned sleek international restaurant. Still quite full from lunch, we order for the first time, a vegetable crudité, smoked salmon with potato pancakes and sour cream, baked potato pancakes with cheese and herbs, and a couple glasses of wine. We quickly realize none of our fellow diners are Czech, but varied flavors of European and American and we decide this doesn’t spoil the ambience. The food is delicious, the service genuine if not a little clumsy, and the prices more than fair. It helps too that we were seated in a non-smoking section. Prague seems to be a haven for European smokers quickly falling out of favor with wide-spreading smoking laws. We’re looking forward to returning to Berlin where it’s much easier to avoid.

We’ve certainly enjoyed our stay in Prague, but the city didn’t quite offer itself up to us the way Berlin has. The language barrier we’ve largely breached in Germany has proven to be a divisive force in Prague and everything there has been a little more difficult. As we ride the train back now our shared sentiments are of returning to Prague when the weather at least is more agreeable and the aimless wandering on cobblestone streets through medieval architecture can be better enjoyed. The conductor has just announced that we are approaching the border and leaving the Czech Republic behind. For one, this means that the electricity in the dining car will be turned on (?), and that we will soon be back in Berlin for the last stretch of our vacation.

Friday, January 9, 2009

Prague, Day 2

Word is that Prague isn’t known for the quality of its restaurants. Even the good ones, so we’ve read, serve food to go with Czech beer rather than the other way around. But, Café Louvre is quite good and very, very affordable (no swindlers). After dinner we’re both really tired. Rather than head out for adventure, we head back to the pension and call it an early night. We fall asleep watching the Daily Show online and notice something interesting about the news over here. The only English-speaking channel we get is CNN, but it’s not the CNN we get in the U.S., the CNN that Jon Stewart relentlessly (and deservingly) ridicules and parodies night after night. This is the British CNN and it is surprising to see big media taking a sympathetic position regarding the Palestinians. Hamas and the Palestinians are not referred to as terrorists and the journalists are very forthcoming about the aggression on behalf of the Israeli military and the perfidiousness of Israeli officials, especially in light of the killing of U.N. aid workers by Israeli fire on Wednesday. To be fair, we don’t know what U.S. T.V. media have to say about the current crisis, but Palestinian sympathy tends, in the U.S., only to appear at journalistic margins on programs like Democracy Now.

We’re up by 8:30 and have a leisurely breakfast. By the time we get out the door it has begun to snow. Our first stop is the Cubist Museum again. Not because it was so marvelous, but because we think we left our Prague Encounters travel book behind yesterday. We did; we find it sitting on the reception counter right where we left it, and it appears that someone arranged it on the counter just so, such that it looks like it belongs there. We recover it, and have a laugh with the woman behind the counter. We weave out of the Staré Mêsto and make our way to the Nové Mêsto to visit the National Museum. We had been referring to the National Museum as the National Gallery (though it seems that there is in fact a National Gallery somewhere), and are a little disappointed to discover a natural, national, and regional history museum, but we go in anyway. The building is “neo-Renaissance” in style and dates back to 1891. The exhibits are not entirely to our taste (mineralogy, paleontology, among other ologies), but the history wing was really cool and much of the information was translated into English. We watch Hitler march into Prague, one scene shot from the steps of the National Museum, a picture that Zach had taken only moments before.

From the National Museum we head out in search of some traditional Czech fare for lunch and we find it on a residential block in the Vinohrady district. Zach had attempted the day before to not eat meat and cheese. He didn’t succeed, but was satisfied at the attempt. Today Zach decides that in order to have a true Czech dining experience he must be uninhibited in his approach to Czech food, and that when we get back to Germany he can be more discerning in his food choices. So we have fried cheese with fried potato pancakes, and a traditional beef dish smothered in gravy, cream and cranberry sauce with sliced bread dumplings. After lunch we head back to the pension for a nap. Although we got to the Vinohrady on foot, we take the subway back. Before heading up we stop at the cash machine for what is hopefully our last ATM withdrawal in Prague. We were told of how inexpensive Prague is, but realize that that hasn’t been our experience here. Our pension is cheap, but even of we forget the swindlers at the restaurant near the castle, we’re spending a fair number of crowns.

As we climb into the elevator, Zach realizes that he is beginning to miss Berlin, and Danielle is getting a sore throat. We enjoy Prague very much, but haven’t settled in the way we did almost upon arrival in Berlin. Tonight we plan to head back into the Old Town Square, perhaps to U Zlatého Tygra (“Golden Tiger”) for some Absinthe and adventure.

Thursday, January 8, 2009

Prague, Day 1

To get to the subway from the train station passengers must descend the steepest, longest, fastest-moving escalator imaginable. The escalator has roughly a 65º pitch; escalators in the U.S. are to stairs what these escalators are to ladders. And the signs for movies, shows, etc. that line the descent are leveled so that they are perpendicular to the escalator rails; a viewer never squares up to the signs, for if he does he risks tumbling to the center of the earth and being eaten alive by the monstrous escalator. Enough about escalators.

We arrive at our pension just after 8:00. We arrive after office hours, so we have to follow the 7-step directions that we received by email in order to get in. There’s a white box, a black box, a pass-code, a dial, and keys in envelopes with names on them. We find our envelope and let ourselves in. We’re on the fifth (top) floor of a building that seems to house all sorts of offices. The building itself is a little on the spooky side, in fact an American horror movie could be filmed here, and all of the lights are activated by motion sensors. The pension is nice, and hot.

We drop our bags, turn off the 24-square foot radiator, crack an overhead window, and head out for, uh, Thai food. After dinner we wander through the maze of cobblestone streets, never quite prepared for what will be revealed at each turn. Photographs will never capture what it is to be immersed in the beauty of Prague, this we realize almost immediately upon arrival.

Breakfast is included. Zach is determined not to eat meat and cheese today. If he succeeds, this will be the first day since we got to Europe that he would not have eaten meat and cheese. Fortunately, breakfast is more than just meat and cheese. Yogurt, breads, honey, meat and cheese, etc., and a “nutrition bar” that tastes like mashed up dates and coconuts soaked in rum and coated with chocolate, kind of like the one piece you hope not to end up with when you select a chocolate from a box of See’s.

After breakfast we walk along the Vltava River, over the Charles Bridge and up to the Prague Castle. We eat lunch at a restaurant that our waiter insisted had been a restaurant either since 1605 or for 1605 years. Either way, that’s impressive, though after our rather strange lunch experience it is just as likely that he was lying as telling the truth. Nothing that we order is available, and so our waiter ends up more or less choosing everything for us. The food was alright, but we conclude that we’ve been swindled (lunch was almost $50!). We head back to the town center, tired of being treated like the tourists that we are.

The Black Madonna House houses the Czech Cubist Museum and the Grand Café Orient. We stop in at the Grand Café Orient, a large, fully-upholstered, greenish, very-early-20th-century café/bar with waiters in bow ties for refreshments (and ice cream), and then up the Cubist stairway to the museum.

After the museum we head back to the pension for some rest, but we turn on the television and can’t help but be troubled by the news. Tonight we’re planning on dinner at the Café Louvre and then we’ll likely lost again in the cobble stone labrynth that is the Staré Mêsto before bed.

Wednesday, January 7, 2009


On Monday we took the day off, soaked in the tub, and we wondered why anyone would ever choose to stay in a hotel.

Now it’s Wednesday evening and we are writing from our cabin aboard the Deutsche Bahn EC 379 just outside of Dresden, headed for Prague. Since about 3:00 we’ve been rolling quite quickly through the German countryside. Everything is covered in six to ten inches of snow. As we pass through the outskirts of smaller German towns, everything that possibly could be is covered in graffiti. Two hours to Prague.

We slept in on Tuesday morning and then headed out to the Neue National Gallerie near Potsdamer Platz to see two exhibits: Jeff Koons Celebration and Das Universum Klee as part of the city-wide Kult des Konstlers (Cult of the Artist) which included the Beuys and the Warhol that we saw on Sunday at the Hamburger-Bahnhof Museum of Contemporary Art. The Koons exhibit consisted of ten of his larger pieces, a massive bowl of eggs, a massive, shiny, red balloon poodle made from aluminum(?), etc. The Klee exhibit covered roughly 10,000 square feet, the entire bottom level of the Neue National Gallerie. This is likely the largest Klee collection under one roof at any one time. It was arranged both thematically and biographically, though not chronologically. (We just entered the Czech Republic and are now sharing our cabin.) From the Neue National Gallerie we had intended to go to the nearby Gemäldegalerie but upon realizing how large it is we decided to wait until we could spend more than just a few hours there. We wandered back to Potsdamer Platz for gelato and Glühwein and made our way to H&M in hopes of finding some cheap extra layers. Danielle got lucky; Zach did not. (With the exception of the marked down items, H&M in Germany is kind of a rip-off. The clothing and the numbers on the price tags are exactly the same as in San Francisco, but it’s in Euros, not dollars.) Then to Charlottenburg where we admired the restored remains of the bombed-out Kaiser-Wilhelm-Gedächtniskirche.

In the evening we met up with Don, Danielle’s friend and former German instructor from Berkeley who is currently working on his dissertation in Berlin. He took us to a restaurant called Mädchen ohne Abitur (translates to “girls without diplomas”) for dinner. Afterwards we went back to Don’s apartment to share a bottle of wine and travel horror stories, our common interest in Teach For America and other things. Don had arrived in Germany earlier that day from Madison, Wisconsin, but one of his bags (the one containing his winter jacket, phone and keys) had not.
Fortunately, we are traveling without any luggage that would need to be checked; it sits above us and the three jolly Czech gentlemen sharing our cabin right now. The voice over the PA has just informed us (in three different languages) that Praha-Holesovice will be our next stop.

Monday, January 5, 2009


Considering how hard it was snowing when we went to bed, and that it was still snowing when we woke up, we were surprised at how little new snow was actually on the ground. We had made a tentative itinerary for the day at the Barbie Bar, but Danielle came across a listing for the Flohmarkt am Mauerpark, a Sunday flea market in Prenzlauer Berg, and we decided that since we wouldn’t have another full Sunday in Berlin that we ought to do that instead and then just see what happens after that. After Frühstuck we headed out. Although it was snowing, and would continue to snow throughout the whole day, it was considerably warmer than Saturday, and it was nice to be walking again.
We got off the U at Prenzlauer Berg, and the first thing we noticed is that hipsters look the same in Germany as they do in the U.S. Everyone was headed to the flea market. We stopped for coffee at a café, where our barista seemed to speak Spanish, Italian, German and English, hit the ATM, and joined the mob of people headed for the market. We were greeted at the market by a friendly character in a WWI-ish outfit who honked a horn at us, handed Danielle a flower and then had Zach honk the horn again. He mumbled something in a language that was indiscernible, and we concluded that we had just been blessed. Hand-made jewelry, clothing, piles upon piles of random junk, record collections, butterfly collections, stereos, clocks, a gun, a skateboard, a singing bass, Turkish Dürüm sandwiches on breads being made on-site by a Turkish grandmother, furniture, house wares, and on, and on, and on. We purchased what may be the top of a rabbit’s skull that has been fitted with horns and mounted like a trophy for our apartment and two cups of Glühwein from a man who we imagine drinks his Glühwein all Sunday long as he haggles with buyers.
From the market we went in search of a café, Kakao, which we may have found, but that wasn’t open. It looked as of they had had a New Year’s celebration and then just left without cleaning, much like the streets of Berlin which are still littered with empty champagne bottles and the remnants of fireworks; it must have been fun to be here on New Year’s Eve. We eventually settled in at Hans Wurst, a vegan café, for chai tea and hot cocoa with locals who sweeten their coffee and tea with agave nectar rather than honey, because agave nectar is not made by animals.


In the Government Quarter is the Hamburger-Bahnhof Museum of Contemporary Art. A whole wing is designated to Josef Beuys, and the main exhibit is currently Beuys: Die Revolution Sind Wir. Highlights for us, in addition to the Beuys exhibits, included: Marcel Duchamp’s remakes of his own In Advance of the Broken Arm, Roue de bicyclette, and Porte-bouteilles; an impressive collection of gigantic Warhol silk screens as part of the Kult des Kunstlers; Richard Jackson’s absolutely hilarious Deer Beer; and Ugo Rondinone’s Where Do We Go From Here? Well, first to the Chancellery Building, then to the Reichstag, and then to the Brandenburg Gate. It had gotten dark, and the snow was falling heavy again. The walk from the museum was very phantasmagorical. With the snow, and the lighting in the Government Quarter, and the gigantic classical structures, it was impossible to know where we were in space, where we were in Berlin. We couldn’t tell if we were walking on a walkway, or on the lawn in front of the government buildings; we were just walking.