Ah, Germany!

Charm, family, history, and agency. These words summarize my quick but memorable trip to Goslar, Braunschweig (aka Brunswick) and Berlin, Germany.

Berlin was my first stop in Europe; normally I arrive exhausted from a long trip and wander around the airport until I find a person or a sign to direct me to where I am going. But this time, my cousin and sister were waiting for me. I’m so used to going this alone that it was definitely a nice change, and I was so glad to explore Germany with them. My cousin and her boyfriend live in Brunswick, about two and a half hours west of Berlin. I ended up staying with them longer than expected because of some travel miscommunications, but this was fortunate as we got to explore a former medieval mining town and UNESCO heritage sight, Goslar. Below are a few photo highlights:

That’s Goslar in the background. Behind us were thick, piney woods, and above us were some daring paragliders. All in a half a day’s visit 🙂

 

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Hummus victory!

After leaving Brunswick, I went back to Berlin to meet up with a friend and former study-abroad companion. It has been four years since studying abroad and seeing her, but it felt like no time had passed. And it was so nice to talk about life and politics and how much our lives continue to be shaped by those momentous, sandy six months in 2012. She even found a delicious Israeli hummus restaurant like the ones we used to eat at in Be’er Sheva. Here’s the secret: don’t add too much tahini and serve the hummus warm.

 

I suppose no trip to Berlin would be complete without visiting some historic sites, including the Berlin Wall Memorial, which stands soberly as a poignant reminder of the futility of walls and the resiliency of the human spirit; the East Side Gallery, another remaining portion of the Wall that has been covered with beautiful and provocative murals from artists all around the world; and the Topography of Terror, a museum that covers the Nazi atrocities from historical and sociopolitical perspectives, on the sight of the former Reich Security Main Office, aka the Nazi and Gestapo headquarters.

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You will never run out of things to do or ways to get there in Berlin. I was amazed at how quickly I felt at home on the S-Bahn, even when I took the wrong train.

My friend and I talked about the politics of asylum in Germany and how quickly those policies are changing throughout Europe and the USA. It was very sobering; it seems the whole world is trying to come to Germany, while half a century ago, millions were trying to leave, and no one seems prepared for how rapidly the world is changing these days. Memorials and museums are supposed to teach us how we let these things happen and challenge to ask ourselves, “Why?” It’s so easy to remain quiet and complacent out of fear or willful ignorance, and I’m certainly guilty of that. But I listened to an American podcast last night about the US elections, and I was reminded of how empowering protesting or civil resistance can be in the face of oppression. Like the man in the picture above, I don’t have to raise my hand just because everyone else does.

I hope you’ll go to Berlin someday, if you haven’t already. I hope Germany will still be an open and welcoming place when you go. Berlin is…funky.

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Prague: Take Two

I fell in love with Prague five years ago on my first trip to Europe. The moment I stepped on to the Charles Bridge, I felt home. I also contemplated moving there and supporting  myself by singing opera on the famous bridge for money. I even wrote a set list. But while my chanson dreams might be on hold for the time being, I was overjoyed to find Prague’s charm and romance no less palpable on my second visit, and I have a feeling I will never stop returning to Prague.

 

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On the outskirts of Prague, waiting for our boat taxi to take us across the Vlatlava…

 

Prague has an ancient history, and some of its oldest standing buildings date back to the 14th century, when King Charles IV, ruler of Bohemia and later the Holy Roman Empire (which included all of Germany, Switzerland, Belgium and the Netherlands, most of the Czech Republic and parts of Austria, Poland, Italy, and France) established the first university in Prague (King Charles University). It’s no big deal to walk around a neighborhood in downtown and see modern trams running next to gothic cathedrals and art-noveau buildings. This is the flavor of Bohemia!

Of course, there are also a few modern additions, including the infamous TV tower, notoriously hated by Czech people, which was built under communism. The building might be an eyesore, but it offers some of the best views of the city. We rode to the top of the tower and had a 360 degree view of all of Prague’s architectural wonders:

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View of Zizkov neighborhood from the Prague TV tower. The slanted, red brick roof are a signature style of the city; in the distance you can see Gothic spires peeking up to say hello!

In Old Town Square (Staroměstské náměstí), one can find the famous astrological clock (which parades a collection of dancing marionettes every hour on the hour…think “world’s biggest coo-coo clock”), as well as several churches, a memorial to Jan Hus (Protestant reformer), and this hidden gem inside the old City Hall, the Skautsky Institut (Scout Institute, non-profit and community organization for youth. If you’re there, you should visit their café inside the building on the second floor. It reminded me of several funky coffee shops in Memphis, only a bit smaller.

 

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A side view of the very old City Hall building, which is now owned by the city and rented out to the Skautsky Institut and other organizations.

No trip to Prague would be complete without a visit to the famous Prague castle, which is a huge compound that includes the Gothic St. Vitus Cathedral, beautiful Baroque-style gardens, and several ancient halls where kings of old were crowned and celebrated and some unpopular nobles were pushed out of windows. The castle stands on a hill top, and its spires are visible for miles. The area also offers some of the most picturesque views of the city, like the ones below. On the left is from this trip (our weather was less than ideal, but c’est la vie). On the right is from five years ago. There’s a bit more sunshine and fewer trees, but it’s still the same skyline!

When you visit the Castle, I highly recommend a guide and a comprehensive admissions ticket. I didn’t do this last time, but I am so glad I did on this trip. It is a bit pricey for Prague ($14 USD), but the ticket gets you inside of the Cathedral, the old hall, All Saints Church, and the Golden Lane, which is a small, cobblestone street with museums and displays about Prague in the High Medieval era. All in all, you get an a lot of insight into Prauge’s complex history. Bonus: It also includes a visit to the dungeon and a few dozen rusty torture instruments on display (Game of Thrones, anyone?).

The second visit was even better than the first. This was largely due to the gracious hospitality of our friend, host, and tour guide, whom I had met five years ago while studying in Israel. She took us to some truly remarkable places that were tucked away inside cobblestone lanes, including a hip vegetarian restaurant called Lehka Hlava (which means “Clear Head” and runs only on reservations) and a wonderful little wine bar dedicated to St. Agneska (Agnes), who founded a small monastery nearby in the 13th century, before Gothic spires had taken over Europe. We all decided that this place, called simply Agnes, serves the best hot wine in Prague. The key is to add raisins soaked in rum, and serve it with a spoon for fishing out these delicacies.

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I heard from my friend that the owners of this wine bar are ready to retire. They want someone to take over and continue serving wine and snacks to locals for the next few decades. My friend is too busy, but who knows? Maybe I can work there when people get tired of hearing my rendition of Ave Maria on the Charles Bridge…

One can dream 🙂