29 July 2007

Vacation within a Vacation

The semester is completely at an end and I'm currently in France. I only have a few weeks left in Europe, as such I want to make the most of it. Mariko and I are staying with Pauline in the extreme northeast corner of France. Yesterday we drove to the coast and took in the views on some seacliffs from where one can see Britain on a clear day. In a couple days we should cross that watery gap and visit my dream city: London. The British capital is perhaps my most anticipated European city to visit, or at least the one I have desired to experience for the longest amount of time. Look forward to many photographs and more details in about a week when I return to Eichstaett.

24 July 2007

Two Tales from One Saturday

Last Saturday Dylan and I embarked on an unique adventure in Munich and more specifically the place pictured above, the Olympic Stadium. We arrived with intention of climbing the stadium’s roof, with a legal tour group of course.

The now tenantless stadium appears to be searching for more sources of revenue after the soccer team FC Bayern-Muenchen departed for a new venue. One of the ideas the management apparently came up with was leading non-acrophobic visitors along the maintenance paths and steps on the tent-like roof. Once I heard about it I asked if others had any interest. Dylan was the only one to come through and to commit to doing it with me.

The tour began by going beneath the stadium to a room remodeled for this tour. Here we watched an introductory video about the history of the stadium and its construction, and put on our harnesses. The object pictured below is what actually keeps one to tethered to the stadium roof. The wheel moves along a cable secured to the walkways. It also passes over the connection joints between the cable and the walkway so that the user must not remove and reattach it every ten feet or so.

After the brief instructions we proceeded up the first set of stairs and onto the roof. Dylan and I were the only non-Germans of the tour group, but I think that fact remained unknown to everyone but us.

For the most part we remained on the outer edge of the roof. We soon arrived at an excellent vantage point for the soccer field below.

The picture below shows a member of tour group who went up a little before ours. His tour was a little different and included a vertical descent onto the soccer field from the roof. We would have preferred this one but it was fully booked.

Structurally the roof is essentially one giant tent. The poles are massive steel columns anchored to the ground. The fabric is a quilt of plexiglass sheets, rubber joints, and metal supports stitched together. The plexiglass bends under the weight of a person, but is strong enough to hold one. If one jumps or moves quickly the roof will vibrate like a trampoline. That plus the fact that one can see clear through the plexiglass to the stadium below could make this activity a bit challenging for some.

After close to two hours we descended and stepped back onto terra firma. Here are a couple more shots from the top. In the first one you can see part of the Munich historical city center in the background.

While the day’s activity was an exciting and good time, the return home is a different story. Indeed, I go as far as to say that last Saturday night was my worst experience since arriving in Germany.

The train ride home started normal enough. We left Munich at 8:26 PM, and were due to arrive in Eichstaett at 10:17. A few minutes before entering Ingolstadt and maybe only 45 minutes from Eichstaett the train came to a halt in the middle of nowhere. Short stops in between stations are not so uncommon. Sometimes the train must wait for another train to clear the track, or for any other understandable inconvenience. Therefore Dylan and I didn’t become anxious about our situation until around half an hour passed. When our watches marked the passage of another half hour the train conductor made an announcement. Without an apology or explanation of any type he simply stated that we would have to travel to the last station we passed through, Rohrbach.

However we continued to sit still and became well acquainted with our surroundings on the train. The car behind ours carried a preteen soccer boys team and their parents returning from a game or tournament in Munich. Much to my and Dylan’s joy the young boys’ high level of energy kept them playing with the doors in between the cars, running through the corridor, and shouting. Our drinks run out and our patience followed closely behind. Eventually Dylan looked at his watch and asked if I remembered an hour ago when he told me we had been stuck there for an hour. I nodded my head in understanding. We had now missed the last connecting train to Eichstaett until the morning.

Soon after, the train conductor made another announcement and asked if any fluent English-speaking person on the train could report to the last car. Dylan and I, bored out of our minds, looked at each other and quickly rose to our feet. Our hopes of being heros or at least having something to keep us occupied were dashed when we reached the last set of doors on the train. A German accented voice came out the nearest speaker and relayed the first message in English to the non-German passengers. We grudgingly returned to our seats.

A second announcement was made a little later that seemed to deliver some hope. The conductor said a new engine was traveling toward us and would arrive in approximately 20 minutes. It would then take us back to Rohrbach where there would “probably” be another train waiting for us. On top of that, the German Red Cross would be on hand to help out and provide free drinks. That last bit of information made Dylan, me, and our dry mouths especially happy. Keep in mind we only ate light snacks before leaving Munich because we planned to eat once we arrived in Eichstaett.

We started moving again at around 1 AM (the fifth hour of a two hour train ride) and quickly pulled into Rohrbach. We left the train in a hurry only to be greeted by around 20 uniformed Red Cross paramedics asking us to remain abroad. As one might expect, few passengers complied and began taking there stress out on the workers. Dylan and I only concentrated on finding the free drinks. After walking around the train station (a simple feat to accomplish with the train station of a one horse town like Rohrbach) we discovered that none were on hand. It turned out that the Red Cross workers didn’t even have a clue about the promised free drinks. Dylan and I looked for an employee with the train company and realized there wasn’t anyone there with Deutsche Bahn. They must have been hiding or they ran away, because the only people at the station were the Red Cross workers and a train load of angry and stressed passengers.

Dylan and I tried talking with a few Red Cross workers about how we would continue on with our journey and none of them could give us an answer. Although I can understand that somewhat seeing as how they didn’t actually work with the train company.
Around two o’clock an empty bus charted by Deutsche Bahn pulls up in the parking lot and people make a mad dash for it. There was no announcement as to where it was going, but passengers knew it had to be going somewhere. Dylan and I found out it was going to Ingolstadt, had luck, and claimed some of the last available seats.

We arrived in Ingolstadt close to three. Outside the station the first train employee of the night was available to talk to about what was going on. However the pattern of the night continued and this man was as disorganized and unhelpful as everyone else. He could only tell us that another bus would eventually come and take passengers farther.

This statement and his lack of real answers upset a lot of people. When being shouted from the mouths of an angry mob German is quite possibly the scariest language to hear. Heck, it’s pretty scary to hear coming from one angry person, let alone a whole group. Dylan and I wanted to argue and complain along with the crowd but the pace quickly sped up above our skill level.

When it died down I asked the train employee who should talk to about receiving a refund for our tickets. He told me that Deutsche Bahn would not offer any refunds because the company was not at fault for this incident. That ushered in round two of the German shouting match.

The trains would resume normal daily operations at 5:30 and we began to seriously believe that we would be waiting until then for our return to Eichstaett.

In the mean time most of the other passengers had been shuttled over from Rohrbach and were also waiting in Ingolstadt now. A little before four o’clock a bus arrived for people needing to go to Nuremberg. A little later a second one arrived for those needing to go to smaller towns in between that city and Ingolstadt. That included me and Dylan.

We finally arrived in Eichstaett at about five in the morning.

We have issued a complaint to Deutsche Bahn and are waiting to hear back from them. Hopefully they will be smart enough to at least refund our tickets.

Saturday was a good day, but I could have done with out Saturday night.

18 July 2007

Birthday in Deutschland

A few days ago marked goodbye celebrations and parties for the foreign students, as well as for my birthday.

The day began with AK International taking around 30 students, mostly foreigners but also some Germans, out for a canoe trip on the Altmühl. This mostly lazy river winds through Eichstätt and eventually empties into the Danube down by Ingolstadt. However the occasional man-made damn or flood control measures provided a few challenges. As you can see in the pictures below, we spent a little bit of the time in the water. In my canoe were Dylan and Paulina, who is from France. Paulina is seen in the last of the three photos below.

In the evening there was a farewell grill party for the foreign students. That was the official reason anyway. Unofficially it was also my birthday party.

In this photo from left to right is Albert (Russia), Alexi (France), Dylan, and Paulina.

Here we have Hannah and Emily, both from America.

This is me after receiving a surprise birthday cake. Apparently this was the second cake that was bought. The first was eatten by an American girl who wasn't aware of its intention and thought it was another food item brought for the party.

In the foreground of this photo is Kerstin on the left, one of the leaders of AK International, and Jiashu (China) on the right. I really don't know the two people in the background too well.

Mariko (Japan) and Faye (China) smile wide in the picture.

And here Annabel (Germany) stares down Matt (America).

After the party a few of us continued celebrating in the Theke, which gave us a free bottle of a German champagne-like drink because it was my birthday. So all in all it was a good day to have my birthday.

14 July 2007

Berlin: The Ever Evolving City

Berlin, Germany. Few other cities around the globe have played such a significant role in contemporary world history than this capital. The city’s associations with Nazi fascism and Communist authority have left a mark on Berlin, but it’s turbulent history dates back further than the 20th century. As dynamic as any European capital, in fact many would say more so, Berlin pushes head strong into the future in a quest to heal old scars and regain its identity.

Through the history of Germany Berlin was almost always present as the metropolis of the nation. The city was Germany’s Paris or London. Compared with these European counterparts though, Berlin is relatively young and has a much different story to tell. The city began around 1200 AD as a fishing settlement along the Spree River. The name Berlin has Slavic origins and points to this original identity. Down the centuries it held a position of power, notably the capital of the Prussian Empire (the Second German Reich) beginning in 1871. After the loss in World War I the city became the seat of government for the Weimar Republic, Germany’s first democracy. However, as the nation suffered from its military defeat and the world economic crisis of the 1930s a dictator was able to rise to power and overthrow this young republic. By 1933 it was clear that Adolf Hitler, as the new Chancellor, would steer Germany, and with it Berlin, in a new direction. This was the birth of the Third German Reich. During Hitler’s tyrannical reign of power he ordered the destruction and demolition of great swaths of Berlin in order to rebuild it as a proper capital for what was to be his world empire. Worse yet, Hitler’s insane refusal to surrender even when Soviet tanks reached the city edges led to Berlin’s further ruin. The Früher’s insistence to fight brought fierce combat and destruction to Berlin, which now lacks a proper historic district. Once the smoke cleared and the war ended the city began to rebuild, but true hope of a new start still remained half a century away.

As the Allie occupation zones came into effect those under the watchful eyes of the Soviet Union drifted more to the East. As a part of the post-war agreements, Berlin, which itself lay entirely in the USSR occupation zone, was also split into four zones. Those of France, Great Britain, and America remained closely connected, but the Soviet zone followed the above mentioned pattern. Berlin took its first major blow during this occupation era in June 1948 when Soviet forces blockaded the city, taking advantage of the fact that Berlin was in the middle of the larger Soviet zone. Until now transportation between, say, the U.S. Berlin occupation zone and the larger U.S. Germany occupation zone in the southern portion of the country was free and open. Now all roads and rivers leading into Soviet occupied Germany from the other Allie zones were closed. West Berlin, or the city occupation zones of the three remaining Allies, was cut off from support. In response to the blockade the western Allies formed the Berlin Airlift. For this operation Allied planes flew over the Soviet occupation zone and delivered coal, food, and other needed supplies to the people of West Berlin. This lasted until May 1949, when the democratic Federal Republic of Germany, or West Germany, was officially established. A few months later the communist Democratic German Republic, or East Germany, came into existence as well. West Berlin remained West German territory surrounded by a communist state. Germany, its people, and the city of Berlin were now split into two countries.

In a decade the distance between East and West grew and eventually the East German state, still under the influence of Moscow, crafted a damaging plan for Berlin. One morning in 1961 the citizens of Berlin awoke to find their city physically divided in two. The Berlin Wall was at first a simple barrier of wooden and barbed wire fence, but as years passed it grew in its complexity. At its furthest development, the Wall actually consisted of two cement walls with a no man’s land in between watched over with guard towers. It cut through streets, parks, and buildings. When it reached a body of water the Wall took the form of nets and other underwater obstacles to prevent people from crossing over. The GDR government reported that the Wall existed for the protection of the East Berlin citizens from their former West Berlin friends and relatives. In reality it was built to prevent East Berliners from escaping into the democratic freedom of West Berlin.

Most non-Germans I’ve talked to about the Wall tend to fail to grasp how large and devastating it was for Berlin. As said, the Communist propaganda reported that West Berlin was an island of the enemy German neighbor smack dab in the middle of East Germany. The GDR used this as justification for building the Wall. However, if the Wall’s true purpose was to keep East Berliners and likewise East Germans from escaping into the freedom of West Berlin it had to be more than a simple barrier cutting through the middle of the city. Therefore, the Communists constructed the Wall entirely around West Berlin. It seems a bit paradoxical, but it was actually the West Berliners who found themselves inside the Wall. Now imagine building a wall around a city of over one million people; it would not be a simple task. During a major period of its existence, it was illegal for any East Germans to cross the Wall. The Communist government commanded the Wall boarder guards to shoot anyone seen trying to escape over the obstacle. Indeed, hundreds of people lost their lives in attempting escape. For nearly forty years the city of Berlin stagnated, decayed, and lost its identity.

Berlin lost its former glory during this episode of its history. West Germany made the sleepy university town of Bonn its new capital. The publishing industry found a new home in Hamburg. The banking and financial industry moved to Frankfurt am Main. The movie and fashion industries took up shop in Munich. While East Berlin remained the capital of East Germany, it suffered under the Communist government, economy, and lifestyle. Historical buildings such as the Berlin Palace were lost to history through Communist forms of urban renewal. Germans no longer looked to Berlin as the great metropolis of the nation.

Change began in 1989 when the Wall opened, and a year later on October 3 Germany reunited. The former GDR states entered into the Federal Republic of Germayn and intense debate regarding the future of Berlin commenced. Finally in 1995 after a close vote, the German parliament decided to move the country’s capital from Bonn back to Berlin. The decision meant the country and Berlin would have to confront their past. At first, some state buildings of the Nazi and Communist eras were used by government ministries and offices until new buildings could be constructed or others renovated. In 1999 the renovation of the Reichstag, the building which houses the German parliament, reached completion. The event acted as a symbolic moment for the progress of Berlin and the country.

As the picture at the opening of this posts attests, Berlin is now a construction zone. In fact, more money is pouring into Berlin for development now than any other European city. Berlin continues to awaken from its post-war slumber and brush off old scars. The enormity of the Wall demanded large tracts of land, all of which are now open to development. For example, Potsdamer Platz was a main commercial district in Berlin before World War II, but the Wall cut straight through the middle of it. The result was the abandonment of land on both sides of the barrier. Now high rises and urban entertainment centers are rising from the former no man’s land. Hitler’s last stand bunker was demolished over a decade ago and replaced with a parking lot and small park (incidentally, no signs or postings hint at the former use of the land). In the first years after the Wall’s fall it was an urban planner’s nightmare. Streets, train tracks, subway and sewer lines all had to be reconnected between the previously divided city. Now though, city planners can have a field day with redesigning bleak Communist public squares and boulevards, and guiding Berlin’s fast-paced growth and evolution. This construction atmosphere is one reason why Berlin possesses such a dynamic personality.

Every visitor acts as a witness to the ever changing, ever progressing city of Berlin. The city, Germany’s largest now home to around three million, is successfully fighting to regain its identity. Once or if the construction slows, the cranes come down, and the dust settles Berlin will be the gleaming modern metropolis for Germany, and perhaps for the continent as well.

With that said, one can probably imagine that Berlin is one of my favorite cities. The title of my favorite German city always goes to either Berlin or Munich depending on my mood. Last weekend was my second visit to the city; the first came three years ago. I was able to notice many changes and new buildings since that trip, an observation which came as no surprise to me.

Dylan and I left last Thursday evening in a small and cramped car destined for Berlin. The driver was a German friend of Dylan’s who lives in Berlin but comes to Eichstätt for three days every week to attend classes. Neither I nor Dylan understood why she would bare the six hour one way drive every week. We didn’t ask questions though since we only had to pay for a portion of the gas to get there, a cheap price compared to train tickets. We arrived at our hostel a little after midnight and soon went to bed.

We awoke early the next day and started by searching for our new hostel. Availability in the city’s hostels was tight, and this was the only solution we could find. After moving across town we began exploring.

One of the first sights we came across was Alexanderplatz. Before the war this was supposedly the busiest public square in all of Europe. In its heyday the square consisted of five levels, but two were removed at the beginning of the 20th century. Seeing as it was entirely in East Berlin, the Communists decided to remodel the square and left it resembling a bleak parking lot with a few splashes of their typical soulless artwork. On this visit Dylan and I found it ongoing yet another remodeling by the current city government. I have more faith that these renovations will leave a better mark on the square. In the not so old movie “The Borne Supremacy,” a short chase scene takes place in Alexanderplatz. At least two of the features added by the Communists remain today and can be seen below, the World Clock and the Fernsehenturm (Television Tower). Below those is a shot of the square at dusk.

From Alexanderplatz we strolled to the Neu Synagoge, or the New Synagogue. Originally built toward the end of the 1800s, this house of God was burnt by the National Socialists (Nazis) during the Kristallnacht raid on
November 9th 1938. Before the blaze it was regarded as one of the architectural landmarks of Berlin. The flames were put out but mostly only the façade remained. The synagogue was rebuilt and renovated through the early 1990s.

From there we crossed the
Spree River and the Museum Island, and caught some glimpses of the Berlin Cathedral, see below. Nearby is the former site of the Communist-destroyed Berlin Palace, which is now under reconstruction.

Dozens of street vendors throughout the city sell memorabilia from the Communist era. Most of it's fake, but I suppose one might be able to find some authentic pieces.

We soon entered what one can consider the center of
Berlin, a city which comprises multiple neighborhoods and communities each with a center of their own. We soon found ourselves on Unter den Linden (Under the Lindens). New York has Fifth Avenue, Paris has the Champs Elysees, and in Berlin one enjoys Unter den Linden. The wide and linden tree shaded boulevard is Berlin’s most famous. In the 19th century cafes and exclusive shops lined the sidewalks. Today foreign embassies, government offices, and souvenir stores mingle with the older remaining institutions. The western terminus is the Brandenburg Gate, and to the east is the site of the former Berlin Palace.

At one point we crossed an intersection only to look down the other street and spot the American embassy. Actually we only realized it was the embassy after our curiosity drew us to the fortified building. A terrorist warning is currently in place for all Americans in Germany, and as the photo below shows the embassy keeps security at the highest level. I would have taken a closer shot but signs and guards told me I couldn’t. Dylan and I remarked that the barricades made usage of the other buildings across from the embassy impossible for businesses and inconvenient for residents. Indeed, the corner floors of the surrounding buildings were blackened and empty. I felt a little disheartened to see the steps the embassy must enforce in the face of terrorist threats. Most other embassies we came across had only a few door guards on hand. However, the British building also employed a few street barricades on the narrow lane before its front entrance.

Eventually we stood before the Brandenburg Gate, arguably
Berlin’s most recognizable landmark. Built at the end of the 1700s, the former city gate has symbolized division and unity for Germany. While the Wall stood it incorporated the Gate into its length; when the Wall fell Berliners from East and West streamed through the opened gate to find loved ones and celebrate. Here are a couple views of the national treasure.

Almost as close as a building can get to the Gate, the construction for the new American embassy continues. My guess is that this new structure will provide new security measurements which will avoid the problems caused by those impromptu ones taken at the current site. Either way, the new structure looks like it will be more aesthetically appealing.

A short walk north of the Brandenburg Gate is the Reichstag. This building houses the German parliament, and one could say it’s the equivalent of Germany’s capital building.

It originally opened in 1894 and the parliament used it up until early 1933. It is now commonly believed that the National Socialists, who had been steadily rising to power in the parliament, set the Reichstag ablaze in a covert operation. After the fire Hitler blamed the burning on Communists and used this as justification for further limiting the civil rights and liberties granted by the constitution of the
Weimar Republic. Soon after, the parliament voted to surrender its power (the Nazis used different tactics to ensure this vote), and Hitler’s government became official.

With the decision to move the capital back to Berlin the Reichstag is once again the flagship building for the federal government. The building was restored during the 1960s, and Sir Norman Foster added his famous glass dome as a modern take on the original in the late 1990s. In front of the Reichstag stretches a large grassy field well used by locals and visitors alike. In 1999 the building official welcomed parliament and the glass dome opened for visitors. Dylan and I entered the waiting line and an half or so later reached the top and enjoyed the panoramic view of the city.

After the Reichstag we walked to Potsdamer Platz and came across some of the city’s old scars. The first photo below shows the site where the Gestapo headquarters once stood. In the second picture one sees a section of the Wall still standing.

The last sight for the day was the recently completed Holocaust Memorial. We learned that this is actually a privately constructed and maintained site and is not connected with the German or Berlin governments. The large memorial site consists of hundreds of blank vertical stones. The center of the site slopes down in a depression and a visitor soon finds himself dwarfed. We both expressed concerns if this simple design appropriately memorializes the millions of lives lost. We spoke with the sole security guard we saw on the site and learned that many foreigners randomly come across the memorial without a clue as to what it is. He told us that younger visitors will often jump from stone to stone, or run through them playing. As a result, at least one person injures himself per week at the site. We found it more disturbing that the architect originally intended for skateboarders and graffiti artists to make use of the memorial. The plans were throw out after the weekly cleaning costs were considered. The guard was also quick to point out that Berliners know why the stones stand there and respect the site. For now the site’s quality as a memorial remains undecided, but I would certainly say it provides an interesting target for photographers.

The next day we went to the Berlin Zoo to check up on a four-legged celebrity. Before we found him we came across these sun bears which entertained us for some time. The one on the left is trying to hide from the rain, while the cub is about to insist on playing.

Soon after, we found the object of our search, Knut. Perhaps you have heard of this famous polar bear cub. He gained international press coverage when his mother rejected him after birth and was adopted by
Germany’s Environment Minister. The zoo staff continues to raise this cub that has become a symbol for environmental protection and action against global warming.

After the zoo we briefly stopped by at the Gedächtniskirche, an anti-war memorial. The church received heavy damage during a Berlin air raid in World War II and today only the original main tower remains, with an obvious portion missing.

Next we toured the Jewish Museum, which presents the story of German Jews from the last 2,000 years. It also included a holocaust memorial, which Dylan and I found better. Still rather simplistic in design, this memorial was contained in a large and dark open room. On the floor of this room lie hundreds of steel faces upon one another, each about the size of a frisbee. As one carefully walks over the faces the metal clanks echo through the room. I believe that the best memorials create the intended effect and reverence without a cue to do so. Here, for instance, all people fell and remained silent in the room although no sign requested such respect.

The museum was really the last main sight we visited in
Berlin. The next day we overslept and missed our train, but caught a later one. After eight hours of riding and waiting on trains we arrived back in Eichstätt. It was a fast but fulfilling two days in Berlin. I look forward for the day when I can return.