5 days in Berlin

IMG_20130227_124125It’s a bright morning in Berlin. I’ve spent the night in a single room apartment on the 9th floor of a 18-storey tower block in east Germany. All around are tower blocks of a similar size and nature. The outside of the building has brightly coloured red and yellow facades, but I get the impression these were added much more recently to make the building more attractive.

The ornate fountain outside is dry and falling apart. That probably was part of the original design.

For one person living alone, it’s a nice flat. Bright and airy, with pretty much space for all you’d need. You could even have guests stay the night if they didn’t mind sleeping on the floor. But then you remember, this was probably built a long time ago in the days of the Soviets, and it wouldn’t have been one person living here back then, but probably a whole family.

The whole building is quite loud, not with the sound of music or televisions, but the hard floors in the corridors and apartments and thin walls means you hear people walking about all the time. Double glazed windows don’t keep the sound of the traffic out, either. But you’d get used to that.

The apartment has a view over the city and the dominating telecoms tower, and in a strange way the sound of the trains going by is almost comforting, it reminds me of the sound of the planes back home by London City Airport.

It’s a very short walk from the train station, when you know where you are going, and there is a Lidl supermarket right next door to the supermarket, making it well provided for — and actually better served than my own Docklands flat. It’s also a short walk from Alexanderplatz, which is a kind of city centre.

When I visit a city, I like to try and understand it. What does it mean to live here? What do the people feel? Antwerp was a difficult city for me, I didn’t feel like I ever really did understand what it meant to be from Antwerp. Berlin is obviously a city of so many different personalities and nationality that you can’t define just one characteristic.

Obviously, it was once a city divided and while the dividing wall is long gone, there are distinct differences in architecture between the sides. There are the memorials and museums, and painful memories for a lot of people. But there is also excitement and innovation and a bright technology scene, as well as the techno clubs that seem to come from nowhere at night in areas you thought were quiet during the day.

It’s a cop out to just call it a city of contradictions, contrasts and complexities — despite the alliteration. Berlin isn’t a place I can summarise so easily just yet, it needs more return visits, and I think I can confidently add it to the list of European cities I could live in — along with Paris, Lisbon, and Barcelona.

A chilly city suits a troubled soul

Landing in Berlin, it was almost as if I had never left London.

London had been grey and cold when I left, and Berlin’s airport looked just the same. Even the snow could have been explained if you’d told me we’d taken off from London and circled for 90 minutes — during which time it had snowed.

But from the air I’d seen towns and half frozen lakes, instead of the sprawling English home counties and the city I call home.

Contrary to popular belief, I don’t think all airports do look the same — from my limited experience, I have found airports in places like Scandinavia and Switzerland to have very different personalities to those of Italy and Spain. In a very generalised way about the characteristics of those nations, perhaps.

Berlin airport was confusing, there was no obvious place to go at first for taxis and being a stranger in a strange land I didn’t know what the procedure or etiquette was. Outside there seemed to be plenty of taxis, and some unmarked cars that may or may not have been taxis, and a guy who seemed to maybe be trying to get people into taxis, but it didn’t seem very efficient, or very German.

Instead, I wandered around inside the airport looking for an information desk. There they told me what area to go for taxis, and the leaflet that said not to go anywhere else.

Clearly, there are phrases I need to learn in every language. Things like “I’m sorry, I don’t understand” (je suis désolé, je ne comprendes pas), “I would like a taxi”, or “I don’t remember, I was very drunk”. The only drawback is when you can ask questions in another language, you need to be able to understand the answers. It was very well for me in Paris to be able to ask “Where is…?” but if you don’t understand when someone answers, you just simple stupidly, and walk away none the wiser.

I’m here for MongoDB Berlin on Monday and Tuesday, then I have Wednesday to myself to explore the city and learn a little about Berlin, before returning home on Thursday. Since my hotel reservation is only until Wednesday, I am staying one night in an apartment I found on Airbnb. Since Lisbon, and the charming Portuguese family I lived with, I have learned to search for whole apartments. Though I did enjoy in Lisbon being fed, being shown around the city, and taken out for Gelato, so maybe there is something to be said for just booking a room.

I hope to update several more times while I’m in Berlin!

5 days in Munich

The sun sets in Munich after the rain has clearedAlternate blog post title: “Hamburger! Der Grundstein eines jeden nahrhaften Frühstücks!”

On Wednesday night in Munich, I was sat outside in a movie-theatre-cum-restaurant.  All of the menu was film-themed, I chose a hamburger and because of my love for Pulp Fiction I chose the Big Kahuna Burger from what was on offer.  Except the waitress corrected me: it was not Big Kahuna it was Big Kahlúa.  I had a feeling the restaurant had confused Pulp Fiction with The Big Lebowski, but ordered the burger anyway.

Fortunately, it did not contain Kahlúa.

I’ve been in Munich since Sunday, for a conference about Drupal — it’s my first time in both Munich and Germany.  I should get extra adventurer points for visiting two new cities in the space of two weeks, and points for visiting a new country.  I deliberately booked a flight out of London early Sunday evening so that I would have time to go to my Dragon Boat training in the morning, and still get home, showered, changed and to the airport.  I’m reluctant to let things get in the way of my Dragon Boat, although it isn’t always easy.

(As a brief aside, the Dragon Boat training is coming along well — I have been to half a dozen training sessions so far, and I will be taking part in a regatta in London at the beginning of September.)

London was in the grip of a heatwave last weekend, and my journey to Heathrow was too hot as I was overdressed as normal, hoping that dressing smartly would possibly get me upgraded.  As with Dublin, there was just enough time between checking in and walking to the gate before boarding, but I should have checked in online earlier in the day — I was stuck in the dreaded middle seat, with no others available to change to.  The plane sat on the tarmac for way too long, it was stuffy and hot and the air blowers overhead seemed to only blow warm air.  The captain made some announcement, but it sounded something like there was engine trouble, which sounded worrying and couldn’t possibly have been right.  Eventually we were on our way, the blowers started blowing cold air, and I went to sleep as usual — though the person next to me woke me up when the cabin crew brought some food or pretzels round.  I refused them and went back to sleep.  It’s quite a talent to be able to sleep when your flight is only an hour.

As we began to descend on Germany, I was looking across past the man in the seat next to me and down onto the fields of Bavaria.  I can’t remember what the man said to me any more, perhaps it was just “Look, it’s Germany” — but I do remember thinking he was right, in his own stating the obvious kind of way.  I enjoy landings more than take offs, just for the view — you seem to be below the clouds for a lot longer, and I like looking at the land.  I get a strange sense of peace looking at the cars with people going about their daily lives, oblivious or indifferent to the plane overhead — just like I am every day.  I also like the contrast of how different countries look from above.  Returning to England, I never fail to be struck at how green it looks.  Germany seemed to be a country of autumnal colours — yellows and oranges and browns.

In Munich airport it occurred to me that this was the first time I had ever been in a non-English speaking country on my own.  While there would be colleagues at the conference, I was on my own until then — and my heart started to beat a little faster when I remembered that I don’t speak a word of German.  My brain would unhelpfully dredge up Italian, Spanish and French phrases I’ve learned when faced with the indecipherable signs.

Dramas were all averted despite this — I bought a drink of water, collected my bag and even got a taxi.  Although my white-haired taxi driver and I had a few minutes of language barriers, as I pronounced “Westin Grand” with a “W” rather than as a “V”.  We drove in silence for the 45 minutes to the hotel, until we had almost arrived when he attempted to tell me in what little English he knew that the Audi he was driving was new, although it was not his own car.  I tried to be polite and tell him it was a very nice car.  He unloaded my luggage, gave me the long bag containing the pop-up banner I’d brought for the conference and attempted to ask me if I was a snooker player.  He also asked if I was American.  He’llA beer garden in Munich be writing in his taxi driver blog about the silent American billiards player that was his fare.

In the days that have followed I’ve spent all of the daytime working — on our conference stand, doing the usual marketing thing.  The evenings have been spent doing things like visiting German beer gardens.  I imagine a beer garden to be like in an English pub: a small garden or just a pub car park with a dew tables outside.  In Munich, the beer garden we went to seemed to be an entire town square just filled with people: sitting, drinking, eating, talking.  I read somewhere it could hold up to 700 people.  The other nights of drinking aren’t worth going into detail about: there was the pub meetup of the UK Drupal people: they said they’d found a British pub. It wasn’t, it was an Irish-themed bar.  But it was fun all the same.  We came in to this post at the outside cinema/restaurant: something London could do with — and we’ll leave there, too.

There had been thunderstorms predicted for days, that never arrived.  Tonight after several days of heat, it finally rained.