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Letters from Berlin – part zwei

Hello again!

Ok, much more to report now after a busy weekend.
On Saturday, I just wandered around by myself.  It was a gorgeous day and I went back to Alexanderplatz, which is like the main square in the city.  It again had a crazy energy.  It was unlike any other square I’ve been to.  Loads of street performers and artists.  But they actually have semi-permanent stands or whatever that any street performer can sign up and use, so it gives them a stage, backdrop, and sound system if they want it.  I’ve never really seen that before.  Maybe I’ve seen one or two places that street performers can use, but there was like 6-10 of em.  Also, there were all these…”games”(for lack of a better word) that anyone can play, no money.  Its hard to describe, like large wrought-iron toys that are just there permanently.  For example, one game you had to roll a ball(like skee-ball) up into a shaft so that it rings a bell…or another one you had balance weights onto 4 posts that controlled the balance of a set of rails and you had to try to roll a metal ball along the rails into a central spot(kind of like that labrinthe game).  They are just there for people to enjoy.
Everyone told me that ohh everyone speaks english in Berlin, so I was expecting a very western city.  Its not….at all.  Everyone does speak english, but they don’t unless you speak to them first in English.  There is a very heavy eastern German feel to the city.  Some parts more than others obviously.  On Saturday night, I met the dj at the hostel bar and he took me and some friends from my hostel room to a place called Caffe Bourgher which was also very “eastern-bloc”-ish not having been redecorated in decades and playing old gyspy music.
A short story…so we started the night with karaoke in the hostel bar and after we were looking for another place to go.  As we’re waiting for the entire group of us to conglomerate outside to make a decision about where to go, I see these 2 girls who looked kind of interesting.  I wasn’t really even thinking that I was hitting on them, and I was feeling “the openness” of the city so I just wanted to ask them if they had any recommendations about where to go.  They didn’t even listen to my question, and I guess just assumed I was hitting on them, so they said they were going to bed.  I said, no no, i just was just wondering if you knew of a good place to go tonight.  They replied with “bye-bye!”…”bye-bye!”….I couldn’t help but laugh and say are you for real?  They replied with “bye-bye!”…”bye-bye”…ok rude bitches, you could just say your in the middle of a conversation, but bye rude bitches!  So anyway, from there, I saw the dj outside smoking a cigarrette, and wanted to bitch about the bitches, so I started talking to him.  Turns out he has a room in his flat that the rents out to tourists and its available for exactly one week!  Which is exactly perfect for me because I’m going to return to Freiburg next week.
I came to see the place yesterday, and its awesome.  Its in a great part of town, very central but not being in a touristy part.  Its a big room, and the guy I’m renting from, Patrice(from Switzerland), is a really cool guy.  Its a little pricey probably for Berlin, $25/night(although he gave me a free night, which really makes it $20/night) which is about the same price for a decent centrally located hostel, but its my own room!
So, now the plan is to spend this week searching for a flat for September.  I also need to make arrangements for Freiburg, but that shouldn’t be hard.  Switzerland is very close to Freiburg, so I may fly to Basel, and rent a car from there. The total time is probably the same as taking a train, so I don’t know.
So, also, because I met the bartender following the unpleasant experience with the rude bitches, he took us to Caffe Bourgher.  At Caffe Bourgher, i met a group of Germans that were real cool and they invited me to this Biergarten on Sunday where they were  to have a boxing match.  I didn’t really know what that meant but I said ok.  And so, I went yesterday, and turns out its like rockabilly themed boxing?? haha well, the boxers are normal, but everything else is rockabilly.  The models who walk around the ring between rounds were all burlesque performers.  There was a band that played…seemed like swing/gypsy/rock/bigband music.  Everyone had tattoos and was in fifties clothes.  Greasers and pinups.  I also tried something new, I forget how you say in German, maybe radler? but its beer + sprite.  It was quite good.  Also, the pretzels here are delicious, they cut them in half(somehow without breaking the pretzel) and smother in salt and butter.   Lekke.  That’s the one word I was told to make sure to remember in german.  It means, delicious.  Or so I was told.
Today, I’m going to try to start learning german.  I told a friend about Rosetta Stone, and she was like, oh, like LiveMocha.  www.livemocha.com  basically a free(mostly), socially/community oriented website to learn any language that uses principles similar to RosettaStone.  word.
Overall, I’m really diggin it here so far.  Its very “raw” here…a lot of things under construction, nothing is really fancy, and everybody is just relaxed.  There are no turnstiles in the underground, and you can just get on a tram, no problem.  They have agents who come around every so often to check tickets.  A couple of people have told me that you get caught every 20th time and the fee is 50 euros, which is the same price as if you were to just buy it, so everyone just does.  This feels like a very self regulated city, which I dig, and is interesting to see in a large urban context.   The bikers(like in Amsterdam) take their bike lines(which are everywhere) very seriously.  So you learn after almost getting run over not to stand in the bike lanes.  You can take a beer into the street, its ok, there are drunks and they manage themselves.  There are casinos(well, this applies to everyplace in europe) and similar to OffTrack Betting places in the states, they are mostly empty with the exception of a few dirty people.  When I climbed a tower in Freiburg, it was really high and swayed in the wind, and there was hardly any railing.  I mean there was enough to hold on to, but not a crazy amount that obscured your view or prevented you from leaning over and looking down.  When people aren’t idiots, they just figure things out for themselves.
The flat that I’m in now is in an area that I guess was very poor during the time of the GDR(German Democratic Republic), but now this is where all the artists have been living and now is on the cusp of gentrification I suppose.  Kind of like williamsburg but way more interesting and not as pretentious.  It was described to me that Berlin now is like New York in the 80′s.  I kind of see that in a sense but its not completely accurate.  The history here is unavoidable and casts a really interesting shade to everything.  Even the gentrified and westernized parts of the city aren’t that western and still have a strong east german sensability.  There is definitely a stark contrast from Freiburg, which is south west germany, and this being north east Germany.  I’m still sort of getting a feel for it, I suppose, I can’t quite find the words for it just yet.
Ok, gonna get some food, and get things going here.
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Letters from Berlin – Part I

Hey all,

Got to Berlin!!! I can’t express how good it feels to be here.  On one hand, this is kind of a milestone for me.  I’ve survived international travel for 8 weeks now and this was the first major destination I had set out to get to.  On my way to my hostel, I had to transfer at a place called Alexanderplatz.  The trains don’t have turn stiles so with one ticket you can walk on and off at each stop no problem.  So at alexanderplatz I walked out into the square and it was buzzing with energy.  It had been pouring as the train from freiburg arrived, and it seemed as if there were black rain clouds all around us,  but not over the square and somehow there was sun shining on the square.  The square was filled with people and vendors and street performers.  There was a marching band that seemed to be playing this triumphant welcome ballad just for me.  I can’t quite justify it, but everything here feels different,  in a great way.  Loads of young creatives, everyone is relaxed and wants to talk to you.  Everyone is international, and in a different way than ny.

Yesterday was filled with meeting loads of people.  I actually met a Berliner,  and she took me to a local Berlin underground party.  Here it was a little difficult because I could not speak German.  The party was half dark German industrial,  with lots of black vinyl and piercings and colored Mohawks, and half dubstep with everyone in normal clothes.  It was a bit cliquish,  but it was interesting to see the small bits of cross pollination that did occur.  The party was a little outside of town, but finding my way home was very manageable and safe.

I can definitely see spending a little while here to explore the city.  I got the low down on the main flat sharing website(its not craigslist. :-)), so I’m probably going to start looking for apt tomorrow.

On my last day in freiburg, I did get another lead: there is apparently this eccentric lady in the black forest near freiburg that runs an organic farm and does some interesting stuff with energy use and waste disposal.   Our schedules didn’t align before I left, but I made an appt to come visit next week.  Which means I have to trek back to freiburg.  So I’m a little iffy on having to make another trip all the way down there and back. Its quite expensive,  but this is my last lead and I think it may be worth it and may generate new leads, so I’m gonna have to suck it up.  Plus I heard Europe’s biggest amusement park outside of eurodisney is near there, so I may daisy chain them.


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Letters from Amsterdam

Hey everyone,

Long time for a post, ey?
I finally made my departure from England and I’m very relieved.  It was grating on me.  England didn’t want me to go either…tried its best to keep me, but I thwarted its efforts. Barely made a train to the ferry…but it was the wrong train, so we missed our connecting train to the ferry..then had to dash into a taxi to get to the actual ferry, got stuck on a one way/one lane road behind an 18 wheeler…. we had the entire massive ferry liner waiting for Yousef and myself.  When we got to the ferry, they couldn’t find my reservation at first which held things up further.  But finally got on.  We paid a bit extra and got a cabin, seeing as it was an 8hr ride.  Passed out(we had stayed up the entire night before wandering around london so we wouldn’t be late to our train!)
Anyway…here in amsterdam now… Staying in a really cool hostel right across from Van Gogh musuem.  We’re gonna be here 3 nights, then Yousef is probably gonna head back to london, although he’s not sure yet.  Then I’m going to continue on to Germany, although the details I still have to iron out.
Talk soon!
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Letters from London

So, let’s catch up.
Actually, Since I’m in britain, and everything is backwards here, let’s tell the stories in reverse.
So I’m staying in a hostel in Bayswater, which is very grungy.  Its cool, but i’m not sure I trust the people who rent rooms here, so I have more fears for my things which basically means I have to always put my bags behind the front desk which is super annoying to do all the time.
So, getting into the UK was difficult, they singled me out in immigration and put me through the ringer for about 6hours about my purpose in the UK.  They actually made me open my bank accounts and said I didn’t have enough money to do the kind of traveling I said I was going to do.  And I asked them what numbers they were basing this off and they wouldn’t say.  They actually went through all my journals and computer and everything.  While I was in holding, there was another guy who was getting the boot, so I was super nervous.  However, he was someone who overstayed his visa.  Finally, the office, calls me out, and is holding my passport and journals in a zip-locked baggy.  “Do you want the good news or the bad news”.  I was so exhausted at this point, I just said, whichever, just tell me.
“The good news is you’re getting your passport back.”  
“ok so whats the bad news”.
“You are free to go”….
arg, he was just messing me with…
So I took the train to Victoria Station, and I was right in the middle of rush hour, so while I was getting off a train, I felt like I was trying to jump onto a moving train, it was so chaotic.  It wasn’t anymore chaotic than NY’s rush hour, really, but now I was the tourist which sucked.  People were not really interested in being asked which way the Tube was or which line Bayswater(where my hostel is) is off of, etc etc.  London’s tube system is definitely several orders of magnitude more complex than NY’s.  In NY, if its a numbered street, you have an idea where to look on the map.  Everything here is named, and named something really weird like mudchute, or elephant and castle.  Ok ok, they’re probably just weird to the naive american but still its not organized well(for naive americans).
Then, I got off the tube.  I asked the train dude how to get to the address I was looking for, and he gave a couple of short turns to make.  Easy.  Nope.  Somehow I found my hostel, but even today I still haven’t really figured out how the street signs work here.  The signs are posted to the sides of buildings and aren’t always posted or are posted in a direction that you aren’t looking or posted high up on a building that is obscured by a tree.  Also, sometimes the street signs have multiple versions of them, and seem to be followed by a W2 or W11 or something, not sure…I have a street map, but the one I have(given by the hostel) seems to have no rhyme or reason to when it wants to include a side street or not.
After wandering around last night after I dropped my bags, I seem to have a much better feel for things, hey, I even found a cafe with free wifi while most other places charge.
Also, This morning I did laundry which officially makes my laundry rate higher while traveling than while at home.
I also got a UK sim card.  The phone number, I believe, is:+44 xx-xxx-xxxxx.  So please put this in your address books so you recognize calls/texts from it.  I put 5 pounds of money on it, so I will only use it sparingly.  I also paid 5pounds for a data plan which is unlimited for the month for basic surfing, and email is included in that, so that’s probably the best way of contacting me.
Phew, ok, that covers my entry in the UK, traveling back in time a bit, my last day in Iceland(the summer solistice) was awesome.  I watched the sunset and after a few hours rise again while in a hot tub in a penthouse apartment overlooking the sea only a few buildings away which was quite convenient.  Especially considering the fact that I totally lost track of time(its hard to realize its 5am when its bright out), because the bus to go to the airport was supposed to pick me up at 5am.  Being in the hot tub, I took of my watch, sigh…and when I got out it was exactly 5am!  So i raced downstairs and next door and the bus was there waiting with everyone on it.  Also, I might add that I stupidly left my pants(jess I had a bathing suit on, chill…) right next to the tub.  But luckily only ONE pant leg was completely soaked.  So picture me racing with one wet pant leg racing by a bus full of people annoyed that I’m holding them up, and I run into the hostel, smashed everything I had into the bag, and race back to the bus, still wearing my pants with a wet pant leg because I certainly didn’t have enough time to change.  Now I’ll admit, we had been drinking since midnight-ish, not overly, but consistently.  So i’m still pretty drunk(with a wet pant leg) getting on the bus.  very embarrasing.  So we get to the airport.  Now, I know you are all shaking your head at what an idiot I am.  But wait there’s more.  But first, lets talk of something intelligent that I did.  Prior to going out, I returned the bike I had rented(when i could’ve kept it till morning), but also, I booked the bus back to the airport an hour prior to when most people would’ve booked their bus, just so I would have extra time to handle ANY mishap.  So when I arrive to the airport at 5:30am, I have plenty of time before my flight at 8:50am.  I immediately make my way with my bags to the bathroom and change clothes stuffing my wet pants into an outer compartment of my suitcase with some other dirty clothes.  Btw these wet clothes did not make my life easier as UK immigration authorities are rummaging through my bags and are wondering why i have wet clothes packed, the details of which I have to fully reveal.
So I change and clean myself and get my drunk self as respectable as I can, and stumble through security.  Well, I wasn’t that bad, I don’t think.  I made it through security no problem.  The way it works is that once you clear security, you can wait in the terminal where all the shops are, and then there is passport control which once you pass you are in a room right next to the gate with barely no amenities except maybe a vending machine.  So I have an hour or two before boarding, so I decide to wait and charge my devices and relax for a minute before doing some duty free shopping.  I sit, plugin my phone, and blink and look at my watch and its 8:50am!  oh crap, i’m f-ing missing my flight, how is this possible??  i wipe the crust from my eyes, and look at my ticket, it says 8:55am.  I’ve got 5 minutes.  Packed up my cords and raced to passport control, I was the only one there, I fly through that and go downstairs, and to the gate.  They take my ticket, one of the lady smiles, the other is annoyed.  At this airport the plane is on the runway, no jetway.  So i’m sprinting across the tarmac, with dry pants this time! towards the plane, and climb the staircar into the plane.  Oh, how I have such fondness for staircars, even in a half drunk, half asleep, half adrenaline riddled state(note: .5+.5+.5 = 1.5 consciousness’s, this is an accurate depiction of my mental state.).  So, The plane is mostly packed with some empty seats, and I find some midly overweight middle age american lady in my aisle seat, who says, “ugh, we’ve been waiting for you…”…and she gets up and goes to her actual seat, which undoubtedly was a middle seat.  And that’s it, I fly to London, without incident. Until, of course, I hit immigration(see above).
Before meeting our friends who owned the penthouse, I was doing an interview.  I alluded to this partly and to some of you and in different ways.  If it hasn’t been clear, part of this trip was to go to different people and different organizations who are doing environmentally sustainable things and to profile them on a travel blog I plan to create.  So, a day or two after I landed in reykyavik, I rented a bike with a plan to bike a long the shore and visit the public pool(which was supposed to be nicer than the blue lagoon) and the city zoo.  So I’m biking along a pristine icelandic shoreland, and the trail dips inward for a bit to accomodate some houses along the shore.  I see a sign pointing outward towards the shore for a museum.  So I say hey, why not, a short detour.  From the trail I can see a modern(read: ugly) house with some abstract stone sculptures(read: see previous note) outside.  Whatever, I continue, maybe I’ll get some good photos.  As I approach, I start seeing some more interesting sculptures off to the side made of metal and different colors and wacky shapes creating interesting jagged silhouettes against the horizon.  There also seems to be a building with a similar theme.  The trail splits and I have to choose between the modern building and the interesting building.  So as I approach the interesting building, it gets more and more interesting.  The whole outer frame of the house seems to be made of old iron and reused ship and dock parts.  There is some sort of silo or tank filled with, lets say, an erotic scultpure.  As I proceed around the back I meet an old man with shoulder length wild white icelandic hair and another gentleman that he is speaking in icelandic.  He says, “welcome, welcome”, come take as many photos as you like and put this on Google Earth.”.  ok….so this place is insane and I can’t stop taking photos.  Every nook and cranny is filled with something interesting.  There is a giant tractor tire swing.  Masks that are definitely not icelandic.  Wood carved hands that jut out of the house and are pointing their middle finger at me.  Ship anchors, rusted tire rims, lanterns older than i am, old buoys that make up a fence, a television antennae reshaped into a bird.  I can go on…for a while.  
So as I wander around the property, and make my way to the backyard where there are the remnants of a very festive party.  Deflated ballons, match sticks, empty wine and vodka bottles, plates that have dried cake crumbs on them.  I begin to realize, this isn’t the museum the sign was pointing to, its just somebody’s house.  I hear the older man now talking to a child inside the house.  I try to interrupt but they don’t hear.  I feel like I’m intruding now.  After a 4th attempt, I get their attention and apologize and say I thought this was the museum.  He says its no problem and that I should take as many pictures as I like.  He says “This is the greatest experiment that ever was.  Everything here is reused and found from somewhere else”, and that unfortunately he must go and take his child somewhere, otherwise he would show me around but that I should continue taking pictures and put them on Google Earth.  He drives away and I try to take a picture of everything on the outside of the house.  I can tell the inside of the house is just as, if not more, interesting than the outside.  I resolve to myself that I must meet this guy properly and do my first story for my travel blog on him.  I think to myself, I’ve hit the motherload.  To me this was a bit of providence because I was not even planning on doing a story in iceland, and look at what I had landed myself into.  The next few days I had tours booked blah blah blah, you know, snowmobiling and hiking on a glacier, blah blah blah, standing at the tip of a volcano crater, blah blah blah…On the day of the solstice, I planned to keep open to do some shopping, and maybe go to the blue lagoon, and also touch base with him and see if I could have him answer a few questions.  After I returned from meeting him the first time, and returned the bike, I told the hostel clerk about him, and she says, yes yes, I know him.  His name is Hrafn Gunnlaugsson He is very famous in iceland.  He is a movie director and has made the first authentic viking films from Iceland and he is very well revered because of this.  However, despite this, he is in trouble with the government because they don’t like his house.  They don’t want people to see his crazy art and have told him to remove it.  I think to myself: double score, political strife in trying to do something environmental.  It really is kind of the perfect story.  So anyway, I do some souvenir shopping on the 21st of June, and bike over to his house again.  When I meet him again, he is with another gentleman in overalls and they seem to be working on some construction, taking measurements and demarcating lines, and so on.  He is very busy and I novicely try to ask him some questions.  I’m incredibly nervous.  He is very brief with me.  I decide to stick it out and just take pictures while he does his thing.  After about 20 minutes of anxiously waiting and watching him work, I resolve to leave my business card for my TechforProgress website with him and see if we can reconvene, or do some email interview or something as I’m leaving tomorrow.  Finally, he apologizes and says he is very busy and will be available to talk later tonight at 7:30pm.  He takes my card and actually sends me an email with his contact information, and also gives me a documentary dvd he made about iceland and reykyavik.
So I take this, and bike back to my hostel, and resolve: fuck the blue lagoon, i need to do my research.  So I watch about half of his dvd and look at his website.  Unfortunately, most of it is in icelandic, but there is one interview published in the english speaking local paper, The grapevine, which provided a lot of great information.  I also google “interviewing for dummies”.  I actually found a really great website on journalism tutorials: http://stringers.media.mit.edu/journalism.htm hahaha
So to make a short story even longer, oh, i’ll make it shorter, I go back, do the interview, and its amazing to learn all about the house, the history, how its built, how he reused materials, etc etc.  I took video on my phone, so I hope it turns out well…he’s pretty hilarious.  He heckled snooty tourists who turned their noses up at his art.
Now I just need to process the photos and videos and write the story.  I’m not really sure what to do with the video, if I’m going to post it or not…it’ll really delay the publication of the story.
As I’ve spoken to photographers in the past and even ones I’ve met on this trip, the idea is to create the idea and do the stories, and then try to push them to major publications and get paid for them, and get paid to travel and do more stories.  I don’t know, that’s sort of where I’m heading with this idea…I just need to execute.
Now my fingers are tired.  In other news, my back is doing great and the rest of me feels great.  Actually, since I’ve been here typing this up, my back is starting to bother me(i think its just muscular though).  I think i just need to keep moving and I’ll be alright.  My chiro said sitting is one of the worst things for your back.
How are you guys feeling after reading this narrative?  I don’t know about you, but i’m pooped.  More pooped after writing this all than actually experiencing it all, which is odd, isn’t it? haha
Well, I plan to be in London through the weekend and then hopefully head up to Scotland early next week.  I’m meeting my friend Ivana this weekend and a few other people I have made connections with as well.  I’ve got a ton of photos from iceland(especially the crazy recycled house) to get uploaded so stay tuned.
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