Tuesday, October 25, 2011


Venice was....unexpected. I wasn't all that keen on going; I would rather have spent the extra two days exploring more of Tuscany. Also, hotels and hostels are really expensive, and it's a total tourist trap. But Mr.Q was in Venice as a teenager, for one afternoon, and he really, really wanted to go back. So, dutiful spouse that I am, I humoured him.

We landed on the mainland after a traumatic airport experience in Berlin, on a hazy, overcast afternoon. We were exhausted both physically (up far too late the night before, saying our last good-byes to the city and the people we knew there) and mentally (we put every ounce of energy we had into experiencing Berlin, and it drained's an odd city: the site is old, but many of the buildings are new. Neighbourhoods of glass and concrete, not unlike Vancouver, erected since 1945, or even since 1989. So it feels very young in parts, and it's discombobulating. You know there's something older below that shiny new exterior, but you'd have to stay a lot longer to really see it. We sure tried though!)

Mr.Q had his heart set on taking a water-bus across, insisting that the view of the city from the water would be breathtaking. Me? I was more concerned about how spendy it was, and the dull day & salt-stained windows of the boat did nothing to spur any enthusiasm. Plus, I had directions to get to the hostel via bus; not a boat coming in from the opposite direction.

First impression: a dingy, grungy city. Peeling paint, and plaster flaking off walls in chunks. Lagoons and canals murky, not with the wealth-bringing jade of a Feng Shui garden, but with boat fuel and probably sewage.  Foundations exposed at low tide were slimy with algae and mold. Not so much the magical city of Mr.Q's recollections.

We docked, closer to the hotel than I had expected: an encouraging sign. The bridge between us and Campo San Geremia, where we needed to be, was jam-packed full of tourists. Less encouraging. The throng was fairly easy to navigate: the pendulum swung up again. The hostel was somewhat dingy looking...less thrilling. The Italian hipster at the front desk was cheerful and welcoming....Good. Four narrow, twisty flights of marble stairs to our room, which had a view of mildewed rooftoops and a shower the width and breadth of a refrigerator...somewhat discouraging. But it was clean, and painted a warm yellow, and I only had to endure it for two days, and what the hell - let's go outside and see what we could see.

We immediately found a trattoria with cheap, tasty panini to eat while we walked back over the bridge. The sun had come out, and the city looked a little brighter. We stumbled almost immediately across a gondolier, who was honest about the price he quoted. I don't think we even looked at each other, let alone discussed it we just got in the boat.

Because we were staying in Cannaregio, the old Jewish quarter, it was a bit less frenetic than the more central, touristy parts of the city. Glidng down some of the smaller back "streets", it was almost completely silent. The late afternoon sun gilded the buildings, so the city looked less dingy, and more like a dowager duchess, defiantly clinging to the elegance of her youth.

It's a city that has to be seen from the water to be appreciated.

After the gondola ride, we just wandered the streets as the sun set, and stayed out till well after dark.

Dinner was eaten here: a slice of pizza, enjoyed while listening to a trio of violinists play Vivaldi...and then some rag-time tunes.

Day the second: armed with day passes for the city water buses (vaporetto) and a city map, we decided to just get on a boat and see where we ended up. We got turned around and sort of lost a couple times, but that was part of the adventure: you can only go so far before you hit the water, either the Gran Canal or the surrounding lagoon, and there are vaporetto stops at regular intervals.

(The idea that somebody actually mapped the city is amusing, given that some of the "streets" are maybe 3 feet wide, and a few dozen feet in length. Whoever took the time to do the job must have laughed their asses off at the idea of tourists trying to decipher the warrens laid out on paper....)

A street performer, playing Ave Maria on water glasses. The idea sounds cheesy, but the reality sounded exquisitely pure.

Last sights of the city...

The weather began to turn as we got back to our hotel, and we left the city the next morning as the rain started. It seems to have followed us to Florence....More about our arrival here later; we have museum reservations: off to see some Renaissance art!

Sunday, October 23, 2011

So, we took Berlin...

Clearly, the time in Berlin got away from us. We tried to cram as much as we could into the few days we had...and it wasn't nearly enough! A few highlights from our last 3 days there...

Thursday was my birthday (I think I like this habit of spending the day somewhere new!) So Mr.Q took me to a castle:

 Where there was even a Knight in Shining Armour:

 And a ballet performance:

 Then we went down to Museum Island, and looked at some really cool buildings, including the Berlin Cathedral:

 Mr.Q's German was not up to the task of translating the warning sign on the elevator at the train station:

 So we've decided it means: "Do Not Use Elevator When Giant Space Slugs Attack! Achtung!"

Finally, at the end of the day, the band had a show at a really cool pub. The bartender was a sweet, funny Willie Nelson look-alike, and when he heard it was my birthday, he gave me a bunch of silk roses and a glass of sparkling wine:
Friday, we went to Potsdam to poke around, but were SO tired and overwhelmed that we ended up on a bus tour. It was perfect, actually, because even though it was pretty quick, and we didn't have a lot of time for exploring - it got us to some places we wouldn't otherwise have seen. (For next time!) Including a windmill:

And the summer palace and gardens at Sanssouci:

 Back in Berlin, we wandered for a bit around Oranienburger, where we saw (and just missed entry into) the Neue Synagogue, an absolutely stunning building:

And Mr.Q found the Ramones museum:

He didn't actually go inside, as he wanted to make sure he had enough time to go for some "real" German food, which he enjoyed immensely:

Saturday, our last day, we spent wandering around, saying good-bye to the city. We stopped back at the cafe we'd discovered on our first day, for another Nutella Dream coffee:

Then found ourselves on a boat tour of the Spree river - a German tour, but we didn't care; I just wanted to see part of the city from the water, and they served us beer & gluhwein. Happy-making!


We wandered around a bit more, and I sat on a bench and knit outside Humboldt University

While Mr.Q rummaged through the used books for sale on the sidewalk. (He only bought one! Impressive restraint!)

Then the band's last (and best!) show, where a lot of German teenagers listened attentively to (and maybe made out to) the tunes...

And that, as they say, is all she wrote. Up at a ridiculous hour to tidy our rented flat, take a taxi to the airport (we did NOT like Schoenfeld Airport...NOT the best airport ever! We're quite lucky in Vancouver!) Now in Venice, woken up several times last night by the silence. Took me awhile to figure it own, then I was like: Duh! NO CARS!

Now for breakfast & an explore of some of those twisty, narrow cobblestone paths!

Wednesday, October 19, 2011

Size Matters

In my very limited observation, I have noticed that Berliners like small cars, small parking spaces (with lots of creative parking!), and small cups of coffee. But everything else is Pretty Darned Big. Huge recycling bins for glass. Long trains. Big bratwurst sausages. And so on. For example:

Mr.Q with his Very Big Breakfast Beer:

 Brandenburg Gate is Really Frickin' Huge (with red-sweatered Viking for scale:

And there's a Really Big Monument on top of it:

The Reichstag is Ginormous! (Sadly, we failed to make reservations, so we didn't get to go inside and see the Not-So-Wee dome)

 There are even Brobdignagian Bubbles:

Brondignagian Bubbles, blown by a Viking, for scale:

 Even Massive Lego Sculptures, like this life-sized giraffe (made out of Duplo blocks, mostly, to be totally accurate)

  The eyelashes slay me:

I'm sure I'll find more big things tomorrow. A couple last images from the day...

The track of the Berlin Wall running through the city:

 Including right under my seat at a cafe:

 Pretty trippy!

I also had the strangest hot dog of my life tonight. A very thin cheese sauce, diced tomatoes, and what I had expected to be pickles (given the "gherkin" on the menu) turned out to be diced cucumber soaked in vinegar. It was...odd! Fortunately, I had some good cider afterward, to take the edge off.

Tuesday, October 18, 2011

A History Lesson

So, the weird thing about being in Berlin is that being in Berlin isn't weird. I realize we've only seen a tiny slice of the city, but so far, it really doesn't feel that foreign. A lot of the buildings are newer than those in Vancouver, which is a youngster on the scene. People speak a gamut of different languages - just like in Vancouver. There are a huge variety of ethnic restaurants, and oodles of coffee shops. Again, just like back home! Of course, there are lots of differences. Our public transit system can't hold a candle to the system here. Also, you can buy a beer from a corner store at 10:00 a.m. and drink it while walking down the street. A fact which Mr.Q finds quite...charming!

 But so far, much of what we've seen lacks a sense of the true history of this corner of the world. I certainly had more of a feeling of history as a presence in the twisted cobblestone streets of Old Montreal last fall. Today, though, we got a bit of that sense in Berlin. On the recommendation of my yarny-enabling pal Anne, we booked a walking tour of important Third Reich sites. Mr.Q is quite the history buff, especially with WWII, so this was right up our alley. We had to imagine a lot of what was, seeing as many of the sites didn't survive the war or the years afterward, but a few buildings were intact.

This used to be part of Goebbel's Ministry of Propaganda:

 The Finance Ministry now was originally built to house the Air Ministry, out of which the Luftwaffe were commanded by Goering and his merry band of goose-steppers:

A piece of the Berlin wall, built over the ruins of the Gestapo Headquarters (we were walking in the "Dead Zone" between East & West Berlin):

An interpretive site, over the foundations of the Gestapo Headquarters, in the empty space behind the Wall:

A building which is now an art gallery, whose purpose to the Third Reich has escaped me (There was a LOT of information!)

Bullet holes, riddling the stone walls of the building above:

Bombed-out remains of a huge train station...whose war-time duties included ferrying Jews and other Undesirables to "Re-education Camps."

A quick shot of Potsdamer Platz from behind the Canadian Embassy (Our guide chose to take us there because he needed a quiet space to continue the lesson, and as he said, it's always quiet where the Canadians are. I may have annoyed the Tea Partier in our group when I commented that yes, being Canadian was why we were so polite getting on the bus...oh well!)

The tour wrapped up at the location of Hitler's infamous bunker. A sign with some essential information marked the spot....

 ...but that was the only indication of what was under our feet. Our group, on the packed dirt and sparse grass, is standing right over what rubble remains of the bunker.

It was very....surreal. To say the least. It was a really interesting experience; quite the mind-fuck, actually. But it gave us a totally different perspective of - and appreciation for - the city.

Heading back "home" for some dinner before Mr.Q's gig, we found ourselves feeling almost like pros at maneuvering the transit system.

The pic was taken moments before Mr.Q shifted over to make room for an elderly woman. When she thanked him in German, he told her (in German) that we were tourists from Canada, staying in Prenzlauer-Berg. Her face lit up, she pulled a photocopied picture out of her bag, of Prenzlauer Allee (The main street near us), about 100 years ago. She talked and chirped at him for the rest of our ride; telling him about growing up in the same neighbourhood. She was quite sweet, and very concerned that we were getting off at the wrong stop. I told her it was OK, we were going to a restaurant for dinner, and she looked very relieved. It felt like we'd been briefly adopted or something: a perfect, magic moment!

Back to "our" 'Wurst stand, where Mr.Q tried the famous Berliner currywurst:

 The verdict:

(He was actually way more impressed than he looks!)

Now: out the door to a gig! Life is so surreal...Awesome, but bizarre!