Archive | March, 2010

Paris, je t’aime

24 Mar

I love Paris.  It’s that simple.  I don’t have a fancy or witty way to begin describing Paris, or a funny little anecdote to get this post rolling.  I just love Paris.  It’s charming, beautiful, romantic, inspiring, modern, old-fashioned, trendy, classic, young, and old all rolled into one.  After spending a few days in Paris a few years back I developed an instant pull toward the city, and always thought it one of my favorites.  After this second visit to the city of lights, that pull transformed into a love affair.  I love Paris.  Simple.

While we only had a little over a day to explore all the city had to offer, we were up for the challenge.  Sarah, Claire, and I had all been to Paris before, and so we mapped out a good idea of what we wanted to cover over our short weekend.  We managed to make it to the Arc de Triomphe, the Eiffel Tower, The Louvre, the Notre Dame, and the Moulin Rouge throughout the day.  We witnessed an evening service in the Notre Dame, enjoyed one (or more) crepes in Monmarte while admiring the local artists’ work in the main square, devoured cones of the supposed best ice cream in all of Paris, and bought brie cheese at a tiny cheese shop to take back to Greece with us (yes, it smelled overwhelmingly awful and yes, we stank up our section of the plane).  By the day’s end, we were satisfied with our sight-seeing abilities, and could happily check everything off of our list.

The best parts of the trip were not necessarily the monumental activities.  Yes, seeing the Arc de Triomphe and Notre Dame was incredible, but what was perhaps even better (or least on par with…let’s not get ahead of ourselves here) was ducking into the Musee de l’Orangerie, behind the Louvre, and standing mere inches from original Monets in all their glory.  These paintings spanned the walls, stretching out over the entire rooms and garnering due appreciation for Monet’s craft.  We sat on the benches in the middle of the museum’s rooms and lost ourselves in the flowers and water lilies, then wandered down the halls to pay a nice visit to old friends Matisse and Cezanne.  I always remark how the Musee d’Orsay is my absolute favorite museum, but after seeing the wonderful exhibits presented at this little pocket of a museum, the Musee de l’Orangerie definitely gives the d’Orsay a run for its money.

Another “best” was the hotel.  This trip would not have been what it was without the hotel.  As a very (very) belated birthday present, Sarah’s brother scored us a room in the magnificent 5-star Marriot on the Champs Elysees.  Not only was the hotel decadent and gorgeous on all accounts, but they upgraded our room to one with a view of the famous street.  So if the spaciously fabulous room wasn’t enough, and the all-you-can-eat complimentary breakfast didn’t quite make us scream in disbelief, poking our heads out the window and seeing the Arc de Triomphe directly to our right did the trick.

And then there was the Eiffel Tower.  Ah, the Eiffel Tower.  Each time I stare doe-eyed at the Eiffel Tower, I can’t seem to comprehend that I am actually in Paris.  Is it real?  Is this a dream?  It’s there, right in front of me…obviously…but the sheer impressiveness of it, the shadow it casts over me as I stand small and meek below its form, the way it changes the entire look of the city, is just so unreal.  You can be walking pleasantly down a small street, minding your own business, when WHAM!  There it is!   Hanging over that building to your left!  Is that really it?  It that THE Eiffel Tower?  In the flesh (or, well, metal)?  I couldn’t believe that every time I saw the Eiffel Tower, I was actually staring at the famous Eiffel Tower.  Which is why I kept gazing at it with every turn of a corner.  I first saw it on the bus ride from the airport, unexpectedly when I happened to turn my head to look at something else.  My body physically jumped from my seat and I let out a little yelp of excitement.  Throughout the next 36 hours, every time I turned my neck and saw that awe-inspiring tower in the distance, I smiled and made a little sound.  Every time I crossed a street or exited a building or turned down a little alleyway it startled me into delight with it’s massive presence overlooking the city, and I couldn’t NOT be happy to just be in the same city as it.  I couldn’t help but to be jealous of all those Parisians I glimpsed running in the cold Paris air along the Seine with the Eiffel Tower in their sight along their daily route.  If I could run past the Eiffel Tower during my daily jog, I would run everyday.  Rain or shine or snow.  With a goofy smile slapped on my face.  I love the Eiffel Tower.

Other “bests”, and what made the trip so unforgettable, were the long dinners and conversations over great wine and great French cuisine, buying art from local artists on the street, and dancing the night away at a small Irish pub we happened upon.  And the French men weren’t too shabby, either.  The French are just blessed, I guess, and especially after spending too much time in Greece, land of hair and B.O., those French gave us a reason to forget that Paris was famous for that tower of theirs.

I could live in Paris, easy.  Sure, I don’t speak the language, and I hardly know anything about the culture.  But if I could spend the rest of my life gazing up at the Eiffel Tower, snacking on a crepe and breathing in the Parisian lifestyle surrounded by attractive men and adorable children riding carousels and bouncing along with balloons, I would do it in a heartbeat.  I just love Paris that much.  Besides, I’d pick up French eventually.  And I’m a writer, not a talker.  Last I checked, Hemingway and Fitzgerald had no problem writing their great American novels while nestled cozily in a little Parisian cafe.

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How would you like your Bratwurst?

7 Mar

The first thing that comes to one’s mind when thinking of Berlin isn’t usually Mel Brooks.  The wall…yes.  Sausages and beer…of course.  A long list of historical events in the last 70 years alone…undoubtedly.  But Mel Brooks?  Not so much.  I, however, couldn’t seem to get him out of my head from the moment I landed at the Berlin airport.  Riding the metro in the bitter cold, boarding the trolley en route to the hotel in Alexanderplatz, picking the concierge’s brain for dinner recommendations, trudging through the snow and enjoying dinner in a warm and cozy respite of a restaurant…Mel might as well have been right next to me, his presence was that prevalent.  As Claire tried to plan out the next 3 days and fill up our itinerary, my brain, which should have been filled to the brim with the excitement I had been feeling about visiting Berlin for the past few months leading up to this trip, was too busy being preoccupied with Springtime for Hitler.

I’m not sure that Germans appreciate an ignorant American singing “Heil myself!  Heil to me!  I’m the kraut who’s out to change our history!” (direct quote from Hitler himself) out loud on public transportation.  But I had no control over it.  “Heil myself!  Raise your hand!  There’s no greater dictator in the land!”  It couldn’t be stopped.  It was musical theater word vomit.  In my defense, Hitler deserves to get made fun of, the modern-day German should understand this, and most of them don’t like Hitler anyway.  Many museums conveniently glaze over 1933-1945 in their national history, and those that do cover the events make it clear that Hitler was not welcomed by the German people, and that his government was never considered legitimate.  The tour of the Reichstag (the seat of the German Parliament) makes a special note that Hitler never set foot in this building.

The Reichstag

Today, attached to the original building, the Reichstag has an impressive glass dome overtop the meeting room for the country’s decision-makers, offering a 360° view of the city and representative of the transparency of the modern German government.  Throughout my 3-day visit to Berlin, I learned over and over again that the majority of Germans did not support the Nazi party and that it basically was not the country’s fault that Hitler took over.  Now, while I want to believe these claims (and for the most part, do believe them), I’ve seen the footage from WWII, with the masses holding up their arms in support of this “non-supported” leader.  And so, while the city may still be trying, 70 years later, to restore their global reputation and make up for past mistakes, I have no qualms humming “Heil myself, raise your beer!  Every hotsy-totsy Nazi stand and cheer,” as I walk through the streets.  If this culture can idolize David Hasselhoff, I’m pretty sure they can see the humor in a little Hitler mockery.

I didn’t reenact The Producers’ soundtrack the entire weekend I was in Berlin.  It basically played on repeat in my mind (and out my lips) until 9:30am Saturday morning.  Up until this point, Mel Brooks, a gay Hitler, and I enjoyed a fondue dinner, an early-morning tour of the Reichstag (To avoid the impossibly long lines at this tourist hotspot, get there at 7am, when it opens.  Not only will you waltz right in, but you’ll have the entire building almost to yourself.), and a nice breakfast of cherry streusel and Dunkin’ Donuts.  Once 9:30am hit, Mel went to sleep, homo-Hitler escaped into his pink velvet bunker, and I mounted a multi-colored children’s bicycle named Hufflepuff and embarked on a 4-hour tour of snow-blanketed Berlin in freezing temps.

Hufflepuff, my preferred form of transportation

This bike tour was, hands down, the absolute top highlight of my trip and, even considering the weather conditions and the bone-chilling cold that seeped through my tights, spandex, jeans, two pairs of socks, Uggs, tank top, short sleeved shirt, long sleeved shirt, sweatshirt, winter coat, scarf, head band (for my ears), hat, hood, and 2 pairs of gloves, I honestly believe that this bike tour was the ultimate way to see and experience the city.  Not only did we see everything, but we also stopped at many points to take pictures and get a little history lesson about the locations.  It would be impossible to fully understand the city, as a tourist, without this type of experience.  Walking on a random street corner wedged between apartment buildings, I wouldn’t have realized I was standing on top of Hilter’s bunker, where he lived out his final days.  Sure, if you have enough time to thoroughly read every sign, leaf through every guide book, and visit every museum, you’ll learn these things, but for the weekend traveler, this bike tour is the best way to get a firm grasp on Berlin.  Not to mention you get to ring your little bell at pedestrians as you ride by.  As the tour rolled on and I learned more and more about the city and its history, Springtime for Hitler floated out of my mind.  Not because it was being filled with more useful information, mind you, but because…well…you try steering a children’s bike through a crowded city in wind and snow, and then tell me if you have time to think about the Nazi’s can-can.

The Jewish Memorial

Walking through the Jewish Memorial

After the bike tour, we hit up all the places we wanted to see more in depth, and then visited a few other places as well.  We wandered through KaDeWe, the largest department store in Europe, and salivated our way through their expansive gourmet food court, if you can even call it a food court.  We visited the Jewish Museum, which covers everything from German Jewry in the 1300’s to the Holocaust to the Cold War and present-day.  We rushed our way through the Contemporary Art Museum with 45 minutes left until closing, stumbling upon some pretty cool exhibits, including a few original Warhol’s.  We revisited Checkpoint Charlie, taking time to read the lengthy (but captivating) history of the Wall mapped out along the streets (on display since the World Cup in Berlin).  One strange thing about present-day Checkpoint Charlie?  I can’t attest to how it truly was back when the Wall was still up, but I have a feeling the guards didn’t yell at you with huge smiles, encouraging you to hug them for a photo op.  Maybe I’m wrong, and all those pat-downs and car-searches were just friendly guards trying to find a viable camera for a memory in the making.  Who knows?

Checkpoint Charlie

Another highlight of the trip, and a reason to see Berlin in the dead of winter?  On our way to finding a pub to grab a beer, we walked along a street filled with prostitutes.  First off, let me just say that I had a strong desire to talk to their pimp and help him construct a better business plan.  Lining them up down one particular street, each a few meters down from the previous one, is not the best business strategy.  If that pimp wants to maximize his profits, he really needs to map out a better geographical system for his “employees.”  Just saying.  Anyway, why, you ask, do I suggest seeing this spectacle in the wintertime?  Never in my life have I seen such bundled-up prostitutes.  These hookers sure did have to work hard at keeping their body temperature up while keeping their outward appearance to an astonishing low.  Neon spandex?  Thigh high patent-leather boots?  Booty shorts over the spandex?  Mini fur-lined parkas, tight enough to still emphasize their curves under that hefty padding?  Layers of caked-on makeup and fake eyelashes, which I can only assume achieves the duel-purpose of warming the face and eyes while maintaining the trashiness necessary in this profession? They had it all.  These whores deserve a reward, especially the two shivering together on a stoop trying to stay warm while shoveling greasy lo mein into their mouths.  Were they on break, or were they targeting the desperate obese male demographic?  Much like with the East German guards at Checkpoint Charlie, who really knows?

The TV Tower at night

A section of the Berlin Wall

All in all, Berlin was a fascinating city, and I would eagerly return if I had the chance.  It truly deserves its spot on my list of favorite travel spots.  A city known for its turbulent past and extremely liberal present, Berlin is the poster child for transformation.  Today, it can be hard to distinguish East from West, even though a mere 20 years ago these two areas were worlds apart.  Every street corner is interesting in its own right, and each story more fascinating than the last.  The people are friendly and helpful, and the city is welcoming and more than willing to apologize for its past with a fresh look toward the future.  It may not be Springtime for Hitler, but it’s definitely Springtime for Germany*.

East Berlin Pedestrian Traffic Lights, now scattered throughout the city

East Berlin Pedestrian Traffic Lights, now scattered throughout the city

(*Springtime notwithstanding the overwhelming threat of the downfall of Germany’s precious Euro caused by careless Greece, or the fact that Berlin is, according to my bike tour guide, basically bankrupt.  Also not including the popularity of the mullet.  Springtime is a relative term.)

Most historically important site in all of Berlin: Hotel where MJ dangled his baby

**For more info about the awesome bike tour, visit http://fattirebiketours.com/berlin.

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