When my art history class goes on field trips, they are usually to classical museums with older works of art. This week was exciting for me, because our professor had told us that we were going to a contemporary art exhibit. While I appreciate the rich history behind classical art, I tend to enjoy more modern abstract works, as I believe there is more to them that meets the eye.
We went to the Barbican museum, where we saw an exhibition by Roman Singer titled Slow Movement. Singer was an avid kayaker, but after personal reasons forced him to quit the sport, he decided to incorporate kayaks into his work as a way to keep his hobby alive. What’s interesting about the Barbican is that the gallery is built as a long narrow hallway that curves around like a semicircle. Our professor explained to us the difficulty that many artists have when they are commissioned to create an exhibit in this strange space, and how the work around the challenges they are faced with when mapping out what they plan to use the space for. Singer’s exhibit was very simple; he had two videos playing on a loop, one at the entrance of the exhibit and another at the exit. Running through the middle and down the hallway was a kayak that was being dragged by a pulley going through the ceiling. We finally understood the exhibit’s title, as the kayak moved at an incredibly slow pace. I wasn’t too impressed by this exhibit unfortunately, which is upsetting, as I was excited to finally see contemporary art.
The highlight of my day however, was being able to go to the Cereal Killer Café! The Barbican was a short tube ride from Shoreditch, a really cool and trendy part of town that unfortunately is pretty far from us. Since we were so close, Amy and I grabbed lunch at the hip new restaurant. The café was pretty exciting, it felt as though I stepped into a time capsule and was transported back to the 90s. Their menu offered every type of cereal imaginable; including some kinds I didn't even know existed!
I got something called the marshmallow submarine, which was basically Lucky Charms and another cereal I didn't recognize with a Twinkie at the bottom of the bowl. When the milk was poured in, the Twinkie deteriorated and it melted in with the milk, making it taste incredibly sweet and delicious. The area where we ate downstairs was covered in 90s themed decorations and had several TVs playing old cartoons. I started to feel very nostalgic, as it all reminded me of my childhood.
The following day Mel and I left right after my morning class to go to Berlin and Prague for Easter weekend. I’ve been very excited about this trip because I’ve heard incredible things about both Berlin and Prague. We arrived late on Thursday night and gave ourselves a bit of a scare after we couldn’t get in touch with our Airbnb host for over an hour. Luckily someone was able to let us into the building so we didn't have to stand in the rain while we waited for her to come, but we were locked out of our apartment for a long time before our host came. Apparently there had been a mix up in the time we would meet, and because our phones had no service in Berlin, we weren’t able to get in touch with her right away. Once she did come, however, the apartment blew us away.
Our host was a costume designer, and we stayed in her bedroom. Her closet had three levels, and it extended through the entire length of one of the walls. There were all sorts of quirky dresses, scarves, robes and corsets in every color imaginable. The walls were in concrete, but painted with a thin layer of glitter that made the walls sparkle as the natural light came in. In the middle of the room was a giant canopy bed with the softest pillows imaginable. It seemed like it was all out of a dream.
After finally settling into our apartment, we decided to explore the neighborhood to see where we could grab a bite to eat. It was about 11:00 PM at this point, so we had a hard time finding a restaurant that was open. Luckily, we stumbled upon a tapas bar that was about to close, but agreed to serve us anyway. Mel and I tried a bunch of different dishes and drank some wine, laughing at the irony that we arrived in Berlin but ended up eating Spanish food.
The following morning we took a bus tour through the city. We immediately went to the Reichstag building, which is where the German parliament gathers, to see if we could get some tickets to tour the inside. Being the most popular attraction in Berlin, there was a queue that lasted two hours just to make a reservation. I couldn’t believe it. The reason this tour is so coveted is partly due to the fact that on the top of the parliamentary building there is a beautiful dome called the Bundestag. This crystalline structure was designed by world-renowned architect Norman Foster, who famously also designed the new World Trade Center in New York City. Those who are lucky enough to see the inside get unparalleled views of the entire city, and if they look down at their feet, they can see right through the floor and into the parliamentary chamber, where German diplomats can be seen discussing current issues. The dome has a crystal structure running through the middle of it that apparently reflects beautifully both at night and during the day.
I was disappointed we weren’t able to see it, and I was told that if we come at 7:00 AM the following day we could maybe get a chance to score some tickets. I knew that it was a completely unrealistic expectation, so I was a little bummed out. After scratching the Reichstag from our list, we grabbed a cup of coffee at a nearby café and continued our bus tour. It was actually a pretty complete tour through the city, and we hit all the major landmarks.
After our tour, we went to the Jewish Museum. My mom had gone to Berlin earlier this year, and made it clear that this museum was an absolute must-see. The building in itself is a work of art. Designed by famous architect Daniel Libeskind, the museum is designed in the shape of a giant zigzag, with a very modern and aesthetically clean look. The space inside is incredible. As you walk in, you’re greeted with a giant indoor patio that is completely encased in glass. Guests can enjoy drinks and food in the beautiful atrium and enjoy the green scenery around them. As you make your way into the museum, it’s divided into several different wings, each telling a different story.
The first axis leads to an empty tower room called the Holocaust Tower. This space has no heating system, nothing on the walls and is only lit by a small sliver of natural light. The tower is meant to give the viewers the void that those who were sent to concentration camps felt. It felt completely eerie to be in that room, as the feeling of being so small and helpless in such a cold and depressing environment captured this anguish perfectly. The next axis takes visitors to an outdoor area called the Garden of Exile and Emigration. This area was particularly interesting, as it is meant to represent the feeling that the Jews who migrated to a different country felt as they left their homes and everything they knew behind. The ground in this garden is on a slant, and large square stones laid out in the shape of a grid create the illusion of many small walls around you as you walk through the garden. These stones are also on an angle, creating the overall effect of disorientation, similar to the one the escaped Jews felt as they fled their homes to foreign countries. The last axis led to the rest of the exhibit, where the museum housed an expansive collection depicting Jewish influence in German history.
The layout of the museum was incredible, and even more so, I was impressed by the way they were able to convey the horrible history of the events that unfolded during the Second World War without traumatizing the visitors. Mel had told me that prior to our trip to Berlin, she had visited another World War II museum that was so graphic in showing the horrors at the concentration camps that made her so visibly upset she had to leave the exhibit. Instead of focusing on the atrocities that are all too familiar to us such as gas chambers and mass executions, the exhibits focused on propaganda that was written, laws and policies, and other interesting concepts that are easily overshadowed by concentration camp stories. As I read through all the information, I still felt waves of sadness at the blatant discrimination towards so many innocent people, but instead of making me want to repress the thought of it all and leave the museum, I wanted to learn more and try to understand what life back then must have been like.
The museum also focused on some of the positive parts of Jewish history in Germany. All too often, people forget about the amazing contributions that these people made in German history. One of the tour highlights was not only learning about all these things, but also appreciating them. Halfway to the tour, there was a giant tree in the middle with hundreds of tiny paper apples hanging from its branches. Beside it, was a table with these paper apples, and a sign that invited visitors to write a wish on these apples and hang them from the tree. It was a beautiful way to see what people from all across the globe had written. The wishes ranged from messages of hope, encouragement and love that were written in dozens of languages.
When he designed this museum, Libeskind found nonconventional ways to express the horrific outcomes of the holocaust. The museum itself is filled with empty spaces that visitors can look down up on as the walk through the different levels, giving them the eerie feeling of emptiness. The voids are meant to represent the population that has been lost during this tragic time. While there is nothing to physically see inside these voids, you feel the vast emptiness, and that evokes a more powerful message than any model or descriptor plaque ever could.
One of the voids was particularly interesting because it was filled with something. As you walk inside, you see the walls stretching around you a few dozen feet, with little natural light inside. As you keep walking through, the ground becomes uneven, and you realize that there are over 10,000 small faces covering the entire floor of the room. These are meant to represent the millions of people who died during the holocaust, and the others who continue to suffer from other discriminatory acts today. It was a powerful representation, as the line between the work of art and the visitor is completely destroyed as you physically step through all the iron faces. It was a surreal feeling, definitely not something I will ever forget.
As we made our way out of the museum, we stumbled upon a robot that was carefully writing out the Torah. The precision that this robot had was unbelievable, as each brush stroke was calculated down to the finest detail. We watched it for a little while, thinking about everything that we had seen that day. As we left the building, we talked about how that was probably the best museum either of us had ever been to. Although I am not Jewish, I think this is one of the most important attractions in Berlin, not just to gather a more comprehensive understanding of something that is so marked in Germany’s history, but also to admire one of the most incredible architectural undertakings I’ve ever seen.
After we left the museum, Mel and I made our way to Checkpoint Charlie. This spot marked the third official entry point for people who crossed the border between East and West Germany. As we learned later, the area has become an absolute tourist trap now, with souvenir shops claiming to sell bits of the Berlin wall littering the streets and men dressed in old American uniforms asking tourists to take pictures with them. From a historical standpoint, however, the site was pretty impressive, as this is also the point during the Cold War at which the American troops and the USSR troops pointed their military tanks face to face at each other when tensions where at its highest.
Later that afternoon we took the subway to the East Side Gallery, where we walked along the remains of the Berlin wall and saw incredible works of street art painted along the wall. We saw some pretty famous street art, like the mural titled The Kiss, which shows Soviet Leader Leonid Brezhnev embracing and kissing East German President Erich Honnecker. It was a beautiful day, and we walked for about a mile and a half looking at all the murals on the wall. They had messages of freedom, equality, love and hope written all over them, and the artwork was incredible. We made our way to the edge of the river Spree, where we bought currywurst, French fries and a couple Beck’s beers. The currywurst was practically sausage with curry sauce – not what we were expecting, but incredibly delicious. We sat by the river eating and drinking, and talking about everything we had seen that day.
That night we had hopes of making it out to a German bar, but we were exhausted after all the walking we did that day. I found an amazing ramen bar called Cocolo, and we warmed up with two hearty bowls and a couple more beers.
The following morning we woke up at 7:00 AM in hopes of beating the queue at the Reichstag. I really wanted to get a tour of the beautiful dome, but when we arrived to the building, the line was already a two-hour wait. It was unbelievable! We gave up our hopes of seeing the Bundestag, and made our way to a nearby plaza to grab a cup of coffee. We booked tickets for a free walking tour as a back up plan, so Mel and I waited at a Starbucks until the tour began. Although I was bummed that we missed our chance to see the Bundestag, we enjoyed a moment of peace as we drank our coffees and chatted for about an hour or so before the tour.
I couldn’t be happier about the way the tour turned out. I’ve taken a few walking tours in all the cities I’ve been to, but this one was by far the best. Our guide was a British journalist who moved to Berlin a few years before looking for some inspiration for a book he was writing. He was passionate about the city’s history, and shared with us so much additional information about sites we had either heard about or had visited the previous day but didn’t fully understand.
As a public relations student, I wondered how the German government explain to tourists their country’s troubled past. On one hand, ignoring it would be completely inappropriate, as nearly everyone in the world is familiar with the history in one form or another. On the other hand, how do you look at a group of tourists and explain to them that someone from your country is responsible for the holocaust? Our guide explained this complex feeling to us perfectly. Poking a little bit of fun at Mel and I for being American, he asked our group if the countries in which we grew up made us feel like we are from the greatest nations on earth. Understandably, we nodded, wondering where he was going with this thought. He then explained to us how Germans are not brought up in that way. They know that while their country is responsible for some of the most incredible advancements and accomplishments in early every field possible, ranging from the arts to medicine, they have a shadow cast over them by previous troublesome events in their history. Because of this, Germans are brought up to know what it feels like to make mistakes, and are taught to strive to be better than their ancestors. He pointed out to us that there are constant reminders of this all around the city, from structures still filled with bullet holes from the Second World War, to buildings built during the Nazi occupation, to ruins that are left as constant reminders of the destruction caused by war and terror. Our guide told us that to this day, Germany has moved to become a very tolerant country because they know first hand the destruction that is caused by hatred and discrimination. I was amazed by this attitude, and gained a tremendous amount of respect for Germans at that moment.
The end of our three-hour tour took us to what is probably the most famous parking lot I will ever set foot on. Beneath the surface lay what was once Hitler’s old bunker during the Second World War. It was there that he committed suicide after realizing that he had lost the war, and also where his body was set on fire by his loyal followers to prevent enemies from taking it once they found him. It was a strange feeling to be standing so close to such a shocking part of history.
After our tour, we went to Alexanderplatz, which is a large central square a couple blocks form our apartment. At the plaza there were several food stands selling all types of German food. Mel and I bought a bretzel (what Germans call pretzels), and it was surreal. The outer crust was crunchy, and the inside was warm and doughy. After eating that pretzel I don't think I’ll ever be able to have a soft pretzel again without feeling a little disappointed. We also tried a sample of a delicious sugar and dough cylindrical treat. Neither Mel nor I understood what it was, and couldn’t figure out the ingredients from the German menu. We tallied it off as one off the most delicious things we’ve ever tasted, but still unsure as to what exactly it was.
With our stomachs full, we returned to our apartment and gathered our bags to catch the train to Prague. Trains in Berlin are very similar to subways, which is something both Mel and I wished we knew before leaving for the station a couple hours early as we normally would when we travel. There was no security to go through, no check in, nothing. The station was very modern and new, but with no Wi-Fi and little shopping options. I wondered into a bookstore to see if there was anything interesting to read while we waited, but soon discovered that all their reading material was in German. Mel and I had two hours to kill while we waited on the platform for our train, so the two of us just talked and joked around until it was time to leave.
The train was filled with Easter-themed decorations, and it was incredibly comfortable. Since arriving to Europe, I’ve found that trains are the best way to get around everywhere. I love the feeling of riding across an entire country from such a comfortable environment, and wished London had more destinations that were easy to reach by train. Our ride to Prague took us through the German countryside, and it was breathtaking. We saw picturesque mountains and rivers, and scenes that looked right out of a postcard. I was amazed by the variety of landscapes.
Four hours later, we arrived in Prague. Since the Czech Republic is not part of the Euro, we made our way to an ATM to take out Czech currency: Crowns. We were amazed by how cheap everything was in Prague, and could not believe how well the exchange rate worked in our favor. 25 Crowns are worth 1 US Dollar, and we were able to get by for an entire weekend by only spending about 2000 Crowns.
When we arrived at our Airbnb, we were a little worried because we couldn’t connect to any Wi-Fi or any data service. We wondered outside our apartment for a bit, hoping to run into someone who could let us use their phone to call our host. Luckily, a kind man who worked at the restaurant across the street from our apartment building offered to call our host for us, and let us wait inside his restaurant while he contacted her. Once we were let in to our apartment, our host showed us up to our attic suite. The apartment looked like a tree house, with small plants scattered throughout the entire place. Our host was a nice older woman, who kept calling us “her girls.” She was sweet and motherly, and was nice enough to let us keep our bags in the apartment until late Monday night, which is when our flight was leaving.
It was about 11:00 PM by the time we were settled in and ready to grab a bite to eat, so we ran into a similar problem like in Germany. Most restaurants were already closed, but luckily there was a cute little spot right around the corner from our apartment where we were able to get a pizza and some French fries.
The following morning we made our way across the Charles Bridge to see the John Lennon Wall. My friends who are studying/have studied abroad in Prague both told me it was a little underwhelming, so I went with low expectations. Apparently the wall had recently been painted over, so most of the graffiti is from recent years.
When we reached the wall, I understood why it could be perceived as underwhelming. If you miss the turn to reach the wall, you could very easily miss it. It’s not big, and actually is just a normal wall on the side of an average building. I was curious about it, so I did a little research. The wall was actually painted as a way for young Czech citizens to rebel against the communist regime of Gustáv Husàk, a longtime dictator. The students filled the wall with messages about love and peace made popular by The Beatles, and despite the government’s numerous attempts at painting over the wall, within the next few days it was once again covered in loving graffiti. However the atmosphere at the wall was what really made it an incredible sight.
There was a man playing the guitar and singing old Beatles songs, which immediately set the mood for everyone who was visiting the wall. It was a beautiful and sunny day, and there were dozens of people taking pictures of all the graffiti. The wall was beautiful – with images of hope and bright colors with inspiring words written all over it. Overall, it was a great experience, and after walking around and taking a few pictures, Mel and I made our way back to the Old Town Square for a bite to eat.
The Old Town Square is exactly what its name describes it as. Located in the center of Prague, it was surrounded by historic buildings and a beautiful cathedral, with small booths selling food all around the middle. As it was Easter weekend, the shops were all decorated with pastel ribbons and other holiday motifs, making each stand look beautiful. Mel and I wondered around looking for something to eat before our tour, and we stumbled upon the amazing cylindrical treats we had tried in Berlin. Without hesitation, we bought one, and were once again in heaven (Nora later told us that they’re called Trdelnik, and they’re a traditionally Slovak cakes that consist of rolled dough that is wrapped around a stick, grilled, and then topped with a mix of walnut and sugar). We also bought spiral cut potatoes on a stick, I got a hot dog and Mel grabbed a chicken skewer.
Feeling full after our big breakfast, we were ready for our tour. Our guide took us through Prague’s complicated history, and I have to admit, I was lost at some points. The city has undergone several occupations, each more complex than the last. Our guide took us through all the important parts of the city, teaching us their historical importance. After walking around all morning, I came to the realization that Prague is the quintessential image of an Eastern European city. With cobblestone streets and older architecture, the city is a beautiful sight that perfectly describes the image many people have in their minds when they think of Europe. I thought Prague was by far the most beautiful city we had been to, and every place we went to that afternoon and the following day only reassured me more.
Our guide took us to the astronomical clock on the edge of Old Town Square, and explained to us the incredible scientific feat it took to build this clock. The creation of this clock dates back to 1410, long before modern technology. The clock has three main components: the astronomical dial that shows the position of the sun and moon in relation to astrological signs, the hourly show called “The Walk of The Apostles,” which includes four figures that represent fears on either side of the clock (vanity, greed, death and adultery) and a few others that move around at the top above the clock’s face. The final component is a calendar dial with medallions that represent the months. This clock was created before daylight savings time was invented, so it’s off for half of the year. Overall, it was an impressive piece of history, and it was really neat that it’s still in use today.
After our tour, Mel and I grabbed dinner at Kolonial. We both agreed it was one of the best meals we’ve had since we got to Europe, and were so excited because it was cheap! We ordered a cheese plate as a starter, skewers with chicken, potatoes, apples and bacon-wrapped figs, two sides of mashed potatoes and a goat cheese salad with a poached egg on top of it. We washed it down with two Pilsners, the local beer in Prague. It was unreal, and only $22! Afterwards, we went to a cocktail bar to get some drinks. The menu reminded me of the menu at the Cheesecake Factory – it was an entire booklet filled with every possible drink combination imaginable. I was a bit overwhelmed, so I just asked out waiter to surprise me. Mel ordered a very sweet drink similar to a strawberry daiquiri, and to this day we’re still unsure as to what I had. It was delicious, though! We thought about going to a bar or a club afterwards, but we were so stuffed from our meal and so tired from our day that we decided to call it a night.
The following day we looked outside and realized it was snowing. We couldn’t believe it. We haven’t even seen snow in London all winter, and were certainly not expecting it in April! We absolutely did not pack well for this weather, so we bundled up as much as we could and ventured outside. For a morale boost, we grabbed breakfast at a place called Bake Shop. It was packed, which was a good sign! I ordered an omelet with ham, feta cheese, tomatoes, onions and peppers, and Mel got herself a mix of pastries and a smoothie for breakfast. It was amazing, and warmed us right up!
Once we left Bake Shop, it had stopped snowing. We made our way to the site of our second tour, where we sat on the steps of one of the buildings and soaked up the sun while we waited for our tour to start. The weather in Prague is possibly the most bizarre and temperamental weather I have ever experienced. When we woke up that morning, it looked like a cold December morning. Two hours later, the sun was out and it felt like a beautiful spring day. Two more hours after that, while we were on our tour, we felt a gust of freezing wind and knew we were in a bad place. Seconds later, a blizzard hit our group.
The blizzard was so terrible and so cold that Mel and I had to leave the tour. We were freezing and our feet were painfully numb in the snow. We ran to a nearby Starbucks to warm up, and after about fifteen minutes, the weather cleared and it was beautiful and sunny once again. It was the strangest experience ever. With the nicer weather we were able to walk around the Prague castle and enjoy the view from the top. After exploring the area, we made our way back towards our apartment to grab a late lunch.
We stumbled upon a chic restaurant called Kafka Snob Food. I had some pasta and Mel ordered tomato soup and bread. We talked about our crazy day and how sad we were to leave the beautiful city. Our waiter was an incredibly friendly Italian man. After lunch, we grabbed our bags from the apartment and made our way back to London.
This trip has by far been my favorite trip. Berlin and Prague are two of the most interesting cities I have ever been to, not just because of their rich history, but also because of the way they looked. Berlin was industrial; it was full of construction as the relatively new city is still rebuilding itself. There’s a mix of old buildings marked by the war and new, modern buildings with beautiful contemporary designs. Prague was very traditional; it was a beautiful European town with small streets and friendly people. It was very colorful and unique, and made me feel safe.
Another interesting part of this trip is the fact that we travelled to countries in which we were completely unfamiliar with the language. For the most part (excluding Amsterdam), I’ve been able to communicate in the local language in every city I have visited. It was strange to see street signs and menus that were utterly unintelligible. I got a small glimpse of what it feels like to move to a foreign country that is completely different from everything you’re familiar with, and gained a whole lot of respect for people who have done this. I loved the culture in both cities, and definitely want to go back in the future.
For now, I'm staying put in London for a couple weekends. We officially have less than a month left of school, and all our big assignments are creeping closer and closer. It’s hard to find motivation to do work now that spring is finally here, but its time to buckle down and finish off the semester!