Checking Out Cologne, Germany

It was a little sad waking up that day in Croatia – maybe because it was only 4:30am, but also because it was our last full day together on this incredible trip. We had to clean up and finish packing before checking out because a taxi was arriving to pick us up at 5:30am. I always suggest having a taxi come earlier than you need because they are rarely actually on time – especially in other countries! Our taxi did come late, so we were happy we had plenty of time to get to the airport. Turns out the driver had been stopped by police on his way to our hotel – something that is pretty common there. He took us to the airport and was so nice talking to us the entire way. He explained how hard living in Croatia is because of the government, corruption, and the economy. He explained that he worked in Italy for years to get extra money.

When we got to the airport, it was really tiny and our options for passing the time were slim. We had some ice cream for breakfast – super healthy perk of being adults – so we fulfilled our daily ice cream dose.

After checking in and going through the short security line, we found our gate and sat there for what felt like forever. There was one shop and a cafe that sold booze at 6am but no food. There were people sleeping all over the place because it was so early.

IMG_4219

We had had a wonderful time in Croatia and it was every bit as magical as I hoped when we had originally started planning this dream trip. But the time had come to get going and make our way back to Germany.

I passed out on the short plane ride, but Katharina was so excited about the perks of economy plus that she wasn’t able to sleep. I’ve become spoiled with those benefits because I fly so often.

IMG_4223P1020333

I did catch some of the views though before we landed!

P1020331

So we made it back to Germany and arrived in Cologne or Köln at 9:30am.IMG_4226

To save on some money, we were going to stay with Katharina’s friend, Lena, but unfortunately she wasn’t going to be around until late that afternoon like 4:30pm so we needed to occupy ourselves for a while. We went to the main station to lock up our bags in this pretty sketchy system. Basically we put in money, then two doors open where we put our bags in, then the bags get sucked down underground somewhere and disappear. I’m not going to lie, I feared we wouldn’t be seeing those bags again.

But then we stepped outside and I almost fell over, I was so blown away. There stood the famous giant cathedral and it was unlike anything I’d seen before. This is why I travel – moments like this. Where you find out you can still be surprised and feel something so profound. The cathedral is Germany’s most visited landmark – an average of 20,000 people come here each day! The cathedral was built between 1248 and 1880. The towers are 157m or 515ft tall!

P1020336 P1020337

Katharina’s other friend called and was able to meet us for a few hours to hang out, so we decided to go back to the cathedral later in the day since we had so much time. We went to a cafe where we could sit outside and get some food while we waited for her. I felt truly exhausted and worried how I would get through the day. I think suddenly for the first time during the entire trip I began to feel very homesick. I was relieved when Katharina’s friend arrived and was able to show us around so that we could keep moving and make the best of our last day and I could get my mind off missing home. It’s a strange feeling being homesick, it’s one I have not felt often despite my many travels. Because it was also Katharina’s first time in the city, we were able to basically tour all the main sites and walk around all over the place and discover it together.

We walked across the The Hohenzollern Bridge, which is famous for locks being placed all over it. It was built between 1907 and 1911. I couldn’t believe how many locks there were! Katharina’s friend said that they’ve considered having to cut the locks off because it is too heavy.

P1020385 P1020376 P1020394

Her friend works for the Hyatt so she took us there to take a look at some of the really fancy parts that only VIP customers are able to see – it was beautiful!

P1020398 P1020399

P1020400

Then we walked along the water of the Rhine and headed back to the other part of town on another bridge.

P1020380

The views from there were just as amazing!

P1020409

Then came the best part of the day – the ice cream!!! Let’s have a moment to take this in and appreciate the amazingness:

P1020411 P1020412 P1020414

I think I’ve had dreams about this ice cream since – maybe that’s weird.

Anyways, then we walked around a ton more and slowly made our way back to the cathedral.

P1020348

We had a chance to go look inside, which was as spectacular and impressive as the outside!

P1020347

P1020362

Although I am Jewish, I absolutely respect and appreciate other religions – so it was really neat that we could go inside and witness part of a Sunday mass in this breathtaking cathedral.

P1020361

P1020363 P1020366P1020364

I already said it, but even now just looking at the photos – I’m still amazed and blown away by the detail and beauty of this place.

P1020369 P1020372

So this was where we parted with Katharina’s friend and headed into the train station to hang out until her other friend, Lena, was ready for us. I looked at my phone and we had walked over 26,000 steps! It sure was a long day especially with such little sleep.

We waited at the train station for an hour before meeting her friend Lena. We got drinks at a cafe in the station and I managed to fall asleep at the table because I was so so so so tired. We found Lena and then went to retrieve our bags – and of course there were major issues. We waited in line for 20 minutes to have the machine break down as we were second to next in line. People started panicking and getting very upset because, like us, they were worried about this sketchy system. A ticket woman finally arrived and told us we all had to use a different machine – so we had to wait in another line for half an hour. When it was our turn, we were both really nervous. We each took a minute to pray and cross our fingers, but then finally our bags popped out of the machine!

We took a tram and walked a short bit to get to Lena’s apartment, it felt like a long walk with our heavy bags and exhaustion sinking in. I was at the point where I was barely functioning. As soon as we got to the apartment, Lena was nice enough to let me take a nap in her bed before dinner. This was perfect because Katharina and Lena were able to catch up. I woke up feeling incredibly refreshed and actually alive again – no more delirium!

So we walked through the city to find dinner and it was nice to see another part of the city. We found this awesome burger place and had an amazing dinner while sitting outside and talking a lot. It was fun to see Katharina relax with her friend and interact in German. I met a guy from the Dominican Republic who worked at the restaurant and he was so nice. I told him I’d been to his country before and this made him really happy. He was interested in my story because he said he loved the way I spoke English and said it was so different from other people around there.

So after a fun night, we headed back to Lena’s apartment and sat outside on her balcony. We drank champagne and talked about everything we could think to talk about. They told me hilarious stories about people from their home town and the boys of their lives and we talked about our experiences along the journey those last few weeks.

IMG_4241

We went to bed early around 10pm so we would be a little more refreshed for the next day because we had to make our separate ways home in just a few hours. What a day!!

Our Visit to Berlin – Day 2

Okay so day 1 was a success in Berlin and we had big plans for our second day.

We woke up early and started the day off right with a great breakfast at our hotel. Yum!

IMG_3602

We had to take the tram over to the main train station because we wanted to reserve two seats for our train ride to Prague the next day. Throughout our backpacking trip, we went by Interrail so we could use one ticket and go anywhere Interrail goes (lots of options here from Norway to Spain to Switzerland to Turkey) within the time period we chose, but these tickets don’t necessarily give you seats on the specific trains you want. Standing with a heavy backpack and all your things is not ideal for four or more hours, so I always recommend reserving seats in advance on trains in Europe – and I am still extremely grateful we did!

The train station in Berlin is huge!

P1010313

And outside they have an exhibit for Jewish athletes, which I thought was really interesting to look at:

P1010311 P1010307

After leaving the station we walked over to a very busy tourist area of the city where we could see many important buildings including the Parliament and the Brandenburg Gate:

P1010336P1010351

And even the famous hotel where Michael Jackson held out his baby from the window:

P1010347

We also got to take a look at a new memorial meant for the Sinti and Roma people who were murdered. I found the memorial to be incredibly peaceful and beautiful:

P1010340P1010343 P1010341

After a busy morning of seeing so much within large crowds of people, it started to rain quite a bit. We decided it was the perfect time to make a stop somewhere to wait for the rain to end and enjoy a delicious treat:

P1010354

We all know that I’m totally crazy about ice cream and make an effort to try some every new place I go!

P1010355

The rain finally stopped right after we bought an umbrella (of course!) so we decided to make our way to the Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe – a museum and giant memorial dedicated to the victims of the Holocaust. When you arrive there, you have to go downstairs to get to the museum after being checked by security. The museum has several rooms, each with different kinds of themes about the events of the Holocaust.

First is general information about the events of the war and a timeline:

IMG_3564

Other sections include personal quotes and stories taken from victims’ diaries and letters. This was extremely moving and almost brought me to tears. You hear stories about the war and the Holocaust all the time, but when you read what people actually wrote – how desperate and pained they felt, what they were thinking, how scared they were for the future – that’s something that doesn’t leave you. They’re not just stories anymore, they’re real people’s lives and what actually happened to them.

IMG_3565

They also have a room dedicated to specific large families and what happened to each family member if it is known – most members were taken to concentration camps where they were murdered. In the different families it was rare to see members who had actually survived the war. This really affected me because I think about my own family and how many people were murdered and how different my lineage and family history would be if not for the Holocaust. The exhibit really lets people understand how deeply families were destroyed.

Then you enter a dark room with many benches to sit down on. This is a special place to reflect and think about everything just seen. Here, names of victims of the Holocaust are read all day with brief stories of what happened to them, if it is known. It would take 6 years, 7 months, and 27 days to go through each name, a fact that really captures the immensity of the horrors of the Holocaust.

They have computers with a database where people can search for any victims of the Holocaust. Here we were able to actually see our relatives’ names and all of their information and what happened to them. This made it so much more personal to me and helped me connect on an even deeper level to everything I had just seen.

IMG_3572

Something I really like about the museum is that it has free entrance for anyone. This means people don’t have to pay to learn about what took place, and therefore, more people will be able to attend, be educated, and can experience the touching exhibits.

Outside the museum is the famous memorial exhibit, designed by Peter Eisenman, which consists of huge stones of various sizes that act as a metaphor for the confusion and chaos of the Holocaust, creating what is similar to a maze.

P1010357P1010359  P1010365

All around Berlin are signs and memorials related to the Holocaust, like in this small block of old architecture full of shops and restaurants where they mention the Jewish community that once existed there before the war:

P1010369 P1010372

We then headed to a big tourist section of the city where the World Clock sits:

P1010379

P1010385

There were all sorts of interesting street performers that captured the unique energy of the city:

P1010383

And there was this bubble thing. Now Berlin was the first big city we went to on our trip so we thought this bubble craziness was so cool, but as we continued on our journey we ended up seeing these bubble things in every single city – so it got less cool over time:

P1010377

We didn’t feel like we had seen enough yet that day (jokes) so we decided to make our way to the Berlin Wall Memorial Park. This was something I found very interesting because its simple design is well thought out and makes visitors really understand what it was like for people trapped in East Berlin and how desperate they were to escape.

Along the buildings are giant photos taken from different years over the decades when the city was divided:

P1010396 P1010392 P1010388

And posts are lined up where the wall once stood so people can imagine the height of the wall and the way it looked, yet now be able to actually see what was on the other side, something people couldn’t do for decades. I thought this idea of a memorial was healing in a way – that what once existed is not fully destroyed or forgotten, but there is change.

P1010398

There are also stone paths marking the old underground tunnels built through which people attempted to escape into West Berlin:

P1010395

It is complicated to know for sure how many people were killed trying to escape from East Berlin, but estimations are well into the hundreds.

P1010403

Portions of the original wall still remain and have interesting graffiti:P1010411

After seeing so much all around the city and skipping lunch in order to have ice cream (probably not the best idea in hind sight), we realized we should probably grab some dinner! We went to this great Singapore restaurant called Mirchi and had a huge delicious meal:

IMG_3577IMG_3579

Then we headed to a bar called Monkey Bar that is on the tenth floor of a building. We sat outside and couldn’t get over the amazing view:

IMG_3598

And learned that it is called Monkey Bar because it overlooks the Berlin Zoo and the monkey exhibit is right below:

P1010428

It was the perfect spot for some selfies!

IMG_3582

After such a crazy day of running around, learning so much, and seeing the city, we were all exhausted and headed back to the hotel. The tram/train ride back was long because we needed to take 4 different ones. But I think it was perfect after the long day because we all had a chance to talk and reflect on the incredible day we had just experienced. I think that’s one of the most important parts of traveling, to take a moment and realize what you’ve seen, what it all means, and how it affects you.

Our Visit to Berlin – Day 1

Now that you’ve read some about the history of the city, I’ll tell you all about what we did while we visited. We drove from Bredenborn, Germany (4 hour drive), which started off perfectly with the song 500 Miles coming on just as we got going, so we had a great sing along and got pumped up for seeing the city. These are the small moments you tend to remember forever when you think about a special trip.

A big difference between Europe and America is the bathroom situation. In America there are bathrooms everywhere and they’re free, large, and accessible – in Europe that is definitely not the case. Even at the rest stops on the way along the highway we had to pay a whole euro just to use the bathroom, and this was a trend that remained the entire trip when it came to public restrooms or those in restaurants and stores.

So my first impression of Berlin – huge city, that in a way reminded me of Chicago with all the trains/trams high up stretching across the whole area, but not at all alike with regards to the architecture. The city has a different energy and people dress in wild clothes and have a unique attitude.

IMG_3597

Our hotel was way better than we expected. We arrived at the L’Andels Hotel in the late afternoon and were blown away. It was huge and way fancier than we had anticipated and we were surprised because we had gotten the rooms so cheap when we reserved them a few months ago.

IMG_3556

After jumping around on the sofa and bed a little, we decided to start off the visit by going straight to see the famous Berlin Wall. There were tons of tourists and it was a little overwhelming after the last three weeks in small town Sweden. It was difficult to find our way around because the tram system was crazy confusing and complicated.

Here you can see what I’m talking about:

P1010245

Finding the Wall was easy because you just had to follow other tourists from the station – a good trick that often comes in handy when traveling: be aware of your surroundings, watch other people, listen to what they say and typically you’ll learn something new, find where you’re trying to go, or have a good laugh if nothing else. The Wall kind of snuck up on me because we were walking a while and then suddenly there it is – this extremely famous part of the world right in front of me. The paintings along the wall were inspiring and fascinating to look at.

IMG_3642 P1010235

On my last post you can see even more photos of the artwork and paintings that stretch along a vast portion of the remaining wall.

P1010223

The weather wasn’t the greatest and started to drizzle while we looked around, so we decided to head to the tram and go to our next stop – the Topography of Terror Museum. This is a really moving outdoor/indoor exhibit that illustrates what happened in Berlin between 1933 and 1945. Outside is a long wall of photographs, displays, and articles that detail the historical events of that time period in the city in chronological order.

P1010249

There is a larger indoor museum right next door with bigger displays and even more detailed information. My last post includes many photos of what was displayed throughout the exhibit.

P1010279

P1010278

It was truly moving to see this museum and the way its setup was something different and special. I’m always interested to see how places around the world represent such difficult topics because you can’t just plaster photos like that on a wall and be done with it. It takes skill to accurately capture the deeper meaning behind those photos and that kind of history.

We looked at both parts of the museum until closing and then waited under the ledge of a nearby building for the pouring rain to subside. I think it was good to have that moment to really reflect on all of what we had seen. I couldn’t help but wonder if my relatives had walked here once before their lives were destroyed and what they would think of the memorials and museums now. My grandmother and her family once lived in Berlin. My grandmother was sent to Sweden, which is how she survived the war. My great-grandmother was sent to Auschwitz where she was murdered. It’s hard to describe how I felt being in the city where they used to live before their lives were stolen from them, that this was the last place my great-grandmother called home.

Once the rain stopped we walked over to Checkpoint Charlie. I thought it was kind of amazing how casually it stands in the middle of this busy street full of traffic, shops, and people. The entire city is so full of history in ways deeper than most others.

P1010294

After seeing this we finally went out to dinner around 9:00 at L’Osteria, a really great Italian restaurant.

IMG_3559 P1010306

We relaxed and enjoyed our meals before taking the long way back to the hotel by tram. The advantage of our hotel was how new and large it was, the disadvantage was how far it seemed to be from everything. After arriving back home we were all physically and mentally exhausted from the day’s journey and so we went straight to bed.

Berlin: The Wall, History, and Loss

Our first stop after Bredenborn was Berlin, the capital and largest city of Germany. This is a city that was first documented as existing in the 13th century and has had many changing political identities and been part of the Margraviate of Brandenburg, the Kingdom of Prussia, the German Empire, the Weimar Republic, and the Third Reich. It is a city mostly known for what occurred there in the 20th century.

After World War I in 1918, the republic was formed by Philipp Scheidemann and in 1920 the Greater Berlin Act caused the city to expand immensely. It is a city that has for centuries been known for art, cinema, architecture, technology, and industry.

P1010217

But Adolf Hitler and the Nazi Party rose to power in 1933, which quickly changed this city forever. People in Germany began blaming the Jews and other minorities for many of the country’s problems that followed the loss of World War I.

Here you can see propaganda from a textbook of that time:

P1010267

Berlin’s Jewish community, which had been around 160,000 people, was destroyed by the Nazis – this was about one-third of all Jews in Germany at the time. According to Reignhard Heydrich in 1938, anyone who was considered to have shown “asocial elements” or “hostile attitudes to society,” whether they were criminal or not, were qualified to be sent to concentration camps. This being extremely subjective, anyone who the Nazis did not want in their city or country could be sent to the camps or murdered without much explanation – this included Jews, homosexuals, and the Sinti and Roma population.

P1010263 P1010259

Kristallnacht, the Night of Broken Glass, occurred in 1938, in which Jewish-owned stores, buildings, and synagogues had windows smashed by the Nazis and many of these places were also burned to the ground.

P1010272

Over 1,000 Jewish shops and businesses were demolished in Berlin, 10 of the city’s 30 synagogues were destroyed and 13 damaged, dozens of people were murdered, and 13,000 Jews were arrested and taken to concentration camps. My grandfather and his family were very affected by this night in history.  Jews were then expected to pay for the damage themselves and were forced to wear yellow Stars of David on their clothes at all times to identify themselves as Jewish. This was a time when people became desperate for survival and resorted to hiding, sacrifice, and betrayal.

This map illustrates more than 500 of thousands of sites where Nazi persecution and extermination took place – camps, ghettos, mass shooting sites, and starting points of deportation:

IMG_3568

It is estimated that more than 6 million jews were murdered during the Holocaust – 1 million of them being children. My great and great-great grandparents were some of the victims of the Holocaust when they were murdered in concentration camps.

P1010277

In 1943-1945, air raids and the Battle of Berlin caused major parts of the city to be destroyed and thousands of civilians were killed. The war ended in 1945 and large numbers of refugees from Eastern provinces began arriving. Germany was divided into four sectors by the victorious powers. The Western Allies, which included the United States, United Kingdom, and France, took over Western Berlin and the Soviet sector formed East Berlin.

P1010282  P1010281P1010276

These divisions within the country and the city increased tensions during the Cold War. East German territory surrounded West Berlin and East Germany decided the Eastern part would be its capital, a section that included the most historic portion of the city. The Berlin Wall was built between East and West Berlin in 1961 practically overnight, leading to a tank standoff at famous Checkpoint Charlie.

P1010298

John F. Kennedy gave a speech in 1963 in which he proclaimed US support with the Western section of the city. During this time, Easterners were prohibited to travel into West Berlin or West Germany. People were desperate to escape East Berlin and many lost their lives in the process.

P1010401

It was not until 1971, that a Four-Power agreement guaranteed access to and from West Berlin by car or train through East Germany.

The wall was not taken down until November 9, 1989 as the Cold War ended. In 1990, 118 artists from 21 countries painted a portion of the remaining wall, becoming a gallery expressing the joy widely felt over the falling of the Berlin Wall.

P1010228 P1010227 P1010224 P1010221 P1010230

Berlin is one of those cities in which it feels every corner you turn has this immense heavy history, a lot of which still remains visible. The events of the twentieth century will always affect the city.

Visiting Bredenborn, Germany

Bredenborn is this really small town in Germany about an hour and a half from Hanover. This is where my cousin Katharina lives with her family.

Screen Shot 2015-08-11 at 9.01.20 PM

It’s surrounded by tons of farm land and mountains with stunning landscapes that remind me of what people build surrounding model trains:

P1010173 P1010172 P1010189

I actually had relatives living here in the 1800s and before World War II so I feel really connected to my family history when I visit this part of Germany. I’ve been here a few times before including last summer when a Holocaust memorial was put up honoring members of our family who once lived here. They published a big article in the newspaper about the event, making it feel even more special. I think it’s worth noting how parts of Europe and specifically Germany are making efforts to acknowledge the overwhelming history and what happened before, during, and after the Holocaust. It took this town close to seven decades to make a memorial for those lost who once called this place home, but at least they did it.

21.07.2014 Neue Westfälische

Like many German villages, this town celebrates something called Shutzenfest every year. I had to ask a few questions about this to have an idea of what it was because we don’t have something like this in America. From what I learned, it’s a big weekend-long celebration that people from all around the local towns come to where a girl is made the queen and honored with parties, drinking, food, and old traditions. It was very cool to be there for some of it and get a better idea of what it is all about.

P1010175

There was a carnival, a dance party similar to prom, huge breakfasts, and parades!

P1010177P1010185

The history in this town is pretty incredible. They have buildings that are hundreds of years old like this church that was built 800 years ago. As an American, that kind of age behind something manmade is remarkable because we don’t have many old buildings in the States – (200 year old buildings practically seem ancient).

P1010194

This is Grevenburg, an aristocratic home that is about 600 year old. This aristocratic family basically owned the town and were once extremely wealthy. They still have seats reserved in church and own a lot of property throughout the town. The family crest remains at the entrance of the home even now.

P1010195P1010197

I had such a wonderful visit seeing the town and my family there.

IMG_3555

But as great as it was, I was really excited to get going on our next adventure and head to Berlin!

Heading Home Today

Right now I’m sitting in Düsseldorf airport in Germany waiting to check in for my flight to Chicago. I have had the best trip with so many adventures and wonderful moments that I can’t wait to tell you all about. Since arriving in Germany two weeks ago, I’ve been in 6 other countries in Eastern Europe. I can’t wait to write about everything I’ve seen, experienced, eaten, felt, and witnessed. Get ready for tons of photos and crazy stories because I have so much to tell you about! See you soon America!!

Flying To Germany

I’m currently sitting in the Copenhagen airport waiting to board my flight to Germany! It finally feels real that this trip is coming true and I can’t wait to get on the plane and get started!

I had a good final morning in Sweden with all those important conversations and goodbyes before leaving.

IMG_3490

When people ask if it’s hard to travel in other countries where they don’t speak English and how to handle those situations, I always think about what my dad says. He explains that first of all now in many places people do speak English, even unexpected ones. When he was young and would travel to places where few tourists had been and little English was known, if any – he always says that when you travel you figure it out. For example if you walk into a hotel, the people working there know why you’re there (to get a room, not buy furniture) so you use hand symbols, write down numbers, speak words you each know and you make it happen. I like that because at so true. Traveling teaches you how to communicate in other ways and that’s something I love about it.

I’ll write more once I make it to Germany!!