I have decided to mess with the gods of chronology and end my travel reports with the beginning.
First, a bit of background. I was the lucky and grateful winner of the Foreign Correspondent contest put on by What’s Up Yukon and Condor Airlines this summer, which included a return flight from Whitehorse to Frankfurt, Germany. From there, it was up to me to create my own adventure.
I decided on Berlin, to visit a German friend, and Italy, because it worked for Diane Lane in Under the Tuscan Sun, and because I figured it was the only way I’d learn to love Italian wine.
I came home without a villa or an Italian boyfriend, but I did gain an appreciation for Chianti.
The sense of “traveling” started in the Whitehorse airport waiting lounge, where the predominant language was German and everyone looked like a National Geographic photographer (everyone except me that is, trying to look European with my humble scarf).
We left a cold and grey Whitehorse around noon, bound for Anchorage, home of the friendliest Homeland Security ever (I didn’t know they knew how to flirt) and a very devoted Duty-Free shop attendant with painted eyebrows and bright red lipstick.
She was hawking her “fresh” sandwiches – so fresh, in fact, that they were still partially frozen, lettuce and all – with epic enthusiasm. I stuck with the Cherry Pepsi.
Then it was on to Germany! By the time I landed in Berlin, I hadn’t slept in over a day and was only lucid thanks to the grace of whoever invented coffee.
I finally located my friend Laura in one of the terminals, and off we went for my first tour of the city.
The contrasts are great here: new and old, light and dark, tough and soft. There’s an assortment of very old churches, many ’50s-era building blocks, and then some uber-modern glass and concrete architectural wonders/disasters.
There’s also a lot of art here. Even the graffiti looks like it belongs and was produced with style rather than vandalism.
I loved the inner courtyards of the old-style communist blocks, where people have incorporated junk into the surroundings and made it attractive or functional. There’s so much concrete and graffiti, and yet so much green and beauty too. And bikes.
Bikes were everywhere. I rented one, a good old orange clunker with a mind of its own, and Laura guided me around town to see the sights.
People don’t wear helmets here – it was a thrill to go bareheaded! Even more so after she warned me about all the injuries sustained by tourists on bikes crossing the tram tracks on the wrong angle.
She took me into a courtyard converted into an artsy junkyard. In Whitehorse, your neighbours would have you condemned, but in Berlin, it was cool.
The yard was full of discarded metal and materials transformed into sculptures and pretty (or at least eye-catching) creations. It was like another world. It felt raw, sharp, like jagged metal, with loud trance music to cement the mood.
There was also another side to Berlin; a softer, charming one to counteract its urban toughness, with pigeons and cafés and cute little shops. Lots of parks, and tall green trees lining the streets, filled with art galleries, secondhand shops and children’s stores. The sidewalks were packed with baby strollers pushed by chic city moms, and every second stroller appeared to be carrying twins. To be on the safe side, I avoided drinking the water.
Possibly I’ve seen too many spy movies, but for me there was a bit of an edge about Berlin. Hints of World War Two, with traces of Cold War mixed in.
There’s a brick line in the ground where the Berlin Wall once stood, buildings with bullet holes, and a church with a burnt roof and half the steeple missing from wartime bombings.
It also happened to be raining during my visit, which meant a lot of people were wearing trench coats. And nothing screams “double agent” like a trench coat, right?
Berlin showed me many things, including this: jetlag is great fuel for the imagination.