Tuesday, October 11, 2011

The Journey

I love a lot of things in life: Skittles, really hot showers, snail mail, sweatpants on Saturday mornings, books you can get lost in… and the list goes on and on. In fact, my brother regularly teases me about the way I throw the L-word around, insisting that I love everything from puppies to popcorn (Case in point: I actually do love both of those things). I like to think my love of the world comes from an innate sense of joyfulness, but maybe I just don’t have very discerning tastes. Either way, I am in love with life and most things in it.

That being said, there are some things I Love in a soul-deep, capital L sort of way. Travel is one of those things. I love the big things about travel: seeing new sights and exploring an unfamiliar culture. But I also love the little things: smelling the air on the other side of the world, tasting food you could never get at home, feeling new ground underfoot. I love it all… and I love what it teaches me about myself. Indeed, travel is probably the best teacher I’ve ever had. She can be brutal, but if you survive the lesson the reward is the equivalent to the Ph.D in living life.

At 24-years-old I have no illusions that I have earned this coveted Ph.D, but after my solo journey through Germany I like to think I’ve at least passed freshman finals. And, if life really was a school and Travel really was my teacher, and this really was the end of my freshman year, this is the final exam I would have turned in:

What My Journey Taught Me

The Unique Streets of Berlin
I am better than I think I am.
Upon arriving in Berlin on Saturday morning I realized that I had no idea how to get to my hostel. Sure, I had an address and a few brief directions printed from the internet, but nothing concrete enough to make me feel good about the situation. If I had been traveling with a friend I would have turned to her and we would have made a decision together because when you’ve just arrived in a foreign city two heads really are better than one.

As it were, I was alone and since I really didn’t care to spend the night in the train station, I was forced to use my single brain and poor German to buy a metro pass, ask for directions and read all of the street signs. An hour later I arrived at my hostel with such a sense of triumph that the Rocky theme song played in my head as I lugged my backpack up the narrow staircase to my room.

The Berlin Wall
History really does exist outside of textbooks.
Unlike the Germans, Americans have no idea what it feels like to live with something as horrific as the Holocaust on our collective conscience. While no one would argue the fact that the U.S.A. has done some pretty terrible things throughout its history, when someone thinks of my country I can pretty much guarantee that the genocide of millions of Jews is not the first thing that comes to mind. Unfortunately for the Germans, the happenings of WWII might be the only thing many people know about their country. This “guilty conscience” colors everything the Germans do, and as such you will not see many overt displays of nationalism even now, decades later.

Berlin is the epicenter of Germany’s heartache and in some ways the entire city seems to be a memorial, an apology of sorts. There are tributes to the people who were killed by the Nazi regime standing next to memorials for those who died trying to cross the Berlin Wall at the height of the Cold War. There are distinct lines in the city where East meets West, and hundreds of bombed-out buildings still stand empty, silent witnesses to a century of tragedy.

And yet, Berlin is not a dead city. It is not even a sad city. It is a triumphant city, a wary city, a city worth watching. There are artists and musicians living in old Soviet-era apartments because they are cheap enough to afford on a painter’s salary. There are up and coming night clubs and music halls where bomb shelters used to be. There are young people who think it is okay to move forward with hope even in a city filled with weighty history.

Checkpoint Charlie
Sometimes it is okay to rely on the kindness of strangers.
On Sunday I took an all-day history tour through the back streets of East Berlin and it was a fabulous way to get acquainted with what might be my new favorite city on the planet (Shhh, don’t tell London). My guide for this tour was a young American woman who is currently earning her master’s degree at a university in Berlin. We got along very well all day and so, when the tour was over and she invited me to her apartment to hang out with her friends I could have said no, but I didn’t.

I relied on her willingness to show another young American a side of Berlin most people don’t see, and I am thankful for the fact that she offered, as well as the fact that I was brave enough to say yes. I spent Sunday night on a rooftop in East Berlin, enjoying the sunset and talking about expat life in Germany. I ate ice cream, met a few new people and enjoyed an unexpected moment of friendship on my solo journey.

Having class counts for something.
After a 7-hour train ride south, I arrived in Munich on Monday afternoon. Munich is completely different than Berlin, and I loved it both because of and in spite of this fact. Munich, the capital of Bavaria (the largest state in Germany), is as happy a city as one could hope to find. If you ever want a lesson in joyfulness, I would start there.

After a long day wandering the city, I headed back to my hostel where I sat in a common area to do some journaling. After about five minutes an Australian came up to me and asked expectantly if I spoke English because he needed some help. I said yes, expecting a question of some sort, but instead he introduced himself, sat down next to me and, 2 hours later we had talked about travel, books, history and where we were off to next. As I was turning to leave I remembered that he had meant to ask me something, but when I inquired as to what he had originally wanted, all he would say was, “It was kind of a jerky guy question and it’s clear that you’ve got class so I can’t ask you.” He even had the good grace to look sheepish.

I still have no idea what he wanted, but I like to think if it had been something along the lines of “Where can I get laid tonight?” or “Is there a crack house nearby?” our classy conversation made him think twice. Maybe he even went upstairs to his room and called his mother just to say hello

It is okay to be continually awed by beauty.
My last two days in southern Germany I took two day trips: one along the Romantic Road and one to the famous Neuschwanstein Castle (which Walt Disney used as the model for Cinderella’s castle). While both trips were amazing, it is the castle tour that keeps springing to mind when I recall my trip. Not only was the weather perfect (blue skies and sunny), but I got to take my first foray into the Alps and see a sight I had been dreaming of visiting for years. And I wasn’t disappointed. The castle was glorious and no matter how many times I caught a glimpse of it, I was always awed.

I could have looked at the castle, taken a few pictures of the view from the mountain and been on my merry way, but instead I spent the entire day in the Alps, hiking around and taking it all in. I was thrilled every time I turned a corner. I spent the day in childlike wonderment, a feeling that was all the more precious because I am no longer a child.

This, of course, is only a small foray into all that I learned on the German leg of my journey, but those were the most important lessons and so those are the lessons I would tell my teacher about. I like to think that I would have gotten an ‘A.’

And for those of you who are wondering what happened after I left Germany and crossed the border to France, don’t worry… it’s a two-part assignment  J


  1. Herrliche! This story is wonderful! Enthralling to read and beautifully written! So impressive you did all that on your own! Brava!

  2. I can't get over it... you are beyond amazing.

  3. Well done my amazing, brave and "classy" daughter!! The pics are beautiful and the adventure beyond where my mind can reach!
    I love you!

  4. Christina you are are wonderful young woman and an incredible writer! What a trip....and traveled solo....yet not so alone :-)

  5. What an inspiring way to write your adventures. I love the concept of Travel as your teacher. It is so very true. As one of Travel's teacher's pets, I got to take a sneak peak at his grade books and it looks like you did get that A, complete with a +!