Berlin marked our last stop in Europe before beginning our travels in Asia. As we reflected on the European cities we had visited, we began to discuss if we had yet to discover the best way to really “see” a city. This topic has been an ongoing theme during our travels: If you were to go to say, Paris, for example, it would feel essential to go to the top of the Eiffel Tower. You might consider that going up the Eiffel Tower also means waiting in a long-line, being corralled like cattle with other tourists, and having an overall experience that could almost never live up to your expectations. Yet, would you feel like you had truly been to Paris if you didn’t go up the Eiffel Tower? And, even more difficult to answer, if you decided to pass on the Eiffel Tower, what would you do instead? How could you still feel like you’d experienced the city? After living in Toronto for over a year, I would say that I know Toronto inside and out; I know its charms and its drawbacks. Despite my intimate relationship with Toronto, I have never experienced any of the things that tourists do when they come to Toronto. It often seems like the city the tourists see is completely different from the one that the locals live in.
Our first night in Berlin, we went to a pub where we were served by a woman who was originally from Seattle, but had been living in Berlin for over a year. So we decided to try it: Skip the Brandenberg Gate and the Schloss Charlottenburg, and instead, ask for the advice of this local. We were open to anything, from little holes-in-the-wall to tourist sites that she believed were worth our time. We had one day in Berlin, so we asked her what we should do with it.
The next morning, we had our last European-style breakfast (bread, cheese, cold cuts and an egg), and then set off for our server’s first recommendation: The East Side Gallery. The gallery is a 1.3km long stretch of artwork painted along the remains of the Berlin Wall. The eclectic collection addresses themes like suffering, freedom, and redemption. Each panel of art is painted by a different artist in a completely different style. After a parade of Europe’s cathedrals and castles, the gallery was a refreshing change, yet equally as beautiful.
In the afternoon, we went to Tempelhof Park. The former airport was one of the first commercial airports, and remains one of the largest buildings in the world. Since its closure, it has been converted into a city park. The air landing strips are now running tracks and bike paths, the hangar is used for conventions, and the vast, empty field is now a place to fly kites. We walked around the park, and then lay down in the grass, taking a pause to process the transitions we were experiencing: Wettenbostel to Berlin and, that coming night, Berlin to Bangkok. Maybe no matter what you do, it’s impossible to truly get to know a place in a few days or even a few weeks. Nine months in Europe felt like only a piece of all that it has to offer us. I like to think that this trip allowed us to sample the cities. The brief time we spent in each place was a chance to discover which cities pulled us in and compelled us to find a way to return for longer one day.
“Gesundheit” has always been one of my favourite German words, so throughout our entire time in Germany, I had eagerly awaited the moment when someone would answer my sneeze with it. It finally happened as we walked back to our hotel for the last time. I sneezed loudly near a busy intersection; a car window rolled down, and a man inside yelled “Gesundheit”. My time in Germany was finally complete.
Brent told me that one of his strongest memories from his exchange a few years ago in Singapore, was the feeling of walking out of the sterile, air-conditioned airport, and taking in the real destination for the first time. So, after our flight, before we really knew where we were going, we stepped out of the airport. The heat was like a heavy blanket wrapping itself around me; it made the air feel thick, almost as though I would need to wade rather than walk. I began sweating even before I had time to consciously comprehend the temperature change. Over 12 hours and 11,860.5 km later, we had arrived: in Bangkok.