Friday, November 13, 2009

My changing view on Berlin

This is an essay I wrote for my humanities elective, Historical and Cultural Berlin, and I figured, it would save me a blog post of the same subject later down the road. Don't criticize my writing skills too much, I wrote this in an hour and a half on minimal sleep and listening to Dark Side of the Moon. One week left, just finished all my other deadlines minus studio, which is breathing down my neck for the next week. Enjoy.

When I first signed up for this program, I expected Berlin to be like any other European capital. During my years in high school, I had a travel program that took me to Europe for a week. I went from Paris to Nice, then from Montecatini to Rome, with several stops along the way. I got a first-hand look into what I thought most European capitals were like then, with Paris and Rome. Little did I know how Berlin was, my assumptions were the complete opposite of what my experience here turned out to be.

In high school I took an interest in history, however my class schedule focused on math, music, and design. My classes in history became limited to prehistoric times up until the first centuries A.D., and then United States history, so I never had a formal class that focused on recent European history. Because I was taking a college-level US history course, I studied deeply the events that happened in Europe only as they pertained to America. I knew some history of the Third Reich and the Nazi party; I was very interested in war films and novels at the time. I knew about the Berlin wall, but less about the division of Germany, and the coming and going of whole Cold War era was before my time, and I grew up in a world where communism had already faded away (albeit China).

My thoughts on Berlin prior to my trip over here were somewhat optimistic; I knew that the city had incurred much destruction in World War II and was divided for about four decades after that, so my assumption at the time was that there was heavy rebuilding of the city in that period, and that when the two halves became whole after the reunification, the gap was filled as the city became complete again. I knew it was one of the largest populated cities in Europe, and going after my logic with Paris and Rome, assumed that it was a bustling friendly city where a lot of commerce was going on, and four million people lived together fairly peacefully. A lot of history had happened there, and after I decided to take a semester abroad and try something new, I read ‘The Ghosts of Berlin’ by Brian Ladd, hoping it would give me some better insight about the city’s history prior to my trip. As I got an idea about the urban development and overall growth of the city, the dark times came about and I started to understand more the affect the industrial revolution had on the city, and the political struggles of Germany following the first World War. My thoughts still assumed that the city was still a very redeveloped world urban center, and that I would enjoy the time I spent there as an architecture student.

After our first 10-day travel elective, our group was exhausted and eager to arrive in Berlin to what would be our new home for the next three months. It wasn’t exactly what my initial thoughts had led to, however it helped that the weather was beautiful at the time, and our bus ride to the apartments along the U-1 overhead railway gave me a parallel to something I had seen before in New York. I think when I turned on the television set that night I was surprised to see how much of American programming had made its way over to Germany, and I thought it would feel familiar, but the lack of English speaking channels (other than CNN and occasionally MTV) quickly set me back into the reality that I was living in a different culture and I would have to get used to it. The next morning we went to the grocery store and it was probably the first bit of culture shock that I got. My first thoughts were: “Okay, nothing in English, and I don’t know much of any German; Hmm, beer is cheaper than soda; I had never seen so many types of sausage in my life; Wow, I can’t read any of this; They don’t keep milk refrigerated; Why isn’t there any Peanut Butter; I guess I’m eating pasta and oven pizzas for awhile.” Then of course, they don’t bag your groceries, which I was warned about ahead of time, and you pay for grocery bags, though stuffing my backpack worked the best. I figured, okay, I’ll get used to this pretty quick, I’ll try new food and maybe I’ll start being less wasteful with bags and recycling when I go back home.

The next part was getting on the subway, and the fact that there is no ticket check was the first really confusing part to me, but I guess an honor system is something that promotes less traffic jams going through checks and buying tickets, but I was planning on getting a bike to ride to studio and learn the city a little better anyway. The first week or so on the subway taught me that German people, Berliners in particular (I’m assuming) generally keep to themselves, and I’ve never had a quieter subway experience in my life. Generally, those of us who got on together were carrying the only conversation in the car. Later I found that by going to places to buy supplies or to get food, Germans in general seemed a bit cold. I think it has a lot to do with history and how they were brought up within division, especially in the communist East Germany, where you really had to watch what you said, so even now I can understand people not being so open to freely expressing themselves. Berliners are a true working-class group of people; they’re quick, to the point, very direct in what they say and it sometimes comes off as rude, but that’s just the way people are, I don’t blame them for it, but perhaps their society has made them that way.

Once I had gotten a bike and we were taking trips around the city with our classes, I noticed that Berlin wasn’t really the giant urban metropolis I had expected. The city is on a very human scale, different to something like New York where it’s super-human scale. The street walls were generally not higher than 5-6 stories, and in urban centers or major boulevards contained the more prominent buildings, but were generally not higher than 20 stories. There was also more green space than I thought, and after learning to the extent of how badly Berlin was damaged at the end of World War II, you could tell that once a long row of apartment buildings suddenly had holes here and there, pieces seemed to be missing, and it all made sense that they were left after destruction and still not rebuilt. After going to many museums and memorials, I started to take in how much history this city has seen in the last century. It started as the industrial capital of Europe, an ever-growing center to central Europe and the skies were the limits. However, involvement and defeat in World War I left the economy in pieces, and though it was able to rebound in that sense, political reform saw the ride of a power that was thought to be the answer to restore Germany to its former greatness, but it ended in darkness and destruction as that leader sought European domination and the destruction of a major religion and its people throughout it. I feel bad for the citizens of the city who watched the city’s destruction and had to live with picking up the pieces and moving on. But they couldn’t do that, as the world political powers led to the division of the city and of its people for nearly four decades. And when things fall apart there and everything comes back together again, how do you deal with the past, with everything the city and its people have dealt with in the last 80 years? You can put it behind you, but memories of hard times will always remain, and they can be used as example for future reference so that such a hardship on a country’s population won’t ever happen again. In this sense, I can see why Germans in general are sensitive about there past, and want to put it behind them and move forward as if nothing happened. So they come off as cold, not very social and in general just keep to themselves.

In general, now my view on Berlin is one that it is a major re-growing power in Europe, and soon again it will be what it once was before war and oppressive governments crushed the spirit of the people. I think it has a lot to do with the coming generations becoming educated and continually making the advancements in technology and society happen, keeping Berlin and Germany the leaders of innovation and engineering in the world. It was hard for me to find my way in this city for someone who doesn’t speak German, but in reality you can get by okay without it. I have enjoyed my time here and hope to visit again someday; this trip has broadened my view on the major cultural differences between Germany and the United States, and I will go back knowing (somewhat) how to live like a Berliner.

Tuesday, November 3, 2009

Italy, part two

So, two weeks go by and then we head back to Italy with the whole group for six days. Originally it was six days of Rome, which would have been awesome, but they decided to include a day in Siena and a visit to another small mystery Tuscan town.

We flew out on a Thursday morning, though the day beforehand was our studio mid-crit, so Tuesday night pretty much no one slept. Under the power of caffeine and adrenaline we managed to get through Wednesday, however our good friend Brendan thought it would be a good idea to go out and party that night. I didn't think anything of it, I went back to apartments and passed out around 8:30 after I burned one oven-pizza by taking an extra 20-minute nap. The next morning, we all get up expecting about an hour to get to the airport via subway/bus. Wrong. We go two stops north on the subway, and hear over the speaker "Alexanderplatz - bus service to Tegel Airport." So the group of 8 that we had gets off and makes our way over to the bus, thinking it will be fast. Wrong. It stopped about every block, and we got to the airport fifteen minutes late to meet our professor. He looked really concerned, and I said that "we're sorry, we didn't know how long the bus would take." Then he said, "well, where is everyone else?" Go figure we were the first ones to get there. So everyone else trickles about 10 minutes later, but no Brendan. He ended up going out and staying with another one of friends in Berlin that night, had to run around in the morning and got to the airport about five minutes too late to check-in. He ended up paying about $750 out of his pocket for a later flight that day.

So we landed in Rome Fuimicino (I don't know why Florence...) and hopped on the bus to Siena. This trip really killed about three days just by travel, I wish it was planned alot better. By the time we got to Siena on Thursday night, it was getting dark and we just missed the supposedly beautiful Tuscan sunset. Checked into the hotel, and then went for a night-time city walk.We made our way through the city over to Piazza del Campo, the shell-shaped public square where they hold the horse races. Our Urban Studies talk commenced there for the night and we stayed there to finally eat dinner. The food was... okay, you would think a place with an amazing location would have something good. At least the wine was good.We wandered the Campo and then over to the Siena cathedral, which, like every other major cathedral in Europe when it's not summer, was undergoing renovations. So there was a big crane right next to the church, I don't know if that's as bad or better than having half the building covered in scaffolding. It was getting late by this time and Siena doesn't really scream 'party place' so we headed back to the hotel to watch Quantum of Solace and pass out.
The next day we checked out of the hotel and wandered back to the Campo to work on the Urban Studies assignment, sketching the way the space works and whatnot. We had a decent amount of time, so I decided that going up the Torre del Mangia was a worthwhile trip.
You may think, "wow that looks like the tower in Provincetown!" when really, this predates that tower by about 600 years. So its the Pilgrim Monument that looks like the Torre del Mangia, not the other way around. Needless to say, the climb up this one was a little tight, I'm 6'2" and parts of the stairway had maybe a 4'6" clearance height. Nevertheless, the view of Tuscany at the top was spectacular.We headed over to go inside the Siena Cathedral, which was of course very big and awe-inspiring as most old European cathedrals are to Americans. One thing I really liked was how it was decorated with the stripes of Siena, black and white. I thought about going up the bell tower there, but in the end it pretty much would have been the same view there as was on the Mangia, so I saved my 6 euro and got me some pizza for lunch and hopped on the bus for somewhere.
So the mystery Tuscan town turned out to be Pienza, which nobody knew anything about. Another small commune of medieval and renaissance buildings, a central square and an awesome view out over the hills, kind of typical, but still worth it for many reasons. While wandering the side streets, we came across a friendly cat, and it distracted us for a good 10 minutes at least. We only spent maybe two hours or so there, but it was a good stop. Amazing views are usually worth it. After that we hopped on the bus for another 3+ hours to Rome. Bus time is good time, you can catch up on some sleep, even if it is pretty uncomfortable. Rome is a marathon in itself, so I'll save that for part three.

Monday, October 26, 2009

Italy, part one

So alot has happened since my last post. Sorry to my mother (and anyone else who reads this) for skimping on posting an entry for so long, but October has been one hell of a month, mostly crammed with a midcrit and travel. I'll start with the end of September.
(I'm somewhere in the first two rows of bodies)
I decided it would be cool to go to at least one concert while I was here. I saw one of my favorite bands (Dream Theater) headlining the Progressive Nation Europe Tour at the Berlin Arena. It was an awesome experience, I've never been up front for an entire show (over 5 hours...) but it really was worth the fatigue in my legs for standing up that long. The other bands were good, nothing great but it introduced me to Opeth, which I'd never paid much attention to but I was really impressed by their live performance, you have a new fan! DT played perfect like the insane musicians that they are, I'll see them the next time they come around Boston.

So on to my travels, we have two individual (optional) travels, so for the first one I wanted to experience Northern Italy. My roommate Greg and I decided to head to Milan for the four days.
However, it dawned upon me in my trip research (only two days before we left) that there really wasn't that much to see in Milan. We made a last-minute decision (with the suggestion from our professor) to take a day and a half and travel east and see Venice, with a stop in Bergamo along the way.
Bergamo is an awesome city with an old hill-top medieval town, really good for a four-hour stop if you're headed somewhere else. Its a really steep incline to get up there, you could take a ski-lift if you wanted to, but I'm the 'sportif' type, so walking was a good choice too. We missed the staircase though, and ended up walking along the road to the backside of the hill. Although a lot longer, it was definitely more scenic:
On the way down, since we had time, we took the actual staircase, which was stupidly long. It actually made us grateful for taking the long way up, since it would have been a bitch to go up these:So then we hopped back on the train for three hours and made it to Venice around 6. The light was really nice when we got there, and by the time we made it to Piazza San Marco, night was on setting so I got some good photos. We stayed the night at some tourist campground, which was interesting, and then left the next afternoon. Well worth the trip I think.
So after wards we headed back to Milan to see Internazionale take on Udinese at the famous Italian stadium, the San Siro:Our seats were pretty awesome for 36 euros each, plus I got to play with my ginormous zoom lens. Inter won the match 2-1, scoring the winning goal in injury time, and I've never seen a crowd erupt like they did. On Sunday, we just chilled in the park, getting some work done, saw a Frank Gehry exhibit, and flew back that afternoon. EasyJet is probably the best way to cruise around Europe if you're not carrying much, much recommended.

Wow I forgot how long these things take to write. I'll continue later.

Monday, October 5, 2009

MTV in Europe

So, when I'm not in studio relentlessly wasting my life away with work that I'll end up changing ten times, I'll relax a bit back at the apartment. We don't have internet there, so I'll watch or play something on the computer, but most of the time I'll kick back and watch one of three channels that I'll understand. One is CNN International, so I can see what the hell is going on in this world (in english), the other is Eurosport. Eurosport isn't in english, but watching a race or soccer doesn't necessarily require it to get whats going on. And then there is MTV.

For those of you who don't know, MTV is a huge network which also owns Comedy Central and VH1, as well as other channels. So on MTV here in Europe, we get a vast array of entertaining shows from the good old USofA, including but not limited to Rock of Love (and spin-offs), Hogan Knows Best (and spin-offs), WildBoyz, Nitro Circus, Pimp My Ride, and of course, Chappelle's Show.

Now, I can't say that I'm a fan of the VH1 reality shows (Rock of Love, I Love Money, Charm School etc.) but to watch an episode here or there can be pretty entertaining. You can tell that alot of these people competing in these shows are absolutely fake, but to purposely act like complete bitches and assholes, while completely wasted most of time, is for some reason funny. I don't get it either.
(not my sketch, but funny still)

Next, all the shows with Hulk Hogan are awesome, well, because he's Hulk Hogan. I'll admit that I watched wrestling when I was younger, and as much I knew that it was all staged and fake to a point, something about the charisma of all the characters intrigued me. I've moved past this since middle school, but Hulk Hogan is still one cool jabroni in real life. I mean, the handlebar mustache is iconic.
Then there are the Jackass spinoffs. Nitro Circus is just crazy motorbike stunts, which gets old after a certain point, but Wildboyz is great. Take the two funniest guys from Jackass and throw them in the jungle with animals, and you get hilarious. Don't you want to watch someone get bit in the ass by a crocodile?
Its obvious that Germans and nice automobiles go hand in hand. But to put $40,000 worth of body work, paint and electronics into a car usually worth less than $500 just seems crazy. Maybe that's why they love it over here. Who wants to see an AMC Pacer with rims a sweet paint job, tv screens in the seats and a 2000-watt sound system? I do.
Last, but certainly nowhere near least, is Chappelle's Show. Oh how I miss Chappelle's show (we all do, right?). It really took sketch comedy and racial comedy to a new level, and there was never a dull episode. He took the basics of racial comedy and applied them in a way that didn't make anybody feel uncomfortable, and afterward I felt like there was a new openness that everyone could laugh about. Its unfortunate that Dave left the show, but I can understand how people took the sketches too literally and make all that is of Dave Chappelle's image associated with the characters he played on the show, rather than his normal stand-up comedy which was alot funnier than most of the sketches on the show to begin with. Keep it real, Dave.

Thursday, September 24, 2009

This man is a god

I mean, averaging 32mph over about an hour? Ridiculous...
Its really nice to be able to watch the races at local times. Props to Zirbel for his performance, he was sitting with top time all day until the last group of riders came in, but still managed fourth. Definitely a ProTour level rider.

As for my biking while I'm over here, its sad to say that I won't get out to ride any of the Alps. Its just too expensive to get over there for four days, and coming back on Sunday is the most expensive flying day in Europe. Anyways, I'm going to Milan for my first travel and maybe we can work out a day riding some of the mountains north of there. However, for the second travel at the end of next month, I'm headed out to Belgium to see some real cyclocross. GVA Trofee - Koppenbergcross and Superprestige Hoogstraten, there should be some epic racing going on there.

I'll make my comeback to collegiate cycling when we get back to the States, hopefully I'll be in some form of shape. I'll look to maybe go to CX nationals this year! (joking) Road nationals are already planned on, but I'll need more than two weekends of cross to consider going out to Oregon. Maybe next year, assuming I get into the Master's program.

Tuesday, September 22, 2009

I'm alive

Sorry I haven't kept up with posts the last two weeks, I'm working towards a studio deadline tomorrow so the free time hasn't been plentiful. Last weekend we traveled to Prague for our Urban Studies class, which was a pretty awesome place.
I got a bike, nothing specially really, it just works (barely) and gets me from the apartments to studio, shortening a 40-minute commute to 25 and saving me $6 or so a day. I'll post a pic of it later.

Alright, back to work.

Wednesday, September 9, 2009

Amsterdam, Part Two

Well now I'm kind of settled in Berlin, in studio and kicking my self for deciding not to ship my cross bike. Bikes here aren't as cheap as I thought, I was looking for something like an old 80's road bike or something, with not so great components but decent enough to use for a long ride apart from commuting. I've been to five different shops so far and the best price I can get for something decent is 300 euros, or roughly $435-US. I know I'd be able to sell it before I leave for 75% of what I bought it for, but I don't want to drain my funds completely. Public transportation here is damn expensive, comparing it to the T in Boston, one ride is three times the price ($3.05 one-way).

So now here is the second part of my Amsterdam tale.

Day Three: Rotterdam

What a nice city. It got totally leveled in WWII, so since then its come along way. There are a lot of modern buildings, overall very clean, and a very lively marketplace. In the morning I had a presentation at the Kunsthal in the morning, it went pretty well. I still have to present the Dutch Embassy when we get to Berlin, and then the rest of the class is a 10-page paper comparing and contrasting the two projects.

I was surprised that I got to present my project in the auditorium, which was a special occasion. I’m still not sure what the smile and frown faces on the glass represent, but I’m sure I’ll find it out at some point in my research.

This is a typical OMA-Rem Koolhaas building, with main program spaces split by a main trajectory path that is blurred from interior to exterior. You can tell they were very happy with the result:

We spent some time wandering around Rotterdam, but there wasn’t much else to do so we took the train back to Amsterdam fairly early. I was hoping to get the Heineken Brewery tour in tonight, but they changed from their summer hours, so we got there after it closed. While we were out eating it started to rain, so the night was called early.

Day Four: Utrecht

Very interesting buildings were seen today. The Utrecht University seems like a really cool campus. It was Sunday morning there, so not a lot was going on, though at one point a pack of 200+ girls went out for a bike ride. I caught a photo of a few tailing off the back:

I think there were at least 15 girls for every guy we saw. Coming from Wentworth, that’s seems like a pretty amazing ratio. Sometimes it makes me think I should transfer, but I’m two semesters away from my bachelor’s so why bother. As for grad school, well, we’ll see. One more year at Wentworth makes financial sense.

We visited the library at the University, which had a very neat texture on every panel of the building, and even on the glass as a print for shading:

The inside was probably the most wide-open library I've ever seen. The idea is that everybody can see everybody, which encourages more social interaction. It also can serve as a motivator to someone like me where if I can see everyone else studying, I should probably be too.
After wards, we walked down to the one, the only, Schröder House! Holy crap was this place pretty beat up, but thinking about it, its more than 80 years old, and that type of house wasn't designed to last. It was a bummer we couldn't '
make pictures' inside (every European tour guide's favorite expression).
After that tour, we broke for lunch in the historic center of Utrecht. There was some were nice scenery, and its a city I wouldn't mind living in.
I made it back to Amsterdam, took the tram straight to the Heineken brewery to see if I could make the tour. We just missed the last tour, which was a shame being our last night in Amsterdam, but the shop was open so I got some souvenirs anyway. A good group of us went out and enjoyed our last night in Amsterdam, out hitting up the bars. The highlight of the night was three of my friends accidentally stumbling into a gay bar to go to the bathroom, getting lots of racy comments from all the guys in there. It was almost a bad idea with a group of about 10 or so drunk Americans parading the red light district and surrounding bars, but then again most of everyone around that area are tourists anyway. Its nice not having to worry about getting much sleep, because of the very long bus ride we had the next day. I think I might be back sometime in the near future.

Next stop: Paris!

Saturday, September 5, 2009

Amsterdam, Part One

Sorry for the lack of posts on this first travel elective, I really haven’t had the time to go out and spend it on the internet. Not that it isn’t widely available or anything, we just don’t get it at the hostels, we’re on our feet from 7 in the morning until 5 traveling around, sketching, photographing, studying etc. all the awesome architecture that’s over here. So once we’re free for the day after that’s done, we’re going to do something a little more fun and lively for the night, rather than go find an internet café or something of that nature. Here’s a recap of our time in Amsterdam, feel free to read in parts because it will probably be long.

Day One: Arrival
Our flight landed around 7:40 AM at Schipbol Airport just outside of Amsterdam, I can say for the most part that none of us got more than 2 hours of sleep (I managed only one) and knew this would be a long day. We had no presentations that day, but Rolf Bachman and John Ellis (our professors) were eager to introduce us to the city. We took the tram to the hostel, to learn that we couldn’t check in until 2. So they let us drop our bigger bags in a closet to keep safe while we walked around until then. We walked all the way back towards Central Station, taking in the beautiful street scenery along the way:
We headed over to Amsterdam public library, where they were having a cool exhibit on Rietveld’s furniture, and a cafeteria with roof deck. We stopped and ate, took a look around the building (which was also very cool),
and eventually wandered back to the hotel. Greg and I got a sweet balcony on the second floor overlooking the canal next to us, and a view of the vibrant nightlife in the theater district. We took a nap for a few hours and went out to grab some food. We found a coffee shop with some good stuff (I won't say anymore), wandered over to the Red Light District to see what it was like, and called it a night early to help with the jet lag.
Day Two: Amsterdam
We woke up early to see quite a few buildings. I won’t go into details about everything, but the housing development here was really cool, each floor had a separate façade material which gave each apartment a unique feeling:
One of my favorites was the Muziekgebouw by 3xNielsen:
The parti of the building is very simple and works amazingly well; there is a large performance hall for modern classical music, and a smaller one for jazz music. Around is a glass box that encloses the space between to two for lobby, bar, and restaurant areas. Very cool theater effects indeed:
The best thing about Amsterdam (I thought) was the sheer number of bikes. Bikes outnumber cars by a long shot, although 99% of the bikes were cruisers:
In a city as old as Amsterdam, efficiency is a huge priority; fewer cars, less pollution, more tourists, then more people on bikes, walking and using public transportation. I wish more of them were road bikes, but most people are solely commuting, so a leisure bike does the trick, and you don’t have to worry about someone stealing your particular bike because they all look the same.
We saw two of Hertzbeger’s Montessori schools, which were somewhat interesting. Our tour guide was very enthusiastic when it came to demonstrating the importance of the learning environment, which included some great posters with important lessons:
Somehow, I think this sort of openness wouldn’t fly in America, I’m sure there is some stupid code for educational settings that prevents a six-story drop anywhere in the building. I mean, some kid in the US would probably jump this:
We retreated back to the room, checked out the Red Light district on a crazy Friday night, and got to bed not too late, I had a presentation the next day.

I’ll split this part into two, we’re gonna go out to watch the Swiss national team match at a bar somewhere downtown.

P.S. Found this on the side of a building, even though the numbers are technically wrong, it's still awesome:('05 Tour de France Prologue)