Stories of this Canadian girl's adventures exploring Europe & beyond...join me!

Tuesday, January 24, 2012

a bottle of vodka

Writing is hard. But, like running or, having a good relationship, the work I put into it and the end result makes me happy. For some reason, I feel really good, satisfied somehow, when I am finished figuring out how to put my thoughts, in a hopefully interesting way, on to paper (or the computer screen).

Comparison is the finest form of flattery, or is that ‘imitation’? Whatever. I use comparison a lot when I am trying to describe something, maybe because I’m not a good enough writer yet to paint a vivid enough picture. I’ll work on it. On the other hand, I think comparing a new thing with something which is familiar is a fast and effective way to get the point across. And, sometimes comparison can be really nice. When compared with something good it can be quite the compliment.

Last summer, as I was back in Canada for my brother’s wedding, a stranger said to me, ‘Do you know who Lauren Graham is? You look exactly like her!’ Okay, I did think she might have been crazy, but it was super nice to hear. Then there was an incident a few weeks ago, where a woman said to me, that I was as tall as the tree in her backyard, but as friendly as her sister. Okay, so not all comparison is good. In those cases I choose to filter out the not-so-good things (could that be why men hear so little of what we say?).

As I was in Berlin two weeks ago, I thought a lot about my mother while I walked. My mother was born not far from Berlin, smack dab in the middle of WWII. Decades later, as I sat in my grandmother’s tiny kitchen, at her plastic-covered, flowery tablecloth, with her bird named ‘Nina’ sitting on the window sill, I listened to her tell our family’s story, of that time.
Unfortunately, as things sometimes go, I didn’t know that those conversations would be our last, and so I didn’t write down anything that she said. I so desperately wish I had. She had a fascinating story to tell, as do so many, many people who live through, and survive a war. Especially women.

Along with my grandmother’s story, I have sat next to countless refugee women, telling me tales of things they needed to do to save their families. All these women, calmly, as matter of fact, blew me away with their courage, perseverance, and determination. But, the first story like this, I heard from my omi. Charlotte.

The way I remember the story (and I’m not sure that there is anyone left who knows it accurately), my grandfather had been away from the family, serving in the war (like all young men had to) for a couple of years. As the war came to an end and the east-west, Allied Forces-Russian, lines were drawn, my grandmother with her 2 very small children (a three and five year-old), living in her parents’ house, found themselves on the east side. For about six months she sent notes to her husband, with anyone escaping to the west, trying to make contact with him, to find out if he was even alive. One day a note came back. He was alive. He was in the west. Kurt.

With her 2 children bundled onto a toboggan, and carrying only what looked to a Russian soldier as enough for a day’s outing, she escaped along with some families. At one point the adults had to make a human chain through a river, handing the children along from one to the other, until they all safely reached the other side. Over the next many months, after reuniting with my grandfather, who had found a tiny apartment for them to live, my grandmother would often make the dangerous trip back to the east. They were dirt poor, had nothing. So, she would risk going back to her parents’ house, each time returning with some blankets or clothes, anything that she could carry. And a bottle of vodka.

Her father always gave her a bottle along, just in case she got caught – something that she could use to talk and bribe her way out of capture. I had asked my omi at that point in the story, if she ever got caught. Yes, she had, a couple of times, but the bottle of vodka had worked. Later, hearing stories about the conditions of the mostly, very young, Russian soldiers in that area, it was not surprising that they would be influenced by a bottle. They had absolutely nothing. It turns out that many german, farm families helped these young guys with clothes and food, during the years of eastern Germany. War is so crazy. Isn’t it all so crazy what people do to and for each other?

So, Berlin for me, is all the excitement of a fashion mecca (Fashion Week is happening right now), interesting architecture and museums, wide sidewalks, taxis, double-decker touri buses all hubbing around a massive, inner-city park….along with respectful, contemplative, all-consuming history. I spent hours and hours soaking up the reality of all that this city has experienced (thrilled that I had the freedom and luxury to do that)…and remembering what my family lived through. Major.

Wednesday, January 18, 2012


Won't you walk me through the Tiergarten?
Won't you walk me through it all, darling?
Doesn't matter if it is raining
Won't you walk me through it all?

Even if the sun, it is blazing
Even if the snow, it is raging
All the elements, we must conquer
To get to the other side of town

The lyrics from Rufus Wainwright’s song, ‘Tiergarten’ followed me as I walked through this monumentally huge park, in Berlin last week.

It was Tuesday afternoon and I had decided to bail on my workshops to get a taste of the city by daylight. After a day and a half of interesting seminars, all in German, I was almost brain-dead. It is exhausting to listen for hours and hours to people talking about a subject , whose words you have never heard before in a language other than English. My soon-to-be new boss, Ricky, said I should just go and think about something else for a few hours. So, off I went.

The tiergarten is expansive. I walked and walked. Through long tree-ed alleyways with curved bridges over small, flowing canals, towards the angel-topped siegersäule standing in the middle of one of the largest traffic circles I’ve ever seen (think piccadilly circus or arc de triomphe), on to Schloss Bellevue (castle bellevue, the home of the bumbling, German president….who should absolutely not be mistaken with the German Chancellor…the great Angi) and on down the Street of the 17th of June (yup, that’s it’s name) towards the Brandenburger Tor, leading into the former east… I leisurely made my way eating up every morsel of interesting scenery. Spending hours alone, just walking and soaking up history and the present, is a great opportunity to contemplate your own history and present.

I have suffered shipwreck against your dark brown eyes
I have run aground against your broken down smiles
Believe me when I tell you I have no place to go
But to go where the wild flowers grow and the stone gardens bloom.

Berlin is a city filled with bright lights, cool people, incredible story, new-york-style shopping, crazy places, every-kind-of museum and invitingly-spacious sidewalks. I would almost go so far to say it is the German equivalent to New York City. For a huge nyc fan, it was at least close enough to make me want to go back there again and again.

In the evening I met up with Ricky and another acquaintance who then took us out on the town, in the area of Alexander Platz. We walked through narrow streets and crossed large squares; I kept wanting to stop and ‘be the tourist’, asking questions about what big things happened here, what does that memorial stand for, why are there etchings in the sidewalk all of a sudden? So many stories. So much to soak in. She led us to a bar, which as tourists, Ricky and I would never have found. We were standing outside of ‘White Trash’. What a great name for what was inside.

White trash was filled to the brim with every possible kind of art, décor, light fixture and movie memorabilia you can find. On one wall was a normal, 30 inch, living-room-type TV playing ‘Barbella’, behind the small stage, lined with ragged Persian rugs, was a huge mirror and of to the side a living room lamp and a toy (fake) aquarium, with the fishies all electronically swimming around. It was all so weird and great. In the cellar was a tattoo parlor, on the balconies were cozy tables with candlelight and checkered tablecloths, and in the front room was a crystal chandelier hanging over the wooden tables.

The band which soon after began to play (two guys from the States) randomly jumped onto the banisters in the middle of a song, vigorously clapping their hands. At one point, the singer lit the tip of his cello on fire, creating the dramatic, heated atmosphere for that particular song. We chose our food from a menu of photocopied parts of other menus, with selections like the ‘moses hell-fire bbq burger’ or ‘gay French farmers smokey split-pea soup’. With cheesy, old-time, country rock playing in the backgroup during the band’s breaks, we drank beer and ate burgers and had a totally great time.

A few days later, I again found myself alone and walking. This time I wandered through the Helmut Newton Museum of Photography. What incredible photos he took; of beautiful people in very strange places. Raw polaroids of naked people, ‘headless’ women lying on a pristine beach, weird and wild, gorgeous and crazy. He came from Berlin and even though he worked all over the world and lived in the U.S., his photos fit perfectly in this city. The art inspired me. The work motivated me. I left feeling full of creativity and excitement for my future.

Won't you walk me through the Tiergarten?
Won't you walk me through it all, darling?
Doesn't matter if it is raining,
We'll get to the other side of town.

Saturday, January 7, 2012

the seventh day

And on the seventh day he rested. It’s January 7th. A week ago great guy and I rang in the New Year in snow! Lots and lots of beautiful, falling snow. We were in Tirol, the Austrian Alps, for a few days of skiing with great guy’s great friend, his girlfriend and their 13 month-old baby…das baby Ella.

It was wonderful to be in the tiny, mountain town of Nesslewängle (population: 432) looking out over a valley of snow. Atop the ski hills, nestled in quaint, rustic and so comfortable, ski huts we enjoyed authentic Austrian down-home cooking; such as Kaiserschmarm (thin, egg pancakes with apple sauce and powdered sugar), Bergspätzle (hefty egg noodles with bacon and onion), and world-reknowned (according to them) Apfelstrüdel.

Of course no skiing is really skiing without après-skiing, and there is no better place to enjoy hot chocolate with a dash of rum then in a European berghütte (mountain hut…but more like a chalet). I love the atmosphere…the sounds of schmaltzy, schlager music which everybody sings along to (even the teenies who pretend to hate the cheesy songs just so happen to know every single word), the smells of burning wood in the big fireplaces admidst great cooking, and the sights of tired, happy skiers amongst candlelit, wooden tables. All fun.

Das baby was such a good sport…chaulk that up to chill parents who schlep her along everywhere so that she is used to all types of places (snow, snow, snow on the top of a ski hill), all types of transportation (the gondola going up, going down, going up again), and all types of noise (fireworks shooting off around her at 12:02 New Years Eve). She had fun. We had fun. Even great guy was won over by her. Cats and babies always pay the most attention to the person who seems the most uninterested in them…and little Ella didn’t let great guy get away with that. She took her little spoon and pointed it at great guy’s soup, opening her mouth wide – he had no choice, he had to feed her! Super cute.

Since getting back home and acclimatizing to the fact that it’s already 2012, great guy has been busy with a bagger. Sorry, I think that word is so funny. Bagger is a hoe in English…which, come to think of it is also a funny word. Anyways, he has been baggering up the entire area outside our front door, almost to the riverbank. He is designing, improving and re-shaping our driving, parking and walking areas, and creating a monumental mess. We have been pulling up sidewalk plates and creating flower beds, all while it has been raining and raining. The end result is mud. Being covered in mud from head to toe. And, of course it just keeps raining. But, great guy sure is having fun, like every little boy with a very big toy!

And, last night we invited the haus folks (the tenants) over for a drink. Rock’n roller and jülchen, best friend and us, sitting around the table, drinking, eating and catching up. I don’t think this has ever happened before, and it proved to be a really nice evening…everyone hanging out till after midnight, and I didn’t even have to break out a board game. Even rock’n roller was on his best behaviour!

On the eighth day great guy will be baggering still and I will be on a train to Berlin for a week of training, for a new job which I will be starting later in the year. Life isn’t boring, here on the Rhein.

Happy new year, my friends…may this year bring you enough challenging things to make you stretch and grow, good health, much love, and great friends.

And, a note to my regular (and irregular) readers, thank you so much for your support and interest in my blog. Your words of encouragement, and the fact that you are reading have inspired me and touched me this year. I will now be uploading a new post regularly every Wednesday. If you have suggestions or comments or anything you would like to hear more about, please let me know! Viele liebe Grüsse, Nina
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