Infatuation with Berlin

I embarked on my first solo journey this fall and there could not have been any other city to embrace my soul than Berlin. Berlin has been on my bucket list since I was a teenager blogging on xanga and to finally make a trip there a decade or so later is surreal, to say the least. Now that I have sat down to write about my adventures, I kind of don’t know where to begin to describe my lovefest with this eclectic,  tolerant, individualistic city — perhaps I should start off with great-tasting beers that cost less than a bottle of water.

img_2276Berliner Pils

As an American, we have an ironically humorous definition of freedom. We are allowed to open-carry in most states but not open-drink on streets or in trains or smoke inside bar/restaurants. I was amused when I first witnessed Germans drinking beers while chit-chatting in trains+trams & I knew I had to do the same. So I walked into a corner store, asked for a local brew and the kind gentleman referred Berliner pilsner. I paid a measly €1.25, walked out to the bright sunlight, gulped 2 sips, cracked a smile and continued walking on Rosenthaler Platz. I had tasted freedom Europeon style for the first time and trust me, I loooooved it.

dsc_0074Streets on Jewish Quarters

Berlin is a grand city with many historic streets to gasp at and landmarks to sight-see. As a traveler, one should take advantage of the super-advanced, efficient, and timely rapid transit system. Initially when I viewed the Sbahn/Ubahn & tram map with all lines overlapping or interconnecting, I was slightly overwhelmed. But upon my landing at Schonefeld airport on that cold, autumn night, I practically had to run to catch Rtrain on platform 4 towards Friedrichstrabe and that’s when I had an epiphany of sorts — I ride New York City MTA on a daily basis and the level of high stress and anxiety I endure perhaps prepared me to deal with superior transit systems in other parts of the world. End of the day, navigating different neighborhoods of Berlin via train, tram or bus was effortless (at €3.30 per trip with transfer) and seemed like I was doing just fine without a car or Uber.

email1Beautiful trams

email2Nordbahnhof station

Before I delve into the details of my touristy shenanigans in this intricate, compact & methodized city, I’d like to share my spontaneous decision to head to a trance club at 1230 am via tram & Ubahn. Whether you are travelling with siblings, friends, partner or #solodolo, if you have an ounce of love for music, you must add a trance club in the itinerary. Germans party true, I mean they party hard all night and into the sunlight of 10am. Europeons from all over the continent go to Berlin to let loose because the clubbing culture is frank, open-minded and non-judgmental. I have been a witness to many insane things happening once I was granted entry into the club and even if my feathers were ruffled a bit, I went back to doing me, i.e. dancing to pure trance. On one of my respites, I made friends with cool french girls from Lyon who were in the midst of a snow transaction and were equally horrified when I complimented Berlin’s cleanliness. One girl chimed in, “noo, but everyone considers Berlin so dirty. You must visit Hamburg and see how clean that city is. Berlin is very, very dirty.” I told her I don’t doubt her words but she should give me the benefit of the doubt since I’m from New York & our streets and subways are puke-worthy filthy. The girls laughed, sighed and had heart eyes speaking about how they want to visit New York so badly, right after they snorted some of the good stuff. I smiled, took swigs off my pilsner lubs and was thinking that this is another wish off my bucket list; I have finally raved in Berlin & I’m in zen. It was an all-nighter for me at the club and I left for my hostel few hours prior to my flight out scheduled at 11 am. I will reiterate how super safe riding in the most-accommodating and timely rapid transit was to me but also be aware that the key to utmost safety is to have your senses intact, follow your instinct and apply common sense.

img_2291Raving for the trance Gods

I did not sign up with any tours groups to guide me in exploring Berlin. I did my homework from before and because of my passion for history, I also had an extensive knowledge of Berlin’s dark history. My first stop was Berlin memorial (more on next post) and to reach there, I walked through yesteryear streets of East Berlin and Jewish quarters.

Jewish victims of Fascism sculptures

I was greeted by these hauntingly painful sculptures before entering the oldest Jewish cemetery in Berlin & I knew the walk will be a tough one. This cemetery’s history is ancient (built in 1600s) & dire. During Hitler’s regime, gestapo destroyed majority of the tombstones & turned the cemetery  into a prison camp for the Jews. During WWII, this cemetery had seen a mass grave of civilians, soldiers & thousands of Jews. Walking around this well-kept cemetery & reading German inscription in the memorials, I was tearing up even though I can’t understand a single word of German. The sad history weighed on me and I realized I didn’t have the courage to visit a concentration camp this trip. I couldn’t cry on this journey I was partaking in & I promised myself that I will visit next time. Because with Berlin, there will always be a next time for me — deep infatuations never completely cease, you see.

Ackerstrabe

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Dear Istanbul

Planning a short layover in Istanbul was one of the best decisions I made as a functioning adult. After landing at the beautiful Ataturk Havalimani airport and checking in my carry on at the baggage locker, I hailed a cab and rushed off to Sultanahmet district, the epitome of grandeur and romanticism.

Quirky architecture

Hot models of Suvari 😉

My cab driver was an older gentleman with the kindest green eyes and a warm smile but he did not know where my first destination Basilica Cistern was. I got a little nervous as expected since I did not know the language but a fellow Turkish traveler hearing this exchange next to me had tried his best to translate, yet the driver seemed unsure. Nobody knew the Turkish name for Basilica Cistern so I simply gave up and told him to take me to ‘Aya Sofia’. I had done enough research to know that the attractions I was curious about were walking distance to each other.
The cab ride through the highway of Istanbul was splendid to say the least. I was in awe of the quirky architecture displayed in many buildings and the air, though very hot and humid sang to my relaxed mood. We were driving in parallel to the Bosphorous sea and soon enough, I was dropped off on a street with carpet boutiques and kebab shops.

Highway in Istanbul

Since I had “tourist” plastered on my forehead, I was lured into one of the carpet boutiques by one of the shopkeepers who showed me few of their carpet and rug collection. He was very eager and ready to ship the carpets via DHL to my residence but I politely declined and instead stared at the workmanship of the lady who was threading a rug. I had to take my leave right after and started my walk uphill on a cobblestone path.

Upon arrival to the crowded and bustling Sultanahmet Square, I was in pure shock for the first few minutes as I took in my surrounding and the ancient history that I was in the midst of. I was standing by the benches in the middle point, under the blazing heat of the Turkish sun, surrounded by the magnanimity of Hagia Sophia, Blue Mosque, Obelisk of Theodosius. But I was on a mission and I started looking for any signs of Basilica Cistern. I found the entrance soon enough, bought a ticket for 20 TL and walked the long stairs down. The air instantly turned cool and I could hear the breeze and soft echoes of visitors conversations. I was welcomed by the dim lit enclosing, the grand columns help up high and sounds of the water as I stood in one private spot and just breathed. I was standing inside the largest ancient cistern, constructed back in the 6th century and for a history nerd like myself, this could easily be the definition of heaven. I walked around the cistern, touched the gothic-looking columns at times and also played with a few colorful coy fishes before heading to the Medusa heads. This small area was the most crowded and I didn’t find the twin Medusa heads that inspiring to ogle over so I took a selfie or two and headed out.

I walked towards Hagia Sophia and bought a ticket for 40 TL. Upon entrance through the imperial gate to this once-upon-a-time cathedral, later an imperial mosque and now a world-renowned museum, I felt at peace and in sound serenity. Hagia Sophia had been on my bucket list since I was 12yo when I read about the Ottoman Empire and to have finally walked into this opulent Byzantine architecture brought my heart to a sigh. There are no words to describe the kind of peace I felt when I walked the long stone path to the upper gallery to see scriptures of old Quranic relics and stunning Arabic calligraphy hanging on the sides. I was reliving history and loving every second of it.

Cobblestone pathway to Upper Gallery
Hagia Sophia – Upper Gallery

Afterwards, I stepped out into the “largest carpet of tulips” in the world and noticed how this was a big attraction for the people around me. I sneaked into a private spot and took few selfies too. This space was a beautiful, well-maintained rectangular garden of tulips and all the flowers seemed to have bloomed with so much personality and love. I liked observing the affection the people had for these bright, multi-colored tulips; I guess flowers do bring out the hidden delight from even the most reluctant.

snapseed-1Tulip Garden

For light lunch, I grabbed beef kebabs to go from a street vendor and sat on a quiet bench to eat and see long, bright red, packed trams pass by. I was also genuinely surprised to see that the kebab vendor sold pork sausages. As a first time visitor, this was a prime example of the secularism this wonderful city boasted and rightfully represented. I pray to the deity above that this level of secularism maintains for many generations to come and no threat of extremism will overpower this freedom.

StreetTrams

Since time was of rapid fluid essence, I made the major mistake of hailing a yellow cab from Sultanahmet to head to Ataturk Havalimani airport. The main driver along with his sidekick on the passenger seat were the most impulsive, unusual characters I had the misfortune of meeting. I simply told the driver to take a shortcut if possible and he ended up making so many illegal turns, driving super reckless in unbelievable speed and at one point dared to drive the wrong way on a highway while a bus was approaching. I shut my eyes and prayed that I get out of this adventure alive while stuck on a constant panic mode. Upon the arrival to the airport almost an hour later, these scumbags tells me that this shit of a ride cost me 300 TL. I couldn’t believe what I was hearing through my overall shock but I paid up with little arguments and left the cab. Travel tip: Avoid the yellow cabs at all costs — they are scammers and will try to trick you to pay in American dollars or Euros.

No matter the mixed experience I had between exalted high to severe panic attacks, I wouldn’t hesitate to book a ticket to Istanbul again for a much longer trip — there is so much to do and explore in this suave, culturally rich, historically revered city and my nerdy heart wants more, more, more. I simply yearn for you and I miss you, Dear Istanbul.

Blue Mosque