Berlin: Travel Apps and Tips

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I finally succumbed and got an iPhone just days before my vacation. I knew it would make some things, like navigation and checking email, easier. Even though I was fairly familiar with the phone, there were some kinks and things I learned along the way.

Data
First, turn your phone to airplane mode and shut off any data so you don’t get charged exhorbitant international rates.

Outlets
One thing I didn’t consider with a new phone was the European current for electricity (different outlet). Thankfully, I was able to borrow an extra adaptor that my friend had, but they are also cheap to buy online. If you plan to stay for a while, there are even power strips with universal outlets available.

Navigation
Many people swear by Google maps. While they are generally accurate for street directions, I find that I have more luck on public transportation using Hopstop. And I don’t always feel like letting Google monetize every bit of my personal data. In Berlin, Google maps doesn’t currently include buses or trams, only the U- and S-Bahn, so public transportation directions are fairly useless. My tech savvy friend recommended the FahrInfo app, which gives a list of alternate routes to your destination with approximate travel duration and arrive times. It also has maps of the U- and S- Bahn. I highly recommend it for travel within Berlin.

That said, Google maps are indispensable when you don’t have Internet access (navigation continues to work). Simply open a local map when you do have a connection, and continue to use it when you don’t. Their “greedy” algorithm works very well for street directions (walking, biking, driving).

Text or Chat
To communicate in country, my friend recommended What’s App or Viber. Unfortunately, since I didn’t download the apps before arriving, I couldn’t activate the service (via text message). (I receive way too many texts daily to opt to turn on that service.) Another friend recommends Zello, which is popular with her family in Mexico, who prefer the push to talk feature. All of these options are worth trying. We wound up using Facebook chat and it worked just fine.

Wifi Hub
There isn’t a lot of free wifi available in Berlin, but you can generally get access to a network at a cafe or a restaurant (when they remember the password). It gets challenging when you are out and about all day, at museums or just wandering around, trying to coordinate plans or in need of consistent access. My friend works at a startup called deMifi, which rents these nifty little portable wifi hotspots that are smaller than your phone at very reasonable rates. I also highly recommend!

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Berlin This Time: Food

hibiscus salad

hibiscus salad

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vegetarian spreads

vegetarian spreads

donor kebab

donor kebab

German food conjures images of hearty but bland foods like meat and potatoes, so I was pleasantly surprised by the food this time. Vietnamese immigrants began to arrive in the 50s, and earlier waves from the Middle East provided even more culinary options, including many vegetarian options. At Siam in Kreutzberg—a cleaned up East Berlin neighborhood often compared to Park Slope in Brooklyn―I had one of the most delightful and surprising meals in recent memory. A hibiscus and seaweed salad packed a combination of flavors and textures: sliced Asian pear in a sweet, floral, vibrant red hibiscus marinade, salty and chewy hijiki seaweed, crisp cucumber and romaine lettuce, hints of chile, served with a giant crisp rice cracker. This was followed by a solid vegetarian pho. Another day, my mind was blown by Sudanese falafel at Sahara Sudanesische Spezialitaten in messy, hip, and gentrifying Fraudlenshein. Sure, I’ve had the Arab or Israeli versions, with pickled veggies and tahini. But the Sudanese version had falafel, peanut sauce, and haloumi in a pita for just a few Euros. Wow. I was delighted that the friendly African dudes working the counter were rocking out to cumbia.

Since I was in Berlin, I also had the requisite and ubiquitous currywurst, donor kebab, and spatzle. I am still puzzled why currywurst is so popular (besides the price point). It’s a sliced hot dog with ketchup, sprinkled with curry powder, served with or without fries (chips). Donor kebab entered the menu through Turkish immigrants and is now a mainstay. Generous amounts of sliced, seasoned lamb (like a gyro), veggies, mayonaisse-based sauces, served in pressed, warm bread. It’s a salty, creamy, meaty mess of a sandwich with a perfect combination of amazing flavors. Spatzle is a pasta, made from potato, and sauteed so the outside gets slightly browned. I had a good one made with spinach and a cream sauce.

Besides beer, the beverage of choice is Club Mate. Apparently made from an old recipe that was recently rediscovered, it is Argentinian yerba mate tea with a slight fermentation, making a tannic, sparkling, slightly sweet caffeinated drink. Bars serve it with vodka.

There are bio (organic) markets all over. Yogurt comes in clear glass or plastic, which somehow makes it seem tastier. My vegan host introduced me to vegetarian pates and spreads made from ingredients like beets and horseradish or shitake mushrooms. They are quite good, available in cans that I brought home for easy meal options.

Berlin This Time: Nightlife

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Greeted by a sign behind the bar that read, congratulations you just left the hetereonormative sektor, I immediately felt at home. In NYC, most queer parties are monthly events, venues tend to be gaystream. Berlin manages to support several radical and activist queer spots, some of which are cooperatively run. Messy and fun, Silver Future plays riot grrl and indie music, sells zines about topics like girls with mustaches, and serves cocktails in a relaxed, mixed gender atmosphere. The bartender was charming and chatty, adding to the neighborhood feel. No photos allowed inside the space.

We also headed to Süd Block, which creates space for housing rights and social justice activism in a large outdoor patio setting. Tai chi and other workshops are offered during the day and events or parties are in the evenings. See schedule on their website.

And later, Geist im Glas, a cozy, regular bar known for their infused liquors and cocktails. This place, like so many others in Berlin, is thick with smoke, but chill and fun.

K-fetisch and Suzie Fu were closed that evening, and Roses Bar, with it’s pink faux fur walls and early morning rowdiness, seemed like too much of a commitment. I also didn’t have a chance to hit Core Tex for punk shows, but all the more reason to go back.

Berlin This Time: Impressions, Art, and Objects

exhibit on a remaining section of the Berlin Wall, image of a boy and his dog in Belfast

exhibit on a section of the Berlin Wall, image of a boy and his dog in Belfast

The last time I was in Berlin, it was early fall. Everything felt gray and drab, chilly. I had just gone through a bad breakup and spent most of my time going to memorials to victims of the Holocaust, the Jewish Museum, the Berlin War Memorial, and so on. History loomed everywhere, shadowy and spooky. I was impressed by the very public attempt to apologize and heal from injustice perpetrated against others (a lesson we could learn from in the US, I imagine).

This time, I deliberately kept things a bit lighter, and had a very different experience of the city. It’s amazing how much your interior world affects your impression of a physical place. One of my favorite things about Berlin is zipping around on a bike: it’s flat and sprawling, with abundant protected bike lanes, and hoards of other bike commuters. My friend lent me a rickety cruiser and I set off on a self-guided Socialist East Berlin bike tour that I read about online. There were also public exhibits explaining the architecture along the way. At some point, I arrived at the massive concrete campus of the former secret police, now the Stasi Museum and archive. Much of the exhibit was in German, but there are fantastic objects on view, ranging from everyday objects and games to indoctrinate people to Socialist principles and all sorts of cameras hidden in everything from ties to boomboxes to birdhouses. There are photographs of the burgeoning punk scene and other political dissenters as well as an entire office from the time, with pristine mid century modern furniture worthy of envy.

Then I rode down to the East Side Gallery, the largest surviving section (1.3 km or 2/3 mile) of the Berlin Wall, now a display of murals of graffiti-like art. Recently, part of this wall was threatened with demolition for– wait for it– luxury condos. It’s a story I hear in every city I’ve visited over the last few years: more and more luxury condos for wealthy foreign investors who don’t necessarily live in the city– or even country– pricing out people who live and work in those cities.

On the other side of the wall was a stunning temporary exhibit, Wall on Wall, photographs of walls in other countries intended to stop immigration, reduce conflict, restrict movement. It felt like you could step into the huge panoramics, taken at borders like those between Israel and the Occupied Palestinian Territories, North and South Korea, the US and Mexico. The German photographer, Kai Wiedenhöfer, poignantly said that “walls reflect a failure of politics.” It was sobering to be reminded of the barriers that humans erect at a place celebrating the removal of one.

The next day, I biked to the Pergamon Museum on the city’s Museum Island. The highlights of the museum are truly monumental. You walk into and throughout the enormous Pergamon Altar and the Gate of Babylon as well as an intricately crafted paneled room from Syria, the Aleppo Zimmer. A numbered audio tour is free with admission, so you can learn more about details that intrigue you. I found the exhibits that explained the enormity of the archeological undertaking to be most intriguing. In Iraq, for example, war and looting have largely destroyed the potential for valuable insight, since only a small percentage of work had been completed there.

Hallo Berlin! Stay tuned for more posts on Berlin nightlife and food.

Stasi Museum

Stasi Museum

Socialist latchhook

Socialist latchhook

Wall on Wall exhibit, image of Nogales, Sonora and Nogales, Arizona, where I'm headed to next

Wall on Wall exhibit, image of Nogales, Sonora and Nogales, Arizona, where I’m headed to next

detail of the Aleppo Zimmer

detail of the Aleppo Zimmer

detail of the Pergamon Altar

detail of the Pergamon Altar