Saturday, August 14, 2010

An American in Berlin

I just arrived in Berlin on Thursday (07/22) morning. I had an interesting, if long flight. I sat next to a nice German couple returning home from holiday. They were kind enough to teach me some simple German words and sayings. There was also a very cool language game on the plane's seat-back computer that helped me pick up a few more helpful phrases.

After clearing passport and customs at the airport, I was in a taxi, riding through Berlin, through Europe for the first time. The first thing I noticed were the bicycles. At almost every street light and intersection, there was a cyclist riding alongside the cars.

Update (08/14):

I had meant to finish writing this blog post while in Germany, but I couldn't pull myself apart from Berlin long enough to sit down and finish this. In order to finish this before the trip becomes a distant memory, I'm transferring some of my hastily jotted notes here. They are mostly unedited and still organized in haphazard lists.

A quick list of the differences and similarities between Germany/Europe and the U.S.

  • Bathroom Shower: the handle came out and then up and down, rather than from left to right
  • Window: opened from a hinge at the top rather than sliding up
  • Oh, also bathrooms are WCs
  • More bikes, more smoking
  • Most Europeans easily speak 2-3 languages: besides German, also heard a fair bit of French, Spanish, some Dutch, Italian, and Swedish
  • Water tastes weird: comes in bottles, usually has minerals in it (sparkling), and is often not free (one bottle cost ~4 euros!)
  • A lot of the same music
    • heard Into the Night blasting from a car the first night I was in the city
    • walked into a souvenir shop and heard Taio Cruz's Dynamite and Rihanna
  • Food was familiar
    • lots of pastas, chicken (hanschen) and fish were easily available
    • even went to a Faux-Sixties Diner one night and heard MJ's Bille Jean
I also hung out with a bunch of people who were also attending the conference. Some quick notes:
  • Group of researchers from Barcelona: practiced my Spanish with them, went out the first night and explored Checkpoint Charlie; also learned that work hours can be longer in Spain
  • Group from Lausanne, Switzerland: Julien had worked at Qualcomm, San Diego; Reza had traveled to SFO for conferences; they all worked on research related to location privacy.
  • Bunch of folks at the conference knew each other from before, many attended the same conferences
  • Went with the rest of the conference party on a boat tour on the river Spree
  • Had interesting discussions about PhDs and why people did/were doing them. Interesting questions that came up: does research area actually matter? esp. if you go to industry? just showing that you can become the world expert on some topic within a short (~5 yrs) time?
Besides meeting several people, I also explored a bunch of places (pictures on Facebook) all around Berlin, including Postdamer Platz, Alexanderplatz, Berliner Dom, Museums: National gallery, Checkpoint Charlie, Brandenburg Tower, The Riechstag, Tiergarten (felt like entering the Forbidden Forest), Holocaust Maze Art, Nollendorfplatz, the Spree, and some abandoned WWII bunkers.

Me in front of the red bear in front of the Hotel Berlin.

Over the course of my several navigating adventures, I got pretty good at finding my way around the city with my trusty map. The map was well-worn from use, with rain splotches, creases and folds from being quickly folded and stuffed in my back pocket. Interestingly, most of my adventures happened at late night since I purposely tried not to shift to Berlin time. Thus, I actually found myself awake past midnight for a change :) The flipside was that I found myself in an afternoon slump and usually crashed between noon and 3 p.m. local time (Luckily, I was still awake enough to give my talk!).

While the night backdrop made my adventures that more thrilling, it also meant that I missed out on going to a lot of shops that closed earlier in the evening. For example, KaDeWe, the largest department store on mainland Europe, closed just before I got there a little after 9 p.m. local time.

Oh, and one last observation: on my strolls through the streets of Berlin, I saw lots of happy couples and people just seemed more cheerful overall. Why do I not see the same happiness on the streets of America? Perhaps, it's just that I'm not as attentive when I'm not in the excited mindset of a tourist? Or does this represent a more fundamental difference between U.S. and Europe (or the rest of the world)?


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