Athens, Brussels, Strasbourg, Trier…in my 3 seasons abroad I’ve never been able to travel as much as I have this year. With a somewhat lenient schedule, my location deserves all the credit for making these trips possible. Living in central Europe has its benefits and one of them is being able to make a day trip (or two) to a nearby city or country.
With a Saturday game finally scheduled (we normally play Sundays), I had 2 full days off – which meant I was already packing my bag and researching realistic travel destinations. As luck would have it, my friend Jordan (an American who plays for a rival club) had the same schedule. Putting our heads together, we eventually decided on Berlin, Germany.
With our flights booked and hostel reserved, we were scheduled to depart Frankfurt Hahn (2 hour drive) at 6:20am the morning following games. This meant we had had to be on a shuttle bus leaving Luxembourg at 3am. Deciding there was no point trying to sleep that evening, J and I planned to meet in Clausen (a street downtown Lux lined with bars) around midnight.
Connecting at the rendez-vous point, we spent our evening with friends while keeping an eye on the clock. As the night progressed, I found myself chatting with Gerard, a nice fellow that seemed to know the people I had arrived with. Eventually Berlin came up and we started discussing my trip. He seemed interested and suggested some must see sights. I mentally took note.
As the clock ticked toward 2am, Jordan and I said our goodbyes and started to leave the bar. On our way out, Gerard offered us a ride to the bus station. Making sure we weren’t cutting his night short, we agreed and hopped in his car. Chatting while waiting for the bus, Gerard paused mid-conversation and suddenly said, “what if I came with you guys?” I know what you’re probably thinking; he’s a stranger we met a few hours ago. However, he never made us feel uncomfortable and was genuinely nice. Believe me, if either of us had an inkling he was a creeper, or didn’t want him to come – he would of received a resounding “no.” Gerard was cool and I finally made the connection - he was the brother of one of my teammates! After extending the invite, we warned him that there was no guarantee Ryan Air would sell him a plane ticket in Frankfurt. As the bus pulled up to the stop, Gerard make a quick decision and decided he was in. Leaving the shuttle in our wake, the 3 of us were off to Frankfurt Hahn in Gerard’s compact.
After a ride full of conversation, we arrived in Frankfurt at 5:00 am. Collecting our tickets from check in, the moment of truth had come. Would Gerard be able to get on the flight? As cliché as it sounds, all good things do come to an end and unfortunately, Gerard's journey did as well. Where Jordan and I had purchased roundtrip tickets for 50 Euros, Gerard’s would of cost 350 Euros from the desk. Needless to say, he would be heading home. Feeling horrible about the whole situation, there wasn’t anything we could do. He knew the risk and sadly it didn’t turn in his favor. Thanking him for the ride and telling him to drive safe, Jordan and I stumbled deliriously onto the plane, promptly falling asleep once taking our seats.
Jolted awake by a rough landing, we had finally made it to Berlin. Wiping the sleep from our eyes, our next mission was finding a train station that stopped near our hostel. Familiarizing ourselves with a U-Bahn map, 40 minutes later we were in Alexanderplatz, one block from our accommodations. Stepping out of the station and into the cold, my lungs immediately screamed in protest. Cold? That’s an understatement. It was FREEZING! Not only was the temperature -15°C, but the wind-chill was almost unbearable. Any exposed skin was instantly numb once in contact with the air. Our 2-minute walk was torture. I couldn’t feel my toes and my eyes refused to stop watering…Welcome to Berlin!
Checking in at 9:30am, the receptionist informed us our room wasn’t available until 2pm. Terrific. Cold, sleep deprived and hungry – I almost lost it. Explaining our situation, the Aussie suggested we relax upstairs in the common area until our rooms were ready. Deciding it was best to try and get a bit of rest, the two of us sprawled out on a couple of couches for some shut eye. Waking after a short, cold, uncomfortable nap, Jordan and I fueled our tired bodies with coffee, plastered on smiles and decided to brave the cold and explore and experience the historical city of Berlin.
Determined to spend as little time as possible outside, J and I mapped out train stops near destinations we wanted to see. With neither of us knowing how to speak or pronounce a word of German, we entertained ourselves by creating nicknames for each stop. For example, Warschauerstrabe was referred to as Worcestershire sauce, just as Senefelderplatz was renamed Seinfeld’s palace. As ridiculous as it may sound, it added to the experience and also helped us remember where to get off. Navigating around the city was faster and easier than first thought. The U-Bahn took us everywhere we wanted to go – it was fantastic! I still don’t understand why many large North American cities haven’t embraced this idea. It’s cheap and makes public transport simple.
Our first day in Germany’s capital city was a success. Though it started slow and the cold had us in a negative frame of mind, we attacked Berlin head on. Persevering through our lack of sleep and clothing layers, we strolled down Unter den Linden and ate bratwurst while educating ourselves about the history of the city. We snapped pictures of the Fernsehturm (TV Tower) and went inside the Berliner Dom to appreciate its architecture. Continuing west, we admired Brandenburger Tor while sipping hot chocolate from Starbucks (yes, they’re everywhere!) and then braved the cold as we waited in line outside the Reichstag. Close to hypothermic, it was worth the wait. The glass dome inside this parliament building was extravagant and looked like a massive tornado made of mirrors! Additionally, the view was fantastic and really gave a feel of the city. With our feet starting to drag, we concluded the day with stops at the Holocaust Memorial – which was eerily silent though located between two fairly busy streets, Check Point Charlie – not quite what I imagined (though a significant part of history, it’s nothing spectacular) and finally Hitler’s Bunker – now a parking lot. I’m not sure why it was a ‘must see’ because there was nothing there other than a descriptive sign…lame.
After refueling at a Thai restaurant for dinner, Jordan and I reached our hostel around 7pm (note: at this point we have been up for 30 hours and entered our hostel room for the first time) and collapsed on our beds. Agreeing on a 3-hour nap before heading out to experience Berlin’s nightlife, we were asleep the minute our heads touched the pillows.
During our previous conversation, I’d set my alarm for 9:30pm - an alarm I’ve never slept through. Waking from a deep sleep, I checked the time – it was 11:30pm!!! Smacking Jordan with a pillow, I told her we had to get up. With every ounce of our bodies willing us to return to bed, we threw on some clothes and touched up our makeup. We were going to go downstairs to the hostel bar to be social. The place was busy and full of men – perfect! Trying to figure out the occasion, Jordan noticed the AFC and NFC finals were playing on all the TVs. Grabbing two spots at the bar, we agreed to stick with pop for the evening. That didn’t last long. If you can imagine a bar full of guys with only two women in the vicinity, naturally we'd become the center of attention. Unfocused and still half asleep, ridiculous amounts of alcohol started coming our way. The Aussie bartender laughed at us as he continued to bring endless rounds of shots and made sure our glasses were always full. Overwhelmed, we didn’t even know who to thank! Eventually a handsome guy sauntered our way and introduced himself. He’d be living in Berlin for 4 years, but is originally from Texas. Chatting the night away while cheering on the Saints (go Reggie Bush!), Seth was an interesting guy who we enjoyed conversing with. Later in the evening I glanced at my watch and was shocked to see it read 4am! Not wanting to ruin our last day in Berlin, we bid Seth goodbye and returned to our room, while trying to figure out how time was flying by so fast.
After a tremendous effort, the 2 of us were up again at 10am and off to see the rest of Berlin. Hopping off the U-Bahn at Worcestershire sauce, 5-minutes later we were walking along the East Side Gallery – a 1.3km memorial for freedom (refurbished part of the original Berlin Wall) covered with approximately 106 paintings by artists from all over the world. It’s the largest open-air gallery and is a very power site. The gallery was my favourite spot in Berlin and Jordan and I spent a good chunk of time reading informative signs, viewing paintings and educating ourselves on it's history. There’s no better way to learn than to experience it first hand. I truly believe that.
Conquering the wall, we returned east to see the few things we had missed the previous day. Snapping photos of beautiful Gendarmenmarkt Square, we continued on to the Siegessaule (victory column) and finished our tour at Kaiser-Wilhelm Gedachtniskirche. Exhausted, cold and hungry we skipped Charlottenburg Palace and an old concentration camp (both too far outside the city for our schedule) in favor of food and warmth. Finally returning to our hostel, we collected our bags and jumped on the train to the airport.
With a 9:20pm flight, we didn't reach our respective apartments in Luxembourg until 2:30am. Though exhausted from lack of sleep and frozen to the core, this was a trip I won’t forget. Berlin is one of the most educational cities I’ve ever visited and would recommend it to anyone…even in the winter! ☺
Sidenote: My next blog post won’t be until the weekend of February 12th. I have a super busy schedule the next few weeks. But rest assured, the next post will be jammed packed with information and updates!