New languages are an intriguing challenge. Even when you think you're doing it right, you're sometimes not. Even when you are doing it right, the person across from you is sometimes not prepared for it and is instead listening for whatever they're expecting to hear come out of your mouth. Case in point:

Setting: Berlin, Germany. Bar. Night, during a birthday party. Eli to bartender: Eine pilsener, bitte? Bartender with confused look: Huh!? Eli cautiously: Um...Eine pilsener, bitte? Bartender: Huh!?? Eli: Beer. Bartender: Ahhh! Eine pilsener!

True story. Similar instances in Poland over the last few weeks, where the language proved exponentially more difficult that German, were too many to count, if less quotable, and I expect more of the same in the next few weeks as we try our best with Czech.

We've found ourselves marveling at so many of the people we've met who have anywhere from two to seven languages under the belt, while we plod along trying to hang onto one and a half. It's inspiring, for the most part, but the moments where you digress to pointing and grunting and meek smiles are one of the more cherish-ably awkward quirks of traveling so far. The title of this post, Ponglish, comes from our Polish friend Artur, who spoke English fine, but nevertheless seemed to have similar observations.

Location:Olomouc, Czech Republic

Highlights: Germany

Potsdam Sansoucci Park: The park and grounds surrounding the summer home of King Frederich II. Filled with statues and palaces and gardens around every other corner of its well-maintained pathways that make you wonder if you took a wrong turn somewhere and mistakenly made it to Greece.

BioCompany: probably high priced for most goods, but a savior for gluten-free treats or bread mixes...which turn into good picnics, breakfasts and emergency snacks. Plus, there was delicious cheese to taste at the counter.

Film museum: Sadly, the big exhibit was closed for renovations while we visited, otherwise we would have attended. Babelsburg Film Studios are linked to this space and akin to MGM or Universal stateside - similarly expensive as well. Babelsburg is the biggest studio in Europe, though, and recently was home to the filming of Inglorious Basterds.

Stadt für Eine Nacht Festival: A great one day arts and music festival that we lucked out being in town for. Located at the culture center in Potsdam (part of which is the Fluxus museum), a few of the highlights of the day included the cost (free), Grotest Maru's Timebank: an amazing performance art troop from Berlin, the band Jersey (not sure how they are recorded, but they were good live), and any breeze we managed to find off the river.

Berlin Tacheles: So the stairwell smells like fresh bathroom. But otherwise, this place was incredible to walk through - there were multiple good (and if not good, at least prolific and/or interesting) open studios, a sculpture park out back, and layers upon layers of graffiti and posters marking the time that artists have been camped out here. It is on the verge of potentially being shuttered for good, considering all of the new development in Mitte, so we are happy to have gotten there now. If it cannot live on as is, perhaps the spirit of it will in another form.

Pro QM: Hands down, the best design, architecture, modern culture bookstore we have ever frequented. Myriad local and international publications - they even had my all-time favorite, Cabinet, which was strangely comforting to browse. Eli drooled for a while over a wall of all things design and we decided that taking notes on the titles was the best way to take anything with us. Not the warmest service in Berlin, but that is easily ignored once you glance at anything else.

Reichstag building: Nevermind the beautiful green space in front of the house of Parliament. The magic in this building is the way the glass dome fits in so well with the classical architecture holding it up. We didn't get to go in (there's a three day wait for visitors) but the idea is to keep Parliament and the government in general transparent; they wanted people to be able to walk in the dome's spiral, also reminding the elected officials below who is in charge.

Free walking tour for the overview sites: Lewis, our fearless and knowledgable Dutch transplant guide, lead the way through the mobs of aimless tourists and shared with us a balance of facts, anecdotes, and present day reflection on everything from Brandenburg Gate and its Victory (previously name Peace) Sculpture on top to the the Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe to the 1989 press conference debacle that lead to the fall of the wall (we can thank Tom Brokaw for asking the important question of exactly when the travel restrictions were to be lifted). The tour guides work completely on commission, and are clear that you pay according to both your budget and the value extracted from the three hour tour. It was well worth it to us and we hope that no one is lame enough to flat out stiff any of the guides.

Stasi exhibit: A free exhibit located right near the almost laughable tourism of Checkpoint Charlie, it may or may not be a somewhat western viewpoint of life in the GDR under the Stasi Secret Police. Fascinating, regardless. Despite the the aforementioned Checkpoint's Disney qualities, there are a slew of giant placards with a lot of great historical info.

Making Mirrors: A gallery exhibition at the NGBK gallery in the hip, artsy, highlight-in-its-own-right, neighborhood of Kreuzberg. The gallery is tucked behind a nice little bookshop, but had several really great works that force some reflection on society and human interaction:

Academy of Art / Akadémie der Künste: Another place we didn't get to explore as much as we had hoped, thanks to it behind closed for summer break. The main building itself is pretty spectacular though, and overlooks Pariser Platz and the Brandenburg Tor.

Magdeburg Cable Island: aforementioned wake boarding adventures....tucked into the middle of the city, naturally.

die Grüne Zitadelle von Magdeburg Better known as the Hundertwasser house which is pretty much the wild, slightly tacky physical realization of his artwork.

Magdeburg Dom: The oldest cathedral in Germany, and one of the tallest in the former east Germany. Construction began in 1209, though it took a couple hundred years to complete it. It's huge and filled with art and scultpures and carvings, and also happened to save 4000 people from murder, rape, etc. during the 30 Years War.

Plau Am See Plauer See: Lake houses are always nice, but they're even better when they are on a chain of lakes and with friends you haven't seen in ten plus years. This also happens to be (if memory serves) the third largest lake in Germany.

Kletterpark: Climbing on tight ropes and swinging ropes 30-40 ft in the air (with harnesses). Who knew it could be so entertaining?

In General Old friends, new babies, great families. Rides on old bikes on dirt roads. Murphy beds. Motherless Brooklyn by Jonathan Lethem. Baths in lakes. A nip of Honey infused Highland Malt Whiskey from the apiary up the road from the lake house that we enjoyed in Berlin while on video chat with awesome friends. Gluten-free selection in most German supermarkets. Jacob brand instant espresso: cheaper than 2euro coffee and tastes better sometimes. Dairy selection: particularly quark (pronounced kvahrk), apfel-mohn yogurt, Soft cheeses and, especially, Waldmeister ice cream. Dark chocolate spread and honey at every breakfast, and a little more chocolate tucked in a peel roasted banana after a cook-out. Watching Inglorious Basterds in Magdeburg - somewhat surreal. Learning how to understand the Deutsche Bahn train system. Practicing our German with a two year old and the parents of our friends.


Berlin Revisited

We couldn't help ourselves. Two days in Berlin was clearly not enough time to even get acquainted with the city AND we wanted to visit our friend's family, so we extended our post-lake jaunt to a four day stay. As was mentioned in the Part II post, we had previously been on a walking tour that gave solid coverage to some of the basic historical and cultural sites. This was beneficial because it gave us the space to have someone else remind us of the facts (and know they were correct) and for our brains to wrap slowly, quietly around the vast and complex nature of this city. With every morning, a new walk through a different neighborhood brought the realization that Berlin has many tricks up it's sleeves. The onion skin would peel back and Kreuzburg would deliver to us a sea of hipsters, bookstores and art surprises as well as a Turkish street market, doner kebap[sic] shops and sanctioned murals on the firewalls of old buildings.

Another day, we found ourselves at the birthday party of Carla's brother, Christoph, held in a super-mod bar with great wallpaper and even better caipirinhas near Hackesher Markt in Mitte. It was here that we found ourselves shouting over the pub crawl packed with young (and loud) British students to continue a great conversation with a friend of Christoph's, who also happens to be a police officer (and, of course, spent a high school year in Wisconsin). It was also here that we felt less like tourists (looking, observing, documenting) and more just like part of a place, if even in a temporary way.

That being said, Berlin is so densely rich with history that being a part of it must be a widely varied and evolutionary experience - growing up through the changes, showing up fresh faced and blinking, or coming to it a year from now all would hold their own story of what its true identity is. The oldness meeting the newness is evident not only in the architecture, but in the people and their convictions, in the personal memorials fit snuggly into the bricks on the street, and in the infusion of art happenings that we heard about and could sense existed but somehow missed the bulk of.

However, to use the architecture to illustrate the point, we got the best view of Pariser Platz - where the Brandenburg Gate is - from the inside of the Académie der Kunst (Academy of Art), which is impressive enough on it's own. Here's the inside of the Académie and the square in full - both practically right on top of one another:

In addition to all of this reflection, we were treated to wonderful meals and a great place to stay with incredibly kind and generous people. In fact, the view of the TV tower at the start of this post comes courtesy of a look out the window from Christoph's flat. He welcomed us to stay the extra couple of days and was exponentially helpful. Overall, we left feeling incredibly lucky - the shared meals and, more importantly, conversations that we are a part of continue to add dimension to our visits that cannot come out of us wandering the streets solo, reading information off the placards. Plus, we enjoyed, with our dear friends, some of the best hot chocolate on this side of the Atlantic thus far:

Location:Berlin, Germany

Germany: Part II

Ten years ago I came to Berlin at the age of sixteen. I saw some things and learned some things and was surprised by some things, but I didn't realize until we were back in the city for a couple days last week how much went over my head the first time around. What really surprised me, though, is how I could have possibly managed to miss it.

The history in the city envelopes you the moment you step off the train. It's in the street art and graffiti, it's in the memorials that are all over the place, and it's in the architecture that switches, noticeably, as you cross from the former east to the former west in this now rejoined city. I'd guess that most anyone reading this knows that my family hosted some exchange students when I was in high school, a couple of which we have been visiting and staying with these last couple weeks. Talking to them brought Berlin alive even further, hearing the stories of first trips from the GDR into West Germany with people throwing the East-scarce bananas and oranges into the car windows as a welcome. That's the kind of feeling Berlin has; it's the kind of place that is still adjusting and changing after an obliviously complex and ridiculous century.

We took a free walking tour on our first day into the city. This was great for getting an overview look at a lot of the more known and anticipated sites in the city, but it was a bit overwhelming and we found ourselves on the train back to Potsdam trying to think of how best to tackle a second day. Answer: a little research goes a long way, yielding us a Wednesday filled with a lot of great art at Tacheles, the best design book collection I've ever seen in one place, a little memorial museum to a man named Otto Weidt and a sense of seeing at least a little slice of the actual Berlin that people live and work and play in.

Post Berlin, it has been back to reconnecting with some of those amazing exchange student friends who have spent the last couple weeks helping, hosting and spending time with us. In Magdeburg with Carla and Sebastian, I went wakebording for the first time (behind a cable, not a boat - another new curiosity that a quick Google search reveals does actually exist in the States). Those are my pasty gams strapping in, captured so nicely by Casey's photo below. What she didn't manage to capture is the sore muscles that still haven't entirely departed a week later, though it was most definitely worth it.

And here are the best game faces Casey and Robert had yesterday at the Kletterpark in Plau, where we all balanced, swung, and held on for our lives through an obstacle park in the trees.

We helped build a baby crib for one of my exchange sibling's impending parenthood last weekend and I carried the toddler son of another on my shoulders this week while we were wandering around Plau. I guess that's the kind of change that can happen in ten years - the same amount of time between when the wall fell and when I met these friends. I don't mean to get all serious or lecture whoever might be reading this on historical happenings. I think I just keep coming back to it all because I am still trying to wrap my own head around it. Tomorrow we will head back to Berlin for a couple more days before venturing on into Poland, and I look forward to taking one more look at the city - to hopefully understand all of the layers and parts it has a little more and a little better. We'll try to cover some of the specifics we may have breezed over here once we get to the German highlights.

We owe a huge thanks to Peter, Carla, Sebastian, Robert, Sara, Michael, Christine, Helke, Wolfgang and Christoph for all they've helped us with (not the least of which is building up a tiny little random understanding of the German language) these few weeks. We look forward to figuring out a way for it to not be ten more years until we see them all again.

Location:Gerwischer Straße,Magdeburg,Germany

Germany: Part I

Oh boy. Where to begin. We've been in Germany since June 28th and have gotten behind in our posting due to a few factors: lack of internet, uncertainty deciding which stories to post, and most of all actually, you know...doing stuff. So. A round up. We took three trains to our funky purple and yellow room in a pensioners hotel (cheaper, it is worth noting, than a dorm room in a hostel) in the St. Georg neighborhood of Hamburg. We had only planned it as a one night stopover but in retrospect could have spent awhile longer. The street we were on was chockablock with bakeries, cool little shops, sidewalk cafes and, of course, a great little grocery store. After a much needed dinner, we discovered one of the better ice cream flavors either of us has had in awhile, though unfortunately we've had a hard time figuring out what it actually is: Waldmeister. Green, dry, floral, a little tangy...completely refreshing.

Onward! Three more trains brought us to the small town of Perleberg the following morning, where we boarded a bus for the tiny village (pop. 76) of Tangendorf, our second workstay. The stay would prove entirely different from our time working in Scotland, the focus here being not on farming, but on turning a collection of old farm buildings into an arts workshop and residency space. Given that it is still in the beginning stages of this transformation, much of what we worked on included things like clearing out an area for woodworking and machine work, taking down a wall (made of field boulders the size of a GDR Trabi) that was to be eventually rebuilt, perfecting our non-existent masonry skills, killing flies, and installing a new (and perfectly level, *ahem*) crossbeam for a future cottage room.

Since the space was formerly an operating farm in East Germany, there was a plethora of odd bits and rusted thingamajigs hidden about the place that our host, a mixed media artist, used frequently in his assemblage work. While cleaning out the woodshop, we, with our new Aussie friend/coworker Brendan, found ourselves amused at how often one of us would hold up a new item and exclaim amazement, question it's origins or just laugh at it.

Speaking of new friends, there was a large collection of volunteers staying here; some since before us and some that rolled in as we were gearing up to head out. Sadly, we didn't get to practice our German much here, but we were able to brush up on our Australian and British accents. Naturally, one of the volunteers, Kerk, was a native of Beverly, MA (a Boston suburb). He brought himself, his banjo and a lute from Morocco and provided nightly entertainment that you can hear here.

We also want to give a shout to Brendan and Merrisa from Brisbane who are on a similar, if reverse, journey to ours. The were full of positivity, historical tidbits, and general goodness. Here they are...hi guys!

We ended our time in Tangendorf a bit earlier than originally planned thanks to the strange smallness of this world. As a complete coincidence, the town of Pritzwalk is 24km from Tangendorf and happens to be the hometown of Robert, an exchange student and good friend that Eli's family hosted in 1998. We had gone into town to use the internet and make some calls in attempt to connect with Robert, with no luck. Upon arriving back in Tangendorf, we were greeted by his parents waiting for us at the gate. They had heard that we were there and came to whisk us away for a lovely dinner and dependable communication with their son. As broken German and English conversation and ideas bounced around, a new plan for us to visit Potsdam and their vacation home in Plau unfolded. Huzzah for several things: modern technology, surprises, parents everywhere, and the openness to follow what rolls in front of you sometimes!

Thus, after a much needed sunny, swimming and boating filled day on the (third largest)lake(in Germany) with our travel angels, we packed our bags and headed to Potsdam to stay for a bit with Peter, Robert's twin brother and gracious host.

Potsdam. History! History! History! It's a quiet city of just over 150,000 that was built up, destroyed, overtaken, regained, and rebuilt seemingly endlessly over the years and through various wars. In the 1700's, Frederick the Great (also the second) left seemingly the most lasting marks here, covering the town with some beautiful, well kept, and large parks that are interspersed with magnificent sculptures and castles, the largest of which being Park Sansoucci (that's French for "without worries" - somewhat ironically given the opulence, size and location). It was his summer home, but it might be ancient Greece (what with all of the sculptures). Unclear.

On top of all that, we found ourselves in town during Stadt Für Eine Nacht, an arts festival at the culture center in town (which includes the Fluxus museum) that had music, visual art, performance art, food, and everything in between. One of better performance groups either of us has seen doesn't seem to have much presence online but the work was called Timebank by Schirrof and looked kind of like this:

We'll leave you with that - two peeps in suits dangling from an old warehouse and swinging their briefcases to a metronomic click - for part one of our German adventures, as Timebank left us a bit speechless. For Part II: Warte bitte Einen augen blick.