Family All Over
Our trip to Germany had very auspicious beginnings. Minutes before our train departed from Amsterdam, we were told that, due to the train operator strikes in Germany, the final destination of this train would be the Netherlands-Germany border. We frantically confronted the conductor when he walked by our seats. He informed us that our best bet would’ve been to take the train to Dusseldorf and transfer to Berlin from there instead because those lines were still running, but there was not enough time to switch trains at this point. He pitched us an alternative route ripe with 4 transfers. We had no other options, so we wrote down the instructions and thanked him for his time. We now understood why the train was empty except for us, but we could not understand why nobody had thought to tell us that the train was not going the full distance.
Four hours after we had planned, we arrived in Berlin. The place we would be staying was a nice flat in the district of Friedrichshain. When doing my research on the city, I found that Friedrichshain was arguably the most lively district, steeped in restaurants and 20-somethings. My research in no way failed us. Our apartment was a few blocks from Oestkreutz, one of the larger S-bahn (their above ground metro) stops, and along that few minute walk we saw ~20 restaurants. Pizzerias, shwarma joints, ice creameries, Asian fusion stops, street food trailers, and even 4 mini-markets. It was immediately apparent that we could easily spend our time in Berlin without stepping foot outside a 3 block radius. Of course we would have to in order to see the important sights, but we had planned for multiple school days and this was the perfect environment for them. Besides needing to work on school, we needed to camp out for long enough to get my dad’s computer fixed. There is some common issue with the video cards in his line of macbooks, so luckily the procedure would be free, but it still meant staying somewhere for a good while.
Our second day in Berlin was one of my personal favorite days of the trip. My girlfriend Miranda’s dad lives in Berlin with Miranda’s 5 siblings, including the most recent addition to the family, 6 month-old Nican. This would probably be my only opportunity to meet them in the near future, so I separated from my family for a day and set out for the suburbs. I met Miranda’s dad, David, at his furniture shop, which happened to be just 8 blocks from our flat. We had talked multiple times over Skype calls between him and Miranda, but meeting him in the flesh was quite a different experience. He gave me a tour, showing me his current projects and some of his finished pieces, then closed up shop. We walked to an S-bahn station that was a bit closer than Oestkreutz, but the strike cut off the route to his area, so we had to go underground to the U-bahn and take one to the center before hopping an S-bahn to the suburbs. David’s partner, Nadja, came with the 3 youngest kids to the station to meet us. Natty, the 4-year-old, had just graduated to a bike with pedals, so he was ready to take any opportunity he could to use it (really young kids have these very low to the ground bikes where they can use their feet to propel themselves, I’d never seen anything like it). Maisha, who turned 7 just a few weeks ago, had her own bike that she was very obviously already a master of. As I would soon learn, in villages on the outer rim of Berlin like this one, everyone bikes everywhere because everything you need is within a short enough distance. And if it isn’t–just hop an S-bahn. The Berliners definitely have the whole transportation thing down, except for when the operators strike, that is. Nican also came along on the walk, but he didn’t have much of say.
A note about David and Nadja’s kids: they grow up in a partially bilingual household. What I mean by this is that Nadja will at times speak to them in English while David mostly speaks to them in English. The kids, however, always respond in German, so an interesting effect develops. They can understand English as well as German when you talk to them, but they really struggle to respond in English. Miranda had somewhat explained this to be before, but the last time she had seen her siblings was two years ago, so I thought that things might have been different given the passing of time. Astonishingly, despite the language barrier, Maisha and Natty latched onto me almost immediately. There was none of the “here’s a random person that I’m supposed to be nice to” awkwardness from them; they knew that I was very close to Miranda and that was good enough for them to consider me part of the clan. On the walk home, both Maisha and Natty tried very hard to tell me about themselves and their lives. They struggled with the fact that I couldn’t understand what they were saying and that I needed translations from David and Nadja, but it was not too much of a barrier. Maisha was pretty good at recalling the English words she wanted to use, but she had a lot of trouble constructing sentences. Eventually she just resorted to parental translations and hand symbols. Natty, on the other hand, could not recall the words he wanted to use, but was overjoyed to be taught how to say different things in English. After David taught him the old addage, “an apple a day will keep the doctor away,” he spouted it for the rest of the night.
When we arrived at the house, I was introduced to Gabriel, their 12 year old son who, much like Kieran, prefers to spend his time in his room on the Playstation. Shortly after we settled in, Nican awoke from his stroller nap and I became immediately aware of how amazing his eyes are. For such a little baby, he has these big round eyes that make you feel like he’s giving you more attention than you could ever ask for–either that or that he’s constantly in a state of shock. Around 7 p.m. our time (10 a.m. California time), Miranda sent me a text telling me that she was awake, so I called her up on video chat and let her talk with her family. The call kept dropping, so eventually we gave up and let Miranda get ready for her day. Maisha knew that I was on a big trip, so she brought out a children’s atlas and asked me to show her the places I’ve been. I happily obliged and told her all about the different countries I’d been to, using pictures in the atlas as a launch point. When she lost interest, we started a game of uno, which soon led to a game of go fish with Natty, and then, with everyone already at the table, it was dinner time.
Following dinner and a good mix of conversation and playing with the kids, the time came for me to head back to Friedrichshain. This would have been a non-trivial journey, however, as it was after 10 p.m. so nobody could be sure what trains were running with the combination of the night schedule and the strike. Instead, I spent the night in the garden house and continued to spend time with the family well into the next day. I left only when it was time for me to meet up with my family for dinner, ending my foray into Berlin suburban life. I honestly could not have asked for a better experience in Berlin; spending time with the Clemmons’ was easily one of my biggest highlights of the trip. Not only did I get to experience Berlin in an up close and personal way, I was able to talk with Nadja and David about the difficulties and pleasures of actually living in Berlin and to hang out with some pretty awesome kids. Nadja, David, Natty, and Nican all walked me to the train station and I said what I thought would be my last goodbye to three of them (the plan was to meet up with David again for lunch at some point) for a long while.
The end of that day went pretty fast. When I met back up with the family, we went out for food and watched the Bayern vs. Barcelona game at a local restaurant. The next day we all stayed home and worked on posts and school for the most part, only going out for dinner with David and Twain. Twain is Miranda’s oldest brother who lives with his Mom in Friedrichshain, only a few blocks from where we stayed. Twain was able to hold a conversation in English, so it was a bit easier to get to know him. We all parted ways with Twain and David after grabbing some ice cream, and this time I said my long goodbyes with David. The next day we went out to the big Museum Island in the center of the city. We were then going to drop by the Brandenburg Tor, but on the way we got caught in a heavy downpour with no rain gear, so instead we scuddled home. Because the computer repair shop had not yet sent word of having completed the fix, we needed to spend another day in Berlin, but the apartment we were staying in was booked for the next day. We found another one by the Tiergarten–Berlin’s central park–which sadly required us to leave Friedrichshain, an area we had all come to love. I should mention here that for some of us that love was not in small part fostered by the presence of a ball machine just two blocks away. Not just any ball machine, however, a twenty cent ball machine. Ain’t nobody seen prices that good since Chile.
We didn’t have to check out of our apartment until 4 pm, so the next morning Tom and I went to see the photography museum as it is a medium the two of us have an affinity for. Kieran and Asher, on the other hand, could not care less for photography, so they stayed home to work on school. The fact that they did ended up being rather fortuitous, as the photography museum was almost entirely consisted of pieces by Helmut Newton, whose style is, let’s just say less than kid friendly. Not needing to see his work ourselves, we quickly made our way to the one exhibit not dedicated to Newton and then headed back to Friedrichshain. We changed apartments without hitch, but the new apartment had no wifi, meaning that no more school could be done that day. Instead, we made our way to Checkpoint Charlie, one of the guarded control points between East and West Berlin, the Brandenberg Tor, their Arc de Triumph of sorts (seriously, it seems like every European capital has one), and the Reichstadt, the large government building seen in so many WWII images and videos. We included the latter two at the expense of not picking up Dad’s computer that night, but our train to Munich left around noon, so we’d have time to get it in the morning. Turns out, the next day was Ascension Day, apparently a sizeable holiday in Germany, so the repair shop was closed. Thus our trip to Munich became a very quick round trip.
We arrived in Munich as it was getting dark, so we quickly dropped our stuff off at the place we were staying and set back out to see the town. It was really much less cosmopolitan than Berlin, an observation that ran very contrary to my expectations. I’m not sure why I thought Munich would be a Berlin to the South, rather it was markedly Bavarian, giving a uniformity that in every way was lacking from Berlin. In this way, Munich made me appreciate what made Berlin so unique. The division that existed for so long in the city has not fully dissipated, perhaps in people it has, but the overall feeling of the neighborhoods are still very fragmented. Our time in Munich was very limited, but it was nice to experience another side of Germany. The next day when we arrived in Berlin once more, we were a bit taken by surprise and scrambled to get out of the train. Telling by the fact that Asher was stuck on the train when the rest of us made it out, we were only a few seconds too slow. Sorry Doopoo. Thanks to our international plan (shout outs to T-Mobile), we were able to call her and figure out the train’s next stop. Fortunately for us, it was only a few minutes away, not a few hours. Unfortunately for us, there were no direct S-bahns or U-bahns to that station, so we had to spend 20 minutes trying to get to her. We found her with a nice old conductor who spoke not a lick of English. Every day is an adventure. It was around this time that the AirBnB we booked got back to us and said that they actually couldn’t house us tonight. Without anywhere to stay, we hopped an S-bahn to the stop closest to the repair shop and camped out in Burger King while my dad ran to get his computer. I tried to find a hotel, hostel, or B&B while he was out, but literally everything was booked. Seriously Ascension Day? What even are you? Dejected and defeated, we made our way back to central station to see if we could use our Eurails to get us a place to sleep. There were no overnight trains at all in the direction of Copenhagen, our destination for the next day. We explored the option of taking a late night train to Hamburg and hanging out there for a few hours before transferring to Denmark, but that put us there from 2 am to 5 am, the hours we were trying to avoid being out for. We could have caught a train around 4 am from Berlin to Hamburg and then transfer to Copenhagen, but the McDonald’s downstairs closed for the hour from 2 to 3, and we really just didn’t want to be sitting around the train station with all of our stuff for that time.
With no options left, I called up David to see if we could come out to his place and just hang out in the garden house. We hated to impose on him like this, but it was a friday night, so at least we weren’t going to make it hard for everyone to get to work and school. David was happy to house us, but he was concerned because half of them had a gnarly stomach flu. He also did a check for hotels, just to make sure, and was equally astonished that there was absolutely nowhere for us to stay. Now that the strike was over, it was rather easy for us to catch the S-bahn right out to their stop. By the time we arrived it was 11 pm, so Maisha and Natty had already gone to bed. Nican, on the other hand, was wide awake and going strong. Asher took a liking to him, which was good because he could not take his eyes off of her and kept giving her the biggest of smiles. The four us needed to catch an 11 am train the next day, so we were going to turn in early. Kieran and Tom slept on the pullout couch in the garden house I slept in before, so they headed out there pretty quickly. Asher and I were sleeping in Maisha and Natty’s room, on the other hand, so we stayed in the house and talked with David for awhile. We ended up looking through David’s baby pictures of Miranda, a joy I hadn’t yet been treated to. The next morning Asher and Kieran were introduced to the kids, though we didn’t have too much time to hang out before we had to make our way to the station. Thus, we all said our actual long goodbyes and before too long we found ourselves in Copenhagen. Our time in Germany was certainly not the German experience any of us had imagined, but it couldn’t have been better. Berlin undoubtedly goes down as one of my favorites.