Something quite unexpected happened during my travels during our SAS stop in Hamburg, Germany‚ÄîI think I fell in love with Germany. With the character of the people and the depth of the history, but most of all with Berlin, a city that is already on it‚Äôs way to becoming one of the world‚Äôs most important cultural hotspots.
The people of Berlin seemed deservedly proud of their surroundings. They live in a place that is truly in the midst of a cultural revolution. They are shaking off any dusty, ill-natured stereotypes and heading with full force toward becoming a city that could be considered a work of art in itself. World-renowned street art seems to color every corner, and young entrepreneurs and designers make their home here, knowing that Berlin will soon rival any scene in New York, London, or Los Angeles.
There was a palpable feeling of creativity in the air. I felt like I could spread my arms and I‚Äôd touch a hundred different art, music or food movements all at once. We spoke to an American who found himself infatuated with the place and eventually moved there for good. He explained this feeling of change in the air: ¬†‚ÄúThis is that period when Berlin finally becomes that city that it so longs to be‚Äù.
The whole weekend was enlightening, and the highlight was a particular bike ride that I felt I had to write about.
On yer bike!¬†was a phrase coined by British politician Norman Tebbit in 1979, when I was merely a twinkle in my mother‚Äôs eye. It‚Äôs pertinence to rioting and unemployment was before my time, but it‚Äôs a philosophy I love to take with me whilst traveling.
As much as I enjoy pounding cobblestone streets with my partner in crime (a pair of beat up Birkenstocks), with only a few days in a city you get to see a lot more on two wheels. Berlin was the perfect playground; not only was it flat, but it was also completely unchartered territory. This was my first time visiting Germany, and I could feel the tingling of anticipation that awaited me.
My SAS friends (Emma Reppun of UC‚ÄìSanta Barbara and Brian McGuffog of NYU) and I hop off the bus and on to a pair of clumsy beach cruisers, their tired wheels squeaking with clockwork regularity. For me, the feeling of that first minute of peddling is unparalleled. Sometimes I think those brief moments encapsulate everything I love about traveling: the city lays before you, bathed in the golden light of a late afternoon. It‚Äôs the same afternoon sun as the sun at home, of course, but somehow it‚Äôs more iridescent, more beautiful because it shines on strange streets and strange faces and the air almost prickles with possibility.
You press down, test the resistance of the pedals and, in that second, are thrown forward by the momentum of discovery. There‚Äôs a feeling of invincibility there. Your senses are heightened, and you peer into every side street, every shop window, every passing face and grin at the unfamiliarity of it all. In these moments, there is a romance to everything. Things like laundromats and bakeries and skulking teenagers make you smile. I have never smiled at a laundromat in London!
This is why I like traveling. It turns me into a child‚Äîwide eyed, completely enraptured by the smallest details that would normally pass in a flurry of banality. I am happy to simply exist and observe, peddling and grinning, grinning and peddling, the afternoon sun warm on my back.
As some of the best journeys do, ours had no real destination. We wound our way through trendy streets filled with concept stores, through large squares covered in chalk art and beat boxers performing to crowds of afternoon wanderers. We turned onto a main road and followed it in what felt like a hopeful direction, when a hole in the wall to our right appeared out of nowhere. We peered in and dismissed what looked like a building site‚Äîscaffolding and planks scattered on the concrete. We were about to ride on when a piece of wood nailed to the wall caught my eye. Scratched into the wood were the words: ‚ÄòCulture Cave‚Äô.
Intrigued, we stepped through the make-shift doorway, and straight onto the page of someone else‚Äôs travel essay. It was the kind of ethereal place you only ever hear about when you listen, green-eyed, to your friend‚Äôs dramatized travel tales. Like the time they ¬†‚Äúwere lead by this grubby nomadic goat herder to this totally authentic local spot‚Äù down a back alley of a village in the rural Tajikistani highlands. The type where you ‚Äòooh‚Äô and ‚Äòahhh‚Äô and secretly don‚Äôt really believe it was¬†quite¬†as cool as it sounds,¬†or you act pleased for them but grumble and wonder why things like that never happen to you because you always seem to end up in some spot with 50 other Lonely Planet clutching, disappointed-looking 20-somethings.
Well, in Berlin, it happened. We found paradise!
As we rounded the corner, the Spree River stretched out before us like a gorgeous glistening serpent. Lining it‚Äôs banks were rows of old-fashioned sun chairs and brightly colored hammocks. They swayed happily to the sound of minimal house music that mingled with the afternoon breeze giving it texture and warmth, flowing from a DJ booth set just above the vegetable garden and beside the sunflower patch. A small labyrinth was marked with wildflowers and poppies, and sand warmed the soles of our feet as we crossed to a small wooden bar. An old fashioned street lamp sat casually next to a woven totem pole, on which hung shells, feathers and a white model owl, surveying the scene. Somehow none of it seemed incongruous.
Two beautiful German girls stood behind a barbecue grilling organic meat, and the last of the September sunlight wrapped in the tendrils of smoke that drifted upwards towards a dusky purple sky. A girl in dungarees walked barefoot around the garden, watering the flowers with a russet red watering can. She paused every once in a while to gaze contentedly out at the river, stretching her arms skywards before returning to the garden.
Emma, Brian and I lay here for a long while. The sun had set and we stayed, swinging in our hammock, occasionally catching each other‚Äôs eye and laughing at how odd and perfect it all was.