This week is filled with all kinds of festivals in the Berlin area, and then to finish off the week, I’ll be making an excursion to Paris to meet up with the glorious Gustie Rachel Schmitt. So let’s get right to these festivals. The first is called Hafenfest. Hafen means port, and I’m hoping you have the fest part figured out. I only found out about this festival via a small poster in the park where it’s being held, so I didn’t expect anything too outrageous. It was a bonanza. There are people absolutely everywhere and fireworks are being shot off over the Spree, Berlin’s main river. Once the fireworks cease, I go in search of my friends but run into one small problem. With so many people around, my phone isn’t able to get a call through… now I’m like a salmon teaming through this sea of people in search of familiar faces and coming up empty every time. Eventually, a text message is able to get through, and we all locate each other. Anyway, this festival feels a lot like the State Fair. You’ve got all kinds of country folk rolling in (the European version of animal prize winning man, myth, legend Carl Stenoien) wearing glorious outfits. They are missing two integral components of a typically American fair experience though. No fried Twinkie/butter/other horrendous unhealthy product on a stick and sadly, no carny games. I love and hate those things all at the same time (they’re one place where my confidence really seems to get me into trouble). Anyway, we wander the venue and enjoy ourselves. Eventually, the fair wants to shut down, so what do they do? Dim the light and bring in the police, obviously. We get the message and head home.
The next festival is known as Baumblütenfest. This directly translates into tree blossom festival (I’m now realizing that this sounds much more lame in English). Every year it’s held in the springtime in a small town southwest of Berlin called Werder, and what brings the folks out (some 500,000) is Obstwein (fruit wine). This is wine made from all kinds of fruit such as strawberries, peaches, black current, etc. Basically if you name a fruit, it’s made into wine at this place. Fruit wine isn’t bad, but there’s definitely a reason it isn’t typically available… anyway, there are booths, music, games, and such set up all along the peninsula. It’s enjoyable, but can’t stay too late as tomorrow is a big day.
May first arrives, and Berlin is excited as always. Erster Mai celebrations are HUGE. It’s a public holiday that is the German equivalent of Labor Day. With that being the case, all kinds of leftist organizations like to come out and strut their stuff. Most just have booths, banners, and maybe a bit of protest in them, but that all changes when the sun goes down. Riots happen nearly every year, so riot police are everywhere. And when I say everywhere, I mean EVERYWHERE. Berlin doesn’t even have a large enough police force to deal with this, so more are brought in from all over the country. Their numbers total easily over 5000 (almost a small army). They also have cameras posted all over the place to catch people in the act of throwing rocks, Molotov cocktails, Care Bears, etc., so that after the whole affair is over, the perpetrators are still likely to get caught. Anyway, that’s the reason why you leave before it gets dark. But during the day, it’s an incredible festival with each street crammed with people (aka sweaty bodies) and a different performer at every corner. The temperature must be in the 80s, yet somehow at one point it starts to hail. Go figure. Berlin weather has a mind of its own. We also visited the area where all the leftist orgs have set up camp. It’s amazing to me how different the meanings of “liberal” and “left” are here compared to the US. If Americans were to see the agenda some of these groups are pushing, they’d realize how laughable it is to call Obama a European socialist. It may seem hard to imagine with all the vitriolic rhetoric currently in American politics, but Democrats and Republicans really aren’t that different when you look at the whole political spectrum. After spending a whole day with Germans rocking socks and sandal, shirts with slogans like “Meat is Murder,” and black hoodies to blend in with the night later, we head off as the sun is setting. So no worries Ma, I made it home safe and didn’t even need to hide in a port-o-potty (all of which were surprisingly made in Minnesota).
Now on to Paris. I arrive at Orly, Paris’ smaller airport, bright and early on Friday. Rachel is flying in an hour or two after me, and so I go check the arrivals board. Her flight isn’t listed… quite confused I go to the information desk to find out the issue. Turns out she’s coming in the west terminal. I leave the terminal armed with what I later will find out are horrendous directions. After walking for a while and realizing I am only making myself more lost, I ask someone else. He tells me directions in French to which I stupidly nod as though I know what he means. As I start going in the direction he pointed (at least pointing is universal), I see in the distance a terminal named Ouest. In German “Ost” means east, so I think I’m heading in the wrong direction. After more confusion, I find out that Ouest really does mean west in French. False cognates always screwing things up.
I’m not even embarrassed to say it. I love the movie Moulin Rouge. So of course, this is one of our first destinations. It is cool to see the place although a little disappointing in some ways. For one, it’s now right next to a burger joint (at least it isn’t a McDonald’s or the BK Lounge, but still). Secondly, the cost for the show that night is €200 (one actually needs to be a can-can dancer to afford something like that). While continuing to explore this area of town known as Montmarte, we come across the Sacré-Cœur. This is a large, bone white basilica that is situated on a hill overlooking Paris. The views are wonderful, but that isn’t what catches my attention. There’s a guy doing absolutely ridiculous soccer tricks on a pillar. I’ve watched a lot of juggling tricks on the internet, and this guy did every one and more. Then he decides to tack on some daredevil stunts, he juggles a ball with his feet while manning his way up a light pole. The strength needed to scale a light pole with only your arms is ridiculous, but then to focus on keeping a ball in the air at the same time is unfathomable. He then does breakdance-like moves on top of this light pole while holding a ball on the top of his foot. Unbelievable.
With France being a land famous for its wine, we get a bottle upon arrival. The only problem is that we have no corkscrew to open it. With that being the case, we (by we, I mean I) poke a hole in the cork with a paper clip and then try to push it down into the bottle. In theory, all should go well. But not in actuality. Apparently the hole I’ve poked in the cork isn’t big enough, so as I force the cork down, all the built up pressure shoots the wine out like a geyser. Rachel hears the noise in the bathroom and finds me with wine all over my face and clothes. If only that’s the worst of it. Our room now looks like a CSI murder scene. There’s red wine everywhere. The bed, the walls, the ceiling. Just everywhere. Cleanup song time (big, purple dinosaur anyone?). Honestly though, it’s amazing the kind of cleaning that can take place with a few napkins, a towel, water, and a Tide to Go pen. In the end, the place looks good minus the blue splotches on the ceiling. But that can totally be mistaken for mold, so all is good (well, we still got an angry note for the concierge, but all things considered, not bad).
The Champs-Élysées is a famous street in Paris, and the epitome of how terribly wrong you can go reading French (if it wasn’t for the Joe Dassin classic, totally would’ve gotten owned). We start at the Arc de Triomphe which has the most massive roundabout encircling it. I can’t even start to imagine how one maneuvers a roundabout with 5 or more lanes. From there, we start walking down the Champs-Élysées. We pass all these fancy shops with ridiculously expensive clothes, cars, etc. Then we come to these regal black gates with gold trim along the top. It reminds me of 10 Downing Street, the residence of the British Prime Minister. With that image in mind, we’re expecting something similar. Oh are we wrong. Upon closer inspection, we notice two guards and a line of people standing outside waiting for admittance. Then, we both smell something fierce. Or should I say, Fierce. In case you didn’t get the douchy cologne reference, it’s an Abercrombie & Fitch. I wonder if Sarkozy lives there?
The French are very proud of their food and wine. We have some wonderful crepes, baguettes, galettes, etc., but there are two meals I won’t forget. One particular instance of eating quiche is… special? We are walking around on a Sunday, and with many things closed, we are happy to see some good looking quiche in a store window. We figure why not, and walk in. Immediately it becomes apparent we are in a Chinese restaurant with the large oriental dragon and the cat whose constantly moving arm showers luck down on us. I should rephrase that. We’re in a Chinese-French restaurant. We probably should just abandon ship right then and there, but we persist. Persisting our way into a quiche and salmon something or another that tastes slightly too much like Chinese food that’s trying to get a bit too creative. This is a fusion I definitely wouldn’t recommend. The second food stuff that I will always remember is some random cheese we purchase at a fancy cheese shop. Within about a minute of opening the packaging, our room smells like a hockey locker room. Terrible. The smell even seems to follow you. Overly persistent. Eventually, we cannot handle it anymore and just let the thing hang out on the ledge outside our window.
On the last day of our trip, France is electing its new president. The incumbent Nicolas Sarkozy is facing off against Francois Hollande. With high unemployment running rampant in Europe, this election is quite a big deal round these parts. Interestingly, the news stations all announce the victor at exactly 8pm, so the whole day there is a countdown going. As 8 o’clock approaches, I am watching all of this unfold in the airport shortly before my flight leaves. Everyone is glued to the TV as the countdown nears zero. Then, in a flash they announce that Hollande is the winner, and people freak. There’s cheering, clapping, and much excitement. I know nothing of French politics, but it is impossible not to get goosebumps surrounded by that kind of atmosphere. One man even stands there clapping and staring at the television for a full minute after the results are announced. His son has a video camera out and is filming his reaction (I think he is hoping for tears). Eventually, after all the excitement passes, I get on a plane and head back. There is no doubt that Paris is one absolutely gorgeous city, but it does feel good to be home after such an eventful week.
Hugs and hand pounds,