Monday, September 28, 2009

Final: Metamorphosis

(Part 2 of 2)

My travels, my Europe, my Berlin…

I. Arrival: An American in Berlin
My first time abroad, alone. Something that didn’t cross my mind as I frantically rushed to pack my giant green backpack 10 hours before my flight. My jeans, shirts, toiletries, books, sleeping bag, secondary guitar, all packed without a second thought. The cluttered life I lived in Seattle packed into two bags and a guitar case. Even after triple-checking that I packed all necessities, I felt anxious. What did I overlook? An uneasy sleep overtook my final night before departure.

It’s my first time traveling alone. I don’t know what to expect. My adrenaline levels rise. I’m pretty scared.

Nothing special on the plane ride over the Atlantic. Some struggling with assigned reading. Movies—old and new, a limited selection. A sleep as comfortable as an airplane ride offers. Passing thoughts about the research I needed to do in Berlin. I intended to compare buskers between two locations—Alexanderplatz and Akonoplatz—neither of which I had been to. Lots on my plate—a culminating presentation of this research with two pre-assigned group members and a final write-up. No point stressing over what I can’t control at the moment. With very little brainstorming being possible and without the knowledge of the research areas, I occupied my mind with other matters.

It’s a little overwhelming. Myriad people speaking German—a language I can’t understand. I lack confidence. I don’t know what to do but I’m hesitant to ask for help.

At the apartment, I stretched out on the lavender armchairs while the sun set over the courtyard. What a journey to get there. The last leg on the subway went by easily enough; my validated ticket from the first-leg via the bus was all I needed. The subway took me from Alexanderplatz, one of my proposed research sites, to a few blocks away from the apartment. What a place it was: an open square made up of concrete tiles surrounded by stores telling the story of globalization: H&M, New Yorker, McDonald’s, C&A. No buskers out that day.

The trip from the airport to Alexanderplatz via bus proved quite stressful. I had no idea how the tickets and their validation worked. I had no idea where the buses left from. I had no idea what most signs and conversations around me were about. I had never been placed in such a situation before. I didn’t know what to do. I began to sweat and my heart beat increased. No time to think about research. After much awkward bumbling around the building, I happened upon a man speaking in broken English who handed me an extra ticket for the bus. After some explanations and repeats, I validated the ticket and hopped on the bus labeled “TXL.”

I got into a routine. It was comfortable being with fellow-English-speaking students when venturing to new locations. But here, I didn’t grow…

I became accustomed to going everywhere with my peers—to döner kebab stands to get some savory meat strips wedged between bread with vegetables and garlic sauce; to tours of monuments with histories barely kept visible over the sands of time; to grocery stores to pick up a pots of basil and garlic. I took comfort in this. Awkwardness only affects the individual and we were rarely alone. Although fun, I neither grew as an individual nor did I feel that I experienced Berlin’s true nature when we went around in groups. The polarized lens I wore when part of a collective kept me blind to observing how other groups of people interact. Venturing alone brought about a whole another experience.

II. Learning to Talk: The Story of an Introvert

I always hesitate before asking others for help. I can’t stand it when people ask for assistance when the answer lies right in front of them. Now I am potentially that person. He who doesn’t know. He who doesn’t know the usual protocol or speak the language.

Two hours of being lost wandering with a large traveler’s backpack does wonders to your back, legs, and patience. Alone in another city, I looked for a house labeled on a map. A friend’s wedding was taking place the next day and I looked for the gathering location for the evening. I couldn’t find it. And so, I walked. I passed the same buildings in the town square. The church in the center, the tables and chairs with sun-umbrellas overlooking them. Crowds of people conversed, children ran atop the cobblestone paths. And yet, I never felt so alone and isolated. I was an outsider. I was lost. Things didn’t make much sense, but being afraid to ask, I kept moving. Around and around.

Eventually, I re-opened and carefully studied the map. It turns out I reversed the labeled locations. Where I walked was where I was supposed to be the next day, and where I thought I was supposed to be the next day was where I needed to go. Homer Simpson’s “D’Oh!” rang in my head as I ventured towards the correct location. Had I asked around, I would not have wasted so much time. Lesson learned. There is no better illustration for the necessity to open conversations with strangers in asking for help than two hours of hapless wandering. This is something I needed to overcome anyways for my research project.

Community. We all seek it—the feeling that we belong, that we’re accepted by others. Through the beginning of this study abroad program, I only felt hints of this.

Those in this study abroad program got to spend five days in Istanbul. Another city; seemed instead like another world. Chaotic yet friendly. That’s the impression the city left me. This city is also where I spent my 22nd birthday.

It was no ordinary birthday. It was an evening that lasted until sunrise*. Fond memories formed, of which I can’t pick a favorite. Perhaps it was when some local musicians played me “Happy Birthday” in a restaurant. Maybe instead, it was all my classmates going as a group to a dance club. Or possibly that three classmates stayed with me for the evening and ended with all of us watching the sunrise over the Bosphorus. Whatever sense of community I thought this study abroad experience lacked, I found that evening. I felt that I belonged. I felt that everyone belonged. My classmates were my English-speaking family. It was comforting. We all held each other up and from it grew our confidence. I felt ready to get back to Berlin and talk to buskers.

I felt anxiety. I always had difficulty approaching strangers for conversations, let alone conduct an interview when they were performing for money. But now, as before, it’s a necessity. Do they even speak English?

Research. Is it about the process or the results? In my first day going into the field, I had little idea of what to expect. We all had our own research projects and thus our own places to go...alone. A stretching of my comfort zone. Here goes nothing…

Like a great majority of our days in Berlin, I stepped out of the subway station for the umpteenth time into rays of sun shining onto the concrete ground of Alexanderplatz. Along the narrow face of a large department store labeled "Galeria" in blocky green letters, a guitarist stood strumming and singing. With curly brown hair and a big grin on his face, his winsome stage persona drew glances from all passing traffic. His music wasn’t particularly loud, but it was audible within 20 or so feet. When is it considered appropriate/courteous to approach a busker? I had pondered for a few moments when a young girl and her mother went up and started talking with him mid-tuning. He let the child strum his guitar for a bit. Nice. Time to make my move.

On approach, we made eye contact. I asked if he spoke English.
A little.
Great. I followed up saying that I was a student doing a research project on street musicians and was wondering if he had a few moments for a few questions.
Sure. He smiled with curiosity.
Awesome. And so began my first interview. Admittedly, I hadn’t prepared a set of questions and I didn’t possess a clear understanding of what I wanted to look for. Essentially, amidst mad-scribbling into my red notebook, I got the gist of his story.

Conversing with the busker wasn’t as difficult as I imagined. It’s just a matter of finding the courage and the right moment to walk up and start talking with them. Once initiated it seemed as though he was curious because I was curious.

Did I overcome my hesitancy to strike conversations with strangers? Hardly, but I still felt good about myself after the conversation. The 2€ I left in his bag was well worth the boost in my confidence and information gleaned. This was my Berlin. A city for the arts. A city where a guitarist from Italy sounds his music to the passing crowds. A place where a child can come up and strum his guitar and a Japanese American student asks him questions.

The people you run into. The stories you share. The continuous shaping of one’s self. The tale of me and my Berlin.

The places we go, the people we meet. Wandering around the TV tower in Alexanderplatz, I heard music. Intrigued, my legs moved me to the source. A semi-circle of onlookers intently listened to a group of musicians performing on a shaded walkway. The band consisted of a guitarist/singer, percussion-box-player, and brass accompaniment. Their music was not elegant. Their sound was both loud and rough. And yet, their tunes were recognizable and the crowd appeared to enjoy themselves.

In this semicircle, I stood. If I had to wait for the ensemble to finish, I might was well enjoy myself. I felt the beat, I got into it. Charisma comes in many forms and this group had it. After playing “the Saints go Marching in” for some time, the band members picked up their instruments and ran amongst the crowd while continuing to sing.

Their return center-stage signaled the end and with it, the money poured in. It also marked my chance to speak to the musicians.

Approachable, friendly, and English speaking. They made busking seem easy and fun. I left a 2€ coin in their collection box as they finished packing up.
Was busking always a sunny, cheerful profession? These musicians I spoke with in Alexanderplatz sure made it seem so.

Another boost in confidence. It’s not so bad talking to strangers. My Berlin’s buskers are open and willing to be talked to. They feel no stigma when performing in open squares.
The final product in research rarely follows the exact proposed path. I still had no idea where Akonoplatz, another open square, was. I pondered the possibilities when someone tipped off the idea of comparing street musicians in open squares to those at street corners. Sure, why not? And so, my research project changed. Asking around, I learned that buskers often visit a place called “Avril.” And so, I went.

At the edge of Graefestraβe lies a restaurant marked in bright red lights spelling “Avril.” As evening sets, casually-dressed individuals sit down to eat dinner or converse over a beer. A quaint, picturesque scene, really. Distant from the tourist-centers, the locals can unwind under outdoor umbrellas; feeling cool breeze arriving with dusk’s onset.

This I observed leaning against a lamppost across the street. But alas, no busker. This, I realized, was the main challenge/difficulty in my project—the buskers aren’t always where you’re looking. Productivity in my research requires a fair amount of luck.

But just standing gets boring and so, I wandered. Up and down the street, seeing how the locals passed the time. A few blocks away, music mixed with commotion rang my basilar membrane. A stone bridge connecting a road over a waterway. On it, a throng of people gathered within small groups to smoke and jam on the guitar. Street music but not buskers. A niche location for sure; only the smoking regulars seemed to inhabit the place.
Luck was on my side several days later when I walked around Graefestraβe for the second time around. It was Sunday, and leaning against the same lamppost, I observed a man on a bike with a gig bag (guitar case) ride up and stop at the Avril corner side. Out came an electric guitar. After a few chords, he plugged in a cord into the portable amp he brought along. And so the show began.

A series of jazzy guitar solos. Mood music. The musician showed proficiency at his craft and I got into the groove of it at my lamppost observation station. The wine imbibers and diners, however, did not. They hardly recognized the artist’s existence, opting instead to continue whatever conversation they had.

After ten minutes of playing, the guitarist went around each table, pushing a collecting cup into the diners’ attention. I couldn’t tell how much he made, but the situation presented to me a very different approach compared to that found in Alexanderplatz.

Finishing this, I saw my opportunity and made my approach, my original hesitancy all but disappeared. A 40-minute conversation over a beer ensued—my drink came from my wallet, his was on the house. At least the restaurant recognizes quality music…

Street music isn’t always a sunny occupation. At dusk, my Berlin has a guitarist from Bulgaria at street corners busking for beer money on weekends. Illuminated by neon shop signs and street lamps, he feels a stigma and only sometimes enjoys performing there. On a bridge down the street, black-clad locals smoke and strum chords to pass the time. Exhaling, the smoke wafts upward, taking a bit out of their life while easing some of their obvious melancholy with a conditioned spurt of serotonin. If nicotine is the medicine for their psyches, then music is food for their souls.

III. Awkward Bedfellows: Three days and the Story of the Final Showcase
Further observations in both settings supported the ideas I gathered. I found the same differences between public squares and street corners. Although a bit relieved, I still had more to do. The deadline on the final performance where I showcase my work continuously loomed as a specter in the back of my head through my research. Like a splinter that won’t come out, the feeling of not being done jabbed at my psyche every morning as I crawled out of bed. I just want to finish my work! Is that too much to ask?

Worse was that I couldn’t rely solely on myself to get it done. Groups of three were pre-assigned before we moved into the apartments. The two others in my group looked into fast-food/globalization and communist nostalgia, respectively. How were we going to tie our topics together into a coherent whole?

Three days left.

That was our deadline and we remained fixated on the idea of somehow tying the topics together.

We came up with thoughts on how to present our individual parts but drew blanks on how to make the connections. I often felt the odd-man-out in the group as the other two went out on last-minute research excursions or came up with ideas tying only their two topics together. I was the lone thinker on the swing-set, watching other groups pass by talking about their progress. My group was going nowhere.

Two Days left.

Stress levels on the rise. Adrenaline flowing through my blood vessels. Differences in our mentalities exaggerated themselves. The only thing we all shared was the desire to do a good job—whatever that means. Luckily, nothing combusted.

The afternoon found me again thinking for myself as the other two went off to brainstorm together. I wrote the outline for a skit. Ignoring the tolling of church bells outside, Mussorgsky rang in my ears. I envisioned a walk through a museum exhibiting our research. Satisfied with the idea, I prepared to meet up with the other rest of the group.
Out on the swings, the other two beamed with excitement. They came up with an idea of how to tie the topics together—a continuous prop. Admittedly, I liked their idea more than mine, so we stuck with it. Outside-the-box thinking. At the moment, I lacked it and the other two had it. With a basic premise set, we could all easily contribute ideas on the details. With the sense of relief, we finally started to lower our adrenaline levels. We lost the rest of the day to work out some kinks and give a few dry-runs of our performance.

One Day left.

Practice makes perfect. A day of rehearsals and suggestions from our Drama Professor, Shenga, fine-tuned our performance. We became more and more prepared as the sun moved across the sky. We were ready. We were eager to show the class. We wanted the ordeal to end.

Performance Day.

A bed sheet. Not just any bed sheet, but a fantastic one that shape-shifts. A bed sheet that ties communist nostalgia, globalization/fast-food, and street musicians together. It was the Berlin wall; separating a group member talking about the former East from the two annoying Westerners. Invisible, but its presence was noted. It was a symbol of power; bestowing another group member the power to preach and spread the influence of fast-food throughout the audience. She had it, you didn’t. It was a stage; representing a street corner and then a public square where a busker performs. An environment. It was tension. A discord between East and West resolved with music—dissonance giving way to consonance as Berlin moves into the future. Above all, it was bed sheet; taken from our apartments and soiled from our many dry runs…

(Image from

It feels good to perform and even better to finish. Euphoria. Relief. The end of the program. A month of my life that I wouldn’t trade for anything. The meeting with interesting people, the experience of another culture, being where I don’t speak the language; all things that nurtured my growth as an individual. Thanks to this, I was ready for some solo-traveling…

My Berlin is also everyone else’s Berlin. We all experienced the city, but each of us viewed the place through our unique polarized lens. Some saw discrepancies in fashion, others the views on legal prostitution. What makes Berlin what it is that everyone who walks through it perceives it in a different way. My Berlin is different from their Berlin—and yet, my Berlin is their Berlin.
In Berlin, the answer to the question “Is you me?” is “Yes; you is me”

IV. The Story of After: Traveling Alone in Spain and France
I sit and type in an airplane flying back to the USA over the Atlantic Ocean. The conclusion to almost three weeks of backpacking in Spain and France. Oh how much I’ve changed since leaving the States.

For one, I now possess a healthy-looking beard. The product of a challenge to grow out facial hair as proposed by a peer. I am the victor.

My jeans stink of dried sweat. My final two days in Europe found me back in a hostel in Berlin where I didn’t get to wash my pants. The sweat originated from wandering the city on foot, taking time to revisit the sites I used to walk daily. The U-Bahn Stations, the colored polygons overhanging our apartment entrances, the chicken-döner shop off Hackescher Markt Station. A trip down memory lane, places I’m already starting to miss.

My backpack is filled with trinkets. Before returning to Berlin, I spent time in Barcelona. Running around las Ramblas to barter with Indian shop owners while enduring a rain squall with newly-made friends met in the hostel. “Don’t think! Buy!” one shopkeeper claimed as mugs and shirts were thrust into our faces. Traveling alone necessitates striking up conversations with strangers and promptly asking for help when needed. The milquetoast doesn’t fare as well traveling solo. I appreciated every bit of my growth.

My mind is full of memories. Of initiating conversations with strangers and spending days and evening wandering around foreign cities with them. Of trying out new foods. Before Barcelona, I was in Madrid trying out a Bocadillo y Calamari. Think of it as fried but unseasoned calamari wedged between a baguette. No salt. No vegetables. No sauce. Only willpower to force the greasy, bland, and chewy monstrosity into my digestive tract.

Bags sit under my eyes. Physical reminders of my staying up all night in Barcelona and before that, Madrid. From hours of dancing in a country where dinner happens at 11:00pm and the club scene doesn’t get going until 2:00am. The idea of siesta finally made sense in my mind.

My wallet feels lighter from museum entrance fees, hourly pain au chocolats, and expensive dinners. Culture for a cost—six days in Paris does that to your bank account.

And buskers! With the research project done, I paid attention to music on the streets. Ever heard Fur Elise as a waltz? The all-too-common accordion player hopping on a Parisian subway to play a minute of music followed by shoving a collection cup in your face exposed me to this. Spain exposed me to flamenco guitarists busking for money in open squares; the silence between pieces interrupted with money clattering as it fell into the collection box. What sights! What sounds! More to observe and think about when traveling around.

I found that everyone has a story to share. A past; a history shaping them into their present form. This path to the present is never linear. People change life goals or circle back toward the past. For many of us, this tale is shrouded in darkness; it’s not everyday we tell our story to others. I learned from my travels that this is one of the things most rewarding about talking with people—to learn small bits of other cultures and upbringings. Even strangers tell a small part of their story. Although my original reservations on talking to people hasn’t completely disappeared, it has noticeably decreased. The more I traveled, exploring Paris, Madrid, Barcelona, and my Berlin, the more I grew as an individual. Flying back, I carry a different set of lens—a more worldly perspective—to perceive the world and live my future.

*See my blog post for August 16, 2009 for a more complete story of the evening.

Sunday, September 27, 2009

Final: Buskers in Berlin

(Part 1 of 2)

Busking is found as part of the culture in many large European cities. People’s opinions in these cities regarding busking musicians range from the thought that they are a nuisance to that of being an integral feature of an area. Regarding this, the author brought up the question of whether buskers felt differently about how others perceive them as based on where they actually performed (i.e. location). In Berlin, Germany, the author compared busking musicians based on whether they performed in a public square or on street corners. It was found that those playing music in the former place enjoyed themselves and felt no stigma while those in the latter location only sometimes enjoyed themselves and felt stigmatized. In addition, the author did some busking of his own but found it difficult to associate with either type of busker regarding stigma/enjoyment as passerby found it difficult to hear an unamplified guitar.

Street performance, or busking, has been around for many centuries. Despite the term “busker” only coming into the English language within the past 200 years, records point to individuals carrying out this activity at earlier times—as far back as the days of Ancient Rome(1). Although the term “busker” encompasses street performers of all types—be it musicians, mimes, jugglers, or living statues, for the purpose of this paper, “buskers” or “busking” will refer exclusively to street music and the musicians performing it.

Whether a vagabond strums chords on the side of a bridge or a well-rehearsed band plays songs next to a department store, street music and musicians finds a place in many major cities of the world. Some may see these people as a nuisance; disturbing the peace, second-class citizens trying to fuel a thirst for alcohol. Others may view them as an important part of the city—adding culture and art to what might otherwise be a drab environment. Regardless of the different views held about these musicians, initial observations of these artists allowed for their general categorization in two groups: those who perform in large open areas and those who play in more intimate settings. Did differences exist between those who performed in one environment vs. another?

Renowned as being one of the world’s centers for the arts, the city of Berlin is well-known for being one of the best places in the world for buskers to perform and make money(2). The term “busker” makes no delineation between whether street performance is an individual’s main source of income or if it is done for some pocket change. This environment makes the city an ideal location to observe and talk to street musicians in several settings. Through observations of performances and conversations with some of the musicians, the similarities and differences surrounding buskers in open squares and those making music on street corners were found.

As a music major, my university education thus-far dealt with topics and issues surrounding performance of “classical music” in concert-hall type venues. However, information surrounding the common practice of street music remains unaddressed. As a classical musician, I am interested in the performance aspect of this related art form. In the broad sense, this will change how I view the way people interact in any city I walk through while in the more self-interested sense, this research may change how I approach my own performances and music-making.

Observations of buskers regarding their repertoire, setting, and performance styles were noted. Also observed was the popularity of particular buskers with regard to the size of the crowd they drew. When possible, the musicians were interviewed with a few questions. Since the amount of money a busker makes is a product of many complex variables—specific location, weather, musician’s mood, particular day, other events/musicians in the area, etc., income was not used as a factor to compare musicians.

The general area of Alexanderplatz was chosen as a location representative of public squares whereas outdoor cafes/restaurants were observed to survey buskers in a street corner setting. Ten musicans/groups were observed in Alexanderplatz, of which three were talked to. Two musicians were observed in street-corner cafes, of which one was talked to. In addition, I busked for 30 minutes near the Hackescher Markt train station.

In Public Squares
A large variety of musical styles and stage personas appeared in the locations I observed. Within the public square setting (Alexanderplatz), ensembles ranged from a trio consisting of a guitar/singer, bass, and percussion box to drummers who hit plastic plant pots as well as many things in between (Figure 1).

Figure 1. Example of buskers in Alexanderplatz

The public square setting gets a large quantities of foot traffic as people go to- and from- various destinations. This also makes the area noisy. Understandably, the buskers who drew the largest audience also played with sufficiently loud dynamics.

I conducted interviews with two bands playing at Alexanderplatz who enlightened me about two different strategies on busking. A combo band named “Jammin’ Johnny & the Diskofuckers” (Figure 2) stated that they possessed about a half-hour’s worth of repertoire which is played once at a given location. After performing, they pack up and go one train stop away and repeat the process.

Figure 2. Video of Jammin' Johnny & the Diskofuckers playing "When the Saints go Marching in" in Alexanderplatz.

Another local band made up of a guitarist/singer, a percussion box, and a bassist had some set repertoire but spends most of the time improvising. This allows them to stay at one location and play for hours on end.

Notably, both of these practiced ensembles could be heard from several hundred feet away and both drew an acknowledging crowd. Upon talking with the local trio, it was revealed that busking was “fun” for them and they felt no stigma against their performances.

The third musician interviewed at Alexanderplatz was a solo guitarist/singer from Italy (Figure 3). Although not as clearly audible as the two aforementioned bands, he claimed that he busks at that location as he gets the most money there. Although he did not draw a crowd around him, he was all smiles and did not pressure passing civilians to give him money. Although he wasn’t specifically asked about stigma, the general vibe of the situation suggested that again, no such thing existed for musicians performing in public squares.

Figure 3. Solo guitarist/singer interviewed in Alexanderplatz

On Street Corners
A different scenario exists for musicians playing for street-corner cafes. At a corner restaurant/café called Avril, a solo electric-guitarist hooked up to an amp played some soft jazz solos for 7-10 minutes. During this time, the diners didn’t stop or look up from their conversations/food. After finishing, the musician walked around to each table with a collection jar—essentially asking the diners for money. Following a 40-minute conversation with the man, he revealed that he felt a stigma as a performer at street-corners. He normally plays in bands in clubs. The busking was only a means to make some beer money and felt “fun” only some of the time, depending on mood, day, weather, audience, etc.

The Author’s Attempts to Busk
The author tried to busk as well by playing a classical guitar repertoire just outside the Hackescher Markt train station and in a park. He found that most passerby could not hear an unamplified classical guitar and thus found it difficult to associate with either type of busker studied. The author felt no stigma but also did not find it particularly fun either. It felt to him more like routine rather than a real performance. The few people who stood within hearing range (middle-aged and older), however, appreciated the music that differed from the usual singing/strumming found in the streets, and each donated around 1€. Only enough money for lunch was made during each occasion (3,00€ and 2,50€, respectively).

Future Directions:

The findings of this project are by no means comprehensive or conclusive. Some differences on street music perceptions based on location have been observed however, more interviews need to be conducted before anything conclusive can be said. The difficulty in the research stemmed from the fact that there is a certain degree of luck involved in finding a street musician in a given location. Should this research project continue in the future, more buskers need to be talked to increase the sample size.

In addition, this project only looked at busking musicians. What are the thoughts/stigmas surrounding other types of buskers? Mimes and other street performers often share the same space along public squares or popular roads and may be another topic to perform future research on.

The author would like to thank the instructors of the UW Honors in Berlin Program: Dr. Julie Villegas, Dr. Shawn Wong, and Dr. Shenga Parker for their teachings, guidance, and support. In addition, special thanks are extended to the TAs of the program, Ms. Manuela Mangold and Mr. Tobias Temme for their advice and help through the research. Finally, the author extends a world of thanks to his peers in the program who helped nurture a sense of community and fostered the author’s growth as both a writer and as an individual.

1) "Busking History." Busker World. 2007. Web. Aug.-Sept. 2009. .

2) Hewitt, John. "World's Best Places to Busk." Traveler's Notebook. 11 Nov. 2008. Web. Aug.-Sept. 2009. .

Tuesday, September 22, 2009

Assignment #2: The Postcards

Prompt: Stand at the location pictured on a postcard and describe what you experience that is NOT shown.

Postcards posted in reverse-chronological order.

August 25, 2009

August 21, 2009


August 20, 2009


August 19, 2009




August 12, 2009

August 11, 2009

August 9, 2009
Postcard replacement--no reflections, just describing food

Döner Kebab

One of the world’s largest Turkish populations outside of Istanbul lies in Berlin. It shows in the price and quality of the city’s Döner Kebabs.

Those of you who never heard of these delectable food items are probably scratching your heads at the moment. Allow me to explain.

Meat. Lots of it. A mountain of lamb or beef piled high, skewered, and shaped into a giant cone with various spices. This cone rotates in front of a heating lamp/grill such that the outer meat layers retain a cooked crispiness. The vendor skillfully slices thin strips with a sharpened knife, the meat falling like winter snow onto the metal table. This by itself makes the mouth water; it turns the ordinary human into one of Pavlov’s dogs.

A pannini heated to perfection on a grill. Garlic sauce spread on the inside. The strips of meat packed between the bread like a Japanese subway train. The quantity of meat compares to the amount of corned beef in Reuben sandwich bought in a Jewish deli. Onions, red cabbage, lettuce and tomatoes added on top.


Hungry? So am I. I’ve already eaten these for 4 meals in the week I’ve been in Berlin. I’m going to miss these treats when I return to the states. Just talking about my love for food. No further reflections here…

August 8, 2009
Postcard replacement--no reflections, just describing food

Rote Grütze mit Vanillesauce

Tart and sweet. Need I say more? Read-on.

Rote Grütze: a mélange of berries suspended in a thick, viscous syrup. The various berries mixed together create a tingling sensation atop the tongue while leaving seeds stuck between the teeth. Strawberries? Raspberries? Blueberries? This mixture looks a dark, opaque red in color. Although I can’t discern the individual components, I can say that it tastes quite tart if ingested alone.

Enter vanillasauce. Creamy and sweet; like melted ice cream except less viscous and more yellow.

Neither the Rote Grütze nor vanillasauce are special on their own. However, mix them together and you get a product whose whole is greater than the sum of its parts. Emergent complexity—a dance of taste molecules creating a beautiful fugue on my tongue. The vanillasauce cuts down the berries’ tartness just enough while adding a hint of vanilla flavoring. Although the two begin as separate layers, a little action with the spoon created a reddish-pink dessert that took every bit of willpower not to wolf down. Needless to say, I went back for seconds.

August 7, 2009


August 5, 2009

August 4, 2009

August 3, 2009

Monday, August 24, 2009

Assignment #4 - Between the Postcards

Recall something done between writing each of the postcards or recall an image from memory.

Between August 3 and August 4
The sun shone on our backs. The group and I were about to walk along a concrete bridge. We WERE about to, at least before we stumbled upon a brick pattern with the words “Berlin Mauer” written on it. Straight, the former wall was not. It curved. Its path wriggled. Considering its history, it’s a wonder that people carelessly step over the former border. Had the group not stopped to examine this, I would have walked by without a second thought.

Between August 4 and August 5
I recall the tour of the East Side Gallery just ending. The empty void in my stomach rumbled. We crossed a bridge. Some people got “China Box” – stir-fry noodles with vegetables and hot sauce for cheap. I opted to try a Dürum Kebab. Just like the Döners I described earlier but instead of a flatbread, the dish is made burrito-style. The meat was well seasoned but the tortilla was unfortunately stiff. I decided that I would not come back.

Between August 5 and August 7
Out of the heat-wave in Seattle, into the hot Berlin weather. August 5 was no different; my sodium channels worked at max capacity to cool my body down. And then, it appeared. An oasis amidst a desert. Out of the grey, rectangular blocks that make up the holocaust memorial, it stood as a dirty-yellow beacon of hope. The AC welcomed me in all its glorious wind currents. Into the Dunkin’ Donuts I went. I haven’t had as tasty of an ice-coffee since.

Between August 7 and August 7 (Brandenburg Tor --> Sachsenhausen)
Into the subway the group went. Twenty-two undergrads with two teachers and a tour guide named Adam. The underground scenery changed to outdoor Berlin as we transferred from a subway to a train. “We have until the end of the line” we were told. I closed my eyes to the sunny weather, the trees whizzing by, the buildings decorated with graffiti. Sleep. Deep, restful and dreamless. I woke up at a station, with everyone else disembarking.

Between August 7 and August 8 (e-postcard; on Rote Grütze mit Vanillesauce)
A sense of gratefulness. Cheese pizza never tasted better. I sat on a bench conversing with my mentor/friend/groom-to-be. What a journey to get here. Only after going back to an internet café and realizing I reversed the directions did I find the place. D’oh!
Lost. The sense of helplessness, vulnerability. I wandered around the town center of Göttingen for around two hours. The address lay on display on my laptop—held to my side as I wandered. It should be here. Instead of an apartment or house, there stood a church. Nope. The novelty of seeing various shops and restaurants wore off as fatigue started to set in. Time to go to an internet café…

Between August 8 and August 9

The country rushed by. Fields, farms, houses, and spinning wind turbines. A countryside that I never got to explore. A set of fleeting images as the train heads down the rails. The Germany outside of Berlin. Open. Vast. Charming. I turned away and glance over at an elderly German woman read a novel of some sort. Conversation being impossible, I shifted my attention to my own book. My reality whizzed by too quickly—time to slow down and escape into someone else’s…

Between August 9 and August 11
My mind draws a blank with regards to what I did between the events outlined in these postcards. Funny how memory works—I recall some exquisite details like the pattern made by a fountain spurting out water but not why I was there. According to the postcard, I sat around Alexanderplatz on a cloudy day. Great. I’m supposed to be in my prime at 22 years in age, but times like these make me think I’m going senile. I think I’ll grab a beer…

Between August 11 and August 12

Walking on a cobblestone street. I knew to avoid the red-colored bike lane to my left. I remember being weary—we traveled around the area and missed the bus. So we walked. Past children with their mothers, past shrubs and trees. Beneath the cloudy sky, we were mosque-bound. I had never been in one, and knew not what to expect. Minarets juxtaposed with a shop selling chai and ice cream. Red tables where we sat and pondered the day ahead.

Between August 12 and August 19
Istanbul. A long period without writing a postcard. Hills and valleys filled with buildings of the same architectural style. Streets and cobblestone paths winding through the city; their paths capricious, unpredictable like a small child. The city swallowed me up. Any hopes of getting my bearing straight were engulfed by the buildings, roads, and sea of taxis.
Language. I couldn’t understand them. They couldn’t understand me. I sat under the sunny August sky while Turkish men and women went about their daily business.

Between August 19 (Figur des Neptun-Brunnens) and August 19 (Public transit map)
Walking through Alexanderplatz. From the park with fountains, through the main station, and out onto the cement square filled with hot dog vendors and surrounded by shops. The variety of people walking through never fails to amaze me. Buskers, locals, tourists, and officials all mingling together, perhaps with a hamburger or bratwurst in hand. I got asked on two occasions if I spoke English, after which a postcard asking for money was thrust into my face. Yes, it’s how they make a living, but I still can’t help feeling a hint of anger when they shove their fake sob story in my direction.

Between August 19 (Public transit map) and August 19 (abstract painting of woman on bed)
From the underground, we emerged. The strong stench wafting through the air from the piles of brown that littered the cobblestone path. The stairs lead to a rays of sunlight—the overworld, a place to synthesize some vitamin D. Still, it was hot. Beads of sweat rolled down my neck. We were going to a park, but only one person knew where. A theater, a venue, a stage to act out our first composition assignment. A mystery, an adventure.

Between August 19 (abstract painting of woman on bed) and August 19 (In Transit)

I recall standing. My mental facilities shut down as sweat began soaking through my shirt. Two women talked about something intellectual; I wish I could say more, but again, my mind was turned off. People on bikes, parents with children, owners walking their dogs—they all passed through the clump of people made up of our class. Modern apartments on either side of the street. Balconies sporting clay pots and colorful foliage. An old wooden door behind us creaked open as a resident went out for groceries. I grew tired of standing; I was ready to call it a day.

Between August 19 (In Transit) and August 20 (Checkpoint Charlie)

A grassy park surrounded by trees. In the middle, a group of men kicked a soccer ball atop the sun-yellowed grass. Groups of people sunbathed or smoked away from the athletes. Our group stood beneath a patch of trees. The rest of the class stood ten feet away, watching, observing our performance. A subway station, a U-Bahn to Istanbul, an annoying street vendor, and stasis. Katie, Sally, Robert and I acted or made music for these scenes. A reflection of our collective experience—study abroad as a performance.

Between August 20 (Checkpoint Charlie) and August 20 (Slussen—Adams)

An urban art walk. What fun. Everyday structures with small details missed by the common eye. A fur coat shaped into a rabbit and glued onto the side of a generator. A sign showing a signal etched with layer of gold foil. Arrows protruding from a building’s layer of Styrofoam. We walked the cobblestone sidewalks while our trusty guide pointed these out. On several occasions, we the boundary of the former Berlin wall—now nothing more than a red-brick line running through the streets…

Between August 20 (Slussen—Adams) and August 21 (Fernsehturm)
Many people crowded the fountain area of Alexanderplatz. A fence surrounded the area as the marathon for the world track and field championships ran the vicinity. Aside from this new development, things remained the same as usual; tour buses crowded the streets not closed off, people mingled and chatted about various things. A group dressed in gothic attire sat on evergreen benches and smoked. Teenagers played volleyball on a sandy court behind them. Another sunny day in the park.

Between August 21 (Fernsehturm) and August 21 (Potsdamer Platz)
My stomach growled at me. The evening found Joe and I hungry and surrounded by tall glass buildings and the world’s oldest traffic signal. Wandering around initially proved fruitless—only coffee shops and restaurants out of the budget range of undergraduates.
In search of food, we descended on an escalator into a small tunnel of sorts. Glimmering jewelry, postcards, and funky electronics presented themselves in different stores. A döner and pizza shop. Nope—had too many already. The next shop caught our eye.
A sushi bar. And happy hour. I ordered combo #3 and was not disappointed. The salmon tasted fresh and the rice was of good quality and well packed—it didn’t crumble but wasn’t too firm. The fish, seasoned rice, and soy sauce orchestrated a joyous symphony of flavors on my tongue. Satiated, we paid the bill and left to meet the rest of the class. Who knew Berlin had a decent and affordable sushi bar?

Between August 21 (Potsdamer Platz) and August 25 (Berlin hbf)

A mob of people congregated on the sidewalk. Most seemed dressed for the weather; ponchos, hoodies, and long pants. My leather bag appeared a poor choice given the dark clouds overhead.
Streaks of color. The rushing of Adidas pull-off plants and bright colored t-shirts. Neon green, purple, orange, yellow, blue—the cameras came out as the colors zoomed by. A man head-down at a 45° angle hanging behind a large sign; three men huddled as a totem pole beneath a subway notice; two people pressed up against the wall—the crowd moved from one tableau to another. A scavenger hunt in a crowded subway station. Modern art; modern performance—bodies in urban spaces.

Sunday, August 23, 2009

Assignment #3 - Writing Berlin and Istanbul

Amidst the chaos, beauty emerges…

As far as I was concerned, Istanbul was just another city on a map. A dot on a sheet of paper. I had no idea what to expect and what I found surprised me. Whereas Berlin stands as a city reliant on order, modesty, stability and following the rules (no matter how ridiculous), Istanbul represents the polar opposite. The order and stability I grew accustomed to in Berlin gave me a lens that magnified my perceptions of disorder Istanbul.

Chaos in the streets. A sea of yellow taxis amidst black pavement. Just watching made me dizzy—cars weaving with little disregard to surrounding traffic; completely ignoring the lane-delineating lines; liberal use of the horn as though the car’s warranty depended on it.

Pedestrians fearlessly jaywalking over crowded arterials. Little children holding up bottles of water to drivers in the middle of the road as cars zoom by. Only 0.5 Lira.

Shops and sellers showcasing their wares on the sidewalk. Need some knock-off cologne? Perhaps some fine plastic watches? Grilled corn? Not ten meters pass without being offered some food or trinket.

I recall visiting the Blue Mosque. Stately minarets seeming to pierce the evening sky. I stepped inside onto the lush carpet and felt small; insignificant; that I lose my voice to the cavernous area. I imagine millions coming through this building over the course of centuries, struck with the same feeling of insignificance—hopes and aspirations lost into the collective void.

Earlier, a throng of tourists wandered the outer gardens while a call to prayer blasted through the speakers. Grilled corn vendors and watermelon sellers received great business during this time.

I smelled grilled beef, onions, and strong spices on my breath. Still earlier, the late-afternoon sun beat down while I avoided the myriad divots, piles of rubble and trash while wandering around on the cobblestone walkways. Stray cats walked by nonchalantly; not a block passes without me seeing one. In my right hand, I held a 3.50 lira Kebab in pita bread. It satisfied my caloric needs but brought about a longing for Berlin’s better-tasting döner kebabs. Regardless, my breath reeked—probably those onions.

I am spoiled in Berlin. Along with the superior kebabs, many people speak English here. Most comprehend and give an answer should I ask a question. In Istanbul, most people don’t speak English. It stands as a border; a wall; a schism difficult to cross. I had no idea where our dormitories stood. Unless I kept a sheet of paper with an address that I could point to, asking for directions of hailing a cab home proved impossible. Unless pictures litter a restaurant menu, I have no idea what I’m ordering. Suffice to say, my communication transformed from spoken sentences to a series of nods, shakes, and finger pointing more often than I cared for.

Up an alleyway we walked, the narrow cobblestone path turning into an obstacle course complete with the tables and chairs of unfinished diners, shelves showing off the trinkets aimed for Asian tourists, and the smell of hookah wafting through the air. Old men playing rummy. Ducking under a vine canopy, we stumbled upon a white sign. A list of undecipherable names and prices. A finger point and a nod. 5 minutes later, I got myself a kebab.

Rules are rules. Except when they aren’t. Berlin made me accustomed to strictly following rules. Every morning, for fear of being lectured by a stern German police officer and a 40€ fee, I triple-check to ensure my transportation pass is in my wallet. Car traffic flows smoothly, with everyone staying within their lanes and the honk of the horn being a rare occurrence. Pedestrians only cross the street when the green walking man lights up. Coffee shops kick out all non-paying persons from their tables. All dogs infallibly act obedient to their owners.

In Istanbul, rules are only guidelines—and even this stretches the truth. Five cars somehow span three-lane road. Locals commonly play “Frogger” across major arterials. Pirated goods and fake t-shirts line all major sidewalks and bazaars.

And yet, amidst all the chaos and rule-breaking there lies a certain irresistible feature to the city of Istanbul. Perhaps it lies in the melancholy, the hüzun felt by the natives and barely perceived by visitors—the vendors still able to smile and act warm despite barely making a living, the stray animals tucked away in random corners; the list goes on, but I’m no Orhan Pamuk. Perhaps its lies in the Bosphorus—vast, shimmering, and opaque.

Even at 5:30 in the morning, they held their place. Some slept atop a makeshift bed composed of two crates. Others stood. Next to smelly shrimp in clear plastic cups, lines cast out into the dark waters. Waiting; hoping for a nibble, a bite. A bite that allows a roadside food vendor to waft the smell of cooked mackerel into the air. These men once had bigger hopes; dreams of a more comfortable lifestyle. Now they stand on a concrete bridge. They fish. Their livelihoods controlled by the whim of the vast waters. It’s as if they cast out dreams along with the shrimp bait, more often than not losing them into the void; a bare hook being all that remains of past hopes and aspirations.

How do they survive this lifestyle? What makes them smile? I pondered this for some time. Then, some light. A faint glow of orange cast on the water’s surface. The sun peeked its head over the horizon and I felt as though I understood. A ray of hope shining on the patient fishermen. A new day. Sunrise.

Perhaps Istanbul’s irresistibleness lies in the warm, friendly demeanor of its people. Old men play cards or rummy at hookah bars, smiling and conversing. Their eyes expressing an open welcome to all who walk by. Café owners chat before the morning rush and are more than happy to point out the nearest burger joint or bakery. It’s difficult to describe, but the people in Turkey possess a certain aura of “welcomeness” about them. A certain something where I am not hesitant to walk up to a stranger to ask directions.

Morning. Sunny as usual. The cool breeze from being near the Bosphorus blew into our faces. The growl of our stomachs. Hunger. Our feet led us into a maze of alleyways nearby our dorms. Peeling paint, disintegrating brick. A ceiling of green vines that keeps the area cool mid-afternoon. On tables stationed outside of neighboring cafes, the owners conversed for all to hear except for we who cannot understand. They smiled. They took us into their shops. Only pea soup and bread stood on display. We asked for the nearest bakery. Two finger points and another smile. Baklava for breakfast.

As attractive and often irresistible Istanbul seems, I felt glad as I flew back to Berlin. Certainly, I miss the friendly demeanor and at times, the chaos, but five days was not enough time for me to get situated enough to call the area “home.” Berlin (well, Mitte and Kreuzberg), became my home after a week of living in the dorms. That’s how long it took to create a spatial map of the area—through runs and field trips—and establish a sense that I knew where things were. When the novelty of riding the subway to Alexanderplatz wore off and became routine. When concentrated thought was no longer required to navigate to essential locations—be it the grocery store, döner kebab shops, or department store. When I began hiding smug smiles upon seeing tourist groups snapping photos of the Brandenburg Gate. What’s so exciting about it?

I’m home. I’m back in routine. I love it.

Wednesday, August 19, 2009

Etude: Write with no "E"

Writing Etude: Take a paragraph and re-write it using words that don’t have the letter “e” (proper nouns don’t count).

From where I sit, I see the buildings beginning to shrink. I feel as though I could pick up a whole handful and fit them on my lap. The trees, skyscrapers, various waterways, and yellow taxis. I turn away from the window and stare at the mini-LCD screen in front of me. Time to Destination: 2.30. Putting my earphones on to see what the plane has to offer, I hear Lady GaGa’s “Poker Face.” Satisfied, I close my eyes as I see myself flying over the clouds. Goodbye chaos. Goodbye shimmering Bosphorus. Hello order. I’m coming back, Berlin…

At this location, buildings shrink. I think I could pick up a big handful and fit it all on my lap. All plants, tall buildings, various canals, and bright taxis. I turn away and look at a mini LCD display in front. Hours to Finish: 2.30. Putting on music as I didn’t know what was on, Lady Gaga’s “Poker Face” blasts my round and oval windows. Happy, I shut off my visual world with my body flying up past clouds. Ciao chaos. Ciao Bosphorus. Bonjour organization. I’m coming back, Berlin…

Time Bridge: Istanbul --> Berlin

(From August 17, 2009)
Istanbul, Turkey

A day of riding trams and flying in a plane. My journal doesn’t give me much to work with. What I recall is a hint of sadness. Sadness that I have to leave this magical place; this chaotic place; this city I'm growing to like. Zooming by on a crowded tram over the Bosphorus; seeing the many fishing lines cast out in the hope for mackerel, the bikers and walkers narrowly missing one another, the sea of yellow taxis surrounding the railway; I’m going to miss them all.

A transfer to a new train. New sights. A wrecked stadium next to an empty white parking lot. Gecekondus off in the distance. Mosques at some point within sight at every angle. A sea of clay-red roofs from houses. Memories of similar places I visited over the past four days. Themes and ideas. Stark divisions in social class. A rich history and beauty in the most unexpected places; I’m going to miss them all.


From where I sit, I see the buildings beginning to shrink. I feel as though I could pick up a whole handful and fit them on my lap. The trees, skyscrapers, various waterways, and yellow taxis. I turn away from the window and stare at the mini-LCD screen in front of me. Time to Destination: 2.30. Putting my earphones on to see what the plane has to offer, I hear Lady GaGa’s “Poker Face.” Satisfied, I close my eyes as I see myself flying over the clouds. Goodbye chaos. Goodbye shimmering Bosphorus. Hello order. I’m coming back, Berlin…