I am a doughnut…

…visiting Berlin then and now.

Trust me, if you’re a fan of Eddie Izzard that subject line is hilarious.

Anyway, in September as part of my jolly back to Europe while I waited for my visa and new contract, I went to Berlin for a week and roamed around having a lovely time with Asad:

These defensive camera moves happened a lot.

These defensive camera moves happened a lot.

It was a very different experience to the first time I made it to Germany’s capital which, while still lovely, was rather more impoverished and involved a lot more very sketch situations, all brushed off as good fun by 18-year-old me.

It was the tail-end of my gap year (darling) when I arrived in Berlin, bleary eyed and incredibly poor.

I had been on a sleeper train from somewhere in eastern Europe (where my rail pass was valid) to Germany (where it was not but hey ho, I got away with it.) I took sleepers a lot during that trip as it meant I got transport and accommodation in one.

By that point I had beach bummed and sofa-surfed my way around the Greek islands, had a minor heart attack at how expensive Italy was (we camped to save money, even in Venice. VENICE. It was damp), and mooched my way through eastern Europe, largely pretending to be Australian as it was the football world cup.

Battered by boats, trains and random bongo-playing Russians (that’s a different story), by the time I got to Berlin I was living on about €15-€20 a day, including accommodation.

This had been a trip when I had slept on beaches so I could afford to go to historical monuments and my diet consisted of bread and things people from whatever country I was in dipped bread into. And peanut butter.

So I arrived, an 18-year-old with a pack, a smaller pack, and shoes that were nearly worn through after nine months of walking everywhere that was less than a few miles away.

Walking past me on that platform in Berlin were three glorious-looking men in stilettos and sequinned dresses. Oh yeah, I accidentally arrived during Berlin Pride. An eye opener for a Yorkshire girl who had never travelled by herself before.

The Heart of Gold did not disappoint, also, I can't find my version of this picture so this one is from their website.

The Heart of Gold did not disappoint, also, I can’t find my version of this picture so this one is from their website.

A tallied forth to the Heart of Gold youth hostel (a place I chose purely for the name, aided by the fact it was a snip at €8 a night and there was HOT WATER you guys) lugging my bags with me and making sure my hand-drawn map, copied from the screen of a computer in a dingy internet cafe was to hand.

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Fast-forward ten years (and get over the fact that was a decade ago – I find alcohol helps with this) and we landed at a civilised hour after flying BA (something I never did for European flights ever – who needs food when your flight is less than four hours??) we took a taxi from the airport, using googlemaps and the guy’s satnav to make sure we ended up at our delightful, airy flat in Mitte.

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We had found the place on air BnB and chosen it for its amazing decor, central location, good reviews and the fact that it had all this while still not topping what we were willing to spend – a sum reached in about 5 minutes without the use of a calculator and copies of our bank statements.

There were no transvestites (I was a bit sad about this) and our suitcases had wheels.

After a leisurely breakfast with the guy renting us the flat, I napped in a comfortable bed before preparing to see the sites, DSLR in tow.

Berlin wall

Berlin wall

Day one was spent walking and walking, we walked along the remains of the Berlin Wall, and around the old Stasi headquarters and the Hamburger Bahnhof museum, accidentally seeing some Andy Warhols on the way round. (Also a giant gold statue of Michael Jackson and Bubbles the monkey, which was weird.)

This totally makes sense. Totally.

This totally makes sense. Totally.

We walked across bridges and down side streets and watched the sun set and then walked to find somewhere to eat before realising it was getting really and we live in the desert. Then we got a metro home.

Not having to worry obsessively over how much I am spending on holiday is a liberating and relatively new experience. I know that, as long as I don’t stay in ridiculously expensive places, or eat at excessively pricey restaurants, I will pretty much be okay.

It is a good feeling, but it is made better by the fact that I know I can, and have, done it on practically nothing, having to count as I go, and sometimes choosing between food and culture.

Obligatory lovely sunset picture.

Obligatory lovely sunset picture.

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From what I remember of my first visit to Berlin there was a lot of walking then as well, and considerably less metro. As in none. If I couldn’t walk it I didn’t go.

It turned out to be a very fun experience, made all the better as those months often were by the weird and the wonderful folk you meet at places that charge you €8 a night.

In this instance it was two Northern Irish boys who I can remember very little about, including their names, although the main thing you need to know is that they didn’t steal anything or hit on me so they are better than 70% of people in the universe.

They also had a tendency to go “Oh, that looks interesting” and wander off in a random direction.

By this method of zen navigation (I am very much channelling the late, great Douglas Adams in this post) we found a super dodgy bar that was on the top floor of a derelict building, the other floors of which were being used as a kind of urban art gallery, with graffiti and bits of wall missing where people had literally knocked the bit of art they wanted out of the plaster and taken it home.

The outer wall of the bar was missing and art-house films were projected across a vacant square and on to the side of the building opposite. Drinks were cheap, strong, and quite possibly moonshine.

Unfortunately at that point in my life my camera was the film one my mum had bought me when I was about 12, so the pictures I did take came out as nothing more than blurs. Although that might not have been entirely the camera’s fault.

My first time in Berlin, then, was essentially one big walking tour, just looking at things that were out in the open and, more importantly, free. Brandendurg Gate? Check. Checkpoint Charlie? Check. Reichstag dome? Check. Berlin wall? Check. Bunch of other stuff I don’t really remember? Check. Lots of very friendly, possibly high homosexuals? Double check.

Brandenburg Gate, still there.

Brandenburg Gate, still there.

I walked through parks and round woodlands and into what used to be East Berlin and peaked in to the windows of things I wanted to visit but couldn’t afford.

I didn’t, on that visit, reflect much on the identity of the city or its cultural memory. The Jewish Museum had only been open a few years and was prohibitively expensive by my standards and the holocaust memorial was not yet complete.

I knew as much about the world as any average 18-year-old knows, basically nothing, and somehow didn’t connect the things I learnt about in history with the city I was in and the windows I was peaking through.

I was out in the real world on my own for the first time. I was on a self-involved voyage of discovery (read, being a slightly pretentious wannabe writer who was attempting to go through a phase of ‘not liking shoes’ but in reality didn’t like having dirty and sore feet more.)

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This time around I am pleased to say my awareness of the world has extended beyond my own bubble and I spent a lot more time reflecting on the city, and the fact that many of the things we think of as ancient history, the division of the city, the poverty and austerity and spying, were actually within living memory.

Asad and I went to the Jewish museum, which is beautiful and stunning and thought-provoking and you should go there. Now.

I read letters from concentration camps, but also letters from people who survived and were leaving for Israel and that opened up another floodgate of emotion. I looked at those pages from history, full of hope, and felt a sinking sorrow for what was to come.

Hindsight is not always a wonderful thing.

Something that struck me is that Berlin’s cultural memory is still very much in the negative. We walked through the Topographie of Terror exhibition about the rise of the Nazis, and on the way out I saw a sign for a new installation. I forget the exact name but it may as well have said “Coming soon: Another look at all the terrible things we did.”

I know it is important not to forget. It is important for every country to remember its mistakes so it does not repeat them. I especially appreciate the Soviet War memorial, built in 1949, and one of the only memorials I have seen the properly manages to convey the sheer number of fatalities suffered by the Russians.

Imposing is the word.

Imposing is the word.

But I also think it is time for the people of Berlin to start the bit where they move on and don’t repeat them.

We met up with a few German friends, and they were all young and smart and dynamic and doing good work and I look forward to visiting Berlin in another decade, when they are the ones in charge.

It wasn’t all doom and gloom and Stasi museums. Anish Kapoor was exhibiting and we spent a glorious few hours wandering around the installations being perplexed at how they worked.

At this point, the number of modern art selfless I took was faintly ludicrous.

Anish Kapoor: At this point, the number of modern art selfless I took was faintly ludicrous.

The Modern Art Museum was a glory of colour, and our hunt for the best currywurst in Berlin (which turned out to be at Curry36) was a glory of slightly oddly flavoured tomato sauce.

We ate the best burger (at The Bird) and drank the best cocktails (which definitely were not moonshine or cheap, but they were strong.)

One afternoon we went with friends to a flea market in Mauerpark and watched karaoke from the bear pit, along with about 500 other people.

Breakfast. With flowers in vases. Fancy.

Breakfast. With flowers in vases. Fancy.

One of the last things we did was have breakfast in the Reichstag. The tours book up months in advance but you can book breakfast or lunch about a week ahead of time outside of tourist season, and once you are in the dome you can wander around at will.

It was that breakfast that made me realise how different my two visits had been. I have a memory of standing in the rain, looking up at the dome, and thinking “Holy crap that’s expensive to visit, I need to find a tree to shelter under or something.” (I was profound.)

This time it was still raining, but I was on the inside looking out.

It isn’t just about having disposable income. Eighteen-year-old me would probably have hated this trip, and somehow felt staying in a nice place was cheating. Twentyeight-year-old me (urgh) however, has stayed in enough crap holes to know that when a clean comfy bed with a bakery downstairs is available, you take it, because you don’t know when the next one is going to come along.

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Falling in love…

…with a city of contradictions.

Beirut is: beautiful, chaotic, ugly, relaxed, noisy, chilled, destroyed, under construction, full, thriving, soulful, bombed out, loving and loved, misunderstood.

Beirut is real.

Beirut smells of petrol, and coffee, and food, and alcohol, and cigarettes, and people.

Beirut is alive.

Live love Beirut

Live love Beirut. Stencil art is everywhere.

One can only do so many visa runs to Dubai while work visas are lost, and sent to the wrong places, and set on fire or whatever has happened to my paperwork.

After a while, hopping back and forth between cities in the Gulf begins to get to you. The Gulf is easy, clean, clinical, and largely soul-less.

In Doha and Dubai the people make the cities, in Beirut the city makes the people.

The early morning flight out of Doha meant that I was able to stretch out across a row of three seats and sleep my way into the chaotic wonderfulness of Lebanon.

My first impression of Beirut was that it was an ugly city, but it only took a few hours for me to realise how wrong I was to think that the bombed out buildings, the windowless shells,the faded facades and French colonnades, were anything but majestic.

Every bullet mark, every pile of crumbling masonry that used to be a building, adds to the soul of the city.

After the pristine building and lifeless streets of West Bay, the thriving, shouting city filled me. As did the excessive amount of food I ate during my 4.5 days there.

Seriously, I think I ate twice my body weight in meat and carbs, hummus and moutabal, bacon and more bacon.

We spent the first afternoon exploring Hamra, one of the main neighbourhoods, and generally getting used to the city and its sounds. A visit to the American University of Beirut campus reawakened my thoughts about going back to university as we explored the lush green grounds. Then I saw some students, all of whom looked about 12, and felt indescribably old.

The main findings on the first day were: realising that there was no such thing as a metered taxi, and that everyone was happy to take Lebanese pounds, American dollars, or a combination of the two. Often change came back in a mix of currencies and we ended up doing unnecessarily complicated maths to work out if what we had in our hands was correct.

Our first evening out was in Gemmazeh, the big bar area where small bars run either side of the street and slowly fill up with a mix of students, tourists, and locals until each one is a mess of noise and laughter.

Being able to drink outside, in the street, for less than 60QR a drink resulted in us both going slightly mad and the evening became a blur of rum, whiskey, and at some point free shots from various happy barmen.

The bars have also adopted either a no smoking inside policy or had clearly defined smoking areas, meaning that when we eventually rolled home, although we probably smelt like a brewery, we didn’t smell like a smoke house as well.

The next morning we headed out to guidebook-recommended ‘Le Chef’ on the same

Waiting for our restorative breakfast in Le Chef.

Waiting for our restorative breakfast in Le Chef.

street that had caused our need for a lot of food and coffee in the first place. It ended up being a simple and inexpensive breakfast of Middle Eastern staples; hummus with meat, moutabal, and fatteh. With coffee and juice. This marked the start of our adventure through Lebanese meal times. The food was good and there was a lot of it and we ploughed through while I attempted to get into the groove of speaking French for the first time in years.

Fully restored and ready to face the day we headed to the National Museum and encountered a lovely but mildly insane taxi driver along the way. Had I been in Beirut alone, I would have found the fact that taxi drivers often seemed to have someone else in the front of the car with them fairly intimidating. There are recognised firms which didn’t do this, so if you’re heading by yourself ask your hotel who to use.

The National Museum wasn’t massive, but it is very well curated, with a range of artifacts that nicely embodies the wide-ranging history of Lebanon through the ages.

A quick coffee, a huge plate of shawarma, salad, and fries, an iced tea and a food-coma/nap  depending on your point of view and it was off out to the Corniche to see the Pigeon Rocks, the naturally-formed arches just off the coast.

The Pigeon Rocks, Beirut.

The Pigeon Rocks, Beirut.

A night out in Hamra was a lot more relaxing than our previous evening and after dinner (or in my case mint tea and Shisha) we took a stroll around the bars until we accidentally ran into an old friend of mine.

The rest of the evening was spent learning about Lebanon from the people who live there. My friend chatted freely about the fact that once they got their qualifications, the best educated Lebanese would leave, and only rarely return.

Most people, we were told, were struggling to find work, the economy was shit and Lebanon barely existed as a country, but when we asked about the influx of refugees that come to the country seeking safety from, first Armenia, and more recently Syria there were shrugs and smiles rather than resentment.

“This whole area is full of Syrians now, a lot stay by the borders but a lot of the richer people come here. We don’t mind, it makes the city better. There are more people to party with.”

More food, an early night (12.30) and up the next day to head to Mleeta, ‘Where the land speaks to the heavens,’ acquiring a friend of Dane’s from home along the way.

About a 90 minute ride from Beirut (coaches and cars depart from the Kuwaiti

Art installation reconstructing the destruction of Israeli tanks.

Art installation reconstructing the destruction of Israeli tanks.

embassy, or if you luck out and find a good driver like we did, go with him,) Mleeta is home to the Resistance Tourist Landmark, a museum slash installation art gallery that tells the story of Hezbollah.

The site was chosen because it was where the resistance fighters positioned themselves against the Israelis. The museum itself is well put together and, while obviously not impartial, it is not as in-your-face one-sided as you might expect. Instead a free guide, a 15 minute introductory film that phrases things in ways that would not fly in history books, and various well-written signs around the place allow the Hezbollah message to sink in without any

There was one room dedicated to weapons taken from Israeli soldiers during the conflict.

There was one room dedicated to weapons taken from Israeli soldiers during the conflict.

fist-shaking or banner waving (metaphorical or otherwise.)

I wasn’t really sure what to expect from this museum. You can see outposts that had previously been occupied by Israeli forces and you are bombarded with military imagery and political messages, but at the same time, they put across their message in a very sophisticated way, and the site itself is like an art installation nestled in mountains that have previously been ripped apart by shells and bullets.

A dedication to the Lebanese martrys who died on the site.

A dedication to the Lebanese martrys who died on the site.

Art played a strong role throughout our trip and after getting back to Beirut (having eaten excessively large chicken taouk on the road) we headed to the Beirut Art Centre to check out some of the modern art on display. The current exhibitions were largely video installations, some of which were interesting while others were close to being pretentious.

Put a bird on it...

Put a bird on it…

The upper level of the gallery had a display of birds depicted through various mediums and any fans of Portlandia will be happy to know that we were able to put a bird on it.

Some of the graffiti outside the Beirut Art Centre

Some of the graffiti outside the Beirut Art Centre

The main attraction, however, was the graffiti on the wall outside. Left over from a previous exhibition, the owners of the neighbouring building had asked the centre to use its walls for the displays and leave the work there afterwards.

Another big night out, this time the three of us were back in Gemmazeh and, at my behest, re-visiting a bar that had previously contained a very attractive man behind it. Alas, he was not there, but we still had another evening of excellent drinks in some excellent bars followed by a (probably) excellent burger and a brief argument in which Dane tried to convince me that 10am was too early to leave for Baalbek the next day.

I won, and it was with mild hangovers that the three of us hit the winding road the next morning. I fought sleep and was treated to some stunning views of Lebanon as we wound our way up through the mountains to the ancient site so I could geek out about classics and the boys could revert to being five-year-olds and climb all over the ruins.

After lunch, obviously.

Baalbek looking ominous.

Baalbek looking ominous.

The site includes various temples dedicated to various deities as well as some additional fortifications when it was used as a citadel during the crusader period.

The area was originally settled by the Phoenicians because of its access to water and its position on two major trade routes.

Also it’s super fun to get stuck on top of some of the rocks.

Having been to sites around Italy and Greece, this was one of the best, not least because you don’t have the sterilisation that comes with a fear of law suits so you are free to roam around the ruins as much as you like.

Back to Beirut, playing the alphabet game along the way, and a nap that turned into a two-hour sleep and we were back out in Hamra for dinner and to meet up with another friend of mine.

The next morning was a rush of packing, bacon, losing my passport at the airport, having a mild heart attack, coffee, and back on the plane (this time full of screaming children and not nearly as fun) and back to Doha in time for the rugby.

So that was Beirut (and some surrounding culture.) The choice between Byblos and Baalbek was a tough one and I definitely want to return to see more of the country and learn more about the people that party their way through war and refugees and elections.

Now I’m off to eat steamed vegetables and run until my waistline returns to normal.

Me at the Beirut Art Centre. Promise.

Me at the Beirut Art Centre. Promise.