Erste Mai

May 1st is a national holiday in Germany, roughly the equivalent of Labor Day back home. Adrian and I took advantage of the day off to take a trip to a huge carnival in Kreutzberg. We had a great time so I decided to put together a little blog post about the experience.

We had been out very late the night before at a friends house… in fact we didn’t make it home till after 4am! The Berliners think nothing of staying up that late, but for Adrian and I, that is about as late as it gets. Incidentally, when we finally made it home to Prenzlauer Berg and got off of the train, the streets were still packed with people so that will give you a bit of an idea of just how nocturnal the Berliners are. Unfortunately, we aren’t ‘true’ Berliners, so we didn’t wake up on May 1 till late in the day, probably about 12:00 noon.

Adrian wasn’t feeling very well, but we knew we would regret not going to Kreutzberg, as we had heard really good things about the festival. Kreutzberg is one of Berlin’s most popular neighborhoods and it is by the city’s most trendy spot. Trendy people can be a little insufferable at times, but they at least know how to throw a good party. Had a quick bite to eat and a cup of coffee and headed out.

The weather forecast was predicting rain, but when we left the apartment the sun was shining and it was nice and warm. I noticed that there were fewer people out and about than normal in our neighborhood and wondered if fear of rain was keeping people in for the today… I quickly found out this was not the case. It seemed everyone in Berlin was headed for Kreutzberg and the festival. The U-bahn train was absolutely packed with people. The closer we got to Kreutzberg also, the more people sardined there way on to the train. I could tell it was going to be a day of crowds (as most days in Berlin seem to be, if you come from Maine).

A quick word about the Erste Mai celebration: as I said, it is the German equivalent of labor day. Thus the left leaning portion of Berliners and Germans use the holiday as an opportunity to rally in support of pro-labor policies. Berlin has it’s fair share of activists, communists, anarchists, and other revolutionaries, but unfortunately, the holiday in recent years has been taken over by “demonstrators” who are looking to cause trouble, not promote social change. The last few years had been especially bad in Berlin with protestors burning cars, smashing windows and indiscriminately destroying private property. To make matters worst, Berlin’s far right groups use the holiday to demonstrate as well, so clashes between the two groups can quickly get violent.

The Berlin Police seemed determined this year to keep things under control, so once Adrian and I arrived, we were immediately struck by the massive police presence. It is fairly rare to see police officers in Berlin in general, so to see literally hundreds in one place was slightly surprising. The officers obviously had a plan for controlling things this year, as they funneled us orderly into the city blocks set aside for the festival.

The main artery of Kreutzberg is a busy street called Oranienstrasse which is crowded on normal days with outdoor cafes, bars and restaurants, but today the street was totally shut down to any automobile traffic and was packed with party goers. There were vendors selling street food every few feet on the side of the street and packed restaurants and bars selling beer and other drinks to anyone walking by with 2€. There was music everywhere, with a different stage literally on every street corner. There were people of all ages dancing, drinking and eating street food everywhere. It was quite a lively atmosphere to say the least!

Adrian and I spent the first hour at the festival just walking around, checking out the different stages and enjoying some of the live music. The festival is free of charge so there were no “big name” musicians playing, but it was cool to see some of the local Berlin groups, who ranged from abjectly awful to passably decent. The most popular type of music in Berlin by far is electronic techno music, with repetitive kick-snare drum beats and some synth layered over it, so that type of music was everywhere, but we saw ska, rock, reggae, punk, folk, rap and even traditional Turkish music. Our favorite was probably the reggae… there something about a sunny day and a little reggae that makes you think you’re on a tropical island.

After wondering around for a while, we stopped for a bite to eat and enjoyed a little people watching. As I said, the streets were packed so it was fun just to watch the different people walking by. Berliners make some interesting style choices to say the least… sometimes I wonder if this country ever made it out of the 1980s. The anarchists and other activist were easy to pick out of the crowd as they general have interesting and colorful hairstyles, as well as more than a couple facial piercing and at least one unfortunate tattoo.

We left the festival in the mid afternoon, hoping to avoid any potential riot and once we arrived at our apartment, it started pouring rain. I felt bad for everyone who got drenched, but felt like we made the right choice on leaving a little early. I heard from a co-worker that nothing happened later that night as the police made sure to keep all the demonstrators under control. Looks like their planning and effort paid off… I was glad to hear no one got hurt!

Trip to the Alps

To celebrate finishing our first semester a few of my fellow classmates and I took a trip to Austria to go skiing. The trip turned out great! Here is what we did, with a few pictures to check out. I stole the pics from facebook so thanks to Matt and Anastasia for them!

Our plan was to leave early Friday morning around 10am, but we didn’t finish our last exam until Thursday afternoon and many of us were out late that night. We didn’t end up leaving till around 1. It was quite a hungover trip, but I had a good time riding on the Autobahn. The Germans drive really fast…. they think nothing of going 190 kpm (120 mph). No wonder their cars are so nice.

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The German People

One of my favorite things about my classes here in Berlin is the international make-up of the students. We have 32 students in our class from 20 different countries. I love talking about different cultures and politics of various countries so it’s been a great opportunity for me to learn more about places like Russia, Romania, Turkey, China and everywhere in between.

But the program is in Berlin, so naturally we have the most Germans. Of our 32 people, I think 8 are German… so a quarter of the class. Naturally living here has given Adrian and I a lot of opportunities to meet and talk to many other Berliners as well and to learn about the city and its dramatic history. It’s impossible to walk around the downtown are and not see at least a remnant of the Berlin Wall, if not a monument to the Holocaust or some other horrific part of German history.

The truth is, the wars between the US and Germany happened not that long ago, so they do come up fairly often in conversation. Many Americans even to this day when asked about Germany, first think about Nazis. It’s a sad fact that Germans wish wasn’t the case, but in Germany, you soon learn that it is impossible to run from the uncomfortable truths of your nation’s past.

What many Americans do not realize about Germany, is in addition to the time of the National Socialist regime of the 30s and the war, the dividing of Germany into east and west was also an extremely difficult period for Germans… and especially Berliners. When the city was divided, the wall was put up in secret over night. This surprise split up friendships, ended jobs and ruined lives forever.

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Outdoor Markets

I’ve mentioned it here before, but Berlin has great outdoor markets everyday where purveyors set up shop in one of the city’s many large squares (Platz auf Deutsch) and sell everything from fresh produce to fine china and silver. I though that maybe it was something that would only last while the weather was nice… well the opposite has proved true. Now that the cool temperatures have moved into the city, the markets have gotten bigger, with even more booths selling even stranger things.

I went to our local market here in Stieglitz to browse around and also because I need a keychain fur meine Schlusseln. The best time to go to one of these markets is early on a Saturday… that is when the most shops are set up and the Berliners haven’t had time yet to pick through all the good stuff.

In all honesty, the real reason I like going to these markets isn’t actually to shop. That’s just an excuse I use so I can go and sample the delicious food that is always for sale. All of it smells so good and tastes even better. The only problem is that I like the Roast Bratwurst so much, I am now hesitant to try anything new! Now that winter has arrived, they have also started selling Glühwein, which is a delicious warm spiced German wine. On a cold day, a hot glass of Gluhwein and a bratwurst at the market? Um, yeah.

Anyways, after a quick stop to sample the local fare, I started to wander around the market. It was packed as usual and curiously, one of the places that was the most busy was a store selling giant stuffed animals, which to me are the most useless things in the world. Apparently the Germans disagree.

Next I noticed a man selling video game systems. He had an old Sega Genesis, a PlayStation 2, a few PS3s that were in there original packaging and a Nintendo GameCube. I used to love playing GameCube back home so I decided to find out how much he was selling that for. I noticed that there were no games or conrollers displayed with it though. I asked him how much for the GameCube: “200 euros.” Well where are the controllers, I asked. “Don’t have any.” Games? “Don’t have any.” What an outrageous price for a game system that is essentially useless to the buyer! I am thinking of having my Mom send over my old GameCube so I can make a few bucks if that is the going rate.

From there I moved on to a children’s shop that was selling various books, toys and other items. Kids books are the best way to learn German, so I thought I would take a look at what they had to offer. I immeadiately was drawn to a Scrooge McDuck German comic book. I started flippping through the pages and was suprised at how simple most of the German was. I figured it would be pretty cheap so I decided to ask.

Before I got a chance to ask the shopkeeper though, another item caught my eye: an Obi-Wan-Kenobi keychain. As said earlier, I needed a keychain and what better than to have Luke Skywalker’s mentor! I grabbed the key chain and headed for the shopkeeper. In my best German I asked:

“Wie viel kosten diese?” How much is this? and held up the two items. He replied:

“Fur das Buch, ein euro funfzig (1.50€), fur der Keychain (didn’t catch the German word he used) vier euro (4€).”

Well needless to say, I thought the price he quoted on the Obi-Wan keychain was ridiculous. Sure, he is a jedi master, but his lightsaber was broker and the toy was clearly used. So I replied again in my best Deutsch with a heavily skeptical tone:

Vier euro?”

Well that turned out to be a mistake… apparently, my best German accent makes people think that I know German, so the man launched into a long speech, of which I understood maybe 2% of the words. I didn’t know what to do, so I just stood there nodding, which I think gave him the impression that I understood what he was saying, so he continued on for a good 2 minutes. I have no idea what he was saying and frankly I can’t imagine what someone could be saying at such length about the price of a used Obi-Wan keychain.

When he finally finished, I nodded at him one more time, furrowed my brow, than thanked him and put down the book and keychain and walked away empty handed.

The Children of America are Missing out

The playgrounds here in Berlin are so much better than American playgrounds it is categorically unfair. They are all huge with massive wooden structures for kids to climb; they have really long and steep old school metal slides that look scary even to this 26-year-old; and I have yet to see one without a zip line about 5-10 feet (!) off the ground, which would scream lawsuit back in the states. Seriously, American kids don’t even know what they are missing!

Actually, the parks in general here in Berlin are really well done. They are all fairly big, though some are bigger than others and have a multitude of trails, both paved and dirt paths, meandering around trees, gardens and even small ponds. I went for a jog today around the park right near our apartment here in Stieglitz and every time I turned around a bend, the place just kept going. They are really well designed too, so it almost seems as if you aren’t even in a city once you walk a few feet in to a Berliner park. Also, most parks here have restaurants within the park, as in not accessible by car, another something you would never see in the US. The park restaurants seem to do pretty good business too, which probably says more about just how many people live in this city than anything else!

The biggest par in the city is the Tiergarten, which Adrian and I have already posted pictures of and explored briefly. That park is huge… not quite as big as central park, but it really has a lot to look at. I want to get a bicycle eventually here and ride around the Tiergarten, as I think that’s really the only way to make it around the whole thing without getting extremely tired of walking.

It’s the middle of fall here in Berlin, which means it’s turning really cold, but it’s also really beautiful outside. I am going to take advantage today by checking out the Schloss Charlottenburg, which has been described to me as “Berlin’s Versailles”. Should be a good way to spend a wednesday! I have class a six pm tonight though so it will be a brief visit I think.

Oh Happy Day

First, I’d like to apologize to the general public for not contributing more to this blog… there is a good reason for that which I am about to explain.

First though, I need to explain something about myself. I have a severe internet addiction. I love surfing the net and do so constantly. There is so much information readily available. One can literally learn about anything instantly, for free from anywhere in the world. From an economics standpoint, the Consumer Surplus humans derive from the internet easily outweighs any other gains we have achieve in the last 30 years, though we dont have a good way of portraying that numerically yet.

Needless to say, when I tried to find an apartment here in Berlin, one of my necessities for the place was a working internet connection. Unfortunately, once we arrived here we found out right away that, to my abject horror, for some reason my MacBook could not connect to the internet here in the apartment a Beymestrasse 1. Adrian’s laptop had no problem, but my Mac could not connect.

For the first few weeks of living here I tolerated internet free life as best I could, but as soon as Adrian left, my problem went from bad to worse. She left behind her iPad, which gave me access to email, but alas, for the week she has been gone, in addition to moping around, alone with little to do here in the apartment, I have been experiencing major internet withdrawal.

Well, dear reader, worry no more. I am happy to report, I have fixed the problem and am now online!!! I am sure no one cares, but I was able manually configure the DNS servers, which for some reason were not automatically being populated correctly. Words cannot express how happy this makes me. My consumer surplus is once again through the roof and you can look forward to more boring blog posts from Berlin.


On my own

Well, Adrian has left for Prague for a month and I am officially alone here at the apartment. Adrian is only going to be gone for 1 month, but I will obviously miss her a lot.  From speaking to her on the phone and knowing how much she loves Prague, I know she’ll have a great time there. Plus I get to go visit her in just a couple of weeks so I have that to look forward to!

Meanwhile my plan is to use my time here in Berlin to:1. Improve my German as much as possible and 2. Develop good study habits for the HWR program. Now anyone who knows me knows that the phrase “good study habits” and me do not belong in the same sentence. I am a notorious procrastinator. But am determined to change that this time around by drilling myself into doing at least an hour of work for school regardless of whether I have class the next day of not. I only have class two days a week (Tuesday’s and Thursdays), so I am trying to avoid having to do all my preparation on Wednesday and Monday nights. Well see how it ends up.

Also with Adrian not around, I have been able to do a little more unplanned exploration of the city. Adrian and I obviously get along very well, but I would say our one major difference is that she likes to plan ahead very carefully and with a lot of detail. I like a little bit of spontaneity once in a while, so after I dropped Adrian off at the train station yesterday, I spent the rest of the afternoon more or less wandering around the city.

My tuition at HWR includes unlimited travel on the S (elevated) and U (underground) trains which together are the subway system for the greater Berlin area. As I said in a previous post, I love the public transportation system here, so after dropping off Adrian, I spent awhile cruising around on the S bahn taking in some sights and listening to diffent street performers wander on to the train playing accordions, guitars and other instruments- panhandling for Euros.

I got off at the Tiergarten stop and immediately noticed a huge outdoor market that was going on so I walked through that for a while. It was without a doubt the largest and strangest outdoor market I have ever been to. Conservatively I would guess there were 200 different booths selling everything from antiques to radishes. I loved checking out the old German memorabilia, but I couldn’t find any Nazi related objects. I wonder if they’re illegal or something? Maybe they’re just considered bad taste.  All in all a very interesting and entertaining afternoon.

Back to School

I had my first classes this week since graduating from UPS more than 4 years ago. It was certainly weird to be back in the classroom, taking notes and looking over a syllabus again, but I am really excited about the opportunity this time around. There’s nothing like having to go to work to make you excited for school!

I am enrolled at the Berlin School of Economics and Law in the Master of Science in Finance program. The program lasts three semesters with an optional internship for a fourth semester. The final semester contains one course: writing a thesis. The first semester, which I just started this week consists of four courses: Econometrics, Financial Economics, Corporate Finance, and Corporate Financial Theory. Each class has one four hour lecture session each week until late January of next year when we will have exams, which constitute 100% of the grade.

As you might expect from a Masters program, the Professors take a very “hands off” approach to teaching. They leave it up to us students to do most of the work, providing us with only their lectures, reading lists and information on exams. Very little hands-on teaching is involved, although all the professors made sure to provide their contact information and office hours and made a point of saying do not hesitate to approach them if you are unsure of the material. Two of the professors also scheduled social events for us to meet up and have a beer after class next week… now that’s an assignment I can handle!

I can already tell my favorite class will be Financial Economics. Much of our reading list for that class consists of articles that are very relevant to the current Euro crisis, which is ubiquitous over here on the news. The hardest class will be Econometrics; our professor has a PHD in theoretic physics so it’s safe to say that course will be fairly math intensive.

One thing that I like about this program is all my fellow students (there are 36 of us) take all the same classes together. That has made it fairly easy to get to know people. I am the only American in the program but it has been fun to get to know some of the other students from around the world.  So far, I have made friends from Italy, France, Lithuania, Russia, Bulgaria, China, Canada, Uzbekistan and of course Germany. Everyone is really nice and they seem to have similar thoughts and opinions as me about the professors and the program in general so that is very comforting. It is nice to feel like part of a group, especially when given a daunting task, which on its outset, this Master Program certainly seems to be.

What I will and won’t miss about Boston, Massachusetts

Adrian and I lived in Boston for a about two and a half years and now that we’ve moved on to Berlin, I thought I’d write down a couple things I will and won’t miss about our old city.

Will Miss:

  1. The local sports teams – For some reason it’s always comforting to be able to count on the Red Sox being on at every bar you walk into, that Patriots will always be on on Sundays and that the Bruins and Celtics are playing their home games just a mile or so down the road. Here in Germany I’m either stuck going to over crowed American bars or watching spotty online streams so this is definitely something I’ll miss.
  2. The Boston Common/Public Gardens – Sure it’s not central park, and sure its covered in trash and infested with rats, but the Common is such a great place to go for a walk and it’s so quintessentially Boston… it’s probably my favorite spot in the city.
  3. The Charles River – Memorial Drive is the best road in Boston to cruise down and the perfect way to scope out the Charles on a nice day. Just don’t go swimming in it.
  4. Singing Beach – Adrian and I had season passes to this beach in Manchester-by-the-Sea. It was about 45 minutes from the city but well worth the drive. Some of my favorite days were spent here. Adrian will surely miss Captain Dusty’s- the ice cream place down the road from the shore. She made sure we stopped there every time we went to the beach.
  5. The food – So many great restaurants in Boston, but my favorites for lunch were Dorado in Brookline and Mikes Deli in Brighton. For dinner Redbones in Somerville, Giacomos in the North End and Harry’s in Allston for their wings (not a big breakfast guy, sorry). Also Dunkin Donuts… in Germany they only have one size for coffee and it’s about 1/3 the size of a Dunks small.
  6. The weather – People in New England constantly complain about the weather but the changing season are one of my favorite things about the region. Whether it’s heading to the beach in the summer, opening the windows to let in the cool fall air or skiing in the winter, I love all the seasons in New England and for me it has the perfect climate
  7. The people – This is sort of a given, but being so close to my family in Maine and have some of my best friends living in Boston made it a great place to live… New England will always be my home for this reason.
Won’t Miss
  1. Public Transportation – Going from the Green Line to the U and S Bahn in Berlin is basically going from world’s worst to world’s best. I can’t say enough good things about German public transportation. Really the only bad thing is it’s a little expensive, but since unlimited travel is included in my tuition, that’s not a problem for me!
  2. Having a Car – Having a car obviously comes in handy (it’s probably the only reason I was able to find a job in Boston right away) but by the time I left, I was convinced owning a car in the city is more trouble than it’s worth. If you don’t believe me, trying digging your car out after a 2 foot snow storm at 5 in the morning so you can get to work on time.
  3. The rent – Rent is so overpriced in Boston that I have difficulty discussing it without getting angry. We are paying half as much right now in Berlin.
  4. Traffic – Mosquitos and traffic are the two things that are universally hated by human beings.
  5. Overcrowding – I heard once that there are 12 million people living inside the 495 loop. If you want to run in to half of them, take the Bourne bridge to the cape on a summer weekend. People are everywhere in Boston and they were always in my way.
  6. Pot Holes – I had six flat tires during the two plus years I lived in Boston. That’s right, six.

Why you should pay more to travel

Adrian and I pride ourselves on our bargain hunting. When she comes home from a shopping trip she is more excited to brag about how much she saved then about anything she bought. So when we had to purchase our plane tickets to Germany, we waited months, scouring the internet for good deals. We finally landed two tickets from Boston to Berlin for $500 each. Based on other prices, we probably saved about $100… not bad, eh?

Well that’s how I felt about it till the trip began. The first leg was from Boston to Heathrow Airport in London on a massive Virgin Atlantic plane. We checked in about 3 hours early (4:30 EST) and I paid an expected bag fee of $50… not a hugh problem but I asked the ticket agent if we could check into our next flight as well which was with another airline (British Midland). She informed me we could not. I knew right away I was going to have to pay a second bag fee, but decided not too get stressed out about it.

9 hours later, after a delay for a VIP at Logan (who the hell was so important they had to delay every single other flight leaving Boston?!), security lines, roaming Logan airport eating shitty food court pizza,  flying over the Atlantic watching Bridesmaids (terrible) and Thor (awesome) we arrived at Heathrow. We cleared the passport check and customs without incident and then trekked about 1.5 miles (no joke) to our connection at BMI. That was where the real terror began.

We told the clerk we had 3 bags to check and she informed us we would have to pay for the extra bag. I told her that we already paid $50 in Boston, but she didn’t seem to care. She wrote down the weight of the bag (23 kilograms) and told me to go to the cashier and pay for it. I handed the cashier the slip she gave me and he informed me it would be 12£ (~$18) per kilo. I’m going to school for finance; I know the price of things and there is no way an extra bag, however large, is worth $414. Adding an extra bag to the hold for an airline is essentially free. A marginal bag costs nothing.

At this point, Adrian and I were just starting our trip. I had not slept a wink on the plane. I was sweaty and uncomfortable. I just wanted to get to Berlin, relax and prepare for school. The airline was able to charge whatever they wanted at that point. We weren’t going to leave a bag behind so we had to suck it up and pay. I asked to speak to a supervisor to try and haggle the price down and she “cut me a break” and let us check the bag for $250.

Needless to say, I was and still am pretty upset about the whole escapade but there is a lesson in all of it: when you are traveling, especially if it’s a long distance, it is worth it to pay a premium for a direct flight. It’s a known quantity and it minimizes potential for problems along the way that can potentially cost far more that any initial price premium. Also, read up on bag fees… not just on the first airline you are taking because you never know.

And British Midland sucks.

P.S. British Midland also lost said bag and I went our first two days in Berlin without any of my clothes, so I may have started a few stereotypes about Americans smelling bad in our first couple days here. Sorry about that.