Spring in Paris and Berlin

Posted on April 28th, 2013 by

Over spring break I decided I would hop over to continental Europe to see Paris and Berlin. After spending 12 days in Stockholm, I thought it would give me a great opportunity to compare 3 very different cities. It’s interesting how cities have a character. Each city certainly feels different, but it’s sort of hard to come up with proper reasons why that may be. And now that I think about it, my assessments of Paris and Berlin are pretty much what I expected from the cities. I guess this means one of two things. First, stereotypes and preconceived notions of a place or of a people could have such an enormous effect on actual experience that we end up perceiving the experience differently. Alternatively, it could be that the stereotypes are stereotypes because they are, to some degree, true. I couldn’t say for sure, but I would guess that it’s pretty grey. Maybe Parisians are a bit ruder than the average American city-dweller, but maybe I was on the lookout for rude Parisians. Maybe Berlin has a bit of a sad hangover from its socialist past, or maybe it was because I grew up in America and have this idea that formerly communist places are just plain sad and devoid of joy. I do know that now, after spending 3 months in Sweden, I am much better at separating truth from stereotype. I’m still probably not great, but I know I’m better. Regardless, I’ll now talk a bit about both cities, and share with you a few things I did (warning: it was the touristy stuff).

Paris

Honestly, Paris almost felt like a myth before I went there. And after going, it now seems like an amusement park masquerading as a city. So, yes it was extremely fun. But it was almost surreal because every attraction we went to had hundreds if not thousands of people there seeing the same thing. Every place we went, we were all there to just look at something. It actually felt extremely comfortable to be there as a tourist because everyone around me was a tourist. I didn’t feel the least bit silly whipping my camera out at any little thing I thought was interesting because everyone else was doing the same. Here’s a picture of the base of the Eiffel Tower. If that much wasn’t obvious.IMG_20130331_113358

This was actually a relatively calm time for the Eiffel Tower, but you can at least see that there are a bunch of people there. Like I said before, I felt very comfortable being at the Eiffel Tower because I knew that pretty much every person there with me wasn’t from Paris. To actually see the Eiffel Tower was pretty awesome. I’m not sure if there is any national symbol more ubiquitous than it. Possibly the Great Pyramids, but it’s not something that can really be measured. Anyway, it’s such an odd and exhilarating experience to see this object, which you have seen probably thousands of times in every kind of media, in person, towering above you. My girlfriend is studying in Leeds this semester and was able to meet me in Paris for spring break. When we emerged from the subway station and saw the tower, it even felt funny to say, “Oh! There’s the Eiffel Tower!” The structure itself seems fictional, like some grand, imagined base in Star Wars. But then there you are, standing at the base of it. It’s a weird familiarity we all have with something like the Eiffel Tower. You’ve seen the Eiffel Tower thousands of times, but now you’re seeing it. There’s something inherently exciting about that. Same goes for the Mona Lisa.

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It was actually pretty funny to walk into the room where the Mona Lisa is shown and see it nearly full of people like this. There were plenty of people still behind me when I took this. Again, it’s that strange excitement of being so familiar with something, and then finally seeing it in person. I suppose it’s a bit like seeing a movie star or a politician in real life. You’ve seen their face everywhere for years, it’s just crazy to see them in person and realize that they’re a real person. It’s pretty awesome to see the actual physical rectangle that Leonardo Da Vinci painted this image on that has been reproduced so much. But I thought the crowd around the Mona Lisa was just as fascinating. It’s crazy to think of how many countries are probably represented in that picture. Think of how much money all these people spent just to get to the Mona Lisa, the Eiffel Tower, and maybe Notre Dame. It’s almost like these things were a checklist of tourism. My girlfriend and I also got to go to the Easter service at Notre Dame.

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I had actually never been to a Catholic service before, so it’s pretty cool that my first experience is Easter Sunday in Notre Dame. It was all in French, so I didn’t really know what was going on, but it was very interesting nonetheless. The procession of priests and bishops and altar boys was quite the site, with the bible being held up and a man spreading incense, which you can pretty clearly see in the picture. Notre Dame itself was a pretty amazing structure. Its construction began in 1163, which makes it all the more impressive. It’s always amazing to see what people achieved without modern technology. It’s also a bit terrifying to think of stonemasons a hundred feet up with whatever safety equipment they had in the 12th century. It probably wasn’t good. Seeing a service in the church also reminded me that the Notre Dame isn’t just a landmark, it’s a fully operational cathedral. It sort of slips your mind when you’re in tourist mode, just walking around looking at things. Also, a certain Disney movie kind of makes you forget it’s real. But seeing people come in for an actual service made the place much more legitimate, so to speak. I felt like I was at a church service instead of on another ride in the amusement park that is Paris.

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Berlin

Berlin certainly had a different mood from Paris. Part of it could’ve been that it was cold and cloudy, but it seemed to be a much more “urban” city and less of a fairytale. I really liked Berlin for this reason. The city didn’t seem too concerned with appearances, which made it seem realer. It also made it a bit uglier. There is graffiti absolutely everywhere in Berlin. It seemed like any flat surface would have some illegible scrawls on it. Some of these “tags” would be in places that could’ve only been reached by stepping out on a ledge and risking your life. It’s pretty impressive what lengths graffiti artists will go to to tag a wall. Besides that, the buildings were so much more communist. Which sounds ridiculous, but you probably get what I mean. They weren’t pretty. Many of the buildings along the streets, probably apartments, were just flat concrete walls painted a shade of grey or maybe pale blue or maybe even a light red. Compared to Stockholm, it wasn’t colorful at all. Paris also didn’t have a large spectrum of color on display, but this seemed to be more because Paris was focused on the classical, white marble look for its buildings. Berlin looked like concrete. After the fairytale land of Paris, though, this made Berlin seem gritty and real. There were hardly any tourists walking around, and I certainly felt like an outsider when I spoke English. We heard a decent amount of Irish accented English, but for the most part it was German speaking people all around. My girlfriend and I visited a few museums and landmarks like the Brandenburg gate and the Riksdag. But my favorite place was probably the East Side Gallery and other bits of the Berlin Wall on display in the city. It’s such a completely unbelievable part of history, and it was so recent. The 80s seem modern to me. They’re in the past, but I feel like I would feel comfortable being dropped into 1985 America with its social norms and attitudes. But 1980s East Berlin? It’s almost unfathomable to think that a modern, western city was literally walled off from the other side of the city. Here are a couple pictures of it.

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The first picture is a display in the East Side Gallery. The East Side Gallery is a section of the Berlin Wall that has been preserved in its original place for the purpose of art. Dozens of artists from around the world were giving a section of the wall to do whatever they pleased. It’s really interesting that this symbol of oppression and close-mindedness has been turned into a canvas for free expression. Some artists chose to put political quotes with their art to make a statement, and others chose the more abstract route like the one pictured above. It was really fun to walk the entire length of the East Side Gallery, a couple kilometers, looking at each piece of graffiti, and then looking at the graffiti that has been scrawled over the sponsored graffiti. You could say that much of the art is “ruined”, but I actually think it shows something pretty cool about Berlin and the Berlin Wall. It’s all completely irreverent. It’s not just one vandal, almost every section of the East Side Gallery has dozens of names and smaller drawings or pieces of graffiti on them. I’m not really in the know when it comes to graffiti art, but my guess would be that most of the artists would say that they are totally fine with people drawing and writing over their art on the Berlin Wall. That sort of seems to be the spirit of the whole Gallery. And that second piece is covered in chewed gum. Yes, hundreds of wads of chewing gum have been stuck on this little section of the wall in downtown Berlin to essentially give it a new surface. This seems to be a “screw you” to the wall, and every person that sticks their gum to it is in solidarity with the last when it comes to that sentiment. And I think that’s pretty awesome. We want to preserve the wall because it’s such a large part of German and western history, but people still have these strong reactions to it, and they’re allowed to show their reaction. They do it in a pretty funny way, too. Well, I think I’ve probably gone on long enough here, according to the word count. Overall, Paris and Berlin are two cities that are worth seeing at least once in a lifetime. They both have so much important history of the last few hundred years. There really is something special about seeing these landmarks and important pieces of art in person. It’s hard to describe, but once the Eiffel Tower, the Mona Lisa, or the Berlin Wall are right in front of you, it’s a special kind of excitement; like you’re seeing something big.

 

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