On Berlin, Prague, and the Baltics

A street view of the Old Town in Kaunas, Lithuania.

I keep needing to remind myself of is that I am no longer a tourist, but a migrant. An educational migrant, as are a lot of people in my generation, but a migrant nonetheless. A large portion of the human population in the U.S., Europe, and other parts of the world – though still not enough in my opinion – live in a country for some period, and I am now one of them. But studying in a country is different than living there, though with a long-term study course you can certainly get some sense of where the overlap is. It changes the dynamics of travel as well.

When you study abroad, you are in many senses a resident of that country for that brief time, but you are still, in effect, a tourist. You do not get settled, there is no real sense of permanence, and you never grow to feel the true scope of living where you do. In that vein, despite my having lived in Northern Ireland for three and a half months, I never felt like I lived there, I still felt like I was passing through. I went on quite a few vacations while I was over there, and despite a newfound feeling of permanence in a different cultural context, I didn’t have the feeling of my life being there.

After two months here, I feel more settled than I did during that entire three and a half months in Belfast, and it’s due in large part to the fact that I am a more permanent resident and I allowed myself to get settled. Now that I am settled, though, travel is so cheap that I feel like it behooves me to do it. I would be lying if I said that travel was not a big reason of why I chose to do it, and the chance to get to see more of the world while I study is certainly something I want to take advantage of, but also something I want to try and not do too much of. It was important to me not to do much, if any, traveling during my first month here, as I had on my study abroad. I wanted to get settled and I felt like the best way to do that was to, well, stay in the same place for a while. (I have a friend *cough Elise* who it feels like is traveling every other weekend, and I don’t want that to be me, even if it has been for the last two weeks.)

Some context for my most recent travels. Back during the summer while I was working for the Study Abroad office at my university, I made a conscious effort not to do much planning or think too hard about the fact that I was leaving in the Fall. I did only the necessary planning and left the fine details to the end, not even finding an apartment until August despite my best attempts to do so. I didn’t want to plan any trips before I got to the country, but when I found that one of the people I worked with, Kate, would be visiting her friend in Copenhagen on my week off, I jumped on the opportunity to travel with her to Berlin and Prague and booked my flights straight away. It was nice when I arrived here to have something in the cards, something I could look forward to while I did put my best foot forward during the process of becoming settled.

Kate and I; Study Abroad reunion in Berlin.

And so, it transpired that two and a half weeks ago I went to Berlin and Prague. Kate and I had not hung out much outside of work, so the serendipity of planning and going on the trip lent itself both to getting to know new people and, well, getting to know each other real. It was fun to learn more about somebody you already knew from work in the context of a vacation, and the fact that we were traveling with Kate’s friend made it all the better. I was very much looking forward to Berlin but was especially looking forward to Prague, and I can say that in this respect the trip lived up to my expectations. While I enjoyed Berlin, Prague was much more my speed as a city and is a place I could imagine living despite the complexity of the language.

Traveling to these cities was a lesson in contrasts and a reminder of what types of cities appeal most to me. I’ve always been the type that would rather have a long conversation over a beer or a coffee than go out to a club. Unfortunately, I’m eager to please (working on it) and will go to said club if the time and circumstances dictate it, but I almost never have a good time and I know that before I go there. Because of that, it seemed to me like Berlin was not especially the place for me. In Berlin, there was a lot of urban sprawl and wall art and hipster clubs, and I constantly fell like I was in a music video that was trapped somewhere between the years 1992 and the inevitable post-apocalypse of the year 2092. Prague was much more my speed because it was a prettier city that moved at a slower pace. It was much more bohemian, and more the type of place that was conducive to chatting over a coffee or beer, two of the things I most value in life.

Brandenburg Tor, one of the most famous sights in Berlin.

I did enjoy Berlin, though, don’t get me wrong. One of the things that struck me about city was how much you can still feel the communist influence, which isn’t something I necessarily expected. It makes sense of course, but when you think of Germany, the heart of Western Europe, you think of it in this vibrant and multicultural place, which it is. The past seems so distant. But that history, and especially the history of Eastern Germany, is still very recent history, and you can feel its effects. We forget this. The remnants of Berlin Wall were everywhere, and while materially they don’t necessarily live up to your expectations, the spiritual and historical impact of seeing that history up close and realizing how recent it is can be very profound. It certainly was that type of experience for me, even if the grungy, hipster, post-techno music video of a city that surrounded it wasn’t necessarily my favorite place I have ever visited. Perhaps I would fall more in love with it if I got to explore different parts of the city and truly take it in, but alas time was not on my time (I was only there two and a half days).

Compared to Berlin, the color, hills, and architecture of Prague were refreshing. It is such a beautiful city, and you get that sense through the individuality of every architectural and city planning decision that is made. There are endless series of cobblestoned streets and buildings of different colors and design that line those streets, and you can tell the immense time and commitment that went into making that the case. A big factor in that, I learned, was the relatively peaceful occupation of the city and the lack of bombing compared to other cities during the war. But then there was the communist period, which lasted nearly forty years and threatened to suppress all that vibrancy, which it didn’t despite its best efforts. (I read a great story in a book I bought about how after the Velvet Revolution threw the communists from power, the city literally put the effort in to repair and repaint all the buildings, wash away the communist influence, and, quite literally, tear up many of the pavement streets to replace them with the more aesthetically pleasing cobblestone.)

The view while walking up to Prague Castle.

The view while walking up to Prague Castle.

Despite having an even shorter amount of time in Prague – just two days – I felt like I got more out of it than I did out of Berlin. The city is a bit more tourist-friendly, which has its plusses and minuses, but that combined with the smallness and the beauty made me feel like I was constantly doing something. It was less time to get from place to place, and the lack of sprawl made you feel like you could get a lot of accomplished. We had amazing Czech food on our first night, which was better than any ‘German food’ I had, and the coffee and sights were downright pleasant. I was also reminded of how flat and grey Denmark is, and how much the color and hilly nature of the city added to my understanding of its beauty. I wish that I had more time there, and I would go back in a heartbeat.

A view of the Charles Bridge on a foggy morning in Prague.

The next weekend – poor planning, I’m aware – my friend Miriam and I went to Lithuania and Latvia. The Baltics were a region I wanted to see, mostly because I was aware of how little I knew about those countries. I knew a little about their political history through the Soviet Union and had read a bit about Estonia for some of their impressive records on issues like healthcare and voting, but other than that I was very culturally and historically ignorant of the region. When I met Miriam, now one of my closest friends here, we clicked instantly and both decided that our lack of knowledge of the region and desire to visit was the best reason to visit the reason. We knew each other for all of two weeks before we booked the trip, and the rest was history. (We tried to convince others to go for weeks, but to no avail. Alas.)

I really enjoyed Kaunas and Riga – the second- and first-largest cities in Lithuania and Latvia respectively – but it’s really hard to get a good sense of a place in just three and a half days’ time, which is what we really had to see both cities. We only had a about 24 hours total in Kaunas and 48 hours in Riga, and we used the time mostly to wander around and get a good sense of the city while doing some light sight-seeing and doing what we could to enjoy ourselves in a foreign city – which is all you could hope for out of a weekend if you have the money to spare.

My friend Miriam and I in the Old Town in Riga.

In Kaunas, we had a complete turn-around on a city that seemed dirty and under-developed (or at least I did). As we dug, though, we found the rough exterior, we found a beautiful Old Town and some of the best and cheapest food we had in a long time. We only had an overnight there – and it  was enough to see everything the main city area had to offer – but it gave us a good idea of what Lithuania was like, its history, and how far it still had to go. I had an amazing donut and got to play a weird air hockey/shuffleboard mashup game in a bar with some Lithuanian university students as well, so I guess that’s a plus.

A view from the top – Riga, Latvia.

While Kaunas was a small city built around, it seemed like, tourism and the local university, Riga was a proper city with a lot to see and offer. The Old Town in Riga is a UNESCO World Heritage site, and you understand why when you visit. The Old Town area occupies just one square kilometer of space, but there’s a lot to see in that area and beyond. The whole city is beautiful and a lot of fun, despite the weather, and we took in some good history, food, and views while getting around the city.

Riga was also for being a city where we branched out and met people so that we were not your prototypical lonely travelers. After a bad experience with a sketchy Couchsurfing host on Friday night (good reviews my ass), we got a hostel and instead used the app to meet up with people. We met a Swiss guy named Ray and a sweet girl from France named Lea who became our friends for Saturday night, and we went out on a Halloween bar crawl with them since it was Halloweekend (even though that’s not as big of a thing in Europe and especially in the Baltics). We stated at an Aussie pub (why is there always an Aussie pub?!) and had a great time followed by one of the best hangover bagels I have ever had in my life. I always try to find the best bagels when I travel, and Riga was the first city in Europe besides London that didn’t let me down. We also had a great vegan pancake buffet on Saturday, so you could say we were satisfied with the food and the weekend generally.

May have missed Halloween in Copenhagen, but we tried in Riga.

May have missed Halloween in Copenhagen, but we tried in Riga.

If there’s anything I learned from all this travel in just two weeks’ time, it’s that travel is exhausting, even for the most indefatigable of travelers. After multiple airports and bus stations and little time back in Copenhagen, my sleep deprivation caught up to me on the Wednesday after Latvia. My lack of life maintenance, my lack of thinking about my body for two weeks, and my lack of alone time, caught up to me and I basically shut down for Tuesday through Thursday. This was combined with the fact that I had to move into a new apartment on November 1st, and I was just exhausted out on life. Doing all the travel, especially in such condensed periods, made me realize how much better I need to with taking care of myself, especially in regards to my limits as an extroverted introvert. Catching up on life and settling into an apartment never felt so good.

I’m already exhausted again, but that’s a story for another post.

Stay tuned for more stories about ‘J-Dag,’ Hamburg, new apartments, and (*vomits*) the United States of Trump.