I got back from Germany a few days ago after about three weeks in the country. I stayed in Berlin for most of the time, a city I'd never visited before even though I've been to Germany a few times before. I had a few reasons for going; apart from just wanting a bit of a holiday, I'd not done any proper German-speaking for ages and wanted some practice. I've also accumulated a bunch of contacts via the internet over the past years and wanted the opportunity to meet some of them in person.
This was actually my first time going abroad on my own, so it was a fairly new experience in that sense. I'm still a bit mystified that all you have to do is click a few things on the web and then you can travel a thousand kilometres across the sea to another country, culture and language. And then you can stay there for weeks, subsist, talk, make friends, all kinds of things.
I was staying with one particular friend, one of many I'd met in #notpron on QuakeNet — we've been talking for a long time and she'd moved to Berlin from Finland to get a summer internship (another scary and cool thing you can apparently do!) who in turn was sharing a flat with a prolific CouchSurfing host. This meant, in addition to meeting her and the other occupant of the flat, I was guaranteed to meet the many other people who'd be sleeping on the two massive air mattresses in their living room. I'd never done anything with CouchSurfing before, but I'd definitely recommend it — you automatically get to meet fun people from all over the place. We shared languages, sweets, customs (as well as mattresses) with each group.
Berlin itself is a quite incredible city. The German capital seems to have a thing for really wide roads, while still being a big, old city, making it feel quite unlike other capitals I've been to. History is everywhere. All the more present for the fact that so much of it happened within the last 100 years, the reminders of the World Wars and Cold War can be quite sobering. Most of the old buildings bear the scars of WWII; even where the shrapnel and bullet holes have been filled in you can see where the repairs were made. Numerous exhibitions and memorials are dedicated to this period, too.
The Cold War, being even more recent, is even more uncanny. But as someone born in 1988, I was never cognisant of the Berlin Wall when it existed, and only learned about it as an aside in German lessons at 6th form. It was a sort of obvious surprise when the friend I met on my first full day in the city told me that the last time he was in Berlin, he could only see the Brandenburg Gate, not walk through it. The city does a good job of ensuring that it's difficult to forget about the injustices that have been perpetrated within it. The course of the Wall is marked along its length by cobblestones in the ground. In some places it runs through areas of near identical stone, discernible only by the cobbles' contrasting orientations. For one stretch along Bernauer Straße, the former death strip has been filled with an outdoor exhibition containing accounts and information about what happened to the houses that overlooked the border. The contrast between East and West was sometimes so great as to be comical — while the Stasi were trying to shoot you for "defecting", the fire service in the West were out with nets to catch you as you jumped from the windows that hadn't yet been boarded up.
But there was plenty to not be sober about, too. Lots of cities have museums, but Berlin has an entire Museum Island to look around. I didn't visit all the museums on it, but the ones I did visit were suitably impressive (with obligatory snarky comments about the Russians still having some stolen booty from the war) although ultimately the Deutsches Historisches Museum seemed more interesting. Oddly I've not seen a similar attempt in a museum at demonstrating the entire known history of a nation from ancient times to present day in one continuous exhibition. Unfortunately there's a bit too much to get through in one sitting (especially since we visited the special exhibitions first) but even with skimming some parts of it it was very much worth it.
Outside of museums, we did a little urban exploration at Teufelsberg, an abandoned Cold War era radar and listening post, built on an artificial hill formed out of rubble from World War 2. Very rewarding as a first UE site (also easy to get into, and with the rather discordant presence of a bunch of other tourists and young people around eating lunch sitting up a massive radar tower) what with its huge domes which used to surround the listening devices. The day after that we had a pleasant excursion to the almost painfully picturesque town of Potsdam. It's fairly modest in size, but has a massive palace and surrounding grounds, churches, its own Brandenburg Gate and so on. It's almost too nice.
Some high points for me involved meeting a few strangers on two occasions, firstly at a CouchSurfing language exchange meeting and secondly at a party for a friend of a friend. On these occasions I convinced myself that my (nonetheless very much intermediate) skill at German was good enough to be quite fun. Having a couple of conversations without having to search around for words or getting mired in a soup of verbs does great things for self-confidence, even if the only reason you did well was because you've talked about the topic a lot before.
But probably the best thing was being able to finally meet people who up until then were only lines of text on my screen (and occasionally voices over Skype) I'm trying to think as much about them as possible, because meeting someone you've known for nearly 5 years for the first time is quite a strange experience. So strange that one's mind tries to convince one it didn't happen; you must have met them earlier, surely! And living with someone for three-odd weeks, and taking two train journeys each lasting about 8 hours with them, certainly gives one the opportunity to get to know them. A long airport goodbye later and it was back on the way to England where the temperature was 10 or more degrees closer to freezing.