The spirit of Elvis follows me wherever I go. (Hey now, no calling me crazy until you’ve heard the whole story). Years ago, on the first trip I took in the name of art history, I spent an evening in Cairo with friends drinking vodka-cranberries and dancing on stage to a one-man band. We tried (and no doubt failed) to emulate the graceful, sensual, but never overtly sexual, moves of the Egyptian ladies to songs in Arabic. Then “Blue Suede Shoes” came on and we all let loose. One thing I’ve learned is to never let the ‘wrong’ outfit stop you from dancing. I was wearing trekking-through-the-desert shoes and dusty linen pants. No one noticed. The trip to Cairo was a segue to Ravenna, Italy where I was making a pilgrimage to see Theodora’s imperial mosaic in San Vitale. The familiar, velvety voice of Elvis in the most foreign adventure I’d ever had made me feel more at home in the world somehow. And last year, when it was time for my adventures to wind down, I glimpsed an Elvis poster in a coffee shop in Mola di Bari, shifting my thoughts toward home.
This year’s adventures got off to a rocky start. Matt headed to Berlin two weeks before I did. His first hostel was crawling with bedbugs, so he spent an entire day exterminating. (Thank goodness for the Germans and their temperature-controlled appliances). Meanwhile I wrapped up my last semester of coursework in a frazzled haze of research and packing. You know that dramatic scene in movies showing the protagonist running full-speed through JFK airport with a heavy wheeled suitcase, backpack, and messenger bag flying behind them? Well it’s only fun when the passenger makes the flight. My flight had been booked through one airline but was actually on another. I got to the first airline’s gate just in the nick of time but they sent me away. I got to the other gate two minutes late and couldn’t get a boarding pass. The gate attendant delayed his break to help me but took his sweet time looking up my account, mentioning several times to the colleague beside him that “this is why we never get to eat.” In solidarity, I volunteered that I’d hardly eaten all day, either. All I got was a glare. This is also the guy who had to count on his fingers to determine which month of the year September was, and he came up with eight. Yet he had no trouble calculating the exorbitant amount that I’d be charged for rebooking.
The string of four-letter words playing through my head like a soundtrack increased in volume as I made a last-ditch effort to beg the other airline to decrease the rebooking fee since I had, after all, made it to their gate on time. Instead I got a ten-minute lecture from the ticketing agent about how she would have called ahead to find out which gate and she would have arrived earlier. She stopped short of calling me an idiot, but the message was implied throughout the long list of things that she would have done differently. I vowed that next time I wouldn’t be too cheap to take a car to JFK instead of public transportation. Sadly, those weren’t crocodile tears that I shed. Although he couldn’t do anything else to help, my travel agent did agree to flag my account with a note reminding me next time that I despise both of these airlines.
Trying hard to reset my karma, I headed to the gate for the later flight, stopping off at the most generic airport sports bar I could find. As my friend later reminded me, the best ten-dollar Bud Lite you’ll ever drink is the one after a missed flight. I opted for a Corona, but the effect was the same. Trying hard to squash the timid voice in my head asking, “is this trip doomed? cursed, perhaps?” I tried hard to shift into cheerful mode. The guy beside me attempted to strike up a conversation, saying “that dish looks delicious; what is it called?” Er, nachos. On my other side was a guy reading a photocopied article with barely-discernible sketches of ancient things that must have been dug up somewhere. Art history! Material culture! Ah, a kindred spirit. Turns out he was headed out on an archaeological dig in Nairobi, looking for spear heads.
The rest of the flight and layover were uneventful except for the family with an exceptionally cute pair of twins who kicked my seat all the way from France to Berlin. In a jet lagged haze, I landed at Berlin-Tegel airport during the height of the e. coli scare. Instead of the usual “hope you’re having fun” messages from home, I received emails with the subject line, “Deadly e. coli in Germany.” Super. ‘Cause I’m definitely not paranoid enough. Taking vitamins to ward off scurvy, or whatever it is you get when you’re afraid of normal things like cucumbers, I slept off the jet lag and surveyed my new temporary home.
Settling in was easy. Matt had already rented an adorable apartment from a guy named Sven. It has wide-planked floors made from reclaimed timber and one sage green wall serving as a backdrop for our conversations and TV watching. The neighborhood, east Kreuzberg, is one that a ten-year-old guide book described as one of the “rougher” ones that “feel more dangerous than they actually are,”* but now it is full of Turkish immigrants and artists. On my second night here, we went to a poetry reading sponsored by a local English-language literary magazine. The second reader was the dad of the cute twins who had ridden the plane from Paris with me.
This was all well and good, but my justification for this whole production was that Berlin would be a less expensive alternative to Brooklyn for studying for my last qualifying exam. And so far, the middle ages were completely elusive. To remedy this (and the fact that I was completely dysfunctional on German public transportation alone), I left the apartment and vowed not to return until I had a) bought a watch and b) done something remotely academic. (For the record, reading about art in our usual café didn’t count). Finding a Swatch in Alexanderplatz was easy. I just went to the giant department store and conducted the entire transaction in my English-German brand of gibberish that the locals are generally kind enough to tolerate. Feeling awfully accomplished, I ordered a bratwurst (in German!) from a stand outside and soaked up some sun. While eating, a guy from New Zealand struck up a conversation because he could tell I speak English. (So much for my language accomplishments). We chatted for a while and were headed off in the same direction. He was en route to the Berliner Dom (the lovely neo-Baroque church at the center of town) and I to Museum Island, located directly behind the Dom.
Museum Island is just as geekily fantastic as you would expect. All of the country’s official collections are housed in a number of structures on the Spree River. Built in 1904 and rebuilt since the 1990s, the Bode-Museum is a delicate mix of history and minimalist display. And therein lies the Byzantine collection. Its striking, domed entryway stretches to the farthest point of the island, making the building a triangular shape. It looked closed when I stepped under the shady entry way; its heavy, intricately-carved wooden door stood solidly between me and the remnants of Byzantium. But when I headed up the stairs, the wind blew the door open, creaking just a little, welcoming me toward the ivories and sarcophagai and even a transported mosaic from Ravenna.
I left feeling refreshed, like a legitimate art historian again. The sun was still shining but a perfect breeze beckoned me to sit on the stone bridge overlooking the river for a while. A spot opened up. A few tourists shared a snack. Two art students sketched. I glanced at my new watch and wished I’d brought a notebook. The woman who had left my spot arrived at the center of the bridge and took out a trumpet. She serenaded the day cruisers who passed under us and the passersby who pretended not to notice. Under the bright sun, Berlin finally seemed right. Art, food, weather, and experience had finally caught up to one other. And then the trumpeter broke into a rendition of “Can’t Stop Falling in Love.”
I took the long way back to the U-Bahn, past the riverside lido of locals drinking beers in lounge chairs and kids watching the boats go by and ernest teenagers in the park with guitars and poetry books. I was so absorbed in the experience that I almost didn’t hear New Zealand Guy greet me as I circled around the Berliner Dom again. We compared stories about our respective tiny adventures and talked about how new and young the city feels, especially for one that has been around for a few hundred years. As I ducked into my subway stop he said, “see you later,” which seems entirely possible.
*Jack Holland and John Gawthrop, The Rough Guide to Berlin. Updated 6th ed. London: Rough Guides, 2001.