Sunday, July 25, 2010

What I love about Switzerland

1. The cuteness of e-v-e-r-y-t-h-i-n-g.
2. The possibility of going jogging and meeting a cow, a barn cat, a bird of prey and a goose without the slightest bit of difficulty.
3. People greeting you on the street.
4. Max Havelaar fair trade bananas. Seriously, Canada, you get them here everywhere!
5. Church bells telling you the time.
6. Schwitzerd├╝tsch.
7. My friends.

to be continued.

On the traces of history in Berlin

While with my grandparents, I also took a day off to visit a friend in Berlin. Well, and to visit Berlin itself too. My home town - city - changes so much over the years that I wanna stay in touch with it, even if you can only manage to walk around Berlin Mitte in one day. I started off coming into Berlin Hauptbahnhof, the central station - a must-see if you ever come here, and chances are, it will be the first thing you will see from Berlin. The construction process was pretty exasperating, but the result is highly modern, welcoming to travellers and a huuuge hub to get almost anywhere in Germany. Plan your trip to have enough time to catch a connection though, since trains leave from three different floors and finding the right one is slightly tricky. Then, I wandered past the Chancellor's office (hi Angela!) to the Reichstag building, where the German legislative body, the Bundestag, works. It has a sightseeing platform and a cool dome on top of it, and is definitely worth a first visit just to get an idea of the size and layout of Berlin, but lines can be extremely long. I was lucky, though, and got up to the top in about 20 minutes. Coming from the Reichstag, the next logical goal is the Brandenburger Tor (Gate), though I went to search - and find - the Soviet war memorial as well and then approached the Brandenburger Tor from the West. If you pay attention crossing the street there, you can see a line of bricks that symbolize the Berlin Wall - since the Brandenburger Tor was one of the last buildings in Eastern Berlin. And of course, on the Paris Place on the Eastern side of the Gate, there were actors all dressed up as Eastern German soldiers and bureaucrats. I kinda prefer the people dressed up as Tsars and princesses in St. Petersburg, somehow. Going down the street Unter den Linden, you can see plenty of foreign embassies, five star hotels and - a huge Aeroflot building, the Russian airline that I flew to Petersburg with. ??? Maybe they really want to expand into the German market?? Unter den Linden leads you straight to the Museum island with Berlin's three or four main art museums, divided up into time periods, though in remembrance of extensive Petersburgian art visits I decided to skip these ones and rather wander along the river to cross at the Monbijou bridge. This leads you to a sort of mini-Globe theatre on the edge of the river where in summertime, Shakespeare plays are regularly given. I wanna stay and see!! Also, very close is the New Synagogue, the largest synagogue in East Berlin and memorial for the plight of the Jews. It was burned in the Reichskristallnacht, though a heroic policeman managed to get fire fighters there before too much damage was done (the fire fighters didn't work at all otherwise during this night of terror), was then bombed so much that it was deemed unsafe by the (small) East Berlin Jewish community after the end of the war and destroyed completely in, I believe, 1957. Only in the late 80s and 90s was idea raised to reconstruct it, not as a working synagogue, but as a museum and memorial site for the Jewish community of Berlin. The exhibition is very interesting and shows many aspects of Jewish life before and during the fiercest antisemitic times. It was very powerful to see how the Jewish community adapted and tried to help one another through the more and more restrictive laws; there were pictures of language classes in preparation of emigration and an economic help centre for Jews who lost the right to work. This changed my impression of the helpless victim a lot, though many of these operations were shut down one by one. A Jewish old-people's home ironically was transformed into a collection station for Jews waiting to be transported into KZs. After that, I also found the Jewish cementery and a building that was used to (mainly) keep male Jews with 'Arian wives' in there. A poster outside tells the story of one of the greatest feats of mass protest during that time. When the German women realized where their husbands were held, they started waiting in front of the building, screaming for their men and didn't back down, even when threatened with violence and guns. In the end, those men had to be let free because it would have been too much of a scandal to shoot into a crowd of 'Arian' women. This impressed me a lot; I just wondered what would've been with more of those kinds of action...
Wandering further, through the cute old Nikolai quarter, you get back to the river and to a sight where originally stood the German castle. It was bombed as well and torn down later by the East German government to make place for a parade square as well as the Palace of the Republic, a building with ballrooms, restaurants and loads of entertainment for the people of the Republic (and of course their elites). Once it was found to have been built with asbest, it was decided to tear that building down and rebuild the German castle outside with a modern inside, to restore German history as it was. There was a large controversy about the Palace of the Republic, with many East Germans feeling that it was also part of their history, but finally, the plans for the German castle (originally from the 18th or 19th century I believe) overweighed. It is interesting who and how is decided what history contains and what doesn't, isn't it? Finally, I also went into the German Museum of History, where I was only able to touch the first half of the main exhibition - it is huuuge! - and met up with my friend Sara, who worked there, to talk a little more about - history. Amongst many other things. An interesting day for sure. I just had to pull myself into the present with some difficulty.

Sunday, July 18, 2010

The Clicking Contest

Well, I haven't been soo uselessly sitting around after all. July 16th was the day of glory or doom for all Sciences Po exchange students, because after receiving our final admission and documents (finally!), we were informed that class sign-up would be on this day at 3pm, Paris time. Of course, we didn't right away get the class listings or - God forbid - the course schedules. Noo. Students don't need prep time at all! The first time I even saw the classes offered this semester was 2 weeks into the St. Petersburg program, so 6 weeks before sign-up. I mean, that's ok. Although my internet access possibilities have been pretty limited for all of that time, so I was super glad to get to my grandparents' house to use their computer and my dad's laptop. I miss my laptop. So much. (Excuse me for a second, I need to blow my nose.) Ok, back to topic - course inscriptions. So I spent the evenings at the Baltic Sea hogging my dad's laptop to send course descriptions to my academic advisors with varying responses, I still have no idea whether any econ courses I take here will count or not. Well, we'll see. Then, I had a list of about 13 courses that I would like to take (I needed 6). Those 13 courses were in 4 different categories. I could take 1 in category 1, 1 in category 2, 2 in category 3 and 1 in category 4 OR 1 in category 3 and 2 in category 4 OR only one each and French language class OR the same plus another foreign language OR... well, you see the point. It. Is. A. Mess. Plus, that was still the week before sign-up. Obviously, in the week before sign-up you wouldn't need any course scheduling, right? None of your courses could even fathom to fall in the same time slot, right? Well, the people at university did seem to think so, because the schedule went up online 1 day before sign-up. As in one. day. That day was well-spent trying to fit those 4 categories into one working schedule. The way I remember it, I had 3 slots with each 3 classes at the same time that I had been considering. Then, I remembered prof evaluations. Which I found online thanks to my friends' tip. After which I crossed out a couple of courses of this list. Ending up with one schedule that fit. Plus second options that fit. Plus a variety of third and forth options of the type 'If you don't take this course (time conflict) and decide not to take that one (same topic kinda), you could take this course, but then you would have to take this conference session for the first course instead of the second... I made a little chart. I like little charts.
Friday afternoon, 2.00pm. T-1. I try to use my aunt's computer because the internet is more reliable. Password-protected. She not home. Fail. Run back to my grandparents house, start their computer. T-0.45. Think long and hard about how long I could count on the internet being fast (it continuously slows down the longer you use it) vs. how early I would have to sign into the server before it overloads. T-0.30. This is the time I decided to risk it, and sign into my sciences po portal, making sure to click back and forth on random options every 5 minutes to avoid being kicked out of the system. T-0.01. I get ready, chart and time table in hand. T-0.00. The Clicking Contest has begun. I get my first class, check. I enter my second class, check. The third one. Woah, times changed, but it still fits my schedule, check. Fourth and fifth are fine, check. Where is the foreign language class? What, the Russian level I self-evaluated my way into is called moyen-fort? Whatever. Check. It is 3.02pm. I am out of breath. Once I check that I am really signed up for what I wanted, I click on the classes again out of interest and see that they are full. All of them. ALL OF THEM. At 3.07pm. Oh geez. Now I get interested and click random classes to see how popular they are. Full. Full. Full. Oh, a place open! Ah, that's the Theatre Workshop with 4 options. Full. Full. Hospitality and Parasitism? Really? I go and get a glass of water. And pity all the people that overslept/had to work/logged in at 3.08 and get to study Hospitality and Parasitism. (P.S. Quote from the FB Sciences Po Exchange Students page: 'I got raped by enrollment.' Comment: 'Unfortunately it was mass rape.' Or: 'Good to hear I wasn't the only one who got crushed in the stampede.' Oh noo..)

Family Love and the Challenge to Slow Down

So after flying back to Berlin and getting off at a non-sketchy airport (though Germans in line were already complaining and moaning. Leave it! Seriously! Don't you know how lucky you are to even consider a 20-min-wait in line a problem of yours?), I spent a few days in the ever hospitable and so very relaxing home of my grandparents, then spent a couple of days of doing nothing at the Baltic Sea with my parents, and now am at my grandparents' again, taking care of study/internship stuff for this coming year, working on my translation project (which has suddenly grown into immense proportions), and just enjoying myself thoroughly at the closest thing to home that the European continent can offer me right now. =) I'm happy to have the translations, though it is quite a heavy weight on my shoulders, because it does give this time a bit of a purpose. Having to spend a certain amount of time in summer without concrete 9-to-5 employment is obviously very lucky and I am glad of the opportunity, but I can also understand the slight frustration of the unemployed - being accustomed to working/reading/doing pleasure activities at McGill around the clock, taking life a little slower is, I think, my big challenge this summer. So, there the possibility of working long hours in the night on translations gives me the perfect opportunity of getting back into the old style of life. Not that I'll much enjoy the lack of sleep tomorrow morning...

Saturday, July 10, 2010

The hooded man in our airplane

So, sadly but truly, I had to leave Russia one glorious sunny Sunday a week ago. I enjoyed my time there so much, made real Russian, German, Swedish and Canadian friends, had a lot of blini (the blog name has to be fulfilled, after all) and did improve my Russian quite a lot, so I was pretty sad to leave, but also glad to see my family. I have to say that Russia was a lot less sketchy, more friendly, and more metropolitan than I expected, though the last part might just have been because it was Petersburg. My impressions here might have sounded a little more mixed, but that is just because the interesting things to write about are the things that are not what you are used to. Had I reported about street cafes, bridges that go up at night, shopping streets (shoes!!) and students sunbathing in parks for days at a time (no, no we were studying! Hum-hum), it would have sounded less like Russia and more like any awesome study trip. Which it was. The white nights especially was amaaazing - they made your days so long, and seeing the sun set at 11.30pm and a night sky filled with red clouds from the sunset at close to 1 am is simply breathtaking.

But of course the sketchy things are more fun to write about, right? So here one last Russian impression before I hit German ground and was back in the orderly, boring world of Western Europe:

My flight from St. Petersburg to Moscow went through Pulkovo 1, the domestic airport of St. Petersburg. And to people complaining about Pulkovo 2, the international one, let me tell you - you ain't seen nothin' yet. At a certain point, I had to cross a concrete tunnel with one of those horizontal escalators that probably hadn't been renovated since Brezhnev's time. It felt very foreboding, especially since I was the only person in the whole thing. Tunnel into the underworld or something like that. But then I came to my gate and the underworld had a whole new face: While we were waiting for our gate to open, me and two American ladies were watching our plane. All of a sudden, 3 police cars and one unlabled white van come swerving around the plane and halt with screeching wheels in a line, blocking some of the view on the airplane. The doors of the van open and 6 or 7 SWAT - looking people in balaclavas, with kalashnikovs, bullet-proof vests and all in black stormed out and surrounded the plane. Then, somebody with a black hood over their face was led into the plane by three bald-headed guys in crisp white shirts, the SWAT team stayed there for another 10 minutes (one of the balaclava-wearing people was looking and pointing his gun in our direction, kinda scary), and then they all ran back into the van and left. Then, the stewardess announced that we could board our plane. And who would've thought, the black-hooded guy (prisoner? principal witness?) and his three bald companions were sitting in economy class next to all the vacationers and even got the same lunch as us. When we left the plane in Moscow, I turned back in the terminal just in time to see the whole action in reverse happen to get him or her out of the plane. Mind blow. Especially after the huge spy-exchange between the US and Russia was just announced. Maybe I was on the plane with some American FBI agent???