Tuesday, October 25, 2011

January Thaw

I’m no drug user, but it’s hard for me to believe that I could ever find a substance that would give me the kind of high-- sharp, bright bolts of happiness, upwellings of utter contentment, excitement, fascination--that travel has given me. Everything is so colorful, intense, exciting, different, and it leads to moments of uttery joy. I’m thinking about how I felt watching the sun set on the top of the hill next to my guesthouse on Naxos in Greece. Singing drinking songs with Tibetan migrants. Playing with the kids at the Turkish circumcision ceremony. Climbing up to the world’s farthest-east cliff at dawn in New Zealand. Dancing with Aztecs in Mexico on the equinox. I don’t think I will ever find something so soul-filling, so dazzling, so ecstatic.

Longtime readers of this blog may remember that it is this ecstasy that led me here, to Spain. I had so many wonderful experiences, met so many wonderful people in the course of my yearlong nomadic existence, but it was really difficult to always be leaving people and places I had just come to love. What it would be like, I wondered, to put down roots somewhere foreign instead of always moving onward and upward? didn’t know it, but in the first weeks of my life in Palencia, as I started answering that question, I was carrying that ecstasy with me. It was weighing me down.

Before I left Boston, at one of the many jubilant goodbye shindigs I attended, a friend pulled me aside and gave me a pair of earrings and a peptalk. “The first week is going to be wonderful, and I want you to wear these and think about how kickass you are. And the second week is going to suck. You’re going to wonder what you’ve gotten yourself into, where you’ve ended up. You’re going to want to go home. And I want you to wear these, then, too,” she told me.

I heard her, in the sense that the sound vibrations were processed in my eardrum and through my brain… but I don’t think I really heard her.

It sucked, really, at depths I hadn't anticipated. The first few moments in Palencia were of wonder, sure. I took the walk down Calle Mayor described a few entries ago, charmed by the place. It didn't take long for charm to fade into shock, frustration, fear, though. I found the hostel I’d booked for the first few nights, met up with some fellow teaching assistants, started looking for apartments. But although technically I was moving, it felt like standing still. Everything was doubly difficult: I was unable to find internet, let alone an apartment; unable to understand anything or make myself understood. I felt like I was bathing in anxiety, never able to relax or unclench my jaw. Five days in, I had the predicted melt down, wanting to run away somewhere… but to where, exactly?

I didn’t run. Instead, over the course of a week I forced myself to start to get a feel for the town. I found a café, Chaval de Lorenzo, with Wifi, where I made friendly chit-chat with the young Cuban waiter, Guillermo. The cafe staff learned to expect me in the evening for dinner or a cup of kolakao (a Spanish brand of hot cocoa), while old men around me cheered for the Valladolid futbol game or Leon bullfight. I met the teachers (almost all women) at my school’s English department, drinking espresso with them by the banks of the Carrion. I strolled along the Calle Mayor at dusk, enjoying the traditional paseo with what seemed like the whole town. I discovered the cathedral and its circling storks; I climbed the Cristo Otero, the giant Jesus statue outside town. It all sounds awfully romantic, doesn’t it?

I couldn’t understand why it didn’t feel romantic. It didn’t feel like anything. I wasn’t excited or ecstatic; I also wasn’t despondent. Instead, I was confused. I was living a dream, albeit a stale one. I was setting up a life in a new country, where every day brought me the fascinating, the picturesque, the new and different. Where were those bolts of pure happiness? I felt frustrated and numb. I woke up and felt nothing; ate, worked, spoke, slept. Nothing.

After a week, all the teaching assistants traveled to Madrid for orientation. It wasn’t a particularly happening weekend—we spent most of our time being talked at in a strangely windowless hotel. But on Saturday night I went out. I went by myself—which was difficult and is a topic for another blog post—but I was determined to see some good live music, with or without company. So I did my Internet homework and found a few bars with good reputations, then set out into the night.

The first bar was closed for renovations, and I almost gave up right there. But the second venue was not far, so I picked my way through increasingly teeming streets to a little bar pulsing with energy and drum riffs. Five euros later, I had my beer in hand and was watching a contagiously enthusiastic band throwing themselves into a strange but fantastic musical mixture of ska-punk-salsa-reggae-rock. Crammed on stage were timpanis, a full drum set, a brass section, a handful of guitarists, and a wild-haired halter-topped female singer who was doing her best Gwen Stefani impression and, quite frankly, killing it.

As one ska-tinged song was traded for another with a rocking salsa hook, the crowd responded as one, a mass of happy dancing bodies caught up in the musical chaos. They sang, they jumped, they twirled. And I felt it—that bright hot newness that transports you somewhere close to tears, that delivers a goofy grin and a heart full of helium. I stayed until the end of the show, then caught the last metro back to the hotel. I was so happy: for that night, and for the feeling that I had worried had deserted me. It felt like that flash of warmth that comes for a few days in January of a hard winter. Such a relief after the frost.

In the next weeks that happiness soured to anxiety. My life in Palencia was only becoming richer. I went to a deliciously chaotic gastronomical festival full of sausage, cheese, and wine in the town square. I started to discover interesting bars and venues for theater and music. I found an apartment with a beautiful view of the city, I met new Spaniard friends who brought me to tapas, I visited Roman ruins (details of all of this to come.) But I never found that high, and often that numbness persisted, a distant feeling: "Someone like me would really love this. Should really love this.” Instead there was just blankness, and frustration with that blankness.

Until one afternoon, I was walking to the train station when a boy from one of my classes passed me in the street. He raised his blue-casted hand and yelled “Hell-oo, Ah-lee-sa!”, then nudged the woman accompanying him--a sister, mother, babysitter?--- who twirled around to get a look at whoever her young friend was yelling English at across the road. I grinned and waved back, feeling a purring warmth spread in my chest. There’s something special about being called by your name in the street of a new place.

And as I’ve gotten settled these few weeks, I’ve continued to notice that purring. I go to a concert, discover a new restaurant, meet a new person, go for a walk in the stone streets and think, “This feels good.” Once I even thought, before I could catch myself, “I’m glad I’m living here, even if I couldn’t tell you why.”

I’m not sure if that’s the answer here: is this the feeling of a new foreign home? Does this slowest-paced version of ‘travel,’ this process of home-making, necessarily mean a pleasure that is more stable, a slow and steady warmth instead of the extremes of bright, lancing heat? There’s one part of me that still fears something is missing, that somehow something I’m doing is wrong if I don’t feel those highs from my traveling days. But in my new grocery shopping lists (on which I make sure to include Kolakao), triumphant second-language conversations, walks by the river, hours looking out train windows, savored café-con-leches—and in that purr that backs all of it like a rumbling cat orchestra-- I am starting to think that I was looking at the wrong weather report in Madrid. It wasn’t summer, no, but maybe it wasn’t a thaw between cruel winter months, either. Maybe it was spring coming.

Sunday, October 16, 2011

A walk through Palencia, 2

Well, it's not exactly complete (no shots of the river, nothing of my school, my apartment, the cafe where I hang out far too much, the Parque Salon...) but may I present: a brief and abridged walk through Palencia.
(Now with 100% more pictures!)

The Plaza Mayor at twilight during a rare pause in raucous games of tag

Calle Mayor, 1. A Sunday afternoon, when no one is out. Any morning or evening the street is packed with people participating in the habitual "paseo" (walking) before or after meals. Here you can also see 'La Gorda'

Calle Mayor, 2, the section near the bus station.

El Cristo Otero, one of two Jesus Christ statues completed by Victorio Macho (the other one being the famous statue over Rio de Janeiro). Supposedly the second biggest in the world after its Rio brother

The view over Palencia from the Otero (which we climbed one Sunday afternoon when everything was closed)

The famous Palencia Cathedral. Unfortunately none of the photos I took of the storks that live on the spires came out well.

A blurred but lovely shot of the Plaza around the cathedral at dusk

View of the city from my 7th floor apartment balcony

Thursday, October 13, 2011

A walk through Palencia

(If a picture is worth 1000 words, a regular computer must be worth at least 5.5 netbooks. I definitely use my computer much more often than my netbook. It's easier to type on, faster, and just plain prettier. Really, the only thing my trusty but slow netbook has over my beloved laptop is an SD slot. And that, dear readers, is only important when one is meaning to create a picture post. Say, in order to introduce one's blog audience to one's new home. I'm afraid it hasn't happened yet. But: what kind of writer would I be if I relied solely on pictures to give you an image of the place? Let's see what I can do to paint one first. The actual photos will come later.)

So, you're a traveler arriving to Palencia on the bus. You arrive in the station, grab your bag, and walk out into the late-September sunlight. You're on a non-descript street with a park on the other side, a dusty and much-used children's climbing structure in the center. You're not sure what direction to go and ask a couple of bored-looking teenagers, who point toward a round-about.

At the roundabout, things start to get interesting. There's a shoe store whose window is stacked with knee-high boots, a pizza place, a typical Spanish bar with metal countertop and stools. Even at this time in the afternoon, when the streets are empty, there are people there reading the 'Diario Palentino' and drinking hot, sweet espresso out of tiny cups. You walk past a shuttered bakery whose window is piled high with glossy truffles, fluffy cakes, and cookies packed with nuts and chunks of chocolate. Mental note: come visit later.

At the other end of the intersection you pass onto Calle Mayor, the nervous system of the city, a narrow stone pedestrian street that makes up most of Palencia's downtown. Beautiful old buildings in various archetectural styles and soft colors rise on both sides, most supported by columns that form a colonade for walking underneath. At first, the Calle Mayor resembles an outdoor mall--and in many ways it is. Flashy fashion boutiques crowd one after another, jockeying for space with banks and cell phone stores. But start to look carefully, and you can find almost everything you need here. A bakery, wafting the scent of new cookies into the street; Pilar's Imprenta for all your stationery needs; an electronics store; a supermarket; a coffee shop. This side of the Calle Mayor is particularly architecturally stunning. The Provincial Office is here, with a spun sugar spire; an old university facade looks like a Venetian Palace. On one side a brief passage leads to the Plaza Mayor, or town square, a small but bustling stone plaza where children play in the evenings on the statue in the center. On the other is a street that opens toward the cathedral, whose pinions are topped in those same evenings with a flock of storks and whose grandeur is surrounded by one of the town's only true plazas, filled with trees and open-air cafes.

You reach the halfway point. Calle Mayor is bisected by Calle Cestilla, a bustling automobile throughway. If you turn right here, you can find the striking coral city hall, topped by white icing flourishes. You'll find the city's theaters here, too, and the green cast iron Mercado de Abastos, filled with butchers and produce stands. But you keep going straight, and the pedestrian street continues.

A grand casino with turn-of-the-century architecture serves famously delicious meals on one side of the street, a laundromat and fabric store shore up more fashionable shops on the other. In a few moments, you can see 'La Gorda,' the smooth soapstone sculpture of a woman that marks the street's only fork. Walk to the right and you'd eventually find yourself on the banks of the Pisuerga river, with its assortment of stone and metal bridges arching over the green water, ducks swimming underneath and branches trailing in the current. But you choose to walk to the left, and the end of the Calle appears. You've reached the Parque Salon, an expanse of manicured trees and flowers that features children riding merry-go-rounds in the evening and whose benches fill with the elderly as the sun goes down.

Past the Parque, continuing north, the town changes. To the south, the city has an old, classic feel. Now, you are in modern neighborhoods, apartment buildings whose first floors are packed with bars and shops. The Plaza España welcomes you with a fountain and a scattering of cafes. Soon after you pass the boxy Escuela de Idiomas, where students of all ages study German, English, French, Italian. You see busy playgrounds set with spindly trees and clusters of churches in brick, concrete, sandstone.

Walk far enough and you will pass the rusty red brick walls of the Fabrica de Armas, a working gun factory. Keep going: now there are car dealerships, industrial warehouses, a giant mall, a hospital and famous nursing school. If you had enough time, you could walk all the way to the edge of town and into the hills--and from there you could see the whole town, the neighborhoods dissolving into the plains beyond, and a giant statue of Jesus Christ (called the Otero here), watching over everything.

Thursday, October 6, 2011

El Pobre Pato

Every journey to a new life is difficult, but not every one inspires you to teach your friend the American internet slang phrase “FML.”

Let’s start from the beginning:

It’s a sunny early-fall day in Berlin. I’ve spent the whole morning showering, packing, preparing for the final final legs of my trek to Palencia. A little bit later than we agreed, Toni arrives to have a quick lunch with me and accompany me to the airport. I’m jumpy and anxious about the impending flight, train/bus connection (I haven’t decided which yet), and final late-night arrival in a new and completely foreign place. I can't stomach any food right now-- I take my pizza to go.

We lug my two giant 20-kilo suitcases to the bus stop (the Iceland Express flight included two free checked bags, and I thought I’d take advantage of the opportunity to get most of my stuff across the ocean in one go.) As we do, we see the bus pull away. There isn't another one for twenty minutes, and there's still a train connection to get to the airport after that. We contemplate a taxi, but Toni decrees that we can make it. I am yet more jumpy. The bus finally comes, packed with people who stare at us and our outsized luggage.

At the station, we run flat out and make the airport train with 15 seconds to spare. It is at this point that I teach Toni the phrase “FML.” Oh, Alissa-on-the-train-to-Schoenefeld. If only you knew what was coming.

We arrive at the airport and find the EasyJet counter. Okay, I think, this could work, right? There’s still 20 minutes left to check in. We’ve made it. I hand my passport to the EasyJet woman.

Except: the small print. I bought a second checked bag, yes. But I didn't realize that the airline’s policy is that all bags cannot weigh more than 20 kilos together... not 20 kilos each, separately. EasyJet Woman informs me coldly that I can check this bag if I like—it will cost E42 per kilo. I do some quick calculations and then reach for the spare E800 I always keep in my back pocket.

Just kidding! I dissolve into a puddle of tears on the floor.

Just kidding, again! But barely. Toni is far more level-headed than I am. He uses his stellar German to ask the EasyJet Bitch (I’ve switched her name in my head at this point) if there’s a post office in the nearby. Miracle of miracles, there’s a DHL desk in the same terminal just a few feet away.

After some semi-panicked shifting of things from one suitcase to another, EJB checks me in. Then Toni uses that same stellar German to get me a quote from the nice ladies at the DHL desk--- only E42 to ship to Spain. We dither for a moment: where to send it? I don’t have an address yet.

Toni, the paragon of cool and calm through all of this, is starting to get agitated. Check in time is over and they have already started boarding the plane. Panicked, we part without a goodbye. I tear my belt and shoes off, take all my electronics out of my backpack, manhandle my bags onto the conveyor belt, sweating all the while. Toni mouths my gate to me through the window.

I run—RUN—to the gate, through a duty-free mall, up and down several sets of stairs, down a long hall. At the gate, there are exactly two idle neon-vested airport security guards and exactly no passengers. I show them the half of my boarding pass that remains, the other having fled the scene sometime during the preceding chaos, and they talk briefly among themselves. Then one of them says to me, “No, not gate 50. Gate 15!”

I don’t have the energy to run back up and down the stairs, back through the duty free mall, and to the other end of the terminal. Panic is flooding white-hot through my whole body at this point, and my breath is coming fast.

I get to Gate 20 and can’t find any lower numbers. Finally, I find a tiny sign pointing around a corner. Another set of stairs; another long hallway. Then a long line in which I catch my breath. The flight is due to take off in 15 minutes. I'm lucky they haven't shut the door yet.

There are two signs above us for gates 16 and 15. Then I hear someone talking about arriving in Amsterdam. I ask my linemates; yes, this is gate 16. I run ahead to the end of the hall: it’s a dead end. I can’t help it. “You’ve got to be fucking kidding me,” I say out loud. The Amsterdam travelers gape at the crazy lady pacing back and forth at the end of the hall, clutching a black traveling bag under her jacket and trying to make it look like part of her clothing in case somebody asks why she has two carry-ons instead of one.

Finally I discover the secret: another staircase down onto the tarmac. I make a mad dash, this time basically in tears. More neon-vested airport workers greet me, comfort me. No, you didn’t miss your flight. Just get in line, miss. I breathe a sigh of relief. (Again, too early.)

I find a seat. There’s no room in the overhead compartments and I have to gatecheck my backpack and take my computer and netbook with me. I’m sitting next to a nice couple from Madrid. For the first time, I’m surrounded by Spanish—I dont’ think there’s a single German person on this flight. I close my eyes and breathe it in for a moment. This is what my new life will be like. And then:

“Sorry folks” --(why do airplane captains always call the passengers ‘folks’?)—“but I’m afraid I have some bad news.” The PA system is fuzzy, and it sounds like the captain is turned away from the microphone. I think I hear something about an earthquake and think of the tremors in Washington DC a few weeks ago. The only thing I understand is we won’t be taking off yet.

The minutes stretch by and I get more confused. I stop a passing stewardess. “Did I hear the captain say something about an earthquake?” No, she corrects me. He said ‘bird strike.’ They’ve found a duck in the engine that got sucked in during landing. They’ll need to see if there is any lasting damage before departure.

There’s no ripple of understanding on the plane following this announcement. Everyone here speaks minimal English--I think I’m the only one here who gets it. The nice Madrileno couple look at me questioningly. I clumsily translate the announcement. There’s a jolly gentleman behind me who starts making pate jokes with his two daughters. We wait.

There’s nothing for it: we have to change planes. It takes 45 minutes to clear us out of the old plane and get us into a hot, cramped waiting room. There’s another 20 minutes of chaotic waiting (I guard my electronics zealously), then pushing and squeezing onto busses which literally (and I wish I was making this up) drive in circles on the tarmac for another 15 minutes. Eventually we make it onto a new airplane, baggage and all. The situation seems still salvageable until we sit waiting for take off another 25 minutes.

In the air I’m starting to panic again. I'm not a nervous flyer, but this time I make an exception. I have nowhere to stay in Madrid, and I don’t know if I’ll make the bus to Palencia. This flight was originally scheduled to arrive at 8:05, leaving me plenty of time to catch a 9:45 bus, but after a tense couple of hours we touch down at 9:25, then taxi for 15 minutes. I grab my bag and have to make a flash decision. Should I grab a cab, make a beeline for the bus station and hope the bus left late? I have a few friends in Madrid but no contact information for them. I don’t know the phone numbers or locations of any hostels. The information desk is closed. I feel drained and jittery at the same time.

I get in a cab. He tells me it’s at least 15 minutes to the city. No way we can get the bus, he says as he gets on the highway. As the minutes tick by, I start crying again. I’m exhausted, overwhelmed, panicked. I can’t contact the girl I’m supposed to stay with in Palencia tonight. I can’t believe this day went the way it did.

The cabbie takes pity on me, calling a hostel to see if there’s room, then overcharges me by E20 before dropping me at the bus station. Points against this situation pile up: I can’t see any sign of buses to Palencia; the ticket booth is closed; I was too rushed to write down the name of the hostel and can't remember it. I wander in a haze of adrenaline for some minutes before finding a security guard who takes pity on me. His Spanish is a chaotic swirl in my brain, but I understand the first part: walk straight for 5 minutes.

Of course, 7 minutes later I’m lost, and I still can’t remember the name of the damn hostel. I ask multiple strangers but “I think there’s a hostel near here; no, I don’t remember the name that guy gave me” doesn’t help much. I know it must be around here somewhere. I remember hearing something about a Corte Ingles department store, and I’ve been around this one at least three times. I have fantasies of sleeping on the step of the store, using my damp hoodie as a facemask and my suitcase as a pillow.

I finally stumble on the hostel almost by accident, 11 hours after I left Berlin. It’s a blessed 8 euros a night. The dour man gives me sheets for my tiny, screechy-springed bunk bed. I put my things away, stumble outside to find food.

Later that night back in the hostel, I’m befriended by a lovely, exceedingly outgoing Chilean girl. I tell her my epic story in halting Spanish. When I get to the part about the duck, she bursts into uncontrollable peals of laughter. She can’t believe a flight would be disrupted because of a duck. “In my country, flights are delayed because of earthquakes or wars,” she says, then is consumed by laughter again. I can barely understand her through her giggles, but I do get one phrase, over and over again “El pobre pato!” she says. “The poor duck!”

Every other Spaniard I tell this story to says the same thing.

The next day I finally get that bus to Palencia.

Saturday, October 1, 2011

Berlin and Shiva; The End and the Beginning

The idea to visit Berlin and the means to make it so came separately. I loved Berlin the first time I visited in 2009; then my beloved friend, Toni, moved there for a year. I wanted very much to experience the life he had built there and to meet this newly independent, confident person who was flourishing in a foreign city, but I didn't see how it might be possible before Toni moved back to his native Barcelona. Then luck stepped in: a dirt-cheap sale to Berlin on the semi-respectable IcelandExpress just about the time I needed to be in Europe, anyway! So, a few hours after my encounter with Jose in the Reykjavik airport, I found myself in the land of currywurst, lager, and the ever-present singsong "Tchuss!" (which, if said with the proper high intonation, is a friendly way to say "see you!" in German.) It was a four-day pit stop on the way to an entirely new life. I left the United States filled with anxiety, trepidation, and grief for my old routines, friends, and habits. I wasn't ready to be finished, but even so it was time to start. I was glad that tehre was a friendly face waiting on the other side of the ocean.

I spent my days in Berlin at a small, friendly hostel in super-hip Kreuzberg, by the river-- next to but not inside Toni's apartment, because of roommate visitor restrictions. Toni works as a tour guide for tourists from Spain and other Spanish-speaking countries, leading them around museums and sites in the city and its surroundings, so one day I borrowed his pass for the amazing Egypt museum on so-called "Museum Island" in central Berlin and surreptitiously watched him lead a tour. Another day, we went with his mother (who was also visiting) to Potsdam, a small town on the outskirts of Berlin. Potsdam is famous for San Souci, a very French palace built by a very German king that famously boasted a No Girls Allowed rule.

The first night I walked out to see the sunset

Wandering in these places with a trained tour guide was ideal. I learned a huge amount about Egyptian art, even taking into account my longtime fascination with the Egyptian mummies at the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston. And Toni was a great guide throughout Potsdam (which, apart from the beautiful palace, is both a charming small German town and the place where the remaining powers met after WWII to discuss the fate of Germany.)

In the evenings we cooked dinner, took walks, and found various atmospheric bars to catch up in over beers. One particularly memorable evening, we went dancing at a basement gay club with 1970s commercials projected on the chipped brick walls and a fun mix of "gay classics" (Cher, Rocky Horror) and locale-appropriate dance tunes (ABBA, 99 Luftballoons) on tap. I was able, for a period, to focus on just being there, instead of thinking of what I was heading toward or what I had left behind. It was a wonderful gift that Berlin and Toni gave me-- but ideas of departure and arrival were still stewing.

Toni walks the stairs at San Souci

Hieroglyphics at the Egyptian Museum

Despite our efforts at togetherness, Toni has an unbelievably frenetic schedule, so I spent a lot of the visit on my own. I wandered the city trying to regain my traveler's balance and rediscover what it was about the place I had loved so dearly when I came the first time. And I found it, at least in part. The city is blanketed by a gritty but creative un-"dressed up" atmosphere, which permeates everything. Many neighborhoods are still emerging from the dark ages of Communist rule, and the leftover blocky architecture and general used-to-be-decrepit feel speaks to that. But what is really magical about Berlin is what's done with that grittiness. A lesser city would just be content to be dirty, unsafe, and uninspiring, but Berliners have made it a mecca for creativity, art, and community. There are art galleries and concerts everywhere, and that's just on the officially established side. Street art decorates many buildings, concerts spring from nowhere, sculpture sprouts from the sidewalk.

On Sunday I went with a couchsurfer to the Mauer Park fleamarket, which I so adored my first time in Berlin. The park is in a former No Man's Land from the days of the Wall ("mauer" means "wall" in German), and on Sundays it is filled with rows upon rows of homemade or used clothing, furniture, funky crafts, jewelry, and food. We spent four hours in the drizzle trying on stuffed animal hats, exclaiming over zipper earrings, and wishing for enough money or luggage space to buy everything in sight. In the end, I binged on 7 pairs of amazingly funky 3 euro earrings. I was so glad to see something I remembered so lovingly live up to my memories.

Street art in Kreuzberg

It was a relief in particular because of another Berlin institution that I had heard was in danger: Tacheles, a 19th-century shopping mall left to rot in East Berlin under Communist rule, then saved by an artist collective and turned into studios, a sculpture park, a cafe, and more. I wrote about it here in 2009--then, as well, I was incredibly struck by the way these artists had turned something so ugly into so much beauty. I even bought a ring there that I wore every day as a reminder of my traveling accomplishments and personal growth--at least, until it disappeared last year. Now, rumors were flying: I had heard that Tacheles had been reclaimed by the bank when its current owner went into bankruptcy, that the whole thing had been knocked down, that the artists had left, or that it was being turned into condos. So I went back with trepidation, especially after having such a positive experience at Mauer Park.

But I felt I had to go: I had drawn so much inspiration and strength from the memory of Tacheles in the years after my trip, and I was much in need of some of that just now. Berlin wasn't just a quick pit stop for me, psychologically. It was a buffer period between my Old Life and the Life to Come. These days were easing me in to a very big change. I was marinating in transition and still very much not ready to let go of the happinesses of 2010 and early 2011.

Luckily, I arrived at Tacheles and breathed relief. Yes, the bank (or somebody) had kicked a lot of the artists out of the building itself, dismantled the old cafe, and attempted to bar entry by building a wall on which someone had spray painted "diese mauer ist eine schande fur berlin" or "This wall is a shame for Berlin." But, I discovered something magic in the back lot behind Tacheles: the same sculpture park thrived, and an improvised cafe housed people drinking beer on packing crates. The spirit of Tacheles was alive and well.

Part of the sculpture garden

I was buying a copper ring to replace my old one from an Italian jeweler when a painter beckoned to me from the opposite corner. In the course of our conversation he described an uncertain future--rumors abound that the bank will auction off the building in the spring. The painter guided me into a small trailer filled with his work and tried to convince me to buy a piece, but I had neither the money nor the suitcase space. Full of guilt and a love of the place, I gave him a couple of Euros.

His face split into a grin. "Thank you, thank you. Every little bit helps. So, would you like to ask for something from my statue?" he said. Doubtful, I followed him outside, where he pointed at a sculpture wielding a sword and a torch--a woman, powerful and intent.

"That's Shiva," he told me. "She's the destroyer and the creator, with her sword and torch. She is the ending and the beginning at once. They're the same, you see."

Then I was glad I had given him the Euro; the next day I was on my way to Spain.