Operation Pen Pal & A Soggy Trip to Berlin

Yes, I know it’s been a long absence. Let’s just say that between work, travel, a visitor, and being sick with two colds in a row, I haven’t gotten to blogging in awhile. Mea culpa.

My sister Carol visited for two weeks recently. We had a wonderful visit (despite both of us getting sick in Berlin), and I feel a bit bereft now that she has gone. Having a visitor drives home the sense of isolation that comes with living in a strange place. At least the weather has improved–sunny and about 60. There was mainly rain and 40s/low 50s for my poor sister; she was, I’m sure, very happy to get back to sunny Arizona!

My sister teaches middle school English in a Catholic school and had the brilliant idea of trying to find Hungarian pen pals for her students. I asked one of my colleagues, who fortuitously has a friend who teaches English at a local Catholic school, the Karolina school and gymnasium. We arranged a meeting with the wonderful Ágnes, who arranged for us to meet with students in 6th-8th grades there. Carol was in her element with the students, who were shy but warmed up to her. We had some lively discussion, wherein we told them about Arizona and New York, exchanged information about the schools (this one is much bigger than hers). We learned from the students about Hungarian sports, pastimes, and dog breeds, such as the Puli, a herding dog with dreadlocks, which resembles a dust mop.


I talked with a boy who had spent time in Toronto and had been to Niagara Falls, and a girl from Transylvania, with whom I shared a laugh at Americans who think vampires live there. Carol distributed the letters her students had written to the appropriate classes. We later met with Ágnes to pick up the replies her students had written. The students on both sides are very excited about having pen pals (although not necessarily as excited about writing the letters). The teachers insisted on hand-written old-fashioned letters (Carol had to teach her students how to write such a thing!), although I’m sure some of the students may end up contacting each other through Facebook also. I absolutely loved having a pen pal (from New Zealand) when I was a kid, and it is great to know that kids are still interested in this. An old-fashioned but still relevant force for globalization!

I will be returning to the Karolina school probably in December, as I have been invited to talk with some of the students about American holidays. Before that, however, I’ll be meeting with high school students to talk about Halloween at the Community House of the Szeged Csányi Foundation, set up to develop the talents of underprivileged kids.

Carol and I traveled to Berlin for a few days. Neither of us had been, and, like they say, there’s so much history there. (Ha, there is history everywhere, says the historian!) Unfortunately the weather did not cooperate. My impressions of Berlin: gray, dreary, cold, rainy. The architecture tends to the ponderous and many buildings need cleaning, which added to the dreariness. Luckily the rain spared us one day to do a marathon walk around the city center, from Alexander Platz and down the Unter den Linden to the Brandenburg Gate and the Reichstag Building (Bundestag), then along the path of the wall to Checkpoint Charlie.

A piece of the Wall at Potsdamer Platz
A piece of the Wall at
Potsdamer Platz
Memorial to Roma murdered in Holocaust
Memorial to Roma
murdered in Holocaust

Despite the weather, there were hundreds of other tourists on the march. It was sobering to see memorials to the Roma and the Jews murdered in the Holocaust, to view an open air exhibition on the Third Reich, and to walk along the route where the wall divided East and West.Perhaps gray weather is fitting for such a somber trek. Here and there were remaining panels from the wall (at least, I believe they were authentic, although it wasn’t entirely clear). I really wanted to make it to the East Side Gallery, where the last big piece of the wall was given over to artists to decorate, but that would have been another several miles away, and we ran out of steam.

Contemporary architecture in Berlin
Contemporary architecture in Berlin

Of course, Berlin is a dynamic city, as evidenced by the huge numbers of cranes and construction projects dotting the city. And while I was not a fan of most of the buildings in town , I found the contemporary architecture more interesting. But the highlight of the trip for me was the fabulous Pergamon Museum, home of amazing antiquities such as the Pergamon Altar (sadly unavailable for visitors due to renovations), the Miletus Market Gate, the Ishtar Gate and processional way from Babylon, and a host of others from Mesopotamia, the Near East, etc., as well as an amazing collection of early Islamic architecture and art. I

Miletus Gate
Miletus Gate

had the opportunity to visit Miletus and Pergamon when I was in Turkey, and it was really cool to see the reconstructed market gate (massive), complete with little etched signs advertising vendors, as well as a fabulous mosaic floor from the dining room of a private home, also from Miletus. The huge Ishtar Gate and procession way, with its blue bricks and lions, was at least equally impressive.

Processional way, from Babylon
Part of processional way, from

And yes, I found out that Ishtar was the Babylonian goddess of love and war, not just a really bad movie from the 1980s. So many wonderful antiquities here; I literally wandered around for hours, listening to the guide and taking lots of photos.

Colossal bird, Tell Halaf
Colossal bird, Tell Halaf

This giant bird made me think of Horus. There were incredible fountains, statues, water basins, Islamic prayer niches and ceramics, palace reliefs, and much, much more. This museum was truly a place of sensory overload.

So Berlin definitely has things to recommend it to the visitor. And who knows, perhaps in the summer it is an absolutely charming place (but even more overrun with tourists). One piece of advice if you plan to come via Schönefeld Airport: get very explicit directions as to which train to take, as there was no one working at the airport train station, and it was by no means clear which train came on which track, and which train we needed to take. We knew the train number, but that wasn’t enough, as we got on two incorrect trains with the correct number. Thankfully other passengers helped us find our way to Alexander Platz. The train and transit signs seem much better to me in Hungary.

More to come, on my recent travels around Hungary.






6 responses to “Operation Pen Pal & A Soggy Trip to Berlin”

  1. Carol Avatar

    Kudos for another beautifully written treatise on your (and my) experiences in Central Europe! I cannot wait to share with my students here in Arizona.

  2. Jessica Avatar

    Hey Ollie,
    I finally caught up on all of your posts! Can’t wait until our trip out there in January! All the foods, beer, festivals, and stores sound amazing. After hearing about how soggy the Berlin trip was, I will definitely pack for cold whether. I’m sure January will be even rainier.

    I’m working on a few Hungarian phrases although we’ll have our very own tour guide with you! Talk to you soon – I’ll send you more trip details. – Jess

  3. Carmen S. Rivera Avatar
    Carmen S. Rivera

    Ellen, Thank you so much for a beautifully narrated post about your trip to Berlin. You do not make any reference to German food or beer which makes me think you were really really sick. I know right now and as the holidays approach, you feel nostalgic for home. But I should warn you that when you come back, you will be feeling the reverse for the “strange land” of Hungary.

    1. admin Avatar

      Haha, I feel like all I talk about is food! I did have some wonderful pork schnitzel with mushroom sauce, and of course German beer and pretzel at the Hofbrau. We also went out for Thai food twice, which was very good.

  4. Steve Avatar

    Sorry to hear that your illness and the weather put a damper on your experience in Berlin! I found it such a vibrant city when I was there, but it was in June (2005) and I did stay for a month living in my own apartment not far from the city center. I got around a lot more, and there was always some kind of festivity going on at that time of year.

    Did you get to the KaDeWe (Kaufhaus Des Westens)? I spent a lot of time in their food court …

    1. admin Avatar

      Yeah, we were going to go to KaDeWe, but it was a little far from our hotel, and we ended up going to Galeria, which was closer and similar, if not as historic. I’m going to Berlin tomorrow but will just be at the JFK Center for North American Studies at the Freie Universitat to give a talk. So I don’t think I’ll see much more of Berlin. I am leaving Tuesday morning taking a train to Innsbruck to visit friends there. I guess I’ll have to give Berlin another chance one day, but I’ll try to find a sunnier time of year!

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