Berlin – Germany

Be ready to own your ignorance. This is the lesson I’ve repeatedly learnt while travelling in countries where I don’t speak the local language. As a tourist in a foreign place, you have to walk the tightrope between the appalling rudeness of expecting everyone to speak English, and being too timid, too silent, mumbling and swallowing your words so that the locals couldn’t understand you even if they were perfectly bilingual. Sometimes this balance is hard, but I’ve found that a quick study of everything between “Hello” and “do you speak English?” is a great help.

The most common response I get from Germans when I ask them (in an apologetic tone) “Sprechen Sie Englisch?” is the rather charmingly modest “Ja, a little bit.” I say that this is modest because these same people will usually go on to answer all of my questions in a perfectly comprehensible and quite serviceable English, which leaves me wondering what someone who speaks a lot of English looks like to them.

In Berlin, this is particularly true, owing presumably to the cosmopolitan nature of the capital. My experience there began with a midnight arrival by plane, a trip to a pizza place for a very late dinner, and settling into the extremely quirky apartment that I would be renting with my friend for the next few days. This place reminded me of nothing so much as the Paper Street Soap Company, albeit much more hygienic. Fortunately.

People did tell me Berlin was particular, and I think that’s true. It’s a weird and wonderful city.

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Paris V: Paris Strikes Back, and VI: Return of the Paris

As fate would have it, our return to Paris was pre-empted by the unfortunate events of January 7th, in which a pair of homicidal religious fanatics attacked the offices of a satirical newspaper near République. Whatever the other consequences may have been – and they were numerous – this meant that Paris was tense, locked up tight and festooned with so many red warning signs that a nearsighted person might have thought they had put the Christmas decorations back up. Honestly, we were a little fearful about all this at first – a few people told us not to go, although the overwhelming attitude was – if you’ll excuse me – fuck those terrorists, go anyway.

And fuck the terrorists we did – figuratively speaking – after I finished work on Friday afternoon, we set off on the train. And as we spent our evening walking around that beautiful city – emptier than I’d ever seen it before – I was glad we had. Terrorists or no, Paris will always be Paris and the romantic magic of the city seems – at least so far – to be resilient to attack. We didn’t know it yet, but we’d also be back just a week later, unable to resist one last visit before Alex had to pack her bags and head home to Australia.

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