Never would I have imagined this Christmas to be spent the way I did. In many ways, it had been most unusual: Christmas eve, upon arriving at my first Couchsurfing host’s flat after traveling over an hour on the U-Bahn and meandered my way through Berlin’s dark streets, I was given a full-size Temperpedic bed in my own room the size of my dining room back home in the states. On top of that, Christmas Day I found myself standing between my host and her Canadian-expat friend, cutting up carrots and onions for our stew. We would afterwards be served vegan ice cream made from frozen bananas. Although I knew that Couchsurfing was going to help me stave off the talking-to-myself thing that sometimes makes me afraid I’m going to lose my mind soon, I never realized that it would provide me with a family on Christmas Day.
But I’m getting ahead of myself.
Meeting my First Host
After 6 hours of being either in transit or waiting for a medium of transportation, I was hardly up for a lengthy conversation with my host, Ilze. Ever since embarking onto the plane, my stomach was a mass of excitement and anxiety—excited to finally participate in the Couchsurfing community that I’ve read about for years but anxious that I would not be what my host expected/wanted—or if I was even capable of conversing with complete strangers for a lengthy amount of time. How was the relationship dynamic between host and surfer supposed to be? How much is enough interaction and how much is too much interaction?
I had arrived tired, shoulders aching from the large backpack (who thought it was a good idea to convince masses of people that backpacking is a good idea? Really, not necessary at all when you’re “backpacking” through urban areas). The directions she’d given me online were straightforward and I found myself too quickly at her doorstep. Wait a minute, I didn’t have time to prepare for this! my mind screamed a few moments after I rang her doorbell. Did she hear?! Is she coming? Quick, what’s going to be my opening lines—the door opened. A pause.
“You made it!” she said softly. If she was happy I’d arrived safely, it didn’t show in her expression. Through my experiences during this trip, I’ve learned that the putting down of stuff and taking off shoes is the most awkward part about meeting a host—you can’t skip over it but you can’t make conversation while doing so either. It’s like the strip of shame. At this point, however, I didn’t know that so my mind was going through every worst-case scenario ever, like oh my god we’re not going to get along and I’m here for 6 nights! But I would quickly learn that that was just her personality; calm, a bit awkward without knowing, and eager to share her experiences—mostly in Couchsurfing and minimialistic health approaches.
She had obviously eaten before I arrived—the thought kept popping through my head as I sucked what energy I could from the green tea: none. I was starving; the only thing I’d eaten earlier that day was airport sandwich which tasted like the money I could’ve saved. I’d originally planned to drop some things off and to make a quick run to a nearby kebab stand (it’s Berlin!), which clearly wasn’t going to happen. Lesson two on Couchsurfing: 2-5 hours after you arrive will be spent talking to your host.
Same goes the day after—if it’s Christmas. I seem to realize more and more that what’s convenient for me may not usually be convenient for the rest of the world. In this instance, working Europe.
“So… do you have any plans for today?” Ilze asked me after her morning workout.
I was unsure. Online, she had told me to block off a chunk of time around 2PM so that she, her friend, and I could celebrate with a Christmas meal together. Was I no longer invited? Was she scoping out if I would be just a travel bum the entire stay?
“Um… yeah, I think I’m going to take a free walking tour of the city…”
“The next one is at 1PM,” she paused, unsure, “my friend is coming around 2 for the Christmas dinner.”
“… am I invited to that (still)?”
“Yeah of course! And, if you want, I can give you a bus tour of the city before he comes over!”
And with that, our friendship was born.
The Covert Tour Bus
Ilze took me around on Bus #200, which is actually a tourist bus disguised as one of the city buses. Technically, it is a city bus, but it stops at every major tourist stop: the Reichstag, Museum Island, Potsdamerplatz, Alexanderplatz, Tiergarten, etc. Atop this bus, you cross from east to west Berlin quickly; it is perfect to take if you wanted a cheaper sightseeing tour—did I mention it’s a double-decker bus? The last stop is as Zoolischergarten, which, luckily for you is one of the largest public transport stations, meaning you can always get back to wherever you began once your tour’s over.
Bonus: Curry 36 and a bunch of other food stands/fast food joints are littered around this area.
Of course, the food stand culture in Berlin is HUGE, therefore it’s completely justified that I got this currywurst… and a bread roll.
Later on, after we returned from our spontaneous bus tour, I found myself watching as Ilze made some no-sugar vegan cookies—which turned out more like biscuits—and then watched her purée what would’ve been a perfectly good vegetable stew. I made it through the saltless meal after a healthy dose of Sriracha that her friend had brought and was rewarded with some homemade vegan ice cream.
Gendarmenmarkt Christmas Market
After some dining and fine conversation, I was itching to hit the Christmas markets—and to finally walk through the city—so I said my farewells and told her I’d be back in a few hours. As the final door slammed behind me, I took a deep breath; freedom. I was finally free to discover Berlin. And what more perfect way to celebrate Christmas than at a German Christmas market? Happy Christmas, Michelle.
Thanks to my research and the bus system that Ilze introduced me to, I chose to go to the market at Gendarmenmarkt.
“OH. You mean gen-DAR-men-markt! Yes, get off at the next stop and walk that way.”
The kind bus driver ended up dropping me off at a stoplight—not a bus stop—because it was closest to the square; the first of many German kindnesses I was to experience. It’s the intention that counts, actually, because he didn’t actually know what he was talking about. It’s hard enough exploring a large city during the day without getting lost but having not even explored it earlier today, it was hard to understand where I was in relation to… well, nothing. There was nowhere I knew so I couldn’t belong in any relative location that I knew of in Berlin. I can say that Berlin looked pretty
empty at night though.
But where there are tourist cities, there are signs. And I followed each one and found myself happily at its entrance. That is, I was until realizing that people were paying 1€ to get into this Christmas market! As if they weren’t exploitative enough. Who did they think they are, charging for people to enter the grounds so that they can earn more money!
Long story short, I paid.
And since I paid, I was determined to get my money’s worth by enjoying the market to the fullest… which included paying MORE for the bratwurst and mulled wine that I was determined to gorge myself on before leaving Germany (I can safely tell you that I ate AT LEAST ONE bratwurst a day the entire trip).
Many people say that this is one of the best Christmas markets; the ambience there is cozy and has just the right crowd for people who enjoy a low-key, older market. I didn’t notice as many children here on Christmas Day and it was less crowded than the other markets I’ve been to. Then again, the fact that it was Christmas Day may explain many of that, although I’m told Germans celebrate it more the 24th than the day of.
In the middle of the market, there’s a giant, heated, tented area comprised of an indoor bar amidst rows upon rows of quality homemade material. I wasn’t as interested in the goods—who knows how much more I could fit in my backpack before it exploded from the seams? Me. I did; another pencil and I would’ve had to drag my belongings behind me with a rope. My host told me that the crafts they sold here were one of the best, defined as: not the average craft booth geared towards tourists, but actual art.
Standing in the middle of my first authentic German Christmas market, complete with the band made up entirely of 60+ year-old men dressed as Santa, the moment couldn’t help but feel surreal to me. I was in Germany. For the first time. Couchsurfing for the first time and truly wandering around a country for the first time, solo. Almost nothing could bring down my elation.
So, with a full heart, I left the market feeling wonderful and headed back to my temporary home. After half an hour, the high of being in such a large city was starting to wear off. How hard was it to stumble into any goddamn platz here? They’re everywhere! An hour later, I was still wandering. This is what happens when you try discovering cities in the dark.