What makes Berlin so attractive to us? Kay and I are city people, and when I ask myself why, I am reminded of what Dr. Samuel Johnson said centuries ago about his own city of London: “When a man is tired of London, he is tired of life; for there is in London all that life can afford.” If I replace “man” with “man or woman” and “London” with the names of the any of the world’s renowned cities, I have answered my own question. Great cities appeal to us because of their great variety. To “great” I’ll add “surprising.”
Sure, we knew it would be cold in Berlin, but having passed so many mild winters in Istanbul, our memories of what real winter can be like were dulled. So it was that recently, we landed after dark at Tegel Airport and stepped out into several days of the kind of face-biting, bone-chilling cold that we remembered from our younger days and that Berliners claimed was abnormal for the middle of March. More shocking was that we had left home only hours before from a sunny, mild spring-like day in Istanbul.
So we had to adapt. Our transition was eased on that first evening by beer and the comfort of a large room in our favorite hotel, the Hackescher Markt. It was there we would spend our remaining nights in the city.
Germany again; we can’t stay away. During this brief springtime visit, we
- spent time with interesting friends,
- stayed in our favorite hotel,
- ate delicious food,
- visited a wonderful small museum, and
- attended an orchestral rehearsal of classical music.
Holy cow! Do a trip over from scratch? Why? Because on our recent trip to Hamburg, Germany Kay and I experienced every international traveler’s nightmare. We lost our passports. Not lost exactly; they were stolen along with Kay’s Turkish residence permit and everything else in her purse – cell phone, credit cards, house keys, money – everything, including the purse! Things could have been worse. Kay wasn’t mugged, and the passports were dropped off at a police station but not before we had applied for replacements, which automatically cancelled the stolen ones. Her residence permit was returned, too; a blessing because it couldn’t be replaced outside of Turkey, meaning that she might not have been able to come home.
“ . . . everything was thrilling because nothing was the same . . . “
There is a phenomenon common to us all known as psychological time. I mean that our perception of time passing is a function of what we are experiencing. That time passes more quickly when we are having fun and more slowly when we are bored or watching the clock is a truism. The longest fifteen minutes of my day occurs when I’m running on the treadmill at the gym.
Studies show that when we step out of our daily routines and do new and different things our hours and days seem to lengthen and that they pass more quickly when our routine activities resume. At home, although I may be doing many things in the course of my day, they tend to be the same things, and the days, weeks, and even months seem to pass very rapidly, too rapidly for someone as conscious of finite time as I’ve become. I have the opposite reaction when I travel. At those times, days seem to pass much more slowly; a week on the road can seem a month long because I’m seeing different sights, hearing different speech, and thinking different thoughts.
Pardon my French. Actually, not my French. Heureux qui, comme Ulysse, a fait a beau voyage is a line from a sonnet by French poet Joachim du Bellay (1522-1560). I recently came across it in the prologue to Rebecca West’s lengthy Black Lamb and Grey Falcon, the best travel book ever written according to our favorite travel author, Robert D. Kaplan. It recounts a journey that West and her husband made through the Balkans in 1937. The spirit of du Bellay’s line resonates with me. I like to think there is still something, if not heroic on the scale of brave Ulysses, at least important about choosing to expose oneself to the vicissitudes of personal travel. Although the mechanics of travel have probably never been easier, its industrialization, by which I mean mass tourism, tends to diminish our experience of it. As people conscious of the sense of adventure and discovery that the tourism industry tries to remove from travel, we struggle to regain these things. Fortunately, we have our imaginations for this.