Heisenberg Abroad

Over the last week I have been in Germany for a scientific conference. 10,000 doctors, professors, students, technicians, clinicians and researchers who study blood came together to share their research and to connect with our international colleagues. For those who are unfamiliar, these types of conferences generally mean talks and presentations from pretty early in the morning (7am for this conference) to dinner or later. After that the networking (and by networking I mean drinking) begins. So, in one sense I was excited to be going to a totally new place to meet up with the leading voices in my field. On the other hand I knew I would unfortunately not get a lot of time to explore the city of Berlin. Nevertheless, it is impossible to be in a foreign country without getting some taste of new things. By taste, of course, I am literally talking about gustatory tourism. Gustatourism?

It’s been said that the fastest way to a man’s heart is through his stomach, and the same is true of a country. Indeed, in my short stay here I have fallen in love with an omnipresent street food mainstay in metropolitan Berlin: Currywurst. It’s a wurst covered in curry and paprika spiced ketchup, usually served with fries. Discovering a new dish, especially one which is so linked to a city’s identity (in some areas there are three currywurst places in a four-way intersection), is one of the great joys of life. When you see great art, or appreciate a memorial, when you experience a moving theater production or learn a new game, you are permanently changed. Brushes with cultures other than our own leave impressions which last the rest of our lives. In the same way, discovering new foods enriches your life forever. Without having discovered currywurst, or schnitzels, or bratwurst, I deprive myself of all future chances to enjoy eating those dishes, and when I eat those dishes, I will think of Berlin!

90 years before my personal discovery of these German foods, a German physicist named Werner Heisenberg discovered something of almost equal importance and gravitas. He proposed the Heisenberg uncertainty principle, a set of inequalities which describe the relationships between certain physical properties of a particle. Put simply, it holds that it is impossible to precisely measure something’s speed and position at the same time. The faster something is moving, the less we know about the location.

One of my favorite things about currywurst (I promise this post is going to come together at some point) was the stands it’s sold at. Many of them are about 100 sq ft, a typical street food spot, but with lots of counter space around it and usually some standalone metal tables. This is key, since they usually serve it in flimsy paper containers not nearly big enough to hold all the fries (not complaining!). Sometimes I would be on my way back from a day of talks to the hotel, just trying to get back to shower and maybe catch some winks before going out to some bars and I would grab some currywurst. At first I was irritated that it was a bit harder to walk and eat (although the smaller sizes are more manageable), but as I took the 5-10 minutes to wolf it down, I looked around. I saw people buying strawberries at a dedicated strawberry stand, watched kids post up outside the S-Bahn station and smoke, break dance, skateboard. I watched diverse faces walk by, saw what other people were eating, what they were drinking. Old European men stood around outside a mini-mart drinking beer in public. I saw the predominantly non-white workers in sanitation, city maintenance. I watched beggars beg, homelessness. I learned how the bus system worked because my favorite stand (Yes I had a favorite stand after just one week. I ate…a lot of currywurst) was near the bus terminal. I picked up a couple German words listening to people order their food, or converse. In other words, when I wasn’t measuring my speed, I learned more about my location.

Whenever I had free time I was so exhausted from the conference and jetlag. At the same time I felt so pressured to see stuff. (Did you really visit a foreign country without the instagram pics to prove it?) I didn’t understand that just slowing down would provide way better resolution, and would give me a more enriching experience.

Today was the last day of the ISTH conference. We checked out of our hotel room around 8am Thursday, but my flight wasn’t until 6am Friday morning! Somehow the aggregate loss of sleep and stress of having to figure out what to do with myself in a foreign country for 16 hours with nowhere to call home base was really overwhelming me. The last day of the conference was much shorter, and sitting through each of the talks I could feel myself worrying more and more about…well I’m not sure what. I could have stayed for all the wrap-up stuff, but most of the people at the conference were leaving already, or had already departed! I could see everyone draining out of the conference center, and I saw my friends and colleagues quickly making their ways out of Germany itself! I felt like I was behind them, why did I get a Friday morning flight? I didn’t know everyone was going to leave now! My position became blurry. Speed was highly important again! Yet, what could I do? My flight was when my flight was. I had a ton of time, and so what if I didn’t have a home base?

I took my bags, containing everything I needed for two weeks in Europe, and I hopped on the train system I was only juuuust starting to understand. Instead of getting off at the stop near the hotel and just meandering through shops for hours on end, I just stayed on the train. One, two, three, four, five stops past where I would normally get off. I climbed off the train, clambered down the stairs awkwardly with my heavy computer bag weighing on my shoulder already. It was only 2pm. I had downloaded the map of Berlin on my phone already (I’m not about those roaming data fees), so I saw what was in the area. It turned out that about a 10 minute walk away was the Reichstag building, so I walked there. 10 minutes doesn’t seem too bad but with the bags it wasn’t the easiest trek. Especially because I had only my limited navigational skills to rely on, and all the signs are in German…I found the river on the map, walked along it. I walked past beautiful modern-looking governmental offices. It was, again, a slow way to see the city. Instead of finding the quickest route to a checklist of sights, I wandered toward the famous glass-domed edifice. Snapped some pics. Instagram, sated. My shoulders hurt. My phone was dying. The Brandenburg Gate was closeby. I walked through the touristy parts around the gate, then remembered that the Soviet War Memorial was pretty close to the gate too, so I wandered in that direction. Germans are much less aggressive jaywalkers.

There is a big park called the Tiergarten and lots of ponds and paths and green space along the Straße des 17. Juni, the big road that links the Brandenburg Gate to the Victory Column, with the Soviet War Memorial along the way. I took my time getting to the War Memorial, winding and weaving through Tiergarten. From the memorial I walked to the victory column, and from the victory column, I could see the tops of some buildings that looked familiar. So THAT’s where I was? (Remember I just hopped off the train). I was a lot closer to the small sector of Berlin I had become familiar with from our hotel being there than I thought. It was going to take a good 30 mins to get there I estimated, and my shoulders were hurting even more after spending a few hours wandering between landmarks, but I had all the time in the world to kill, and I started walking. As I did I started to recognize more and more streets or buildings in the distance. Looking at my map, I figured out where everything was in relation to each other. I mapped out my path ex post facto. Having arrived back in an area I was more comfortable in, I perused some shops and just hung around. After a while though, I was getting kind of tired of that area. I’d been hanging around it for a few days already, and if I didn’t leave I was going to continue to eat my weight in sausages.

Still having plenty of time to get to the airport (I was planning on staying up through the night, since I didn’t want to get an AirBnB or anything), I hopped back on the train, in the opposite direction this time, and I got off at each stop for a bit, seeing what the neighborhoods were like, the shops and people and restaurants, churches and theaters. I even wandered back through where each of the train stops were, but on foot. I just spent some time being in the city. When breathing a city in, breathing deep helped! Okay but my shoulders were seriously killing me at this point. I trekked back to the hotel we had checked out of, since that’s the area I knew. I considered just taking a cab to the airport, even though I had several hours still to kill, but decided that, since I had the time, I might as well explore another aspect of the city. I asked the concierge to explain how the busses worked, to make sure what I’d observed was correct, and rode the bus to the airport. I didn’t realize it had dropped me off one stop away from the actual airport stop. More walking. I came to relish it.

A cab would have been faster, and I could get my lab to pay for it, but I took the slower route. I wasn’t worrying about time. I considered hopping off the bus at a few points to just explore other parts of the city, but my feet and shoulders were on strike. This was the ideal way to explore a new city. So danke Heisenberg (for your equation, not so much the Nazi shit), danke to my PI for not booking a hotel on Friday (he dipped midday thursday anyway…), and danke Berlin.



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