Venice, Vienna, Berlin

Grand Canal from Rialto Bridge, Venice, Italy.

Grand Canal from Rialto Bridge, Venice, Italy. (All photos in this post taken by my cellphone)

Venice: The Pilgrimage City

I went to Venice this summer for a two-week summer school on digital visualisation. The workshop was hosted by the Venice International University, a newly-established facility on San Servolo, a nice island in the Venetian lagoon just 10 minutes boat ride outside the main city. The workshop was intense. There were about 20 graduate students and researchers from the US and European universities and me–the only guy from Canada. We learned how to use a number of digital tools commonly used by geographers, planners, and architects in various tasks related to spatial design.

I expected that the summer school would be more “summer” and less “school.” But turned out to be the opposite: everyday from 9am to 5pm we were working in a computer lab at the university with only a launch break at noon. I had to get up at 7am to arrive on time in the workshop using the vaporetto, the water bus moving in the Grand Canal. In the afternoons, sometimes, I was too tired to go out or explore the city. Nevertheless, I went out and explored the city. It was Venice, after all. In that hot weather, it was much nicer to sweat on streets than alone in my tiny hostel room.

We had officially two days off. The first day off was a Sunday and I got on train to visit Basir Ahang, a Hazara journalist/activist living in Padua, a small town near Venice. Basir and I visited all the attractions of this pretty, little city, including the unexpected 9/11 memorial and the city’s university, which is one of the oldest in the world. The second day we were off, we actually were not off: the workshop instructors took all the trainees on a one day long tour of the Venice lagoon stopping by in each island where we had to take photos for using them later in our group projects. There was also a guide accompanying us who knew Venice better than his palm. I had a delicious and overpriced shrimp spaghetti on one of the islands and suffered severely from a very bad sunburn. I didn’t use sunscreen cream because I thought brown people don’t get sunburns. I was wrong.

In Venice, I stayed in a apartment-turned-hostel owned by a young Afghan refugee who has been living in Italy for quite some time. The place was OK but the location was great. It was close to the ghetto, the world’s most renowned Jewish ghetto, and in walking distance from all the attractions central Venice has to offer.

Although in all the three cities I visited in Europe this summer (Venice, Vienna, Berlin), I felt a strong sense of joie de vivre among people, but Venetians, in particular, were laid back and seemed to be very cheerful in comparison to people in Vienna or Berlin whose economic situations are way better than Italy. Canadians too, who are usually work-focused, formal, polite, and quite, look stiff and joyless in comparison to the hot-blooded people I saw in Venice.

Venice is a Pilgrimage city. Somehow, it is like Mashad in Iran where the economy is almost entirely dependent on the millions of tourists who come to kiss the shrine of Imam Reza every year. In Venice, a city of 60,000 people, I was told, 30 million tourists visit each year. During a normal day the winding, narrow alleyways of the city are packed with tourists and street vendors (mostly Bengali) who try to sell fake designer bags to these wandering crowd. In the evening, though, the city suddenly goes to sleep. At around 9pm the tired tourists creep back into their hotels and the shopkeepers of city close down their shops and go home. It’s beautiful to walk around the city at night when the old buildings and the canal look magical in the dim street lights.

The locals, however, along with some of the young tourists in pursuit of fun, go out at midnights and usually gather at a campo, small town squares. At campos, young Venetians come together after work to drink, talk, fight, laugh, and hook up until around 4am. It’s called the “Venetian time”: you go out at 11-12 midnight and have fun until 4am but you gotta get up at 8am for work. This is life for every single night, not only on weekends.

The Afghans I met there were very active. Most are refugees, but all have jobs. One of them, Hamed Haidari, was a young man who owned two restaurants serving Afghan cuisine and was planning to open a bar as well. It was June and the Venice Biennale was on. He somehow had managed to find a place in Giardini, the main venue of the Biennale and set up a food stand selling Afghan food to the hungry artists and tourists who came from all over the world. One day, he took me on a boat tour of the city. His grumpy Roman waiter was driving. We visited many places including Lido, the island where the Venice International Film Festival is held. Mustafa K. was also with us, who is one of the many Afghan filmmakers who have migrated to Italy in recent years.

The night prior to departure, the workshop organisers invited all the trainees to a delicious dinner in a beautiful island outside Venice. The next day I flew to Vienna for an exciting 24 hours.

Opera house in Vienna, Austria.

Opera house in Vienna, Austria.

Vienna: The Boutique City

In some neighbourhoods in Vienna, the identical apartment buildings and neat streets felt like I was living in a good-looking animation movie. Everything looked so, let’s say, boringly perfect and clean. There is very little diversity of architectural styles in the city, except for some older churches, and the modern suburban areas, everything looked like they were built at the same time by the same guy sometime  in mid-19th century. In fact, Vienna was the pioneer of modern urban planning and architecture, it was Vienna which inspired Baron Haussmann to destroy old Paris and build a new modern city with standardized buildings and boulevards.

In Vienna, a good friend picked me up from the airport and showed me around the city for the whole day. Later in the day, I met a former roommate from Kabul University dorm who hosted me for the night.

I loved Vienna’s city trams. There were two kinds of them: classic old ones and the sleek new ones.  We rode one of the old ones from somewhere in the city to where the opera house is located.

In the opera house, there was a show going on and flocks of dressed up Viennese were going inside. There was a big projector installed outside where people could watch the show outdoor. A huge crowd gathered there to sit outside and watch the opera live. It was the first time I was seeing a live opera–of curse via a projector. But still it was exciting. After the opera, we had a very big and delicious hot dog that I was told is an speciality of the city.

I forgot to mention: in the morning, when I arrived we visited the cathedral which was right outside the metro station at the center of the city . Then, we visited Cafe Central, the famed Viennese coffee house where the some of the leading European literati and revolutionaries used to frequent there, including Freud, Trotsky, Tito, Hitler, and Lenin, among other legendary bads and goods of the last century. The coffee was awesome and the cake was great and the place looked magical. Perfect for rich, pretentious, schooled, folks.

I visited the royal palace and the gardens around it before visiting the house of Sigmund Freud which was located in a beautiful neighborhood of almost identical 4-5 story apartment buildings. The house is now a museum where you have to pay to see the rooms. We stepped into his apartment’s hallway, took a short look around before stepping out. I am too cheap to pay for such stupid things. It was enough to earn the brag right to visiting Freud’s house.

We then had a beer in an outdoor bar with big projectors showing a World Cup match between two teams that I no longer remember. It was chilly and I found the mach rather lame. I was in good company though.

I was also impressed by the University of Vienna with its amazing architecture and a study room in its library which was too good to be true.

Probably the highlight of my short visit to Vienna was meeting old friends and making a new one: Dawood Sarkhosh the legendary Hazara folk singer. He was too nice to come and meet me in that friend’s house. We had a long conversation about music. He seemed fatigued, but I was excited to meet him.

An areal view of Berlin, Germany.

An areal view of Berlin, Germany.

Berlin: The City Without a Downtown

Berlin is probably Europe’s number one party town. Well, it may sound odd considering Germans’ international reputation for being humor-less and anti-fun, but in Berlin everything is set  for a non-stop wild party from sunset to sunrise. The city is hipster, young, careless, energetic, and remarkably diverse. Reunified after the fall of the Berlin Wall, the city is now scattered throughout a large urban area with multiple centers, therefore, it feels like the city has no single downtown. There is no such thing as a CBD, even business and government facilities are distributed all around the city. It’s a good thing for the residents: you don’t need to travel far to find a place to drink, dance, eat or just kill time.

One of my best nights in Berlin was a Sunday night which we went out for drink and food with a group of friends from Kabul, Berlin,  and London–another friend from Amsterdam joined us the next day. There was this cozy little bar with loud music and cheap beer where you could drink till mooring and most importantly smoke inside. It was a shock to realise that they allow to smoke inside in 2014. I am not a smoker, but that night I smoked many cigarettes just to think we were in the Berlin of 1970s. The company was great and we spent several hours smoking, drinking and telling jokes–in­ Farsi.

One day, we spent in Potsdam, a small town one hour train ride outside Berlin where we found an Afghan restaurant owed by an Ismaeli Hazara family from Kabul. They offered all 7 of us free Afghan food, because we had a celebrity with us who just blew their minds. Later, we visited the Sanssouci Palace, the summer palace of Frederick the Great, King of Prussia who is credited for bringing potato to Germany. My friends joked that I had to take a photo on his grave because I’m  a “potato expert” for having written an article on the history of potato in Afghanistan. I took a selfie there, his grave was full of potatoes, instead of flowers.

I spent several days and nights exploring the city, seeing the  touristic sights, and getting lost. I found Berlin to be a very lively place, a city open for fun and business. Things are cheap there. I saw bottles of wine sold for 2 Euros in a supermarket. In Canada, the cheapest wine is 8-9 dollars.

I would probably go back to that city. I spent the week in a friend’s apartment who with his very nice partner made a great deal of  efforts to make sure I was having a good time. I’m very grateful for their hospitality.