An Alternative Look at Berlin

One of the worst things about living in Bydgoszcz, Poland is that the easiest way to leave the country each summer is via Bydgoszcz airport. I’m fairly sure that I had lunchboxes at school larger than this place. Worse still, the only airline running scheduled flights from here to Britain is the god-awful Ryanair. So when I see an opportunity to take a different exit route back to the UK, I generally jump on it. This year, it was via Berlin. This meant a 2 hour journey on the big red Polskibus to Poznan, to start off with. As has been the tradition in recent weeks, it was a gloomy ride. 120 minutes of heavy-looking, grey skies and intermittent rainfall but, arriving in the city centre, the sun peeked out and I found my way to a last karkówka (pork shoulder, Polish style) and all the trimmings and a delicious Polish beer to wash it down. After eating that and saying goodbye to Poland, it was off to the other bus station in the city to the second leg of the Polskibus journey, onward to Berlin.

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I should point out at this stage that the entire journey with Polskibus – booked only 6 weeks in advance – cost me a total of 37 zloty. That’s about £7.50. It’s a ludicrous sum of money for 7 hours on a very comfortable bus, with Wi-Fi for free throughout the Polish leg of the journey. Well worth a look, if you’re travelling within or to Poland from most of the major cities around it.

Anyway, the coach arrived into Berlin via Schonefeld airport. After that it ran in through the main arterial roads in the east of Berlin, across to the ZOB bus station. Climbing out of the bus, a blast of information in oh-so-official German informed me that I had indeed arrived in my destination country/city. Now it was time to find the Kaiserdamm U-bahn and my train across town to Kreuzberg – my home for the next couple of days. How well did I remember my German?

 Not well was, sadly, the answer. But I got myself together and asked a man in a corner shop and he pointed me on my way. So, with all my bags, in the now baking-hot sunshine, I staggered down the road to the underground. After the relatively easy process of buying my metro ticket, I climbed down the stairs to the platform. Despite being the capital, Berlin is by no means the richest of German cities and I was given a stark reminder of this when the ancient-looking rolling stock that was my train came thundering in to the platform. I waddled on and put down my bags. To other passengers, I must have looked like a sweaty tramp, but there we are.

After one change, I was on the U1 line into Kreuzberg, home for the next 2 days or so. The U1 is an elevated metro line, so I could look down over the buildings, seeing an increasingly diverse range of restaurants, convenience stores and so on. Schlesisches Tor, where I needed to hop off, was of course a stairs-only station, but also one full of the aged charm of the area. 

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As I made my way down Gorlitzer strasse and so on, towards my hostel, I walked past fragrant and, seemingly, authentic restaurants with origins as diverse as Iraq, Vietnam, Thailand, Mexico, Goa, various African nations and much more besides. It was a delight to be there and there was a real buzz about the street, as people milled from place to place. I turned the corner at the end of the street, next to Gorlitzer park, which has been beautifully renovated lately, and along to the Jetpak alternative hostel. I checked in with a very helpful chap and was shown to my dorm, so that I could get a much needed shower. Once showering was done, I was left to have a look at the various “alternative” tours they do in the city. I settled on the street art and graffiti tour – done in collaboration with real artists. But that was for the following day – more on that later.

The Jetpak Alternative, which I mentioned previously was in a great location, was also a really pleasant, friendly place. At the point of booking, they make it very clear that the location is not the cleanest and, certainly, there are a lot of people who would be very happy to sell you any amount of any mood-enhancing substances you may care for in the vicinity, but if – like me – you’re not really into all that, it’s a fascinating place to be and the residents of the hostel, certainly when I was there, seem to be a really open minded bunch. So after fixing up my locker and choosing which bed I would sleep in collapse on later, I barely had a moment before one of the lads asked if I wanted to come into the lounge and watch the evening’s world cup game. I dashed out to fetch some noodles from a Vietnamese place – divine and 3 Euros for a bowl big enough to fill even me – I made use of the hostel’s excellent honesty policy, whereby you help yourself to locally brewed Berliner beer and put a single euro coin in the pot for the privilege. After the game and a lot more chat with the guys, I turned in, ready for the next morning’s tour.

Before any talk of the tour itself, I have to mention the breakfast, in the morning. This is the first hostel I’ve been to in my life where the list of spreads is near endless. So when you get your toast, you can layer it up with the usual, but also a choice of smooth or crunchy peanut butter, marmite or vegimite, and the list goes on. Add to this that, when I started looking around like a sheep who can hear a wolf approaching, failing to see coffee, the duty staff person informed me that they were all barista trained and that he’d be happy to make me a pro-standard cappucino. I could have cried tears of happiness.

Anyway, by the time I’d finished being happy about all that, it was off to Alexanderplatz and the tour. One look outside and it was clear to see that it was going to be a very British kind of day. It was raining cats, dogs, and possibly llamas, or something else much bigger than a dog, too. But as this was my only full day, I was not to be deterred! And arriving at the meeting point for the tour, it became abundantly clear that I was not alone in my spirit of adventure. About 8 or 9 others had showed up, from as far and wide as England, the Czech Republic, Australia and Spain. They all seemed remarkably jolly, despite their washed-outness. The tour guide – herself a street artist, as well as a conventional, fine artist, was a walking, talking bundle of energy, hailing from San Francisco, California and had lived in Berlin for some time. She had bundles of character, charm and knowledge about her subject – she also had a penchant for asking “you dig it?!” after she finished each explanation, which I didn’t think any real people ever actually said, but this just made me like her even more. So, after some fumbling around with ticket machines, we were off!

First we walked to some railway arches , just around the corner, in the heart of the area known as “mitte” – the centre. We were quickly told that this was the heart of the eastern part of Berlin, during the cold war. Here, we saw just how much graffiti and street art there can be in any one place in Berlin. We were given the definitions of what is graffiti and what is street art, the difference being that graffiti is anything which is primarily text whereas street art is… anything else! Here are a few examples:

Anywhere you see the executed cat...
Anywhere you see the executed cat…
... Little Lucy, the cat's nemesis, will never be far behind.
… Little Lucy, the cat’s nemesis, will never be far behind.

So first for a bit of history. As it turns out, perhaps a reason that graffiti pervades so strongly in Berlin, is that this was the first place it landed in Europe, after it had emerged in New York City in the 1970s, after the invention of the spray paint can. The west Berliners, despite having a better time of it than their kin folk in the east, took to the wall to protest against the harsh treatment of people in the east. In what might be the most spectacular error of judgement in human history, the East German government began to show graffiti, punk rock and smoking in public service videos, to deter young people from the “horrors” of the west. Of course, this likely speeded up the downfall of the system! Once the wall did start to come down and reunification began to happen, the graffiti and street art movement really took hold, as a way to make the wall – the symbol of something so terrible, for so long, would be made beautiful by the, now free, populace.

Of course, with the likes of Banksy, the lines between street art and fine art are becoming ever more blurred. But here are a few memorable pieces from the tour:

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A curious street art sculpture
A curious street art sculpture

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Lil Lucy with a surprise for the kitty
Lil Lucy with a surprise for the kitty
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Once we arrived at Warschauer Strasse and were really out into the east, we began to see huge pieces like this, where the artist has obviously got permission for the work.
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This was a piece commissioned for a building which is being totally rebuilt. The artist is a Spanish guy, Rallitox. This piece, featuring one of his Freudian “id monsters” represents the bankers, excreting euros, with the cheerful phrase “Greetings from Spain and Greece, Portugal, Italy”. A bold piece in Germany, and the irony of it being in a place that is becoming increasingly gentrified in Berlin is lost on no-one.
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This one focuses on the city type, with the man in the suit. But notice, the only gold items are the watches. A commentary on time, perhaps?
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Finally – as one we are all the monster. the monster only exists, only works if everyone works together in the system that makes it. The real power here comes from the question it begs. Will the little guy survive?

   It was an enthralling walk and, as someone who knew less than nothing about street art beforehand, I’ve genuinely found myself looking up and around me wherever I’ve been since, trying to make sense of the art that may be lurking. I’d recommend it to anyone in Berlin, whether you’re a fan of the street art movement, or not.

After an hour’s break to drop off my umbrella and to dry myself through in the hostel, it was back out. The first port of call, just along on Oranien Strasse, was Santa Maria – allegedly the most authentic Mexican restaurant in Berlin, with a friendly price tag to boot. I arrived to find 2 bar stools available in the 80 or so seater restaurant. On a Wednesday evening. It’s that kind of place. I ordered my food and was swiftly served these rather excellent tacos and a cold pint of Berliner beer.

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As if the beef and chorizo filling wasn’t enough, someone needs to tell me how they make those pink pickled onions!

 After feeding myself and supping my beer, I decided to check out some rock bars. First, it was across the road to the Franken Bar. This is a classic, dingy German rock bar. Everything a rock bar should be. I don’t know why they haven’t quite figured it out in the UK yet, but there we go. I met some friendly folk here too, who told me if I’d been there the night before, I could’ve seen a fun band, the members of which were all 50+ and still crazy. Sounds like it would’ve been a laugh.

This kind of dirt is built up over years!
This kind of dirt is built up over years!
Obligatory outrageous toilet graffiti - special love for "Sunshine and Lollipops" in the black metal style! :)
Obligatory outrageous toilet graffiti – special love for “Sunshine and Lollipops” in the black metal style! 🙂
Grimy.
Grimy.

From here, it was across the road to the SO36 bar and the “alternative night market”. This actually made me a bit sad, as the whole set up reminded me of better times in the English alternative scene, where there was a similar market, open on Kensington High Street, daily. Once again though, a host of friendly people stopped to chat to me and I spent the rest of the time people watching with a pint of Berliner.

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Finally, with midnight rolling around and a lunchtime flight from Tegel the next day, I sauntered off to my hostel, in full knowledge that I would simply have to come back. I think Berlin is one of those places. In the morning, right on cue, we were back to glorious summer sun ready for me to carry my huge bags to the airport. I arrived on a very efficient U-bahn/bus link and had time for a nice ice coffee after check in, before British Airways sent me on my way. So after my second visit to Berlin, looking at a completely different side of the city to my first, more straightforwardly touristy trip, I still feel like I’ve barely scratched the surface of the place. If you haven’t been – go. If you’ve been – go again! It’s really that simple.

Summer 2012 – Adventures in Croatia – Part 3 – Adventures in Istria

Another early start greeted me and my companion but, as had been the case right from the off in Croatia, it was all made easier by the glorious blue sky and hot sunshine from dawn. We got up and headed to the bus station in Sibenik. We quickly found a bus and were back on our way up the coastal road to Zadar. I spent much of the journey giving Dave some tips about Zadar while we watched as another fire plane scraped gallons of water from the surface of the Dalmatian sea, to douse yet more forest fires which were raging inland. When we finally arrived, I walked with him to the heart of the city and used my google map to direct him on to his hostel. We shook hands and wished each other well, realising that it was a genuine shame that our paths had to diverge here. I looked at the boat schedule and found that I had a good three hours before my ship across to Pula. I looked around the city for a moment and decided that it was a good time to buy some postcards, and write them over a cold beer in the church square. I took one last walk down the main tourist shopping street, hoping to find a boutique with decent postcards. I quickly happened upon one and negotiated my way to a free tacky tourist pen, as I didn’t have one with me. I then traversed my way back up the street to the square, ordered my beer and wrote. DSC_0034DSC_0059   So, my postcards written and my beer drunk, I settled up my bill and wandered down to the port. There, ready and waiting, was my boat. I showed the guard my ticket and jumped on board. I found a seat quickly and took out my book and began to read. We left the harbour of Zadar just as that famous sunset was starting to creep in again and travelled smoothly through the Dalmatian Sea, with countless islands either side of us. People boarded and disembarked at the paradise island of Mali Losinj, just before nightfall. After that we sped up and headed for the jutting Istrian coast. Under a blanket of darkness, we finally began to see the bright harbour lights of Pula. The boat docked and, after disembarking, I walked – map in hand – along the curved harbour front to find my hostel. It wasn’t hard to find and I was soon inside. But sadly, there was a problem. The lady at the front desk told me that my bed had been double booked, but that a bed had been kept available for me at their sister hostel, across town. I could come back here, the next night. Now, as it was around 9pm, and Pula was self evidently an earthy, industrial port city, I’ll admit to feeling a little perturbed at the idea of the walk across the city. I took the map that the lady gave me and felt my way across the city, stopping people pretty frequently, as I struggled to find anything like a road sign. After a couple of brief wrong turns and a lot of dodgy looking back roads, I found my place for the night. I walked in and was immediately greeted by the 70-something owner of the chain. A very sweet old lady called Ivona, who quickly brought me tea, irrespective of whether I wanted it and began to explain to me the history of the place. She introduced me to Mark, a paramedic from Huddersfield who was on an NHS exchange programme to share his expertise and learn about different medical processes, performed in Istrian Croatia. I’d had no idea such things existed before. Ivona went to her flat and I got into bed, to read up on my planned itinerary for Pula – days 5 – 7 of my 8 day trip. After a few minutes, her daughter came in to take over the night shift in the hostel. She was a real hippy type and began chatting to me about why I was there, where I was from and whether I’d be interested in going to the nude beach with her the following day. After spitting out some of my tea, I made a comment about how much my girlfriend would like such a place, and she backed down. I was hit by a wave of tiredness and decided it was time to get my head down for some sleep. Morning came exceptionally quickly, and I realised I had slept like a stone. Of the 4 gentlemen sharing my dormitory, I was the only one left and I hadn’t heard a soul stirring. I looked at the time and was pleasantly surprised to see it was only 9:40 am.  Time for breakfast. I leapt from my bed and quickly got myself showered and changed. As I did so, the owner came in and told me that I could take my things over to my original hostel right away. Things were definitely looking up. I wandered along the wide street from the hostel straight to a shallow hill down to a pretty little square. It was not in any way how I had remembered it from the night before, but never mind. Just in front of me was a cafe on a sunny terrace, with the smell of strong, good coffee wafting out onto the light sea breeze. I almost instinctively took a seat. A rotund, but cheerful waitress in her 50’s came out quickly and greeted me “English?” Was I so painfully obvious? Anyway, I negotiated my way to a vat of robust coffee and an “open omelette”, as she called it. Quite simply, beaten eggs, set around a handful of tomatoes, onions, sheep’s cheese and spinach leaves. This was accompanied by some fresh bread and a small price tag. My good start to the day had just got much better. After wolfing down my breakfast, I took a side road on the waitress’ advice and ended up very quickly on the main port road, where my hostel was located. Here I found myself gazing up at the largest container ship I have ever seen, something that I had somehow missed the night before. It was docked for maintenance, painting and general refurbishment, but the scale of it blew me away. I’m not sure the photos communicate the enormity of the thing. DSC_0236 I continued around the edge of the harbour, my neck still craning to see this gargantuan boat and almost missed my hostel. When I got inside, the owner’s son was there and he offered me a share of his breakfast, along with more apologies about the mess over my bed. I assured him that it had all been of minimal inconvenience, dumped my rucksack in a locker and headed off to explore the city. As you walk into the centre of the Pula, the first thing that strikes you in the main square is the Temple of Augustus. This was dedicated to Augustus Caesar during his reign and, when you consider its age, the condition it’s in is phenomenal. To have something like this at the heart of what is a really earthy, lively city is quite astonishing. DSC_0238 DSC_0235 In the middle of the square here, you are aware of the presence of tourists, constantly but, at the same time, you have a sense that this is a real, live city, in a way that perhaps the gleaming white tourist spots of Dalmatia aren’t. It’s not as clean, it’s not as shiny and there are many more “local” bars and restaurants, but for me this added to the charm of the place and I immediately felt more at home there. Moving on through the square, a narrow stone pedestrianised thoroughfare takes you to a roman gate. What used to keep out marauding vandals now of course acts as a tourist photo opportunity or a seat for buskers, but it’s no less impressive for it. DSC_0274 After passing through the gate, I found a sign, pointing the other way, saying “monastery”. Intrigued, I decided to retrace my steps back into the heart of the city and take a look. About half way between the gate and the square, there was another small sign pointing up one of the steep side roads. I followed and was unprepared for what greeted me at the top. Fronted by an extraordinarily beautiful garden, with a view over the city below, was a small but active monastery. I decided to go in and take a look around. The whole place was built, as so much of its era, around a central courtyard that stayed cool, even in the blistering heat of summer. Here, there were plants, an image of the virgin and even the monastery cat. Around the outside, there were small chambers, a chapel, kitchen and various items of religious art. It was an interesting place to spend half an hour. DSC_0261 DSC_0240 DSC_0244 DSC_0252 I now wanted to see more in this historic city, so I wandered back to the gate and then out along the perimeter road to the old castle. This area had been first founded during Roman times, and had since been used as a means of defense from many threats faced by the port. At the bottom of the castle, where it meets the road, there is a Roman style theatre, located beneath a huge wall, with intricate arches, many of which have fallen apart over the many years that they’ve stood there. DSC_0283 DSC_0278 DSC_0279 DSC_0280 DSC_0282 As you walk to the top of the castle from here, you can see quite clearly that it’s not been in active service for quite a while. Grass has grown over the taller parts of the structure and, but for a few monuments pointing to its defensive past, the place has become a pleasant park almost in the centre of town and with great views down over the harbour and out into the bay of Istria. DSC_0296 DSC_0285 DSC_0290

From the vantage point atop the castle, I saw, out of the corner of my eye, what had been described to me by the hostel owner as “the little colloseum”. It didn’t look so little from here. Behind the castle was a well worn old stairway down to a narrow residential street. I descended and began to walk down the hill, to where the amphitheatre was located. On the way down, I saw one of the cutest cats I’ve ever seen, sleeping on a windowsill. He opened one eye and watched me walking by, without moving a muscle. Adorable.

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As the narrow road opened up, I suddenly saw the scale of the amphitheatre. I decided to walk around the perimeter and get a better look. All around it there were the usual trappings of such a tourist attraction – ice cream stalls, gift shops with tacky models and little coffee shops with a few al fresco tables. It was a really beautiful place, just 20 metres or so from  the water’s edge too.

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After all this exploring, I was dusty and hungry, so I decided to go back to my hostel for a shower and then out for some food. On the road where I’d seen the orange cat, I’d noticed an amazing smelling pizzeria and decided that was where I was going to go. After my shower, I went along and was served an incredible anchovy and spinach pizza, straight from a roaring wood oven. It was delicious and just what I needed.
After eating, I decided to check out a rock bar I’d read about and see if I could meet any interesting locals to chat to.  So I wandered up to the Rock Caffe in the balmy summer air and took a stool at the bar. The barman had an interesting selection and I took a dark beer. I’d been sitting at the bar for only about three minutes when a tall fellow approached me and asked me if I was foreign (again – so obvious!?). I explained to the chap that I was British, but lived in Poland, which started up a very interesting new thread of conversation. It turned out that he was a vet, who looked after large and dangerous wild animals and that he had done some of his training in the Białystok area, taking care of żubr (or bison, to you and I). As anyone who knows me will know, I love bison and animals in general, so this prompted a lengthy and entertaining conversation about the character of the bison and the array of large, wild animals roaming the plains of Istria. We got through a couple of beers, before he announced he had to leave as he had to work the next day. No sooner had he left, then the couple at the other end of the bar had come down and asked me what part of England I was from. I got chatting to them about bands for a while and finished my beer, but then decided it was time to head back and get some sleep. I walked along the harbour front all the way to my hostel and was asleep within minutes of finding my bed.

I woke up on my last day in Pula with one thing in mind: the beach. I had heard from the hippy hostel girl that there were some great beaches nearby (not all of them nude) so took out my map and picked one of them at random. I ate a quick breakfast at the cafe opposite my hotel, in my swimming shorts and t-shirt and headed down one of the city’s sideroads, towards the beach. When I arrived, I found a near deserted, rocky beach with clear, shallow water. I had picked up water shoes at Krka and was grateful to have brought them, as I could see sea urchins and their spines attached to the rocks. In the deeper water were some floating inflatable towers, which some of the small number of children were playing on. At first, I decided, I was going to simply lay back, read a few pages of my book and catch some rays. So I stripped to my shorts and found a comfortable patch of rock. After toasting in the sun for half an hour, I decided a dip was in order and put my water shoes back on. It was like getting in to a warm bath, the water temperature was so pleasant. With so much space on the beach, I had ample room to wade and swim around freely and really relax. It was a lovely spot. After a couple hours of lounging, swimming and chasing young crabs around a rock pool, I decided to head back to get cleaned up and then to catch my coach on to Rijeka, the final stop on my journey.

Once again, the coach was gleaming, on time, cheap and hugged the beautiful coastal road, showing off the more jagged nature of the cliffs of Istria, relative to Dalmatia’s low lying beach views. After half an hour though, I had drifted off into a deep sleep. It was only when the driver called out “Rijeka” on the tannoy that I woke and quickly grabbed my bag and jumped off, zombie like. The coach station was a pretty seedy looking place, the first time I’d really seen this in Croatia. But I didn’t let this put me off. I went to a cafe in the bus station and ordered a cevepi. Starving, I wolfed it down with a big coffee and, feeling much more alive, I walked across the road to my hostel. The stairs to the 4th floor felt pretty draining, but when I came out on to the balcony outside, the view across the road to the old town and out to sea over the docks were worth it. I spent a minute taking it in, before ringing the doorbell and being taken care of by a very efficient lady. I had paid, ditched my bag, acquired a map & key and left again within about 90 seconds. Time for a look around.

Directly opposite the hostel and bus station, there was a pretty unusual looking church, which seemed like a good place to start. It was dedicated to a monk, who had evidently been one of Rijeka’s more pious and charitable citizens. On the inside and out it was worth looking at.

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After the church, it quickly became apparent that Rijeka is a single line of shops, bars and restaurants, making up the old town, surrounded by the docks on one side and a steep hill on the other. As such, there is little in the centre. What’s there is quite picturesque, but there isn’t really enough space and certainly not enough exploited space, to make it into a tourist attraction, in spite of the convenient budget airline-served airport on neighbouring Krk island. But no matter how small, it was certainly worth a look around. At the very far end of the road, on the left side is one of the oldest structures in Rijeka, an old guard tower. Scrawled with graffiti on many sides now, it’s still quite a sight.

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From here, it was back on to the main street and a stop in a friendly looking cafe bar, to try to figure out what o do with my last night in Croatia. Because of the suntrap nature of the main street, Rijeka felt even hotter than the rest of the coast had for the past week. Even the pigeons were taking emergency action:

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After a cold beer while watching the pigeons cool off, I picked myself up and grabbed an ice cream from a kiosk and began walking down the main street towards my hostel. The streets were pretty quiet and I wondered what would await me that night in this sleepy town.

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Getting back to my hostel, I was in dire need of a shower. I had reinvented sweating in the 4 short hours I’d spent in the centre of Rijeka. After cleaning myself off, I went back to my dorm to find new clothes and the like. Added to the 2 French lads who had been there when I arrived there were 7 English guys. They were all from Manchester and were only 18 – 19 years old. I asked them what they were doing and they informed me that they had decided to spend their first summer after going to uni travelling up from Dubrovnik to Pula. I was impressed, with such an adventurous idea at such a young age. They told me they were going out for food and beers and asked if I’d like to join.

So I spent the next 3 and a half hours eating an anchovy topped hamburger that changed my life, drinking cold Karlovackos and listening to the stories of these kids almost getting robbed in a classic “gas and rob” raid on the train from Split to Knin that I thought only happened in the past and in spy novels, one of them getting overcharged to the tune of nearly 200 euros in a strip bar in Dubrovnik and various other things. It was a very funny night. When sleep came, it was like a heavy, impermeable blanket.

The next morning I awoke to the sound of my alarm, feeling remarkably good considering the beer I’d consumed. I quickly showered and dressed and headed to the bus stop. I picked up a cheese and spinach borek to munch and jumped on to the bus to the airport. There was just time for one last photo, as we left the city roads and got on to the winding path to the airport on Krk island.

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As I sat watching this beautiful horizon fade from view as we crossed the bridge to the airport, I contemplated my experience of Croatia as a whole. Its coastal regions were a starkly beautiful, inspiring place with a genuinely welcoming people. The scars of the war of the 1990s were still easily visible, sometimes on the very surface, but the relaxing pace of life and the warmth of the population gave it a sense of real peace. For an area of such outstanding natural beauty and delicious cuisine, it was also a very cheap place to spend time. With the whole stretch of coast to the south, from Split to Dubrovnik completely unknown to me, I felt quite sure that I would come back, too. So it wasn’t goodbye, but see you later.