The good news is I have pictures. A LOT of pictures. The bad news is, it was overcast today, so the quality of them was limited by the fact that I had to use ASA1600 in general. I’m a little disappointed in most of them. Just FYI.
5:30 came around way, way too fast. My goal was to leave by 6am, but I’d not really done any good preparations the night before. I said I’d only hit snooze once, but my brain convinced me to lie there for a minute and wake up a little. Yes, super-contradiction. I found that it was suddenly 5:38, which is what would have happened if I had hit snooze again. Grr. In and out of the shower I dove, trying to make a list in my mind of exactly what it was I’d need for one night in Berlin. Camera. Clothes. Toothbrush. Batteries. My list was very limited, and if I didn’t explicitly need it, it wasn’t coming.
I dressed, gathered up one set of clothes for Sunday, then put together my backpack and camera bag. I also transferred the directions to the hotel, both MapQuest’s and the hotel’s, to my note pad, as I didn’t have a printer. This whole process unfortunately took a lot longer than I’d expected (it always does) and I found that it was suddenly almost 6:45 by the time I was ready to walk out the door. This was okay, I told myself. It was only about an hour and fifteen minutes to Berlin, according to the people at work, which would give me two hours to find my hotel, check in, and ride the trains to Hackescher Market station for the walking tour Kevin had suggested. At first I was going to eat cereal in my room, but since I had to go through the lobby anyway to drop off my key and it was already after 6:30 when breakfast service began, I’d just get breakfast there. I stepped out of my room, set the deadbolt, then went quickly down the stairs to the basement.
My eyes hit the garage entry door and they informed my brain of the most unfortunate information. The big red and white plastic X I’d seen the night before was still taped across it, mocking me. “What??” I barked in surprise. The sign on the door still stated clearly that at 6:30 am it would be open, and clearly, it was not. I looked more carefully at the sign. While the English version explained that 6:30 was the time in question, the German version disagreed. 8:30. I don’t know how this was in contradiction, since the numbers were written in numerics. I cursed at the sign, then ran upstairs to the ground level. My new idea now was to go out, into the villa next door, and down into the garage, reversing the course I’d had to use last night.
As I approached the door, however, my slowly-waking brain deduced the flaw in this scenario. Each villa was keyed differently, and while any key from any room in the villa would open the front door, the key from another villa likely wouldn’t. I tested this theory. Sadly, I was correct. Another curse escaped my lips, and my newly revised plan (already revision number four of the morning) was to drop off the key in the lobby, get a really quick breakfast, then walk all the way back in the underground to my car. I was moving very quickly, and I must have looked like a real idiot; I had a lot of things in my arms soI couldn’t outright run. It was a brisk walk with short, ultra quick steps. Fortunately, it was dark outside, so I don’t think anyone saw me.
I gave the key to the desk clerk and asked him the procedure for getting gas here. Silly question, but necessary. Pretty much the same as in the US, if you can’t pay at the pump. I thanked him, then walked into the restaurant across the lobby. Vijay was sitting at a table and called me over. I dropped my things, picked up my morning ritual, and then took a seat. A server approached and asked about coffee, and for the first time in the morning, my brain was able to piece together information that played to my benefit. “Can I have a cappuccino, please?” I asked.
“Of course, sir,” said the man, who bowed slightly (I *am* in Germany right?) and shuffled off quickly to the rear. I had thought Vijay was leaving with Andrew and Annie early that morning, but he said that his flight was a little later. We ate and talked for a bit about my preparations for Berlin, and my cappuccino arrived in very short order. I was very pleased to get the wonderful drink, as I definitely needed the caffeine. Both of us were in a hurry, and moments later, we departed for our separate destinations: Vijay to a cab to the airport, and me to the long walk to my car.
As I drove out of the garage, I enabled the GPS and put it on the dash. I’d definitely be in need of it. The time was exactly 7am, and light was still scarce. The roads were practically deserted, but this was to be expected on a Saturday. I took A4 north from where I was, and instead of taking the exit to the airport like usual, I passed it and continued on. The MapQuest directions were beside me, and I started a search for A13, which shouldn’t have been far. I was flipping radio stations hunting for something interesting; I had brought my tape adapter from the US so I could use my MP3 player in my rental car, but as luck would have it (and not all that surprisingly) this car didn’t have one. As I flipped from program to program, it suddenly came to my attention that I’d gone much further than the .7 miles MapQuest seemed to suggest I should go. Thanks MapQuest, kilometers would have been nice. I picked up the GPS and realized I was headed east. Straight for Poland, not Berlin. Argh. I took the next available exit and reversed course. Only a few minutes later I located the A13 exit and took it, now headed in the correct northern track for Berlin. Number of times saved by GPS mapping this trip: one.
The speed limit showed 120Kmh, so I stayed with it. Most of the people around me were going right at the speed limit or slightly faster, and I just kept pace. It was still very dark outside, and the various German stations played a mixture of local music as well as American pop/rock. The sun began to light the sky about then, but it was completely overcast, so the hazy grey glow cast an ominous hue on the already creepy fog on the green hills. A short while down the road, I saw a road sign that I didn’t entirely recognize. It was a speed limit sign, but it was on a square background, instead of the sign consisting entirely of a round “bulls-eye”. The other oddness about this sign was that it not only was in black and white, but it also was behind three thin black lines. A moment later, it didn’t take a genius to realize what it meant.
I must have missed the dude on the side of the road with the green flag. Suddenly everyone *took off* as if all radio stations suddenly started to play the Speed Racer theme on all channels. I was starting to be left in the dust. I pressed the accelerator, and the Peugeot caught its stride in the low RPM in 6th gear. I’m still not used to diesels! The speedometer increased quickly, and suddenly I was going 170Kmh (about 102mph). I was calculating in my head what this meant when I realized that the cars in front of me were still WALKING AWAY. I couldn’t keep up with them at this speed; even the yellow DHL van was going well over that rate. I couldn’t believe my eyes. Little family cars were ripping their way down the highway at fabulous velocities. The sign most certainly was saying “end of speed limit”. This really was the world-famous autobahn, where in some places speed limits don’t exist. I accelerated a little more to keep pace with the delivery van (!), while staying in the right lane. This race car like driving was made possible by the fact that the roads were all blissfully smooth and rarely had much if any bumps, hills, or damage. The super-smooth highways were really fascinating.
Kevin had said that when you drive the autobahn you should stay to the right unless you’re passing, and if you do, get the hell back in the right lane as soon as possible, because even if you’re going 120, someone might come up behind you going 150. Occasionally a car that I guess couldn’t go as fast as everyone else would end up in the right lane, and all of us would pop left, briefly, then regain our place to the right. Rarely did anyone stay in the left lane for long. Eventually, a speed limit sign appeared again, and everyone, and I mean everyone, slowed down to meet it. This was really interesting to me since in the States if you drive a fast limit for a while, then move to a slower one, a lot of people seem to ignore that and continue on. I took their cue and returned to a normal highway pace.
This was a good idea, since a moment later, the road curved practically 90 degrees left. I had been smart and had actually loaded the German maps into my GPS, so I could see it was a bizarre twist of a road at this point, strangely ending up in another “unlimited speed zone”. I took this opportunity to see just how fast the Peugeot could go. The light was now relatively bright, there was no water on the road, and it was decently straight for a great distance. After a long while of flooring the accelerator, I was relatively disappointed; I couldn’t crack the 200Kmh level, which would have put me at 120mph. This really surprised me, considering the sixth gear and big boost of torque at low RPMs. I guess at higher RPMs this car just doesn’t have much get go. Still 197 was nothing to sneeze at, and I found myself switching lanes occasionally to get around the 170Kmh slowpokes. A BMW in front of me was also going at this speed, and we stayed in perfect harmony for some time. “At this speed, I should make up for some of the time I lost,” I said to myself, referring to my late departure.
I suddenly noticed in the right lane something that triggered the standard heart-pumping reaction: a green and white car with lights on top and POLIZEI on the back. A police car! Yikes! We passed him at right about 175 Kmh and… he… just…sat....there. What a mental confusion. “Wow, it really is a speed-limit-free zone,” I said to myself. I couldn’t even comprehend what he was doing on the side of the road if he wasn’t catching speeders, but in retrospect I think I noticed some cones nearby or something.
A few kilometers down, still at the fast rates, I came to another breathtaking sight. Rows and rows of *massive* windmills. I’d seen some smaller ones in the US, and even noticed some here from the airplane, but seeing them up close was really amazing. I could not get over their size, and being this close only added to their gargantuan appearance. They reminded me somehow of The Machine from the movie Contact somehow. Since I didn’t have the EOS out, I tried to get a few pictures of them with the A75, but it was still too dark for it to get a decent shot. I was in a very good mood, both from getting to drive fast, legally and apparently safely, the cool sights, and the fact that I was making good time.
I spoke too soon. Suddenly the speed limit dropped to 100, then 80, then 60. The road narrowed and wiggled left, and I noticed that we were in a heavy construction zone. The roads were being replaced here, so all the lanes were merged on the opposite side. There was still a passing lane, which people occasionally used, but for the most part everyone stuck to the speed limit. This of course felt like I was crawling since I’d just been going extraordinarily fast. The construction zone lasted for way longer than I’d expected, and 10 or 15 kilometers later we were returned to a 130Kmh zone. I came upon more windmills, these much closer to the road, but I was still unable to capture any good images. I kept watch on the GPS and distance to Berlin from the signs on the road, and kept calculating how much time I’d have when I got there. The tour was at 10, and I still had to find the hotel, check in, drop off the car, then take the correct trains to the correct station. Based on current projections, that wasn’t going to be too hard.
About 8:40 I exited the freeway to B96A, a road that leads into Berlin. This was on both the ultra-vague hotel directions and the super-detailed MapQuest directions. I was perfectly happy with this time, as I was now in Berlin and was on the “find the hotel” section of my travel plan. The road made several bizarre curves, and I started to get a little nervous. It was much further than I’d expected trying to get into town, and I was having a hard time keeping up with the directions. MapQuest’s list includes every little twist and curve, and since the B96A merges with any number of streets, they used the real names of those streets whenever it curved. This only added to my confusion before each turn, but the signs on the road were helpful. Once I’d made each turn, it made more sense on the MQ list. About fifteen minutes later, I was now somewhere in the middle of Berlin, or Mitte. The GPS was still tracking all my movements, and this was to come in handy.
I finally arrived at the point where the directions deviated, and I was forced to make a choice: continue to follow the MapQuest directions, which had to this point been extremely accurate, albeit confusing, or follow the hotel directions, which were very vague, but jived with the map in my head I’d remembered. I hung a right on Greifswalder Strasse, ultimately deciding to go with MapQuest. The next street I should take would be Ostsee Strasse, and it wasn’t all that far down. At each intersection I checked the street sign, but the road didn’t really appear. I crossed through a big intersection at Michelangelo Strasse, but still didn’t come to the street I was searching for. At this point, it suddenly hit me. “I’m in BERLIN!” I said, the realization coming down like a ton of bricks. It was very strange, really. If you had said to me a year ago I’d be in Berlin in January, I’d never have believed you.
I continued on, becoming more and more sure something wasn’t right. “Damn you, MapQuest!” I yelled, while noticing the time on my watch ticking ever so quickly away. I reminded myself I could take the later tour at 2:30, but since it gets dark early, I didn’t want to lose what little light I’d have available. I finally made a snap decision to hang a right; based on the GPS, I was curving around in a strange way and wasn’t going to end up anywhere I’d need to be. This road made its own curves, and I considered making a u-turn and returning the direction deviation point. I didn’t see anywhere useful to turn, however, and my gut feeling was that I was headed in the right direction. This feeling was having a great argument with the stress monster that was slowly taking over my body. I was about to give up when I came to a light, and the street sign set forth a shining ray of hope. Prenzlaur Allee. The street the hotel is on! SWEET! I made a left turn, headed in the direction I assumed it was in. This was an educated guess based on my position in the GPS. I cheerfully drove down the road, keeping an eye out for the hotel, which was on the corner of Erick Weinert Strasse and Prenzlauer Allee.
My upswing in mood was short-lived. I’d not yet seen the hotel, and a blatantly obvious construction zone was coming up ahead with barricades and what I assumed to be “DO NOT ENTER” signs. Traffic was only one way down Prenzlauer, and mine was not the correct path. “Sunuva…” I chose to go left here, and then take an immediate right, hopefully headed in the correct direction again. I followed this for a while, carefully calculating how far I needed to go to avoid the section of road that was not available. I’d also realized, however, that the road I was on had curved slightly left and was no longer moving parallel to Prenzlauer. After several blocks I gave up and turned right in an attempt to return to Prenzlauer. I was certain at this point I’d never make it to the tour, and was really mad about it. “I should know better,” I told myself, “I’m never wrong about a departure time.” I’d gotten out an hour after I’d intended, and had I left when I should have, I wouldn’t be in this stressful position. It would still suck, but it wouldn’t be pressed for time.
Another ray of hope presented itself a moment later; Ostsee Strasse was the cross street at the next intersection. “I know this street!” I yelled. I calculated a left turn, and headed in that direction. Holiday Inn, here I come. However, that calculation was incorrect, and I found myself all the way back at Greifswalder, which on one hand was okay, since it was where I’d needed to turn in the first place, but on the other hand, I needed to turn around. I crossed the large road, and made a u-turn at the next cross through of the divided street. When I returned to the light, I realized the error that had occurred, and it wasn’t really MapQuest’s nor my fault. The street on this side of the intersection was Michelangelo Strasse, the road I’d passed earlier. On the other side it was Ostsee Strasse. Grr. I then followed MapQuest’s directions back along Ostsee Strasse to Prenzlauer and was sure I’d located the correct place. I took a right, as described, and drove down… uh oh. Suddenly I was right back at the road I’d turned off of earlier. I was headed in the reverse direction from the construction on Prenzlauer! For every step in the right direction, two in the wrong. I thought at first that I just hadn’t reached the hotel yet, but three blocks later, I decided that the map in my head was right, and MapQuest, as has occurred in the past, was flat out wrong. I flipped around again, and headed back to the construction. This time I chose a right turn at the dead end, and then an immediate left. This street didn’t curve off, and I was able to stay in parallel with Prenzlauer. I hit a large street some blocks later and took a left to meet back up with the hotel’s street. This actually worked, and I was able to make a right and drive down the remote section of Prenzlauer I didn’t have access to. Three blocks later, I yelled, “HOLIDAY INN!!” as the green sign appeared at the correct intersection. I should have known better than to trust MapQuest.
I turned right, and my one stroke of luck was finding a parallel parking spot right next to the hotel. It was now 9:55 on the nose, and the tour was leaving at 10:20. There might still be time. I sprinted inside of the hotel. When I checked in, I asked about parking, and the woman told me how to use the parking elevator next door. It was 11 euros to store the car overnight, but that gave me full in-and-out privileges. I wasn’t planning on moving the car, so that really wasn’t all that important to me. She also sold me an all-day ticket on the public transportation system and showed me the fastest way to Hackescher Market, the tram which stopped just outside the hotel; this would take 15 to 20 minutes and went right to it. This was extremely helpful, since the way I was going to go was from the Prenslauer Alle train station 500m away and make two transfers. The only thing I needed to do was stamp the ticket when I got on the tram. Kevin had mentioned this procedure to me before I left. I thanked her and raced for the hotel and subsequently the room. 10:00.
I tossed my bags on the bed and removed anything that I didn’t need for the tour. I put the extra lens and flash for my camera inside my bag, padded by my hat and scarf, and the sweatshirt went into the laptop pouch. Once I’d gotten everything I needed I dove back out the door as fast as I could, stopping only to use the restroom, which wasn’t going to wait. I rolled the car up to the elevator door. Lessee. Insert card. This worked, the doors suddenly opened. Inside was a platform onto which to drive the car. I hopped in and pulled the car forward, stopping when the light said to do so. It was similar to using an automatic car wash. I got out, locked the car, and then ran back to the control panel outside. “Push the blue button,” she’d said. I pushed it. The doors did nothing. Ack! I pushed it again. Again, nothing. I put the card into the slot again, and then pushed it for a longer period. This time, the doors started to shut, but popped open. Come ON! I repeated the command for a repeated effect. I was really frantic now, but managed to come up with the solution – I had to hold it to get the doors to close completely, I guess to keep people from getting hit. When the doors were closed, the elevator inside started to move, but the card was still trapped inside the reader. I clawed at it frantically, but wasn’t able to reach it. Finally, it popped out on its own, and I ran to the corner across from the tram stop. At this point something had been grating my insides, and I realized what it was. I pulled out my wallet. There was a mere 5 Euros inside, and the tour was 12. I jumped up and down in frustration. Something else I had to do before I could get on the tour, and it was already 10:05.
When I got to the platform, no tram was in sight. I checked the schedule, but wasn’t entirely sure I was reading it right; I didn’t know what the German word for Saturday was! I guessed based on the listings. Okay, that’s Monday through Friday, so that must be Saturday. I think. After deducing I’d just missed one at 10:03, I realized the next one was 10:14. I found myself pacing the track, and really hoped I was wrong.
I wasn’t. The train not only was scheduled for then, but in stark contrast to Japan and something I hadn’t factored in, was *late*. It arrived at 10:16, leaving a mere 4 minutes to get there. Not a chance in hell, I thought. Maybe they’d be standing taking tickets or something, I prayed. I got on board, put my day-use ticket into a machine that appeared to take them, and discovered I was correct in that assumption. The ticket ejected, stamped with a time and date. This was the fastest I’d correctly identified a German cultural item since I’d arrived, but the fact was lost on me since I was too worried about missing them by 10 minutes. “TEN MINUTES,” I grumbled. “All I needed was TEN MINUTES.” The tram meandered its way into town, and the entire time I tried to figure out how I could convince the tour guide to let me stay with them without having paid for a ticket. Perhaps I could give them a deposit? My watch as collateral? I decided the best thing to do was just find the tour, then locate an ATM.
If there is one word I had to use to describe Berlin, it would be this one.
Every piece of this city has some bit of painted vandalism on it; if you saw a wall missing some form of street art, it was really a miracle. It was as if it was the mission of every teenager in Berlin to tag every possible brick with their name. I passed a shop with a big “ramen” banner hanging outside, and had to do a double take. If I had the time and needed to eat, I’d have to try and come back here. I figured I’d write down the name of the station when I passed it on the way back. I brought a little pad and paper with me, and it’s already proved indispensable. Sometimes all the technology in the world doesn’t compare to dried wood pulp and something to mark on it with.
The train arrived at Hackesher Market by 10:26, which still seemed reasonable that they may not have left yet. I rushed out of the tram and over to the main plaza next to the station which seemed as good a place as any to find both the Hagen-Daaz (where the tour left from) and an ATM. Sure enough, the Haagen-Daaz was just up to the right past some outdoor fruit stands and sausage vendors, and miracle of miracles, so was the tour. I couldn’t believe my eyes. I ran up to the group and got the attention of the nearest person I could talk to. She was British, and said the tour guide hadn’t shown yet. I explained my situation, and said that I had to find an ATM. She said she and her friend would let the guide know and would make sure they wouldn’t leave without me. I was in luck! I raced around the block looking for an ATM, but hadn’t a clue what to look for. Was there a sign? Where would they be? I reversed course, thinking maybe the best place to look was inside the station. The group was still standing there mulling about, and I remembered that they sold tickets inside the Haagen-Daaz. Maybe they took credit cards. At first, I thought it was closed, since there were big, dark, heavy drapes behind the door. I looked inside, however, and people were standing behind the counter. I was still unclear about the status until I saw a woman walk inside; apparently the drapes were simply used to keep cold air out of the shop. I followed her inside and walked up to the counter.
I inquired about tickets for the walking tour, and the girl looked concerned. She said the tour left at 10:20, and they were probably already gone. I glanced left to the group of people outside who were still standing around looking confused.
“I don’t think that’s a problem,” I said. Another stroke of luck: I could use a credit card. My body’s stress level dropped by about 1,000 points as I signed the bill for 12 Euros. I thanked her immensely, took the ticket and receipt and headed out to meet the group. As I arrived, I noticed a small-ish blonde girl with a hat who was taking money; she must be the tour guide, I thought. I approached the English girl again and told her my fortune. We both agreed somewhere on the tour there had to be an ATM. I finally managed to get the tour guide’s attention, and she took my ticket with a smile. The morning ordeal finally came to an end, and I was finally ready to take in the sights in Berlin.
I’m not really much of a fan of guided tours. Usually tours are way too fast, and there’s no way to stop and look at something you find really interesting since you’re always trying to keep up with the group. In this case, however, I knew absolutely nothing about the city and its layout, so this seemed to be the best option. Lest I be stuck all morning as a mute, I decided I should introduce myself to the girls I’d met earlier. Their names were Ruth and Cathryn, and they were also joined by their friend Raj. I was very happy to meet them, as I wouldn’t be totally alone in a big crowd anymore. The tour guide, Hannah, led us to the front of the Hackesher Market station and made a brief overview of the area. She said that this area was a big social zone, and many people come to this place and the area around for fun and to meet others. She had us follow her through the station and out the other side, then into a park. As we walked, I talked to Raj. He and Ruth both work for Airbus, and I found out later they’re also flatmates. They had taken a CheapFlights.com trip from Bristol to Berlin on a whim and were staying in a youth hostel. Hannah had us gather around her again in front of a big church-looking thing by a river. She welcomed us to the tour, introduced herself, and said she had some things she wanted us to know.
“One, the area around Zoologischer Garden station is full of pickpockets, so make sure your valuables are in a safe place.” I had heard stories before I’d come to Germany about pickpockets, so I quickly began to shuffle around my things just to be sure in case we went there. My wallet ended up in the inner pocket of my jacket lining; it was hard for *me* to get to it, so I was pretty sure a pickpocket would have a hell of a time. The GPS had lost its signal, so I shut it off. It was one more thing to try and keep track of, and although I wouldn’t get a track of where we’d gone or waypoints places we’d seen, it was easier not to deal with it. I placed this in with my wallet. The A75 ended up in my side pocket inside a zipper; it was probably not terribly safe there, but would be at least not right out in the open and easily accessible by me if necessary. Everything else, including my cell phone, ended up in the laptop sachel of my backpack which is completely unavailable unless I take the thing off. I felt better about my things.
“Two, Germans really like their dogs, but they don’t necessarily like cleaning up after them, so watch your step.” Indeed, several owners behind us were happily watching their dogs crapping and then walking off. She listed one more thing, but I can’t remember off hand what it was. She then provided the world’s fastest German history lesson, which was necessary for the tour. It was indeed very fast, as WWII was a total of two complete sentences. In the area around us, she said, pretty much everything has been either renovated or rebuilt; the Communist government of East Germany wasn’t very good at repairing things, or even simply cleaning things up, so when they moved out, they left behind a city that was in a shambles. Because of this, and the large influx of money from the West, the city landscape is undergoing some rather large changes in a very short period of time.
I will do my best, at this point, to relay what information I gleaned from Hannah and was able to write down. I apologize if I misspell names (since I have no Internet connection while writing this to verify, and it was all spoken) or get historical dates or facts wrong. I’m not a history scholar, I just wrote down what she said. :)
Hannah led us onto a bridge where she next pointed out that church-like building I mentioned earlier, the Berlin Cathedral. This building apparently took a direct hit in WWII, and was pretty much left that way until 1993. Seriously. She said it had a gigantic hole in the roof the entire time. The new government fixed it, and it’s once again open to the public. To the left is a really funky looking tower, the TV tower. It was built to prove that East Germans weren’t in the dark when it comes to technology, but ironically enough they brought in a bunch of Swedes to construct it! It’s right in the middle of town, and is an easy landmark to find; Berlin wouldn’t be the same without it, she confessed. Off in the distance in the opposite direction, Hannah pointed out a gold dome. She said this was a Synegogue, and the center of Jewish life in Berlin. The current red light district was also around there, if that was your sort of thing. The bridge we were on led us to a natural island formed between two forks of the river (the Rhine?). The river comes back together further upstream, and this island is now known as Museum Island since that’s pretty much all it houses. She took the opportunity to point out a large set of bright pink pipes, which pump out water from under the island, since the entire place is a swamp normally. “Why they painted them pink, that’s anyone’s guess. All I know is that they’re horribly ugly!”
We walked along the pipes to the Old National Gallery, which had a bunch of Roman columns in front. As we stood there, she asked if we noticed anything odd about the columns. We pointed out they were patched, badly, but that wasn’t the interesting thing. There were little divots all over them. Bullet holes. The things were literally riddled with bullet holes. Some of them had been patched, but many were not. She said the city is full of things like that which really point out the history of the place.
Next came the Lustgarden, or Pleasure Garden. “As seedy as that sounds, it’s not really what it means.” Apparently it was somewhere to just hang out these days, and when the weather is nice people are out lying on the grass. Hitler used this place for parades and and speeches and such, and it was one of his favorites. The garden is in front of the Old Museum with a big fountain made out of one piece of granite out front. Apparently the man who designed the fountain for the inside of the museum didn’t take into account whether or not it would fit into the front door, and subsequently it’s been sitting here for decades. It too was lined with various sizes of bullet holes, remnants of Russian firearms from World War II. This place was also where JFK had his famous “Ich bin ein Berliner” speech, wherein a grammatical error caused him to claim himself to be a jelly donut. She said you can get all sorts of jelly donut type things, including a keychain she’s heard about that looks like one of the pastries and plays back the line in a recorded quote. “If you ever find one, let me know. I really want one!” Interestingly enough, jelly donuts are not called “Berliners” in Berlin, for obvious reasons. Everywhere else, they are.
Next to the Berlin Cathedral and across from the Garden is the now-closed Palace of the Republic, which was the headquarters of the East German government. It’s a really ugly bronze color, and is very typical Communist architecture. It was built on the spot which once housed a gorgeous castle that once housed the Kaiser. This castle miraculously survived WWII with little damage, but the Communist regime dynamited it anyway for this building. Since the reunification, there had been a raging debate over what to do with this building; some want to use it for a social center, and it’s been used recently for such things as concerts (Santana, David Hasslehoff…). Others want to tear it down and rebuild the castle that once stood there. On one hand this is a good idea, because it’s restoring history wiped clean by the old government. On the other hand, Hannah pointed out, this building in itself is history, and you can’t just go about tearing down historical buildings because they’re ugly. Plus, she added, they recently spent 15 million Euros getting the asbestos out of the building, and now they want to tear it down? She grunted in disgust. It’s scheduled for demolition, but the date keeps changing.
Across the river from the Old Museum is a big pink building called the Old Royal Armoury. “It’s a rather manly name for a pink building,” she said. This used to hold the weapons used to protect the Kaiser, but since there’s no one to protect anymore, it’s been turned into a museum. “This is also the oldest building we’ll see on the tour today,” she mentioned, it having been built in the 1700s.
As we rounded a corner, I noticed something funny – the street we’d just entered looked remarkably like it could have come out of the computer game Half Life 2. I laughed to myself. The street we’d turned down is known as Unter den Linden, and is lined down the middle with linen trees. They’re not originals, however; Hitler decided the big, beautiful trees that used to exist here were getting in the way of his parades, so he had them bulldozed. She pointed out the Crown Prince’s palace across the street from the Armoury, and beside it the Crown Princess’ palace. “The Princess definitely got the short end of the stick here,” she said, referring to the size differential between the two. Inside the Princess’ palace there is now a really good cake shop and restaurant, and they’re worth checking out. To our right was the building that housed the Kaiser’s bodyguards, but of course it was reused since there wasn’t a Kaiser anymore.
She pointed behind us and noted a very new-looking contemporary building that was an addition to the Armoury, or as it’s now known, the German Historical Museum. The addition was designed by I. M. Pei, the famous architect who put the glass pyramid in front of the Louvre in Paris, among other things. She said there was a memorial inside the bodyguard building, and had us break up briefly to check it out. I told Raj I was running down to snag a picture of the building addition, which I did and then ran back. This did wonders for my body; it was *very* cold out today. Even Hannah had said he feet were going numb, and we suggested making it a “jogging tour” to try and warm everyone up. I finally had taken out a single glove for my left hand since the pocket was zipped because of the camera inside it. The right hand I needed more articulation to take pictures with, but it had a pocket at least. I quickly popped inside the bodyguard building for a picture, then back out to join the others.
We stopped for a moment in front of Humbolt University, which once had Albert Einstein as a professor. This is across from the opera house and a memorial to the famous Berlin book burnings. It wasn’t open because of construction going on for a new parking garage, so Hannah described it. It’s a glass panel set into the ground, and below it are a bunch of bookshelves in an empty room. A light illuminates these shelves 24 hours a day, so it makes an interesting spotlight at night. A quote from a man named Heinrich Heine is inscribed upon it: “If you start burning books, you’ll end up burning people.” This quote is interesting for two reasons – one because of what ended up happening in concentration camps, and two because the quote was made in *1820*. How’s that for premonition?
She led us down the Unter den Linden, and I eventually caught up to her to ask how to spell Heinrich Heine’s name. I was only missing the ‘e’ on the end, and she said German was pretty easy once you knew the rules. I explained to her that I’d had some pronunciation in high school, but it had been a long time. I also mentioned that German was much easier to understand (than Japanese, but didn’t get to explain that) since so many words were similar. She said, “Oh yeah, there are lots of… what’s the word?” She was trying to remember what the word was when there are two words that are the same in two different languages, but not she, Raj, Cathryn, Ruth, nor I could think of it. “Oh that’s going to be annoying,” she said.
She stopped us on a road that once housed many brothels, bars, and theaters (“Willkommen, bienvenue, welcome…”) and asked if we’d noticed that some of the walk signs were different than others. Some of them are still the old pre-unification way showing the “happy worker” walking across the street in his little hat. This is known as the Umpemann, and when the countries were reunited, the new government attempted to standardize them to the West German way. The East Germans wouldn’t have it, and were doing crazy things like chaining themselves to the light posts to prevent them from changing them. As such, some of the streetlights still have the old East German man, and you can now buy all sorts of Umpemann gimmicks, such as keychains and shirts.
Hannah led us around the corner and down the road a bit to the Russian Embassy. It’s pretty gigantic, using what she referred to as “wedding cake architecture”. She pointed out that right in front of the main door, there used to be a huge statue of Lenin. However, when Bill Clinton arrived a few years ago, they decided to remove it; having Bill wave to Lenin seemed a little strange in wake of the new Russian democracy. There’s a light green patch of new grass that still notes where it used to sit, which is kind of funny.
The tour went next to a subway station, (“Don’t worry, we’re not going anywhere,” Hannah explained) where she settled in around a corner. The underground was lined with a really ugly, pea-soup green tile, and the place looked very old. “This place was built long before the war, and even the tile here is original,” she explained, banging her fist on the hideous ceramic. After the war, the city became divided. ‘Divided’ is really a misleading word. ‘Surrounded’ is more correct. West Berlin was situated well inside East Germany, and was literally surrounded on all sides by East Berlin with just one long, fenced road leading into West Germany. In this case, people could ride the subway all the way from West Germany into West Berlin. However, since the train also rode through East Berlin to get *to* East Berlin, the East German government knew that people would trying to escape in flocks simply by riding the train or running through the tunnel. Hence, they closed in these stations (which the West German government rented from the East, for good old fashioned “capitalist Deutchmarks”), covering the entrances with bricks and stationing guards in the terminals. The trains from West Germany didn’t stop here, but they did have to pass through them. As such, the stations became known as “ghost stations”, and Hannah added it must have been spooky to be riding the train through and see it deserted and only an East German guard with a machine gun. She also had mentioned earlier that there was one loophole in escaping East Germany; there was one train that actually had a stop in West Berlin. People would casually ride the train there, step off, be handed a West German passport and be welcomed to the country. Several million Germans took advantage of this procedure before the wall was torn down.
She led us through the station, and I took the contextual opportunity to ask about the train ticket. Unlike Japan, where automated gates everywhere limit your ability to ride the trains, there was nothing preventing me from getting on a German train and not paying, or so it seemed. I’d boarded and exited without anyone so much as looking at me. “Are people just on the honor system or something?” I asked.
“Well, there are actually plainclothes train conductors that run around and do spot checks. If you don’t have a ticket, they’ll fine you something like 40 Euros,” she said. “People still abuse it, but it works in most cases. I got checked today, in fact.”
“Is that a city ordinance, or a law, or what? How do they get your money? What happens if you don’t pay?” I inquired, wondering if they were more like parking tickets.
“Well they have your name and address, and they fill out a bank transfer form right there when they give you the ticket. [If you flub the information] I think you get a few warnings, but after three it’s a jail sentence,” she explained. That would keep people from doing it I guess. The fine was probably enough, though.
We stepped out in front of a gorgeous hotel, The Hotel Anton I think, and into a very, very new looking plaza. In front of us was an ornate, columned structure with a statue of a chariot and rider on top. Raj wondered when we were going to get to where the wall used to stand, and I told him I knew we were going to the Brandenburg Gate (which at the time I’d confused with Checkpoint Charlie) so I figured it would be soon.
Hannah explained that the structure in front of us was in fact the Brandenburg Gate, and just beyond it was where the wall used to run. “Question answered,” Raj noted. This promenade was used for many parades by the Nazis, as it was a long, wide road, and led to the center of what became West Berlin, between the Gate and Victory Column, which we could see in the distance. The statue on the top of the Gate was originally called the “Goddess of Peace”, but it was stolen by Napoleon in the 1800s. When it was returned from France, it was redubbed the “Goddess of Victory”. There were several banks and museums around us, and of course, the requisite Starbucks. Yep, right next to a site of great cultural significance and history, there was a convenient chain coffee shop. It was also a very interesting conflict as this monument to capitalism was standing inside of what used to be East Germany. This actually isn’t a rare occurrence at all, but this one stood out to me. Plus, I was dying for a latte.
This was convenient since Hannah said we were having a 20 minute break, and we’d meet back at 12:30. I asked her about an ATM, as I didn’t have very much cash, and she suggested the Commerz Bank off to the side. She knew there was one at the end of the tour, however. I asked her how much it was for some coffee, and she said that my 5 Euros was plenty for coffee and some food. She wasn’t aware, though, of my fascination for really expensive coffees. :) I checked my pockets and turned up having another 5 in coins I didn’t know I had. One and two Euro coins just don’t compute yet.
Raj kept asking if I had enough cash, and offered to buy me some coffee a number of times; that was really nice. I followed him to the little shop next to Starbucks, where they sold all sorts of delectable-looking pastries and coffee. They used an automatic machine to make espresso drinks in one step though, and nothing automatic here has really made anything worth a damn so far. I bought a little cherry pastry after some deliberation, mimicking Hannah’s German request for something on her own. I knew most of the dialogue, but just wasn’t sure about it. My pastry was under 2 Euros, and I skipped the coffee here. The place was totally packed, and while Ruth and Cathryn got seats at a table with other random people, Raj and I had to stand. Hannah stood for a moment too, but opted to go down a staircase to the basement in search of better seating. The German woman had a very complex, wrinkled face, and smoked a cigarette on a stem with her long, silver fingernails. The pearl necklace she wore around her neck somehow matcher her heavy eye shadow, and she looked straight out of a bizarre movie.
I could stand it no more, and finally said to Raj I was headed to Starbucks, giving my claim to try a Starbucks in every place I visited. “It’s a stupid goal, I know, but I have to do it.” He told me he didn’t have a problem with that and I stepped past him and out the door. Doors open *in* here, which still throws me off. A woman was standing in front of it, and for a moment, I wasn’t able to get it open. I stepped into Starbucks, and was instantly transported to every other Starbucks I’d been to in the world, outside of the prices being in Euros. They have the same size limitations as the ones in Japan; ‘grande’ is the biggest size, and you can get a ‘small’. I guess ‘venti’ is a sign of Americans’ fascination with big food.
I stood in line and attempted to order a quad grande latte, but she didn’t understand the quad part. This surprised me, since Starbuck-ese works in Japan, where not everyone speaks English. I explained I wanted four shots in my coffee, and she charged me. 4.70 for one coffee, which works out to something like 6 bucks. Man! This was actually more expensive than in *Japan*. I handed her the remaining 5 Euro bill I had, and she returned my meaningless 30 Euro cent change. She pointed over to the normal pick up counter, where I waited. The employees were jovial, and seemed to have a good rappor; this seems to be pretty much the case in every Starbucks around the world though. Eventually, another employee handed me my coffee, which he said had three shots in it. I think he messed up, since she definitely charged me for four. Oh well, wasn’t that important. I added tons of sugar to my coffee, and was really missing Splenda at this point. They had only saccharin for alternate sweetener, and I can’t stand the stuff. I don’t mind using sugar right now, but it just takes tons to make it as sweet as I like, and it doesn’t dissolve very well. Durn natural food.
I carried this outside to meet the group, since we were getting close to time. Raj had taken a chair next to Hannah on a bench outside, and was smoking a cigarette. I walked up with my Starbucks, and could tell they were not too keen on the chain, as many people aren’t . Say what you will about Starbucks being a big corporate entity with corporate coffee, and sure enough there are always better places to get coffee at, for a lot less money. I highly support little coffee shops, and most of the time they make great stuff. However, Starbucks is *consistent*, makes decent coffee, and you’re sure, when you walk in, of getting exactly what you expect, anywhere in the world. Sure enough, the latte tasted exactly like every one I’d ever gotten from any other Starbucks, in Germany, Japan, or the US. We had a silly conversation about it, as I always find myself apologizing for getting Starbucks somehow! I explained for a lot of people, including myself, it’s kind of an anti-homesickness drink, due to the consistency. They really didn’t have any strong words, but I could feel the Starbucks prejudice seeping out of them. Just kidding, they were fine with it. I sipped away at the milky drink and enjoyed it whole-heartedly.
A minute or so later, Hannah gathered us back up to continue the tour. She pointed out the construction area to the left of the Gate and the Commerzbank that is to be the new American Embassy, scheduled for completion in 2008. There’s a good deal of debate about this, since people are concerned that they’re going to close off part of the plaza for security reasons. Indeed, the street in front of the current embassy has been closed for years now. Hopefully, she said, by the time it opens, the security will loosen some. She led us through the gate, where we began the second half of the tour.
I’m going to split this log, since I’m already at fourteen pages, and I’m not even quite halfway through the day!