Trip Start Sep 12, 2005
40Trip End Dec 12, 2005
We were tempted to rent a car in Germany, though there is a lot of heavy traffic, the parking is horrendous and on the autobahn there is no enforced speed limit which is a little scary. Martin has also found that he just doesn't see as much when he drives because he has to concentrate on the road. We decided to take the bus to Berlin. Although it takes about twice as long as the train (six and a half as compared to four hours), it is much cheaper. (Trains offer a 50% discount if you book three days in advance, but I don't know if we'll ever get that organized!)
The bus was large and very comfortable, complete with seat belts - I've never seen them on a bus this size
McDonalds and Wal Mart are everywhere - and in Germany, too. From the bus, we noticed their signs like giant sentinels. You often see signs in English or written with some English words. Ulrike said that Germans are using English words more and more. It makes you wonder if someday the whole world will speak only English, or there will be a universal language made up of bits of different languages. (Actually there is, but it's not widely spoken.)
We've noticed a lot of graffiti in the Netherlands and Germany, but Berlin has to beat all! From the moment we arrived on the bus, we saw it on every wall or vertical surface in brash, bold technicolour. Perhaps it stems from Berliners being so politically active; our guidebook tells us that they hold demonstrations for demonstrations in Berlin. There's even a daily "demo report" that lets you know where the demonstrations are taking place and how traffic will be affected.
Berlin, a sprawling metropolis of 3.4 million, is Germany's largest city. It covers eight times the area of Paris. There's so much to see here - so many mammoth buildings of historical significance, museums and parks. More sights than we could possibly see in only three days!
Of course, the moment I got off the bus I had an encounter with a cyclist who yelled at me to get out of the way. I've become a little jumpy around bicycles!
They have the most amazing machine at the bus depot in Berlin to help tourists determine which buses, trams ("S Bahn") and subway lines ("U Bahn") to take to their accommodation. All you have to do is plug in the street name and number, and viola! One bus and three subway trains later we were at our destination! It was as easy as pie! (Really, it was!)
We had difficulty finding a hotel because of the Berlin Marathon that was taking place on the Sunday we were here. I think we managed to book the last twin room available in the whole of Berlin! It was a new hostel in the Kreutzberg area (known for its counter culture and large immigrant population), not far from the city centre for 66 Euros (about $100 CDN) per night with shared bathroom facilities. No great deals to be had here! It was a great place to stay, though - clean, comfortable and the owner, Liane, was extremely friendly and helpful.
Our first night out, we opted to try a German restaurant nearby and it was typically German - lots of food and not much spice! (Even a little salt and pepper would have been nice!) One meal would have easily fed both of us, mine alone was enough to feed two hungry men and a small boy (well, almost)
We decided to purchase a three-day pass for the Berlin public transport to help us get around. The pass also gave us discounts at a few of the different tourist sites. It took us awhile to figure out their system as all buses, trams and the subway lines are overlaid on one map, but once we did, it was quite easy to get from place to place. We shared the job of navigating - I would decide where we were going, Martin would find the line we wanted to take and the stop where we needed to get off and I would ensure we were going in the right direction/exited the right way out of the underground!
One of the first points of interest we went to was Checkpoint Charlie. Following WWI, Berlin was divided into French, American, British and Soviet sections. Checkpoint Charlie was located in the American section in West Berlin, opposite the Berlin Wall and East Berlin
It is difficult nowadays to discern where the wall was and which part of the city was which. I think it would have been very interesting to have visited prior to 1989 and have gotten a feel for the way it was. Berlin is now united, though tensions still exist between the have not "Ossis" (East Berliners) and the wealthier "Wessis"
Besides being known for demonstrations, Berlin also has a vibrant nightlife. There are clubs everywhere; you can hear just about any type of music you want. (I'm not sure about country, though, so Martin might not have been in luck!) Many of the young people at our hostel staggered in not long before we would get out of bed - and then slept the entire day away! There's also a rich gay culture here - Berlin is considered one of the gay capitals of Europe.
It hasn't been easy using our credit card in Europe. Many places flat out refuse to take them (because of the extra charges they incur) or will charge you extra - so we've made a lot of trips to the ATM!
One of the other attractions in Berlin that affected us both deeply was the Jewish Museum dedicated to the six million Jews who were murdered during WWII. The building's architecture itself speaks volumes as there are walls and windows at various angles and the floors are sloped slightly upward (so that you are walking uphill) and also slope to one side, giving you a very unsteady feeling. In the Holocaust tower, visitors experience the isolation and desolation of no escape. There is little light and the only sounds are of vehicles passing on the street. Another area of the building is entitled "Memory Void" and, except for walls and oddly angled windows, is completely empty except for one room
The rest of the building is an interactive exhibit focusing on the history of the Jewish people in Europe, from their arrival in the 10th century until post WWII. There's a museum gift shop, as you would expect. One of the strangest items I saw being sold there was a mousepad with Barbie and Ken wearing Jewish prayer shawls. I wondered what the significance of that was? Am I missing something???
People seem to dress quite conservatively in Germany - and I recall that from 24 years ago. In contrast, I thought the Dutch were much more fashion-conscious, more riske in terms of what they wore, but also choosing to wear more colour. Popular in both countries is jewellry with lots of sparkle: large gemstone/cut glass brooches, long dangly art deco style earrings.
I've also noticed that people seem to take their dogs everywhere here
I mentioned that we were in Berlin during a marathon and we just happened on it on our way to the subway on a Sunday morning when we saw some of the people in the "middle of the pack" run by. There were thousands of runners - it was a sea of people! (I believe the announced mentioned 30,000 participants, but Martin spotted jerseys with numbers as large as 35,000.) Runners from all over the world were there, from Germany (of course!), Italy, France, Sweden, Guatemala, Costa Rica, Korea, Chile, Japan, Australia, the US - to name just a few - and lots of Danes. We saw three Canadian shirts (one from Edmonton) and one runner wearing a Canadian hat. There were wheelchair athletes as well as lots of older runners. Many wore silly hats or costumes and the crowd cheered them on with clapping, noise-makers, signs and songs.
Our destination that morning was the Brandenburg Gates, but that's also where the race started and ended, so there was a huge crowd to navigate around (not to mention that much of the area was cordoned off for the race). It was interesting watching the runners reach the finish line. Each runner was given a medal commemorating the event, wrapped in a length of yellow plastic and then led to the recovery area to rest, rehydrate and eat
One of the most colourful characters at our hostel was a woman named Scarlet who was born in Arkansas, but considered herself a "citizen of the world" because she had lived all over the globe. A speech language pathologist, she said she was having a mid-life crisis, so had quit her current job and was trying to figure out to do with the rest of her life. One of the other reasons she said she had left was that she couldn't stand the Bush administration and what they were doing to the US. She was frustrated that the American people had voted him in for a second term and feels it may very well mean the end of the US as a world power.
The hostel owner, Liane, was also a very interesting person. Her mother is Hungarian and her father from Papua, New Guinea, but she is German and also Jewish, so I guess you could say she is a citizen of the world as well! Every year she spends three months in Japan studying meditation and when the hostel is closed from January to March, she travels. On one trip, she spent two weeks with her son making her way through the Sumatran jungle with only a compass and a machete!