The Plot Thickens. Oh, wait, that's just the air.

Trip Start Sep 27, 2005
Trip End Oct 26, 2005

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Flag of Germany  ,
Monday, October 3, 2005

The cheapest overnight spot I could pull to Berlin was a reclining seat on the smoking car. Definitely not used to a smoking anything in America, I thought it might be fun (not to mention my only option). My hopes of a ragin' party were at first dashed when I got to my seat and found the 2-seat row 3/4 occupied by a large German chain-smoker named Karl. Resolving to make the best of it, I took out the $5 corncob pipe and black cherry tobacco I'd brought from the States and tried to make friends by outsmoking Karl.
Now, I'm not much of a smoker at all. Never even touched a cigarette, not to mention this was my first time giving the pipe a go. And as it turns out, I'm fairly incompetent at smoking a pipe as my singed pointer finger and watery eyes could testify. But we had a grand time anyhow, and while I by no means could approach Karl's rate of smoke, he did have to have a sip of his German Snapple before I even touched my camelback full of train grocery store water that they use to keep the vegetables moist. I claimed that as a partial victory. Put that in your pipe and smoke it, Karl!
Oh I'm so clever.
The trip got better as well when the row across the aisle from us was filled by 3 German guys my age heading back to Berlin where they go to school and work. Having come down for the 'Fest, they were still drinking, smoking, and singing as we left the station. I asked if they could teach me the song, and learned a little ditty about Carnival in Cologne and the wonderful things that happen there. Soon we were sharing cigars, cheap (but still awesome) German beer, and my silly defective corncob pipe.
One of the guys in particular, Steffan, was very interesting and we had a long discussion after the others settled down about the attitude with which Germans deal with their history. His grandfather was a German soldier in the war. My grandparents were all Russian medics being shot at in the war. Germans have a lot of guilt at their history, Steffan said, but have equal tendencies to face it head-on to make amends, as well as to cover the past by destroying many sites that remind of awful events.
Should I be sore at Steffan for his family's past mistakes, especially forced ones? Of course not. Should he have been sore at mine for our errors? No. Fact is we had a great time having a conversation over beers 60 years later. I got a chance to examine some of the long-held grudges towards Germany my family has understandably had, and recognize that I have no reason to carry on anything but respectful memories, kept alive by a desire to learn, understand, and befriend.
As we left the station upon our arrival the next morning, Steffan invited me to stay at his place, as his flatmate's room was empty at the moment. We shared a traditional German breakfast from a small bakery/deli near his house and got to talk more about German and EU current events.
Soon it was time for me to explore the city. Finding a walking tour of the town, I got to learn about Berlin from a very knowledgeable and funny guide with other interesting backpackers, mostly from Australia. I even bought a piece of the Berlin Wall for 5 Euro. Well, so the guy said. It was concrete and graffiti, works for me.
After the tour, I went to the Reichstag (German Parliament building) to try to find Babushka's name still scrawled on the walls. Of course most of the building has been redone since the war, but they intentionally left a few of the walls graffitied with Russian names. When I got there in the late afternoon, the building was near closed but the amazing glass domed roof was open late to visitors because I happened to be in the Capital during the 15th Anniversary of German Reunification Day. On my way out, I stopped to ask a guard if I could see the Russian walls. They said no at first, but once I explained my purpose in seeking my grandmother's 60-year-old mark, they let me briefly into the closed area. In addition to the unlikely chance of her name still being there, I could only view a few of the walls, and from a balcony a floor above for security reasons. I didn't find it this time. Next time I will search better and longer, even if it has most likely been gone for several decades.
After wandering for a bit amongst the festivities, I started towards the U-Bahn (subway) to go meet a friend. On the way, I passed a hotel with a grip of people just standing in front of it, against 2 ropes clearing an aisle to the front door. Curious, I asked and learned that they were waiting for Hamid Karzai, the President of Afghanistan, to arrive. He was in town for a meeting and staying at this very hotel. Learning also that he was due shortly, I hung out and found a nice cranny on the curb, 3 people down from the front corner of the aisle. Shortly, his posse pulled up and he got out, waving to the cheering crowd. As politicians do, he decided to shake a few hands, and headed in my direction. He met the first man. Greeted the second woman. My turn! Meeting Karzai for the second time (if you don't know the first story, ask later), I said hello and good luck. As he passed I realized I was missing my chance for some proof and tapped his arm as he was just past me. "Can I take a photo with you?" I said. "Sure!" he replied. Throwing my left arm around his shoulders, I extended my right hand with the camera to snap the shot. One thing you don't do, I learned, was touch the President of Afghanistan, and his Secret Service roughly threw my arm off. Off-balance but still determined, and with a fleeting window of opportunity, I did manage to take the picture as I was falling over. So all y'all that doubt that I hang out with world leaders in my free time can see it and weep.
Jubilant, I continued to go meet our family friend Jenny (not my sister), whose mom Rima in Russia convinced my Mama to go for my Papa :) She is a very talented artist who got to Berlin not that long ago after stints in UCLA, Sweden, and more. After eating at a Vietnamese-German joint, we got worked in foosball by her 2 German friends, and went to a Russian bar before I had to get back to Steffan's house.
Next morning: off to Amsterdam!

Moral of the story: If I would've just brought the corncob pipe with me, I bet I coulda been invited to stay in Kabul as well.
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