Berlin, Germany

Trip Start Feb 27, 2008
Trip End May 28, 2008

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Flag of Germany  , Berlin,
Saturday, April 26, 2008

Day 57 - GOOD MORNING, My head hurts.  We packed our stuff as silent as possible, I figured we could drive a scooter through the room and the drunk girls wouldn't notice, I wanted to be nice to the Portlanders, and tried to sneak out unnoticed. We hopped a morning train to Berlin.
In Berlin we will be meeting Jens. He is from Dusseldorf and met Karla's room mate Rachel on a study abroad program. He then came to live with Karla and Rachel in the US for three months. He also came to visit Karla in New York when she was living there. Jens will be our tour guide/translator for this section of the journey. It's nice to not have to worry about doing research for information on every stop you go to. We got off first at the wrong station. Large cities have multiple stations for trains. Depending on where you live, you might not always go to the train station in the center. Anyway, we got off first at the southern train station and had to take a regional train to get to Berlin Central Station. This is one of those times when having unlimited train rides is so awesome. Trying to correct the same mistake with a purchased ticket would have been a nightmare.
Arriving finally at central station we meet Jens. Jens is German, tall and skinny, he speaks perfect English, as well as German, Dutch, Norwegian, and probably French and Danish too. He is really into all things alternative yet he is always dressed very smart. We greet Jens and take the various trains and busses to our Hostel. We were staying in the Meininger series of hostels again. I love those feather comforters.  Jens will be staying with his friend Nikki, who lives here in Berlin and we'll just meet him places to see the things around the city.
After settling we walked around the area, Jens showed me how to drink in the street, this is apparently something the Germans hold very dear. The ability to walk around the street with beer is a strange concept for me and it's hard getting used to it. As we walked through the streets Jens explained that he liked Berlin's culture because it was kind of a counter culture. An inexpensive place to live for young people that is active, full of art and new ideas, and very accepting of many styles of people. For lunch we had authentic fish and chips. It was really good, but we ran into the first big difference between Germans and Americans. The catsup. It is a staple on every American table but in Germany (and most of Europe) there is fierce competition from the mayonnaise department.
We walked all through East Berlin. Got a bottle of wine at a market and drank it together in a nearby park. Jens taught me how to piss in public like all the Berliners. I was very apprehensive, but nobody paid any attention to me pissing in a crowded park, so I guess it was ok. Most of the houses are old and very neat. Some appear to be empty, though there are probably squatters living in the abandoned homes because it just seems like the kind of place that Berlin is. The new architecture in East Berlin in definitely soviet in nature. You can tell almost immediately which homes were built in the last 50 years and which were not. There are a whole lot of massive apartment buildings in East Berlin. Each one the same as the next, simple white buildings full of apartments with balconies decorated in plants and chairs. We walked to an area near the center of the east side of the city and had coffee at a café. There was a sandy pit off the side of the street where picnic tables and a fire were located. The walls and sidewalks were decorated with grafitti, Groovy music played over the hi-fi and a projector shot silent movies on to the wall of the adjacent building. We had found the ultimate alternative scene in Berlin. But this wasn't the end of the night, Jens had something special in store for us. It was an underground table tennis bar. At first I thought it was a table tennis bar underground but Jens quickly corrected me saying that it's a bar operating without a liquor license, so there is no sign to the street, you just have to know where it is and go in. We walked the streets for a short while, Jens had to call his friend once for directions but we finally made it. A smoky, dark room on the ground floor had a single ping-pong table in it, couches and chairs were arranged around the outside. In a back room there was a table set up with a cooler of beers, and a box of paddles. We bought beers and borrowed paddles. I was a bit confused after seeing the size of the room. There were already about 20 people in the bar and I only saw one table. Soon all was explained to me.
People started lining up on either side of the table, the first person served, then ran over the line on the other side, each person would hit the ball only once, then run around to the other side. If a person hits the ball off the table or into the net, they are out and must wait until the next round. When the table gets down to just two they play a quick game of solo ping-pong to five points and then the whole process starts over. It's an ingenious way to allow 20 people to play ping-pong all at once, with only one table. This is my opinion of how Europe differs from home, in America there would be a table for every 4 people, maybe every 2. People would play in private, if there were more people than paddles, one would sit out and a rotation game would be played where the winner of the game stays at the table and the loser moves to another table or sits down. Only a place like East Berlin, where ping-pong tables were probably a scarcity 20 years ago, would find a way for 25 people to all play ping-pong at once. And in the end, who wins doesn't rally matter. All that matters is that they're playing and enjoying themselves. We arrived back at our hostel at about 1:30 that night.

Day 58 - Now my head really hurts. But at least the weather was better today than it was yesterday. Jens had planned to pick us up at the hostel this morning but he txt messaged us saying that he'd stayed out even later than us the previous evening and needed his sleep. We decided to go to a museum that morning. 5 of Berlins top museums reside on an island in the middle of the city. It is correctly labeled "museum island". The Pergamon museum originally started with an exhibit of the Temple of Athena found in the ancient Greek city of Pergamon in Turkey. The whole front half of the temple, plus pillars, stairs, statues, and all the reliefs found around the base were shipped to Berlin and reassembled in the museum. As if this giant building wasn't enough, the Pergamon has about 5 other large facades from around the world. inside their museum. One of these is the recovered tile from the gate in Babylon. The entire gate and processional entryway were reconstructed in this museum. In addition to these massive pieces, there are also many other types of relics from the ancient Greeks, Babylonian, Mesopotamian, and even Islamic art.
After the Pergamon we caught up with Jens, we walked with him around the East side of Town, Alexanderplatz with its large TV tower, was the city center of East Berlin. Turning west from Alexanderplatz we walked down Bernauerstrasse to the Berlin wall memorial and museum. There is still a section of the wall standing, as it was in the 80's. Forgive me for being uneducated in this area (I was only 7 when the wall fell.) I had always imagined that the wall surrounded East Berlin and they were trying to keep from getting out of the east into western Germany. Instead, Berlin is in East Germany, and the wall was actually built around the west side, to keep people from getting in. Most of the images we see as Americans are from the West side of the wall (surprise, surprise) where you could walk right up to the wall and graffiti on it. Little is told about the terrible things on the East side of the wall. Just beyond the tall concrete wall that we know as the "Berlin wall" there was a large dirt strip that was very well manicured, any footprint would be easily spotted by the patrols. Down the middle of this "dead zone" there was a path just wide enough for one car to drive down. Every hour the entire length of the wall was patrolled. On the east side of this road is a smaller wall with barbed wire on both sides. Every 150 meters, there was a guard tower where twenty-four hour guards stood by with orders to shoot to kill. A large number of buildings were destroyed to make this "dead zone." Many people were displaced from their homes. Even a church was torn down and graves were exhumed from the cemetery in order to keep people from going near the wall. Here and there throughout the city, sections of the western part of the wall still stand. Most of it has been broken down or chipped away. Next we went to an alternative art commune in an industrial part of town. It was covered with graffiti and a dilapidated backyard that also served as an art gallery and restaurant. Most people would consider Berlin dangerous or dirty because of it's graffiti, but I found non-offensive and in most cases, on the verge of artistic. In America, tagging scene as an indicator of a bad part of town or gang activity. In Berlin, almost everything is tagged and ironically, also safe to walk at night. Jens described graffiti as a marker of the alternative lifestyle. I wondered if any of these people tagged the inside of their own homes, and if not, why not?
After lunch, we walked to the Brandenburg Gate. Being tourists as we are, we had to take our pictures underneath it. This gate, along with the Arc de Triumphe have to be the two most important arches in western Europe. I could see in my head the soviet vehigles blocking the entrance ways, or Hitler's troops parading through. So much history in one place, it's a neat feeling to be standing in the same spot where so much history took place. Jens insisted that we try currywurst. The official fast food of Germany. In actuality, Jens doesn't like fast food, or the idea of capitalist chains in general. So this is the Berlin alternative to fast food. It's a frankfurter sausage, covered in hot catsup with curry powder sprinkled over the top. After the spiels about how much Jens preferred mayo to catsup, I couldn't believe that he would eat a hotdog covered in the stuff, but it was very good. After currywurst we walked across the street to the roof of the Parliament building. At the top of the Parliament building you can see the whole city laid out before you East and West. You could see the difference in the construction of the two cities. Even though they are just across the river from each other. In the center of the parliament building is a large spiral mirror, you can see the chairs of the parliament down below through the reflections in these mirrors. This is a symbol of the transparency of the new German government. The sunset at the top of the tower was amazing. If you go to the German Parliament building, you will see something very unique. There is a tradition that has held true for years and is still in practice. There are three doors leading to the Parliament floor, one marked with "Ja" one with "Nein" and the other with "???" whatever the German word for undecided is. When people leave the parliament building after a discussion or before a vote, they use the door that corresponds with how they are feeling about the topic of discussion.
After the Parliament building we walked to the holocaust memorial just down the road. I did not know anything about it, or even the fact that it was the holocaust memorial until Jens told us about it. The memorial has roughly 2700 black granite slabs about 2 feet by 5 feet long. It looks like a giant graveyard of granite tombs. All of the slabs are the same height, but as you walk into the memorial, you realize that the ground is sloping away from you. Soon the slabs have gone from 2 feet tall to 12 feet tall (or the ground has gone down 10 feet however you want to look at it) and everything is dark. Even if you think you know where you are it is really hard to get around anywhere or find anyone. Each experience is different, so I won't go into all of the symbolism that I found there, but it is a powerful statement and a very neat memorial. It was dark and we walked through the Sony center. This was a large indoor-outdoor pavilion in the shadows of the Sony corporate building. Trendy restaurants and a movie theatre were scattered along the outside. Jens wanted to show us the area, but he definitely didn't want to eat at one of the places, the Sony center was way too commercial. Instead we took the tram to the other side of the city and had dinner in a very neat part of town. I'm not sure what the district was called, but it reminded me of SoHo or maybe a trendy part of Brooklyn. One annoying thing that we found out in Berlin was that there are very few ATM's and not very many places take VISA or Mastercard. Up until now I have relied on my debit card to pull out all the money I needed, only in Berlin have I had a hard time finding an ATM.

Day 59 - For today, Jens has booked us a five-hour bike tour around Berlin. Karla and I weren't totally into it at first but when we woke up and saw it was another beautiful day, we thought it might be a nice day for a bike tour. The bike tour started along the wall and rode past the street and memorial we went to the day before. When we were looking at one of the guard towers our tour guide saw someone leaving, he paused the tour and ran over to the man and talked with him in German. The man turned and reopened the guard tower. This man was the brother of the first man to be killed while attempting to escape East Berlin. We stepped inside to see the inside. The man had purchased the guard tower and had turned it into a memorial for his brother. The guy spoke a lot in German, the tour guide attempted to translate but the guy was talking really fast and apparently too vulgur for the tour guide to translate directly. Jens and all the native German speakers got a good laugh from the guy though. After a little ride we stopped at a café for a sausage and a beer. We rode past the demolished SS headquarters from the second world war and then on to checkpoint Charlie. Now it's merely a booth in the middle of a crowded street where people can take pictures. We biked past the opera house and through the streets to where we began the tour. I have to admit that it was thoroughly enjoyable. Biking, especially for five hours, is not really an American thing to do, but Berlin is relatively flat and our tour guide was very good. After our bike ride we went to a café for coffee and then Karla and I went back to the hostel for a nap. I woke up from my nap, Karla didn't. she was so pooped from riding around that she didn't even want to go out that evening. So I went to the Berlin Hard Rock Café and bought myself a shirt, then met with Jens Nikki near her home and had a couple of beer and a nice chat before heading back.
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