Berlin- Ups and Downs

Trip Start Jun 01, 2006
Trip End Ongoing

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Thursday, October 19, 2006

Berlin- Days One and Two

Arrived in Berlin a bit before noon. Since I had no response from my various requests for rooms, I went to the Information Office at the train station and was able to snag a room for the night. From there, I began navigating the Metro/Train/Bus system. Berlin is not so orderly (as you would expect with its Prussian background) and the system is not an easy one to master. Add to that, the specific Metro I would normally use is out of service (several stations under repair) and all the signs advising how to navigate around the disruption being in German, well, it was frustrating and long (with the pack on my back).

I made it to the right Metro stop, and started hiking using my map. I eventually found the "Pension" and went in. Not exactly a Three Star, nor a Two Star, truly a "Pension" with a very taciturn manager, 'Hoss' (mom was a "Bonanza" fan?). Herr Hoss is early forties, gruff, and I don't know if it is his hesitancy with English, or just his personality, but he comes across as rather put out by having guests in the building. I checked in. Now, for those who don't know, a Pension can run a wide gamut but is generally a small family run hotel, or even a house. This is a second floor walk up hotel-type situated in an older building. Not exactly shabby, but the rooms are very simple and bare of decoration. There is one sheet on the bed on top of the mattress, a quilt, and a pillow. Spartan. The walls are thin, I can hear every footstep and voice outside my door, and for a good way down the hall (the boards groan horrifically). However, they do have wireless and Herr Hoss knows I need to find another room and stands over me while I boot up the PC- without a 'bye your leave' he reaches over me to configure the wireless connection, hits buttons I cannot see, with a result that my pc cannot access the wireless system. I then spend almost an hour trying to reset the computer without luck. So I cannot check if my other reservations ever came through. So off I trudge to an Internet Café to discover that in fact, none of my reservations have been accepted.

Berlin is full. I do a search for rooms and find nothing closer than the airport (far away) or on the edges of the burbs. I go back to the Pension, advise Hoss of same, and get a grudging 'ok' for a second night, in a smaller room (meaning a room change on the next day). He advises, as they did at the train station, that Berlin is full due to various conventions. He frowns. Business may be good, be he is not happy. So off I go on foot to begin canvassing other hotels and Pensions in the area; and everywhere I go I get the same answer. Full up. My path crosses a young girl (early twenties?) and we seem to track each other as we go from hotel to hotel as each place I go to says "Try over at..." and she is always coming out as I am going in! The story, as I go along, is not only that there are conventions, but that Berlin is hosting the International Porn Convention and Festival. Now, gentle reader, much like Victorian Ladies who could not bear the word 'breaches' to be uttered in their presence, while surrounded by the same, we must not be prudish and be shocked by this. But apparently the city is filled with porn! Perhaps this explains Hoss' attitude? Maybe he thinks I am a porn devotee/purveyor? I don't know (but I do know when I watch tv later that night, most of the German channels all switch to soft porn after 11- nothing too awful, but porn it is- I am now completely familiar with the female breast as a television celebrity). And lets face it, someone has to be buying this stuff! Perhaps even a reader of mine may own some? Don't be shocked, it can't be such a big business without a market!

I go on trudging. At one point, I enter a pension, climb the four floors to be met by a perfectly coiffed and dressed older lady. It turns out she does rent rooms, by the hour. She asks if I know what that means. I blush and say I do. I try to leave. I must not be her usual clientele and she wants to talk. About her time living in Florida, her children in the States, her wish to return. Fascinating as it is, I have to get back to the search (that 20 year old girl is ahead of me again). I cross paths with the girl, as predicted, leaving a seedy place that is gay run and caters to "bears" (fat hairy men who like other fat hairy men)- we are both desperate by this point! I find a fourth floor pension on a shabby side street and buzz up and go in- knowing the 20 year old hasn't found this one. Oy! Such a place! I tower over the very elderly lady (not German, I couldn't figure her and her husband out- they spoke a language I have not come across, and that's beginning to mean something). The Pension is small, cramped, dirty. They live in the reception area, a dining table shoved in a corner, couch and tv next to the desk, a large old armoire moldering on a wall. And a parrot. A huge parrot that had feathers only on its head and wings, the rest being wrinkled old skin, much like on a plucked chicken. And the parrot screamed. Relentlessly screamed a high bloodcurdling sound while the old man and woman argued and he puffed an acrid cigar. Finally, he takes me down a dark hall, filled with "Clown" paintings to a dingy room with a small bed and dirty shower stall covered in mold- the toilet to be shared somewhere down a dark hall. This, this COULD be mine, for $60 Euros a night- as the parrot screams in the background and Clown pictures look at me. I am sure it has bugs. Not guessing, but sure. The place hasn't been cleaned in years. A measure of my desperation is that I say "I will be back in 15 minutes, don't give it to another until then" and go back out into the street.

I stand out there, have I sunk so low that I'll sleep with bugs? Well, just about, in fact. I try two more places further down the street. Providence smiles on me. I find a hotel with a room scarcely bigger than a closet- but it's clean. I pay in advance. And it is after 5 o'clock. My first day in Berlin and most of it spent looking for a room. DAMN that porn convention! But I have certainly had a close look at seamy hotels and pensions and a wide swath of this neighborhood so I suppose all is not lost.

After a rest, I walked around looking for a restaurant for about an hour and settled on a nice-ish place (not too expensive, after all the Pension is still $50Euro a night) and have a good meal. Glass of white wine recommended by the waiter (crisp, nice- am getting white wine palate) and plate of meatballs in caper sauce, boiled potatoes, beets, and a salad. The meatballs are soft and tan (veal?) the sauce is smooth and has a bite- all the elements go together well. I am content.

Then I tour the gay neighborhood (I am not far). Berlin is the unofficial gay capital of Europe. While in Amsterdam the 'legal' issue remains supreme (gay marriage) and it is touted as the 'in' place, other cities, like London and Berlin, based on size, have huge gay populations. Berlin has the largest population, a rather centralized 'area', and might be likened to New York or San Francisco as leading the way. Unofficially there are about 140 gay café's, bars, nightclubs and dance places. That's a lot. Of course, descriptions of these are all in German so I haven't a clue as to where to start! Much like a child opening Birthday presents, I start opening doors to see what awaits. I find a gamut of places. Small and empty bars, 'lap dance' bars, medium sized empty bars. I find a lot of 'Leather' bars. Leather, again for those who do not know, is short for 'Sadism and Masochism'- not really my cup of tea- and I'll spare the gentle reader details on these places, but I did hang in one and observe the crowd- very much the outsider and ok with that position for once. Berlin, however, is the center for leather activity, and there are a LOT of these types of places.

I have two beers. Now being in Germany this means LARGE beers. More than I want. So off to bed, wondering where are the places middle aged guys go to hang out in decent surroundings and have a glass of wine?

Today, up early (with a bit of a beer hangover- TWO beers, I swear!) and groggy after a crappy nights sleep (people are up late and I hear them come and go). After breakfast, at which I meet Frau Hoss, an uber cheerful blonde who plays counterpoint to cranky Herr Hoss, I move my room to the end of the hall- shared bath. Erghh. I hate this, but can cope. I'm finally going to tour Berlin a bit, after being here 24 hours!

Berlin is a big city. It sprawls. I got down to the Brandenburg Tor and began there. The thing that strikes be about Berlin is the layers of history that co exist side by side. Imperial Hohenzollern imprinted by Nazi, that in turn imprinted by Russian occupation, that topped off with re-unified (modern). This is most evident in the center of town. The Brandenburg Tor is not all that large (to me, savy traveler that I am) but I'm struck by how, feet away from it, once ran the wall that divided the city (see photos starting here) and the ongoing construction. There is construction everywhere and cranes don't just 'dot' the landscape, they are everywhere. Even at the Brandenburg.

What I find most interesting about the Brandeburg Tor, is that the statue that surmounts it is the Goddess of Peace entering and protecting the city. For how long has this symbol of Berlin been used as a backdrop for pictures of war and its aftermath?

All day long, the song in my head is "Deutschland, Deutschland, Uber Alles".

Just behind the Tor is the Reichstag. Again, Imperial, site of Nazi history, and now topped by a huge glass dome (which really is cool to see). However, the line to go up into the dome is over 2 hours long so I go back to the Tiergarten (which starts right behind the Tor- the Garten is much like Central Park in NYC) and find an old man who sets up each day a memorial to those who died trying to cross the Berlin Wall. His issue is that the Germans who colluded with the Russians and ordered people to be shot when attempting escape, are still alive, and getting government pensions. I keep forgetting that it really was not so long ago (15 years?) that the Wall was there, right where I was standing, and people died- layers of history.

Lunch was Bratwurst (yum) coffee and two jelly donuts (known in slang as "Berliners", which I didn't' know)- hungry!

I walked along the Unter den Linden, which while being a wide paved road, is not very attractive. Lined with stark office buildings and stunted Linden trees it could be magnificent but is not. I passed the Platz where Hitler held book burning bonfires, near the Opera and University. I headed towards the older section through construction towards the "Dom" or Berlin Cathedral. Built by Kaiser Wilhelm, it wasn't finished until 1905 and, unlike the old Gothic cathedrals, was built for really a different purpose (glorification of the Hohenzollerns) and has a totally different look (compared to St. Stephens, for example, in Vienna). On a huge 'Platz' or plaza (site of army reviews for various kings, then site of Nazi rallies) it broods more than inspires. I paid and went in.

Being a 'modern' cathedral, it is a huge dome on the inside, vast and soaring but not inspiring. My ticket included a tour to the top of the dome and the crypt and I started up to the dome. Now, having a bit of a beer hangover, I don't know why, while I declined to do this in any other city, I did it this time. But I made it. Nauseous and breathless, but made it. Berlin just sprawled as far as the eye could see. Then down to the crypt.

Now, before you think I have a crypt fetish, I only went into one other, St. Stephens, and the tour of the Berlin Dom runs you through the crypt on purpose- it was fascinating. When the Kaiser built the church, he moved all the Hohenzollerns from their various burial crypts and put them in one place to push his dynastic ideas. It is a huge place, filled with simple coffins, elaborate funerary sarcophagi, crowns, marble (and good electric lighting). I found myself getting lost in comparing style and makes and coffins, tracing different periods of history by the decoration on the coffins, wondering about the stories of the little infant coffins (some plain boxes, some show pieces of art) until I realized "hey, this is a little morbid, get the hell out" so I did. But the place was interesting, and full of people doing the same thing!

From there, I walked back down the Unter den Linden and looked at tourist junk, and was fascinated by the postcards. Most of them are either of the Hohenzollern era, or show Berlin as it looked after the Allies won. Bombed out buildings. The Dom with a gaping hole in the dome. The Berlin Wall.

I observed the Berliners too. Overall, they are a less cheerful bunch (than people in Vienna for example). Less fit, tending to be overweight, they have dour expressions and often frown. I also note that in crowds, they never 'give way'. I have been bumped and jostled here unlike anywhere else (in fact, I don't recall be bumped and knocked about anywhere else). I was once almost knocked over on the Metro by a man who simply pushed his way up the escalator, leaving people behind yelling swear words in German at him as he plowed ahead, oblivious. The predominate fashion color- black. Black everywhere. Remember the "Saturday Night Live" skit with Dieter? He wore all black? Dieter reigns in Berlin- unless you are wearing black leather. Leather is also everywhere.

Walked back all the way through the Tiergarten (and long damn walk) to the Siegessaule. This is a large victory monument topped by a gold statue. Beautiful. From there, walked back to the hotel and a nap! Now, out for dinner.

As I wrote the above, there was a knock on the door. Herr Hoss had a call from my other hotel- water pipe break and my room is no longer available. I was upset and as we talked, his cell phone rang. My next hotel calling back. I spoke with them and they have been looking for hours to get me another room (I paid ahead already so they have an obligation) and after two hours of trying (and that's saying something, as I well know) they have ANOTHER place for me to go ('der ist a porn convention in Berlin, Herr Tomas'). But first, I have to go to that hotel tomorrow, make sure no one has cancelled, and then walk on to the next hotel (more expensive) where they wheedled a room for me.

I had planned on taking the Bike Tour of Berlin tomorrow (I love bike tours as you know) but it starts only once a day at 11 (being 'off season') and I fear I'm going to miss it.

So I went out and ate an "American" style restaurant- cheeseburger and fries: comfort food. It didn't help.
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