Berlin- Two Days

Trip Start Jun 01, 2006
Trip End Ongoing

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Saturday, October 21, 2006

Berlin- Hotel Changing Day

After another rough night trying to sleep through the noise in the hall (someone came in during the wee hours and slammed their door). Breakfast, the dreaded 'shared' bathroom and packing. Frau Hoss asked if I would miss them; I smiled and mumbled, hefted the bag and started out- to find it was raining. So I unpacked the bag on the front steps, got out my umbrella (bought in Brussels, and a good weather bringer thus far) and started walking.

I got to the hotel and wonder of wonders, they had a cancellation! I waited about 15 minutes and got my key. Oh, glory of glories. A real hotel room! Big queen sized bed (my arms go numb on the little single pallets I have been sleeping on) a private bath with marble walls, even a phone in the room! The only thing it is missing is a bathtub, and oh how I long for a hot soak after a day of walking miles in the cold- ah well. I have no idea if they will honor the original price (for a broom closet single), which I doubt, but to be in a real room is worth it.

I debated taking the daypack, which I am tired of lugging about with only a camera and guidebook in it, so I ripped out the pages for Berlin from the guidebook (and stapled them together at the Front Desk- yes, a front desk- I promise NEVER to take U.S. hotels for granted and promise to no longer malign Holiday Inns). So, in a much better mood I went out to face Berlin. As I have learned from the past, my mood certainly affects my experience. Suddenly, even though covered in clouds and rain, Berlin didn't look so bad anymore.

I headed down first to Kaiser-Wilhelm-Gedachtniskirche (see photo). This is a church ruin that was left as a reminder of the destruction of war, right in the middle of the main upscale shopping district. Built in 1895, it must have been glorious in its time, some of the mosaics remain; photos, along existing plans and scale models for the church, show a huge and beautiful gothic structure. Now, to either side, are modern and simple chapels with concrete exteriors and blue stained glass.

From here, I navigated the Metro down to Potsdammer Platz. By this point I was wishing I had brought the daypack. Between two maps, guidebook pages, the umbrella cover, a pack of gum, passport, moleskin and pen, hotel room key, money, and wadded up plastic poncho I was feeling like my pockets were going to burst. And of course, when I got to Potsdammer Platz and wanted to take pictures- the batteries finally died in the trusty camera. Yup, the spare batteries were, of course, in the day pack. So no pictures of this area. Potsdammer was a huge square and when the Wall was rammed through the middle of it, it was widened and a scene of a large 'death strip'. It has several pieces of the Wall still standing on the sidewalks with interesting historical markers: sorry, no pics. The area is surrounded by new, ultra modern buildings that I would have loved to photographed- a lesson learned.

From there I hiked on down to "Checkpoint Charlie" (and got new batteries for the camera). This area was mobbed by tour busses but I stayed around as one whole block was given over to huge displays and a historical commentary. I tried getting into the Checkpoint Museum, but it was jammed. Again, it was odd, going from 1850's church of the Kaiser that was destroyed in WWII, to the Berlin Wall, all within an hour. But the oddness continued as I went on.

I went down to the Museum of German History. I wanted to get an overview and refresh my memory on history, and more so, wanted to see how the Germans present their view of their history. Growing up when I did, and going to school during the Cold War, I can clearly recall how we, the U.S., presented German History; in many ways, I was reluctant to even come to Germany as I didn't really have much interest in it- I know that Bavaria (Munich, Neuschwanstein) are beautiful. I know Germany is full of history covering the ages all the way back to the Romans. But the way I learned German history was simply that they messed up so much of the world with their crazy wars.

The German History Museum is not an intellectually challenging museum, if such a thing can be said. Well laid out in chronological order, it does do a great job of tracking right from the very beginning on... I spent more time in the sections devoted to the 1700's and development of Germany as a cohesive country. The era of the last Kaiser was not as long as expected, factual, and more information was really presented on the Wiemar Republic and how it caused the rise of Hitler.

And there it was, like that rusty nail that sticks out of a doorway and snags your expensive shirt, grabbing at you and stopping you; Hitler. I slowed and read carefully what was said about him- again, factual, no glossing over the problem. And, as expected, the displays were increasingly grim and depressing. And long.

What to say about that period of time and the horrible destruction and suffering it wrought throughout the world? I think everyone has their own views, based on what they were taught and learned later themselves, but for me, I simply got sad.

I've heard a lot about how the Germans have come to grip with their past and are moving on- and the displays showed remarkable factualness (and the museum was crowded with student groups). And at this date, what can we expect? Seventy years have passed, but I still think the scars are there in so many ways on the world and I wonder how long until generations of the future see it as noting more than a time period, like that of Napolean, one that affected the make up of the world, but has no impact on 'the day'. Although, I would argue that the repercussions of Napolean still linger as well and we can never truly lose the grip of the past and its influence on today.

Two things struck me forcibly. One was the way that Hitler chipped away at freedoms, using the crises of his day to erode civil liberties, to remove legal protections of citizens, playing on fears and passing legislation that gutted the balance of power. It was all too familiar to me and reminded me too much of things going on at home. The other thing was a happenstance- I tried to avoid a group of kids and went around behind a pillar, there I found two lesbians standing in front of a small display crying and holding each other. It was a small display, facing a wall, about the persecution of homosexuals. It was a prison uniform with a pink triangle, some photos of men and women, and a brief notation that untold numbers of gays and lesbians were killed in concentration camps; no one has really counted the number. The only reference in the whole museum.

I went on through the Soviet period but quickly, as I was done with history for the present.

The day had cleared and I walked the Unter den Linden and went back to the hotel.

For dinner, I decided on a real meal. I walked a few blocks, and not finding a 'German' restaurant, settled on Italian. And this was real Italians, speaking Italian, serving Italian food. I went in, and it being crowded was sat to share a small table for two with another man. We were both a bit disconcerted, he only spoke German and studiously avoided eye contact. To either side on long café tables pulled together were large groups laughing and talking. My table mate soon left and the groups on either side of me left and suddenly I was in the middle of the crowded restaurant, sitting alone. Now, I have commented on the loneliness of traveling alone but have gotten more used to the situation and didn't mind- rather I watched and observed. As I have seen countless other times in restaurants everywhere, I was reminded that you can be at dinner with someone, and still be alone.

There were couples who never spoke, never looked at each other, just ate and gazed at other people. Then there were couples, their heads inclined to each other, and regardless of age, interested and engaged in each other and conversation. It was a good lesson for me and while I did have sharp pangs of being alone, I again was happy with my own company and thoughts. I keep noting that sharing food, one of the most social activities that we have, must be done in the company of friends, or it is no more than ash. And I truly think that a meal eaten in silence, while in the company of others, is not a meal that nourishes in any other than a physical way- and food is so much more than that.

I saw a middle aged couple take real joy in their entire evening (and the food at this place was not all that good) and young couples, completely bored with each other, never uttering a word and truly wasting 'time'. The best sauce for me remains conversation and interest in ones companions. All else is simply marking time, time that can never be regained.

I left somewhat contemplative and started back to the hotel. I stopped at a pub for an after dinner drink- and I found it- the Holy Grail! I went in due to the gay flag hanging outside and found- a bar full of 40, 50 year olds, sitting around, drinking beer and talking to each other! At last. Before my wine had even come, I was in conversation! Ah, after a quiet dinner thinking about the blessings of discourse, away I went!

In a short time I was talking to Reinhart and Klaus. Klaus was already well into his cups, Reinhart (just a friend) the more sober one. They were convinced I was Finnish. No matter what I said, they wouldn't believe otherwise. Reinhart, a very handsome man in his 60's, graying hair, tall, craggy and tan, kept laughing at Klaus. Klaus, shorter than I with a blonde flat top and very large beer belly, was boisterous and kept insisting that American's can't speak English. "Venever ou speak, all comes out is shit", apparently we don't have the pronunciation of the English- he was stuck on the topic as Reinhart rolled his eyes. We had fun.

Of course, as always happens, suddenly shots were in front of us (ordered in German I suppose, so I was clueless until they came). This was a local brew called "Korn". I had one, not too bad. Conversation went on, and as in past cities, knowing now what was coming, I declined further drinks and tried to edge to the door- no go of course. The Korn rained down aplenty- and Klaus got a hankering for me (not returned by myself I might add) and lets just say the evening ended in dramatic style with me running down the dark streets of Berlin, glad I was in shape and Klaus was not.

Today dawned gorgeous. Bright sun, temps in the upper 60's, perhaps even the 70's. I had planned on going to the Pergamon Museum (renowned for its archeological contents- the great Gate of Ishtar for example) but it was so damn nice I couldn't bear the thought of being inside. So, either Potsdam or Charlottenburg.

Now, what has always confused me about Berlin (and Vienna) is that the Metro doesn't have a turnstile. It is all the honor system. What great penalty can there be for not buying a ticket that keeps everyone honest? - turns out, $40Euro- on the spot, or off to the Metro Police station. A good deterrent. My city ticket would not allow me to go as far as Potsdam (where I wanted to go) and after pondering a bit, I decided not to press my luck and headed off to Charlottenburg.

Built as a 'summer' palace outside the city in the 1700's, it is of course, now well within the suburbs and easy to reach. [Fast fact- learned that Berlin is 7 times the size of London, it does sprawl as I thought, much more than any other city I have been in. Oh, and remember the cranes I see everywhere- appears the Berlin has the second largest number of cranes up and running of any place in the world-they are still rebuilding, which blows my mind].

Charlottenburg was nice, I toured the State rooms, private apartments and so on- but really, I have seen enough Palaces, and wanted to go out onto the grounds. A beautiful Fall day (I was in a short sleeved polo) I walked the great park and simply enjoyed being outside and finally away from the noise of cars. Ladybugs were flying everywhere, ducks were quacking in the ponds, birds singing in the trees. It was a great walk.

Tonight- not sure if I will dare going back to the bar I found and liked- if Klaus is there, it could be a bit dicey, but it is also my last night in Berlin. I have decided to go on to Cologne for two days, then back to London. I'm going back to London earlier than planned, I have decided that I want to be someplace where I understand what is being said! I want to hear English, not feel perpetually confused by what is going on around me. So, I make my way West. Once in London, considering a day or two to another city in England, but not sure which (E mail me a suggestion!).
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