Friday, August 1, 2008

Bits and pieces of our time in Berlin:

[I published 4 posts at once, so plenty to read for those looking for an afternoon's worth of entertainment.]

The Tiergarten is the city’s largest park, filled with trees and lakes. Right by one of the lakes is a biergarten, where you can sit at picnic tables and drink Berlin beer while people rent boats on the lake. We only went there once, mostly because they only serve pilsner beer, which we aren’t particularly fond of, but it was a beautiful place.

There are still sections of the wall from Soviet rule throughout the city. We lived in East Berlin, and just a few blocks down from us was a 100 meter long section of the wall. Usually the bricks are covered with graffiti and spray-painted murals, and sometimes the iron reinforcement bars show through. It’s a forceful reminder of how recently the wall fell. Throughout the city, even when the wall has been taken down, they mark where the wall was with inlaid cobblestones. There is usually only one line of cobblestones, but it lies right between where the inner wall and outer wall would have been. In between was the dead zone where you were likely to get shot by a soldier in a nearby guard tower. This is the only way the Soviet communist government could keep its people from escaping into West Berlin.

Germans don’t like to talk about Hitler or the war or anything related. We went to Nuremburg partly because it was where the war crimes trials were held, and we wanted to learn more about WWII in general. We couldn’t find any tours along those lines, and when we went to the town’s museum to watch a 50 minutes film on the town’s history, approximately 45 seconds were spent on WWII-related things. 45 seconds is about how long it took them to say, “Jews suffered exile and persecution for the third time in Nuremberg’s history during the 1930’s. [Skip to 1945 aaannnd] The Nuremberg Trials were held in such-and-such building. All 23 party leaders pleaded not-guilty.” Not even a mention of the backdrop, which was, you know, WWII. The film just assumed you knew. In Berlin, there were reminders of the war. Buildings still had bullet holes. The war memorial built by the Soviets still stood. The bookstores had an English section on the history of Germany with books on Hitler and such. There is a large memorial near the city-center called “Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe,” but the memorial is an abstract design. A concrete field of several hundred rectangular columns jut out of the ground at varying heights. As you walk deeper into the concrete field, the columns become higher until you feel like you’re in a darkening maze. Below is a small museum commemorating some of the people who died in concentration camps and some who lived. The entrance has a timeline that details the growth and expansion of concentration camps, but the rest of the audio guide makes almost mention to Hitler or the war itself. The only real information we could find of Hitler, the Nazis, and the war came in a tour organized by a non-German company. The tour guides who were hired to talk about Hitler and the Nazis were from England, Ireland, Australia, and the US. Other than the two tours we took, we could find little verbal or written mention of the war. It just sits in the city like a fog that’s waiting for some sunlight to clear it.

They still use the Olympic Stadium built by Hitler for the 1936 Olympics. The Berlin Bears soccer team play there, and our group went to watch them play Liverpool. The game ended at 0-0, lame, but the season’s in down-time since the World Cup’s over. Apparently, Germans can get really boisterous at soccer games when it counts. There was still a loud student section, but everyone was just sort of hanging out and drinking beer.

Modern Berlin is very much trying to exert itself as a cultural cornerstone, and it seems to be succeeding. They were holding Fashion Week while we were there, and all the big-name designers and models were there. The mayor was able to bring Barack Obama in for his only European address (more on this in a bit). The film industry holds its annual film festival in Berlin. Still, Berlin is the poorest city in Germany, practically bankrupt, from what I understand.

On every single block, there was a stand you could walk up to and get bratwurst or currywurst and a beer. They hand the bratwurst to you in a roll. Seriously, a long bratwurst on a little bitty roll. Currywurst is a delicious Berlin favorite. In a paper box without a lid, they cut up a bratwurst, smother it with a sauce that tastes like tomato-ketchup-BBQ goodness and sprinkly on curry powder, pile on a side of French fries, and smother the French fries with ketchup (unless you catch them beforehand and say, “Ohne ketchup, bitte!” which of course I didn’t do because I love ketchup, but Chad had to shout every time). Then you can top off your meal with a Berlin pilsner and walk down your merry way in the street, open container and all. I had way more meals on the go in Berlin than in the states. I guess main difference was that I walked up to the stand instead of driving, and I never knew quite how their bratwurst or currywurst would taste, less predictable.

It was much easier to find non-German food than German food. Berlin is full of Turkish, Chinese, Indian, Japanese, and Italian restaurants. I saw one Burger King, two Subways, one McDonald’s, and one Starbucks. When we wanted German food, we found it best to duck into a dark bar (dark because electricity is apparently Very expensive) where German men were drinking their lunch-time beers and try our luck there. Or we could always head to a brat/currywurst stand on the corner, but even then, there was always a Turkish gyro (“duner”) shop right next door.

Going back to the pilsner beer, Northern Germans love light beer, and often sweet-flavored or fruity light beers. We thought we’d be able to get thick, dark beers wherever we went. Oh, no, definitely not. And some of the cheap pilsners (like Jever) taste worse than Coors Light, maybe even worse than Natty Light. We were not fans. For the stereotypical malty beers, you have to go down South. Chad and I just must be Southerners at heart.

Well, we must be Southerners of the rebellious sort. We love Bavaria, and Bavaria is the German version of Texas. They were their own Republic for a while and are still annoyingly proud of it (according to Berliners). They’ll say they’re Bavarian before they’ll say their German. Just like Texans.

The autobahn has a reputation in the States of being a place where only crazy people would drive. I pictured it like a specially designed cross between a highway and a high-speed racetrack. It’s exactly like a US highway, except there were often three lanes instead of just two. At least half the people were going around 80 mph or less, a quarter were passing them at around 90 or 100 mph, and a quarter were flying by everybody at 120-150 mph. But it works really well with three lanes. If anyone is behind you and moving faster, you get over immediately. If everyone abides by that rule, traffic moves along just fine. And, really, you get used to driving at 120 mph after an hour or so.

The walk/don’t walk signs are very unique to Berlin. Under communism, the walk signs in East Berlin were walking little green men with hats on. The don’t walk signs were little red men with hats on and both stubby arms stretched out to the sides. He’s very cute. When the wall came down and East and West Berlin merged, West Berlin adopted the East’s walk/don’t walk signs. In fact, that’s the only part of East Berlin culture that was adopted by West Berlin.

There are still beggars in Berlin. I don’t totally understand how beggars exist in a socialist society, but they do. There aren’t nearly as many in Berlin as there are in Italy (by about a hundred fold!), but I couldn’t decide whether it was a con job or a flaw in the socialist system.

Speaking of socialists, let’s go back to Barack Obama. I don’t know if it made headlines in the States, but at first, Obama wanted to speak at Brandenburg Gate. Big mistake. Only presidents have spoken there, never candidates. It made Obama look obnoxiously cocky. Chacellor Merkel immediately said she thought Brandenburg Gate would be an inappropriate location, but surprisingly, the mayor of Berlin said Obama was welcome to speak at the Gate if he wanted. (It’s the mayor’s decision in the end, not the Chancellor’s.) After a couple weeks of uncertainty (like July 7-19), the city government was getting nervous. Obama was scheduled to speak on the 24th, and the Obama campaign hadn’t picked a location. One official said it would normally be impossible to set up such a large event in such notice. On the 19th, it came out that he would speak at the Victory Column. Interestingly, although the Victory Column was built to commemorate Prussian war victory, Hitler had moved the column to its present location, so it has the stain of Hitler in Berliner’s eyes. Anyway, they started prepping for the 200,000 attendees right away. We got there a few hours early and snagged a spot 60 feet away from the podium. People in Germany love Obama, 80% of them would vote him for president of the US. I gotta say that even though Obama and I have our differences on policy issues, I still was excited to see his charisma in action. After his 30-minute speech, though, I felt a little let down. Almost everything he said was predictable, not fresh or especially insightful. The US and Berlin have been partners ever since the airlift during WWII. Berlin is a city that knows the value of freedom and how to persevere in pursuit of freedom. (That was 10 minutes.) Europe is the US’ best partner, and we must work toward increased multi-lateral relations. (Another 10 minutes.) The US needs Germany’s help to stabilize Afghanistan, but the US should get out of Iraq immediately. We need to get rid of all nukes, including Iran’s. The US should be as concerned about energy consumption as Europe is so we can preserve the ice caps and save the polar bears. (Don’t even get me started on the polar bears! Knut is very cute, but the polar bear population is the largest it’s been in decades! They aren’t dying off. Besides, they love swimming. Don’t pull them into political/moral agendas, please, especially when it’s unjustified.) We shouldn’t allow an economic system that benefits the few over the many. We all have to remember that we’re all citizens of the world. (Last 10 minutes, and I was left with an image of Obama and John Nash as fellow citizens of the world.) He didn’t even attempt one word in German, which especially disappointed the Berliners. They wanted to be a part of a historical moment as memorable as Kennedy’s “Ich bin ein Berliner.”

Okay, I’ll make a separate paragraph for this one. In case you haven’t heard the story, when Kennedy came to Berlin, he began his speech with, “Ich bin ein Berliner,” which translated to, “I am a donut.” He was very close to correct sentence, though. “Ich bin Berliner,” would have been, “I am a Berliner,” so he wasn’t really that far off. I don’t think the Berliners minded at all, they all seem to have good memories of Kennedy.

Most people, or at least most people in cafes and retail, spoke between a few English words and enough to help us out with what we needed. Only a few were fluent. In the smaller cities, though, we definitely ran into people that didn’t know a single word of English. So, for the most part, we didn’t have problems, but there were some situations that called for extended charades. (See trip to Steinau.)

Right next door to our apartment was a little café. I went there pretty frequently for a morning milchkaffee. They must use fattier milk because it was always creamy and delicious. It was probably also infected with disease because they used the same container to steam milk for everyone’s drinks over and over again, but maybe that just added to the flavor. I think most places we went to did that, so they must not have rigid health inspection codes. Sandwiches with meat and cheese also tended to stay out in the display case all day, and I sometimes suspected cafes of reusing yesterday’s sandwiches. Well, anyway the owner was very nice and made it her mission to teach us a new German phrase every time we went in. I think she got a kick out of us.

I always hear people say disparaging things about Starbucks because they use a machine that automates espresso shots, but I saw that several times in Germany too. In fact, some cafes had machines that automated the whole process. You put down a cup, push the “milchkaffee” button, and out comes frothy milk and espresso. So, I guess it’s not just a Starbucks thing. Next the US will get the vending machines where you just put in a dollar and it dispenses a paper cup and spits our coffee and the amount of milk and sugar you specify.

Okay, well, that’s enough for now. If I think of anything that I skipped, I’ll post it later, but for now I’m back in the States and still on Berlin time. My presentation yesterday went just fine, and Darcy and I are going to take advantage of a relaxing week Boston while Chad finishes up finals in Berlin.

Weekend #3: Friday July 25 – Monday July 28

I planned this weekend’s trip, so all of the shenanigans soon to follow are my fault, lol. First off, getting information was difficult. Many hotels didn’t speak English and didn’t respond well to email. I wanted to head down to the Rhineland and do a tour and tastings in a winery. I thought this would be easy, I mean, in California, you can do tours and tastings in a hundred wineries. I was limited in a couple ways: I can’t read German websites, and a lot of the family owned wineries didn’t translate their sites. Family-owned wineries in Germany, which is most of them, don’t really do tours. If they do tours, they’re in German and available for private parties that have to reserve before-hand. I ended up finding a tour of some sparkling wine (“Zext”) cellars in Mainz that are famous because they’re the deepest in the world. The tour was in German, but they offered English cards to follow along. I’d already wanted to go to Mainz, so that worked out. Okay so here was the fun-filled weekend:

We rented a car that was not a Smart Car because we really wanted to break 100 mph. We drove down through Frankfurt and into Mainz, just 20km or so outside the city limits. We got in around 9:00 and went to the bed and breakfast. Often in Europe (or at least in Italy, Spain, and Germany), people who have an extra bed and bath upstairs or downstairs put their name and address in a bed and breakfast directory. You send an inquiry to the bed and breakfast directory, saying which city you’d like to stay in and when, and they connect you to someone’s home. A lady in her 60’s owned our bed and breakfast, and in this little town of Mainz, she had the second-best English we heard the whole trip. She also had a cozy room for us downstairs, but I guess the breakfast part didn’t translate.

We drove into town to find a late dinner and after wandering around the city and by the Rhine River, getting thoroughly lost, fighting about where we should go, then finally asking for directions, we ate dinner at a brewhouse. Our waitress had the best English we heard the whole trip because she’d grown up by an army base and played with American children. They had fabulous beer and a meal that is now one of Chad’s all-time favorite meals: turkey cutlet with dark beer sauce. Just ask him, he’ll tell you aalll about it. We wrote down the name and address for the next time we go to Mainz because we’re definitely going back. The next day, we visited one of the churches, wandered through a produce and flower market, explored the Gutenberg museum, saw a live demonstration of Gutenberg’s printing press (so cool!), and took a tour of the sparkling wine cellars. I think the Gutenberg printing press was my favorite moment of the day, though. Ask me for a demonstration the next time you see me. =)

Around 3pm, we decided to ditch our Google instructions and drive along the Rhine down to our next stop, Worms. We drove through a couple of private-property-no-trespassers vineyards and through several small towns before we realized we’d headed the wrong direction. We stop and asked directions, and the man who helped us was so nice that he gave us his cell phone number in case we got lost again. We found our way back to the autobahn, though, and made in into Worms.

Worms is the sight of the Protestant Reformation, where Luther nailed his 95 theses to the church door, preached to congregations, and faced off with the council of bishops. The Catholic Dom still stands and is quite beautiful, one of my favorite churches that I saw on the trip, but the church where Luther preached was destroyed by (I believe) French troops around 1689. They’ve rebuilt a church with a modern interior where it stood. There are also several museums in the town, including a small art gallery, but nothing too exciting. We loved our hotel because the man who owned it was so nice, fixed us breakfast when we were late getting up, and told us all about the stain glass windows that had taken him years to do by hand, but Worms was boring, so we left Sunday afternoon for Steinau.

The Grimm brothers spent their early childhood in Steinau, and their home has been made into a museum, so I really wanted to stay in the town. I’d book a room online, but when we got into town and looked at a map, we couldn’t find the hotel’s street anywhere. I called, but the lady only spoke German. Here’s where things got interesting. I struggled for 7 or 8 minutes with my terrible, terrible German to have a conversation that went something like this: (I’ll just give you the English equivalent for what I said.)

Guten tag (blah blah blah German)

Guten tag. Do you speak English?


Uhhh, I MacDonald. You hotel?

Ja. (Something like can I help you?)

I have room. Where is you? I Steinau train station.

(Blah blah blah German, but I knew she wasn’t giving directions.)

I to come you. I Steinau train station.

(Blah blah blah, but I heard the word “strasse,” which means “street.”)

Street in Steinau? Near Brother Grimm Museum?

Nien. Nien Steinau. (Garble, garble “bach”)

No Stienau? Hotel no Steinau?

Nien. Nien Steinau. (Garble, garble “bach”)

Oh. I Steinau. I Stienau train station.

Nien. Nien Steinau.

Okay. I no to pay room.


(Shoot, Chad, look up “cancel”! He looks it up, I try word #1 in painfully slow German. She doesn’t understand. I try word #2. I say it twice. The second time, she repeats it back, then repeats it again, and it’s the same word.) Yes, yes, I no to pay room, okay?

(Blah blah blah German) okay.

Okay? I no to come. I no to pay.

(Blah blah blah German) okay.

Okay, thank you.

We were worried that since I booked online it would charge anyway, but since the hotel wasn’t in Steinau, we had no way to find it. We headed into old town to find a hotel, but they were all booked. Well, all two of them. We resorted to asking a couple people where our first hotel was, and eventually we figured out it was in Ulbach 8 km away, so we decided to try to find it. We found Ulmbach just by following signs, and luck was one our side. We drove down the main street until almost the end of town and the heavens shine an angelic light upon the sign that bore our hotel’s name. We showed up, I pointed to myself and said, “MacDonald.” She laughed in that confused but amused, and took us to our room. We ate dinner at a restaurant on a hill in the forest and went through a short walk until it got dark. In Europe, you spend all your time surrounding by stones and concrete, so it was great to spend some time with trees and grass.

We got up early enough on Monday (the next day) that we could go to the Grimm Museum on the way out of town, but we ran into troubles paying. The man (her husband?) said they couldn’t take Visa credit cards. Almost no one took Visa, they all wanted Master Card. I eventually explained that I’d book online with He pulled out the faxed reservation, I pointed and said the equivalent of, “I pay credit card. I pay cash. I pay twice.” I think he got that I didn’t want to pay cash then get charged on my credit card. He got his English-speaking daughter on the phone to explain that doesn’t charge the card, just gets the credit card information in case the guest doesn’t pay. So, we paid cash and headed to the Grimm Museum, which ended up being closed until noon anyway, so we just went back to Berlin, and Chad was in class by 5pm. Another successful weekend trip.

Weekend #2: Friday July 18 –Sunday July 20

We spent this weekend in Berlin. The highlights were the Third Reich Tour and the Sacchsenhausen Concentration Camp Tour. I’ve posted notes and pictures from the Third Reich Tour, and Sacchsenhausen will be coming soon. It was an all-day tour, though, so it’ll take me a while to compile my notes and type them up. Since it was such a fascinating (and gruesome) tour, I think some of ya’ll will be interested to read about it.

Weekend #1: Friday July 11 – Monday July 14

Chad had planned an anniversary trip down in southern Germany. We rented a Smart Car and set out on the autobahn. We unhappily realized that Smart Cars max out at 157 kph, just under 100mph. We still got some good speed and passed a number of cars, but how can you drive on the German autobahn and never break 100? Shameless. We drove to a little town north of Munich and stayed in a large castle on a hill top. It was beautiful countryside, friendly people, and delicious food. Not to mention, it was a real (/historical) castle, not something built for tourism. The wooden stairs creaked quite appropriately, and they still used some of the original furniture. The next day, we had lunch in the town and drove up to Nuremburg. We had Google maps to the hotel, but we wanted to catch part of the German National Museum before it closed, so we tried to wing it, figuring we’d just head toward the city center. Hah. We exited way to far south, tried to guess which direction the city was, circled, back-tracked, circled some more, and finally stumbled on it. Always head toward the church, that’s what we learned. We arrived in time to spend a few hours at the German National Museum, one of the largest museums I’ve ever encountered. It sprawls across several blocks worth of buildings. There are exhibits on everything from archeological finds from the Roman period in Germany to typical household goods and children’s toys to secular and religious art. A full day’s guided tour would really be the only way to do the place justice, but we took our audio guides and covered as much ground as we could.

When we left to find our hotel, we got pretty hopelessly lost –again. We tried to follow signs to the autobahn, how hard can it be? We’re convinced the German sign system needs to be updated. You’d follow a sign to the autobahn and not see another sign for 5 or 6 kilometers and then convince yourself you’d just missed a sign, so you pull a U-turn, and try to find some sign. When you do find one, it takes you in a completely different direction and drops you signless again. Turns out you have to be patient and willing to drive 8 kilometers before seeing another sign sometimes. Anyway, and hour and a half later, we checked into our hotel, took a “disco nap,” and headed out to the city center at 11pm. We passed a lot of “gesschlossen” signs before we found a place that would serve dinner. Then we headed to a Mexican cantina for drinks, but we had to finish them quickly since the place closed at 1:30, and the town with it. So the night life was a little sleepy, but we just went home for a good night’s sleep. The next morning we went to a Protestant church and listened to a very eloquent sermon in German, sat near one of the most unruly kids ever (he was running around the altar during service!), and witnessed a baby’s baptism. The service was much like a Protestant service in the US, with a few hymns, prayers, a scripture reading, and a sermon. The congregation was quite small, maybe 50 people in the first 20 pews of a very large, Gothic church. We spent the afternoon wandering Nuremburg. It’s very pretty, with a river running through the middle, cobblestone streets, a large church every few blocks, and groups of café tables curving into the squares. The center is mostly pedestrians and bicycles only, which is great for strolling and less great for finding hotels in a rental car.

We left that afternoon for Leipzig so that we’d only have a short drive into Berlin on Monday morning. Leaving Nuremburg was another autobahn-finding mess, but after an hour, we were finally on our way. We got into Leipzig around 7 pm and drove into town to explore and have dinner. We found what they call “pub mile,” which is an alley way stuffed with rows of tables. There are probably 8 restaurants in the alley way, but you can hardly tell the tables of one restaurant from another because they’re so close to each other. We circled and looked at menus and examined other peoples’ dinners until we found one we liked, but since our waitress was so slow, we had time to look at our guidebook and discover that Europe’s oldest café was in Leipzig, from the 1500’s. And they serve dinner. So we paid our drink tab and left for Café Baum, where Bach, Strauss, Goethe, and Mendelssohn had all been regulars or visitors.

The next day we had just enough time to take quick tours through the church where Bach had served as music minister during his day and Mendelssohn’s house before we had to get back to Berlin. The drive was uneventful, and we were ready for a few days of downtime.