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.


  1. I would like to formally request that you update your blog. Maybe add some more pictures (Chinamen poking Chad's head are always good), statistical findings, bar graphs, stories about fires and burning down buildings, you know...the usual.

  2. Lol, the political blogs not grabbing your attention these days? I might update again soon, but you can for sure look forward to stories and pictures of our Spring Break trip to Mexico city 6 weeks from now.

  3. I feel the need to point out, as a former Ohio resident, that they already HAVE vending machines that make hot drinks like hot coca with the amount of whipped cream you choose. They are always too hot, and generally brake every 5 days, and taste like cardboard, but do exist. It’s possible I may have indulged in this often when in Cincinnati.
    Can't wait to hear about Mex. City!