Friday, August 16, 2013
This was a bus tour in the morning with a visit to "Checkpoint Charlie" in the afternoon. We saw what's left of the Berlin Wall, which the city has turned into an outdoor art exhibit. Artists take a section of wall and paint a mural. My favorite was a picture of Leonid Breshnev and Erich Honnecker locked in an intense smooch. The end of the morning part was at the Berlin Holocaust Memorial, officially known as "The Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe." It's across the street from the new American Embassy, and I recall the guide saying that the site was the location of the Gestapo headquarters, but I can't find anything confirming that statement. Standing on the edge of the park all of the stone blocks look about the same height. Inside, however, the floor slopes so that in the middle observers are about six feet below street level and all the blocks tower over their heads. It's designed to be disorienting and confusing, a goal at which it succeeds remarkably well. I found it very effective and appropriate. We skipped the Checkpoint Charlie museum and walked around old East Berlin. We saw a parade of Trabants, the East German horrible car, which now has quite a lot of nostalgia. They were made with a two-stroke engine, which was used in the West for things like lawn mowers and chain saws. Not very powerful. Their exhaust smells like a lawn mower and they don't go very fast, but since that was the pinnacle of consumer goods in the DDR, they were something of a status symbol. The cars in the parade had all been customized, including my favorite one, pink with Gucci stripes. We also went to a chocolate shop that has been in business since the middle of the 19th Century, although they haven't been in the same place that long. They had scale model chocolate sculptures of the Brandenburg Gate, the TV Tower, the Titanic, the Reichstag, and other Berlin sites, as well as a Berlin mascot bear wearing a gold marzipan crown.
Thursday, June 20, 2013
Arrived in Berlin. I couldn't sleep at all well on the plane -- the seats never reclined and the movies played constantly -- so I've been awake 38 hours. It's already Wednesday. We have a walking tour of the city, from our hotel in the old East Berlin, S - Bahn (surface train) to Alexanderplatz, then walk to Museum Island and the Reichstag. The one really serious regret I've got is that the tour never allowed us to go into any of the museums there. The Heinrich Schliemann Treasures of Priam, the first Neanderthal skeleton, and tons of things from Sumeria and Babylon are in those Museums, especially the Pergamon Museum and Neues (New) Museum. The Neues was founded in, I think, 1860, so "new" is relative. I wish I could say something profound about the Reichstag building, but mainly it was a really lovely place, which is no longer used for much serious business. The Bundestag does some ceremonial things in there, but mainly it's a nice backdrop to a lovely park. Berlin has lots of trees. None of them date before 1947, but they made up for lost time and planted THOUSANDS of linden and chestnuts, which now make Berlin Europe's greenest city. Since it was about 85 degrees while we were there. I really appreciated the trees. We walked about 8 miles that first day, so I really got to love the trees. There is a farmer named Karl who has set up stands all over the city to sell his strawberries. Karl's strawberries are the platonic ideal of strawberries -- huge, ripe all the way to the top, and sweet. We bought two liters and ate most of them in one night. Karl's berries are to Berlin what Cheetos in vending machines are to the US, which explains why there are no very fat Germans. There are plump, even heavy-set, but nothing like the typical Walmart shopper. Walking ten miles a day, seven miles of which are stairs, plus little junk food, keeps the citizens of Berlin fit. I made my first discovery of pay toilets today. It costs 75-Euro-cents to use the bathroom here. Charging people who have the audacity to leave home to pee cancels all the benefits from the walking, lack of junk food, and excellent public transport. Really, Europe, this is one thing that is so completely superior in the US. Have you ever thought what happens to someone who doesn't have the right change? Overall, toilets aside, I have to say Berlin is lovely. There's still a lot of Worker's Paradise grey block buildings, but in the 20 years since the Wall fell the residents have cheered the place up. Most of the grey blocks have been modified and painted, so they don't look quite so much like the set for a movie of "1984." It's still easy to see the difference between East and West, though, in that the old West Berlin has nicer mid-20th Century buildings and better restoration of the old stuff.
A Very Long Plane Ride. We left at a little before 9 from Austin and arrived in New York at a little after noon their time. I had dreaded this part, mainly because I have had almost no good experiences with airlines, and those few were with Pan Am. We flew Delta, which has automated its ticket counters so that we got boarding passes from a computer. I put three pieces of paper into my passport, gave one to the gate clerk, and never read the others. While we were in flight to New York, I noticed that I hadn't gotten a boarding pass for the Amsterdam - Berlin leg of the trip. I would get to Europe, but that's as far as it went. I spoke to the gate clerk at Kennedy, and got the correct papers in ten minutes. So, Delta Airlines, you have my respect and admiration. United would have told me to hitchhike from Holland to Germany. We had an uneventful flight the rest of the way, including the pleasant and amazingly clean Amsterdam Airport.