Wednesday, June 24, 2009
If this is Tuesday, we must be in Berlin
This has been one long day, to say the least. Our instructions were to meet our tour at 6:15 AM before heading to the train that would take us on the three-hour ride into Berlin. That meant setting the alarm for 5:15 to allow two grown women to dress in rather tight quarters. But, it wasn’t really necessary as I slept about ten minutes all night. The time change is taking a bit of getting used to. It’s not that the actual time is six hours off, it’s that one loses all sense of daylight when the sun doesn’t even begin to set till well after 10:00 PM. And, it was almost totally light at 4:00 this morning. So, we were up and headed to the staging area with no coffee and puffy eyes.
We were all given a sticker with a number on it so we could find our group of travel companions. Linda and I were given a ten. I thought they were acknowledging our beauty by labeling us a ten, but it simply meant that we were to be grouped with other tens in line behind the guide toting the large number ten placard, riding rail car number ten and touring the city on bus number ten. We would sit at lunch at tables marked with a number ten. More about lunch to follow.
We found ourselves sitting in a compartment with a very nice older couple from Fort Worth. Their seventeen-year-old grandson accompanied them. So, the five of us spent the three hour train ride chatting and enjoying the scenery. The countryside was quite rural and pretty and looked a lot like Michigan. As the train passed through the countryside, one couldn’t help but look behind trees for bands of Jews hiding and trying to escape Nazi Germany. I guess I have watched too many movies. The closer the train got to Berlin, the more graffiti there was to be seen on every available flat surface. It was actually rather beautiful and didn’t appear to be the gang related painting one sees in the states, but more of an art form.
Upon arriving at an old, dark, dungy railway station in East Berlin we were moved into tour buses. The first hour was spent driving around the former East Berlin and viewing all the depressing architecture. My overall impression of the sector is that I would have made a run for the wall too had I lived there. It is nothing but concrete buildings with nothing of beauty anywhere. We drove past any number of government and ministry buildings, each one looking just like the one before. It was easy to see why so many spy movies are filmed in this area. It provides just the right feel of someone looking over your shoulder. Our guide spoke of the Stassi (secret police) and a culture that was filled with people spying on each other.
The next hour was filled with Check Point Charlie information and photo ops. That meant that for a few Euros you could have your picture taken while standing next to someone dressed as a Russian or American soldier. We also drove to what remained of the Berlin Wall. This section has been turned into a permanent art gallery with each section being painted by well-known artists and each painting depicting something symbolic of the history of the wall. It is quite impressive. The wall was over 100 miles long and actually circled all of West Berlin to keep the East Berliners from trying to get in. Now all that remains is a trial two cobblestones wide circling the former West Berlin to mark the path of the wall.
Finally, we left East Berlin and arrived at the much-touted “authentic” German restaurant for our lunch. I have never tried to hide that my hearing is less than 20/20. As we entered the restaurant, a very tall man who appeared to be our host was giving us directions on finding our tables. I THOUGHT he was telling us to go to our tables by going down the stairs and turning right at the bottom and then finding the table with a ten on it. I smiled and thanked him for the directions and said not to worry, I would simply follow my nose to the delicious smell. He looked at me in a rather strange way as Linda pushed me through the door as quickly as she could. When we arrived at our number ten table she informed me that he was giving us directions to the bathroom which I had said I would find by the smell. Now, about the lunch. Luke warm sausage, mushy red cabbage, stale pretzels and under cooked slices of some sort of pork that was 1/4” of meat and ¾” of fat. The mashed potatoes were good. The dessert was some sort of pudding made with double the water instead of milk. But, I was hungry.
We hoped we were finished with East Berlin and that West Berlin would be better. Not. There are lots of military statues and buildings, but still all the history is tied up in what an insane man Hitler was. There are not many churches but lots of government buildings. But, the most striking impression I got was of the total lack of beauty. The city is overrun with weeds that are well up over my waist. I did not see one single landscaped area. Cement and cobblestones surround all the major buildings. Yes, there are over four thousand Linden trees throughout the city, but each tree is chocking in lush weeds. There is not a single hanging basket. You do see the occasional flowerpot on a balcony of an apartment, but no gardens. The guide talked of all the parks and green areas that are Berlin. I saw only wildly untamed and chocking forests and tunnels of weeds.
Our guide did address the insanity of Hitler. We drove by his bunker where he committed suicide and it is now a parking lot. Tourists can be seen standing on the parking space that is over the actual location of his death and photographing the pavement. The explanation our guide gave us is that there are still neo Nazis and in an effort not to give them a platform on which to gather, Germany has chosen not to make a shrine of some things. From there we went to the holocaust memorial. It is such a simple installation, but filled with symbolism. I think the guide said it consisted of 2677 concrete blocks, all set in random order. When viewed as a whole you see the story it tells. The blocks are all the same but appear to be different. They are nameless. The ground is uneven so there is an undulation in their placement. They appear to be moving although they are not. The sun hitting them caused light and dark edges although they all the same grey concrete. It was very moving. As we got back on the bus, our guide directed us to look across the street and into a clearing in a small park. There was one more concrete block. That was a memorial to the homosexual victims of Hitler’s reign.
Back on the bus and we continued our circuitous route back and forth through Berlin, crisscrossing from East to West, always noting the cobblestone path to mark the former wall. One stop took us to a plaza with a hole in the ground. The hole contained a room full of empty white bookshelves to symbolize the Crystal Night when Hitler burned all the books. This hole was covered by a piece of scratched up Plexiglas. One stood over this Plexiglas and looked down into the hole containing the empty bookcases.
Finally the Brandenburg Gate. From the gate you can look up and down the avenue and get a sense of marching through the entire city. But, almost as famous as the gate, one can see the hotel where Michael Jackson dangled his child over the edge! Ah, history.
A few more stops to take photos, see more monuments and military buildings. Finally back on the bus to our train station and the three-hour ride back to Warnemunde to board the ship. We arrived back in our stateroom somewhere around 9:30. My overall impression of Berlin is that I hope to never return. It is not beautiful. But, it is filled with history and a warning to never make the same mistakes because they can never be undone.