I went to visit Hanover, Berlin and Copenhagen in March 1993. This is the story of my adventures.
My first leg of the trip was to Hanover, to CeBIT, the largest computer trade show in the world. I was to be picked up by Dieter, the manager of our office in Europe.
He picked me up from the airport, we got into his BMW, and onto the Autobahn. The Autobahn is really just like a regular freeway anywhere else, it's just that there's no speed limit for most of it. It's as if you tried to drive as fast as you possibly could on American highways; you always end up being limited by the slowest drivers in the left lanes, although that didn't seem to be as much as a problem in Germany as it's legal and accepted to go arbitrarily fast (in practice, up to about 100 or 120mph). He was telling me that the lack of speed limit was causing problems in the EC and so might be a doomed concept.
He put me up for the night at his place, a nice house out in the country, where I recovered from my jetlag for a day, before we headed off to Hanover. His car had great maneuverability and felt like a lot of fun.
At the show I spent my time with Dieter, Daniel and this woman named Monika from Aachen (AH-kin). She worked for a distributor and was the main Maple demo person. I was the main Theorist demo person. The only problem was that she had a top-of- the-line 486 running the Windows version, and I had a little tiny Mac IILC, probably similar to the bottom of the line Mac that Apple sells now.
CeBIT is huge. It's held in a special fair grounds devoted to the 23 trade shows held in Hanover yearly, of which CeBIT is one of the biggest. Hanover is a trade-show town and the city's economy is dependent on the shows.
We stayed in the homes of middle-class residents in the suburbs around Hanover, some people that Dieter knew. CeBIT completely overwhelms the hotel system and so the overflow is taken by people who, in some cases, sleep in couches while guests sleep in their rooms. Like a B&B, they serve a good German breakfast the next morning, consisting of one soft-boiled egg, rolls, cheese, and wurst (top-notch cold cuts), and some coffee, tea and maybe orange juice. Sortof like a deluxe continental breakfast. I never really liked it but I learned to live with it.
I remember the first time we walked onto the fairgrounds. We passed by a open garage door of a building. Inside, it looked just like a typical MacWorld Expo building, with booths being set up over a huge floor. Then I looked at the number next to the door. This was building number six. We were in building number 21.
Every day, the city would turn several highways so that both directions were one-way, going into the fairgrounds, and then after the show closes, the other way. Dieter didn't go those ways, though. He always took another route on single lane country roads that he knew of in the area. It was a riot. Every morning we'd go pretty much the same way, through small German towns until we got closer. He'd cut into this one gas station, and zip out the back exit onto a different road. And down some other roads, a few of them dirt roads, coming out on a main intersection right across the street from the entrance to the CeBIT parking lot.
He wasn't the only one; every morning the intersection into the fairgrounds from the farmer's road would queue up traffic. In general I was always being driven around by someone else and I never really knew where I was. I have enough trouble driving in America.
Nobody has any Macintoshes in Germany, and all I had was Macintosh software. A few people had Amigas. One guy thought he could get his Macintosh emulator on his Amiga to work. (France and Sweden are very strongly Mac, and the rest of Europe is mostly in between. Many areas, especially those whose people's time is not worth money, go for cheap PCs.)
The show, one must remember, is a German trade show, and as is the case when San Francisco has a trade show, most of the attendees come from within a few hours driving radius. 85% of the language spoken and printed on trade show displays was German. Then there was about 10% that was English, and the rest was French and other languages.
One time, I noticed that the crowd seemed very Caucasian, so I did an experiment where I walked through the crowd counting how many people were non-Caucasian. It was a bit tricky, but I had two categories: people who were east Asian (Burma through Kamchatka), and people who had colored skin but weren't east Asian (India through the Arabic countries down to South Africa, plus possibly native Americans and Hispanics if I thought their color was dark enough). In about twenty minutes of walking time, constantly scanning the crowd, I counted about a dozen and a half individuals in each category. I used my own intuitive judgement in classifying them; in most cases I had time to stop and wander closer to them to get a good look (they were sparsely scattered). You see a lot of caucasians in twenty minutes of crowded trade show; my eyes were constantly kept busy. If they just looked like they came from Greece or something, they didn't count. It was a bit arbitrary and inaccurate but it was fun and educational anyway.
I learned more German, as I was surrounded by native German speakers who varied in English skill over the full spectrum. My pronunciation is so good that sometimes it fools a lot of people who babble answers back to me in rapid German. My biggest problem is the nouns, verbs and adjectives, especially the ones I don't know, which is most of them. I know just enough to get me by, which seems to be how much I knew after my last trip, but I think I must know more now because they were teaching me more.
There's these two adjectives in German that give you an idea of where they are coming from. When you look for bathrooms, they are labeled "HERREN" and "DAMEN". There are also adjectives, herrlich and damlich. Herrlich means strong or wonderful. Damlich means silly or stupid. The women's movement in Germany is busy doing something about that, like trying to make those words politically incorrect. Soon as I learn a couple of new, useful words, they go out of fashion.
Beer is a very important part of German life, and they take it seriously, sometimes too seriously. Every beer that is poured from the tap comes in a beerglass specifically designed by the company with its logo, in color; and each one has a little gradation mark on the back, marking full, with the amount that that line marks, usually either 0.3l, 0.4l or 0.5l. In fact, I do not remember being poured a beer at a commercial establishment that did not come this way. Maybe the logo on the front was getting worn off, but that was in the cheap places. One time, at CeBIT, there was a party held in one of the other halls. Beer was being served in little 0.2l glasses, each with their logo and gradation mark in the back.
I left the trade show after a few days; Dieter wanted me mostly for credibility in going around and making deals with other companies.
As I write this, I'm in the Stralsund Rüngedam train station. I've never heard of this East German town in my life, but somebody told me it's supposed to be on the Baltic coast. It's 5:56am and dark. The little house in the middle the platform is trashed out with no windows and wood scrap inside and clearly hasn't been used in years. Further on down, the stairs lead down to a cold concrete passage. It's bleak and abandoned.
I'm on my way from Berlin to Copenhagen, or København, as it's spelled around here. Or there.
There are a total of four people here, all passengers. The bathrooms are locked up and I guess I'll have to wait for the next train and its on-board toilet or else be really crude. After being in the places I've been in tonight, I'm not interested in being crude.
It's been a pretty exciting day. I finished up my Berlin visit, and things just kept on happening. (I still consider it part of the same day because I've slept about an hour and a half.)
I didn't decide on going to Berlin until the last minute. It was a very good choice.
About half my time I spent exploring the newly reopened East Berlin. I have this morbid fascination with Hitler, the War, the Wall, and all that. Between the wall and the fact that the Soviets took the really juicy but smaller slice of Berlin, I spent about half of my daytime hours in the Eastern part.
East Berlin Monument
The first day I took a typical bus tour of the city. I learned that Berlin is really interesting, with much more culture, compassion and fun than I thought possible. We tend to all think of the Hitler thing when we think of Germany and Berlin, but the impression I got was that it was as though Ed Meese became President and ruled a far-right extremist government from San Francisco, despite the feelings of the local clientele. Just remember that Adolf Hitler came from Austria, and Karl Marx came from Germany.
So right near the end of the bus tour, as we were leaving East Berlin, the tour guide pointed out approximately where Hitler's last bunker was, the "Führerbunker", as depicted in more than one movie and documentary. I circled it on my map: a block down Voß street (pronounced "foss", transliterated into english as "Voss"). I'm on a mission, I told myself. A mission from the Lord. I've got to check this out. There's probably a museum on top of it now, I thought to myself.
As the accounts go, Hitler spent his last several days in the bunker, as he heard reports of the Americans and Russians closing in on Berlin from both sides. Finally, he and Eva Braun went to an open pit, he shot her, covered both of them with gasoline, then somehow he shot himself and lit a match, not necessarily in that order. I've spent a bit of time trying to figure out exactly how he did that, but that's not important for the story.
If you go to Berlin, make sure to catch the Checkpoint Charlie Museum. I went there the second day I was in Berlin. Right down the street from the real live Checkpoint Charlie, on Friedrich street, which for decades was the only passage from the east to the west, it has lots of displays of all of the different escape attempts, including in many cases the actual cars, hang-gliders and harnesses used, as appropriate. It also has large sections on passive resistance protest in history, such as Gandi, Prague Spring, and Martin Luther King. Notably absent was discussions of resistance to the Nazi strongarm government; the story I got was that all resistance was met with iron-fist arrest and execution and so, like, sit-down protests don't have much effect. Agreed, at least for the time being.
The train has finally come to pick us up. It's weird walking around so late at night that the sun is coming up. On to Rostock, the place where, recently, Neo-Nazi gangs burned down foreigner apartments. The official response was to move all foreigners out of Rostock.
This train has little of the Eastern European smell that you typically get in some such rail cars. I can open the window anyway. There's this characteristic smell that many Eastern European countries have, almost like they all use the same state-dictated cleaning supplies. It's not a particularly pleasing smell, but the Eastern Block was never into aesthetic frills. I think that if smell went over CNN, the second Russian Revolution would have happened five or ten years earlier.
There's hardly any other passengers on this train, so I have a compartment to myself. The last train was from Poland, and had signs printed in five languages: Polish (of course), Russian (of course), German (of course), French and Italian. Aw, come on, surely you can understand one of those languages! I pretended to read the German version and was satisfied with 40% comprehension.
Straslund station. At least in this place there's an official presence, there's somebody on the PA system rambling on in incomprehensible German that I probably couldn't understand even if it was Walter Cronkite English.
We're off again. I know just enough German to explain to the ticket guy my change in itinerary. "It is different. This is old. This is new." He seems to buy it.
You can tell that the Berliners hate the wall. Places where it clearly used to be have been reconstructed so as to show nary a scrape mark as evidence of where the wall was. New sidewalks and asphalt make it hard to trace the path it ran. You can't find a map showing the division of the city or of the country any more (unless you get it from outside of the country). There's just a handful of places I found that still have any wall ("mauer"). There's one place where they've fenced a section off for safe keeping, probably as a permanent monument, near some other SS memorabilia.
Then, there's this place called Potsdamer Platz. Potsdamer Platz used to be the hub of the city before and during the war, full of stores and cars and statues and pedestrians. The war came, the bombs came, the Allies came, and the pie was sliced from the center outward, and Potsdamer Platz was the center. The wall came, no- mans-land existed, and the wall left. Today, the area is so desolate that they've set up the circus in all the open space.
I went to what's left of Potsdamer Platz after I left Checkpoint Charlie. Across from the circus, there's a construction site. A piece of the wall still stands, starting from a building that used to be part of the wall, and ending in the middle of a construction site, behind temporary, construction-site fences. And, there's panels of the wall just standing there for anybody to examine, admire, or, ahem, pick at. And people clearly have been. There's no easily pickable chunks because those have already been removed to private collections. And, there's no signs saying "Picken Verboten an der Mauer" or whatever. The impression I got was that they'd be quite happy to see the wall eventually erode away by force of souvenir hunter.
And, then, right down the street from the circus, was the place the tour guide pointed out as Hitler's bunker. I walked around the neighborhood several times. There was no museum. There was some new apartment buildings and a playground. There was a large, old administrative building and behind it was construction wasteland. Right in the middle was a big pit where a building used to be and all that was left was the concrete floor of the foundation. And, on one end of it, spray painted in black on some yellow tile, were the words "BUNKER HIER" (English translation: "Bunker Here"). Below it it said "TUNNEL" (English translation: "Tunnel") and an arrow pointing down. Wow.
The East Germans didn't have resources to fix up very many things after the war. Things frequently were just left as-is. People have told me that Dresden still has piles of rubble from the famous bombing raid that Kurt Vonnegut wrote about. (Probably the train station at Stralsund Rüngedam was left untouched, too.) Maybe they had just let the Führerbunker sit. I hope they at least swept up his ashes and put them somewhere.
Was this it? I tried to ask some people who were walking around the neighborhood. It's nontrivial when you don't know much of the native language. "Wo ist der Führerbunker?" One guy motioned that it was far east of there. Another one seemed to think it was far north of there. Meanwhile, I had to get to a bank that was still open and so I had to leave the area until a few days later.
Rostock is really drab. They did the foreigners a service by moving them out. Probably packed them off to some place that was described as "summer camp".
Meanwhile, I read also in my tour guide book that Hitler's bunker was still around "near Potsdamerplatz". A good sign. It's not just a spacy bus tour guide that points vaguely in some direction with a claim, but there's also a two-year-old guide book that agrees with it. Maybe the tourbook writers took the same bus tour I did.
The day before I had to leave, I took a tour of the German Reichstag, the parliament building, and it's museum display, named something like "The History of the German Reichstag and Questions on German History". There, I could get my questions answered, I thought. I visualized myself in an audience of geographically illiterate Americans asking stupid questions, like why didn't the Germans and Russians just team up in World War 2, and I raise my hand and ask where the Füherbunker is, with a Bart- Simpson-like gleam in my eye.
I get the feeling that something was lost in the translation of the name because there was no question and answer period, just a typical modern museum depicting the history of Germany as a country and the political stuff that went on, including how the Reichstag was broken down into fifteen parties and how they struggled for control, all explained in grotesque detail on very well done cards and displays, full of large chunks of German that I pretended to understand as I ran the words through my exhausted brain. I got a tape that was supposed to guide me through the museum in English, but half way through I figured out that it was designed for the museum BEFORE they revamped it. All of the sign numbers throughout the museum were now not aligned with what my tape said. They were close enough, though, to carry me through about half way before I got wise.
History was, of course, told from the German perspective. At the end of World War I, supposedly, the people protested the government and forced the Kaiser to abdicate, making way for a democratic government. Well. Glad we got that straightened out. I'd always thought it had to do with the armistice.
Finally I found an information booth and asked them the question. "Oh, it's not there anymore, they're building apartments over it." I pressed her for an address, and she gave me the corner of Voß and a street name that had been changed recently (Voß is only two blocks long). Bingo.
I'm now in Warnemünde (var-neh-monday), an extremely cute fishing village whose main claim to fame is that it's the dock for ferrys from East Germany to Denmark. It's cloudy and drisseling, but usually I don't bother to put my hat on. There are seagull sounds filling the silence. The train station at first seems deserted, although there are various workmen wandering around managing the trains and tracks. Then, I walk back past a building I had already given up as abandoned, and in fact there inside is the info and ticket desks, and a little hole-in-the-wall grocery store that also serves food. On the wall is listed a wide variety of foods like pizza, hamburgers, chili, spaghetti, "Gulaschsuppe", Pasta Venetiana and other dubious dishes, all with color pictures. None of them were available. All she has is a hotdog and a roll for 2.30DM (about $1.50). I had breakfast.
The bathroom is closed, and, in an incredible feat of translation (an incredible coincidence of words I happen to know) I get the idea that I go into town to this hotel for the bathroom. On the way, there's a little farmer's market in progress (it's Sunday morning) and lots of fishing boats tied up along the creek I cross by bridge to go into town, just a stone's throw away. When I get there, it's really across the street from the hotel. Seeing it's a pay-toilet, I pay the woman a mark (65¢) for the cleanest bathroom since Berlin. Whew.
After leaving the Reichstag museum, I went to Voß Straße again (straße = shtrrrassi = street). Walking around the suspected bunker, I found a section of the fence that was ripped down so I walked in and down the dirt into the floor. All that exists of the building that was there is a slab where a basement floor would be. It's too old to look recent but too new to be part of the bunker; it must have been some East German building. The walls are just dirt sloping at 45° embedded with typical construction debris. At one end is the yellow tile wall with the graffiti.
There it is, "Bunker Hier" on yellow tile that's a bit too modern to be the right thing. A few feet away is some brick that actually looks like it's from that era (it looks just like the brick from the SS museum nearby), with more graffiti, "Bunker Hier" again. This time it actually looks like this is the top part of a buried tunnel. There's a big hole between the bricks with the graffiti and the concrete slab that forms the floor of the pit, but it's filled in with dirt and trash, and I'm not really equipped to start digging right now, wearing reasonably presentable street clothes and having no shovel.
So, it's time to leave Warnemünde, the sea port fishing village, and there's instant confusion. I'm supposed to go to gate 8. There is no gate 8. Finally I talk to someone who knows what's going on, and can speak English. He's a naval engineer from Rostock who's going to Copenhagen for a conference. I didn't discuss politics with him. We don't get on the train; we get on the boat. And, the train gets on the boat. It's complicated, but the front of the ferryboat opens up and several rail cars slide in. If I had taken a sleeping car, I might be on that train right now. But instead people are asked to get off the train and onto the boat. Whatever. There's no real seats in the boat except in the cafeteria in uncomfortable cafeteria chairs.
So I grab some samples of old brick and wrap them in pages from an old brochure I had with me. I ran out of pages and started to use pages out of my tour guide book.
So I got these samples and I felt really proud of myself, except I kept on thinking, what if this is just old brick junk I'm going to be dragging around in my luggage and this really isn't the bunker? I started to ask people who were walking by on the street. Most were just suburban residents who had no clue and didn't know what I was talking about.
Then, I ran into this old woman who turned into a goldmine of information. Yes, the bunker was here. Not where I had thought but right across the street, where the new apartments were. The bunkers are gone now, but there was tunnels all over connecting different buildings and bunkers.
Where was I from? California, just visiting. She insisted that I see the Pergammon museum. I couldn't really place the name; there's so many museums in Berlin to see, I hadn't been to this one yet. It was so important, she had to show me where it was. Did I have time? She wanted to show me where it was, in person. She finally ended up giving me a tour of downtown East Berlin as we walked together about four miles.
She was an East Berliner. She told me she had lived under forty years of dictatorship, starting when she was 10 years old. She started rattling off all of these details about the officials under Hitler and where they lived and where they worked and who they slept with and where the government had special places especially for them for whatever reasons. Her English was very sparse but it was better than my German - we spent about 3/4 of the time speaking English and the rest in German when she was struggling for a word that I thought I knew.
She described to me the four museums that make up Museum Island. A river flows through East Berlin, and at one point it splits into two rivers. The island in between was where people first settled the area. It's now called Museum Island and contains four museums (a fifth is under construction). Of course, there's other museums nearby, along with cathedrals and old churches and what not. They all have intricate statues standing on rooftops and balconies. They all have lots of stone stained black from the Allied bombing in 1945. She recommended especially that I go to the Pergammon museum.
Berlin is a huge city. The western part alone is four times the size of Paris. There's a ton of stuff there, too much to see in six days, and I completely missed out on lots of things, some of which I tried to make up for last night, in eleventh-hour sightseeing before my train left. Literally, eleventh hour; my train was scheduled to leave at 12:13am that night.
So, twenty four hours ago, I started off my last day in Berlin by going to the Pergammon museum, just as the woman had directed me to. It's the most incredible museum I've ever been to in my entire life. Most museums of ancient artifacts have lots of typical- sized objects from whenever, with little cards next to each one explaining what's going on, with the occasional life-size mummy or vehicle or whatever. This museum had huge façades of buildings, full size, which were taken from their original locations in Turkey and Iraq and reassembled in the auditorium-sized rooms in this museum in Berlin. The explanations given were that some deal was struck between the archeologists and the particular governments, but it's reasonable to assume that a country with less arrogance would not have gotten away with so much.
We landed and now I'm on the train through Denmark on the way to Copenhagen. We landed on the southern end of the island of Zeeland, but Copenhagen is on the east side. Cute little farms on gently rolling countryside. All of the farmhouses have that distinctive European look to them.
As I was finishing up the last museum I saw, I started to get nervous about calling Poul. It was 5pm, my train left at midnight, and I still hadn't told him when I was arriving, and I still had to get a piece of the wall and I had to see some other sights and pick up my luggage and show up at the train station. Leaving the museum, I wandered until I found a phone booth - and it was broken. It looked like an old one from the Communist era. I asked someone who said that the closest one was on Alexander Platz - a ways away, but close to some sights that I hadn't seen yet. I wandered off in that direction, and it was hard to find a phone. Go to the station, someone said. A guy accosted me there and told me he was an East Berliner and he needed money. He showed me where the phones that work were, and I gave him about 40¢ in pfennigs. He complained at me that it was so little.
I called Poul. No answer. It was a sortof funny sounding no answer, maybe something was wrong. I was pissed at myself because I'd had all week to call him, but I kept on having stupid things happen; like I locked the phone number in my safe in the room and I don't want to spend a mark to open the safe to get it.
So, I started wandering around. I had dinner at a restaurant that took charge cards (I was running out of Deutschemarks and the banks were closed and it was the last day). As I came out, I saw a street that looked cute, so I walked down it. It lead to a church that was mentioned in my guidebook, Nickolaiskirche (Nickolais's Church). A tall, red brick church with beautiful stained-glass windows. All of the buildings all around were restored, like a cute little middle-ages German town. There was a fountain with the obligatory statue inside in front and a large metal medallion embedded in the cobblestone that said something about a merger of two pre-federation German nation-states. All of the R's were backward for some mysterious reason. It was quaint and historically relevant and peaceful and I was struck with a compelling feeling of completion, like I had found my peace with Berlin and it was a perfect moment.
I wanted to follow the guide book and some of the areas that it said were nice. After five or six o'clock, all the museums shut down, so I was reduced to walking around buildings and gawking at their magnificent statues and architecture. I spent too much time tracking down a neighborhood that wasn't worth it. Wanting to rest, I found the nearest bus stop bench. Maybe I should sit on the part of the bench with the lightning-bolt "SS" graffiti carved into it. Ahem. Well, maybe I should keep walking.
I kept on finding phone booths and calling Poul. I got no answer again. At one point I thought that maybe there was some other reason why I was getting the weird signal, so I thought perhaps I was dialing too many zeros on the front of the number so I dialed one less. I ended up talking to a German operator who spoke no English, not even a polite "I can't speak English". He hung up and took my two marks.
I wandered around some more. I went to a plaza between buildings that was supposed to be the place where Hitler staged a big historic book burning. The building next to it was some sort of Third Reich building that Hitler used to give speeches from the balcony of. As with many such buildings in the area, there are intricate statues on the corners and balconies. The building is shaped with a curve inward, almost like it's a flashlight reflector, focusing rays of influence into the minds of the people in the crowd in the plaza. I could still see him there, ending a sentence yelling "...Deutschland!" with his fist shooting into the air at a 60° angle, and the crowd roars amidst banners of red with black swastikas.
The place is now a cobblestone parking lot. The night was quiet, and a cool breeze was in the air.
There's lots of cobblestone in Germany. This is one of the ways in which Europe's flavor differs from America's - cobblestone walkways and driveways. There's rectangular or square bricks that look like the bricks in a wall. There's stones shaped like bow- ties that all fit together. There's large, smooth concrete tiles for long, efficient walkways or driveways that resemble somewhat the way American sidewalks are, but you intuitively know that the stones were placed individually, instead of just pouring concrete and scraping fake dividing lines as they do in the states.
There's cobblestones that are roughly cut stones, all approximately cube shaped, all about the size of your fist, that are more decorative but still make a fine walking or driving surface. Sometimes there's stone stones, each an odd shape and size, simply cemented together in a very rough surface. There's red stones, gray stones, yellow stones, and stones with beautiful marbling or granite speckle patterns.
Usually it's decorative but frequently there's some communication value to it. Whereas in America we would lay down asphalt and paint lines on top to mark bike lanes or driveways, in Europe, they lay down gray tiles for a walkway, and red bricks for a bike way, with a rough stone style filling the spaces in between and around. In America, a speed bump is an obnoxious lump of asphalt that's indicated with a sign or paint so as to avoid the inevitable interpretation that it was simply a sloppily laid road. In Europe, it's a block of rough cobblestone, enriching the pathway and the driver by its presence.
I wandered to a phone again and called Poul. His wife answered the phone and I got it all set. Ah. I felt like all of my problems were solved. Except for a few other tasks. All of which had to be completed before midnight.
There was a set of three buildings I wanted to revisit before I left the town. This was now about four hours before the train was supposed to leave, and I still had a piece of the wall to get, and my luggage to pick up, but I felt I had some time to kill. I could spend it drinking beer, or I could spend the time doing something I couldn't do anywhere else in the world but Berlin.
The central building in the set is an opera house. It looks down over a plaza area with a fountain. On the sides are two cathedrals, the Deutsche (German) and the Fransosische (French) cathedral. All of these have statues all over them, and the two cathedrals have gold- plated statues on the very tops. You have to see them. The French one was put there by some Brandenburg emperor to welcome French Hugonauts to Berlin. In sharp contrast to some other leaders, he was very interested in religious freedom.
I was walking around the French cathedral and there was a sign that seemed to indicate that there was a pub inside that was open until 1 am. Why, that's absurd, this is a cathedral. Then, I saw someone coming out of it. Maybe the door's open and I could see inside the cathedral. It was, and I did. Inside, it's more like a tower than a cathedral, with two intertwined circular staircases spiraling several stories straight up. I followed the stairs in amazement; maybe I could go all the way to the top! I couldn't. There was a gate at about half way up, but it was still amazing looking down and up.
Somebody came out of a door on about the third floor. (Talking about floors was kind of silly; the stairs just went up and up and there might be a room off to the side anywhere at all.) In fact there was a small wine pub, although there was no customers. I ordered a beer. In a French cathedral. In Berlin. Who would have thunk it?
As I was paying for it, I noticed that my charge card was missing. I must have left it at the restaurant I went to. This was kind of shocking, because last time I went to Germany, I mistakenly left behind two charge cards when I threw away some old papers I didn't need, and somehow someone picked them out of the trash. Deja Vu. OK, so there's one more thing to pick up on my list: a chunk of the wall, my charge card, and my luggage, and I've got about three and a half hours to do it in. I was starting to become concerned that I wasn't going to have time.
I was close to the wall. Well, maybe ten minutes walking distance. Maybe fifteen. I walked there. Perhaps it was cover of darkness, perhaps the fence was arranged a little differently, but I felt safe to go into the construction site. There were wall slabs all over the place. I had been carrying around "tools" I had improvised for the situation: two rocks, one sharp and the other one heavy, for chipping away. The heavy one was a piece of granite cobblestone. (I typically don't pack pick-axes and I didn't feel like buying one in town.) I unwrapped them and looked for an appropriate specimen.
Much of the wall was in the form of segments that were like upside down letter T's. They had their own base so you could pick them up and move them wherever (assuming that their weight was no issue). They were concrete with those pre-stressing steel rods embedded in them. If you had a big motor vehicle, like a big truck, you could probably smash the concrete and bend the steel, but you couldn't break through because you'd be tangled in steel rods with big chunks of concrete hanging off of them. From a distance, they actually look thin and flimsy, with typical Eastern Block quality. And, one side always had wild graffiti over every square inch.
Well, these construction workers actually had made picnic tables by supporting some slab surfaces at the right height. They must have had cranes. It was a pretty surrealistic sight, in the middle of the night, in a debris-filled construction site, with pieces of the Berlin wall laid out as picnic tables.
I found a piece that was lying there, wrapping it in paper I had brought. I discarded my "tools". Now, to get to the restaurant to pick up my card, and on to my hotel to pick up my luggage, and to the train station to catch a train. Time was running short.
I was just a hundred feet from the Potsdamer S-bahn subway station. It was under construction, and I heard the train I wanted come and go as I ran from one half to the other. Frustrated, I decided to take a more direct subway, from a station that was walking distance. (At night the trains come every 20 minutes or so, and there's a delay for every connection.)
I was starting to get a bit panicky and I started to run. I heard explosions in the sky. There was fireworks. I have no idea why. I swear I was not taking drugs, just two beers so far that evening, one with dinner and one in the Cathedral. So I was running backwards, looking at the fireworks, past the wall site, past the circus, past the Füherbunker site.
All of a sudden, a car stopped. This guy wanted to know how to get somewhere. I started to say I was an American and I had no idea. He wanted to get to Brandenberger Tor, the big German victory gate. Heck, that's easy, you just go up here. He wanted more help. Then, I got this great idea. I said, drive me to my restaurant and I'll point you in the right direction. What serendipity.
So, I got in his car. He was black, from Nigeria, and his English was excellent. His date was blonde caucasian. Adolf would be proud. And just a few hundred feet from where he died. This is too weird but I swear it really happened this way.
So, it's just a few hours before my train leaves, and I'm directing this guy around, and I'm sortof used to walking and so we kindof missed a few turns in the rapid Berlin traffic. We ended up going in a direction that perhaps he perceived as getting him lost instead of where he wanted to go. He kicked me out of the car, right in the middle of a busy street, but close to my restaurant, right on the far side of Alexanderplatz. Maybe it was the fact that I was perspiring heavily from the stair climbing and running and panic, I don't know.
I showed up at the restaurant, and they were glad to see me, being super-polite and apologetic. I picked up my chargecard. (The word "creditcard" is a widespread German word, but nobody knows what a "charge card" is.) Looking at my map, I saw that there was an easier U-bahn stop to get to than Alexanderplatz. Time was short. I followed my map and walked in a straight line till I found it. Glancing at the map again as I was walking down the stairs, I realized that it wouldn't work because a section of the subway was under construction, so I couldn't use it. I emerged and started running to the Alexanderplatz station anyway. Time was short.
Suddenly, right there in front of me, there was a stunning sight, a huge, hollow ghost of a church. It was big, the size of Nickolaiskirke, and red brick, just like Nickolaiskirke, but there was only three walls standing with jagged edges, and no roof, and no glass on the windows, and no wood anywhere, and black smudge all over it, and no quaint little German houses around it, and no lights anywhere, it was all alone and cold and dark. And perhaps, just perhaps, there was the faint sound of air raid sirens in the wind. It was left as a monument to WW2, as they do sometimes in Germany, a sortof "never again" kind of thing. It was a moving sight, at night, in the darkness, the sound of traffic.
It was late. I started running. By sheer coincidence, I found myself running across the exact same stretch of busy street that the Nigerian driver had left me off at. Deja Vu.
So I got to Alexanderplatz S-bahn station. The U-bahns are Untergrund, pretty typical subways. The S-bahns are Schnell (fast) trains that are usually above but sometimes below ground, and go over a wider area faster with fewer stops. They are roughly analogous to Muni vs Bart, except that they are integrated together in a more unified system. map of U-Bahn and S-Bahn system
So I zoomed with the piece of the wall and the charge card to my hotel to pick up my luggage. At the time I had about an hour and a half before the train left, and I was in a really cocky mood and I stopped off at a beer place that's between my hotel and the U-bahn station.
There was a guy there that I had seen there the night before, when he was so drunk he was just about falling off his barstool. We started talking and he introduced me to several other people in the bar, whom he may or may not have known before tonight. I felt like staying, I was actually meeting people in Berlin instead of just being a passive observer.
All I have to do is to go a half a block to my hotel, get my stuff from the guy who runs it, and get back into the subway. Piece of cake. The hotel is in the upper two floors of this building. The family that runs it comes from somewhere in the eastern Mediterranean. I remember him telling me not to pick up my stuff before 5pm because he wouldn't be back. Ha! No problem, I won't get back before 5. It was now after 11pm. What if it's too late? What if some door is locked somewhere and everyone's asleep and they don't know English anyway? What if my luggage was, just, sortof, Gone?
I figured I should not push my luck. I went to the hotel. I was kindof late, but he gave me my stuff and I scampered off to the train station downtown, where I had arrived. I got there fifteen minutes before my train was supposed to leave. I had to mail some postcards, and then get on the train. No problem. It's not that big of a station. How could I mess it up?
Funny, the train to Copenhagen wasn't on the schedule. And, it wasn't anywhere to be found. After doing some frantic running around looking for people who didn't know and didn't know English, I consulted this computer they have to do schedules. You push buttons and turn this big wheel and try out different schedules. I had used one before, and it was the only source of information available.
My ticket said it started from "Berlin-LBG". I guess I never worried about the LBG until just now. At approximately 12:21am I confirmed that LBG stands for Lichtenberg, the name of another train station way into East Berlin. That's where I should have been at 12:13am. Looking at the map later, I realized that Berlin has several train stations for external travel, tucked into their S-Bahn stations. I had been to four stations already that had external service, but I didn't really notice it before.
The computer had bleak news: the next train leaving in that direction would leave in an hour, drop me off in Lichtenberg shortly after, and I'd wait until 3am for the next train. The neat part is that the computer scheduled which S-bahn I should take to get to Lichtenberg. The local trains were integrated in with the intercity transportation in one unified system, something I've never seen done in America.
Five hours later, I arrive in Copenhagen. Yawn.
Copenhagen is a quintessential European city. It is significantly smaller than Berlin, but it has much more in the line of old buildings. During World War II, they were quickly invaded by Germany, but an active resistance from both the underground and the authorities convinced the allies that they were OK, and they were not bombed when the allies invaded. When the Nazis made Jews in Denmark wear a Star of David armband, the King wore one too.
They have the longest continuous royalty in the world, which fits in to the government similar to the way the British royalty does, except that there's no juicy scandals, beyond a few speeding tickets.
The Danish language is weird. You see a lot of words that look like German, but it's sortof like it's farther away than German. In Poul's shower, there was a bottle that said "Skumbad" on it. I assume it was some sort of shampoo or bubblebath.
I got to see Poul's institute. He's trying to found a department dedicated to computer-aided mathematics, especially symbolic mathematics.
They're not nearly as obsessive about their beer. There's no gradation line on the beer glasses, and you sometimes get beer served in a plain glass or one of another brand.
If you want to see lots of quaint European buildings, statues and stuff, Copenhagen is a good choice. I found myself just walking around downtown randomly and finding stuff that was just as interesting as the tourist highlights they directed you to. In the old part of town, streets would go on for about two blocks, and then change names and change direction slightly.
One of the tourist attractions was a church named Nickolais's Church. Since I had seen the one in Berlin, I thought I should see this one. Maybe they're a chain or something.
It wasn't a church anymore. It was an art museum for children. How do you make a museum for children? Seems like a contradiction. All of the art pieces were for or by children, they were all durable, and many were participatory, either things that move or things that you climb through or whatever. There were workshops where kids were making things. There were happy kids running around having a great time. Blew me away.
There was a big glass box that people climb into with a floor that slid up and down and tilted in different directions. It would play "music" depending upon who stood where.
Poul took me to see a small memorial part dedicated to Danish resistance fighters during World War II. It wasn't on the tourist map. It was on the site where the Nazis carried out their executions, out in the suburbs, very simple but very dramatic. It was like a small park, with pretty trees and a few simple patches of flowers. Against a wall, there was a set of plaques, one for each person who died, with a poem and, for some, the exact name of the resistance organization they were a part of. And, further down the trail, past a few incomprehensible signs, was the pit. With dirt mounded up fifteen feet on three sides to catch stray bullets, and covered with well-maintained grass, we walked in via the open fourth side. Three wooden posts, slowly decaying over the years. A metal plaque in the ground.
ok, so I have to work on the conclusions of my stories.
More about Berlin
A book about Berlin
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