Wednesday, October 7, 2015

We were ein Berliner

My wife and me have been married for 25 years this year, so we decided to treat ourselves and our children to a citytrip. The choice fell on Berlin. Coincidentally –as we discovered about two weeks before- it was also the 25th anniversary of the German unity. It being “only” a 600 kilometer drive we decided on the car as a means of transport. It would save the five of us a lot of spending money in Berlin. We had some traffic jams due to trucks breaking down in the middle of the highway (a German tradition as it would turn out) but still arrived in time on the 2nd to do some grocery shopping as all of Berlin would be celebrating the German Union and therefore be closed.

We stayed in an apartment near the Potsdamer Platz in what used to be East Berlin. It was a roomy place with a balcony and a little walled park inside the city block. Imposing gates warned passers-by to keep out of this private property, a message that had apparently lost its potency since the Wende  as lots of people used the park as a shortcut and to let out their dogs. It had all the trappings of a former Party member apartment block, even including the toilet with a (too) narrow outlet to prevent any shit from escaping to the West.

So the next morning we took off into a festive city crammed with happily united Germans, pop concerts and lots of opportunities to consume copious amounts of food and drink. We stopped at the Potsdamer Platz to look at the strangely moving Wall Memorial, standing in the place where once the Wall divided the Platz in two. Cobblestones set into the asphalt indicate where the Wall used to be. Modern skyscrapers and wide avenues now dominate this square.

We stopped for a while at the Holocaust Mounument. A strangely sober monument of grey basalt blocks that stretch across the square. The monument’s impact only becomes clear once you walk into it. The terrain sinks into the ground while the blocks rise high above you. Sight is minimal and even though you know that dozens of people walk around you, usually you see no one. It is an eerily claustrophobic and lonely experience.

The Brandenburger Tor was largely masked with pop podia and Festival stuff so we handed over all our lethal deodorants to the security guards and entered Unter den Linden for coffee, donuts and icecream. 

And of course shopping, for it turned out a lot of shops had chosen to give in to the capitalist impulse and sell stuff to us tourists. The broad avenue was bustling with people, horse-and-carriages, cars, buses and roadworks. Luxureous shops line the sidewalks and various works obstruct the old walking path in the middle of the avenue, where one once could walk unter den Linden.

Slipping in and out of shops we reached the statue of Frederick The Great at the Friedrichstrasse and visited the German Historical Museum, which had an impressive collection of historical pictures, weapons, books and other objects through the ages. We followed the exhibition up until we reached the 18th century and our heads were full of images. On we went to the Museum Island where huge museum buildings housed art and historical collections. One could tell that whenever something was built in Berlin in the 19th Century, it should at least be bigger than the one in Paris… 

My son and I went for the Greeks and the Romans, my daughter went a-photographing in the Lustgarten in front (the drunk playing Deutschland uber alles on a dilapidated saxophone formed a nice contrast with the Peruvian fluteplayers) and my wife and daughter-in-law went for the modern art. Stopping to eat steak outside near the Potsdamer Platz we staggered home and crashed on the couch.

The next day we aimed for a more alternative athmosphere and took the U-Bahn to the Prezlauer Berg quarter. Here each Sunday a huge floh-markt (garage-sale) is staged in the Mauerpark (Wallpark). Hundreds of stalls sell the most diverse second-hand items, antiques or weird items. Lego puppets, USSR militaria (Jet pilot pressure suit anyone?) toys, tools, cloths (used and handmade) and a zillion of other things are sold between food- and drink stalls. On the lawn next to the park bands play music and children play. The sun shone and but for the language spoken one might have been in San Francisco in the 70ies. 

The whole quarter has a definite hippie vibe about it. Pastel houses line wide streets and since the World War has been kind to the Prezlauer Berg, here you will find a picture of the Berlin from before the war, eradicated almost everywhere else.

The kids went shopping in the Berlin Mall, we went for coffee and walks and all of us finished in style (and by contrast to the morning program) in the futuristic Sony Center with diner at Corroboree’s and a movie at the CineMax; a theater that plays exclusively English spoken movies but curiously will not accept any foreign credit card (the only place in Berlin where I had to pay with cash). Here my son found the LEGO Discovery Center. It was closed. He couldn't LEGO....

The morning of the last day I used for personal purposes and took the U-Bahn to the Gneisenau strasse to visit Battlefield Berlin: a specialized wargaming store. Whenever you visit Berlin: see that you get to this place! The shop has kind and helpful staff, an enormous stock in SF, Fantasy and even Historical miniatures and yards and yards of materials and tools. I stocked up on Reaper Bones (they have ALL OF THEM PEOPLE!) and some AWI militia. And then our time in the city was up and we had to leave.

On the way back it turned out Germany had saved almost all roadworks for the route to the West. For about 400 kilometers westward from Berlin we encountered them with depressing regularity. They usually consisted of all but one lane blocked with those red-and-white poles you learn to hate and apart from that absolutely no clue at all as to why the road was blocked. No works, machines or workmen to be seen for miles and miles as we gently crawled past. Except at the time when we stood still for three and half hours because of another accident with a truck…  But the weather was nice, my son built a LEGO Wall-E (hee hee. A Berlin Wall-E. Ahem. Sorry.) and we amused ourselves with our neighbors to find out why the hell everything stood still.

Conclusion: this was a good first taste of Berlin, but we must (and will!!) return for seconds. And thirds! Also, we will take train or plane. The 12-hour return drive was not an experience I care to repeat. But what a place.….