Friday, November 20, 2009

Berlin: Simplicity Desinted to Fail

The plan was so simple. Get up at seven aye em, return the car, go to the 11:00 NewEurope free tour. So simple. Perhaps a little too simple.

At seven o'clock I got out of bed to wake our noble driver. His bed was empty. “Where is he,” I questioned? “In the car,” was the response. Returning it? Already? I was going to pay for gas to help pay off what I need to. Hmm – why would he have left early? He's a late sleeper as it is. I can't believe he got up without me needing to wake him.

“Sleeping – in the car.”

What? As it turns out there was a person in our room who was snoring. Now this person sleeps less than ten meters from me, and I slept through the night. But for our driver – he who was inspiration for the Snorflogs – it was too much. [authors note: I can tell you right now that Ihe is currently snoring away all on his own. One would have thought he would have built up a restiance. For example, no one can burn Johnny Storm, or cause Bobby Drank pain through freezing.] He could not, nay – would not – sleep in this room with such an obnoxious sleeper. So down the street, around the corner, and to the car he went. Hey, at least it was a Benz. Sleeping in that is pure luxury, yeah? This ain't no stinkin' Toyota bed!

I, of course, did not learn this until eight o'clock when he came strolling in. Plans to return the car were, once again, made. After breakfast – for sure. So down I went, drawn to the sirens call of unlimited orange juice, and cheese sandwiches. I ate, and I ate, and I ate.

But I ate mostly alone. Where were the others? When would we return the car? Would we make the eleven o'clock tour? At nine thirty – after an hour and a half of very peaceful time where my thoughts were my own, and I remembered that that was a thing of possibility, they came down. And ate. Slowly. But this was okay, because I had even more orange juice.

I don't really know what it is – but I can down a good three liters of juice every morning without even starting to feel it sloshing around. I am a thirst traveller, that is for sure. Even now I have a two liter bottle of strawberry/blueberry iced tea beside me.

When we finally left at about ten twenty, ten thirty, I questioned our ability to make the tour on time. Now missing it wouldn't be a problem for me – I'd just go tomorrow – but these guys only had one day in city, and I would be quite upset if they didn't get to fully experience it.

We took the car to the main train station where the Avis book said they had a return depot. Why the Avis book would lie to us is beyond me – but if it exists at 1 Europaplatz, neither police, information guides, nor random strangers have seen it.

What choice did we have but head off to the next nearest location four klicks away? I wondered if this extra driving would affect our “return with a full tank” clause. I didn't just fill up for 1,35 euro a liter for kikcs you know. But it didn't. And at long last the car was returned. Only problem? It was now 11:03. And we were twenty minutes from the start of the tour. We could have tried to suss it out, or stalk one location until they reached us, ut as it turned out, they ran the tour at 1:00pm as well. Criss averted, problem solved, and we got to see Ostriches (almost as cool as Emus) along the way.

The slow wander over bridges, past trees, and near the zoo animals – visiable from just outside the enclosures (the two footpaths – inside, and out – being separated by spikes balls, and the most terrifying fence you've ever seen. Still, I think in Canada, people would just hop the fence for free admission. A secure compound, this is not.)

We made our way to Paris Square, taking a long drawn out path that led us by a column with an angel on the top, not unlike that which you might find outside of a certain Parisian metro station. Why there is a square called Paris square in the middle of Berlin was a mystery to me. But I was sure there was a good reason. And there was!

There we met up with our NewEurope tour guide and began the three and a half hour walk around the city to all the major sites. Stop was was the arch an columns on Paris Square. It turns out that the sculpture on top of the arch was stolen by Napoleon after he conquered Berlin. Well, when Germany went and conquered Paris, they took it back. And replaced the object in the woman's hand with a scepter with the iron cross, and an eagle on top. They also turned her head to stare directly at the French Embassy – and then they changed the name of the square just to add insult to injury.

Nice move Germany. You know – it's strange thinking of France occupying Germany. World history – it just goes back and forth, and back and forth.

Only a few minutes away as the Berlin Holocaust Memorial. It is a an uneven bricked ground covered in cerement blocks. What does it mean? It's subjective. And it was designed that way. Perhaps they represent graves, or boxcars, or a bar graph of responsibility and persecution. To be honest, my first thought was how amazing a game of hide and seek could be amongst these stones. And there is no disrespect meant by that. Nor do I think there would be disrespect in doing so. With my interpretation of the piece, I think the artist might even welcome such activities.

A museum and gallery exists under the monument, but there was no time to visit it just yet. The tour was moving on, and us with it. Our next stop was the Berlin wall – part of it still standing. While most of the wall has been removed, replaced with a line of double bricks in the ground, marking where the wall once stood, this portion still remained – near the Nazi headquarters foundations. It's said these two pieces show the failure of both regimes in Berlin.

A fence now surrounds the wall – where as once the wall stood to keep people away, the fence now acts to keep people from the wall. For some time tourists have worked to chip away sections of it, and if left unblocked, it would most disappear in short order.

We moved on to visit the old headquarters of the Nazi Air Force, now the German tax offices, and then took a break at a cafe called Aroma. While I may have lied and said the best chocolate croissant of my life was devoured in Paris – this was a lie. A lie to best DeeDub who claims that she has had the best – and the one I prefer is a pale shadow by comparison. But here – here in Aroma I can truthfully say the best such pastry I'd ever had, was eaten. the pastry itself warm, flaky, and fresh. The chocolate? Just the right consistency, and darkness. Worth every extra cent to be eaten in, rather than eaten as take out.

The location of this cafe? Just outside of Checkpoint Charlie – now a major tourist strip.

On the final section of our tour we passed the Christmas Market (still being setup with outside booths, and food stands), a number of churches and concert halls, and stopped at Bebelplatz. This was the square where book after book was striped from the Berlin library, thrown into a pile, and set ablaze. Today it is just a square, but for that day it was the scene of – well something remarkable, and terrible, and foreshadowing.

What remains to mark this event is a pane of glass in the floor, allowing a view of a white room full of empty bookshelves, unreachable, unchangeable.

And then the tour led to its final destination – Museum Island, so called due to the fact that it is an island covered in museums.

We took seats on the steps, and listened to the story of the fall of the Berlin Wall. To be honest, I did not know that the fall was an accident. I did not know that were the press conference not called, were the speaker better informed, or were the right questions not asked – nothing would have changed, and that the wall may have still been standing to this day. But history turned out as history turned out, and shortly thereafter the East and the West reunified.

How a city and a country stood so long divided is shocking, now that they're back as one. And yet they're nothing unique. There are still a number of countries to this day, at this moment, that are split where once they stood together. What will it take to bring them back? And would that even be for the best?

Story finished, tips handed over, tour at and end.

The sun was down, the sky was black, but there was still one more place left to see.

The final stop for the day was the German parliament building. If you've never seen it, well then – you'd probably expect a parliament building to be terrible, and boring, and a waste of time. At least I was – I was just assuming it would be like the ones in Canada. But no!

Line up outside and wait your turn, and you will e allowed a free lift up their elevator (after passing through airlocks, security checks, and an old guy with a mag detector grabbing your butt.) Where does this elevator lead, you might wonder? Well I will tell you – to the giant clear half sphere on the roof. And why would you want to be there? Well – I didn't know actually. It just seemed like the thing to do?

If nothing else, waiting to get in allowed for a lot of night shots to be taken of the German Flag – and well lit flags at night, are now some of my favourite things to photograph.

Up in the dome, you exit the elevator and are immediately given a free audio tour. Free! Really? So clip the ear piece on, and sling the big thing around your neck, and you're good to know. When you step on the spiraling ramp the guide knows and it begins. You will be slightly terrified by this.

As you walk around you will be told the history of Berlin, and the importance of all the buildings you see. The guide knows exactly where you are, and will say things like “just look to your right, and you'll find the such and such tower.” And it will be there. You're walking at a different speed than the people around you – but it knows. It knows terrible terrible things. And then it will tell you to pause, and if you stop on that spot, it will accurately describe your surroundings. Fear the mighty audio guide for it knows all things!

There is a giant mirrored spike in the middle of the chamber, and it reflects you down to the chairs below. This is where the members of parliament sit. All they need to do is look up to be reminded of who they work for. The people. Not themselves. At the top the creepy audio guide knows to tell you that the spike also collects rains, and snow, and other such things through a hole in the top. Somehow using creepy German technology, the spike extracts heat from these elements to provide warmth to the building.

Then you make your way back down, and wander out onto the roof to get views overlooking the whole city, lit up at night. And after you've spent however long you need to really drink in the view, you head back down the elevator, and leave.

Feeling lazy we took the subway home instead of walking. And that was that – Berlin, for them, would be over. And for me? Well enough of it would be in the past. I'd still have a few more days to explore, while they headed off to England after breakfast in the morning.

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