Sunday, September 16, 2012

Germany Day Four

Day Four -- Lions, Tigers, Parliament and the Wall (again)

Today, play it all again, except today I remembered deodorant and wouldn’t stand in the hellacious line at Starbucks. Christian, the owner of this B&B, gave me a second pillow yesterday and it enabled me to sleep more uninterrupted than the night before, so I was well recovered from my late night out last night.

Which is a good thing, because I had a mission. I was going to the Berlin Zoo. I’m really a sucker for zoos, and especially big cats and baby animals. I had hoped to see the zoo’s panda Bao Bao, the last living gifted (rather than leased) panda from China to any other country. But alas, Bao Bao passed away at the age of 34 just a month ago. He’d been quite ill, so I’m glad he didn’t hold on for me.

Many thanks to Petra for all of her assistance and advice about the zoo. I loved it! I’ve never seen so many species in one place, and there were animals I’d never seen before at any zoo at home (sand cat, anyone?) With no panda in residence, I headed immediately to the big cats. I found they were all inside. The indoor enclosures here are not glassed in but rather just bars, and the animals are quite close, so I got to see exactly what I’m missing at home with Morley, a whole lot of sleeping cats. Although I could swear the tiger was awake, his tale gave him away when I “encouraged” it to open its eyes.

I had one other goal of this visit to the zoo and that was to see the polar bears who lived with (and one mothered) Knut, the famous polar bear cub who died in early 2011. On my way there, however, I went by the elephants and found a 5 week old baby elephant. She was absolutely gorgeous and a joy to watch. I spent a whole chunk of time watching her and taking a zillion photos (testing out the camera for safari, you know!). She really is a cutie and her mom takes such good care of her. I would return here a few times before I left.

I found the polar bears, who seemed so far away in their enclosure but I got to zoom right in with the camera. I also stumbled upon a few leopards in my travels (next time I see those will be in Africa, none at the zoos at home!) as well as the hippos who were swimming and coming up for air on the odd occasion. Before I knew it, it was almost noontime and I had to move on for my 1:00 appointment at the Reichstag.

I jumped on the U2 at Zoo Station (how I have wanted to write that! HA!) but not before I had another currywurst outside the station. Petra said I have good taste as that one was voted best of Berlin. It really was delish!

Earlier this summer I’d applied for a time to get a guided tour of inside the Parliament building here. There was a fair amount of formality, and security was tight going in (passport check, two security checks). But all this was totally worth it. Our guide was engaging and entertaining, and the tour had the right mix of history, politics and trivia. It ended at the entrance to the glass dome that is on the roof. Skip the next few paragraphs if you don’t want to learn anything about German politics.

Parliament is the lower house. Members get elected either by a majority vote of the constituency or if they rank high enough on their party’s list. Members get fined 40 euro for every mandatory vote they miss. Roll call votes are done either by show of hands, electronic card voting (red, blue, white cards with bar codes on them) or by walking out one of three doors which say either Yes, No or Abstain. The guide pointed out where Angela Merkel sits, and explains that the party whips sit in the first couple of rows of seats, but after that it’s first come first serve for the seats. It behooves members to be there early to get closer to the front so they get more tv face time, especially close to election season. Each member gets 8000 euro a month (about $10,600) plus living expenses. The aforementioned fines would come directly out of that stipend.

The Reichstag was burned by the Nazis in 1933. Tarek, my guide on Saturday, said that the Nazis burned it in order to put citizens in a panic and get them to more easily accept the Nazis in an election that week. The guide in the Reichstag says that no one knows exactly who burned it, but that the Nazis blamed the Soviets and that the hunt is still on for who did it. Hmmm.

We got access to the Parliamentary chamber, then one of the party antechambers where bargaining for majorities goes on. The guide let us out on the front balcony so we could look out over the big lawn and see the other nearby government buildings. On the way up to the dome, he pointed out in the hallways the graffiti in Russian that was left from when the Soviets occupied the building. The architect who rebuilt the Reichstag in 1999 wanted to preserve the graffiti, so it’s been left in place and sealed so that it won’t fade further.

As today was one of those warm, bright, sunny days, the view from the dome was unlimited. You can see just about everything from up there, and the dual ramps (one for up, one for down) make it easy to get to the very top with very little effort. There is a free audio guide that changes the track as you walk around the dome so that it is always describing what you are facing.

I made my way to the S-bahn to head to north a bit to the Berlin Wall Memorial. On my way, I attempted to get into a very crowded Starbucks, and couldn’t, so I grabbed a Fanta and a piece of cherry strudel for a snack instead.

This memorial is in a neighborhood that was literally split right up the middle when the wall went up in 1961. In fact, in some locations, the house was in the east but the sidewalk in front of it was in the west, so residents would jump out the windows to escape. That is before the East Germans came along and bricked up all the windows.

Really, when you think about it, there were some unexpected logistics to walling off West Berlin from East Berlin. Like the U-Bahn and S-Bahn (the subways). Some ran through East Berlin neighborhoods as the line progressed from one part of West Berlin to another. So the East Germans had to come up with security to ensure that no one could sneak into Western stations along the tracks. They also closed the Eastern stations and they became “ghost stations” where no one got on or off and armed guards patrolled the platforms. In some cases the above-ground stops would disappear entirely, to eliminate any chance of people using them as an escape route. The Nordbanhof stop, where I got off to visit the memorial, has a lot of photos and captions (in English even!) showing how the stations were just closed up and left until the 90s when they reopened. That explains why some of those stations look trapped in the 60s, because they are!

There are two information centers along the walk that covers the memorial. The walk is organized into four sections, and I had the energy left at the end of the day to cover two of the four sections (about 25 minutes of walking, up and back). The literature and two short films (free at the information center) explains how the walls and security were set up, with dead man’s land, trip wires, beds of nails, guard houses, dogs, mobile units and the like. They left nothing to chance, folks were not going to escape alive over these walls. And the initial propaganda trying to convince East Berliners that this was a good thing was incredible. There was a temporary exhibit on what they were told and how things changed immediately (lots and lots of meetings at work and going to a 6-day work week can’t actually be interpreted as positive, I wouldn’t think!)

In this particular neighborhood, where the East Germans determined the wall should be cut right along a cemetery and right over a church. Initially congregants were allowed to enter the no man’s land for church, but that came to an end pretty quickly. Eventually the East Germans dug up graves and moved bodies to expand the border zone and at the same time they demolished the church entirely because it prevented them from having an unobstructed view of the no man’s land. Indeed, nothing was sacred.

Throughout the area between the east and west walls, there are stations with more information about what happened at a particular spot (say, a mass grave, an escape attempt, etc.) so as I walked, I learned things at each spot. I would say that this is an extremely well done presentation of a challenging subject. They’ve managed to maintain the importance of history while not threatening (at least noticeably) the balance in the neighborhood.

While I wasn’t even a figment of anyone’s imagination when this wall went up, I remember clearly when it came down. With this trip, I learned more about the politics behind it, how it came about that it came down. I bought a book in the shop that is a photo documentary of the wall coming down. To me, now that I’ve been here and seen all the sights for myself, to look at photos of them with the wall around them is just so hard to believe.

After a day spent entirely on my feet, I was beat around 5:30. I headed back to my part of Berlin and stopped at a little place called Zillemarkt, right under the S-bahn tracks in Savignyplatz. It is a cute little biergarten that the trains run right over, but it is surprisingly not annoying (or dangerous). I had the potato soup to start (a Berlin speciality, allegedly) and then cabbage stuffed with pork with a ham sauce over it, which was enormous and very hearty. I managed to squeeze in a delicious slice of apple strudel with vanilla sauce. And I had yet another delicious glass of white wine, I just wish I remembered to write them down. Who knew I’d like them all that much!

Off to bed early. Tomorrow’s my last day in Berlin as I’m off to Dresden on Tuesday.

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