Friday, September 14, 2012

Germany Day Two

Day Two – The Oddest Starbucks Experience, The Longest Tour, The Best Meal

For those who don’t travel across time zones, you will not understand what I’m about to say. For those who do, you’ll nod your head and say “oh yeah.” Last night I slept that first day jetlag sleep of the dead sleep. I literally fell asleep typing the blog last night, woke up, finished the blog AND uploaded photos and then was out cold for 10 ½ straight hours. That’s partially because I hadn’t slept for 36 hours and ran the first day sightseeing rat race yesterday. And partially because sleep hasn’t been plentiful of late…

Anyway, I woke to a nice chilly room (slept with windows open but there’s a gorgeous duvet on the bed that kept me warm) and took a hot shower. Breakfast here was good. I had what I think were Sugar Smacks (granola, schmola, I can have that at home), a yogurt and two soft waffles with cherry jelly. Whenever I see cherry jelly I have it because I never find it as good at home.

I headed straight out to meet my tour with Insider Tours of Berlin. That was at the other end of Ku’dam and I had to pass two Starbucks on my way. At the second one, I ventured in to order the Apple Crumble Latte I spied yesterday. Used to mortgaging the farm for a barista-crafted drink, I handed the cashier 4.10 (euros that is, about US$5.30) and he looked at me puzzled. “It is only 1.50.” Huh? I though, looking down at the Apple Crumble Latte sign in front of me that said 4.10. I shrugged and figured I’d be getting water or steamed milk for that price, and he just didn’t understand me. Lo and behold, it WAS the Apple Crumble Latte. And it was heavenly. This was a very auspicious start to the day in terms of food. And I will be repeating that every day!

I met the Insider Tours folks in front of Zoo Station. I was assigned to the guide Tarek, a young, handsome devil who turned out to be a half-German, half-Egyptian New York City born architect now living in Berlin. This was meant to be a 4 hour tour hitting all the major sites and a lot of hidden ones. Our tour lasted nearly 5 ½ hours. Not that that is a bad thing, given that I got a discounted rate of 9 euro for the tour (thank you Welcome Berlin card!) but I did have other things I wanted to get to today, and didn’t. But in the end, with all I learned, it was worth it.

Let me warn you now, my minor obsession with German history is about to take over the blog. I learned that once again in order to learn what I should have learned in junior high, I have to spend two grand and travel 3000 miles. But this is why I travel. I love a day when I can look back on it and realize that my own thoughts and beliefs were challenged, when I was made to reflect, made to evaluate how I see things, made to realize what I hadn’t already. Tarek made that all happen. One thing Tarek said to kick off the tour was meant to put things in perspective for us: “history is the lies of the victors and the self-delusions of the defeated.” Basically, take everything you learn with the source in mind.

We started at Museum Island in former East Berlin. I’ll be heading there at the end of next week (when my last hotel is nearby) to see all there is, but I got to learn that the royal palace was torn down, and is being reconstructed, in ready made pieces in China. The Berliner Dom, which is meant to rival St. Peter’s and St. Paul’s was also fairly new in design (late 1800s). Tarek gave us all the relevant history of Germany up to about 1913 in about 15 minutes and then spent the rest of the day bringing us up to the present day.

The first stop that gave me pause was Neue Wache (new guardhouse), which looks pretty similar to the Pantheon in Rome and even has the oculus through which the bright September sun was shining through today. The building has been a few different things over time, including the Prussian War Memorial and a guardshack. When it was destroyed and then rebuilt following WWII, it became a memorial to victims of fascism and militarism. There is a modern sculpture by Kathe Kollwitz of a Pieta inside, and that is it that we can see, but the remains of an unknown concentration camp victim and a unknown soldier are buried inside and that makes the vacant space a bit more profound.

Here, Tarek explained to us that “crimes are only as bad as the number of memorials you build to commemorate them.” And he says that Berlin has an inordinate number of memorials to all of the crimes of the Nazis and Third Reich. He then asked us to compare the memorials in the countries of two of Hitler’s contemporaries, who were equally guilty of the same if not more crimes. Russia and Japan both had leaders at the same time and neither country has take steps to commemorate or publicly acknowledge the victims through any memorials at all. I’d never thought of that, and asked Tarek if he felt that Germany’s “owning up” to those crimes through memorials is almost detrimental, because ask anyone in the US if they know what Russia or Japan did at the same time, and many, many people would be hardpressed to respond. Ask them about Hitler, and everyone nails the quiz.

Back to what I learned that I should have when I was 12. Starting in 1961, Berlin and Germany as a whole was split amongst the US, French, British and Russians. Berlin itself though was in the Russian section of Germany, which meant that the US, French and British has to travel through Russian-occupied Germany to get there, so dedicated highways and flight patterns were created for that reason. (I know, a lot of you know this, I am just now catching up on my public school education). The “Wall” around West Berlin was put up to keep the East Berliners from getting into West Berlin because once they were in West Berlin, they could very easily use the dedicated thoroughfares set up for the Allies to get in and out to get out East Germany altogether. The Wall was at first barbed wire, and was gradually converted to cinder blocks and then the pre-fab slabs we see now. Checkpoint Charlie, which Tarek said is the biggest ado about nothing, was the only way the Allies could get between East and West Berlin. That’s why we all know it, that’s why it’s an utter tourist trap today. In fact, nothing that’s there that I took pictures of yesterday is actually real or original. It’s all set up to take advantage of the pop culture phenomenon that it became over time.

Tarek took us to another section of wall (he couldn’t know that I walked a mile of it yesterday) and this was more rundown and not all painted up. It traced the outer limit of the Topography of Terror, which I came back to after the tour. From there we went on to a residential neighborhood where we found an apartment complex that was built on the site of Hitler’s bunker (where he and his wife killed themselves). Tarek said that it is purposefully not indicated where the bunker was so as to prevent obsessive crazies from creating shrines and worshipping at it. He says the Third Reich cults exist and they really get carried away, so that’s probably a good thing. I’d watched a Discovery Channel show on Hitler and his life before he came to power and into his rule as fuhrer. I found it odd that he allegedly loved Eva Braun but reportedly they never had sex. Today Tarek told us that Hitler didn’t ever marry Eva until right before they committed suicide because he was always married to Germany first. Ok, sure… But it was a sign that he’d given up Germany when he married her, and then they both bit the cyanide pill and shot themselves in the head. So it was a brief commitment.

No intro tour to Berlin would be complete with discussing the Holocaust. Tarek said from the beginning that he is not out to exonerate the Germans to be correct many assumptions that we have about them and the “facts” we know about them. He said that so many people think the Holocaust was about eradicating Jews from the face of the earth, but 6.5 million Jews were killed by Hitler’s regime AND 7 million others: Poles, homosexuals, mentally and physically disabled, “enemies of the state”. Holy crap! As Tarek said “every time someone says something about the Jews and the Holocaust, 7 million other victims are rolling over in their graves screaming ‘what about us?’” That definitely gave me pause. Truly.

His mother being German, Tarek has been asked if Germans at the time knew what was going on when Holocaust victims were taken away. He said that his mother knew there was no way you couldn’t know, you would most certainly hear the boots marching up stairs, the yelling of revolt, and notice that day after day after that intrusion, the neighbors were missing. What they might not have known though is what happened to them. As all the concentration camps were well outside the cities in remote areas (so no one saw the chimneys spewing smoke or smelled the burning), Germans may not have known the ultimate fate of these people. His explanation for why no one stood up to stop this from happening is three-fold: 1) apathy – it’s not me or mine; 2) opportunity – buying up goods or real estate of the departed; 3) fear – would you have opened the door up if you heard that going on next door?

Again he said that he doesn’t want to sound the apologist for Germans, but the Nazis did contribute to society as well. They introduced the torch at the Berlin Olympic Games, it actually was a Nazi symbol. The Nazis invented the autobahn here. And the support the Nazi Party got was remarkable. They employed Krupps coffee maker company to help make tanks. Hugo Boss designed the Nazi uniforms. DeutscheBank financed the building of the concentration camps. IBM made machines to help them “count things” in the camps. Tarek pointed out that a lot of the Nazi efforts would not have been successful without at least some support somewhere along the way both from corporations and individuals. Corporations obviously played along. Yikes.

We stopped back at the Memorial to Murdered Jews of Europe, where I’d been yesterday but today I got a better appreciation of it with a guide. It was designed so that the deeper you go into it, the more sunken you feel, the further away the sky seems, the taller the plinths are. It is meant to make you feel more distant from what is safe above you. It was strategically placed right along the direct route to the Reichstag (Parliament) so that politicians, in theory, would have to see it.

It is also right next to the American embassy, which I don’t think is intentional. The embassy had our flag at half staff today due to the killings in Libya.

One more stop at the Brandenburg Gate, which was quick as we were approaching the 5 ½ hour mark on the tour. One thing Tarek pointed out was the Hotel Adlon on the square there, which is famous for all visiting dignitaries staying there and Michael Jackson almost dropping his kid out the window. Cool.

Somewhere in this tour, we stopped for lunch, which was just a grilled chicken bagette. Nothing fancy, but it did leave me feeling peckish, despite the handful of Irish candies from duty free in Dublin I’d stashed in my bag and the half Luna bar I ate along the way. So I grabbed a Bounty ice cream bar, which was just dreamy: dark chocolate coated coconut ice cream.

My next stop on my own was the Topography of Terrors. This was built on the bombed out remnants of the Nazi Reich Security Main Office (home of the SS, SD and Gestapo). As I mentioned earlier, remnants of the wall line one side and the “museum”, if you can call it that, is made up of an indoor and an outdoor exhibit. Outdoors presents the story of Hitler’s regime on Berlin. Inside presents the entire story: affected victims, countries, organization, rise and fall. This took me nearly 2 hours to comb through. The combination of text to read and photos and artifacts to look at was enough to keep me going. My feet finally gave out around 5:45, so I headed back to the hotel and changed for dinner.

Last weekend from home I’d called Marjellchen, which had been highly reviewed on Trip Advisor and on certain forums I’d read. I know when I write these blogs it sounds like I trip over good meals, but I research my restaurants almost as much as my itinerary. I knew Marjellchen was going to be golden. And it was. This restaurant has been run by the same women for 27 years. They’re older now and look like your typical Prussian grandmother. They run the 12 indoor tables and 6 outdoor tables in sneakers. One seems to work the bar, another chats up the diners and asks “Do you like a toothpick now?” when you’re done with your main course. The décor is old and dark, the music a best of eastern European hits.

The food is incredible. It’s meant to be Prussian family specialties that the owner’s grandmother passed down. It was so freaking good, I nearly passed out. I started with borscht (beet soup with sour cream and beef in it). It was just as good as what I had in Russia, if not more so with the beef in it! It arrives at the table in that violent orangey reddish pink with the sour cream melted through it and smells amazing. My main course was a pork chop stuffed with prunes, apples and rye bread. I am not exaggerating when I say it should be criminal to make stuffing that good. I ate every ounce of it. The chop had a sauce over it which the server “warned” me had cinnamon in it (who doesn’t like cinnamon?) but I thought it pulled it all together so well. It came with potato dumplings (basically big balls of mashed potato) and boiled cabbage. Unreal. I paired it with a German red wine that was stunning and I wished I remembered what it was. For dessert, apple dumplings with vanilla ice cream. Utter perfection. I will probably spend the rest of the week trying unsuccessfully to beat that meal. I almost asked them to reserve me a table for Sunday or Monday but realized I need to explore more and try other things. Hmmmph.

So back here now, I hear the rain beating down, let’s hope that passes by morning. I think I am scratching Potsdam from the itinerary because there is just too much left in Berlin I want to get to before I go to Dresden on Tuesday. I may sleep in a bit in the a.m. and head out to the Gemaldegalerie for some art when that opens at 10.

More randomness….

Paying for the trains/trams/buses/subways work on the honor system here. I bought a 5 day pass and validated it on the first day. I never show it or stamp it again, but may be subject to a search by undercover employees. If I don’t have a valid ticket, I get booted off the train and fined 40 euro on the spot. This seems to work here (and it did in Vienna, which did it the same way) but I can’t imagine this working at home. It’s just such a different mindset.

This is yet another city that has communication on their lines down pat. Just about every mode on every line I’ve taken has displays of time until the next train. And they’re always accurate. Now there’s a thought!

No comments: