16 April 2008

Our trip to Berlin - Christmas 07

20 Dez 07

Oy. Well, we're in Germany at least.

We were boarding our flight to JFK when the pilot kicked everyone off because the ATC in New York said they were too busy, so we had a 2-hour delay. So everyone from the flight (all 13 rows) stood en queue to get rebooked onto new flights. The amazing gate attendant, Joe, tried to get us routed through anywhere – Atlanta, Cincinnati, Chicago – to Berlin. He found us one flight that went from RDU to ATL then Manchester, UK, then Paris, then Berlin, and a different one through Gatwick. He was mostly trying to get us to Europe at all. Then he got us on a flight to Frankfurt via Cincinnati, from where we were responsible for our own transit. And, of course, because it was air traffic's fault, not weather or the airline, we got to foot the bill for the shiny ICE from Frankfurt to Leipzig to Berlin, to the tune of E186. Thanks, Ben's mom's Christmas money! It's more expensive, but it's 3 hours faster than the IC and a hell of a lot faster than IR would be, so wev.

I have unsuccessfully tried to connect to the ICE wireless net, probably because it isn't available on this line. Alas. No internet for me.

I really want to take a shower.

Got to the hotel around 5:30. We walked from Hauptbahnhof. It was cold & dark, and it was about a km. I'd napped a bit on the train, so I was ready to keep going, but Ben was knackered, so he took a nap while I showered, so we headed out to dinner & a Christmas market.

Dinner was at a placed called Mirchi that Ben found in the guide book. It's an Indonesian
fusion place, and I had a cheese dish that was a lot like paneer makhani, while Ben had shrimp (unsurprisingly.) After that, we took the U-bahn down to the Gendarmenmarkt to visit the Christmas market there. It cost a Euro to get in, but it was worth it. Lots of vendors, mostly selling roasted nuts, sausage, baked goods, and warm (alcoholic) beverages. I got a couple small stone elephants (lapis & 'speckstein'), and we bought Lebkuchen. Kein Weihnacht ohne Lebkuchen! And Glühwein, of course.

We were cold & tired, so we headed back around 9 to get some Zs.

21 Dez

Up bright & early (well, dark & foggy) to get a guided tour that met on the other side of town. Stopped at a coffee shop just across the street to get breakfast & caffeine before hopping on the train.

The guided tour was fascinating. Our guide was an expat Kiwi who married an East German woman after he moved to Berlin 5 years ago. He was as keen on Cold War-era Berlin history as I am, except that he actually majored in it at university. Learned quite a bit, really. Saw a lot of things I would have missed otherwise because they weren't on my radar. 90% of eastern Berlin was destroyed in the war, and 60% of western.

It ended at the Reichstag, which is now going by Bundestag to project a friendly image, and you can go up to the observation platform, so we queued up – Kontrolle and metal detector when you go in, and they only allow so many people to be going through at one time, so you get to wait outside. In summer, apparently, the line can be 3 hours long. (Ben notes that the government is having difficulty getting people to call it the Bundestag, as all the maps still label it Reichstag.) In, up a lift, and back outside to the roof. You have a great vantage point of the city, and the glass dome in the center looks down on the parliamentary chambers (not in session over the holidays.) There's also an overpriced upscale cafe on the roof (E14,50 salad.) Despite the fact that all I'd had to eat since 9 am was yogurt & granola and a muffin, it was 3:30, and I was half frozen, I had no desire to pay that much for food, so we walked more. The tour guide had said there was a cafe across the street, so we started over there. The menu posted in the window didn't look too veggie friendly, so we went back to the Brandenburger Tor area to poke our heads into the bank with the Frank Gehry sculpture of a whale. It was as weird as it sounds. We'd decided to see if we could get tickets to Figaro, so we were going to walk in the direction of the opera house anyway, and look for food along the way. We stopped at a cafe/konditorei that served drinking chocolate (yum.) I got one of those, and Ben got a Berliner Weisse mit Schuss (rot). Actually wasn't that bad. For food, Ben tried the Currywurst mit Pommes (he says he liked it, and the fries were top notch), and I got a gnocchi with spinach in gorgonzola sauce, also quite tasty. Then off to the Staatsoper (which was bombed twice in WW2, once in 1941, rebuilt, then bombed again), where we got tickets for Figaro then wandered around the Christmas market am Opernpalais until it was time to get seated for the show. Saw a bunch of cool things, including an oil lamp that looked like a tree and if it wouldn't become so many shards of glass in our luggage would be coming home with us, but only bought Glühwein (returned the cup, wasn't that interesting), roasted nuts, and some hard candies. I will buy roasted chestnuts at a market before we leave. (Europe was unaffected by the chestnut blight, so they are far more plentiful.)

We were vaguely underdressed for the opera, but we had the very back row in the top level, so it wasn't like we were front center parkett or anything. Friedrich der Grosse commissioned the Staatsoper to give everyone the chance to see the opera, not just the rich, so I didn't feel too badly, since surely peasants in 1815 were far less well-dressed than I. The building was really pretty and had some good acoustics. The opera was fun, too. They had supertitles in German. I followed them (mostly – they used a fair bit of archaic language), and Ben says he switched between trying to read and trying to follow the Italian. It was funny, and there was a happy ending. Alles Gute!

Then walking back to the U-bahn station, stopping to take pictures of a Bugatti in a Bentley/Bugatti dealer window, and a laser-eyed manekineko. Back to the hotel, download pictures, and wrote this. Now to sleep. Tomorrow, the zoo.

22 Dez

Another long day, but not as long as yesterday by far.

Up, dressed, off to the Zoo. Bought a combination ticket for the Zoo & Aquarium, and by the time we were done at the Zoo, going inside to the Aquarium was feeling like a great idea. Still cold & cloudy. A lot of the animals were hiding inside to keep warm, but Knut was outside enjoying the cold, swimming around in his little river thing and drawing a crowd. We got some good pictures of Cute Knut, who's about a year old now. There was also a baby pygmy chimp (the first ever at the Zoo, according to a man watching them), a baby oran or two, and a pair of lion cubs. Then we went to the Aquarium, which was blessedly inside, and contained several really creepy spiders.

Went over to the Christmas Market at the Gedächtniskirche. Got some Glühwein, roasted chestnuts (all for me, Ben didn't like them), and a couple trinkety things, then went down to the KaDeWe. I learned about it in German class in high school: it's the largest department store on the continent (not all of Europe; I think Harrod's is bigger), and the communist government upheld it as a symbol of capitalist decadence and whatnot, but when the wall came down, that's where the Ossis headed first.

KaDeWe is huge, and it was full of people doing holiday shopping, unsurprisingly. I looked at the women's fashion, saw a few cute things that I didn't want to pay ludicrous amounts of money for (like E400 for a sweater) and mostly laughed. But there were some cute German shoes for not-unreasonable prices, if I needed more shoes. Then we went to the Kultur floor, bought some CDs for us & friends, perused books, bought nice chocolate, and lost my hat. I also discovered my coat is ripping at the seam in the lining. So I was unhappy. Then we went back to the Christmas Market, where I bought a new hat & we had more Glühwein and some food, then went back to the hotel, where we died. I also discovered that the power converter and the MacBook charger are not friends. Unfortunately, indeed.

23 Dez

The MacBook and the power converter seem to have a tenuous relationship: the converter starts overheating after about half an hour of charge time. But it works, so...

Today we walked along part of the wall. The Wall Memorial was closed for the holiday, so we might go back on Wednesday when it'll be open again. We were able to see part of the death strip, however, because it's just an open space.

After that, we took the U down to Alexanderplatz (Alex to locals), and stood in line for about an hour to go up the Fernsehturm, which has a very fast lift – 6 m/s, so you go up about 250 m in less than a minute. Nice air pressure changes. The viewing platform offers a 360º view of the city, and on a clear day, I imagine you can see all the things depicted in the photographs stationed throughout. Today it was sunny but hazy, so we could see a few hundred meters away, but not much further.

Then back down, back to the train station for some lunch, and hiking over to the Marienkirche, which was not allowing entry despite there not being a sign. So we looked at the fountain of Neptune and walked over to the Berliner Dom. We stopped at the Ampelmännchen shop and picked up some Ampelmann kitsch. Ostalgie is the best. Then the Dom: 5E entry, but the daily operation fee for the church is 10,500E, so they need all the loot they can get. Inside is very lavish and not particularly in the non-ornate style of Lutherans. But it's very lovely, and they finished the parish church section in 1989. Then you can hike up a whole bunch of stairs and walk around the cupola on the roof. It also offers lovely views, but it had become nearly dark by the time we went up, and it was cloudy besides. So back down, then further down, into the crypt of the Hohenzollern dynasty. Some ornate sarcophagi, some fairly simple tin boxes. Then to get out, you have to go through the gift shop. Quelle surprise. Ben bought a build-your-own paper model of the Dom. It looks hard. I got a bookmark of the Brandenburg Gate with what looks like an 1800s painting on it.

Then we went to the Luciamarket at the Kulturbrauerei over in Prenzlauer Berg (the low-rent district.) Not a whole lot to buy, and the Glühwein mugs weren't terribly exciting, so I didn't come back with one. We did get some Fladenbrot with cheese, tomatoes, cucumbers, cabbage, & garlic sauce, then some potato pancakes with apple sauce, before heading back. It's the first night so far we've been back before 10 pm, and I'm looking forward to a whole lot of sleep tonight.

24 Dez

A lot of things were closed today. Museums are often closed on Mondays, and Christmas Eve is a public holiday. So we went down to see if the Stasi archive exhibit was open, or the Topography of Terror, an outdoor exhibit on the SS & Gestapo. Both were closed, but the Topography is scheduled to be open tomorrow & Wednesday, so we'll try to work it in then. The Stasi archive is closed on holidays, which the 25th and 26th usually are, but since we'll be in the area, we'll stop by again. Then we went down to the Checkpoint Charlie area, where things were bustling. If you take your passport, you can pay to get it stamped with original border crossing stamps. Communist kitsch is profitable; I presume capitalist swine are delighting in the irony. We opted not to go into the museum at Checkpoint Charlie, then wandered a bit and then over to Potsdamer Platz, which was rubble in 1945, a no-man's-land until 1990, and now is a mass of skyscrapers. There were 2 Christmas markets, both ghost towns. The one on Potsdamer Platz had a snow tube slide, which Ben went down. Then we went over to the Sony Center, and it was a lot smaller and almost entirely closed, but there was a Lego/Duplo Christmas tree & Santa. We wandered around a little more, making a detour back to the KaDeWe to see if they had found my hat. No luck; someone now has a nice hand-knitted ski hat. I hope they enjoy it, fucker.

Loitered a bit, got donuts at the Dunkin Donuts (I had a donut named after one of the Wise Guys, Caspar. It had nut-nougat filling and a chocolate tree on top. They should sell those in the States.), wandered around a bit more, got dinner at a restaurant that was actually open and serving real food (Josty im Sony Center), and decided to come back. There's an organ concert at the Gedächtniskirche, but I guess we're not going, because Ben's getting naked to take his shower, and I've left the decision up to him, since he's keen on organ stuff. So we're channel surfing on wacky German Christmas programming. We saw the Simpsons holiday special, but mostly since we've been surfing. Fun and excitement. Ben was entranced by Germany's funniest home videos for a while. I made him change it. Then there was a weird animal video show on the next channel. If we're home and bored tomorrow night, we can watch Harry Potter at 8:15 on ZDF. We'll see.

25 Dez

Frohes Fest! I was concerned we wouldn't find anything open today, it being a holiday, but the web said that the city museums were open, so we spent the day in the SMB, the Pergamon and the Bode. The Pergamon has a lot of Mediterranean and Middle Eastern art, including a collection of Islamic art and a temporary exhibit of the Prussian expedition to Egypt, sponsored by Kaiser Wilhelm and company. The Bode was formerly known as the König Friedrich Museum (after the Great Elector) then renamed. All the museums took a hit in the war, and presumably the small, portable things were moved to safe storage places.

So when the museums closed at 6, we sought some dinner. A variety of places were open on Oranienburger Str, including a couple Indian joints and a Jewish restaurant, but we ate at a place called Oranium, where they had some awesome sounding pasta.

Since it's cold and dark, and probably not a whole lot going on tonight, we came home and are watching Harry Potter. Whee.

26 Dez

Started the day at the Wall Memorial and archive, which is free, and you can overlook the site of the Wall and a preserved death strip (presumably without the land mines). Then we tried to go to the Stasi Archive again, and it was still closed for the holiday. Damn. So then a walk over to the Topography of Terror, an exhibit about the Gestapo and SS, and their prison which had been on that site. The building started life as a hotel, then became a school, then the Nazis took it over. Then the Soviets demolished it, and digging around there (to expand the wall?) uncovered the basement and its cells. Then it was turned into a memorial for the people who were tortured and murdered there or sent to KZ to die.

Freezing cold, we walked over to Potsdamer Platz to use the internet and eat lunch at Dunkin Donuts. Then we took the U2 out to Sophie Charlotte Platz and walked up to the castle. There's no photography allowed inside, so we bought a book. The new wing of the castle is a largely Baroque & Rococo design, with a hall modeled on the Hall of Mirrors at Versailles. Much of the furnishings in the castle are not the originals, and because of bomb damage, it had to be reconstructed from the ground up. They used some inventory records and the like to determine what had been in the house. Ostentatious, gaudy, and pretty. Those Hohenzollerns had tons of loot.

Then the Christmas Market at Charlottenburg, reputedly the first one there for a really long time. Got some food, hot drinks, and wandered around in the cold. Then because it was only 6 something, and too early to return to the hotel, we walked up the Ku'damm a bit and window-shopped to the U-bahn station. A sign with advertisements for real estate informed us that we could buy about 21,000 sq ft apartment house for 3 million Euro. It was in a good location, in a historic building, and presumably you could make your 3 million Euro back, but ...

So, tomorrow we have to go home again. Blah. Don't wanna.

Ben commented a few times that only crazy Germans would come up with the idea of standing around outside, drinking hot beverages and eating horribly unhealthy food in the middle of winter. But they've got it right, man. Christmas in Germany is about booze and lights and family, and buying stuff of course, and some Jesus whatnot, but none of that ridiculous “War on Christmas” nonsense the Ridiculous Right came up with. But mostly the booze and cakes. Yum.

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