Bottom line: I love Berlin. Or maybe it’s just Europe. Or maybe it’s just not-Russia. Even though spending in the Euro zone is excruciating painful when a simple bottled water at 1,50 EUR really means 2+ American buckeroo’s, I’ve come back to the (more) capitalist system with a new (and happy) acceptance of inflated prices that (more than) cover the little Western concept called “service with a smile.”

AirBerlin gets thumbs up. Offered a complimentary mint with German- and Russian-language print media (LOOK! It’s a free press!) upon boarding (I took the only in-Russian newspaper, marking me, I think, as someone [a Russian] who would be surprised to read about new, non-censored ideas), I took my emergency-row seat. Ahh, leg room. And an empty seat between me and my row-partner.

Unfortuantely, it’s too easy, especially with a significant portion of German blood in your veins (I think I’m more than half German with Austrian), to cheerfully greet someone “Hallo!” and get a paragraph-long answer back, also in German, before it makes sense to give the guileful smile and shrug of the shoulders, “English?” To this (with one exception at the grocery store), I’ve been well taken care of 1) in my language and 2) with a genuine smile. Yeah, definitely not Russia.

So after getting my Coke and coffee to drink, the pair of flight attendants remembered that that one spoke English (along with about another half of the plane, but I felt special. . .). So great.

As I believe I’ve described with my other ventures into the English-speaking world, switching out of Russian mode takes time. Best example: in receiving said complimentary beverages, I wished to express my gratitude. In Russian, this is done with the word “Spasibo,” in German, “Danke,” and in English, “Thank you.” Not really sure about which language I was starting or ending in, while reaching up for my hot drink, I began to say “Spank you” to the young, blonde German flight attendant wearing leather gloves she wore for stowing luggage. I muttered the rest of the phrase into my shoulder as I ceased eye contact. Awkward. The “art of crossing cultures,” indeed.

An uneventful two and a half hours later, we taxied into an equally mild snowstorm at Berlin Tegel as the one we had left behind in Moscow Domededovo. Waited about two minutes (as opposed to my first two hours in Russia) for my passport visa stamp, got my luggage, found a (free) walk-up internet station to check the hostel address, found the clearly labeled “Tegel-center” bus, paid my whopping 2,10 EUR (about 3 bucks per bus or city-train ride. . . that was my one and only to-date), and pulled up a stone’s throw away (well, a stone’s throw over the big train station) from my hostel.

Berlin Meininger gets major thumbs up. I was excited for another hostel stay after my experience at the small, cozy, socially warm, five-dollar-a-night Golden Gobi in Ulan Baatar. But I had no idea.

For 10 euros a night (plus 4 for breakfast), I got a beautiful room, private bathroom, free WiFi in the lobby, a hotel bar, pool (as in billiards… the rooftop terrace is only open during summer), kitchen area, all in really, really top-notch style, right next door to my train station of departure and with views out on the federal parliament building and TV tower building. Basically, this was heaven: after a fun week of on-my-own city apartment life in Moscow, this was yet another, classy step up out of Soviet 1960s housing.

Not wasting anytime unpacking or lazing around, I got to work with the maps, brochures and (get this) free Europe travel book someone had left at the front counter (asking to email pics, &c. of where the book had got them. . . easy enough). I treated myself to an overpriced Beck beer from the lobby coolers as I drew out my map for the next day.

Der (newest) Berliner. Ok, obviously I’m not claiming I’m by any means a native, but I had a great day. Here’s the marchrut (I definitely benefited from Russian’s stealing of German words):

  • Early morning (9 a.m.) stroll across the Spree River and through the Kanzlerpark and surrounding area of the Haus der Kulturen der Welt (world . . .I’ll assume the average reader can figure out the simplest German cognates, so I’ll only translate the other ones). Nice photo ops with the beautiful landscaping work and modern architecture. I appreciated both of those throughout the city.

  • Early arrival (as directed in travel book) at the Reichstaggebäude (Parliament bldg). Free entrance, and free audio guide about the architecture (the best of the classical old and the green and functional new), government (the fresh and true scent of democracy at last), and city-scape (high vantage point + short buldings = success; cloudy day = fail) around the spiral rampway up and down the new steel-and-glass dome of the building, equipped with a natural lighting mirror/shade/window system and solar electricity panels. Go Germany.

  • Walk along the marked-by-cobblestones line of the Berlin Wall to Brandenburg Gate, one of many gates in the wall around historical Berlin and a postwar symbol of reunited Germany. No shivers walking back across the border into the ex-Soviet bloc. . . must mean Russia’s outta here for good. Snap photos:

  • [Expletive here.] They’re following me: I begin to pass stand after stand of old Soviet hats, fake Russian women’s furs, Russian militia fur hats, and, eerily enough, gas masks.
  • Ripped off a few cents by a gypsy. ––Do you speak English? ––Yes. ––[Holds out a card with a story about how she had to leave Bosnia and needed money.] ––[Shuffle around in pockets for a few cents.] ––[Runs off with a skip in her step.] . . .After seeing them all over the city and answering the Russian “nyet” to their “English? Deutsch?” question, my plan was to ask the next one where she was from, but in Bosnian (a sure-fire scam-detector, made possible by Prof. Kevin Moss’ 500 Intro to Bosnian-Serbian-Croatian last spring). Didn’t see another one after the thought occurred to me. Apparently they go inside when it gets cold.
  • Holocaust memorial (officially, “The Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe”). Next to the Brandenburg Gate, a square is filled to all four streets with a grid of coffin-proportion black stelae blocks of varying height from a meter or two to probably 10m high. Underground, there’s a beautiful and impressing holocaust museum/education center with timelines, photographs, audio/video stories, and walk-up computer testimony database of the Yad Vashem holocaust center in Israel. A fitting monument, and refreshed my knowledge of the WWII genocide.
  • Passed the site of Hitler’s wartime Berlin bunker.
  • Ran into (not literally) my first standing fragment of the Wall at Potsdamer Platz (square), and wandered around the Sony Center (shopping and entertainment in cool architecture) and southern edge of the Tiergarten (historically, royal hunting grounds, now the central city forest/park).

  • Walk through the open-air exhibit of the Topographie des Terrors, where a new exhibit building is under construction on the open square where the main bodies of the 1930s/40s German police state (Gestapo and SS) operated out of hotels, apartments, and bunkers.
  • Stop off at the famed, touristied-up “Checkpoint Charlie” (with the little stand and multi-lingual sign, “You are leaving the American sector”). Dodge more gypsies.

  • A bit of a walk southward to the Berlin Jewish Museum. Not until later did I realize that this was one of the “must do’s” of the city by some websites’ account; I had originally been attracted to it for the fact that I’ve discovered in Irkutsk that learning about the minorities of a place give a (more) interesting, less state-biased spin on history. I spent between an hour and a half and two hours reading/browsing the exhibits/learning plenty . . .and marveling at the museum’s sweet design: the new portion was a zig-zag line coming off the old building, intersected at multiple points by various “axes,” the interiors of which were empty and painted black and overlooking empty, enclosed courtyards, all symbolizing the dearth of Jews that resulted from the history of the people’s oppression. I was most impressed by the “Holocaust tower,” an oddly shaped, four-wall room/tower (24m high) un-climate-controlled, concrete, painted black, lit only by a small sliver of a high-up window in one corner, adorned only by a too-high ladder leading to the ceiling. Standing there created impression enough of the significance of the holocaust, and after visiting a fabulous museum of what the Shoah destroyed, it made the calamity all the more clear.

  • After a date with the guidebook and map in the museum cafe, I decided to try my luck even more south and out of central Mitte (the region more or less the center of the center) at a supposedly really good sausage/brat place, Curry 36. Apart from some great photos of less modern-built-up Berlin, I got, for less than 5 bucks, 1) a successful chance at ordering in German (go me. . . meaning I had to summon up how to say “2” and “with katchup” ––both successes), and 2) a really, really tasty paper bowl full of ketchup-drenched curry-wurst and french fries, which I ate with the volk (people) of the city at outdoor (in the cold) stand-up tables. So legit.

  • Now around 2 p.m., finding myself a long walk back to north of the Spree and my city-seeing appetite just about filled, I grabbed a cheap beer and pretzel at a grocery store for later, which secretly motivated me forward getting back to where I needed to be. I took another two-hour detour along Friedriechstraße and Unter den Linden, the shopping-district-ish streets, passed a book-burning memorial at Bebelplatz, crossed Museumsinsel (Museum island) adorned with beautiful gothic and classic-revival architecture, now museums, and reached Alexanderplatz, the main east-side square. Besides the McDonald’s cafe I stopped in to warm up to a one-euro cappucino, the only thing “exciting” there is the 368m Fernsehturm (TV tower), mocked in the guide book as Freudian, mocked by me as a pointless Soviet show of their ability to build the biggest (in Berlin, and, at some point, in Europe by some categorization). . . and most space-race-looking.

  • A very tired walk through the Hackescher Markt, past stylish but cheap cafés, the New Synagogue, and various grunge and underground art galleries/backyard displays.
  • Finally, around 4:30, I returned to the hostel after an exhausting, but truly great, educational, budget-efficient day.

I spent the evening catching up on my Internet intake, running to a supermarket for sandwich makings for dinner and the next day’s lunch, making a phone call to my excited-as-I-am “uncle” (my mom’s mom’s sister’s grandson) Dieter in Leipzig (“You come in Leipzig tomorrow–we wait!”), and turning in early for an undisturbed nights’ sleep.

Right. Now remembering: “undisturbed night’s.” My roommate’s (Chon from Hong Kong, but studying in Scotland) leaving at 7 a.m. didn’t even wake me up, but the fire alarm siren and evacuation announcement (in three languages) at 7:40 did. Go figure. . . waken in the wee hours of the morning to evacuate in West Berlin. . . . Once you’re in with the USSR, apparently, you’re never out. . .

Hostel breakfast gets all ten fingers, glass- and bowl-bottoms up. Best 4 euros (times two days) I’ve spent since I’ve been here. All-you-can-eat, which for me, included, a one-sided toasted (great bread!) cheese-and-salami (real salami!) sandwich, toast with cream cheese (real cream cheese!) and jelly (preservatives!), yogurt with fruit cocktail (canned and sugar added–lots of it!) and granola (ahhh, Vermont. . .), an apple (!), vitamin-enhanced (health!) orange juice, plus wafers with chocolate spread (mm!) and two cups of coffee to top it all off.

I was jumping with joy in my head all breakfasts-long (I had this meal both days) and for many hours afterwards. But I’m not the only one. Running to the bathroom passing the workers who were eating after clean-up, I saw one them looking really excited about an only half-finished canister of chocolate spread. I share her happiness in Western food.

All packed and ready to go, I’ve been chilling in the hostel bar with a buttered roll and canned cappuccino (I now remember why I don’t like those. . .) I snagged from breakfast catching up with all this blogging business, waiting for my train to Leipzig just after 5 p.m.

I might summon the energy to brave the snowfall and light winds (literally, it’s felt like summer; it’s supposed to get up to an even 0 deg. C. today) to walk to the Turkish market, but since I know that I’d end up taking the train at least one direction, that I’m highly averse to buying anything there, and that I’m very comfortable here, I’m guessing this last excursion won’t happen. Even though I checked out two hours ago, I’m not letting that stop me from getting the most for my Euro.

–Jan 9

  1. Patty Erusha says:

    Hi Casey,

    Glad to hear you are doing well and seeing the World. Love your commentary.

    God is with you!



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