Friday, February 26, 2010

Berlin - Day Two

Well day two is completed, and certainly it was an active day. Getting to bed early the night before certainly helped me get my day started around 8:00 in the morning, with a walk through the Tiegarten area of West Berlin toward the Victory statue on my way toward the Brandenburg Gate, the only original gate still in existence and a symbol of Cold War Berlin. This last remaining city gate was not originally set in place for the purpose of dividing West and East Berlin, but the Soviets staked their claim to it during the Cold War as a east/west divide and today it is as magnificent as I pictured it. My walk was about an hour and forty minutes or so in total, followed by a four-hour walking tour led by the "Original Berlin Walks" tour. It did cost me 12 Euros, or around $16. Though I could have gone on the free tour, this sounded more up my alley - no pub crawl advertised in their brochure, college history majors or masters students giving a big word of approval per testimonials, and the people they advertised seemed less "ra-ra" and more intrigued about the historical walking tour we were on. That is why I came to Berlin originally. It was splendid indeed. Arja led the tour, providing a dry sense of humor in conjunction with an astounding ability to tell an array of Germanic stories from Berlin meaning "swamp" to the 30 years war to France's Napoleon warring against the Germans and Russians to Prussian leader Otto Von Bismarck to the Third Reich overshooting itself and fighting a losing two-front war much like WW1 Germany to the reparations leading to Hitler to Cold War Berlin and the fortress that was the Berlin Wall to the current state of German affairs where Berlin is basically bankrupt and the government spends too much money without having the resources to do so. Sounds like California and San Francisco to a T.

The remnants of the wall are tall, probably about 12-18 feet per cement slab. In 1961, after a total of 55,000 Soviet soldiers laid barbwire dividing Berlin in one night - yes, one night -, the Berlin Wall was built. Walking around and seeing pictures as well as the slabs themselves, it was interesting to note that it was the West Berliners considered free. However, they were the folks locked inside a small area because Berlin itself was smack in the middle of East Germany. For over a year, the Americans kept the West Berlin locals alive with food drops via the Berlin Airlift during Marshall Plan era economics. Funny to hear about the crazy escape attempts to West Berlin considering they were the ones in a much smaller, confined physical space. Of course after seeing the area's of Hitler's bunker where he committed suicide and noticing the so-called "elite" complex where Soviet-supported diplomats stayed, it certainly made you wonder what the common-folk dwellings looked like. Arja, our tour guide, made note of the substandard quality of East German living compared to those in the West. She noted that the East is where the young people are, and I asked her why that was given that West Berlin is certainly a pleasant place to live given my hotel's proximity and my extensive walking through the region. She was matter-of-fact, stating "the cost." That is the place where the new development is, where the cost was half the price (though closing slowly) and West Berlin, like a Pacific Heights or Russian Hill or even a Marina District in San Francisco, was an expensive, developed area.

There is so much history to Berlin that it is hard to even start describing it. My walk through the Topography of Terror did not even get finished because the exhibit was so detailed and extensive in its description of the development of the Gestapo and SS during Hitler's reign. The names of Himmler and Goebbel became more clear and the power Hitler gave these men was astounding. Learning about the suicides of Hitler, Eva Brown, Goebbel and his six children along with his wife gave me chills down my spine. He didn't want his children growing up in a world without Hitler and the Germans ruling it? I know it is deeper than just that, but it certainly explained the largest chunk of it as it is usually described - just appalling. The descriptions of political prisoners captured and sent to detention in concentration camps followed by the Jews being executed at will while also being forced to assist the German war machine during WW2 left me not so much shaken since I knew a lot of this information before but more interested in grasping more detail. Certainly the additional museums and reading that I'll engage in will help this cause hopefully.

During my walking tour of the various Berlin sites, I was able to also meet a couple from the UK who's names are Derry and Jane. Both were at least 50 or a bit over with experience traveling and a nice, kind sense of humor and conversation to boot. We talked about adventures in Europe, through the U.S. desert, and the current state of UK political affairs. He has lived in London for 21 years and has grown slowly tired of the city due to the what he calls the increasing "nanny-state" that is becoming the UK. Sound familiar? Sure does to me, given many Americans think Obama or the U.S. Senate will have answers to everything now that he is president and all. I got sucked into it too, and of course like 98% of politicians, little seems to get done. But so it goes. Point it, they were a lovely pair and I have a new friend in London to stay with if I need to lay my head down in the city for a few nights. Both Derry and Jane as well as another couple who went by Ed and Johanna, a Norwegian and a Brit who were about my age or slightly older, enjoyed hearing about my journey from California to Prague to Berlin. I did not give all specifics because I didn't want to bore them or myself, but they thought it was pretty cool to go to Europe in the winter to check out some great cities - especially alone. Ed and Johanna seemed a bit shocked by it though they thought it was awesome, but my man Derry understood very well indeed. He in fact had never been to Prague and in fact I don't think any of the four individuals have. Certainly not for almost 7 weeks.

All in all, it was a grand day to be a tourist. It was around 50 degrees Farenheit and very comfortable, my feet were a bit tired after spending over 9 hours on them walking on the flat and at times snow-slicked surfaces of Berlin, and I took the S-Bahn metro back to my hotel in West Berlin in a neighborhood away from the heavy tourist crowd where it is quiet and the local Thai restaurant proved once again that Berlin has a great array of fantastic restaurants it seems that hit my stomach just right. I certainly must say the sweet Thai waitress did not joke around after I told her to make my spicy dish very spicy. It was spicy, my lips burned, my nose ran, and it was damn delightful. And in addition, the lovely 27-30 year old woman down at the hotel reception desk provided me with the International Herald Tribune free-of-charge though I was going to pay her the 3 Euros newsstand rate. It was yesterday's paper, and she said I could take it to the restaurant but just to bring it back once I'm done. I thought, "Hey, I'm in and you kick ass." Boy what a little thing like that can do to just make a man a little more chipper about his meal. I was dying for a little news to read during my meal, and there is nothing quite like a damn fine meal served by a sweet waitress in a neighborhood-type environment while reading about Toyota's recent screw-ups, General Robert Gates ripping the NATO allies for an increasing lack of military support, Europe still reeling from the recession with a whole hell of a lot of help from the Greeks and Spanish, a proposed nuclear waste site in Assco (spelling?), Spain where the population is 1,600 and the country unemployment rate is at 20%, the French airline workers striking again (what else is freakin' new?), and the recent increasing strength of the U.S. dollar during a time when Americans are increasingly less confident with unemployment rates still very high while the Europeans are just that much worse off.

Whether or not Europe is worse off than the U.S. these days, Berlin is off to an awesome start and now I will be reading the Berlin wikipedia page again, reading about the ten best Berlin Cold War and Third Reich books (separate categories of course), along with a little and some CNN and BBC television. Tomorrow is a new day.

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