Monday, September 20, 2010

Airlifted into Berlin

Well, we are ready to leave Venezia, we've had enough. I know this sounds blasphemous from the pen of someone who for the past four days has been loudly singing it's praises in this journal. I think it's that we've become a little more comfortable than we like on our trips. It's easy to succumb to the leisurely pace of life on the Lido, and things are beginning to become too familiar. We know the sequence of the boat stops without looking at the map.

We'll miss our traveling buddies (they have another week here) and look forward to Rich's emails to let us know how things are going in the old neighborhood. Meanwhile, we have a boat to catch.

Monday - September 20, 2010

As the four of us made our way along the Lepanto canal to the boat dock the people we passed had their serious Monday-morning faces on. We were all smiles as we bid farewell to Rich and Lu (they are heading to Vincenza) and caught the 9:11 Alilaguna boat to the airport. It was another beautiful clear day as we started the second part of our trip. The little airport is not really as small as it seemed when we arrived. It was crowded with sleep deprived north Americans somnambulating their way out of customs behind tour guides with little flags held aloft. I hope they enjoy their time here as much as we did. I lingered for a moment at the departure board checking out all the cool destinations that were a direct flight away from where we stood. We would jump on just about any of those listed, but our destination was Berlin and all the art and history we could pack into the next two weeks.

Not surprisingly, the flight was delayed leaving (remember - one runway - no taxiways), and they bus you to the plane that is on the other side of the airport just for fun. But hey, it was only a ninety minute direct flight and we had nowhere we had to be. Arriving in Berlin, the contrast was distinct. From a sunny, warm, terracotta terminal served by bubbling motorboats in Venice to a cloudy, cool steel and glass Flughafen Schönefeld in Berlin lined with Mercedes Benz taxis. We walked to the train terminal, bought tickets and caught the next local directly into the Zoologischer Garten where (after buying our Berlin Welcome cards) we switched to the U-bahn to Nollendorfplatz. Accustomed to the vowels of Italy those were more consonants then we had seen in a week.

We exited the subway station and turned around to look at it and make sure we could find it when we needed to. Not a problem. This is how you mark an underground station with a big, bold dome with a U on top. Bravo Berlin (and Paris and Washington you might make a note of how to do it right). It should have been simple to find our way to the hotel, but we were all turned around. A nice old(er) woman saw us pondering the map, approached us, and directed us down the correct street. This happened to us in Delft as well, and wondered (again) how many New Yorkers (or Bostonians) might do the same back home.
Speaking of home, ours for the next 4 days was the Hotel Sachsenhof a leisurely 3 minute walk from the station. It was neat, clean, and staffed by a very helpful English speaking woman who provided us with a better map and explained the transit system. Within an hour we were back on the U-bahn headed into the center of the city to have a look around and grab some dinner.

During the previous year we had read a good deal about the city and could hardly wait to walk it's streets. Travel to places that have only existed in your imagination is exciting. Berlin, for us has always been divided and mysterious. Two things surprised us on that early (18:30) Monday evening: we were used to the Italian latitude and up here it was getting dark early and quickly, and for a big city it seemed pretty empty, with few cars on the streets, and fewer pedestrians. With a population of over 3 million, we wondered where everyone was.

We walked along Friedrichstraße (that funny ß character is shorthand for ss) because one thing we did want to see was Checkpoint Charley the famous crossing point from west to east. But, first things first, we were hungry, and had no idea where or what to eat. While not known for it's German cuisine, Berlin does host a wide assortment of ethnic restaurants and all we had to do was pick one.
We decided on the cha cha Positive Eating Thai Street Kitchen (long name - great food). We noted a difference in custom here, that when entering a restaurant (unless there is a sign) you don't wait to be seated, just pick your spot. We kind of like that.

After dinner we ambled down the street to the iconic spot that lives in the memory of anyone coming to age in the 1960's. I was 14 when the wall went up (almost overnight on the 13 of August 1961) and remember how the story of it dominated the news shows for weeks. To this day I struggle with the logic of trying to keep people from leaving. I can understand trying to keep people out, that seems natural, but trying to leave? I just don't get it.

At the corner of Friedrichstraße and Zimmerstraße is Checkpoint Charley with a life sized copy of the guard station and the famous sign telling the traveler that he was traversing sectors. On one side of the lighted sign above the guard shack is a picture of an American serviceman, the other side a picture of a Soviet soldier. There is no wall left here (other than a small slab at the museum), but plenty of development going on, with wooden safety walls covered with pictures and narratives of historical activities at the site. It was fascinating and deserved more attention than we were able to give that night.

We walked up to and then through the Brandenburg gate, which was well lit, clean, and smaller than we had imagined. Like the Eiffel tower in Paris this gate is the symbol for Berlin, and you see it everywhere. Most of the windows in the subway system are covered with clear plastic on which a stylized picture of the gate is embossed. What a great idea - any graffiti (and there was very little in the train cars) could be removed simply by peeling off the plastic sheet. Perhaps that is why everything looks so clean.

Our final walk for the evening was to the Potsdammer Platz U-bahn station. This plaza was once the "Times Square" of Berlin but was completely demolished during the bombing. Then the wall was built dissecting it and it remained empty for forty years. It is a few steps from Hitler's underground bunker, but we could not find any sign to mark the spot. We had read that the German government did not want to give anyone a chance to make a shrine out of it. Good thinking. Now the square is filled with large modern buildings and it is difficult to imagine that 20 years ago it was barren.

The U-bahn station has been left as it was in 1961, with brown, white and green tiles - what a stark contrast from what we had just left upstairs. And that is what we are left with after our first evening in Berlin - two sides of the same story. It is a large city yet feels small and comfortable, a modern, convenient city with touches of history undisturbed a few feet away. We wonder if four days will be enough.

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