Friday, September 24, 2010

Duds, Suds, and Truman Capote in Berlin

We awake to another sparkling day in Dresden. This is a great town. As Kat showers I have a little time to gaze out the window and reflect on how cruel and harsh life can be at times, and how fortunate we have been. We do not take it for granted (at least we don't think we do, but how do you know for sure?) Spread out beneath us (we're on the 9th floor), is a beautiful town that stood for centuries as a center for art, and romance, and faith, and in hours (February 13, 1945) American and English bombers dropped enough tonnage to level most of the city and kill 25,000 inhabitants. Just like that. Follow that with forty-five years of communist rule and it makes you scratch your head and wonder how this fate thing really works. My view focuses on a stylish bubbly drink sign on the side of a gray concrete building. Someone is making the best of their situation.

Friday - September 24, 2010

We are glad we made the decision to return to Berlin this morning. Two days earlier I had bemoaned the fact that we hadn't booked three days in advance for a lower price and a firm return time. Our clean laundry supply was on empty and the two things we KNEW we had to do in our last day in Berlin was laundry and visit the C'point Charlie museum. We hoped the 9:04 train would give us the time we needed.

We settled into a 6 person compartment and while Kat wrote postcards to the grand kids I wrote my journal and tried not to listen to the conversation going on between the other two passengers in the car. When you don't understand the language, all eavesdropping rules change. You have to learn what you can from body language, voice inflection, tempo and surreptitious glances. We couldn't tell if the younger of the two women (early 30s, comfortably and casually dressed, really reminded us of our daughter-in-law [I'll call her Kristin]) was all that interested in what the older (early 60s, classically spiffy, MIL material [who I'll call Marie - think Everyone Loves Raymond without any of the sharp edges]) was rattling on about. I can attest that the older woman had not stopped talking since the wheels started turning, and that the younger woman seemed very polite.

The scenery was so pleasant as we passed through villages and farmland. Most of the homes were single or duplexes of brick or stone construction and bright dark orange tile roofs. It seemed each had a small garden in the backyard, so common throughout Europe. The Saxon hills around Dresden were absolutely covered with vineyards causing me to wonder how they could charge $5.50 for a glass of the local Muller-Thurgau.

About an hour into our ride I pulled out our copy of "Stasiland" and it was the perfect ice breaker. We spent the next hour of our trip chatting with these two very nice people. We talked about our trip and impressions of Germany and Dresden, and how friendly and outgoing we had found the people. It was clear neither had had many interactions with Americans.

From Marie:

Had we gone to the museums? Of course, loved them, and particularly enjoyed the Vermeers.

Did you see the Sistine Madonna - world famous you know, just like the Mona Lisa?. We had and it was certainly world famous (lampshades to pillowcases) - no doubt about it. Kristin had not seen the painting so was a little lost in this good-natured kidding.

We laughed about the few words of German we knew and they were curious to learn which German words were in common use in America. We had trouble coming up with many. The best we could do were: "vunderbar", "Ach du lieber" "doppleganger" and "schadenfreude." It was this last word that triggered a subtle change in our conversation. Obviously of different generations, each told us a little about her life in the DDR.

Kristin was born and raised in the lake region north of Berlin (which is where she was headed to visit family) and was around 10 years old when the wall came down. It was a good life for a child, very safe and very secure. She dreamed of traveling to Rome or Florence but was allowed only Cuba or Leningrad. With reunification, her electrician father opened his own business but after a year of trying to make it work he had to "go to the west", leaving a depressed mother back in the "old east." She did not really remember the Stasi having a role in her young life. A university graduate and mother of two, she was now a QC manager for a small company in Dresden.

With Kristin interpreting for Marie who's English was only slightly better than our non-existent German, Marie said that in her life the DDR was "good for her family" and dismissed the Stasi as "not a real factor." She went on to say that her older daughter had to wait three years to be accepted into university, "probably because her father was Catholic." The more she talked the more emotional she became and Kristin was interpreting less and less for us and asking more and more questions for herself. We were lost, but it was clear that a generational transfer of information was going on. What a fascinating dynamic. At the end of their discussion the tears were drying and they were both smiling, and Kristin said to us: "Ah, you only remember the good."

It was sunny and warm when we arrived at the beautiful and now familiar Berlin Hauptbanhof, and bid a fond farewell to our travel mates. These brief encounters make traveling a wonderful experience. We headed to Rosenthaler Platz, where according to Rick, there was a do-it-yourself laundromat. Sure enough, within 100 feet of the U-bahn exit, kitty corner to the Circus Hostel (at Torstraße 115, 10119, Berlin), sits the Waschsalon, combination laundromat/gourmet coffee/smoothie/internet cafe, and it is a hoot. We rolled our suitcases into the place, unloaded our backpacks and felt right at home. The queen bee of the place is a Truman Capote doppelganger whose stock answer for every question (regardless of which language it is asked in) is "No problem. Give me some Euros." He reminded us of the Peter Lorre character in Casablanca. We opened our wallets to him, and within moments were seated outside with a coke and cappuccino while our clothes sloshed around inside. I have no idea how much we paid but within a couple of hours our clothes were clean and dry, our bags repacked and we were headed to the U-bahn. It was worth the price of admission to watch Truman (and his black velvet sport coated friend) work the hostel crowd who were just trying to figure out how much it was going to cost to wash their t-shirts and jeans.

Our hotel for the evening (Garni an der Weide - which we think means in the meadow) was out on the eastern edge of Berlin, deep within what used to be the DDR. About 20 minutes via the S-bahn it reminded us of staying in Fiesole outside Firenze (without the hills). We made the mistake of not having walking directions and marched down the main road in Mahlsdorf to the B-1 then a pretty good distance past the local Home Depot until we finally reached the meadow, a good 25 minute walk. It was warm, we were hot and sticky, and probably should have used the restrooms at the train station before we took the S-bahn. In any event by the time we arrived, we were both doing the gotta-go-dance. Although NO English was spoken during the check-in, our hostess could not have been nicer or more hospitable. She escorted us to our room, which was in another building, up some narrow stairs, and hung around to make sure we knew how everything worked. Behind her back we were rolling our eyes, biting our lips and making faces. We wanted to pay attention but ... our minds were on our bladders, and we were thinking that even at our ages how juvenile we sometimes act. The moment the door closed on our kindly inn-keeper's back, we mock-battled our way to the bathroom, each seeking supremacy. Suffice to say, relief was sweet. (Another clear act of immaturity was our tittering over the exit signs, and having to get a picture of one for our grandson Zach. It's at the bottom of this page Zachary, just for you!)

At a now leisurely pace we walked back to the S-bahn station in 12 minutes, through a very nice, beautifully maintained suburban neighborhood. We were glad we had decided to stay outside the city. We traversed the city east to west and came back above ground just outside the Kaiser Wilhelm church, old and new. The church had sustained major bomb damage during the war, and rather than rebuild it, the shell was left as a memorial. There are a number of displays inside, with pictures of the church after it was bombed. This one is captioned: "Insane politics led to the Second World War of 1939-1945. The merciless bombing raids on Berlin ensued ... direct hits and street fighting in the final days of hostilities left the once splendid house of God a sad ruin." It is jarring walking through the ruins of this large church right in the middle of this bustling city. Almost seventy years later we were concerned that we might be hit by falling debris (I've often felt that way even when entering modern churches).

Before heading to the now familiar SOUL (South-of-Under der Linden) section of the city we realized we hadn't really eaten anything all day. Sure we had some airport pastry in Dresden and drinks with Truman, but that didn't count. A quick stop at the tasteful Vapiano's Pasta and Pizza fit the bill nicely. I'm really starting to like this German beer. There was one more stop I wanted to make before heading to Charley's. On a previous walk I had noticed a little car rental place with a unique deal. Right next to the big air balloon, there was a lot filled with the pride of East German engineering, the (in)famous Trabant (Trabbi). Reminding me of the 1950 Crosley I owned for about 3 months (bought for $10 - sold for $25), the Trabbi was the DDR's version of the Volkswagen. It's little two-stroke engine (think lawn mower) could hurtle four passengers with luggage anywhere, as long as it stayed within the Eastern bloc. To quote an article on the car: "Looking like a cross between a golf cart and an amusement park bumper car, the Trabant -- a sluggish two-cylinder vehicle from East Germany -- was arguably the most venerated object of desire behind the Iron Curtain." Now you can rent one for 15 Euros for 20 minutes (if I read the sign right) or pick up a matchbox size model in any souvenir store. Ah, Capitalism.

We finally arrived at the Checkpoint Charley museum (Mauermuseum) and it defies easy description. It is not inexpensive (about $35 for the two of us), but worth every cent. You wind your way (thanks to colored footprints on the floor) through two or three connected buildings chock full of exhibits and artifacts related to the political intrigues that divided the city, the wall itself, and the ingenious ways people found to cross through, under, or over it. There are numerous audio/visual displays including a movie shot by two brothers flying an ultralight across to rescue a third. One room is dedicated to the US effort with a loop of President Reagan's historic speech. There are so many pictures, signs, stories, and exhibits than you couldn't absorb them all if you spent a week there, never mind just a few hours. The wall ran for 155 kms. (almost 100 miles) and circled west Berlin (except for the rivers which were marked and patrolled). It is an amazing, and tragic story and history. What an experience.

It was closing time and the only thing left for us was to head back east to the meadow, but we wanted to linger outside and read all the markers and postings that line the streets. We really didn't want to leave the area just yet.

To get back to the hotel, we had to switch trains from the U-bahn to the S-bahn in what had been the eastern sector and noticed something strange. Most of the stations had little guardpost like structures on the platform that were manned (womaned) by workers who's sole function (it seemed) was to announce the arrival and departure of the various metro trains. Since we were on a single line, we had to wonder if this was a holdover from the old days when everyone had a job (even if it was superfluous), and it just never went away. We did get a laugh out of a group of slightly tipsy young ladies (17-18 years old?) who were all gussied up and were heading home and in our direction. They were laughing and singing and clearly wanted their picture taken, so Kat indulged them. Their laughter was infectious.

At Mahlsdorf, we took the now familiar, and short, walk back to our hotel, and settled in for the night. It had been quite a day, quite a good day. From the somber train ladies to the sparkly train girls it would be a day to remember. Tomorrow it's on to a new airport, and a new set of experiences in the land of magic: Bavaria.

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