1. Would our two hour nap impact our night of sleep, or would we be up all night in jet-lag hell.
2. Would we remember any of the German we had learned while we were stationed here 15 years ago.
The answers are ‘no’ and ‘hell no!’
Good news on the jet lag…while I got up at 1am for about a half hour, the other two members of the family were asleep and snoring loudly. I was up at 8am, showered, and then took a straw poll of who wanted to get up with me and was voted down. I wandered outside to check the weather and it is a glorious 65 degrees (unsure of the ‘celsius’ reading) and gorgeous. I explore and almost end up getting killed on my first full day in the big city. It turns out that the sidewalk is divided into two separate and distinct parts, delineated by differing colors of rock, grey and red. I was wandering aimlessly, tacking back and forth on the sidewalk paying absolutely NO attention to what was going on around me when there was a loud screech of tires and some German cursing.1 Turns out I was walking in the ‘bike lane,’ aka ‘the lane of death for pedestrians.’ The bikers, since they have their own lane, are not inclined to yield to pedestrians and thus we are fair game. Cars, in the same fashion, are apparently able to smack some bikers should they leave their lanes. Circle of life and a good lesson learned.
Back to the hotel at 9am, tried to wake everyone up and was asked, loudly, to leave the room. So more walking in the brisk wind and at 9:30 I was back and FINALLY able to roust the two laziest people in the world out of bed. Part of the deal for Jan to get up was that I had to agree to pay the one euro per pod for the espresso maker in the room. Which I did. And then had to google ‘how the hell does an espresso machine work’ to get the darn thing going, but we got it working, had a thimble full of caffeine and by the crack of 10:30 we were ready to explore.
First stop? Bakery.
And a side note: We love eating over here. Matter of fact, this is as much a food tour as it is a looking at historical stuff and get smarter tour. We have a list of food that we want to get while we are here and it is long. It starts with brotchen, bread and pastries for breakfast. This morning we score some croissants, brotchen, and turkey, salami and cheese sandwiches. Ate on a bench watching the people go by.
Second stop? The visitors center where we get us a 48 hour pass to ride the mass transportation systems (busses and trains) in the city so that when we head out exploring we have a way back home. Then we head off on our walking tour of the city. We wander across central Berlin with our tourist book and our map proudly displayed in our hands. We are TOURISTS DAMMIT and we are going to OWN THIS! We read, out loud the information about the historic sights and try not to get run over by the killer bikers.
And we dig this place–Berlin is most excellent. The thing we notice first is it really, really big. Like five million plus people all going in the opposite direction in which we are traveling. We walked for hours and covered a minuscule part of the town while simultaneously wearing ourselves out, BUT we found that the trains run everywhere, are super clean and easy to use. Go up stairs for the S Bahn (we remember them as ’surface’ or above ground), or downstairs for the U Bahn (underground). The signs at each stop clearly show the next train, the final destination and, and often, as an added bonus, show the next couple of stations to help you get your bearings. On the train you go, head off in hopefully the next direction, and a gentle voice tells you the name of the next stop.
It would be better if they told us the stops in both German and English. As mentioned above, Jan and I lived in Germany from 2001-2004 and while we weren’t fluent in German (think a toddler screaming out random words at inappropriate times), we were able to walk into a hotel or restaurant and survive without too much embarrassment. Not anymore. At each place we have gone, the person behind the counter has greeted us in German and asked us (presumably) what we want. To which they are met with a look on all of our faces that can be best described as the ’stunned heifer’ stare. They quickly switch to English (if they can) or speak very, very slowly. We pull out our German phrase book and start to do some serious cramming.
None of that stops us from enjoying our day. Other than the train stops, everything else we see is either clearly spelled out in English, or easy enough to figure out.
The second thing we notice is that we can see a lot of history in a short period of time. We start at the Reichstag (from late 1800s) and over the next five and a half hours work our way east across the city to Alexanderplatz. Along the way we see the Brandenburg Gate (last remaining gate from the old city wall), go through the memorial to the murdered Jews of Europe, Checkpoint Charlie, shop along Friedrichstrasse, head to Alexanderplatz to see the big TV tower and go through the DDR museum (documents life for East Germans behind the wall). We also manage to squeeze in a quick lunch at an imbiss where I check ‘donor kebab’2 off our list of vacation food. Back to the hotel, we find a restaurant close by, eat a salad to (unsuccessfully) offset the calories from the doner kebab.
Day two of our Berlin adventures starts much like the first, except worse. Because our jet lag has rose up and punched us all in the face. While we all slept soundly our first night in the city, that was due to the utter exhaustion we felt from our trip over. The second night was filled with all three of us tossing and turning until 6am at which point we fell into deep sleep. I was up at 8am and made enough noise to get everyone up by 9am. Showers and we were again out at the crack of 10:30. Breakfast rolls, hop onto the S bahn and head over to my new favorite place in the entire world: Museum Island.
Yes–it is exactly what it sounds like–an island that is literally filled with museums. For 18 Euro (or about $20) you can get a ticket to see any of a number of museums both on and off the island. As an added bonus, children under 18 are free!
From the station it is a short five minute walk and we are surrounded by impressive buildings that scream ‘chock full of knowledge’ or ‘chock full of misery’ depending on if you like museums or not. And in this regard I am out numbered 2-1. We agree that we can see one museum today and I’ve picked the Pergamon Museum. Why, asks AJ?
To answer the question we need to head back to 2003-2004 when I was sitting in a small building just of a runway on Baghdad International Airport. Our chaplain waltzed into the office and mentioned that the ruins of Babylon were not too far from Baghdad and we should go see them. Why the hell not? I mean other that IEDs, people that aren’t fond of us, etc. Those minor annoyances aside, we head down to the ruins of Babylon which look like a lot of dirt. There was a tall pile of dirt that was reported to be the Tower of Babel. There were passages in the dirt that were part of Babylon. And big rocks on top of piles of dirt. There was an Iraqi man who gave us a nickel tour and said that this was once one of the seven wonders of the world, that there was a huge, majestic wall and now it is gone. Where we ask? A museum in Germany. Berlin, specifically. But he did have a replica blue tile with a lion on it that he could sell for a small price, would I like one of those? Of course I would, and while buying some real fake tiles from Iraq, I made a mental note to myself to go see the gate if at all possible.
Fast forward to June 2019 and we are in the Pergamon Museum where you walk up a narrow set of stairs to the second floor and BAM! There is the Ishtar Gate, brought all the way from Iraq, on display for all to see. In Europe. Which is again, very weird. But quite beautiful. There was more stuff from long ago taken from other countries on display as well with an audio guide that explained about all the ancient stuff taken from other countries that kept AJ happy.
After an hour and a half in the museum we went back out to explore the city and take a boat tour along the Spree river. Which reminded us of our boat tour of the Chicago river. Both were very similar in that they took place on a boat, but Chicago had really big buildings and Berlin does not. Both have a mixture of old and new buildings, and I was surprised at the number of new buildings along the river in Berlin, then was reminded that there was just a bit of damage from WWII.
Cruise done we head back to the room to relax and NOT NAP! We have a 5:30 reservation at a restaurant so we can check off another of the food items of the list–schnitzel. The name of the restaurant is Schnitzelei which gives the impression that they should know how to make some thinly fried meat. It is located in a secluded alley between two streets and we sat outside to watch the world walk by.
Back to the hotel to watch the ladies from USA whup up on the ladies from France and send messages to our friends in France encouraging them to keep trying. Maybe someday. Their replies we’re not fit to print. Tomorrow we head south to Munich!
1Totally remembered those words.
2A donor kebab, for those of you who are not familiar, is the ultimate in mystery meat meal and a close relative to the gyro in the good old USofA. Meat is stacked vertically on a spit (I’m not sure what animal this came from, so a generic ‘meat’ is probably the best descriptor), and then rotated slowly next to heat, cooking the food. The kebab dude takes a very sharp knife and slices down the meat pile, shaving off pieces and then builds the sandwich. Take a piece of flat bread, slice in half, but not all the way through, and open. Spread generous amounts of cucumber sauce on both sides of bread. Add layer of meat, generous amounts of lettuce, onions, cabbage, cucumbers and tomatoes. Then an additional layer of meat on top. Wrap in foil. Big as my head. Total cost? Five Euros. Fed both Jan and I and, as an added bonus, we tasted it for a good 8-10 hours.