The four hours of sleep was not my idea.
Don’t get me wrong, I’ve got nothing against starting a trip nice and early – in fact, I prefer it, all other things being equal – but considering my average sleep plan here in Prague puts me in bed somewhere around 2 a.m., getting up for a 6:30 train to Berlin seemed, frankly, like a dumb idea.
I mean, a lot of the people on the trip weren’t feeling very well. It’s important to get plenty of sleep when you’re feeling sickness. Don’t want to strain your immune system, that’s what I told them.
Anyway, I rose from the proverbial dead at five a.m. with the usual mental channel-surfing that comes with the combination of little sleep and early awakening. Murray Head in the shower? Sure, why not? In fact, I’m pretty sure I even heard The Governator yell out “Get to deh choppah!” in my head at one point of the morning.
After meeting up with my band of pre-weary travelers, we trudged to the subway station and rode the three stops to Prague’s Central station, a couple hundred yards from Wenceslaus Square. Within twenty minutes, my girlfriend Molly was drifting off on the pillow she’d brought. Her roommate Megan and her next-door neighbor Jess were already KO’ed across the aisle from us; a couple rows up, Molly’s other roommate Maggie and Megan’s good friend Andy were talking quietly.
Secure in the knowledge I wouldn’t be sleeping anytime soon – I don’t sleep well on trains, too much going on outside the window – I pulled out my iPod and watched the sun rise to the sound of Sissy Spacek narrating the audiobook version of Carrie.
Well, to say I saw the sun rise is an exagguration. To be correct, I saw the landscape gradually lighten from black to gray as the majority of the sun’s photons falling on the area were sucked up by a thick layer of clouds. Instead, a steady piss of rain drizzled the landscape. Just like being home.
Two hours in, the train crossed over to Germany. Passports were produced, scrutinized, examined. Luckily, no one had forgotten his or hers on this particular trip.
Not that I’m implying that happened to one of the members of our group earlier on in the year.
About an hour after that, the train pulled into Dresden. Final stop.
Turns out there was a transit strike in Germany that weekend, and because of it train schedules were messed up all along the line that day.
As a result, we were forced to transfer onto a double-decker commuter train, along with approximately half the population of Dresden. Molly and I were forced into a seat across from a scruffy European man who read about advanced physics in German when he wasn’t making eyes at Molly…or me.
But thankfully, Herr Kreepmeister spoke pretty good English – so when an announcement came over the intercom, he was able to tell us it meant we’d be arriving in Leipzig very soon.
So, yes, we had to transfer again. This time, though, we caught a break – no two-level commuter train to Berlin, but an honest-to-God bullet train. I didn’t even know they had them in Germany, but here was an ebony-skinned rail rocket ready and waiting for us.
Inside, it looked like something from the Jetsons – or at least the 1964 World’s Fair. Rounded surfaces, wood everywhere, and a glass divider up front that let you see straight through the commodious cockpit (calling it anything else would be an insult) and out onto the tracks ahead.
On my very informal tour of the train, I noticed a panel displaying the speed. 199 km/h, it said. Damn.
At that speed, Berlin wasn’t very far at all. Upon arrival, we ascended the several flights through the open-air levels of stores and restaurants (apparently in Germany, train stations double as malls) and up to the top level – where the subway went perpendicular to the train tracks one hundred feet below.
Once we figured out the subway system, it was easy enough to take the S-line to Zoo Station, where we swapped to the U-line for two more stops to get to our hostel. It thrilled me (and me alone) to learn the “U2” train stops at Zoo Station.
“U2! Zoo Station! Now Achtung Baby makes sense!” I exclaimed excitedly to deaf ears. Feh. They were probably just too tired to appreciate it.
We swung by our hostel in West Berlin just long enough to check in before heading back to the Dunkin’ Donuts at Zoo Station to meet up with the tour guide for our 4 o’clock appointment – an absolutely free walking tour through the city.
The young man who met us at the donut shop was a twentysomething Australian named Jeremy, wearing a blue tracksuit jacket and several days of stubble. Jeremy led us to the main meeting point – a Starbucks just one hundred yards from the Brandenburg Gate – where we learned he would, in fact, be our tour guide for the afternoon.
At which point he began to deliver an absolutely dynamic tour. Informative without being fact-heavy, Jeremy managed to keep sixty or seventy college-age kids interested during a four hour long walking tour stretching for miles across the city.
Of course, the sites of Berlin probably helped keep people interested, too. Starting at the Brandenburg Gate (where Jeremy explained seven hundred years of Berlin history in seven minutes), we went to the Holocaust Memorial, to the site of Hitler’s bunker (where today many Germans take their dogs to poop), to the former Luftwaffe building, the Berlin Wall, Checkpoint Charlie, through downtown East Berlin, past the home of the National Orchestra and Hitler’s favorite opera house before winding up on Museum Island.
That night, my friends and I went out to dinner – only settling on a place after an hour-long search. (Admittedly, I was one of the major reasons the search took so long. I just don’t like Indian food that much, okay?) Eventually we settled upon a small Asian restaurant that offered a) a six-euro buffet and b) incredibly comfortable swinging basket chairs.
After dinner came a trip to a hookah bar, inspired by my friend Andy, who makes weekly trips to the local hookahs in New York City. Without any room inside, we were forced to sit out in the cold. While my friends dined on miniscule portions of baklava, I dashed down the street to – of all places – a Haagen-Daaz, somewhere I’d never think of frequenting if they hadn’t been the only place to get a milkshake I’d seen in several months.
The next day brought us to an absolutely immense West Berlin department store that made Bloomingdale’s look like something from rural Illinois. Walk inside – and a special edition Porsche 911 Cabriolet greeted us, custom-made just for that department store.
While the girls headed for the women’s clothing, I made my way upstairs to the electronics department. Impressed by quality if not scale, I made my wide-eyed way through the Apple displays (new video iPod nanos!) past the Bose area (new QuietComfort 3 headphones!) to the Bang and Olufson exhibit (new revolving television displays for your viewing pleasure!)
I’d just finished resetting my jaw when it clanged to the floor once again, this time at the sight of the store’s model car displays. But it wasn’t just model cars, oh no. Model everything. Tiny operating scale locomotives the size of my pinky finger. Concordes at 1/500th scale. Entire dioramas of miniature beauty.
I was so happy, I almost cried.
And then, I swear to God, a tiny music box a few yards away started playing “Ode to Joy.”
The rest of the day was a blur – the streets of Berlin, walking everywhere, Snackpoint Charlie (in case that dash across the border leaves you hungry), showrooms filled with Ferraris and Bugattis and Bentleys all along the Friedrichstrasse.
Molly and I went to the Museum of Natural History after that. We arrived barely before closing time, but there were only two things I really wanted to see. The first was easy to find: the mounted statue of Brachiosaurus in the middle of the museum. It is, I believe (and I’d confirm if I had an internet connection while writing this), the only mounted specimen in the world, and the only way to appreciate the 46-foot stature of this dinosaur.
Let me just say, wow.
The second thing we were searching for proved much harder to find: the first skeleton of Archaeopteryx, the Jurassic-era winged theropod that proved the link between dinosaurs and birds. The tiny fossil, no larger than a crow, was found perfectly encased into a block of stone, where it resides to this day.
In the Berlin Museum.
Molly and I tore the building apart searching for it, to no avail.
“Maybe it’s on loan,” I said glumly after noticing a blank spot in the wall with a sigh advertising the sharing of scientific exhibits between EU nations.
Moments later, Molly pointed excitedly towards the back of the museum – to a small, darkened room with something illumated inside it.
“What’s that?” she asked.
We raced over – and found a tiny space solely for the Archaeopteryx. Not only was it still there, they’d set up an altar to it.
That night, we rejoined our friends for a “pub crawl,” as it was called. Run by the same outfit as our free tour, the crawl promised entry to five select bars in Berlin and free drinks between stops (courtesy of bottles of orange juice-and-vodka the guides/tourist wranglers carried) for an 11 euro fee. I was a bit skeptical at first – we’d seen last night’s group outside our restaurant, rowdy enough to start overturning Volkswagens at the slightest provocation – but I agreed to go along. Maybe it would be fun.
We showed up at the meeting place and plunked down our approximately sixteen dollars (stupid exchange rate), and
– SCENE MISSING –
Come Sunday “morning,” we all split up and went our different ways. Jess and Megan headed off to go shopping and Andy flew off solo, leaving Molly and myself with her roommate Maggie.
We wandered around Berlin a bit more; saw some more pieces of the Berlin Wall, gazed perplexed at a group of black-clad people “walking” a giant puppet down the street, grabbed an “autumn-themed” donut at Dunkin’ Donuts.
Finally, we headed back to the hostel, picked up our things, and made our way to the train station for our trip home. Thankfully, the transit strike was over by then, so our trip back to Prague was uneventful.
I’m glad I went. Sure, any travel is expensive, but Berlin really came off as a magical city – one of the few I’ve ever really liked in the same way as New York. There always seemed to be something to do – a trait that I find some cities lacking. (See Washington, D.C.; Prague.)
The thing that really struck me, though, was the amount of change there’s been since the city (and the country) united less than 20 years ago. My father, who went to Berlin as a young man, described the place as incredibly divided. Heaven and hell, separated by a concrete wall.
But today? Well, until someone told me, I never knew which side was the West and which belonged to the East. That part of town with the modern architecture, glass-and-steel towers beside multi-century old buildings? With a Starbucks every 27 feet and a $1.5 million Bugatti Veyron on display a few blocks from the Ferrari store?
Yeah, that’s East Berlin.
In my opinion, though there’s no better sign of the new order than this:
Remember the Berlin wall? The concrete barrier between two worlds– surrounded by land mines – covered with white sand to highlight any potential wall-hoppers – topped with pipes, sawn in half, to minimize grip – equipped with guard towers where trigger-happy communist guards stood ready to pump lead at several hundred rounds a minute into anyone who dared try for a better life?
Today it’s surrounded by a metal fence. To protect it from people touching it.