Monday, August 13, 2012

Berlin Recap

So, this past weekend I went to Berlin, the capital of Germany. What a weekend! While two nights was not nearly long enough, I still got to see a bunch! And as of now, Berlin is my favorite city that I have visited in Germany this far.


It all began on Friday afternoon. I came home from work and got to talk to mom on Skype since she was staying home sick, we had about an hour to chat. We talked for a while and finally, I was off to the train station to meet my ride from Mitfahrgelegenheit. At first, I was a bit worried because I found the car that would be driving me (I was given the make, model, color, and plate number before) but there was no one in it. I waited a bit and finally the driver and his girlfriend showed up. We waited for another rider and once he arrived, we were on our way.

With the other time I got a ride through this site, there was a lot of conversation going on but this ride was nearly silent. Silent car rides are awkward especially since it was more than four hours of silence. The drive from Paderborn to Berlin with no traffic, and no cars on the road should take about four hours. Of course, there was traffic and it took us six hours, about. The driver is from Berlin and thought he knew the way around well but once he got off the Autobahn, we were lost which only added time to the trip.

Finally, we arrived in Berlin and I was expecting to be dropped off at the main station but instead, I was dropped off at a street I didn't know and left to fend for myself. Great. Not only was I later than planned to be a Nieke's apartment, I also had no idea where I was or where I was going. Luckily, she had WhatsApp, a free texting application that only uses the Internet (which is included for free in my "plan") and she gave me directions to her place. I had to just take the S41 (that's the line that goes around the city, it's called the ring) for about 25 or 30 minutes and get off, not too bad.

When I arrived, I went to the street level, the S-Bahn at this point (Br) stopped under a bridge, and met with her. We went to her apartment and I was offered use of her bathroom, a beer (a weiß beir at that), and dinner. I like this CouchSurfing thing already! (Not to mention that it's free!)

One of the two futons in her living room where I could sleep
She had made a quiche with spinach and salmon and it was delicious. We stayed up until about 11 PM talking and drinking then I crashed on the couch. Well, futon.

I actually slept really well for being in an unfamiliar place. I don't usually sleep well in a place I don't know but maybe it had something to do with how tired I was from work and a long car ride.


In the morning, I woke up at my usual 6 AM and spent some time reading up on the things I planned to do during the day. Nieke offered me the use of a book she had on the city and I found even more things I wanted to see.

Around 7:30 AM, Nieke was up and told me she would make breakfast and I could shower. I gladly took a shower, I probably needed it, and when I came out, there was fresh squeezed orange juice, hot coffee, and warm bread waiting.

We ate breakfast and chatted a bit then I was off to the city to begin my adventures. I first had to get to the Zoologischer Garten, an U-Bahn (subway) station near the city center to pick up my Berlin Pass. Nieke gave me a subway map and I was off. I found the pick-up spot fairly easily and handed over the paperwork and received the guide book and pass. I asked the woman at the counter where she suggested I begin and she said to take a tour of the city and that they begin at the Brandenburger Tor, one of the most famous landmarks in all of Berlin. She told me to go back to the Zoologischer Garten station and take the Bus 100 and I would get there.

I took my time getting to the station and looked around a bit and I noticed that Berlin really has something for bears. It's the city's animal or something. It seems that every statue I passed had something to do with bears. Weird. Finally, I hopped on the bus and started the day long travel pass I had for Saturday, curtsey of the Berlin Pass, and arrived at the Brandenburger Tor in no time.

I did the touristy thing first and had my photo taken in front then went searching for the bus tour. I might as well tell you, the guy on the left was hitting on me fairly hard and asked me to go for drinks later, but being in a city I don't know and not really having a good plan in case of trouble, I had to decline. Though I'm sure he asks every girl. I found the bus but then I was told I had to go about 300 m the other direction because that was the only stop that had a card reader which was necessary to use the pass.
When I got to the street I needed to go to, I met some Canadian girls, Vancouver ones even. And we all boarded the bus together. We talked for a bit and the bus went along but soon we had to get off because the bus we were on had to go back to the station. Luckily, there was another bus waiting there and we got back on. The bus took a tour of all the major sights of the city through the center and stopped at points like Checkpoint Charlie, KaDeWe, Alexanderplatz, Museum Island, and Schloss Bellevue. It was a "hop-on, hop-off" tour so all day I could use the bus for transport and learn some things from the English and German commentary. 

I decided to hop-off at Checkpoint Charlie because it was once one of the main American border crossing sites from East to West Germany. I was sadly mistaken though. When I got off the bus I saw the guards at the checkpoint and they were allowing photos, but you had to pay. I wasn't planning on having another fiasco like I had at the Brandenburg Tor. I did, however, want to ask them if, seeing as it was once an American checkpoint, if they still had any Americans working there (even just for the photos.) I stayed to the side as to allow others to take their photos and I tried to ask the men a question. The center guard said "it's two euros" and I said "I didn't want a photo, I only wanted to ask a question" so he said "it's five euros" and again I told him I didn't want a photo. That's when he rudely told me that I could "ask the question inside the shop." I literally just threw my hands up and backed away shocked and, honestly a bit upset. One of the other guards told me "you can ask me, you can ask me" and I said "no," sarcasm dripping from my words "I'll ask in the shop." Honestly, I've never been treated so rudely by workers at a "tourist trap."

My next stop was the museum next to the checkpoint. I decided not to complain about the workers, but man, I should have! It was interesting, kind of, but the place was packed. I wasn't kidding about the tourist trap thing. There was no moving through the museum. Sadly, I kind of glanced at everything and made my way out.

Once back on street level, I picked a direction and walked. I wasn't sure where I was, nor where I was going, but that's okay. As long as I made it back to the Reichstag before 3:30 PM for scheduled visit, that was okay.  I honestly don't know how I managed it, but I found the German Cathedral, looked around the square, and then made it to the Museum island.

Unfortunately, the one museum I really wanted to see was closed. I guess I didn't research well enough. The Bode museum is only open on certain days and Saturday wasn't one of them. Boo! I did, however find the Berliner Dom and the rest of the museums on Museum Island and began exploring.

I had to be back near the Brandenburger Tor to go on my visit to the Reichstag so I took the Bus 100 back and was there just in time to go up.

Seeing the city from above was awesome and there was even a free audio tour for walking around the top dome. I got to learn the history of the city while looking from above.

When my tour was over, I went back down to the square near the Brandenburger Tor and hopped back on the bus tour to go around once more. This bus had a different tour guide and his name was Arron. He was really cute at every stop we talked for a bit, about the tour and the city as well as ourselves. He's a student in Berlin but he also spent a year in Florida studying so his English was really good. He had friends visiting him (the ones he met while in Florida (all Germans from around the country)) though so he invited me to go out with him on Sunday night. Of course, I had to leave to come back to Paderborn so that didn't work. I think I met the German man of my dreams and I have no way of contacting him in the future.

It was getting close to the time that the bus tours would stop for the night and the last stop was Checkpoint Charlie and I didn't want to go back so I got off one stop before. We said our goodbyes and I helped him translate some of the sections of his tour into English. He was having issues with a few phrases and I helped fit them into the correct context and wording. He suggested some places I go out for the night and told me where I needed to go and buy weed. Yeah, he was that open about it. I played dumb and said thanks but I didn't have anything to smoke with (not that I wanted to anyways) and he grabbed some papers from his bag and gave me them. Woah. Then he hugged me goodbye and I was off to find something new to see.

I wound up just wandering the city some more and it was probably 9:30 PM so I headed back to Nieke's apartment. She had the quiche ready so I warmed it up again and we sat talking, watching field hockey (Germany vs. The Netherlands for the Olympics, she's from The Netherlands and she used to play field hockey), drinking beer and we found something for me to do in the morning. A new tour that she had never been on even, I decided to try it out in the morning. After a few beers, we went to bed.


I got up too early again and showered before another great breakfast. And before I knew it, I was back in the city. I had to go to Gesundbrunnen Station to buy the ticket for the tour Nieke and I had found the night before and with my student ID, I only paid 10 Euros, a savings of 3 Euros.

The tour I went on was through Berliner Unterwelten e.V. and it was Tour M.

In August 1961, the East German government ordered the erection of the Berlin Wall. Since then, many attempts were made to dig tunnels through Berlin’s sandy soil in order to overcome the heavily guarded border. The first tunnel was dug in December 1961, the last one in 1985. There were more than seventy escape tunnels in all; and in total, more than 300 citizens of the GDR were able to escape through those, which were successful. When the East German secret police (Stasi) learned of these operations, the outcomes differed. Sometimes this lead to spectacular cloak-and-dagger operations, other times to betrayal and bitter failure. A cat-and-mouse game played between the tunnel builders and the Stasi, meant that those wished to escape faced ever worsening odds.

Tour M gives you an insight into the history of these escape tunnels, and delves into the subject of the subterranean border – in the subway and sewer systems, which were used by those trying to flee the east. After a visit to various photo exhibitions in a former civil defense shelter, our guests will be taken via the subway to Bernauer Straße. There more than seven escape tunnels were attempted within a distance of just 350 meters of each other. Here you will hear tales of betrayal in addition to the story of the two most successful tunnels.
I think that this two hour tour was well worth the money and I learned so much. The Berlin wall is well known for WWII but it had so much effect after the war too. Dividing families, lovers, can you even imagine how hard that must have been?

After the tour, my spirits were down when we ended at the memorial site for the wall and its victims but it soon came back up when I found, wait for it.... A flea market! Gasp! This was the busiest flea market I have been to since the visits I made with my grandmother in Pennsylvania on my summer visits. The isles were packed with merchants selling junk and treasures alike. There were so many people that at times I felt that if I tried to stop and look I would be swallowed up by the crowd so I kept moving.

I did find one thing to buy though and I even talked the seller down in price from 10 Euros to 5! In German! I bought a necklace with a silver charm of Sagittarius on it, my sign. (Yes, Jess and Sam, I thought of you when making this purchase.) The reason I talked him down on the price is that the chain would be too small for me, I only wanted the charm. In the end I got both the chain and the charm though, so I guess it was a win-win.

At this point, I went back to Nieke's apartment, packed my bag, said my goodbyes and went back to the city one more time before I had to depart. Of course, I didn't cover all the things I did this weekend in this post and there were some things that were just too much to tell but I think this is a great overview of it.

After this weekend, I realized that two days in a city is NOT enough and if I could have stayed a month in Berlin it probably still wouldn't have been enough for me. By far, this was my favorite city I have visited during my time in Germany and I recommend that everyone makes a stop in Berlin while traveling Europe. CouchSurfing has made this a more enjoyable experience, having a "semi-local" to show the way is quite useful. You won't be disappointed with this stop, I promise.

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