Lesson: bring an actual alarm clock when traveling outside the country, rather than relying on your cell phone.
A couple of the hotels we stayed in didn’t have alarm clocks in the room. This was only a problem when we needed to be somewhere early, like Heathrow to fly to Berlin. Oops. For some reason it was my job to get us up and moving that morning. I set an alarm on my phone, which would have worked fine, had I hit snooze instead of turning the alarm off. It is clearly a flaw of design that on my phone, it is much easier to turn off the alarm than snooze it. Who has the presence of mind when jolted out of sleep to find the little button that says snooze?! So much easier to just swipe down and make it stop!
Luckily, we only ended up missing breakfast, and made it to the airport with time to spare (and buy breakfast). We bought a one-way pass on the Tube to Heathrow. Heathrow is much like any other large international airport, with the exception that when we arrived, there were two guards with large guns standing on a walkway keeping an eye on things. It was a little unnerving, as the only time you see something like that stateside is if there has been an incident, like after 9-11. When we were checking in, the airline agents also actually asked us all the questions that you usually just skim over and hit “yes” on the screen in a US airport. Like, “Who packed your bag?” “When did you pack it?” “Has it been out of your possession at all?” “Has anyone asked you to carry or transport anything for them?” We made it through security with no problems, and then found some food. Something that drove Stephen crazy was not knowing what our gate was until it was time to start boarding. I guess they don’t want people clogging up the gate area, but you better hope you are on the right side of the terminal when it pops up on the screen, otherwise you better truck it.
A little over three hours later, we were in a cab on our way to the Abion Spreebogen Hotel. Since Stephen was working most of the time we were in Berlin, this hotel was on Siemens’ dime and recommended by Stephen’s manager, who was also staying there. It was a wonderful change from our tiny London room – big windows, a king size bed, and room to spread out!
We had a late lunch at an Italian place close by, then walked across the Spree River for a bit, just to see what there was to see. After that it was of course nap time, until we met up with Sam for dinner. Sam (Stephen’s manager) has been to Berlin before, so he showed us how to buy tickets for the train. The trains in Berlin are kind of on an honor system – there is no turnstile to go through, or system for punching or scanning your ticket as you get on the train. But if you get caught travelling without a ticket, there is a hefty fine. So it is better to spend the 6.7 euros for a day pass (good on trains, subway, and buses) than get caught without one. We went to a Turkish restaurant for dinner, where the waiter tried really hard to sell us some fancy dinner package. We said no, but ended up with free anise shots anyway! After dinner we walked to the Brandenburg Gate, which was not as close as Sam thought it was to where we had eaten. Ha, oh well. It was neat to see the Gate lit up at night.
If I look English, Stephen definitely blends in with the German locals. Must be the beard. We were waiting for our train back to the hotel neighborhood after seeing the Gate, and were approached by a little old lady asking about which train she needed (we can only assume). Sam knows a little bit of German, and was able to tell her where the train we were waiting for was going, and that it was the correct one for her. She then proceeded to go on and on, telling us her life story (we can only assume, again). Somehow Sam got in that he only spoke very little German. She asked him what we spoke, and replied, “Oh! Englisch! Mama mia!” And then continued to go on in German. Somewhere in there it also came out that Stephen and I were married, and Sam was a colleague, and not my father. When our train arrived we got on, I assured her it was the correct train for her (I dearly hope it was) and we all continued on our merry way.
The next morning I slept in while Stephen went to the office. He decided to take the afternoon off though to see the major sights with me. We grabbed a lunch of Currywurst at a mall food court, just because it seemed like the thing to do. It was pretty much just sausage (wurst) with tons of bbq sauce dumped on top, sprinkled with a generous amount of curry powder. Lets just say I will not be re-creating it at home.
The first landmark we wanted to check off the list was the Berlin Cathedral. We rented audio guides, which were very informative. Stephen pointed out the vast difference in information between the Berlin Cathedral audio guides and the Westminster Abbey ones. The Cathedral guides were full of the religious symbolism and theology behind the architecture, art, and history of the building, which the Abbey was all about who was buried here and memorialized there. The Berlin Cathedral is a gorgeous building. We followed the arrows for the self-guided tour as best we could, and ended up going round and round up narrow sets of stairs that said they led to the roof. Surely they don’t go all the way to the roof, we thought, as we kept climbing and climbing. There is no way they allow you to traipse around up on the roof. Wrong, they do.
After the Cathedral we went to Checkpoint Charlie. There is not a whole lot to see there, they do have some sections of Wall, and an informative display of it’s significance, with stories of people sneaking though, successfully and unsuccessfully.
From Checkpoint Charlie we walked to the Topography of Terror, the site of the former Gestapo and SS headquarters. The buildings have long been razed, and the lot covered in grey gravel as a bleak reminder of the horrors committed during the Nazi regime. It is also the site of the longest stretch of Berlin Wall still standing in its original location.
The next day Stephen went to work all day, and my feet and legs were getting very tired of walking. I decided to ride Bus 100 around, which goes by all the major sites, and do as little walking as possible. The day was dreary and was not helping my runny nose or slight cough. I was suffering from a bit of a cold and running low on cough drops. So I mustered up the courage to go into one of the pharmacies that seemed to be on every corner of the city. After once around the little store, I found the Ricola bags right by the door. The pharmacist had started talking to me, probably asking what I needed, so I said, “Ah!” and held up the bag of cough drops. There were many different flavors, none of which I could read. I picked the one that said “Zitronenmelisee” thinking that “zitron” sounded like “citron” which was like “citrus” and the bag was yellow, so maybe it was lemon? I took it to the counter to check out, where the pharmacist said something else to me, and I just stood there sniffling. She had probably figured out by then that I did not sprechen sie Deutsch, as she pulled a little pack of tissues out from behind the counter and looked at me questioningly. I smiled and nodded, and said, “Danke!” Success! I now had cough drops and tissues. Unfortunately I did not have the same success when I stopped at a kiosk in the train station for breakfast shortly thereafter. I ended up with a latte and a soft pretzel. I was going for a latte and a soft chocolate covered pretzel, but the chocolate part was lost in my zero understanding of the German language. Oh well.
I made it to the bus stop outside the Berlin Zoo, hopped on and climbed the stairs to the second floor of the double decker. From there I happily shot photos through the window of all the significant things we drove by, no walking required. Once done with my ride and back on the hotel side of town, I did walk down to see the Siemens turbine building, which anyone who has taken an architectural history class will recognize. That night we had dinner again with Sam, a night-cap at the hotel bar, and then the next morning it was time to head home!
Last thoughts: Berlin was rather dreary and damp when we were there, I would love to see it again in the spring or summer. Shout-out to our Land’s End Squall jackets for keeping us warm and dry the entire trip! Stephen kept on commenting, “Why didn’t we buy these before we went to China?!” And froze our bums off. Travel lessons learned the hard way.