Thursday, August 18, 2005


The morning arrived very quickly and I finished my packing for the trip to Berlin. We had breakfast and then I said goodbye to Konstanza before Susan walked with me back to the train station. When my train arrived, we hugged goodbye on the platform and then I boarded for a short trip to Frankfort where I had a quick sandwich before taking another train to Berlin.

I found my seat in the coach for this train and discovered that I would be riding backwards, facing another man about two feet away from me. Our seats were the only two on that side of the car. Across the way, four seats were bunched together, two of them facing the other two. In the window seats sat an older German woman and an older American man of German descent. They either continued or began a conversation, but either way, they began to talk and to talk loudly in German. Their cadence was such that every second was filled with at least one syllable and of the 100% of seconds that could have been filled over the next 3 hours, I suspect that between them, they filled 99%. I could hear the man say "In America", "In Seattle", "In Colorado", "In Los Angeles" and "In Amsterdam" before I heard him raise his voice higher and say something about "they came to Gay Pride in Amsterdam", all as prefaces to sentences or paragraphs of speech that he was about to hurl at us in German.

At one point, my eyes met those of the man across from me and the two of us shared a knowing smirk about these loudmouths across the way. I had taken to putting my head in my hands and my fingers in my ears to try to drown them out a bit, but it wasn't helping, so I got up and went to the "Bistro car" for a cup of coffee. When I returned, my seat was occupied by the woman nearest me from across the aisle. She seemed embarrassed that she had been caught sneaking into my seat, but also a bit disappointed that she had to move back to her own.

The tirades continued for a good three hours all in all. At one point, the man began to hack and cough between words and pulled out a Ricola to suck on while continuing his diatribe. I considered taking the opportunity to say to him that perhaps his voice needed a rest, but me being me...I would never do such a thing. I would only think it obsessively.

When we arrived at the stop in Braunsweig, the two talkers both got up and left the train. As soon as the doors to the platform closed, the woman across the ailse from me and the woman across from her let out a huge Napolean Dynamite sigh and the one nearest me said "finish, finally, over!" From that point forward, we rode in blissful silence into Berlin.

I left the train at the Zoologishche Park stop and decided to take a taxi rather than try to drag my heavy bags an unknown distance. I found a taxi driver who was very dissatisfied with my destination and who motioned to another guy to take me. He turned out to be very kind and took me to my hotel, just a short ride away. I checked in and went to my room, which I can only describe as the Carolina Blue suite. Everything in here is Carolina Blue except the bathroom which is NC State white with red tiles interspersed here and there. I put my bags down and collapsed onto my bed for a nap, but just as I got to the point of sleeping well, the courtyard of the restaurant outside my window opened up and people started to talk loudly below. At that point, I found it fruitless to continue trying to sleep and went out to search for food.

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Nothing quite says home like a pan flute version of "The Heart Must Go On" being played in a Vietnamese restaurant where all the surrounding conversation is in German. It really took me back, I mean, aback. Nonetheless, I found that my hotel was located simultaneously in the Asian district and the Red Light District of Berlin. I couldn't have been happier to find a bunch of Asian restaurants, but the female strip clubs don't do a lot for me. I hate to have barkers trying to invite me in like I am at some agricultural exhibit at the State Fair in Raleigh, when I know that I won't like the dance of the animal in question.

I did, however, find one of the other customers in the restaurant that first night quite interesting. In the movie version of this story, he would be played by Elliot Gould, circa 1980, and he was dressed in a tweed business suit. I suspect that he was British or American, but I can't be certain because he was attempting to speak German with the Vietnamese owner and waitresses. He was also drinking lots and lots of red wine.

Everytime I happened to look at him, he seemed engaged in an internal dialogue with himself and his facial expressions were appropriate to the conversation going on inside his head. At one moment, his eyebrows were raised as if he was completely surprised at what he had just said/thought and at another moment, he was making hand gestures to no one but the space around him. Some of the time, he would be just staring off into space and at other times, he was sitting there like he was asleep or damn near it. I began to wonder if he had been kicked out of his hotel at 9 am and was killing time while waiting for his midnight flight or something, but then he would spend endless minutes talking with the Vietnamese hosts. He would say something to which the Vietnamese people would respond in German, and invariably, this guy would ask "WASS?" When he finally knocked over a full glass of red wine onto his waitress and spilled it all over her sweater, I decided it was time to return to my room and catch up on my blog.

º º º

This morning, I had my breakfast and set out to see the Brandenburg Gate. Little did I know what I had in store for me, but I will just say that I loved Berlin today! The first thought that occurred to me was that I wanted a haircut and I immediately found a place with a coiffeur inside alone. I asked him if he could shave my head and he told me that head shaving took place two doors down. I asked which direction and he put his hand on my back and more or less pushed me along into the barber shop two doors down and told the manager to shave my head. A few minutes later, I was bald as a newborn and ready to really start my day.

(Left: Entrance to the Berlin Zoological Park)

I began my trek by walking along Kantstrasse, until I passed the Zoo entrance. I remembered having read a story that the first victim of Allied bombing of Berlin in World War II was the elderly elephant at the Berlin Zoo and I felt quite sad for the old fellow. I know that so many humans were killed by bombs in Berlin, but the elephant had been taken into slavery and had no responsibility for the making of bombs and the cause of war. I thought of him as I walked past the zoo and went on toward the ruins of the war memorial Kaiser Wilhelm Church. When I arrived at the bombed out church, I found that there was a huge circle of Mexican Catholic youth singing and dancing in a circle. Their song reminded me of some of the gypsy music I have heard in my time and I thought of the Romani of Europe who had died in World War II Concentration Camps. I filmed some of their singing and dancing and then continued my journey. In just a minute, I noticed men handing out brochures while wearing "Jews for Jesus" t-shirts. It again made me stop and think. Of all the places on Earth where I would expect Jews to be fervent about their religion, here I was in Berlin with Christian converts from Judaism. I decided to walk on.

(Left: The bombed-out Kaiser Wilhelm Church War Memorial)

A few minutes later, I realized that I had lost my way and pulled out my map. I heard a voice ask me "Kann Ich bitte sie helpen" or something similar and I understood the lady's question to know that she wanted to help me find my way. I looked up to find a kindly lady in a very vibrant floral dress who must have been in her seventies. She was so kind as she told me how to find my way back to Budapeststrasse. I thought of the many people of whom I have tried to ask directions on this trip and the various ways that they have chosen to show disdain. This lady, however, was full of love and care. I don't know if I reminded her of a son, or of a long-lost lover or of a brother lost in the war, but she treated me as she would have treated her loved ones and without my having to ask. I thought about how much nicer the whole world would be if we all treated one another as family or lovers for a change. If only for one day, we could decided if the effort was worthwhile and whether to try again tomorrow. Maybe we need to hold an international day of "Humankindness" as a test.

Back on my way, I found the large park that is in the center of Berlin and decided to skirt its edges along to the Grosser Stern column on 17 Juni Strasse. I planned to cut through the park itself, but I had thought of Central Park in NYC and decided I should be cautious. As I walked down the street, I began to notice hundreds and hundreds of sunbathers and then I began to notice that they were nude. Talk about freedom. I was walking along the street and could make out nude bodies in the sun from where I was standing. From then onward, I knew that I was not to worry about walking through the park. Nude sunbathers, as a rule, are not out to get your wallet or your life.

(Left: A column to commemorate the victory if 1871 over the French, giving Germany Alsace-Lorraine as one consequence for almost 40 years.)

I came upon the column and turned to find the Brandenburg Gate. A few minutes' walk later, I found the Gate and again found that the Mexican Christians were there singing in groups and dancing in circles. There was a huge crowd of tourists taking photos of the gate and of the dancing Mexican Christians. Again, there were Jews for Jesus handing out brochures. Go figure. In commemoration of Peace, there is a Stille Room next door to the Brandenburg Gate. You go in and sit and there is a tapestry on the wall on which you can focus and meditate to find the peace within you that you need.

(Left: The Brandenberg Gate in Central Berlin.)

I sat and meditated for a few minutes before continuing on to find Checkpoint Charlie. I walked down to Checkpoint Charlie and found that the former transfer point between the American and Russian sectors of Berlin is now a huge tourist trap. There is a museum for the Wall there, but there was such a line that I decided to avoid the crush of people and started back toward my hotel to find lunch.

(Above: Warning sign at Check Point Charlie.)

As I moved along Mauerstrasse, I found a huge sculpture that looked like a piece of chewing gum had been rolled in the detritus of humanity. It reminded me of a conversation I had on Mallorca with Nigel and Jo about space junk and the concept that Nigel had read where someone would lauch a big wad of gum to capture all the crap we have been sending into space since the late 1950s.

A few streets further along, and I happened quite unexpectedly upon the Jewish Holocaust memorial between Ebertstrasse and Wilhelmstrasse. I took some film of the memorial and noticed its scope and size and how it resembles the cemeteries in Paris and New Orleans, only without names carved into the stone.

Eager for lunch, I was still looking for food when I came upon the expansive park in the center of town again. I decided this time to cut through and enjoyed the deep shade, the flower gardens and the naked sunbathers before exiting on the other side to find my way back down to the Zoo area. There I ate a lunch of Döner Kebap (Kebabs) and then came back to my room for a nap. Tomorrow, I plan to try to return to both the park and the Holocaust museum to interview people about Freedom and what it means to them. I figure that nothing says freedom like being nude in the sun in the middle of one of Europe´s largest cities and nothing says more about taking that freedom away than the Holocaust Memorial.

I ate dinner tonight in a different Vietnamese restaurant and sat next to a huge salt-water aquarium stocked with all kinds of multi-hued tropical fish. They seemed happy enough in their tiny world. When I thought of their tiny space, I recalled the UN prayer that I had read this morning and that is distributed by the Stille Room at the Brandenburg Gate:

"Oh Lord, our planet Earth is only a small star (sic) in space. It is our duty to transform it into a planet whose creatures are no longer tormented by war, hunger and fear, no longer senselessly divided by race, colour, and ideology. Give us courage and strength to begin this task today so that our children and our children's children shall one day carry the name of 'Man' with pride."

I guess my only edits would be to change "star" to "planet", "Man" to "Humankind" and to think of Monty Python and add (and our children's children's children...) just for comic relief.

(Left: Cries of "Peace, Peace, Peace" are shouted across the former Berlin wall by this statue that was located in West Berlin.)



Anonymous Anonymous said...

Hey Ron!

It sounds like you are having an amazing trip and I can't wait to catch up with you when you get back. I love reading your blog- it is like a snapshot into your trip and I feel like I am right there alongside you!

See you soon!

8/18/2005 08:53:00 PM  

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