Thursday, June 4, 2015

Berlin, Better Late than Never

A little under a year ago I went to Berlin for the first time, and only time at this point. It has taken me a while to write about it for various reasons I won't get into.
At this point I decided the best thing for this space is to pick up where I left off and just get right into it. So, with out further ado:
I took the train, like I try to most of the time I travel, and it was a pretty interesting trip. My cabin was empty until I got to Dresden. Then two wonderful old German ladies joined me for the rest of the trip to Berlin. They mostly discussed either a trip to the hospital or convent, there was a lot of discussion about "swestern."
Before the ladies found their way into my cabin, a man, who to me appeared to be homeless, asked me for some money. I pretended that I didn't understand him and then my future cabin mates behind him became his victims. This would have been fairly uneventful -- I hardly call two nice ladies giving a beggar two euros each an event. The thing is, right after he got his money from them he proceeded straight to the lavatory, locked the door and remained there until Berlin. I would have expected a German train conductor to both notice and do something about a lavatory that was locked for nearly three hours, but this guy was safe.
Once I got to the hauptbahnhoff I was immediately impressed. There are trains going though the station on tracks 50 feet in the air. It was pretty cool. There was also a fairly good military presence. I suppose security isn't something Germans take a laize faire attitude about.
I pretty much started exploring right away. On this trip I only made it to two "museums" and another trip is definitely in order because there is so much more to see. I of course did see the wall in a few different places throughout the city.
The first place I saw that I can only describe as imposing was the Reichstag. It is just massive and an amazing structure. It's right next to the modern parliament complex and as far as I know no legislative business happens here now. The Reichstag is also very close to the Brandenburg Gate and a bunch of other stuff. This had me thinking that maybe Berlin was kind of small and that I could see quite a bit of it quickly. I was wrong. 
You see the glass dome on the top of the Reichstag? You can go up in it when you get a tour. You need to book a tour in advance -- next time I'm totally doing this. It's not far in advance, there are booths a few dozen meters away from the building where you can get a tour. I think it is mainly for security reasons, because there is a substantial security checkpoint outside the building. Like I said, Germans don't goof around with their security.

The Reichstag in Berlin, Germany

The obvious next place to go after the Reichstag was the Brandenburg Gate. It too is an impressive structure with a ridiculously beautiful park right behind it. I'd love to show some amazing photo of the gate here but there was a slight problem. There was some sort of soccer tournament happening in Brazil at the time and Germany was doing pretty well. As a result the was a giant television screen and stage set up behind the gate. It didn't really make for a great photo of the thing. I did take a photo though, because what trip to Berlin would be complete without one.

As you can see there is a big structure behind it. There was also a giant white barrier all around the bottom. I didn't photograph that here because it was really really really ugly. On the day of the soccer tournament final there were nearly 500,000 people crammed into the park behind the gate to watch the game -- and drink. I tried to get in, but there was just no way. I watched the game in a bar with some old German dudes, some of whom started crying when the game ended.
So, the next thing you have to see is Checkpoint Charlie. I thought, "I bet it's pretty close." I thought wrong. It is at least a few kilometers from the Brandenburg Gate perhaps two miles. I don't remember. I also got turned around trying to find it because it isn't exactly obvious unless you've seen it before. After you've seen it once there is no mistaking where it is. Conveniently located nearby are a few places where you can check out some remaining pieces of the wall as well. There are some museums and other things around Checkpoint Charlie and I'd have to say I bet it is COMPLETELY different than it was 30 years ago. I do know a few people who were there when it was an active checkpoint. Their photos look a whole lot different than mine. It was so crazy and busy that I decided it might be better to make my way back at night to photograph it with less people.

Checkpoint Charlie at night in Berlin, Germany

I was right. Even at this time of night, which was somewhere around 2100, I had to wait for tourists to stop taking photos in front of the thing before I could get this. Notice the McDonalds right behind it. Talk about making a stereotype come true. I found it interesting that there is still an American flag there, but I suppose it was for effect.
There was more to see of course and it did look pretty interesting during the day too. They had some neat signage and giant photos of both U.S. and Soviet soldiers to punctuate the idea that this place used to be a major border with security beyond what most of us will ever really know about.

Checkpoint Charlie  Berlin, Germany

They made it pretty clear which way you were going with these signs. On the obverse of this sign was the "You are leaving the soviet sector" message and a giant photo of PFC Beltbuckle your checkpoint sentry for the day.
While I was looking at the checkpoint I heard some commotion on the "American" side of the checkpoint near a museum for it. I wandered over to see what was going on. As it turns out some Germans were having a protest in the middle of the street that leads to the checkpoint. I'm going to go out on a limb and assume that they didn't have a permit for this protest since it was in the middle of the street and all.
They were carrying on and making a bunch of racket in addition to climbing on buildings and blocking traffic in the street. Then, in the most spineless move of protest I have ever seen, they evaporated as soon as police sirens got close. The only thing more impressive than their cowardice was how quickly they disbursed. It was literally less than 30 seconds and there was no way to tell who had been participating and who was just an innocent bystander. Perhaps the repercussions for such activity are more intense in Germany than they are in the U.S. but I was still disappointed with them.

Like I said, from Checkpoint Charlie it is easy to go see a defunked section of the Berlin Wall and start to understand why people didn't just hop over, or under, it.

A cyclist passes a hole in the Berlin Wall

There isn't much to say here. It's a 20 foot tall reinforced concrete wall with a cap on the top to make it more difficult to climb over. Someone who was an experienced, or fairly desperate, climber might not have too much trouble with this. Understand though that 30 years ago this would have been pretty smooth. That would have complicated things a bit and I'm willing to bet there were very few East Berlin bouldering gyms at the time. The problem gets a little more compounded however.

The Berlin Wall in Berlin, Germany

When you go the the Berlin Wall Memorial it becomes more clear. It wasn't just one damned wall. It was a wall, a huge section of open space patrolled by dogs and soldiers, and another wall. So, it's a little easier to see why more people didn't just hop the thing and sprint to freedom. I have a lot more respect for people who were able to get around this thing. 
The memorial shows a lot more and there are small circles on the ground where people were killed trying to get over the wall. 
The S-Bahn station here, Nordbahnhof, is fairly interesting because it was closed for a very long time. The reason is that the metro lines went under both zones of the city. It would have been pretty easy to just sneak into the train tunnel and then walk to a station outside the soviet zone. The soviets put a stop to that quite quickly and used all manner of motion-sensing equipment and alarms to keep people from doing just this. This station is a small museum about how people tried to escape through the metro tunnels. It's also an active station. A quick note about the Berlin UBahn, the doors open when the trains are still going about 20kph so be ready for that if you go.

Overall the wall is humbling thing to see and honestly, at the memorial you would have to be pretty dead inside not to feel something about how oppressive it must have been to live with this thing in your backyard. Compound that with the fact that in many places you could most likely see progress happening from your bedroom window with no way to do anything about it and you'll understand why some people risked everything to get out.

So, then there is Potsdamer Platz which I guess was supposed to be part of Hitler's impressive Berlin redesign. You can say a lot of things about the crazy little dictator, but you can't say he didn't have BIG plans. The big tower thing in the previous picture is at Potsdamer Platz as are a few other things, like hotels and fountains and a church or two. It's a pretty large open space and there is a lot going on there.

Even Poseidon needs a groovy pair of kicks, right? I really just thought it was amusing that someone would chuck a pair of shoes on this fountain. You see this done all over the world on power lines, but not very often on fountains.
As I said, I was in Berlin at the same time that some big world-wide soccer tournament thing was happening. The final game was going to be between Germany and Argentina. Next to one of the fountains at Potsdamer Platz some Argentines decided to play a little pickup game of soccer. Now, I'm not one to say if this is appropriate or not, the place is a public square after all so good on them. Turns out one of them got a little over excited and kicked the ball to the top of a fountain. Rather than just write the ball off as a loss, because soccer balls are expensive, a rescue was arraigned.
Now, I only assume that this gentleman is Argentine. I base my assumption on his skin color, yes I'm racially profiling this guy, and his Argentina blue jacket. He seems to be taking in the view after going to retrieve his precious ball. I really do hope he isn't taunting the Germans about the soccer game because seriously, everyone knew Germany was going to win. I have some other photos I like less where he is clearly taunting someone.

The other thing I noticed from Potsdamer Platz was the sheer scale of construction that is, or was, happening in Berlin. I took a photo to illustrate my point -- duh isn't that why I do all of this? There were more tower cranes than you can see in the photo and I can count at least 12. I think the flower that best represents Berlin is the tower crane.

So, I did visit a few "museums." I use quotation marks because they were anything but traditional. I wanted to visit them both and I was pretty excited before I went. One was awesome, with only one smallish problem, the other was a HUGE, massive, depressing disappointment as well as perhaps a good learning experience and affirmation of my beliefs about certain things.
The really really cool one was the Berlin Underworld Society. If it's under Berlin and interesting, these guys probably have a tour of it. Take a look at their website to be sure, it's in English. I was interested in most of the things they had to offer, but only had time for one -- the flak tower tour.
You can check one of my many Vienna posts to find out a little more about flak towers, there will be another Vienna post at some point. 
Hitler built a few of these towers in Berlin. They tell you quite a lot about them during the tour, but in addition to being AAA firing platforms they were also bomb shelters. The tour guide also speculated that they were also designed to become grand palaces after the war. Grand, bomb-proof palaces.
So, how do you destroy a giant reinforced concrete structure designed to withstand the force of the largest bomb anyone in 1940 could imagine? The answer, if you're French, is that you don't. There were a few of these towers in the city when the war ended and since areally-delivered ordinance (read bombs) of the day just wasn't capable of even scratching these structures they needed to be blown up by expert sappers from the ground. Only the French found a way to screw this up. Lucky for me, because they have tours -- inside. Unfortunately, they don't allow you to take photos. My guess is that they misunderstand copyright and trademark issues and want to cover their asses. Hey, they are spelunkers not lawyers.

This is what remains of the tower. FDC was in a different tower and controlled all the gun towers. This thing looks like it is on a hill, it's not really. It is surrounded by a giant pile of rubble that has become a hill. This is not something rare for Berlin. The allies did some pretty substantial destructive work on the city. Now the flak tower is a climbing wall and park. It overlooks a neighborhood called Gesundbrunnen, which is crawling with Islamic peoples who refuse to assimilate for the most part.
The next place I went to was also built on the rubble created when Berlin was destroyed by the allies. It's called Teuflesberg and it means Devil's Mountain. Most of the rubble from the war was collected and piled up near the Olympic Stadium forming a huge hill, the largest in the city in fact. On top of that a listening station was built. This grand place had electronic ears that scanned the skies during the cold war and intercepted messages from the soviets keeping Europe, and by default the world, safe from the Red Menace. I know one person who visited the place once when it was operational -- at least that is what he told me. It is ALL he told me. 
I was really expecting something moderately impressive. In reality the place needs to be bulldozed to match the rubble that it is constructed on top of. Somewhere after it was decommissioned and all the important equipment removed it became an artist community. A counter-culture, free-love, use-all-the-drugs-you-want-and-be-responsible-for-nothing artist community. Someone bought it and had grand plans -- but then he got high.

So, if you're interested in seeing why counter-culture societies don't work, by all means visit the burnt out wastoids at Teuflesberg. It's pretty clear that at one time it was a come-in-and-check-it-out-everyone-is-welcome kind of place, then someone got a little wise and decided a complex that should be condemned isn't a place you just want people wandering into to play around in. There is a group of "artists" who live there and get high in addition to giving "tours" of the place. If you do take a "tour" don't expect to learn anything, you'll really just have a fucked-up drug user walk around and kind of make sure you don't kill yourself by falling off a building with no walls. They do have a pet pig though "Swiney" he's cute. The views are also really cool.

As you can see here there are several dilapidated domes that used to house listening equipment and radio dishes and stuff. The one on top there is pretty neat inside and has some crazy acoustics in it.

Here you can see that most of the walls here are covered with graffiti. Yes, some of the artists have some talent at least when it comes to copying other people's styles and imagery. I can honestly say the only "original" thing most of these people have done is lived in this place. It can't be easy because they don't have access to the municipal water or electric services. It's funny what happens when you don't pay bills because that's not what counter culture is all about.

Like I said, the place has some pretty good views since it's the highest place in the city. It also reaffirmed my belief that socialism doesn't function when every member of your society decides that "art" is their work. I'm willing to bet that this place subsists primarily on charity and benefit payments from the German government. It's a shame too, because it could have been something great.
I'll stop with my complaints about counter culture now.
As it turns out, there is a river in Berlin. Who knew, right? A popular past time is sitting by the river in a lounge chair and drinking beer. This is something I can totally get behind. People do something similar in Prague, but without the lounge chairs. In this respect the Czechs seem to have things a little bit more together, but who am I to say?
In an attempt to experience this lounging by the river and drinking beer I made my way one afternoon to the banks of the Spree, that's the river's name if you hadn't guessed. Sadly there weren't any lounge chairs available, but I saw some other neat stuff.
I was able to take a seat on a small retaining wall by the river and watch two Russian men pull fish out of the river. These guys were doing pretty well. The only way I knew they were Russian was because a Russian family with a young daughter walked by them and the daughter spoke with the men for a little while. 
My Russian isn't what you'd call "great" or really even "extant" for that matter, but I know enough to know it was Russian. She stopped to say something to them before leaving and gave me a cute frame.

Near there was a riverside flea market type thing that was wrapping up but it was a little overpriced and there wasn't anything I was interested in. I was able to grab this photo of a puppet-show theater on wheels and a badass ice-cream truck.

The whole shebang was happening next to a museum. I didn't go inside the museum, but I saw a real-live stone cutter making some column caps in a shed next to the museum. It was very cool to see the restoration/recreation process from this perspective. I'm not so sure there is an effective way to have a machine do this work. He was going off an original which was highly worn and needed to use a lot of creativity and experience to fill in the gaps and make a new one. This level of craftsmanship is something I have a lot of respect for. 

This stuff will probably be 3D printed in the future. Let's hope not. 
That is pretty much it from this trip to Berlin. I really enjoyed it. The city is completely different from Prague. There were of course good parts and bad parts, but I've just written the Cliff's Notes here. As I said, another trip is in order and I will surely write about it again.