Arriving at 7:25 am Deutsche-time we head to buy the Welcome card which will allow us to travel on anything at any time throughout the city, including the 45-minute bus ride to our hotel. It immediately strikes me that almost everyone we cross paths with, speaks English. Turns out that English is taught to everyone, beginning in third grade. Now that’s something our educational system could learn from…
We are on public transportation headed for Alexanderplatz in Berlin, loaded down with luggage and gifts for 17 days travel. Berlin will be in the 50s, but Italy will be in the high 90, so we have clothes for both climates. Luckily we have plans to see a second-cousin-once-removed that we have not seen in 28 years (since before we were even married!), a friend of a friend, the father of a student, and a recent PhD I know who happens to be in Berlin this week. It is nice to have contacts in a foreign place — people who will help acquaint you with this new world you've descended in to.
Our hotel, Motel One is located right in the heart of Berlin which is punctuated by this massive television tower built by the Soviets between 1965 and 1969 in the former East Berlin, and is the second tallest structure in Europe. Our bus stops where we should be very close to our hotel. We have pdfs of maps and routes an hand-circled indicators of where we should go but we can’t find our street. We ask passers-by and they point us here and then then there and often don’t know. It surprises me as this is a major city but no one seems to be around. True, it’s Sunday, and early about 9am, but still, the expanse seems pretty deserted.
|Manhole cover featuring the television tower|
All of a sudden sirens start as a police car streaks by and the familiar and uncomfortable sound (DAHH-duh, DAHH-duh) cringingly reminds me of Anne Frank being taken away. You cannot escape this sound. It is the siren of the city.
We trudge to and fro, miserably dragging our luggage up and back only to discover that our hotel was simply across the street from our bust stop and down two blocks. Ouch. We stumble in and ask if it’s possible to check in even though we’re so early and fortunately a room can be made available. I’m surprised that the entire building is encased in scaffolding and I worry that before I rise, workmen will be flush-up against our windows, peering in to our room. (This does not happen once over the five-night stay.)
Soon Frank, the cousin, is in the lobby with little Mathilda (4 years old and darling) and 8-year-old Luk who is adorable and impish. They have their bikes (Mathilda on her father’s) and we head around the corner to rent bikes for the day. I have been prepared (via email) that cycling is the Berlin-way and I am ready to give it a try though Lord knows, I am not the outdoors-physically-active type. Frank manages the rental, tells us how to give the deposit, and off we go. Nervously we cross a major thoroughfare crisscrossed with trams, buses, cars, and other bikers. Surprisingly it is very manageable! Unlike Manhattan where the drivers are aiming for the bikers, everyone here seems tuned in to the cyclists and shares the road willingly, even the BUS drivers who slow to allow for a biker to turn or transit the street. I am amazed.
Riding through the city, stopping here and there, Frank points out the many monuments and famous buildings, for a walk in a church, we land at the Tiergarten which is an enormous park and Frank has packed an entire picnic lunch for all of us. Walking in we are swarmed by a circle of beautiful young women who smiling and babbling and holding clipboards with what looks like a petition. Frank is silent as we try to read what they have in hand. These young women are beaming and blowing us kisses and it’s very confusing. But as we begin to sign the paper I see that there is an indication of Euros next to each name and all of a sudden I get it. They’re soliciting for money, so we tell them Nein and repeat that a number of times before they swirl away.
As we settle down on the blanket amidst the GlobalStone peace project Frank tells us that these are the Roma (gypsies) and they can be very persistent. We all dig in to the spread Frank has produced — delicious sautéed eggplant, a scrumptious and sweet medley of carrots, onions and zucchini, wienerwurst, cheeses and salami, raw vegetables, dried fruit and nuts...it is all so delicious! And to top it all, he has baked not one but two chocolate cakes for us to enjoy. The children are clamoring for dessert. It is simple and good. At one point our blanket is surrounded again by the Roma women clamoring for our money and now pointing to our food and we insistently shake our heads and tell them no but it takes Frank saying something politely but firmly in German before they finally leave us.
Mathilda and Luk’s lovely mother comes to collect them from the park. Frank has a brief work engagement to attend and leaves us in the Tiergarten, next to the massive “Love” stone that has turned into a controversy for the “peace project” it is part of. It is a magnificent stone and weighs over 30 tons.
Lying on the blanket as we gaze in its direction, we fall asleep after what has been a long, long day — the first of our European adventure.