Our June 2010 trip to Germany, England and Poland went very well. We had not been to Germany since 2004, and it
was time to see Linda’s sisters, nieces and nephews once again. Reanna was only four the last time and she could barely remember that
wonderful trip. After six-years I was eager to see if things had changed in Germany and if we could make the rounds to see everyone,
and have time to do some new and exciting things. This time I wanted to try to rent some bicycles in Berlin and ride around in a way
I wasn’t previously accustomed to; push the itinerary maybe to Paris, and/or Poznan, Poland by train to extend our short-term possibilities
for cultural enrichment, and try flying to England from Berlin’s newer, southern airport (Schoenefeld) to Stansted on the cheap, barring any
volcanic ash from Iceland. Fortunately, fears of ash never materialized, and we inaugurated a new approach to London and Cambridge that did
not involve Heathrow. Our trip to England was shorter than usual, but we had the primary goal in mind to see our two nieces that live in
Greenwich and Cambridge, plus a few old friends from the New Cross Church. This went splendidly well, and I can now officially say that I
love Cambridge more than Oxford.
I’m happy to say that every leg of the trip went well (except the return from Poznan to Berlin, but more about that later)
and I ended up traveling by planes, trains, automobiles, taxis, underground, bicycles, buses, boat, and foot. How about that?! We rented
a car on both sides of the English Channel, and drove 1520 miles total. In addition to all that, we got to see Germany get infected with
World Cup fever—as if that were to ever be in doubt—and the weather was fantastically mild, sunny, and devoid of rain and humidity. We
couldn’t have asked for better weather.
It seemed to be crowded EVERYWHERE we went on this trip, but crowds are normal for June in Europe, and it is characteristic
for places to be able to handle crowds adequately, and it actually adds to the fun of being there. Who wants to go somewhere where people don’t
want to go? The crowds in Europe add to the intensity of the experience, in my opinion, and there are still plenty of quiet places to go for solace.
The following is a brief day-by-day
Tuesday, June 8, 2010: Our route to Berlin was Delta Airlines, from Nashville, to JFK airport, to Berlin’s Tegel airport, landing on Wednesday the 9th. Our luggage mysteriously got misdirected to an obscure part of the airport, but we tracked it down and then proceeded to Europcar Rental, where I had reserved a VW Polo, but as often happens, they switched us to a lesser appealing Skoda Fabia. I didn’t mind too much, since the Fabia was a wagon hatchback and brand new (it only had 10 kilometers on it). I had a few hiccups getting out of the airport, but once I got the Skoda on the motorway, we breezed to south Berlin, and found our way to my sister-in-law Veronica’s in due time. I felt my way along without a map, just remembering how to get there. Veronica, ever the hostess, put us up for a goodly portion of our trip, and accompanied us to south Germany to visit the four sisters that live in the south. Veronica's son, Gerald was also a big help to us, and a good source for information.
The first evening, we went to visit Juliet, Linda’s youngest sister. She is married to Merko, and they have built a house in SE Berlin’s Neukolln borough. While we were there, we met Merko’s mother and stepfather, who live next door, and I scanned the shelves of Merko's rare book and punk rock collection.
Thursday, the 10th, I got real acquainted with the Skoda and drove to Potsdam by myself (about 20 miles SW of Berlin), and went to Sanssouci Palace and Gardens, summer home of Frederick the Great, the very popular German monarch. I had seen pictures of Sanssouci many times before, but hadn’t been compelled to go there because of the distance, but with the car it was a no brainer. It turned out to be an exceptional place and I walked a lot, covering the gardens, the picturesque gilded Chinese Tea House, and then around old Potsdam, along Brandenburg Strasse, where I ate a delicious Hollander-style hotdog, and located the historical architectural area called the Holland District, where a few blocks of houses resemble, very closely, what they look like in Holland, and they are quite old. Potsdam was a real fine excursion from Berlin, and just so happens to be where Veronica’s oldest daughter, Susanne, has recently settled. I did not see her on this day, but later in the trip.
The next day, Friday, the 11th, we embarked on our trip to south Germany. We didn’t leave till about 1:00pm, but made the 450 mile trip in good time on the autobahn, as I tried to stay in the middle lane and maintain an average speed of between 70-90 mph through fairly thick, swift traffic at times, and arrived at Cindy’s house, in Rotensol, in the northern Black Forest, by about 9:20pm. Summer daylight in Germany lasts till about 10:00pm and Cindy was out for a walk, so her husband, Peter, received us when we arrived. Peter and ten-year-old son, Jens, was watching a World Cup match on TV. When Cindy returned, her, Linda, and Veronica stayed up late talking, but I had to go to bed, exhausted from the long, hard drive.
June 12-15, we visited with Linda’s sisters and their families in Rotensol, Hochstetten, Goppingen, and Schomberg. From Cindy’s, Peter took me on a little hike on a mountain on the morning of the 12th, which was very misty, but
enjoyable, and then we went to Marjorie’s, in Hochstetten, a small town north of Karlsruhe close to the Rhine River. We were greeted by her, husband Claus, and three sons, and had a good time seeing the garden, eating, visiting the Rhine, watching USA vs. England in the World Cup, and I got to go bicycling around the area with Cameron, the middle son. He guided me on a ride through an extensive array of bicycle paths to KIT; Karlsruhe Institute for Technology, where I could not enter, but we were able to ride along the outer fence and could see inside, as Cameron explained what the buildings were used for. It’s an extensive research facility that is associated with the University of Karlsruhe. The next morning, which was a Sunday, I rode around on the bicycle by myself and saw many interesting sights in Hochstetten, such as a working animal farm, a park, some clay tennis courts, a church cemetery, and a lot of very neatly kept houses of newer and older vintage. Among the older ones were a lot of half-timber houses.
From Marjorie’s we went to Debbie’s, about 100 miles away, on Sunday afternoon, to Goppingen, located SE of Stuttgart. We had a little trouble finding the street, and had to call Debbie for help, and she sent Marcus to meet us. We had a good time visiting with Debbie’s family; husband Juergen and son Marcus, including Germany’s defeat of Australia 4-0 on TV. Monday morning, I walked around the neighborhood and discovered that Goppingen is a hilly place, with a fantastic view of the city from Debbie’s with mountains in the background. From Debbie’s, we went back to the Black Forest, to Schomberg, to visit Linda’s recently widowed sister, Juliana (niece Marissa’s mother), and then back to Cindy’s for one night, and then back to Berlin on Tuesday. I drove 100 mph a couple times on the auto-bahn, trying to make good time. We only stopped for fuel and snacks. The German Auto-Bahn is more intense than driving on the American Interstate Highway, because the volume of cars is higher, and the fast lane is truly for driving fast. Mercedes, VW’s, and Audi’s will blow past you going 120 mph and you’d better stay out of the way. Most of the Auto-Bahn has at least three-lanes on each side, meaning there is a middle lane for driving moderately fast, and a fast lane reserved strictly for overtaking. Trucks are less aggressive than the American counterpart, however, which makes them less annoying.
Wednesday, the 16th, I had to return the Skoda to Europcar, so I didn’t have time to go very far from home. In the morning, I went a few miles away, to the furthest southerly point of what was West Berlin, before the wall fell, and walked around briefly on a trail that marked where the wall once stood. Note: the wall here was not the concrete behemoth that you’d associate with central Berlin, but a series of high fences with barbed wire. It is now zoned quite nicely for walking and biking. We used the car one last time to do some grocery shopping at a chain grocery, called Kaufland, and then I returned it later that afternoon, accompanied by Gerald. German car rental companies are easy to work with, I must say. They aren’t as fussy or punctilious as you might expect. Veronica’s next-door neighbor’s son, Ignacio, gave us a ride home in his silver Audi sports car.
On Thursday, the 17th, we flew from Schoenefeld airport, on Ryanair, to Stansted airport in England. This was our first ever flight on one of Europe’s new cheap airlines, and it went just fine. We picked up our rental car at Europcar, a Peugeot 207, and proceeded to drive to Cambridge. I have never driven a Peugeot before, but it turned out to be a quick little car, very enjoyable to drive, after the Skoda. Not that the Skoda was bad, just a bit slow with acceleration. Anyway, we’d planned on going to London to spend the first four nights, but Linda just couldn’t resist going to Cambridge to find where Cathi (Veronica’s youngest child) lived and see the seven-month-old twins she and Graham are the parents of. We found them at home, and also met Graham’s mother, Sally. When we left Cambridge there was still some daylight, and it took a little over two-hours to get to our friend Cherrie’s house, in Brockley, in SE London.
On Friday, the 18th, we didn’t have anything major planned, so I took Reanna to Hilly Fields Park, just a short walk from Cherrie’s in Brockley. Reanna likes the playground at this park and it always gives her joy to check out the changes that have occurred there and to play. Since 2008, a lot of changes had been made. Some equipment had been moved and some big, new stones and mounds had been installed with sand pits. A lot of playful commotion was going on at the playground, and the park has a remarkable view of Canary Wharf to the north.
Next, the three of us went to Lewisham in the car, the largest shopping centre in the immediate area. We ate lunch at a café called Ponti’s inside and shopped for about four hours, including groceries at the Sainsbury. A light rain (about the only rain of our entire trip) fell as we went back to Cherrie’s. We had a quiet evening, and a couple of old friends, Sonya and Babs came by to visit.
Saturday, the 19th, I got up and drove to Telegraph Hill, in New Cross, the setting of my first two-years in London, from 1986-1988, and walked around my old neighborhood. This was purely a rendezvous with nostalgia, for I really just wanted to walk around and observe the memories and changes. It took about 90-minutes to make my rounds, and then I went back to Cherrie’s to take Reanna to the Hilly Fields Fayre, an annual carnival and brick-a-brack sale that they have there. Reanna and I saw several things we’d like to have bought, like, books, old cricket bats, and antiques, but we didn’t have any room to pack them. Next, the three of us drove to Greenwich to visit Marissa and Serkan. Our niece, Marissa, and Serkan were married about a year ago in London, and they have recently bought a new apartment in a new development at Maze Hill, just east of Greenwich Park. They are doing very well. We had a good visit and chat in the apartment and then Serkan and Marissa took us to a very nice Turkish Restaurant, called Efe’s (short for Ephesus). Serkan is a regular at this place, and even speaks Turkish to the owner. We had appetizers, and really nice meals (I chose Lamb Iskender, and Linda chose Lamb Moussaka), and desert. It was the best Turkish meal we’d ever had.
Sunday, the 20th, we went to New Cross Church in the morning and saw some members who’ve been there since I was a worker at the church, and a lot of members who we remember from 2004 and 2008, plus some new ones. Brother Eusell, originally from Dominica, in the Caribbean, has been the preacher at New Cross for a number of years, and is a grad of a preaching school that we know about in Trinidad & Tobago. After church we went back to Cherrie’s and had dinner with her and some friends.
Sunday evening was our only chance to go to central London and do any sightseeing, so we drove in the car to take advantage of the lighter traffic and no charges for parking. I maneuvered us to the sights to save us from having to walk too much. Linda and Reanna had never been to St. Paul’s Cathedral before, so we went there (it was closed), admired the architecture, and then walked to the Millennium Bridge at River Thames. Next, I drove over to Fleet Street and we went to see Dr. Samuel Johnson’s House from the outside. This is one of my favorite places, where the first English Dictionary was compiled, and we saw Ye Olde Cheshire Cheese Pub, where Johnson used to frequent. Then, we drove around Trafalgar Square and over to Parliament Square, and back to Trafalgar Square to climb the Lion statues. Reanna was a bit too young and small to climb the Lion statues in 2008, but with a little help from her daddy, she got up on one. There were a lot of people climbing them and generally frolicking around Nelson’s Column and the fountains at Trafalgar. A funny thing we noticed was that we saw the same Reggae busker that we saw two-years ago at Covenant Garden. He was still performing the same act, but his singing had improved! We left for home at dusk and got home by the time it was dark.
Monday, the 21st, we departed from Cherrie’s, sadly, around noon and crossed the Thames via Blackwall Tunnel, and made our way up to Cambridge via the M-11. We reached Cathi & Graham’s by mid-late afternoon and visited, while I checked on the Internet for Eurostar tickets to Paris. For the past week we’d debated going to Paris on the way back to Berlin, but with so little time to play with, and the expense, we concluded that we’d have to pass on Paris. Hopefully, we can include Paris next time.
Next, we followed Graham, Cathi and the twins in their car to a parking garage near the old town center, and we walked a bit and ate dinner at a neat Portuguese restaurant called Nando’s. Then, we walked some more through the old town center and took in the old world charm of Cambridge at its historic core. For the first time, it hit me how Cambridge was more personal and jumbled than Oxford, which is more to my liking. I’d been to Oxford a lot more times than Cambridge, but this was my first time to Cambridge that I actually had a little extra time to play with. And the good news was that we would be able to come back tomorrow and sightsee some more, albeit just a few hours. We spent the night at the Premier Inn, a brand new hotel just a couple minutes walk from Cathi’s. It was very similar to a nice Hampton Inn, in the States, and full, which goes to show how crowded Cambridge is at the moment.
Tuesday morning, the 22nd, we ate continental breakfast and then went to Cathi’s. We saw Graham before he left for work (and said goodbye to him), and then Linda, Reanna and I went into Cambridge to sightsee for about four hours, and then we would come back to see Cathi and the twins one more time before we had to depart for Stansted airport to fly back to Berlin at 6:30pm. The traffic in central Cambridge was in total gridlock everywhere, so when I saw a “Pay & Display” space on Queen’s Road, along the “Backs” of Cambridge University, I pounced on it immediately and gladly paid outrageous parking fees to be close to the action. It wouldn’t be worth it to crawl in the traffic until we found a cheaper parking garage.
So, with our rare four-hours of sightseeing, we paid for a self-guided tour of St. John’s College, which included the Bridge of Sighs; punted on the River Cam, shopped a bit for souvenirs, and ate lunch. That’s all we had time to do, but it was GLORIOUS! We loved it. A young man was tauting for punters, vigorously, and we agreed to give it a go for 35 Pounds. Our boat guide on the punt was a young man from Glasgow, Scotland, who’d only been in town for a few months, but he had already fashioned himself to be a first-rate punter. He possessed some knowledge and tidbits of information about the colleges, but I had some questions for him to keep things interesting. Four other ladies were in our boat; two Brits, and two French au pairs. The punt lasted for 45-minutes. For lunch, Linda had been craving some fish and chips, and we found a suitable place, called Tattie’s Café on Trinity Street that fit the bill. I definitely look forward to going back to Cambridge in future, if Cathi & Graham stay there a while.
Next, we went back to Cathi’s, said our goodbyes, and drove to Stansted in a whirlwind, returning the Peugeot right on time at 5:00pm. The flight back to Berlin went fine, and we negotiated the bus route flawlessly to get back home by 11:30pm, thanks to the instructions nephew Gerald had given us.
Back in Berlin, on the 23rd, I decided to finally go up to central Berlin, see some sights, and rent a bicycle, as was my plan from long before the trip. I’d searched the Internet weeks before and discovered a place called “Fat Tire Bike Rental” located at the Teletower and thought I would try there. Well, when I got there I found a place called “City Shop” and they rented bikes for less, were less busy, and were family run by an oriental Asian couple. This worked out just fine. At first I was tentative and cautious with the bike, looking everywhere, not to break any rules. Starting in Alexanderplatz, I viewed an exhibit on the Berlin Wall, but not wanting to spend too much time there I moved on, and after a while I grew very comfortable with the bike and deduced that I could ride just about anywhere I wanted without any problems. Following other biker’s example, I felt confident and in my element.
Next, I rode to Marx-Engels Platz, and then along the Spree River, northerly, for a while, past museum island, and then went to New Synagogue, a place I had not seen up close since 1993. Famously damaged during Kristallnact and WWII, this restored building is inspiring. Then, I meandered through the streets past large Charity Hospital to the new Hauptbahnhof that is located beside the Spree, a little north of the Reichstag. Then paid my homage to Brandenburg Gate, taking notice of all the interesting spectacles going on there, including a blonde young lady dressed in GDR uniform holding a flag and posing for pictures; the new U.S. Embassy, and then rode into Tiergarten, the huge, green leafy park in the middle of Berlin. This area, also called Mitte, is very familiar to me from my two previous visits to Berlin. The beautiful tree-lined paths of Tiergarten, and central Berlin, for that matter, are all the more remarkable considering almost all the trees were decimated during WWII; first by the destruction, then by Berliner’s in need of firewood.
I was ready for the snack lunch I’d bought earlier, so I rested on a park bench facing the new Jewish Memorial completed since my last visit to Berlin in 2004, located on the former death strip between Brandenburg Gate and Potsdamer Platz, and ate while contemplating having a closer look. Almost finished with my Snickers, some people asked if they could sit at my bench, so I got up, crossed the street on the bike and examined the more than 2,770 odd concrete blocks. Well, not all of them, but walked the rows between some of them and on top of some, until a man in uniform told me to get down. I also read the information sign about the memorial.
From here, I zigzagged through some more of Berlins former troubled spots, such as, Topography of Terror, and Checkpoint Charlie, mainly to see if anything had changed. Along the way, I discovered a new tour business, called Trabi-Safari, where you could drive a Trabant and follow a guide in a Trabant through Berlin traffic for different durations. This appealed to me very much, but not on this day as I was already renting the bicycle.
I wanted to see Oberbaum Bridge up close, the brick gothic landmark, having only seen it from a distance before. So, I cycled in the direction of the Spree River, and hoped to straddle the river until I got to the bridge. This approach worked for a while, but I found that the river walk did not continue unabated all the way, and I encountered obstacles. But I stuck as close to the river as possible and eventually stumbled upon the East Side Gallery—a long stretch of the Berlin Wall still standing with very crisp, new murals painted on same-length sections. I’d wanted to see this, too, but didn’t expect to find it here paralleling the north side of the Spree leading right to Oberbaum Bridge! How advantageous!
The East Side Gallery has been on countless travel shows and magazines, and had more to do with abstract art than I cared for, but the main theme was peace, nostalgia, and political finger pointing, and I am glad I found it. Then, I crossed Oberbaum Bridge, a double-decker, train, auto, and pedestrian bridge built in 1895. Sadly, in 1945 the German army blew it up to prevent the Russians from crossing it. During the Cold War it was a border between the American and Soviet sectors. The bridge has been through a lot, but the restored version looks solid and whimsical, a rare combination.
From here, I crossed onto the south side of the Spree and wound my way through Kreuzberg to the Molecule Man, a surprisingly tall, aluminium structure in the shape of three standing men uniting to become one, with swiss cheese-like holes in their bodies. The sculpture is actually erected in the river on the south edge of the Spree and it is rather impressive. I saw it up close in 2004 when it was new, and it was nice to see it still here. From here I straddled the Spree a while longer and rode into Treptower Park. At the end of the park, I decided to turn back and return the bicycle, so I reversed directions and took a more straightforward route, through Friedrichshain, back past the East Side Gallery, and Ostbahnhoff, to Alexanderplatz, mostly riding proper bicycle lanes in late afternoon traffic. I didn’t want to relinquish the bike, but I felt satisfied with what I’d seen in six-hours for just 11.00 Euros. It was gratifying to say the least, so I returned the bike to City Shop, and headed home on the S-Bahn.
Thursday, the 24th, was a more casual day for me. Linda, Reanna and I went to the Berlin Zoo. We didn’t get started until 10:30, but once I got Linda and Reanna going, they enjoyed sightseeing, and we had a wonderful time. It’s just the getting started part that’s a test of my patience as Linda doesn’t like to be hurried. Once we arrived at Zoo Station, we decided to walk over to the Kaiser Wilhelm II Memorial Church that was left damaged after the war. It was something to see, and we went into the modern new chapel next to it that I’d never been in before. Inside you could donate 1 Euro and receive an apple. We proceeded to the Zoo, and spent a few hours walking around and admiring the animals, of which, Knut, the Polar bear, is one of the main attractions. Knut was born at the Zoo in 2006, but rejected by his mother, and raised by zookeepers. He is a real showman to visitors, I must say, and quite a large fellow. There was a very unusual kid’s playground—very interesting to Reanna—and we had a nice lunch at one of the Zoo’s Restaurant’s. I had a delicious Curry Wurst. We saw just about everything at the Zoo, except the Aquarium. We even went all the way to the end of the Zoo, just to see the kangaroo’s, but they were all lying down, napping, which was a bit of an anticlimax. We got home around 6:00pm, just fine, and I think today wetted Linda’s appetite for a little more adventure.
Friday, the 25th, turned out to be the day to go to Poland. We had been discussing going to Poland, and it had always been up in the air, but Linda finally agreed that the three of us would go. I was ecstatic and wanted to get an early start, but of course that wasn’t going to happen, as Linda cannot be hurried. We had to go to an actual German National Railway (DB station) to enquire about tickets, so this took a while and we ended up leaving at 12:30pm, from Hauptbahnhof, in central Berlin, on the Inner City Berlin to Warsaw Express for 144 Euro (about $185), which was not cheap, and it was a three-hour trip to Poznan. I chose Poznan, weeks before, because it was the largest city on Poland’s west-side, and it had a lot of history and charm from what I could gather on the Internet. I definitely wanted to visit a country in Eastern Europe that I’d never been to before, and Poland was the closest one.
On the train, we sat in a typical six-seat compartment, with a little family—mother, father, and two-year-old son—who turned out to be the perfect people to talk to and share a compartment. He was born in Poland, she was from Iceland, and they met at University in Iceland and got together. They are living in Iceland, but have family in Poland, and seemed to be well traveled and knowledgeable about many European affairs that I was curious about. Needless to say, we had a great conversation. The father, Pavel, looked like Allec Baldwin in the face, the mother was an Icelandic beauty, and the son was cute beyond words and well behaved. As we conversed, I could see out the window that we passed a medium sized river, and I asked Pavel if that was the Oder River (the border between Germany and Poland), and he said, "Yes, we are in Poland now." Incidentally, there was no border check, or passport officer, but two different sets of ticket checkers did come around to see our tickets.
When we reached Poznan, and decamped, we didn’t know which way to go. Pavel pointed us in the right direction, but we had to feel our way, slowly, without a map to the old town square, a mile away. Visions of my time in Kiev, in 1993, hit me. A similar feeling of unease I’d felt there from time-to-time washed over me, but I stayed calm and used my natural sense of direction—that and a bus map displayed near the first big intersection we came to. Everything printed in Polish the map looked like a maze of unpronounceable words.
We found a bank with an ATM machine, got 200 Zloty (about $61.00) and found our way to the square in due course. The architecture was stunning, I have to say, even though I knew what to expect. We popped into an Information Center, and were greeted by two Polish young men, who spoke English and were eager to tell us about Poznan, and offer suggestions, most of which we had to pass on because we had very little time. So, we walked around the square, took pictures, bought some souvenirs, and ventured down one side-street to St. Stanislav’s Parish Church, built between 1651 and 1732—a fine example of Polish Baroque—and well painted in red pastel and white. We went inside, sat down, walked around, and studied the sculpted marble. The quality was impeccable.
We needed to eat dinner before we walked back to the train station, so we looked for a restaurant for a little while, but found them mostly crowded at 5:30pm on a Friday, and settled on a Bistro that wasn’t busy. Linda and I shared a chicken kebab on a long, stiff bun with salad and sauce applied liberally on top, while Reanna ate something resembling a burger, for 30 Zloty. In the interest of time, we retraced our steps back towards the busy intersection with the bus map, till we came upon a modern shopping mall that looked worth going into and using the toilet. The mall, called the Stary Browar, was a fairly new retail shopping mall and art gallery, and looked very western. We went into a sport ‘n goods store and looked at some items and checked the prices. A nice bicycle was displayed that cost 1,699 Zloty ($525.00) which is comparable to what you might expect.
Then, we wanted to get back to the train station without any delay so we’d have plenty of time to get our train, and not make any mistakes. We passed through a park, took note of the cottonwood trees shedding their cotton, and went to the station by 7:00pm. Our train was not till 7:30pm, but here’s where all of our careful planning and attention to detail went awry and nothing makes sense. It was not apparent what platform we should be at, and no recognizable signs. It was crowded, and noisy. I asked a little old station attendant which platform went to Berlin, and he held up his thumb, meaning platform one. Our confusion started when we weren’t sure which platform was number one. The order in which they are numbered is crucial; does it begin from the left and work to the right, or on the right and work to the left?
I am normally quite competent at getting around on public transport, but sometimes when I am with Linda and Reanna, I get distracted and lose my normal focus. We ended up going to the far left, thinking it was platform one, and as we waited, I got to talking to a professional looking Polish man from Warsaw, who looked like he knew his way around. He heard on the PA system in Polish that our Berlin train was delayed 15 minutes, and then 20 minutes. The announcement kept being repeated in Polish and German many times. The Polish man wanted to make me feel assured that the train would get here eventually, but it didn’t seem to occur to him that we were on the wrong platform. Trains had been coming in on our platform in the direction to go to Berlin, but they were local trains, not an international train.
His train arrived for Warsaw in the opposite direction and he said goodbye and left. We felt sure our train would come any minute. Then, a big, old, rusty train called the Berlin-Moscow Express came in right behind the Warsaw train, caused a commotion, and stayed there a long time. Without realizing it, our train crept in on the platform behind us and our vision was totally blocked by the Berlin-Moscow train. Suddenly, the Berlin-Moscow train left and—to my utter surprise—our Berlin train was waiting at the next platform. Startled, we ran as fast as we could down through the subway to get to it, but sure enough, as soon as I got to the top of the stairs of the correct platform, it took off! I shouted, “Wait!!!!” No good. Our hearts sank in an instant.
Truth is I hadn’t felt this humiliated in a long time, but what could we do? We wandered back into the station; I queued at the information window and tried to explain our predicament to the lady inside. She promptly blew me off in Polish and I figured we had to find the International Rail counter, wherever that was. We looked where all the windows were, bewildered, and then an angel, in the form of a kind man, came to us speaking English, and directed us to the Inner City Rail office to the side by itself. We went inside, joined the queue, and right as we were next in line, a nun, a good bit older than us, butted right in front of us and started talking to the attendant. This got Linda riled up, and she was now determined to do the talking, but when we got to speak to the attendant, he was very sympathetic and told us to try getting on the next Inner City Express, which was a Munich to Amsterdam sleeper train, with only one car with seats. It was the 9:30pm train, and it was our only hope for getting home tonight. He said we would have to pay for a reservation on the train, but maybe not. This sounded like sweet music to our ears—we just wanted to get home tonight.
Linda insisted on phoning Veronica’s to tell them that we would be in later than expected. This reasonable impulse turned into a semi-frantic attempt to work the public phone system, which was confusing to us, only took phone cards, and needed the right international code, etc., to call Berlin. After buying a phone card at the first kiosk, and asking for help several times from the attendant at a second kiosk, who spoke a little English, we completed the call, and Gerald answered the phone on the other end. We felt victorious, and talked to Gerald for about 15-minutes.
Stranded at the station, we had to wait another two hours, which, essentially, was about three-hours-total that we’d waited at this station. Wouldn’t it have been nice if we could have waited somewhere less forlorn than this on our one evening in Poznan? No such luck. In addition to that, the train was late, and we began to wonder if it would show up, so Linda asked a woman waiting near us if this was the right place for the train to Berlin, and she said she was waiting for it. Finally it came and we got on. We found seats, but when the ticket conductors came around (there were two men), one of them questioned us in Polish about our ticket. Naturally, we couldn’t make him understand that we’d missed our 7:30pm train and that a REAL Inner City Rail attendant in the office TOLD us to get on this train. But, once more, like an angel out of the blue, a young Polish woman, came to our rescue and offered to translate for us. In the end, I had to follow the conductor four cars away and pay a 12 Euro reservation fee, but he only charged me and not Linda and Reanna, thankfully. Turns out, the Polish lady was an elementary teacher and was traveling with her Canadian cousin to Berlin. We had a good conversation with the both of them. The Polish woman commiserated with us about the awful confusion at the Poznan station, and how things need to be more modern and up to date. She has been to New York City and Canada before, and considers them to be exotic. When our subject changed to the Polish economy, she was pessimistic. After a while we settled down in our seats. Reanna slept a while, but Linda and I did not. Again, there was no border check on the way, and our tickets were never checked again after departing Poznan.
The train stopped at Ostbahnhoff, in East Berlin, a LONG time while they changed a wheel or something important, but finally we arrived at Hauptbahnhoff at about 12:50am. To make a long story short, we had to walk across the Spree, past Reichstag, to Brandenburg Tor station on foot in the middle of the night because the U-Bahn was closed. Even at this hour of Saturday morning, we didn’t feel any danger, and eventually got home at about 2:30am. I went to bed super exhausted. The trip to Poland didn’t go exactly according to plan, but it was worth it.
Saturday, 26th, I was over tired but got up at 9:00am, anyway, and decided to go to Ku’damm to rent a bicycle, and this time to ride to important attractions in West Berlin. I slowly went by S & U-Bahn to the Europa Center at Ku’damm and picked a bike rental place (there were several to choose from), and rented a silver and black three-speed for 12.00 Euros. By now it was already noon. It took a few minutes to get my bearings. Then I proceeded westerly on Kantstrasse, a long artery, to the Eiffel Tower-like Funkturm, a tall observation tower that was built in 1925 as a radio signal tower with 360 degree panorama. From Funkturm I could see all the way to East Berlin and everywhere in between. The sky was clear and the view was spectacular, so I lingered up there and took lots of photographs. I’ve always had a special interest in towers, and I’ve been to a lot of them in Europe. I loved this! It was a counterpart to the more famous Teletower in East Berlin (I went up that twice in 2004).
Next, I rode almost two miles further NW to Olympic Stadium—the stadium built for the 1936 Olympics. Besides me, a modest trickle of people paid the admission price of 4.00 Euros to go inside and walk around the historic structure—many Americans associate with the Gold Medal performance of Jessie Owens—that was fully renovated in 2006 for the FIFA World Cup. I ate a snack in a stadium seat and looked around inside the stadium. It wasn’t hard to imagine it full of spectators watching a football match or track & field event. Then, I walked the complete circumference of the stadium, even going to the upper deck, and noticed a sizable Olympic swimming pool behind it containing young people swimming.
Then, I rode a few miles to Charlottenburg Schloss Palace & Gardens. I’d never been here before, but I’d seen lots of pictures. Even though I knew what to expect, it was impressive, and a lot of people were touring the grounds. This was another one of the great palaces that Frederick the Great embellished during his reign. I was especially impressed with the gardens behind it, and surprised at how big they were considering it was surrounded by city. I rode around the luscious grounds and observed people enjoying the weather and the surroundings. I gleefully observed many different people enjoying nature in different ways. I might add that Germans love to frolic in tall grass. With practically no annoying insects, they have few inhibitions about undressing and relaxing.
I didn’t want to leave the gardens, but resolutely pressed on, returned to Ku’damm, completing a triangle of sorts, and decommissioned the bike at Europa Center about 5:00pm. The attendant checked the bike quickly, and noticed the rear lights missing. I didn’t remember it having rear lights, although all rental bikes are supposed to have them. I didn’t think it had any, the attendant shrugged her shoulders, and I was out of there. This was a fine day of new exploration since I’d never been to any of these places outside of Ku’damm. Next, I saw a lot of World Cup memorabilia for sale by the U-Bahn entrance and decided to buy an England football shirt. I figured I would wear it during the Germany-England football match tomorrow afternoon and stir things up a bit. Later Saturday night: USA lost to Ghana 2-1 in OT, thus eliminating the USA from the World Cup competition.
Sunday, 27th, I left at 10:45am for Potsdamer Platz, to visit the Salvador Dali exhibit I’d seen advertised a lot. For 13.00 Euros I got to see a lot of his drawings, watercolors, sculptures and miscellaneous items, plus a little pocket guidebook about the exhibit to keep. I was slightly disappointed that none of his famous paintings were there, but they must belong to big museums that don’t want to let them go. At least I’ve seen a number of his famous paintings already in London, Paris and Washington D.C.
Next, I walked on over to Trabi-Safari, the place I discovered last Wednesday whilst biking. I was determined to drive a Trabi if I could. Turns out, they have a special short tour of twenty-minutes for 15 Euros—but this turned out to be about thirty-minutes because the other customer, besides me, couldn’t drive his Trabi without stalling many times. The idea was to follow the Trabi-Safari guide in his Trabi, as he talked to you through the radio. This all commenced very quickly and no one—to my surprise—even asked to see my driver’s license, but I was game and excited to drive a Trabi. Twenty-years ago when the wall came down everyone in the West knew what a Trabant was. Now, I’ve found that many American adults, I’ve talked to, forget what a Trabi is, and no young person knows what it is.
Anyway, the other customer, who happened to be from Ottawa, Canada (the second Canadian I’ve met on this trip), chose a leper-skinned convertible Trabi, but I chose a plain green Trabi wagon. I felt utterly alien, but sensually drawn to this car at the same time. I’d driven a couple of Austin Mini’s before and there was a parallel handling of the car, but the Trabi was not in the same class with the Mini, I must say. It was similar to an old friends Skoda I drove once in London. As it happens, I had no trouble driving the Trabi and keeping up with the guide, but the guy from Ottawa really slowed things down. So, I contented myself with being patient, examining the Trabi’s interior, the buttons on the dashboard, and looking out the windows at the Brandenburg Gate, Unter den Linden, and Checkpoint Charlie as we went by, and listening to the guide’s commentary on the radio. I could hardly believe this was a legal tour, and that you could get away with this in a busy city like Berlin, but I loved it! Afterward, I praised the guide for being a Brave Man, and talked to the Canadian politely, since he was friendly and apologetic.
Next, I walked back to Potsdamer Platz and made an effort to walk around and see it, since I’d been preoccupied with other places up till now. Lots of people, young people in particular, were gathering, and gathering, wearing Germany’s colors and flags draped around them getting ready to watch the Germany-England match at some public gathering place. I wasn’t sure where, exactly. I walked into the canopied Sony Center and ate a snack while watching a big animated screen change colors. Then, went back outside and watched while two boys wrestled inside of a circle of German youth singing a football song to the tune of “Yankee Doodle Went to Town.” I noticed a big billboard with an Apple I-Pad advert. I glanced at an exhibit of the Berlin Wall, with lots of pictures and information slapped between real sections of wall, one of which, was covered in used chewing gum. I had never seen that before. More people poured into the platz by the minute wearing German tricolors. It was now 2:30pm, and I decided to head home so I’d be there in plenty of time before the match started at about 4:30pm. Maybe I would have time to take a nap.
We were expecting Susanne, her boyfriend Marko, and Juliet over for grilled chicken, sausage, and salmon kebabs, and to watch the football match. Within minutes of reaching home, I met Marko for the first time, as he arrived ahead of Susanne, riding his Ridley Crossbow racing bicycle. He’d come all the way from Potsdam by bike! I was impressed, and asked if I could ride his bike. He graciously let me and I road a back road and path south to a main road half-way to Lichtenrade; turned north and road past our nearest S-Bahn station (Buckower Chaussee) and half-way to Mariendorf before conceding that I was having too much fun, and didn’t have any money or water. I should be at home getting ready for the match and visiting with Susanne and Marko. But, first I declare that Marko’s bike is the best I’ve ever ridden!
I put on my England shirt which surprised everyone, but indicated that I didn’t think they would win. A glimmer of hope appeared for a brief moment in the first half when they’d apparently tied the score 1-1, but the bleeping referee didn’t see the goal and it wasn’t counted. The rest is history. No matter, we had a great time visiting and eating, and Linda enjoyed grilling. Gerald, Reanna and I had fun throwing a cheap little Frisbee that Reanna brought in the back yard. I always love a good Frisbee toss.
Monday, 28th, our last day (sigh). I wasn’t sure what to do with our last day, but Gerald suggested we go to see his university in Dahlem, and the Botanical Gardens in Stieglitz. He generously took the day off to accompany Reanna and me by bus. This was a great idea. Gerald attends Free University of Berlin, and he showed us the main building at main campus, including the Philology Library, which was one of the most unusual looking libraries I’ve ever seen. It was shaped like a giant pod, and had a very modern interior design with lots of curves, ergonomic and minimalist features, black, white and grey colors with the occasional splash of bright yellow and red. Gerald asked a student worker at the service desk if I could take some pictures, and she graciously said “yes,” and offered to answer my questions and encouraged me to walk around and see the place. This was fantastic, but I didn’t want to overstay my welcome or accidentally use the flash. I was unobtrusive as possible.
Then, Gerald showed us the student cafeteria, with all kinds of food on offer, and then we walked to his smaller campus where Economics and Law classes are held. He is studying Economics. He gave us a tour of two buildings; one where his lectures are, and the other one where the main auditorium for the University is located. I was interested to find out that they had recently bestowed an honorary Doctor’s Degree on Paul Krugman, the well-known American Economist.
Following the University tour, we were getting hungry and took two buses to Botanical Gardens and ate lunch. The sky was clear, the temperature was in the upper 80s, but humidity was fairly low. The Botanical Gardens were enough for a whole day—lots to see—but we were just a bit overwhelmed. The tropical and desert plants in the greenhouses were splendid, and the outdoor grounds were oh, so inviting, but time was getting on and we had to go. Gerald took us to see a big shopping center in Stieglitz, so he could buy a new Frisbee, and then we went to an ice cream parlor, and walked home. We certainly covered a lot of ground today, and riding the bus was fun.
We threw the Frisbee in the back yard with Gerald (Frisbee soul mate!), and then we ate dinner and started packing, earnestly, for our flight home tomorrow morning. Everyone stayed up late, except me, but I couldn’t sleep for my mind was restless and I must have absorbed too much sun. I was resigned to going home, but I felt satisfied. I usually don’t feel satisfied, because I usually don’t get enough time to do all the things I want to do on a trip. But this trip was different. I did so many wonderful things, and learned so much, I actually felt satisfied—a very elusive, hungry satisfaction—if there can be such a thing.
Tuesday, 29th, it wasn’t easy, but we packed everything, and a taxi came for us promptly at 8:55am and took us to Tegel airport. Saying goodbye to Veronica wasn’t easy. She had done so much for us to make our stay comfortable and enjoyable. Gerald did a lot for us as well, and had to get to work early, before we were up. Our taxi driver was good. He got us there in just 35-minutes. Man, everything about Germany was good—I can’t think of anything bad at all! We flew Delta Airlines to JFK airport, then to Cincinnati, and then Nashville. On the first flight, I watched the film The Last Station, a movie about Count Leo Tolstoy, starring Helen Mirren and Christopher Plummer.
At JFK, there was a brief system-wide downtime with passport database and security system, which put everything behind by almost an hour, and made standing in line a lot longer. Luckily, we didn’t miss our connecting flight to Cincinnati, and from there we flew to Nashville, without a hitch, collected all our baggage (Hallelujah), and for the first time we had to get a taxi from the airport to my sister’s house, where our car was (because Melanie and family were gone to Florida), but all went well. Would I do it all again? You bet!
In summary: this trip was a winner, to use a World Cup metaphor. I went to Germany with many fond memories from past trips, and a tremendous eagerness for
more and newer experiences. It had been six-years, and I wanted desperately to refresh the screen and try new things, as well as see the relatives
and grasp what had transpired in their lives during the six intervening years. There was no wasting time or slumping around for me. I went at Germany
and Berlin with as much interest and scrutiny as I always do and there was no let down. Being there during the World Cup was a plus, for it infused
a special buzz in the national character that was interesting to witness. The trip to England was short, but sweet, and this time we got
to accomplish what was missing in our 2008 trip; a visit to our niece in Cambridge. Her life has changed immeasurably in two-years. Cambridge is
definitely a winner. And Poland is a winner. Our brief trip to Poznan at least proved to me that my never ending curiosity about Eastern Europe
is still alive, well, and attainable. I can never have enough time for real, intense travel, but we have to gain our little victories, when we
can, with tenacity and perseverance. You must leave your country in order to understand it. I return home with open eyes.
Map of Brockley
Map of Germany
Our Trip to Berlin in 2004
My first trip to Berlin in 1993-94