How I Spent My Vacation, Part 2: Drowning in Berlin

Previously: Sex, Drugs and Clogs ‘n’ Grolsch

We arrive in Berlin after the first night train of the trip, at some ungodly hour. You’d think they’d make some allowance for honeymooners, but no, all the timetables are designed to suit the business travellers. So, we pull in several hours before the tourist office (and its hotel reservation bureau) is open. The first thing we do is get our night train to Munich booked, since we have no desire to end up in Moscow, simply because there is no room anywhere else.

Are lucky not to end up there anyway, as the ticket clerk speaks no English, so we have to rely on a combination of my German, and her infinite patience – Dutch Railway personnel, please take note. We are first in the queue and get a room in the Hotel Remter, just off the Kurfurstendamm, up the street from both a strip-club and a transvestite revue. Bet that causes confusion to inebriated customers. We turn up at our abode, two hours before the room is ready (it’s still early!) but Dunkin Donuts occupies the time, and we look at the map and plot. It’s such a large city, we opt for an early bus-tour, so we can scope out the land and then go back tomorrow to interesting places.

I’m curious to see what Berlin is like, since the last time I was here was just before the wall came down (at the time, the Eastern Bloc border was cracking elsewhere, but not in Berlin). At that stage, you had to change DM25 into their currency when you went across into the East, but there was so little to buy, I ended up getting the best seat in the house for a performance of My Fair Lady. In German. Thanks largely to souvenir hunters, there’s now very little of the actual wall still standing, and what there is, is carefully fenced off as a monument. Elsewhere, there’s just a double line of cobble-stones which mark its path. As we travel round, it’s as if the division had never existed – life has just gone right back where it left off, with an incredible amount of construction.

The Bear Wench Project

We notice a lot of psychedelically coloured bears lurking around the city. Before you discard this apparently bizarre hallucination, should point out we’re talking cast from some kind of plaster. There were about four different poses, but no two were alike; turned out to be an art project, and one we fell in love with. Just done a quick count, and approximately 10% of all our honeymoon photos are of Berlin bears. 🙂 One statue was sent to New York in May, and was placed on Wall Street – this may not have been wise, given the bear has long been a symbol of market pessimism. And lo, the market did duly plummet, and accounting scandals did flourish!

That night, we head off to a Goth club, with the delightful name of Golgotha – not without trepidation, since we have no real idea of how to get around after the subway closes! The area it’s in is very quiet, but the address is on a main road, which soothes our paranoia somewhat. We walk past an incredibly spooky park, which looks like something out of Brotherhood of the Wolf, and laugh – wouldn’t it be funny if the club was in there!

We pass the park and check the house numbers. Guess what? It is in there. We go back and stand at the path (all badly-lit and tree-roots) peering in, nervously. Is that howling I can hear? I tell Chris I won’t make her go in there if it bothers her, thereby artfully concealing the fact that I’m scared shitless. We see two figures looming up out of the mist towards us, and prepare to defend ourselves. It’s an elderly couple. We figure if they can cope, so can we…

Ist das Lola?
Lola’s bank
Run Chris Run

Of course, nothing happens. The club is friendly, doesn’t charge admission and has good beer, though the music largely sucks. We are too happy to be with living people to mind, but are careful to leave in time to catch the last subway, and with other humans. This last plan goes down in flames when they go in the opposite direction, leaving us to make our way out alone through the park. RUUUUUUUUUNNNNNNN!!!!

The next day, we head to the Post Office, and send back to Phoenix a box of stuff no longer needed. With hindsight, we should have delayed this until after the immediately following trip to World of Music; the space freed up is rapidly consumed by CDs and DVDs. Happy times… Thereafter, we turn to the main business for the day – retracing Lola’s steps from Run Lola Run.

We had done some quick research on arrival here, Chris having found a website which lists locations used in the movie. Had we known we were going to be here, we’d have made the effort to watch it beforehand, but Berlin was not on the original plan. This lead to much “Er…is that the building?” questioning of each other; we take pictures anyway, just to be sure. [Subsequent inquiry back in London revealed we were usually pretty close to the mark!]

While running around odd corners of Berlin (and discovering that Lola would have to be an Olympic champion, or possess a teleport device, to cover all her route in 20 minutes), we stumbled across a couple of cool places. First up was Fassbender and Rausch, allegedly the world’s largest chocolate shop, which uses it to create, much like Mini-Europe, large-scale creations of famous buildings. I presume they’re varnished rather than actually edible (one hot day, and boom, the Reichstag is reduced to a puddle) but you can only admire the concept.

In the Babelplatz, opposite Lola’s bank was a window in the ground, onto an underground library, without any books on the shelves. This was a chilling monument to the Nazi book-burnings in the 1930’s, reminding me of Heinrich Heine’s prophetic quote from a century before: “Where one burns books, one will soon burn people.”

On a lighter note, we found the mother lode of bears: 125 in a circle on the site of the future U.S. Embassy, with each representing one country and decorated by an artist from there. Kind of a Uni-teddy Nations… [Go on, groan – I’ll wait here for you] Also stumbled into a street festival, with food, entertainment and, of course, beer; one of the personal highlights was hearing them play Kraftwerk over the PA. Chris amused herself with some bubbles, and going by the trail of small children she acquired, it seems that you don’t need any musical ability to be a Pied Piper.

We left Berlin that evening with a feeling that we’d only scratched the surface of the city. Chris – particularly impressed with the public toilets – said it was somewhere she’d be happy to live, and I’m inclined to agree. It’s a place with enormous potential, busy without being overcrowded, and the train to Munich reinforced our overall happiness and satisfaction with Germany. Never have I ever seen a sleeping car possessing its own bathroom, including a shower. Sheer luxury, with even a ladder that comes out of the wall so that the top bunker doesn’t have to engage in Lara Croft-ian maneouveres to reach the bed. With such attention to our comfort, it seems a shame to go to bed, but Munich beckons…

Next: The Hills are Alive…

How I Spent My Vacation, Part 1: Sex, Drugs and Clogs ‘n’ Grolsch

Apart from obvious, being-utterly-devoted-to-each-other-for-the-rest-of-our-lives justifications, there are many reasons why Chris and I got married. The chance to have a really good party – or, indeed, several. The acquisition of presents (with fortunately, not a toaster to be seen). I no longer have to be Chris’s employee; she no longer bears the mark of Satan, in the form of her ex-husband’s surname. But perhaps most importantly, the opportunity to take five weeks off work, the longest break I’ve had since graduating in 1987.

Technically, it wasn’t five weeks holiday. Not the twelve days prior to the wedding, certainly, given the amount of running around that had to be done, arranging stuff e.g. suddenly realising, the day before, that we’d forgotten to choose hymns for the service or print up orders of service. Oops. Every day, new challenges to be met – meeting the minister, and hoping he wouldn’t ask tricky questions about religion (for the record, he was great. The subject of God never came up at all). Every day, we’d fervently vow never to go through this ever again. No, whatever it was, a holiday was not it.

After the big day, we could relax, though it was some time before we lost that wild, hunted look, and the fixed smile that goes with being photographed approximately 400 times in one day – I now have the utmost respect for supermodels. Indeed, for the whole female race: wearing a kilt showed me the difficulties faced by the skirt-wearing sex on a daily basis, with “sitting” and “getting out of cars” top of the list of problematic scenarios. I’m also here to tell you that pure wool chafes.

Once we picked up the marriage licence and got out of town, felt like the wedding was actually over and the honeymoon could start. First stop was Edinburgh, since Chris’s experience of it was limited to me poking her head above ground at Waverley Station (“Look! A castle!”) and my last significant trip there was for a job interview after university, which was followed by a pub-crawl, me losing my glasses off the Forth Rail Bridge, and a vow never to drink cider again.

This time round, no such disasters, and we’d both like to get back and spend more time there at some point. The highlight was the City of the Dead walking tour, which is centred around the Black Mausoleum in Greyfriars cemetery. It’s home to the Mackenzie poltergeist, one of the most active spirits in Britain and is certainly a spooky site. After numerous tales being recounted, you can understand why some customers faint – if only through the power of suggestion. The whole effect was, however, greatly diminished at the end, by some guy in a mask leaping out and going “Boo!” at the party. Oooh, I’m so scared.

After a night of entirely untroubled sleep, it was down to London for a few days, a party for our Southern friends at the London Canal Museum, and (a surprise for Chris’s birthday) a Cure concert in Hyde Park – during which the weather was miraculously perfect. Think I’ve lost my tolerance to crowds after almost two years in Arizona, as London now seems like a black hole of people. I can’t imagine how I ever coped with Oxford Street on Saturday afternoons.

The next day saw the ‘moon proper start, as we began our tour round Europe on the trains. I’d done this kind of thing several times before, as a student; this time, we were doing it properly: a first-class rail pass, no sleeping on benches, and with actual bathrooms. Still bearing rucksacks, mind you: it was a joy to see the snotty business travellers in first-class look down their noses, as we T-shirted ragamuffins heaved our rucksacks up there, fully expecting us to be thrown out when the ticket inspector turned up. No, fuck you… 🙂

Enough class war. Brussels. The number of famous Belgians I can name might stop at about five (including three members of Front 242), but I like the place. The equation is quite simple, and involves beer and chocolate. They take especial delight in the former, and it’s great to see restaurants where the beer list is longer than the wine list, or even the menu itself. Each beer seems to come with its own glass: we were particularly impressed by Kwak – cue jokes about “Kwak addicts” – served in what looks like an hour-glass with the top of the upper globe sliced off, and Chimay, a serious death-beer of 9% alcohol (compare Guinness at around 4.3%), brewed by Trappist monks. No wonder they don’t say much.

The main tourist attraction is the Mannekin Pis, a statue of a young kid urinating, whose origins are lost in the mists of time. Probably deliberately, if I were them. Dressed in a different costume every day – Peruvian gaucho on this occasion – it is to Brussels’ souvenir shops what the Eiffel Tower is to those in Paris. The corkscrews were particularly mind-boggling, like the result of some bizarre human/pig genetic experiment. So were the Mannekin Pis lollipops – Belgium must be the only country in the world where it’s legal to suck off small boys. And moving rapidly on…

Outside of the ancient city centre, there isn’t really that much to see, Brussels largely being a bureaucratic centre for various bits of the EU. We did venture out to Heysel for the Atomium, a large-scale (x 165,000,000,000 to be precise!) model of an iron crystal, built for the 1958 World Fair. It’s now filled with a lot of retro/kitsch stuff from the period; the views from the top would be spectacular if the windows weren’t so grubby.

At the other end of the scale spectrum, nearby is Mini-Europe, a model village designed to promote the idea of a united continent by…showing you 1/25 models of landmarks. No, the logic of this escapes me, too. It does save you the bother of having to visit any other countries, for which we were kinda glad, having just realised that we actually had four less days left than we thought. We cross off France and Italy (having seen the 1/25 versions), and head North into Holland.

Or is it the Netherlands? No-one seems sure. Even the official site of the Netherlands Board of Tourism is www.holland.com. On the train in, we see as many McDonalds arches as windmills, a depressing thought as we arrive in Amsterdam. I must be getting old, as it takes almost twelve hours before anyone offers to sell me drugs – about 100 times as long as when I was there as a student. Instead, the hotel accommodation offers come thick and fast from dubious-looking individuals outside the station, but we decline them all and head for the tourist office, who set us up with a lovely city centre hotel for 60 Euro/night.

[Swift detour. The whole Euro thing is great, especially when you’re whizzing through multiple countries like we are. No need to worry about flushing out loose change every other day, working out what notes to use, or coming to terms with multiple different exchange rates. One Euro = One Dollar, everywhere (except Switzerland, where chocolate remains the main negotiable currency). The bureaux de change must be hating it, hahaha!]

We go on a boat cruise which, frankly, is the most miserable hour of my married life to date. A glass-boat is not so nice when the sun is beating down, as it turns into something out of Merry Christmas, Mr. Lawrence. There are also a pair of small children behind me, alternately kicking my seat and having tantrums. I cling to my sanity by visualising headlines like ‘Two Drown in Tragic Pleasure Cruise Accident’. It doesn’t help that Amsterdam is actually immensely dull, an endless string of canals banked by tall houses which also all look the same.

That night we go to the Korean State Circus, which is actually very good, it’s the Russian horse troupe who support them we can’t stand. I’m no PETA-phile, but equine legs are not supposed to go in the directions they’re made to here. We walk home through the red-light district, an experience in itself for Chris – not exactly having led a sheltered upbringing, the sheer in-your-face-ness of it all still has her initially looking like a deer caught in headlights, though she soon returns to her usual unflappable self.

Next morning, we go to the train station to discover the left-luggage is way too full, with a long queue even to put your bags in. To make matters worse, when we try to book our tickets on the sleeper to Munich (after a 45-minute wait, during which we become disturbingly familiar with adverts, in which Dutch guys of questionable sexuality put mayonnaise on their chips), we encounter Ilsa, Ticket-seller of the Dutch Train Service. She single-handedly nails dead the myth about the Dutch being friendly, laid-back and helpful. The Munich train is full, so tonight we will end up going East, to Berlin. Our carefully-planned schedule is now unrecognisable.

With the afternoon to kill before departure, we cheer ourselves up with some educational museum visits. Specifically, the Sex Museum and the Torture Museum. Who said travel didn’t broaden the mind? We also, totally by chance, bump into my sister, who is independently in Amsterdam. This was bizarre enough, but doubly weird is discovering that she has been staying in the same hotel – and paying almost twice as much, too. That really cheered us up… 🙂

Next: Germany calling…