Breakfast confusion; Lisbon to Berlin; A church found; Bahns both U and S; In which I am reminded that it has been a long time since Wings of Desire was filmed, but get to see the Victory Column at last; The Tiergarten; All Germans are freakishly tall; Bizarre washrooms; An opera duel under gas-light

Breakfast was included with the hostel price, and the staff raved about how good it was, so we delayed leaving in the morning until 8:30 when they started serving so that we could have it, even though our flight was at 10:45. Surprise, the breakfast turned out to be the usual crap hostel breakfast, except with ham and cheese. Delaying meant that we had to take a taxi to the airport rather than a bus, and it arrived at 8:40 so we didn’t get much breakfast and the whole exercise was stupid anyway. But at least the taxi ride was fair, though not cheap - €16 with tip (about CAD$25) and we got to our flight in good time.

The flight was delayed half an hour and had a gate change. We flew on Easyjet for about €100 each, and decided not to pay extra for priority check-in. This meant that the half of the plane which did pay boarded first and picked their seats, there being no assigned seating. Also they had a separate shuttle to the plane - wouldn’t want them to have to mix with the riffraff, we joked between ourselves.

The flight was fine - we landed in Berlin just past 3pm, which made it a 3-hour flight. We were both surprised by the absence of customs and passport control getting off the plane, though we shouldn’t have been. Berlin’s Schönefeld airport is right beside an S-Bahn station (surface rail which sometimes runs underground, as opposed to the U-Bahn which are subway trains which sometimes run aboveground). We figured out the fare system - ticket machines make me very happy - and took the train downtown to Zoologischer Garten, which is a main transfer point. As we exited the S-Bahn station for the short walk to the U-Bahn station, we saw the broken spire and blown-out windows of an old church - this turned out to be Kaiser Wilhelm Memorial Church, which Sheryl had seen on her earlier trip and which she wanted to show me. She couldn’t remember the name or where it was, so it was pure luck we caught a glimpse of it in the distance. It’s the remaining shell of a church which was bombed several times in Allied air-raids during the war and still somehow stayed standing, so was left as a monument.

A short U-Bahn ride and longish walk later, we arrived at the hostel. Berlin was cool and overcast, and the moisture in the air was a shock to our systems after so long in the dry heat of Spain and Portugal. Another pleasant surprise was the absence of flies crawling all over us. At one point the wind made my hair brush against my forehead and I reacted with the spastic fly-removal dance we’d both been doing for weeks, only to stop and sigh happily when I realized it wasn’t really a fly.

Checking into the hostel was fine, though we had to check our email first to find out if we’d had any replies from potential hosts on We had - one person offered to let us stay the whole time we were in Berlin. I didn’t really want to couch-surf in Berlin - it takes a lot out of me and I wasn’t really feeling very social, and it takes a lot of overhead - you lose a lot of the time you have for actually seeing the place you’re in, which is really the point of the exercise for me. Being social and meeting people is the point of the exercise for Sheryl, though, so we compromised and stayed the first night in the hostel.

The hostel itself was huge but bare-bones, and full of German teenagers. Looked like some sort of school trip, though it’s summer and I couldn’t see any teachers with them. Luckily we were only sharing our 16-bed dorm with four people, none of them kids. Ditching the packs, we went out to find food and wander the streets. My first impressions of Berlin were good - it seems a clean, rational city. There’s a lot of graffiti, but none of it offensive, and a lot of buildings were run-down or abandoned, but that’s in keeping with most European cities, I’ve noticed - not to mention that the effects of the war and the subsequent decades of neglect have yet to be completely erased.

I have to admit, though, that I was expecting something different - albeit irrationally. One of my favourite film directors is Wim Wenders, and his Wings of Desire (Der Himmel über Berlin) affected me profoundly on conceptual, visual and emotional levels. So although I know that it’s been twenty-five years since its filming, and cities do change, I was subconsciously expecting Berlin to be like its moody setting of empty broken concrete squares and faceless industrial apartment blocks. Berlin’s a different place now, though. There’s been massive development and urban renewal here. The TV Tower is still there at Alexanderplatz, of course, as I saw from the train coming in. And, as we wandered the streets later in the evening, I saw the most important icon of the film (and for me, of Berlin itself) - the Victory Column. It’s a golden angel with spread wings holding a spear in her left hand and a laurel wreath outstretched in her right, wearing a winged helmet, and standing on a tall ribbed column. I still think she’s very beautiful and, since I didn’t know where it was and wasn’t looking for it, it made me gasp when we turned a corner and saw it.

We saw the zoo as well, or at least the gates of the zoo - baroque wrought-iron flanked by stone animal heads. We walked through some of the Tiergarten, a huge green space near the centre of the city, which gives its name to the district surrounding. It’s pretty and well-kept and we enjoyed our stroll through, distracted though we were by hunger. Other things I noticed about Berlin: The shops and buildings and streets are lit in many places with fun lighting effects in neon or odd colours; A small car near the zoo with a plastic giraffe neck and head sticking out of its skylight; Lots of pipes running above and emerging from the roads, painted in bright colours (I was told later that these are necessary for pumping away groundwater, as the water table in Berlin is high, and that Berliners hate them); and that nearly everyone in Germany is at least two meters tall. I’m used to being shorter than almost anyone in a crowd, but this was ridiculous. I was also to find later that Germans have a strong prejudice against short people and are extremely rude about it. Obviously the idea of a perfect phenotype is still embedded deeply in the German psyche.

On the whole, though, I found everyone mostly polite and friendly. Following our guidebook’s recommendation, we went for dinner at a nice restaurant. This was to be the first of a lot of expensive meals in Berlin, but we thought we were treating ourselves at the time. The place was a midsize funky bistro with decent food. We struggled successfully with the German menu and ordered in broken German with the aid of our phrase-book (although I’m not sure how German it was since I had gnocchi and Sheryl had tortellini) - only to find out afterward that the waitress spoke English and there was an English menu. The food was good and I tried a very good dark beer called Augustiner. The highlight of the affair, though, were the washrooms. Their hallway was lit only with a few dim indigo lights, and the washrooms themselves were lit with ultraviolet, which made the toilets and toilet paper rolls glow bright white. The urinal trough and hand-washing basin in the men’s room were vertical aluminum sheets and the water came from a pipe attached to the wall, turned on with a swivelling lever. Very cool. Sheryl told me that the women’s washroom had heart-shaped windows with swinging covers in the walls between the stalls.

Walking back to the hostel through the Tiergarten, we came across a lane lined with gas-lamps, each one different from the others. I’ve never seen more than one in one place, and the light they gave was soft and romantic. It’s easy to see why the so-called Gaslight Era of the Victorian period has been so romanticized. As we strolled quietly down the path, we heard a strong alto voice behind us break out into the first few bars of an aria. The singer stopped and started a few times, obviously practising. And then a second man rode through on a bicycle and sang back at the first man, in the same key and voice. It was absolutely enchanting. I was hoping for a full-fledged opera duel, but it wasn’t to be - the second singer rode away in the the night.


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One Comment on this Dispatch:

July 30th, 2008

I continue to expand my urinal troughs and hand-washing machines since you distainfully explained to me that I had the ones at Greendale School quite backwards. Michael says that one of his teaching placements is at Greendale!

¬ jan liberty
Chris Liberty - Dispatches from a Gentleman Adventurer
Being the internal dialog of a vagabond who chased his own tail across five continents for 4 years and 2 days from May 2008 to May 2012, in search of something that never really became clear.
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