Thursday, March 22, 2012

Berlin, Briefly.

     I went into photo overload on this blog. If all you care about are kiddies, skip to the end for some adorable photos!

      I feel like it's fair to say that I am going to have The Producers' "Springtime for Hitler" stuck in my head for at least the next month. If not two. (If you don't know this song, do yourself a favor: click here!) The weather has obliged me by being absolutely gorgeous for the last week and a half, and the ten-day forecast continues to hold to the pattern! (By gorgeous, I mean mid-60s. Okay, a little chilly by California standards, but when the sun is shining and you have a lawn chair to doze in the sun, it feels pretty damn good. Yeah, I went there. That deserved a curse word.

     The weather has also made my kid-minding duties significantly easier. Now that Cliona has "mastered" (sort of) riding her bike with training wheels, we head off to the park pretty much every day after picking them up, and only return at dinnertime (usually having to drag them away kicking and screaming. Figuratively. And...sometimes literally). They also both acquired a pair of "boot-skates," as they call them, those being rollerblades (in Kilian's case) and those awful little rolling wheel shoes that go on over your normal shoes for Cliona. I recall having a pair when I was her age or so...they're pretty awful. But they've made our trips to the park even more enjoyable. Kilian is doing pretty well; he still falls on his bum about thrice on his trip the length of a hockey field, and I make him wear his huge winter gloves so his hands don't get scraped up when he falls. But he is good-spirited about the whole thing. Cliona's basically given up, so we make do with the jungle gym, her bike, and sidewalk chalk instead.

     Our bike rides home sometimes take a great deal of patience. Cliona doesn't (usually) fall anymore (except when she neglects to realize that the training wheels add a lot of width in the back and catches them on poles or street lights), but there are other issues to deal with. She refuses to believe me that it is impossible to get up/over a bump without pedaling harder/faster/etc., so she stops pedaling as approaching it, wheels catch, and she rolls backwards, screaming. It's funny at first. But then just annoying. She also if fairly convinces the whole must-look-for-cars-before-crossing-the-street thing is just some weird obsession of mine. She blissfully shouts out, "No cars!" and proceeds into the street. Yesterday I saved her from being smushed by oncoming cars in either direction (okay, they weren't going THAT fast and neither was she, but still) by hastily sticking my foot in the wheels of her bike. The five-minute lecture that followed didn't have much of an effect. I'm hoping she'll figure it out. In the meantime, I've given Kilian instructions to make sure she stops at all costs, and angel big brother that he is, he is determined to do so. Today he actually dove off of his bike to stand in front of her so she wouldn't drive into the street. He is such a good kid. (I think she was going to stop on her own, but it's the principle of the thing.)  It's also kind of hilarious at times to hear Cliona screaming "I can't!" (usually in regards to pedaling), and while she's screaming, for the pedals to start turning. She gets so mad when I laugh.

    Kilian is a far better sibling than I ever was, that's for sure. For one thing, he is very attune to parental/au pair-ental deviousness, and always willing to go along with it. "Yes, Cliona, you have much more juice than I do, I know!" "Yes, Cliona, we don't get any more chocolate tonight." He is also excellent at intervening in our arguments. Cliona and I spent a good three minutes today wherein she howled furiously at not getting to have cocoa (okay, it's 65 degrees out and five minutes from dinnertime, not going to happen), and I told her to take her shoes off and stop crying or to go to her room. Sometimes you just can't give in. Or something like that. Kilian smoothly interjected (while I paused for breath) to say, "Cliona, if you don't take your shoes off, you can't go play with your Hello Kitty toy in the living room!" Which, of course, worked. Thanks, Kilian. I also occasionally settle arguments between the two  with the old pick-a-number-between-one-and-ten thing, which Kilian always wins, as Cliona can't ever remember a number other than ten. If Cliona howls, Kilian will let her have her way anyway. It drives me a little insane. He's too nice. He also puts her bike away when she refuses to (which I sometimes have to forbid him from doing. How is she going to learn? I sound like a crazy mother, don't I).

     All temper tantrums and issues aside, they're really great kids. I actually look forward to picking them up, because generally they're a lot more fun to play with than whatever I'm doing on my lonesome during the day. Sometimes I want to scream and yell and be annoyed (or just amused, like when Cliona yelled "You not my best friend!" at me today. I think that was an insult?), but it only last for a little while. They're wonderful.

     My tune may change tomorrow, when the kindergarten is closed for the day and Anne has to work, thus scheduling me for a whole day of kiddie fun. Oy. Fortunately I have the bribe of the ice cream shop being open again to hold over their heads. I'll get back to you on that one.


    To jump back a few days, let's talk about my weekend! Nate had known for awhile that he had a Fulbright conference in Berlin in March, and we'd talked about the possibility of my coming to see him, but it seemed unlikely when it emerged he'd only be getting in around 11 on Sunday (and I actually looked at the plane tickets. Somehow, it's cheaper to fly to Bulgaria. What?). However, last-minute (or last-five-days, rather), I decided to look a bit more carefully, and chanced upon convenient Mitfahrenmöglichkeiten, or in a language you understand, carpooling possibilities! There's a wonderful website called  (to view in English try, wherein people planning trips can post where they're headed, when they're planning on going, how many free seats they have, and how much money they'd like for a seat. Seems sort of fishy, yes (and to be quite honest, I would probably never dream of doing this in the US), but it really is generally quite safe. Drivers are required to be ADAC members (Allgemeiner Deutscher Automobil-Club, the German equivalent of AAA), and all information about the car is given up front, even including the average driving speed of the driver on the Autobahn! I did it once with Nate on our way back from Leipzig, and was a little nervous to try it on my own, but as it was about 75 euros cheaper than any alternative (35 euros each way), it seemed the best option.

   I managed to find fairly perfectly timed rides; I headed out from Munich at 8 AM Saturday morning, which got us there at approximately 1:00 PM (Munich to Berlin is just about the distance from LA to San Francisco, if you were curious). The ride was uneventful; the driver a chubby mid-40s man named Achim, and my fellow travelers a girl and guy, both around the same age as me, one headed home and the other traveling for work. I slept most of the way there and arrived, sleepy and hungry, at a large train station in Western Berlin (Bahnhof Zoo, to be precise). Fortunately the train station I was dropped off at had an U-Bahn line that went directly to my hostel, so I bought a train ticket and headed off on the underground, arriving at my hostel in a timely manner (thankfully, 'cause boy did I have to pee!). I stayed in a large, tourist-friendly hostel about an eight-minute walk south of the Brandenburger Tor and Unter den Linden. The grand price, for a night's stay, included linen and towel, and free breakfast the next morning? 9 Euros. Huzzah! Hostels are wonderful. Also conveniently located next door the the North Korean Embassy. Hmm.

   I dropped my stuff off, filled up my water bottle, and headed into the city center, armed with my trusty Rick Steves' guidebook (if you're a traveler who doesn't know this guy, get with it! He's great). Having arranged to meet my tour guide for the day (a friend of Nate's from Bulgaria who moved to Berlin with her boyfriend; we'd met once on one of my trips there) in an hour or so at one of the large train stations, I took advantage of the time to walk down to the Brandenburger Tor, easily the most recognizable landmark in Berlin (and with some of the most interesting history!).

Dear Facebook friends, I will warn you that pretty much all of these pictures are on my Facebook as well. Sorry about that. Feel free to skip ahead.

For your viewing pleasure:

Storm Trooper, Darth Vader, and a soldier sharing a smoke.

    For those less than familiar with Berlin's history, when the city was split into East and West Berlin after the building of the Berlin Wall in 1961 (East Berlin belonging to the Soviets, West split between the US, France, and Great Britain), the dividing line between the two halves of the city fell right on Brandenburger Tor. For the 28 years the wall was present, Brandenburger Tor, the symbol of the power of the German people and Berlin itself, was completely shut off, with walls on either side of it. West Germans climbed onto special observing platforms to look at it from afar. It was also the site of Ronald Reagan's famous speech, remembered especially for the phrase, "Mr Gorbachev, tear down this wall!"

Divided Berlin after WWII; Brandenburger Tor is in that little niche between the grey (Britain) and red (USSR)

For history's sake, take a look at Cold War Brandenburger Tor:

The Tor surrounded by the Berlin Wall
Ronald Reagan making his speech

Though it is indeed a beautiful gate, and has lots of history to it other than what surrounds the Cold War, it's for that it is really remembered. Imagine having the greatest thing in your city blocked off to every single person. The Eiffel Tower walled off. The Golden Gate Bridge blockaded on either side. It's unfathomable. So it's quite something to be able just to walk through that gate now.

People climbing joyfully over the wall after the fall in November 1989
Stones marking the path of the former Wall
Statue of top of the Tor; the goddess of victory in her chariot

     Before I continue, I'll fill you in on a teensy bit of my personal history: 

     I am obsessed with stories about the Cold War.  More specifically, about the Berlin Wall. For some reason, when I was a kid of probably 7 or 8, my father took it upon himself to educate me about the Cold War and the division of Germany. Maybe because he'd actually traveled through Germany during the division, and even visited East Berlin during the 70s, he thought it was important for me to know. Anyway, long story short, I have heard probably every story about Berlin Wall escapes and attempts, know backwards and forwards how the city was divided, the story of the Berlin Airlift, the building of the wall. 

    In short, this trip was something of a pilgrimage for me. Let's just say that I literally tear up every time I look at that (or any) picture of the people dancing on the Wall after the fall. 

     But back to business. I met my friend Sanja at the massive train station at Friedrichsplatz (after the usual drama of meeting at train stations; you're at which end? I am too, I think? I'm by the McDonald', the other McDonald's. Can you see a fountain? Yes, I see like five.) and we set off for a leisurely walk up Unter den Linden (Berlin's main drag) towards the Alexanderplatz (where the police headquarters for the Gestapo were, incidentally. Read that in a book this morning. Alone in Berlin, by Hans Fallada. Highly recommend it.)  Instead of listing what we say, I'll photo-illustrate instead:

Looking out at the River Spree 

Berliner Dom (Berlin Cathedral), with crowds of sunbathers out in front

Yours truly!

Looking up Unter den Linden towards Alexanderplatz
Ampelmann (the little guy at traffic signals who tells you when to cross the road) cards! Berlin's is famous for being very cute. This store even had Ampelmann gummi bears.
Rathaus (City Hall)
TV Tower in Alexanderplatz

    We met Sanja's boyfriend Adrian at Alexanderplatz, and whisked off on the train to Ostbahnhof to visit the East Side Gallery. The East Side Gallery is an over-a-mile-long portion of the wall covered with paintings. Something like artists from 20 countries came in 1990 to paint pieces of the wall, and after being restored a couple of years ago, they are a gorgeous exhibit to walk past. Some highlights:

"He who wants the world to remain as it is, doesn't want it to remain at all."

"God help me to survive this deadly love."

"Many small people who in many small places do many small things that can alter the face of the world."

   It is really an amazing thing to see. And yes, I probably teared up quite a few times. Now you know my terrible secret. Sappy movies don't make me cry. History does. Shh, don't tell.

   We finished up the tour with a walk around the Jewish memorial, the Bundestag (former Reichstag), and Potsdamer Platz, then Sanja and Adrian dropped me back at my hostel. I headed out for a bit for a bite to eat at a little Italian restaurant, stopped in to say goodnight to the Branderburger Tor, then headed back for a night's sleep.

I hope you know what this is by now

    The next morning I arose bright and early-ish (8 AM, and that was after some sleeping in. I can never sleep on days when I have to meet people at specific times. Especially when that person is Nate). My hostel was pleasantly quiet (probably due to my excellent ear plugs, but still), the only amusement being the two American girls in my room who left at about 11 PM and came back in at about 6:30 in the morning....ouch. I ate plenty of breakfast (tradition German fare, consisting of rolls and cheese/butter/nutella/ham, müsli and yogurt, and soft-boiled eggs. This is what you will find at any German breakfast anywhere. Promise.), and surreptitiously put together a couple of belegtes Brötchen (literally, occupied bread, aka a sandwich! Isn't German cool?) to take with me. A hasty look-through my room and I was off to make the most of my 2.5 hours before I was due to meet Nate at his hotel.

     Checkpoint Charlie, according to my trusty guide, was about a five minute walk south of the hostel, with the Topography of Terror exhibit just down the street from that, so I set off for the two. Checkpoint Charlie is, contrary to the belief of Young Laura, not named after anyone called Charlie, but refers in fact to the military alphabet. Checkpoints Alpha and Bravo also exist, one entering East Germany and the other entering West Berlin. Checkpoint Charlie was the entrance from the American sector into the Soviet sector, and was also the site of a standoff between American and Soviet tanks in 1961. Today it's a huge tourist attraction, for Americans more than anyone else, apparently, but it pretty cool. You can also follow the path of the wall around the area, marked by a thin metal strip.

     Just down the road from Checkpoint Charlie is the Topography of Terror exhibit. It contains the longest stretch of the Wall in its original location. The exhibit, however, focuses on WWII; the area contained by the exhibit is the original location of the governmental headquarters of the Third Reich. It's a bit of a confusing mix between Cold War and WWII history, but quite informative nonetheless.

Map showing the location of the Wall
Awesome perspective of the globe

Anonymous American soldier

Anonymous Soviet soldier

Former site of Third Reich governmental buildings
Why hello, East Berlin

Tourist me!
   Upon leaving the exhibit, I wandered over to Potsdamer Platz, looked around a bit, realized I was supposed to be at Nate's hotel in about 10 minutes, and scurried onto the U-Bahn over to Alexanderplatz.

   Shortly thereafter, Nate and I met up in the lobby of his hotel, lazed about eating trail mix for a bit, then headed off on a Fulbright bus tour Nate had graciously gotten permission for me to accompany him on. We bussed merrily around the city, hearing information and stories about the Cold War (good tour pick, Nate), making stops such as Checkpoint Charlie (again), the former Allied headquarters, driving past East Side Gallery, et cetera. I confess I felt a little inferior to all these Fulbrighters (really regretting not forging/stealing a badge), but I felt better when at least two of them got stuck in the turnstile at the Checkpoint Charlie museum. I may not be a Fulbright Scholar but this au pair knows how to get through a turnstile! 

    The rest of the day passed fairly quickly. Nate had to attend a Fulbright dinner, so I took off into the chill and rainy night to pass the time and do a wee bit more sightseeing, including an unplanned but pleasant trip into the DDR museum, dedicated to showing how daily life functioned in East Germany, complete with lots of interactive exhibits. 

    Several hours later, I boarded an S-Bahn to take me down to Wannsee Bahnhof, where I met my return ride at midnight to ferry me down the Autobahn to return to Munich at around 5:30 AM. All went successfully (even finding out a fellow rider was a friend of the au pair I'd replaced! Small world), and  was back at my house by 6:15 AM, time for an hour and a half nap before taking Cliona to kindergarten.

    I spent most of the next day catching up on sleep (and the next day too). I feel like I did pretty well for a whopping 35 hours in Berlin! I missed a few key things, so fingers crossed I have the chance to go back. I really liked Berlin. Don't get me wrong, I love Munich, but Berlin's personality and general feeling is way different. It's very....alive. If you have the chance, go visit!

   And here I am, back in Munich. I think I've written just about enough, but I'll leave you with some kiddie photos, as always.

Mad that I dared take a picture of her

Pretty princess

Impossible to try for a cute photo of these crazies 
Modeling Laura's new sunglasses

"Hell...dunkel...hell...dunkel!" (Light...dark...)

     Let me close by briefly bragging/thanking all of you: my blog now officially has readers on six of seven continents. If anyone's planning on taking an Antarctic cruise anytime soon, pleeeeeease give my blog a quick peek while you're there!