Europe 2004

In October of 2004, I went to Berlin, Germany for a very unusual business trip. Although the work on this trip has been one of the highlights of my professional career, this page is one about visiting Berlin as a tourist and less about what I did there. So there’ll be patches missing out of days, but
hopefully you can still enjoy it. These are collected messages sent back to friends from abroad.

On the road through the countryside of Bad-Saarow.

Day 1

The flight to Berlin started at the brand new Toronto airport terminal, where I boarded an Air Canada Boeing 747 at the temporary in-field terminal. There’s a certain game of anticipation when I get on an airplane, which is to hope no one will sit down in the seat next to me until the gate is pulled away and the airplane beings pushback. On a previous trip to Europe in 2001, I sat down in a section of three seats and by Halifax, I had the entire bench to myself. That’s the only time I’ve ever slept on a plane without waking up periodically. This time, the seat between another passenger and myself was spare.

As the sun set on the horizon, I sat eating ice cream through turbulence at 30,000 feet. No one paid attention to the buffeting of the airplane except for fearing the ice cream might drip. A seven hour trip lay ahead, where I tried to sleep in various poses that did not yield any rest. We landed at Frankfurt and soon, walked into passport control. I’m always a little wary of passport control, because they seem very strict. Fortunately, a friendly woman checked my papers and waved me through.

After passport control, I got to the next gate, which was full of business travelers on their way to Berlin. Though the corporate booking service had booked me on a business flight for the short one hour leg as a last resort, I distinctly felt I was out of place with other business travelers. In Germany, it seems business travelers all wear suits, men and women alike. I have never seen a more crisp and handsome set of people waiting for a flight. They’re the kind of people you imagine reading the Financial Times or using Blackberries. Speaking of that, I was warned ahead of time not to bring my Blackberry, because our CDMA 1X models from Mobility don’t work in GSM laden Europe. I ended up carrying it with me so I could do some emails and calls at Pearson before I took off, and now I had a brick tied to my waist: The Blackberry showed absolutely no signal, which was a very strange feeling.

The gate attendant wore a snappy hat and had unusually bright blue eyes, her face decorated with glitter as if she had just stepped out of a rave. Also at the gate was a distressed American girl who looked like she was thumbing her way across the continent.

The Lufthansa A300-600, inscribed with the name Witten on its nose (presumably a city in Germany), took us from Frankfurt to Berlin, and was decorated in a very stylish all grey interior with yellow accents such as pinstriping on the seats. It had this distinctly European industrial feel to it, the kind of styling that made it look like a pneumatic controller, tomography machine or expensive set of technical pens. I spoke to the man sitting next to me, who worked in aviation finance. He told me he had the chance to move to Canada many years ago, but didn’t take up the offer.

An Airbus parked at the gates of Berlin Tegel, straight out of the late 80’s.

Berlin-Tegel has a very unusual colour scheme of red and grey, and it has a certain late 70’s to early 80’s industrial design that evokes High Tech architecture with rectangular space-portal like windows that have rounded corners. I felt we all should be listening to Jan Hammer and wearing legwarmers and shoulder pads as I walked through the hallways of this airport.

The rental car was already chosen by the corporate travel office, primarily based on whatever had an automatic transmission. The request of an intermediate car with automatic gets you a Ford Taurus or Chevy Impala in the States. You get an Audi A6 3.0L TDI Quattro here in Germany. It is roughly the same size my NA Accord, but obviously much more luxurious in execution, which I guess all mid sized cars are in Europe.

Luckily for me and innocent bystanders, the vehicle came with an onboard navigation system. Previous to this, my experience with navigation consisted of my shuffling CAA Triptik maps to my irate father while driving across South Dakota, or three Lego nerds playing with MapPoint on a laptop and a GPS receiver traversing the Potomac five times in search of George Mason University. Now, I’m no stranger to any of the technologies in a navigation system, it’s just I’ve never had the pleasure of using one in a vehicle which came stock factory OEM.

The first task was to find where the map DVD went into. The clerk at the rental desk, after trying repeatedly to find the word “trunk” in English (which apparently is not “bumper”), told me I would see a “little box” which the disc would go into. Opening the trunk yielded no clues, as the space was completely smooth with grey felt. No crevice was apparent in the cabin either. Determined not to be the idiot who couldn’t find the NAVI DVD reader, I started opening compartments in the trunk, hoping next to the spare or jack would be the reader. Thankfully, I managed to find it with a few minutes, but not until the next challenge arose: The car, being in Berlin, spoke German. Since all the German I know comes from Simpsons episodes or Acura commercials, my first task was to switch the system to English.

A very slick user interface allows you to enter in the destination address. Intelligent filtering means you can pick the place you’re going by drilling down from lists of regions and streets in those regions, instead of spelling out a typical form query for the address. I now had entered in my destination and was ready to roll. I cautiously entered the roadway and applied the accelerator. 3.0L of turbo diesel power roared beneath me and I sped off into the distance, only to get lost by the GPS system’s instructions within five minutes and coming to a grinding halt. Though the UI is much more refined, the same problems of map data, routing and instructions exist with all navigation systems: The system often doesn’t warn you appropriately until it’s too late.

It took a while to learn the nuances of the navigation system, but it soon started to make sense and I was driving like a pro, speeding by slow moving lorries and listening to BBC World Service on the radio. We were touring Europe in style! (Actually, I didn’t really leave the suburbs of Berlin) I eventually found myself in the Saarow lake region at my destination.

In retrospect it wasn’t such a smart idea to floor it across the Autobahn at 190 km/h with about two hours of sleep. But I was in a rush to get to my destination and get started with work.
The Landhaus Alte Eichen.

I was fighting jetlag by dinner time, venturing back to the hotel. The hotel, the Landhaus Alte Eichen, is a family run guest house which is extremely nice yet remarkably affordable. The place is about the same price, if I read the sign correctly, as the Holiday Inn in Dallas I stayed in last month. It was pretty obvious the waitress realized I was the only English speaker in the joint, because I got the anglicized menu. I had the French duck braised with honey in a pepper sauce, surrounded by apricots wrapped in bacon and large pan fried noodles. Delicious, and only 15 euros, which in my mind, is a steal.

I fell asleep early watching CNN Europe.

Day 2

There’s something surreal about driving around in the Germany countryside listening to Nelly on the radio in the early hours before sunrise. This morning I woke up at 5AM, back to watching CNN Europe, the only English station on the television. As always, I make it a point to try and watch all the channels to  see what is on television in other countries but ended up on CNN.

I couldn’t figure out what to do, as I was too early to go on site, yet they didn’t start serving breakfast until seven. So I decided to get into the car and drive to the Bahnhof, or Train Station which I found playing with MapPoint. It took me about ten minutes, but I found that the station was being reconstructed, being a historical site. I wanted to find out more about when trains left for Berlin, but no avail, everything was closed. Thumbing through the selections on the radio, I ended up finding the only English music on air at time, which was American hip hop. Hence, I found myself driving through the forest listening to It’s Getting Hot in Herre before dawn.

Returning to the hotel for breakfast, I found a beautiful selection of meats and cheeses, just like the last time I visited Europe. This was much more elaborate than in previous hotels I’d visited in Europe—the selection of cheeses was much larger, there was smoked salmon, and some interesting cold salads. One of them, was a curry and chicken concoction, while a second was pasta with shrimp. I enjoyed my meats and cheeses (And yogourt. And curry and chicken. And salmon.) and left for the day.

Alte Schule, a wonderful restaurant built in an old German schoolhouse.

Today’s dinner was to be at a local steakhouse, but though the prices were cheap and the restaurant recommended by the staff I’m working with, the proprietors didn’t speak English. So I decided to continue along to Alte Schule, a brick building in the middle of Reichenwalde, this little hamlet of a town.

A side note: This area used to be in East Germany. For example, the hotel I’m staying at used to be used for Communist party meetings before the fall of the Berlin Wall and the unification of Germany. Between sessions of work, one of the staff here explained life before the Wall fell. Before the unification in 1989, he told me, it was a very different place: Eastern Europeans could hear about all the West had to offer, but they could never aspire to have any of it. That said, those in the East also never feared to be hungry or unemployed though they did have to wait ten years for the government to give them a Trabant.

After a near miss with a bus, I managed to park into Alte Schule, a restaurant which I figured must have some English speakers because it was situated in the heart of this few hundred person town and also prominently indicated on the navigation system’s map of places to eat. Inside, the owner spoke with me and I had a delightful dinner from the prix fixe menu. For the low, low cost of 26 Euros, I had a meal that I’ve only seen on FoodTV or through the words of the illustrious Ashley Lawrence. I think I may have received special treatment, as the owner’s father arrived a few minutes later, business guests in tow. The owner presented a greeting from the chef, with a small cup of lentil soup as well as pieces of smoked eel. I knew this was special because the cup was the kind of cup they serve cappuccino in and the eel was finely cut into three very small pieces. You know, if they had eel like this in Canada, I’d eat eel more often.

We then had another appetizer presented from the kitchen, this time, described as a “cabbage noodle” which were thin noodles laced in strips of cabbages.

We started with trout from the lake, fixed cold into a terrine mold with egg and potato. Unusual, but interesting. I’ve never had a terrine, so this was good. The main course was duck, which is common to this region. The duck was de-boned and braised, complemented by pears and plums cooked with a ginger flavour. The plums were small, the size of large grapes but added a sweetness to the dish. There was also a serving of potatoes: Now, there are your French fried potatoes, your mashed potatoes at the Montana’s, or smallish regular potatoes at the Ikea Restaurant. There are even fancy rosti potatoes at Movenpick Marche. But I’ve never had potatoes sliced thinly and placed in a ring mould. Which made them pretty good, if only for the fact someone took the time to slice them and cut them again in a circle.

In between meals, I spoke with the owner, who started the restaurant three years ago. He was obviously very proud that his restaurant, however young and unusually located outside of the city, was listed in several restaurant guides, each copy carefully bookmarked and laid on the bar for interested diners to read. The name, Alte Schule, means “Old School”:  The building in fact, was an old schoolhouse many years ago. The walls are adorned with class photos and have woodcut engravings of cursive handwriting practice.

Dessert was a crème brulee, which I’ve never tried before, with a small serving of wine coloured peaches and ice cream. It was a good meal, before I returned to work for the night.

I am extremely impressed by the local engineering expertise.  Working with German engineering staff is like working at Nortel again. The team I’m working with is professional yet friendly and the equipment and environment is top notch. Without going into technical detail, everything here is labelled, the desks are always cleaned off after the day is done, lunch is served at punctual times, and everything is neatly placed in binders.

Day 3

I’ve learned that watching movies in the strange context can make them seem like art house films. For example, watching the 1986 Fred (The Wonder Years) Savage vehicle/Nintendo
commercial “The Wizard”, where a young autistic boy finds redemption in a Nintendo playing contest, seems like an independent film when watched on late night CBC. I spent some of last night watching German television, which, given the fact I have no idea what they’re saying, feels like I’m at the Ryerson Third Year Film School screening again watching my friend Dave’s classmates’ films.

Toilets in Germany are different. There seems to be a design archetype at work for everyday things, such as toilets, wherever you go. In Canada, we have levers which make the thing flush.  Whether it’s a public toilet in a mall or one in an expensive condominium, you still know instinctively know how to flush it. In Germany, it seems that all toilets have some sort of
button/plunger. The bathroom in the hotel has a large circular button about three inches in diameter. Push it, and the toilet flushes. Other washrooms have a similar operation.

Things like TV remotes also are similarly different. There are not a lot of channels on TV in the hotel-about twenty, so the remote has no Channel Up or Down. For a North American couch potato like myself, that makes flipping by channels very difficult. Even keying a channel over 9 is hard: You must press the 1 key and hold it down, then wait for it to blink and then press the next digit. Maybe the remote is designed this way because traditionally there have not been a lot of choices, so you wouldn’t necessarily have a Channel 53 to go directly to, or want to scroll by Channels 32-48 sequentially. Or maybe it’s a particularly cheap television because it’s in a hotel.

The dining room of Alte Eichen, the hotel. Breakfast served daily, with your choice of many German-only reading materials.

That’s also hard is not having any English reading material. At home, I’m very used to reading during meals, reading in bed, and reading on the subway. I find myself reading newspapers, magazines, books, research journals, flyers, ads, and websites. But here, nothing is in English, so I find myself trying to read, but not having any success. This morning I sat and read the Berliner Morgenpost during breakfast. Well, read as in “tried to figure out what
each article was about ”. I chose the Morgenpost solely on the masthead typeface, it seemed the most inviting.

Lunch is served here in a very strange fashion. A staffer comes by before lunch and asks what you want from a preset menu of a local restaurant. At noon, exactly at 12:00PM, a chime sounds over the PBX or PA and we are called to the visitor’s room. The room has no attendants, but lunch and plates are laid out for us at the table, with exactly one glass of soda and copies of the International Herald Tribune, the global version of the New York Times. No evidence of the rest of the bottle is present, though each of the meals is labelled with the names of our companies that we work for. Afterwards, our plates disappear after we leave the room.

I had some spare time this afternoon, so upon the suggestion from the locals, I drove to the A10-Center, a shopping plaza on the A10 Berliner Ring. Now, personally I like visiting malls and grocery stores in foreign countries, I find it interesting to see what people buy and what products are offered.

I received a note from a colleague in Canada saying I probably wouldn’t appreciate the “ride” that is the A6, so I decided to give the car bit of a drive. It’s not hard to get up to 190km/h in this car, the same way it’s not hard to get up to 140 km/h in my Accord. The car seems to have a magical hand keeping it on the road, similar to the Prius I was driving in past months, which is probably from the combination of the electronic stability program (traction control) and the four wheel drive. This came in very handy while negotiating offramps, which are very sudden and abrupt here in Germany. Anyway, I went tearing along the autobahn, which,
contrary to popular belief, is not always without speed limit.

The A10-Center is a shopping mall with some a few major stores. It’s not laid out in the way our shopping malls are. There are major stores interspersed between hallways of smaller stores. So unlike malls in Toronto, where anchor stores are on points of a star or ends of an axis, this mall has the four key merchants at equal points along its length. The mall looks like a European interpretation of a Big Box Power Center, though its unmistakable colours make it look like a Playmobil set.

The department stores at the A10-Center, a big box retail plaza in Berlin.

Speaking of Playmobil, one of the first stores I went into was one called “real”. It seems to be like a Walmart, full of discount goods and brightly lit aisles. Their toy section was 50% Lego and Playmobil alone, which is pretty neat to see. You don’t really find Playmobil outside of higher endtoy stores like Mastermind Educational here in Canada, so I was surprised at some of the sets they had: There’s a set with the inside of an airport.  No, not the airport itself, only a X-ray machine and a metal detector. You can buy the airport and an airliner too. There’s also a Playmobil portapotty. On the Lego aisle, there were some known differences and one surprise.

Most Canadian retailers only carry a certain selection of Lego. This store carried almost everything, including Lego train track. Which is curious, because there were no train sets. The selection was at least as good as a typical Toys R Us, unlike a Walmart, which only has a few sets available. What surprised me, was an end cap full of the famous Model 3033 Tub, the mainstay of Lego builders everywhere. Almost five years ago, the 3033 was a cheap way of getting thousands of bricks in one shot: 1200 bricks for $19.99. They soon disappeared, only to be replaced after a three year drought by an inferior tub which only had 1000 pieces, most of which were small and inefficient for building strong walls. The 3033 was never to be seen again on our shores. I was about ready to buy as many tubs as one could fit into my luggage, when I realized 30 Euros is nearly $45. For that kind of money, I could buy two of the new 4496 tubs widely available in Toronto and be 800 pieces ahead, smaller pieces albeit.

My next destination was a place called Furstenwalde, a small town southeast of Berlin. In anticipation of further travels on train this weekend, I decided to scope out the Bahnhof, which my colleagues suggested I park the car at. Driving in Furstenwalde was a little scary. Unlike the autobahn, which was just keeping highway traffic, or near Reichenwalde, which is a small town with almost no traffic, Furstenwalde was tough to drive, amidst the rain, darkness and traffic, even though I had the car navigating the entire time. I suspect I got there at rush hour, where people were returning to their homes. I finally found a place to park, though I didn’t know if it was appropriate to park there.

As I got out of the car, a heavy electric locomotive pulled by, making nary a sound as it swept several double-decker commuter cars along. An automated German voice repeated a scripted announcement of the incoming train. I decided to go into the station and inquire about fares to Berlin and possibly Copenhagen. Unfortunately, by now, all the bureaus were closed, forcing me to try the automated teller machine. I spent about ten minutes playing with it, but I couldn’t get a price from it.

I was about to write it off as a friendly socialist vending machine that didn’t want my money when I realized the software was giving an error: I was trying to buy a Die Bahn (national train system) ticket for a local regional route.

The train station at Furstenwalde-Spree.

Furstenwalde Bf looks like a small commuter station and around here, it seemed people rushed off home and not to any restaurants nearby. I got back into the Audi and drove back to the hotel for dinner. Every night ends returning to the hotel and the car saying “You have arrived at your destination”. It seems the only constant in this strange trip.

Some have asked why I haven’t sent any photos along: Part of the reason why is that I’ve been working some pretty long days to keep up with the German staff, my own Canadian colleagues and worse, New Zealanders too. So I’m in at 8AM, and usually come back to the office after dinner at 9PM too. Another reason is that with a car, you tend to have less opportunities to take photographs, lest I wrap the vehicle around a German tree. So for now, there’s not a lot of photos to see.

Day 4

Today I moved rooms in the hotel as my stay has been extended into next week. I knew this would take longer, so I had booked my flight on Tuesday, but I had the room only booked till Friday. Alte Eichen means “Old Oaks” and correspondingly, there’s the silhouette of an old oak tree on the sign out front. Tonight I will actually try and see some of Berlin. I spent some time today trying to figure out where to go by surfing the Internet while one tests are being run. Hopefully tonight I can see the Berlin Wall monuments and perhaps see the Zoo Station and Kadewe, a major landmark department store.

Of course, there’s unusual cars here in Europe, or at least unusual for us in North America. Many cars are diesel powered, for example, the Audi I’m driving has a 3.0L diesel which is almost double the displacement of the typical Jetta TDI you find roaming around Canada. There are also a lot of smaller cars, like Smarts and Mercedes A series. Cars with brands we’ve never heard of, like Opel, and Fiat.

A Smart car with some cool graphics!

But the most unusual of all, was a car I saw in the parking lot today: A Chrysler PT Cruiser. A boldly “American Car” in Germany, I was informed by the owner that in fact, it was not just a Chrysler, but a unique blend of Chrysler and Mercedes. I thought at first he was saying that Mercedes had merged with Chrysler, so it was a German car by name. But in fact, his PT Cruiser is like the Chrysler Crossfire, an actual blend of both companies: It is powered by a Mercedes 2.2L CDI diesel engine instead of the meager 2.0L Neon engine.

Well, I didn’t manage to leave the area this evening, as much as I’d liked, work continued on into the late evening.  However, I did manage to go for dinner and given that I couldn’t go far, I ended up down the road at Alte Schule again. More of the terrine, along with some sautéed mushrooms, was presented as appetizers, but this evening the owner suggested I try the catfish, fresh from the lake. With a bit of buttery cream and dill, it was served with fennel and potatoes. For dessert, chocolate mousses (different textures) and ice creams (different
flavours). The plating of the dessert included pink grapefruit, which gave a certain tang. Each of the grapefruit slices was accompanied by a candied rind.

I felt really bad about Alte Schule, because tables were limited due to a large reservation that took up almost the entire restaurant tonight. The proprietor turned a couple away shortly after I sat down, and though they were locals, I didn’t feel my short dinner justified his losing business of regulars.

Tomorrow I will actually try and visit Berlin. On my way in to this area, I noticed a touring German fair. I am tempted to go and see what it’s all about, if only for the fact my friend Iain talks about them like a mythic legend of some sort.

Day 5 – Saturday
Twelve Hours in Berlin

After meats and cheeses this morning, I took the Audi to Furstenwalde, now secure in the knowledge that the parking lot behind the station was safe to park in. I asked one of the local
staff to guide me how to go to Berlin. At Furstenwalde, I parked in, what literally was called “Park and Ride”, likely for commuters. I confirmed it was safe to park there by asking someone in the parking lot.

The RE1 regional pulled by an electric locomotive and it’s double decker passenger cars.

My next challenge was to figure out what ticket to buy. Someone at the lab suggested I needed a Tageskarte or Day-Card for zones ABC, but that I also would need a ticket to get inside the C city zone because Furstenwalde was just outside by a few stops. The woman at the train station didn’t speak English but offered “Berlin” as a possible destination. I said
yes, and added the words “tageskarte” and “Ostbahnhof” (the only train station name I could think of) which she understood and gave me a combined ticket for nine Euros.

As with every journey to a foreign land with a different language, I’ve found a certain amount of inference and induction is required. Matching of words, spelling, prices, numbers and distances helps you figure language out. While waiting for the RE1 Regional Train on Track 1, I decided to double check if I received the right ticket. A past experience with a very irate conductor chewing out other passengers on a train in Munich has permanently traumatized me with making sure I have the right fare for German trains. I spent a few minutes playing with the fare machine and tried to buy a ticket with both Day-Card and regional features. The total was nine Euros, which made sense. Good.

Fanciful model train display in a German train station intended for kids while waiting for arriving trains.

The RE1 was late, which is rather unusual, but I spent the time reading up on materials I had printed the day before. Due to the rushed nature of this trip, I had no time to figure out the
personal side of my travel to Berlin, only focusing on work. Which meant I had nary a slip of paper about the city. Fellow rtlToronto member and German Oliver Giesen suggested I find
KaDeWe, the big department store with a large Lego section, but also to check out for more tourist information. While waiting for tests at the lab, I spent some time printing out suggested walking tours of Berlin and maps off the Internet. I also received an email earlier in the week from Michelle Chan, self-described as “my guide to the world of architecture”, who suggested I visit two key architectural developments, the Jewish Museum, designed by the same architect who is now updating the Royal Ontario Museum, and the GSW Building. I did find the Jewish Museum’s website, so I printed out their directions.

A double decker AirportExpress train pulls through the unfinished Lehrter central train station.

As the conductor punched my card, we sped off across the Brandenberg countryside passing various train stations. Some, like Furstenwalde, were brand new. Others looked like they were straight out of the 1950’s. About half and hour later, we entered into Berlin Ostbanhof, flanking a beautiful ICE high speed passenger train on a parallel track. As with previous trips
to Germany, I really loved the train station. Everything from the structures and trains, to the signage, colour schemes and typefaces. Even the German youth group on a school trip all
crowding on the platform waiting for their ICE train.

However enjoyable Berlin-Ostbahnhof (East Station) was for this closet rail fan, it probably wasn’t the best place to start. I had made the assumption I would be able to find a pocket guide to the S-Bahn and U-Bahn with a map, like in Hamburg, Munich, London or Paris before. I found my way to the S-Bahn information center, but a line extended out into the hallway. No maps to be found. I decided to study the wall sized map to try and match up one of the suggested starting points for my walking tour print outs.

Paul Lobe House, the German parliament building

This is the part where I really got confused. I had scraps of information in different media: My printouts showed areas of interest with overview maps that had no streets indicated. They provided lots of historical information, but were useless for wayfinding. I didn’t have a map of the S or U Bahnnetz, the local train or subway networks, though there was a wall sized map of the S-Bahn in front of me. Ostbahnhof was not a U-Bahn stop either. So I matched up Bellevue S-Bahn station with my first walking tour and got onto the S7/S75/S5 track.

As the train sped along crossing the middle of Berlin, out the window I saw the beautiful dome of the Reichstag, refurbished after the reunification of Germany. I recognized it from my printouts and decided to give up on Bellevue and get out at the next stop, which happened to be the brand new Lehrter Bahhnof. A giant structure of silver metal, it looked like a lobster trap with a sole tower rising from the middle with a large Die Bahn logo on it.

From the new station, I walked over to the Reichstag. I could see it, but I couldn’t get to it, because of barricades. Security precautions from terrorists? No, it was the logistics of the Berlin Marathon, running today. I spoke to a volunteer at the gate, who told me I had to walk around the whole park to get to the Reichstag.

Alas, he did let me use the outdoor toilet, where I promptly dropped by baseball cap into. Whoops. At least it wasn’t my passport or my digital camera. That’d be reason enough to
upgrade to a new model. Ick.

Anyways, hat now headed towards a sewage treatment plant, I walked over to the Reichstag. In front, heaters had been set up to keep runners warm for their marathon. A long line up stretched out in front of the building, but only tour groups and those previous bookings were allowed in. I decided to continue walking around, where, unbeknownst to me, I was looking at some key government buildings, such as the Federal Chancellery.

The German Reichstag, seat of the German Parliament.

The Government and Parliament District: Accidental Tourist in Moabit

I decided to continue walking around the Reichstag, where I noticed a gathering of tents in a closed road. Figuring anything with tents must be good, I headed towards them. Tents usually mean a street fair or something similar. Upon closer inspection, the fair was in fact team and sponsor tents for the marathon, which included rollerblades. Walking towards the end of the fare, I noticed a large gate. What was this gate?  It looked familiar!

As rollerbladers sped through the gate, flushed with excitement of finishing the race, I was still very lost. I spotted a Starbucks on the corner with a sandwich board sign that offered free tours, obviously to lure in American college kids on vacation. Inside Starbucks was an associated “magazine” for English speakers which was cleverly designed ad for nightclubs and other businesses. However useless this collection of advertorial reviews of restaurants and bars was to me, the back had a copy of the much needed Bahnnetz map and a few half
page sized detail road maps. I cut out these maps and tossed the rest. The maps didn’t seem to have any historical landmarks save a few on them, but I kept them anyways, they had all the streets mapped out.

What was this strange gate? The famed Brandenburg Gate.

Navigation by Starbucks
Being an ad for Starbucks, the included maps had every Starbucks in Berlin mapped out alongside local transit stations. I took the roadless maps I had from the walking tours and matched where I was (standing next to a Starbucks) with the advertising maps. Correlating these two maps together, and the fact I was just near the Reichstag, I realized I was standing next to the Brandenburg Gate, the same gate Ronald Reagan had requested Mikhail Gorbachev to open roughly two decades ago, beginning the fall of the Iron Curtain.

I now wanted to continue the tour and aim for the Federal Ministry of the Interior. I walked down Unter den Linden, amidst marathon runners and their supporters. One family had a “Papa we are proud of you” sign, which I’m sure helped him out in the last leg near the gate. I hopped into the S-Bahn, and with my newly found Bahnnetz map from the Starbucks magazine, I headed towards Friedrichstrasse station to interchange back onto the main S-Bahn/RE path. This brought me back on track to Bellevue, a station situated in a somewhat residential area. Once again, watching from the train window gave me a preview of the Federal Ministry sitting on the Spree River, matching the picture in my walking guide perfectly.

The German Federal ministry buildings on the Spree River

The Federal Ministry, a contemporary U-shaped building on the river, sits next to an unusual hotel which looks like it was building onto a brick warehouse. While the internals and river
facing side of the hotel are new, the length of the building retains the façade of the old warehouse, right up to the loading dock that spans its length. I took the time to walk around this area, looking at the various bakeries, tobacco shops and even a computer shop situated on the path. Once back at Bellevue, I decided to continue along westward on the main S-Bahn/RE trunk line.

The Zoo Station and Kurfurstendamm Area
My next destination was the famed Zoo Station, like the U2 song. I actually found a sign that says “U2 Zoologischer Garten” in the subway station and snapped a photo for my friend Mario, who is a big U2 fan. Zoo Station, like the band, is a youthful place. Backpackers abound, with signs targeting their demographic with hostels, theatre tickets and clubs: One advertisement under a stairwell says, “Sleep at our hostel, and you will wake up to a free breakfast. Sleep here, and you will wake up to three policemen”. I had a quick snack at the Nordsee fish and chips restaurant I tried in Munich, then began to walk down the street.

I’ve learned that if it’s important enough to put on a postcard, you probably should go and see it. I was looking for a postcard for Nadine when I noticed a church I had never seen before on one of them. It was shrouded in a geometric structure and by bright neon signs on surrounding buildings. What was it?

The Gedachtniskirche, as viewed from a beer garden.

Looking up from the bazaar of cheap tourist souvenirs, I had the answer just down the road: A church bombed out from the war, the Gedachtniskirche. As I continued down the street through the Kudamm shopping district, I marvelled at the stores both cheap and expensive. Amongst posters of Avril Lavigne (who’d think a girl from Belleville (actually Napanee) would be so popular in Europe?), there were discount stores full of Russian and eastern European goods, while just down the road, expensive boutiques for shoes and clothing lined the street.

In one town square, a band of breakdancers entertained the crowd. Yeah, you heard that right, breakdancers. Like, breakdancing. Berlin is weird sometimes and that was one of them. By now, the song Stay-Faraway So Close! was playing in my head as I walked through the streets.

I finally found myself at KaDeWe, the famous German department store, similar to Magasin du Nord in Copenhagen. KaDeWe, like Magasin is well known to Lego fans worldwide for being a place to find an extensive Lego collection for sale as well as a Pick A Brick, the bulk Lego service. Inside, the store was obviously catering to the high end with luxury marques. The Lego section is on the same floor but really isn’t that impressive, there’s nothing in there you wouldn’t find in Canada or via mail order. What was impressive was an extensive selection of model trains, including some unique ones like Fleischmann, Marklin and Roco, which are top tier brands even in the arcane world of model railroading. European kids (or adults) are a demanding bunch: Many of the Marklin locomotives are preinstalled with digital cab control, a feature our Lego group has spent a long time upgrading our trains with. I wasn’t about to start buying some Marklin N or Z scale models, but I did spent more than a few minutes looking at the beautiful European train models, both German and otherwise.

The Wall
After leaving KaDeWe, it was into Wittenbergplatz U-Bahn station. I missed the entrance to begin with, shrouded by scaffolding; it appears this station is very old. Inside were old ticket booths and posters from years gone by.

A statue near Hallesches Tor. This is not the statue Bono hangs from in the Stay, Faraway So CLose video.

The first thing anyone mentions about Berlin is, the Berlin Wall. Since I was on the U15 line, I figured I would take it east to Hallesches Tor station. There, I would pick up another one of my walking guides, this time a self assembled set of printouts of two areas, the Kreuzberg district and the Bernauer Strasse section. In the former, I would try and find the Jewish Museum, then walk up towards Checkpoint Charlie.

When I got out of the station, I walked the wrong way for a second. Using my Starbucks map, I figured out which street to walk through and found myself in a somewhat utilitarian block of apartments. Most surprising were the number of immigrants, which I found wasn’t that common so far in Berlin. I poked into an Internet café and spent 50 cents for a few minutes to check my email then went back to finding the Museum.

Along the way, I saw a street fair. A large sign had an ear crossed through, which looked like the symbol on public phones with TDD support. As I got closer, I noticed everyone was talking with their hands: It was a gathering of deaf people, enjoying their Saturday afternoon out with friends.

In the far distance rose a large arc shaped building with rose coloured glass panels. I instantly realized this was the famed GSW building Michelle had talked about. But first, I walked eastward to find the Jewish Museum, designed by architect Daniel Libeskind, who was also chosen to improve the ROM in Toronto. I overshot too far north, and approached the building from the side with a very traditional looking museum building. Immediately right of it is a shockingly angular section covered in metal. Jagged lines cut through the surface to expose windows and the entire wing juts back and forth against the southern elevation. It evokes an image of a concentration camp or razor wire. Whatever it is, it feels uncomfortable and alarming. Not really my cup of tea, but it certainly provokes an emotional reaction. I guess that’s the point.

What goes on inside the GSW Building? No one knows for sure.

I continued along to the GSW building, approaching it from the southeast, or rear right. The building is in fact, a combination of structures, including a rounded blue and green section as well as the curved front. As I came around the front, it was mid afternoon now, and the sun glinted off its multicoloured glass panels. On a Saturday, this skyscraper was quiet and still, as was its surrounding neighbourhood. This building is the headquarters of a housing property association and the coloured panels are controlled to save energy.

A bit further north was the famous Checkpoint Charlie, the American guard post once marked by tense confrontations with the Soviets. Today, it’s a bit of a tourist trap, with a fake
mockup of the warning signs, barbed wire and sandbags, plus fake American and Soviet officers posing for photos with hundreds of tourists. There was a wall museum but it seemed a bit tacky, interspersed with giant Yonge Street like souvenir shops. I did find a nice postcard for Nadine here, of the Brandenburg Gate. I figure it has come to symbolize this city during its separation and reunification after the Cold War, so I picked this one.

The famous sign at Checkpoint Charlie, one of three border crossings. This one was run by the United States.

Post Card Picking
I like postcards which are somewhat artistic, but not abstract when travelling. Nadine and my cousin Karen are usually the recipients of my postcards, though once in a while I send one to Dave or Iain. I like to pick clear shots of recognizable landmarks without fancy borders or text on the front. Usually the font choice is something awful anyways, so I stay clear of those with wording.

I continued to walk North on Friedrichstrasse, right past where the blockade used to be. In the streets, tour groups led by energetic German youths trudged along. One young woman proclaimed the best product of American foreign policy was free refills. Just past the checkpoint was a small snack stand, where I bought a can of pop. The snackbar was interesting in its offerings. There’s a smattering of Mediterranean and Middle Eastern snacks like kebob and donairs. Why they wouldn’t serve something more traditionally German, being in a tourist area is unusual.

In old photos of Checkpoint Charlie, you can see Stadmitte Station, it pre dates the division of Berlin. Though I found the photos later, the station entrances in the middle of the street haven’t changed much. Here I got onto the U2 line headed for Pankow, and interchanged at Alexanderplatz to the U3 headed north. I finally got off at Bernauer Strasse, the second part of my improvised Berlin Wall tour.

Plaque on the street denoting the lines of the Berlin Wall.

When I popped up into this residential area, I was a little taken aback: There wasn’t any wall, just your typical street. As I walked along, I couldn’t tell there was any division from before until I looked down and saw a double row of bricks stretching across the road and sidewalk. Inlaid into the was a bronze plate that read, “Berliner Mauer 1961-1989”, a solemn reminder of a city once divided. If I didn’t look down, I probably would have missed it.

A desolate field stretches west and I noticed other English speakers were walking through it, though a sign declared it as private property. It couldn’t be that private, because a path had been paved through the tall grass. At the end of a short walk were two structures: A wooden frame that held three huge bells, and a round cylinder of a building, covered with vertical wooden slats. On a fence were descriptions of these structures: At one point, an old church stood there. When the wall went up, the church was separated from its parishioners, who now stood helplessly watching it from the West. In 1985, the Soviets demolished the church, as it stood too close to the outer wall.

Today, a new church, the rounded building, stands there, built after reunification. The old bells of the church remain on a trestle to remind the community of what happened.

Further down Bernauer Street was a building called the Berlin Wall Documentation Center (Dokumentationszentrum Berliner Mauer) which incorporated both a gallery space and a metal tower which you could walk upstairs. As you went up the stairway, exposed to the elements, at each floor were photos and descriptions of key points in the Wall’s chronology. At the very top, you could look out and see a leftover from the Cold War: A section of the Berlin Wall, with requisite No Man’s Land in the middle, is left for viewing from the tower..

A section of the wall leftover in it’s original condition during the Cold War. In the background is the TV Tower.

It was getting into late afternoon, and the cold wind made this a powerful sight. For those of us born into the Cold War, I don’t think we realized this how significant this change was. I don’t think I expected to see the fall of Communism and the Soviet Union in our lifetimes.

I was glad I skipped the tourist fare at Checkpoint Charlie, because the gallery seemed much deeper: Soviet propaganda, printed orders for guards to shoot for escapees, photos of people building the wall in 1961, and film of the construction and guarding of the Wall were presented, along with radio broadcasts from the West across the border. In one corner was an incredibly detailed model of the wall in 1965, including every house, building and street made of cardboard.

The entrance to the new station at Potsdamer Platz.

A light rain started to fall again as I left the museum for Nordbahnhof S-Bahn station, just down the road. I took the S-Bahn to Potsdamer Platz for the third, and last walking tour, to see the new architectural developments of the city.

From the solemn segments of wall at Bernauer Street to Potsdamer Platz was sudden transition. The fruits of the reunification and the tearing down of the Wall gave Berlin redevelopment, such as that at Potsdamer. Here, modern skyscrapers and commercial
developments had risen, sculpted by world renowned architects invited by the city and large enterprise. The train station entrance reminded me of Mies van der Rohe’s TD Bank in
Toronto with its dark angular steel and backlit dense signgage. It also gave me shelter from the pouring rain too.

The first complex I visited was the SonyCenter, an entertainment, business and cultural facility. Though the building houses the German film center and cinema archive, the movie multiplex and upscale restaurants seems to overshadow it. The cluster of buildings forms an enclave of open air restaurants and storefronts inside, shielded from the streets that define the complex. Above is a large steel and glass roof structure. After perusing the Sony and VW stores there, I had dinner at an eatery there. A turkey schnitzel covered by peach and cheese over top, with a set of unusual pretentious vegetables that included bamboo shoots and lotus root.

The atrium of the Sony Center, new architectural urban development in Berlin’s Potsdamer Platz.

The State Library

During the meal, the giant LED monitor outside at the multiplex and blue floodlights from the rafters provided an artificial moon and sky for the atrium. I sort of lost track of time, as the sun had set but the bright light still streamed into the windows of the restaurant.

When I finally got out of the SonyCenter, I walked down towards the Cultural Forum, a set of buildings constructed during the IBA 87 construction exhibition. By this time it was dark so I didn’t really know what I was looking at, even though the buildings were impressive with their lighting. One of them was Museum of Modern Art, a square squat building of glass and steel, and I think the other two there were the national library and concert halls.

The German Federal Railroad building.

I circled around to see the DaimlerChrysler complex, another part of the Potsdamer Platz development. While each section of the complex was individually designed by famous architects, it seemed, at least from the outset to be a large block of rather American buildings. Some of the background text I read about the area tried to compare the SonyCenter against this block by saying it was more American, but in general, both venues were pretty generic. They felt a bit cold.

In the distance, was U-Bahn station, so I got onto a subway and took it back to Zoo Station to go home. I just missed an RE1, so I had to wait about 40 minutes. To kill time, I walked outside into the night and snapped some photos of the cars driving through the intersection.

The famed Berlin Zoo Station at night.

The regional train came onto Track 1 and took me back to Furstenwalde. In the middle of the night, the car was still there, exactly as I left it. Twelve hours in Berlin, crisscrossing and circling in the Underground subway system gave me a brief overview of the city. I managed to see a few sights, but I really wished I had more time to look around.

The Gedachtniskirche, as viewed at night.

Day 6

Off to see the Shiv

The shopping districts near the Stroeget in Copenhagen, Denmark.

Today I’m off to see The Shiv. For those of you who don’t know her, Siobhan McLaughlin is a friend from Nortel Toronto, a former Messaging Field Introduction staffer who was probably
smarter than the rest of us and used her severance package to finance an MBA, unlike myself, who used it to buy a Honda Accord.  At one of our quarterly ex Nortel pub events, The Shiv (A
nickname I unintentionally altered as people apparently called her Shiv, not The Shiv) announced she was going to Copenhagen for a term and invited us to come and visit.

I woke up early, at 4:55AM and in the cold and dark Sunday morning. Still shivering, I left the hotel, fumbling with the keys and the front door, and got into the car. Though I’m not sure I
really care for the leather and luxury, the A6 is surprisingly empowering not in its raw performance, but that it feels you can go anywhere and not get lost. The sheer horsepower of its engine is useless when you’re confused and lost. Going places in these streets with no name, or more accurately, streets with long names, is never a concern with this car. The next car I buy will have a factory NAVI on it, definitely. The heated seats were nice too as I was freezing.

In the dark, I sped along the Autobahn at 190 km/h on some stretches on my way to Berlin Schonefeld Airport. I got there at 5:53AM (it was printed on my parking ticket) where I spent about ten minutes trying to find the right parking area in the dark and trying to manipulate the rather large car in through the traffic corrals.

Without any luggage, I checked into an EasyJet flight. Now, watching Airline UK, the behind the scenes reality show about EasyJet in London, I knew they didn’t like late stragglers, so I made sure I was there at 6:00AM for the 7:10AM flight. It wasn’t too expensive, about 120 Euros, though I wished I had more time in Germany to actually visit instead of doing a day of vacation at a time.

The international airport in Copenhagen.

We landed into Copenhagen’s new Kastrup Airport by 8:00AM, and after a pleasant conversation with the woman at the DSB (Danish Rail) counter, went down to the train platform for a ride into Copenhagen. I was staring at the departure timetable, a young woman and her boyfriend asked me if they could help. I guess I looked confused, but it was really nice to see the Danes were so helpful of visitors. We spoke for a few minutes as the train headed for Copenhagen’s Central Train Station.

A lamp in Copenhagen’s beautiful streets.

Kobehavn H didn’t look liked it changed much since I came here in 2001. I walked off into the street, past Tivoli and into the Radhusplasen. I find Danish easier to understand that German.
For example, when you buy ice cream, scoop in Danish is “scop” while in German it’s “kugel”. Scop just seems to translate easier for me. That’s right, I’ve just written off an entire language based on buying ice cream.

I walked along the Stroeget, the main walking street of high end boutiques and snack bars until Kongens Nytorv, the famous circle plaza. Most of the stores were closed on a Sunday morning,
and the eateries were still being set up and prepared for the day. It was still enjoyable to walk around and see this city again, it’s infinitely walking-friendly streets.

Siobhan calls it the “Bang and Olufsen Metro”. Damn straight. Best. Metro. Ever.

At Kongens Nytorv, I noticed stairs down into the new subway, which was all boarded up and being excavated when I visited Magasin du Nord, the department store in this circle, three years
ago. The new Copenhagen Metro stations are extremely beautiful. They have grey concrete and steel surfaces that seem cool, while careful direction of sunlight makes the station platforms
naturally lit, even though they’re down three or four flights of escalators. Like the Jubilee Line in London, there are full height glass windows and doors that open when a train is present. As a result, the platform is completely squared off.

I spent some time walking around the university area, in the back streets. In one shop window, I saw a copy of the Dork Tower board game, based on the comic book penned by John Kovalic, collaborator of Greg Hyland. Greg Hyland is a freelance illustrator and comic book artist who happens to live in the Toronto area and draws a lot of Lego’s comics for their magazines and internal publications.

At 11:00AM, I went to the Danish Design Center at the corner of Tivoli. Inside were exhibits on Danish fashion and photography, along with examples of Danish design. One exhibit upstairs was about helping people with disabilities, while in the basement was a tunnel of 20th century design icons both Danish, like Bang & Olufsen and Lego, and otherwise. One of the products, the 1984 Macintosh, was incorrectly labelled as the work of frogdesign, which it isn’t. But the retrospective, which included the branding and styling of the TGV Atlantique, the Airstream camper and the Electrolux vacuum, was a great distillation of modern product design.

The Danish Design Center in Copenhagen.

Also in the basement was a really weird display called FLOWmarket which encouraged users to pick items, place them in the basket and buy them. The products were blank containers with labels like “Quality, 50ml” and “Social responsibility 100 tablets”. The exhibit was to encourage holistic product design that included social responsibility, a topic I studied pretty extensively in a graduate school course with Willem Vanderburg at the University of Toronto. At the end of the
exhibit, two checkout counters were presented for you to pay for your mock items, though no cashiers were present. A sign instructed you to bring your purchases upstairs to the gallery gift shop. I wasn’t sure if that was a trick to question your consumer tendencies.

The exhibit had a wall of responses that answered what items would become commodities in the future. One hilarious note said “Pretentious design exhibits, signed two jerks from New Jersey”. I thought the exhibition concept was a bit hokey, though the mention of Vestas Wind Systems, makers of the turbine at Pickering in Ontario, was a major plus. The idea of socially
responsible product design, a pretty big deal in Scandinavia, is important though. On a wall they talked about a movement in product design to encourage this concept. I really liked their statement that management’s role in product design teams is to encourage and support, not direct and control. That made my day, because it’s the attitude and approach I’ve learned to take.

I met up with Siobhan at the train station and we went to see the Ny Carlsberg Glypotek, an art gallery. The building was being renovated, so we got to see a version described as “The Compact Glypotek” which had artifacts all condensed into a handful of rooms. Not as compressed as the V&A in London, but slightly more dense. The Glypotek has a lot of Edgar Degas sculptures and paintings in its collection, though it also has realist, and impressionist works too. Early in the tour, they had a set of Scandinavian artists who use the palette of
impressionists but are photorealistic in their depictions. Maybe it’s because the colours out in the Danish wilderness match that.

Hey, it’s the Shiv! In Copenhagen!

The library of the Copenhagen Business School.

After the gallery, we visited Siobhan’s new school, the Copenhagen Business School in the area of Frederiksberg, by taking the Metro. The business school is really modern with a stylish new building. Inside there’s a library with a three story atrium and the place is humming on a Sunday with groups of MBA students working on their projects, laptops and books lining
the tables. The washrooms are interesting: First, they’re co-ed. With a large populace of international students, a hand written sign says “Boys and Girls” on the door. Inside, the stalls are little rooms, unlike the metal dividers we commonly see in North America. I found this also at the airport.

We walked along the neighbourhood and had something to eat at a local café: An open sandwich with slices of chorizo sausage and goat cheese plus ice cream with rhubarb sauce. Chatting with the Shiv was a welcome change from this relative isolation in Germany: A friendly face was reassuring in comparison to strangers.

It was getting later into the day, so Siobhan brought me back to the Norreport Station on the Metro, where I took a local train back to the airport. While on the train, a British man started
talking in the quiet compartment of the car. A Danish woman promptly scolded him. It was hilarious. He looked so beat down.

One of these things is not like the other…

I had a lot of time to kill while waiting for the flight at Kastrup Airport. Fortunately, I could play another one of those fun travel games like waiting for seats to fill on the plane: Figure out what to do with your remaining currency. I had to take out some Danish kroner to pay for dinner, so I had exactly 16.25 DKK in my pocket. This is equivalent to four dollars. The airport has some really expensive stores with Scandinavian jewellery, housewares and art, but all of that was a lot more than four dollars.

I looked at chocolate (too expensive), Lego (far too expensive) and magazines (still too expensive). I finally found myself at a convenience store on the second floor after security staring at the selection of unusual goods at confusing prices. A ham sandwich costs like 36-45 DKK, yet a block of blue cheese is only 16 DKK. As a side note, the Norwegian block of Jarlsberg cheese is more expensive here in Copenhagen than in Costco in Toronto.

I couldn’t see myself eating a block of blue cheese in one sitting and I was already pretty full from dinner, so I scratched that option off the list. A chocolate bar was too expensive at 18-20
kroner. In a corner of the refrigerated section there was an unusual container called Mini Meal. A two section plastic box with a folding spoon in between. It looked like a yogourt container and had a picture of cherries on it. For 7 crowns. I bought two. The folding spoon was worth the price of admission to see what was inside.

The famed strange treat with folding spoon.

Now with my new treasure, I walked over to the café areas and took some pictures of the container for reference. An old woman and her husband couldn’t help but smile, but I’ve
people take photos of exquisite meals at fancy restaurants when they’re away on vacation, so why I can’t I snap a picture of my unusual convenience treat? I opened up the strawberry container and inside were two compartments: One of a strawberry fruit preserves, just like the stuff at the bottom of yogourt, and another of a sort of rice pudding. More rice than pudding. The container has a living hinge between the two compartments which helps you spoon the strawberries into the rice pudding. Underneath the hinge in the cave between the two sides
is taped a plastic spoon that folds and is shaped like a shovel. The combination is pretty good. Filling, hence the name Mini Meal.

The plane departed Copenhagen and I promptly fell asleep. I didn’t push the seat back and there were no pillows, so I spent 45 minutes with my mouth agape and my neck twisted. I did fall asleep though, bumped awake by a rough landing. I found the car in the P1 parking lot and according to the ticket, 16 hours and 52 minutes later, drove back to the hotel at 220km/h.

Day 7/Day 8/Day 9

I wish I had more to report for these days, but they were filled with lots of work. Nothing special, including missing dinner altogether one night and eating cold pizza reheated in the
microwave. Cold pizza is a product development thing whether you’re in Berlin or Toronto.

Reichenwalde, at sunset.

At the suggestion of the locals, on Day 8 I went to a small local steakhouse known as one of the best places for dinner in the region. I had a rack of ribs with pomme frites, and while the fries were excellent the ribs were a little fatty. This may be because of my own idea of what ribs should taste like based on North American standards. Later I had strudel and ice cream at the hotel for dessert.

On Day 9, I had to find extra socks as my trip was extended beyond my original return date. I had planned ahead, and packed more than needed, but I was short one pair of socks. It was
already around 7PM when I ventured out to find socks. Trying to be adventurous, I  programmed the NAVI to find me all the shopping centers. One was not far from the A10 Center, so I set off to find this new shopping mall. Half an hour later, I was at the mall, but it was dark. It seemed all the shops were closed. Knowing that German stores closed at 8PM, I returned to the A10 Center, back to the Walmart esque store called “real” and found a bin of discount socks.

The sock trip actually had a benefit, which was that next to the cashiers was a large display of Lego. Fortunately I had stopped to investigate, because I found several large Lego sets for a
very good discount. I bought three. I returned back to the hotel, exiting the Autobahn at Furstenwalde and had dinner in the restaurant, choosing to have deer served with fruit.

Day 10

Sock hunt behind me, with a bit of spare time this morning I tried to visit the Fantasia Spielwaren (Toy) store. It is a much loved second hand toy store which actually breaks down old Lego and sorts it for people to purchase individual parts by weight. It was a bit harried as I drove through the narrow and aggressive Berlin streets. Unlike the countryside, there were plenty of cars here and it made for a tough drive even with onboard navigation. Quickly noticing a faster route than the trip presented, I actually managed to find my own way around past traffic that I saw up in front.

Parked out in the streets of Berlin. I later realized this was not a parking spot.

Suarezstrasse is a quiet street of antique and second hand stores that has rows of parking lining either side. By now, they were quite filled. I found a bunch of spots open and I parked the car there. Amongst the furniture and lamp shops is Fantasia, which unfortunately opens at 1PM. I got back into the car and noticed I had parked into a set of spaces distinctly marked as “No Parking”, likely for deliveries. Back to the countryside we go.

In the evening I went back to Alte Schule for dinner, this time having a venison and mushroom appetizer, which had the most tender preparation of meet I’d ever tasted, as well as a pork main course served with beans. This restaurant has been the highlight of my trip, at least from a food perspective.

Day 11

Today was finally time to come home, everything finished. This morning, I asked the woman at the front desk for a stamp for Nadine’s postcard and dropped it into the mailslot. After breakfast at the hotel, I checked out and got into the car. I had about 100km in the tank left, which was just enough to get back to the airport.

I drove back to Berlin Tegel and was reminded by the car, which signaled 61 km left in the tank, to find a gas station before returning it by the car. The woman at the Budget desk repeated a
few times when I took it out. However, by the time I realized it, I was already headed right into the airport. I drove around and around in circles, as the Tegel parking circle was undergoing
some changes and finally after five minutes found myself back out onto the road. Fortunately, someone at the airport thought ahead and put the universal symbol for gas station, the iconic gas pump, on a signpost, where I could detour.

I manage to park at the only spot without a gas pump, but instead a bucket with water. Just my luck.

The gas station presented many challenges. Since many forget where their gas door is even on cars they own, I found myself embarrassingly stopping the car at the station, getting out, and
checking that the door was in fact on the right side. Once I parked and got out again, I realized there was no pump at the position I stopped in, unlike the other islands. Feeling like an idiot, I waited for the person in front to pay and leave, then moved my car into place. At this point, I started looking for the release latch. Unfortunately, there was none, or at least, I couldn’t find it.

Now, I was prepared for a search, as the Audi also has an electronic button which opens the glove box. Why it has a motorized glove compartment door and not a powered seat is beyond
my comprehension, but that’s okay, I learned to realize there are idiosyncrasies in German luxury automobiles. I spent about two minutes searching for switches, latches or buttons, but found none. Then I figured I’d be smart and read the manual, which, locked behind an electronic door, turned out to be completely in German. Flipping the pages for about five minutes turned up nothing. Looking at the index for “Gazenfueliendoorenbooten” or whatever it would be called didn’t yield any clues.

I finally got out of the damned Audi and looked carefully at the door itself, which was conformal to the body of the car. I poked it. And it popped open. Clever bastards.

Then there was the problem of what type of gas to put into it. Now, I’ve watched the Amazing Race, so I know you’re not supposed to put gasoline into a diesel car. The eight warning stickers in fluorescent orange on the door, gas cap, keys, fuel door all reminded me too. But what kind of diesel? Biodiesel? The special kind of diesel two buttons to the right? I finally gave up and asked a taxi driver parked at the next island over. He suggested I use regular diesel. I’m not sure if they have different grades or octanes, but who knows. The car still ran when I left it.

I went back through the Tegel parking circuit, which by this time was starting to feel like the Driving School at Legoland where kids drive around in tight circles learning driving rules. It’s
pretty obvious large cars are not the norm in Europe because I had nearly clipped the Audi on plastic guideposts by mere inches a few times.

About then, it kicked in that I had just paid nearly $100 Canadian for a tank of gas. Scary.

I turned out at the rental car garage, and proudly reversed in, stopping an inch away from the concrete post using the backup sonar alarm. I got my bags onto a friendly cart and was half way
down the lot when I realized I had to bring the car for check in and inspection.

Right behind me was a Smart car being returned. One of the check-in staff showed me its new feature: The roof can be retracted automatically with a button on its key and once it’s stowed,
you can remove the two sill pieces that form the its track to the windshield.

Car returned, I got in line to check in at Tegel. The check in attendant told me I was early and I didn’t need to head for the gate yet, which was a first. I decided to eat strudel at the airport café down the hall until it was time to board the Airbus now parked at the gate, this time named Rosenheim.

Lufthansa aircraft at Frankfurt Main…check out the peoplemover along the tops of the buildings!

I have to say, visiting Germany for work was eye opening. As always, I am impressed by the country for its sophistication and planning. But I’m equally impressed by the work ethic, friendly nature and competence of the Germans I’ve spent the last week working with. This has probably been one of the coolest career experiences ever.

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