Tear Down the Wall!

Trip Start Aug 08, 2006
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24
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Trip End Oct 18, 2006


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Sunday, October 8, 2006

October 8-11

Before leaving Dresden I'd stopped off at an Internet point to book a hotel in Berlin. I had been on the road for over two months now and I was growing weary in many regards. Don't get me wrong. I was still having a great time but, let's be honest, traveling like this can tucker you out. So I was already predisposed to treat myself a bit when I ran across a deal on the aggregator site I had been using since Italy. On offer was a Jr. Suite at the Palace Hotel for an absolute song. It cost me less per night than the tiny closet with a twin bed that I had in Rome. I couldn't wait to get a look at the place.
 
As my train pulled into the Hauptbahnhof it was nearly 9:00 on Sunday night. There was little activity in the station. The relative emptiness served to dramatize the massive scale of the place. It is the biggest damn train station I've ever seen. In fact, it is Europe's largest. They had finished earlier in the year and opened it in May to service the hordes that descended on Berlin for the World Cup soccer matches.
 
The place has no fewer than 47 levels, I'm sure, with trains coming and going on all of them. The platforms extend high into the air and far below the ground. It's really quite a site. What I don't get is how the ramp systems work to bring trains in and out from such varying heights. And it's not just train traffic going on inside this city-within-a-city. There is tons of retail space, bars, restaurants, travel agencies, etc. Throw a cot in one of the tanning salons and you'd never have to leave.
 
On my way out I scooped-up a little travel guide at a news stand and then found a taxi to take me to the Palace. The few times I had really splurged during this trip, like the Michelin starred restaurant in Venice, I had generally made an effort to dress as best I could given my limited wardrobe situation. But I had just been kicking around Dresden all day and then jumped right on the train to come here. Travel days are always sweaty affairs what with the two backpacks hanging from my shoulders acting just like an Eskimo's parka to retain the significant body heat being generated. Today was no different even with the chill now in the evening air.
 
I entered the elegantly appointed, modern lobby of the hotel looking decidedly shabby and out of place. Despite my appearance, the young man behind the desk didn't bat an eye. He quickly found my reservation and informed me that the smaller lobby restaurant would be open for another hour if I cared to have a late supper.
 
I was conducted to my room and, upon entering, knew instantly that I had made a good decision coming here. The Palace is a modern 5-star hotel in the west end of town and this room was exactly what I needed; an infusion of luxury after so much Spartan living. I cleaned up a bit and went down to the restaurant for a light bite of seared ahi tuna and soba noodles or some such thing.
 
Upon returning to the room I raided the mini-bar for a beer or two and ordered the Da Vinci Code on pay-per-view. Everyone always says this but, the book really was much better in this case. I mean, there's just too much detail to cram into two hours. The nuanced nature of the characters was completely lost in the translation. Kinda like trying to see 26 cities in 10 weeks, I guess. In any case, I called it a night after that.
 
The next morning I woke early(ish) and headed back to the Hauptbahnhof to secure a couchette on the night train to Brussels three days hence. Even after all this time on the road, I still can't seem to plan it so that I know what my next move will be when I arrive in a new town. Had I done so, I could have just made the reservations the night before. I guess I was just excited to get to the hotel and didn't feel like screwing around with train tickets right then. And it is after all a delight to sit in one's hotel room, perusing the rail maps, and decide only then where one's next destination will be.
 
Once ticketed, I caught a bus that let me out just in front of the Bundestag (German Parliament building). Good thing too because I really wasn't sure where the thing would take me. I cruised around and thought about going in to see the glass cupola they've installed on the top of the building. It's supposed to be quite something but, the lines to get in were horrendous. And it was only like 9:30.
 
I pulled out my little pamphlet-cum-guidebook and found that it contained a couple of suggested walking routes. I decided to follow the one that would take me first over to the Brandenburg Gate. This is the only remaining member of a series of gates through which one formerly entered the city. Its twelve Doric columns, arranged in pairs, provide an impressive perch for the Quadriga, a statue of a four-horse chariot being driven by the goddess of peace. It is here where President Regan gave his famous, "Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall!" speech in 1987.
 
The gate serves as the terminus for Unter den Linden, the renowned boulevard of Lime trees which once led directly to the royal residence. My walking route led me under the Linden trees which make for quite a picturesque stroll in the fall. Leaves were falling from the not-so-long-ago replanted trees at a rapid pace now. It was the second week of October and I'd found myself more and more aware of the calendar the past few days. I had just three stops left on this grand tour and I was keenly aware of it. Admittedly, there was a part of me that was ready to go home, to see family and friends again. But honestly, I could have continued on like this another couple of months easy.
 
The trials of travel are always quick to melt away when one is confronted with a majestic palace or an arresting painting, when a chance meeting with a fellow traveler turns into an evening's revelry or even just a quiet moment at a café watching a wholly foreign world that you have, by now, taken for your own, go by. Yes, I think I would have liked to stay - at least a bit longer. But there was a wedding to attend.
 
I picked up my walking route and soon passed by the Guggenheim (how many of these places did these people build?). I noticed a sign announcing free admission on Mondays. Well, hot damn! It just happened to be the first day of the work week - not that that meant much of anything to me these days. But free is free so, I entered.
 
Now, the Guggenheim in Berlin is really just 3 rooms. And one of them is the gift shop. So, I was very glad I didn't have to pay for my short tour, interesting as it was. Upon entering, the wall directly in front of me was almost entirely taken up by what must have been a twenty by forty foot piece that looked like little fires had been lit all over its surface and then extinguished before consuming the canvas outright. On the wall opposite this, they were showing a video. From what I could gather, it was about the artist whose work was on display in both galleries. It focused on his technique of using firecrackers to create images on canvas. Later I would venture around the corner and see another video which documented the making of the first piece I'd seen. Thousands of controlled explosions, covered and weighted down with bricks to trap the fire for an instant and then extinguish it, were meticulously placed to create the image of hundreds of small...wolves?
 
I went back to look at it again and sure enough, this time knowing what I was looking for there they were, little wolves dancing all over the canvas. This made sense, I guess, considering what the other exhibit consisted of. Beginning on the far side of the first room there were two lines, side by side, of what appeared to be stuffed wolves. The lines led into the next gallery and as they did the number of wolves increased, three abreast, then four and so on. Further, as one progressed into the gallery the pack began to take flight, literally. Like Santa's Reindeer, the wolves were rising up off the floor (suspended by wires of course, come on) until three quarters of the way across the room there was a veritable cloud of stuffed wolves hovering twenty feet above my head.
 
Now, here's where it gets weird. As the pack thickened, arresting their progress stood a floor to ceiling Plexiglas wall. The wolves appeared to be crashing into it and, one-by-one, tumbling back to earth, piling up at the bottom of the wall in a sea of fur and snarling teeth (see pic.). Pretty trippy. 
 
Thoroughly confused as to the symbolism or potential metaphor contained in the wolves exhibition, I set out in search of more accessible sites. I headed for the biggest church in town which I could see from a distance. Like Dresden, Berlin is Protestant-country. At least it was before the Commies. So here the big churches again belong to the Lutheran denomination. Unlike Dresden, this time I got to see the inside of one of them.
 
In 1894, on German Emperor Wilhelm II's order, the original domed cathedral on the site was demolished and replaced by the current Berliner Dom. At 114 meters long, 73 meters wide and 116 meters tall, it was much larger than any of the buildings that had previously existed in the same locale. It was intended as the Protestant's answer to St. Peter's Basilica in Vatican City - keeping up with the Jones' as it were. Indeed the interior is worthy of such comparison. It is bright and airy compared to many basilicas and cathedrals. Its white walls framing exquisite paintings of the Saints et. al. and the liberal appliqué of gold leaf give it an uplifting, regal air. I spent a few minutes in one of the pews taking it all in, straining my neck the way one does when much of the best artwork resides several stories above.
 
In the corner of the nave sat two giant sarcophagi made entirely of gold. They contained the remains of a former German king and his queen - just which I can't remember. They were massive and must be worth an astonishingly large fortune. I followed the assigned pathway through the church which quickly led me to more caskets on permanent display. The basement, it turns out, serves as the final resting place for many royals and prominent figures from German history. I find this practice a wee bit creepy but, who am I to judge how a culture treats their dead. All I know is that when I'm gone, you can burn my shell and remember who I was not what my bones looked like.
 
After I'd seen the church I sat down on the grass in the Lustgarten out front facing the Old Museum. I was, in fact, on an island, Museum Island to be exact. Within several hundred meters of where I sat was a collection of museums and historical places making up the core of Berlin's cultural attractions. The sun warmed my upturned face as I rested there for a minute. A contented feeling washed over me and I realized, sitting there in the sunshine, it was a feeling that simply can't be replicated in the wintertime or when one is indoors no matter the conditions outside. Soon these kinds of moments would hibernate again. It would nearly be November by the time I returned to Chicago so, I soaked it in.
 
The Metro pass I had purchased to get around on the S-Bahn and the U-Bahn had come with a little coupon book. I thumbed through it as I sat there and an offer for a guided walking tour caught my eye. I realized that the path I had been following was fine but, I had absolutely no context for what it was that I was seeing. I may as well have been wandering aimlessly. Berlin is too spread out for that kind of meandering so, I decided to join the 2:30 tour. I took a train to the meeting place and grabbed a sausage and beer nearby to fortify myself.
 
I loitered near the McDonald's specified as the meeting place and eyed a few likely suspects as potential fellow tour members. We struck up a conversation and others joined us one-by-one surmising, as we had, that this was the group waiting around for the walking tour. Soon our guide, Derek, showed up too. As it happens, he was Canadian with short hair and a trim physique. He wore two days growth on his chin and Aviators to shade his eyes. I pegged him in his mid twenties. Derek explained to us that he was a history student doing his graduate work in Berlin and boy, did it show.
 
Don't get me wrong. I loved the tour. It ranged all over the city from east to west necessitating no less than three train rides. But it was, comprehensive, shall we say. The prelapsarian tutorial lasted four and a half hours! It covered the city's rise from a swamp town in the 13th century to the fall of the Nazi's and beyond to the Cold War. Derek's narrative was extremely dense at times. On several occasions he sat us down for what we came to call, "story time," - essentially mini lectures on topics such as the rise of the Great Elector, fabled escape attempts over the Berlin wall, the genius of the sewage drainage system, why pretzels have that funny, twisty shape, how many licks it takes to get to the center of a Tootsie Pop. Luckily, I love history. My 11th grade A.P. History lessons came flooding back.
 
In addition to the exterior of Berliner Dom, Museum Island and a few other spots I'd already passed by on my own that morning, we passed by the site of the Nazi book burning at Humboldt University. Ironically, there was a student book fair taking place across the street. Priceless!
 
We found our way to Checkpoint Charlie which, I'm sure most of you have at least heard of. You may not, however, know exactly why this is the most famous checkpoint between the former east and west sections. Why not Checkpoint Alpha or Bravo? Well, I'll tell you. Checkpoint Charlie was the only one, of the many crossing points for foreigners, designated for Allied military use. It had been agreed by the four occupying nations (The U.S., U.K., France and the Soviet Union) at the Potsdam Conference that Allied personnel would be allowed to travel between any of the four sectors without interference from German authorities (East or West).
 
But in late October 1961, shortly after the wall went up, the U.S. Chief of Mission in West Berlin, E. Allen Lightner, was stopped as his car attempted to cross at Checkpoint Charlie. He was on his way to the theater which happened to be in the Soviet sector. The story we got from Derek was that he was finally allowed to continue on his way but, he was so incensed that after the show (and a few cocktails) he proceeded to have his driver take the car back and forth through the checkpoint several times that night to prove his point and show off for his date.
 
I don't know if this last part is simply colorful embellishment or what but, what we do know is that Army General Lucius D. Clay (Retired), President Kennedy's Special Advisor in West Berlin, was not amused with the initial actions of the East Germans. He decided to make a point of his own. Clay sent a party to sniff things out led by diplomat Albert Hemsing. While in a diplomatic vehicle, Hemsing was also stopped at the checkpoint. Once he had properly identified himself - which should have been the end of the matter according to the Potsdam agreement - East German Transport Police were rushed to the scene and subsequently escorted Hemsing's vehicle throughout his stay in the sector. The next day a British diplomat was forced to hand over his passport. Clay, already hot from the previous day's goings-on, snapped.
 
He sent Hemsing to the border again but, this time ordered several tanks and an infantry battalion to stage at the nearby Templehof airfield. Thankfully, his crossing went off without incident. The U.S. troops and vehicles returned to West Berlin.
 
But wait, there's more. Immediately following the U.S. departure from the airfield, 33 Soviet tanks were dispatched to the Brandenburg Gate, which was also not far from Charlie. Ten of them continued on to the checkpoint itself and rolled to a stop a mere 100 yards from the crossing's post. At hearing this, U.S. commanders turned their tanks around to take up a similar position on the western side. An old fashioned stand-off was a brewin' (I'd have called it a Mexican stand-off but, it was between the Russians and Americans inside Germany so that wouldn't make much sense, would it?). From about 5:00 on the evening of October 27th until 11:00 the next morning, the two sets of tanks sat facing each other with orders to fire if fired upon. Alert levels were raised first at the U.S. Garrison in West Berlin, then at NATO and eventually at U.S. Strategic Air Command. This was serious business.
 
During the time those tanks sat there, teetering on the precipice of World War III for the first time (if not the last), Kennedy and Khrushchev were able to agree to withdraw the tanks, disarming the dangerously high tensions that had been building for the past eighteen hours. But one final sticking point remained. Who would budge first? Of course, in the all important 'who's dick is bigger?' game of international politics, this had to become an issue. In a brilliant move, Kennedy is said to have offered to go easy on Soviet policies regarding the recent construction of the Berlin wall in exchange for the removal of their tanks first. Thinking he had one-upped Kennedy, Khrushchev agreed. In reality, Kennedy was a big fan of the wall - for the short-term solution it presented if nothing else. He was later quoted as saying, "It's not a very nice solution, but a wall is a hell of a lot better than a war."
 
And so, on the morning of October 28th, a Soviet tank moved backward a total of five yards. An American tank then followed suit moving the same ridiculous distance. After what I can only assume must have been about an hour of this childish behavior, all of the tanks had withdrawn and the politicians went back to playing Monopoly and fleecing their constituents until the next international incident arose over something equally foolish.
 
We moved on from the checkpoint to see a nearby section of the wall which was still intact. This was a rather famous section for having been the site of numerous escape attempts, some successful and others not so successful. My favorite story was of the family who made a hot air balloon out of old clothes and sheets. After waiting a week for favorable wind conditions, under the cover of night they fired it up on the east side of the wall and floated to freedom on the west side. Needless to say, once word got out about their unorthodox method of escape, more floodlights were immediately installed.
 
From there we walked to the former site of Hitler's bunker. It was spooky even though we were basically just standing in a parking lot with almost no sign of what had existed underground some 60 years ago. And all the more so because Derek didn't tell us where we were headed until we got there. He just kinda dropped it on us like, "Ok, so you're standing on top of the place where the most evil human being of the last 500 years hid out in his last days and offed himself." Uhhh, pardon me? There is a simple wooden sign there now that announces the place as the bunker site with a rudimentary floor plan sketched out and a few historical details printed in German. But even this is a fairly new development. Until recently, the government was scared to call attention to the plot at all in fear that it might invite graffiti on the nearby apartment buildings or become some sort of pilgrimage site for neo-Nazis. So far, neither fear has been realized.
 
Nearby was a playground (weird, I know) but, we sat down for another installment of story time and got the lowdown on the end of the war and the early days of Berlin as a split city. Mostly this was repeat information for me but, we'd been walking for hours and it was a well received respite.
 
Our next stop would prove even more chilling. Not far from the bunker site lies the Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe. The memorial, dedicated to Jewish victims of the Holocaust, was installed in May of 2005 after two years of construction. The design incorporates 2,711 concrete slabs or "stelae" of varying heights moving from fairly low to the ground on the outskirts to towering pieces nearer the center. They are arranged in a grid pattern covering nearly five acres of ground which undulates beneath ones feet. The intended effect of such a configuration is to produce a confusing and unsettling feeling which mimics (in only the slightest manner it must noted) the fear and confusion that engulfed the victims of this tragedy as they were taken by the S.S. in the middle of the night, never to be seen again by friends and neighbors. The linear nature of the assemblage is also intended to represent the perverse order of a system that had lost touch with human reason. Beneath the memorial itself is a museum that details many facts about the Holocaust including a listing of the names of every known Jewish Holocaust victim.
 
We took time to explore the memorial on our own and it was unsettling. You could hear people in the distance but, not see them as the stelae rose past eye level. Suddenly someone would round a corner as you approached. Startled is not exactly the word to describe that feeling but, close. As it grew dark near the center I nearly lost my footing a couple of times when I paid too little attention to the dips and rises of the ground. It was the most interactive and poignant memorial I can conceive. We did not have time during our tour for the museum underneath so, I marked that for a return over the next days.
 
We continued on to the nearby Brandenburg Gate which I'd seen already. But I did learn that the hotel nearby is the one where Michael Jackson infamously dangled his baby out the window. What a jackass.  
 
We then crossed over to the Bundestag, formerly the Reichstag, which I had also already seen, and sat down there for one more installment of story time. This chapter focused on the Reichstag fire and it was a cautionary tale at that.
 
To set the stage, Hitler had been installed as Chancellor in January, 1933 by Reichspräsident Paul von Hindenburg. Importantly, you'll note, he hadn't been elected to the position. Hindenburg could have, at this point, removed Hitler from office whenever he saw fit. Germany was still a parliamentary system at this time and he was presiding over a coalition government. So, Hitler's first move as Chancellor was to get Hindenburg to dissolve the Reichstag (the institution, not the building) so that he could bed-in more Nazis to the new government. This way he would be able to acquire a majority and secure his position as Chancellor. But his nefarious plan didn't end there.
 
His real aim was to put an end to democracy in Germany altogether and install himself as supreme leader. His aim was to employ a component outlined in the Weimar constitution known as the Enabling Act. Under Article 48, the President could rule by decree in times of extreme emergency. This had, in fact, been done only once since the framing of the articles, in 1923-24, to battle hyperinflation resulting from the punitive settlement terms of WWI. The new twist here was Hitler's Enabling Act would allow the Chancellor to possess these same powers, bypassing the Reichstag if enacted. Clearly, he needed his cronies in power to vote themselves a potential loss of power such as this. Initially, when he took power, the Nazi party held only 32% of the seats in the Reichstag. A two-thirds majority was needed to pass an Enabling Act.
 
Once the government had been dissolved by Hindenburg and new elections were called, the Nazi's ran a hard line, anti-communist campaign, insisting that Germany was on the brink of a Communist revolution. Their assertion was that the only way to stop them would be to authorize the Enabling Act for Hitler and his Nazi party. At the time, the Communist Party held 17% of the seats in the Reichstag. Hitler's platform consisted of little more than ardent pleas to increase the Nazi base so that the Enabling Act could be passed. In fact, Hitler already had plans to ban the Kommunistische Partei Deutschlands, before parliament reconvened in order to lessen the number who could vote against the Enabling Act. The Reichstag fire only served to quicken his pace and lessen resistance to the plan.
 
On the evening of February 27, 1933, the Berlin Fire Department was called to the Reichstag building. By the time they arrived the blaze was already burning nearly out of control. It took an hour and a half to put out the fire, saving the edifice. Much of the interior, however, was gutted. Investigations proved without a doubt that arson was to blame - some twenty bundles of flammable material were found lying about, unburned.
 
The Nazi's argued that the fire had been set by the Communist's as a signal that their revolution had begun and gave notice to the public that if they did not heed the Nazi's call to oust the Reds, they would suffer an unimaginable fate of doom and despair. The next day, the Preussische Pressedienst (Prussian Press Service) reported, and I quote, "this act of incendiarism is the most monstrous act of terrorism carried out by Bolshevism in Germany". Yup, they used the 'T' word. Now where have I heard similar refrains echoed in the call for action by the citizenry? Something about facing down an axis of evil, I believe? Can't quite put my finger on it... The Vossische Zeitung newspaper counseled readers that "the government is of the opinion that the situation is such that a danger to the state and nation existed and still exists". The government is of the opinion, eh? Well then. Yes, very dangerous. Much as if the Communists possessed, oh I don't know say, weapons of mass destruction. I mean, the government wouldn't lie to us. Would they?
 
That very same day Hitler requested and received the powers of the Patriot Act, er, I mean the Reichstag Fire Decree from President Hindenburg. Using article 48 (see above) of the Weimar Constitution, Hindenburg suspended the civil rights of the citizens of Germany, outlawed the Communist Party and all but handed the parliamentary elections to the Nazi Party and Hitler, allowing them to secure for themselves the Enabling Act they coveted. How, I ask you, did Hindenburg not see that coming? Or didn't he care? In any case, on 27 March, the decree was passed and the road to war had begun.
 
The most interesting piece of this story, to me, lies in the epilogue. In his novel The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich, William L. Shirer reports an episode from the Nuremburg trials where General Franz Halder stated in an affidavit that Hermann Göring had claimed to be the arsonist responsible for the Reichstag fire:
 
"On the occasion of a lunch on the Führer's birthday in 1942, the people around the Führer turned the conversation to the Reichstag building and its artistic value. I heard with my own ears how Göring broke into the conversation and shouted: 'The only one who really knows about the Reichstag building is I, for I set fire to it.' And saying this he slapped his thigh."
 
Of course, he subsequently denied ever having said such a thing. That's what politicians (and sardonic megalomaniacs) do when they're caught in their lies. My point here is not so much to draw a direct link between intentionally setting fires to frame political rivals and, say, sprucing up intelligence reports used to lead a nation into an unnecessary war. Rather, it is to illumine the parallels in the use of fear and lies to coerce the citizenry into giving up their freedom. Joseph Goebbels was once quoted thusly, "If you tell a lie big enough and keep repeating it, people will eventually come to believe it. The lie can be maintained only for such time as the State can shield the people from the political, economic and/or military consequences of the lie. It thus becomes vitally important for the State to use all of its powers to repress dissent, for the truth is the mortal enemy of the lie, and thus by extension, the truth is the greatest enemy of the State." A chilling thought.
 
 For those who say this type of thing could never happen in America, ask yourselves, don't you think that's exactly what the people of Germany used to think? When shall we learn from history and cease repeating it?
 
In any case, Derek finished his hamartiologic lesson and wrapped up the tour by inviting us all to a pub crawl being hosted by the same tour company for which he works. In fact, he informed us that none other than he himself would be the tour leader for this excursion through Berlin's nightlife. How could I pass that up? So it was back to the hotel for a short rest and to clean up, then out the door making my way to the rendezvous point.
 
I was a bit late arriving but, they had left behind docent for just such stragglers. She pointed me in the right direction and I quickly located the first establishment. Derek was out front chatting with some of his German mates. I said hello and settled up my fee for the evening's revelry, then headed inside. I knew no one but, felt certain it wouldn't be too hard to pick out the travelers from the locals. However, once inside, I realized I had been a bit presumptuous. Given this situation, reflex took over and I made a beeline for the bar which was situated in the back of the smallish but, long room.
 
The red walls were cluttered with icons from Communist era Berlin, providing the motif for the bar. The hammer and sickle were prominent as were large red stars (on red walls?, how gauche) alongside more humorous pieces poking fun at the formerly dominant ideology which, I'm sure would not have been tolerated were this not just a facsimile of days gone by.
 
I sat at the bar by myself fairly casing the joint for a few minutes. A pair of couples were playing foosball in the corner near me. I couldn't make out most of what they were saying but, they were colorful and entertaining nonetheless. It made me think of my fraternity days. Foosball had been a near second religion for most of the guys in the house. Strict rules too, no spinning, only the three-man can score, dot-ball on any other inadvertent admittance to the goal - Olympic rules, I believe. I never became as proficient as some of my brothers. One, I think, went pro. Much like every video game ever invented, I became frustrated with the game once it became clear to me, after a half hour or so of play, that I would not dominate the sport on an international level. From there, I was recruited to fill-in only when there appeared to be no else with two functioning arms within shouting distance.
 
Rapt as I was with the foosball game, I finally tore myself away to see if I couldn't mingle and make out who else was a part of the pub crawl crowd. As I made my way toward the front of the room, I picked up an English conversation in progress and stopped to inquire if they were, in fact, a part of the group I had yet to meet but, was ostensibly a part of. Joyously, bottles were shunted aside, a chair was dragged up and I was entreated to have a seat and join the fun. Wow, a friendly lot. I got to know the folks around the table the way all young travelers do, trading itineraries to that point and answering the obligatory question, "What's been your favorite place so far?"
 
This really has to be the most difficult question to try to answer on trip like this, especially once you're well into to your travels, as I was. I mean, how do I compare the Via del Amore with the Via Venneto? Was the scene in Barcelona a crazier party than Amsterdam? Was the mountain air better in Garmisch-Partenkirchen or Pogusch? Did you prefer the tapas in Grenada to those in Seville? All of these questions seem so ridiculous to me. Yes, is the only reasonable answer, everything has been wonderful, eye-opening, thrilling, thought provoking, educational, mind-blowing. So, in response, I offered, "The Alhambra was pretty cool."
 
Oohs and ahhs all around. "Yeah, that was pretty cool." I had chosen wisely, apparently. My street cred. as a seasoned traveler firmly established, we ordered another round before being rounded up ourselves to head to the next location. Just outside the bar, Derek gathered us all into a big apple-pie-circle to detail the evening's ground rules and safety precautions - stay with the group, watch out for each other, know your limits, don't hassle the whores out on the streets or their pimps are likely to beat you - the usual stuff. And he wasn't kidding about that last one.
 
Along the way to the next bar several ladies of the evening were plying their trade. It was growing chilly out and while they were still showing plenty of leg in their hot pants, it also seemed the height of hooker-fashion for this kind of weather revolved around down jackets squeezed tight by corsets on the exterior. I suppose this provides for the best warmth-to-cleavage ratio possible.
 
Our second stop of the evening was nothing special, really - another bar that could have been plunked down almost anywhere in the world. I ordered one of the specials on offer for our group along with another guy I had met at the first bar. Before long we got to talking with a couple of girls from Australia, Amanda and Angie. They turned out to be good fun, not so much for the dude whose name I'm not surprised to have forgotten. Somewhere along the way we lost him but, the three of us hung out together for the rest of the night.
 
Our third stop on the pub crawl proved to be the most interesting of the night. In fact, it may have been the most amazing nightclub (and I use that term loosely here) that I saw in all of Europe - including Middle Earth's top ranked destination. The main entrance was next to a sculptor's studio. The roll-top door was up revealing, as we passed by, the metal-work in various stages of finish. Much of what was being welded, mashed or generally fused into brilliant pieces of artwork, appeared to be found objects. Other bits were clearly fabricated for an express purpose in the futuristic, post-apocalyptic, renderings of abstract-humanoid figures. Gnarly, comes to mind as an apropos adjective to describe the scene.
 
Upon entering, the bar itself looked like many other low-rent dives that might be frequented by artists - dark but, with an energetic vibe to it. It wasn't particularly large either. That is, until I noticed a door in the back and called the Aussies over. "Let's see where this goes." I opened the door and it was like Dorothy stepping from monochrome to Technicolor. All of a sudden we were in the midst of a funked-out, Bauhaus-Neverland. The huge outdoor space ran the length of the block, with the bar we were just in and the sculptor's studio now behind us. It was littered with old motorcycles protruding from the ground as if possessed and back from the dead. Junker cars had been reconfigured as tables or benches. There was also a VW Microbus now serving as a bar. At the back of the lot someone had erected a gigantic screen onto which some kind of indecipherable art film was being projected. It was a continuing series of images, just flashes really, of the human form (au natural), industrial excess, the decay of nature or, alternatively, tremendous fecundity. Taken together, the whole presented a commentary on...uh, I guess I don't have a rat's ass of a clue on that one. Truly bizarre stuff. It made me wish I had more black in my wardrobe just then. But I knew we'd found a place worthy of some serious exploring.
 
Oh, and I almost forgot about the lasers. There were brightly colored lights and lasers flashing all over the giant backyard scene filtering onto the film screen at random intervals. And the whole scene was set to a thundering techno (or was it house?) soundtrack. The music emanated from somewhere in the five story complex that contained the bar and sculptor's studio on the ground level. We got a beer from the Microbus and sat down at an old East German car/table to take it all in for a minute. It was then that I noticed the lasers were originating from the fifth floor. If they were shooting lasers from up there, I thought to myself, I wonder what other kind of business they've got going on?
 
I convinced Angie and Amanda that we needed to check this place out further. Without much trouble, we found a stairwell that led upward. The walls were painted a deep red - or at one point had been. Graffiti covered nearly every inch now. Bare light bulbs hung at each floor's landing revealing the sometimes inspired artwork but, more often mindless scribbles. We climbed the stairs passing some other folks on the way who informed us about the lounge on the top floor. But as we were rounding the corner to assail the last flight, something caught my eye.
 
Through a doorway I saw what looked to be some very wild paintings. I called to the girls and had them come over as I was now already nearly inside what turned out to be a makeshift gallery. The space took up nearly the entire fourth floor of the building. It was covered from floor to ceiling with the most amazing paintings I've ever seen outside a museum. There was a small group at the entrance chatting so, I asked the gentleman who I presumed to be the artist if we could take a look around. He welcomed us and told us to take our time. I wish that I would have written down his name.  He was preparing for a show, we later learned from a banner we saw draped down the side of the building as we left.
 
I'm not sure I can really describe his work. Psychedelic - to a degree - but, updated with a modern, urban consciousness. Much of it was very detailed. Often there were images contained within larger images. There were strong Indian and Asian overtones to that effect. Each subsequent piece was more incredible than the last. The three of us spent nearly an hour in there converting our pub crawl into a combination gallery tour. It was a heartening diversion. To think that work of that caliber existed in a space like that just made me feel so optimistic about the world. If creativity like that yet thrives in spite of the onslaught of vapid drivel consuming the western world on a daily basis, then we still have a shot as a species.
 
By the time we made it to the lounge on the fifth floor, we had just enough time to peruse the Bohemian environs, which were furnished with used couches, dilapidated chairs and otherwise re-purposed articles for tables and such, before heading back down. We took in the view of the still showing, confounding film from up there, noticed the origination point for the laser and light show, thought about getting a drink but, then noticed the time and hurried down so as to not get left behind by the rest of the group. There was more of Berlin yet to see.
 
As we moved to the next destination Angie, Amanda and I were pretty much hanging out to the exclusion of the rest of the group. It was approaching 2:00am and the two of them were dragging a little. They had been out the night before, they explained and I, well I'd been out for the last 2 months, really. So we took it a little easier than some others on the crawl opting to make fun of the drunks rather than become them. We found ourselves in a locals' hangout with some kind of odd, fish decorating motif. We kept to the bar chatting and having a generally very nice time until soon it was time to move again. On the way out one of the female members of our entourage was in need of assistance. As she was being helped out (ok, carried out would be a better description for it) she was suddenly no longer able to retain what she had previously ingested that evening to the dismay of the young man on who's shoulder she was most heavily leaning.
 
We decided to call it quits after witnessing that. You kids go on. We'll summon the strength to pull ourselves away from the party - somehow. We split a cab back to our respective destinations agreeing to meet again for dinner the next night or, later that night really. In any case, I was soon blissfully nodding in my king sized bed back at the Palace.
 
I allowed myself to sleep in a little the next day and had a leisurely breakfast at the hotel's expansive buffet before setting off for the day. I was headed to see a long stretch of the Berlin Wall that has been left intact. As it happens, this is the section which they reserved for artists to adorn in 1990 once the Wall had officially "come down." Clearly not all of it though. The intention was to provide a space for the visual arts community to express what it meant to finally have exuviated this symbol of repression from their city, now unified after so many years of partition. After 10 years the work had become a little bit the worse for wear so, to mark the anniversary in 2000 the city invited back those same artists to spruce up their pieces. Six years on from that point, several of the paintings were beginning to show their age again but, it was a moving experience none-the-less. I got some terrific photos and have posted a few here for you to see.
 
Many of the depictions told of the suffering and separation the Wall had caused. Others were more forward looking and hopeful. Praise of freedom and all its inherent virtues were everywhere. Yet others were purely comical, taking shots at the former Soviet-backed regime. Taken together, they served not only as a reminder literally emblazoned on the hated structure itself but, as a warning for future generations, a call to make the society of their dreams lest an alternate version be thrust upon them. The most emblematic moment of the lengthy stroll came when I happened on a gate. Both doors were flung wide open, utterly defeating the structure's intended purpose. It was a brilliant statement.
 
I walked about half a mile down I'd say, my iPod playing all the while in shuffle mode. As I made my way back toward the train station, Beethoven's 9th Symphony began to play. It was the 4th movement; the Ode to Joy - my favorite piece of music ever composed. I literally got chills as the song went along. If you're not familiar, the 4th is the choral movement and the lyrics are about freedom and the brotherhood of all mankind, the possibilities for human society. The poignancy of listening to this composition, arguably from Germany's greatest composer, in this setting, as the piece reached its tumultuous crescendo, was not lost on me. All in all, I spent some two hours at the Wall and I came away with a Panglossian sort of optimism about the possibilities for our world in spite of our previous record. 
 
I spent the rest of the afternoon taking care of a little business at an internet café arranging the details for the last stop of the trip, writing some and then went back to the hotel for a nice workout at the hotel fitness center. I cleaned myself up and was off to meet the girls for dinner.
 
We dined alfresco at a cheap little joint near the S-Bahn station where a large collection of bars and restaurants have sprung up in the past couple of years. The food was mediocre, at best, but the company was nice and we chatted the evening away.
 
The next day I headed back to the Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe intending to tour the museum below. Upon arrival, I encountered a long line so, I queued-up and waited. And waited. And waited. In a half hour's time not a soul was allowed in except for those in the group reservations line so, I bailed.
 
I walked over to the Bundestag a few blocks away to get some better snaps than I had a few days earlier. I found that the line to ascend to the cupola wasn't nearly as bad as it had been before so, I queued-up for that. The pace of this line was only slightly faster than that of glaciations but, at least it moved. As we approached the security check I learned that the cupola itself was closed for repairs, or cleaning, or some such but, we could still stroll around the terrace surrounding it to take in the 360° views of the city.
 
And speaking of security, this place is tighter than Ft. Knox. And I should know. I used to go to Ft. Knox a couple of times a month when I was doing work for the Recruiting Command which is headquartered there. I guess it's to be expected though. This is the seat of German Parliament after all. I mean it's not like you get to just stroll into the Capital Building these days.
 
As one enters the building, a glass wall impedes progress almost immediately. On the other side is an ante chamber about twenty feet in length with another glass wall on the far side. As I approached, I saw that the ante chamber was filled with those patrons who had been directly in front of us in line. Then I saw the far side glass wall slide open to allow those visitors out of their pen to advance toward the huge metal detectors that waited. Only after that same glass wall had returned to its closed position did the one in front of us slide open. We shuffled into the ante chamber, presumably to be scanned by sensors worthy of Star Trek all the while, until it was full and the glass wall closed again behind us. Only once the group ahead had cleared the last hurdle of security and made their way to the elevator leading to the top of the building, were we allowed to proceed.
 
Once atop the Bundestag I strolled around the crystalline cupola that was off limits for the time being. It was a pretty cool looking structure and would have been fun to walk around inside of but, cést la vie. I made my way to the edge of the terrace. I was able to see the entire city laid out before me and I was glad I had come to Berlin. It's not the most beautiful city in Europe but, the history of the place is enormous and its energy is captivating as well.
 
I was short on time now as well as pages in my journal so, I decided to go shopping. I picked up a couple of cheap sweaters at H&M to ward off the chill I was now feeling in the air. I also wanted to have something a little nicer to wear for upcoming events. It was much better to pick something up now than having tried to lug them around with me during the sweltering days in Spain. Then, quite by accident, I happened upon the ginormous bastion of consumerism that is KaDeWe, the second largest department store in all of continental Europe. With over 60,000 square meters of floor space and more than 380,000 articles on offer, it attracts approximately 50,000 visitors every day. The sixth and seventh floors are entirely devoted to food boasting two football fields worth. The very top level houses a winter garden that houses a restaurant with a wall of windows affording views of the Wittenbergplatz below. It is a marvel for the shopaholic and a grotesque perversion for those who believe we've become too obsessed with the accumulation of possessions. I found myself somewhat torn between the two poles.
 
While there, looking for a suitable replacement for my now nearly filled journal, I discovered Moleskin notebooks. Hemingway and Picasso used them exclusively and I instantly fell in love with the utilitarian look of the simply bound, tan cardboard covers and the cream-colored lined pages within. I bought half a dozen in two of the larger sizes and another six pocket sized volumes in order to always have one with me for notes.
 
I had one last stop to make before returning to the hotel to grab my gear and heading for the train station. Just down the street from my hotel was the remnant of a bombed-out church. The bell tower still stood pretty much intact. All around that were partial walls trailing off until they sunk to ground level. Much like the Frauenkirche in Dresden, before its re-construction, the German's left this church in ruins to remind people of the terrible cost of war. Alongside the old church a new tower has been erected. Made of glass block, it is lighted at night from within and glows in ghostly shades of blue, purple, red and yellow (see pic.). I'd been waiting to shoot it in the right light and now was my chance. It occurred to me then that perhaps we could do with some reminders of a similar ilk in America.
 
By 9:30 I was at the Hauptbahnhof. After a short wait on the platform, the night train to Brussels arrived. I was leaving Germany and entering the last leg of the trip. I would have one day to see Brussels, then make my way to the city of lights for a couple of nights. Then I would finish things off in grand style with two days of wine tasting in Burgundy. Now, what did I do with that beret?
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