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Berlin, Our Tourist Impression


November 3, 2001

Dear Family and Friends,

We'll write a separate diary about our museums and galleries, so this piece will be an impression overview.

Berlin is big. We were tired. Bad combination. The first hotel, the Belvedere, was unacceptably "charming". Marianne called it "shabby chic" but it also failed our technical requirements of private parking and modem-capable phones. Even the walk to the train was an unacceptably long 25 minutes.

We knew we wanted to move, but in a city this large that's not a process we can tackle in less than a day or two. We don't do five-star hotels, or even four- or three-star unless we can get a break on the rate. The local Tourist Office was little help. They gave us a nice hotel index but could not recommend any of the hundred or so listed hotels. Another guessing game.

This hotel-search strain and the general strain of moving every few days tried our patience. In fact, we ended up losing a day due to the combination of hotel search and some serious soul-searching. Why were we doing this? Was this journey all a serious mistake? We're unemployed, in our mid-fifties, experiencing the start of a major, worldwide recession. We have an apartment in Kiev that may be unmarketable. Our place is California has gone from a hot commodity to unsellable because of current conditions. We are driving an "investment" that may also be hard to convert back into cash when we need it.

We are spending 24-hours a day by ourselves, no matter how large the city. No breaks. No work distractions. No dinners and discussions with friends. Most of the time it works but on those occasions when it doesn't, maybe we learn just a bit more about each other and, more significantly, about ourselves. We've always told ourselves "it's good for us" but maybe we didn't understand that the good would not always come easily.

After a day or so of search and struggle, we found a fine new home, The Hotel Alpha. Covered garage, computer-capable phones, clean, friendly, on a convenient bus line and almost within budget. We would stay here four days, as long a stay as we have done and we enjoyed the restful and worry-free base. Berlin tourists need a good home base.

In-town transportation wasn't hard. In the morning we'd take our local bus, Number 227, to a nearby train ("S-Bahn") or subway ("U-Bahn"). Everything is near an S-Bahn or U-Bahn station and with our daily or three-day passes, we didn't worry about not getting it right the first time. At the end of our stay we felt like public transportation veterans. Berlin may not have shrunk to village size but at least it was manageable. I can not imagine such an impression if we had attempted to drive!

As we walked from transport to destination, we saw a few of the famous downtown areas. The ultra-modern Potsdamer Platz area was filled with office buildings, shopping malls, theaters, restaurants and anything else an American-bred consumer could want. Everything was new and stylish. Even the crowds in the streets and malls seemed "upscale".

Kurfurstendammplatz, near the Zoo Garden S-Bahn station, was more democratic. "Ku'damm" refers to both this plaza and the large area of shopping that was the center of West Berlin in the days of the divide. The feel here was more New York than anything else. Crowds. Lights. Noise. Bustle. A little bit of sleaze, but more lively than threatening. Our most important purchase here was an international phone card that allowed calls to the States for about five cents per minute. The change from over two dollars per minute to five cents was a welcome change for staying in touch with family.

The comparable center in what was East Berlin was Alexanderplatz. We went to a large department store to buy necessities, like an umbrella and a phone cord for the computer connection. After three years in Kyiv, where we have gotten accustomed to crowds in stores, lines at cashiers and lengthy payment processes, we could see a similarity here. In fact, wandering around Alexanderplatz and other parts of what was East Berlin we got the impression that, while there is rebuilding throughout Berlin, the eastern half has further to go before an Eastern European flavor fades away.

Late Sunday afternoon we did manage to share the S-Bahn and the Ku'damm Platz with football (soccer) fans preparing for a match that evening. "Preparing" meant wearing the local team colors and, in many cases, drinking the local beer. The noise level was a notch or two higher than normal but the police security level was notched up considerably as well. We were not sure if the presence of riot-equipped police made us more or less comfortable, but we quickly headed to our peaceful home base in any event.

We drove the car very little, basically just to get to our hotels and leave from them at the end of our stays. Based on that small sample, I'd say Berlin ranks somewhere between New York (or Rio) and Stockholm (or San Francisco) on a degree-of-difficulty scale. The decision to use public transportation was certainly the correct one but, given time, even driving in the big city would be possible for long-term visitors. I think.

We were in Berlin almost one week. In that time we succeeded to develop a sense for some aspects of the city, but we must admit that, for everything we experienced, there must be ten things we did not. That may be a simple truism of our journey. There are many more things to do and places to see than we have the time or stamina for. We have to recognize that this is just a "sampler journey" and Berlin may make it on our final list of places to experience again.

Take care and keep track of places to experience again.

John and Marianne

P.S.: Don't forget to see our diary of museums, galleries and churches.

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Created November 8, 2001