Tag: Germany

An Inaccurate Guide to European Manhole Cover Art: Munich

Today our manhole cover comes from Munich, Germany. If you plug the word Munich into a translator you will find out that the city was named after Thelonious Monk. It is possible that this information is incorrect, speaking of incorrect, let’s look at our manhole cover today.

Munich. Yes, those are the same pair of shorts you have seen in the last three pictures. I travel light and gritty.

Ask your average American man what he knows about Munich and he will say, “Is that where they have Oktoberfest?”  Yes, it is. (The biggest problem I have with Oktoberfest is that it is at the end of October and the beginning of September. So it should be called something else. Oktotemberfest is my suggestion.) If the man is particularly astute he might say that Munich is where they held the 1972 Munich Olympics which is also correct. So now that we are all up on the entire history of Munich let’s see what the cover has to offer.

Munich has a pretty plain cover as you can see, but like all of the greatest works of art, the questions left in the viewer’s mind are of the utmost importance. The man on the cover is actually a monk, not a Dungeons and Dragons monk with spell capability and fighting skills, but the kind of monk who makes beer. This particular monk became a monk because he was horribly disfigured, look at his head. Man, I have seen some big old hooks on the back of people’s heads before, but this guy really has a problem. Imagine trying to buy a hat if your head was shaped like a hammer. So, no doubt, this caused him to drop out of society and start making beer.

The next detail is what might be mistaken as a cross on his tunic. Is this really a cross? Or is it possible that it is his muscled abdomen bulging through his clothing? Okay, it is probably a cross. This is a dumb paragraph to have written because it goes nowhere, but it is staying here because my internal editor is taking a nap.

The gang sign that the monk is flashing with his right hand is for his homies in the Bavarian gang. There really is quite a rivalry between cities like Munich and Berlin. It is kind of like the East Coast, West Coast thing that took place between Death Row Records and Big Boy Records in the 1990’s except there aren’t any rap songs being written about it and so far no one has been mysteriously murdered by Suge Knight. (I am not indicating that Suge Knight had anything to do with Biggie Smalls‘ death, or that he has ever done anything bad, I am simply drawing a comparison between the conflict between the East and West Coast rappers and Berlin and Munich which now seems a bit ridiculous, but if you have read this blog before you know that ridiculous is kind of my thing.)

Back to the monk on the cover, in his left hand he is holding an early version of an iPhone. I believe it is an iPhone IV (they used to go by Roman Numerals back then.) This iPhone was known for its poor reception so the monks would have to hold it far away from their bodies to get good reception when the Pope called. The Pope stilled used a landline back then. The Vatican is always slow to make changes and even today they use MySpace instead of Facebook. Pope John Paul tried Google+ but thought it was lame just like everyone else.

I now want to draw your attention to the sleeves on the monk’s tunic. These sleeves look pretty cool when you are holding your arms out, but as soon as you put your arms down the sleeves are going to be dragging in the mud. Obviously the monks were not familiar with the idea of form and function, but like most men, these guys were probably clueless about clothing. (I would probably still be wearing my green Kawasaki mesh shirt today if it was socially acceptable. It would be a tight fit since I was about half the size I am now, but cool doesn’t have a size.)

The last detail of the manhole cover is the word pressed into the bottom of the cover: STADTENTWASSERUNGSWERKE. This is a real German word. The only thing missing is an exclamation point! Germans love their exclamation points! Ask a German student to write an essay and 75% of the punctuation will be exclamation points! I am not kidding! They are probably mad because in Germany when a teacher asks for a 500 word essay they know it will be 10 pages long, and that is 10 point Times New Roman! There are two ways to understand this word: I can put it in my little Google search engine and it will tell me what it means, or I can use my linguistic skillz (pronounced skeeelz) and break the word down. Get ready to be dazzled. WASSER means water as I recall, and WERKE means work. With those two clues let’s break the rest down. I will guess that RUNGS means something like plumbing or pipes, and STADTENT means city or something like that. So according to my skillz the word means: City water plumbing works. I will now drop it into Google to see how close I got. Wow! CITY DRAINAGE WORKS! I am going to write to the College Board and see if I can get a few extra points added to my 1983 SAT score.

Okay, you must be exhausted after all that learning. Learning makes your brain work hard, which makes you thirsty, so get another cup of coffee and take a rest.

 

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An Inaccurate Guide To European Manhole Cover Art: Berlin

Today’s manhole cover comes from Berlin, Germany. Berlin is one of Europe’s smelliest cities , but it is also one of Europe’s sexiest cities (according to t-shirts sold in Berlin). It is also a city with good food, good museums, good history, and great manhole covers. (A quick suggestion for the manhole cover makers in Berlin, if you didn’t drill holes in the cover it might reduce the sewer smell.)

Berlin

Berlin

Before we dig in to the cover, let me apologize for the shoes, I realize that they are a distraction and there is no excuse for buying shoes this bright, but it happened, it was nearly unavoidable, and I now like them. (If you are curious about how they got on my feet you can read about it here: TSOJ: Berlin–Ugly Shoes, Horrible Hotels, and How Germany Won the War of Breakfast.)

This is a pretty busy manhole cover so starting at the bottom it goes: Reichstag, TV Tower, Brandenburg Gate, Victory Column, Mystery thing, No Idea thing, and Kaiser Wilhelm Church.  I think some of the better places have been left off the cover, but that might just be me. When the artist planned this cover out I am sure there were a few tough decisions to make. For example, they were probably told to get an equal amount of stuff from both sides of the city;  this theory might also explain the two mystery objects on the cover. It is also possible that one of the mystery objects is the Pergamon Museum (the one closest to my left foot), but I don’t recall the Pergamon having any big, tall towers. Is it possible the museum had towers at one time? Yes. Where did the towers go? That is something that requires research and therefore that won’t be happening this morning. Just for fun, let me say that the towers were put in a museum in Turkey after WWII.

I don’t know about you, but I cannot see an image of the Brandenburg Gate without thinking of David Hasselhoff singing Freedom, which should be reason enough to remove the image from the manhole cover which would leave space for some other stuff that wouldn’t remind me of David Hasselhoff. It is one of many oddities of German/American relations. We (USA! USA!) dropped a number of bombs on Germany and then said, “You know, let’s be friends.” Then we spent the next 50 years hating half of Germany and loving the other half. We expressed this love by inflicting David Hasselhoff on them. They now pretend not to know who he is and people like me continue to remind them.  Germans don’t forget embarrassing stuff, I still remember getting perms in high school, as well as every junior high dance; I’m talking to you, Tammy Carroll…too tired to dance, sure. (Yes, I am a little German.)

The TV Tower is also know as Fernsehturm Berlin, but since English speakers have no chance of getting that pronounced correctly we call it the TV Tower; if there is one thing we know how to pronounce it is TV. The tower was on the wrong side of the wall back in the day, but today you can go up to the top and see the whole city. (These views are always overrated in my opinion. Seeing a city from up high is pretty disappointing. I end up looking at a lot of parking lots and wondering how much it costs to park there.) The TV Tower is also the default wide-angle-arial shot used by all movie directors to indicate that the setting is Berlin. It simplifies things. If you had a shot of the Reichstag people would wonder where it was, if you had a shot of Brandenburg Gate people would wonder if David Hasselhoff was in the movie (which, like yelling “Fire” in a theater should be illegal), and if you had a shot of the Victory Column people would get super confused…it has been a long time since Germany finished a war with a victory.

Kaiser-Wilhelm-Gedächtniskirche is really not named well, but it looks good on the manhole cover. The cathedral should be named something else since it is really a cathedral and a half. There is the old blown up part, and then there is the new tower and church that holds the biggest, scariest, gold, flying Jesus I have ever seen.  I think the church ended up on the cover more because of its location (“West side represent”) than its value as a historical landmark in Berlin. It is cool to take a peek inside the church and see all the blue stained glass and flying gold Jesus, but I can think of several locations that are better.

I have avoided the mystery object long enough, let’s tackle this thing now. I have no idea what that thing is. Is it a map of the park? Is it the food court at KeDeWe? Is it a palace garden? Is it a piece of toast that has its own children’s television show? (You heard me right, look this up on YouTube: Bernd das Brot. You’re welcome.) Whatever it is, it doesn’t belong with the other buildings because I am sure it is not a building. I don’t make the rules for what can or cannot be on manhole covers, but I think a rule should be made. Either you go all buildings, or you go no buildings. It seems very un-German to have something this inconsistent on the cover. Maybe some of those German engineers I hear about all the time should devote themselves to straightening out Berlin’s manhole cover.

The final detail on the cover is for the sewer workers. The words say, “Berliner Wasserbetriebe” which I believe means Berlin Water Company or something like that. The arrows are there to help the workers know which direction to put the cover back on correctly. I think the arrows are a good idea, more manhole covers should think about having some directional arrows to help out.

Well, that’s enough learning for today, you have my permission to take a nap and call it good.

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Final Thoughts on TSOJ

The Summer of Jon lasted 28 days and now that I am back home it seems like it happened a long time ago, or in a dream.  It was a trip of a lifetime, but I hope to do a few more trips of a lifetime before I kick the big can and become fish food (not the Ben and Jerry’s flavor, I doubt there is much rotting human flesh in Phish Food). Hopefully, time and distance  will give me the ability to say what aspects of the trip were truly memorable and make connections to my understanding of life.

Enough of that and on to the banal observations of an aged man traveling Europe on his own.

10. Traveling alone is only lonely if you want it to be. These days it is easy to close off to the world. Early in my trip I thought listening to my iPod as I walked around was a good way to keep myself company, but in the end it closed me off from talking to other people and interacting. When I started leaving my iPod in the hotel I started meeting people and no matter what people tell you, Europeans are friendly. They are not American-sloppy-open-mouthed-kiss friendly, they are a little more reserved and each nation has its own flavor of friendliness, but I had zero negative interactions with people on the road. (Okay, the guy behind the desk at my hotel in Munich was a bit of a grump, but if I had to wear tight suits in ugly colors I would be grumpy too.)IMG_1399

9. Knowing the exchange rate and running a few calculations is always a good idea before arriving in a country. This seems like a no-brainer, but when you travel through multiple countries in a month things can get confusing. When I arrived in Reykjavik I knew the exchange rate was 125-1, but I hadn’t run a few simple calculations so I ended up getting $400 worth of Icelandic Kroner s instead of getting $40 worth from an ATM. My mistake was a windfall profit for Iceland, I had to spend more there than I had intended since Icelandic Kroner s are not accepted anywhere else in the world. (Yes, I could have exchanged the money in the airport, but even an idiot like me knows to never exchange money in an airport.) When I ordered a beer on my first night in Norway and the bartender said, “97 Kroners,” I didn’t think twice about handing over my credit card. When I got back to my hotel room and checked the exchange rate I found out I purchased an $18 beer. From that point on, before I let my hotel wi-fi and traveled to my next destination, I looked at the exchange rate and figured out what $50 US was equal to in my next country.

8. Germans walk my speed. I like to walk with a purpose, so do Germans. There is no leisurely strolling and blocking the sidewalk in Germany and this is the way it should be. If you want to lolly-gag then go to Italy or find a beach.

7. Five days worth of clothing is plenty no matter how long you are traveling. Your room sink or tub is a great little washing machine if you don’t want to waste time in a laundromat. It takes two days for cotton shirts to dry inside a room, but about four hours next to a window.

Wash, rinse, dry on mini-ladder.

Wash, rinse, dry on mini-ladder. Clothing from the Johnny Cash travel collection. 

6. Those stupid little packing cubes really are handy. I thought they were overpriced and for OCD sufferers, but once I was on the road I loved my packing cubes.

5. WiFi in hotels can be lame, but Starbucks stores usually have pretty good connections and it is free if you register a Starbucks card (which doesn’t make it free, but I have had a zero balance on my card for about five years and I was still registered). You can also stand outside of stores and steal wi-fi if you have no shame. The wi-fi outside the Apple store in Munich was great.

4. Pay toilets are stupid. Europe needs to rethink this one. There is nothing else to say here.IMG_1880

3. In Europe vices are viewed as personal issues, in the United States vices are viewed as societal problems. The view of Europeans (huge generalization here) is that if you want to do something stupid go ahead, just make sure it doesn’t bother anyone else. In the US we make laws restricting vices. It is probably why the US leads the world in prison population.

Europe may not allow high-fives, but most of the time they let people do what they want.

Europe may not allow high-fives, but most of the time they let people do what they want.

2. When I would tell married couples (especially couples who are close to my age) that I was in Europe traveling alone I got two very different reactions. The men would get a glossy, far-away look and ask, “By yourself? How did you make that happen?” The women would turn the faces clock-wise about five minutes and squint, “Your wife must be pretty special.” The look the women gave me indicated that they really didn’t believe me and that there must be more to the story. I often felt like I was being accused of something devious.

1. My wife is pretty special.

TSOJ: Bike Tour Of Munich, Free Shower Included

Munich, my final stop on The Summer of Jon, and the final bike tour of my glorious summer. By now I had terrifying bike tours (Prague), beautifully weird bike tours (Potsdam), bike tours where the guide was trying to lose the group (Vienna), and solo bike tours where I nearly rode into another country (Copenhagen), so when I arrived beneath the Old Town Hall near Marienplatz I was ready for whatever the day would bring. I was greeted by two guides: James and Busty. (I assume that is how Busty spells his name, I did not ask.) Before we left the greeting area I learned three facts: 1.The city name Munich (Munchen) literally means “by the monks.” 2. Barrel-makers were responsible for saving the city during the plague by doing a dance that is now celebrated every seven years. 3. Busty was born in Munich and then moved to New Zealand where he grew up.

All three of these facts interested me. The name of the city was mildly interesting, the barrel-maker dance was pretty cool, but Busty’s family history became a mystery that I resolved to unfold during the bike tour. To start with there are only 3 million Kiwis living in New Zealand, but everywhere I travel I run into Kiwis, so either no one is in New Zealand during the winter (summer in the Northern Hemisphere) or there are 30 million Kiwis and 27 million of them are traveling at any given moment.

Busty (green shirt), James (blue shirt), and Juliet (shiny right breast).

Busty (green shirt), James (blue shirt), and Juliet (shiny right breast).

We walked to the bike store, selected our bikes, Busty asked for someone to ride in the back, I volunteered because I was the only solo traveler on the tour and had “Ass Man” experience, and then Busty gave us a frightening introduction to riding bikes in Munich. The introduction boiled down to this, “Getting hit by a moving car is okay because the driver will be held responsible. You may die, but death is better than hitting a parked car. Hitting a parked car will be your fault and you will be held financially responsible.” Munich is home to BMW and everyone in Munich owns a black or silver car that costs 100,000,000 Euros. Busty said that a young lady scratched a parked car with her bike last week and ended up with a 12,000 Euro bill, this bit of information did scare me a little.

Once we took off on the tour my fears subsided because we traveled on bike paths most of the time and there were a few people on the tour that could only ride their bikes at a maximum speed of three mph.

Livin' the vida loca, taking pictures while riding is always against the rules, but when you are going at electric-scooter speed and there are no cars around...

Livin’ the vida loca, taking pictures while riding is always against the rules, but when you are going at electric-scooter speed and there are no million dollar cars around…

We spent a good chunk of the beginning part of the tour in the city core. The odd thing about Munich is that it looks really old, but much of the city’s old town was rebuilt after it was destroyed in WWII. Some German cities cleared the rubble and built shiny new cities (Frankfurt) and other cities cleared the rubble and rebuilt new versions of the old city. Munich went old school and Busty explained that much of that decision was based on how the people of Munich see themselves; the people of Munich consider themselves Bavarians more than Germans and they wanted to preserve their Bavarian heritage. This whole Bavarian thing is great for Munich, but it isn’t the most popular attitude to have in the rest of Germany. I equate it to how Americans feel about Texans. (That’s right, I’m messin’ with Texas.)

As we traveled around and Busty filled in the history of the city, I began to get pretty confused about who ruled what and when. This crash-course in European history started in Oslo for me and I was beginning to get everybody mixed up. Were the Bavarian rulers the same ones that ruled Austria? What about the dudes in Potsdam? Who was ruling Czechoslovakia? Eventually Busty got to a part of history that is easier to understand, or harder to understand depending on your perspective: Hitler.

I want to be careful not to sound to flippant here, but Hitler is a historical figure who cannot be confused with any other leader and therefore makes European history since WWII easier to understand. (If you read that last sentence and your mind said, “What about Barack Obama?” I want you to take a deep breath, turn off Fox News, remove the “Don’t Tread on Me” flag from your flag pole, find your happy place, and read a book.)

It is very difficult to understand how Hitler was able to rise to power. For most Americans this is the great mystery of German history. I am being sincere when I say that my little bike tour of Munich helped me finally put the final puzzle pieces together in my mind and understand Hitler’s rise to power.

Puzzle Piece #1: Standing in the Jewish Quarter in Prague, “The Jews were not allowed to live outside this area, and could not be buried in the other cemeteries. The city leaders would not give the Jews more land, so they had to bury people on top of each other. They always put 11 inches of soil between the bodies, but that is why the cemetery ground rises so high above the rest of the street.”

English: Old Jewish Cemetery. Josefov, Prague.

Prague’s Jewish Cemetery

Puzzle Piece #2: Next to the Jewish Memorial in Vienna, “Christians were not allowed to loan money, but the Jewish faith allowed money lending. When the city needed money they would invite the Jews to come live in the city, but as soon as they didn’t need money lending any longer, they kicked the Jews out.”

Vienna's Jewish Memorial.

Vienna’s Jewish Memorial.

Puzzle Piece #3: Standing next to the Plague column in Prague, “Rumors were spread that the Jews had poisoned the wells and that is why the plague was spreading.”

Puzzle Piece #4 and # 5 : Standing in Odeonsplatz in Munich, “Here is where Hitler was almost killed in 1923 during the Beer Hall Riots. He was thrown to the ground, and his body-guard jumped on top of him to protect him. The body-guard was shot four times. 16 Nazis were killed and four police officers died.”

“Hitler ran away, but was eventually captured and went to trial. The German government should have executed him for treason but they didn’t and they allowed him to defend himself at this trial which gave him the opportunity to defend his actions and spread his anti-Semitic message.”

Final Puzzle Piece: The alleyway behind Odeonsplatz: “Hitler had a memorial built of the Beer Hall Riots and everyone who walked by had to do a Nazi salute. People started to walk through this alley to avoid the memorial. Hitler put some of his SS men back here to take names of people who wouldn’t give the salute. Once he controlled the police, he could jail all of his opposition.”

Alleyway behind Odeonplatz.

Alleyway behind Odeonplatz.

Hitler’s rise to power wasn’t a popular movement of unavoidable events, but a series of near-misses combined with a historical hatred of the Jewish people. When Germany’s economy crashed and inflation exploded overnight (primarily because Germany was printing money to pay of WWI reparations ) Hitler was there to blame the Jews who had a history of money-lending. He was there to capitalize on the fears of the past, and to project a future where Germany would be the center of the world. He did not win a popular vote, he formed a coalition government. He consolidated his power by taking over the police force and eventually stifled all of his opposition. All of it made sense to me, not the result, but the actions leading into WWII. It is sad to understand that the human desire to survive often leads to the destruction of other humans.

After our Odeonplatz stop, a few of the wimps (the family from Scotland) in our group were hungry and wanted something to eat. It was 11 o’clock and our next stop was the third largest beer garden in the world, so I passed on the food option (Busty said we would be stopping at the largest beer garden in the world soon) and grabbed a liter of beer. Our group sat around a large table and sipped our beer in the shade.

Beer Garden stop #1.

Beer Garden stop #1.

After our refreshing break we hopped back on the bikes and headed out toward Munich’s Olympic Park. For anyone old enough to remember the 1972 Olympics the park is a destination filled with memories: The tragic deaths of the 11 Israeli Olympic team members still holds the park in its grip, but the ’72 Olympics also brought the world Olga Korbut, Mark Spitz, and a controversial Russian victory (cheaters never prosper) over the US in basketball.

The Olympic Park

The Olympic Park

The park is still used today (the X-games had just left town) but the grounds were almost empty as we rode through. I don’t know if I believe in ghosts and supernatural phenomenon but there was an odd aura surrounding the entire park. It could have been the emptiness of the place, or it might just have been the fact that clouds were now gathering in the sky.

It had been 30 years since the games were held in Munich, a city that had been destroyed 30 years earlier in WWII, and in those 60 years Germany had been conquered, divided, and reunited. The great arcs of history are sometimes pretty short arcs and he ability of humans to destroy in rebuild is incredible. It should frighten us and give us hope at the same time.  The great shame of these monstrous sporting stadiums and buildings is that the host countries have still not figured out how to use the Olympic facilities on a daily basis after the games are over.

Built for 1972, the design still appears modern today.

Built for 1972, the design still appears modern today.

Mark Spitz broke some records in this water. Well, I hope they changed the water by now.

Mark Spitz broke some records in this water…well, I’m sure they have added new water by now.

The one building that was still open to the public was the pool. For five Euros you can slip into the same pool that Mark Spitz swam in to win his collection of gold medals.

The building I wish I could have stood in is where they held the basketball tournament and the referees stole the gold medal from the US players. (This event drove me to win the gold medal back numerous times on my driveway basketball court. History may have awarded the Soviets the gold, but my imagination awarded me the gold many times.) The US team refused to accept the silver medals and I think the medals are still in bank vault waiting for Doug Collins to pick them up. The big shots at the Olympic Committee probably break the medals out to wear them at cocktail parties.

Near the Olympic Park is BMW World. I am not a car guy,this should be obvious because I write a blog, but even I got a little weak in the knees looking at all of the shiny cars.

BMW world.

BMW world.

I wonder if they take Icelandic Kroner s.

I wonder if they take Icelandic Kroner s.

BMW world is one of those places where someone like me realizes that there are people in the world who are far, far, far wealthier than I am, and I am not just talking about people who live in Norway. I don’t think I will ever own one of these cars, but I decided that sitting in a couple of them wouldn’t hurt anyone. Well, it hurt someone, because as soon as I stepped out of the cars some guy would come along and wipe the car down like I was carrying the Ebola virus.

I wandered upstairs and saw this:

A test drive track on the second floor of BMW world.

A test drive track on the second floor of BMW world.

This test track on the second floor is either the coolest thing I have ever seen, or it is the saddest waste of money I have ever seen. Why is it on the second floor? Because if it was on the first floor it would be boring and regular, put it on the second floor and suddenly the building becomes a hide-out for a James Bond villain. I don’t know what you have to buy to drive your car on the track, but sometimes you don’t even have to ask a question to know that answer is, “Don’t worry, Sir, you cannot afford it.”

After BMW World most of us, even the non-wimps, were getting a little hungry. Lucky for us the next stop was the world’s largest beer garden. We rode to the English Garden and located the Beer Garden. We found a table under the Chinese Tower and began munching on our food and sipping our beer. There was an ompa band playing and it felt very festive. Ten minutes later the festivities stopped and everyone was running for shelter as a “summer shower” began dumping on the English Garden. Since we were beneath the tower, we were not getting wet, but our bike tour was now looking a bit less fun. I didn’t really mind getting wet, maybe it was because I had two liters of beer, or maybe it was the fact that is was warm and being wet wasn’t a huge problem.

Busty said the rain would probably stop soon, so we waited and then when the rain abated, we grabbed our bikes and rode over to see the park surfers. On the way to the river it began pouring again. It was a Noah sized shower. I had a rain parka in my bag, but by the time I considered getting the parka, I was completely soaked and didn’t care.

A little rain never hurt anyone.

A little rain never hurt anyone.

The rest of our bike group was not quite as excited about riding the rest of the way through the rain and by the time we reached the surfers people were complaining. I announced that I was willing to sell my parka to the highest bidder, but had no takers. The rain did not appear to want to stop and Busty gave us the option of heading back a little early, or seeing one more thing that would extend our trip by 45 minutes. Of course we voted to head back early.

Surfing in the English Gardens.

Surfing in the English Gardens.

We rode through some pretty heavy rain and eventually ended up back at the office. Busty thanked us all for being good sports and I was awarded with this gem of a gift.

If you look at this picture in the mirror there is a secret message.

If you look at this picture in the mirror there is a secret message.

TSOJ: A Vienna Bike Tour with The Terminator

Before most bike tours start there is a tiny tutorial about how to use the bikes, the bike rules in the city, and how to avoid getting killed on the bike tour, but not with Walter (pronounced Valter for those of you who speak English properly.) Walter simply asked if we all had bikes, looked to see that we all had bikes, and then he began riding away from us assuming that we would follow. His assumption was half correct. About half of us followed, and the other half of the group had some difficulties turning around, hopping on their bikes, and beginning riding. It wasn’t long before a city block separated the two groups and I was a little concerned for the trailing pack, my job as “Ass Man” made me keenly aware of the difficulties of being in a trailing group. Sometimes traffic lights delay progress, sometimes it is a slow rider, and sometimes it is just fate, but usually the group leader is a little concerned about splitting the group and will slow down and wait, but not Walter/Valter, I never saw him turn around to check on the progress of the pack he just kept rolling forward like he had to be home for cable installation between 5:00 and 5:05.

Walter rode for another block or two and then stopped. He turned around, saw that half of the group was still missing, shook his head, wondered aloud why the people in the back were so far behind, and began talking about the opera house without waiting for the slow pokes. There were two distinctive attributes about Walter that I instantly loved: 1. He made fun of everything not Austrian. 2. He sounded exactly like Arnold Schwarzenegger when he talked. “I am going to use a bad word now for you Americans, Socialism. That is vhy ve have the best drinking vater, the most livable city in the vorld, and if I have to go to the hospital I don’t pay anything.”  Walter did not just give America a bad time, Germany, France, England, and Russia would all get tossed under the bike tour’s wheels at some point along the way, but Walter did it with good humor and the type of boasting usually reserved for American Olympic teams.

Athena agrees that Vienna is a great looking city.

Athena agrees that Vienna is a great looking city.

When we rode by a large statue of Goethe I asked why we hadn’t stopped (mostly this question was poised so that I could show off that I knew how to pronounce Goethe’s name.) Walter did not skip a pedal push, “He’s German, nobody cares about him.”

The tour followed the ring circling Vienna’s old downtown area and before too long I realized that Vienna has the most beautiful buildings in the world. Each city has its own beauty (I am excluding Bakersfield from this observation) and spending time anywhere a visitor can find things to like about a city, but most cities are limited in what they can offer a visitor who is there for a short period of time.

My requirements for a perfect city to visit: 1. Great, easy to understand public transportation, 2. A city plan/map that is easy to understand, 3. Great museums, 4. Beautiful buildings, 5. Green spaces, 6. Temperate climate, 7. History, 8. Walkability, 9. Food, 10. Je ne sais quoi.  On a 0-5 scale most great cities will score in the high 30s and low 40s using my scientific scale. Take Paris for example: Transportation: 5, City Plan: 5, Great Museums: 5, Beautiful Buildings: 5, Green Spaces: 5, Temperate Climate: 4, History: 5, Walkability: 5, Food: 5, Je ne sais quoi: 5, for a grand total of 49. That is a pretty good score. London might end up with a 42 (city plan is terrible, and London is not really a walkable city unless you want black lung.) Bakersfield: 5 (great Mexican food, everything else is a zero.)

Anyway, as we rode around Vienna, I began to believe that Vienna might be a 50, and I am sure Walter would have agreed. Since Vienna was the center of the Hapsburg Dynasty it still has the structure of a world leader, but the importance of Austria as a global power has diminished and I have the feeling that this has allowed Vienna to relax and focus their monetary assets internally as opposed to trying to run an empire.

That is one big, two-headed Eagle.

That is one big, two-headed Eagle.

Green spaces in Vienna are abundant. Want to rent a rosebush in the royal garden? You can.

Green spaces in Vienna are abundant. Want to rent a rosebush in the royal garden? You can.

There is a large amusement park near the Danube river. I saw this thing in a James Bond movie once.

There is a large amusement park near the Danube river. I saw this thing in a James Bond movie once.

The food tent outside the Rathaus.

The food tent outside the Rathaus.

The center of European power for 800 years.

The center of European power for 800 years.

Some royal house or something.

Some royal house or something.

By far the best Plague column I saw during TSOJ.

By far the best Plague column I saw during TSOJ.

You don't see things like this in Bakersfield.

You don’t see things like this in Bakersfield.

The golden dome was designed by Klimt.

The golden dome was designed by Klimt.

Just another Vienna building.

Just another Vienna building.

Walter telling half the bike riders about the fountain.

Walter telling half the bike riders about the fountain.

Public housing Vienna style.

Public housing Vienna style.

All in all the bike tour took about two hours and Walter was able to make it to meet the cable man in time. I think he also mentioned a meeting he had with a couple beers, but in my opinion Walter earned those beers. He did not lose anyone on the tour, he entertained me, he did not tell any lies (as far as I can tell), and he did have a lot to say if you kept up with him.

 

TSOJ: Vienna Has Excellent Drinking Water, or Does It?

About 20 minutes into my walking tour of Vienna, I began to think that my tour guide was making stuff up. Not the big stuff about the Hapsburg Dynasty and their 800 years of rule, but the little stuff that only someone a PhD in Austrian History would know. The first “white” lie happened when we stepped into a courtyard in the Jewish section of town. (I have  a much better understanding of European Jewish history than when I left the USA and have learned why older cities have “Jewish Quarters” and how long the Jewish people have been mistreated, but this information will be held back for a later post.) Anyway, back to the “fibbing” tour guide. We were standing in Judenplatz looking that the Jewish Memorial to the 65,000 murdered Austrian Jews. Our guide was doing her best to walk the very narrow tightrope of acknowledging that Hitler was Austrian, that Austria did not do much resisting Germany when it came to WWII, and that “some people did bad things.” These “bad things” included systematically murdering people. I can understand not wanting to be a buzz kill and ruin people’s’ vacations with information like this, but it seemed to me that the guide was glossing over the horror of the Holocaust so I walked away from her mini-lecture to take some pictures of the memorial. She had mentioned that the builders had discovered the original footprint of the Jewish Synagogue in Vienna when building the memorial.  I noticed what appeared to be some long lines carved into the cobblestones of the plaza. To me they looked like the outline of an old building, like what you can see left of the Bastille in Paris if you know to look down instead of up at the little golden boy on the spire.

The Jewish Memorial in Vienna.

The Jewish Memorial in Vienna.

I deleted the picture of the grooves in the cobblestones thinking I had just taken another picture of the ground accidentally. Careful observation of this picture shows some of the pattern caused by "the weather."

I deleted the picture of the grooves in the cobblestones thinking I had just taken another picture of the ground accidentally. Careful observation of this picture shows some of the pattern caused by “the weather.”

I waited for the guide to finish her luke-warm acknowledgement of Austria having been involved in WWII and then I asked, “I noticed these lines carved into the cobblestones. Why are they here?”

“Oh, the weather does that.”

This was not the answer I expected. Actually, I believed it was what I will call a prevarication. The weather in Austria must behave differently than weather in my area because apparently the weather in Vienna includes cobblestone cutting lasers. I decided to let it go, but as you can tell since I am now writing about it, I really didn’t let it go. Everything the guide said from that point on (two and a half more hours) I viewed through the prism of what I still consider a lie.

List of “facts” I didn’t believe during the next 2.5 hours:

1. “Vienna has been ranked #1 since 2009 as the world’s most livable city.” Really? Four years in a row? Nope, not according to my Google search. In 2012, Melbourne, Australia (the place with kangaroos not the land-locked country in Central Europe) was ranked #1. Vienna was #2 and has consistently been ranked near the top, but the San Antonio Spurs would be the NBA champs if we allowed the second place team to claim the #1 status.  I will be the first to admit that some of rankings do have Vienna at #1 and that no American cities appear in the top ten, but that isn’t important. What is important is that I didn’t believe my tour guide.

The Austrian Parliament building, not to be confused with George Clinton and Parliament Funkadelic.

The Austrian Parliament building, not to be confused with George Clinton and Parliament Funkadelic. The car in the foreground did not hold still for my panoramic picture.

2. “Vienna has the world’s best drinking water.” According to my Google research Vienna is ranked number five in this category. Greenwood, BC has better water than Vienna, but I will admit the drinking water in Vienna is abundant, and good. Vienna does what it can to perpetuate the myth of being the best by encouraging people to drink out of the tap as opposed to buying bottled water. This is a good thing, but it doesn’t make you number 1.

These water stations are sprinkled throughout the city to give access to Vienna's 5th best water in the world.

These water stations are sprinkled throughout the city to give access to Vienna’s 5th best water in the world.

3. “Vienna was once the world’s largest city.” Now I may have misheard this one, she may have claimed that Vienna was once Europe’s largest city, but either way, I don’t believe it. According to my research it might have been the 5th largest city at one point, but never #1. If my guide said, “Vienna was the world’s most important city in 1900,” I would have believed it. The Austrian Empire was big and important, but when it comes to population I don’t believe it was ever the largest city in the world.

4. “Freud drank coffee and invented psychotherapy in that café.” Okay, this one may be true, but I think he probably just drank coffee in the café and did his work at an office like everyone but Hemingway.

5. “Beethoven lived in 80 different apartments during his time in Vienna because he never paid his bills and was a bad tenant.” There is a good deal of truth to this one, but 80 is too high. Most experts on Beethoven’s living quarters (as if there are these people in the world) believe he lived in at least 27 documented locations with some estimates as high as 65. He was a terrible tenant and a bit of a jerk, so he did move a lot.

Beethoven slept here...and there, and there.

Beethoven slept here…and there, and there.

6. “St. Stephan’s cathedral had the tallest church spire in Europe.” Nope, never according to my Wikipedia research. It is the tallest in Austria, might have been the second tallest in Europe at one point, but never the tallest. These are the types of facts I would have swallowed if not for the “Austrian weather includes cobblestone cutting lasers” lie.

Things always look taller when you stand next to them. From France you can barely see this spire.

Things always look taller when you stand next to them. From France you can barely see this spire.

I suppose I should disclose at this point that Vienna was my favorite city to visit on this trip. It really is a wonderful place, it is organized, clean, full of history, and has excellent drinking water, but there are no lasers in the clouds.

TSOJ: Final Thoughts on Berlin

I found beer flavored beer was best.

I found beer flavored beer was best.

10. Flavored beer has its limits. While in Berlin I sampled lime flavored/colored beer, raspberry flavored/colored beer, lemon beer, and grape/colored (is grape a color?) beer. The research was exhausting, but that is why I am here, I boldly drink what many women and children have drunk before. The lime beer was passable, the lemon beer was good, everything else was a bad idea. I refused to try the banana beer. I did hear that the banana beer was good, but after the grape disaster I decided to stick to regular beer.

"I'm Scottish and trying to speak English!"

“I’m Scottish and trying to speak English!”

9. Drunks are annoying no matter where you go. “Oh, I see, you can drink all the flavored beer you want, but if some Scotsmen get a little too much beer in them…” Okay, first off, I did not drink all that awful beer at once. I spaced the bad beer into different days to keep my precious palate clean. I was having a nice evening in Berlin when this crew began having “too much fun.” How do you know you are having too much fun? You are loud. You are speaking English, but the people who understand English are constantly asking you to repeat what you said because they are not sure if you are still speaking English.

185(365) knees

185(365) knees (Photo credit: JasonTank)

8. Cut-off shorts must be stopped. I remember seeing these pants/shorts things and laughing, now they are everywhere and Berlin is not helping to stop the spread of this fashion disease. I really, really don’t like this. What is next? Bell-bottoms, super bell-bottoms, and open necked shirts with medallions?

7. Gypsies have shifted their begging strategy in Berlin. I could be wrong about this, but I did not see the traditional women asking for money. I was caught off-guard once. I was walking down the Unter den Linden and a young man approached me with a little piece of cardboard and a signature page. He indicated that he could not hear by pointing at his ears and making moaning sounds. I looked at the signature page and thought I was signing a document for legislation for deaf people…until I got to the last box to fill in: Donation. I put a big 0 with a line through it and got a little steamed. It was obviously a scam and felt like tossing his little sign into the street, but just handed it back to him and told him he was getting nothing from me. After this incident, I saw many more of these “deaf” guys all about the same age wandering the tourist areas asking for “donations.” I assume people who are deaf are actually taken care of in Berlin and know SIGN LANGUAGE!

6. Beggars in Berlin, and in many cities I visited, have multiplied. What struck me about the beggars (I am not speaking of homeless people) in Berlin were the physical deformities. I saw one shirtless man with scars covering his back and shoulders from some type of acid or fire burn and I saw other people whose legs had been so badly damaged that they could barely walk. I know that in some countries beggars are physically maimed in order to improve their ability to get more money and after seeing these people I wondered if this “tradition” has moved to Berlin. It is difficult to believe that in a country that provides so much of a social safety net that there are people still falling through the cracks. The cynical part of me thinks that it is a scam, but I also cannot help but carry the guilt of winning the “birth lottery.”

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Jewish Holocaust Memorial.

5. There is no better city in the world for history and moving monuments. I have not been to Cairo, Athens, or Istanbul, but I think Berlin holds more history than any other spot. Of course, this history can not be glamorized and the German people have done a better job than any other place I have been to hold a mirror up to the horrors and learn from them.

Empty underground library located where the Nazis burned books.

Empty underground library located where the Nazis burned books, and little of my finger.

4. Bullet holes in stuff makes it more interesting. I remember being fascinated by a church in London that still had scars from bombs dropped in WWII. I looked and looked at the small dents and chunks missing from the marble of the church and understood that history wasn’t something that just happened in a boring class or books. Berlin has more bullet holes in it than a Quentin Tarantino movie. Even the Victory Tower, which has been fully restored, still has all the bullet holes and dents left in it.

Victory Tower recently restored.

Victory Tower recently restored.

The restoration missed a few spots.

The restoration missed a few spots.

Chunk of marble missing from WWII.

Chunk of marble missing from WWII.

3. The German language mystifies me. I really cannot seem to make my mouth and eyes work at the same time. I see the word, think about what it might sound like, and then completely mispronounce the word. This is shameful, but it is a fact. I cannot order a single food in German besides beer, and the only reason I can pronounce beer is because it sounds the same in English.

2. Eat street food in Berlin. The currywurst is good, the doner is great, and the ethnic food in Berlin is really outstanding. Most of us want to go to Germany and eat “German” food but if you want to eat that stuff do it in Munich where they celebrate that whole beer and brats thing. In Berlin eat ethnic food. It is less expensive and really good.

Currywurst mit pommes.

Currywurst mit pommes.

Rhubarb flavored soda? I'll bet that is good...nope.

Rhubarb flavored soda? I’ll bet that is good…nope.

Doner.

Doner.

1. I can visit Berlin many more times and not get tired of it. (Okay, full disclosure, I do think they need to do something about the smell.)IMG_1818

 

TSOJ: Berlin, like a local (who speaks no German)

East Berlin

East Berlin

When you are in Berlin during the summer you will get a whiff of something unpleasant, something that smells like a sewer and that is because it is the sewer. I don’t know why the sewer smells like it does, but it is one of those distinctive aspects of Berlin that are inexplicable. In a country with the infrastructure like Germany one would think that moving human waste without having the odor escape from the sewer might be a priority, but apparently it is not, but after a few days in Berlin I did not notice the smell any longer. The only thing I did smell was on a particularly hot day I got on a subway and smelled what can only be described as Atomic B O. I wondered who on the subway needed a shower, the good news was that the person in need of a shower was the dude wearing my shirt. The best part of me stinking up the subway car was that I really didn’t care. Yep, I should have put on more deodorant, but I didn’t and now it is too late. I was trying to conserve a little travel sized deodorant for the whole month-long trip, but I was now running low and in my effort to conserve I probably went a little too far. (I have since come to my senses and purchased another lump of deodorant.)

One of the best things about going to Berlin was seeing someone I knew. Aristea was a Berliner and had been a student at my school this past year. My first words to her when I met her in the summer were, “Your city smells.” (I’m all class, all the time.) Despite this first encounter, she agreed to meet with me while I was in Berlin. We met at the Jewish Museum (after I found it, I got lost twice thanks to 70/30% rule of German signage) and I met Aristea’s friend Chloe who was visiting from France. We wandered through the museum for a little while trying to understand what was going on, but I was struck immediately by the use of one word in all of the descriptions of the Jewish people in the exhibits: murdered. Almost all of the Holocaust/Jewish museums I have been to say things like, “Issac perished in Auschwitz, or Issac was executed in Auschwitz, or Issac died in Auschwitz.” Murdered is a personal word, it is not a word used to describing mass killings. I am certain that this word was used purposefully, to personalize the deaths of these innocent people, but also to hammer home the deaths were intentional and not accidental or part of the machine of time.

The modern wing of the Jewish Museum.

The modern wing of the Jewish Museum.

Another beautiful day in Berlin.

Another beautiful day in Berlin.

Several of the exhibits were just experiences. I stood in a large room looking up at a shaft of light, there was no explanation, but to me it seemed like the hope of the Jewish people during the Holocaust. They could see something in the distance but were surrounded by darkness and the light was very far away.

That light was way, way up there.

That light was way, way up there.

The next spot was a little courtyard with large rectangular blocks of cement. At first everything seemed normal, until you stood in the courtyard. The blocks provided a visual illusion that you were standing upright, but the ground was actually on a slope and it was difficult to walk because the visual cues were telling you one thing, but the reality was different.

Looks straight up, but it isn't.

Looks straight up, but it isn’t.

We eventually got upstairs and began the history part of the museum. I thought I knew a little about Jewish life and beliefs, but it did not take long for me learn about five times as much as I had ever known. I learned about traditions, about Jewish beliefs, about Jewish history, and about stuff I hadn’t ever considered. We were there for two and a half hours and we could have stayed there twice as long.

Aristea standing in front of a sound wall. The headphones picked up different voices as you moved around. No one spoke English, but a few times I recognized a name and age from the voices.

Aristea standing in front of a sound wall. The headphones picked up different voices as you moved around. No one spoke English, but a few times I recognized a name and age from the voices.

The Tree of Wishes. Grab a paper apple, write a wish, hang it in the tree. I put, "I hope the Cubs win the World Series." That is a lie, I put up a little hippie note about love and peace.

The Tree of Wishes. Grab a paper apple, write a wish, hang it in the tree. I put, “I hope the Cubs win the World Series.” That is a lie, I put up a little hippie note about love and peace.

Large glass courtyard set aside for eating and thinking after the visit.

Large glass courtyard set aside for eating and thinking after the visit.

After the Jewish museum we were off to eat Thai food. I love Thai food, but I also suffer from the idea that the best ethnic food can be found in America. Why did I believe this? Primarily ignorance, but a little of it was buying into the idea that America is a melting pot of many cultures and everywhere else in the world is pretty much a collection of mono-ethnic cultures where people don’t mix. This is not the case, the world is incredibly diverse and while America has good Thai food, so does Berlin, really good Thai food.

We met Aristea’s mom at the restaurant and got seats outside along the street. I really love the relaxed attitude of eating outside in Europe, it is one of the great pleasures of life. At our table to eat Thai food, we had a French woman, two Berliners and an American, it was very international, the best news was that everyone spoke excellent English. It was so nice to be able to be taken care of by my German-speaking hosts. They ordered, picked up the food, and picked up the bill. I had some duck and curry. It was very good, and I got to try a mango drink that was also very nice. I spent a lot of time talking to Aristea’s mom about the United States about her travels. After I told her about my harrowing experience climbing the tower in Copenhagen, she told me that it was possible to climb up into the tower in the center of the Tiergarten. I hadn’t planned on climbing anymore towers, but this one looked pretty safe compared to the one in Copenhagen. After dinner, we walked to a coffee shop and had some caffeine and cake to top the evening off. It was one of those leisurely evenings that seem so hard to accomplish in America. Culturally we could learn a lot from the Europeans when it comes to eating and relaxing. Imagine eating a meal for two hours in America, it just doesn’t happen, but it should.

At the end of the evening, Aristea’s mom drove me back to my hotel by way of all of the places I should visit on my last day. I managed to make it to all of the locations on my final day in Berlin, but nothing was better than the evening that I got to pretend I was a local.

TSOJ: Bike Tour of Potsdam

In my humble and important opinion, bike tours are one of the best ways to see most European cities, and my favorite bike tour company (Fat Tire Bike Tours) always manages to do all the things that make a bike tour great. I have taken three tours based in Paris (day tour, night tour, Versailles) and I have taken one of the many Berlin tours, so when I saw that there was a tour of Potsdam offered by Fat Tire I did not hesitate to sign up. When solo traveling these tours are great for meeting people and seeing the sights.

The Crew, ready to rule the mean streets of Potsdam.

The Crew, ready to rule the mean streets of Potsdam.

When I decided that Potsdam was on my itinerary I knew very little about the history of Potsdam other than the end of WWII and Potsdam had some distant connection in my brain. By the end of the day I knew as much as someone with a PhD in German history. (This is a lie, but I could pass a two question test on German history written in English.)

We kicked off our tour by informally introducing ourselves and it wasn’t long before we all agreed that it was a small world as we made connections from our pasts. (For example, one of the ladies on the tour had grown up in the mighty PNW and had spent many summers at a family cabin in Grayland, WA where I worked for 16 years.) We all hopped on a train to Potsdam and picked up our bikes. The bikes all have names printed on their frames and I ended up with The Alman Brothers, I really wanted Anna Kornikova but I didn’t think my wife would approve of me riding Anna all day. Off we went, it was a cooler than usual day and I was prepared by having hairy legs and arms. The people from California and Arizona in our group were cold, but I was comfortable the whole day.

Doing my job as "ass man." Blocking a car, a horse-drawn carriage, and taking an ill-advised picture while riding downhill.

Doing my job as “ass man.” Blocking a car, a horse drawn carriage, and taking an ill advised picture while riding downhill.

Our guide, Craig, was from Australia and brought that Aussie relaxed attitude the entire day. One of the first things to decide on the tour is who gets to ride in the very back. In France they called this the derrière, but in Germany the last person is referred to as the “ass man.” The payment to be the “ass man” is one beer back at the shop, I had been the derriere before and quickly volunteered to take care of business as the “ass man.” The “ass man’s” job is to make sure no one gets left behind and at times is the person who blocks traffic. The nice thing about the Potsdam tour is that there was not any need to block traffic since most of the day we were riding through the huge parks in Potsdam.

I will now sum up everything you need to know about Potsdam in a paragraph. (If you need to check any of the historical accuracy of this section please use Wikipedia.) The Germans wanted to have a Versailles like place for their royalty to hang out, so they built a bunch of castles. It got a bit out of control. Many of the buildings were like Hollywood stage sets and did not have much substance. The different kings all had their own ideas about what to build and pretty soon there was a mess of different styles of architecture. Eventually the kings lost power after WWI and the place was kind of ignored for a few years, until the Big Three (not LeBron, D Wade, and Chris Bosh, but America, England, and Russia) were looking for a place to divide up Germany after WWII. The Big Three met in Potsdam because the rest of the country only had about three buildings left standing. (This bombing is described in Germany as inhumane, in the US it is described as necessary.) After the Potsdam Accord was signed the Cold War started and we got to move our hatred from Germans to Russians. After that Potsdam was controlled by the East Germans and the castles were used by the Communist Party leaders as summer retreats. There was some other important stuff along the way, but that is the condensed version.

On our bikes we saw some awesomely weird buildings and rode around the whole city. I must say, when people have unlimited funds to build things they go a bit nutty. The worst building was this Chinese Pagoda building. There were Germans who had been to China to trade opium and they returned with some great stories about the buildings, so instead of having the architect visit China or bringing in a Chinese builder, they just kind of winged it. The result is a building that is either blatantly racist, or just plain ugly. I believe the traders were smoking their product instead of just trading it.

This is a real building. This building exists.

This is a real building. This building exists.

What's worse, the hats or the mustache?

What’s worse, the hats or the mustache?

That's a lot of gold leaf.

That’s a lot of gold leaf.

Shocked, but certainly amused.

Shocked, but certainly amused.

One of the kings, Frederick The Great (aka Frederick II), had an exciting life. He tried to run away from his father and leave the royal thing in the rearview mirror, but one of his friends ratted him out. (Most historians agree he was homosexual and trying to escape with his lover.) The king executed Fredrick’s lover; forcing Fred to watch. Freddy then decided to behave himself and even got married (kind of, no kids and he is buried next to his dogs, his wife’s grave is nowhere to be seen). The best thing King Freddy did was bring potatoes to Germany. At first Germans did not want to eat potatoes, so the King Freddy made a law that said that only the royals could eat potatoes. This changed everyone’s attitude about potatoes and soon people were trying to steal potatoes from the royal potato patch. After a year king Freddy lifted the ban on potatoes and everyone was making potato salad, mashed potatoes, and eating potatoes like crazy. Germans are still potato crazy.

The Potato King's grave, with potatoes and his dogs, you can not make up history this awesome.

The Potato King’s grave, with potatoes and his dogs, you can not make up history this awesome.

Around noon, we stopped to have a little lunch in a beer garden. This beer garden overlooked a lake and offered traditional German food: Beer, sausages, lentil soup, potatoes of various types, and pretzels. I decided that a liter of seasonal beer was needed to wash down my brat, potato salad, and kraut. It was a great break in the middle of the day and allowed all of us to sit around a table and find a little more about each other. Craig, the tour guide, said the most surprising thing of all; he wanted to travel to America and see the southern states: Alabama, Arkansas, Mississippi, and Texas. All of the Americans were shocked by this information. Most often, these are not the locations that tourists want to visit, but Craig said that he heard that people there were crazy and he wanted to see them with his own eyes. This view is even more odd when one considers that Craig is from Australia and seeing crazy people is easy enough in his homeland. This is not an opinion, it is a fact.

They needed Dutch builders, so they built Dutch style houses to entice them to come to Potsdam.

They needed Dutch builders, so they built Dutch style houses to entice them to come to Potsdam.

Sanssouci from the gardens below: The Summer Palace.

Sanssouci from the gardens below: The Summer Palace.

This was the servant housing...really, they had the servants stay here so they could show the other rulers where the servants stayed.

This was the servant housing…really, they had the servants stay here so they could show the other rulers where the servants stayed.

Need a windmill to make it look like Holland? Then build a windmill.

Need a windmill to make it look like Holland? Then build a windmill.

Roman ruins built in the distance to look like Roman ruins. If you want to see real Roman ruins you will have to go to Disneyland.

Roman ruins built in the distance to look like Roman ruins. If you want to see real Roman ruins you will have to go to Disneyland.

What do you do when you are at war with England (WWI)? Well, you build a really big English Tudor style mansion. Makes perfect sense in Potsdam.

What do you do when you are at war with England (WWI)? Well, you build a really big English Tudor style mansion. Makes perfect sense in Potsdam.

We finished the tour at the building where the Potsdam Accord was signed. I did not pay the extra fee to take photographs inside the building. There were three rooms for the three leaders: Churchill, Stalin, and Eisenhower; and one big room with a big round table for the actual meetings. It is strange to sit in a room where the course of history was changed, or at least to know that many of my childhood fears of the USSR were formed by the decisions made in this room. We hopped back on our bikes and cruised back to the train station, just barely made our train, and then headed back into Berlin. Once we made it to the bike shop I collected my beer and was given a chunk of the wall. I don’t know if the chuck was because I did a passable job as “ass man,” but it doesn’t matter why I was awarded the fist sized piece of cement because to me the fall of the wall is more about the potential for change than anything else. I never thought I would see the day when Germany was combined and I never thought we would live in a world where the Communist Bloc did not exist any longer. It gives me hope for the future and for all the challenges the human race will face.

TSOJ: Berlin–Ugly Shoes, Horrible Hotels, and How Germany Won the War of Breakfast

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Jesus in Berlin. I’m not sure if he is doing a swan dive, or is using the Crane technic (Karate Kid allusion) to fight off evil in Germany.

Let’s be honest, most Americans have a singular view of German history: Hitler. I don’t want to minimize Hitler’s impact on Germany, but reducing German history to the years around 1930-1945 is a little like reducing American history to the Reagan years.

Berlin has seen it all and for any traveler interested in history, Berlin is a must stop.

Travel inside Berlin has some challenges for a non-German speaker, but people are generally helpful and most speak excellent English. For me the public transportation is a challenge. Whereas London, and Paris have systems that I find easy to use, Berlin is a complicated mess. Now, I am certain that the locals all know how everything works, but to me the S system and U system need a bit of work. I was told that the S system is above ground and the U system in underground, but that isn’t always the truth. Coming off a U train and having to find an S train is a sometimes difficult. Couple that with Germany’s directional signage problems and you have a lot of lost tourists. (I found that almost all the signs got you 70% of the way, the last 30% is supposed to be intuition.) The number of times I started one direction, came back, and then finally figured it out are too many to mention. I don’t believe that Germans care that you get lost, and frankly who can blame them a lost tourist is a comical person to watch: The map flapping in the wind, the confused look, the orientation of map to streets, and the joy of knowing where you are going is a great example of Schadenfreude. I’m not saying that Germans are purposely being mean, they just seem to get a little more joy from your discomfort than other people.

Warning! Germans making signs! Beware of exclamation points!

Warning! Germans making signs! Beware of exclamation points!

Berlin is also the best place that I know of to see chunks of ancient history, WWI and WWII history, Cold War history, and European reunification. London has a lot of this same history, but it is seen from a longer lens, in Berlin it happened in the streets beneath your feet. The greatest example is the brick line that cuts through the street in front of Brandenburg Gate.

It is much easier to cross from East Berlin to West Berlin these days.

It is much easier to cross from East Berlin to West Berlin these days.

These shoes were made for running and that's not what they'll do, instead they'll walk, and walk all over you ex-Berlin Wall.

These shoes were made for running and that’s not what they’ll do, instead they’ll walk, and walk all over you ex-Berlin Wall.

Today cars drive across this little brick path, but just twenty-five years ago there was a wall separating East and West Berlin and a large chunk of ground between the two cities called the dead zone. This is now completely gone and the two cities are now one large metroplex of a city. Most cities grow around a center (I like to think of it like the yolk of a fried egg), but since Berlin had two centers for so many years it is like one of those two yolked eggs. There is the Western center of museums and culture, and then there is the Eastern chunk. When it comes to Berlin’s museums I will admit that I like the stuff the East had stolen better than the stuff the West had.

I think one of the most important aspects of Germany’s history is that they do not hide from their mistakes. It is not difficult to spend your whole day visiting Hitler sites and reviewing the horror of the Holocaust and WWII. Much of this history could have been revised, but Germans have done the more difficult thing, and that is to brush off the dust of history and show people how a country can take the small steps that eventually lead to inhumane acts of genocide.

Just one of the hundreds of reminders of the horrors of WWII.

Just one of the hundreds of reminders of the horrors of WWII.

Jewish Holocaust Memorial in Berlin.

Jewish Holocaust Memorial in Berlin.

The square where they burned books has this reminder. The quote translates roughly into, "When you begin by burning books, you end by burning people."

The square where they burned books has this reminder. The quote translates roughly into, “When you begin by burning books, you end by burning people.”

How did I end up buying the ugliest shoes in Berlin? Well, my blister problems have been well documented during The Summer of Jon, but I finally decided that I would do whatever was needed to find shoes that did not cause me blisters, so as soon as I arrived in Berlin I struck out to find a shoe store. The good news is that my hotel was near one of the major shopping areas in Western Berlin, Ku Dam. So, I hobbled up along Ku Dam until I reached a shoe store and looked for a cheap pair of running shoes. I found some that met my requirements: not too loud, on sale, and in my size. I bought the shoes, asked where I could put them on, and then found out that the shoes I bought were too small. I took the shoes back to the register and talked to the salesman. He said they normally don’t carry shoes bigger than 45, which is close to an American 12. I normally wear a 12.5 so I asked if there were any shoes in my size, the salesman said that they don’t get many shoes that size but he would look. He came back with one pair of bright yellow shoes. “These are the only ones we have in your size,” he said. These shoes only met one of my three requirement–they fit. Everything else was wrong. Florescent yellow is not a shoe color in my opinion, and the shoes were not on sale. My desperation forced me into buying some epically ugly shoes and these shoes have not gone unnoticed. Germans are probably better at making disapproving faces at strangers than any other culture. I got a lot of looks. I know that I am probably just a trend setter, and that everyone is jealous of my cool shoes.

Berlin's man-hole covers are world-class, but they have never seen shoes this ugly.

Berlin’s man hole covers are world class, but they have never seen shoes this ugly.

When booking hotel I take into consideration many things, location, ratings on TripAdvisor, cost, and whether breakfast is offered. Sometimes I make a mistake. The biggest mistake would be the first time my family visited Iceland. There were not many hotels to choose from and prices were high for a family of four. We ended up in a place called the Flying Viking (pronounced Flying Wiking.) It was a little like a garage, a little like a hostel, and a lot like a place that my family universally hated. I was less concerned about the ratings of a hotel on this trip as saving money was the primary priority and because of that I didn’t mind staying in riskier hotels that were centrally located. Berlin has lots of hotels that do not cost a ton and I found one called Hotel Pension Kima just off Ku Dam and surrounded by expensive shops. It sounded like a no brainer to me. I booked it. My hopes were pretty high until I stepped into the elevator. The elevator resembled a painted wooden box that moved up and down the shaft by means of a hamster powered engine. It was the type of elevator that when you step into it, it sinks three inches. This did not make me feel safe, the sign next to the elevator did not reassure me. What does this sign mean? Be careful when passing the flame? Hell is located close by? Stand with your arms straight when the box catches fire?

Crisscrossing lasers, fire, death in a box...

Crisscrossing lasers, fire, death in a box…

After I got my key and headed up to my room, I was confronted by the uncomfortable fact that I was staying in a dive. The bed looked clean and that was really the only important thing, but I wondered how many people had died in this very room. Berlin is an old city and I estimated there were probably at least five people who took their last breath here. There was also the possibility that no one had died here because it was actually a broom closet until it was converted into my room. I dealt with the situation like most travelers, I spent as little time in the room as possible. I slept there and then spent the day out and about. This might be the best reason to stay in a dive, it forces you to get out of the hotel.

Don't get turned around in here, you could get lost.

Don’t get turned around in here, you could get lost.

This room was used to store horse brushes during the Hapsburg dynasty.

This room was used to store horse brushes during the Hapsburg dynasty.

The other part of the hotel was the morning breakfast. I looked forward to it since German baked goods are very good. Apparently my hotel did not get the memo about feeding me German baked goods. We had coffee, orange juice, a couple cereal choices, cheese, meat, hardboiled eggs, and very bad breads. I tried to eat my usual 5,000 calories on the first day, but it was forced, and on day two and three I was eating a small breakfast and then paying for a large lunch. The good news was that I was able to eat cheaply since Berlin is a reasonably priced town, and beer is certainly not frowned upon for lunch.

Getting ready to take out my "breakfast anger" on some brats and beer.

Getting ready to take out my “breakfast anger” on some brats and beer.

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