Sunday, November 1, 2015

Traveling While Old - A Solo Trip to Berlin

in which Ich Bin Ein Berliner.

Between breaking bones, catching colds, undergoing foot surgeries and nursing aging pets, I hadn't had a real vacation since a trip to Oaxaca some five years ago.  One day last month I just decided enough was enough.  I looked on line to see how far I could go, how much it would cost, whether I'd been there before, what the weather would be like and how bad my jet lag was likely to be.  I booked my ticket that day, booked an Air BnB a few days later, and in a week I was in Berlin, by myself, with no contacts.  And I had a great time.

Traveling While Old is not bad at all.

Below are my Air BnB hosts, Fredrik and Kyra (both young enough to be my children), who in just a few short weeks will be first time parents.  Like so many of Berlin's inhabitants, neither is German.  Fredrik, originally from Sweden, claims to speak no German, so he and Kyra, originally from Luxembourg, communicate in English.  (The claim that everyone in Berlin speaks English seems to be true.)  They've both been all over Europe (the way Americans have been all over the U.S.).  For this posting, they were kind enough to send me this photo, taken in Paris.  I had a lovely room to myself, with a firm mattress, marvelous pillow and comforter, and a big window that was so sturdily soundproofed that the only two I things I ever heard at night were distant ambulances and the garbage truck.  I also had a private bathroom, but what I liked best was that all the floors were heated.  My plane arrived at the ungodly hour of 7am.  Kyra sent me perfect instructions for getting to their apartment by public bus, and they kindly allowed me to drop everything off on arrival, waiving the 2pm check-in time.

Without question, THE very best investment I made during my entire trip, at Kyra's suggestion, was a five day transit pass for €34.50. This meant I could get on and off the trains, trams, subways or buses at will.  So if I missed my stop, got lost or went in the wrong direction (I did all three), I avoided the hassle of fiddling with change, figuring out machines or chiding myself for wasting money on a ticket for a two minute trip to the next station.  This tourist ticket included discounts for all sorts of local attractions.  Although most of the sights I wanted to see weren't on it, it would be ideal for a family.  More importantly, it included an amazingly clear and detailed map that took me everywhere I wanted to go.  (I've made the bar code and card number illegible, just in case there's any question about photographing these things.)

It turned out Fredrik and Kyra live a short walk from Museum Island, a UNESCO World Heritage Site.  This was ideal for me on my first day - I wasn't sure how long my energy would hold out.  The River Spree snakes through Berlin, and features prominently in the city landscape.   Here's one of the first pictures I took after leaving the bnb.  That's the Berlin Cathedral in the distance.  There are numerous daily boat tours, and in the summer the area is lined with people dining outdoors.

I brought with me National Geographic's Walking Berlin, a compact book with just the right amount of information to keep me busy, interested and engaged throughout my stay.

My first stop was at the Pergamon Museum to see the astonishing Ishtar Gate.  It's so huge and overwhelming that I failed to do it justice with any of the pictures I took.  I was delighted, however, to find the perfect video by Steven Zucker and Beth Harris of Khan Academy.  I had the privilege of studying with Dr. Zucker years ago, and he has that rare ability to bring inanimate objects to vibrant life.  Do take six minutes to watch the video.  (And here's the link, if that's easier for you.)  The word 'gate' is entirely inadequate for this structure, built around 575 b.c.

On the second floor of the Pergamon, which has an excellent collection of Islamic Art, was the Aleppo Room, part of a private house belonging to a wealthy Christian merchant and dating back to the 11th century, which was purchased and brought to Berlin in the early 20th century.  Sadly, there don't seem to be any photos of it that are not taken behind glass, but it's a beautiful thing to behold. The very small doors, tiny painted designs and intimacy of the room (find pictures here) stand in direct contrast to the power evoked by the Ishtar Gate on the first floor.  The height of the museum was actually dictated by the size of the Gate.  (A smattering of information on the Aleppo Room here.)

It's so easy to wander through museums for hours that I made a decision to minimize further museum visits.  The real Berlin, I thought, is in its streets, and not in its museums.  If I were living there, however, I would definitely have visited more.  Berlin has quite a few.

Here is a closer view of the Berlin Cathedral, taken from a #100 double decker bus.  The #100 and #200 buses are fully functional, but also make a point of passing many of Berlin's high points, encouraging tourists on a budget.  There are also tour buses, but if you're willing to be your own guide, you can see much of Berlin for the price of a single fare.  This picture was taken as an example of the sheer breadth of Berlin.  In New York City, where everything is so crowded together, you could walk past the Empire State Building without even realizing it.  Much of Berlin was planned with a sense of grandeur and majesty, and part and parcel of that are the grand vista and the long approach that inspire awe in the visitor.  I found myself covering vast tracts of open space to get from one point to another.  Often these vast tracts were covered with lush green grass or thick with sturdy trees.

 The Brandenburg Gate, a triumphal arch that dates back to the 18th century, also demonstrates Berlin's early adoption of space as the embodiment of grandeur.  No vehicles are allowed for quite a distance.  The Berlin Wall sealed off the Brandenburg Gate from West Berlin, so this was the focal point of celebration when the wall was torn down in 1989.  Interestingly, in no small political statement, the American Embassy is just out of sight to the left, the building closest to the Gate.  The building next to that is the DZ Bank Building, one of many wonderful examples of modern architecture in Berlin.   As a fan of architect Frank Gehry, I had hoped to visit (my tour book said it was open to the public), but was turned away without explanation on two separate days by one of the few people in Berlin who did not - or did not care to - speak English.  (Click here for a slide show of Gehry's work, sprinkled with the occasional irritating ad.)  The building houses not only the bank, but conference centers and private homes.  Click here for the views I didn't get to see.

In direct opposition to the grand buildings meant to evoke ancient Greece and Rome, Berlin also has a number of Cold War era buildings in Socialist Realism style, extolling the virtues of the people.  Here is one such mural on a building near Alexanderplatz, a hub of former East Berlin.

Not all architecture takes the form of grand gesture.  Even small residential buildings present architects with opportunities for individuality, like this one, for example:

Berlin is not a city to visit for the latest fashions.  Most of the people were well dressed, but dressed down in quiet colors. There were the occasional wonderful exceptions - Berlin is by no means without natty dressers or highly creative designers, but fashion is not on everyone's lips here, or on everyone's backs.  I was reluctant to take too many pictures of people in a place where I could not speak the language to explain my intentions, but there was much more to see than I can show you here.

Below is an example of the contrast.  The Woman of a Certain Age, in the center, has a gorgeous red coat (the photo does not do it justice) and red umbrella while the two younger people flanking her are dressed down.  Note that she is pressing a button.  The doors of the Berlin public transportation system have buttons both inside and out, and doors do not open unless the button is pressed.  Note also that images of the Brandenburg Gate decorate the windows, symbolizing the unification.

This woman, with the marvelous hair cut, was waiting for the tram.  She was far enough away that I was able to take her picture without feeling self-conscious.  Brightly colored partially dyed hair and shaved sides are as popular there as they are here.

One interesting difference I noticed is that German men are far more likely to wear bright colors than American men.  (As an aside, I would also like to say that Berlin has more than its share of handsome men, including handsome Men of a Certain Age.)  I saw many shades of mustard, red, green and even pink on men.  The young boy below was not at all unusual in his mix of colors.  I did see fewer people with hand-held devices, though.  It's not that they don't have them.  They just didn't use them as obsessively as we do.

A pattern that I saw time and again was white polka dots on a red ground.  (Not so red polka dots on a white ground.)  Below is a scene I happened upon shortly after I started noticing this trend.  I had emerged from the subway and was trying to catch up with a woman wearing a red polka dot coat and carrying an umbrella in the same pattern.  Just then I passed a bicycle with a red polka dot child's seat cover, and snapped them together.  How likely is that to happen?  I won't burden readers with any more photographs of polka dots here, but I could have filled this post with pictures of polka dotted gloves, plates, saucers, a doll's dress, a wallet, a blanket, and all manner of other things.

As long as we're talking about Berlin style, mention must be made of the city's spiffy crows, each of whom appears to have found and donned a single pristine early 20th century spat, for a handsome study in black and gray.

Berlin has long accordion buses as we do in New York, but rather than monetize them with advertising, they paint them - including the accordion section - in bright, cheerful colors.  The slogan on the orange disposal can reads "Good Manners in Mitte".  (I know because I put it through Google Translate.)  Mitte is one of the central sectors of Berlin.

Color is everywhere.  Even apartment buildings are painted in bright colors, and occasionally in contrasting stripes.  Below is a recycling truck.  How much more appealing is that than the same thing in standard issue gray or blue?

Cycling is an institution in Berlin.  For most of my trip, there was some degree of rain, which didn't seem to discourage cyclists.  Cycling paths are almost everywhere, and almost everywhere clearly marked.  At this intersection, there are two separate paths, one for the traffic approaching me, the other for traffic in the other direction.  Interestingly, you can see that most of the street is cobblestone, but has been paved over on the bicycle paths for smoother, safer cycling, a conscious decision by the city to promote cycling rather than driving.  As a tourist, I was not always sensitive to the paths (in fact, I was subconsciously drawn to them), and on more than one occasion I was, shall we say, politely rung at.  Rental bikes were also readily available.  Not knowing the rules of the road, I chose to walk, but if I had stayed longer I would have wanted to try it.

The youth of Berlin have a vibrant nightlife, and clubbing - arriving at 2am and leaving at 10am, I heard tell - is part of the fabric of life.  I myself felt no inclination to check it out (a mistake on my part?)  but I did love the moody, broody, vaguely menacing billboard below for one of the better known clubs.

Some of you might be asking what I ate.  Before my trip, I had visions of endless ribbons of pork sausages, and worried how I would feed myself as a kindasorta foodie.  It turns out I needn't have worried.  Everthing I ate, everywhere I ate, was wonderful.  My bnb included no food, which was fine with me, as I like making my own decisions.  Fredrik told me early on how to get to the local grocery store, Edeka (which I initially heard as Ithaca, and wondered 'why a classical Greek name for a grocery store?').  There I found (below, left to right) all the basics: dark chocolate wafers, in case I got the late night munchies, almond milk, which contains no lactose but a high level of calcium for the bone-challenged, fruit juice (here a combination of mango, orange and grape) that was also fortified with calcium and magnesium, lactose-free yogurt for breakfast, and cassis jam to flavor the yogurt.  These lasted for more than half of my trip, and when I finally finished them, I simply bought more.  Word is that food in Berlin is very cheap, and I found that to be true, assisted by the current favorable Euro-dollar exchange rate.  Edeka also provided me with marvelously ripe fresh figs and juicy mandarin oranges.

But man does not live by breakfast alone.  Everywhere I went, the Berlin version of fast food was the croissant (plain or chocolate), and various sandwiches on fresh, tasty baguettes.  I had several filling and yummy sandwiches of mozzarella and tomato, several croissants, and one perfect ham, cheese and tomato baguette.  At one of these fast food places, one row of sandwiches was marked "contains phosphates and preservatives", which seemed to imply that none of the other rows of sandwiches did.  I saw a number of grocery stores that claimed to be organic, without having eye-popping prices.  One evening I had quesadillas at a Mexican restaurant (complete with a large hand painted copy on their wall of Man at the Crossroads, the mural Diego Rivera did for Rockefeller Center, which was destroyed by the Rockefeller family when Rivera refused to paint over his portrait of Lenin); another evening I had spinach and cheese (palak paneer) at an Indian restaurant, both with robust wines that we only dream of in New York.   The spinach and cheese dinner was so generous that I took it home and made four additional meals out of it.  (See a couple of  food pics on our Instagram account.)  My friends know I have a hard time resisting a Coca Cola, but although Coke was readily available, I never felt my usual craving while I was there.  Hmmm.....

Before I left New York, I made a list of shops I wanted to visit.  Not because I was intent on shopping in Berlin, but because I reasoned that interesting shops are grouped in interesting neighborhoods.  I visited quite a few, but there were only two stores on my list that I was absolutely determined to visit: one was Hut Up, the brainchild of Christine Birkle, all of whose products consist of hand made felt, and Trippen, which sells hand crafted shoes.  I spent a lovely half hour at Hut Up with Ivonne Schwarz, who kindly answered all my questions, showed me around, and taught me that felt is hardier than we think, and easier to repair.

Below you can see a felt coat, a felt hat made to look like curly lamb, a troupe of felt polar bears in the window, a child's felt jacket, and even a felt exercise ball.  It's the inflatable ball we're all familiar with, but given a warm felt cover.  Ivonne tried to explain the process of covering the ball.  (You should have seen the cobalt blue one!)  Felting is always labor-intensive.  Working with flat pieces is hard enough, but working on a large 3-D piece with no flat surfaces must be very challenging.

I get to see very few felt dresses, so I was delighted to see, on a single rack, a series of white felt wedding dresses.  Here's one of them.  Delicately felted onto a silk base, it's light as a feather.  The top is completely felted; starting at the waist, the silk is allowed to show through, and the large puckers that result are integrated into the design.

At Trippen, I tried on only one pair of shoes, in an amazing metallic purple leather.  (Of course you know the classic poem by Jenny Joseph, Warning, which opens

When I am an old woman I shall wear purple).

It took me two days to think them over.   The trip itself was to be my sole big ticket item.  I needed some convincing (Jean helped convince me) to take the leap.  The whole Trippen store is very interesting.  The tiles on the floor all feature Trippen shoe designs, and the tiles were made locally.  The logo behind me seems to have been done with a stencil while the plaster was still wet.  (Just guessing here...)  It looks as though they put thick lettering on the wall, plastered, and then removed the lettering, as the letters are actually 'carved' out of the plaster.  It's a very international store: one of the men who helped me is a design student from Indonesia; another, also a design student, is a woman from Beijing who wants to make men's clothing.  When I asked her whom she admired among men's clothiers, she answered without hesitation Yohji Yamamoto.  This branch is located in the Hackescher Markt Rosenhof, a marvelous hidden maze of interlocking courtyards, each with half a dozen artisanal stores with beautiful merchandise to bring out the yearning - and the wallet - in everyone.  If you're not careful, you can easily miss the Rosenhof's gorgeous spiral staircase which, seen from the ground, looks something like a giant inverted G-clef.

It turns out Berlin also has pop-up shops - here today, gone tomorrow.  I know this because the store below advertised itself as a Pop-Up Shop.  The day I popped in, they were showing the edgy work of Stein/Rohner.  I was immediately drawn to this porcupine-like dress and hat embellished with laser-cut plastic.  There was a black version of the hat as well, which was absolutely stupendous.  At €1,000, however, I was relieved that it was cut much too small for me.  See the link for more of their very interesting work.

Ambling aimlessly, I came across all sorts of wonderful pleasures and treasures that tell stories about the city and its inhabitants that aren't in the guidebooks.  In this highly politically sensitive city, I saw this coffee shop.  The sign on the left says, in Italian, NO ROOM FOR NAZIS.  The sign on the right, in English, says REFUGEES WELCOME.

I loved the highly imaginative Berlin playgrounds, which haven't been stripped bare of anything a child might skin his or her knee on.  I saw tree houses, a star-shaped wall for climbing, and a slide with a spiral staircase hidden inside a wooden castle turret.  (See our Instagram account for additional pictures.)  In this city shaped by its river, I saw a playground with a rocking fish instead of a rocking horse.  But by far the best playground equipment I saw was the lapis blue mosaic ship, with climbing ropes, lifted into the air by the tentacles of a giant mosaic octopus.  To emphasize the size of the octopus, the designer "submerges" part of it, with its head (?) rising above the surface again a good ten feet away.  (Double click for more detail.)  Who wouldn't want to play on that?

No visit to Berlin is complete without a walk along some part of the infamous Wall, so one day I made the pilgrimage.  The so-called East Gallery was a longer walk than I expected, but worth the trouble.  The tiled path below, in the former East Berlin, hugs the river bank.  The wall is located on the opposite bank, so at this location the river itself was part of East Berlin.  Along this tree-lined walkway are several memorials to people who died trying to escape East Berlin by swimming across.  Guards had strict orders to shoot would-be escapees, and those who were lax in enforcing orders were severely punished.  The walkway itself is beautifully designed and maintained.  Hidden by the fallen leaves, multicolored designs in the tiles demarcate the tree beds.

(It often seemed to me that there were more trees in Berlin than people, which is probably the way every city should be.  I found Berlin to be a very green city, literally and figuratively.  The air has a crisp quality that New York can only aspire to.  Fredrik, my host, told me that only cars that meet specific pollution standards can enter the city limits.)

As the walk progresses, this beautiful bridge, Oberbaumbrucke, comes into view.  There is a pedestrian walkway on the bridge, and just out of view on the left is where a very long strip of the Wall is preserved.

Needless to say, many of the murals are highly political.  Some are harrowing and despairing; others are crude; still others compete with the best of the political satirists. This one makes its point with some humor, but there is nothing funny about the throng of people left behind, near the leaper's foot.

One of my personal favorites was this one, which evokes the German expressionist style of Ernst Kirchner's Berlin Street series. Kirschner was among those artists denounced as degenerates by the Nazis, and saw much of his work destroyed.

On my last full day in Berlin, a Sunday, I was able to snag a ticket to visit the Bundestag, now the seat of the German government.  (That's the dome of the Bundestag in the opening picture.)  Because of the traffic ban, getting to the Bundestag involved another long and revealing walk.  Just as in Washington, D.C., the government is composed of a huge complex of buildings stretching over a large swath of land. Walking along the Spree, this is the first view one sees.  In the large circular window, which covers four floors, you might just be able to make out a number of seats in a conference room if you enlarge the picture.

On the left of the river is a series of glass buildings.  These are sectioned off by a paneled glass wall.  Below you can see several of the Articles of the Constitution, one inscribed on each panel.  I used Google to translate the shortest of these, Article 10.  It reads, perhaps imperfectly: The privacy of correspondence, post and telecommunications shall be inviolable.  Restrictions seal must be ordered only pursuant to a law. 

One of the primary principles symbolized by the glass dome in the first photo is the transparency of the government.  In fact, on reaching the top of the dome, any onlooker can view the workings of parliament while it is in session by peering down into the center.  Is the same principle of transparency applied by inscribing the Articles of the Constitution on a transparent wall?  Is the transparent wall itself a rebuke to the hated concrete wall?

After the bend in the river, there is another long complex of glass buildings, and at the end of this complex, the facade of the Reichstag - another colossal building with acres of land leading up to it - comes into view.  From there, it is an elevator ride up to the Dome, where the extraordinary history of the Reichstag is laid out in text and photos.  From there, one climbs a spiral walkway to the open top of the Dome.  This offers both incredible views of the city and the stark symbolism of the people looking down onto the government.  In addition to being a symbol of transparency in government, the Dome is a model of modern technology harnessed to conserve energy.  Click here for an explanation.

From there, it was only fitting to end my Sunday, and my stay in Berlin, with a trip to the flea market in Mauer Park.  Riding the tram (again with Kyra's excellent instructions), I began to pass several residential buildings painted with huge blow-ups of photographs showing, in order, the history of the Berlin Wall, starting with an early phase of its construction, when a child could easily see over it to the other side.  When the tram stopped in front of Mauer Park, I was able to take a good picture of the last of the series, entitled Schwedter Strasse 1989, showing people streaming through the newly opened Wall.  The tiny street you see jammed with cars is Schwedter Strasse itself.  I hadn't realized until then that Mauer means wall, a large stretch of the Wall was located here, and some of it can still be seen at the perimeter of the Park.  Several metal markers in the ground also noted significant places: one translates as signal fence, another as no mans land, probably referring to the so-called "death strip" between the two parallel concrete barriers that formed the Berlin Wall.

Among the highlights of the flea market (in addition to the old Lou Reed album, the victrola playing old cabaret records, the collection of taxidermied exotic insects, and the wooden hangers colorfully covered in cloths and leathers), one was an absolutely delicious cup of mulled wine.  Another was getting angrily shooed away by a single vendor when I took a picture of his booth.  Knowing that people can feel proprietary about their work, at first I did not blame him for his reaction.  After a bit of thought, however, I changed my mind.  The reason I liked his booth was that he was selling small muslin bags embellished with fanciful prints of animals - which I recognized as the same prints used by a high profile American manufacturer on expensive products.   Perhaps this vendor was using the images without permission?  Another favorite booth was full of toys, dolls, and cards made of paper.  You can see some of their charming work here.  One gorgeous lady, selling beautiful pants and bags, refused to be photographed, saying she did not look her best, but you can see some of her work here.  My favorite vendor, though, was Juan de Chamié, who sold hand printed clothes of his own design.  I fell in love with the dress you see behind him, whose colors and accidentally-on-purpose off register (?) prints reminded me of Andy Warhol's Death and Disaster Series.  (Examples here.)

The next day, I was on my way home.  My flights in both directions were super-smooth - a big plus for someone with a deep-seated fear of turbulence.

Many of you will be able to name at least three major attractions that I did not so much as mention.  You're right, but I'm okay with that.  They give me a great excuse to go back someday.

Now I just have to figure out where to go next (and how to get the money to do that).


Yeah, yeah, I know.  It's spelled wrong.  But so what?  So was Krazy Kat.


  1. What a wonderfully evocative account of your time in one of my most favourite cities to visit. This piece - like all your pieces- was a lovely read

  2. What a cool travelogue of Berlin - this covers all the questions I didn't manage to ask when I saw you. The Ishtar gate is awe-inspiring and the video was very informative. I would love to have one of Juan de Chamie's dresses (they sort of remind me of the one I got at Beacon's Closet last year). Your description of the crows is just perfect!

  3. Jealous of your fabulous trip. And so glad you bought the Trippens. You'll wear the heck out of them!

  4. Glad you had a good trip and I love the top photo!

  5. A fascinating read! You could easily be a travel blogger!!!
    I'm very impressed that you decided to take this trip to Berlin!!! I was enthralled with the description of your adventure, and look forward to your next trip. Wherever that may be!

  6. What fun! Thanks for the run-down.