This is part 5 in a series about my three-week trip to Europe in December 2014-January 2015. Read the rest here.
Day 3: December 30, 2014
Farewell, Merry Dublin
Today we survive.
In Dublin we eat our last Irish breakfast at O’Shea’s Pub, chosen because it’s kitty-cornered to our hotel and we couldn’t get lost if we tried. Our table is a wooden barrel stood on end with a round, polished tabletop reflecting white winter sunshine. A painted Santa dances on the window.
Perched on my stool, I nibble my eggs and baked beans, half listening to the French mother scold her sullen children at the table next to us as I stare at the TV airing a news story about the latest ebola victim—a man from Spain, I think, but then Germany goes off in my mind like a flashbang and I see nothing but question marks. What will it look like? How has it been the last 30 years? Will my country recognize me? Trains. I must start thinking about the trains. Dublin trains have been bad enough—
“Oh, I should have worn my matching scarf,” Grace says.
I look at her blankly. She sips tea and raises her eyebrows. I look down. I’m wearing the blue scarf I bought our first day at the gift shop in St. Audoen’s church. Grace got green, I got blue. But today she’s wearing her plaid.
“Oh, yeah.” I look back at the ebola story on TV. “I hope that man’s okay.” I imagine all the strangers the sick man touched or breathed on, now potentially carriers themselves infecting hundreds of handrails and doorknobs and seat cushions. I imagine the airports shutting down before we even reach Berlin.
Am I afraid I will not make it into Germany? Still?
“Because that’s not at all distracting,” Grace says wryly. “Look, Gwen. One for you, one for me.”
Seated near the bar are two unsettlingly handsome men in their late twenties—tall, virile, clean-cut—enjoying their own breakfast. Wearing Irish sweaters, no less. Grace and I grin. She is joking, of course.
The waitress bustles by, rubbing her hands on her short black apron. “More tea, yeah?”
Never turn down a cup of black Irish tea, especially before catching a RyanAir flight where not even water is complimentary. Grace and I both drink, sipping these last few moments of Dublin as our mid-afternoon flight looms closer, tick by tock.
My thoughts revert to trains. Again. I have been able to plan every step of the trip—every flight, every city, every hotel—except for this. U-Bahn, S-Bahn, Regional Express, Regional Bahn, InterRegional Trains, InterCity, InterCity Express. What’s the difference? What’s the best option? How will I know?
My strength as a planner is becoming a weakness. I want to pound my fist down on some master switch that freezes every train in Germany until I sort the moving parts in peace for just five minutes. The exact time and place of every train we need for two weeks, please. Here, on paper. Like my plane ticket. I crave decision, now. While some people are eased by endless possibilities, I am dying for one plan—just one infallible plan that works.
I put down my tea suddenly. “You ready to go?”
“Yep, we should go.”
We pay the bill, collect our luggage from our hotel, and with painstaking deliberation walk down the street, take an immediate left on Amiens, and arrive safely at Connolly Station. Where was this station when we needed it last night?
On the lurching bus to the airport, I listen to two Irish grandmas chatting behind me, their voices warbling up and down several octaves in swaying glissandos. Or rather, one grandma chats, the other mostly listens. Their dialogue rambles like a cart down Dublin’s bewildering cobblestone alleys and the first grandma is clearly doing the driving: “No Facebook. I don’t have Facebook. I don’t even know what I’m talking about, thanks be to God…. Taylor Swift, you know, American singer?” Then, as the second grandma sneezes—almost her sole contribution to the conversation—the first exclaims matter-of-factly: “God bless you, sweetie pie.”
I smile. I am still pleasantly startled by the cheeriness of the Irish and I am already leaving it behind. Goodbye to the chipper sounds of “No bother at all” and “Milk with your tea?” and “You need help with that, yeah?” I hope we meet again someday.
From bus to airport to terminal to gate, we spend the rest of the morning and first several hours of the afternoon waiting for our delayed flight. The loud speakers are filled with promises that the plane is coming—“Shortly, ladies and gentlemen”—but it does not come. No wonder our tickets were so cheap. Over and over, the phrase runs through my head, Los gehts—we’re off!—but we don’t gehts, and we’re not off.
I wonder if Germany will still be alive by the time we get there. My 10-pound purse creates a knot in my shoulder that sprouts up my neck to my ear and round the back of my skull. Stuffed inside my purse is Countdown to Valkyrie, the only book on my list I wasn’t able to finish. I should be reading now, but I can’t concentrate. Later. I’ll read it later. On the plane. If it ever comes. Impulsively, I download the soundtrack to Unbroken on my phone, but don’t listen to it. Everything is waiting for Germany. Sometimes I feel like I’m even waiting to breathe until my boots crunch at last in the snow.
“Gwen Burrow?” says a sudden voice.
I turn. Behind us comes the lady from the check-in counter—several hours ago—holding out a boarding pass. “Did you drop this? I found it on the floor.”
Weak-kneed, I realize how close I just came to keeping myself out of Germany. “Oh, wow. Yes. Thank you so much.”
At last the plane arrives. Cramped in my seat (and at barely over five feet tall, I am hard to cramp anywhere), I spy in fascination on the young German-Irish family ahead of me: the father speaking German and the mother English in her lovely lilt as they juggle three small children into their seats. Through the drone of engines on standby, I keep hearing the little boy (who looks like a miniature Manuel Neuer) asking his dad in German, “Was?” What? So simple, but I am pleased to understand him.
The evening flight is short. I’ve asked for the window seat because I want, I need, to see my country as soon as it floats below. Watching the sun set in a pale fever on the soft horizon, I slip in earbuds and turn on Coldplay’s “Miracles,” written for Unbroken. I don’t love the song but I keep coming back to it. Once. Twice. Three times. I zone out to the sound of guitar and piano winging together like birds on a wind over mountains. It is the sound of a very particular kind of joy, and once you have heard it you will never mistake it for anything else. Rescue. Easter freedom. Eucatastrophe.
“I’d made it this far and refused to give up because all my life, I had always finished the race.” – Louie Zamperini
Lost in Berlin’s Crawlspace
The song plays on repeat as we fly forward an hour through time and darkness falls. By the time we drop beneath the cloud cover at 1900 (7:00 pm), Berlin is shapeless, invisible. I see only the pinkish glow of fresh snow beneath the terminal lights, and I think of all the centuries that snow has fallen on my country and I was not even alive to see it, yet here it is, waiting for me.
We walk into a thicket of foreign words. I scan the airport eagerly, searching for anything familiar. Zoll. Gepäckrückgabe. Drücken. Ziehen. All new. Then there’s big lettering: AUSGANG. Years ago, we’d say “Aus!” to our German Shepherd when we wanted him to drop something. So aus means out. And gang, I remember, is part of Mozart’s name Wolfgang, which means literally “wolf path.” Put them together: out-path.
“Okay,” I say. “Ausgang means exit.”
We follow the crowd through customs and head towards a desk beneath a huge letter i. Information. It’s the same in German as in English. The lady behind the desk looks like she knows everything except for how to smile. Self-consciously, knowing that she must speak perfect English since she works in the airport, I force myself to dive into German. “Guten Abend; sprechen Sie Englisch?”
“Yes.” Clipped. Precise.
“Can you tell me how to get to our hotel? It’s this one.” I show her the address on my phone.
“Take the underground to Kochstraße. It is a few minutes’ walk to your hotel.”
I press my lips. “Um, can you tell me like you’d tell someone who doesn’t have a clue what they’re doing?”
The lady looks like whatever is pulling her bun so tight is also sucking out any drop of humor she might have been born with. She writes down instructions on a small square of paper: a quick bus ride and two underground trains.
I say, “Danke schön.”
“Bitte schön.” Still no smile, though her tone says she approves of my pronunciation.
We march off to catch a bus. My shoulder feels like a tree root is struggling to break through the skin and Grace keeps pausing to fix her wheels that rattle like loose teeth and we both stop incessantly to unstack our luggage and haul it up flights of stairs because Germans haven’t heard of ramps or escalators.
A short bus ride takes us to the train station where we descend to the underground. The crawlspace of Berlin. Numerous trains, low ceilings, the strong smell of cold concrete, tightly wedged crowds of strangers to whom suitcases are attached like so many protuberances, an ear-baffling blur of German, and very little light create a surreal chaos.
We’re looking for U6. “U” stands for U-Bahn or Untergrundbahn (underground railway) so we’re in the right place, but which train? There are several 6s. Without WiFi and with no bird’s-eye comprehension of how a train station works, I don’t even know where to begin.
I see a man selling coffee and show him the airport lady’s directions. “Wie komme ich zum…?”
The man doesn’t smile and doesn’t know much English, but I understand hand gestures and the words geradeaus (straight) and links (left), so we go straight, down another flight, and left.
Here’s our train! Inside, we meet a convivial couple from Belfast (he) and Manchester (she), traveling to Berlin for the holiday “because New Year’s in Manchester is rubbish.” Their accents are strong but at least they speak English and Lord bless them, they smile. The four of us feel like friends for life.
At one point the U-Bahn stops at an above-ground station. I press my phone against the window and take my first picture of Germany: dark railroad tracks muffled in snow.
Parting ways with the fun couple at our next stop, Grace and I look for our second underground train. I ask for more directions from an unsmiling lady with bad teeth in a rundown magazine shop. She mutters and points.
Dragging our luggage up and down more stairs, we get on a train where a homeless man lies half asleep on a bench. A bandage wraps his head. A bag of apples and a bottle of juice serve jointly as a pillow. Just how long (I wonder) has he been riding the train? Just riding and riding, no place to go, no home to love.
We cross the center aisle and sit opposite him. As the train picks up speed and the bleak underground blurs by in monochromatic monotony, I look around for a screen that announces our next stop. There’s nothing. Over the whir of the train on the tracks, the echoing of the engine off the tunnel walls, and the voices of the dozen other passengers in various languages, I can’t hear the announcements on the speakers.
We go through several stops before I leave Grace to guard the luggage and ask the pleasant-looking lady behind me: “Guten Abend; sprechen Sie Englisch?”
She shakes her head. “Nein.” Points at the man next to her.
“I’m looking for Kochstraße,” I tell him.
Dapper in a dark peacoat, the man says: “Oh, you just missed it.” He pulls a map out of his pocket and studies what looks like a diagram of veins and arteries in the human body, only these are train lines ribboning Berlin.
While he reads the map, I study the homeless man five feet in front of us, who has sat up with a dull look in his eyes and now takes several long, lethargic pulls on his juice bottle.
Herr Peacoat says, “Okay, so you get off at the next stop and go back one.”
Just then, the homeless man pukes all over the floor. It looks like a frat boy’s year’s worth of ramen noodles and a barrel of tomato juice. Out and out and out it comes. On and on and on. Grace jumps up and runs to the far end of the car, gagging. The other passengers wail in disgust and scramble after her.
I can’t stop watching the man throw up and Herr Peacoat keeps trying to tell me directions (interrupting himself to swear in English as the watery vomit rolls towards his shoes), and then the train stops and everyone immediately tries to bust out the door. The poor innocent people waiting on the platform march right into the puke while I yell, “Watch out!! Watch out!!” and I wonder why nobody is paying any attention until I realize, hello, I’m in Germany.
I have no idea where I learned the word but all of a sudden I cry: “Achtung!!”
“EW!!” they shriek, stepping one by one into the barf.
Herr Peacoat grabs my luggage. I yell across the car: “GRACE, GET OFF!”
We all get off. My hero makes sure we’re safe, then hops back into the train with his lady. I sure hope they change cars, but I don’t wait to see because we’re racing across the platform and straight into the train that takes us back to our stop. We scramble off again and hump our luggage up the stairs for the last time. Up and up. Out of the underground.
“The Western World Has Not Forgotten Them”
The first thing I hear is a gunshot. My ear corrects the sound: just a firecracker. Tomorrow is New Year’s Eve and someone has started the party early, but we see no one. The rest of the city is silent. Tall, dark buildings fan away from us in four directions, their black windows like eyes that watch us with no pupils. Thin snow squeaks beneath our boots. We exhale tiny jet streams into the cold air.
“Is this the right place?” Grace puffs.
We’re standing at a crossroads marked by a glowing sign.
“Yep,” I pant. “Because our hotel is right by Checkpoint Charlie.”
“Oh man. Just get me out of the underground.”
“I know. This is it. But I don’t know which way from here.”
“Should we just start walking?”
“No, we’ll just get lost.”
Grace rips off her gloves. “Fine. I’m turning on my data.” She pecks at her phone. “It’s not working!”
“Why not?” I demand. “You just turn it on, right?”
“I am, it’s just not working!”
We join forces against the recalcitrant technology, arguing with it the way intelligent people do with inanimate objects, and finally load the map. Our hotel is just a couple turns away. We set off through the dark.
The route feels nearly frozen in time since 1989. We are in Mitte, Berlin’s historic core, one of the only two boroughs that straddles former East and West Berlin. As we bump our luggage down deserted cobblestones and listen to the distant pops and dragging echoes of firecrackers, we stare at clunky remnants of the Berlin Wall, disfigured more by the wretched history they stand for than by the garish graffiti blasted by rebellious West Berliners not so many years ago.
On one standalone panel is painted the face of JKF and the famous claim Ich bin ein Berliner. Those words were the final cymbals clash of Kennedy’s speech two years after the Wall went up: “All free men, wherever they may live, are citizens of Berlin. And, therefore, as a free man, I take pride in the words: Ich bin ein Berliner.” He gave the speech to ecstatic applause on June 26, 1963. My birthday, 21 years before I was born.
Down a dark, secluded road angling between two main streets like the hypotenuse of a triangle, we spot our hotel: the first thing we have found in three days on our first attempt.
Gat Point Charlie Hotel glows neon emerald. On the sign, a single lidless eye stares uncannily bright through a reptilian pupil. A green Sauron. Its stare is eerily appropriate. We are about to walk into the former headquarters of the Stasi, the omniscient and terrifyingly micromanaging secret police of East Berlin, now a mere hotel: modern, industrial, devoid of charm.
We check in, take the elevator to the fourth floor, and dump our luggage in a misshapen, appropriately stark and minimalistic room whose window has a deep ledge as high as my chest and looks out onto our odd side street. Black rooftops poke the clouded night sky.
My hair is a mess and our makeup way past stale, but we immediately go out again in search of food. Any food. We haven’t eaten since Dublin. We find a place that advertises “salmon” in English on the window menu, and walk in.
It’s a lovely Italian place aglow with lights and gleaming wine bottles. A giant earth-toned world map spreads across part of the ceiling. Our jolly waiter with a jollier belly hardly speaks English but takes great delight in calling us “Signora” and pretending that our bottle of water is really champagne as he POPS it open, gives a sound effect for the spray, and pours our glasses with a flourish. We eat. We laugh. We love it. The only thing I know how to say in Italian besides pizza is grazie (thanks to a pompous Italian in a Fred Astaire movie) so we say grazie a lot, which makes our happy waiter even happier.
Fortified with dinner, warm apple strudel, and some other Italian dessert I can’t pronounce, we leave the restaurant and walk the snowy streets. The hour is close to midnight. Historic Friedrichstraße, once bisected by the Wall, is a march of memories. Jazzy chunks of the Wall grin from the windows of the Museum Haus am Checkpoint Charlie. From the third floor overhead fall the flags of the four countries that once each occupied a sector of Berlin: USA, Britain, France, and the Soviet Union. Plastered down the front like a blood-red tapestry is a larger Soviet banner, its gold hammer caught in the hook of a gold sickle. I try to imagine pledging allegiance to such a strangling flag.
Checkpoint Charlie itself is at the wide intersection of Freidrichstraße and Zimmerstraße. Here is the best-known crossing point of the Berlin Wall; the infamous embodiment of the Cold War; the site of prisoner swaps and daring escapes.
The aggressive guard towers and cement barriers of the East German side have vanished. So has the shed where vehicles underwent searches and heat scans to make sure no escapees were curled up in hidden compartments, holding their breath inches away from freedom. If you were caught and you were lucky, you’d be arrested and perhaps never seen again. If you were caught actually making a run for it over the Wall, you would be shot on sight, sometimes left to die alone in no man’s land between the two Germanys, and then buried in an anonymous grave in a funeral that not even your family would be allowed to attend.
The only remnant of the checkpoint is a replica of the American guardhouse: just a tiny shack and a few sandbags. The US kept it defiantly simple, refusing to acknowledge the Wall as permanent. Beyond the guardhouse we walk by the same sign that warned thousands of soldiers, diplomats, and citizens in four languages that they were leaving the land of the free for the home of the slave.
YOU ARE LEAVING THE AMERICAN SECTOR
ВЫ ВЫЕ3ЖАЕТЕ ИЗ АМЕРИКАНСКОГО СЕКТОРА
VOUS SORTEZ DU SECTEUR AMÉRICAIN
SIE VERLASSEN DEN AMERIKANISCHEN SEKTOR
Near the guardhouse a massive Christmas tree nearly five times my height peaks overhead, a tower of flags and lights. Each year, the US ambassador lights the tree to commemorate the night of December 17, 1961, Germany’s first Christmas cleaved by the Wall, when a thousand trees were lit along the Western border to show unity and brotherhood with the imprisoned East. “They will be lit every night to assure people on the other side of the communist-erected barbed wire fences and concrete wall borders…that the western world has not forgotten them,” said officials.
Grace and I stand like miniature nutcrackers at the foot of the Christmas tree where a merry Serbian couple takes our picture. They are dark, dashing, young, and in love. We adore them instantly. And decide to call it a night.
Back in our hotel room, I collapse facedown on the bed. I’m rarely tired but after fourteen hours of busses, a plane, trains, a foreign language, puke, wrong stops, and the weight of walking through a funereal time capsule, I feel pounded down to my bones. Grace peels off her scarf and boots. “Oh man.” Thump-thump. Her boots hit the hard carpet. “What a day. I’m sorry I freaked out about my cellular data.”
“I’m sorry I freaked out about you freaking out about your cellular data,” I mumble into the mattress.
“Oh Gwen, can you believe that guy on the train?”
I raise my head. “Now watch—we’ll both get the stomach flu.”
We start recounting our day out loud and suddenly we’re laughing hysterically. We’re sitting in what was probably the office of an officious, anal-retentive Stasi officer neurotically spying on his countrymen and we’re wheezing ourselves silly over a homeless man who tossed his cookies. So, so many cookies.
When I prayed for our dinner at the Italian restaurant, I did pray that the Germans would learn to smile more, but man, right now I really wouldn’t change a thing.