I got here about a week ago. The trip has been uneventful in terms of odd
occurrences and funny travel stories, as I've been visiting with my
mother's family, which numbers about 8 people in Berlin, and so far my
time has been about connecting with them for the first time in about 20
years. Some of that has been family talk, and some about Germany, America,
and politics. My cousins boyfriend spends his spare time creating
outrageous anti-Bush artwork, you know, a mutated preying mantis with a
scorpions tail and Bush's face, about to eat the Earth held in its hands.
He gets a lot of pleasure out of making these and sharing them with
Berlin is a very large city, much larger than I expected. Like Buenos
Aires, it is very inviting to the pedestrian--apart from street crossings,
as drivers are aggressive--because of the flat topography, wide sidewalks
(10 ft or more in many places), street-level stores, and trees. One
interesting difference between the former west and eastern sections of
Berlin is that the west has trees all over, spaced evenly on both sides of
the street, as well as a large park in the city called Tiergarten. The
east is largely devoid of greenery. I was told this was because, under
Soviet times, West Berlin was an island in the middle of East Germany
(remember the flights to supply W Berlin in 61, when blockaded), and the
Berliners had nowhere to go for green things without taking a plane--hence
they made their city more green. It is very welcome, actually.
It is green in other ways as well. You probably know that European gas is
more expensive, high taxes on it, but this means not only that there are
fewer drivers (relative to a large city in the US) but also that compact
and ultra-compact cars are the norm. I have seen no SUVs here, not a one.
Some of the cars look so small you'd think they were guillotined through
the back seat.
So many people walk, and the public transport system is used widely,
although it isn't cheap. I just got a one-month pass that covers a large
part of the systems (except for outlying areas) for about $60--but a
two-hour pass for example, is $2.50 or so, which is pretty pricey. One the
other hand, the subway trains run very often, there are signs telling you
how long you'll wait (and they are accurate), the connections are clear and
in general it is very convenient.
There are bicyclists, not as many as in SF, but still noticeable. There
are bike paths on the street in some places, but more often they are on
the sidewalk, marked by red tile or stone instead of the normal grey. You
are not supposed to walk on these. I almost got dinged a couple of times
walking in these areas, because I thought it was sidewalk--sometimes the
red is quite faded and you have to have your eyes open.
The city is really beautiful, this very odd mix of older style apartment
buildings, baroque architecture, and ultra-modern. When I say
ultra-modern: some of these buildings would not look out of place in a
sci-fi movie, and to my eye they are very elegant, its not abrasive or
purposefully shocking. There is tremendous construction going on, so in
many places its hard to get a sense of what the area really looks like; it
will be interesting to return in 5 years or so and get a sense of the
city. By the way, graffiti is everywhere, even in small amounts in the
There are something like 50 museums in the city! Oh, and for those who
care, I got to see the cemetery, and gravestones, for Brecht, Fichte, and
good old Hegel.
Last point--there are few reminders, even in conversation, of the
East-West Berlin split. One of the happening neighborhoods right now is in
the former eastern sector, and generally, people talk about the city as
one whole place. There is much reconstruction in the east, so older
Soviet-era architecture is being replaced or renovated.
It is fun to be back on the Continent, and to have proper Continental
Breakfasts. They really know how to do that over here. Oh, and yes, there
is a Starbucks over here. Its around the corner from the MacDonalds.