(Okay, we didn’t really have a four day Berlin dance party. It’s just a funny thing I recall Peter saying once. Oh, Peter…here’s what really happened.)
Getting packed and out the door the next morning was a seamless process. Most everything had been put away last night so it was really just a matter of getting dressed. Rhona was up early for work so we got to say our goodbyes to her before we tiptoed down the steps and out the front door to the waiting taxi. The driver got out and helped us with our luggage before we all piled into the car and headed off.
The Glasgow airport was only a 15-minute drive from Rhona’s flat. When we arrived, we followed a stream of other early morning travelers into the terminal to check in. We found the orange EasyJet signs and took our place in line. When we got up to the counter, the woman helping us said we would have to pay 30 pounds to check our bag. In the grand scheme of things it wasn’t the biggest of deals. It had been so long since I booked the flight, and we hadn’t been sure if we would be checking a bag or not, so we could’ve been hit up with a fee regardless. I think there is just something about bullshit airline fees that piss you 0ff no matter what the circumstances are.
So we paid the fee, even if we didn’t like it, and moved on to security. They didn’t make us take our shoes off, which always throws me a bit. Until I’m safely through I just keep expecting someone to yell, “Psych! Get those shoes in the X-ray tunnel!” But thank goodness that’s never happened. We reached the other side of security with 20 minutes or so before boarding for our flight started. I checked the Departures board and saw that our gate had not even been listed yet. That just seemed to be a trend for us the whole trip. It was even more nerve-wracking because of course we had no idea what the layout of the airport was and therefore no concept of how long it would take to get to any given gate. I was also starting to stress because I was beginning to notice just how fat my backpack had grown (mostly due to books) and was beginning to worry that it might not fit under the seat, leaving me to fight for overhead bin space, which might all be taken.
But there was nothing we could do about either of those things except wait. So instead of freaking out, we went into a coffee shop across from security to get ourselves some tea and something to eat. I left Mom at a table with all of our stuff and got in line. No sooner had I returned with breakfast did they post our gate. We collected our things and began navigating our way through the airport.
EasyJet seemed to be the ugly stepfamily that children of divorce like to pretend doesn’t exist, and our gate was the most obnoxious of the stepchildren. The EasyJet gates were all in the basement. It was a long hallway with orange and gray walls everywhere. The lighting was poor and the whole place seemed like it was bordering on abandoned and derelict. Our gate was at the very end of the terminal, in the corner of the room. It wasn’t the most welcoming terminal I’d ever been in but we made it with minutes to spare. We first found a couple of seats along the wall a short distance from the gate. Then a family we had made the walk down with caught up and took the seats next to us. One of the boys was playing one of those Leap Frog Learning games or something and it was annoying as hell, so I told Mom we had to get up and move. We found a couple seats right next to the gate and planted. This is when the morning went from mediocre to complete disrepair.
While we were sitting there, I set my chai on the ground by my feet so I could get something out of my backpack. But I had set the chai too close to my bag so when I opened it and the front fell forward a bit, it bumped the cup. Luckily I was able to grab it before it tipped all the way over and there was only minor spillage. But when I set it back down, I didn’t set it far enough away not to get knocked again when I sat back and the base of the bag shifted again.
There was chai everywhere.
(Chai: before and after.)
I’m sure all the people sitting around us were watching the entire scene unfold. But I was too busy bemoaning the fate of my chai and laughing at what a klutz I am sometimes. I chose to laugh about it rather than feel mortified (though I did feel a little mortified). There was only a shallow layer of chai left in the white, chai-stained cup. The rest of it was slowly being absorbed in the carpet. We hadn’t grabbed any napkins and there wasn’t even a bathroom nearby for us to run into and grab some paper towels. I glanced over at the people standing by the ticket counter. If they had seen the spill, they were acting like it hadn’t happened; either that or they were completely indifferent to the beige amoeba that had appeared on the carpet, happy to leave it for the cleaning crew later.
I sighed, feeling defeated. I just wanted to be on the plane, flying to Berlin, forgetting about the chai that never was. I had barely gotten two sips out of it before it met its untimely end. I could only hope the day would get better from there. And it did. Soon people began to queue, even before they had officially started boarding. Mom and I sat and watched the line lengthen, thinking everyone was a bit foolish for getting up already but admiring them for their ability to form an actual distinct line. We just get this blob of people back home that shuffles to the counter in some sort of order.
At last we were on the plane, and my bag did indeed fit under the seat. The flight was more or less the same as flying to California back home. It took us about two hours. Once we had landed and walked through the airport, we found ourselves having the same feeling we did when we arrived in Edinburgh. We hadn’t had anyone rifle through our stuff so of course we were feeling a little apprehensive. That worry was short lived, however. We had bigger fish to fry. We had just arrived in a country where English is not the primary language. Our first obstacle to overcome was the ticketing machine for the trains.
Peter, who is a fantastic host and very well prepared, had sent us very detailed instructions on how to get tickets and which trains to ride and how to get to his office. But despite his help, we still approached the machine with some degree of anxiety. The other people waiting behind us didn’t help either. We moved forward and made one attempt before getting halfway through and panicking that we had picked the wrong option. So we stepped aside and let the group behind us go. They proceeded to take forever, but once they had left we tried again. Maybe we were just temporarily blind that day but we couldn’t see the ticket option Peter had told us to get. We gave up and went over to the ticketing desk to be helped by a human being. At this point, I should mention that when we stopped at the ATM earlier to get cash Euros, all the machine gave us were 50s. WTF, ATM?
A thin-faced, gray-haired, stereotypically stern-looking old German woman was sitting behind the desk. I went up and told her what we wanted and she gave me a total. I set one of the 50 Euro bills on the desk. She mumbled something I couldn’t here and didn’t take the bill. I realized she must be asking if we had any other bills we could pay with so I said, “The ATM only gave us 50s. Sorry.” She waited another moment before she took the money from the desk and began making change. She muttered something else under her breath that I couldn’t make out, then handed me the change and our tickets. We thanked her and left.
That was probably the most unpleasant experience we had our whole time in Berlin. I don’t even know what the big deal was. She had plenty of bills to make change with in that drawer. It’s not like we were going to clean her out. Whatever, I’m sure she had her reasons, even if they were silly. We left the airport and began following a long, gently curving sidewalk that took us to the train station. It was here I first really started to pay attention to all the signs I couldn’t read.
People were both coming and going. This was clearly the main fairway to and from the airport. How nice it must be to have public transportation that would take you straight to the airport. *Sigh* A girl can dream. Anyway, we reached the station and took a left down a long ramp. This brought us to another long passageway lined with openings leading to all the different platforms.
I checked Peter’s directions again for the platform number we needed. The numbering system was a bit weird but about halfway down the tunnel we found our number and hiked up another long ramp to the tracks. The platform, and most of those around it were still pretty empty. More and more people began to show up as we waited. Riding the trains, at least when we weren’t with Peter, was always an interesting experience. They announced stops just like they did in Edinburgh, but we had no idea how to pronounce most of the words. So we had to rely completely on recognizing the names of places to know if we had arrived or not.
A long, boxy red and yellow train soon pulled into the station. We stepped on board and began looking for a spot where our bag and we would fit without blocking the walkway. It was a pretty nice looking train with big comfy seats. I referred to Peter’s notes again so I could show Mom the name of the stop we wanted. Our host couldn’t meet us until after 5 o’clock so first we were going to Peter’s office.
We had one transfer to the U-Bahn to make (we started out on the S-Bahn). The switch was made at the Natural History Museum stop and they had this kickass big picture of guys dusting dinosaur bones hanging on the wall over the tracks. How cool of a job would that be? The U-Bahn took us to our final destination. Peter had given us directions right down to which direction to turn out of the train. Which was good because even though we had finally gotten 3G back in Scotland it was completely useless in Berlin, and I hadn’t gotten set up for Vodafone’s Europe plan so all our trust was in Peter.
And he did a wonderful job! We left the bahnhof, walked a couple of blocks, passed through some major construction and found the ResearchGate front door. We pushed the buzzer and waited. In a few seconds, that lanky, blonde-headed Peter kid showed up and opened the door. “You made it!” he cried. We stepped inside and each gave him a hug. He quickly introduced us to the woman sitting several feet away in the reception area and directed us to a small storage cupboard where we could stash our luggage for a bit.
We then followed him from the reception area back through the dining hall, which still had a few people finishing up lunch, and into a room at the back of the building with nothing but a ping pong table in it. About seven people were running around it and maintaining a constant volley between ever-changing opponents. I was already jealous of Peter’s new job. I mean, he’d already been there for over a year but it is still the newest job he’s had.
We had another quick introduction to people whose names I wouldn’t, and don’t, remember before we left the ping-pong match behind and left for lunch. Back out on the street, Peter began making some suggestions for lunch. One was Middle Eastern and another was Asian. The restaurant names respectively were DaDa and DuDu. We went with DuDu.
It took us a couple blocks to leave the construction behind. Peter told us it was expected to go on for a good while longer, and how they never really seemed to make any progress. Whenever they did, he said, they ended up having to tear it up and start over again for some reason or another. We walked and talked the whole way; Peter did most of the talking though. Which was somewhat harmful to his walking skills. He was ahead of us at times, and would look back over his shoulder and go a bit crooked in his path. One time he almost ran into a woman coming the other direction and she expertly pulled off a well timed, “Allo!” to let him know he better watch himself. We laughed and made jokes about it for most of the trip.
It started to rain when we were still a few minutes away from the restaurant. Just drizzly rain, nothing much, but still more than we had seen in Scotland. We attempted to find a spot under the awning out front but no matter where we tried there was a little dribble sneaking through the cracks. So we took a table inside. I had Peter help with my pronunciation of the dish I was going to get and a few other phrases I saw in the menu. I didn’t want to be that obviously American.
We finished lunch, which was quite delicious, and walked back to ResearchGate. Peter took us on a tour of the whole place. We walked back through the dinning area and saw the ping-pong table again. Mom made a quick stop in the bathroom so Peter and I grabbed a couple of paddles and had a few volleys. He kicked my ass, but it seemed a bit unfair, since he got to practice at work and I didn’t. After that we saw the Relaxation Room (no, I’m not kidding) and all the various offices spread throughout the building. Peter showed us the floor he used to work on and then took us to his current office. His two officemates, (whose names I also don’t remember) were in there working when we walked in.
We spent a bit of time in there while he explained to us the work he was doing and what his job was in maintaining and modifying the site. I was glad to see Peter had settled into his new job, and new home, so well. Sure it had been a year, even more, since he had arrived, and you might expect anyone that had been in a place that long would have adjusted. But Peter felt like he belonged there, he’d really become a part of the city; you could see how comfortable he was, and I was glad to see it. Sure, I still missed him like hell back home, but we all have to move on with our lives eventually.
It was finally time for Peter to get back to work, so he walked us back down to the entrance and told us the way to the Berlin Wall Memorial Park a few blocks away. I listened carefully so I could recognize the street names later, and we went off to kill the last couple of hours before we could check in. The park wasn’t too far away and was easy enough to spot that we didn’t have any trouble finding it. There were smalls clusters of people already walking around between the various informational pillars scattered across the plot of grass.
Mom and I didn’t talk much as we made our way further into the park. Places like the park always flood you with information, which I appreciate and find interesting, but I always walk away feeling more or less the same as I did when I arrived. A decrepit section of the wall still stood between the street and the park. It was covered with splatters of graffiti, and it was riddled with holes and crumbling bits. The park was located in what would have been the no man’s land between the inner and outer wall. Low walls had been constructed around the old remains of building foundations that had once belonged to guard houses and watch towers. Rusted steel cords reached up out of the ground like tentacles, all that remained of a light post. More segments of the wall had been placed inside the park, disassembled into single pieces, all collected together and overgrown with trees and shrubs.
Between the wall and the sidewalk snaking through the park was another kind of wall, a memorial to all those people who had tried to escape East Berlin and, sadly, failed. I was horrified to find out some people committed suicide after failing to make it across to the other side. So many terrible things happened her, not just on the strip of land I walked across but in this entire city. The more time I spent in Berlin the more I heard about how much of it had been destroyed and rebuilt into something unrecognizable from its former incarnation. It is a truth that is very unfortunate.
And that’s the feeling I get, a sort of sinking sensations when I think about how unfortunate and horrible so much of our past is. Memorials like the Berlin Wall are always very sobering places to visit. I’m always baffled when I leave; I marvel at how humans allowed such atrocities to happen, and how we still allow them to happen today. Allow isn’t exactly the right word, not in every situation anyway. The fact that some humans commit hideous and terrifying acts knowingly is all the more baffling, and I sometimes find it hard to reconcile that fact with myself. That some people sit by idly and let it happen is a nasty side effect.
We left the park feeling less elated than when we had left ResearchGate. But soon we would have more important things to worry about, like how the heck to get to our accommodation. It was no problem finding the U-Bahn station again. We made it to our stop, Ostbahnhof, without any trouble but once we got off the train the trouble started. Peter had given us directions on how to get there from the station; we even talked to him once we got off the train. But none of that really matters when you exit the station in the wrong direction, making everything you were told completely null and void.
Coloradans, or at least Mom and I, are completely clueless as to the cardinal directions when we aren’t in Colorado. We have no mountains as reference! Don’t use cardinal directions with us outside CO because we will have no idea what that means in this new place. So yeah, we left the station in what we thought was a northwesterly direction but apparently it was a northeasterly direction. For a second I thought I saw the street name Peter had mentioned but I was just being delusional. We kept walking, asking almost everyone we passed if they knew where Andreasstrasse was, yet no one seemed to know with any great deal of confidence.
Eventually we asked a woman who was nice enough to take out her phone and look it up. Sure enough, she pointed us back in the direction we had come. We thanked her and followed the street back until we came to an intersection with a sign proclaiming ‘Andreasstrasse’ hanging over it. At last! We took a right and in a block or two came to a tall, bland building set apart from all the other surrounding buildings at the edge of a park.
When we told Peter where we were staying he had laughed and told us it was called a Plattenbau. It was a boring, nondescript building that had become a popular style back during the war. It is a style constructed of large, prefabricated concrete slabs and is relatively quick and inexpensive to make, hence its popularity in war-ravaged Berlin. It was essentially nothing more than a big gray box. He wasn’t wrong. The whole building was painted two different shades of gray and had no other ornamentation on the outside except for the windows and the front door. The inside looked no different. Gray walls, no carpeting, the whole thing echoed like a dungeon. The actual apartment we stayed in was much nicer. It actually had some color and personality.
We pushed the button with Kati’s name next to it outside the door and she buzzed us in. I hit the button to call the elevator and was surprised when the doors slide open to reveal a bright pink inside. It shot us up to the sixth floor in a second and we stepped out into the barren hallway. As soon as I was clear of the doors I voiced my concern that we didn’t know which apartment was Kati’s. It reverberated back at me, and it was no surprise that Kati heard us and walked over. I mean, I’m sure that was her plan anyway but the echoing certainly helped to announce our presence. I apologized for being a bit late and told her we had gotten turned around at the station. I felt a little bad because we had also taken our time at the park, and I hadn’t really given much thought to the fact Kati would have to sit and wait for us to show up once she had finished her test.
She didn’t hang around long, just gave us the key, asked if we had any questions and then wished us a nice stay. When Kati was gone, we did the obligatory look over of the place. We opened up the cabinets and the fridge; we located all the light switches, did a sweep over the bookshelf and tested out the bed. It was a small place but just the right size for one or two people. When we had finished snooping, Mom plopped herself down at the table while I made us each a cup of tea and dug the last of our biscuits out of my bag. We spent the next hour and a half this way, just waiting for Peter to get off work and come entertain us.
The biscuits were soon spent and the last of the tea gone so we continued to sit motionless at the table, moving only our thumbs and forefingers as we continued to pass the time on our phones. You know, writing about my travels makes me realize how much time I actually spend on my phone sometimes. I’d like to think it isn’t quite the same at home because there I have more things that require my attention, but that’s probably only half true. Anyway, at last Peter called me and said he was on his way out. I told him which buzzer to hit and what floor we were on.
That turned out to be pointless act since Peter ended up calling me when he was outside saying he couldn’t find the buzzer. So I went down and let him in myself, and we went back up to the flat together. We all spent several minutes up there talking about tomorrow’s plans and ideas of what to do that night for dinner and such. Mom ended up deciding to have a night in to rest while Peter and I went out. We said goodbye and offered to pick her up anything to eat if she wanted, and then we were off.
Our first stop was Peter’s flat. The only real reason for stopping here first was so Peter could drop off his bag, I think. But it was also so I could see Peter’s new digs. It was an equally exciting and exhausting trip to make. Peter’s building is older, and as a result has no elevator. In addition, he also lives on the top floor of a, oh I don’t know, seven story building? I’m sure you can guess what that means: lots and lots of stairs. At least it wasn’t like in Edinburgh that first day where we had all those stairs to climb, and all of our luggage to carry. It was a still a pain in the ass, legs and knees though.
Now sweating profusely, I reached the top. The battered front door opened onto a single hallway with several rooms branching off on either side. Immediately to the right of the front door was the bathroom and next to that was the toilet. Yes, the toilet had a room all to itself. Past that was the kitchen. On the left side of the hall were the bedrooms. The first belonged to Caroline (I think her name was), one of Peter’s flatmates. His was the next, and at the end of the hall was Ben’s room, Peter’s other flatmate. I quickly poked my head into the bathroom and kitchen before following Peter into his room.
It was longer than it was wide. He had a loft bed, sitting high above everything else, with a rack of clothes beneath it. At the far end of the room were a desk, some shelves and a tattered couch with a glass coffee table in front of it. The best part of the room wasn’t even in the room. It was the balcony just beyond the large swath of windows at the end of the room. It didn’t reach far out over the street, but there was enough room for a chair and a few potted plants, and really, what more do you need? I was just impressed that Peter had plants.
I spent a few minutes standing out in the crisp night air while Peter moved around the room busying himself with this or that. I squeezed back through the mildly obstructed doorway into the room just as Ben entered. Peter introduced us and we spent a few minutes talking, telling Ben about our plans for the night. Ben had plans of his own to keep or else I imagine he would’ve taken Peter’s offer to join us. After that we left the flat and headed to get some dinner.
Peter was taking me to this tiny little whole-in-the-wall place that served excellent falafel. And I am a fan of falafel. We took the U-Bahn to another part of town then walked the couple of blocks to Oases. He hadn’t been exaggerating about the size. There was barely enough space for the two of us to stand comfortably and order, let alone the two other guys there waiting for their order. I stood to the side and let Peter do the ordering. It was a curious sensation, standing there and one, watching Peter carry on a conversation in German, and two, having no idea what either he or the gentleman behind the counter was saying. It may have been equally unnerving because food was involved and I’m already extra paranoid about that since I’m vegetarian/vegan on a good day. Peter only turned to ask me a few questions before we both sat down to wait.
I spent a good deal of time gazing up at the community bulletin board on the wall and found myself thinking how interesting it was that I took more notice when I couldn’t read something than when I could, mostly considering I was in another country and I would think it would’ve been the other way around. But the brain is funny like that I guess. Our pita wraps came up one by one. The pita was stuffed to just the right girth. Peppers, falafel and greens stuck out the top, and it smelled fantastic.
I took my first bite. It may have been the fact that this was only my second really good meal eaten during the course of a very busy day that made it so tasty, but I like to think it was just really tasty. Just writing this scene made me crave falafel the other night! Anyway, we sat in the tiny shop and ate our scrumptious wraps before snagging some baklava for take away. We were on our way now to a bar called Hops and Barley. I remember I kept wanting to call it Hops and Berries, which is the name of a brewing supply store back home. Peter had wanted to try it out for a while and I was up for anywhere as long as I could get a beer.
We passed the package of baklava back and forth as we walked. Peter continuously pointed things out to me as we walked and talked about life in Berlin. I listened and chewed my baklava, looking around, getting accustomed to the city. Finally we came to a storefront with one short and one long table set up on either side of the door. Most of the space outside was already occupied. It was a busy night at Hops and Barley. Peter and I stepped inside to check out the seating situation. No openings to be found. There had been just enough room at the end of the bench at the long table outside so we squeezed in there.
We waited a few minutes, and when a waitress walked by a couple times without asking us for our orders we realized we must have to order at the bar. We got up and pushed our way towards the bar. It was then Peter noticed the back room. There was one small table just inside the entryway, so we ordered and sat there instead. I was thankful because it had been a little chilly outside.
We passed the time talking about anything that came to mind. The occasional loud cheer from the neighboring table punctuated our conversation every time the rowdy group took a shot. Peter felt sure it was a stag party. One of the guys was wearing a sash. It wasn’t a big deal. The whole bar was noisy and hazy with cigarette smoke. That was something that perplexed me for a moment. Nowhere back home could you smoke indoors unless it was your own house or some designated smoking area type thing.
Noise aside, I was just happy to be sitting, sipping a beer, and catching up with my good friend. For a long time, I was always super nervous about spending time with Peter, or our other friend, Collin, when it was just the two of us. The three of us hadn’t always been as close as we are now. Peter and Collin were really David’s friends, but as we grew up and David and I began to spend more time together, Collin and Peter and I grew closer. Now, I don’t worry so much about holding a solo conversation with either one of them.
We called it a night after one beer. I was tired from the trip and Peter had work the next morning. I mean, he had mentioned that he was in at about ten everyday so it wasn’t like he was going to have an early morning. But still. We stepped out of Hops and Barely onto the near empty streets of Berlin. The air still held a chill and I wrapped my arms around myself to conserve what heat I could. It was just turning midnight when we reached the bahnhof. Peter took me as far as the stairs down to the tracks.
There we said our goodnights and goodbyes and I got out my anxiety at riding public transportation by myself in a foreign country where I couldn’t read any of the signs. Peter laughed at me and assured me I’d be fine. I smiled at him but still walked with a little extra stiffness in my spine down the steps and onto the train. Once I was back at Ostbahnhof, there was only a short minute where I wasn’t sure which direction to go, but I came down the stairs to see the familiar park that was between the station and our flat. I walked quickly. No one was around but I still felt a bit paranoid.
I rode up the pink elevator and walked as quietly as I could to the door and slipped inside. It was dark inside but Mom had left the bathroom light on so I could at least see a little. As quietly as I could I slipped off my shoes, brushed my teeth and changed into my pajamas. I switched the lights back off and crept over to the bed, taking care not to stub any toes on the way. I said goodnight to Mom but only received a garbled reply from the pillow next to me.