Fourth of Four Cities: Berlin

On our way to Berlin from Prague, we stopped for lunch of wurst and beer in Dresden. As in Kurt Vonnegut’s “Slaughterhouse Five,” “so it goes.” Much of the reconstruction of the city, once called the most beautiful in Germany, has been completed. The original architectural plans, some dating from the twelfth-century, had been moved for safekeeping in 1943 and were used in the reconstruction that’s been going on now for almost sixty years. Some of what’s been accomplished  is mind-numbing in its beauty. But wait, let me describe that divine sausage and beer lunch we had from an outdoor vendor.

It was dark when we reached Berlin. It must be hard to get bad food in much of Europe. Going out blindly on a Sunday night, we stumbled upon a café-restaurant, that proved more than adequate. My wife however, ordered a pork knuckle, something that turned out to be as unappetizing to her as it was challenging to manipulate. The red pickled cabbage that accompanied my excellent schnitzel will remain forever in my memory.

Despite having served in Germany as a draftee in the mid fifties, I remained trapped in the wartime mentality of my childhood. I never met a German that I didn’t begin doing the arithmetic, calculating the person’s age and zeroing in on the unasked question; where had this person been and what had they done, 1933 -1945?  This trip, going into the Germany of 2007, has largely banished those fading ghosts. The WW II generation, our “Greatest,” however their’s is remembered, is quickly disappearing. On any German street, I was among the more senior passers-by. The people I encountered had no more to do with what happened then than I did or young people anywhere. It is vital to maintain an honest historical consciousness, and not forget what happened, but also to let the rest of it go. An aside, Hitler, it was reported, disliked Berlin, believing the city and its people insufficiently zealous in their embrace of him and the regime.

In aesthetic terms, Berlin is flat and a hodge-podge of a city. The ugliness of some of the contemporary and functional cityscapes is in contrast to the loveliness of much of older areas of the city. We did the bus tour and saw the Charlottenburg Palace. At the remains of the Berlin Wall and at the Brandenburg Gate, we took photos and crossed through into what had been the Eastern Sector. We went by the new Reichstag where long lines were waiting to tour. By this the last stop on our Central European tour we were toured out. Lord knows what else we saw.

The immense, seven-story KaDeWe department store on the Kufurstdendamm, Berlin’s main thorofare, is a great place to purchase 90 Euro ($120 U.S) tee-shirts. The German standard of living is, and has been for a while, among the highest, higher than ours. In another large and expensive high-fashion shop, I noted that the selections of men’s fashions were perfect, if the image being sought was that of a Romanian pimp.

Back in KaDeWe, the sixth and seventh floors were given over to eating and to all things food. We agreed that we’ve never seen anything like the selection of foodstuffs presented, not in New York City, not anywhere.  And in each section, candy, seafood, baked goods and so many more, there were sit-down counters offering treats, light meals, and of course draft beer and wine. It would have taken weeks just to sample the offerings.

As it happened to be lunchtime, we rode one bank of the shining double escalators to the seventh floor. It was a cafeteria but it topped in variety, presentation and sumptuousness, any I’ve ever been in. Not speaking the language could have proven insurmountable in negotiating the complexities of cafeteria protocol. But no, each of the servers had a passable command of English. Once again, giving truth to the old saw about Americans, that if we couldn’t speak English, we’d have to bark. I’ll spare the reader all descriptions of my lunch, even that of the life-altering dessert.

That night, we joined newly made travel friends, for more than few drinks and a very good traditional German dinner. But again I force myself to spare everyone any further descriptions of eating, save one. The breakfast buffet at the Intercontinental Hotel in Berlin redefined the form. I leave the details to the reader’s imagination. Each day in Berlin, I had trouble believing I would require lunch or even dinner following my morning’s performance at breakfast, although on the entire we skipped not a single mealtime.

We started out last day in Berlin, the last full day of our trip, with a two hour walk in the Tiergarten, the city’s immense Central Park. Over thirty-percent of the entire city is in parkland. The park is beautifully atmospheric with tree-tunneled cinder paths through flower gardens and along waterways. But to my surprise, and belying the reputed Germanic fastidiousness, the park was unkempt, and in too many parts, littered with trash.  It was not as bad as Margaret Island in Budapest, but in no way as well cared for as the Stadtpark in Vienna. Again, Berlin was a divided city in a divided country for forty-four years, and it appears that the same syndrome that devalues public spaces in other former East-bloc cities also applies to Berlin.

At the Berlin Metropolitan, the big draw was the New York Met’s “Impressionism” show with timed entry and long lines. Semi-burned out on impressionism and also on most of the older stuff; the allegorical, the academic and the religious paintings, we walked several miles to the Berlin equivalent of Vienna’s and Budapest’s Applied Arts museums. A chilly sort of place, they were showing, in addition to Arts and Crafts and Art Deco glass work, a featured show on the evolution of postwar furniture and household goods that plotted the increasing rate of change in the way we’ve come to live.  

The final day of the tour included lunch with more of the admirable red cabbage and more of the wonderful local draft beer. We shopped, buying among other things, a light fixture that required significant modifications to work on U.S. power. Our final European dinner, a light outdoor-café dinner of more beer and this time, of all things German, a pizza as good as any you might get here in the State of New Jersey.

Our long-suffering tour guide, Otto, a gentle Viennese of late middle age with suspiciously colored hair, had been with us since our arrival in Budapest. He had proven himself competent, accessible and unfailingly nice. On our final morning together, he took to the bus’ PA system and bid us farewell with a wobbly but sweetly heartfelt and sappy rendition of “Auf Wiedersen.”

We boarded Czech Airlines for one more PA system rendition of “The Moldau,” and the flight that would put us back, back in the U.S.S.A.

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