Wednesday, May 30, 2012

Saturday in Berlin

Monday was a holiday here (and back home) so we spent the long weekend traveling. This time we decided to stay in Deutschland and make our way to Berlin. We also spiced things up a bit by driving rather than taking the train. This was a good idea in theory. I imagined us ambling through the beautiful German countryside, taking a scenic route from village to village. The reality was that we spent six harrowing hours in traffic on the Autobahn. My husband took this opportunity (as any red-blooded American would) to put the pedal to the metal and pretend he was at the Nurburgring.

We arrived in Berlin around 2:30pm Saturday. Our hotel was perfectly situated on the Spree river, a 2-minute walk to the train station, and a 5-minute walk to lovely Tiergarten. The friendly staff were knowledgeable and attentive. Parking and breakfast were free, bringing the grand total to 200 Euros for 3 nights-- a truly amazing value. We will be staying at Hotel Hansablick again.

Brandenburg Gate
After dropping off our luggage, we bought metro passes from the hotel (another invaluable convenience) and took the train to the Brandenburg Gate. The Pariser Platz (Paris Square) was overcrowded with tour guides wrangling their groups, jugglers, musicians, and what seemed like hundreds of amateur photographers seeking the best angle of the Brandenburg Gate.

On the long drive to Berlin, I recalled that it was the site of the infamous baby-dangling incident by Michael Jackson. I Googled the hotel and my husband exclaimed, "That's where our dinner reservations are tonight!" I immediately replied, "You made dinner reservations at a hotel where Michael Jackson was a guest? Did you check the prices? Can we afford it?!" He assured me that we were dining in the cafe portion of the hotel, purported to be the least expensive dining option at Hotel Adlon.

Our reservations were for 8pm and the day was quickly drawing to a close. We decided to walk back to Hotel Hansablick through Tiergarten. Tiergarten is the Central Park of Berlin. It's a lush, lovely sanctuary in the middle of the city. You don't have to walk too deep into the park before the noises of traffic fade, exchanged for chirping birds and the sound of runners' feet hitting the trails. The 40-minute walk was refreshing and pleasant.

Back at the hotel, we readied ourselves for dinner and hopped on the train to go back to Hotel Adlon. We were delighted to be sat outside, with the Brandenburg Gate looming in front of us and the American Embassy to our left. Menus were handed to us and the happy feeling I had quickly subsided. A glass of wine was 11 Euros. ONE glass! Other offerings on the menu didn't assuage my panic. Six oysters for 22 Euros, a cup of soup for 16 Euros, a cheese board for 30 Euros. Perhaps we should have expected this, but reviewers on TripAdvisor claimed that dinner was "reasonably priced." I think our definitions of "reasonably" differ dramatically.

Pariser Platz and Hotel Adlon
We reasoned that since we were saving so much by staying at Hotel Hansablick, a splurge dinner would be okay. We ordered a bottle of wine (39 Euros-- not too bad) and two small entrees. My husband had  tuna sashimi and I chose a pasta dish with salmon. Our food arrived quickly and it didn't take long to understand why. Five or six pieces of sashimi were centered on an enormous white platter for my husband. As for my dish, it had just come from the microwave. At least the wine was good.

The only way to justify the price of this food is the location: dining on the square facing Brandenburg Gate is a unique experience. And the scenery wasn't limited to historical monuments. At one point, a pristine Bentley cruised into the no-driving zone in front of the hotel. The driver, a sprightly white-haired gentleman, drove forward and then did a 3-point turn in front of the cafe in order to situate the car better (or, more likely, to make sure everyone noticed him and his transportation). I noticed a young woman sitting in the passenger seat and assumed it must be his daughter. She looked like a prettier version of Barbie. Once the car was "parked," the pair got out and began walking toward an unmarked entrance. Suddenly Barbie turned to the side and I caught a glimpse of her very-pregnant belly. It was perfect, like a little basketball. She was dressed in hot pink and her husband/boyfriend/sugar daddy had a pink cardigan tossed over his shoulders to match. By now, everyone at the restaurant was mesmerized by the scene. The couple stayed in the building for about 20 minutes. Their exit was also grand. Sugar Daddy gallantly opened the door for his trophy and they zoomed away from the Gate in the Bentley. Who lives like this? Who are these people?

We caught snippets of conversation from the couple at the next table. I can't be entirely certain of their story, but I think they either made it big in the oil business in Texas or just won the lottery. After watching the couple leave, the man remarked, "Well, I just wonder who they might be! Did ya get a picture?"
His Texas-big-haired wife looked over her shoulder toward me and said, "Yeah, I betcha you can sell it to the Enquirer!" Her husband softly belched and patted his belly.

We all finished our dinners at the same time and enjoyed a polite exchange as we left.
"Well," said the man, "you can try to run the license plate and see who the driver of that Bentley is!"
"Maybe he owns this hotel?" I helpfully suggested.
"Well, who knows!" he said.

All four of us stood awkwardly for a few beats and then the new Powerball champion audaciously proclaimed, "Well kids, we'll be going inside. We're staying at this hotel." We moved aside as the Beverly Hillbillies went up to their room at the Hotel Adlon, no doubt hoping to run into Barack Obama or Madonna in the lobby.

During his research of Berlin, my husband found several unique things for us to do. One place he wanted to try was a hip little nightspot called Cookies and Cream. It was well-hidden. After a 5-minute walk, we found our way to the back entrance and stepped inside to a dark hallway illuminated by a smattering of neon lights.  We walked up some stairs to the bar and were impressed by the alcoves of smartly-upholstered booths and chic clientele. The bartenders were fun, interesting, and skilled. The drink menu was extensive and inventive; a perfect experience until an uninvited stranger crashed our party.

I smelled him before I saw him. The scent of patchouli and tobacco reached me before Norman took the stool right beside me. He proceeded to order a Becks and as soon as his friends left to find an ATM, he latched on to us. He proceeded to tell us how he went to Cookies and Cream before it was in its present location. "The old one was better!" he exclaimed. The bartenders rolled their eyes.

Norman rambled on about how he once was poor and now he's rich. He frequently goes to Thailand and dates lots of women there. I asked why he hasn't found the right woman and he incredulously replied, "Me? I am 36-years-old and I am still living the life! Why do I stop? I will just go to Thailand again."
"Have you ever visited America?"
"No, no. Why do I ever leave Berlin? BUT, if I did ever visit America... I know where I would want to go."
"Where? New York? Miami? Los Angeles?"
"No," Norman replied seriously. "I would go to the Burning Man. And there I'm sure I would find a woman."

At this point, I decided it was time for a bathroom break. To reach the facilities, you must walk all the way around the dimly-lit bar, find the staircase, and then descend into more darkness without a railing. I had already successfully accomplished this an hour before but now the bar was much more crowded and I was saturated by a few more drinks. I made my way past a group of people standing behind us and as I confidently stepped around the bar, I missed a crucial step where the floor dips. I began a slow-motion fall and flailed my arms out to grab onto the bar's counter. As I pulled myself up, a bartender who must have just started his shift shouted, "Way to make an entrance, girl!" Sheepishly, I laughed and said, "At least I recovered well, right!"
"For sure!" he said.

I didn't dare look back as I gingerly walked down the stairs. When it was time for me to begin the treacherous ascent, I took a deep breath and told myself that no one could have possibly been watching as I fell. Having restored my confidence, I bolted up the last few steps and began walking toward my husband. Suddenly an arm shot out from the darkness and a male voice said, "Hey, I saw you fall earlier."
I was sure I misheard the man and replied, "Oh... I didn't... fall...?"
"Yeah, I saw. I mean, you didn't fall fall, but you definitely stumbled."
To change the subject, I asked if he was American since his English was perfect. He told me he'd lived in America for ten years and was now back in Berlin permanently.
"Well, nice meeting you then," I said.
"You too," he replied.

By now, Norman's friends had returned from the ATM and things were getting more and more ridiculous. He was trying to tell us where Berliners go to sunbathe naked and the best places to purchase/use hardcore drugs. We made our clandestine exit while his back was turned and this time I didn't fall.

We found ourselves in the quiet alley behind the club. We looked back one last time at the inconspicuous Cookies and Cream sign and left behind a very strange club experience.

More fun was scheduled for the next day, beginning with a free walking tour of the city and ending with a picnic in Mauerpark.

Berlin definitely had more surprises in store for us.

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