Friday, June 1, 2012

The Strangest Tour of My Life

Day two in Berlin began with a lovely German breakfast (cold cuts, cheeses, brotchen) and much-needed strong coffee after our fun-filled evening at Cookies and Cream. Our free walking tour was meeting at Brandenburg Gate and we decided to walk through Tiergarten again rather than take the train. We were making good time until we came upon Bellevue Palace, the official residence of Germany's president. We stopped to take several photos before realizing this was our first time seeing the palace and that must mean we'd taken a wrong turn somewhere.

Bellevue Palace
We re-traced our steps, losing ten minutes. Our pleasant stroll turned into a power-walk. I was worried that our guide would be waiting for us impatiently, the rest of the group scowling as we approached two minutes late. Luckily, the scene ahead was chaotic as the guides gathered their groups. Since we were last, we were put into the final group to be formed. Our reluctant guide was Barry,* an Australian with a chip on his shoulder. Everything seemed to begin normally. He introduced himself and asked if we were ready to learn about Berlin.

Barry told us about the Brandenburg Gate and how it makes him feel. As far as I could tell, all of us were listening intently and nodding when appropriate. Suddenly Barry became Mr. Hyde and belligerently asked, "Do any of you even care? Do you care at all about this symbol of unity in Europe?" Taken aback, all of us gaped at him for a few seconds and then nodded vigorously. Barry went back to being Dr. Jekyll and continued to point out interesting facts about Pariser Platz.
"This is the American Embassy," he said, as he gestured toward the building.
An unsuspecting tourist remarked, "That's interesting."
Suddenly Barry stopped and yelled, "Do not talk when I'm talking!!!!"

At this point, my husband whispered that we should break off from Barry's tour and attach ourselves to another. Already fearing his wrath, I said that we should stay. We hypothesized that Barry was either A.) Extremely hungover or B.) Taking the kind of drugs Norman from Cookies and Cream would prescribe.

We set out for Tiergarten where Barry regaled us with an in-depth history of Prussian conflict. He spoke for 10 or 15 minutes, pausing at times to chastise members of the group. One young man yawned discreetly and Barry interrupted his lecture to ask, "What happened to you? Did you go out last night or something? Why are you yawning?" Then he continued speaking as if nothing had happened.

We made our way to the Holocaust Memorial. During the walk, a young woman quietly asked Barry if he could speak more slowly. Her first language was Spanish so she was having a bit of a struggle understanding everything in his rapid-fire style.

Mr. Hyde pivoted on his heels to face her, and the rest of us, and began his worst diatribe yet.
"I'm sorry? You want me to speak more slowly?! MORE SLOWLY?! This is an English-speaking tour! If you cannot speak or understand English, you should be on another tour. This is my JOB. This is how I earn my money! I work only for tips! I cannot and will not speak more slowly!"

Holocaust Memorial
Holocaust Memorial
All of us were shocked and stupefied. Barry walked down into the memorial shouting back for us to meet him on the other side in exactly four minutes. We quickly made our way through the memorial, hoping we wouldn't be late and wondering what would happen if we were.

I thought the memorial was very interesting. It's comprised of 2,711 gray concrete slabs of different heights. The passages inside are like a maze and people dart in and out, playing hide-and-seek. There is no formal explanation or meaning. It's up to you how you interpret it. It's probably the most unique memorial I've ever seen.

We made it back to Barry on time but unfortunately, others did not. After most of us were gathered, Barry counted us and bellowed, "Who is missing?" One woman said, "Oh, I think my brother is still in there." She darted off to find him before Barry took the mission upon himself. Once the brother was back in tow, Barry said that someone else was missing. We all looked at each other gingerly, shrugging and hoping for the moment to pass.

Suddenly Barry realized who it was. The first man he chastised for saying the American Embassy was interesting had disappeared. Mr. Hyde grew red in the face and began a new tangent.
"What would possibly make him walk off? WHY did he do that?! Why did he take this tour if he didn't want to take this tour? What is his problem? Why didn't he have the courtesy to tell me he was leaving? I mean, don't you agree? Shouldn't he have, at the very LEAST, told me he was leaving?!"

All of us ran behind Barry as he forged ahead, flailing his arms and cursing the vanished member.

We ended up at the site of Hitler's bunker. I didn't know what to expect but I was certainly surprised to discover that it is now a parking lot. But of course, that's fitting.

Barry regaled us with some history about Hitler. When someone innocently asked why he married the day before he died, Barry sarcastically remarked, "He asked her and she said yes."

We walked by Checkpoint Charlie and Barry spoke a little more about Berlin. We also saw some remnants of the Berlin Wall. He sometimes paused to ask us, "Do you even care about the history of Berlin? Like, at all?" I thought it was understood that we were on this hellish three-and-a-half hour tour because we wanted to learn about Berlin, but I'm not sure that what is obvious to a normal person is obvious to Barry.

Berlin Wall
We took a break at a coffee shop and lost a few more members along the way. This time, Barry did not comment. He was becoming weirdly stoic at this point, possibly reflecting on his dwindling tour group (and prospects for tips).

Bebelplatz was next on our stop. It's the site of the 1933 book-burning by Nazis. This memorial was also interesting. Looking down through a glass plate, you see empty bookcases lining the walls of an otherwise empty room. A plaque with a quote by Heinrich Heine reads: "When they burn books, they ultimately burn people."

Berliner Dom
The tour (thankfully) was drawing to a close. We went to several more squares and sights as Barry attempted to explain Berlin's history to his simple-minded charges. We ended at the Berliner Dom, Berlin's Protestant cathedral. Everyone sat down on the grass as Barry surveyed us with his steely eyes one final time.

"This is the point where I will end the tour," he began. "I hope you have enjoyed it." All of us gazed down at the ground as Barry tried to make eye contact.
"I would like to remind you one more time that although this tour is free, tips are accepted. I do not get paid for the time I've spent with you unless you see fit. I hope you see fit." Barry paused again as we examined the grass beneath us.
"Okay, well that's that. If you want any suggestions for museums or restaurants, you may ask me now."

We awkwardly stood and my husband timidly approached Barry to hand him 15 Euros. This tip would have been much more if Barry had chosen to be Jekyll instead of Hyde.

We almost ran away from the scene and when we thought we were safe from Barry's superhuman ears, we began talking at once.
"What the heck was that?"
"I have never been on a tour like that in my life!"
"Do you think he was high?"
"What is wrong with that guy?"

As we rounded the corner, we came upon one of the other tour groups. Standing proudly amongst them was the first guy who left our group.

"Well look at that," said my husband. "That's what we should have done all along."

If you should ever find yourself in Berlin, a walking tour is a must-do. Even though it was a strange, self-punishing experience, I know we would have missed a lot if we didn't have a guide. My only other advice is to make sure you arrive early so you don't get stuck with Barry.

*Name has been changed because I'm too scared he'll stumble upon this blog and punish me.


  1. Funny! I don't think "Barry" quite gets the concepts of tips. :) Danica Martin

    1. I don't think so either! Very strange guy!

  2. Wow! If we ever go to Berlin and do a walking tour, I'll be sure to avoid the Australian guide with a chip on his shoulder.

    Thanks for sharing your adventures in Berlin!

    1. Yes, we definitely should have attached ourselves to another group after his first outburst!