Posted on July 26th, 2003
I discovered getting out of Denmark wasn’t nearly as easy
as getting in. To travel to Berlin, I had to take a seven hour train ride,
switching trains three times and pay an assload for the pleasure. I sulked
about this until the caretaker of my hostel in Vejle got on the internet and
discovered that the bus took the same amount of time to get there, I didn’t
have to make any transfers and I would save over 200 kroner!! Awright! I love
it when a plan comes together!
Finding someone to sell me the bus ticket took no time at all,
but the challenge of finding out where the bus would actually pick me up took
more effort than I would have ever imagined in a First World country where
things are usually organized down to the last detail. I asked four different
people (the tourist office people, the train station/local bus station people,
the guy that sold me the bus ticket and my hostel caretaker) where to catch
this bus and I succeeded in getting four entirely different answers. Turns
out the guy that sold me the ticket was the warmest, being off by a mere 100
yards. Unfortunately, I realized this only after waiting in the wrong place
until two minutes before the scheduled departure (an unmarked corner that
the train station people steered me to, where international buses did indeed
depart, but from a different bus company). This epiphany hit me in
the head like an unannounced, two gallon water balloon and I proceeded to
use up about 15 years of adrenalin “sprinting” almost three blocks,
dragging my dead-weight suitcase - which I had recently christened “The
Barge” – with the Office bouncing violently on my back to the
correct place. Fortunately my bus driver was more organized than the entire
Vejle transportation/tourist industry and, having acquired a last minute list
with my name on it, knew that I was wandering around the area somewhere and
waited for me. Whew!
Once my pulse finally dipped below 90, exhaustion took hold
and I quickly drifted off into an unusually strong bus nap. I snapped out
of it just in time to see the latest James Bond film before being unloaded
in Berlin, Germany. A city I had never visited. A country I had never set
foot in. A language that I studied for two years in high school, but through
total lack of necessity and practice I had forgotten all but a handful of
I was ready to do some major adventure seeking and long forgotten
foreign language polishing, but first I had to find my hostel. As always,
being the organized nerd that I am, I had entered all of the hostel information
in my Timeport. I confidentially whipped it out and found the address, but
to my horror, I realized that I did not have a telephone number. I scrolled
down and my heart sank as I reached the bottom of the information without
finding directions to the hostel, a metro stop or a bus number. After thoroughly
cursing my lack of attention to detail (And swearing to never again book accommodations
online after three glasses of wine) I stopped at the “Information”
office in the bus station. The only information they had was “Ask at
the hotel across the street.” I asked them for a map so I could try
to figure out my next move on my own, but to my amazement they didn’t
have a map of the city. This had never happened to me before. Nor did they
have a phone book. Nor did they have a grasp on the concept of politeness.
I heaved across the street to what turned out to be a reunion with my old
friends from the Ibis hotel chain (See Stockholm).
I resisted the urge to ask them how they ended up with a location inside
the city and borrowed their phone book. My hostel was not listed. I was starting
to get pissed off. The first of many pissed off episodes for the week.
Finally, with no other options at hand, I descended into the
metro. I had no idea where to go, I was just hoping for some sub-conscious,
psychic inspiration from the collective mental resources of my extensive travels.
I studied the metro map and found my inspiration in the form of a metro stop
on the other side of the city that shared the same name as the street that
my hostel was on. I decided to go with it and lurched in that direction. It
took some wandering around the neighborhood, but I finally found it. The mother
of all hostels.
Generator, Berlin. Eight hundred and fifty four beds. Seven
hundred and forty five rooms. Internet terminals, bar, restaurant, laundry…
Every goddamn thing you could conceivably need, Generator had it.
I stood in the lobby in awe. The place was run like a full-on
hotel, but beds were only about $13 a night. I couldn’t crunch the numbers
as to how they possibly turned a profit with the number of staff that they
needed to keep the place going, but I wasn’t going to bring it to their
attention until after I had paid for my room. Whoever had the brainstorm for
Generator was thinking really big. They had obviously invested a lot of money.
The beds were the nicest beds I had slept in since leaving the States. The
bar was adorned with six, huge flat screen TVs. Bed sheets, towels and breakfast
were free, a rarity in hostels. Each room had key card access, plus
lockers to secure your stuff even further. Hostel nirvana, my friends. Much
later it hit me that my hostel and the surrounding neighborhood was located
in the former East Berlin. I was even more impressed with the progress that
they had made in just over a dozen years to clean it up from the Soviet era
mess it was, modernize it, add several metro lines and develop the area to
be bustling tourist locale.
I had no idea what to do first in Berlin. I had all but given
up on “Frommer’s Europe.” Turns out that it should have
been named “Frommer’s American Shit-for-Brains Guide to Europe“.
Frommer’s only listed hotels, and not cheap ones. No hostels.
For food, they only listed the tourist trap restaurants that basically served
what you get in the States, but with a menu in a foreign language and more
expensive. They actually recommend “The Hard Rock Café”
in several cities. Hhhrrrrruuuuuuuuucckkkhhh!!! (Sound of me barfing into
the trash can to my left) The only way that this book could have been more
useless was if it were written in hieroglyphics. Although it occasionally
offered a half page of practical information on the few cities that it deemed
essential enough to list, it was far too heavy to be hauling around for these
fragments of useful information. I eventually lugged it to a book trading
place and got an old, very light-weight Anne Rice vampire book for it.
After mulling over my options, I decided to make my start in
Berlin by walking in the general direction of the TV Tower, the highest vantage
point in Berlin and easily visible from Generator. Unfortunately, the TV Tower
is so big, that I seriously misjudged the distance and time it would take
to walk there. What I thought would be a pleasant 20 minute walk turned into
a 45 minute trudge-a-thon down busy, loud Berlin streets. After waiting 30
minutes to get into the elevator to take me to the top of the tower I was
treated to a beautiful view of Berlin in every direction. Every part of the
TV Tower had maps, highlighting all of the important buildings and monuments
visible in every direction. After reading dozens of descriptions of the observable
sights from the tower, I began to notice an unpleasant pattern. The last sentence
in virtually each description read, “After being totally destroyed in
World War II, such-and-such was rebuilt in blah-blah-blah.” It was sad
to see that every structure in Berlin over two bricks high was only about
50 years old at best, but it started to get predictably comical when one description
after another ended with “Of course, (fill in the blank) was completely
leveled during the war…” I started walking around saying that
about every sight I visited. After hearing or reading information about wherever
I was, I’d add to myself in a low voice, “After being blown to
smithereens, in the war…” Typically, no one was in ear shot to
hear this, much less understand it, but I sure thought it was freaking hilarious.
To quote Homer Simpson, “I kill me.”
The fact that the whole city had been rebuilt so recently probably
lent itself to the wicked architecture Berlin boasts. I have never been anywhere
where I had to stop and stare at the buildings every 10 minutes. Berlin may
have many, many, many flaws (keep reading), but I have to give credit
where credit is due. The buildings kick ass. If you don’t have a taste
for modern architecture, then you should not come to Berlin. You will be totally
annoyed within 15 minutes of your arrival. One of my Berlin wandering companions
was beside herself the whole time while surrounded by nothing but modern architecture.
I have to admit, it was a little weird to be walking through a European city
and not stumble onto 700+ year old churches in every neighborhood.
Now that I’ve managed to write a few nice things about
Berlin, it’s time to let the slagging begin. Navigating Berlin is more
difficult than any city I have ever visited, including St Paul. Unlike cities
in Scandinavia, Berlin does not have a clear, defined city center that one
can walk across in 20 minutes or less. Being a very young city by European
standards, Berlin seems to have suffered from the urban sprawl that is so
common in the States. It’s rare to find anything within walking distance
of your current position and if it was, there was no way you would know it.
Even if you could get a map of Berlin, it was as useless as Windows 98. Berlin
was so big that without an alpha listing of the street names, it was totally
impossible to orient yourself. That didn’t matter, because you couldn’t
get a decent map of Berlin to save your ass. Every other city I have been
to on this trip, city maps were forced on me three or four times a day. Whenever
anyone wanted to give me directions, the first thing they did was whip out
a complimentary city map draw a clear line to where I needed to go and send
me on my way. Sometimes, you could find a rudimentary map of one corner of
Berlin in a tourist brochure, but these would only depict about 30% of the
streets and with no scale of distance these maps were less valuable than freeze
dried doo doo.
If you are still naïve enough to ask anyone for directions
in Berlin by your second day, you can count on one of two things to happen.
One, they will give you wrong directions on purpose or two, they will be unwilling
to even try to deal with the language barrier for a second, instead they will
just look at you like you are speaking in tongues and refuse to help you,
even if you pronounce the street or destination name perfectly or write it
down for them. One frustrating afternoon, a fellow hostel resident and I spent
a ridiculous amount of time wandering around, looking for the Berlin Zoo.
The Berlin Zoo is monstrously huge and we knew we were about two blocks away
from it, so the mere fact that we could not find the goddamn thing in the
first place was embarrassing enough, but then, like idiots, we tried to ask
directions from an ice cream vendor. First we asked in English, which isn’t
as dumb as it sounds when you factor in that “zoo” is the same
word in German as it is in English. The man feigned total confusion. Then
we asked in German. More confusion. Then we just said the word “zoo,”
repeatedly, and slowly. This couldn’t have been any simpler, but the
man pled total ignorance. The bastard pretending to not know the word “zoo”
was exasperating enough, but we were two blocks away from the joint!
Finally, after a few minutes of that insanity, he brushed us off onto another
guy that was standing off to the side who, of course, proceeded to give us
completely wrong directions with a huge shit-eating grin on his face.
So, by day two the facts that I had gleaned about getting around
Berlin were as follows; maps were useless/unavailable, asking directions was
a hilarious waste of time, signage was almost non-existent and nothing was
easy to find, even if your destination took up one fricking square mile of
real estate. I managed to get to most places using the meager tourist brochures
that were available at Generator which usually provided a metro stop to each
destination and then once I got that far, I would just go with my instincts
or follow the crowd.
Before I go any further, I have to say that nothing pisses me
off more than the game of “Lets-fuck-with-the-tourists.” Giving
people freakishly wrong directions on purpose is just pure, unmitigated evil.
After the first few mis-directions, I gave them the benefit of the doubt,
thinking that they simply weren’t very knowledgeable about that friggin’
huge, confusing city, but after about the eighth time, I was starting to get
the hint. I have a message for you dickheads that think this is a funny and
appropriate way to punish tourists for daring to enter your city... If you
really hate tourists that much, you need to move your ass the Hell, Norway
out of that city and settle in a back-water, out-of-the-way town that no tourist
would ever visit, even by accident. Until you do that you only have yourself
to blame, not to mention that you are only succeeding in buggering the impression
of your confusing, rude, tourist hating city for all of it’s visitors.
I thought the Parisians were the king of all bastards about
refusing to lend help to anyone who didn’t speak their language perfectly,
but Berlin has taken the new title of “Land of the Useless Shitheads.”
After I more or less stopped speaking to any natives in Berlin,
my trip improved dramatically. With the total lack of directions to any destinations,
I just started making a habit of jumping off the metro at huge, busy looking
stops and exploring the neighborhood. Using this method, I stumbled on loads
of cool buildings, sights and beautiful parks. Sadly even these experiences
weren’t irritation-free. Aside from the TV Tower, nothing at any of
the tourist sights was written in anything but German, effectively alienating
all tourists except for the scant few tourists that were from another German
city. Even tourist-ground-zero sights like the Egyptian Museum and the zoo
had nothing written in any other language. Obviously I’m not a good
candidate for the typical tourist outings, but this anti-every-other-nationality
angle pretty much counted me out from spending any time, energy or money on
any additional tourist activities. Instead I walked around the city, past
numerous statues and funky looking buildings, through parks and unmarked nudist
hang-outs, went swimming, spent Friday night at a great bar that we almost
gave up on after walking around for over an hour and taking various erroneous
trams that the reception clerks at the hostel suggested (even they
can’t give accurate directions in their own city! Son of a $#^&*$#!!!).
One of my failed goals in Berlin was to rent a car, get on the
Autobahn and drive like a lunatic. I had daydreamed at length about the moment
of my arrival at the car rental place.
Me: “Hi! I’d like to rent the fastest car you have
for two hours please!”
Car Rental Guy: “OK. May I ask why you need our fastest car for only
Me: “Well, I plan to get on the Autobahn, drive like a motherfucker
for an hour, turn around and drive back even faster.”
Car Rental Guy: “Will you be buying insurance then?”
Me: “Was Hitler a repressed homosexual?”
Unfortunately after randomly walking around Berlin for three
days, I had not run across a single car rental office. I’m pretty sure
this was all part of yet another massive anti-tourist conspiracy to keep us
doofus Americans from getting on the road and biting it at 190 MPH and creating
a ton of paperwork for the guys who are in charge of shipping foreigner’s
One intangible perk about Berlin is that the people watching
is deeply enriched by the massive beer consumption that goes on there. If
you have ever so much as seen a beer before, you know that Germany is the
center of the beer universe. Beer gardens are everywhere, serving beer in
one liter mugs. No wimpy pint glasses here. People can be seen meandering
around in public places as early as 10:00 in the morning shamelessly swigging
from cans of beer without having to go through the laughable practice of disguising
it in brown paper bags like us silly Americans. Having that many drunks wandering
around the city 24 hours a day made the simple experience of sitting on a
bench in a square and watching the action while you ate your ice cream more
entertaining a than Jim Carrey movie.
One additional, small redeeming quality about Berlin, is that
it is surprisingly cheap. This is still all relative after spending so much
time in Scandinavia where a $2 can of Coke seems like the deal of the century,
but after spending four days in Berlin and taking a quick inventory of the
money situation in my wallet, I was happy to discover that I still had over
half of the $100 I had withdrawn the day I arrived. This was very impressive
after going through a few tourist sights, the zoo, buying a three day metro
pass, all my food and even having a big night out on Friday.
As I wrote the beginning of this essay and the list of unpleasantries
started spewing out faster than I could type them, I realized that Berlin
and I simply were not a good match and there was little reason to linger.
I made travel plans immediately for Munich and tried to open my mind to the
possibility of having a good time somewhere else in Germany.