|Day 62 - Sat Jun 4 Chamonix, to Berlin (via Geneva)
(Jen) We left Chamonix via train to Geneva Airport to hop a plane to Berlin. The first 1.5 hrs of the train between Chamonix and Martigny, Switzerland were particularly scenic. (Chris: There were little towns perched on mountainsides, visible from out train, where you had to think 'how on earth do people get to and from there?') Our flight was with EasyJet, a sort of Southwest Airlines copy-cat (or maybe Southwest copied them...). No assigned seating, no first class, super small seats (but the plane was quite new) and the staff wear very casual clothes. (Chris: It is the same company that does EasyCruises, and EasyInternetCafe, all with bright orange logos).
Once we arrived in Berlin getting from the airport to our hotel was the usual "where the hell are we" fiasco it always is. We should be used to that by now but it's still frustrating. The reward, however, was actually checking into the hotel. As mentioned before, we obtained 3 nights at the Marriott via Priceline. The hotel is brand new and super comfy. Sometimes a big American hotel is what you need no matter what Reeck says!! They even have Neutrogena shampoo, conditioner, body soap, and lotion. Now, in the states, this wouldn't be such a treat - but after traveling around for so long, it's like a mini spa day at Gene Juarez. Lotion? Wow. Good bye to alligator legs for at least 4 hours. We even have a king size bed, our first in Europe. After a late night dinner we turned in. Unfortunately Chris is still pretty sick and coughing a lot so he still isn't sleeping well. I'm really regretting we didn't pack a lot of Day / Nyquil.
(Chris) We stayed in a neighborhood called Potsdammer Platz. It was pretty Ritzy (yet there was a Ritz in it), and sort of reminded me of a newer and more upscale downtown Bellevue. Sony's European headquarters is there, and a big mall, and a large number of trendy eateries circled around a modern outdoor shelter between several medium-sized skyscrapers (on this night we chose an Australian place, not outback, and they served both kangaroo and crocodile - neither of which we tried).
Day 63 - Sun Jun 5 Berlin
(Chris) We started off the day with a 3-hour walking tour of downtown Berlin by a nice young English fellow named Henry (I might have appreciated a German's point of view but Henry was quite good). Our animated concierge told us that finding the tour would be easy, but it never is! It was pouring rain and windy, and we walked the wrong way a few times, and arrived at the tour site late. But lucky for us Henry is English and not Swiss or the tour would have already been gone!
The tour was pretty sweet, despite the rain, which came and went with enthusiasm. The tour started in former East Berlin, and ended in former West Berlin. Probably 70% of the info was either WWII or Berlin Wall-related. You could sort of tell where East Berlin vs. West Berlin was by looking at the state of the buildings, but there are construction cranes everywhere, so I guess it's getting harder and harder to tell. Also, compared to many of the other large cities we've been in, Berlin doesn't have a rich history spanning back into the 1500s or anything... I guess it was a small city until it was made the capital of Prussia in the 1870s. So everything is relatively new (like back home!). Tour highlights included the Brandenberg Gate, the Reichstag, a new holocaust memorial, a remaining section of the actual Berlin wall, and Checkpoint Charlie.
He also told a pretty funny story about one of JFK's visits to West Berlin, where he gave a famous speech in support of West Berlin that ended with "Ich Ben Ein Berliner," intending to say "I am a Berlin-ite." But I guess the right way to say that is "Ich Ben Berliner," and instead he ended up saying "I am a Berlin-style jelly donut." Despite all that, the crowd got the gist, loved the speech, and gave him a 20-minute standing ovation. Oh and me, Ich Ben Ein Berliner.
After our touring we were tired so walked back to the hotel and had a nap. Then, before dinner, we walked back to the end of the tour to take in the Checkpoint Charlie museum. I guess this museum existed even before the wall came down, and it's only about 100 feet from the wall, what a trip. They had some artifacts from the checkpoint, but the main focus was on people defecting: the whys, the statistics, and the hows. It was pretty amazing what people would do to get out: tunnel under the wall, run cars through barricades, hide in hollowed-out cars or home appliances, make homemade scuba equipment to go under the river, make a ultra-light from scratch, make a hot air balloon from scratch... I guess necessity truly was the mother of invention in this case. I can't imagine living in a country where you are not allowed to leave.
We ended the day with a nice steak dinner in the hotel (the Berlin Marriott is very nice, I recommend it) and crashed. Cough cough.
Day 64 - Mon Jun 6 Berlin
(Chris) As it turns out, we didn't have a whole lot else to see in Berlin, in part due to being museumed-out, so we slept in late and took most of the day at the Berlin Zoo / Aquarium. Their zoo is pretty neat, with a lot of big furry animals in reasonably humane conditions. It wasn't raining anymore, but the temperature had dropped into the mid-50s. We tried out their petting zoo, which was fully of baby lambs and goats, and it was a gas. Boy howdy some of the older goats can be aggressive with food though! The orangutans/gorillas were very expressive, and a lion roared a good while for us. We then moved on to the aquarium, which was good but pretty small. Seattle's is much nicer.
After yet another crappy McLunch (when will we learn?), and a bit of internet surfing (we are anxiously watching the weather in Prague/Austria/Switzerland to try to make the most of the weather once we get down there), we went back to visit a few of the key parts of the walking tour from the day before. Number one was the Reichstag, or the lower house of parliament. What's interesting here is that after the reunification of Germany, they remodeled by putting a large glass dome on top of the building, and allow the public to go up there and look around, and they can see down into their own government. It's quite symbolic and a nice touch, even though you can't see what's going on down there very well. Imagine if we could do that in DC! We also meandered through the very different holocaust memorial, a big lot with numerous concrete blocks that are supposed to symbolize grave markers, see pic. Lastly, we stopped by the place Hitler killed himself at the end of WWII. It's fitting that they haven't put up a memorial of any kind, it's just an unpaved parking lot behind an apartment building, with no plaque. Fitting.
We ended the day very late with a showing of the new Star Wars movie. It was in English and didn't even have subtitles. There must have been 30 minutes of advertisements, yet no previews, before the movie started. In Madrid they started exactly on time, so we have no idea what to expect now. Anyway, I enjoyed the movie despite the shaky acting, and I think Jen merely tolerated it.
Overall, I have to say of the places we've visited, including London, Berlin unexpectedly feels the most like being back home in the USA. Combined, the landscape, the weather, diversity of people, the diversity of food, the cars, the roads, the buildings, etc etc etc. all make it feel... American. I'd never have guessed. Maybe I'm being influenced by the Marriott but I don't think so. It even goes so far that many Germans recognize us as Americans right off so don't even notice if we open up with a wobbly Guten Tag, and break out into nearly perfect English.