Having my genitals gently patted whilst standing barefoot in the crucifix position similar to the one made famous in an Abu Ghraib photograph, I realised how close I was to crossing the line of never subjecting myself to the indignities of airport security again. I was that close.
Globalisation has been a friend to terror. But then, globalisation is a capricious beast. The very things that would benefit the most from it – transport, law, regulation – do not, and the things that least need its assistance – fast food, formulaic television shows, pointy ends on toilet rolls in hotel bathrooms – do. For a nation that prides itself on efficiency and rationality, I would have expected Germany to embrace the very best of transport methodology. It does not.
Navigating Berlin’s underground system is a task more fiendish than solving the BP oil-spill. In London, every underground platform has a diagram showing you where you are and where the the train is going to go. It is idiot proof. So why doesn’t Berlin adopt such a system? Maybe their administrators can’t escape the maze of their own underground to travel to London and see a better system.
At least when you are on a Berlin train, they have the line diagram with all the stations listed stuck to the carriage wall, as in London trains, but even here, the diagram is so small you need hawk eyes to figure out where you are. How hard can it be to make a system user friendly?
My complaining gets worse though. For such a powerful new tool of the 21st century, why is the internet so hopelessly unreliable? Before we arrived, my wife carried out meticulous research on the web looking for the best travel deals in Berlin and all she could find was conflicting information. For anyone thinking of travelling to Berlin, here are some useful facts which apply at the time of writing. Children under the age of fifteen travel for free on public transport. A Berlin Pass allows you to travel on the express train from the airport to the city and most of the timetables on the web are inaccurate.
Anyway, by dead reckoning and dumb luck, we managed to find our way to the Reichstag. As it was the 1st of June in Europe, it was obviously overcoat weather. As we approached the Reichstag’s main entrance, we observed a long queue snaking out of it, exposed to the fine drizzle and keen wind. Adjacent to this queue was another, much shorter one. We went to investigate the possibilities of joining this queue when a young male guide accosted us and, in German, asked us (we surmised) if he could help. I used the word that would later become a standard response to any German spoken at us and which doubled as an explanation and apology, “English.” I proffered.
Without hesitation, the guide switched into perfect English (I am forever grateful and slightly ashamed that English is the Lingua Franca of the world. If only there was an English equivalent for Lingua Franca).
“Can I help you at all?”
We asked about the shorter queue and he explained that it was for organised tours. We would have to join the longer queue which would take at least an hour to reach the cupola. He then looked down at our underdeveloped daughter and asked how old she was.
“Eight.” I said.
“Oh,” he responded disappointedly, “if she had been seven you could have used the side entrance for less able people.”
“No, wait,” I said. “Did I say eight? I mean, nearly eight.”
The guide looked at me with a wry sense of humour and played along.
“In that case then, you can use the side entrance which is just round the corner, out of sight.”
We thanked him for this information and made our way to the ‘less able’ entrance where the young, old and infirm are given preferential treatment.
Ten minutes later we were in the Norman Foster designed cupola of the Reichstag, admiring the cloud shrouded views of Berlin. Even in such weather conditions, it was still impressive.
A visit to the Alte Nationalgalerie revealed some treasures. Most of the artists in here are German and there must be something about the German psyche that drives it towards militarism, perfection, arrogance, and its expression through sculpture produces some remarkable results. All the pieces I admired were sculptures and my favourite by far was this exquisite work by Adolf Hildebrand, Young Man Standing. It does what art is supposed to do, create a space in the imagination for contemplative reflection. It is perfect. An apotheosis of that German psyche.
Adolf Hildebrand, Young Man Standing.
What works well with a definite edge however becomes almost comedic in paint. Paint requires a certain looseness, a creative shorthand, which no amount of strident perfectionism can make up for. None of the German artists in the gallery could paint, in my estimation, apart from Adolph Menzel.
A painting by Menzel
The brutal, representational style of the German psyche translates into cartoony, ham fisted paintings that pastiche real paintings by such artists as Canaletto and Atkinson Grimshaw. Germany has its ardent copyists but no one with originality and flair. The other European artists they have on show in the gallery blazed out in their brilliance when compared with the talentless native artists.
We also visited the Pergamonmuseum as it was highly rated in our guide books, and indeed, upon entering the first room it has a wow factor. If you are going to loot the treasures of another country you might as well do it wholesale and take the whole freaking town. Despite the dubious morals, it is an impressive piece of theatre.
Berlin is flatter than Portsmouth so it is bike city. I even saw fully suited businessmen climb onto mountain bikes and ride to their offices. Cyclists even have their own traffic light system controlling dedicated cycle lanes. We, however, were determined to master the buses and underground system.
In the busier intersections of the underground I did see some idiot proof diagrams on the walls opposite the platform but why weren’t they on every platform? The average German traveller must also be impeccably trained in their behaviour as we encountered no barriers in the underground and we were never challenged for our tickets. It got to the point where I didn’t bother to show my pass to the driver of any bus we boarded. This saved a lot of time.
The Gemaldegalerie has more space than it knows what to do with. It also has a collection of Rembrandt’s, a couple of which I was familiar with and many I was not. I was not familiar with them because, as they were largely incompetent, they were not reproduced as much. The proportions of, Joseph wird von Potiphars Weib beschuldigt, for example, are obviously wrong. How could Rembrandt not see that? Was it a commission he was trying to spoil because he didn’t like the patron, and how come his stature as a painter is not diminished by these second rate pieces? Did he just ‘get lucky’ with his famous pictures?
The gallery also has a collection of Canaletto’s. I’ve never seen a bad Canaletto and I know I have seen some stupendous one’s. These other pictures of his confirmed his deserved status for me. The main reason we visited the gallery however was to worship at the alter of Jan Vermeer’s, ‘The Glass of Wine‘.
The Natural History museum was a dark and Dickensian affair. I kept waiting for Miss Haversham to leap out from one of the side rooms in her yellowed wedding dress and harangue us in German about the dinosaurs which is its main claim to fame. It has the biggest complete skeleton of a dinosaur anywhere in the world. Any photograph does not do it justice, you have to stand underneath it to get a sense of the monstrous scale. It also has some of the best taxidermy I have ever seen.
The next days weather was the exact opposite of what we had experienced so far. Unbroken, leaden skies and chilly temperatures were replaced with unremitting sunshine and a doubling of the air temperature.
At breakfast, it was decided an outdoor pursuit was called for. As we ate our sumptuous frühstück, a group of business men sat at the next table. One of them was highly vocal and had command of several languages. His native tongue however, was clearly French. As he spoke to his colleagues, I listened to him switching languages and I had to admit to myself that the German language is a most unfortunate sounding one. Compared to French or Italian, it is vulgar. It made me wonder what the English language must sound like to other nations. Does it also sound vulgar or is it so universal now that it is like wallpaper, a kind of MacDonalds in Babylon?
Germany used to be (and probably still is) one of the biggest economies in the world and in the Berlin zoo, it showed. It is allegedly one of the biggest in the world and everything about the place is immaculate. The hippo lagoon has a thirty metre long glass wall, 2.4 metres tall that holds back a lake who’s surface reaches 1.5 metres up the wall. Just beyond the glass wall is a drop of about a metre to the bottom of the lake. This means any hippo walking fully submerged along the bottom of the lake and near enough to the glass wall can be seen by the visitor . It is an incredible piece of engineering. Not a drop of water was weeping from its seals. Everything about the zoo was pristine, manicured, controlled.
The aquarium inside the zoo, continued this high standard. It is easily the best I have ever visited. The glass tanks were the cleanest I have ever seen and thus, the fish, the most colourful I have ever seen. They were also the best behaved fish I have… no, I’m probably imagining that.
For visitors with young children, it is advisable to hire sturdy, fat wheeled carts to ferry your progeny and baggage around the labyrinthine complex of the zoo grounds. You can easily spend a full day here and young children start to wilt.
Just before lunch I realised we should have hired one of these carts. I asked a young German family we saw pulling a cart, if they spoke any English. Again, flawless English was spoken. I was told they cost 4 euros to hire along with a 10 euro deposit but it was unlikely that they would have any left at the specific entrance. Undaunted, I went looking for a cart and at one of the entrances I saw a cart lying empty and abandoned near the pay desk. I immediately laid claim to it and looked for the place to pay. I hovered about the pay booth for a while but it was continually busy with people coming into the zoo. Eventually, an ageing employee of the zoo gesticulated where I had to take the cart (at last, someone who didn’t speak English). I followed his directions but could not find a pay booth. In the end, I simply commandeered the cart and towed it back to my inert children lying on the ground.
All the while I pulled the cart along I worried over the fact that I might have been mistaken that the cart was abandoned and was in fact simply parked, while the trusting Germans went for lunch or visited the toilet. The Berlin code of obedience was starting to affect me. To ease my conscience, at the end of the day I simply left the cart where I had found it (clearly not an official place according to some of the looks I received from the staff) and refused to profit from the deposit.
To get back to the hotel we took the underground. At one stop, a couple of ageing, hard right bovver boys came on board. I didn’t think much of it and looked away. A minute later, my wife poked me in the ribs with her elbow and with a force that alerted me something required my immediate attention. I looked round and took in the scene. The bovver boys had started to accost the passengers in the carriage and were working down the carriage in a practice I had read about called ’steaming’. Before I could think about what I was going to do, the two crew cut gangsters approached me as it was now apparently my turn. I quickly assessed their threat. It was then that I noticed what they were packing. Carefully hidden from anyone not looking directly at them, each of them had hanging from their necks a thin lanyard. At the end of these swung an official looking identification card.
“Tickets, please.” they demanded firmly.
Just as I had surmised, the Berlin transport system was policed by spot checks. The inspectors had to look as unlikely as possible and yet have the muscle to detain and fine any strapping youth bent on breaking rules.
The German philosophy or recycling is admirable. It extends beyond the official requirements of the authorities and into the free market. As we trundled our bags along the long pavement from the train station to the airport departures, a young man accosted me with a confident and practised sales pitch.
“English.” I explained and apologised.
Without missing a beat, the man redelivered his confident pitch in perfect English.
“Can I have your ticket please?”
This took me by surprise. My Berlin Pass had several hours left to run. I was on my way to the airport and had no further need of it (as the man knew). I briefly considered his request before deciding to give him my ticket. He asked me for it, so why shouldn’t I give it to him?
Immediately afterwards, my daughter suggested that he might try to sell the ticket. I was surprised that she had picked up the workings of the world so quickly. I imagined that the young man worked at the airport and never had to pay for his journey home as someone always gave him a ticket.
“That’s what entrepreneurship is all about.” I explained to her. “He’s spotted an opportunity. Good luck to him.”
Inside the airport, the recycling continued. As we were queuing to go through security my wife finished one of the plastic bottle of water we had been filling up with tap water during the holiday. No sooner had the last mouthful disappeared down her throat when a slightly grubby woman approached her with a confident and practised sales pitch.
“English.” she explained and apologised.
Some confusion then ensued as this lady had no English. She gesticulated towards the empty bottle. Several large bags that she was carrying contained empty plastic water bottles. My wife twigged she wanted the bottle. They must reward collectors of certain ‘rubbish’ in Germany. I saw the same in New York, years ago, where homeless people collected tin cans.
I quickly finished my bottle and handed it to her.
“Good luck to her,” I thought.
Would I visit Berlin again? Not before I visited Paris again.
The Olympic Stadium in Berlin. Well worth a visit.