Vignettes from Berlin

We were in Berlin for a short break around Christmas. Some vignettes from the trip:

A bizarre train ride

Our coach in the train to Berlin did not have any electricity. This can be a little problematic for a train running in North-western Europe in December because of the short days and freezing cold evenings. As a compensation for the inconvenience, everyone in our coach got a free tea/coffee. When the crossed the Dutch border and approached Bad Bentheim, our first stop in Germany, we heard this ominous announcement on the public address system:

For those of you in coach 7, we are going to stop the free drinks after Bad Bentheim. The Dutch crew will get off and the Germans will get on the train.”

The German crew tried their best to persuade everyone in our coach to look for seats elsewhere in the train. English is such a nuanced language (I guess all of them are) that minor changes to your choice of words and your phrasing can completely change the texture of your message. The crew’s sincere and earnest announcement took a touch of absurd and melodramatic.

This train has no electricity and no light. It will be dark from Hannover. So for your safety please look for another seat in coaches 4, 9, 10.”

It’s for your safety. Everybody is falling here. No one can see anything.”

It’s better to stay in light than in dark.”

The last bit cracked us up a little as it almost sounded like something you’d hear at the local parish church on a Sunday morning. We persisted with our randomly assigned (but reserved) seats till Hannover.

The landscape outside with snow covered fields, distant houses, leafless trees and the occasional mist, kept altering between fairytale and post-apocalyptic. We passed a wind farm which was shrouded in fog and all you could see was lazily turning blades of the wind turbines. It felt as if the decapitated heads of the wind turbines were floating in the air.

At Hannover we found new seats in a coach with light and heating. It was pitch dark outside so we lost ourselves in our books till the train stopped at Berlin Huaptbahnhof.

The cold and the Christmas markets

We had come prepared for the cold in Berlin but -4ºC still shocks you a little when you step out of a warm train coach. As expected, Berlin was covered in snow and we carefully negotiated the wet, slippery footpaths to reach our hotel.

We had seen a Christmas market on the way to the hotel and in the light of the adverse weather, decided to limit our itinerary that evening to a visit there. The Santa chocolate we found on the cushions in our hotel room provided the requisite encouragement to step out into the cold again.

The Christmas markets of Berlin operate at a scale I hadn’t seen before. There are countless stalls selling Glühwein (warm, spiced, red wine), freshly baked breads of all sorts, candy, Christmas decorations, wooden toys and other miscellaneous things that defy classification. And they somehow manage to squeeze in a few joy rides in what seems like very constrained space.

The weather didn’t improve over the evening. By the time we returned to our hotel, the local municipality had cleared the snow away from the footpaths. Tiny, special-purpose dirt wagons were spreading a thin layer of grit over the footpath to cope with the impending snowfall.

The Berlin walking tour

The free walking tour of Berlin begins near the Brandenburg Gate. Having seen fewer days of snow than we can count on our fingers, we remain largely ignorant about coping with snow and the accompanying cold. I had left my muffler at the hotel as in the warmth of the hotel lobby, with layers of turtle-neck sweater and a jacket that zips up all the way to the top of my neck, it had seemed like a redundant, showy accessory. While standing in the snow, waiting for the walking tour to start, it quickly became evident that it was a dreadful mistake. When it’s so cold that your face hurts because it’s uncovered and each breath is a painful stab in the lungs, a muffler feels like a life saver. A fleece one was quickly procured from a souvenir shop just before the walking tour started.

The tour is a great way to see important landmarks in Berlin and despite the cold we quite enjoyed it. The Holocaust Memorial - an open field full of concrete slabs of varying heights - gives the impression of being inside a graveyard full of anonymous graves. It was snowing lightly by now which served to make our surroundings even more somber.

A well timed coffee break allowed us to warm ourselves, take a count of our digits and made us give up the idea of abandoning the tour half-way. By the time we stepped out, the weather had worsened. It was hard to tell if the form of precipitation that fell from sky was rain, hail or snow, but it made us wet enough to necessitate opening the umbrellas. When we reached the shaded area outside the museum at Lustgarten, we tried closing our umbrellas and realised that whatever little rain that had fallen on them was now frozen into a web of icicles. My jacket had caught some rain when I had stopped to click a bicycle on the way, and it had a thin layer of frost on it too.

A chilly wind had picked up and was making every moment spent outdoors painful. Fortunately we were visiting around Christmas and a large, warmed tent at a nearby Christmas market selling Glühwein came to our rescue.

A memorable dinner on Christmas Eve

It’s surprising how abruptly all the festivities in Berlin come to a close on Christmas Eve. The weather had finally warmed to a pleasant 8ºC (a new low for our definition of the word pleasant) but all the shoppers had magically disappeared from the streets.

The shops and restaurants had begun shutting down and we eventually landed up at Berlin Hbf in search of a bite. The station was quite empty too but the McDonalds there was open. A hot cup of darjeeling tea is not something you would order at a McDonalds under normal circumstances but this isn’t the first time we have surprised ourselves. It was strangely colder inside the station than outside. I wondered if the trains were giant plungers pumping the station’s cold into the city.

We decided to call it a day, came back to our hotel and given how tired we were from walking all day in the cold, had no problem sleeping. We woke up around 8:30 PM and realised that we were both hungry. From what we had seen of the city a few hours ago, the chance of finding an open restaurant in the vicinity of our hotel was pretty slim. Still, we searched for Thai restaurants on google maps and started calling them one after another. One restaurant within walking distance from our hotel was open so we reluctantly put on our jackets and made a dash for it. Outside the restaurant a man was smoking a cigarette and seeing us approach, told us to try the restaurant as the food here was really good”. I took the person to be a waiter/agent at the restaurant (his black tie gave the impression) and made up my mind to give this restaurant a miss. Whenever we’ve caved in to haranguing by restaurant staff in touristy places, we’ve regretted either the food or the service or the price. But before we had gone too far, he asked the wife if we could take a picture of him and his girlfriend (whom I hadn’t noticed). We then realised that the person was just a regular customer eating at the restaurant and at that point our aversion to the restaurant evaporated. The restaurant was a small, 4-table, one-person enterprise that served delicious, hot Thai food. With 15 € for a dinner for two, it was surprisingly light on the wallet too.

(It’s funny how you remember the little details - the restaurant had a TV in the corner (on mute) tuned to a local German channel that showed some costume drama which the wife tracked down to Buddenbrooks by following a trail of tenuous connections to one of the actors in the drama who looked like another actor in another series that she closely follows).

P.S. This was the first time I was traveling without a dedicated camera. It was surprisingly refreshing and a touch liberating.

P.P.S. Just a couple of days before this trip, I was surprised to discover that The Beatles had recorded two of their hits in German - She Loves You (Sie Liebt Dich) and I Want to Hold Your Hand (Komm, Gib Mir Deine Hand).

January 13, 2013