"Kalt Klima! Warme Menchen!" says this old man, with lots of wild hand gestures when I tried to explain to him in VERY bad German/English that I was from Canada. "Ooooh, Canada" - he said, and grimaced. "Kalt! Sehr kalt!!!"
We we're standing in the middle of a very dark street in Potsdam on one of the COLDEST days we've had in Germany so far (10ºF) and the wind is whipping around us as we're trying to figure out where to go on the map to get to Schloss Cecilienhof, meeting place of the Potsdam Conference. I was convinced that Canada was the tropics in comparison to that, but this old man was so lively I was heartily amused. He spoke hardly any English, but he wanted to help us. We managed to speak to each other in broken German, broken English and a whole lot of hand waving. It was one of the best exchanges I've had with an individual my whole time here so far. (Well that, and the young woman at the candied nut stand at a Christmas Market that made me repeat "Ein fünfzig" - which was the 1.50€ change she was giving me - until I got it right. All three of us were keeled over laughing by the time I gave up and left). So when he said "Cold Climate. Warm People" he was referring to the Canadians, which touched me deeply. I do love traveling abroad and being known as a kind populous! He then went on to say that the Germans were a "kalt menchen", as he made a very stern face - but I beg to differ.
I received a lot of mixed messages from friends before my trip about their experiences with the German people. Though Germans are indeed stern at times and love following the rules, I haven't had a bad experience with anyone to date. In fact, I have had many of these wonderfully joyous moments when both parties realize that neither one of us really understands the other, but we'll give it a go anyway. Most people here are not quick to help - but when they do, I think they deserve an honourable mention. The old man eventually went on his way after cautioning us NOT to try to get to Cecilienhof that night (we didn't listen though and went anyway even though it was already closed) and telling The Scientist about a brother he had who worked in a factory in Canada for a bit. At least that's what we think he said...
But here are some other things that I have discovered and really love about Germany (so far):
Dogs: People here have a mad love affair with the "Hund". People and dogs co-exist together in all places of the world - even restaurants. I was pleasantly surprised to see 3 or 4 dogs lying at the feet of their masters at a very upscale restaurant that we visited in Potsdam. And you better believe that they get fed table scraps too :) In Berlin, they even have doggy bags on the sidewalks to remind you to pick up after Fido (or maybe in the German case - Franz).
Recycling: Everything here is recycled. Germany has such a huge respect, it seems, for the environment and the using-up of natural resources. A nice change from the US, and specifically Chicago - who although they have a blue box program, don't really have a good method of collecting and filtering regular garbage. ALL paper goods here are recycled. You don't even have the choice in the supermarket of buying non-recycled toilet paper. And the streets are lined with fun recycling bins for glass of all different colours...if you choose to recycle it. Most people save their bottles and return them for money back - a sure fire way to ensure that bottles will be disposed of properly and something I haven't done since childhood living in the Ottawa Valley in Ontario.
Modern Technology & the Transit System: Berlin is fast. And in my opinion, ahead of the game in so many ways. I remember getting SO excited about the "Bus Tracker" feature that Chicago just implemented last year to tell you when the bus was to arrive at your stop. Well in Berlin, you don't have to use a smart phone. They have digital signs at every bus stop that tell you the arrival times of the next 4 buses in the cue. They have 4 levels of trains, plus trams and buses, so you can get anywhere, everywhere, and quickly. They have the highspeed trains for longer trips, the regional trains that take you to neighbouring towns like Potsdam (the equivalent of our Metra or Go trains), the S-Bahn trains which are above-ground trains that traverse the length of the city and just beyond, and the U-Bahn trains that form a HUGE underground network connecting all of the above. There isn't much need to take a bus or tram in the city because there is a train stop at pretty much every corner, but we did take trams and buses in Potsdam and they operate the same way. Boarding is made simple. You never have to show your ticket when boarding a train. Germany works on the honour system - fines are hefty if you're caught without a ticket, but not having to reach for your wallet or purse every time you board transportation is really nice. Because of this, trams and buses have more than one door by which you can board, making getting on and off a breeze and it quickens transit time for the whole system. You don't have to interact with the driver at all - so I've never once seen an angry passenger - something I see almost daily on my ride home from work. And because of this amazing transit system, Berlin has NO traffic. I've only heard a honking horn that I can remember maybe twice this whole trip. Traffic runs smoothly during rush hours because most people in the city take the trains, which can get full, but never packed like Chicago's lines. There's a train on every line roughly every 5 minutes or sooner all the time. So there's never any back log of people waiting to get on at any one point in time except for the commuter trains to the suburbs. Really, it's a pretty incredible and efficient system. (As a side note though - we did have a really big dump of snow today and The Scientist got stuck in Potsdam for a couple of hours before deciding to turn around and come home - so when the trains DO get held up, they mess up a lot of people who depend on them...first HUGE snow of the season, I guess I've gotta give them a little break there though...Chicago trains go through the same thing every year).
A couple of Berlin's PRISTINE train stations that are all differently decorated. The one has the history of Berlin's trains on the walls in tile - it's really beautiful.
Double The Fun: Berlin has 2 of everything. Because it was divided for so long between the East and the West, they needed to create separate attractions and buildings for everything. So there are 2 city halls, 2 zoos, 2 big shopping districts, 2 large parks...the list goes on and on. If you see something in the West that doesn't quite suit your fancy, chances are the one in the East will. Just a fun little feature that makes life in the city interesting!
New & Old: Since there are two of almost everything, it's also fun to note that the Germans weren't exactly clever with their naming of buildings. When anything new is built, it receives the title "Neues" and the old building is then re-named "Altes" - so for example...one of the museums in the city WAS at one point named after one of the German royalty (either Friedrich, Wilhelm, or Friedrich-Wilhelm since there don't actually seem to be any others that aren't named one of those three names - another example of German creativity in naming), but then a new museum was built, so it received the name Neues Museum, where the old one is now called the Altes Museum. Same thing with the Palaces - Neues Schloss, Altes Schloss. Creative eh?
Amplemann!: Once a symbol of East Berlin, these little guys were adopted by the whole city upon re-unification. They are now on every street light in the city telling people when to cross and when to wait. And people pay attention to these Amplemann. Even if there are no cars coming for miles, Germans will stop at the red and go at the green. You have to follow the rules!
Me at the Amplemann store - yes, they have a whole store with things you can buy with the Amplemann on them. My favorite are the cookie cutters!
Buddy Bears: I've already mentioned a bit about the bears all over the city of Berlin. Since it IS their stately symbol and adorns their flag, these guys are serious about their bears. There's also the fascinating and sweet story of the polar bear Knut who lives at the Berlin Zoo. Born in captivity, Knut was rejected by his mother, so a zoo keeper raised him on his own - bottle fed him and everything, and now Knut is the center of attention and a major tourist attraction for the zoo. Unfortunately, I never got to see Knut (pronounced Newt) since I never had time to go to the zoo, but I did see a wide assortment of Buddy Bears throughout the city and even bought a little miniature to take home as a souvenir! Here are a couple more.
The Hilton's Buddy Bear stands on his head!
Bathrooms: Probably one of my most favorite things about Berlin is their washroom facilities. I was told before coming here that washrooms in the city were scarce, so to make sure that you went when you were done eating at a restaurant so you'd be sure to find one. Now, I do have to confess, I've located the Evil Empire (Starbucks) twice while in Berlin...but that's cause they have bathrooms, and all the sales people speak perfect English... Oy me...I came all the way across the ocean to visit a Starbucks. (For those of you who are interested - the menu is exactly the same, but they have cool Berlin mugs instead of the American ones. Gingerbread Latte = Lebkuchen Latte!) But back to the bathrooms - you do have to pay for public toilets, but let me tell you - I'd pay $1 every time I had to use the washroom on a regular basis if our toilets looked like these ones. There's an attendant that waits in an outer room and after EVERY SINGLE USE he/she goes in and cleans the stall. Wow. My tush has never been so clean/happy. And a note on conservation - all the toilets here are equipped with flush valves that will give you either a half flush or a whole flush so you don't waste water when you don't need to. How considerate! And don't forget about that recycled paper...might be a little scratchy - but it's all for the environment, so that's not half bad.
All in all - it's been a wonderful week in Berlin/Potsdam. We're on to Munich tomorrow for another week with side trips to Füssen, Dachau and Partenkurchen/Oberammergau before moving on from there. Bavarian culture is much different from the north - they even speak a different dialect of the language, so this should be really fun/interesting! I still owe you a blog on my last couple of days in Berlin, the two days I spent in Potsdam and my run through the Tiergarten today in the snow. So much to write, so little time at night to gather my thoughts and photos. Perhaps tomorrow in transit will allow me some more time to reflect on my journeys. There's much more to come.
Thanks Berlin! Here's hoping I see you again very soon!