American Tourists in Berlin

We get up on our first full day in Berlin surprised at how well we slept. I am starting to feel like I might be ahead of the cold I’m holding at bay and we realize that the room was so quiet that we slept undisturbed. We go to the hotel breakfast before hitting the streets. An American woman complains loudly to her friends about not having any soap in her room–I wonder if she has failed to realize that there is liquid hand soap in a pump by the sink and a bottle of shower gel for the bath.

A small man sits at the table next to us. There is only 12 inches of space between the tables, so it is almost like he’s joined us. He looks like a troll transported through time and space from a Brothers Grimm fairy tale and stuffed into a too small button-up shirt and khakis. His face is covered with hair that looks just a little too much like fur and the girth of his torso exceeds its length. I keep waiting for one of the buttons on his shirt to give up its tenuous grip and fly across the table to hit me in the forehead. This fear is heightened by his constant coughing and snorting; he apparently is losing his battle against a cold. Each time he coughs, I can almost hear the threads ripping. He continually paws at his dripping nose, using the backs of his short, stubby arms as a tissue even though there is a paper napkin at hand and more on the buffet. I find his presence takes the edge off my appetite.

After breakfast, we head first to Checkpoint Charlie. After all, we have only today to see Berlin and we feel obligated to stick to the beaten path of the millions of tourists who have come before. Checkpoint Charlie is a bit of a let down. There are only small pieces of the wall displayed on the buildings that line the street, none of the wall itself is still standing here. Men dressed in American and German soldiers uniforms offer to pose for tourist pictures for a fee–none of then are actually in the military. We decide to skip the museum and head back towards the Fernsehturn tower again, this time with the intent of going to the top.

When we arrive at the tower, there is a long line to get tickets–another place where planning in advance would have paid off. We wait for nearly an hour and then have to wait 40 more minutes for our turn in the elevator. As we wait for the elevator, a second line forms of people with VIP passes and reservations in the rotating restaurant up in the tower. They get to ditch our line 2x before the Germans in the front put up a protest and get our line moving again.

When at last we get up into the tower, we find that half of the observation deck is closed for a private event, the restaurant is completely booked, and we cannot even go up into the restaurant to see the other half of the view because the bar is closed. I am a little disappointed that we spent 20 euros and, worse, 2 hours of our one day, for half a view, but in the end, decide it was worth it. The view really is spectacular.

After returning to earth, we head for a motorcycle museum Pat spotted from the tower. However, when we get there, it’s all East German bikes, which Pat isn’t interested in, so instead of going in, we stop to eat lunch at a near by restaurant. We sit outside again and order beer and sausages (is there anything else?) and relax while we decide where to go next. We had planned to take a boat tour, but feel like we’re running out of time. We decide to take a tram over to the zoo and check that out.

We get on a train that takes us two stops towards the zoo and then announces it’s the end of the line and everyone must get off. We get off, but then not quite believing it’s turning around, we get back on. It goes the opposite direction. We get off and catch another train, which returns us to where we got off. We pick up a third train and get two stops further before the same thing happens. We are befuddled. We make it to the zoo in 2 more trains, each going two stops further, but are unable to determine why they are each turning around after 2 stops.

I always have mixed feelings about going to zoos. Besides feeling bad for the animals (although they seem to have a pretty good life and often help preserve endangered species), most zoos are similar enough to one another that you don’t really feel like you’ve visited a unique city by going there. However, entering the Berlin zoo felt like stepping out of the frenetic energy of the city and into a sudden state of relaxation. The zoo is literally called an animal park here, and that’s exactly how it felt–like a park with animals. Although the display style is not so unique from, say, the Columbus zoo, they have an amazing collection of animals that includes a giant panda, African lions, polar bears, bizarre warthogs, birds I’ve never even heard of, and hippos. When we walk into the cat house (resisting making a joke here), we start looking at some of the small cats that look suspiciously like house cats when the African lions at the other side of the building start roaring at each other. I’ve never heard anything like it–the roaring of lions reverberates off every surface of the building, making us feel like we’re surrounded by an entire pride. We move quickly towards the source of the sound, wanting to see what all the commotion is about. As we pass displays of small prey animals, I realize this must be a frequent occurrence because none of the smaller critters appear the least bit perturbed. As we arrive at the lion pens, they fall silent. We can’t tell what exactly happened, but there are two males in side-by-side pens, each with a single female. It looks as if they have recently been fed. I have to wonder if the two males smelling each other are frustrated by not being able to claim adequate territory. We watch these huge beasts pace and pant for several minutes. They are so beautiful. The might of their muscles rippling under their fur is awe inspiring. I imagine them chasing down an antelope and wonder if perhaps their protest was that someone had already killed their food?

We return to browsing the other displays in the building, but we don’t get very far before the roaring starts up again. We move back towards the lions and see that each male roars almost continually, still pacing, while the females appear to be providing harmony with smaller roars panted between the longer, rolling roars of the males. Perhaps they are not upset at all–maybe they are a quartet?

We walk outside for a while, glad of the fresh air after the intense smells of the cat collection. We pass by a collection of birds hanging out by several ponds. A huge hawk flies up from one of the ponds and lands in a tree, her shift apparently over for the day. The number of local birds just enjoying the free lunch vs the birds who are part of the collection is difficult to say. Dozens of herons hang out here, flying in in low circles looking for the best place for a snack. I’m pretty sure not one of them is a resident. The ducks get a little more confusing–there are many more types of ducks than listed on the signs. It reminds me of the Calgary zoo where wild turkeys perched on the fences of their outdoor deer display–whatever grain they were feeding the deer was apparently quite a treat for the local turkeys.

We head towards the hippo display, finally finding it almost by accident. When we do, I am so glad we came. The display is a huge pond with a glass wall that lets us see almost the full depth of the water from the side. There are fake rocks and ledges that lead to a land area for the hippos as well, but right now, the hippos are taking a swim. They circle around the pool, looming through the green water and suddenly appearing clearly up against the glass, floating by with unimaginable grace. Watching these huge, awkward animals fly through the water like ballerinas makes me laugh out loud. I have a vague recollection of a children’s story about hippos in tutus and wonder if this is where the author got the idea. I could have sat there until we were kicked out, I was so fascinated by this hippo dance, but, conscious that it is getting late, we move on.

The wart hogs (or whatever variety of pigs these are) make us laugh with their funny faces and the birds fascinate us with their fancy plumes. We walk by to se the polar bears before departing, but they seem to be frozen in a stand off, one in the water and one on the shore glaring at the one below. We head on out the gate and decide to walk a ways and try to find a taxi. Pat guesses we’ve walked 10 miles; I guess it’s something closer to 5, but we’re tired and both our backs are aching.

We end up stopping at a restaurant recommended by a woman at a small grocery store where we stopped to buy water. I have a really good snitzel. The restaurant owner calls a cab for us and we ride back to the hotel grateful for the ride.