Tilt

One of the things we enjoy about Chattanooga is the surrounding mountains.  They may be smaller, rounder and greener than, say, the Rockies, but they introduce a lovely, rolling feel to the area that only ancient mountains can create.  They also make for a lot of nice views.

Point Park offers spectacular views in three directions.  Lookout Mountain Hang gliding gives you a completely unimpeded view if you’re willing to run off a mountain or be towed up in a hang glider.  And then there is Rock City, famous for its view of 7 states.

Rumor has it that you can, in fact, see 7 states from the overlook at Rock City.  However, it requires a scope and an extremely clear day with no haze.

I find myself wondering how one knows when one is peering into a new state?  Is the state line superimposed on the landscape like a giant yellow line showing the next down in an American football game?

Having gone to Rock City to take pictures of the birds performing in S.O.A.R.’s bird program, I figured I might as well check out the view.  I even brought my wide angle lens and a tripod so I could capture that fantastic view.

Given my timing was around the bird programs and not around the sun, I, of course, ended up on the overlook at precisely noon.  I decided to wait until after the second show to try to get any pictures, thinking maybe 2PM would be better than noon.

When 2PM came, I headed back to the overlook feeling rushed because Pat was picking me up and wanted to get back to work as quickly as possible.

Instead of setting up my tripod, I hand held and took advantage of the bright sun with fast shutter speeds.  I would have loved a polarizer, but this lens is too big for my polarizer.  Another item for the wish list.

On my way to the overlook, I see a manmade waterfall cascading from underneath the walking path.  There is a bridge that spans the space in front of the waterfall that would probably make a great spot to shoot from.  However, I have my limits.  I may be willing to launch myself off a mountain in a glider, but I’m not about to walk on some skinny little bridge that spans a 1000 foot drop.  Not even for a better angle on the waterfall.

Instead, I grab a couple of shots that give me a headache to look at.

One of the consequences of the rolling mountains in this part of the country is that I can never decide where level is.  90% of my landscape shots have to be straightened in post production because they were shot at an angle.  At least, I think it’s due to the terrain.  I once learned that when I thought I was holding my head straight, I was actually holding it at a tilt.  Seems to have spread to my camera.

Sassafras Falls

It’s our third day in the Smokies for the long holiday.  We take the same approach that we took yesterday–wake up slowly, lay around until hunger kicks in, throw something on and go to breakfast.  Then, we return to our room to choose today’s hike.  It’s a little cooler today and overcast.  Visibility is supposed to be poor.  The weather calls for clouds, but no rain.  We get out the guide in our room and I ask Pat if he’s up for a 9 mile hike.  There is a trail to a waterfalls nearby that’s supposed to be a nice easy walk. Neither one of us is up for a big physical challenge this weekend, still recovering from pulled muscles on the hang gliding training hills.

Much of the drive is alongside a stream that rolls and tumbles over rocks, creating white water.  There is trout fishing in this stream, a good sign that the water is clean.  I am too busy watching the scenery to be a lot of help navigating, but I interrupt gazing out the side window long enough to check the directions when Pat gets confused about a turn.  We manage to make it back to the trailhead with only one wrong turn.

We start up the trail as a light rain blows in, misting my face gently as we walk into the wind.  The trail used to be a railroad track, but was converted to a trail long before “rails-to-trails” meant bike trails.  As we start out, the climb is gradual, the trail is wide and flat, and we have no troubles finding our way.  We take our time.  We have 6 hours of daylight and emergency flashlights in our day packs.  If we need 6 hours to go 9 miles, we can take 6 hours.

After a short distance, we enter what feels like a maze of Rhododendron.  The enormous shrubs on either side of the trail loom large, daring us to go off the path.  Pat and I both have flashbacks to our first backpacking trip together at Otter Creek Wilderness in Monongahela National Forest in West Virginia.  It was early in the spring–so early, it snowed our first night.  When it wasn’t snowing it was raining.  When we started out, the trail looked more like a stream than a trail.  Unfortunately, it rained so hard that after a while, there were hundreds of mini-streams all around us and we couldn’t tell which one was the trail.  We ended up bushwacking our way through giant Rhododendrons.  Each shrub was like a giant octopus, its twisting arms grabbing hold of our backpacks as we tried to belly crawl underneath.  I had visions of us being found weeks later, captured in the arms of giant greenery, suspended above the ground and frozen in postures of horror.  I’ve never felt quite the same about Rhododenrons ever since.

Thankfully, today they remain on the side of the trail, clearly demarcating where we are and are not supposed to be.  As a side benefit, because they keep their giant waxy leaves, they provide good hiding places when nature calls.  That doesn’t make me feel significantly better about them, however.

After about 3 miles of enjoying the view of the stream through the Rhododendrons, which has gotten steadily further below us, we arrive at a stream crossing in front of us.  We contemplate the best place to cross.  The water is high and moving fast.  These are dangerous circumstances for a water crossing; we want to find a safe route to ensure we don’t end up washed downstream.

I pick a route and make my way across.  In my hiking boots, I’m nervous about sticking to the wet rocks covered in moss.  It’s easy to lose footing and get caught in the current.  I make it OK with only one scary moment when I teeter on a rock waving my arms until I leap for the next rock and manage to land with firm footing.  Pat follows the route I took, probably figuring that if I can make it safely across, anyone can.

As we finish up our crossing, two dogs suddenly appear on the side of the creek we just left.  They are followed shortly by a family with a young daughter and teenage son.  They shout across the stream to us asking if this is the way to the falls, wanting to make sure they really needed to cross the stream before they decide whether or not to risk it.  As they contemplate, one of their dogs jumps in and is soon headed downstream in the rapids.  I run along the stream until I find a place that has an opening in the trees with an easy launch in and out of the water.  The dog hears me calling him and is able to swim over to the shore, climbing out and shaking every drop of water in his fur onto me.  My face and pants are dripping wet, but the dog is safe.  He runs back to his family who is now starting to cross.  As Pat and I walk away, we see the dog poised on the bank, about to jump back into the water and the family calling to him frantically to keep him from heading downstream a second time.  I imagine him thinking body surfing is great fun.

The next part of the trail gets steeper, narrower, rockier, and more overgrown.  We spot a faded sign after about 500 yards and make the turn to Sassafras Falls.  It’s supposed to go to the bottom of the falls, so we are surprised that it climbs even more sharply.

Now, the trail is on the edge of a drop off.  I do not have such a good track record when it comes to walking alongside cliffs.  Pat warns me that he’s not going to be able to catch me today (having grabbed me by the back of the pants in time to prevent me from falling to my death on more than one occasion).  Fortunately, this is not really a cliff and, when I look at it, if I were to fall, I would probably break a bone at worst.  Having broken quite a few bones and healed eventually, this thought is oddly reassuring.  Not worrying about falling helps me stay on the trail and I avoid any incidents.

We make it to the falls and spend some time looking at the water crashing over the rocks with surprising force for a relatively small mountain stream.  It’s a beautiful falls, although I’d like to be able to back off from it so I can take in as a whole a little better.  We are so on top of it that I almost feel like I need the glasses I wear when I’m at the computer to fully appreciate it.

After I attempt to get some shots, we find a nice grouping of rocks to sit on and eat our lunch.  The rocks are moss covered, which makes them padded if slightly damp.  We sit facing the falls, enjoying our private table as we unwrap our sandwiches provided by the lodge.

We move at a much faster pace on the way back with most of the trail being downhill.  We do lose time trying to find a different place to cross the stream than the way we came over.  Our first route looks much more difficult from this direction.  It’s hard to explain how that happens–maybe it’s just an optical illusion–or maybe it a matter of stepping up vs stepping down depending on which direction you’re going.  In any case, we revisit our buschwacking-through-rhododendrons skills as we make our way along the stream, looking for a safe crossing point.

Pat finds a fallen tree and decides we should cross there.  I follow after he makes it safely, but have trouble not worrying about the camera around my neck.  If I fall in here, it’s deep and it won’t just be my feet that get wet.  I end up sitting on the log about halfway across and scooting forward until there is a branch sticking up that I can hold onto for balance.

We make it across the stream, back to the car, and even back to the lodge safely.  When we get out of the car, I stand and wait while Pat gathers some additional gear that he needs to bring into the hotel.  As I stand there, I hear the loud call of the Pileated Woodpecker.  My camera is around my neck still, although I have only my wide-angle lens with me, having opted to leave my other choices back in our room.  I spot the bird on a tree not too far away.  I decide to try to sneak up on him in the hope of getting a decent shot.  I do manage to sneak up closer, but not close enough to get a good shot before I make him too nervous and he flies away.  The brilliant red crest on his head practically looks neon in the light of dusk.

When the woodpeck flies away, he makes a giant arch around the parking lot and then flies over a deck where another guest is sitting.  We walk over and ask if she saw where he landed.  It turned out she never saw the bird that flew right over her and directly into her line of sight.  Given the size of a Pileated woodpecker, we are both (silently) amazed that someone could miss something like that.  She, however, seems nonplussed.  It makes me wonder how many birds have flown over my head that I never saw.

The sun setting behind the mountains tells us it’s time to go inside, clean up, and go to dinner.  We head on in, although we are in no hurry.  We have all evening.

Cake in Karlsruhe

Our first, and only, full day in Karlsruhe, we start with Laugenwek for breakfast.  These are a special treat for my husband as they are not something that can be found in the US–well, at least not a version that is worth buying.  Laugenwek are like pretzel rolls only really, really good.  We’ve tried “pretzel rolls” in the US many times and have always been horribly disappointed.  Dry and tough, the US version always leaves us wondering why anyone would even sell such rot.  In any case, today we are in Karlsruhe and deliciously fresh Laugenwek are readily available.  We slice them in half and spread them with butter from Irish cows–smooth, creamy, and sweet. They are amazingly delicious.  Unfortunately, the only sit down table at the bakery is occupied by a lone man.  There are two stand-up tables–one with a woman standing at it eating breakfast and the other with a cup of coffee on it.  We try to stand at the latter in such a way that we’re using the table to rest the things we can’t hold, but not actually standing at the table.  However, by the time our Lugenwek is ready, we’ve seen no sign of any person belonging to the cup of coffee.  It’s as if the person went to get sugar or cream and got called away so suddenly that they forgot they were in the middle of having coffee.  After a while, we give up on “borrowing” the table and simply take it over.  The owner of the coffee never appears.

On the way back to the hotel after breakfast, we pass the street that Pat’s grandmother lived on.  At the corner one block away, a man on crutches stands at a car parked in front of a dentist’s office.  Renate (my mother-in-law) calls out to him and waves.  It turns out that he was Renate’s neighbor growing up and and she has known him virtually all of her life.  We stand and talk (well, Renate, Pat, and the man talk) for several minutes, catching up.  Renate hasn’t seen the man in some time.  I wonder how many people live in this village who still know Renate–the village has grown into a regular town and there is new construction of townhomes on many of the streets we pass.

We continue to the hotel and say our goodbyes for the day.  We will meet up again at dinner, but Pat and I are going to spend the day in Karlsruhe on our own.  When Pat and I head for the closest S-bahn stop a few minutes later, the train is already sitting there.  We walk to the next stop and manage to make it on foot faster than the train makes it through the lights between the two stops.  The ride to downtown takes only a few minutes–we are not far and Karlsruhe is not a large town.  As we approach our stop, we pass a pyramid sculpture.  I forget to ask why there is a pyramid in Karlsruhe, but Pat probably doesn’t know either.

We walk towards the castle.  Or, at least we try to walk to the castle.  First we have to get around construction that has multiple sidewalks closed.  We have to reroute three times before we find a way to the plaza that surrounds the Karlsruhe castle.  When we get to the plaza, we are both thirsty and need to use a restroom.  Feeling funny just ordering water in the cafe, we decide to sit and have coffee.  I go to the ladies room and return to find Pat sitting at our table with a Pilsner.  I look at my watch and discover it is already 11AM, which I guess is not horribly early for a first beer if one is German and on vacation.  Not being German myself, I stick to coffee.

We re-enter the bright sunlight–it’s a beautiful morning–and walk over to the castle, which is now a museum. We stop on the grounds to snap off some quick shots and then follow a group of teenagers we can only assume are on a field trip inside the building where we buy tickets.  Walking through the museum is not exactly exciting for me.  I am more excited by castles that have been preserved in their original state than in looking at displays of the contents that once inhabited them.  Plus, there are no signs in English, so I have a hard time understanding, for example, why there is a large exhibit from Turkey in the middle of one floor.  Even Pat cannot figure this out from the German signs he attempts to read.  On top of the lack of available information, no photos are allowed inside, which pretty much makes going to museums pointless to me.  Just as I am about to suggest we head back out to the park outside and walk around among the trees, a museum employee standing on the floor looking at my camera asks if we have gone up the tower yet.  Pat tells her we have not and she explains that there are great views from up there and that pictures are allowed.  We find the tower entrance and walk up the many, many stairs to get to the top.  A door opens to the balcony so that we can walk around the complete circle outside with no glass between my lens and the view.  It’s fabulous.  I am suddenly ecstatic that we came.  What’s also cool is that it allows us to see the layout of the city.  We saw maps inside that show that Karl had built Karlsruhe with all the main roads radiating out from the castle at the center.  Seeing this from the tower after seeing it in drawings and a model makes it real.  I’m not sure why all the roads need to radiate from the castle, but it does look really cool.

After climbing back down to the interior of the museum, we try to work our way towards the restrooms.  However, it’s like a maze with only one path that leads out and that path takes us through every exhibit in the museum.  After winding our way through two more floors containing Egypt, a 19th century general store, and more of Turkey, we finally ask someone for the most direct route to the restroom.  She points us towards the elevator to the first floor, but we still have to go through 3 more exhibits to get to the elevator.  Finally, we make it to the first floor and find the restrooms.  We decide to forego anymore exhibits this trip and to head back outside.  Pat is hungry and he wants to have cake.  We are now on a quest to find cakes that can stand up to Pat’s childhood memories.

We walk through Karlsruhe looking for a bakery.  We pass what seems like dozens, but none of them are serving the type of cake Pat is looking for.  We end up walking through a part of town that attracts seedy looking individuals–the storefronts are mostly casinos and strip clubs.  At the end of this strip, however, sits a huge cathedral that I want to see, so we walk on.  When we get to the cathedral and walk inside, we are disappointed to discover that there is a glass wall between the entry foyer and the rest of the church.  We are unable to walk through it, but I do get one shot of the interior through the glass wall.  A man sits in a pew inside praying.  We wonder if there is a hidden entrance for parishioners.

Heading back through the seedy part of Karlsruhe, we pass a brewery and hope that maybe we can take a tour.  However, there is no sign of life in the windows and the doors that we can see look bolted shut and have no signs that imply they are ever open to the public.  At this point, feeling uncomfortable with the surroundings and starting to run out of time, I suggest we take the S-bahn back to where we started to get cake.  We hop on the next train a ride the mile or so that we’ve walked back to the pyramid in mid-town.  I get out Google maps and look up the department store Pat remembers having really good cakes.  We walk down the street and I put the iPhone away when we get close.  But we can’t find it.  I get the iPhone out again and we find the address.  When we get there, the department store is now a sporting goods store and they don’t carry cake.  Pat is crushed.

We return to looking around and finally ask some elderly ladies outside a bakery across the street.  They suggest another department store, but when we go up to their restaurant, Pat isn’t satisfied with their offerings.  We wander around until we decide we must eat.  We stop at a restaurant in the plaza by the pyramid and sit down.  We eat real food instead of cakes.  It’s 3:00 by the time we sit and we are supposed to meet Pat’s family at the hotel at 4:30.  The server is busy and it takes a long time to get food.  As we sit and watch, we notice that all of the people eating at the tables on restaurant down are having huge desserts.  After we finish eating, we ask the server if they have desserts; he tells us to go next door.  We move over about 10 tables and pick up a menu.  It’s all ice cream.  Pat asks a server if they have cakes and the server tells him to go inside.  I sit at the table while Pat goes inside to select cakes.  When he comes out, he is thrilled.  This is the place he remembered all along and they offer an enormous assortment of cakes to choose from.  When the server brings out the cakes he’s selected, we indulge in one filled with a nut cream and one filled with lemon cream.  We both like the lemon cream better, but the cakes are delicious.  It’s after 4 by the time we finish and we must pay and rush back to the hotel to get ready for dinner.

Tour to Karlsruhe

This is our last morning to eat breakfast at the wellness hotel. But when we all convene in the lobby at 8AM, we discover that the restaurant is already full of people. This surprises us because, all week, we’ve been operating on the belief that the restaurant doesn’t open until 8AM. Since we have a reserved table, it’s not a concern. We walk to our table and discover that there are 3 people sitting at it in spite of the neat little sign with Dieter’s last name on it identifying the table as reserved. As a non-morning person, I am thrown into a mental spin that prevents me from coming to any conclusion as to what to do. It seems like such a trivial problem, yet there is no where else to sit. Fortunately, the Germans take over and find the server who sets up the table we sat at the night before and gets us all back on course again. Ironically, by the time the new table is set, the people at our table have already gone.

This morning, the conversation is all about our plan for the day. We are riding to Karlsruhe with Dieter, Gisela, and Pat’s parents. Pat spent the early years of his life in a village just outside Karlsruhe. We will stay two nights in a hotel there, allowing time to get together with Pat’s aunts, uncles, and cousin who sill live in the area. Pat’s parents have reserved a room for us at the same hotel they’ve been staying at, which is in walking distance of several friends and relatives.

After the others come to a conclusion in German about our itinerary for the day, Dieter summarizes for me and Jim in English: We will take the scenic route to the Bodensee. We will stop in 3-4 villages along the way and have lunch in one of them. We will then take the scenic route to Karlsruhe through the Black Forest, stopping in another village there. We will arrive at our hotel around 5PM. After checking in and freshening up, we will walk over to Dieter and Gisela’s for sandwiches. We have a plan.

The scenic route to the Bodensee provides lots of view of the Alps, many of which are covered in snow at the top even though it is still quite early. Fortunately for us, today promises to be a bright and sunny day with warmer temperatures–a welcome change from the cold and rainy weather we’ve had since Berlin.

Our first stop is Lindau. We find a parking place immediately, but it is on the far side of the bridge to a small island we want to visit. With the weather being so nice, the extra walk is welcome and we make our way across the bridge into the main town area, and down to the shore. On the way across the bridge, I spot a duck with 3 young following closely behind. They are diving ducks. For a while, I try to get a shot, but they keep disappearing under the water as soon as I set my lens on them. Since half of our group has continued walking and is now getting quite far ahead, I am forced to give up on shooting wildlife. Given that I left my telephoto in the car, it is just as well.

We make a quick pass around the outskirts of the island, walking along the shore at the docks, pausing to look at the view and take a few quick shots. Then, we head back towards the car with only one quick stop for postcards. Dieter is nervous about the time and looks at his watch frequently. I imagine he feels pressure to try to get all of our planned stops into the allocated time for our trip without being late getting us home.

Our next stop is Meersburg. Here, the parking situation is worse. We spend a good 15 minutes circling around looking for a place. Finally, we make a wider circle and find a spot that is several blocks further away. We walk down steep cobblestone streets to enter the village. The tudor style buildings lining the streets look like they might have been constructed about the same time the earth was formed, although they are well maintained and in perfect condition. Everything about this village seems like it must be historically significant somehow in that each building seems so well cared for that it must be an heirloom.

We find a cafe with outdoor seating facing the lake. Almost all of us order one preparation of Bodensee fish or another. I am pleased with my fish, although I honestly can’t say that it’s significantly better than any other well-prepared mild, white fish I’ve ever had. It is tasty, though. I am amazed by the plain, boiled potatoes. I didn’t know that it was possible for plain, boiled potatoes to have so much flavor!

As we eat, we watch a group of young swans, still in gray down, gliding towards us on the water. When they are close to the docks, they start tipping over with their heads down, eating off the bottom of the water. Their size makes them look far funnier than any duck I’ve seen doing this. I don’t know if this is normal behavior for swans of if these were raised by ducks like the Ugly Duckling.

We are now far behind schedule. We stop only one more time along the Bodensee, skipping over at least one planned village. When we do stop, we do a brisk walk through the town and then head back to the car. Now we must skip stopping in the Black Forest as well–it is getting quite late. However, we still take the scenic route and the beautiful views of ancient villages tucked among the trees keep us entertained.

After a brief stop at the hotel to check in and get cleaned up, we meet up with Pat’s parents and then walk over to Dieter and Gisela’s house for dinner. It’s a relatively short walk, but it feels good to get out and stretch our legs after spending so much time in the car. When we get to Dieter and Gisela’s, Gisela has waved a magic wand and produced a massive spread of meats, bread, and accompaniments for sandwiches. Pat calls her Martha Stewart and I concur. I want to try everything. The Black Forest ham is particularly special. I haven’t had any on this trip, not even when we were in the black forest for 4 days.

After gorging on good German meats and sharing a bottle of Riesling, we thank our hosts one last time before walking home. The temperature has dropped and we walk as quickly as our full stomachs will allow. When we get back to the hotel, we walk through a lobby full of business people chatting one another up. We seem to be the only tourist at this hotel–it shares a parking lot with a large Siemens location.

The room lacks certain amenities (like coffee in the room), but it’s clean and comfortable and we are soon sound asleep.

Oktoberfest

As we walk from the train stop to Oktoberfest, more and more people wearing lederhosen and drindl crowd the streets.  We pass a collection of port-a-potties and decide to stop.  At this point, I am envisioning a large collection of big white tents (like the kind people use for wedding receptions in the US) in a field with thousands of drunk people staggering around drunk.  Having not given a thought to restroom logistics, the fact that the Germans want to stop at a port-a-potty on the way there now makes me worry that there will be no restrooms at the fest itself.  This worry is reinforced when we pass a man urinating in the bushes just 20 yards from the port-a-potties.

When we arrive at the entrance to Oktoberfest, I am surprised to discover that it is much like arriving at the Ohio State Fair.  The grounds are smaller, the rides are bigger and more sophisticated, rivaling the rides at permanent amusement parks, and the crowd is far more dense (in terms of number of people per square foot of space; I have no evidence to compare IQ levels).  Another interesting difference is that the people look like the same people we’ve seen all over Germany rather than the bizarre part of the US population, usually kept hidden from view, that mysteriously gathers at the Ohio State Fair.  And of course, the fact that at least half of the attendees are wearing traditional lederhosen and drindl just to be wearing it and not because they are participating in some act makes the crowd seem more interesting as well.

When we get inside the entry, first we discover there is no fee to get in.  Second, we find there are plenty of places to spend money to make up for the free admittance.  Each brewery has their team of draft horses standing around waiting for me to pet them.  I’m not sure who called ahead to arrange this, but I appreciate it.  It’s been a lot of years since I spent time with horses; having the opportunity to scratch some giant heads makes my day.  As we walk away from the horses, we see a group of young men coming out of one of the beer tents.  Two of them are supporting a third who has clearly not paced himself well.  As we pass them, we understand the value of wearing lederhosen with suspenders.  This guy is wearing only lose jeans and they have slid down over his rear end, leaving him leaning against his friends with his bare butt hanging in the wind.  We all look and laugh, tipping off the guys friends that he needs a little help.  They pull up his jeans and make a joke in German.  Everyone laughs and we go on our way.  As I look around, I realize that no one else in the vicinity is staggering and I am surprised.

We slip inside a beer “tent” and are surprised it’s not a tent at all but a permanent building with massive beams supporting the roof and a wood floor.  We’re surprised and ask our friends about the buildings being permanent.  They tell us that no, the site of the fest is a park and that the “tents” go up about a week before the fest starts and are gone again within a week after.  We look at the structure again and are amazed at what it must take to erect this building in a week,–when we go to the restroom and discover a huge room of flush toilets, we are even more amazed.

The original plan for Oktoberfest was that we would have a reservation for three hours at one of the tents.  We would be served all we could eat and drink for those three hours and then we would have to give up the table.  However, Dieter and Giesala had friends tell them that a reservation wasn’t really needed and that we could show up at any time, so we did not have a reservation.  This worked well from the perspective that it allowed us to switch days on when we were going with the rain and cold weather, but not so well in that even on a Tuesday afternoon, the tents were packed and finding unreserved tables with open seats was not easy.  At the first beer tent, we were able to sit at a reserved table where the reservation didn’t start for several more hours.  We ordered a round of beers and sat sipping away.  I practiced my new beer holding technique–my wrist was already tired from the beer earlier in the day at the Haufbrauhaus.  We sit and watch people.  There are an overwhelming number of people to watch.

I watch the drindls and lederhosen, fascinated that while the basic look is always the same, they come in wide varieties.  Most interesting to me is the shoe choices of women wearing drindls.  I don’t know what the traditional show would be, but each woman seems to have made up her own mind without consulting tradition or fashion on what footwear choice works for her.  I see one woman in rubber Hunter boots with her drindl.  Another with 4 1/2 inch spike heels–the heels are literally spikes, made from metal.  There is everything in between, although ballet flats seem to be the most popular.

After finishing our beers (once again, I am unable to finish mine and I share with Pat), we start strolling through the park again.  We stop at some shooting galleries where Giesala and Jim try out the shooting skills.  The guns don’t shoot straight and it takes a while to adjust.  Once Jim gets the hang of it, he makes every shot, having been a sharp shooter in the military.  After spending something like 10 Euro on shooting, he wins a prize and allows Giesala to pick from the choices.  She selects a small teddy bear, which she decides should go to me and fastens him to the zipper of my rain jacket.  He bounces along as we continue our walk down the strip.

Eventually, we find ourselves in the Haufbrauhaus tent.  Here, the unreserved tables are jammed with people and the reserved tables are blocked off so they can’t be used even when no one with a reservation is there.  We wander around not sure of what to do.  Eventually, we find a table out in the beer garden.  It’s jammed up against the tables on either side so that when we sit down, we are literally using the people behind us as back rests.  No one whose been sitting there a while seems to notice.  The people already at the table we join are laughing and talking with the people at the next table over.  It seems like everyone knows each other with people switching tables frequently to visit with other people, but I think this is just the atmosphere of the fest.  We are surrounded by people from different parts of the country.  A guy with an odd long-haired wig on sits behind me.  He has a cart with what looks like karaoke machine in it sitting next to him.  Jim offers the guy 10 euro to sing.  The guy turns out to be a local personality there with a guy with a camera and they decide this will be a good bit.  They have Jim hand the guy 10 euro on camera and the guy sings.  Supposedly it will be on TV in Munich.  I find myself wondering what they are saying and hope that it’s not too embarrassing for Jim.

Before I can worry too much about the TV bit, a large group of Scottish guys in kilts arrives.  They greet the guy with the wig and walk around to join his table.  One of them immediately attaches himself to Pat’s mother and can’t seem to stop hugging her and telling her he loves her.  We end up in a conversation with him.  It’s a sort of odd transition, but we end up talking about Scotland and Pat’s own experience with wearing a kilt for a wedding.  This, of course, leads to discussion about what one wears under a kilt.  We learn that the Scots are traditionalists and the offer to prove it; Renate stops the one closest to her when his kilt is at about mid-thigh.  Back on the subject of Scotland, he tells us that we can have it–it rains too much for him.

It’s getting late in the day and Dieter wants to return to our country hotel in Wald.  We are trying to drink up so we can leave.  Pat and I are splitting a beer this time instead of me pretending I’m going to drink one myself.  I try to polish off the last bit of my half, but even half is a strain.  Pat takes an few extra sips for me and then works on helping Jim finish his beer.  I do some math and realize that I’ve had 1 1/4 beers since the first half beer at the Haufbrauhaus in Munich. But it’s 1.25 liters of beer, which is approximately 40 0z of beer or 3 1/2 US beers.  That’s a lot of beer!

We return to the train station at sunset.  We skipped the port-a-potty on the way, having all used the restroom at the tent.  But, it was a long walk from the Haufbrauhaus to the train station.  Pat needs a restroom now.  There are 7 minutes until our next train; Pat decided to risk it.  I will omit some of the more sordid details of the events of the rest of the evening, but Pat did not find a restroom, but did cause us to miss our train.  Having to wait 20 minutes for the next one with all of us having consumed much beer, that 20 minute wait led to much discomfort across the board.  Then there was the 30 minute train ride to to the park-and-ride and the discovery that the restroom there was closed.  Let me just conclude that we were pleased that the parking lot was surrounded by dense woods and there were very few people around by the time we arrived there.

When we returned to the hotel, we sit and allow Dieter to drink.  He had the least beer of all, having cut himself off early in the evening since he was driving.  The hotel is no longer serving dinner, but now we are hungry.  They fix us a spread of meats and cheeses that we enjoy with homemade bread.  Tired and full, we all retire as soon as the food is gone.

Linderhof Castle

After touring Neuschwanstein castle in Schwangau, we head towards Linderhof castle. Linderhof is close to an hour drive from Neuschwanstein, which is why Pat and I didn’t go see it on our last trip to Germany. But I am immediately glad that we came when we approach the grounds. Crazy King Ludwig was obsessed with Louis XIV and built this castle with the intention of creating a miniature Versailles. The grounds, however, are more beautiful just because of the surrounding mountains and forests and the resulting vertical rise on either side of the castle. When we go inside for our tour, we learn that this is the smallest castle Ludwig built and the only one he actually finished. All but one room is decorated in gold leaf, all of it looking remarkably like Versailles in style. Even the statues and paintings are of French kings and court members from the time when France was a absolute monarchy. However, Ludwig must not have paid attention to French history given that he came along nearly 100 years after the French Revolution. In any case, he apparently created this castle as a little playhouse for himself where he could disappear into his fantasy that he was a real king in a time when kings had real power. I am less and less confused about why he was declared insane.

The castle is beautiful, however. Although, a horrific waste of resources considering Ludwig’s main intention was to be completely alone in it. He had his small dining table made on a platform that could be lowered into the kitchen below and completely set with his meal and then raised back into his room so that he didn’t have to see any servants at meal time. The table was barely big enough for a spread fit for a king, let alone for any guests.

Oddly, in spite of his desire to be left alone, he constructed an “opera house” in a fake cave off the garden. It is another salute to Wagner and apparently comes from the Rings. It has stalactites and stalagmites molded out of something like stucco. At the back, a pool simulates a lake and a swan-shaped gondola sits, still waiting to take the king adrift in the water where he apparently liked to listen to music. Even more oddly, it’s in this cave where the first electric lights in Germany were installed. They were even colored by putting colored plates of glass in front of them. The coup de grace is the waterfall that the tour guide turns on after giving her spiel. Water flows over fake stones and down into the pond. It’s so noisy, it would be impossible to hear music over the falls. I find myself wondering if Ludwig ever actually had a concert in this cave or if he just listened to the music in his head.

The castle is wonderful in its own way–strangely beautiful and certainly fascinating to see. The smallness of it makes it somehow more intimate and enjoyable than the real Versailles, although, I admit I haven’t been there since I was a teenager.

We return to our hotel in time for the dinner. Tonight’s soup is called “Leber Spaetzle.”. When they set a bowl in front of me, I am troubled. The “spaetzle” looks suspiciously like deer poop–nearly black and shaped in pellets. I look at Pat and ask, “What kind of soup is this?” and he replies, “It’s deer poop soup,” without cracking a smile. I laugh out loud and take a spoonful, glad I’m not the only one who thinks that’s what it looks like. I can’t give a comparison of the flavor to deer poop, having never eaten any, but I have to imagine deer poop wouldn’t taste worse provided you added salt. The saltiness got to me worse than the flavor of the liver, but neither was exactly pleasing. I gave up once I got down a respectable amount. The entree was more to my liking, but also very salty. It was a traditional German dish made of something described as pork meatloaf, but Pat told me it was like a piece of sausage shaped like a slice of ham, fried and served with an egg sunny side up on top. Had it been less salty, I might have been able to eat the whole thing, but I gave up about 7/8 of the way in.

Tonight, we are all tired and don’t sit as long over beers after dinner as we did the night before. A larger portion of the conversation is in German, as well, a sign of fatigue in my bilingual friends, I think. It’s tiring even for me to tell stories in English using vocabulary our friend are likely to know vs the casual idioms and expressions I would use with my American friends; communicating in a second language must be even more fatiguing for them. I wish I would have spent more time learning German before this trip–it’s been a couple of years since I took continuing education classes in German and I didn’t get very far. My mouth twists around many German sounds and the words come out unrecognizable. I am far more self-conscious attempting German than I ever was speaking French, Italian, Spanish, or evan Korean. But, I was younger then and I didn’t have a native speaker laughing at my pronunciation (well, except the Italians when I pronounce “penne” as “pene”, which means something entirely inappropriate for the dinner table). Oh well, I guess I will have to try again. Maybe Pat and I can start speaking German when we’re alone together if I can get him to stop laughing at me. 🙂

Return to Neuschwanstein Castle

When we wake up, it’s raining steadily. The temperature makes the rain feel bitterly cold. Up in the surrounding mountains, it’s snowing. But we will not be going that high. I layer up with silk long underwear under my jeans and an extra warm Underarmour shirt under my sweater. I put on my thin leather jacket and then pull my rain jacket on–loose enough to fit over everything, it will keep me dry as well as help trap my body heat. I even dig out the thin pair of Windstopper gloves I shoved into my bag just in case. We all pile into the mini-van and we are off.

First stop is Neuschwanstein, the castle started by King Ludwig II of Bavaria intended to capture the opera The Rings in architecture. However, the castle was only 1/3 complete when Ludwig died mysteriously by drowning in a lake with his psychiatrist at the age of 40. He had been declared insane and removed from power only days before. We came to this castle years ago, but had taken the German tour. I’m happy that this time, we will take the tour in English. First, we must park. Then, we must walk part way up the mountain to buy tickets. Then, we must get ourselves from the ticket office to the castle, which is estimated to be a 40 minute walk up a very steep incline. There are three choices: walk in the rain, ride a bus, or take a horse drawn carriage. We head for the bus, but the line is so long to get a ticket that Dieter and I (at the head of the pack) think we must walk. But, a chorus of protest rises from behind us and we turn and go back to get a horse drawn carriage instead.

We start off in front of a couple walking arm in arm. Two average-sized horses pull the wagon loaded with 10 adults slowly up the steep road. The couple falls slightly behind, but when we are halfway, we pause to give the horses a short break and the couple nearly catches up with us while we wait. But then we are off again and either the horses are so revived that they move faster or the couple is so fatigued they move slower, but we leave them far behind.

When we arrive at the end of the wagon ride, we are told that the walk to the castle is 15 more minutes. But it is not too strenuous and we make it in less than 10. We are 15 minutes early for our tour. We stand under the arch of a giant gate leading to the courtyard, huddled together with about a hundred people from nearly as many different countries. When it is time for our tour, a lighted sign in the courtyard displays our tour number and we move back into the rain briefly to walk through the cattle gates with the rest of the English speakers on our tour. The girl who leads our tour speaks loudly and slowly, over enunciating each word, but in the first room, her voice bounces off the tiles and echoes so that it’s nearly impossible to understand what she says. The Germans in our group do not think she is German, as her accent sounds so strange. I ask her where she is from originally as we walk to the next room and she tells me she is from here originally; I assume Schwangau, the small village near the castle. That doesn’t explain her strange accent, though.

We learn a bit more about the crazy king who wanted his life to be a fairytale. We see rooms on two floors, starting in the servants quarters and ending in the concert hall. Unfortunately, there was an actual concert recently and the floor is completely covered to protect it. We did get to see the mosaic tile floor in the receiving room–we’re told that there are over 2 million tiles that were individually laid in the floor. The crazy pattern has a mixture of animals I can’t make sense of, but perhaps if I were an expert on Wagner operas, it would all become clear to me. Our tour guide offers no explanation for the decor choices and is too far away with nearly 50 people on the tour for me to ask. We are told that the tour is over and we should check out the kitchen on the way out.

A narrow spiral staircase takes us down four floors to where the king’s meals were prepared (with a detour through the gift shop, of course) and we wonder if he ever had a hot meal given that his dining room was at the top of the stairs. The kitchen is enormous and, apparently quite modern for the times. After looking at the signs, trying to figure out the layout, we return to the cold and rain outside.

Next, we walk back down to the drop off point to take a wagon back down. We are shoved into the back of the wagon with a strange man between me and Giesala who clearly doesn’t understand English or German. Then, three more people join. The four are all Asian, but the strange man is Japanese while the other three are Chinese. The strange Japanese man introduces himself to Giesala, but then keeps repeating her name. He won’t look up and remains in a hunched position, eyes on the floor. Then, when no one is talking to him, he starts muttering to himself. I don’t know lots of people from Japan, but I’ve never seen anyone act like this from any country that didn’t have some kind of problem going on. In any case, we are distracted by the group from China. They tell us they are from the Tsing Tao museum and the man produces many beer labels and gives them to Pat after Pat tells him that be likes Tsing Tao beer. We really aren’t sure if there is a museum or if they were from the brewery, but we laugh with them the whole way down the mountain. The man and Pat got into a beer belly contest with each of them pulling up their jackets and extending their bellies to show . . . well, I’m not sure what they’re trying to prove. Pat won in any case. Then, the man’s cell phone rings and his conversation has the two women he is with in stitches. One of them explains that the person on the other end of the phone had told the man to hurry up and he replied, “It’s not up to me, it’s up to a horse.” We all laugh, too. Pat asks if he can buy the man a beer since he’s given us so many labels, but he and his colleagues have to rush off.

We decide to wait to eat lunch until we got to the second castle on today’s itinerary–Linderhof. We walk back to the mini van and take off in the rain.

Self-Milking Cows and Wellness in Wald

Having been collected by Pat’s parents and friends at the guest house we arrived at in Wald from Berlin, we now load our stuff into their vehicle for the short drive to where we’ll be staying.

Pat’s parents and friends have been traveling together for several days already. The friends, Dieter and Gisela, have traded their car with their daughter so they have a mini-van to fit us all in for this trip. The mini is a little more mini than a typical American mini-van, but we all fit perfectly. They take us to the “wellness resort” we will be staying at for the next 3 nights. This is an interesting concept in Germany. These are guest houses equipped with pools and hot tubs and various other amenities that help restore health and sanity. They typically are quite economical, although only available in pretty, country areas outside large cities, and are often free for Germans who are suffering from illness or stress that their doctor feels warrants a break from everyday life.

This one is located on a working farm. They make most of their own foods served in their restaurant from the butter and cheese to the beer. When we have dropped our bags in our room, our group reconvenes and takes little tour of the farm. We visit the horses and donkey in one barn, and the milk cows in another. We watch as a cow milks herself–the most fascinating thing I have ever seen. When a gate is opened, a cow with a full utter walks into a pen and lines herself up in the milking station, where grain releases into a bucket so she can happily munch while being milked. A robotic milking machine starts by washing each of her teats with rollers. Then, laser beams line up the suction cups on the milking machine with the teats until all four are properly captured in the milking machine. The milk is matched to the cow using an electronic chip on her ankle. If the cow has recently calved, her milk is rerouted to her calf in a barn next door. All the milk is automatically tested to make sure the cow doesn’t have any diseases and that there isn’t dangerous bacteria in the milk before it is pumped into the milk storage container. When a teat stops producing milk, the machine releases it until all of the teats have been milked dry. A gate opens, the cow walks out, and the next cow, when ready, enters. I wish I had thought to bring my camera down, but maybe I am the only one who gets excited about cows that milk themselves?

We visit many calves next. They are at various stages of growth. Some are in large plastic huts and they stick their heads out as us as we walk by. I reach out to one and let it suckle my fingers while I rub its head. I don’t think anyone else in the group has ever seen someone do this because they were all pretty surprised. The calf holds its tongue over its teeth so it doesn’t bite, but the force that calves suckle with is pretty amazing. My fingers are covered in slim when I extract them. I do my best not to touch anything. We wander over to the building where they make cheese and beer. Nothing is currently being made, but it’s still nice to see. Pat buys some Landjaeger (something between sausage and beef jerky) that is also home made. We then wander back to the main guest house to have dinner. I scrub my hands twice before sitting down to eat.

The restaurant serves four courses, with the only choice being which of three entrees you want. They bring us a soup to start with a meaty broth and a large noodle. It’s delicious and hot. Then we have a typical German salad with lettuce on top hiding an assortment of other types of salad underneath. I have the fish. Dieter describes the fish as a “salmon trout,” which is exactly what it’s like. Flaky trout meat that’s firmer and pinker than most trout. While it’s delicious, the filet they brought me was about the size of a flattened football and I couldn’t eat it all. The dessert was warm chocolate cake with chocolate sauce, whipped cream and fresh currants. Surprisingly, I find I have just enough room for the dessert.

We sit and drink beer and swap stories in German and English. Two of us do not speak German, two of us speak German and American English, and two speak German and formal English. It makes for interesting translations–it’s amazing how many words we use in everyday conversation that don’t make it into language classes. But, we have a good time anyway. Giesala has a warm and ready laugh that is infectious and Dieter has a quiet sense of humor that catches me by surprise, making his jokes even funnier. Both are patient with those of us who don’t speak English and make a tremendous effort to speak English whenever possible so we feel included.

We discuss our plans for tomorrow and decide to make a change from the original plan. The cold and rainy weather is supposed to improve the following day, so we decide to switch days. We will all go to see some castles tomorrow and we will go to the Oktoberfest the following day. All in all, it’s been a good day.

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.

Going to Berlin

We awake to The sound of frogs chirping at 6:00AM. I am momentarily confused and then remember that we’ve set the alarm on Pat’s phone because we are catching an morning train to Berlin today. I get up and find the phone and kill the frogs. Pat has an uncanny ability to remain untroubled by alarms–I’ve accidentally set mine on snooze from time to time and found him sleeping soundly with his head under a pillow for as long as a hour after the alarm started going off. I have an irresistible compulsion to get up when an alarm sounds–I figure it’s a good thing one of us does.

After breakfast, we take our luggage outside to wait for the cab we’ve ordered. When we step outside, a cab pulls up and a man walks up to it and gets in. It’s a few minutes early, but Pat says, I bet that’s our cab and then stands there staring. Visions of us standing there for 10 more minutes waiting for a cab that never shows and then having to wait 10 more for another on to arrive prompt me to suggest he go ask before the cab drives away. Sure enough, it is our cab. But, we are all going to the train station, so we will share.

We make it to the station with 45 minutes to spare. We sit on a bench on the track and wait for our train. I decide to use the restroom while we’re waiting. When I get there, I discover that the train station has pay toilets. They’ve upgraded from change operated door handles to a turnstile entry to the restrooms, but now they charge a euro to get in. Having no cash on me, I return to the platform and decide just to wait since the restrooms on the train are free.

The train pulls into the station 3 minutes before our departure time. We get on and find seats. We sit side-by-side with no seats across from us. We sit back and relax, me taking out my iPad and getting caught up on my blog while Pat stares out the window and points interesting sights out to me.

When we get to the next stop, we are displaced. A man has a reserved seat that I am currently occupying. I am somewhat irritated as there are plenty of open seats and I don’t quite understand why he doesn’t take one of them, but when we are displaced again at the next stop, I begin to understand the problem. Pat asks a woman how to tell if a seat is reserved and she explains that the lighted sign above each seat displays the names of the departure and arrival stations between which a seat is reserved. We quickly discover there aren’t two seats together with no reservation (since we have none). Pat spots two seats labeled “Schwerbehinderte” that face each other with a table in between. He explains that these are “handicapped” seats and that we can sit there unless someone who needs them gets on. We settle back down for the third time.

Pat looks around and notices that there are a half dozen “Schwerbehinderte” seats around us. He says, “wouldn’t it be our luck that an entire handicapped tour gets on the train at the next stop?” I almost laugh, but feel like he has just jinxed us and seriously contemplate the likelihood of that happening instead. But, we are not displaced again and we make it to Berlin around 3PM.
We take a taxi to our hotel where we are informed that they have upgraded our room for us. We don’t know why, but we’re not complaining. It’s an interesting hotel, the Gendarmes Nouveau, with hyper-modern decor and lighting throughout the lobby. When we get to the room, it’s a combination of mauve and gray, only still in the hyper-modern theme. I’ve never seen modern done in mauve and gray before–it feels vaguely middle eastern to us, but I don’t know why. Maybe just because our taxi driver was telling us about his flight from Iran on the way to the hotel and so the region is fresh in our minds. In any case, the room is quite nice, very quiet, and we can live with gray and mauve decor for two nights.

After freshening up, we head out. Pat wants to walk to Alexander Plaza, which is supposed to be the center of Berlin. We wander down the streets struck by the contrast with Freiburg. We feel like we’re in a different country. Here the streets are wide and asphalt with regular car traffic, although bikes are certainly prevalent as well. So much so that, on the way over, I noticed our taxi driver stopped on right turns to look up the sidewalk for approaching bikes before making turns. While I have been told before that Berlin is surprisingly new for a European capital and I know from history that it’s really more surprising that anything old is left standing than that most of the buildings are new, I’m unprepared for the architecture of the 60’s and 70’s. There are few buildings of interest and most of them are ancient survivors (or perhaps restored). The bleak and boring industrial look takes up the majority of the city skyline.

We walk past a museum that sparkles with gold leaf in the setting sun, a couple of old churches, and several parks with interesting sculptures that make the walk worthwhile. We go past the Fernsehturn tower, deciding to wait to go up it until the next day, and on to Alexander Plaza. We are both disappointed to find that the only thing interesting here is a fountain and the street performers. We are passed by a man dressed as a half-man, half-goat mythological creature, using stilts covered in fur to simulate goat legs. An electric rock band has found power somewhere and set up and started playing. Unfortunately, they are not so good. They compete with another band around the corner, all acoustic. In the middle of the square, a man plays the sax and, I swear, he sounds much like one would expect a new student of the sax to sound after about two weeks of lessons.

As much as we are tempted to hang out for a while and people watch, Pat notices that teenagers keep gawking at my camera and feels like we’re at risk of getting mugged. We decide to head towards the hotel and find a place for dinner. We approach a fine looking restaurant that advertises it’s been there for 100 years, but when we look through the windows, the men are all wearing jackets and no one is wearing jeans. We decide we’ll try it for lunch the next day instead. We find a more casual place a block later, but they have no indoor seats available. We opt to sit outside, although I am shivering before our entrees are served.

The food is good and hot (although not for long in the cold wind). We eat quickly, racing against heat transfer. We finish up and pay quickly when we are done eating–my lips have turned blue and I can’t stop shaking. It’s not really that cold, but I get cold easily and I am fighting a bug, which can’t help. We walk quickly to the hotel, taking the stairs to the fifth (or fourth if, you’re European) floor just to warm up. Inside, I get ready for bed quickly and snuggle under my personal comforter, but have to sneak under Pat’s to press my cold feet up against his legs to get warm. As soon as my feet thaw, I drift off into a deep sleep.