Tuesday, July 17, 2007

Eastern boys and Western girls

Marx and Engels contemplate the New World Order

Sorry all for sporadic updating, but with all the visitors we’ve had over the last month (still not quite done yet!) it’s been tough finding the time or energy to keep up on this thing.

The other reason is because there’s only so much “life sure is different here” or “I just visited bleah bleah and it was grand” that I’m sure people want to read.

Because I am aware my lifestyle of café’s, fine wines and marathon dinners can inspire a certain amount of schadenfreunde, I am going to talk about Berlin, where Amynah and I visited last week.

The occasion was a scientific conference where Amynah was giving a talk (it went well). Since she showed up a couple of days before me, and was sharing a room with another woman from her lab, I was booked into another hotel closer to the centre of the city. We would then stay together in the same hotel on the last night (that’s three hotels total: mine, hers and ours).

However, your faithful correspondent, being a fateful combination of cocky and disorganized forgot what hotel he was booked into. Amynah, having prepared for this eventuality, had written down detailed instructions as to how to get there from the airport, but I managed to lose them.

Bombed out church, with pool noodles

In ignorance of my ignorance, I made no preparations for my trip until 11 AM on the morning I was supposed to leave. I was shocked to learn the instructions were gone and more shocked to learn that my flight was leaving an hour earlier than I believed AND that the one train I likely to get me to the airport on time was leaving in an hour.

Panicked, I grabbed a black-and-white print out of Berlin’s colour coded subway map (think about that one for a second, if you will) threw my crap into a bag, scribbled down the address from the one hotel reservation confirmation I had in my email and dashed out the door. I got to the train station just as my train pulled out.

I bought a ticket for the next train which, according to the incomprehensible train schedule which seemed to indicate that in addition to leaving an hour later, my train seemed to pull into Basel at roughly the same time my flight would be boarding if it reached Basel at all (the parenthesis is a terrifying thing in a train schedule). I hedged my bets and bought a ticket.

I then hopped a tram back to my apartment (I had no tickets to do so, but I was desperate) in order to grab a bite to eat, try to locate Amynah’s directions, and do some perfunctory cleaning for Amynah’s Aunts and sisters who were due back from Rome before our return. I failed at two out of the three – Amynah’s Aunts scrubbed the whole place before our return and the directrions have not materialized to this day.

I then dashed back to the tram stop, intent on buying tickets so I could ride it legally. I pulled out my new Euro-sized wallet (purchased in Spain) only to discover my bank card was missing. Cursing, I hopped the next tram (keeping a weather eye out for le contrôle) and went back to the train station. Back in the ticket kiosk, I ask an attendant if my card had turned up. He disappeared in the back office for a minute… two minutes,.. three minutes…. My train was leaving in five. He came out said, no, but he’d check with another colleague and disappeared again before I could object. Another three minutes elapsed before he came out and began to instruct me on how to lodge a missing goods form. (See footnote)

Non merci” I squawked, dashing to my platform.

You guys know how in the olden movies, you always see people running across the platform as the whistle blows and the train pulls out of the station? Yeah, well, it was like that, only not at all romantic.(See footnote two)

The scene at the Basel train station was the same. I had Swiss francs left over from a previous trip, but not enough coins for the shuttle bus. I therefore had to run into a Swiss bank and get change for a twenty (apropos of nothing, Switzerland has the ugliest money I’ve ever seen) and dash back out as the bus left the station. I arrived at the airport just as the Easyjet folks were closing down check in.

Berlin S-Bahn and U-Bahn system. And yes, the U2 line does go through Zoo Station. Image from www.morpha.de

By contrast, Berlin transportation was remarkably simple. A bus took me to the commuter train, which took me to my hotel. Amynah was supposed to meet me there, but wasn’t, so I checked in and waited in my room. After a while, I got worried that she hadn’t turned up and went downstairs, only to have the phone handed to me by the desk clerk telling me my wife was on the other end.

“Why are you there?” she asked.

“Where are you?” I asked back.

“I’m at the hotel you’re supposed to be in,” she said.

Now, just to be clear, I thought that this was HER hotel, the presence of a third hotel never having registered in my tiny little brain. So when Amynah insisted I meet her at some subway station I’d never heard of, I just though she was being needlessly difficult and cut her off before she was finished giving me directions and said “Yeah yeah, I’ll meet you there.”

By midnight, an hour later, Amynah is fuming in the rain at the Guntzlestrasse U-bahn station while I am fuming in the rain at the Berlinerstrasse U-bahn, three blocks away.

Finally, my rage (directed entirely at myself, the Idiot King) gave way to concern about Amynah and I hopped on the U-Bahn to go out to the boonies where she was staying. I get to that station, and disembark only to see that there was only one more train going back, leaving in five minutes.

Rather than be utterly stranded, I boarded it – there was only one guy in my car – and looked out the window where the last outbound train had pulled into the station. I saw Amynah step off the train just as mine began to pull out of the station. I was thus inspired to treat my cowering fellow passenger to an impromptu lesson of the more powerful English swear words.

Things did get better from there - Berlin has some good bagels, and Amynah and I took great delight in the big-city pleasures afforded by Potzdammerplatz (movies! neon! concrete and glass! modernity!) I took very few photos, which are here for your edification.

Footnote:: The loss of my bank card, which is also a credit card, meant that Amynah spent the better part of one of our few days in Berlin desperately trying to reach my French bank in order to cancel it. It also meant I had no money, short of what Amynah gave me. I picked up my new one today, and attempted to stuff into the oversized card holder in my oversized Spanish wallet I recently purchased to hold my oversized French driver's license. Lo and behold, there was my bank card, slipped out of view, excatly where I'd left it. Idiot.

Footnote two: Adding to the 50's movie feel of this incident, as the train set off, a trio of police entered the car and demanded to see everyone's idenitification cards, terrorizing a family of Chinese tourists who weren't expecting this sort of treatment outside their own homeland. On the other hand, absolutely no one checked my passport as I entered Switzeland. So there you go - it's easier to travel between countries than it is within them, apparently.


Carol said...

Mark, you counselled me in Montreal to show up for trains at the last minute so I'd end up on an add-on and therefore have more room. This entry makes me question your advice... But it was entertaining reading (I'm sorry it's at your expense). I'm glad you ended up having a good time!

julie said...

that's the best laugh I've had in ages! it made my recent train woes in Japan sharply pale in comparison :)

Zack said...

Good to see that my German lessons in Schramberg were helpful. :)