Wake up. It’s sunny outside. Gray clouds hover above. Rise, shower, pack. Fold clothes into the usual piles, load them into the backpack’s various pockets. Pick up brochures, clean up room, wrap cables, close laptop, pack it all away into briefcase. Replace the bedsheets, clear the desk. Double check the room, close the door, go downstairs to check out.
Outside, it’s sunny, but cold. Walk to the train, buy a ticket to the city. There’s a little booth in the station that sells bread and pastries, and smell the baguettes, the croissants, the pain au chocolate and the eclairs one more time. The train arrives, board and sit.
Gare de l’Est. Birds fly from rafter to rafter above, huge curving ceilings hanging over small bookshops and a little food court. There’s wi-fi in the air, so buy a small panini and a soda, sit and check email, check Facebook, write something about scanning 3D models with an iPad. The lunch rush isn’t on yet, but there’s coffee, grilled sandwiches, open air circulating in from the train platforms.
On the ground walking out to the platforms, there are bumps, little rails in the sidewalk, an icon next to them of a man with a cane and an eye with a line through it. Realize they’re for blind people, close your eyes and walk along them for a little while, letting them guide you forward, out to the platforms. Get what you think is too far, open your eyes, and take in the station itself: Signs and clocks everywhere, arrives and departes, luggage and baggage, conductors, information, rolling cases grinding across the floor, pulled by businessmen and women, families speaking Russian or Spanish, gentile trainmen trying to explain routes in German and French.
Sit, wait until 13:02, 13:10, 13:15. Platform 3, on the left, backpack and briefcase, haul them down. Search the ticket, show it to a conductor, find what’s probably your seat, and wait for the train to move as passengers sit down around you, settle in with headphones and iPods and magazines and iPads.
Fields, vineyards, a blurry church, a French manor. The clouds whirl by overhead in 3D, smaller fluffs of gray moving quickly in front of mountains of white behind. Recycled air swirls around, and then the smell of food from one side of the train car, and then the coffee brought by the attendant. A woman argues with a conductor — he speaks French and German, she only Spanish. Another man intervenes, helps translate. She needs to “pagar,” you hear, and then put your headphones back in.
Listen to your iPod, tunes from home, and watch the countryside roll by. Soldiers died here, crops grew here, people live(d) here. The sky is blue, the land is green and yellow, and at a hundred miles an hour OH MY GOD THERE IS A TRAIN NEXT TO US AND now it’s gone, head into the European continent, deeper and deeper, toward the dark heart of the great wars.
There’s a stop. The sun goes down deeper in the sky, and the terrain changes from soft, rolling hills to steeper mountain full of pine trees and cedar. There are still towns but they look different — the buildings have roofs that sit steeper, look thicker. Maybe they’re designed to deal with snow. The buildings themselves look more squat, stronger. The language on signs as you pass goes from flowery and light to long, harsh, with lots of consonants and syllables. “Les” and “de” start to disappear, replaced with “-kerdammergirten” and “schausenstauer-”. Urst, ocken, ammer.
The vegetation is thicker now, more wooded. Tunnels and back to the light. Older buildings mixed with new, cheap, concrete blocks, all spin by again and again and again.
Transfer in Mannheim, but in garbled English on the PA you’re told to stay on your train. You question, panic, and then the train starts moving again, and it’s out of your hands. This train ends at Frankfurt. Another hour later, you file off into the station with the rest of the passengers. Hope there’s a train going your direction.
In the train station, there’s a little market, and it’s filled with all-new foods, things you’ve heard about but only ever seen Americanized versions. Bratwurst, schnitzel, currywurst, meat everywhere. There’s bread and cheese, too, but it’s different from the pain and croissants in the Metro station this morning — it’s thicker, tougher, more chewy. You realize that this is food for soaking up bier (not beer, bier), and sure enough, in the little marketplace, there’s weisbier of all kinds, hefeweisen and ale and biers you don’t recognize. It’s a little comfort — you’re lost in a strange station without a train to take, but with that kind of food and drink on offer, how could you be going the wrong way?
Finally, there’s a train for Berlin. Not your train, but Berlin. “Please,” to the attendant, “can you help me?” Try to explain using only place names where you’ve been and where you’re trying to go. “Paris to Mannheim, but no. Frankfurt now. Then, Berlin?”
She looks at the ticket, looks at you, back at the ticket. She rolls her eyes. Wrong, totally and completely wrong, but she’ll fix it. She can do that. “Go in,” she says, gesturing to the train, and you’re grateful. “Thank you,” you say, and then remember. “Danke.” She rolls her eyes again. So wrong.
Night. It’s dark outside, and it might be a tunnel, if not for lights moving far out in the distance, dim and far apart. Read, listen to podcasts, play a game or two. Look out the window now, and there are buildings, a city. Then dark again.
Hours pass. The conductor arrives, explain your convoluted situation not knowing whether he even understands English, and when you’re finally done, he judges your ticket just for a moment and then says, “Ok.” Punches it, moves on.
Is there an “Ok” in German?
More hours pass.
Berlin Hbf. Stands for Hauptbahnhof, means Central Station. The train piles out onto an extremely clean walkway, with multiple floors of shopping and food places above. It’s late on a Friday night, though — the station is quiet except for the recent arrivals, scurrying up the escalators to street level.
There’s the U that you’ve read marks the subway system, but it’s been a long day of sitting, and you’re anxious to get out, move, explore. You check the map — it’s about 4k, but you decide to walk it anyway.
The city is wide and darker than either London or Paris. As cars go by constantly, you realize that this is more of a motor city than either of those two. Still, wary of wandering into any dark alleys, all of your possessions on this continent strapped on your back, you carefully watch who’s around you, and it’s a younger crowd than you’ve seen. Professional men and women, younger people, girls out for a drink or a group of guys looking for a bar. Just like in London, drinking spills out into quiet conversations on the street, and even a few house parties are opened up onto the public strasse.
It’s not loud at all, though here and there music or conversation drifts out of a bar or a club. It reminds you a lot, actually, of Los Angeles — wider streets, newer buildings, a few artsy co-ops and late night food stands that must sell wurst or … no, there’s a taco place, and over there a thai place as well.
You walk through the streets. A few weird looks in your direction, a honk from a car as you accidentally walk against a light. But the weather’s nice, warmer. Enjoy.
At the hostel address, there’s a bar, full of people drinking, watching baseball on the TVs and having a good time. It’s a place called Belushi’s, kind of a weird coincidence, given your history with Chicago. You wander around for a bit, get the distinct feeling that everyone’s looking at you with your backpack on, and knows exactly why you’re here, but nobody’s fessing up as to what you need to do. Finally, you find a registration desk, and check in. Room card, breakfast at 8, here’s the wifi password, no laundry but there’s one down the street you can try.
You put your things in the room and head back to the bar. A beer, tall and cold and delicious. You take it upstairs with your laptop, and the wi-fi is excellent. You sit, in the area labeled “chillout zone”, lean back, and relax.
Posted on Saturday, April 21st, 2012 at 2:41 am. Filed under general.