Montana with Castles

6412As our train headed to Berlin, I realized this trip was nearly four fifths over. I wanted to say that time flew by, but it hadn’t. It seemed to stand still and I wasn’t sure if that was such a bad thing.

I looked out the window at the passing landscape and thought if I ever became a travel agent, I’d recommend Germany for a person’s first trip abroad, especially if that person is worried about acclimating to a foreign place. Germany isn’t foreign at all. It’s essentially Montana with castles. All Germans look like Kevin Costner or Terry Bradshaw. There is no  language barrier as most of them understand what Americans are asking for. Forget Mexico, or Canada for that matter, virgin travelers should head straight to Deutschland.

Donna was a little concerned when I volunteered to make hotel reservations for our time in Berlin. I just wanted to be more involved. Besides, after spending time in Germany’s quiet suburbs I wasn’t ready for the noise and congestion of an urban hotel, no matter how conveniently located.

At the Berlin station, we transferred to a tram and headed out of the city.

“Don’t worry, we get off at the next stop” I assured, about five times. That day, we’d spent more time on this particular tram getting out of Berlin than the entire time getting to Berlin. The kids seemed tired. We’d stayed up late celebrating our last night in Wolfenbuttel with our former exchange student Johanne – who was now all grown up, had a wonderful young family and now a doctor. Her husband Jan was an excellent cook and made us Deer Stroganoff, which tasted great with a nice pilsner, or two. Or three.

Outside the window, I could not help but notice a distinct absence of the tidy pristine Germany we’d been seeing. The buildings looked worn old and needed a coat of paint. Graffiti was everywhere, yet the streets were free of litter and looked neatly swept.

“Okay, let’s get off.”

“Finally, Dad!”

The five of us stood on the busy corner. The sidewalks were crowded with late afternoon commuters. A group of boys walked by with cigarettes dangling from their mouths. Our hotel was supposed to be located directly across from the tram stop, but I saw nothing that resembled the photo on the web site. This neighborhood seemed too gritty for a hotel.

“Back on the tram”

“You know Jeffery; it’s going to take forever to get back into the city.” Donna astutely observed as the tram pulled out. As we coasted further, I was relieved to see the buildings became cleaner and nicer. The tram slowed and I spotted our hotel. In person, it looked odd and quite different from surrounding ones. Its pastel exterior and blue tube railings screamed 1980’s architecture. I expected to see Crockett and Tubbs burst out in their linen jackets and alligator loafers. We made our way across the street and up the steps. Inside, the walls were painted bright colors and covered in modern art.  A dozen empty tables made the lobby feel like a small café.

“Guten –TAG” a tall and cheery grey-haired man popped up from behind the counter.  We responded with significantly less enthusiasm.

“I know what you are thinking.” His tone was empathetic. “Why ever did we choose a hotel so far from the city?” He assured there was a quicker route back into central Berlin then gave us directions to a couple of reasonably priced restaurants within walking distance.

“After you’ve settled in, please return for happy hour.’

“Happy hour – das goot,” I said to deaf ears as we lugged our packs up the stairs. The next level had its own small lobby with more brightly painted walls covered in more modern art. Our rooms were clean and neat, arranged with modern furniture that looked straight from IKEA. The place felt more like a dorm than a hotel – yet was surprisingly welcoming and comfortable.

I dropped my pack on the bed and looked out the window at a large decaying brick building that might have been a school, but was now boarded up. Directly next to it was a brand new gas station and mini-mart. I turned to Donna. “One of those restaurants he suggested – did he say something about traditional East German food?”

She nodded, then her face warmed to a curious smile.

“Holy shit! We’re in East Berlin.”

NEXT: Back in the GDR

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