Monday, July 28, 2014

If we had blogs in 1999: Berliner communist spies

Berlin. What a city. When I had gone to MUDEC the year before the 1999 Transatlantic Seminar on the European Union, I had imagined spending most of my travel time in France, the Benelux countries, the British Isles, and Italy. For whatever reason I hadn't been drawn to Germany. But that was before I visited, and my introduction, aside from our class trip to Munich for Oktoberfest, had been forced by our week long study tour in the autumn of 1997. One of our scheduled stops had been University of Göttingen. From there, a few of us went to Berlin. I loved it before I even stepped off the train at the Zoo Station.

This is the latest entry into my 1999 Transatlantic Seminar journal, and it is, as are most of the other ones, written by a kid who was learning to write. This journal entry is lengthy. Much of it is tabloid fodder and a student complaining about school work. As always, spelling, grammatical, and factual errors have been preserved. Today's comments are in red italics.

Begin journal entry

That same day we left Poland for its WWII oppressor (one of them). We originally were supposed to go to Wittenburg and Dresden - the whole situation is confusing & difficult to remember but at any rate it was another overnight train - no couchettes - and much crowding. We all had squeezed into one cabin; apparently JAB John, Abby, and Bill didn't get the concept of overnight trains. I had no room for my clausterphobic self and sat in misery most of the night. Bill had been on the floor - I had nowhere to put my feet. I was pissed, but somehow either I moved or he moved during the night to make the cramping less torturous. Guilt should flood me for not giving thanks for the space I had instead of the cattle cars of the Nazi victims. We had just visited Auschwitz.

Needless to say, I was a bear when the sun arose. We arrived in Dresden, I believe, but all I wanted to do was sleep. I had some Deutsche Marks I had exchanged in Frankfurt on the journey to Prague so I was able to grab some food. No con men on the trains had tried to get us to exchange money here in Germany like they had upon our Prague arrival. I wish I could have seen Dresden, though not at the time I was there. I decided that I was going to Berlin that day to sleep. Bill was livid. I was getting on the train no matter what - I would go by myself if I had to. Bill didn't understand that we didn't have to do everything together. It was a last second decision to leave Bill behind, the four of us did, as he went to Wittenberg. I didn't care, I was sick of American Bill. Abby was really concerned. Brad was angry we left Krakow. John said nothing as usual. We had to switch in Leipzig. The train was crowded. We sat in seats that were supposed to be for bar service people. The train conductor was nice enough to let us keep the seats. I tried not to crash as I wanted to see as much of this great country as I could, but physical limitations got the best of me. It was a drooling sleep, but much necessary. However, the debate wasn't over - it had just been delayed by the train ride. When we got to the Zoo Station (I love to say that), we had to find a place to stay. I wanted to stay in a hostel. Brad did too. JA wouldn't except anything less than good quality. John made it known to us that he was too good for a hostel.We walked forever looking for this particular place until Brad got sick of it and told them they could find their own place. We got out a map and found a great hostel with a private room and a balcony - that was the best. I sat out there trying to write in my journal or read Ulyssess but I couldn't do it. Brad was out. I went to sleep. Wait, that didn't happen yet. First we checked in, relieved to get those packs off our backs. Then we showered and went to the zoo. It's a great zoo, huge, really, for a zoo in the middle of a city such as Berlin. What'd they do with the animals during the war? Anyway, back up. We ate first, before the zoo, at the Hard Rock Cafe. As fate would have it, our table was right next to the U2 wall. And the place had been pretty much empty at 2 in the afternoon. I had a hamburger. Then we went to the zoo. Then we went back to the hotel room and played cards and took a nap and said we'd go out later. We never did. Sleep was plentiful that night, as we both had at least 12 hours. We unloaded our gear at Hotel Berlin, awesome, then headed for Potsdam, a place I will return to someday to further explore. What a marvelous city, despite anti NATO spray painted slogans to greet us. (There were fewer here than in Prague, whose slavic ingredients complimented Serbian interests.) The many palaces of Potsdam did not...  (continued in "Other stuff I'd like to remember) 

...have our presence, as we had little time to add depth to our journey. It was a cool place, but we had to be back by 5pm for our Sunday seminar. I wish we'd skipped it. Sunday evening was our first encounter with the commie bar. I hadn't realized, even with the big picture of Mao in the back, that we were surrounded by communists. There were about 15 of us capitalist americans, each more desperate than the other to get as drunk as possible. The beer, Jever, was shit, but the bar's specialty was mixed drinks, as I later found out. Many seemingly uneventful things began to unfold at this time. The first was Brad & Eva. The second was beer for beer with Bill. The third happened when I staggered back to the hotel to get my U-bahn ticket and had to ride the elevator up with Dr. Mason in my state of intoxication.

Angela Merkel, before she was the most powerful person in Europe
Angela Merkel, before she was the most powerful person in Europe. And before I knew who she was. She looks so young!

Let's start with the first: Brad & Eva. Brad had been determined to hook up with someone on the trip. Abby was his first try, but she had a boyfriend back home. (This is interesting considering the events yet to come this evening.) Kate was next. He was really turning it on the night of Guy's birthday party in Prague. (This night was strike two of Bill's nightlife ideas. Actually, it was strike three - there'd been a failed night in Paris, too. He had no idea how to walk into a local bar - he always had to have recommendations and could never find the recommended places. But he was enthusiastic, and enthusiastically loud, so other students followed him anyway. After Guy's party, we went in search of a dance club. Bill had "talked to some people" to find a good place to go. He led us through somewhat sketchy Prague park at night, across a bridge which Brad puked over and I had to help it look like nothing was going on, to this place called Rock Cafe or something. We went in, maybe 8 of us, and there were only two people dancing and two people at the bar, and they played the shittiest hard music. It wasn't even a good time. I remember this place. I hadn't spent a lot of time in Eastern Europe, but as I later came to discover, many of these types of hard rock/heavy metal bars can be found scattered throughout the region. They're like something out of the 1980s, and the people dress as such. Their countries were opening up to the West in the age of hair bands; perhaps this has something to do with the existence of so many of these kinds of establishments? This is all relevent to future events of this Commie bar evening.) So Brad had found out in Prague that Kate had a boyfriend back home and then turned to Eva. More to come.

The second beginning was "beer for beer." I had been consuming so much alcohol over the previous 3 weeks that my tolerance was unreal. I could match 7 foot Bill beer for beer (but not hard liquor). The third event was when Dr. Mason found out how much of a drinker I was which may have changed his whole view of me. (He later made a comment about how much I enjoy my beer.) We certainly did a lot of drinking over these weeks. We'd spend all day going to, sitting through, and leaving seminars in various parts of the cities we visited, so when we had free time in the evenings, museums and tourist sites were usually closed. Brad and I wanted to be among the locals; although we did go out with other students, we often spent our evenings in local bars. But bars are a part of American college culture, aren't they?

So, we're at the commie bar, I now have my U-bahn pass (as the hotel is right across the street), and then Bill wants to go find this "Blue Note Cafe" someone told him about. So we take the U2 to Fredrickstrasse and begin searching. We walk, and we walk, and we give up, and Bill leads us into some Mexican bar and everyone's doing Tequilla shots except me, who's totally sober and pissed because the buzz is gone and the bar sucks, and Eva, who was sitting by herself, and Brad, who's pissed off. I'm observing numerous body shots initiated by Bill, watching Abby kissing some stranger, watching sober Jen pick up strangers, eating nachos, watched Michelle do a body shot off of some strange girl, watched her do one off of Bill, came to the conclusion that she claims to be a lesbian to get attention, watched her do another one off of Bill (significant), was glad to get in a taxi that I didn't pay for to go back (after Brad left and Eva left, separately, and both pissed off, not at each other), saw Michelle holding Bill's hand, went to sleep, woke up the next morning wishing I had more sleep.

Now it's time to go listen to the Turkish Consil General with the hair growing in his ears, and I tell you there's not a single student in the room listening. Our eyes are drawn to that hair; it's disgusting. I've never seen anything like it. Next is the EU Commission in Berlin, but that's after Brad, Eva, Michelle, and I eat at this Italian restaurant. It is cold - I wear a skirt and a sleeveless shirt because yesterday was 90 and tomorrow is 90 but today it rains and is cold. We sit outside with an umbrella to protect us from wet. Tonight I will go with Bridget, Guy, Amanda, and Megan to an American deli so that they may see Checkpoint Charlie. I wander around a bit while they're at the museum even though it's closed, but then I realize it may not be smart to walk alone around East Berlin, being an american female and all. So we all go back and I sleep and wake up the next morning wishing I had more sleep, and then we go to the Berliner Rathaus, after a wonderful breakfast, of course. No one paid attention in that seminar. It's not that it was uninteresting - it's that everyone's so tired, and the juices on the table don't have enough sugar to keep us alive. The building is cool, and I can tell everyone I was inside. We had to cram in some lunch after the seminar - literally - before we were rushed to Humbolt University. The rushing cannot be emphasized enough. We were always late, on account of people waking up late, walking extremely slow (so annyoying!), and having to ride public transport - all 30 of us. One time in Paris only half of us made the metro and we had to wait for the others to catch the next one.

Anyway, at Humbolt there was no student discussion panel which I had been looking forward to, sort of like a Nitra experience. On our spring study tour at MUDEC, one of our stops had been at a university in Nitra, Slovakia, where we interacted with students there, something I had really enjoyed. For some reason, though we'd had something similar scheduled at Humbolt, it was cancelled. No one paid an ounce of attention. I was getting burnt out. Then there was the whole where's the U-bahn stop experience where our idiot students had to wait for Dr. Mason, who was talking to his professor friend, before they could go back even though we were free for the evening. I was fed up with the group. Brad was too. We left with Eva despite warnings from the group that only Dr. Mason knew how to get back. It was about the time people realized that we didn't really fit the group, and right before it was common knowledge that we were experienced travelers. Berlin was the city where Brad and I learned we were thought to be spies by the group, a semi-frightening thought that the whole group had made up this spy story about us. This U-bahn stop incident was a breaking point. We had entered our third week in Europe, and most of the students still needed their hands held by Dr. Mason. Brad and I had spent our junior year at our Luxembourg campus (MUDEC.) These students were different than the MUDEC types - they were spending their summer in Europe rather than committing themselves to a regular semester. They had no interest in immersing themselves in culture. Berlin really was the point where Brad and I divorced ourselves from the group.

After construction rerouted Brad, Eva, & I, we finally arrived at our hotel stop & headed for the Commie Bar for a five hour long happy hour. The waiter was awesome, the weather beautiful. What a thrill, to be sipping cocktails in the summer sun after a hard day after "work", sitting in business attire conversing about everything and nothing. Drinks gradually loosened the lips, revealing personal stories I hadn't thought about for years. I even showed them my Oktoberfest scar.

At one point I began to feel like a third wheel (what's new?) and also like I was sick. I can't remember if I took the walk before or after puking; however, I had gotten up, walked a bit, sat back down, got back up, and stumbled blindly around the block with the sun still scintilating like a golden coin. I reached for it but couldn't grab it. Frankly, I can't tell you my thoughts or actions as I walked around that block, nor could I tell you how long it took, though Brad says it took awhile for me to return. I only remember the coolness of that sun, a blurred vision at which I looked with clear eyes and a weak smile. I don't recall coming back. I don't recall the Greek philosopher coming to sit with us. I don't recall Eva leaving. I don't recall the sun going down. I do remember having a lovely anti-American discussion on world politics and the Greek guy asking why American girls were fat. I don't remember leaving but I do remember having a beer with Jen & Giovana and trying to have another great conversation with some guy, but that didn't take off. I do remember giving Eva 40DM ($20) the next day to pay her back from the night before (and those were half price drinks!) It was a lovely day. I still remember walking around that block and the way the sun hung in Berlin's summer sky in those early evening hours. I had felt a moment of utter joy, a sort of freedom of the soul, a gratefulness that I was walking the streets of Europe, of Berlin. Too rare and fleeting are these moments in life, this joy and freedom and desire to wrap your arms around the whole world.

The next morning wasn't so lovely. It would have been horrible even if the last evening had not taken place. At least we had a lengthy train ride to Potsdam when I could sleep. And they gave us cool stuff. If I'd had Siemens in the morning I'd never have made it through. What a wretched and treacherous morning traversing the streets and suburbs of Berlin, an existance that dulled the joy of the European air and spirit which filled my pining lungs. The pounding - that terrible pounding - like an implosive mass turning inside-out, how it pains my thoughts! Take me from this, no, not to - SIEMENS! The torture was almost too much. At least they provided Cokes. But for two hours a guy read from a paper about SIEMEN's operations - at least, that's what I could gather from the bits I heard. I was sitting in another white room; the usually pleasant sunlight was beating through the glass making it extremely difficult to feel any sensation of comfort. I imagined myself standing outside in that sunlight, looking through the windows much like I would look at animals in...  (continued on Things I Plan To See & Do)

...a zoo. The neckties are like leashes on guys; the women looked as if they were attending the funerals of their own personalities. The posture and body language of each young professional told me that free will was slowly being tortured to death. German, French, American - the accent changes, but the story remains the same. As I sat at the conference table of Siemens, I realized that I had thrown myself into a corporate nightmare.

I continued to sit there, becoming anxious. Physical existence began to struggle with my rapidly increasing mental insanity that had crept into my head, at the insistance of the monotonous essay that was being read to us from the head of the table. Slowly my arms and legs began to tingle from disuse until I was a mass of shaking apendages combatting the boredom and sleepiness that I had been dealing with all day. This was Berlin, city of the next millenneum, but even the kinetic air of its new existance could not excite my sleeping brain. If any positive energy had been floating around the room, it had swarmed the professor, and to the students' good fortune, he was sitting miles down the table and had to make an effort to set his eyes on the attention spans which had left the building. Empty Coca-Cola bottles lined the tables, teasing the consciousness which had been surviving on the periodic intaking of the liquid sugar of the american champagne. The sunlight showed the dullness of the glasses, covered with wanting fingerprints. Pens danced in hands, some of  them making their ways up to the mouths that were beginning to whisper to neighboring ears.

Now I didn't say it before, but Siemen's is a city within Berlin, complete with U-bahn stop. The headquarters is still in Munich, but since Berlin has been recalled to life, I wouldn't be suprised if an increasing number of its operations are conducted from Berlin. What Joy to escape this corporate prison and the eyes of Big Brother! The evening brought Adam, Tim, Brad, Eva, and I to a restaurant near the hotel, one which I had stumbled by the night before but hadn't noticed. I ordered pork, kraut, and dumplings, but it was a shoulder, dark meat, and too much. My night ended after a trip to the Reichstag, and the next morning I had to meet with Eric and Dr. Mason to discuss some theories. Eric and I were the only students taking the course for post-graduate credit, so we had additional work we had to do. Eric didn't show up. I was a half hour late. I had only glanced at the reading - I hadn't a clue what I was talking about, and for once I couldn't bullshit through something. It was quite frustrating and I felt stupid. But I had Berlin for the day - Brad & I were going to Lux at 11pm. I was supposed to meet them at the Pergamon, but I went to Potsdamer Platz and felt the excitement of watching a new city being built before my eyes. In a moment of awe I was determined to reside in Berlin in the near future. The thought has yet to escape me. Fifteen years later, it still hasn't.

I did meet Adam & Brad at the Pergamon, but Tim didn't show. I decided not to go in. There was too much of Berlin to breathe, and my lungs had no desire for the stuffy air of a museum. The previous night's trip to the Reichstag had served as a catalyst for the excitement I felt on this last day in Berlin. We had climbed to the top for a spectacular view of Berlin's cranium. (Might I add this word choice is excellent to describe the sight that stood before us. We stood with the cranes, on top of the infant city with the knowledge that it will mature into a fine speciman, a leader in the free world and also of the enslaved.)

Upon departing the Pergamon, Brad & I went to Fredrickstrasse for lunch. We left Adam at the museum; Eva had to depart for wherever she was going for the weekend. The restaurant we chose was excellent, but skeptism abounded upon entrance. It took quite awhile to be served, though it was worth the wait. Thirst had seized us, Cokes were all important. The food was good, too. We had found the arts district of Berlin; by sight one could tell this area once was glamorous, tuxedos and evening gowns had adorned the streets, motorcars of the prosperous parked in front of dazzling hotels, now hollowed by a century of evil. Despite the deterioration of these buildings, a symphonic air still lingers as a reminder of glory days passed and hope for the future.

I can't remember the rest of the day, only the waiting in line for train tickets, for which we were too late to make reservations, Brad being upset by that (probably because he wouldn't get his beauty sleep.), and the actual waiting on the train with Adam, Tim, and Brad, listening to my Dancemaxx CD that I had bought at a CD shop by the Kaiser Wilhelm Kirke earlier in the day. We had split up after the failed reservation episode, though Adam sort of followed. I looked at a junk market and went back to the hotel. Here I find a five hour gap; I remember not dinner, only waiting around for Tim and the bus ride to the Zoo Station.

End journal entry

Potsdamer Platz is finished now; I wonder what it looks like without the towering cranes and skeletons of skyscrapers. I really want to see Berlin again.

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