4 to 8 April 2007
Germany: Babelsburg - Potsdam - Berlin - Belzig
On Wednesday afternoon I took the train to Luton where I met up with Catherine, and we flew to Berlin Shönefeld in the evening. A long day of travelling, especially for Catherine who started in Ireland. I had my new camera to play with.
The train journey from the airport turned out to be twice as long as we had expected, and started with us being unable to find the right option on the ticket machines, of which there were at least two types. Fortunately two kind people on the train helped us, a man and then a young woman called Silke who was studying in Berlin. The train took us via Friedrichstrasse station in the centre of Berlin, often running above street level so we got a preview of the city's lights, waterways and buildings that we would discover properly on Saturday.
Ten minutes' walk from the station we found the modern hostel Am Wannsee about midnight and were let in by one of a group of smokers gathered on the front steps. Catherine had rung ahead to say that we were going to be late - and then later - and the man who had stayed up to check us in said, "You are very late!" in a German accent that hid from us whether he was very displeased or only mildly exasperated. He gave us a room on the top floor, with a big window which opened to let in the moonlight and fortunately no noise from the nearby road or railway. In the early morning the birds sang so loudly that Catherine woke and had to shut them out. We got up to find this pretty view over Wannsee. Look at all the mistletoe in the tree - a sign of good clean air. There was lots more of it in other trees. We went down to the dining room to find lots of other guests, mostly German, and had a nice breakfast of bread, jam, cheese, meat, pineapple yoghurt, and coffee. C was unimpressed by the English tea. Then we walked back to the station to continue to Babelsburg and check in at the next hostel for the rest of our stay.
The man at the Potsdam Haus der Jugend said, "You are too early," which was fine because I had verified in advance that we could check in and leave our luggage there. While we were sorting through our belongings in the luggage and laundry room, a woman came and said our room was now ready so we were able to go and dress for the wedding, and still have a couple of hours to get there.
Wandering north, looking for a coffee shop (for second breakfast) and an internet café, we soon left the town behind. Look at the electric utility box beside the road, painted with greenery! Look at the Easter egg trees in people's gardens! We found ourselves beside the Park Babelsburg, and went in because it looked like an attractive place on the map, and might have somewhere that served coffee, and certainly led to a bridge to cross the river to Klein Glienicke where we would find the chapel.
This monument where we stopped to feast on the remains of our previous day's food had a line of sight cut through the trees towards the white archway on a distant hill.
Hooded crows (identified by Catherine) and almost a plague of fire bugs living on mole hills (identified later by Uli) were the most noticeable creatures we saw in the park.
The Schloss, and St. George behind it.
A bird's nest - or is it a bird in the hand? - and a funny-faced lion bowl in front of the Schloss.
Walking out of the park, looking across to Klein Glienicke; and a fabulous wooden house recently built there.
Fortunately breakfast was available until 9:30 so we didn't have to get up too early. The taxi had dropped us off, and then taken Graham and Michelle to their hotel nearby, at something like half past two. Jodie had carefully explained to the driver where to take the four English people, as he didn't speak English and we didn't speak German, or not enough to be useful. I sat in the front and had fun composing the best sentences I could recall from my one year of school lessons, and the driver seemed genuinely pleased to chat in this stilted way.
The dining room seemed to be locked which was odd because there were people in there. On trying the door, one of them came over and opened it. It was The Man. He said, "You are very late." (You have to imagine the "z" and the "v" in his voice.) We said, "But..." and then realised that Catherine had set the alarm on her other phone, the one that would still be in English time. It was ten o'clock. Oops. He said, "Come in." We took bread and jam and cheese and meat and pineapple yoghurt and coffee, and sat on the next table from the staff. After a bit, one of them passed us a basket containing lots of boiled eggs, so we had one of those too. It was a good and welcome breakfast but we felt a little restrained from making the most of it, and couldn't make polite conversation with them.
Catherine and I wandered around Potsdam a bit, found an Internet café for a while, and then walked back to Brandenburgerstrasse and found the restaurant "12 Apostles". The waiter said we could sit anywhere so we took a table and chose a mozeralla and basil salad for a starter, and when he came to take our order he said something and we realised it was a reserved table. No problem: he took the "reserved" sign and the two other place settings away to another table. Oops. Once we were tucking in to the starter and some wine, in walked Giovanna, Peter, Frank and Heike. Hello! Would you like to join us? Waiter, please could we all sit together? Of course... no problem. Please bring everything to this other table. OK, thank you, we will. No, Frank explains, the waiter says please come straight away, quickly, as they need to use this table too.
We had a good meal of pasta and pizza. It was a German and Italian restaurant, with waiters of both nationalities. Giovanna naturally ordered in Italian, but burst out laughing when in the confusion of speaking three languages she inadvertently asked for "penni" instead of "penne", and it means something quite, quite different. We talked about what "dough" is and how you would translate it, about what we all do in outside life, about how we all know Andreas or Jodie. We invited them to come on a night-time walk in the nearby Potsdam Biosphere, a fun look at nocturnal critters and plants for children and adults. We didn't go in the end, as some of them had to go into Berlin to meet the uncle and other members of their or Andreas' family, and by the time we had finished our meal it was too late anyway. When it came time to pay the bill, I put my credit card out as I only had about ten euros in cash, but the waiter said No and the others confirmed that they didn't take any cards. No problem - there's a cash machine just a short way down Brandenburgerstrasse. Off I went. After a couple of minutes I started jogging. Way down the far end of the street I finally came to banks. No cash machines, but one of them had a sign saying something about a "Geldautomat", so at least I had the right word now. I turned around and asked a group of three men, "Enshultigen-sie bitte... If you speak English that would be really useful... No? Well, um, Ich möchte ein Geldautomat, bitte." They said "Sparkasse" and pointed at it: three cash machines inside a room almost next to us. I smiled and thanked them a lot, and finally got back to the restaurant and paid, and we all said goodbye, and Catherine and I walked off to find a tram or train to take us back to Babelsburg for a not-too-late night for a change.
In the morning, ten minutes before going to catch the train for the day's tour, there is a knock on the door and it is Jakob and Wiebke, with Urike and Hartmut close behind them, returning C's coat and asking us if we would like to spend Sunday with them. Well... yes, that would be delightful!
They had come to meet us at the station and had parked by chance at a hostel, so they asked at the reception desk whether a Catherine and a Julian were here. The Man had told them, "Ah, those two! Yes, they are still here." He must have found it both typical and a relief when a few minutes later Catherine asked him if we could check out immediately.
We hastily pack everything, check out, give them our big bags to take away, and rush off to catch the day's tour, promising to meet them in Belzig in the evening. Along with Catherine's coat is this gift of chocolates with a thorn-berry yoghurt centre, a type they used to have when the country they live in was the GDR.
... Dinner in town with some of the others.
On the train, late again. This is Saturday night, on our way to Belzig to meet Hartmut, Ulrike, Wiebke and Jakob. Catherine remembers these double-decker trains from her previous visit with Jodie, and we get a bit of a view of the countryside from the windows. The station announcements on this one sound like the guard is playing a quaint little jingle on his Bontempi organ before speaking into the microphone.
My Sky Chair. Uli had found it when they lived in a rented house in the south, and they had not been able to hang it until they moved here. It is around midnight and we are talking of all things, picking at a delicious fruit salad, drinking wine and beer, with Australian folk songs playing quietly in the background. Hartmut has been to Australia quite a lot, and spent a year there with Ulrike at least once, so they have good friends from that connection.
On Easter morning, we all walked to the local church service where Hartmut sang in the choir. It was a Protestant church and rather a long service, so the children were fidgeting by the end, but they had a lively cantor in charge of the music, who played the organ, conducted the choir, and played a trombone or trumpet in the brass band, often scurrying from one position to the other. One time he finished a verse on the organ where men and women had been singing alternate verses, scurried over to the choir and gave a huge gesture for them to take in a breath, and they all shook their heads and said "Frauen!", as it was not yet their turn to sing: one more women's verse first.
There were several hymns and we did our best to sing along. Very helpfully, the hymn book had the tunes printed as well as the words. On the whole I found them to be rather difficult tunes in a minor key. Finally at the end of the service the brass band played a frivolous and playful swing-jazz piece, perhaps to cheer everybody up, but it was a bit incongruous and didn't seem to work on most people.
Afterwards Uli went to prepare lunch and to make sure the Easter bunny would visit, while the rest of us walked around the town. We went up to the Burgh Schloss which houses the library and is being restored as a tourist attraction, and around the town, saying hello to Wiebke's (or Jakob's?) English teacher on the way, and back home.
We had a delicious Easter lunch with a traditional rollade of meat, red cabbage, and (as it happens) a rollade of potato too, and wine and sparking water to drink.
The Easter Bunny visited all of us when we weren't looking - not just the children.
Music session. Jakob on his ocarina, Wiebke and Catherine on recorder and whistle, and C and I played their guitar a bit too. Then Uli and Hartmut sang us a couple of songs they had learnt in a choir, and all four of them sang another song. It was fun and I wish we had had longer to play and sing together.
All too soon we had to say "farewell" and Hartmut drove us to the airport.
Back in Gatwick, delayed a bit, we slept on the floor near the check-in desks, with ear plugs in. There wasn't much in the way of activity or announcements. I actually got a decent half-night's sleep on my mat of clothes; Catherine didn't, which was ironic because she'd always been advocating it as the sensible option, whereas I had been predicting it would be awful and looking for hostels and trains and coaches to take us anywhere else at all.
Apparently we had a fair bit of company during the night from other travellers trying to sleep, most of them sitting on their luggage. We got up a bit after 5am when people started checking in for the morning flights, and after waking up a bit more at an airport coffee shop we started a long train journey down to Devon to meet other friends for the evening.