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A bewildered Canadian on a world gone mad

It’s Canada Day. And right now the world is giving me many reminders of how lucky I am to live here.

1. That Quebec’s referendum on separation was defeated.

I wasn’t paying much attention to Brexit until a couple weeks before it happened, and even then I was thinking that surely they wouldn’t vote Leave? Watching the results come in reminded me so much of the horrible Quebec separation referendum of 1995. A full night of tension (following weeks of worry on a vote I, an Ontarian, couldn’t even participate in) watching the movement of a Yes (separate) / No (stay) line on television.

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That nail biting time before the needle moved to the side of good

But then, while the Yes started out strong, it gradually swung toward the No, who ended up taking it with a 0.6% margin. Whereas Great Britain’s vote was the opposite: A strong initial showing for Stay giving way to Leave, who took it with 2% margin. (No matter how many times I refreshed my browser.)

What would have happened to Canada had it gone the other way? Great Britain’s experience is giving us an idea:

  • A precipitous drop in currency.
  • Tumbling stock markets, with the UK dropping from the 5th to the 6th world economy overnight.
  • Expected rises in unemployment, debt and lowering of GDP and growth.
  • A Leave team with no plan for how to exit.
  • Political disarray all around, leaving no party or leader currently able to effectively govern through the chaos.
  • Regions (Scotland, Ireland, London) unhappy with the result talking separation of their own.

For Canada, it would have been all that, only worse. (For an idea just how ill-prepared the country was for the possibility of a Yes vote in the Quebec Referendum, read Chantal Hébert’s The Morning After: The 1995 Quebec Referendum and the Day That Almost Was.)

And just for the record, Leave voters in Great Britain: What you did was crazy. Your country had a great deal in the EU: you were allowed to retain your own currency and greater control over your own borders than other countries, while still enjoying full trading access and movement of workers. And you gave that up for what?

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2. That recent attempts to win Canadians’ votes through xenophobic appeals have failed.

While a number of factors inspired Leave voters, the wish to reduce immigration—particular a certain kind of immigrant—was among them, as evidenced by the unfortunate increase in hate crime and racist abuse since the vote (as though racists now feel “allowed” to air their views). Meanwhile, the presumptive Republican nominee for US President wants to ban all Muslims from entering the country (“til we figure out what’s going on”) and build a wall to keep out Mexicans. And France has their National Front party. And so on…

But similar appeals haven’t met with success in Canada. In Quebec’s (them again) 2014 election, the Parti Québecois ran, in part, on a “Charter of Values” that would have banned public sector employees from wearing “conspicuous” religious symbols:

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This bill was so popular in polls, the PQ used it try to turn their minority government into a majority. It didn’t work. After a fairly disastrous campaign by the PQ, it was the Liberals, who opposed the Charter, who were elected with a majority of the seats. With the added bonus that the spectre of another Quebec referendum on separation retreated further.

Then in the 2015 election, the ruling Conservatives appeared to gain ground in polls after they pledged to ban the wearing of niqabs at Canadian citizenship ceremonies, and to set up a barbaric practices tip line. [This is when I had to check out of Canadian election coverage for a while, as I was so distraught.] But the end result was, again, a coalescing around the Liberal party, who were foursquare against both proposals (and, it must be said, who generally ran a brilliant election campaign).

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A plurality of Canadians chose hope over fear

Upon election, Liberals walked the talk, dropping the court case on the niqab ban, and most notably, welcoming 25,000 (and counting) Syrian refugees, moves that have only made them more popular since the election. Americans look on it in wonder, from The Daily Show to the New York Times:

Why? Well, Vox Magazine says it’s the outcome of decades of Canadian government fostering tolerance and acceptance as core national values. As a result, most Canadians see immigration as an opportunity, not a problem; as something that improves rather than threatens the nation. Apparently, Canada is the least xenophobic country in the Western world.

3. That our current government is (mostly) pro-trade

One of the most confusing results of the Brexit vote, to me, was the cavalcade of federal Conservatives MPs who tweeted their approval—the only Canadian I’m aware of who did so. But isn’t Conservatives supposed be all pro-trade, because it’s good for business, while it’s the lefties who are opposed, fearing it’s bad for labour?

And yet there’s Trump, spitting about pulling out NAFTA. What? When did this turn around? (Harper’s government, it must be said, was most definitely pro-trade, making the MPs comments all the more confusing.)

So it was another interesting bit of timing that this week was the NAFTA summit between the current US President, Canadian Prime Minister, and Mexican President.

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Too bad they’re all men (but this US will be changing that soon, right? right?), but a fine-looking trio they are

Their big message: Trade is good. Countries are stronger when they work together. Globalism brings prosperity. And it was all capped off by one amazing speech President Obama gave in the House of Commons:

And what makes our relationship so unique is not just proximity. It’s our enduring commitment to a set of values, a spirit alluded to by Justin that says no matter who we are, where we come from, what our last names are, what faith we practice, here, we can make of our lives what we will.

Watch or read the rest here.

It was heart-warming, and for a while, one might forget that it remains so much easier to cross borders in Europe than it is to move between the US and Canada, that we have to pay duties on even tiny online purchases from the US, and absolute absurdities such as Canadian inter-provincial (!) trade barriers that cost our economy billions.

So there’s a lot of work to do on this one. But at least it seems the intent it to make things better, not worse, on this front.

Cause that’s the Canadian way.

Happy 149, Canada.

 

 


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Dining in Berlin

The Hackescher Markt area of Berlin is the one end we ended up dining in the most. We went there first on the Monday, aiming for an Italian restaurant named Muret La Barba. We knew it was wise to try to arrive before the peak dining timing of 8:00 pm, but we were still figuring out the transit system then and weren’t able to meet that deadline. And therefore weren’t able to get a table.

For the next night, we made a reservation. That was tricky, as they were pretty busy that night as well, but we did nab one for 6:30 pm. When we arrived we were offered a table we’d have to vacate by 8:00, or we could sit in the bar area by the window and stay as long as we’d like. Jean selected the window because he thought it was a better spot anyway—he has trouble with accents and hadn’t caught that it also allowed us to eat at leisure.

A few things we gradually learned about dining out in Berlin:

  • They just don’t bring you your bill until you ask for it.
  • Berliners tend to like to linger over their meals, so if the place is full at 7:30, you’re likely not getting in at all that day.
  • Your server will speak at least some English, but don’t count on an English menu being available. Might be, might not.
  • The Google Translate app allows you to use phone’s camera to translate Germans “on the fly” into English.
  • Getting credit cards accepted is not so much a problem as it used to be. But, there is no tip option. You have to tell the server in advance how much tip to add to the credit card bill. (Typical tip rates there are 5 to 10%.)
  • If tipping in cash, you don’t just leave it on the table. You give it to the server.
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Google Translate app

We hadn’t figured all of that out by Tuesday, however, and were still wondering why the constant delay in getting our bill, and ended up not leaving a tip despite the fine service. Oops.

But, it was a lovely meal. They make their own wine there, and were able to recommend an interesting white to start. We intended to have just a glass each of that, with the idea of trying another, but they just left the whole bottle there after pouring us a glass each, for us to take as much as we wanted, and turned out what we wanted was the whole bottle.

As for food, we started by sharing a bread and cheese plate with walnuts, pear, and honey. Then I had the linguine con vongole (“with clams”) in a white wine and garlic sauce, while Jean went with a delicious mushroom ravioli in cream sauce. We shared a crème brulée for dessert, and each had a decaf espresso.


Tuesday we were back in that same area, this time trying a vegan restaurant, believe it or not: Kopps. And it was fantastic. They gave us an amuse to start, then Jean had a delicious cauliflower and peanut soup, while I tried the asparagus tart.

Vegan Soup .... Um Um Good!

Not sure why the soup is green, but it was some good

Vegan Veggie Roll :)

It was a spring roll-like tart

As mains, Jean had amazing gnocchi with eggplant and beet. I had barley risotto with asparagus (again!) and apple—the apple really made the dish “pop”. We enjoyed these with different glasses of German whites.

For dessert, we shared a plate of faux cheese—made with nuts and so on, and served with fruit such as figs and strawberries. Jean was kind of disappointed it wasn’t really cheese (which he knew going in, but still), but I thought everything was quite good. The waiter recommended having beer with that, and it seemed so odd to me, I ordered it. The beer was delicious! (I think it’s only Canadian beer I don’t like.) Jean had a kir royale type of drink that was also very nice.


Our lunches tended to be fine but not worth blogging about—all right udon, OK Chinese, acceptable Turkish. On Thursday lunch time, we were in the Charlottenburg Schloss area of more touristy restaurants. We though it time to finally have German good, at Brauhaus Lemke. We had a congenial waiter who commented on the number of Canadians he’d served that week—in fact, a couple were at the table behind us. And the place had a nice ambience, and a history, explained on the menu.

The food wasn’t terrific, though. German’s not our favourite cuisine anyway, and I’m not sure this was the best exemplar of it. I had duck, and the meat right under the skin was nice, but overall, it was overcooked. It came with some actually very good red cabbage, but pretty mediocre dumplings. Huge portions! But we left quite a bit.

The place was also a brewery, so we each had a beer. Both of those, my friends, were delicious!


After that heavy lunch, we weren’t up for a big meal. We considered trying to do something cool like go to a jazz club, or out dancing, but finally just settled on a wine bar.

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Vivent les vins… Libre!

No complaints here about the quality and choice of wines, many of which were French, or the food: We had a couple cheese plates (actual cheese, this time), a buffalo mozarella and beet dish, and another built around bacon and eggs. The only problem was that our waiter wasn’t very attentive. The whole pacing of when items arrived was a bit off; we’d have to wander off and go look for him when we wanted to order something else. So it was a nice evening—but not perfect.


Our best lunch was Wednesday, at the beautiful Café-Restaurant Wintergarten, facing a garden. Their white asparagus soup was incredible, but even more important was that it put an end to our streak of breakfast problems.

We’d decided not to go with our hotel’s breakfast buffet, as it was kind of expensive, and we’re not big fans of buffets. We’d thought that the nearby train station restaurants might be suitable for this simple meal, but… Honestly, if we’d been OK with just pastry and coffee for breakfast, that would have worked. German pastries are almost as good as French, and I experienced no bad coffee all week. But French experience had taught me that pastry breakfast leaves me hangry by lunchtime, so we were looking for something more substantial to start the day.

Googling breakfast places did indeed find others, but they just weren’t that good. So when we saw that Café-Restaurant Wintergarten served breakfast daily til 2:00 pm, it seemed perfectly reasonable Thursday morning to take the 20-minute train ride there to eat it. Finally, five days in: A delicious start to the day! (Belgian waffles with fruit, in my case.)

Then Friday, after sleeping in, we took a ride in a different direction to the place Lonely Planet advised offered the best breakfast in Berlin: Chipps Restaurant. It was totally worth the subway ride and walk. Jean declared his Hollandaise eggs delicious. I loved my “lumberjack” breakfast of French toast, scrambled eggs, bacon, and greens. Due to concert timing, this turned out to be a two-meal day for us, so just as well we started with a hardy one.

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I’m a lumberjack and I’m OK… Photo from Yelp


Saturday night I was hoping to get a nice final dinner, but doubtful I would given, that we were in a random tapas restaurant. German tapas. Not Spanish.

But I was pleasantly surprised by the nice little dishes that were served. Exquisite mashed potatoes with truffle oil. Tender sole with tomatoes. Lively beets and walnuts. Tasty roast potatoes in walnut oil. Fresh tomato bocconcini. Creative fried cucumber (Jean left that one to me). Everything was great.

 


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Other Berlin highlights

Berlin has a lot to offer besides memorials to its Wall. Initially I’d thought that since we were staying in the city a whole week, it should be pretty relaxing—that we’d be able to take in activities at a leisurely pace. Wasn’t quite what happened. (Maybe we’re just not that good at relaxing.) Berlin is pretty sprawling, and we wanted to see different parts of it. So while it wasn’t really stressful—at least not that often—it definitely felt like we were always on the move.

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Berlin neighborhoods. Map By TUBS – Own work

This is some of what we saw (that I haven’t already covered).

Holocaust Memorial (Monday, Mitte)

Berlin’s Holocaust Memorial is in a kind of a maze design. It was interesting, but strangely… Playful, for a Holocaust Memorial? Especially since a lot of kids were, in fact, playing a sort of hide and seek in it the day we were there? And the interpretation centre was closed, and we didn’t get back to it, so we got no clues from that. Worth seeing, but unexpected.

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Members of Adam Lambert’s band at the Holocaust Memorial, same week but not same day we were there. Source: https://www.instagram.com/p/BEwBO4uIMve/?hl=en

Topographie of Terrors (Monday, Mitte)

This site had panel exhibits on the Nazi rise to power and the subsequent effects on the population of Berlin. I found it quite interesting, especially learning (or being reminded) that after a period of economic hardship and high unemployment, Hitler and the Nazi party failed to gain an outright majority in the election: They got 42% of the vote. Now, that’s enough for an outright majority in Canada’s electoral system, but in Germany, Hitler had to pass laws giving him the ability to govern basically unopposed. He did this with the support of several minor parties. The ones who weren’t on board later found themselves harassed and arrested.

Pergamon Museum (Tuesday, Museuminsel)

The Pergamon contains these huge installations re-creating Greek courtyards and Babyloninan palaces. I’ve never seen anything like it. And the included audioguide explained the effort in bringing these huge pieces over to Germany from where they were found, back in the day when Germany was the per-eminent archaeological nation.

The 2nd-century-B.C. marble Pergamon Altar

A big chunk of Greece inside a German museum

Neues Museum (Tuesday, Museuminsel)

The Neues (“New”) museum, as I’d mentioned, we liked even more than the Pergamon. The building itself is lovely: “a dynamic space that beautifully juxtaposes massive stairwells, domed rooms, muralled halls and high ceilings”, as Lonely Planet puts it. The exhibits are a mix of old and new, such as artifacts from Troy along with a sociological look at the meaning of moustaches over time.

Neanderthal Likeness reconstruction from a skull

Computer modelling was used to determine what this Neanderthal looked liked, based on his skull. Cool, eh?

Neues Museum

The Neues has a particularly great collection of Egyptian artifacts

The major showpiece of the Neues is the bust of Nefertiti—but that, you are not allowed to photograph. It is indeed a stunningly beautiful piece. (The much less well-preserved bust of her husband is also on display here.)

City West sights (Wednesday, Charlottenburg)

To get here we had to take the U2 to Zoo Station, meaning that I had this song stuck in my head all day:

U2 Zoo Station – official / unofficial video

Our first stop was at the Kaiser-Wilhelm-Gedächtniskirche [honestly, these German words], a church that was bombed during the second world war. Its been left in its damaged state as a war memorial. The remaining room is lovely, with painted roof and frescoes, and exhibits some interesting artifacts and photos of how the church as a whole once looked.

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Found photo, as construction made it difficult for Jean to get a good shot of this building

Zoo station is so named because it does overlook the Berlin Zoo, which we didn’t go in and visit (though it’s supposed to be quite good), but we could see the monkey and baboon cages from the rooftop terrace of Bikini Berlin, a mall we visited just to gawk at its gorgeous interior, and not toshop at. (We were terrible consumers in Berlin. Didn’t buy anything.)

The Käthe-Kollwitz Museum we visited largely because it was a convenient fill-in between lunch and the Story of Berlin Museum. Described as Germany’s greatest woman artist, she was very talented, especially with her lithographs, many of which had a maternal theme. But due to demands of motherhood and, especially, limitations placed on her during war time, she wasn’t able to produce a great deal of work.

Strangely for people who like art galleries and museums, that ended up being the only one we visited. We didn’t make it to the National Gallery, the Art Museum, or the Salvador Dali Museum.

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All we saw of Berlin’s National Gallery: Its impressive exterior

Schloss-Charlottenburg (Thursday, Charlottenburg)

When we found that the train deposited us in downtown Charlottenburg rather than at the castle site, we decided to walk to it rather than take the bus. The Schloss sight has four buildings you can visit, but the most impressive one is one we started with, the New Palace. This was the home to a series of German royals past, each of whom seemed to want to build their own wing of rooms when they took over, rather than occupy what was already in place. So the palace is quite large and reflects a variety of decorating styles. Though partly destroyed in the war, enough of it remained for reconstruction to make sense.

The New Palace audio-guide (most Berlin museums included an audio-guide free) was one of the best I’ve encountered, perfectly timed to guide your walk through the series of grand and slightly less-grand rooms.

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Many statues are displayed at Schloss-Charlottenburg. I love this one.

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And this is a cool photo

The remaining buildings were not as grand, but were worth taking a stroll through on the the pleasant garden grounds. The Altes, an older palace, is used to exhibit art (and, OK, I guess that is another art gallery we saw)—and had a remarkably poorly timed audio-guide! The Belvedere exhibited a whole lot of porcelain. The Mausoleum had a very impressive interior, with marble, and columns, and statues.

Stone Veil

Not a mausoleum picture (still from the New Palace), but pretend it is

Postdamer Platz (Thursday)

Postdamer Platz is called a “square” but is more like a disorienting set of intersecting streets with the same name. So it took us a while to get oriented, but once we did, we decided to visit the Museum of Film and Television, which is free later in the day on Thursday. I, who had studied how influential Germans were in the early history of cinema (The Cabinet of Dr. CaligariMetropolis, Greta Garbot, Leni Riefenstahl), found it much more interesting than Jean, who was not aided by his audioguide running out of battery. The only part he somewhat enjoyed—which I also found fun—was the special exhibit on all the Oscar Best Actress winners through history.

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We saw this famous dress of Cher’s “in person” at Berlin’s Museum of Film

River cruise (Friday, Museuminsel)

Most of the week in Berlin, the weather was unseasonably cool. Friday that finally turned around, and we got a beautiful, warm, sunny day. It felt that all of Berlin was out in parks, basking in the warmth. We decided it was time for a River Cruise.

Berlin TV Tower and TV Fan!

Finally enjoying the warmth! That’s Berlin’s highest structure, the Fernsehturm or “TV tower”

It was a good, one-hour tour. You did get a different view of Berlin and its buildings from the water, and we were supplied with English audioguide as to what we were seeing, though the geographic organization meant we were sometimes jumping in history in a somewhat confusing way.

Berlin River Tour

The Berlin Dome viewed from the water. Complete with construction cranes.

Potsdam (Saturday)

Potsdam is a popular day trip spot from Berlin, being about a 40-minute train ride away. Although our trip was slightly longer, because they were doing some track work on the final part, so we were moved to a bus for that bit.

On the way I’d read about a tour that sounded as though it would be good, taking us to all the main sights in the town, with a guide. The tour representative was there to meet our bus, and when we were 5 Euros short of the quoted price, just accepted that.

It was nice not to have to figure out how to get ourselves everywhere, for once. But what we hadn’t realized was that we wouldn’t get to go inside any of the museums or castles: just see the exterior, led by a guide who had to alternate between German for one group and English for another.

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Potsdam Schloss and Park Sanssouci (the French word, meaning “without worry”). Photo from Wikipedia Commons.

Still, we did learn some things about the Prussian emperors who once inhabited these palaces, such as that they spoke better French than German, and that they introduced the potato to German cuisine.

After the tour, we would have had time to head back to one or more of the sights and tour inside, but we decided to just spend some time in the fairly charming old town instead.

Among the other sights we did not get to:

  • Museum of Photography
  • Tiergarten (like Central Park in New York; we only saw the edges of it)
  • German Historial Museum
  • Parliament tour
  • Checkpoint Charlie—We did walk in the area, but didn’t really go in anywhere
  • Planetarium
  • Aquarium
  • Jewish Museum

But I still think we did all right.


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Tear down the wall

Modern Berlin is vibrant. Its streets are always busy, though never uncomfortably crowded. Its people are a multicultural mix who speak a variety of languages, with German predominating, of course. The population is pretty stylish. That it’s a pretty open, liberal society is apparent in various ways, from the casual beer drinking by people on subways cars on the street (not drunks; just people enjoying a beer); the mant sex shops and clubs; even the sweet, candy-cotton waft of e-cigarette smoke.

And it certainly seems economically healthy, with all the construction projects foiling Jean’s photography attempts, the many high-end designer shops available, the architecturally beautiful new malls like Bikini Berlin,  and the relative scarcity of homeless people—far fewer than you see in large Canadian cities.

Berlin Dome

The Berlin Dome—one of the rare older buildings in modern Berlin

Berliners are well-supported in their desire to move around. Admittedly, the new airport is stuck is some of construction limbo, and the current one seems a bit dated. (It’s convenient that you go through security right at your gate, and disembark from the plane right where your luggage is, but there’s a notable lack of airport services.) But the transit system… amazing! It took us a few days to figure out it—the light rail (M trains), the surface trains (S-Bahn), the subway (U-Bahn), the regional train, the buses. But then—sometimes with help of Google Maps—it got us everywhere we wanted to go.

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Berlin transit map

We did notice some police presence—always around the Jewish synagogue, often at the main train station: one day we emerge to a whole lineup of police officers at the ready with riot gear. But it seemed clear this was about protecting, not repressing the population.

I think that’s why all the memorials to The Berlin Wall struck me so profoundly. The contrast with the present was so stark.


That Berlin was a city once divided by all wall into communist East and democratic west was the main thing I knew, going in. Today almost all of the Wall is down, and you can’t tell East from West—not by architectural differences, or weird road designs, or anything.

The main memorial remaining is the Gedenstätte Berliner Mauer, on a street once completed divided into east and west. Now just one wall segment remains, with an outdoor exhibit.

The closest train stop to it is the Nordbahnhof S-station. This station was below East Berlin, so the West Berlin trains that ran through it at that time were not permitted to stop there. This and few others like it became “ghost stations.”

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The end of the line—U station trapped behind the Berlin Wall, 1962. Source: http://www.iridetheharlemline.com/tag/berlin/

The communist regime quickly realized these stations could be used for escape attempts, so they set up guards. Only thing is, the guards then escaped, so they started locking the guards in their posts to prevent this. In case of fire? The guards would have been doomed. I learned about this and about other—mostly unsuccessful—attempts to escape from these increasingly fortified ghost stations via informational posters put up at this station.

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The Nordbahnhof S-station then and now (pretty much). Source: https://stretchingintoinfinity.com/tag/ghost-station/

It all just seemed so weird—this enormous amount of government time and money spent on keeping a population imprisoned in its country.


The Berlin Wall exhibit itself naturally gives the history of the building of the Wall. The initial version was a little too easy to scale, so they kept “improving” it with various features that made climbing and escaping more difficult. I hadn’t realized that they’d ended up with two parallel Walls, with a fairly wide, guarded space between each.

The green space on the left is bordered by yet another wall…

There was also a photo exhibit of people who had died attempting to escape (or from just being in the wrong place). Many were teenagers and children.

A rebuilt Church of Reconciliation chapel stands at one end. The original church was dynamited in 1985, its walled-on facade proving too much of a PR nightmare for the East German regime.

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Photos, artifacts, and this statue commemorate the original Church of Reconciliation. Photo by me.


Later we visited a couple museums that focused on what life was like in East Berlin. The Lonely Planet description of the DDR Museum is pretty accurate:

The ‘touchy-feely’ DDR Museum does an entertaining job of pulling back the iron curtain on an extinct society. In hands-on fashion you’ll learn how, under socialism, kids were put through collective potty training, engineers earned little more than farmers, and everyone, it seems, went on nudist holidays.

The interactive approach was kind of fun, while also being educational. You got to sit in a 1970s style living room, try to determine your factory’s target output under central planning principles (very difficult), and gauge whether your choice of clothing and accessories would meet with government approval.

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Photo from the official DDR Museum site

This is a good place to go if you want your faith restored in capitalism. It explained how the economic central planning led to product shortages (except for privileged government members), though it also keep basic food stuffs really cheap (which I hadn’t realized). And it just made innovation impossible—lack of trade meant they couldn’t build on others’ work, and lacked the incentive and materials needed to come up with similar improvements themselves. This was perhaps most evident in the one car available to East Germans (if they saved their money a long time): the Trabant.

Tranbant Sales Girl :)

The Trabant: A car model that didn’t evolve for 30 years

The above photo was taken at the History of Berlin museum, which tries to bring all of Berlin history to life through a series of multimedia exhibits. We didn’t get as much out of that one (though the teenagers there seemed to like it), but it did include a tour of a a nuclear bunker.

Now, we have toured a nuclear bunker in Canada: the Diefenbunker. This is a huge, amazing facility designed to keep the Government of Canada operational during a nuclear attack.

These German nuclear bunkers couldn’t be more different. Designed for ordinary people—though there were only enough of these for about 0.5% population (with no real plan for how the unarmed guards in charge were supposed to manage this triage)—only the very basics were available. In the vestibule, you were to strip, shower, then enter the bunker, in which almost all floor space was taken up with stacked bare cots.

Bunker Bedding

Welcome to the apocalypse

The space, our tour guide pointed out, would quickly very hot with the 3000 or so inhabitants crammed in. The toilets and sinks were quite limited for this number of people, and there were no showers or mirrors inside. Kitchens were also small, and designed just to heat up big pots of canned food. An air filtration system, with backup generator, was designed to work just 14 days. Then it was back out into the nuclear wasteland with you.

Whole idea really gave me the willies.


We took a bit of a break from Wall memorials til later in the week, when we stopped in at the Trãnenpalast, or Palace of Tears, the preserved pavilion where East Berliners had to say good-bye to visitors. The small exhibit does a very good job of showing of what the border-crossing experience was like, and giving examples of families and lovers who were torn apart by the political rift. Quite emotional.

The Wall only came up once more, on our tour of Potsdam the last day—I hadn’t realized the Wall stretched so far. A small fence by the river marks the spot where the view-blocking Berlin Wall once caused much unhappiness.

Building walls. Who in this day and age would still think that’s a good idea?


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Berlin, mon amour

Tuesday morning. It’s cold. It’s raining. The museum lineup has slowed to a crawl, as groups of school children gained entry ahead of us. Jean has lapsed into a grumpy silence. My mood is darkening accordingly.

“Good Lord,” I think. “This is going to be a long week.”


Why visit Berlin? Well, weird as it seems, it really was a vacation built around an Adam Lambert concert. We’d been thinking of heading back to Europe in the spring anyway. He was touring there then; I’d been wanting to see Lambert in concert for a while. So we used his tour itinerary for vacation planning.

Amsterdam had been the likely prospect, but the date wasn’t ideal—a bit early in April, and conflicting with a local show we had tickets to. Then more dates were added. “Hey look,” I told Jean. “He’s playing Berlin.”

“Well, I’ve always wanted to visit Berlin,” Jean said as he hurried off to work.

That afternoon I emailed him. “I bought Adam Lambert concert tickets!

“For Berlin!”

And five months later, we were off.


For whatever reason, I did a lot of fretting before this vacation. At various times, I worried about:

  • The low dollar. [But it had started swinging upward again well before we left, taking the steam out of that worry.]
  • That our Tep wireless device wouldn’t arrive in time. [It did.]
  • That it would rain constantly. [Actuality: Three of the seven days, it did rain regularly, but never constantly. Basically, we had four days of sun and three days of partial sun.]
  • Terrorism. That would be right after the Brussels airport bombing—the very airport we were transferring through on the way back. But I eventually got hold of myself and realized that fear was somewhat irrational, and replaced it with a fear of:
  • The Brussels airport not being ready for us to transfer through—But then I looked it up two weeks before, and it was ready, so then it was just
  • That security would be a nightmare. [Which it wasn’t really. Just that the extra checking delayed our departing flight somewhat.]

I could continue on this vein for a while. Will we get good seats on the plane? Have I done enough Berlin research? Should I get the Museumcard or the Citypass or the Berlinpass? Should I be booking a Parliament tour ahead of time? You get the idea.

Still, up to that Tuesday morning, it really seemed all that worrying had been silly. The flight over—and I never say this about transatlantic flights—seemed to go by really fast. Jet lag makes everything a bit challenging the first day, but we still managed to get our transit pass, then (eventually) find the bus to the train station, from where we (rather easily) found our hotel.

And our hotel was nicer than I had been expecting, and in our slightly sleepy state, we agreed to a room upgrade. I don’t know quite what the difference was, but if that’s why we got such a big bathroom counter, that was appreciated. (I don’t travel light in terms of cosmetics.) And the bed was quite comfortable.

It was a nice day, so after wrestling our wireless device into submission (after a shaky start, it ultimately worked really well for us), we got out into the city a bit. Our first Berlin meal, at a random but very busy pub across from a popular market, was delicious: Gorgonzola and spinach ravioli for me; Hungarian goulash for Jean. We saw the Berlin Wall remnants, with plans to go back for a proper visit, and that night had an incredibly long, restorative sleep.

What’s left of “The Wall”


So I think the troubles started Monday. But not dramatically so. Yes, we tried booking some sites online, and just ended up confused, which wasn’t a great start to a day. And yes, many museums were closed that day.

But it was also nice and sunny out, so a good day to visit several outdoor sites, which we did. We saw:

  • The Bradenburg Gates
  • The Holocaust Memorial
  • The Topographie des Terrors site
  • The Berlin Wall memorial

All of which I found at least somewhat interesting, and some fascinating. And I’ll be writing more about them later.

But the problem for Jean—along with the fact that was a rather depressing series of historical events we were revisiting this day—was that he didn’t find much of this picture-worthy. And taking photos is a big part of what he enjoys doing on vacation.

brandenburg

As Jean didn’t take a picture of the Bradenburg Gate, here’s one by Terrance Spencer, a member of Adam Lambert’s band, taken the week we were there. Source: https://www.instagram.com/p/BEv9FomIMmB/?taken-by=terrancespencer&hl=en

It also didn’t help that our second Berlin dinner wasn’t as successful as the first. Having failed to get into the Italian restaurant we were aiming for, the alternative we selected was just so-so. (Though I think the lamb I had was better than Jean’s chicken.)

So Tuesday’s mediocre breakfast, rainy morning, and 45-minute wait to get into a museum did nothing improve to the situation.


Fortunately, when we got into the Pergamon, we found that it actually was a pretty darn good museum, with picture-worthy exhibits! I was quite relieved to finally see Jean pull out his camera and start snapping away. And the companion museum we visited in the afternoon—no lineup here—was even better: the Neues Museum.

Museum Island resident

One of the statues on “Museum Island”, where both the Pergamon and Neues Museums are located

And then the day cleared up, weather-wise. And that night we did get ourselves into that Italian restaurant we’d aimed for on Monday, and we had a wonderful meal there, with great wine.

However, it’s just a fact that Berlin is a less photographer-friendly city than many we’ve visited, given how much was destroyed in the wars and how much is currently under construction, So it just wasn’t destined to be Jean’s favourite. But he stopped letting that affect his mood, and for the rest of the vacation was his usual cheery self and generally great travel partner.

Meanwhile I was perfectly happy just stuffing historical and archaeological facts into my head (though I think many of them have just spilled back out…), and envisioning past times so very different from the vibrant and free city in front of me now.

And the week went by really fast… 🙂

(More to come.)


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Dalmatian Island highlights (with pretty pictures)

Our recent trip took us to Dubrovnik, Croatia (after a 9+ hour flight, transfer, and additional 45-minute flight). We then took a one-week, small-ship cruise of the Dalmatian Islands, ending up back in Dubrovnik. From Dubrovnik, we took a short trip to nearby Lokrum Island.

Map of Dalmatian islands

Not our boat’s itinerary, exactly, but does point out the places we visited.

Each stop had its highlights.

Dubrovnik

The third-biggest city in Croatia, and where we flew into and out of, and spent the most time—probably more than we needed. Our hotel was in the Lapad port area, but most everything worth visiting was in the Old City, a 40-minute walk away.

The Old City is enclosed in stone walls, with only three entrances, which sometimes get extremely crowded! (And May is still relatively low season. Sounds unbearable in summer.) No cars are allowed inside. The main activity there is to pay to walk the surrounding walls. This can be brutally hot in summer, but was quite tolerable in May. And you do get nice views.

Dubrovnik Old City walls

Walking the Old City walls in the hat I bought there

To get yet more views, we also paid to take a tram up to (and down from) Mount Srd.

View from Mount Srd

View from Mount Srd

Other than that, we mainly ambled around the streets of the Old City which are, by the way, teeming with cats (perhaps because they never get mooshed by cars).

Old City Dubrovnik

Street in the Old City – remarkably cat-free, at this point

One day we enjoyed a drink at a neat bar on the side of the mountain, overlooking the sea. You literally had to go through a hole in the wall to get there. I ordered a pear cider, but Jean astonished the bartender by asking for an iced cappuccino. “How would even do that?” he asked. “Make a cappuccino,“ Jean replied, “Put ice in it.” “That’s a first in my bartending career!” he said, when he brought it over.

A drink on the patio

Enjoying cider and the first iced cappuccino ever served at this bar

We also had some nice meals in Dubrovnik, including one at a very good vegetarian restaurant, another at an oyster bar and sushi restaurant (rare in these parts), and one at Azure, which brought Asian flavors to Croatian cuisine. Great waiter there (but good service all around).

Azure shrimp coconut soup

Azure shrimp coconut soup

Mljet National Park

The main activity to do in this park seemed to be to take a boat (yes, yet another boat) to St. Mary Island, a tiny place that didn’t have a lot to it: an old church and monastery, and a couple donkeys. It was a beautiful harbour we were docked at, though.

Pomena harbour, Croatia

Pomena harbour, Croatia

And we found the little restaurant we ate at quite charming. (Though we had to split our meal into two parts when we realized they didn’t take credit cards, and we didn’t have all our cash with us.)

Hvar

Hvar’s claim to fame is being the sunniest island in Croatia. We got a tour there and learned about the island’s history and its current sustaining industries: tourism, olives, and wine—the lavendar market having declined in recent years. After the tour, we visited all the main sites: the fort you can climb up to and explore:

Fort in Hvar

Climbing up to the fort

The museum where Benedictine nuns, who never go outside, spend their days weaving lace made of agave:

Lace of Agave

Exhibit only; not for sale

And the Cathedral, with its three styles of architecture.

We also had a lovely dinner here, at a family-owned restaurant, where the waiter helped us put together an order that allowed us to sample the best on offer. Then we took a sunset walk.

Sunset in Hvar

Bol on Brach Island

This was a mid-morning stop that featured a longish walk to a beautiful beach. We also did a bit of shopping here.

Beautiful Bol beach

Beautiful Bol beach

Split

Split is the second-biggest city in Croatia after Zagreb, so this was more of an urban stop than the rest. We also had a tour here, where we learned that the city was built inside the palace of a former Roman emperor, who chose this site as his retirement spot. People to this day still live in some of the palace rooms!

Bell Tower in Dioclesian's Palace, Split

Bell Tower in Dioclesian’s Palace, Split

We then did our usual walking around and up, followed by another good dinner—even if service got slow once it was time to get our bill.

View of Split, Dioclesian's palace, and harbour

View of Split, Dioclesian’s palace, and harbour

Pusisca

Another beach town we stopped at in the morning.

Pusisca beach

Pusisca beach

Not loads to do after we walked around and back, so we decided to stop for a drink. We ordered fresh lemonade, only to spot our waitress dashing out shortly after we ordered. Seemed a bit strange, until she came back with a bag containing lemons!

I trust that we truly received fresh lemonade.

Markaska

Another beach town stop! It was a bit cold for swimming, so we did more walking. One of the more interesting sites were the many “locks of love” attached to a fence, overseen by a statue of St. Peter to keep them safe.

Markaska locks of love

Swim stop

I was too wimpy, but Jean and many others did take a dip off the back of the boat. I enjoyed the view. 🙂

Marc at the swim stop

Korcula

Our tour guide had a dry sense of humour as she informed us how cleverly built the city was, aligning buildings to best take advantage of the winds and to ensure privacy (by not lining up the windows). She also said the city corners were paved in to create a “backsplash” for any men inclined to urinate in them. I haven’t Googled to see if that’s true.

Mountain view of Korcula

Mountain view of Korcula (which was rivaling Havar for sun, this day)

Lokrum

Lokrum is an uninhabited island a 15-minute ferry ride away from Dubrovnik. It has some interesting ruins and gardens, some regular and some nude beaches (which are pretty private, except for the tour boats regularly sailing by 🙂 ), and peacocks everywhere! The peacocks were a surprise, as none of the guidebooks mentioned them. But it must have been close to mating season, as they were squawking and showing their tail feathers.

Making a move on my girl!

An impressive exemplar among a large flock

Our visit here ended abruptly with the only rainfall of the trip, but fortunately shelter wasn’t far away (and the rain was not long-lasting).


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Croatian vacation: Wherein Jean and Cathy learn to relax (sort of)

Why did we go to Croatia, of all places?

  • Jean had heard good things about it.
  • He’d found a small-ship cruise that fit into one of the few periods this spring where we could fit in a 10-day vacation.

And that’s about it, really. Jean did all the booking of this trip: the cruise, the flights (not that easy to arrange), the hotel in Dubrovnik, where we stayed a before and after getting on the ship. I bought a couple Croatia travel guides and flipped through them, but overall, this was one of the trips I’d prepped for the least.

Reading the cruise itinerary, we both had similar thoughts: Wow, that sounds really relaxing.

We weren’t entirely sure this was a good thing. Normally we keep pretty busy on vacation, packing in museums and hikes up mountains and the constant hunt for the best restaurant within budget.

But generally, the cruise schedule was as follows::

  • Breakfast somewhere between 7-9, during which, the boat departs.
  • Travel on the boat til the next stop. Sometimes we had a stop around 11:00, then another in the afternoon. Sometimes it was just the one afternoon stop.
  • Lunch on boat around 1:00.
  • Visit the new place we’d arrived at starting around 2:00 or 3:00. Sometimes we had a city tour. We would have supper in the town in in island, and sleep on the boat. (It never traveled overnight.)

You might notice that’s a lot of time just “being on the boat” each day. We frankly had some concerns we’d get bored.

Fortunately, after a short adjustment period, we managed to get into the rhythm of being leisurely. Ultimately, I found this one of the most relaxing, stress-free vacations I’ve ever been on. A few factors, some of which were just luck, helped contribute to that.

The weather couldn’t have been better

Except for one brief thunderstorm on our last day, we encountered no rain. It was just a mix of partly sunny and fully sunny, every day. The highs were comfortable: maybe a max of 26? And the lows were comfortable—throw on a sweater and you’re all good.

That, of course, made visiting each town very pleasant.

Korkula sunset

Korkula: Didn’t suck to be here

The boat also had lovely sundeck.

MS Splendid sun deck

If I hadn’t been so diligent with the sunscreen, I would have come home with a nice tan.

 Croatia is very safe

The rate of theft in Croatia is very low. One tour guide mentioned that people don’t bother to lock their doors. We saw no homeless people, no beggars. That all really reduced the usual paranoia one has, while traveling, about keeping wallets and purses safe.

Dubrovnik market

Me not worrying about getting my purse stolen

The Dalmatian towns are beautiful

New day, new charming location. It’s hard not to feel good when surrounded by sea and sand (well, pebbles really, but…), lovely ancient buildings, mountains, greenery, boats…

Pomena harbour

Pretty Pomena harbour

Hvar cathedral

Cathedral in Hvar

We did a lot of walking

Not while on the boat, obviously, but we did have the daily stops. Jean has a little GPS gizmo he uses with his camera that allows you to geo-tag where each photo is taken. It also happens to tell you how much you’ve traveled each day. Early on Jean started remarking on how much we’d actually walked that day (15 K in Dubrovnik!), and then it became a game to try attain at least 10 K every day.

As an added challenge, we also tried to gain some elevation daily by availing ourselves of whatever viewpoints were on offer.

Hvar viewpoint

Looking down at Hvar

You might be thinking, that doesn’t sound that relaxing, but walking is really good for you. It helped us sleep well. And it was leisurely walking—we often had no particular goal or destination or deadline. We just wanted to see and get immersed in the place we were in. (For at least 10 K.)

Our rooms were well-designed

Both at our hotel and, to our surprise, on the boat, we had rooms with comfortable beds, good lighting, adequate storage, lots of plugins (for our many e-devices), and enough mirrors. Though not that large, the space was used very well. It’s surprising how often that isn’t the case.

Hotel Lapad

Hotel Lapad, our home away from home. Didn’t suck to be here, either.

Good wifi

What can I say. 🙂 The boat had a wifi room whose signal was much better than we were expecting. (Our hotel’s wifi signal was also excellent.) And, I bought a Croatian SIM card for my phone that granted me 3 GB of data for $10! That could serve as a wifi hotspot.

We had our usual absurd number of devices—tablets, phones, ereaders, laptop—so if boredom ever did threaten, it was pretty easy to entertain ourselves.

It wasn’t all Facebook and Twitter, though. Jean also did a lot of his photo processing and posting while enroute (which is good, as he hasn’t had much time since he got back), and I got a lot of reading done (not all on devices; I did bring some dead tree editions as well) and kept up with the travel diary.

Nice people

Tourism is very important to this area, and we generally found we got great service. For example, when we mentioned an early checkout at our hotel, they offered us a bag breakfast (no charge). A lot of the waiters were very friendly and enthusiastic about the restaurant’s food offerings. And yes, the food was quite good! And it was almost always patio dining.

Jean eating salmon tacos

Jean enjoying his salmon tacos

Our cruise director was a little lacklustre, but otherwise the ship staff were good. Our shipmates (only 27 of us onboard) were an international bunch—Australia, New Zealand, Scotland, UK, Norway, Belgium, Switzerland… We were the only North Americans. Obviously you hit it off more with some than others, but generally it was a good group—though Jean correctly pointed out that we weren’t the best at mingling. (The wifi might have contributed to that…)

Swim stop off the MS Splendid

Swim stop off the MS Splendid. Jean is in the water. I am not.