Friday, November 12, 2010

Checkpoint Charlie and the Berlin Wall

Checkpoint Charlie is a huge museum of trivia and relics saved during the years of the wall. The museum itself is located with a view over the old wall into East Berlin and had its own share of escape stories.

There were various methods used to escape and many were on display here. The most exciting was the homemade balloon built by two men which they used to float the eight people in their families successfully over the border. The whole trip took about half an hour but it must have been a half hour they will never forget. They tried earlier and the balloon landed 200m short of the border. I guess they weren’t noticed because they got to try again with more success.

Many people hid in false trunks of cars. The Volkswagen trunk was especially interesting. It was so small! When people hid in trunks, the car would ride lower so there were all sorts of methods to combat that. Sometimes they would send heavy cars in before and after theirs so theirs wouldn’t look odd. Sometimes they had particular devices to counteract the weight.

People also swam across the border. Many died doing this, especially in the early days but some made it. One man developed an underwater apparatus that kind of pulled him along. It was so ingenious that there is a patent pending for the device. I think you may have already seen it as a water toy. You hold the handles on the sides of a rotary blade that pulls you around in the water.

Some people walked across the border in fake uniforms. They would smuggle in the correct fabric and accessories of the American soldiers and then sew uniforms. American soldiers weren’t allowed to return the salute of the Soviet soldiers so they had to know this information or their cover would be blown. Quite a number of people seemed to get away with this.

Most interesting to me was the large number of Soviet border guards who escaped. These are the people sent to STOP their countrymen from escaping and a great number of them escaped! Before the wall was put up, there was only barbed wire between the different sectors. Guards would jump the wire. Some would just walk across and hand over their guns. It was so bad that the Soviets had to move the walls and checkpoint gates further apart. One story that is quite famous shows a guard jumping the barbed wire. Earlier, two citizens had escaped and the soldiers had not shot at them. He was the superior officer in charge and feared reprisals so jumped the wire about an hour later. Imagine. Another famous picture shows a young Soviet guard on one side of the barbed wire and a child of maybe four on the other side. The father has just passed the child over the wire to the mother. The guard is looking around for direction as to what he should do. He was later “reassigned”, whatever that meant. I figure it couldn’t mean good things if the other guard jumped the wire to avoid this action.

Many people died trying to get across. They were shot or injured by the wall. Those stories were the most tragic. One boy lay dying for 50 minutes between the walls. The guards from either side wouldn’t go in to the death strip for fear of being shot at. The western guards tried throwing medic packs over to the boy but it was no good. Finally, the guards in the east came in and carried his body away. It caused huge anger on the western side with screaming accusations hurled across at the Soviet soldiers and demonstrations. Much later on, after so many guards had escaped, one guard sent out a plea to the western side saying that many guards are posted there not because they want to be but because they are forced. They are offered extra food, better housing conditions and other perks for shooting and stopping escapees but they choose not to out of compassion for their countrymen.

We visited the East Side Gallery on our last day in Berlin. The gallery is a section of wall about one mile long where artists from around the world are invited to paint. Every so often the wall is whitewashed over and a new round of artists descends to paint. I took lots of pictures because although the art wasn’t the best I’ve seen, it was interesting to see so many countries represented.
Germany, Canada,

Russia, Italy

USA, Portugal

Thursday, November 11, 2010


So, back in late September we went had one of our most amazing days. We went to Ephesus. Ephesus is an Ancient Greek/Roman city in Turkey. It was apparently founded by a prince from Athens, Androklos. He was told by the oracle of Delphi that he would found a city at a place where a fish and a boar show you the way. While he was with his men on a hunting trip, they were cooking fish over the fire. The fish fell out of the pan and caused a spark from the fire to flare up onto a nearby bush. A boar was hiding in the bush and was startled out of its spot by the flames. In this way, Androklos knew he was to build his city at that very spot.

We had to break the show into three parts because it was too long to upload all at the same time. Keep in mind this is part school report, part family experience and part teaching tool!

Tuesday, November 9, 2010

Learning German

A few weeks ago we were all gung ho to learn Greek. It went well with us learning the numbers, please, thank you, come on, good morning, etc. Since I took math and knew the Greek alphabet a little and so many English root words come from Greek language we could pick up some words and decipher others. We learned quite a bit in a short time.

Turkish was different. It was a different language family altogether and the struggle with the simplest words led to futility. I gave up. We weren’t in Serbia or Hungary long enough to make a go of it. Hungarian is the same language family as Turkish (and Finnish, why?) so I think I wouldn’t have succeeded in the short term.

In Austria, they speak German and it was immediately fun. Speaking English gives you such a head start that it seems easy in comparison to Turkish. It starts with “Guten morgan” and you immediately think “I can do this”. You’re confidence gets a test at the grocery store when the butcher asks a question about your order. Suddenly your 10 German words seem inadequate. This morning the check out girl didn’t know that I didn’t know German. A “guten morgan” with a couple of “ya, ya”s and a “danke schon”, and I walked out a master of the German language. I probably have 40 words now. Most of them I can retrieve in about 10 seconds, processing German words in real time is still hard for me.

Having a gut start at something gives you the desire to learn more and more. Ve vill start to feel more comfortable here the more ve learnen. Learnen die German has been wonderbar.

Finishing the Daytrip in Berlin

So because we were taking so long to finish the one day tour, I decided today we should start at the other end and work back. We began our day with a stroll along Karl Marx Allee, formerly known as Stalin Allee. Stalin, another rather wretched dictator, was in power when the Red Army plowed their way over Berlin at the end of WWII. Interestingly, when Hitler committed suicide he selected one of his personal favourites to succeed him and as that man waved the flag of surrender to the Western Allies advancing from the west, he continued the fight against the Soviets approaching from the east. He did this so that any soldiers or civilians left in the city could flee to the western side to avoid the Red Army. It seems a rather thoughtful move by a group not known for their humanity.

Anyhow, the stroll up communist alley was delightful. The buildings were exactly as I would have expected: large rectangular boxes of about the same size and shape spread in an orderly fashion up the boulevard. The boxes were 1950’s communist chic; that is to say, they were not completely unfortunate. We stopped in a café to see the piece of ear and moustache of the old Stalin statue that used to stand on the boulevard. Kind of Van Gogh-like actually. When we got to the end of our stroll, we arrived at the TV tower. This was a monument to communism. It towers over the city and can be seen from almost everywhere. It was built to commemorate an atheist state but in a bizarre twist, a cross is reflected in the huge mirrored ball when the sun shines. This is known as “the Pope’s revenge”. The sun was not shining today so I cannot confirm this happens.

We went up the tower elevator and had a spectacular view of the city. I did wonder what it was used for during the Cold War. I mean, come on, you have a tower view right out over West Berlin after all. In Hungary we saw a fun spy training video so we know the spies were out in force. I say “fun” because it was truly funny but only because it was done so long ago. It was, in fact, a real training video used to train citizens forced to spy for the communists. So, the tower would have been a great place to spy on your neighbours. On the other hand, maybe they’d send people up as a form of torture. You know, a kind of “see what you don’t have” view?

We had lunch at a fun bakery café which Rhys announced was the high point of his day. Sigh. After lunch we finally made it over to Museum Island where we had left off the day before. We bought the three day museum pass and proceeded to file through to our first museum: the Egyptian Museum. While Rhys’s high point was lunch, I have to say mine was seeing the bust of Nefertiti. It moved me to tears it was so beautiful. She has her own room and you aren’t allowed to take pictures so I had to download one from online. I have seen this picture in many different books on ancient Egypt and it has always been one of my favourites. Seeing it today was extremely moving. If they had had benches, I would have sat to gaze at the statue for longer. She was perfectly preserved and skillfully created.

We all enjoyed the museum and each had our highlights. For Rhys it was the necklace of shells found in a 6000 year old grave. For Julia it was the Berlin Green Man, a bust of an Egyptian done in green stone. Again, so skillfully crafted that archaeologists aren’t sure what date to give him. Perhaps the artist was “before his time”. For Tom it was the copper axe heads from 6000 years ago found by a farmer. He was impressed at the technology and ingenuity shown by people so long ago. Another piece that I particularly liked was the 3000 year old hat made of solid gold. It looked like a wizard hat and was perfectly preserved. The pattern of lines and circles decorating it were actually a system of calendar and time. It is thought the hat was a ceremonial piece. There were more surprises inside but those were the highlights.

Monday, November 8, 2010

Another Day in Berlin

Monday we went picked up where we left off the day before. We passed the Hotel Adlon where Michael Jackson had dangled his baby from the second floor. We looked in the closed doors of the best bookstore in Berlin. We passed the statue of Freidrich III, a really great guy. When we reached Bebelplatz, we stopped.

In the middle of Bebelplatz is a square of glass that looks down into a white room with empty bookshelves. This is the memorial to the 20,000 books burned during Hitler’s reign. The prophetic quote nearby says, “Once you start burning books, people won’t be far behind.” I don’t think that is exact but you get the gist. The quote was made 100 years earlier by one of the authors whose books were burned in the fire.

From there we walked into the former state library. It is part of the Humboldt University now. Humboldt is where Einstein taught before accepting a position at Princeton in 1932. Can you imagine how different our world would be if he had remained in Germany? On the second floor is a stained glass window dedicated to Lenin who spent his years in exile studying here. The best part of the building was the little café on the main floor. It is called, “Tim’s” and on the window is written, “Good food, good drinks, good company just like back home in Canada”. Naturally, we stopped to have lunch here. It is interesting how much lunch at a "Canadian" restaurant meant to us. When we first started this trip we wouldn't have gone anywhere near a place that looked North American. Now I even took a picture of the Canadian flag inside. It made me feel all warm and fuzzy.

After lunch we saw the Neue Wache. It used to be a memorial to those who lost their lives during facist regimes. Since the communists are gone, it has been reworked into a memorial to all those who lost their lives during war and tyranny. It has a replica statue inside of a mother with her dead son. The statue sits alone in a large grey room. Above her head is a hole allowing in light and weather. It is quiet and very moving.

Next to that building is the Zueghaus, the museum of German history. We spent the rest of the day here. It was well laid out and HUGE. What I got out of it: the Romans were here, then the Franks, Charlemagne came on the scene about 768 or so and was a great guy so the Roman Catholic church championed him and together they were powerful. During the medieval era there were lots of little kingdoms with feuding kings and the power shifted around as each monarch tried to expand his little area. Around 1400 or so Martin Luther caused a ruckus when he dared to suggest maybe selling little pieces of paper to get into heaven wasn’t the most spiritually sound idea. This and other suggestions eventually split the church and began religious feuding as well as political feuding. A whole lot of feuding went on for several hundred years.

Two of the best pieces we saw were Napolean's hat which was recovered from his carriage when he fled before the advancing Prussians and a mask worn by a doctor during the Bubonic Plague.

We got to the end of the First World War on level one and then went to level two for the Second World War and beyond. This was interesting as it showed Hitler’s ascent to power and attempted to explain how that happened. We then saw an exhibition on Hitler but we were kind of Hitler’d out by then so just went through quickly. It was interesting how many attempts there were on his life. People very high up in his regime realized he had to go and tried over and over to kill him but nothing took. He killed himself at the end of the war. Several of his followers killed themselves as well when they realized their vision of a glorious world free from everyone who didn’t fit their mold would not be realized.

At this point it was dark so we returned home. We had made it about three hundred yards or so down the street.

A Day in Berlin

We have been following the Rick Steve’s method of touring Berlin and I don’t know how the man packs so much into one day! He must be travelling alone. We are heading into day three of his self-guided city tour. It was supposed to be a one day thing. I wonder if he actually stopped to see the sites?

Our first day we hopped on the double decker city bus #100. It hits all the great sites and he recommended catching it just before the big stop to get the best seat. We did and sat right in the front seats of the top deck! It was very cool. Nobody wanted to get off but I forced them all to because Rick said so. We got off at the Reichstag building. We have now learned that Reich means “empire”. This building is the seat of the German government. It was built in the late 18th century to the disdain of the reigning monarch of the day. He called it the “chatting place”. It saw the political turmoil build throughout the 1920’s and was where Hitler rose to power. During WWII it was bombed to smithereens and about 1500 Nazi’s staged their last stand at this place. It took about 60 years for the German people to decide to restore it and now the Bundestag (lower house) sits here once more.

The lineup to get in was one hour long. Now Rick had told me about this but I thought that since we were in November, how long could it be? Well, wasn’t I put in my place? From now on, we listen to Rick. It took some time to get through security as Tom had a pocket knife on him. Fortunately, they let him in anyway… sans knife, of course. I was really glad he wasn’t wearing his new black knit cap at the time or we might still be there.

We went straight to the glass dome at the top. It has been designed to utilize solar panels to provide light to the rooms below. It is a bit complicated and confusing to the un-engineering sort like me. The cool (and I mean cold) part was the ramp circling up the outside. It had a killer view of the city. The dome looks down into the room where the politicians meet. It is symbolic of the need to have no secrets in government.

As we came out the elevator at the bottom, we looked into the room where the politicians meet and noticed the three doors. One is marked “Ja”, one marked “Nein” and one marked, “Abstain”. (Okay it isn’t really abstain but I can’t remember the German word for abstain.) When a vote is going to be close, all 669 members must get up and leave through the door of their choice to cast their vote. We thought that was interesting.

In front of the building is a memorial to the many politicians who lost their lives during Hitler’s reign. That was one of the first things he did on coming into power. He killed off the competition.

Near the back of the building is a memorial to the many people who lost their lives trying to escape from East Berlin over the wall. Most of them died in the first months after the wall was built.

We continued the walk to the Brandenburg Gate. This is the last remaining gate built during the original city. It divides a huge boulevard. On one side was the West Berlin road through a large park, originally hunting grounds for the monarch. On the other side was the East Berlin road. The gate was on the East Berlin side. You can tell because two cobblestone lines show where the old wall used to be. We crossed into East Berlin under the gate and saw a building designed by Frank Gehry. He designed the Guggenheim in Bilbao, Spain. He designed a bunch of other unique buildings as well. This one isn’t so wondrous from the outside because any building designed here can’t be more spectacular than the gate.

From there we went to the Jewish Holocaust Memorial. It is the first memorial funded by the German government. It is controversial because it is dedicated only to Jews and not other groups persecuted during the war. It is an odd place. There are many rectangular grey stones. They are all different sizes and the ground between them is uneven. It is almost like a labyrinth in places as the stones get so large. Beneath it is a museum and naturally we went in. It was again a very heavy place. There were many quotes from Jews who had died. Some were from diaries or papers found near the bodies. Some were from postcards recovered. All were sad. They did reveal that the Jewish people knew that people were being killed at the death camps. At Auschwitz we were told the people had been misled and kept calm with lies about what was happening. It seemed like what was going on at the camps was kept pretty quiet from the outside world. The letters and writings seemed to indicate otherwise.

By the time we left there we were pretty much done for the day. It was getting dark and the sky matched our moods.

The Berlin Zoo

The Berlin Zoo is supposed to be one of the best zoos in the world. Have you heard of Knut? He’s, well, a very famous polar bear because he is the first polar bear born in captivity. This zoo now owns him he is four years old and is bigg-ish. So normal for a polar bear and big for a human but he’s not a human so it’s all good. He is located in the ‘Bear’ section on isle ‘Ice Bear’. Any way the zoo is a good zoo.Also in the ‘Bear section’ was a panda! He\she\it was the first animal we saw there and the first panda I have ever seen in my life. We thought of Loki because she loves pandas…and Sparkeys:). The panda just kinda sat there and ate it’s bamboo. We passed through the boring bird section and looked at some reindeer (there big day is coming up!) And saw the Monkey section we went inside.

Me and Rhys hurried to the first window where lots of very cute monkeys were swinging around on there playground. It was very funny. We went to the one mom and dad were looking at and there were some medium sized gorilla type monkeys. Three actually. We guessed mom, dad and baby. The mom and dad were just sitting but the baby was swinging around and having a great time. He would swing and then sometimes it would’nt go quite as he planned and he would bash into a wall. Then we saw some pretty-rainbow-butt monkeys (no, not a typo). After them we saw the CUTEST little monkey with big eyes and a small body. He was just adorable. Reminded me of you Sophie.

Then it was about feeding time. The long- tailed monkeys played in one cage and in there other cage the zoo keeper would put the food I hiding places. The she would open the door and all the monkeys would scramble for the food. The was an onion in a hiding spot, the monkey who found it would run away from all the other monkeys while bashing the onion on the ground. It was quite funny. We saw gorillas, apes and then there were the mop monkeys. They were odd. They had very long hair, and when I say long I mean LONG. It was funny long it was like a mop swashing on the floor then he got up on the rope and started swinging. That was frightening!

When we got out it was raining. We walked over to like the coolest playground I’ve ever seen… but it was raining and wet. So we looked at wolves and black bears and mountains goats and neon orange birds. The got to the polar bear section it was very cool, but on our way I noticed the ‘Hippo’ section and it was indoors! Yaya! So we went to the hippo’s. The first ones we saw were small and a shiny grey-black. The second case we saw had a baby hippo in it was as big as the other ones and it was cute. It was a dull grey though. Mom said the dad and mom ones were coming around soon, I looked to the right and saw waves coming around. So I knelt down where you could see under water and not one but THREE big-giant-HUGE hippo’s same galloping through, yes galloping. We watched the hippo’s for a while in awe we heard them roar, we saw them play, and we saw the baby one sleep.

So that’s pretty much an average day at The Berlin Zoo. There were other cool animals we saw but I hit the highlights. Yah, I know, there’s a lot of highlights.

The Führer

When Hitler came around, the state of Germany from the First World War was very poor; the currency was plummeting through the center of the earth, out the other side, and beyond. It got to the point where 3 trillion marks would be worth 1 CAD. The people were starving, dying, impaired, and they needed someone to blame. Hitler was an influential speaker. He first blamed their government for losing the war. He told the people that the government sold them out. He said that if they had just been in the war a little longer they would've won. He built hate. Then he blamed the Jews. He blamed people, and the blameless people used his blame. He gained power by supplying the demand. Then, his own orders initiated. He terrorized the people into following him. He turned everyone under his rule against everyone else under his rule. There was no absence of rebellion though, there were assassination attempts, uprisings, and more, but evidently none were strong enough overthrow the Nazis. Hitler didn't like opposition. He murdered anyone he thought could overthrow his empire. Hitler wanted to rule the world, and he didn't like the Jewish. Hitler used hate, terror, death, and insanity to drive his empire. This is how he came to power.