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As you can see, this blog hasn't gotten any love in many years... But you can now find me on my site jessicatravels.com.

17 September 2005

Berlin: Oktoberfest Smoke

Despite an early night, I didn’t sleep well. I tossed and turned, suffering through a night with one of Chris’ fabled “sucky German pillows.” (At about 4am I resolved to ask for a supplementary pillow the next day.)

Since the Ku’damm is a popular shopping area and it was mere blocks from our hotel, we stayed close to “home” on Saturday, shopping and browsing. There were plenty of shoe stores (Torsten had recommended one in particular to Chris, who had been admiring his shoes the week before), and we looked in nearly all of them. Chris ended up buying one pair of shoes, but despite the selection I didn’t find anything that really called to me that was also within a reasonable price range. The dollar sucks right now against the Euro, and I knew that before we left Oregon – but the prices I was seeing were just enough beyond what I would have been comfortable spending at home that it made it not as fun to think about buying.

In the clothing stores, there were some places that had nice things that were within my price range, but the sizes are completely different – at least with shoes, I know my European size and can shop rather easily. I’ve not spent enough time shopping in European clothing stores to know what size I am, which makes it more of a trial-and-error expedition (at least the first couple of times) – something I was really not in the mood for on so little sleep. So, mostly Chris looked and shopped, and I took lots of opportunities to sit down as he tried things on.

Our one touristy stop of the day was at the Kaiser Wilhelm Memorial Church, which is closed on Sundays (and is right on the Ku’damm). It was a church that was nearly destroyed by World War II bombs, which left only the highest steeple and the area right underneath it standing. Instead of rebuilding the church to its original grandeur, the ruin was left as a reminder of the area’s history. A new tower was built right next to the ruin, and a “chapel of peace” on the other side. The mosaics left on the inside of what’s left of the church are really beautiful, and in many ways it’s a shame the church was destroyed. I appreciate that they didn’t rebuild it, though, hoping the message of “if we don’t learn from history, we’re doomed to repeat it” is loud and clear amidst the rubble.

The Kaiser Wilhelm Church spire, and the modern tower next to it.

We lunched again at the KaDeWe, having sushi this time. The whole meal tasted so good – it tasted fresh (despite the fact that it wasn’t) and so different compared to the meat and starchy things we’d been eating. After a stop at the pastry counter for some take-away treats, we headed back to the hotel to rest for a bit before our Oktoberfest evening. I actually slept for nearly an hour – thank goodness! – before Lena was scheduled to pick us up.

Lena and her boyfriend Heiko arrived, and decided to take us on a brief driving tour of Berlin before heading to dinner. They drove us around Siegassäule with what Lena called “Berlin’s golden lady” on top, and Chris was thrilled – it’s the column upon which the angel sits in Wim Wenders’ “Wings of Desire” as he surveys the city. He loves that movie, and had wanted to see the tower, so he was pleased. Then they drove us by the Ostbahnhof, which they’d told us has a huge piece of the old Berlin wall in front of it. (Lena, Silke and Torsten had been shocked we didn’t see it when we left the train station the day before, since they said it’s right in front of the doors. We felt like morons, until we saw it again with Lena from the car – it was a bit further down the block, and the opposite direction from where we went. So, not so stupid after all.)

At any rate, it’s a really huge span of the wall, the formerly blank East side of which has been painted with a new art installation. It stretched for quite a distance, and we were surprised it was still up. Lena said when she was little and they’d come into East Berlin she’d say, “Daddy, what’s on the other side of that wall?” to which he’d reply, “Nothing.” (We later learned that the expanse of wall outside the Ostbahnhof may, in fact, be just an art installation and not the original placement of the wall. It’s likely to be original pieces of the wall, just in the wrong place. Still, it gave us more of a real-life sense of what it would have been like to exist with the wall cutting the city in half.)

We parked the car near a local mall, met up with Lena’s mother Margitta and headed to dinner at what felt like the German equivalent of a pub. Lena pointed out the “typical Berlin food” on the menu, which was great – we’d learned that what we’ve always thought of as “German food” is more accurately called “Bavarian food,” so we were then curious about what the rest of the country ate! Turns out the food we got that night wasn’t too different from the Bavarian stuff – at least the dish that Lena recommended and Chris ate. It was basically the “pork knuckle” thing that he’d had in Munich, only this time it wasn’t crisped rock-hard on the outside but rather stewed so that the skin was gorged with liquid. Frankly, it looked rather unappetizing from the outside. The pork underneath was really moist and flavorful, though, so as long as you could get past the outer layers you were doing pretty well. I opted for something advertised as a “fried meatball,” mainly because it said it came with “various vegetables” and I was still craving something vegetable-like.

With my meal, Lena had ordered for me what she called a “black beer” – I told her I liked the sweet wheat beers in Munich, and she said this was also sweet. It wasn’t as good as the stuff I loved in Munich, but much sweeter and easier to drink than the stuff at home. I think I’ll only ever drink beer in Germany…

Then it was back to the car and off to the Oktoberfest tent. It was just a big white tent pitched in a field next to a car park, and as we walked up to it we could hear the music blaring. As soon as we got up to the end where the main door was, I knew it was going to be a long night… The smoke was so thick and heavy inside the tent – because it had nowhere to go – it looked like a thick fog had settled in a cove. Only this one smelled horrible and was impossible to breathe. The rest of the atmosphere inside the tent looked like a basic party – a loud band, people drinking beer (albeit from liter containers) and standing on benches singing and dancing. We wandered until we found a table with some available space (it’s all long wooden picnic-style tables and benches and people sitting community-style) and squeezed ourselves in. That half beer/half lemon soda concoction I had been introduced to in Munich wasn’t on the menu, but Lena took charge – “They have Sprite, so they can make you one,” she yelled over the din. I planned to nurse it the entire time we were there, so as not to have to order a second. (I'm the textbook definition of a "lightweight," and didn't relish the idea of overindulging with only overflowing porta-potties within sight, thankyouverymuch.)

The inside of the Oktoberfest tent - the band is in the distance on the right.

Apparently, at Oktoberfest every song ends up being a sing-along, though most of them are in German (there’s a small percentage in Italian or Spanish as well). There was the occasional English song, including Dire Straits’ “Walk of Life,” which Chris and I were able to sing along with. Then came, as promised by our new friends in Munich, the Oktoberfest staple – John Denver’s “Country Roads” (the drunken crowd even reprised it on their own long after the band had gone home). It still makes absolutely no sense to us why a song about West Virginia would have anything to do with Oktoberfest, or frankly why hoardes of German people would want to sing along with it at any time of the year. My only assumption is that they either don’t understand the words they’re singing, or they’re too drunk to care. Either way, Chris scored big points with everyone around – including the people sitting next to me, who we’d gotten chatty with – by telling them his mother was born and raised in West Virginia. I can’t wait to tell her she's a German celebrity now.

Lena sang along with everything – and I mean everything – regardless of the language. She knew at least the chorus to every song. Several of them have dances associated with them, many of which are dances specifically designed for sitting in long rows on long benches. For instance, there are many songs for which the “dance” consists entirely of linking elbows and leaning back and forth in something close to time with the music. The first time my neighbor grabbed my arm it was completely unexpected and surprising – after that, it was just funny. He and his wife were sitting directly across from Chris, who struck up a conversation with them. He grew up in the East, and so was made to learn Russian in school – his English was certainly better than my German, but it was shaky and he wasn’t confident with it. His wife was better able to converse in English, and we had Lena to translate as necessary.

Two or three times Lena, who happened to be sitting on my other side, leaped up onto the bench in order to dance. She dragged me up each time, and I just kept hoping the bench would hold. I wasn’t nearly drunk, so the whole thing seemed more silly to me than anything else; but, as Chris pointed out, we were probably the only Americans in the tent – and it was certainly experience we wouldn’t forget. Thankfully I saw other people snapping digital pictures, so I handed the camera to Chris so he could get some shots of the room and the crowd. He also took a few of us dancing on the bench, and of our new friends – we got an email address for them which we hope is right (he was pretty drunk when he wrote it) so we can send them copies of the pictures. They were effusively nice, saying the next time we were in Berlin we were welcome to stay with them – it was all very hospitable and sweet, her telling me the offer wasn’t like in Britain where they say those things just to be polite. I had a great time, and it was completely outside my normal everyday life, but I’m not even sure they’d remember us – or that night… I’ll send them the photos, to be sure, and we’ll see what happens from there.

Top row: Our new friends Heidi & Tomi, me, and Lena dancing on a bench that I just prayed would hold (it was sagging pretty badly); Tomi, me and Lena dancing s'more.
Bottom row: Me with Lena; the whole gang - Heidi, Tomi, me, Lena, Heiko, Margitta, & Chris.

When the band finally stopped playing (I have no idea what time it was – maybe midnight? Maybe later?), only about 1/3 of the crowd actually left. I wasn’t paying attention to the bar, but I don’t think it closed at that point. We eventually left, and I guess I foolishly thought the night was over and we’d be dropped off at our hotel. That’s when Lena said, “Now we’ll go to my mother’s apartment – she has a bar!” So, the drunk were apparently going to get drunker, and I was going to watch.

We arrived at the apartment building and Heiko dropped Lena, her mother and me off and took Chris off to the store to buy – what else? – more beer. And in addition to the beer they brought back, there was whisky, cognac, grappa and wine on offer. Lena took great pride in producing beautiful and ornate bottles from behind the bar, saying she’d given this or that bottle to her father. And what is a proper bar without cigars, right? Lena found a box from the Dominican Republic (also something she’d given to her father), and I don’t think any of them had been smoked. She offered them to Chris and Heiko, who each had to bite the ends off as there was no cigar-cutter around. Poor Chris ended up with flakes of cigar paper in his teeth and on his lips for the entire time he was smoking the damned thing. Cigars smell so terrible – smoke in general is bad, but cigars are particularly noxious. And if it hadn’t been for the couple of hours I’d already spent sitting in a smoke-filled tent, which served to deaden my sense of smell, I’d have really hated the smell of those two cigars.

Honestly, between the two cigars and the countless cigarettes that Lena, Heiko and Margitta smoked, my nose – and stomach – had pretty much had it. I refused all offers of alcohol and stuck with water – Lena even offered me some kind of cigarette, which I also refused. I was tired – really tired – and couldn’t imagine ingesting any more alcohol. I was already feeling a tad queasy from all the smoke.

There are different kinds of drunks – belligerent, repetitive, sappy, etc. Thankfully, of the four who over-imbibed no one was the first kind. Lena and her mother tended more toward the sappy end of the scale (nearly everything was bringing them to tears); Lena and Chris were also repeating themselves quite a bit. I had flashbacks to my college days when I was the only tee-totaller at a party, and realized that I still don’t like being the only sober person in the room. It was the first time in the nine-plus years we’ve been together that I saw Chris drunk, and while he wasn’t a sloppy drunk, it’s also not something I want to see repeatedly.

I pulled myself away from the smokestacks for another trip to the loo just to get some cleaner air, and thankfully when I came back I was awarded the opening I wanted – Lena asked if I was okay, so I said I hadn’t slept well and was very, very tired. Chris kindly suggested we should call a taxi, which they did. So, while it was a very fun and non-standard night, it was too long and there was too much alcohol and cigarette smoke for my taste. We got back to the hotel after 2am, and I had to take a long, hot shower to get rid of the smoke smell. I think we got to sleep around 3am, and I set the alarm for 10am – and that was as much of an early start as I was going to be getting.

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