Is it me, or does the Ostkreuz railway tower look just like Otto von Bismark? Please note the weather in the photo at upper left. Berlin is famous for it and it was my constant companion for all but about 4 hours of my visit. No wonder iconic Germans are so often portrayed in rain coats! And Pickelhaube! Pickelhaube is the German word meaning "point bonnet" which is used to describe Otto's chapeau above. Pickel is the old German word for "point", but you have to admit, this fetching headgear does look a great deal like a metal bonnet with a pointed pickle stuck on top.
I left the apartment Thursday morning determined to make a success of my interactions with the transport system. I went armed with a flawless understanding of where I was going and how. And it turns out - *check* - I executed the transfers flawlessly. What I didn't count on is one of the limitations of doing research on the internet: the lack of direct personal experience can sometimes lead you directly into a blind alley, both literally and figuratively. I had come across an absolutely fabulous German shoe company by the name of Trippen (to see their shoes is to be amazed by them) on the internet and read that they had a discount outlet in my area which seemed like a good expedition for working on my transportation skills, if nothing else.
Following the arcane route from the bus stop to the outlet store, I passed an encampment of hand built caravans (the European equivalent of homemade trailers in a clandestine park) nestled into a vine and trash and graffiti infested nook where a bend in the railway met some bridges. No one was stirring, but a mysterious and inimitable sense of being lived in was in strong evidence. I rounded the corner to find an impersonal looking office complex, the entrances to which all opened off a large internal courtyard, forcing me to consult numerous directories and maps to help determine the precise building and floor I was targeting. I found myself the protagonist in a deliciously ominous archetypal plot sequence lifted directly from a Nihilist German espionage film when I reached the lobby of the appointed building and walked into a narrow, dimly lit space that was only a tiny bit larger than the opening of a large elevator door. I giggled a little nervously when the shiny silver door clanged shut behind me and I was surrounded, yea clad even, in a featureless steel box resembling a set piece more than a conveyance. A shrill hum sounded from the motor as it strained to make its arduous journey to the fourth floor. I had immersed myself so deeply in fantasy that I genuinely had no idea what would be revealed when those doors at last opened. Was David Lynch directing? David Cronenburg, Disney or perhaps even the Cohen brothers? Ooooh! Maybe Fritz Lang! After such a great build up of suspense, what I fond when I exited the elevator was simply yet another ubiquitous door. Upon opening the door, I found that it led directly into a cavernous open space that was segmented by temporary partitions dividing the floor into several large work areas. Dark bespectacled women were timidly going about their tasks, occasionally passing each other wordlessly or gathering in small grounds to talk quietly at the margins of the huge work tables. But no leather, no shoes, no shoe store, no elves - just people carrying stacks of office paper around, trying to make a living.
In thinking about it, I feel sure it was as completely surreal an experience for them as it was to me. All of a sudden, from their point of view, a whimsical pink haired woman opened the door to their workplace and walked slowly and inexplicably from one faraway end to the other, all the while displaying a mostly bemused smirk, eventually exiting without having uttered a single word. What a tremendously German experience I feel I enjoyed - bordered on performance art, even.
At the time, it made me a bit cranky, feeling as though I'd failed at a task once again. By the time I boarded the bus to return to my apartment, I had worked myself into a fine fettle, indulging myself in an internal rant about how grouchy and mean all Germans were (ironic?). I was disturbed from my pout by the bus driver hollering something at me I couldn't understand. Several other grumpy passengers interpreted it for me, making the universal sign for bus ticket with their hands. Now, interestingly, the German transportation system operates on the honor system. You validate your ticket yourself at the appropriate time and are responsible for it being correct if ever asked to present it. It's not ever expected that you show anyone your ticket, except for the occasional cranky bus driver that feels like picking on a pink haired woman with a scowl. I showed him my ticket, which he reviewed with an audible harrumph. My minuscule victory did allow me the opportunity, however, to sashay triumphantly back to my seat and glower persistently and vehemently until exiting the bus a short while later. I skulked across the train station on my way back to the apartment and as I approached the picturesquely grungy exit portal, I could see there were three young people accosting passerby for some variation of attention. When I got close enough to investigate, I found that all three of them were sporting big round red clown noses and were simply telling people about the charity they volunteered for that entertained children in hospitals. My acridly sour mood was suddenly under attack by a gang of street clowns. I lost all control and beamed ear to ear in an enormous smile. As I passed through the arch the young female clown practically sprang toward me, greeting me in proficient English when she found I couldn't understand her German. With genuine warmth, she complimented my colorful hair and asked me where I hailed from. Before I could answer though, I had to jump in and say, "Thank you so much for stopping me and making me smile. I have just been working myself into a tizzy about how grumpy and mad everyone in Germany is, and your beaming smile couldn't have come at a better time." She replied excitedly, "And thank YOU! Every single person that's passed by this morning has been frowning. You are the first person that's smiled at me all day!"
The dark stagnant cloud of I don't know particles that had collected in a veritable helmet around my head began drifting away in fragile whorls as I strode off smiling. So much so that I noticed tiny yarn guerillas peering out from their perch around a tree just a little further down my path, reinforcing the powerful smile that had attached itself to my lips. It's always remarkable to me how much a change in mood can alter what I notice.
Temporal nonsequitur: A few images from the apartment building where I was staying. Here is the beautiful 1920s tiling in a classic Teutonic color scheme which graced both foyers of the building...
...and the front door as evidence of the omnipresent nature of graffiti in Berlin. There are an endless number of doorways just like this in every quarter of the city. I knew Berlin to be one of the great epicenters of street art before I arrived, but I had no idea how continuous the curtain would be. It provided me a great deal of fodder for musing about what drives such a thing - thought provoking being a good thing when you're travelling by yourself.
A quick visit to the apartment to recalibrate my adventure compass and then I pushed forward because I would not let myself be deterred from the strong force compelling me toward the Designpanoptikum. I had run across information on the Panoptikum during research for the trip (from a favorite index of the unusual, Atlas Obscura) and could tell from what I'd read about the fellow that ran this place and what he'd put together that it was going to be solid gold pay dirt for me in terms of my own special interests. What I discovered instead was more what I'd term platinum pay dirt, only with lots of little diamonds sprinkled in.
My heart rose into my throat as I passed the display windows flanking the Panoptikum's door. When I walked into the lobby, it was like surging down a gangplank, returning at long last to your home planet. Gleaming instruments and Fresnel lenses and dials and chrome and curves and pointy things. I could hear an enthusiastic soliloquy being given several rooms away and it turned out unsurprisingly to be the voice of Vlad Korneev, the Panoptikum's charismatic creator. He's famous for his heartfelt and personal tours and it was easy to sense the passion in what he was saying even from a distance. A motionless Übermensch wearing a silvery proximity helmet stood guard at the entrance to the museum exhorting me to remain standing mesmerized in the lobby until help arrived. I knew with certainty that I was going to love every minute here.
Vlad quickly returned after cutting loose the previous batch of guests to let them wander the 10 rooms of the mind boggling installation on their own. As soon as he turned the corner and began talking, I fell instantly in love with him. He had a spirit as bright as burning magnesium and it poured from him with every word he uttered. His dark piercing eyes are almost impossible to look away from and I felt a little giddy as he gave me a rousing speech about form and function and needing to know that was like a love sonnet the way he told it. The rarefied relationship he has forged with these incredible industrial objects is readily apparent and his ability to combine them in pleasing and thought provoking ways is top notch.
Vlad also produces beautifully staged photos that blend technological relics with soft velvety human parts in a sepia toned haze that artfully blurs reality. A number of his photos were displayed in a separate room of the museum and I found them mirthful and witty, fun to decipher and beautiful to look at.
But instead of me blathering on and on about Vlad and his amazing museum, how about I just show you some photos instead?
Near the end of the tour, Vlad offered to take pictures of several of us as we milled about in a room with a large stainless steel water therapy tub standing on its end. You know I wasn't going to pass that up! What an awesome souvenir.
I left the Designpanoptikum positively glowing. The two ends of the day's continuum could not have been more widely divergent. I stumbled into a nearby coffee shop when I realized I was famished and enjoyed a restorative cup of dark rich coffee and an sugar dusted Apfelball.
I stopped on the way home at a wonderful grocery store I had discovered in the huge shopping center near my apartment and scored a gorgeous tray of pork belly for my dinner. I found the prices of pretty much everything but real estate and gas ($8/gallon) to be surprisingly low in Berlin, putting US prices to shame. This much pork belly in the US would probably have run around $10-15 and in Berlin it set me back less than $3. But then the Germans do love pork, a concept I endorse heartily.
A short while later I feasted on a delicious dinner of haricot verts (tiny French style green beans) sauteed with wild mushrooms and lightly pan fried pork belly strips that had been dusted with seasoned flour. Absolutely delicious!
Here at the end of the day, I reflected on the drama and the joy and everything in between and saw that it had managed to turn the tide of my discomfort. I was finally on top of the trip to Berlin instead of being pulled along by it. And there were still three days left before I had to return home!