Tuesday, May 28, 2019

Arriving in Berlin

I’m off to Berlin again, to lead students around central Europe.  I always arrive a few days before them as it 1) gives me a chance to do some research; 2) means that I won’t have jet lag while handling all the logistics; 3) will have a limited chance to see parts of the city that I love, but won’t have time for once the students arrive.

The flights were (mostly) uneventful.  The flight from JFK to Berlin was somewhat delayed due to a late arriving prior flight, but we also had a problem with a passenger.  I actually noticed her in the boarding area.  It was hard not to, since she seemed to have a really awful set of hiccups, the ones where you sound like you’re sort of gagging.  Her face could curdle milk, and I thought, she’s probably had the hiccups for years.  I kind of worry about that every time I get them:  will they ever go away.  She looked the way I imagine someone who can’t stop hiccupping would look after a year or two.  I worried that she might end up sitting next to me and I wouldn’t able to sleep with her constant gagging.

I was relieved when I saw that her seat was at least 10 rows behind me on the opposite side of the plane, but I was surprised to see the stewardess walking her towards the front of the plane, and then going back for her jacket and purse.  I figure they were upgrading her seat, but a little while later, the pilot came on to say that due to a “passenger issue,” we would be delayed again while they retrieved her suitcase from the hold.  It didn’t take that long and we ended up arriving in Berlin just three minutes late.

Some people can sleep anywhere, in any position.  I am very envious of such people because I find it very, very hard to sleep on planes. I took melatonin this time and managed to doze about two and a half hours, which is very, very good for me.  Still, I am feeling a little bit loopy now (it’s almost 8 pm in Berlin), but I don’t want to go to sleep too early or I’ll be up at 3 am.

It only took about 30 minutes to get from the airport to Schönhauser Allee, the stop nearest my pension, Bornholmer Hof.  A short walk later and I arrived.  Unfortunately, the front desk didn’t open for new guests until 2 pm, so I headed out for lunch and a stroll.  Back at the pension, however, I discovered that while I thought I had made a reservation, I only had an inquiry.  The good news was that they could put me up for the first two nights.  The bad news was that I would have to find somewhere else to stay for the last two.

This isn’t the only mistake I’ve made with reservations on this trip.  I can’t find the reservation confirmation from the Reichstag, and I have a sneaky suspicion that I didn’t follow up and lost it.  This spring semester was more hectic than usual.

The room is nice, it overlooks a kindergarten playground, that’s quiet now.  All I hear are occasional chirping birds.  It’s in the back courtyard (of two) surrounded by trees.  I didn’t have any trouble finding a private room in a hostel for the last two nights, and even as the slightly higher price, I’m still under half the state-allowable maximum per day for hotels in Berlin.

The first day I arrive, I try to counter the jet lag by spending as much time out of doors as possible.  The sunlight helps the body clock readjust, so I just started walking down Schönhauser Allee.  I had a couple of goals:  find the hostel I’ll be staying at with the students starting Saturday, find some places I could take them to lunch, see where the bank ATMs and drug stores were etc.  It was a little harder than I expected to find the hostel.  The outside service provider booked us at the Pfefferbett Hostel, which is in the back of this complex of buildings called Pfefferberg, which includes several outdoor cafés and a theater.  I wrote the students tonight reminding them that they need to be comfortable carrying their suitcases up stairs, since there are two in that complex that we’ll need to take.

My father was born in a building about a block away, so I went for a short walk and found it. The first time I saw it (in 1998), it was a run-down shell.  Then in 2007, it was being gentrified.  Now it has an atelier on the ground floor.  The mailman was making a delivery, so I followed him in.  I have photos of my grandmother and father in the courtyard out back, and I wanted to see what it looked like now.

I also noticed several Stolpersteine – stumbling stones – in front of the building.  This is a really interesting private memorial enterprise that began in Germany and is spreading to all of Europe.  People investigate who lived in their home or apartment building before the Nazis came to power and then identify what happened to the Jewish tenants.   After documenting the person(s) the information is sent to the artist who designs a simple brass plaque that lists the name, year of birth, and what happened to them.  It is a public-driven memorial project.

My great grandmother’s name wasn’t on any of the Stolpersteine, but I would have been shocked if it had been.  She moved out of that apartment during the 1930s, and lived with my great aunt and uncle in Charlottenburg.  If any place in Berlin has a marker for her, it would be her apartment on Sybelstraße.  She left Nazi Germany in the fall of 1938, returning to Poland, where she was trapped and later murdered.

I ended up walking all the way down to Alexanderplatz, which is when I realized that I had forgotten to bring the pad of paper to take notes at the archives tomorrow when I go to do my research.  I must really be losing my memory.  I bought a new one in the mall.

After about four hours of walking I stopped for some coffee before heading back to the pension.  I think all together, I’ve walked more than five hours today.  I think that’s enough.  Tomorrow, it’s off to Dahlem to the Geheime Staatsarchiv Preußischer Kulturbesitz (the Secret State Archive of Prussian Cultural Heritage in order to read their files on a particular student who attended the University of Breslau in the 1840s.

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