Tuesday, September 11, 2012

Berlin diary - Parting thoughts and travel tips

On the 6th day of my trip, I did nothing but pack, ate breakfast and flew home.  During flight, I thought about things that worked and didn't work, and general observations from this trip.  For one, I overpacked yet again - but this time on books, not on clothes.  I intended to read 2 thick books on the history and culture of Germany in addition to a non-fiction book I brought with me. But really! Who would want to read books when you could live history, plus create your own, outside the hotel doorsteps?!

What else? Let's see:

  1. Skip the workout clothes. I packed workout clothes but didn't get to use them as I was either at the conference or was too exhausted after exploring the city on foot. 
  2. It was smart to bring my own adapter and converter.  European countries use 220 volts, so you need to use voltage converters for appliances and gadgets from the US that generally use 110 volts.  In addition, they use sockets that only have the circular prongs, so you'll need an adapter.  While I was told that the hotel may provide these, I didn't take my chances. That was a good thing because the hotel was fully booked with conference participants, and they ran out of these supplies!
  3. No show TV shows. All shows, except for CNN and BBC, were in German. Even American series were dubbed with German! It's a good thing I don't like watching television anyway, so I just read my book.  But if you're one who likes to watch the telly, make sure to bring your own DVDs.
  4. It's expensive to surf... the net, that is. The hotel only had free internet at the lobby. In your room, you have to pay 24 Euros per day to connect, regardless of whether you're a conference participant or not. 
  5. The tube rocks. If you're familiar with the DC metro, or the NY subway, you'll be able to navigate the S-Bahn and U-Bahn no problem. The Berlin railway system may be bigger, but it works exactly in the same way where you just need to know the end of the lines to determine which direction you should be heading. 
  6. Money talks, credit cards not so much.  It's amazing how spoiled we are here in the US.  In Berlin, the cabs don't take credit cards. Even some moderate-sized establishments and restaurants don't take credit cards! And be aware that in small stores tucked away from tourists, they either don't have receipts or don't know what you mean by "receipts"
  7. Airport comments:  Tegel in Berlin is tiny and very manageable. Frankfurt airport is chaotic.  The signs are not clear, and there are constructions at different points, so you're not sure where you should go.  The gate for my flight didn't show up on the screen until about 1 h before boarding cause there wasn't enough room to post the information.  In the meantime, I was left to loiter around amidst confused people. My gate changed 3 times; they announced the gate change first in deutsch, then in english.  That means that while everyone have left to run to the new gate, I was still waiting for the information! Thankfully quite the opposite, the airport in Brussels, Belgium is big and organized.  The signs and arrows appear in bright yellow.  The security is tight, but it moved quickly. Still, you probably need more than 1 hr to navigate this airport and security, simply due to its size. So... bottom line: I'm happy I didn't have just an hour of layover and that I checked my bag. It certainly made for a more efficient transfer.
  8. "Thank you" will bring you a long way. I tried to arm myself with a couple of German phrases before I left, but believe me, once your conversation partner start rattling off in Deutsch, you're left pretty much slack-jawed and unable to respond. So all I could utter was Dankeschön (pronounced Dunk-uh sheon) for the most part. I think that the effort was very much appreciated, judging from the smiles I got. It never hurts to be polite.
And that's a wrap.  After tapping my heels together, I am finally home and hugging my giggly toddler. As fun as this adventure was, truly, there's no place like home, Toto.

Friday, September 7, 2012

Day 5 - Berlin diary - Of history and jelly donut

My last full day in Berlin. For half this day, I wore my scientist hat, then went full-on tourist for the afternoon, but minus the belt bag. So, what do you get when you stuff a tourist bus with the brightest minds in science? You'd probably expect Ooohs and Aaaahs as they get a glimpse of history, or perhaps blank stares and silence... but then you'd be wrong.  I heard whisperings of "proton exchange", "simulation", "binding pocket" and "sodium channel" floating in the air. I couldn't help but chuckle at the notion that potential research collaborations were being built right there and then! Oh, how I pity our bus driver.

The Wall and East Berlin tour focused on the history after WWII.  We headed from the hotel to Kreuzberg where the grand brick Oberbaumbruecke bridge separated what used to be West and East Berlin.  We stopped at the most famous remains of the Berlin wall, also known as the "iron curtain", which divided the east from the west to prevent the eastern berliners from migrating to the west and draining the east side of its people resources. 

Oberbaumbruecke bridge
Double brick designates where the wall used to be. 
The white crosses memorialize those who were killed trying to cross it.

To give you a bit of a background, after WWII in Europe, Germany was divided into 4 zones that were controlled by US, UK and France (West) and Soviet Union (East), and the East berliners fled in droves with the growing fear of sovietization of the east. The 160 km wall was built in 1961 and stood as divider until its fall in 1989. After the fall, artists the world over were invited to show their interpretation of this freedom and unity by painting murals on the wall in what is now called the East Side Gallery. 

Berlin wall - "The Kiss" between Soviet leader Leonid Brezhnev and East German President Erich Honnecker (based on a true photo)

We continued along our tour, and I noticed the prominent different colored pipes running above ground.  I asked the guide about this,  and she said that it was due to the high water table in Berlin.  These pipes helped drain the water at construction site.  At least, they were painted in colorful hues! I also noted how the yellow traffic light turns on with the red light just before the green goes on; it's like a cue for drivers to rev their engines!

Bright pink water pipes

We passed Berlin's TV tower, which reminded me of Paris' Eiffel tower, and remains the tallest structure in Germany.  It also had a rotating restaurant located at the round silver top. The tour then passed museum island buzzing with toursists and university students alike as the island houses many fine building from 18th and 19th century and the Humboldt University.  I was disappointed that we weren't let out of the bus at the this time.  I definitely have to file this under places to explore for a future visit, should there be a next time. And I think that next time, this area would be even much improved with all the constructions and reconstructions going on right now, and additional stations being built. One museum will sit where the royal palace used to stand before it got blown up.

The next stop was at the Reichstag and Brandenburg gate. The Reichstag building housed the German parliament. It has a glass dome on top which boasts of an amazing view of the city, but you have to fall in a mile-long line to reserve a spot! Apparently, you can reserve in advance on the net, but I didn't know that. The Brandenburg gate is the world-reknowned landmark in Berlin, and is the only remaining historical gates leading to the city.

Brandenburg gate

Reichstag building

Last stop was at Checkpoint Charlie, the name derives from the Phonetic alpabet, and this was the 3rd checkpoint in the city. Well... ehhhh.... it just feels like a tourist trap area now, and the guide warned us to watch out for pickpockets. Then we headed back to the hotel to prepare for the gala dinner that will signal the end of the conference. While there are always pros and cons in joining tours - it can be highly informative, but you can miss out on exploring the ones that matter most to you - I'd say that given the short time I had, this tour was a good idea.
Since I was all dolled-up, I decided to take a cab instead of the tube.  The sit-down dinner was lovely, but what was nicer was to see my colleagues finally unwinding! I sat in the middle of a Finnish and a British scientist, and got to hear about the state of research and pharma in Europe, the difficulty of finding jobs and also a little bit about politics.  It made me realize how foreign yet similar our concerns are. 

Tomorrow, I'm leaving Berlin, but tonight I'll enjoy the music and pretend that Ich bin ein Berliner! - I am a Berliner... but not the jelly doughnut kind. 

Wednesday, September 5, 2012

Day 4 - Berlin diary - let's hop and shop baby!

Finally, a decent night of sleep.  When I woke up, I was quite chipper and bounced my way to the plenary hall, consciously keeping myself from hugging strangers along the way. See what a good night's sleep can do?!

Since I was primarily here for work, work I did until 5 pm when my head could no longer absorb all the information.  My tushie hurt from all the sitting at the lectures, so I was raring to go for a stroll.  Going to museum island was out of the question because it was too late in the day, so I gave in and decided to do some shopping. This might restore my sister's fate in me again.  It's time to get pasalubong anyway.  Pasalubong is a part of the Filipino culture heavily ingrained in me, which means to bring back presents to your family when you travel and to share a little bit of the experience you've had. It could be food, clothing, tokens, etc.

I jumped on the S41 tube to Heidelberger Platz and changed to S7 headed to Wittenbergplatz. As a side, platz means square and straBe (with a beta symbol in the middle; pronounced stras-suh) is street in deutsch. I stepped out the street and saw my destination KaDeWe, an abbreviation of Kaufhaus de Western to mean department store of the west. It is supposedly the 2nd biggest mall in Europe after Harrod's in London. Personally, it didn't seem as intimidating as SM City in Manila, or even Gallery Lafayette in Paris... but I could be wrong. Nonetheless, I had a mission, which is to not blow my budget, and a plan: 3rd floor for kids clothing, 5th floor for souvenir, 6th for chocolates and cervesa, take a peek at the winter garden restaurant on the 7th floor - then leave before I get tempted by anything else.

Holy cannoli! 179 Euros for a kid's dress?  Let's see.. that's about the same price as my business suit BUT with much, MUCH, less fabric! ...granted it's really cute... Hmmm.... think. think. think. Then think backwards, Jen. Now, slowly walk away and run towards the toy department!

That was close! 

My daughter loves little things - something she got from me - and so I decided to get some collectibles instead of another doll or stuffed animal.  After a few souvenirs, chocolates, marzipans, and beers, my bulging backpack was threatening to burst, which reminded me that I needed to fit all of it in my suitcase. That was my cue to head to the winter garden.  This was a bit of a disappointment for me.  I was expecting something grand, but I concede - in the winter, I imagine this could be a magical place as you dine sitting surrounded by all-glass window and watch as the snow fall, covering the city in a blanket of white.  It was also a buffet - mostly of meat - no surprise there. I could have gotten something vegetarian, but after day after day of being served buffet style at breakfast and lunch at the conference, I could no longer even look at that much spread of food.  Instead, I ordered pasta and soup to go at an italian place, ordered a slice of german chocolate cake to satisfy my sweet tooth, and headed back for a relaxing evening. With a plate on my lap, a fork in one hand, and a book in another, I couldn't ask for a better night in Berlin.

Day 3: Berlin diary - the age is in rage

Another sleepless night in Berlin, thanks to the pounding music outside.  After a 3rd night of little sleep (counting the plane ride), I decided to ask to be moved to a different room in the presumably "quieter" wing. The receptionist obliged my request, but I still walked zombie-like during the rest of the day. It's a good thing that the conference speakers were engaging and the science kept me awake.  But aside from the groundbreaking researches in stem cell chemistry, malaria and cheminformatics, not a lot of interesting things happened during the day. In the end I was dead-tired.

It's 6 pm and I can barely move a muscle, my brain is completely fried, but it seemed senseless to me to sit in my room and have an unmemorable day in Berlin.  This was just unacceptable! So, how can I turn this day around given my current state? Well, a dinner at the oldest restaurant in Berlin should do the trick.  After a quick search online, I identified Zur Letzten Instanz as IT.  I called the concierge to reserve a table then I dashed out the door.

I took the "tube", as the locals refer to the train here.  The S41 line brought me from Sonnenallee to Oskreutz, pronounced Os-kroyts, where I changed line to S7 to Alexanderplatz.  This is perhaps the busiest place in Berlin! The station is similar to union station in DC, albeit smaller, bursting with shops and people.  When you exit the street, what do you see?  More people!  More shops too - upscale, midscale, down to McDonalds and currywurst stands. Unlike my walk to quaint BergerstaBe, pronounced bir-ghen-stras-suh, I noticed that the people are more diverse here.  You can hear non-german language being spoken and see people from different cultures conglommerating in the square. 

Walking down the street, I passed an enormous rose-colored mall. I went in, and in less than 5 minutes, I was out on the street again.  Somehow I just wasn't in the mood to shop. YIKES, my sister will find this offensive I'm sure!  Just as I was about to pass out in hunger, I found the elusive restaurant tucked away in a tiny isolated alley. Ahh... salvation.  I was given a choice on whether to site outside or inside.  I peeked in and saw how intimate the room inside was, and chose the breezy outdoors.  Of course, I regretted this decision mid-meal when i was surrounded by clouds of smoke. When will I learn???

The menu was in German and English.  I was about to thumb my nose and stick out my tongue at this when I saw a small tourist bus unloading its passengers that poured into the hidden restaurant. Then it made sense. Despite its seclusion, Zur Letzten Instanz was so popular that tourists look for it. And whatever remaining grumblings I had dissolved with the first spoonful of fish and veggie stew in my mouth. It was simply divine.

Monday, September 3, 2012

Day 2: Berlin diary - a rollercoaster day

All is not perfect, after all.

This nice grand hotel is flawed.  It sits next to a concert venue, and my room is in the wing that absorbed its full effect until 1-friggin-AM!!! I reasoned that it's a Saturday night, and tonight ought to be better.  And what do I see when I openned my eyes after only a few hours of shut-eye?  Well, hello, another 4 pairs of eyes staring back at me!

Yup, in this pristine and Berlin-reknowned hotel, the receptionist decided to give this arachnophobe *points finger to chest* a room that came with a residing spider. Needless to say, my first response was to call the front desk and send someone up to kill that darn thing. After getting dressed in lightning speed, I opened the door to the bell hop who was armed with... wait for it... a feather duster. "So... you're going to kill the spider with a feather duster, huh? ...Seriously?"  I guess he didn't understand me.  He walked straight to the wall and triumphantly scooped the spider onto his duster. Without warning, he marched right past me with that thing, and that's when I let out a few octaves high scream that probably woke the entire sleep-deprived wing. Did I miss something here?  Are these 8-legged creatures somehow sacred in Germany? 

After I recovered, I decided it was time to start the day. Breakfast was easy.  There was a huge buffet of breads, cheeses, fruits, and cured meats - lots of it - at the atrium.  I worked out the map of the city, the transport system and planned my day and off I went to explore.

At 6.50 Euro, you can get a day pass that lets you use buses and trains in the city.  Quite convenient and reasonable. I decided to tailor my excursion to avoid the spots where my group tour on wednesday would take me. First on the agenda is the holocaust memorial. I have never visited the holocaust museum in DC for 2 reasons - 1) I have been taking the fact for granted that it's too close that I can go there whenever I want, and 2) Eric always said that it's too depressing to see that you wouldn't want to go there when you're happy, or when you're sad, or even if you're just feeling so-so.

Off I went to take the bus M41; the stop is just outside my hotel and it ran every 10 minutes. I then walked from Potsdamer Platz to the memorial. The holocaust memorial was as I expected - emotionally crushing. It consists of a field of slabs, 2711 slabs to be exact, giving me a feeling of a mass grave, albeit not nearly enough to represent the 6 million jews who perished. Underground is the information center, which also served as a small museum. The pictures of emaciated and naked bodies piled high were gruesome. However, what surprisingly disturbed me most were photos of Jews being embarrassed by the Nazis.  One photo showed an orthodox jew whose peyos, or side curls, were being cut, and he stoically stood there shrouded in his tallit, while surrounded by laughing Nazis. Another photo showed 3 Jewish men being asked to perform dances or exercises of some sort, again, amidst laughter.  There were also letters from the victims - poets, mothers, brothers, and children - describing their fears of dying either by starvation, bullet or the gas chamber. Now I know why Eric couldn't go back to the museum in DC.

After that draining experience, I knew I had to sit down somewhere and eat too. I took the U2 train from Potsdamer Platz to Stadmitte, and hopped on the U6 train to Platz der luftbrucke in the trendy district of Kreuzberg. I walked up Mehringdamm to Bergmannstrabe, where the mediterranean flare pervades. I challenged myself to find a good local restaurant and pick an edible food from an all-german menu. Sounds difficult enough, right?  After a while, I eyed a restaurant that fit this description.  I knew Kofti was popular among the local cause there were families with strollers and dogs on the patio, and I could see that it was a popular meeting place for bruch as well. But boy! There are smokers everywhere here. The weather is too pleasant to eat indoors, so I decided to table hop a few times and simply crossed my fingers that a non-smoker sits in the empty table next to me.

My server didn't speak English - so this was promising - then he handed me their only menu which was in German. Yes! I looked through it, skipped the selection that said "salami", and ordered the one with what seemed like "marmalade" and  "olive" and surely butter to me.  How bad can it be?  I was just hoping it came with bread as well.

The food arrive, and - Success! -it was a pretty plate of marmalade - with bread served, and olives in the middle.  I had a marmalade-tasting party of one, and I was a happy camper. I tried to guess at what the flavors were without looking at the menu, and swore I could taste fig (or was that guava?), strawberry, honey, an unidentified flavor, and lastly, rose???  ROSE?? I looked at the menu, and sure enough, there's "rosen" which I can only assume is rose. It was delicious.

Then it was time to head back, as my meeting was scheduled to start in a few hours.  I took U6 from Platz der Lubrucke to Tempelhopf where I changed train to the S42, which took me to my hotel in Sonnenallae.  Of course, the best part of going back to the hotel was that I got to skype with my darling husband and daughter.

Hey, if anyone of you out there is considering joining the amazing race, keep me in mind as your partner.  As this adventure is proving, you'd be lucky to have me on your team.  *wink*

Sunday, September 2, 2012

Berlin diary - Day 1

I know, I know. I've been MIA for so long in the blogosphere.  Blame it on a super busy summer season, filled with meetings and conferences. While I'll be traveling to more meetings in the coming months, I decided it was time to take a short breather and take to my blog to tell you about my current adventure.

Today I find myself in Berlin, Germany attending perhaps the biggest scientific conference in Europe in my field.  Getting here took ~7hrs flight from DC to Frankfurt, and a little over an hour more from Frankurt to Berlin.  The new Schonefield international airport here in Berlin was scheduled to open in June but that was pushed back, so I landed in Tegel.  I was pleasantly surprised at how small this airport was!  I got off the plane, made a left turn and was greeted by the conveyor belt where I waited for my luggage for only approximately 15 minutes.  Seriously, it reminded me of the little Gainesville airport in Florida. A few more steps, and the cabs were awaiting.  By the way, the german word for taxi is "Taxi". :)

My taxi driver was pleasant and tried his best to communicate with me in English to make sure that I was comfortable. So there. While people always tend to have an impression that Germans are not exactly friendly, I would say that his greetings made me think that they were. One major note if you come here, the cabs don't take credit card, so make sure you bring Euros with you. Also, tipping is optional, but it makes you (and your driver) feel really good if you do.

On the way to the hotel, I noticed how clean the city is.  The highways aren't big, but there seem to be no traffic.  Then again, it is the weekend.  I'm glad that I took a cab instead of renting a car.  The signs, of course, were all in german, but I enjoyed seeing the speed limits posted in kmph.  Ok, the signs just said the numbers, but you know that they use the metric system here.

I am staying at the Estrel hotel, a grand hotel adjacent to the Convention center with ultra-modern and clean lines inside and outside. After sleeping for only 4hrs on the whole ride, I was ready to call it a night.  First on the agenda, however, was dinner.  Thankfully, the hotel also boasts of a sunlit atrium lined up with array of mid- to upscale restaurants so I did not need to drag myself out of slumber. I saw a german pub, briefly looked at the menu, which was all lined with meat, and chose to go with Italian instead.  Besides, if I'm going to enjoy a real german meal, I would not get it in a hotel. I would, however, enjoy a beer before going to bed. After all, I'm in Germany - the beer capital of the world? - and I'm only a month off in the Oktoberfest celebration.

Gute nacht!