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. 

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