Tuesday, September 27, 2005

Berlin - A Tale of Two Sisters

by Rosario Charie Albar

Barely two hours after landing at Tegel airport, I’m whisked by friends to a private club on the Wannsee Lake. I call it “Sonia’s Villa”. My friend, Sonia who recently turned 80 years of age, had worked 33 years at a government bank. As a former employee, she has access to the well-manicured grounds of this beautiful resort.

Under the shade of a large plane tree, we lie on beach chairs overlooking the calm, cerulean waters of the Wannsee. Sailboats flutter in the slight breeze and the soft rustle of leaves is balm to my jarred senses. But I can’t seem to unwind. My travel weary body is as stiff as a camel buried under Sahara sands. I’m on vacation but my subconscious is still at work.

The next few days include visits to the villa in late afternoon. I’m feeling more relaxed and enjoying the routine of drinking tea and eating sweets while watching the sun slide down the horizon, transforming the lake from shades of blue to shimmering grey. It is an idyllic time.

Short forays into the center of Berlin for sightseeing and shopping are pleasantly interrupted with long rests at cafés for kuchen (cake) and cold drinks. Temperatures are soaring and I can only manage a slow crawl from museum to monument. Klara (Sonia’s younger sister) and I, take the elevator to the glass dome of the Reichstag, Germany’s parliamentary building. What a contrast it is to the neoclassical structure on which it sits! British architect, Sir Norman Foster, designed spiraling ramps which go up one way and down the other without meeting. There is a 360-degree view of Berlin and from this vantage point, Berliner Dom, is clearly visible in what used to be East Berlin. This Protestant church was damaged during World War II and restored in the ′80s. It’s a long way up to the dome of the cathedral. Without elevators, I huff and puff my way to the top where angels watch over unified Berlin.

From my lofty perch above the city, I see urban sprawl in all directions. How Berlin has grown since the fall of the wall in 1989! The once somnolent “island” in the midst of Communist-occupied countries, has been replaced by a bustling metropolis. The sight of cranes echoes the urgent need for rapid development.

I take refuge in the Berggruen Museum with its circular galleries and a healthy collection of Picassos, Matisses and Klees. Just across the street from here is Charlottenburg Palace, the former residence of Frederick the Great and now a museum. It wasn’t long ago when Germany was ruled by a Kaiser. Then WWII reared its ugly head leaving rubble behind. The aftermath of the war saw Berlin divided into 4 sectors, each under a foreign power.

I’m staying in Zehlendorf, the former American sector. It is amazingly forested and tranquil. Although it’s close enough to the center of the city, it is sheltered from the strenuous pace of Berlin today.

Sonia recounts the horrors of war as we eat our breakfast. In this same building, on the fifth floor, they lived in constant fear of being hit by bombs. They shared their bare and tiny apartment with its shattered windows and the little food they had with people who were left homeless by the bombings. These people would gratefully sleep on the floor in a crowded heap. Sonia’s mother opened her home to anyone who needed help.

Klara and Sonia are as generous and warm as their mother was. They’ve welcomed me to their homes several times. Klara, now 78, and her son, Rahman, are enthusiastic and indefatigable guides. Klara walks with crutches and suffers from incessant pains, particularly in her shoulders, as a result of radiation treatments for breast cancer. While recuperating in the hospital, she found time to make me a rug. It is a 3’5” by 5’ wool rug in rich red, white and blue colors, so thick yet supple to the touch. She also showed me the ropes of traversing the city by bus, train and metro. Now I can confidently travel around Berlin and its suburbs.

On my last day Klara insisted on taking me to the airport. I worry about her but she assured me it’s an easy bus ride back to town. It’s just like her to say so. I’m touched by her affection. As I give her a buss on each soft, pink cheek in the European manner of greeting, we both shed tears. We had a great time together during my stay in Berlin. I wave and blow kisses to her from behind glass windows. I notice she has not left until I’m well inside and ready to board my flight. I refuse to say auf weidersehen. I know we’ll get together again soon.

* * *

Getting there: Delta Airlines flies nonstop to Berlin from New York’s JFK airport. Song has connecting flights from major U.S. cities to JFK.

Getting around: Berlin has a great combination of metros (Ubahn), buses, and suburban trains (Sbahn) making it easy to get around. For more information visit http://www.bvg.de/e_index.html for transportation options, maps and fares. The Sbahn web address is http://www.s-bahn-berlin.de/. Bus 100 passes by many of Berlin’s historic sites and museums.

Eats: La Foresta Incantata on Wiesenschlag 4 in Zehlendorf serves Italian cuisine and a mean Bellini (the famous drink served in bars in Rome and Venice). Outdoor seating is available. Mövenpick Mezz at the Europa Center in central Berlin is part of a European chain of restaurants and hotels. They serve a variety of dishes and salads in comfortable surroundings with views of the bell tower of Kaiser Wilhelm Memorial Church, the octagonal church with colored-glass windows next to it and street entertainment in the square. The Turm Restaurant and Café on Schlosstrasse 17 is in the Steglitz area, right across from the metro station, U9. Take the elevator to the restaurant which rises above rooftops in this futuristically designed tower. They have a prix fixe menu that includes soup and salad, main entrée, and dessert for 18 euros. The incredible array of desserts served at the end of the meal is the jewel in the crown. What a deal! Or if you prefer, you may order à la carte.

Shopping: The Ku’damm (Kurfürstendamm) is a long shopping street in the center of the city. KaDeWe (Kaufhaus des Westens) is the queen of all department stores. The Europa Center is a mall with stores, restaurants, and cafés. At Wertheim, stop for lunch or afternoon tea in their 5th floor restaurant. Don’t forget to get your tax refund form from the salesperson and have it signed so you can claim your refund at the airport.

Photos by Charie

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