Plans Thwarted – KaDeWe, Crooks and Checkpoint Charlie

Today I wake up with a plan (I know, what’s gotten into me?). My plan is to have brunch and go shopping at the KaDeWe – a large and famous department store on the Ku’damm – then to a yoga class which I found on the internet. As I always say, people plan and God laughs, and that’s what happens today.

Germany Berlin KaDeWe CrowdI start out by taking the 29 (or perhaps 19) bus down the Ku’damm. A lady who speaks no English but understands my hesitancy points me to the correct stop. I exit the bus directly in front of the KaDeWe and step up to the door where a crowd gathers. There seems to be confusion and nobody is moving to walk in. Serious men are standing at the doors and there’s a police car on the street in front.

Sprechen zie English?” I say to a man standing in a coat that says, “Tour Guide.” (Always a good bet that they’ll speak English).

“Yes, I do,” he replies in a strong Australian accent.

Germany Berlin Police“What’s going on?” I ask.

“Oh, the store was just robbed and they’ve closed it.”

“Wow,” I say.

“Yeh,” the Australian replies. “bet this doesn’t happen at home.”

“I’m from Detroit.” I respond.

“We are used to things like this.” a lady standing nearby interjects.

“Oh, where are you from?” I ask.

“We’re from Israel.” she responds.

Okay, you win.

Before very long, more police cars begin arriving. Then a larger crowd gathers along with more serious men in dark suits. Store managers speak with police and, unlike America, I’m one of the few people taking photos or video. Germany Berlin Police CarsAfter a few minutes, I decide that the store isn’t opening anytime soon and it’s time for Plan B. I knew I wanted to go to the Checkpoint Charlie Museum tomorrow as there are a limited amount of things open on Sundays and this is one of them. I decide to hop back on my bus as it’s a straight shot to Checkpoint Charlie on the 19 or 29.

After a fifteen-minute ride, during which police cars and ambulances whiz by regularly on their way to the KaDeWe (apparently the “gangsters,” as the German media is calling them, had guns and released tear-gas which sickened fifteen people).

I arrive at Checkpoint Charlie and attempt to locate the difficult to discover entrance door to “Haus am Checkpoint Charlie” or the Checkpoint Charlie Museum. In case you don’t actually know what Checkpoint Charlie is, a bit of an explanation; Checkpoint Charlie is was the most well-known border crossing between East and West Germany. In October 1961 American and Russian tanks faced each other here when the U.S, intervened to defend the fundamental rights of Berliners. Germany Berlin Checkpoint CharlieThe museum is located directly at Checkpoint Charlie. I find it interesting that the first exhibition opened in October 1962, just over a year after the Berlin Wall went up, and the museum was opened on June 14, 1963. The museum is proud to claim the title of “the first museum of non-violent protest.” I spend the next two-and-a-half hours wandering through displays including the story of the breakup of Germany after WWII, and the relationship to future events including the Korean War, the June 17, 1953 uprising, the formation of NATO, the Warsaw Pact, the Hungarian Revolution, the Suez Crisis, Sputnik, the construction of the Wall, and the Cuban Missile Crisis. Remember, it started with the birth of Hitler. It’s incredible how events relate to each other and is the true meaning of the “Butterfly Effect” (Don’t know it? Read about it here). It’s ironic that the museum has many displays with antiquated audio headsets attached that are the old-style headphones which used to come with Walkmans. Most are missing at least one side of the felt coverings (those over thirty will remember how they always fell off) and few actually work at all. It sure feels as if the former East Germany supplied them.

I find the display on the life of Raul Wallenburg especially interesting and vow to read up more on this incredible man. I also really like the exhibit detailing the various escape attempts including in hot-air balloons made from clothing (silly me, I donated five bags to Goodwill when I could have just use them as my transportation), in hidden compartments in tiny cars (nearly as tiny as the front seat of a VW Bug), homemade ultra-light aircraft, digging tunnels, devising harnesses to lower their families over the wall, and securing fake United Nations passports (there’s no such thing). It’s truly remarkable that we can make excuses for not being able to do things due to lack of resources or equipment when these people used scraps of clothing, wood, lawnmowers and basic tools to escape repression. The museum also tells of those who were not successful in their escape attempts as well as those who risked their lives to free others.

Checkpoint Charlie EscapeOn the top floor I spend some time viewing the display “From Gandhi to Walesa” highlighting non-violent struggles for human rights, and I find the entire room dedicated to Ronald Reagan pretty impressive. I also overhear a group of British students discussing the large globe displayed.

“What’s the capital of Asia?” one asks.

“Asia’s a continent. I think that’s like asking what the capital of Europe is,” the other answers

Good to know that it’s not just Americans that are generally bad at geography.

Sign at Checkpoint CharlieAfter a few hours, I hop the bus back to the flat where I quickly change my clothes and head off to a yoga class which I’ve found online. It’s been over a week since I attended my regular class at home and I really need some good stretching and a workout as, believe it or not, this week has been quite stressful (yeh, I know, I’m supposed to say that I’m living everyone’s fantasy but, with learning the transportation system, not knowing anyone, getting used to new customs, spending time writing, both here and for corporate clients, and not understanding the language, well, even doing laundry is a challenge (how do I turn this thing on and where does the soap go?).

I’ve taken the requisite photos of my route via bus and walking from the VBB app. and, although it offers me two routes, I choose the shortest one. While it leaves from a different bus stop than my regular 19/29 one, I choose to move outside my comfort zone. I set off to the bus stop which, I believe, means turn right outside the flat and right again. I turn right, and then right again and the street I’m looking for is nowhere to be found. I walk in a circle and finally find the street I’m looking for (apparently I should have turned left and then left). Unfortunately, there are a few bus stops on this street and I’m not at all sure this is the right one for the bus in the right direction. Besides, it’s now too late to catch the bus. So, although I’ve found yoga, I just can’t find yoga. Once again, I revert to Plan B – a beer. There’s a dive bar right on the corner calling my name.

Germany Berline BeerI open the door and the smoke pours out like Cheech and Chong’s car (different smoke). There are eleven people inside the small room and the only women are myself and the bartender. I take a seat at the bar and order a small bier (see, learning German). I’m drinking and people-watching when an older man sits down next to me and begins speaking. I respond, “Ich spreche kein Deutsch. Sprechen sie Englisch?” (well, I can say that).

“Yes, I do,” he says tentatively.

His name is Peter and he’s a regular here. He likes to play one of the two slot machines or, “spielautomaten” (learning the important words) here. He tells me a long story of how he’s been to Texas to visit his sister who’s lived in Houston for thirty-years. He lived there for two years. I don’t understand all the ins and outs of his story but it includes something about the army reserves and him returning to Germany. Apparently the U.S. army wanted him to work for them when the Wall went up, but he was only in the U.S. for two years and it was required that he be there for three-years before they could draft him for the reserves. Sounds either a bit shady or like he’s read too many John le Carré novels (I really think he’s telling the truth). He says he’s here pretty much every day and hopes I’ll return. Finally, I feel as if I’ve made a connection in Berlin.

Checkpoint Charlie** A final note on Checkpoint Charlie – outside, for €2, you can get a photo with two actors dressed as soldiers. For €5 you can get six souvenir stamps from Checkpoint Charlie countries in your passport and fourteen stamps for €10.

Tomorrow – Another Christmas Market, another shot at yoga, and another try at the KaDeWe.

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