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2 August, 2005

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The view across the plaza at Alexanderplatz. The building on the left still sports a communist era mural and has since been used as the blinking lights building by the Chaos Computer Club. The annual CCC Congress takes place in the domed building to the right every December.


A view from the other side. That little emblem has been on top of that building since the East Germany days. The U Bahn entrance is denoted by a big letter "U" and the S Bahn train can be seen on the elevated track on the right.


The Park Inn. Avoid the upper floors when they're doing construction/maintenance.


The entrance to the Galeria which believe it or not was open.


Everything in the square appears to be in some state of construction.


A really neat looking clock that serves as a preview for some of the places I'll be passing through.


The Alexanderplatz station with a tram passing and the base of the giant TV tower in the background.


This is a standard ICE train which is the high speed line. Trains link together and split apart at various stages of a journey. Another good reason to make sure you're in the right seat.


The train to the east and our next destination.

2 August, 2005

Day 17. Well, it had to happen sooner or later. So far I've been pretty good about being where I have to be, making connections, etc. So it was only a matter of time before I fucked something up royally. I even surprised myself with the magnitude of my stupidity this time. But before I get into that, let me tell you how my day began.

I checked into the Park Inn in the Alexanderplatz section of Berlin late last night. They put me on one of the top floors which is always nice since the views are great in any direction. But apparently there's some major renovations underway in the neighborhood. Everything seems to be under construction in one form or another. And I guess the Park Inn was no exception. At 8 in the morning, I heard some loud talking that sounded as if it were right next to me. That's because it was. There was a man in my window talking to someone else who was apparently in front of someone else's window a distance away (far enough to have to shout). Then they started to use every conceivable piece of machinery in existence to do God knows what to the side of the hotel. It was so loud and intrusive that it was actually funny.

I really try to avoid the righteous indignation that so many American travelers bring with them wherever they go. The constant complaining, the lack of patience, the assumption that if things aren't precisely the way they specified that it must be a carefully calculated personal insult, annoyance with people who don't speak English... the list goes on and on. And this is from people who are normally quite tolerant and flexible and who really should know better. It's just something that comes out of our culture, I suppose. So I always make a conscious effort not to go around making demands or insisting on compensation when something isn't quite right. Maybe that makes me a patsy but I prefer that to being overbearing.

That said, the noise outside my window was making it hard to even hear the news on the television since I was now fully awake. So I called downstairs to complain. I told them there were men building something outside my window on the 35th floor and that they had been doing this since 8:00 am. They couldn't understand what my complaint was. "But that's the time they always start," they tried to explain. Sigh. Well, it was either grin and bear it or go American on them. I've got many hardships coming up so maybe this could just be considered a bit of a warmup for that. I declined their offer to move me to another room since I was already wide awake and didn't relish the idea of moving all of my stuff when I had to check out in a couple of hours anyway. I'll give them some negative feedback on their little survey form and convince myself that it'll make a difference.

I had a couple of hours to wander around the neighborhood so I got a five euro day pass which allowed me to ride any train, tram, or bus in Berlin. I went down to Ostbahnhopf (the main station in the east) to see if they could help me with an upcoming leg of my train journey. You see, when you buy a ticket from Amsterdam to Moscow, you pick the trains you want to go on and you're given reservations with seat assignments for each of these trains. The problem was that for some reason this couldn't be done for the Minsk to Moscow portion and I really didn't want to try and explain this in a Belarussian train station. So I went down to the Deutsche Bahn office to ask if this could be done there. It turns out it couldn't so I have that little challenge to look forward to.

I headed back to Alexanderplatz where I thought it might be nice to have food since I hadn't had any yet today. The Park Inn has one of those massive European breakfast spreads but they charge a phenomenal amount on top of the room charge which makes it no longer worthwhile. Most other hotels include it at no charge. I tried to order at a cafe but the waitress didn't seem to understand anything other than drinks. I kept pointing to food items on the menu and all she could say was "I don't know" in a rather plaintive tone. I felt sorry for her so I got an orange juice. On top of everything else I had a sore throat which I probably caught from someone at the camp. I really wasn't in the mood to be sick in eastern Europe. But I suppose even that would be another experience to write home about.

I picked up a bratwurst from one of those men who stand in Alexanderplatz all day long with a stove tied to their necks. Actually the one I bought it from was in a wheelchair but the concept is the same. For a euro, it's the best bargain around and people always crowd around these guys.

Alexanderplatz is a neat area. Once the center of East Berlin with bland, billboard-less architecture, it has become completely westernized in the past 15 years, though still not as much as the western half of the city. There's a constant hub of activity yet a marvelous sense of calm as trains and trams come and go with near silent efficiency. I find this to be true throughout Berlin. Even without knowing the language, it's never too difficult to get from one area to another.

I visited the Galeria which is sort of like a mall except it all seemed to be the same store which sells different things on different floors. The whole thing was in a state of construction which made getting around a bit harder than normal. Finally I found the section that had mini-DV tapes and I was delighted to discover that they now took credit cards (they didn't last year). However my credit card no longer had a legible signature so the guy at the counter wanted to see my passport. Then he wanted to see the stamp for my entry to Germany. I think he was just busting balls for no reason since you only get stamped at your entry point to the EU and he damn well must have known that. But it made him happy to give me the once over so who was I to spoil his fun? I got my tapes and headed to the train station.

I still had a bit of time so I got myself a snack at Ostbahnhopf, making a careful note of where Track 3 was since that was where the train to Warsaw would be coming in. I had been to this station a number of times before but I had apparently never been in this section as there was a whole new variety of shops. Anyway, I headed up to the platform about 25 minutes before the train departed just to be safe. And that was the best move I made all day.

I knew something was wrong when I looked at the yellow piece of paper that announced the trains and what track they were on. My train wasn't on there. It didn't make sense. It took me a couple of minutes and a few doubletakes before I realized that I had somehow wound up at the wrong station! Instead of going two stops east of Alexanderplatz, I had gone two stops west. I was on the phone at the time so I had just moved into the station assuming I knew where I was. There were enough clues that something was wrong such as not recognizing the place but I didn't pay attention. And it didn't help that this was yet another Berlin train station with multiple tracks and intercity trains.

OK, so now I had a real crisis. If the S Bahn was late or slow, or if I made another stupid mistake, I had a really good chance of missing the only train to Warsaw. That could screw up a lot of things as a result. Luckily, an eastbound train pulled in moments later. But just to add to the fun, it also stopped right before it got to my station for a heartwrenching four minutes, something I had never had happen before. Naturally.

Well, I wound up making the train with five minutes to spare. The lesson to learn here is always go to the platform early. That way you learn you're in the wrong place altogether.

By this time I was well into having a cold, sneezing and sniffling for almost the entire six hour ride. I felt bad for my fellow cabin riders who were all Polish. I don't remember ever sneezing so much. And the cigarette smoke from the corridor sure didn't help. We pretty much kept to ourselves for the entire ride - I'm not particularly good at breaking the ice in the first place but being sick *and* not knowing the language kept me reading or typing for much of the time. Still, when one of the people in my cabin left the train, he wished me a good trip in English. I thought that was really cool that he not only was able to surmise where I was from but had taken the time to learn an appropriate phrase in my language.

Warsaw was hot and chaotic upon arrival. I had difficulty even finding the exit to the train station and then I had to track down the hotel I had booked which claimed to be nearby. The first hotel I saw was the Marriott which gave me directions to my hotel. It was about a kilometer away which the guy said was too far to walk. So I tried to change money in order to get a cab. But they couldn't do this unless I was staying there. Whatever. I decided to walk anyway and it wasn't so bad.

I've now got a headache and sniffles. I have to focus on driving the demons out so I may not be getting out too much in Warsaw tomorrow. I'm also a bit concerned over doing the radio show from here at 1:00 am and having to catch a 9:00 am train to Minsk the following morning. I'll make it but I just hope I'm not getting sicker when I do.

I'm now six hours ahead of New York time which I suppose means I'm a quarter of the way around the earth. I'll be seven hours ahead in Minsk and eight hours ahead in Moscow.