Dispatches, thoughts, and miscellanea from writer Jon Konrath


It’s two in the afternoon, and it’s an absolutely wonderful day outside in Berlin, 79 degrees and sunny.  And of course, I’m sitting inside, looking out the window and listening to the traffic at Potsdamer Platz. But I did walk about six miles today, so I don’t feel too bad about it.

We had a late flight last night from Nuremberg to Berlin, which meant we had a full day to kill in the old city. We checked in our bags and wandered around, going to the design museum and the national museum. The design museum was pretty cool, one of those all-white modern things with high ceilings, no right angles, and twisty spiral staircases that look like something out of a Star Wars movie. The national museum was oddly Nazi-free, and focused a lot on ancient history, giant tombstones from the 16th century, Gutenberg bibles, and lots of the Jesus, in the form of esoteric wood carvings and gold statues and whatnot.  Both were great museums, but I’m now pretty museum-ed out, and don’t feel like seeing much here.

We got into town late, and caught a cab with an interesting cab driver.  Oh, I should mention the strangest cab ride I’ve had in a while — this was in Nuremberg, and we were going to a dinner, and the cab had a horn in the back seat.  It wasn’t a French horn, but rather what I think is called a “natural horn”, although of course he called it by some German name that was 216 characters long.  I asked him about the horn, just curious if by some coincidence it was made by Conn or Selmer or someone else in Elkhart.  He asked if we wanted to hear him play, and then popped in a CD of what sounded like some Germanic orchestral march music, and then whipped out a harmonica and started playing along the part, holding the metal instrument with one hand while driving on this winding cobblestone road with the other hand.  Very weird.

Anyway, last night’s cabbie was a younger Muslim guy, maybe a college student, and very clean-cut and sort of preppy looking.  He had the nice model of Mercedes cab (it’s funny that the US only gets the high-end M-B cars, whereas they make a whole range of cars here, and you see many total piece of shit Mercedes vehicles, like little diesel econoboxes that are closer to my Yaris than a luxury ride.) and we drove from Teigel with the moonroof open and a cool breeze from the city night filtering into the back seat.  You could immediately tell we were no longer in this ancient castle city, as we cruised on the ultra-modern autobahn and saw the lights of the big city.

He started asking us about where we were from, and we mentioned California, and he said “the Dr. Dre California?”  When we said we were from San Francisco, he asked us if that was where all the gays lived; he didn’t say it in a negative tone, just curious.  We said yes, and mentioned that Silicon Valley is there, too.  The talk went to politics, and Sarah asked him his opinion on Obama, and he said that many people don’t see him as much different than George Bush, which was interesting.  His main thing was that Obama continued what he called the “holocaust” against Muslims with Guantanamo and the various wars, which was a different take than I was used to hearing.  I mentioned that the President was only a third of the national government, and although Obama promised to stop these things, he was largely powerless to do so.  He immediately started asking about the Supreme Court and I thought it was interesting that a German knows all of this stuff about our government, but if you mentioned Angela Merkel to an American, there’s a 99% chance they’d ask what TV show she was on.

We’re staying in a Hyatt near Potsdamer Platz, and I got a slow start today, mostly because of fighting with the hotel WiFi and my Mac.  I’ve had astonishingly bad luck with internet connectivity on this trip, and it seems most hotels have simply handed over their WiFi to a major vendor who then gouges you for something like 3 to 5 Euros per hour for a spotty WiFi connection.  When I fired up my iPhone to check out the prices on 3G, it turns out that international roaming charges are something like $1.50 a minute voice and $20 per megabyte, meaning there’s no way in hell I’ll take my phone out of airplane mode.  I’m currently paying $18/day for wired Internet in the room, and doing internet sharing to feed the other wireless iDevices.  If I came back again, I’d probably look into getting some MiFi adapter that supports a pay-as-you-go account.  Domestically, Virgin Mobile supports a $99 device with a really cheap pay-as-you-go data plan, but it’s CDMA and mostly useless in Europe.  I think there are cheap GSM solutions, but I don’t know which provider you’d use on this end.  The other option would be an international iPhone plan from AT&T that would enable tethering, but the two problems with that are that I don’t travel overseas enough to justify the international plan, and if I switched to a plan that enabled tethering, I’d lose the grandfathered-in unlimited data plan I have now.

So I spent the day walking around the city.  I hit all of the usuals: Brandenburg Gate, the Reichstag, Checkpoint Charlie, the Holocaust Memorial, and a decent excursion into what used to be East Berlin.  All through the city, there is a dark brick line on the ground that traces the old path of the Berlin Wall, and in a few specific places, there are pieces of the concrete wall left behind for tourists to snapshot.  There’s actually pieces of the Berlin Wall all over the place; every shop hawking post cards and t-shirts has chunks of concrete sealed in lucite or on keychains, all purporting to be pieces of the original barrier built in 1961 to divide the city.  There are concrete blocks in cafes, outside of museums, next to currywurst stands, on sidewalks, and in parks.  And back in the states, it seems like every military museum has their own spray-painted chunk of the barrier, as if it somehow invokes the ghost of Reagan in a major “up yours, commies”.  All it gets from me is a major eye roll, like when the same museum has a foot-long section of “WTC steel” which may or may not be a piece of rebar from Home Depot.

There’s a strange park next to this cluster of buildings by our hotel, this chunk of corporate glass-and-chrome towers housing Daimler, Sony, Deutsche Bank, and other businesses.  This huge strip of green was full of businesspeople eating lunches, and I sat on a park bench and worked for a bit while the cleaning people went over our room.  I’ve got this next book, still untitled, sitting on my Kindle, and I’ve been combing through it for errors.  It felt nice to sit outside this business park and chip away at it while a gentle wind blew past.  I’ve still got a ton of work to go on this, so I need to get back to it, but it’s a great day to do it.

So I’ve got tonight, then tomorrow we have a dinner at the Reichstag, and then the big fun flight from Berlin to SFO.  We leave Berlin at three and get home at eight, but that’s really thirteen hours.  And then I work on Thursday, which should be interesting.