Ich war ein Berliner

So, Berlin. The last and most unexpected of my June trips. I was kind of conflicted when work announced that they were sending me there. On the one hand it was yet another thing to do in an already very hectic month, and it would mean more time apart from Laura, and only one day back in the UK after Sweden before having to rush off again. But on the other hand I love Germany, so I decided to embrace it and take advantage of the fact that work were paying for my travel. I did something I haven’t done before and booked myself into a hostel for an extra two days after the meeting, intending to do some proper sightseeing.

Maybe age 32 isn’t the best time to suddenly discover you really like going round European cities and staying in hostels… but it could be worse, and by this point I’m so used to doing everything at the “wrong” age that I might as well just go with it. People are so chilled out and friendly! They actually talk to you and it feels like you’re part of a community of sorts just by hanging out at the hostel, unlike hotels that seem so impersonal and soulless and tend to be full of stressed out, sour-faced business travellers who just want to be left alone (I fully admit to being one of them myself on previous work trips). I think I will be doing this more often! That four weeks of annual leave that I don’t know what to do with is beckoning…

On Saturday morning I visited the former East Berlin to see Brandenburg Gate, Checkpoint Charlie and one of the largest surviving sections of the Berlin Wall. The guidebook only gave it a passing mention (which surprised me), but I felt drawn to it for some reason and felt I wanted to go there. As it turned out, I found it unexpectedly moving. I’ve been to places that have great historical significance before, but probably never to anywhere that’s changed quite so profoundly during my own lifetime (I can remember the news reports of the wall falling and German re-unification, though wasn’t old enough to fully appreciate what it meant at the time). The streets could be a part of any European city now… clean, safe, full of smart shops and camera-toting tourists. It’s mind-boggling to think that when my parents were here Berlin was split by miles (sorry, kilometres) of concrete and barbed wire, and that they could have been shot on sight for even trying to take the same route that I so casually strolled around on my visit. Afterwards I bought genuine (I hope?) pieces of the old Wall in a souvinir shop for two of my more politically minded friends and family. I was surprised how hard it was to see the former course of the wall in most places – there has obviously been a lot of redevelopment since.

One of the few surviving sections of the Berlin Wall

Apart from my little walk around the East, it was too hot to do very much else except visit a very nice bathing lake (Strandbad Wannsee I think it was called) and sit at pavement cafes drinking cold German beer. So that was what I did.

(Sometimes when I see warning or instruction signs, I can’t help but imagine what potentially amusing event might have led to that sign being put up. A shop I passed with metal hooks on the wall outside had a big sign saying “nur für Hunde!” [only for dogs] and it made me wonder what other creatures/things/family members people must have been tying up there in the past that made them feel the need to put the sign up. Similarly the “Swimming costumes must be warn at all times!” sign at a pool I used to go to… there must be a story behind that).

National Railway Museum, York

A few of us went down to York at the weekend.

I’d never been to York before, not properly (just changed trains there a few times), but I’d heard good things so was looking forward to seeing it. Even though it’s right on the main line from Edinburgh I ended up driving us down… partly because there were engineering works on the line that day making the train slower than the car, partly because we couldn’t find anywhere cheap to stay in the city and had to book into a Travelodge by the M1 about 40 minutes away instead. Anyway I quite like long distance driving, generally I prefer it to the train except if I’m going to London, and with 3 or 4 people it usually works out much cheaper as well. (Though I didn’t much like the return journey this time, for reasons I’ll get onto).

The journey down was fine. After finding a car park and meeting the rest of our group at the station, our first port of call was the National Railway Museum.

I liked it more than I thought I would. I have to admit I’m a bit of a geek when it comes to transport and things, though I’ve never actually been a proper trainspotter… exploring semi-abandoned canals is more my thing. Even so the vast building and yard full of gleaming steam engines was pretty imposing and gave me a good chance to use my new camera to its fullest.

Seemingly, someone with similar political views to me had already been round the display:

After all the walking around we were starting to get a bit tired and hungry so we headed (via a picturesque walk along part of the city wall) to the food festival that was going on nearby. I can’t remember which stall I got my burger from, but it was very good. As we ate we had a pretty church and some Indian musicians to look at.

Whenever I go to a new city I seem to end up in Wetherspoons and today was no exception. In theory I like the idea of small local pubs better than chains but in practise you often can’t beat it for good, cheap beer. Not that I was allowed any of that tonight, though… I had to drive us to the hotel afterwards. I’m never quite sure what to drink when I’m not drinking alcohol as I find most soft drinks quite uninteresting as well as getting through them too fast and ending up spending a fortune. So I had a cappuccino and then some Becks Blue which is actually surprisingly drinkable. I also tried to avoid seeing the ending of Doctor Who, which was on the TV but with no sound or subtitles, so wasn’t making a great deal of sense.

Here's a picture of Oona and Mari in Wetherspoons instead of a picture of me, since I don't want to be unnecessarily cruel to my readers

The rest of the night took a bit of a turn for the worse due to (a) my car nearly getting locked in the car park, (b) ending up in a loud bar where I was probably the only sober one and didn’t feel comfortable at all, and (c) injuring my shin by walking into a bench on the way back to the car (yes, it was my own fault, I was looking at Google Maps on my phone instead of looking where I was going. But if the bench had been properly marked on Google Maps as it should have been, I still could have avoided it). I was relieved when we got to our hotel, glad that the man on reception didn’t notice there was one more person than I’d booked for, and pleasantly surprised by how comfortable the sofa was. I also enjoyed watching “You’ve Been Framed” which is one of those things that always makes me think “this is just rubbish, I shouldn’t find it funny”… yet somehow I do anyway.

It was lucky the settee was comfortable… I needed a good night’s sleep to prepare me for the horror of… The Journey Back.

It started off pleasantly enough. I’d fuelled the car up with plenty of petrol and myself up with plenty of coffee and we were making good time. But then, just before Scotch Corner, I felt the car losing power and the engine warning light on the dashboard lit up. I knew what was wrong instantly and was already cursing myself by the time pulled into a handily placed service station and switched off the struggling engine. Exactly the same thing had happened once on my way to work. I’d called the RAC man who diagnosed an ignition coil failure. He told me the Volkswagen Group ignition coils fail so often that the RAC carry spares of the common ones in their vans… and he had had the right one so I was on my way again pretty quickly. “Hmm”, I’d thought to myself afterwards. “If they’re that unreliable, maybe I should buy a spare one to keep in my boot so I can pop it in if this happens again”.

I hadn’t, of course. I’d filed it away in the “might-be-nice-to-do-someday” part of my brain and not done anything about it. So our only option was to call the RAC again and pray that they had the right spare part again. (If I’d been closer to home I might have just pressed on… the car is just about drivable on 2 cylinders, but no way was I driving from Scotch Corner to Edinburgh with no acceleration). The bad news was, the RAC had a 2 hour wait time and for once they weren’t exaggerating. The good news was, we were right next to a petrol station with toilets and a coffee shop and sweets and Sudoku books so it could have been worse. I played Chrono Trigger on my DS and got quite a bit further, but then annoyingly died before I could get to a save point. Thankfully when the RAC man arrived he did have a spare coil. I watched with nerdy interest as he hooked up a little ruggedised laptop to my car and got all the engine performance data up on the screen. I kind of wanted it but I think he’d have noticed if it had gone missing. Anyway I think I have more than enough portable computers already now.

So we were on our way again, only 2 hours behind schedule (though long enough for Oona to miss her train home, unfortunately), and I vowed that I really would buy a spare coil this time, ready for whenever the final one decides to die. (Of course it probably never will once I’ve spent the money). It was a sunny day and I was impressed by how nice the scenery is by the A66 across the Pennines.