I'm sharing my travel experiences, candid opinions and what's on my mind. If you think it's inappropriate for a travel writer to stir up discussion on his blog with political observations and insights gained from traveling abroad, you may not want to read any further. — Rick

eesh been ein Bear-lee-ner

In my research schedule, the big cities are the daunting hurdles. Berlin is not only big, it’s changing fast, and I am personally committed to having a great chapter on it in my book. Compared with Berlin, Munich is now stale strudel…flat beer. Berlin is it. It’s not only emerging…it’s cheap. And for anyone into 20th-century tumult, Berlin puts you in hog heaven.

I have a powerful image of Hitler and his right-hand man, Albert Speer (his architect), poring over plans for postwar Berlin…built up in a way to make Paris look quaint. Of course, by 1945, the city was in ruins, Hitler was identified by his dental records, and Speer was in jail writing his memoirs (“Inside the Third Reich,” which provided me with my best Third Reich images).

With my last few visits, I get this queasy feeling that Speer’s vision is coming true. The latest example: the massive new Hauptbahnhof (central train station) — the only one in Europe with major lines merging at right angles. Toss in 80 stores and local subway lines — and it’s a city in itself.

The other strong feeling I get in Berlin is that it’s a victory celebration for capitalism. Like Romans keeping a few vanquished barbarians in cages for locals to spit at, capitalism and the West flaunt victory in Berlin. Slices of the Berlin Wall hang like scalps at the gate to the Sony Center (at Potsdamer Platz, the biggest office park I’ve ever been in).

A sleek SAS Radisson hotel now stands on the place where the old leading hotel of East Berlin once stood. I remember staying there during the Cold War, and a West German 5-Mark coin changed on the black market would get me drinks all night. Now five euros is lucky to get me a beer, and the lobby of the Radisson hosts an eight-story-tall exotic fish tank the size of a grain silo with an elevator zipping scenically right up the middle. Next door, a little DDR Museum is filled with mostly East German tourists rummaging through the nostalgia on display from dreary life under communism.

Across the street, statues of Marx and Lenin (nicknamed “the Pensioners” by locals) look wistfully at the local Space Needle-type TV tower East Berlin built under communism. The best thing locals could say about it back then was, “It’s so tall that if it falls, we’ll have an elevator to freedom.”

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The victory party rages on at Checkpoint Charlie. With every visit, I remember my spooky 1971 visit — when tour buses were emptied at the border so mirrors could be rolled under the bus to see if anyone was trying to escape with us.

Thirty-six years later, Checkpoint Charlie is a capitalist freak show. Lowlife characters sell fake bits of the wall, WWII-vintage gas masks, and DDR medals. Two actors dress as American soldiers posing for tourists between big American flags and among sandbags at the rebuilt checkpoint — like the goofy centurions at the Roman Colosseum. Across the street at “Snack Point Charlie,” someone sipping a Coke said, “When serious turns to kitsch, you know it’s over.”

Brandenburg Gate faces Pariser Platz — the ultimate address in Berlin. It’s a poignant place. Within about 100 yards you have: the vast new “Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe”; a memorial to the first victims of Hitler (96 men, the German equivalent of congressmen, who spoke out in the name of democracy against his rule in the early 1930s and ended up some of the first killed in his concentration camps); the new American Embassy (still under construction, with such high security that visitors will enter through a tunnel via a park across a busy highway); a big Starbucks; one of the “ghost” subway stations that went unused through the Cold War — now looking like a 1930s time warp; the balcony where Michael Jackson dangled his baby (according to local guides, the sight of greatest interest for most American tourists); the glass dome capping the bombed-out Reichstag (capitol building) where on the rooftop on May Day 1945 Russian troops quelled a furious Nazi last stand; and hills nearby created entirely of the rubble of a city bombed nearly flat 60 years ago.

The newest addition to the neighborhood is a Kennedy museum filled with JFK lore, such as the handwritten note he referred to with the phonetics for his famous Berlin speech. As I read his note, I could hear his voice: “eesh been ein Bear-lee-ner.”

Thinking of the amazing story of Berlin — Speer’s vision, Hitler’s burning body, the last stand on the rooftop, the communists, the heroic American airlift, Kennedy’s speech, Reagan’s “tear down this wall” speech, the challenge of reunification, and the gleaming city visitors marvel at today, I hopped into a cab.

I asked the driver if he was a Berliner. When he turned to me, I realized he was Turkish. He said, “I’ve lived here 31 years. If Kennedy, after one day, could say ‘Ich bin ein Berliner’ — then I guess I can say I am a Berliner, too.”

Pledging allegiance in Berlin…

I’ll be honest. As a travel writer I have an agenda. I want to help Americans better understand our world by communicating with it through travel. So I’ve got to share something that’s been troubling me lately. All over Europe I hear how the US ambassadors to various countries are buffoons when it comes to understanding the intricacies of the countries in which they serve. When being interviewed on TV, it’s American ambassadors who require a translator to speak for them. Of course, Democratic and Republican presidents alike give posts as favors to big supporters. But President Bush seems to take the cake in choosing ill-suited ambassadors. To non-Americans, this symbolizes our country’s current contempt for the notion of talking with the rest of the world.

Here in Berlin, Clinton’s ambassador, John Kornblum, is well remembered. He spoke German, went to festivals, and enjoyed mixing with the locals. Now retired in Berlin, Kornblum is still active in the community and a household name among Berliners. He invited average Americans living in Berlin to famously fun Fourth of July parties each summer. These expats no longer hear from the current ambassador.

President Bush’s first ambassador, Dan Coats, famously said that he had no idea why he was in Germany, since he had no experience, spoke no German, and had roughly no concept of what made the country tick. Locals tell me America’s current ambassador, William Timken, speaks no German, and his favorite Berlin restaurant is Tony Roma’s. Timken caused a buzz when he had guests at his Fourth of July party repeat the Pledge of Allegiance.

All stand: “I pledge allegiance to the flag of the United States of America, and to the republic for which it stands, one nation under God, indivisible with liberty and justice for all.”

With their ugly recent history, Berliners aren’t big into pledges of allegiance. Their current oath is relatively mild: “I give my vow that I will serve the Federal Republic of Germany truly, and will bravely defend the laws and freedoms of the German people.”

Berliners who were children in the 1930s recall the Hitler Youth Pledge of Allegiance: “We carry the flag forward into the battle of the youth. It stands and is raised and blazes to the heavens like fire in the sky. We are sworn to be true to the flag for all eternity. Whosoever shall desecrate the flag will be cursed for all eternity. The flag is our belief in God, People, and Country. Whoever seeks to destroy it must first take our lives and prosperity. We care for the flag as a mother cares for her child. The flag is our future, our honor, and the source of our courage.”

Their fathers, most certainly in the military (and very likely killed defending this pledge), held out their arms and said: “I swear to God, this holy oath that I will devote my absolute obedience to the Leader of the German Empire and people, the supreme commander of the German Wehrmacht, Adolf Hitler, and I, as a courageous soldier, am prepared to lay down my life to fulfill this oath.”

Today, Germans fly their flag rarely outside of soccer games, and are most comfortable pledging their allegiance to a good frothy beer.

In the last few days, seeing 1945 photos of cold and hungry locals wandering through piles of bricks that were once grand cities, I’ve wondered what would cause a people to fight literally to the bitter end. Perhaps a good strong holy oath of allegiance.

Copenhagen—Just Another Brick in the Wall?

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I was strolling through the commotion of downtown Copenhagen, past chain restaurants dressed up to look old and under towering hotels that seem to be part of a different international chain each year. Then, as if from another age, a man pedaled his wife in a “Christiania Bike” — two wheels pushing a big, utilitarian rounded bucket. You’d call the couple “granola” in the USA. They look as out of place here in Copenhagen as an Amish couple in Manhattan.

Later I paused to watch a parade of ragtag soldiers-against-conformity dressed in black venture through the modern bustle of downtown Copenhagen. They walked sadly behind a WWII-vintage truck blasting Pink Floyd’s “Another Brick in The Wall.” I never listened to the words until now. They’re fighting a rising tide of conformity. They want to raise their children to be not cogs but to be free spirits. On their banner — painted onto an old sheet — was a slogan you see in their squatter community: “Lev livet kunstnerisk! Kun dode fisk flyder med strommen.”(“Live life artistically! Only dead fish follow the current.”) They flew the Christiania flag — three yellow dots on an orange background. They say the dots are from the o’s in “Love Love Love.”

In 1971, 700 hippies took over an abandoned naval camp in Copenhagen and turned it into a free city. It’s been run as a commune ever since — with routine run-ins with the city. But it has survived. Those original hippies are pushing 60, and their community has become the second- or third-biggest tourist attraction in town — famous for geodesic domes on its back streets, swap shops, vegetarian cafés, and shacks selling pot on its main street (nicknamed “Pusher Street”).

 

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Biking through the community myself later that day, it occurred to me that, except for the bottled beer being sold, there was not a hint of any corporate entity in the entire free city. Everything was handmade. Nothing was packaged. And, of course, that will not stand.

The current conservative government is feeling the pressure from developers to “normalize” Christiania. There is a “take it or leave it” “final solution” on the table for leaders of the commune to deal with. The verdict is that the land (which no one wanted 35 years ago) needs more density. Much of it will be opened to market forces, and 1,600 people who aren’t in the community will be allowed to move in. Injecting outsiders and market forces into the last attempt at a socialist utopia surviving in Europe from its flower-power days will bring great change.

Marijuana has been the national plant of the free city. (Hard drugs have always been strictly forbidden.) The police have really cracked down. Pot is no longer sold from little kiosks on Pusher Street. The police drop in 10 times a day. Cafés now post signs warning no pot smoking.

It’s a classic case study in the regrettable consequences of a war on pot. For the first time in years, the Copenhagen street price is up, gangs are moving into the marijuana business, and crime is associated with pot. There was actually a murder recently, as pushers fought to establish their turf — unthinkable in Copenhagen in previous years.

I recently got an email from some traveling readers. They said, “We’re not prudes, but Christiania was creepy. Don’t take kids here or go after dark.”

A free city is not pretty, I agree. But “Pusher Street” and pot is not what the free city is about. Watching parents raise their children with Christiania values as I biked the free city’s back streets, I came to believe more strongly than ever that allowing this social experiment and giving alternative-type people a place to be alternative is a kind of alternative beauty that deserves a place.

Immigrants, Treasure Your Heritage…and Melt

Returning to Europe, I worried that Denmark would pale after my recent Croatian experience. My first day here dispelled that concern. While Denmark has its castles and cute towns, the real experience here is the Danish modern spirit and how it copes with today’s challenges.

Wandering into an empty, sleek train car, each seat was marked “kan reserveres.” I figured that meant “not reserved,” and sat down. Then I was bumped by a friendly guy with a reservation. He said, “The sign means ‘could be’ reserved…we don’t promise too much.” Noticing several young men with shaved heads and the finest headphones listening to MP3 players on their train commute to work, I thought Denmark seemed so minimal and efficient…and so together.

Every time I politely ask, “Do you speak English” (still thinking it’s bad style to assume Europeans will speak my language), I feel silly. “Of course” is the standard answer. Thriving Copenhagen has a thin veil of tourism. Behind that, locals really do eat open-face sandwiches. Even though the country’s eateries must be smoke-free by next August, people smoke with attitude in traditional cafés. (By law, smaller places can be exempt — so many local pubs are cutting down their “usable floor space” by adding pool tables and big furniture in order to get around the law and keep the smokers.)

I find having a bike parked in the garden of my hotel is a great way to fit in and literally “go local.” Copenhagen has as many bike lanes as car lanes, and I can literally get anywhere in town faster on my two wheels than by taxi.

Today’s big-city Denmark — which is far from blonde — has me thinking about immigration. I’m a grandchild of immigrants. Three of my grandparents sailed away from the old country speaking only Norwegian. My family assimilated.

 

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With modern communication allowing “diasporas,” where communities of foreigners settle in more comfortable places with no interest in assimilating, “melting pots” have become cafeteria plates with separate bins. I know Algerians who’ve been three generations in the Netherlands and are still enthusiastically Algerian, raising their children with barely a hint of Dutch culture. I am three generations in the USA. While I have kept my grandparents’ religion and eat fish balls and goat cheese, I can barely say hello in Norwegian. While proud of my heritage, I am American.

At Copenhagen’s City Museum, I met a Pakistani Dane. He talked earnestly of the exhibit like it was his city…as if his ancestors pioneered the place. Thinking of assimilation, I got emotional. Surprised at being choked up, I was struck by the beauty of a Pakistani Dane.

Am I wrong to wish that a Muslim living in Denmark would become a Dane? Am I wrong to wish the USA would speak English rather than Norwegian or Spanish? Am I wrong to lament districts of London that have a disdain for being British? Immigrants energize a land — and they do it best when their vision is a healthy melting pot. Melt, immigrants…treasure your heritage while embracing your adopted homelands.

Lobbing Rotten Fish at Denmark

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I just landed in Copenhagen and got a rousing welcome. This week Denmark’s streets are filled with graduating university seniors filling WWII-vintage trucks, waving beers, and hollering above the traffic. (Don’t they know they’re about to leave the wonderland of childhood and enter the work force?)

It’s a progressive beer party — the trucks take them from the graduation ceremony to each house, where the parents serve them beer…and things just get sloppier and sloppier. (Danes statistically finish university later than other Europeans, typically taking several years’ break — the government is pushing them to get through the education system faster.)

My friend, Richard, dresses up like Hans Christian Andersen to lead walking tours. He saved a day just for me. Walking through the city with HCA in a long coat and top hat is a bit strange. (Richard becomes Richard again each winter and flees “cold, dark, rainy, and expensive” Denmark with his Icelandic partner to dance the tango in Argentina.)

Kelly Clarkson is coming to town — she’s on posters everywhere. Richard explains that the Danes have their own “Danish Idol”-type TV pop craze, and the created Danish icons are local stars — but Kelly Clarkson is big league.

We climb the highest church spire in town and look across the strait to Sweden. Through the modern windmills on the Danish horizon, Richard points out a Swedish nuclear power plant in the hazy distance. He explains, “They put it 600 kilometers from Stockholm but only 20 kilometers from Copenhagen. Danes threatened to bomb it. Swedes threatened to retaliate by setting up catapults and lobbing in their national dish — a lutefisk-style fermented herring.” The stand-off was defused. Today the plant is closed.

Signs of progressive Denmark are everywhere. The basement of the Danish Design Center is now the Flow Market (www.theflowmarket.com), a supermarket of sustainability with squeeze tubes of empathy, tins of commercial-free space, syringes of tolerance, and buckets of inner calmness. The slogan: Be not “best in the world” but “best for the world.”