Saturday, June 03, 2006


It was almost nice yesterday, with a little sun which warmed you if you stood in it, and a friend came over babbling about how cool Berlin's new main train station, the Hauptbahnhof, was and how I should really take a look at it. My position had been that I'd go see it when I had to leave for somewhere from it, but with the weather so nice and nothing to do, really, towards the end of the afternoon, I realized that it wasn't more than 15 minutes' walk away, and so I hoofed over there.

So what's it like? It's big.

How big is it, Ed?

It's so big that it's got a Burger King and a McDonald's in it, and you know how much those behemoths like being too close to each other.

The other thing is, it's dark. I don't really understand this, what with all the glass up top, but the interior of the station is downright gloomy, so that going downstairs to board a north-south train (as opposed to upstairs for the east-west trains) is like descending into a coal-mine. Yeah, there are lights in the ceiling, but they're more like spots, and don't really dissipate the darkness all that much.

One good thing: this north-south, east-west nexus. Deutsche Bahn has been crowing that Berlin will be the crossroads of European rail travel, where the Stockholm-to-Rome trains meet the Moscow-to-Paris trains, which is nice, I guess, in its own way, but it really does centralize the process of getting somewhere. Having Intercity access to Leipzig at long last has sliced a half-hour off of the travel time, and I presume other amenities of that sort will follow. The signs, all screens, are easy to read, and you can even find the track you need. This hasn't been a feature of German train stations in a lot of cases.

But one reason I was there was because of an idiosyncratic law we have here which says that shops in train stations should be open to meet travellers' needs. This includes grocery stores, and the Hauptbahnhof has a Kaiser's. (For you American readers, that's the company which owns A&P). And with a three-day weekend in the offing (yes, it's Pfingsten again), I just know I'm going to run out of something by Monday. After all, I always do.

For some reason, the Kaiser's was filled with photographers snapping pix of the groceries. I may even have gotten my photo taken while looking at the pathetic wine selection, but the rest of the store seemed adequate for emergency fillups. It was the rest of the retail space that gave me pause.

Now, a shopping mall in a train station is nothing new here. Leipzig has a three-level one, and it's populated by the same sort of mall rats you find in America; presumably Leipzig's teenagers have nowhere else to hang out. The Hauptbahnhof, however, is out in the middle of nowhere, so I wonder if that'll happen here. A lot of the retail is clothing stores, not the kind of thing I imagine travellers having a whole lot of use for. Crystal jewelry? Got it. A couple of shoe stores? Right here. Women's clothing in three or four locations. Two newspaper shops, one with a thin selection of international press, both operated by Relay, which I think of as a French company because they're in all the French railroad stations. Loads and loads of bad food: Pizza Hut, a Döner Kebap place, several chain bakeries, a muffin-and-doughnut shop, and the scarily named Asia Gourmet, which is your usual non-specific glop-provider. There's a sushi shop which sells bentos, which is a train-station concept I endorse, even if they're not even close to being as cool as the bentos you get in Japan.

But most of what's for sale there looks like someone conceived of this huge building on the edge of the government building district as a destination for shopping, which is ridiculous, especially since the word is that Deutsche Bahn had to clobber people over the head to get them to rent there -- very few contracts were signed as recently as three months ago. In other words, I wonder how long most of these joints are going to last, especially since the exact same stores are available all over town, there not being much variety in German retail.

There's also an oyster bar, which wasn't open, but I feel must be doomed because Berliners sure don't eat oysters -- or any other shellfish -- and what appears to be a brewpub, although I couldn't find it from the inside.

It does seem to be fulfilling its promise as a public space, though, because lots of people were sunning themselves on the steps, only natural on one of the first sunny days we've had this year. And I imagine a lot of the foot traffic was curiosity-seekers drawn by the novelty of the place. We'll see how this plays out. I'm not terribly optimistic, I have to say.

I left by the portal which faces all the government buildings, and they were erecting a stage there for the free concerts they're putting on this summer: the Scorpions (good lord, are they still around?) and good old Schlager gal Nena (yes, there's life after "99 Luftballons"). As I walked back towards my part of town, I passed a bar with an artificial beach which seemed to be run by the Agriculture Department as a way of promoting German produce, and some folks from Debitel who were running a "free bicycle rental" for people who want to cycle around town advertising Debitel. Unfortunately for them, I'd already spent €15 on a card to top up my cell phone from O2, because they'd sent me a notice saying that if I didn't, I'd not only lose my number, but I'd also lose the €35 credit I still had in it. Seemed like highway robbery, but I do take the damn thing on trips.

As a footnote, I wound up over by Charité Hospital on the route back, and saw that its campus was open, the part where Humboldt University has its research and teaching facilities. Having never been in there, although it's quite close to my house, I wandered around, looking at the 18th and 19th Century buildings there (including the macabre 18th Century dissection theater, which has cow's skulls as its identifying feature), the statues of German medical men, and its gloomy, tree-shaded premises. It's creepy enough that I'm going to go back there with the camera and shoot it.

If, that is, it ever warms up and stops raining. Maybe in August.

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