Berlin: A City of Christmas

One of the reasons we chose to go to Germany and Prague in the winter was to see the Christmas markets. Spurred on by beautiful images like the one below, as well as articles listing the Top Ten Christmas Markets in Germany, we dug out our cold weather gear (which is otherwise completely unnecessary in Portugal) and hopped on a jet to Berlin.


Turns out photographers are pretty good at turning something that’s merely good-looking into something amazing looking. We never quite saw any scene to match the above, but we were ultimately delighted in the overall experience anyway.

IMG_9542In fact, for me the Christmas markets returned a good portion of some good ol’ fashioned Christmas spirit into my heart. They are delightful places, with cheerful vendors selling things like chocolates made to look like tools, traditional German foods made in huge metal pots and stirred with large wooden paddles, as well as ornaments, clothing, assorted Christmas gifts, and Gluhwein, which is a popular drink staple of the markets.

(It’s a little known fact that Gluhwien was invented by Elmer Müller, an alcoholic sixth grader who snuck wine into school by pouring it into his paste jar. He rather enjoyed the taste, and so dubbed it “Gluhwein.” The name stuck, because, you know, it’s glue. Later on, he went on to invent Elmer’s Glue, but ironically, perhaps because they removed the wine, Elmer’s isn’t particularly edible.)*

IMG_9399Christmas markets are crowded with folks enjoying themselves by wandering through the booths, gazing at the beautiful decorations, skating in an ice rink, letting the kids ride a small train or other rides, shopping for gifts, hobnobbing with their friends in a very festive atmosphere, or helping each other pry their mouths back open after sucking down too much gluhwein.*

Christmas markets were originally a German and Central European tradition, but it’s slowly spreading around the world. Portugal is beginning to see a few of them; but it will probably never make it big in the US because as soon as you have Taco Bell booths or nativity scenes sponsored by Monsanto, all the charm goes out the window.

In our old hometown of Portland, Oregon, there is the Saturday Market, which has largely remained homespun and charming, and since it’s Portland, a little weird. Christmas markets in Germany are like the Saturday Market, except with a much more Christmassy atmosphere and no discernible aroma of marijuana.

Anyway, Merry Christmas to anyone reading this (everyone else can go suck lemons; just don’t tell them I said that), and here are the pictures!

IMG_9446One of the clever ways they allow you to walk around with Christmas mugs instead of messy paper or styrofoam cups is to serve it in one with a one or two euro deposit. You can either keep the mug for that price, or return it for a refund. We kept two of them as souvenirs of Germany. I kept the wife as a souvenir from the states.

IMG_9351The sign above this blacksmith says, “Below is a guy you don’t want to mess with.”* I took that advice and enthusiastically complimented him on his beautiful tattoo.*


IMG_9349“Engel” translates to “angel.” I gotta tell ya, the Germans are so efficient they knew ahead of time that my own personal angel would be standing there to have her picture taken. They of course took the sign down as soon as she walked away, its purpose having been served.*

IMG_9350The aforementioned chocolates in the shape of tools. It’s good to know where you can go if you have a chocolate screw that just won’t budge.

IMG_9348The various markets had different rides. This one not only had a Ferris Wheel (which looked waaay to cold to ride in near-freezing weather) but a skating rink as well. We saved both our own health and that of the other skaters by staying off the ice.

IMG_9339You can see the palpable relief on our faces after we both agreed not to go skating.

IMG_9347Christmas pyramids originated in Germany, so it’s no surprise that most of the markets had at least one gigantic one.

IMG_9344Some of the markets are built in or near tourist sites, in this case the Berlin TV tower, which was built by East Germany in the 1960s.

IMG_9298Some people accused me of marrying a trophy wife but I can assure you that despite her good looks, she is anything but. Here she proves it by not being the one who is an ornament.

IMG_9293The decor is top-notch. Very clean, consistent, and festive. They were all very crowded, but it was a good crowded. Everyone very much enjoyed themselves, except the people who had to wear ornaments all day.

IMG_9292We imbibed a variety of drinks such as hot cider, apple cider with rum, gluhwein, mulled wine, and of course beer.

Bud in PragueAlthough I have to confess one of the beers I had was a Budweiser. Just wanted to see if it tasted different. Next time I go to Germany, it’s no ifs, ands, or Buds.

IMG_9905Here Carolyn demonstrates the proper way to eat a German wiener.

IMG_9289Some of the markets had cute performances with dancers or musicians. Or maybe it was performances with cute dancers. Because of the crowds, I couldn’t get close enough to tell.

IMG_9266The malls of course got into the spirit of things with lots of decor, but they can’t compete with the homespun charm of the Christmas markets.


IMG_9269Gigantic Santas and snowmen were popular decorations.

IMG_9565We’re now looking at pictures from the Dresden Christmas markets, I figured we might as well put all the Christmas market pictures together. By the way, you don’t go to these markets to lose weight.

IMG_9558This is as close as I could get to taking a Christmas market picture like they put on the internet. I’ll obviously never be a professional photographer, but you get the idea.

IMG_9555One funny little story from the Dresden market: we actually got recognized by someone from our appearance on House Hunters International. We overheard two men speaking English, and began to engage them in conversation when one of them looked at us and said, “I recognize you two from TV! You were on Househunters or something weren’t you?” Man, we went all the way to Germany to avoid all the paparazzi, and we still get recognized!

IMG_9539Even if you’re not in the market for Christmas decor, the booths are delightful, colorful, and very well stocked.

IMG_9540And the food choices are almost limitless, many of which are especially present-worthy.


IMG_9541Hard to image a scene and atmosphere that is more Christmassy in spirit than these markets!

IMG_9543The Dresdner (Dresden) Striezelmarkt is one of the oldest Christmas markets in the world. Founded as a one-day market in 1434, it celebrated its 584th anniversary in 2018. It now has about 240 booths, and attracts about 3 million visitors. With two Americans living in Portugal added to the tally, it’s now 3,000,002.

IMG_9536The inevitable Christmas Pyramid in Dresden.

IMG_9522This guy was frozen in 1426 in the hopes that more advanced technology would be able to cure what killed him.*

IMG_8860Since this is what he might look like after being defrosted, they decided to keep him frozen. Besides and ironically, curing sword stabs is a medical art that has now been lost to history, so that frozen knight is completely screwed.*

IMG_9510After a hard day of wandering through Christmas markets, it’s time to sit down with a glass of wine. Or just because it was wine-thirty.

IMG_9508The famous Smurf Christmas Tree.*

IMG_9507The sight of her digging into her purse or me into my wallet was a common one since we just had to sample so many of the delights. I think we each gained ten kilometers as a result.* See how much easier metric is?

IMG_8873As you can tell by the presence of a panda, we’re now in Prague. That’s a non sequitur, which is sometimes used to create humor. Hey, we all get a ribbon for trying, don’t we?

IMG_9735We got a frosty reception in our first visit to Prague. Guess we’ll have to try again in the summer.

IMG_9738The Christmas markets we saw in Prague were not quite as delightful or crowded as they were in Germany. Maybe that’s because most of the booths didn’t accept Czechs as payment. Bah dum dum.

IMG_9686Don’t get me wrong, the Christmas markets in Prague were still great. It may just be that the buildings around Prague were so beautiful and amazing they overshadowed the Christmas market decor.

IMG_9655I think this picture demonstrates that.

Got in trouble for this oneThis guy shook his finger at me after I took this picture. Apparently no pictures allowed. I have no idea why, it’s not like he’s using some sort of secret advanced technology. Joke’s on him though. Not only did I keep the picture, but now it’s all over the internet, being viewed by some 3,214,345 readers! Give or take 3,214,341.

PrahaPraha is how the Czechs say Prague. I wish we didn’t change the city names for each language. Shouldn’t every other language pronounce another country’s city names using the original names its own country gives them? In European languages alone, below are all the ways you would say “Lisboa.” What’s wrong with just saying Lisboa? Sheesh!

Albanian: Lisbon
Basque: Lisboako
Belarusian: Лісабон
Bosnian: Lisabon
Bulgarian: Лисабон (pronounced Jhshplongooocaaooh)
Catalan: Lisboa
Croatian: Lisabon
Czech: Lisabon
Danish: Lissabon
Dutch: Lissabon
Estonian: Lissaboni
Finnish: Lissabon
French: Lisbonne
Galician: Lisboa
German: Lissabon
Greek: Λισαβόνα (Lisavóna)
Hungarian: Lisszabon
Icelandic: Lissabon
Irish: lisbon
Italian: Lisbona
Latvian: Lisabona
Lithuanian: Lisabona
Macedonian: Лисабон
Maltese: Lisbona
Norwegian: Lisboa (Thank you Norwegians for keeping it the same!)
Polish: Lizbona
Romanian: Lisabona
Russia: Лиссабон (Lissabon)
Serbian: Лисабон (Lisabon)
Slovak: Lisabon
Slovenian: Lizbona
Spanish: Lisboa
Swedish: lissabon
Ukrainian: Лісабон (Lisabon)
Welsh: lisbon
Yiddish: ליסבאָן (pronounced “Oy vay!”

Feliz Natal

All I want for Christmas is fewer words in different languages! Since I’m endeavoring to learn Portuguese, I have a selfish reason for that request. Oy vay, there are just too many damn words to memorize.





* An asterisk indicates that I completely made up the statement that precedes it.

Berlin: A City of Tears

View of Reichstag & river
A view of the Reichstag from the River Spree, which ultimately flows into the Elbe.

Believe it or not, it is possible for me to be serious when I write (although if you scroll through every entry below you’d be hard pressed to believe that), but this portion of our Berlin tour calls for nothing but seriousness.

I looked forward to visiting Berlin mostly to see firsthand how the Germans have commemorated World War II, which was the deadliest military conflict in human history. My anticipation was well-rewarded; Berlin has done a good job making sure residents and visitors alike remember the horrors of that time.

Potsdamer Platz
Potsdamer Platz was once one of the most important intersections in Europe.

While Berlin probably can’t be described as a beautiful city (lots of plain-Jane Soviet-era buildings still exist in what was east Berlin, after all), it is certainly not an ugly city, and is rich in history and culture. Berlin is also very cosmopolitan: only 71% of Berlin’s residents are ethnic German. The rest is mostly a mix of eastern Europeans, Middle Easterners, and Asians. In addition, Berlin is a trendsetter in music, art, and dance. International artists, entrepreneurs, and young people are flocking there to be part of the scene.

Acceptance and tolerance are now woven into the city’s fabric. You could say it is now the antithesis of a Hitler city, although Berlin was always more liberal than the rest of the country during those times. It was not the hotbed of Nazism, it’s just where the capitol was.

Berlin in 1945

The devastation of World War II was not just the holocaust. The holocaust was simply the most mind-numbing and senseless aspect of it. Estimates of total deaths due to the war reach as high as 85 million people killed, over 50 million of which were civilians. The USSR alone lost over 25 million people. Someone tabulated the cost of the war relative to 2005 dollars, and came up with $11,292,682,078,166.46. That’s over eleven trillion dollars. And 46 cents.

Despite the fact that blaming Jews for anything related to World War I or Germany was totally irrational and ludicrous, millions of Germans were willing to rally behind the policies and/or turn a blind eye to the mass extermination of an entire group of blameless people.

I believe this is central as to why so many folks are very uncomfortable seeing men like Donald Trump in power (as well as some of the world’s other strident right-wing leaders) with his obvious bigotry (don’t even think about denying that even if you support his policies). Bigotry led to the outright murder of six million Jews. I believe most Europeans are far less willing to allow bigotry to take hold again than many Americans, because the results of going down that road stare them in the face nearly every day.

While it seems as if we should be smart enough to learn from disaster, the main message you see when you enter the Holocaust Museum is this:


The wholesale slaughter of six million Jews just because they were Jewish should be enough reason for most politicians to pick their words carefully even today. As our leaders and representatives, they should stay as far away as possible from even hinting that just because someone might look or act different, or believe in a different version of God, or speak another language, or come from another country, they should be treated any differently from anyone else. When a politician chooses to ignore history and fan the flames of racism or sexism, or wields patriotism as a sword with which to keep the hordes of foreigners at bay, or build another goddamn wall, many people become very uncomfortable. For the life of me I don’t understand why American politics are so all-in. You can support some things, but you should hate other things even if it’s from the same party or politician, and denounce it any time you see it. One of those is bigotry.

John McCain did that, and earned the respect of many who would otherwise oppose many of his policies. Where have all the John McCains gone?

The apt and starkly named Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe is not a memorial designed to shove the reality of the actual brutal acts in your face. What you will find are the victims’ stories. The museum, which is housed beneath the concrete slabs, emphasizes the lives of those who were so senselessly shipped off to torture and death. These were real people whose only crime was to be born Jewish. Of course the Germans also efficiently disposed of many others, such as Gypsies and homosexuals and the mentally challenged. Or because you were liberal.

Above the museum, 2,711 concrete slabs sit on 4.7 acres of undulating ground. At first glance, this is an unusual and puzzling design. If you read up on it you’ll find all sorts of interpretations as to what it all might mean. I think only ingenious works of art can result in so many people walking away with so many varying interpretations.

IMG_9412In fact, Carolyn came up with her own interpretation after seeing the rain drops trickle down the sides of the slabs. They reminded her of tears. I don’t know if the designers planned that, but she’s right. And there’s no event in human history that deserves more tears than the holocaust.

IMG_9257Inside the museum, which fittingly costs nothing to enter, you are shown story after story of real human beings. It is a great reminder that the holocaust is not just about statistics or unfathomable numbers of people killed. It’s about six million innocent persons, each of whom was just like you and me, with hopes and dreams and loves and heartaches. And their lives were brutally taken from them simply because one man developed an irrational hatred of them because he couldn’t bring himself to believe that the Germans had simply lost World War I on their own.

IMG_9408IMG_9411Unfortunately, the tragedy of the war didn’t end when World War II was over. Europe was a complete mess. Most Jews and many more permanently lost their homes and possessions even when they returned to claim them. Millions of people were scattered about the continent, and the infrastructure was devastated. To make matters worse, the Soviets stayed in almost all of the countries they crossed to get to Germany. So those who lived in East Germany, for instance, went from the horrors of Nazi Germany to the horrors of Soviet rule. The East German security service, known as the Stasi, was just as feared and brutal as the SS. Eventually the Soviets built a wall around West Berlin, and sealed off the countries they controlled.

On of the most famous border crossings in Germany was between East and West Berlin, and is known as “Checkpoint Charlie.” It is now a tourist attraction.

There is also a section of the famous Berlin Wall that has been preserved. I’d heard that it was just a small segment, but I definitely wanted to see it. It turns out it’s bigger than I thought, and we found it a very interesting place to visit.

IMG_9333There is a memorial wall honoring all those who lost their lives trying to cross the wall into West Berlin.

IMG_9316There is the wall itself, which actually was just the last line of defense.

IMG_9319Even if you could climb over that wall, you first had to make it through a no-man’s land patrolled by guards in towers, with mines and dogs and sirens and in some cases guns automatically triggered by motion detectors.

IMG_9327Residents on both sides could see across to the other. But the wall created a chasm between countrymen that could only be healed once the wall came down and the Soviet Union collapsed.

IMG_9331Many of the buildings in the area that face West Berlin have large murals painted on them showing what the area looked like during the cold war.

In the end? Those millions of lives lost and trillions of dollars spent was all completely senseless, borne on the backs of lies and policies with no reality behind them. Sometimes I despair at the state of a species that is so willing to believe lies and to hate so easily, enough so as to allow six million of their fellow human beings to be tormented and slaughtered. It’s exceedingly important that we remember what humanity is capable of, both the good and the bad. This is why I get shivers up and down my spine when I see the frickin’ President of the United States tweet this:

Screen Shot 2018-12-21 at 11.36.16 AMWhile he has a point about the inequity of military spending (to which many might say, why the hell is the US paying 4.3% of its GDP when that means it spends more on defense than China, Russia, Saudi Arabia, India, France, the UK and Japan combined?).

But the issue I have with the tweet is that Mr. Trump demonstrates a complete lack of understanding of history: There was no such thing as a European military; they were fighting each other. In fact, Europe formed the European Union mostly to ensure something like World War II didn’t happen again. Again, no matter what your politics are you should be horrified that the leader of the most powerful nation in the world is so clueless when it comes to world history.

“Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.”

As a side note, many people don’t know that when Germany fell, many of the upper level Nazis escaped to the Middle East, where they had cultivated allies. Once ensconced, they continued their anti-Jewish efforts, which explains some of the irrational hatred the Arabs have against the Jews. Mr. Adolf Hitler is a gift of evil that keeps on giving even to this day.

In the end, Hitler received his own just reward. I think it is so fitting that the place where he killed himself, the Führerbunker, is now simply a dirt-covered parking lot.

Hitler's Bunker

A fitting memorial to the most evil monster in human history.



Laine Berning
Laine Berning

Berlin: A City of Many Germs

I always wondered why it’s called Germany in English. One visit and boom! I found out soon enough.

You learn a lot about a place when you visit, and as a result of this, our first ever visit to Germany, we found out why it was called the “Land of Many Germs” (or Germ-many in the old dialect). It’s because they have so many germs of course! Here’s our proof: after we landed in Berlin and began walking around, we developed colds. That means every single time we’ve gone to Germany, we’ve gotten a cold. What other proof do you need?

This is another way to have “prison of the belly.”

By the way, in Portuguese the word for cold is “constipação.” Don’t ask us why. Maybe way back when the official Portuguese Language Translator got confused when he had both a cold and, uh, a case of the clogs.

Since that word got used up, they decided the phrase for “constipation” would be “prisão de ventre,” which literally translates to “prison of the belly.” Go figure. I thought they might’ve just used “cold” to make it even. Although that really might’ve messed up a lot of travelers when they asked for cold medicine.

I think it actually makes a lot more sense to call a cold a “prisão do nariz” (prison of the nose). I’ll try that phrase on the next pharmacist we visit when we have a cold. Why not? They can’t understand us anyway.

But we didn’t let lousy constipaçãos interfere with our sightseeing. So take that you germy Germans!

Berlin is a fascinating city. It impressed and interested me more than I thought it would. Being something of a casual student of World War II, it was interesting to see all the remnants of that war (and the aftermath, especially with the Soviet occupation of most of eastern Europe) still present and commemorated. I really think many Europeans’ worldview is still affected by that horrific time, as it should be.

So we set out to see all the sights Berlin has to offer. Being the savvy travelers we are, we usually travel by Commemorative Plate.Travel Plate I know a lot of people use Fodor, or Rick Steves, or Google. But we like to use the Commemorative Plate Travel System (CPTS). It’s a fail-safe way to see everything you need to see.

So here we see the Commemorative Plate telling us that the most important places to visit are the Berlin Dome (“Dom”), The Kaiser-Wilhelm-Gedachtnis-kirch, the Siegessaule, The Brandenburger Tor, the Reichstag, the Mauerfall, the Alexanderplatz, and the ketchup.

Whoops. He he. We used the plate for some french fries, you can ignore the ketchup.

First and foremost, we had to figure out transportation. Since it is Germany, we expected to see Mercedeses and BMWs barreling about like jet cars in a Star Wars city. There were some of those, but there were also a fair amount of Japanese cars as well, which surprised me just a little. Unfortunately, we tried to rent a car from a place called “My Last Name is Hitler But I Promise I’m Not Related to That Bastard Rent-a-car Company.” And all they had left was something Hitler might have driven when he was a starving artist. Or maybe that’s Mr. Bean’s old car.With mini car

Since I wanted to drive while my entire body occupied the car at the same time, we opted to mostly use Uber. Which isn’t completely legal in Germany because the Germans don’t put up with the abusive shenanigans Uber has engaged in to get their foot in every country. The app basically just hails a cab for you. But that came in handy actually, so despite Uber’s corporate nonsense, that’s usually the way we traveled. That, and a lot of walking. My calf muscles pretty much had a cow by the end of our two-week visit to Berlin, Dresden, and Prague.

By the way, I also have to say that most of the cars we rode in had very impressive dashboards. I often felt like we were actually in a jet car in a Star Wars city. I halfway expected to hear R2D2’s distinctive whistles and chirps, or Princess Leia offering directions in 3D.

Well, hell. I’ve got almost two pages done and you still haven’t seen any of the Berlin sites! Sorry. I definitely don’t have prisão de ventre of the fingers. I can only hope my readers have at least five or fifty, minutes to spare, depending on how much you skim. But beware! Skimmers miss my best jokes! Which isn’t saying much, because they’re all bad. But hey, it’s free, so quit your “jammern,” (that’s “whining” in German).

Okay, now I realize it’s going to take a few entries just to get through Berlin. So consider this Part One. And I’ll try not to ramble so much. Full disclosure: I still will.

IMG_9230Let’s start with the Brandenburg Gate, which is one of the most iconic buildings in all of Germany. Truth be told, perhaps because of its iconicity, as well as the impressiveness of so many of the other iconic buildings we’ve seen so far around Europe, I expected a little more out of the Brandenburg Gate. It was smaller than I imagined, and simply not all that impressive. Which is probably what a lot people thought about Hitler after meeting him for the first time.

The Brandenburg Gate was built in the 18th century, by order of Prussian king Frederick William II, and was built to represent peace.

Unfortunately, after World War II, it looked like this:

Brandenburg GateSo much for representing peace. But, it was restored and still stands, so maybe peace does endure even in the face of calamity.

As we walked around the area, we happened upon a Soviet World War II Memorial. I’m sure the Soviets viewed themselves as liberators, even while they raped up to 2 million German women. In many cases women were the victims of repeated rapes, some as many as 60 to 70 times. The Soviets then remained in all of those countries until the Soviet Union collapsed. War sure is glorious, isn’t it?

At least we got some memorials and monuments.

Our hotel bordered the Tiergarten, which is a bit like Central Park is in New York, except without all the muggings. Like so much of Europe, Berlin felt safer than any large city in the states. We had no qualms about wandering through the Tiergarten or anywhere else, day or night. A street vendor was selling some qualms for ten euros, but we prefer to travel without them.

TiergartenWorld War II and its aftermath devastated the Tiergarten: only 700 trees survived out of over 200,000 that once lined the parkway. The rest of the trees were chopped down for firewood or to make room for crops badly needed for a starving populace. Over time, West Germany brought the park back to life.

In the middle of the 520-acre Tiergarten is the Victory Column (Siegessäule), which was designed in 1864 to commemorate the Prussian victory in the Danish-Prussian War. It was inaugurated in 1873. The Nazis moved it to its present site, which probably saved it from destruction. After climbing 282 steps via a spiral staircase –huff-puff– one is treated to some outstanding views of Berlin:


IMG_9194And so, we have knocked off two of the sightseeing options from our CPTS (Commemorative Plate Travel System in case you forgot) thus far: The Brandenburger Tor (gate) and the Siegessaule (Victory Column). I’d say that’s pretty good work for one day, don’t you? It’s time for a beer!