Wednesday, December 08, 2010

no, not to Berlin

One person’s chaos is another’s yawn. That’s the punch line.

Oh! Finally! A photo from this side of the ocean:


Not Berlin, is it? You’re right. Not Berlin.

After a six hour wait for the second Berlin-bound flight (the first one was canceled), all the while watching the wet, cold, misty skies turn wetter and mistier, we finally board the plane. Departing on time. What a relief.

Except that it isn’t a relief at all. In the minutes before departure, I note how a two degree dip in the temperature outside can transform drizzle into light snow and then into heavier snow. And now we have a further delay.  There is a backup of flights waiting to be de-iced. And waiting, too, for available runways. And then, in the end, there are no open runways at all because the airport suddenly closes. Except that we are still on that plane waiting to go somewhere, but really nowhere at all.

Snow arrives in Paris and the city, unused to such nonsense, gives up for the day.

We spend four hours on the plane, waiting, waiting, the pilot nicely updating, the attendants handing out sandwiches. My seatmate to my left tells me – that’s the French famous singer in the row in front of us (Mirelle Mathieau). She was going on a tour of Germany... Snow storms do not discriminate. They make everyone wait and then, just when you've decided you can wait no more, they have you get off and wait in long lines to figure out what's next.

I ask my kind seatmate to my left for his cell phone and I call my little hotel in Paris. Do you have a room for tonight? Last one! You are lucky. Paris is fully booked tonight, because of the storm.

Chaos at the airport. Chaos in the city. The snowstorm has wrecked havoc.

We retreat, taking the train to town (running at half the speed), no suitcases – who knows where they are and when we will see them again – but with flight reservations for tomorrow. Maybe. If all goes well.

An inconvenience. A huge, terrible, head-spinning inconvenience.

Except, after all, it’s Paris.


It’s late, but we have time to shower and set out for a dinner at the new and bright Ze Kitchen Gallerie bistro. It’s Fench, but it’s a bit Asian, but really French – a confusion of places, which is so right, because we are in the thick of a confusion of places.

All because four inches of snow fell, unexpectedly, over the city of Paris. Chaos. (Or, from the point of view of a Madison snow removal worker: yawn.)


to Berlin

December in central Europe is a dreary time of biting cold, wet air. I have such vivid memories of this -- dating back to my childhood years in Warsaw. Of hardened snow along the curb, forcing you to find a trampled path over banks of it, just to cross the street. Of dark afternoons. Of my mother taking me skating for the first time, on the patch of ice by the market. Double blades, fastened to a laced-up brown shoe. The feeling of night at midday, with people crowding streets, moving quickly to keep warm. Of thick drapes hanging by entrance doors in stores, to keep the cold air out. Dim street lights, wool coats, sometimes with fur collars. Hot tea with fruit compote to sweeten it.

But that’s Warsaw. What’s Berlin like?

My earliest visits to it where passing through ones.  In the 1960s, you could not fly from Warsaw to, say London or Amsterdam (to connect to New York, where my father worked for a half dozen years) without stopping in East Berlin. We would disembark and sit in the rather empty wait area. Tables with stained coverings, glasses of tea, German announcements over the loudspeaker. I was a postwar child and the German language sounded menacing, harsh.

Later, I passed through Berlin with longer pauses. Once, I vacationed with my family in East Germany and Berlin was our jump off point. We were allowed to spend an afternoon in West Berlin, even though at the time (1969), the wall separating the two parts to the city was at its most guarded moment. West Berlin was glitzy and commercial. East Berlin was an expanse of vast spaces and monochromatic buildings.

The last time I was in Berlin was in 1975. My sister and her then husband needed someone to drive a car for them from Paris to Warsaw and I volunteered. I was studying in the States, but I spent every free month in Europe – mostly Poland, and this offered a chance to take a slow poke through both West and East Germany.

I’ll long remember the corridor road that linked West Germany with West Berlin. If you can imagine it: a passageway, with an imposed hostility on both sides (relations between East and West Germany remained strained then). We stayed in West Berlin for a few days before crossing over to the East. And again I thought it offered little beyond the commercial avenues filled with the kind of stores you’d like to see in the East – cheap and plentiful stuff. Lots of stuff.

The road linking Berlin with Warsaw remained poorly maintained – even as it was, at the time, just about the only real highway in all of Poland.

So, what’s Berlin like now?

We’re spending many hours at the Paris airport (worse fates could befall us than sipping endless espressos and eating numerous pain au chocolat). The morning flight to Berlin is cancelled. The weather is to blame. You guessed it – freezing, wet, dreary. You expect it in Berlin, in Warsaw. This time it’s made its way to Paris too.