The double-decker bus was not made for long journeys. From the looks of it, its original purpose had been sightseeing in some Danish city (all the labels on things like emergency exits were in Danish), and it had been repurposed for longer trips by adding a bathroom and a luggage hold on the lower deck. In the seat across from ours, a large woman snored loudly for the entirety of the trip, starting before we even left the station.
It was a largely uneventful journey, except for my trip to the bus's bathroom. This was a tiny, frightening bathroom, as any two-by-two-foot cubicle with a toilet on a moving bus would be. It was unique, though, in a couple of ways.
First, the buttons. There were three buttons in the bathroom: one next to the toilet-paper dispenser, and two next to the sink. From the placement, I almost assumed it was the button for flushing the toilet. Luckily, I looked a little more closely at the labels: this one was labelled in Danish and in English, and it said "STOP button. Do NOT press unless there is an emergency."
I don't know what that button stopped, but from the sound of it, it could have been the bus. I was just waiting for someone who didn't speak one of the languages on the label to press the button and bring us all to a screeching halt on the highway. As far as I know, it didn't happen, at least on that particular trip.
Second, the door. The bathroom door had a tendency to get stuck. I thought I was trapped in there for a good five minutes. It was rather claustrophobic.
Finally, though, we arrived at the bus station in Berlin. Or, rather, on its outskirts. At midnight. You see, the bus station was a good ten-minute walk from the nearest U-Bahn station, and it was not the most savory neighborhood I could have imagined. I mean, it's Germany, which isn't exactly known for high crime rates (that'd be the US, where, oddly, I'm more comfortable walking around at night), but abandoned convenience stores and sketchy car washes don't exactly scream "safe & wholesome" in any language.
So maybe arriving in the middle of the night wasn't the greatest idea ever. But, we made it to the station, and were then confronted by the ticket machine. We pressed the UK flag button for English, and were puzzled at the options we were given: "Reduced price ticket," and "Regular price ticket." With no further explanation. I assume the German screen had some explanation, or maybe Germans just automatically know which is which, but we did not. My friend speaks German, but she's not from Germany, so we were puzzled. We ended up purchasing the reduced price ticket, figuring maybe as students, we were eligible.
Which, we later discovered, is not true; reduced prices are for children and dogs. We are neither.
We also forgot to validate our tickets, as the train came into the station just as it was coming out of the machine. There are no ticket barriers to public transportation in Germany, just occasional spot-checks, with fines and even jail time if you fail to produce a validated ticket.
Speaking a foreign language and crying works rather well to get you out of it, and between the two of us, we had a couple of languages we could have employed (Kiswahili and Spanish), but luckily, on this trip, we didn't need to use those strategies.
We took the U-Bahn as far as we could toward the center of the city, and then got out at the Zoological Gardens (or whatever it is in German, I forget) station. There was a slightly sketchy internet-cafe-slash-convenience-store there, and we paid for half an hour, and sat down to research places to sleep.
Remember, it was already after midnight. We were also hungry. But first, beds. We jotted down a few addresses of nearby hostels, and hit the streets. In other parts of Germany, nothing's really open at night, but Berlin's a different story entirely; there were people on the streets! There were places other than bars and clubs that were actually open for business after midnight! I hadn't been anywhere other than a bar at night for quite some time, so I was pretty much ecstatic. I'm a night owl, and living in the US, I was used to middle-of-the-night trips to Waffle House with my friends, and I'd been pretty frustrated with the lack of non-bar nighttime hangout spots in Germany.
Anyway, we wandered around for a good half an hour before we found one of the places on our list. It was a little difficult to find, because it was located on top of a giant sex shop called the "World Of Erotic." For people who are so rule-oriented, Germany has a shocking amount of sex for Americans. Sex shops, nude calendars in regular bookshops, and so on.
Anyway, up above the World Of Erotic, we paid for our beds in a dorm room, found the room, and piled our non-valuable stuff on a pair of bunk beds. And then, we took to the streets yet again, at one AM.
We asked the people at the hostel which direction we should go in for places with food that were't Burger King, and were pointed down the street past the World Of Erotic. There was a cheap Chinese restaurant called China Box right next to it, but I'm not a huge fan of Chinese food, so we continued on, while discussing the naming patterns of Chinese restaurants.
"Have you ever noticed that ninety percent of Chinese restaurants follow the same naming pattern?" I asked.
"No, not really...."
"It's true. They start with the word 'China,' and then add some random noun. Random English noun, even in non-English-speaking countries."
This is a true fact, something I've observed in several countries. China Box, China Express, China Garden, China Sea, China Camp....the list goes on. My favorite, though, is China Buffet. Why? Because it reveals another universal truth about Chinese restaurants.
You see, in general, all-you-can-eat buffets are a pretty American concept. You don't find many of them in Europe. If you do, though, it's almost guaranteed to be a Chinese restaurant. Or occasionally Indian. I guess it's a business model that works for the Chinese-restaurant-owning community.
Anyway, back to Berlin. Eventually, we found a place, a bar/restaurant that showed no signs of closing up anytime soon. It was kind of a hole-in-the-wall, and we ate in a tiny back room with an interesting design: the door into the one-person-bathroom was right off the dining room. Which, in my opinion, is sucky feung-shui, but, anyway, it was the most affordable place we found.
It was a nice place, the kind of place where you could be a regular, and sit with a drink all night long, reading a book, and they wouldn't bother you. If I lived in Berlin, I think I might just become that sort of a regular. It was an interesting place for people-watching, too. Plus, they served American-style breakfast in the middle of the night! Just like home, where Waffle House is my midnight hangout.
We stayed there for an hour or so, I guess, and might have stayed longer, except we were pretty exhausted. So we made our way back to the World Of Erotic, and collapsed into bed.
The next day, we explored Berlin. We made it to the Brandenburg Gate, the Holocaust Memorial, the Berliner Dom, all nice sightseeing, got some cool pictures (which I don't have, again, for reasons I'll explain), and then discovered something awesome.
Ampelmann is German for the traffic signal men. You know, the green or red light-up figures telling you to walk or stay where you are, in case you are too dumb to just see if there's any traffic and then cross (very American mindset, let me tell you; random people will yell at you on the street in Germany for jaywalking, regardless of the traffic). In Berlin, you'll find two types of Ampelmann. One is the regular kind, and the other is the Communist kind, the type found in East Germany, and still visible in some places today. The Communist ones are awesome, as you can see here:
Image blatantly stolen from a Google Image search for "Berlin Ampelmann."
When we first saw them, across from the World Of Erotic, we thought they were awesome. It wasn't until later, though, that we discovered they had something of a cult following. And how did we discover this? By coming across a store near the Berliner Dom, a store that is the definition of awesome: The Ampelmann Store!!!!!
Yeah. It needs that many exclamation points.
It may have been overpriced and gimmicky, but that doesn't diminish the awesome. There were t-shirts, books, pencils, keychains, everything Ampelmann that could could think of. I bought a keychain there, the start of my international keychains collection (currently standing at three, but it will grow!), in the shape of the green Ampelmann (yes, it needs to be capitalized; the Germans capitalize all their nouns).
As I was completing my purchase, I picked up an advertising postcard at the register, listing the several locations of the Ampelmann store in Berlin, and--wait for it--THE AMPELMANN RESTAURANT!!!!!
It was immediately decided that this would be our dinner destination.
Up next in part three: the Ampelmann restaurant, Russian souvenirs, and indecent exposure.