To see my tribute to Flo, go here

See about helping Flo's Haitian artist friends at Jakmel Ekspresyon


Sunday, November 27, 2011

Time passing, new Italy trip

Since I last posted here, Margaret has visited me twice, the second time to see an opera at the new Performing Arts Center in Kansas City, and we arranged to go to Los Angeles together to join a SlowTrav get-together. Things are well affirmed between us.

I went to my parents' for Thanksgiving when they essentially ordered me to go. Booking relatively late around peak dates, I did a non-Southwest trip on regional jets, on Continental to Manchester via Newark, returning on Frontier from Boston via Milwaukee, opting out of Boston's body scanner, and gate-checking a bag on a full flight.

I generally reactivate the blog when planning for an international trip is under way. When I was with my parents, I established that the house in Italy was available for most of next year. I've been wanting to have Margaret join me in Italy, using my United miles. We've been looking to plan it around a reunion of the school in Rome that we attended, but enough time has passed with no announcement that I was ready to make a booking without regard to a reunion.

Margaret was willing, and I asked the SlowTrav board a planning question based on my general thought that the trip should include Capri, and for a trip in May, which was showing decent award availability. For most United awards, there's better availability if you go through Germany on Lufthansa. I was looking at having Capri at one end of the trip, and so using Naples airport. With Margaret going from Sacramento, many options had flights from the West Coast to Germany, but I was looking for places were I could more easily join her for the transatlantic flight, Chicago in particular. If we had Capri at the start of the trip, I was looking at a flight arriving in Naples at 4.15 p.m. Then I got to think that getting to the port and ferry to Capri after that long overnight series of flights could just strain us too much. It could be better to have Capri as the culmination of the trip, but a 6 a.m. flight out of Naples would mean staying on the mainland.

For my first choice of return date, flying out of either Naples or Rome would mean going through Germany. Some people on the boards were urging me to try for a transatlantic flight out of Rome. The United site wasn't allowing open-jaw booking if partner airlines were involved; I could pay to go through a phone agent or, as the merger gets closer, transfer the needed miles to Continental, which allows this open-jaw online booking.

Before I did this, I tried a round trip to Rome on the United site. By changing the return by a day, I was able to book Margaret on the Rome-Newark flight. That calls for a long Newark layover and a connection through Houston; these are all current Continental routes; I don't know if, once the airlines are fully merged, she could make a more logical connection through the United hubs of Chicago or Denver. I'm guessing the Houston-Sacramento flight has award availability because it isn't so much in demand.

Margaret certainly shows excitement at this trip; I'm hoping I can wait a bit to book my paid trip on the same transatlantic flights. Wanting specific flights might limit my search for the best fare, but I've signed up with Yapta to monitor the fare. My mother may also go, so there's much to work out about details of the trip once everyone's booked.

Sunday, August 28, 2011

Italian transportation strike listing

Now that I'm a moderator of SlowTrav, I've found that it would be useful to maintain a list of upcoming and past transportation strikes in Italy, including those that have been announced and then cancelled. It has the format of a blog so that I can edit it in the SlowTrav domain, but it's generally a reference page that gets updated rather than a traditional blog with new posts:

Italian Transportation Strikes

Tuesday, June 14, 2011

Berlin postscript on getting United miles

I got a United-branded credit card for the main purpose of getting the 50,000-mile bonus, so Margaret or I can aim to have a free trip to Italy. I got it after my United flight to Germany was booked and, given that a $600 voucher was applied to the flight, I was willing to spend a little money to get some extra comfort and have United charges with triple miles on my credit card.

So I got Premier Travel Plus for my Chicago-Frankfurt flight. Its benefits of a fast line for check-in and security weren't relevant to me on this connecting flight, so tossing those out, the benefit optionss were:

Premier Travel: Economy Plus seating with Group 1 boarding, and 25% bonus miles.

Premier Travel Plus: Economy Plus seating with Group 1 boarding, a pass to the Red Carpet Club, and 100% bonus miles.

I had my confirmation of the Premier Travel Plus purchase, and I saw that at the time of the purchase, before the flight, I got a mileage bonus that was 25% of the miles of the trip. I thought that was curious, but maybe the rest would be credited after I took the flight. I had a slight doubt about whether I'd actually been acknowledged with the Plus version, but it was on my boarding pass and I was admitted to the Club on the day of the flight.

I completed the trip, and got the base miles for all flights, but no additional Premier Travel Plus miles. A little over a week after my return, I sent an e-mail to Mileage Plus about the missing miles. There was a warning on the form that it could take a week to get a reply; it was close to that, and the reply included "According to the Terms and Conditions of the Premier Travel Plus, 25% mileage bonus will be accrued by the traveler who purchased this offer," and I received what was due. This when the Web site is very clear: 25% for Premier Travel, 100% for Premier Travel Plus. I replied to that, linking to their FAQ that makes that clear. Another week and no e-mail reply; I needed to phone. I called and got routed around five people, I think, who could have been in many parts of the world. One person talked about Premier status with the program, another said something like "If all Economy Plus seats are taken, you can't get one," neither of which had anything to do with what I was asking. The last agent put me on hold for some time, then acknowledged that I was right and would get the miles credited. The total call took about 50 minutes.

It took all this to get the miles that their site says very plainly should be owed. A major corporation evidently didn't have the system programmed right to give what should be straightforward. I hope their flight navigation programs are done better than this.

Wednesday, May 18, 2011

Berlin photo album

Return from Berlin: over too soon

I woke up on my own before the cell phone alarm set for 4 a.m. I got everything together, dropped the key in the mailbox, and made my way to the bus stop. With such an early departure, I thought it could be time to go for a taxi, but when I asked on a board about arranging one for that hour, people advised me to go for public transportation, as I'm generally inclined to do. Looking at the BVG site, the best option was to start with a bus on Torstrasse, with a scheduled departure at 4.46. When I left a little after 4.15, there was a bit of daylight and some people out, and reasonable traffic on that main street. The bus showed up, which I took to the end at Hauptbahnhof; a few minutes later the TXL bus showed up at the same stop (I was worried about finding the stop on some train-to-bus connections), and got me to the airport a little after 5.

I found my way to Terminal D and checked in with no wait for my 6.40 a.m. Brussels Airlines flight from Berlin to Brussels. Security was just opening. The agent went through my shoulder carry-on, which had many wires to decipher. I'd taken things out and moved them to my checked bag to better meet the 6-kilo carry-on limit. I was about the last to board, crossing the tarmac, since I didn't hear a general boarding call before the last call. That flight was listed as a regional jet when I booked it, but they changed it to an A319 with lightly padded seats to improve the pitch. There was no SeatGuru chart of that aircraft to check against the seat they assigned me. I found that it was in the back row, in a windowless window seat, but the plane was sparsely occupied and I moved to an empty row in front of another empty row, so I could recline without guilt. They charged for all drinks including water; unusually for a short flight, they had a flight progress map TV monitor; I rested through the flight, and it arrived a few minutes before the scheduled time of 8.

I've been through Brussels Airport a few times, the last in 2000, and it looks largely rebuilt. I arrived at Schengen Concourse A, and followed signs to Concourse B, through retail areas, and finally a narrow passageway with no wait to passport control for exiting Schengen. Then I joined with originating passengers for the security check including shoe removal.

I went to the United transit desk because I thought the boarding passes that Brussels Air gave me must be incomplete, since they didn't include the group numbers that I know the UA passes to have. The agent there said no, they'd stopped having those because they were harmonizing their process with Continental; I remembered reading that today would be "Customer Service Day One." They would just be boarding by rows. Then when boarding time was close (this was a 3-hour layover) they called my name among people who still needed to go to the transit desk, because I'd missed answering questions about the bag that was connecting.

With that resolved, I got my outside aisle seat in regular Economy on this 767 to Chicago, walking past the First Class pods and some rear-facing Business seats. I courteously waited to see that no one else was taking that storage space, and put my bulky shoulder bag in the overhead bin, giving me better legroom. I took the chicken meal choice and got a decent amount of sleep through the 9-hour flight. The long flight listed an oddly precise arrival time of 1.17, and it arrived a few minutes early. There was a short wait at passport control, a longer one for my bag, and I was waved through customs and dropped my bag off. Then the train from O'Hare International Arrival Terminal 5 to Terminal 1.

Then the line for security; I was worried that the TSA might have a problem with my boarding pass that said O'Hare to International, instead of Chicago to Kansas City, but I got through. I got in the left-hand security line when I saw that the checkpoint had a walk-through metal detector on the left and a body scanner on the right. I was still directed to the body scanner and opted out. There was a short wait for a pat-down officer, who was courteous to the extent possible and let me face my belongings.

That pat-down/groping was still not so pleasant, and I was glad that, in my spree of United buying, I'd bought a day pass for the Red Carpet Club. I got there, in the C concourse, after taking the underpass. It was still over three hours before my next flight, and I was glad to settle in with a drink and take advantage of the included wi-fi. I left at around 4.30 to get a cheeseburger at the Billy Goat concession, and went to my gate at the end of the concourse. There was a note on the screen about looking for volunteers to be bumped. I thought momentarily about asking for it as the beginning of a future trip, as this one started with a bump, but I didn't ask, and boarding began. The two seats next to me were empty after boarding, so presumably they wouldn't have finally bumped me, and someone else took one of the seats to have an empty seat next to him. That flight went well and arrived early.

To conclude about the trip: I'm certainly glad I got to take it, originating from the $600 bump last summer. I'd been interested in a trip to Berlin, possibly at the start or end of a trip to Italy, and I'm glad I spent this longer time there, wishing there were more time. I could have explored more even in my neighborhood, an art gallery district with a lot going on. My previous trips to Germany were rushes through, including a time in the 1970s where everything was too fast, on a pass that wouldn't have covered the East German railways to get to Berlin. Now I have an interest in looking for old guidebooks and other sources to see about the logistics of visiting divided Berlin. In previous trips, it was on my mind that I sometimes dealt with people who were adults during the Nazi era, and it's good to see the forward-looking Germany of today. It was fascinating to see the signs of history, including recent times, and such an active city. This trip was part of a long series of trips alone, and now I'm hoping to take more trips with company.

Monday, May 16, 2011

Full last day

It's my last day, which was full, and I'll need to cover it briefly.

I got up at 6.30 a.m. to issue my return boarding pass on the Brussels Airlines site. It issued that and the ongoing United passes, but I think I'll want them reprinted at the airport. I did a dry run to get where I need to catch the bus in the early morning, and had a croissant breakfast in a new place. Then, on the way to the first museum, I printed the boarding passes at a shop with a printer.

Many musueums are open on Monday, and this was the time to see the Neues Museum. I went to Museum Island and the trailer where they issue the timed tickets to this museum. It has antiquities, most notably Egyptian, had heavy war damage, and was fully reopened in fall 2009. There are great works, and the included audioguides also discussed the restoration, where the reconstructed parts are somber and modern, in contrast with the murals of the old parts. The highlight is the room devoted to the bust of Nefertiti, well preserved and which could be viewed without much of a crowd, given the timed admission.

I had a thought of buying a book with pictures of the past, and some other souvenirs, and wound up at the Galeria Kaufhof on Alexanderplatz. It's a department store that's comparable to the grand KaDeWe in the West. Since they have some nice food counters, I stopped at the Asian one and had crispy Thai chicken. I was close enough to my apartment to bring my purchases back, and it was close to 3 p.m. when I bought my transit pass at Hackescher Markt. I took the S-Bahn to Ostbahnhof, viewing the drab East German construction, and connected to a bus to start my walk around Eastern Kreuzberg. I was interested in stories I'd seen about the area during the division; it was a part of West Berlin surrounded on three sides by the wall, and known for its mix of mainly Turkish immigrants, along with punks, goths, and radicals.

I've mostly used the printed Rough Guide, but here I tried a walking tour on the iPod version of the Lonely Planet guide. They botched several street names, but there was a mix of quiet residential areas and bustling commercial streets, with some out-of-the ordinary things to see. It was sprinkling most of the time. I took the U-Bahn two stops to the center of the Turkish area, but it was raining harder and there wasn't much to record. Then two more stops to get to the Jewish Museum.

It had its security check, and they asked me to check my jacket. It was confusing to start the visit, but I found my way around in this new building with a jagged shape to show the course of Jewish history. There were halls of remembrance before going up some stairs to the top to cover 1000 years of Jewish-German history. There was much to learn, and painful topics; it took a lot of time to see.

Making the awkward transition: I took the U-Bahn home and had dinner at Asado, a steakhouse near the apartment. Now I'll wrap it up, since I need to leave early in the morning; I'll have final thoughts with my flight report.

Sunday, May 15, 2011

Sunday in Berlin

First, I bought four transit tickets at the slightly-discounted per-ticket price, with plans to use three today and one for my trip to the airport. With plans to follow a few Sunday traditions, I took the M1 tram to the Prenzlauer Berg area for Sunday brunch, at the guidebook-recommended place Restauration 1900. I sat outside and had two visits to the bountiful brunch buffet: one with carb-loaded eggs and spaetzle, then interesting vegetable dishes and cheesecake.

I walked the neighborhood a little before getting to the recommended Mauerpark, a park where the wall ran through, where there's a full flea market on Sunday. There was plenty of interest in looking around there, including observing the people. I couldn't resist the chance to stop at a crepe stand, and also have a try of the Berliner Weisse beer, which one takes with red or green syrup and drinks with a straw.

When I had my fill there, I went to Museum Island to see the Altes Museum, which is architecturally dramatic as it faces the open space of the Lustgarten, and has Greek, Etruscan, and Roman antiquities.

Then a somber time; the transit ticket I'd taken there was still within its two hours of validity; with the bus detoured past the Brandenburg Gate stop, I went to the Reichstag, then back to the Memorial to Murdered Jews. The guide a few days prior had urged us to go back and look at the free exhibit underneath. This had displays on the history and focused on individual victims' stories. I find it hard to consider Holocaust matters without being very prepared for it in advance, so it was difficult to take time there.

Then I used my third ticket for the 2-stop S-Bahn ride back to my apartment. I'd gotten through security at the Memorial, but I had in mind to divest myself of metal before going to the sight closest to my aparrtment, the New Synagogue, also with full security. This is a museum rather than a functioning synagogue; only the front part was rebuilt from its damage, which was mostly from wartime; the police precinct captain had prevented much damage during Kristallnacht. Rebuilding began in 1988, a year before the fall of the Wall. There was an interesting display on the history of the Jewish community before its persecution. Tomorrow I'm planning to pull a lot of this together by visiting the Jewish Museum.

On Sunday I look for a pasta dinner; with a short walk I found the Ristorante Al Dente, and had the mushroom-and-truffle-sauce Tagliatelle alla Boscaiola. There were sprinkles as I walked home, and I didn't have my usual waterproof jacket. There was a great rainbow as I got home; I went into the apartment to get my camera, went back out, and the rainbow was gone.

I have much in mind for my last day tomorrow.

Saturday, May 14, 2011

Saturday: Museums in the area

On Saturday I overslept: odd since I have a cell phone alarm, and I need to look into it for my return date. I had a croissant-coffee breakfast, and went on to Museum Island and the Alte Nationalgalerie. In one of my lost posts, I discussed how, after there were separate cultural institutions on both sides of the divided city, now museums have their scope, with this one having painting and sculpture of the 19th century. This was a good visit, with some Impressionists and people around them, and a cross-section of German art of that period.

At any of the Island Museums, one can get timed tickets for the museums that call for it: so at the end of this visit, I asked for one for the Pergamon Museum. This seller gave me one for the immediate 1.30 time, although I meant to ask for one for 2 p.m. In this time, I still managed to stop at a stand and get Currywurst and a glass of Sekt (sparkling wine) for €5. I still got to the Pergamon a few minutes before 2, and the advice is to go anytime during the half-hour, and not right at the start. I found a sign, which people were blocking, saying where people with tickets were to enter. I got caught up with a tour group, and this was the first time I was seeing crowds in a museum in Berlin.

I must admit that I didn't really know the meaning of the term Pergamon; I've just handled books from the Pergamon Press. So there upon entering was the grand reconstructed temple of Pergamon in present-day Turkey. Then there are more installations, and in one wing the tiles of the Processional Way and Ishtar Gate. There's a Middle Eastern collection upstairs, Then in the other wing, I think the upper level is under restoration, while the main level has a show on Tell Halaf; a museum of materials from this Syrian city was destroyed in World War II; after complications in divided Germany, sculptures have been rebuilt from the rubble.

Afterwards, I explored the empty space where the damaged Royal Palace was replaced with the palace of the East German Republic, which has also been taken down, with plans for a new replica of the Royal Palace delayed by funding.

I crossed to the east quay, on the lower level, to see the DDR Museum, an active multimedia display on life in East Germany. They have replicas of housing and consumer goods, in addition to discussing politics and the fear of the Stasi.

I found it raining when that was done. I looked for a place to eat, and got to the Hackescher Markt, where there are several big restaurants coming out of the train station; they had outdoor seating apparently well protected by umbrellas, but I wanted to eat inside and was having trouble finding a place this Saturday night. I got to Weihenstephaner across the street, where they led me to extra spaces in their cellar, and I had a filling Jagerschnitzel meal.

Keeping more or less open plans for Sunday

Friday, May 13, 2011

Wed.-Fri Berlin: Keeping it brief

I see that Blogger had some down time, and my posts from Wednesday, which I thought I published, and Thursday have been lost. I'll take that as a message that my posts have been too long and detailed, and I'll summarize things briefly.

On Wednesday I went to Potsdam: much to see in the rococo palaces of Frederick the Great; in the late afternoon there was a thunderstorm as I got to central Potsdam and ate at a creperie. Back in Berlin, I ate at the Vietnamese restaurant Monsieur Vuong.

On Thursday I bought the €40 Annual Museum Pass, my first use of a credit card in Germany, and it may be my only one; I know not to count on restaurants taking them, and all my meals have been under €20. The museums I saw were the Bode (two blocks from me on Museum Island); in the West the Neue Nationalgalerie and the Gemaeldegalerie, and the Photography (Helmut Newton) Museum. In the last area, down the main Ku'damm shopping street, I finally tried the local Currywurst specialty at a place where people eat at stand-up tables; then once again there was a downpour. Also during the day I saw the Sony Center and Potsdamer Platz, a square formerly divided by the wall, now showing massive commercial building.

Today I had a full breakfast at Keyser Soze, then it was my day to see far-flung museums. With a day pass, I took the S-Bahn to Charlottenburg and changed to a bus to see the Berggruen Collection(across from Charlottenburg Palace, almost all a postwar reconstruction and which I didn't take time to see). The Berggruen is a nice 3-story building devoted to Picasso and His Time, including nice works by Matisse, Braque, and Klee.

Now, with a bus and a couple of U-Bahn lines, to Dahlem, a museum complex on the southern outskirts with impressive ethnological collections from outside of Europe (a European collection is temporarily closed). There was an interesting setup of African collections in dark rooms with lighting on the art. Even though I had a full breakfast, I broke for lunch with gnocchi from their cafeteria. The museum had very few visitors.

Afterwards, I had time, as I wished, to return to Checkpoint Charlie and look at the outdoor display on the history of the Wall and crossing point. I took the U-Bahn the few stops to my area and had a pizza. Tomorrow, getting into the major Island Museums.

Thursday, May 12, 2011

Thursday: Starting the museums

I walked the two blocks to the Bode Museum at the northern tip of Museum Island. There I made the purchase of the Jahreskarte or annual pass for the state museums, for €40. That was my first use of a credit card in Germany, and may be the only one. My lodging is paid in cash, and I hear not to count on restaurants taking them; all my meals have been under €20. Continuing on that aside, tipping in Europe is often confusing; I read just to round up to the next euro, but some of the bills have said in English "Tip not included." Anyway, it's odd to get an annual pass for this stay, but with most museums costing €8 and some costing €10, it pays for itself pretty quickly. At the museums where I've used it so far, I haven't needed to stop at the ticket booth; I just showed it to the guard, who sometimes scanned the barcode.

The Bode Museum was quiet and interesting, with varied works from antiquity through Baroque. I mentioned how the division of the city affected train lines; also, as the guide the other day said, there were separate cultural institutions in East and West, many works were damaged or taken away, and with the unified city there's been an effort to move collections to where it makes sense to have them thematically.

I made my way to the Friedrichstrasse station, needing to find my way a little farther to the entrance to the underground S-Bahn (it's interesting to consider how they made the walled-off connection between over- and underground lines when the city was divided). On the S- and U-Bahn trains, there are no turnstiles, and ticket machines are on the platforms, an honor system until you run into an inspector. This was a day to get a day ticket for €6.30; I got a €5 note in but the machine kept rejecting (fortunately returning) all my €1 and €2 coins. I finally added another €5 note and it worked; I'm building up a lot of coins. Anyway, I went the two stops to Potsdamer Platz.

Potsdamer Platz was the heart of the city and divided by the wall; now there's a great expanse of modern commercial buildings, highlighted by the Sony Center, a big gathering place with a conical roof. Following the guidebook, I went to the modern shopping Arkade down the street, and stopped at Salomon Bagels. I had a lox bagel sandwich with (unexpected) horseradish.

Back to the main street and the Kulturforum, a complex of cultural places for the West. I went to the striking Neue Nationalgalerie designed by Mies van der Rohe. Going downstairs from the empty (except for an installation) entrance level, there was a nice collection of works mostly from the first half of the 20th century. There were real-sized black-and-white reproductions of works that they thought rightfully belonged there, which mostly went into the Nazis' exhibitions of "degenerate art," and the labels note whether the whereabouts are known or not.

Then I went next door to the Gemaeldegalerie, a large museum in a building built in 1998, covering European art from the 13th to the early 19th centuries. There was much to take in there with not many people.

When I got out, it was getting close to 5, and I saw that there had been rain. I found the 200 bus stop, having seen before getting to the complex where it turned off the main street. I took it to the end, interested in seeing the photography museum. It has the works of Helmut Newton and his wife, who took the name Alice Springs; well, OK.

Although this was the day that many museums are open late, I had my fill for the day. At first I found this post lost, but I'll publish it now.

Wednesday, May 11, 2011

Wednesday: Potsdam and rain

I charted my main day trip to Potsdam to be early in my stay, so that it could be rescheduled in case of rain. I had the 2011 Rough Guide book saying the Sanssouci sites opened at 9 and it was good to get the timed tickets close to opening time. But then I'd seen a 10 a.m. opening time online. I was more or less planning to aim to get there at 9. I planned to take the regular regional train from Friedrichstrasse, which is faster than the S-Bahn from the same station. The RE train leaves at 6 and 36 past the hour, and I had written down that it left from track 6. I waited there as a succession of S-Bahn trains went by, then I saw the 8.06 RE train coming to track 3. I made some effort to get there but there was no way of getting there on time; I bought a Dunkin' Donut and coffee, and went on to get the next S7 S-Bahn train. The train at 8.13 had some long waits, and I may have arrived earlier if I'd waited for the 8.36 Regional.

Then there was a choice of buses to get to Schloss Sanssouci; I took the 606. All fares were covered by the ABC zone transit pass I'd bought for €6.80 from the machine at the Berlin Fr. platform. I got off the bus and found that indeed the ticket office opened at 10 (or a few minutes before). I got the Premium day cart to visit all the palaces in the park for €19 (this particular one, including Schloss Sanssouci, is only available at that palace). There was timed admission as people went through and listed to audioguides. A big theme was the rococo style, with many shell motifs. When I went to the picture gallery, I learned the procedure with the pass: go to the ticket office to get it stamped for that location with a receipt showing zero price. The picture gallery had an overwhelming display with paintings above one other, including many Rubens and a Caravaggio. There was a theme that many works had wound up in Russia, but some had come back or been replace.

Other places in the large park were the Neue Kammern and the Orangerie, which called for a guided tour in German where I could follow along on a sheet and the guide gave brief explanations. That included a room with reproductions of most of Raphael's works, not great reproductions but supposedly with the advantage that they were all in one room.

I got to the big Neues Palais; there, as in the Orangerie, visitors were required to put slippers on over their shoes while waling on the wood and marble floor. I tried to keep my distance from a high school group so I could hear the audioguide, and had my fill of learning about Friedrich the Great and his grand tastes.

This had taken me past 3 p.m. with no lunch and a minimal breakfast, and there were some rain sprinkles. I didn't have an umbrella, as I try to have when there's any hint of rain chances, but I was o.k. through the sprinkles as I found my way to a bus stop to go into town. My destination was the Creperie La Madeleine, which I saw listed in the guide. I found my way there in the picturesque town center, and ordered the Crepe Auvergnate, filled with roquefort and topped with a salad. I sat outside at a table with an umbrella, then a downpour with thunder came down and I moved to a better-protected outside table. I was glad to sit there until the rain let up.

There could still be plenty to see in Potsdam, but I was ready to call it a day. I got the tram to the station, and this time I made sure to take the Regional train, leaving at 21 and 51 past the hour. It was a nice double-decker, and I noticed that it had a destination beyond Berlin. That's something of a remnant of the divided city: even though there's a new Hauptbahnhof (main station), these trains go on a line through several stations (convenient to people who want to go to different areas) and go beyond Berlin. You wouldn't see this in London, Paris, or Rome, which have end-of-line stations (and in some of these cases, several, for different directions).

Anyway, I got off at Alexanderplatz. Even if I had lunch at 4 p.m., I thought I'd try to have an early dinner at Monsieur Vuong, a Vietnamese place that comes highly recommended. Getting there before 7, I got a spot on the bench of the communal tables outside. I got great spring rolls, and the waitress explained in English the day's specials; I got a full wok-like bowl of chicken with peanut curry. So, a full day, and I haven't started with the Berlin state museums yet. At first I found this post lost, but I'll publish it.

Tuesday, May 10, 2011

Tuesday, May 10: More history

I slept well but not too late, as I feared I might. I start this Tuesday morning with a little more on yessterday. I don't want to read too much into areas being formerly East or West, but I noted things. Where I'm staying is in the East, and a nice-looking quiet area. Nearby, there are drab modern buildings, with shopping that I know is post-unification. At the western end of the 100 bus line, by the Zoo train station, one sees the huge consumer culture, the busy shopping streets, culminating in the KaDeWe department store. No shortage of banks with ATMs there; it was odd that I took so long to find one in a major world capital.

So on Tuesday morning, I thought I could make it a plan to have a full breakfast and skip lunch; in countries where large breakfasts are served, that is often my plan of action when traveling alone. I got to a place nearby with a Superfruhstuck, and they didn't start serving until 9; this is a place where people are up late and don't start so early in the morning. I got that breakfast of cold cuts with a roll and a hard-boiled egg in the shell.

I took the short walk to the German Historical Museum or DHM. It isn't a state museum covered by the pass. Just buying a regular ticket with a few people ahead of me in line took a long time as it seemed that they mostly were group leaders. I also got the audioguide to have a better understanding in English of the displays, but most displays were lableled in English. I thought I'd mostly be interested in the 20th century, but there were involving things in the start upstairs, including the Holy Roman Empire with no capital and a traveling emperor. The visit returned downstairs after World War I, so I'd been through a lot when it was time to take in hyper-inflation, the Depression, Nazism, World War II and the Holocaust, divided Germany, and Unification. I can get through museums on the fast side, but this took around 3.5 hours.

I got to Hackescher Markt and didn't skip lunch; I wanted to sit down between standing times and ate at Rocco, sitting outside and having a croque-monsieur (the serving was actually two). I went there because, right by there, I had made plans to join the Insider Tour, which comes highly recommended although I don't usually join tours. The guide, a woman named Pen from Australia, started with the main historical buildings on the eastern side, where it could be noted that the original elements of buildings had bullet holes that had been filled in, central Berlin having been so heavily damaged. We learned to recognize the modern buildings built in the death strip area near the wall on the eastern side, saw the Checkpoint Charlie replica and part of the wall that still stands, then got to an apartment building (East side) parking lot, where Hitler's bunker was. We saw the new Monument to Murdered Jews, and ended at Brandenburg Gate. There was a break at a coffee bar in the middle, but it took over three hours.

I didn't buy a transit pass today, and I made my way on foot back towards my apartment. When I got close, I was intrigued by the installation of an upside-down car on the steps of a building, I went in and visited the C/O Center. I took pause at thte €10 admission, but it's a photography center and included photographs of Berlin in ruins after 1945, an interesting conclusion to the history-centered day. The building is the former headquarters of the Imperial Post Office.

I wanted to eat without too much worrying about where to go, and went to an Indian place in this city of much international cuisine. The weather's been nice, maybe too hot--I hear it's more like July weather here. Tomorrow I'm planning my day trip to Potsdam.

Monday, May 9, 2011

Arrival in Berlin

OK, to report on the flights: I had Economy Plus on the United flight from Chicago to Frankfurt. This gave extra legroom, just the way Economy should be. On the inside aisle, I still needed to get up for people in the middle seats. I ordered wine for both pre-dinner and dinner, making one credit card payment. Dinner: choice of chicken or pasta, I took the cannelloni. Maybe from too much wine, I didn't get much sleep. There was a bumpy landing. At the gate, after going through the jetway we needed to climb stairs, and there was a board listing just a few connecting flights, probably those that passengers on this flight had. We seemed to be mingling (that is, in the same area rather than segregated) with departing passengers for non-Schengen flights. The basic advice in Frankfurt is to know the gate numbers and follow the signs. With both my arriving and connecting flights in the A gates of Terminal 1, it meant going to one end of the concourse, clearing passport control, and going downstairs to the Schengen gates. I seemed to enter security in the same area as originating passengers. In my sleepless state, I didn't follow my routine of locking my wallet in my carry-on, I sounded the alarm, and got a pretty intense frisking; I'm supposed to be comforted that these agents are more professional than the TSA. I got to my gate for Berlin, and it went pretty efficiently on that flight, scheduled for 65 minutes, but 45 minutes in the air.

Arrival at Berlin Tegel: their design is something like Kansas City, but it works better, with baggage claim right at the gate. I had my plan to catch the city bus; looking at the map at the terminal, it looked like the bus stop wss just outside the hexagon of the terminal. I went there, and cars exited down a ramp with a narrow sidewalk; my instinct said not to try that. I went into the terminal and down a hall with another exit, where the bus stop was. For this day, I was going to get a day pass. I started to do it at a machine; the price of the pass was €6.30. I was starting to put in a €20 note, as I understood was possible, when a worker of the bus line pointed out that that machine took a masimum of €10. I had two crumpled €5 notes, which the man helped me get to work. There was also a staffed office where I could have done it.

I searched the itinerary in advance at www.bvg.de and, although there were other options, I kept to the one of taking the TXL bus to Brandenburger Tor, then the S-Bahn two stops to Oranienburger Tor. The TXL is named with the airport code but operates as a regular city bus, the airport being entirely within the city. The next stop is posted on a board, so I was helped there, but I would have recognized when the bus turned onto Unter den Linden; then I walked back to the S-Bahn, which still shows on some online maps as named Unter den Linden but is now named Brandenburger Tor; I could only see the gate in the distance. Two stops on that train, and I got to the apartment at 2 p.m., the earliest I said I would. The owner's wife checked me in; it is basically a cheap room with bath; it doesn't have a kitchen. It's a good deal in a nice area. The total cost was low enough that I could pay the cash balance with money left over from my last trip to Italy and some euros my mother gave me; I didn't need to stop at an ATM or get euros in advance at a bad rate.

I stopped at a sandwich shop nearby to get a small sandwich; then I figured I shoudl stop at an ATM. I walked a long time on major streets without finding one; I finally wound up at the main train station, the new Hauptbanhof; I only noticed the ATM in a side hallway when it reflected in the glass of the shop across.

Now it's getting too late in a long day to go into detail about the rest of the day: took bus 100 for a round trip of its length, going by major sites and ending in the central areas of the East and West parts of the city. I went up the TV tower and finally had a full dinner, a pork schnitzel, at Sophieneck. My apartment is in the former East, in a picturesque quiet area. Both parts of the city show a lot of postwar building, and one can contrast the development; I may go into this more later.

Sunday, May 8, 2011

Taking off for Berlin

It's been a while since I've posted. I'll mention in passing that I made a visit to Margaret in Sacramento and it was all great. The main thing with practical travel was that my Southwest return flight announced a 2-hour delay just as the plane was supposed to show up in Sacramento. Many people with connections got rebooked through Phoenix, but I stayed on my flight, which was a through flight stopping in Las Vegas. There were comped drinks, I got the exit row, and the flight arrived around 1 a.m.

Now I'm starting this post as I wait to board the first flight for my trip to Berlin. This is one more trip that I'm taking on my own, but I'm looking forward to Margaret being part of future trips.

The main thing in planning: I can decide day to day whether to get a transit pass for the day, since there are many sights close to where I'm staying. There are many museums: I was looking at the 3-day pass for €19, but trying to see even all of Michelin's 3-star museums in three days isn't really doable. I got advice that I might as well buy the annual pass for €40.

Things that I'll mention that I know from my planning: when I thought of a Berlin trip, I thought it could be interesting to arrive on one of the last days of Tegel Airport's operation, and leave on one of the first days of the new Berlin-Brandeburg airport, which is being built incorporating Schoenefeld airport. That was projected to happen in October 2011, but that was later changed to June 2012, so I decided not to wait. So I'll still see Tegel as its end is in sight. Tempelhof Airport, important in the Nazi era and the Berlin airlift, closed down a few years ago.

It will be interesting to take note of how things are now and how the city was once divided. In reading about visits when the city was divided, one thing to note is how some of my getting around will be on the S-Bahn, the urban rail system that also goes out of town. For most of the time of divided Berlin, it was operated by the East German railways, and many West Berliners boycotted it. It was possible to take trips between West Berlin places with a connection at Friedrichstrasse in East Berlin, not having to clear border controls but with a tax-free stop at that station. On the U-Bahn (Underground) lines, there were ghost stations where the West Berlin lines went through Eastern territory.

For my flights, having gotten a United credit card after booking this trip, I made a purchase to get some of the extra miles for using the card on United, of Premier Travel Plus, giving me the extra legroom of Economy Plus on the transatlantic flight and access to the airline lounge at Chicago O'Hare airport. I expected to get the boarding pass for my Frankfurt-Berlin flight on Lufthansa when I did online check-in, but I was not able to get it online or at Kansas City airport.

Resuming this once I've arrived in Chicago (decent flight, full, a little early in arrival), I got to the Red Carpet Club and asked the agent there about the Lufthansa BP. He said it was a roll of the dice to get it, but it printed. So I'll pst this now, and plan to post regularly during my trip.

Wednesday, March 9, 2011

More Berlin planning; oh, and there was a New Orleans trip

To continue on the current official focus of this blog, I have indeed booked an apartment in Berlin; it may be small but it looks like a good deal, centrally located. Now I just need to do a planning about how I'll spend my days. I'm studying the geography and wondering whether to get transit passes. There are some passes that combine transit and Museum Island museums; since I'll be walking distance from the island, I don't think I'd use both features of the pass on the same day. I think I'll buy four single tickets at a special deal, using one to get in from the airport. I can see on what days it will be worthwhile to use passes. Also I got a phone message from United about a schedule change in my flight; maybe because it was finally booked on the phone (and the initial misspelling of my name limited what could be done online) they couldn't just send me an e-mail. The change was a Frankfurt-Berlin flight going 10 minutes earlier, but I think my connecting time is still adequate (at 1 hr. 40, getting to be less than I'd like with passport control and security, but there are other flights if I miss the connection). I also see that my Frankfurt-Brussels flight has been made a full-size jet with new seat types, rather than a regional jet. Then just as I was starting this post, I see that I got an e-mail from United where the last segment, Chicago-Kansas City, was listed both with the regional jet flight I had, and an overlapping mainline jet flight departing a half-hour later. The United site confirmed that I'd been changed to the later flight.

There are some practical things to report on my New Orleans trip. I booked myself on Delta with a $59 ($80 with taxes) one-way fare. I didn't like the thought of paying $25 to check a bag, although I got some advice that I might as well do that to avoid hassle, when I got such a good fare. A flight that would have given me the long layover that I preferred in Atlanta was removed from the schedule, and I was changed to one with a tight connection. At first (in the advance seat selection) I lucked into an exit row, then I was removed from it and the only seat to choose was the middle seat in the bulkhead row behind the rear galley. I would have checked the bag if I'd been stuck there, but as time got close I was able to select a better seat. I took my bag to the gate area, and they announced that the flight was so full that it could be a problem to find overhead storage space (my main worry) and anyone who wished could get the bag tagged for free; I went for that. The incoming flight was late, and I observed the "gate lice" phenomenon making it hard for disembarking passengers to get out through the people crowding the gate to board.

An extra privilege of gate-checking my bag was that I was invited to preboard as I left it at the end of the jetway. This was also the first flight on which I used onboard wi-fi, posting Facebook updates from the air. Then the arrival in Atlanta was a little late; I had to get from my high B gate to the central underpass, where a train was ready, so I took it where I might have opted to walk one concourse over, to the A concourse and a gate at the end. I boarded after all groups were called, and likely would have had a problem finding room for my bag. So I saved the bag check fee, and the wait at New Orleans baggage claim was no big deal, since I was waiting for people on later flights. I rented a cart for all the bags that would accumulate.

When I arranged the trip, I worried about the three flights coming in close together working out, given what the weather can be in February. Margaret, the woman I mentioned in my previous post, was due to arrive shortly after I claimed my bags. I went the width of the terminal and up the elevator to meet her at the Southwest concourse. She'd made a new friend, as she often does, on the flight. We added her bags to the cart and had her wait with it while I met my parents, coming from Vermont connecting through JFK, at the JetBlue concourse. They had a nice meeting, and waited while Margaret and I located the shuttle (not well signed, in the garage across from the terminal) to the Alamo lot. I had a good rental deal for a mid-size car, and we got an Impala, larger than what they usually put in that category. I had a GPS and got to our host Jim's house in Algiers on the West Bank.

Just some impressions about the trip in general: I didn't see a whole lot of evidence of Hurricane Katrina; Algiers had wind damage but not flooding. The group had lunch with a curator at the Art Museum; while my parents went with Jim, who had a toll tag to get through an automated lane of the bridge over the Mississippi, Margaret and I faced a long delay to pay the $1 toll, and then they were restricting driving around the museum because they were filming the Natalee Holloway story there. We got the lunch and looked around the museum; then I did the first of some walking tours from Frommer's that I'd downloaded to the iPod, along part of Esplanade Ave. With Margaret it works well to point out a few places and then sit down, a nice way of taking it easy (good weather all the time). On later days we did some more of this in the French Quarter, both with the craziness of Bourbon St., and on Royal St. also getting crowded as they were building up for a pre-official (and raunchy) Mardi Gras parade. That Saturday we parked on the Algiers side of the ferry, free to pedestrians but they charged $10 for parking. On Sunday, my father got the gallery that has works of his to open and show those works. We walked the Garden District a little before our return flight.

One can expect good meals in New Orleans, and we had a great variety. On the Algiers side, we had Belgian, Vietnamese, and Dim Sum; in the latter we were confronted with a constant array of carts and many dishes. During the weekend we were joined by my mother's friends Lisa and Paul from Atlanta; we ate at the Palm Court in the Quarter as the parade went by, and there were jazz performers. We had a nice Sunday brunch at Café Degas on Esplanade; Monday lunch at Pascal's Manale, an old-time neighborhood oyster place. We put something together at Jim's house on Monday night before my father's birthday (with an early flight departure) Tuesday, including a Mardi Gras King Cake. Margaret and I went on our own to Domenica, an Italian restaurant in the Roosevelt Hotel, where I had an interesting pasta with chestnut sauce. Before our flight departure, we stopped at Martin's Wine Cellar, a wine store with good food served at the counter; we got good sandwiches.

So we returned the car and got to the airport. One wouldn't know it to look at her, but Margaret is entitled to disability assistance; as I joined her with her wheelchair assistance, we got smoothly through security and to the gate. We were going together on Southwest to St. Louis, then connecting to different flights. We preboarded on their open-seating flight and took a row in front. I took the middle seat but was very glad through the flight to have Margaret next to me holding hands, head on shoulder. She re-entered my life at a difficult time, and we have taken the title of boyfriend and girlfriend.

Monday, January 10, 2011

Building up to Berlin booking

I've been silent on this blog since my return from Italy. I'm back on my original concept of the blog being mainly about my international travel.

The main domestic trip I've taken during this time was to San Francisco; it was so wrapped up in personal matters that I wasn't ready to post about it in detail. After reluctantly joining Facebook, I connected there with most of my small class (where I was the only boy) from my American high school in Rome. I saw one classmate in Iowa at Thanksgiving; during the San Francisco trip, in September, I spent time with a classmate from nearby. This woman and I have connected in a special way during the time we were together on the trip and as we've been in touch since then, and I'm hoping we have a future as, at a minimum, traveling companions. I'm having her join me and my parents in an upcoming trip to New Orleans.

A few developments in the general travel scene have caught my attention. One is the indignities building up in airport security in the U.S., which is really security theater as there are still loopholes for bad guys to exploit. Also, I could mention the curiosity that I looked at a number on the Southwest Airlines Rapid Rewards screen for my account that was in the 90s; I thought wow, that could reach 100 and I'll have a companion pass for a companion to travel free with me, but I don't normally travel with a companion (if I do with the aforementioned one, we would generally be starting from different places and the pass wouldn't work). Then I saw that count wasn't the credits from one year (where 100 would lead to a pass) but two years, so I wasn't so close. Just as I get this post started, Southwest has announced the revamping of Rapid Rewards, meaning that award trips will now be earned based on the fare paid, rather than a cheap short trip getting the same credit as an expensive transcontinental trip. It's going to be much harder for me to get award trips on Southwest. Between this and security changes, I'll need to rethink my practices of going on casual domestic trips.

But getting back to the main topic of this blog, international travel, I've had in mind that I'd like to get to Berlin, and for now I'm just booking that trip for myself. In my post on travel around the Flo memorials (June 21, 2010), I mentioned that I took an overnight bump on a United flight and got a $600 voucher. A condition of the voucher was that it had to be used on United-operated flights, which wouldn't get me all the way to Berlin; the United itineraries would call for a codeshare, generally on Lufthansa, for the last segment. So I was making plans to apply the voucher to a trip to Munich (a destination I consider preferable to Frankfurt), then purchase a separate ticket (usually looking at Air Berlin) to Berlin. I was thinking I could connect (allowing a reasonable layover) on my arrival day on the outbound, then have a couple of days in Munich on the return.

I then learned from FlyerTalk that there is a way around the restriction of using the voucher only for UA-operated flights. Book a fully refundable ticket on a route that's available for a little more than the value of the voucher (it can have nothing to do with the route that I plan to take), then cancel and apply the funds to the trip I want, which can include codeshare segments.

For a dummy reservation, a fully refundable Kansas City-Cincinnati trip was a little more than $600. The voucher required phone rather than online booking. The phone reservations system is automated, working with voice recognition, and I didn't find any menu options that provided for the voucher. I went to gethuman.com to learn how to get to a person, and got through to an operator, likely in a distant country. I had them hold the reservation; since I was going by Kansas City airport, as I always do when going to the city, I arranged to exchange the voucher there rather than mail it, which in my view would call for the trouble of certified mail.

I got to the airport and made the exchange at the ticket counter. The agent said there was a lower fare that would let me keep one of the vouchers (they were actually four $150 vouchers). I asked if that was refundable as I wanted, and he said yes. I took that; when I got the receipt, and saw the term "NONREF"; I went back and asked him about it; he said "You wanted a refundable fare?" and went back, taking needless time to make the change to the previously quoted fare for this trip that I had no intention of taking, while there were people behind me in line apparently needing to make a change to get onto a flight that was about to take off.

When I got home, I called up my confirmation code on the United site, and it didn't come up. It called for using the code and my last name; I looked at the receipt, and they had misspelled my name. I called to get that fixed. This was in early December, and I needed to figure out when to book the Berlin trip for May. The fare was hovering around $1000; aside from generally needing to decide whether to go ahead with the trip as planned, I wanted to see if low fares turned up in January, as sometimes happens. For low season, there had been options of a fare of $750, or $150 in new money; I thought for my first trip there I should go in better weather, and May looked good.

Although lower, possibly mistake, fares were sometimes showing for other airlines, I wasn't seeing any change for United as I was committed to take, and people were saying not to expect to see particularly lower fares this year. Then on Kayak, which I usually rely on to tap into the airline sites, United's fare was getting higher. My first instinct was to wait in the hope that they would go down some, but then I went to United's site and found itineraries where the fare hadn't gone up. When I see a fare that's gone up on one site but is still available on another, that's when my instinct says it's time to book.

When my dummy ticket to Cincinnati was booked and I was able to call it up on the site, I had been able to go through the steps of changing to the other itinerary online, with them quoting the fare difference without a change fee, and I stopped short of confirming it. This may have been when my name was misspelled; every time I tried afterwards, I got an error message, perhaps because there had been too many interventions on my record. So anyway, I needed to phone to get this itinerary confirmed; the agent said some of their systems were down and they needed to do some of the process manually. She also quoted a $150 change fee; I questioned that, with the previous ticket having been refundable, and she got that fee removed; I have this trip booked with $350 of new money.

I had been looking for itineraries connecting in Chicago rather than Washington Dulles on the U.S. side, and Munich rather than Frankfurt on the German side. I was able to use Chicago in both directions, but getting the lower fare required connecting in Frankfurt on the outbound. On the return, I was able to connect in Brussels, which has a slightly lower tax and I think is an easier airport. All connecting times are comfortable; I extended the trip by a day rather than have a too-tight connection in Frankfurt on the return.

So I have this trip booked; I'd been interested for some time in getting to Berlin, and when I got the voucher on United, with their many flights to Germany, I thought this would be a good occasion. When I learned about the way to use the voucher on codeshares, I could have considered the option to use the voucher to go to Italy with more options than United's Washington-Rome flight. It was certainly something to consider especially with the chance of going with a companion, but for now it feels right to do this Berlin trip this year, and have a good, fulfilling Italy trip in 2012.

Now that I've resolved all this about getting to Berlin, I need to get in mind why I was interested, what I'd like to do, and where to stay, whether it's finally time to get a vacation rental and go more in the Slow Travel style.