6:00 AM and my two alarms (watch and phone) go off simultaneously.* I've already got my Tageskarte (day-pass) which is good for all public transportation in the Berlin area. I bought it around 9:30 AM yesterday, so my 7:30 bus to Tegel Airport will be under 24 hours since purchase. And I know that in Berlin, the buses are überpünktlich. It will arrive at 7:30 on the dot! So I have just time to shower, do my last bit of packing, enjoy frühstück when it is first served at 7:00 and walk to the bus stop. Sweet!
A bit about the fare system in Berlin: Like many cities, it works on the Reagan-esque principal of "Trust but Verify". That is, you purchase the ticket, but when getting on a U-Bahn or S-Bahn, you don't actually have to show it to ride. Instead, once in a while the fare police will randomly board a car and ask everyone to show tickets. No ticket means a 40 Euro ($54) fine. On the bus, you hold up your ticket or pass while boarding and the driver waves you by.
The Hotel Astrid is fairly small, with 28 rooms. But like all German hotels of any size, they serve a respectable frühstück. OK, they don't prepare omelets to order like the Westin Grand...but they have a more than ample supply of breads, meats, cheeses, spreads, hard-boiled eggs, cereal, juices...I am good to go. One thing I enjoy when traveling alone is meeting other hotel occupants and sharing stories over the breakfast table. Since I am racing the clock, I am the only one there. So I munch and swallow in silence and get out the door at 7:20.
By 7:23, I am at the bus stop, along with a couple of other people waiting. I don't know why, but I idly start pushing buttons for English translations on the fare-vendor machine, and double-check the rules for a Tageskarte.
Zounds...I misunderstood! A Tageskarte is not exactly 24 hours; It's good until 3:00 AM the morning following date of purchase...which means I am on an expired pass! I've got time to buy a new one for only 2,70 Euros...where are my coins? Oh wait...I left them on the desk in my room as a tip. I franticly try using a credit card, but I guess the machine doesn't take a card for such a small amount. Or something--I can't read the error message that is in German.
And the bus is approaching!
So it's time to become a common criminal. I work my way into the middle of the pack boarding the bus, everyone displaying their passes one at a time. When my turn comes, I nonchalantly flash my expired Tageskarte, to which the driver casually gives a dismissive flick of the wrist...and I skulk back toward a rear seat to ponder my malfeasance. There is a term for this in Germany. It's called Schwarzfahren!
"Es war nicht meine Absicht, Herr Polizei. Es tut mir leid!", I practice in my head. But it doesn't come to that. The bus lurches forward into the misty Berlin dawn, and I make a mental note to always have Taschengeld (pocket change) on future trips.
With this crisis behind me, there are about a dozen more stops before Tegel, and this bus is filling up! By the time we arrive at the airport we are packed in like sardines, with luggage in laps and not an inch of room to spare.
There is no U-Bahn or S-Bahn to Tegel. One thing that they could have perhaps considered many years ago: An H-Bahn! There are a handful of these in Germany, including the Schwebebahn in Wuppertal which falls under this category. The advantage of an H-Bahn, is that if you can clear the air space above, the right-of-way required on the ground is very minimal. You can find a link to my 2009 "Video Postcard" about the Dortmund University H-Bahn at the upper left of this page.
I love Tegel Airport. It's very easy to get around, with a very short walk from ground transportation to check-in. I've been hearing about the pending closure of Tegel for years now, once a new massive Berlin Brandenburg Airport is complete. But that was supposed to be in 2010...and here we are at Tegel again. The Brandenburg Airport is way behind schedule and over budget. They are now hoping for 2015.
Tegel's beginnings date back to 1906 when a hangar was built for airships, but what we now know as Tegel really started taking shap in 1948 when it was greatly expanded to accomodate the Berlin Airlift. For a fascinating look at this era, I highly recommend Andrei Cherny's "The Candy Bombers". It's centered around the airlift, but also paints a vivid portrait of life in postwar Berlin and the first great stare-down between the United States and the Soviet Union, teetering on the brink of nuclear war.
Just inside the entrance is an information booth. "Excuse me," I ask. "Do you know where I find ticketing for United Flight 97 to Newark?"
"Flight 97 is cancelled," she deadpans back. "Talk to an agent at Ticketing Counter 14".
My jaw literally dropped. I guess I've been lucky until now, but this is the first time in my life (not counting the week of 9/11) that I've ever had a scheduled flight cancelled. I start having visions of spending hours...perhaps days in the airport. Will I have to take a bus back into Berlin and get another room? Do I need to call my boss and announce I won't be in on Monday?
Once in line at Counter 14, I am handed a "Passenger Bill of Rights" form. Now I know my options for refunds or what happens when I am stuck for over 24 hours, etcetera. Great. As I am commiserating with others in the line, I notice that a few people ahead of me is fellow Study Tour participant Heidi VanGenderen with her husband. Heidi had been on the same flight in with me, and apparently--like me--had stayed an extra day. Now we're both scheduled for the same cancelled flight back. Her ultimate goal is Washington DC while mine is Las Vegas, but we both go through Newark.
After about a half hour, I finally make it to the desk. By now, Heidi has been in negotiations for 15 minutes or so with another agent a few windows away.
"We can put you on this same flight for Monday, if you'd like," the agent smiles helpfully. I decline, hoping for better.
The agent furrows her brow and gets back to the computer. Tappety-tap-tap-tap. A supervisor is called over for consultation. Then more tappety-tap-tap-tap.
Heidi and her husband walk by. "We're heading for Frankfurt, and hoping to make a connection there," she says.
"Good luck," I offer.
After another 20 minutes or so, my agent announced that she can get me on an Air Berlin flight to Chicago, and make a connection to Las Vegas from there, but the flight leaves in 45 minutes. Am I interested?
"YES", I practically shout, and after a few minutes, I am issued a hand-written paper ticket with carbon copies. I haven't seen one of these in at least a decade.
About an hour later, I am on Air Berlin Flight 7420 taxiing down the runway for departure to O'Hare. All is right with the world again. I certainly hope things went well for Heidi, though since she was last seen heading for Frankfurt, I suspect her journey was a bit more circuitous.
One last German surprise. When the in-flight meal service comes around, I am offered a choice of chicken or pasta, and opt for the chicken. Unlike many people, I have never had a problem with airline food. But when I roll back the tinfoil covering my warm entrée...there it is, wedged between the chicken and mashed potatoes: Beets! I have never been able to abide these vile excuses for vegetables my entire life, and the Germans just love 'em. No matter...that's the least of my worries. I gingerly use a fork to isolate the offending ingredient as best I can, and enjoy the rest of my meal and flight.
I had been scheduled for a five-hour layover in Newark. As it turns out, my layover at O'Hare is only two hours. The end result of my cancelled flight, is that I actually land in Las Vegas two hours earlier than my initial schedule. Sometimes things just work out right!
So, back home once again. It's great to be back in Las Vegas, back with my co-workers and family. But it has been an amazing week with experiences I will never forget. Before I arrived in Berlin on December 8th, I had never heard the word Energiewende. Now I am ready to dive into a discussion about it with anyone. But not until after the holidays.
After the New Year begins, I'll start working on a story or two concerning the Energiewende and the American Council on Germany Climate and Energy Tour to air in February. Until then, Tschüß!
* Back home I add a third alarm to the mix. Even after 25 years of working the morning shift, it's not easy getting up at 3:20 AM, so I triple-up to make sure.