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Tuesday, January 18, 2011

My first winter in Berlin and how I’ve survived it (so far) with the help of a waterslide, a giant dome and a “Tropical Island” in northern Europe

The cold is the kind of cold that makes your bones ache. Heavy is the sky, its grey pushing down on the buildings and the people who must venture outside on this dismal morning. They trudge slowly through snow and ice and the smoke-like haze that lingers over everything. 

In other words, it’s just another winter’s day in Berlin. Only it’s not really just any winter’s day. It’s Christmas morning, and I am thankful to have my family huddled closely around me. I am even more grateful that I am in a train car, not outside like those other sorry sots, and that our particular train car has a heater that works. 

The cold and the ice and the 8 inches of new snow, which has resulted in “Winterchaos” this year, causes the train to creep along slowly through formerly East Berlin. I don’t mind at all, because it allows me more time to observe this part of the city, its monolithic grey memories of Communism, its empty lots, slated for new development, its broken down factories-turned-squats-soon-to-be-luxury-lofts. Not long after sidling out of the city, the train stops in a small town and we debark, switching to a bus.

The bus is warm, and again I’m thankful. I’m not sure about the driver, though, who has the kind of vein-splattered, bulbous nose that only a lot of Schnapps can produce, and his coffee that he’s nursing seems to be fortified in such a way as to nourish that nose. I’m also a little bit unsure about the roads, which are not only snowy, but are covered with what appears to be a sort of glaze that reflects headlights as vividly as a mirror. And as we head out onto a highway, through a forest, and finally come to a halt at a giant traffic jam, I begin to feel as if we have made a big mistake.

I mean a really big mistake. It’s Christmas morning. We could be at home in the Old Country – Colorado, that is – gathered with family and friends, opening presents around the tree, getting ready to go skiing or sledding in the countryside before gorging on a huge feast. Instead, we are here. We’ve ripped our children from the warm womb of their homeland and transplanted them in an ugly, cold city whose dark past seems to fester in the faces of the people, in rundown old buildings, in the endless “denkmals” to terror. And now, on Christmas morning, we’re sitting in a bus, in a traffic jam, as though we’re in some perverted modernization of a tragic Russian novel, or like soldiers in the German army, headed East to our miserable demise in the Polish wastelands.

Finally, the bus begins moving again. At a tiny little burg in the middle of nowhere, the bus stops, lets us out, and leaves. There are about 20 of us here: another family, a group of twenty-something men who appear to be Indian or Pakistani, looking more worried than me, a few other people who nervously peer through the falling snow at an approaching vehicle. I can almost feel the collective relief when the brightly painted bus arrives: We are almost there. The bus takes us through the forest, past some sort of bunkers emerging from the ground like giant mushrooms, and then we see it, all at once. It reminds me of the first time I saw the Golden Gate Bridge in real life; it is so enormous that it dwarfs the natural world. It is Tropical Island.

The bus pulls up to one side of the dome, we sprint through the chilled air, open the door of the dome, and step in. Heat and humidity wash over us immediately. We have arrived. There are those who say the next wars will be fought over oil. There are others who say they will be fought over water. I say they will be fought over this place.


I spent ten years in a tiny Colorado town that sits in a valley at 9,318 feet in elevation, surrounded on all sides by mountains reaching higher than 13,000 feet. Beginning as early as October, snow piles up to the eaves of houses. Cars are completely buried. All roads in and out of the town are shut down for as long as four or five days in a row. Temperatures in the 20 below zero (F) range are not uncommon. The inhabitants of this little town face down winter with the same anticipation and dread as a soldier facing a battle, only their weapons are skis, alcohol, sleds and stubborn defiance.

Somehow, winter in Berlin is worse. Temperatures are not so extreme – it rarely gets colder than 20 degrees here – but the cold settles into your flesh like some kind of microscopic parasite that then reproduces in your bones. Day after day, the sky is invariably the color and texture of old mashed potatoes. On the rare occasion that the sun does emerge, it’s only a shadow of its former self, rising at around 9 a.m., lingering near the horizon and offering no warmth whatsoever for a few hours, before setting again not long after 3 p.m. The city’s ugliness, which is obscured in warmer months by vines and trees emerging from its fecundity, is laid bare. Garbage piles up on the sidewalks, mingling with dog shit and slush and mud.

Reminders of Berlin’s ugly history also emerge, or perhaps just become more pronounced, as the green of summer recedes. As I try to spot patches of ice before they launch me into the broken arm club of Berlin, I’m more likely to notice the heartbreaking “Stumbling Blocks.” A tree-covered hill, which in August provided a lush respite from the city’s flatness, reveals itself in December as a huge bunker, built so well by the Nazis that post-War efforts to demolish it failed, forcing the Allies to simply bury the thing. The ever-somber Holocaust Memorial becomes haunting when blanketed in snow. And as I ride the subway, this time of earthly darkness has me warily watching for psychic murkiness that surely dwells in this nation’s collective soul, somewhere beneath these German visages, which by late December are invariably the color of ash.

Except, that is, for the chosen few whose complexions are not flat and grey, but instead a burnished orange-brown color that is has no place in the natural world. There are those in Berlin who chase away the winter blues by attending operas and visiting museums, those who do so by dancing to electronica all night, and those who keep sanity intact by ruining their livers. And then there are those who simply spend an hour or two per day at the tanning salons that sit on many a Berlin street corner. The skin tone that results can be quite unnerving, especially combined with Berlin’s peculiar fashion, which is some kind of mishmash of New Jersey, Southern California in the 1980s, and early British punk rock. Still, one should not be shocked, come February, to see me sporting a garish suntan, and maybe even a mullet.

For now, however, less extreme measures will do, such as paying a visit to Tropical Island. After getting our bracelets (which have little computer chips in them, which not only open the gates but also allow you to charge everything, precluding the need to carry cash around), we head into the locker rooms to change. By now, the kids are amped to the point that it seems like their eyes will pop out. And when Wendy takes off her shoes and touches the locker room floor – which isn’t just warm, but hot -- her eyes roll back into her head, her lips curl up on her teeth, and a look spills over her face that brings up a lot of insecurities and makes me jealous. Yes, jealous. Of a tiled floor.

But I’m also relieved, and that earlier feeling of remorse has vanished into the rainforest trees that surround the little walkway. I look up and feel a bit of vertigo: The dome that we’re in, that protects us from the horrors of the climate outside, is astoundingly large. Its footprint is 66,000 square meters, or about 710,000 square feet – roughly the size of 5 or 6 Wal-Mart super stores. The roof is so high (107 meters/350 feet) that people can take helium balloon rides over the “rainforest,” and even base-jump inside the dome. I start to mention that this place is eerily similar in grandeur and shape to Nazi architect Albert Speer’s fantastical Volkshalle, which would have sported a dome smaller than this one (but still able to fill 180,000 people to listen to Hitler’s speeches). But bringing this up might dampen the mood. And anyway, if an indoor tropical theme park populated by some bizarre mix of Eastern European mafiosi with their girlfriends and middle-class German and tourist families is the modern version of Teutonic, Wagner-blaring world-domination, so be it.

Back in Nazi times, this stretch of forest was originally developed as a Luftwaffe training ground, which the Communists turned into an air base. Then, when the Wall came down, the Capitalists swooped in and appropriated it as their own, and erected the dome as a giant workshop for building heavy freight-bearing dirigibles. The idea was a good one, as we all know that dirigibles will be the only way to transport lots of people or stuff by air in the post-petroleum world, but perhaps a bit early. They created a couple prototypes – one of which was ultimately wrecked in a storm – before going broke. The dome was left behind and served as a perfect blank slate on which a Malaysian billionaire could realize his tropics-in-northern-Europe dreams.

And so it is that even on the coldest winter days, a Berliner willing to ride a couple hours on the train, sit on a sandy beach, swim in two huge pools, their water at 80 degrees, and sit around in their swim trunks and watch Vegas-style shows. And he can try to flush away that slowly building Angst with outright fear, and a nasal enema, courtesy of the highest waterslide in Germany. After climbing past the three lower, slower slides, the intrepid slider launches himself into a virtual freefall through an enclosed, narrow blue tube. Approximately three seconds later, he hits the pool at the bottom with tremendous force, creating an experience that would be classified as torture if one were not paying for it.

For the next six hours or so, we frolic in the pool, lay on the sandy beach, sit in the hot tubs, and even eat some of the overpriced food that could easily come from an American family chain restaurant. We simply grow tired before growing tired of Tropical Island, and so we must leave. The bus trip this time is quick, and the train ride treats us to the same city, only at night, which transforms once-menacing buildings into almost cheerful, brightly lit places. I decide that winter’s not so bad here after all, and figure it might be a bit better if they just moved Tropical Island a bit closer to the city. But then I reconsider. For a time is certain to come when cold darkness falls over this place, and people will resort to violence to get a little piece of Tropical Island. It will be a time when it pays to have a healthy buffer of space between such a gem and the masses. I’m guessing that dystopic time will come in the not too distant future. I'd say it will come in February.