Berlin: a quick 8000-km jaunt home during the pandemic
Above/featured: S-Bahn station Messe Nord/ICC – 27 Nov 2021 (X70).
I’m going home to Berlin, for the 1st time in 4 years.
To travel at all, and to go international, is a big privilege; I’m grateful for the window of opportunity.
After a long gruelling emotional 2020 year taking care of an elderly parent at home with cancer and accompanying them safely to their final days, I’m desperate to get outta Vancouver for a break. But another 9 months pass before the largest roadblock to travel is dissolved. At the end of October 2021, the Canadian government releases a digital vaccination certificate suitable for domestic and international travel. Within a week, I have a set itinerary using credits from a cancelled trip.
The following describes plans and unconventional sights for Berlin, Germany over 11 days in the 2nd-half of November 2021. As case counts change and situations evolve at both ends, travellers must remain vigilant with extra preparation and adapt to changing policies, protocols, and requirements by different countries for visitors, ensuring safe and smooth travel, out and back. I go over all guidelines supplied by Germany’s Federal Foreign Office and the city state of Berlin.
I’m not going to lug my DSLR camera and extra glass for this quick trip. Instead, I’ll only use my 340-gram (12-ounce) compact fixed-lens camera. In all respects, it’s a big weight off my shoulders.
Pandemic travel 2021
- Day 1 — 18/19 November
- Day 2 — 20 November
- Day 3 — 21 November
- Day 4 — 22 November
- Day 5 — 23 November
- Day 6 — 24 November
- Day 7 — 25 November
- Day 8 — 26 November
- Day 9 — 27 November
- Day 10 — 28 November
- Day 11 — 29 November
I book flights with Condor Airlines, and even with subsequent resumption and revival of international flights, there are no non-stop flights between Vancouver and Frankfurt in the off-season. The away and return flights, respectively, are:
• YVR-SEA with Alaska Airlines, SEA-FRA with Condor, and FRA-BER with Lufthansa.
• BER-FRA with Lufthansa, FRA-YYZ with Condor, and YYZ-YVR with WestJet.
At the time of travel, flying to Germany doesn’t require a pre-flight PCR-test, nor will I be required to quarantine for any length of time upon arrival. But I am flying to the US, and that means I have to get a PCR-test 72 hours before departure (but that policy changed after returning to Canada). After registration and payment of $150 Canadian, both nostrils swabbed in a matter of minutes, and a negative test result delivered inside 24 hours, I’m finally ready to go.
Or am I?
I’m returning to Germany with only 68% of the population fully vaccinated and case counts soaring during their 4th wave. The questions are obvious: why travel now, and when is the right time to fly out during a pandemic?
First, the act of travel is simply and practically good, a balm and place of solace for my mental health, despite how much I’ll tire myself out every day with many kilometres pounding the pavement out on the streets. Two, the answer might be a little complicated, but I refuse to let “fear be the mindkiller.”
But there is yet another important wrinkle.
Friends in Berlin warn the QR-code of the Canadian digital vaccination certificate may not be “readable” by German mobile apps to check vaccination status required by museums for visitors and by cafés and restaurants for sit-in dining. I’m urged to visit a pharmacy at either Frankfurt airport or Berlin airport to ask for a German-generated QR code. The second warning is not all pharmacies will agree to the request.
I’m familiar with various conversations about this issue inside Berlin/Germany, but not much elsewhere (at least not yet). Entering Germany is not the problem, and I won’t be surprised if I can’t do much inside the country if my national vaccination certificate fails to be recognized by local inspection software.
Day 1: Thu Nov 18 – Fri Nov 19
It’s an interesting sight and sensation to get back onto a plane for international travel, my first flight outside Canada since March 2019. Arriving in Seattle, I’m happy to see many (masked) people scurrying through the main terminal. I discover Sub Pop Records’ store where I enjoy some music and buy a couple of small books about the making of acclaimed albums “Vs.” and “In Utero”. The hours pass quickly at SEA before boarding the Condor flight to Frankfurt. I don’t typically sleep well on long-haul flights, but I feel okay upon arrival in Frankfurt on Friday afternoon.
At passport control, I show a printed copy of the Canadian vaccination certificate along with my Canadian passport, and I’m approved for entry into the European Union (EU) within minutes. Fortunately, my baggage is checked all the way through to Berlin, but I leave airside to run errands landside. I arrive at the pharmacy in the departures level; I explain I’ve just arrived from Canada, and I ask if it’s possible to generate a German-version of my Canadian digital certificate. The pharmacist patiently explains they cannot issue a certificate for non-German or non-EU residents. It’s a minor setback; gotta keep asking. I move down to the airport’s lower-level where I get a new mobile-phone SIM card from a 3rd-party seller, followed by a stop at a bakery next door for a steaming cup of Milchkaffee and a salami Brötchen sandwich.
My final short evening domestic-flight is on approach to Berlin airport from the east, and out the window to my right, I recognize the flashing lights of the Fernsehturm (TV Tower). The familiar sight feels like home. With my checked bag retrieved and on board a moving train, I send an SMS/text to the property owner. In less than one hour, I arrive at the apartment/flat in the city’s Westend, the same as my previous visit to the capital city. It doubly feels like home the moment I step inside. The hat-trick is complete when I purchase a hot and freshly assembled Döner from the Imbiss I got to know in 2017.
Door-to-door travel time from Vancouver to Berlin: 28 hours.
Day 2: Sat Nov 20
Berlin’s time zone is 9 hours ahead of Vancouver. For the body to adapt, the rule of thumb is 1 day for every time zone jumped to the east. That’s about a week in total, which means my body should return to normal, right about the date I’m scheduled to return to Canada.
I’m not surprised I’m wide awake at 430 in the morning. Good thing the grocery store is open at 6; bad thing sunrise is closer to 8. I shower, dress, and head out into the dark. Stepping inside an empty but open REWE, I fill the basket with muesli, milk, rye bread, cold cuts, cheese, orange juice, sparkling water, Maultaschen, and chocolatey snacks including Balisto, Leibniz-Keks, and Ritter Sport.
The next errand: a German digital vaccine certificate. I’m at the neighbourhood Apotheke (pharmacy) around the corner from the flat. But it’s strike two: I’m denied again. Fortunately, I’ve a hot tip for a pharmacy on the other side of town; so off on the S-Bahn train I go. I purchase a 7-day ticket, and on the ride out, I’m running through my request in German. I think I’ve perfected my request by now. Third time’s the charm, when the pharmacist looks me over and doesn’t verbally decline my request. They scuttle into the back, clutching my only printed copy of the Canadian digital vaccine certificate. A few minutes later, they return, holding two extra pages. Success: I have a EU Digital Covid Certificate! (For others, your kilometrage may vary.)
It’s early-afternoon and overcast: how typically Berlin in late-fall. At the southwest corner of the city’s Westend is the Berlin 1939-1945 War Cemetery where Commonwealth War Graves are found. Among the buried is Q.J. Louie, a member of the Chinese-Canadian H.Y. Louie merchant family in Vancouver, BC. A member of the Royal Canadian Air Force, Flying Officer Q.J. Louie served in the 420 (Snowy Owl) Squadron. He and four others died when their bomber was shot down during a mission over northern Germany on 16 January 1945.
To end my 1st full day in the German capital, I head south to Steglitz to meet with M and S, whom I got to know many years ago when we all worked in La Serena, Chile. They reintroduce me to the joys of that classic Chilean cocktail: pisco sour, and it’s my pleasure to help with dinner: my chow fun special.
Day 3: Sun Nov 21
I’m up early again, a touch later at 6am. I download Germany’s CovPass mobile app. The app fails to register the Canadian digital vaccination certificate, which is disappointing but not surprising. Fortunately, the app successfully scans and registers the EU digital certificate. Sweet as.
Most shops (including grocery and pharmacy) are closed Sundays; museums and other attractions remain open.
In the Jewish quarter within Spandauer Vorstadt, there are stark reminders of the past. As many people pass by without a glance, a plaque occupies space on the exterior frame surrounding the entrance to building number 6 on Krausnickstrasse. The plaque marks the location where Regina Jonas once lived; in 1935, she was ordained as the world’s 1st woman rabbi. Jonas was deported to Theriesenstadt in 1942 and murdered two years later in Auschwitz. The actual building where she once lived was destroyed in the war. A little bit further to the north at the end of a small park is a sculpture with an empty table, one upright chair, and an overturned chair. The memorial “Der verlassene Raum” (The abandoned room) is a haunting echo of violence thrust upon Berlin’s Jews when they were deported, disappeared, and murdered. Created by artist Karl Biedermann and landscape architect Eva Butzmann, the memorial sculpture was installed at the north end of Koppenplatz in 1996.
Day 4: Mon Nov 22
Many but not all museums are closed Mondays. Sun’s out today, but daylight hours are limited from 8 to 4 at this time of year. I don’t want to lose the light, and I quickly make my way to Wannsee in the very southwest corner of the city.
At the edge of a picturesque lake is a beautiful villa. And inside this villa on 20 January 1942, a meeting of 15 high-ranking officials decided the fate of millions: a calculated, cynical, and grotesque act of anti-semitism. Today, the villa is home to Gedenk- und Bildungsstätte Haus der Wannsee-Konferenz: a commemoration site to the victims of the Nazi rule and a multilingual education site dedicated to promoting tolerance and opposing racism.
I finish the day around Zoo Station with a necessary visit to the C/O Berlin photography museum with exhibitions of works by Lee Friedlander and Peter Miller.
Day 5: Tue Nov 23
My wakeup time is converging to a consistent slot between 5 and 6am. Rainshowers have returned over the capital region. First thing I’m going to do is swing by Prenzlauer Berg for a gigantic wall mural by one of my favourite German artists, the duo herakut, before heading over to Friedrichshain and hanging out with friends A & A for the rest of the day. There’s discovery all over: big flavours of México at Tortillería Mexa in Friedrichshain, finding artist Käthe Kollwitz’s grave in Friedrichsfelde-Lichtenberg cemetery, visiting A & A’s new rooftop flat, and ending the day with delicious Japanese fare at Iro Izakaya back in Friedrichshain.
第六個日: 禮拜三, 十一月廿四日
I’m on a short trek out to Humboldthain to look for some industrial heritage. Down the street from Deutsche Welle headquarters, a massive 1912 brick building hall for the assembly of large machinery for the AEG company was designed by architect Peter Behrens. Behrens’ students included Mies van der Rohe, Le Corbusier, Adolph Meyer, and Walter Gropius. Like many, I often forget how Berlin used to host big manufacturing companies including AEG, Borsig, and Siemens. A few remnants linger in today’s Berlin which seems a quiet world by comparison to yesteryear.
A couple of kilometres to the south is the Campus Charité Mitte, an area entirely dedicated to health care and medical research, operated and managed primarily by Humboldt University. One big highlight is the heritage landmark Tieranatomisches Theater (Veterinary Anatomy Theater), whose construction was completed in 1790 with building plans by architect Carl Langhans. He’s also responsible for the design of Brandenburg Gate, Berlin’s world-famous landmark completed in 1791.
In Germany, much of the Covid19 data and statistics for public consumption comes from the Robert Koch Institute (RKI). In the late 19th-century, Dr. Robert Koch was a German physician who began his own research on the cause behind common diseases of the time, helping to establish the field of microbiology. He moved to the Kaiserliches Gesundheitsamt (Imperial Health Authority) in Berlin in 1880. In 1882, he announced and published the discovery of the “tubercle bacillus” bacterium as the source of tuberculosis, an infectious bacterial disease. In 1891, Koch became director of the newly-founded Royal Prussian Institute for Infectious Diseases, known today as the RKI. Koch would be awarded the 1905 Nobel Prize in Medicine for discovering the tuberculosis bacterium. A memorial statue for Robert Koch was originally unveiled in 1916, and moved to its present location at Robert-Koch-Platz in 1995.
Day 7: Thu Nov 25
Up at 5, in at REWE at 6 to stock up on breakfast supplies, I stop at Thoben’s for slices of Käsekuchen and Bienenstich. Instead of my daily morning ride out on the Ring, I’m heading across town with the U-Bahn on the U2. From Wittenbergplatz station, the familiarity of both station and the surrounding area accompanies me down Tauentzienstrasse towards Zoo. By mid-day, I make my way into Wilmersdorf where I catch up with I over coffee at Zuka. Their desserts look colourful and delicious.
Not only does my affinity to modern art lead me to Berlin, but back to the BG. I wander into Kreuzberg to spend the rest of the afternoon inside the Berlinische Galerie for my 1st visit in years. Not only are there some works in their permanent collection I’d like to see, I want to see the exhibition by Polish-German artist Alicja Kwade whom I saw featured by DW Arts.21 six weeks ago in early October.
Day 8: Fri Nov 26
Friday is a relatively light day on the streets of Berlin. The sun’s back and I’m in the Spandauer Vorstadt again, but I’ve only one thing in mind. It’s a short walk to Jewish deli Mogg. Wait-times for an open table and for food are long, but that pastrami is deep and delicious and completely worth the wait.
Later in the afternoon, I join M for a visit inside the recently reopened Neue Nationalgalerie after 6 years of refurbishment. I’m very happy I get to stand in front of important paintings by Kirchner, Dix, Grosz, and Feininger.
Like many, I wondered aloud for years about how the city’s Hauptbahnhof central station didn’t have a connection to the U-Bahn network. With the U55 stubby bit teasing the city for 11 years, the U5 extension seemed like an illusion until completion and inauguration in late-2020; the Museumsinsel (Museum Island) station opens later in mid-2021. I fulfill a simple wish, to ride a U-Bahn train the entire way between Alex(anderplatz) and Hauptbahnhof.
Later, I’m back in Prenzlauer Berg, where I meet up with M for one of the most delicious burritos I’ve had in a very long time. Maria Bonita is tiny, they’re slam packed in an instant, and that ain’t no surprise, because their Tinga de pollo burrito, for example, was simply phenomenal. Oh, and their fresh homemade Mezcal margarita was an instant hit: tangy, sharp, and headed straight to the base of my skull.
Day 9: Sat Nov 27
I just got here a week ago, and now, it’s time to think about leaving: too soon, too fast.
Flying back to Canada on Monday means I need a new PCR-test. I don’t mind the schlep back out to Berlin airport if it means I can get a reliable PCR test and I can receive the test results inside 24-hours. Last night, I register an online account with Centogene and make a requisition order for a PCR-test that costs 69 Euros ($100 Canadian); there’s no required pre-booking for a specific time window. At BER by 9am, I arrive at Centogene’s testing facility at the airport, and after showing identification and requisition order, I receive a throat swab within minutes. I stick around at the airport to witness the hustle-and-bustle, the same in which I’ll experience for myself inside 48 hours’ time. I spend the rest of Shabbat afternoon inside the Jewish Museum, another place I’ve gotten to know very well since 2005.
Day 10: Sun Nov 28
It’s the final full day in the German capital city, and the sun’s back out as a prelude to winter. With the sharp low light, I’m back in the Mitte: contemplating what happens when books get burned; and admiring statues dedicated to scientists, writers, and to dead sons. The hours race by as quickly as the days are short, and I’m in Prenzlauer Berg to follow some of the traces by Käthe Kollwitz, before catching up with C over a tasty brunch at Russian-themed Datscha. I gotta get back to the Westend to pack and prep the flat before leaving early tomorrow morning. There’s just one more thing to witness. I’m at Brandenburg Gate for the 1st time in years; tonight, like many in the big crowd assembled here at Pariser Platz, I witness the lighting of the giant menorah to mark the beginning of Hanukkah.
Earlier today, I receive by e-mail notification the result from yesterday’s PCR-test at Centogene: happily negative. The government of Canada requires all arriving passengers to enter details into their ArriveCAN mobile app. All done, I’m good to go.
Abreisetag, 29. November
After taking care of refuse and recycling and one last sweep over the apartment, I’m out the door at 530am to catch the S41 Ringbahn to Gesundbrunnen station, in time to switch to the FEX airport express train which arrives at the airport by 630am. Inside, the lines at the Lufthansa counters are long, but my place in the slow crawl eventually reaches the counter. Inspections of my passport, my most recent Covid test, Canadian digital vaccination certificate, and display status from the ArriveCAN mobile app are a success; my luggage is tagged, and I get all of my boarding passes.
Berlin to Frankfurt is uneventful, and I stay airside during the layover at FRA. I’m already tired, and I have yet to cross the big eastern pond. The mostly-full flight over the Atlantic lands late-afternoon in Toronto where the gong show begins. Other international flights must have landed at about the same time, because it takes 2.5 hours to clear Canada Customs. Many in the long winding queues are upset because there’s no chance of catching their connecting flights. I’m very fortunate I have hours before my domestic flight. I get to sit down in an empty waiting area: Tim Hortons coffee in hand, and “YYZ” by Rush as the “welcome (back) to Toronto” tune.
The final flight arrives in Vancouver just before 1am, but luggage doesn’t come out for another 45 minutes. It’s a mystery why, because there’s only one other domestic arrival at this early/late hour. At long last, my checked bag appears, and the race begins for taxis. I’m lucky to flag a taxi within minutes, and with very little traffic on the streets at 2am, I’m back at the house quick.
Door-to-door travel time from Berlin to Vancouver: 30 hours.
Reminds me of all those travel times when I used to live in Chile.
That return trip from Berlin wipes me out; I’m under bed covers for the next 3 days.
The pandemic continues to strike with situations evolving quickly around the world; check out this map.
With mounting concerns over the rise and global spread of the omicron variant of the Covid19 virus as well as other changes:
• 30 November 2021: Canada announced all incoming travellers by air regardless of vaccination status would undergo an extra mandatory Covid test upon arrival, plus a short period of self-quarantine to await that test result.
• 2 December 2021: the United States announced all incoming travellers by air must have a negative Covid test within 24 hours of departure, regardless of vaccination status.
• 15 December 2021: Canada reinstates advisory against non-essential international travel.
• 20 December 2021: Centogene closed their Berlin airport testing facility.
• 1 January 2022: Germany adds Canada to list of “high-risk areas”; requirements for Canadian travellers will be different from my travel to Germany in late-November 2021.
International travel during the pandemic requires extra attention, caution, patience, and research; the healthiest attitude is to view and treat extra requirements by various companies and authorities as “additional layers” to navigate – all part of the adventure. Changing requirements and lack of constancy/consistency may seem frustrating, but successfully meeting the challenges of an international trip home during the pandemic lays groundwork for potentially more in the coming year.
In the meantime, I’ve gone back to listening to my Berlin playlist.
I made all pictures above with a Fujifilm X70 fixed-lens prime (X70) and a 6th-generation iPod Touch (iPT6). This post appears on Fotoeins Fotografie at fotoeins DOT com as https://wp.me/p1BIdT-lOG.
10 Responses to “Berlin: a quick 8000-km jaunt home during the pandemic”
Thank you Henry, for sharing with us your Berlin pandemic trip. Ugh all that sounds really stressful , requiring a lot of patience, no wonder you wanted to stay in bed for three days. I truly enjoyed seeing all those places you were visiting, I’ve been an admirer of Kaethe Kollwitz since I was very young, her work always touched me. Oh my, all those German goodies and sweets , I know and love all of them, and as well Rewe store. Well by now up to this day, the pandemic rules in Germany are even more strikt. Now enjoy the Christmas time.
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Hi and thanks, Cornelia. For a moment, I had considered visiting Austria instead, but the country was essentially locked down when I made my “quick plans.” Given the fluidity of the situation, the “safest bet” at the time was Germany and, specifically, Berlin, even though the overall vaccination rate in the country was lower, compared with Canada. That to me was a surprise. I’m glad you enjoyed my summary, even though I didn’t do much with Christmas markets which were up and running during my visit. I had other questions for which I wanted answers in Berlin, and had it been a different time, I would’ve done more at the Christmas markets. Thanks again!
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[…] In October 2021, I watched DW Culture’s Arts.21 feature on Polish-German artist Alicja Kwade. I knew I had to see her work and exhibition in person, but would it be even possible? My answer arrived six weeks later with a quick jump home to Berlin. […]
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[…] made all pictures above on 5 Dec 2014 with a Canon EOS6D mark1 (6D1) and on 28 Nov 2021 with a Fujifilm X70 fixed-lens prime (X70). This post appears on Fotoeins Fotografie at fotoeins […]
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