Athens. We took a taxi ride from one end of Plaka (in Athens, Greece) to another end of Plaka. The ride was less than five minutes and the driver (who had menacing mannerisms and also had a swarthy companion) said that the charge was €50. It was after dark, I was already out of the taxi with a sleeping child in my arms and my wife paid the fare after protesting the exorbitant amount. The next day we took a taxi again for the same ride and the charge was (believe it or not) €2. We also met other helpful and honest taxi drivers at several places in Greece. The unfortunate experience was not limited to a financial issue; the exchange with the driver totally negated a wonderful day.
Berlin. The wife has a knack for wangling free stays at fancy hotels, using her travel “points.” Thus we found ourselves settled in comfort at Berlin. On our third morning we requested the concierge to find us an english speaking taxi driver, for a tour of the city.
The concierge skipped past the first four taxis waiting in the driveway and introduced us to Mr. Rudolph Diether, who pulled up the fifth taxi to the front. We informed Mr. Diether that we had trudged through many parts of East Berlin the previous day and requested a tour of West Berlin.
Berlin has lopped off the dome of the enormous Parliament (Bundestag) building and replaced it with a glass hemisphere to reflect transparency, and members of the public can actually look in to see how politicians perform. Mr. Diether told us that for many years the building was in the no-man's land between East and West Germany, neglected and in disrepair. The Reichstag is now restored but some of the pockmarks from bullet holes have been allowed to remain.
At the Berlin Central Railway station he informed us that the city had moved a river to build this edifice of glass and metal. The river Spree was moved back once construction was complete. According to Rudolph, it's a well known fact that passengers often miss trains as they gaze at the arcs and curves of the architecture.
And then I started with my dumb questions. I told Rudolph that I collect anecdotes from taxi drivers all over the world, and I asked him to tell me about the most interesting day of his life. As an example I told him about the NUTS (No U Turn Syndrome) experience I had in Singapore.
Poor Rudolph was so confused that he made a left turn at a traffic light instead of making a right turn (to show us a synagogue). To compensate, he made a complete circle under the traffic light and we resumed on our course.
All the modern construction he showed us happened after the Berlin wall fell. And the fall of the wall on November 9 1989, was the highlight of his life. He remembered dancing on top of the wall, exulting in a shared unbelievable experience and in absolute euphoria.
Although we had visited parts of East Berlin, Rudolph took us to a monument we had missed. On the way we passed an underground “library” built to commemorate thousands of “UnGerman” books that Hitler had burnt. Rudolph asked if we should stop to see this library but I said time was short, we had a plane to catch, and requested him to proceed to the monument. He drove on, but regretted the fact that we had not stopped. So I asked him to take a U-turn and take us back to this library. It was quite stunning to see the rows of brightly lit stark empty white shelves below the pavement through the glass panes at street level.
On the way back to the hotel, I asked Rudolph to pick us up again in a couple of hours to take us to the airport. At the hotel, he would not charge us more than two hours because he forgot to look at his watch when we started.
On the way to the airport, I asked Rudolph if Charlie’s Checkpoint was on the way as I wanted to have a bite at the Mc. Donald’s near it. (By the way folks, some of the McDonald restaurants in Europe have significantly upscale presentations and products with respect to what we see in the US). It was not on the way, but he stopped there anyways. We ordered coffee and cake and I requested the missus to carry out a cup and a slice for Rudolph while he waited in the cold outside.
It was Christmas Eve and on the drive to the airport, Rudolph said the slice of cake made this Christmas special. To me, he was my red nosed friend in Berlin.