Photos: Berlin, the first half, in the houses of power

After our two fun, introductory and jet-lag-battling days in Munich, we board a gloriously Internet-rich ICE train (Amtrak Internet service, you break my heart) and arrived in downtown Berlin Sunday afternoon. Our American-German Young Leaders Conference kicked off officially that night, and we met our German counterparts — as smart and friendly as the American contingent and, you know, having a hundred times the local-language skills. We also heard from our first speaker, Hella Dunger-Loper, state secretary and representative of Berlin to the federal government, essentially deputy mayor of Berlin.

We were off to the races and never slowed down.

Monday morning, we were out the door at 7:45 and on our way to the Bundestag, the parliament. But before we went, I appreciated the Grand Hyatt hotel art, especially the bear art. The bear is one of Berlin’s symbols, but you should know my love of bears crosses all borders.

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As does my love of Cheerios. Thank you, sixth-floor hotel elevator bank.

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We dressed up all week, not normal for me. But look at this guy! Sharp!

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Anyway, we were off to the Bundestag.

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During the day, we began to dig into the current state of the American-German relationship; talked to the E.U. commissioner for digital economy and society, Gunther Oettinger; and split into teams to play out a wild four-hour diplomatic simulation. I was team Armenia, and everything was going our way until a representative ran into our negotiations meeting with the United States to say our troops had crossed the border into Azerbaijan. Things went downhill from there. I’d never done Model U.N. in school and actually had no idea if this was like that. But it was fun.

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Stefan Uecker, a policy advisory to the SPD party, then led us on a tour of the Bundestag buildings, starting with the Jakob Kaiser offices.

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One of our first stops was beneath a set of rowing boats, representing the democratic motion of society. (They used to move literally in the air, but one apparently fell, and a democracy also values the safety of its people.)

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Between the offices and the Reichstag, the main parliamentary building, was an old tunnel, one that burned but didn’t break when arsonists hit the Reichstag in 1933, an unsolved mystery but that led in part to the Nazi’s rise.

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Beneath the Reichstag was a room-sized piece of art, with a box named for every member of parliament — except for one black box for the Third Reich.

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The building was a strong mix of new and old, with the old even including the Cyrillic graffiti Russian soldiers left on walls when they took Berlin in 1945.

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The Bundestag wasn’t in session, but we still got a good look at the room…

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… both from ground level and from above…

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… high above. I loved the glass-as-transparency architecture everywhere.

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Our last stop was the roof.

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The day was cloudy, but rain mostly missed us and the view was still good.

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The stone work on the roof had seen so much, when you thought about it.

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The mixing of new into the old was especially effective up there.

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Light, glass, mirrors, and the welcoming curves of soft power.

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Final words on the tour? “To the German people.”

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That evening, we gathered for dinner and heard from Joschka Fischer, German’s former foreign minister, longtime counterpart and pal to Madeline Albright. Every conversation during the conference was off the record, but you could say his reputation for being contrarian, funny and provocative was in full effect.

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The night ended with the Book-Burning Memorial in the Bebelplatz. Last month, I’d been to the square during the day and missed it. At night, it was impossible to overlook. Remember the book-burning in Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade? That was here. Now marking the spot was a plaque with an prescient 1820 quote German poet Heinrich Heine: “That was only a prelude, there / where they burn books, / they burn in the end people.”

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On our walk home, we stopped for a drink and then found the part of the Berlin Wall near our hotel. What had once been no-man’s land was now firmly city.

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Day two, Tuesday, began with Jorg Asmussen, state secretary (basically, the number-two guy) in the Federal Ministry of Labour and Social Affairs and — in not-dad jeans and a coat with no tie — clearly the cool state secretary.

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Next we visited the European School of Management and Technology, in what was once the headquarters of the East German government. Reunification had led all kinds of Berlin buildings in new and unexpected directions. But an amazing wall of stained-glass was still in place and mostly still worked.

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GDR leader Erich Honecker’s former office is now the MBA student lounge.

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We were in awe of the space and its change. We were in the heart of the former East Germany, getting a tour in English from a tech entrepreneur.

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The former banquet hall was now an auditorium with great murals. I haven’t found detailed shots, but you could see all of the Eastern European illustrative artistry that, most notably led to the modern children’s book movement.

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Our tour guide, Benny Rohe, was founder and headr of the new German Tech Entrepreneurship Center at ESMT and had been a Young Leader in 2011. He walked us through Germany’s start-up scene and its complicated financing.

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Then we ran for the door! (Here’s the door.)

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From the bus, for my fellow USA Today-ers. (We’ve reclaimed the term.)

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At the chancellery — the White House, minus the living quarter — we had a couple fascinating conversations. The first was with Helen Winter, deputy director general for national and international economic policy.

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Second was with Christoph Heusgen, national security advisor to Angela Merkel. Again, all off the record. But guess his feelings on the NSA spying scandal.

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My favorite part of the room was the translator booths above the action.

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Then we split into halves for a tour: from the high ground-floor halls, to the view of the Reichstag, to the view of our other half, to the cabinet room and its art.

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(Click to enlarge the panorama below for the best view. Someday, there will be a good way to display panorama images in blogs. Just not yet.)

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Here was a very cool gift from the United States to the German people.

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Very cool, yes, but I still may have preferred the hat LBJ gave them.

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Inside, the chancellery wasn’t kidding around with its art.

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Outside, the building was beautiful. Germans have long called it “the washing machine,” though, because to them it’s resembled a top-loading washer.

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Finally, back to the hotel. Protestors had attacked the Reichstag’s lawn recently to dig fake graves. Democracy! The new grass was coming in nicely.

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Just about every day, we passed the Brandenburg Gate. These days, minus the Berlin Wall in front of it, the Gate sits at a relatively standard intersection.

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Ending the day were two conversations. We first talked to Thomas de Maiziere, Germany’s minister of Interior — equivalent to the United States’ secretary of Homeland Security — and himself a former Young Leader at our conference. (Look to your left and look to your right, people.) We also heard from Georg Schutte, state secretary in the Federal Ministry of Education and Research.

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I slept like a rock that night. Four days of 14-plus hours down, two left to go.

Next: Berlin, the second half, into the city, onto the streets

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