Thursday, August 10, 2006

Berlin, Day 3.

Visited the Neue Synagogue on Oranienburger Strasse today. At the entrance you have to check your bags through x-rays and pass through a metal detector as if it were an airport. The security reminded me of the obnoxious security measures at American consulates in Mexico. Strange that this would be necessary in a Church. These guys are obviously afraid of....something. They must've had vandalism or threats in the past, surely.

Once inside, though, the people were very polite and friendly. Though you do have to pay 3 Euros for the entrance ticket (2 Euros for the synagogue proper and 1 Euro if you want to go up the tower).

The main part of the Synagogue was not particularly exciting. Much of it was destroyed during Kristallnacht(1939) and during Allied bombing in 1943, and it was then demolished in 1958, so what you see now is basically new. But the main room itself is pretty small and the exhibits/displays not particularly interesting, in my opinion.

Anyway, since I had already bought the ticket to climbing up the tower to the moorish cupola, I headed up there next. I thought it was a bit odd that there was nobody to check my ticket as I headed up the stairs, especially given all the security hullaballoo at the entrance of the Synagogue itself. This was soon explained, however, upon my arriving to the top of the stairs (several floors up, no elevator), right inside the cupola, there was a man checking tickets. To tell you the truth I felt a little annoyed that the ticket checking came so late. What if you didn't know you had to buy a separate ticket for the cupola? Then you would climb up inadvertently, and nobody would tell you you needed one until you were already at the top, with all that wasted effort if it later turned out you didn't really want to see it (there was not much to see). So I asked the ticket checker, why didn't they just check the ticket downstairs?

He replied: "Why check it downstairs?" (ha ha. Nice rethorical device: when you don't feel like answering a reasonable question, turn the question around to the questioner, have them answer it instead). So I explained my annoyance: you check the ticket downstairs so that people who forget to buy a ticket don't have to climb up 5 flights of stairs before finding out that they are not allowed inside. If you check the ticket downstairs, you save these people some effort.

He then pointed to a little cash register by the table. "If the people climb up the stairs with no ticket, they can then buy the ticket here. After climbing all those steps, they will think it more worthwhile to buy the ticket at this point than they would've downstairs."

Aha. Sneaky tactics, eh? Interesting economics/psychology experiment: would people without a ticket be more likely to buy one, after already having spent the effort of climbing, than they would be if the ticket were checked downstairs? Having a cash register at the top seemed to bank on an affirmative answer. Nevertheless, my intuition on human nature (which I basically figure as follows: A. I am a normal, average person. B. I was annoyed at having to have the 5 flights of stairs without having had my ticket checked first. C. Had I not bought a ticket downstairs, finding out I would have to buy one only after I already climbed would annoy me so much, that I would purposely not buy the ticket at the top, I would rather not see the cupola at all, and especially not, given that what you can see from the entrance to the ticket check, is not that impressive, and D. Since my sentiments are those of a normal, average person, it follows that most normal, average people will share similar sentiments) said the contrary.

But why, then though I, just leave this as a conjecture? I could already hear some people climbing up the stairs. Let's see, thought I, if my conjecture is true, and let's see, if the next people that climb up here have no tickets, whether they will buy them.

I didn't have to wait long before a family of 4 popped up the stairs. They had no tickets. "Would you like to buy one?" says the ticket checker. Family members look at each other, take a quick look around the room (there is not much to see), then say "No, thanks." and turn around back down the stairs.

Next, a man (Middle-Eastern?) pops up the stairs (his wife was half a flight behind, and very exhausted-looking). He had no ticket, either (lucky data points so far! :D). He asked the ticket checker how much they cost. "Two Euros fifty," came the reply.

I was puzzled. My ticket had cost only 1 Euro downstairs. The sneaky tactics include charging more? And is this part of economics, would people be willing, not only to pay after spending the effort of climbing, but to pay...more?

I waited with baited breath. Especially because my sense of engineering justice suggests that charging more at the top is a very sneaky thing to do, because it takes advantage of the fact that the consumer, not knowing that the price of the ticket downstairs is only 1 Euro, is now paying a lot more than he ordinarily would've.

The gentleman balked. "Two Euros fifty to see what, this?!?", as he pointed around the cupola room (it is a small, plain room, and the view of the city through the windows is not interesting at all).

At this point, the wife of the gentleman arrived, huffing and puffing. The gentleman turned to her and said something in what sounded like Arabic, to me (he had been speaking to the ticket checker in English, I had been speaking to the ticket checker in German). He then turned to the ticket checker again, and said, in English: "What is there to see here?"

The ticket checker (in bad English):"Don't understand."

The gentleman: "I want to know what there is to see here before I spend two and a half Euros, is this it?"

The ticket checker: "Two Euros and fifty cents."

Gentleman: "But what is there to see here?"

Ticket checker: "I don't understand. German please."

The Middle-Eastern gentleman, turns around, says something to wife, they start walking down the stairs.

A party of 3 reaches the top. They too, turn back upon finding out they need to buy tickets.

Satisfied, I start going down the stairs.

But something annoys me. When the ticket checker kept saying: "I don't understand English", it sounded fake to me. He can say "Two Euros and fifty cents." with perfect pronounciation, but cannot explain there is only "this" to see in the cupola? And what is it with the charging of so much extra, one-hundred and fifty percent extra?!?

Heck, I was bored, let me make some waves and practice my German elocution skills. I turn back upstairs. I ask the ticket checker, "I'm sorry, I'm a little bit confused, how much do the tickets cost here?".

The ticket checker seems taken aback by the question. It takes him a little bit of time to answer. My sixth sense starts ringing alarms, something doesn't seem quite right..."The tickets cost 1 Euro 50 cents. A student ticket costs 1 Euro."

Me: "Aha, I see. But I just heard you say two Euros and fifty cents to the gentleman that was just here. How come the tickets cost more here upstairs?"

The gentleman's posture stiffens. "Yes, they were two people, so it is two Euros and fifty cents...."

I stare at him frowning, looking innocently puzzled, as if thinking "Hmmm....the wife of the gentleman didn't look like a student to me" (and besides, I know for sure, because I made a point to observe the occurences carefully, that the woman did not pop up to the top flor where the ticket check gentleman was, until after the ticket checker had already quoted the price to the husband)

The ticket checker continues:"...Er, yes, two people, it should've been at 1 Euro 50 each, it should've been 3 Euros, I just gave them a discount..."

I nod. Head back downstairs.

Another party of two gentlemen reaches the top as I reach the first landing, where the ticket checker can no longer see me. I wait in the landing for the gentlemen to come down, as predicted by human nature (they had not bought a ticket previously either, and did not stay to buy one at the top). As the first one reaches me, I ask him, "Excuse me, do they sell tickets up there?"

"Yes." comes the reply.

"And how much do the tickets cost?"

"Two Euros."

I head back to the bottom, thinking.

Every person I saw going upstairs turned round without buying a ticket (I had been the only one who bought one downstairs). Downstairs, there is no indication that you need a ticket to go up (I only knew, because the cashier at the bottom had asked me if I also wanted a ticket to the cupola when I was buying the ticket to the synagogue). Not only that, the prices upstairs are higher (no pun intended) than they are downstairs. How well does this economics reasoning of making a little profit out of the already expended 5 flights of stairs climbing effort work, if no one buys tickets at the top, in the end? And what about the....odd feel I got from the ticket checker gentleman above? Why the whim-like ticket prices, the pretending not to understand English, the stiffening features?

By the time I reach the first floor, I have decided. I am bored, and this annoys me. Let me ask downstairs, why this practice of changing prices as if it were a stock market.

I go to the cashier downstairs, and innocently ask: "Hi, quick question, I was curious. How come it costs more to see the cupola if you buy your ticket upstairs than it does if you buy your ticket here?"

"Whaaaat?!?" comes the reply.

Uh oh. At that instant, I realized what I had just started doing. No, it wasn't a super clever scheme by economics-minded businesspeople designed to optimize the revenue from synagogue visitors at all. At that moment, I suddenly realized I had just irreparably kickstarted the process of getting someone into trouble.

I repeated my question.

The other cashier just heard me, too. They are both incredulous. They asked me to explain my question. I related what I just told you above. One of the cashiers tells me: "Wait here please", as she dialed some number on the phone. I shifted my feet. I cannot take back anything I said now. I start feeling guilty, for after all, what I had witnessed didn't affect me nor did it affect the people I saw climb up to the cupola (nobody bought these overpriced tickets in the end). A security guard comes to the counter.I didn't mean for anyone to get in trouble, I was just bored, I berate myself inside my head.

The cashier relates to the guard, in German, what I said to her (I had spoken to her in English). There is an error in her account, which I correct (lucky I can understand some German): the gentleman to whom the price of 2 Euros 50 cents was quoted did not buy the ticket, as she related. None of the people bought the ticket, I clarified. They were only quoted higher prices, but no one bought. I made sure to emphasize this.

"Thank you for telling us," says the cashier. I am now free to go.

Ooops, then, I guess. I do not feel proud of what I just did. I should've just kept quiet, I keep telling myself. I try to shrug these musings off, but as I walked out the door towards the crisp air of the streets of Berlin, I couldn't help thinking, that the gentleman upstairs, he better have a good explanation for what I heard....

The rest of the day went by like the preceeding ones in Berlin. Strange, unknown, fremd, is the word in German.

Berlin has got to be the city with the most graffitti I have ever seen (even more than New York, if you can believe that!), especially in the area around Prenzlauer Berg and away from city center, which contributes a bit to this...malaise of feeling.

And then, yet another strange thing happened in the afternoon. I was sitting at a restaurant, in the outdoor tables. A couple (wife and husband in late 40's) approached my table and as I instinctively looked up from the book I was reading in response to this to see what was the matter the woman extended her hand and took the menu from my table (I had left it flat to my right-hand side after ordering) without a word or look or any other sort of indication of asking for permission. I stared at her as she leafed through it and opened my ears as wide as I could to try to guess what nationality this boorish tourist could possibly come from, because as far as I knew this kind of behavior is not acceptable in any of the places I've ever been to. She then said something to her husband. It was in German. To this I opened up my eyes wide in incredulity, because the Germans have ALWAYS been impeccably polite to me (yes, in their peculiar way, but always polite). When she was done with the menu she placed it back on my table and turned around and left. No "Thank you" or "Excuse me" or "Entschuldigung" or any other kind of acknowledgement that I was occupying and eating at the table she had just so lackadaisically invaded ever for an instant crossed her lips or eyes.

Please wake me up now? I learned my lesson, I promise to be good. I take back what I said about dreaming. Please?

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