Tuesday, July 28, 2009


The scenario: A group of five rents a car and travels to Amsterdam to see a city of live and let live philosophy where the people have a sparkle in their eyes, most likely because of the pot they smoke.

Characters: Eric (yours truly), Valentin, Shola, Ileana, and Aurelieus

The story:
As always, or at least most of the time, or at least in my stories anyway, it started in the morning. We met in front of the gate at Airbus at about 8am. 8am is a much better start time for travel than 5am, but I knew I had problems as soon as Ileana pulled up with the car. Note to self: never let the shortest person in the group rent the car. The car was a BMW one series; it was a nice, small, hatchback/station wagon crossover, but a little too small for someone 6’5”. Anyway, we hit the road, and showed up at the campground in Amsterdam around four hours after departure. Did I mention that we would be staying in tents? There’s no better place to experience hippy-land than at a campground. The campground was only a campground in the sense that you put a tent up there, and then only if you could find a space. Everything is small there. The cabins at the place had the foot print of a car (an American car) and were tall enough that I think you could stand up in it, but I’m not sure. Well, some of us could stand up in them. At least the cabins were colorful. But we weren’t staying in the mini-cabins; we brought tents. So, after staking out a spot amidst the sea of rip-stop nylon, we built our temporary dwellings and deemed them worthy of accommodating us.

Next on the list was to rent some bikes and tour the town. Little did I know, I would be taking my very life in my hands on that bicycle. In retrospect, they should have been offering life insurance policies at the rental place instead of bike theft insurance. Here’s why: the bike paths, unlike where I’ve been in Germany, are not only for bikes. In Amsterdam the bike paths are full of pedestrians, mopeds, bikes, and cars the size of ovens. Not to mention the cars and trams while crossing the streets. And while we managed to avoid all of those dangers, Shola managed to run into a sign and bend the basket on his bike, and then later run into Aurelieus. I havn’t laughed so hard in quite a long time. Thankfully, nobody was seriously injured. Shola just broke his leg, and Aurelieus his wrist.
I think there are more canals in Amsterdam than in Venice, but don’t quote me on that. We rode up and down streets lined with quaint houses on one side and canals on the other. The golden sun glinted off of warm clay tiles on the roofs while birds sang in gently swaying trees. A mother rocked her baby on a nearby wooden bench. The water lapped quietly against the earthen and brick edges of the canal. A tender song that would have stopped Odysseus floated sweetly out of an upper window and drifted down to the people below. And then there was me, crying, because everything was so beautiful.

So, we biked through the city, along nice side streets, and through some parks. In one of the parks we stopped for a bit to listen to a live jazz band that was playing. I laid down on the grass in the sun and closed my eyes – quite nice. When I got up, I had the feeling that I wasn’t going to like tomorrow morning after a night in the tent on the hard ground. We then continued to ride our bikes some more. My butt was really sore by the end of the day. I mean really sore. I will continue to be straight for the rest of my life.

We ate dinner at this rip-off place that didn’t have either of the specials that they advertised outside. I was entirely disappointed with the restaurant. After that, we went to a coffee house, had a cup of coffee, and watched the people walk by. Valentin had eaten dinner with his parents, who coincidently happened to be in Amsterdam for the weekend (they are from France), and so wasn’t with us at the time. By the time we met up with him, it was getting to be later. We had a drink while we rested our feet, and then decided to take a walk though the red light district.
The red light district was a place of no shame. Where we went, there were two main streets that lined either side of a canal, and narrower side streets branched off of those streets. The narrower streets were lined with glass doors where prostitutes would show off their wares, usually wearing several inches of cloth altogether. Some of the doors would have a curtain drawn, meaning occupied. Mostly, the girls in the windows would just present themselves, but some would motion for guys to come in, or even open the door to call in someone who had been looking but not buying. Along the main street were live porno shows, sex shops, and more glass doors. People would be lined up for the shows out onto the street as if they were just waiting in line at the local movie theater. The fact that everything was so normalized was really bizarre. I shall not need or want to go back to that place.

So, we rode a fair distance back to the campground and finally hit the ground hard after a long and tiring day. It started raining during the night, it was cold, and there was only a thin blanket between me and the ground. Maybe I got four hours of sleep that night. Anyway, packing up the wet tents in the light rain the next day was not much fun either. After packing up, we drove into the city, found a parking place, and took the tram to the Van Gogh museum.
I really enjoyed the museum. I learned a bit more about Vincent Van Gogh, and saw some quality paintings. Van Gogh died when he was 37. What a short life. Often poor, he had to live with the support of his parents or younger brother, who was an art dealer and would sell his paintings. I was able to see the shift in Van Gogh’s paintings as he developed as a painter. His beginning paintings used a limited number of dark colors, and later on, with the encouragement of his brother, shifted to brighter colors and scenarios. While not always being accurate as far as maintaining a certain perspective and capturing the physical reality correctly, his focus was on catching the atmosphere of a situation. My favorite painting was one of his earlier works. I can’t remember the title exactly, but I think it was something like “the house.” It brought me back to a cool day in autumn. The sun had just set, but there was still just enough light to see. In the center was an old wooden house, with no light inside. A strong breeze bent a large tree that had just a few remaining leaves on it. The air would be dry, and the fields barren, but it would still be a satisfying day. I would want to go walking with thick socks and a warm jacket. What a picture.

And then we went home.

But not straight home of course. On the way back, we took an unintentional detour towards a city south of Bremen that ended up adding about two hours to the trip. The end.

Thursday, July 16, 2009

Berlin, Fri 3.7.2009 - Sun 5.7.2009

-Berlin with Chris and Shola-

For those who don’t know, Chris is the guy that came here with me from school, and Shola is the guy that works down the hall from me at Airbus. Add me, and that makes three. And it was we three that went wee, wee, wee, all the way to Berlin. Ok, I’m finished.

Did I mention that it took me seven hours to get home from Berlin on the first trip? An extra hour was added due to the fact that the train at one of the stops didn’t take us all the way to the main train station. We had to walk to the nearest tram stop, transfer from the tram to a bus, transfer from the bus to the U-bahn, and then finally arrive at the main station where we could wait until the next train came. It was cheaper to take the slower trains, but seven hours?

When Chris, Shola, and I went, we used our rail passes, so it only took 3 and ½ hours. I’ll do a quick summary of the weekend at Berlin with Chris and Shola, and then move on to the most recent weekend travel spot, Amsterdam.

After doing the normal information gathering and hostel check-in, we headed out for the sights. We went to the Brandenburg Tor, which I had seen the previous weekend, but there are always new things to appreciate. This time the east side of the gate was blocked off for some fancy governmental occasion, while on the west side was the finish line and after party of a running race and a rollerblading race. There were booths set up all along the street going away from the Tor, most of them were food and information booths, but there was also a stage with some live music. The thing that set the whole situation apart as a German activity was the refreshment after the race. What else would they serve, but beer? Ok, so it was alcohol free beer, but still it was beer. After the finish line there were long tables crowded with masses of sweaty people edging up to grab their alcohol free beer. It warms my heart just to think of it. Later that evening, when Chris and I were headed to the Reichstag for a look around the inside, we passed the tables, and upon seeing empty lines yet still beer left on the table we had no other choice but to sample the local brew. It quenched the thirst quite nicely.

Between our hostel and the nearest tram stop there was this donner place (where you can grab a quick bite of gyro style sandwiches or half a chicken) that we would frequent as we went to and from the hostel. It became our breakfast, lunch, and dinner. The food was good, but the guy behind the counter had a frown that would make a child cry. I almost cried as I looked at him. I think he was sad because he was frustrated with his lot in life. Maybe one day he will cast of his lot and chase his dreams. Anyways, the price was right, so we stopped by there often. It was Saturday morning when we stopped there and I got the unforgettable container of milk. The container was plastic and looked like a yogurt container. I think it had some German words that even resembled the word yogurt, but inside was like nothing I had ever tasted. The flavor, if you could call it that, was like milk flavored pickle brine. I took a sip and almost spewed. I really don’t know what kind of creature would choose to digest such a concoction.

That afternoon we went through the Jewish Museum. Of course, a large portion covered the holocaust- a kind of big deal in the Jew’s history in Germany, or anywhere for that matter. However, it was nice to see so much more there. I got to learn about many important Jewish figures, from philosophers and rabbis to Levi Strauss, who founded the present day jean company. It was a bit overwhelming to try to take in all that was there, but I think over four hours in any museum tests the limits of a person’s endurance.
There was one room concerning the holocaust that was especially emotionally provocative. It was a long narrow room with a tall ceiling, and the only light came from a window at the top. Along the floor were 10,000 metal discs cut in the shape of different faces. The floor was covered from three to five faces deep, and as you walked across it the metal clanged loudly against your presence. It wouldn’t be fitting to describe the room as “neat,” but it was such a room that I appreciated the experience of walking across.

That night we three stooges went down to the courtyard in the middle of the building to enjoy the fresh night air and talk philosophy. We conversed at length, but as with most discussions of that type, the end of the matter still lies somewhere up ahead in the distance. Some of the conversation was a continuation of what we started talking about over breakfast, and, I must confess, I was a little frustrated that both Chris and Shola did not see how my view was obviously the right way to think about things. No matter, they will come around soon enough.
And who the hell said it was good to have an open mind anyway?

Ok, so this wasn’t quite the quick summary I thought it would be, and I’m not writing about Amsterdam this time, so next time will have to suffice.

Friday, July 10, 2009

more berlin (28.6.2009)

on the first trip to berlin, the sunday that we left, i went into the Berliner Dom. a cathedral that they now charged admission to. It was quite large and gilded on the inside; i guess you could say it reminded me of a cathedral. i also went to the top of the Dom were there was (and i guess there still is) a great view of the city, but i found the basement of the Dom to be most interesting. there, you could stand face to face with the remains of hallowed saints, encased in impressive marble caskets of course. you could tell that who the holiest people were by the size of their caskets. it was interesting to think that once upon a time, these guys were the shiznit, but now they are the curiosity that remains on the inside of a marble casket. and actually, the insides of the caskets probably all looked the same, which goes to show that it is actually what is on the outside that matters.
all i know is that i wish i could be in the bottom of a cathedral some day.

Wednesday, July 8, 2009

more berlin (27.6.2009)

there are a few memorable stories from berlin two weekends ago, and then berlin again this past weekend. i'll start with the first weekend in berlin.
i have a rick steve's guide to europe, and i took it along to read about the section on berlin. it had some of the major sights, and also had a self guided tour that you could do by going from place to place along a route that he mentions. After the guys saw the Charlottenburg Schlossgarten, and Ileana saw the zoo, we decided to try and do our own tour by taking Bus #100. After finding a bus stop and waiting for several minutes, we hopped on and found seats on the top deck. It was hard to tell where we were by the map, but it was interesting to just look out the window and see the different buildings. We passed the zoo and some of the buildings that we had previously seen, so i wasn't sure when i was going to start seeing some new sights. sadly, it didn't really dawn us that we were going the wrong way until the bus came to a stop in a bus parking lot and the driver turned it off. that was our signal that the ride was over, and we needed to find a new mode of transportation. thankfully the walk to the tram station wasn't very far.

later that day, when we were taking Bus #100 in the right direction, we turned the corner and saw a huge crowd of people down the street and around what i would later find out to be the victory statue. the layout is such that five roads come directly towards the statue, and then a really big circle drive goes around the statue and connects all the roads. the tents and the dense crowds were on the circle part of the road, but people were streaming down the side roads too. as we started walking down the street towards the center, it occurred to us very quickly that this was not just a normal gathering. it was some kind of gay and lesbian pride festival. maybe the cross-dresser at the bus stop should have tipped us off. let's just say that there were many sights to see at the victory statue that day. there were some strange costumes, some gothic getups, some normal looking people just holding hands, and then there were the thong wearing guys in high heels prancing about the street. then there was the guy without his shirt on, holding himself and dancing erotically to the blaring music. as we were walking through the crowd we walked right in front of that guy. it was kind of awkward, but we kept moving. small children would have been scarred for life.
so, the victory statue was nice, but the rest of berlin was calling us. i think it was coincidence, but after the victory statue we went back to the hostel to take showers before we headed out again for the evening.

the Brandenburger Tor, or Brandenburg Gate, was neat to see. around the gate there was also the U.S. embassy, starbuck's, museum of the kennedy's, and the hotel where michael jackson held his baby over the balcony. later that night, while walking down the street called Unter den Lindon, we saw a group of people sitting on the sidewalk and bemoaning michael jackson's death with posters spread out all over the ground, and candles lit to set the mood. some things i just don't understand.

Monday, June 29, 2009

Berlin, Sat 27.6.2009 - Sun 28.6.2009

I woke up at 3:30am to the sound of an American hit from the 80s blaring on my alarm clock. I enjoyed the familiar song, but needed to get moving to start the day of traveling. Breakfast was a bowl of musli, an apple, and a beer. Not a bad way to start the day. I figured because I didn’t stay up all night for a Friday night party that I should have one to take a little part in the continuing morning festivities. I actually drank the beer while I was riding my bike to the train station – I know, it’s not good to ride a bike with one hand, but the traffic was light in the morning, so I managed.
I find the morning atmosphere to just be down right enjoyable. The streets are still, quiet, and lamp-lit, there’s no waiting at intersections, and the temperature is just cool enough. Maybe I will start getting up at 3:30 every morning.
I met up with the three French interns from Airbus (Aurelius, Ileana, and Valentin), who had not gone to bed that night, and caught the train to Berlin at 5:10am. As they were understandably fatigued they tried to find some sleep amidst the train quality seats. Myself, I decided to push onward through the book I was reading about Cicero; a book so generously lent to me by Aaron from back at school. I think their sleepiness must have rubbed of on me because I soon found myself trying to stay awake. Five hours later, we found ourselves at the Berlin Hauptbahnhof.
I'm not up to detailing everything, so I've listed our general movements, more for myself so that I can look back and remember and fill in some of the stories later.

We got some maps, and headed for the Pegasus Hostel where we could check in.
So, Hauptbahnhof -> Hostel -> Zoo Bahnhof -> Prussian palace and gardens (Ileana to the zoo) -> Walk along Ku’damm street -> Watch street performers -> beer -> Bus 100 to the end of the line -> Bus 100 the other way -> Victory Statue and Gay festival -> back to hostel to take showers -> small dinner by the hostel -> Brandenburg Tor -> Rathaus -> drink/ice-cream on Unter den Linden str. -> hostel for sleep.

Sunday: Checkout at 11am -> Starbuck’s by Brandenburg Tor -> another outside look at the Rathaus -> Bus M85 to a portion of the wall -> a walk through the Memorial for the Murdered Jews of Europe -> back through Brandenburg Tor to catch the bus for the Berliner Dom -> walk through street vendors on the way to Dom -> walk through the Dom -> back to train station -> adventure home

Monday, June 22, 2009

Iranian protest

I almost forgot (ok, until now) to mention one of the highlights of Hamburg. On Saturday, after the tour and on our way to check out one of the shopping centers, Chris and I ran into a very large procession of people protesting about the Iranian election. Some signs were in Persian, some in German, and others in English. With lots of green arm bands and other political symbols, the crowd marched through the main streets with chants and loudspeakers blaring. We had to just sit there for a few minutes and watch. We even considered joining with fists raised so that you could see us on TV, but then decided not to. I wasn’t really informed about what was going on in Iran, so after that I did some internet surfing to catch up on the news - seeing a protest up close does a lot to spike my interest in actually being informed.

Sunday, June 21, 2009

Hamburg, 19-21.6.2009

After leaving work early on Friday, about 10am, it began to rain harder and harder until I decided to take cover under a nearby building entrance. Rain had been coming down off and on all that morning, so I unluckily caught one of the times that rained really hard. I waited next to a man in blue uniform who was enjoying the rain as a break from his duties outside and slowly smoked a cigarette. After about 12 minutes and 25 seconds, I decided that the rainfall rate was below the 2mm per hour threshold and chose to press on. Slightly wet, I packed my things, ate some lunch, and soon after biked to the train station with Chris to catch our train to Hamburg.

The train was unusually full. Thinking it would be a good idea to bring our bikes along to Hamburg, we brought our bikes with us on the train. While they did prove useful in Hamburg, the bikes made the boarding process a little slower for us so we could not get a seat anywhere. Thankfully, about half way along the train ride masses of youthful travelers with lawn chairs and beer exited for a weekend of concerts at one of the cities along the way, leaving us with plenty of options for seats.

The next item on our itinerary was to find the hostel that we would be staying at that night. We headed off in confidence after we turned the map in our hands around several times. Our target was a hostel called Meininger’s on Reeperbahn Strasse. Or so we thought. Following one of the main thoroughfares in a semicircle to the west, we did find Reeperbahn Strasse. About that time the rain made us duck for cover under a large tree by a bus stop. We noticed that we had stopped conveniently in front of a strip bar and a sex shop. As the rain lifted slightly, we continued on only to find that we could have stopped anywhere along Reeperbahn Strasse and encountered more of the same. By this time we were wondering, “where exactly was this hostel we booked, and what kind of hostel is it?” We stopped to ask directions at a laundromat and, thankfully, were told that they had no idea where it was, and it was at least not on Reeperbahn. After calling Meininger’s, we got the correct directions and found it without too much more difficulty.

After checking into Meininger’s, we decided to go by foot and see some of the city. I really wished we had ridden our bikes because about half way into the walk it felt like I had been wandering in the wilderness for 40 years. Finally, we did reach the promised land- an Irish pub called Finnegan’s. A decent beer with some potato wedges sure did the soul right.

Saturday, after having a good breakfast of brotchen (like French bread in the form of a roll) at the hostel we decided to go on the “free” tour of the city. There actually was no charge, but tips were encouraged, because that’s how the guides made their coin. I’m sure most of what I learned is now forgotten, but I’m a little more knowledgeable about some churches and shipping companies and the great fire of 1842 and the cholera outbreak and the pirate Kluas something or the other and taxes and I think that’s about it. Our guide was a younger, energetic guy named Mark who got into what he was talking about. I found him funny, but I’m not sure if everyone in the group did.

That afternoon, we rode our bikes around and went through some of the gardens of the city. As we came into the gardens, there was a large group of German sailors in an outdoor amphitheater that were singing songs with accordion accompaniment. Interesting. Moving farther along the fine red gravel path we came to a series of ponds that cascaded down a shallow hill. Crossing the small ponds were large circle stepping places. After walking around the ponds, it just seemed like a serene place to meditate. It started with some balancing yoga positions on the stone circles, and ended with handstands and headstands on top of them.

For dinner, Chris and I found an “authentic” German restaurant. It was called ‘Kartoffeln Kellar’ I think, which translates into Potato cellar. Most everything on the menu had potatoes in it, or was made out of potatoes. Go figure. I had potato dumplings with spinach and crème sauce. Very tasty. And for desert, a potato dumpling with plum sauce. It was a quality experience.

We went to bed fairly early that night so that we could get up for the fish market early the next morning. I got up at 6am and headed for the fish market. 6am felt like 9am. The sun was up and shining brightly and there were people all along a side street on my way to the fish market who were setting up their own tents for something else. As I got closer, I passed a group of drunk guys who were singing boisterously as they slowly meandered down the street. I thought it to be kind of late, or early, I’m not sure which, for people to be out and drunk still, but I guess they could be heading home soon. To my surprise, there was a large old brick building, around which all the vendors had their tents placed, where the party was going on. I heard the music and headed towards it. As I was walking I noticed that everyone was holding a cup of beer or some other drink. There were, in fact, lots of drunk people, and they were still going strong. At about 7am, the band that was playing on one end of the building finished their last song, only to announce that the band at the other end of the building would be starting immediately, which it did. Party on.
Outside, the people were more or less sober. The cobblestone street became packed with people, and sometimes clogged as some groups were held captive by the sales pitch of a vendor. The main goods offered were fruits and vegetables, baked items, fish related items, shirts, and flowers. There were many sales techniques in the market place. For those selling food, samples were often offered, though many didn’t. Of course there was the method of yelling about how great your product is, the stare down method, the wait until they come closer method, and then the auctioning or audience gathering method. I’d have to spend a bit more time there to see what the best method is, but I think they could all benefit from reading “The Greatest Salesman in the World.” They would increase their sales one-hundred fold I’m sure.

Well, that’s Hamburg in a nutshell, or at least some of my experiences with it, though I am sure there are many more sides of Hamburg that could be explored.