(where your author discovers unknown powers of extroversion)
05.07.2010 80 °F
Now, where was I? Jokes aside, I left some terrific things when I departed from Amsterdam. I have yet to have any sort of significant interaction with an uninteresting person, and Amsterdam will always remain one of the highlights of the trip – from the host-by-proxy, Rome-born Danilo, and the actual host, Surinam-born Chris (who I didn’t meet until the following morning, and whose terrific place couldn’t have been in a more ideal area, a few blocks from the train station, though those Amsterdam stairs are narrow), to my new Houston, or was it Austin, or maybe Omaha travel buddy Rachel – Amsterdam was an incredible experience, perhaps slightly ironic seeing as it’s the first country in which I’ve traveled alone without knowing the native language.
After sleeping in Friday morning, I walked to the train station to purchase a ticket to Berlin, where I had made my reservation for the next two nights. The queue (this is the word Europeans use when they mean line, snark), sadly, was well over an hour, run by a deli-style numbered ticket system, and therefore I wasn’t able to take my remaining two or so hours before the train to explore some desired activities in Amsterdam, most prominently the Van Gogh museum and a canal cruise. (But still, regrets I have none.) I bought a yogurt shake and a falafel (nice to have one of these in Amsterdam as I’ll be reminded of it next time I’m at “Amsterdam Falafel” in Adams Morgan!) and finally got my space in line. Bought a ticket for the next train to Berlin, which left in 25 minutes, scrambled back to Chris’s place to pick up my bags, and got back just in time. As people are boarding, I stroll up to the conductor and hurriedly ask: “Sorry, can you tell me where my seat is?” The man, with his white grizzled whiskers a true son of Northern Europe frowns and says :”Where are you coming from?” Me: “Amsterdam.” “No, where do you live?” “America.” “Ah, yes, but you are in Holland! And here… we speak Dutch!” Me: “I’m really sorry, I’ve been asking that of everyone, but I was in a rush…” “Well you did not ask it of me. This is your train. Harumph.” (Alright, I added that last part. Still, let’s call this Strike 2 on the Clueless American Quotient.) I felt as though I were paying penance for all clueless Americans who had come this man’s way in the past. After being away from the UK for a few days now, the question “Do you speak English?” – usually said with my hand to heart in a sort of subtle gesture of apology – feels nicely ingrained.
On the train ride I took in the German countryside, or at least the parts which ran along the train tracks, spotting many windmills and much greenery, and after a short while I started to sense that I was officially “in” this country which plays such a large role in world history, especially for me with my background in classical music. I am happy to report that the German countryside appears exactly as Gustav Mahler wrote it. (Listening to his 6th Symphony on headphones only underscored this fact.) Though it ate up precious battery life on my laptop, I watched some videos about the great songwriter Elliott Smith, and, searching my hard drive for films with a German angle, started what already seems like a terrific movie in The Lives of Others, with deals with spying in a repressive German Socialist government.
We finally arrive in Berlin and I get out at this enormous train station with a roof impressively designed with a criss-cross pattern and emblazoned with “BOMBARDIER – Wilkommen in Berlin” – which in typing it off the photo I only now realized that I misread as “bombadier” which had struck me as a slightly ironic thing to name your train station given the history of the city. (Clueless American Quotient, point 3.) Passing by, of all things, a Dunkin Donuts, which makes me feel a bit closer to home, I make my way to a map to figure out how to get to my host’s apartment. Unlike the London tube map, which took me about a minute to process, the Berlin subway map seems a jumbled mess of foreign-ness, and it takes me much longer to figure out where I am. (At one point, presented with the situation of having to transfer to one train, but not knowing the direction, I randomly chose one of the two in the station which were about to leave, which turned out to be wrong and I had to turn around at the next station. I did get to experience on that train, however, the slightly jarring scene of a few college-aged kids drinking beer quite openly on the train.)
I make it to Oranienburger Tor, and my host, a lovely young Vietnamese woman named Quynh (pronounced “Quinn”) and her boyfriend Tung, come to meet me at a Subway sandwich shop. Quynh is studying international tourism and Tung works in IT. They have a nice flat on the fourth floor of a building in a great area, fairly close (as I would find out the following day) to the major centers of the city. After getting settled in (and plugging in all my dying electronic devices), I venture out to explore the unknown city. Quynh recommends a place down the street called Aufsturz for good beer selection, and I make my way there, weaving around prostitutes, who are unmistakable. (In fact, that’s my major knock on the city – prostitutes and pimps all very actively work the streets, which although no one gave me any trouble and I correctly avoided eye contact, does lend an impression of at least the potential of danger, especially as a solo traveler with an expensive camera a bit naïvely slung around his neck late at night.)
At Aufsturz, I ask for “something good and local” for my first German beer and the waiter presents me a Brauhaus Tegernsee Spezial for the whopping total of… 3 euro. Over the evening, I find that it’s true what they say about German beer – all really good, all really cheap as compared with options in America. I sit alone at the edge of a outside table, taking numerous photos of “my first German beer” – I suppose I didn’t need that “I’M A TOURIST, MAKE FUN OF ME” sign after all? At this table, everyone’s speaking German and I start to question this whole “travel alone without knowing anyone” thing.
Hearing a few English words at a table nearby, I muster the courage to approach a table of five, asking if I can join them. They oblige, and we have an interesting conversation about work, the local scene, and visiting the US. Thomas is studying to be a policeman in Berlin, and tells of working border patrol, and the things that get people in trouble in crossing borders. (I had remarked that I was surprised there was no customs check-in between Holland and Germany, but he explains that the EU has mutuality agreement once one is already inside the country.) I write down my blog link and Thomas says he will check it out – if this is true, Thomas, please leave a comment so I know you were here! And get your butt to the US already! (Also shown in the picture are Marten and his girlfriend Sandra, both very nice.)
These folks leave and I make my way across the patio in search of other English conversations, with the courage that one successful interaction brings. I start taking some photos and a girl teasingly admonishes me for taking photos without asking permission, which is a good point. I mention, however, that I’m not taking individual shots, but more taking in the ambiance of the place, or something to that effect. I end up sitting and having some good times and some great beers with my new friends including Nicole (how, Nicole, did I neglect to take a photo of you?), Jan, Andre, Anna and Franzi. (I know I’ve forgotten a few names.) Conversation flows freely, and I learn the German for “happy birthday” (which escapes me now, imagine that), I defend Twitter (even over here they incorrectly think it’s about telling people you just brushed your teeth), and I find out that this whole group went to college together, and are reuniting in Berlin for the evening. I feel a little guilty upon discovering that English is the language of choice only because I’m there, and a few people whose English isn’t as good aren’t talking as much. (I very much agree with the overall sentiment that Americans have it easy only having to speak one language!) Everyone’s shooting me beer recommendations, all of which are great, including Berliner Kindl, which seems to be the default late-night choice for many, but one that blows me away is Barbar (meaning “wild one” or “barbarian”), a Belgian brew made with honey, suggested by Jan.
We close down the place around 2am, and Nicole, Jan, and Andre decide to take the American on a journey to find a place which makes good “döner,” a local sandwich fancied by the late-night crowd. “Döner” is pronounced “dooner,” which is also last name of a college fraternity brother of mine, someone who I would not want to associate anything edible with. I also neglect to tell them I’m a vegetarian!
We find one place across from Quynh’s, they order, and as I’m watching sliced potatoes being dropped into the pita, I hear one of ours whispering – someone grabs me and says “run!” The sandwich makers yell “Hey!” I don’t know what’s going on, I’ve just been told to run and I’m following instructions! One of our group proclaims, “They don’t know what they’re doing. There’s no potatoes in a döner!” We run blocks before stopping, and I'm caught in a riotous moment of inspired juvenilia. We tell the story to each other over and over – why is it so much fun to goof around in a strange city with people you hardly know? We walk toward another happening neighborhood( avoiding prostitutes the whole way), and find another place that does make “correct” döner. I order a falafel and a Kindl and they look mystified, but are fine once they realize I don’t eat meat. On the way back, I have a revealing discussion with Andre, who was fairly silent at the table – he talks of growing up in a city haunted by the legacy of the Nazis, and how although they obviously had nothing to do with it, he says many Berliners worry about how they’re perceived. This is a city of great pride and heritage, and the thuggery of the Nazi era seems universally abhorred throughout the city. We walk past the Jewish temple, which I’m moved to discover keeps two guards slowly striding back and forth across it’s front entrance at all hours.
What a fun night with a new group of friends. Hope to see you guys if and WHEN you make it to the US! And remember… "nobody puts potatoes in a döner!"