A Travellerspoint blog

July 2010

Day 7: Czeching out Prague!

(thankfully I only stayed here a day so you'll only hear that joke once more)

sunny 80 °F

Allow me to pause, gentle reader, and take notice of the fact that although I still have a full five and a half days remaining on this trip, I can’t help thinking that I’ve passed the halfway mark and the days I have left will fly as fast as have the previous ones. Also, it feels odd to be writing and reflecting about something that is still going on right now – presently I’m typing this post (having just completed the previous one as well) on the train from Prague to Vienna, where I will arrive to a new adventure in about two hours.

Prague was certainly an adventure, and mostly due to some unfortunate travel blunders, I must admit it took me a while to enjoy myself here. Now, how many of you assumed from the ominous ending to my last post that I missed the train the following morning? I did no such thing, ye of little faith! I walked to the Friedrichstraße station to catch the transfer to HBF, the main Berlin station, and just as I ascended to the platform, saw the train pulling away from the station. No big deal, I thought, I’m sure there will be another shortly – but after consulting the schedule it seemed one wouldn’t arrive until 8:36, which was when my desired train to Prague was leaving! Decision time. I looked at a map of Berlin. HBF didn’t seem that far away from where I was, so I gathered my bags (how thankful I am I not only packed light for this trip, but left bulky things like sneakers in London!) and ran along the river to the station, arriving to the platform with approximately one minute to spare. I’ve just bought myself two extra hours in Prague. ☺

On the trip, I met a nice German woman with a one-year-old named Jarrett who had some of the biggest blue eyes I’ve ever seen, and was just at that age where they’re curious about everything, including goofy Americans who make funny faces. I struck up a conversation with a friendly Mexican girl named Montserrat in the seat in front of me and we ended up talking most of the trip, and I’m actually resurrecting some of my high school Spanish from years ago. Upon arriving in Prague at around 1:45, we agree to meet up at a train stop called Staroměstská where we had been advised was a good starting place. She hopped in a cab and I decided to risk the adventure of the subway system. I quickly discovered that of any of the cities I’ve visited, Prague feels the most foreign – very few instructions printed in English, and the subway map was a nonsensical jumble of strange-sounding places. The thick slavic dialect is everywhere – it's the first place where most signs are not also printed in English, and sadly for me, dramatically fewer numbers of people seem to speak English. (Sorry, I know it's wrong, but I just can't help seeing this classic sketch in my head.)


It takes me a long while to get to my hotel, which is considerably further away from the center of town than other lodging situations I had found. On a whim, I switched it up and decided to book an actual hotel room for this stay, following in the footsteps of where Amsterdam friend Rachel had stayed. (I knew she’d have left Prague already, but she had seemed a competent traveler and the room was cheap at 27 Euro.) I quickly unpacked and showered, and at 2:50 was told by the hotel clerk that it would take me about 15-20 minutes to get to that stop, using buses. Having been provided broken English directions which would involve taking two buses, I hurriedly set out. At the nearby transfer point, I asked a fellow at the bus stop if I was getting on the right bus to reach this stop, and he consulted a map and confidently said yes. I get on the bus and everything is unfamiliar, practically no one speaks English, and I can’t identify any of the stops the bus is making on my already-confusing map of the city. Finally, after about 15 minutes of riding the bus, an older woman and a young girl with decent English piece together for me that I’ve traveled in exactly the opposite direction from where I needed to be going. I’ve finally arrived at one of the few really frustrating points of my trip. I piece together the train station to get out at, and have to buy a new ticket as my original 75-minute ticket has already expired. Oddly, this isn’t sold by the station ticket counter, but by a tobacconist shop. Also, I can’t make heads of the monetary system – the Czech republic doesn’t use Euro (which I had the hang of) but uses crowns, and it seems that things are paid for by units of 1,000s, which makes me intrinsically a bit nervous. The woman in the tobacconist shop hands me my tickets – why there are three I have no idea – and I almost leave a 1,000 crown note on the counter. The ticket seller and the woman next in line share a subtle chuckle at this American, and I can’t say I blame them. I figure out the trains and finally arrive at the stop by 4:15, obviously Montserrat is long gone. and the Mexican phone # she gave is not working. (Though I imagine it cost me 30 bucks just to try the number a few times!) So, sadly, this was my introduction to Prague. I felt really bad but there was nothing I could do. If you ever read this, Montserrat, lo siento mucho!!! Things could only get better.

Just outside the station, I happened upon a large concert hall (jst found out its called the Rudolfinum) which I realized belonged to the Czech Philharmonic, an orchestra I’m familiar with through recordings, and one obviously one connected to the music of the great Czech composer Antonín Dvořák. (There’s a large statue of him outside.) I feel my streak of bad luck in Prague changing once I notice that that evening a concert would be held – I mistakenly assumed it was the Czech Philharmonic – featuring the terrific conductor Christoph Eschenbach (now working at the Kennedy Center) and world-famous baritone Matthias Goerne, performing Mahler’s Rückert-Lieder and… wait for it… the Fifth Symphony! The 5th has for years been one of my absolute favorite pieces of music, though I’ve never heard it played live. I make a point to return to the ticket office at 19:00 when I hope to buy a ticket.


I cross one of the great bridges of Prague and look out at the old city. My friends at Wikipedia tell me that Prague is apparently the 6th most traveled city in the world, and apparently one of the great draws is that because Prague missed most of the bombing endured by many of the other European capitals during WWII, much of its ancient architecture remains intact. I walk in the direction of Prague Castle, allegedly the largest medieval castle in the world, high up on a hill in the distance. I stop into an American-looking coffeeshop and devour an iced coffee and half of a mozzarella sandwich.


Much of the following hours consisted of walking through arches and along buildings with contrasting colors, taking photos all along the way. (With only one day per city at this point, I want to maximize my shots!) Prague is indeed beautiful and very old feeling, and at least in the section I’ve found myself in, seems almost entirely built of upward hills. I walk by dozens of quirky craftsman shops, and notice a number of “marionette shops” – the detail and characterization on these puppets is really striking. I like the fact that old traditions of craftsmanship are maintained, though I can’t imagine these puppets are in high demand. I had pre-loaded a webpage on my iPhone which told of the Národní section where Mozart had lived (he apparently drank heavily at a tavern called U Medvídků, still standing) and crossed another bridge to find this area, passing by lots of medieval pubs and signs for Pilsner Urquell and Budvar, predecessor to the American Budweiser. (Strangely, during my whole time in Prague I didn’t try either of these beers.) I passed by a strange statue of a man hanging by his arm, dangling out in the street. Also, my cousin Ben had advised me to look out for “Lobcowicz” signs of which I find many; he had told about a messy kid down the block from where he grew up in Massachusetts, who ended up being Prince William Lobcowicz, who owns the brewery here and whose family was a sponsor of Beethoven! And he’s right, the Lobcowicz name is all around the city as well.


I make it back to the orchestra hall by 19:05 and queue up to buy a ticket. I take the closest seat I can find to the stage without paying top-rate price, which ends up being 6,000 crowns. I ask the ticket seller if she has any idea how much that might roughly equal to in Euro – she rather bruskly says no. It’s frustrating to not know whether I just paid $20 or $200 for my ticket! I’m finding the people in Prague a touch colder than the cities I had previously been to, though I certainly ran into helpful folks as well, to the extent that language barriers allowed. I walked back over the bridge – it’s sort of lame that I took this bridge around eight times over the course of the day, yet never found an opportunity to travel over the major bridge, called the St. Charles. Next time. I walk up the windy alleyways again, trying to squeeze in a visit to the Prague Castle, but this ends up being over-ambitious in the 30 minutes before the concert begins, so I make my way back.2DSC_2818.jpgDSC_2819.jpg9DSC_2828.jpg5DSC_2840.jpg5DSC_2843.jpgDSC_2845.jpgDSC_2853.jpgDSC_2864.jpgDSC_2866.jpgDSC_2867.jpg

The hall is gorgeous and ornate, though perhaps smaller than most of the orchestra halls I’ve been inside, and I’m surprised to see it only around 70% full. After wondering why the members of the Czech Philharmonic all looked around 25, it dawns on me that in fact I’m not hearing that orchestra, but a student orchestra, the Schleswig-Holstein Orchestra, originally founded by Leonard Bernstein, comprised of some of the finest young classical musicians in the world. Their conductor, Christoph Eschenbach, is a top-notch artist whose work I’ve been a fan of ever since hearing a CD he conducted of the somewhat obscure new work Old and New Rivers by American composer Thomas Picker, featuring the acting of Sir John Gielgud. The first half of the program featured Matthias Goerne, one of the best-known young classical singers in the world, and I see why. Sitting about 6 rows back from the stage (maybe 20 feet away?), I almost felt I was getting a private recital. Goerne sang Mahler’s Ruckert Lieder, which I don’t know well outside of the stunningly beautiful Ich bin der Welt abhanden gekommen ("I have become lost to the world"), and his memorization allows him to completely commit, practically acting out the images of the texts. He receives a standing ovation and two curtain calls, and after the interval, Eschenbach returns to conduct Mahler’s Symphony No. 5 in C# minor. I’m sitting on the edge of my seat to hear this piece live, and because I know Mahler 5 so well in my head, the experience of listening to it feels like driving a Bugatti around some curved Alpine mountain passage – the orchestra is a well-oiled machine. I really wish everyone in the world could experience the joy of knowing this music like an old friend – there’s just so much in it and to me it's one of the things that makes life worth living. (Lifted from wikipedia: Conductor Herbert von Karajan said that when one hears Mahler's Fifth, “you forget that time has passed. A great performance of the Fifth is a transforming experience. The fantastic finale almost forces you to hold your breath.”)


In terms of the performance, there were perhaps a few barely noticeable blips here and there, but to be honest I think I’d rather hear an orchestra of young musicians play Mahler; the intensity, passion, even sense of risk seems greater. After the emphatic final chords, sounding like the hand of God slamming down upon the hall, Eschenbach gets a standing ovation from the enraptured audience, and he and Goerne come out for around four curtain calls. I start feeling that the experience of attending this concert has redeemed Prague – which I know isn’t fair, but I’ve come to realize that people and experiences are really what define new places for me.

It’s around 21:00 (11pm) and I decide to keep exploring, so I cross the bridge again and head toward the castle. On the way I hear the comforting sounds of people joking around in English, and I approach: “Are you guys American?” Most of them: “Yes!” A few others: “No, we’re Canadian.” Me: “Well… happy 4th of July!” I start singing The Stars and Stripes Forever and the others join in. The Canadians feel left out. (What else is new?) After coming upon a creepy mannequin whose hands are coming out of a dungeon-like underground, we exchange names, and I start taking photos of the group. Two cousins, Johnny and Tim, Tim’s girlfriend Savannah (from Texas), and what was his name? (ooh... it was Ducky! or, Ryan!) know each other from college and have already made stops in Barcelona and Munich, while Sara (from California), who was staying at the same hostel as these others, is on her first day of a solo trip. Walking up the ancient staircase toward the castle, I’m handed a bottle of absinthe, which is incredibly strong stuff! The group of six of us chat and look out over the city, then keep climbing, and enter into the Prague Castle within which the really old (like built in the 11th century old) Cathedral of St. Vitus, a classic example of Gothic architecture, is enclosed. We’re all taking photos and laughing and everyone seems in a permanent state of looking upward. I had always heard that one of the most fun parts of traveling alone is linking up with new groups of friends, and this has absolutely been my experience. What a cool group of people!


We keep walking back over my same bridge (in hindsight I should’ve requested we walk over St. Charles!) and end up back in front of the orchestra hall, where we pose in front of a poster with fireworks on it and sing halfway through the Star Spangled Banner while the Canadians take photos – Johnny (or was it Tim?) walks away in a pretend huff and in a gesture of international appeasement we break out into Oh Canada but no one knows the words. More absinthe is handed around, and I wonder how this whole “drinking on the streets” thing would go over in America. Passing by the “Museum of Medieval Torture Instruments,” we make our way through windy cobblestone roads in search of a pub. We stop at a small “Old traditional goodies” booth which sells cheap beer (I have a Gambrinus Svetly) but also an intriguing local pastry known as trdelnik, which the young attendant seems proud to whip up for us. Trdelnik is a round, conical light pastry rolled in sugar, though it looks like it could double as a camera lens.


It’s late and we never find an actual pub to sit in, so we end up sitting on chairs in a little square by a fountain, and we meet two other Canadians named Paul and… I can’t remember. It’s all great fun. After twenty or so minutes, we continue walking in the direction of the group’s hostel, and I regret that my hotel is so far from this more centrally-located area. No more staying far away from central locations, czech that. The others invite me to join on a “free” tour of the city at 11am the following morning, and I pledge to try to make it, though I know this will be complicated given that I have bags and need to check out by noon. I hop in a cab and it takes me a good minute to find the business card with the address of my hotel. Oh, tourists. I get back to my room, take a nice hot bath, set my alarm for 8:30am, and drift off by 4am. I’m so pleased that after a shaky start, Prague redeemed itself for me, based on a terrific combination of tremendous art and terrific people. Would love to come back here any time!


Posted by coolmcjazz 18:03 Archived in Czech Republic Tagged photography Comments (0)

Day 6: A full day in one city?


sunny 80 °F

After sleeping later than I had wanted to – the previous evening’s shenanigans made this a touch difficult – I got out the door around 12:00 on Saturday, ready to spend significant hours in Berlin. Walking down to Oranienburger Tor, I stopped for an iced coffee and apfel danish, and walked further along past Friedrichstraße station across a bridge, under which I saw passing boats packed with tourists. I noticed a sign for “Berliner Ensemble” in the distance. Sounded artsy, so I decided to investigate. Exploring the building, I came to realize that I had happened upon Bertold Brecht’s theatre! Not having plans that evening, I checked the schedule, and found out that the show playing that night was… The Threepenny Opera! I confess that I don’t know the work well, but I’m aware it’s probably Brecht’s most famous piece, and Kurt Weill’s music is equally well known. The show is sold out, but I’m told if I come back one hour before the 20:00, I may be able to score a seat. I resolve to do this – seeing this work in Brecht’s own theatre is too good an opportunity to pass up!


I continue on walking toward the center of town, following signs for the Reichstag, infamous building of Berlin, which I remember hearing lots about in Mr. Twomey’s history classes, ca. 1988! On the way I come across a stunning sculpture of Jewish children being taken to the trains, and for the first time (with the possible exception of seeing the Pieta in St. Peter’s), I actually tear up at the sight of a sculpture. The piece is called “Trains to Life, Trains to Death”; there is a small girl about the same age of the children depicted who is beside the sculpture, holding an orange flower. It’s very moving, and I immediately embrace Berlin as a city who must continually be reminded of its past.


I continue on toward the Reichstag, passing by many German football fans decked out for the big World Cup match with Argentina, which starts at 15:00. (Those who know me know I’m emphatically not a “soccer” fan… but I will admit it’s pretty exciting to be in a town so wrapped up in the excitement of an "international event.") I notice people queud up to take a lift (the word Europeans use when they mean “elevator,” snark) up to the top of… well, something. I’m not quite sure what, so I ask, and am told it goes to the top of the glass domed Parliament building, the Bundestag, built behind the Reichstag. I decided to give it a go, wait in line for about 30 minutes, and walk the circular path up to the top, taking some nice photos of Berlin on the way. There’s an interesting mirrored section in the middle of the structure and I take some photos of me which reflect off of it. Walking to the bottom, I read about the history of the Reichstag building, which has housed Germany’s Parliament for years, yet is perhaps most famous for the “Reichstag fire” which Hitler blamed on Jews, thus leading to draconian anti-Jewish laws in Berlin, ca. 1938. It’s incredible to see photos of the area surrounding this building, so friendly and nicely maintained now, but scorched and torn apart after the bombings of WWII. Leaving the Reichstag, I take some photos of kids playing in a water fountain – it’s hot here!


Walking the opposite direction, I come upon the Brandenburg Gate, with the destruction of the Berlin Wall, perhaps the most famous landmark of the city. For years, entrance to the other side of this gate was closed off to Westerners by the communist government. Napoleon famously victoriously marched through this gate, humiliating the Berliners, back in 1806, and even had the “quadriga” statues from the top dismantled and sent to Paris. It’s also where JFK gave his famous “Ich bin ein Berliner” speech, in front of the gate which had been blocked, draped, and adorned with signs protesting the Western bloc.


At the other side of the gate, I come upon an intriguing sign for a “Room of Silence.” I enter and am greeted by a lovely older woman who invites me in. The Brandenburg Gate, it appears, was initially designed as a “gate of peace,” yet this certainly didn’t transpire, and this room represents an attempt to restore that legacy. Outside the glass door to the room is a sign proclaiming “peace” in dozens of languages. As I pass into the room, two men walk out, so I have the room to myself. I momentarily disregard the “silence” instructions and take some photos, then just sit in silence for a minute or two. Something about this is terribly moving – I’d been running around so much: town to town, street to street, and outside of feeling really good to just sit, the charged air in this town hits me directly. The simple work of art on the wall – what the woman told me represented “darkness turning into light,” felt overwhelming and peaceful. I leave a donation, buy a few postcards, and thank the woman.


I decide to walk back through the gate in the direction of football revelers, sitting at tables watching the now-started game on large screen TVs. I continue walking and after passing through security, realize I have arrived at the famous “Fan Mile” which my friends from the previous evening had advised me would be the most intense spot to catch the game. And they weren’t kidding – thousands and thousands of colorful characters walking around, drinking beer, singing songs, and generally being really happy, especially given that the Germans were already up, 1-0. I watch a minute or two of the game – and I’m not reneging on this opinion, but soccer (sorry, football), still bores me as a sport – I’m more interested in taking photos of the fans and just being there on such an exciting day of cultural pride for the Germans. During the break (intermission? interval?) between the halves, I walk along a parallel path and see dozens of guys lining up to relieve their beer-bloated bladders in the trees. I ask a few fans to get together for a photo; one fellow asks me in broken English “you are shooting for… New York Times?” Err... not hardly!


On the way back toward the gate I’m cajoled into buying a beer by some fans, and I stop to shoot some video. Passing through the gate again, I come upon a real find: “Museum The Kennedys,” a tribute to the legacy of JFK in Berlin. I enter and upon reading the dedication from my late senator Ted Kennedy, am again overwhelmingly moved (maybe it was the heat? lack of sleep?) that so far away from home, the legacy of a political family who so greatly shaped my own political outlook also seems a point of pride in Berlin. I pay the entrance fee and walk downstairs to the terrific displays of JFK memorabilia, including his keychain and suit, and all sorts of photographs documenting his life and that of Kennedy family (similar to the JFK museum in Boston), with a special focus on his time in Berlin.


There’s also a new exhibit by photographer Richard Avedon called “Obama’s people” (he did this for other presidents as well) which features all of the president’s advisors. What a wonderful museum... and I’m the only one there. On my way out, I purchase a book, and ask the two female staff members whether it was true that when JFK said “Ich bin ein Berliner!” he was actually saying “I am a jelly donut?” They smile, but clearly they’ve been asked this before. I leave and stop into a Dunkin Donuts for an iced coffee and “German victory donut” with the flag’s colors expressed in candy sprinkles.


I’m interested in making it to Checkpoint Charlie, but time is moving swiftly and I want to be back at the theatre by 19:00. Walking further downtown, the joy in the city is palpable: hundreds of fans lining the streets, cars honking horns with passengers draping flags out the window, spontaneous chanting and singing everywhere. I wave my little German flag which I found on the ground at Fan Mile. It’s so neat to be part of all this! I walk faster toward the Checkpoint, and come upon large signs which explain the history of the Berlin Wall. It dawns on me that a silly question asked by many Berlin tourists is probably “Where is the Berlin wall?” Um, they destroyed it, people.

I walk past the Checkpoint, where two costumed American GIs (I can’t tell if they’re actually soldiers or stand-ins) are posing for paid photographs.


With 19:00 only about 15 minutes away, I start running back toward the theatre, and find my way there by 19:05. After waiting in line, I purchase one of the only tickets they have available – a “standing room” ticket way up in the back, for five Euro. I’m relieved to know I’m going to see this show, but not looking forward to the prospect of standing for three hours. I walk back to Quynh’s place and grab a quick shower, gulp about 5 glasses of water (rather hard to come by around town, and it’s hot out), and make it back to the theatre with a few minutes to spare. Outside, I’m offered a ticket for an actual seat by a woman leading a tour group from a graphic design program based in NYC, and although I can’t get anything for my standing room ticket, I gladly pay her 15 Euro for the chance to sit down.


This production of was without question one of the finest, most fully realized works I’ve ever seen on stage. The production oozed with visual imagery, with a strong emphasis on groupings of parallel lines. (See the picture with the Die Dreigroschenoper title hanging from a scrim to see another reflection of this design.) The raked stage allowed for a sense of depth that was especially effective from where I sat in the top balcony, and every corner of the stage was used at one point or another. The opening montage sticks out in my memory, featuring a parade of characters silhouetted against concentric, electrified circles of red light, swirling and “burning” at different speeds and directions, with one grandfatherly narrator singing the famous “Mack the Knife” melody. Which really gets stuck in your head! Bulbs of parallel light (mostly white but also blue and red) were in almost constant use, first as stage dividers, and effectively, in the final scenes as bars for MacHeath’s jail cell. The first act alone was 2 hours, then after a short pause, the final act brought the show to just over 3 hours in length – far longer than I think most American audiences generally can deal with – yet the show moved at a brisk pace. (During the interval I have a German cheese-pretzel and a Coca-Cola… what’s with the glass bottles everywhere, Europe?) The acting was phenomenal – all sort of characters, ages and types (I counted 22 onstage at one point), all with a deep physical awareness and infinitely subtle range of motion. I also found the singing, although not flashy or operatic (thankfully), rooted in the acting, a perfect match for the tongue-in-cheek, presentational mode of theatre which Brecht helped to develop. What’s perhaps the greatest testament to this production I could offer, however, is that over that entire 3+ hours of the show, I didn’t understand one word of it. (Except for the lone English phrase spoken in the entire pay: "Don't cry for me, Argentina"... which perhaps had something to do with the earlier victory over the Argentinians?) Anyway, the language mattered not. The show still made sense, although it was interesting to hear the audience laugh on lines where I had to intuit actual meaning based on the physical expression of the actors. At the conclusion I walked around Brecht’s giant theatre taking photos, and thanked my lucky stars the winds had blown me to this town, on this night.


When I got back to the apartment, I realized that the director of Die Dreigroschenoper was in fact the great American Robert Wilson, frequent collaborator of Philip Glass (they co-produced Einstein on the Beach, the music of which I studied for this original piece last year), and one of the most legendary theatre directors in the world, especially with regard to design. And I concur.

Not wanting to end the day just yet, I ventured out past partying people, prostitutes and pimps, chanting and singing and blaring victorious car horns still, and walked in the direction of Alexanderplatz, an area which I had been advised to see, but in my rush to the theatre hadn’t had time for. It ended up being further away than I had expected, and once I was there it was already quite late, so I walked around, stopping outside Berlin Cathedral and taking some photos along the water. The clubs felt a bit too “Miami” in contrast to the chilled out area I had been in the previous night, so I didn’t stop. I walked back to my home neighborhood and down past Aufsturz, but it was late and there would be no second meeting of the Potato Döner Club.


By 2:00 or so I headed in, stayed up another hour or so, chatted with my friendly hosts about my extraordinary day in Berlin, and planned my adventure to Prague for early the following morning. I packed my things and collapsed in a heap by 4:00am, with every intention of leaving by… 7:45. Gulp.


Posted by coolmcjazz 18:26 Archived in Germany Tagged photography Comments (2)

Day 5: Berlin, my true friend…

(where your author discovers unknown powers of extroversion)

sunny 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!"

Posted by coolmcjazz 02:12 Archived in Germany Tagged photography Comments (2)

Day 4: I have but one thing to say.

(shortest entry ever though it probably could be the longest)

sunny 80 °F

What happens in Amsterdam... STAYS in Amsterdam. :)


Posted by coolmcjazz 14:06 Archived in Netherlands Tagged educational Comments (2)

Day 3: Lessons Learned?

(otherwise known as “the day that shall not be named” or “hopefully this is the low point of my trip” or “i wouldn't say i'm an expert traveler”)

sunny 80 °F

I awoke Wednesday morning after only a few hours sleep, and opened a message in which I’d been offered a luxury flat in Paris for two nights, for the grand total of $79! I had put myself on a “standby” list for Paris accommodations, and anyone who is on that list can be contacted by anyone looking to fill their rooms, making them a “special offer.” Though this centrally located, gorgeous flat was normally listed for $180 a night, the owner was offering me the place for the special rate of $40 a night! Although it seemed too good to be true, I figured it was a last-minute move on her part to fill the room on two weekday off-nights. Shuffing off the plans where my first impulse had directed me – which was to stay with a normal-seeming American couple in Ghent, Belgium, I accepted the woman's offer, packed up my things, hopped in a taxi to the St. Pancras/King’s Cross train station, and purchased an expensive (179 pounds!) train ticket to Paris. I order a nutella crêpe and cappuccino, and start writing at a table in the station.


[We now interrupt this blog post to refer you, gentle reader, to the GIANT ASTERISK of a pause in the flow of writing in yesterday’s entry.]

At this very moment, I received an email from the woman in Paris, stating something to the effect that she “never agreed to rent me the place for $40 a night” (which she obviously DID…) and that she’d be happy to have me stay two nights for 300 Euro. Oh, how kind of you, Madam Bait-and-Switch. After a flurry of emails to her and to the not-open-for-another-three-hours airbnb headquarters in San Francisco, I realize I’ve been had. Perhaps not intentionally – I do believe this woman made an honest mistake, and didn’t know that when a “special offer” is made at a certain price, and a tenant accepts the offer, that should lock in the deal – but ultimately I was the one inconvenienced. Airbnb writes me to say that the woman is going to cancel the reservation, and I wasn’t about to travel to Paris without secure lodging in place. Unfortunately, the airbnb “support team” wasn't very helpful; after numerous requests for assistance they barely responded and weren’t very sympathetic to my situation, apart from implying it was a mistake so I should just suck it up. [Note: Since this time, they've contacted me and been a bit more apologetic, but still...] I canceled the train ticket to Paris; luckily since the ticket had been so expensive, it was fully refundable (phew), save for a 3 pound fee. I contacted the woman in Ghent in an attempt to salvage some travel plans, but of course by that point it was too late to book. After a morning spent booking travel plans, I wasted an entire afternoon at a train station, not going anywhere. And of course, my computer battery was dying. I hung my head, gathered my stuff, and headed back on the tube to Waterloo. The parallels to a defeated Napoleon were only too obvious. Also, I figured I could now squeeze in the eight miles I needed to reach my June goal! Sadly… THAT DIDN’T HAPPEN. Streak broken. :(

Back at Des’s, and resolving to DO SOMETHING and get the heck out of Dodge, I immediately got online and researched getting to Amsterdam. I figured that unless I made an effort NOW to travel toward the direction of Germany, if I traveled straight south to Paris and Toulouse, I probably wouldn’t make it that far west. I happened upon a terrific idea: I could take an overnight ferry to Amsterdam from Harwich, about a 2.5 hour train ride from London. Impulsively, but decisively (were these the winds I had been waiting for?), I booked the ferry and train tickets and got out the door, tubing it to Liverpool Station (hey, home of the Beatles! not really) and making the 21:30 train. I enjoyed the architecture of the Liverpool train station – like Waterloo, the station is indoors but appears to have originally been outdoors – look at this photo with the sign "HOTEL" adorning a building with is clearly inside, right next to the electronic schedule board!

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On the train, I sat next to a pleasant teenage girl who had just been to Wimbledon – said she paid 70 pounds for her ticket months ago, and had been offered 1,000 for it that day! All was going according to plan... however I departed at Manningtree for a transfer to Harwich, and when I walked to the track of the transfer train, found out that that train was… wait for it… broken. I wait for the replacement bus, sitting on picnic tables in the chilly, middle-of-nowhere station with a handful of locals and travelers. After some time, the bus picks us up, and the driver goes about 90mph trying to get us to the ferry. (I think someone even flipped him off on the road.) We passed through quaint English villages with ancient church graveyards, towns with British-sounding names like named Mistley, Ipswich, and Colchester.

Finally we arrive at the ferry dock, where I and another traveler get off the bus and head to the ferry. OK now – anyone want to take a stab at where this story is heading? At the gate, we’re told that although the ferry is still in the dock – we can see it just a ways ahead – the loading plank is up and no more passengers are being allowed on board. (The voice in my head asks “Even for desperate American travelers who already have one severely blundered travel story today?”) The guard tells us there’s another ferry leaving at 9am the following morning, and that there’s a b & b not far up the road, which sullenly I slink off to with a nice fellow named Bram. Bram is Dutch, friendly, and his even-toned demeanor has a nice calming effect on my pent-up frustration. He reminds me of Larry, the chess-playing manager for Franklin’s, a brewery I used to work at in Hyattsville, MD. Bram, however, has a PhD in Protein Crystalization – an area which I don’t even know enough about to know how little I know about it – but his work has something to do with the 3D imaging of protein molecules in order to build better pharmaceuticals, and he sells machines to enable this. We knock and the b & b owner comes down – he had “just retired” (which is what the English say when they mean they had just gone to bed, smirk), and he agrees to let us in at the rate of 60 pounds (and no less) for a room with two twin beds. We walk in and the smell of “old English house” hits me. Thankfully I had hit the cash machine before leaving Waterloo, and had exactly 30 pounds on me, and Bram scratched enough together to please the owner. I sleep in the surprisingly comfortable bed along with the sounds of the English countryside in my head – deep silence, an infrequent car engine, finally penetrated by yammering gulls in the early morning hours. We have a well-put together breakfast which for me features traditional baked beans, toast, and Weetabix, (“you don’t want any meat?!”) and have a chat with Don, the roly-poly, ruddy faced proprietor, who is in keener spirits at this hour – as am I after a good night's sleep, admittedly. Don purchased this guest house seven years ago and his wife died suddenly shortly after they moved in, and it’s moving to hear him tell this story, providing a nice human counterpoint to the annoyance I had about having to pay 30 pounds for the price of a bed a few hours previous. Hey, business is business, right?


We make it to the 9am ferry by 7:30 and I have a pleasant chat with an Irish/Australian fellow in front of me in line named Paul, who is carrying his bike in a bag! Formerly he was on the Australian biking team, but crashed at 70mph in Tasmania, losing the ability to move his right arm significantly. He knows Boston via his knowledge of the Dropkick Murphys. (Doesn't everyone?) Presently I’m writing at a table across from Bram, and I can look out at the pleasantly passing waters of the English seas. I have a place booked in Amsterdam tonight, though sadly I won’t arrive until around 6pm – had the correct train been operating last night, I would’ve been there by 10am and had the day to spend. But… I’ll make the best of it and see what I can see tomorrow. Perhaps the Van Gogh museum? There are worse things. Also, I booked a cheap room for two nights (ooh) in Berlin for Friday and Saturday. I have left England and given yesterday’s battles I see this as a major victory. Lesson learned for future travel? Planning ahead pays off and helps to avoid situations like what transpired on Day 3. Anyway, onward and upward. A fine Belgian ale can’t make it to my lips quick enough!

Posted by coolmcjazz 01:32 Archived in England Tagged photography Comments (3)

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