Tuesday, December 27, 2011

Sweatpants Across Europa: Greece

A decade ago, I applied for a work visa in Britain and used it to work and travel for several months. This is that story. To begin at the beginning, ghere. You can pick up a hard copy here or download the PDF here.


Our accommodations on the ferry, which we had upgraded from “open air” to “dormitory,” closely resembled naval beds, but were slightly more comfortable than the apartment floor in Rome. The sea was calm and we slept well. However, at 4:30 AM we arrived at the first port-of-call, Iguomentsia. I might have missed this port were it not bored into my ears for thirty piercing seconds. “IGOUMENTSIA IGOUMENTSIA IGOUMENTSIA IGOUMENTSIA IGOUMENTSIA IGOUMENTSIA!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!” Needless to say, nobody missed Iguomentsia, including those of us who would have gladly slept through it.

By 12:30 PM, we arrived at Piraeus, ready to catch our express train to Athens. Unfortunately, the daily speedy train from Piraeus to Athens was scheduled to leave at 12:22, just minutes before the daily ferry arrived. This meant we and all our fellow passengers were forced onto the next train, which did not leave for two and a half hours. When our ride finally pulled in, it was a sight to behold: black, no doubt from all the soot it was belching out; noisy as a cat on fire; and unimaginably slow. In addition, it stopped approximately every twenty-five feet from Piraeus to Athens. If we had the energy, I am sure we could have beaten the train to Athens on foot. We eventually got acclimated to the rocking and the squealing and the stopping and the smells and began to enjoy our cliff-side coastal views, which were well worth all the inconveniences. I slowly became comfortable with the sheer hundred-foot drops off the side of the train. A nice old Greek lady could see me trying to glance out her ocean-side window, so she offered her seat to me and appeared to appreciate the interest I was taking in her country’s landscape. Just when it seemed we would be slowly touring Corinth for the entire day, we arrived in Athens. Our little-engine-that-could made the trip in just over five hours at an average speed of four miles per hour.

We were able to get a reasonable rate at the nearby Aphrodite Hostel. We grabbed some pizza, baklava and had a few drinks at the hostel bar, then settled in for the night.

 

We spent the next morning walking to the Acropolis, past streets lined with merchants and newsagents. Near the Acropolis, we encountered a steep incline with many crisscrossing streets and small alleys filled with tourist shops. One shop sold little backpack patches that looked like national flags. In my post-September-11th delusions, I imagined we would catch fewer scowls as we traveled east if I looked, spoke, and acted exactly like a Minnesotan but wore a little Canadian flag patch on my backpack. Thus, I completed my foolproof guise and we were transformed from lost Americans to lost Canucks.

After asking several people how to get to the top of the Acropolis, we found our way to the center of ancient Greece. However, ancient Greece - at least, its modern-day operating workforce - was on strike until noon. To kill some time we wandered around the base of the hill and passed many workers placing bricks down in order to recreate an ancient Acropolis road for the 2004 Olympic Games. It looked like an endless task and I’m sure it paled in comparison to the rest of the work that needed to be done in the next two years. I still have no idea how they completed preparation for those games.

By mid-afternoon we were hot and hungry, so we decided we'd better eat something. We found a nice café in town for moussaka, rice-filled tomatoes, and ouzo. While we were eating, the restaurant owner sat on a nearby curb and cooed at passing women. He seemed to take special interest in Asian women, putting on his best English accent to greet them with calls of “Hello Chinese…. beautiful Chinese.” He did not seem to fare well, but he persisted undaunted.

The next morning, we took our time getting ready and did some last-minute sightseeing around the base of the Acropolis hill. As I was taking a break from all the walking we had done, I was accosted by a fellow Canadian who saw the patch on my backpack and wanted to chat about being Canadian. He wanted to know where I was from. “Thunder Bay,” I replied, which was the only city in Canada I had ever been to.  

“Oh really!” he said. “We’re from Victoria.”

“Wow, it’s nice there!” I told him, and then realized the only place for me to hide was the bathroom, so I quickly broke away and prayed for no parting questions. It was a close call. I was quite impressed with my on-the-fly ability to fool even the most Canadian of tourists.

Our next destination was a return to Piraeus. There were very few reasons for one to return to Piraeus. Unless, of course, one's uncle won a Mediterranean cruise but could not use it because he won it in a raffle event for a charity that he himself was in charge of and he was not allowed to give it back to the raffle, so he gave one the cruise as a pre-wedding gift - which one cannot believe one's lucky stars one got, especially after sleeping in dodgy hostels and eating pot noodles for five weeks – and one was required to catch the aforementioned cruise ship in Piraeus. So it was with much joy that we left for Piraeus.

Piraeus was a small city that consisted of a port and little else. But my, what a large port it was. We trekked around ship after increasingly large ship for over an hour until we found our vessel at the far end of the harbor. By the time we made it, we were rushed on board minutes before departure.

Our lives at sea were a stark contrast to everything else we had experienced in the previous four months. If we wanted anything anytime, somebody would come rushing to our side and smile and immediately give it to us. Every meal included thirty seven courses and pushed the elasticity of our stomachs.

 

At 8 AM on the first morning, the roar of the motors woke us as we docked. We received a “USA News” packet so that we could keep tabs on what was going on back home. The top news for that day was that terrorists were planning an attack soon on Istanbul International Airport, the same airport we were going to use for our upcoming flight to Paris. Fantastic.

Our first destination was the island of Mykonos, a fairy-tale island full of white sand beaches, bleach-white homes, and the sort of cleanliness that one only finds in vacation communities of the very wealthy. We wound our way around the small city, spent some time on the beach, pretended to blend in with the ultra-rich tourists, and came face to face with a live pelican.

 

We awoke again the next morning to the sound of the motor churning in reverse as the ship pulled into the harbor of Santorini. Santorini was an island in the shape of a doughnut, the middle having been blown out by a gigantic volcano many centuries ago.

We took a small ferry from the ship to the island, then hopped on a donkey and zigzagged our way up a very steep cliff. I hated zigzagging up that steep cliff on a donkey, especially with Karie snickering at my white knuckles and my clever donkey enjoying the occasional lunge to the edge of the path. Somehow we made it to the top, which was covered in a cloud of mist. Again, we walked through tight alleys bordering whitewashed homes, quiet restaurants, and blue-domed chapels.  

On the way down, I convinced Karie that we did not need to take the donkeys. Overpriced, I said. Gravity is on our side, I said. I soon discovered the number one reason donkey peddlers were doing such swift business. The cliff path was coated with several inches of donkey manure. We kept a keen eye out for clean footholds but still managed to trip and slide several feet down the path through some not-so-clean footholds. Tired and smelly, we made it to the bottom, where our cruise ship helped us quickly forget the trials of the donkey trail. We spent the afternoon onboard our ship in the Santorini harbor, swimming in the pool and hot tub. Sometimes life did not seem fair. It was nice when those times worked in our favor.  

 

Our third day of cruise-life took us to Rhodes. Rhodes was a walled city filled with rug shops, presumably because it was within shouting distance of Turkey. The moat surrounding the walls of the city was filled with gargantuan cannon balls, as if the water had recently dried up and nobody had gotten around to clearing away the remains of the last battle. We toured a museum, noticing artifacts that were much older than anything we had seen to this point. Some of the pottery chips and spear heads and metal sticks with balls on the end were dated without numbers, just impressive eras like “Late Bronze Age.” As we traveled east, human history seemed to be receding before us.


Monday, December 26, 2011

Sweatpants Across Europa: Italy


A decade ago, I applied for a work visa in Britain and used it to work and travel for several months. This is that story. To begin at the beginning, ghere. You can pick up a hard copy here or download the PDF here.


Leaving Slovenia was no problem. The exit customs officials were much less picky than their entry counterparts. All I had to do now was get by the Italian entry station.

Fortunately, the Italian official did not seem to be too detail-oriented. I don’t think he would have known if I had given him the backing to a spiral notebook with a stick figure scrawled on it. He was perfectly fine with my passport and let our whole bus through without making anyone get off and prove themselves. However, our bus driver spent the rest of the ride stewing over our layover in Slovenia. When I got off in Trieste and tried to apologize, he looked at me with a sneer and, using his best Rodney Dangerfield voice, told me my “brain [was] kaput.” Several times. Thanking him for his honesty, we caught our train to Venice.

The train into Venice took us over a lengthy bridge that sat only a few feet above the water, allowing us to pass gondolas and transport boats at eye level. Upon arrival, the rain kept us from venturing out in search of a hostel, so we stood in a long line outside the tourist office and waited to find a room. Oddly, the tourist office did not book hotel or hostel rooms. So we were back to square one. Not a minute of confusion passed before we were approached by an umbrella-carrying gentleman who wanted to take us to his “hostel” nearby. Wary but needing a room, we followed him a few soggy blocks down an alley to a run-down apartment building. This hostel was little more than a multi-bedroom flat he shared with whoever he could pick up at the train station. Not really wanting to search anymore and convinced by this man that he was legitimate, we decided this was the place to stay. After a touristy meal at a paper plate buffet restaurant across the street, we were off to sleep, listening to the endless, soothing Venetian drizzle.

 

After a couple more rainy days in Venice, we visited Florence briefly and made our way to Rome, where my guard went up tenfold. Nobody does pick pocketing and tourist scamming better than the 21st century Romans. In a previous trip here, I left my friends at the train station where they were quickly picked up by an unlicensed cabbie who took them on an unrequested tour of residential neighborhoods and charged them double the going rate. One is wise to keep on one’s toes in this town.

Fortunately for us, we were staying with friends for the next three days. Unfortunately, they lived at the end of the metro line, plus two bus stops beyond that. It took us an hour, but eventually we found their apartment. It was an enormous relief to be in the company of familiar faces after six months abroad. No more worrying about saying the wrong thing or wondering whether the adjacent stranger loved, hated, or didn’t care about you - at least for the night.  

In the morning, we trekked back into town for a tourist’s assault on the city. We took in a Sunday message from an aging Pope John Paul II. From there we embarked on a whirlwind tour of attractions including the Coliseum, the Vatican, St. Peter's Cathedral, the Spanish Steps, and quite a few others. Rome was just small enough that we thought we could get everywhere by walking, but just large enough that it wore us down significantly when we tried. Tired, we headed home early for dinner and slept well.

 

The following morning, figuring it would be one of our last chances to pick up a replacement passport, we headed to the U.S. Embassy. They made us feel like visiting dignitaries; that is, until we were charged seventy-two euros for the passport. They also took my old passport, which had been with me for many previous trips and held a lot of sentimental value. To make matters worse, while we were waiting for our turn in line, Karie discovered that our camera had been stolen from our backpack in the subway en route to the embassy.

Mourning the loss of our camera and passport, we met our hosts for dinner at a very nice restaurant with respectful service and reasonable prices. As our hosts advised, to find the best restaurants in Rome, just follow the collars. Go where the clergy go. Sure enough, in walked a cardinal just as we began eating. The meal was delicious and included a sing-a-long of Ave Marie. After three hours of luxury, we were treated to a cab ride home by our hosts. Chatting with our old friends, we watched the lights of Rome pass by overhead.

After sleeping in and reserving our train ride ahead of time to avoid any surprise fees, Karie and I ate nearly all of the breakfast food in our host’s apartment, said some reluctant good-byes, and headed for the train. We connected with our shuttle to Bari, the exit port for our ferry to Greece, and were graced by a charming array of hillside vineyards and winding rivers.  

In Bari, we bought our tickets from a very bored sales clerk and had a brief but confusing discussion with the shuttle driver who was to take us to the SuperFast Ferry.

Me: “Is this the SuperFast Ferry shuttle?”
Guy: “Yes. After.”
Me: “Should we get on?”
Guy: “Yes. After."

With that he slammed the doors in our face and sped off without us. Not knowing what all this “after” business was about, I became a bit worried. Thankfully, it only meant that his van was full and he would come back “after” a short period of time. So we waited and caught the “after” shuttle and were soon on board our ferry for the night. Our dinner of chicken sandwiches on rubbery bread with a side of cheesy rice balls was capped off by a vibrant sunset over the fading Italian shore.  


Tuesday, December 20, 2011

Sweatpants Across Europa: Slovenia

A decade ago, I applied for a work visa in Britain and used it to work and travel for several months. This is that story. To begin at the beginning, ghere. You can pick up a hard copy here or download the PDF here.

 
They weren’t as trusting. In fact, they made me get out of the bus and stand outside the border patrol office for thirty minutes while they called other customs officials as well as friends, distant relatives, and whoever else they felt could tell them whether or not to let me in the country. They finally let me pass, but not without a lengthy lecture to let me know in no uncertain terms that an American passport is worth a lot of money on the black market and is very useful for getting in and out of many, many nations such as Slovenia and that I should have my head checked if I was going to go around with a passport like this with smudged ink all over the place and a picture that was either falling out or had recently been replaced by a phony one and expect to get into any more countries, especially Slovenia. I nodded politely, put my tail between my legs, and headed back on the bus to the scowls of many Italians and Croatians, including my not-so-good friend the bus driver, who now considered me evil in addition to rude and mentally incompetent. 

Wednesday, December 14, 2011

Sweatpants Across Europa: Croatia

A decade ago, I applied for a work visa in Britain and used it to work and travel for several months. This is that story. To begin at the beginning, ghere. You can pick up a hard copy here or download the PDF here.


By this time, we were growing weary of speed-touring and ready to slow down. As luck would have it, we were headed for the perfect place. It took a bit of patience to convince the Croatians that my passport was indeed authentic, but otherwise our train ride was wonderful. Nearing the port city of Rijeka, we traveled past rows of houses beyond large yards. In many cases, the yards were being tilled for crops, often by very elderly, hunched over, strong-as-ox women. We cruised alongside beautiful blue-green streams, lush forests, and fantastic views of the rolling countryside. We stopped at what we thought was Rijeka but did not see a single sign, so I walked up to a station patrolman and asked him where we were by pointing at the ground and shouting “RIJEKA? RIJEKA? RIJEKA??” He nodded yes, pointed at the ground, and shouted back “RIJEKA! RIJEKA! RIJEKA!!”

 

At the local tourist office, we booked ourselves a room at a nice old woman’s home very near the station in the center of town. Outside our second story window, in a cathedral courtyard below, a nun swept up rose petals following a wedding. We walked down to the pier, gazed into the Adriatic, and could hardly wait to get to Rab, our island destination for the next few days. After staring at the “Rab-bound” coach and ferry schedule for a long time, we realized that we would have to take a red-eye bus to make it to Rab by mid-afternoon, so we headed for bed.

Dawn came quite soon and we were on our way. I spent most of the bus ride trying not to look out the window. It seemed that we were nearly going to fall off the cliff-side road at any moment. There were several gorges filled with cars that had skidded down the side and become stuck on one ledge or another. However, it was hard to look away from the scenic craggy shoreline on the horizon and the barren rock islands that dotted the nearby waters.

We left the mainland aboard a ferry, floated past several more rock islands, and came to Rab. The city of Rab, located on the island of Rab, was fantastically beautiful. The streets were paved with whitewashed stone. The buildings in the ancient part of the city dated from the 13th century and were still in excellent condition. Best of all, every restaurant sold pizza and ice cream, which must have been the food of choice among German and Italian tourists.  

It was a bit difficult to converse in English with the man at the tourist office, but he quickly figured out that we wanted a cheap room and made some calls. For fourteen dollars a night, we ended up in the upper room of a bed and breakfast. The bed was soft and spacious and our balcony opened out onto the Rab harbor. We felt like we had just booked the Hilton. The rest of the day was spent napping and touring the small town. Our dinner at a nearby restaurant, where we were the only patrons, included a free dessert whiskey. This gorgeous little island seemed to be starving for tourists and appeared dearly glad to have us there.  

Following dinner, we were going to go for a walk. It was getting dark. Off in the hills, a power line exploded before our very eyes. Then bells began chiming in multiple places for the next five minutes. All these things happening simultaneously convinced us to walk home quickly. Unfortunately, the weirdness didn’t end. From our balcony, we noticed what appeared to be a lightning storm over the northerly hillside. However, we never saw any rain and the storm neither moved nor stopped as long as we watched it. I began to worry that some sort of war was commencing just over the horizon. Now that I have the benefit of hindsight, I’m sure it was just training exercises at the Area 51 of Croatia. But who’s to say? I’m sure what we saw never happened and the location does not exist. Other than the dripping toilet and an incessantly barking dog, the rest of the night went by peacefully.

We woke to a full breakfast and decided to venture to Lopar, a beach town on the other side of the island. Trying to find a nice beach in Europe is always a risky proposition because, as far as I can tell, many have the terrain of Mars.  

In order to get to Lopar, we tried to take a taxi boat, which we thought would be the same sort of bargain as was our hotel. No luck. The cheapest trip ran about fifty dollars. If we were smart, we would have seen that there was a regular bus route that cost ten times less. But we weren’t smart, so we gave up. We trotted off to a cement slab near the water by our hotel and tried to swim around the pointy black creatures sitting on the sea bottom and the long, poisonous-looking yellow animals swimming above them.

 

After getting our fill of the ancient but crispy clean white streets and buildings in town, we bought a grocery store dinner of wine, cheese, and crackers with some chocolate and strawberries for dessert. We strolled to a nearby overlook next to a cathedral to take in the sunset over the Adriatic. On the way home we stopped at an internet café, sent some emails to family and friends, and got caught up on the latest news. Unfortunately, the latest news was that two Chinese planes and an Egyptian plane had both crashed in the last month, giving ample fuel to my flying fears. It was a strange feeling to be so far away from home and feel trapped, not knowing if we would get back safely. It was all very irrational. But unfortunately, knowing my fears were irrational did not make them go away.

At 4:40 AM we were on our way back to Rijeka along those spectacular sheer ocean-side gorges filled with less fortunate cars. Our bus driver kept nodding as though he might fall asleep, so I kept my eye on him just in case we veered off the road and I had to sprint to the front of the bus and guide us smoothly down the vertical cliff face. I think this trip was proof for me that facing your fears only makes them worse. We did not crash at all, no doubt thanks to my constant worrying, and made our connection in Rijeka onto another bus that would take us to Trieste, Italy. I did my best to spend my last remaining Kuna, although I left myself so little change that I couldn’t afford to pay our driver the fee he wanted to haul our luggage. He was surly and I wasn’t in the mood to accommodate him, but we worked out a deal in which I gave him one of my spare euros in exchange for many displays of bus driver disgust.  

En route to Italy, my next passport challenge, getting past the Croatian exit station officials, went just fine. Then came the Slovenians.


Monday, December 12, 2011

Sweatpants Across Europa: Hungary

A decade ago, I applied for a work visa in Britain and used it to work and travel for several months. This is that story. To begin at the beginning, ghere. You can pick up a hard copy here or download the PDF here.

 
As we left the European Union in search of Hungary, we could feel the security tighten. Our train was staffed by menacing Austrian and Hungarian border guards who requested to see our passports and tickets approximately fifteen times over the two-hour train ride. None of these guards had a problem with my black-market quality passport, bolstering my naive confidence.  

Nearing our destination in Budapest, we were approached by a very good hostel salesman. He was in his early twenties and effortlessly spoke English, German, or Hungarian as needed. He oozed smoothness and I didn’t believe anything he said, especially when he claimed to know the very short list of hostels in town with any open beds. He gave me his pitch, after which I thanked him and as nicely as I could, told him I didn’t believe anything he said. He then handed me his cell phone and let me call all the hostels in my guidebook. He was right. They were all full.  

Humbled, we took his offer and bunked at our friendly salesman’s hostel. It was very plain, full of large rooms, lots of noise-enhancing concrete, and non-stop action at every hour of the day. Our room contained several nutty people, including some Slovenians who liked to sing very loudly all night long and some very kind Chicagoans who really enjoyed talking to their new-found intoxicated foreign friends about how intoxicated and foreign they were.

 

After a few days of sightseeing along the Danube, we we ready to move on. Fearing that our upcoming trip to Croatia might provide us with lodging challenges, we tried to call ahead and book a room. As we found in all other countries, one needed an advanced degree in European Phone Prefixes to figure out how to make cross-border phone calls. We quickly tired of listening to the Hungarian your-call-cannot-be-completed message, so we went home, tried to sleep through the Slovenian folk songs and Chicagoan chatter, and left Hungary early the next morning.


Saturday, December 10, 2011

Sweatpants Across Europa: Austria

A decade ago, I applied for a work visa in Britain and used it to work and travel for several months. This is that story. To begin at the beginning, ghere. You can pick up a hard copy here or download the PDF here.



Back in civilization, we boarded a train for Vienna. We passed through Salzburg, by numerous lakeside resorts bordering the Alps, and arrived at our destination. Here we enjoyed two days amid growing throngs of travelers as the tourism season picked up considerably.

 

On our last day we decided to hunt out some famous graves. Our guidebook made it sound like these graves would be sitting by themselves in highly visible locations with many signs pointing to them. As it turned out, they were unmarked and set in a sea of similar-looking gravestones. After asking some equally uninformed tourists where our desired tombstones were, we wandered aimlessly as the mid-day temperature rose. It was turning out to be a very bad idea, indeed. After a lengthy, uncomfortably warm slog, we came upon our goal: Mozart, Schuman, Beethoven, Liszt, and a bunch of Strausses. It was such a significant moral victory that we took many more pictures than we would ever care about later. Contented, we stopped at McDonald’s for lunch and raced to Central Coffee House, the coffee house that begat the coffee craze in Europe that begat the coffee craze in America that begat Starbucks. Caffeinated, we booked the next train out of town.


Thursday, December 8, 2011

Sweatpants Across Europa: Germany

A decade ago, I applied for a work visa in Britain and used it to work and travel for several months. This is that story. To begin at the beginning, ghere. You can pick up a hard copy here or download the PDF here.

 
The German trains that connected us to Berlin were beautiful, on time, and flew at nearly one hundred miles per hour. Their interiors resembled space-age executive offices, complete with automatic sliding glass doors and recessed televisions in wood-paneled walls. It was an encouraging introduction to our home for the next week.
 
We were tired but wanted to check out some of the nightlife in the birthplace of electronic music. We agreed to rest until 10 PM and head out for E-Werks, which was, according to our guidebook, one of the original dance clubs in Berlin. We overslept, woke at 11:30, and had a very groggy discussion about whether to just forget it or not. I persuaded Karie to wake up and go to downtown Berlin, so we gathered ourselves and headed out. We had only a vague idea about where E-Werks was located – enough to know that it was too far to walk, so we opted for the subway. At the tube station, our inexact change didn’t lend itself to ticket-buying, so we jumped on without paying and hoped for the best. We made it to our destination without a problem but when we exited the tube, we didn’t see the club at all. In fact, we didn’t see much except empty parking lots and abandoned buildings. No cars, no people, no club, no nothing. We walked the length of Wilhelmstrasse, a street with few memorable qualities except that it was very long and very empty at night, but to no avail. Tired and irritated, we hailed a cabbie and in our best German, repeatedly told him the name and address of our hostel. He understood where we wanted to go, but when I tried to engage him in a conversation about E-Werks, he became very confused, as if such a place never existed. Back at our hostel, we fell asleep quickly, feeling defeated and exhausted. Next time, we decided, we’d buy the updated travel guide.

We took in as much of Berlin as possible the next day, which is to say we missed most of it. Berlin is massive. It sprawls. It is packed with things to see and do. And it never sleeps. If you only have twenty-four hours, it is almost better to skip Berlin and avoid being overwhelmed. We visited several attractions and would have stayed much longer, but we had an appointment to keep.

 

It was time to head east. In Eisenhuttenstadt, a small city near the Polish border, we were greeted at the station by an old friend of Karie’s, an exchange student who had once stayed with Karie’s family and dutifully kept in contact for many years. This area of Germany still held a few remnants of life behind the iron curtain. Some of the parks were run down or overgrown, older buildings were little more than concrete blocks, and every now and then a “GDR car” would go roaring by.

A close friend of our host referred to communist government-issued cars as GDR (German Democratic Republic) cars. They were very easy to pick out because there was only one model. Imagine a short, boxy, old Volvo without a muffler. They came in several colors, although the only ones we saw were black. Back in East Germany, the waiting list for one of these vehicles was ten years, so most parents put in an order for their children when they were six years old.

We rode (not in a GDR car) to our host's house in the small town of Riessen, a charming, quiet, residential village made up of several winding roads, a few dozen modern-looking homes, and a vast collection of tall pines. Its major landmark was a church which, judging by a few photos and old drawings inside, had changed little since the 15th century.

There were three residents in our host’s home – all women, each from a different generation. They lived in a well-kept two-story house with an attached coup containing chickens, rabbits, hens, and guinea pigs. They fed us hearty German meals – lots of eggs, sausage, and potato salad – and gave us a comfortable bed for a few days. It was the perfect amount of luxury following our hectic spin through Berlin. During our stay, Karie’s friend told us stories about life under communism, which she experienced for most of her childhood. As she explained, money wasn’t valued as much as connections. If somebody needed something, they didn’t buy it because they likely couldn't afford it. They found somebody who knew somebody who knew somebody and they bartered. Modern East Germans can more often buy what they need, she said, so life is more comfortable but also more disconnected.

 

Our host took us to an old church that held a replica stain glass window. The original window was looted by the Russians during World War II. Lost for decades, it had recently been found and the Russians were soon going to return it. In exchange, the Germans agreed to rebuild a Russian church that was destroyed by Nazis during the war. Even for a non-history-buff like myself, hearing these stories first-hand was unforgettable.

At night we watched German television, which every tourist should do, especially if you can stay up late. On one of the evening talk shows, the host stuffed an entire male chorus into a tiny makeshift sauna and watched them get increasingly miserable. It was brilliant, and I did not need to know a lick of German to follow along.

After saying goodbye the next morning, we departed Riessen and headed south to Dresden. Our hostel included a washing machine that was located in an adjoining dance club. After navigating through hard-partying, dressed-up hipsters in my pajamas with my dirty laundry, I found the washing machines and deposited my clothes. Maybe it was the pulsing music or the strobe lights, but my mind left me and I forgot to remove my valuables from my pants pockets. When I unloaded my laundry, I discovered I had just thoroughly cleansed my passport. Let me tell you, a passport sure looks phony after it has been soaked and tumble-dried. “Meh,” I thought, “What trouble could that be?” I would eventually find out.

From Dresden, it was on to Munich, where we sat outside on a sunny spring day under the trees in a beer garden, thinking about little else than how in the world we were going to finish the gargantuan mugs in our hands. Not only does German beer have twice the alcohol content of most American beer, they insist on giving it to you in a container that could double as a footstool. Karie and I were quite happy for most of that day, which included a visit to a modern art museum. If you ever visit a modern art museum, we heartily recommend going to a beer garden first.

I had been to Munich once before, in college. One of my regrets from that visit (although it was during Oktoberfest, so in another, more accurate sense, there were no regrets), was that I never got to see Neuschwanstein Castle. So we took a day trip to see it. Even though I had high hopes, I was still blown away. Nestled high on a hill in a thick forest deep in the Alps, with tall white towers and blue roofing, it was a phenomenally beautiful structure. From inside, the castle oversaw lower ridges of the Alps and a pristine lake surrounded by small village homes.

It was quite nice even with all the tourists around, which included a family that brought their two-year-old all the way from America to appreciate the intricacies of European architecture. It looked like they were in the process of creating a very painful memory, full of crying and frustration. That poor family made a very convincing case for not bringing small children on international trips.

Wishing we could stay longer than three days, but with other destinations in mind, we left Munich the next morning. On the train ride out of town, we decided to visit Berchtesgaden, a small town near the Austrian border known for being the site of the Eagle’s Nest, Hitler’s vacation home. This side trip was well worth the effort. The train ride into the hills led us on a shady route along a bright green stream. Berchtesgaden sat between two enormous, snow capped peaks and included two cable cars for tourists to take into the hills. We stopped at the tourist office right away, only to discover that the Eagle’s Nest was still closed for the next two weeks of winter, which in Germany apparently continued through April. Not ready to quit, I convinced Karie to ride up the cable car and hike towards Hitler’s hideaway.

The cable car ride included a mid-point where we had to get off our car and onto another. Prior to the transfer, an automated train voice told us to get off, cross a platform, and board one of two cars waiting for us on the other side. We stepped off and headed for a car. Before stepping into our new car, the voice stopped us, saying “not that one…the other one.” I almost got down on my knees and began bowing to the omniscient cable car voice. That is, until we spun around and noticed our ticket saleswoman waving to us from the bottom of the hill. At least, I think she was the mind behind the voice. I wouldn’t put it past German engineers to build human intelligence into their cable car system.

When our cable car stopped, we were about a third of the way up the hill from the Eagle’s Nest, so I once again cajoled Karie into venturing further. We hiked along a path until it seemed that we were definitely going in the wrong direction, took a leap of faith, and started wandering off into the Alpine wilderness in a direction I sort of felt seemed kinda right. It was rough going, what with all the ducking-under-limbs and stepping-across-puddles but we finally came to a clearing where, if you hunched over and peered through the trees at exactly the right angle, you could see the Eagle's Nest using your binoculars. It was an undeniable victory.

 

Then I turned around and gasped. Nearby, the mountainside fell away and we had a perfect view down the valley, through Berchtesgaden and onto the forests at the base of the Alps. After spending so much time moving among smoggy crowded cities, this combination of clean crisp air, sunshine, and pristine natural beauty was the greatest gift our journey could have presented us. Without a soul in sight, we sat in peace and stared in silence under the snow-capped peaks towering overhead.


Tuesday, December 6, 2011

Sweatpants Across Europa: Denmark

A decade ago, I applied for a work visa in Britain and used it to work and travel for several months. This is that story. To begin at the beginning, ghere. You can pick up a hard copy here or download the PDF here.


Our first stop in Denmark was Copenhagen. We stayed at a very inaccurately named hostel called Sleep in Heaven. It was full of hyper teenagers in an acoustically perfect cement bunker. We spent most of our nights trying to plug our ears from the noise, hoping that it would quiet down by 2, 3, maybe 4 AM…come on, people, don’t YOU EVER SLEEP??? We took out our irritation by proceeding to spill tea all over the lobby floor on several occasions. This wasn’t intentional, but it made us feel as though justice was served.  
 
We happened to be in Copenhagen for the annual opening of Tivoli Gardens, a large outdoor amusement park and one of the city’s primary attractions. The park was beautiful, full of lakes, rides, restaurants, and dazzling lights. However it also got very cold at night, so despite our best efforts to join the festivities we headed home early in the evening.  

The rest of our tour of Copenhagen surrounded graves and beer.  As we would find out, all major European cities, in addition to sporting a wealth of cathedrals and museums, all have a collection of famous graves, which are somewhat interesting but very difficult to find.  Copenhagen’s graves of fame, among others, are those of Hans Christian Anderson and Soren Kirkegaard.  We found them, paid our respects in the form of taking photographs, and moved on.

The rest of our tour of Copenhagen surrounded graves and beer. As we would find out, all major European cities, in addition to sporting a wealth of cathedrals and museums, have a collection of famous graves, which are somewhat interesting but very difficult to find. Copenhagen’s graves of fame, among others, were those of Hans Christian Anderson and Soren Kirkegaard. We found them, paid our respects in the form of taking photographs, and moved on.

Our next stop was the Carlsburg brewery. It was a typical brewery tour and included free samples at the end, which is pretty much the primary reason for going on any brewery tour unless you have a thing for big steel tanks or the smell of fermentation.

Our final bit of tourism included a very cold, windy harbor cruise, highlighted by a brief spin near Christiania. Christiania was a “free city,” which meant it had few “laws,” which meant it was full of mangy, un-owned dogs and the citizens consumed a lot of mind-altering chemicals. Our tour guide seemed to avoid discussing it even though it appeared to be a very interesting place. If Christiania were a sister city to Copenhagen, it appeared to be a disgraced sister, the one nobody in the family talked much about.

 

Having viewed enough of Copenhagen, we were on to the city of Give. Give was the home of some very distant relatives of Karie. One of the worst things about traveling was that, as much as we wanted to get to know the places we visited, it was very hard to do this without meeting the people. Attractions were nice, but they paled in comparison to actual conversations with actual residents. However, it was very hard to meet native people if one was shy, if there was a significant language barrier, or if one was traveling in a group. Since all three applied to Karie and I, our chances to meet locals were fairly limited. As such, the opportunity to stay with her family was perhaps the most fantastic thing that happened on our trip.  

Our hosts managed quite a bit of land that they used as a potato/duck/mulch/worm farm. This scheme, though it sounded odd, was brilliant. The ducks laid eggs and pooped, the poop and other yard waste created mulch, the mulch helped feed the potatoes and house worms, and the worms broke down the mulch into fertilizer for the potatoes. Out of the cycle, they were able to sell eggs, potatoes, mulch, and worms. These products allowed them to live on and expand the family farm, which now covered much of the area around Give. Their house, though not large, was very nice and well-maintained. It was certainly quieter and more comfortable than the hostels we’d been staying in, which made us very happy.

We were introduced to more family members, some of whom worked at the farm. We were treated to lengthy meals of fried chicken, mounds of french fries, wine, two to three desserts, and cigarette breaks between each course. We met the Polish farm hand, who was invited to each meal and treated as a member of the family.


One of our day trips took us to the original Legoland in Billund. The park was covered with enormous, detailed, moving scenes built entirely of Legos: Lego airports, Lego farm country, Lego future cities, Lego trains in Lego mountainsides. They were all much better than the Lego space station I made in 2nd grade, which I thought at the time was the ultimate in Lego construction.

We also took a tour of local historic sites, including a cemetery full of Karie’s distant relatives and the houses where Karie’s great grandfather and great great grandfather were born.

 

Too soon, were were preparing to leave Give and our wonderful hosts. As we were packing up, they gave us some food for our trip: bread, ham, bleu cheese, cheddar cheese, and a few crackers. Karie put everything on one sandwich, which clearly was not what they intended. They scrunched up their faces as Karie, in an effort to do what she thought they wanted, created a horrific ham and bleu cheese sandwich. It was a good thing she waited until we were on the train zooming towards Hamburg before she bit in. I don’t think she will mix those ingredients ever again. Gagging, we sped towards...