Thursday, September 06, 2007

If You Go to Holland, I Don't Recommend the Tulip Bulbs

This is me. On a train.

After a solid 4-5 days in Berlin, Andrew and I hopped on the train to sunny Groningen, Holland. Even considering that the trip took 7 hours, it was actually quite enjoyable. Not to sound like an old biddy, but traveling by rail or car in another country can actually be a treat. We even unwittingly got into first class; since the Dutch are first class people, the ticket guy didn’t even care. Or maybe he picked up on our accents…

See, we did wholesome things, too.

Never heard of Groningen, you say? Well, you ought to. It’s a respectable 100, 000 + sized city in the north of the country, and I don’t think Andrew would disagree that it was maybe the highlight of our trip. After the… newness of Berlin, it was nice to be in a place that was certifiably European. I could use my skills in the written language to convey the atmosphere, but that would be silly considering I took photos of the place.

My God. People walking about on foot on a Saturday? Don't they have a big box store they could be driving to? Those Europeans are maybe just a bit too permissive.

Unknown to me at the time, my parents had been there a few days before Andrew and me. During the War my mother’s dad stayed with a family in Holland that he kept in touch with over the years. The parents are long gone, of course, but their children who were only infants while he was there are now in their early 70s or so. One of them lives just outside Groningen now, and she showed my parents around for a few days. Had I known she was so close, it would have been nice to drop in on her.

The nightlife in Groningen is pretty happening, and Andrew and I were lucky enough to show up on the weekend. We made friends with a few folks in the hostel and had a few nights out on the town. I would say those two evenings were the closest to what I was expecting out of the whole vacation, and it’s a shame we didn’t run into more people like them. Ahh well. At the least I was able to confirm my theory that, owing to their superior genes, Dutch women are the most attractive in the world.

If there's one thing the Dutch are fond of, it's canals and bikes (top right).
That, and hookers (top left).

From Groningen we made our way to Utrecht for a night. Why? Not exactly sure. At this point we’d already booked a ticket the next week for a flight from Amsterdam to London, so we couldn’t exactly leave the Netherlands. As such, we found ourselves hopping from town to town while we awaited our flight.

Our path through the Netherlands arriving form Germany in the northeast, if you're curious.

Now, I don’t want to say Utrecht is a horrible town. It just happens to be a bit… old. I suppose there is good Old World charm and then… dumpy Old World charm. From my limited experience, Utrecht is more of the latter. In Utrecht’s defense, it would really have needed to put on a show to one-up Groningen (now would be a good point to mention that all my observations on cities, countries, people, cultures and races are all based on fleeting, ephemeral encounters, tainted not in the least by my own preconceived expectations and judgments).

A lot of Utrecht's Old World charm comes from the fact that everything there is, in fact, old.

After one night in arguably Europe’s worst hostel, we went to Rotterdam for a few days. Again, I hate to disparage a whole city, but it was a tad underwhelming. Like Berlin it had been destroyed during the War, so most of it is all pretty new and fancy. Impressive for what it is, but that’s not exactly what I came to see.

This it the aforementioned worst hostel. Is that... urine leaking from the ceiling?

Andrew and I stayed in an odd hostel where each room had its own theme. Themes included Multiculturalism, History, Art and Party. Ours was Shipping, because Rotterdam was until recently the world’s largest port. Shipping. The room was decorated to look like the hold of a cargo ship, with crates, warning signage and nautical livery all over the walls. Why, they were even kind enough to throw in some steel drums to really give us the whole… sleeping in a cargo container feeling. Muuuuch better than the Art room, and it really provided a great backdrop for when I screwed this one chick.*

Walking around one evening, we noticed a bunch of floozies sitting in a bar near the hostel. After much persuading, I convinced Andrew to go in, for just one drink. We go in, and what greet us are 3-4 semi-attractive girls sitting at the bar, unaccompanied. We take our seats, order drinks, and are… attended to by two of these women. Andrew caught on immediately that these were hookers, but it took me some thinking. For a few brief moments, I thought I was being hit on by a moderately attractive woman not ten seconds after entering a bar. We finished our drinks (Andrew perhaps earlier than me) and got out of there. Those Eastern European hookers can be quite pushy.

* Not remotely true.

Tuesday, September 04, 2007

Adventures in Berlin!

Here is a photo of something that is in Berlin

Since we bombed the crap out of it, there isn’t too much of the Old World charm left in Berlin. Rather disappointingly, it looks much like any major city you might find in North America (with a few twists). I could never tell if I was in East or West Berlin at any given moment, and the layman would be hard-pressed to figure out from the buildings. The change this city must have undergone in the past 15 years is pretty radical.

One thing I like about Berlin is the permissive attitude. Want to piss on the street? Go ahead! Care to drink in a nursery school? Hell, you can probably do that, too. Andrew and I stumbled upon this old department store that is now a squatter’s… something. It’s not full of homeless people or anything, but I can hardly say it’s all too inviting. People have set up studios in there, unlicensed bars… probably some brothels, I’d imagine. Interesting place to walk around, but I get the feeling people get murdered there every so often.

I could bore you with tales of the various bars/clubs Andrew and I went to. I’ll spare you that, though, but mention two things: one, mixed drinks are prohibitively expensive. I just don’t get it. Second, the whole atmosphere in a club is really uplifting. Everyone’s just sorta doing their own thing, having a good time and being happy to be around other happy people. Clubs here, by comparison, have a real strained, poisonous feeling to them.

There is a club in Berlin called the Kit Kat Club. It is run by this couple from pornos. The woman manages the door, and only lets in those who exhibit through behaviour and dress some sort of indefinable quality that she’s looking for. Then you go in and have sex with people. Andrew and I had a hard time figuring out how exactly we could get in here given that we’d forgotten our assless chaps back home, but here were my suggestions:

- Actually go out and buy something hardcore with spikes and fake leather and shit. Surely the cost would be worth it, even if we had to throw the outfits out as quickly as possible afterwards.

- Do ourselves up in really emo-type makeup. Mascara, black lipstick, diamonds around eyes, teardrops, etc. I would have been prepared to show up in line topless with metal spikes through my tits if it’d helped.

- Just show up naked. We weren’t exactly sure how the logistics of this one would play out, though. We couldn’t go naked in the cab, so I guess we’d have to take it off before we got in line? But what to do with our clothes? And how would we get back into the hostel afterwards? This really would have needed some planning.

In any event, Andrew and I never ended up going there. It pains me to think that the next time I show up in Berlin, I’ll be far, far too old. And probably have kids and shit. Ahh well. I still screwed this one girl at the hostel anyway.*

* This is a lie

Monday, September 03, 2007

Right, So I Went to Europe

There’s no point in having a blog if you can’t talk at length about a trip to Europe, right? I mean, who doesn’t love reading about vacations in far-flung places that you’re not currently having?

The whole thing began not long after I returned from Saskatchewan. Good friend and former roommate Andrew had been traveling about and was in Italy or something at the time, and suggested that I join him for the rest of his trip. I reckoned that if I didn’t do it now, when else was it gonna happen?

I arrived in Munich a week later, excited to finally be on a different continent. It really is a weird little feeling, to be on the other side of the world while the surroundings are still so familiar. I met my parents at the airport who were also on vacation, and they ferried me up to Berlin to meet up with Andrew.

I must say it’s an odd feeling, walking around and talking in a language that nobody else is speaking. You know those weird families with weird skin colour who walk around and talk in their funny language, and you have no idea what they’re saying? Well, for a few brief moments, I was one of them. It’s empowering. It feels kinda what it must feel like to be invisible. No wonder they talk like that. Now, this is all tempered by the fact that 99% of Germans can probably at least understand English, but…

The drive from Munich to Berlin is about 600Km, and I’d like to think I’m a better, more rounded person for it. First, the Autobahn. Very orderly, very… efficient. All of the trucks and heavy vehicles stay in the right lane and always go the speed limit. I saw in my 8 hours perhaps one truck overtaking another (possibly an exaggeration). This makes a huge difference, and one wonders why they don’t have to do this here. There are definite rules to the road that everyone follows, and traffic progresses smoothly. Should things have to slow down due to construction, even the guy that was speeding along at 180 ten seconds ago will obey the signs to the letter. I used to think that the 401 and its drivers were the best in the world (which is naively small-minded). Ha! Any German driving in Canada must think he just showed up in downtown Calcutta or something.

Second, the countryside. Very odd. I was under the impression that Europe was one giant city, with people crowded together shoulder-to-shoulder. But damned if I passed a village more than 1000 people on the entire drive. The whole thing was rolling hills, fields of grass, farms, little towns and rows upon rows of wind generators. Quite where the Germans cram their 80 million citizens I do not know. It blows my mind. A detour had us off the freeway and driving through little villages scattered about. It was really quite nice.

On the way up to Berlin we stopped by Nuremberg for lunch. Well, while there, I mean… how could one pass up the chance to check out the stadium where the Nazis held the rallies (and where my grandpa himself had been some 65 years previously)? An example of Speer’s impressive Nazi architecture, the place looks like an ancient ruin now (that's it above). There’s something spooky about going up there, literally standing in Hitler's footsteps, but one feels compelled. I do have to admit that the Germans seem pretty reflective and honest about their past, as evidenced by an uncompromising installation on the site detailing the stadium’s history. During the immediate postwar period the Americans blew up a giant swastika that served as the sort of… centerpiece of the area from which various officials addressed the crowd. My mother made the observation that they should have just left the thing, as a friendly reminder.

With our trusty GPS unit in hand, we were able to drive right up to the doorway of the hostel in Berlin that Andrew had booked for us. Handshakes were made and goodbyes said as my parents departed, and Andrew and I began our trip proper.

What adventures await our intrepid duo? Turning down unwanted advances from the chap on the left, that's what.