Archive for September, 2009

Ichenheim to Bavaria

September 29th, 2009 No comments

Our time in Ichenheim was quite uneventful, as planned. We spent the day after Strasbourg mostly sleeping off the hangover, getting up only at 3:00 and 4:30 p.m. respectively and sitting around with the family talking until dinner. After dinner we watched the German election coverage, as Sunday was their election day. It was good news for E.ON, as the new ruling coalition will be the CDU and the FDP, the best-case scenario for energy companies who want to keep their nuclear power plants running. Dieter and the rest of the Ichenheim family was also happy, as for the last four years the coalition has been the CDU and SPD, which are the two biggest parties and are therefore always in competition. Almost nothing got done over this time, but they think that now that the FDP has enough seats to form a majority when combined with the CDU (Angela Merkel’s party), and because these two parties are ideologically similar, stuff can finally get done.

The next day was Monday so everyone was back at work. Krissi and I spent about three hours just riding our bikes around as it was an incredibly beautiful day. I was able to really enjoy and appreciate the scenery, biking through villages, farmland and little patches of forest until my ass could no longer handle it. On the way back into Ichenheim I decided to pay a visit to my grandmother’s sister Fannie, even though I have a hard time communicating with her because she only speaks the Ichener dialect and not even High German which I know. But luckily Fannie’s middle-aged daughter Gabi was there, and she speaks a tiny bit of English but High German as well so the conversation flowed much easier and the whole thing was much less awkward than I’d feared. But I felt good for having done it, and I know it will make my grandma happy when she hears I went to visit.

Krissi and I got a little drunk last night after dinner, talking more with the family until they all went to bed at 10:00 because they had to work in the morning. She said that she still can’t speak a word of German but she was already starting to pick things up and she could understand what we were all talking about far better than when she first arrived.

At night we just watched some comedy internet clips including Eddie Izzard stand-up and an episode of Home Movies, which I was pleased she also liked. And we got up early this morning, said our goodbyes, and were driven to the train station by Dieter.

6 and a half hours of travel later we arrived in the little town of Garmisch-Partenkirchen at the foothills of the Bavarian Alps, and even the train-ride in was spectacular with all the fairy-tale scenery of cows and goats grazing in fields at the foot of big evergreen-spattered mountains. It was a really long walk from the train station to the hostel but we made it okay. We checked in, then walked out to a supermarket to buy some food and water for the trail tomorrow, and ate a particularly fantastic meal at a nearby Italian restaurant.

In the evening we tried to go online and figure out what trail to take for tomorrow but couldn’t find any clear suggestions online and the information pamphlets at the hostel weren’t much help either. So tomorrow we’re going to the tourist information center as soon as it opens and hopefully talk to someone who can recommend the best possible route for our skill-level and the time we wish to spend up there, hopefully about 6 hours.

Just being out in the mountains has really lifted my spirits up a lot from the depths they were in just a few nights ago. Traveling through cities and drinking heavily at night is fun and everything, but I just absolutely fucking love hiking and I’m extremely excited about hiking in the motherfucking goddamn Bavarian Alps. The next several days of our trip, I imagine, will probably be the highlight.

Strasbourg: Comédie Absurde

September 27th, 2009 No comments

Last night was not what I would call a great evening. There was something bad, awkward, or uncomfortable about nearly every part of it. But it was one of the most interesting nights I’ve ever had, one well worth writing about.

Myriam and Ralf were kind enough to drive us right into Strasbourg and drop us off directly in front of the hotel, so no time was wasted in trying to find the place. I had to check in using German because the front desk girl couldn’t speak any English but her German was okay. We got to our room, a nice private little room with two twin beds and a bathroom that looked like a bathroom from an airplane, and put our stuff down. I didn’t take my jacket when we left because it was a relatively hot day.

We proceeded to walk into the heart of the city to the area around the cathedral, where we stopped at a little café to order a salad for Krissi and a half a bottle of wine which we split between the two of us. The waitress was absolutely terrible so the service was slow, but we did a lot of people-watching as we sat there, noticing just how ugly everyone was. Strasbourg, it seemed, was just an incredibly ugly city. Every now and then a decent-looking woman would pass by but they were few and far between. I actually liked this because I felt that here was a place where I might be one of the more attractive ones. Indeed as I looked at every decent-looking woman passing by, they all returned my glance, perhaps because they noticed a fellow non-ugly person or perhaps simply because they felt my gaze upon them.

At any rate, once I’d hunted our waitress down so she could bring us the bill, we left exactly €0 for a tip and walked into the cathedral to check it out. It was impressive of course, but having just been to the Köln Dom recently it paled in comparison.

We then walked down to the river to take one of the boat tours that my Ichenheim family had recommended, and we bought a ticket for the next boat which left in twenty minutes. I used the time to find a public bathroom and found much to my surprise that it was free of charge. That was the only thing about Strasbourg the entire night that I actually found to be better than German cities, where you always have to pay for public restrooms.

The boat ride happened exactly at sunset, so it had the potential to be a really lovely experience. Unfortunately, we had the bad luck of boarding the same boat as a group of about 20 young women celebrating a bachelorette party, and they were about as loud, drunk, and obnoxious as they could possibly be. To make matters worse our boat was enclosed in glass so their shouts and chants echoed all around. We also had the rotten luck of being seated directly in front of the most obnoxiously loud girl in the whole group. Everyone else on the boat, just trying to have a nice relaxing little trip down the river and listen to the historical tid-bits on the audio tour, were also clearly pissed at the girls, all of them shooting evil glances to the back from time to time but it didn’t phase these girls at all, who just kept cheering and chanting and occasionally breaking into song. Towards the beginning of the trip a woman who works for the boat tour walked up to them and said something in French, presumably asking them to be respectful of the other passengers and to keep it down, but then she said something else as she walked away and they all cheered, so I assume she gave them some of kind of “wink wink”. At any rate, what would have been a really nice little boat ride was just an hour of frustration, and anything I might have learned about Stasbourg’s history from the audio-tour was completely forgotten as I either couldn’t hear it or couldn’t focus on it.

When we got off the boat I was very chilly so we decided to go back to the hotel before we began our night of drinking. We were quite far away, but we didn’t want to bother trying to figure out the public transportation system (everything was only in French, of course) so we walked. It took about 30 minutes to get back and by the time we reached the hotel I had already warmed up just from walking, but I got my jacket anyway and then we went to the front desk to ask the guy if he could recommend any bars or music clubs. He spoke a little English which was nice, but he couldn’t really help us at all with any recommendations. The club we’d looked up online was apparently really far from everything else, and he just told us that all the bars and clubs were in the center of town, which we already knew. He couldn’t even tell us the name of any club, as he said he used to know but he hasn’t lived in Strasbourg for awhile and he just got back to the city recently. So that wasn’t very helpful to us at all, but we had to give him credit for being friendly and honest.

We walked all the way back to the centre of town where we stopped for a kebab because I was hungry, but since Krissi had eaten a big salad earlier she just had a little snack of “Freedom Fries”. It was about 8:30 when we finished and we finally went to our first bar of the night, ordering the obligatory shot of Jäger and a beer. I decided to play a game called “Who’s the hottest bartender of the night?” because the bartender at the place was this lovely slender little lady, though her face could have been slightly better. We didn’t spend much time in that place before leaving in search of another one. By the way, everything in Strasbourg was extremely expensive. Most places were charging €5.50 for a single glass of beer, an absolutely ridiculous price.

We wandered around for awhile looking for a decent place before finally settling on a cocktail bar where we took a shot of vodka (they didn’t have any Jäger) and drank another beer while watching the bartender prepare all kinds of crazy mixed drinks and having an extensive conversation about how many mixed drinks there must be in the world, me thinking only a few thousand but Krissi insisting there were definitely over a million as there are so many different combinations of everything and people were inventing new drinks every day.

It took awhile to get the check from that place but we were finally able to pay and get out of there, then we noticed it was 11:30 and both of us were still sober so we had to pick up the pace. I was hoping to come across an Irish Pub where the bartenders would hopefully speak English and be able to recommend a good music club or something, but we didn’t spot one. We did, however, come to an internet café, so we went inside and did some quick research, marking the locations of a few Irish Pubs and a few music clubs on our map. We went off to the nearest dot, a music club, just to see if it would be worth coming to later, but we couldn’t find the street. Navigation was a huge bitch the whole time we were there because there were so many tiny little streets that weren’t even on the map, and some streets that were on the map but weren’t marked with signs so we didn’t know which they were. So we ended up missing the club and coming instead to the first Irish bar we’d marked.

We went inside and found they had no Jäger there either, so we just ordered a beer and each took a turn going to the bathroom. The atmosphere there really sucked for an Irish place, and the bartenders certainly didn’t speak English. They were playing really crappy music like the Backstreet Boys and the song “Dancing Queen” so I suggested we just drink our beer as fast as possible and move along. Krissi was thinking the exact same thing, so we just pounded our Kilkennys and took off.

The next Irish pub was right around the corner but it was closed down, so we just moved on to the next dot, another dance club, only this one looked like it had a dress code so we moved along again, crossing the river to the southern side of the centre of town to the last Irish pub on the map, a place called Molly Malone’s. The bartender there won the award for best-looking bartender of the night, and she also got major points for speaking English and telling us about our options for music clubs in the area, even marking the locations on our map.

While we were finishing our beer a French guy sat down next to us and I noticed him looking in our direction, so I said hello and he responded with a bonjour. What followed was a particularly strange encounter in which he attempted to communicate with us by speaking French very slowly (as though that would help) and using a few scattered words of English or German that he happened to know. He busted out a notebook and showed us a bunch of poems that he’d written, and I think he was saying that he was going to write a poem about Krissi. He was telling her that she was beautiful and that I was lucky to have such a “treasure” and stuff, and I didn’t bother explaining that we weren’t together. Krissi politely took out her camera and took a picture of me and him, then he took the camera and got a picture of us together, puckering his lips because he wanted to get a picture of us kissing, which we obviously didn’t do. I got his name before we left—Jacques—and we got out of there before it could get any weirder. So Molly Malone’s was probably the best bar of the night but we couldn’t really just enjoy it because the guy wouldn’t leave us alone.

We said goodbye to Jacques the Poet and left, walking down the road to the nearest club that the bartender had marked on our map. When we found the place, we went up to the bouncer and asked if we could go in. He said “no English speakers” which I thought was quite bizarre but it didn’t really surprise me. “Deutsch?” I said and he responded in some German (a dialect I don’t quite understand) and let us inside. I’m still not sure if he’d been joking or not when he said “no English speakers” but he’d seemed completely serious. So after that bit of weirdness we went in, got ourselves some expensive beer and started dancing. It seemed like a decent enough place for a music club (I hate all dance clubs so it’s not like I’m very picky) I was doing all right not getting bothered by all the sexy girls around (apparently that’s where all the attractive people had been hiding) and after a few songs I went to go use the bathroom.

As I was leaving the bathroom a guy came up to me and started up a conversation. I said I didn’t speak any French and then he started talking to me in English, asking me friendly questions like where I was from and what I did for a living and whatnot. It didn’t take long for me to realize that he was hitting on me, but I didn’t shoot him down or anything and only pretended not to understand that he was gay. For some reason I’m not quite sure of I bought him a beer, as well as one for me and one for Krissi, and when we got the beer I pointed to her, dancing there in the back and let him know I had to go back to her and bring her the beer. I was a bit worried that he wasn’t going to let me go so easily, as he was now getting really close to me and touching me and whatnot, but he did let me go without a fuss, although not without giving me a big wet kiss on the forehead first.

I proceeded to the back of the room where Krissi was and danced some more right next to a group of extremely hot chicks who didn’t so much as glance at me, and soon enough Krissi was saying we should go and I was quite happy to leave. As we stumbled out on the street I just bursted out laughing at the absurdity of it all, drunk enough to open up in front of her and lament at the fact that I’m not gay, as if I were I’d clearly be having so much fucking sex all the fucking time, but I’m just not and I can’t make myself (whatever any of those “homosexuality is a choice” people might want to say about it). Apparently I’m very attractive to gay men, but women, particularly the good-looking ones, could not be less interested. I felt God laughing his ass off at me and so all I could do was join him.

We stumbled on back to the centre of town in search of one last place, and came to another bar/dance club which was a bit smaller and seemingly friendlier. We got one last über-expensive beer (now each having somehow burned through €90 throughout the day) and sat at the bar until some French guys came up to us and asked Krissi to dance with them. She obliged and started dancing with these guys, who at least had the decency to say hello to me although they didn’t ask us if we were together or anything. I noticed an older guy sitting next to me who seemed to know those guys and he was looking at them as though disgusted by their pathetic behavior. I made eye contact with him a couple of times and communicated my feelings of “what the fuck” subconsciously because, seriously, you just go up to a girl who’s sitting with a guy and ask her to dance? Absolutely no assumption that we were together? It’s not like we were together and it’s not like I gave a shit if she danced with them but seriously, have a little common courtesy.

But as I said, they at least had the decency to try and talk to me although there wasn’t much we could say to each other, what with their complete lack of English or German-speaking ability, but they invited me to dance as well and I reluctantly got up and started dancing again for a minute until the most bizarre event of the night (yeah, it actually gets weirder) happened.

I don’t remember exactly what led up to it because I was indeed quite shit-faced at that point but I was talking to one of the French guys in that group as he sat at the bar, and I felt like having a smoke so I took out two cigarettes and showed him one, offering for him to come smoke with me if he wanted. He responded not by accepting my offer nor turning me down, but by standing up and punching me in the face, right on my left jaw.

That sobered me up immediately, as my only reaction was a big “WTF!?” His friends immediately went up to him and held him down and started trying to talk him down, and I just kept repeating in German (because it’s more likely for these people to understand German than English) “What was that? What was that? Why did he do that?” But the guys only spoke French so of course I got no answer. When Krissi found out what happened she said it was time to go, and that was certainly the right call. We went outside, the French guys following, and although I kept asking why their friend had punched me and what I’d done, I never got an answer. That will remain a mystery forever.

In hindsight I can think of only three possibilities. One is that when I held up the cigarette it might have looked to him, if he was drunk enough, like I was giving him the finger. Another is that offering someone a cigarette might, in French culture, be akin to hitting on them and he wanted to defend his status as a non-homosexual by attempting to beat me up for being gay (which would have been extremely ironic given what I’d just gone through at the last place). Finally, he might just have been legitimately bat-shit insane and he just goes around hitting people out of some kind of uncontrollable impulse. Krissi thought that it had been pre-meditated, that he’d been trying to knock me out so he and his friends could take her away and rape her, because they’d been hitting on her hard the whole time she was there. But that didn’t make any sense to me because it was in the middle of a crowded bar and besides, it was the weakest blow I’ve ever been dealt. There was no way he was going to knock me out with a blow like that. Seriously, I barely felt it. A slap in the face would have hurt more. And that guy was a lanky little Frenchman anyway. I could have easily kicked the crap out of him if I’d decided to respond (assuming his friends didn’t back him up) but I was just too stunned by the unexpectedness of it that retaliation was the farthest thing from my mind. It didn’t even occur to me until much later that it would have been well within my rights to hit him back.

Anyway, as we were walking away the old French guy, the one I’d been exchanging glances with earlier, offered to give us a ride back to the hotel. Because I’d somehow felt I’d bonded with him I was ready to trust him, but Krissi had better judgment and insisted that we walk back. I thanked the guy for his offer but explained (all in German, which I’m not sure he even understood anyway) that it would just be safer for us to walk. He totally seemed like a trustworthy dude but you just never know.

So we walked a good 30 minutes all the way back to the hotel, having a really difficult time finding the street (which was called, comically enough, “Rue du Bitche”) and I had to keep busting out the map at each intersection and forcing my eyes to focus on the tiny little print, which was no easy task, just to re-evaluate our location over and over. But at last we found the place and made it back to our room, where Krissi promptly passed out and I followed shortly afterwards, somehow managing to brush my teeth and apparently—as I discovered in the morning—trim my fingernails by biting them off.

We were woken up by the maid in the morning at 11:10, who informed us that check-out was at 11:00 so we said we’d leave right away, then we checked out and went back outside where I called my family in Ichenheim to arrange for them to pick us up at the nearest German train-station in the town of Kehl. That meant we had to go to the Strasbourg train station and figure out how to buy a ticket, which was no easy process in a goddamned French train station as even the people who worked at the information desk barely spoke a word of English. But I’ll spare the details and just say that we did make it back, and I felt so damned glad when we crossed the Rhine and passed back into Germany, finally somewhere where I not only spoke their language but where most of the people actually bother to learn mine.

So that was the night in Strasbourg. Not a “good” night by any stretch of the imagination, but between Jacques the poet, getting hit on by one French guy and getting punched in the face by another, it was certainly one of the most interesting I’ve ever had while traveling. And in the long run, it’s always those nights that stand out in your memory, so I suppose in a weird way it was one of the best nights of my life.

28 Hours in Cologne

September 24th, 2009 No comments

I’m back in Ichenheim again, sitting at that same spot on the couch in the living room. Krissi is still asleep in the room next to the room where I sleep downstairs, and I’m using this chance to write about the short and unremarkable yet completely enjoyable trip we took to Cologne (Köln in German) on the way here.

We arrived at the Köln Hauptbahnhof at 12:45 on Tuesday, and spent the first half hour storing our luggage and having a quick bite to eat. After that we did the only thing I’d had in mind for the whole trip, which was to visit the Dom (the cathedral) which is one of the biggest and most beautiful in all of Europe. It’s certainly the most amazing cathedral I’ve ever seen, and going back inside only reaffirmed that opinion. The pamphlet we picked up told us it’s the most visited location in all of Germany, and it’s not difficult to understand why. Everything is so elaborately decorated and detailed—it’s really beyond description in words. For anyone reading this who might be interested in seeing what I’m talking about, I’ll post a link to the pictures Krissi took once she gets them online.

After taking that in for awhile I wanted to climb the stairs to the top of the tower and check out the view, just as I’d done with David, Rachel, and Justin five years ago when we went there for a weekend during our exchange-student days. Climbing the 533 steps to the top was a lot easier this time, as although I’m still a bit sick I’m in much better shape than I was back then, and I don’t smoke cigarettes much anymore. But the view from the top was well worth whatever effort you put into it, and those pictures will eventually go online as well. But for me there was an added element of nostalgia to the whole thing, as it’s always kind of incredible to be back in one little corner of the world that you haven’t been to since a very different portion of your life. I’ve been to so many places since then and had so many additional life experiences, and yet there I was back again at the cathedral tower in Cologne. It was a place I never expected to be again. I guess it just makes you feel that much more well traveled when you not only go to an incredible place, but you actually find yourself going back.

Once we’d gone around the panorama twice and absorbed the scenery enough, we descended the stairs and tried to figure out the next thing to do. We went to the tourist office and got a map, then got pointed in the direction of another place I remembered going five years ago, an archaeological excavation of a portion of the city built by Romans when they controlled the city. We had a hard time finding it but we did eventually, and afterwards walked around trying to think of something else to do until we could check into the hostel (we had to wait until after 5 p.m. as it was run by just one guy and you could only check in during office hours). We poked our heads into a museum lobby but weren’t interested enough to pay the entrance fee and check it out, then we left and sat down by a fountain in the square reading the pamphlet we got from the tourist office and trying to figure out which museums we might actually like to see.

But I realized time was already going by, and if we just took a walk across the Rhine and up to a park along the river, sat down and had a beer, by the time that was finished it would be almost 5 o’clock. So that’s what we did, and it was a very pleasant walk and a lovely little park. The beer was delicious and when we finished, it was a quarter to five. We walked to the nearest train station and rode the public transport up to where the hostel was located, which wasn’t difficult to find.

There we experienced the only real snafu of the trip, as when we rung the bell nobody answered. We kept ringing and ringing and I even called the office and left a message, but after 20 minutes of waiting I gave up and suggested we go to an internet café and try to book a room at another place. But just as we got into a café and began the booking process, the owner of the hostel called me back and said he’d been there the whole time but just hadn’t heard the ringing. So we went back there and checked in, and got the run-down from the guy on all the places we might like to see, and the places we might like to go have a drink that night, all of which he marked on our map.

After getting settled at the hostel we went back into the city in search of a place to eat, had a nice kebab dinner and then took a walk back across the river just as the sun was setting for a spectacular view of the cathedral as it lit up for the night. Once it was dark enough we walked back along the bridge and rode the tram back to the area of town that the hostel owner had recommended we go drinking. We spent the night hitting up almost every place he mentioned, 4 out of the 6 dots he placed on our map. We started at a cocktail bar called the Old School, then went to a Russian bar where I found myself falling in love with the incredibly hot bartender, whose hotness was only mitigated by the fact that she was wearing a My Chemical Romance T-Shirt, but I gave her the benefit of the doubt and assumed she just didn’t know any better. Krissi then bought a little shooter of Jäger from a Kiosk just to balance out the level of dunkenness with me (although ‘drunk’ was hardly the word—we never got beyond ‘buzzed’ that night as neither of us had the desire to go through that again). We walked to a corner with two of the other places he mentioned, but one had live music that sounded like really crappy emo-punk so we went to the other one for a beer. Finally we went to the most “dodgy” place on the list called the Stiefel for once last beer. We were on our way back even before midnight and we arrived at the hostel before 1 a.m. for what is probably the earliest night we’ve had so far while traveling.

The next morning we woke up at 9, had a breakfast of toast and jam that the owner laid out in the kitchen, then got our stuff together and were out by 11. Our only plan for the day was to check out the Museum Ludwig, which sounded like a really cool art museum. After storing our luggage again at the Hauptbahnhof we went to the museum and spent the next three hours there moving from floor to floor and appreciating all the art we possibly could. I spent a lot more time on each piece than Krissi, I guess because she won’t give something a second look if it doesn’t grab her immediately and because I know so little about art I spend time on each piece just to give it a chance to say something to me. There were indeed some really awesome exhibits, but as is the case with art it’s nearly impossible to explain or capture the piece in words. My words couldn’t do justice to the best pieces anyway, so the best I can do is post a link to Krissi’s pictures once she gets them online, though halfway through our tour she got stopped by museum guards telling her she wasn’t allowed to take pictures. She tried to do so anyway when no one was looking, but the security cameras caught her and the guards came to her again to insist she stop taking pictures.

The best artist in the museum was by a guy named Sigmar Polke, who we plan on looking up online at the next opportunity. One of his trademarks was to do the same exact painting two or more times, but include one or several additional elements in each one so that you had a completely different reaction depending on which painting or photograph your eye was focusing on. That shit was so awesome that when we got to the Picasso exhibit right after it, we were hardly impressed at all. Although neither of us ever thought too much of Picasso anyway.

Sbout two and a half hours into our tour and our attention spans were waning thin, but we then came to one of the most interesting exhibits I’ve ever seen, which was a large room with 30 different style chairs placed a few feet away from 30 different TV sets, all playing an endless loop of a person speaking directly to the camera and talking about themselves. You started from a balcony looking down at this mess and hearing this mass of incoherent babble, then you walked down the stairs and made your way around the room, stopping at any TV set with a person telling a story that caught your ear. They were all middle eastern people I believe, all different ages from different walks of life but the idea was that there was a common cultural thread running through each of them. I walked around and read the subtitles on about 10 to 15 of them, thinking that if I ever came back to Cologne I’d want to visit this museum again just to start in that room and sit on every chair and watch every person’s story in its entirety, but at that point we were already getting tired and ready to leave. The last thing I did was walk back upstairs and down the hall to a counter-part to that exhibit in which there were about 20 modern televisions in two concentric circles, each with a person talking about themselves or their life just like the first room only these people were all from southern California. Rather than subtitles each TV had a headphone set connected so you had to just go up to whoever looked interesting then put on the headphones to see if you were right. Again the idea was to find a common cultural thread between all these different people from different walks of life, and taken together with the other exhibit you could compare and contrast the one culture to the other. Radically different cultures of course, so whatever common threads you could find between them would be commonalities of humanity rather than cultural. Truly an incredibly idea and an enlightening experience for anyone receptive to it.

When we left the museum we were both a little hungry so we walked around in search of a restaurant. When we couldn’t find one with decent prices in the central area, we hopped a tram back to the area we’d drank at the previous night in search of a restaurant we’d passed that looked like it had really good pizza. We found it without much difficulty and sat down for a nice lunch of delicious pizza, yet in the European style they give each of you a whole pie and it was a hell of a lot of food, way more than either of us are used to eating. Yet somehow we managed to stuff most of it down (save for some crust) and when we were finished we had one more hour to kill before our train was to depart at 16:54.

We spent that time just taking a walk through the city streets, up to the “Media Markt” and a little park behind it, then we swung back around and headed to the train station with about 15 minutes to spare.

The train ride was pleasant and uneventful, except for an annoying 30 minute delay which caused us to arrive late to Ichenheim, but Dieter was there waiting for us on the platform when we arrived, all smiles as usual. I served as a translator on the ride home and for most of the evening, as Myriam and Ralf were at an event in town in with the political representative for this region was giving a campaign speech in Ichenheim. We had some delicious dinner, drank some beer and Schnapps, and had some pleasant conversation until Myriam and Ralf got home and I no longer needed to wrack my brain translating (although the beer and Schnapps had already made that task much easier). Everyone went to bed shortly thereafter and Krissi and I went downstairs where we both slept quite well. I was glad to be back in a quiet little village, waking up to the beautiful sound of absolutely nothing.

We have no definite plans until Saturday, when we’ll celebrate Krissi’s birthday in Straßburg. Until then we’ll just relax and take it easy. She’ll get a taste of small-village life. I’ll just enjoy the atmosphere. I’m glad to be back.

German Health Care

September 21st, 2009 No comments

No, this is not a political entry. It’s just that today, for the first time since I arrived in Germany and got health insurance (as is mandated by the government) I actually took advantage of it. The sick feeling that began 10 days ago, right on the first actual day of my vacation, hasn’t gotten any better and in fact new symptoms have been appearing all the time. I mentioned the swollen lymph-node before going to Hamburg, and that’s still there and still annoying though I’ve actually grown a bit used to it. But just yesterday, in the middle of the afternoon, I suddenly got this ridiculous crick in my neck as though I’d slept in the most awkward possible position all night. But I hadn’t slept in hours nor had I even been laying down.

I’d hoped that over the nice easy weekend in Hannover I’d have enough time and relaxation to recover before the trip to Köln and then on to Ichenheim and beyond, but that wasn’t the case. On Friday I felt well enough to go running with Krissi only to discover that it just made things worse. So on Saturday I just suggested we go for a walk, and I took her down to the “new territory” I’d discovered just before she came and aside from her being too spaced out (for no apparent reason) to totally appreciate it, it was a pretty nice walk. When she went running after that, I stayed home.

Then yesterday I stayed in again while she went running, all the while feeling extremely ancy and wanting to get outside and go somewhere but I’d already taken her everywhere I knew about. I scanned the Google map of Hannover and decided it might be nice to check out the “Tiergarten”, a nice little park where they let a bunch of deer and other such woodland critters run around in a mostly-cleared-out forest. Just as we got off the U-Bahn at the correct stop, I felt that pain spring to life in my neck, and it was an awful distraction throughout the whole Tiergarten walk, which was otherwise extremely pleasant. For one thing I haven’t seen a deer since leaving New Jersey and there were a fuck-load of them in this park.

The neck felt a little better that evening as we went about our standard routine of light drinking (wine last night), watching TV shows and movies until going to sleep. We watched ‘W’ which she wanted to see, and afterward I thought we were going to have a nice discussion about it but instead she just talked about how she was dozing off and how she almost always falls asleep during movies. That kind of annoyed me, as I’ve been annoyed by a whole slew of itty bitty little things about having her around, which I completely expected but thought I’d do a better job not letting it bother me. At any rate, I’m already looking forward to her leaving and me being alone again.

But that night my feelings changed completely again as she proved herself an awesome friend and a blessing to have around. I woke up at 4:30 in the morning with the pain in my neck now searing beyond any level of tolerability, so much so that I couldn’t turn it an inch in any direction lest the pain shoot through it like a dull knife stabbing me right in the neck. Even when I kept my neck straight the pain would occasionally rise up for no reason. Completely unable to sleep and a feeling of dread washing over me, I began to consider heading to an emergency room. I hated that idea and tried to just lie down and forget about it but the pain wouldn’t go away. Finally I gave up and called the hospital closest to my flat, asked for someone who spoke English and eventually got one after three transfers, and was then told I should go to the Nordstadt hospital. I looked up the location and decided to go ahead and try it.

As I was getting ready Krissi woke up and I told her what was going on. I asked her if she would come with me and she actually said yes, which was truly fantastic of her because it was 5 in the morning and she usually doesn’t get up until 10 or 11. My head still a littly hazy from the wine (we didn’t drink that much but it was still swirling around after only 4 hours of sleep) we got ready, myself suffering immense pain just from simply things like putting on a shirt and getting dressed, then headed out into the deadness of early Monday morning to the tram station and then to the stop nearest the hospital.

After some stumbling around and asking for directions from a guy working at a Kiosk, we found the place, “Nordstadt Krankenhaus” but when we went inside we found it didn’t look like a hospital at all. There was nobody there. No reception desk, no waiting room, no nothing. We checked the map in the courtyard and saw that it was more like a live-in medical clinic. At any rate there was definitely no emergency room to be found.

In addition to that, it occurred to me while we were walking there that I didn’t have my passport and they probably weren’t going to do anything unless I had some real identification, and my California driver’s license probably wouldn’t do. My passport was back at the Planeo office (I left it there a couple weeks ago after photocopying for a fax to take care of some bureaucratic bullshit) and I figured I’d still be there at 8:00 and I could ask the secretaries to fax a copy to the hospital. But now that we were there and it didn’t seem anything like a hospital I decided we should just go back home and I’d wait until 8:00 to go there and not only get my passport but get some help from the secretaries to get some medical treatment, which they’d know much better than I would how to do.

So after that ridiculous stupid misadventure we headed all the way back to my flat and lied down, the sun just starting to rise as it was now 7:00 a.m. I felt bad for having dragged Krissi along but she didn’t complain at all, and just passed out as soon as we got back. I lied down on my back, the least painful position, put on some ambient music and to my surprise I actually fell back asleep and didn’t wake up again until 10:30.

My neck was actually feeling much better when I woke up again, and as I ate some breakfast and got ready to head to the Planeo office I wasn’t even sure I still wanted to go through all the trouble of getting medical treatment. But I figured I’d just ask about it and if it didn’t seem like it would be too much trouble I would just go.

To make a short story even shorter, one of the women there, not a secretary but an administrator just below Frank on the chain-of-command, had a friend who ran her own general practice in Hannover and she referred me to her, even calling her doctor friend to let her know I was coming.

So I boarded a tram and headed to the doctor’s office, which was actually back in the direction on the Tiergarten and very easy to find, and got to the reception desk where the woman spoke no English. I was able to speak German just well enough to explain that a colleague of mine knew the doctor and had called 20 minutes earlier to let her know I was coming. The receptionist didn’t seem to know anything about it but apparently it wasn’t a problem. She asked for my insurance card, which I gave her, and although she didn’t recognize it I explained it was an international insurance company, and the only thing she needed to clarify was that it was private insurance, not Germany’s public insurance. There was no real paperwork to speak of—I just had to fill out a card with my name, address, and phone number, then I was told to sit in the waiting room until I was called.

The waiting room was full but things moved very quickly, and in less than a half hour I was called into the office of the head doctor herself. Every time I ever went to the doctor in America I’d be called in to a room by a nurse and told to wait even longer, then eventually the doctor would come. It was usually a good hour from the time of check-in to the time the doctor actually came, but not this time. The doctor began talking to me in German, and I had been going over in my mind how to explain myself in German while waiting in the waiting room but I asked her if she spoke any English and she said “a little”. I know enough about Germans to know that “a little” actually means “plenty” so I just explained the whole situation in English and she asked me a few questions, took a look at my throat and felt the lumps in my jaw and neck, then told me she’d have to take some blood and run some tests to figure out whether it was a viral or bacterial infection. In the meantime I shouldn’t physically exert myself (“stay calm” was the terminology she used), though I could walk around a city and things like that, which means Köln will be okay. She also wrote me a prescription for some painkillers that don’t work like aspirin because apparently aspirin is bad for the stomach, which I knew, but it was important I don’t take any more regular aspirin in the meantime. I told her I’d be leaving tomorrow but she said I should just call back on Thursday and she’d probably have the results of the blood test. She didn’t say anything about not drinking alcohol, so with the probable exception of tonight I’ll keep doing that unless I’m specifically told not to when the tests come in.

That was pretty much that. She wished me well then directed me to another room where a nurse took some blood samples and told me to ask the receptionist if I was finished. I asked her if I had to pay anything but apparently I didn’t. That was it. The entire process took less than 45 minutes and cost me nothing, except for €2.99 for the pills I picked up at a pharmacy on the way home.

I can’t believe I waited so long to see a doctor in Germany. I’d just pictured it being this long painful ordeal but it was actually the smoothest, fastest, simplest medical treatment experience of my life. I guess now I won’t wait two weeks after getting sick to go find out what’s wrong.

Doing Hamburg

September 18th, 2009 No comments

Krissi and I returned from our second big adventure together yesterday afternoon, and it was for the most part a smashing success. Except for a few minor snafus everything went perfectly well and we both left feeling like we got the most out of it. Here is the story, broken into four parts.

1 – An “Early Night”

Of course, there was the minor matter of my ill-timed illness to deal with, which was weighing heavily on my mind (and my throat) when we arrived, preventing me from fully experiencing that one-of-a-kind high of being in a new city for the first time. I was just wishing I felt healthy so I could completely appreciate it, and I was just trying to overcome my sour mood as we left the train station and walked to the hostel which was right around the corner. The girl at the front desk checked us in and took our information, quite enthused about the fact that I was from Hannover, which she said to my surprise was her favorite city. Apparently she studied there a few years ago and while she didn’t think much of it while she lived there she came to appreciate it afterwards. I have a feeling I’ll feel the same way when I end up leaving, although I already do appreciate Hannover a lot more than most of the residents I’ve talked to seem to do.

She gave us a map and circled a few points of interest, then we headed up to our room to put down our stuff and head out. The hostel, the “Meininger” is a corporate chain and new to Hamburg, so it was extremely nice and clean. The thing about corporate hotels and hostels is that they really have to look good and offer great service because if travelers have a bad experience there in one city, they won’t go back to the same corporate place in another. The Meininger seemed sort of like the Hilton of youth hostels.

We left and walked for about 20 minutes to the harbor in the extremely wide Elbe river, taking in the scenery for the first time. It was almost completely overcast at that point so the city didn’t look as lovely as I’d pictured but it was still undeniably nice. From the harbor we walked up to the Reeperbahn, Hamburg’s famous Red Light District also known as the “St. Pauli” area. I assume it’s where the beer “St. Pauli Girl” gets its name though I’m now more sure than ever that it’s purely a German export because I’ve never seen the beer sold anywhere in Germany and if it was going to be found anywhere it would be the St. Pauli area.

It was still rather early so there wasn’t much going on, and after walking around for a little bit we headed further north in search of a place to eat. After glancing at a few menus we agreed on a nice-looking Italian place where we sat outside to eat and have a drink. The food was fantastic, and after a beer I was feeling a little bit better. As is typical in German restaurants the servers left us to sit around for an extremely long time after we finished eating, and eventually I had to go up and ask for the bill.

From there we walked back down to the Reeperbahn and looked for a nice place to drink, with the intention of only having a few and then going back to the hostel for a relatively early night. We stopped in an English pub we’d seen earlier which had a really nice atmosphere, and took one shot and had two beers. After the shot I said with complete conviction that I would be having no more shots that night. I didn’t want the same thing to happen that happened in Berlin—getting completely wasted the first night and having a nasty hangover for half the next day.

At only 9:00 we left the pub and I suggested we just walk back in the direction of the hostel and stop into any pub that looked interesting, and if we couldn’t find one just drink at the hostel’s own bar. We walked to the end of the Reeperbahn without finding another pub that struck our fancy so we ended up walking all the way back to the hostel and stopping into the bar there. We ordered two local beers called Astra from the bartender and gave him a generous €2 tip, as was our style. The bartender must not get that very often because he warmed up to us right away and the next thing we knew he was asking us to take a shot of Jäger with him. Because it’s totally rude to turn down a free shot from a bartender, I really had no choice but to take the shot in spite of my resolve.

We had a nice chat with the bartender, whose name was Marcel, about what to see and where to go in Hamburg. He busted out his own map and circled a few things including a district where all the artsy people like to hang out. Krissi and I resolved to go there the next day. Suddenly there was another shot in front of us, and we took it.

So after that we stayed for “one more beer” and as we drank the bar flooded with other people staying at the hostel, a group of guys who looked no older than 15 years old, which was really freaky to see. I knew in Germany you could buy beer at 16, but I thought you had to be 18 to even go into a bar. Perhaps this bar was different because it was a part of a hostel, but those kids didn’t even look 16. One of them in particular caught our eye, a little kid with greased-back blonde hair with a total Fonzie-vibe about him. We watched him for awhile as he interacted with the others at the bar in total Happy Days fashion, and eventually took the elevator back upstairs, flashing a peace sign at everyone to make a grand exit.

Shortly after that, a guy about our age came and sat by us at the bar. He was American but I don’t remember where he was from. More Jäger shots were poured down our throats by Marcel so the conversation became rather blurry, but I was definitely getting very political and arguing with him about Obama, who he still says he really likes. I gave him my website and invited him to read my blog.

Krissi quietly slipped away around that time while I was too drunk to have enough sense to follow her. So I remained down there drinking yet another beer while Marcel poured even more shots, and everything became a blur. I remember at one point the Fonzie-kid came back downstairs and I ended up actually talking to him about God-knows-what, probably in slurred and awful German. The only thing I remember about going to bed is taking my pants off and crashing on my mattress.

2 – An Early Morning

Because we intended on going on a walking tour the next day that started at 11:00, we had to get up somewhat early. I woke up to my alarm at 9:00 feeling about as goddamned awful as you can imagine. But there was already a lot of activity going on in our hostel room as a cute young couple sharing the room with us was getting ready for their day as well. I managed to take a shower and get dressed, then stumbled downstairs for the breakfast which the hostel offered. We were supposed to have either reserved a breakfast ticket for €4 at check-in or else pay €4.50 when we got there, but nobody was there checking tickets so we ate for free.

After that we stumbled our way to the train station with the intention of taking the S-Bahn to the Rathaus where the tour began, but I had a difficult time figuring out which train to get on. When I finally settled on one, at around 10:30, we took some seats and spaced out, waiting for the train to get to the Jungfernstieg stop. The train pulled out into the open air after just one stop and there were lots of trees and green around, but not being familiar with Hamburg we just thought that maybe the train was leading us downtown through a very green area. It was seriously a good 20 minutes before I finally got up and checked the map on the side wall to find that we had in fact been going in the wrong direction the entire time.

I was quite pissed off as we left the train one stop from the end of the line in the middle-of-nowhere Hamburg countryside, realizing that we’d got up so early and I was enduring this god-awful hangover just to get to a walking tour that we now wouldn’t be able to make. We got back on the right train and Krissi looked at the tourist map to try and think of something we could do instead. The map said that “a trip to Hamburg without a harbor tour is unimaginable” so we decided to get off at the Landungbrücke stop and take a boat tour of the harbor.

The map advertised an English boat tour but there were a lot of fucking boats and we just went to the first place we found that had a boat tour leaving on the hour. The guy said they had English head-sets so we decided on that one. Of course we still had about 45 minutes to kill so we just walked around the harbor for awhile, sat on a bench for a bit, and looked out at the boats. It had been an overcast morning but the weather was clearing up, and by the time we boarded the boat the sun was finally beginning to come out for the first time since we’d arrived in Hamburg.

The boat tour was nice but it would have been a lot more enjoyable if I didn’t have the urge to vomit off the side of the boat every few minutes. The English audio-guide kept me distracted occasionally but there wasn’t much to point out. A few buildings on the shore, a few big ships in the harbor, some giant equipment for the cargo…nothing particularly fascinating. Still, it was a nice experience and it was over after an hour.

At that point Krissi seemed to be completely recovered from her Hangover and she wanted to walk around, but I was still feeling like death and I just wanted to go back to the hostel and take a nap. I wanted to sue Marcel for completely ruining my trip to Hamburg, though I knew of course that the hangover was my own fault. Still, Krissi assured me that you can’t turn down a bartender when he wants to take a shot with you. So it was partially his fault.

I said she could do what she wanted but I had to go back to the hostel and I’d rather do that sooner rather than later because I would be able to enjoy anything until I had some rest. She busted out her map and started going over with me what she would do, and I realized that splitting up was a stupid idea and told her. She agreed and said she’d come back to the hostel with me and use their internet while I took my nap. So we got back on the train and headed back, where I proceeded to lie down and get some badly-needed rest.

3 – Typical Tourism

The one thing every one of my German students who knew anything about Hamburg recommended I see when I got to Hamburg was an exhibit called the “Miniatur Wunderland”, which is the world’s largest model train-set. When I got up and we headed back out we made this our destination.

We got off at the Landungsbrücke again and walked along the harbor to the little island which used to be the warehouse district but which is now being converted to another little city-within-a-city and most of the museums and touristy things are located. When we crossed the bridge to the island we came across a little ice-cream truck and decided to indulge for a moment. I still had a bit of a headache at that point but somehow after that amazing ice-cream the headache was gone, and for the rest of the day I felt relatively okay.

We got to the Miniatur Wunderland and went inside, bought our tickets, then spent the next two hours or so checking out the exhibit. It was way more than a “model train-set”—it was an entire fucking miniature earth. Seriously, those of you reading this on the blog should go check out the website for this thing because it’s practically indescribable. This thing took up about five rooms and stretched up two floors, each section its own different country. It began in Switzerland with a giant mountain carved through with tunnels for the trains, which would go around, stop at the station for a minute, then continue on their way. There was also Scandinavia, United States, and Hamburg. All over the place were buttons you could press to make things happen, like windmills turning, lights flashing, gondolas moving up and down the mountain, a little figurine heading up an alpine slide on a gondola and then sliding down the mountain. The most impressive ones were right at the beginning though—a miniature chocolate factory that actually produced real chocolate and spit it out so you could eat it right there, and a giant out-door concert that when you pressed the button would play the song “Celebration” with video of the actual concert on a screen beside the mini-stage, and 20,000 little figurines all bunched together in the audience with flashing lights as though they were taking pictures. Krissi took a little video of the concert with her camera and when we watched it later you could almost believe it was a real show that we were watching from up on a hill somewhere.

Every ten minutes or so they would dim the lights and have about five minutes of night-time. Mini-Vegas was particularly impressive at this point, but so were all the little towns with the lights all coming on in the buildings. The attention to detail was incredible. The trains themselves had first-class and second-class carts, and when you looked inside you could see that the seats in first class were indeed bigger. Outside some houses were figurines all sitting outside eating mini-meals on mini-plates and drinking mini-glasses of beer. There was a whole stadium filled with 15,000 of these little figurines and when you pressed the button it would burst to life. The most incredible thing, however, were the vehicles, which moved along the roads seemingly on their own but undoubtedly guided by magnets. I watched in awe as a truck pulled off into a gas station, stopped for a moment, then merged back onto the road. A bit further down a car came to an intersection and stopped, blinker flashing, until it was safe to go and make the turn. Then a few minutes later I heard sirens and noticed that up on a bridge somewhere a damaged truck was flashing with lights indicating flames and real smoke was rising from it. Fire trucks and ambulances came to the scene and a police car closed off the bridge at the end. The lights slowly stopped flashing, the smoke subsided, and the fire-trucks and ambulances all went their merry way. It was unfuckingbelievable. Krissi just kept using the word “ridiculous”.

So after we absorbed all of that ridiculousness we headed out and walked back to the center of the city in search of the artsy center that Marcel—damn him—had told us about. But we first stopped at the ruins of the church of St. Nikolai, the coolest looking tower in Hambug’s skyline, and rode the elevator to the top for a spectacular view. Unfortunately for Krissi, she’d used up all of her camera’s battery power in the Miniatur Wunderland, but it was still an awesome view and I’m really glad we took a moment to do that.

It was quite a lengthy walk back to the city’s center, but we cut through a lovely little park along the way and before we knew it we’d found the area Marcel—damn him again—had told us about. We walked around a little then stopped for a drink. While we were sitting there a woman on a scooter rolled up and was bitten by a dog owned by a German couple sitting outside at the table across from us. That was an interesting little scene to watch while pretending I wasn’t paying attention, but I’d definitely say the woman who was bitten was making a way bigger deal about it than she should have, and the dog-owner who seemed like a really nice lady was doing all she could to satisfy the bitch who was bitten.

After that we decided to look for a nearby restaurant to eat, and settled on a Mexican place which I wanted to try because Mexican restaurants are so rare in Germany that I’ve never actually eaten at one here. Unfortunately the food wasn’t very good so it was a bit disappointing, but having satisfied our hunger we walked back down to the Reeperbahn for what we had firmly resolved this time would be an easy night of slow, casual drinking.

Along the way we were stopping into all the little gift-shops in search of a particular patch that we only hoped existed—the symbol of the St. Pauli district: a skull and cross-bones with the word “St. Pauli” underneath. We tried a few shops and were beginning to think it might not exist until I finally spotted one at a shop on the Reeperbahn after drinking at our first bar and she happily bought it. She’s since sewn it onto her bag and it is definitely a perfect complement to the Ampelmann patch she bought in Berlin.

The Reeperbahn is full of sex-shops and strip-clubs but not a lot of bars that looked particularly inviting. The next place we settled on was a sports bar where we watched the five or six soccer matches that the station was broadcasting simultaneously, merely reaffirming our opinion that soccer is a boring sport.

The final place we went was next to a place called “John & Paul’s Fish and Chips” and under a giant inflatable yellow submarine. Hamburg is actually where the Beatles got their start before they became famous, so there are a lot of Beatles-themed placed around and we thought the bar there would have a Beatles theme but it was just another English pub and rather empty when we got there. We had a few drinks there, listened to a live performance by an acoustic guitarist who played a few good songs, a few really bad ones, and a few we didn’t recognize, but overall it was rather pleasant.

It was cold so we took the train back to the hostel, and were quite conscious as we got ready for bed and passed out, having successfully gone the whole night without a single shot of Jäger.

4 – Walking Tour, Take 2

Still sick but not hungover, I got up the next morning at 8:00 without much of a problem, showered and went down for breakfast, which we also got away with not paying for. I didn’t have much to eat because I’d stopped at a kebab place on the way back from the hostel the night before and stuffed myself while we watched table-tennis before going to bed. It felt like the kebab hadn’t even digested by the time I woke up, so I just had some cereal while Krissi ate a big breakfast and I mostly sat around looking at the crowded breakfast room and playing a game I like to call “which is the hottest girl in the hostel?” in my head.

We headed back up to the room to get our stuff and leave, and as we got in another couple was checking in—a guy with metal feet who looked like he must have been an Iraq war veteran and his girlfriend. The jealousy I felt was actually stronger than any sympathy I might have had, as the guy must have been through hell but here he was doing perfectly well and traveling through Europe with a hot girlfriend. I didn’t say a word to him—I was kind of intimidated—and all he said to me was a “how are you?” before we left.

We got back to the station and bought a day-ticket for the public transport, then boarded the correct train this time and got off at the right station with 20 minutes to spare. The walking tour starting point was easy enough to spot—a few people in red shirts standing around holding a “Free Tour Starts Here” sign standing right in front of the Rathaus. We said hello to them, two women and a guy, all apparently British, and they gave us a survey to fill out while we waited for the tour to start, asking us questions like how we heard about the tour and whether we’d done a tour with them before. It was in fact the same company, “New Europe” that does the free walking tour in Berlin.

When the tour began there were about a dozen people in the group, and our guide was a British girl named Kim from the countryside near London. I could tell right away that I was going to be completely smitten with her by the end of the tour. She had blonde hair and blue eyes which isn’t my thing, but her petit little body was as ideal as it gets for me, and while she had a British accent which I normally hate, she had a soft sweet voice which I grew to find rather adorable. Throughout the tour I think I derived more enjoyment from just looking at her than from the historical facts about the various buildings that she imparted.

Of course she wasn’t nearly as impressive as Inez in Berlin, but to be fair Hamburg is just not nearly as fascinating a city as Berlin. I learned some interesting stuff about the Hanseatic League which was the trade union through which Hamburg became one of the wealthiest European cities, about the great fire which burned down most of the city, and about how Hamburg got completely and utterly fucked beyond belief during the 1943 bombings in WWII. While we walked from place to place I found myself talking to Kim a great deal, telling her about Hannover and my travel plans as well as learning more about where she came from and what she was doing there, apparently playing keyboard for a band fronted by one of her friends. We also just chatted about the climate and little things like that, but the more I talked to her the more fond of her I became.

We stopped for a break at a Starbucks halfway through the tour and I grabbed a muffin while Krissi struck up a conversation with someone else outside so I sat down alone. A Hispanic guy came up to me while I ate and struck up a conversation. He was apparently from Columbia, working as a dentist in England on a visa which was going to expire soon, but he was also trying to set up some kind of international business and would be traveling to New York City in a few weeks. He asked me why I’d never traveled to South America, asking me if it was because I thought it was too dangerous, then reassuring me that Columbia wasn’t dangerous anymore because their new president, Uribe, is doing a great job. I didn’t know how to explain that I just have no desire whatsoever to visit Latin America, so I didn’t bother. But he was a nice enough guy and it was cool to talk to someone from a country as obscure as Columbia. You don’t meet many travelers from a place like that.

The tour continued to the island where the new city is being built, and Kim pointed out all the really interesting architectural styles that are being experimented with there. We saw the construction site of the new opera house and some pictures of what it will look like when it’s finished, and I think I agree with her than when it’s finished it’ll be an iconic symbol of Hamburg in the same way the opera house in Sydney is now the icon of that city. It felt kind of cool to think that I was in Hamburg before its most recognizable building is built. It would be like visiting Paris during the construction of the Eiffel tower.

The tour ended with Kim sitting us down on some steps along the waterfront and telling us the story of the famous pirate Klaus Störtebeker, who began as a kind of “Robin Hood of the high seas” robbing only from the rich and helping out in just causes, but who eventually got greedy and started robbing from ships of the Hanseatic League which of course made him public enemy number 1. The Hanseatic League tried unsuccessfully to capture him for many years, coming close but not quite able to do it until they trapped him by having a spy pose as a fisherman who was sinking. Klaus had a reputation for being a nice guy so he rescued the fisherman and that night the spy sabotaged his ship. Klaus woke up the next morning completely surrounded by enemy ships, and though he and his men fought them off for awhile, they were eventually overpowered and captured.

Kim asked for some volunteers from the group to act out Klaus’s famous death-scene, and as I was now completely in love with her I volunteered right away to play Klaus. Kim got no volunteers to play the executioner so she made her sister, who was also on the tour with her boyfriend, do it. I doubt there’s much truth to it but it is a cool story. Just before he was executed Klaus pleaded with the executioner to save his men, but the executioner refused. (Kim, as she narrated, would whisper our lines into our ears, which meant she was touching my hair and standing an inch away from my ear which felt quite nice as you can imagine) Klaus then asked the executioner to spare as many of his men as he could run past without his head. The executioner thought the idea ridiculous so he agreed, and after cutting Klaus’s head off he allegedly ran headless past thirteen of his men before the executioner ran and tripped him up to prevent him from saving any more of them. The crowd at that point was going wild and the executioner threatened to take their heads as well, which they naturally didn’t like. So after beheading all of Klaus’s men (including the ones he ran past) they took the executioner’s head as well. And that was the end of Klaus Störtebeker, Germany’s most famous pirate.

That was also the end of the tour, and I gave Kim a €5 tip, wished her goodbye, and then left. As Krissi and I walked away, my Columbian friend walked beside us and talked to us about the tour and how the one in Berlin, which he’d also taken, was better but mostly because Berlin is just inherently more interesting.

When we parted ways with him Krissi and I discussed how we were going to kill the remaining two hours before going home. We considered checking out the “Hamburg Dungeon” which was like an extremely elaborate haunted house that also had some interesting pirate history but entry was nearly €20 so we passed that up. Instead we went back to the docks and followed Kim’s advice from the tour that if we wanted a free harbor tour we could board a ferry with our public transport day ticket. So we did that, hoping that the boat would take us somewhere close to the city center but it only took us further away from where we needed to be, until I finally asked some of the Germans sitting by us how far the boat went because I didn’t want to be a hundred kilometers away when we had to get back to the train station. But the boat made it back in time, and although there was no narration I enjoyed that trip a lot more than the previous day in which I’d been hungover and dying.

We took a brief walk when we got back to kill the remaining 15 minutes of spare time we had, then got back to the train station and picked up some food, getting to the platform just in time for the train to take us home.

As I’d been playing the role of Klaus the Pirate, Amanda had called me and I ignored it of course but afterwards I called her back and got invited to Quiz Night, so we went that evening to the Dublin Inn where we didn’t plan to drink much at all, but we ended up coming in 2nd place (thanks mostly to the four other people Amanda had got to come including Kay and some of her students from E.ON) and winning none other than a free shot of Jäger, which we really had no choice but to take.

Now we’ve got the weekend to just take it easy, take care of whatever business we have left before continuing our journey, first to Köln (Cologne) on Tuesday night and then to Ichenheim on Wednesday, from which we’ll decide where else to go. I’m still a bit sick which sucks, but at least when you’re traveling you’re not thinking much about it. Whatever happens I’m sure it’ll be every bit the fun and memorable experience I’d hoped it would be.

Rotten Luck

September 15th, 2009 No comments

I wrote on Friday morning, my first full day of vacation, that I had a really bad hangover. Well, it turns out that it wasn’t just a hangover—there was something more sinister involved which made me feel sick all day and even into the next. The next day, Saturday, Krissi and I went to Celle to spend a really nice evening with Oliver and Lena. After a few glasses of wine I didn’t notice the shitty feeling anymore and we had a great time, eating a delicious meal cooked by Oliver and sitting out in his backyard tending to a nice big bonfire. I slept on the couch accompanied by Oliver’s two new baby kittens and played with them in the morning before having a nice breakfast and heading home.

I felt shitty that day too, and yesterday as well. I figured I’m in one of those bullshit periods of mild illness that just makes me tired and spaced out all the time, and that the best way to handle it would be to just ignore it and do everything I was going to do anyway. That’s still the plan, basically. We’re heading to Hamburg today and I’m going to try and have a good time in spite of everything.

But last night while we were eating dinner I noticed it was painful to chew the food, and when I felt my neck I was surprised to find a rather sizable lump below my left jaw. If Krissi hadn’t been there I might have completely freaked out and thought about seeing a doctor, but she took a look at it and told me it was a lymph-node, a little bubble that quarantines an infection in order for the body to fight it off easier. She said she gets them all the time. I’ve never had one before, at least not that I’ve noticed, but that confirmed that I definitely have some kind of infection and it wasn’t just the alcohol consumption.

Of course when I woke up this morning the lump was even larger and it was even more painful to chew my food. I asked Krissi how long these things usually last, and she said anywhere from a few days to a few weeks. Considering how large mine is, it’ll probably be a few weeks. Which means even if my body successfully fights off this infection I’ll still have to deal with the extreme annoyance of this fucking lymph-node problem, seriously mitigating the rest of the potential enjoyment I might get out of this long, long, long awaited vacation.

And of course it began on the exact first day of the vacation, and of course it’ll last for a minimum of half-way through the entire time and probably longer. So as you might imagine I’m quite pissed off. The trip to Hamburg is already half-ruined because I still feel shitty anyway and all I really feel like doing is lying in bed. But the tickets are non-transferable and there’s no other time for us to go anyway so I’ve just got to suck it up and go and try to enjoy myself.

Yeah, I’m a whiny little bitch sometimes. There are far worse problems I could be having right now. It’s just the timing really pisses me off and makes me think once again that there’s someone up there laughing at me.

Categories: Personal Tags: , , ,

Obama’s Health Care Speech: Delayed Reaction

September 12th, 2009 No comments

I wanted to write my reaction to Obama’s big speech Wednesday night before reading any blogs or watching my cable news programs, just to report my gut opinion before bombarding it with other perspectives that had the potential to change my mind. But as I’m currently living with company, I didn’t want to say, “Why don’t you twiddle your thumbs for awhile why I rant about politics for my blog?” and as such I put it off until now, Saturday morning, while my guest remains asleep and I’m ready to state my opinion. As it turns out, in spite of everything I’ve read and seen between the time I watched the speech and now, my opinion remains fundamentally unchanged.

My first reaction was that the man can give a good speech, as I expected he would, but that in terms of substance absolutely nothing has changed. We now just have a clearer view of what Obama wants in the plan, where he will put his foot down, and most importantly where he won’t draw lines in the sand, specifically with regard to the public option. In spite of all the brilliant, emotionally-satisfying rhetoric, the president seems just as poised as ever to flush the only meaningful part of health care reform down the drain.

But before I get to the substance, it would not be fair of me to dismiss the rhetoric. We heard things from this president that touched on issues going far beyond the narrow confines of the health care debate and strike at the core of America’s “national character”. When Reagan took office he put forward a philosophy that government is not the answer to our problems, but that it is the problem. Ever since then this has been the predominant view, the underlying sentiment in American politics, even throughout the Clinton years. A liberal may have felt in their heart of hearts that government can be the solution to some of our problems but they could never say so directly, as Reagan’s anti-government philosophy was the generally accepted common wisdom and you would be a fool to suggest otherwise.

Obama finally decided to grab hold of the pendulum that Reagan had thrust towards the right and with these words, which if he backs them up have the potential to become the most historic words of the speech, gave it a gentle nudge back in the direction of the left:

You see, our predecessors understood that government could not, and should not, solve every problem. They understood that there are instances when the gains in security from government action are not worth the added constraints on our freedom. But they also understood that the danger of too much government is matched by the perils of too little; that without the leavening hand of wise policy, markets can crash, monopolies can stifle competition, the vulnerable can be exploited. And they knew that when any government measure, no matter how carefully crafted or beneficial, is subject to scorn; when any efforts to help people in need are attacked as un-American; when facts and reason are thrown overboard and only timidity passes for wisdom, and we can no longer even engage in a civil conversation with each other over the things that truly matter — that at that point we don’t merely lose our capacity to solve big challenges. We lose something essential about ourselves.

The importance of such words finally coming from the American president can hardly be understated. For once, we have a leader willing to challenge the accepted doctrine that government is always the problem and make the suggestion that should have been trumpeted by liberals all these years, that the government can be the solution. He could have gone farther and completed this thought by asking his audience to consider what government actually is. Government, in the form of a representative democracy, is supposed to represent the people. Ideally, this would mean that the government, working on behalf of the people, would create laws and implement policies that would serve the best interests of the people. In reality, the only “people” the current U.S. government represents are the corporations, which are legally “persons” under federal law. And in service of those “people” the government has systematically weakened itself over the last three decades to the detriment of the actual people, the flesh-and-blood citizens of the United States. The current struggle over health care reform is emblematic of this problem, as half of the government, beholden more to the insurance companies than the population, is trying (quite successfully) to undermine reform and to transfer more wealth from the bank accounts of average Americans to the coffers of the health insurance corporations. This is the heart of the matter when it comes to health care reform, and I am pleased that Obama, at the very least, alluded to it.

And indeed, Obama laid out the case for health care reform in a far more strong and persuasive way than he has done so far, and it was gratifying to finally see the case—such an obvious and easy case to make—finally be made. All he really needed to do was shift the debate from numbers and figures and abstract projections to the moral level, the human level, the level on which the effects of this legislation will actually be felt, at which reform is most desperately needed:

One man from Illinois lost his coverage in the middle of chemotherapy because his insurer found that he hadn’t reported gallstones that he didn’t even know about. They delayed his treatment, and he died because of it. Another woman from Texas was about to get a double mastectomy when her insurance company canceled her policy because she forgot to declare a case of acne. By the time she had her insurance reinstated, her breast cancer had more than doubled in size. That is heart-breaking, it is wrong, and no one should be treated that way in the United States of America.

Seriously, republicans, why don’t you argue with that? Why don’t you explain to these people exactly why it’s not the government’s responsibility to make sure your health and well-being, your very life, which through the military it protects from foreign enemies, is protected from the domestic threat of profit-driven medicine? Profit-driven medicine kills people—more people than died on September 11, 2001—so why shouldn’t the government do something about it? This is plain and obvious, and it’s high time the president started framing this debate in this way.

So, with all that said, and with all the hope I had that the president really would come out swinging and look like the leader he seemed to have the potential to be during the campaign, I simply can’t and won’t delude myself into believing that this speech will make any real and substantive difference in the shape of the legislation that will finally be made law. To be fair, I think it went a long way in increasing support for reform over all, but what kind of reform will we get?

At the very least, it will be illegal for insurance companies to exclude people for pre-existing conditions and to deny necessary treatments to those already insured. These kinds of laws are long since overdue, and I would be happy if congress merely voted to pass these measures without any of the other legislation being proposed, as I expect about 99% of Americans would as well (the remaining 1% being those with a vested financial interest in health insurance industry profits). Making it illegal for companies to let their clients die for the sake of profit is the very least that the government can do for its people in this area.

But what of the remaining issues? How do we keep costs down and the health insurance companies honest? Well, the only real way to do this (since we’ve already given up on a single-payer system) is with a public option, a government-run insurance program that can compete with the private industries and offer an alternative both for those who can’t afford private insurance and those who, like me, would rather die than let these evil companies have a nickel of our hard-earned money. The public option is more than a great way to inject real competition into the insurance market—it is an option of conscience for those who are unwilling to subsidize the private insurance industry, which we see as morally equivalent to the mafia. So what does the president have to say about the public option?

Now, I have no interest in putting insurance companies out of business. They provide a legitimate service, and employ a lot of our friends and neighbors. I just want to hold them accountable. And the insurance reforms that I’ve already mentioned would do just that. But an additional step we can take to keep insurance companies honest is by making a not-for-profit public option available in the insurance exchange. Now, let me be clear. Let me be clear. It would only be an option for those who don’t have insurance. No one would be forced to choose it, and it would not impact those of you who already have insurance. In fact, based on Congressional Budget Office estimates, we believe that less than 5 percent of Americans would sign up.

Right off the bat he affirms his fidelity to the insurance mafia by declaring that “they provide a legitimate service” and that he has no intention of putting them out of business. While I and many of my progressive friends feel that they provide no service whatsoever other than imposing the obstacle of a profit-motive between people and their health care, and while we would be more than happy to see these giants crumble to the ground and be replaced by one completely not-for-profit single-payer system, the president abandoned this idea long ago. And while my progressive friends and I felt that at the very least, the public option could be a step towards the single-payer system we desire in that the insurance companies wouldn’t be able to compete with a non-profit-driven entity, the president assures everyone that the option would be so weak and contain so many limitations as to constitute less than 5% of the insurance market. Hardly reassuring. But then he goes even further, and says in what I may one day look back on and regard as the moment I completely gave up on Obama:

Now, it is — it’s worth noting that a strong majority of Americans still favor a public insurance option of the sort I’ve proposed tonight. But its impact shouldn’t be exaggerated — by the left or the right or the media. It is only one part of my plan, and shouldn’t be used as a handy excuse for the usual Washington ideological battles. To my progressive friends, I would remind you that for decades, the driving idea behind reform has been to end insurance company abuses and make coverage available for those without it. The public option — the public option is only a means to that end — and we should remain open to other ideas that accomplish our ultimate goal. And to my Republican friends, I say that rather than making wild claims about a government takeover of health care, we should work together to address any legitimate concerns you may have.

There are two elements here, the first being that he warns his “progressive friends” (who probably won’t be his friends much longer) that the public option is merely one element of his plan and that it is, essentially, expendable. It is only a means to an end, he says, and if there are other ways to achieve this end he is open to them. Well, without strong competition from a not-for-profit entity, I just don’t see how the end of preventing the abuses of private for-profit insurance companies can possibly be achieved. As long as every player in the health care system is motivated by profit, there will be abuse. Whatever other laws and restrictions you might make, these companies will find a way around them, just as the Wall Street banks continue to find their way around whatever regulations they allow their bought-and-paid-for congressmen to impose on them.

The second element to this section is his message to his “Republican friends” (who have never been his friends at any point) that he still wants to work together. Now, perhaps this is good politics and it certainly appeals to all the moderates and centrists in his audience, but anyone who is paying any kind of attention knows that not one single Republican really wants to make a good-faith effort to work with the president to bring about meaningful reform that will help the American people. Obama has already compromised so heavily with those whose only objective has been to kill the bill and destroy his presidency that any willingness on his part, perceived or otherwise, to make any further compromise would be insane.

Finally, we come to the element of the plan mentioned even before the bit about the public option, the part of the plan that makes it far worse than even the fucked up non-system we have now, worse than what we’d get if there were no reform at all. Regarding the rising cost of health care he says:

It’s why those of us with health insurance are also paying a hidden and growing tax for those without it — about $1,000 per year that pays for somebody else’s emergency room and charitable care. And that’s why under my plan, individuals will be required to carry basic health insurance — just as most states require you to carry auto insurance.

Individual mandates. If you don’t have health insurance, you will be breaking the law, and you will have to pay a fine. Coupled with an obvious willingness to drop the public option, these two elements are the nightmare scenario for progressives, for those of us unwilling to subsidize the private health insurance mafia. If this is the shape of the plan that passes, it will force every American citizen to fork over a chunk of their hard-earned money to this evil mafia thus making them even stronger, and without competition from a public option to deal with the premium hikes, the denials of coverage, and every other nasty element that the profit-motive introduces into health care. It would be like Obama and the rest of our government forced every citizen to bend over and take it up the ass by Big Insurance. All in the name of “reform”, in the name of making life “better” for the American people.

It is the antithesis of the ideals and principles on which Obama ran, on which his supporters threw their weight behind him. We were excited to see an outsider candidate beat the odds and win the game, someone who really seemed like he might be on our side, someone at the helm of government who really believed in what government ought to be—not “so small you can drown it in a bathtub” but strong enough to serve as the people’s voice in this country dominated by corporate power. A government that took some of the wealth and power back from those corporations and kept the promise of America alive: that if you work hard, follow the rules, stay honest, and apply yourself to your goals that you could achieve a comfortable life in which you could spend most of your money as you choose and live free from the fear that you might lose everything just because of a downward turn in the stock market or a sudden injury or illness that could drive you bankrupt. The corporations have undermined America’s promise and representative government is the only way, short of full-blown torch-and-pitchfork revolution, that has any potential to restore it.

Obama talks a great game, and his rhetoric is exactly the kind of rhetoric I would want from an American president—it’s the reason I supported his candidacy in the first place. But if it turns out that this rhetoric is pure political calculation, that it’s only purpose was to strengthen support among the American people for a bill that will actually serve to their own detriment, than we ought to throw Obama to the wolves and start to once again think seriously about revolution.

Double Celebration

September 11th, 2009 No comments

Yesterday was my last day of work, and today I’m officially on vacation. Coincidentally, it was also the exact 11-year anniversary of the first day of high school, the day Krissi and I met. So naturally, we had to go out and get very drunk to celebrate.

After getting home from a very easy day of lessons during which I spent most of the time watching a documentary called “The Corporation” with my first class, and the movie “Monsters Inc.” with my second, I got home and Krissi handed me a “present” she’d bought for us: a bottle of Jägermeister. She immediately poured a shot and opened up a beer, then prepared dinner while we watched Obama’s health care speech (which was a good speech but nothing of substance has changed and he still seems quite poised to drop the public option). Afterwards I called Amanda to ask her for some recommendations of hot spots in town, and invited her to have a couple of drinks with us at the Böse Wolf, everybody’s favorite Linden dive-bar.

She was reluctant to come out but we twisted her arm well enough, and made our way to the pub. She arrived shortly after us and we went outside to smoke cigarettes and talk for awhile about travel possibilities. She talked about some special deals to save money on travel, like the Schönes Wochenende ticket which I used once or twice from Frankfurt but had completely forgotten about: €25 to anywhere in Germany, but you have to go exclusively by regional trains so it takes forever. She also said there was some kind of deal where you could go anywhere in Europe for €40, which sounds just a little too good to be true, but in any case we’re going to the Hauptbahnhof today to buy a ticket to Hamburg next week and we’ll ask about it then.

Amanda was a little sick from drinking too much the night before, so I didn’t expect her to stick around with us for very long, but before I knew it she was leading us to the music club across the street and we went inside just in time to catch the end of a really awesome two-piece band—a drummer and a cellist—called “Guts Pie Earshot”. When that was over we went back to the Wolf and she kept drinking with us. I reached the drunk point around that time and just sat in the back talking to Krissi and a few other random people.

We’d planned to check out another club that night but when we parted ways with Amanda and headed back out on the street, neither of us were really feeling it. We bought another couple of beers and a little bottle of Jäger from a kiosk, which Krissi used to finally get herself as drunk as I was, then we stumbled to central Hannover to see what was going down at the Rocker, the place we’d danced at a couple of weekends ago. Nothing at all was going on there so we left without even getting a drink, then stopped off for a couple of kebabs which we brought back to my place and ate while watching an episode of South Park. Krissi passed out at that point and I went to sleep shortly afterwards, waking up this morning feeling like absolute shit. But that’s the price you pay, and I’m perfectly willing to pay it this time and the next, and the next, and the next…

Categories: Personal Tags: , , , ,

Weekend In Berlin II

September 8th, 2009 No comments

Some life experiences, while totally awesome and enjoyable, are more like sequels to previous experiences rather than new and unique ones. Going to Berlin this past weekend with Krissi was like re-living the great time I had back in May, doing most of the same things but with a different cast of characters.

I normally like to write about these things very shortly after I get back, but we returned on Sunday afternoon and now it’s Tuesday afternoon, so the events aren’t as fresh in my mind as they normally are when I write travel stories, and on top of that I’m slightly out of it from another night of drinking last night and I want to get out and go somewhere nice with Krissi this afternoon so I’m going to try and make this a lot more brief than I usually do.

As far as our arrival goes, there’s not much to tell. Our train arrived shortly before 6 p.m. on Friday evening and we had no trouble taking the trams to get to the hostel. I decided not to buy a public transport pass based on my previous experiences in the city and hearing from Alan that he’d never been checked in all the times he went there, and convinced Krissi not to either. So we both saved about €16 that way because even though we were tempting fate, we didn’t encounter any ticket-checkers the whole weekend.

The first night was good, simple, bar-hopping fun. We ate dinner at a Turkish place and filled up on kebabs, which I was surprised she likes after so many years of vegetarianism, but that served us well to soak up a lot of the alcohol we’d be taking in over the next few hours, which ended up being a lot, way more than I intended. We were in the same area of East Berlin that Alan and I had gone on our second night the other weekend, and we popped in and out of different pubs, having a shot and a beer in each of them—occasionally two. We finished up at the Dachhammer, the really awesome old school East Berlin-decorated lounge that the tour guide on my previous trip had recommended. We sat at a table on the balcony outside and quite fortuitously found an umbrella that the people who’d been there before us had left. It was raining pretty heavily when we left so that really came in handy. I carried that umbrella with me for the rest of the weekend although it was nicer than the weather forecast said it would be and I never ended up using it. But I brought it back with me, so that’s one free umbrella.

When we got back to the area around the hostel we continued to drink, buying beer and a mini-bottle of Jäger from a nearby Kiosk. We went inside to the common room of the hostel where I looked up my international calling pin number and made a shit-faced call to my parents at 2 in the morning, I guess around 8 o’clock their time. While I was talking to them Krissi sparked up a conversation with a Portuguese guy who was also there hanging out, and when I finished I joined the conversation, although unfortunately I was too drunk at that point to remember anything about him other than his nationality.

I woke up the next morning with a headache that didn’t fully subside until much later in the day, but it wasn’t enough to ruin the walking tour. Krissi, as I kind of expected, took awhile to get ready, so we were cutting it very close as I frantically dragged her through three metro stations trying to make our way to the Brandenburg Gate. But we arrived with about ten minutes to spare, just enough time for me to buy a sandwich and eat it before the tour began.

There were two guides giving the free walking tour that day, a guy who looked really cool and a young British woman. The guy took tickets 225 through 250 and the woman took everyone else. Our tickets were under 225 so we went with the girl, and when she announced that the rest of the people would be coming with her I felt kind of disappointed, as I didn’t like the idea of listening to a female British accent for the next four hours, and she didn’t make an excellent first impression.

But she talked about a few of the things right there in the Paris Square and then took us under the Brandeburg Gate to run through 800 years of Berlin history in 10 minutes. By the time she wrapped up that speech I was completely sold, as it was obvious she was an excellent tour-guide. She turned out to have a delightful sense of humor and explained things wonderfully, making the history sound just as fascinating as it was.

What followed was another excellent walking tour through Berlin, past the Holocaust memorial, the parking lot over the place where Hitler’s bunker used to be, as Tax building with its own rich history of going from an Air Force ministry to a Communist headquarters outside of which there was a labor revolt in which many workers were gunned down by their Stalinist leaders. And of course there were all the major cathedrals, museums, and a section of the old Berlin wall. The tour ended at Museum Island, where she sat us on the steps of one building and launched into a ten minute half-speech / half-reenactment of the events immediately preceding the fall of the Berlin wall, from the street demonstrations to Honecker’s fateful appearance with Gorbachev, and finally the spokesperson who fumbled threw the notes he’d been given about supposedly opening up travel between East and West Berlin, and not having attended the meeting or reading the notes beforehand he hadn’t realized it was supposed to be a ruse for political purposes and informed everyone that travel would be opened up to everyone with the proper documents “absofort” (right way)—the word that brought down the Berlin Wall. Her telling of the tale was so fantastic and inspiring that it literally gave me chills. When she was finished I went up and gave her a €10 tip for me and Krissi, telling her that of the three Berlin tours I’ve done, hers was definitely the best, which it was. So if you’re ever in Berlin, try to get Inez as a tour guide.

Since we were on Museum Island at that point, I suggested we go to the Pergamon, and I took Krissi there and spent the next hour (it was closing in one hour when we arrived) going through and checking out all the stuff I’d missed or just breezed through the last time I was there, letting Krissi go and do her own thing until we met up afterwards.

From there we simply walked down to Friedrichstrasse, walked around looking for a place to eat until deciding on an Irish pub for some fish and chips, which turned out to be a little disappointing but served the purpose of filling us up before the pub crawl.

After dinner we killed the last few remaining minutes before the pub crawl by eating a little ice cream dessert, promising ourselves to be extra healthy over the next week, and then we headed down the road to where the pub crawl picked up. Inez had recommended a pub crawl during the tour and said we could get a euro off the price if we mentioned her name, and it turned out to be the same exact pub crawl I’d done with Alan.

So we began at Zapata, the place with sand outside and lots of different “beach bars” scattered around, and just like with Alan we pretty much kept to ourselves at the start. It wasn’t until the next pub that we started meeting and talking to people, first a group of three Australian guys who were traveling around together. We told them about America and they told us about Australia, important information such as the fact that dingoes don’t really eat people’s babies and surfers don’t get attacked by sharks nearly as often as the rest of us in the world imagine. We stuck with them in the next pub as well, telling travel stories about Amsterdam and psydellics and whatnot, and by the fourth pub I was starting to get officially drunk, singing stupid songs with all the other drunk fools as we roamed through the streets. At the second-to-last place I remember talking to some Indian guys who’d also been on the tour but I have no recollection of what was said. That is the downside to meeting people while drinking, because once you reach a certain point you’re not really meeting them but just kind of drunkenly babbling things to each other that no one will really remember the next day.

I sobered up a little bit on the way to the final place, the big dance club called the Matrix, but on the way there that ‘I’m-hammered-and-I-want-to-go-to-bed’ feeling washed over me, but I agreed to stick it out with Krissi at least until we got there. When we did I grabbed a table at one of the little rooms outside the main dancing area and Krissi ordered me some water from the bar, which ended up costing a ridiculous €2. We sat there and talked about what to do next, as I just wanted to go home—I knew I couldn’t drink another drop of alcohol without puking—and she wanted to stay and dance. Too drunk to really consider the consequences I told her that she ought to stay and have fun and not end her night early on account of me. She agreed, and we parted ways.

I stumbled out into the street and made my way back to the tram station closest to the hostel with only a few minor difficulties—nothing as bad as the first time. I stopped for a kebab on my way back to the hostel and shortly after I finished it I got a call from Krissi who was now heading home. As I approached the hostel I got about two more calls from her, and I explained as best I could how she was supposed to get back before finally passing out and waking up the next morning to see her sleeping on the bed adjacent to mine, so I assumed everything had gone smoothly.

I finally woke up for good around 11:00, and lied in bed until noon at which point I woke Krissi up and learned that she hadn’t made it back smoothly after all—she’d lost her hoodie at the club and was stumbling around the city for hours in nothing but a skimpy shirt trying to find the hostel, the name of which she couldn’t even remember. She eventually walked into a hotel and got some help from the front desk agent there, who apparently called a cab for her and she got dropped off in front of the closed and locked hostel to which she had no key. She couldn’t call me because she’d dropped the phone and the battery came out, and she didn’t have the pin-number to get it working again. She rang every doorbell on the building until somebody let her in, then went to the door to the area where the bedrooms were and knocked for about twenty minutes until someone finally got up and let her inside. She said that if she hadn’t lost her hoodie in the club she probably would have just slept on the street, but she knew that would just not be acceptable in nothing but a skimpy shirt. She loved that hoodie but it was a good thing she lost it because it drove her to get all the way back to the room. If I’d woken up and saw that she wasn’t there I would have panicked, and if she hadn’t even made it back to the hostel I don’t even want to think about how awful that day would have been.

But there was no crisis, everything worked out and we both learned our lesson: when you’re in a foreign city in which one of you doesn’t speak the language or have much experience with public transportation, don’t fucking split up. But it did give her a really good story to tell all her friends, so it all worked out.

My plan for Sunday was to visit the Reichstag building before heading home, walking up the glass dome for a good view of Berlin as I’d done five years ago as an exchange student. But that plan was thwarted when we stopped to pick up a sandwich and she went for her wallet, not seeing her purse with her wallet and all her important stuff there. Figuring she’d left it at the hostel we turned around and went all the way back, a sense of dread slowly growing in her. I wasn’t too worried as I knew we hadn’t been gone long and hostel-goers are generally good people so if anyone did pick it up they’d probably just leave it at the front desk. But I called the hostel back up and they didn’t find a bag in the common room, the place we assumed she’d left it.

When we got back there we checked ourselves and didn’t find it, then went back to the room and didn’t see it there either. Krissi went to the bathroom for a moment while I was left to contemplate just how much of a fucking nightmare headache this was going to be if Krissi had indeed lost all her credit cards. When she got back to the room we searched it some more, then she opened up her backpack again and…lo and behold…there it was, shoved underneath some clothes. She just hadn’t seen it before, and because she’d lost her hoodie the night before she was perfectly willing to believe she’d absent-mindedly left it at the hostel.

So in exchange for a trip to the Reichstag we had a good laugh, then just headed directly to the train station, arriving with 40 minutes to spare before our departure which we spent shopping for souvenirs. I didn’t get anything although I was tempted to buy some Ampelmann merchandise, but she found what she was looking for—a badass Ampelmann patch which she has since sewn onto her purse.

We got on the train on time and had a smooth trip back, getting right back to our routine once we arrived, but for the first time since she’d arrived, neither of us drank. She didn’t intend to drink last night either but we ended up buying some wine, which once finished led to a shot and a beer and for me a slight non-headache hangover which made my only class today rather interesting.

But looking back I’d say it was definitely a great weekend, in some ways not as cool as the first because it wasn’t all fresh and unique to me, but in many ways more enjoyable, particularly because I spent it with the best possible company I can imagine.