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Another Beach

July 17th, 2012 No comments

A Chiba Landmark

I’ve been to the Pacific coast of Japan many dozens of times now, but it’s always been the same beach. Yesterday I finally got a taste of a different beach, apparently one of the most popular in Chiba.

On Saturday I got a Facebook invitation from an ALT named Tim whom I’d met at the hanami back in April to come to a beach party in the town where he lives the next day. Although it was short notice I had no plans, so I asked a bunch of other people if they wanted to go too and ended up going with Kim and Enam. I also asked Stacy, Jack, and Lily, but apparently Josai students still had classes on Monday even though it was a holiday.

I have to confess I didn’t really remember who this Tim person was, but through the magic of Facebook we’d apparently ended up in each others’ friend network and checking his profile pictures jogged my hazy memory.

I hadn’t seen Kim or Enam since our own little beach party a few weeks ago, but it was nice to see them again too. We took an 11:00 train from Togane and after a twenty-minute stopover in Oami got on the south-bound train for the hour-long journey to Onjuku. Along the way I noticed them playing a fun-looking word game on their smartphones and I downloaded it myself. We were all so engrossed in this game that we ended up missing our stop, as before we knew it we were in Katsuura, the last station on the line. We had to wait another 40 minutes for the next train to come and take us back to Onjuku, the second-to-last station on the line.

Stuck in Katsuura Kim + Enam

Once we got there we headed into a drugstore to buy alcohol and snacks, then walked to the beach and found the “famous” camel statues that this beach is known for, and a few minutes later another one of their friends, a Scottish guy named Hiroshi, found us there. We all then proceeded to navigate through the substantially large crowd—much much larger than any I’ve ever seen at the beach I normally go to—in search of the gathering of foreigners. It took us awhile because it was a very large beach and there were a ton of people there for the holiday, but eventually we spotted them and headed over.

Onjuku beach Looks kind of like Santa Barbara

Tim also vaguely remembered Kim and Enam from the hanami, and there were a few other faces I recognized as well, such as Anand from the Valentine’s Day party that was so disappointing for everyone involved but me. A couple of girls from that party were also there but I didn’t even bother trying to talk to them. Ben was supposed to come too but he never showed up.

Ba-ri bo-ru The camels mean...I don't know.

After that it was pretty standard stuff, drinking and snacking and chatting about everything from sports to politics but mostly about teaching. We met a few new people whom we may or may not ever see again, and just had an all-around good time, a perfect way to spend a sunny afternoon.

The view from our spot.

Although it was sunny, it was unfortunately also rather windy, to the point where sand was getting in our drinks and it messed up my camera so I couldn’t take anymore pictures (though thankfully it seemed to have magically fixed itself by this morning). After a couple of hours the wind really picked up to the point where it was no longer comfortable, so we all headed to Tim’s apartment for more drinking and chatting there. His place made me a little jealous, a sixth-floor apartment with a large balcony and breathtaking view of both the ocean and the beautiful hills so prevalent in southern Chiba but not around here.

And there’s not much else to tell, really. When Kim was tired we left and took a 7:00 train which got us back to Togane shortly after 8:00. While walking from the train-station I got spotted by former student, a particularly pleasant girl who graduated in March and who I was sad to think I’d never see again. So that was nice.

I had dinner at home and ended up getting to bed around 10:00 for a nice long sleep. The big advantage of drinking in the day is that as long as you finish early enough, you can be pretty well-recovered by the morning. I’m still a little hazy now, but I have no classes today anyway so it doesn’t matter. I’ve got a pretty sparse schedule this whole week, with no classes on Friday either. I assume there’ll be another enkai Friday evening but so far no one’s informed me about one.

And on a final note, I should mention that when I hung out with Trey last Thursday he went into this whole big pitch about how I should go to law-school, and he was persuasive enough to have me actually considering it. He said that once you pass the bar exam, you achieve a whole new level of societal status. You’re no longer just a subject of the law, but you can walk into any courtroom and file a motion—you have actual power. On top of that, it can lead to a political career. When Trey runs for office he says he’d really want to have me on his team, but he can’t put me in any position of real power unless I’ve got the credentials.

Aside from the fact that I don’t actually want to be a lawyer, it’s pretty tempting. I know that I could if I wanted to. Trey is going to Stanford, and I can not only hold my own in arguments with him but actually sway him over to my point of view sometimes as well. If I can argue so effectively with a Stanford law student, there’s no reason to think I couldn’t be a Stanford law student myself (though to be un-politically correct for a split-second, it might be more difficult for me as a white person to get into a school that prestigious). In the end I told him I’d seriously consider it, but no matter what I’m going to be in Japan for at least a couple more years. So we’ll stay in touch and he can let me know what the reality of being a law student is actually like, and I’ll make the decision later on.

It would undeniably be nice to actually have money and power, but I don’t know if it’s worth it at the expense of two things I truly love: teaching and travelling.

Chu-hai and Cherry Blossoms

April 11th, 2012 No comments

Togane Lake

A “hanami” is a cherry-blossom viewing festival, a very popular activity during the cherry-blossom season, which lasts for different durations in different parts of Japan but is usually about one month long. The cherries only started blossoming last week, but they were in full bloom by the time of the hanami on Sunday.

I never received my school schedule in the mail from Interac, so all I knew on Sunday was that I had to attend the school’s opening ceremony the next morning. I didn’t know if I’d then have to stay the rest of the day or even do any lessons, but I was pretty resolved not to drink. It wasn’t until text messages from other ALTs informed me to bring drinks that I realized this was going to be that kind of event, so I ended up bringing four tall cans of chu-hai (a sweet alcoholic fruit-flavored beverage which is less expensive and less fattening than beer, but often with a higher alcohol content).

Before leaving for Tokyo the day before, I rang the doorbell of the new Interac ALT for Togane, Kim, and asked her if she knew about the hanami and if she wanted to go. She said yes, so I rang her again on Sunday when I was ready to go. Kim is practically fresh-off-the-plane, having just come from the big Interac training session in Narita, and she’d invited another ALT from training who now lives in nearby Sanmu, so the three of us walked to Togane Lake together while I told them about the area, about teaching Japanese students, and about all the things they learned at training that aren’t exactly true. It felt very weird to suddenly be the experienced one. Up until now I’ve been the new guy in nearly every situation.

There were already a ton of people at Togane Lake when we arrived at 3:00. After taking my first pictures I immediately spotted some of my students and said hello, and felt some more apprehension about drinking at this event. I’ve never had to encounter students in that state before, and there were guaranteed to be many of them here.

Lake entrance.  Along the path.

Japanese loveliness.

We walked around to the back of the lake, taking in the gorgeous and quintessentially Japanese scenery, until we spotted the two giant tarps on the grass swarming with fellow gaijin. Ben was there and immediately gave us a warm greeting, launching straight into introductions with the two new ALTs I’d brought. There were a few other familiar faces, but a whole bunch of people I’d never met before. Pretty much all of them had some kind of alcoholic beverage in their hand, so I went ahead and opened one up myself. They didn’t seem to have any qualms about greeting their students with booze-in-hand when they walked by, so I figured I shouldn’t either.

The gaijin tarps.

I chatted with a few people I haven’t seen in awhile and met a few others. Atsushi, whom I’ve mentioned a couple of times before, was one of the few Japanese people there to mingle with us, but it was nice to have a few Japanese faces among us. Most of us were American, and most of the Americans were from Wisconsin, as apparently Wisconsin and Chiba are “sister-states” and there’s a special program for Wisconsinites to come here and teach English. Kim is Canadian, and as far as I know the only one among us.

One of the first people I ended up in a conversation with is Dan, from the infamous night of Ben’s Christmas Party when he took Diana from me without realizing I’d been interested in her. I naturally hated him at the time but he clearly felt bad about it and even apologized in a Facebook message after-the-fact. We didn’t bring her up at all, but by astounding coincidence she just happened to walk by us right when we were talking, chatting some other foreigner’s ear off. She didn’t seem to notice us and he didn’t notice her, so I didn’t say anything.

What we did talk about was the teachers our schools would be exchanging. His school was getting S-Sensei in exchange for K-sensei, whom Dan told me is a really great guy who loves to chat in English and is really easy to get along with. Apparently they’ve even hung out outside of work. But he also said, “With him you’ll hardly have to do any work,” which made me nervous because having a teacher who does everything himself and leaving nothing to me is exactly what I’ve been fearing most about the replacements. But if he’s as nice a guy as Dan says, I can probably just ask him point-blank to give me more lesson-planning responsibilities.

After a little while, Kim and I decided to take a walk around the rest of the lake and check out the rest of the festival. As we walked I kept passing groups of students and saying hello, eventually no longer even thinking about the chu-hai in my hand. A few of the students’ eyes widened when they saw me with Kim and they asked me if she was my girlfriend, but I laughed and told them in Japanese that she isn’t—she’s just a new ALT. Kim thought it was funny how in Japan, if a guy and a girl are walking alone together it must mean they’re in a relationship. But she was also very excited to see how enthusiastic some of the students can get when spotting their teacher. She’s obviously looking forward to it, and indeed it is one of the best things about this job.

In fact, it turned out to be one of the best things about the festival. Back at the gaijin tarps as I continued to drink and chat with other ALTs about everything from where we’ve lived to places we’ve traveled to our impressions of Japan and so on, students would constantly be walking by and they all smiled and said hello. That doesn’t even happen at school, where the presence of their English teacher is nothing unusual and therefore calls for no acknowledgment. But seeing me outside of the school environment, in my street-clothes, drinking chu-hai, was quite a novelty for them. Some groups would call me over and challenge me to remember their names, which was really difficult having not seen them for a few weeks but I turned out to be a pretty good guesser and they all got a kick out of watching me struggle.

Of course the best part was seeing some of the recently graduated third-graders again. It’s been weeks since they graduated and I got all sad and melancholy about the idea that I’d never see them again, but since then I’ve been seeing them everywhere. The Spring Concert, the farewell ceremony, out jogging or riding my bike, in the supermarket—they’re all over the place.

The one group of recent graduates who were the most amused to see me was the “bad kid” group, Japanese middle-school version of “hoodlums” I guess you could say. They weren’t really bad, just the kind who didn’t care about school and would frequently disrespect teachers (though never me). The fourth time I spotted that group, one of the boys came up and put a chu-hai in my hand. I didn’t understand what was happening at first but one of the other ALTs explained he was giving it to me. I don’t know how he got it, but I thanked him and took it. At that point I was on my third and pretty buzzed, so if there was anything unethical about that I wasn’t concerned. He’s not my student anymore anyway.

Jack's back! I also got to see Jack and Lily again. They’re now back from visiting Jack’s parents in Boston and Lily’s parents from France are now here visiting her. I walked around the festival with them once and got caught up. Jack actually has some sort of job with Interac now, not as a teacher but something else I’m not too clear on. He was actually at the Narita training session, so he’d already met Kim before I did.

As dusk was setting, everyone was told to leave the grassy area and move to one end of the lake from where we could view the fireworks. I spent so much time trying to get good fireworks pictures that I forgot to enjoy the fireworks. The pictures I’m posting here are just a few of the many dozens I took, a waste of camera memory space.

The crowd just starting to assemble. Boom.

Fizzle. Ooh! Aah!

During the fireworks I also somehow managed to finish the chu-hai my former students had given me, which pushed me past that fine line between buzzed and drunk. That made the next part a ridiculously bizarre experience, as with everyone all bunched together I was bumping into students left and right, and my super-enthusiastic hellos must have been highly amusing to all of them. I’m pretty sure a bunch of students had heard I was there and were deliberately coming up to say hello, perhaps just for the fun of seeing me drunk.

I probably shouldn’t have felt too apprehensive about that in the first place. It doesn’t seem to matter at all. All the other ALTs were drunk and greeting students too. I found out later that getting drunk is expected at a hanami, just like it is at an enkai. I’ve interacted with teachers while drunk, and now students as well. No harm, really. All I did was say hello and try to remember their names.

One of about 20 pictures I don't remember taking. Ben invited us all back to his place for an after-party, and at that point I was extremely merry and just wanted the fun to continue, so while I really should have just gone home, eaten something, and drank tons of water before going to bed at a decent hour, I went to Ben’s place, drank my last chu-hai, and got embarrassingly drunk to the point where it wasn’t until the following afternoon that I was able to remember some of the things I did. Thank god my students didn’t see me in that state. I’m embarrassed enough that other drunken ALTs saw me that way too, but after apologizing to Ben through Facebook the next day he assured me it was okay, everyone was pretty sloppy at that point and his memory is pretty hazy too, but that getting sloshed is perfectly appropriate for a hanami.

Eventually I did stumble home and go to sleep, though I have no idea when. All I know is that the sleep I got wasn’t nearly enough. The alcohol would not wear off completely until the following afternoon. And of course, the following morning just happened to be the first day of the school-year.

To be continued…

Bonenkai

December 23rd, 2011 No comments

Youkoso!

I wrote to my boss at Interac yesterday to find out if it was okay to take pictures at my school’s bonenkai (end-of-the-year party) and got the go-ahead, so I’m pleased to present you with a rare opportunity to actually see the people I work with!

In spite of the mild cold that’s been lingering all week, I was very much looking forward to the bonenkai. The last party with colleagues I went to had been a bit of a disappointment, but because this was the special end-of-the-year party and we were having it at a hotel in Narita where anyone who wanted could spend the night and thus not have to worry about driving home, I knew there was much more potential for some serious loosening-up on the part of my normally always very serious and professional colleagues.

I got a ride to the hotel with one of the teachers who was at my welcome party back in September, and he also drove the school groundskeeper who is an extraordinarily nice and friendly person, and whom I learned on the ride also loves to travel. When he found out I was from New York he got very excited because that’s one place he really wants to go. Apparently he’s a big Yankees fan and wants to see a game at Yankees Stadium, though unfortunately for him that’s probably almost as expensive as flying to New York at this point.

It was strange to be back in Narita for the first time since orientation week, but at least it wasn’t the same hotel. But the ratio of Japanese-to-foreigners in the town of the international airport, especially in a hotel, is almost one-to-one so it’s like a completely different world. But in the room where the party was held, the ratio was the same as ever: about fifty to one.

The party room. Pre-kampai.

Seating was determined by random draw, which I’m now learning is usually how it’s done in Japan, and I got seated at the end of a table right next to where all the top administrators were sitting (though I doubt that happened at random) and coincidentally next to Mrs. S- which made communication much easier. We waited for everyone to get there and at about 6:30 it was time to pour drinks and do the kampai.

Kampai! Post-kampai.

Almost immediately after the toast, we all filed out to the hotel buffet to fix ourselves plates for dinner. Unlike at the last party the food selection was decidedly un-Japanese, and I ended up eating some salmon, rizzoto, and broccoli and cauliflower. Maybe it’s the cold, but the food was terribly bland and flavorless, and somehow the broccoli and cauliflower was the best part.

As with the other party, not everyone was drinking because not everyone was spending the night at the hotel. But a lot more of the men were getting a lot more drunk than the other time and the mood was considerably more jovial. There were the tiny glasses like before that every few minutes someone would come to top off my beer, but after dinner one of the school administrators offered me a glass of whiskey so I switched to that.

It being a Japanese party, there naturally had to be some special events. The first was a game of Bingo in which the winners would come to the front and draw a number from a box to determine which of the presents every teacher had bought and wrapped for the party they would get. Unfortunately no one remembered to tell me about this so I hadn’t brought a present, but apparently that didn’t exclude me from the Bingo game. They had an actual electronic random number generator for the Bingo and the teacher who drove me was the one who operated it. It took awhile but eventually people started winning and going up to get their presents, many of them kind enough to pose for me when they did.

Bingo! Mrs. S-

The awesome groundskeeper. Not sure.

I got my Bingo late in the game, at the same time as four other people, but I made sure to get my victory picture taken as well. My present was a little piggy-bank in the shape of what looks like a Pokemon character. Other people got things as random as a pillow, some kind of cooking-set and an umbrella.

Me. My present.

I love this shot. Sugoi!

Kawai. Not bad luck in Japan.

The second event of the night was a competition between the first, second, and third grade teachers. One teacher from each grade would come to the front and answer a few questions determined by each of the school’s departments, so there would be a math round, a history round, and so on. For the music round, the teachers would be shown a picture of a famous composer and had to write down who it was. I actually knew the first one—Bach—when none of the competing teachers did, but I didn’t recognize any of the others. Every few rounds, new teachers would come to the front.

Check your answers. Do you know this composer? (I don't)

Huh? The obligatory "ribbon-splitting" round.

For the English round, Mrs. T- had asked me to do something I did for the Jeopardy game with the students. All three teachers would be given the second-grade English textbook and I’d read a sentence from the chapter on Mother Theresa (yes, Japanese students apparently learn about Mother Theresa in English class), and they’d have to find the sentence and read the next one. The hard part was that they’d have to understand my directions in English, and then pronounce the English words properly. I had Mrs. S- take a video of that part.

The most interesting round to me was the Japanese round, as the teachers would all be shown a rare kanji and have to write what they thought it was in hiragana. It hadn’t occurred to me because I’m so illiterate in Japanese, but even native Japanese people don’t know all the kanji.

Do you know this kanji? (I don't) Neither do they.

I think the first-grade teachers won the competition but I’m not sure. After that, there was some time for just plain and simple drinking and mingling. One of the women who had been running the competition, the one with the glasses in the santa-hat, sat down next to me and did her very best to strike up a conversation with me about music. She did very well and we had a nice chat. Apparently her favorite musician is Michael Jackson (at this point it’s pretty clear he’s way more popular in Japan than in America) but she also likes rock music and told me she likes Green Day, apparently having noticed that they were on the mix CD I’d been giving the students as presents.

Incidentally, the super-cute secretary was there as well but her complete lack of English-speaking ability made it impossible to interact with her beyond asking her to snap a couple photos of me. (She’s the one whose head is in the foreground of the video).

The traditional beer-pouring. Mr. I-, the teacher who had helped me out during the whole lost-key fiasco, had arrived late to the party and when he did was immediately poured a glass of beer and hovered over as he proceeded to drink a few sips and then have it topped up over and over again, apparently in an effort to get him caught up to the other drinkers. During the last part of the evening I and the aforementioned female-teacher got into a conversation with him about what our favorite and least favorite classes were. It’s interesting that we all basically have the same impression.Santa, baby.

Eventually it was time for the single hand-clap to signify the end of the party, but apparently it wasn’t over yet. Mrs. T- explained to me that this was just the end of the “first party” but the “second party” would continue for everyone who stayed. Most of the teachers went home (mostly the women) but those of us who were drinking and planning to spend the night stayed behind, including the top administrators. I went out to the lobby to say goodbye to those who were leaving, but got distracted by the giant plastic Santa.

Back in the party room, things were finally getting to where I’d hoped they would from the first time I heard about the concept of an enkai. Almost everyone who remained was drinking and by this point they all had a nice buzz. One of the two vice principals in particular was incredibly loose and jovial, such a radical departure from his normally serious-demeanor. He even drank a glass of whiskey with me. This was what I’d been hoping for: to see my colleagues with the mask fully off.

Vice-principle 1. Vice-principle 2.

Cheers! Only the strong survive.

But it wasn’t too long before everyone started heading up to their rooms to go to sleep for the night. It was only about midnight and I wasn’t tired at all, but luckily Mr. I- and one of the other teachers, Mr. T-, were willing to consider possibly going out for more drinks somewhere in Narita.

After putting my things in the room we went down to the lobby and tried to get a few others to come join us, but it would just be the three of us. I looked up the word “adventure” in the Japanese dictionary on my I-phone—it’s adobencha.

We got in a taxi and told him to drive to the Narita train station. Oddly enough, I was actually the most familiar with Narita out of all of us thanks to the orientation week. I told them we could go to a karaoke bar (that would be the infamous “The Cage” that I didn’t end up going to) or to a British Pub (the infamous “The Barge Inn” where I had my first unsuccessful attempt at flirting with Japanese girls on the last night of training). They decided on the British Pub and I knew exactly how to get there from the station.

So there I was once again at The Barge, a place full of memories that I never expected I’d return to, but being there again was really cool. Naturally I had my eye open for Ame, Yuka, and the other two girls from that momentous night, but they were nowhere to be found. I bought a round of drinks for the three of us and sat down at an empty table.

Me and Mr. T- Mr. T- was so tired that he was passing out after just one beer, but Mr. I- stuck it out with me for two beers, having a very easy time communicating as we chatted about various topics including women. As we haven’t said two words to each other since the welcome party, it was nice to be socializing with him again and to confirm that we’re still on good terms.

I was pretty drunk at this point and loose enough to go up to other tables of people and invite them to join us, including one group of three Japanese girls and one guy, but they just said they would come “later”. Translated into Japanese and then back to English that means “never”.Mr. I- and me.

Mr. I- explained that it’s just Japanese culture—people like to stick with their own groups and are not so inclined to want to meet new people. Another one of the negative cultural qualities they share with Germans. But it didn’t bother me that no one would join us—I was proud of myself for even being outgoing enough to try.

At the end we found a group of guys who were willing to chat with us but by then it was late, we were very drunk, and the bar was closing soon. We exchanged a few words that I can no longer remember and got some nice drunken photos with them and that was that.

Atarashi tomodachi.

Mr. I- generously paid for the cab ride back to the hotel and we promptly passed out once we got back to the room. Not having drunk any water the whole night I had a nasty hangover which is still lingering, but it was a great night and worth the price I’m paying now. As we left the hotel room Mr. I- asked me to check if I had everything, and I took out my key and showed it to him. He got a good laugh out of that.

I managed to make it all the way back to Togane without throwing up in his car, so everything was a complete success.

And that was the last school-related event of 2011. It’s officially the winter holiday now, and as much as I love school it will be nice to have a break. Thanks to last Saturday’s party at Ben’s house I now have official plans for Christmas and the following week. Tomorrow and Sunday I’ll be in Tokyo with Lily and Jack and some of their friends, and I’ll be meeting them in Kyoto next week. Trey is throwing what promises to be a wild New Years’ Eve party that will start in Togane and head to Tokyo and presumably last straight through until the first sunrise of 2012. It’s been one hell of a year, and it looks like it’s coming to an appropriately awesome end.

The Story of My Life

December 18th, 2011 No comments

Akibahara in Autumn

Prologue

Yesterday was epic. Now I’m faced with the task of writing about it in the level of detail it warrants while attempting not to step on the toes of any of the people involved, which in this case won’t be so easy. I could make this a private entry but the story is too good not to share and too significant not to include in the publicly-available narrative of my life, as these events will no doubt be referenced repeatedly for some time. I could give just a bare-bones account of what happened and avoid the risks of going into detail, but that would neither be true to myself nor to the original intent of this blog. I’m already editing myself much more than I was when I started, but I still feel as though I’m providing a deeply honest account of my life as I live it in my own unique style of aiming to making anyone who cares enough to read about my experiences feel as though they’re living through them with me. This entry will be no different, and in the unlikely event that any of the people involved read it and take issue with something I’ve written here, they need only confront me and I will remove the offending material.

Act I – Akibahara

I’ve had the intention of going to Akibahara, a district of Tokyo world-famous for its electronic shops, for several months. My external hard-drive needs at least 120 volts to run, but Japanese sockets have only a 100-volt output. Converters which reduce voltage are easy to come by, but converters which boost voltage are a bit harder to find. Neither of the electronic shops in Togane have them, but I’ve been told that if you’re looking for any piece of electrical equipment, you can find it in Akibahara. If it’s not there, it doesn’t exist.

The trip kept getting postponed week after week for various reasons, but that ultimately ended up working very much in my favor, as last week when I met Diana at the Togane International Friendship party and invited her to come to Tokyo, she couldn’t come the next day but she was able to make it the following weekend—yesterday—the day we finally went.

In keeping with my tradition of always getting sick at the worst possible times, I started coming down with a cold on Thursday. I called Diana on Friday evening to warn her that I might be contagious and if she decided not to come I would understand. She said that if I was going she would go, but thanked me for the courtesy of warning her about the germs.

Sweet Luckily the cold has been extremely mild, and my only symptom yesterday when I went to meet up with her at the train station was a sore throat. We greeted each other warmly and then walked together to the bus-stop where the direct bus to Tokyo stops. There was a little Christmas event happening across the street, and I couldn’t resist trying to take a shot of the man in the giant-head costume. Diana, super-outgoing person that she is, brought me across the street and talked to the people there, giving us a chance to get our picture taken with the guy.

We chatted while waiting for the bus, and when we got on I paid for both of us which she graciously accepted. On the 1 hour 15 minute ride, we listened to some music on her I-pod as I’d thought to bring one of those splitters that allows you to plug two sets of headphones into a single jack. It was some Japanese pop singer whose name I don’t remember, but it was surprisingly decent. Not something I would ever listen to on my own initiative, but enjoyable enough.

We were supposed to meet Stephen at the entrance to Tokyo station at 11:30 but he sent me a text saying he’d be late. Diana and I killed time by wandering around the station, but before we did we checked the schedule for when the busses would return. She suggested we shoot for the 7:35 bus but I said I’d rather leave an hour earlier because one of the other Togane ALTs, Ben, was having a Christmas Party that night which started at 6:00. Diana said that she’d heard people talking about the party and someone had asked her to come, so I said she should come and we could go together. So suddenly I’m not just spending the day with her but going to a party with her as well. Could the timing be any more fortuitous?

One of the things we had to bring to the party was a gift worth about 500 yen, and luckily the train station was full of gift-shops so Diana and I were able to take care of that very easily. After a bit of wandering, Stephen called me to announce he’d arrived, and we went to the exit to meet him. On the way, she remarked on how Japanese girls wear makeup all the time, but she thinks it takes too much time and only wears it on special occasions. She said she’ll wear it if she goes on a date. Um…don’t look now, Diana, but you’re kinda on one right now…even if you’re not aware of it. But at least that confirmed 100% that she isn’t married.

I was preparing for the hassle of figuring out how to get to Akibahara, but luckily Diana had been there once before and had a pretty good idea of what we needed to do. She double-checked with her I-phone but quickly determined that we just had to take one of the JR trains two stops and we’d be there.

The one and only.

When we got there the first thing we spotted was the AKB48 Café, which I was told by some people I should definitely check out and by some people that I should avoid at all costs. For those of you who’ve never heard of AKB48, they’re a Japanese pop-group consisting of forty-eight super-attractive young women who sing and dance in heavy makeup and skimpy outfits. Whoever came up with the idea is a very wealthy man, as they’re enormously popular and are likely to remain so for quite some time. Unlike other bands created purely for marketing purposes like N’Sync or the Spice Girls whose popularity fades as the members get older, AKB48 has enough members to be able to just kick the old ones out when their attractiveness fades and bring in younger ones, sort of like the Mickey Mouse club but with sex-appeal instead of cuteness. It’s a pretty disgusting concept if you ask me, but I don’t want to judge too harshly. Even the women who get booted will always be able to brag that they were in AKB48.AKB48

Incidentally, I finally learned what the AKB stands for: AKiBahara, where they do most of their shows in the theater beside the café.

So since we were there I figured we might as well go in and check out the place. We had to wait on a short line before a table opened up, and while we did Stephen and I discovered that Diana is actually a huge AKB48 fan. She was ridiculously excited to go inside, and when we got in she was grinning and gaping at everything, particularly the benches and tables autographed by real AKB48 members.

Wow, autographs of women I've never heard of!

Aside from the TV-screens everywhere showing AKB48 videos and the incredibly-attractive waitresses dressed in the schoolgirl-like AKB48 uniform, it looked just like any normal café. But unlike most cafés, the clientele was almost exclusively male. Diana was one of only three or four females there, excluding the waitresses who were no doubt the reason most of the men came there. It was kind of like Hooters without the big boobs.

We each got a ridiculously over-priced beverage and chatted for awhile, mostly about AKB48. This was the first time I’d heard their music (at least while conscious of the fact that I was hearing it) and it was just as bad as I’d imagined. But I didn’t rain on Diana’s parade and just let her enjoy the videos, which I have to admit were at least quite pleasing to the eye. Stephen got a real kick out of just how happy she was to be there. Her girlish joy rubbed off on me as well, so in spite of the assault on my eardrums I was very glad to have come there.

After that it was finally time to go off in search of the elusive adapter that would allow me to use my German external hard-drive in Japan. Diana’s presence turned out to be invaluable in that regard, as she was able to explain what I needed in Japanese at every shop we went to, and translate to me what the workers there told her. This was quite the impressive feat considering her native language is Chinese, and while she confessed that it was hurting her brain a little, she held up very well.

A colorful town.

One of the million electronic shops. The coolest ride ever.

Unfortunately, finding the required piece proved to be extremely difficult, even in the Electronics Capital of the World. Place after place just kept telling us they didn’t have it, though some helpfully pointed us in the direction of shops that might. We eventually came to a place that had all kind of voltage-adapters and it looked like we’d finally found the right part, but for some bizarre reason they wouldn’t let us test it before I bought it. It made no sense to me that the store would insist you buy something you couldn’t even be sure would work, but apparently that’s another element of Japanese culture I wasn’t aware of—they wouldn’t want to take the responsibility it didn’t work. They didn’t even want to sell me the thing because they were unsure if it would damage the hard-drive, but when I finally insisted that it would be my responsibility they let me buy it, but they still wouldn’t let me test it in their store.

Stephen at the sushi-go-round. We were all very hungry at this point, so we decided to find a place to eat and test it there. The first place we went to, it turned out didn’t have a single menu item other than soup or plain rice that didn’t have beef or pork in it, so we went to a sushi restaurant instead. That was delicious, and we had some very pleasant conversation there too. Once we’d had our fill of sushi I busted out the new adapter and gave it a test run on the electrical outlet in the wall, and for a moment it appeared to be working until the hard-drive shut itself off. I thought it might need a little while to get charged up, so I left it in the wall a bit longer, but it shut itself off again after the same amount of time.

So we went back to the shop and got a refund. Had we been allowed to test it there it would have saved everyone the extra hassle, but that’s just the way it goes.

We tried three more places, the last of which Diana made clear would be the last place we would try. She was getting tired of this and I couldn’t blame her. I had no idea it would be so difficult to find a particular electronic device in Akibahara. I’d assumed it would take a half-hour tops but we’d been searching for over two hours. When we came to the last place and the woman there said they didn’t have one, I decided to try something else and ask for just a basic voltage-converter which boosted the 100-volts from Japanese sockets up to what the hard-drive needed. Those were a lot more expensive than the adapter would have been, but after spending so much time on this I refused to go home empty-handed. The woman found a converter which boosted 100 Volts to 220 (the voltage in Germany) and I coughed up the dough and bought it. I hadn’t brought the cable I needed to test it, so I’d have to wait until I got home to test it.

Evening in Akibahara.

It was now about 4:30 and we decided to start heading back. At the Akibahara station Stephen wanted to know if we were going back to Tokyo station or if he should just buy a ticket back home directly from there. Diana mentioned the Christmas Party and I said he was welcome to come if he wanted, and he said he was so we decided to go back to Tokyo station and all ride the bus to Togane together. I hadn’t thought he would want to come all the way to Togane for a Christmas Party but I was glad to have him along.

Intermission

I sat next to Diana on the bus ride back and she dozed off while listening to her music, and I listened to music of my own. I was feeling pretty neutral at that point. She’d been just as warm and friendly with Stephen as she was with me, so I figured I’d just been misreading her last week and perceiving signals of attraction when there were none. This was probably just the way she is with everybody. That didn’t mean I didn’t have a chance or that I should give up, but at that point it felt likelier than ever that a casual friendship is all this is going to amount to.

But as I wrote last week, that would be a perfectly valuable thing too. At the AKB48 café we discussed what we were all doing for New Years’ and none of us had any solid plans but Stephen said he was thinking about going to the Tokyo Sky Tree where there would be fireworks. That sounded like a good plan, so both of us decided to join him. Being in Tokyo with two great people sounds like a perfect way to ring in the New Year whether or not romance is involved. Plus, Diana is going home to China for a month this year and some of that time will coincide with the school vacation, so I could visit her in China and she’d be happy to show me around and take me anywhere.

There was reason to be happy.

Act II – The Christmas Party

We stopped at a convenience store on the way to the party to pick up drinks and snacks to bring, as well as a cheap gift for Stephen to enter in the gift-exchange. He picked a magnet of a Japanese anime character, but the clerk at the counter wouldn’t let him just buy it but instead insisted that he pick a card from a box she had and open the back to see what the prize was. Apparently you couldn’t just buy the magnet—you had to win it. And you had to pay for the ticket first so if you really wanted the magnet you’d have to keep buying tickets until you got lucky. I thought it was absurd. If a person wants to exchange money for a particular item, such a transaction should be perfectly allowable. What’s the point of capitalism if you can’t buy something you want even if you’re willing and able to pay for it? But Stephen bought the ticket and instead of the magnet he got a little head-pillow with a different Japanese anime character on it, and while it looked pretty crappy we just had to settle for it.

I navigated the three of us through the cold to Ben’s apartment, which was already hopping when we arrived. Trey was among the first to greet me, surprised to see I’d brought another black guy. He jokingly told Stephen to go away because now there were too many. I introduced Diana to people but most of them remembered her from last weekend, Ben included. I saw a lot of familiar faces and a couple of new ones. I met a guy named Dan and a guy named Will as soon as I walked in the kitchen.

Red room.

I quickly noticed that the male-to-female ratio was about the same as it was at the AKB48 café. Other than Diana, there was only one other girl at the party: Zintia, the Hungarian girl from the International Friendship party last weekend (whom I now know likes to be called “Cinty”).

Diana and Stephen both went off and mingled as soon as we got in, and I poured myself a whiskey and coke and proceeded to mingle as well, saying hello to some of the Japanese guys I remembered from previous encounters: Kio from the two music festivals and Atsushi from the Okinomiyaki night. I found out that one of Atsushi’s judo students goes to my school, a kid whose name I actually recognized so I knew who he was talking about.

Trey busted out a deck of cards and got a drinking game going on the floor of what I’ll just call the “green room” because Ben had somehow managed to get the kitchen draped in red light Green room. and the other room in green. I sat down and joined the action, Stephen and Diana joining as well but sitting on the other side of the circle. But from where I was sitting I could see the next card in the dealer’s hand and I helped Diana cheat her way out of the drinking penalty whenever it came to her. Trey’s game started out well but fizzled after a few rounds as people kept leaving. Andrew, the guy from Alaska I’d met at the hippie music festival, tried to start up a drinking game of his own but by then only Stephen and I were left to play. It was a pity because his game was much more fun.

Before long it was time for the gift exchange, and Ben had about as difficult a time getting everyone to shut up while he explained the rules as I do getting my students to shut up while I explain the rules of a classroom game. But it was pretty clear—everyone got a number and each person would pick one of the wrapped presents on the floor when it got to their number.  You could either pick a new present or steal somebody else’s but no gift could be stolen more than three times. I was number 18 so I had the advantage of going very late. The most popular gift in the bunch was a slingshot Ben had bought, and it had been stolen twice by the time it was up to me, so I got to steal it and keep it for good. I can think of a few fun ways to use it in class.

Can you shut up please?

Diana opening her gift. Trey trying out his present.

When the gift exchange was over I finally found an opportunity to sit down by Diana and talk to her some more, although at that point I had to share her company with Dan, one of the guys I’d just met that night who seemed really nice but clearly had eyes for her. But the three of us talked and had a nice chat until the need for another drink or bladder-relief naturally split us up.

Trey came up to me and said, “Dude, I don’t think your girl is married.” I told him I knew. He then proceeded to give me advice. “You need to be more aggressive, man. Saddle up to her, keep talking to her and at some point take her outside and kiss her. I think she’s definitely into you and really likes you, but you just need to go for it.”

Trey is a wise man. I took a deep breath and resolved to do just that. Hearing from him that he thought she was into me gave me the extra confidence I needed, and at that point I had just the right buzz going to pull off the move I’ve never been able to make before: the leap from casual-friends to more-than-friends.

But just as I was about to go find her again, a new group of people arrived and were introduced to me. There was a French girl from Paris, another Josai student, and her boyfriend Jack who was one of the only American students at that university. They were a really nice couple and I didn’t want to leave them right away. The French girl, Lily, was interesting to talk to and we could compare our impressions of Europe. Although she’s from Paris and loves the city, I was surprised to hear that she agrees that the people there are snobs and it’s ridiculous that even the people who work at the train station refuse to speak English. I parted from them with a promise to talk later.

Before I could find Diana, I somehow got sucked into a political discussion with Trey about Obama’s chances in next year’s election. It was more of a lecture than a discussion as I could barely get a rebuttal in edgewise, but Trey was very persuasive and convinced me that Obama has a much better chance of winning than I’ve been thinking. When he leaves Japan his plan is to go to Stanford and get a master’s degree in law, then go into politics himself and maybe even run for office in California. It’s always nice to have a chance to talk politics as those chances are rare, but I had to pry myself away because it was getting late and I’d barely talked to Diana all night.

Now that I had the sole purpose of finding her and engaging in actual no-holds-barred flirtation with her, she was nowhere to be found. I looked everywhere twice and couldn’t find her, then I went outside and called her cellphone. She didn’t pick up, so when I got her answering machine I just left a message. “Hey, it’s Kyle. I can’t find you here so I guess you left. Sorry I didn’t get a chance to say goodbye. I’m glad you came tonight. I hope you had fun. I’ll talk to you soon. Goodnight.”

So I breathed a heavy sigh but figured it was for the best—I’d been spared the anxiety of having to actually try to make things happen with her—and there would be another chance another time. I walked through the foyer towards the main room when suddenly the door to the washroom swings open and who should emerge but Diana…and Dan.

Welcome, ladies and gentlemen, to the story of my life.

They both acknowledge me like nothing significant has just happened and she walks into Ben’s room while he heads by me towards the party. I can’t help but stop him and ask, “Hey Dan, are you interested in Diana?”

He obviously has no idea that I’d been going for her as well. “Uh…yeah,” he admits, understanding immediately. “Is that a problem? I’m sorry.”

“No, I mean…” I stumble. What the fuck had I even wanted to say?

“Shit, I’m sorry,” he says. “You were trying to get with her?”

“Well, yeah, kinda, but…I honestly don’t know what I’m doing.” Keep talking. “But hey if you’re into her and she likes you than go for it.” My heart doth protest but my mouth pays no heed. My head knows that it’s the right course of action. I have no more of a right to Diana than he does. She isn’t mine and never was.

“Really?” he asks. “Are you sure?”

“Yeah, of course.”

“Because I don’t want to be that guy. I’ve been on the other side of this situation more times than I can count.”

He’s just won me over. He deserves her more than I do. After all, he was the one who went for it. I hadn’t been aggressive enough and I let her slip through my fingers. To the victor…

“Yeah,” I say. “You should go for it. Honestly, no hard feelings.” I mean, I’m still going to despise you and everything but that’s not your fault.

“Thank you,” he says. “I appreciate that.”

Diana emerges from Ben’s room. “What are you guys talking about?”

“Nothing,” I say reflexively. I think it’s pretty clear what our topic of conversation was.

“Basketball,” Dan says playfully, then moves in to playfully tickle her, thus diffusing the whole situation. Good man. I don’t think I’ve ever loathed a fellow less-deserving of it.

Diana asks me if I have a cellphone charger and it just so happens I do. I go into Ben’s room and find it in in my backpack for her, then she plugs in her phone. I don’t know if it was dead or just dying, if she’d heard my call while making out with Dan or listened to my voice message after. These are things I’ll never know.

The next few minutes are all kind of hazy. I head to the kitchen table in search of more booze. Ben asks me what I’m looking for and I just tell him I need something strong. There’s a little bit of whiskey left in the bottle. I just finish it off and then grab a fresh beer.

Before I know it, Dan is getting ready to walk Diana back to her place. I say goodnight to him and Diana walks right up to me and gives me a very long, very warm hug. Through her embrace I perceive a mixture of mild intoxication and guilt. Our first hug, and it’s also our last.

I walk away as they proceed to get ready to leave, and Trey comes up to me with serious news: “Dude, did you know your girl is leaving with another guy?”

“Yes,” I say without bothering to mask how that makes me feel at all. “Yes, I’m well aware of that.”

“What happened, man?”

“I got distracted. I got held up in other conversations and another guy swooped in.”

Knowing he was partially responsible for that, he runs to the foyer and grabs Diana as she’s trying to leave. What the hell are you doing, Trey? The damage is done. Leave it alone. I make sure I’m totally out of sight during whatever exchange goes on between them. When he gets back he just comes up to me and tells me I wasn’t aggressive enough.

I know. That’s always my problem.

He says I shouldn’t feel bad because she wasn’t worth it. He calls her a nasty name she doesn’t deserve and which I won’t repeat, but that’s the end of that. I go find a place to stand and think.

Oh, hello darkness, my old friend. It seems you’ve come to talk with me again.Lucky bastard.

As I stand there staring at the fish-tank and contemplating who I am, I feel that old familiar  emptiness, the same aching in my gut I used to feel in high school often. Oh goldfish, how I envy you. If my brain were as small as yours I would have already forgotten the whole thing by now.

The question is whether I should stay or go. I’m so tempted to just gather my things and slip away quietly without saying goodbye to anyone, to just head home and toss on some brooding music and do some serious wallowing. But I promised Stephen a place to crash. Plus, fuck that. It’s too familiar a pattern. I’m sick of it. I’ll just stay and try not to let my gloomy presence suck the fun out of everyone else’s night.

There are a few surprises left in store. Cinty, the Hungarian girl, has been in the process of getting together with Ben all night, but somehow her attention turns to me. She asks me how I’m doing and I’m drunk enough at this point to tell her honestly that I’m not doing well and what the reason is. She takes pity on me and asks me if I’d like to join her on the balcony for a cigarette. You have cigarettes! God bless your cancer-spreading heart!

So I join her for a smoke and find myself engaged in an incredibly unexpected emotional conversation with this girl I’d had such a hard time communicating with last weekend at the Friendship Party. Thanks to the alcohol and the fact that we now actually had something real to talk about, things are going much more smoothly now. She’s not just sympathetic but complimentary, telling me I shouldn’t care about Diana and that I could have any girl because I’m smart and handsome and funny and all that. If she’s trying to make me feel better, she’s doing a pretty good job of it. She even has me laughing a little. Who would’ve thought. This girl actually does have a personality. A damned good one too.

Once I’m shaken out of my initial slump, things become a little easier. I find myself in another conversation with Jack and Lily, the French girl and her American boyfriend. We’re discussing plans for Christmas and New Years’ Eve. It turns out that they and a small group of other Josai students are also going to the Tokyo Sky Tree on New Years’ Eve so Stephen and I can join them. (Diana probably won’t be a part of that now). But not only that, they’re also going to Kyoto that week, though on the days after I’d been planning to go. But they’ll be in Tokyo for Christmas and I’m welcome to join them, so I think that’s what I’m doing. I’ll cancel my reservations at the hostel I made and spend the holidays with this awesome couple and their friends. I won’t be alone on Christmas and I’ll ring in the New Year properly.

Cinty and Ben are clearly bound to hook up tonight and nothing is going to stop that train, but I still find myself smoking and talking to her on the balcony frequently, not just the two of us but with Ben, Stephen, or other random people as well. I’m so astounded by how wrong my first impression of her was that I actually come right out and tell her.

Back inside and near the end of the night, Ai and Miko come to the party. Those are two of the three girls from the okinomiyaki night, the hip-hop dancer who speaks decent English and the really beautiful girl who speaks almost no English at all. I’m actually loose enough and—thanks to Cinty—confident enough to try and flirt with Miko now, and while her reaction seems promising the language barrier is just too great. We do make a genuine attempt to try and communicate with each other but it doesn’t work. Oh well.

Finally, at around 2:00 a.m. a large group of people from the party including three Japanese girls other than Ai and Miko (who leave after a relatively short time) are getting together to go to a karaoke bar and Stephen and I are welcome to join. Neither of us feels like going but something tells me I should. I ask Trey for guidance. He’s not coming because there’s a Japanese girl with a one-way ticket to his bedroom hanging onto him, but he talks me into going with the group that’s leaving. I didn’t need too much convincing. My inner hobbit almost always gets me to err on the side of adventure.

Stephen and I take too long to decide so the group is already gone by the time we leave. We wish a goodnight to the few who remain at Ben’s place, and I call one of the people who went and find out where they were going. He says it’s a place right across from the train station so I assume it’s the same place where the infamous lost-key welcome party took place, and Stephen and I head there.

While we’re walking Stephen mentions Diana and says, “That was really funny when she left with that guy. I wonder what they’re doing tonight.”

“Actually, I didn’t think that was funny at all,” I tell him, and he guesses right away that I’d been interested in her, which I thought he’d already figured out. So I explain what happened, and that leads to another conversation about confidence and not selling myself short and all that stuff I’ve heard a million times already but never hurts to hear a little more. Stephen’s got a good heart. I felt comfortable enough opening up to him completely, even confiding the fact that I’m a virgin when he asked me what my longest relationship ever was and I had to explain I’ve never had any relationship.

But we leave all that shit at the door to the karaoke place when we arrive. When we get inside I barely have to use any Japanese to explain to the waitress that we think our friends are here—she leads us right to the room full of foreigners.

And for the next two or three hours it’s just pure and simple beer-drinking, food-eating, and bad-singing. The Japanese girls there sing a bunch of songs I don’t know, and once I finally figure out how to work the song-selection device I and the other Westerners sing a bunch of songs they don’t know. Some of the guys know songs that the Japanese girls know but I don’t. I would totally try and rectify that if I didn’t find the music to be so bad.

It’s actually the first time I’ve ever done karaoke. It always seemed like something I’d never do unless I was really drunk, but last night certainly qualified. Stephen had never done it either, but both of us found it surprisingly fun. I never fully shook off my depression, but I was able to enjoy myself in spite of it.

Andrew passing the Mike.Stephen popping his karaoke-cherry.

Sing a Japanese song, please. Mmmm that's good karaoke.

In case you’re wondering about the girls there, they were as uninterested in me as I was in them. One of them was getting cuddly with Andrew, but the other two just seemed interested in talking to each other and singing the occasional song. At that point I really didn’t care. One of them was cute but she never held eye contact with me for more than a second and it wouldn’t have mattered anyway because she couldn’t speak English.

We had our last call at around 4:30 a.m. and left shortly before 5:00. Luckily it’s just a five-minute walk back to my apartment, and this time I didn’t lose my key. Stephen crashed on my couch and we finished our conversation about women and relationships while passing out. I told him and he understands that I really don’t feel like I need a woman, that I love my life as it is, but it would be nice to have someone to share it with and it feels like I’m missing out on one of the most fundamental parts of human existence.

Curtains

This morning I walked Stephen to the train station and saw him on his way, but not before testing my voltage converter to see if the trip to Akibahara had at least paid off in that respect. All I could do was laugh when it didn’t work.

We only got four hours of sleep but somehow it was enough and somehow, miraculously, the hangover wasn’t that bad. Rather than immediately go back and write this journal entry, I decided to spend the morning going to the beach and doing some good old-fashioned staring at the ocean and pondering life.

The story continues...

That was very pleasant. I didn’t come to any new revelations or anything, but merely confirmed what I’d told Stephen the night before. My life is fantastic. I live in a wonderful place, I have an excellent job, I know lots and lots of fantastic people and I’m meeting more all the time. So I let one chance for romance slip away from me. So what? It seems there will be other chances. It’s just that if the story of my life is anything to go by, I’ll probably fuck those up too.

The Longest Weekend

December 19th, 2010 No comments

I can not believe the weekend I just had. I just got home, 14 hours later than expected and much much happier than I could have dreamed. This weekend was by far the highlight of the year—the pinnacle—the point at which not just one but practically every single thread of my life over the past year came together in one epic climax.

I’m riding a high right now the likes of which I haven’t felt in years, and there’s nothing else for me to do now than to write a novella-length account of what happened so that I can re-live it whenever I want, and those who know me (and who have plenty of time to spare) can come as close as possible to sharing the experience without actually having been there. This could easily take me the entire afternoon and into the evening to write, but in spite of my extreme exhaustion from having slept only a total of 3 hours the entire time, this is something I simply must do right now while it’s still as fresh in my mind as it will ever be. So without further introduction, I give you my tale:

Prologue – The Diverging Road

I’ve been living in Hannover for two years and four months now. For the most part, I’ve been leading a very isolated lifestyle, keeping to myself and rarely approaching any strangers, be they beautiful women or just guys that I might get along with if I just had the wherewithal to overcome my natural shyness and approach them. In spite of this, it’s been a very enjoyable life and I’d be happy to stay on this path even longer if it weren’t for the fact that it clearly leads nowhere.

But this is not why I decided to embark on a career of overseas English teaching—I did it for adventure, to see the world, to expand my mind and grow as a person. I’ve lived long enough in Germany and for the entire year I’ve had my sights set on Japan as my next destination. The school that had been my first choice doesn’t seem to be hiring so rather than wait an indefinite amount of time for a shot at getting hired there, I decided to set my sights elsewhere.

About a month ago I got an e-mail from the TEFL website—a job alert for a company called Interac that hires assistant language teachers (ALTs) and places them in the public schools in Japan. I thought little of it when I went through the process of applying, and was actually rather surprised when I got a call from one of their recruiters asking to speak to me. When I returned the call I went through a little preliminary interview that I thought went okay but that I could have done a lot better. Still, I managed to do well enough to get me through the initial screening process, and we set a date of Friday the 17th of December for me to travel to their office in Oxford for a face-to-face interview.

When I got the details of the interview and what I’d need to prepare for it, I felt slightly overwhelmed. Not only did I need a whole slew of documents from college transcripts to a copy of my TEFL-certificate, but the interview itself would be more than just a normal Q & A type interview. I’d have to take a grammar test and a personality test, and conduct several tasks that would be videotaped and sent to Japan for scrutiny. Among these tasks were a one-minute introduction that I would give as though meeting a group of Japanese teachers for the first time, a 1.5-minute imaginary warm-up exercise for elementary school students, and a 3-minute demo lesson from materials they gave me that I’d have to teach.

Because Japan is a very conservative culture, I knew I’d finally have to get rid of the long hair if I were to have a decent chance of getting the job, so on Wednesday I went to the hairdressers in Hannover for the first time ever and did the deed. The students I saw on Thursday—including the lovely Mandy—were quite shocked by the radical change in my appearance to say the least, but it seemed that the reaction was good. Mandy certainly seemed to like it anyway, as she seemed warmer towards me than ever before.

On Thursday evening I decided to forego the usual routine and spent hours preparing, going to the Planeo office and printing out scripts of what I was going to say for the video-taped portions of the interview. For some reason the USB stick didn’t work on the computer there this time, so I had to actually go back to my flat and e-mail the documents to myself in order to get them printed out. I was feeling more stressed than I have in awhile, but also kind of enjoying it. It’s not too often that I am forced to really put my mind into something so obviously worthwhile. I practiced what I was going to say out loud in the Planeo office over and over again until I felt I finally had it down, but over the course of the evening and the entire time before the interview I kept going over it in my head again and again, convinced that I was going to choke and forget a line or mis-pronounce one of the Japanese phrases I learned when the time came.

I tried to go to bed early, but 10:00 was as early as I could make it. The interview was scheduled for 11:30 a.m. the next day, and it was a very long way from Hannover to Oxford.

Part One – Getting There

I had no way of knowing that the 5-6 hours of sleep I got on Thursday night was to be the most sleep I’d have all weekend, but when that alarm woke me up at 4 a.m. the adrenaline was right there with it, getting me to leap out of bed, take a shower, eat breakfast, and put on one of the suits my parents had bought for me when I was back in America. (Much to my delight, I still remembered how to tie a tie from working at the hotel for so long.)

I walked to the train station, appreciating pre-dawn central Hannover which I may have seen just once or twice during my entire time here. I’d just missed the S-Bahn to the airport but another one came twenty minutes later and I had plenty of time before the 7:00 flight.

I reached the Hannover airport with plenty of time to spare, and sat in the terminal reading my book until boarding. Because the ice had to be sprayed from the wings before takeoff, we started 20 minutes later than expected, but this was still within my safety margin.

I had a nice window seat close to the front of the plane which I booked in advance, and it just so happened that a very attractive girl was sitting right next to me. She looked like a young Claire Daines with dark brown hair. She was there with her family and spent most of the flight talking to her mother, so it would have been awkward to say anything. But I knew I would kick myself if I said nothing, and I didn’t want this weekend to get off to that kind of start. So after the plane had landed I turned and asked the both of them if they spoke English and when they said yes I asked, “What brings you to England?” The girl didn’t say anything—she seemed annoyed that I was speaking to them at all, but the mother replied politely that they were there for the weekend to go shopping and that was that. Nothing gained, but nothing lost.

I’d pre-booked tickets from Stansted through London to Oxford, and when I went to retrieve them from the automatic machine, only one card came out and it said “Not valid for travel”. I double-checked the machine and saw this was the only card that came out so I figured I’d just go with it. I thought nothing of it during the 45-minute train ride from Stansted to London Liverpool Street Station, but after arriving you have to put the card through a turnstile which didn’t let me through. There was a station worker letting some others through but when I showed him my card he very rudely said, “Look at the front of your card. What does it say?” And I tried to explain about the machine but he just told me to talk to one of the guys there wearing yellow vests with the words “Revenue Protection” on the back.

All of them were engaged in arguments with other people whose cards wouldn’t let them through, and at this point I knew I was running out of time. I originally had a solid 50 minutes to make it from Liverpool Station to Paddington Station via the tube, but the delay brought that down to 35 and now I had to wait for assistance. Luckily the guy I talked to was nice. I showed him the receipt for the ticket purchase I’d printed out from the internet and he let me through, but I still had to get this card thing sorted out or I’d never make it onto the tube let alone the train from Paddington to Oxford.

So I lost more time looking for the right desk to get help (lots of rude “Don’t talk to us, you need to talk to so-and-so”) along the way, but I finally just had to buy another couple of tickets. If I want a refund I have to write to the England rail services and request one.

By the time I got that sorted out I knew I was going to be cutting it dangerously close. I was originally slated to arrive at 10:48, giving me a comfortable 42 minutes to get from the Oxford station to the Interac office, but now my best shot was an 11:00 arrival. Unfortunately, I was at a loss for direction when I got to the underground trains and ended up going for one stop in the wrong direction. By the time I finally got my bearings I knew that my best shot was going to be an 11:18 arrival and that after all that hard work and preparation I was going to have to be late for this interview.

When I finally got to Paddington there was just enough time to exchange my currency and grab a bagel before having to rush to grab the train, leaving no time to find a payphone to call and let Interac know. Naturally, my German cell-phone didn’t work in England so I had no choice but to ask for help. I walked up and down the aisles looking for someone that I might feel comfortable approaching, and settled on the guy sitting directly across the aisle from me.

“Excuse me, are you from England?” I asked. Probably a strange-sounding question but when he said yes I quickly explained, quite conscious of the fact that I now had professional-looking hair and was wearing a formal business-suit: “I’ve got an 11:30 meeting that I’m going to be late for and my cell-phone is from Germany and it doesn’t work here. Could I possibly use yours?”

He turned out to be quite friendly and graciously let me make the call. The woman—the same woman who’d given me the preliminary interview—didn’t sound especially understanding but she didn’t sound too annoyed either. When I said I’d arrive at the station at 11:18 she assured me that the office was very close and I probably would be able to make it by 11:45 so it wouldn’t be much of a problem. Still, I hated having to make that my first impression before actually making the first impression.

When I arrived at Oxford I wasted no time in trying to figure out the bus situation and instead took a taxi (that was why I’d rushed to the currency exchange back at Paddington). The driver was also very friendly and helpful, even calling Interac to confirm their location when he couldn’t find it immediately. We got there at 11:40, and I gave him a nice tip and headed into the lion’s den for what I knew had the potential to be the most important job interview of my life.

Part Two – The Interview

Adrenaline is a wonderful thing. As soon as I got to the office, I could already feel my heart beating at an accelerated rate, making my mind sharper. Reception contacted the woman I’d spoken to earlier and she came out to greet me. I instantly felt much more comfortable, as she looked much friendlier face-to-face than she sounded on the phone. She greeted me warmly, seemed to approve of my appearance as she sized me up, then led me to a meeting room in the back where it would all take place.

She offered me some coffee or tea, and while I usually don’t take hot drinks I was happy to accept this time and asked for a tea. She brought it to me while we awaited her colleague who would be conducting the first part of the interview, which was just a presentation about Japan and about Interac. This woman was also quite friendly and put me at ease right away. She brought in a little lap-top and went through a power-point presentation, stopping frequently to ask me things, no doubt to get a sense of my intelligence and personality. The first question was “what do you know about Japanese culture?” and when I answered that they were much more group-focused as opposed to the individualistic nature of Westerners, it was clear that I’d given the best of all possible answers, as she explained that this was in fact the most essential difference.

The presentation gave me a lot more detail about the company and what I’d actually be doing there, as well as dispelling some of the myths about Japan such as it being a completely male-dominated culture. She explained that while it may appear that way on the surface, the women actually have a lot more power than people think because it’s the women who traditionally control the money and decide how much their husbands get to spend.

She also confirmed a few preconceptions, most notably that Japanese women are very much interested in Western men like myself, and that over there I’d be considered “exotic”. Naturally, that was very good to hear coming from someone who definitely knows what she’s talking about.

Overall, throughout the presentation and our intermittent conversation, I got the sense that she liked me and was impressed by me, which definitely helped with my confidence for the rest of the interview. She even told me not to worry about the video just as long as I was emotive enough, and that I definitely “looked the part.” She even said quite explicitly that the Japanese expect a certain appearance from teachers, and that I fit that appearance perfectly. So yeah…that was the most worthwhile haircut I’ve ever had.

Next came the difficult part, as she left to catch a flight and the first woman came in to conduct the actual interview. This time I was completely prepared, having gone over ahead of time exactly how I would answer the standard questions such as “what are your greatest strengths and weaknesses?” and “how do you handle stress?” My greatest strength as a teacher is that I’m very patient. My greatest strength as a person is how motivated I am—that when I set my mind on something I don’t give up until it’s done. My weakness is the flip-side of my greatest strength—being too patient can sometimes lead to time-management problems as I’ll spend too much time on one thing. As for stress, well I see it as a good thing. I enjoy having to put a lot of effort into accomplishing something.

All of this is completely true, so in spite of the fact that my answers were rehearsed I didn’t feel like I was being the least bit dishonest. When I had to take the personality-test, however, I may have exaggerated a bit as to how outgoing I am, but I justified this by telling myself that I am working on becoming more outgoing and that I will definitely force myself to be more outgoing in Japan where I’ll really have no choice. But when I tallied up the answers I found that of the four possible personality types I came out as an “Idealist” which was definitely spot-on.

As for the grammar test, it was a piece of cake except for a brief section on Active vs. Passive voice, but I was told that this is where most people screw up so not to worry much about it.

Then it was finally time for the video-taping. Much to my extreme relief, I was assured that if I screwed up we could just stop and take it again from the start. Now feeling much more at ease I even asked her for some help with pronouncing one of the phrases I’d learned for the interview: “Dozo Yoroshiko” (Nice to meet you) which when said properly actually sounds like “Do-yo-rosh-ko.”

The one-minute self introduction came first, the part I’d been going over in my head over and over again for the entire morning and previous evening. When she asked if I was ready I said I was, then as soon as she started rolling my mind drew a blank. I said, “actually I’m not ready, can we start again?” That she was more than happy to do that took the last of the remaining pressure off, and I went through my pre-planned script even more perfectly than I’d been doing in my head—as I would always forget something or phrase it wrong during my practice-takes. But having nailed the introduction, the rest was easy. I had to read a sample script, which I knew would be the easiest part because I’m quite good at speaking slowly and clearly and looking up from the page to make eye-contact with the camera.

Next was the part I was most nervous about—the elementary-school warm-up. Because we were encouraged to sing, I’d decided on singing a song I actually learned way way way way back in nursery school, only with a slight variation to make it more of an English-lesson sort of thing. It was somewhat elaborate and I kept screwing up during my practice-takes but I did it perfectly on the very first try. Finally, the sample lesson—after one minor screw-up initially—also went really well. She even told me afterwards that I’d done a great job.

The hard part over, all that was left was to fill out a little open-ended questionnaire. Once that was finished they had everything they needed. She gave me a very friendly goodbye along with a, “It was a pleasure to meet you” and I left there feeling like I had nailed it.

And I did nail it. I left there without any reservations about something I might have said or done wrong, about as certain as I could possibly be that I’d made a very good impression and that unless every other candidate is a super-genius fluent in Japanese, there’s no way I could possibly not be offered the job. Seriously, if I don’t get the job offer I will be shocked. Shocked, I tell you.

So you can imagine how great I was feeling during the bus-ride and subsequent walk to the train station, during which I busted out my I-pod and listened to Lacrimosa’s “Die Strasse der Zeit” while experiencing the ecstasy of having done what I came for and having done it extremely well, as well as the real solid sense for the first time since this whole process began that this road really is leading somewhere—that it’s now more likely than ever that I will be spending the next years of my life in motherfucking Japan!!!

Part Three – London Night-Life

All I had to do now was get back to London and find my hotel before I could officially go out and celebrate. I got to watch the sun set over the English countryside on the ride back, and it was twilight when I reached Paddington. I found an information desk and confirmed what I’d been hoping—that the hotel was within walking distance of the station. Of course getting there wasn’t so straightforward because I had no map. I tried to buy one from an automatic map-dispenser but it ate my £1 coin and didn’t give me anything. But I took advantage of the fact that I was in an English-speaking country and asked for directions from multiple people until I finally found my way to Norfolk Square where the St. George’s Hotel was located.

Normally when travelling I stay at youth hostels, but this time I really wanted a room to myself so I booked a hotel. A cheap hotel, of course, but it was still slightly more expensive than a hostel. The guy at reception wasn’t English—he looked kind of Arabic but sounded Russian—and he was extremely friendly and welcoming. After getting the key to my room, which was actually a 4-bed dormitory with its own bathroom that I had all to myself, I went inside, changed out of the suit, and lied down in the bed for a little while to recover some much-needed energy.

It was hunger more than anything else that got me out of bed, and I went off in search of some fish and chips and beer. Yes, this time I was planning to drink. The other two times I was in London I didn’t drink a drop, and while I had good reasons both of those times I’ve always regretted not getting a true sense of the night-life, something I fully intended to remedy now.

Right around the corner was a pub that sold fish and chips, but all of the tables were taken and there were no stools at the bar, and I hate standing up while eating. But right next to it was a little bistro specifically for fish and chips, and it even advertized the fact that it was seen on a BBC program called “In search of perfection.” No beer, but this must be where to go for some real, hardcore British fish and chips. So I ate there and probably would have enjoyed it more if that “perfection” idea hadn’t raised my expectations just a little too high.

After filling up my stomach I hopped over to the pub and ordered a beer. I already had a general sense of this area from wandering around in search of the hotel, and this seems to be the only pub around so unless it turned out to be really awesome I knew I’d have to take the tube to a more central part of town.

I looked around for possible groups of people I might feel comfortable approaching as I drank, but spotted none. As much of a confidence-boost as the interview had given me, I still wasn’t quite ready to go up to any strangers and hope for the best. This was just the first beer, after all, and after finishing it and getting a good sense of this place I knew I’d be better off heading further into town anyway.

I already had a destination in mind: good old Picadilly Circus, the “Broadway” of London. I remembered it clearly from the other two times I stayed in London, the first because it was where I saw Les Miserables and the second because it’s where my hostel was located during my epic Live 8 excursion. There was nothing you couldn’t find there. There were bound to be pubs.

Still without a map, I navigated the Underground easily enough (now I was finally getting the hang of it) and came out to Picadilly Circus expecting to see some awesome decked-outedness because of Christmas. One of the reasons I was looking forward to this trip was because I’ve only seen London in the Spring and Summer, but never the winter and I thought it would look especially unique during the holidays. But it was rather disappointing to see that aside from a few extra lights strung up here and there, there wasn’t much difference at all.

I walked for awhile before actually finding a pub that was strictly a pub. It was mostly theaters and restaurants and I thought I might actually have to go elsewhere to find the night-life, but I soon found a place called Max Connor’s that looked to be quite happening from the outside and I went in. This place was huge—three floors and two bars—and it was packed. I knew that there would be no avoiding that in central London on a Friday night, so I patiently endured the pushing and shoving and waiting for a long time to get a spot at the bar from which to order a beer. When I did I once again scanned the place for a group of people (or an attractive woman) I wouldn’t mind approaching, but I again came up empty.

The ratio of men to women here was staggering—about 15 to 1. It was mostly groups of three or more guys, usually bald or with buzzed haircuts and carrying on about sports (I listened in on many-a-conversation to try and gauge whom to approach) and the only women there were there with a boyfriend. (Incidentally, the ratio of men to attractive women was more like 50 to 1, meaning that there were only 3 good-looking women there in a crowd of about 150).

So I left that place without talking to anyone but now starting to feel the pressure. God fucking help me if I keep to myself the entire night. I just can’t let that happen, I was thinking.

The second place I went to—I forget the name—was slightly less crowded and they had Belgian beer, which I opted for instead of the local stuff I’d tried at the first two places and was underwhelmed by. Again I scanned the room and listened in on conversations, but still it felt that it would just be extremely unnatural to butt in on anyone out of the blue.

But when a group of youngish-looking guys who didn’t seem too intimidating carried their beers outside for a cigarette I sensed an opportunity. I followed them out, went up to them, and said, “Hey I saw you guys take your beers out here to smoke. I’m here all alone—would you mind if I join you for a cigarette?”

I could tell right away that I’d picked the right group. Not only were they very welcoming, but they were a far cry from the living stereotypes who had dominated the other place. We started off with the standard introductions as I told them why I was in town and asked them all about themselves. When the smoke was finished they invited me to come back in and continue drinking with them.

I gladly joined them and we spent the next hour or so chatting together about all kinds of things from the differences between American and British culture, awesome American TV shows, the problem with NFL football (too many commercials), and of course, politics. They were very upset with the party they’d supported in the last election—the Liberal-Democrats (did I pick the right group or what?)—for siding with the conservatives in raising tuition rates for English college students (I believe there were some riots about this issue very recently). They said how disillusioned they were that these politicians who supposedly supported the interests of the students and the working class would sell out so easily for the sake of short-term political gain. As you could imagine, I had a few things to say about the parallels between the Lib-Dems and Barack Obama.

Naturally, I took note of all of their names. There was a tall one with glasses named Nick who seemed the most interested in politics. There was a shorter one with a beard named Nat (Nathanial) who was telling me how much he loved the show The Wire. A half-Asian guy (who somehow looked a lot like Cenk Uygur) named Mike. And a younger guy named Harry who was the only one out of the five of us not born in 1984.

But as a completely unexpected added bonus, they had five tickets to a comedy show and one of their friends was apparently too drunk to leave his flat and join them, so I was welcome to take his place. I mean seriously—did I pick the right group or what?

So I found myself waiting outside of a theater with these guys, laughing and joking around with the others in line. Nat and I really had to piss, but apparently he had to go more than I did because he went and used this street-urinal thingy which is like an open-air port-o-potty if you can imagine such a thing. It’s basically a giant slab of thick plastic in the shape of a triangular pyramid with a hole for pissing at each end, obviously there to keep the public urination isolated to one spot instead of all over the street. I waited until we were inside to relieve myself.

They had really good seats—third row, stage right—and when I found them I discovered that they’d also bought a beer for me. Fucking love those guys.

The comedian was Jim Jeffries whom I was sure I’d seen on comedy central a long time ago but if I had he had a different routine this time because none of the jokes sounded familiar. I won’t recount the entire routine for you but it was well worth the free admission. There were a few parts that didn’t do anything for me—like his jokes about fucking women—but there were plenty of parts that had me in hysterics—like his jokes about struggling to masturbate while on drugs. He got a few hecklers, a couple of whom were seated right behind us, and he tore them apart like a master which was quite interesting because they seemed to really get a kick out of being ripped a new asshole.

During the intermission I bought one last round of beers—which turned out to be a mistake—and we had to leave slightly early because Nick doesn’t live in London and he had to catch the last train back to where he lives. We all said goodbye to each other with a solid recognition of the fact that we’ll never see each other again, but I thanked them all for a great evening. It wasn’t until then that I realized I really had to piss again, and wouldn’t you know it?—I ended up using the plastic-pyramid-thingy outside. After that, I went my merry way back to the hotel.

So far, both of my missions were accomplished and both went far better than I imagined. Nail the job interview? Big fat check-mark there. Have a great time drinking in London with other people? Check and double-check. Little did I know that the most incredible parts of the weekend were yet to come.

Part Four – Site Seeing

But it wasn’t all flowers and sunshine. The time between 1 a.m. and 11 a.m. on Saturday morning was quite miserable. It started when I woke up around 4 a.m. with a mouth as dry as the Sahara, both from smoking too many cigarettes and having one beer too many. Even finishing off my whole bottle of water didn’t get it moisturized enough, so I had to re-fill it with tap water. Nasty, London tap-water. The tap-water in Germany has spoiled me greatly. This stuff was shite, but I really had no other choice but to drink it, worried as I was that it might make me sick.

And once I had to go through all of that my mind was alert again, alert enough to hear the people in the room next to me, apparently some group of freakishly-early-risers who were up before the dawn talking and laughing loudly.

I simply could not get back to sleep. My head was pounding. My mouth kept re-dehydrating. The neighbors kept laughing at irregular intervals. I moved to the bed on the other side of the room but it was to no avail. The mind simply refused to lose consciousness, and it didn’t for the rest of the morning. Those three hours would be all I was going to get.

I puked once, but only once. After that I decided I could no longer handle the tap water and I forced myself to go out and buy a big bottle of trusty brand-name water from the shop across the street (this was around 9 a.m.) and went back to lie in bed, hoping the headache would subside and the sickness in my stomach would go away. I showered, which made me feel a little better, then very slowly ate some of the breakfast that they brought to my room—just the yoghurt—and was careful not to lay down too flat lest it all come spewing back out before the vitamins could work their way into my system. Meanwhile, the noise kept coming as the walls here seemed paper-thin. I was extremely glad I’d opted for the hotel and not a hostel (having privacy while in this particular state was invaluable) but whatever was happening in the other room—whether it was people laughing or later on the staff cleaning—sounded like it was happening right there in my own room.

Check-out was at 11, and I stayed in bed until the exact moment came. I gave my key to the receptionist who didn’t have a problem with my having been a few minutes late in leaving and gave me a very warm goodbye including a happy Christmas.

The headache was thankfully subsiding now and the fresh air did me good. Within an hour I’d be feeling just fine. I spent that hour getting off and on the wrong subway cars until I finally reached my destination: Westminster Abbey.

Yes, if not experiencing the night-life was my Number Two regret about what I’d missed my first two times in London, not getting into Westminster Abbey was Number One—one that it was now my primary mission to rectify. The first time I was there, the Abbey was closed to the public. The second time, it was open but it cost £15 to get in and at that particular moment I had exactly 0 pounds and 0 pence. But this time it was open and I had money—albeit a rapidly dwindling supply.

So I finally got to see the one site in London that I’d missed that I’ve always regretted having missed. I won’t bore anyone with the details—if you’re interested in Westminster Abbey you probably know about what’s there already—but I will note how awesome it was to be literally standing near the actual buried remains of all of these famous English people, among the coolest being Queen Elisabeth, Queen Mary Queen of Scots, King Edward the Confessor and other various royals, as well as writers like Charles Dickens and Lewis Carroll. Perhaps coolest of all to me personally was in the final room where two scientists are buried: Charles Darwin and Isaac Newton. The audio-guide told me they were both buried there and while I found Darwin easily enough (seriously—how cool is it to be standing over the actual bones of Charles fucking Darwin?) I couldn’t find Newton so I approached one of the priests/guides there and asked him. After jibing me a bit with his slick British wit (for being from “New Joisy”) he led me into a sealed-off area and showed me the slab of rock underneath where the discoverer of gravity itself was buried. Gravity. I mean, come on.

Of course the most striking thing came at the very end where the unknown warrior is buried beneath a marble stone surrounded by poppies. It literally gave me chills to think about this guy—whoever he was—who lived a short life and died a horrible death in World War I never to have any inkling of an idea that his bones would be given such an honored place among England’s honored dead. Of course he only represents all of the unknown soldiers who’ve lost their lives in various wars, but you can’t help but wonder what his immortal soul—if it exists—must think of his fate. Would he feel honored? Or would he consider it an empty political gesture to paint over the ugliness of war?

At any rate, I left the Abbey feeling quite satisfied that I’d seen the last remaining site on my London check-list after a five-and-a-half year interval. I now had just an hour to kill before 15:00, the time I’d resolved to start heading back to Stansted to get there in time for my 18:30 flight.

So after passing Big Ben and taking an obligatory look at the Thames, I hopped back on the tube and rode it to Hyde Park. It’s important to mention that it was snowing pretty heavily when I went into the Abbey and the roads were covered with it when I came out. I was glad for it because it was the first and possibly last time I’ll ever see London in the snow, but it also caused some difficulty (a very deliberate understatement).

At first, it only meant that no one was driving so everyone was taking the tube. I had to take the Jubilee line one stop to the Picadilly line, and one stop from there to the Hyde Park Corner station. The trains were jam-packed and we had to wait for awhile before they got permission to move, so what should have been a ten-minute journey maximum became a twenty-five minute journey, which still left me with a solid thirty minutes to enjoy Hyde Park in the snow.

Hyde Park, of course, has a very special place in my heart because it’s where my life’s most intensely awesome experience took place in July of 2005 when I saw Pink Floyd perform there live at the Live 8 concert. I had no idea where in Hyde Park that spot was—it’s a very big park—and I would have no way of knowing if I saw it again because it would be barely recognizable under the snowy circumstances, so my only intention was to just walk around and not try to turn this into some kind of memory-lane type deal (tempting as that was). It was awesome enough being back in the same general area as the location of what remains to this day my life’s most memorable experience. It was hard to believe that it was over five years ago, but not because it felt like just yesterday but because it felt like that was in the distant, distant past of ancient memory. And here I was again.

The concert grounds were probably covered by the huge “Winter Wonderland” carnival they had going on there which I made sure to avoid. I just circled a lake while listening to Lacrimosa—“Kyrie” first, then “Sacrifice”. But in between those two songs I stopped in the middle of a bridge which marked the half-way point to appreciate the fact that the site-seeing was officially over and now the only remaining mission was to get back to Hannover and from there on out every step I took would be towards that purpose. The idea that I was standing on this bridge in Hyde Park right now but that tonight I would be back in my cozy little flat in Hannover struck me as somewhat incredible. That sentiment turned out to be quite literal: the idea that I was going to make it back to Hannover right on schedule was, in fact, not credible.

Part Five – Getting Back

I honestly thought that the most difficult part would be getting all the way across town to the Liverpool Street Station. And it was rather difficult. I tried at first to take the tube, but this time it was simply too jam-packed to even get on. My back-pack and I just wouldn’t physically be able to fit, and I had no desire to endure what was going to be two really long stretches of tube-riding while being crunched into such claustrophobically close quarters anyway. My only realistic choice was to take the bus, as I was now dangerously low on funds and a cab would have destroyed me.

I couldn’t make sense of the map at the bus stop so I asked the first driver to come along whether it would bring me closer to Liverpool Street. I apparently got the friendliest bus-driver on earth, because not only did he assure me that it would, he said he would give me a shout when we reached the spot where I should get off.

Actually, that’s a bit of an oversimplification of what happened, but there’s no purpose in recounting all of the details of this leg of the journey. Suffice it to say, it took three separate hoppings on-and-off of three separate busses until I finally reached my destination, but I did reach it with plenty of time to spare. Enough time, in fact, to grab a bite to eat before even going to buy my ticket to Stansted.

I got it from the machine, oblivious to what was going down all around me, then merrily checked the time-table to see that the next train was due to depart in five minutes. Perfect timing, I thought. Haha.

When I went to where the trains would be I started to get confused because there was nobody on the platforms—everyone was standing behind the turnstiles. Did I have the wrong spot? I asked a police officer where I could find the trains to Stansted.

“There are no trains to Stansted,” she said in exactly those words, giving me a chill before adding, “not at the moment.” Apparently the snow had caused some accidents and delays. Trains were being cancelled. Flights were being delayed or cancelled. It was all a big fucking mess, and all I could do was wait around and listen for the announcements.

So I went over to the turnstiles where I could see that there were in fact four “Stansted Express” trains right there but none of them going anywhere. A large crowd was gathered, staring up at the big board which just kept repeating the same message about an overturned lorry causing delays and that the situation would be fixed as soon as possible. But from the murmuring of the crowd it was clear that this could be anywhere from two minutes to two hours. I just had to stand there.

And stand there I did, as slowly the severity of the situation began to develop. The yellow-vested people behind the turnstiles would occasionally get off their walkie-talkies to inform the crowd first that they didn’t know when the trains would run again, and then that a couple of runways were closed at Stansted because of the snow and some flights were being cancelled. We should check with our airline.

Well, I had the phone number for Germanwings on the receipt for my ticket I’d printed out, but my cell-phone didn’t work. I found a payphone and dropped £1 coin in the slot, expecting to get at least four minutes to start off with because on the page next to the number it said “25p per minute.” But all I got was an automated message telling me to hold the line, and I watched my credit literally disappear by the second so that the entire pound was gone after only about ten seconds. I asked the information desk if there was internet access anywhere at the station but there wasn’t.

So I just went back to the turnstiles and waited. I figured I’d just go to the airport whenever the trains started again and find out what was going on once I got there. But very shortly after I resumed waiting, they announced that Stansted airport was now completely closed and no flights were taking off anymore.

What to do? I had exactly fifteen pounds left out of the hundred and fifty I’d brought. I have no idea where it all disappeared to but I know that’s what London does to you and I knew I couldn’t afford to spend another night there. Even the cost of a youth hostel would be pushing it, and then I’d still need to feed myself on top of that. But if the flight was cancelled and I went to the airport I might end up staying there all night. I had to approach someone who had a way of finding out what was going on.

Earlier I’d scanned the crowd listening for people speaking German—they were obviously the most likely to be using the Germanwings airline. There was a guy who’d been talking to someone in German I’d spotted earlier and he was still there. He seemed pissed off before—which was understandable given the circumstances but it still made me nervous about approaching him. If things had developed just a little bit differently I wouldn’t have approached him at all, but as it happened the moment took me and I just went for it.

“Entschuldigung,” I began, then switched immediately to English, “Are you German?” Yes, he is. “What airline are you taking?” Germanwings. “What flight?” He’s flying to Hannover on the 18:30 flight. Same as me, as luck would have it.

So I explained my predicament, from the cell-phone not working to being just about broke (seriously—between this trip, taxes, and a whole slew of other unexpected expenses in December I’m now at the lowest financial point I’ve been in all year) and that it would really help me out if he could keep me informed out about our flight.

He was in communication with someone back in Germany who was checking the internet for him, but for some reason not getting a clear answer. The flight was not officially cancelled but nor was there any delay time listed. He was also trying to decide whether to go to the airport or just give up and come back tomorrow, but he needed to know what was going on with Germanwings first. Much to my surprise, he offered to let me sleep at the place he was staying—the flat of a friend of his—if it turned out our flight was cancelled. I made sure to let him know how much I appreciated that.

The next moments were crucial. He got a call from his contact the moment the turnstiles opened up—apparently the train to Stansted was now clear for departure—but the fate of our flight was still far from clear. In a split-second decision, he decided to board the train and try his luck at the airport, and I followed. We made it on the train just in time and found a couple of empty seats next to each other. When the train started running it felt like we might be in luck—perhaps our flight would just be delayed for a few hours.

Along the way, we got to know each other a bit better. His name was Chris and he’s a techie guy, working on a team developing a new server for Nokia or something, some kind of big deal internet-related thing the details of which have escaped me. I of course gave him the run-down on myself regarding the English teaching, the job-interview for Japan, and why it is I chose to live in Germany. We had a little discussion about German culture, which he is apparently as tired of as I am of America. He currently lives in Lisbon with his Brazilian girlfriend and has no desire to move back to Germany any time soon.

[Unnecessary Grammatical Note: I’m switching to present tense now because it feels like the more natural way to tell the rest of the story.]

We get along surprisingly well and the conversation never falls flat during the entire train ride. Though there are plenty of periods of silence, one of us always breaks it with a joke. We have a similar sense of humor. At any rate, I’m glad I approached him because now I’m not completely on my own here. We’ll get to the airport together, figure out what’s going on together, and decide what to do next together.

The airport terminal is jam-packed with people, most of whom are apparently in line to try and collect a refund from Ryan Air, which has completely cancelled all of its flights for the rest of the night and into the morning. As for Germanwings, the big board says nothing but “Enquire Airline”.

We find an information desk and “enquire” about our flight. Now comes the news, both good and bad. Good news: the flight isn’t cancelled—it’s just been delayed. Bad news—it’s been delayed until 8:00 a.m. tomorrow. The time is now 5 p.m.

We now have to make a terrible decision. Either we go through all the bullshit trouble of getting back to London and taking the tube to this flat and going through the whole damned process again super-early the next morning (with no guarantee that the trains will be running properly then either), OR…we could camp out here in the terminal. Spend the next 13 hours minimum in this fucking god-forsaken airport terminal. The information desk workers make it quite clear that all hotels are booked.

I lean towards going just because it would give us something to do, but he leans towards staying because he doesn’t want to have to deal with the process of getting here again. I understand his reasoning and ultimately agree. We’ve come this far. There’s no sense going backwards. Now we just have to endure this giant gaping hole of time that lies before us. “Hey, it’s not so bad,” he jokes to me, “It’ll be an experience we can tell our grandkids about!” That sounded silly at the time.

Part Six – Stranded

Were it not for Chris, it could have easily been one of the most excruciatingly boring nights of my life. Instead, it turned out to be one of the most interesting.

We spend the first hour or so just walking around, familiarizing ourselves with our new environment—what was to constitute our world for the night. We want to find out where the Germanwings desk is and what time they’re planning to start checking people in tomorrow morning, and after asking a few people we find out where it is and that it’ll open up at 6 a.m. But now we really need to find a spot to camp because spots are rapidly filling up.

We consider using the airport “chapel” which is just a tiny little room with some chairs and a table filled with religious texts including several different version of the Bible, the Koran, and the Bhagavad Gita. Aside from the plain old weirdness of the vibe, the sign on the door says it closes at 11:00 so we might be kicked out if we set up camp here, so instead we finally settle on a little space underneath a giant gray column the shape of a rounded square, each side about four meters in length with about a one meter overhang. Almost all of these little shaded locations are taken up by now, but this one isn’t, perhaps because it’s under a fire-extinguisher and emergency phone. Someone might kick us out of that spot as well, but we decide to take the chance and it’s there we set up camp.

We’ll walk around a bit later, but for now I just want to rest for a little bit. I use my jacket as a pillow and he offers me a pullover which makes it significantly more comfortable, and I lie there for awhile as he makes phone calls. While on the phone he notices an airport worker outside a nearby shop with a cart full of used cardboard boxes and points them out to me. I’m not sure what he’s getting at, but when he finishes the phone call he explains that if we lie on the cardboard instead of the floor, it’ll be slightly less uncomfortable and much less cold. “Survival training,” he says.

There’s a bit of an argument with the guy who’s bringing the used boxes to the recycling bin: “If I let you have them then everyone’s going to come get them and I’ll be blamed when they’re all over the floor tomorrow morning.” But there are a couple of boxes—luckily very big ones—that we can take because apparently these can’t be traced back to him. Whatever. They suit our purposes, and turn out to have been a fantastic idea on Chris’s part.

We lie down for a little while longer until he gets hungry and the meal I had at Liverpool station starts to wear off as well. We ask one of our “neighbors”, a Spanish-looking guy against the wall near our column, if he’ll be staying put for awhile and if he could watch our stuff. He kindly obliges.

We go off in search of a place to eat, and I learn that Chris is a vegetarian which naturally earns him many points in my book even though I fell off that wagon years ago. We settle on an Italian-buffet kind of place and we each get some pasta. Over dinner our conversation starts to take a turn towards the personal, as he asks me what I think of the German women and I honestly answer that they seem very arrogant and difficult. He agrees that this is exactly how they are generally speaking—that when a guy hits on them they tend to deliberately make it hard on him, and that when they actually are your girlfriend they tend to be controlling bitches. He says that going out with a Latina girl was something of a revelation for him.

The meal took the very last bit of money I had, but he offers to buy me some dessert and anything else I need (within reason) because he’s still got about 25 “quid” left. We grab some chocolate mousse and he gets a cappuccino as well from a place called “Pret” and we also acquire a couple of bottles of water from the shop closest to our “camp-site” as it begins to close down. But we also confirm that the little supermarket there stays open 24 hours a day, which I joke makes living in an airport actually more convenient than living in Germany.

Back at our spot, we finish our dessert and lie back down, commencing with the conversation which he himself starts to take in a much deeper direction. I can’t possibly recall exactly how we got on to certain topics or what exactly was said, but there was a very lengthy discussion about the meaning of life and fundamental nature of the universe and that sort of thing—you know, my favorite sort of thing. He wanted me to explain my whole philosophy on life, which I was more than happy to do, and I was just as interested to hear what he had to say.

Apparently he’s not just a vegetarian—he does yoga and meditates (or at least tries to) in the hope of eventually reaching a higher state of consciousness without the aid of hallucinogenic drugs, which he’s never done. He used to smoke but now he doesn’t take any sort of substance including alcohol, which along with the vegetarian thing is all part of a lifestyle of physical purity which I can’t help but admire even though I’m not exactly signing up for it.

So there’s a long discussion about whether we have immortal souls, how common life is in the universe, whether evolution is a product of some kind of fundamental impulse towards greater complexity built into existence and whether humanity will ever evolve to some kind of state of God-consciousness or if we’ll wipe ourselves out before even getting close. He’s a lot more optimistic about humanity than I am, believing that everyone basically wants to do good even though some people fail at it. I have to explain Ayn Rand’s philosophy of ethical egoism to him, which he finds astounding and, naturally, quite disturbing. I also launch into my whole “waking up in a dark room with no memory and starting to imagine universes of greater and greater complexity” theory of Existence, which he doesn’t totally accept but certainly finds interesting.

Of course I’m very much in my element throughout this whole discussion but I’m not absorbed in it enough to not notice the ridiculous amount of beautiful women and girls around. In addition to one sitting very close to us whom I imagine is listening to our conversation in awe until I realize she’s listening to an I-pod, they keep walking by every few minutes. Some I only see once, and some I see again and again to the point where I really start becoming infatuated. Like sweat-pants girl, cell-phone girl, blonde-girl-with-glasses, and a few others.

As if picking up on this subconsciously, Chris suddenly shifts the conversation back to women. I’d alluded to having problems with them earlier when we were talking about our families—I couldn’t help but mention the whole father-abandonment thing—and he asks me if I could explain it further. He says I don’t have to—he doesn’t want to pry—but I have no problem spilling my guts to complete strangers (hence this blog) so I go ahead and give him the entire thorough explanation of my problems with women, all the way from the fear of rejection tied up with emotions related to my father to the suicide attempts and subsequent hospitalizations in high school over unrequited love.

I admit that I’ve never had a relationship and I’m still a virgin, which prompts a conversation similar to many I’ve had in the past but which is very important this time simply because of the timing. I’ll do my best to recount the key part of this conversation in dialog form, though it’s only a very rough approximation of what was actually said:

“It’s just that whenever I’m around a woman I find attractive I get very tense and nervous and can’t act naturally,” I say.

“That’s really common,” he assures me. “We’re all afraid of being embarrassed and nobody likes rejection. But if a girl is a bitch to you it’s probably because she’s insecure about herself. She’s afraid that you will reject her so she acts that way.”

“Hmmm…”

“Come on, you’ve never thought of that before?”

“I guess I have, but that’s usually not where my mind is when I’m in that situation. I just start feeling like I’m not good enough, I don’t deserve her, and I should stay away.”

“Well maybe you shouldn’t go for the really beautiful girls.”

“I’ve heard that from a lot of people,” I protest. “They say I should start with ugly girls because ugly girls are easier, but I’m not going to use someone I’m not attracted to just to work out my personal bullshit.”

“I don’t mean ugly girls,” he explains, “just…nice girls. Of course you should be attracted to them but a lot of the most beautiful girls are stuck-up bitches. You should find someone nice who won’t make you feel shitty. Someone you could feel comfortable with.”

“Yeah, that makes sense.”

It sounds like advice I’ve heard a million times, and in many ways it is, but the significance of it being said at this particular moment in time is what makes it sink in. This is no ordinary conversation with a friend. I’ve just met this guy and already we’re already bonding on this incredibly deep level and so I’m that much more receptive to it. Plus, I’m running on three hours of sleep and rather exhausted.

But one thing he says that I haven’t considered before is that nowadays you can just make your approach via the internet. Facebook, he explains, makes the job of guys like us much easier. You just compose your message and send it without having to deal with any of the sweaty-palm bullshit. I try to protest—that of course you need to do it in person, because…well, I can’t come up with a convincing reason. He assures me that there’s nothing wrong with that at all. That’s how he’s done it and that’s how lots of people do it and there’s nothing wrong with it. So that sticks in my mind as well.

Eventually the conversation comes to a lull, and I get up to go to the bathroom. When I come back he suggests we watch a movie. He busts out his lap-top and gives me a choice of two DVDs—a Jet Li movie or a George Clooney movie called “The American”. I’m way more in the mood for one of Clooney’s slow, contemplative pictures than any kind of Kung Fu deal, so that’s what we watch.

I notice a program called “MILF” on his desktop and he explains this is the name of the server his team is working on. The first was “Mama” and the second was “Big Mama” so “MILF” seemed like the next logical step in the progression (though his female co-workers aren’t too keen on it). I asked him if he also designs websites and he says that’s one of the shittiest things he has to do and only takes that work when there’s nothing else. I decide not to tell him about Revolution Earth.

So we watch the film which is quite good, and all the while I’m distracted by all the beautiful girls walking by. I start playing the game in my mind where I look straight at their eyes and wait for them to look at me. They almost always do, but the real trick is holding their gaze as they walk by. I find that more often than not, they also maintain eye-contact, which I don’t think is usual. Maybe it’s my lack of long hair. Maybe they’re just as tired as I am. I don’t know. But one of them holds my gaze long enough to actually smile at me and that feels fantastic.

Of course I let Chris know how distracted I am because this station is swarming with beautiful women and he says he noticed. He says that London is great because you’ve got all different kinds of women, and he’s right. There are blondes, brunettes, Asians, Indians, Arabs and Africans—all different shapes and sizes but somehow the ratio of attractive to non-attractive seems bizarrely skewed. I normally think only one out of every ten girls is attractive (one out of twenty are “beautiful”) but this seems like half-and-half, and they all look beautiful to me right now. Maybe it’s because they’re mostly younger women because older ones would have an easier time finding somewhere else to stay. Maybe it’s just my mind playing tricks on me because I’m so tired.

After the film we exchange a few words about it and talk about the meaning, but now we’re both exhausted He tells me later that he managed to get about 15 solid minutes of sleep but the best I could do is reach a point of semi-consciousness because the guys sitting near us won’t stop talking and there are some girls laughing and singing nearby, not to mention the frequent loudspeaker announcements asking so-and-so to come to the desk for such-and-such. Oh, and sleeping on a hard floor isn’t exactly the most comfortable thing in the world for your bones, even with a thin layer of cardboard separating it.

Anyway, 5 a.m. finally rolls around and we each get up, walk around, use the bathroom, etc. I’m left alone for a few minutes as he’s off somewhere doing yoga, and the group near us gets up to leave, including the girl I’d fancied had been listening in awe of our deep conversation earlier. Just before she walks away, to my complete surprise, she looks directly at me and smiles. But again, it could just be my mind playing tricks.

When Chris is done with the yoga it’s nearing 6:00 and we “pack up camp” and head over to the Germanwings desk. We wait in line and receive our boarding passes. I notice that my seat reservation is gone. I’d pre-booked a window-seat near the front of the plane, and now I’m in a much shittier seat and that pisses me off a little but at this point I don’t really care. Sure, I’m in seat 26E which means I’ll be at the back of the plane sandwiched between two strangers, but at this point all I care about is getting back on German soil.

Once equipped with our boarding passes, we go through security and leave the terminal, feeling ironically nostalgic about the whole thing. As we walk through the doors to the next part of the airport, he looks back towards our spot and says “I wish I’d taken a picture”.

Part Seven – The Culmination

As we sit in the terminal and I struggle to read my book without falling asleep, I can hardly believe we’ve made it. We actually waited for nearly thirteen hours and somehow it wasn’t even the least bit excruciating. In fact, it was almost downright enjoyable. I’m almost feeling like I’m glad the delay happened. That experience was one of the most unique I’ve ever had. And at this point I’m not even aware that it was actually leading to something.

I notice myself more open to the people around me as we sit in the terminal. There’s a German mother with two really little children sitting across from us and we frequently exchange glances and occasional comments whenever an announcement comes on the loudspeaker. There is an older German couple behind us who are clearing their throats constantly, to the point that it’s really getting on my nerves. But I handle the situation by busting out the lozenges I have in my back-pack and offering some to them. They each take one, both surprised and grateful, and the throat-clearing decreases significantly. It’s all about problem-solving, you see.

Our boarding passes say Gate 3 and we’re all very nervous that there’s going to be another really long delay because we don’t see a Germanwings plane outside (the sun rises while we’re sitting there) and a completely different airline is boarding at Gate 3. Finally a guy comes around and informs us that according to the big board, the flight to Hannover takes off from Gate 11.

We head on over there and are delighted to finally see our plane, ready and waiting to take us. At long last, the aircraft that will deliver us home!

Very shortly after that, they announce the boarding call. It seems surreal that it’s actually happening. I was sure that something else was going to wrong, and even as we board I comment to Chris that we’re not in the clear yet—we could be waiting on the tarmac for hours.

As we step on board the plane he takes out a pen and scribbles his e-mail address on the ticket stub because we have separate seats and this is the last we’ll see of each other. We give each other a very warm handshake and agree to stay in touch. And that’s the last I see of Chris.

But this story has one final major part before finally coming to an end. As I move farther and farther down the plane I eventually realize that row 26 is indeed the very last row, and that the stranger I’ll be sitting next to who has the window seat is an attractive girl. Of course. Why wouldn’t it be?

Oh, but I couldn’t have asked for a better circumstance. I don’t know exactly what it is—the exhaustion, the high from just having had an incredible weekend ending with a crazily unique experience, or some combination of those and other factors—but I don’t even think twice about giving the girl a warm hello and launching directly into a conversation after confirming that she speaks English.

It couldn’t be less awkward. After all, even though we hadn’t seen each other the whole night (she was not one of the walkers-by) we did share an experience because she too had been stranded at the airport the entire time as well. It’s the perfect thing to instantly bond over, plus our mutual excitement about finally being on the plane that will take us home is palpable.

It’s a very standard conversation, except that in between the “what do you do?” and “why were you in England?” stuff we make comments about how great it is to finally be going home and what the rest of the day has in store for us. She’s on her way to see her family in Minden, a town very close to Hannover. She just spent a month volunteering to work with disabled kids in England as a physical therapist but now she wants to switch careers and become a social worker in order to help people in a more meaningful way. Naturally I’m extremely impressed with her. What would be a good word to describe her? Oh yeah: “Nice”

Neither of us got any sleep at the airport and we express our intention to perhaps try and make up for it on the flight, which leads to a completely non-awkward flight in which we both have our eyes closed and aren’t talking. I’m listening to Lacrimosa (Lichtgestalt) and planning what I’m going to say after the landing. Remembering Chris’s words from earlier, I figure the easiest thing to do would be to just give her my e-mail address or my name so she can find me on Facebook if she so chooses. That way if she’s not interested she can just go ahead and not contact me and we can both imagine that maybe she just forgot about it and my feelings don’t have to get hurt. But that’s not really my main concern. Just doing it is far more important than the potential result. It would quite clearly be the perfect culmination to the entire airport ordeal—and in many ways to the entire weekend.

The plane begins its descent before we know it and hits some incredibly heavy turbulence. I notice the sound of children laughing and look to the other end of the row to see the same mother with her two kids from the terminal (yet another crazy coincidence) who seems just as pleasantly shocked by the fact that her little kids are enjoying this as I am. The attractive girl next to me looks over at them as well and we exchange a quick comment about how funny it is.

The plane lands safely and as though there were no 50-minute break at all we resume our conversation. I ask her if she’s ever had to wait that long in an airport before and she says no, that the worst was a few-hour delay from Rome, where she and a friend of hers had decided to go spontaneously. She asks me the same question, and I say that my worst delay was only four hours while flying from America. She asks me where in America I’m from and when I say New Jersey her eyes go wide with surprise.

No way! She was just there in October, spontaneously visiting her friend’s family that lives in New Jersey! That was the only time she’s ever been to America. What are the odds, she says, that of everywhere I could possibly be from it would be New Jersey!

We’re like…totally best friends now. So I ask her for her name, finally. It’s Lea. Or Lia. I’m not sure how it’s spelled. But I also quickly ask her if she’s living with her family in Minden and she explains that she will be living there for a few weeks while she looks for a place in Bielefeld, a town that is also in the Hannover region. The unstated significance of this? No boyfriend.

I whip out the receipt for my plane tickets I’d been carrying in the most easily-accessible chamber of my back-pack just as our row is standing up to leave (it’s a good thing we were last which gave us plenty of time for that chat) and announce that I’m giving her my e-mail address. Yeah, I don’t ask. I just tell her. She can do what she wants with it. I also ask her if she’s on Facebook and she says yes, so I circle where my name is written on the receipt so she can find me that way also if she chooses. Because I told her about the Japan interview, she asks me how long I’ll be around and I say if I get the job it won’t start until August, and she seems glad to hear that. Yeah. I know.

So when I’d played this scenario out in my head on the plane I imagined her feeling kind of awkward when I gave her my contact info and then me bidding her farewell to exit the plane triumphant. But she still sticks around, still making comments about how amazing it is that I’m from New Jersey. We chat for a bit about New York City. It’s all very smooth and comfortable.

We get to the counter where they check passports, and she goes through a little bit ahead of me while the guy checking mine takes an extra moment to type the number into his computer. When I emerge from the doors I see that she has been standing there waiting for me.

We walk to the baggage claim and because I have no baggage to claim, this is where I exit. I say, “It was very nice to meet you, Lea” and she says, “Yes, you too. And I will find you on Facebook.”

It remains to be seen whether that happens, but of course that’s almost a side issue at this point. It’ll be great if she does contact me but even if she doesn’t, that was quite a major victory on my part. And it came completely out of nowhere, right when I thought that the story was over.

I walk through the doors from the baggage claim area and towards the train platforms, feeling like it’s finally over. It’s 12:00 noon exactly. Had everything gone according to plan, I would have been back around 8 p.m. the previous evening. Now I’m sure of it—I am extremely glad things didn’t go according to plan.

Epilogue – The Longest Weekend

Naturally I rode back to Hannover in extremely high spirits which continue to this moment, about five hours after I began writing this entry. The musical accompaniment was the rest of Lichtgestalt: “Letzte Ausfahrt Leben” and “Hohelied der Liebe”, the latter of which sounded so perfectly perfect while riding through the snow-covered landscapes with spirit soaring. And when I got back to good old Hannover I put on “Die Strasse der Zeit” again for the walk home and really let myself indulge in the awesomeness of the feeling the weekend has left me with.

From what is probably the best performance I’ve ever given at a job interview, through my meeting some awesome guys with which to experience the London night-life, through standing over the bones of Sir Isaac Newton, walking through Hyde Park in the snow, spending the entire night stranded with an awesome guy at an airport and engaging in extremely deep and personal conversation, all topped off with what can only be described as an amazingly successful approach to a fantastic girl—this will go down in history as one of the greatest weekends of my life.

There must be something about London. The last time I went was the greatest weekend of my life. It will require some distance before I can look back on this one clearly but it obviously stands a very good chance of being second. And depending on what comes of my contact with Chris and with Lea (not to mention Japan) I may eventually look back on it as the best.

I still can’t believe all this happened. It’s amazing how much life can be jam-packed into a period of 56 hours, and these were packed to the brim. Whether or not I ultimately decide to consider this the ‘best’ weekend, I think it’s safe to say that in terms of the variety and quality of experiences, this was definitely the longest.

Grünkohlwanderung II

November 28th, 2010 No comments

Yesterday was the second time I’ve gone on a Grünkohlwanderung, a popular activity in Niedersachsen (Lower Saxony) involving walking through the woods and stopping frequently for shots of liquor, ending with a dinner of Grünkohl at a restaurant. The first time I went nearly two years ago, I went into it feeling very low and came out feeling even lower thanks to the torture of sitting across from the extremely beautiful Inge and her boyfriend Matthias at dinner. This time I went in with a good mood, determined not to be crushed by desire as I had last time. Although Inge and Matthias were there I was quite successful with that, which makes the whole experience hardly worth writing about in spite of the fact that I had a much better time.

A group of about sixteen people were meeting up “unter dem Schwanz” in Hannover, an expression which means under the statue of King Ernst-August but literally means “under the tail” referring to the horse (apparently this king was kind of an asshole and that expression arose as a sleight towards him). Oliver and Lena weren’t there yet when I got there so I had to go up and say hello on my own.

Inge was there along with the girl I referred to in my first Grünkohl entry as “the cute one” and she greeted me warmly when I approached. I asked them in German how many people were coming and when we’d be leaving, but Inge approached me and asked me in English what my name was because she’d forgotten. I told her, then couldn’t resist saying, “You are Inge if I remember correctly, and your boyfriend is Matthias.” They were very surprised that I remembered that but didn’t seem weirded-out by it. I just said I’m very good with names, which is true. I didn’t say that I’d written extensively about them in my online journal.

I had a brief chat with “the cute one” whose name I now learned was Marianna, but her English isn’t very good so even though I said she could speak German because I understood it well enough, our chat didn’t last long. I wasn’t sure if she was single and I wasn’t sure last time, but I found out later that she’s not. It’s just that her boyfriend and her aren’t very affectionate (at least not around others) so it’s not obvious that they’re together.

Oliver and Lena arrived with his dog Buutsch, we boarded the train and got off somewhere near the town of Haste. As soon as we began the walk it was clear that this was a completely different trail than last time—perhaps even different woods. The weather could not have been more perfect, with sunny skies for the first time in two weeks and a little bit of snow on the ground and in the trees, making the woods about as beautiful as woods can possibly be.

I chatted with Oliver mostly during the first leg of the walk, but after stopping for the first round of shots I started chatting with more people, in either English or German depending on their English skills. The woman who organized the event had a bunch of activities planned for every stop, the first one being a three-legged race (optional participation so I opted out) and later on less physical stuff like riddles and mind-teasers. The people who participated in the race and the people who answered the riddles first were rewarded with a mystery shot from a bag of test-tubes filled with all different kinds of alcohol so you dug your hand in and didn’t know what you were getting. I got a couple of the brain-teasers even though they were in German, so I was quite proud of myself.

As we were walking we frequently had to move aside for others to get through, but almost everyone seemed friendly and they probably all knew what we were doing. When I’m out in the woods or a park I always hate passing by large crowds of Germans and I wonder why they feel the need to get together in big groups like that. I always think “why do you need twenty people to go for a walk in the woods?” It felt weird to actually be a part of one for a change.

I had some good conversations with some of the other people there, most of whom were between age 30 and 50. The one guy I actually ended up talking to most was Marianna’s boyfriend Torsten who speaks very good English and had some interesting things to say about Japan, where he recently spent some time. If there had been any attractive single women there the entire experience would have been different but luckily there weren’t. And in spite of Inge’s beautiful presence I was able to feel quite content with the fact that she wasn’t mine. She hardly seems my type anyway personality-wise (although it was hard to get a sense of that from overhearing her talking to Lena in German).

Bla bla blah. A ridiculous number of shots were drank (I must have had at least twenty), much fun was had, and after about three or four hours we reached the restaurant to sit down for our delicious Grünkohl meal. As luck would have it, I once again ended up sitting directly across from Inge and Matthias but it was far less difficult this time, and even when the meal was over and I let myself once again indulge in a study of her uniquely beautiful facial features, I actually felt that I had reached the ever-present goal of “appreciation without desire”. To just be content that the beauty exists and not to feel the need to possess it.

And that’s really all there is to say about it. I was drunk enough to be singing out loud on the walk back to the train platform, and sat next to Torsten on the ride back where he gave me some useful tid-bits about Japan, like the fact that tipping is not only unheard of but that they actually get angry with you if you try to leave them a tip. Very good to know because my inclination is always to tip and tip big.

Back at the Hannover main station we all said our goodbyes and parted ways. I shook Matthias’s hand goodbye and got a little half-hug from Inge which was nice. The same for Marianna, who once again said “bis nächstes mal” (until next time) which I repeated in English and she said “ich hoffe so” (I hope so). Her and Torsten may not be big on PDAs but they’re both incredibly nice people and I hope they get married and bring lots of friendly children into the world.

After getting home I listened to some music for an hour and went to bed, then woke up this morning feeling incredibly low for a completely inexplicable reason. I don’t even have a hangover (which is a bit of a minor miracle considering all of the different kinds of alcohol I’d mixed together yesterday)—I’m just a little cloudy-headed. But for some reason I really feel down. Maybe it’s from the reminder of what it’s like to have a lot of friends who do fun stuff together and the fact that I kind of miss it. But on the other hand I really enjoy solitude and I’m glad to back in my comfort-zone again. So who knows?

Anyway, I wish this story had more of a point but that’s all there is. Until next time.

Storming the Kassel

November 1st, 2010 No comments

In what may be the most radical juxtaposition in blogging history, I’m going from dark reflections on a horrific tragedy to a pointless little story about going out and drinking on Saturday night. If anyone reads one entry right after the other, their heads might explode. “Wait, the person who wrote that did that?” Yes, I am the same person. At the beginning of the week I was so depressed that I could barely enjoy the taste of food, while at the end of the week I’d gotten over it so completely that I could drink and dance and make an ass of myself at a bar.

But it’s been a fair interval since the last time I got ridiculously drunk—back in September in NYC—so I was ready to do it again. After all, I’m still young. It’s my duty to get shitfaced every once in awhile or else I’m just wasting my life, aren’t I?

So on Saturday afternoon I went with Oliver and Lena down to Kassel, where their mutual Irish friend Aiden would be performing at a pub there called Shamrock’s—the same pub we’d been to last St. Patrick’s day.

We had to stop and check into the youth hostel before going to the pub, and that was a somewhat nightmarish process. We arrived just after a massive group of young girls apparently on some kind of Youth Group trip. There was only one employee there to check everyone in, and it appeared that most of the work was done by paper rather than a computer system. So we had to wait for rooms to be given to all of these girls, and there must have been over 100 of them. There were three other people in line in front of us, all of whom seemed to have endless questions for the poor girl checking everyone in. It felt like an hour had passed by the time we finally got our room, and when we went in we found that the beds were already occupied. So we had to come back to the front desk and wait behind a few more people, and of course the girl working there had no idea what the problem was. She gave us a sign to put on the door to tell the people in our room to come down to the front, but we finally had some luck when those people were back in the room when Lena went to put the sign up. Everyone came back down to the front and we were told that it might take awhile but no matter what they would definitely have beds ready for us whenever we came back.

After the nearly two-hour check-in process, we were finally ready to go. We got to the pub around 8:00 when it was still relatively empty, and said hello to Brendon who owned the place and Aiden who was already there. He remembered me from St. Patrick’s Day, and I was reminded of how hilarious he is. He can think of a joke for just about everything and it’s usually quite funny. But while he could probably have made a decent comedian, he was also a hell of a musician, and I would really enjoy his solo guitar performance throughout the night.

The four of us went outside for a smoke shortly before Aiden had to begin, and when we came back inside there was a group of three Germans sitting where we’d been. We introduced ourselves and sat down with them, because that’s just how it works in Germany. People often share tables with strangers. Luckily, the guy—I think his name was Timon—spoke pretty good English, so even though I told him I could understand German but just didn’t want to speak it, he spoke English to me all night.

The next few hours were really fun. After about four glasses of Guinness and a shot of Jäger I was ready to get up and dance like a fool in front of the stage with Oliver and Lena. Timon came and danced later in the evening. But other than that, there weren’t many people up there. Occasionally there’d be one or two other people up there drinking and dancing and singing along, but most of the people at the pub—which did fill up almost completely—just stayed at their seats and watched. As drunk as I got, I never completely lost my self-consciousness at knowing that over a hundred eyes could be on me at all times, watching me look like an idiot. I was self-conscious about it but not bothered by it. Some people might be laughing at me, I knew, but who cares?

At one point, one of the girls who was with Timon wanted to go to the back of the pub where they have a smoking section and smoke a cigarette. She didn’t want to go by herself so I offered to join her. Her name was Lilly and she turned out to be a very interesting person. She lived in Berlin for most of her life and agrees with me that it’s the most interesting city in Europe. Now she’s studying to become a social worker and wants to work with “teenies” (kids age 10-16) because she thinks that’s the most significant time in a person’s life. I couldn’t agree more with that sentiment. Those were the worst years of my life (and bizarrely, also the most fondly remembered). She was also a vegetarian and she used to write but not so much anymore. Some of this I got from our first, more clear-headed conversation. The second time I went back to smoke with her I was much more drunk, but apparently still capable of basic-information processing. I can only imagine how I came across to her. I thought I sounded perfectly coherent but for all I know I was a babbling fool.

It was Daylight Savings night, which meant that after 2:59 the time reverted back to 2:00. I like to have a little fun with this hour, telling everyone that whatever you do during the first 2:00 hour doesn’t count because it all gets erased when the clock goes back to 2:00. At about 2:30 I asked Aiden if I could take the microphone and tell everyone at the pub that they still had a half-hour to do whatever they wanted because it wouldn’t count, and after getting permission from Brendon the pub-owner I actually went and did it. Again, I felt extremely self-conscious as soon as I took the mike, but I was too drunk to be bothered by it. I think a few people chuckled.

Aiden played awesome song after awesome song all night long. It was exactly my kind of music, with a nice blend of classic and contemporary rock. He even played some Pink Floyd—Wish You Were Here, Comfortably Numb (without the solo) and Another Brick in the Wall, which a lot of people got up and sang and danced to, joining me in looking like drunken assholes. At one point, Timon, me, and another guy were all holding each others’ shoulders and swaying back and forth, clinking our beer glasses together and singing at the top of our lungs.

Aiden took a couple of breaks throughout the night, and he’d usually come outside for a smoke with Oliver and Lena and me. It was during one of the breaks that I asked Aiden to do me a favor and help me test my friend Mike’s theory that Brooklyn is the center of the universe. Mike (a.k.a. Craig), whom I spent a couple of weekends with during my trip to America, lives in Brooklyn and insists that it’s at the center of the universe. His reason? Go to any bar in the world, he said, and ask “where’s Brooklyn at?” and someone will answer you. Theoretically, there should be at least one person from Brooklyn in every bar in the world at all times.

At one point Aiden thanked the audience for coming and added, “especially to the people from Brooklyn” but I’m pretty sure I was the only one who noticed. But at the end of the night as Aiden was finishing up, I took the stage once again and got on the mike to ask “Where’s Brooklyn at?” to the audience. “Is there anyone here from Brooklyn?” Nope, no answer. “Has anyone here been to Brooklyn?” I asked. A hot girl sitting at a table in the middle of the room raised her hand.

So I went right up to her and introduced myself and told her the theory about Brooklyn being at the center of the universe. She seemed very amused by the whole thing. I’m not sure what the other people at her table thought, but I hardly noticed them as I was just focused on her for the whole 30-45 seconds I spent there. It might have been very awkward if I weren’t so drunk, but it seemed pleasant enough. The hot girl told me about the circumstances of her visit to Brooklyn (which I forgot) and I said it was nice to meet her and then I left her and the guys she was with alone. She’ll forever remember me as the weird Brooklyn guy. So that was totally worth it.

When the music was over the bar gradually emptied and we were among the last ones out. Aiden, Oliver, Lena and I proceeded to stumble drunkenly through the streets (it should be noted that Lena was not drunk as she only had a couple of beers), stopping somewhere else to buy yet another beer and drink it out on the street. But by then I was so full of beer that I ended up just spilling most of it on the ground deliberately.

I was also really hungry at that point and craving a Döner, but Oliver just wanted to go back to the hostel and pass out so we did. I knew I was in for a nasty hangover the next morning, and my expectations were met. I was still drunk when we got up a few hours later, because we had to be out of the hostel by 9:30 (at least they had beds for us). The hangover gradually took hold during the drive back to Hannover, and I was in a really bad state when I finally got back to my flat at around 13:00. I spent the whole rest of the day recovering, and even after 9 hours of sleep I wasn’t quite 100% this morning. But I knew what I was in for, and I made sure I had a good enough time to make it worth it.

So that was it. Nothing extraordinary but a hell of a lot of fun. Having demonstrated to myself that I am capable of stepping outside of my shell and acting like a real social animal, I almost feel like I should do that kind of thing more often, maybe actually go to some of the clubs in Hannover and meet people. Maybe flirt with some girls.

But I probably won’t. One night of drinking and socialization every few weeks is enough for me.

Autumn Lane Reunion

September 27th, 2010 No comments

I’ve written this at a time at which I’m in no mood to write. I just feel like I have to get that day of my life documented and move on. Were I in the right frame of mind, I could have made this something really entertaining and insightful, but not right now. I might return to it one day soon and offer a much better version that isn’t so focused on my bare-bones perceptions of the day. If any of the people involved were to offer some pictures, that could really open up some new dimensions. But for now:

Sunday, September 19, 2010

When I woke up on the morning of the 19th, I had no idea if the reunion of my college friends who lived at Autumn Lane would even be happening. I’d been trying to put something together on Facebook for weeks, but nobody had given me a solid confirmation that they were coming and nobody had even decided on a location to meet. So I just went online and said that if anyone wanted to come to the reunion, they just needed to get to NYC and call me.

Two of my former room-mates, Luke and Marc (a.k.a. Martacomus), were able to come nice and early, and they met up with Mike and me at his place in Brooklyn. It was strange but very cool to see them again, and before long it felt like no time had passed at all, as the conversation took the same kinds of turns it always used to (e.g. “bitches are crazy”).

Because Mike was helping me upgrade my computer, he needed to swing by his office in Manhattan to pick up a CD, which worked out because we wanted to party in Manhattan anyway. By that time I’d heard from Connie, another Autumn-laner whom I’d met earlier in the year when she travelled on business to Antwerp, who said that she and fellow Autumn-laner Kim (a.k.a. Kimbo) would be meeting up at Penn Station around 8:00.

Still a long way off, we headed to Manhattan to check out the office where Mike (a.k.a Craig) works. He works for a small trading company in a building at Rockefeller Center, so I personally found it very cool to get a glimpse inside the lion’s den. This was where those Wall Street bastards do their business. I was right there in one of those rooms, nothing but electronic equipment and at least three computer monitors at every work-station, which apparently people are only allowed to leave a specific number of times each day and only for a limited time.

To make matters cooler, we’d bought some beer and brought it up with us, so I got to drink (and smoke) at the Wall Street trading firm as well. We hung out there for awhile, watched an episode of Entourage at one of the work-stations, and soon got a call from another Autumn-laner, Adrienne (a.k.a. Smidgy) who said she’d be arrive at Penn at 6:00.

Forgetting all about the CD which was the reason we went to Mike’s office in the first place, we left and met up with Adrienne at a bar near Penn Station and officially began the party night. I was already feeling like I’d accomplished something bringing all these people together again. Most hadn’t seen each other in as long as it’s been since I’ve seen them.

We headed to a different bar in lower Manhattan where some of Mike’s friends were waiting (including a couple of the people I’d met the previous weekend) and had a few more drinks there. The place was pretty awesome because they gave you a free personal pizza with every beer, which made finding food elsewhere nice and unnecessary.

Connie and Kim arrived after about an hour, and then our group was complete. Of the 10-12 people who had ever claimed Autumn Lane as a residence (officially or unofficially), there were 7 of us there. Not a bad number. It was lucky that Connie was also in town from Ohio, as the fact that two of us were back in town from very long distances made others feel even more obliged to come.

Yes, drinking in Manhattan. Just like last time, there are only foggy memories and blurry images, although I definitely didn’t get as wasted as last time because I stayed away from shots of any kind. Mike led us from place to place, including the speak-easy we’d gone to the previous weekend which was a little too loud for us to hear each other. We all took turns buying rounds for each other, and I think I bought three (which made it the most expensive night of the trip) but I can’t be sure.

I definitely remember forcing myself to take a step back every now and then and just appreciate what was going on. I hadn’t seen these people in years and I might never see them again, or at least for a very long time. The period of my life that I’d spent with them holds a very special place in my heart as it does all of ours, and it’s nice that that connection can still be maintained after so much time. It just felt nice to be around those people again. To be called “Kem” again (college was the only time in my life I introduced myself to people as my desired nick-name).

Naturally there was a ton of reminiscing, most of which isn’t worth going into here. Someone suggested that I write a book about Autumn Lane—that everyone write down their best memories and I put it all together. Naturally that sounded like a fantastic idea when we were all drunk but that obviously ain’t happening.

One clear memory: Someone asked Kim what she’s been up to now that she’s almost finished with her higher degree (either Masters or Ph.D.) in psychology, and whether she is the subject of any of her studies.

“No,” she answered strongly. “What do you think I do? Just sit around writing about myself all day? That’s what Kem does.”

I laughed along with the little jab, but inside I was just thinking “fuck you.” Not because there was no truth to that, but for quite the opposite reason. I do spend an inordinate amount of time writing about myself. But at least I’ve been turning my attention to other subjects recently—like my opinion about politics. Of course, right now I’m as guilty as I’ve ever been of that kind of self-indulgence (although this honestly feels more like a chore right now than self-indulgence, and besides I’ve barely included two lines of introspection).

Anyway, I remember having a nice chat with Kim on the cab ride back to Brooklyn, once we’d said goodbye to Adrienne (the first to leave) and Connie. I don’t remember what the conversation was about exactly, but I remember it was nice. I always used to love talking to her. I’ve always had a lot of respect for her, which is why her little jab at my writing earlier rubbed me the wrong way.

All in all it was a really great night that I’ll half-remember for the rest of my life. I couldn’t believe it actually happened but somehow it all came together. The next morning I said goodbye to each of them. First Kim, then later Luke and Marc. I have no idea if or when I’ll see any of them again, but if that’s the last night we’ll ever have spent together we can certainly say that we went out with a bang.

An American in New York

September 13th, 2010 No comments

I grew up near NYC, so for the vast majority of my life it was just “the city”. To this day, when I hear the word “city” I think of New York. But after spending two years living in a German city, returning to New York was like looking at an old picture through new lenses.

I drove up to my friend Mike’s apartment in Brooklyn on Friday afternoon, and after showing me around his neighborhood—which was surprisingly nice but still much dirtier than I’m used to—we took the subway to Manhattan to spend the night drinking and bar-hopping with a few of his friends. The subway itself is one of the most strikingly different things about German and American cities. This train squeaked all along the line, there were no screens for people to read the headlines while riding to work, no automated voice clearly enunciating each stop as the train approached it (the guy announced each stop but there was no understanding what he was saying through the garbled intercom), and of course half the lights only worked half the time. Hooray for infrastructure!

Before we met up with his friends, Mike took me to a building he used to work at, which just happened to be right next to Park51, the location where the so-called “Ground Zero Mosque” is being built. This was the evening of September 10, and I knew there was going to a be a big anti-mosque rally the next day, but there were already a few hundred pro-mosque (technically, pro-community center) people demonstrating already. The actual section of street where the community center is supposed to be built (the old Burlington Coat Factory) was closed off, but the police let us through because Mike said he just wanted to get to his building. So we walked right by this “sacred ground”, from which I couldn’t see Ground Zero or anything to even indicate that Ground Zero was nearby, and we rounded the corner to see a titty bar right on the next block, also in the “shadow of Ground Zero”. Mike said they only had “sacred titties” there, so it was okay.

So that was pretty cool, to suddenly be standing in a spot where the eyes of the whole world were focused, but it really drove home the absurdity of the fact that there’s any controversy in the first place. Mike and everyone else from around there knew about the plans to build an Islamic community center long before some conservative blogger decided to raise hell about it and Fox News picked it up and ran with the story. But for the record, the people in favor of building the mosque there were out in full force even before September 11.

After grabbing a beer, we went to the apartment of a couple of Mike’s friends, a place with a roof that had an amazingly awesome view of the city, and looking at Manhattan from up there was quite the experience after getting so used to European cities where the buildings are rarely higher than five stories. Every European city has its own unique look and feel to it, but there really is nothing like downtown Manhattan. It may not be the most aesthetically pleasing urban environment, but it sure does inspire a powerful feeling.

After having a few beers at that apartment we began our bar-and-club-hopping adventure, which thanks to a shot of Jäger I took at the very next bar I don’t have much of a clear memory of anything that happened after. There was a lot of walking through the city streets at night, hopping in and out of taxis, showing my I.D. to bouncers, and standing around watching a bunch of less-than-spectacular looking women dance to music too loud to hear the person standing next to you. At some point we made it back to Brooklyn, but the memory of driving back over the bridge didn’t come to me until the following morning, so it came as a complete shock to me when we got back to Mike’s apartment. We ordered some food that arrived in seven minutes (quite literally), scarfed it down and passed out.

The morning was pretty bad, I won’t lie. Lots of getting up to puke and lying back down to try and sleep off the migraine. We finally both got out of bed around 1:30 or 2:00 and eventually made our way to a kick-ass bagel place for some much-needed sustenance. I’d hoped to be able to get back to the mosque area and check out whatever madness was taking place there on 9/11, but I felt way too horrible to take the initiative and I had to get to my cousin Jason’s BBQ in Central Long Island by 4:00.

It took me longer to recover than I thought, but after a walk down to the water’s edge I was feeling good enough to go. I found my car which I’d miraculously managed to park the previous afternoon after only five minutes of searching, and set up the GPS to take me to my cousin’s house. The traffic on the BQE and first few miles of the Long Island Expressway was terrible, so even though I left at 4:20 I didn’t get to his house until 6:00, but that turned out to be enough.

My cousin Jason is the oldest of three brothers who I pretty much grew up with when we were kids, especially during the first few years of my life when I also lived on Long Island. They never left the island and are now firmly a part of that Long Island Italian culture. None of them drink. Two of them own houses. It was crazy to see them, but we have so little in common that it was difficult to find stuff to talk about. I mostly just sat around and let them talk, throwing in a thought whenever I had one.

My aunt Cindy asked me if I was feeling “reverse culture-shock” which is a phrase I think describes it pretty well. I’m usually hanging out with groups of Germans and I can’t really understand them unless I’m paying attention and really trying. But in this group of Americans, of New Yorkers, I understood everything they were talking about even if I wasn’t trying. And it wasn’t just the language but the references. Whether it was something in politics or pop culture, a quote from The Simpsons or some comedian everyone’s seen on Comedy Central—I got these people. It’s also a weird feeling to not have to speak slowly and enunciate everything you say. You can just mumble and slang your way through a conversation and everyone will understand you. It feels great, but also strange to be that conscious of verbal laziness.

The BBQ was a nice time, but I knew I could be having a nice time in Brooklyn as well, so at a little after 10:00 I left Jason’s house and headed back towards the city. I got back to Mike’s apartment at 11:20, but there was nowhere to park and I drove around for a good thirty minutes before I finally found a spot, oddly enough just across the street from the spot I’d found the day before. Apparently some people have spent over an hour just looking to park in that neighborhood. I don’t think it’s even close to that bad anywhere in Hannover, and the same goes for probably most of Germany, probably because not as many people drive.

So it was almost midnight by the time I got to Mike’s and he was still at home but getting ready to go out—another big difference between New York and Germany. You can wait until midnight to go out and still get four good hours of party-time in before everything starts to close, and even then not everything closes. So Mike and I hopped a few bars in his neighborhood (by then I’d sufficiently recovered from the previous night but still refused to take any shots) and I kept my wits about me the whole time.

Mike told me his theory that Brooklyn is the center of the universe, because—he claims he’s been told—you can go to any bar anywhere in the world and say, “Where’s Brooklyn at?” and somebody will answer. So according to his theory, there is at least one person from Brooklyn in every bar in the world at all times. I told him I highly doubted there was anyone from Brooklyn at the bars in Hannover I go to, and I’d put his theory to the test. Any readers can feel free to demolish that one too. Although to be fair—Brooklyn does give off the strange impression that it is in fact at the center of the universe.

We ended up in a diner, and as I’ve been doing ever since getting back I treated myself to the most American food I could order—some chicken fingers with BBQ sauce and honey-mustard, along with some curly-fries dripping in melted American cheese. Oh man, was that delicious. Those poor chickens can at least take solace in the fact that very few chickens have ever had their fingers enjoyed to such a degree as I did then. The waitress was a kindly middle-aged lady too. Extremely friendly and good-humored, working for those tips. I do have mixed feelings about the concept of tipping in general, but you just can’t deny that it produces better service outcomes. The United States of America has the best customer service anywhere in the world, hands down. Germany’s infrastructure may run laps around America, but America’s customer service can kick Germany’s ass all across the Atlantic ocean. You have no idea how nice it is to just ask for extra sauce and to get it without any hassle—and for no extra charge!

So the diner experience was a great way to end the night, shortly after 4:00 a.m. The next morning I got up around 10:00 but Mike stayed in bed until just before football got started at 1:00. American football is something I’ve also dearly missed, as the evil people who run the NFL have decided for some reason that they’re not going to make their games available to anyone outside of the United States. I would actually pay for a subscription service to be able to stream and download games online—and I’ll bet there are thousands of American expatriots around the world who feel the same way—but apparently NFL owners still think it’s 1987 and have no concept of how much money they could make through the series of tubes that is taking over all media.

I’m about as far as you can get from the culture of football, but I just love the game. Two teams like opposing armies on the battlefield just fighting for every yard. It’s a game of strategy as much as it is of strength—of psychology and momentum—of moments where everything hinges on one play and where any unexpected thing can happen at any moment to completely turn things around. It’s just such a fantastic game that I’m sure the rest of the world would come to love it too if America didn’t keep it on such a short leash. I caught World Cup fever along with the rest of the non-American world, but it just doesn’t come close to the level of excitement that NFL football provides. The only thing—the only thing—that soccer has over NFL football is the lack of commercials. Watching the games live on TV, it got to the point where I just couldn’t take the advertisements anymore, and at least with soccer there are no time-outs so you only get commercials at half-time.

Anyway, I gorged myself on football all day, with just a few breaks to go get a bagel (half-time during the 1:00 game) and go to the bar (half-time during the 4:00 game) to watch the rest of the game while sampling some delicious buffalo wings—the lack of which is also one of Germany’s biggest shortcomings.

After my thoroughly American weekend I was ready to head back across the Verazzano and the Goethels to good old “Dirty Jerz”, and before I knew it I was taking the long way home through the back-roads out in my relatively rural area—a world apart from Brooklyn but still distinctly American.

I don’t miss most of the big things about America. The infrastructure sucks, the middle-class isn’t taken care of, people work longer hours and make less money, etc. But I definitely miss the little things like football and chicken fingers, I miss the customer service, and I definitely miss being able to effortlessly communicate with everyone I come across. But with all that said, I do miss Hannover with its short buildings, super-clean streets, and beautiful bike-paths galore. I’ll be going back to NYC before I go back to Germany so I’ll get to soak up some of that one-of-a-kind atmosphere a bit more before leaving it again, but I’m definitely glad that I am going back.

Have Another?

July 4th, 2010 No comments

I think this is officially the longest I’ve gone on any fourth of July before realizing that it was the fourth of July. It hadn’t even occurred to me until just now.

Obviously, I haven’t been blogging much this weekend. That was all thanks to a sudden change of course that completely changed the nature of my weekend. It was supposed to be just another weekend of comfortable isolation, but on Saturday morning I went to meet Oliver for coffee at noon, and that turned into way more. He was just going to chat for an hour and then go pick up Lena and go back to Celle, but I was invited to join them.

Rather than coffee, he ordered a beer, and even though it was only 11:55 in the morning I figured one beer wouldn’t hurt. But when the beer was finished, Oliver said, “Have another?” and I figured one more wouldn’t hurt either. But by the time that one was finished, it was “Have another?” again and I was already buzzed enough to figure what the hell.

Instead of him leaving to pick up Lena, he called Lena to come pick us up. I was invited to go back to Celle to watch Germany’s World Cup match against Argentina with them. They wanted to go to a public viewing and probably would have stayed in Hannover but Oliver didn’t want to leave his dog alone for that long. So we stopped at my flat so I could bring what I needed for the night, and we drove to Celle.

After arriving in Celle, we dropped Oliver off to walk the dog while Lena and I want to the supermarket to pick up beer and food. When we got back we drove to a nearby restaurant (the one in Bostel) where we assumed there would be tons of people gathered to watch the game. We got there ten minutes before it started but there was only one other person there. Unlike Hannover, Bostel is pretty much the middle of nowhere so there was no place to go for a large public gathering. There might have been a big one in Celle but we didn’t want to drive around looking for one and miss the beginning of the game.

It was a good thing too, because Germany scored the first goal after only three minutes. We drank more beer and ate something while watching, and I explained how Paul the Octopus had correctly predicted Germany’s win in the last four games and was now predicting that they beat Argentina as well. I’m surprised at how few Germans know about Paul, but they all get a kick out of it when I tell them.

And Paul was right yet again, as Germany—much to everyone’s surprise—completely demolished Argentina 4-0. Argentina played really well but they just let too many go by them and could never seal the deal with a goal of their own. I think I enjoyed this game more than the other two, in spite of the lack of people. It was just us, the other guy, and two employees of the restaurant, but it was enough to not feel weird cheering and clapping at the goals. Unlike the other two games I watched, this was in nice comfortable surroundings with people I like.

When the game was over we went back to Oliver’s house and commenced with the typical Oliver’s house activities: drinking, smoking, and (due to Lena’s presence) deep political conversation. It was a really enjoyable evening, which before we knew it faded into night and Oliver and I were completely trashed. Lena went to bed much earlier than us while we stayed up and drank and smoked and played with the dog, eventually taking him out for and then going to sleep, but not before Oliver suggested we “have another” and call it a night.

I don’t know when we went to sleep but I woke up this morning with a pounding headache and waves of nausea. I suffered through the whole morning, even going to puke a few times but my stomach contained nothing but water so it wasn’t even disgusting. But my body definitely wasn’t too happy about having drank nearly without pause from noon all the way to late in the night. Still, it was very much worth it.

So between that and the three hours I spend talking with Corey on skype this weekend, I had much more socialization than normal. It was nice to live in the real world among real people for awhile, rather than the online world with bloggers, anonymous commenters, and tweeters. I’ll get back to that tomorrow.