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A Dose of Night-Life

July 2nd, 2011 No comments

It occurred to me yesterday that it was the second-to-last Friday I’d be in Germany, so perhaps I ought to behave like a normal human being in his youth and go out. I checked the internet to see what was going on at all the clubs around and it looked like my best bet was a “Nuller Party” at the Faust, a music club about a 15-minute walk from my flat and right along the river where I go jogging. This is apparently the new thing now—in the last decade, 90s parties—where the DJ plays only music from the 90s—became very popular, and now they’re already doing the same thing with music from the 00s, a decade which somehow went by without ever getting an official name in English, but in Germany I suppose they settled on the “Nulls” and hence the “Nuller Party”.

Only photo taken, just before leaving.

After spending a few hours working up a buzz, I left my flat shortly before 11:00 when the website said this thing was supposed to start. The sun had only gone down about an hour earlier and the sky hadn’t completely darkened yet, so it felt much earlier than it was. But when I got to the club there was nobody inside. I don’t know why I hadn’t realized that if the entry started at 11:00 most people would actually get there later, but because I’d aimed to be there at 11:00 exact I ended up being the very first person to arrive.

A couple of hot German girls came in shortly after me, and though I stood next to them at the bar while ordering myself a beer, they neither spoke to or even made eye-contact with me. Of course I considered approaching them but there was this über-bitch aura radiating from them which is sadly quite typical of young German girls. These were the quintessence of young German bitches, and I felt like I could sense the cruelness of their hearts through the thin layer of surface beauty they possessed, so I didn’t try to talk to them.

I went up to the coat-check counter and asked the girl there when things usually got started at this place, and she said between 1:00 and 2:00. Ah, I thought, now I remember why I never go out. It was already past my normal bed-time of 11:00 and the party wasn’t even going to really get started for another couple hours.

I went outside and walked over to the Gretchen, a beer garden next to the Faust, and asked a woman working there the same thing I’d asked the coat-check girl, and she confirmed what was said. She was nice and she spoke English to me when it was apparent my German was bad, and when I ran out of things to say and walked away she said it was “a pleasure to meet me.” This woman was like the polar opposite of the girls in the club—clearly a wonderful human being on the inside but utterly unremarkable in terms of physical appearance. Why does it always have to be like that?

Anyway, I went to one of the tables outside near where others were sitting (the beer-garden was not as empty as the club) and sat down to roll up a cigarette. A young kid sat down on the other side of the table from me and asked if he could bum a smoke, so I happily obliged his request as his friend came with a freshly-ordered pizza from the food-stand there and sat down on the other side of the table. We got to talking and I ended up spending the next hour with them, and while it’s a fun little anecdote I’m afraid it’ll have to be edited out of the public part of this entry. If you’ve got access to private entries you might want to scroll down now and read the unabridged version.

They were young German boys all of 16 years old, the kind of kids I normally look at with reflexive disdain because they just seem like dumb little punks. But I was in good spirits and they seemed friendly enough so I engaged them in some conversation and told them about how I’ve been teaching English here for a few years and would be going back to America in two weeks. I guess they don’t meet people with quite as interesting a story very often so they quickly warmed up to me and wanted to hear more, particularly about the way things are in America. Ever since Cristiano suggested it in Rome I’ve been telling everyone I’m from New York, so they thought this was extra-awesome because New York City is one of the places they’ve always dreamed of going. The kid who bummed the smoke from me was even wearing a Yankee cap.

I liked these kids, and talking to them reminded me of talking to my younger brother and his friends whenever I’m back home in NJ. They also got major points in my book by attempting as much as they could to speak English to me, even though I was doing my best to speak German. The whole conversation was a weird mixture of English and German, often with words from both languages in the same sentence.

They learned a lot about America from me and I learned a little about what teenage boys in Hannover are like, and when we were finished talking they went home and I went back to the club. They said they were lucky to have met me, so I felt pretty good on my way back in, now feeling like anybody I might meet would indeed be lucky to meet me.

Back in the club it was now about half-past midnight and there were more people there but still no one dancing. I ordered a ridiculously over-priced water to get myself hydrated, then migrated to the back of the dance floor to do a little subtle dancing to the decent-but-far-from-great music that was playing. I was pretty buzzed at this point and seriously considered just letting loose on the empty dance-floor without caring at all how silly I’d look to everyone, but I apparently wasn’t quite buzzed enough for that.

So I went back to the bar and ordered a whiskey on the rocks (my current favorite drink) and the guy said it would have to be in a plastic cup, but if I wanted a glass I could just go to the bar at the smoking lounge in the back. I decided to check out the smoking lounge and discovered that there were even more people in there than out in the main area of the club. It was—as you might expect—pretty smoky in there, but not too bad.

I ordered my whiskey on the rocks (amused to see it served in a plastic cup anyway) and took the only empty barstool there between a couple of guys who were also there alone. I sipped from my drink and scanned the room, trying to determine which of these small groups of Germans sitting in the couches in the back looked to be the most promising to approach. As is usually the case with crowds of Germans, none of the groups seemed very approachable at all, which was another reminder of why I don’t go out very often.

I didn’t really want a cigarette, but in the spirit of “when in Rome” I figured I might as well smoke since I was here in the smoking lounge. I took out my tobacco and started to roll one up, and that’s when the guy sitting to my right spoke to me. He asked me if I had any filters, as apparently he had tobacco and papers but no filters. So once again smoking was the cause of my meeting someone. I wonder how non-smokers ever meet people. Seriously—I might give up the habit if it wasn’t so damned useful. 

So this guy—who looked exactly like Ron Livingston, star of the movie Office Space and Nixon The spitting image.from Band of Brothers—quickly realized my German wasn’t native and asked me where I was from, and seemed just as pleasantly surprised as the kids from earlier that I was from America (and New York in particular). It turned out he wasn’t a native German either but was actually a Russian, born in St. Petersburg and whose family migrated to Germany as soon as the Berlin wall came down. He said that the fall of the Berlin wall was the most significant historical event of his lifetime and that if that hadn’t happened he would still be in Russia right now. He’d moved here when he was 9, and was now 26. His family is scattered around Germany but apparently he also has an aunt and uncle in Brooklyn, thus providing even more evidence of my friend Mike’s theory that Brooklyn is the center of the universe.

The guy’s name was Jevgeny, and he struggled to speak English to me throughout our whole conversation and while he kept apologizing for how shitty his English was, I thought he was doing just fine. He was deeply curious about America because he never gets to speak to actual Americans. That’s one of the great things about Hannover—it’s not a tourist city so Americans are a rare commodity, and people treat a conversation with you like a rare opportunity. He said that he had a perception of Americans as very stupid and closed-minded, and while he made sure to explain that he wasn’t talking about me, I took no offense because as I explained, most Americans are stupid and closed-minded. He told me a story about someone he knew who was an exchange student in Kentucky, and the family he stayed with kept asking him about Nazis and whether Hitler was secretly still alive. I had to admit that it’s true—when most Americans hear “Germany” they immediately think of Nazis and Hitler—but people on the coasts and in the cities tend to be more sophisticated than these hicks in places like Kentucky.

I was happy to disabuse him of the notion that all Americans are morons, and he complimented me more than once on my intelligence. That’s one great thing about being an American abroad—people judge you by extremely low standards so they’re impressed by you simply for not being a drooling idiot. He had a lot of questions about America and I was happy to explain things to him, particularly about the political situation because most Europeans have no idea that Obama is really just a puppet dangling from the same strings as Bush and Clinton before him.

But I also learned some very interesting things from Jevgeny. He works at a small grocery store in the south of Hannover, and while he didn’t say so explicitly he basically implied that he’s got connections. Apparently all Russians in Germany have some kind of ties to organized crime, and he said that it comes with positives and negatives. The downside is that when Germans find out he’s a Russian, they immediately back away and don’t want to talk to him. On the plus side, nobody fucks with him. He told me that if anyone came up and started shit with me while we were sitting there, he’d punch him in the face without fear of retaliation.

He also seemed concerned that he might be intimidating me, but that couldn’t be farther from the truth. And he kept saying that I could go any time and he didn’t want to keep me there, but I explained that this was the whole reason I came out—to meet and talk to interesting people. Jevgeny was a very interesting guy. One of the most fascinating things I learned from him is that with his German passport he’s free to go anywhere in Europe except his home country of Russia. When he goes back, they stop him at the airport because apparently all Russians are supposed to serve in the military and he hasn’t, so he has to bribe them every single time to keep from being sent to the army.

Eventually, Jevgeny went home and just like the kids from earlier told me that he felt lucky to have met me, which never stops feeling nice.

Now it was finally time to go to the club area and do some dancing, as the dance-floor was now full of people. I downed another expensive mineral water, then proceeded to weave my way through the crowd and dance to a bunch of unrecognizable songs (I didn’t do mush listening to the radio during the 00s) and see if any of the groups of Germans might be approachable, or better yet if there were any attractive girls I could attempt to flirt with. I was at maximum-confidence, truly believing that any woman I approached would be lucky for the chance to meet me, but things didn’t work out that way.

None of girls so much as made eye-contact with me, and all the attractive ones were dancing with their boyfriends anyway. It’s the same story whenever I go to a dance club—the girls are either taken or totally not into me—and it was one final reminder of why I never go out. Even when I’m smiling, having a good time, and radiating confidence, I just can’t seem to attract anyone. But fuck German girls anyway. There are of course many many exceptions, but generally speaking they’re almost all a bunch of stuck-up bitches. I think I’ve been better off during my three years here for having not had my life complicated by one.

After giving up on meeting anyone new, and quite satisfied at the socialization I’d already had, I went to the coat-check counter to retrieve my jacket and go home. There was a slight problem—the little token they gave me had apparently fallen out of my pocket, and the girl there (typical stuck-up German bitch) gave me this whole, “sucks to be you” attitude like there was absolutely nothing she could do to help me. She told me to wait an hour for people to start going home. Right, like I’m really going to wait until everyone else has gotten their coat before I can get mine and go. I obstinately stayed at the counter and she finally relented. I  described my jacket to her and told her that I could prove it was mine because there was a camera in my pocket with some pictures of me in it. She found the coat, found the camera, and handed it to me. Luckily I still had some pictures of me from the last time I was in Celle, and I showed her one of me with Oliver’s dog and she laughed and gave me my coat back.

It was now past 4 a.m. and during my walk home the sky began to get brighter as the sun was already rising. I’d literally been out from dusk until dawn, but in Germany during the summer that’s not a very long time at all.

So that was my nice little night out. I’m quite glad I did that, and while I’ve got no desire to drink or go out again tonight, I’m sure I’ll have myself a few more nights like that before I leave.

When in Rome X – Veni, Vidi, Vici

May 6th, 2011 No comments

April 26, 22:00 – April 27, 16:00

I was now on the final stretch of my Rome trip, it was getting late and I still hadn’t really met anyone. Not wanting to interrupt the Floyd-playing street musician as he talked to the restaurant owner, I went off in search of somewhere to buy beer, and found a “Bar” towards the south end of the square that allowed me to buy a bottle of beer and take it out with me into the square—just so long as I stayed in the square. Unfortunately, Italy is not like Germany where public drinking is not only acceptable but expected.

I took my bottle of beer to the fountain near the street musician and waited for him to be done talking to the restaurant owner. Because he’d been smoking a cigarette while playing, I knew I could try my lighter strategy with him. I went up and said, “Scusi, do you have a lighter?” making the standard cigarette-lighting-motion in case he didn’t understand me. “Lighter!” he said. “Ah yes, it’s called ‘lighter’!” I asked him what it was “in Italiano” and he told me but I once again forgot. He asked me in broken English if I was a musician. I told him I wasn’t but I loved Pink Floyd and he said I look like a musician. I said lots of people tell me that and I wish I could play. [Unfortunately, my only talent seems to be writing, the least sexy talent on earth].

It would have been nice if I could have had a conversation with him, but the language barrier was too great and we just wished each other a pleasant evening. I turned and sat down on the rail on the edge of the fountain, finishing my smoke and keeping my ears open for English.

Where I was sitting. I should have taken a picture.

The Piazza Navona at night was lovely but unfortunately the atmosphere was somewhat tainted by all the kids around. As I mentioned before, there were swarms of middle-school or high-school students all over the city, and a whole lot of them were now concentrated in the square, running around and laughing loudly and clearly not appreciating a damned thing about where they were. I wasn’t about to try and strike up a chat with any of them whether they spoke English or not.

But I had a little bit of luck as before I finished the cigarette a young couple with American accents came up right next to me and talked to each other. I waited awhile for a good chance to turn and speak to them, but whenever they stopped talking and I turned I saw that the reason for the pause was they were making out. When they finally paused without making out I turned and said, “Are you guys from the states?”

My worry that they might not have wanted someone to interrupt their romantic moment turned out to be completely unfounded. They were quite friendly and more than happy to have a chat, especially when I told them what I did for a living. They were travelling for a month before having to go back and take exams in England where they were studying. But they’d heard about English teaching as a way to keep travelling and they were excited to hear more details about it from me. The guy said he would definitely look into it and it’s possible I might have had a serious influence on his life. Maybe.

After about a thirty-minute chat involving all the standard “where have you traveled so far?” and “what were your favorite places?”-kind of questions, they decided to go off in search of their friend whom they had apparently just lost. They said he was drunk but they didn’t think he would have left the square, and they kept thinking they spotted him but never did. I joined them on the walk to the other end of the square, as they said he might like to talk to me because he was interested in Germany, but their friend was nowhere to be found. They decided he’d probably just gone back to the hostel, and now they were just going to head to the Pantheon and then go back home. I was welcome to join them, but I said I’d rather stick around and try to meet some more people. They were really nice but I didn’t want to spend the rest of the night with them. I’m still glad to have met them, Hannah and her boyfriend (the other one of the two people whose names I forgot).

I went back to the “Bar” but the guy told me they were closing and he couldn’t sell me another beer, so I just asked if I could use the toilet and when I was done I decided to leave the square and try my luck at the last night-life location that had been circled on my map: the Campo de Fiori.


View Larger Map

This square is a bit smaller than the Piazza Navona but just as densely packed with restaurants for sitting outside and drinking beer, wine, or cocktails. A lot of young people go there, but I was hoping to talk to people a bit older. I settled on one of the restaurants to sit outside in, partly because there was a couple there who struck me as perhaps being interesting to talk to, and I sat at a table near them and ordered a beer.

The girl was still finishing her pizza when I sat down, so I waited for her to be done and for a pause in their conversation before I turned and asked them if they were from the states. They were—they were from Wisconsin—and I later learned their names were Ira and Sara [I don’t know if it had an ‘h’ or not but I’ll omit it to distinguish her from hippie-chick Sarah, whose name might not have had an ‘h’ either].

Someone else's picture of the Campo de FioriIt wasn't as crowded when I was there.

I’d definitely found some good conversationalists in Ira and Sara, as we were able to talk about more than just the standard traveler’s questions. Telling them about teaching led to a conversation about education in general, and I was even able to get somewhat political with them. One of Ira’s relatives was a teacher and she’d recommended a documentary called “Waiting for Superman” done by an actual teacher who explained everything that was wrong with the public education system including teachers’ unions, and which they both insisted was one of the best documentaries they’d ever seen. They told me a bit about how poorly the schools are doing where they’re from, and I said that surprised me “because the government just keeps throwing all this money at education” at which they laughed quite a bit.

One question I’d been asking people whenever I thought of it is whether they’d seen HBO’s Rome. I wanted to know if anyone there had been looking at the city through the same HBO-tinted lenses as I’d been, but nobody had. I’d even asked Cristiano the night before because I wondered whether the series was well-known in Rome itself, but he hadn’t heard of it. Ira and Sara had heard it was really good but they hadn’t seen it. I told them it was one of the best things ever made for television, and Sara said she’s heard the same thing about the show Lost. I explained that this was high quality writing with extremely well-developed characters and she said, “Oh, so not like Lost?” and I insisted that on the spectrum of TV-entertainment, Lost is as one end and Rome is at the other.

They said they wished they’d brushed up a little on Roman history themselves before coming here, as they probably would have appreciated the ruins and monuments on a much deeper level than, “ooh, think about how old this is.” I agreed that knowing about the history of a place before you travel there is probably the best way to amplify your appreciation of it.

At around 1:00 we all agreed that we should probably get going, and after making sure to get a picture of myself with Ira and Sara I wished them a fond farewell and headed back towards my hostel.

Ira, Sara, and some guy they met in Rome.

This time I took the scenic route because I knew the next day I was just going to go straight to the train station as soon as I got up and this would be my last chance to see the Colosseum and the Forum ruins. I took those sights in one last time, injecting one last dose of Enigmality into my soul before bidding Ancient Rome farewell and heading back to the modern part of town.

It had been a pretty successful night. It wasn’t as climactic as a pub-crawl might have made it (I actually found out from Ira and Sara who’d checked online that the pub-crawl only met on Mondays and Wednesdays), and I’ll forever remain a little disappointed that I hadn’t offered to escort those Asians to the Trevi Fountain, but I did get to hear Comfortably Numb because of that, and I think I did well enough for myself with the two nice couples I’d met.

Goodbye, Colosseum. Ciao, Forum.

Just before I reached my hostel there was one final bit of amusement as I found myself walking behind a couple of Japanese girls (real ones—they were speaking Japanese) who were walking at a slower pace than me. As they heard my footstep getting closer and closer they started walking closer together and the one girl put her arm around the other. One of them nervously glanced behind her, and I smiled and waved which made them both start giggling. “Don’t be afraid!” I told them, and their giggling increased in intensity as they walked off in a direction I wasn’t going.

Sleep came very easily as I was now thoroughly drained of energy, and although I was woken up at 7:00 I let myself lie in bed and recover a bit more energy until 9:00. I considered going for a walk among the ruins one more time but I figured I’d already had an appropriate enough farewell the night before.

I’ll spare you and my future-self from the details of the voyage home, but there’s one last anecdote that needs mentioning. I knew I’d probably be seeing the German couple with the Sara-look-a-like at the airport, and I did spot them on the check-in line but they were far ahead of me. I didn’t spot them at the terminal or on the plane, but after the very pleasant flight home I knew I’d have an opportunity to talk to them at the baggage claim.Remember them?

Unfortunately I wasn’t actually in the mood to chat with anyone, let alone in German because my brain was now operating more slowly and it would be a lot more difficult than it had the first couple of times. Furthermore, I was pretty sure they spotted me at the baggage claim but they didn’t acknowledge it so I figured they had no interest in another encounter with me either.

And yet I knew that I should talk to them one more time simply for the sake of the story, so I went up to them at the baggage claim and we exchanged a few words. I was correct in thinking that my German-skills had been reduced, and I felt a little embarrassed with some of the mistakes I made. Of course they’d had no way of knowing until then that I wasn’t actually German, so it felt especially awkward after our brief exchange during which we only spoke about being exhausted and having crammed so much into the space of three days.

When I wished them goodbye and headed down towards the S-Bahn platform I realized I’d forgotten to ask them for their names, which bothered me for reasons I shouldn’t have to explain to anyone who’s read this far. I’d made it a point to get the names of everyone I’d met, and if I wanted theirs I’d have to approach them again.

But when I spotted them on the S-Bahn platform and they seemed to be pretending not to see me, I became even more wary of doing this. The guy even walked right in front of me at one point without turning his head. To them I must have been this creepy weird guy that kept popping up during their trip to Rome.

Hannover Hauptbahnhof, 1180 km from Rome Still, I knew that if I didn’t get their names it would leave a sour taste in my mouth and that was the last way I wanted this trip to end. Yet when I got off the S-Bahn and waited at the bottom of the stairs in the Hannover main station for them, they’d somehow separated and the girl walked by me with no acknowledgment. Clearly she had no interest in another exchange of words with me.

But knowing how I’d feel walking out of that station without having got their names vs. how I’d feel if I did, I forced myself to catch up to them and “Entschulding” them before they could get away. I apologized for interrupting them but they laughed and smiled, thus relieving all the tension. I explained that I was too tired to speak German very well right now, but I’d forgotten to ask them for their names. They happily gave them: Christian and Inge.

Now that the cat was out of the bag that I’m not actually German, we had a brief exchange in which I explained what I was doing in Hannover, that I’d lived there for three years but my Hannover Opera House, 1.2 km from the HauptbahnhofGerman still wasn’t perfect, and Christian assured me it was better than his English. Before finally saying goodbye one last time, they remarked how Hannover was a small town and we’d probably spot each other again, just like in Rome. Hwaatacoeenzedenze that would be.

And so I left the station and headed to the Opera House, where I sat and went through all the photos I’d taken before Lena came to meet me so I could give her back the camera. The rest is history.

And that concludes the story of my trip to Rome, which I hope you’ve enjoyed reading half as much as I’ve enjoyed writing. Not only was it a wonderful experience in terms of the fulfillment of a lifelong goal, but I had a genuinely good time for nearly every part of it and I feel like I can be proud of myself for having gone about it so well. I learned a lot more about Rome but I also learned a lot more about myself.

I’ve come a long way since my first solo traveling adventure in Europe when I went to Paris and London in April of 2005 during my exchange-student year. Back then I saw only the most famous sights in each city, while this time I managed to check out a few lesser-known points of interest as well. Then, I’d been too nervous about eating alone at a restaurant and ate only fast-food the whole time, but this time I ate at actual restaurants and while the food wasn’t spectacular it was a much better way to go about it. Most significantly, back then I’d avoided the night-life altogether and failed to approach anyone in an attempt to meet people. This time I made it a point to go out at night and to meet as many people as I realistically could. Whenever I approach others I worry that I might be imposing my presence on people who would rather be left alone, but I think I realized that I’m actually a pretty interesting person and that most people enjoy talking to me.

I can now leave Europe feeling like I’ve seen everything I’ve really wanted to see here. I may not have been everywhere but I feel like I’ve experienced enough to have a much better impression of life here than most people from elsewhere. It’s a great continent with a hell of a lot going for it in terms of culture, history, and people, but I know there’s a lot more to learn in other parts of the world. It’s helped me grow tremendously as a person—far more than I would have had I remained in the states—and I can be sure that spending the next part of my life in Asia will help me grow even more.

And so I leave Rome and prepare to leave Europe behind with the same sentiment on my mind that Julius Caesar had over two thousand years ago: I came, I saw, I conquered.

Arrivederci!

When in Rome IX – The Sun Sets on This Former Empire

May 5th, 2011 No comments

April 26, 17:00-22:00

The final bit of sight-seeing I had to do in Rome was to head back across the river and visit the church that Cristiano had taken me to the previous night—the Santa Maria in Trastevere. I could have walked there from the Vatican but I had plenty of time to kill and that walking tour had completely exhausted me. So I got back on the tour bus and let it drive me all the way around Rome again, even remaining on-board during their 30-minute break at Termini station, giving me ample time for more reading.

My final departure from the bus was at the bridge leading to the Isola Tiberina, the only island in the Tiber river located within Rome. The bus tour had informed me that the two bridges connecting the island to each respective side of the river were the oldest in Rome.

Oldest bridge in Rome #1 (looks just like Bridge #2)

I walked across the island and back into the maze of streets leading to the church. It took a few checks and double-checks of the map, but it wasn’t long before I found it. I went inside and I have to honestly admit that my first impression was disappointment. This was perfectly understandable—I’d just come from St. Peter’s Basilica which would blow just about any other church out of the water. This place was not without its charm, but I’d hardly consider it the nicest church in Rome.

Photo from internet of the Church from outside. Maybe A nicest church, but not THE nicest church.

But one thing this church had going for it that none of the others did was the music. They were playing this soft, spiritual music at a low volume—some songs with what sounded like Gregorian chants and some with female voice choirs singing hymns. Gradually this music started to seep into my soul, and by the time I found a little room in the back with some incredibly lovely artwork adorning the walls and ceiling, I was sold. I sat in that little room and just soaked up the atmosphere for about twenty minutes, knowing this would be the last new place I’d visit in Rome. The trip was coming to a close, and this seemed like a perfect way to end it.

Bliss

Other tourists held the door to the church open for me with a smile, the only time that happened during the trip. I suppose the atmosphere of this place had touched their souls as well, and I warmly smiled back.

The next item on my agenda, however, was not quite so holy. I intended to find the pizzeria that Cristiano had recommended to me the night before, but this was no easy task as I remembered neither the name nor the exact location and there were about twelve different restaurants serving pizza in the vicinity. I wandered around for at least a half an hour, passing by a few places that I thought might be it but wasn’t sure. The one I ultimately decided was most likely to be the one wouldn’t let me sit outside, so I decided I’d just go somewhere else. The atmosphere is half the point of eating out, and the atmosphere is always much better outside even on a cloudy evening.

I finally settled on a place and sat down, the waiter offering me a table right next to a couple that I heard speaking some German dialect as I read more of my book and waited for my food. I got a mushroom pizza, which was a slight improvement over the pizza I’d had the first night A mushroom pizza, not THE mushroom pizza.but still far short of the awesome flavor experience I’d been hoping for. I decided that after having tried two different pizzas in Italy I have more than enough evidence to leap to this conclusion: the best pizza in the world is in New York and New Jersey—not in Italy. Congratulations, Italian-Americans. Sorry, genuine Italians.

When I was finished with my meal I took out a cigarette, and here’s where my non-lighter-having really came in handy. The woman at the table next to me had smoked a cigarette earlier so I knew she had one, and I turned to her and said, “Entschuldigung, haben Sie feuer?” which is how you ask for a light in German. Cristiano had taught me how to ask in Italian the night before but I’d already forgotten.

Of course having heard me speak only English to the waiter the couple was surprised that I knew German, and we got into a nice little conversation. They were from Austria so their dialect was different, but the man had apparently lived in Berlin for some time and his High German was flawless. The waiters at this restaurant, like the one from the night before, never seemed to want to bring the check so we had plenty of time to chat while we waited, during which I once again surprised myself with how easily I was able to carry on a conversation completely in German.

There was something about being surrounded by Italian the whole time that made me far less self-conscious about speaking German. Knowing next-to-no Italian it was clearer to me than ever before just how much German I actually do know. I was able to speak quite easily about my job and my life situation as well as ask them questions about their time in Rome—how long they were staying, what they’d seen, and so on. When they got their check and were ready to leave I asked for their names. The guy was Wolfgang, but the woman was one of the only two people on the entire trip whose name I got but don’t remember.

My plan for the evening was to try the pub crawl from the advertisement on my map, which said they meet every night at 9:15 in front of Trajan’s Column. It had taken me far longer to find a place to eat than I’d though it would, so I was a bit worried that I’d miss it when I finally got my check at 8:45. I asked the waiter to point me in the direction of the “Tevere” and he gave me excellent directions which spared me the hardship of once again navigating the labyrinth.


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On the map it looked like Trajan’s Column was extremely far away, but as I progressed I realized that it was perfectly reachable within my time-frame. I walked quickly and with a purpose, and in spite of the swarms of middle-school students all there on class trips and clogging up the sidewalks, I managed to make it to the column with ten minutes to spare.

The only problem was there was nobody there who looked like they had anything to do with a pub crawl. I re-checked the ad on my map and saw that the meeting time was actually listed as 9:15-10:15, so I hadn’t had to hurry at all. But when 9:15 came and then 9:20 and finally 9:25 with nary a sign of pub-crawlification in sight, I began to think the ad had it wrong altogether and they either didn’t meet here anymore or didn’t meet here every night.

But I wasn’t going to be disappointed—I was actually a little afraid of what a pub-crawl might do to me in terms of making the next day’s journey home a lot more painful, so this meant I was off the hook. My back-up plan was to check out the Piazza Navona at night and hope there would be opportunities for drinking and meeting people there.

Where the pub-crawl didn't meet. Just as I was getting underway I noticed a couple of Asian girls asking people for directions to the Trevi Fountain. When the woman near me whom they asked couldn’t give them clear directions I told them I knew exactly how to get there and pulled out my map to show them the way. They looked Japanese but spoke with American accents so I assume they were from the states but I didn’t ask. I was happy to be of help to them and I wished them a pleasant evening as they went on their way.

On the way to the Piazza Navona I stopped at one of the pubs I’d seen the night before but hadn’t gone inside, and because it looked decent enough I figured I’d check it out. I sat at the bar and ordered a beer, scanning the room for approachable people but everyone there seemed kind of lame. I tried to get into the soccer game they were showing but like most soccer games it was quite boring. I checked outside to see who was smoking so I could maybe use my lighter-strategy, but the only people out there were clearly not the kind of people I had any interest in meeting.

Half-way through my beer I realized I should have offered to escort those Asian girls to the Trevi Fountain. As soon as this thought occurred to me I started beating myself up in my brain Where I didn't take the Asian girls.about not having thought of it at the time. “You idiot! Why didn’t you offer to take them there yourself?” But I knew why. Subconsciously I was afraid they would decline my offer and spoil the good spirits I was in. My brain had decided not to take the risk without even telling me it had been making a risk-calculation. Had I been conscious of this I probably would have overruled my subconscious mind’s decision, but alas it had just happened too quickly. In any case, there was no use beating myself up over it.

But I had to finish this beer as quickly as possible and get the hell out of the crappy place. I did that, and headed back out in an attempt to once again find my way to the elusive Piazza Navona. I had to ask a waiter for directions, but it was right down the alley from there and I reached it without much trouble. The square did indeed look much more beautiful at night.

“Is that music I hear?” I thought to myself when I got there. Indeed, there was a street musician playing somewhere nearby and I began walking towards the sound. “Oh my god, is that Pink Floyd music I hear?” As I walked closer it was unmistakable. “Oh my motherloving lord is that Comfortably Numb I hear?!”

Yes, it couldn’t have happened in a more perfect way. An incredibly awesome street musician was sitting on a stool in front of the outside area of one of the restaurants near the north end of the square and just beginning to play “Comfortably Numb” without the words. I went up and got ready to enjoy the song, but not before snapping a quick picture because I knew I’d want an image to remember this by.

You are only coming through in waves.

I tossed him a €2 coin as soon as my hands were free and he looked up to give me a smile and a “Grazi”. His guitar-strap had Dark Side of the Moon prisms on it so he must have been playing Floyd the whole time, and clearly I wasn’t the only one who was appreciating it. The restaurant tables were all full and there were at least a dozen other people gathered around him. His guitar case was more full of money than that of any street musician I’ve ever seen—not just coins but paper money too. I even saw a $10 bill.

Of course I just wanted to enjoy and appreciate this moment, and I got ready to slip into the zone once he began the solo. But as I was closing my eyes and getting ready to rock out, someone tapped me on the shoulder and pointed out that there was a police car behind me on the little road between the musician and the restaurant. I got out of the way and the police car pulled up to him, the officer at the wheel pointing to his watch and saying something in Italian. You’ve got to be effing kidding me—not right now. Just give him three more minutes, please!

Luckily, the musician promised to be done in just a few minutes, and he picked up the song again at the end of the last verse. When he launched into the solo it quickly became clear why his guitar case was so full. He played the Comfortably Numb instrumental perfectly, just like on the album, and it put me right in that spiritual place that only that song can.

Picture I didn't take of the Piazza Navona at night.

When he was done I loudly applauded and said, “That was brilliant! Brilliant!” and he thanked me again in Italian. I wanted to go up and talk to him and see if he knew English, but he was quickly accosted by a guy who might have been the owner of the restaurant, who clearly appreciated having him there to play.

Of course I was disappointed that I hadn’t gotten there earlier to hear him play even more Floyd, but I felt incredibly lucky to have got there no later than I did. That was one of those moments you can’t plan for, and I knew as it was happening that it would be one of the most memorable of the trip.

When in Rome VI – The Real Roman (or close enough)

May 2nd, 2011 No comments

April 25, 20:00 – April 26, 2:00

When I asked the hostel owner on my first night in Rome where the night-life was, he circled a giant area on the map that included the Piazza Navona, the Campo de Fiori, and a small section of town across the river. I didn’t feel like walking all the way across the river again so I set off in search of the Piazza Navona. But as luck or fate would have it, I missed the streets I was supposed to turn on to get to it and soon enough found myself at the river. Rather than turn back around and continue hunting for this square, I decided to walk south along the Tiber until I got to the Ponte Sisto—the bridge leading to the area across town that was also in the hostel owner’s circle.


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Walking along the Tiber at night, I mused about how many important Romans had done the same thing, and just how many average Romans throughout the ages walked along the same river, their thoughts consumed with matters of the day. There were people walking along this river during the birth of the Republic, during the power struggle between Caesar and Pompey, during Caligula’s reign of terror, during the fall of the Empire, and during every Papal-sanctioned Crusade. And after all these millennia of history, I was walking along the same river pondering those same events.

By the time I reached the Ponte Sisto and crossed to the southwestern side of the river, I was more than ready for a drink. Finding a decent-looking bar, however, was not so easy. Every “Bar” I came across was one of those ice-cream-shop deals and I wanted something dimly lit where I could sit on a barstool and hope someone interesting sat by me.Beer of champions (not my photo)

I finally found a little pub tucked away in one of the many tiny street-lets that looked perfect. It was small but not crowded, the lighting was perfect, and they were playing classic rock on the radio. I walked in and took the first empty barstool, nodding hello to the shaved-headed Italian guy sitting next to me chatting with the bartendress in Italian. The bartendress was an adorably beautiful and sexy black-haired girl, and she came up to me immediately so I could order a Guinness.

When I started drinking I thought that as nice as this place was, I sadly might have to leave because it was much more of a local place than the pubs in the busy section of town and there didn’t seem to be any other travelers there. From all the anecdotes I’ve heard, Italians either don’t speak English or don’t like to speak English, so if I remained there I thought I’d just be sitting in silence the whole time.

But after only a few minutes the shaved-headed guy next to me (also drinking Guinness) asked me in English where I was from, apparently having heard me using English with the bartendress. I told him I was from New Jersey and had to explain that it was near New York. He said that when people ask me I should just tell them I’m from New York. I could see the logic in that, and from that point on, except with other Americans, when people asked me where I was from I’d say New York.

I asked him if he lived here, if he was a “real Roman” and he said yes, but not exactly. He lives on the “outskirts” of town, a word I had to teach him. He was happy when I told him what I do for a living, because he said he loves to practice his English. So we talked for awhile and I helped him with the English which he definitely appreciated.

The conversation was a bit awkward at first and I thought it might be like a repeat of the Scholar’s Lounge the previous night in which we’d just say a few words and then go back to ignoring each other, but we actually got more and more interested in each other as time went on and before I knew it he was insisting on buying another round of Guinness for both of us. We exchanged names rather early—his was Cristiano. Cristiano is older than me but he’s switching paths in life and currently studying nursing so he can get a job in a hospital. He turned out to be a really compassionate guy, also explaining to me how much he hates what people do to animals for food and that he’s been a vegan for several years.

I don’t know what it is about me and vegans, but I just seem magnetically drawn to them somehow. The guy I met at the airport in London was also a vegan, and wouldn’t you know it his name was also a variation of the name “Christopher”. Hwaatacoeenzedenze.A bit blurry, but that's him.

Conversations are difficult things to recount in detail because it’s impossible to remember exactly what we talked about in the order in which we talked about it, but we covered a lot of topics. Because I’d been living in Germany for three years he asked me about the girls and I explained how notoriously difficult they are. He said I must have at least had a girlfriend or some “romantic adventures” and was surprised when I told him I haven’t. He said he couldn’t believe that a guy like me had a hard time with women, and insisted that in Italy I would have no problem finding girls to have “romantic adventures” with. I doubt that, but for reasons I didn’t want to get into. I just said that I’ve always had difficulty with that sort of thing and left it at that.

He said he liked to come to this bar because of the bartendress, which I completely understood. This girl was drop-dead gorgeous, and on top of that she seemed really friendly and had a lively personality, singing and dancing to the music which consisted mostly of things I love too such as The Doors, Dire Straits, Green Day, and the Red Hot Chili Peppers. This place definitely had good people and good music, a great atmosphere all around. I wish I remembered the name of it.

With Cristiano I was also able to get slightly philosophical. He talked about how he thinks humanity has so many problems but that we’d start moving in the right direction if we all stopped eating meat. He made sure to explain that he wasn’t trying to change my lifestyle or anything but that since he’s stopped eating animal products he’s felt much healthier both physically and spiritually. I said that I understood but I don’t think humans are going to stop torturing animals until we stop torturing each other. I explained the concept of self-identity—that most people only consider their families to be as important as themselves, that some expand their self-perception to include their community or their nation, that a few people are able to look at all of humanity as one holistic self, but it’s only a very few who can view all life that way. I had some difficulty explaining this because his English wasn’t perfect, but it was good enough for him to understand.

When the conversation almost drifted to religion he put the brakes on it and said he didn’t want to go there, that when it comes to that kind of thing he just doesn’t know but that it’s usually best not to talk about it. That’s probably wise when it comes to most people but I’m one of the very few who enjoys talking about religion and can do so in such a way that doesn’t lead to a shouting match. I agree with him that when it comes to God I just don’t know what the Truth is, but there’s nothing that fascinates me more than hearing about how people view the fundamental nature of the universe, and what answers to the Big Questions work for them. Unless their mentality is “I’m right and everyone else is wrong and therefore deserving of damnation”, I don’t have a problem with anybody’s belief system.

Cristiano joined me outside for a cigarette even though he doesn’t smoke, and because I needed a lighter we approached a woman sitting outside smoking a cigarette of her own. She turned out to be really cool as well, and while her English wasn’t as good as Cristiano’s she wasn’t afraid to speak it. Her name was Marianna and she was a nice-looking middle-aged woman with a great sense of humor. She agreed to take a picture of me and Cristiano.

We're not nearly as drunk as we look.

When we went back inside Marianna was now officially a part of our party, and thus her husband Salvatore became a part as well. I loved hearing about how he managed to become her partner—he basically pursued her relentlessly until she finally gave in, so apparently that works with some women. I told Salvatore that I know his name because there are a million pizzerias in America called “Salvatore’s”, that if you go to New York (where I told him I was from) you could find a “Salvatore’s Pizza” on every block, which he got a kick out of.

The four of us chatted for awhile and it was about as pleasant as a night out could possibly be. I was glad to be talking to genuine Italians this time instead of other Americans, as I could feel the brain muscles working to go the extra mile required when there’s a bit of a language barrier involved in the discussion. But three years of English teaching has made me quite adept at gauging how good someone’s English is and adjusting my vocabulary usage accordingly, so we had a pretty easy time of it.Similar to Marianna's pack.

At one point Marianna took out her pack of cigarettes—not normal ones but those little thin brown ones—and told us all to think of a dream and pick a cigarette. I asked, “a dream like a night-time dream or like a hope for the future?” and she explained that it was a dream for the future. Salvatore and Cristiano both picked long cigarettes, which apparently means it’s going to be a long time before their dreams come true, but I picked a short one—one that she’d already smoked half of—which means that my dream will supposedly come true in a very short time. I assume if I tell anybody which dream I had in mind it would ruin it, but anyone who knows me could probably venture a guess.

Throughout the whole time I kept filing each part of the conversation away in my mind, hoping to be able to recollect all of it later for journal purposes, but alas so much of it is lost. If anyone reading this feels like these anecdotes are boring or trivial, I just want to reiterate how personally valuable it is to me to be able to come back to this journal entry years or decades down the road and be reminded of all the little details I have managed to remember like that bit about the dream-cigarettes. A few more days and it might have been forgotten forever.

We were having a pleasant time but when Cristiano and I finished our third glass of Guinness each, he offered to show me around this little section of town, an offer I was more than happy to take him up on. I made sure to get a picture of the three of them, and Cristiano took one of me with Marianna and Salvatore.

Marianna attempting to bunny-ear Salvatore. Me and my Italian buddies.

It had occurred to me earlier to ask them if they knew where I could go to get some really good Italian Pizza, figuring the locals would be the best people to ask, and Cristiano said he knew a great place nearby. The first thing we did was go find it, and while I resolved to come back there for dinner the next day I unfortunately didn’t do a good enough job remembering the name or how to get there. This part of town was quite a labyrinth anyway.

He took me to the church there, the Santa Maria in Trastevere, and told me it was his favorite church in Rome. It was too late to go inside then, but I resolved to check it out the next day before dinner. Naturally, I had to snap a shot of the church and the fountain outside.

Cristiano's favorite church. A water fountain? In Rome? Get outta here!

We continued wandering around that part of town for awhile. He offered to take me up to the top of the hill there, the name of which I’ve unfortunately forgotten and can’t find on the map. It’s not one of the original seven hills of Rome so it’s not easily Wikipediable either. At any rate, the promise of a good night-time view of the city was impossible to pass up.

He took a few wrong turns along the way, which I guess means that these streets are ridiculously confusing even for a Roman (or semi-Roman), but each time we went down a new alley there was something else interesting to see. “That’s the beauty of Rome,” he said. “Every street you turn on there’s something new. You can live here for years and keep discovering new things.”

Cristiano with an awesome car we stumbled across. This ride is pimped enough already.

I hesitate to mention this next part but it’s just such a funny part of the story that it can’t be left out. After all those beers, both our bladders were pretty full, and Cristiano insisted that we could just piss on the street. “Romans have been pissing on these streets for thousands of years” he explained, and I couldn’t argue with that logic. While we were walking up the hill I had to go again and I took advantage of a good spot in which to do it, and then he went as well, explaining afterwards that he couldn’t let me piss alone because of a saying they have in Italy: “Chi non piscia in compagnia o è una ladro o è una spia” which means “He who doesn’t piss in company is either a thief or a spy”. I got a real kick out of that and made him repeat it and break it down enough until I could recite the whole expression myself (although I confess I still had to look it up to get the spelling right).

We finally made it to the top of the hill and indeed got a nice lovely view of Rome across the river. We were talking about how much history you can find in the city, and Cristiano was rather impressed with my knowledge of Roman history. He apparently knows his stuff too, and was surprised that I actually knew who Sulla was, even though I explained I’d just learned that same day.Another random picture I took that night.

While we were up there, a nice-looking girl appeared and sat down on a nearby bench to take in the view as well. Cristiano said something to her in Italian and she responded in Italian, but then he asked her in Italian if she was Italian and she said in Italian that she was American. She seemed a little nervous about the two of us at first but once Cristiano insisted that she speak English so I could understand and I joined in the conversation, she got more comfortable. I learned that her name was Ann, she’s from Virginia, and she’s been living in Rome for two years studying communications—specifically Church communications. I asked her if she planned to work for the Church and she said she didn’t know, that she might, but that her major didn’t make that a guarantee. Apparently a friend of hers who got the same degree wound up working for NASA.

She turned out to be one of the rare people who was actually impressed that I’d studied philosophy, but she said she didn’t do too well in that subject. If I were a tactless asshole I might have made some remark like, “That must be why you’re still Christian” but this was just one of those thoughts that pops into my mind that I quickly dismiss. I’ve known plenty of people with brilliant philosophical minds who consider themselves Christians, although their idea of Christianity is usually a far cry from the dogmatic saints-and-martyrs stuff typically associated with Roman Catholicism.

Ann was a nice girl, although at first she seemed like she just wanted to enjoy her favorite spot alone and we were bothering her. We were able to bond a little bit over our both having lived in foreign countries for a long period of time and still having failed to master the language, but I think we were both also relieved to hear that we weren’t the only ones who can spend multiple years in a foreign-language country and not become fluent. When she asked me why I’d chosen the travel-the-world-teaching-English career I explained that you just feel more alive in a foreign country. You exercise parts of your brain when you’re among people of other cultures that you don’t use when you’re with people of the same culture, which she said she definitely understood. That also seemed to be the point when she decided she liked me and that our presence was not an imposition.

She told us that she works at a little Chapel inside the Vatican called the Centro San Lorenzo, and she even gave each of us a flyer which she happened to have handy. Apparently it’s a church where they have the World Youth Day Cross, a crucifix dedicated to that cause in 1984 by John Paul II, whom Ann referred to as “JP2”. She said they expected massive amounts of people to come by during the beatification to pay their respects. I told her that I was planning on touring the Vatican tomorrow so I’d definitely try and stop by. Cristiano, who’d pretty much just let the two of us chat once we got going, wished her a farewell and I said I’d see her tomorrow.

It was getting late now and Cristiano had to drive 20 km to get home, but he was parked in the middle of town and was able to walk with me for half the distance back to the hostel. Ann had told us that she prefers Rome at night because while “during the day it’s just another city, at night it becomes luminescent”. I knew what she meant, and had that nice word in mind as Cristiano and I made our way back through the streets the way I came. It was great to have him as a bit of a tour guide as well, as he kept giving me ideas about what else I needed to "Luminescent" Rome (internet photo)see. He said that all of these churches along the road I should just go inside for ten minutes. They might not look too impressive on the outside, he said, but inside the artwork is amazing. He also insisted that the Piazza Navona, the place I’d tried and failed to get to earlier, is his favorite square in Rome. He’d asked Ann what her favorite square was as well and she said that depended on whether it was night or day but at night the Piazza Navona was also her favorite, so I knew I should try to get there the next night.

When we got back to the Piazza Venezia it was time for us to part ways. He gave me his e-mail address and told me that if I ever wanted to come back to Rome I could stay with him and he’d show me around and provide me with anything I ever needed. I couldn’t believe my extraordinary luck at having found this guy, and I reflected on how if I hadn’t missed the Piazza Navona before, or perhaps if I’d gotten a later start on the evening had I actually found that blasted Time Elevator, it’s likely our paths would not have crossed. It’s the kind of thing that makes me believe there is such a thing as fate. When we parted ways he shook my hand but I gave him a hug and he warmly returned the embrace.

I walked the rest of the distance back to the hostel in probably the best spirits I’d been in throughout the whole trip. I’d seen many incredible sights and met plenty of interesting people, but when travelling, there’s nothing that compares to making a truly valuable connection with another person. Any journey in which you can say that you’ve done that can only be considered a success.

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When in Rome III – I’m Not Afraid of Americans

April 29th, 2011 No comments

April 24, 19:00 – April 25, 2:00

After standing on a nearby overlook for a few minutes to soak up the last bit of Enigmality I could squeeze from the ruins, I turned to walk back up the street I’d approached from, the Via Cavour, in search of a place to sit outside and eat my first genuine Italian food in Italy. As soon as I found one that looked decent and inexpensive enough I stopped and asked the waitress there if I could have a table for one outside. Of course I could.

I ordered a plain pizza, not wanting to taint my first sampling of genuine Italian pizza in Italy with any extra toppings. As I waited I busted out the Kindle my parents bought me for Christmas and read a little further in the book my friend Corey had recommended would be a good thing to read in Rome: Rubicon by Tom Holland which is indeed an excellent narrative history of the last years of the Roman republic and beyond perfect for the experience. Not to sound like a commercial or anything, but e-readers like the Kindle are the best thing since the invention of the I-pod for people who travel. You don’t have to lug around a giant book and can in fact lug around an entire library’s worth of books at the fraction of a weight of a single book. Whenever you’re at an airport, train-station, bus-stop or line for entry somewhere you can just bust it out and let the time fly by. [I expect my check from Amazon.com to arrive shortly.]

When my pizza came I was a bit disappointed by the look of it, but the taste of it disappointed me even more. It was just a typical mediocre European pizza—good but far from anywhere near what I was expecting from real Italians using real Italian ingredients. I resolved to try some pasta the next night and see if that was any better.

While I was finishing my dinner, another couple sat down a few tables down from me. It was in fact the same German couple from the S-Bahn that morning and the forum ruins a short while earlier. Say it with me: “Hwaatacoeeeenzidenze!” It was indeed such a ridiculous coeenzidenze that I couldn’t help but go up to them again as I was leaving and say, “Guten appétit”. When they saw it was me again they laughed strongly and we joked that we’d probably run into each other again later. But I’ll spare you the suspense and let you know right now that I didn’t actually see them again until the flight home. Still, the fact that these guys took just about the exact same route across Planet Earth as I had on the exact same day—from the same S-Bahn wagon to the same forum overlook to the same exact restaurant—I mean, seriously.

When I was finished with my pizza I realized how badly I wanted to top off the meal with a cigarette, but alas I’d decided to stop buying cigarettes of my own when I finished my last pack a week ago and go back to only smoking occasionally in social situations with others who would let me bum them. But I figured I really ought to buy a pack for the Rome trip, so I continued walking back in the direction of my hostel until I found a “Tabaccaio” shop and bought one. I decided not to buy a lighter, as I find it’s a good strategy when travelling never to bring a lighter because it forces you to approach other people you see smoking and ask them for a light—never a huge imposition. When they light up your smoke you can usually gauge whether you might be able to strike up a conversation as well. If they say nothing to you, which is usually the case, you just move on and no harm done.

After obtaining the cigarettes I walked across the street to a “Bar” which in Italy apparently just means a corner-shop that usually sells food and ice-cream and also happens to sell some beer as well. At this one you were able to sit outside, so I sat out there and smoked and watched the traffic roll by, just enjoying the evening atmosphere.

After that it was back to the hostel where I asked the owner if he could tell me where all the pubs were. He circled a big area on my map stretching from the Piazza Navona (which will take on some significance later so remember the name) across the Campo de Fiori (which will also have later significance) and all the way across the river to a part of town which will also become more significant later in the story.


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But none of those places mattered on the first night because I never actually made it there. The hostel owner told me which bus to take and after some difficulty figuring it out (for some reason you couldn’t pay the driver but had to buy a ticket before you boarded) I got on and let it take me down along the Corso Vittorio Emanuele, one of the main strips of town with tons of places of interest all along it. Along the way I spotted a couple of Irish Pubs and I figured I’d just go to one of those tonight as Irish Pubs are always a great place to meet other travelers.

I entered “The Scholar’s Lounge” which I saw had an open barstool between two other guys, one there with his friend and the other alone. I ordered a beer and was horrified when the bartender told me it would be €7. Clearly I’d have to try and refrain from drinking as much in Rome as I do on a typical night out.

Picture from their website.

I sat in silence for awhile, trying to gauge my neighbors to tell how approachable they were. The two guys to the left of me seemed like typical Americans with not much of anything interesting to say, but the guy to my right was silent so I had no idea. The rest of the bar was filled with larger groups of people sitting at tables.

They were broadcasting a basketball game on one of the TV-screens which they must have been doing from a website because I doubt Italian TV broadcasts the NBA, and the Miami Heat were playing the Philadelphia 76ers. It was the fourth quarter and the 76ers had just taken the lead with an incredible 3-point shot. With only about 45-seconds to go, the guy on my left told his friend that Miami would definitely come back. I used that opportunity to say, “You think?” to him and he said “We’ve got LeBron.” I said, “I don’t know,” and he said, “I’ll bet you a drink that Miami scores again.” I considered it for a moment and decided very uncharacteristically of myself to take the risk.

So I was able to chat with him for a second and find out he was from Miami himself, but he’d been living in Rome for two years working for a company that he strangely didn’t seem to want to say anything about. We watched the rest of the game closely and I was pretty happy when the game ended without Miami scoring any more points. The dude—Steve—was true to his word and he did buy me a beer. So that’s one way to save money when out drinking.

Unfortunately Steve wasn’t all that conversational so we didn’t continue chatting much after that. I turned to the guy on my left and asked him where he was from. Apparently he was from Germany but also living there and he came to this bar often to watch sports and apparently never meet anyone. He was less conversational than Steve so that chat died an even quicker death.

When Steve went out for a smoke I asked him if I could join because I needed a lighter, and when we got out a Scottish guy named Liam joined us because he also needed a smoke. With some pressing, Liam was able to solicit from Steve that he worked for a British company that sells American financial products in Italy. No wonder he was so tight-lipped about it. He’s one of the guys that wreak havoc on the global economy. Suddenly I was a lot more satisfied about having won the bet with him, but a bit wary of where the money that had bought the beer I was drinking had come from.

Steve went back inside but I stayed and talked to Liam for a bit, who was much friendlier. He worked for Ryan Air as a steward—sorry, “flight attendant”—and he said while Ryan Air is “the worst company in the world” he loves his job. Having also worked a service job and hating it I couldn’t really understand it, but he said he loves being able to make people happy and make their flights a good experience. I thought about Chris—the guy I talked to the night in the airport terminal in London—who told me that almost all male flight attendants were gay, and I thought there was a good chance that Liam was gay until he suddenly stopped talking to me to go and aggressively hit on a girl who’d just sat down at a table outside.

I decided “eff this place” and I just went back inside to place my empty glass back on the bar and say “take care” to Steve. When I got back outside, Liam was too busy hitting on the girl for me to say goodbye so I just took off down the street until I came to the other Irish Pub called the Abbey Theater.

Another picture I failed to take.

I liked the atmosphere a lot better than the other place as soon as I got in, and I ordered a beer and walked around to an area where I heard two American couples, one at a table and one at a bar, discussing sports with each other. One of the couples was from Boston so they were excited about the Celtics game that was now being streamed, and the other couple was from San Diego—two cities I’ve been to but only briefly.

They sounded like typical Americans—the kind I normally wouldn’t approach—but true to my resolve I inserted myself into their conversation as soon as I found an opening. I stood there chatting with all four of them until the San Diego couple invited me to sit at their table with them. I spent a couple of hours there but only had two beers throughout because I was quite conscious of the price.

I was reminded of how easy it actually is to chat with other Americans. You don’t have to be conscious of the vocabulary or the expressions you use, and everyone understands all the political and pop-culture references you make. The conversation, unfortunately for me, was mostly about sports. I know a little bit about a lot of things, but sports is one of my weakest topics. Still, I know enough to have a few things to say every now and then. But there was also plenty of talk about travel, which is one of my strongest suits. Whenever I ask people where they’ve been they usually rattle off a list that contains at least two or three cities I’ve also been to, and I like hearing other people’s impressions of these places. But it was cool to have East Coasters and West Coasters there and to observe that in spite of the subtle differences in their respective demeanors, the culture is pretty much the same.

At some point a couple of other guys also joined us, a white guy who didn’t talk much and a black guy who was quite outgoing. All six of them were students but I don’t remember what any of them were studying except the black guy who wants to go into finance. I joked to him that when he crashes the global economy he should make sure he takes home a huge bonus for himself. Everyone got a huge laugh out of that including him.

They were all really nice people and I enjoyed hanging out with them, but once I finished my second beer it was almost 1:00 already and I figured it was a good time to head back to the hostel and go to sleep so I could get up relatively early the next day. Before I left I asked everyone for their names, explaining that I’m excellent at remembering them. I then asked for a picture of everyone, figuring readers of the blog might like to see them.

Oh say, you can see.From left to right, there’s Bronson and Kate from San Diego, Mark from Boston behind Kate, Javier and Silent Mike, and Mark’s girlfriend Sasha on the far right.

Javier offered to take a picture of me with them, which I figured was a good idea just to prove that I wasn’t making this up and I actually did successfully socialize with other people while I was in Rome.

Silent Mike is not amused.

So after having met more Americans than I have throughout my entire time living in Hannover, I began the journey back to the hostel. I thought about trying to figure out the night-bus situation but I quickly realized when I came to the Piazza Venezia that Rome at night was something to see as well. I jumped back into tourist-mode and snapped a few photos along the way.  Unfortunately only one of them came out well, but it’s a good one.

Monumento a Vittorio Emanuele II

I got back to the hostel at 2:00 and the owner was still up. He must have heard the rickety elevator lifting me to the top because he came and opened the door for me as soon as I got out on that floor. I was very happy to have the room to myself, not as much from not having to be annoyed by other people but for not having to worry about me annoying others. I could turn on the lights and make as much noise as I wanted getting ready for bed. I even listened to a couple of songs on my I-pod before finally turning over and falling asleep, my soul in pretty damned good spirits after such a wildly successful first day of the trip.

Categories: Personal Tags: , , , , ,

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.

Alone Again

October 25th, 2009 No comments

This morning I woke up early to walk with Krissi to the train station and wish her goodbye. I can’t remember a time I’ve ever felt such drastic mixed feelings simultaneously. As we hugged each other goodbye, she boarded the train, and I waved to her as it rolled out of the station, I was both unmistakably sad that she was leaving and overjoyed that I now finally have my normal life back. I don’t know when I’ll see her again—I may never see her again for all I know—and for all of the annoyances I did genuinely enjoy a great deal of things about having her around, so when she left I knew implicitly that I was losing something. But I also knew what I’d be gaining, as I’ve been looking forward to it for weeks now—solitude. And as the kind of person I am, however it is I came to be this way, I greatly value solitude, and I finally have it back.

Our last few days together were pleasant enough. We hung out with Amanda on Thursday night, and on Friday afternoon we went back to the Sprengel Museum to see everything we hadn’t seen the week before, including giving a closer look to the Art & War exhibition. That night we were pretty much obligated to go out and get drunk, so after drinking a few beers and Jäger shots at my place we ventured one last time into Hannover’s Friday night-life. We assumed we’d end up at a club somewhere but nothing was going on in any of the places we checked. So we just drank at the Böse Wolf, then headed into town, drank at the KGB, and had one last beer at the place we’d danced during our first Friday Night drinking session two months ago, before wrapping up the night with one final Döner Kebab, Krissi’s last one ever (and my last one for a long time).

And last night, while I hadn’t planned or wanted to drink, we nevertheless wound up drinking again after going out to eat at the restaurant right on the opposite corner from where I live, the Pfannkuchen Haus. Krissi felt that with only one more night in which delicious German beer would be available to her, she kind of had to take advantage, which I understand. I plan on going for at least a week now with no alcohol whatsoever, a plan that both my brain and my body should greatly appreciate. We didn’t go out at least, but stayed in and watched episodes of Home Movies which I’m glad she really liked as well as Bill Maher’s Religulous, which she also really enjoyed, and which led to the last deep conversation we’d have, this one about mankind destroying ourselves and how neither of us thought that was a particularly terrible thing. We didn’t talk much before going to sleep, and before I knew it the alarm we’d set for 5:30 was ringing. Thanks to it being Daylight Savings night, we actually were able to go back to sleep and get another hour before she really had to get up, and then while she got ready I drifted back off to sleep until 7:00 when I got up to go walk her to the station.

Now the apartment is empty again, I’m really enjoying the silence, and I’ve got a whole day ahead of me in which I can and will do pretty much nothing. I already took care of my lesson plans for the week, but I do want to clean the apartment back to the level I had it just before Krissi arrived, and afterwards I’ll probably go out for a walk because it is, unfortunately, a rather nice day which means I can’t help but feel obliged to take advantage of it.

We’ll see how it goes over the course of the week. How long will it be before I start to really miss her, to regret how I didn’t take enough advantage of her presence while she was around and that I failed to appreciate what I had? At least I know enough about myself to expect that, just as I knew before she even came that I would eventually reach a point where I’d start looking forward to her leaving.

Categories: Personal Tags: , , ,

Grand Finale: Dresden and Leipzig

October 11th, 2009 No comments

I’m back in Hannover now having returned yesterday. Traveling was fantastic, but I’ve really been looking forward to a day like today when I won’t do anything but sit on my ass and recover some much-needed energy. I’ve got plenty of time to write about the last few days of the trip, so I’ll attempt to do so with appropriate detail.

1 – Leaving Prague (08.10)

On our last morning in Prague, Krissi and I just got up early, had some breakfast at the hostel, then killed the last couple of hours first by checking out a church that we’d passed by on the free walking tour and were interested in seeing. The tour guide had told us an interesting legend about the church, that one night a thief snuck in and tried to steal the golden necklace from around the statue of the virgin Mary, but the statue came to life and grabbed the man’s arm, trapping him there until the priest arrived. The priest discovered the man, who was now ready to repent all his sins and renounce thieving, but the statue wouldn’t let go so the priest had to hack off his arm with an axe, at which point the statue returned to its pose of praying. The fucked up thing is that the priest hung the man’s arm over the entrance inside the church as a warning to any future potential thieves, and the arm is still hanging to this day.

We couldn’t remember the name or location of the church, so we went to the Old Town Square where the free tour was gathering, and found Mike, our guide for the castle tour who also does the free tour, and asked him about it. Mike kindly pointed us in the right direction so we were able to find it, go inside, and see that indeed there was a disgusting, black, shriveled rotting arm hanging above the entrance. It was a nice church otherwise, and we found the statue of the virgin Mary, although no necklace around her neck. The whole thing just makes me wonder from whom the priest got that arm, because the story is obviously some bullshit he made up to impress his parish and put the fear of God in them. I gather that most medieval priests were probably seriously fucked up in the head.

After seeing that we still had about an hour to kill, so we walked along the river in search of a nice café near the castle to sit and have some tea. We were running out of time by the time we arrived there so we couldn’t find any really nice places and just got one at a café in the metro station, after which we rode the metro to the second of Prague’s two train stations and made it with plenty of time before boarding the train to Dresden.

2 – So It Goes in Dresden (08.10 – 09.10)

When we arrived in Dresden we didn’t quite know how to find the hostel, but being back in a German speaking country I was able to ask people at information booths and whatnot for instructions, and found the place without much trouble. The receptionist at the front desk who checked us in was also very helpful in pointing out where the sights were and where the night-life was. She also took note of the fact that we were only staying one night and told us quite bluntly that one night was plenty of time for Dresden, as apparently there’s not that much to see or do. You basically just walk around the Old Town and check out the buildings, or go into a museum if you’re so inclined.

It was only 4:00 when we headed out, but we were both very hungry so we stopped for a very early dinner of Döner Kebab before heading to the Old Town. We’d both been craving Döner for awhile because it was almost impossible to come by in Prague. We’d only found one Kebab stand in the entire city, which didn’t look very good, and one in the train station right before we left. But Dresden was absolutely littered with them—nearly one on every street corner—and we window-shopped until we found the one that looked the most promising, which was right across the street from another one that looked almost exactly the same. It wasn’t the best Kebab ever, but it satisfied the craving.

With that taken care of, we walked to the Old Town, and along the way I explained to Krissi why I wanted to see Dresden in the first place, about the fire-bombings in 1945 and how the city was reduced to nothing but ashes and rubble. I also told her to read Slaughterhouse Five by Kurt Vonnegut, as in addition to just being a great fucking book, a lot of it has to do with Vonnegut’s own personal experience of having been in Dresden during that fire-bombing, and seeing all those civilians get blown to smithereens by the Allied Forces for no good reason. So it goes.

The Old Town was very impressive, having structures that apparently either survived the bombing or were just perfectly reconstructed afterwards. There were a few awesome-looking buildings laden with more statues than I’ve ever seen in any one place. The “Zwinger” complex in particular was rather incredible, looking like an ancient Roman pavilion lined with hundreds upon hundreds of sculptures, each completely unique and many just awe-inspiring to look at. The other buildings all had some charm as well, but unfortunately there just weren’t very many of them. We were pretty much finished walking around by the time the sun was setting over the Elba river, and we decided to kill the next couple of hours before the night-life time began by going back to the hostel and looking up possibilities for what to do the next morning or the following afternoon in Leipzig.

But the hostel only had one computer with free internet access and I didn’t feel like paying for another hour as I had earlier, and that particular computer was being used by three young girls so I had to wait in the lobby for awhile. The receptionist told the girls that other people need to use the computer but apparently they needed at least 10 more minutes of MySpace time and that would be it. But while I waited I just picked up some pamphlets and figured we might do a bus tour or something the next day. One of the girls came around to where I was sitting, and I told her in German that it was okay, that I didn’t need the computer anymore so she and her friends could stay longer.

By then it was pretty much late enough to go out drinking anyway, so Krissi and I headed out. The first place we stopped at was a small, darkly lit little place which both of us found appealing, and the bartender there looked like he might have also been the owner. We liked his style too—sporting a beret and a thick, Luigi-like moustache, chain smoking the night away. Unlike West Germany, smoking in bars is always allowed in East Germany, I assume because the East Germans have all been through enough real-life shit that they couldn’t care less about meaningless trivialities like second-hand smoke in public places. “Seriously,” I could imagine them saying to any politician who dared pass such an ordinance, “we spent half of our lives being told what we can and can’t do, and now you want to tell us we can no longer smoke in a fucking bar!? Well, thanks but no thanks for your health concerns, Stalin, but I think we’ve earned the right to smoke indoors.”

We left that place after only one drink and passed by a bunch of bars, looking for another good one, until we passed a place from which we heard some pretty bad-ass music playing. We went inside and went downstairs, where we found a few people jamming on some instruments—a drum-set, guitar, and keyboard. At first we thought they were a band, but when they finished playing they just set the instruments down and resumed drinking, the guitarist actually taking his place behind the bar, where he remained nearly the rest of the night serving drinks. He told us in German—then in English when it was clear we didn’t understand—that we were welcome to pick up an instrument and play if we wanted, but neither of us do so we declined.

As the night went on more people poured in, and occasionally one or two would take up some instruments and jam. We knew we’d stumbled on one of the best possible places in town, so we knew we’d probably spend a lot of time there. After two beers when we might have otherwise gone off in search of an even cooler place, a few people who looked like serious musicians came in and started setting up, so we knew we had to stay. One by one they finished setting up and started playing—the drummer, the keyboardist, and a guy with an acoustic guitar. After only a few minutes of jamming, another guy—a really effeminate kid with long blonde hair—stood up and grabbed the bass, got it all set up and joined in, totally kicking ass and making the sound even better. He seemed to kind of piss off the acoustic guitarist though, whom he was now completely drowning out, so the guitarist picked up the electric and the jam continued. A short while later, a dude with an electric violin joined in and now the sound was fucking spectacular. We drank a few more beers and stayed there for at least another hour, over the course of which different people would leave their instruments and make room for others to head up and jam. The whole thing kicked incredible amounts of ass.

But after awhile we decided we’d spent enough time there and we should head out, so we went out into the night in search of one last place. We found another bar which had a good DJ doing his thing, but it was relatively empty and we only stayed for one beer, as we were now both adequately drunk and didn’t feel the urge to get any drunker. Of course now we had the drunken munchies, and as we’d eaten such an early meal I figured we might as well eat again, and for the first (and hopefully the last) time in my life I got a second Döner Kebab in one day, this time at the place right across the street from the place we ate at earlier, which must be part of the same business because it was exactly the same thing.

We got back to the hostel, passed out, and woke up the next morning way earlier than we expected, at 7:45. I decided to get up then and there, as most hostel-goers seem to set their alarms for 8:00 and I wanted to beat the rush to the showers. I’d checked the previous afternoon and found that of the five showers in the men’s room, only one had a door that you could actually close—the rest didn’t even have shower curtains so you’d just have to get naked in front of everyone. Most Europeans have no qualms about that sort of thing, but having grown up in America and taught that my naked body is something to be horribly ashamed of, I’m still not quite ready to disrobe in front of strangers. Luckily, I got to the shower with the door before any others.

We ate some breakfast—which I really didn’t need because I still felt full of kebab, then I bought some WiFi internet and spent the next hour looking up stuff to do in Dresden and Leipzig. We’d decided against the bus tour because it was just too expensive, but I couldn’t find anything else we might like to do except check out the art museum, but the museum was closed for renovations until next year. So I figured we’d just walk to the Old Town again, maybe check out both churches they have, then walk back to the main train station and head out, as the regional train to Leipzig left every 20 minutes after the hour and I figured that would be the perfect amount of time.

But nothing quite worked out according to that plan. The first church was closed, and I just couldn’t find the second one. It wasn’t on my map or anything and it wasn’t where I remembered passing by it the day before. But we couldn’t search around for too long because we had to get to the train station or be stuck in Dresden for yet another hour with absolutely nothing to do, while meanwhile in Leipzig, according to the internet, there was plenty of stuff to check out.

I’d miscalculated the time it would take for us to walk to the train station, as I’d been using maps of different scales the whole time and a fifteen-minute walk by the scale of the Prague map actually ended up being a thirty-minute walk by the Dresden map. When we were really cutting it close I finally gave up and bought a tram ticket three stops away from the station with only ten minutes to spare. We got to the station with only two minutes to go, and ran to the train, not having time to buy a ticket, and boarded just a second before it took off. I was nervous about having boarded the train without a ticket but I figured if we just went up to a conductor and explained ourselves—therefore making it clear that we weren’t trying to get a free ride—they might just cut us a break and charge us the normal price. But we walked both lengths of the train and couldn’t find a conductor. We did however find a sign that said in German, “First buy a ticket, then board the train.” So we decided that maybe we’d hop off at the next station, rush to a ticket machine to buy a ticket, then hop back on. We might manage that in a two-minute window if the machines were right on the platform.

The next station was Dresden-Neustadt, the second main train station in Dresden, but as we rushed along the platform we realized there were no ticket machines to be found. We had only a split second to decide whether to board again or whether to give up and play it safe. We decided to play it safe, and watched the train roll away as we went downstairs to the ticket machines to buy our ticket, then just wait around for another hour until the next train came. We didn’t expect to have a hard time finding a seat because the last train had been virtually empty, but for some reason the next one was almost completely full. But we were able to find some seats and sit down, and before I knew it we reached Leipzig, the last stop on our adventure, which was to be the setting for a much bigger coincidence—the most fortuitous traveling coincidence I’ve ever experienced.

3 – Leipzig’s Big Day (09.10.2009)

It had been mostly a whim that brought us to Leipzig on that particular date. It could have just as easily been a day earlier or a day later, or we might have passed it by altogether or done a different city. But there we were, arriving in Leipzig on the 9th of October, 2009, without any idea that this hate had any significance whatsoever.

And as we walked to our hostel, literally right across the street from the train station, there was nothing to indicate that anything special was happening. The front desk agent who checked us in said nothing, and the map he gave us which pointed us in the direction of the Tourist Information center was just a generic map with a walking-tour route through the Old Town with info on each major location.

We went to the Tourist Information center to ask somebody what we should make sure to see, as I knew almost nothing about Leipzig other than the fact that it was the city of Johann Sebastian Bach and had been part of the Soviet Union along with every other city in the former East Germany. We waited on line at the info center until a girl came up to us and asked us what we wanted. I just said we were here for one day and wanted to know what we should see. Immediately, we could tell that she was perhaps the worst Tourist Information employee of all time, as she just handed us a map, circled the entire Old Town, and said we could walk around and “see your favorite sights”. Well, obviously, but what should we see? I asked her in these exact words: “What is the one thing we can’t miss while we’re here in Leipzig?” She just shrugged and handed us a pamphlet for some Amazon Rain-Forest exhibit at a museum on the other side of the city, then repeated that we could walk around and “see our favorite sights”. Once it was clear that this was all the help we were going to get, we thanked her and left.

The little walking-tour map that the front desk guy at our hostel had given us was actually better than the official map, and I figured we could spend the afternoon following the route on the map and stopping anywhere that seemed interesting. The first stop on the map was the train station, the largest dead-end train station in all of Europe (which I was skeptical about because they’d said the same thing about their station in Frankfurt) but we’d already been there so we moved on, heading down Nikolaistraße to the Church of St. Nikolai, the next stop on our tour.

It was here we got our first indication that anything special was going on. There was a sign on the door that said that for today, because of [incomprehensible German] the church would not be opened until 16:15, which was still a couple of hours away. There were news vans and journalists standing outside the church, so we knew something was going on but we still didn’t know what.

Then we walked down a bit further and found what seemed like a demonstration, but signs with a big black-and-white picture and the words, “Leipzig ‘89” written on them. There were also a few banners with today’s date: “9 Oktober 2009”, so we now knew that there was some kind of celebration happening today. It must have had something to do with the end of Soviet Rule, because the Wall came down in the Fall of 1989 and this was 20 years later, but the Wall fell on 9 November, so what was going on here? Maybe they just picked this day because it was a Friday that worked for them?

When we reached the Augustusplatz point on our map, a large square outside the Opera House, there were even more banners and posters and news vans and journalists, including one van you could go inside and learn about the events leading up to the fall of the Berlin Wall. There were all kinds of dates there so this van must have been touring Germany all year going to different cities of significance in the lead-up to the reunification. There was a little stand with pictures and pamphlets outside the van, and Krissi picked one up and asked a woman who worked for this van-tour project thing if she could take one. The woman answered in English that she could, so I decided to also ask straight up, in English, if the date of October 9th had any particular significance for the particular city of Leipzig.

Well, yes, actually it did. Apparently exactly 20 years ago to the day, there had been a peaceful protest of 70,000 Leipzigers which began outside the Church of St. Nikolai, and it sparked protests all over East Germany that led directly to the collapse of the Berlin Wall. (The story our tour guide Inez had told us at the end of the Berlin Wall, about how the government thought they could appease the people by pretending to open up travel between East and West but really put too many restrictions for it to actually work—only then to have that news delivered by a fool who didn’t realize the plan and just said they were pretty much opening up the Berlin Wall for good—was the result of these protests that had begun that day in Leipzig).

Unbelievable. By pure dumb luck, we’d arrived in Leipzig on the 20-year anniversary of what is pretty much the most important date in the city’s history. We were sure that night that everyone would be out celebrating and partying—thus making for the perfect end to our little tour of Germany.

From there we continued our walking tour, next heading up downtown Leipzig’s tallest building to check out a spectacular panoramic view of the city. The weather was also perfect—completely clear with blue skies and a temperature that made you never think of the temperature. The view was awesome, and it only cost €2 so that was nice.

After that we went to the City History Museum of Leipzig, which was the perfect thing for us to see on that day. In addition to works of art by Leipzigers depicting the general feeling of life during Soviet rule, it had all kinds of artifacts from the period of time between the end of Nazi rule and the fall of the Berlin Wall. Video footage of various moments of historical significance were also prominent, and as I read the captions and picked up the ear-pieces to listen I found that I knew enough German to get the gist of everything. So that was a nice little history lesson to reinforce our understanding of the day’s significance.

The next few stops on the tour weren’t as interesting—shopping districts, the Old and New City Hall and whatnot, but the second-to-last stop, the St. Thomas Church, was pretty fucking awesome as it was where Bach himself worked during the entire latter part of his life, from 1723 to 1750. His remains were buried right there outside under a big polished stone. We also learned from the tour map that the Boys’ Choir, which is the oldest in Germany (started in 1212) and was directed by Bach himself during his time there, sings there every Friday night at 18:00. It was currently 17:00, and we figured we simply had to check it out.

We killed the remaining hour by looking at the last stop on the tour—just a road right outside of the Old Town with a bunch of restaurants—and then back to the Church of St. Nikolai to see if it was now open. It was indeed open, but the crowd outside and inside was so thick that we stood there for ten minutes without moving an inch (although I’m pretty sure we made it onto German television because there were a shit-load of cameras there scanning the crowd).

We left and went back to the St. Thomas church with 15 minutes to spare. It was €2 to get in but we gladly paid, then took a seat in a giant hall and waited. They’d given us a program on the way in, which I was surprised to see was actually a program for a genuine church service, with a sermon and prayers and everything. So for the first time in fuck knows how many years, I actually attended church.

And it was safe to say that it was the most kick-ass church service I’ve ever been to. It opened with a few words from the priest about the significance of the date, then kicked into gear with the choir director playing Bach’s Toccata and Fugue in D on the organ as a special tribute to the date, which meant we got to hear my favorite Bach piece in the actual church where Bach fucking worked. After that bit of awesomeness, the boys began, and holy shit were they awesome. I had been expecting something nice and pleasant but these boys were just mind-blowingly good. I was getting chills up and down my spine and all over my body, the sound of it was just so amazing. They sang five little pieces, then the priest delivered a sermon I surprisingly understood much of—pretty much about the role God played on this night 20 years ago—then everyone was invited to sing a hymn along with the boy’s choir, a couple more pieces by the choir alone, everyone rising for the German Lord’s Prayer, and finally two more amazing pieces by the boys. There was never any applause or anything, and when the last piece was over everyone just got up and left.

That was probably the highlight of the day. What followed was by far the lowlight—the biggest disappointment of the entire trip. It hadn’t occurred to us that there might be some big event going on in town at a certain time to celebrate the anniversary, so when we left that church we just decided to satisfy our hunger and go to one of the restaurants on that street from the end of the walking tour. The fact that the street was like a ghost-town and pretty much every restaurant was totally empty should have clued us in to the fact that something was going on, but we’d never been to Leipzig on a Friday evening before and for all we knew this was how it always was.

It wasn’t until we’d already sat down and placed our dinner order that Krissi said, “Do you think something is going on in town right now?” and I asked the waitress in the best German I could muster if there was indeed some kind of celebration happening right now. She said there was but it was in the city, then she asked her colleague something and told us something about 8:00. I assumed that meant it began at 8:00, and since it was now 7:45 I guessed that if we ate fast enough we’d get there at 8:30 at the latest and it would probably still be going on.

So we scarffed down our food, which was excellent but we weren’t focusing on enjoying it because we were too concerned about missing the Big Event, and after 8:00 more people started coming to the restaurant and we began to get this sinking feeling like whatever was happening had already happened. Nevertheless, we quickly paid and got the hell out of there, but as we reached the Old Town we just saw thousands of people all walking out, in the other direction.

At that point we knew we’d missed it, that the waitress must have meant that it ended at 8:00, and we were kicking ourselves left and right for not fucking realizing that something was going on before it was too late. It hadn’t even fucking occurred to us that there might be some major gathering of all the people in Leipzig to gather at the St. Nikolai Church or the Augustusplatz at dusk to hold candles and sing a song or something to celebrate the big 20-year anniversary of their city’s biggest night.

We tried to mitigate our huge disappointment by telling ourselves things like we didn’t miss anything we’d been planning to see anyway, that it was still really cool that we got to see what we did and that had we arrived at Leipzig one night later we would have missed the whole fucking thing and been much more disappointed. But we knew it was of no avail. We’d missed a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to be there when an entire town came together to commemorate the most significant event in its history. Instead we’d gone for fucking dinner, and been too dense to realize that the fact that the streets were empty actually meant something.

We ultimately decided to blame that god-awful bitch at the tourist information center, as she could have—really fucking should have—told us what was going on, that it was a big day in Leipzig and everyone would be gathering in the square at dusk to hold candles and sing a song in celebration. I mean, I actually asked her: “What is the one thing we can’t miss while we’re here in Leipzig?” and she just handed us a goddamned rain-forest exhibit pamphlet. Seriously, she should be fired and burned at the stake for that shit. What the fuck?! I mean What. The. Fuck?

Anyway, we got to Augustusplatz where the scene was still pretty crazy. Thousands of people were still there, lights were flashing on all the buildings with words about the big anniversary, and a giant “Leipzig ‘89” was spelled out in candles in front of the steps of the Opera House. As we walked back to the hostel along the streets which had been cordoned off to road traffic by the police, we passed several platforms right on the tram tracks (also cordoned off, of course) with about five performance artists each painted all grey or red and dressed in grey and red clothing of the East German style, standing frozen in motion, I suppose to remind people of the melancholy atmosphere of the time. On one of the platforms there was actually a little seven-ish-year-old girl sitting at her mothers’ feet with a look of the utmost boredom on her face, and I couldn’t believe they actually dragged her into that. “Don’t worry, honey, it’ll be fun! You just sit there looking sad and not moving for several hours!” She must have had no idea what she was getting into. Either that or her mother promised to buy her ice cream every day for a year after that.

Still disappointed, but glad that we at least got to see way more interesting shit than we would have seen had we arrived on any other date, we got back to the hostel, got our shit together for our last night of drinking, then headed back through town, still swarming with people, and down to the night-life area on the road where all the websites said it would be.

I’d thought there would be a lot more people out celebrating, but in that area it was mostly young people who were just kids during communist times so it was just an average Friday night to them, and the atmosphere didn’t feel much different than other German cities on a Friday night. We stopped at the first place we came across because it had been a ridiculously long walk to get there, and got a shot of Jäger and a beer, agreeing that after we took the shot we would no longer bitch and moan about how we’d stupidly missed the most significant event of the whole fucking day.

And we abided by our pact. As we went from bar to bar we talked about everything but that bullshit, and only mentioned the significance of the day in a positive light—like how fucking cool is it that we were even there on this date in the first place? And let’s not forget that Boys’ Choir. That was definitely a priceless experience.

We were hoping to find some live music but we didn’t get any. Just an 80s bar, an Irish pub, a bar that seemed like a gay bar but might not have been (we only thought so because guys were all talking to guys and girls to girls and the bartenders were definitely dykes), then one last place which turned out to be really pleasant with friendly bartenders and a good atmosphere. On the way back to the hostel, our long 30-minute walk, we stopped into a Kebab shop for one last Döner (I don’t think we’ll be eating any more of those) which turned out to be the absolute best, most delicious one I’ve ever eaten.

When we finally got back to the center of town it was only 2:00 a.m., but we were shocked to find that the streets were now practically empty. We’d figured that on such a significant date, and on a Friday night at that, there would be people wandering the streets with open beer, singing and celebrating all night long. But either everyone had gone to bed, they were celebrating in their own homes, or it just wasn’t as big a deal to them as all the hooplah had made it seem. For one thing, I know many East German people actually miss the old communism days, not that you’d have gotten any impression of that from the signs and banners, or even the history museum. Perhaps this was simply a night of commemoration of the big peaceful protest, and they’re saving the Big Party from a month from then, November 9th, the day of the actual fall of the Berlin Wall. But it’s possible that most of them, while proud of their city for what it had done, actually represents a change worthy of celebration—that things sucked then and now they just suck in a different way. That tends to be the attitude of most East Germans I’ve talked to.

But we stopped into an Irish Pub for one last drink, and asked the really cute English-speaking bartendress what was going on. She said she hadn’t been upstairs (it was a basement bar) for hours and was surprised herself to hear that there was nobody out there. But apparently that was the situation, and I found it downright fascinating. Germans usually never miss an excuse to have a wild drinking party, and I’m sure that during next month’s big November 9th celebration in Berlin (which I’m now seriously considering going to) they’re going to be drinking and singing well into the morning. But that’s Berlin, a city with a character all to itself, and you’ll have both East and West Germans alike participating which means enough of them will actually feel like the fall of the Wall was a good enough thing to celebrate all night.

So after that, our last beer of the trip, we walked back to our hostel, fell asleep, and woke up the next morning to a city that showed practically no indication that anything special had happened there the night before. All the big screens and things were gone. A few banners remained but everything was just as clean and spotless as it had been the day before. We left our bags in the luggage room of the hostel and spent our last hour walking around before it was time to go, and it seemed like any other German city on a Saturday morning.

When it was time to go we got our bags and walked across the street to the train station and boarded the train for Hannover, which I was amused to find is actually one of the trains I take back from work in Helmstedt when I’ve got to switch over in Braunschweig, as it begins in Leipzig and ends in Köln, stopping in Braunschweig and Hannover along the way. I listened to Pink Floyd on the whole way back, in amazingly good spirits while reflecting on what had been, overall, a totally fantastic life experience. Naturally, there were plenty of snafus, frustrations, and disappointments (some major disappointments) but overall it was every bit as awesome as I’d hoped it would be, and in some ways even better.

And that concludes the documentation of my travels around Germany with Krissi. With Strasbourg and Prague as added bonuses, we got the full German experience. If you count Berlin and Hamburg as a kind of “prologue” then we really hit all the major cities. We got Cologne in the West, then Ichenheim for a taste of small village life in the Black Forest region, the Bavarian Alps for a tour of Germany’s most excellent location for natural beauty, the obligatory trip to Oktoberfest which was even more fun than we expected, and finally two of the most famous East German towns with Dresden and Leipzig, concluding on a day of great significance for the city we finished in, the 20-year anniversary of not only Leipzig’s most historic day, but one of the most historic days in the history of Germany. All in all, I now feel like I’ve gotten the most out of my time in Germany, as even after living in the country for two years I’ve never had such a clear impression of the culture and history throughout the entire nation—its differences and similarities and what binds it all together. Now more than ever I feel I’m ready to move on and discover another part of the planet, hopefully to learn and absorb just as much about that place—probably Japan—as I have about Germany.

The high from the last two months’ travel experiences will eventually wear off, but it will always be a part of me, and will be remembered, just as I’d hoped, as one of the greatest overall experiences of my life.