That isn't to say that there are no expected moments on a trip, though even these stretch towards surprise in the context of traveling. In Denmark we could expect colder climes and a preponderance of what a receptionist in our first hotel called "boring weather", but that doesn't mean it was not surprising that both Amy and I got sick at some point on the trip. We went to see the movie Salt knowing it would be bad but having no other options; we were still surprised with how bad it was, to the point where I was in such a giddy state that I had a laughing fit in the cab back to our hotel when our cordial Danish cab driver started rattling off facts about the weather and the castles in the country, before concluding that Salt was only made because Angelina Jolie is pretty.
There are unexpected moments that, once adjusted to, set up new expectations, which those original unexpected moments, now expected, subvert. If that syntax was twisted, an example: we adjusted to the "relaxed" (i.e. slow) wait service and the do it yourself nature of certain eateries, but then were pleased when a waiter at Cafe G was not only attentive and quick to help but also a rollie-polie ball of energy, cracking jokes about ninjas and screaming to the high heavens when I dared to try my 8 digit pin code on my card after my 4 digit one didn't work twice. "NOOOOO! What are you DOING?! You can't put in 8...oh, it worked." In that case, we should have known by his closely cropped mohawk. Similarly, I was pleasantly surprised by the high quality bathrooms on the Danish trains; that adjustment let me to be less pleasantly surprised when I peered in the toilet and saw the unexpected present the elderly gentleman who last used the bathroom left me.
These were all minor moments where the novelty and surprise of the road led to either positive or negative (or in the train toilet situation, both) feelings that enriched our traveling experience one way or another. The success of our stumbling upon Cafe Paludan, a cafe amidst a book store near Copenhagen University, was tempered by the realization that, yes indeed, this was a popular place not only for students, but for American students wielding Macbooks and providing no sense of escape. Ah well. We had more significant experiences of surprises for the better or the worse in Denmark, and I would like to explore those experiences here. Shall we?
A real Hippie's Paradise Gone Awry (-)
Christianshaven is a peninsula in Copenhagen across the canal from the main part of town. The area is replete with art nouveau red and orange splashed buildings, idyllic canal scenes, and several tourist attractions. Among these attractions is the neighborhood of Christiana.
Christiana, from what I gathered based on a guidebook or two, is meant to be something of an idyllic escape from the city, a community where residents can create art, live freely, and bond. And smoke pot. There are funky colors painted on the walls, t-shirt shops that go unattended, and symbols of a needle being broken to show that hard drugs are a no. And, presumably, pot smokers. Ben compared Christiana to the Wire's "Hamsterdam."
Fine, fine, we were already in Amsterdam, and had seen some of this movie before. Amsterdam had pot generally condoned and legalized, but also an island for the hipster community called NDSM wert. MTV's Europe headquarters were there, there was a skate park, and funky cars and tents and stuff. It was all very cliched, but whatever. Ben and I thought we should check out another, similar scene, and since it was a day before Amy came, it seemed like an appropriate time to do it (get all the drugs in before the girl comes, right?)
Our good vibes lasted until the point depicted above. About 15 seconds later, a large man approached Ben and told him it was not allowed to take photos here, so would he please comply. Ben agreed, a little put off I think, being an avid photographer. We strolled around then, wondering at this and at the attendant-less t-shirt shop, the unlikely mix of commercialism and supposed hippie ideals, and whether the vibrant colors made anything else work it. As we strolled down Pusher Street (thus named for those who formerly pushed drugs), we found another, gruffer gentleman to greet us.
"What are you, stupid?" he politely inquired of Ben. "Put the camera away, there's no taking pictures here." For Ben had his camera still draped around his neck, you see.
That combined with the touristy commercialism was enough to make this surprise a negative one. Christiana: proof that those on the "fringe" are no more tolerant than those in the middle.
ChristiansHaven's narrowing spiral (+)
Not far from Christiana was the Church of Our Saviour. There was not much to the church. You pay 25 Kroner (just over $5) to climb the church. It is 95 meters high. After a brief outdoor platform at about the 60 meter mark, you ascend a flight of stairs that is outdoors and spiraling, gradually narrowing as it reaches the top. There is a chest high (maybe waist-high on normal people, or else shoulder-high on me) yellow guard rail outside you, and gusty winds near the top. At some point, you can not ascend any higher, because the steps are too narrow. The views are appropriately scenic.
The view from the spire to the main part of Copenhagen.
For Ben and me, this experience brought some unexpected exhilaration. Ben feared for his camera and his life amidst the high winds; I wisely took off my broken glasses, knowing that the one earpiece-frame might not stay to my face, and that a 95 meter drop might lead to greater damage. There was little to do but cling to the rails when climbing. Traffic jams were inevitable, as only one person at a time could ascend or descend. I have climbed my fair share of tall churches and towers in Europe (Eiffel tower, a church in Prague, and the cathedral in Sevilla stand out at the moment), but I cannot remember any where the highest point was a stair and not a platform. So for a short experience, this was definitely a positive.
And then some tourists willfully cause huge traffic jams. Jerks.
The wrong day to visit Odense (-)
Traveling for longer than a few days, there is no avoiding the stops and starts of regular life in your visiting place. As great as it would be for all the museums, shops, restaurants, and sights to be open 24/7, there comes a time where a sight, a store, and sometimes even a city shuts down. This time might be weekly. It might be Mondays in Odense. Amy and I may have arrived in Odense for our only day there on Monday. This happens.
Odense is the third-largest city in Denmark, the largest city on the central island of Funen, and the birthplace of Hans Christian Andersen, the Danes' most famous literary and cultural product. We thought (I should say Amy thought, since she did the planning, but in my relinquishing of planning rights, I suppose I do not relinquish responsibility) that Odense would be a nice one-day stop, a place where we could see the HCA house, relax in a nice hotel room, and enjoy a break from Copenhagen. We even thought we might do laundry (and fatefully did not, as you will see below).
Odense proved as head scratching as this HCA statue of him barefoot, and with his head replicated on a stick.
Instead, we found the Hans Christian Andersen house to be closed. We found several shops, such as a dainty looking chocolate store, to be closed. It looked like the art museum was closed. And we didn't even bother to do our laundry.
Not even the Odense Bulldogs were in action on Mandag (Monday).
So Odense ended up being a middling way stop. We made the most of it, of course: Amy found a few stores open that satisfied her shopping curiosity, I rested and read, we posed with two strange statues, found another dainty chocolate shop open, and each enjoyed a smørrebrød (an open-faced sandwich, one of Denmark's specialty). We also probably could have done our research to know that Monday would be a rough day to see anything in Odense. That said, this one has to go in the minus column.
Well, there was at least one plus walking around Odense...
Bob Dylan doing something besides playing music? (+)
It just so happened that our time in Copenhagen coincided with Bob Dylan's second ever public art exhibition. This exhibit was called The Brazil Series. Being as I am a big Dylan fan, Amy a big Brazil fan, and Ben generally artsy, this seemed like an appropriate visit for the three of us to make. So we strolled on over, past FrederiksBorg (a Castle) and through a couple of gardens, and attended the art museum. There was enough modern art to make me want to rock out, Dylan's exhibit was quality, Ben and Amy loaded up on souvenirs, and we even found out there is an artist named Richard Mortensen, who happens to be lucky enough to share the name with Amy's grandfather. All in all, a plus.
The missing Little Mermaid (-)
In Israel, Amy and I have a Danish-Israeli colleague. I saw him recently and told him we were going to Copenhagen. "Don't see the Little Mermaid," he said. "They've stolen her about nine times and there's no need to see her." He was smiling. I didn't know any better. I reported this conversation to Amy, and she said that she had to see the Little Mermaid. "It was on all of my grandmother's china. I don't care if it's touristy. And my mom wants me to see it." Well then.
Amy's guide book had a little walk of Copenhagen plotted out, and it conveniently ended with the Little Mermaid. So we strolled along the Strøget (the pedestrian shopping area, apparently one of the first of its kind), past a couple imposing churches, a touristy section of the harbor known as Nyhaven, and the Danish Resistance Museum regarding WWII, which was worth it. This led us to the fringe of the Kastellet and the Little Mermaid, whither we intended all along to go.
One of our stops on the self-guided tour. Mmm.
Now, as was mentioned in several guide books, including Amy's, the Little Mermaid wasn't actually going to be there. She had been taken to Shanghai for the 2010 World Expo. I was aware of this. For whatever reason, Amy was not. I, knowing how important seeing the Little Mermaid was, and hoping there might be a replica and no signs indicating that it was a replica in place of the original, kept this information from Amy.
This was not the replica of the Little Mermaid. It could have been, though.
We walked along the path, following our guide book, to the bend on the shore line where the Little Mermaid was supposed to rest. As we rounded the bend, we noticed no statue where the Little Mermaid was to be, but instead a screen. Slowly, surprise dawned on Amy's face as she saw the lack of any emblem from her grandmother's china. She turned to me, expecting to find the same surprise on my face. Not finding it, she pried: "You knew?" I admitted I had. "You knew this whole time and didn't tell me?" This was, perhaps, not the happiest surprise for her. But we laughed. It turned out that the screen showed the Little Mermaid on display at the World Expo. There was no little humor in all of this. And then we walked around the Kastellet, a former military base still used as a barracks which was beautiful and serene, and it was all worth it. So even though officially I call this a minus, these pictures may give lie to that rating. (Eventually, we found the replica of the LM in the gardens of Tivoli. It was unspectacular).
Kastellet: obviously the place to be.
And isn't this purdy?
And after Dylan must come the Beatles, right? (+)
The other of our one day stops was in Kolding, a city on the mainland peninsula of Denmark, Jutland. Kolding's most notable quality for our purposes was as the city many of Amy's ancestors came from. The city also possessed a quaint center, a charming lake or fjord in the middle of it, a place to see a movie (even if it is only Salt), and the ability to do laundry (more on which in a second).
Upon arrival, we walked from our hotel through a nice park (home to "Crazy Golf" in the summer, apparently) and down to that lake. After the dullness of Odense, we were quite charmed by the green grass, the smooth lake, and the old-fashioned houses of the town. We joked about settling in Kolding someday (this was before Amy got a cold, and remember that we (read: she) struggled with the weather and it was only September). In walking around the lake, we decided to visit the town castle, overlooking the lake and known as the KoldingHus.
A Lake Vista.
Much to our surprise, the brick castle had modernized into an exhibition hall. Further to our surprise, the main exhibit when we arrived was on the Beatles and youth in the 60s, in Denmark and elsewhere. Not sure what else to do, we went in.
There weren't many new delights for Beatles fans; John Lennon and Yoko Ono came to Denmark at some point in early 1970, ok; there was a very nice live version of the Zombies' "Care of Cell 44" on one of the listening booth playlists ("Songs influenced by the Beatles", which I might dispute in this instance); and the exhibit as a whole was very well done. There were also some interesting tidbits on Danish youth of the 60's and the culture around them. Did you know that Denmark was the first country to legalize pornographic images, or that popular Danish sex manuals for teens in the 60's came with full photographic visuals of masturbation? Uhh, me neither.
But yes, on a journey where you don't always know what you're getting, a well-done and familiar cultural touchstone can provide entertainment, edification, and erudite enjoyment, and this is a good thing.
And a last word on the expensive side of things (-)
Copenhagen and Denmark as a whole are expensive. When we first arrived in the country, Ben spun me a yarn about a tennis pro he knows who spent a couple years in Denmark and appreciated the expense because it came with a high level of public services. This may be the case. Tourists get very few of these public services. I'm not meaning to complain but stating a fact.
Further, my levels of traveling shift based on my companion. With Ben, we have matured to the point of appreciating our own room and certain basic creature comforts of travel, but at the same time, both having earned our living for only a few years, we appreciate the need to be thrifty. So there is a middle ground we've forged, involving low-budget private rooms, a nice meal a day, and reasonable travel accommodations.
With Amy, the traveling gets upped a notch. Which is fine and understandable; due to age, experience, gender (I presume), and independence, Amy is less interested in the low-budget form of travel. This doesn't mean we are extravagant when we travel together, but we stay in nice hotels or pensions; Amy did not partake in any pølse meals (hot dog or sausage stands on the streets) but we did generally stick to only one nice meal a day (not really eating a second meal); and shopping is a significantly larger portion of our traveling than it is with Ben (though Ben too shops a little bit more than me, I should add).
That said, when you travel with the same person for a while, you learn how to adapt to their ways; you have to adapt if you're to continue traveling with them. With Ben, I have a book ready at all times and know that sometimes he will trail behind me taking photos, which is ok. He adjusts to me in ways I can't say (though they probably include an acceptance of foul smells). With Amy, we have a system: she goes shopping somewhere, I sit in a cafe or pleasant reading place nearby, so that she can come and check in. Similarly, she picks out the clothes, and I wear the clothes. This doesn't always work, but the mutual adjustments make a big difference in smoothing out the traveling experience.
But back to the expenses for a second. Both Amy and I have earned and received the money over our varying professional careers to be able to take a trip like this to an expensive place like Denmark. We are aware of the blessed natures of our lives. We accept this and mean to pay back the world in some way (I hope the subject of future blog posts this "school" year), and hope we have done ok so far. So if Denmark is expensive and that's where we're vacationing, so be it.
I still, more than she, feel the need to draw the line somewhere. And that line, on this trip, was laundry costs>$100.
You see, when we were in Kolding, we asked our hotel if they had a laundry service. I had many dirty clothes from my week in Amsterdam/Germany preceding Denmark, as well as the Copenhagen/Odense part of our trip in Denmark. Amy had a thing or two she wanted to wash as well. In my conception, they would throw these clothes in a washing machine, then dry them, and then return them to us folded. It seemed like a simple thing. They said that they could do it but that we needed to give them the clothes now, because the guy taking those clothes was coming soon. Not asking for a price list or questioning why they had to outsource their laundry service, we agreed to do so, and brought a bag full of clothes that needed essential washing(jeans, socks) and not so much (shirts). The only complication we could think of was that the clothes might not be ready when we wanted to leave.
The next day, I went to the front desk to pay for our room and inquire about the laundry. After paying for the room, I asked about the laundry. "Oh, it's here. I didn't charge you for that, so let's do that separately," the kind receptionist told me. She then pulled out the stack of our clothes, neatly folded, and placed them on the desk. The bill came with it. 530 Kroners. This equals $93. (N.b. I thought this actually equaled about $120. It turns out that my idea that the kroner was 4.82 to the dollar was about a kroner off: it's more like 5.68. I should have prepared better for this trip).
Regardless, this seemed like an astronomical amount to me. What did I know? I huffed at the desk, asked to speak to a supervisor, tried to remain polite but was clearly a little perplexed and irate. I left the laundry on the desk and went to speak with my partner in the room.
"The good news is that our laundry is here," I reported to her on returning to our room.
"Oh, good. Now we can go," she said, not picking up on my hint about the bad news.
"You know how much it costs?" I said. I didn't wait for an answer. I reported the price, interrupting the number with an expletive.
"I thought about that. We should have asked for the price. That was our mistake."
"Our mistake? They should have told us the price!" I said, though in slightly less polite language.
I continued to exhaust my anger for the next five minutes, kicking the air and swearing and acting out my, as Amy puts it, mad hornet mode. At last, calmed and cowed, I went back to the hotel lobby, apologized, paid, and we moved on from Kolding, the incident more a humorous episode than a blemish. Another learning experience. Another unexpected moment that could throw the most experienced traveler for a loop. And while it was a minus in and of itself, it's part of the broader plus of shocking the system, of challenging the self, of traveling.
Needless to say, this was a brighter part of Kolding (taken inside the KoldingHus).
They babble on in Babylon.
All these tongues roll down the hill, over me
All these tongues to learn, all my goals
But all these tongues work at the same thing
Is it better to know five tongues and change how you think
Or know one tongue to express the purple light within?
Can the tongue express the purple light?
Can the sun fall on me right?
They babble on in Babylon.
A white sky rises
from just below the commercial business roofs
The white sky will stay there
well into tomorrow too
And it is no use worrying
about what comes next
All could end
with a crack in the neck
The white sky will remain
the country's eternal coat
It should not be regarded with apprehension or disdain
But acceptance and a light trace of hope.
The Heat Within (White Sky Within)
The heat within
The white sky has settled in my head
I sit perched upon the bed
My back to the open window
I will seek the heat within
Seek to balance it, to spread it otu
To the edges of my body, to the pores of my skin
(Last night my sweat puddled my sheets
My body sought, it seems, to break the heat)
But heat and cold, uneven and perceived
Our desire to get it right is sometimes not believed
The wind and the sun work at opposite ends
Our perceptions are setenced to perpetual bends
But I will fight for my heat within
I will fight my heat within
I will know my heat within
The heat within is, or could be, where I begin.
Something About an Island
There's something about an island. The way water is never far, never really out of sight. How the sky is more mutable, a living and volatile being; sun shines through blue translucency, then light white clouds pass over, the wind quickly blowing those on before the ominous gray blocks settle above, except of course they settle not at all, thundering and pouring and gusting their innards out before the wind takes them too away, returning the sun blue sky to preeminence. Such are 15 minutes on an island. (Weather forecasts must work like probability density functions, providing general ranges for what the weather will be like in the next day, hour, or minute. Variance is great, and a fact of island life).
An island possesses its charm. As a rule, each island has its own charm, but there are charms that fall under the general island heading. One reaches an island by boat, by ferry, hence by means uncommon to a landlubber's daily routine. 1-2 hours of slow rocking, all ferry rides seem about this long, and a new port, a new ground, well-removed from before. Hardly as transportive, as transformative as air travel, a boat journey, a ferry ride brings space, comfort, and calm views.
Then there is the village on the island. Every island is removed from time. Not completely, for time stops for no island, and no minute is an island, as they say. But an island falls on its own pace and custom, a lag behind the mainland, the inevitable source of civic questioning. To wit: should we keep up with the times or keep on preserving. Nowhere is this clearer than the village.
Each island preserves its village in its own way. Nantucket makes it a rule that all new buildings in a certain area must be built in the gray cedar style predominant on the island. On Ærø, where we stayed for two days, wihtout the summering crowd, pink shirts, and Gatsby strut of the previous island, they forbid the construction of new buildings near the center. Gingerbread yellow red and orange houses stack up on the streets, their burnt orange shingled roofs sloping dangerously convex into each other, former sea captains' homes next door to homes fashioned out of one-time ship decks or poops or what have you: this is Ærøskøbing preserved since the 18th century. Many buildings have the year of their construction displayed on their outer wall, old styled black digits spelling out 1784. There is an old-fashioned windmill just above the center to the south. I should say: of course there is an old-fashioned windmill on Ærø, just near the village.
Every house in Ærøskøbing has antiques displayed in the window, dogs and china and sea relics. The displays are redundant: the town is an antique. Each shop has its opening hours displayed but on the tail end of the high season, those hours operate as a guide, a framework of when the store might be open, should customers be present and should the shop owner have no more pressing business than his/her business. Each shop may fill its own niche - pharmacy, book and school supplies store, gardening shop - but each store also sells souvenirs and services the outsiders, admitting in a charmingly open manner that outsiders dictate life on the village. Without knowing for sure, we sensed that everyone on the island, 7,000 residents, must know each other, and the outsiders as such must be easily marked. The open velkommen is usually felt, except when we poke our heads into the local watering hole and cannot decide which is less welcoming: the steady inquiry that confronts us from the gaze of every local in the full room, or the wall of cigarette stench that flooded our nostrils and eyes immediately. We did not enter the bar, ultimately.
We stayed on the island for about 42 hours. The weather was indecisive and tumultuous but on the whole ok. We only left the village once, on our walk to the windmill. Our experience was limited: walking, cute shops, nice dinners, a charming pension; in sum, a travel experience distilled. Sifted until the essence of a trip comes out: the romance of being alone with someone important, or of just being alone, in a new, beautiful, strange place.
There is something about an island.
Now, before I go any farther, let me posit two stipulations. First, of course this isn't always (or even largely) true. I know plenty of normal people who are German in one sense or another. Germans also tend to be nice. Again, this is not a perjorative statement. And number 2, I've spent an approximate total of 8 days in Germany over my life, not counting any connections in Frankfurt: two + days in Berlin 5 years ago, four days last November in Bonn, and the aforementioned 1 + days here this time. So I'm not drawing on a huge sample size, if you catch my drift.
Nevertheless, I would like to posit that, yes indeed, every German I met on this trip was a little off. To make this case, I will offer two examples of the strangeness, and then two counterexamples of normality to prove my point. I approach as a case study, as I find that will both best suit my time frame, experience, and needs and provide an appropriate understanding of German weirdness. I will let you draw your own conclusions (while also probably beating you over the head with mine).
Without further ado, our second strange host:
City: Hamburg, Germany
Location: Apollo Optika in the Alstertal Einkaufszentrum near the Poppenbüttel train station (it's a mall)
Hamburg was our second (and final, not including that Neumunster railway station) short stop in Germany. We arrived in town on a mission: Ben wanted an unlocked I-phone, and his information suggested that Germany would be the place to do it. Being as we definitely communicated clearly about our joint desire to visit both Amsterdam and Copenhagen, Hamburg seemed like a logical German stop. We didn't do as well focusing on Hamburg, but that's another story...
So any way, we went up to the only Apple store in Hamburg, which happened to be on the end of a line that we caught at the central train station (the Hauptbanhof), near the final stop, Poppenbüttel. As we rode up on the charmingly clean and well-kempt train, I read a book, as I am prone to do. I also took off and put on my glasses repeatedly as my gaze lifted from the page and then returned to the page. I am also prone to do this. And sadly, while I am not necessarily prone to do this, it is not terribly surprising nor karmically unjust that in one of those removals of my glasses, I happened to snap one of the earpieces. All of a sudden, my glasses were in two. I didn't do anything wrong at that moment per se, but again, it was one of those things that was bound to happen to me, and that has happened before. Our mall visit now had two purposes. Also we wanted to abuse the Apple store's internet availability. Three purposes.
Our first purpose was plainly unsuccessful: Ben's info was wrong, and the I-phones there came with a contract. Disheartened, we ensured that our third objective would be satisfied and surpassed. Done.
This left the second purpose, fixing my glasses. We checked out the directory, cruised the mall, and tried one store. The nice lady said it would be a half hour so. I, wanting to maximize our Hamburg time, turned her down. Little did I know.
We went downstairs, where Ben wandered off to find a sports clothing store (failing at first). I entered Apollo Optika. Fairly crowded, the store presented a generic example of an optical store in the mall. I went up to the clerk, asked "Spriechen sie Englisch," (n.b.: maybe part of the reason Germans are so weird is that their language is so funny, and speaking it from a young age affects the mind), received a strongly affirmative answer, and was in business. This clerk was Marco.
First of all, Marco seems like a swell guy. He looked more or less our age (i.e. mid 20's), clean cut with trim mid-length dark hair, on the taller and skinnier side of things, and with a really open face; blue eyes, clean shaven, etc. He looked a little like our high school classmate and brief reality star Andrew Fenlon, except probably a little more "traditionally" good-looking.
There is nothing weird about this photo. Especially not the missing glasses earpiece to the viewer's right. Or the fu manchu.
City: Osnabrück, Germany
Location: Neudstadt Hotel in Osnabrück
As you may have noted earlier, we arrived to our hotel in Osnabrück after some struggling. We had missed the necessary train in Amsterdam that would have eventually brought us to Osnabrück at 6 rather than at 8, and so we were already late; our wandering tacked on additional fatigue. It was about 8:30, or 20:30, that we arrived at the hotel.
"I have a reservation," Ben said to the concierge after a simple exchange of hellos.
"What's the name?"
"It can't be!" Herr Concierge answered. He had big clear framed glasses, a suit, and straw blond hair, and looked to be in his 50's. "You can't be arriving now!"
This raised our concern levels a bit. Maybe we screwed up the reservation and made it for a different day? Maybe the internets let us down?
"Ah, no, wait a second. You are Mr. Chang? It is a Mr. Kim who is arriving at midnight to stay here. We do have your room." Our hearts beat again. "How would you like to pay?"
I, in arrears on the trip, proffered up my Bank of America Visa.
"Bank of America?" He said, tilting his head as he looked at me in the eye with an impish smile. "We'll have to be careful with you." He took my card and led me to his office, kitty corner to the front desk, while Ben raised his eyebrows in mock alarm.
Inside his office, Herr Concierge talked about how to err is to be human. "Sometimes I make mistakes when I charge on the card. Sometimes instead of 49 € I charge .49 €, and sometimes I charge 490€. These machines can be difficult." It could be taken as something of a good thing, then, that my card failed to work for him. Nevertheless, he did screw up when charging Ben's card, first assessing him .49€ and then the appropriate 49 €. He compensated Ben with a 50 cent piece, leaving us 1 cent ahead.
Another encounter with Herr Concierge came before our dinner experience. First, he gave us a recommendation.
"We just have to go down to the corner and turn right," we said, guessing.
"No, it's not far," he responded. "Just go down to the corner and go right. You'll see a fat man, a chef, standing on paper. That's where you should go." He was talking about a statue, not a real fat man.
"Do you have internet in the hotel?" I asked, wanting to know where it was so I could avoid it.
"You know," he started, again tilting his head but with more anger in his face, "they say they are coming every week, and still I am waiting. They cannot come to install internet or cable. They do not come. I do not understand it." He may have gone on for another five minutes, but we moved away, slowly, and went to dinner. We also noted to ourselves the need to budget at least five minutes for talking to Herr C when we left the next morning.
Our last encounter with Herr Concierge topped them all. At breakfast, there was a bit of a kerfluffle between an old German who struggled to use the toaster and a young English couple. The male member of the couple asked the German if he might speak English or Spanish, to which the old German responded, in German, that in Deutschland, we only speak Deutsch. Herr Concierge, dressed down in a flannel shirt and not quite dress slacks, dressed down his compatriot, but to no avail. It was not the most pleasant moment, but hey, it happens.
Ben and I ate breakfast with Mr. Kim himself, a Korean student studying at a business program in Osnabrück. We were as such distracted from the fireworks at the toaster, more concerned with ascertaining the background of the mysterious Mr. Kim whose late arrival had thrown our plans in near disarray. Things were calm between us.
We were ready to leave about ten minutes before the 10:00 hour train left. We had hoped to catch it. I was at fault for our tardiness. We nevertheless could have made the train. And we wanted to rectify our google maps snafu from a day before. And even though Herr Concierge was off duty, he was nothing if not ready to help, and so we asked him how to get to the train station.
"Well," he said, rolling his eyes to the top of his head, and then sighing. "I would take a cab.""We'd like to walk," we said, sticking true to our budget roots.
"You can walk, it would take you about 15-20 minutes. But I would take a cab."
At last we convinced him our aim was true in walking, and that our boots were made for nothing else, and he gave us an exact, easy route to follow (indeed, the google map version we failed to find the night before). The long explanation seemed like the end of it. We thanked him and started backing out towards the door.
"No, thank you," he said. He followed our backing, and we weren't sure what we were being thanked for. We smiled. "I'm sorry for what happened this morning," he went on, and for the first time, more than in the lament over the internet provider or his concern over the guy who had parked inappropriately in front of the hotel the night before, a note of solemnity crept into his expression. "There are 80 million people in Germany, and only two I-diots," he said, pronouncing it like an Apple product (i.e. "eye-dee-ott", Steve Jobs, think about it), "and we had one of the I-diots here today. It disgusts me. When we had the World Cup here four years ago, it was a big party, and everyone was happy to be here. The World Cup this year, there was a party in the streets for every game, and everyone was happy. The Women's World Cup is here next year, and we are very proud. But then those I-diots go and ruin it. Remember, it was the Austrians who got us into all that trouble, and then they just said they were Germans.
"You know, I was in the USA too," he went on. "I was there when President Kennedy was shot. I was in El Paso, Texas, training with the air force. So I know there are good people in other places. I'm open to foreigners. Most Germans are. Just those one or two I-diots."
Ben and I, speechless except for our thanks and goodbyes, made a note to ourselves: Hotel Neustadt comes with impromptu impassioned historically imbued speeches about New Germany should any I-diots show up. Duly noted. And after hearing that he was in El Paso for a year (also, understanding that he must be in his mid 60s at least, meaning ol' Herr Concierge looked good), we were a little more understanding on the weird. But weird it remained.
Ah, Germany: new or otherwise, always weird. And just how we like it.
Two Ends of a Bridge
Focus on the sun, the warmth on your eyes,
burning through the fall goosebumps breeze
See the blue dot behind your eyelids
Rising just out of view.
If the two ends of a bridge don't meet
It's probably to let a sailboat pass through
Unless the bridge over the river Drina has been blown in two
Think of Isidora's gift and her friend in Hamburg
Think of how amazing life is, or how
awful it can be, as in the genocide book
How life is often (always?) both
5x2 trampoline area. Yellow padding over the springs, green/purple/yellow/blue trim on black mats. A 12-year old boy jumps alone, tentatively, unimpressively. A girl steps on the second mat from the left, row farther from the sea. She is 16-25, probably towards the younger side, light brown hair in a ponytail, brown tank top, blue shorts. Her hops begin, probing and testing, never wasteful. She goes from corner to corner, lightly. Then she flips backwards. Her form is perfect, with straight legs, an unmoving upper body, and arching arms. When I do gymnastic movements, I achieve movement through force; short, explosive contortions or circles that signify power but cannot be pretty in observation. I land in spite of myself. She moves through grace, suggesting only the barest exertion. Her legs appear powerful from my stairway perch, but more as a result of her movement than as a tool to achieve that movement.
Getting the ego shot out of the way early.
"You're going on vacation?"
"Where are you going?"
"You're gonna have fun in Amsterdam, aren't you?" [eyebrow raise, possible elbow nudge]
"Of course I'm going to have fun."
"No, I mean, that kind of fun." [eyebrows rise higher, elbow nudges sharper]
Anybody who has taken a trip to Amsterdam has held the following conversation, with mild variations. So let's get it out of the way right here: Yes, everybody, Amsterdam, like the rest of the Netherlands, has a fairly lax weed policy and "vibrant" coffee shop culture. Also, prostitution is legal (pimping is not; straight pimpin' it on the dance floor depends on the legal interpretation). Magic mushrooms are now illegal, but magic truffles are not. This is significant. Let's move on.
Actually, let's back up for a second. Why does one travel? What are the reasons behind it? See new places, relax, change your patterns, shock the system, partake in activities legally that would be illegal at home (hello, U.S. 18-20 year olds who travel pretty much anywhere out of the country!), meet new people, spend money, shop; a short list of possible reasons.
Why am I traveling this time? Well, frequent traveling companion and main man Ben made the call to commemorate our Euro blitz of 4 years ago, and increasingly frequent traveling companion Amy and I needed to spend a little time together. Also, I needed a break. Wanted to get off the computer (ha!), the workload, and the rest of it. Ben and I did some negotiating on where to go and ended up with an Amsterdam-Copenhagen trip (via Hamburg) and Amy and I will take down Denmark for a week afterwards. That's the short of it. I may just explore the themes of why I travel in the long of it, over the next couple months in the blog.
Really, his right leg is the short of it.
Ok, you say, but what about a better reason for traveling? A more general reason for traveling? Well, how about learning about the other, finding what a people is like, a new language is like, and whether the stereotypes held about them are true? Would that be a good reason? More importantly can I theme this blog post around the idea of testing stereotypes about Netherlands and the Dutch, and perhaps discovering fodder for new stereotypes?
At least for the last question, the answer is, "You goddamn well bet I can." It's my blog, and I'll write about what I want if I want to.
Amsterdam: Nothing but a Hippie's Paradise?
So now we can address the weed question, right? Let's make it clear: there are coffee shops everywhere. Many of them have Bob Marley related paraphernalia. The smell of weed permeates outside these shops. We saw a guy on the metro of whom Ben could say nothing but, "That guy's got a fat doobie in his hands."
Furthermore, I can point to our hostel, Lucky Lake. First, the hostel was a good choice: not too far from the center, cheap as it comes for a private "room" (more in a second), everybody's friendly, the breakfast is good. All you can ask for from a low-key hostel.
The inhabitants of the caravan next door to us. For some strange reason, they were really loud around 6 am every morning.
That said, the hostel is set up as follows: near the eponymous lake, there is a compound. On that compound are a bunch of little white cabins and white caravans. Caravans like the one Matt Foley talked about, but smaller. Sufficient, but certainly cozy. There is also the a caravan that operates as the "Smallest cinema in the world", and a big cabin known as the Lucky Lounge, where our nose-ringed host at reception said we might, "have a joint, talk some bollocks, whatever you'd like." Needless to say, that "like" sounded like "liiiike." Also, there is a pervasive habit among our fellow guests of just lounging in the courtyard on chairs by the plastic crocodiles and toking on their own. Also, chickens and a couple roosters walk around. Ben and I have taken to calling this the community. In the Community, we wash, dry, and put away our own dishes. In the Community, we dry the shower floor after we take a shower.
Hippies party, don't they?
This is evidence for the hippie side of things. And Amsterdam at the center is certainly tolerant. But also not that crazy. Sure, we saw two separate frat-like groups of young men, one where the newbies were dressed in suit jackets and purple tights and forced to run along the canals, another with freshmen (so to speak) dressed in yodeler costumes in a main tourist/restaurant street. But that's, well, frat-boy stuff. There were lots of boats in the canals on which groups of people barbecued or partied, but is that so different than what we would do? I dare say it is not. The brown cafes (instead of the coffee shops) are where men are men and beer is strong and Dutch. The beef is salty, the fries are thick and slopped in mayo, and the air is far too chilly to come directly from Israel. No, I tell you, Amsterdam is not so different from us. We are the ones who see the world.
Ok, but what about the Sex?
Amsterdam has sex in many places. There is a sex museum. There is an erotic museum. There are the whores. There is a larger than usual listing of escort services in the city guide (note: I giggled at this, thinking about how it was actually legal here. Sometimes, I'm not as mature as I think). Many girls here are pretty (I would argue many girls everywhere are pretty, but I'm easy). Hell, as I type this the first time at the Lucky Lake computer, flies on the edge of the screen are undertaking an act that at least suggests copulation. Oh, the inhumanity of it all!
Beyond that, however, it's just, well, sex. Snicker, giggle, move on. Even the red light district, vaunted and famed beyond all other districts of Amsterdam, was kind of tame when we went. Sure, we went at 1300 on a rainy Tuesday in September, perhaps not prime time. But all the same, despite persistent searching (believe you me, we searched), we saw nothing more than one woman standing in a white negligee behind a ground floor window, her expression not especially happy. This is what Amsterdam's policy of opening up sex does, apparently, which is to say, not much besides dirtying it a little.
Another Dutch dream bites the dust.
What about the Dutch people?
As hosts of a lovely place to visit, the Dutch are difficult to complain about. They are mostly friendly, they speak English very well (at least, within Amsterdam's confines), their language is very funny (Eet Smalejik = Enjoy your meal), and I haven't heard one car horn over three days in Amsterdam and Haarlem. Just bike bells. It is possible that I have grown immune to the sound of a car horn since living in Israel. But I doubt it.
That said, we've had our run-ins. There was the homeless man who kindly advised us on how to get to Centraal Station (in good English) and encouraged us to check out the Red Light District, all for a tip. There was the feisty crew at the supermarket around closing time (more below). Ben dealt with a cold clerk at the railway ticket office. And then there baker in Haarlem who spoke limited English. Upon our asking about what a Haarlem kruid cake, advertised on a sign outside, was made of (it looked like a dark pound or fruit cake), he said bread. We probed further: "What fruits does it have in it?" He deftly responded, "Ja ja, it has fruits, nuts, bread." We didn't buy any cake.
Most notable for me was our experience in an Indonesian restaurant in Amsterdam. We each ordered a sampler plate, and had the choice of getting it in Mild, Medium, or Spicy. Our guidebook said, about the restaurant's fancier sister next door, that spicy was on a par with ordering napalm. I, not a lover of spice in general (as anybody who has tasted by "famous" guacamole knows), decided a full two steps away from napalm would be safest, and ordered mild. Ben ordered medium.
After fifteen minutes, a different waiter came up to confirm our orders. Ben's medium was all set. He asked me what I got. I said a mild. He said, "Is medium ok? The chef's wanted to make only medium." Well, there's no arguing with the chef. I said it was fine. That seemed like it would be the end of it. It was not.
As he brought the food, after I tasted the food, as we continued on our meal, and after we finished, the waiter continued to check on us, making sure medium was ok for me, bringing us a jug of water, refilling that jug, and so on. He also worked to persuade me that medium was better. "Mild has no taste. Why get mild? You need to have an adventure. Go for medium." And so on. He all but denied me of my manhood for daring to order mild.
The Dutch, needless to say, are known for their blunt honesty.
How about a traveling in the Netherlands fact that isn't yet a stereotype?
Well, we found it very strange how the Dutch dealt with credit cards. Paying with a credit card is nearly impossible. Same for debit cards. You could only use a card if it had a special golden chip in it, a thing which probably only exists in the Netherlands. Fine, you say, use ATMs and deal with it. It's just that the principle gets twisted to perversion.
To wit: at the Amsterdam central station, "Amsterdam Centraal", the ticket machines would only occasionally accept coins and rarely if ever bills. When checking out at the supermarket, we were left with not enough cash (despite making a meager purchase of 11.44 euros) and no card to use, and only saved by the ATM.
And yet we were not able to buy tickets for our trip to Germany with anything besides a card. When we rented bikes for the day, we had to leave an imprint of our card with the shop, but could not pay with a card. It all got a little confusing.
"Why can't you pay with a card?" Ben finally asked attendants in one store.
"That's a good question. There's no good reason I can think of," she answered.
Mark it as something for future travelers to be aware of, at least.
Back to stereotypes: Aren't the Netherlands famous for tulips, cows, and windmills?
Oh ya, you betcha. We saw plenty of shops for the first, plenty of the second, and at least a few of the third. Some evidence:
Ok, you can sort of see the cows. I didn't take many pictures of them.
They ride bikes there too, don't they?
Do they ever.
Netherlands has, according to our guide book, the highest proportion of bike users to the general population in the world, at 85%. There are bike lanes on most streets in Amsterdam. There are bike highways connecting the whole country. On streets without bike lanes, meaning smaller streets and canal banks, bikes have right of way regardless (de facto if not de jure). Bikes locked to rails fill bridges, sidewalks, and every light pole, mail box, bike parking spot, or timid sapling.
We didn't experience the nightmare of driving a car amongst all these bikes, but we did walk by many of them. If on a given walk in a city you have to be aware of cars and mopeds within the confines of the paved street, on a given walk in Amsterdam you have to be aware of those cars, of mopeds within the bike path, of bikes within the bike path, of trams running along the tracks, of other pedestrians, and of little red wagons pulled by tall Dutch children. There are a few additional ways to incur physical damage while walking, to say the least.
Ok, but you said you rented bikes. How was that? And how about you tell us a story after 2,000 words of babbling?
Yes, we did rent bikes. And hoo boy, let me tell you how that went...
We took bikes from Frederic's Bikes right near Amsterdam Centraal. For a mere 10 Euros (and the aforementioned credit card imprint) we had bikes for 24 hours. Considering we rented the bikes at about noon, and that the shop closed at 17:30, there was a good chance we would have to bring the bikes back to the Community with us.
Frederic's offered a fixed price for all bikes, meaning we could pick whatever we liked. Ben went with a sleeker handbrakes-laden bike while I choose a yellow cruiser with coaster (i.e. foot) brakes, hearkening back to my childhood bikes. We adjusted our seat heights accordingly and set off. Next stop: Haarlem.
View Larger Map
As you might notice, it's a pretty straight shot from Amsterdam to Haarlem, and then onwards to the North Sea coast. We set off at a relaxed but decent pace, observing the pleasant highway and suburb vistas of the LF 20 bike route. We passed by a billboard for, presumably, a Dutch reality show, featuring, presumably, a female Dutch celebrity who was crawling through brown stuff with a smile while the words next to her said that she was, and I quote, "diep in de shit." I almost ran into a few mopeds going the other way on the bike lane, as well as a moped that had passed me and then stopped around a bend where I didn't see it. Ben used his bike bell expressively. One of us went faster than the other (ok, Ben), though it may be left to the realm of eternal disputes whether that difference was due to biking ability or the quality of the bike in question.
Note the slick, racing design of Ben's bike. Also, it had hand brakes.
That mild taste of turmoil (not spicy enough, apparently) led us to our next phase, which was finding out how to get back from the train station to the Community. Normally, the Community Van shuttled us back and forth for the ten minute ride to the metro. We were close to the town Abcoude, and wanted to go through the town to pick up some things to make dinner. Signs for the bike paths are fairly good in the Netherlands, and so we followed our way on the signs and on the rough map that came in our Community Welcome Packet until we came to a supermarket at about 20:01. This being a small town, the store closed at 20:00. Ben locked his bike quickly and stormed into the store, not giving the young staff the chance to stop him. A minute later, I walked in, indicated my friend was already inside, and was allowed to proceed.