Wherein DF travels to Mitteleuropa and recounts his merrie adventures to his adoring broad readership.

Monday, April 18, 2005

Accommodation consternation

In case you’ve been living under a rock these days, or are just so indifferent to international affaires that you don’t give a shite about anything that takes place outside the borders of the USA, the dollar sucks. That is to say, its value against that of most foreign currencies--the British pound, and (particularly relevant for my purposes) the Euro--is low and continues to drop. Last time I checked, the exchange rate was something like 1 EUR = 1.33 USD. Twas not always, it bears remembering, the case: the dollar used to be stronger than most foreign currencies, so that whenever you traveled abroad, evaluating prices meant adjusting downward to account for the lesser value of the guilder or the escude or the peseta. It was like a built-in discount for US travelers. Ah, memories.

Now being American is like coming from a third-world country where the currency is an inflation-devalued joke, and the dollar is such shite that there’s an effective surcharge on traveling to EU countries. And as someone who is going to travel for over a month in Europe during a period in which I’ll have no income, this is not just an abstract concern but a major problem, which brings me to the titular point: where to stay?

On the one hand, there is the standard Eurohotel. There are no secrets here: these places are, well, hotels, ranging from kinda shady/scummy to spotless and spilling over with adornments and luxuries. Anyplace I had to pay to stay would certainly be toward the former end of the spectrum, but at the least I’d know what I’d be getting: some privacy, a not-completely-unsanitary room, peace of mind about the safety of my belongings (not entirely justified), the promise of a passable breakfast the next morning, etc. Appealing, but not entirely affordable.

On the other hand, there are hostels. The advantage is that they’re cheap. The disadvantage is that they’re a total crapshoot in terms of quality. In the off-season, in a deserted part of the world, hostels rule. I’ve stayed at hostels in the Victorian highlands of Australia and in the Dutch Wadden Islands that were wonderfully peaceful and calm, primarily because no one but me (or at least, very few people) was there. On the other end of the spectrum, I made the dire mistake of staying at a “hostel” (read: attic in a dirty hippie’s house) in Vermont where I had to share a room with a Finnish guy who was traveling around the world and never. stopped. talking. Not when I was crouched over a notebook, writing. Not after I said “I can’t talk to you now because I’m trying to work.” Not when it was midnight and he came back to the room we were staying in and I was already asleep. Also grim was the night I spent at a hostel in New Orleans on New Year’s Eve 1997/98, when I was kept awake by the din of a truly world-class snorer in my room and the crying hysterics of a romantically disappointed girl and her consoling friend in the hallway outside the door.

Yes, truly to stay in a hostel is to shoot the crap. But, as the man says, you get what you pay for. The broad readership may also have noticed that what many seem to find the most appealing part of staying in a hostel--meeting folks from around the globe--really holds little appeal for me. I’m pretty much of an antisocial traveler, I guess. Most people might have been intrigued by a Finnish guy telling stories about his trip around the globe, but the idea of buying the guy a beer and listening to his tales never really occurred to me. He just kind of pissed me off. Hence my happiest experiences at hostels have been at deserted ones (in fact, I’ve twice stayed at hostels that actually were deserted, as in there was no one on the premises at all, by just opening an unlocked door and sleeping in the least dusty bunk).

But I digress. The point is, in all the places I’m planning to stay, I’m torn between looking for cheap-o hostel-style accommodations with its risks and possible rewards and utter cheapness, and spending the moolah on something nicer that won’t be as potentially worrisome. On the other hand, in my role as wandering observer, it seems to me that it would be kind of a cheat to hole myself up in a private room the whole time and cut out all the potential crazy crap that one sees in these crazy places--however annoying the resounding snorers and chatty Finns can be--so I imagine the result will be a combo of the two. Watch this space to find out how it develops.

Thursday, April 14, 2005

The three-country run

I was describing my experience writing for Let’s Go to a group of sort-of colleagues over dinner some months ago, and explained to them that I liked traveling for LG because--even though it could be lots of work and the itinerary was constrained--it gave me a good outline of what to do with myself when abroad. Whereupon, one of these folks--someone who consciously cultivates a persona of mellowness--laughed and told me this was an indication that I’d been living in the east two long (dead right, as it happens), and that the point of travel is to do nothing, or at least nothing in particular, but rather to let experiences come your way and take things a moment at a time.

This struck me as a wise and worldly philosophy--and also one that I am constitutionally incapable of putting into practice in my own life. When I travel, I need projects to give shape and purpose to the time. I readily concede that my take is perhaps not a particularly relaxing approach to travel, and may well be indicative that I would benefit from professional mental assistance, but nevertheless it’s where I’m at for this trip, and thus--particularly for the two or so weeks after finishing my language course when I’ll be traveling throughout Central Europe without any structure at all--I am on the lookout for projects.

So far I have one. There appears to be a trend in Europe to do three-country marathons--e.g., Slovenia-Austria-Italy or Germany-Austria-Switzerland--and while there’s no way in hell that I’m going to run 26.2 miles, the notion of traversing that many nations in a single run does seem seductive. Add to the seduction my fascination with Liechtenstein, and I think the broad readership smells what I’m cooking: a three-country run of DF’s own. Begin in Austria (needs to be the starting point because there might be border control problems), traverse Liechtenstein, and then cross the Rhine and into der Schweiz. And this run will not only run across the territory of three countries, as do the others, but it will have the rare distinction of traversing the entire width of a nation in less than an hour. Now, to be fair, we’re talking about Liechtenstein here, and its entire width is about 6km, but still--it’s a project. I’m going to write the folks at the Liechtenstein tourist bureau about it. Perhaps I can get a corporate sponsorship.

The why

Aha--sage question, broad readership. Hm. Well, to begin, in a purely logistical sense, the answer’s easy: I’m quitting one job and leaving another, leaving me with a rare opportunity to do some extended traveling. These chances don’t come along often, so it’s not something I can miss.

But why not? That is, why should I travel at all? I’ve got plenty of work to do--a long-term writing project that I need to distribute for publication this fall remains a (charitably speaking) work in progress--so one alternative (perhaps the smartest, certainly the safest) one would be to stay in town and work on it. Yet it never crossed my mind that I wouldn’t use this time to take a trip (not a vacation, mind you, a trip--perhaps more on that later). The term “travel addict” gets thrown around a lot, thanks to the endless hilarity found in making light of grave afflictions, but I think it may be the best way to describe my approach to the issue.

Viz., an addict is a person whose proclivity for a given substance or experience is such that they crave it all the time, and rather than finding themselves sated when they have some of it, in fact find themselves only wanting more. This could describe, with worrying accuracy, my approach to travel. I’ve been a fair number of places. In addition to having been all over the U.S., I’ve visited spots throughout Canada, Mexico, and Costa Rica; spent extended periods working as a travel writer in both Australia and Holland; and done an extended non-working tour of western Europe (Spain, France, Holland, England, Ireland, then Spain again--long story) that lasted about seven weeks. When most people (well, most Americans) hear this, they say “gee, you’ve really been all over.” Whereas the travel addict in me reviews the list and thinks, “My God, I’ve hardly traveled at all--and I need to remedy that right now.”

To an extent, of course, I exaggerate, in large part for the merriment of the broad readership, but the fact remains that for whatever reason, I feel compelled to see as much of the world as I can, as soon as possible. I’m not convinced that this is normal. Most people I know (and, again, we’re talking mostly about Americans) seem content to have traveled, as though it were a milestone to be passed like a professional exam or a bat mitzvah. I suppose it would be easier to approach life in that manner; it would at least be cheaper and involve far fewer spectacularly uncomfortable trans-oceanic plane journeys. Yet wanderlust is, for reasons unknown, a condition from which I suffer, and thus I wander.

So that explains why I’m going on a trip, but doesn’t say much about why I’m going to Central Europe. The reasons are many, and obscure, especially to me, particularly since I said to a friend over lunch some months ago that I have no interest in Central Europe, and in Germany in particular, and thus had no particular desire to go there. Now I’m going there.

Rather than try to give a coherent, linear explanation, I thought I’d instead just do a stream-of-consciousness thing, in the hope that the broad readership will simply find itself confused and cease to seek an answer that possesses a degree of reason that I cannot provide:

I have a friend who just moved to the Hague, so thought that by going there I could cut costs by staying with her for a few days at least, so Holland needed to be on the trip (hell, I like it there anyway and Amsterdam is as good an embarkation point as any, especially since I’m so familiar with it), and I also have been in touch with the girl who was my roommate when I did a language course in Barcelona back in ’02 and who lives in Berlin, so that made me think, “Hey, Berlin”; it also reminded me that I like to incorporate language school as a project when I’m traveling (it gives me something to do, is useful, provides a way to meet people, etc.), and that was the kernel--language school in Berlin--that I’ve been working with since, but didn’t want to spend the whole time in Berlin so thought I’d begin with the language school there for a couple weeks and then wend my way throughout nearby countries that I’ve never really thought about visiting (and which seemed like good targets for a visit because a loved one with whom I’d prefer to be traveling cannot join me and has no particular interest in Mitteleuropa), hence ticket to A-dam + Tandem Berlin course + Eurail pass, and voila.

Make sense? Yeah, me neither. And that, after working for lawyers and judges for the past three years, may well be just the point. Tschuess for now, broad readership.

Friday, April 08, 2005

The where, the when

So now that I've introduced the purpose of the site, I suppose it might help to give a sense of the trip that it's about (though in all fairness that really should have come first). Here's the deal:

I'll be leaving DC for Amsterdam on May 10, on a flight that lasts overnight and gets there early-ish in the AM, though by that time I'll be so jet-lagged that the notion of "early" will likely be irrelevant--I'll just feel like overall crap. {Digression: Are any other members of my broad readership as susceptible to jet lag as I am? One of the more recent times I flew transatlantically, I arrived in Madrid and--despite having slept on the plane--felt so tired that I ended up falling asleep on a table in the cafeteria of the Reina Sofia museum and had to be forcibly wakened several hours later by the irritable Spanish guard who was closing the building. I had drooled all over my arm and, after I was thrown out, wandered the streets of Madrid in a foggy, sleep-impoverished haze. My stupor was such that I couldn't face up to trying out my Spanish at a real restaurant and instead opted for a Subway that turned out to be the meeting point for all the overweight, floridly-dressed American tourists in Madrid at the time. I'm not sure if it was that or the jet lag that caused me to lose my appetite.}

Right--so, arrive Amsterdam May 11, then spend a few days in the Netherlands with a friend in the Hague, battling jet-lag and the drooly stupor it causes, and possibly visiting Amsterdam in the daytime (only half-hour away by train) if energy permits. (I've been to the Hague and, truth be told, there's just not that much to do there.) How long I stay in the Netherlands depends on whether I want to go Arnhem on Sunday for a game between the local team there (Vitesse) and Ajax. Neither team will have much to play for by that late in the season, and Ajax lost their one American player (John O'Brien), so the interest level is not terribly high; but on the other hand, the risk of bloody hooligan violence is always an attraction. It's a close call.

Next, I'll be going from Amsterdam to Berlin by train, where I'll be staying for a couple weeks taking a language course and--I've just learned--staying in a flat in the Mitte district (with some other folks, though it's not a "homestay" as such, i.e., the other residents aren't obligated to feed or talk to me). I'm told by the school that the flat is nice and centrally located, which I take to mean that it's not a pestilent cesspool and that it's located less than a 2hr train journey from where the classes are given. One of the themes of the trip is that as long as I keep my expectations low, I'll never be disappointed and may even be pleasantly surprised.

The language course in Berlin will end on Friday the 27th, leaving me with a couple more weeks on the Continent (as, I hear, it's called) and nothing to do. Whatever, Europe is dead anyway. But since I have to stay there for more time, I thought I might Eurail around and have in mind the following destinations after Berlin: Dresden (maybe); Prague; Vienna; Budapest; Salzburg; Liechtenstein; Munich; Cologne (maybe). I don't want to do too many cities, as I'm told much of the appeal of Mitteleuropa is in tramping around in the highlands, Edelweiss-style. Thus Liechtenstein will be an essential stop on the way--not only because it is supposed to be mountainous and beautiful, but also because visiting it will slake (to the extent that it's slakable) my thirst for visiting tiny European principalities. In fact, if I'm feeling extra-frisky toward the end, I might try to visit Luxembourg on the way back.

In case the foregoing narrative has been unclear, or perhaps just too dull for the broad readership to struggle through, here's a point-by-point breakdown:

The dates: May 10-June 16
The countries: Netherlands, Germany, Czech Republic, Austria, Hungary, Liechtenstein
The cities (probable): Amsterdam, the Hague, Berlin, Prague, Vienna, Budapest, Salzburg, Vaduz, Munich
The cities (possible): Arnhem, Dresden, Cologne, Luxembourg City
The gastrointestinal ailments (expected): too many to chronicle--but I'll be sure to keep you updated!

And that, as they say, broad readership, is the plan. It's all tentantive of course. I reserve the right to find the whole endeavor dull and return to America where one need not struggle with annoying concepts like language barriers, international comity, voltage converters, or tolerating foreigners.

Tuesday, April 05, 2005

It begins...

Let's be honest, broad readership: "It begins inauspiciously" would have been a more apt title. My history with making any sort of coherent record of the various mundane events of my life has been checkered at best. There were countless failed attempts at keeping journals when I was younger--the first few pages invariably covered with writing, sparser entries by week 2, a lone, flaccid, guilt-inspired entry at month's end, and then big fat nothing thereafter. Ditto my two failed attempts to start blogs. One died a totally justifiable death, because it was about nothing and thus violated my rule that blogs about nothing are an egregious waste of time and e-space. The other--"Offensensitivity"--was well-conceived (about issues that become issues because some person or group feels offended--something that has always puzzled me), but that just provides more proof that I'm hard-wired with the disappointing tendency to begin grandiose writing projects and then, for lack of a more graceful euphemism, crap out.

But I'm going to give this another try, with a slender reed of hope that it will work this time. First, at the very least, this blog is not about nothing. On the contrary, it is about something: the trip I'm apparrently going to take to Central Europe for five or so weeks in May and June of 2005. Thus while this blog will technically be a daily journal, it will be one that chronicles me doing something that is, in my estimation at least, interesting, as opposed to the odious daily-journal blogs that plague the web these days, apparently inspired by the belief that the daily inanities of one's life merit publication. But I don't mean to oversell this. Caveat lector: I don't see myself doing anything particularly interesting on this trip (drugs, "extreme" sports, midget tossing, model airplane flying, flipping off royalty, eating spicy food), as I'm far too old and settled-down for any such things. But I am hopeful that, in my capacity as the weird loner/observer I'll see things that are interesting, will report them, and will thus have a reason for writing.

Second, I'd probably be attempting in some way to chronicle this trip in writing regardless, and this seems like a far more efficient way to do it than to write something longhand, which tends to give me the hand cramps and makes me feel self-conscious. (There's something embarrassingly generic about writing in Europe while on a trip--I keep thinking the locals are all pointing at me and saying "Look at Mr. 'I'm on a trip in Europe and writing in a journal'" in their indecipherable native tongue. Jerks.) But the blog form--daily (or so) entries, dates and times, no set limit or required style--seems well-adapted to keeping a record of this trip. Moreover, as I'm a thirty-or-so-year-old guy traveling solo, I very much doubt anyone will want to talk to me, and this promises to leave me with ample time to record, well, whatever I see taking place.

Finally, in the interest of avoiding any false hopes, here's what you can expect:

(1) Details about things I've observed. The devil is in them, and so is much of what makes life worth living. Also, as a writing teacher long ago once rightly told me, "write down the details, and they'll trigger the rest." Thus,

(2) No (or almost no) details about how I'm feeling. First, you don't care. Second, it's none of your business. Third, I can't stand blogs that natter on endlessly about their author's emotional state. Finally, I am on heavy antidepressants and have lost the ability to experience human emotion. Which leads me to

(3) Lots of made-up crap. Look, I'd be lying if I said my life was actually interesting enough to warrant doing a blog about it, even on a Eurotrip. And, as in my daily life, I make a lot of shite up to amuse myself. That explains why I'm constantly bursting into laughter (or, as the case may be, tears) for no apparent reason. And finally,

(4) No identifying information. I hate when writers have to rely on embarrassing or amusing things other people have said or done to make their writing interesting. Plus, it seems unfair to the unwitting written-about person to be exposed like that. And, I'm kind of paranoid and wouldn't want anyone writing about me. Of course, if you're reading this, you know it's me, but about others, nothin'. Wow--I just read over this and I sound really freaked-out and paranoid. And having written that last sentence only adds to the general sense of paranoia. Hm.

Anyway, broad readership, there it all is, yours to take or leave. Good times await!