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

Monday, May 30, 2005

Czech bums and ethnic confusion

To the not-insignificant percentage of the broad readership that is homeless and/or indigent, I've got to tell you: you've got a lot to learn from Czech bums. The whole American schtick of standing on a corner, looking ragged, an asking for money is way outdated and not at all the most effective way to work people for spare change. In the C.R., the bums are way ahead of you. They don't say a word, but rather kneel on the ground with their heads pitched forward on the ground so they're not even looking at you, and they've got a hat or cup sitting on the pavement in front of them to collect the spare change--which is copiously forthcoming. I turn into Ayn Rand when I see homeless people begging for change, but this move was the most pathos-inducing bum schtick I've seen, and it almost made me give up a Koruny or two (almost).

Also, if any members of the B.R. are ethnographers, perhaps they can explain to me why some significant proportion of the Czech population doesn't have anything like a traditional Slavic look at all, but are rather dusky-skinned with straight, pitch-black hair, more the kind of look you'd expect to see in southern than central Europe. The Liverpool footballer and recent European Championship winner Milan Baros is an example.

Czech: I got nothin'

You know me, broad readership--I like learning the languages. Spanish I've got down pretty well, I know some French, can read the basics in Dutch, am coming along nicely in German, and I took some Latin a while back. But when it comes to Czech, I got nothin'. Not a phrase, nary a word, and next to no instinct for how anything should sound so that even the simplest statements (e.g., someone telling me the price of a bottle of water) are a complete mystery.

That said, this has not actually posed much of a barrier. Lots of people here speak English (thank God it's the universal language), and with gesturing and pointing at menus and liberal use of prosim (please) and dekuji (thank you), I've been able to eat and do pretty much what I want.

Another good thing about my utter linguistic cluelessness is that it's made me comparatively more confident about my abilities in languages that I do know to an extent. Compared to Czech, I'm perfectly conversant in German (as long as the conversation turns at some point to voltage converters and plug adapters), I'm the equivalent of a damned native speaker of Spanish, and with English, the greatest linguistic genius of our time. It does make me look forward to Austria, though, as I'll be able to re-practice the Deutsch with newfound boldness (timidity or at least a desire not to look like a total jackass having hamstrung me in past attempts to communicate in the local tongue when abroad).

Another lesson of being in the C.R. is that at least at this point I've no desire to get into the linguistic--and in many cases, orthographic--mess that is the family of Slavic languages. I'm going to keep the Spanish sharp, develop the German, maybe brush up on French or Dutch if I'm in the mood, but the language buck stops there. (With the possible exception of Serbo-Croatian (or B.C.S. as it's now polite to say, for Bosnian-Croatian-Serbian) if I do a trip to the Dalmatian coast sometime). Na shledanou for now, Broad R.

Maticka Praha

...is, I have read, Czech for "little mother Prague," and is the affectionate nickname for the city in which I currently find myself among its locals. In an effort to disclose all to the devoted B.R., have no way to confirm or deny this, as I have had a hard time locating a local among the tourist hordes, and even if I could find one, I suspect it would be useless because I don't speak the slightest scrap of this western Slavic tongue.

The trip in from Dresden yesterday was so nice I was kind of disappointed to arrive. There is something about train travel in Europe I find infinitely comforting: you get to see the country, which is usually gorgeous (not sure why European train trax are so frequently built through picturesque areas, but most of them are--the Dresden-Prague line goes through a stretch of Central European countryside along the Elbe River), and (this being my fave part) you don't have to do anything. You just get to sit there and relax. This stands in contrast to the rest of my time, which is typically spent trying to see and do as much as possible, and while great is often fairly intense as well.

Arrival posed a series of challenges, not least of which was that the train dropped us off at Praha Holesovice station, not the more central station that appears on all maps and from which all accommodations give directions. Fortunately, however, I teamed up with a pair of friendly Canadians who were similarly confused, and figured out the way to town (they also spotted me enough Koruny for a subway ticket when the exasperated lady at the station refused to change my 1000Kr note--more evidence of post-communist laziness).

Thus despite knowing no Czech and armed with only a copy of the map from my trusty Lonely Planet (no I am not using Let's Go, about which I wish to say no more in this public space), I managed to find my prison/hotel (about which more later) and took the requisite nap before setting out to navigate the Golden City in the company of tens of thousands of tourists from around the world, as well as the occasional Czech person trying to sell T-shirts with a picture of the word "Praha" emblazoned on a big cannabis leaf.

Sunday, May 29, 2005

How fresh are these guys?

I realize, broad readership, that I promised not to trade on amusing stories about others as a cheap way to provide the low-grade entertainment that you may crave but shall never find here, but I'm going to make a teensy exception to note that occasionally in Germany I ran across some truly spectacular examples of a male style that is at once self-conscious but lost in another era or world of passable taste so that it defies adjectival explanation (though it has been called, on another website that I always thought was lame, fresh), but does not cease to fascinate. Examples include:

==Perms galore, especially of the big-and-curly kind. Football fans may recall Rudi Voller, the star for the German national team some decades ago, sporting the frizz-perm that is probably the archetype for this style. If you know not of whom I speak, consider a Little Orphan Annie head of hair, but blond, and on a German man. N.B.: I am assuming these are perms, but only because I've never seen so much hair curl so profoundly naturally. My own curly hair has turned into nothing more than a tangled mat when I tried to grow it long during one ill-fated phase in high school.
==Moustaches, moustaches, moustaches. We're not talking "Dude from the Caucasus mountains" moustache with the big volume and length, but more trim moustaches that just cover the upper lip. Not that there's anything wrong with that, but damn there are a lot of them around. Way more than in the U.S.
==Tight, short shorts. We're talking John Stockton here. In some instances, I saw a couple pairs of jeans cutoffs--on straight men, if their presence with what appeared to be their family is any indicator of their sexuality--that made me suspect the men in question were actually never-nudes (I've now exhausted my one allotted Arrested Development reference).

Being surrounded by so much freshness has had a freeing effect on me. Given the general sence of fashion tolerance in these parts, combined with a healthy esprit of "who am I trying to impress," I've been able to let my fashion guard down, typically rolling out the same rewashable travel T-shirt and Old Navy cargoes that you'd never catch me dead in in the U.S. Thank you, fresh Germans, for giving me the gift of not caring that I am an unwashed sleazebag.

Wandering in Dresden

Yesterday, broad readership, I bid a tearful farewell to Berlin and moved on to Dresden, where I find myself now and where I´ll be leaving soon for Prague. I chose to spend a day here in part because it seemed like a good halfway point between Berlin and Prague, but also because I am an aficionado of the darker side of history and really wanted to see some evidence of the 1945 fire bombing (N.B.: mission accomplished).

Dresden is in Saxony, which was, at a time when the DDR still existed, deepest darkest Eastern Germany. They loved being commies and the Eastern Bloc loved their love of it; Berliners still suspect that many Saxons were less than thrilled about reunification with the FRG. It´s not hard to find evidence of the commie past all around; except for the picturesque old city center, most of the town was built up after it was flattened by allied firebombs in efficient but unlovely Brezhnev-era style. Lots of cinderblocks, not a lot of zazz.

But while much of Dresden is derided for this supposed lack of character, I´d say that the city does have character, only of a different sort than one is used to expecting from a European town. Take, by way of example, the tourist hotel where I stayed last night. The Robotron City-Herberge is a kick not only becuase it is named after an old video game from the early 80s, but also because it was obviously at some point in the not-too-distant past (GDR´s only been gone like 15 years) a housing point for itinerant troupes of traveling communist dignitaries or possibly competing East German gymnastic or swimming teams, on their way to winning loads of medals at some Olympics thanks to Volksgeist, solidarity, and a whole lotta steroids.

Though Dresden has more than its share of heilige-sheiße moments of beauty with the Frauenkirche and the Semperoper and the various reconstructed classical buildings along the mighty Elbe, to me it was more memorable for the hours and hours I spent last night wandering in a vain search for a single damned sports bar that would show the England-USA international soccer friendly match. I first traveled by tram and bus all the way to the outskirts of town, where the American bar, Chicago´s, declined to show the US team in action because the German league cup final was on (even though the latter was being televised at countless other non-American-themed bars in the vicinity). I then returned to the city center, which took forever with the busses that stopped running for no apparent reason and the trams that didn´t come on time, until I finally canned the plan to see the game and instead decided to seek only some food.

To my frustration, this too turned out to be a failure, as there was not a single reasonably priced Imbiß (snack stand) in the city center, nor a convenience store that could sell me a snack. Cursing the various fancypants restaurants that mocked me as I wandered throughout the city center in search of nonexorbitant sustenance, I finally just gave in and went back to the hotel, where I purchased a water, an ice-cream bar (the "Nogger" that has created some race-related issues, but which was quite delicious regardless), and called it a damned night.

Thus for my day in Dresden, I ate: one chocolate croissant, one bratwurst, one "Nogger," and several Diet Cokes. I may lose those unsightly pounds and inches yet!

Hot in der Stadt

If there´s one thing it´s never been in Europe during any of my visits here, it´s hot. Amsterdam summer 2001 was a rainfest, with temperatures occasionally reaching lukewarm. My trip the next year was also cursed by rain--even the part in Barcelona. And the time I visited Amsterdam for a few days in fall 2003 was dominated by freezing, freezing rain. Thus when the weather was balmy and clear for the first few days when I was in the Hague this time around, I was pleasantly surprised. And when it was equally nice in Berlin at the outset of my weeks there, ´twas also good. But a few days ago, unaccountably (well, possibly accounted for by global warming) it got something I´ve never before experienced in Europe: hot. Damn hot. Sweatily, uncomfortably, accursedly, constantly hot.

Hot is, I suppose, better than cold and rainy, which tends to scuttle plans to wander around cities, but lord these people are unprepared for the hot temps. Part of the problem is lack of air conditioning. I get why it largely doesn´t exist here--why would you pay for A/C when you´re going to need it only a few days out of the year, if that? But man could I go for some overcooled American building right now. Yesterday I spent significant time sitting in a shopping mall because, despite the non-enriching character of the activity, it was cool as eine Gurke (cucumber).

Also unprepared for the heat are the Eurovolks I´ve seen around town. Actually, "unprepared" may be the wrong word. "Grossly inappropriate in their sartorial response" might be more apt. Point being, there are two Euroresponses to the über-high temps. One is to wear far, far too little clothing. In some cases, this is acceptable, as with people who are reasonably fit. However, particularly considering that most of the people I´ve seen around are pensioners from the German equivalent of the rural Tennessee, there have been far too many instances of bared hairy guts or cheesy, cellullite-dimpled thighs. Also strange is that the too-little-clothes wearers tend to enthusiastically quasi-bathe in public fountains and whatnot. While I regard these bodies of water as, for lack of a better word, gross (not necessarily groß, though they may be that too), they´re seen as functional by the locals, who wade in them barefoot, and in many cases splash the algae-ridden, nasty water all over their face. Upon walking around Dresden´s famous Zwinger (fortress dating from 1728), I happened upon a group of portly matrons taking the opportunity to bathe their beefy arms (and, oddly enough, only the arms) in one of its many historic fountains. Again, gross.

The majority of Eurofolks go the too-little clothing route when temps rise high. However, there is a small but highly noticeable minority that does just the opposite, instead donning togs that look like something Lawrence of Arabia or perhaps a woman in Taliban-era Afghanistan would have worn. In many cases, these beturbanned folks also break out the umbrellas for additional protection from the heat, or simply cower in the shade of an awning during the noonday heat. Overkill and rather absurd, but considering the aesthetic alternative, I applaud these people and the flesh-coverage their excessive clothing affords.

Thursday, May 26, 2005

Impressions of Berlin

It´s with not just a little nostagia that I note that I leave Berlin Saturday morning (the idea that I´ve already spent two weeks here seems insane). It´s been marvelous though, and I´m growing fonder of this city by the day, but ah well--all things must end. So I leave with a series of random impressions that have occurred to me over my two weeks here.

1. Absence of malice. Since coming here, I haven't seen a single road-rage incident or yelly street altercation or any other of the manifold upsetting incidents that one tends to witness on a frequent basis in the US. We all know the Germans have the propensity for anger and worse, but for whatever reason I just don't think they're as quick become incensed over the daily trivia that often sends Americans into rage blackouts.

2. Leisurely restaurant service. Waitstaff take a looooong time to get to you in restaurants here, so much so that on many occasions I thought they were trying to send a message that they'd rather not serve the lone American tourist reading the big textbook about Central Europe (me). But in fact, the (lack of) speed merely reflects an entirely different ethos regarding restaurants than the one that prevails in the States. There, eating can be nice but it's usually an hour (or so) long exercise in efficiency, no more. Here, evening meals last usually twice as long if not more, and much of it is just sitting-around time, waiting for the waitstaff to arrive, lingering after the meal. I usually ask for the check when they come to take away my food and am regarded as kind of a freak for it.

3. Germans love the beer. This is one of those generalizations that isn't just a stereotype, it's the God's truth. There are no open-container laws here and in the evenings the streets are full of people wandering around with big-ass bottles of Beck's and the like, swigging away. And everyone drinks with dinner, even on weeknights. Berlin is, in this respect, like Holland, but there it seemed that the entire populace had a one-drink limit, here there's no such thing. That's not to say that the city is full of raging drunks. I just think that Berliners can hold their liquor better than the rest of us. Note also there is no breakdown of the social order. Unlike in New Orleans, where the outdoor booze tolerance creates a sleazefest, drinking beer has not turned this city into a sin-ravaged brotheltastic scene from a Hieronymous Bosch painting (it would be like that regardless of open-container regulations).

4. Germans love the nudity. The main park in the city is the Tiergarten, and it's sort of a larger, more wild Central Park. Part of the wildness is that many of the denizens of Berlin will strip down to the buck while idling in the Tiergarten. I have no idea if there are public nudity laws in the country (though I kind of doubt it), but considering the physical shape some of these people are in, there really really should be.

5. Not so bad with the B.O. as you might expect. Easily the most hilarious part of the Simpsons ep where Homer turns his house into a youth hostel is the scene where the German backpackers offer a low price for a bunk and Homer says "But how will I pay for all the hot water you all will use with your showering, and cleaning, and washing your clothes?" The Germans look embarrassed and say "Um yeah, zat is ah, zat is not a problem." Yes, the filthy-foreigner motif is humorous indeed, but when you are abroad it can be a damned olfactory nightmare. Yet here in Germany, to be fair (and contrary to the Simpsons ep), the B.O. issue is really not so bad. There are pockets of it, to be sure, where you´ll be walking along or on the subway and all of a sudden your eyes will water and you´ll wish you had a gas mask, but this has been a pleasingly rare occurrence. It´s certainly nothing to rival the Paris metro, whose combo bouquet of gallic B.O., eau de urine, and generic bumstank remain unparalleled in grosstastic odiferousness.

6. Lotta Goths in this city. I don´t know what the peak of the Goth think in the US was, maybe the late 80s, but here it seems to be still going strong. I see Goths more than I do hippies, even. There was a goth double-date at the cinema last night, a dude in a vintage Bauhaus T-shirt on Danzigerstraße just today, and there´s a gothic music store right around the street from my language school in Prenzlburg. And that´s just off the top of my head. And to the credit of the goth kiddies I´ve seen, they´ve stayed true to the old-school--Bauhaus, Sisters of Mercy, Alien Sex Fiend--rather than jumping on the commercialized bandwagon of recent years with the Marilyn Manson and the Evanescence and whatnot. You go, Deutschegoths!

Hour of Babble II

When I tell people here that I´m taking a language class for two weeks, the response is invariably incredulous (with more inexplicable laughter, see "Berline Daze" above). To an extent, I get it: there´s no way any person, however facile they may be with languages generally, can learn German in a couple weeks. Of course, it´s not as though I expect that by tomorrow evening I should be able to read Nietzsche in the original. These two weeks are just part of an ongoing process that has already taken in a CD-ROM class and a textbook and will next year likely include some sort of formal instruction. Maybe in a couple of years, as time permits, I´ll have a decent grasp of this language. At this point, as long as I can make myself understood when I want some food or the way to the bathroom or not to be conscripted into the German Air Force, then everything´s cool.

But how goes this quest for minimum communication ability? Well, pretty good. By way of background, I came to German with the understanding that of the big languages that use the Roman alphabet, it was probably the most challenging (I´ve no opinion if languages like Hungarian or Polish are harder, but I suspect they may be, but they´re certainly not biggies). And after a couple weeks of class, I´ve made some strides. Conceptually, when I started learning this language, it just seemed so foreign. That is to say, Spanish seemed basically familiar because I grew up in LA and Spanish is everywhere there, and by the time I took a year of French, I had already studied Latin and Spanish, so there were cognates and related gender and grammatical parallels all over the place (or, en Francais, place), so that seemed pretty close to home as well.

German, not so much. There´s just no basis of comparison with the exception of the English cognates (of which there are, to be fair, more than a few), so the learning curve has been unusually steep for me. That said, I´ve just gotten to the point where German doesn´t quite seem as foreign as it used to. When I was first walking around the city, hearing everyone chatter in Deutsch, it made me feel weirdly impressed. Here I was, trying to develop this difficult and strange skill that everyone else around me--five year old children, rubes from Bavaria, bums begging on the subway--had already mastered to the point of unselfconscious fluency.

So at the very least, I can say this: Germans, you no longer impress me (in this respect, at least), for your language is just another. I think this means that I have crossed some early horizon of comprehension and that now that I have a sliver of toenail in the door, the room doesn´t seem like quite such a mysterious and forbidding place.

That said, I still have lots of difficulty expressing anything more than the most basic ideas. Ordering food in a restauraunt usually goes smoothly, though usually something--possibly the crappiness of my skillz, or more likely the lack of confidence with which I deploy them--gives me away and often people just start talking back to me in English. I was also able to get through all of the conversation about my plug adapter with little difficulty (though much of the conversation included gesturing and the use of visual aids), which was a minor triumph. On the other hand, I am still flummoxed when trying to express myself, as for some reason the thoughts in my head just don´t fit well with the tiny vocab I possess. This is particularly tricky as I´m enough of a perfectionist that I don´t like the idea of sounding like a moron and often revert to English if I´m not totally confident that I can say the right thing in German.

Bottom line: it´s a start. Ask me about the situation in two years, and I´ll probably be able to answer you in German.

Tuesday, May 24, 2005

Travel tribulations

B to the R:

Some time ago, I promised a rumination on the difference between travel and vacation. Sometime I'll get to that, if you all think you can stand the wait. But one of the differences has to be this: on a vacation, you seek to avoid all trouble and maximize relaxation; but while traveling, you at times embrace the challenges of the road and all the concomitant difficulty they may bring. Though this trip has been great so far, it is undoubtedly a vacation, and has had moments of red-faced, mouth-frothing, hair-pulling-out-the-roots-by frustration just to add some lows to the highs. To wit:

==Coming back from Potsdam, I was approached by a ticket-checker on the S-bahn. Though confrontations with state authority figures usually make me nervous even when we speak the same language, I expected this one to be cool, because all he wanted was to check my ticket, and I had a ticket. Or so I thought. So I showed him my ticket, and he said "Nein," which even in my linguistic ignorance I realized was not a good sign. Realizing I did not speak enough German to straighten things out, he dragged me off the train and pointed at a subway map, which revealed that there are three zones in Berlin: A, B, and a tiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiny zone C, which happened to be where we were at the time, and which happened to be the one zone not covered by my pass. Finally getting it, I apologized, said I'd buy the required supplement, and apologized again, at which point this damned teutonic bureaucrat said "forty euros." I thought initially he was saying that the supplement for zone C would cost that much, and I acted incredulous, whereupon he clued me in that 40 euros was the FINE I owed for my treachery. At this point, I lost all ability to try to communicate in what broken German I may know, and ended up making a series of points--I'm new to the city, I didn't know I was out of zone, the zone is just a tiny technicality, I'm a student, I'm unemployed (at this point I was desperate and the consistency of my point-making suffered)--all of which prompted the ticket checker to say, "40 euros." I started to say more, but realized that this guy was never, ever going to budge, and I handed over the money. After all that--and even though there was only one stop left in zone C--he even made me buy a damned C zone ticket to boot. Dick.

==I was a damned thorough packer (too thorough, if the weight of my duffel bag is any measure), and was sure not to forget to pack a voltage converter that is compatible with european sockets. However, upon arriving, I realized that the converter's prongs are compatible with German sockets, but this makes no difference because Mitteleuropean sockets are also recessed into the wall in such a way that the converter cannot fit (this is as clear as I can make the explanation, I'm afraid--imagine me trying to get this across in German). So I went to a store to buy a German adapter for my camera battery, shelled out nine damn euros for a whole set of euro adapters because they don't sell them separately (now I can adapt American plugs from the Faroe Islands to Serbia!), and brought the bastard home to find that it STILL DIDN'T FIT. Much swearing and general ranting ensued, but at the end of said rant I just had to head back to the electronics store and tell the guy the problem. He was nice, said he could fix the adapter, and told me I should come back the next day. When I did, the adapter was fixed, just as he said it would be, and then told me I had to pay four extra euros for the labor. Hopefully this guy didn't understand English well, or at least English obscenities, because I let loose with more than a few, then forked over the additional cash. Finally, I toted the accursed adapter back home, plugged it into the wall, got out my battery charger, and--you've certainly guessed it by now--the mofo still did. not. fit. At this point, I was beyond swearing and the like, and simply set the whole issue aside with a vow to return to the store tomorrow to revisit it then. On the good side, though, while my camera battery remains dead, I have been able to practice my german with the good, non-english-speaking people at the electronics shop, and have learned invaluable terms like "Stucker" (plug) and "Reisadapter" (current converter/adapter). Inconvenience is the mother of sprachenlernen.

Itinerariat 5/10 through 5/24

Querido readership grande:

Because this blog is in part a record of the time I am spending here, I thought it would be helpful (for my purposes, anyway) to have one post just list the main events in the past few days. Travel is great but as with normal life it's easy to let the days slip from memory if there's no written record. And unlike with normal life, these are days I'd really like to remember. Thus:

5/10: Depart DCA, struggle to sleep on plane despite use of sleep mask and earplugs. When did airlines depart from policy of free drinks on international flights?

5/11: Arrive Schipol/Amsterdam bescummed by lack of sleep and eight hours on crappy USAir flight. Struggle to avoid sleeping throughout day in effort to avoid jet lag. With aid of caffeine and various brushes with death (see near-collision with bike, below), am successful. S makes delicious, if ersatz, pad thai.

5/12: Re-visit Amsterdam for first time since October 2003. Is much as I left it. Amsterdam Historical Museum surprisingly rocks. Old faves Wagamama and Benjamin Falafel do not disappoint.

5/13: Linger in Hague, practice German. Visit S at ICTY, then attend party given by S co-worker at ct. Drink Hoegaarden and converse with Czech guy who tells me much useful information about CR that I fail to remember. Dinner at sushi restaurant in Scheveningen. Japanese people speaking Dutch? They should rename it Crazyningen.

5/14: Arrive Amsterdam, wander streets of city early in AM, then succumb to fatigue and sleep in afternoon. Before day ends, more wandering and dinner at Wagamama. Visit to Dampkring, now famous thanks to appearance in Ocean's 12. Struggles to sleep lead to watching way too much darts on Eurosport.

5/15: Vitesse v. Ajax in Arnhem. Expensive but victorious daytrip. Also see La Mar Adentro, in original Spanish with Dutch subtitles. Comprehension: 60%. Damned Galician accents. Also, more Wagamama.

5/16: Obscenely early trip to Berlin, arrival at Krausnickstraße. Meet with J for quick tour of major city sights--Brandenburger Tor, Unter den Linden, Reichstag, Tiergarten, Tower of Victory, Potsdamer Platz, Holocaust Memorial--and dinner at delicious Thai restaurant where I embarrass J by eating rudely (was starving).

5/17: Begin German class, am not outclassed as feared. Relief at this is so strong that after class and delicious falafel, I end up sleeping for hours in afternoon. For dinner, find American hot dog stand that I saw w/J previous night. Hot dogs not, as promised, as good as in USA. Day lost, sadly.

5/18: German class, fantastic falafel-und-schawarmateller, then massive Berlin wall tour. Visit to first museum (Documentzentrum?) interrupted by strange attack of dehydration so severe that I leave museum and spend frustrating half hour unsuccessfully searching for store to sell water. Finally succeed and return to museum, which has fantastic contemporaneous evidence documenting Berlin wall period (photos, movies, etc.). Then across town to part of Berlin wall near Stadtmitte and Haus am Checkpoint Charlie. Latter is also great, though for different reasons: is devoted to strange ways people tried to escape DDR (in boats, car trunks, large appliances). Finish up by going to dinner at Irish bar and watching UEFA Cup final, about which the less said the better.

5/19: German class, then visit to spectacular Pergamonmuseum. Not so many items because all are so monumental that they take up too much space. Love classical pieces and end up taking far too many photos. Free audioguides rule. Find man selling the best diet coke I've ever had (probably b/c deprivation).

5/20: German class, then visit Altes Neumuseum, also on Museuminsel. Great paintings and sculpture from 18th and 19th c. More pix (esp of impressionist and expressionist stuff) but am dogged by annoying school tour. Dinner w/J at Henne for delicious fried chicken and berliner beer. Afterward, visit Turkish bakery for pastries (also delicious) and then run into trashed Americans (who ask "Parlez-vous Anglais?"), with whom we go to floating bar on canal. Drunk Americans buy drinks, talk politics, deprecate homeland.

5/21: Awake with horrible horrible cold! Despite illness, go to Deutsches Historischmuseum, which is pretty great though not as good as some of the others b/c is only rotating exhibits. One on 1945 is fantastic, others meh. Also attend Hertha game (see below), and get healthy vegetarian soup and salad on way home. Am too exhausted by illness and long day to do anything more.

5/22: Despite illness, travel to Potsdam to visit park sansouci. Spectacular grounds and buildings built by Frederick the great of prussia. The Neues Paleis is breathtaking in size and scope, the Schloss Sansouci more interesting historically (room where Fred. died, and where Voltaire slept). Park itself a marvel and full of astonishingly beautiful buildings. Sun comes out during visit and I walk to train station through park and town center, where I buy freshly squeezed OJ and a Bratwurst. Utter yum. Only black mark on day is annoying train incident (see "Travel Tribulations," above). Doner kebap at Shark Doner for dinner.

5/23: German class, lunch at cool bagel place around corner from Tandem where I read lots of CE book (WWI period). Then had to run annoying errands (again, see "Travel Tribulations," above), including visit to Ostbahnhof where I learned that making international train travel reservations requires at least 45min wait at most times. Finally, got to Jewish museum, which was great and strange. The whole place is built at odd angles which seems fitting to me because the whole idea of antisemitism and the extremes to which it has been taken just seem bizarre.

5/24: German class, lunch at Intersoup (thai soup with wontons) sitting outside in sun on Prenzlburg side street. Much blogging, plan-making, phone-talking. Saw Aggasi lose terribly in first round of french open. Bought paperback of The Corrections for when I want to vary history with lit. Dinner at Italian restaurant (pizza mediocre in absolute terms but I was really hungry for pizza so tasted better than it actually was).

Dear Canadian travelers:

We get it. You're from Canada. What was the tip-off? Tough to say. It could have been the maple-leaf flags on every conceivable piece of your luggage, the caps and shirts self-identifying you as denizens of the great white north, or even the conspicuously displayed Air Canada luggage tags. Somehow, all this gives the veeery subtle impression that you are, in fact, from Canada.

Or, perhaps more accurately, that you're not from America (a usage at which Canadians would doubtlessly bristle, but "America" is a perfectly accurate way to refer to the U.S., for reasons that I have neither the time nor the desire to go into here). And perhaps this is what gets under my skin about the Canucks' compulsive self-identification.

In one sense, it's just about cultural inferiority. Canadians don't like to be confused with Americans for the same reasons that Portuguese don't like to be confused with Spanish, or Ukranians with Russians, or Austrians with Germans. The former cultures have historically lived in the shadow of the latter ones, and they want to distinguish themselves in order to emphasize their difference (notice I did not say "distinctiveness").

But I don't think that alone explains the utter profusion of Maple-leaf regalia that I've seen our Canadian friends wearing around the city. The overkill seems designed to forestall any chance that they might be confused with US-siders, as though any such misunderstanding would cause them to melt into pools of icy-cold water, or perhaps into delicious Labatt's beer. But the vehemence with which the Canadians self-identify reflects the unhappy but incontrovertible fact that these days it kind of sucks to be from America. Our government is run by religious conservative wackos and imperialistic neocons who are a terror to the rest of the world and an embarrassment to many of us who come from the US (and probably the vast majority of those who would be inclined to travel abroad). I haven't had to defend America much so far, but perhaps that's because I've been so voluble about how much I think the current government there sucks. At the very least, it's no treat to be an American abroad these days. I wish I were currently proud enough of my country that I wanted to plaster its flag all over my belongings, but I have to reluctantly concede that if I were Canadian, I'd probably make every effort to make it clear that I was non-American too.

Hertha BSC 0:0 Hannover 96

Yes, broad readership, it's another post about a soccer game. But insofar as I attend these events in large parts as windows on the local culture, this one was a major success (despite dull-seeming scoreline). Viz.,

Some games are memorable because they're great games; i.e., there are seven goals and the home team wins with a dramatic injury-time tally. Other games, however, are memorable irrespective of the quality of the play or the drama they may contain. These games are important because they matter. An obvious example from the American perspective is the seventh game of the world series. It could be a real snoozer of a contest, but because so much hangs on it, each moment seems fraught with tension.

The game I attended this Saturday between Hertha BSC (Berliner Sport Club) and Hannover 96 (in reference to 1896, when Hannover's professional soccer club was founded) was one of the latter. Though Berlin is the largest city in Germany, it's always been the weak sister in terms of soccer. The real powerhouses are to the south (Bayern Munich, VfB Stuttgart) and in the industrial west (Bayer Leverkusen, Borussia Dortmund), and Hertha rarely accomplishes much. In a sense, this season was unexceptional: Bayern Munich (the NY Yankees of the German Bundesliga) sewed up the league championship with weeks to go, leaving little suspense on that front. However, Hertha had a good season and was in the running for a Champions League spot as the Hannover game approached.

(Brief aside: in addition to league play, European soccer clubs compete in international competitions where the top finishers in the domestic leagues from the previous year vie for the title of pan-European champion. Competing in the Champions League means enormous prestige, not to mention loads of cash, for the teams who qualify for a spot. There is also a second-tier Europe-wide international club competition, the UEFA Cup, in which the second-tier teams from each of the domestic leagues compete for a less prestigious trophy.)

The math was simple: if VfB Stuttgart lost, then Hertha needed only a win to qualify for the Champs League. Upon arriving at the game on Saturday, the first part of the equation was already falling into place, as Stuttgart went down two goals early to Bayern Munich. The atmosphere at Berlin's Olympiastadion was thus at a fever pitch (shameless borrowing from Nick Hornby, I know). Here I realize I'm sounding like a classic Europhile soccer snob, but there's simply nothing to compare with it in American sports culture. 75,000 people in the stadium (the same Berlin Olympiastadion built for the '36 Olympics where Jesse Owens showed up Hitler), of whom at least 20,000 are in the north end, all decked out in blue-and-white (team colors), singing at deafening volume, and waving huge flags. (Their counterparts, the Hannover supporters, numbered several thousand, and represented themselves well, at times making themselves audible over the pro-Berlin din.) The crowd was doubtlessly amped up also by the pregame promotion, "eins, zwei, drei, bier" in which the team expressed their appreciation to the supporters by flooding them with free booze.

When the game started, there seemed to be a sense of inevitability about the result. With that much energy behind them, the only question seemed to be how many goals Hertha would hang on Hannover. And throughout the first half, things went largely according to plan: Hertha poured forward, attacking the Hannover goal from the right flank again and again, and went close to scoring countless times. But when the halftime whistle blew, no goals for either team. The halftime atmosphere was still jubilant and the Harlekins Berlin (Hertha supporters) cheered the team back on the pitch in great voice. The first fifteen or so minutes of the second half saw a flurry of Hertha chances: Yildiray Basturk and the Brazilian #10 Marcelinho each had the ball fall to their feet in front of goal in what seemed like unmissable chances, yet when it appeared harder to score than to miss, they still put their shots wide, if by inches. The game continued scoreless into the last few minutes, when Hertha sent all their players forward and simply battered the Hannover goal with shots, again creating the sense that the goal to secure the Champions League was inevitable.

And then the ref blew the whistle, and the game ended, 0-0. With the tie, Hertha missed out on Champions League play and its concomitant money and prestige, and ended up instead with a spot in the UEFA Cup--the international club competition that most elite teams regard more as a chore than a privilege to play in. All of a sudden, the 75,000 went quiet (though there were a few jeering whistles), but after a few moments blue and white confetti rained down from the rafters and the loudspeaker began to play triumphant music. And no one left. They just stood there, dead quiet in their disappointment, looking out at the players, most of whom lay on the pitch out of sadness or fatigue or both. Then, slowly, slowly, the coach and owners came over to salute the fans, and after a pause, received polite applause. The rest of the coaching staff picked the players up off the ground and succeeded in convincing them to run a lap around the field waving to the fans, and as they did, it was clear that some of them were still crying.

The trip back to the stadium was similarly downcast. On the U-Bahn, I stood near a man who embodied team loyalty in all its absurd loss of perspective. This was a middle-aged man with a salt-and-pepper crew cut and rat-tail who wore a white jacket that was covered with patches commemorating his first love (Hertha BSC) as well as various other teams he had either visited (Bundesliga teams as well as ones from England, France, Spain) and Hertha's rivals (e.g., Werder Bremen; he had drawn a big black X through them). Easily the most pathetic part (as in pathos-inducing, not meant pejoratively) of the get up was that he carried with him a stuffed animal replica of the team's mascot, Kapt'n Blaubär (a blue and white bear; bears are the emblematic animal of Berlin) that had a little horn that you could squeeze to make a noise to celebrate Hertha goals and victories. Even outside the S-Bahn station, on the other side of the city from the Olympiastadion, things continued in the same vein. There was a bum shouting something over and over again; as I listened it became clear that what he was saying was "nul-nul" (the score of the game, 0-0), and as people passed by him they shook their heads and laughed ruefully.

Tough luck for them, but as an outside observer it was all the same to me. I was there in large part to see Steve Cherundolo, the American right-back who plays for Hannover, and while I'm certainly biased, I was utterly impressed at how well he played. It's often hard to rate defenders. With a forward, the performance is easier to measure. They have chances, they take or miss them. With defenders, there are no objective benchmarks against withc to measure their play. Despite that, however, there was no missing that 'Dolo had an excellent game. To the extent that Hertha attacked down the left, he was a constant thorn in their side, winning balls, executing clean tackles, and dribbling out of trouble. He also drew the only yellow card of the game when he won a ball and was rewarded with an overzealous tackle from the Hertha player whose pocket he had picked. More often than not, however, Hertha attacked down the right, which is a testament to the respect they had for 'Dolo's game. On the few occasions that 'Dolo pressed forward, he did well, including drawing the foul that led to Hannover's best chance of the second half (free kick leading to a great opportunity at the top of the box that the Hannover forward--some big bald brute--skied over the crossbar). I never rated Steve that highly until recently, but he may well be our best defender at the moment.

Friday, May 20, 2005

Berlin daze

Oh the things I do for you, broad readership. It may seem like the traveling life is all meeting celebrity supermodels and dining at the finest rotating restaurants Europe has to offer, but my committment to keeping you all apprised of my various doings is not, as the Frenchies say, le picnic. I have to tussle with grouchy Internet cafe owners who feign total failure to understand my burgeoning German; porno-viewing, chain-smoking youths in neighboring terminals; and--worst of all--dyslexic Teutonic keyboards where nothing is where it should be. You want a semicolon? Well, that button´s an Ö. Interested in a simple, humble en-dash? Well, you´ve got a ß, mister. And most irritating of all, the Z and Y are transposed, apparently for no other reason than to cause me endless deletions and to break out into various multilingual swears. But as the oracularly wise Bryan Adams once sang, everything I do, broad readership, I do it for zou.

But enough self-puffery. You know I´m a stand up guy. "What of Berlin," you´re doubtlessly shouting at the computer screen, red-faced with anticipation, spittle-mouthed with incoherent rage. First, easy! Alles in ordung ist. Second, ah Berlin. What have the poets callèd ye? So many sobriquets. City of Lights. The Venice of the North. The Pride of Austria. The Jewel on the Rhine. All I can offer ye, broad readership, is a series of impressions, all of which, when taken in their totality, may add up to a fraction of the greatness that is . . . . Ah screw it. I´m too tired to force a narrative structure.

==Closest American analog: definitely New York. This is a grey city with some awe-inspiring museums and a few great if ragged public parks, packed with hipsters, very much a modern urban place (not, for example, the quaint throwback to another century that Amsterdam or (I suspect) Salzburg are). And the people are largely black-wearing hipsters and the like. Thus I fit right in and am frequently stopped on the street by German tourists from outside Berlin to ask directions, whereupon I am forced to admit ("Ich verstehe nicht," or roughly, "I got nothin'"), which invariably causes the rural questioners to break out into peals of laughter. Related: I'm not sure why they think it´s amusing that I cannot speak German. Inconvenient, surprising, even offensive I could understand, but funny? No way. On the other hand, this is the country that gave us Lederhosen and Kraftwerk, so perhaps the cultural gap is simply too big for me to get my head around.
==I´m not anything like nostalgic for home, but when I get back to the states I´m going to order the biggest, most refillable coke I can find and drain the mofo over and over again. Cause over here, even the smallest bottle of diet Coke is sold at extortionate prices. It´s as expensive--or more--than beer, and in some cases when you order it the server will draw it with great care and attention like a Guinness, making sure there´s just the right amount of foam and taking several minutes to do it. I appreciate the attention to detail but I´d appreciate it a lot more if it didn´t cost 3.50 euros for a reasonably sized caffeinated American beverage.
==Pedestrians be warned: Berliners love their dogs, but they´re really not such fans of cleaning up their shite. Either that or crapping on the streets is currently the style of the time. Yeah, Berlin is definitely not winning "Europe's cleanest city" anytime soon.
==The food is damned good here as long as you just make sure you don´t eat anything native. So far I´ve had great Thai, Middle Eastern, Italian, and American food (just some hot dogs), but have steered clear of the wiener schnitzel and wursts that call this country home. Don´t worry, I´m working up to it and will update you when appropriate and when I think my damned irritable tum can handle that much fried, breaded meat.
==Finally, what am I doing here in addition to negotiating the language class and avoiding anything like local food? Long story short, I´ve been trying to make some kind of dent in this city´s dizzying array of museums. About which more later. Now, am off to try a fried chicken restaurant recommended by a foodie friend. Auf wiedersehen, B.R.

Thursday, May 19, 2005

Hour of Babel

On Tuesday I began my language class. This had been for some time a source of some concern to me, as the good people at the Tandem Sprachschule told me that since I was only enrolling for two weeks, I´d have to join a class in progress, and if it was too far advanced for me, then tough titties, amigo (loose translation--my German is still very rudimentary). I had prepared for this by reading a book about German and by taking a CD-ROM based course, but as the former turned out to be targeted at customers for whom the "for dummies" series is too advanced, and the latter focused inexplicably on learning the names of various kinds of livestock, my confidence in being able to follow the class was not high.

As things turned out, this concern was misplaced. The class is, if anything, covering material that I already understand, though listening to the teacher speak in German for several hours and occasionally being forced to speak myself is truly invaluable. And the composition of the class is a really interesting international mix--there are folks from Italy, Brazil, Colombia, Pakistan, Israel, Slovakia, Japan, and the sweet sweet Vereinigten Staaten (USA! USA!).

This is not to say, however, that I have anything approaching proficiency in German. On the contrary, on the first day in particular, the various languages I had studied seemed to get mixed up as I tended to substitute any foreign word for the one sought in German, apparently on the theory that it´s more impressive to make a mistake in a foreign language than in one´s native tongue. Though this was usually just mystifying to everyone ("Ich vengo des Etats-Unis, alsjeblieft."), it had the unexpected and fortunate effect of impressing the instructor altogether by accident. Asked how I like Berlin ("Wie gefällt dir Berlin?"), I responded with the obvious rejoinder that I do like it, then added, inanely, "sí" just to give some Latin flava. But upon hearing me utter the non-sentence "Es gefällt mir sí," the (non-Spanish speaking) instructor heard "Es gefällt mir sehr" ("I like it a lot.") , and took the opportunity to introduce to the class the new grammatical wrinkle that I had unwittingly introduced.

The lesson, broad readership, is that the local phrase "klar oder kaos" ("clear or chaos?") presents a false opposition. One man´s chaos is another man´s clarity. And with that deep philosophical insight, I bid ye good night.

Der Uppcatching

Yes, I admit it, broad readership, I am behind on my posting. I´ve heard your complaints and have in most cases responded with consoling responses and, where appropriate, referrals to the nearest suicide-prevention hotline (including the local branch at which I used to volunteer until I was told that "yeah, that is a pretty good reason to off yourself" doesn´t count as counseling). But fear not and dry your tears--ich bin hier.

Easily the most ambitious part of my europlan thus far was my decision to take the early train on Monday AM from Amsterdam to Berlin. Apart from the fact that I only recently learned that there was a 7.00 in the morning, the way things turned out I was forced to traverse the entire city center of Amsterdam on foot in 15 minutes (the journey typically requires at least 40min) carrying my efficiently packed but awkward duffel bag. I managed to catch the train minutes before it left the station, where I collapsed into exhausted, undignified sleep, only to be awakened minutes later by a Dutch ticket taker who refused to believe that anyone in my state was legitimately in a first class cabin (the discounted train pass I purchased requires first class travel, for complicated and uninteresting reasons). I doubt that he was convinced by my halting attempt to justify myself in Dutch, but my mangling of his mother tongue seemed a painful enough experience for him that he simply walked away. I re-passed out and spend the rest of my rail journey into the great Central European plain drooling on the fine Corinthian leather seats, much to the polite dismay of the elderly Dutch couple who had the misfortune to share my compartment.

Also successful was my negotiation of the journey from Berlin Ostbahnhof to the apartment that I´m currently staying in. After U-Bahning to Friedrichstraße, I exited and walked the rest of the way, again carrying aforementioned bag and sweating not unprofusely. My exhausted sweatiness was the first thing to greet Petra, the very nice lady who owns the apartment in which I´m staying. The apartment, for what it´s worth, kicks ass. It´s located right in the Mitte (city center) and they´ve let me stay in the largest room in the apt, which has table, couch, several windows etc.

Petra´s english is good enough that it is our default language, though she typically attempts to speak to me in German for practice. Thus our conversations can go on forever based on a single attempted expression. I.e., she utters a simple sentence, I indicate total lack of understanding, and she breaks it down for me as I question her about various words. Her patience and aplomb in this regard are impressive. This was particularly true as I introduced the first note of utter awkwardness soon after arriving. Petra was explaining to me the Berlin public transport system and kept using the word "Anschluss" (meaning "addition"). In an attempt to demonstrate some sort of understanding, I noted that I seemed to recall the word because it had some historical signficance. She shook her head, and then I remembered and blurted out with much self-satisfaction, "Right! Anschluss is what it was called when Hitler annexed Austria!" The mention of Hitler here is about as socially welcome as letting rip an odiferous belch in a crowded restaurant (I now really regret doing that too), and there was a moment of deadly, Mexican-standoff silence before Petra let it pass and kept telling me about the S-Bahn. Thus, minutes DF since DF´s arrival in Berlin--20; Hitler references--1. In all honesty, broad readership, I thought the ratio would be much worse.

Tuesday, May 17, 2005

Vitesse 0:2 Ajax

Warning: the subsequent post may well be (read: will be) largely opaque and uninteresting to you unless you have some interest in the soccer (or the "football" or the "Fußball"--the last of which options I included just because I love doing the ß-dealie with the German keyboards).

So the broad readership certainly knows by this point that I have an unhealthy and difficult to explain obsession with the aforementioned sport. When pressed to explain, I´m typically at a loss--I never played it as a youth and had no real reason to pick it as the obsession du jour. But at least one way in which I might make sense of it is that it´s a window onto foreign cultures in which I´m interested. Thus when traveling I´ve always made a point to go see a soccer match if possible as something approaching an authentic experience of the local culture.

No exception this visit, hence a couple days ago (yes, I am behind on my posts) I traveled way the hell out of my way (hour train ride from Amsterdam to Arnhem in northern Holland) to see a late-season game between Ajax of Amsterdam (the Dutch equivalent of the Yankees, especially insofar as they´re currently in the midst of a disappointing season) and the local team, Vitesse Arnhem (no clue why they adopted a French word for their team).

The journey itself must rate among my greatest (ie most efficient, least problematic) travel triumphs. I managed to negotiate the Amsterdam-Arnhem journey without trouble, then wandered almost by accident onto a bus that happened to be the express to the stadium (the bus driver did not charge me, perhaps in an attempt to prevent me from making any further attempts to speak to her in Dutch), was deposited in front of the door to the ticketing booth, which I entered to find the very woman with whom I had corresponded about purchasing a ticket, wandered into the nearest entrance which happened to be the exact one that corresponded to my seat, and with much pointing and gesticulating and a briefly unsettling run-in with the local police (they only wanted to search my bag, but with my growing arrest record you can understand my trepidation), managed to find my seat. It was, grossly, adorned with an enormous piece of bird shite, but that merely provided an extra use for my game program. Plus, there are cultures in which the shitting birds are supposed to be good luck.

The game itself was totally gripping for me, which means it was probably only average for the observer for whom the experience lacked novelty. The first half was dour and chippy (i.e., lots of fouls--Britishisms are inevitable when most of the soccer reports one reads are by Brits), with Vitesse carving out more of the chances. They went close twice from free kicks, hitting the crossbar on one occasion. Ajax came on more in the second half, finally opening the scoring with a header off a free kick. And when Vitesse missed a penalty, they wilted and that pretty much ended the contest. Ajax´s number 10, Rafael van der Vaart, scored a nice goal late and things finished 2-0 to Ajax.

So in order to rescue this post for those of you who aren´t fans of the soccer, a few of the anthropological notes that I took down while there:
==Until Sunday, I had labored under the misonception that there are no Dutch yobs (or, less politely, hicks). I´d really only ever been in Amsterdam, and everyone there seemed kind of slick and urban, and I somehow formed the impression that the entire country was urbane. On Sunday, in remote Arnhem, I realized: not so. Holland has as high a percentage of beer-swilling, obscenity-shouting, ass-scratching, odiferous-burp-belching jackasses as any country. So I felt very much at home.
==The whole thing you may well have heard about soccer violence (from ESPN) or Europe´s unparalleled passion for sport (from any europhile soccer fan) is both true and false. The majority of fans at Sunday´s game were no different than fans at any sporting event you might have seen in the states: mildly interested on average, particularly attentive when something of consequence transpired, but more or less just kind of there. The game opened with an attempt at grand spectacle: a group of guys ran around the field waving enormous Vitesse flags as speakers blared the "O Fortuna" chorus. I got what they were going for--majesty, intensity, passion--but as the actual game was just a meaningless late-season contest between two teams from one of Europe´s better (though not its best) leagues, it seemed kind of lame.
On the other hand, the real hardcore fans, who sit behind the goals and stand and sing the whole game, blow away anything I´ve seen in a US sport (college football comes the closest, but it´s still not quite there). The Vitesse fans started singing (screaming is really a more accurate word) their songs early on, and despite being on the losing side, they only got louder by the end of the game and when the final whistle blew, they were actually kinda deafening. God knows what they would have done if their team had won. The Ajax fans, for their part, spent the entire game in this big cage, surrounded by a LOT of police. It was impressive but being caged in for two hours doesn´t really strike me as a fun way to spend an afternoon.
==You know how food at American sports stadiums sucks? It is absolute manna from friggin´heaven compared to the shite they shovel in Holland. In lieu of taking a chance on a mystery-meat croquette, I decided to go for vlaamse frites (french fries). They arrived, true to Pulp Fiction, slathered in mayo, and I ate them because I was starving. This was a mistake, as my poor overworked stomach is still letting me know.

Ah, so much more to blog on about but it grows late and I grow weary of tussling with this confusing Germanic keyboard. More soon, I promise ye broad readership.

Sunday, May 15, 2005

Amsterdam redux

The conspiracy to rob me of sleep continues. The latest culprit: our globe. You know the one; we walk around on it daily, occasionally see it from above (usually accompanied by tearful commentary by a patriotic, awe-struck astronaut), but we don't really think about it and we certainly don't know what it thinks of us. Point being, Amsterdam is far north enough that the tilt of the globe or the hemispheric dissonance in the atmosphere or some other climatic phenomenon I don't really understand means that the nights here are disorientingly (or, for you Brits, "disorientatingly") short. Last night I realized it was still fully light out, looked at my watch to check the time and was appalled (and not a little enraged) to find that it was almost ten at night. Damned hard to sleep when it's bright as day out at such a late hour. I had always thought that there was a global conspiracy to prevent me from getting decent sleep. Now I realize that the globe itself is orchestrating it.

So one of the things I did while waiting for the sleep pixies to visit last night was flip around on the tv in my room, expecting that I'd find loads of soccer shows on the sports channels. In fact I did not, but discovered to my dismay that the newest, hottest Eurosport is...darts. Yes, that game you play at a bar when you're bored with the company you keep and are willing to engage even in a dull game involving minimal skill just to pass the time. Not only is darts popular and televised, but there are apparently darts stars who dominate the sport (several of whom are Dutch, which might explain why the sport is all over the TV here). It appears that in order to be a player on the darts circuit, outrageously bad facial hair is a must. All that said, I watched the whole damned show (it seemed likely to put me to sleep), so in case you're wondering the guy with the handlebar moustache just edged the dude with the Grizzly Adams beard on his final throw (or fling, or hurl, or whatever).

Saturday, May 14, 2005

Overheard on a train

I'm traveling from the Hague to Amsterdam and a bunch of college-age American dudes get on at Schiphol airport. The conversation ranged over a variety of topics--how much pot you can carry in Amsterdam, the various ways in which Bush sucks, which Holy Roman Emperor's religious reforms were most enlightened, etc.--and so loud that I couldn't have ignored it had I tried. My fave moment was one young sage's observation about the Dutch language. He said, with deep feeling, "So I saw the Dutch word for temperature, and it was like, three words. That's just wrong. I mean, just tell me how hot it is. You know, like 'it's hella hot.' That's all we need. The rest is just, like, confusing."

It was almost enough to make me want to stop chanting "USA." Almost.

Thursday, May 12, 2005

Glorious arrival

Goede mittag van Amsterdam, broad readership!

I am sorry for keeping you all waiting for so long to hear confirmation of my safe and glorious arrival in this fair city, but rest assured that I have in fact arriven and all is well.

Things began auspciously, as my experience with international travel immediately reaped benefits. Upon checking in for my flight well ahead of time, I was provided with a complimentary upgrade from coach class to the much-coveted colicky baby section of the plane. Learn well, travel novices: foresight has its privileges.

And while I am in Amsterdam at present, my current base of operations, militaristically speaking, is the Hague, or den Haag in Dutch (which is actually a contraction of the Nederlandse 's Gravenhage, in case you wanted even more pedantic background info). The Hague is normally a sleepy town, but at the momentje there's big haps afoot: the trial of Slobodan Milosevic for crimes against humanity. I had wanted to go to the Palace of Justice to see some of the proceedings myself (I'm told they are particularly entertaining because Slobo, as he is affectionately known around town, is defending himself with unsurprising megalomanicacal fervor). Unfortunately, the trial is suspended this week, which is lucky for Milosevic. I was really hoping to give him a piece of my mind. The permissive secular-humanist moral relativism may be all de stijl in Europa, but I've got the balls to go out on a limb and take the kind of strong, unorthodox opinion on this matter that the broad readership has come to expect from this site: genocide is wrong.

For whatever reason--long-dormant synapses firing, study of cognate-rich German--my ability to communicate in Dutch has improved. Now I can make simple requests in the native tongue (e.g., "I would like one return ticket to Amsterdam, please."). Unfortunately, however, this means that I know just enough to really expose how little I know, because upon my asking a question in Dutch, the native to whom I have spoken invariably comes back with "[unintelligible]", at which point I am forced to say "I speak no Dutch," and am given the universal "you ignorant American" head-shake of disgust.

The goed and schlecht of the day:
==Goed: the Amsterdam Historical Museum, which I had for some reason overlooked on previous visits, isn't just goed, it's groot. This opinion will hardly surprise anyone who knows of my twin fascinations with Amsterdam and history, but still, wow. I spent three hours there and I'm the same person who thought the Louvre rated a half-hour, tops.
==Schlecht: visiting the aforementioned museum at the same time as a school group of hyperactive Dutch pre-teens is not so great. Also disturbing was the realization that thirteen-year-olds in this country of giants are on average about as tall as I am. And that's just the girls.

Some helpful euro-notes:
==If you are in Holland, wander into a bike lane by accident, and notice a fleet of fietsers bearing down on you, one effective way to avoid incident is to emit a high-pitched scream and immediately fall to the ground in the fetal position. However, the pointing and laughing that this behavior will engender among the natives may well be more harmful psychologically than the bike collision would have been physically. I should have just jumped out of the way.
==The next time some Europhile rags on America and cites McDonald's as an example of the cultural vapidity of the US, be sure to reply by telling them they're a big fat hypocrite because the europeeps LOVE the McD's. I am constantly assailed by the salty, savory, greasy smell of McDonald's burgers and fries, and had the misfortune to be sitting across from a native stuffing his face with the aforementioned today on a train. If they're so put off by our culture, why are they scarfing it down, loaded with catsup? Also, USA!! USA!!

Monday, May 09, 2005

Departure eve classic DF: Missive from Amsterdam 2001

On the eve of my departure, I looked back through old emails I sent to friends and loved ones from abroad and thought this one merited re-publication. It's from summer 2001 when I was researching for Let's Go in Amsterdam, and I believe it was written at this place near Centraal Station where they give you free Internet access if you buy a grote bier. I think it's pretty clear to all that as I was writing it I drank more and more of the aforementioned beverage, but I actually think it helped--it got me to the point where I was unselfconscious enough to think and write freely without constantly self-guessing and niggling over tiny details. Booze making one a better writer? Hey, it worked for Hemingway. Until he killed himself. Anyway, here it is, from 18 June 2001:



Let me set the record straight: The rumors you'veheard are entirely false. The man who died of cardiac arrest in Amsterdam while receiving a five-dollar handjob from a surinamese prostitute was not, repeat NOT, DF. Some of you seem to have been particularly convinced that this incident involved me by the fact that the unfortunate deceased was discovered not only in flagrante delicto, but also wearing a t-shirt featuring two orangutans smoking banana-shapedcannabis cigarettes and bearing the slogan "go apeshit in Amsterdam." I think i find the implications aboutmy fashion sense most insulting of all.

in fact, my time here has been remarkably tame. let's go research is grueling, and requires me to conserve what little mental energy and acuity remains in my senescence, thus no intoxicants permitted. this has not, however, prevented me from observing other travelers making use of this city's lax attitude toward various sinful behaviors. ladies, if you're in the market for a heavy-lidded nineteen year old in a hooded sweatshirt and sideways baseball cap who reeks of pot and heineken-tinctured vomitus, i urge you to hop the atlantic and discover a virtual seraglio of manly delights.

myself, i have discovered religion in this land of sin and debauch. my catholic past, so long dormant, has taken seed and flowered into a fiery love for christ jesus, and not long ago i decided, thanks to various vaguely threatening visions from above, to take the cloth and become a man of the lord. (please refrain from pointing out that this is yet another parallel between df's life and saul of tarsus' -- i think the point is rather obvious to all.) i was told that the process of becoming a roman catholic priest requires no less than 7-9 years, thus just beating out a phd program for longest delay of adulthood possible in various postgraduate programs. however, my plans were unfortunately dashed when i was told that while the one true church welcomes reformed junkies and hookers, law graduates are considered too far gone for even the healing light of the holy spirit to work its mysterious transformations.

thus unemployed and unemployable, df continues to wander in amsterdam, a palmy atoll of virtue in the south pacific of sin, assailed by temptations but strong in his commitment to asceticism, ever the vessel of rectitude and quasi-jesuitical perspicacity you may recall from his previous lives in america (or, as the case may be, los angeles).

best wishes to all,


Tuesday, May 03, 2005

Australian aside

So it's been a while since I've posted, and if any members of the broad readership have been wondering why, it's because I'm not yet in Mitteleuropa and don't have anything interesting to report. That's not to say that I couldn't have recounted my trip to REI to purchase various necessities (among them "travel underwear" that you can--apparently--wash nightly and wear every day; this may rate future comment, as yet it's merely a great experiment), but I think the discerning readers of this blog have come to expect a higher standard. Daily trivia no, big events and ideas yes.

But I don't want you all to starve for lack of DF blogtastic rumination, so I've decided to kill two birds with one stone and print here a piece I wrote for a collection of essays by former Let's Go writers. The collection was never actually published, so this way I get to fill blogspace and also get this bit into print. This is the first (actually, only) version I sent to the woman who was in charge of the project, and so it lacks much in the way of editing. I also had a hell of a time finding a good way to end, and this conclusion strikes me as a little too treacly/sentimental for my tastes but what the hell. Enough apologia, here is:


I doubt any other Let’s Go researcher arrived in their destination with more, or less, experience than I brought to Melbourne, Australia, in the summer of 1998. I had worked for Let’s Go before then in almost every possible capacity—associate editor, managing editor, map guide editor, and (to alleviate post-college-graduation unemployment) receptionist—yet during that whole time never actually traveled to a foreign country on the company’s dime. In fact, despite spending several years training, advising, consoling, and holding myself out as a travel guru to tens of researchers, my international travel resume was embarrassingly meager. It consisted two trips to Vancouver (which seemed exactly like America but with different currency) and one to Cancun (which seemed exactly like America but with different currency and more people yelling “Spring break”). Spending summers in Cambridge editing the work of various globe-trotting researchers was a far better job than any history major with neither marketable skills nor discernible ambition had reason to expect, but constantly hearing about my researchers’ exploits abroad left me with a terminal case of wanderlust. Years after graduating from college, I decided to return for graduate school and realized I was once again eligible to work at Let’s Go. I immediately reneged on the various other commitments I had – including a contract to write part of a New England guide for different travel series –and hopped a plane to Australia.

My work as an editor had left me without the commonly-held illusion among first-time Let’s Go-ers that working as a researcher-writer would be the equivalent of a paid vacation, but it was not until a few days on the road that I realized how truly hard the job was going to be. My first several days passed at the psychotically frenetic pace that, I was beginning to realize, represented the minimum necessary effort to execute my itinerary well. (Which is not to say that all researchers do the job well, or even at all—some tire and end up doing only the half-assed effort sufficient to avoid a punitive pay cut (known as “getting docked”), while some find themselves overwhelmed and overtired and just quit (known as “bagging”)). Because the writer covering my beat for the previous, first edition of my section of the guide had largely bagged, the guide made a scandalously brief mention of Melbourne, Australia’s second great metropolis, and my editors had arranged for me to spend half of my six-week itinerary rehabilitating the coverage of the city. That left me about three weeks to cover the mountains, desert, river- and oceanside regions of the state of Victoria, with detours west through the wine country of South Australia and north into the old mining outpost of Broken Hill in New South Wales. And I had to navigate it all while driving on the wrong side of the road (a feat that seemed easy at first, when I was concentrating, but proved harder when I stopped paying attention—I nearly caused a grisly multi-car pileup in Mildura when I turned left into the wrong lane and straight into oncoming traffic, which scattered as I senselessly shouted “I’m an American” as loudly as possible).

On the fourth day of my itinerary, I drove my suspiciously inexpensive rental car into Ararat, a tiny town south of Victoria’s Grampian mountains (the rental car included neither a functional gas nor temperature gauge, and would eventually break down and leave me stranded a few weeks later at the foot of another mountain range). By that time, my primary impression of Australia was that I was very, very tired. In addition to constantly battling jet lag, I was beginning to feel like the victim of a conspiracy to deprive me of anything approaching a decent night’s sleep. On my first night in Australia, I snuck into a youth hostel that was closed for the season, only to find that their heating was closed for the winter as well, and woke at fifteen-minute intervals throughout the night to don another article of clothing as protection against the frigid Victoria winter. I spent the next two nights in rooms above pubs, generously offered by the pubs’ owners, who failed to mention that in both cases their pub was also hosting the town’s only disco that night, which meant that when I could sleep my dreams were punctuated by remorselessly upbeat Spice Girl anthems.

If I had learned anything about Australia thus far, it was that staying in pubs, while cheap, simply would not allow me to get the sleep I really really wanted. In Ararat, the sleep-deprivation conspiracy took a clever turn: it turned out that despite its innocuous-sounding name, the Ararat Hotel not only provided the town’s only accommodation, but also housed its most popular pub. I sighed, booked a room, and left to research the town. It didn’t take long. Ararat merited space on my itinerary primarily to determine if it would make a good base camp for trips to the nearby Grampians; the town’s one claim to fame, such as it is, is “J-ward,” until the early 1990s Victoria’s repository for the criminally insane. Since decommissioned, J-ward now hosts tours that titillate families and schoolchildren with tales of its more infamous inmates. I returned to the hotel-pub and finished writing up my copy, which took me only until late afternoon, which afforded me, I thought, the perfect opportunity to get a quick dinner and an early night of sweet, sweet slumber. I was so very wrong.

What I hadn’t counted on was that the hotel’s front exit took me through its pub, and that while it was Sunday, it was also the Queen’s Birthday, a holiday still celebrated with relish in Australia, if only because it affords one extra weekend day on which to get loaded. The pub was packed with every young or youngish person in Ararat (not more than twenty-five in total), and there was no way they were going to let something as novel as a visitor walk inconspicuously through their number. I tried, making a beeline for the door, but didn’t get very far. “Oi!” numerous Aussie voices called in unison. “Come have a shout with us.” It was more command than invitation.

The “shout” they were referring to is a drinking ritual, endemic to Oz, that serves the dual purpose of enabling mutual generosity among friends and getting everyone really, really drunk. The idea is that one person proffers a “shout” for a group, meaning that he buys them all a drink, usually a beer. The trick is that each member of the group is then obliged to buy a round for the whole group as well. That means that, for example, a shout involving eight folks means consuming eight drinks, with each round drunk off in quick succession (the only saving grace is that each drink is served in a small glass, or “pot,” that is only half the size of a pint at most). My first shout—six or so pots—ended with a quickness, and I assumed that they were just getting a fast start on the night. “When did you guys get here?” I ventured. “Pub opened at eleven,” they explained. It was six-thirty in the evening. I was in way over my head.

My accent quickly gave away that I was from the States, which generated two responses: sincere interest in the oddity of an American in their midst, and utter astonishment that any traveler would want to come to Ararat. When I explained that I was a travel writer, the response was universal: “Why the hell would you want to come here? This place is a shithole!” Eventually, I was corralled by two well-wishers, each of whom introduced me to one of two essential aspects of Victorian culture. The first had a shiny bald head that led me to compare him to the lead singer of the old Aussie band Midnight Oil, and he gave me a primer on the local orthodoxy of beer. I made the mistake of volunteering that I knew an Australian beer, Foster’s. Midnight Oil made a face that for a moment convinced me he was going to projectile vomit. “Oh Christ mate,” he shouted, “Everyone knows Foster’s is piss.” Some people overheard this part of the conversation and nodded in solemn agreement. There were three, he explained, and only three beers to drink: Victoria Bitter, Carlton Draught, and Melbourne Bitter, all of which were known by their initials. Midnight Oil and his crew were CD aficionados; they could tolerate VB if no CD was available (I got the impression that MB was the RC Cola of Victoria beers). Midnight Oil stressed that Victorian beer was indisputably superior to all others (and it was, to be fair, pretty excellent to my taste), but that the rest of the country was not enlightened enough to share this opinion. Just a few hundred miles to the north, in New South Wales, XXXX (“Four-ex”) was the beer of choice.

He shook his head ruefully, at which point Midnight Oil’s mate demanded my attention, a curly-haired fellow wearing the jersey of his favorite Aussie-Rules Football team, the St. Kilda Saints. He took it upon himself to school me in the basics of Aussie-rules, in which, I was told (as I was countless times thereafter), the players wore no helmets and pads like in fey, girlified American football. St Kilda’s summary of the sport’s rules actually did enlighten me, as I appreciated later when I saw games of footy at the Melbourne Cricket Ground. Most important, he stressed, there was one, and only one team to support: St Kilda. He broke into his team’s fight song—“When the Saints Go Marching In”—and when I joined in for several choruses, St. Kilda regarded me with the satisfaction of the successful proselytizer. For the rest of the evening, he would accost me and demand that I tell everyone who my team was; I’d holler back “The Saints!” with no clue why this caused everyone but St K himself to snicker; as I later learned, the St. Kilda Saints are the Cincinnatti Bengals of the Aussie Football League.

The night wore on and it appeared, after nine or so hours at the pub, that the crew was growing tired of their surroundings. They began casting about for an activity. St. Kilda mentioned offhandedly that he and Midnight Oil may well get into a fight later on; no bad blood, he assured me, it was just something to do. Someone else came up with a better idea: we’d all ride out to the countryside in a ute (sports-utility vehicle) and run over kangaroos. I voiced an objection to killing harmless kangaroos for sport, but they had a battery of well-practiced defenses. ‘Roos were overpopulated in the nearby countryside, so they were doing everyone a favor by reducing the surplusage. Plus, running them down in a ute was great sport (as, they insisted, I would soon see), and the animals were just big rodents anyway. “Come on,” they urged diplomatically, “There must be some kind of rodent in the States everyone thinks is just a nuisance.” Seeking common ground, I ventured, “sure there are—squirrels.” A fully non-ironic silence ensued, and the group regarded me with horror. “You cold-blooded bastard,” Midnight Oil muttered, then locked me in a crushing embrace. “Oi,” he pointed at me and shouted at a compatriot across the pub, “here’s a man who hates squirrels!” Midnight Oil’s friend elbowed his way across the pub and shook my hand to congratulate me for my apparent bloodthirstiness. “Bloody brilliant!” he exclaimed, then pointed at the bartender and, to my dismay, demanded that we all share another shout.

No one actually ended up going anywhere. There were shouts and more shouts, and much literal shouting, and eventually a group of folks surrounded me and peppered me with questions about the States, my work, and my impression of Australia. Did I want a personalized tour of Ararat? I did, but time did not permit. That’s okay, they said, the town is a shithole anyway. Did I know that when Joe Montana came to Australia he said an Aussie-rules player was the best footballer he’d ever seen? Nope (meaning that I hadn’t heard that, didn’t believe it, and certainly didn’t think that Joe Montana would refer to anyone as a “footballer”). What did I think of Pauline Hanson? (The leader of Australia’s then-ascendant far-right One Nation Party.) My response—that she seemed like a scary extremist—met with general approval. Did I want to stay at one of their houses instead of the pub? I didn’t, thanks. But this place is a shithole! they objected. (At this I shot a sympathetic look to the pub’s proprietor, who was well within earshot. His look back to me seemed to say, “yeah, actually it kinda is a shithole.”) Had I seen the Simpsons episode set in Australia? I had. How could they get away with making Aussies look so dumb? I had no idea. Was I sure I didn’t want to go ‘roo-killing? Um, yes. Did I want another shout? Oh, lord, no.

The classic Men at Work anthem “Down Under” refers to Australia as a place where “beer does flow and men chunder.” After several hours drinking in the Ararat Hotel, I had no doubt about Oz’s status as a place of freely-flowing beer. Worse, though, I was beginning to realize if I drank too much more of it, I might well illustrate the truth of its status as a place where men chunder as well. I excused myself and made my woozy way up to my room, where I planned to get some water and take a quick rest from the revelry. I sat on my bed, looked around the room and out the window onto what passed as Ararat’s main drag, and said to no one in particular, “I don’t think this place is such a shithole.” The next thing I remember it was seven the next morning—I had slept like the dead for ten hours straight, and exchanged all-consuming fatigue for a blistering hangover. I was delighted. And it was time to get back on the road.

The rest of my time in Victoria followed much the same pattern: I’d spend days alone, frenetically researching, and every so often make the acquaintance of some local or fellow traveler. Some Let’s Go researchers find the experience terribly lonely, but the isolation never bothered me. If anything, the solitude helped frame my sharpest memories of those weeks: hiking through the rough-hewn heights of the Grampians Mountains; driving for hours through eucalyptus-lined highways while listening to tape-delay broadcasts of World Cup soccer matches; visiting twenty-odd Melbourne bars and clubs in a single night; walking to the edge of the Mundi Mundi lookout in the outback north of Broken Hill, where the horizon stretches so far your eye can see the curvature of the earth. And I rarely went more than a few days without encountering some memorable character: a dreadlocked, pacifist hippie at the youth hostel in Bright who tried to break up a post-pub fight and received a broken arm for his trouble; a Danish schooteacher who I gave a ride up to the summit of Mt. Hotham and who spent the whole ride trying to convince me of the value of religion (“Without it, life would be unbearable,” she insisted); the pensioner in Bendigo who outlined, at great length and in painstaking detail, his plan to streamline Australian government (at the end of his presentation, I offered to vote for his plan, though I was not able to vote).

And then, all too quickly, it was time for me to return to the states to start grad school. Even though I tacked on a couple weeks at the end of my itinerary to travel on my own schedule, the time passed like a dream. This really only occurred to me as I waited in Tullamarine Airport for my flight home, staring absentmindedly in the direction of a group of American college girls, teary-eyed at the nearing end of their Australian adventure, who had apparently dealt with their grief by purchasing every stereotypical antipodean souvenir imaginable. In my haste, I realized, I had done just the opposite—failed to pick up any tangible reminders of my time in Oz—nary a stuffed koala or roo, faux-aboriginal boomerang, or statutory didgeridoo. At the time I was concerned that the high-octane pace of travel required by Let’s Go had left me without anything to remember my trip, but I needn’t have been. The intangibles I took away remain with me to this day: a handful of verbal affectations (I still say “no worries”); obscure snootiness about sports and booze (I still follow the St. Kilda Saints some and have yet to find an American bar serving VB, CD, or even MB); and an ocean of antipodean nostalgia for the strange and beautiful country I visited that summer and the strange and lovely people I met there.