Tuesday, July 10, 2007
The Rain, Coffeeshops, the Infamous Hagen, and the Hamburger Hamburger
Internet access has been a bit sparse until now, but I'm pretty sure that - at least for the time being - I'm back in business. I'm currently in Berlin with quite a lot of catching up to do, so let's start at the very best place: the beginning.

We last left our heroine in Amsterdam. No drug jokes, please. After a day of wandering aimlessly and trusting my gut to take me a-wanderin' around the city, I decided to relax an afternoon away sitting in a nearby cafe, indulging in a late lunch and coffee and watching the street performer doing silly things with fire in the square outside. The performer finished up his act just as I was finishing off my rather decadent salade chevre (if there is one thing the Dutch know, it is their fine, fine cuisine) and kaffee (yes, I'm picking up a bit of German along the way too) as I raised my hand to call for the check. Just behind me was a gentleman who had, all this time, been sitting rather quietly. He was old, a bit dishevelled - though not in a scary or intimidating sort of way - and missing most of his teeth, which he later and rather matter-of-factly informed me he had decided not to put in that day.

His name was Peter. He looked to be in about his mid-seventies, which I gauged by way of his stories about World War II. He was German but moved to Amsterdam when the war became serious. Of course, we all know that World War II eventually found its way into Holland. But Peter was still sad and even bitter. He mentioned many times that he could not believe the Dutch would let the Nazis in - which of course was not their choice, but that was his phrasing of it. He was angry over his Jewish business partner who survived the war, but with scars; angry over his house right across from the zoo that was destroyed and burned; angry for his mother who died amongst the inhumanity. In a city of tolerance - one of the things you notice quite easily about Amsterdam - he was against organized religion, having been assaulted by a priest in the parish where he acted as altar boy. Though we often joke about such a cliche, we often forget it is based in a harsh and gritty reality.

I mostly listened, which anyone who knows me will tell you is a miracle, though with a story like his it was not all that hard. We sat as the busboys and waiters hovered. We were taking up two tables and we were both done ordering, but we didn't yield. And after about an hour and a half of conversation, we parted ways. Later, I saw his old house across from the zoo. Though restored, you could still see remnants of what was previously there. Though Peter lives on the other side of town now anyway.

I headed back to the hostel, where I met two of my roomies, Thomas and John. From Norway, they were making their way through Amsterdam one coffeeshop at a time. If you don't know what an Amsterdam coffeeshop is, look it up. And, by the way, on a separate type of coffee shop note, there are NO Starbuckses in Amsterdam. Though I do like to indulge in Starbucks on occasion and they do make a pretty good panini-on-the-go, it was nice for once to drink REAL ESPRESSO. Which will of course be topped only upon my arrival in Italy later this month.

My final day in Amsterdam, I met up with my university chum, Chris, and his sister, Laura. We did the full-fledged walking tour together, which was really fun and nothing if not comprehensive. One of the great things they have now in Europe is called NewEurope Tours. They're free - the guides work only off of tips and they're quite enthusiastic and well-versed. So far, they have them in London, Amsterdam, Berlin, Munich, and Paris. They also have paid tours, though those usually cover a smaller area but in more detail. At the end of a long walking day, we unwound for dinner and I prepared myself to up and out to Germany.

The next morning, I arose early to meet my morning train to Cologne (Koln). It was a rather uneventful trip, but a very unseasonably rainy and cold one. I thought the weather would calm down upon arriving on the Continent though, alas, it was not to be. I followed the directions from the train station to the subway stop at Neumarkt, followed by a tram to Rudolfplatz. I got off the tram and looked around seeing no Engelbertstrasse in sight. Nor were the rest of the directions I was given any clearer. Even after calling the hostel, I could not seem to find the place. After wandering about in the most dismal weather you can imagine, I finally stumbled across Wall Street English. I was familiar with the company because my friend Candy works for them in Beijing.

I would also like to point out at this juncture that in every city I have been to thus far, I have encountered a Wall Street English and a Bang & Olufsen - don't ask me why or how. It's by that same logic that, in every city I travel to, I always land in Chinatown talking to some old Chinese lady in Mandarin about my strange expat life in Laiwu.

Anyway, I told them where I was staying and they didn't even need the address. Turns out I'm not the first non German-speaking foreigner to be unable to locate this place. They need better directions, because the ones they gave me were just wrong. But I did find the place. And though the room was empty upon my arrival, upon my return at the end of a day of Doms and German brew, I met my lovely roommates who I will kindly refer to as the Professor and his son (sorry, no Mary Ann here). They were both professors, in fact, and - outside of those Americans I intentionally met up with - they were the first Americans I had met amidst my travels. We spent the evening chatting about our trips and plans and giving and getting travel advice (in my case, only getting). The senior professor had even taught at the University of Florida (go Gators!) and they seemed excited to have an English-speaking roommate. As it turned out, though very sweet, the lady in the bunk bed underneath me was Austrian, spoke no English, and was a bit crazy. She also kicked in her sleep.

Next, it was off to the beautiful harbor town of Hamburg. Though I had originally planned to take a mid-morning train, I took an earlier one instead. I wanted the extra time in Hamburg, as I would only be spending two days there. As we will later see, this proved to be a not-so-wise decision.

I settled in on the train and got to work on my memoirs. Memoirs? A little early you say? It's NEVER too early. Just kidding. Or am I? Anyway, a couple of stations down the line, I was joined in the seat next to me by a German teacher named Dorothea. She saw me typing in English and she immediately jumped into a rather fluent strain of English, as we did brief introductions and exchanged pleasantries. About a half hour later, we pulled into the now infamous (at least in my story) Hagen Hauptbahnhof. I heard announcements in German, which there usually were, though there were no announcements in English, as there also usually were. I saw a couple of "polizei" go by, though that was hardly strange, and went back to my typing. After about seven minutes, I realized we hadn't moved. For a station as relatively small as the one in Hagen, this was rather odd. When I looked up again, there were police, emergency workers, and firemen all suited up. I turned to Dorothea and asked what was going on. She sighed and said, "oh yes, they've stopped making announcements in English, haven't they?"

As I nodded, she continued, "I think there is someone underneath the train. People often commit suicide this way."

I though about this for a moment. People often commit suicide this way? What kind of a comment is that? But she explained further that they did not know the cause or what exactly had happened - just that someone had ended up beneath the train and they had not yet determined what the people on the train should do.

By this time, the police had cordoned off the area with police tape and some people - those whose destinations were easily reachable on other trains or relatively nearby - had already begun to disembark. Finally, an announcement came on which Dorothea proceeded to translate. We would all have to take a train to Dortmund, another nearby train hub, and from there we would have to join another train to Hamburg. Anyone whose destinations were beyond there would have to take yet another train. Luckily, Hamburg was my last stop, though Dorothea would have to continue on even further. She was kind enough to wait for me and guide me. I must admit, amidst all of my independent travels, it was nice to have someone guiding ME around for a while. Like a puppy, I followed where she led, afraid to get lost in the German jumble of a creek without an English-speaking paddle. English-speaking paddle? Yeah. I'm sticking with it.

Though we had to stand the whole three-and-a-half hour journey (which is exactly why I made reservations in the first place...sigh), I did finally make it to Hamburg, with a brief but grateful goodbye to Dorothea.

Once in Hamburg, travel was easy. I didn't know how to go, but figured I'd give the traveler information area a try before ringing up the hostel itself. I had no directional information about the hostel, knowing only that it was on a street called Lubecker Strasse. And it turns out, that is indeed the name of a subway stop on the main line from the train station, heading northward. I figured, what the heck, right? The day couldn't get much more difficult. The worst part had to have passed. And wouldn't you know it, as I came out of the subway exit at Lubecker Strasse, there it was. Too easy, you say? Yeah, I thought so too.

I get inside, and they tell me they only accept cash. Which is fine. I just need an ATM. And as I'm heading out the door, they also throw in that there is a 50 Euro key deposit. What? Is the key made of diamond-encrusted platinum? So I go, and since I left my umbrella behind, it of course begins to rain. Hard. It's cold and I'm tired, having been on a train that ran over someone and all, and though the guy at the front desk says the ATM is only 40 or 50 meters away, it is most definitely not. Upon reaching the ATM vestibule in the rain, I find the door is locked. Because it's a Saturday afternoon and only in China are the banks open on a Saturday afternoon. Sort of makes me miss Beijing. SORT OF.

I try both banks on both sides of the road. Nothing. I go back and tell the guy at the hostel. He insists that even an American debit card should work to open the vestibule. So I go back and try it again. This time I bring my umbrella. Except it's not raining anymore. I get there and it doesn't work. But this time, there's someone inside who lets me in. And the ATM seems okay with my card - it's apparently only the door that's cranky. So I go back, check in, and it turns out the "dormitory-style" rooms are all full so I'm going to have to settle for a single room all to myself. How sad. Though I was supposed to change into the dormitory-style room the second day, it apparently was not worth moving my single, wheel-able suitcase down the hall and so I got the single both nights. It was an EXTREMELY welcome change after sharing rooms for the previous week and a half.

The first day I was recovering and too tired to do anything as a result of, what would turn out to be, my current rhinovirus (why do I always get sick on my vacations?), but the second day turned out to be a LOT more fun. Letting my internal compass be my guide (well, I didn't really have a choice seeing as I had neither a good Hamburg guidebook nor internet access in my hostel) I managed to find the Rathaus, the harbor, and the entire downtown section of Hamburg. I strolled around on a beautiful Sunday morning in which (GASP!) the sun actually came out. Everything was closed as it was Sunday, but I did get to go inside the Rathaus (the city hall) and the (world's most beautiful) city park, also partaking in the outdoor market and food and drink festival going on next door.

As it turns out, there was also some sort of motorcycle gathering going on and all day, throughout my activities, I would constantly hear the roar of engines. Some of the bikes were quite cool, especially these mini ones that looked like Tonka bikes. There were even a few mini racecars driving around.

That evening, I dined the way dining was meant to be done in Hamburg. Eating hamburgers. Though usually touted as American fare, the hamburger does come from Hamburg, and they do a pretty damn good job of it. McDonald's? You should be ashamed! I'm not even sure fast food burger should be allowed in this fair city!

I left early the next morning to head on to Berlin. Upon arriving at my hostel on Pariser Strasse, I settled in taking in all of the touring materials (and free internet!) that the hostel had to offer. I decided not to waste time and jumped in on a city tour that afternoon with Annabel, the world's biggest Berlin Wall buff. We saw the spot of Hitler's bunker and suicide spot (currently a truly ugly carpark/dog poo grounds and a sewer pipe respectively - a fitting end if ever I saw one) as well as the remains of the Berlin Wall, the location of Checkpoint Charlie (currently the world's funniest-looking tourist trap), and Schinkel's architecture and columns, amongst the rest. Boy, did that Schinkel love his columns...well, I guess that one's only funny if you know Annabel.

On this tour, I also met Emma from Scotland, who will be meeting me again at the end of the month when our paths cross once again in Florence. Unfortunately, this second day in Berlin has been not as much fun as the first. The cold, biting rain of this morning is only now just calming down and I am, as I mentioned before, living out the old 50s flick, Attack of the Rhinovirus! Aaaaaah! So I'm bulking up on vitamins (which I must surely be deficient in by now through my travels), drinking fortified baby juice (apparently much healthier and less sugary than the adult version), and eating lots and lots of fruit, in hopes I will quickly recover.

Silver lining? At least it gave me time to write. I know I've missed it!
posted by Rachel @ 9:14 PM  
Wednesday, July 04, 2007
London Calling
I know it's been a while. For those of you who have been waiting with bated breath for my next post, you may exhale now. I've just come from three days in England. Did I have a nice time? In between the rain, perhaps. Actually despite rain, traffic, and, you know, TERRORIST ATTACKS, it was a pretty nice time. On my first day there they had many of the roads blocked off - some for security, some for a charity race that was going on. Bringing me to one of the funniest things I came across. Toward the final leg of the rainy, rainy race guess what came out of the loudspeakers as a morale boost to the exhausted runners? "Do You Hear the People Sing?" from Les Miserables. In the United States we use MC Hammer and 50 Cent to get pumped up. Not in England. How very prim and proper of them. When I heard a subway street musician playing "Castle on a Cloud" later that same evening, I thought I must be cracking up.

In one day I did a self-imposed, (almost) neverending, 7 and a half hour walking tour through every imaginable touristy district in London. I witnessed race-fueled fisticuffs in Soho (London's Red Light District of sorts) and had to filter through Bobbies three rows thick in front of 10 Downing Street. At Buckingham Palace, royal guards were placed side-by-side with automatic gun-wielding police officers. Cars on nearly every block were being secured and towed and the tube was milling with police in fluorescent yellow vests. Quite an interesting time to be visiting. But I did the tube and buses and walked on foot - all without incident. Which I will treat as a testament to London's awesome law enforcement and leave it at that. Though I should note, if the government is reading this, I was walking by St. James' Palace near where the princes' apartments are and found it someone disconcerting that I saw nary a guard in sight. I'm not here to tell you how to do your job. Just a note.

Other highlights include taking in Don Giovanni at the Royal Opera House and landing on the recieving end of catcalls by male prostitutes. Good times were had by all. Wishing you were here!

Note: I am currently in Amsterdam. Having seen tulips, Rembrandts, and more wooden shoes than you can shake a stick at, I already consider this trip a success. However, I should note that my official policy is to write about (not take pictures of) my experiences. This philosophy goes something along the lines of: pictures should be of people, not of THINGS. So I will not drone on and on over pictures of fields of flowers, windmills, and Vermeers (the equivalent of shoving pictures of your baby in a stranger's face and asking about how cute she is). Instead, I'll try to give you a sense of the experience. For now, I will merely document the obvious. You'll get a better overview when I have more time to reflect. Until then, over and out.
posted by Rachel @ 7:43 PM  
THE WILD WILD EAST: Everything you never knew you didn't know about life on the other side.
In China, the people are represented by two separate, yet equally important groups. The Chinese, who call this land "home," and the expats who migrate here. My name is Rachel. I am an expat. These are my stories.
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A Brief Disclaimer:
This is a satirical site intended for the entertainment of an online audience. None of the features on this site are real (except in my own distorted view of reality), nor are they intended to harm the subjects mentioned. This site uses fictional names in all its stories, except in cases when public figures are being satirized or when I choose to use this site as a platform for someone's public humiliation (usually my own). Any other use of real names is accidental and coincidental (or purposeful, but with good reason).

Despite the trivial nature of my random daily (sometimes weekly) musings, I hope you enjoy your stay at my site. If there is anything you need, don't hesitate to ring up the concierge, because I just travel in style like that. Have a pleasant stay and I hope that you will come see us again soon!

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