| Friday, August 31, 2007
| Arrivederci Roma and the "Homecoming" (a.k.a. the "Beijing Fiasco")
|All roads lead to Rome. When in Rome, do as the Romans do. Veni, vidi, vici.
Nothing compared to the real thing. And hell yeah, I conquered.
I arrived in Rome mid-morning on the 2nd of August, and walked the ten minutes from the train station to my hostel, which at first appeared to be nothing more than a Laundromat/Internet shop. This laundry center/computer lab was actually just the “office” of the hostel. They handed me the key, led me to the (world’s most annoying) elevator, and brought me up to the top floor of the next building over. The hostel consisted of an apartment of four bedrooms with four beds in each (and no bunk beds either!) and one shared bathroom for all. Each room was equipped with only two oscillating fans to try and temper the oppressive heat of a Roman summer. Now I know why they wore togas. The “management” gifted me with a bottle of wine (which was put to good use, I promise you) and I settled into the room.
I made a plan for the afternoon and went to wait for the elevator. The apartment to the right of ours had a nameplate on the door that read, “E. Morricone.” I wandered off in my head, wondering if it was indeed THE Ennio Morricone who lived there. If he did, why would he announce it on his door? Gee, this elevator was taking an inordinately long time to arrive…and then I realized why. It was stuck on another floor. In order for this elevator to move, the outside AND inside doors had to be completely closed. A group of inept twenty-somethings living on the second floor never seemed to be able to close the doors properly. I gave up, took the stairs down, and opened the front door. There I was: in Rome!
I totally got Publius beat. In one day, and ON FOOT, I conquered the Roman Forum, the Coliseum, the Fontana di Trevi, the Pantheon, the Piazza Navona (where I had the world’s most picturesque lunch – and the best gnocchi I’ve had, EVER), the Castel St. Angelo, and the Basilica di Santa Maria Maggiore. Actually, three-quarters of a day, if you discount that morning’s travel time. AND I even had time for a haircut. I found a great salon in Piazza del Popolo that is run by a few Italian guys from California. I didn’t really need my hair cut since I had just recently gotten it done in Beijing, but I had to undo the mess made by the Chinese stylist who had hacked his way through it before my trip.
“You should give Chinese stylists a chance,” they said. Well, I did. And I’m pretty sure I looked like a cross between Diana Ross and Don King. THAT would make one ugly-looking child. The Italians fixed it up beautifully (though it is resultantly a bit shorter than I’d like, but thank goodness hair grows…unless you’re Rudy Giuliani) and I headed back to the hostel. I hopped on the underground from Popolo back to Stazione Termini (the train station) which was the closest stop to my hostel. As I was walking back, I suddenly did a double take. I stared and squinted a little. Walking forward hesitantly, I wanted to be sure my eyes were not deceiving me. They were not. It was Jess!
Jess was a good friend of mine from college that I hadn’t seen in over a year. And here, coincidentally, we had found each other on the streets of Rome. What were the odds?
(I’m not looking for actual numbers here. Geeks - put away your calculators!)
Jess had been living in a convent in Florence studying Italian. Rome was the first of several European cities she would be visiting now that her summer study program was over. Joined by her friend Tess, we went food shopping and made plans to meet up later that evening. The plans fell through and we didn’t get to meet up again since they were leaving the next morning. But it was fantastic if for no other reason than that it makes for a great anecdote.
Not going out was okay by me anyway since I had to get up SUPER early to do the Musei Vaticani the next morning. I was not about to sit out in the stifling summer heat for two and half hours because I was lazy and got there late and an early start wouldn’t kill me. I woke up around seven. My roommates, who originally said they would accompany me no matter the wake-up time lay fast asleep and so - as with the majority of my trip - I set off solo seeking adventure and a hearty dose of Papal infallibility. I got there fairly early, but found myself in the tour group line instead of the individual line. I had lost about ten minutes, but I was still pretty close to the front entrance. I had brought my iPod, a book, and a breakfast of rice cakes and apricot jam. Oh, and HUGE bottles of water. Those who had neglected this tiny thing had to pay 5 euro for a tiny little bottle of Italian-brand water. I had been there, done that, and not wasted money on the t-shirt.
I was leaning against the walls of the Vatican waiting on line when the guy standing in front of me tapped me on the shoulder. I looked up and took the iPod buds out of my ears.
“[In a Spanish accent] Watch those people behind you, they’re trying to cut.”
“See those women over there? They just got here and they are trying to cut the line.”
Behind us and just to the right of the line, three women were standing, looking like they were ready to play some line-cutting double-dutch.
“Has anyone told them?”
The girl he was with walked over to them and told them to go to the back of the line. They pretended not to speak English, even though we had clearly heard English coming from them just minutes before. So she switched into both Spanish and Italian, and the women got huffy.
“What are you going to do about it?” they spat.
Slighted, the girl came back to her boyfriend.
“Just tell the people behind you. Hopefully no one will let them in.”
I told the two girls behind me who, it turned out, were very nice girls from Indiana who were just as livid about the situation. The line was now around the block for probably about 100 meters. All these people waiting in the hot sun, and these two women thought they were Paris and Nicky Hilton at the velvet Ropes of Hyde. But thankfully, these women were fully dressed and under-garmented and being thoroughly ostracized by everyone we told about the cut-attempt. The girls from Indiana decided to take a picture of the women to show to the guards. The women did eventually cut in about ten or fifteen people behind us and the guards of course did nothing, but the situation was funny and it killed some time.
I spent the whole morning checking out the Vatican and the Basilica, and had a picnic lunch on the Spanish Steps. The whole experience was breathtaking, and cannot truly be described in words - you just have to go yourself.
Oh, and the Swiss Guard? Like elves taking a Mediterranean vacation from Santa’s Workshop. I know it’s a big honor and all, but:
Seriously? And that one on the left looks a bit mischievous. Maybe he’s got something on the Pope? Even the lollipop guild didn’t have quite so many colors. I love the preservation of “European tradition” - makes for truly memorable photo ops.
I spent the day, eventually retiring back to the hostel to pack and get a good night of sleep before the trek back to China. Rome was my last stop before returning to Beijing and I had a long day of flying ahead of me.
I asked one of the people at the hostel’s front desk about trains to the airport. She said that one left every half-hour on the hour and half-hour. Great. This would be easy. No stress…I knew exactly when I needed to be ready and when I needed to leave. My flight wasn’t until almost noon. I would take the ten A.M. train, arrive at the airport around ten-thirty and be there in plenty of time for my flight. I woke up the next morning bright and early. I got myself together, made sure I had all my things packed properly, attended to some last minute correspondence, and walked myself over to the train station, arriving about seven minutes before the train was to leave.
Of course the airport train line was the furthest one from the entrance, but I had plenty of time. I checked out the board to check out which number I needed to go to and it said the train was departing at 9:53. Two minutes ago. But that can’t be! I asked one of the conductors on the platform and, unfortunately for me, it WAS to be.
The next train didn’t leave until 10:23, putting me a little tighter than I would’ve liked. Had I known I would have been in this scenario, I would’ve gotten my airline boarding passes before I left to ensure I wouldn’t miss the cut-off for check-in (like I did in London that first week). Agitated and feeling rushed (exactly what I DIDN’T want), I got on the train and willed it with my mind to move faster. I found out that day that I indeed do NOT have telekinetic powers. Sitting on the train, I read the newspaper over another girls’ shoulder. It read something to the extent of: “Heathrow loses a hell of a lot of baggage, especially if you’re flying British Airways, and people aren’t really big fans of that.” I was flying through Heathrow. On British Airways. With the luck I was having today, that would surely be me.
At just before eleven, I arrived huffing and puffing - wanting to make sure I was checked in before the “forty-minutes prior” check-in window closed. I did make it, but there was a hitch. There always is. At least for me. Thanks, Murphy.
Going in and out of Heathrow, you’re only allowed ONE carry-on. This I already knew. So in the past, I had just carried on my computer in my hands (since you had to take it out of your carry-on to go through security anyway) and I would take that plus my gigantic monster of a purse on the plane. I had done it that way from Beijing to London and London to Amsterdam. But in Rome, they weren’t having it. I had a choice between carrying the things I needed from my purse and bringing my computer or packing my laptop and bringing my purse on intact. Since my passport, wallet, Bose headset, iPod, and all the other etc. were of much greater immediate need, I decided to pack in my laptop and hope for the best. If I didn’t hurry this up, I would miss my connecting flight in London going back to Beijing. I calmed myself down, took an easy flight from Rome to London and figured, “when I get to London and I have to recheck my bags through customs or what have you, I’ll just take out the laptop and give it another try. With the layover, I can always just buy a bigger backpack/suitcase to take on the plane.”
I got through the extra security check after getting off the plane. I walked up to the transfers and connections counter. Handing over my passport, I asked for my ticket for the connecting flight to Beijing.
“Luggage tags please.”
“Oh, okay. Here.”
The airline rep input the luggage tag numbers and handed them back to me.
“You’ll be able to pick your luggage up in Beijing.”
“It’s connecting through?”
“And you’re sure they’ll make the connection and get through to Beijing?”
Not wanting to be the pest who pisses off the airline personnel who are “just trying to do their job,” I decided to leave it at that. I was not going to get to see my luggage in London. No computer.
“And you’re sure they’ll make the connection and get through to Beijing?” Those final words…
By the time I got through all this and switched to the international terminal, I had only 45 minutes left of my originally three-hour layover. I grabbed a bite to eat and then boarded the flight, which proved to be uneventful. I tried to make myself sleep, but despite prodding with comfortable blankets and wine, my body was not having it. But soon, I’d be back in MY apartment. After five long weeks.
We touch down in Beijing. I, of course, end up on the world’s slowest customs line because some lady was having immigration issues. Finally, I get through to the conveyor belt to grab my bags. I wait. And I wait. And I wait. And I wait some more. You know what’s coming.
The bags stopped coming off the belt and I didn’t see either of mine yet. But I wasn’t the only one, which was somewhat reassuring. Maybe one load of bags is just taking longer? Then I heard one of the airport workers on his radio: Mei le? Mei le?
My stomach dropped and I just KNEW. I walked over to him and told him my bags had still not arrived from the London flight.
“Just a moment…There are no more bags. Come to the baggage office and we will figure this out.”
I noticed there were other passengers looking around at each other, confused and anxious. I walked over to them and explained the situation. Despite exhaustion and frustration, my mad Chinese translation skills hadn’t skipped a beat. Thank goodness for small miracles.
I went to the office, produced my tickets, passport, and luggage tags and filled out some paperwork. The women in this office had already been yelled at enough. Yet another angry shouting match wasn’t going to do anything. Besides, it was Heathrow’s fault. I thanked the woman in Chinese, which relieved her, and I headed out to grab a cab.
I was worried about my laptop and my bags but, more than anything else, I was tired. I got in the cab line and told the line captain where I was going. He pointed out a cab and I went over, got in, and gave him my address.
“Tai jin le!” (It’s too close!)
“Shen me ya?! Tai jin le ma? Wo zenme yinggai hui jia? Zoulu ne?” (What?! It’s too close? How should I get home then? Walk?)
“Tai jin le!”
Tired and fed up, I got out - slamming the door behind me – got in the next cab in line, and gave him the address. He was just getting ready to start the meter when the taxi line captain came over and asked me why I hadn’t used the other taxi.
[translation:] “The other guy told me where I live is too close. He doesn’t want to take me, so I’ll just go with someone else!”
“No, no - you need to go with him. He will take you. I assure you he will take you”
He opened the door for me and I got out with my one giant purse and nothing else. Great. Now I had to sit and listen to this stupid cab driver guy be miserable for half an hour. I got into his taxi and we drove off. Without even a pause for breath, the guy starts yelling at me.
[translation:] “I have to wait in this line all day to get a fare and you tell the line captain you only want to go to Dongzhimen? I am only allowed to come once a day unless the fare is only to Wangjing (which is really close to the airport). Then, I’m allowed to come back again and wait on line again for another airport fare. You should have told him you were going to Wangjing!” From the way I’m writing it, it sounds like he was being fairly even tempered, but he was sneering at me the whole time. It’s all in the delivery.
Now let me ask two questions: 1) Am I supposed to lie to the taxi line captain about where I’m going? Isn’t this system in place for a reason? The Beijing government is always talking about treatment of foreigners when the Olympics come. Is this the image they’re going to present? What difference does it make that it’s still 2007 and not yet 2008? And, 2) How is it my responsibility to do this on his behalf? If he chooses to wait on line all day at the airport for fares and wants to come back again to get two major scores instead of just doing it once and then getting back out on the street and hustling like every other cab driver, what is that my concern? Especially after sitting through a fourteen hour plane flight and then not getting back my luggage. So, I ignored him. I noticed that he messed with the meter to make it charge me more per mile, but I was so tired that I let him get away with it. I yelled at him a bit before I got out of the cab for overcharging me, to at least let him know that I was aware he was a crooked jerk of a cab driver, slammed the door and got out. Beijing, you have some work to do.
But I was back.
I got in the elevator, a little worried. I hadn’t been home in a while and for sure there would be bills to catch up on. The gas and the internet, I had been told by my boss, could be paid upon my return. The internet they might turn off, but as soon as you paid, it would start up again. The gas, they wouldn’t - but since it works on a meter, you would just have to pay the extra months’ worth all at once. Fine. But when I got back to my door, there were no notices, no fliers, NOTHING. Good. Or so it would seem.
All the things that needed to be done, I would do the next day since it was Sunday anyway. I opened the outside iron security door, opened the small lock on the inside door, pushed and…nothing.
The door wouldn’t budge. You’ve GOT to be kidding me. To give you a bit of background, when I first moved in, there was a “top lock,” sort of like a bolt, that was broken. I had never used it, nor had I been given a key for it. Apparently, in my absence, the landlord had chosen to fix it. And he didn’t leave me a note or a key.
I called my leasing agent. No answer. I called someone from his office. They called the landlord’s assistant who then called me. This took an hour. It was definitely the most un-fun, draining game of phone tag I’d ever played. Finally, I got him to come over. He said, “so you lost your key inside.”
“NO! For the millionth time, SOMEONE changed the lock while I was away on vacation and I’ve never been given a key!”
The assistant tried his keys and realized that he also didn’t have the key needed to get in. (By this time another whole hour had passed.) Finally TRULY understanding my anger and frustration, he called the locksmith. It took the locksmith an hour and five “Kuai yidianr! (Hurry up!)” phone calls from the assistant to get to my building.
Picking the lock didn’t work. He had to break it. Finally, we got into the apartment, and I saw that someone (to this day, I still don’t know who…I assume the landlord) had reattached and fixed the broken bolt lock and repainted the aqua green door frame so that it was pristine, but could barely be budged. The thing was practically painted shut. The assistant and the locksmith put on two whole new locks (so officially I am the ONLY person able to get into my apartment) and, using a scissor and a knife, shaved off the freshly painted layer of green from the door’s edge so that I could actually close the thing.
In China, aesthetics often trump pragmatism. This was a perfect example. Yes, the door was mean, green, and perfectly clean. But it wouldn’t open or close because it had five layers of paint on it. Good going, guys…
I had to pay the locksmith 120 yuan, but it was worth it just to get back in my apartment and to get them out of it so I could sleep. And of course, whoever it was that changed the lock while I was gone was never held accountable. That always seems to be the way my life works in China: the person who causes me difficulty never has to take responsibility or own up to it and I end up losing cash.
To end this story on a bittersweet high note, eventually - after three days of hounding them on the phone and making such a nuisance of myself that I could not be ignored - the Beijing airport baggage people got me my luggage back, one piece at a time. My computer was still inside and completely intact, although my camera fell as a casualty of war somewhere along the way. I suppose it could’ve been worse. Although now that I’ve reread my whole post, I’m not sure it could have. What luck I have. (Or have not.)
P.S. Wikipedia is down again. And apparently, so is Blogger. Gotta love living here!
|posted by Rachel @ 4:33 PM
| Wednesday, August 29, 2007
| Wikipedia is Wiki-Working!
|Wednesday night is Quiz Night in Beijing and, as such, I decided to take a couple minutes out of my busy work day to brush up on the news and whatever topic is the focus of the week to get myself trivia-ready. The theme for tonight's match will be "The Simpsons" and though I've watched my share just like everyone else, I figured it might be helpful to brush up just a little more.
I put in the Google search terms "Simpsons characters," figuring at least a rundown of the characters in the show would refresh my memory, and - lo and behold - the perfect search result: "List of characters in The Simpsons."
Fantastic! But wait. It's from Wikipedia, the "free" encyclopedia. Normally "free" is not in quotes, but here in China it tends to be. Wikipedia, like the BBC website and Blogger blogs, is inaccessible within China's borders. Period.
Until now! I clicked on the link, figuring I could always highlight the web address and stick it in a proxy server when, suddenly, there it appeared in all its glory! The Wikipedia entry, in its entirety, without even using the cache feature!
So, at least for a short while (until the Wikipedia amenders once again start adding "inappropriate content"), we have Wikipedia lift-off! Thank you "Chinese-government-equivalent-of-standards-&-practices" for making my day!
|posted by Rachel @ 4:21 PM
| Monday, August 27, 2007
| This Boot Was Made For Walking
|Figuring that my family is about 98.5% of my readership, I've decided to skip the cruise portion of my trip since my family was there and just summarize it as such: I hadn't seen my family in about seven months and I really missed seeing them, but no one should be crammed in tight quarters on a boat nearly twenty-four hours a day with their relatives - or anyone else for that matter. Now I know why pirates always seem so angry. Suffice it to say, it was a lovely trip and a much-needed respite from sharing hostel rooms with strangers and eating roadside shawarma two to three times a day.
Now onto the final leg of my trip: Italy. After my family headed for home, I spent a day in Venice, managing to catch a tour at the Murano glass factory and walk every single street/canal-side pathway from the train station to San Marco, and all the way back. Probably should've brought hiking boots as I literally wore my feet off. I gave myself the evening off and the next morning, I hopped a train to Florence. I arrived at Stazione Santa Maria Novella and - without getting lost for more than fifteen or twenty minutes in the staggering Florence heat (which seemed so romantic in Under the Tuscan Sun...) - I made it to my hostel.
The reviews about this hostel, Ostello Gallo D'Oro, were fabulous. All I had been hearing from previous visitors was Massimo this, and Sylvia that. Well, I arrived and though it wasn't Massimo or Sylvia at the front desk, I was greeted with warmth, espresso, and no immediate request for payment. This was a welcome change from five weeks of forking over room fee after room fee before I could even put my bags down. Feeding my caffeine addiction with delicious Italian espresso didn't hurt either. At the front desk, I met Leann, an Australian traveler who - as it turned out - had been staying at the exact same hostel in Venice that I had at exactly the same time I had and who had taken the exact same train from Venice to Florence that I had that very morning. And yet, we never met. This was the first of two major Italian coincidences. There is just something about that giant boot...maybe my love of shoes gives me good boot-country karma.
Later that day, (the just as amazing as advertised) Sylvia made reservations for me at the Accademia and Ufizi Galleries and helped me arrange a night at the opera in the Giardani Boboli. She told me I could take a bus from the train station if I didn't want to walk the whole way and I thought that sounded like a good idea, seeing as my feet were worn down to stubs from a full day of sightseeing on foot. I bought a bus ticket at one of the "Tabacchi" (tobacco) shops, which seems to be THE place to buy public transport in Europe, and jumped on a bus at Stazione SMN to go to Boboli. Sylvia said I would see the gate to Boboli when I arrived so I figured I could wing it.
I looked at the bus stop signs as we passed and noticed there were fewer and fewer people on the bus. Not having seen the Boboli Gardens yet and knowing that it shouldn't have been that long a trip, I decided to get off the bus. I didn't recognize the stop name, and had not a clue as to where I was. I still had to buy tickets for the opera and the show started in only a couple of hours. I stopped a woman walking by to ask her where I was on my map. She looked for a bit, tracing the road with her finger. I was off the map. Oh, lord.
There were buses going back toward the city, but I was going to miss buying tickets and the opera since the buses this far out of the city center came so seldomly. So I walked. And walked. And walked. I started passing the bus stops I had seen on my way out. Finally, my feet were ready to give up. I mean, I had taken a bus so I WOULDN'T have to walk. There was another girl waiting next to the bus stop sign, so I figured maybe the next bus was going to come soon. Just to figure out where I was, I asked her - in my most broken Italian - how long it was to Giardani Boboli. Though most of what I said was probably some gibberish-y mix of what little three days worth of Italian I had picked up so far, the remnants of my high school Spanish, and even a little English, but when I said "Giardani Boboli" she said (in Italian, of course): "Oh, Giardani Boboli! Just a little bit that way."
I thanked her and decided I would keep walking. I saw signs for it and finally, just five minutes later, there it was: trees, a gigantic arched entrance, and no other significant markings. No wonder I missed it.
After forty-five minutes of trudging, I had made it. The falafel sandwich I had thrown in my bag for the road was smelling pretty darn good right then, and lord knows I earned it. I bought my tickets, sat down at one of the outdoor picnic tables, and dug in. When people started making their way into the outdoor ampitheater's stadium-style bleachers, I followed behind and situated myself for Rigoletto, a tragic tale about a court jester whose jokes and taunts come back to haunt him. Though the acoustics probably would've been better in an indoor theater, it was a moving production and even more rewarding for having hiked miles to get there. I had been so worried they would run out of tickets. But not only were there plenty of extra to go around, it didn't even matter much which level of ticket you bought; After the first act, everyone moved down from the upper rows to fill in the vacant spots anyway.
The show let out just before midnight and, though I was a little wary of returning alone in the middle of the dark night, I did have a map to guide me back. Besides, it was doubtful that I had enough money on me for cab fare. So back I walked. Crossing over the river on the Ponte Vecchio, I caught a glimpse of the full moon reflecting over the water. I distinctly recall inhaling deeply, exhaling, and thinking aloud, "you just don't get this kind of beautiful stillness in Beijing, do you?"
No, my dear girl. You sure don't.
That evening I had chosen to wear an Italia football (soccer for the Americans and Aussies) zip-up I had bought in a fit of wind in Venice. I was glad I had brought it because in the windy Giardani Boboli's outdoor theater it was quite cold - despite its being mid-summer. However, during my walk back, I was serenaded with team Italia's fight song more than a few times by drunken twenty- and thirty-somethings hanging out on the street in the wee hours of the morning. I grinned at the inebriated chorus of football fans with my lips tight, ducked my head down, and kept walking. Perhaps just a little faster than before. I finally got back to the hostel around 1 AM and fell into the soundest sleep I'd had my entire trip.
Next: Rome, Heathrow, and my most frustrating fiasco to date (a.k.a just another day in Beijing). Tune in to see what goes down.
|posted by Rachel @ 1:53 PM
| Tuesday, August 14, 2007
| "Once the rockets go up, who cares where they come down? That's not my department," says Werner von Braun.
|So I found myself on this very crowded, very HOT overnight train to Munich and - due to the heat and rumbling of the train - I was awake all night, minus about twenty minutes of zzz's I managed to fit in just before wake-up call. I drained my computer battery watching License to Wed (not the highest quality cinema, but it killed some time) and then took to staring at the scenery out the window to a soundtrack of snoring, tossing, and the occasional rap on the door by transportation authorities seeking passports and tickets. I actually felt sort of bad for my (all-Korean) counterparts as they had obviously only recently arrived in Europe and were still feeling the drain of the 6-7 hour time difference (which I had managed to knock off quite easily by partying all night at my hostel in London). I mean, there was a bar and karaoke IN THE HOSTEL! Do you know a better way to beat jet lag...?
The train arrived in Muenchen (Munich) at around 6-something in the morning. Working on what little German I had picked up, I asked directions to Senefelderstrasse (Seinfeld Street!) and five minutes later easily stumbled upon Wombat's - by and large the awesomest hostel I had been to yet. And NO, "awesomest" is generally NOT actual English. But for the moment, I say it is and it's my blog. I have spoken.
I check into the hostel. The room is not ready this early, but I'm fading and quick. Getting to Munich "bright and chipper" was great because I wouldn't miss any tours and I could fully milk my two whole days in Bavaria for what they were worth, but I was walk-sleeping (the inverse of sleep-walking) my way around with exhaustion. Luckily, there was "the Wintergarten." (You like the German spelling?) Below are Ray and Souma demonstrating how to properly "use" the Wintergarten.
Nestled in between the hostel's internet hot-spot and gigantic bar stood this beautiful, glass-ceilinged meditation lounge with (real!) trees, beanbag chairs, sleeping mats, couches, and - the coup de grace - industrial-strength air conditioning.
Under the guise of reading, I nodded off on the long leather couch and was only two hours later awoken by the sound of clinking glass, as one of the maintenance guys collected the beer bottles and pint glasses left from the night before. And thank goodness - or else I would've missed the tour (and the whole point of my early morning).
Then I meet...Ozzy. Ozzy is a Wombat-ian, a kickass tour guide, and the self-proclaimed "only black native Bavarian. I mean, just look around. Seriously."
After a brief introduction to Munich's history and a series of questions posed to see how much the audience already knows about German history (by the way, the answer to 60% of his questions was "beer"), we headed off and started our tour with a quick grocery stop for water and supplies. As we were reassembling, I noticed that one of the guys in the group had an angry-looking yellow-jacket printed on the back of his shirt. Noting this to be unusual - and knowing the origin of the mascot since my big brother went to Georgia Tech - I figured the odds were pretty good that these guys went to Georgia Tech, too. As such, they were probably from the States and with a quality university degree, would also prove to be reasonably well-educated minds for primed for good conversation. As my Aussie friend Leanne would say, "They weren't those Paris Hilton-y, gossiping Americans I keep running into."
Me too, Leanne. Me too.
So I chatted one of them up and, pretty soon, I had traveling companions. Aaron, Ray, Souma, J.B. and Greg were a year or so shy of graduation and were on a trip away from their study abroad campus in France. We - me, the guys and super-vegan Kelly, another single traveler I had met at the hostel - got to know each other during the tour, having a mid-tour alcohol-fuelled lunch and a post-tour beer (or ten) at two of Munich's largest biergartens.
What is lunch at a biergarten? Pretzels, veggie-cheese spread, and onions with a pint of beer. Compare the size of the pretzel to the size of the pint and the plate. Not even photoshopped...and oh-s0-delicious. The crew "at work," a.k.a. beer at lunchtime. We returned to the hostel, weary, and changed to go out, grab some dinner, and hit some clubs. We were in the bar waiting for the group to assemble, when we were approached by this (I think) German guy who told us it was his bachelor party and that, for some reason or by some custom, he had to sell a whole bunch of things. The items included dirty magazines, tampons, lingerie, and action figures (don't know how that LAST one got in there...). At one point, the very drunk "bachelor" wanted Greg to try on a woman's thong. Greg put it on over his shorts for a laugh, but this was not exactly what the guy had in my mind. The guy takes the thong back, peels off his pants, and puts the thong on over his underwear, wandering around the bar, strangely proud.
Laughs all around. NOW, we were ready to go. (Above are Greg and Ray cracking up at the "pink-thonged bachelor.")
We had a fairly uneventful dinner (with a waiter who clearly didn't like us - yay, America!) and then went to the "club street," basically a sketchy, large alley with about fifteen clubs all lined up, one after the other. When heads began to collide, we split up. Aaron, J.B., Kelly, and I went one way - to the America bar (which was nowhere near as lame as it sounds, thank goodness), while the others figured out where they wanted to go. We went dancing for about an hour and a half before calling it quits. We would be getting up early the next day to visit Dachau and the Deutsches Museum and were already exhausted from the day. So back we went.
The next day we went to Dachau, which was amazing to see, but less informative than I would have liked. However, the highlight of my time in Munich - the Deutsches Museum - was absolutely historic. It’s basically the world's most fabulous and comprehensive science museum. We saw the V2 rocket, and were disappointed to find barely a mention of Dr. Werner von Braun - immortalized by musical satirist Tom Lehrer in his comedic ditty "Werner von Braun" (which I highly recommend giving a listen to if you don't know it). The Techies were singing it and surprised when I jumped right on in with them. I may not be a nerdy engineer, but I know classic comedy when I hear it.
After touring through the museum for about three and a half hours, we visited the giftshop, where merchandise plastered with Albert Einstein and E = mc-squared abounded, but not a glimpse of Werner von Braun was to be found. Avowing that we would create a company solely to the creation of "Werner von Braun" t-shirts and memorabilia, we set off in search of evening activities.
We passed a movie poster of Harry Potter and, worn out from the night before, decided a movie night would be nice. We went back to the hostel where the front desk pointed out two English-language theaters where the new Harry Potter would be playing. We followed the instructions, planning on catching an 8-ish showing, and found the theater. We went inside and asked if Harry Potter was playing here in English. "No, you want the NEXT theater down. Just keep walking." And so we did. Finally we got to the next theater with about 20 minutes before the showing.
"They're showing Harry Potter in English here, right?"
"No. This one is in German. It's the next theater down."
Okay. So we keep walking. The front desk had told us it would be near the Deutsches Museum and we saw the movie posters for Harry Potter just beside the museum entrance. Exasperated, we had finally arrived. Or had we?
"This theater is only German. There is another theater if you continue walking along the river."
Oy vey. So we keep walking and finally we reach yet ANOTHER theater, and this time, the movie posters are in English. A good sign. We ask, and YES! it is the English-language cinema – one out of four in a five block radius. Those Munich-ers must really like their movies.
We returned to the hostel after our fantastic cinematic adventures and I bid my new friends adieu, as I would be leaving early the next morning and they the next afternoon.
From Munich I was on to Vienna, which I can sum up in the conclusion to this entry:
Churches, shopping, old buildings, more churches, statues, creepy grocery store attendants who like to try to get "friendly" with their foreign female patrons after seriously overcharging them in a "push-button error" that forces said patron to wait around for twenty minutes while the manager (who actually knows what she's doing) comes back to fix it, AND more churches.
The grocery guy charged me 850 Euro instead of 8.50. Nice move, slick. And get your disgusting, pervy hands away from me. What is it about being American that screams, "do whatever you want, I'm SUPER friendly"? I had to sit around and wait while some woman - I sincerely hope not his wife, because that would make me exceedingly sad - came back and cancelled the transaction.
Geez, you go to the same grocery store twice because it's the only one open after 7 and THIS is the repayment you get...Despite that, Vienna was quiet and relaxing, just what I needed before my sea-bound, inescapable (short of a woman-overboard situation, that is) family reunion. Which actually turned out to be a lot of fun. Tune in next time.
P.S. For those of you who were asking for pictures, I hope this week was better.
|posted by Rachel @ 1:07 PM
| Thursday, August 09, 2007
| Mass Transit, 'Black-Riding', and Czech Roulette (With Diagrams)
|Last we left our heroine, she was headed toward Prague. There she was to meet up with the fabulously awesome Nina and take in Prague for everything it was worth. Prague was a welcome change after the illness that plagued me in Berlin - while my first day in Berlin was fantastic, the second was spent indoors with cold medicine (which had German instructions, so I hope I didn't overdose too terribly), baby juice with extra vitamins, fresh fruits and veggies, and my computer (acting in the capacity of a television/DVD player). I did venture out of doors once (to get food, I think) but - much like America's love-hate relationship with Chinese manufactured goods - the on-again/off-again nature of the rainy weather really got me down. And yes, my toothpaste is fine, thank you. (The Chinese don't taint their OWN people, after all...)
Praha (Prague) was amazing. Nina lived in beautiful Mala Strana - the "touristy" part of town if ever there was one - though the personal highlight for me was having my own room after sharing rooms in hostels for weeks. That, and all the Babybel cheese (good call, Nina!). I wandered by day while Nina worked, and by night we wandered the streets looking for trouble. Actually, we went in search of really good Czech food. And boy, did we find it. On the evening of my first full day in Prague, Nina and I met up first with some of her students for drinks, followed by other students for a (rather tame) bachelorette party, and finally with a fellow teacher, Darryl. We went out for drinks and regaled each other with stories - and then we went...
That's right. I went all the way to Prague to salsa. Makes perfect sense...
The next day, I was going to meet up with Nina for lunch. First, let me preface this by explaining that in most countries in Europe (particularly the ones I had just come from like the Netherlands and Germany), you buy a public transport ticket, validate it, and get on the transport of choice (bus, tram, subway, train, etc.) and - throughout this process - it's entirely likely that no one will ever check to ensure you have a valid pass. Call it "the European Mass Transit Honor System."
Well, I was running late to meet Nina and there was no place to buy passes for mass transit at the tram stop, only at the convenience store down the street. So I decided to tram it without one. I got to the subway - still running late, of course - and I figured, my luck being what it was, why not keep the rush going and try it again. Darryl and Nina had been telling me all about their "black riding" experiences the night before and they had only each been caught once or twice in all their time in Prague. They also mentioned that these guys have little or no authority and that most Czech people, when caught, just ignore them or run away. Fantastic!
So, back to the story. If only someone had told me that the place I had to transfer always has guards waiting to stop you (sort of like a checkpoint) during the daytime. So I get off the first train and go to transfer to the second one, and there I see them. There were probably about six of them.
I'm the red circle and the black "X"s are the guards checking tickets. Now, I had reached the point where you see the circle above and I had a major decision to make: should I turn back or keep going? I slowed down a bit and realized that they had seen me and that turning back was definitely not an option. So I had to suck it up and take it like a man, er, woman.
Looking busy and hassled in my best performance yet (so VERY Oscar-worthy), I waited for the gentleman in front of me to set up a block as he was stopped by the guard all the way to the left (I feel incredibly like Bob Costas at the moment), I pick-and-rolled past the left-most guard along the railing, slid my way down the stairs, and jumped onto a train that was just pulling up to the platform. See diagram below.
I didn't much care whether the train was going the correct direction or not; I couldn't risk being stopped while waiting on the platform if it wasn't. Once on the train, I took a quick seat and blended in with the other passengers. If there had been a guard on the train, I might've been caught. I was wearing shorts that day - OBVIOUS TOURIST. But as it turned out, I WAS on the correct train and two stops later - with not a guard in sight - I stepped off the train, glided across the platform and exited the station with my eyes peeled for Nina. Oh, the skills I possess. Maybe I should go into espionage...
I told Nina the whole story and she laughed, mentioning that she should've warned me that they would be waiting there. We toasted my moment of stealth and triumph over a plate of chicken vindaloo (which nearly burned the roof of my mouth off, but OH was it tasty), after which we walked back to the subway. I bought a ticket this time, don't worry. I wasn't about to go through THAT again. And upon arriving at the transfer station, that same guy I slipped past the first time eyed me and stopped Nina and me both. I reached into my pocket and my ticket was GONE!
Just kidding. I proudly displayed my freshly purchased ticket and walked right on by, smug and satisfied. So there.
That evening, Darryl came over and we rehashed the whole story to a similar reaction and we chilled out at Nina's place until I had to catch my train at 8-something. There was a tram that went directly to the station. I jumped on and bid Nina and Darryl adieu. Or however you say it in Czech. When I got off, I only saw a park, so I began to wander a bit looking for the train station. When I finally asked someone, they pointed out a train station behind me. However, this was not the correct one and a guard outside motioned that I would have to go through the park I had just walked ten minutes away from to the other side to reach my train. And I had only
twelve minutes to do it.
I rushed across the street - baggage and all - and bounded across the park, reaching the front entrance of the station with about three minutes to go. Mine was the third train down the corridor. I got to the platform about a minute and a half before the train was set to leave. The engines were already pumping. I found my compartment, opened my couchette (this would be a sleeper train between Prague and Munich), stowed my baggage and stretched out to rest.
Settled into my hot, cramped compartment (which I shared with four Korean girls and one snoring Korean guy) day faded to night as I made my way back to Germany. In the next installment, Munich and beyond.
|posted by Rachel @ 3:12 PM
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|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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