Month: July 2013

TSOJ: A Night at the Opera…I put on pants for this?

I have never been to an Opera. I have never really wanted to go to the Opera because you have to dress up a lot more than I want to, and I really don’t know enough about the operas to enjoy them, but when I found out that I could attend an opera for free in Vienna I thought it might be time to give the grand old opera a try.

The big, big screen at the Vienna town hall.

The big, big screen at the Vienna town hall.

The opera I attended was by Verdi. Now I don’t know much about Verdi, but I do know that I have some of his stuff on my iPod for when I want music that is old and famous, it makes me seem a little more cultured than I am and I can pretend that I know something about Verdi by saying, “Verdi, ah yes, Verdi. I was listening to a Verdi aria today on my iPod.” I don’t even know if Verdi wrote arias, because the definition of an aria is unclear to me, but Verdi probably did and most people won’t call you on it if you sound confident. They might be thinking, “Did Verdi write an aria? I can’t think of one, but I don’t want to sound stupid, so I won’t ask.”

I figured at some point during the opera there would be an “aha” moment when I recognized the song and would be able to hum along with the crowd in that knowing way. This has happened to me at a couple of musicals I attended. One moment I watching the play and then next thing I know they are singing a song that I kind of know, and my brain goes, “Hey, this is that song I know. I can now mouth the words and act like I knew this song was in this musical.”

Vienna does this “bring culture to the masses” thing every night in July. It really is pretty cool. Seventeen restaurants have semi-permanent booths set up to serve food on real dishes with real silverware and drinks are served in real glasses, so it is pretty classy. They then have some concert or opera on a huge screen that is hanging from the neck of the town hall.

I heard this was a classy gathering so I wanted to make sure I made a good impression, so after a long day of roaming the streets of Vienna I went back to my hotel took a shower and put on pants, a button up shirt and shoes. I didn’t want to be the guy standing there dressed like a slob, I wasn’t but apparently the “let’s dress up” memo did not get to everyone attending the opera.  I suppose it is better to be overdressed for most occasions than underdressed, unless of course you are overdressed to participate in a sporting event. Wingtips don’t always provide the traction needed in a game of pick-up basketball, but most often it is better to be the best dressed as opposed to the worst dressed.

This is the outfit I wanted to wear.

This is the outfit I wanted to wear, not the dress, the shorts and sandals.

If your shirt and your hat match and your name isn't Duchess, it is time to change your hat.

If your shirt and your hat match and your name isn’t Duchess, it is time to change your hat.

Long pants...sometimes even long pants are a bad choice.

Acid washed pants and color treated hair? Time to take somebody’s man card.

These silk pants come from the David Carradine collection.

These silk pants come from the David Carradine collection.

Pink shorts, Red Stripe beer tank top, and Syl Stallone's mom all in one shot.

Pink shorts, Red Stripe beer tank top, and Syl Stallone’s mom all in one shot.

Black socks are not always a no-no.

Black socks are not always a no-no.

The challenge for Vienna is that there are a lot of people like me: Opera neophytes. So the vibe is more like a bar than an opera house, and I suppose this is why the Viennese come out to see Verdi on the big screen. This is one of those perfect culture traps that probably gets people into opera, but it is also one of those things that drives real opera fans crazy because there is a lot of noise in the crowd since everyone is drinking and eating well past dark.

Chicken and noodles: 7 Euros, not too bad.

Chicken and noodles: 7 Euros, not too bad.

The food booths are good and reasonably priced, but here are some tips for you noobs out there. 1. Never get a pretzel as big as your head. It seems like a good idea, but it isn’t. There isn’t anything more cliché than a guy walking around with a jumbo sized pretzel in one hand and a large beer in the other. It is like a little kid with a balloon and a oversized lollipop. 2. Eating standing up is okay, but sitting down is much better. 3. Everyone speaks English so don’t worry about limiting yourself to stuff that looks easy to order. 4. People in Europe eat much later than we do in North America, so try to eat around 8 PM. This might mean that you have to have a snack, but eating at 6 when everyone else is just arriving is a bit sad and then you will have to waste two hours waiting for the sun to go down and the opera to start.

Large cheese pretzel...maybe not such a good idea.

Large cheese pretzel…maybe not such a good idea.

On to the opera. At 9:30 this little lady came out to speak to the crowd, she was little because she was a long way from me and standing in front of a huge screen, so it was probably an optical illusion, but she might have been smaller than average. She spoke in German for a long time, about five minutes of German and then she did about 20 seconds of English. German and English are not that much different, so I knew I was losing something in the translation, but I found out the opera was named “Simon Bocanegro” which kind of, sort of rang a bell in my head. I was thinking that I might know some of the music, but then I realized that the reason the name range a bell was because there was some sports guy I knew named Carlos Bocanegro. I could not remember what sport Carlos played, so for 10 of the 20 seconds of the English translation I was trying to figure out what sport Carlos Bocanegro played. When I moved out of my brain and back into the real world I had missed most of what she said because she was now speaking Italian, I think. I went back to trying to figure out the Carlos/Simon Bocanegro problem and then finally resolved to look it up on the internet when I got back to my hotel, but my little brain still would not let it go so I distracted it by translating Bocanegro into English. Boca= Mouth, Negro= Black. Black mouth, hmmm, the opera is probably about some dental problems? or possibly it is more metaphoric and means that there is a character that has difficulty with swearing?

Let's get ready for some opera!

Let’s get ready for some opera!

Five minutes of that nimble brain activity put my mind to rest on the Carlos Bocanegro situation and I was then able to sit back and enjoy my first opera, or shall I say I was able to sit back and try to figure out what the hell was going on.

The big star of the opera was Placido Domingo, I think. I don’t really know who the star of the show was because after eight minutes I couldn’t tell what was going on.

Here are the problems I had with the production: It was in Italian, I have enough trouble figuring out English lyrics. Everything I know about the Italian language can be boiled down to watching Life is Beautiful a bunch of times.
Everyone was dressed the same. The two main guys had the same hair cut, were about the same size, and could have been twins.

So here is what happened in Simon Bocanegro: Sailors pulled some ropes, eventually one guy started singing loudly in bursts, there was some kind of confrontation between the twins guys, one of the guys draws a sword and they sing, the other dude bows down. Assumptions I am making at this point: One of these guys is named Simon. One of them is Placido Domingo. Some of this will start to make sense soon.
Then a body wrapped in a shroud gets dragged onto the stage, things are looking up. I might like Opera. This scene is never resolved in the first 45 minutes of the opera, which is apparently the attention span I have for an opera that I don’t understand. The guys sing about the dead person, I assume, I really don’t know if they were singing about the price of peas is Persia, and then the curtain closes. The crowd claps politely, and I wonder if now is a good time to leave my first opera.
The scene changes to some lady singing to another lady who NEVER sings. (Again, this is an observation based on the first 45 minutes of the opera.) I found the second, non-singing role to be confusing. It is an opera, shouldn’t everyone sing? My second thought was that maybe there is a chance for me to get into opera since I could sit there and not sing. Singing lady number one finished her little bursts of song, and  I assume that one of the guys from the first scene will show up and a love interest will be sprouted. Boy am I wrong, instead of one of the signing sailors some really fat guy appears and starts singing to the lady. Are they in love? Who is this guy? What is going on? This is 45 minutes into the Opera. I have done everything I can to give the impression that I am cultured: I sat with my legs crossed at the knees. I sat forward.  I put my hands on my crossed knees. I put my hand up to my chin…none of these physical attempts at body posturing worked, so instead of pretending to understand what was going on I took a moonlit walk in Vienna and tried to remember who Carlos Bocanegro was.

TSOJ: Final Thoughts on Prague

My visit in Prague was cut short by a flu/Ebola virus/black plague/monkey pox ailment, but I did have a few observations about Prague before I was put down for the count by a disease that would have killed an ordinary person.

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Someday I will learn how to keep my fingers out of the pictures.

9. Don’t ever, ever, ever, eat in a restaurant where the head waiter walks away from the dining area and shoots a “snot rocket” into a potted plant.

8. There is something about Prague residents and their dogs. I saw many dogs along the way, but the people of Prague take their dogs everywhere: Trains, buses, underground stations, supermarkets, restaurants…everywhere. Most of these dogs were not the little baby dogs I now see so many women carrying around like children in the US, but real life-sized dogs that could pick up one of those baby dogs and snap its head off. I began to wonder if the dogs were a hold over from the years of Soviet occupation where the streets were patrolled by soldiers and their dogs. I don’t know, but I never stepped in a pile of dog poo, which is more than I can say about some European cities; I’m talking to you, Paris.

7. Men’s fashion in Prague is a mix of hillbilly and Soviet Bloc circa 1985. I don’t know if the poorly dressed men were from Prague or if they were visitors from other lands where mirrors don’t exist, but I do know that the men in Prague have the fashion sense of an average 8th grade boy. I am certainly no fashion icon, I have the yellow shoes to prove it, but I know acid washed jeans and mullets are no longer setting any trends.

6. Fashionable women in Prague are expected to have blonde hair and wear a pink top made of some silky fabric.

5. David Černý is a fantastic artist. Rarely have I been more intrigued by a living artist. This guy has done some amazing, thought-provoking things in his time. His work says more about the Czech attitude toward power and the world than an entire book on Czech history could.

The Pissing Men. That is a map of the Czech Republic they are standing in. Their hips, Anthony Wieners, and hands move to spell out words in the water below.

The Pissing Men. That is a map of the Czech Republic they are standing in. Their hips, Anthony Wieners, and hands move to spell out words in the water below.

4. The Czech attitude toward life is a mix of Monty Python’s Flying Circus and Stoicism. I really believe that oppression has created a unique attitude toward life that is not optimistic but at the same time is not pessimistic. I did not see anyone in Prague laughing and yet the whole city seems to be holding in a belly laugh as they poke fun at the powers that exist around them. On the hillside overlooking the city there once stood a huge statue of Stalin. This was replaced by a statue of Michael Jackson…yep, Michael Jackson. Now, in the same location is a huge metronome that was built to show the passing of time…the metronome no longer works and is stuck like an old man trying to touch his toes. One would think that repairing a statue like this would be important to the people of Prague, but it isn’t, I guess they figure time marches on whether we measure it or not.

Typical of the Czech attitude toward life: the men's urinals in an expensive mall.

Typical of the Czech attitude toward life: the men’s urinals in an expensive mall.

The Metronome stands where Stalin and the King of Pop once stood.

The Metronome stands where Stalin and the King of Pop once stood.

If Ray Manzarak dies do you still expect him to show up in August?

If Ray Manzarek dies do you still expect him to show up in August?

3. Things that don’t make sense to me are not necessarily wrong, they are just different. I hate having to turn my key over when leaving a hotel, but in Prague my hotel key was this bulky thing with a rubber ring around it. I really thought the whole thing was pretty dumb until I discovered it all made sense.

This is a big stupid key. Why is it so big and stupid?

This is a big stupid key. Why is it so big and stupid?

Why is there this dumb rubber thing around it?

Why is there this dumb rubber thing around it?

Oh, I see. When I lock my door from the inside the rubber thing protects my door. Oh, I will never leave me key in the room and lock myself out this way...this is smart.

Oh, I see. When I lock my door from the inside the rubber thing protects my door. Oh, I will never leave me key in the room and lock myself out this way…this is smart.

2. If you are going to visit Prague get a map and a compass. I finally realized while in Prague why I get lost so often when traveling: There are no natural landmarks that I can see to let me know where I am. Where I live you can always see a mountain or the ocean or something that lets you know where you are. In most of these old cities you can’t see anything beyond the block you are standing on and none of the streets are straight for more than two blocks so good luck looking down the avenue to see where you are going.

Which tower is that? What direction am I facing? Why am I so lost again?

Which tower is that? What direction am I facing? Why am I so lost again?

1. Prague is an affordable city. Beer is a dollar. A meal can still be eaten at a restaurant for ten bucks and hotels are inexpensive. If you are on a budget Prague is a great place to stay.

TSOJ: Prague–Aussies, Bike Rides and Dealing with Being Sick

Twenty minutes before the train was scheduled to arrive from Hamburg I knew there was going to be a problem. Piles and piles of young backpackers with Eurail Passes were already crowding the platform. This was not good. I did not have a reserved seat and there were many, many more people than there were going to be seats, but I figured since I was traveling solo it would be easier for me to find a seat than most. When the train pulled up and a few people exited, the mob climbed aboard the train like we were attacking a castle fortress. My plan was to look on a car near the back and if nothing opened up, jump off the train and head toward the front looking for a less crowded car. Most of the kids were clustered around the middle of where the train would arrive and I wanted to avoid that mess if at all possible. I jumped on the trailing car, looked for a moment, almost all the seats were reserved, I jumped off the train and kept going until I could hop directly onto a car. I jumped, moved my way around a few folks, looking for any seat that did not have a reserved marker near the window, it did not look good, but suddenly I noticed an open spot that everyone was passing right by. I looked closely and asked the old man next to the open seat if it was taken. He moved his bag and I sat down. I scored a reasonable seat, and began to enjoy my new found home. There was no space to put my bag anywhere so I did my best to shove it under the seat.

"Aussie, Aussie, Aussie!"

“Aussie, Aussie, Aussie!”

I relaxed and for about 10 minutes, enjoyed my luck, then…I heard Aussies. I like Aussies. Aussies are great. Australians are fun to be with, informal, open, and generally great company. There is one caveat to enjoying Aussies…groups of Aussies fall back on their prison boat past. Groups of any nationality can be annoying because mob mentality is real. I can be a very quiet and reserved person, but put me in a foreign land with a handful of my countrymen and suddenly I’m every American stereotype in the Book of Stereotypes (available at Amazon in the Reference Section.) These 10, young (between 20-25, I figured) Aussie blokes (not gentlemen) were loud, obnoxious, and had only seven seats. They talked loudly about their sexual encounters, their drunken exploits, and their embarrassing moments. (I doubt the train ride from Berlin to Prague will become part of their repertoire because they were suffering under the impression that English is a strange tribal language only spoken by a few surviving people. If you speak only English, assume people near you will understand what you are saying and act accordingly. Just because you don’t understand them doesn’t mean they don’t understand you.) There was a young lady stuck in the corner with her reserved seat amidst the sea of “AUSSIE, AUSSIE, AUSSIE!” I felt terrible for her. She sat there the whole trip. It was a long five hour ride.

Hmm...Which ticket do I want? Do not pick the wrong one, because they check tickets in Prague's underground.

Hmm…Which ticket do I want? Do not pick the wrong one, because they check tickets in Prague’s underground.

When I arrived in Prague I took the underground (one of the easiest systems to understand as long as you know how to buy a ticket) to my hotel and was pleased to find out that I was no longer staying in a total dive. I had to work out a problem with my bike tour for the next day so I went back to the center of the city and talked to the bike shop owner. I was the only person who had reserved the full-day tour. (What? People don’t want to spend 7 hours on a bike?) He refunded 200 CK and I decided to do a morning tour and an evening tour, it was a good choice and I got ten bucks back. I took my new-found wealth and had dinner. I went to bed wondering if I had a scratchy throat or if I was catching something.

In the morning I knew I was coming down with a cold, so I did all the right things to prevent the cold from getting worse: took six hours worth of bike rides, drank three beers, and stayed out well past midnight. In my defense the evening bike tour finished around 11 and I had not eaten since I purchased very bad sandwich from a store the size of a walk-in closet next to my underground stop, so when our group asked if I wanted to join them for dinner I accepted. (For the record a sandwich that is labeled as “Mexican Flavored” does not mean the same thing in Prague as it does in the US.)

The first bike tour was centered around the historic downtown. I ate an entire bag of Halls fruit flavored throat lozenges during the ride so I was taking in something nutritional. The actual bike ride was very informative, but I don’t remember much about it, my mind was preoccupied with: 1. Not being killed by a car, 2. Not being killed by a fix object, 3. Not crashing into a pedestrian, 4. Not crashing and getting a bad case of road rash, 5. Wondering if anyone had died on this tour, 6. Wondering if it was a fever I was feeling or the heat of the day, 7. Thinking about what I was going to do if I got really sick, 8. Wondering if the bike company had ever been sued by Americans who had lost their ability to reproduce because of the cobblestones, 9. Wondering whether I should have a beer during lunch, 10. Thinking about whether I should go to bed or do the second tour later in the day.

How do you want to die on the bike tour? Car crash, Trolley, Wall?

How do you want to die on the bike tour? Car crash, Trolly, Wall? Oh, that is one of the Opera houses in the background.

The Astrological Clock. The builder of the clock was blinded after construction was completed so he could not make another.

The Astrological Clock. The builder of the clock was blinded after construction was completed so he could not make another.

Jan Hus was the leader of a reform movement against the Catholic church. Things did not go his way.

Jan Hus was the leader of a reform movement against the Catholic church. Things did not go his way.

The Art Nuevo architecture in the city was amazing.

The Art Nuevo architecture in the city was amazing.

When the tour was finished I had three hours to rest up for the next tour. I thought I would walk back to my hotel, take a two hour nap and be fresh as a daisy for the second tour. This was a good plan, unfortunately I got lost, really lost. How lost, you ask? Lost enough that I ended up walking through what I will call a “needle park” filled with homeless people and prostitutes. Lost enough that by the time I found my hotel I had enough time to take a 30 minute nap. 30 minute naps are like getting a bite of dessert, you pretend it is enough but it isn’t. I was not a fresh daisy when I started back to the bike shop, I was a wilted avalanche lily. Along the way I picked up more lozenges, the bad Mexican chicken sandwich, and an orange juice. I did my best enjoy my tour. It was beautiful and strenuous. We climbed hills, looked at the panoramas and took pictures. We were a small group: an American dude from Tennessee, an older couple from Israel, an Aussie lady, our guide from Mexico, and a younger Aussie guy who wore a shirt that read, “Pull the trigger Bitch!” I’m not sure where you get a shirt like that, but maybe there are “Misogynist R Us” stores in Australia. When I heard Tennessee and “Pull the Trigger” guy talking about signing up to do a Prague tour where you get to shoot machine guns I decided to spend most of my time talking to the Aussie lady and our guide. The climb to the top of the ridge was okay, but it was difficult for the older couple and for Tennessee since he had just lit his second cigarette of the tour. This was not what I will call good planning. Having a smoke in Prague is perfectly okay, but smoking while riding is questionable, toss into the equation that you are going uphill and that the smoke you are blowing out is coming right back into your face and you have made a series of bad choices, but Tennessee would become the touchstone of bad choices on our tour in my opinion.

(This paragraph is dedicated to the things Tennessee said during the tour: “I want to retire in Chechnya.” “I am the bad things that happen in Chechnya.” “I work security.” “I haven’t fired a AK in at least a month.” “That’s why I’m still single.” “That sounded like a 45 being shot.” “That usually scares the women away.” “I like your shirt.” “Let’s go fire some guns tomorrow.” “I’m an adrenaline junky.” “I doubt I’ll ever get married.”)

The rest breaks did give us lots of time to wait and gave me the chance to shove lozenge after lozenge into my pie hole. Prague from the hillside, looking across the river was beautiful. From where we stood on the ridge, the downtown area looked untouched since 1700. Prague is a strikingly beautiful city covered in two inches of historical grime. The Charles Bridge, the two remaining city towers, the Old Town Square, the Jewish quarter, and the organically-grown twisting cobblestone streets cannot be described without taking another 2,000 words, but let me just sum it up by saying, Prague is lovely.

The Vltava River cuts through Prague.

The Vltava River cuts through Prague.

Prague looking good from here.

Prague looking good from here.

Pretending to feel fine.

Pretending to feel fine.

Prague's castle/cathedral.

Prague’s castle/cathedral.

Look at me, I feel great.

Look at me, I feel great.

I almost crashed once on the ride down the hill, there were lots of switchbacks and I tried to cut one to sharp and nearly ended up gathering a collection of small rocks under my skin, but my half-asleep-cat-like reflexes saved me at the last moment. We took a longer break waiting for the older couple on the way down the hill and this is where I made a mistake in judgment. “The Pull the Trigger” dude asked the Aussie lady if she wanted to have dinner after the tour, she looked at me and said, “Dinner sounds good, let’s all go.” Now I took this as, “I don’t want to be alone with this guy, please come along so that I don’t end up being a story told loudly on a train some day.” I said that I could do a short meal, what I should have said was, “I don’t feel well, I think I need to get some sleep. You kids have a good time.” Anyway, this is how I ended up eating dinner at 11:30 in the evening in a smoke filled restaurant in Prague pretending;I was having a good time. (The term “smoke filled” is really redundant when it comes to Prague restaurants, but for those of you who have not been there it might not be apparent.)

If I were at home, I would have taken some NyQuil, drank ten gallons of OJ, and taken a hot bath. Instead I drank a liter of beer, ate some little pieces of mystery meat and spinach (not fresh tasty spinach, but frozen and reheated), and then I took a shower before hitting the old hay. I slept for about four hours before the sun was up.

Here is the great thing about being sick on vacation, you spend very little money. I ate nothing all day, watched Django Unchained again, watched Inglorious Bastards, watched No Country for Old Men, and moved in and out of consciousness for about 12 hours. I killed the cold by drowning it in sweat. My room on the top floor was a combination sauna/heat collector for the rest of the guests downstairs. For some mysterious reason my AC was not working, I turned the little knob toward the number 15 but nothing happened. It was the only hotel on my entire trip that had the luxury of cooling air, but it was not working. Had I been in a coherent state of mind I would have called downstairs and asked why my room was 115 degrees, but instead I thought about writing a short note about how I had died in Prague from the Black Plague. “Dear Loved Ones, I’m sorry I died during TSOJ. Thanks for letting me go. I had fun until I died in Prague. Love, Jon…PS. Isn’t it odd that Prague and Plague are almost the same word…”

I found out as I was checking out the next day that if you want the AC on you have to request it downstairs. This is good information to have after you leave.

Anyway, around 5PM I started to think that I could sneak out and see the Mucha Museum that I very much wanted to see. I got up, showered, and went outside and decided to eat something instead. Choosing to eat verses going to a museum is something I never do, so this was a real moment of weakness for me, but in the end I decided that I will have to return to Prague and see what I missed.

TSOJ: Final Thoughts on Berlin

I found beer flavored beer was best.

I found beer flavored beer was best.

10. Flavored beer has its limits. While in Berlin I sampled lime flavored/colored beer, raspberry flavored/colored beer, lemon beer, and grape/colored (is grape a color?) beer. The research was exhausting, but that is why I am here, I boldly drink what many women and children have drunk before. The lime beer was passable, the lemon beer was good, everything else was a bad idea. I refused to try the banana beer. I did hear that the banana beer was good, but after the grape disaster I decided to stick to regular beer.

"I'm Scottish and trying to speak English!"

“I’m Scottish and trying to speak English!”

9. Drunks are annoying no matter where you go. “Oh, I see, you can drink all the flavored beer you want, but if some Scotsmen get a little too much beer in them…” Okay, first off, I did not drink all that awful beer at once. I spaced the bad beer into different days to keep my precious palate clean. I was having a nice evening in Berlin when this crew began having “too much fun.” How do you know you are having too much fun? You are loud. You are speaking English, but the people who understand English are constantly asking you to repeat what you said because they are not sure if you are still speaking English.

185(365) knees

185(365) knees (Photo credit: JasonTank)

8. Cut-off shorts must be stopped. I remember seeing these pants/shorts things and laughing, now they are everywhere and Berlin is not helping to stop the spread of this fashion disease. I really, really don’t like this. What is next? Bell-bottoms, super bell-bottoms, and open necked shirts with medallions?

7. Gypsies have shifted their begging strategy in Berlin. I could be wrong about this, but I did not see the traditional women asking for money. I was caught off-guard once. I was walking down the Unter den Linden and a young man approached me with a little piece of cardboard and a signature page. He indicated that he could not hear by pointing at his ears and making moaning sounds. I looked at the signature page and thought I was signing a document for legislation for deaf people…until I got to the last box to fill in: Donation. I put a big 0 with a line through it and got a little steamed. It was obviously a scam and felt like tossing his little sign into the street, but just handed it back to him and told him he was getting nothing from me. After this incident, I saw many more of these “deaf” guys all about the same age wandering the tourist areas asking for “donations.” I assume people who are deaf are actually taken care of in Berlin and know SIGN LANGUAGE!

6. Beggars in Berlin, and in many cities I visited, have multiplied. What struck me about the beggars (I am not speaking of homeless people) in Berlin were the physical deformities. I saw one shirtless man with scars covering his back and shoulders from some type of acid or fire burn and I saw other people whose legs had been so badly damaged that they could barely walk. I know that in some countries beggars are physically maimed in order to improve their ability to get more money and after seeing these people I wondered if this “tradition” has moved to Berlin. It is difficult to believe that in a country that provides so much of a social safety net that there are people still falling through the cracks. The cynical part of me thinks that it is a scam, but I also cannot help but carry the guilt of winning the “birth lottery.”

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Jewish Holocaust Memorial.

5. There is no better city in the world for history and moving monuments. I have not been to Cairo, Athens, or Istanbul, but I think Berlin holds more history than any other spot. Of course, this history can not be glamorized and the German people have done a better job than any other place I have been to hold a mirror up to the horrors and learn from them.

Empty underground library located where the Nazis burned books.

Empty underground library located where the Nazis burned books, and little of my finger.

4. Bullet holes in stuff makes it more interesting. I remember being fascinated by a church in London that still had scars from bombs dropped in WWII. I looked and looked at the small dents and chunks missing from the marble of the church and understood that history wasn’t something that just happened in a boring class or books. Berlin has more bullet holes in it than a Quentin Tarantino movie. Even the Victory Tower, which has been fully restored, still has all the bullet holes and dents left in it.

Victory Tower recently restored.

Victory Tower recently restored.

The restoration missed a few spots.

The restoration missed a few spots.

Chunk of marble missing from WWII.

Chunk of marble missing from WWII.

3. The German language mystifies me. I really cannot seem to make my mouth and eyes work at the same time. I see the word, think about what it might sound like, and then completely mispronounce the word. This is shameful, but it is a fact. I cannot order a single food in German besides beer, and the only reason I can pronounce beer is because it sounds the same in English.

2. Eat street food in Berlin. The currywurst is good, the doner is great, and the ethnic food in Berlin is really outstanding. Most of us want to go to Germany and eat “German” food but if you want to eat that stuff do it in Munich where they celebrate that whole beer and brats thing. In Berlin eat ethnic food. It is less expensive and really good.

Currywurst mit pommes.

Currywurst mit pommes.

Rhubarb flavored soda? I'll bet that is good...nope.

Rhubarb flavored soda? I’ll bet that is good…nope.

Doner.

Doner.

1. I can visit Berlin many more times and not get tired of it. (Okay, full disclosure, I do think they need to do something about the smell.)IMG_1818

 

TSOJ: Berlin, like a local (who speaks no German)

East Berlin

East Berlin

When you are in Berlin during the summer you will get a whiff of something unpleasant, something that smells like a sewer and that is because it is the sewer. I don’t know why the sewer smells like it does, but it is one of those distinctive aspects of Berlin that are inexplicable. In a country with the infrastructure like Germany one would think that moving human waste without having the odor escape from the sewer might be a priority, but apparently it is not, but after a few days in Berlin I did not notice the smell any longer. The only thing I did smell was on a particularly hot day I got on a subway and smelled what can only be described as Atomic B O. I wondered who on the subway needed a shower, the good news was that the person in need of a shower was the dude wearing my shirt. The best part of me stinking up the subway car was that I really didn’t care. Yep, I should have put on more deodorant, but I didn’t and now it is too late. I was trying to conserve a little travel sized deodorant for the whole month-long trip, but I was now running low and in my effort to conserve I probably went a little too far. (I have since come to my senses and purchased another lump of deodorant.)

One of the best things about going to Berlin was seeing someone I knew. Aristea was a Berliner and had been a student at my school this past year. My first words to her when I met her in the summer were, “Your city smells.” (I’m all class, all the time.) Despite this first encounter, she agreed to meet with me while I was in Berlin. We met at the Jewish Museum (after I found it, I got lost twice thanks to 70/30% rule of German signage) and I met Aristea’s friend Chloe who was visiting from France. We wandered through the museum for a little while trying to understand what was going on, but I was struck immediately by the use of one word in all of the descriptions of the Jewish people in the exhibits: murdered. Almost all of the Holocaust/Jewish museums I have been to say things like, “Issac perished in Auschwitz, or Issac was executed in Auschwitz, or Issac died in Auschwitz.” Murdered is a personal word, it is not a word used to describing mass killings. I am certain that this word was used purposefully, to personalize the deaths of these innocent people, but also to hammer home the deaths were intentional and not accidental or part of the machine of time.

The modern wing of the Jewish Museum.

The modern wing of the Jewish Museum.

Another beautiful day in Berlin.

Another beautiful day in Berlin.

Several of the exhibits were just experiences. I stood in a large room looking up at a shaft of light, there was no explanation, but to me it seemed like the hope of the Jewish people during the Holocaust. They could see something in the distance but were surrounded by darkness and the light was very far away.

That light was way, way up there.

That light was way, way up there.

The next spot was a little courtyard with large rectangular blocks of cement. At first everything seemed normal, until you stood in the courtyard. The blocks provided a visual illusion that you were standing upright, but the ground was actually on a slope and it was difficult to walk because the visual cues were telling you one thing, but the reality was different.

Looks straight up, but it isn't.

Looks straight up, but it isn’t.

We eventually got upstairs and began the history part of the museum. I thought I knew a little about Jewish life and beliefs, but it did not take long for me learn about five times as much as I had ever known. I learned about traditions, about Jewish beliefs, about Jewish history, and about stuff I hadn’t ever considered. We were there for two and a half hours and we could have stayed there twice as long.

Aristea standing in front of a sound wall. The headphones picked up different voices as you moved around. No one spoke English, but a few times I recognized a name and age from the voices.

Aristea standing in front of a sound wall. The headphones picked up different voices as you moved around. No one spoke English, but a few times I recognized a name and age from the voices.

The Tree of Wishes. Grab a paper apple, write a wish, hang it in the tree. I put, "I hope the Cubs win the World Series." That is a lie, I put up a little hippie note about love and peace.

The Tree of Wishes. Grab a paper apple, write a wish, hang it in the tree. I put, “I hope the Cubs win the World Series.” That is a lie, I put up a little hippie note about love and peace.

Large glass courtyard set aside for eating and thinking after the visit.

Large glass courtyard set aside for eating and thinking after the visit.

After the Jewish museum we were off to eat Thai food. I love Thai food, but I also suffer from the idea that the best ethnic food can be found in America. Why did I believe this? Primarily ignorance, but a little of it was buying into the idea that America is a melting pot of many cultures and everywhere else in the world is pretty much a collection of mono-ethnic cultures where people don’t mix. This is not the case, the world is incredibly diverse and while America has good Thai food, so does Berlin, really good Thai food.

We met Aristea’s mom at the restaurant and got seats outside along the street. I really love the relaxed attitude of eating outside in Europe, it is one of the great pleasures of life. At our table to eat Thai food, we had a French woman, two Berliners and an American, it was very international, the best news was that everyone spoke excellent English. It was so nice to be able to be taken care of by my German-speaking hosts. They ordered, picked up the food, and picked up the bill. I had some duck and curry. It was very good, and I got to try a mango drink that was also very nice. I spent a lot of time talking to Aristea’s mom about the United States about her travels. After I told her about my harrowing experience climbing the tower in Copenhagen, she told me that it was possible to climb up into the tower in the center of the Tiergarten. I hadn’t planned on climbing anymore towers, but this one looked pretty safe compared to the one in Copenhagen. After dinner, we walked to a coffee shop and had some caffeine and cake to top the evening off. It was one of those leisurely evenings that seem so hard to accomplish in America. Culturally we could learn a lot from the Europeans when it comes to eating and relaxing. Imagine eating a meal for two hours in America, it just doesn’t happen, but it should.

At the end of the evening, Aristea’s mom drove me back to my hotel by way of all of the places I should visit on my last day. I managed to make it to all of the locations on my final day in Berlin, but nothing was better than the evening that I got to pretend I was a local.

TSOJ: Berlin for Museum Nerds

imageFirst off, if you are going to visit the museums of Berlin, get a three-day Berlin Museum card. It is 24 Euros and will save you time, money, and it will make you feel like a winner. Even if you use it for two days it is worth it. I like the museum passes in most cities because it allows me to see what I want to see and then move on. I don’t feel like I have to stay in one museum because I paid 16 Euros to get in. With a pass I can zip around, see what I want to and be on to my next museum before the paint is dry. It also allows you to skip lines. Lines for the Pergamon can be long, but with a museum pass, walk around the line and find the dude with the ticket reader and cut right on through like you are an Italian. My advice for getting the pass is to find the museum that will have the shortest line (the museums out at the Kulturforum are usually lightly attended because the bus tourists don’t go there) and buy your pass early in your first day, you can easily knock out several museums each day if you don’t have to wait in line and you don’t have to walk through each room of the museum like a dutiful museum visitor. I follow the creed that if I don’t like it, I don’t have to spend time looking at it.

The Pergamon:
If there is one museum in the world that just took my breath away, it is this one. It is the one museum I would require everyone visit. Not because the museum is masterfully put together, or has an astounding collection of beaded work from Mesopotamia, but because it has three of the largest structures I have ever seen inside a building. There isn’t anything I can really say that will over hype this place, it is simply amazing. There are always lines here, and there is an unending construction project that makes it difficult to find the entrance; last time I was here, five years ago, they were doing construction on Museum Island and the entrance was on the west side of the building, this time the entrance was from the south. My advice is to come from the direction of the Berliner Dom and cut about 10 minutes of walking out of your day.

The Pergamon Altar. I found a secret room to the left and behind the stairs.

The Pergamon Altar. I found a secret room to the left and behind the stairs.

Walk around all the saps in line and head into the building. Do you need a audio-tour? I get these little devices sometimes, but most of the time by the time I get to exhibit #5 on my audio tour I am tired of all the history and my brain hurts, so unless I am going to spend a bunch of time in a museum I usually pass on the audio tour. Anything I have questions about I can always look up on the interwebs afterwards.

Sit down, relax and...

Sit down, relax and…

...let your ugly shoes dominate all the tourists' photos.

…let your ugly shoes dominate all the tourists’ photos.

When you turn the corner into the main room of the Pergamon you will see the biggest stairway and altar ever taken from one place and moved to another place. Stealing stuff from the ancient world was a crime, but come on, when I can go to Berlin and see this my ethical compass has problems recalibrating. Take some time, so and sit on the stairs look around, take some pictures, and then move to the east and through the doorway to the next big thing. This room has a marketplace from Rome or something, it is cool and everything, but after seeing the Pergamon Altar it looses some of its wonder. If I saw this marketplace in a Seattle museum I would have been blown away, but in the Pergamon it barely registers. The last room that is a must visit is through the southern door on the other side is…the Gates of Ishtar from the ancient city of Babylonian. The first time I saw this I really could not believe it existed. The color, the detail, the size, all of it rivals the Pergamon Altar. The rest of the museum is lots of really old stuff and I looked at some of it, but if you really want to keep my attention you need to make it big and old, little and old is okay, but big and old is always a winner.

Yawn, oh I suppose this is impressive if you like that kind of thing. This exhibit is suffering from the Jan Brady syndrome.

Yawn, oh I suppose this is impressive if you like that kind of thing. This exhibit is suffering from the Jan Brady syndrome.

BAMMMMMM!!!! Don't let your eyes pop out because they will want to.

BAMMMMMM!!!! Don’t let your eyes pop out because they will want to.

Something for math nerds.

Something for math nerds.

More banners for math nerds.

More banners for math nerds.

Imagine how impressive this was in the olden days.

Imagine how impressive this was in the olden days.

Walls towering above your head, blue tiles, and the power of an empire on display.

Walls towering above your head, blue tiles, and the power of an empire on display.

Neues Museum:
While on Museum Island make sure you drop in to see this museum of old Egyptian stuff. I wasn’t going to visit the museum initially, but Doctor Phillip advised me that I must see it while we were drinking beer along KuDam on my first night in Berlin. Phillip told me that it was beautiful, he even did the Italian thing where he put his fingers up to his mouth and made a kissing sound indicating that is was extra-lovely. He was right, this museum was pretty good. The worst part of the museum was that each room seemed to have a different rule about taking pictures and I wasn’t sure if this was just to confuse me or if it was done so that the German museum guards can yell at people. Either way, there were a lot of great hieroglyphics and the bust of Nefertiti was amazing like Dr. Phillip told me. (Imagine me putting my fingers to my lips and making kissing noises.)

Some old fashioned graffiti. Take that Banksy.

Some old fashioned graffiti. Take that Banksy.

Let me translate: Dad, pick up some cow, duck, and wheat at the store before you come home from work.

Let me translate: Dad, pick up some cow, duck, and wheat at the store before you come home from work.

Nefertiti bust

I had a caption here about allowing Wikipedia to take photos but not me, where’d it go?

The Gemäldegalerie:
I wanted to go to this museum to see the two Vermeer paintings and that was about it, but I was pleasantly surprised by the collection of really interesting old paintings. I arrived early at the museum, actually I arrived 24 hours early to find out that the museum is closed on Monday, but I did not let that hold me back and returned 24 hours later and jumped passed the line and was off into the many rooms. I had a little guide that was supposed to take me through all the rooms, but I abandoned that thing in about 10 minutes since I can walk and chew gum at the same time I figured I would not get lost and I was right. The rooms I jogged through were the portrait rooms but the rest of the rooms had some pretty cool paintings. What I liked most was the humor found in the paintings.

Vermeer at his best. Girl drinking, man pouring, symbolic stained glass window...there's some interesting stuff going on here.

Vermeer at his best. Girl drinking, man pouring, symbolic stained glass window…there’s some interesting stuff going on here.

Drunken card players. The guys in the background are priceless.

Drunken card players. The guys in the background are priceless.

Drunken card game #2. Things haven't changed much over time.

Drunken card game #2. Things haven’t changed much over time.

Venus without her shell, and without a few other things like clothing.

Venus without her shell, and without a few other things like clothing.

The best picture ever. I want to visit this place.

The best picture ever. I want to visit this place.

What is going on under that roof? Is that a donkey?

What is going on under that roof? Is that a donkey?

Pies on the roof, lovers in the attic, and fighting.

Pies on the roof, lovers in the attic, and fighting.

The drunk guy with face plastered to the table still makes me laugh.

The drunk guy with face plastered to the table still makes me laugh.

A guy falling through a basket? What in the world is going on here?

A guy falling through a basket? What in the world is going on here?

Portraits are usually boring, but this one has plenty to wonder about. His notepad really interested me.

Portraits are usually boring, but this one has plenty to wonder about. His notepad really interested me.

A note for historical accuracy: I do not recall weasel being served at the last supper (it certainly would make Communion messier these days), and I am pretty sure Judas did not bring his coins to the dinner.

A note for historical accuracy: I do not recall weasel being served at the last supper (it certainly would make Communion messier these days), and I am pretty sure Judas did not bring his coins to the dinner.

And while I'm nit picking, I assume this beautiful painting is of Jesus and Mary. Then, Mr. Artist, why is there a Jesus on the cross in the background?

And while I’m nit picking, I assume this beautiful painting is of Jesus and Mary. Then, Mr. Artist, why is there a Jesus on the cross in the background?

The Neue Nationalgalerie:
The best part of this museum was the old statutes upstairs. The paintings downstairs were okay, but a lot of the modern art movement is lost on me. Mark Rothko is the guy I always think of when I think of art that I just don’t get and here is a fine example of his work. It is better in real life, but skeptics of modern art aren’t going to buy too many of his paintings because “my kid could paint that.” Most of the art in this collection I would classify as “protest art” which is interesting but not always beautiful. I would say that the only reason to drop in here is to do it because it is close to the Gemäldegalerie and if you have a museum pass it doesn’t hurt.

The detail in this sculpture was amazing.

The detail in this sculpture was amazing.

This is marble...how do you do that?

This is marble…how do you do that?

Mark Rothko...I call this one red and red.

Mark Rothko…I call this one red and red.

The Birth of Hitler. This was a large painting that caught my lazy eye.

The Birth of Hitler. This was a large painting that caught my lazy eye.

The lady did not stop this assault and I just took pictures.

The lady did not stop this assault and I just took pictures.

 

TSOJ: Bike Tour of Potsdam

In my humble and important opinion, bike tours are one of the best ways to see most European cities, and my favorite bike tour company (Fat Tire Bike Tours) always manages to do all the things that make a bike tour great. I have taken three tours based in Paris (day tour, night tour, Versailles) and I have taken one of the many Berlin tours, so when I saw that there was a tour of Potsdam offered by Fat Tire I did not hesitate to sign up. When solo traveling these tours are great for meeting people and seeing the sights.

The Crew, ready to rule the mean streets of Potsdam.

The Crew, ready to rule the mean streets of Potsdam.

When I decided that Potsdam was on my itinerary I knew very little about the history of Potsdam other than the end of WWII and Potsdam had some distant connection in my brain. By the end of the day I knew as much as someone with a PhD in German history. (This is a lie, but I could pass a two question test on German history written in English.)

We kicked off our tour by informally introducing ourselves and it wasn’t long before we all agreed that it was a small world as we made connections from our pasts. (For example, one of the ladies on the tour had grown up in the mighty PNW and had spent many summers at a family cabin in Grayland, WA where I worked for 16 years.) We all hopped on a train to Potsdam and picked up our bikes. The bikes all have names printed on their frames and I ended up with The Alman Brothers, I really wanted Anna Kornikova but I didn’t think my wife would approve of me riding Anna all day. Off we went, it was a cooler than usual day and I was prepared by having hairy legs and arms. The people from California and Arizona in our group were cold, but I was comfortable the whole day.

Doing my job as "ass man." Blocking a car, a horse-drawn carriage, and taking an ill-advised picture while riding downhill.

Doing my job as “ass man.” Blocking a car, a horse drawn carriage, and taking an ill advised picture while riding downhill.

Our guide, Craig, was from Australia and brought that Aussie relaxed attitude the entire day. One of the first things to decide on the tour is who gets to ride in the very back. In France they called this the derrière, but in Germany the last person is referred to as the “ass man.” The payment to be the “ass man” is one beer back at the shop, I had been the derriere before and quickly volunteered to take care of business as the “ass man.” The “ass man’s” job is to make sure no one gets left behind and at times is the person who blocks traffic. The nice thing about the Potsdam tour is that there was not any need to block traffic since most of the day we were riding through the huge parks in Potsdam.

I will now sum up everything you need to know about Potsdam in a paragraph. (If you need to check any of the historical accuracy of this section please use Wikipedia.) The Germans wanted to have a Versailles like place for their royalty to hang out, so they built a bunch of castles. It got a bit out of control. Many of the buildings were like Hollywood stage sets and did not have much substance. The different kings all had their own ideas about what to build and pretty soon there was a mess of different styles of architecture. Eventually the kings lost power after WWI and the place was kind of ignored for a few years, until the Big Three (not LeBron, D Wade, and Chris Bosh, but America, England, and Russia) were looking for a place to divide up Germany after WWII. The Big Three met in Potsdam because the rest of the country only had about three buildings left standing. (This bombing is described in Germany as inhumane, in the US it is described as necessary.) After the Potsdam Accord was signed the Cold War started and we got to move our hatred from Germans to Russians. After that Potsdam was controlled by the East Germans and the castles were used by the Communist Party leaders as summer retreats. There was some other important stuff along the way, but that is the condensed version.

On our bikes we saw some awesomely weird buildings and rode around the whole city. I must say, when people have unlimited funds to build things they go a bit nutty. The worst building was this Chinese Pagoda building. There were Germans who had been to China to trade opium and they returned with some great stories about the buildings, so instead of having the architect visit China or bringing in a Chinese builder, they just kind of winged it. The result is a building that is either blatantly racist, or just plain ugly. I believe the traders were smoking their product instead of just trading it.

This is a real building. This building exists.

This is a real building. This building exists.

What's worse, the hats or the mustache?

What’s worse, the hats or the mustache?

That's a lot of gold leaf.

That’s a lot of gold leaf.

Shocked, but certainly amused.

Shocked, but certainly amused.

One of the kings, Frederick The Great (aka Frederick II), had an exciting life. He tried to run away from his father and leave the royal thing in the rearview mirror, but one of his friends ratted him out. (Most historians agree he was homosexual and trying to escape with his lover.) The king executed Fredrick’s lover; forcing Fred to watch. Freddy then decided to behave himself and even got married (kind of, no kids and he is buried next to his dogs, his wife’s grave is nowhere to be seen). The best thing King Freddy did was bring potatoes to Germany. At first Germans did not want to eat potatoes, so the King Freddy made a law that said that only the royals could eat potatoes. This changed everyone’s attitude about potatoes and soon people were trying to steal potatoes from the royal potato patch. After a year king Freddy lifted the ban on potatoes and everyone was making potato salad, mashed potatoes, and eating potatoes like crazy. Germans are still potato crazy.

The Potato King's grave, with potatoes and his dogs, you can not make up history this awesome.

The Potato King’s grave, with potatoes and his dogs, you can not make up history this awesome.

Around noon, we stopped to have a little lunch in a beer garden. This beer garden overlooked a lake and offered traditional German food: Beer, sausages, lentil soup, potatoes of various types, and pretzels. I decided that a liter of seasonal beer was needed to wash down my brat, potato salad, and kraut. It was a great break in the middle of the day and allowed all of us to sit around a table and find a little more about each other. Craig, the tour guide, said the most surprising thing of all; he wanted to travel to America and see the southern states: Alabama, Arkansas, Mississippi, and Texas. All of the Americans were shocked by this information. Most often, these are not the locations that tourists want to visit, but Craig said that he heard that people there were crazy and he wanted to see them with his own eyes. This view is even more odd when one considers that Craig is from Australia and seeing crazy people is easy enough in his homeland. This is not an opinion, it is a fact.

They needed Dutch builders, so they built Dutch style houses to entice them to come to Potsdam.

They needed Dutch builders, so they built Dutch style houses to entice them to come to Potsdam.

Sanssouci from the gardens below: The Summer Palace.

Sanssouci from the gardens below: The Summer Palace.

This was the servant housing...really, they had the servants stay here so they could show the other rulers where the servants stayed.

This was the servant housing…really, they had the servants stay here so they could show the other rulers where the servants stayed.

Need a windmill to make it look like Holland? Then build a windmill.

Need a windmill to make it look like Holland? Then build a windmill.

Roman ruins built in the distance to look like Roman ruins. If you want to see real Roman ruins you will have to go to Disneyland.

Roman ruins built in the distance to look like Roman ruins. If you want to see real Roman ruins you will have to go to Disneyland.

What do you do when you are at war with England (WWI)? Well, you build a really big English Tudor style mansion. Makes perfect sense in Potsdam.

What do you do when you are at war with England (WWI)? Well, you build a really big English Tudor style mansion. Makes perfect sense in Potsdam.

We finished the tour at the building where the Potsdam Accord was signed. I did not pay the extra fee to take photographs inside the building. There were three rooms for the three leaders: Churchill, Stalin, and Eisenhower; and one big room with a big round table for the actual meetings. It is strange to sit in a room where the course of history was changed, or at least to know that many of my childhood fears of the USSR were formed by the decisions made in this room. We hopped back on our bikes and cruised back to the train station, just barely made our train, and then headed back into Berlin. Once we made it to the bike shop I collected my beer and was given a chunk of the wall. I don’t know if the chuck was because I did a passable job as “ass man,” but it doesn’t matter why I was awarded the fist sized piece of cement because to me the fall of the wall is more about the potential for change than anything else. I never thought I would see the day when Germany was combined and I never thought we would live in a world where the Communist Bloc did not exist any longer. It gives me hope for the future and for all the challenges the human race will face.

TSOJ: Berlin–Ugly Shoes, Horrible Hotels, and How Germany Won the War of Breakfast

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Jesus in Berlin. I’m not sure if he is doing a swan dive, or is using the Crane technic (Karate Kid allusion) to fight off evil in Germany.

Let’s be honest, most Americans have a singular view of German history: Hitler. I don’t want to minimize Hitler’s impact on Germany, but reducing German history to the years around 1930-1945 is a little like reducing American history to the Reagan years.

Berlin has seen it all and for any traveler interested in history, Berlin is a must stop.

Travel inside Berlin has some challenges for a non-German speaker, but people are generally helpful and most speak excellent English. For me the public transportation is a challenge. Whereas London, and Paris have systems that I find easy to use, Berlin is a complicated mess. Now, I am certain that the locals all know how everything works, but to me the S system and U system need a bit of work. I was told that the S system is above ground and the U system in underground, but that isn’t always the truth. Coming off a U train and having to find an S train is a sometimes difficult. Couple that with Germany’s directional signage problems and you have a lot of lost tourists. (I found that almost all the signs got you 70% of the way, the last 30% is supposed to be intuition.) The number of times I started one direction, came back, and then finally figured it out are too many to mention. I don’t believe that Germans care that you get lost, and frankly who can blame them a lost tourist is a comical person to watch: The map flapping in the wind, the confused look, the orientation of map to streets, and the joy of knowing where you are going is a great example of Schadenfreude. I’m not saying that Germans are purposely being mean, they just seem to get a little more joy from your discomfort than other people.

Warning! Germans making signs! Beware of exclamation points!

Warning! Germans making signs! Beware of exclamation points!

Berlin is also the best place that I know of to see chunks of ancient history, WWI and WWII history, Cold War history, and European reunification. London has a lot of this same history, but it is seen from a longer lens, in Berlin it happened in the streets beneath your feet. The greatest example is the brick line that cuts through the street in front of Brandenburg Gate.

It is much easier to cross from East Berlin to West Berlin these days.

It is much easier to cross from East Berlin to West Berlin these days.

These shoes were made for running and that's not what they'll do, instead they'll walk, and walk all over you ex-Berlin Wall.

These shoes were made for running and that’s not what they’ll do, instead they’ll walk, and walk all over you ex-Berlin Wall.

Today cars drive across this little brick path, but just twenty-five years ago there was a wall separating East and West Berlin and a large chunk of ground between the two cities called the dead zone. This is now completely gone and the two cities are now one large metroplex of a city. Most cities grow around a center (I like to think of it like the yolk of a fried egg), but since Berlin had two centers for so many years it is like one of those two yolked eggs. There is the Western center of museums and culture, and then there is the Eastern chunk. When it comes to Berlin’s museums I will admit that I like the stuff the East had stolen better than the stuff the West had.

I think one of the most important aspects of Germany’s history is that they do not hide from their mistakes. It is not difficult to spend your whole day visiting Hitler sites and reviewing the horror of the Holocaust and WWII. Much of this history could have been revised, but Germans have done the more difficult thing, and that is to brush off the dust of history and show people how a country can take the small steps that eventually lead to inhumane acts of genocide.

Just one of the hundreds of reminders of the horrors of WWII.

Just one of the hundreds of reminders of the horrors of WWII.

Jewish Holocaust Memorial in Berlin.

Jewish Holocaust Memorial in Berlin.

The square where they burned books has this reminder. The quote translates roughly into, "When you begin by burning books, you end by burning people."

The square where they burned books has this reminder. The quote translates roughly into, “When you begin by burning books, you end by burning people.”

How did I end up buying the ugliest shoes in Berlin? Well, my blister problems have been well documented during The Summer of Jon, but I finally decided that I would do whatever was needed to find shoes that did not cause me blisters, so as soon as I arrived in Berlin I struck out to find a shoe store. The good news is that my hotel was near one of the major shopping areas in Western Berlin, Ku Dam. So, I hobbled up along Ku Dam until I reached a shoe store and looked for a cheap pair of running shoes. I found some that met my requirements: not too loud, on sale, and in my size. I bought the shoes, asked where I could put them on, and then found out that the shoes I bought were too small. I took the shoes back to the register and talked to the salesman. He said they normally don’t carry shoes bigger than 45, which is close to an American 12. I normally wear a 12.5 so I asked if there were any shoes in my size, the salesman said that they don’t get many shoes that size but he would look. He came back with one pair of bright yellow shoes. “These are the only ones we have in your size,” he said. These shoes only met one of my three requirement–they fit. Everything else was wrong. Florescent yellow is not a shoe color in my opinion, and the shoes were not on sale. My desperation forced me into buying some epically ugly shoes and these shoes have not gone unnoticed. Germans are probably better at making disapproving faces at strangers than any other culture. I got a lot of looks. I know that I am probably just a trend setter, and that everyone is jealous of my cool shoes.

Berlin's man-hole covers are world-class, but they have never seen shoes this ugly.

Berlin’s man hole covers are world class, but they have never seen shoes this ugly.

When booking hotel I take into consideration many things, location, ratings on TripAdvisor, cost, and whether breakfast is offered. Sometimes I make a mistake. The biggest mistake would be the first time my family visited Iceland. There were not many hotels to choose from and prices were high for a family of four. We ended up in a place called the Flying Viking (pronounced Flying Wiking.) It was a little like a garage, a little like a hostel, and a lot like a place that my family universally hated. I was less concerned about the ratings of a hotel on this trip as saving money was the primary priority and because of that I didn’t mind staying in riskier hotels that were centrally located. Berlin has lots of hotels that do not cost a ton and I found one called Hotel Pension Kima just off Ku Dam and surrounded by expensive shops. It sounded like a no brainer to me. I booked it. My hopes were pretty high until I stepped into the elevator. The elevator resembled a painted wooden box that moved up and down the shaft by means of a hamster powered engine. It was the type of elevator that when you step into it, it sinks three inches. This did not make me feel safe, the sign next to the elevator did not reassure me. What does this sign mean? Be careful when passing the flame? Hell is located close by? Stand with your arms straight when the box catches fire?

Crisscrossing lasers, fire, death in a box...

Crisscrossing lasers, fire, death in a box…

After I got my key and headed up to my room, I was confronted by the uncomfortable fact that I was staying in a dive. The bed looked clean and that was really the only important thing, but I wondered how many people had died in this very room. Berlin is an old city and I estimated there were probably at least five people who took their last breath here. There was also the possibility that no one had died here because it was actually a broom closet until it was converted into my room. I dealt with the situation like most travelers, I spent as little time in the room as possible. I slept there and then spent the day out and about. This might be the best reason to stay in a dive, it forces you to get out of the hotel.

Don't get turned around in here, you could get lost.

Don’t get turned around in here, you could get lost.

This room was used to store horse brushes during the Hapsburg dynasty.

This room was used to store horse brushes during the Hapsburg dynasty.

The other part of the hotel was the morning breakfast. I looked forward to it since German baked goods are very good. Apparently my hotel did not get the memo about feeding me German baked goods. We had coffee, orange juice, a couple cereal choices, cheese, meat, hardboiled eggs, and very bad breads. I tried to eat my usual 5,000 calories on the first day, but it was forced, and on day two and three I was eating a small breakfast and then paying for a large lunch. The good news was that I was able to eat cheaply since Berlin is a reasonably priced town, and beer is certainly not frowned upon for lunch.

Getting ready to take out my "breakfast anger" on some brats and beer.

Getting ready to take out my “breakfast anger” on some brats and beer.

TSOJ: Final Thoughts on Copenhagen

Disposable forks, knives, and spoons made from wood instead of plastic. That's a good idea.

Disposable forks, knives, and spoons made from wood instead of plastic. That’s a good idea.

1. People vomit a great deal in Copenhagen. I did not witness any of this vomiting, but I did see the aftermath on the mornings I was there. Most often this mess took place near a trashcan. I have read a little about what is now a problem plaguing most European cities: Drunk tourism. With cheap flights all over Europe there are people dropping into a different cities, pulling weekend benders, and then flying home. If I lived in Copenhagen it would be something I would complain about frequently, but the Danes seem content to let idiots be idiots.

Bag of water used to slowly water a tree. Easy to fill up, easy to use, and smart.

Bag of water used to slowly water a tree. Easy to fill up, easy to use, and smart.

2. Innovation is a Danish thing. I like the Danish way of thinking: The little bike locks, the recycling machines in stores, the sanitizer for toilets instead of paper seat covers, the variety of cargo bikes, and the integration of the old and new with their public buildings.

Recycling machine: put your empties in the hole, the machine reads the bar code and prints out a receipt that can be used in the store.

Recycling machine: put your empties in the hole, the machine reads the barcode and prints out a receipt that can be used in the store.

3. There are no ugly Danes. I don’t know if it is just a genetic thing or if ugly people are not allowed to live in Copenhagen, but everyone is tall, elegant, and stylish. Young people, middle-aged people, old people all appeared to be models out of some hip fashion magazine. It isn’t just the clothing, there is something about the Danish way that makes them look like the coolest people on the planet.

Soren K, father of Danish "meh?"

Soren K, father of Danish “meh?”

4. Danes (be ready for a wild generalization) don’t judge people. There is a true live and let live attitude. In Denmark this lack of judgement is a two way street. You can grow your dreadlocks out and wear a purple tunic, but don’t get an attitude about my pointy-shiny shoes and business suit. I relate this attitude back the the writer/philosopher Soren Kierkegaard but I could be wrong. The attitude could predate Kierkegaard and he could be a product of the existentialist Danish way of thinking.

Old mileage marker.

Old milage marker.

5. Copenhagen is still my favorite European city. I didn’t think I could ever love a city more than Paris, but Copenhagen has something indefinably great about it. Paris has its museums, iconic buildings, and famous boulevards, but Copenhagen has swag. Copenhagen doesn’t care if you like it or not. It doesn’t try too hard. It just does its thing.

TSOJ: Tour de Copenhagen- A Very Bad Guide to Biking in CPH

Copenhagen is a bike rider’s paradise. Wide lanes are built on almost every main street just for bikes, the city is pretty much flat, and there are places to park your bike wherever you go. This “biking infrastructure” makes riding a primary mode of transportation for locals and it is what draws tourists like me to rent a bike just to ride around and see life outside the crowded tourist center.

The bike rack near my hotel. Most of the bikes are not locked to a fixed object.

The bike rack near my hotel. Most of the bikes are not locked to a fixed object.

I can imagine that many Americans are skeptical of all of this biking nonsense but the Danish grow up riding inside cargo bikes, and as soon as they can pedal they are placed on a seat and told to get moving. Biking is not a counter-culture movement pushed by a group of fava bean eating, patchouli wearing, left-handed cigarette smoking, no-shower November members of the community, it is the community. Here is a quick list of the types of people I saw on bikes: Everyone.

Rush hour in CPH. The lady just left of center is carrying her two kids in a cargo bike.

Rush hour in CPH. The lady just left of center is carrying her two kids in a cargo bike.

Typical bike commuter in CPH.

Typical bike commuter in CPH.

You can’t swing a Schwinn without hitting a bike in Copenhagen. After spending a day and a half watching all of Copenhagen parade by on bikes, I decided it was time to travel like a local and rent a bike. It didn’t hurt that the blisters on my feet forced me to either sit in a park all day (not a bad choice on a day like yesterday) or get on my bad bicycle and ride. I picked up a six hour rental bike at Bikesetti for $16, I went with the deluxe model because it was a little larger than the other bikes and thought I deserved it. The bike dude (he was a dude in every sense of the dude moniker) gave me a few brief instructions, “Arm like this to stop. Arm like this to turn right. Arm like this to turn left. Always look around before doing anything.” This was solid advice and he then gave me directions to get to the Elephant Gates in the most scenic way possible. I was lost within 10 minutes, but it didn’t matter, I was roaring along the paths like a pro. My first realization was that there are two types of riders on the paths, ones that want to get somewhere fast, and then me. I spent most of my day on the right side of the path watching people flow by me like water in a river. At first I was a little competitive and didn’t want to be passed, but I eventually realized that it was not a race and I had six hours to get wherever I was going. This realization occurred about the same time I was riding up a hill. I also decided that everyone else must have a much better bike than me because my deluxe model was pretty slow.

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The deluxe model.

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Almost all the bikes in CPH have this little lock on the back wheel.

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Just take your key, turn it to lock or unlock the back lock. Simple, easy, and apparently prevents bikes from being stolen.

After a few more wrong turns, I found myself out by a bunch of railroad tracks and had to adjust my progress. I stopped found the Carlsberg Tower and headed in that general direction. I knew the gates were close to the tower and within ten minutes I was taking pictures of the Elephant Gates. The gates are really cool and initially I had intended on taking a brewery tour, but decided that I needed to maximize my six hours of bike riding so I went up to the south side of the Frederiksberg Garden and checked out the zoo from the outside. There was no bike riding in the park, so I looked, walked seven meters, and then sped off to ride along the waterfront.

The Elephant Gates in Carlsberg.

The Elephant Gates in Carlsberg.

Elephants...at a gate.

Elephants…at a gate.

The gates were built before this symbol was hijacked by the Nazis.

The gates were built before this symbol was hijacked by the Nazis.

I don't know what the elephants are rolling with their trunks, but it looks like a big marble.

I don’t know what the elephants are rolling with their trunks, but it looks like a big marble.

For another two hours everything went well. I saw some cool stuff, ate some ice cream, and then proceeded to get very lost. How lost? More than usual. On a bike you can get so lost that the streets you are on are not on the tourist maps they hand out everywhere. I didn’t panic, I just took out my phone and used my compass. Turns out I was a little turned around and had been heading the wrong direction. Eventually, an hour later, I found my way back to the city core and dropped off my bike. I was a bit on the exhausted side and decided to take a nap when I got back to my hotel.

Statue of the creation of Zealand.

Statue of the creation of Zealand.

The Little Mermaid, she was in China last time I was in CPH.

The Little Mermaid, she was in China last time I was in CPH.

I don’t think there is any lesson to be learned here, but I do think my ability to get lost is something I should only do on foot.

Biking Copenhagen is certainly easy and something most tourists should do, even if you are directionally challenged like me.

 

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