Berlin: Ich Bin Ein

December 4, 2017. Berlin, Germany.

The first thing I learned was my normal strategy of walking everywhere is of no use here. Berlin is too big. It’s because there used to be too many Berlins, and once Reagan hulk-punched that wall down it became a single, titanic Berlin.

Hostels were in short supply, but I managed to get my hands on a nice $13 a night dealie right off of the Landwehr canal, called the Grand Hostel Berlin. Their delusions of grandeur didn’t stop at the name. They were under the mistaken impression they were a party hostel, and wanted this party to center around what they called the Gin Library.

Now, ordinarily, those would be great things better together, right? Peanut butter and jelly. Peanut butter and chocolate. Peanut butter and whatever arbitrary nutritional asceticism I’m inflicting on myself at present.

No such luck, beautiful reader. It was most assuredly a library a la Ron Burgundy, leatherbound books and rich mahogany, but it also had bar no one ever wanted to tend, obnoxious techno music that kind of disrupted the whole “library” mystique, and a fucking disco ball.

Do you know why most libraries don’t have disco balls? It’s because you need light to read.

When I entered the Gin Library, there were four people sitting around a coffee table, talking over the bad music in various accents about what their favorite types of alcohol are. Pretty standard cultured frat-boy hostel fare. The girls were middling attractive, the boys were “traveler chic” with whiteboy dreadlocks and dated facial piercings.

Laboring under the mistaken impression I could get some reading done in the library, I stood at the bar and tried to order a beer during happy hour. It didn’t work for a few minutes. I went to reception and said, “Hey, think I could get a beer?” The receptionist smiled, nodded, and shouted rapid German at no one in particular.

I went back to the bar and waited for another couple minutes, then decided the hell with it, I didn’t need one that bad, and started back to the corner seat to chip away at a reread of Stephen King’s It.

It wasn’t until then that one of the girls at the table, still squawking something about how Oh she LUVES tequila, deigned to stand up, approach the bar, and say, “Did you want a beer?”

“You work here?” I asked.

“Yeah.”

I narrowed my eyes. “Are you sure?”

She smiled, thinking I was flirting. I corrected this misconception by deliberately stiffing a service worker on a tip for the first time in my life.

Sorry baby. West Berlin’s always been a capitalism.

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I started at the Brandenburg gate, one of Germany’s most famous monuments despite its relative youth, at least by European standards. Berlin had been a defensible fort with a sequence of unpronounceable names since Germany was Prussia, but the Brandenburg gate didn’t show up until around 1790. For America, that’s all of relevant history, but for countries like Italy or England, that’s basically yesterday.

I hadn’t done a lot of Nazi-centric sightseeing because the weather is depressing enough and I like to have fun, but considering the Germanic bent my recent journeys have taken, it’s not avoidable. The Memorial to the Murdered Jews in Europe is about a block from the Brandenburg gate, rising from a concrete lot like a time-lapse cemetery. Catchy name too, huh? It’s got a beat and you can dance to it.

Concrete slabs of varying heights shoot haphazardly from the ground with no inscription, pattern, or real rhyme or reason. Some look like tombstones, some like coffins, some like tiny Brutalist skyscrapers. The architect, a dude named Eisenman, claims that the blocks are supposed to create a confusing atmosphere indicative of a highly ordered system gone wrong, then in the same breath says that the memorial has no symbolic significance. Sounds like your confusing atmosphere worked better than planned.

The designer’s contradictory Zen-koan babbling doesn’t stop visitors from their interpretations, though. Popular opinion is that entering the monument proper was isolating. The concrete absorbed the sounds of traffic and life coming from Berlin, leaving you in this cold, spooky hallway. The alienation, the echoes, and the imposing bleakness of the corridors reminded me of a slaughterhouse, but I’m not the best central tendency metric for this kind of thing.

Some people call that vague feeling of visceral unease the heebie-jeebies, or something comparably cute. I call it draggin’ ghosts, and I felt them like a physical weight on my shoulders as I walked out of that bleak little grid. At the same time, I was reining in an almost irresistible urge to jump from block to block. That was something I liked to do in graveyards when I was young, until someone saw me. Never met anyone who was thrilled about that.

I turned the corner and a giant brain-blimp shone down from a wall.

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“Oh, good,” I said aloud. Berlin’s got a reputation for art, and a lot of what I saw was pretty cool, but we’ll save that for its own post.

I turned another corner.

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agreed

I doubled back to the hostel and sat down for a while since I’d somehow managed to walk four or five miles, thanks to Berlin’s comical immensity. Der Hunger was setting in. I asked a spindly blonde receptionist where I could get some food, and she helpfully said she’d tell me in ten minutes.

She didn’t get the chance. A dude who sounded Ukrainian was scribbling a sort of city-overview to the stoner kid I mentioned yesterday and a middle-aged Japanese couple, and I eavesdropped on that until he circled the areas where “all the best restaurants are”. I leaned in, snapped a picture, and disappeared into Germany’s perpetual freezing rain.

What he meant by “all the best restaurants” was “places you could conceivably locate food”. This walk was only a mile, though, so that was… better? The street was called Bergmannstraße, it was itself about a mile long, and it had nothing but Asian food, one italian restaurant, one Mexican restaurant, and a kebab shop. I didn’t come to Germany for any of those things, but my choices rapidly became branch out or starve. I ate Indian two days in a row, from two different restaurants right next to each other. The first, called India, was bad. The second was incredible. I don’t remember the name.

There were a smattering of tourist shops along Bergmann, and one of them stopped me dead.

Now, my German is not what you would call spectacular. Any doubt about that, ask any of the Austrians or Germans I’ve befriended in my travels; they invariably mock my awful accent and I demand they answer for “feuerzeug“.

I delight in the German language because of the kindergarten way they just staple short, existing words into monstrous yet inexplicably precise Frankenwords.

You’re sick? Du bist krank. Welp, if you’re sick enough, we gotta get you to the hospital. That’s the krankhaus. How we gonna get you there? We’re gonna load you into the krankenwagen.

Absolute poetry.

In my Duolingings, I ran across the suffix –zeug, which essentially just means “stuff”. Your toy? That’s spieltzeug, literally play-stuff. How about a tool? Werkzeug. You can noodle that one out.

Then you got Fahrenzeug which means “driving stuff” and refers to a car. Uh, okay, I guess. But Feuerzeug is exactly what it sounds like, fire-stuff, and it means “a lighter”, and that makes me absolutely furious. You go TOO FAR.

German grammar is a disaster rivaled only by English grammar and their idioms are, as one would expect, deeply nonsensical and often sausage-themed. Every German I’ve encountered has argued they don’t have that many sausage-themed idioms, forcing me to point it out to them when they invariably use one within the following two hours.

These magnets, for those of you who didn’t quite catch up with the bus somehow, are word-for-word English translations of German turns of phrase. I reveled in them, grinning like an idiot in the rain for five minutes, then made the first and last legitimate souvenir purchase of my trip.

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I also encountered this gem.

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Trump halts maul. Well, it didn’t sound complimentary, but it did sound like home. The last I’d heard of the German opinion on Donnie was when the Morgenpost referred to him as… well, as thus:

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“please not the Horror-Clown!”

Well, I had to wait until I got back to the rad library party hostel to solve this particular mystery, but I giggled when I did.

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It reminded me of one’a my favorite twitter threads.

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Although, in fairness, the t-shirt’s not wrong.

That’s all I can do for today, if I type for too long WordPress’s busted-ass text editor starts flinching away from me every time I hit the enter key like a beaten puppy. Talk to you tomorrow, boys and girls.

Love,

The Bastard

Budapest: The Descent

December 1, 2017. Budapest, Hungary.

I had to face facts. I wasn’t realistically going to go be healed in the mineral baths. Public bathing sounded time-consuming and expensive, and all the local residents I’d talked to about it confirmed that it’s very much a tourist thing. I already had my FlixBus booked. The clock was running. I had to figure out how to kill another 24 hours in Budapest.

The answer came from a pamphlet I was forced to look at while the girls running my hostel attempted five minutes of math in order to give me my change.

“Sick of partying and sightseeing?”

“Yeah,” I said out loud.

“Want something more EXCITING?”

“Yeah, dude.”

They looked up from their calculations, but only momentarily. I can’t imagine they’re paid enough to deal with whatever I was doing.

“Try some fuckin’ uhhhh adventure caving.”

“You know, I just might.”

“Are you okay?” one of the girls asked.

I pocketed the pamphlet and collected my change, then went back to my little canvas bed-cubicle and did some Serious Internet Research. Apparently, there were two kind of tours: Weenie Hut Jr. Old People Cavewalk, and Mountain Dew Code Red EXTREME CAVER Spelunk. The latter was obviously twice as expensive, but since money isn’t real in Budapest is barely broke $10.

Unfortunately, the cave was 3 miles from town. The website assured me that a bus runs up to it, and when I disembarked to find this bus, I discovered the bus stop was also 2.5 miles away.

Welp.

I tied on my highly fashionable scarf (which I haven’t lost yet) and trekked up the mountain. It was an hour and a half of walking, nothing too terrible even after I’d gotten enough altitude that the sidewalk was a sheet of ice.

When I arrived, the guy at the desk asked if I was here for the Old People walk.

“No, I’m trying to do the one that warns you about being physically fit.”

“Do you have a reservation?”

On the website there was no phone number or e-mail, but there was an Angelfire-style late 90’s guestbook that said “Contact us!” about six page-scrolls under the words “Make a reservation or pay at the desk!”

Exclamation points are, as we know, extreme.

“I was just gonna pay at the desk.”

“You need a reservation,” he said. “Another company does the caving tours. If you want to contact them now, they usually get back very quickly, and we have hot chocolate.”

I passed on the hot chocolate and told their guestbook, “Hey, I’d like to make a reservation for today. When will you be here?”

Fifteen minutes later, I got an e-mail saying, “The High Voltage Maximum Overdrive Cannonball Spelunking Melee is at 3:30, but you need to make a reservation.”

I paused to rub my temples, then sent them a reply saying, “Yes, I’d like to make a reservation. For today. How do I do that?”

Another fifteen minutes and, “Here is your confirmation code for your reservation today!”

Well, that gave me three hours to kill on top of a mountain. I walked a mile in the wrong direction, ate an entire pizza, then walked back and dicked around on my phone until everyone arrived.

My group was 10 other people, led by two slight, enthusiastic Hungarian men in their late thirties. They gave us jumpsuits and hats. It was the best I’ve ever looked.

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felt like a ghostbuster

The reason I went caving is because I didn’t remember if I was claustrophobic. I know I get edgy if I’m packed into a room with a big crowd, barring the occasions that include mosh pits, but that probably has more to do with deep-seated misanthropy than phobic reaction to forfeiture of personal space. I can vividly remember a nightmare I had when I was young, where there was a subterranean river that ran under a mountain and I dove in and, breath held, fought my way up the current in the dark. The river was so narrow I could feel it brushing against my shoulders, and I reached out and grabbed the sides, used them to push myself along.

Now seemed like a good time to see if I still had that fear. Besides, if there’s a collapse and I die, it’ll happen really quick. I probably won’t even notice I’m dead. I’ve accomplished most of the things I’ve set out to do. Getting crushed into paste would mean I don’t have to draft a new bucket list.

The tour was pretty cool, in all honesty. You had to duck and crawl and shimmy around things a lot, a lot of climbing, hoisting, and maneuvering. It was fun, and made me feel like I’m in better shape than I could possibly be, considering how much of the past month I spent consuming poison and not exercising.

“Sporty” is the preferred European nomenclature. In America, we call it athletic, but in Europe they ask if you’re “sporty” before commenting about how you look like you go to the gym. You’re goddamn right. I’ll squat everyone you’ve ever loved.

As the lumberingest behemoth in the group, if there was a spot that was excessively tight, the tour guides would say, “Bastard, you’ll probably fit. And if not, we have knives.”

“I’ve been meaning to lose weight on this trip anyway,” I said.

There was only one truly close call.

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You’ve got no scale from that picture, but rest assured, what you’re looking at couldn’t be more than a foot high. The only way for a dude with my skeleton to wedge himself in was what they called “Supermanning”. You put one arm straight up in front of you, turn your head toward the arm you have down, and writhe on belly, pushing along with the tips of your toes and whatever your hands can grab.

I made it through most of the 50-feet of clay snake tunnel without incident or bitching, but when I popped out of the other side like a gopher, I got stuck at the thickest point in my chest. Not a little stuck, either. I couldn’t go forward or backward, not that backward was really an option anyway.

You know that phrase, “stuck between a rock and a hard place”? That was my ribcage. I could feel limestone jutting between the slats in my ribs.

“Welp,” I said, “I guess I’ll stay here.”

“You stuck?”

“Real stuck. Come back in a couple days, I’ll slim down.”

“Move toward the right,” they suggested.

The right was slightly back up the tunnel, and it took a herculean effort to unjam my torso, but I managed to push myself back into an area that gave me an extra inch of clearance. That was all I needed. I wormed out and dusted off.

“Whew!” I said. “All right. Not claustrophobic anymore, as it turns out.”

That was the narrowest point on the tour, which is good, because I wouldn’t be typing this now if there were narrower. The guides showed us fossils, gypsum crystals, and formations with wacky names like “The Sandwich”, “The Theater,” and “The Birth Canal.” The Sandwich was where I got stuck. The birth canal was roomier than you’d expect.

I mimicked the guides as best I could as we flung ourselves around the cave like characters from Donkey Kong Country. It was basically the fun parts of hiking — the jumping, climbing, balancing — but underground.

When we surfaced I walked back to civilization and realized the to-and-from definitely burnt off the entire pizza. I needed to fuel up. I was getting pretty sick of meat by this point, so I went to the restaurant by my hostel and ordered the stuffed cabbage.

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Now, the casual observer may look at this and say, “Bastard, where is the cabbage?”

An understandable question. It was wedged between the kielbasa and what I think was a deep fried pork vertebra, with an entire pork chop pulled over the top like a blanket.

I didn’t die in the cave. I guess that’s cause for celebration. I ate, drank, be’d merry, then called it an early night so I could catch this bus.

Dresden is the next stop. Don’t worry, I’m prepared.

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This cartoon bird says I can speak German.

Love,

The Bastard