Berlin, Germany: The Voyage Home

December 6, 2017. Berlin, Germany.

It was an hour bus ride to the airport. A British redhead sitting across the aisle was reading Musicophilia by Oliver Sacks, which I’d slogged through last year. I asked her what she thought. She said it was interesting, but Oliver Sacks couldn’t write worth a damn. That might sound like an opinion, but it was actually objective fact. May he rip in peace.

I slithered through security easily enough, conscious as always of the pound of Turkish Delight I had in my backpack. I expected someone to confiscate it every time I went through a turnstile. If I were airport security, I’d think they were drugs. The German airport didn’t seem to care.

I will say this of the Schoenefeld airport: it was by far the least efficient I’d ever flown from, and I started this trip from Philadelphia. Desk-workers and security personnel alike acted like they were working the night shift at Wawa. The security check lines were so long that I had to join a small exodus that took us outside into the snow, for some reason, then into a different building where we waited for a different disaffected German twentysomething to glance disinterestedly at our passports than dismissal-wave us through.

I knew they wouldn’t let me convert my small change Euros back stateside so I blew as much of my jingle as I could on a grim airport ciabatta roll sandwich, which I grazed on as I saw the sights offered by Berlin’s cheapest, worst airport.

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I, too, liebe Büüüücher. They had Sapiens, which is my favorite nonfiction book, but nothing else really noteworthy and certainly nothing I was willing to spend the asking 30 Euro on.

I kept wandering and found the liebe didn’t stop there.

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“Colorful mascot,” I said out loud in the restroom. Even if everybody speaks English in Germany, no one’s going to talk to the American murmuring to himself at the condom machine. “We could learn a lot from the Billy Boy company, I think.”

Truly, the Berlin airport provided all amenities.

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i knew i forgot to pack something

Something for everyone.

I left the bathroom and my eye was forgivably caught by this:

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This is an ad for sunglasses. Germans. Go figure.

Here’s a recurrent problem in my life. I equate “survivable” with “favorable”. The short-notice plane ticket from Germany’s worst airport back to the piss-stinking ’90s underground sci-fi dystopia of PHL only cost me $300, but that was because of all the extra stops and layovers. All told, I would be spending 48 consecutive hours either on planes or in airports. I looked at that and said, “That’s only like two nights of sleeping on benches. And indoors, too! I’ll take it.”

It was highly survivable, but I don’t recommend it for your next vacation.

I flew out of the weird, sexy, lazy airport to the north, where the cold lives, landing in the frozen but beautiful taint of Norway via the Oslo Airport.

Friends, mark me well. If you ever plan on going to Scandinavia, don’t. You can’t afford it. A meal is like $25 and it’s impossible to go anywhere without hiring a driver. Instead, just go see the Oslo Aiport. Athena, it was dazzling.

It was warm, clean, well lit. Everyone looked uncomfortable, but that’s just Scandinavia. Everyone I met from the Nordic countries was reticent and awkward right up until you fed them liquor, at which point they became… I think the best word for it is raunchy. Suggestive, but not necessarily following through. More like a bunch of middle-school boys at the cafeteria table, making dick jokes.

They didn’t seem to be imbibing at the airport. They mostly seemed to be pacing around and frowning. I thought about buying something to eat, but I’d need to convert my money to Norwegian kroners, and I had no desire whatsoever to deal with a fifth type of currency that would become useless to me within an hour. I decided I’d starve.

I wandered around the fish-smelling airport, admiring the Home Alone 2 christmas displays and the strange tourist traps. One of them had a taxidermied polar bear in front. I don’t know why.

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certainly a different sentiment than in Berlin

It was only a couple hours at Oslo before I got jettisonned back to good ol’ LIS in Lisbon, Portugal. I’d had a layover here earlier on in my quest, and I was starting to feel a little guilty for passing over the Portuguese twice in a row. A German friend told me that it the Portuguese were almost American in their passion for deep fried meats covered in cheese then deep fried again on top of other meats. That artery halter might be worth the price of admission alone, but I didn’t take advantage of my 12 hour layover to go investigate.

For one thing, it was the middle of the goddamn night. I’d arrived around 9 PM local time, and everything in the airport was closing down. In theory I could have tried to catch a bus into Lisbon proper, maybe found a bar that kept serving food until late on a Monday night, but that sounded expensive, time-consuming, and kind of risky since I had to be ready to run the security gauntlet at 6 or 7 AM.

Instead, I ate a bocadillo, drank some kind of porter, then fell asleep on one of the three benches that existed in the airport, right next to the McDonalds.

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our scruffy and weatherbeaten hero on a tiny Portuguese airport couch

I managed a solid eight hours, which is a rare occurrence for someone of my temperament even with a real bed. Maybe I was designed to sleep in corners. Maybe I should give up this ridiculous charade and ride the rails, sleeping under bridges and eating out of coffee can stew pots, a gentleman hobo at long last.

When I woke up, I had the exact same meal as last night, only this time it was breakfast.

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breakfast of champions

I finally recrossed the Atlantic and returned to the purple mountains majesty.

Perhaps an exaggeration. I flew into Miami. There were no mountains, and there was certainly no majesty. It was 80 degrees outside. At long last, customs took me aside to rifle through my belongings and investigate my Turkish Delight.

I had waited for this moment, but I still didn’t know how to play it out. The box was sealed in plastic. Would they cut it open? Would they bring drug-sniffing dogs through? Would they be good boys?

A series of security guards on a sliding scale of surliness squinted suspiciously at my supplies. They interrogated me on the countries I’d been through, how long I’d stayed in each, and how many drugs and guns I brought back. After writing my answers (“a bunch”, “a while”, and “not too many”) on a notepad, they dumped out my backpack, rifled through my dirty laundry (literally speaking), then told me I was good to go. I unfucked everything they fucked up in my pack and wandered into the Miami airport proper.

It was as close to the opposite of the Oslo airport as you can get. Small, cramped, smelly, absolutely hideous, and hot. This was my new home for the next 15 hours.

I wasn’t as tired, and I had Real Money now, so the world was my oyster. Unfortunately, the world as of now was in Florida. I did a search of anything worth doing in the vicinity, and the only hit that even remotely struck my fancy was a reverse zoo called the Monkey Jungle. The premise was that the monkeys and apes got a whole reservation to frolic and play and do whatever they wanted (some would call it monkeying around but that is way beneath me), and the human customers remained in a long, caged tunnel. I don’t like zoos because, as both a big dumb animal and a tired, poor, huddled mass yearning to be free, the concept of captivity pisses me right off. But this sounded close enough to a “natural habitat” situation that I wouldn’t get a bad taste in my mouth.

Unfortunately, it was a 7 hour walk.

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So much for that. I did a lot of writing that day, instead.

I had a grand design to sleep on the couches outside the Margaritaville, but that fell apart when I discovered those couches were a special lounge reserved for the people staying in the ritzy-ass hotel built into the airport. There were no other couches or benches, of course — if there were, why would anyone stay in the airport hotel? — so I wound up sleeping on horrible, vaguely triangular benches next to the door, which was next to some highway or the other.

They were shaped like the Mercedes logo, a foot and a half wide at the broadest point and tapering toward the ends. An old man was curled up on a different one, but even with all the weight I’d lost in Europe, I still had at least sixty pounds on him. I managed to balance my tremendous corpus on the giant, three-legged starfish, one leg running down either point, torso on the other. I folded my arms across my chest like a Dracula and slept until a couple of security guards started shouting at one another in Spanish for no reason aside from to be dicks. At least, that was the best I could surmise.

I’d gotten four hours. I could get four more.

I gathered my stuff and wandered toward the bathrooms, which I discovered, had become a sort of hobo jungle. See, the hallway leading up to the bathrooms were carpeted, so even though it was very loud (due primarily to the other obnoxious security guards, also shouting in Spanish), everyone had decided to sleep on the floor here. I found an empty space and joined them for my remaining four hours, then boarded the plane for home, where some motherfucker would not stop touching me with his elbow. There’s an unspoken rule about even division of space on airports, and he had no intention of observing it, no matter how any times I elbowed him. We’re not talking subtly, either. I was throwin’ some serious ‘bos. If I’d been on WWE, they would be accompanied by an announcer screaming “OHHHHHHHHHHH” or maybe “FROM THE TURNBUCKLE!” My seatmate was not phased.

The crew lied about our arrival four or five times in different directions. They didn’t know what they were talking about, but hoo lordy, did they love to talk. Every six minutes or so the shrillest, most obnoxious voice you can imagine screeched through the cabin to pepper us with “VERY friendly reminders” and other nauseating, unnecessary pleasantries. The pilot had never landed a plane before, and took his time to fuck that up. I was considering walking up there and doing it myself.

When we were finally on the ground, I threw one last elbow for good luck, collected my contraband, and officially returned to Pennsylvania.

Now, onto the next great adventure.

Love,

The Bastard

Berlin: Outsider Art of the Anne Frank Zentrum and East Side Gallery

December 4, 2017. Berlin, Germany.

After the Panoptikum, I tried to head into the nearby Monsterkabinett for reasons that I feel should be self-evident. I’d later find out it was a little more Muppety than I’d have liked, but I still didn’t get the chance to investigate thoroughly since it’s open like 3 hours a day starting at 8pm and I wasn’t about to stand in the rain for six hours.

In order to get turned away from the Monsterkabinett entrance, you need to go down a sketchy alley full of hipsters and white dreadlocks, the walls themselves cacophonous with unrelated graffiti and half-finished or sabotaged murals. The centerpiece is a slightly cockeyed reimagining of Anne Frank.

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man, you can almost hear “Oh Comely”

She was flanked by a couple of anatomically correctish statues.

Nearby is a door that neatly encapsulates whatever the hell is going on here.

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An appreciable warning, considering.

They got sort of a thing for cyclopes.

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no idea what was going on here, but i instinctively hated it. “entfuhrt” means kidnapped. unhelpful

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here either, but i hated it less

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“keep the buttons open”

I took this sage advice from the terrible minion and faded out of the alley, into a sort of plywood tunnel that led past several different construction areas on the road to East Berlin. The inside was also decorated, though less imaginatively.

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it was here i discovered Guaranteed Value Flight of the Conchords. at the time and based on the posters i thought they were advertising for a community college, but it turns out they’re refugees fleeing a war. whoops

The delineation between West and East Berlin is just as clear now as it was before the fall of the wall. Stop on a corner and look around. Do you see any Indian restaurants? Do you see any restaurants or stores at all? If the answer to these questions are “no”, you’re in East Berlin, where the specter of communism is spanging at the stoplight because there are no businesses for it to hang out in front of.

The exception being a single depressing Subway restaurant built into the bottom of a brutalist office building. I tried to take a picture of it, but my camera started weeping.

After walking for entirely too goddamn long in the rain (as discussed, Berlin is impossibly huge and I really should’ve made more of an effort at figuring out public transit), I arrived at the crumbling remnants of the Berlin wall, alias the East Side Gallery.

There were tons of pieces along this ridiculously long wall, but most of them didn’t warrant documentation. I photographed the best ones whenever I could get the relentless selfie patrol out of my way. You’d think they would be dissuaded by the rain, the cold, the lack of available nutrition, and my low, guttural snarling, but they didn’t even care, man. They’re like the fuckin’ mail. Rain, sleet, or snow, their IG posts must go through.

I slipped through and checked out the other side as well. It was less ornate.

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haha gottem

Well, that was enough for me. I hadn’t eaten in a day or two, and it was starting to get to me. All this slightly hunched rainwalking was killing my back, too. I made my way back toward West Berlin.

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you and me both, bud

It was pretty easy to tell once I’d crossed back into West Berlin.

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even if your German’s not real strong you can noodle this one out

I didn’t get a Salat though. Instead, I found my way to what looked like a traditional German restaurant, named something like Grunstein’s Essen. I was cracking my spine in the warmth and relative dryness when the grinning Indian man behind the bar told me “anywhere you like, my friend.” Must’ve been Grunstein. He served me Leberkäse, which can be most accurately described as “spam loaf”. At the time, it was mana from heaven.

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I turned the corner from this sweet castle bridge and saw a mural that blew most of the approved pieces in the East Side Gallery clean out of the water.

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For all the surrealist nightmare art I’d come across in Berlin, nothing did more to my psyche than this terrifying poster.

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who are they even marketing to with this

I hobbled back to the hostel and spent my final night in a room full of obnoxiously snoring strangers. The next day would begin my long voyage home. And long it was. 48 combined hours between planes and airport layovers. But that’s a grim tale for another day.

Love,

The Bastard

Berlin: The Designpanoptikum

December 5, 2017. Berlin, Germany.

In the heart of Berlin, there’s a dungeon scrapyard exhibition overseen by a delightful and charismatic Russian who’s definitely a serial killer. Google assured me that it would be a “surreal museum”, but neglected to mention how similar it would be to that awful J.Lo movie The Cell. The similarities were only emphasized by the fact that I, too, am a thicc bilingual headshrinker, though she is admittedly a better dancer.

Panoptikum is a German word, meaning Panopticon. Helpful, right? Well, the Panopticon was a decidedly Lawful Evil brainchild of social theorist, philosopher, and institutional bastard Jeremy Bentham. Boiled down to its essence, it’s a big round building made of glass, with a spot for a guard in the middle, enclosed by one-way mirrors. The inhabitants of the glass cells have no privacy. They can see each other, but they can’t see the guard, who obviously can’t be watching all of them at once… but you never know where he is looking, behind that smoked glass.

Bentham, sweetheart that he is, suggested the Panopticon could work equally well for a prison or a school. He described it as “a mill for grinding rogues honest”. As reasonable as it might be to want to flying dropkick the dude off a rope bridge, his figuring isn’t wrong. It’s been common knowledge that social expectation and the old “what will people think” instinct is a deep-rooted and effective behavioral modulator, but it’s on such a hair trigger that even the suggestion of being watched can promote a sort of bastardized honesty. A Newcastle study put coffee and tea out for their department with an honesty box next to it with a little note, “Please pay for what you take!”. On the rear wall behind the box was a poster, rotated weekly; either a bunch of flowers, or a pair of eyes. On the eye weeks, the researchers found a lot more honor-system money than on the flower weeks.

Of course, that might not generalize to all people, it might just be that college students are more inclined to feel anxious about being stared at, or eye contact in general. You ever met college students? They love to feel anxious.

When Bentham named the Panopticon, he was making an allusion to Argus Panoptes, a giant from Greek mythology with a hundred eyes. Panoptes translates to “all-seeing”, and that he did, right up until Hera assigned him to guard Io to make sure Zeus didn’t knock her up while she was a cow. Long story. Ultimately ending with Hermes getting recruited by Zeus to sneak up on Panoptes (how that happened is unclear), cast a god-tier Sleep spell, then brain the poor doofus with a rock.

None of those things gave me any inkling of what Berlin’s Panoptikum was gonna be about, but I’m a sucker for anything surreal, probably as compensation for all the ADHD and disdain for sleep.

All alone, with nobody holding my hand through it, I figured out how buses worked. Turns out, they’ll take you in different directions depending on what side of the street you board. The bus numbers will be the same regardless! You just need to know the incredibly German name of an area near wherever you’re going.

Well, I didn’t, so I took the first bus a half mile in the wrong direction, then leaped off and grumbled my way back to the bus stop. It started to rain, because of course it did.

The correct bus eventually dropped me off in central Berlin, a little more than a block from the Panoptikum. I was greeted by an enthusiastic Russian in flawless, German-accented English, who then explained to me that a heavy Russian accent was part of his shtick until 6 pm. He lapsed into it and started giving an overview on the Panoptikum as I marveled at his terrifying sculptures.

25371171_1149915838478054_937305132_o “Form and function,” he said. “Once, they are the same thing. Once, form was secondary consideration. The product of the function. Now everything is so artistically designed and… and… ergonomic, so all of these things must be beautiful as well as functional, but they don’t look like anything. Certainly they don’t look like what they are for. But we have come so far from that, that we no longer recognize things by their functional form. Take this, for example.”

He held up an odd looking metal clamp, sort of like two L-shaped pieces of steel with a long bolt running between them. The steel slid freely, if noisily, along the threads.

“Do you know what this is?”

I shrugged. “Metal?”

“A good guess,” he said, “And technically correct. But this is something specific. This has a function. I ask everyone this question, no one has ever gotten it right. Take time, look around, think about it. I will ask again before you leave, after you see museum.”

I looked at it again. It wasn’t a clamp. There was no way to tighten it. Still looked like giant metal pincers, about a foot and a half long.

“You use it every day,” he assured me. “You have to. You wouldn’t be here if you didn’t.”

Then he set me loose in the grown up version of Sid’s room from Toy Story.

The basement had that cloying, stale grease smell of a disused garage.

“Do not go to the museums,” he warned me. “Not if you want to see art. You want art, go to the junkyard. Art everywhere. Costs much less.”

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“Form and function. Do you know what this is?”

I looked it over as he crouched down and slapped the thing. A low-pitched BONG sound echoed through the eerie silence of his subterranean trophy case.

“Well, I was gonna say a land mine, but I guess not.”

“Close!” he said, opening the hatch. “Washing machine. Back when they were first invented, only rich people had them. You put the clothes in, the motor shakes them up, cleans them. No motor now, of course, so now it’s just… this thing.”

He was insistent I take selfies with his zany assortment of hats from the dump. I didn’t want to wear the deflated punching bag on my head, although he was really pulling for it. 25383075_1149915881811383_2081062368_o

We compromised on the World War I helmet. I’ve since learned it’s called a Stahlhelm.

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“Do you know why the helmets had those little horns?”

I did not.

“It is not like a viking thing, and it is not like they came to terms with being the bad guys, dressing up like devils. It is an example of… German overengineering. Germans are a very efficient people, and sometimes they get too focused on it, and they lose sight of what’s practical.”

“I know,” I said. “I used to have a Jetta.”

“See, the steel helmets were good for protecting against shrapnel, but back in the trenches, you would just poke your head up and shoot. The metal was not thick enough to stop a direct hit from a bullet. But the scientists at the time, they thought, what if we installed a plate that was thick enough to stop a bullet? Their trench fighters would be almost impervious to gunfire, then! So they manufactured these heavy steel plates that click into the little buttons on the side of the helmet, protecting the head. This did not work for three reasons.

One, it was very, very expensive. That’s a lot of steel, and you need to give one to everyone in the army. Germany ran out of steel.

Two, it was too heavy. People running around with 2 kilos (4.4 lbs) of steel on their head, it interfered with their balance. The helmets would also slip down over their eyes because it’s so much heavier in the front.

Three, in the instances when the plate did actually stop a direct hit of a bullet? The force of the impact would break the soldier’s neck in 80% of cases anyway. So for all that money, and all that effort, and all that steel, they’re only saving one out of five direct hits, which are rare enough to begin with.”

It hearkened back to something he’d said earlier when we were looking at an old iron lung.

“See, in America, life is precious. In Russia, Asia, the Middle East, life is cheap. I get Chinese tourists in here, I tell them this woman lived sixty years in this iron lung, and they are incredulous, they ask me ‘why not just die’? Well, because she was an American. They had the resources, so she lived in that iron lung, she did university from her hospital room, and she eventually became a depression counselor. Helped a lot of people. But not everyone could have done that, I don’t think. Most people would rather just die.”

I was reflecting on all this when I turned the corner, caught sight of this little number.

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“Don’t worry, it’s not a sex doll,” he assured me.

“That’s not what worried me.”

“That is part of typewriter,” he said. “Sort of a duality thing, you know? Because of the mouth, and the typewriter, and both of them use words, both of them are for words.”

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“That’s Yuri Gagarin,” he said. “You know who that is?”

I laughed. What a Russian thing! “Yeah,” I said.

“First man in space,” he told me, even though I just said yeah.

“So is that how they did it? Dr. Strangelove style?”

He grinned. “More or less.”

We made our way back to the front door and he picked up the weird metal clamp thing again.

“So! Any guesses?”

I squinted at it, then nodded.

“Is it a doorknob?”

“It is!” he said. “It is a doorknob! And hopefully, your time here at the Panoptikum opened some doors to some new ways of looking at things for you. Thank you much for coming.”

“Thank you,” I said. “This was incredible.”

“You got it right, here,” he said, “Take one of postcards, for free. Whichever one you want. Go ahead.”

I decided on the one that he had explained in the gallery as representing the German spirit.

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Refreshed and disturbed, I walked back out into Berlin’s perpetual rain to find the lauded East Side Gallery.

Next time.

(If you liked the crazy bullshit you saw here, there’s plenty more where that came from. If that site is too hard to navigate [and it fuckin’ is], there’s also a Facebook page. It’s in German, so if you like it, everyone will think you’re cultured.)

Above board, the guy who owns it and gave me the tour is an artist and photographer named Vladimir Korneev. I’d love to link to his gallery or something, but he shares a name with a Russian songwriter so there’s way too much foreign-language smokescreen for me to find anything.

I strongly encourage you to hit up this headtrip if you’re ever in Berlin. He’s probably not a serial killer. He didn’t serial kill me! But they never really seem to.

Love,

The Bastard

 

 

Dresden: So It Goes

December 2, 2017. Dresden, Germany.

FlixBus is a bunch of filthy, mouthbreathing animals. They talk a big game about their bus internet, but once you get onto it, you learn it’s an elaborate German ruse. For some reason, the trap didn’t spring until I got into Germany, but I think FlixBus had been plotting it the entire time I was in Europe, earning my trust by degrees. Toying with me. Then, once I was in for a ten-hour bus ride, the unwashed, skulduggerous, drug addict hyenas that orchestrate these bus routes like some dark and deviant god pulled the plug on the so-called “bus internet”.

Ten hours, I rotted in that cell on wheels! Ten hours I languished in an Amish diesel nightmare, not so much as a scrap of Wi-Fi to be found. I didn’t even have the map downloaded. You want to take a guess how long I tried to download the map?

I’ll find the miserable, hoary, addled son of a bitch who did this to me one day, and I swear before all the saints and angels that I will dance in his blood.

Anyway. Deutschland. Ja, das ist fuckin kalt. It wasn’t nearly as kalt in Budapest, so fool that I was, I thought I’d be fine in just a t-shirt and coat.

I was not.

Fortunately, Dresden is presently devoted wholly to Christmas, and you can’t walk ten meters without hitting a Christmas Market. I’m sure we have these stateside — we do love markets — but never anything like this. It reminded me of the church picnics that would paralyze the townships of my childhood and herd all the adults into parking lots to drink beer and eat pierogies, but pierogies were conspicuously absent.

(I know pierogi is the plural, shut your goddamn mouth)

Instead, there were brats. This would be a running theme throughout the whole of my stay in Germany. No matter where you went or what you did, your only hope for food was some form of wurst. It was usually currywurst, but sometimes, specifically in Christmas Market times, it was bratwurst. And oh, the glühwein! It flowed like… well, like you’d expect.

Tremendous MacBeth cauldrons of the stuff, manned by grinning German men in hokey holiday dress, the whole square stinking of cinnamon and cloves. Glühwein is a Germanic holiday drink, mulled wine everywhere else. You take red wine, you heat it up, you slam-dunk whatever incense your grandma smelled like in there, and then you drink it in the cold. Immediately, you’re warm. It’s a Christmas miracle. Ein Weihnachten Wunder. +30 Frost Resistance, effective immediately.

The other stands sold fried dough covered in sugar, as did every other building everywhere in Europe. They love baked goods so much it’s uncanny. There were also souvenir stands, weird little trinkets with city or religious significance, and a distressing number of puppets.

This is something that isn’t talked about often, but central and eastern Europe are absolutely nuts for marionettes. You can’t get away from them. You’ll want to, believe me. They’re freaky. Freaky and omnipresent and watching you, judging you, with their bulging, painted, sightless eyes. Wooden demon’s eyes.

In typically understated German fashion, there was also Der Goldenerreiter, a dude made of gold riding a horse, also made of gold, in the middle of the town square. His name was Augustus the Subtle.

Strong, sorry. Augustus der Stark.

It was a scenic river overlook of four buildings, churches and municipal dealies with breathtaking architecture that I couldn’t get a picture of because it was dark.

I wound up in a brauhause, hopeful that what I’d heard about German beer was true. Dark news, kids. The weizen is the best you can hope for. See, the Germans, strong traditionalists, have had this grim law in affect since 1516 called the Reinheitsgebot. In English, it’s something along the lines of “The German Beer Purity Law”, and it stated in a tone that brooked no argument that the ONLY ingredients that could be in beer were water, barley, and hops.

Absolutely brutal. Just like that Harry Chapin song about the teacher who won’t let the kid color flowers anything but red.

Don’t worry, they’re not that draconian. They modified the law in 1993(!). From Wikipedia:

“The revised Vorläufiges Biergesetz (Provisional Beer Law) of 1993, which replaced the earlier regulations, is a slightly expanded version of the Reinheitsgebot, stipulating that only water, malted barley, hops and yeast be used for any bottom-fermented beer brewed in Germany.”

What I’m trying to communicate here, friends and neighbors, is that I’m an American boy, born and bred, and I’m used to exciting shit in my beer like frosting and cranberries and whatever else they had lying around the microbrewery. I like stouts! They’re full of chocolate and espresso and smoke. That’s the trifecta, infinitely better than that hyper-bitter quintuple IPA crap everyone pretends to like.

In Germany, what you get is lager. Sometimes the lager tastes more like wheat, sometimes it tastes a little darker and heavier, but at the end of the day, it’s nationalist PBR and I’m not out here for it. Still, when in Rome, gladiate, and when in Germany, drink beer until it’s not cold anymore.

Unfortunately, it was cold. Forevermore. I tried to do the sightseeing thing the following day, but everything was way too far from everything and I could feel my bone marrow freezing. Less than ideal tourist conditions. I eventually found a restaurant that would let me steal WiFi, and I ordered what appeared to be a giant bowl of cheese.

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The menu assured me it was a traditional Dresden dish. It was sort of like a French onion soup thing, only instead of French, German, and instead of onion, pork. But it was warm, and calorically dense, and you best believe I inhaled it.

I was on the first bus to Berlin the next morning. Dresden was nice, but even the locals I knew warned me that it was not, perhaps, the ideal portrait of Germany. “The most racist city in Germany” was how it was described to me, due to the massive refugee population. The refugees themselves seemed nice; they were piss drunk in the streets, blasting reggae and dancing as though it weren’t 4 degrees out. More power to them.

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Be A Bandit, my hostel insisted on the morning of my departure. Well, I do try.

Love,

The Bastard

Budapest: Flying the Coop

December 1, 2017. Budapest, Hungary.

I’d seen the sights, I’d drank the beer, I’d crawled around in a cave, I’d been disappointed by a number of ruin bars and I had a newly acquired half-gallon of cholesterol blocking out all the major highways and byways of my shriveled, black heart. I’d also gotten my hands on a rather fetching 5 Euro scarf.

It was a gorgeous city, especially at night. The Danube was brutally cold, but so long as you weren’t walking along the bank, even the winter winds weren’t that bad. I made a point of hiking out every night and locating a traditional restaurant then eating whatever had the word “Hungarian” next to it in the menu. My final night I got one of the house specialties, Hungarian Crispy Duck.

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I really don’t know what I expected, but it was just a duck fried like chicken. It tasted like fried chicken, only there was less of it. It was a strategic misstep on my part and I admit this openly. In penance, I drank nothing but Red Juice until 6 PM the following day.

i… suppose that argument can be made, yes

My final excursion was a nocturnal one. Budapest is an exceptional city for sneakin’ around. It seems somehow inappropriate to let your feet slap blithely on the ground. Maybe it’s the subconscious knowledge of the subterranean cave systems and how easy it is to break through into them. Legend has it new branches of the caves were discovered when a single grazing goat fell through a sinkhole and dropped the 40 to 60 feet down into them. I could imagine how startled it felt, and maybe, deep down, I wasn’t trying to follow suit.

On the Pest side of the Danube is a Holocaust monument called Shoes on the Danube Bank. It’s a bunch of iron sculptures of shoes lined up facing the river.

It’s the kind of thing to be visited at night. More honest that way. The monument was constructed to honor the people murdered by fascist Arrow Cross militiamen in December 1944-January 1945. Hungary had been allied with Germany against the Soviets since 1941, remember, and when ’44 rolled around and the Hungarian government tried to bail out of their alliance, the Nazis blitzed in and occupied them. The militia was local Budapesti who tried on the fashy coats and liked the fit.

They herded 3,500 people out of their homes in the dead of night, 800 of them Jews, and had them take off their shoes and line up along the bank of the Danube, where they were executed. The bodies dropped in and got carried downriver, leaving their shoes behind.

The Swedish Red Cross was set up in Budapest and 400 of them were working round the clock trying to sneak out as much of the Jewish population as they could. They’d rented out the Swedish Embassy building extraterritoriality, along with 32 other buildings throughout the city, declaring them property of Sweden and using them as a shelter for anyone the Nazis had in their sights — which is to say, most.

Now, being as it was an occupied territory, this sounds to me a lot like hanging a ‘NO NAZIS ALLOWED’ sign on the doors, and it turns out it sort of was. On January 8, 1945, the Arrow Cross militiamen busted into one of the sovereign Swedish buildings on Vadasz street and ushered them out along the Danube, as was their idiom. The Swedes, though, weren’t having it. Joining with the less morally bankrupt of the Budapest police force, they rushed the Arrow Cross house at midnight. For militiamen, they sure weren’t accustomed to getting hit back. They were slaughtered like pigs. The Swedes rescued pretty much everyone the fascists had abducted that night. A month later, the Soviets busted in and liberated Budapest.

I hovered around there until I got cold, then got moving. It was about time to set sail anyway.

The issue was with the setting of the sail. My experience in Austria demonstrated that I had some piddling capacity for German, and while I was in this neck of the woods I figured, why not try my hand in earnest? What could possibly go wrong?

German winter.

I can understand how Russian winter got Napoleon, he was just a little dude, and French to boot. Hitler had no excuse. German winter is unspeakable. German winter is where bad people go when they die.

But that’s another country, for another post.

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