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

Kutná Hora: The Bone Zone

November 24, 2017. Kutná Hora, Czech Republic.

Trains aren’t so bad once you get used to them. By the time I finished this morning’s existential blogging I only had a half an hour before the train left, and it was a 25 minute walk to the station. Pretty standard odds. I skedaddled across Prague, got yelled at by the lady at the bus line and sent down the metro line where a much nicer lady sold me a $5 ticket to Kutna Hora and said, “Platform 4”.

Welp, I found platform 1, went toward it, went away from it, went toward it again, then stopped at a money changing booth and asked the lady there where Platform 4 was. She said, “Just keep going straight”, and I did, and- ahhh, okay, so it’s not like an airport.

Seats were at a premium. I tried to slip into a six-seater booth that only contained one old white woman, but she told me in Czech that it was reserved. It’s reassuring to know that old white women are like that no matter where you are.

I eventually found a seat in the cattle car section and spent the ride staring out the window and thinking about bones.

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A smooth hour later, I got off the train in the middle of nowhere. Since there were no roads in the middle of nowhere, hence, nowhere, I had to walk down a set of train tracks. Talk about nostalgia.

In the halcyon days of my youth, everything was a minimum four miles from everything else, and much of it was only connected by highways and bypasses. If you couldn’t drive, and you wanted to go somewhere, you took the train tracks, and you hoped there were no railway police, hallucinating junkie hobos, or Leatherface murder-hicks with the same idea.

After a few blocks the tracks ran parallel to a paved road so I had to hop a shoulder-high fence that was, as far as I could tell, made wholly of rust.

Kutna Hora was silent. I didn’t realize it at first, but for the past month I’ve been dipping from one major city to another. Traffic, noise, low-level metropolitan chaos was a constant, and the only respite I’ve got are these Wal-Mart earplugs which, realistically, are not long for this world. A car would pass, and then I could count breaths and heartbeats before another one came. You don’t realize how much you miss something like that until you don’t have it.

I basked in the quiet until it was disrupted by three Australians behind me, pointing blithely at anything with a steeple and saying, “Is that it?” On the third time, I asked if they were headed to the bone church.

“Is that it?” they repeated.

“Nope,” I said, “Around the corner, couple blocks up. I was wondering what brought ya’ll to this hub of tourism.”

They said they were studying in Prague, then asked the usual battery of questions you ask to anyone in Europe with a backpack: how long you been out, where have you been, how long will you stay out, etc. We reached the cathedral and separated before we could finish the song-and-dance.

Before we get to the good stuff, if you don’t know what the Sedlec Ossuary is, let me give you a quick rundown.

In 1278, an abbot named Henry was sent by a Bohemian king to the holy land. Pilgrimage complete, he scooped up a handful of Jerusalem’s finest dirt, then brought it back and scattered it around the abbey cemetery. Boom. Transubstantiation. That was no longer secular bohemian land, but rather, hot new Holy Land, and everybody in Europe wanted to be buried there.

Many of them would get their wish within the next hundred years, because that’s when the Black Death hit. The bodies business was booming. Then, early 1400s, the Hussite Wars make the cemetery even bigger.

The local Roman Catholic diocese responsible checked out the plot of land and said, “You know, all these consecrated bodies are great, but what we could really use, right here, in the center, is a Gothic church.” So of course they built one. Problem is, that takes a hell of a foundation, so they had to exhume a lot of the bones of the buried faithful, beplagued and slain, then just kind of… tossed ’em in the basement. No harm, no foul.

None of this was decreasing demand to get buried in the Holy Land away from Holy Land, so the bodies were still, literally, piling up. The church, in their infinite wisdom, assigned a partially blind monk the task of exhuming more bodies and stacking the bones. That was his job. Until he died, and presumably joined them.

1870 rolls around, and House Schwarzenberg is now the owner of the largest pile of bones in Europe, containing the remains of between 40,000 and 70,000 dead people in the same way that a Boston cream contains its filling when you squeeze it as hard as you can. Something’s gotta be done, so they hire a wood carver, for some reason, to put the bones in order. Little did they realize this wood carver was nuttier than squirrel shit, and lo, the Sedlec Ossuary was born.

It was incredible. It was also the first time I’ve ever touched a real human skull sans skin. They’re surprisingly tiny, but that might have been because most people in medieval central Europe were like 5’0″.

I puttered around oohing and aahing at all the upcycled dead people until the selfie brigade started to grate on me, then I went to the only restaurant in Kutna Hora and ordered what I hope wasn’t traditional Czech food from a surly, bottom-heavy waitress with eyes dead enough that she could’ve also come right from the Ossuary.

20171124_115414.jpgIt was an unseasoned chicken breast with reduction of Cream of Spinach soup on top. I didn’t realize Kutna Hora catered to bodybuilders. I ordered the potato pancakes as a side mostly for their German name, Kartoffelpuffer. Teehee. Kartoffel means potato in German, but that’s from the Italian tartufulo, which refers to a truffle, but originally both came from terrae tuber, or earth-bulb. Puffer is both self-explanatory and pretty funny.

Well, I saw the bone church, and I ate. According to tour offers, I could spend the next 6 hours in Kutna Hora learning about a medieval silver mine, but that sounded boring and awful, so I caught a train back to Prague and slithered on to a connecting FlixBus. I couldn’t order the ticket online, so the bus driver made a big deal of saying, “It will be 150% more if you buy from me now.”

“You mean, 50% more?”

“150%.”

Well, it was about 15 Euros for the ticket online, and I wound up giving him 20, which was almost all of the Czech money I had left anyway. I have another 200 or 300 CZK left in my pocket (around $25), but I’ve been on this bus for a couple hours, and I’ve got to be in Austria by now.

You know, considering my track record, you gotta wonder how many ghosts I dragged with me outta that well-stacked pile of bones.

Love,

The Bastard