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.

20171204_140906

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.

20171204_143816

“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.

20171204_142503

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.

25086666_1146757948793843_707077068_o

I also encountered this gem.

20171204_171152

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:

germany

“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.

haltmaul

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

24899219_1146758855460419_1945745216_n

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: Budapest (Budapest)

 

November 27, 2017. Budapest, Hungary.

The bus itself was a trial. FlixBus is a European bus company that goes from major city to major city, one of the cheapest ways to travel internationally across the continent. Big ugly green buses, say ‘FLIXBUS’ on the side, you can’t miss them. If it’s more than five hours a way, it would probably cost the same to just grab a plane, but for that to work you need to book the tickets in advance. With FlixBus, you walk in and throw a handful of peanuts at them and they’ll take you to Budapest.

That was the working theory, anyway. According to the ticket that I got on this stupid app I downloaded to streamline their awful online purchase process, my ride was the 901, departing for Vienna at 11:40. An hour transfer onto the 902 at the good ol’ desolate Erdberg station and I’m in Budapest. Not bad for $20.

The 901 showed up to the station at 11:45. The bus driver didn’t speak English, but he did speak angrily. I showed him my ticket and he said, “Not Budapest. Table.”

“What?”

“Table,” he said, pointing.

“Yeah, still not getting it.”

“Table! Table!” he yelled, jerking a finger at the windshield.

“Oh, table! Of course!” I said, then leaned in close enough that he wouldn’t yell at me like I was a fucking child and said, “Still not getting it. I’m going to Vienna.”

“I come from Vienna,” he said.

“Awesome. 901? Like my ticket says?” I show him my ticket again, then point at the giant 901 on his windshield.

He points to a red coach bus in front of his. “They go Vienna.”

“The plain red bus. That’s a FlixBus?”

“Yes,” he said irritably. “FlixBus.”

“Grand.”

I board the sketchy unmarked bus. The driver of this one was a kindly old Austrian with a ridiculous walrus mustache.

“We going to Vienna?” I asked, showing my ticket.

Ja! Ja, Wien! Vienna!” He was merry about it. It was infectious.

Unlike most FlixBuses, this one had no Wi-Fi. Probably because it wasn’t a FlixBus. How did anyone else know? How did the other six passengers just guess at the correct giant red bus in the station full of giant red buses?

At the Erdberg station, rather than kill an hour standing in the filth and shivering, I took a walk to try to find something to eat. Realistically, it would come from a kebab stand. Everything in Vienna costs 4x as much as it does in the real world. I need to try Wiener schnitzel, but I don’t need it $15 bad. It’s just lightly fried meat. I would have been charged a nickel for that in Turkey.

There was no food near Erdberg station. People in that part of the city didn’t eat. I wandered back into what looked like an abandoned shopping complex to discover it was only semi-abandoned. There were bathrooms that you didn’t need to pay 50 cents for, which was a refreshing change of pace (I don’t use bus station bathrooms on principle. Half a dollar to take a piss, get outta here), and a sketchy textile store called Kik that sold discernibly rough-looking clothing for next to nothing. I considered an ugly $4 hoodie but ultimately decided on an ugly $4 beanie to help me weather eastern Europe’s winter and to fill the void in my heart left by the tragic loss of my Wanderhut.

Four hours, beautiful reader.

Four hours is how long I owned the new hat before my stupid ass left it behind on the bus.

Two days. Two hats. Two buses. Perfect score.

The realization of my own staggering incompetence launched me into a depressive spiral. I’d been laboring under the delusion that I was a smart dude, for most of my life. A pillar of my self-concept had fallen like a free-standing 2×4 whacked with a claw hammer and I didn’t know who I was any more.

Look at this! Lumber analogies! I should get a fucking trucker cap and do freelance deckbuilding frm the ’93 pickup I live in by the river.

I had such potential. Once.

In Budapest I learned they used yet another different kind of money, which means adding another layer of useless paper to my wallet. I’m still carrying Turkish lira, Czech koruna, and a fat stack of Euros, not to mention the $10 American taking up space in my backpack. You can rob me if you want, but if you want it to be worth your while you better be ready for the hike.

Hungarian forints, they’re called, and 310 of them makes a Euro. 260 makes a dollar, which is a far starker contrast than 1 Euro = $1.21. Armed with this new knowledge, I started peeking through windows for something to eat.

Most of outer Budapest seems to be if Fallout 3 had been utopian, instead. Every kind of disorganized junk shop you can imagine. Battery shops, camera shops, tire shops, light bulb shops. The whole 3 km walk from the Kelenföld was like tracking a wounded Radio Shack to the Danube.

I spotted a restaurant full of old, fat Hungarian men. The window menu was indecipherable except for the word Heineken, which was 100 forints.

That’s like 35 cents European. Couldn’t be more than 50 cents in real money. I’m a grown man so I’m obviously not about to drink a Heineken, but I’d just picked up the economic lay of the land.

I went into a restaurant and a moonlighting supermodel said something to me in rapid-fire Hungarian. I try to make a point of learning ten or fifteen words in every country I visit so I’m not that meme about the cultured frat boy, but it had been impossible to steal Wi-Fi since I got off the bus, so I opted for a half-wattage winning smile and a dopey “Hi!”

“English menu,” she said. It didn’t sound like a question.

“Oh god please.”

It was a ruin pub, which is a beautiful Hungarian concept that red tape would forbid in America. It works like this: Budapest is overburdened with abandoned buildings as a result of ambitious Nazi and Soviet infrastructure plans. The proprietor-to-be will rent out one of these worthless buildings, give it a quick clean, and call over a bunch of local artists and designers to distract from the crumbling walls and safety code violations. This renders it a rom kocsm, literally “pub-in-a-ruin”, the preferred social hotspots in Budapest. This one looked more well-established, and the menu was pricey by comparison to the 30-cent beer I saw on the way. Still, each of the “Main Dishes” were like 5 Euros. I hadn’t eaten that day, and expected them to be small. I ordered two.

The waitress seemed baffled by my decision.

“Two? Are you… sure?”

“Please.”

“At the same time?”

“Sure. Naw, actually, let’s do the dumplings first.”

She doubted my powers. Honey, I’m an American. Overeating is our national pastime. We have a holiday devoted specifically to it, and I wasn’t there. I’m making up for lost time.

Still, I came to understand her hesitation. They were not small.

24167241_1140613646074940_244342932_o

The Sztrapacska was supposed to be “Hungarian dumplinks” with ewe’s cheese and bacon. I thought it meant dumplings. Apparently, dumplinks is some sort of code word for mac and cheese. It was phenomenal, which was appropriate, because delicious is finom in Hungarian. After housing that, the waitress returned, cautiously.

“You want the other?”

“Let’s do it,” I said. I’d rationed my stout out, I had another half liter to go. I could do this. I’d been training for this moment my entire life.

“Hungarian cured sausage”, they said.

24140089_1140288372774134_877104616_o.jpg

I was awed by the tenacity of this people. They just have a mountain of sauerkraut and pickled peppers for dinner? You just set four sausages afloat in a sea of spicy mustard? And BREAD? How can that bread even enter this equation?

I dug deep and cleaned the… well, it wasn’t a plate. It was more of a wooden circle. Which I cleaned.

The dinner for two and half-liter of craft beer came to like $12. I decided I was going to enjoy my time in Budapest.

I took the scenic route to my hostel in an effort to walk off some of the trillions of calories of pigfat I’d just put down.

24167270_1140613626074942_1813308616_o.jpg

Scenic it was. Budapest is a beautiful city, except for all the damn cops. Everywhere I went, more cops were sitting outside their squad cars, holding assault rifles and wearing those adorable Russian hats you see in cartoons.

I tried to cross the bridge nearest my hostel and they stopped me. Everyone was speaking Hungarian, but with the gestures it was pretty obvious that nobody was allowed on the bridge. A girl on a bicycle was much more dismayed than me, which seemed silly. You’ve got a bicycle.

I started walking toward another bridge, recalculated the distances, then about-faced and headed toward a third bridge that might have been slightly closer, as the crow flies. As I was about to pass the off-limits bridge, I saw the armed guards part to let a bicyclist through.

I pointed at myself, then at the bridge, raised my eyebrows inquisitively. The guard nodded and waved me through.

Huh.

I asked the girl at the hostel desk what the hell was up with all the cops. She looked baffled for a moment.

“What cups?”

“The police,” I said. “They stopped me on the bridge.”

The bafflement turned to alarm. “Why?”

“I was hoping you’d know. They wouldn’t let me cross.”

She processed this for a moment, then her eyes lit up.

“Oh, I know!” she said. “I know, I know! One… one second.”

She was obviously ordering the words in her head. I do it in Spanish pretty much every time I need to say a sentence with more than six words.

“He is the Chinese president, is visiting Budapest,” she said. “So they are doing everything to keep him safe. They are shutting down bridges and roads because if he is on them, no one else can be on them.”

“Okay, good. I was thinking, ‘it can’t be like this every night’. It’s a Monday.”

“Noooo. Budapest is very safe.”

I thanked her and checked in, then headed up to my room to phonetically learn some phrases and maybe watch a documentary, get a little background on the place. She gave me a pamphlet as I walked away..

24169474_1140613629408275_1713135250_o.jpg

Truly, something for everyone.

Love,

The Bastard