Tuesday, May 25, 2004

Marcus Meets Europe! -- Denmark

Tivoli Gardens

I'm back on the continent again. I took my essay exam, sweating buckets because it was the one time where I could have flunked in two countries with one test. Afterwards, I rewarded myself by spending the afternoon with a cool friend of mine. I have the luck of hanging out with girls far more intelligent than me, and she was no exception. She talked of human behavior and her incisive observations on how to read people. My brain was fried after that test, so I listened more than I talked. At her apartment, she made us spaghetti for dinner before I left for the airport. What a great send-off.

The thing to see in Copenhagen is Tivoli Gardens, an amusement park. I wish I could tell you guys about it, but I didn't go. I heard about an amusement park for adults called Christiania, and went there instead. My hostel, Middlebrook's, is in a popular student area called Norrebro. Christiania was on the other side of the city entirely. The hostel manager said it was a great walk, since I would see all of Copenhagen on the way there. My inner tourist leapt with joy while my feet began to weep.

Christiania was a military barracks. Hippies moved into the abandoned buildings and created a commune. No kidding, I felt like I was in 60's California when I was in there. Dogs ran loose without leashes. They do cater more to tourists now. But it still looks like a homeless colony, so it hasn't lost its underground edge. Graffit was sprayed into the sides of all the buildings, making for excellent street art. I took a picture of a mural that acted as a giant sign for the WC (european for water closet, a.k.a. restroom). It showed a 5-armed green alien taking a piss and a deranged moose taking a dump. There were shopping stalls set up in a little flea market area. A couple of the stalls sold hash pipes and marijuana goods. When I walked out of Christiania, there was a sign overhead that said, "You are now entering the EU." Christiania wasn't just its own country, it was from another time period.


The common joke is that there are McDonald's everywhere. What I wanted to know was: what was the European equivalent of McDonald's? What could I find everywhere in Europe? I've come up with two answers. The first is Irish pubs. You can drink like the Irish practically everywhere. They've exported their pubs and beer to all corners. The second is Turkish fast food. I've found those everywhere too. They advertise themselves as Kebab joints. The bonus is that many of them also sell burgers and pizza. Three kinds of fast food, all under one roof!

The travelling is getting to me. I've gotten sick, which sucks to no end when you want be out and about 24 hours a day. I'm driven by that fear You've got to see everything because you'll never be here again! I consulted Dr. Mom. She prescribed sleep and drinking juices with Vitamin C. After a day of walking Copenhagen, I stopped at a corner grocery store. The cooler had 1-litre cartons of orange juice. I reached for that, then saw cartons of guava juice next to them. Even better. Reminded me of Hawaii. I took a carton of guava juice over to the till (British for cash register). While the Middle Eastern man was getting my change, I looked at the top of the carton. I was hoping the guava juice was from Hawaii. No soap, the letters weren't even in the English alphabet.

"Excuse me, could you tell me where this guava juice is from?" I handed him the carton.

"Hmm, Arabic letters." He examined the box carefully. "This juice is from Egypt!" He announced.

"Really?" I asked. I didn't know they drank guava juice there. I told him how I was from Hawaii and that I drink it all the time there.

"They drink guava juice in Hawaii?!"

That made us even.

Thursday, May 20, 2004

Marcus Meets Europe! -- Scotland

Edinburgh Castle

The academics of studying abroad reared its ugly head, so I'm back in Norwich taking an exam for UEA. I was able to squeeze in one more destination, Edinburgh. The ride was great while it lasted.

I couldn't have asked for a better view. Castle Rock Hostel is immediately below Edinburgh Castle, allowing one to look at history every morning. A lot of the guests were long-term stayers, meaning Australians working for British pounds. They made the hostel a lot of fun to stay in.

I went on a free walking tour of Edinburgh. My favorite place we stopped at was the Parliament House. There was a large room called the Great Hall, a.k.a. "The Hall of Whispers." Lawyers would come in pairs to walk side by side, from one end of the room to the other, discussing their cases in whispers. The legal profession never looked so important and prestigious.

After the tour was over, I accompanied the two Canadian girls I met on the tour to Edinburgh Castle. I had a great time looking from the turrets and imagining myself defending the castle against my enemies. We got to see the Crown Jewels, which were in a glass case. The security guard kept anyone for taking pictures. The War Museum was an action movie fan's dream come true. Display after display of military uniforms, suits of armor, swords scored from clashing with other swords, old and new machine guns, it was awesome.

We arranged to meet up later with our tour guide at Rush, a bar in Cowgate. I looked at the menu of shooters. I ignored the drink names and focused on the ingredients. One drink had Kalhua, Bailey's, and cream. We have a winner. I called the female bartender over. "Yes, I'd like one . . ." What was the drink called? My eyes flicked back to the menu. "Give me a Blow Job please." The words were out of my mouth before I knew what I had said. I blushed a deep red. She smiled and made me the drink.

The Canadian girls, the tour guide, and I later went to a music bar. A band performed live rock, mostly covers. One of the Canadian girls kept buying me drinks, despite my protests about staying sober. She said she'd call me a cab if I really needed it. I wondered whether she was really that nice or just wanted to get me drunk. The last stop was The Liquid Room, a nightclub. The dance floor was small, so it reminded me of high school. I got my dance on, and all had a good time.

My biggest regret was that I didn't give myself enough time to see more of Scotland. I missed the Highlands and Loch Ness, because they were too far from Edinburgh. That bummed me out, because I really wanted to see that monster!

Sunday, May 9, 2004

Marcus Meets Europe! -- Germany

Berlin Wall

I went to Berlin and became a KGB agent. It happened so gradually, I didn't even know it until I left. Anyone who's spent some time with me knows I'm a huge spy fan. Berlin was the front line for the Cold War, so I was in heaven.

My first breakfast in Berlin was at Gorki Park, a cafe named after the famous park in Moscow. I was accompanied by 3 girls from London. I collected intelligence from them on my future destinations. They told me that one of the places I'm going to doesn't like Londoners, but that I should be okay. I've yet to meet anyone who hates Hawaiians. Actually, most people tell me that I'm the first Hawaiian they've ever met. I didn't expect to become a diplomat!

The highlight of Berlin for me was the Checkpoint Charlie Museum.

Checkpoint Charlie Musuem

There's a lot of photos and captions detailing the methods East Berliners used to get over the wall. People snuck out inside of cars, boxes, and even suitcases. My favorite story was of a man from Sweden who fell in love with a girl from Dresden. Determined to free her, he took flying lessons until he became a proficient pilot. He then rented a plane, flew into Czechoslovakia, picked her up, and made it back to Sweden.

For review, here's what I was told were the majority of backpackers I'd meet at hostels: Americans, Canadians, British, New Zealanders, and Australians. I've been to a couple of hostels, and I've adjusted that list. Take out British and New Zealanders; add Brazilians and Asians. I met 1 Brazilian guy in Barcelona, 3 in Paris, and a Brazilian girl in Berlin. It's interesting to find out which countries produce the most travellers. Australians are long-term expatriates. The Australians in their 20's I've met spend months away from home. One Aussie explained it to me: it takes so long to fly to Europe (around 20 hours) so that when they do come, they stay until they see it all. They're also usually working in London. Many work in bars, a couple girls do au pair work. The Americans and Asians are studying abroad. Americans study abroad in a variety of places, the Asians I've met are studying in England. I've met less Americans as time goes on, and more Canadians. I think it's because spring break in Europe is over after April for American students and Canadians take their vacations before the summer crowds flood into Europe. I've heard July to August are really bad times to travel here because everyone goes on vacation at the same time and that's when the weather is too hot and sticky.

My last night in Berlin, I set off in search of a bar with the Brazilian girl. We ended up at Kaffee Burger, a retro Russian disco. I didn't even know there was such a thing as a retro Russian disco. It sounded like 70's grooves, but all the lyrics were in Russian. I drank a pint of Jever Dark and watched slim European girls dance as they smoked cigarettes. I'm such an amateur at drinking. The Brazilian girl was done in no time while I was still had three-fourths of my glass left. German beer felt stronger than what I've had before. We talked about why we were travelling. She was a pre-med student taking a leave of absence before finishing her bachelor's and going to med school. The three factors were time, money, and friends to go with her. She had the time and money now, but no one for company. So she went to Europe alone. If she had waited for all three things to come together, she said she might never travel. I agreed.

There are times I wish I had someone with me, though. Paris was a city for couples, and it would have been even more enchanting if I had a girlfriend to share it with. I'm doing recon for my honeymoon, that's what I told myself. Travelling alone means I can never turn to someone and say, "Hey! Remember when . . ." because I was by myself. Or, the people who were with me are back home on another side of the world.

Aside from the language barrier, there are 3 challenges I have to deal with every time I go to a new country.

First challenge: finding my hostel. In the interest of keeping my backpack light, I didn't pack the thick Rough Guide to Europe 2004 I had. This is when I'm most scared. I've come off the plane in a foreign land. I have to start with being lost. I make sure to get a free map from the Information desk when I get into the airport. Between the map and the directions from the hostel, I can find my way after getting lost at least twice.

Second challenge: getting to the airport when I have to fly out. I love travelling but I hate being in transit, so fly as much as I can. The problem is that I have zero margin for error. With trains, if I miss a train I can just catch the next one. With flights, I have to make my flight or I'm screwed. I've had some close calls, the most recent being my flight out of Berlin. I was waiting for the S9 to Berlin Schonefeld airport. I got to Alexanderplatz station, and was on the right platform. But the S9 just wasn't showing up. I took out my map and tried to find an alternate train. A nice German girl asked if I needed help. I told her my problem. She suggested I take an RE train (international train) that stopped at the airport. Just then, an RE train pulled into the station. She blurted, "That's the one! Hurry! You can make it!" For a split second, I thought she might be scamming me. I made a snap decision. I ran down the stairs, across to the other platform, up the stairs, and jumped onto the RE train. My map only covered S-Bahn and U-Bahn trains, so the first thing I did was check the map on the train. I was really hoping I'd hadn't botched my whole trip. It did stop at Berlin Schonefeld airport! Whew. I didn't worry about tickets until the conductor came around to check. My ticket wasn't for the RE train. I read the fines for fare-jumping are like 40 euro. Oh crap, I thought, I won't be eating for the next week. He asked me for my ticket. Dejected, I told him I was just trying to get to the airport. "Schonefeld?" he asked. I nodded. He punched the buttons on his handheld and showed me the screen: 2.00 euros. I could buy a ticket on the train!

Third challenge: Leaving. I'm at my loneliest the first night in town. Eventurally, I push myself to meet people and make friends. It's always better to see a city with company. Farewells are so final because everyone's on different schedules and from different places, so the chances of reunions are nil. In Barcelona, a bunch of my new friends wished me well as I lugged my backpack out the entrance. Challenges like language barriers, getting lost, and constant blows to my confidence are the stuff of travel, but the most difficult challenge of all is saying goodbye.

Tuesday, May 4, 2004

Marcus Meets Europe! -- Ireland

Dublin Postcard
A postcard from Dublin

It was cool to go to a smaller place this time around. I was feeling a bit knackered, to use an English phrase, of racing from one famous landmark to the next. Dublin was a chance to unwind.

Being an English Creative Writing major, my first stop was the Dublin Writers' Museum. Tiny, only two exhibition rooms. I wondered how so many lions of letters could all come from so small a place. What was the common cause of their genius? Censorship seemed to breed great art, I found. All of the authors had issues with the virtual theocracy they chafed under in Dublin and vented their anger in their literary works. James Joyce and Samuel Beckett, two of Dublin's native sons, practically lived in exile and rarely visited their home town.

Having my fill of culture, I went in search of some mental junk food. I had seen some unusual films in Paris. One was a beautiful life story of a monk called Spring, Summer, Winter, Fall, Spring from a South Korean director who had studied fine arts in Paris. The other was Agents Secrets, a French spy thriller that I couldn't understand. I could understand individual scenes, like she's drugged the kids to search the house and he attacked the guy in the bathroom to steal his identity. But I totally missed the overall story. Now that I was in an English-speaking country, I was hoping for a Hollywood blockbuster. Unfortunately I got lost in Temple Bar and found the Irish Film Institute. I made the most of it and went for what looked like the most suspenseful movie they had, a documentary from Brazil called Bus 174. I've only started to become a fan of documentaries, after watching The Thin Blue Line and Bowling for Columbine. Bus 174 completed my conversion to the medium. It records the case of a bus hijacking that rocked the headlines in Rio de Janeiro. The film went much further, telling of the circumstances of the hijacker's life, interviewing the police officers and hostages, ultimately indicting the brutal prison system and police incompetence in handling the hijacking. Then it returns to the bus for the most nail-biting climax I've seen in a long time. In terms of emotional punch, Bus 174 has Speed beat hands down.

One of the good things of getting lost is stumbling onto great places I would never have found otherwise. I was wandering around Temple Bar when I smelled food. Good food. I followed my nose and went to Meeting House Square. It was like a gourmet open market. Booths sold top-quality cheese, meat, and other delights for the taste buds. I got a sausage dog from Hick and Sons Handmade Gourmet Pork Products. The sausage was lightly spiced and tender. Later, I was looking at a selection of desserts. The old Latina woman asked what I wanted. I said the chocolate desserts looked good, but I wanted something different. She recommended a slice of her 3-Leche Nicaraguan cake. It had condensed milk, evaporated milk, and regular milk. She watched closely when I took the first bite. Whoa. Much more subtle and flavorful than the usual sugar rush I go for. I said Mmm. She laughed and said "I knew it!"

Me guy from Australia guy from Scotland
On a pub crawl in Dublin with a guy from Australia and Scotland

I wanted to go to some Irish pubs, but I didn't want to go by myself. Good thing someone invented pub crawls. The Backpackers' Pub Crawl was 5 euros and met at the front gate to Trinity College. We went to five pubs and two dance clubs, don't quote me though. The memory of that night gets foggy. I do remember meeting three Australian guys. There was also this older German lady who wore pink everything: jacket, skirt, stockings, the works. The second pub we went to was the smallest pub in Dublin. That was its claim to fame. One of the Australian guys said, "Marcus, I think the German bird fancies you." What German bird? I turned and saw the pink lady, who smiled at me. I hastily turned away and shuddered. Do not get drunk do not get drunk. Meanwhile, the Australian guys laughed at me. I was pretty quiet for most of the pub crawl, so no one expected a lot from me. When we got to the last dance club, I unleashed the wild beast I keep caged inside. A girl from New Zealand leaned to my ear. She said I looked like a good dancer. I thanked her. As we left the club, the Australian guys and one Scottish guy congratulated me. That was at the end of the pub crawl, though. I think they were amazed at how much coordination I had left, not my dancing skill.