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.