Tuesday, January 31, 2012

Good Morning. Welcome to Travel Hell.

Amsterdam


“Good morning ladies and gentlemen. We have a very big problem. Please evacuate the train. Immediately.”

On my “List of Ways I Like to be Awakened in Foreign Countries” the previous phrase is certainly not at the top. In fact, it it’s on another list entirely, a list entitled, “Things I Never Want to Hear at 7am.” However, when the loud speaker crackled to life on Saturday morning and I was forced to leap from my bed (it was a night train so, yes, I actually had a bed), grab my belongings and wait in the cold for over half an hour with a train full of people somewhere in the German countryside, I decided to try to make the most of it. After all, I like a little adventure as much as the next person…


Three trains and four hours later as I bounced along in an overcrowded train with my luggage at my feet (yep, I was standing, because when you put a train full of people on another train that is already full of people, there tend not to be any seats left), my spirit of adventure began to decline rapidly. I hadn’t brushed my teeth in ages, I hadn’t slept well the previous night and I was so confused as to my current geographic location that I didn’t even know if I was in Germany or the Netherlands.

By the time I reached Amsterdam, my destination for one last weekend trip before returning to the USA in a few weeks, I was ready for a shower and a change of clothes. Unfortunately, my room at the hostel was not ready and, according to the look the receptionist gave me, it wasn’t going to be ready any time soon and I was a fool for asking. Instead of a refreshing shower, I was directed to a closet-sized bathroom down the hall.

Deciding to make the best of a less than ideal situation, I changed my clothes, brushed my teeth, pulled my hair into a terribly attractive ponytail, tossed my backpack in the “luggage room” (please read, closet underneath a staircase) and set out to explore the city they call The Venice of the North, all the while thinking, “Amsterdam, you’d better be worth it.”

And, as corny and clich├ęd as it sounds—it was worth it. I was instantly charmed. After all, who wouldn’t fall in love with a city that boasts more canals than Venice, more bikes than people and the largest public library in Europe?

I honestly can’t say which sight was my favorite. My tour of the Anne Frank House definitely tops the list (in spite of the fact that I knew Anne Frank didn’t survive her time in Auschwitz I kept hoping for a happy ending and was struck all over again when I read of her death). I also loved the Van Gogh Museum, the Flower Market, exploring the Jordaan neighborhood and shopping to my heart’s content in the Nine Streets area. The canals and bridges were beautiful in spite of the cloudy winter weather and even the cold, crisp air seemed more like an exhilaration than a nuisance. By the time I left on Monday morning I had decided that if I ever win the lottery and have no need for a real job, I will spend a summer writing wonderful stories and riding my bike in Amsterdam.

Now, maybe my love of the city, in spite of all the pains it took me to get there, has something to do with the fact that this was my last trip within Europe before going back to the USA… and since it may be many years before I am able to return to this continent, Amsterdam became somewhat of a final adventure.

I swear I'm smiling under all those layers
After years of European travels I am heading home to “settle down” (though, let’s be honest, I do not settle) and while I still plan to travel as much as I possibly can, I am thinking there are other continents and countries which I will choose to explore before I make it back here. And I am okay with that because it’s time for a new string of adventures in a new land. But, that being said, Europe was my first international experience and my first travel love. It will always have a special place in my wandering heart. And the next time I see someone riding a black bicycle down the street, I will think of Amsterdam and smile.

Wednesday, January 25, 2012

Sometimes I Rock, Sometimes I Roll

Author's Note: The reading pleasure of this post will be greatly enhanced if you play this song in the background.


There are moments in life when you’ve just got to roll with the punches. You duck and weave in an attempt to avoid as many blows as possible, and when you do get hit (because you will get hit), you clench your jaw and work through the pain.

There are also moments in life when you get to be Rocky reaching the top of that staircase. You might not actually be on top of the world, but it sure as hell feels like it. Today I was blessed with one of those Rocky-inspired, mountain top moments, and, to be frank, it was awesome…

See, for the last several weeks I have been internally debating about where to go for my last trip before leaving Germany. I had considered Cologne, Dresden, Brussels, Prague and Amsterdam (so many choices, so little time!). In the end, due to rave reviews and the fact that the kids I take care of are half Dutch, I decided to check out Amsterdam before heading back to the United States.

My host mom graciously gave me next Monday off and so I headed down to the train station to book my tickets for a long weekend in the Netherlands. I told the lady behind the counter the dates I wanted and the times I preferred, bought my tickets and went on my merry way, feeling quite proud of myself… until I got back to my apartment and realized I had accidentally gotten the date wrong on one of my tickets. Ugh.

So, this morning I walked back to the train station to sort the mess out-- in German, no less. Of course, I knew I could have asked any one of the fluent German speakers I live with to help me out, but I wanted to do it by myself (a phrase that has been my mantra since I insisted on putting on my own shoes and jacket at two years old… just ask my mother how that one turned out). With visions of exorbitant prices dancing in my head, I walked up to the counter and explained what had happened.

And then, a miracle happened… the man behind the counter understood everything I was saying and I understood him, too. He fixed my ticket right there on the spot and I even got a small refund as the train on which I actually wanted to travel had a sale price attached to it. Less than five minutes after walking up to the counter I was out the door with a new ticket in hand. And as I walked through town to my next stop, the post office, I remembered one of my first German conversations way back in August when I had fumbled my way through buying an international postcard stamp. I smiled to myself and couldn’t help but think, “Piece of cake.”

And that, my friends, is how you rock it Rocky-style.

Sunday, January 15, 2012

It's All a Bit Foreign...

I awoke on Saturday morning and, for the first time since mid-November, I had no plans whatsoever. I was not meeting with friends, going out of town or working. It was a beautiful blue-sky day and the world was at my fingertips. I could have done anything I wanted. And so, I went to Buxtehude.

Buxtehude's Cathedral
No, “Buxtehude” is not code for some fabulous European adventure that is going to make everyone at home green with envy. It is instead a small town about twenty minutes away from where I live and, as far as I can tell, it is not noteworthy in any way. I pass it on the train every time I go to Hamburg and it looks exactly like every other suburb I go through: brick houses, lots of trees, tiny family-run shops and the occasional cow.

Of course, the logical question is, why then would I choose to visit Buxtehude? Sadly, there isn’t a terribly logical answer. In fact, the sole purpose of my journey was to explore something called Marktkauf. Marktkauf is a huge, warehouse like building right next to the Buxtehude train station. Until Saturday’s exploration I had no idea what they did in said building, but I was constantly seeing people get on the train with bright yellow bags boldly proclaiming “Marktkauf” in John Deere green letters. And, after five months, curiosity got the better of me.

I got off the train in Buxtehude at approximately 11:00am and wandered toward Marktkauf. I could see people streaming inside like ants toward a picnic basket and I rushed up the concrete steps, eager to get my first peek at this thing that had haunted my imagination for 21 weeks. What I saw inside stunned me.

There were people everywhere. People pushing shopping carts. People carrying baskets. People yelling at their children to come back, go away, be quiet, speak louder. People, people, people. And the noise. The talking and laughing was nothing compared to the beeping of the cash registers and the nasal overhead announcements. Each aisle was crammed with stuff. Everything from socks to shampoo to butter could be found inside this veritable Mecca of consumerism. I stood in the doorway, completely stunned, as people and shopping carts moved around me like I was Moses parting the Red Sea.

Slowly, I moved forward, trying to decide where to look first. Electronics? Books? Home goods? Clothes? I literally turned circles trying take it all in, meandering through the crowded aisles like someone awaked abruptly from a deep sleep. And then, somewhere between ladies underwear and sporting goods, it hit me: this was Wal Mart. Okay, so it wasn’t Wal Mart, per se, but the concept was the same. And I, a red-blooded American who has been in more than her fair share of Wal Marts (feel free to judge) was completely and utterly overwhelmed.

After five months of doing all my shopping in tiny shops with narrow aisles and little selection this Wal Mart-like monstrosity was sensory overload. And, the real irony is that just three days previous, when my shopping list had consisted of shampoo, a notebook and bread and I had been forced to walk to three different stores in the pouring rain, I had complained viciously about the lack of convenience stores. I didn’t want to wander across town just to find the one store that sells envelopes and then wander back again to buy milk. I wanted selection, affordability, expediency. I wanted… Wal Mart.

The Farmer's Market in Buxtehude
And yet, standing in the middle of Marktkauf, Wal Mart’s long lost German cousin, it all seemed a little ridiculous. So, ten minutes after walking in, I walked back out. The sky was still blue and the sun was beginning to shine so I wandered down side streets until I came to a church yard where local farmers were selling produce. One stand had apples, another cheese, another still held heaps of oranges. People scurried from one stall to the next in a mad effort to collect what they would need for the week to come.

I found an empty bench behind the stand that was selling carrots and potatoes and sat down to think… I am an American, living in Germany. I am frustrated by the European system and completely overwhelmed by the American one. I have been here 21 weeks and I feel comfortable in Stade. But I miss my family and my home and my life. In five weeks I will be back in America and Germany will become little more than a memory that I replay sometimes when I am feeling nostalgic.

What a strange, strange life I have come to lead… 

Monday, January 2, 2012

Flashes of Light


The two years since my graduation from college have been filled with the types of ups and downs that would make a roller coaster jealous…

 I generally tell people I couldn’t be paid enough to repeat 2010 (a quarter life crisis + a soul-sucking job + being forced to move back home = A recipe for getting your ass handed to you).

Starting 2012 at the Berlin Wall
2011 was significantly improved (AmeriCorps VISTA and a few pretty epic weddings come to mind) but all in all, I still dealt with declining my acceptance to graduate school (again), a difficult move to another country (Hello, Germany, thanks for kicking me in the face) and an existential crisis about growing up (It only took me 24 years to get there...).

So, you’ll understand my reservations about admitting that I have a good feeling about 2012. In fact, a few weeks ago I sent an email to a very dear friend detailing my tentatively hopefully feelings about the upcoming year and as soon as I hit the send button all I could think was, “Way to go, dummy, you probably just jinxed yourself.”

And maybe that is true. Maybe I jinxed myself in some horrible way and I am now destined to spend the rest of the year making up for my overly self-confident attitude. But then again, maybe not…

Because in spite of the rational part of my brain reminding me that in 7 weeks I will be jobless, homeless and virtually penniless, the irrational part of my brain is eternally optimistic, devastatingly hopefully. And it is this irrational part that tells me no New Year’s Eve as epic as the one I just rang in could possibly herald a dud of a year.

See, I spent this New Year’s Eve in Berlin with a bunch of strangers and a few good friends. And when I think about that weekend it all seems like flashes of light…

Flash

Berlin from Above
I am tired of waiting for my jet-lagged friends to wake up (those flights from the States are killer) and so I leave the hotel and set out into Berlin on my own. I love this city in a way I love few places and even though I haven’t spent a lot of time here I already know it well. I don’t even bother with a map, instead I just hop on the subway and go.

I love the freedom of being alone in a huge place that is on the brink of something new. I end up in East Berlin, studying the old Soviet buildings. It starts to snow, crisp and white. I had forgotten that I love snow. I take off my hat, tilt my face upwards and enjoy the white.

Flash

I am standing in front of the Brandenburg Gate, arguably the most recognizable monument in Berlin, and I am singing “I Will Survive.” It is only 2 o’clock in the afternoon but the entire street is filled with people. Live music blasts from the stage and street vendors sell everything from bratwurst to hard alcohol (this is Germany after all). Suddenly, one of my friends grabs my arm and we’re off, dancing through the crowd. As we turn I catch the eye of a middle-aged German man. He is laughing. At me. I think of that Angela Monet quote that goes something like this: Those who danced were thought to be quite insane by those who couldn’t hear the music. And I dance some more.

Flash

I am standing in a crowded park in Berlin. It is almost midnight on New Year’s Eve. Behind me is the German couple (friends of a friend) who have opened their home to us. They cooked us dinner, poured us drinks and invited us to accompany them to watch the fireworks—it doesn’t matter that everyone else at the party is a family member or a close friend. For tonight, we fit the bill, too.

Lifelong friends on an epic Berlin night
Next to me is a woman I have known since childhood. Our grandmothers are friends, our mothers are friends and we are friends, too. I have celebrated most of my New Year’s Eves with her at my side (and a lot of Thanksgivings and family vacations, as well), and it means more to me than I could have imagined that she is with me on this night. She passes me sparkling wine and I take a drink, straight from the bottle. I am more than a little buzzed and the fireworks that are being shot off all around us make me laugh.

Suddenly, I hear the countdown, in German of course. The fireworks blaze so hot I can feel their heat and smell the sulfur everywhere. The sky is thick with their smoke. Another bottle is passed to me and I drink again. I glance down the hill and I can see the whole city. “That’s Berlin, baby,” I think to myself.

Everyone has taken to the streets to celebrate this passage of time and for a moment it feels like the entire world is laughing. The countdown ends and everyone is kissing, screaming, crying, singing, drinking. It is joy. Sheer, naked, human joy.

Flash

It is two o’clock in the morning and I am standing in a Berlin apartment teaching Germans to line dance while "Cotton Eye Joe" blasts through the speakers (courtesy of YouTube, of course). My fellow Americans and I try very hard to convey the importance of this cultural gem to our friends from across the ocean but I am quite certain the point is not getting across as clearly as we would like. It doesn’t matter though because, in the end, we all stumble into the middle of the living room when someone turns on Culture Beat’s “Mr. Vain.”

“I know what I want and I want it now!” we all sing in varying accents. We dance around the sofa and down the hall as, outside, fireworks still boom loud enough to shake the window panes… or maybe that’s us. Who can tell anymore?

Flash