Month: December 2008

Brussels, Belgium: Breaking Barriers With Alcohol

I had foolishly gone and bought a ticket to Brussels without getting in touch with my friend Sophie first. Remember her? I met her waaaay back in the beginning at Jackson’s Manor in Melbourne, when I convinced her to come with Steffen and I to Adelaide via the Great Ocean Road. Turns out she moved from her hometown of Utrecht to Amsterdam about a year ago.

Sadly, I found this out the morning of my bus to Brussels, and the cost of changing the ticket was nearly the price of another ticket. And to make me feel even worse, her birthday was that Saturday and she was having a party on Friday night. I told her that I’d try to come back to the city before moving on, but I wasn’t sure if I’d be able to swing it.

By the time I arrived at the Gare du Nord in Brussels, I hadn’t yet decided where I was gonna stay. I only had my trusty LP map, which was (again) woefully inadequate: one of the hostels wasn’t even on the map and the other was on the map, but the roads which would take me there weren’t.

Being mildly obsessive about distances, I used the middle segment of my index finger between the first two nuckles to figure out which one was closer, estimating when parts of the map went missing. I finally crowned the Hostel Vincent Van Gogh the winner. Didn’t hurt that it was cheaper either.

However I couldn’t quite figure out how to walk there, which was annoying since it was supposedly within walking distance. Normally this wouldn’t have stopped me from trying and getting hopelessly lost, but I was hungry and tired and in no mood for my usual antics.

I took the train to the stop closest to the hostel and after walking past the hostel’s street once, I found my way there. The hostel seemed reasonably clean and busy, so I booked a couple nights. It was a strange setup though: my room was across a small courtyard, near a single toilet that seemed to be shared by several rooms, and to get to the showers you had to walk through the in-house bar.

At the supermarket I bought a frozen pizza for dinner and some beer. I cooked the pizza in the surprisingly well-stocked kitchen. There was a TV in there and lots of people, but a large group of Aussies seemed to have taken over the only table and without any remaining seats it would’ve been difficult to join their group. So despite warnings from a sign on the door leading into the courtyard, I took my beer into my room and drank a couple before crashing from exhaustion.

Amsterdam, The Netherlands: The Day My Feet Got Wet

After the first day, the weather for the next few days was horrible. It made great museum weather, though, so on that note I headed for FOAM, the Amsterdam photography museum. It was a cosy space that was showcasing work from three artists. The exhibits were intriguing and well presented and their in-house cafe served up possibly the best cappuccino I’ve ever had. The best exhibit, and I encourage you to take advantage if you come cross it, was the Hyena Men of Africa by Pietro Hugo. Check it out.

The rain was coming down hard and I realized that I had foolishly worn the wrong shoes. My tough hiking shoes were sitting in the hostel room, and on my feet were my old, faithful, and holey Steve Maddens.

Within minutes my feet were soaked through my wool socks and I was freezing. I wandered around as long as I could before I needed to seek shelter. And where else would I go? I found myself in the warmth of Cafe Zool once again, listening to a kick-ass playlist of 80’s music.

The next day I stayed in for the morning and did laundry. I had lost too many chances by walking away from the machines and letting someone else sneak in, so this time I sat in front of them and waited. But this time there seemed to be a laundry warden there. A woman who worked for the hostel loudly lectured me when I walked in that there were two people in line before me, then I could put my clothes in. Then she explained to me in exact detail what I had to do to clean my clothes.

In the afternoon I went to a bookstore I had passed a couple days before near the Red Light District. I had a book to trade them, one that I had acquired in Cesky Krumlov. I ended up spending hours at this store because their selection was phenomenal. I saw at least 5 books I wanted to take with me, but I settled for two.

Amsterdam, The Netherlands: I Wonder If The Display Models Are Cheaper

The Google interview ended up being a flop. I spent the morning ducking rain and going from one wireless hotspot to another, trying to prep for what I thought would be the interview of my career. Turns out the guy wanted some clarification on my resume and instead of asking me the simple question over email, he scheduled a call-time and wasted countless hours of my time. I thought these guys were supposed to be smart? The job ended up being something other than what was indicated in the posting, and not what I specialize in. The call lasted about 3 minutes.

I had checked into a Hostelling International establishment called Stayokay on the other side of town, in the popular Vondelpark. The weather was awful that day so I spent the rest of it hanging out in the hostel.

The next morning I went to the Van Gogh museum, which was a short walk from the hostel. Also nearby was the iconic Reijksmuseum, but it was undergoing extensive renovations and they still wanted full price for the one exhibition that was still open. The Van Gogh museum was the same price, but large and fascinating. It was an incredible collection of the master’s work, conveniently categorized to tell the story of how his art changed with his life.

Afterward I walked from Museumplein all the way to the Red Light District and took some pictures along the way.

I walked around the Red Light Distict for some time, eager to leave before the sun set. As fun as it seemed, it also struck me as the kind of place that can get way out of control. I was surprised to see that the women in the windows along the street were actually quite attractive. Though I later learned its common knowledge: most of the people I told would exclaim “Ohhh … yeah …” and then look away longingly.

I found a small bar called Cafe Zool that served a great selection of Belgian beers and offered free wifi! I enjoyed a tasty beverage, surfed the net, then called it a night.

Amsterdam, The Netherlands: Should’ve Bought A Bigger Map

I took a very early bus from Hamburg to Amsterdam and arrived in the early afternoon. I didn’t yet have a map to the city so I was relying on the one in my LP. Something somewhere had told me that the bus would arrive at Centraal Station and the hostel I had found online wasn’t far.

Now I have a kind of system for situations like this … when I don’t know where I am, but I have a map and a general idea of which direction I want to walk. Step 1 is get the name of a street, any street, and look it up on the map so you can get your bearings. Problem is none of the streets I saw were on the map. So if step one fails you have to kinda rely on clues around you that tell you where to go. A traffic sign saying “Centruum” pointed down a main street, and that kinda sounded like the “center of town”, so I walked that way. I also kept checking the tops of buildings and the density of residential buildings versus commercial ones. Typically, downtown areas of tourist cities have taller buildings and fewer houses. And I figured in Amsterdam (like most European cities) there’d be some kind of tall, old, church dominating the skyline.

I walked for a long time. I mean, I was used to it, in a way, but when you have about 60 pounds strapped to various parts of your body and you just spent about 7 hours on a bus, it doesn’t matter how used to it you are.

I kept using my method of educated guesses and landed up near a canal. I crossed it and headed into an unknown neighbourhood. I still wasn’t on the map.

I saw some businesses as well as a gathering of policemen, so I thought I’d suck it up and ask for directions. As I walked towards the cops, I checked my map one last time. I had made it on the map! But to my horror, the street I was on was on the waaaayy bottom right-hand corner of the map, and the hostel was on the waaaayy upper left.

But hey, the walk was actually educational. Since I had to cross the center of the city to get to the hostel, I got a good look at all the major parts of the city. See, now that’s some good lemonade.

When I was looking online for hostels in Amsterdam, I noticed that many didn’t have rooms available around the weekend. I though it was just a glitch with the website, or maybe they weren’t releasing them online, you’d have to show up to get a booking. I found out at Hostel Aiyvengo that most places in Amsterdam (the good ones) were booked solid during the weekends, regardless of season. And the ones that had rooms available were charging horrifying rates for them. I could only book one night at Aiyvengo, which was OK, because even though they got an A for price and wifi speed, the flunked homliness and cleanliness. But man that internet was fast …

I took a quick stroll around town and bought some bread. I had been told that the bikes ruled Amsterdam, but I think they had gone from convenience to nuisance. More times than I could count I nearly got mowed down by bikers, who up on their high aluminum horses, had little regard for the low social rung occupied by pedestrians.

That night I sat in the hostel and prepared for the next day. I had been contacted by a recruiter with Google regarding an open position, and wanted to make sure I did everything right. I’d spend the morning preparing, and then find a quiet place for the interview.

There were two South Americans staying in my 20-share dorm. They approached me with a camera in one hand and a container of psychadelic mushrooms in the other. I took a picture of them holding two enormous stalks and caps with wide grins on their faces, and then watched them eat the contents of the container. This was their first time in Amsterdam, and last night was the first time they had taken ‘shrooms. It was a good trip, so that night they got a more potent variety.

They returned later with a bag of food and a glassy look in their eyes. I didn’t bother asking them anything, for fear of freaking the poor kids out. They spent the rest of the night laying side-by-side on the lower half of one of the bunk beds, with their feet bolted to the ground and their eyes glued to wooden mattress board above them.

Hamburg, Germany: Umm … No Sprechen Sie Englisch?

On my last day in Hamburg Nugs and I took a train to Blankenese, a town about 45 minutes west of the city. It was a small fishing village known for the network of stairs that connected houses, and another site on Enis’ list of must-sees.

The town was lovely but very quiet. I imagine, like most of the places I had visited so far, it would be much better in summer. There were a few businesses along the water, but it wasn’t clear if any of them were actually open. After walking around the maze of stairs/sidewalks, we sat down for a beer on a floating cafe.

Looking back at Blankenese from the waterfront

Looking back at Blankenese from the waterfront

The view of the river was beautiful, and would’ve been more so were it not for the enormous Airbus plant across the water.

View of the sunset from our floating cafe

View of the sunset from our floating cafe

On the way back to Nugs’, we got busted by undercover transit workers for not having a fare. It would’ve been hard to pull off the foreigner angle since the officer spoke fluent English as well as German.

Fare-dodging was quite common in Hamburg (well … Europe as a whole, actually), and when I arrived in the city, on the first night, when an officer asked us for tickets on the train, Nugget commented on how rarely they check. So rarely that it was the first time in a month it had happened to him. We would buy tickets, but rather selectively. Well, they checked twice the few days I was there. We got caught the second time.

Hamburg, Germany: Guys Night Out

Over the next few days, I spent time with Nugget and caught up. He and Adriana had met in New Zealand almost right after I left and had hit it off from the beginning. So a few months later he decided to move to Germany with her. They were both on the lease for the apartment in Bramfeld even though Nugget didn’t even have a job yet. But clearly he was looking to stay for the long term. They seemed happy together, and I hope that things work out for them.

We walked into the city on the first morning and went to the harbor area. A new, modern, “Harbor City” is being built in the old port area, complete with apartments, schools, shopping districts and restaurants. In 10 years I imagine it will be one of the busiest parts of the city. Already it attracts clubbers and bar hoppers at night, and the hordes of tourists who get off the massive cruise ships that dock nearby.

After a beer at a cafe along one of the waterways, we went to a trendy part of town known as Schanzeviertel and had lunch at an Italian restaurant. On the way back to Nugget’s we picked up some wine and a bottle of the cheapest schnappes the Penny Market stocked. Though at 38% a.b.v., I’m not sure it can be called schnappes anymore.

To my surprise and horror, Nugget pulled out a couple shot glasses; I was planning on sipping it, or at least mixing it with something. After the first shot, however, I realized that there was going to be no sipping or mixing. The stuff was so awful, so incredibly horrible, you wanted it out of your the range of your tastebuds as quickly as possible, whether it went down your throat or out through your lips. It was the worst-tasting alcohol I’ve ever had. Nevertheless, we put a serious dent in it by the time we were ready to head out.

We poured the rest of that vile substance in an orange juice bottle that, to its credit, did quite a bit to mask the taste. Then we jumped on the bus to the Reeperbahn.

We had a drink at a few places, but as you can imagine, Monday night isn’t the best night to go clubbing. Most of the popular spots, including the Thomas Reid Pub we went to the previous night, were closed.

By the end of the night, we were mostly walking up and down the Reeperbahn, stopping for a drink or two here and there. Or we’d be running around trying to find a quite place to piss outside, where it didn’t look like we had ducked into a dark alley with a hooker. As Nugs was later fond of saying, “We were the only ones in the Reeperbahn with our d**ks out and not nailing a prostitute!”

At the end of the night, after I scored a kebab from the most unfriendly kebab shop owner ever, I went searching for Nugget and found him engrossed in a conversation with a couple homeless people. This can’t be good …

Nugget was trying to practice his very limited German while the two equally drunk homeless men were just trying to get money out of him. I told him that we should get going. Then I heard him say, “Yeah, OK, I can give you guys 50 cents,” and then pulled out his wallet. “OK!,” I said, “time to go.” I grabbed his arm and started leading him away as he dropped a couple coins in their hands.

We still had a little left of the mixed drink from hell, and as I was walking down the street, it slipped from my swinging arms, rolled under a diagonally parked car and wedged itself under the rear driver-side wheel. When I bent down to pick it up, I suddenly noticed that the car it was under was a police car. Then I saw that the car next to it was a police car too. And the guy getting out of that car was a policeman. We made eye contact as I picked up my drink. I nodded, said hello, and then walked away, leaving him rather confused. This time Nugget grabbed my arm and led me away from the front of the police station.