Thursday, November 29, 2007

What's fun?

Me and Vincent.

I was not well-liked in college. I was not actively disliked either. If anything, I was invisible. I had few friends, kept my head down, all my energies went into my schoolwork. The truth is that I had trouble identifying with the people I went to school with. I thought college was going to be about meeting like-minded intellectuals, people who I would sit with in cafes for hours drinking coffee and talking about art and politics. Instead, the people I met had no interest talking about such things. They all had bored-sounding voices and said things like, "Maaaannnnn, I got so wasted last night."

Such a bored voice came from one of my roommates last night. "You're going to bed already?" The tone was filled with disapproval, and it made me shrivel back ten years to my 19-year-old insecure college self. This girl, a college student from Connecticut, was probably no older than 21.

"Yeah," I said. "I am tired and I did a lot today." It was almost eleven.

"What did you do today?" she asked.

"Well, I went on a walking tour and then I went to the Anne Frank museum, and I don't know, just walked around a lot." My words were met with dumbfounded silence.

"My friends are arriving tonight. Probably after midnight," she said, inspecting her nails. "They're going to want to go crazy tonight."

"Oh, that’s cool," I answered, lamely.

"Do you like traveling all by yourself?" she asked, "I would never be able to do that."
"Yeah," I answered and explained the reasons why. She nodded absently making me feel like I was speaking utter nonsense.

I think there is a reason why I have made no friends in Amsterdam. At breakfast, all these kids want to talk about how messed up they got the night before, and I am sucked back into time to my lonely college days where I always felt like I had to act like that was so cool, and then defend why I wasn't playing a part. No one understood me. It was tiring. I think that is why I studied so much, just so I could get away from these people and have something that made me feel good about myself.
When I think about myself in college, so serious with a nose in a book, I sometimes wonder what I would do if I could do it all over again.

But talking to this girl and mingling with these co-eds made me realize: I would do it all over again exactly the same. Because I didn't mix well with 19-year-olds when I was one, and now, 10 years later, I don't mix well with them either. I am the same person.

While this girl triggered the same insecurities I used to have when I was younger, it's different now. Before, I used to beat myself up about it. Now, I can look at her and think, "you're really not that interesting to me."
It's kind of like this conversation I had with my friend Megan, one of the fun-pigs. She likes to get her drink on and would often invite me out for drinks with her on Wednesdays, but I liked to go to yoga on Wednesdays. I always said no thanks and she would give me a hard time about it but then one day she said, "Everyone has their own definition of fun. Mine is going out for a drink, and yours is yoga." I wish someone would have said that to me in college. It would have saved me a lot of grief.
So I was the first into bed last night, the first to rise this morning. And I did things today I think are fun. Going to the Van Gogh museum. Reading magazines in a book store. Window shopping down the narrow alleyways of Amsterdam. Found and ate a cake that I liked. I planned to go bike-riding but the rain discouraged me. When I saw the girl again today, she having her entire day in coffee shops with her crazy friends, it was easy to shrug my shoulders and think, "you have your fun, I have mine," feeling like the 29-year-old woman I am.

My kind of fun: Window shopping. Who doesn't want a snow doll?

Wednesday, November 28, 2007

Sex, drugs and ham

Boob touching.

Most people come to Amsterdam to party. The place where pot, magic mushrooms and prostitution are legal, it might be strange that someone like me would end up here. I always thought Amsterdam looked pretty in pictures. And I have always wanted to go to the Anne Frank house and the Van Gogh museum. I thought that the whole pot thing was sort of on the down low, kind of like "We're Euro and are cool so we legalize pot."

I was wrong. Coming here was kind of like walking into a frat party. Arriving at my hostel, I was greeted by the sweet aroma of marijuana as soon as I opened the front door. All the people staying there look and talk like they are 18 years old. There are a few that look older but that is only only because of their scruffy beards that go with their Phish t-shirts. Walking around the city, I was bombarded by "coffee shops" and at first, it was kind exciting seeing people smoking out in the open. But after ten minutes of walking by a multitude of Bob Marley posters, hemp leaves in the window and souvenir shops selling drug-related merchandise, I was already bored with it.

I am in Amsterdam and there is a part of me that says, I am here, I should take advantage of some of the debauchery that the city has to offer. But there is nothing appealing about going to a coffee shop or a sex show (yes, you can watch people have sex here on stage) alone and thinking wow, this is not really that fun alone. I walked by the Red Light District and seeing the skimpily dressed women--ranging from pretty to very ugly--in the windows kind of depressed me. (I learned on my guided tour of the city that the women rent a window for 150 euros for an 8-hour shift and that they usually receive about 50 euros for each 10-15 minute encounter). One of the girls saw me looking at her and knocked on the window for me. I scurried away.

I decided I would keep an open mind about it. If I meet some friends and the opportunity presents itself, then maybe I will participate--in pot smoking, not prostitution! (And yes, my mom is reading this. Hi Mom!) So far the opportunity has not presented itself (the girl sitting next to me at breakfast had her nose in a book, and the people I met on my tour around the city all had bad teeth. I do not want to have any kind of debauchery with people with bad teeth.) To be honest, I am not terribly disappointed. And on my tour, I found out that less than 10% of the people who live here actually participate (it's all for the tourists) so I am having a more authentic local experience. (Besides the fact I spent all day on a guided city tour and at the Anne Frank house).

When you get away from all that, Amsterdam is actually a very nice place. Just like the pictures, the town is quite quaint with its narrow buildings and canals and everyone riding around on their clunky old bikes. There are so many cool places to shop with unique clothes and trinkets and so many art galleries with paintings that make you stop in your tracks (and almost get run over by a bike--dodging them is a major activity around here). And even though I do not engage in pot-smoking or prostitution myself, I appreciate the liberal atmosphere around here and don't mind that others do. If anything, I am wondering why they are not legal anywhere else.

I must say that the sweets situation is not good here. First, the coffee houses here have other priorities than cake. The bakeries I have seen have thick and old looking pastries that make me feel sorry for them. Even I don't want to go there. I did have "the original" New York City pizza. Somehow it did not taste anything like the pizza I have had at home.

Those aren't your average houseplants.

The Red Light District.

The rest of Amsterdam looks like this.

Scenes from Brussels

Just some pictures I like from my stay:

Ceiling of a shopping promenade.

The peeing boy.

A little graffiti next to a statue.

Awesome art nouveau architecture: Musical Instrument Museum

Tuesday, November 27, 2007

I love the Danish.

The Atomium.

I have become such a lazy traveler.

Being with Gerda and family, all I want to do it stay in their pretty home and spend hours talking at the table and enjoying homecooked meals and munching on chocolate which is kind of what I am doing. I have realized that "home" has now become a destination for me. It doesn't feel commonplace anymore and so I am lapping it up like a dog drinking water.

I almost did not want to do anything yesterday--which is silly since I am in Brussels--but Gerda suggested that we go to the Atomium, which is a sight that would be new for both the family and me. The Atomium, which is a huge structure in the shape of the iron molecule, was built during the World Fair in 1958, and is Belgium's version of the Eiffel Tower. People go visit it to check out the views from the top.

Katrine, who had heard about it at school, was so excited that she skipped and jumped and ran around in circles as we walked towards it. However, the excitment waned quickly as the inside was nowhere as cool as the outside. For 9 euros each, we paid to wait in line to go to the top, which was a cramped, hot and smelly room, only to wait in line to go back down. For some reason, they did not let anyone use the stairs and so we spent the whole time waiting for the elevator. It would have made all the difference.
Gerda and Morten, being the gracious hosts, paid for everything, even buying me and Katrine and Anna Belgian waffles just so I can taste them. Gerdan and Morten are not that much older than me, but suddenly I felt like I could be one of their daughters.

"If my family dies and I am all alone, will you take me in?" I asked Gerda.

She said sure. I really meant it. I love these people.

First there is Katrine, the youngest. I cannot understand a word she says, but her facial expressions are filled with love, hate, rage, and silliness and she is fun to watch. Even though it is probably annoying for her parents, it is hilarious seeing her get mad over the littlest thing and yell things like "you don't understand me!" and stomp around, only to be in a perfectly normal disposition two minutes later. We finally bonded playing pirate swordfights and punching games. She then showed me her toys and the metal she won, and even said Good night to me in English. (It took her five minutes of standing there, and when she finally said the words, she scampered up the stairs in embarassment).

Anna is your typical teenager--it appears they are the same whether you are in the States or Europe. She takes hours getting ready and changes her outfit a few times a day. She thinks Americans are cool: She went to a Rhianna concert, watches One Tree Hill, speaks English well. Watching her reminds you all over what being a teenager was like.

And then there is Gerda and Morten. I really liked Gerda when I met her in Poland. She was so friendly and could get on with everyone, whether they were a flamboyant gay Spanish man or a Polish-American girl from New York City. But here, watching her in her real life, I am so impressed by her and the life she has created for herself.

She and Morten really work together as a team to manage their household. He cooks, she cooks. He cleans, she cleans. He takes care of the kids, she takes care of the kids. They have a warm, cozy home. Their kids are well-behaved and fun to be around. They have good jobs. They have a big car (that all their Euro friends turn up their noses at since it is not good for the environment) and yet they ride their bikes to work everyday (while their Euro friends drive). They take their kids to restaurants, they enjoy good food and good wine, they collect art and antiques, they vacation (looks like a trip to New York City is in the works). And while I know their lives are not perfect, it dawned on me that my last post was a bit naive. I wrote that I wanted to be a traveler and have the home and family, but I wasn't sure if I could have it all. But here, right in front of me, are Gerda and Morten, living both of my dreams at the same time and making it work. It finally clicked: It is not an either or situation. I can live the life the way I want.

When I have told people that I was visiting Brussels, I have gotten the following reactions:

"Don't go!"

"Brussels is my least favorite place in Europe!"

"It is dirty and dangerous there!"

"Belgium is like a third world country."

I did not have high expectations. I have checked out the city sights, and while it is not my favorite city, it is not so bad as what people say. However, what has made it phenomenal and has made it one of the highlights of my trip, is spending time and literally being inspired by these wonderful people.

Gerda, Morten, Anna and Katrine: Mange tak! You guys are the best!

Everyone looking miserable at the Atomium. From left to right, Katrine, Anna, Gerda and Morten.

Anna with a Belgian waffle.

Katrine, the pirate.

Sunday, November 25, 2007

The girl who eats everything.

Empty mussel shells, at dinner.

Ask me where I see myself in ten years, and I can give you two answers with absolute certainty, depending on the day.

I will be a traveler, visiting places all over the globe, immersing myself in different cultures, meeting interesting people and writing all about it.

Or, I will be married with kids in a nice home with a big kitchen to bake and a outdoor patio and garden to entertain.

My goal is to somehow do both, but they seem to be complete opposites. It is my common quandry: I want to have it all.

For now I am living the traveler's route, and I have stumbled onto my second dream, right here in Brussels, Belgium. I am staying with Gerda, the Danish woman I met in Polish classes, who works in Brussels as a translator for the European Union. She lives with her husband Morten and daughters Anna, 15, and Katrine, 7, in a four-story home with a garden in the back. This family is my fantasy in real life.

Take this Sunday morning. Gerda made some fresh bread. Morten went out to get some danishes (which I learned are not really Danish). We ate breakfast in our pajamas and told funny stories until Anna and Katrine got into a dramatic argument about a toy which reminded me of the days when my own sister used to make me cry on a daily basis. And now as I write this post, I am listening to the girls practice piano: First Katrine who stumbles along the song she needs to practice this week, and then Anna who fills the entire home with her graceful and beautiful song. If this is not the perfect vision of home, I am unsure what is.
Gerda and Morten have been incredible hosts. They took me to a Danish Christmas fair, laughing that it is not very typical "Belgian." However, I wanted to see how they live and it was fun to see this hokey fair selling traditional food and decorations, kids running around with face paint, all to benefit the church. We got some Danish licorice, which I had to spit out, it was so horrible. (This a typical reaction of the non-Danish). They had purchased some tickets for the lottery, and Katrine was very upset when we did not win the toy she wanted, huffing and puffing with a sour face, walking ahead and kicking her feet in the mud. How unfair life can be for a 7-year-old!

The family is multi-lingual, languages changing like the breeze. Katrine speaks only Danish and French, so she looked at me suspiciously for the most of the day. I started taking some pictures of her and her toys and then did she start smiling at me. Her favorite thing to do is eat, and when her parents said we were going to a restaurant, she squealed with joy.

We went out for Belgium's specialty: mussels and fries (apparently, the french fry was actually invented here). And nothing shocked me more than seeing this 7-year-old pry ugly, slimy fish out of shells and eating them with delight. She even requested the adult portion instead of the kids portion, but her parents said no. My own mussels were pretty tasty and I even dipped my french fries in mayonaise--this the choice condiment around here. It was not as bad as expected though I wouldn't make a habit of eating fat dipped in fat.

And what would Belgium be without chocolate! Gerda showed me her favorite chocolate shop, which had samples for the taking. I had about three pieces in three minutes. As we walked through the city, there was one shop after the other, offering delicious delights but we were so full that it wasn't worth the indulgence. Instead we opted for hot chocolate, which wasn't the "good stuff," I was told, but made my stomach feel nice and warm. At the table was a stack of coasters. On the back of one was written something like "Do you want to fuck?"

Katrine, who couldn't read it, layed out all the coasters on the table and we all played a memory game, searching for the one with the obscenity.
"I don't know why we bother getting her real toys," Gerda laughed. We played a few times until Katrine cheated (acting like she didn't, of course!). And with a full belly, a pleasant buzz with the company, we went home and I slept like a baby.

Katrine, the eater.

Mmmm...chocolate. That's Gerda buying some.

French fries and mayo.

Speaking German

Jan makes dinner.

After making me a traditional German meal of egg noodles served with a meat that had the consistency of Spam, Steffi and Jan invited me out on the night on the town with their friends Toby and Tom. Steffi wore the new coat we picked out together at Zara. She bought a "serious" coat to make her look older. Now instead of 18, she looks 19. She's 24. The two boys added an element of fun to our group.

Toby is the type of person that walks around with a smile pasted on his face. Throughout the night, Toby was verbally abused by his friends for not liking animals, for only being interested in money and because he had recently cut his hair very short. Toby took the insults like a man and kept smiling.

Tom looked like an Angelic choir boy with little bangs and rosy lips, but his posture and demeanor said Benjamin Franklin. I couldn't figure out why until I realized he was wearing bifocals, which were propped in the middle of his nose, his eyebrows cocked when he was looking at someone, peering over his glasses with a suspicious look in his eyes.

He gave me such a look when he addressed me for the first time: "Did you see The Simpsons movie?"

"No," I said. His face fell.

"How can you not like The Simpsons?"

"I don't hate them, but I just don't watch them." I answered. "I hope it doesn't make you think any less of me."

He paused for a minute, as if considering. "No, it doesn't," he said finally.

"Well, why do you ask me if I have seen it?"

"There is this one part where Homer and Bart are on the roof," he explained, "and I have always wanted to know what Homer says to Bart in English and if it different than what he says in German."

"Have you been asking every American you meet about this?" I inquired.

He paused again. "Well, you are the first American I am asking, so yes, I am asking every American I meet." He smiled. He is planning to come to New York for an internship in the Spring and so I told him that I could ask some of the Simpson fans that I know to answer this question.

"Maybe I will ask them myself," Tom said.

I liked this guy immediately. He told me about terrible condition of the Germans, that they really were funny, but no one else in the world thought so.

Then we went on to talk about what German words I know.

"Do you know what Schadenfreuden means?" Steffi asked."You know, when someone is happy when something bad happens to another person?"
"Yes," I answered, "There is no English translation, so we use the German term. Maybe because Germans come up with words like this is the reason why no one thinks you are funny."

Jan told me that the German language is so precise that instruction manuals in English might be twice as long as if the same text was written in German. Then they told me about "mind-mapping" which is a type of brain-storming where you create a circle graphs to link your ideas together. They acted like Germans do this mind-mapping stuff all the time, but I think it's because they are students and they have to do it.

We walked back to the tram only to find we would have to wait an hour in the cold. So we did what every other person waiting for the tram did: Go to McDonald's. Eating some hamburgers at 1 in the morning; maybe Germans and Americans are not so different after all.

Me and Steffi.

Toby, Tom and Jan.

Friday, November 23, 2007

Falling apart and that's okay.

The Dom.

Last night I discovered a hole on the butt of one of my pair of jeans. This is the second pair of pants to deconstruct on this trip, but this one makes me mad because I literally bought these jeans three months ago and they were not cheap.

My clothes are turning into shreads, my computer is out of order, I am losing things left and right, my hair is taking a different direction every day. I am falling apart. I like traveling still but I am a little sick of sight seeing (the churches and museums are beginning to blur) and lately, I have been feeling most content talking with people and reading my book in a cafe. Emotionally, I am in a good place. I am happy with my travels. I am happy to go home. I listen to my ipod and all the songs that I used to play when I was mad or frustrated do not evoke much feeling in me anymore. I am happy, content, rested. This whole trip worked.

Given that I am not so ambitious as a traveler at the moment, it is fun that I am now visiting people that I know. That way, I can just spend lots of time with them and not feel obligated about seeing all the sights in town. In Cologne, I am visiting Steffi, the girl who I spent my birthday with, and her boyfriend Jan, who are both university students and live in a nice apartment just outside of downtown. (After seeing yet another great apartment, I have decided that Dan and my apartment must be the smallest apartment in the entire world.)

When I arrived, they were busy doing the things that students are busy with, so I ventured into this surprisingly bustling town on my own to sight-see because even though I do not have the same enthusasium as I used to, I still do it and I still like doing it. Cologne is the fourth biggest city in Germany, but for me, it might as well be New York City. From the moment I stepped off the train, I was accousted by people rushing past me and pushing me aside. Walking around the shopping distict of the city was no different. Where are all of these people coming from? After buying a winter hat (finally!) I bumped into a large mass of females clutching cameras in their hands.

'What is going on?' I asked someone.

'The Backstreet Boys are signing autographs!' was the response.

I checked out the impressive Dom, the biggest cathedral in all of Germany, and today, along with about 600 schoolchildren, I went to the Chocolate Museum, where I learned about the history of chocolate and the growing of the cocoa bean (which had all these pictures of Africans wearing ripped clothing and talked about how conditions are terrible on the farms and there is a problem with child labor). That made me feel guilty. After that, they push you in a room where chocolate is being made and the intoxicating aroma made me forget about the African exploitation. I think they did that on purpose.
Besides that, I have just been leisurely hanging out with Steffi and Jan. We had some pizza and nice conversation at the student bar. Steffi and I looked for a winter coat--for her. I even had some alone time in Starbucks with my book. I did not see everything in Cologne and I don't have to. Because now, this pace feels just fine.

The Berliner: A donut covered in rough sugar with an explosion of jelly inside.

Shopping in Cologne.

Jan and Steffi.

Things to be thankful for.

It is Thanksgiving. While my family is eating tons of turkey and the five desserts my mother prepared for eight people (see where I get my sweet-tooth from?), it feels like any other typical day in Germany.

Today I had a nice online chat with Madhur_163318 who works at Dell. This person made me do some tests on my computer that caused shrieking beeps that awoke the entire household (I now visiting Steffi and her boyfriend Jan in lovely Cologne). My computer failed the test. According to Madhur_163318, my LCD has gone bad, and it will need to be replaced.

'Nothing to worry about,' he wrote, 'A service technician will come to replace it.'

But will he come to Germany??!!

I had to wait a few minutes and apparently yes, I can get my LCD replaced here but I would need to stay in one place for a minimum of 8 days. After filling in Maddie (we became close) on my travel itinerary for the next few weeks, I won't be any one place for 8 days, so it looks like I will have to spend the next three and a half weeks carrying a broken computer on my back until I reach the States. At least it is covered by my warranty.

Things to be thankful for. As Juan-Carlos, the man from Panama, wrote me: 'Hey, your computer crashed. At least you have a computer.'

Happy Thanksgiving, everyone.

Wednesday, November 21, 2007

Nude dudes.

My half-working computer.

Mark in a car elevator.

Friedrichsbad spa.

Two days before the computer meltdown, I was in lovely Tubingen, talking to Katrin about my next destination.

"Baden-Baden?" Katrin said, scrunching her nose. "I would never think of going there. I think the only people who go there are rich Russian people."

Despite that non-endorsement, I knew I had to go to Baden-Baden. This spa town was highly recommended by my marathon-running partner Danielle, who gave glowing reviews about her spa experience there when she came back from her trip to Germany and then a second time when I told her I was going to Germany. After hearing her tales of hours of pampering and scrubbing and soaking on the cheap, I had no choice but to try it out. Who cares if it took me three different trains from Tubingen just to get there?

Like Danielle, I opted to go to the older spa called Friedrichsbad. They have a newer spa in town as well, but this one is more old-school, in an old-building--Roman bath style--including community nudity. This is where the naked men come in. I walked in that place and threw my American inhibitions out the door.

For 29 Euros, I had over three hours of indulgence, in 17-or-so timed steps. The first step is to completely get naked and take a public shower. Then I sat on a bed sheet in a hot sauna for 15 minutes and then an even hotter one for 5 minutes, which was so stifling I stayed only for 4. I showered again, and then a woman rubbed me with a very hard brush in the same fashion one would scrub the bathroom tub. It felt good and hurt at the same time. She lathered me in so much soap, I nearly slipped off the table. And then another shower.

From there, I walked into a "damp" sauna where I saw my first penis of the day. It was massive. You try not to look, but I could tell that everyone looks. Every time someone walks in (especially if it is a woman) the people inside the room (especially if it is a man) turn to look. And then you act like you don't care, but still, there is the initial look. And I saw everything: male and female, old and young, bananas and peanuts, watermelons and oranges, rolls and bones, hairy and bare. I knew people were watching me as well, but it didn't really bother me because hey, I was looking at them, too!

There were a series of pools: a hot pool, a whirlpool, a cool pool, where I stayed for 15 minutes each. People kept hopping in between the saunas and the pools, but I couldn't do anymore. By this time, I was one big prune. Another shower, and then a finally a dip in a bath tub filled with water that was Polar Bear Club cold. It felt like jumping into a bunch of knives, but when I came out and had the warm towel wrapped around me, it felt kind of nice.

I had all the lotion in the world to rub on myself and then I was escorted to a circular dark room where a woman wrapped me up in blankets like a cocoon and I napped. It was the best part. I woke up to a growling stomach but walked out of there feeling clean, refreshed, a little sleepy.

The town was the type that would perhaps only interest rich Russians, so I grabbed something to eat and hopped on two more trains to get to Kaiserslautern. Back in the summer, the same Danielle who had recommended the spa had contacted her friend, Mark, who lives there and he invited me to stay at his apartment. I actually had met Mark on marathon-day--he ran it, too--but that morning I was so nervous that I didn't pay attention and I had no mental picture.

Kaiserslautern and the surrounding areas are filled with 34,000 Americans who reside in the area and work on US Air Force base. Mark is hired by the air force to create maps for them. He lives in a giant new apartment in the middle of town and manages to live a pretty American lifestyle over here. In his wallet, he carries both Euros and dollars. (The American base uses US currency). The base has shops with American products and there are the usual fast-food chains--even a Chili's! (By coincidence, he also lives right across the street from McDonald's.) He tried to learn German at first, but everyone he knows--both work and friendswise--is American, so it wasn't worth the effort. He knows enough to get by. I was really surprised. It's like living in the States without being in the States.

Mark told me about getting a ticket for crossing the street without the walk signal (so it is true!) and driving 140 miles an hour on the autobahn. (We actually drove on the autobahn for about 10 minutes to visit his friend, but the part we were on had a speed limit, so it didn't seem very different.) He left this morning for a Thanksgiving ski trip in Austria and let me stay an extra day. I was looking forward to a day of relaxation, but I spent most of it looking at my broken computer and lamenting to Tabitha the cat. "Why me?"

The status is that the computer is still kind of workable, but most of my screen is black. I saved most of my documents and pictures and music on disks, and then tried to restore the computer as Dell costumer service told me to, but for some reason it is not letting me do so, and I can't really see what I am doing or why it is not working because of the black screen. Since I will be visiting some German friends tomorrow, perhaps they can accompany me to the computer repair store and speak on my behalf. Wish me luck. It took a while (and two computers) to get this entry together. No matter what, The Ham will go on!!

Kaiserslautern, we have a problem.

So I am in Kaiserslautern, Germany, right now, visiting Mark, who is a friend of Danielle, my friend and marathon running partner. I woke up this morning, excited to write about my trip to the spa yesterday (including tales of naked men!) and all about Mark, who is so super nice to let me stay at his place even though he went on vacation today...when I turn on my computer and it does not really start up and there is a blue screen that says FATAL SYSTEM ERROR.

This can't be my computer! I thought, literally inspecting it to make sure. But it was. I restarted the computer and the blue screen did not come up again, however, I can only view the top one-third of my screen, the rest is grey. I restarted the computer a few times and same deal.

I cried. I cursed. I thought about everything on my computer I may have lost. Luckily, I have posted most of my photos from this trip onto Flickr, so they are not all missing, but still--everything else might be kaput!

Having this happen to you at home is devastrating. Having it happen in Germany knowing that I will be here for another month and that this computer is my lifeline to my friends and family is quite another. I am in a computer lab right now and will be contacting Dell to see if I can do something about it.

Tales about the spa (and naked men) and Mark to be continued. If you know anything about computers and want to help, please email me.

Tuesday, November 20, 2007

Mystery Solved!

The good stuff.

I might have mentioned it in passing in a previous post or two, but I have fallen in love with plain yogurt. Nearly every hostel or pension offers it as a choice for breakfast, usually served with granola, but sometimes with corn flakes or other crunchy cereal which adds such a nice texture.

Back in New York, I often have vanilla yogurt topped with granola and fruit for breakfast, but it never tastes like this. Here, I want to lick the bowl clean.

"Why is it so much better?" I asked Katrin.

"Because our yogurt has fat, and all American yogurts have no fat, and so they taste like water."

She would know. She worked as an au pair in New Jersey for a year. And then I thought about yogurts in the States, and yes, it is true, almost all of them claim to fat-free or almost fat-free.

"Also, American yogurt has many ingredients in it. Ours just have milk." I inspected the German yogurt carton this morning at breakfast. 3.5% fatty milk. Nothing else in there. It's a lot of fat, but it's totally worth it. I might have to do an inspection back home to see if they actually have full-fat yogurt, and if they do, I may never go back again.

Oh, and you know how I thought it was weird that that woman left her baby outside of Starbucks? This is completely normal behavior, according to Katrin.

"I don't know why Americans are so afraid of having their kids be kidnapped," she said. If a baby is sleeping, why disturb him/her? Here, leaving a sleeping child outside in the stoller outside or in a parked car (where you can see them) is acceptable.

We even watched it happen on TV, where they left a child in a car for a few minutes, and Katrin goes, "See?!"

Tonight we caught a re-run of Germany's most famous television program called Tatort. I learned about Tatort back in Poland when Philipp dramatically demonstrated the opening sequence for me. He would use his hands in vogue-like fashion to block his face and reveal his eyes, humming the music the whole time. It was so funny watching him do this that I made him repeat it a few times. But the other Germans knew what he was mimicking without explanation. I wish I could show you Philipp's version, but here, you can watch the original yourself.

Tatort's opening sequence.

Tatort has been on air for 37 years, new episodes every Sunday night at 8:15--right after the news, which apparently every German watches everyday at 8. My Lonely Planet guide says that you should never call someone at 8 because of the news, and Katri n says this is totally true. The show is commercial free and runs for 90 minutes.

Tatort is a drama that follows investigation police teams in 15 cities of Germany (kind of like CSI) and every week is a different city. Some cities' police teams are more liked by the German viewing audience than others.

We watched an old episode from the 1990's of the investigation team from Bremen. I watched most of it alone, so this is what happened.

There was a woman with really long red nails, and she cried over a picture of a girl. And then she had sex with this guy on a train, and then they had sex again in a hotel room. And then this girl with blonde hair, a sex-phone operator, got shot, and she had a child who was now being taken care of this girl with brown hair. Some guy who owns a flower shop came to visit the girl with the brown hair and he touched her boob, but they played bad music, so I don't think it was a good thing. And then the woman with the red lipstick later kissed the flower shop guy, so she was bad, too.

The main cop of the show was a woman who had blonde bangs who sometimes wore scrunchies in her hair, and she was into this journalist and they took a bath together. (Total female nudity on television, by the way, and when Katrin came to join me and translated some, I found out there was also cursing). The scrunchie cop and her partner walked around and asked a lot of people questions about the sex-phone operator, and scrunchie cop was also was friends with the woman with the really long red nails. And then it got really confusing with a video-tape and some s&m scenes and the cop's boss was involved.

Long story short, it appears that the woman with the really long red nails steals the child being taken care of by the girl with brown hair (and Germans aren't worried about their kids being stolen!!?). Scrunchie cop finds them at the graveyard, where red nail woman is mourning over the death of her real child--remember the picture of the girl in the beginning?--and the cop takes the child away and then the woman with the really long red nails shoots herself with a pistol.

It was pretty intense. Now imagine how intense if would be if I actually knew what they were saying?

Feeble attempts to buy a winter hat.

Auf Wiedersehen, Tubingen! Hope to see you again soon, Katrin!

Monday, November 19, 2007

Reconsidering Sundays.

Fruitcake, German style.

As a traveler, Europe on Sunday is the absolute worst. All the shops are closed, the restaurants and streets dead, the only places open are church and the bars. Often times I feel like I spend most Sundays waiting for Mondays, so then I can witness the place I am visiting come back to life from the dead.

But today I had the opportunity to spend Sunday not as a tourist, but as a resident of Tubingen. And spending it with Katrin, the hostess with the mostest, it was lovely.

First, having my own room was clutch. I had the best sleep that I have had in days, sleeping in until almost ten. For the past few months, I have been sleeping in my sleeping bag, but here, I have a thick comforter (just like home!) that makes me so warm and cozy. I didn't want to get up.

When I was in the shower, Katrin went to the bakery to pick up some fresh bread for our breakfast. Now, to me, that sums up Euro and small town all in one. I made scrambled eggs. Katrin laid out an assortment of cheeses, butters and marmalade on the table, along with this German fruit cake called Christstollin normally served at Christmastime that she saw at the bakery and thought I should try (do you see how thoughtful she is?). We ate leisurely until we were full, and I wonder: Why have Americans not caught on with this fresh bread thing? Why do we think bread that comes in a bag is acceptable when fresh bread tastes so much better?

After breakfast, we took the bus to an even smaller town called Bibnhausin with only three or four streets, where we visited this beautiful old cloister and former residence of one of the old kings of the area. The sky was blue, and it felt warmer than it has in weeks, and so we took a walk throughout town and then hiked our way back to Tubingen, talking about everything the entire way. I feel like I never run out of conversation with Katrin. You would think that two people who live completely different lives would run out of things to say, but we just keep going and going and going.

In the middle of our hike, we stopped in a café for cake and hot chocolate. The place was low-key, the waiters were apathetic, but the food was delicious and we took our time and suddenly, we realized we spent the whole afternoon there, doing nothing but enjoying each other's company. Both of us felt a little sleepy, but it wasn't from strenuous activity but out of doing nothing. Shouldn't that be what Sundays are all about?

For dinner, we went to an authentic Swabian restaurant (which is the name of the region that Tubingen is in) where I tried maultaschen, otherwise known as German ravioli. The pasta is filled with meat and vegetables and it is said on the olden days, Swabians made this dish so they could hide the meat from God and eat it during Lent and on Fridays. I washed this down with some German wine served in a glass cup (Danielle--you are right. It is pretty good.)

You would think Katrin and I would be sick of each other by now, but we went out for a drink at a student bar and talked for a while then we went home and had some tea and babushkas and talked some more.

I am reconsidering how I feel about Sundays. Maybe having one day of the week where the stores are closed and the streets are quiet is not the end of the world. Because then you can't shop or run your errands, and you are forced to relax. You can stay home, curl up with a book, go on a walk, spend time with a friend. As Katrin commented, you do nothing until you are bored of doing nothing. And that doesn't sound bad at all. Because by the time you have enough, then it's Monday again.

Me at the Cloister.

A very dark Katrin at the Cloister.

Midday dessert. I had a rustic tart made with really small plums.

Sunday, November 18, 2007

Pure Perfection

The perfect place to be.

For the next few days, I am staying with Katrin, one of the Germans from Polish class, in a town in the southwestern part of Germany called Tubingen.

Katrin is such a good egg. She is a person who is impossible to dislike. Since I have last seen her, she has emailed me ideas for my upcoming visit. She sends me recommendations of places I should go. She was the person who told me about the German transit strike. She gives the impression as if I am always somewhere in her thoughts.

Meeting her on a connecting train to Tubingen (she was coming back home from visiting her boyfriend who lives five hours away), it was like reconnecting with an old friend. It's like time never passed. She possesses a certain ease and comfort that makes me feel like I have known her for years. I could talk with her for hours and never get bored.

Katrin is actually not from Tubingen. There is the place where she was born, the place she lived as a child, the place her parents live now. Tubingen is a big university town, and she is here to research and write her Ph D. If you want to know what it is about, you will have to ask her. It is way above my head. She's really smart. And a better Polish student than me. Not only does she take classes once a week, but in her bathroom is a map of Poland and a sheet of Polish grammar that she can review while on the seat. I tried to review it myself, but it too was way above my head.

I've told you that I love a small town, and Tubingen is close to everything I imagine a small town should look like. With a population of 83,000, it is not really all that tiny. But everything about it just oozes small in just the right ways. There are historical buildings, cobblestone winding streets, quaint shops, people milling about. It's the type of place where on a Saturday shopping, you would bump into all of your friends.

I asked Katrin if she thinks she will live here after her studies, and she says no.

"I need some darkness in life," she explained. Here, everyone has their perfect life in their perfect home, with their perfect university job, where their kids go to school with other kids who live equally perfect lives. It is too much of a bubble. I had to admit it was surreal walking around this place. I had previously questioned if towns like this existed anywhere except in my imagination, and now I know, they do! They do!

A huge fan of Polish Ham, Katrin knew just the place to take me in town: a café for some German cake. We both had the marzipan which was just the right combination of crème, fruits and cake with just a light touch of alcohol.

Her apartment is huge by New York standards, and as she tells me, by the average student's standards living here. She probably has the best view of the city right from her bedroom, where you can see trees and the river and town skyline. She lives with another girl and they are down one roommate, so I even have my own room. I considered putting a sign on the door, saying "Yvonne's Room" but it seemed a little dorky. "Keep Out" a little rude. It was just fun having my own room again.

Speaking of dorky, in Munich, I went to this store that sold all kinds of chocolate to get something for Katrin as a thank you gift and came across this awesome advent calendar made by Lindt in the shape of a Russian doll. But what really sold me was that they claimed that inside the box were chocolates of "mini babushkas."

I almost got the calendar for her but the thing was probably as big as my torso and I was afraid she would wouldn't find mini babushkas as awesome as I did, so I went for the more conservative box of chocolates. But then we were in the supermarket, buying some salmon for dinner, and we not only saw the advent calendar, but mini-babushkas sold separately. We had no choice but to get the minis. They were really good--just hollow milk chocolate--but we considered writing a letter to the company to suggest that they have smaller versions of the mini babushkas inside the mini babushkas. Now that would be something special

Tubingen is nearly perfect, and in terms of a host, so is Katrin. She cooks me dinner. She feeds me wine and cake and chocolate. She lets me do my laundry in her washing machine and dryer (dryers are actually not common in Germany). She gives me warm socks and blankets and asks me every five seconds if I need anything else. She was really tired from staying up late the night before, but despite that, she talked with me until 11 at night to amuse me.

How can you not like Katrin? It's impossible.

Katrin in Marktplatz.

The mini babushkas

Friday, November 16, 2007

Two strange occurrences happened today.

"German" coffee and cookie.

The first involving the crew of Japanese girls who are staying in my room. I made the mistake by agreeing to stay in the "female only" dorm which means that I have to share one bathroom with five other girls. The "mixed-sex" dorm would have been preferable had I known.

Anyway, these girls don't speak English, but what I know about them from being their roommates for two days is that they are the type who like to get up really early, start talking to each other despite the fact people are trying to sleep, and then hog the bathroom. Today the chaos started at 7 am. I tried to sleep through the chatter and showers and then they left the room and I happily slept until a little after 9. When I finally got out of bed, they all came back in and rushed into the bathroom to brush their teeth, even though I was literally standing right there with my shower bag.

Then there were two girls in there at one time, and finally when they exited, I tried to go in and one of the girls stopped me and did the universal "it smells in there" sign. Wait, but there were two girls in there at the same time. I didn't even want to know.

The second strange occurrence involved me sitting in Starbucks (I gave in to American globalization because I was cold and needed a bathroom and it was there. Plus they had chocolate chip cookies--my favorite--and I haven't had one in months. It was a terrible cookie, but that is besides the point). There was a woman sitting next to me for a long time typing on her computer, when all of a sudden, she ran outside and pulled out her toddler from the stroller that parked outside the window. I think the kid had been sleeping and looked pretty covered, but would you ever leave a sleeping baby outside a restaurant alone in 30 degree weather? Weird!

I did have a moment in Starbucks, however, feeling like one of those people who have nothing to do all day but sit and hang out in Starbucks without a care for the world. It felt pretty good, not gonna lie.

Besides these two instances, it was a quiet day, and it was a quiet day on purpose. While yesterday, I intentionally tried to meet friends at breakfast. Today, I didn't feel like it so I kept my head down. That's what I love about hostel living. You can do whatever you want, depending on how you feel.

While the tour yesterday was great, it meant that I did not learn my way around the city because I had been following someone the whole time. So today, anytime I tried to go somewhere, I would get lost. I could never find the street names on the map, so then I would try to go by instinct. My instinct was always wrong.

I first went to the brand-new Munchner Judisches Museum (otherwise known as the Jewish museum). I am kind of fascinated by the way Germans handle their role in World War II. When I was in Poland, I liked to ask my German friends what they think about it and how they learn about it in their history books. Apparently, there is a huge emphasis on learning and understanding and remembering what happened.

For that reason, I was interested to see what this place was all about. I actually found it less than stimulating. It mostly talked about Jews in Munich, and there was a section that explained the different holidays and items of the Jewish faith (like the Torah, for example) which just seemed really simple and basic to me.

The one part I found really interesting was a timeline of Jewish history in Munich and it was just plain awful: Jews blamed for the plague. Jews not allowed to have jobs except as money lenders. Jews having property taken away. For hundreds of years it went on and on. It was kind of startling to see it laid out like that.

After some more wandering around and getting lost, I walked through the English Garden, which is a park in the city that is bigger than Central Park in New York and Hyde Park in London. Apparently, there are a lot of nude sunbathers here during the summer, however, I didn't see any of those lying on the snow. I did see some runners which made me nostalgic for home. I actually thought a lot about going home and finding a job and pondering what life will be like when I get back.

I am trying to stay in the present, but it's hard when there is so much uncertainty awaiting me around the corner. But if there is anything I learned about myself on this trip is that I can handle uncertainty and sometimes a little uncertainty can actually be quite fun.

The Jewish museum.

The English Garden.

A beautiful day in the neighborhood.

Today was the perfect day. Really it was. Funny how such a good day can come right after such a bad one. But this, I think, is the life of a traveler.

It started with meeting a great partner in crime. During a very satisfying breakfast of yogurt and granola, I met Ana Elena, a like-minded traveler from Mexico City, who was in Munich for the day in between visiting her sister who lives in Germany and traveling to Barcelona. We both decided to go on the free walking tour of the city offered by the hostel. It was excellent; one of the most informative and entertaining tours I have been on this trip. The guide was awesome, and even though it was really cold with on-and-off snow, the sun was shining and the sky was blue which is a sight I haven't seen in a week.

Some things I learned about Munich (with apologies to my German readers, who will probably find this a little trite):

The entire city of Munich was destroyed in World War II. The Nazis, knowing the city would be destroyed during the war, took detailed photographs of the city to be used to rebuild it after the war. These photographs were used to rebuild the city as it looks today. There are only three remaining original structures: The two towers of the Frauenkirche church, the glockenspiel and the statue of the first king of Bavaria.

Frauenkirche church.


The only remaining statue (and yes, the i-phone is in Germany).

is the birthplace of the Nazi party. Hofbrauhais, the most famous beer hall in town, is also the place where the party had its first meeting.

You have to pay taxes if you own a dog. The more aggressive the dog breed, the more tax you pay. However, you can take your dog everywhere including restaurants and stores. You cannot take dogs into hospitals or pharmacies, so these places have dog-parking lots, where you leash your dog outside.

Dog-parking sign.

The average beer consumption for Bavarians is 1 and a half liters a day. Some people have something written in their work contracts that they are entitled to one beer during the workday. Companies abide as long as it is after one in the afternoon.

You can buy gummy bears at the pharmacy because they contain real fruit juices and vitamin c.

Pretzels in Munich: Much better than those in New York City. Trust me. Can't even compare.

After this informative tour, Ana Elena and I felt like we had a good sense of the sights and history, so we spent the day wandering around the city. First, warming up with some traditional beef soup with pancake dough floating on top. Then some shopping at the Galeria Kaufhof, a large department store that was frankly too conservative for my taste. But we spent lots of time there and were excited to find traditional German garb for sale. Ana wanted to dress up like German maid for Halloween, but these were no measly costumes. The outfits cost about 300 Euro each! (That's about $438 US Dollars!) Still, we both grabbed an outfit and ran to the dressing room and tried them on. We were both surprised to discover that the white ruffled shirt on top was really a half shirt that bared your belly. I loved wearing that little German outfit. One of the best experiences of the day, really. So much fun.

Me in traditional garb.

Afterwards, we decided to eat some real Bavarian food, so we went to the same place where we had soup. I got this crusty roasted pork that was mostly fat, with sour mashed potatoes and a little potato ball. For dessert, apple strudel and vanilla sauce. You can guess which part of the meal I liked best.

We had walked through Hofbrauhais, the famous beer hall, during our tour earlier that day. There, we saw lockers for beer mugs that regulars could use for storage. We also saw (at noon) an extremely intoxicated drunk geezer who took out his teeth and waved them around to the table next to him. Based on what we had already witnessed, we thought it would be a fine establishment for an after dinner drink.

The place was booming. We joined a table filled with a traveling tour group. The group was young and diverse, from places like South Africa, Australia and the States. A traditional band played. We got some giant mugs of beer and clinked glasses and said "Prost!" Soon, we saw our tour guide and some others from the hostel, and it was like musical chairs, people coming in and out and talking and laughing and drinking in one big shuffle. It was touristy, it was loud, it was bad. I loved it. I don’t even like beer.

When it was time to leave, an old man approached me and starting speaking to me in Polish.

"What are you doing in Munich?" he asked as if we knew each other. "Are you Polish? Give me a kiss!"

Ana pulled me away just in time.

"He has been kissing every girl who walks by," she hissed.

"But how did he know I speak Polish?" I asked, amused.

We walked back to the hostel. I had the hiccups. I was cold. But I had the great feeling of that today was just right in every way.

My view of the Hofbrauhais beer hall.

Me and Ana Elena.

Our super-hero waiter who carried a dozen heavy mugs at a time.