The art of being Californian, it seems, is to cultivate a loose-limbed insouciance while secretly working away like a frantic ant.

--Richard Fortey The Earth: An Intimate History

Tuesday, April 28, 2009

Euroromance: Day 6: Crossing a Continent

What I thought was going to be one of the biggest wastes of a day—traveling to my next destination—turned out to be a truly enjoyable day.

Those who know me, know that I hate road trips. I really hate traveling in general. To me the point is not the trip but the destination. Why would I spend hours or days traveling to a place when I could just get there quickly (aka flying) and spend all that extra time getting to know my fixed location.

Combined with my impatience is my unavoidable car-associated narcolepsy. When I am in a moving car for over thirty minutes, I will fall asleep. Whether I am the one driving or not. This habit has pissed off many a fellow road-tripper as well as has endangered my life many times. So now I spend the extra money and fly pretty much everywhere I need to go in the U.S. that isn’t within a few hours’ driving distance.

I figured train travel would be the same. It’s a moving vehicle, right? And I get whole rows of seats to stretch out on instead of the one cramped seat of the car (oh, and if that seat has a steering wheel in front of it, its even more uncomfortable and cramped). Of course I was going to sleep the day away and wake up in Amsterdam refreshed and unconscious of the continent I’d crossed.

That determined, I found a compartment in the first class (my Eurorail pass was first class. I highly recommend that choice. Almost the entire time I traveled by train, I had an entire compartment to myself) car of the train in the Prague station and proceeded to make it my own in order to deter my fellow travelers from joining me (suitcase across the door, coat on the hook, books strewn at random, flip flops off and smiley face toes proudly displayed (Euros hate bare feet, I’ve learned)). I had a 5- or 6-hour ride to my transfer in Berlin, so I pulled out my pillow, snuggled across three seats, and promptly fell asleep.

Then something happened.

I woke up.

And then,

I didn’t want to go back to sleep. Instead, I wanted to look out the window, enjoy the Czech and later German scenery. I wanted to write. I wanted to engage with the world I was seeing and the trip I’d had so far.

I thought about my time in Germany and the CR. I pulled out my Amsterdam travel book and looked at the Dutch language guide in the back. I practiced saying “please,” “thank you,” and “excuse me” in Dutch. I then said these things (and the piddly number of other words and phrases I’d picked up) in Czech and German. It is very difficult to do three different countries with three different languages in one trip. Your mind is constantly trying to reshape itself around the new symbol paradigms just as your lips and tongue are twisting and sliding over unfamiliar sounds and word shapes. To compound that problem, I have absolutely no base in Czech or German (Dutch is closer to English). So this trip was not like traveling to Spain or France (or even Italy), where I could have faked my way through language 101.

As I entered Germany, I began to see the ubiquitous windmills that dot the countryside. It seems that the Germans love alternative energy as much as they love exclamation points and excessive consonants (I am not joking about the consonants. They seem to need to put an extra “t” or whatever in everything. Even Czech words, which suffer from no dearth of consonants in and of themselves, got a few extra ones in for good measure. And then words like “greek” that only need three, get—like—17 (“Griechisch”: or 7)).

The tiny houses I’d seen on my way to Quedlinburg began to appear again. About the size of a medium-sized shed, these little “play” houses mobbed along the tracks. Each had a yard (that was often bigger than the house) with meticulously maintained gardens and lawns. At times, I saw people sitting out on tiny bistro tables enjoying the sunny day, looking so much like toy figures glued to the board of a model railroad set (“look, Ma, that one has a tiny PBR in his hand!”). I couldn’t figure out these little places. It was obvious that a thriving community was going through its day-to-day here, but set against the backdrop of the more expected, larger European houses, these tiny cottages just didn’t make sense. Was this Europe’s equivalent to a trailer park? And why clustered so close to the train tracks? Were they squatters on the railway’s easement property? Ultimately, I let it go and allowed that in Europe, as far as I could tell, if residences were ordered in Starbucks sizes, they would only come in two versions: short and venti.

All too soon, I arrived at the Berlin Station. I had about two hours before my next long train ride into the Netherlands, so I wandered the station looking for a market like the awesome one I found in Dresden, so that I could duplicate my picnic feast.

The day outside of the station was surprising warm. As I walked past the open main entrance, I was hit with a blast of heat that beckoned me to enter that huge city. But I resisted the urge to exit the (too)cool station and continued my search amid the songs and shouts of drunken futball fans (apparently there was a big match that day).

Berlin’s Hauptbahnhof is indeed a wonder. A huge edifice made of glass and steel that cuts a grid across the sky. I kept thinking “way rad” throughout my meanderings around and up its floors (incidentally, I’ve learned that “rad” means “bicycle” in German, so now I know that everything is “bicycle” to me. A good preparation for the Dutch transportation obsession, I guess).

On my wanders, I passed a couple of men with shaved heads, dressed entirely in white. A younger man and an older one. They became prime people watching fodder as I attempted to guess their story and their relationship. They obviously deeply cared for each other, evidenced by their intense embraces. But these embraces were punctuated by the younger man’s pulling away (though the older one kept a firm grip on the lad’s hand that the young man never tried to release). There seemed to be some sort of discussion going on that the older man didn’t like at all and the younger was trying to end with frequent shoulder shrugs and gesticulations with his free hand. I imagined they could be father and son with the son’s desiring to leave for the war (okay a little melodramatic) or school or a girl and the father’s reluctance to let go. Or they could be lovers. And the younger one is trying to end the relationship because he wants to live life a little before settling down.

I never did resolve their story. I left them in a tearful embrace and attended to more urgent (for me, at least) matters at hand: the search for a WC (oh yeah, that I’ve been calling in my head “water cooler” the whole trip) and that market.

I did indeed find both: a pay-by-use WC and a store that sold reasonably proper items for my picnic. I then headed to my track to wait for my train, journeying down the length of the platform to the one sunny spot. As I rolled up the legs of my pants, slipped off my flip flops, and stripped down to my tank top to welcome the warm embrace of the sun, I noticed that I was alone in my worship of that golden orb. It seems that unlike the Irish (who strip down to their skivvies as soon as the temperature reaches 70 degrees F), Germans (and Czechs) maintain a staunch denial of the climbing mercury, fastening their coats even tighter, scarves firmly in place, defiantly bundled up (“It’s still March, dammit!”) despite the audacity of the blazing sun.

In addition to impromptu sunbathing, I also learned the second of my favorite German words (the first being “abschicken”): abfahrt (departure).

My train arrived, and I again found an empty car and set up my picnic. I’ve learned a few things about myself on this trip, three of them being I don’t like Budweiser (Budvar) in any country, European me doesn’t comb her hair—ever (hey, in my defense, it seems that no one here combs their hair or has ever heard of a straightener), and—as I opened one of the monk beers from Prague—I can drink warm beer . . . and like it.

As I feasted on bread, goat cheese, tomatoes, cucumbers, maiche, and warm beer, I contemplated the increasing cloud cover. It looked like my good weather vacation karma might be at an end.

I am not lying when I say I have the best weather karma on vacation, ever. You want to go on vacation with me. It will guarantee that you have sun pretty much the whole time. No. Matter. Where. You. Go. Examples:

1. Vacation in Ireland for two weeks: we had 80 degree F weather with not a cloud in the sky the whole time. The radio stations were calling it a heat wave and drought, encouraging people to drink more beer to combat dehydration (you have to love that). People were lolling around in their underwear. This weather lasted my entire time there. The day before I arrived and day after I left: rain, cold.

2. Vacations (many) in Seattle for varying number of days: sunny, in the 70’s, with a light mist in the mornings. I have to keep reminding myself when I am there that this is abnormal weather for this part of the North West or I’d move there for the farmer’s market alone.

3. Vacations (again, more than one) in San Francisco (at various times during the year): we’d have the famous marine layer in the morning and after the sun set, but the day in between was like a fuzzy, warm, gentle lamb. The chill of the marine layer was more of a treat for me to see because it acts like a living, breathing thing—clawing over the bay and through the buildings—than actual bad weather.

4. (and to bring us up to date) Vacation in Northern Europe in March: sun, sun, sun, warm, warm, warm.

I rest my case.

Now that I’m done bragging, back to my karma ending with grey, angry clouds arriving. The closer I drew to the Netherlands, the more upset the day seemed to get. I wondered, as I read in the ever-deepening blue light, if I’d actually get serious use of that awesome wool coat I had brought.

You know you’re in the Netherland by a) the train change (so cute, rust corduroy seats and green walls) and b) the flatness of the terrain. Sean Condon says that in Amsterdam, you can see a man in Belgium standing on a step ladder waving, and I believe him. It makes sense. When you literally create your country out of thin water, there isn’t much time to make frivolous stuff like hills or mountains. In fact, it seems like the Dutch were so busy reclaiming land that they didn’t even have time to design a flag: they just took the French flag and turned it on its side.

Also, you know you are in the Netherlands by a new (Dutch) conductor coming in to check your ticket. This man looked exactly what I thought the quintessential Dutch man would look like: tall, willowy, narrow face with a tiny pinch of the nose exactly where the bridge of eye glasses would sit, sparkling blue eyes, and a winning smile. He said good evening in Dutch, and I responded with my newly learned reply. Spotting my wine bottle and glass, he made a joke about giving him a glass too. We both chuckled, me more so with pleasure that I had just gotten a joke in another language (I ignored the fact that the specific understanding of the wording he used was hazy and focused on the joy of communicated meaning.).

And then he said, “Mumbly kueky bloo blah?” To which I panicked and responded with a distinctly English (and American English at that), “huh?” Realizing I didn’t understand him, he restated in perfect English, “Where is your final stop?”

I answered, and he left the compartment. It was only as I was watching his receding form weave its way down the length of the car that I realized, he didn’t know that I had gotten his joke. He thought I didn’t understand and that I was just laughing because he was laughing. Suddenly, I couldn’t sit still. Someone thought my bright moment was actually one of uncomfortable ignorance. My skin crawled, my hands shook, my feet twitched. It was literally all I could do to keep myself from running out of my compartment, finding the conductor, and explaining that I really did get his joke.

Sooner than I was ready for, I arrived—full circle—back at Centraal Station. What a truly amazing and surprisingly perfect experience. I’ve decided that I love train travel. It’s like watching TV, but it’s the world going by and not some canned and planned situation.

With a few mishaps (like taking the tram the wrong way—luckily the tram lady let me ride for free to the next stop where I got off, paid to take a tram back to the station, was ordered to get off again, five minutes later reboarded same tram, bought new ticket, and was on my way to the Spui and my hotel), I hauled my bags across more cobbled streets (again, a few more wrong turns) to my hotel.

As I sipped my Dutch beer in one of the many ubiquitous brown bars (chosen at random post hotel check-in), I thought, I’ve finally arrived! I’m in Amsterdam!


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