Monthly Archives: September 2008

Jess has a lot of beer and sleeps with 200 people – Munich

Despite having my wallet stolen, Munich was a lot of fun! Well I should really say Oktoberfest was a lot of fun, since I really didn’t see anything of Munich other than the Theriesenwiesen (that’d be the Oktoberfest grounds), and my hostel, The Tent. I planned to…but despite staying an extra night due to previously discussed incidents (i.e. my wallet being stolen, and needing to wait for my Mastercard to arrive), I didn’t!

To start, I’ll explain my hostel: it was indeed a giant tent, at a campground with personal tents too, with about 200 bunks in it. So, yes, one of my roommates probably stole my wallet (from out from under my bed while I went to the bathroom in the night. My own stupid fault? Partially). But they also do a campfire every night (unless it rains, which it did 2 of the nights I was there), and a delicious breakfast (you pay for what you take), and the price was super low. But.. it was colder than I had planned! They gave me 3 big thick wool blankets, and despite the tent being “heated” ( apparently giant tents don’t take too well to piped in heat), I slept in about 10 layers of clothes, including my coat and gloves. But… it had a great atmosphere, and it was easy to meet people! Lots of fun.

On my first night I planned to have a tea at the campfire and then go to sleep (ridiculously early – note, at this point I was ridiculously sick), but then I met some cool people and ended up staying at the campfire for another 4 hours or so.

Monday morning I felt decent enough to head to the tents. (The Oktoberfest tents that is!), and I tried to meet up with a couple of girls I had met in London or my CouchSurfing meetup, which were arranged for the same time and same place. Instead… I ended up alone (some confusion here or there I think), so I bravely headed to the Hofbrau tent (not to be confused with the Hofbrau beergarden which is around year-round in Munich), which I had heard was the “crazy tourist tent”, and I hoped to see people I knew.

I nearly immediately found people, 2 American guys and a group of Aussies I had met at The Tent (hostel)… and ended up hanging around with them, 2 Italians, a Belgian, 2 guys actually from Munich (who were the most extreme guys I had pretty much ever met, and preceded anything they said – especially Prost (“Cheers”) with “Mother£$%ing”), and a Kenyan (who I most definitely sang the song “Where can you find lions? Only in Kenya” to).

Tuesday my Couchsurfing meetup succeeded (due to good prior planning), and I met up with Carlos from Mexico and Dimago from Israel, and we hit the Lowenbrau tent (with a giant lion that roared “LOWENBRAU” outside), and then the Paulaner tent where we sat with a bunch of cool Germans around our age. Dimago suddenly became a magician, with some very impressive tricks (like he “loses” a coin and it appears under somebody else’s watch band), and afterwards it was time for seeing the fest outside the tents – playing some games, eating some soft ice cream…. but not going on any rides!

Wednesday was my personal D-day. Or Day of Death, when I discovered my wallet was taken and dealt with it all day.

Thursday though, instead of moving on to my next location, I was waiting for my Mastercard. Luckily, there were 2 Aussie guys, Matt & Lloyd, at the Tent that I had met back in Berlin, so I decided to follow them  join them at the Fest. We did a bit of tent hopping, a bit of food eating, and then met up with some other Aussies, after which I promptly got lost, and met some nice American armed forces types as well.

Hm.. other than the celebrations, not too much in Munich. Not even for the eating part! I had soft ice cream from the fest pretty much every day, but my appetite was so off (note: I was sick the entire time I was in Munich), I didn’t really have dinner, other than some awesome “happy pig stew”  back at The Tent (hostel). Sausages and fish sandwiches (apparently the core of the Oktoberfest diet) really didn’t have any appeal… so I didn’t eat them.

But… no worries…. I won’t waste away, because I’ve made it to Italy, where the food is as good as they say. Stay tuned for more of me talking about the food. Next episode: Venice.

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A bit of time in Salzburg

I realize it’s been a while since I really posted, but the internet is a bit sparse at the camping ground/giant tent I am in here in Munich. I will start by talking about my disaster of the day, which I really hope will be the disaster of the trip… I got my wallet stolen!

Yep,  last night I had my wallet in my purse, which was in my carry-on bag, which was under my bed… and while I went to the bathroom in the middle of the night, someone apparently snuck in there and got the wallet part. So I had a lot of fun this morning with getting my cards cancelled and re-issued, but I think everything is going to be okay now.

So. Salzburg! In case you didn’t know, Salzburg is a city in Austria that is most famous for: being surrounded by the Alps, the Sound of Music, and Mozart, who was born and lived there. I decided at the last moment to add in one little night to go to Salzburg.

I got settled at my hostel (the Youth and Family Guesthouse, not so hostel-y friendly, but it was comfy and warm), and then headed into the town. I had heard that the hostel was right by the centre of town, so without a map, I just decided to follow the route that everybody seemed to be either going or coming from. A tourist mecca?

But no, not just that! I came upon…. a big festival, with rides, games, booths, food, and a giant beer tent spread out throughout the old town centre. Perfect! I wandered the festival, wandered the streets a bit more (saw Mozart’s birthplace), and then ended up perfectly in time for a “5-Uhr Konzert”. 5:00 concert. I headed in to see a guy playing the harpsichord. I enjoyed the music, I found it interesting to hear a harpsichord rather than a piano…. but the guy was just too ridiculous. He rocked and jumped the whole time, and at one point I thought he was going to climb into the harpsichord. He looked so surprised when he played staccato that I thought he was going to pass out. I could barely concentrate on the music.

But it did end… and as I walked back (chilly), I heard some oompapa music coming from the beer tent, and decided to go in – where it was nice and cozy because of all the people packed into it. I took a seat at the end of a long table. Somehow I ended up talking (in English, eventually) to the 2 middle aged ladies and the old man (all Austrian) at my table, and they decided I had to try all the drink specialties of Austria. Including the schnapps, which they bought for me and then clapped and cheered when I took the shot… which was obviously horrible. Ha. I felt like I really achieved something in connecting with the real people though!

There were also tons of people who had come down from villages in their authentic dress! I was entirely delighted, because I didn’t realize people still wore the traditional outfits some time. (I was to see even more once I reached Oktoberfest… more on that later). The festival was apparently the Feast of St Rupert, Salzburg’s patron saint and an annual party weekend.

The next day in Salzburg, despite having the very worst cold ever (you would have thought the schnapps would have cleared it up), I went to Mass at the Salzburger Dom (cathedral), where they did a Beethoven symphony with a choir of about 60, with one of their pipe organs, about 10 violins, and a few other string instruments. Wow!

I also somehow made it up the funicular to the Hohensalzburg Fortress on the hill. It was the perfect CASTLE castle rather than a opulent palace, and I liked it a lot. Unfortunately, I was really feeling my sickness, and couldn’t enjoy it as much as I hoped.

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Jess becomes a temporary Wiener

I could have been at the Opera right now, but instead this evening I chose to go down to the Staatsoperhaus, and watch the people who actually were going to the Opera… a just as fascinating time, I assure you; followed by that other Viennese institution: dessert. After a bit more wandering, it was blogging time.

Vienna is a great city for sitting on benches and watching the people, as there are so many benches in lovely parks, by grand old buildings, or inside lovely little parks. And although I want to say that I did this a great deal (because, well, I did) I also somehow managed to see a whole bunch of the touristy “sights” as well.

My first touristy site was to be the biggest letdown yet of my trip… (that said, that’s not too bad!). I kept seeing ads everywhere for a King Tut exhibit at the Museum fur Volkerkunde (that would be “ethnology”), and I figured, well hey, I would like to see King Tut and his stuff. Well…. King Tut wasn’t there, nor was hardly any of his stuff. It was an exhibit about him, but there were only a few scattered pieces about Egypt in general, some information about the discovery of Tut’s tomb, and not a single sarcophagus in sight. I even felt a bit voyeuristic with some of the things displayed… i.e. “this necklace came from ________’s mummy, who was wearing 28 similar necklaces.” Now really, if they went to all that trouble to get prepared for death, why are we stealing their jewellery and sticking it in glass boxes!?

One the way to my second sight, in fact, right in one of the courtyards of the Hofburg Palace, I saw an interesting thing. A big roped-off area (surrounding by milling tourists, as most of the area is), with inside – an honour guard and army band facing an open doorway, beside 2 police motorcycles and a black Mercedes with a small Austrian flag on the hood. I’ve seen enough political thrillers to recognize a Head of State vehicle when I see one! So I milled with the tourists, and when the band started playing what must have been the Austrian national anthem (sounded very national anthem-y), I got my camera ready, paparazzi style, as two men in well-tailored suits came out of the building, and got into either side of the back seat of the black Mercedes. It drove off escorted by police motorcycles and another black Mercedes.  Afterwards I Wikipedia’d Austrian government, and I’m pretty sure I just saw both the President and the Chancellor of Austria.

That was my biggest excitement of the day, but I did also enter the Hofburg Palace.  The 3 museums covered by one ticket started with the Imperial Silver Collection which is a vast array of… dishes and table settings that belonged to the Hapsburg monarchs. Impressive in how many pieces there were, but I moved pretty quickly through there! I made it to the Sisi Museum upstairs, a museum on the life and eventual assassination of Sisi (Elisabeth), the beautiful and melancholy wife of Emperor Franz Josef, the last truly great emperor of the Hapsburg monarchy. This was a very well done and interesting museum, and finished in the Imperial Apartments – decorated as they were in Franz Josef and Sisi’s time.

A couple more museums were added to my roster for the trip. The first was MUMOK, or the MUseum for MOderner Kunst (aka the Modern Art museum). Despite the fact that there were very few “big names”, I really enjoyed it (one of my favourite Magritte paintings was there though!)… and the exhibit on “Bad Painting Good Art” was pretty fabulous. One of my top sights was a piece done in that usual abstract style of circles and lines… but it was a carpet. It looked like something you could buy at Ikea, and it cracked me up.

The second other museum I went to was the Sigmund Freud Museum, kind of a must for a wannabe psychologist like myself. This was where he practiced and lived until the very last year of his life (which happened to be 1938, when he – as a Jew – was forced to leave due to the Nazis closing in). Unfortunately, only the waiting room here was furnished as it was then – the rest is in his London home where he lived for his last year. “The couch” wasn’t here, but even the waiting room was pretty neat. The rest of the museum was a little dry…

A lot of my time was devoted to wandering. I wandered the grounds of the Hofburg Palace, the area around my hostel on Mariahilferstrasse, Stephensplatz (the main square of the city, where I also visited St Stephen’s Cathedral, another of the grand gothic cathedrals of Europe), the shopping street Kaertnerstrasse, the ring road around the centre of the city, and anywhere else the metro dropped me.

I also had some food from the area! Vienna is a dessert capital, so to be authentic I tried several different  varieties. I tried “Mohr im Hemd”, a traditional Viennese chocolate cake with chocolate fudge sauce (I split this with Cara, a girl I had met from California… it was nothing too special, just chocolate cake!), apfelstrudel mit Eis (mm mm), and apple pie mit Eis (even more delicious). I also took in Vienna’s cafe culture with a hot chocolate or tea in a couple cafes.

As far as real meals go, I haven’t had any Wienerschnitzel! (I should be able to have some in Salzburg or Munich when I move on though). I did have “dumpling with sausage”… which turned out to be ground up sausage IN a giant dumpling (kind of heavy), and I had some meals on location. One location was the Naschmarkt, a bustling foodie market with fresh produce, olives & olive oil, nuts and dry goods, and a lot of little restaurant cafes. I went for Japanese, and had probably the best gyoza (Japanese dumplings) I’ve ever had, along with some sushi! (Strange that it’s Japanese that feels familiar and not Austrian)

I did also see a bit of the nightlife on a “Backpackers Party Night” (or what I would call a pubcrawl) which left from the excellent TravelShack, a backpackers bar. I’m pretty sure we did Travelshack followed by a bar called Coco and a club called Loco, which is kind of ridiculous, but… yep. Didn’t compare to the scope of the Berlin pub crawl, and the pubs are still smoke filled here (took forever to get the smell off my hair & clothes), but it was a good time. I was nervous to go alone, but then I discovered that 4 of my 5 roommates were also going (2 guys from North Carolina, 1 guy from Arizona, and 1 Australian-guy-living-in-Scotland [tricky accent for my poor hearing to decipher]), so we headed on down together, and I met lots of other people as well.

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Prague Blog

I’ve actually made it to Vienna and have found a delightful little backpacker’s bar with internet (and as I write I am also drinking beer and eating chips. Such is the life). Before I start in on Prague, I want to say my big Viennese excitement for the day: other than having hot chocolate in the palace (a usual touristy thing that sounds a lot more extravagant than it is), I also saw both the President and the Chancellor of Austria. In real life. But… you’ll have to wait for my Vienna blog for that story. As for now, the “Golden City”, Prague (or to most of Europe, Praha).

Arriving in Prague was a culture shock. It (so far) is the most purely foreign to me. I felt pretty overwhelmed just making it to my hostel (Hostel Elf), but once I got to the cozy little independent hostel, and saw the big pot marked “Here I am… your tea”, I started to feel a bit better. At least it wasn’t ALL foreign!

I started my first night with a big CouchSurfers meetup in a Czech pub. I thought I wouldn’t stay for long, but it turns out the CS’ers are friendly people (and there were more than 200 CSers, they had booked the whole bar!), and I stayed for hours. I had an authentic Czech meal – roast beef with an oddly sweet sauce (with cream and jam on top as if I was having scones), plus big flat bread dumplings that I quite enjoyed. And then I danced to the wild techno on the dance floor under the pub, which, also oddly, had a fake spider pit and a cage up in the air for people to dance in. A couple of the braver ones climbed up to it.

My first morning in Prague was spent seeing the “Jewish Museum” which is actually 6 different sites in the Jewish ghetto, Josefov. The most striking were the Pinkas Synagogue which now has the nearly 80,000 names of Jews from the Czech Republic that were killed in the Holocaust written on the walls and an exhibit with children’s art from the Terezin camp (all but about 250 children of about 10,000 at Terezin were later transported and gassed at Auschwitz), and the Jewish Cemetery. The Cemetery is a crazy pile of headstones because the Jews were only allowed a small area for burying their dead for 400 years… and there was a huge Jewish ghetto! I saw the grave of Rabbi Loew, who legend has it created the Golem of Prague (not to be confused with Gollum from LOTR. That’s something else entirely). And, of course, there was the glorious Spanish synagogue!

I spent the afternoon visiting the Old Town Square and its astronomical clock that the tourists go wild over once an hour, the New Town Square: Wenceslas Square, that is (after the Good King from the Christmas song) – much like a mall on the ground level, but looking up is a crazy blend of architectural styles. I went wacko over deco. Art deco that is… it’s all over the city.

Following with my deco fever, I headed to the Alphons Mucha Museum to see his famous art deco style posters and the original works behind them. I really enjoyed this museum, and the included video really brought Mucha to life.

The next day was spent on the other side of the river… and first I had to get there! Getting there was the (in?)famous Charles Bridge, with its Gothic arches and tons of statues of saints. Unfortunately, the section on bridge in front of the most famous statue, St John of Nepomunk was closed… which meant that I couldn’t rub the golden picture of him being thrown off the bridge (and killed) to get my one wish. Rats. Well, apparently you only get one from there in a lifetime, so I guess I will have to return to Prague someday.

I wandered the “Little Quarter” on the other side of the river, and headed up the slippery, cobblestoned, sloping streets to Prague Castle (I’m literally surprised I made it without any broken ankles… it was raining and the streets are either cobblestones or marble! Eep!). I wandered the castle grounds (apparently its the biggest castle complex in the world right now, if you count the gardens).

The only actual castle building I went in was St Vitus Cathedral, which was the most excessively glorious church I have ever seen  (probably because I’ve not yet been through the “Catholic kingdoms”, and Protestant churches don’t seem to be as decorative!). I admired the lovely stained glass windows (and stared at the window Mucha did for quite some time), the curving stone up to the ceiling, and the wealth of silver and gold all over the statues at the edges. I even saw St Wenceslas’ tomb. Wow.

I also stopped at the Doll and Barbie Museum, which is strangely on the castle grounds. I was entirely delighted to see the vintage toys, especially the vintage Halloween & Christmas things, and the Eastern European specialties. Oh, and I may have really enjoyed the Barbies too.  It was quite a delight for a collector like me to see Barbies #1, #2, and #3, as well as the German doll Barbie was based on…. plus a whole lot more!

Afterwards I had a “menu” (which means a fixed price meal deal) in a cozy Czech pub with “potato soup” (I would call it vegetable really.. but it tasted just like my style of soup), apple strudel for dessert, and  a main course of wild boar ragout and potato pancakes. I was expected it would taste like pork, but it tasted more like beef to me. I didn’t really like how sweet the dark gravy was… but the meat was tasty!

The last thing I did in Prague was take a “Ghosts and Beer” tour. Basically, it was a tour telling all the mysterious little oddities of Prague (including some ghost stories), and ended up at a pub called By the Executioner for a free beer. I preferred the curiosities to the actual ghost stories.. (such as the cage on a fountain around the corner from the Old Town Square that was once in the middle of the square in the 16th and 17th centuries and was where they would keep and torture suspected witches. Now why would they keep it and put it on a fountain? That’s beyond me…)

So Prague. Even my “not so good area” (as one Czech couchsurfer told me about my hostel location) was beautiful as long as you look beyond the street level graffiti and strip bars… just UP. I couldn’t find an ugly buidling in Prague if I searched for it!

Also… it was freezing! Pretty much the coldest I’d expected on my entire trip, and it’s still pretty early in the year. But I handled it well in my cozy jacket. No worries.

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Pink Floyd The Wall – Berlin

I am a big fan of Berlin. At first I was overwhelmed by the bigness of the city. Oh, and the part that after a 12-hour day on the bus from Amsterdam I managed to take the same S-Bahn [surface train] back and forth over and over again. Bah!

BUT… the first day found me checking off nearly all of my “sites” to see with the most awesome New Berlin (free) walking tour. And with the sites came the stories, and I found my interest for the Wall and the communist times, the Nazi times and the Holocaust, and back to the Weimar republic and the great nation of Prussia growing steadily. I think we may have gotten lucky with an extremely enthusiastic and very knowledgeable guide (though he was from Liverpool, not Germany at all)… but either way, I’m a big fan of Berlin.

Some especially interesting things I saw: There was Bebelplatz, one of the grand squares of the Weimar Era reduced to the spot where thousands of “subversive” books were burned by Nazi students in 1933, along with a quote from an 1890’s author (whose own books were burned for being subversive): “wherever they burn books, eventually they will burn people too”… (though originally it referred to the Spanish inquisition!). The only monument otherwise is a glassed in space underneath the centre of the square with a small room of empty book shelves. I found it especially haunting, but then… as you may know… I am quite a lover of books.

There was also the Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe which is a whole city block of grey… well, blocks (apparently the grey is the exact shade that people’s bones go when they are burned). The blocks rise in height toward the centre, and loom down on you in a creepy way while the floor drops down and up again. Lots of different speculation as to the meanings. The obvious example would be a cemetery, less obvious the blocks representing the train cars or the role call at the concentration camps, or even more cerebral, the slow descent from anti-Semitism into what it ultimately became (i.e. the Holocaust). Very poignant.

The Nazi site that I found most interesting was the unmarked site of Hitler’s underground bunker where he famously shot himself. Part of my interest is that it is entirely unmarked, under a slightly sketchy patch of grass… because apparently there are enough neo-Nazi’s around for it to potentially become a memorial. Very creepy.

Other than that, pretty much every other “site” (or do I mean “sight”) to see in Berlin was seen. The Brandenburg Gate, some of the wall (which I will discuss later), the Reichstag, some more grand squares, the grand boulevard Unter den Linden, Checkpoint Charlie, and.. yes… the hotel window where Michael Jackson (famously?) dangled his baby out of for photographers a few years back.

After the tour, I headed on up to the Reichstag (the German parliament buildings) to go up its relatively new glass dome on top for some fabulous views of the city with a couple Australians I had met on the tour (Matt & Cass… not traveling together though).

And that night I headed to the New Berlin pub crawl (not free, but worth the money), with those same Australians, along with a few more, some Brits that were also on the tour, and proceeded to meet some cool people (a couple Irish girls – one who knew & lives near Bunclody, where I will be visiting relatives later – and even knew Redmond’s pub!, a few Americans, and one by one: Austrians, Belgians, French.. and probably more.) Neat bars, fun people!

Otherwise in Berlin… Hm.

Well I went to the Topography of Terror exhibit, which is a work in progress. It is the former SS & Gestapo interrogation chambers & prison, but they are still excavating, so for now it’s a free outdoor museum about the rise of the SS and the Gestapo, which was really interesting. It also happens to be next to the longest stretch of unbroken wall left. (And this wall has a fence around it to protect it from “wallpeckers” or people who decide to knock chunks of for souvenir. Oh the irony.)

I also visited another long stretch of wall (though this one partially unbroken, as it is right beside the river Spree, in the punky Kreuzburg district). And this was the East Side Gallery. Basically in 1989, a group of artists decorated the wall to celebrate it coming down. Or at least partially coming down (since clearly, this must have been up if they could paint it!). They redid it in 2000 (damn wallpeckers), and a lot of it is still there. Some has disappeared… but some of the empty parts have been replaced by other graffiti – which, if you are a graffiti fan like I am, Berlin is an excellent place. This was really interesting, and I got some good photos, so if I ever make it to an internet cafe that I can connect my camera cable too, you’ll see them.

Other things I did? Well I did break out some wicked Gangsta’s Paradise at karaoke night at the hostel. (True). And I wandered the city. And took the metro. (Actually easy when you get used to it).

The eating wasn’t too exciting. I was going for a lot of cheap grab stuff. The breakfast at my hostel (Generator Hostel) was the best I’ve ever had at a hostel, so that covered that. I had a marvellous crepe at a kawaii (that’s Japanese cute) crepe stand in a metro station. Peculiar, but it was super tasty. And I looked for Cafe Sybille on Karl-Marx-Allee, a communist East German themed restaurant, but I can barely read maps (and, also, it was tricky) so I couldn’t find it… and went to McDonald’s instead (Haha. Sucks to be you, communism. I went for the most capitalistic place I could find.)

Two German delights on my way out of Berlin:

1) I had to actually break out my German skills when ordering my cheese (brie…yum yum. Also ridiculously cheap in Germany) & bread from behind a supermarket counter because the lady didn’t speak English. And then, she said (in German, because, remember, she didn’t speak English) that I speak pretty good German! That’s right.

2) On the train to Prague I looked out at a little village and saw a girl around my age in traditional German attire, dirndl and all. I was like “WHAT”. But she was probably just on her way to be a serving beer wench or something. (Is that the proper term?)

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‘Dam spanking new post: Amsterdam

Ah… finally. I decide to post my Amsterdam-ian adventures. I found that a lot of my excitement in Amsterdam was found in wandering neighbourhoods, rather than the traditional “tourist sites” (though I did hit a couple of the especially interesting ones).

First off, my hostel – Flying Pig Downtown – was very neat. The bar attached was just for hostel-stayers, and had a big no-shoes area with pillows and lots of lamps. Very… Middle Eastern? I don’t know, it felt a bit like that to me. And downstairs where the breakfast was (a pretty decent breakfast I might add) was Grandma’s Basement, which was decorated like, you guessed it, a granny’s house (all tacky photos, lamps, wallpaper). My “28-bed room” was actually 3 attached rooms with no doors between them. My section of the room was cheese themed. (Um.. yeah.) Alas, the only roommates I met were 9 Austrian guys traveling together (and not really looking to make buddies). At least one of them was a bit smelly.

And then.. some sights. And sites.

I started my first night with a visit to the Red Light District. I found it… bizarre. I mean, I’ve seen prostitutes around Hamilton but to have them dancing in windows in their undies was definitely… different.

My first museum was the Van Gogh Museum, which I really liked. It had a few of my favourite pieces by Van Gogh  – particularly a couple of his self-portraits, and “Wheatfield with Crows” which is a pretty dark piece emotionally, especially when you consider that he had only just finished this painting when he shot himself twice in this wheatfield or one much like it. There was also one of the Sunflowers, which is famous… but not one of my personal favourites. There were also some good pieces by Cezanne and Gauguin, and even one by (another of my favourites) Toulouse-Lautrec. What I didn’t like was the crowds. Especially on the first floor, the tourists were crazy. They were actually in a totally inappropriate line (um… yeah, this is still a big open square room) to shuffle along in front of the paintings, barely looking at them. They were like zombies! I pictured them droning on “we are great art lovers we love only van gogh we will not stop to look at cezanne…” and so on.

I decided against the Rijksmuseum, since I realize that I am not a very big fan of the Dutch masters, or Renaissance art in general.

I did go to the Anne Frank Huis (House), which I found really effective. In my theme of reading books set where I am going, I’ve been reading the Anne Frank Diary. I find her entirely relatable, and at times I feel like she thinks a lot like me. Seeing the house really made it all real for me, and despite the fact that it isn’t furnished, I could picture where things were. Seeing the pictures of celebrities and royalty that she had pasted to the walls in her room were very neat.

The two sketchier museum type things I visited….1) Cannabis College –  in a city like Amsterdam, a neat educational place about marijuana is quite a cool idea! I popped in here with Diego & Heather (a Chicago couple I had met in London). The best part was the basement “garden” which showed the big pot plants in the different stages of growth. Just like an episode of Weeds. Marvellous. 2) The Damrak Sex Museum – apparently the classier of the 2 Amsterdam sex museums (according to Rick Steves’ guidebook), this one was full of… sexy things through the ages. The little Victorian snuff boxes and little items with graphic scenes on them really amused me. As did the really ancient things. I did have to skip past the graphic room full of 1970’s and 80’s porno shoots though. Ergh.

And that was pretty much the end of the sights. I visited the Dam Square (the tourist mecca, surrounded by souvenir shops… but also home to a lot of interesting buskers & street performers…), the Waterlooplein flea market (hippie and punky and just my style… I would have bought something if I had any room in my pack), the Leidseplein area (a nice wander), the Spui (pronounced “Spow”, and usually prefaced by “Het”, another shop-y and stroll-y area), and Jordaan which I probably liked the best – all cute shops and cafes.

I may have also visited a “coffeeshop” or 2. And it may have been with Diego & Heather. No comment 😉

And… what I ate. Well I had a nice full breakfast at the hostel every morning, which was much appreciated. Otherwise I don’t think I really ate in a sit down restaurant the whole time! I got a bunch of stuff from little deli’s and bakeries that are scattered everywhere (my favourite was a brie sandwich on a baguette. Brie!). I also ate at McDonald’s, as is my plan to collect information on McD’s all over Europe. Haha. In Amsterdam they have something called a “McKroket”, which is kind of brown and crusty looking (like a McChicken, but not, because they also have McChicken), with a white sauce and is apparently something that Dutch people like. A Kroket. I didn’t have any of the “toasties” that were sold in every bakery (kind of a pizza pocket, but not filled with pizza… filled with… I don’t even know), because the smell turned  my stomach every time. I did eat at Wok to Walk, which is a neat little place where you head in and they make you a tasty stirfry to order, and you get it to go in a little Chinese takeout container. Mm. I wish I had my teriyaki tofu pineapple stirfry again right now.

Otherwise… I was surprised by how friendly the Dutch were. Even in a place entirely besieged by tourists like the Dam Square, I got offers of assistance if I pulled out a map.

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Kropp-tastic, or Jessica’s Great Train Adventure

And… now the great failure in getting to Kropp, in der Nordeustschland (the North of Germany) to visit relatives. I had to take 3 trains and 1 bus to get there, with tight connections between them. Of course, my first train was half an hour late due to a power failure at an earlier station. I kept taking the trains anyway until I came to a halt. There would be no more buses to Kropp that day! So instead of trying to find a place to stay in Hamburg (and also wasting a day on my railpass), I decided to head to my next destination. Berlin. Which is where I currently find myself.

I did end up on my first (nearly empty) train booked in beside someone. But it was a guy around my age, and we quickly found out that – yes – we were both Canadians, and Ontarians, and in fact he was from Guelph. What are the odds. But I was also able to share my VAST KNOWLEDGE of trains (that is an exaggeration), since he had never been on a train, and I had to teach him that there was a snackbar, and that WC meant the bathrooms, and that yes, you were allowed to walk around while the train was moving.

Anyway. Some of you who know my itinerary well may be asking, “Wait, did you skip the Amsterdam blog entry?” Yes I did. But I will write it later. It’s longer than this one, and I didn’t have enough internet time.

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An Afternoon in Belgium

On Friday morning I left London fresh and early to head to the Eurostar. The Chunnel? (tunnel under the English channel) – not too scary. Not even too noticeable. The getting on to the Eurostar train (that’d be a different one) was a bit of a different story.

Everything was conspiring against me: a) I had arrived just in time for the train I had booked (usually a good thing, but….); b) my ticket wouldn’t print from the self-serve machine like its supposed to, so I had to wait in a big line for a lady to handwrite one; c) I had to go through customs and security (and didn’t know I would have to); d) the train was going to leave at least 5 minutes early (no good reason for that). So all of this made me… literally running through the station to get the train. Wow.

Anyway, before I knew it, I was in Brussels, Belgium. Unfortunately, my train stopped at “Brussels Midi” rather than the “Brussels Centrale” station.  And the Brussels Midi station wasn’t on one of my guidebook maps. So I wandered aimlessly, hoping that I would make it in the right direction far enough that it would be on my little map. I discovered that Belgian people are super friendly; as soon as I as much as stopped to look at a piece of paper I would get offers of directional help.

I managed to wander the right way with the help of some Belgians, and found a sudden huge crowd of (mostly Japanese) tourists. Hm. I had apparently made it to Mannekin Pis, the most famous statue of a little boy peeing. Ever.  Apparently he is always in outfits (with a special little hole) that people make him, today he was maybe… a private school boy?

I kept it going until I made it to Grand Place: very neat gilded square and cool buildings encircling… a massive beer garden!? (Pretty sure my guidebooks would have mentioned if there was usually a giant beer garden in the middle). But, as I had a Jupiler beer on a coffin in the dimly light La Cerceuil (yep, that’s “the coffin”) bar, I asked the bartender – turns out it was Beerfest. Hm. I watched and wandered, but didn’t get a beer from beerfest, because there was a huge line for the tickets necessary. It was VERY packed.

On the way back, I got a Belgian waffle with ice cream and hot fudge. Mm. Well… at least it sounds good, right? Except that it was like this: they hand you this hot waffle just on a napkin, and it’s huge, and the ice cream is melting and the chocolate is dripping and it’s so tall… and you’re supposed to just eat it. Off your hand. Needless to say, I made a really extreme mess.

And that was pretty much the end of my Belgian visit! And then I headed on to Amsterdam…

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Anarchy in the UK – London Part 3

Though I find myself in Amsterdam, I’ll share my last couple days in London. As well as the disaster of the day… just as I got the very last thing put into my pack this morning to head out, something caught my baby finger and I was like “ouch.” and pulled it out of the pack, only to realize it was full of blood, and in the very short time it took me to run to the bathroom for cold water and toilet paper to wrap it in, my hand was full of blood. Turns out I pretty much ripped off half my nail. Oops. (I had to run back to the room to borrow a bandaid from one of my roommates, since I couldn’t get at mine with one blood hand). Anyway… onto London.

So.. I started Thursday out with a big sightseeing extravaganza… all of those famous things like Big Ben (and the attached Parliament Buildings), Westminster Abbey, Buckingham Palace, and also the London Eye (big Ferris Wheel type thing) and .. .you know, double decker buses and red phone booths. I came, I looked,…. then I left. I didn’t really feel the need to see the insides.

Then I hit up Primark, which had been recommended to me as a super cheap big big store. And so it was. I bought a new tote bag to travel with, because my new towel didn’t fit in my pack.

Dinner was Indian (mm mmm) with a bunch of people from the hostel (some of whom had never really had Indian), and the evening was again it was again a hostel bar night… along with laundry. All at once. Worked out quite well actually.

Friday was mainly a super long visit to the Imperial War Museum, which I just loved. Great set up of the exhibits, and the exhibits themselves were neat. The Holocaust & Crimes Against Humanity Floors were hard hitting, and I really liked the propaganda posters. In fact, I love propaganda posters. I think I need to start a collection of authentic ones. Also, I forgot to mention that the other day at the Tate Modern my favourite room was a room chock full of Red USSR propaganda posters. Excellent.

I also visited the “Elephant and Castle Shopping Centre” for dinner, where I think I was actually the only tourist there. The shops were mostly old-fashioned and tacky, but this seemed like London for Londoners (especially the multi-ethnic Londoners that you hear so much about!)

The evening was pretty quiet as I prepared for another travel day the next day, and I hung out and chatted with Marjorie…

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God Save the Queen – London Part 2

I’m still in London, and I bet everyone is waiting on tenterhooks to read my next post (I really like that expression, because it is kind of scary). Speaking of that, I had a very scary experience today where I got stuck in an elevator that wouldn’t open its doors, and kept going up and down and down and up. Especially scary since every time it got to the floor I wanted to be on, it would lurch down. I thought I was going to die, and I was ringing that little bell madly when the doors finally opened. I did not die, don’t worry.

So.. this is a bit to chat about my first 2 days in London! (That’d be Tues-Wed).

Tuesday started with the “free walking tour” of the hostel, which I thought would be a little tour of our area, but it turned out to be a 3.5 hour tour with NEW LONDON (their name is all capitals.), of the “Old City of London” (AKA the part that was once Roman Londinium, and so on). It was actually a neat tour, and I learned a few interesting tidbits (my favourite parts were about the 1660’s: plague and fire and war, and about the Blitzkrieg. Still some shrapnel damage preserved here and there).

After, despite the fact that I was exhausted, I went to lunch with a nice Brazilian guy named Luis who I met on the tour (in Covent Garden, which is apparently a market).

Still, I soldiered on and went to not one, but TWO museums. (Am I crazy? Maybe).

1) British Library – very neat, especially if you know of my love of all things old and papery. The Far East stuff didn’t excite me as much, but the biblical stuff (eg. the oldest copy of the “3rd letter to the Hebrews” – from the 3rd century! & an original Gutenberg bible…) and the literature stuff (eg. the original, handwritten copy of Jane Austen’s Persuasion! Just the one I was reading!!, & some 17th C Shakespeare compendiums…. ).

2) National Portrait Gallery – I went here especially to see all the portraits of the Kings & Queens & other assorted royalty. And I was not disappointed. I did skip the “contemporary” floor though. Didn’t need to see pop stars and such.

Then it was people watching in Trafalgar Square, delicious “macaroni cheese” at a pub, and enjoying a hostel activity (movie night! We watched Blood Diamond, which is one of my favourites, and makes me remember again that I would only want diamonds that are conflict free. You know, just in case anybody was thinking of getting me one.)

Wednesday dawned early (well early-ish) with me getting lost on the Tube for the first time (in my defence, the transfer station I needed was closed for “engineering” which apparently means construction), on my way to the Tower of London tour with The Original London Walks tour company. I made it at the very last minute (took me nearly an hour for a 15 minute commute….).

But it ended up as awesome. I did the 2 hour tour which let me know even more about the Tower (and you may happen to know that the Tower of London is another of my obsessions…), and let me put each tower of the Tower into perspective in my head. I spent nearly 5 hours on the grounds, ate lunch, and did my own personal tour of the Towers that were open to public. Saw the ravens (& heard them too), saw some Beefeaters. You know, the whole bit.

Afternoon I headed to the Tate Modern gallery, and most things were pretty cool… except that the room I wanted to visit “Poetry and Dreams” (they’re arranged by weird themes, but this one has the surrealism, which is my favourite type of art) – was closed! Apparently they were… moving the paintings around or something? Bizarre.

And then the afternoon/evening I met my Aussie roommates… then my Kiwi, American, & French roommates… and then a whole bunch of other people from my hostel as we had some drinks and the £4 all-you-can-eat BBQ on the rooftop patio, followed by a night of karaoke (yay!) at the bar downstairs. I sang Me & Bobby McGee by Janis Joplin. You know, just in case anyone was wondering.

Stay tuned Saturday or Sunday for the continuation of London. Same bat time (er.. similar), same Bat channel.

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