Europe Day 6- On München, and Hostels

Note: At this point I’m catching up on blog entries from home. As I post them I’ll back-date them to the day they happened.

I came to a realization earlier today: I’m too old to stay in hostels.

Don’t get me wrong, I like hostels. They’re a cheap and easy way to get a room, and the social atmosphere means you’ll almost certainly meet interesting people. But when you look around the lobby and realize everyone is ten years younger than you, it’s kind of startling, especially if you still think of yourself as young. I’m only 29, but at this particular locale, across from the train station in Munich (München, as the locals call it), I half expect people to start calling me Grandpa.

On top of that, while you do undoubtedly meet interesting people, they tend to be the sort of people I spent most of high school trying to avoid: loud, boisterous jocks and socialites whose idea of visiting a place is to spend as much time as possible there either drunk or stoned, whose goal in traveling is, apparently, to remember as little of it as possible.

I’m sharing a room with some of them tonight: four guys, Americans, early twenties, way too macho for their own good. The testosterone sloshes through the room like we’re in a giant hormonal wave pool with the agitator set to “tsunami,” as they try to one-up each other with tales of smoking hashish in Amsterdam, sneaking into the trendiest clubs in Berlin, and in general leaving a money-strewn trail of cigarette butts, marijuana smoke and alcohol-saturated puke through the capitals of Western Europe.

I suppose they’re friendly enough, and I even get an offer to go clubbing with them, which I turn down on account of “I’ve got an early train to catch.” Which is true, although of course it’s just a convenient excuse. People like that make me feel every bit the introverted geek that I actually am.

The funny thing, I’m comfortable with being an introverted geek. I like who I am (well, mostly). But put me in a room with a bunch of noisy jocks and suddenly I have to fight the urge to curl into a ball in the corner, where hopefully they won’t notice me. Maybe it’s just that I’m outnumbered four to one, but I don’t think so. What is it about people like that that makes me so freaking uncomfortable? I mean, I was way more comfortable around the metalheads in Quedlinburg, and I’m not a metalhead. Maybe because being a metalhead and being a geek are similar in that you’re seeking to define yourself in a way that’s separate from the mainstream, whereas jocks pretty much are a living, breathing representation of said mainstream.

I guess in the end, I just don’t like these people. They’re loud, overbearing, and obnoxious (for example, smoking in the room despite being reminded that it’s non-smoking), and I simply don’t relate to them. I mean, at all. Having a conversation with them is pointless, because (a)we have nothing in common and (b)they react with skepticism and surprise if you suggest that maybe you’re just not into clubbing until 6 am, or you aren’t over here specifically to party. I mean, that’s why they’re here, and isn’t everyone else just like them?

After a few minutes, I throw my camera bag over my shoulder, and head out into the city. I don’t have any particular destination, but then, that’s not really any different than usual. My method of exploring cities is usually to get lost in them, and just follow my instinct, looking for interesting sights or landmarks, and see where I end up. Sometimes it works out, sometimes it doesn’t, but I enjoy it. It’s a style well-suited to a solo traveller. If I were doing this with somebody else, we’d probably kill each other after the first day.

I eat dinner at an outdoor cafe– this time of year, all the cafes are outdoors. People around here love to get outside in the evenings, even though the heat of day hasn’t really faded yet. Across the street, there’s a wide open green space where a group of people play a hard-fought game of soccer, with two backpacks marking each goal. It’s a diverse group: guys, girls, young people, and old people, as if college professors were playing alongside their students.

As I sip my beer, I can’t help but think about the encounter at the hostel. It’s not that I’m adverse to partying or going clubbing, it’s just that I’d rather have a root canal that do it with my current roommates. I know they say you should meet people while you travel… but dammit, does it have to be people like that?

Other than that, I really like Munich, for many of the the same reasons I like Berlin. There’s an abundance of green in the city, and the streets and the sidewalks are wide, with plenty of room for pedestrians and bikers (although if I’m not paying close attention, I usually manage to end up walking in said bike lane). On top of that, the city practically oozes history, and you could spend weeks exploring, making your way from one square to the next, seeing what there is to see.

And then of course there’s the beer. Last night was the World Cup final, so I made my way to a place near the Munich Olympic Park where a massive screen had been set up, and drank some excellent weissbier from a liter mug while I watched the Netherlands fall to Spain… alas. After the game ended, I staggered in the general direction of a train station, but must have missed it, because I had to rely on some American expats with a map to point me in the general direction of the hostel. Fun fun.

After tonight, I’ll have spent two nights in Munich. Not bad, considering originally I wasn’t sure if I was going to spend any at all.

Tomorrow, though, it’s time to move on. The Alps are calling.

Europe Day 4- Rocking Out in Quedlinburg

Well, I can check “Go to German Heavy Metal Festival” off my list of Things To Do Before I Die.

Don’t get me wrong, it was fun, and the hearing damage I suffered when I was ten feet from the stage for Krypteria and Delain was totally worth it. As for the other bands, a few were really good, some were decent, and some were just trying too hard to be hardcore, the end result of which was that they were lousy– at least, in my opinion.

The worst part was the heat. Here’s a bit of advice: if you ever have to pick between suffering through a heat wave in Europe or suffering through a heat wave in America, pick America. It may be five to ten degrees hotter, but we have iced drinks and air conditioning to compensate. In Europe (at least the parts of it I’ve been to), air conditioning is rare, and drinks with ice in them are even rarer, which means you pretty much have to sweat out the heat wave, even if you aren’t going to outdoor events.

At the festival, they’ve been coping by spraying the crowd down with hoses, and I’ve put up with some really loud music I don’t particularly like in order to get wet– it’s pretty much the only way to stay cool. The next best option is claiming one of the high-demand bits of shade and hoping for a breeze, but it’s a poor second choice. To make things worse, security is technically not supposed to allow outside drinks in– and the drinks they sell you are 8-ounce cups of beer, warm cola or warm sparkling water at two to three Euros apiece.

Luckily, most of the security guys will let you slide by with a bottle of water, but some of them are evil.

Meanwhile, in addition to exploring the German metal scene, we’ve also been exploring some of the local towns. Quedlinburg is a UNESCO Heritage Site and was one ruled by an abbess, from an abbey/fortress/compound that sits on a tall hill in the Southwest part of town, and provides an impressive view. The cathedral has a pretty cool crypt, which we almost got locked in when a tour group left and shut the door behind them. We finally figured out how to work the latch, but for a moment I was worried. I don’t know how to say, “Help, I’m locked inside the crypt” in German– although it definitely seems like one of those “Essential Phrases” that guidebooks about foreign countries should include.

We’ve also been monitoring Germany’s progress in the World Cup– or, rather, its demise at Spanish hands, which we watched at an outdoor cafe in the town square. (Later, we tried to sleep through the noise of drunk, disappointed football hooligans in the street, with limited success.)

And of course, we’ve been trying the local Biergartens. I’ll definitely say this for the Germans– they make some mighty fine beer, and the food in general has been pretty good, too. (I know, I complained about it on Twitter a few days ago, but that was mainly just an excuse to make a pun involving “wurst.”)

Tomorrow Mark and Roberta head home and I strike out on my own. I’m actually booked on the same train to Munich that they are– but after that, they head for the airport, and I head for a hostel, to spend two days in the capital of The Free State of Bavaria. I predict drinking will occur. Although not, sadly, of ice water.

Europe Day 1- The Dark Side of Storytelling

The Berlin Holocaust Memorial is a series of 2,711 gray monoliths, which all together take up an entire block near the center of the city. On the outskirts of the Memorial, each monolith is about waist high. As you walk toward the center, they get taller, and the ground begins to dip lower, as if the entire thing is built on the inside of a giant, shallow bowl. By the time you reach the middle, you’re lost in a forest of stone slabs, unable to see anything but slate gray and, if you look high enough, the sky above.

There are no words on the Memorial, so at first glance, you might wonder at its purpose. It seems an odd thing for a series of unmarked gray stones to take up such a large swath of land in one of Europe’s most bustling cities.

But if you look closer, you see that not all the slabs are the same. Some are crooked, leaning slightly in one direction or the other, and the top surfaces aren’t entirely flat. If you look across the top of the memorial, at the undulating field of stones, your mind wants to find a pattern, but it can’t. Is it just a group of stone blocks, slowly rising in the center, or is something deeper going on?

I’m an idealist when it comes to storytelling. I believe strongly in the power of stories to promote empathy among human beings: when a person shares his story with another, those two people can then relate in a way they couldn’t before. I believe that storytelling, whether through writing, or film, or some other medium, is the greatest unifying force in the world, and maybe, if enough people of different backgrounds are able to tell their stories to each other, maybe there really will come a day when things like wars can be relegated to the history books.

Good stories can bridge individuals, and cultures, and countries… stories remind us that people who are different from us are still people, with hopes and dreams and families and friends of their own, and that those people aren’t just abstractions, they aren’t just stereotypes, they’re full-fledged human beings. I think this is true for both fiction and nonfiction; any story where you have to relate to characters different from you, where you have to put yourself in the shoes of someone else, whether that “someone else” is real or not, helps us learn to empathize.

But in Berlin, the strange gray stones stand as a stark, disturbing reminder that stories can be twisted.

In the 1930s, Adolf Hitler and the Nazis weaved a story of their own. But it didn’t break down stereotypes, it reinforced them. It was a story which denigrated and demonized an entire group of people, taught that those people were not worthy of empathy, respect, or even the slightest shred of human decency– it taught that they were vermin, or lower than vermin. Mired in problems, economic and otherwise, the German people were looking for someone to blame for their plight, and the Nazis told a story that gave the Germans the villain they had been looking for: the Jews.

A story like that has many things in common with the Holocaust Memorial in Berlin. It’s not something that hits you all at once. But if it’s told enough, over and over again, it builds into something sinister, and slowly it skews your perspective. The facts and details don’t line up, but you may not even notice, so lost are you in the greater overall mass of the structure.

And then, like the Germans of the late thirties, you get totally surrounded by the field of oppressive monoliths, losing sight of the real world for this alternate world of inescapable wrongness, looming over and consuming you. You completely lost sight of the real world, when all you thought you were doing was exploring a field of simple gray stones.

Even if you do manage to stay outside of the slabs, they still warp the landscape, corrupt the horizon. Whether you’re standing on the edge of the thing or right smack dab in the middle, they will affect your worldview, and not for the better. The Memorial is a wordless reminder that words have power, and like any great power they can be misused, sometimes to horrible, horrible effect.

I’m still an idealist. But as I leave the Memorial behind, heading back toward the Brandenburg Gate, I can’t help but feel chilled by the very real power of storytelling’s dark side.

Europe Day 1- Back in Berlin

I’ll be back-dating these entries to the day they happened. There probably won’t be a blog entry for each day, just whenever one pops into my head and I finally get a chance to write it.

By my count, this flight was my seventh round trip over an ocean since 2000, so they’re kind of becoming old hat. But I haven’t gotten any better at sleeping through them, which is disappointing. Heck, for this trip, I even bought one of those pillows that are shaped like a horseshoe and wrap around your neck. Dang– I thought for sure that would do the trick.

In the end, I got maybe twenty minutes of sleep, which is pretty much par for the course for me. (Actually, to be honest, I might have been able to get more, but Invictus was on, and I wanted to see Morgan Freeman playing Nelson Mandela.)

(Yes, I’m a weak man.)

So we landed at the airport at about 9:30, and I got to the train station shortly after 11 (getting there was WAY more of a chore than it should be, thanks to the otherwise-efficient Berlin public transport system.) I’m meeting a couple of friends, Mark and Roberta, in a little town called Quedlinburg this evening, but Quedlinburg is only a three-hour train ride away– which means I’ve got time to kill.

So I stash my luggage in a locker to go for a walk around Berlin. I love walking around the city– I got to do in 2008, and I loved how green and modern the city feels, while at the same time retaining a lot of character in buildings like The Reichstag and Brandenburg Gate.

The day is beautiful, sunny but not too hot, and despite operating on no sleep and almost no caffeine, I’m feeling no sign of jet lag as I walk. So far so good.