Warning: Not for the easily offended. Contains casual profanity (in English and Dutch), crude humour and references to all the things the Dutch are more liberal than you about.
=====It’s a cliche to go travelling to ‘find yourself’ when your life hits crisis point. I realise this. But I succumbed to it anyway. In terms of ‘crisis points’, one that involves being dumped by a wonderful man and graduating but realising you’re woefully ill-prepared for employment is not perhaps comparable with crisis points that find people homeless, terminally ill or bereaved, but it’s one that nonetheless inspired me to escape to Europe.
=====I convinced Emily, my hometown friend of 16 years, to come interrailing with me for three weeks. Starting last Wednesday (August 28th), our route is taking us via Brussels (briefly), Amsterdam, Berlin, Prague, Krakow, Budapest, Vienna, Venice and Munich. During the trip, we’ve both kept journals of our adventures, which will be written up onto this here blog twice a week, featuring anecdotes, opinions and idle musings (particularly on my Countdown adventures, being broadcast while we’re away). Enjoy…
28th August 2013: Train to Rotterdam (Netherlands), 15:44
=====The Eurotrip has commenced! We’ve only been on the continent for 6 hours, but already there have been triumphs, defeats, tears and bloodshed. And that was just over a game of Scrabble. (Ok, that is a slight exaggeration, but I did win a closely-fought game 347-310.)
=====We’ve already been to Brussels, albeit briefly. We visited the Port de Hal by virtue of the fact it was the only vaguely noteworthy building we encountered on our aimless ramble from Brussels Zuid station. After a 15-minute sit to recover from the shock of lugging our enormous backpacks around (and also to be leched on/mocked [not sure which] from afar by some Belgian guys), we headed off rather less aimlessly- courtesy of Emily’s masterful Google Maps skills – towards Grand Place, the gorgeous city square. The city up to that point had a sort of faded charm, but nothing else of note apart from some devastatingly handsome men (which, admittedly, is quite a note). We took a well-earned half-hour sunbathe there before moving onto sample Belgian cuisine (Belgian waffles!) and not-so-Belgian cuisine at Subway. Non, je ne regrette rien.
=====We’re now on the train to Amsterdam via Rotterdam for a changeover. Can’t help but think that Dutch place names would rack up a lot of points in Scrabble – not that anyone would be able to spell them correctly. Our objectives in Amsterdam are to visit the Anne Frank House and, less solemnly, the Hemp and Sex Museums. I am ready and willing to be educated in these topics. My other personal mission is to use the word ‘kutkabouter’ in casual conversation with a Dutch citizen. I am reliably informed by our half-Dutch friend Amber that this word means ‘cuntgnome’ in Dutch.
=====On that insightful note, I shall end this entry here.
An excitable Jen (not a kutkabouter)
29th August 2013: Dam Square, Amsterdam (NL), 14:27
=====In the middle of a very sunny, very busy Dam Square in Amsterdam at the moment, opposite the Royal Palace (whose bells sound like a Pantha du Prince and the Bell Laboratory song), having just been to the, erm, enlightening spectacle of the Sex Museum. Emily emerged from it educated but scarred, whereas my tendency to research the more sordid corners of Wikipedia was revealed by my relative lack of shock. That said, the exhibit on ‘male reproductive fluids’ did ruin my appetite and remind me why mayonnaise makes me feel nauseous. Although not as nauseous as Emily felt when she saw this particular exhibit.
=====Yesterday post-hostel-finding/settling-into was spent finding food (€8 for a tagliatelle carbonara so huge it defeated my usually bottomless stomach!), gazing at impossibly pretty canals, touring the Hash, Marijuana and Hemp Museum (a rip-off), and – of course – the Red Light District. It sounds ridiculous, but there’s something jarring about seeing ACTUAL PROSTITUTES on the game, with absolutely no discretion save for the door/curtain that hides them in flagrante delicto. Virtually everyone on the streets gawping at the perma-tanned women in their glow-in-the-dark underwear was a tourist, something also discernible from the pervasive smell of weed in the air. Some of the hookers were so bored they were sitting on the bed texting instead of preening, something so mundane it was faintly amusing amongst the surreality of everything else.
=====What’s also surreal is the sheer number of bikes about. I know Amsterdam is Cyclist Central, but the quantity of both parked and active bikes is ridiculous. I’m constantly fearing for my life whenever I accidentally end up walking in a cycle lane, which hasn’t helped my general dislike of cyclists (the unfortunate consequence of both immensely enjoying running them down on Simpsons Hit & Run for Gamecube as a child, and dating an overwhelmingly enthusiastic cyclist who constantly wore Lycra and tried in vain to get me to ride a tandem). That said, I am impressed by how space-efficient mass-cycle parking is compared to car parking.
=====The hostel is alright; any mess comes courtesy of our French former room-mates, who we never actually met because they returned to the room after I fell asleep and left before I woke up. However, we could infer certain things about them from the detritus they’d strewn across the room – innumerable cigarette butts piled on the desk, boxers scrumpled in the bathroom, and no less than 10 (!!!) empty plastic packets that held remnants of weed.
=====Time to move before we get sunburnt [update: too late 😦 ], and finish this entry. We plan to visit the Anne Frank House and a ‘coffee shop’ (although we’ll ‘just say no’… hi Mum and Dad!) and ingest our own body weights in paprika crisps (the greatest foodstuff you can’t really get in England) for the rest of the day, not to mention finally shout ‘KUTKABOUTER!’ at some poor unsuspecting Dutch citizen. We did play a game of ‘Bogies’ (where you shout profanities gradually louder in public) using ‘kutkabouter’ instead yesterday, though.
A typically mature Jen
30th August 2013: Train to Hannover (Germany), 11:02
=====Ich bin on the Deutschbahn! (Or the Douche-Barn as I have affectionately nicknamed it.) And so we leave behind the city of free (well, €50) love, liberal drug laws and impossibly thin houses, towards the land of Kraftwerk, bratwurst and lederhosen.
=====Yesterday was, for the most part, a resounding success; we did indeed go to the Anne Frank House (dingy, cramped, insular – all the things you’d expect it to be), a ‘coffee shop’ (but we ‘just said no’… hi Mum and Dad!) and ate enough paprika crisps to turn our insides orange. The failures included the lack of kutkabouter conversations and an Ethiopian guy following us through the poorly-lit Vondel Park after dark, having lured us (read: me) in by talking about Chelsea FC. Having made awkward chit-chat until we reached a well-lit exit, we thought we were free. Him ominously telling us he had something to show us was not what we wanted to hear. Emily suspected he was going to whip out his manhood – clearly the flasher exhibit at the Sex Museum left a lasting impression on her – while I suspected a knife. What he actually did was less terrifying, but more weird: he showed us how he could contort his hands behind his back, and came up close to show us a picture of him with his Indian ex-girlfriend. He may have been harmless, but we didn’t wait to find out, and wandered off abruptly vowing to never wander through dark foreign parks at night again. Speaking of lechers, Emily actually saw someone go into one of the windows in the Red Light District last night. I guess not all the tourists were there just to gawp.
=====Our plans to make a cool, hip interrailing playlist (featuring noted cool, hip artists including One Direction, Miley Cyrus and Steps) and generally get lairy in our room were hampered by finding several new roommates. Not wanting to disturb them, I settled for using the free WiFi to remind everyone on Facebook that I’m going to be a minor daytime TV celebrity tomorrow. A weird thought. We woke up this morning to two more roommates. After our scare with the weird guy in Vondel Park, it was slightly unnerving to be the only girls in the room. Undoubtedly the worst thing about being female is that you frequently have to assume that everyone is a potential rapist-murderer.
=====Sent postcards to grandparents (consciously leaving out mentions of our museum trips), parents/brother/gerbil (consciously leaving out mentions of our trip to the Hemp Museum – my father, so anti-drugs that he likes to pretend Bowie isn’t a human skeleton on the cover of Diamond Dogs because he was coked up to his eyeballs at the time, would disown me for even looking at such things), and Spanky (who got none of the boring stuff about canals, and all of the cheeky details). Slightly regretting my decision to mention ‘banana shows’ in a footnote to my brother.
=====6 hours on the Douche-Barn should be fun (sarcasm), especially when our food supplies consist only of a quarter of a French baguette each, Nutella, orange TicTacs, half a pack of chewing gum and half a packet of plain crisps. We’ve had no breakfast so this is basically a highly nutritious brunch.
=====Onwards to Berlin!
A slightly hungry Jen
Later: Train to Berlin (GE), 15:51
=====I‘M ON BRITISH NATIONAL TV IN TWENTY MINUTES AND WHERE AM I? SITTING ON THE FLOOR OF A CROWDED DOUCHE-BARN, RIGHT OUTSIDE THE TOILETS, HAVING TO INHALE PISS FUMES EVERY 30 SECONDS WHEN SOMEONE GOES IN THERE. THANKS, LIFE.
A very diva-ish Jen
31st August 2013: PLUS Berlin Hostel, Berlin, 01:16
=====Hectic few hours of mostly internet-using. Turns out that if you win convincingly on Countdown then you send friends/family/complete strangers into raptures. A LOT of messages to respond to.
=====However, I did drag myself away for long enough for us to go out and experience East Berlin. We walked past a hefty stretch of the East Side Gallery and admired the graffiti, spent an age wandering the supermarket aisles (we’re both fascinated by foreign supermarkets) and buying essentials such as Pom Bears, Red Bull and a tiny, adorable bottle of Jaegermeister, and having cocktails at a nearby bar. Emily didn’t enjoy her Melony cocktail (turns out it’s not a good idea to choose your friend’s cocktail based on it being an anagram of her nickname), so I selflessly drank it for her once I’d finished my Baileys Colada, which took all of two minutes. You can’t beat a Colada.
=====Haven’t seen enough of the city to judge it, but I like it so far. It’s less picturesque and more industrial/grimy than Amsterdam, and the buskers are far superior to English ones thanks to their preference for amps over acoustic. But we’ll find out more tomorrow, when we’ll spend a busy day visiting all the World War II/Cold War monuments, going out on the lash in the evening, and no doubt making more colossal discoveries about life in general – though none can be as eye-opening as today’s revelation that the German title of ’99 Red Balloons’ isn’t, as I thought it was for so long, ’99 Luftwaffe’. Proof that you can win Countdown, but still be a blithering idiot.
Minor daytime celebrity Jen (though not minor enough to meet the invite requirements for Celebrity Big Brother)
Later: McDonalds by Checkpoint Charlie, Berlin, 15:05
=====Bit of a disastrous day. It started off small (plans for an early morning swim in the hostel pool impeded by it not opening until 10, and my water bottle proving to be incontinent in the day bag I borrowed from my grandma), but intensified at lunchgtime as we ate lunch in a park opposite the Holocaust Memorial. Our plans for a peaceful meal descended into chaos as a wasp started stalking us, at first taking a liking to Emily and, after she’d run around in a circle screaming, using me as a rebound. No sooner had we decided to risk the wrath of its family by swatting it (they release pheromones that attract their relatives) than it thankfully disappeared, possibly to ogle a nearby woman who was sunbathing naked.
=====Just as we’d settled back down, two deaf and mute guys waved clipboards in our faces that informed us they were raising money for a deafness institute. We signed and, feeling awkward that previous entries had listed €20 and €30 Euro donations, handed over 50 cents (Emily) and €1 (me). They wandered off to bother other parkgoers, leaving us to bask in the glow of our good deed for the day.
=====Minutes later, more guys with clipboards came along. We tried in vain to signal to them that we’d already signed and donated, but they were persistent; I signed it again to get rid of them, but gave no money, while Emily wavered awkwardly, not keen to go through the rigmarole of signing again. She then noticed that her bag had mysteriously opened, and that her purse was empty of notes. The boy bothering her – who surely hadn’t yet reached adolescence – had been slipping notes out of it while she was distracted by the clipboard. Fortunately she noticed his fistful of notes, and snatched at them, at which point he dropped them on the ground behind his back and made absolutely no show of repentance. She gave him the ‘Ginger Look of Death’ (even I was scared) and shouted at him until they both nonchalantly mooched off, leaving us feeling very unsettled and desperately double-checking that all our valuables were intact. (I briefly descended into hysteria on being unable to find my phone, but it was – to my immense relief – buried under all the rubbish in my bag.) A kind German woman came over to warn us, slightly too late, that their disabilities and petitions were a con. We couldn’t relax and left soon after, clutching our bags with iron grips and treating just about everyone with some amount of suspiscion.
=====Aside from that, a productive day. We’ve wandered a long way from our starting point of Friedrichstraße station: passed the Bundestag; circled the Reichstag; seen both the Sinta-Roma and Holocaust Memorials (the latter, in spite of its solemnity, would make for a fantastic game of Hide and Seek); traipsed round the Brandenburg Gate; looked at the exhibition at the Topography of Terror; and, most recently, got touristy pictures at Checkpoint Charlie. All in all, a very educational few hours – it’s easy to quickly condemn Hitler and the Nazi Party but forget how truly despicable their laws, ideology and atrocities were. I do admire how the Germans don’t try to gloss over or whitewash such a destructive era in their history, though – the Brits (regarding our ‘glorious’ days of Empire) and any other country whose belligerence has inflicted scars on so many could learn a lot from this.
=====The hostel has good facilities, but the common room closes disappointingly early and the toilets in the room don’t have locks on them. I suppose it means you have to communicate with your roommates (currently three girls from Reigate and a Spanish boy) even if you don’t want to, lest they walk in on you.
=====Off to Bebelplatz (where the Burning of the Books took place in 1933) before returning to the hostel for some much-needed R&R. Hopefully we’ve fulfilled our disaster quota for the holiday, but somehow I suspect not…
A very paranoid Jen (still in possession of a phone)