We rented a car in Orlando. They are pretty cheap there and it allowed us to drive to our hotel (Comfort Suites, good choice for near the airport and not totally expensive like the Hyatt inside the airport). When we woke up, we drove downtown and took some photos of the Pulse site, now being renovated as a memorial, for Dave’s friend Kahlil who knew four people who had died there. The signs put up at the site say that Love will Win. Isn’t it pretty to think so.
As you may know if you’ve ever flown to America from Ireland, you enter the United States in Dublin, and then land at a domestic terminal in the U.S. All the luggage inspection and passport checks happen before you board the plane.
So, we got to Dublin, and did that. It was pretty fast this time, not two hours as it was the previous time we’d flown Aer Lingus.
After we had been waiting at the gate for an hour or more, I heard my name called on the loudspeaker. I went to the gate desk and a brusque man said I was selected for secondary inspection. So I went and got my luggage and went through security with a maximum of fluttering. This time they wanted my shoes off; also swiped everything with the nitrate detector or whatever that little rag is. They weren’t interested in Dave. Dave also told me later that he hadn’t been asked to identify the duffel bag on the video monitor. Maybe they inspected it themselves.
The man who led me through the secondary inspection process told me two distinct stories about why it had happened: one, that it was random, and two, that it was because their computer hadn’t been able to locate the ticket that I had said I came in from Brussels on. They’d asked if this was our first flight of the day, and we’d said no.
No idea why Dave wasn’t questioned as well. Anyway, after the performance was over, the man asked how long my beard had been growing. It seems a standard way of making up.
It was Tuesday, so it was time to return the car to Belgium, a seven-hour drive to Brussels. We were only very slightly rear-ended 800 meters from the Sixt office, and the guy didn’t notice when we returned it. Whew!
We had a wonderful dinner the first night at L’Idiot du Village, a place mentioned on chowhound.com (which is somewhat of a foodie forum; it’s a lot more reliable than Yelp or TripAdvisor, but doesn’t have nearly as much data). It was a slow night, and we had a lot of attention from our host Leo. Foie gras, fish soup, osso bucco, sole muniere, two half-bottles of wine, and some dessert. All delicious.
Our airbnb was very centrally located, a three-minute walk from the central train station. We didn’t get any metro passes or anything, we only did sightseeing by walking. We saw Mannekin Pis walking from the Sixt office, and then the next day saw Jeanneke Pis (a girl pissing) and a statue of a dog pissing (this one wasn’t a fountain). We saw the incredible Grand Place, a square surrounded on all sides by buildings with gold plating, and by the imposing Town Hall with detailed statuary on the sides and an immense tower. We had a very nice waffle (made with leeks, served with salmon on top), and some good cookies and hot chocolate. At Halles Saint-Géry, there was an exhibit of photos and artifacts concerning Belgium’s occupation of the Congo, and the failure of the contemporary media to report what was going on. You can look it up: along with the Atomium, the World’s Fair in 1958 featured a human zoo, where you could see caged Congolese natives simulating the lives that had been stolen from them. We spent a couple hours at the Magritte Museum, which was fascinating, though the exit sequence at closing time was convoluted. They don’t even let you spend an extra half-hour at the shop.
But the reason we’d ended up in Brussels was to see another concert featuring oud, piano, bass, and drums. Doug and Hind also went to this concert, but they went two days earlier in Lisbon. It was sold out there by the time we got around to getting tickets, so we chose Brussels. Leo had suggested places to eat before the show, including the BOZAR restaurant at the venue itself. It has one Michelin star, but has a €44 pre-theater “2-course” menu. For us it was white asparagus with a sabayon based on vin jaune, a wine from Jura which tastes like sherry; and perfectly cooked flank steak with vegetables. It was all delightful.
The concert featured Anouar Brahem on oud, with Dave Holland, Jack de Johnette, and Django Bates on piano. It was fine, but nothing like what we had seen in Paris. The first clue it would be different was that Anouar Brouhem was seated. Most of the show was very soothing. (Like the earlier show, I did all of my post-wine sleeping during the first half hour.) Dhafer Youssef had been walking around the whole time, and his young bandmates contributed to a high-energy show. This concert was pretty much “elder statesmen”, and while it was all exceptionally beautiful, it didn’t lend itself to much foot-tapping.
At the train station the next morning, we tried to buy tickets in the machine, but our efforts were foiled. Fortunately a window was open, and we could buy them from a person. It was a quick, direct ride. We checked in. Once again, Aer Lingus was not able to find our Expedia-bought tickets without a great deal of fuss, but ultimately our bag got tagged through to Orlando.
The Lübeck people make marzipan but they always put chocolate in it, which wins.
The old town of Lübeck is a World Heritage Site. They made a canal along the Trave river, forming an island containing the town. The wall is gone, though two gates remain. It is pervasively architecturally cute. It was one of the first places bombed by the Allies in 1942, but it has been pretty much reconstructed. Virtually every house has a facade in front of its steep rooflines which is stairstepped. Even modern ones generally make reference to the idea. Almost everything is brick. The goal is to “see the seven towers”, which are on five churches (two of them have two towers each). Two of them were closed, but we spent awhile in St. Mary’s, and the Lutheran cathedral. St. Mary’s had an interesting astronomical calendar, listing eclipses (solar and lunar) visible from there starting at 2000 and illustrating the extent of their totality. Another small church we stopped in had an interesting exhibit on the Lübeck Martyrs, three Catholics and a Protestant who rebelled against the Nazis and were executed. We went up the tower of St. Peter’s for a view, and you could tell the orientation signs in the four directions had been there awhile: the tape covering up where the eastern one said “DDR” was coming off. Lübeck had been in West Germany, right on the border: the other side of the river was the Russian sector.
We checked in, then drove downtown, and spent a long time searching for a parking spot whose rules matched ours. As we walked downtown, we saw a young man dressed in only shorts, ziptied to a road sign, surrounded by people who were presumably his friends. It seemed they had thrown eggs at him, using them as glue to keep on the cinnamon they then covered him with. It is apparently a custom in Denmark, or at least Jutland, to do this on one’s 25th birthday if one is not married. On one’s 30th, they are said to throw pepper. Wikipedia says this practice originated with spice traders, who traveled too much to find wives. Danes are traditionally very serious about reproducing.
The church was closed by the time we got there, and it wouldn’t be open to the public on Sunday. All of the nice restaurants seemed to be $200 tasting menus. We went to Aarhus Street Food, inspected the little booths, and settled on one dish from Traditional Danish Food (some meatballs and rice and curry sauce), and one from Uganda (a wrap with calvados-marinated chicken), and a bottle of water (why should they give it away?)
In the morning, we found a bakery with some pastries with the most intensely caramelized sugar I can remember having. We got there maybe at 9:45, and at 10:00 they changed everything for some reason; both the pastries we’d gotten had been taken away and replaced by other I suppose lunch-friendly offerings.
Then we gave up on Aarhus and drove first to Horsens to find a statue Ray’d seen on the internet, which was stupid in person, and then to Jelling to see a World Heritage Site: a pair of Viking mounds with some stones covered with drawings and runes. There was a museum with the latest in technological displays. My favorite was a large table video display showing an aerial conception of the site. At the corner was a knob that let you choose from six points in time, including the time of Harald Bluetooth’s reign at the site, when there was a wooden wall surrounding it. There were other instants earlier and later, including the modern day. Birds would fly overhead then, planes would fly overhead now. There were also signs explaining how the symbol for the Bluetooth standard is formed from the runes HB. We walked to the tops of the mounds, saw the rune-covered stones, and visited the church between, whose geometric pattern in black on the orange floor had one short section in silver indicating where a Viking named Corm is buried.
Then we left to go to Lübeck, not far from Hamburg in Germany.
And then, another driving day. Up to the Danish border, where a policeman waved us in; up north through Jutland, the Danish mainland, then a turn east. First, across a short free bridge onto the island of Funen, home of little white churches scattered around near the freeway that look like a cross between California Missions and Wild West Movie Sets; then across a long $40 bridge to Zealand, home of Copenhagen. Our timing was such that we could pick up Doug and Hind at the airport. Hind had just flown there from Paris, and Doug had gone to greet her. We headed across the long $60 Øresund bridge to Malmö, Sweden, and after my answers to the Swedish passport agent seemed too complicated, we pulled over and handed them to another friendly agent to sort out in the office. A few minutes later we were on our way. We dropped Hind and Doug off at their hotel, then headed to our own.
We stayed at MJ’s hotel, on Masterjohansgaten. It is by far the most fabulous hotel I have ever stayed in (we never stayed in the Madonna Inn, only used their bathrooms.) The fabulosity started with, and peaked at, the chair with dozens of stuffed flamingo necks sticking out in every direction; it coordinated well with the flamingo carpeting. There were sexy pictures everywhere, in the rooms and hallways. (To save on costs, all the same pictures were on every floor. I suppose they thought no one would notice. They could have at least varied the ones on the stairway.) Parking cost extra, but their drivers saved you the worry about hitting a pillar.
As we arrived at the hotel, I noticed that, of all things in this tiny old town area, there was an Avid office one block away! I stopped in and met the customer service staff there, and decided that I would spend the next day working.
We had a few hours before the concert, and caught a snack. Swedish tapas, basically. And aquavit. Justin and Meagan joined us but were pretty severely jetlagged, having just arrived from California. The concert, Doldisar Frontar, was in a nice venue two blocks from our hotel; it featured Christoffer Lundquist and Helena Josefsson and their friends. He was a bassist in the 90’s pop band Brainpool, and since then a producer at his own recording studio, where he produced albums for both Justin and Doug. There were probably 25 performers who played over the course of the evening. Christoffer and Helena performed on almost every song, as did a San Francisco origin rhythm section, a string quartet, a keyboard player, and a guitarist. Others were featured for a song or two, including a country music singer. Much of the commentary was in Swedish, but quite a bit was in English. Almost all of the songs were in English. We were there to see Doug play “Agents of Change”, from his album. The sound was great, and though most of the songs were somewhat poppy, they were all very listenable. The other remaining members of Brainpool played in the second half, and they closed with two of their songs which seemed to excite the audience more than anything else. The show was very long, two 90-minute sets with a 30-minute break.
After the show, we stopped at MAX, a popular Swedish fast-food hamburger chain, on the way back to the hotel.
Breakfast at the hotel was delicious, including merguez breakfast sausage, herring, lots of different breads and mueslis. I went to work, and Ray walked around town. Around 3pm I went back to the hotel to get ready to see the show again in Kristianstad, an even tinier city an hour’s drive away. The restaurant pickings there were a bit slim: we found a pan-Asian place where we had Thai soup, Vietnamese soup, and Japanese tempura chicken with teriyaki vegetables. We got better seats this time: we were able to see the entire stage, without tall people sitting in front of us. The show was largely identical, though perhaps a bit shorter and almost no English commentary. We drove back, and just before 2am Doug and Justin and Meagan joined us for a goodbye drink at our hotel. Mine was an aquavit which tasted like Cynar or something similar. We didn’t try the dill-infused one.
Our friend David from Copenhagen had joined us for the first show, and on Saturday we stopped in Copenhagen and saw him. He had just upgraded from an apartment to a free-standing house, just next to a reasonably quiet electric subway line. Hind had recommended a pastry place in Malmö, and the pastries we brought were a hit with David’s kids and their friends. With any home purchase comes home improvement projects: his included removing the oil-based paint applied just before the house was sold, cleaning up insect messes left during the time of the former resident, building a garden, exchanging the insulation, and picking up fireworks shells on the lawn left from a recent celebration.
We said goodbye and headed to Aarhus.
The road to Hamburg had one big traffic jam; we got off and tried to go around it but ultimately I think it would have taken the same amount of time if we’d just toughed it out. Someone opined that Google Maps doesn’t give everyone the same advice, to keep the various possibilities equally busy.
It was fairly difficult in Hamburg to find a parking spot near the restaurant, but yet we did, a couple long blocks away. We joined our friend Sebastian and his girlfriend Jenny, and our friend Thomas from Braunschweig, who is Sebastian’s business partner. The restaurant was French; we had merguez with couscous, and a nice fish. Afterwards, we all crammed in the car, and drove to Jenny’s house, which is in a fabulous neighborhood. An apartment house among mansions. We were “staying at Sebastian’s girlfriend’s”, but on other nights, people would stay there as an airbnb. We walked to a nearby bar, but it was full of Germans watching Manchester and Newcastle play soccer. We chose a quieter place, an English pub down the street with no TV. Soon our friend Kevin joined us, after biking over from the train station after work. The owner, a Swedish lady, corrected my pronunciation when I said we were going to Malmo (“mal-mow”) instead of Malmö (“malm-oo” not unlike the oo in book). She touched both our beards and found them very soft. We took pictures with her. Jenny said her admiration verged on #MeToo territory, but Tina did ask, after all. Schlubby guys in their 60’s don’t get weary of admiration the way really really pretty Hamburg girls do, in their 20’s.
We walked to the main street to find coffee. On the way, we saw a pretty bird, very tiny, a big patch of orange beneath its beak: this turned out to be a European Robin. And another multicolored bird, brown on top but with distinctive blue patches on the wings: this was a European Jay. At the local outlet of Balzac Coffee, where we were warned the credit card machine didn’t work. We tried the WiFi, and realized that its lack of function was probably why the credit card machine didn’t work. But they did squeeze oranges.
After doing another load of laundry, we set out walking around noon, and kept walking all day until dinner at 7:30. We walked along the shore of the lake near where we were staying, checking out the various water birds. The most impressive were the Great Crested Grebes, two of whom were assembling a little island made out of tufts of grass. They almost look like they have bunny ears. We passed the US Embassy, with its usual defenses. Eventually we ended up at the Radiation Martyrs Memorial, to remember the doctors and scientists who worked with radioactive material before people were aware of its dangers. There are hundreds of people listed; I think they may have stopped adding more. Marie Curie was pretty early in the list. After that we went to the Deichtorhallen, which had a show featuring the work of Robert Longo. He exhibits very large politically charged photographs. Except they are charcoal drawings of those photographs. A raft of refugees on a turbulent ocean. A bullet hole at Charlie Hebdo. Football players coming onto the field with their hands up. He also curated drawings from Fernando Goya, and movies at 1/100th speed from Sergei Eisenstein, and tied it all together into one exhibition. Later, we walked past the philharmonic hall, a cute piece of architecture from the outside, at lesat, then down the Reeperbahn to join our friends for dinner, this time also including Lindsay, up from Berlin. Kevin brought a few of his coworkers from Apple as well.
Since we had a car, we optimized for choosing hotels with a parking lot, which usually means a ways from the city center. Advertising their weakest point, the one in Cologne was named “Centro Ayun”.
Centro Ayun is spotty. The lobby is spacious and designery. The rooms are not so spacious and still designery. The hallways are narrow and winding, as if this was a 500 year old building, but it’s not, because Germany started from scratch in 1946, and anything that looks old in a big city looks that way because the city planners in 1946 wanted it to look that way.
It’s not as if they are being inauthentic. All these old world buildings got knocked down in some firefight every few centuries. Nobody blames San Francisco for having started over in 1906.
The garage at Centro Ayun is the oddest of all. The spaces are made for smart cars in flatland, which you sort of expect in underground garages not designed for billion dollar urban projects, but the acoustics are dead. It hits you in the face. When you slam the door, there’s no boom. When you speak, there’s no reverb. The ceiling is all acoustical tile. The floor is concrete, but apparently the ceiling damps the sound entirely. We saw this effect in some other German motor hotel parking lots, but nowhere so dramatically as at Centro Ayun. I wrote this in my TripAdvisor review, but I don’t think any people are going to choose a motel based on the sound their car door isn’t going to make when they slam it.
Sundays are just useless. So are Mondays. The first restaurant we tried was closed Sundays, so we went to Aachenerstrasse, and parked immediately, which you don’t expect in a strange town. Aachenerstrasse is lined with sidewalk tables and happy eating drinking people. There is probably a German word for that. As I had no need to be happy, we turned down a side street and found a place called Belgischerhof, and since we’d just arrived from Belgium, we went in. It was marvelous. I think it might be a lesbian gay cafe. All these lipstick lesbians around — not just the Lesbian-Or-German-Lady meme. Pairs of guys, too. We started with a savory creme brulee (the brulee was still sugar). Then we had a flammkuchen (tarte flambée they call it in Alsace, basically a pizza) and a breaded pounded rabbit, and a rhubarb crumble.
On Monday, we left the car at the hotel, paying to park it in the basement where there were big pillars between every pair of cars, and one made 13-point turns to get in and out without touching anything. It was a short walk to the tram, on which we managed to buy tickets with only credit cards and it only took halfway to town to do it.
First, the Apostoler church, where you aren’t supposed to take photos, but I forgot and nobody said anything. They had instructive statues of saints there, with their symbols and attributes plainly displayed. Outside was a grim statue of Konrad Adenauer, the model German post-war politician, and a former mayor of Köln. When I first learned that there was a Germany, Adenauer was the Chancellor, and I still expect to see that inhuman moral certainty manifested in anyone who leads.
Adenauer exemplified the Christian center-right: Roman Catholics who preached hatred for two millennia, hatred of Jews and women and indigenous people who didn’t want to be slaves, and any Christians not subservient to the Pope, and Pagans, and any homosexual or pedophile who didn’t shut up about it after the altar boy dried the spots off his choir robe, and just to be on the safe side, tortured and killed several millions of them, over the course of time and power, and then come 1933 were shocked – shocked! – that this little fellow with the mustache took them at their word, and so they pouted and retreated to their country houses and their abbeys for 12 years and crawled out amid the ruins of their secret utopia to lead the charge against Communism.
Next, we found a nice bakery recommended by Duje, and a nice place to have coffee across the street that had one of the brass statues you see on park benches around the world, in the style of a Normal Person with whom you could pose for a photo. This particular statue seemed to be popular with people having a smoke. Vast numbers of people in Europe still use tobacco. All the gestures you see in movies, they actually make them. In America, one gestures with one’s cell phone. Not so many gestures. Only the hunched-over one, the lighting-up-in-the-wind pose.
Bakeries are a problem. You want everything, and you wouldn’t feel good if you got it.
We walked towards the center on a pedestrian road. We passed a little store with some postcard racks, which had a sign inside saying “postcards upstairs”. Upstairs there were more post cards than there are on the Internet, cleverly presented: one flipped pieces of cardboard, each of which displayed three different postcards. There were probably 10 racks of photo postcards, and another 12 racks of art postcards. This was not, however, an antique store; all the cards were current editions, in print. We must have spent at least an hour there, and picked 38 of the best to write to people on.
We walked from there to Kolumba, the only museum in Cologne open on Monday. It was built on the foundations of a church which had been built on the foundations of several other churches, and they are all visible from the ground floor archaelogical walkway. One corner of it was a tiny functioning chapel; the rest was a private art museum.
The guidebooks say that it is a religious art museum, but I didn’t see it. It has religious art. It also has art from Roman times, and modern times. It had art by someone who apparently lived to be only five years old. I may have been misinterpreting the caption. The captions are all contained in a little booklet you take with you from room to room; there are no signs next to the pieces, only small numbers to index by. For me, the most remarkable piece was called a “cage cup”: just for a stunt, an ancient glassmaker has made a glass cup, then enclosed it in a bunch of glass tubes in the form of a cage separated by glass standoffs from the inner goblet. They are rare, and when the archaeologist who found it told his site boss, he was not believed because it was April 1.
Then we walked to Cologne’s main attraction, the cathedral. It is such a part of the city’s identity that someone told us that it had not been bombed much in WWII so that pilots could use it to identify the city before they bombed something else. It is immensely tall. The outside is immensely ornate, with gargoyles and flying buttresses, and many statues on and above every door. Many stained glass windows, but many which are quite plain. One is just a bunch of pixels, specified by the artist Gerhard Richter, but it might as well be the starting frame of a level in the game “I Love Hue”.
We met our friend Alex, who drove an hour and a half after work to see us. We’d seen him in Kassel six months ago. He joined us at Päffgen, a brewery that was suggested by two different people. In Köln, they don’t drink beer, they drink Kölsch, served in 20 cl glasses. It is the only beer they serve here. We had an enormous pig “knuckle” (lower leg, actually), and a veal roulade. Alex was sensible and had only a bowl of soup. It got very loud in there and we got out and walked around for awhile. Around 9, Alex left to get ready for another day, and we met my ex-coworker Martin, who had moved from California to Cologne, via Hamburg. We went to a bar which was practically empty, and had two enthusiastic bartenders who did synchronized shaking just like in the movie. By 11:30 or so it was already half-full. Martin said it would be swinging at 2 AM. We left and took the tram back to the hotel before verifying that.
On Tuesday we got up early and drove into town, parked under the cathedral, and went to the Ludwig Museum. It was decent, with a pretty wide and deep collection of works since 1900 or so. They are said to have 900 Picasso works, though we saw only about 50, if you count each plate separately. By the time we got through the whole place it was time to drive to Hamburg to meet our friends for dinner at 6:30.
Thursday the 5th was difficult. We began by getting up too early because Dave’s iPhone had spontaneously decided to revert to Kiev time, after nearly a week in Central Europe. I could have probably used the extra hour of sleep. Leaving before 7 AM, we dropped Philipp off at his car and managed somehow to return the rental car in Berlin and got on the not-cancelled-because-of-strike Air France-now-called-Joon flight and up and down and at the gate.
At Charles DeGaulle airport, we got off the plane. The first sign of weirdness was having to go through passport control for our flight from Berlin, which was in the Schengen area along with France. The second sign was that the RER B trains, which one takes from the airport to central Paris, were on strike. After we finally were admitted to the country, we collected our bags and boarded a bus to Porte Maillot, cold, windy. I tried setting up Uber to take us the last mile, but it kept failing. They later explained that they don’t support Apple Pay in France. Now if they could make their error messages explain that, it would be much more helpful.
We ended up taking a taxi, which cost 8.30 euros, to the Hotel Boissière. The man at the desk remembered us.
When we got to the hotel, Ray’s mission was to buy tickets to get to Brussels to pick up our rental car three days later. We decided we couldn’t trust the trains, so we bought Flixbus tickets. We had tickets for a 7:30 concert, and I made it my mission to pick a place to eat before the show. Since 5:30 was early for Paris, my choice was between a brasserie or something ethnic, and I chose Le Cardinal, a brasserie not far from the venue. They featured platters of shellfish, and we ordered one which was just shrimps and whelks. (We were scared off of the oysters by one negative Yelp review.) The Algerian waiter was very friendly but also very busy, serving our entire end of the restaurant all by himself, so if we weren’t completely ready to order something, he would leave and come back later. People in the tourist trade like speaking Arabic to Hind. From an American, I think they find it a novelty. But mixed seafood platters; you can do better in France.
Doug had suggested seeing the concert, which featured Dhafer Youssef, an oud player. It was basically a straight-ahead jazz quartet, with piano, bass, and drum. The oud was the solo instrument, and Mr. Youssef also sung with a very wide range of pitches, including a few straight out of Yma Sumac. It sounded to me like he was using some electronics with his voice, but my friends doubted that was the case. The entire concert was exciting from beginning to end. All of the players were very proficient, and Isfar Sarabski, the 28-year-old piano player from Azerbaijan was incredible. Unfortunately this group hasn’t recorded yet, but I’ll get the CD when they do.
We were staying in the same hotel in Levallois-Perret that we stayed at for a week in October last year, from which I walked to the Avid office. This time, I walked back there for one more day of work. Meanwhile, Ray found the local laverie and washed all of our laundry. Later, we met Doug and Hind at Grand Coeur, the restaurant they’d picked out to celebrate Doug’s birthday, not far from the Pompidou Center. We had a table for eight, but there were just four of us for about an hour. Two of them were spending that time trying to find a place to park; the others were merely late. Everything was delicious, and Doug picked out a special Chambertin red wine to celebrate with.
Saturday we met up with Kris, an eclipse-chasing friend who’s been living in Paris, meeting him in “Chinatown” in the 13th. We found a restaurant that was popular with the correct ethnicities, waited in line just a short while, then had some duck noodle soup, fried rice, and a delicious eggplant “marmite”, the French version of a clay pot, with salty dried fish, and bacon morsels. We walked through the neighborhood for awhile, and all the outdoor cafes were completely packed, as this was the first warm day in a long time.
Eventually we said goodbye to Kris, and met Doug and Hind up near an exhibition showing the work of young photographers from all over the world, sharing space in a building with a vegan food expo, and some kind of dance event. People were breakdancing, doing yoga poses, and doing tricks with soccer balls.
The most memorable works included a guy who scuplted Aleppo ruins out of soap from that city, the world’s oldest well-attested soap (since then I have used no other). There was a vertical tasting of photos over the years of a pair of identical twin sisters, one of whom transitioned to being male at some point. Those are the ones that can be described. I guess you can get something from a verbal description of the man who concocted a fake army memory album from photos of soldiers adopting poses from famous artists from Degas to Yoko Ono. The Turkish journalist who is under arrest at the moment for photographing the sex parties and dog fights of Istanbul; as usual, no post cards of the bits that you want.
Hind is from Lebanon, and refuses to eat at Lebanese restaurants in general, which aren’t nearly as good as what she can cook herself. So we were surprised when she suggested we should go to Aux Delices du Liban. But they actually did make babaganoush which was up to her level. The rest of it was delicious as well.
On our way home, the TVs in the Metro said that the general strike planned for Sunday and Monday would shut down the RER B again. But it did not mention the Metro, so we became optimistic that would be a good way to get to the bus station. Especially because there was a marathon Sunday morning, which easily could have messed up Uber/Taxi traffic, much as it messed us up in Berlin six months earlier. And Sunday morning, we easily got to the Bercy station, seeing lots of runners on the train going to the starting point of the race.
But it seems that the bus station is blockaded. First of all, the area immediately around the bus station was surrounded by fences and white tents. It did not appear to be a refugee camp, because there weren’t any people cooking flatbread over trash fires behind the fences, just a few contradictory signs in front and tourists wheeling their suitcases up and down the sidewalk looking for a break in the siege.
When we got to the bus station, we found there were no cafes and that we were far from any retail areas. There were only a few vending machines to get water for the trip. We’d given ourselves plenty of time, so we waited around and finally got on our Flixbus and underway at the scheduled time (9 AM).
Arriving in Brussels was similar: we arrived at a deserted bus/train station, except that this one really did feel like a refugee camp. People on sleeping bags on mats sleeping, waiting, waiting…and there was virtually no information about what to do, no apparent way to get to the train station that would have taken us one stop down to the main station, which is where Sixt car was. The refugee camp didn’t feel particularly dangerous, just smelled like pee. (It turns out the ticket machines are easy to use, but they don’t accept my US credit card, and they don’t take bills, only coins.) By this time I’d gotten my Uber app working, so we were able to elevate ourselves above the situation of the refugees and get chauffeured through mostly parked traffic for a short distance in the center of Brussels, to Sixt.
Our car was not ready. Maybe a diesel minivan? No? OK, come back in an hour.
We found an ATM and crossed the plaza to a train station restaurant who had stopped serving waffles already for the day. The waiter was loud and funny and could have entertained us in ten languages, I feel certain.
After an hour sipping coffee and tea, we returned to Sixt; getting the contract turned out to be a long-winded task because “the system was down.” We had ordered a “BMW 1-series or similar”, which turned out to be a MINI Clubman. It reeked of some horrible disinfectant did not dissipate completely over the whole course of the rental. We also discovered that even though we were listening to my iPod, German traffic announcements would break in and interrupt it. And we couldn’t turn off that feature because Sixt had disabled the Settings menu. Sigh.
We got our car, slowly slowly, got out of town back the same way the Uber had come, slowly slowly, and drove to Köln.
Dave and I spent Easter quietly. Not only was it April Fool’s Day, a holiday which has suffered greatly in recent years from figure-ground considerations, but it was also Bibo’s birthday. She was birthday’d out over the previous couple of days (it’s never only one person’s birthday, when it’s your birthday) and had only invited a couple of friends over. So, we sat at their house and drank wine (which came from a gas station, as it was Sunday) and roasted vegetables and at the end of the evening, suddenly decided to make a Marble Cake using only most of the ingredients in the recipes on the Internet because it was still Sunday and nobody felt like going out in the Schneeregen to buy Eierlikör and rum. Also, I didn’t follow the recipe carefully enough regarding the division of flour and cocoa, so the brown part came out dry.
The next morning, there was a slice of marble cake at the hotel breakfast, so I learned how it was supposed to be. I can’t think if I’ve ever made one before.
Easter Monday is a holiday in Germany as well. Our friend Philipp came to see us at Thomas’s house, and we had a long discussion about whether we should take his car or our reserved rental car to drive to Poland, a discussion which ended when we read the contract and found out the rental car was nonrefundable. So, Philipp drove us to the airport to get the car.
Travel blogs, like slide shows, like post cards, like memory, never give a notion of what travel is actually like, what life is actually like. It isn’t just the disconcerting crazy touts in deserted subway stops. When I say, “Philipp drove us to the airport to get the car,” I’m actually alluding to the major time expenditure of the day, the major intellectual challenge, the major terrors of the merge, miscommunications, angst, homesickness, but who wants to hear a turn-by-turn description of trying to find where Hertz lives at Tegel International Airport? Better to concentrate on vignettes of the strange and fleeting salad components. Years mature into fruits, so that some small seeds of moments may outlive them. Rabindranath Tagore said that, and I have never had the slightest clue what he was talking about.
We parked Philipp’s car on the side of a road in a north Berlin suburb, and all drove in the rented Opel Corsa to Poland. We had dinner at a supremely Polish restaurant that nobody thought would be open because of Easter Monday, but it was. I’m omitting the customary 45 minutes of chatter about where to go and the 45 minutes to get there past interesting shop windows. The waiters were super nice. The food was the usual North Europe fare: sauerkraut, pickles, big hunks of meat. Afterwards we walked home past the darkening shop windows.
Let’s talk about shop windows. There is a recurring theme in the world, where you come across some crazy thing you have never seen before, and you wonder briefly if it is Local Color and Why One Travels, but after looking at how carefully the colors relate and how precisely the font is kerned, you realize that you have run into an instance of a Chain that you have somehow avoided, and that Five Guys isn’t hometown Sebring at all. I can recite some instances. There was United Colors of Bennetton in Roseau, Dominica. Nando’s chicken in South Africa. Also on that trip, Amarula, a rare creamy liqueur that there was no way to get outside of South Africa except by carrying it with you, until the next year when they got distribution to the inner solar system. Five Guys, I never knew of them until 2016. I don’t care how many outlets they have, great French fries. We bought Justin a crazy plate in an artistic communal compound on the east bank of the Vistula in Warsaw. There’s an outlet in San Francisco.
Anyway, the next day Philipp and I walked around Szczecin aimlessly, unless you count following the red dotted tourist line. Bought stamps. Salad and Panini at the view restaurant that the top of the Capitol Records building, which isn’t called that, but that’s what it resembles. We passed a store with tons of Quirky Stuff. It was called “Flying Tiger” It’s like, IKEA for girls who live in very small houses. Kitchenware that makes Alessi look like Bauhaus. They have a gazillion stores in a ton of countries but only eight in the US, and they are all an hour’s drive from Manhattan. Who is advising their corporate expansion? The look and feel isn’t even New York. You can’t kill people with any of them, nor do they signify that you spent $6,000 on your cufflinks. In fact, I learned a new word from Wikipedia, when looking up Flying Tiger. Flying Tiger is a Price Point Retailer. This is apparently the microeconomics term for Five and Dime store, or Daiso. All the items are priced at the point where the elastic demand would snap in your face if the price went higher. In the US these points often end with 99 cents, but I haven’t noticed that numerology in Europe. Philipp bought a harmonica for ten zloty.
In the afternoon, we had a snack at Mata Tomurska, which has real jazz on its soundtrack, and after we got Dave from work, dinner at a brew pub whose food was better than its beer. Unfortunate. Maybe they wanted their dark ale to be warm and flat, but I don’t see it.
The next day, Philipp and I took the car and drove up to the Baltic Coast. Because it was April, instead of March, it was a little more lively than Nessebar had been the week before but not by much. Their cotton candy awaits sugar-starved Polish families, but they aren’t there yet. What is that smell, that isn’t quite pure vanilla? Does it come in tank cars? Why can’t the manufacturers spend a little bit more time making it smell like good pastry instead of Play-Doh? Is this really what the customer wants?
We bought cheese at a Biedronka supermarket. Philipp bought some doughnuts that he remembered from a camping trip in Poland with his friends, that had made an impression on him. They were pure kawaii horribleness, distilled family beach resort dessert air, the worst doughnuts you ever had. I am glad that he has Dave and me for dining companions now, and not his previous friends. I really shouldn’t have eaten the second doughnut.
The drive back was another elision-worthy travel experience. Traffic stop tedium on the way into Szczecin. Philipp and I were planning to pick up Dave from Avid and bring him back to the Ibis, but we watched and texted with him from across the street as he was walking faster than traffic.
That night we had dinner with a couple of Dave’s colleagues from Avid, at Mata Tomurska again. Their suggestion. It was nice to see Alicja again. Her coworker Maciej, a Szczecin native, came to dinner, too. Most of the people in that office are from somewhere else.