Saturday, July 30, 2005

The Dutch Girls Revisited

July 30 - Rotterdam, Holland
This is the story of spending 10 days in Holland without setting foot in Amsterdam. I don’t know how many travelers have managed this feat, but now I have and this is why:

The Dutch girls had driven home to Rotterdam and resumed their lives while I toured Copenhagen and Brussels. The countries around here are small and it was only a couple hours on the train from Brussels to Rotterdam where Amber picked me up at the station. “It’s weird to see you here in my home,” Amber said.

Amber’s family wanted to meet “the American,” so we walked over to her sister’s apartment and answered the burning question her parents and siblings had waited to ask.

“So, Brook, can you ride a bike?”

Americans drive cars, they thought; Dutch ride bikes. “Yes,” I promised, “I can ride a bike.”

They must not have been totally convinced because when Amber and I rode off to her house her family stood on the side of the road watching me peddle away.

Amber’s house is not squatted. “Our old house was squatted,” she explained. “But the owners of this house asked us to move in. It was empty and they thought if no one lived here junkies would come and it would be a drug house so they asked us to stay here.”

There is no rent for the five-bedroom, four story apartment; they only pay utilities. There are big windows, creaky floorboards, and lots of space. There is an over-abundance of fleas. If there was rent to pay, fleas and cockroaches would be cause for complaint but there is no rent. Not even for the American who holes up for 10 days in an empty bedroom.

The Dutch girls did a convenient thing in anticipation of my arrival: they all broke up with their boyfriends. This isn’t exactly true because Hilde broke up with her’s a while ago and Ella still has one but he lives outside the city. The net effect though was they had free time to go to cafes and parks and bars. “I think you think we always hang out with each other,” Ella said as we all hung out with each other. “But this isn’t normally the case, we have other friends.”

Sometimes Amber would be waitressing and I’d have dinner with Hilde, or Ella would be waitressing and I’d get drinks with Amber, or Hilde would be waitressing I’d sit at my computer in the house that isn’t squatted and work on the documentary.

At night you get on your bikes and ride into town. “The tram stops running at 1am so if you want to stay out you have to ride your bike,” Amber explained. Even during the day no one takes the tram, everyone rides their bike. (Getting a driving license in Holland is such a time and money intensive process that many people can’t drive anyway).

You get to the club and chain your bikes to the fence. Inside everyone knows everyone and you aren’t traveling anymore, you’re just out at a bar on a Friday night and that’s a nice change. Some nights there are home cooked meals, or wine on the patio, or movies projected onto a big white wall in the house that isn’t squatted. There are jobs and ex-boyfriends to deal with and it’s more like real life.

At the end of the night there are two of you to share one bike. She pedals and you sit side-saddle on the metal bar behind the seat. You cruise through town on the faded-red bike path. This isn’t the night you race home across the bridge, or fall asleep together on the couch watching Forrest Gump. This isn’t the night you drink Grolsh at the outdoor tables, or the other night you drink Grolsh at the outdoor tables. This isn’t the night you project video of singing karaoke in Copenhagen onto the wall or the night you cooked dinner and said goodbye. This is the night you rode home side-saddle on her bike, chained it up outside the rent-less apartment, and creaked up the stairs to your room.

A 35 Euro Lock

July 28 - Rotterdam, Holland
You lock your bike outside the Coffeeshop and go in. They don’t sell much coffee here and they can’t sell any beer because you’re in Holland and “Coffeeshop” is just a euphemism for the place you buy marijuana.

“We don’t really stay inside the Coffeeshop,” Amber explained the other day. “That’s for the tourists. We just buy something and bring it home.”

When you walk in there is a guy standing behind a glass partition. There are priced samples taped to the glass. Dutch is spoken, 10 euros are exchanged for a zip lock bag and you go outside to unlock your bike and ride home.

It occurred to me that there’s a fundamental difference between marijuana in countries where it’s legal and ones where it’s illegal. American anti-drug groups argue that the danger of marijuana is that it leads to more dangerous drugs, and that’s probably true. It’s a short step from your dealer providing a bag of something green to a bag of something white. But in the Netherlands the mechanics of buying hard drugs are entirely different than buying pot. You go to the store to buy your weed; you go someplace poorly lit to buy your coke or ecstasy.

Marijuana is less of a gateway to the hard stuff when you don’t have to develop a habit of illegal drug purchasing to get it.

But just as you start to think that legalizing marijuana might help solve the drug problem you’re back at the apartment re-locking the bikes. They aren’t very nice bikes but the locks are essential.

“My bike cost 10 euros,” Amber explains. “And the lock was 35 euros.”

“Do you really need such a big lock? Who’s going to steal your bike?”

“Well the junkies, of course.”

Somehow plenty of people found their way out of the Coffeeshop and into some poorly lit place. It’s hard to say which system is better, but easy to see that lots of people do lots of drugs regardless.


July 21 - Brussels, Belgium
I’ve been traveling for 193 days so far. Yesterday I went to my third museum. The first was in Jomsom, Nepal. I went because Yuba, my guide, would have been offended if I declined. A couple weeks ago in Stockholm, Sweden a group of us failed to find bikes and instead ended up at a museum celebrating this giant 17th century ship that sank on its first voyage. Yesterday, here in Brussels, Belgium I visited the beer museum. I plan to establish a policy of visiting all museums whose admission price includes free beer.

As I sip my Leffe Brune it occurs to me that Belgian people should be the world’s fattest, but they aren’t. Belgium is known for four things, each an opponent of thin waists and wide arteries: Beer, Waffles, Chocolate, and Frites.

I’ve constructed my diet around these four food groups, as a quick scan of my expenses for the last three days makes clear: Beer $3.50, Beer $2.50, Waffle w/ fruit and crème $4.00, Beer $7, Godiva chocolate $2.70, Generic chocolate $2.80, Frites $2.50, Beer $10, Beer and chocolate $6.80, Waffle w/ crème $1.80.

Tomorrow I go to Holland and who knows when I’ll be back in Belgium. So even though its 4pm on a Thursday I’ve finished my Leffe and have cracked open a Chimay. It’s okay to have a vice for a couple days, its just good the Belgians have a little more self control. And its good I’m going to Holland, at least there won’t be any vices waiting in Amsterdam.

Sunday, July 17, 2005

The Dutch Girls

July 16
The Dutch girls—Hilda, Ella, and Amber—are in a punk band, but they had time to drive around Scandinavia for a couple weeks in Hilda’s sister’s car. They offered me a seat for the drive from Stockholm to Copenhagen. It’s hard to find time for all their band-related responsibilities—making posters, designing t-shirts, etc—even though they’ve cut the work load down considerably by declining to learn instruments, write songs, or develop any proficiency as singers. “We’re a social experiment,” Ella explained.

Canadian Andrew and I had no trouble believing they were three-fourths of Aus Der Flasche, their fictitious band. They look like female rockers; Ella’s nose is pierced, Amber’s lip is lanced, and Hilda (who is no stranger to peroxide) has a silver stud in the center of her chin. They have contrasting and complementing “looks” that seem destined for the cover of a fledgling magazine.

“If we could just come up with one song,” Ella mused over Asian food the other night. “Then we could have a CD to give out to people.”

Their plan is to heavily promote a concert and see how many people they can get to show up. When it comes time to play, the power will go out or one of the members will be in rehab or something. They’ve been working on the idea for two years now but it remains only an idea.

I can’t remember how I met the Dutch girls but I think I was with Canadian Andrew and Australian Nicole one day last week when the Dutch girls said they wanted to rent bikes too and we all walked around the city all day failing to find cheap bikes. That night we ate Asian food and went to a bar with a funny retro-metal band.

I hadn’t hung out with the Dutch girls without Andrew or Nicole and I wondered how it would be on the six-hour drive (that turned out to be nine) in Hilda’s sister’s tiny car. I knew they were all good friends and they spoke Dutch and I was coming in and messing up their dynamic. But there’s a certain kind of bonding that happens when you sleep next to someone and after the first round of naps on the drive through Sweden we were all quite friendly.

Meeting people and getting close becomes so routine that you don’t even see it happening after a while. It doesn’t feel so strange and fantastic to become fast friends with some exotic foreigner because it’s not strange anymore, it’s just something you do.

The Dutch girls are all about six feet tall and have boyfriends back home. I realized as we sipped Tuborgs at the edge of the Copenhagen pier that I’m much better at platonic relationships than I was before I left. I can only think of one from my first 25 years but I’ve had plenty out here.

The Dutch girls look like a fashionable punk band but they don’t act like it. They don’t like places with strict door policies even though they could get in. Their trendy/non-judgmental ratio is as high as you’ll find. The only exception seemed to be in their disregard for the hostel’s shoes-off policy. “We never take our shoes off,” Amber told me.

“This is a society,” I insisted mock-earnestly. “There are rules.”

“We’re in a band,” Amber re-joined.

They invited me to drive on to Rotterdam with them but I wanted to stay a bit longer in Copenhagen and once they get back home they’ll have jobs and boyfriends to worry about. So I was asleep when they gathered their stuff and left for the long drive down to Holland. When I woke I found a note and a beer on top of my pile of clothes and electronics. It said they’d really like to see me in Rotterdam and that I was good company. It called me Paul, because I had chosen that Beatle when our foursome handed out names. In the upper right corner it said “Kopenhagen, 14-07-‘05” and I knew as soon as I saw it that the idea of the date was sad. It was a morning in July during the year I took my trip and whenever I read the note from now on it won’t be that day anymore. In my mind I could see Ella writing the note as I slept in the bunk below her but it’s hard to say who wrote it for sure because it was signed “Aus Der Flasche.”

I taught Amber and Hilda "Dash" the game Bill and I made up in Central Park a couple years ago. It was thrilling to launch an international edition...

Sleep In Fact

July 16
The alarm is going off and who knows what that means. The Sleep In Fact hostel here in Copenhagen, Denmark should have an alarm and a good number other things, but as of now I can confirm only the alarm. They should have someone at reception from 12pm to 3pm and 3am and 6am, but they don’t. They should have a decent means of securing the hostel and a system for recording who is staying here, but they don’t have either of those either.

What the Sleep In Fact hostel here in Copenhagen, Denmark has—in addition to the alarm that is still going off—is a climbable tree next to the porch in back. The burglar(s) climb up the tree, jump through the broken barbed wire and over the white railing with the pink potted flowers and walk into the two giant, unlocked dorm rooms to get their bread and beer money. They must have drunk well last night on my 960 kroners ($160) and on Brian’s 250 kroners. Brian says the bandits were unable to use his credit card and it’s unclear what use they’ll have for his Hosteling International membership card. Maybe they can get a discount next time they check into a place and then make off with a wallet while its owner is in the shower.

When I told the guy at reception that I had cash taken out of my jeans just one night after Brian had his wallet lifted, he was unmoved by the pair of thefts. “Oh, yes, there have been many robberies here recently. You have to be careful, there are a lot of bastards out there.”

The thieves know the hostel is unstaffed from 3-6am, making it quite vulnerable. They know when its 3am because they have the $200 watch Brian’s girlfriend gave him for his last birthday. The Swedish girls and I made it home just before 3am the other night. At 4am Jenny shook me awake. “You should get up.”

The girls had been talking in bed when they noticed someone walking in the room. Each of the rooms have 32 beds so it’s hard to keep track of everyone, especially when it’s dark. But a big new hostel opened up in Copenhagen this summer and has drained away most of Sleep In Fact’s business. There were only five people staying in the Swedish girls’ room and the guy walking by in a white t-shirt wasn’t one of them. The girls were a bit startled and after a couple minutes they followed the guy out of their room and looked out from the porch where they saw him hiding in the bushes bellow. That was when they woke me up.

I didn’t see anything in the bushes but we thought it might be a good idea to lock the doors, which were wide open to let some air in. We couldn’t figure out how to lock one of them so we wedged it closed with a chair. In the morning everyone’s stuff seemed to be where they left it and the folks at the Sleep In Fact Hostel, here in Copenhagen, Denmark decided they would lock the doors at night.

Like Going Home

July 16
A friend of mine went out in Copenhagen the other night. It was getting late and everyone was drunk and the girl he’d been talking to—but didn’t dance with—was going home with the guy she danced with instead. Her friend finished her beer and turned to my friend. “So, will it be good for your diary if you say ‘I went home with a Danish girl?’”

They took a taxi north to her apartment because they couldn’t both fit on the bike she’d rode to the club on. It was already getting light when they walked up the spiral stairs to her studio apartment. It looked like New York with the bed by the door and the computer by the bed and the dining table next to the computer. She poured two glasses of water from a pitcher in the kitchen and brought them to the bed. It was a real bed with sheets and pillows and enough room for two people. It all seemed a lot like New York.

In the morning they took the bus back down to her bike and his hostel. It was Saturday morning and she was wearing an old t-shirt that was too big and a light jacket that someones grandmother might buy. Seeing someone in their Saturday morning clothes is almost like getting to know them. It just seems more real. He asked her what she was doing this weekend, not because he wanted to see her again but because he was living vicariously. It had been a long time since he felt the thrill of Saturday morning, the best time of the week. There were two full days in front of her that she could spend however she chose. She had worked all day Friday, taken a nap when she got home, and picked up a guy at the club; now she would walk around Vesterbro on this cool, cloudy Saturday afternoon, pick up her bike and ride home. It all somehow seemed a lot like New York, my friend said.

Monday, July 11, 2005

The Annex in Stockholm

July 11
Sweden’s prices are as far north as its latitude so cash strapped backpackers are drawn to the summer annex of the generously named Bed and Breakfast Hostel. That’s where I brought my 135 kronas ($17) a few nights ago. “Is the annex open?” I asked when they tried to put me in a 195 krona ($25) dorm. “Umm, yes, it is.”

The Swedish man walked me across the street from the hostel and half a block up the hill. He punched “9833#” into the keypad and opened the heavy wooden door with a droopy T carved out of it. We took 17 steps down to the empty linoleum-tiled basement and found 19 bunk beds crammed along its walls. There are two de-bunked beds as well, allowing 40 cash-strapped backpackers to call the annex home on any given night.

“It’s like a hospital,” we all decided later, though I’ve never seen a hospital room with 40 beds. “It even has a sick guy.” Indeed, the gentleman in bed #40 has such a severe cough that after spending a night in the adjacent bed #34, I decided it would be better to keep my distance and relocated to bed #8.

It’s always light outside but it’s always dark in the basement annex of the Bed and Breakfast Hostel. When the blaring fluorescent lights go off for the night, it’s impossible to tell the hour until the next afternoon when they finally come back on. When you wake up it might be 3am or it might be 11am. The little droopy T carved out of the door is the only contact with the outside world and it’s too far away to cast any light into the annex.

The annex must be about the best place you could hope to stay. It’s a real challenge to share a room with 39 people and not make a few friends.

Last night we were at a nearby bar, which featured long-haired retro rock and karaoke. The three Dutch girls were out. So was the Canadian guy and the two Italian guys. (The Italian guys couldn’t understand Swedish women, who weren’t interested in them but were willing to make-out with eachother). The Aussie girl stayed in to get some sleep, but her Turkish bunkmate grabbed a couple pints. In the morning the Swiss girls and the American guys packed up and left. The whole room emptied out except for the one older woman napping in bed #1 after it was vacated by the Swiss girls.

A long white extension cord runs from outside the annex all the way into the middle of the room. It’s plugged into my laptop as I type on the one white plastic picnic table the 40 of us share. It’s right by bed #34 where two Puerto Rican girls came in and put their stuff down. They looked around at the rows of empty beds and the green forest mural that wraps around the walls. They started to think through the logistical implications of all the showers being down the block in the main building. They gathered up their stuff and moved out of the annex and into a room across the street and it was their loss.

A Couple Photos from Stockholm

It's hot and this passes as the beach...

...the blonde on the left is a Canadian guy, the one of the right is a Dutch girl.

...Aussie's love carrots, apparently.

Greece Then and Now

In front of the Sphinx of Naxos...



With mom (and dad and Quinn)...



Wednesday, July 06, 2005

Greece '05

June 30
We all know what to do in Rome. But when you’re in that other ancient European civilization, it can be less clear. As it turns out, When in Greece, take off your clothes.

If you’ve been to South Beach or Ko Samui the concept of the topless beach isn’t so foreign. The Greek Isles are much the same, without those pesky bottoms.

As sister Quinn and I knocked a paddleball back and forth the other day, a stray shot fell a few feet to her right and when she bent down to pick up the ball she was confronted by the well-tanned hip region of a passing middle-aged man. She picked up the ball, unfazed but fully clothed and observed, “My goodness we are outnumbered.”

I have no memories of naked Greeks from my first trip to Greece. But I have no memories of that trip at all.

I was 18 months old when my mom brought me here for 100 days of backpacking around the islands and this is something of a reunion trip. Some of my first words were supposedly Greek and the stories of me getting lost in a Santorini arcade or lighting up at the sight of a Zeus statue have been so well worn in the intervening 25 years that it almost seems like I have memories, but of course I don’t. I have an image of dusty, almost colorless streets, and canvas colored plazas with ancient statues strewn about. They’re the images of photographic slides that sat stacked in our basement for a couple decades but made enough spins through a projector every few years to fix a memory of an image in my mind.

Even before I planned this yearlong trip our family had marked “Greece - Summer ’05” on our vacation calendar. Mom wanted to take me back, wanted to go back herself, and wanted my dad and sister to share the experience as well. What she promised she understood, but what she didn’t really understand at all, was that the experience wasn’t available to share. Greece ’80 can’t be visited by going to Greece ’05 any more than Hawaii can be experienced by going to Jones Beach.

And so we found a parking spot in Santorini’s Old Town and wound our way through the Gucci laden alleys. In place of the plaza where I had played, was a café selling dishes of ice cream for $14. On the slope where donkeys had carried us up from the port, there was an Aspen-style tram. Santorini—the Santorini where I got lost in the arcade—was lost for good.

Mom cried, wallowed, and cursed for a few minutes and then decided we should get a drink at a café overlooking the volcanic Caldera which, with the exception of a few extra cruise ships, looked a lot like it had for the past couple thousand years. We each had a coffee, paid our $26 and went back to our place.

Secretly, mom held out hope that seeing Greece for myself would trigger memories that the slides couldn’t. But the Greece we visited then isn’t here to be re-seen; only remembered by those with memories. And surely when I find myself in Sapa or Christchurch or Katmandu some decades from now, I’ll wonder where all the donkeys went. I won’t be counting pennies then, in fact I’ll buy my $8 cappuccino without a second thought. But the time when there was less money and more donkeys will be missed, for reasons real or romantic.

Let Me Tell You About the Greeks

Greeks are the most image conscious people I’ve encountered outside Southern California. Find me a Greek female above the age of ten who doesn’t have her hair highlighted and I’ll give you a hundred drachmas.

Greeks can be a bit aggressive in line; they won’t push you like in India but they’ll walk right past you as if you hadn’t been standing there for 15 minutes.

Greece is one of the most Christian countries in the world; 98% of its population is Greek orthodox.

Chivalry is alive and well in Greece. In restaurants women are served first, unless some mannerless American grabs the plate before his mother or sister can be served.

Greeks eat late (lunch at five, dinner at 11) and then drink later. They don’t drink in the afternoon as much as other Europeans though. It’s rude for a waiter to bring your check before you request it; it’s annoying to sit there for half an hour trying to get the waiter’s attention so you can pay and leave.

I’m confident these observations are in parts inaccurate and in other parts prejudiced, but they’re my impressions of two-plus weeks here. There are a set of things you learn about a place when you visit. You read them in a book or you notice them as you walk the streets. If you stay in a place long, enough you learn that nearly all these observations are either false or mean something different than you thought.

Towards the end of our trip I met Yorgos, a 26 year old Greek. Your country is so Christian, I said, 98% are Greek Orthodox. “No, that’s not true. It’s a trick by the church,” he said. “When you sign up for an ID card they automatically count you as Orthodox. If I showed you my ID card it would say Greek Orthodox but I hate that church. So they get to say 98% but it’s not true.”

And in Yorgos’ small village chivalry seems trumped by its close cousin, chauvinism. In the cafés there women aren’t served first, they aren’t served at all.

He didn’t explain the dyed hair, or the line cutting or the late dinners (though he did decline to eat with us at 9pm), but it was a reminder of how much you can misinterpret or only partially understand when you’re busy becoming an expert and gawking at all the blonde highlights.

Family Photo Album

So if you come to our house and someone tries to show you the Greece pictures you can say you've already seen them...

Mom, dad, sister, and the Greek flag.

This somehow strikes me as funny.

Mom at sunset in Naxos

Dad and I set the European Silva-Braga Paddleball Rally mark at 395. The international family record is over 500. And no, I don't usually look like I'm hitting a forehand smash when playing a friendly game by the water.

Santorini is a pretty place to take a family photo.

Santorini at day and dusk from our cave house.

Dad captures the Caldera in all its volcanic beauty.

I display poor technique with a light reflector.

Quinn directs her steed up the hill.

The donkeys that used to carry people up the hill behind my mom have been replaced by the tram you can see over her shoulder.

This is what a "Gucci laden ally" looks like.

Look how natural we look infront of this Sphinx of Naxos replica.

Our last stop was Milos, where the Venus de Milos was dug up by a farmer in 1820. Quinn poses armless to replicate the scene upon discovery.

"This has to be one of the world's best swimming holes," dad decided.

I make the 30 foot (what the hell, you're weren't there, let's call it 40) leap off one of the cliffs. Quinn jumped too but her dad has poor eyesight and deleted the picture. She forgives him.

Why does it always look like I have the camera pointed the wrong way?

98% of Greeks may not be Greek Orthodox, but it seems sometimes that 98% of buildings in Greece are churches.