Thursday, June 13, 2013

Amsterdam - Where the Streets Are Cobble-Stoned and the People Are JustStoned.

After a week in the miasma of tourists and traffic that was London and Paris, it was quite pleasant to alight from the train in the sleepy town of Bruges, Belgium.
I had only intended to spend a day in the hamlet left behind as it were in the Middle Ages, but given the conditions of my hostel in Paris, I decided to depart early and escape another night the slums of the City of Lights.
As I staggered from the station on weary legs at 9 p.m., I began walking in the direction of three large church spires that I knew, from what little research my travel guide provided, made up the old town center. I had a brief moment of pause as I watched the last shuttle roll away from the central station without me on it just as I made me way to the curb.
"I probably should have been on that," I said aloud, breaking a rule I made about not talking to myself while traveling alone. It really is a bit unavoidable when you are on you own for weeks.
Unable to locate a map, I was left to my own devices which essentially amounted to walking toward tall buildings and asking people if they spoke English along the way. As I ambled I began to wonder what language they spoke in Belgium. At no point did it strike me as odd that I had arrived in a small town in a foreign country late in the evening without a reserved place to sleep and having no clue what language was spoken.
I began to tell myself they spoke Belgian and said it in my head to see if it sounded right.
''Yeah, Frank came over here all teed off about something or another about our dog treating his tulips like an outhouse screaming in Belgian. You know how he gets.''
Sure, they spoke Belgian I decided. I would later learn Belgians speak German, Dutch, and English. Also that Belgian has never existed as a language, only as an adjective to describe Waffles.
After a half-hour's stumble from the station, I ran into a helpful shop owner who pointed me toward my hostel - a mere 10 minute's walk.
In Scotland, arriving without a place to lay my head had been no problem because Edinburgh is a bustling metropolis when compared to Bruges. But in this medieval village essentially untouched since the 12th century the prospects suddenly seemed less hopeful.
Arriving at the hostel one night early, I had to stop and double-check the address. The building in front of me was clearly a bar. I had only limited experience with hostels, but I had enough with various drinking establishments back home to know a bar when I saw one.
"No you're in the right place," said the bartender coming over after watching me scan the room dumbly for signs of a place to sleep. "The beds are all upstairs."
"Ah, perfect," I said suddenly revitalized by the college-age wet dream of actually living at a bar. "Have you got an open bed for the night? My reservations aren't until tomorrow, but I came a day early."
"Oh, no my friend," said the bartender who bore a strong resemblance to Frodo Baggins. "We have nothing at all."
I waited for him to throw in a "but" or tap his pen on the bar a bit as if he were actually thinking of a solution to my homelessness, but instead we had a staring contest for the next 20 seconds.
I broke first.
''So that's it then?" I asked, realizing I had gotten myself into this situation and could not afford to be too demanding. "Is there at least another hostel you can call?"
My only friend in Belgium arched his eyebrows and after a brief pause smacked his palms on the bar.
"Yes, sure," he said, invigorated at the idea of getting rid of me, I assumed. "That's a great idea. There is one other hostel in the city."
I had assumed, even in an ancient burg like Bruges, there would be a handful of hostels available. When Mr. Baggins clamored about "one other" I began wondering if I would be sleeping in the park again.
After a brief phone call with plenty of harsh sounding Dutch spouted back and forth, the bartender looked hopeful.
"They have one bed left."
I quickly thanked him and departed for my new-found sanctuary on the opposite side of town. As I stepped back into the night air, I was even more thankful my blind arrival would not end with me snuggling up to a flower bed in the city park. The temperature was a blustery 46F and the wind was howling with gusts of 30 m.p.h. There is something to be said for summer in the low countries and it might be that it does not exist.
A brisk jaunt found me frozen and mumbling to myself about how I was a fool not to dig my rain jacket from my pack, but happily in the doorway of another bar.
Turns out both hostels in Bruges double as bars on the ground floor. My dream would be realized. I gulped down a Trappist ale brewed by one of the famous Belgian monasteries that seem to dot the countrside landscape around Bruges and made for the pillow.
The next morning I transferred residence to my original hostel and after a round of much needed laundry and showering, struck out to discover the canals and medieval homes of Bruges.
It is quite a beautiful town and was once considered a hidden gem of Europe. A few years ago Bruges was a place only travel junkies and neighboring EU citizens knew about. That has changed considerably since Bruges began being listed by practically every travel service available ahead of Brussels and Ghent as the top "'must-see'' in Belgium.

Now tourists outnumber residents 2-to-1 in the peak season and the median age for the camera-toters is in the neighborhood of 55. It was a much different population of travelers than I had found in London or Paris and perhaps the reason there were only two hostels in town.
Bruges is a splendid town for wandering around. Virtually every street offers a fairly pristine glimpse into centuries past and it is small enough that you can just about see every piece of it in a day if so motivated.

I visited the Heilig Bloed Basiliek, or Basilica of the Holy Blood, near the town square. Without prior knowledge you might stroll right past this tiny Romanesque structure without even snapping a photo. It is only a couple of stories high and is tucked in a corner beside one of the most picturesque town halls in all of Europe. It is not the outside, however, that makes this micro-basilica unique.
In 1134 when Bruges was nearing its' heyday an enterprising young Crusader, Thierry of Alsace, built this tiny chapel alongside Oud Steen, which serves as the modern town hall.
What makes this building special is what Thierry placed in it upon returning from the Second Crusade in 1147. According to legend, Thierry brought back the relic of the Precious Blood as a souvenir from the wars. It was a small vile that tradition tells held a small amount of blood and water cleaned from the body of Jesus Christ by Joseph of Arimathea just after the Crucifixion.
During service a priest removes the Precious Blood from the tabernacle and places it on the altar where it changes from coagulated to liquid. This is the only time the relic can be viewed.

I bounded from one timeless corner to another rather taken in by the atmosphere of these antiquated buildings. It is quite the juxtaposition, however, to scan down from the recessing roof of a home constructed in the 1100s and note the fine detail and patina of the stone only to discover at the bottom the ground floor has been made into a souvenir magnet shop.
It is as if the residents have for centuries realized the beauty of these old buildings enough to resist tearing them down, but will be damned if they are going to pretend like magnets aren't a profitable business venture.
The people of Belgium are a bit different than I expected as well. The Dutch are known for being tall and lithe and with Bruges being so close, I assumed the locals would be similar. Quite the opposite. The residents of Bruges are smaller and more cumbersome. The Dutch are known for their athletes and liberal political leanings. The Belgians look as though they know their way around a bar stool and perhaps a waffle. They were some of the most approachable and fun-loving people I had come across on my journey and to get a real feel for them, you must put down the camera and pick up a pint of funny-sounding ale at some alley tavern.
The overriding feeling I was left with on my final walk through town toward the train station and Amsterdam was that it did not seem as though people should or could live here.
The cobbled streets and ancients canals were stunning, but impractical. In a time where everyone seems to be sprinting from one subway platform to the next and the world around is focused on the next biggest, fastest, sleekest gadget or building or automobile, how does Bruges still exist?
How has no corporation plopped themselves down in this town near the coast of Belgium and pulled its' citizens screaming and kicking into the modern age?
The train from Paris might as well have been a time machine, I thought as I scrambled to the station that morning for a three-hour ride to Amsterdam.
I had to change trains in Brussels and was instantly pleased at my decision not to visit. As far as you could see from the elevated platform of the Brussel Midi station stretched abandoned factories, broken windows, and enough graffiti to keep a few paint stores in business through the recession.
I jumped off to change and with a 15-minute layover decided to sprint into the station below and try to find a bathroom. The trains all have bathrooms, but until you have tried to use one while dragging half of your stuff in with you to keep from pickpocket's fingers, you cannot appreciate my refusal to patron them again.
I found a bathroom at the far end of the station and as I popped around the partition to enter, I was met with a turnstile. In Brussels using the restroom in a public place is apparently a privilege reserved for those who have a 50-cent coin. Not two 20-cent coins and a ten. Not a $1 Euro coin. Not five seconds to spare before things get messy. A 50-cent coin.
Suddenly I began to understand why the whole city smelled a bit less than desirable. Too many folks without proper change.
I slumped to the train for Amsterdam, drug half my belongings into the broom closet the Belgian rail service calls a bathroom, and made the best of it.
Amsterdam had been an intriguing destination ever since the initial planning for the trip. I envisioned a place where the streets were cobble-stoned and the people were just stoned.
Well, to be honest, I expected to find tulips, weed, bicycles, and prostitutes - the four things I thought of when someone mentioned Amsterdam with the seedier elements naturally seeping to the forefront of the conversation.
My hostel was one block from Amsterdam Centraal, the main station, and on the four-minute walk I passed three weed shops and a woman attempting to profit from physical acts in way you would not need to be standing or even sitting to accomplish.
For someone raised in the Bible Belt making his first venture abroad, it was all a bit overwhelming.
I checked in at my hostel and learned I was staying in a massive bunk room of 24 beds, a place large enough to house three or four snorers. Breaking from the hostel I was met with an unfamiliar feeling. For the first time all trip I had arrived in a city with no idea whatsoever of what I was going to do first.
I wandered rather aimlessly for much of the first afternoon and night rolling in the stark contrasts the city has to offer at every turn.
Sure there are the brothels and weed shops, euphemistically called, "coffeeshops." But breaking between these dens of sin is the astonishing system of canals Amsterdam is perhaps best known for, flower brokers with their booths full of tulips, amazing 800-year old bricked canal homes leaning precariously in every direction, gorgeous houseboats that cause you to briefly consider living afloat, and more bicyclers than you can reasonably imagine.
The United Kingdom had been a minefield for pedestrians because the cars are continually stalking you form the wrong direction. Paris held tourists under threat of being taken apart at the knees by zooming Frenchmen on scooters who do not follow the agreed upon rules of traffic or human decency. In Amsterdam the threat of death by traffic was almost non-existent, but the chance of mild injury was a virtual certainty.

In theory, all bicycles in Amsterdam are supposed to be equipped with a bell that dings happily when a cyclist happens to arrive upon a group of tourists fumbling with maps, cameras, or stray children as a way of warning them of impending collision.
In reality the bell is the last thing you hear as you fade out of consciousness after being speared to the ground by an eager Dutch woman and her basket full of groceries.
The citizens of the low countries of Belgium and The Netherlands seem absolutely smitten with graffiti. They must. It is everywhere - on garages, building doors, the sides of bridges, road signs, churches, train cars. Nowhere did it seem unusually placed, but there was nowhere reasonable that had been left untagged either.
I reflected on the thousands of pieces of art I had viewed in the galleries of Paris and London, much of which was unsigned and wondered if we were becoming more self-centered as a species.
A thousand years ago it was not uncommon to complete a work and leave it unsigned, trusting word of mouth to spirit up the credit you deserved. Looking at the graffiti art that draped much of the metro areas in the low countries, I gathered around 97-percent was simply a signature. Usually it was illegible, but always it was offering of nothing else. Just the signature of some ambitious Dutch fellow who usually did not bother with multiple colors, economically creating his monochromatic art with a single can of spray paint.

I was content to roam again the second day and began in the area of Dam Square. It was in this vast city space full of street performers, food carts, myriad restaurants, souvenir shops, and coffeeshops that the first dam was built to help create Amsterdam.
The story of Amsterdam's founding is rather benign compared to that of Belfast. It goes that two blokes and their dog were bobbing along the Amstel River, which now cuts through town, when they were overtaken by a great storm. Fearing for their lives and that of their canine companion, the two men promised God if they landed on solid ground again, they would found a city on the site. To form a city they would have to dam the Amstel River to salvage some of the swampland needed for building, thus the site was known as the Amstel Dam.
From Dam Square I continued on to the Oude Kerk or Old Church. It is Amsterdam's oldest standing building, founded in 1306 and cannot be seen without walking past some of the seediest borderline legal things you are ever likely to encounter.
In the three-minute walk from the square to the ancient church you pass a couple of shops selling hallucinogenic mushrooms, the bulk of the Red Light District known locally as De Wallen and scores of crimson-lighted windows filled with prostitutes, and a handful of marijuana coffeeshops.
After the initial startle to the senses, it begins to form some beautiful contrast between the world of mischief and depravity that many outsiders associate with the city and the magnificent historical sites that rest among those racier exploits.
I began to imagine the troves of sailors who returned from their various deployments abroad. They would return to Amsterdam and joyfully partake in all the lustier venues the city had to offer, only to stumble away in the morning drunk, hungover, and wracked with Catholic guilt to conveniently find before them this massive church.
They do not keep records of these sorts of things, but I would bet the confessions heard in the walls of the Old Church in the heart of the Red Light district are more lurid and ludicrous than those heard in Bruges or Paris or anywhere else for that matter.
At some point during my visit I made it to the old weighing house that had made up part of the medieval gates to the city. This place had a particularly gruesome history. A traveler arriving in Amsterdam in the Middle Ages could be greeted at these imposing gates by heads on spikes and other treats.

This was not only the trophy case for public executions, it was the site of them as well. For a group of Anabaptists who tried to storm a portion of the city completely in the nude, their punishment included being cut open at the chest, having their beating heart ripped form behind their ribs, shown to them ever so briefly I assume, and then flung into their face before the victim could tumble over dead.
Inside the weighing house, public autopsies were held. They were nothing, but just as they sound. Rembrandt, who came to prominence in Amsterdam in the same era, even came down to witness one. He was so moved by what he saw, he captured it in painting in "The Anatomy Lesson of Dr. Nicolaes Tulp."
In an attempt to preserve the past, the weighing station now serves as a restaurant. Bon Apetit! One can only assume they do not mention the history of the building on the cover of the menu.
There are a pile of misconceptions about Amsterdam to go along with all the harsh truths, however.
For one, weed is not legal. Not even a smidge.
No one has been arrested for a solely marijuana-related offense in decades, but that is not because there are no laws against it. Around 35 years ago the city was awash with hard drug users and vagrants. In an effort to more effectively target what the city viewed as the real problem - hard drug users and the related crimes that accompany them - they decided unofficially to stop chasing marijuana enthusiasts.
What has developed since is a city with one of the lowest heroin problems in all of Europe and around 200 coffeeshops that sell their marijuana illegally, but with a wink and nod from local authorities.
Prostitution also has a more recent legal history. Until 13 years ago it wasn't. Now it is highly-regulated and still a controversial issue among local lawmakers who see it as a blight on the city's international reputation.
For $50 a patron gets 15 minutes of attention from his or her chosen sex worker. I know this, I should clarify promptly, thanks to a free map of the city I received at the train station which outlines particular historical places of interest as well as some of the knowledge that might be helpful to the throngs of bachelor parties that wander down from the U.K.
It is estimated that around 60-percent of those who purchase services in the Red Light district are from the United Kingdom, presumably overcome with joy at escaping the British weather and in need of someone with which to celebrate. And quite the choice they have in De Wallen. In Amsterdam the minimum age to proclaim yourself a sex worker is 18, but there are talks of raising that figure to 21. There is no maximum, however. The city's oldest prostitute will celebrate her 85th birthday this year and I shutter to imagine how.
Most of the patrons of the notorious coffeeshops - 95-percent - are tourists. The Dutch themselves are actually rather mild. It is as if you took the population of some quaint suburban neighborhood in Connecticut and moved them to New Orleans.
It is perhaps easier to spot a tourist in Amsterdam than anywhere I have traveled so far. If they are riding a non-rented bike, conservatively dressed, or over six-feet tall - they are Dutch. If they look like extras from a bad pirate movie - they are tourists.
With only a few hours until my morning train to Berlin, I took to the streets in search of ink for my arm and some sizable metal ring to hollow out the lobe of my ear. When traveling it is important to embrace your role as tourist.

Saturday, June 8, 2013

Paris and the American Who Yelled About World War II

Despite the considerable distance and channel between them, it is exceedingly pleasant to leave London in the wee hours of the morning, dive into the Chunnel, and resurface a few moments later in France, cutting well across two millennia of wars and World Cup rivalry in a shade north of two hours.
With my departure at 5:40 a.m., I had planned to nap for what I thought was a 3.5-hour ride to the City of Lights. I had forgotten of course the time zone change and the hour I would lose which made the commute faster and a less relaxing ride than I had hoped. In London I had been staying nearly six miles from the center of the city and was enthused to find my next place of rest only a half mile from Paris' Gare du Nord train station.
Upon arrival at the hostel I was greeted by a man whom I would later learn was my slum lord. 
The full danger and complete lack of amenity was not immediately obvious upon entering due to the fact that, in a shrewd move to capture more business, the lobby looked somewhat respectable. It belied the unkempt and shoddy underbelly of the facility.
It was nothing special, but nice enough to keep you from running back the way you came and when they asked for cash payment for the stay instead of card, I ignorantly handed over a wad of Euros before seeing the room. 
In retrospect, the half-dozen or so nefarious characters gathered near the entrance who were clearly not guests should have given me some amount of pause, but it would not be until later that I would learn to fully embrace the faults of my Parisian palace.
As I entered the room I was greeted by two bunk beds, four red walls so close that you would have had trouble playing a competitive game of foosball even if the room were empty, a single metal chair presumably for lounging and soaking in the comfort and luxury of your new environs, and two large Spanish men who hung off the sides of their bunk due to their considerable zeal for the Spanish cuisine I assumed.
With a full day ahead of me I had planned to secure my backpack in a locker with my own padlock, grab a daypack, and roam the streets of Paris. The next, but not nearly the final problem I would discover is there was no locker availble in the room as there had been in every other hostel along my journey. I thought briefly about asking my hefty amigos to keep an eye out, but decided instead to inquire about lockers at the front desk.
When I made my way back, the attendant I had just dealt with was in the midst of an arm-waving, hand-slamming-on-the-counter shouting match with another traveller. Something about water dripping on her face from the ceiling above and her desiring a refund. It is fair to say the proprietor of this quality inn was meeting her request with resistance. After an unagreed upon compromise, at least by patron,  she would have the option to switch the direction she laid in bed so that water might strike her shins instead of her face or she could collect her things and leave for new digs, but without a refund.
She turned and left without indicating verbally her choice, but the speed at which she turned and the voracity with which she made certain the door closed behind her, I assumed she chose to alight for a new place to  lay her head over the modified Chinese water torture being offered in her current room.
Optimism running low, I followed her performance with a more demur effort. 
"Pardon," I said after pondering and then deciding against attempting what little French I knew. "Is there a locker available for my pack here? I didn't see one in the room."
The man behind the counter, who had been checking a social networking site on his computer I could now see, took a break from cyber-stalking hapless French girls to give thought to my proposal.
"A locker?" he asked insightfully.
"Yes, for my pack. So that it's safe?"
"Ah, sure bring me your pack."
I left and grabbed the backpack wondering the whole while exactly what its' future held.
"Here you are,"  I said handing it over.
"Merci," he replied taking my pack and placing it at his feet, half-hanging out onto a highly-trafficked area of the floor beside the desk. 
I hesitated momentarily, then gave some space, assuming that my bag was about to be transported some place more sound than, you know, the floor of the hostel by the front door.
After a few minutes of waving at my terrified pack from across the lobby, I decided to press again.
"Excuse me, but are you going to put that somewhere or just leave it there on the floor in the open?"
He spun in his chair. Again I was stealing his social-networking time.
"Where would you like me to put your things?" he asked as if there was not some already agreed upon place these types of things went and perhaps being the first person to ever mention it, I had an idea.
"I don't know. Don't you have lockers or something?"
"Ah, oui," he said and gathered up my helpless pack, walked it across the lobby to what I would find out was a closet full of cleaning supplies and old mops, although judging by the appearance of the place they had suffered only slight use, tossed my bag inside and locked the door.
"Won't people be going in and out of there? You know, to get brooms and mops or whatever?" I asked, continuing my magnificent streak of  hopeless naiveté.
"Oh, yes. Problem?"
I pulled the blue ballpoint pen from my jacket pocket, uncapped it, and drove it deep into the meaty side of his neck, watched him grab wildy at the protrusion in vain, saw his eyes search the room in full panic, looked on as he fumbled for a cell phone that he might use to call for help, post one last update to his Facebook account, and then topple over onto the floor while I stood above him and said, "Yes. Yes, it is a problem."
To be more specific, I calmly asked to have my bag back and with almost no voiced complaint, locked it to the bed frame in my room with the obese Cheech and Chong impersonation team and left to visit the city.
Paris is a splendid place. I can say this confidently because even with the goings on in my hostel, I left with a very positive outlook on my experience there.
With three days to venture and climb around wherever I chose, I took the first day to visit Musee du Louvre, or the Louvre to anyone who does not stop to buy a baguette on the way home from work.
With over 35,000 different pieces, the Louvre holds what many consider to be the greatest single collection of art in the world, not just now, but in all of history. It began as a fortress in 1190 and transformed later into a royal palace, a cause it would serve for four centuries, before eventually becoming a museum in the late 18th century. 
The massive estate is best known as the home of Leonardo DaVinci's Mona Lisa, but plays host to dozens of other priceless works such as the Venus de Milo, the sculpture of Cupid and Psyche, one of the world's oldest documents - the Code of Hammurabi, and the ultra massive Coronation of Napoleon. 
Many people are worried prior to entry that it will  be difficult to find DaVinci's most famous work among the sea of art on display. Quite the opposite, it is hard not to gravitate toward the painting. Once inside, virtually every corner has a poster with a print of the Mona Lisa adorning it and below an arrow guiding you in the right direction. It is as if the Mona Lisa were a garage band trying to get word out about next weekend's set at The Tipsy Room and were going around plastering advertisements on all the telephone poles in town. 
It would be cliche to say experiencing the Mona Lisa is a letdown, but that is almost exclusively the reaction most visitors leave with. Not necessarily because it isn't a captivating piece of art, but because there is nothing very obviously special about it. It is impossible to get closer than 15 or so feet due to a barrier that separates the throng of aspiring photographers from the glass case that houses the painting. In practice it is nearly impossible to get even that close. To do so, you have to have a questionable moral compass because it undoubtedly means you have elbowed an elderly Asian man trying to use up his third reel of film all on the Mona Lisa, and likely sideswiped a small child who has been commissioned to weasel between other visitor's legs all the way to the front for a better picture for their parents like some sort of photography child soldier.
I took the work in as best I could from about half a football field away and then moved on. 
After spending the better part of the day perusing the various galleries, I departed completly famished. My stomach barked at me to stop and grab a sandwich at a small cafe near the museum.
I ordered a ham sandwich on a baguette, although the whole thing carried a much fancier title on the menu, and a soft drink. The sandwich was priced at €5, which was reasonable enough considering this place dealt mostly with tourists.
"Would yooo care for Frommage?" the waiter asked.
He knew I was an American and obviously knew English enough to ask the question, but decided to replace the word cheese with the French, frommage.
"Uh, sure that'd be great."
The meal came and quickly disappeared. After checking my phone for directions to the Eiffel Tower for a night viewing, I walked to the counter. It was the kind of cafe where you paid at the counter, that is to say an affordable one.
"I'll take my check," I said to the gathered crowd of cooks and waiters, all of whom seemed to perform both duties with equal skill.
"Yes,  here you are," said the man who had brought my sandwich handing me my bill.
I looked down to discover a bill of €14.This was not an astonishing price to pay for a meal  in Paris, but when you order a €5 sandwich with one soft drink, it is a mild surprise to find a €14 bill awaiting your exit.
"I only had the sandwich and the one drink," I said. 
"Yes, the Croquere is here," he said pointing to my receipt and indicating the item I had the nerve to call a sandwich, "and the rest is for the drink and the cheese."
I  could now see a €5 charge for my soda and a €4 charge for cheese. Suddenly it was cheese. Not frommage, just cheese. Swiss at that.
"Cheese is €4?" I asked with a tone of someone who might have just learned the cost of replacing a radiator after the work had been done.
"Frommage is €4," the waiter/cook/obstinate cashier corrected.
"The receipt," I said, volume increasing, "says it's cheese."
I decided against pursuing the matter further and pulled out my credit card to pay.
"No card. Minimum €20 Euro on card," said the Frenchman. 
"Come again..."
"You must have €20 charge to use card here," he said gesturing to a case full of pastries that could bring my bill to a big enough number, "pick one."
"I should've just gotten double frommage I guess," I said. 
In a rare moment of victory in Paris, I made a stand. I made a stand for God and for country and for bullshit rules to run up someone's bill.
"I have €8 in my pocket. You can have that if you don't want to run this card. I also have this credit card that can pay for my sandwich, soda, and precious frommage in full. You can have your pick of the two, but I ain't paying €20 for a ham and cheese sandwich."
The small group who had now gathered behind the counter shared a handful of wordless looks and then ran my card for the €14 I owed.
I took my copy of the receipt, gathered my daypack, turned to leave, and said, "I'll  be checking my statement to make sure it stays at €14, too. And you're all welcome for World War II."
Yes, Paris and I - harmony from the very first.
Paris is a town for eating. It is a task to find a street corner in any part of the city that is not covered in small round tables with willing patrons draped over them. It is also a criminal offense to eat indoors in Paris if the weather is nice.
A tad over 88-percent of the city work in cafes. Another six-percent are docents at museums, four-percent peddle cheap replicas of the Eiffel Tower to tourists as they stumble drunkenly off dinner cruises of the River Seine, while the final two-percent of Parisiens spend their days zipping through the streets on scooters, utilizing their horns on unsuspecting tourists who get a little too loose with the rules of the crosswalk.
After a couple days, I began to wonder how things ever got done around here. It was as if the whole metroplex was run by machines that freed up all the citizens to lounge in sleepy crepieres stowed away on cobbled streets and curled up with their morning brew for three hours.
Coming from London where people eat sandwiches while riding their bikes to work,  Paris seemed downright lazy. Albeit a beautifully relaxed, supremely mellow kind of lazy.
I was wrapt in the Parisien way of life. Who among us would choose garbled muffins while chasing subway cars at 6 a.m. over croissants and coffee at one delightful cafe after another, changing locations only when your butt falls asleep?
If it were not for the French, Paris would be perfection. 
I say this only half-kidding, of course. The Parisiens often take the wrap for being rude and discourteous hosts to the world who would hope to visit their beautiful city. While many of them are short on patience and long on frustrated grunts and eye rolls, they are not all that different from New Yorkers. The difference is we, as Americans, pretend their is a softer heart inside every New Yorker while we imagine the French to be harsh, intolerant, and a bit too in touch with their sensitivities.
I developed a theory for what I believe is at least part of the discord between Americans and the French. To me it goes back to tone. Their is a natural French style and cadence of speech that does not translate favorably when they speak to Americans. Quite simply, the French speak the way Americans do when we are making fun of someone we do not like. 
An example might go something like this:
"So Peggy comes into the party and we all know how Peggy is, right?" one American might say speaking of an absent and generally disliked co-worker. "She's all like, "Hiii I'm Peeeeggggyyy and I liiiikkkkee to take fiiiiiiivvvee hoooouuurrr lunch breaks because  IIIIIII'mmmm too lazy to wooooooorrrrk like the rest of yooooooo."
This is how the French speak to their mothers. This became clear to me after asking a street vendor for directions to Notre Dame Cathedral. 
"The Cathedraaaalll is riiiiiiight theeeerrrreee," he responded waving his arm in the general direction as if he had just completed some trick of magic. "Caannn yooooooo not seeeee ittt?"
Initailly I thought he was being very condesending, but then I realized he was just using the same French tone and cadence, but speaking to me in English, thus causing him to sound as if he was speaking to someone who spends their time outside wearing a helmet while tethered to the monkey bars.  
Quite by accident I stumbled upon the   justice building after leaving Notre Dame. It is one of the only places in Paris where you can still find scars from World War II. They come in the form of bullet holes which dot the cement walls in two- and four-inch wide craters made by Nazi bullets after a rogue French force had retaken the once German-held building during some of the fighting.
It is rather a wonder there is any city worth visiting here at all.
The Nazis ran the place for four years and Hitler desired to see it crumble to the ground before being retaken by Allied forces. The dictator gave the command to the general he had placed in charge of controlling Paris, that if liberating forces drew too near to the city, he was to burn the city to the ground. If Hitler could not have Paris, like a child, no one could. 
The commanding general, Dietrich von Choltitz, decided in the final moments of Nazi control in Paris, not to flatten the Parisien cityscape in the interest of saving his own skin. He figured that salvaging the city could be parlayed into amnesty once it came time to pay for the sins of the war. Dietrich was right. The general recevied full pardon from punishment, despite whatever atrocities he committed or commanded, all because he did not give the final one - to crush the city.
My final stop was the Eiffel Tower, the one monument in Paris the French like to say was not conquered by the Nazis. As Hitler arrived at the monument to look over and celebrate his taking of the city, the lift operators lied and told him the elevator cords had been snipped, but that the Fuhrer could take the stairs.
Hitler suddenly insisted that the view of the city from the top of a nearby hotel had been largely underrated and thus never mounted the tower.
I had been the first night I arrived to see the magnificent light show that occurs in the first five minutes of every hour after sundown, but had not gone to the top. 
The feat of reaching the top, I discovered soon, was a fool's errand. It starts enticingly enough as tickets are only €11, the only detractor being the 35-minute line a visitor must wait in to purchase admission. 
I was also very aware I would have to climb from ground level to the second floor of the tower before I would be aided by an elevator for the remainder of the journey.
What I did not know prior, was that I would have to wait another 45 minutes on the second floor for the elevator. I was pouring sweat and drastically deydrated, but would have gladly clambered the rest of way by stair had that been an option. It was not.
After the nearly hour wait I rattled to the top by elevator and was met by a spectacular panorama of the city in all directions.
 What a surprising number of visitors do not anticipate, however, is that the tower itself will not be included in any of these wonderful photos.
I happened upon this humourous oversight while observing an older American couple negotiate which picture angle would best capture their Eiffel Tower experience.
"Just hold it up and get our heads in the picture with the Arch of Triumph behind 'em, Carl," the woman demanded.
"Sweetheart, I can't see what's in the camera view, honey. If I could I would get the picture, but I can't," Carl pleaded. "I'm doing the best I can here."
"It's not that hard, just hold up your hand and point it at us, you goof."
Carl made another go of the picture only to be met with a disappointed expression from his wife upon review.
"This isn't gonna work," she said.
"What's wrong now, Deena? It's all in there. Look you can see us and the Triumph Arch over our heads."
"You can't tell that we're on the Eiffel Tower though. How are people gonna know we're taking it from the Eiffel Tower."
I chanced jumping into Deena's sights to have a go at Carl's aide.
"What else will they think you're standing on,"  I offered, "The wing of your airplane?"
Carl smiled. Deena did not. I  left. 
It was another half-hour line for the elevator to get down and it brought to mind a story I read on the train from London about a local tailor who climbed to the top of the tower in 1931 when it was still the world's tallest and, with wings strapped to his arms and legs, had a try at flying.
He was unsuccessful. 
However, as I stood there in the midst of my third hour trapped on the tower I began to wonder if maybe he simply grew tired of waiting for the lift.

Wednesday, June 5, 2013

London and my Dance with the Green Fairy

Feeling energized and industrious after a fulfilling visit to the medieval time capsule of Edinburgh, I made plans to wake at 5 a.m., giving myself a few moments to cinch up my pack, strap on shoes, grab a quick granola, and clamber up to Waverly Station for a 6:38 a.m. departure to London.
After absent-mindedly hitting the snooze on my cellular alarm a few times much to the chagrin of my bunkmates who were perhaps hoping to let sunrise pass unwitnessed that particular morning, I finally came to enough to realize I had just 44 minutes before the train I had targeted rolled on to London without me.
As if I were part of some unfortunate cliche cartoon sketch, I jumped to a seated position from the bottom bunk and promptly greeted the top bunk, and its unfortunate resident, with the side of my forehead.
To his credit the fellow slept right through the jostling, eliciting only a foreign sounding, "Ayeohhh huhmm," before rolling over and resuming what I can only assume was the slow skinning of a baby velociraptor. 
There is always someone who snores in a hostel. It is a given. I had been successful in reaching a dream state most nights thanks to ear plugs. However, the young Frenchman on the bunk above and his nasal symphony would not be deterred.  At one point another American opposite our bunk climbed from his, walked across the room, and shook Frenchie back to consciousness just to ask, "Is this for real? Are you trying to be funny and play a joke on us or do you really snore like that?"
The Frog made a similar grunt as the one he had just croaked at me and resumed murdering llamas.
Without stopping to rub the lump that was growing on my head, I threw my scattered belongings haphazardly into my pack, tied the whole project shut, and gave a quick look around for left behind items before sprinting breakfast-less from the hostel.
My pack lobbing from side to side, I took on the form of an Olympic speed walker - hips, feet, and elbows flailing wildly at all angles - trying to find a way to travel quickly enough to catch a train and unable to actually run with the weight of a second grader on my back.
I covered the 2.3 miles to the station, not thinking until I nearly arrived that it might have been a sublime time to take my first European taxi, in about 35 minutes. With the five or so minutes I took gathering up my things, I had just made it.
I checked the departures list, headed for platform 11, threw my things in an overhead rack before collpasing into a cushy chair sweating profusely.
"Welcome aboard Scot Rail with service this morning to London. This train is for passengers with tickets for 6:38 service only," announced the captain over the speakers.
The thing is, my ticket was for a 1:30 p.m. train. I did not realize until I began using the trains in Glasgow, but my tickets were not actually for a specific train, just a date on the calendar, and I could ride any train I chose between those two destinations leaving on the decided upon date.
This announcement was a mild shock, but I assumed I had just misunderstood the information. One of the interesting and potentially tragic practices of the British rail system is that tickets are not checked until after the train departs meaning if you were on the wrong train, you would be charged for the difference, or possibly a new ticket altogether with no hopes of jumping from the car to dodge the penalty. 
After a moment of reflection I decided, as it was announced the doors were about to shut, to verify I was permitted on board.
I grabbed my pack and poked my head from the train car, calling to one of the conductors, "Excuse me, sir!" attempting to garner his attention from the ruckus  of the station.
He responded by holding up his hand, palm facing my direction, while looking in the other.
"It's just that I think I might be on the wrong train is all!"
He gave a repeat performance except this time he blew his whistle at me.
I disembarked the train to speak with him directly and just as I did, with a simple flip of his white-gloved hand as if he were shooing a fly from his fish and chips, he motioned ahead for an operator to shut the doors. 
I was not going to be riding to London on this train I suddenly realized.
"I need to be on that train, I think. I have a ticket, but it says for 1:30 p.m. and I..."
He turned sharply and blew his whistle in my face, but I was thankfully spared the palm.
If you have never had a whistle blown at you in response to a question, you cannot fully appreciate the complete lack of options for response left at your disposal. 
I briefly pondered the ramifications of snatching the whistle from his mouth and attempting to deposit it against his will in an unlucky orifice of my choosing before ultimately deciding not to risk a visit to the Edinburgh police station. 
After the train began to move, he spit the whistle and faced me again.
"Whut is it thah yooo need?"
I thought again about committing simple assault, before turning over my ticket.
"Could I have ridden that train?" I asked handing him the stub.
"Noot wath this tickaht, yooo can't," he drolled. "Yoor tickaht is an advahnced tickaht for 19 pounds. If yooo woulda steeyed on thaht train they woulda charged ya 155 pounds when yooo didn't have the right tickaht."
The frugal part of my mind wanted to drop my backpack and plant a kiss on his pasty forehead. 
"Are you serious? That would've been terrible. I thought I could take any train."
"No, yoo have a discount tickaht only goood for the 1:30 train," he said.
I thanked him for saving me roughly $235 and took the next hour slowly loping back to my hostel, exhausted, chilled to the bone from my sweat soaked t-shirt, utterly defeated, and cursing myself aloud rather to the dismay of other pedestrians.
A return to my bunk and the Frenchman slowly twisting the heads off miniature goats, found me four hours later rejuvenated and ready for my second assault on the train station.
This time I was able to board thanks to the rather obvious fact that I actually went to the correct train at the appropriate time and settled in for the 4.5 hour stroll to London.

Views on the way to London from Edinburgh.

Arriving in London's Kings Cross station I was greeted by the 5 p.m. hellfire that is London's public transit system. They call it "The Tube" and the station I was alighting from was one of the busiest which is saying quite a lot in a city of seven million.
The whole operation looks like an anthill you have just discovered squished under your shoe. 
Everyone is running as if aliens have begun blasting the place and they are willing to use old ladies, children, and lost Americans with too much luggage in tow as makeshift trampolines or airbags if you hinder their pace. It is considered audacious not to know exactly which of the dozens of train routes you need to take and you commit the sin of stopping to check your bearings.
There is a steady stream of older men in crisp business suits bounding up stairs three and four at a time as if they are fleeing a drug deal gone wrong.
Skipping the elderly and the lost in line to buy tickets or to go through the automated gates is not frowned upon, it is championed. 
The train was closing its' doors just as I reached the proper platform to take me to the hostel I had booked.
Just behind me a mid-40s business man in a navy suit and red tie came crashing down the stairs like free beer was being given away.
Upon seeing the train roll by with its' doors already closed the flustered car salesman threw his hands into the air as if he were just stabbed  in the back with a letter opener, dropped his head to his knees, cursed loudly at his loafers, and stamped his foot twice.
Startled, I asked him, "Where are you headed?"
He sprung to an erect posture and, with a tone suggesting he had just escaped police custody and was rather resigned to the prospect of being recaptured, now said, "Home!"
Just behind him an illuminated arrivals board announced the next train to the exact same destination would be along in two minutes. This was the cause of the extreme disgust and frustration for my friend on the platform. Two minutes. He would arrive at home 120 seconds later than he had hoped. This had very nearly destroyed him. 
In London another train is always two minutes away, which gives you an idea about the sheer volume of passengers the Tube transports on a daily basis.
Despite the readily available public transportation, London is not really a city given to pedestrian tourism. It's just far too big.
Coming from Edinburgh where every attraction is strung neatly together in a small town center, walking is a pleasure.
In London you are likely to end up dehydrated and alone on the side of the Thames if you try to hoof it between destinations. For this reason I bought a 24-hour bike pass for $3 which allowed me unlimited use of public bike stands for a day. It was an absolutely invigorating experience and with the ability to glide by cars and busses jammed in traffic by using the bike lane, it might be the fastest way to travel in the city.
After a night's rest I buzzed from the hostel, slamming a couple of pieces of toast and jam as I departed, anxious to see the city.
I took the Tube to Westminster Abbey, the site of so many royal weddings and coronations. This was a natural first stop as it was on the southern end of a long trail of historic buildings and 
museums I planned to visit.

Westminster Abbey

When I climbed from the station, I realized something unusual was afoot. All of the sidewalks had been cordoned off with baracades and the only places to cross were guarded by London metro police officers, some of which were walking around with automatic weapons tethered to their necks. 
I sidled alongside one of the less intimidating members of the patrol and asked him what was with all the fuss.
"It's a celebration," he said. "The Queen's. She's having the 60th anniversary of her coronation at the Abbey today."
"The Queen's going to be here today?"
"In about an hour. Her and all the royals and other important people. They'll all be here."
He told me if I was interested in absorbing it all, I could head around the side opposite the House of Parliament where the paparazzi and others hoping to catch a glimpse would be gathered.
I joined the hoard of media, tourists, and proud Londoners and shimmied up toward the front where I could see more easily. Over the next hour, under the careful watch of snipers draped on the ledges of surrounding buildings, Prince William and the Duchess of Cambridge, Prince Phillip, and Queen Elizabeth II all made their way to the Abbey one chauffeur-driven Rolls Royce at a time. 
It all reminded me a bit of seeing Santa Claus at the mall for the first time as a child. You have known they existed for your whole life, but to actually take them in as more than just an image on the front of a tabloid or a fuzzy bunch of pixels on a television is momentarily startling.

Prince William and the Duchess of Cambridge

The Queen of England, Elizabeth II, and the Duke of Edinburgh.

Once they entered I decided to continue my trek across London realizing my plans for visiting the Abbey would have to wait for another time. I popped down Whitehall and made past the Houses of Parliament and Big Ben. 

Big Ben and the Houses of Parliament

When you visit London in brief, you have to make some choices about how you will spend your time. I had decided to tour Buckingham Palace because I was fairly certain it was required fare for first-time visitors, The National Gallery, and the Tower of London.
This would leave me with plenty of time to roam and explore side streets which I have always found more plesant when visiting a new city anyway. Sprinting from one attraction to the next in an effort to check them off the list always felt rushed, stressful, and much less satisfying. 
For some reason it never occured to me on the long walk from Big Ben to Buckingham Palace, that I would not be able to visit the interior of the palace either.
When the Queen is in residence, the royal flag atop the palace is raised and this means no poking about inside. I vaguely remembered learning about this in school, but had to be reminded when I arrived that my plans would once again be altered.

Buckingham Palace

This gave me more time to explore the Trafalgar Square area and the National Gallery, however. After lunch I continued walking north along the Thames toward the Tower Bridge and the Tower of London.
As I attempted to cross an otherwise unimportant road on my journey north I made the mistake of looking left as I stepped off the curb. And because cars in Great Britain come from the right, this can cause mild discomfort up to and including turning you into a fried egg.
As my foot struck pavement I could feel the heat from the sun reflecting in the bus' windshield that was bearing down on me. Momentum being what it will, I carried out with another half step before stopping enough and turning to realize my folly and subsequent impending doom in the form of a red double-decker.
With reflexes that I had not displayed since my neighbor Chris Costello threw a spider at me when we were in grade school, I employed a move I witnessed in the movie The Matrix mixed with a dash of the Cupid Shuffle and replanted myself in one altogether impressive display back on the curb from whence I came.
This performance came much to the relief of the driver, who was blaring his horn as a show of appreciation, and the unsullied entertainment of the pedestrians on my curb of origin.
"Ay mate," one of them half-yelled, half-laughed at me. "They got it on the street right in front of ya, 'Look Right.'"
Apparently my display was a common enough happening in the streets of London that the city had actually painted in front of every cross walk which direction walkers should look for traffic. Likely the locals had grown tired of piles of struck tourists and responding paramedic vehicles jamming up traffic and making them 120 seconds later getting back home.

Another curious aspect of the British traffic system are its' traffic lights. In the States and most of the rest of the world, the lights go from green to yellow, and on to red. When it's time to move again red becomes green. In Britain, after red the light flashes yellow, and then returns green. This is something very similar to the way the  lights are orchestrated at drag races back home to give speedsters the best possible jump on the go light.
It has a similar effect in London where drivers watch a queue of pedestrians cross  in front of them like ducks in a shooting game at the fair, and rev their engines as the last couple straglers dance across waiting for the light to flash yellow. You feel rather a lot like a football on a tee waiting to be booted through the uprights by the next Peugot in line. 
The Tower of London, which I survived traffic to visit, had been the jewel of my stay. 
A couple years prior a relative of mine had completed an exhausting two-year geneology project that culminated in a overwhelmingly massive family tree stretching back hundreds of years in multiple branches. The most amazing connection he discovered, however, was a line on my mother's side that connected all the way back to William the Conquerer.

Interior building in the Tower of London

Because of the nature of exponential family growth over generations, there are literally millions of us walking around today who are decendents of William the Conqurer, Genghis Khan, and many other famous and infamous historical characters.
William desceded from Vikings, rose to power as Duke of Normandy, and in 1066, raided the shores of London from modern day France. Successful in his conquest, he was crowned King of England on Christmas Day of that year.
William built many castles across the land to fortify crucial military strongpoints the most famous of which was the Tower of London. It began construction in 1078 with the erecting of White Tower by William himself.

William the Conquerer, my famous relative represented a bit unfortunately in this tapestry

Today the tower is crowded with tourists and is virtually nothing but an attraction, although the ancient fortress and the army of Beefeaters who patrol it do still have one important assignment - to protect the Crown Jewels.

A Beefeater

The Crown Jewels are really quite a thing to look upon. In the collection at the Tower you will find Cullinan I, the second-largest polished diamond in existence in the world today. The 530.4 carat diamond is the centerpiece of the Sceptre with the Cross, which is meant to symbolize the temporal authority of the Monarch under the cross, but really looks like the world's fanciest yardstick.
Upon leaving the Tower I rambled through the streets of London, wandering in and out of curious alley pubs as they caught my glance.
I had a couple pints before I finally stumbled into an establishment whose name for reasons to be explained, I can no longer recall.
I reached the bar easily as there were only 20 or so patrons and was enjoying a draught of Doombar when the American accent I had displayed while ordering drew the attention of a table of gentlemen seated behind me.
"Hey mate, come ova here and settle something for us," called one of them.
Travelling alone and excited by the prospect of friendly conversation I decided to walk over.
"My friend here is going to stay out until midnight," another of them said, pointing to the person who had originally called me over, "if I eat a cap full of pepper."
He proceeded to dump palm full of black pepper into his mouth, tug my arm to serve as neutral witness, swallow the whole of it and promptly cough, blowing half of it out of his nose.
It was the closest I felt to home since departing for Dublin. This was the first pub I had found that was not lined with boring executives pasted to the wall drinking bottles of Harp beer without raising their voices above a barely audible whisper.
Ireland and Scotland had been roaring parties of crazed drinking celebrating the fact that the sun had risen yet another day and would likely do so again tomorrow.
In London, until now, every establishment had the feeling of a company Christmas social when the boss is in town and everyone is afraid to have too much fun.
An hour after the pepper incident and we were bellied up to the bar discussing the pros and cons of flopping in soccer, driving on the left side of the road, and the American Revolution. 
After some time the conversation shifted to our empty pint glasses.

Pint of Doombar

"Less doo a shootah," one of them said in a drunk English accent.
I was handed a skinny shot glass full of green liquid topped with something brown and slimy that all vaguely resembled a racoon's brain floating in the green jar of liquid they sterilize the combs in at a barber shop.
Like any courteous guest who has a history of questionable decision-making, I shouted "Cheers!" and all glass bottoms went skyward.
What I tasted was much like I imagined the racoon brain and barber shop formaldehyde  would taste.
"Ohhh," I yelled to whoever was responsible for the concoction. "That was the worst thing I've ever tasted. That was radiator fluid in a glass."
"Well, mate," said one of my newfound friends looking around the whole group as if about to tell the punch line of a dirty joke, "No one drinks absinthe for the taste. Is this your first dance with the Green Fairy?"
During the early 1900s absinthe was outlawed in much of Europe and America due to its' extremely high alcohol content and  psychoactive properties.
I know three things about the rest of that evening. First being that I was dosed with absinthe by a group of Englishmen who eat ground pepper to win bets. The second is I made it to the Tube for a ride back to my hostel. I know this only because that is where I woke up the next morning. And finally, I know that I am quite sure I will never remember anything else about that night. 
With my head pulsating like a rung bell the next morning, I did a physical check of my body one limb at a time to make sure I was intact and had not left a finger at the bar or a toe in the doors of a train. 
Ailing but having avoided any permanent scathing, I was cheered to remember absinthe was banned in Paris.