Wednesday, March 4, 2009

About damn time I blog again...

Damn… it has been a looong time since I wrote last. Sorry for that. After spending a month abroad then coming back home to a time consuming job has left me a little free time. Also, I bought a HUGE TV and Playstation 3… so my valuable downtime when I should be writing and losing weight is now associated with eating Pringles while driving over hookers in Grand Theft Auto IV. My bad.

So, it’s about time I get everyone caught up in the daily Doha grind. I guess I have to go back to December and give the details of my first trip to Europe, gracefully entitled… “The Pork Crusade.”

December 2008… The semester finally finished up. The students were prepping for finals, and I was lugging lasers from one building to another; setting up the new research lab where I’m working part-time. Everything was coming to an end, and I needed a little adventure. Dubai was great, but after India, I needed another really big experience.

So I prepped and fretted over my first solo vacation to Europe for about a month. I was able to save up a few vacation days, and was able to take an entire month off. I was going to spend the whole month traveling abroad, but I realized that my Mom would probably beat me to death if I didn’t get to the states to visit. When I was planning my trip, I kept asking people for their opinions, ideas, and travel tips. Turns out everyone was startled to learn that I had never traveled to Europe. And that is a little weird… my first truly overseas trip (Cancun doesn’t count) was to Doha. I had to assure people that I was, in fact, very well traveled… at least in the U.S. Seriously, I’ve been just about everywhere in the states. But my lack of worldly sophistication wasn’t entirely my fault! On four separate occasions I planned for a trip to Paris and London… twice my travel buddy bailed on me, and twice I bought the tickets! But just before the trips, doctors had to ruin them by telling me I needed surgery on one body part or another… goddamn doctors…

So, on December 3rd, I ignored the quacks and flew to Frankfurt, Germany.

Frankfurt… I walked around for a while, stowing my luggage full of gifts for the family at the airport. I was going the one bag route, carrying only my Rick Steves’ Convertible Carryon backpack. Walking outside, I felt something entirely foreign to me… not so much the language or the people… but the cold, gray sky. To see a non-dusty bright sky followed by icy cold wind was thrilling! I love the advertisements in Germany… I saw one in the airport of a fully naked woman, breasts exposed, painted to look like a tiger crouched over two pale babies, that somehow was trying to sell me a Tag Hauer watch.
Following everyone’s advice, I got out of Frankfurt as soon as possible. My friend Alaska convinced me to book my Eurorail tickets early, so all I had to do was find the train station inside the airport. Once there, I found my train to Munich and jumped aboard. At this point I came upon my first serious challenge… I didn’t know where to sit. Each car was labeled, and each seat has a little glowing sign that read something in German. The train was mostly full with people who seemed to know exactly what they were doing… no fair. I sat down, and meekly asked the gentleman across from me if the seat was taken, and he explained the whole “reserved seating” signs above the seats. I was OK for a while until the next stop, when someone came and wanted her reserved seat. So, I spent the three hour train trip people watching the Germans and jumping from seat to seat between stops.

(Later, I found out I had purchased a first class ticket, and was in the wrong car. I had an extra-wide reserved seat with dedicated steward and a hot meal waiting for me about fifteen cars over… oops.)

Munich… The train skipped thru the night and pulled into Munich at night. The European train stations are such a throwback to things that you’ve seen in movies and television. Huge semi-domes with thirty trains pulling in and out non-stop, and exactly on time! I followed the massive throng of people onto the concourse was taken aback by the sights and smells. Tons of food booths filled to the brim with sausages and beer… yeah! I walked outside, had a smoke in the cold night air, and followed my map to my first bed of the night… Wombat’s City Hostel.

Ok, I know this looks bad. Here I am, a moderately successful grown man who chose to backpack thru Europe and is staying in hostels. I never got to travel like a young man should when I was a young man… I decided to start work three days after graduating college. Maybe I’m coming a little late to the party… but screw it… it’s my trip, and I can afford a nice hotel if I want to!

The hostel was right by the train station, and I checked in for the night. Wombat’s was nothing like the hostels I was expecting. I always imagined them as dank, super-cheap, holes-in-the-wall that were just good enough to not get raped while you sleep. This place was better than some really nice places I’ve stayed. They had a quiet area inside full of cots and hammocks for reading and relaxing, a private bar, and really hot girls walking around… I loved it. The room was sparse, just six bunk beds and a single chair, but who cares! It wasn’t like I had a great chance of getting laid being the oldest and fattest guy in the place.

I left and walked around Munich for an hour or so, just people watching, trying to figure out the street signs. Turns out that everyone who lives in Munich smokes all the time, everywhere they go. Also, everyone looks great and wears scarves. I had bought a scarf online before I left… in fact; I bought all my winter clothes online before I left. Not much heavy winter coat selection in Arabia. I went into a small restaurant across from the hostel, and ordered a ham pizza with a very large Bavarian beer. God they both tasted so good. I went back to the bar, had a few drinks, chatted up some people, and hit the bunks.

The next morning, I had my complimentary breakfast of cornflakes, coffee, and bread with Nutella. This is the breakfast of choice of all hostels. I ate more cornflakes and Nutella in two weeks than I had in the previous thirty-two years of my life.

I signed up for Wombat’s free four-hour walking tour of Munich. Most hostels have free (or cheap) tours in every city. I joined the group, met up with Ozzie (the only black Bavarian tour guide in Germany) and left for the walk. We took our time and toured the old town of Munich. Ozzie explained the sights, history, and smells of Munich really well. We toured all the major churches, saw the famous glockenspiel at noon, and headed over to a beer garden for lunch. I asked Ozzie what he would recommend for someone who has gone without pork for almost a year… he suggested a slow roasted pork shoulder sandwich with mustard and beer. I ordered this masterpiece of culinary delights and dived in. It was breathtaking… there’s no way I can explain how good a juicy piece of pork tastes when you have been denied its love for so long.

Everyone on the tour was backpacking thru Europe at one stage or another. Backpackers have a particular custom when meeting new people… everyone asks the same questions: Where are you from? Where have you been? Where are you going? People start sharing their details and sights, horror stories are told, and you begin building a rapport with these strangers that have the same desire as you… so see and experience new places, things, and people. Very cool.

We saw the Hofbrauhaus, and got a detailed history of the Nazi Party and Hitler. At one point, we were in a beautiful round-a-bout when an old lady ran over a traffic cone and it got stuck under her car. I ran over and pulled it out from her wheel well, and was cheered as a conquering hero by my group. Odd, considering that was exactly how Hitler got started.

At the end of the tour, Ozzie asked for tips (free tour, remember?) and suggested some other places to go see. I joined up with some young Australian engineers, and started off to walk to the Parliament. At this point… it started to rain. Not a sprinkle, but a full on downpour in just above freezing temperatures. My cohorts started to duck under cover… while I just stared up at the sky and enjoyed the refreshing drops on my face. When you haven’t seen rain in 11 months… you realize how much you miss the feel of it.

Afterwards, I went back to the hostel to dry out a little, and went out again to sample the old town at night. The Kriskindnachtlmarket (Christmas night markets) were open at night, so the old town was filled to the brim with Bavarians. The markets are large booths that are absolutely filled to the brim with handmade Christmas ornaments, gifts, and toys. Anything from hand-blown glass trees to wooden toys… all backlit by the huge Christmas tree outside of the Glockenspiel. The smell of the place was amazing! Everywhere you turned there was roasted pork and deep red bratwursts, hard candies, chocolates, pastries, and… swear to God… roasting chestnuts in fifty different flavors!! Wafting thru the delicious odor of food was the smell of Ghuwein… a hot mulled wine. Now, when I say mulled, I’m talking about lots of spices… and several shots of scotch in a very tiny little glass. I bought one but couldn’t drink it. I’ve never had anything so strong in my life! But I paid for another glass because I wanted to keep the handmade glasses they came in (a little mug and a boot for mom).

Later, at the hostel, I went to the bar and met up with some of my tour group members. I also met some very friendly Serbian girls. Needless to say… nothing happened. But I did party hard into the night… dancing on the tables, drinking and smoking waaay too much. The locals say that you can’t get hung over on their beer because it is so pure… bullshit. I felt about one cigarette or one beer away from death the next morning. I went outside to try a fight off the hangover with the bitterly cold air… no luck.

I walked for about two hours until I reached the largest science and technology museum in Europe. I found a little spot in the chemistry section that had a discreet bench tucked behind a collage of the atom, and I sat. I sat without moving, turning, or opening my eyes. This was me, in Europe, trying desperately to not vomit in a museum. After about two hours, I raised my head, and went through the fascinating exhibits on bridges, water mills, and food agriculture (no, really, very fascinating)! That night, I walked back through the night markets, and climbed a few church spires. The bar… not for me tonight, thank you.

I did have to go shopping. Turns out, I made a very common backpackers mistake… I forgot my towel. Depending on the hostel, they may or may not give you linen, food, or restrooms. But none offer towels. I found a supermarket and went in search of a towel. But the only things I could find were 50Euro bathing sets with robes and slippers. Thankfully I searched the discount bin and found a nine Euro beauty… an American flag towel. It was so gauche’ I just had to have it.

My last day I just walked around the city, eating everything and enjoyed a book in a beer garden. I packed up my bag, checked out, walked to the train station, ate a bag of pommes frites with mayonnaise, and boarding my train (this time, the right car and seat!) to Salzburg, Austria.
Next up... The Hills are Alive with the Sound of Ben...

By the way... all the pictures on up... http://s249.photobucket.com/albums/gg223/benji-of-arabia/

1 comment:

Nadine Mathis said...

WELCOME BACK!!!! Thought we lost you over there!

Miss you -- Nadine