Monday, July 21, 2008

Too Perfect (Switzerland), Written 21 July 2008

14th, July - Monday morning 6am...pouring rain...was I sure about this hitchhiking thing?

Decided to try...after all, it should only take an hour to Lucerne...made my way to where I thought I should place myself (with the help of Maja and Andreas)...soaking one stopping...10 minutes later, a guy from the north who had to go to a suburb of Lucerne, Kries, for obligatory military training. Pouring rain...he took pity on me, and with his over-punctual Swiss nature, he had 40 minutes to spare, so decided to drive me up to my door in Hergiswil. Amazing.

Seeing Luciana...lovely. We met in Guatemala, in Xela (Quetzaltenango) last memories of her in Guatemala in the days that we explored markets together are that of an enormous love for cheese...all good in my book.

We talked talked talked, and finally went down to Hergiswil village to watch the glass making factory. This is Hergiswil's claim to fame, and indeed, every Swiss person I told that I would go to Hergiswil said, oh, that's where they make the glass...Anyway, it was quite interesting actually.

After alpenmacaron for lunch - macaroni with cream, butter, and cheese, with roasted onions...sounds like a heart attack that Yuri would thoroughly take pleasure in bringing on...I had a nice long siesta, after which the weather cleared up substantially so we went into Lucerne.

Lucerne is packed in summer with hordes of tourists, and it's easy to see why. Gorgeously placed on the river and lake, beautiful old buildings, ringed by snowcapped mountains...we wandered around for a few hours, climbed the city wall, saw monuments, bought chocolate and Lindentorte - delicious raspberry pie...

and went home for raclette, my favorite Swiss dish that I had requested. I was beginning to realize that I love Switzerland but I had to get out soon...the amount of high fat, high calorie things that this nation consumes, yet somehow manages to stay so fit because of all the mountains and gorgeous lakes and active's really amazing.

Tuesday morning, I was really fortunate and the Keisers gave me a ticket to use the Pilatusbahn, the train that goes up Mt. Pilatus. It's the steepest cog train railway in the world, and this of course means it is no surprise that thousands of tourists flock, especially Japanese who are fascinated with the "world's most-steepest-highest-fastest-_______ whatever". But, the hype was true. Breathtaking views all around, glaciers and snow in the middle of July, while you're on Alpine green fields with cows whose bells you can hear from hundreds of meters away.

Down to Kries, where Silvana kindly drove me to Saarnen so I could start my attempt to get to Valence, France. The first part was smooth...short ride with a guy from Zurich to Brunnig pass, then a honeymooning couple to Ballenwald, a Hungarian girl to Interlaken...then a woman from Interlaken on her way to Spiez for a dentist appointment. At Spiez the problems began. Several locals approached telling me it was really dangerous, and insisted I get off the road, actually taking my luggage with them. I tried to argue and they said no, they were going to call the police. I explained I didn't have money for the train (I had, but didn't want to spend it) and they said no, this doesn't work...etc etc. 5 minutes later the police arrived and deposited me at the train station in Spiez, waiting for me to buy a ticket. I took it a few stops, got off the train, and there were more police, because they probably suspected that I would try to hitch again. So in the end, with all the hassle, and the heat of midday (it was hot!) I conceded and used my credit card to get to Geneva.

In actuality, it was a good experience because I had started to get bored of always explaining my story, my trip, my life, my country, the differences between Asia and Europe, etc...I had forgotten how nice it is to get in a train, sit alone, and listen to music or not and just look out the window and watch the world go it wasn't so bad in the end...

But...arrived in Geneva, contemplated hitching, realized I was done trying for the day, and waited 2 hours to take a TGV (fast French train) to Lyon, where I changed to go to Valence.

Switzerland...people follow the rules...people watch out for each other, i.e. don't mind their own business...the people said, c'est votre affaires, it's your business, but they call the's so painfully beautiful, so perfect, but I don't imagine I could stay for too long...this sensation reminded me very much of Japan and Singapore...but, really, to visit, marvelous and impressive.

Monday, July 14, 2008

Swiss Wonderland (Written 13 July 2008)

I arrived in Zurich by train - the first time I've had to take public transport to my destination since I left the Czech Republic. It was a long, strenuous day with bad weather on the road from Belgium, a few bumps and troubles, nothing major, but finally I arrived in Singen, Germany, and my driver insisted I take the train - it was getting to be night and there wasn't much traffic, and he claimed that hitching in Switzerland is difficult because Swiss people don't like people that don't have money (I simply quote him)

Anyway, I arrived in Zurich at 10.41pm (yes, much much later than I had calculated - I had guesses by 6pm?) - and all the stereotypes of Switzerland seemed to be true - trains exquisitely punctual, clean, everyone is polite, everything is a strange way it reminded me of Japan, much more to do with these surface observations rather than the actual culture of the people.

Wonderful, really wonderful, to see Maja and Andreas. Maja had come to Japan to run a marathon in November 2006 and I was her guide in December for two weeks. We had formed a really good bond during those two weeks and it felt like a homecoming in Zurich, even though it was my first time in Switzerland.

Wednesday I lazed about until I met Brodie - what a strange coincidence - I know Brodie from Tokyo, when we lived literally 100m from each other in Nakano, and since then we seem to cross paths quite frequently in Tokyo...about a week ago he sent out a group email that he had arrived in Zurich for the IronMan (yes, he's crazy) - and he would just be hanging out for the next week. I couldn't believe the coincidence (I knew he was going to participate but had no idea of the date) and we arranged to meet up. So, on Wednesday we met at the station, gawked at how expensive the market food was (he resigned himself to a small plate of curry for 15 CHF - about 1550 yen - 15USD), then went to rent bikes. Zurich (and other large cities in Switzerland) has a great program where they are trying to promote eco-tourism and provide jobs for unemployed by renting free bicycles - you need only to leave a 20 franc deposit and the bike is yours for the day! Really great - so we rode around the lake, and ventured down to IronMan Land, as I call the area where it was being hosted, and finally to the Lindt Shop - yes, Lindt chocolate. I believe we spent about an hour poring over every single different variety and flavor and collection and package...I almost succeeded in not getting anything, Brodie had 9 bars of chocolate, including a 300g almond orange dark chocolate one, mmm...and when we were outside and I unlocked the bike, I dashed back inside to get the Summer Edition Strawberry Rhubarb. YUM.

We then rode back to meet Maja at the hospital, and from there we went to El Lokal, a really funky cool international feel bar along the river. There's indoor and outdoor seating and when that fills up, people get their drinks at the bar and then they find a spot along the river. Kind of not what I was expecting in Switzerland. I don't know why. Relaxed, beautiful, laid-back people enjoying sun with their sandals kicked off and smiles all around. Wow.

Thursday I met Raffaella, who I had met in Buenos Aires this March, and we wandered around the old city and finally succeeded in getting my Travellers Check cashed. My signature in my passport is written in Kanji, Japanese script derived from Chinese characters, and on my Travellers Checks I had signed using Latin script. Swiss banks are so go-by-the-rules that I actually was not permitted to change my check, even though I had my passport, a number of Credit/Debit Cards, and student ID etc. Wow. Figured out a way around it though, and I was all cashed up - which means nothing in Switzerland because money disappears like water in this country.

I then met Brodie at Burkliplatz, got bikes, and attempted to ride up the hill in the Southeast of town but I am out of shape and still not a cycling expert (very very far from it) so gave up and instead went to Werdinsel. This is an island very close to the city center, and it's unlike anything I've ever seen in a city before. People are sprawled out in bathing suits. You just jump in the river and the current, which is quite strong, carries you downstream until you come to a roped area with ladders to get out. The river flowing through the city is so clean that you can do this! Wow!

We cycled back along the river, passing the public baths, again packed with beautiful bodies, and then met Maja at Burkliplatz, where she and I had agreed to go for a swim. This area of Zurich is beautiful, and we lounged around with hundreds of others in the sunshine-y evening. Maja had invited me for a barbecue at her friend Denise's house (actually her boyfriend's), and it was really lovely. I felt very engaged and welcomed and comfortable with everyone there and it was a good evening with lots of laughs and great food.

Friday, Carole who I met in Nicaragua and went to Costa Rica with, had the day off so we took a day trip to see the sights around Zurich. Einsiedeln, Schwyz, Brunnen...then swimming at Zug. This day out really made me understand a bit more about Switzerland (at least this part of the country) - it is so clean, so well-organized, so compact, so green...the lake views from Brunnen were among the prettiest I've ever seen in my life...and it's all within easy driving distance of Zurich. Unbelievable.

In the evening, Rebeka who I met in Guatemala (she's Guatemalan and working as an au pair now) came for dinner at Maja's place.

Saturday, horrible weather so lounging about before our evening fondue. Totally different from previous fondues I've had, I was thoroughly impressed, and thoroughly suffering after the meal. 200 grams of cheese per person, splashes of white wine and cherry liquer...what more could you ask for?

And today, we took a trip to Weesen and did a 3 hour hike along the Wallensee to Quinten. A beautiful walk, unfortunately no spectacular views of the tall mountains because of the bad weather, but passing fields full of wildflowers, green forest, all while looking at the glacial blue water wasn't any small pleasure.

They cooked a Zurich specialty for dinner, pork in a mushroom cream sauce, and rosti, which is essentially a giant hash brown with Aromat, the ubiquitous Swiss seasoning which is delicious MSG and onion and various other powders...

Tomorrow I'm off to Lucerne for a day before heading back to France...conclusion is that yes, Switzerland is expensive, but it is really kind of worth it, considering the high quality and the speed and efficiency of everything. I'm almost surprised I never wanted to visit before - this had more to do with the fact that I didn't really have any Swiss friends until I met Maja in 2006 - now that I'm here, I can see myself easily wanting to visit regularly to see more of this breathtaking, small but important nation.

Saturday, July 12, 2008

Belgium (and Maastricht!)

I arrived in Belgium on Friday night, 4 July. Was headed to Hasselt, where Harm, who I met in Japan in March 2006 lives. It's a small city, quiet, and really beautiful...

On Saturday morning I awoke at 6.15 because I wanted to help (? - am I capable of this?) Harm's dad - he sells fresh waffles at markets all over Belgium. Unfortunately for me, he had started at around 5am so he was nearly finished when I arrived, but it was good to see the process and learn a bit about what he does and the markets in Belgium. So many different types of waffles! He makes Luikse Waffles, which means that there are sugar pearls in them and no fruits or toppings - there's vanilla extract in the dough. Others include the Brussels waffles which are the ones that are common in North America, with cream and fruit and chocolate or syrup. Yum.

After helping/watching him, I went back to bed until Harm woke me up so that we could go to the market and have a fresh waffle. As in every country, I love fresh fruit and vegetable markets. Belgium is no exception. We were in a small town but the market was crowded. After having some waffles and buying veggies, we headed to Maastricht.

Although I've now been in Holland 6 times, I've never been to Maastricht, and it is a really beautiful, clean, organized city (like everywhere in Holland) that's got a unique, relaxed vibe. We wandered around and satisfied my craving for Bitterballen (delicious deep fried croquette like things) before heading back to Hasselt.

In the afternoon we rode Harm's parents' folding bikes from Kuringen into Hasselt, a lovely ride along the river and wandered around the very compact city center in the drizzling rain.

Back home, and over to Leopoldsburg, where Harm's parents have a small boat that they go to on weekends, and they have people celebrate birthdays and weddings on board as a side business. It's a small canal, but it has a really calm, tranquil feel - the speed limit is, I think, about 10km/hr...ducks are relaxing, a few people walking dogs, a few families on bicycles...peace...and quiet.

We had dinner on the boat and then went for a small sail down the canal, again the brilliant light playing with the shadows made by the leaves...gorgeous.

After this, we got Tinne, Harm's girlfriend, from her house in Beringen and went to a bar. I'm thoroughly impressed by the Belgian beer varieties and had Barbar, a fruity honey beer that didn't disappoint. Long day, very enjoyable.

Sunday started slowly and basically we just had some food (in Belgium you can buy goat cheese wrapped in bacon, that you fry up...umm...dangerous?!) and then Harm took me to the intersection with the road headed for Brussels, since I wanted to hitch to Charleroi. I didn't have much luck on the entrance ramp, so I decided to just walk down to the actual road - I could see that there was a wide shoulder.

Sure enough, within 5 minutes a small white car with 2 guys, one who spoke Flemish, one who spoke French, pulled over. The fact that they could communicate despite the Flemish/French discrepancy made me realize they were foreigners from the same country, and I jumped in. They were 2 Greek guys who lived in Brussels, and the next 45 minutes was Greek music complete with snapping and clapping and it was great. They likened Japanese food to Greek food (many fish! many many fish! Good!) and dropped me off at the exit for the road to Charleroi.

Once I was on the right road, help up the Charleroi sign, and 5 minutes later a French guy got me and drove me to my door in Mt Sur Marchienne, where Stuart and Remo live. What a great time with them - upon arrival I was presented a bread, cheese, and salad array, and soon afterwards we went to Seneffe and the big big dam-like thing that is a container that takes entire boats in, then elevates them 70 meters - largest in the world - to take it to the next river. Remo finally got to cook for me :) - delicious chicken and potatoes - the potatoes with rosemary, oregano, parmesan cheese and other goodies - really delicious...

Monday we did a long day out, visiting Namur, with a beautiful chateau on top of the hill, followed by the Jardins d'Annevoie, a really impressive garden complex with perfect blooming flowers, and I saw black swans for the first time! We then went to Dinant, which is the home of Adolf Sax, who invented the saxophone...we also made a pit stop at Leonidas chocolate, and no one complained. We somehow got the idea to go to Brussels since I'd never actually visited the city, so off we went - to the Atomium, which was built for the 1958 World Fair in Brussels, and then around the downtown historic area, with a magnificent central square. By this time I was exhausted so we went back home, for a lamb chop dinner (fresh from New Zealand!) and tastings of some Belgian beers - my new favorite beer - Hoegaarden Rose - which has god, I could drink that stuff like water...

Hitching Emmeloord to Amsterdam, 29 June 2008 (Written 3 July 2008)

Sunday was a glorious day sailing in Friesland. We left from Zwolle at 10am and by 11am we were checking out the sailboat in Balk.

At around 5pm, we headed back towards home. I had asked to be dropped at a petrol station when our routes split, so we pulled into the Texaco in Emmeloord. Inge had warned that Sundays are empty highways, but it definitely wasn’t the case. I don't think there’s any time in the Netherlands that the roads are empty. Anyway, Corianna ran around asking people for rides and I hung out at the car laughing at her. After a few minutes with no luck, I went to ask for rides too since it seemed that my friends wanted to wait until they saw I was ok.

Went over to a guy alone, buying a Red Bull and asked if he was headed south. He was going to Den Haag and said he could leave me somewhere convenient in Amsterdam. So in I went.

Meet Reza, from Iran, living in the Netherlands for the past 14 years. He is one of the kindest, gentlest, makes-you-feel-comfortable people I’ve ever gotten a ride from. Matches Luis in Brasil (Niko que saudade!) In the next 70 minutes, we spoke of how I keep getting my stupid tourist visa to Iran denied, my love for Persian food (thank you Khatereh), his truck driving job in Holland, how it took him 3 years to learn Dutch well (his English is perfect, he was educated in Iran), my love for Holland, his previous experiences with hitchhikers (he took a Germany guy from NL to Copenhagen), and I got a full intro to contemporary Persian music, of which some scarily resembled Reggaeton (agh – I hope this trend of Reggaeton taking over the world ends – soon).

He offered me his Red Bull several times, I declined, and he took a few of my Kaas Vlinders when I offered.

He pulled over to get out his GPS so that he could type in my destination address, and took me to my door, going really out of his way. Experiences like this are why I love hitching.

Monday, July 7, 2008

The Netherlands...oh oh oh I love it here!

The Netherlands captured me on my first visit in 2001, and following that first visit to Amsterdam, I visited the country in May 2003, November 2003, April 2005, October 2005, and this is my 6th visit to this small but dynamic country.

My love for the Netherlands has nothing to do with soft core drugs – initial interest may have been sparked by this, but what has made my interest and admiration stay for this tiny nation is how it manages to sustain what I view as one of the most well integrated, tolerant, progressive socities in the world.

It is true that with the current globalization, there are now increasing numbers of cities where you can observe people that appear to be from all over the globe sharing a common space. In most of Western Europe, North America, and even Australia, you will see many different ethnicities in larger cities. However, over the past year of my traveling, I have strongly begun to feel the lack of integration in many places. Ethnicities are sticking together, rather than identifying themselves as part of the culture that they now live in. It is true that even in the Netherlands there seems to be a growing problem of integration with Moroccans and Turks. There is job discrimination when it’s not allowed, and many of the older generation of immigrants don’t speak Dutch.

However, I don’t know exactly how serious this problem is, and if you were able to put this aspect aside, it is really well integrated. In Amsterdam, Eelco took me to a photo exhibit on a street in the east side of the city. It’s an exhibition called “The World in One street” (Het wereld en een straat? God my Dutch is pathetic) and has portraits of different residents of this one street. Although there are no written descriptions, it is easy to see from the photos that there are Indonesians, Sub-Saharan Africans, North Africans, people from the Middle East, “Dutch” Caucasians, and mixed color families all in the same street. Perhaps you could argue that in the really wealthiest parts of the city you would only find rich whites; but the reality is that in the normal neighborhoods it’s an ethnic mélange that’s managing to work itself out.

Eelco asked me in Amsterdam why I love Holland so much. I proceeded to name my list; I love that the quality of food is very high, especially considering its location towards the north, and that so much food is produced within the country; I love how green it is all over the country; I love that people cycle everywhere; I love that people are liberal and progressive; I love that people are curious. What really makes Holland Holland is the Dutch people.

Talking with Inge about the same topic, she said that the Netherlands is a small country with a small population. Dutch people are aware that in the grand scheme of things, the Netherlands really don’t matter that much. There’s 17 million people in a country you can drive across in 2 hours. Comparing with its neighbors, it’s really insignificant. This makes the people humble, and always looking outward. A large percentage of Dutch travel abroad regularly, and those that don’t are also well-educated and keep up to date on current events around the world. You go in a supermarket (Holland really might have my favorite supermarkets in the world) and you will be able to find food from all over the world, that people are cooking and consuming on a daily basis. Its colonial days are seen in the Surinam and Indonesian food that is widely available.

In the past week in Holland I’ve spent lots of time at home with little kids, a day trip in Friesland sailing with Corianna, Wilko, Inge, and Frank, with a lovely homemade picnic, and a hot chocolate in Sloten. Sloten is one of the dozens of tiny traditional Dutch villages that don’t seem to be changing at all. The government recognizes how important it is to keep these villages intact, with their well-known windmills, cobbled streets, bridges and canals, and they are so picturesque it’s hard to believe that it’s an actual village with people living and working there.

It may have been sheer coincidence nearly 6 years ago when I approached the pair of tired-looking, shabbily dressed Dutch girls in the Galapagos, but what’s made my admiration for this country stay is this unmatched combination of appreciation of what’s available inside and outside of the country.

Friday, July 4, 2008

Jeff Sedevic, 27 June 2008

I met Jeff, Chris, and Lisa Sedevic in May 2007 when they came on tour to Japan. I was blessed to be their guide for two weeks around Honshu. All 3 of them instantly won me over, and they would be my companions for the next two weeks. I was able to develop a special relationship with each individual, and spend lots of time with them alone as well as with others.

Jeff was one of the most positive, optimistic, genuine people I’ve been lucky enough to meet. There are so many moments with him in Japan that I’ll never forget. He was always so generous, and always inviting me to stuff, and expressed gratitude with such honesty. Every day during the tour he thanked me for the great day – even on free days when I wasn’t doing much guiding, he would say that my explanations of the free time options were making their time great. I remember in Nikko and Takayama he said that he would love to come back and spend a few weeks in each place just walking around the hills and exploring the area at a more leisurely pace. He loved the sushi in Hiroshima. He loved red wine. We were in Hiroshima at The Shack, playing pool, and we talked just the two of us about life and what we each, as individual human beings, had an obligation to do – to pursue what we loved and to live with purpose. He certainly did that.

I am grateful that I had already had a trip planned to Australia. Tasmania wasn’t on my itinerary but meeting the Sedevics, I decided to change my route – not only would I be able to visit one of the most beautiful areas of Australia, I would be able to see this wonderful couple again.

I arrived in Launceston in July 2007 and spent 5 days with Jeff and Chris. Even at home, he retained his jovial, directed nature. The days I spent in Tasmania were a highlight of my trip to Oz. I got to spend lots of time with each of them alone, as well as the two of them together. Their breathtaking location on the isolated east coast of Tasmania combined with Chris’s culinary abilities, Jeff’s love of red wine, and their shared love with mine of cheeses was a combination I haven’t experienced often. King Island yogurt and cheese…this was the epitome of it all.

We were able to visit some of Tasmania together and though we encountered rain, the journey to the waterfall and the stop at a farm making cheese was so memorable. Whenever Chris and I went off on our own, we’d get back to the property and Jeff would be out working, with Yuki in tow. He’d come greet us with a big smile and ask about our excursion.

I really can’t believe that he’s gone. I hate to sound patronizing or pretend that I was a big part of their life, considering the short length of time since I met them, as well as the short amount of time we’d spent together. What I can say with honesty though, is that I really believed that there would be many more times that we would spend together – we lightly discussed a big road trip across Australia, and certainly discussed them coming back to Japan.

I hope that the Sedevics do remain a part of my life, and from here on forward anytime we are together in body or spirit, we are sharing our love and experience with Jeff and will always remember him with pure hearts.

Berlin to NL, written 26 June 2008

A slow start in the morning, breakfast in the flat…finally left home around 11am, and by the time I found the petrol station in Nikolassee it was noon.

There was a German guy trying to head south to Numberg and I chatted with him, and we agreed to help each other get rides if possible. I got him a lift with a Polish couple, and he got me my ride heading west.

We were on the autobahn at 12.22. Anmon was an Israeli who came to Germany 36 years ago and had been based in Koln since then. Fast, smooth ride, interesting conversation as he is a gaffer, meaning he controls light for film production, and he has been in Germany long enough to be able to tell me things about it as an outsider that isn’t so new to the scene. Really kind, and as we stopped for his lunch in Hannover we checked out a map and he took me to the closest petrol station to where we would be splitting ways, as he was headed south towards Dortmund to get to Koln.

He dropped me off, and as I was getting my bearings looking for NL plates, I decided to go to a young guy in an Audi with German plates. He was headed to Munster but knew of a good place to drop me before Osnabruck where many people would be heading to the Netherlands. So 10 minutes after arriving at the petrol station, off I was.

A bit of roadworks meant delays but arrived no problems, and asked around but it was more difficult as people were either going short distances or had no space in their cars.

Then a heavily tattooed guy in an Alfa Romeo approached me and said he could take me to Enschede. So 10 minutes after arriving at the petrol station, off I was. Well, I’ll preface by saying it was probably the worst lift I’ve ever gotten. That said, it really wasn't that bad. He was blaring electronic music, but that deep house trance stuff that I really can’t stand, and it was a fully loaded Bose speaker car, so I was getting a headache. That was ok, because I kept talking to him so that he had to turn down the volume to hear me. Then, when we were approaching Enschede I sent a message to Lillian, Marion’s sister, who works in Enschede, and we agreed to meet at the Grolsch factory. I asked the driver if he knew where this was, and he said he did, no problems, we would be there in 10 minutes. Well, he proceeded to drive around in circles, refusing to ask for directions, and 30 minutes later we call Lillian, he’s upset because he’s wondering why she can’t meet me in the city center etc etc. In the end, he still refused to ask for directions and I told him I didn't want to waste any more of his time so I got out at the Politie, police station, and apologized to both him and Lillian and waited for her to arrive. Turned out just fine in the end, though I did feel quite bad about the whole situation.

We arrived in Zwolle just after 7pm, so really good time for the whole journey, went straight to the Brederostraat where I’ve been visiting Marion and Onne since 2003, and I was back home.

Berlin, Written 26 June 2008

I’ve never been interested in Germany. I don’t really know why, considering I’m someone that’s interested in places I don’t even know I’m interested in. For some reason, it’s never drawn me. So when I met Arnaud in Japan a few years ago, a French illustrator living in Berlin, it was really the first time I’d given it any thought. But I still wasn’t convinced. During my trip planning, I asked if it would be possible to meet in France…but no, so it was decided: I would go to Berlin.

Perhaps the lack of expectations and the complete ignorance with which I entered the city was what made my experience utterly rich and incomparably genuine. After I arrived from my long hitch from the Czech Republic through Poland to get to Friedrichshain, we directly left to catch the last bits of light and did a big loop through the area, walking about 2 hours. What I saw; electronic music blaring in the park with small groups of people dancing unabashedly (reminded me of Lapa), little makeshift barbecues in the park, trash on the ground, graffiti all over the walls (much of it unimpressive), people wearing all different colors and styles and hairstyles and makeup, lots of green, people jogging, cycling, walking…in a nutshell, nothing that I thought Germany exemplified.

Monday morning – to Arnaud’s QG – quartier generale – Tres Cabezas y un Amigo, a small café with lounge chairs in front. Armed with an acai power and a sandwich, I sat and read Japanese children’s books. What? Yeah, it was great. Probably from too much adrenaline, the previous night I hadn’t slept until 5.30am, so after breakfast I had a little siesta, then did my first research about Berlin until Arnaud was ready for his lunch break. We walked to Nil, a Sudanese restaurant where I had a big vegan platter for 4 euros…a little ice cream and coffee break for him after, and then we were off on our ways.

I went down to Kreuzberg and walked along the river westward for awhile, before heading up to Jannowitzbrucke to meet Fernanda. We went to one of the famous beach bars, where there are spots along the river where people actually set up sand and beach chairs, ping pong tables and volleyball nets, and there’s music and drinks. Not too bad, if you have to be stuck in a concrete city nowhere near the ocean.

We then spent a few hours with Marius wandering around, checking out different bars and areas – this is one of the things that really made me fall in love with Berlin. Everywhere you go, there’s some hidden doorway or alleyway that looks like it holds nothing, but once you walk in, this whole new vista is opened up to you…it’s pretty special.

We ended up in Warschauerstrasse at a great little bar with old furniture from the Communist Era, and had currywurst and kofta kebap thrown in – the most commonly eaten foods in Berlin today, I imagine.

Tuesday I was determined to be a good tourist so after a leisurely breakfast off I went – headed to Museumsinsel, Museum Island, where 4 of the important state-owned museums are located. There is a great-value 3-day museum pass which allows entry into all the state-owned museums for 3 consecutive days – if you have a student ID it’s only 9.5 euros. Fabulous deal.

So I wandered around the museums there, and was really impressed the Alte Nationalgalerie collection as well as the Islamic Art in the Pergamon Museum. The replicas of Assyria and Aleppo made me shiver, and really brought back strongly the sensation of wanting to go back to these places.

I went to meet Eva, who I had met in Laos in February 2007. She had been reading 1984 and I started speaking to her on a hostel veranda in Vientiane, almost instantly the topic of Burma came up, and within hours I had convinced her to head up to Ponsavanh with me. So we shared this huge mezze platter at a Lebanese spot in Kreuzberg, then went to meet Fernanda in Jannowitzbrucke. Turned out we were headed back to Kreuzberg for the Turkish market.

WOW. WOW. Wow. Along the river in Kreuzberg, the Turkish market represents for me, what Europe may look like on a much larger scale in not too much more time. Kreuzbeg has the third largest Turkish colony outside of Turkey, and it is really apparent when you go to this market. Turkish men have produce at impossibly cheap prices, calling out in German and Turkish…Turkish women roll their wheeled carts through the street paying no heed to others, rolling over feet and bags and whatever else may be in their way without a second thought. It was really a fabulous market, and even though I was leaving Berlin in less than 2 days, I somehow ended up with a lot of fruit and vegetables. I mean, 5 avocados for 1 euro…there was manioc…I couldn't help it. This small area of Berlin exhibited so much life and energy and vitality…it was really amazing.

Eva and I continued to Gorlitzer Park, apparently the druggie park of Berlin. Shirtless muscled guys practicing hakky sak in one corner, lots of black people hanging around the park, the scent of burning cannabis lingering in the air…there are some bare grassy areas where people lounge, and that’s where we hung out until Arnaud came to meet us.

Pizza and ice cream, then to Mobel Olfe, a gay bar that totally welcomes heterosexuals and is quirky, eclectic, laid-back, and extremely comfortable. I was quickly being won over by this city which has obviously been strongly affected by its impossibly complex history of the past century yet looks forward unabashedly and does it with confidence and style.

Wednesday I did more museums – Potsdamerplatz area, over to the Brucke Museum, and the Gemaldegalerie…then to the C/O Galerie in Oranienburgstrasse, which was displaying easily the most emotional exhibition I’ve seen in the past year. A series of photos with captions about the condition of women in India, specifically in Delhi – I felt the blood in my body moving again. I’d forgotten that feeling.

A quick meeting with Eva in Kreuzberg in a floating bar while the streets raged with the Germany vs Turkey Euro Championship game, and a relaxed cooking evening. All good.

So what is Berlin? Charming, unexpected, green, wild, evolving, laid-back, relaxed, creative, open, cultured, inexpensive, and extremely welcoming. 10/10.

Czech Food

I recognize that Patrik and Jitka are atypical Czechs. They are extremely liberal and open-minded, have traveled quite extensively, and lived in the UK and New Zealand. Their diets are not representative of what most Czechs eat – they are aware of the fact that they eat much more fruits and vegetables, and try to cut down on meat.

But, a lot of the food culture seems to have remained intact in the Czech Republic. The concept of seasonal foods seems to be strong – right now, it is strawberry and cauliflower season. This means that you can get these items for cheaper, it’s fresher, and tastier. They concede that in the wintertime, now you can get things from all over the world and maybe they’re not as fresh or cheap, but they are available. But I would say that in many parts of the world, the concept of eating produce that’s locally in season has been lost. Today walking back from Patrik’s parents’ flat, we passed a number of people on the street selling buckets of strawberries that looked gorgeous. Tasting the produce, it doesn’t taste altered; they are sweet and tart and all taste slightly different and look different – size, color, shape, all vary a little…that’s real food.

Ostrava and mountains, written 26 June 2008

Friday and Saturday in the Czech Republic were fantastic. Since the country is so compact, you are never far from the mountains; it’s landlocked, so you’re never near the sea but being near the green mountains is really special. We visited a few different spots in the mountains and did a few walks that really gave perspective on the beauty and relatively undeveloped nature of the country. We had a great meal on the top of Radegast, beef with a gorgeous sauce made of celery, garlic, onion, celery, and cream, and I finally tried the ubiquitous dumplings. With, of course, a glass of beer – the beer culture in the Czech Republic won me over, 100 percent. I’m enamored with this nation that cherishes their beer, but really with passion.

Friday evening we got back and Patrik and I directly went to a French Music Festival in the park where I mingled with various Czech and French people, it was definitely a relaxed vibe and a good time – thought the French techno left much to be desired for my taste.

Saturday I went with Jitka to the market where there was a decent variety of fresh produce, then we were off to the mountains again with a few of their friends. We took the wrong path up the hill but it was still an enjoyable walk. I was yet again presented with my conundrum of meeting people, and them taking awhile to open up to me…but I’ve definitely gotten better with this, and have learned to slow down, relax, and just let it happen.

Jitka was lovely and made me my requested mushrooms in sour cream, delicious, and in the evening we did a sushi and yakitori party…and it was tasty.

I have so much gratitude to Patrik and Jitka and all their friends for taking the time and energy to teach me so much about their unique country and to show me and share with me so many things I would never have otherwise had the opportunity to experience.

Olomouc to Ostrava, written 20 June 2008

I headed off at around 8.15am, and followed the instructions I’d been given. I walked to the main railroad station, got the tram heading out of the city, walked under the pedestrian walkway to get to the main bus station, and headed north. Crossed the big junction, and since I had seen a petrol station icon on the map Anna showed me, decided to walk a few hundred meters further north. Got to the station, asked around and no one was headed to Ostrava. So I decided to jump on the side of the road and got out my Ostrava sign…and within 30 seconds, a truck had pulled over.

Well, there was really no communication whatsoever. Do you speak English? Ne. Lots of very quickly spoken Czech, me laughing openly at how ridiculous this situation was going to be, but we managed to say Ostrava, nod fervently, and off we went. I texted Patrik asking how I said in Czech, “I’m headed to Vyskovice but you can leave me anywhere in Ostrava”. He replied, and I tried my very best to pronouce the multiple consonants and keeping in mind the different pronunciations of different letters in Czech, and he nodded with a smile. He was a bit older, perhaps late 40’s, and had a fully equipped truck. 2 cell phones, DVD player (which remained turned off), a fancy GPS, coffee maker, random cutlery lying about…the ride to Ostrava was quick, passing through more poppy fields and farmland, and before I knew it we were reaching city limits. He pulled into the parking lot of Hotel Vista and told me I was 1km from the center of Vyskovice. He was headed to Frydek Mistek, so had gone out of his way to drop me as near as was reasonable to Vyskovice. I thanked him a lot and then I was in the parking lot. Went into the hotel, found out the address, texted Patrik, and within 15 minutes I was getting a big hug.

I arrived at 10.30am at their house, which means I made fantastic time from Olomouc and more than made up for my slightly more frustrating run the previous day. Their home feels like…home. It’s lovely. They keep saying how small it is and they’re sorry etc etc but it’s really wonderful here. It feels a bit country in a way, lots of window light and high ceilings and earthy furniture – lots of wood and bright red sofa, potholders, aprons with plums on them…it’s like where I would imagine Little Red Riding Hood to have lived hundreds of years ago. It’s super kawaii. So we had a gorgeous lunch of slightly breaded cauliflower and vegetable soup, potatoes with delicious butter, and fresh green salad – which I haven’t seen thus far in the Czech Republic…then I had my siesta…

In the afternoon we went for a walk in Bialsky Les, a small parkland just outside of their home, where you feel instantly in the woods and it’s not crowded but there are a few kids riding their bikes and mothers pushing their strollers. I asked dozens of questions to Patrik and Jitka and loved what I’ve learned.

They claim that you can recognize Czechs by their lack of style; socks with sandals and completely unmatching clothes. I’m much more than this fascinated by how the country worked under communism and how it’s changed so quickly, yet at the same time holding on to some of their roots perhaps? For example, the health care system and unemployment benefits. I’m equally amazed that nobody questions how the fall of the Soviet Union came about. They know the date – November 17, 1989, but they don’t know what happened, who caused it, why it happened in Prague and simultaneously in capitals all over the Eastern Bloc, and why it switched over so quickly. They say the system has changed but the people have stayed. No one was ever prosecuted for the crimes they committed during Soviet rule. They say perhaps no one asks for details because they are all happy the change happened; they don’t need to know how it came about. They say it’s all a game, and it was time to change.

The housing system is really interesting. They technically don’t own the flat that they live in but instead, Jitka is a member of the group of tenants in the building. So you buy a spot in this group (remnants of communism) – and she can sell her spot to somebody else. But that does not mean she is selling the property itself, since it is owned by a company. If you want to actually own a flat and be its proprietor, it is much more expensive and not common. This is a completely different system to anything I’ve ever heard of before (unless I’ve forgotten which is always a possibility). However, they have made changes in the apartment, i.e. flooring, painting, taking out the sink in the bathroom to put in a washing machine – without permission, although technically they are supposed to have any changes approved.

Anyway, Patrik went to karate and Jitka and I went to the city centre to meet her fellow English students – she had just finished her course. So we sat at a pivnice, had a pilsner, and I learned how to count in Czech, swear in Czech, and some basic other necessities like toilets – the day before when asking at the petrol station outside Brno where the toilet was, I had to resort to Damy (women, as is written on the door by the women’s toilet – I remembered this from Prague) – and making a peeing sound. I got laughed at but it worked. Now I know how to ask properly, which is probably a good thing.

After this, Jitka and I walked around the city centre, which was eerily quiet. It was a Thursday evening around 7.30pm, but since all the buildings are offices and retail shops, there is very little reason for anyone to go there after working hours. She said they’re trying to revitalize the centre but there’s really no way to get people to go there. It was strange. Beautiful buildings and nice atmosphere but quiet.

We caught the tram to meet Patrik and their friend from orchestra, Hanser (sp?) at Pizzerie Jerek, where I enjoyed my first dark Czech beer which I loved, it’s almost like caramel…I might be converted. Then had a pizza with mushrooms, mmmm. I love the curiosity of the Czechs in this case too, it took awhile before anyone started asking me questions about Japan and culture and scenery and prices and hotels and travel and people, but when they start, they are so inquisitive, I love it.

We went to stay overnight at Patrik’s parents’ flat because they’re away on holiday and there’s more room there (I don't think they realize by Tokyo standards their flat is enormous) and here I am now, hopefully pretty soon we will go to play in the mountains.