I have a cold, which I’m pleased about. I could hardly say I’d made the most of my tour, coming back to London and not a vessel for a fresh batch of euro-germs, ready to be unleashed upon my unsuspecting friends during the mandatory round of homecoming hugs. I’ve paced it pretty well though, managing to remain healthy for the majority of the trip, before stepping up the demands on my immune system in the final couple of weeks through a disciplined regimen of well-earned bad self-care. So, just as the last few days have, logistically speaking, entailed an especial level of focus during a prolonged, foggy and mucus-clogged marathon of coaches, trains, admin and dutiful sight-seeing, this last post requires me to just get my head down and slog it out.
I’m not yet actually on the Eurostar. I’m in the waiting area. I’ll still be writing when I’m on the train and, for something like purity or circularity’s sake, I want to be done (mandatory tidying up notwithstanding) before I get off it. Plus I want at least an hour to sit back and listen to the New War on Drugs album and maybe look through my camera roll and really just reflect, you know. So that gives me maybe two hours of typing time to round things off and try and express something, if not epiphanic then at least worthwhile.
I suppose the thing to do is to answer some of the questions, actual and implied of that first post, asked all those weeks ago in this mystical, sub-channel womb-space.
One question explicitly posed concerned whether I would gain a better grasp of the Romance languages. Strangely enough, my Paris Airbnb host, to whose mild bosom I returned, 10 weeks after my initial visit at the commencement of the tour, remarked that my French had gotten better since she last spoke to me! This was immensely flattering given that I hadn’t spoken any French in the interim. I swagged it out, telling her I wished us to communicate only in French for the rest of my stay. Then, a little while later, I mixed up the words for lunch and dinner and she spoke to me only in English from then on.
Another question: ‘would I pass through Europe as smoothly as a Euro coin through the slick inner workings of a train station toilet turnstile?’ Well, forgive the labouredness of the simile and let me tell you: yes, it was a piece of piss. That’s not, though, to say it wasn’t worthwhile, thrilling - I’ll say it - life-affirming. But, in the main, I followed the roads most travelled, recommended, infrastructurally supported by. I didn’t get anywhere near emulating the wild passage of Orwell, Leigh Fermor et al and I rarely felt - to borrow a term from James Buzard’s ‘The Beaten Track’, the 60 euro book I skim read in Madrid – much like an ‘anti-tourist’.
It’s my last intention to become the kind of louche perma-traveller, reliably found in the hipper hostel bars of any given major city, lounging in nonsensical apparel, rolling eyes at the very suggestion of going to a popular museum, and drawling, in a geographically transcendental accent, about how Cambodia is just not chill anymore. I only intend to suggest that ‘getting off the beaten track’ might require me to be more adventurous, more spontaneous next time.
Another question related to how ‘my old anxieties’ would stand up across some different environments, and the answer is two-fold:
On the one hand, they’ve persisted. Along the way, I’ve felt lonely, at times: angry, jealous, rejected, pessimistic and fearful. Just like in London. It’s strangely reassuring to discover your proclivity for emotional strife remains pretty consistent, whatever the longitude.
BUT, that said…they’ve, in some ways, diminished. This might just be the jouissance of my wanderlust talking. And in fact I’ll stop and caveat what I’m about to express by adapting a claim my friend M. made just before I departed: it’s pretty normal to feel, perhaps delusionally, optimistic about your life before you go away because you haven’t really got to deal with it for a while; I’ve not yet returned to the trenches of adult existence, of cold, wet, dark, London days, of whole weeks passed without sunshine or fifteen euro meals or 3 euro pints, or conversation unanchored from the tedium of domestic or working life.
However, reading back over my early posts now, I wonder what the hell I was getting so worked up about a lot of the time. What the hell have I been getting so worked up about all my life? Wouldn’t it be funny if the main outcome of this trip was the vindication of those people who’ve been kind/cruel enough to offer criticism of my creative output these last few years on the grounds that it’s excessively self-pitying, pessimistic, angry and whatever else? It might put me out of a job. But then, I’d be fine with that. For, I have now some new and deep conviction that everything will be more or less okay (consider my privilege comprehensively checked here). It’s as if the relative ease with which I’ve processed this summer has convinced me that (my) life is less hard than I’ve hitherto suspected, and the splendour of what’s been seen along the way that it’s much richer, much more valuable than I ever dared speculate.
I’ll scrutinise it no further, this new equanimity of mine, lest it collapse like a vainglorious empire.
It’s not like I’ve expanded my horizons really. The true horrors of contemporary Europe remain as digital-only as they would have if I’d just stayed in London. But the raw details - the number of people being allowed to drown in the Mediterranean; the index of inequality in Macedonia; the reduction in Spanish harvests due to climate change; the electoral turnout for the AfD in Germany and its implied effects – well, pat point, but they all help me prevent my anxieties - over e.g. having to find, six years after bidding a hubristic goodbye to conventional employment, a temp job to put myself back on an even financial keel - from spiralling into actual self-pity.
THAT said, I’m also not trying depict anxiety as a silly delusion you can just shrug off by reading one Guardian article about real suffering. As if managing to get on lots of coaches has made me realise all panic attacks are a fantasy. I know weeks from now, when the trees are stripped and the afternoons are dark and some as yet undreamt of horror is being bombastically mediated all around, I’ll be as susceptible as I ever was. So, in the end, I don’t know what I’m saying really. Nothing, I suppose.
And, really, wouldn't the best way to convey a new-found inner peace be to offer an impressionistic description of the English sky, now visible and dimming, through the window of the hurrying train, rather than spending ages trying to explain the exact nature of said internal state while simultaneously questioning its validity? Yes. Mea culpa. Mea culpa, once again.
Isn’t is stupid that I’ve spent the entire final post discussing the developments in my own mind and not those in Europe? The biggest implied question of that first post was, surely: what about Europe then? And that is a big question. An obtusely phrased one too. And a hard one to answer. I’d like to tell you it, i.e. Europe, will survive. Survive and prosper. But don’t hold me to that.
Now the sky shows in every colour a sky can and it calls back to the literally hundreds of paintings of evening skies I’ve seen these last 10 weeks. Sunlight courses through the clouds like mountain water through ancient rocks. We’re pulling into Ebbsfleet and the conductor is explaining a few things in French over the PA. The War of Drugs new album has reached its final track.
“I'm at the sea, and I can hear the trains
Winds of change, so new”
I’m listening to these lyrics and in my mind I’m going: ‘I’M on a train !! I’M quite near the sea!! I’M particularly given to applying classic meteorological metaphors to my apprehension of coming change, personal and global!’
In Flims, Switzerland, as I sat with my friends by the side of a glistening lake, a late middle-aged couple approached us with their severely autistic adult son. They were friends of my friend’s parents, who owned the apartment we were staying in. We chatted for a while and they caught up with my pal and told us about a forthcoming documentary about their son’s band. Before they went off to swim we shared some observations about the general beauty of the scene and the boy’s mother said: ‘you’ll think of this, when it’s cold and dark in England’.
Yes, I will. And a hundred other scenes besides: the evening romance of Parc de Bercy, Paris; the sultriness of afternoons in Toledo, city of three cultures; impossible sunsets in the Aegean; the hallucinatory steadiness of U-Bahn trains, mocking the old bifurcations of Berlin; the Danube; the Rhine; the North Sea and northern weekenders bearing down on Amsterdam; cool late-summer dusks of Edinburgh – all elements of a strange continent, which, in all its sickness, still yields wonders, like unexpected beauty in a fever dream. Maybe I’m getting carried away.
I edge towards London. Tired. Full of cold. But equanimous. Very equanimous. Equanimous like never before.
The coming of the autumn equinox upbraids me with the waste of time. Today, more than ever, I feel affinity with Tristram Shandy - self-chronicling alter-ego of that original meta-smith and completer of sentimental European journeys, Laurence Sterne – who, in realising that it had taken him a whole year to write about the first day of his life, lamented the fact that he should ‘live 364 times faster than [he] should write’. For my part, I’ve now been home a fortnight, but the blog me is still on a coach, peering through Austrian twilight and seeing the Alps for the first time.
I appreciate your reading this far. We still have two weeks and five countries to cover, so forgive me yet more stylistic infelicities as I speed on.
Munich. Arrived about midnight. Straight to Ibis. Paid £80 for one night, due to dearth of good Airbnbs close to bus station. The most for any accommodation all summer. No breakfast. Not really a problem as I would be up at six to take a coach to Berlin. I was in a hurry to get there as my friend CO, whom I haven’t seen for a year, would be there and, although I’d been to the Hipster Mecca (definitely the Shoreditch of Germany!!) twice already, I still fancied it more than Munich. Sorry to Munich. Not much to report from the Bavarian Capital – as in I didn’t see much. Confident streets. Kebab shops. Bars. Hotels. All very Kings Cross. But then I only saw like the Hauptbahnhof and surrounding streets. In the morning, traffic and commuters. What else would you expect, I suppose.
In Munich and in every town between Munich and Berlin there were street posters for the various German election candidates: predominantly, Angela Merkel’s CDU plus Martin Schulz’s SPD, the leftist party Die Linke, and the far-right Alternative für Deutschland. [You’ve probably seen the news by now: the AfD look set to become the first far-right party to enter the Bundestag in six decades.]
Berlin. Well Berlin is Berlin. Each time I gaze out beyond a fairylit-graffiti-heavy-canal-street-terrace foreground, across the haze, at the Fernsehturm Tower and feel some unutterably comforting parallax effect and sense… something as lame as… ‘The Weight of History’, it stuns me all the more just to what extent Berlin is Berlin. Still, the last thing Europe needs now is another little pseudy Englishman’s rhapsody for Berlin, so I’ll just focus on the basic reportage therefrom.
Very good to see CO, who lives in Ireland, and whom I’d actually physically met only twice heretofore, but she sometimes sends me messages about the moon over Twitter so I count her as an old and good friend. Spent the daytimes wandering around with her and catching up. She is breastfeeding and, though her baby is in Ireland with her parents, her breasts do not know that, which causes her a lot of discomfort and requires stopping every so often so she can use a battery-powered pump to purge herself of milk and then perform an almost libatory ritual of pouring the milk away down a drain in the street, or into the soil at the park, or into the sand of an urban beach.
CO was staying at a hostel in Kreuzberg - one with a fridge of weissbiers, and a permanent cast of semi-sullen sub 25 year-olds smoking out front, and a English lad who hasn’t been home in six months playing FIFA on his own. And, it goes without saying, David Bowie-themed art on the walls. I stayed there too and upon arrival came almost concussively quickly to the conclusion that I should have stayed at more hostels along the way. You were all thinking it. Had I done so there would have been almost nothing in this blog about how hard I’ve found it to talk to people, and therefore almost nothing in this blog.
First evening, Thursday – earmarked as a ‘quieter one’ in readiness for the expected comparative loudness of the following evening. Ended up getting as smashed as I’d been all summer, taking in only two or three bars in Kreuzberg and meeting Some Good Characters along the way: e.g. an 18 year old German woman called Tabbi who was sitting alone and drinking an absolutely massive alcohol-free weissbier and smiling. She was: fluent in English, apparently very intelligent, about to start university in Berlin, here to find accommodation, proudly Christian and ostensibly clued up about the relative merits, and shortcomings, of the German educational system. More sober, I might have retained more of what she told us about the separation of German students according to academic ability aged 10-13 and the consequent socio-economic determination this seems to foster.
And there were some more Good Characters after we left Tabbi but I’ve promised to hurry so they’ll remain in the purgatory of my mind, at least for now.
Got back to hostel. Drank more. Met people. Had wonderful chats. Blah blah.
Next day, Friday. Running at about 63% capacity due to after-effects of recent indulgences. CO (who’d read earlier sections of this blog and perhaps developed fears about what sort of pursuits I might try subject her to) had said very definitively the previous evening that she just wanted a relaxing weekend and was not very interested in educational sightseeing. And yet, somehow, still that day we saw Checkpoint Charlie, and the Brandenburg Gate, and the Holocaust Memorial and the East Side Gallery. At this latter site – a 1316 metre-long section of the Berlin Wall still in tact and now covered in mostly politically insinuating graffiti - CO expressed frustration at the fairly recondite nature of the first few pieces pieces and, when she suggested we download some kind of explanatory digital content or employ a local guide, I insisted that I would very easily be able to explain the pieces to her, thinking myself something of a Berlin veteran now I guess, and also being, as you well know, an Expert of Art.
In the event, I was able to offer little more by way of guidance than just pointing out the explicitly obvious components of the pieces and rudimentarily describing them.
‘There are some balls which maybe look like planets’.
‘This is a human figure with chains on it’.
Occasionally we’d encounter German text and this I’d encourage CO to use her phone to translate into English, usually yielding only gnomic sentences, which shed little light on the images at hand: ‘I love humanity’. ‘Freedom’ etc.
Overall, CO gave very polite audience.
One graffito simply read ‘BERLIN’ in Very Cool Lettering. I made CO let me take a selfie of us in front of this but failed to frame in the initial ‘B’. ‘We’ll always have Erlin’, I told her.
Tired, we returned to the hostel for more easy and warm conversation with strangers.
BUT, just when you were thinking dog days are over social-anxiety/self-worth-wise, cop a load of this:
Excitingly, it was organically determined that all the residents of the hostel should go out together that night, though a few of the more veteran tenants (i.e. those who’d been there more than one night already) slipped away in smaller groups before the major fleet of taxis arrived to gather up the newcomers. The more renowned clubs (Watergate, Berghain, ya know) might prove impenetrable for such a large group, went the general suspicion, so we would go instead to Sisyphus, a smaller, less renowned club, but nonetheless, apparently, a decent one and easy enough to get into. Out of the 20 or more in our group, only one other person - another English guy - had any interest at all in joining with my Sisyphus-based banter, premised entirely on the suggestion that if we didn’t get in, we should keep trying to get it over and over all night!!
There was some casual strategising in the queue over splitting up into groups of two or three (not more than three times over the weekend did I hear someone suggest it was best to go to a club in ‘groups of one’) and with no more than two men in any one group. This scheming came mainly from an American guy in shorts and running shoes and a waterproof jacket whom I looked at him and thought ‘you’re not gonna get in because you’re wearing shorts and running shoes and a waterproof jacket, my lad, so you might regret all this blowhard stuff about canny admission technique’.
I ended up in a fairly happy situation, queueing with an attractive and cool-looking woman (American) and an attractive and cool-looking man (Swiss-American), and I got to feeling optimistic about the whole business as I watched the rest of my hostel-fellows filter past the thuggish, undercut-sporting bouncers and into the club. My sexy co-queuers and I were discussing just how much Bernie Sanders reminds us of Larry David! when our own moment of reckoning came.
The bouncer looked at us for maybe 1.7 seconds, ushered us forward, but not towards the main entrance door - towards a side door, which was helpfully opened by another blonde beast, and out we went back on the street.
The woman was fucking distraught. She’d come to Berlin from New York, following a bad break up, which’d moved her to cut her hair quite short. ‘I shouldn’t have cut my fucking hair!’ she was now exclaiming. ‘I’ve never been turned away from a club in my entire life!’ The Swiss-American guy and I tried to reassure her that it was a random, even freak occurrence but she wouldn’t be talked down easily.
‘Look at these haggard women she said!’ gesturing towards some disappointed, not at all ‘haggard’-looking women who’d just also been dispatched through the door of shame and were now stumbling away dazed into the night. ‘These are the kind of women who are supposed to get rejected from clubs!’ she told the general scene.
Three more guys from the hostel came through as well, a Peruvian, an Indian and a French-man - as if in some hip, post-modern joke with no punchline. They joined our post-failure conference and eventually all concurred that the woman shouldn’t blame her hair, or anything about the way she looked! Clothes have little to do with it! That guy got in wearing shorts, for god’s sake! No, it was agreed, there were just too many men at the back of the group. We should have arranged it better.
I concurred to this reading of the situation but I knew a secret that I wasn’t going to disclose. The real reason we didn’t get in, or at least the reason the Swiss-American guy and the short-haired woman didn’t get in was… because of me.
Ya see: I’d gone (or tried to go) to Watergate - one of the ‘bigger’ clubs, one of the ‘cooler’ clubs - on a stag do, back, way back at the beginning of the decade and, after the bouncers had waved through the, like, nine other guys in our party, came my turn to be scrutinised and then ceremonially directed down a staircase of rejection back to the road, all the others dutifully and resentfully following, a swaggering chorus of angry resentment.
I’d seen the same look in the eyes of the bouncer here at Sisyphus, as they danced semi-approvingly over the other two and then rested conclusively on me, and as I now listened to the other members of this arbitrary international assembly declaim the irrelevance of clothing to one’s chances of entry, I remembered once more the strange social miasma that seems often to haunt me at life’s key moments, and always in Berlin.
And look, I’m being a bit facetious and I’m much better these days at resisting the self-victimising narratives my mind is prone too; like most wanton-hearted people of a certain age I’ve played Helena and Hermia with fairly equal adroitness. But if you reckon me paranoid and indulgent to draw great conclusions from, or simply to dwell too much upon, these two incidents, cop a load of this:
We went next to another club, Chalet, (‘easy to get into’). The short-haired woman skipped ahead. The bouncer asked her if she were with us. She said she wasn’t. She was let in, we weren’t. Those of us who remained, crestfallen men all, resigned ourselves to just having a beer and then going home. The French guy decided to buy a couple of bottles of wine and ‘just go back to the hostel and listen to some music’. I admired his spirit. So we all followed suit – shop booze for the hostel. Could be worse!
At the hostel, several people were awake and convivial, including a new American woman who said she loved Berlin and visits at least once a year but has never been to a club and isn’t interested in doing so (this cheered me up). Then two Canadian couples came in, in immensely high spirits. We asked if they’d enjoyed their night and they were like ‘we’re going out again! We just came back to get changed!’. ‘People in Berlin don't go out until, like, 2am!’ is a sentence I heard too many times over that weekend.
Half an hour later, the Canadian foursome came back through, all dressed entirely in black, looking like a student improv group. It was clearly an affected look. As they left, the French guy was like ‘why the fuck are they dressed like this?’ and I suggested they might have bought into the idea that you have to wear black to get into clubs here. Everyone claimed to be entirely ignorant of this notion and the shibboleth that dress-code is actually unimportant was multiply repeated.
Then the French guy decided he wanted to go out again. The Swiss-American guy acquiesced. So did the Indian guy. And, fuck it, so did I. The Peruvian guy went to bed.
And so, as in hip, some post-modern joke with no punchline, we decided to try to get into Watergate and guess what happened next?
That’s right, we split into two pairs and entered the queue separately. The Swiss-American and the Indian guy ahead and the French guy and me a few metres behind. We started a conversation with some women in front of us, which lasted about 40 seconds after which time they didn’t speak to us again for the remaining 30+ minutes of queue-time.
At last our moment was almost up. The American guy and the Indian guy got in. We didn’t. So there’s confirmation, if it were needed, that the one common factor in the rejection of members of the hostel contingent from Berlin clubs that night was…. yours truly, travel-blogger @funnylad5.
[One extra detail that’s just come to me: I’d read in the Google Comments for Watergate (I am a geek sorry okay) that it's common practice for the bouncers there to ask you which DJ you’re there to see and if you can name the DJ you might get in. I made a mental note to remember the DJs before we went out and then I forgot to do it and Lo and Behold the bouncer asked us why we had come to the club that night and I, absolutely no joke, replied ‘just for the chilled atmosphere, good music’. Also read in the Comments quite a lot of horrible stuff the bouncers say to people upon rejecting them, including at least one blatantly anti-Semitic comment].
The French guy and I went then to Suicide Circus, which is where we went on that stag do after not getting into Watergate. It’s alright, but, I think, renowned as the place you go if you can’t get in anywhere else. Very dark techno. A DJ called Cosmin TRG. I decided I would listen to techno a lot more when I got back home; one woman from the hostel who was a lot like Lady Gaga told me she likes to listen to techno when she’s coding (every other person at the hostel was a coder). I have not listened to any techno since Berlin, needless to say.
The French guy and I had a few beers and an hour or two of what might loosely be termed dancing. I do not remember his name but I will always remember ça homme fondly. He drank wine with a flagrant lack of abashment at national stereotypes and never once griped that I was stopping him getting into all the best clubs. At about 8am, I watched him eat a kebab by the Oberbaum bridge, with its glorious brick gothic towers, then we listened to a passing Berliner (late 20’s, bearded) talk complete shit for 10 minutes before making some vague point about either the former eastern sector being more ‘authentic’ than the western sector (or vice versa) and then we stumbled back to the hostel.
Next day was Saturday. Felt quite good and had quite a nice day. Got the iPad (now cracked from multiple drops) fixed. Had a haircut. Went to cinema and watched a documentary about Armenian refugees in Marseille called ‘Those From the Shore’ by Tamara Stepanyam. Very good, watch it if you can.
In the evening, was sitting by the hostel having a beer when CO walked by. Exchanged accounts of the previous evening. She’d had fun but by now was missing her baby very badly, having never been away from her for more than a day before. We watched a little girl dance and jump around indefatigably and entirely for our benefit for no less than half an hour (her parents seated a few tables away were patently exhausted of her). This enjoyable, desperate display made me miss Edinburgh.
We went for pasta and then CO suggested a more sedate evening, perhaps at ‘a Disco Bar’, before amusing herself by questioning whether a ‘Disco Bar’ is even a real type of bar. She’s a funny old thing, is CO. I said it sounded like a good plan.
Outside the hostel a New Zealand-ish woman was lighting a spliff and CO and I joined her. ‘A nice spliff will relax me before the Disco Bar’, I thought. But it turned out to be the kind of spliff (as most spliffs do these days) that utterly robs me of the capacity for language. I told CO I was just popping to my dorm for a quick rest and then went almost immediately to sleep for about 10 hours. (Though not before hearing somebody retching with demonic force into the nearby toilet; incidents like this slightly offset my regret at not having stayed in more hostels.)
Turned out CO did the same thing and she had to be up at the crack to get her flight home so I did not see her again after that clumsy, stoned semi-goodbye. But it was terrific to see her and I hope the moon continues to shine protectingly over her and her baby.
Walking through Berlin on a Sunday morning is funny because the visible public is 50% people going to work or shopping or whatever and 50% is people who’ve been up for two days and are only just facing up to the long march back to mental normalcy.
Westward, Ho. To Düsseldorf in the Ruhr-Rhine region – Germany’s only ‘megacity’.. Around this time time read an article about the forthcoming elections in Germany and how the support base for the right-nationalist AfD party comes mainly from the country’s East. [Looks like just over 20% of eastern voters voted AfD, only about 10% in the west].
Don’t know much about Düsseldorf. Chose to stop here for primary reason of breaking up long schlep from Berlin to next destination, Rotterdam. And for secondary reason that it gives its name to the title of a song I’ve been obsessed with for nigh on a year, ‘Düsseldorf’ by Teleman (not Telemann).
Zagreb and Slovenia, though almost alpine in character, retained something of the mediterranean and Berlin was a haze, so this is the first time in months I’ve really been exposed to the frigidity of Northern Europe. Seeing a ‘Back to School’ poster in the window of BHS is especially sobering.
This is the Aibnb mentioned in the last post whose host (a 30-ish white man with dark, sunken eyes) has no previous reviews and which I’m feeling paranoid about, largely as a result of watching a disturbing film about a murderer just after booking the place back in Ljubljana. I’ve reassured myself that I’ll arrive and be let straight in and find the host to be perfectly friendly and not at all unsettling and I’ll have no further cause for worry. As it is, I arrive at the street of the Airbnb and realise the host hasn’t included the flat number in the address. I call his number. Straight to voicemail. Take myself off to a Mexican restaurant over the road to use wifi to message him on Airbnb. Drink a cerveza while I wait. Eventually he replies with the number. I return and he arrives blinking at the door, even more vampiric than in his photo. From the dark living room the sub-woofered sfx of a violent video game resounds. He hurriedly shows me my room, which appears just to be his room, implying that he’s sleeping in the living room (not an uncommon phenomenon in my experience of Airbnbs).
This done, he bolts back to the living room. The digitally-relayed voices of other human players are briefly heard before he closes the door.
I look around the room, still undecided as to whether he’ll murder me or not. I pull the curtains back and find on the windowsill a huge sword. It’s probably not a murder sword, but more like a merchandise item for some RPG game but it does nothing to quell my fears. I go to the kitchen to get a water and find in the cupboard a Pepe the Frog mug. Pepe the Frog is a meme that became a mascot for the alt-right. I believe the meme had some life before its white-supremacist associations and this guy seems like the type who might have acquired it innocently but I'm starting to feel weird in a legit way. I’ve crowed on about how, after failing to challenge casual racism from previous Airbnb hosts, if I encountered bigotry again I’d confront, and if I had any guts I would have at least asked the guy about the mug but I don’t so I don’t. Later on his profile, he receives good reviews from two separate black guests and the woman who arrives the next morning is from China so if he is a racist he’s one whose prepared to let non-white people pay him to stay in his house (which, I realise, doesn’t at all preclude him from being a racist: ‘some of my best customers are black!’).
Go for a walk. A choir sings in a hulking baroque chapel, the Rhine bulges. From somewhere techno plays. The Rheinturm communications tower and other skyscrapers seem beacons against the dim sky.
There are many beer halls by the river. I sit outside one and order the only item marked vegetarian on the menu. I just take a stab at saying its name in German and don’t question what it is. It turns out to be boiled potatoes and salad. About the worst meal imaginable in my book. The beer comes in very small glasses. It’s a Sunday evening through and through.
Full, I wander home. A man settles in a sleeping bag under a mock-classical portico on the edge of a park. I take myself to bed, hoping desperately that I won’t be slain in the night.
Wake up alive. As I’m packing my things ready to take the coach to Rotterdam, the doorbell rings. I keep packing because it's not my house. Then it rings again. And again. Maybe the host has gone to work. It rings again. I shouldn't/have no obligation to answer it. I sometimes don’t answer the doorbell in my own flat. It rings again. I look out of the window. It is a young woman with a suitcase. I answer the door.
I help the woman bring her bags into the flat. She’s been outside for an hour. Like me, she didn't know the exact number of the apartment and the host is not answering her messages. She eventually managed to glean from one of the neighbours which apartment is the Airbnb.
She says she can not get in touch with the host. The living room door is shut but there is no noise from within and, reasoning that he would have heard the multiple door rings if here were in, I speculate that he must have gone to work. So I show her around the flat and tell her that I believe the bedsheets still to be clean. She then gets straight into the bed, seeming a bit overwhelmed by the whole situation. I tell her I'm going out for a bit but that I’ll be back to pick up my bag.
Want to go to the Rhine Museum (a museum all about the river Rhine!) but it is sadly closed (so many European museums close on Mondays!) so I have one of my famous coffees and then returned to the Airbnb. As I’m picking up my bag and saying goodbye to the woman, the host emerges from the living room, half-asleep. Abysmal stuff. Definitely not the way to get your reputation as ‘a nice person’ off the ground. If I had any guts I’d have left him a bad review but as I do not I do not. I just ignore all the emails from Airbnb asking me to leave a review and then all the subsequent emails asking why I did not leave a review.
I wanted Rotterdam to be just a smaller Amsterdam, which it isn’t really, though it is an appealing city in its own right. Even looking from the coach window at Eindhoven I felt calmed. Something about Holland, flat and green and true, that indicates everything will be alright. And never have things felt more like they’ll be more alright than in Rotterdam.
Miles and miles of miles of functioning docks. Skyscrapers. Trams canals. Bike paths. Small parks. Trees. (I appreciate I’m now just listing nouns; I grow weary.)
I had a room with a bath in it and a huge bed and view of trees. Took a soak and listened to a Guardian Audio Long read about banter.
Later walked into town, heading for a specific coffeeshop (as in a cannabis café) I’d read about online. Got there and it was closed. A real shame as it looked fantastic, with a nautical theme and small submarine like pods, which I suppose allow you to get stoned while sitting inside a metaphor for your own drug-induced solipsism.
Now hell-bent on smoking a doobie, I searched for another coffeeshop. Turns out there aren’t that many in Rotterdam. Or at least not as many as in Amsterdam. Rotterdam probably has a density of coffee shops similar to London’s density of e.g. Dutch pancake houses – there are a few around but you can’t guarantee you’ll find one by just wandering the streets.
20 minutes later I found one but it was takeaway only – a heavily secured booth selling bags over the counter. The woman there directed me around the corner to another place and here, again past a bouncer and through a security turnstile, I entered a disarmingly over-lit shop-floor where I bought a pre-rolled hash joint, as I reasoned that if I bought tobacco to roll with I’d just start smoking again, which is the last thing I want. A friendly sign suggested I buy a drink with my spliff before going upstairs so I bought an ice tea from a vending machine before going upstairs.
Upstairs was the barest room you could ever see. It had maybe 10 tables, most of them occupied, but otherwise it was completely bare. No attempt had been made at a theme or even the merest scintilla of aesthetic effort. The crowd were all men, a range of ages. Mostly quite scruffy but none seemed threatening. A man and woman, apparently a couple, entered and sat at the table next to me for a nice romantic spliff.
I’d intended to sit here a while and read about dutch history on the iPad while smoking, as I’d done most evenings this summer (albeit usually with a beer rather than a spliff, and not dutch history but history pertinent to whatever country I was in at the time) but I felt too restless, not quite edgy but certainly not able to sit and relax and concentrate. So, as soon as the spliff was done, I stepped out again onto the canal-side.
In smoking specifically hash, I was trying to call back to an old high: being 15 and absolutely enamoured with everything and on the permanent brink of tripping. Then ‘it all became skunk’ I maintain and that’s the reason why I suddenly found myself able to derive little pleasure from smoking weed, rather than it being down to years of over-stimulation leading to the down regulation and desensitisation of my brain’s endogenous cannabinoid receptors, or at least to some less pharmacokinetically-identifiable tectonic shift in my psyche. Truth is though! These days! Very often I feel as in love with life completely sober and clear-headed, as much as, if not more than I did then stoned to my back teeth! (A nice coffee or a beer often goes down well though ;)
Now, drifting along the canals of Rotterdam I feel a very mild version of that adolescent buzz but it's not quite the same: as if the old buzz has been resurrected as a hologram or something. Wander down Witte-de-Withstraat, renowned as the city’s ‘nightlife street’. Spend absolutely ages trying to take a photo of a neon sign hanging above the street reading ‘WITTY’, which I decide would make a fantastic Twitter cover photo. The iPad camera proves incapable of picking out the luminescent letters against the dark sky and I end up with a photo of an iridescent blur. For the best really, as once I’m less stoned I realise ‘WITTY’ would have made for a terrible cover photo.
It’s still balmy here in the lowlands in late August and the bar and restaurant terraces of WITTY are full. But I’m not yet on an even enough psychic keel to sit amidst the cheerful crowds so I keep walking and walking until most of the city’s restaurants are closed. At around 11pm, all I can find to eat is chips but luckily chips is the dutch national dish so it feels special. So much respect for a nation which will proudly call chips its national dish.
After the special chips, I’m steadier in the mind and I drink a small beer and read by a canal and then go for a lovely, big sleep in my lovely, big bed.
The next day have several hours to kill/enjoy before my coach leaves. Walk and walk and walk some more. Take in the docks. Consider a boat ride. Decide against it. Consider the maritime museum. Decide against it. Walk some more. Hang out in the massive, modern public library building for a while, studying a map of Holland. Then drift through a massive food market. Buy some cheese for my sister’s birthday present. (Not only am I not upholding veganism myself, I’m now encouraging others not to).
Go into to an architectural bookshop and find a fascinating little book about Rotterdam, which takes the form of a kind of meandering poetic photo-essay. Particularly intrigued by a section on the strange hotels of Graaf Florisstraat, which offer rooms for 40 euros a day, not, apparently, for carnal activity but for drug mules, ‘middle aged men from all corners of the globe’, carrying drugs within their digestive systems, who decamp in Rotterdam and exorcise the goods herein.
And finally it’s time to take my coach… To the ferry port. And then… To Hull. And then……… To Edinburgh. That’s right, the FOMO got the better of me.
Edinburgh is Edinburgh and I imagine that if you’re the sort of person whose interested in Edinburgh/ the Fringe then you’ve had your fill of Edinburgh/ the Fringe for one year, so I’ll say no more about it except that after four days up there, having spent a summer in Europe, I now appreciate just how Good and Special it is, the city and the festival both. I’ve never been so in love with the whole business.
I leave Edinburgh at midday on Saturday 26th August to embark on the most thrillingly gruelling session of travel I’ve ever undertaken:
Train to York. Train to Hull, in a carriage empty except for an attractive, young american couple with two infant boys. The boys scream and writhe around with excitement/bored frustration for the entire journey, including during some kind of card game, ostensibly a formalised version of Go Fish, which only the parents are really playing.
‘Have you got any clams?’
‘Have you got any starfish?’
The boys continue to writhe and scream. The parents occasionally say to one or other of the boys, with incredibly calm voices, ‘I am very disappointed at you for screaming’ but it does nothing to reduce the intensity of said.
Bus to the ferry port, under pristine Saturday skies. While in the passport queue, notice a man walk into the terminal in motorbike leathers and surreptitiously take a few photos of the interior, despite stern instructional signage against doing so. Report this to the woman on the passport desk but she doesn’t seem very interested. 12 hour ferry to Rotterdam (terrific vibes out there, over the deep, on a Saturday night of a bank holiday weekend nestled down in MacGinty’s Irish Bar).
Rotterdam at dawn. Coach into town. Train to Utrecht. Get beef from the conductor who reacts to my e-ticket like I’m attempting to use a pentagram as permission for passage. Tells me go to international desk at Utrecht to sort it out. Woman at international desk tells me she can’t help me as it’s a Deutsche Bahn ticket. Walk round Utrecht (lovely city; flabbergasting churches) looking for somewhere to print the ticket, to no avail. Eventually get on train to Frankfurt expecting major beef. Conductor accepts e-ticket right away, barely looks at it.
At Frankfurt make quick dash to coach station to make next coach to Chur, Switzerland. Just get there in time. Going to small town called Flims where my friend JS has a family house. Bunch of pals are going to be there too. (Should say, if it weren’t evident already, this might be the most wonderful fortnight of my life). Arrive at about 1am, after a 300km coach reverie, to deliciously empty and quiet bus station and surrounding streets. Take a mind-bendingly expensive taxi into the mountains and arrive in Flims about two. Quick whiskey with JS and then bed.
I got through the tougher moments of that sometimes (entirely self-inflictedly) arduous day by telling myself it would make a good page for my blog and I think we can all see now that it has.
Was committed to completing the above schedule of travel, as failing to would mean arriving in Flims 24 hours later and thus missing a whole day of the three day stint. The time in Flims was so transcendentally enjoyable that I am not going to write about it here, primarily because pleasure (especially holiday pleasure) is boring, unless it's your own. Just one silly recollection though:
We went hiking in the Alps. JS promised us ‘a special surprise’ high up in the mountains. Throughout the day he drip-fed more details. We were going to a tavern. When we got there there would be a ‘treat’ waiting for us. Finally… The treat would be a massive dog!
When we arrived the treat was lying in the sun with a massive boner. We called him Derr Böner Hund.
Left Flims in the kind of melancholy state that only prolonged joy can bring about. In Zurich, with those of the pals who hadn't retreated normalcy-ward already, had a big old nice lunch (a massive hash brown with two eggs on it) and a big old nice hot chocolate and then said goodbye.
Another coach, to Strasbourg this time. At the first stop over the French border, Euro-Airport Basel, a squadron of no fewer than 20 border guards were waiting at the coach stop, only to board and start inspecting passports. Upon inspecting the documents of one passenger, one of the officers halted the operation and then shepherded said passenger, an old man of about 75, off the coach. Having made him remove his suitcase from the hold, they placed it upon a bench, in full view of all his fellow passengers, and went through it. They found some folder of documents and began poring over this and passing it around between themselves. The old man’s passport had Cyrillic writing on it and perhaps the documents were in Cyrillic too and thus illegible to the gendarmes.
We waited and waited and they did nothing but stare dumbly at this old guy’s documents and talk amongst themselves. They’d cordoned off a large rectangle around the coach, which seemed a pointless and self-important stunt.
After a while I couldn't help speculate about what criminal enterprise the old man may have been concealing. Was he perhaps one of the drug mules famed in Rotterdam for their fleeting hotel visits? I’d also recently read about the ‘Frankfurt Mafia’, a branch of the Macedonian Mafia which exists to transport heroin across the continent, and as this coach ultimately looped back round to Frankfurt, I wondered this guy might have been ‘connected’.
In the end, after putting his possessions roughly back in his case, they let him back on the coach, unincriminated, and off we went. Waste of time. Maybe there was more to it than met the eye but what might the eye was an innocent old man getting a load of unnecessary shit from 20 professional meatheads.
Get it into Strasbourg at dusk. All is calm over the bus station and the large park besides it.
Good Airbnb – a room in the modern, chicly-appointed apartment of a spellbinding young woman with round glasses and a very hench and softly spoken young man. Not an item, I don't think. My room is, I infer, the guy’s bedroom ordinarily. It has a large poster on the wall featuring one Jigoro Kano, some kind of doyen of judo, and several judo trophies on the shelf. Get up early one morning to find the guy watching the Judo World Championships on ESPN. Sit and watch it with him while drinking coffee from their espresso machine. Maybe I'll get into judo. According to the poster the sport embodies principles of: Fair Play, Respect, Hygiene, Self-Discipline and Friendship. All good things, in my book.
Strasbourg is a fine city. Particularly intriguing for its yoking of French and Germanic elements, sitting as it does, right next to the Rhine and thus the border between the two countries. The Grande Île area is a UNESCO World Heritage Site, and a very nice one too. Elsewhere things get very, very gothic; the Rhineland black and white, timber-framed houses are particularly fine. The city’s cathedral once, the tallest building in the world, is also a sublime late-gothic masterwork.
Visit the city museum and am equally fascinated and amused by the integral repeat pattern in the city's history in its alternation between German and French control every 50 years or so, as the border follows the whims of war and peace, before finally, after World War Two - as the museum text states with admirable confidence - Strasbourg becomes French again ‘for good’. Now the city is home to various EU headquarters, including the European Parliament.
On my final afternoon here – a clement Friday – walk to Le Jardin des Deux Rives (Garden of the Two Banks). A wonderful park where a bridge provides passage between the two countries. Walk over to Germany for a minute and then walk back to France. In the middle of the bridge, activists from populist left political parties Die Linke, of Germany, and Jean Luc Melenchon’s La France Insoummise, of France, are assembling to protest Emmanuel Macron’s proposed labour reforms, which they argue will erode workers’ rights.
Saturday morning leave Strasbourg by coach, in a blisteringly good mood, partly because I've been so enamoured by the city, partly because I'm on my way to Paris and partly because after that I'm going home.
Arrive in Paris on a Saturday evening into Gare du Bercy, near that beautiful park I banged on about in the original Paris post. Walked past the restaurant I ate at first time around. Nice to see the terrace full. Bought a small Heineken and wandered along the Seine. Went back to the Airbnb I’d stayed at first time around. Had dinner on the terrace at a local restaurant. I wish terrace-going were commoner practice à Londres.
Went to the Louvre at last. Saw the Mona Lisa but spent more time looking at its protective glass screen and all the people reflected in it than at La Joconde herself. Otherwise got most excited by the Goyas, I think. Later went to a very good Japanese restaurant near Cadet Métro but it was expensive so ended up eating only a piece of tofu and plain noodles in broth. Afterwards, sat on a terrace by the metro for a couple of hours, looking at a McDonald’s. Drank a calvados. What a drink that is. Silky.
Set out mid-morning, coffee en terrasse. Went to Gare du Nord to leave my bag in the luggage storage. At the station entrance saw the comedian Mark Steel. Gave him a nod but he didn't acknowledge me. I once acted in a sitcom he wrote so he should remember me but I’ll forgive him the oversight. If this blog has proven anything it is that international travel can be distractingly stressful.
The queue for the storage is trop longue. Find another storage place a few blocks from the station but it’s an automated facility and requires going online and paying by card and downloading codes and, much like the ‘self-check in’ Airbnb in Athens, is just an annoyance to use, and probably augurs what the first few years of mass automation (if they are not already upon us) will be like – an utterly impersonal, administrative nightmare (and which which perhaps spells redundancy for many of us).
Resigned to keeping my big bag in my possession for the day, abandon plans to venture off to St Denis and instead indulge in the easiest day possible, by walking the relatively short distance to Paris’ Trendy Canal Saint Martin and having a long nap on the towpath wall. Genuinely about six other hipsters within spitting distance doing the same thing. In the afternoon, go drink a couple of glasses of Pays d’Oc – guess where – on a terrace! (opposite Gare du Nord) before extracting my tatty Eurostar ticket from the bottom of my bag, where it’s been secreted for the last three months.
Just one more post to follow.