Saturday, September 29, 2012

Deserted Streets and Hippie Skirts

It's hard to believe I was in San Francisco a year ago, having an amazing time (even whilst battling strep) in a city on my own.  It's funny, when I ride the train and kill time by playing solitaire on my phone, I get these vivid flashbacks of San Francisco - I think it started because I used to play solitaire constantly during my morning commute to WC, mostly out of incredible anxiety about the job (I would go through 50+ games during my hour long commute each morning, nonstop back-to-back games), and this job, with it's stress, came right after I arrived back home from my trip.

The flashbacks that I have aren't the ones you think you'll have - the view of the foggy Golden Gate , strolling languidly through SF MOMA, riding the trolleys, etc.  In fact, there's only one moment I come back to (rarely) that was visually stunning, and that's the moment I crawled up to the side of Buena Vista Park with a bag of thai food and a spectacular view of downtown and proceeded to feast, and I only remember that because there were mosquitos everywhere and some guys dog tried to climb into my lap.

The mosquito-laden view

The random moments that pop into my head repeatedly are the ones that struck me and brought me back to earth, the ones that made me feel like a citizen, as if I were living everyday life and not on some weird implanted journey destined to dump me down and then suddenly scoop me back up again:

The morning I walked by a senior citizen center in NoPa that looked like a city hall, wrought iron gates to my right and trees casting a dappled exposure on the white sidewalk (this one hits me the most).

Walking down the sidewalk during an early morning chai run (I was determined to start every morning with chai from a different independent cafe, and succeeded admirably) and watching a bus pull up towards me on my right to let people board, looking up and seeing a man running at steep angle down the sidewalk towards the bus, yelling, "no no no no no!!", his tie flying back behind him, glasses askew, the sparse hair left on his head streaming behind him.  I think he caught the bus in the end.

Watching the parrots of Telegraph Hill call out to each other and swoop through the air in flocks, after leaving busy Lombard Street and the crowds of people taking their picture in it's foreground.

And this one, which happened a year ago tonight: Walking along Page Street on a quest for a burrito.  I had made up my mind to go to a place called The Little Chihuahua, which was a little bit of a hike from where I was on Haight Street.  I left my room, but once I walked outside I felt uneasy - San Francisco closes down after dark mostly, and that stretch of the Haight wasn't the best (think angry panhandling hippies of all ages).  Still I was hellbent on getting my goddamn burrito.  So after walking down a block or two and being incredibly uncomfortable, I took a leap of faith and made a left turn, deciding to walk along the street one block north instead.  The fact that continuing down Haight would have led me past Buena Vista Park, where I felt uneasy even during the daytime, was enough of a decider for me.

Page Street was like a different neighborhood - instead of older teenagers in army surplus gear with guitars and pitbulls hanging around and fighting in doorways, there was absolute silence.  The kind of silence that only comes from cool air, safety, and security.  I reveled in that coolness, the absolute blackness of the street, the elegant and pale victorians lined up in three point perspective along the block.  I walked all the way down to Divisadero, and got my goddamn burrito.  It was midweek, but the place was packed with groups, so I opted not to be the killjoy hogging a table and instead took it to go.  Only then did I realize my walk to the restaurant had been so nice because I'd been walking downhill.  Steeply.

I opted to take the bus to go back.  I waited a very, very long time for this bus (late night and buses in SF don't play well together).  The kicker was, it was really only two stops on the bus.  So I waited for an eternity to take a 8-10 minute ride.  Welcome to my world.  In the end, the burrito was pretty tasty, but probably would have been better had it been piping hot and in the company of attractive hipsters.

Anyhow, that's how I was spending my time exactly a year ago tonight - walking in solitary bliss along a sleepy San Francisco street, my hippie skirt swinging at my heels and my mind in the clouds.


Monday, September 10, 2012

Day 12: We Belong To A Cat Roaming Amsterdam Alleys

Last day in Amsterdam!  We started out by revisiting the Anne Frank House that we missed the night before - got there at 9am to some light rain and deserted cobblestone streets.  Only one other person ahead of us in line, which is amazing, since lines are usually 1-2 hours long at midday.  As we were practically the first ones there, we had plenty of space and time to look everything over to our desire.

I will preface this and say that I never read The Diary of Anne Frank - I never had it assigned to me in school, and I didn't really have the desire to read it at any point.  I also had no idea that it took place in Amsterdam (i guess I figured it was in Germany).  Still I felt compelled to see this famous place, and I'm not sorry for it - the experience was beautiful and very humbling.  You get to go through the rooms of the house where Otto Frank had his office and his company (in an associate's name since Jews couldn't own businesses at that time), then you duck into the doorway behind the bookcase by jumping up a step, then ducking your head to clear the short frame and climb the steps to go up.  The first flight of stairs is narrow.  The rooms are decently sized and bare, the wooden floors golden and worn down to a curved shine from millions of feet shuffling slowly along.  You come across a built scale of the two floors showing the layouts with furniture (the entire house is bare as per Otto Frank's request after returning to the house after the liberation).  You look at the staircase going to the top floor and say, "that's so steep, it must be because the model is tiny and it's hard to get the proportions right."

It's not.  The stairs to the top level are truly terrifying.  Each step is about 5" deep, so walking is more of a sideways upwards dance (the sort of thing you see women do on the subway steps when they wear silly high heels).  It's about 10-15 of these steps as well, which results in a staircase about 4' deep, when you think about it, which is just scary.  On this floor you see the bedrooms - the room where Anne stayed and the pictures she pasted to the walls of celebrities and images she found beautiful and brightening, the bathroom with it's simple but ornate ceramic toilet decorated with blue fired glaze detailing, the ladder leading to the attic where she could grab a breath or fresh air and see the sky once a day or so.  All of this was incredibly heartbreaking, but very real, and made me want to read the book.

After the house, you go through a corridor into the museum itself, the building next door that's been transformed into a larger space where they exhibit parts of her diary, the cards issued for the residents when they were sent to the concentration camps, even the roster showing the list of everyone hiding out in the house who was admitted.  There's also a large section showing what countries Jews fled to, the different countries the Franks tried for (all of which denied them), and the plight of those who lacked the correct paperwork and were sent back to certain death.

Overall it was emotionally draining, but worth the visit - definitely a must-see on a trip to Amsterdam.

Anne Frank Huis from the outside, with a well-established line by the time we left at 10am

Afterwards we headed to the Multatuli House, a free museum on a sidestreet a few canals over.  We originally arrived there at 10:06am, but the woman who was running the place was just biking up to the place and going in at that time (shit's more relaxed round these parts), so we tried to find breakfast, which was (again) impossible to find without spending upwards of 7-8€ apiece.  We gave up and trekked back to the Multatuli House, and were greeted by the woman we saw biking up earlier.  She was super nice and explained to us who Multatuli was, even though we had no clue in the world (he was a man who wrote about the injustices being done to the people in the Dutch colonies in Indonesia, sort of similar to Uncle Tom's Cabin by Harriet Beecher Stowe).  She showed us a wall of all the editions of the book, from the 1800s up to today, and all the different languages, and explained the history of the house - it was a house designed for the middle-lower classes, so where a rich house at the center would be all for one family, the house we were in would have 3-4 families, and the houses in the Jordaan (the next ring out) would be for poor families with 7-8 families per house. Now, of course, the Jordaan has tons of wealthy families paying top dollar and living in these houses originally designated for poor people...sound like another city you know? *wink*

She then brought us upstairs, up a freaking TERRIFYING spiral staircase that easily rivaled the one I climbed at the Anne Frank House - it was pretty much just a spiral version of that, MAYBE 3' in diameter on a good day.  On the second floor was a bunch of Multatuli's personal effects (including the couch he died on, apparently), his portraits, globe, a dried flower and clove arrangement under a glass bell protector that she removed and let us see (it still smelled of cloves over a hundred years later!), writing desk, maps, etc. She explained all the effects and their history, and gave us a little insight into Amsterdam during that time period as well, which was also really neat.  It was a very very small museum (just those two floors), but well maintained and with a very personal relaxed feel to it, almost like the City Island Museum where everything was just out in the open, more of a collection of interesting items on display rather than a formal layout behind glass and alarms.  Low key, and a nice way to wrap up being in Amsterdam.  Plus we made friends with a lazy tuxedo cat outside the museum, and he marked us as belonging to him.

Chilled out Amsterdam kitty
Afterwards, we headed back home and packed up in preparation to leave for the airport.  We figured out that the station one stop from us (Bijlmer ArenA) had a regional train that went directly to the airport, instead of having to take the train up to the nightmare that is Centraal Station and then a regional train back down to Schipol (Zuidoost [our neighborhood] and Schipol [the airport] are aligned with each other, but with no real direct path or road, almost like getting from Bensonhurst to Canarsie in brooklyn).  A quick 15 minute train ride later, we were at Schipol, and got to hang out in the cool comfy waiting area for a bit

Cool comfy waiting area, with wifi and power!
After we got cattle-called for our flight, we somehow got on the plane and got our own row together, with a spare seat in the middle. Score!  Disadvantage: we were on the side of the plane that faced the water when we flew into Barcelona, while everyone else on the other side got an amazing sunset and a nighttime view of Barcelona.  Boo, you can't have it all, it seems.  When we got off the plane, we were hit with a blast of hot and humid air, and were reminded that YES this is the Mediterranean for sure.  

After making our way out of the airport, we had to recalibrate our heads to perceive signs in a romance language - after Berlin and Amsterdam, I'm kind of used to a specific way that things are worded, most of them things I have no idea about, but Baz has a better understanding of.  Tables were now turned in Barcelona - even though I never took spanish in high school, and have only a rudimentary grasp of french, I'm still finding it easier than Baz is to acclimate to the language (possibly due to the large amount of english/spanish signs in New York?).  I also have a much easier time pronouncing things, where as Baz is still mostly playing the pointing and grunting game, which I totally played in Berlin the whole time I was there anyhow, so I don't even feel bad about saying that.  Feels good to be on top! Even if I don't actually know what's going on.

Regardless, we got freaking LOST.  We figured out that we had to take the regional rail to even get to the main metro there...everyone was running past us to get on the train sitting in the station, while Baz and I were struggling to figure out which ticket we needed and where.  The clerk said, "T-10!!" and hit the T-10 button and scurried off (T-10 is ten rides on a pass).  We simply needed the ticket from the airport to the first metro stop in the city though, so opted for the a la carte option - more expensive per ride, but better if you have no idea what the hell is going on.  We jumped on the train, which was packed, and the doors closed right after.  Lucky us! 

Not lucky for us - the train crawled from the airport to the next took about 10-15 minutes just to get to it (and that wasn't even the stop we needed).  It was hot, muggy, the A/C was no match for the hundreds of sweating luggage-dragging people pressed against each other on the train.  Meanwhile, we had our luggage on our backs and felt like we were dying (and I was wearing long pants and a long sleeved shirt from Amsterdam).  We met a couple on the train who were from Vancouver who were just as lost as we were - apparently we were both fiddling around with our metro apps for twenty minutes, trying to figure out where the hell we were...good to know it wasn't just us!  We tried to form a game plan of where to get off and which stop to go to, except when we got to the destination we bought our ticket was in the middle of a deserted parking lot and no one else got off the train.  Plus it was 10pm.  Red flag!  We decided to risk it and stay on the train, even though we would be outside the validity of the ticket.  It was so late, and hot and crowded we just didn't care, so we rode the regional all the way to the neighborhood we were staying in, then bought a one stop ticket and went the one metro stop to our place.  It's in the northeastern part of the city, very residential, with no touristy stuff going on - just the way I like it.  We came across a chinese restaurant (Restaurant Xines) that was still open, which was a novelty to us coming from Amsterdam where everything is shuttered up by 6pm.  Grabbed a menu and realized they had amazing prices (three course lunches with drink and dessert for 6.50€, dinner menu with more choices for 8.60€, etc.  We vowed to drop our stuff and go there for a bit of grub.  

Got to the apartment, which ended up being very nice - brand new building, elevator, quiet A/C, separate bathroom for us, etc.  The hosts are super friendly and know some english, and gave us a rundown of all the must-see things in Barcelona, which was really nice!  Unfortunately we were sweating and hungry from the trip so it was tough to pay attention, plus it's tough to absorb so much so quickly, so we noted what we could, gave up on going to the restaurant, and turned in and went to sleep.  Well-earned, cool, deep sleep.

Saturday, September 08, 2012

Day 11: Dammit, Swedish Food Tastes Good Anywhere

Started off the gorgeous day wandering through Vondelpark, which was filled with people sunning and enjoying the weather.  We walked the full length from east, which was very commercial with trams, shops and busy streets, to the northwest which had more of a gated community, deeply residential feel.

Garden area with hexagonal honeycomb-like hedges holding various plant life

Gazebo surrounded by a moat

Monument outside the gazebo

Afterwards we visited the Begijnenhof (Beguines' Court), a convent-style square right off the Spui - it's located in the first canal belt, so the neighborhood is tall buildings and narrow roads, with pubs and tacky souvenir shops that pack the cobblestone paths, and then you step through a giant wooden door polished by a thousand hands brushing by it, and into this quiet green and blue oasis.


It still houses all women, just like it did hundreds of years ago, though I don't believe it's specifically pious women in direct correlation with the church that anchors it on one side.  Also, the ring of houses contains one of the oldest houses in Amsterdam, one of two houses in the city made entirely of wood that never succumbed to the many fires that led people to build using bricks and masonry.

Oldest house in Amsterdam

The grounds are really peaceful and beautiful - stretches of the grounds are partitioned off, so you can't wander just anywhere, but it's still a nice respite from the rowdy, dark, cramped streets ringing the community.

Open door to the public street area

Begijne woman

Afterwards we spent the day wandering around, riding trams and taking in the sights.  At this point, we had gone a full week without eating anything of any real nutritional value (wurst, bread, and chunks of gouda gets tired quickly), yet didn't want to shell out the 20-30€ per head for a meal (yes, even far from the center).  Amsterdam seem to just be the kind of city where eating out always costs a high amount, either expensive or MORE expensive.  So what did we do?  

We went to Ikea for dinner.

Photo courtesy of  Pretty much what we had.

To be fair, the Ikea was right around the corner from us in the business park that Baz and I wandered into the first night we got there and couldn't find the damn apartment.  Besides, we both dig Ikea (shitty quality and big box mentality be damned) because it gives us the ability to daydream about what our apartment will look like one day when we get the opportunity to live together, which unfortunately isn't in our cards at present moment.  

So we went on a journey to Ikea.  After a mile of walking and wading through a sea of flaxen haired children, we made it to the dining area and decided on salmon with grilled veggies and french fries (gegrillt zalm).  We also realized we were probably one of the few people there who wasn't from Zuidoost, or even Amsterdam, because seriously, what tourist thinks to go to Ikea for goddamn dinner?  Anyhow the poor people behind the counter had to switch their brains over to english when we ordered, and we ended up missing out on some sweet hollandaise sauce as a result, but no worries, since the last thing I needed was more cream/oil/richness in my diet.  

After a blissful dinner of (relatively) real food, with veggies and nutrients and everything, we had some time to kill before heading to the Anne Frank House back in the city, so we walked off our fullness by wandering through the showrooms pointing out stuff we liked - studio room setups, kitchens, wandering through bedrooms connected to closets connected to bathrooms, and seeing that the Dutch really do seem to favor this three-walled shower concept that lacks a curtain or door on the fourth wall, which we noticed in our shower but couldn't determine if it was because the renter was lazy or because it was the style.  Not really my thing (no privacy, plus the whole bathroom is soaking after), but hey whatever, ain't my country.

After falling in love with every wood and metal combo I could find, we scuttled off to make it to the museum by 9pm (museum closes at 10pm in the summer), but due to Ikea's layout being a labyrinth and some bad mass transit karma, we didn't get there until 9:25, which isn't enough time to appreciate everything.  Dejected, we turned back and went back home (practically where we had just come from!) and decided to get an early night in order to do the House in the early morning.

Friday, September 07, 2012

Day 10: Canal Rings and House Boats Galore

Due to the combo of rain and nothing being open (museums don't count), Baz and I wandered around taking pictures of stuff that was mostly grey.  See this is why I didn't post every day.  "Here's a grey sky with a building."  "Here's a grey house with a grey sky."  It was still beautiful, regardless of the weather, but mostly we walked in circles.  Once more, Amsterdam is confusing as heck!

Canal with boats

Snoekjesbrug (?) Canal

I am in serious talks with Baz about owning a houseboat with plants, kitties, and rigging

Day 9: The Dutch Market, and Why You Need To Get Stoned Midday

So Europe is a little funny, from an American point of view, anyhow.  In Amsterdam, everything closes early.  EVERYTHING.  Restaurants, supermarkets, bars, even coffeeshops.  If you wanna get your smoke on so you can better appreciate the ramblings of Stephen Colbert and REALLY appreciate the texture of the velvet curtains next to your bed for like, three hours, you'd better do it before 6pm, because otherwise you're SOL.  Tying into this theme, a lot of stuff closes early on Saturdays.  It's not like in the US where the weekend is the big hitter and stores are partial to staying open late - stuff closes at the same time as it does during the week...seems Thursday (of all days) is the day stores stay open "way later" (ie 9-10pm).  On Sundays, lots of shops close.  I kind of like it, since it means everything is a bit quieter, plus it means people that work in the shops always have at least one day off a week (working a 10 day week in retail isn't unheard of in the states, sadly, due to scheduling mishaps and such).  

That being said, on Saturday, the Albert Cuyp Markt was open from 9am-5pm.  We went midday and it was moderately crazy but very nice, a big mixture of hippie stuff, wholesale makeup and goods, vintage, shoes, bags, lots of foods, cheeses, fish, etc.  I picked up a cute cotton scarf for 1€, and we were tempted by fresh squeezed juices and samples of edam and other snacking cheeses.

Albert Cuyp Markt

Also it rained a bunch.  The whole weekend!! Grr.  This is the (rainy) view from our balcony earlier in the day.

Baz is not pleased with this turn of events

Day 8: Violent Flashbacks of AP Art History

I finally pried open the rusted shut latch of my wallet and coughed up the 14€ to go to the Rijksmuseum.  After this go-through on Amsterdam, I'm so grateful for the plethora of museums in New York that go by the "suggested admission" policy - a lot of places don't do this (I noticied it in San Francisco as well), and in Amsterdam, museums and attractions tend to be in the 10€  and up range, usually around 15€ and higher.  

Apparently the Rijksmuseum has been under renovation for a number of years (as are a lot of museums in Amsterdam, it seems), and when we went it was the limited collection of the best 400 pieces or so.  On the one hand, it makes it a bit easier because it's the finest pieces in the museum, and it streamlines things, but for 14€ , I'd like to see a heck of a lot more (or, alternatively, pay less for the limited viewing).  Also, according to guidebooks from about 6 years ago, even when the Rijksmuseum was under renovation then, the admission fee was 10€ , so they've actually RAISED the ticket prices by 40%, while showing less.  I think that's kind of disappointing.  Yes I know, it's an art institution, yes I know I gave them 14€ anyhow (captive audience and all that), but that doesn't make it right.

I will say this though, the collection is, for the most part, very nice.  Let's face it - I went there to see me some Rembrandt and Hals, and got a bonus dose of Van Ruisdale (my favorite landscape artist).  The first part of the museum with the pottery and silver wasn't interesting to me, and neither was the dollhouse on display from some rich Dutch chick from a few hundred years ago (dollhouses never really impress me), but the paintings were wonderful.  Here's some famous ones you may recognize from the AP Art History slides of yore. 

The Jewish Bride aka Sir David Copafeel

The Servant Girl - please list date, artist, country, medium, and style.  Extra credit: What is the significance of the footstove in the background?  Complete sentences only.

The Night Watch - What is the style of lighting Rembrandt pioneered, and what effect does it convey? Please use complete sentences

Two insanely cute little dogs face off in Museumplein

Museumplein.  Note the massive number of bicyclists

Monday, September 03, 2012

Side Note: Spanish Internet Sucks

Let me emphasize how IMPORTANT it is to have internet in a foreign country in which you do not speak a lick of the native language.  Baz and I have discovered this firsthand, since the place we are staying at in Barcelona seems to have the worst internet I've ever encountered - we think it shuts down after a certin limit has been reached, and only the owners can call up the company and restart it.  This is a problem since they were gone for a few days, and we had no internet during that time period.

This led to an avalanche of bad things - Baz's iPhone being stolen because we went out to a McDonalds in search of free WiFi, Baz not being able to complete jobs, we have no way of communicating with the outside world, I need to be able to track the status of my airline since it looks like they might strike on the day I'm due to fly back home, etc etc.

It's a serious inconvenience - because of the lack of internet, we have no way of checking out tourist attractions, times, guides, prices, transport, etc, not to mention that since most stuff is in Catalan, we need the internet to translate a lot.

It's a shame, because the place we were in was really nice, and a decent price.  Unfortunately, they skimped on internet (the only thing we truly needed to be secure), and we have to write a bad review because it seriously soured up what would have otherwise been an amazing time.

Friday, August 24, 2012

Day 7: Walking My Legs Off

So this is where we're staying:

Breezeway between buildings

Crazy mural in the breezeway

Pretty far from the action, a little rough around the edges, but still nice, except for the punjabi techno blasting at 3am, the bonfires in the courtyard, and the cat choruses in the morning hours.

Crazy englishman in the breezeway
Thursday mostly consisted of (yet again) walking around...we attempted to do the Rijksmuseum, but we didn't get out of the house till 3pm, and the museum closes at 6, which would only give us just a couple of hours for it all.  In retrospect, thats a decent chunk of time, but I hate being kept to a timeline, so we opted to simply explore more.

You can't see it, but there's a daywalker in one of these boats.  You South Park people will know what thats' about.
Up and down the streets, the canals, the small curved roads.  We walked around a district called Nine Streets, which is basically a condensed SoHo/TriBeCa with older buildings...really cute stores, but I'm not on a budget to be spending any money, let alone money in a country where my home currency is worth way less.  Super tempting, though!

Other things we came across: 

Electric cars:
Baz and I are still trying to figure out why they're crossing streams

Bikes.  Many, many bikes:

An adorable cat that I'm choosing to name Sir Archduke Fluffy Lumpy Wuddle Butts:
I just came up with that name on the spot, if you can't tell

We headed home for dinner (ravioli with mushrooms sauteed in brown butter, with tomato sauce, grand total 2€ for the both of us, god I love Lidl), then went back out to explore after dark.  Shit gets crazy on Thursday nights - it seems that all stores stay open later on Thursdays (though that craziness we experienced might just be because it's Amsterdam).  Not sure why Thursday is the big late night day, but it means stores close at 8pm or 10pm instead of the standard 5 or 6pm.  Why stores close this early is beyond me, it must make shopping on the weekends a nightmare and a half.  We braved the night crowds for a couple of hours, then decided to head back.

Night canal action
For Friday: The Rijksmuseum and beyond!

Thursday, August 23, 2012

Day 6: A Chicken Sandwich at the Gate, or How to Get by in Amsterdam Without Spending $200/day

So Wednesday was our first full day in Amsterdam!  After settling in to our place, we headed out to Centraal to explore the district.  Thankfully it's only a 20 minute metro ride straight there, and we can grab trams that go EVERYWHERE.  Most of the central canal ring is just awful (McDonalds, KFC, and Burger Kings ABOUND here), and even when you get a little further out, its STILL awful - tourist shops, insanely expensive restaurants, roving bands of frat boys/girls, etc.

Frat boys/girls not pictured
To be fair, it's not unexpected, but my inner New Yorker avoids all that like the plague, so willingly putting oneself in the middle of it as an actual tourist feels like soul suicide.  Still, I'm rocking my multi-map holding/turning/looking confused skills, much to Baz's chagrin, and taking it all in stride, while trying to be responsible and economically conscious, which (like I said) is no easy task here.  Thirty euros for a meal? Seven to ten euros for a hamburger?  Uh, no thanks.  Maybe this is okay if you're only staying for a city break (2-3 days max), but it's not feasible for a week.  Personally, I've spent about 80 euros in the seven days, and that's including most of my transport (I say most, since Baz has been very nice), and I'd like to keep that record.  Not realistic if you're spending a "regular" amount of money in the main canal area, which seems like it would be about 50-60€ a day in food.  Eurgh!

Anyhow, so Baz and I have gotten really good at eating sandwiches on the go.  We took a random tram (#25) down to an area south of the belt called De Pijp , ending at President Kennedylaan (cute).  Mostly a residential area, has kind of cute and small town feel to it (for Amsterdam, anyhow) and we came across an Albert Heijn, which is their main grocery store here.  We heard it was expensive and went in expecting Whole Foods prices...surprisingly it wasn't all that shocking! Somethings were expensive because it's just Europe (meats, some veggies, etc), but we stocked up on bread and cold cuts and some rose cakes (roze koken), which were muy tasty!

This is how we ended up standing randomly next to a giant wooden and iron door affixed to the side of Centraal Station, loading up Tiger Bread with loosies of kipfilet while fellow tourists stared at us.  Do you want a piece of my sandwich or something, lady?!  I get confrontational when I achieve quasi-homeless status.

Headed back home to regroup, then went to the area by us (Bijlmer Station ArenA), just one metro stop up, and found it was a huge bustling shopping center divided into two areas, one was a newer center which, oddly enough, had a bizarre mall made entirely of stores you'd visit to furnish your $5,000/month loft apartment in SoHo, which is strange because this place is a stones throw from the ghetto.  Still, beautiful inside.

Note the two-story escalators

Also, in the Netherlands, apparently you can just go ahead and name your store Sani-Dump if you sell toilets.  Not even a joke.  Remember, high class mall with furniture in the 1000€ and up bracket.

Thank god my dumps will be sanitary
After this spectacle, we headed over to the other side of the train station to see what lay beyond the bizarre giant office-park buildings.  Oddly enough, it was a huge open low-scale mall with tons of stores, including Lidl, a super low-priced supermarket.  Like, a quart of milk is 50 cents.  Like, giant sausages the length of my arm are a fucking euro.  Like, you can buy an entire dinners worth of groceries for a family for less than 5€.  Thank GOD.  We stocked ourselves silly, headed home, then headed back out to explore Amsterdam after dark.

Amsterdam after-hours is INSANE.   It's loud, there's bicycles whizzing by everywhere, pot smoke in clouds (technically illegal, from a general point of view and a "smoking in the street" point of view!), people with beers and cigarettes packed into cramped sidewalk cafes, just....everything.  We walked and walked and walked, the rounded canals and streets make it so disorienting!  Walked through the Red Light district, which is more gaudy than sensual (think blacklights and neon bikinis to go with the red lights), and with many of the booths surrounding an old church, I found this to be quite comical.

I didn't realie until after that this was part of the Red Light District (taking pics in the district is pretty verboten)
Eventually, darkness fully descended and all the douches came out.  Sidewalks were PACKED, everyone gawking and sidewalk parking to get a good look at the entertainment and "sex shows"....its funny, seeing sex shops that sell simple toys and outfits seems just plain boring after seeing a woman in a bikini eating chicken nuggets out of a happy meal box getting propositioned by an old german man through a pane of glass.  Baz and I decided to call it a night soon after that.

A fun, yet exhausting first day!

Tuesday, August 21, 2012

Day 4/5: Intro the Wild Blue Amsterdam

"Baz, get a picture of me in front of the German." "Why?" "Just fucking do it!"

I missed yesterdays post! I swore I wouldn't, and not only did I miss it, I almost missed today as well.  I'll have to consolidate the two, as it's late and I'm getting tired.  As well, pics will follow (I'm too tired to load em from my camera)

Edit: Now with pictures!

So yesterday (Tuesday) was our last full day in Berlin.  We took the bus (finally!) from our place in Schöneberg up to the Zoo, which is a great ride due to the double decker bus layouts.

Windows all around!

We walked around the zoo for a bit, but it was still very very hot, so we had to quit relatively early on.  Stupid hot weather.

Monkey with baby!

Afterward, we walked back around to the front of the zoo and caught the bus back home - we really did luck out with a place that was not in the middle of the tourist traps, but close enough to everything (huge room, less than two minute walk to the metro, shops all around, and close to the bus).

View from our window

We never did figure out what this majestic building was
Afterward we decided to take the buses to Prenzlauerberg - we tried to get on the 100 to get a good view, waited, and when the bus came, two obnoxious families pushed in front of us and hogged the top front seats the entire ride...don't get me started on that shit.  RUDE.  Rode it to Alexanderplatz, then took the metro up to Prenzlauerberg to check out the area.  Hip and happening, tons of restaurants, beer gardens, dark side streets, had a major Bushwick feel to it.  Jumped on some trams and....somehow ended up back at Museum Island, haha.  Walked around for ages, took the train back to Alexanderplatz, then caught the 100 back to the Zoo and the second bus back home.  An overall nice day, had a huge rainstorm when we were home, as well as when we were waiting for the 100 to head back home at night.  At least it killed the heat!

Kinda sad to be laving Berlin, but Amsterdam was up next!

We took the train out to Schöenfeld Airport, which I have to say, is nicer (though smaller) than Tegel.  Anything is better than a dusty hexagon of red and grey laminate hell, though.  We used EasyJet, which is basically a massive cattle call that results in 200 people overtaking the hallways by storm as they push and moo to get to the gate first.  Baz and I (thank god) were in the first 10 people or so, which is no small feat, since we were practically elbowing people with dialysis machines to get in line.  We got into the waiting area, and figured out the plane was a half hour late.  Awesome.  So we got to hang out in a room with a bunch of sweaty people and watch other people get on planes.  Sweet!

Thankfully, when the doors were finally opened to the Prolats, we ran on first, and of course got stuck behind people who can't be bothered to throw their children into the seat rows and instead let them stand dumbly in the aisle while they put away luggage. Meanwhile, others have gotten the clue and ran to the back boarding stairs and sprinted up to secure the back exit seats.  Flying is freaking stressful!  After some elbow-eye contact, we got our seats at the front (as we should have!) and settled in for the flight - only about an hour and a half or so, and with crazy cloud views and wind turbines that went on for miles.

I will say this - Amsterdam's train system is confusing if you don't know Dutch.  Regional rail, cards, passes, trains coming on some platforms but not always going the same way by the same route, urgh!  After lots of wandering around and staring at endlessly flipping signboards, we somehow reached Amsterdam Centraal, and from there we took the metro down to our place in Zuidoost.

Zuidoost is an interesting area.  It's a "planned neighborhood of the future", built in the 70s for middle class families.  Apparently, though, they didn't build transit connections till way after, so it never became a utopian gem of a suburb and instead turned into a horrific slum.  You get this feeling as the train crawls further and further away from Centraal, so it's a bit concerning (I never felt anything like this in Berlin).  Thankfully, it's been changing over the last 20 years or so, but it still feels like you took a slice of Bed-Stuy and threw it into the middle of a forest - people hanging around outside, yelling, music blasting heavy bass everywhere.  Kind of...scary, and that's coming from the girl who grew up in Brooklyn.  I think the added dimension of being in an unfamiliar place is unsettling as well.

The apartment itself is all our for the next few days, which is somewhat of a consolation!  It's two bedrooms, and we got first dibs, so we picked the larger room with the balcony, which is a nice bonus. Place is SUPER spartan though, it seems to only be a vacation apartment, so we're stuck with just onions, apples, and bread we scavenged in the kitchen until we can go out for groceries in the AM.  Dinner of champions!  Lets hope tomorrow finds us with some food in our bellies and knives not firmly planted in our backs.  Hello, Amsterdam!

Sunday, August 19, 2012

Day 3: The Kebab Guys Must Think We're Stalking Them

It's been a HOT day in Berlin - 95F, sunny and clear...practically boiling for here! Added to this is the fact that there is no air conditioning or fans ANYWHERE and you've got yourself one hot german city.

Baz and I started the day late...again.  The time difference is killing us!  Even though I tried to readjust myself, I wasn't much good at it, and as a result we're falling asleep at 3 or 4am.  We decided to have our own Sunday brunch at a turkish place right on the corner by us called Wunderlampe, and we tried currywurst with pommes.  Pretty darn tasty, and a decent price at 2.80€ for a plate.

Currywurst = Om noms

After somehow devouring this huge plate of food, we ventured out into the heat and tried to go to Museum Island.  I say "tried", because when we got off the train, it looked like a european ghost town.  Few to no cars, one or two people on bicycles, no one walking around.  We chalk it up to it being a Sunday, but I still find it odd that on a weekend there's no one out, especially on a "day off", and especially in a tourist area.  

Waterway on the south side of Museum Island

We wandered around for a bit along the river, but the heat and the sun was too much and we diverted into a train soon after, feeling a bit dejected but relieved to be out of the heat.  We headed to Alexanderplatz to walk around (which was oddly dead as well), and jumped on a tram to ride around and take in the sights.

Radio tower from afar

Jumped off and then jumped onto another tram, then got out at the terminus.  Walked around a corner, and suddenly found ourselves smack dab in the middle of the action on Museum Island...go figure.  Walked past the front of museums (I think we found it far to expensive to go in, admission to the Pergamon Museum, which is really the only museum I wanted to see, was something like 15€ per person...and like I said, practically a hobo.  So we simply walked around, and walked through a cool street fair/market area on the side of the stretch of museums, where they were selling all sorts of nifty things like art and coins and old medical instruments, which ISN'T CREEPY AT ALL.

This got slightly annoying once we get into the really touristy area and we started having waiters at the outdoor cafes try to pull us into their restaurants.  Bitch PLEASE!  If I want to eat at your restaurant, I'll do it! If I don't, trying to sucker me into it sure isn't gonna work.  PLEASE.

Afterwards, we made a pit stop, got MORE currywurst, walked around the main drag in our neighborhood, then jumped on the train and headed over to Alexanderplatz, which was a lot more jumping when it wasn't almost boiling out like it was during the day.  Walked around a bunch in search of the ever elusive drink-that-doesn't-cost-an-arm-and-a-leg-in-a-high-tourist-traffic-area (we found it!) and high tailed it to Kreuzberg to try and score some cheap turkish food.  It occurs to me now that my journey in Berlin seems to be centered on cheap tasty food, and pretty much nothing else.  Baz is, not surprisingly, okay with this.  

At this point, it was about 11pm, and once we reached Kreuzberg, only two places were really open - Curry 36 (no more currywurst today please!) and Mustafas, which had a line about 40 people deep (it makes sense, they're good and a huge ass wrap is less than 3€, so thats good eatin).  I was not having any of it, so we jumped back on the train and headed home.

After some grumbling and lamenting on no good food (we have three slices of ham in the fridge as a last resort), we wandered back down to the turkish place on the corner to see if they were open.  It was 12:15am at this point, and I wasn't so sure they'd be open.  To our delight, they were, and not only that, they're open until 4am EVERY FREAKING DAY.  We indulged in two chicken döners and some good beer, for a grand total of 7.10€ that left us both very full.  Even Baz.  To put this in context, Baz would eat his entire arm if it didn't hurt him, so this was pretty special.

Huge chicken döner and a Berliner Kindl.  Good eats!!

All in all, a nice day.  We have another two days here, and then it's off to Amsterdam!  Looking forward to the Tiergarten and the Zoo tomorrow, as well as (probably) more food from the turkish place on the corner. For sure.

Saturday, August 18, 2012

Day 2: Shadows, Sushi, and Two Euro Ham

So Baz and I woke up at 1pm.  Sucks, but our sleep schedules are still a touch wonky, here's hoping they straighten out.  On the upside, today was Baz's birthday, so Happy Birthday Baz, welcome to the big 2-6!

Due to our shortened day, we decided to do Brandenburg Gate and the Holocaust Memorial, plus a little sushi - we've been craving it for the last few weeks, but he hasn't had access since he's been in England, and I haven't had access because I'm practically a hobo.

First we headed to Brandenburg Gate, which is huge and beautiful, but unfortunately it was hard to get a good vantage point since they were setting up for some sort of concert right in front of it, so we were relegated to 45 degree angle shots.

Brandenburg Gate

Afterwards we headed down a few blocks to the Holocaust Memorial (or, as it's actually called, Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe) - it's basically a large stone paved square bound by streets next to the Tiergarten and gridded with large monolithic granite blocks, higher in the center than at the sides.  It's very beautiful, doesn't seem like much until you get into the middle of it, where it becomes a labyrinth of stone and shadows.

Central Area of Memorial

It's beautiful and kind of scary, with over 2,000 of these giant sturdy blocks lined up in countless rows.  Walking around it, you find other people looking for their groups, running up and down the hilly pavings, sun shining through certain directions and shadows that stretch for ages.

Low Granite Blocks

After the memorial, we decided to wander to a sushi place nearby...except we'd forgotten the address, didn't have a good map, and we don't speak German (well Baz does a little, I just count my english in a heavy butchered german accent as German).  After much wandering, and realizing that German tourist traps are just as bad and soul crushing as American ones, we somehow found it on a side street and went inside.

Ishin Japanese Deli is a decent little Japanese place, considering it's off a main tourist strip (the large number if japanese people also helped my opinion of the place).  One thing that was strange upon walking in was the overwhelming smell of fish.  That's not a good sign for a sushi joint.  We were waved in, and figured we should just sit down.  We picked out what we wanted from the menus already standing at the tables ("Happy hour" actually lasts all day on Saturdays an Wednesdays, go figure) and got us some tuna and salmon plates, with individual pieces and rolls (or "maki").  The downside? No tap water.  Not sure if this is a European thing or if it's just so they can get away with charging for a cold drink (green tea is unlimited, but our cups were never refilled), but it kinda sucked since we were thirsty as hell.  No matter, we're here for sushi!  Our plates came, and it was darned good! Very fresh, and tasty, except for one odd thing - between the sashimi and the rice, they added a dab of wasabi.  This is good if you're expecting it, and will drive you CRAZY if you're not, and can't figure out where these bursts of nose and head clearing burn are coming from.  I soldiered on though, and it was a delightful treat, especially for Baz, since he got to finish what I couldn't eat.

Courtesy of

Afterwards, full of sushi, we headed back to our humble abode.  Let me just say, Pennymarkt is AWESOME.  It's this store next to our apartment, and everything is dirt cheap, which is great when you're practically a hobo.  Soda for 34 cents?  Yes please.  Ham (good german ham) for 2 euros? Yes PLEASE.  Also: bars of good chocolate for 49 cents and full bottles of wine for 1.49?  Yes, yes, a thousand times yes.

Also, can I please say that Berlin's train system is awesome?  Trains practically run every 5 minutes, they're super fast and quiet, and you can fucking drink on the platforms.  I think.

Yorckstraße Station

Tomorrow looks promising - looking forward to exploring Museum Island (todays original plan, but sidetracked due to waking up five hours later than planned) as well as trying to find the cheapest most delicious food EVER.  Turkish food, here we come!