October 16, 2011

Dresden, Germany

My morning jog through the rebuilt old city of Dresden deteriorated into a morning agog.

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October 14, 2011

Berlin, Germany

The Germans are geniuses. Why hasn't anyone else thought of this?

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Also:

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April 05, 2008

Frankfurt, Germany
How to Win Friends and Avoid Getting Shot

Over the last couple hundred flights, I've decided the notion of sitting next to someone cool and interesting is, essentially, mythical. Pleasant surprise, then, to meet a programmer from San Diego on her way to Rome to teach a course in C++. She'd just come back from Honduras, where she installed a water filtration system for a village, and confirmed the existence of a weird Captain Nemo guy who built his own private submarine and will take passengers down to 3000 feet. She also lived in Paraguay and spent a couple weeks with a tribe in Indonesian Borneo.

"And what do you do?"

Here's where I always derail.

For brief acquaintances, I try to avoid going there altogether. When cornered, I demure, which invariably backfires and comes off as: "I'm kind of a big deal."

"I...uh...make videos...for the internet."
"Oh. Like stupid YouTube stuff?"
"...yes."

My old cover story of working in videogames has grown stale. The last game I worked on is several years old, which sounds suspicious, and I'm too crappy of a liar to attempt a total fabrication. So I just get evasive and weird. Explaining what I do to someone who has no idea what I do just kind of sucks.

I seem to have avoided a looming luggage debacle. I had a free flight to Israel as the back end of a round-trip booking from the last leg of my trip. I figured that'd get me most of the way to my first destination, Yemen, but what I failed to realize is this: Israel is actually farther away from the rest of the Middle East than Europe. If you want to go from Tel Aviv to the nearest capital in any direction, you need to fly through Athens or Istanbul or Frankfurt.

I decided instead to skip my Frankfurt-to-Tel Aviv flight and catch a new booking to Yemen by way of Cairo. All good and fine, except my bag got checked through to Tel Aviv. Turns out people get really edgy when they think you're trying to put a bag on a plane to Israel without getting on the plane yourself.

I sorted things out. While my default travel disposition is “Señor Crabbypants,” I’ve learned the benefits of plastering a big dopey smile on my face. Come to think of it, that’s sort of the underpinning of my current existence.

Thank you, once again, Dale Carnegie.

I regret aspects of my last post. I will try to avoid using the phrase “grand undertaking” for the rest of my natural life. I am a pompous ass and clearly due for a smacking.

I’m not sure yet whether Yemen is one of those dangerous-sounding places that is actually ridiculously safe or one of those dangerous-sounding places that really is ridiculously dangerous. Lonely Planet says things like:

135 tourists were kidnapped between 1996 and 2000, but don’t worry because none of them were killed…except for 16 of them who were.

Guns outnumber people in Yemen, but I’m pretty sure they outnumber people in my country too. It’s common to see civilians shouldering Kalashnikovs, but apparently they’re considered a fairly meaningless fashion accessory.

There is a definite and substantial Al Qaeda presence in the region. They tend to be foreigners though, living illegally, and they’re unlikely to be found in cities.

These are the more alarming details. There's plenty of other reassuring information, though, and I'm pretty sure I'll be okay as long as I follow the enduring maxim: DON'T BE AN IDIOT.

Also, big smile.

June 18, 2007

Krakow, Poland
"Curse you, Timberlake!"

Went to the train station in Brussels to get to Cologne in time for our 6pm dancing event. Still not sure what happened to my laptop that I left on the train from Paris the day before.

The train with my laptop on it terminated in Amsterdam, so I tracked down the lost and found office at Amsterdam Central. They said they'd put my laptop back on a train heading to Brussels.

This seemed like good news, as I was still in Brussels. But then I realized the train with my laptop on it wasn't arriving for 12 hours, and I was leaving for Cologne in 12 minutes.

Losing my laptop would be catastrophic, but it'd be equally bad to leave a mob of Germans wondering Where the Hell I am. So we hopped on the train and I decided to sort it out later.

Got to Cologne. Danced.

With that out of the way, I called Amsterdam Central again. They were pretty frustrated with me and told me to call the Brussels lost and found. The guy in Brussels told me he hadn't seen a laptop, it wasn't his problem, he couldn't help me, then hung up the phone and refused to pick it up again.

And so, once more, I encounter the refined social graces of the Flemish.

As a last ditch, I called my friend Sophie in Amsterdam. She mentioned knowing a lady at her law firm with the magical ability to sort out problems. A fixer. I asked if she could help and provided all my information.

A half hour later, Soph called back to say that my laptop was still in Amsterdam, that it was being held at the station, and that she would pick it up for me when she got off work. This fixer; this Petronella, had sorted everything out. More than that, she seemed to somehow bend reality toward a more convenient outcome. It was like calling the Wolf from Pulp Fiction. I remain very grateful.

So we're in Cologne, my laptop is in Amsterdam, and our next dancing event is in Munich -- way, way in the opposite direction. The cheapest and most practical option at that point: road trip.

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They gave us a Smart car. It was fantastic -- like driving a roller skate. Those things are zippy!

I want one.

Got to Amsterdam in the wee hours. Got my laptop back. Crashed on Soph's sofa.

Here's a map so you can follow along at home.

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From Amsterdam, we drove all the way across Germany to Munich...really fast.

Stayed with Melissa's friends, Martin and Jessica.

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Danced in the English Garden, near the Monopteros. Martin brought a bunch of signs for his environmental awareness thingy and people got the idea to have me sign them.

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I don't really get autographs or why acquiring one from me is substantial in any way, but they're easy enough to provide, so...

Flew to Warsaw, Poland, where one of the guys who showed up was a photographer. This means I have pictures from Warsaw. Really nice ones.

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That's a close-up of one of the wrist bands we hand out. Everyone who dances has to wear one so we know we have them signed up. It has the release date of the video written on it.

When we finished, a bunch of the dancers invited Melissa and I out for a drink. Sometimes I can't accept and sometimes I can. This time, I could.

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There were both Germans and Poles at the table. I gingerly inquired who had the better beer, then sat back like the samurai from Yojimbo and let them sort it out.

We played digital camera quickdraw.

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After a while, Melissa and I excused ourselves and went over to Golo's house for dinner.

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Golo is a friend of Martin; the guy we stayed with in Munich. I met Golo on my last lap around the planet for the previous video. He's a flight attendant for Lufthansa, so he'd just gotten back from Sao Paulo with some huge Brazilian steaks. He cooked them up and plied us with more alcohol before sending us home in a cab.

Caught a morning train to Krakow. Wandered around for a couple hours before heading off to the airport.

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The Krakow airport is stunningly, inexplicably efficient.

Connected in Copenhagen, then on to Stockholm. Took a long bus from the airport only to discover that Justin Timberlake was performing, so the whole of Sweden had converged on the city and filled up all the hotels.

We loitered at a McDonald's until the AMs, then finally caved and booked a room at a business hotel an hour outside the city. It was the most expensive room we stayed in on this entire trip, and certainly not worth mentioning otherwise.

Took the subway. Along the way, we noted that our day had included travel by taxi, train, plane, bus, and subway. Alas, no donkeys, unicycles, or hot air balloons.

May 23, 2006

Rødby, Denmark
Wi-Fishing

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I’m on a train on a boat. Apparently they can do that. The train rumbles up onto the ferry, gate closes, and off we go. I feel like a LEGO man.

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We’re en route from Paris, overnight. Got stuck in a cabin with two other guys. Four men sleeping in a tiny, bedless room requires some degree of…intimacy. One of our roommates was Indag, an Ethiopian working at Mother Teresa’s care center in Addis Abba.

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Wonderful guy, but virtuous qualities aside, I’m not sure he knows about soap.

Don't have much to report on Europe. It's still Europe. Been Europe for a long time. Likely to remain so.

Most of what I've seen has been from the window of a train. At this point, to be honest, my sightseeing receptors have been worn down to dull nubs. I'm on country number 37 since December. Just working on a project now. Very close to finishing and trying to make it as good as it can be. Any side experiences are incidental.

Matt is the perfect companion for where my head is at right now. His superhuman endurance is matched only by his superhuman indifference.

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"Hey Matt, how about we take the 8am from Amsterdam back to Paris, then catch the metro to the airport and another train to Haute-Picardie station in the middle of nowhere? Once there, we sit by the side of the tracks for two hours and you film me dancing every time a high-speed train passes by. Then we go back to Paris so we can catch the overnight to Copenhagen and then the next available cargo ship to Norway so I can go dance on a rock wedged between two cliffs."

"...yep. Okay."

"Oh, and since my wallet was stolen, would you mind paying for everything while we wait for the wire transfer to go through?"

This is not meant to imply he's some sort of traveling zombie. Most of the time he's actually leading the way; a whiz with train schedules, way more on the ball at making arrangements, and generally more attentive about where we are, where we're going, and when we need to grab our stuff and run.

I've said it before: there is no better travel companion than an Australian. They're like Wookies.

Aside from the dancing stuff, our primary focus is the constant need to find free wi-fi.

Eifel Tower? Whatever. Where's the McDonald's?

It's not the food, mind you. They've usually got fast, free signals.

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The most pathetic display is at train stops, when one of us (usually me) pings the local networks for an unsecured signal from within the train. In the rare event that we find one, both of us scramble to complete our respective e-tasks before the train pulls out again.

I am not proud.

Left Paris the first time -- what, a week ago now? Took the overnight to Munich and met up with Melissa's old friend, Martin.

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Despite appearances, Martin is not, in fact, Ben Stiller with glued-on facial hair.

Still groggy from our fourth straight night on a train, Martin took us out to a traditional Bavarian breakfast of white sausages and beer.

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The beer was great. The sausages weren't.

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We were instructed in proper sausage-eating technique. You're supposed to put one end in your mouth and squeeze the meat out, avoiding the skin, which shouldn't be eaten.

I'll spare you the pictures. They are...graphic.

On reflection, this may have been a practical joke.

Joining us for the day: Golo.

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Golo is a flight attendant for Lufthansa. He shaves his arm pits, and yet he is not gay.

Here is one of 200 pictures Golo took of us.

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Golo generously entertained for the day while Martin worked. He insisted we suck the marrow from the bone that is Munich.

Here's some old building.

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Guys surfing on the river Isar, which feeds into the Danube. They have some net set up beneath the surface to create a constant, fixed wave.

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Tragically blurry action shot.

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Walked through the English Garden. Played some frisbee. Napped under a tree. Watched the nudists sunbathe.

I try to take public nakedness in stride, as do many of us. I wouldn't want to discourage anyone from taking their clothes off -- even the old fat guys are an amusing spectacle. But coming straight out of the Middle East, it's still hard to fathom the mental baggage that comes with culture; the incredible breadth of ways in which we live.

Over a mildly inebriated dinner, Matt put forth the evidence suggesting the World Trade Center was, in fact, demolished from within by pre-placed explosives. As the lone American, my nationalistic pride renders me incapable of accepting the horrific truths implied.

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It is more than likely that this picture exists solely because of the blonde in the middle.

Golo took it. Golo who is not gay.

Another overnight train. Next stop: Berlin.

Ah, Berlin. What can I say about my six whole hours there?

Neat wall.

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Got one of my all-time favorite dancing clips. One of those unplanned moments you can't duplicate.

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Still more evidence that what Germany finds sensual and erotic is, to me, hideous and disturbing.

Train to Amsterdam to meet up with Sophie for the third time on this trip. Caught her in Australia just before she moved. Met up with her in China while she was en route. And here she is, settling into her new job and life in The Netherlands; my favorite country whose name starts with a definite article.

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Amsterdam was sort of a break for us. What little motivation we had to do anything was beaten back into its hole by her neighbor's fast, unsecured wi-fi connection. We mostly just went out when it wasn't working.

In my defense: I have no money or credit cards right now and Western Europe is very, very expensive. Peeing costs $1.25. Using my computer is one of the only free things I can do.

Plus it connects me to home. And I'm ready to be home.

The big dancing clip idea for the Netherlands was to visit Delft University of Technology, where some students recently created the world's largest 3D display.

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It's a matrix of ping pong balls with red diodes inside of them. When assembled, the screen is 8 meters wide, 4 meters tall, and 2 meters deep. It plays animations, rudimentary 3D games, and displays SMSs that are sent to it.

We devoted an evening to the search, but all we found was this.

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It was down for the day.

Would've been neat.

Oh, well.

Sophie's back-up suggestion was to dance in the tulip fields. I was skeptical at first, but her pictures swayed me. Devoted another afternoon to that one.

Turns out the tulip window ended two weeks ago and they're all gone.

Oh, The Netherlands, why do you spurn me so?

Went to the Van Gogh museum. Saw the "Potato Eaters," "Wheat Field with Crows," "Bedroom in Arles." But alas, my favorite, "Starry Night," was not there. It's either in Paris or New York.

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He's one painter whose work you've really gotta see firsthand. I'm far from an art connoisseur, but there's something about those thick globs of paint -- the texture, the way the light shines off it.

Soph took us on a tour of Amsterdam's famous red light district. No pictures allowed.

Saw the window-lined streets with hookers on display like zoo animals. Entrances to live sex performances everywhere you turn.

It was fascinating.

I'd like to declare that we should all break the shackles of repression and embrace such zones in every city, but I've gotta admit it was pretty messed up. Lots of men behaving badly. Unpleasant.

Not sure the benefits outweigh the damage.

Oh, and the pot thing. Wow. If you don't like the smell of marijuana, don't go to Amsterdam.

Watched Da Vinci Code. Lots of interesting things going on there, but as a movie, I thought it was utter crap.

They didn't even try to make anyone interesting. So many hugely talented actors, but except for Ian McKellan's queeny scenery-chewing, no one had anything to do.

I must confess though, it did give me an idea...

Left Amsterdam for Paris, stopping briefly to change trains in Brussels. Since Matt is about 10 times smarter than me, I enjoy engaging in the one thing I'm better at: movie trivia. We passed the time playing Six Degrees.

Connected Jet Li to Estelle Getty in three names. Eddie Vedder to Posh Spice in four. Errol Flynn to Halie Joel Osment in five. Matt finally stumped me with Kurt Russell to Patrick Swayze using only actors they've killed or been killed by in films.

I returned the volley with a more left-brained challenge: give me the highest prime number under 10,000. He opened his laptop, wrote a prime number generator, and gave me the answer in 5 minutes.

Nerds in transit.

On our first stop in Paris a week ago, we failed to get a dancing clip in front of a high-speed TGV train. After some research online, I learned the best place to go trainspotting is the remote outpost of Haute-Picardie station. To quote from the shockingly relevant web page:

"Haute-Picardie belongs to a rare breed of stations: it is located directly on a high speed line, with platforms just a few meters from the TGV Nord-Europe tracks. Only a handful of trains stop there each day; most pass on through without slowing...there isn't a building for miles around, except for the station itself. The reason is this: TGV Haute-Picardie is the child of a sterile political controversy, revolving around which of two nearby cities should have got TGV service. The conflict was artfully resolved by the French government with a compromise: the station was built in between, or to be exact, in the middle of nowhere. For what this station is otherwise worth, it is without doubt a great place to watch TGVs, which is precisely the matter that concerns us here."

Indeed it is!

We arrived at the station with two hours before our return train to Paris. In that time, I danced in front of as many trains as we could manage to catch. See the thing is, those trains move REALLY FAST!

I mean you don't even see them coming. And they're going about 1/3 the speed of sound, so you can't hear them either. It's just a spontaneous, exhilarating burst of wind and fury every ten minutes or so.

We caught about a dozen clips from every distance and angle we could think of. Most of them didn't work, but one is golden. I made sure to lift my feet off the ground as I danced, cause I just know I'll get comments insisting I sped up the footage.

But you can't speed up jumping. No, it's for real. The trains really go that fast.

Back to Paris, caught the overnight to Hamburg, changed trains to Copenhagen, and here we are.

Tomorrow we arrive in Norway, and the next day we're heading to the fjords to attempt the most death-defying clip I've ever done: Kjeragbolten.

I'm not much of a death-defier. I may try and reason with it, but ultimately what happens is up to death's discretion.