Friday, September 21, 2012

The Underbelly of Europe: Hellllllooooo Albania

Clearly, there are very stringent traffic laws in Albania
My 90-day tourist visa in the Schengen Area has officially expired. For those of you who don't know, the Schengen Area covers 26 countries in Europe that adopted free travel between their borders. At first, that sounds great — who doesn't love free borders? (you know, besides the United States...) But the Schengen Area is actually the bane of any backpacker's existence. That's a bit dramatic, but basically it just means that you get way less stamps in your passport (and, let's be serious, that's everyone's favorite stamp collection) and they kick you out of the best parts of Europe after a measly 90 days.

Aussies are subject to the same restrictions, but always seem to overstay their visas (I met one guy who has been in the Schengen Zone for 3 years). Once a colony of law-breakers, always a colony of law-breakers. The Americans I've run into, however, seem to toe the line...  I guess we're just a more law-fearing people. I certainly am. They can ban you from the area for THREE years for overstaying, and I'm sure as hell not gonna let an extra three days in Estonia bar me from Europe. Trust me, it's just not worth it.

My original plan was to fly from Tallinn, Estonia to Lima, Peru and continue the second half of my trip in various areas of Central and South America. It really would make sense seeing as how half of my time at Yale was spent in classes about Latin America, attending guest lectures about various issues in Latin America, eating the free food at said lectures, and generally just trying to pretend that one day I would be able to convince someone (presumably someone very stupid) that I'm originally from Colombia and that I enjoy chewing coca leaves with my grandfather whenever I revisit my hometown of Cartagena.

Camel-sponsored smoking lounge at Munich Airport
So after all that build-up, you would think that I'd be all for finally getting myself to South America and seeing first-hand all of the things I have studied. But, I'm not one to use my education in any practical sense whatsoever.

Also, you know those moments when you can tell you're just about to push your luck...? Well, that's what I was feeling. I kept having these flashes of getting myself into a little bit of trouble with the infamous South American "machismo." So I cancelled my flight. Yes, I cancelled my flight on account of overreactive feminism. HOLLA.

And where did I decide to go instead? The only logical choice — Albania — the land of the stolen Mercedes.

AFC: Albania Fried Chicken...
Sound familiar?
My flight to Albania was quite tolerable as far as 6am flights go. For starters, on the first leg of the flight, I was going from Estonia to Munich, so everyone on the flight was German and superbly organized (what a cliche), so we took off FIFTEEN minutes early. Now, I've been on quite a few flights in my life and very few of them have left early. Incidentally, very few of them have had a majority of German passengers on them. I'm thinking there's a connection.

In a rare change of character, I rejected the flight attendants offer of coffee and he picked up an open bottle of wine and smiled, "Red wine then?" What a gem — an 8am wino. Then, the man next to me offered me a banana. DAWWW, what a giving people. After a short connection in Munich, I headed off to my final destination: the Mother Teresa Airport in Tirana (the capital of Albania). Needless to say, I was on my best behavior for various reasons.

Tirana ain't pretty
I hopped in a bus that took me to the city center and quite enjoyed the ride as the bus driver did some seriously professional bobbing and weaving around massive potholes and other cars that were apparently going too slow. Once we reached town, he began looking into his mirror and yelling something at passengers in the back of the bus and then every now-and-again someone would yell something back to him, he'd bring the bus to a screeching halt, and the person would jump off the bus with remarkable speed. Basically, there was just a whole bunch of driving maneuvers that would have landed him in jail back in the US. Thankfully, my stop was the end of the bus line so I just sat there and enjoyed the chaos.

Little did I know at the time, but this bus was actually one of the classier buses in Tirana...I guess they want people to have a good first impression of the city when they arrive from the airport. It's the intercity buses and the "furgons" —ah, the furgons— that are my new favorite cultural experiment. I'm pretty sure the city of Tirana just stole them out of an enemy country's museum. Instead of employing the "yell and see if anyone wants to get off" method, the inter-city buses just perpetually leave the front door open. If you wanna get out before a designated stop, just jump and run across the street before someone hits you.

We'll come back to my favorite transport — the furgons — in a moment, but first, let me tell you that Tirana is perhaps one of the ugliest places I have ever visited. This was actually quite a refreshing change. Seriously, everywhere I have visited in Europe is so pretty that it's a little overwhelming. So the sheer ugliness of Tirana was a breath of fresh air. And it's not just ugly, it's quirky-ugly, which is the best type of ugly. Y'all know what I'm talking about.

An example of "quirky-ugly"
The mayor of Tirana, Edi Rama, seems to agree with me — he also thought the place was pretty darn ugly. Thankfully for me and my incessant need to be entertained, Edi Rama loves to paint. So, when he looked upon the city that he had inherited as mayor in 2000, and saw rows upon rows of gray, drab Stalinist apartment blocks, he decided to do something about it; he created the Greening and Painting Initiative. One of the projects of this initiative was to paint various buildings throughout the city with various ridiculous rainbow, leaf, stripe, and star patterns as an attempt to make the city more colorful, and, presumably, happier. Anyone who says that this was a good idea, or a "city-wide masterpiece" (as I've heard it referred to), is absolutely lying. They're just straight-up lying. The only reason that it was kind of a good idea is that it turned out so poorly that it's almost funny.

This one's quite nice, no?
Now, I'll admit, some of the buildings look kind of fun, but many of them have not been maintained and the colors have begun to weather and bleed into one another. There is also no reason to paint and entire building green. Completely unjustified. The main problem, however, is that while Mr. Rama was spending all of this money to paint buildings obnoxiously "happy" colors, the city of Tirana still only had access to water for six hours a day. And, did I mention the potholes? I think we may have some bigger issues than painting rainbows on buildings where — I can assure you — there are no gay couples living.

Rainbows & roundabouts!
Let's get back to the furgon system. So, the "furgon" system is what Albanians use to get from one city to another within Albania. This is how they work: you go to the furgon "station" (re: an abandoned, dirt lot), someone says "where?" and you answer with where you want to go. They answer "yes, yes" and shuffle you into yet-another stolen 1970s Mercedes wagon, and then they go out and find people who want to go to the same city as you. Thirty minutes to an hour later, the driver (who may or may not be licensed) finds enough people to fill the van and you head off to your destination. At some point, the driver gets thirsty and you stop at a roadside cafe for some milk. Ten minutes later, the driver gets back in the car and you continue bobbing and weaving potholes for a couple hours. At some point you arrive at a city that is not your final destination, the driver calls his friend, and then his friend drives you the rest of the way until you get to where you want to go. All for under three dollars.

I'm convinced that the Albanians have set up this system really just to teach us all a little patience and faith, and at this point I am very accustomed to jumping into the stolen cars of perfect strangers.

Latvia & Estonia: Link Arms & Sing to Freedom

Most people I met in Vilnius had either just come from (or were continuing on to) Latvia and Estonia as well. This seems to be the "posh" thing to do in the Baltics. And — if I am nothing else — I am most certainly posh, so I decided to do the same. Which reminds me that I once ran into Victoria Beckham at a gym in Beverly Hills. She stayed on a treadmill for like 3 hours and then sat in a sauna and ate some cotton balls. But that's a story for another time.

Old Town of Riga, Latvia
I'll keep this post quick because Riga and Tallinn, the respective capitals of Latvia and Estonia, are basically just as beautiful and simultaneously depressing as Vilnius, so there's not too much to report. Nevertheless, I have two historical nuggets for you (so that you can get the upper hand on the next history-snob that you run into at Starbucks when all you want is your non-fat. extra-hot, triple shot, no foam, $5 latte): The Baltic Chain and The Singing Revolution.

Overlooking Tallinn's Old Town
"The Singing Revolution" is a general term that is often used for the series of events that began in 1987 and eventually led to the independence of the three Baltic States in 1990-91. This wildly non-threatening name for a revolution was coined by an Estonian named Heinz Valk who wrote an article about a spontaneous singing demonstration that occurred at the Tallinn Song Festival Arena in June of 1988. Nearly 300,000 Estonians (1/4 of the country's population) attended the festival, and without any formal organization began to spontaneously sing their national anthem, which had been forbidden during Soviet rule. This peaceful demonstration and resistance became one of the symbols for the push for Baltic independence more generally. As my Estonian tour guide put so eloquently: "The Russians had tanks, but we had musical talent, and somehow that worked for us. But, actually though, it was really stupid because they could have totally killed us." Well said. (*side-note: this statement is completely representative of the self-deprecating humor of Estonians, which I find to be utterly charming.)

The culmination of a wave of non-violent protests throughout the Baltics occurred in August of 1989 when two million people from Lithuania, Latvia, and Estonia joined hands to form a human chain that spanned over 350 miles across the three capitals of the Baltic States. They linked hands for 15 minutes at 7:00pm. Considering that this area has a collective population of just over 6.5 million people, this was an unprecedented turnout. So many people showed up, in fact, that there wasn't enough room in the chain for everyone, so many people formed their own small chains to contribute to the protest.

Baltic Way, 1989. I obviously did not take this picture...
nor do I own the rights to it!
They chose this date — August 23, 1989 — as the 50th anniversary of the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact —an agreement between the Soviet Union and Nazi Germany that (in it's simplest form) divided Eastern Europe between the two powers. The Baltic Chain was created as a peaceful protest meant to draw international attention to the Baltic's push for independence. The protest meant to emphasize that the independence movements of Lithuania, Latvia, and Estonia were not just political, but also a crucial moral issue in Eastern Europe. Within a year of the protest, Lithuania became the first of the Baltic states to declare independence on March 11, 1990. Estonia and Latvia followed suit in the weeks to follow (their declarations of independence, however, were not recognized until late 1991).

So those are your historical nuggets. It was incredibly cold in Estonia and my visa ran out, so it was time to kick it somewhere a bit warmer. Buh-bye Baltics, hello Balkans!

Monday, September 17, 2012

Milk Bars, Street Festivals, & Offensive Smiles

Memorial to a chid soldier, which is weird because Poland
never had child soldiers....
My original plan was to just pass through Poland on my way to the Baltics, but I was so impressed by Gdansk that I wanted to explore the country just a bit further. I decided that Warsaw was my best bet since Krakow was a bit too far south if I still wanted to head to Lithuania. Most of the people that I've run into during my travels have more-or-less panned Warsaw saying that it's fake and superficial, but it was 90% destroyed in World War II... so I think that's kind of brutal stance to take. The city did it's best to re-create what had been before the War and I think that's completely justified. Either way, Warsaw is beautiful and filled with an interesting mix of history, memorials, oddly shaped malls, and street art.

Old town Warsaw
Despite the plethora of history, my biggest cultural experience was eating at a "milk bar." I do always love when you can justify eating a whole load of fat and carbs by framing it as a "cultural experience," and this was just that. Now back in the Polish communist days (1945-1989), the government sponsored restaurants that served very basic and cheap foods so that poor workers could afford a meal out. These restaurants served whatever they could create from flour, eggs, and milk (hence the name "milk bar"). The government encouraged people to have their breakfast at these milk bars before work because: a) everyone would be eating the same thing at the same place ("equality" at its finest), b) people could eat alongside their fellow comrades, and c) the food was so carb & fat-loaded that you could make it through a hefty chunk of the work day without getting hungry. Apparently the ideal communist country makes it through work without stopping for some food...that would just not fly with me.

My "milk bar" pierogi
From the Poles that I've met along my travels, these "milk bars" are basically the only good thing that came out of the communist times. They still exist today (and are still subsidized by the government) and people can go there for a really cheap meal — most everything is less than 6 zloty (~$2). Obviously, I had to check it out. I headed down to one of the local milk bars in Warsaw and ordered some pierogi (traditional, Polish dumplings). The woman who took my order looked at me like I was absolutely mad... they seemed to address most of their customers by name so I gather that they usually only serve locals, and that most of their customers are regulars. Needless to say, I was a little out of place and they didn't seem to like me very much — it took me a solid twenty minutes to get my food while everyone else got theirs in five. Did I mention Polish hospitality? Nope. (hint: there's a reason for that...). 

After leaving Poland, I headed to Lithuania. The only reason that I even knew that Lithuania existed was because of the Lithuanian coffee cake at Claire's Cornercopia in New Haven, CT. (food seems to be a bit of a theme now) To my great disappointment, they don't actually seem to have that type of cake in Lithuania, so I'm thinking that Claire's doing some blatant false advertising. I won't hold it against her though because that cake is seriously of the highlights of Yale, for sure. What Lithuania does have, however, is something resembling an over-sized, layered, crispy funnel cake. It's used primarily for celebratory purposes — weddings, birthdays, etc — and in comparison with a kit-kat bar, it is very expensive, so I didn't try it. Sorry.

Doesn't look at anything like Claire's cake...
So let's start from the beginning: I arrived in Kaunas, Lithuania from Warsaw and hopped on an inter-city tram. In a rare change of character, I actually paid for my tram ticket. For the majority of my trip I haven't exactly paid for my inter-city transport. There's this weird phenomenon in Europe where they seem to actually trust the local people to pay for their public transport even though no one really checks. HAH! American coming through....

For some reason, however, I felt compelled to pay the $1 tram ticket. BOOM for a woman's intuition! For the first time on my whole trip, police officers came on board to check tickets. And, yes, I will absolutely call it a woman's intuition because it is one of the few perks we get. Well, that and the whole "spare the women and children" bit, but we all know that's one courtesy that's on it's way out with the rest of 'em. Fair warning though for anyone who decides to take a trip to Lithuania in the near future — they checked my ticket again while I was there and that time they also asked to see my student card since I had purchased a student ticket. Thankfully my Yale ID doesn't seem to have an expiration date. I'll be working that system till I'm 30.

Very large, live fish for sale at the grocery store
... in the mall
I quickly discovered that while Kaunas is beautiful, it is a very small town. Thankfully, this very small town has a very large mall to go along with it. Inside this very large mall there is a proportionally large grocery store, cinema, and ice-skating rink (because sometimes 6 months of freezing cold winter just isn't enough).

My small-town boredom kicked in fairly rapidly so I decided to do what I do in all foreign countries when I'm bored and lonely — go to the movies. There's something rather comforting and narcissistic about seeing something that you know was created in America, by Americans, and featuring Americans that everyone else in the world pays to go see. So I bought my ridiculously low-priced ticket to comfort and narcissism (thank you Eastern Europe), grabbed my seat, and threw my legs up on the seat in front of me. Not more than five minutes later, some security guy came in specifically to tell me to get my feet off the seat in front of me. Okay, commies, calm down and get that secret camera off of me.

Ice-skating rink in the middle of the mall!
*Cultural side-note: apparently (in addition to making communist jokes) it is offensive to smile at people in Lithuania. A smile is seen as a gesture shared only between friends, so when a stranger smiles at another stranger it is interpreted —at the very least— as disingenuous, but also as rather insulting and derisive. I'm not going to sugarcoat it...that sucks for me. I seriously must have offended so many Lithuanians. I mean, my smile is my go to...Nervous? Uncomfortable? Sad? Totally Comfortable? Happy? Awkward?
All smiles. And, apparently, all offensive.

After practicing my scowl for a few days, it was time to test out my non-smiling demeanor in the capital city —Vilnius, Lithuania. I ventured back over to the Kaunas bus station and with a few minutes to spare, I figured it wouldn't be a bad idea to take a quick stop at the bathroom. It took me back to my Morocco days....a paid entrance to this:

Oh hell no...
And, of course, there was no toilet paper. Luckily, after a full month of travel in Eastern Europe, I have officially reached a "mommy" level of preparedness. At all times, I have a roll of toilet paper in my bag (stolen from a hostel, of course). I'm basically ready to raise children. JOKES. But in all seriousness, I only discuss such things because ya'll seriously need to pack some TP when you head to Eastern'll thank me later. I accept monetary expressions of appreciation.

It was a rather quick trip over to Vilnius and when I arrived in the bus station, I immediately set out to find my hostel. As I was walking down the street, loaded down with my backpack, some woman said something to me in Russian and I looked at her utterly confused: a) I'm clearly not Russian, b) did I accidentally take a bus to Russia?? After seeing the stupid look on my face she replied, "ooohhh English!" Yes, please.

Turns out this woman was from Belarus and was just about the most overly-friendly person I've ever met. Somehow she ended up following me to my hostel, saying she had never stayed in one before and wanted to see what it was like. I later learned that it's pretty much inconceivable in the Belarusian mindset to pay to sleep in a room with strangers. When I put it that way, however, it kind of sounds weird in the American mindset as well. 

When I arrived at the hostel, I was greeted by a girl who didn't speak much English and was utterly confused by this extra Belarusian "friend" tagging along. I don't blame her — I was pretty confused myself. Eventually I pawned the Belarusian off on some New Yorker (west coast, best coast...sucker!) and headed into town to see what was goin' down in Vilnius. To my surprise, quite a lot actually. Every summer, the city hosts "Vilnius Days," which is a big street festival that people come to from all over Lithuania, basically to celebrate the fact that they exist as a country. For Lithuania, this is a huge feat *ahem*... Russia....

Aspiring sumo wrestlers
Oversized board games
littered the streets of Vilnius
The streets are filled with vendors selling locally crafted jewelry, food, and lots of beer. They also have a street blocked off essentially as a little kid's fantasy-land — there was a half-block game of twister, a station for sumo-wrestling, and a huge pool where little kids stumbled around in what were essentially waterproof human hamster wheels.

Clearly, that was my favorite section. I spent a solid 30 minutes just watching little kids stumble around in those floating hamster balls, and each time one of them fell I burst out laughing. Laughing, by the way, is bundled up with the whole "smiling is offensive" thing, so I received many a dirty look. It probably didn't help that I was also just sitting on a street corner eating some unidentifiable Lithuanian meat patty, drinking a beer, and just making fun of their children...not exactly my most charming moment.

They just keep falling
The drama of Eastern Europe is that street festivals and celebrations take place amidst a sea of horrifying history. In this case, the "Vilnius Days" street festival runs right in front of a building that once housed the Nazis and then later served as the KGB's Lithuanian headquarters for nearly fifty years. Today, this building serves as one of the more unique and impactful museums that I've come across: The Museum of Genocide Victims.

Lithuania was invaded by the Soviets in 1940, and then the Nazis in 1941. In 1944, the Soviets reclaimed the country and maintained power until Lithuania's independence in 1990. During that nearly fifty-year reign, the Soviets used this now-museum building as their KGB headquarters in the country.

The city has maintained the building as it was during KGB days, and uses the former administration offices on the first and second floors as educational museum spaces. After spending some time in that area of the museum, you can head down to the KGB prison basement. Everything remains exactly as it was — you can see where Lithuanians were detained, including solitary confinement cells, and the execution room, which witnessed over 1,000 murders. I was completely thrown off-guard when I walked into the isolated execution room and was greeted by a continuous video of execution re-enactments set exactly where I was standing. Adding to the eeriness of the whole experience is that very few people visit the museum (and Lithuania in general), so for the most part, you're wandering alone through the prison cells. That's one of those activities that you try to keep to a minimum, so I headed out as quickly as possible, only to find the street festival continuing in all of its merriment right outside of the building.

What I find hard to wrap my mind around when I switch from something as extreme as a genocide museum to a bustling street festival is that — aside from the children — all of the people around me had lived through that time in Lithuania. And, as a country of just 3.1 million (think a little more than the population of Chicago), you know that the violence and losses were personal for most. In this context —with all of my incredibly charming humor aside— the idea of a smile as something shared only amongst friends begins to make much more sense.

Trakai Castle, 14th c.
 Lithuania's typical "postcard" destination

Saturday, September 15, 2012

Hamburg & Gdansk, or rather, "Prostitutes and Day-Drinkers"

After a 5:40am sleepless arrival in Hamburg, I stumbled into the metro station, crossed my fingers, and hoped I was heading in the right direction. YUP. Big win. I finally reached my hostel approximately nine hours ahead of the official 3pm check in time (totally casual), so I stored my backpack, and headed toward the center of the city to find a source of caffeine. To my absolute horror, the Starbucks didn't open until 8am — how un-American. So with no other options, I decided to take a nap next to the homeless man in the square (just kidding, I was so delirious that I actually don't remember what I did). Next thing I knew, it was 8am and I strolled in to get my latte and breakfast sandwich. All for much cheaper than a simple coffee in Copenhagen; it makes spending eight bucks on breakfast much less painful.

One of the many artificial "beach" bars
down near the Hamburg port
One of the great things about Hamburg is that it feels like three completely different cities all rolled up into one. There's the section down by the port (Hamburg is one of the most important ports in Europe), the Reeperbahn (dubbed the "most sinful mile in the world"), and the old town.

Hamburg is probably most famous for two things: being absolutely bombed to bits in World War II and being one of the most "sinful" places in the world. I think the latter is much more interesting (especially since quite a few of the places I've gone to thus have were destroyed during the War and it's really getting to be quite depressing...woe is me, right??). So this so-called "sinful mile" —Reeperbahn Street— is actually quite intense. I don't consider myself a religious person, but even I couldn't help walking down the street and thinking to myself, "damn, there be some sinful people up in Hamburg."

Basically, the whole place is clubs, casinos, and prostitutes. You may be thinking, "well, we have Vegas...." but no, no, Vegas has nothing on Hamburg. Nothing. This place is out of control. Every storefront is either a strip club, a sex shop, a brothel, or a McDonald's. A couple of particularly classy streets are gated and blocked off to women and men under eighteen. Wonder what's goin on back there...

Normally, this sort of thing would irk my inner raging feminist (and to some extent it does), but I do take heart in the fact that —for the most part— women have the option to work as prostitutes safely and legally. Germany legalized prostitution ten years ago to try to quell the rather rampant problem of trafficking women from Eastern Europe. For the most part, the law has been largely ineffective with very few women feeling compelled to willingly pay taxes on a job that they could also very easily keep under-wraps (I don't blame them...I mean they'd basically be paying taxes back to a large portion of their customer base). Also, it's still not the classiest thing in the world to write "prostitute" on your tax returns. Either way, there is some sort of shift toward moving these activities above-ground, taxing them, keeping women safe, controlling the spread of STIs, etc. That sounds pretty Danish to me, and after visiting Copenhagen, I'm pretty intent on being as liberal and happy as they are (my bleeding-blue self is thoroughly and blindly convinced that the two go hand-in-hand).

Capitalism at it's finest: 
Now, I'm no expert on prostitution — my sole exposure was Pretty Woman, and while I took that to be a fairly comprehensive and realistic picture of the world's oldest profession, I thought I might do a little more research beyond just googling Julia Roberts and Richard Gere outtakes. What I found was a little crazy. A 2009 estimate pegged the number of prostitutes working in Germany at FOUR HUNDRED THOUSAND, with 93% being female, 3% transgender, and 4% male. Wanna know how many people live in Germany? 82 million. I'm not going to go into the math because a) I'm on vacation and numbers aren't welcome here, and b) the results are gross. But let's just say, pimps are very well paid in Germany.

Anyway, let's switch topics, shall we?  On to Poland. Because it sometimes takes me more than once to learn a lesson, I took another overnight bus from Hamburg to Poland. Once again I didn't sleep, but this time was at least a bit more eventful and culturally hilarious. At this point in my bus and train travel, I've ventured far enough east and stumbled long enough beyond the "high season" for tourism that most of the people travelling with me are locals, which is incredibly entertaining and awkward (a lot less people are speaking English in these areas).

Four Quarters Fountain, Gdansk
The city spent the equivalent of almost
$700,000 on this fountain....
So, first of all, I roll up to the Hamburg bus station neurotically early and have to wait for the bus to even arrive. At that point, I start the line to get on the bus. Twenty minutes later, I'm somehow at the back of the line. I really have no idea how this happened, but since then I've learned that Poland has notoriously awful queuing manners. Literally, at one point some girl leaned over my shoulder and started a conversation with the elderly woman in front of me, and thinking that they were mother and daughter, I let her step in front of me. Turns out they didn't know each-other at all. Apparently this is an actual tactic used to cut lines. Yes, the Polish are professional line-cutters. The queuing etiquette is so poor that they actual talk about it in tourist books. I'm not making this stuff up. Google it.

They offer some ridiculous explanation that this poor form is a relic of the communist days when people had to stand in line for food and that their place in line could determine whether or not their kids ate that day. Umm, I'm sorry, but communism fell in Poland over twenty years ago, so people need to calm down and not cut me in line. Anyway, the point is that after arriving at the bus station ridiculously early, I almost missed my bus because I apparently had lined up for the WRONG BUS to the same destination. So I sprinted through the bus station to catch the right one. After my mild panic was over and I had assured my seat, I settled in a little thankful that I didn't have to sit next to the girl who tricked me into letting her pass me in line. She didn't know it, but we were fighting and that could have been incredibly awkward.

Gdansk, Poland
Spatially efficient hostel...

All turned out just cheeky, however, because 10 minutes into the bus ride, the sound system turned on and they began to play a Polish Christmas movie. In August. Seriously, what's up with these darn Europeans insisting that Christmas starts in summer? **further references can be found in the "Venezia" post** By the time the movie was over, it was approaching midnight, and as I began to doze off, the bus driver played another movie. This time it was the Polish-dubbed version of Shawshank Redemption — you know, the one with beatings, multiple instances of male prison rape (now, that's one that you can't actually get pregnant from, Mr. Akin), and loads of cursing. Half the people on this bus had children with them so it wasn't a particularly tasteful choice (...but what do I know? I'm just a childless young adult).

Old town Gdansk

Additionally, they played the movie out-loud — no headphones necessary. So, basically, you had to watch the movie in all of it's gloriously violent depression. It was like they were saying, "we are quickly approaching Poland and we want to make sure that you're sufficiently depressed by the time we get there so that you can join in on the 10am shots of vodka with breakfast." I'm on to them.

Neptune Fountain, Gdansk
Hilariously enough, when I arrived at 6am in the Gdansk bus station, I did actually pass various bars and cafes that were still open (or perhaps just opening??) that were filled with customers eating omelettes and drinking beer."Beer for breakfast" has never felt so right.

Saturday, September 1, 2012

Copenhagen & Historical Drag Queens?

After a great week in Berlin, I hopped a cheap flight on Norwegian Air to Copenhagen. The airplane probably seated two-hundred people and only had thirty in it, so I had a full row to myself. After feeling like a high roller on my forty-five minute flight, I landed at the Copenhagen Airport and went to go buy a sandwich (as all high rollers do). I stood there for a few seconds trying to remember basic mathematics: 1 US dollar = 6 Danish Kroner. One sandwich = 54 kroner... hold up... 54 divided by, wait, too complicated. So I busted out my handy, semi-functional iPhone, and opened up the calculator....turns out 54 is totally divisible by 6. Who knew?? NINE DOLLARS for a turkey sandwich.

As I quickly discovered, Copenhagen is one of the most expensive places on the earth. It's quite unfortunate. You can't even get a latte for less than 36 kroner... that's $6 for those of you who struggle with your basic multiplication/division tables as much as I do. If y'all know anything about me, that is a HUGE problem. While Denmark does not have a nationally set minimum wage (something about negotiations between unions and employer associations), the average minimum turns out to be around 105 kroner per hour (around $17.50) and the relatively high wages are comparable to the cost of pretty much everything. Not so ideal for the unemployed —a category which I may or may not fall into *ahem*. I think a conversation I overheard outside of the Frederiksburg-Copenhagen Mall explains it all:

American girls outside the mall:
American #1: "...We can't go in there."
American #2: "Why?"
#1: "We'll end up buying things." 
#2: "Hey now...I almost landed a job or two."

...I feel ya girl, I feel ya. Turns out eastern European prices are much more akin to my unemployed-lifestyle.

Copenhagen Town Hall is officially dubbed
"Pride Hall" every year in August
Anyway, I survived the high prices. Yes, shockingly, I lived without lattes for a few days. My unfortunate week of crackers, apples, and instant coffee was totally worth it because Copenhagen was endlessly entertaining. Let me tell you why:

I went to Copenhagen during pride week; I'll let you decide for yourselves wether or not that was on purpose. It was awesome. The streets were lined with an incredible mix of couples, friends, and families. I'm talkin' lots of families. Loads of adorable little blue-eyed, blonde kids sat on the sidewalk waving their pride flags, eagerly awaiting each flamboyant segment of the parade. They clearly had no idea what was going on when the S&M section marched on by... their parents didn't so much as flinch— the whole thing was totally casual.

The ease with which the Danish gay community and the straight couples and their non-gaybies supported one another gives me huge hope in the future. The whole parade was a celebration, devoid of any feeling of "protest," perhaps because (unlike the current situation in the States...yeah, don't be confused, I'm totally getting political right now) Denmark is known for being incredibly progressive when it comes to gay rights, so there really is no need for protest at this point. Denmark was the first country in the world to legalize same-sex unions in 1989 and just this summer they finally legalized same-sex marriage. With an overwhelming 85-24 vote, Denmark became the 11th country to do so, joining Argentina, Belgium, Canada, Iceland, the Netherlands, Norway, Portugal, South Africa, Spain, and Sweden. A unique feature to the Danish law is that it includes marriages in the Church of Denmark — legal, gay, religious marriage—I know, wild concept. They are one of the most inclusive societies in the world when it comes to LGBT issues, but how do they fare on racial issues...? Not so ideal, but I'll give credit where credit is due.

Anyway, the floats were blaring the most incredible mix of music from Whitney's "I Wanna Dance with Somebody" to Mariah's "All I Want for Christmas is You"...I seriously don't know what's up with these Europeans and their incessant need to start celebrating Christmas in the middle of the summer (I'll provide further evidence for this in the next post), but I don't hate it.

The parade ended at the massive town hall square (appropriately re-named "Pride Hall" every August), which was bursting with people, vendors, and live music. I removed myself from the fray and headed down some side streets until I reached a corner that was hosting a free, outdoor Danish jazz concert. Everyone was stumbling around with their flags and their Carlsberg beers, which incidentally is at least two times more expensive in Copenhagen (where it comes from) than anywhere else I've ever seen. All of the music was in Danish and I didn't understand a single word, but the local people were all singing along, dancing their little hearts out, and destroying their most-likely over-sized livers. It was beautiful.

Speakin' truth 
After a day of some good 'ol fashioned Danish culture, I figured I'd get my nerd on and head down to the re-enactment of the Battle of Copenhagen, which I was surprised to hear was a rather popular annual event among locals. After a couple of days of crackers and apples, I caved and walked into a hole-in-the-wall sandwich place to get something for dinner. I ordered some bizarre sandwich (the menu was in Danish so I just pointed at something) and they literally rolled out some dough and baked the bread to order. I was in awe of the man making my unidentifiable sandwich. There was some sort of meat and super fresh butter shredded iceberg in this place. DAMN. It lessened the blow of dishing out my 54 kroner.

Then, I took my surprisingly fresh and delicious sandwich to the harbor to watch the re-enactment of the battle. This re-enactment, paid for by the city each year (let me just emphasize —paid for by the city), takes a few liberties with the history of the battle scene. The ships were full of drag queens. Drag queens everywhere. And they were fabulous. And I'm going to pretend that drag queens played some crucial role in the 1801 Battle of Copenhagen because it's more fun that way. Clearly, this re-enactment was actually part of Pride Week, but I had no idea going into it, so it was actually a lovely surprise. Now, if only I could convince those old men who play confederates each year in the Civil War re-enactments to throw in a few drag queens....think they'd go for it?

That huddle of people at the front...?
Drag queens.
Sadly, the parade and the drag shenanigans eventually came to an end and I needed to find another way to distract myself from inflated sandwich prices. I had heard about Christiana, which is the "green light" district in the center of Copenhagen. Now, I'm usually a little behind on the different colored "light" districts. It was only a couple of years ago when I unknowingly stumbled into Amsterdam's "red light" district and finally figured out what that one meant. So, clearly, I had no clue what a "green light" district meant. For those of you who are as innocent and pure-hearted as myself, a "green-light" district is one where they just sell marijuana everywhere.

This "green light" district —the community of "Christiana" — cropped up in 1971 when a bunch of hippies decided that they would become squatters on an old piece of military property in the middle of Copenhagen, which I personally think is a hilarious choice of location. Apparently, no one seemed to notice that these people had largely taken over the area until their marijuana trade was in full force, and by that time, it had such support throughout Copenhagen, that their "illicit" activities have been largely ignored by the authorities ever since. The area is basically just an alternative, gated community and once you walk through the main entrance, you find yourself on "Pusher Street." I kid you not, "Pusher Street" is the name of the main drag running through Christiana where people sell marijuana alongside Pepsi and Twix in little kiosks and cafes. There are signs throughout the community forbidding photographs, and reminding visitors that it is still illegal to buy and sell hash and weed in Denmark. Unfortunately, I can't even find a good picture on Google for you—they're very strict on the photos and I was only able to snap a pic on my way out.

The Christiana community apparently has seceded
from the any ideas, Texas?
After a week of Pride, quasi-historical re-enactments, and "green light districts," it was time to head back to Germany. I decided to take the overnight bus because I figured I could save a night's hostel rate after my week of hellish prices, but I completely forgot that Copenhagen is sort of on an island, so my brilliant plan didn't work out one bit. I got absolutely no sleep that night. Our bus was freezing cold, we had to get off once the bus pulled into the ferry, then once we were off the ferry the crazy German police spent about 30 minutes checking all of our passports (they looked at mine for all of 20 seconds — one of the irrational perks of being a white, female, American tourist), and then literally called in the passport numbers of everyone else. They ended up deporting one of the guys on the bus and then some infant that I didn't even know was there began wailing for the rest of the trip. Then I arrived in Hamburg at 5:40am. Good plan, Lexi. Good plan.

Wednesday, August 22, 2012

Munich, Prague, & Berlin: Stereotypes, Memorials, & Street Art

After Venice, I took a train through the Austrian Alps to get to Munich (it was another one of those carriage-like seating arrangements but it really didn't matter this time because the mountains were so gorgeous that I really couldn't look away). After a 5-hour train ride, I arrived in Munich. This was my first time in Germany so naturally I tried to employ all of my irrational stereotypes and create new ones as quickly as possible. A couple of first impressions about the Germans:

1) They're actually very friendly. I know, I know, I'm blowing your mind right now.

2) They never jaywalk (this is later confirmed to be a rather widespread phenomenon in Germany). Between New Haven, New York, and small-town California, I realized that I don't think I know a single person that actually obeys walking traffic laws, or even knows that they exist. Even with oncoming traffic, we still cross the street. Somewhere in the back of our minds we say, "You'll stop for me and I'll cross or you won't stop and you'll hit me and I'll sue you for everything your worth," and then we go on our merry, totally non-passive agressive way. In Germany, however, there could be absolutely no cars in sight and a crowd of 30 Germans will just patiently wait for the walk signal. Fascinating.

Beer garden, Englischer Garten
3) These people love their green spaces. There are little grassy knolls and mini park-like spaces throughout the city. The kicker for me is the "Englischer Garten" — the overwhelmingly large and beautiful city park. This park is seriously unreal. Now, I'm not a big park/garden person...I've tried multiple times to make myself take a blanket and a book and just lounge at a park; I've always thought it'd be nice to contribute to that idyllic atmosphere for visiting park-goers. Doesn't work for me. There's something about parks that make me fidget. Am I a fidgeter in my day-to-day life? Nope. Just in parks, on blankets, reading books. My attention span goes completely berserk. Usually it ends up with me vowing to aggressively kill some fly or ant. So, yeah, I just don't even try to lounge in parks anymore because I'm a pacifist. Anyway, I still couldn't lounge around in the Englischer Garten, but there was loads to keep my ADD-self busy.

This park was created way back in the late 18th century and is comprised of 910 acres in the heart of the city, making it larger than NYC's Central Park. LARGER THAN CENTRAL PARK. In addition to it's sheer size, there's a few things about this park that make it wonderful: Firstly, there is a beer garden, as there should be in any half-decent German park. Secondly, there are nudists (as you know, these are basically my people now). One of my favorite people-watching events was the "unaware-tourist-stumbles-upon-nude-section-of-park" phenomenon. Fantastic. Finally, there is a RIVER running right through the heart of the park (I have determined that this is a European theme). And, for some reason that I'm pretty sure is actually just magical, there is surfing on the river. Yes, river surfing. Surfers huddle up on the banks of the river, decked out in their wetsuits and holding their surfboards and take turns jumping in and entertaining the hoards of fascinating onlookers (like me).

Urban surfing in Munich! 
After Munich, and trying to figure out this whole "urban surfing" phenomenon for hours (I refuse to google it because I don't want to ruin the possibility that it's magical), I ventured into the Czech Republic for a little stint in Prague. I'm not going to say a darn thing about Prague primarily because Berlin was awesome and it's the next stop on the trip, and like I said, sometimes I have a short attention span, BUT, at my hostel in Prague, I ran into a guy I met in Morocco! We had stayed in the same hostel dorm in the very funky "Funky Fes" hostel and roamed the streets together the first day when he realized that my original intention was to roam them alone. What a keeper.

Gotta at least give Prague a photo!

Anyway, Berlin. Oh Berlin. This may be my favorite stop so far. Germany is winning some serious points in my book, which is great because when I originally "planned" (I use the term very loosely) this trip, I didn't even have Germany on the list. My trip post-Rome has been largely impromptu and guided by the cost of a bus ticket and a hostel bed. The natural progression from Prague just seemed to be Berlin, and I had heard nothing but good things.

Let's get this straight from the start —Berlin was a week of nerding out. The history is just absolutely mind-blowing. I want to know it all. After a free historical walking tour around the city, finding a bookstore became my number one priority. Because Germans are for the most part bilingual (everyone learns English in school), they had a huge English section, which was fantastic. I spent a solid hour sifting through a bunch of European history books and finally landed on Bloodlands, which I dove straight into and absolutely loved (in a "woah this shit is horrifyingly depressing" sort of way). Only then did I flip the book over and read up on the author. Turns out he's a Yale history professor. HUZZAH. European history wasn't really my thing so I never had a class with him, but I feel like I may have missed out. *Take me back to college*

Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe
So I spent the day drinking far too much coffee (what else is new) and blazing through a solid half of this 400-pager. The next day, I realized I should probably continue to actually explore Berlin instead of just reading about it, so I took myself on a very, very long jaunt around Berlin. While the city is amazing, I don't think I could ever live there permanently. Everywhere you turn, there is some sort of incredibly powerful memorial to one of the many tragic events in history that have found its center in Berlin.

In the middle of the city, just outside the financial district and the American Embassy, there is the nearly 5-acre interactive monument entitled "Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe." The memorial consists of 2,711 huge blocks of concrete that are arranged on a grid on a sloping field. Some are crooked, some are massively tall, some are only knee-high. People can walk through the blocks and get lost in the grid, at times looking over the whole field of concrete and at other times seeing nothing but the towering blocks overhead. I walked through twice — once during the day and once at night. If I thought that the daytime walk was powerful, the nighttime walk was overwhelming. They don't light up the monument — it is left completely dark. As you walk through, the blocks begin to tower over you and you realize that you're in the dark, in some maze, where no one can see you. What I love about it is that it's left completely unexplained. Why 2,711? Why the sloping? Why blocks? It's completely up for interpretation and allows you to just explore organically.

Plaque outside of the gay Holocaust memorial
While I personally think the memorial is incredibly well-done, it has been the point of some controversy. This controversy fits into the larger issue of how the Germans have chosen to deal with the darker elements of their collective past, which has largely been through the creation of separate memorials for different groups of people who were incarcerated, killed, or otherwise affected by the Holocaust. For example, the memorial described above specifically commemorates the Jewish population, and only the Jewish population. There's various other specified groups, including a memorial dedicated to mothers who lost their children, and across the street from the Jewish memorial — in Tiergarten Park — there is a separate memorial for the gay population killed by Nazis.

While I understand the controversial aspect of distinguishing between people that were all killed in the same chapter of human history, I think that in this case, distinguishing is appropriate. And I love that the city publicly and permanently memorializes the loss of members of the gay community. That's something that no one really talks about, and a lot of people just don't even know about. There were 50,000 convictions of homosexuality under the Nazis. It's certainly not something that I learned in elementary school when I first learned about the Holocaust. In fact, it was another layer of the Holocaust that I was only first exposed to when I got to college. Berlin, however, has taken it upon itself to educate those who live in and pass through the city, placing the memorial in the main park and forcing people to grapple with history, each in their own unique way.

East Side Gallery, Berlin Wall.
1.3km long section covered with 100+ paintings
Celebrates freedom after the "fall" of the Berlin Wall.
After an incredible, but depressing day of memorials and the darker side of history, I decided to explore the more wacky, fun side of the city with the "Alternative Berlin Walking Tour" — end on a happier note, if you will. This was the first paid tour I've attended so far. Let me tell ya, I will never pay for one ever again. It was absolutely not worth the money in terms of the quality of the guide, but definitely worth it in terms of the initial exposure. Our guide was most certainly hungover from what is sure to have been a "heart-recalibrating, teeth-chattering" night of "hardcore techno." Why would I assume such a thing? Half of our tour was him stopping at various clubs and pointing out which nights were best for some "mind-blowing techno." Bro, I can't even begin to explain how little I care about techno.

Bahahah I die.
One of the more hilarious moments of the tour, however, was the reaction from the rest of the group when we stopped in front of the Kit-Kat Club. Now, I knew what was coming and I giddily braced myself for the group's reaction: Firstly, I could tell this sunken-eyed, techno-loving, grungy Brit was probably a little wild. Secondly, I already knew what the Kit Kat Club was all about because Berlin has a reputation for being a little freaky so I took it upon myself early on to figure out what I was in for. The rest of the people in my group clearly did not. So we roll up to the Kit Kat Club and it's around 4:30pm on a Sunday and the music is still bumpin from the night before. This club is the most famous...wait for club in Berlin (oh yes, apparently there are many). I'm talking legitimate sex club. If you want to visit you either have to be wearing leather or wearing nothing. That's the deal.

Anyway, our tour guide gave this place a genuinely heartfelt recommendation. I take it he's a regular. And I think that explains his sunken eyes. Perhaps that is where he just came from? Whatever, that boy was cray, but we did see some pretty great street art, and seeing as how I'm trying to cultivate all sides of my liberal self, I figured "street art" is something I should pretend to know a little something about.

A couple days later I wandered back to Kreuzberg —one of the more "alternative" districts of Berlin— to spend some time in the area and just wander around. I love this area. There's grafitti (oh...I'm sorry..."street art") everywhere. Nearly every single wall you come across has some amazing work of art on it. If this were in the United States, I would probably be a little hesitant to walk around a neighborhood that looks like Kreuzberg. But it's Germany, so clearly I'm invincible. What's great about Kreuzberg is that it's dirty, there's lots of obscenities and otherwise hilariously offensive scribblings on walls, there's people peeing in bushes in broad daylight, but there's also loads of little parks filled with single moms and their toddler-aged kids, and everyone is mixed together without problems. The single moms don't seemed phased by the daytime drinkers and the daytime drinkers don't seem to have any interest in bothering those around them.

A less-violent work from "El Bocho"

Some apparently famous
street artist named "El Bocho"
created a character named "Lucy" who
is shown throughout the city killing cats
in various brutal matters...disturbing?

After a good dose of history, a few memorials, and some street art, I finally left Berlin for Copenhagen.

As I sit here writing this, I am currently in Hamburg. Like I said, Germany is totally growing on me, so I had to come back to hit one more city. I just arrived a few hours ago on an overnight bus from my stay in Copenhagen (it arrived at 5am), which means two things:

1) I am almost caught up with my blog posts!

2) CNN is up on my screen and I am delirious enough to go on a totally wild tangent and say that the republicans have gone absolutely mad; someone get me my absentee ballot up in here puhleaze.

Monday, August 20, 2012


On the train from Rome to Venice, I sat in one of those stereotypical European family-style carriages where everyone faces each-other. Those things seriously freak me out. Now, it's fine for a short trip or one where you know everyone can speak the same language, but when I know that I'm gonna be there for a long haul and the person sitting across from me very clearly doesn't speak English, then I start to get a bit nervous. There are two reasons for this:

1) I like to hear myself talk, so it's rather inconvenient to have a completely captive audience staring me in the face, but not be able to communicate.

2) I have recently discovered one of my very limited number of talents: initiating moments of awkward eye contact. Ya'll know what I'm talking about. You just zone out for a second and find yourself staring at whatever object happens to be in your path — usually another human being — and that person happens to look up and lock eyes for just a hair too long. Normally, this might be diffused with what is sure to be a rather witty or charming remark, but you know that you don't speak the same language. So, further trying to salvage the situation, you try the universal smile, but the other person just giggles in response. Now you've really done it and made a harmless situation much more awkward because you may have very well just inadvertently flirted with someone who is going to be facing you for SEVEN hours from only 2 feet away.

In this case, it was a grandmother in her mid-to-late 70s so I really wasn't too worried about it, but you can imagine that under different circumstances, this could have been very bad. That's what I call "pre-emptive lesson-learning" — from now on I shall direct my blank stare out the window. Anyway, this woman ended up being hilarious. She is clearly very popular. Her phone was ringing off the hook. The best part, however, was that her ringtone was "Wish You a Merry Christmas." So during this train ride I probably heard the Christmas carol ten times. And her reaction time was impressively slow, so each time I heard the song nearly in it's entirety. Not even Costco starts Christmas in August. Aggressive.

After 7 hours of Christmas carols, I was understandably delirious so when I heard the conductor announce something with the word "Venizia" in it, I just assumed it was my stop. When I hopped off the train and saw no canals around me I began to get a little suspicious. I may not know much, but I've seen every single Johnny Depp movie, including "The Tourist" (you know, that terrible little Venetian gem with Angelina), so I had a pretty strong hunch that there were supposed to be canals. So I showed a cab driver the address that I needed to get to and we had a little chat where I pretended to speak Italian and he pretended to speak English and somehow it worked out enough that I realized that I got off at the wrong "Venizia." How am I to know that there are two Venezias? After a couple more broken English/Italian miming games, I found my way to the bus that took me into the city center.

From the waterbus! Gondolier in the foreground.
Eventually I reached the correct "Venezia" and the next challenge was actually finding my way to the hostel. Venice is a bit complicated to navigate since the streets aren't on a grid, many aren't labeled, and usually when you finally think you're going the right way, you run into an uncrossable canal. At this point it was 11:30pm and I was getting a little worried since my general experience of Italians is that they're...well...mean, and my hostel's reception was closing at midnight. Closing your reception office at all, by the way, is nearly unheard of in the hostel world, but I guess when you run one of only a handful of hostels in one of the most popular tourist destinations in the world, you can do whatever you want.

View from Ponte dell'Accademia
Once I got to the bus station, the only people around who did not look like fellow utterly confused tourists were the water bus (re: a metro system on water) operators. They were all 40+ and didn't speak a word of English. Thankfully, I'm well practiced with the 30% English - 20% Italian - 50% miming game and they were incredibly patient and helpful. One of the men was about to begin his shift on one of the water buses so he just took me along with him and then made sure to let me know when it was my stop. Mind you, this was a fully-packed water bus. Marry me.

I don't even know where this is...
At 11:50pm, I finally arrived at my hostel. I seriously would still be lost in Venice if it weren't for a slew of incredibly patient locals. Their wonderfulness almost briefly stunned me into re-arranging my entire stereotype of Italy as a country filled with only snooty and mean people, but that would have been far too rational so I decided to just make an exception for the Venetians. The hostel-owner himself was an overly-friendly, somewhat creepy, but totally harmless man who had recently taken over the place and was trying just a little too desperately to boost their ratings. I was greeted with a hug and three kisses on the cheek but since he insisted on carrying my bag up the three flights of stairs and turning the fan directly on me when I walked into reception, I decided that he was the hero of the moment so I just really didn't care. Additionally, he upgraded me from a 5-bed dorm to a 3-bed dorm (that's some luxury stuff right there), so really this guy could do no wrong.

Shortly after I arrived in my room, my fellow dorm-mates — two sisters from New Mexico — also showed up. They were adorable. They've literally been planning to travel Europe together since they were in elementary school and now that one has finished college and the other is going into her senior year, they finally thought it was time to cross the pond. "Yeah, we both took out the maximum amount of student loans each year to pay for this." Couldn't be prouder to be an American.