31 August 2009

The burdens of baggage

Lee showed up with, like, nothing. A duffel bag--small enough to carry on--and a half-full small backpack.

I, on the other hand, have a bag packed with roughly enough items to build a space shuttle from scratch, then supply it for a year.

Clearly Lee heeded the warnings that Arthur--or rather Hope, his wife, who penned this particular chapter--offers about "the burdens of baggage."

And yet, if you'd seen our hotel room in Amsterdam last night, twelve hours before we were to head off to Brussels, you might have thought that I was the light--or at least fastidious--packer. Which led to the following conversation:

Lee: "How is it that my side of the room looks disasterous and yours is so tidy?"

Doug: "Um, tidy?" I have never been called tidy in my life. Ever.

Lee: "Yeah, it's so orderly and neat."

Doug (stifling an incredulous laugh): "That's because I've learned to create the illusion of organization. My crap doesn't sprawl as much; it's in more vertical piles. It is not cleanliness, it's craftiness. Key distinction."

Lee: "Maaaaybe."

Doug: "Actually, I'm trying to cultivate an 'Odd Couple' atmosphere. You know, for narrative's sake. I'm Jack Lemmon and you're Walter Matthau."

Lee: "I never saw the movie, but I think I get the idea."

Doug (realizing my pop culture references tend to be as outdated as my guidebooks, and about as useful): "Okay, umm ... I'm Bert and you're Ernie."

Lee: "Ah. That's better."

Doug: "I'm tall and skinny, you're short and squat."

Lee: "No. Not better. Or accurate."

I will say this, though, in my defense: I travel lighter than the New York Times' Frugal Traveler. Not that I want to start any battles with Actual Professionals here (and not that I think Matt Gross will read this), but last year, on his own Grand Tour, he packed a blazer and three (three!) pairs of shoes. Really?!

I also travel cheaper. You know, more frugally. Lee's definitely been helping with that. The hostel he found for us in Brussels--from which I write this--is fantastic. Cheap and half a block off the Grand Place. Good work, Lee!

Fun with out-of-context quotes

The scene:
Doug and Lee have just arrived at the Museumplein in Amsterdam after biking around the city and into the suburbs, which the tour guide promised would be filled with cows and windmills but were totally bleak and industrial and un-bucolic. Lee lies down on an expanse of grass, the first we have seen in the city. He looks fatigued but content. The park bustles in a most agreeably Old World manner.

Lee: This is why I came to Europe: to lie in the grass here.

Doug: You came all the way to Amsterdam to lie in the grass?

Lee: Yes. It's nice grass.

Doug: I'm quoting you on that. "Duuuude, the grass in Amsterdam is really nice. Primo stuff, this grass."

Lee: That's not what I said. You, sir, are completely distorting what I said.

Doug: Correct.

Not-So-Flattering Views of Famous Places: Manneken Pis

Brussels, Belgium

30 August 2009

Not-So-Flattering Views of Famous Places: "I Amsterdam" sign

Amsterdam, The Netherlands.

I still believe that tourists are really good at heart

[UPDATE: A slightly tweaked version of this essay appeared in the San Francisco Chronicle in February 2010. Click here to read that version.]

Frommer gives the Anne Frank House its own section, under the heading "The Unforgettable." He calls the effect of visiting "searing, heartbreaking, infuriating beyond belief"; he then adds, "Let none of us ever pass through Amsterdam without making a pilgrimage to the Anne Frank House."

But I’d seen the line—out the door, down the block. And I’d seen the tourists posing in front of the house with wide grins, casually leaning on the doorway like it was Cinderella’s Castle at Disneyland. No matter how serious the subject matter, the experience was bound to be rich with irony and cheesiness.

Lee and I joined the line just behind four British women in their early twenties. We watched them dig hungrily into their bag of potato chips and listened to their stories of drunkenness at various moments in their lives and, the preceding day, of getting stoned at one of the coffee shops here. It was, frankly, the precise type of vapid conversation you’d stereotypically expect of tourists of that age. One woman was particularly quick with the tales of debauchery. She had bleach-blonde hair, pulled into a ponytail with a small pink ribbon, and wore huge sunglasses, an astonishing amount of makeup, flip-flops and a tight black outfit that left little to the imagination. She was, in short, a tourist in all the stereotypical and pejorative meanings of the term.

So amusingly inane was the conversation that midway through our half-hour in line, I discreetly switched on my voice recorder. The topic switched to bad sushi, and the prevalence thereof in London and Amsterdam, then back to drunkenness. Lee and I exchanged looks of amusement and confusion.

"I bet there’ll be some precious comments inside the museum, too," Lee said.

I grinned. This was gonna be epic comedy.

Well . . . it wasn’t. Sure, the crowds were thick, and people said some silly things, like the woman cooing with delight at the bathroom in the hiding space—"Ooh, what a lovely toilet!" Yet even so, the house was so haunting, its story so jarring—even though I’d already heard it, knew it backwards and forwards—that all the snark drained from my body within a few minutes.

It was, as Frommer says, heartbreaking, infuriating beyond belief, even in spite of the crowds. There are quotes from Anne’s diaries on many of the walls in the lower part of the house, and they are of course lyrical and melancholy in equal measure. But once you climb the steep staircase beyond the famous bookshelf, you enter a place that just should not exist, that should not have to exist—and whose very existence tugs at your soul and makes you despair in some elemental way.

There were two things that struck me most. First was the section of wall, now covered in glass, on which the Frank family measured the growth of Anne and her sister, Margot. It’s such a mundane thing, which is what makes it so immediately identifiable—somehow, this detail can’t help but make you think of your own family, your own growth, your own youth. More disturbing, though, is your realization that they weren’t just in here for a few hours or a few weeks—there was enough time for the kids to grow, for the passing and loss of their youth to be documented inch by inch.

And then there was a line from Anne’s diary, dated December 24, 1943 and printed on the wall in the secret apartment: "I long to ride a bike, dance, whistle, look at the world, feel young and know that I’m free."

To read that quote in the midst of my own six-week, trans-continental journey—one that is, essentially, an expression of freedom and youth—is a jarring reminder that life is not always like this for everyone, not an endless stream of new discoveries and delights. For us tourists, the Anne Frank House is a destination to be checked off and posed in front of before we head on to the Heineken Experience or the Van Gogh Museum—it’s a place of fleeting interest in our journeys. We rarely pause to appreciate the fact that to see all these places is a luxury, that travel is a freedom not available to everyone. For Anne—and, more to the point, for way too many other nameless, forgotten individuals, then and now—travel wasn’t an option, not even a journey across the street. Home was prison.

That’s why it’s not the bookshelf that is most haunting, or Anne’s diary entries about having to be quiet and not open the curtains, "not even an inch"—it’s the mundane details, the ones so symbolic of our everyday existence. These are what make you realize that the Frank family passed their days and lived their lives—every aspect, every moment—in this space, in constant fear but also constantly trying to transcend that fear and create something akin to the humdrum happiness of normalcy. The concentration camps are not something that tourists can begin to fathom, so we really don’t even try. But this hiding space—this living space—is something we can relate to, which makes it, in a peculiar way, more real, more searing, more heartbreaking.

So while the house might start off as just another place to visit and check off, it ends up genuinely moving, chilling, enraging. History has come alive in the most unsettling way.

I know that some people leave somehow uplifted and inspired by Anne’s hopeful words, buoyed by their lyricism and introspection in the face of great evil. That’s not how I felt. I left disconcerted and upset by the ending of the story—I’m sorry, but no matter how positive Anne’s sentiments, and how admirable her ability to see the good in humanity, the fact is, she was a prisoner in her own house for years, and then she was captured and killed. Life’s pretty fucked-up: that’s my take-away message. It’s impossible to leave the house without being at least a bit pissed off and teary-eyed.

Near the end of the tour, I saw the British woman who had been in line in front of us, the Stereotypical Tourist with the flip-flops and tales of getting plastered all over the world. Now, her sunglasses were off and her makeup was streaked.

I followed her to the exit and we stepped out into the sunlight, young and free.

Getting sloshed with celebrities

Arthur's opening line for the Amsterdam chapter invites snickers and raised eyebrows: "Amsterdam is a swinging town." The modern reader can't help but think, Oh, really, Arthur? What do you mean by that, exactly?

One thing it means in 2009--one of the more wholesome interpretations, actually--is, "Amsterdam is a great placed to party hard and get smashed out of your gourd." At least, that seems to be what this town has become, tourism-wise: the one place people visit in hopes of a trip they won't remember.

According to our tour guide yesterday, Amsterdam's famously lax drug laws and the attendant rise of the infamous coffeeshops didn't come into place until the late 1960s. (I'm on a public computer and am dashing this off, so no time for a fact check. But it sounds good, yes?) So that would be post-E5D.

But even now, the swingingest, liveliest, most popular part of the Amsterdam tourist experience seems not to be the part that is illegal in most other places, but that which is really quite readily available most everywhere: getting rip-roaring drunk in seedy bars.

Two nights ago, Lee and I took shelter from the rain in a bar near the train station. It was not Old World and wood-paneled and charming, nor was it kitschy and cheesy and touristy, and therefore charming or at least fascinating on an entirely different level.

It was just a dive. There were some gaunt, sallow-eyed toughs playing pool, and I have to confess to a few moments of panic and a vision of the night ending with a broken pool cue through my chest.

Lee and I took our beers to the tiny basement area, which was halfheartedly decorated with retro beer posters and broken sconces. Our conversation drifted to the writing life and the joys of people-watching in anonymity. We decided that well-known writers have just the right level of fame: people know their names but not their faces. No one recognizes them in public.

As we were joking about turning down autographs and wearing sunglasses in seedy bars such as this one, a young woman gaveled a massive beer stein on the table next to Lee, then eased herself onto the adjacent stool.

"We heard you talking," she said in a clipped British accent frayed with tipsiness. Gesturing to her four friends, she continued, "She says you were saying something about being famous. Are you famous?"

"Well, we will be," Lee replied, grinning. "Give us some time. A few weeks, maybe."

"Are you famous now?" the woman asked, apparently hoping we were just being modest.

"Yes, you've discovered us," I said. "I'm Brad Pitt and this is George Clooney."

She was not amused; her face became a mask of derision and disappointment. We were no longer interesting--just some losers in a bar, not celebrities she didn't recognize. I could almost hear her thinking, "Fuck you for not being famous." And also, probably: "I walked all the way over here and you can't even be some B-list reality TV stars? Just some writers? I'm wasting my breath on writers?!"

Lee and I, however, were amused and willing to continue the conversation. They were from London and had come here just for a long weekend to celebrate our new non-friend's birthday.

"Wait, you flew to Amsterdam just for the weekend, for a birthday party?"

They gave us blank looks. Of course you'd fly to another country for a few days for a birthday party. Dumb-ass Americans, stuck in the dark ages of travel.

"But ... why Amsterdam?" Lee asked.

The five answered in giddy, drunken unison: "To get fucked up!"

I'd like to point out, once again, that we were in a bar, drinking beer (that is, not in a coffeeshop consuming other items). Last time I checked, England had bars. Rather a lot. Also beer.

But such is the nature of European tourism now. With the open EU borders and the ease and low prices of air travel, going from London to Amsterdam requires about as much effort as traveling up to Edinburgh by train or even across to the other side of town. So why not?

They certainly weren't the only Brits we've met in the last few days who have come to Amsterdam to drink lots and dance to crappy pop music. (And incidentally, is European music just stuck 15 years behind American music? Because everywhere we go, even the quiet, Old World bars or side-street Thai restaurants, we hear the same godawful mid-1990s techno and Euro-hip-hop, of the variety that Lee termed "Fisher-Price My First Turntable.)

Once it was established that we really were lowly nobodies, the conversation turned to writing, and the pathetic nature of writers, specifically those who are Americans traveling in Europe looking for material. Our new non-friend drunkenly (and accidentally) tore the cover half off E5D when I brought it out to explain the project.

"So what kind of bad ideas have you had so far? Have they been really bad?" Her eyebrows waggled salaciously, as though I could redeem my lack of fame by offering a laundry list of vices, regrets, and deeply misguided doings.

"Well, I ... I showed up here without a map," I said.

She scoffed. "Did you go to the red light district?"

"Er, no."

"That's terrible. Your ideas aren't bad enough." Looking at her friends, she added, "I want a hot dog."

"So will we be in your book?"she asked as she drained her beer.

"You haven't been interesting enough," Lee said brightly.

"Just mention the drunk girl in Amsterdam," came the slurred reply.

"Let's go see a sex show," her friend added. I'm not sure if it was a sincere suggestion or just the first excuse she could think of to ditch these non-celebrities.

They headed out with half-waves, leaving us once again anonymous and at peace. We were fine with that.

By the numbers

Cities visited: 2
Cities to go: 8
Museums visited: approx. 4
Amusement parks visited: 1 (Tivoli Gardens, Copenhagen)
Pirate-themed bars patronized: 1
Level of theming in said pirate bar: lackluster, disappointing
Frommer-approved restaurants eaten in: just 1
Varieties of tours taken: 3 (walking, boat, bike)
Chocolate croissants consumed: approx. 8
Other pastries consumed: approx. 8
Number of bikes, in thousands, recovered from Amsterdam canals annually: 25
Number of bikes fallen off (by me): 1
Bike-falls into canal (by me): 0, so far
Rank of falling-off-bike-and-into-Amsterdam-canal as killer of my mother's high school acquaintences, at least as far as I've heard: 1
(Number of her classmates drowned in said canals: 1)
Level of my fear of meeting this demise: high
Tourists in Amsterdam killed by trams each year: 2
Times I have almost become one of those two: 2
Population of Copenhagen: approx. 1.7 million
Number of bikes in Copenhagen: approx. 2.5 million
Most common variety of look given by passersby upon seeing my copy of E5D: confusion
Second-most-common: scorn
Fantastic street performers seen in Copenhagen: at least 5
In Amsterdam: 0
Percentage of Amsterdam street performers who are tone-deaf hippies strumming broken guitars, presumably hoping for some spare change for weed: approx. 95
Number of Amsterdam museums that I really can't believe actually exist: at least 5 (Handbags & Purses, Vodka, Erotic, Cannabis, Sex)

28 August 2009

What we can learn about the United States from the new U.S. Passport

In this post I will be carefully ignoring the fact that my passport now has an electronic chip in it. We will be ignoring this because, due to the presence of that chip, the government knows everything I'm typing.

What we're going to do is learn about the greatest country on Earth from an examination of its passports. Each page has a ghosted background image. These images are, in order:
  1. Francis Scott Key watching the bombardment of Fort McHenry*
  2. A bald eagle
  3. A saguaro desert
  4. The Rockies
  5. Images of independence and Philadelphia related objects like the Liberty Bell
  6. A sailing ship off of a New England coast
  7. Bison and a bald eagle AND the rockies
  8. Mt. Rushmore
  9. A Mississippi riverboat
  10. A farmer using a hand plow and two oxen to plow a field
  11. Two cowboys herding longhorn cattle
  12. A steam engine locomotive
  13. A grizzly bear eating a fish next to a totem pole
  14. The Statue of Liberty
  15. A spacecraft (possibly Voyager) looking back at Earth
From these images I think we can safely surmise that:
  • The only building ever constructed in the United States was Constitution Hall
  • All methods of conveyance have paused at a technological level equivalent to the year 1850
  • America is populated by farmers, cowboys, and large, predatory wildlife.
  • Totem poles are a naturally occuring phenomenon.
  • The Voyager spacecraft was built by two cowboys using the scraps left over from the Statue of Liberty.

* - That's right, the very first thing you see in a US passport is my home city of Baltimore. Under fire, of course, but that's rather accurate these days anyway.

26 August 2009

Maps? We don't need no stinkin' maps!

I see that Lee has gotten into the spirit of misadventure and willful ignorance. Well done, sir! I look forward to getting lost with you, starting in a matter of hours.

As it turns out, maybe we really don't need maps. Maybe.

I arrived in Amsterdam around 5:30 p.m.yesterday. I stepped off the train from the airport--the blissful, relaxing "silent" car, to be specific--and into the most packed station I have seen in my life. It was a human traffic jam, and all I could do was inch forward, hoping that the tide of humanity would eventually leave me washed up near an exit, and paranoid, in the meantime, at every bump and justle (of which there was a constant barrage), continually patting my pockets to make sure the contents hadn't been spirited away.

Eventually I found myself at a door. I strode outside, where the crowds were only slightly thinner but had been joined by a deluge of honking cars and dinging bicycles.

And here was a problem: I had no idea where I was. Not the tiniest semblance of a clue. Arthur says that the Hotel Van Gelder, where we'll be staying for the next few nights, is near the railroad station, but he doesn't think to include it on the map. The map also does not contain the train station or the major street on which the hotel is located. Or any landmarks that might be of interest or use.

Because, for some reason, there is no map of Amsterdam. For nearly every other city, Arthur includes at least a one-page, hand-drawn map of the center of town. In most cases, there aren't many streets labeled, but the big ones are typically there, along with a few of the better-known landmarks and maybe some restaurants and hotels. If you wander around enough, you'll find probably eventually figure out where you are.

In Amsterdam, however, I'll be relying solely on my wits--never a promising proposition. These next few days could be rather interesting. There may need to be some cheating if we're going to get anywhere or see anything other than that which we accidentally stumble upon. That said, there do seem to be some kiosks with maps here and there, and I think that using these is within the rules of the game, since we won't actually be seeking them out. (Google Maps or a new guidebook would be definite no-nos).

And maybe my wits--or at least my luck--are more fine-tuned than I thought, because somehow, astonishingly, I found the hotel right away, even without a map. It turns out that the street it's on, Damrak, originates right in front of the train station. It was a tremendous relief: I won't be sleeping in a dumpster! Really, you have no idea the scenarios an anxious, neurotic mind (oh, and jetlagged--can I still use that excuse?) can cook up as its scared-shitless owner realizes he's in a sprawling city filled with windy roads, narrow canals into which top-heavy backpackers can fall way too easily, and all manner of Big Scary Things, and he has no idea where he's going. Hypothetically.

That street sign was possibly the most assuaging, reassuring sight I'd ever seen. And I have to say, as those worst-case scenarios began to fade, the street itself looked for all the world like like the yellow brick road, coyly beckoning with the unspoken promise of adventure. Follow.

I breathed a sigh of relief . . . which was quickly followed by a cough of agony as the singular smell of Amsterdam hit my lungs. I carried on, with shallow, cautious breaths, and eyes wide at the crowded, neon-sign-filled spectacle before me. A rush of giddiness swept away all coherent thoughts, replacing them with one-word exclamations of delight: Wow. Gosh. Whoa. AWESOME.

So, Lee, I know you won't read this before we meet up, but here's how you get to the hotel:

It's in the first block on the other side of the Soomthiing-Or-Öther Canal, just across from the station. Walk past the Sex Museum (yep) and keep going until you get to the corner, then realize that the numbers are now too high. Double back, keeping a closer eye on the numbers, and get distracted by the sight of the Vodka Museum (indeed); get further distracted by your snickering thought that in all likelihood, the opening of the Vodka Museum directly led to the erection (!) of the Sex Museum, and that, following the natural course of things, the next attractions will be the Shrieking Toddler Museum, the Surly Teenager Museum, and the College Tuition Museum. As you snicker, proceed past the Sex Museum again. Realize that you've walked past your destination a second time. Turn around once more . . . and this time, focusing, focusing, you'll see it, right next door to the Vodka Museum: the small doorway of the Hotel Van Gelder.

25 August 2009

Scenes from a Life of Adventure

The scene is a bar in Baltimore. Lee is behind the bar. A regular patron is sitting at the bar, describing his favorite Amsterdam haunts. It is mid-afternoon last Sunday.

The regular gets a piece of paper and begins drawing a map for Lee to lead him to the bar (Gollum) which the regular remembers most fondly. It begins to dawn on Lee that he does not own a map of Amsterdam. In fact, he realizes, he has never even seen a map of Amsterdam. He is not even clear on what "The Netherlands" are. They sound, to him, like the name of a bad Sci Fi Channel series.

"Are you flying into Schippel?" the regular asks.
"Yes," Lee replies, because he reasons that the regular knows more about Amsterdam than he himself does.
"OK, when you get off the plane the ticket booths are to your right for the train."
Lee begins to realize that he had not yet figured out how he would get from the airport to the hotel.
Lee begins to suppress a mild panic.

We now fast forward to today, five hours before Lee boards a plane for Amsterdam. The reader will be pleased to learn that Lee has no more information about the city than he did that afternoon at the bar, minus of course a hand drawn map that will get him to Gollum.

What more does one need, really?

24 August 2009

Canvassers v. Tourists (Or, Apologies For the Rant)

This was supposed to be a short post about how one of the benefits of tourism is increased numbers of street performers. This afternoon, I saw the most amazing living statue--a living fountain, actually. Worthy of his own post. Ditto the contortionist, the guitarist, and the jazz trio (they did not all perform together, although they totally should). The post was going to be hilarious and insightful and would basically explain the entire modern tourist experience by way of a series of short vignettes and observations, all tied together in the tidiest but most unexpected of ways, and presented in prose that was at once astonishingly lyrical and deliciously clever. Your mind would have been blown. But then some clowns got in the way. . . .

I recently heard someone describe canvassers as "the pop-up ads of real life." This was especially true in Copenhagen today.

I spent the morning tracking down the various restaurants that Frommer recommends here. No success. Not one was still open. A Blockbuster was in one space; another is now the town's requisite Hard Rock Cafe.

Instead, I found--or rather, was found by--a swarm of people from Greenpeace, Unicef, and Some Organization That Would Like You To Know That AIDS Is Very Bad. Now, I support these organizations' work, in general. I just don't particularly care to be on one more e-mail list or to give my credit card number to a complete stranger. Mostly, I just don't want to be bothered. I'm not a talker, particularly when I know the conversation will be one-sided, overtly political, and assertively boring.

This is particularly true when I'm away from home: I'm out of my element, I'm already a bit disoriented, just leave me alone. Don't remind me of the real world and its ills. Leave me in my bubble. Just point me to the bakery and the nearest tourist landmark and get out of my way. Please.

But sometimes I overcome my natural aversion to such interactions because the message the people are promoting is just . . . well, just so fucking batty and offensive that I can't walk by without comment.

Case in point: This afternoon, I was strolling down the Købmagergade (I think that's where I was, anyway) when a sandwich board stopped me in my tracks. It was a doctored photo of Barack Obama, with a Hitler mustache; beneath the image was the caption "I've Changed." I spotted a young woman standing near a table covered with Lyndon LaRouche literature.

"Hey, what's ..." I began.

She smirked. "He's grown a little mustache, you see. He's a fascist."

I'll spare you the full details. It was a long conversation. Too long. It can be summarized by the following exchange:

Me: ". . . So what you're saying is, there's a huge conspiracy that we're all just too blind to see, and it's run by a couple of guys sitting in a dark room, rubbing their hands together, cackling, evilly plotting everything that goes on in the world and basically trying to destroy us."

Batty LaRouche Lady, with complete sincerity: "Yes, that's exactly it."

Our conversation was broken by an American speaking on a cell phone, looking pissed off. He was saying (and this is a direct quote, as best as I remember it): "There are some seriously fucked-up people saying some seriously fucked-up things down here, spewing some genuinely offensive, outlandish shit."

As soon as he hung up, Batty LaRouche Lady started yammering at him instead of me. So Phone Guy and I basically tag-teamed it, swapping Very Reasonable Points to counter the frankly nonsensical and vitriolic claims. Soon a Batty LaRouche Dude from Boston joined the fray. (What a lovely way to pass a beautiful late-summer day on an otherwise charming and bustling street in Copenhagen!)

Several other passersby joined our cause, including one Danish guy who looked old enough to actually remember Hitler--who, you may recall, invaded Denmark, among a few other nasty things. This guy really, really, really did not appreciate the Obama/Hitler comparison. "You're planting the seed," he said, pointing to the photo. His tone was calm, but his face was contorted with incredulity and despair. "You're spreading hate."

All in all, a pretty jarring experience. I'm not big on confrontation, but I have gone to a few protests in the States and had some interesting conversations with counter-protesters. I'm always up for debate with people of differing views; in fact, I enjoy it. This was different. I've never encountered that level of hatred and virulent, over-the-top political extremism first-hand--it's something I've only seen in articles or on TV, where it always seems a world away, something happening in Some Other Place. I certainly didn't expect that Other Place to be seemingly-idyllic Copenhagen. Everything here felt so calm and happy--as I said yesterday, even the "slums" were awfully mundane, if not precisely charming.

The phone guy's name was Harold; he's an American who married a woman from Denmark and has lived here since 1997. I gave him the blog address and by the time I got back to the hotel, he'd already e-mailed me. He called the encounter "the Three Stooges/Dumb & Dumber reunion," which is about right--the level of discourse was roughly even with those esteemed individuals, although we never did resort to poking each other in the eyes or bopping each other on the head. Maybe the silver lining of the encounter is a new e-pen pal (Hey, Harold: write to me any time, and if you're ever in Minneapolis, I'll buy you a beer and we can rehash today's encounter and our incredible display of political acumen, intellectual brilliance, and superhuman ability to remain calm when talking to scary, not-calm nutjobs).

So that's one of today's bad ideas: talking to political extremists who are itching for a fight. I really should have just walked past. Oy.

(Also, I get that most issues are global issues these days, and that U.S. policy affects the world . . . but what the hell were LaRouche people doing distributing their propaganda in Copenhagen? When I walked by the same spot a few hours later, they were gone. I almost hugged the Greenpeace guy who had taken their place.)

I will say this: it was kind of refreshing to see the reactions of most Danes to this ugly scene, to be around Europeans defending the American president and supporting Americans in general. That was not my experience last year--not at all. I wonder how Bush-as-Hitler would have gone over. It's been interesting to see people's varied reactions, a year ago and now, when they find out I'm American.

. . . And then I went to Tivoli Gardens, which was much more enjoyable, if a bit cheesy. I wandered the grounds and marveled at the astonishingly overpriced food (35 DKK for a Slushee--that's seven bucks!) and the even more astonishing array of spinning, Slushee-disgorging rides. I also discovered Danish honky tonk music. Ten seconds later, I discovered that I really, really dislike Danish honky tonk, that it is almost as annoying as canvassers. But I'll take hours of it over another ten seconds with the Lyndon LaRouche people.

UPDATE: Interestingly, Arthur has also gotten a bit politically active lately, calling for a boycott of travel to Arizona after some protesters were spotted carrying guns outside a Phoenix venue where the president was speaking last week.

23 August 2009

Not-So-Flattering Views of Famous Places: The Little Mermaid

Copenhagen, Denmark.
Sixth in a series.

If you ever visit Copenhagen, skip the mermaid. Seriously. She's constantly surrounded by admirers, and it's actually pretty difficult to get a shot better than this one. Most of all, the statue just isn't that interesting. It's also pretty remote. Spend the time exploring the city instead.

Historically-accurate creepy crawlies

Mom reminds me that when she and Dad went to Normandy in 1975, they stayed at the infamous Hotel Hardy, where they were not-so-entertained by les petit cockroaches doing the can-can across their beds.

In other words, the spider--did I mention that sucker was HUGE?--was just trying to assist in making my experience historically accurate. So, um, thanks. I guess.

Went to Christiana yesterday, which is a sorta-kinda autonomous hippie haven and Amsterdam-in-miniature. It didn't exist in 1963--meaning it's not in my guidebook; a friend mentioned it to me--but the spirit of the 1960s is alive and well. Lots of crazy, psychedelic public art and graffiti; many zoned-out people wandering/stumbling around or sitting in groups, singing what I took to be the Danish version of "Kumbaya." An acrid haze hangs in the air. Feral dogs, as happy and stoned as the humans, roam the grounds--one had somehow managed to get on a picnic table and was munching on food from a takeout container (styrofoam--bad hippies!). It's a pretty trippy place, even if you're not actually tripping. Alas, I have no pictures because there are signs everywhere saying "no photos." Those hippies: such sticklers for rules.

My battery is about to die and I need to head out to take a bike tour (Frommer's orders).

22 August 2009

So that's why it's called a "third-class" hotel

It's 2 a.m., do you know where your tarantula is?


I'm so glad I brought a sleep sack.

And that I spent 10 minutes last night tracking the massive spider--of Viking size and mindset, appropriate for the setting; I'm pretty sure it was actually wearing horns and waving a little sword--and whomping the *%&#!! out of it.

Do modern guidebooks warn you about wildlife in cheap hotels? Because E5D does not.

21 August 2009

Copenhagen: Too Good to Be True

At least, that's how Frommer titles his chapter about Denmark's capital city. His opening text:
After Copenhagen, Europe can become a footnote. This city has everything: a populace with friendship in their very souls; an astonishing variety of sights and activities; prices that are among the lowest on the continent.
Wait. What?! Let's go ahead and put that last part in the My How Things Have Changed category. These days, one's first impression of this city is, "Um, those prices are typos, right? All of them? Or am I really going to have to sell a kidney to pay for a meal?"

In general, in my experience, prices on the continent are not terribly expensive (compared to back home). In Copenhagen, though, holy crap. I'm guessing--hoping, praying--that it's now among the highest-priced European cities. Wandering the streets today, I don't think I saw much food under 30 DKK (about 5 DKK to the dollar right now, I believe). Even the strudel at the open-air market was 40 DKK (although they were massive and looked delicious; I'll be sampling them in the days to come).

Speaking of food: one Power Bar down the hatch. Already. This is not good. But by the time I checked in to my hotel, I'd been up for ... um, I don't know how many hours; my brain is not working right now. A lot. Over 24. Well over. Enough that I was disoriented, discombobulated, and dazed in a profoundly "people pay a lot of money for this in Amsterdam" kind of way.

So I broke the cardinal rule of fighting jetlag, which is not to sleep until it's actually bedtime in your destination. Mind you, it was only going to be a quick nap. An hour, maybe two. And then back out into the world, refreshed, clear-headed, and hungry for some Danish cuisine. . . . Seven hours later, I awoke, still groggy and seriously tempted to just roll over and fall back to sleep. I hope you'll understand my lack of interest in heading outside, in my severely disoriented and jetlagged state, to explore a now-dark city, armed only with a tiny hand-drawn map that, in addition to being over 40 years old, does not include the portion of town in which I'm staying.

But let me tell you: that Power Bar was delicious.

Back to sleep.

[UPDATE: this post originally included some notes on Scottish pubs, Dutch trattorias (yes, Dutch trattorias), and culinary authenticity. But I'll save those for another day, when my brain is more functional and I can write more coherently.]

20 August 2009

Not-So-Flattering Views of Famous Places: Eiffel Tower

Paris, France (but you knew that)
Fifth in a series.

. . . And with that, I'm off to the airport. Next post from Europe!

19 August 2009

What's in my bag?

I was going to write this in the style of The Things They Carried (possibly my favorite book ever), but then I decided that you'd probably rather just see the list.

Contents of my backpack:
  • Europe on Five Dollars a Day (1963-1964 edition)
  • Eurail pass
  • A few print-outs of my parents' letters to each other in 1967 (for the sake of saving space and weight, most of the letters and postcards are saved as PDFs on my computer)
  • Six t-shirts (I know that seems like a lot, but they're microfiber--packs small, dries fast!)
  • Six pairs of socks
  • Six pairs of boxers
  • Four button-front shirts (two long sleeve, two short)
  • Two pairs of trousers (actually, only one in the bag; I'll be wearing the other)
  • Canon digital camera (basic point-and-shoot variety) and little Gorillapod tripod
  • Netbook (so that I can amuse/bore you from the road. And show my new friends from all over the world the innovation that proves American Exceptionalism: Spider Solitaire.)
  • Multi-nation adapter plug
  • About a dozen little pocket-sized notebooks, plus a larger one. Also a few Post-Its.
  • Lots of pens
  • A few rubber bands, safety pins, and paper clips
  • Belt
  • Bungee cord clothesline
  • Small alarm clock that ticks really loudly and may be replaced very soon
  • Deck of playing cards (I thought about packing a Frisbee, but I don't have room)
  • Rather a lot of medications and medical supplies. Long story. (You've heard of Crohn's Disease? Fun stuff.)
  • Assorted toiletries
  • A few Zip-lock bags
  • Small towel (doubles as pillow cover in sketchy hotels/hostels)
  • Little laminated map with the world on one side and the US on the other.
  • Rain coat
  • Light jacket
  • A couple of Power Bars, most likely to be consumed in Germany (I'm kind of afraid of their food. I understand they've been eating it for a few years and many of them--and even one or two non-Germans--apparently like the stuff. But my gut is made of parchment paper [did I mention the Crohn's Disease thing?] and therefore I am something of a culinary coward. German food seems particularly well-calibrated for maximum lack of enjoyment, at least on my part: heavy, dense, not especially flavorful, and likely to contain animal parts that I'd actually rather not consume knowingly. I'm terrified of accidentally ordering the daily special of Boiled Esophagus Stuffed With Eyeballs And Raw Onions. So: Power Bars. Just in case.)
. . . And that's about it. Anything I'm missing? Anything I should take out? Pass judgment in the comments.

Add to packing list: knee brace

Here's a tip: if you want to make your travels abroad really interesting, a great way to achieve that goal is to become hobbled unexpectedly. And a great way to achieve that is to go in-line skating two days before you depart and wipe out spectacularly. Take particular care to land hard on your knee so that it's nicely bloody and painful (also be sure to choose a pedestrian-filled area for your wipe-out, so that you have a large audience to whom you can demonstrate your commitment to making your travels interesting).


24 hours until departure. Am I all packed? Nope. Am I panicking? Astonishingly, not really. I was for the last week, but now, as the moment approaches, I feel oddly prepared.

(Of course, my whole point with this trip is to be willfully unprepared. The main challenge has not been planning so much as forcing myself, against my better judgment, natural tendency/preference, and lingering anxieties about this unwise methodology, to not plan anything.)

* I would just like to note, for the record, that I am an avid and more-than-able skater, and this is just the second time I have wiped out, ever.

17 August 2009

Introduction to a Literary Sidekick

Hello! This is Lee, writer, traveler, and person who wishes he did more of both.

As you may know, Doug has invited me along on his European tour as official literary sidekick and has even allowed me to blog here occasionally about our adventures. I am honored to join him and to join the ranks of the great literary sidekicks along with...

Well uh..., there was that whole Gertrude Stein/Alex B Toklas thing, which I never did get the full scoop on. They're both women, apparently... and Ernie and F. Scott were definitely buds (though Ernie apparently thought F. Scott drank a bit too much and got distracted from his real work? Pot! Kettle!). More to the genre in which we find ourselves on this blog, Bill Bryson had the reluctant Stephen Katz in A Walk in the Woods. (Some people claim Bryson made Katz up, but they're probably just pissed because Bryson made the Appalachian Trail sound funny and they got there and found it was really just long). Tom Bissel, whose Chasing the Sea is about a disaster even bigger than the trip I am about to join, had his quixotic translator/sidekick Rustam, which reminds me of Jonathan Safran Froer's translator/sidekick in Everything Is Illuminated.

Of course now we're getting into fiction, where I'll happily follow along with Sancho Panza, Qeequay, and Sam Gamgee. Ender had his Bean and of course Solo his Chewbacca. Also, let's not forget Robin the boy wonder, and Watson (it's elementary!). Lest we downplay the sidekick, it might help to remember that Watson was a pistol-totting ex-army officer who'd survived India.

So far I've gotten most of the top 5, though even that list neglects to mention the sidekick so awesome he got his own book. That's right, let us not forget that Huck Finn started as Tom Sawyer's goofy pal.

Back in real life we have Jack Kerouac's, Neal Cassady, whose insanity as Dean Moriarty in On the Road the rest of us sidekicks can only hope to live up to. Honestly, though, now that I've begun this survey, stories of real-life literary sidekicks seem few. Clearly, as one of the founders of the role, I will have to work particularly hard to set the bar high.

16 August 2009

What Not to Wear

A scene from last year's Not-So-Grand Tour:

On the morning of my departure to Europe, as my neurotic tendencies blossomed with the panic of last-minute preparations, I decided that I absolutely had to have a black dress shirt. Because that's what Europeans wear. Every one of them. Every day. . . . And if I wore a black shirt, I reasoned, I would blend right in. One hundred percent. No question.

So en route to the airport, I stopped at Target, where I pawed through racks and racks of shirts; found one that seemed, at a glance, to fit my diminutive frame; shoved my credit card at a wary cashier; yanked off the price tags; and crammed the synthetic-fiber garment into my bag.

As I put it on for the first time, in Florence, I noticed that it didn’t fit quite as well as I’d hoped, but in the dimly-lit room, it seemed good enough. I would soon figure out, in the harsh gaze of sunlight and passersby, that, in fact, I looked like I was wearing a trash bag. The label may have said “small shirt,” but a more accurate one would have read “two-person tent.”

I also put on, God help me, my nylon travel pants. You know the ones: khaki, nylon, baggy. The sartorial equivalent of an enormous sandwich board reading “Idiot Tourist! Lots of Cash Hidden in the Kinda-But-Not-Really 'Hidden' Pocket—Help Yourself!” Their light weight and multitudinous pockets—including that ostensibly secret one—make them peerless for airplane travel, which is why I bought them, but I have no idea what possessed me to wear them that day in Florence.

And then, suave gent that I am, I finished off the outfit with black socks. I had packed only black socks, in fact, because I had heard that white ones were the classic sign of the American tourist. Shockingly, even in spite of the shirt and the socks, no one seemed to mistake me for an Italian. 

Not-So-Flattering Views of Famous Places: The Louvre

Paris, France
Fourth in a series.

Opening scene from "It Came From Beneath the Louvre!"

13 August 2009

Not-So-Flattering Views of Famous Places: The Panthéon

Paris, France
Third in a series.

There's a cultural studies master's thesis wrapped up in the name of that restaurant (sign in upper left; click on image for larger view). Sadly, it was closed when I walked by.

Of museums, Disney, and falling tourist numbers

The current issue of The Economist has an article about the impact of the global recession on European tourism; one Italian hotel industry official calls the situation "a debacle." Among the signs of gloom:

During the first five months of the year, the number of overnight stays by foreign visitors in French hotels fell by 15.5%. The number of foreigners who visited Spain in the first six months was 11.4% lower than in 2008. The situation is equally grim in Italy, where overnight stays by foreign guests were 11.5% lower in the first half of the year.
So what to do about it? (I mean, aside from hoping that yours truly gets filthy rich in Monaco and then altrustically blows all the winnings in restaurants and hotels across the Continent ... 'Cause that's probably not going to happen.) Well, one top tourism official seems to think that now is the time for ambitious developments and over-the-top plans. You know, because that's worked out so well for Dubai. Quoth The Economist:

Mauro Cutrufo, Rome’s head of tourism, believes the recession is an opportunity to push grandiose new schemes: marinas to match Monte Carlo, golf courses like those in Spain and theme parks to rival Disneyland. That is probably a mistake. However the world’s economy fares, tourists are unlikely to abandon Mickey Mouse in favour of a Roman theme park. But foreigners will always want to visit the Colosseum and the Vatican museums, or make a pilgrimage to Paris to see the Mona Lisa.

11 August 2009

Confessions of a non-TV-watcher

So last night, the Travel Channel debuted a new show called "Confessions of a Travel Writer." On its surface, it sounds pretty interesting: a reality show about the travails of the travel writing life. Best of all, at least for those of us who try to make a living writing about travel, it ostensibly shows how this job is not exactly as easy or glamorous as it might seem--the job description is not just "sit on a beach drinking daiquiris, waiting for a call from the editor of Conde Nast Traveler, who will then pay you to go to another beach and drink more daiquiris, then write about it in a bon mot-filled essay that you drunkenly dash off a week after the deadline."

I mean, yeah, most days it's like that. But not, like, every day, okay? Some days I drink Mai Tais on mountaintops instead.

But the show. I did not see it, due to lack of a TV and abundance of preparation needed for a certain little trip. (Nine days left! Oy.) I figured that if the show were any good, I'd have ample opportunities to see later versions; pilots always kinda suck anyway.

... This one, apparently, more than most. The reaction from around the net was almost uniformly negative (a round-up is here); the commenters on the World Hum interview with the show's host, Charles Runnette, were particularly scathing, with most calling out Runnette himself for being narcissistic, whiny, and generally annoying.

Pass your own judgment during the re-run, this Sunday (August 16th) on the Travel Channel. Me, I'll be packing. And drinking daiquiris.

07 August 2009

Tourism: not as big and evil as you think?

It's an oft-made claim: Tourism is the largest industry in the world.

It's certainly easy enough to believe, because, well, tourists seem to be every-frickin'-where. And if people have been complaining about tourists practically since the French writer Stendahl coined the term in the early 19th century--in fact, I bet that the first time he uttered the word, he preceded it with "those damn . . ."--and if our complaints have only gotten more numerous and vociferous, then surely, surely that's because the industry has swallowed the world like no other. Right?

The claim also fits our collective perceptions of the modern, globalized world: borders are less meaningful, cultures blur into each other, the internet makes it easier than ever to learn about other countries (although much of this is probably limited to assorted YouTube videos) . . . and at any given moment, roughly half the population of the globe is in transit to visit the other half and gawk at their funny customs and bizarre ways of life.

But. Though it may seem entirely plausible, tourism is not, in fact, the world's largest industry, as Alan A. Lew, Professor of Geography & Planning at Northern Arizona University, explains on the blog Tourism Place:
Tourism actually ranks about 6th in international trade, after trade in fossil fuels, telecommunications and computer equipment, automotive products, and agriculture (based on World Trade Organization data). It is just slightly smaller than agriculture, and given the fuzziness of all numbers of this kind, tourism at best might be 5th, just ahead of agriculture.

Tourism is the world's largest Service Sector Industry, in terms of international trade, as all of the other industries listed above are merchandise product industries. . . .

06 August 2009

Random quote of the day

From the Berlin chapter of Europe on Five Dollars a Day:

You should not, under any circumstances, miss The Resi, Hasenheide 32, the famous Berlin nightspot where telephones and pneumatic message tubes connect each of the 200 tables in its cavernous ballroom. Women outnumber males here by three to one. If you're even only slightly better looking than Yogi Berra, you'll no sooner sit down than the tubes will go pow! pow! pow! carrying messages from the scores of Berlin femmes who spotted you the moment you entered.

05 August 2009

Rascally sidekick

My friend and fellow scribe Lee Future will be joining me for a portion of the tour. His task is to get me out of trouble when necessary and into it when things get boring.

Lee has a great blog with a fantastic title: Literature Is Not Dead. You should read it. Also check out this nice travel article about his yurt-filled adventures in Kyrgyzstan.

04 August 2009

Not-So-Grand Tour, Phase 2 begins August 20

Watch this space for details, photos, maybe even a video or two.

In the meantime, head over to the main E5BID site to learn more and see some photos from Phase 1, which took place last year.

03 August 2009

FAQ (and frequently sarcastic answers)

Updated now and then. Got a question? E-mail me or ask in the comments.

1. Where are you going did you go?

I went to Florence, and Paris in 2008, then continued the Not-So-Grand Tour in 2009, visiting Amsterdam, Brussels, Berlin, Munich, Zurich, Vienna, Venice, Rome, and Madrid.

2. Dude, that's such a lame list--so obvious and touristy.

Yeah. That's the point.

3. And you're using some old guidebook or something?

Right. I'm using a 1963 copy of Arthur Frommer's Europe on Five Dollars a Day, plus the 40-year-old letters of my mother, who was one of the original hippie backpackers, doing the Grand Tour for 10 weeks in 1967. She and my father--who was back home in Minneapolis--corresponded every few days and have kept every last letter and postcard. I'm trying to see how far I can get using these documents and nothing else.

4. What are the rules of the game? Like, you're only staying in places that were open in the 1960s and you're wearing vintage clothes and you're not using the internet and you can't even use words like "internet" because it didn't exist back then?

Er, not quite. This is not a reenactment. As evidenced by the presence of this blog and my web site, I'm not actually trying to be 100 percent old-fashioned. For starters, that would be impossible: I couldn't, for example, adhere to a five-dollars-a-day budget today (unless I were sleeping in ditches and eating only scraps from dumpsters ... but Arthur Frommer doesn't give any tips for that). So, yeah, if you want to be a stickler, I guess I'm cheating and not taking the idea as far as it could go. Apologies.

I'm trying to get around using my old guidebook and my mother's letters as much as possible, with other, modern info--e.g. current train timetables--acting as a supplement when necessary. But no modern guidebooks. No internet research. None of the meticulous planning that I usually undertake before even walking across the street. I'm keeping myself willfully ignorant--if I see an article about a city I'll be visiting, I don't read it. If you have tips about where to go, I don't want them.

5. Why?

Well, why not? You've heard of information overload? This is my attempt to get away from it for once. Willful ignorance can lead to some problems, obviously, but it also reintroduces surprise, wonder, and serendipity--three things that get lost all too often in the modern travel experience. If you've planned your journey down to nanosecond, down to the vista (and scoured Flickr to find the precise angles that make that vista look the prettiest), and you've read all the reviews on TripAdvisor, and you've left nothing to chance ... then why travel at all?

In short, I wanted to get out of my comfort zone (usually I'm kind of a control freak), and this seemed like an interesting way to do it.

I also wanted to connect the dots between my mother's era of travel and my own, and to see if there were, in fact, any stories left to tell on that all-too-beaten path.

For a further explanation, watch my audio slide show. Two minutes--short!

6.  Sounds like an obnoxiously zany stunt. Why didn't you just spend a year in a Mediterranean village or do something truly adventurous like skateboarding across the Sahara ... like all the other, normal travel writers?

Well, I didn't want to be like all the other travel writers.  I'd noticed that there hasn't been a lot written about the beaten path--many people seem to think that there's nothing interesting to see or do there, that it's only for the tacky, unenlightened tourists, that there are no stories left to tell. I wanted to find out if this was true. And I wanted to document a travel experience that covered territory that is familiar to the broader population--more familiar than the epic treks and year-in-remote-village tales that populate the travel lit canon--but did so in a unique way.

Using the 1963 guidebook, along with my mother's letters, seemed like an interesting way to gain insight into how the travel experience has changed in the last generation--how the beaten path got so beaten. I wanted to use my own (mis)adventures as a lens into what it means to be a traveler today.