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Globetrotter Grady in Berlin

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Despite the fact that pretty much no one else in the group was all that impressed by Berlin, I had a great time there and thought it was an amazing city. We only got to spend about four days there, and what little time we had was sometimes spent on pointless activities, but after all was said and done we got to do some pretty neat things.

We arrived at our hotel Thursday evening, and quickly discovered that it had communal showers in the grand European tradition. Sorry though I am to admit it, I am still a bit of a prude when it comes to such things, and spent an interesting and uncomfortable four days showering with large, talkative European men.

Thursday evening about five of us went to see a variety show at the Winter Garten on Potsdamer Strasse, which is this beautiful theater in the classic vaudeville style. Brass handrails, the flashing lights outlining the stage, employees in evening dress- the place had everything. The show was equally excellent, with a variety of gymnasts and so forth, and one really outstanding old school entertainer. That guy was pretty amazing. Let me tell you about him.

He comes out on the stage and starts chatting with us, dropping little jokes here and there that were really pretty clever- quite a few of them were plays on words that you wouldn’t get unless you knew a little German and English, and he’s dropping in references to American radio shows from the ’30s. And while he’s got his patter running, he’s doing little tricks for us- a bit of juggling, a bit of balancing a top hat on his nose. Except he’s not perfect; every once in a while he wouldn’t quite catch the hat he was trying to flip from his foot to his head, or he’d miss a ball juggling, or something. But he was great fun to listen to, and everyone in the audience was like, “What a charming old man, I certainly don’t expect him to pull off every trick flawlessly.” So as he continues with his act, he pulls out a teacup and saucer. He balances the saucer on his foot, and flips it up and catches it on his head, and we’re all like, “Yay! Good job!” Then he puts the teacup on his foot and flips it up, catching it on top of the saucer. So now we’re all like, “Wow, that’s pretty cool.” Then he takes out another teacup and saucer (all while keeping up the banter) and does the same thing. And we’re suitably impressed, but we’re getting worried, because he keeps wandering around the stage with these teacups balanced on his head, and he’s good, but he’s not perfect, and they’re rattling around a lot, and we don’t want him to embarass himself by having them fall. So next he breaks out another teacup and saucer. Has a little trouble balancing them on his foot without letting the other fall off his head, but manages it. Flips the saucer up, and catches it. Flips the teacup up, it almost misses, the whole stack is wobbling, it almost falls, we gasp, but he manages to catch it. So now he has a stack of three teacups and three saucers balanced on his head, and we’re impressed. Next he takes out a tea kettle.

Teacups rattling, he leans down and balances the tea kettle on his foot. We’re all thinking, “Oh, come on man, you can do it. You’re so old and funny, don’t screw up now.” He flicks his foot. The kettle flips up through the air and lands squarely on top of the stack, which doesn’t even quiver.

The man was stringing us along the entire time. He knew exactly what he was doing, and had perfected the technique of making deliberate failures look like mistakes. The whole act, he was building a skeptical audience up to the point where they were completely empathizing with the performer. I have never seen anyone work the audience as well as he did.

On Friday, we had some tasty, tasty Brötchen for breakfast, and then piled on the bus for a “Grand Tour through the City.” It was conducted by some random friend of Professor Klabes’, and wasn’t the greatest. Bus tours to begin with leave quite a bit to be desired, and the high point of this one was the moment when the guide said, “Oh, and by the way, that was the Brandenburger Tör we just passed, turn around quick and you might get a picture.” Ah well. Friday afternoon we visited the Checkpoint Charlie museum, which is small and badly designed but very interesting. After that, I strongarmed a couple of people into visiting the Judisches Museum, which is an architectural marvel, and also a damn good museum, following which we wandered around the streets of Berlin and grabbed some dinner before taking the S-Bahn back to the hotel.

Other highlights of the trip included visiting the Pergamon Museum, and getting to see the opera Eugene Onegin. Now, Pergamon was a city in ancient Greece that built a huge altar to either Zeus or Athena, and it’s been reconstructed inside this musuem. And when I say ‘huge’ there, I mean, seriously, you walk into the first room of this musuem and are dwarfed by this massive, wide set of steps leading up to the altar. It’s just unbelievable. They also have just a shit-ton of other artifacts from antiquity, from several different areas of the world. The other things that really stick out in my mind are the Ishtar Gate and the Processional Way from Babylon. Babylon, folks. Now, keep in mind that these are building-size structures that have been reconstructed inside this musuem, and I didn’t even come close to making it through the entire thing. If you should ever wake up one day and discover you’re in Berlin, this is a good place to spend a week or so. And the crazy thing is that this is just one museum on this island in the middle of Spree River with something like four other world-famous museums on it.

Moving on, the last thing I wanted to mention was Eugene Onegin. The text is a poem written by Pushkin using an unusual rhyme scheme that has since become known as an Onegin stanza. The music was by Tchaikovsky. I won’t pretend to know exactly what was going on, but the music was pretty, the staging was interesting, and after I got back to the states I read a little about the text, and it turns out it’s got a fairly interesting history. Nabokov did a crazy translation of it that a lot of people hate. And interestingly enough, Douglas Hofstadter, the mathematician who wrote Gödel, Escher, Bach has also written a verse translation of Onegin. All this has convinced me to read it. Right after I get through the new Potter…

Charles Johnston’s translation of Eugene Onegin

In conclusion, the most consistently amusing thing about the entire German trip was Herr Klabes. As proof positive, I submit this photo:

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Written by Daniel Grady

July 12, 2005 at 01:13

Posted in Travel, True Stories

Globetrotter Grady in Amsterdam

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Continuing in the travel journal mindset, let’s talk a bit about Amsterdam, where I went along with a bunch of other people on the Münster program this past weekend. And what a weekend it was.

First off, we left the Münster Hauptbahnhof on Friday, and made it as far as Bad Bentheim on the German border before we found out that the railroad employees in the Netherlands were on strike. So we piled off the train the train and onto buses, for which we paid 35€. The theory was that we would be reimbursed, but it looks as though Deutsche Bahn might have other ideas. Anyhow.

We got to Amsterdam without a definite place to stay, which is not the best idea in the world, but luckily there were enough spots left at a place called Hans Brinker. Not quite expensive enough to be a hotel, not quite sketchy enough to be a hostel, it occupies a delightfully ambiguous middle ground. It had hostel style rooms, so you probably get to stay with a bunch of people you don’t know, but it was cheap, not horribly dirty, and it had a bar/resturant/common room type of thing on the first floor. Quality place.

The most important thing to know about Amsterdam is this: when you’re walking around the city, there will be signposts at many corners with writing on them. Those are not the names of streets. The names of steets are on placards attached to the sides of buildings on the corner. Very important.

So over the course of the next two days, I got to see the Van Gogh Musuem, the Rijcks Museum, the Heineken Experience (actually really cool), walk through De Wallen (without making a stop anywhere, sadly), and visit a coffee shop to sample their selection of pot brownies, pot bonbons, pot muffins, pot milkshakes, and pot. So all in all, it was a really awesome trip. Two and a half days, though, is time to do no more than scratch the surface; the city is amazing and huge, and there were about twenty other things I would have liked to have done. Another time.

Amsterdam is not nearly as seedy as everyone makes it out to be, particularly the red light district. Yes, true, there are real, live prostitutes lining the streets, but there are also real, live tourists filling every nook and cranny as well. There are flashy lights and loud music and people absolutely everywhere. The first couple of times I felt someone’s hand in my pocket I got pretty excited, but the thrird time it happened I realized it was merely one of Amsterdam’s famous pickpockets plying his noble trade. Thank god I had nothing worth stealing. Though most people will tell you to worry about muggers and whatnot, the street cleaners in Amsterdam are definitely the scariest thing about the city. I saw them eat at least three people.

In the end, it was a great time. The museums were cheap and incredible.
The pot also was not to be sneezed at. I had a joint and a brownie, and finally got good and properly stoned for the first, and probably last, time in my life. I think there are pictures of it somewhere; I definitely remember bright flashes of light. The best part was that the pre-rolled joints come in little factory sealed packages. Factory sealed pot. Beautiful.

Written by Daniel Grady

June 20, 2005 at 11:10

Posted in Travel

Globetrotter Grady in Münster

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As you may know, since I was telling everyone I knew and randomly met on the street, I’m in Münster, Germany right now. I’ve tried not to put too many entries in this blog about what’s going on in my life, because there are already a million of those and my life’s no more interesting than the next guy’s, but dammit all if I’m not going to bore you for a bit.

Germany is pretty amazing. Our group flew in to Düsseldorf and immediately drove to Köln, where we spent two days. Wasting no time, we found a Biergarten the first night and proceeded to test the claim that German beer is stronger than American beer. I can’t remember what we eventually decided. It does taste a helluva lot better, though.

We saw the Kölner Dom the next day, which is something like the second largest cathedral in Europe (and, by extension, the world). You can’t really describe it; standing at the bottom of this huge gothic building you and try to look up and see the top, but your head won’t bend back far enough. It’s just amazing. Oh, and a couple of people and I walked to the top of one of the towers. That was a sight.

From there we went on to several other very scenic and historic locations, and eventually ended up here in Münster, where we’re now taking classes during the day and bumming around the rest of the time. Here’s a list of the things that have really jumped out at me about Germany:

  • All the houses have these awesome shades that work kind of like a rolltop desk. There’s a solid metal sheet that rolls down over the outside of the window, but it’s made of slats, so you can still let in a little light if you want to. If you don’t want to, though, it’s like being in a submarine. You could sleep through anything.

  • On the subject of windowshades, the windows themselves are really neat. They don’t slide up and down like in the US; rather, they swing open. But in addition to that, you can turn the window handle a different way, and then the window tilts in from the top if you just want to crack it. They’ve got those on everything from my family’s modern house to the stodgy old school we’re using for classes.

  • A lot of the lights fade on, rather than just clicking on. I am a huge fan.

  • Most stores use prices like 10€, 2,50€, and so on. I have not seen a single item that costs 4,99€. Honestly, American businesses, who do you think you’re fooling?

  • The people here in Münster drive much more aggresively than most places I’ve lived (granted I’m a small town southern boy), but despite that, and despite the proliferation of bicycles, I’ve seen all of two accidents anywhere in the close to a month that I’ve been here.

  • Also regarding traffic, the stoplights signal an impending green light as well as an impending red. It’s great, as it gives everyone time to shift gears and get moving.

  • Münster is also, as it turns out, the bicycle capital of Germany. Everyone here bikes, and it’s the most bike friendly city I’ve ever been in. Not only are there bike lanes on the sidewalk next to all major roads, there are also bike traffic lights. Sweet.

  • Castles!!

  • Beer, chocolate, and ice cream – they really are much better. Especially the beer.

  • Book publishers here give everything down the cheesiest sci-fi a very nice treatment- no hokey covers and cheap paper; even paperbacks always have a tastefully laid out cover and are well bound. They also make fantastic editions of ‘classic’ literature; you can get many famous books as a hardback with no gaudy advertisements or soundbites from ‘reviews.’ All such books from a particular publisher will be matched, so they look great lined up next to each other. Oh, the simple things.

So yes. Overall I’m quite enamored with Germany. Don’t get me wrong, it’s no utopia, but I’m constantly struck by how many simple, obvious things they do here that are virtually unknown in the states. It’s a great place. You should visit.

Written by Daniel Grady

June 11, 2005 at 16:18

Posted in Travel