Tonight I rode to the U-Bahn station on the back of what must have been a 50-something year old German man’s bicycle. It was more difficult than I imagined, riding on the back of a bike that is. “Berlin style!” Katarine, his wife, said while riding behind us.
As I said, I’d never ridden on the back of a bike before and had found the experience quite difficult. Even though you aren’t pedaling and Jergen, the older gentleman, did seem to have some issues balancing me and my backpack and pedaling for two, I’ll say he had some advantages on me.
He had that bike cushion which kept him high while I was sitting on the bike’s cargo section had my legs haphazardly half-hugging the bike in a dance to try to neither interfere with the wheel spinning not hit any traffic cones or curbs. So I was holding my legs suspended in a half curl in the air while I felt every bump of the curb and the sidewalk and the cobblestones that we passed over in the beautiful Berlin night.
I couldn’t walk, though occasionally I did, because the couple was leading me on bike to the next station, wherever that was and trying to bike slow enough to keep up with someone walking was more annoying even than having a passenger on back.
What’s more when I was on, my hands were clinging to the metal in front of me. Though Jergen and Katarine had extremely graciously offered me the ride, I didn’t feel close enough to Jergen to grasp him round the waist as I’d seen people do in movies on motorcycles, two elements removed from my situation.
In fact at this point, they didn’t even know my name.
The first two times the conductor had tried to explain why we were stopped over an hour in a small Dutch town that sounded like Denver, it was in Dutch and then German and as I didn’t speak either I looked to the other passengers on the train in a mix of confusion and vulnerability for guidance.
I had some severely atrophied French that had served me decently in Paris and a clever iPhone application called “Word Lens” that let me translate German signs into English just by looking at them with my phone’s camera (and most remarkably, with no internet necessary) but I had learned from my week stay in Amsterdam (twice extended) that no one but the Dutch bothered with Dutch. Nicole, a spry, young Aussie (one of many I’d encountered) who had been one of the visa-slaves working at my Amsterdam hostel had told me she longed to learn Dutch but that courses were costed starting at 500 euro and the Dutch had gotten so good at telling accents that they’d reply to attempts at Dutch with a country-specific retort (“G’day mate” in her case).
It turned out that there was a “problem with a person on the tracks” as the announcer finally got to English, blocking the only way to Berlin.
In my American sensibilities, I wondered if this was okay and if this person was alright.
"Sounds like he jumped the tracks." Adé told me. "Yeah, quite common in Europe. Death by train."
The train ride had been 8 hours, 6 plus the two hours in the small Dutch town that sounded like Denver. The 7:01 train had been held up by the apparent suicide and the passengers had all boarded my train, the 9:01, making it quite crowded. Adé. it turns out, was one of those 7:01 passengers.
Adé was a skinny, nerdy black Londoner who had tried to explain to me several times his name much to my inability to pronounce it.
Upon arriving at the Generator Mitte Hostel in Berlin I had made his acquaintance as I heard him speaking English and for a tourist traveling abroad with no grasp of the language and alone, you engaged other English-speakers when able or else remain in an eerie Peanuts/Charlie Brown where no one communicated in a way you understand.
It should be noted that the hostel I was stayed in was not a hostel on the way I knew just as Berlin’s clubs are not similar to most that I was supposed to understand. Just like Berlin’s uber-clubs, this was an uber-hostel, with a bar, a cafe, a lounge, a quad, 500 beds and a service offering everything from travel cards to tarpons. I was impressed and daunted.
I quickly met and was friends with Adé and an Asian Australian named Jason. Jason unprompted had approached me in the same way I had approached Adé noticing as I hadn’t that we were sharing a room. Quickly I was invited to one pub crawl, decided it was shit and asked about another which Jason produced: The “666 Alternative Pub Crawl” spanning weird bars around Berlin and featuring 6 shots for 10 euro.
"Sounds like a deal to me." I said and invited Adé and suddenly we were all temporary close friends in the way three lone travelers of a similar age bond in a foreign land.
I was proud to introduce Adé to the concept of a Donerbox, which I knew well from Amsterdam, an ingenious and inexpensive invention whereupon chicken or lamb shawarma is tossed with salad and frites sauce over an order of fresh fries and given to you to eat in a Chinese takeaway box.
The guys behind the counter fucked with us in a way that I hadn’t enjoyed since New York and it took me by welcome surprise.
(Hip-hop blasting in the background)
Me: I hear this place is great.
Doner Dude : No.
M: No? What?
DD: I don’t know. What you say?
M: I said I heard this place is great.
DD: Oh. No. What you want?
M: Alright, man. Donerbox.
DD: Where you from?
M: New York City.
DD: New. York. City. (DD pounds me, I make my fist explode, he doesn’t)
M: Yeah man the best.
Adé: I’ll have a Donerbox as well.
DD: Where you from my man?
A: London (puts out fist to pound)
DD: London, no. (Doesn’t return pound)
M (big smile): I love this! Man it’s great getting fucked with.
A(setting down box of Marlboros): Don’t be fooled, these guys would rob you in the street.
M: Nah man.
DD(takes a Marlboro out of the box): Thank you.
A: What man? Ask first! Ask and I might give you one.
DD: Ok, please. (Takes a cig)
M: This is great.
DD(to A): I am bisexual. You have long dick.
We pay and choose our sauces and leave.
I tip a Euro and thank the dude.
The pub crawl started with the three of us sitting in an empty 70s bar where the Europunk ear-gauged bartender couldn’t get us a beer out of the tap and when I offered to take a bottle instead snapped at me: “Always happens, calm.” And I returned to my table. I voiced the question on all of our minds:
"Dudes, we gonna do this if were the only ones on this crawl?"
But on cue another person entered, and then more, and then suddenly the bar was packed.
As for the night, it was a blur.
We were served our shots on the street with chaser shots of weaker German herbal alcohol for some reason.
Of the things I remember:
An underground ping-pong bar where players circled a sole table like sharks until someone fucked up and then they were out until there were two players and then the game was on. And then it all reset.
An absinthe bar where they lit a sugar cube on fire before pouring your drink over it.
Pissing somewhere in the corner of the street after midnight on my way home and getting a courtesy text from AT+T reminding me not to use my data plan.
I made it home and in my bed and that’s it.
Several things were on my mind when I awoke. My tolerance had gotten higher since I’d come to Europe, drinking nearly every day, though usually just 1-3 beers.
-I knew I had drank more last night than I had in quite a while.
-I knew they started making beds at 11am and that I should get out anyway.
-I knew I should take Excedrin (a story for a different post, but please inquire) but that no amount of Excedrin or coffee would help me in this circumstance at least not in full.
I’d have to let this take it’s course.
Still the stages of such a hangover are familiar to me and I went through them.
Phase 1: Breakfast/Coffee
There is the belief during a bad hangover that a good greasy and or starchy breakfast combined with liberal amounts of coffee will save you. This is always erroneous but a good signpost. As you’ll always feel nauseous when such a hangover occurs, it’s very good if you’re going to Ralph to get it done early and with inexpensive food.
I checked my Facebook status with solicited information on Berlin and found, appropriately enough, the Humboldt University dining hall, which apparently was cheap and open to the public.
I stepped out into the sun and was off.
It’s interesting to note at this point that Berlin is the first place I’ve encountered where the coffee and espresso drinks seem to be mostly made by automated machines. In my hostel, in the dining hall, even in small cafés and a Starbucks, no one bothered with a steam wand or pulling shots, your milk came frothed according to the button one pushed on a machine. In New York, this was considered to be very low quality in a world of artisanal and artisanal-style coffee-shops (like the one I quit to come on this trip) but here it was commonplace.
I had a delicious light European breakfast. A buttered cheese sandwich on peasant bread with cherry tomatoes and cucumber. I had become used to it from Amsterdam and seeing it in my state was welcome along with the strangely human-less Americano I got, not trusting my latte to a machine.
Still, as I sat in the largely abandoned dining hall (it was summer, I reminded myself), I knew I couldn’t stay here and I began phase 2 of my hangover.
Phase 2: Wandering
During a severe hangover, it is difficult to make plans. You are still uncertain if you will vomit or not. You are unsure of your own abilities and energy. Stringing together long-term or even medium-term ideas suddenly seems like a daunting task and so you content yourself to wander.
It didn’t help that Berlin, unlike Amsterdam, London or even Paris was a sprawling, strangely WiFi-less city. I had managed directions from my hostel to the dining hall through wifi there, but I had no more ideas assuming I’d find a Starbucks or a McDo with sufficient wandering and be on my way.
But no such thing availed itself to me and wandering blindly, I ended up on something called Museum Island, a strangely concentrated area of many museums with grass and many people in lines.
Unable to deal with the number of choices, the lack of wifi, the possibility of waiting in long lines for things I didn’t know, my own waning reserve of energy and the still significant seeming potential that I might vomit, I did something uncharacteristic:
I just layed face up on the grass and shut my eyes.
Phase 3: Napping/Recuperation
Of course, I couldn’t sleep. There was still too much going on with me, too much nausea and the uncertainty of having everything in your life vulnerable in a foreign country, sleeping in public.
But it was very useful, that nice lie down I had. It helped me gather my thoughts. Where was I, what should I do? Meals were still my anchor and I generally disliked museums.
But I took that moment to feel the grass, to feel the soft Berlin breeze. It was a pretty time of year there for sure. I had no work or expectation.
In a void of external expectation, you are the arbiter of your own experience.
Put simply: when you travel alone, you’re the only one responsible for your own fun. Can’t blame work or parents or significant others or lack thereof. If you want to have a good time, have it and if you weren’t having a good time, well that’s on you as well.
It’s a refreshing thought to have.
I opened my eyes, got myself to my feet and got going.
Phase 4: Lunch
Ah, my favorite phase.
After some wandering off Museum Island, a little clearer, I found a Starbucks along with Starbucks great secret I had uncovered in Amsterdam: even though they say you need a code from your receipt, the doors are just unlocked.
I found another place off my Facebook status, a Vietnamese restaurant and hopped on the U-Bahn, one of the strange German transports, which I had learned during my pub crawl, have no turnstiles.
In New York the turnstiles are narrow and metal, in London and Paris they were made of large panes of plastic or glass. In Berlin, you just walk on the train and nobody says a thing. There were places to purchase tickets but it was unsure when anyone would use them and why.
"Everyone in Berlin is honest." The Aussie pub crawl tour-guide had explained to me in a way that befuddled me to no end.
The train system also appeared incomprehensible to me, a great connoisseur of subway systems. There were various lines, trams and busses, the U-Bahn which was mostly underground but ran above ground sometimes and the S-Bahn which was mostly above ground but ran underground often too. There were multiple lines but many different kinds of connections at many different stations. No turnstiles on any of them!
My lunch was a delicious Chicken Coconut Curry which was not on the menu but I was informed, after consulting my fellow guests, was the thing to get. It was €4.90 which was incredible cheap compared to anywhere else I’d been and came at my request with some strong condensed milk version of a Vietnamese iced cappuccino. It was just what I needed.
Afterwards, with most of my strength back, confident of my ability not to Ralph, I facetimed my cute-faced girlfriend and recovered on a seat in a Macy’s type department store called Karstadt.
I resolved to go for a walking your even though I didn’t feel I had the energy.
"You wouldn’t want to waste your time in Berlin." My cute-faced girlfriend told me. And then we tried to kiss each other through the phone for a few minutes.
Phase 5: More caffeine, wandering and end.
I resolved to take the free walking tour of Berlin I had heard of which met by the Brandenberg gate, a 90 minute walk from Hermanplatz, where I was.
Still my philosophy on walking in foreign cities is that it is essentially a free self-guided your any time you walk versus taking public transport, so sporting a number of Coke Lights and, due to a defective vending machine, one unfortunate Coke regular, I made my way through the beautiful tree-lined streets of urban Berlin, passing Doner shops and cell-phone stores and many places advertising calling cards to Turkey.
Every now and then, hidden in an alcove was a playground and what’s better was that I had shelled out for a month of Spotify Premium allowing me a soundtrack for my walk.
If you get the opportunity to take long walks in foreign cities, I quite recommend it, not with any “sightseeing goal” but just with eyes open to the experience.
It’s amazing what you’ll think about and what you’ll find.
My guide for the “free tour” (really a pay what you want tour) was a balding American dandy in an Alan Starzinski vest and tight black jeans named George. It turned out he was from Missouri, had a good deal to say about Ferguson (all of which had happened while I was out of country) and had been a tour guide in many cities including New York. I couldn’t help thinking as he led the 50-person plus group that he’d probably make for a pretty good comedic improviser as his jokes weren’t great but his stage presence and confidence were very strong.
I saw the wall and the field of stones and the things you might see in central Berlin but I’ll leave that to your own tour.
I gave George 12 euro and asked him frankly what I had asked other service industry professionals as a former one: whether I had tipped him enough and he as an American, evaded the question, laughed and said it was fine.
When I went to Starbucks to plan my way to dinner, I ran into George again and a fellow named Rob, a British guide whom George introduced as being “Prince Harry’s goofball brother”.
I asked them for advice on nightlife as I had no desire to club or to do another crawl but would like to find somewhere chill involving drinks like the ping pong bar.
I told him I was going to a beer garden named Henne I’d found through my Facebook friends and he diverted me to another one called Prater that was less “out in the middle of nowhere”.
Either way, my phone was dying from a combination of
1. Drunkenly unplugging it in the middle of the night
2. Listening to my new Spotify playlist.
3. Using Google Maps to go on an intensive 1.5 hr walk.
Wherever I went I’d have to charge it and my own travel rules co siders sitting at a Starbucks waiting for it to charge a waste of time.
A self-guided vacation was like an improv scene, I thought. The more you can incorporate unexpected things to make them have a purpose, the cooler it becomes.
If my phone was dying it was dying for a reason, as much as that scared me and I went to Prater.
It was my fourth time boarding a train without a ticket and I had become increasingly nervous.
I still had no idea how Berlin’s public transportation system worked and what kind of ticket I needed as no one had seemed to check them or want them at any point and, like every city I’d been in but London, the ticket machines didn’t want to accept my credit card.
In the end I bought a “4-trip ticket” I still haven’t used figuring that at least if it was wrong the station guard couldn’t accuse me of not trying.
Prater, however, turned out to be a hipster enclave like Radegast Biergarten back in Williamsburg, but it posed two problems:
1. They had nowhere for me to charge my phone
2. They had little for me to eat.
I am a poultritarian, a term which by most people’s definition does not exist, meaning I eat chicken and turkey, but not beef or pork, with an occasional smattering of seafood. Protein is important to me as a former hypoglycemic and someone who lost a lot of weight on an Atkins-related diet. Generally if sonewherw doesn’t have any fowl options I don’t eat there and Prater did not.
But my phone was down to 7% battery, Henne was a 20 minute walk after a 15-minute train ride and who knows how I’d get home from there.
Luckily, I had a book.
After Ian O’Keefe’s PSVita was stolen from me by an electronic bicycle in Lille, I took the next best thing for electronic comfort, a book on the Kindle app on my iPad.
I was rereading old fantasy books, Patrick Rothfuss’s The Kingkiller Chronicles, a pretty good “kid learns magic and is pretty cool” type of book, highlighting the power of music and acting which makes it a little nerdier than usual.
The downside of traveling alone is loneliness, the sense at times that you have your back against the world.
One of the ways you fight this is with true openness. If you smile and engage and are willing to do silly things there’s no limit to where you might find yourself. Similarly, sometimes this openness becomes chaos like the pub crawl or the anxiety of not knowing how you’ll find your way home with a dead phone and no idea of your hostel’s address, it can be good to retreat into a book, even or especially an old book because an old book is like an old friend that requires neither internet nor upkeep.
My phone dying I read my iPad on the train as Kvothe, the hero of the story went on his own journey to track down highwaymen attacking the King’s tax collectors and felt stability.
I managed my phone carefully and it got me to Henne, a small Biergarten nowhere near trains where the only recommended item on the menu was a half-chicken with bread and either potato salad or cole slaw. I was sat outside despite my request next to an older couple who laughed as I went to sit down at the end of the bench as it lurched under me.
It would be over an hour till I got my food. Forty minutes before the Heffeweisen I ordered showed up.
Over that time I befriended the couple that would eventually through me on the back of their bike and take me to the U-Bahn.
We discussed New York and Los Angeles, where the lady had moved from recently and worked as a costume designer, and Berlin and how pretty it was. The concept of tipping and how it differed from country to country, Amsterdam and London and how we all hated LA.
We didn’t even know each other’s names but by the end of our time together I had promised them I would visit the last day of the David Bowie exhibition, which her daughter had enjoyed so much.
I only asked their names when I had gotten, thighs sore off the back of the bike.
My chicken when it came was delicious and deep fried with no batter, crispy and succulent and served without utensils, just a piece of brown bread.
Katarine had intervened on my behalf with the hostess who had told me that sitting inside would be impossible and my phone had been charged enough to get me home, though Jergen came all the way into the station with me after realizing I had no idea where to go.
As I got off the train and came back to the hostel, I walked past a bar and noticed impeccably dressed vested George, my tour guide of old, out with his buddy, goofy Prince Harry and drunk as all day.
"Nick the New Yorker!" He greeted me like an old friend, with aplomb, much the way he had pounded me earlier when I knew what MAD stood for (Mutually Assured Destruction).
He invited me to take a seat and I hung out with him and his motley gang of British, Irish and American tour guides as well as three German girls who I assume were friends of theirs who had come down to sit and whom I continued to praise Berlin to.
Unlike New York where you were either friendly to people you wanted to be close to or distant with people you barely knew, traveling through Europe alone, I found a culture of these intense but temporary attachments. There was cok certain, smile, laughter and personal detail without last names, histories or personal goals. You just became friends for a night with people you might never see again, just for the experience of it.
George and his friends were just as amazed by my bike story as I’d been.
"They could have been murderers!" One girl said.
"Well, they didn’t seem like it." I replied.
I turned in, my legs sore and thankfully, not nearly as drunk as the night before.
I had bought a beer for George to be sure I had tipped enough and thank him for inviting me in but he just gave me some coins which I took. I knew better than to argue courtesy with an American.
This morning, I took one of my seldom showers, celebrated how good it felt to not be hungover. Tried unsuccessfully to find somewhere to drop-off my laundry, apparently something unheard of for the hard-working Germans and walked to the promised David Bowie exhibit where I’ve waited in line for around three hours and wrote all of this.
For some time after this is done, maybe I’ll get in.