Monday, November 14, 2011

The Weird Photography Shoots of Belgium

What do Belgium and the state of Virginia have in common? They're the same size! Only Virginia is much bigger! Since my 2011 Euro agenda included four days in the former, I naturally felt compelled to see more than just the city of Brussels. My first suggestion was Antwerp because, well, let's be honest, that was the only other city in Belgium I had ever heard of. Susy, the first of the two friends I visited in Belgium suggested that perhaps Bruges, a quaint touristy town with pretty scenery, might be better.

Since France dominates my European points of reference, my constant compulsion is to compare everything ever in Europe to something French. After listening to the description of Bruges, I of course blurted out that it sounds like Annecy, a gorgeous touristy town northeast of Lyon. Unfortunately, no one in Belgium understands my damn French, so the conversation went like this:

Me: Bruges is like Annecy.
Belgium: What?
Me: An-nUh-cey.
Belgium: What?
Me: An-nEh-cey.
Belgium: What?
Me: Ant-sy?
Belgium: What?
Me: ::Sigh:: A town in France.
Belgium: What?...this isn't France.
Me: No kidding.
Belgium: ...What?

As I debated the merits of making my French understood in this droplet of a country, I was presented with another challenge in the Annecy/An-nUh-cey/An-nEh-cey/Ant-sy of Belgium: the jacket that I had used approximately two times decided to crap out on me.  Benetton's ten million dollar ads failed to report their ten cent zippers, and as a result, I had been reduced to slipping in and out of my jacket like a skirt. I do not mix well with skirts. We had an argument in 2004 and have not spoken since.

Between the pronunciation wars in my head and the jacket skirt around my waist, by the time we got to the city center of Bruges, not Ant-sy, I was starving. Fortunately, Susy and I have bonded over our common interests in human rights, global migration, and junk food. For those who eat together...should really encourage each other to see a cardiologist. Naturally, the first thing we did once we reached town was eat junk food.
As those of you who failed 'World Religions 101' know, Hindus eat a lot of beef. No dummies, that's the midwest, BUT, I am a poor example of a Hindu and devoured a burger in six seconds flat. Successfully covered in grease and guilty satisfaction, I started in on the healthier part of my meal (French fries) as we people-watched near a statue of some god or prince or duck or whatever. 

Like me, most of the people outside were there for a nice afternoon stroll or a sacrilegious snack. One man, however, was apparently there to set the world record for walking the most number of pointless circles around the god/prince/duck statue. Of course this man was Indian. Decked out in the official Indian tourist outfit of white New Balance tennis shoes, formless jeans, a rain jacket and beltbag, circling Indian tourist man shot at least 100 pictures of the same damn statue in less than 2 minutes. I'm 78 percent he was one of two things:

1. A Google maps employee
2. Crazy

(The 22 percent of doubt is based on a complicated algorithm involving quantum arbitrariness.) 

On the off chance circling Indian tourist was indeed the second of the two, we decided to let the windup toy proceed uninterrupted.

Seconds after the weirdness of circling Indian tourist disappeared, a second set of weirdness materialized in a far creepier form. Against the backdrop of buildings from the 12th century, little children enjoying waffles, and grandmothers returning from the Farmer's Market, a woman appeared in booty shorts, black stockings, 4-inch heels and enough cleavage to blindside Hugh Hefner. Her objective? Have a boy of about 13 take pictures of her in (what she thought were) seductive poses.
No matter how hard I tried to be distracted by my fries, conversations about human rights and junk food, or my jacket skirt, this woman managed to draw my attention using her gross powers. While listening to Susy describe her work in rural Thailand, the woman struck no less than five poses with her jaw unhinged in a very Anna Nicole Smith fashion. While fussing with my crapped up zipper, the woman struck no less than five poses while stretching and shaking her dry, crumpled hair. In case you were wondering, nothing is more awkward than an obese woman in booty shorts catwalking down 800-year cobblestones while trying to make deep eye contact with innocent bystanders. Oh wait, unless she's being photographed by a 13-year old boy.

Susy and I stood frozen in a masochistic wonder for at least 15 minutes before one of us made the suggestion we walk for five minutes and get more junk food. During our happy pit-stops on the boat tour of the city's canals, our visit to the city's most famous bar, and our visit to a waffle stand, chocolate shop, second waffle stand, and second chocolate shop, catwalker made random appearances with her 'photographer' in tow. As the tour guide explained the significance of the Bruges university, there she was stroking her chest in front of the library. As the bartender explained the 600-year old fermentation process, there she was splashing beer on her face. As we ate our first waffle, there she was slowly licking chocolate off a spoon.

By 8 o'clock or so, Susy and I decided we had had enough junk food (until dinner), so we picked ourselves off of the window sill we had been sitting on for the past two hours (sorry neighbor) and walked back to the bus station to catch the train to Brussels. Around that time of day, the buses come about every 60 seconds. New York could stand to learn a lesson from Bruges. But even with this knowledge, whenever I see my bus of need pulling away, I have a second compulsion that always wins: run for bloody murder. As I made my sprint down the cobblestone station, I stole a quick glance to my right to take one final look at this quaint Annecy of Belgium. And what did I see, you might ask? 

Indian tourist making maniacal circles...around catwalker. 

Tuesday, November 8, 2011

A 3 AM Bus Adventure in Berlin

By the good graces of no rent situations and high hourly wage rates, I was able to throw together a nice lump of constantly devaluing dollars and haul myself over to Europe for a quick two-week vacation filled with junk food and friends. Of course as soon as a trip to Berlin even vaguely presented itself, I jumped on the chance. After successfully booking the wrong EasyJet flight from Brussels to Berlin, I unsuccessfully haggled with the Indian call center woman and ended up having to book another flight earlier that same day. More out of principle than anything else, I was absolutely determined not to miss my 6 AM return flight to Brussels. Damn you, EasyJet, and your ridiculous exchange policies!

My three days in Berlin were marked with grey, gross, and dreary weather, but if there is one city in the world where that atmosphere works, it's Berlin. Having caught up with old friends and made a few new ones, I forced myself to go to sleep at 8 PM on Wednesday night so I could awake at least semi-coherent and with refreshed contacts in the obnoxiously early AM hours to leave for the Schönefeld airport.

The first four hours of sleep went by with little disruption. Around midnight, however, I went into paranoid mode and woke up once every five minutes to make sure I hadn't missed my previously determined awake time of 3 AM. Instead of turning around and checking the clock like a normal person, my body decided to use jerking wannabe acrobatic movements. Fifteen sideways somersaults, four leg kicks, and seven epileptic-like seizure movements later, I decided that 2 AM is close enough to 3 AM and got up using a cannonball motion to hoist myself off the mattress.

With veeeery few exceptions in Manhattan, I hate the bus in every city, in every country, in every situation. Having been born with the directional sense of a pencil and the attention span of a 6-month old baby, I will inevitably get lost after being on said apparatus for 30 seconds. As such, finding a decent route to the airport at 3 AM on a weekday in Berlin literally took an hour and a half. The first five routes would get me to the airport in less than 40 minutes, but required knowing where the hell I am going...on the bus. The next three routes listed S-Bahn rides that would take me 2+ hours to go less than 4 miles. Finally, after a series of silent prayers to Subway God, a route popped up that entailed an idiot-proof bus ride and two trains and would get me to the airport in an hour. Totally doable.

There were two reasons the bus ride portion of the trip was idiot-proof: the pickup point was less than 500 feet from the apartment and I would have to ride the bus all the way to the end of the line, so unless I managed to wedge a portion of my body in the bus such that only a blowtorch and an angry construction worker could free me, there would be no way to miss my stop. Unfortunately, this plan was German idiot-proof., Mala idiot-proof is much harder to attain.

After waiting out in the cold for 20 minutes with a burly looking Turkish woman and her 10 bags of dog food (who the hell gets dog food at 3 AM?), I boarded the bus. I knew in my head that all I needed to do was get on and wait for the livid bus driver to curse at me in German to disembark, but for some reason, I also made note of the final bus stop: Hermannstrasse.

The German Hopstop equivalent told me I would be on the bus for about 25 minutes. Around minute 13, I heard the driver announce "Hermannplatz." Now for those of you who can hear, read, write, or see Roman letters, you can understand that Hermannstrasse does not equal Hermannplatz. You can also see that 13 minutes does not equal 25. Finally, you could have seen that there were still a lot of people on the bus at Hermannplatz. I could do all of these things too. So what did I do at Hermannplatz?

I got off the f*cking bus.

As soon as I stepped off, I knew what I had done was beyond the limitations of idiot-proof. As soon as I stepped off, I knew I should step back on. As soon as I stepped off, I debated a few seconds too long whether it was worth looking like an idiot to the bus driver who would certainly recognize the Indian girl who can't speak German. Guess what, it was totally worth looking like an idiot. So what did I do?

I did not get back on the f*cking bus.

Watching the bus drive away, I made the harrowing discovery that the next one would not come for another 20 minutes, which meant I would miss the S-Bahn, which meant I would be stuck somewhere in south Berlin nowhere near the airport. Unlike the bus stop by my friend's apartment, this bus stop did not come complete with a taxi every 15 seconds. Completely at a loss for what to do, I did a two-step dance number (seriously...I don't know why) and crossed the street. Then I crossed back, and then I danced again (seriously...I still don't know why). Finally, I decided to look up and inspect my surroundings.

As though it was sitting in a gilded frame, I made eye contact with the most brilliant sign in the world. "Schönefeld." It appeared I landed along the bus route to the airport. To celebrate, a German guy came up to me and proceeded to have this stupid conversation:

"Do you speak German?"
      "Why would you ask me that in English in Germany?"
"Are you going to Schönefeld?"
"You have to cross the street. Come, I will show you."
      "You'll show me how to cross the street?"
"Don't step in front of that moving car."

Anyway, after being 'escorted,' I whipped out the iPod touch I sort of stole from my mother and pulled up the U/S-Bahn metro map I downloaded. Somehow, someway, I just happened to get off at a U-Bahn stop of one of the few trains that run that early in the morning. And where does this line, the U7, go? Straight to a bus with a very strategic final stop: the Schönefeld airport.

Five minutes later, I was on the next U7. Fifteen minutes after that, I was on the bus to the airport. This time I made sure I was literally the last person to get down. And no, I did not get a body part wedged inside. By 5:20, I was at the gate. And yes, I did indeed make the flight. Also yes, the next day in Brussels was one of the best days all vacation. The end. Genau!