Tag Archives: Germany

16 hours in German limbo – What to do when you lose your passport.

17 Jan

You’re on a train, sleeping. Next thing, you’re tumbling out of said train onto a freezing platform with bags and clothing flying everywhere and as you’re rubbing your bleary eyes, the train is disappearing from sight.

What country is this? No idea.

Look around. The LED board for a train that’s just pulled up says Hamburg, so this is either Germany or near Germany. Lets hop on that train.

Shit. A bag is missing.

A bag with passports. Two passports. An iPad. A purse. A camera. God knows what else.

Panic. Get off train. Get on train back to first station. Worldly possessions gone. Lost. Missing. Finito. Pulverised.

Life as we know it has ended.

Slight overreaction. Life is still passing us by, but minute by panic-stricken minute.

We happened upon German-Danish border town Flensburg completely by accident, you could even say it was the last place on earth we wanted to be, because at the time, that’s what it felt like. I have since come up with a number of less agreeable locations, such as further than three metres from shore at any of Perth’s shark/stinger infested beaches (I am terrified of both equally) or in the real life version of that movie Human Centipede that I’m too scared to watch.

We were attempting to make the routine passage from Prague to Brussels, then eventually on to Amsterdam, on an overnight train, changing in Cologne, Germany, which on the natively printed ticket, read Koln.

Mistake # 1. Returning to Prague in the first place. Fraught with disaster, but that’s a story for another time.

Mistake # 2. Not realising that the train was to split into three in the middle of the night, with each carriage creaking away toward the far reaching corners of the continent. Opposite corners.

Mistake # 3. Trusting the train conductor when she tells you that, not only are you in the correct carriage, but that she’s been ‘waiting for you.’

See now that already sounds a bit creepy.

Instead of closing in on decadent truffles and perfectly poured pints, unbeknownst to this pair of weary travellers who had already crashed the rightful cabin of a surprised young Syrian guy, innocently claiming it as our own, as we slept, the train split and we began hurtling north toward Danish seaport Kolding.

In our measly defence, if the Danish train conductor who stamped our tickets couldn’t tell her Koln’s from her Kolding’s, then how were we supposed to?

When 6 am crept around and nobody else on the train was preparing to disembark except us, Nic queried our lovely conductor who promptly threw us off the train, which is how we ended up in harbourside Flensburg.

With only a few rather aloof border police coming off night shift to help us, our options were looking slim. The closest Australian Embassy was in Berlin and an emergency passport would take a week at absolute best, which meant our long-waited and fully booked Amsterdam visit would be down the toilet.

After a futile trip into the town centre for Internet, we made our sorry way back to the train station, where a new shift of much friendlier Police had arrived. They brewed us strong black coffee in police service mugs we were tempted to keep before realising that would not help our case.

They contacted the Danish train service, who, after a nerve wracking wait, called to say hey had found our bag, untouched, in the carriage we had been ejected from, still heading through Kolding towards Copenhagen.

All we had to do was stand on the same platform at 10: 20pm that night and wait for the returning train bound for, you guessed it, Amsterdam, to glide in. Winning!

No camera meant no photos during the 12-hour Flensburg hiatus, but I did manage to have my hair cut and coloured and we bought Pick-up Sticks (Mikado) from the €1 shop, which we played while eating half frozen microwaved Curry Wurst at the train station cafe.

Everything fell into place beautifully. Brussels was a write-off, so we bought tickets for the Holland-bound train carrying our bag, waited on the still freezing platform for 10:20 pm to roll around and enjoyed an emotional reunion on board.

After almost three months on the road, we had learned how to travel by train. The hard way.

Celebratory beers after being reunited with our passports 16 hours later.
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What happens in Berlin, stays in… Berlin, October 4-12, 2012

28 Oct

THE woman silently beckons me from my lonely seat in a back room of the bar. I’m the last one left and it’s dim and gritty in here, but no more so than what seems to be the standard in this perplexing city. I follow, touching the outline of a smooth, brass coin through my left pants pocket. She stands behind me and places her hands gently on my shoulders and says ‘Close your eyes, I am going to blindfold you now.’ She has a kind voice. After about 20 steps we stop and she tells me that I am to go inside the doors, place my coin into the slot and wait for instructions. She removes my blindfold, I enter the darkness and hear the doors close behind.

I take the coin from my pocket.

The rules at Peristal Singum are simple. Just breathe, try not to rush. If you start to panic, wait, someone will eventually save you.
20121027-202114.jpg Waiting to enter Peristal Singum

Located inside the Salon Zur Wilden Renate in Berlin’s east-lying suburb Friedrichshain, Peristal Singum accurately summarises for me the past week’s experiences in Germany’s alternative capital – unique, unexpected, sometimes unsettling, but overwhelmingly awesome.

However, like most things Berlin, the appeal behind this playground for adults can be attributed as much to the shroud of exclusivity its’ organisers have created around it as to the quality of the experience itself.

You only need look at the sphincter-like door policy of the majority of nightclubs in the City to understand this concept. Techno club Berghain is world renowned for its fear-invoking bouncers and utterly inexplicable dress-code. The club is inside a derelict building, not unlike the Old South Fremantle Power Station, for those familiar. You walk through a pile of dirt and mud to queue in the cold, inside what looks like a cattle barrier. Then you will come face to face with two or more terrifying doormen, one with extensive barbed wire facial tattooing and grills on his teeth. Depending on what side of bed they got up on that morning (or so it seems) you will either enter or be rejected and the rejection rate can be up to 90% on any given night.

It probably sounds like sour eggs, because the bouncers took one look at us and the tall muscular, blonde one, who looked like his name was Sven, said ‘You’re not coming in here tonight’ and that was it. The dream was over, crushed, annihilated. We were left sobbing by the side of the road, listening to the throbbing bass emanating outward from inside that beautiful, unattainable, brown brick building.

No one can get in, so it must be awesome, right?

We may never know.

We dragged our sorry asses to another club, Cassiopeia and danced with a room full of Rastafari to Reggae music until 5 am and had an unexpectedly awesome night.

In interviews with owners and founders of other door-strict clubs like Tresor and Watergate, the question is always asked, ‘What’s with the door policy?’ The interviewees always reject any claims of discrimination based on nationality, sexual preference etc, simply responding that they like to ‘keep the right mix’ of patrons.

The observance of this attitude gives valuable insight into this City’s sentiment toward its gradual commercialisation.

While overused, the words grungy and gritty are perfect for this still-emerging city. Sebastian, a pretty cool tour guide who showed us everything from the Brandenburg Gate and Holocaust Memorial to the very window from which MJ dangled baby Blanket in 2002 told us, ‘Berlin is Germany’s problem child.’ It’s no wonder, really, when you look at the way a very important series of events in European history was played out over a short space of time, right in this very City – so very recently.
20121027-201937.jpg Brandenburg Gate
20121027-201945.jpg Holocaust Memorial – very solemn and moving
20121027-202125.jpg Hotel Adlon – made infamous by the Michael Jackson baby-dangling incident

Firstly, much of Berlin was destroyed during the final years of World War II. Hitler’s bunker and place of death lies anonymous and defunct, filled in with rubble, under a weed-ridden and crumbling car park belonging to a group of red-roofed communist era flats.

After the war, when the Allies split Germany into four occupation zones, unfortunate Berlin was also split, with Checkpoint Charlie and the Berlin Wall (anti-fascist protection rampart) becoming the poster-child for Europe’s 40-year long Iron Curtain. West Berlin, under Allied occupation, was secluded inside Communist East Germany. While parts of the Berlin Wall remain as a chilling reminder of life under Soviet rule for East Germany, it was the same wall that cultivated present-Berlin’s unique identity. The free-thinking, non-conformist culture that began to blossom in uber-democratic West Berlin exploded into East Berlin after Germany’s reunification in 1990. The West German Government could not restore order to East Berlin immediately and East Berlin was treated like a playground for artists, musicians and creative types, who squatted and utilised disused buildings for hedonistic pursuits.
20121027-202004.jpg Berlin Wall remnant

Despite gradual gentrification to its streetscapes and buildings, referred to by resistant inhabitants as ‘Disneyfication,’ Berlin’s history is rich and its unique culture has remained strong, the main drawcard for travellers and tourists.
20121027-201928.jpg Friedrichshain train station – perfectly grungy

But in my mind, there lies a two edged sword. Some Berliners see this increased tourism and modernisation as a threat to their City’s identity and to their way of life. (The root of Berlin’s crazy club door policies?) But, as Germany’s most debt-ridden City, economically, it could really do with the cash and its Government knows it – implementing the successful advertising slogan ‘Poor But Sexy’ in 2009.

A few (million) tourists and a lick of paint aside, To the outsider at least, Berlin’s grunge-factor is alive, well and as appealing as ever.

While West Berlin has caved to the Golden Arches, allowing the US giant to stamp its greasy name just a stone’s throw from Checkpoint Charlie, there is some healthy resistance on the other side of town – the promotion van belonging to a schnitzel shop close to the East Side Gallery has the words ‘Fuck Ronald &Co’ emblazoned on the side.
20121027-202014.jpg Checkpoint Charlie – US military checkpoint between East and West Berlin between 1945 and 1989
20121027-202108.jpg Great home made schnitzel burgers… Definitely not Maccas!

But where the rest of the world has McDonald’s, Berlin has Curry-Wurst. Think brotwurst with a slathering of ketchup, all snowed under by… Curry powder. I ate it once, was not a fan, twice and it grew on me, three times, well, you get the rest. Sold in bread or with frites (chips) for about €2.50, I would love to find out if anyone is selling this back in Perth. Kebabs are also a popular fast food in Berlin, with a shop on every corner, all open late to feed the throngs of party goers turfed out from bars and clubs.
20121027-201955.jpg One of many curry wurst shops

Many bars are still housed inside dilapidated buildings, unrecognisable as such from the outside. Other drinking holes are themed in novel ways. With bat in one hand and beer in the other, we played hilarious knock-out table tennis at Dr Pong bar, which is basically two sparse adjoining rooms, one with a bar and the other a ping pong table and a few chairs. This has to be the most innocent fun you can have with 30 complete strangers. At rock and metal bar Last Cathedral, the drinks menu included Absinthe-Red Bull shots and shots with Tabasco, but at least those experiencing impending death from these concoctions could feel at home amongst the skulls, coffins and crypts the place was decked out with.
20121027-202119.jpg Last Cathedral bar – beers poured from skulls!

And if that’s not seedy enough for you, Berlin’s drug dealers do actually hang out in dark alleys in the dead of the night.

On our way home one night we had the pleasure of meeting Willy, a Tunisian ‘Coke’ dealer cum drug mule. He thrust a freshly bought takeaway plate of chicken and chips into my hands and quickly disappeared, apparently to get his wares, hidden in ‘the dirt,’ so he said. So we are standing on the street holding this guy’s dinner, wanting to leave, but not knowing what to do, when he returns, takes back the plate and holds out a chicken loaded fork to myself and Nic, saying ‘eat some, eat some… You are my friends! My mouth hasn’t touched that bit.’

Make of it what you will, but we took ‘in the dirt’ to mean ‘up the back passage’ and were laughing, while walking away with Willy following us, holding out a handful of small, dirt-covered, green packages. It turns out that ‘in the dirt’ actually meant buried in the sand and his ‘Coke’ was in fact white sugar, so it’s no wonder this poor guy had to run drugs between Berlin and Amsterdam multiple times per week to get by!

So Berlin, a wonderful convergence of old and new, freezing cold, where bicycle fever has taken over, a war time wall is now a public art piece, the City’s fairly ugly TV tower is affectionately nicknamed ‘Alex,’ Berlin-style reigns supreme and recycling is king. Love it.
20121027-202101.jpg Bikes chained up everywhere
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20121027-202054.jpg Parts of the 1.6 km stretch of Berlin Wall called the East Side Gallery
20121027-202030.jpg TV tower ‘Alex’

HOSTEL
Plus Berlin Hostel, Warschauer Platz 6, Berlin

    Pros:

Everything! Huge rooms with fridge and microwave, pool, sauna, bar and restaurant, at least one awesome bar tender. There was a cat staying in the room next door to us and the hostel kept rabbits. Generally an awesome place to run amok and only 200 metres from Berlin’s answer to Metro’s Fremantle – Matrix Club… Oh wait, that should be in the cons section…

    Cons:

Drinks were pricey in the bar and they kept playing Jazz music when everyone was trying to get amped to go out.
20121027-202022.jpg Hostel room

TIME SPENT SO FAR…
In the air – 24.5 hours
Total travelling including flights, buses, airport time – about 83 hours

PROST Bitches!!! Oktoberfest, Munich, September 24-29, 2012

14 Oct

EVER heard the saying quality over quantity? Well, with more than 6.9 million litres of beer consumed this year during 16 days in Munich, Germany, Oktoberfest is definitely not the time for that old adage.
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Bier Bier Bier!

With more than 200 years history under its’ beer-belly sized belt, the annual festival of the frothy stuff has gained infamy into the world’s far reaching corners, but nowhere more so than in Australia, with thousands from the sunny continent making the more than 14,000 kilometre pilgrimage in pursuit of the amber liquid each year.

Oktoberfest has become something of a rite if passage for young Aussies, and, having made it myself this year, it’s easy to see why.

Firstly, where Australia in recent years has condemned and legislated against a culture of binge drinking, Oktoberfest facilitates it, welcomes it with open arms. (Perhaps in foolish overestimation of the personal responsibility factor of its’ overseas tourists.)

I was apprehensive at the thought of five days of drinking beer in one-litre portions amongst a crowd of large Bavarian men, but was eased into proceedings on our first night by a visit to Hofbrauhaus, a large beer hall in Munich, outside the festival grounds.

Established way back in 1859, in 1920 Hofbrauhaus was the location of Adolf Hitler’s Nazi Party inauguration speech and painted swastikas, remnants of this horrific time in modern history remain on the high, pitched ceilings of the hall, hidden under huge red and yellow wheels which were painted in place after the war. This knowledge, in contrast with the loud and carefree merriment ensuing inside the building, leaves a strange feeling.

Wearing a newly-purchased dirndl, complete with apron and long socks, in keeping with the boys’ (Nic, Luke and Kurt) traditional lederhosen, I shared brotwurst, sauerkraut, crispy skinned pork and German potatoes, quickly learned to ‘Prost,’ (the German way of saying cheers) and downed a couple of litres (called a Mass in German) of the frothy stuff until we were threatened with removal from the establishment by a large and angry waiter and Kurt jumped out of the window.
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Pork and potato dumpling from Hofbrauhaus

I could finish this blog post here, because the rest of Oktoberfest was basically a ramped-up extension of this night, but I would like to explain a bit further into the magic and appeal behind this giant playground of excess for adults.

Day two, 9 am and the boys are back in (or perhaps still wearing) their lederhosen, which could by this time have been mistaken for a second skin – such was their emotional attachment to the traditional German folk-ware along with the difficulty in actually removing the heavy suede shorts.

We meander our way by foot to the festival, which takes place at Theresienwiese, a meadow south-west of central Munich. Now, to eat and to choose which beer hall out of the 14 huge and impressive structures to hand our souls over to for the day.

Breakfast consists of a chicken schnitzel slapped into white bread (other days brotwurst, or some other dead, cooked or cured animal or a pretzel) and by 10.30 am we are seated at a long timber table in the red and yellow-themed Hippodrom tent, ‘Prosting’ with our first litres of beer. The aim is to be seated as early as possible each day, because by around midday, the halls, some seating 10,000 punters with increasingly glazed eyes, are full. And by full, I mean resembling a single giant, many armed, many legged, shouting, singing, beer devouring monster.
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Hippodrom hall

The bringing of beers at Oktoberfest is an exciting spectacle in itself. Hall staff, mainly buxom women, can be witnessed in awe, carrying up to eight beers at a time. At eight kilograms of liquid weight, plus another 1.3 kilos for each glass (more than 18 kg total!), combined with squeezing through drunk and disorderly merry-makers, this is no mean feat. They wear whistles around their necks to part the crowds and stern expressions on their faces. They are amazing and should probably be tipped more generously.

Beers cost about €10/litre and ordering anything less than a litre is sacrilege.

At about midday,the locals order a standard lunch of quarter chicken and chips to prime themselves for the coming hours of drinking. I say the locals, because the non-German tourists are either too excited by all the strange and wonderful menu options or cannot read the language well enough to choose sensible chicken, and end up ordering €66 platters consisting predominantly of radish. (Our rookie error…)
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€66 platter :/

By early afternoon all plates have been cleared and empty beer mugs are accumulating fast on the tables, alongside the battered feet of a few extra-keen revellers. Most people are by now standing on benches or are otherwise packed into the aisles between tables with little breathing room. Everyone is in traditional dress and singing, usually the wrong words to folk song after folk song and it is not unusual to see the entire brass band in the centre of each hall each scull a litre of beer in perfect harmony. It is a loud, excessive, merry congregation, the ruckus resembling that of an evangelist church service, but the worship taking place here is to none other but the beer.
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Crowds…
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…and more crowds
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Old and new friends

Over the course of the next few days, we manage to consume upward of five litres of beer each day (me five or six, the boys seven or eight or really who knows how much?) and manage to stake out a number of halls including decent stints at the Hofbrau, Schottenhamel Spatenbrau and Hippodrom, with a brief foray into the Lowebrau tent from memory, before spilling out into the crisp night air to contend with yet more crowds and a carnival atmosphere of brightly lit fair rides, the wafting smells of hot food and the gleaming spoils of the many souvenir shops. We devour our fair share of brotwurst, chilli wurst, schnitzel, ham, steak and hot chips (pommes) and make dozens of new, if fleeting, friends. We learn German songs and then quickly forget the words, replacing them with ‘…something in Germaaaannnnn’ We lose each other in the madness and we are reunited, sometimes minutes, often hours later.
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Festival lights
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Schottenhamel-Spatenbrau hall
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Hofbrau hall
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Hippodrom hall

Even in all the excitement, a few festival goers really managed to stand out… We watched this guy (we don’t know him!) stumble past with half a chicken, drop the chicken, pick up the chicken, drop the chicken again – behind a rubbish bin, then pick it up, dust it off and start eating it.
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Despite the ridiculous quantity of liquid we consumed each day – to the point that my kidneys were hurting – we did not once wake up with a hangover, thanks to the German Beer Purity Law of 1516, (thank you Beer Gods!) which limits ingredients to water, hops, malt and yeast – no chemicals or preservatives.

The day before we leave for Prague, having already extended our time in Munich by two days, we plan for a final blowout with two of Nic’s high school friends, Joe and Will and Mary, a new friend from Dublin, Ireland. Circumstances dictate we can’t get to the festival until after 3 pm and by the time we arrive the entrance to the Hofbrau hall (Hofbraufestzelt) is already packed about 10 persons deep and about 10 metres across with thirsty revellers clamouring to get in. We stand packed like sardines in the hot sun, periodically being pushed back in a pack by fearful security guards shouting in German, one of whose face has turned so red he looks like he is going to explode. From our understanding it seems like they are saying ‘It is closed!’ but we wait and occasionally a beer wench comes outside and chooses a small group to enter the hall. Half an hour ticks by and we are still crammed together, sweating being pushed around and wondering if we will be here until dark. Suddenly, the guards remove the barrier rope and shout something along the lines of ‘Everybody in!.’ The crowd surges and then stampedes forward through the too-narrow doors of the hall . And the fun starts.
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Joe, Will, Nic – last day of festivities

Oktoberfest organisers estimated that 6.4 million people attended this year’s event, with more than 2500 of those requiring medical treatment in the first week. Luckily we all came out unscathed, any residual liver damage aside, but at least one Canadian festival goer was not so lucky, the man dying after being hit by a tram.
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Real Bavarian girl and boy!

HOSTEL
Smart Stay Station Hostel

    Pros:

Excellent, young staff, good bar/restaurant, good price considering festival time, decent €6.50 breakfast, great atmosphere. Perfect location close to Munich HBF train station and all amenities.

    Cons:

Central heating too close to the beds, too hot at night.

MUNICH
We didn’t manage a walking tour of the City, nor a visit to Dachau concentration camp memorial, which I was really keen to do. But from our brief experience of Munich, we found it incredibly clean, with great shopping, many fountains and friendly people.
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Rathaus-Glockenspiel in Marienplatz, Munich

TIME SPENT SO FAR…
In the air – 24.5 hours
Total travelling including flights, buses, airport time – about 66 hours