Europe by rail, part 3 of 11: Deutschland, Bär Linie

Starting just on the German side of the German-Dutch border. There was no announcement, but there’s something a little different about the surroundings — not enough for me to put my finger on most of it, but what I can explicitly see is the station platforms seem lower, the front licence plates of the cars we pass are white (the licence plates were yellow in Rotterdam).

The train has stopped. Two of the American passengers are flirting with each other, with occasional petting. And then they started whispering about drug use and popping pills from a blister pack. While drinking beer. The train eventually started moving slowly, but didn’t get much over human speed before it stopped again, albeit stopping for less time than it too to type that, and then the ticket inspectors started walking down the carriage; two inspectors, one for the left and one for the right.

The flirty possibly-American couple move on to talking about child free lifestyles. Now I think the guy studying Quantum mechanics at Delft is European and only the woman (possibly a supervisor of one or more of the other students) is American.

  • There has just been an announcement of 10-15 minutes of delays due to rail works — so much for German efficiency. I’m not sure if that’s including or excluding the earlier pause in our motion.
  • We’d stopped at a station called Empel-Rees, which gave me a location to double-check when I wrote this up.
  • Another text from the phone company. Either they send reminders every day, or they send reminders every time you enter a new country.
  • Quick transfer at Duisburg thanks to the delays. The flirting couple had left “to explore the train” and not returned by the time I disembarked. I assume they were shagging in the toilets.

The station at Duisburg, like Rotterdam, has a design pattern that I have only seen in Europe. A lot of platforms (13 in this case) all leading down to a lower level, perpendicular to the platforms and filled with shops and cafés, and the entrances to the station are at opposite ends of the lower level. It’s a better use of space than I’ve seen anywhere in the UK, even at the larger London stations that do actually have shops.

Germany has a lot of graffiti along this railway line. I can’t explain why, but I like Germany even despite that. Perhaps it’s the familiarity — I’ve been here more often than any other foreign country I’ve visited.

Going through Essen, and of course the first thing I noticed was the food advert. (Linguistic pun there, for the non-German speakers amongst you).

An announcement says the seat reservations don’t work on this train. Interesting, they didn’t work on the previous train either. This time, not all the signs are illuminated. The WiFi, which I’d been hoping to use to keep in touch with my friend in Berlin? It only works if I pay an absurd amount, more than an expensive PAYG mobile provider from the UK roaming in Germany, and much more than my own PAYG provider), so I’m not using that. The (free) map on the WiFi sign-up site was fairly neat though — live updated with OpenStreetMap as a base and local points of interest for all the places the train passes through.

There is a smoking area on one of the platforms we passed. Smoking has been forbidden on British stations for so long I had forgotten that was a thing that could happen.

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Ceci n’est pas une pipe

Dortmund has a Deusches Fussball Museum visible from the station. No prizes for guessing what that translates to. I kept falling asleep from there until somewhere between Bielefeld and Berlin, but I was just about awake enough at Bielefeld to take a photo and hear an announcement that the train was delayed due to a medical emergency. Three for three, so much for the British belief that the UK has the worst public transport in Europe — British rail looks normal now. We came up to a range of hills leading to Porta Westfalica with an interesting monument on the end of the range facing the town (presumably the Emperor William Monument), but the camera on the phone stopped working as I tried to take a photo. Fixed the camera with a reboot, but not in time, I should replace this device at some point…

  • A hermaphroditic 5-pointed star. That’s a novel thing for a rucksack.
  • Loud drunken singing from further down the train carriage, “Wir sind die Gewinner!”. Feels like England.
  • Berlin Central station is basically a 7 story shopping mall whose top and bottom floors are train lines going in perpendicular directions.

Alexanderplatz had homeless drunks begging ineffectually in English only. That was odd. Later I found out there was a football match that very evening, so they might have just been English and so drunk they seemed like homeless beggars.

Berlin public transport is very different to British public transport. In Berlin, you buy a ticket for a zone, stamp it yourself on the station before you board, then you can use it freely for as many trips as you like in that zone for the two hours after you stamped it. The same ticket works for all public transport: S-Bahn, U-Bahn, buses, trams and ferries.

Berlin advertising is also very different to British advertising. For example, Germans seem to be comfortable with sexually explicit cartoons for a public health campaign to beat HIV with condoms on the tram stops in the middle of the streets. Another example, one of the rotating billboards I passed is for “Dildo King”. In the UK, the most sexually explicit public adverts I can remember are blacked out window fronts labeled “adult shop”, bra adverts, and the occasional adult magazine.

I’m staying with a British friend who moved to Berlin for work. I’m not certain (because tax laws are hard enough when you speak a language natively), but it seems like Berlin doesn’t have anything like the British council tax system. For non British people, council tax is a fixed amount paid by every household to the local government and based on how valuable your house is estimated to be; it is paid by the occupants rather than the owners, and there are a few discounts (for example, students and kids don’t count as occupants and if there is only one occupant you get a 25% discount). The tax is typically in the range of £1,000 per year for cheap homes up to about £2,000 per year for expensive homes. Learning this made me realise how complex tax systems can be to compare, and it does see to partially offset Germany having a higher income tax rate than the UK. Germany also has a religious tax, which is opt-out and yet most people keep paying; an interesting observation worth remembering during discussion with people who believe tax is theft.

My friend took me to a local electronics store to buy a solar powered external battery for my phone. Everyone in the service sector speaks English, but I really do need to practice my German more if I live here. The self-charging battery cost €22 for 5 Ah, which will doubtless seem an excessive price in the near future as technology marches on. That reminds me, why do people write 5,000 mAh instead of 5 Ah? Fetishism for large numbers? In which case, why not 5,000,000 μAh? But that’s a discussion for a different time.

The buildings are large, but well spaced, with metro lines separating each direction of traffic on many major streets, and trees lining both major and minor streets. There are cycle paths on some pavements and some roadways. All the flats lining the streets seem to be five or six stories tall. In London these buildings and roads would be densely packed angry concrete monstrosities, in Sacramento and New York the buildings would be skyscrapers, in San Jose and Cupertino the roads would have twice as many lanes and three three times the width and no trams that I can recall from when I walked from one to the other.

The days pass and I get to explore this city in more depth, albeit slowly because my feet are still healing from the overlong walk in Dutch countryside. It’s Sunday today, and most of the shops are either shut it have limited hours (I’m not sure which). Despite that, the traffic is flowing heavily outside.

My host has said this is a relatively cheap area of the city, and the state of repair of the building fronts nearby reminded me of what I saw in Budapest (although the decay here is both far less severe and far less frequent, despite it being a cheap area of Berlin versus the most expensive street in Budapest!); if this is the cheap area, I wonder what the expensive areas look like?

A useful lesson from my host, “Die Fahrt” means any journey in a vehicle, not just a car, which can lead to interesting mistranslations — “We’re all «driving» to Berlin” / “OK, I’ll just take the train” / “Want to share our group ticket?”

There are some things you assume are universal, then you travel and find they’re not. Toilets, for example. Toilets are surprisingly varied by nation.

My host told me that Berlin still makes regular use of chimney sweeps. Anywhere that uses domestic fireplaces would need chimney sweeps, but those disappeared in the UK sometime around them being banned in London for causing pea soup fog.

Berlin is beautiful, despite the smokers and the graffiti. There may be laws restricting smoking in some areas, but in practice Germany doesn’t have a smoking ban anything like the UK (where any public building or workplace could be fined for allowing it). Also, self service doesn’t mean what it does in the UK — in the UK “self service” is a buffet, while in Germany it’s “come to the counter to place your order”. Germany also has “self-clearing” café restaurants, where it’s up to you to take your plate back to the service people, while the UK only has that as an unspoken rule of canteens.

Berlin is vastly more open about sex than Britain. There’s a… shop, I guess one must call it… that advertises cruising and glory holes.

Just like Budapest, and unlike everything I remember of London, the flats here often have street level car-appropriate passages leading to off-street parking. Unlike both, there are a noticeable number of ancient looking cars still on the roads, there are lots of Smart cars, there are scooters parked on most footpaths, and the footpaths are easily as wide as the roadways including the parking as part of the roadway. Some, but not all, minor roads have pedestrianised entrances — motor vehicles can enter from the main road, but must give way to pedestrians and cyclists (who themselves are separated from both the road and the main part of the pedestrian pathway in many places).

I saw adverts for “The World of Cyberobics”, which sounds interesting, but I have no idea what it’s about as I have so many ad-blockers that to me their website is just the word “cyberobics” in the middle of the screen and nothing else.

There are quite a few beggars on the streets of Berlin. It feels like more than in London and less than in Budapest.

I tried to get a ticket for the tram line, but couldn’t figure out how to use the ticket machines at the station even when they were in English. Unfortunately a ticket tout then sold me an expired ticket and I didn’t realise (it would be plausibly real in the UK); fortunately nobody checked it (if they had, it would have been a €60 fine, I think). Being the sort of person I am, the moment I seriously suspected there was a problem, I got off and walked the rest of the way. Two days later I found out there are ticket machines on the trams (but not the S-Bahn, so don’t board those without a ticket). The onboard machines may only accept exact change, so be careful.

I suspect that if I published photos of some of the public artwork in Berlin, my blog would get deleted for content deemed adult in the state of American Puritanism. One spinning billboard has adverts for both “Fantasy Massage Studio” and “Kinderdentist”, which would lead to many letters from Disgusted of Tunbridge Wells in the UK.

Aldi is branded differently here. Lidl has the same branding, but a different store layout. There are two different Aldi chains in Germany, and the split happened when two kids inherited the brand from their father and (according to Wikipedia) argued about what they should sell.

I’ve just noticed that the builders across the street are not wearing hard-hats. They would be turned away from the building site if they did that in England.

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Mark 10:21-22

Germany has taken on a million refugees, compared to a few thousand by the UK, but looking at the graffiti (“Refugees willkommen” near the entrance to a supermarket) and the billboards, it feels like the numbers are the inverse of the rhetoric. Germany is looking out for the innocent victims of war and is glad to do so, while the UK moans and drags its feet and makes false complaints about the age and genders of the asylum seekers even after the famous photo of the drowned toddler on a beach had made it to the front page of our newspapers. I wonder now what the personalities of the other European nations is. Given how few refugees have been accepted by other countries, I am assuming Germany stands alone in being humane, but I cannot read newspapers other than in English and the odd German headline.

I saw a film where an apartment had a garbage chute. I didn’t realise those were a thing. The film theatre didn’t show any rating before the film, and the adverts were at a pleasant volume, both interesting differences from the UK.

Shopping and recycling: UK has “Chip and Pin”, and people will look at you funny if you try to sign instead; conversely in Berlin, Chip and Pin is the rarity. There are many multilingual cash machines. Plastic and glass bottles can be recycled at supermarkets for cash or a voucher for a discount on your next purchase.

Saw more beggars today. One was missing all his toes on one foot. Walking from Alexanderplatz to the Tiergarden, I was accosted by some girls with a petition for something to help the disabled, but I didn’t get to read it before a local shopkeeper shooed them away and threatened to call the police — but as “Polize” was the only word I understood, I have to just assume that they were a gang who used a good cause to cause trouble.

The route took me past some grand scale architecture, the sort of scale that is to an adult what normal architecture is to a kid. Somehow it was still nicer than the same thing in London — in Berlin it felt like it was just supposed to look nice, whereas the similar stuff in London felt like it was meant to intimidate, to put subjects “in their place”.

I had a chance to try gazpacho soup, so I took it. I like it!

I visited the zoo. It’s a pleasant walk from the city centre.

Linguistic confusion at the zoo: “Flusspferde” literally means “River horses” which seems like it should mean something like “sea horse” but actually means “hippopotamus” because the English “hippopotamus” comes from the Greek ἱπποπόταμος (“river horse”) out of pretentious upper class snobbery or something.

This is the first time I’ve seen cattle in a zoo. Are they really so difficult for people to see otherwise? I guess they must be.

Lippenbär (Sloth Bear) look like dogs, border collies if anything (mainly the face and ears, but their claws do look sloth-like). This particular one is going back and forth on a single line in their enclosure, I would say stressed and/or bored if I dared anthropomorphise them. Definitely not slothful.

There was a semi-decapitated pigeon outside one of the bear enclosures. It looks like the same kind of bear in all but one of the bear enclosures, so I’m not sure if it really was a Lippenbär that I just saw.

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Le woofs

The zoo has four wolves, that I can see, and they totally fail to acknowledge humans howling. Quite possibly because everyone howls at them and they’re bored of it. A bunch of English school kids showed up at the same time as I did, some thought they looked like foxes and started singing “What Does The Fox Say”, while another pair of kids had this conversion:

Kid 1) Would you like to pet a wolf?
Kid 2) No
Kid 1) Why?

The souvenir shop sells toys of fictitious animals. That’s not going to help educate people! They also sold an enormous range of lenticular 3D postcards — that stuff’s getting cheap.

I bought a Berliner. In Berlin. By asking for “eine Berliner”. It is, as far as I can tell, a filled doughnut. I’m sure everyone reading this will have heard about the famous “Ich bin ein Berliner” speech.

The walk home took me past a semi-ruined-semi-repaired church, past the only boring empty concrete square I’ve seen in the city, through a middle-class shopping mall with a giant indoor pond, around a fancy shopping mall, and on to the Wittenbergplatz U-bahn station, which is rather impressive and in its own traffic island. Berlin underground lines often run one or two stories above ground, and their surface lines often run underground. There are many good views.

A successful exploration of a fine city. Next up was going to be Hamburg and from there to Denmark, but I changed my mind once I reached Hamburg…

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Europe by rail, part 2 of 11: The Netherlands

Hoek van Holland (the Hook of the Netherlands) might be Harwich’s counterpart, but it’s much nicer. There’s no visible litter here yet Harwich used the side of a bridge as a skip; no collapsing buildings where Harwich had one whose windows had been replaced with breeze blocks that had then fallen away.

Motorbikes can use cycle paths, at least they can on this particular stretch of cycle path. I didn’t even notice the signpost indicating this until a motorbike drove past. It feels right, somehow, to group motorbikes and bicycles together like that for their own safety — but that might just be because none of these motorbikes looked like they were going over 30mph, quite possibly only 20mph.

Walking from the Hook of Holland to Rotterdam looked plausible on the map. But the local maps had a misleading scale and I took needless detours that turned it into a literal marathon, and I gave up halfway: I’ve never done a full marathon, nor even a half one before this trip, and even if I had, sensible people (stop laughing) don’t do them while carrying a rucksack full of luggage.

The local area seems quite well-off if house prices are anything to go by. Somehow the streets of Maassluis, just like the streets of Amsterdam when I visited a year ago, remind me of Chichester. I can’t see why, but somehow they do. The style of the shop fronts perhaps? I cannot say.

Anyway, onto the train. More expensive for me than it needed to be; one off ticket, one way, bought with a debit card from a different country. A local offered to help, but the ticket machines are multilingual.

Ooh, just seen some graffiti. I would say that’s the first here, but I saw some earlier by a church with a fancy bell tower. The earlier graffiti was geeky (31516) and on a skateboard ramp, so I discounted it as art, but the new graffiti (next to the Vlaardingen Oost station) looked more crass.

More bad graffiti before Schiedam Centraal. Poor Schiedam.

As I arrived in Rotterdam Centraal, a medical emergency occurred right outside the station. Found out later that someone had suffered heart failure. I saw the paramedics run fast, but the details came when chatting with the tourist information lady about the helicopter parked out front with a large crowd gathered around it. Seeing a helicopter land in the middle of a city, other than on the roof of a hospital, is something I’ve never heard happen in the UK, and I can’t decide if that’s a good thing or a bad thing — but I do foresee a time when remote controlled paramedic drones make tasks like this easier.

Despite further needless detours, I reached my hotel for the night. Once there, I collapsed into the bed and checked the damage to my feet. It was worst than I had thought: I had blisters on the balls of both feet, and one of the blisters is collecting blood. Now I have to walk without putting any pressure on them, which gave me a strange feeling limp, one that left me self-conscious (not that anyone seemed to notice). The plan became “sports shop tomorrow for blister treatments, then Germany”, although when the morning came I just waddled to the train station for the earliest train to Berlin. The route took me past Aldi for breakfast, which is pretty much the same as in the UK. The walk showed me that Rotterdam is surprisingly similar to the UK in other regards too: multicultural, chewing gum stained pavement, similar architecture in many (but by no means all) cases. An early train was a good idea, as it ended up being delayed by more than the transfer at the next station. Rotterdam Centraal station itself is nice, open, bright and big. The smaller stations on the route from there to Utrecht, along with the background views between the stations, could mostly have been British stations and British views, down to the Brutalist architecture covered in graffiti. The biggest difference in the towns was the better car parks next to the blocks of flats. The countryside was flat, of course, and that’s something you only see in England when visiting the Fens near Cambridge.

Passing through Gouda, and of course there’s a building with cheese themed architecture next to it. There are far more bicycles parked by this station than parked outside even Cambridge railway station (before the redevelopment of Cambridge railway station turned the bike park into a building site).

Woerden has a windmill whose blades still turn in the wind. I’ve never one working before.

Utrecht is even more like England than the other places I’ve been through, at least from the train. I won’t explore it this time, but perhaps I’ll see it properly in the future.

The next stage of the trip was a German ICE International train. It was a bit rough pulling out of Utrecht, but smoothed out soon enough. The announcements are either bilingual or trilingual, but my Dutch consists only of those words the language shares with German, French, and English so it’s hard to tell.

Students, one of whom appears to be doing quantum mechanics at Delft, were sitting across the aisle from me, working away on their laptops and drinking beer. They sound American, but a surprising number of American accents are still clear derivatives of European accents, so I can’t be sure. But they were talking in English, so I still reckon they’re Americans.

Arnhem station. Lots of plastic panelling in various shades of blue and green. Duck egg blue, teal, the hue of fluorescent green without any of the actual fluorescence, and in the distance there are office blocks of sky and ocean blue, of lime green and the blue-white of thin cloud. Then dark grey, but I don’t know why that pattern was broken.

Apparently the seat reservation system is broken. I’m glad I followed the advice of a local and ignored the signs saying every seat was “GGF. RESERVIERT”, and am now sitting in a random seat where I shall stay unless and until someone asks me to go. (I’d do that automatically in the UK, but here my confidence has taken a hit from my low German comprehension of only 2500 words, and the German reputation for following rules).

In theory, this train has WiFi. In practice it fails to get me an IP address. Best stop wasting phone battery on that.

Train has stopped moving, but not at a station, just as I was wondering if I would notice when we leave The Netherlands and entered Germany. Perhaps this is that point?

Europe by rail, part 1 of 11: The British Isles

A trip around Europe with no plan beyond a backpack full of clothes and an Interrail pass. This is something quite out of character for me, but if I’d planned everything in any detail I would likely never have gotten started, and time was against me — even rushing it like this was putting me in danger of not being back soon enough to vote in the EU referendum.

The drama started while I was packing, as I suddenly noticed the absence of my credit card. There was still no sign of it in the morning, so I cancelled it online with no chance of getting a new one in time. I never did find it, even when I got back.

Early morning rush to catch the bus to the train station! Except the bus doesn’t go as far as the train station any more. So to the city centre instead and hope I wouldn’t miss my connection! But it was OK, because en route I realised that the ferry I’d expected to catch was going in the wrong direction, and the one I really wanted was departing nine hours later. Well, that saved me the worry of catching the next bus, which was extremely fortunate because that bus never came. I double checked the credit card situation with the bank while I was in town, and it looks lost rather than stolen, so that’s good. Still no bus (a common problem with British public transport), so I walked the rest of the way to the train station.

It was a fairly long train journey by my usual standards, and I found that I had forgotten how to open slam-door trains in the decade or two since they disappeared from the line of my childhood home town. I almost missed my second stop until I realised that the window could be pushed down and I could use the handle on the outside of the door.

England is a mixture of outstanding beauty and litter strewn dumps, and I saw both on the trip to the ferry port. The dumps I saw were in the run-down brownfield sites (next to the train line, obviously) within towns and cities. Urban wasteland.

The trip took me through the villages of Mistley (population 2,685) and Wrabness (population 400), both of which had their own stations despite their small size. I feel like some of our place names are jokes I don’t understand.

The residents of the streets near Harwich International don’t like the EU. I saw many signs saying “vote leave” and not a single “remain”. You might think a town next to a major shipping port might like the outside world, but it seems not. The signs had all gone by the time I’d returned, presumably out of respect for Jo Cox who had died the day before. The place is run-down and tired, with streams used as litter dumps and an abandoned house whose windows had been bricked up long enough ago that even those bricks had started to crumble and fall away.

Getting on the cruise ship itself was the first time I really felt like I was in an enormous vehicle. Jumbo jets, even 747s, are so narrow they just don’t have that effect. Everything was priced as you might expect for a captive audience, of course. The sailing was smooth, assuming it’s still called “sailing” now that sails are archaically obsolete.