USA 2017

(I know, I know, the Europe By Rail series isn’t complete, but I have notes for that, this needs to be written before it fades from my memory).

JFK AKA WTF NYC I-95

The weather was good on the day I arrived, giving me excellent views of NYC as I landed, and of the USA-Canada border before that (at least, I assume that is what I saw, an avenue of cut down trees in right sort of place). America is a place of wide roads and detached houses, of on-street parking/turning circles that would contain entire blocks of flats (and associated parking) in the UK.

Also golf courses. Lots of golf courses. What is it with the New York area and golf courses?

When I landed at JFK airport, I spent ages waiting to pass through border control. I didn’t need to, but the explanation of why I didn’t need to happened while I was exhausted near the end of a 7 hour flight. Still, it didn’t matter much: thanks to NYC traffic, my partner Sadie arrived at the airport about 30 minutes after I’d collected my bags.

The hotel was pleasant enough, but unremarkable. Small gym, serve your own breakfast, waffle maker, breakfast hall had a TV — just what I’ve come to expect from my first two trips.

Connetiquet Conneticut Connecticut

My first two trips to the USA were to SFO. Those times, I wasn’t used to how vast and empty states could be, but this time round I wasn’t used to how small they could be. The trip through Connecticut was slow and dull, as the morning gave us torrential rain which left pools of water on the I-95 large enough that the freeway was, in several places, reduced down to a single lane: the hard shoulder. Despite that, by the afternoon we had crossed two state borders (NY-CT, CT-RI) and were half way across Rhode Island.

We stopped for a pizza for lunch near the middle of Connecticut. One of the things that continues to surprise me about the USA is how expensive food is. Petrol and diesel may be cheap, but… wow, that doesn’t make up for the food (let alone big expenses like the USA’s infamously overpriced medical insurance). For restaurants and supermarkets both, American food feels twice the price for half the quality of the UK equivalent — the quality of Lidl and the price of Waitrose. (Nothing against either of those stores in the UK, one’s very cheap and the other is very nice, but the combination is not one that reflects well on the USA).

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Spot the differences between the Old World and the New.

The only really noteworthy thing I realised in (or was it near?) Connecticut was understanding why the whole area is known as New England: its green foliage and slightly mossy rocks are very familiar to anyone from England.

Rhode Island

We met up with Sadie’s aunt and uncle in Providence, Rhode Island. They lent us their car (well, her mother’s, Sadie’s grandmother’s), the quality of which also surprised me: ancient, falling to bits. Not as poor a condition as the “friend of the family” taxi in Nairobi, but still shockingly bad by British standards. This is not a poor family, yet the car had multiple warning lights every time it was switched on, and the key literally fell apart one time we tried to take it out of the ignition. Still, the car got us around and didn’t break down on us.

Providence seems like a nice place. Poor, but nice. Everyone was cheerful and friendly, despite the slightly run-down look of the Federal Hill district and of the street we stayed in just on the other side of the Woonasquatucket River.

Despite the outward similarity of New England to Ye Olde England, the temperatures are much higher. In the UK, there might be two days in any three years where the weather is hot enough to benefit from air conditioning in your home, every day in New England was that hot. (Of course, in winter it normally goes below freezing, which is rarer, although not unheard of, in the UK).

Boston

In Boston, we stayed with Sadie’s grandmother. The house was an old wooden structure, three floors including the occupied roof area, and elevated from the ground around it by about half a story. There was almost no lighting, and as with the car, it felt very run-down for someone with her wealth.

Central Boston is a lovely place. Didn’t go into the Boston Tea Party Ships & Museum because it was too expensive, and unfortunately forgot to plan a trip to see the USS Constitution despite meaning to. I had planned to buy a teabag and borrow a fishing rod and a teacup and film my own Boston Tea Party, but in retrospect I’m glad I didn’t — such a cliché.

We did get to see the Faneuil Hall Marketplace, which was crowded and very American: lots of sugary baked goods, not much sign of fruit or vegetables.

The subway line between home and city centre (“so that’s what ‘downtown’ means!”) felt as if it was used by rough people, and I didn’t feel safe on it, although how much of that is just culture shock I can’t tell. (As an aside, for all the complaints I hear about the London Underground, it is joint top with Paris and Berlin as one of the nicest metro systems I’ve used; Boston, BART, and NYC metros all feel like nice people aren’t supposed to use them, while Budapest sits between them, stuck in an 1890s time capsule).

Cambridge

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Only Cambridge residents will understand this photo.

We met up with one of Sadie’s Green Party associates, and he walked us around Cambridge MA. As I’m living in (close enough) the original Cambridge, it wasn’t too impressive. Still, I did get a few curious photos of American Cambridge and first noticed a Greek motif that kept popping up throughout the trip.

When the friend brought us back to Boston (i.e. across the bridge), we went to the oddly named “Legal Sea Foods” (what’s the alternative, illegal sea foods?)

Tappens Beach and the closed rock

Sign saying 'Rock Closed'

Rhode Island has a lot of coast for its size. Sadie’s family took me to Tappens Beach, a perfectly good beach with some large rocks (shown in photo; watch out for the poison ivy), and one of those rocks has two diving boards bolted to it. Everyone except me jumped in. I almost miss being that fearless.

Manomet

Manomet beach

Manomet seems to be a place for rich people to have their holiday homes, and for poor people to service their tourism holiday needs. I had fun, mainly because I was staying at Sadie’s aunt’s holiday home. That side of the family joined us after we’d been relaxing there a few hours, playing on the trampoline and preparing dinner for everyone (not at the same time).

When we saw Manomet bay, it was wonderfully foggy. We could see an arch of beach, a few fishing boats anchored in the bay, but no horizon.

The bay itself seems to be known as the one place in America where July 4th is celebrated on July 3rd. To quote Wikipedia:

Tradition dictates that these bonfires be extinguished by the rising tide, so depending on the moon, the festivities may extend well into the night, or end relatively early.

I had a chance to try archery for the first time as an adult. While it was fun, bows and arrows are rather less potent weapons than I had been led to believe by fiction: I was firing shooting into a rotting wooden door that had been taken off its hinges and taken to the back of the garden, drawing the string as far back as I could, from a distance of about three meters, and still a third of the arrows bounced off or just plain missed, and about a third of those that did get stuck in the door managed to go through holes between planks that made up the structure. Also notable, it’s easy to hold the bow mostly drawn, but the last few centimetres have most of the difficulty; they are also the most important for power. Also-also notable, arrows fall off the side of the bow very easily.

Newark

Confusingly, going between New York and Newark by train, you get on at New York Pennsylvania Station and get off at Newark Pennsylvania Station.

If you can, use the metro line instead: the PATH red line is about half the price of the rail ticket (the main difference is that unlike the train, the main terminal is the World Trade Center). We didn’t know this, and ended up getting one ticket and then the other.

We went to Newark for an event that Sadie was very interested in and was thrilled by the chance to attend, although it’s probably not one to be discussed on a blog like this. While she did that, I explored the city centre: It’s a nice enough city, although it is really surprising to a Brit like me how clearly racially segregated it all is, and how hurt African Americans are: signs with comments along the lines of “don’t tell me you love my culture when you hate me”, that sort of thing.

It was much easier to walk around Newark city than Cupertino, even though Newark had wider roads, because the drivers were much more pedestrian-aware.

NYC

Oh, so much stuff.

(Gee, what a surprise!)

The hotel was tiny in comparison to the one just across the water in Newark. If you’re looking to be a tourist, the Newark Hilton is a) connected to the the station, b) as cheap as the cheapest New York hotel that is actually a hotel and not a hostel, and c) the PATH metro is only a few dollars per person per day.

Central park is huge. I mean really huge. It’s large enough that a third of the way in from the side, you don’t feel like you’re in a city any more.

Oh, and there’s a castle in the park: Belvedere Castle, a folly that’s served as a weather station, amongst other things.

The subway (metro, not food chain) is hot, loud, rushed. The crowding level was surprising: it was more crowded near our hotel (80th Street) than it was in Lower Manhattan.

To try and fit as much sightseeing in as I could with my limited time, I took the subway to the South Ferry station and walked as far up as I could.

I saw the famous Bull, along with the attendant crowd of other tourists also taking photos of it. It’s just a statue of a bull. There’s probably some irony about a loudly (even if not strictly officially) Christian nation like the USA having a statue of a bull as a tourist attraction, but there we go.

Next up was the 9/11 memorial. It’s both spectacular and refined. Two large square holes in the ground, waterfalls on all sides flowing to an inner pool, both which have a smaller square hole in their middles for the water to drain into in another four-sided waterfall. All surrounded by the names of the deceased, carved into stone (metal?) topping a wall around the waterfalls. Of course, being America, there was also a poster next to it advertising compensation lawyers with the text “9/11 isn’t over”.

NY City Hall: There’s a public park that looks like it should connect to the grounds, but the hall is closed to the public. The park has some unusual artwork in it, including a giant cardboard cutout of some bacteria.

Broadway: Not that broad. Lots of shops, lots of roadworks. I got my cities mixed up and thought, for some reason, that Broadway rather than Hollywood had the walk of fame with the stars’ names in the sidewalk.

Union Square Park: Nothing particularly special about this one. Typical American scale, typical American city architecture around it. Big sign that didn’t show up too well on my camera. I totally failed to appreciate the art, and assumed the sign was something financial like USA national debt (although it was too big even for that), and that the only real art was the weird ripple with gold and lines to the right of the numbers.

Flatiron Building: Freaky shape, nice to have finally seen it in person and not just photographs.

Madison Square Park: There was some sort of event on, with food stalls. I couldn’t buy anything, having spent my last $3 of cash the previous day in Central Park.

Empire State Building: Perhaps because it rapidly narrows after only 5 floors, it looks smaller when you get there, despite being enormous and clearly visible from further away.

Bryant Park: behind NY Public Library, it’s a nice, pleasant-looking place. I was in a bit of a rush to meet Sadie for dinner by this point so I didn’t go in, but it had a good vibe to it. It, combined with the surrounding skyscrapers, had a bit of a Singapore vibe to it.

Time Square, Broadway: Surprisingly well lit, given the sun had yet to set. Very crowded. Street sellers of “my band’s latest CD”. Lively, wealthy… and yet, another place that felt like poverty was just around the corner.

~

Somewhere along that walk, although I didn’t take a note of where, there was a public protest against infant circumcision. Americans reading this may be surprised to learn that quite a lot other nations basically don’t do circumcision: from a British perspective, for example, circumcision is a strange weird custom done by foreigners.

~

The next day was the day of my flight home, but I had a chance to see a little more before the airport. Just across the road from the new World Trade Center building and the 9/11 memorial is a site, I guess it might be a shopping mall, called Brookfield Place, whose main feature is the “Winter Garden”. The Winter Garden has 16 palm trees and feels neither wintery nor gardeny.

Europe by rail, part 5 of 11: Meet Frankfurt

Where I walked in Frankfurt
Where I walked in Frankfurt.

The train from Hannover to Frankfurt was pleasant enough, but all the seats were taken. The countryside we passed was mostly beautiful rolling hills, and just a few ugly man-made hills.

Frankfurt Hbf itself  instantly reminded me of Paris Gare du Nord (the Eurostar terminal). Different, but somehow very similar.

There were news broadcast on a giant screen, I couldn’t read it but the pictures were showing floods. There had been a bit of rain the previous day in Hannover, with more was forecast for today, but the only rain I had seen by this point of the day was in and near Frankfurt itself; the route was almost completely dry.

There was a book, sold in one of the shops of Frankfurt Hbf, with the title “Die Again”, and I wondered if the title was in English or in German. I never did pick it up to find out.

The shops in city station are very multicultural: In the station area I saw African and Asian, American, German (and the Germans seem to like pizza and pasta the way the British like fish ‘n chips and Indian); next to my hotel there was “Bosnische Spezialitären Čevabdžinica Sarajevo Imbiss”, and then two Arabic places with names I can’t even write. There are two major shopping malls, the main (I think) mall, “MyZeil”, is a fantastic piece of architecture, and the info points inside it are trilingual English-German-Chinese. Thai, Iranian, Mediterranean, Malaysian and other shops and restaurants on the road between the train station and the city centre.

The city centre is surrounded by a narrow strip of greenery, public parks and so forth, that look on the map as if they were the former city walls.

“The city centre itself has a lovely atmosphere”, I wrote while walking through it. Of course, having written that, once I got back to the train station the escalator had stopped moving and smelled of urine (albeit nowhere near as bad as the smell in Portsmouth). There are less beggars here than either Berlin or Hannover, at least at first glance. There were many skyscrapers that felt like skyscrapers, but without the oppressive-bombastic feel of those in San Jose, San Francisco, or Sacramento, without the cramped feel of London.

While in Frankfurt, I think I finally figured out why I prefer German blocks of flats to British ones: the outsides are just cleaner. In Britain, a significant fraction of flats (certainly the larger blocks in city centres) have ugly stains under under every window and every external pipe, whereas the German ones are either completely clean or covered in a perfectly even layer of dirt that hides the fact it’s even dirt — the British stains looks like a sewage accidents in comparison.

Other than the handful of skyscrapers, Frankfurt seems to be mostly 4-7 story buildings, but it still feels friendly in a way that central London, which is about the same vertically, never is. And in comparison to America? A three lane by six lane cross-roads felt safe to cross here, compared to the feeling of risking life and limb crossing from one corner of the two main roads of the Apple Maps icon to the other.

The only emergency fire/ambulance vehicles I’ve seen so far in Germany have used a fluorescent orange and white colour scheme. Looks like Ambulances are branded by the hospital they’re associated with, but I’m not sure. Seeing them made me realise that if I were to move to Germany, I would need health insurance (UK has “national insurance” which is a tax, and taxes pay for healthcare amongst other things), so perhaps the effective tax rate is more complicated than I thought. (Well of course it will be complicated, why ever did I imagine it might be simple?)

I had to read a news story about the German far-right political group AfD to notice this point, but while Britain has plenty of visible Muslims and mosques, I’ve not noticed a single mosque in Germany for all the Muslims I’ve seen while walking around the cities. A relatively small number of churches, too, now I think about it.

Frankfurt Hbf has so many platforms that three streets face the entrance, parallel with the tracks. One night’s jaunt took me back through the southern street, Münchener Straße; the next day’s walk took me back through the northern street, Taunusstraße.

Taunusstraße is the red light and casino district. Plymouth has a red light district that I’ve walked through without even knowing it was one until the street was named as such in the local news. Amsterdam is famous for its red light district, but again it was so easy to miss that when the naked women in its glass shop fronts remain stationary, they look like shop mannequins and it just feels like any other part of Amsterdam (that said, when the women tire of standing still and change pose just as you walk past, it’s as if a mannequin has come to life next to you).

Taunusstraße just feels seedy — nothing explicitly upsetting, just tacky, gaudy, and unsophisticated, like the rides of a travelling funfair.

As I was writing up for the day, I heard some shouting on the street outside, and the deep rumble of a motorbike whose only purpose is to make the owner feel big — so, just like Britain. Overall, I think Frankfurt is like a good British city, not as different or as nice (by my tastes) as Hannover, Berlin, Rotterdam, Amsterdam, etc., which is worth knowing and the entire point of this trip. Score!

Fire brigades have their own emergency doctors with their own emergency vehicles. That’s something you don’t see in the UK.

Europe by rail, part 4 of 11: Hamburg hands over to Hannover

The train from Berlin to Hamburg was straightforward enough. We passed lots of nice countryside, woodland, and tiny hamlets by the side of the railway line. The odd urban area that we passed through had more “refugees welcome” graffiti, just like Berlin. I saw a power line that terminated in a building about the same size (both height and ground area) as a normal pylon, painted yellow and complete with a lone door at its base. Many of the fields we passed had another kind of tower — a wooden lookout, one story off the ground, with a ladder and a roof.

My German isn’t good enough to buy things if the person at the till says anything other than “yes” or naming a price, which forces me to revert to English. This is frustrating.

By the time I had arrived, Hamburg had run out of (affordable) hotels, the only things that remained were over €200 per night. Thanks to the flexible travel power of my Interrail Pass, I was able to go straight onward to Hannover without worrying about an extra ticket. I don’t get the feeling I’m missing much, the path of the railway makes the city of Hamburg look far more British than Berlin had, with only a few bits of interesting people-friendly architecture to shield against the post industrial wasteland that reminds me so much of Portsmouth and Southampton on the south coast of the UK.

The first train station book store that I looked at in Hamburg had language guides for Swedish, Norwegian, Danish, and what looked like Romanian. There were tourists maps to Denmark. That made me almost sad I had decided not to go to Denmark this time, but as Denmark hasn’t joined the Euro, as Euros were the only cash I had, and as I had been advised to make sure I had some form of backup payment (which later turned out to be very useful), Denmark really wasn’t going to happen on this trip.

On the train, the next station was announced as “Hamburg Hamburg”. A later stop was announced as something like “Bad Bressen”, but a Google search doesn’t show any place with that name. The “Bad” prefix is common on Germany, it means “Bath” in the same sense as the British city of Bath.

Hannover seemed much nicer than Hamburg even at first glance. I did wonder how much of that was the weather, how much is the lesser crowding (Hamburg station was very crowded), how much was it’s familiar layout, and how much was the fact that the nearest hotel to Hannover train station is a third of the price of the cheapest available in the entire city when I checked at Hamburg? (Of course, by the time I had set up WiFi in the Hannover hotel room and was able to double check, I got a different and much cheaper answer from the price comparison website than had been offered a few hours earlier 😛 ).

The first night was little more than: chill, relax, and go to the local supermarket — a windowless affair on two floors of a building fairly close to the hotel. It gave me the most bizarrely artificial feeling; not malicious like the artifice of a casino, but alien, soulless, creepy, efficient. The upper floor was accessed by a moving walkway in the middle rather than the edge, making the place feel almost endless.

The next day, I started exploring Hannover properly. The hotel has another new-to-me kind of toilet, this time the flush mechanism needs to be switched off manually once you’ve decided enough water has gone through.

After just one minute on the other side of the train station to my hotel, I realised the place wasn’t just familiar, I had passed through the city years ago, going between an airport and Magdeburg. I’d even bought pizza from the very pizza place under the station that had seemed familiar the night before. To the south (ish) is a church with a giant inverted pentagram on the tower, and a multilevel pedestrianised shopping district that was disappointingly similar to British ones. The zone has a “Euro shop” where everything costs €1 (and has slightly better stuff than a British £1 shop despite the exchange rates), and there is also a sex district in one run-down corner (I guessed lap dances and similar, but my German isn’t that good and it later turned out that continental Europe is much more relaxed about this sort of thing than the UK).

There is a lot of cycling here. I’ve not seen any beggars so far. Pedestrians seem more likely to obey the red lights on crossings than in the UK, but that may just be because the roads with explicit pedestrian crossings are wider than typical British streets (one lane each way is common in the UK, but these are all multi-lane). Berlin had no litter that I saw, but I didn’t realise that until I got to Hannover and found myself automatically picking up random litter and taking it to the next bin I passed (something I often do in the UK, a habit my mum gave me probably by accident when she got me to help her clear out a stream strewn with litter in my home town as a young child).

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Maschsee

There is a vast lake in Hannover — at least, vast by the standards I’m used to, it’s nothing compared to the Great Lakes or even Lake Zurich, but I don’t recall anything this size in a British city. I saw more graffiti and more litter as I walked around the lake. At the far end of it I saw an older lady with grey hair riding a bicycle and wearing an “XCOM the enemy unknown” T-shirt. At the south end, I decided to go away from the lake to get more of a feel for the built-up parts of the city, and that took me along a foot-and-cycle route that keeps pedestrians on the North and cyclists on the South, separated by a small hedge, which is a nice touch (British foot-and-cycle routes are often separated by a white line, and sometimes not even that).

I walked past the Stadtfriedhof Engesohde, a very pretty graveyard. I’ve not seen any that nice in the UK.

The next road, Hildesheimer Str., is green but fairly samey. I realised on that road that Apotheke, Bibliothike, Spielotheke, all shared a root word. Also, Kindergarten is literally “Kid(s?) Garden”.

There was more sexually explicit imagery on public display; this time a magazine, visible outside the shop selling it, showing multiple naked breasts on the front cover. It’s odd how ladies’ breasts are seen as sexual, while men’s are not, but there we are.

Through its window, Hannover city library looks just like any British library.

I finally encountered some beggars! They seem better off than the ones in Berlin. Enough to be scary, actually. But I didn’t take enough notes to remind myself why when I wrote this up over a month later.

The next day, I explored to the North-east of my hotel. There’s an enormous inner-city woodland in the far corner of the Hannover-Mitte quarter of the city. It was very pleasant, but had a slight feeling of familiarity that confused me. I know I visited Germany as a kid, did my mum take me to Hannover at some point in that? I don’t know. Regardless, it’s wonderful to have a large peaceful area with many benches in which to sit down and read. It made me wish that British cities had more large patches of dense woodland within them.

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There were several square kilometres of this.

For all the German reputation for loving meat, they have a lot of vegetarian and vegan food stores. Some of it good, some of it mediocre — just like the UK. I recall the British have the nickname “Roastbeef” in France, yet the British also have many good options for vegetarian and vegan food, so perhaps meaty stereotypes are over-stated and out-dated.

I finally saw a single cyclist jumping a red light! He checked it was safe, then crossed the road. Up until this point, everyone else — pedestrian and cyclist alike — has been fastidiously obedient of the lights, and there are an enormous number of cyclists in Germany (by British standards) and the clearly labeled cycle paths go everywhere that I had gone on foot.

Hannover, like Berlin, has both a metro and an underground system. I’ve not used either, but the rails of the former and the entrances to the latter are easily seen. The combination of good public transport and good cycle infrastructure is probably one of the main reasons why German cities feel so much nicer than British ones (the graffiti and beggar problems appear to be worse in Germany than the UK, while the litter is roughly the same, so it’s certainly not any of those things).

The city, like many British cities, contains a ruined church. Presumably a burned out wreck from the second world war.

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Aegidienkirche

I saw more beggars, including a the first Muslim woman beggar; and one man slumped and stationary against a wall, lighter and tobacco bag in hand. He might well have been dead, but I didn’t want to investigate, either possibility may have been traumatic.

That evening, music poured through my bedroom window. First it was Indian, then a marching band, jazz, then many more pieces whose genres I don’t recognise.

Sunday morning. Hannover is covered in thick cloud, and it’s raining. So dark and gloomy it feels like twilight even though sunrise was just over 5 hours ago, at 05:06. It’s good for me that the rain has coincided with my feet’s need to recover, unfortunately more rain is forecast for tomorrow. The music I first heard last night has continued today, a quick venture into town for food suggests it’s a cultural festival in Andreas-Hermes-Platz. I have no idea if it will still be there tomorrow, my last day in Hannover (a half day at that) before I journey to Frankfurt.

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Knowing binary didn’t help me understand this.

My next trip had me wandering Hannover in a new direction, to the North west and past the university, past the aquarium and Herrenhausen Palace before I turned back. I saw fly-posted stickers on streetlights advertising a Facebook group for LGBT refugees. In English rather than German or Arabic. I’m so lucky my native language is the lingua-Franca of the world.

There were more erotic stores. The outside of these shops are like the inside of British adult stores, which makes me wonder what the insides are like, but this isn’t the time to check them out.

I also saw the first German pedestrian jumping a red light.

There are cigarette vending machines on the footpaths. Well, one of them at least. And a small tractor driving down the street — I’m used to that in small countryside villages in England, but this is near a major city centre.

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Who lives in a home like this?

Ooh, a German flag! First time I’ve seen one flying here, I think. For any Americans surprised by my surprise, Europe doesn’t seem to fly national flags anything like as much as you do. Most of the British would only care about flag burning because of the smoke, although I wouldn’t dare assume anything either way about the rest of the continent.

Walking further along the route, I passed some more flags that I don’t recognise, then another German flag. All were in what might be allotments, but there are many of what look like single room cottages — too big to be sheds, too small to be real homes. Student houses, perhaps?

I found Quorn for sale! But not in every supermarket. “Rewe” has it, I’m not sure what Rewe would be the equivalent of in the UK.

I never did check Andreas-Hermes-Platz in the end. Next stop, Frankfurt.

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…

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.

Budapest part 3, spirit

[Budapest part 2, curiosity]

Continuing on from last time, there was little else of note that evening, save for two things.

First, the level of homelessness is surprising. I’ve seen homeless beggars on the streets of London and Cambridge, but always isolated. One under a bridge on one side of the river, the next on the far side of the river. In Budapest, I found a dozen grouped together around sleeping bags on the corner of Erzsébet krt. and Rákóczi út, by what Google Street View says is CIB bank (I wasn’t looking at the signage when I went past).

Second, the path I took back to the Airbnb went past the Budapest-Nyugati railway station — The crossroads outside the station has an underground plaza, lined with shops. The only other time I’ve seen such a thing, that I recall, was next to a train station in Nürnberg. I am a fan of such architecture, placing roads and pedestrians on separate levels, while still using the pedestrian level for shops.

Once Sunday came upon us, Sadie had recovered the energy to explore with me and we took the tram to Vörösmarty tér. All the shops were shut, leaving only the restaurants and bars. Sunday trading laws had stopped the rest.

The restaurant we picked was a typical tourist restaurant, in that it had large TV screens playing random content that annoyed Sadie. We drank a hot chocolate and used our smartphones to find other places to eat. Sadie was particularly interested in a soup restaurant that had good reviews, because soup requires no chewing and her jaw still hurt.

On the way there, we passed a street market filling the pedestrianised length of Deák Ferenc utca, still open even though it was Sunday (the rules only force shops to close if they’re big). Lots of interesting trinkets to see (albeit with tourist prices), cute and friendly, with a sense of permanence to the vendor’s huts that I’ve not seen on any other street market, except perhaps a few of those in the Camden Market area of London. I wish I’d taken a photo.

The soup restaurant was in the Jewish quarter of the city, so naturally we passed by the famous Dohany street great synagogue, which is completely underwhelming from the outside. Sadie was hungry, so we didn’t stop to check out the inside. Unfortunately, at the next turn, Sadie’s phone crashed, and we struggled to remember the name of the restaurant we were going to. Not that it made much difference, as when we did remember the name and found the place, it was stuffed full of customers and there was no chance of getting a table to sit at and rest. Instead, we went next door, into a small quiet generic place, the sort of restaurant that would be a kebab shop or chippy if it were in the UK. Pleasant enough, and even here English was understood and spoken. Which was lucky, because Google translate needs an internet connection to do voice translations. Or perhaps it was just good business, as the restaurant advertised “escape the dungeon” events in English, and was probably being the best tourist spot it knew how to be.

Sadie’s teeth came out in two goes. Left side, then right side a few days later. Very painful, despite the anaesthetic, and once out we could see why — one of the teeth looked like it had twisted 180° between the roots and the surface. The dentists were kind to her throughout, but we still don’t know why they used permanent stitches and then told us to have them removed exactly one week after the teeth came out instead of using dissolving stitches.

On the last night before the teeth came out and she was back to soup, we found and visited a nice a vegan restaurant, Kozmosz Vegán Étterem. I had a bean goulash to finally find out what goulash tastes like (I’m vegetarian, so real goulash is off the menu for me)… and it was instantly familiar. I’ve must have already tried it at some point without realising it. The desserts were really not my thing, but that’s a problem I often find with vegan desserts.

The taxi transfer was included in the cost of the dental treatment, but we had to go back to the dentists’ lobby to wait for it. While waiting, we saw the first reports of the Brussels attacks. The reports at the time turned out to be wrong, but that’s normal when reporters are clamouring for the latest big news. By the time we got to the airport departure lounge, the Airbnb host had emailed us to ask if we needed to stay longer — they had heard, incorrectly, that all flights had been cancelled.

Ryanair’s departure hall was exactly what you’d expect, and not worth commenting on. Once we took to the air, we got some lovely views — there’s something cool about seeing a tiny line on the ground, recognising it, and being able to say “I’ve walked the entire length of that street”.