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Thursday, October 25, 2007
My Big, Dumb Trip to Europe Part 3 - This is How They Say "Hello" in Germany
You can always tell when someone has been working in the service industry for too long. Look for glazed-over eyes and slouched shoulders in waiters and strippers or an ear out for a robotic, monotone voice when you speak with someone in tech support. Lethargy, blank expressions or long hold times are almost always a dead give-away. I've been stuck in this line of work since college and I reached the "too long" point long ago. Only the most chipper, patient and hardy can survive a few years in the industry without succumbing to a level of bitterness that makes a person completely incapable of empathizing with "the public."
Despite my wealth of experience in the field and all the venom that now infects my soul, I'd never encountered the level of scorn that resides in the hearts of members of the European service industry. Case in point: a blond guy, around 30, that was working the English counter at the Gare de Lyon train station on a day when my sister Shanna and I were trying to get from Paris to Munich. I'm sure he had spent the entire summer dealing with clueless American tourists like us and he was in absolutely no mood to help us on any level. Our self-effacing humor, calm voices and large reserves of patience bounced off him like hollow-point bullets off the Hulk. Any question was met with a short, sharp answer. After a tense five minutes, we finally had our tickets and an afternoon to squander.
That evening we wandered back to the station. With 30 minutes to kill, we headed up to the loading platforms and gazed up at an electronic reader board listing the arrivals. Our train wasn't up there. After frantically hunting down an attendant we discovered that we were at the wrong station entirely. The blond clerk hadn't bothered to tell us that our train was departing from Gare de l' Est, a station halfway across the city.
We barreled down to the subway and desperately blasted up four crowded escalators through throngs of commuters and tourists to the platforms at Gare de l' Est. I remember screaming "SAVE YOURSELF! LEAVE ME! GET TO GERMANY! DRINK BEER!" at Shanna over the heads of two annoyed teenagers after I stopped to deal with an untied shoe. We missed our train by about three minutes. After another 30 minutes in line we received two new tickets on the last train out of Paris that night. Our seats would be in the tail-end of a "sleeper train" where we'd be sharing a tiny cabin in couch with four strangers. If we could last under those conditions for 10 hours we'd be in Munich at 8 AM the next morning.
So obviously we weren't destined for a Darjeeling Limited experience. There would be no cough-syrup fueled misadventures or fun with smuggled cobras on this journey. We found four men in our cabin: two backpackers from France that smelled like they hadn't bathed in days and two Middle Eastern businessmen who smelled like they hadn't allowed their skin to touch soap since 1993. After a few minutes of sucking down enough body odor to kill someone that gets paid to wash sumo thongs, I decided to spend the night in a large area in the back of the train typically reserved for bike storage.
Down there I found ten bikes and one middle-aged stow-away chain smoking cigarettes. He looked like the lead singer of Gogol Bordello but harmless enough. I was too tired to listen to my waning reserves of common sense. I slumped over on the other side of the compartment and threw on a pair of sunglasses to hide my closed eyes and to ward off any invasions of my personal space. I figured he wouldn't screw with me. Anyone stupid and pathetic enough to sleep in a cold bike locker with a guy like him wouldn't be worth the effort to rob. I switched my iPod over to Johnny Cash and somehow slept as "Folsom County Blues" and the sound of wheels rumbling over tracks blasted into my eardrums.
I woke up an hour later to find Shanna kicking me in the stomach. She's not above this sort of thing, especially when her male companions leave her alone on a train in a foreign country filled with strange, smelly men. We returned to our carriage to find the backpackers and a growing crowd sleeping in its tiny hallway, all of them avoiding intolerable scents in their own cabins. Inside ours the businessmen were stretched out across the seats, slumbering comfortably and fermenting in their own sweat. These guys were so stinky they'd chased off two full-grown French nationals! Six weeks removed from that foul night and their assaults on my sense of smell, I still want to kick both of these men in the nuts.
We picked two remaining spots in the hall. I threw my jacket over my head, put on an old trance album and settled in for a night of getting stepped on every ten minutes. I awoke at 3 AM as the train reached the French borderline. An old, cold sign yelled "STRASBOURG" into the foggy night. As the train rolled into Germany past trashbags and stone buildings covered in graffiti, I naturally felt an overwhelming sense of impending doom. The countryside looked like a nightmarish, bombed-out warscape typically seen in WW2 movies. I closed my eyes and prayed as the iPod filled my head full of DJ Shadow's Entroducing, a perfect soundtrack for a slow train ride to peril. I half-expected the lost German soldier from Saving Private Ryan to show up and start babbling about Steamboat Willy.
At dawn we crawled into an empty cabin for two hours of precious, uninterrupted slumber. At 7:45, a girl who looked not unlike the one Jason Schwartman boinked on the Darjeeling threw open the door and tore open our curtains. She yelled something at us in a foreign tongue before heading off to the next cabin to do the same.
So this is how they say "hello" in Germany.
At the bierpalasts. We went to two. The biggest and most overstuffed with Bavarian culture was a place called the Hofbrauhaus. First established in the 16th century, it was once the site of many of Hitler's propaganda beer blasts. Everything but the inn itself was destroyed in the second World War. Nowadays, thousands of tourists pour in there every night to suck down sausages, listen to oom-pah music and guzzle beers as big as six-month old babies. We briefly shared a table with a group of drunk Germans in their sixties. It had the only empty seats in the place and they quickly cleared out. With the exception of these guys and two British expats that made fun of us on the subway, the locals we encountered tolerated our American aloofness. On the other hand, we also spotted this on our way over to the Hofbrahaus.
More interesting was the Augustiner Keller, another popular bierpalasts. We headed downstairs to the enormous cellar were the owners keep gigantic (probably just decorative) wooden kegs. There we sat across from two men with mullets. Actual, full-fledged, real-deal mullets and not just shoulder-length hair that gets unfairly labeled as mullets in the US. Halfway through the evening, we heard a dozen local girls shouting drinking songs, their voices bouncing like Super Balls off the cellar's brick walls.
It was all coming from a long table around the corner and about a fifty yards away. Who knows why they were there cackling and singing the songs of their drunken forefathers on a relatively quiet Wednesday. It could have been a bachelorette party or maybe it's just what these chicks do on weeknights. The staff treated them like Gremlins, rushing over to the table to quickly remove empty glasses and throw down full ones before ducking for cover in the kitchen. The mullet-guys were entranced.
One jumped up. He could no longer resist their siren songs. He was 20 years older than every girl at the table but he dived in anyway. They welcomed him with open arms and plowed him full of German lager. He lasted about twenty minutes before staggering back to his table. After we payed the bill, I snuck past the girls to use the bathroom, fearing hassles and taunts in a language I couldn't understand. I had the sneaking suspicion they were up to something. At a urinal, I unzipped and began freeing myself of all the used ale in my bladder.
"99 LUFTBALLOOOOOONS! AUF IHREN WEG ZUM HORIZONT!"
It hit the bathroom like a bunker buster, all twelve of these women screaming out the lyrics to Nena's nearly forgotten '80s classic. I'm happy to report I didn't piss all over myself or have a heart-attack on the spot.
And there I found all the lederhosen people. And countrysides full of adorable little houses and fields full of adorable sunflowers. And armies of adorable nuns on vacation. And adorable, plump German tourists acting all adorable. And gift shops full of adorable cuckoo clocks, Bavarian teddy bears and steins. And adorable, oversized beer mugs filled with beer that I sent straight into my beer-filled belly. And an adorable, uncompleted castle that cost a crazed Prussian monarch his life. And...not so adorable yellowjackets that kept trying to steal my schnitzel. There's nothing the Germans make that isn't more efficient than a stateside equivalent, even bugs. One of these vicious little ubermenschs chased me across a beer garden. If that yellowjacket had nuts, I'd totally want to kick them right now.
We walked all the way up the hill and didn't even stop for eis. After touring the castle we headed over to a nearby bridge. Written on a railing, further proof of how no matter how far you get away from the United States, its cultural droppings can be found anywhere.
Watch out, here comes the neverending influx of American culture. The Simpsons Movie: posters promoting it were all over the subway stations in each country I set foot in. I took of a photo of each nation's version. They can be found in the Flickr galleries via the links on the left side of the blog.