Tuesday, March 09, 2010

The End of the Universe

The previous post wrapped up with "it was exhausting, so you'll have to wait 'til I recover a bit if you want to know more about the trip itself."

Well, it's been over a week and I'm still exhausted.

Going from not traveling nearly enough to suit my tastes to two foreign trips in two consecutive weeks can take it out of you. Follow that up with a pretty busy week (work, marathon eating and drinking events, and more concerts) and you've got a pretty tired boy. Add to that the dangerously low serotonin levels brought upon by devastating travel withdrawal, and you've got yourself a worn-out addict with a case of the DTs.

And all I did was go to two neighboring countries. (Three, if you count a couple of hours grabbing a beer in central Brussels.)

But going to Germany, despite the transit hassles we encountered, may have saved my sanity. Because I needed a fix. I needed an encounter with the unfamiliar. A language I don't quite understand. Social mores different than my own (and those I've grown accustomed to). Food and drink I can't easily get. Figuring out how to get around. Ümlauts över vöwels.

Our arrival in Cologne (Köln if you like the aforementioned umlauts) was unspectacular. You learn after you've gotten off most European trains a number of times that it's the same drill... Find the exit from the platform, go to the main plaza in front of the station, scope the old town center architecture, and try to find some overpriced place to grab a bite. This is made extra de rigueur when you're carting around a wheelie bag over cobblestone for the umpteenth time.

Then you look at the ornate detail of the Dom, its unpolished facade of hundreds of years of rain and grime, its massive size, and you stop thinking of how, yes, it does like every other cathedral in Europe, and actually take in its glory, its unique spot in time and space, that you are indeed miles away from home.

And then you take your first sip of a freshly brewed Kölsch beer, and order another glass, and another, and yet another... You're only a few hours from home but in an entirely different dimension when it comes to beer. And sausage. Bring on the Leberwurst. Bring on the Blutwurst. Bring on anything that's been cured for cryin' out loud. We're in Germany!

That's just the first stop. A few more beers and a Bratwurst later, we were traversing the plaza in front of another train station, in another town center, making a beeline for Düsseldorf's... Japantown. (As mentioned previously, the city is home to Europe's third largest Japanese community.)

I'd handled myself just fine in Köln, mostly squeezing out what little I remembered from my year of German in high school. (Please don't ask how many deca-- er-- years ago that was.) Besides, ordering beers is a matter of holding up the right number of fingers, starting with the thumb, as any fan of Tarantino movies probably knows. After all, how hard is it to hold up your thumb and index finger every five minutes to have two fresh beers brought to you?

Ordering at a Japanese restaurant is another story. The thumb-index finger thing will only go as far as getting you a table for two. I stammered and stuttered and stalled, failing to get out enough German to order two kinds of ramen and a large bottle of still mineral water. Then it hit me: Speak Japanese!

I was relieved I could actually complete my thoughts (despite my 2nd grade-level skills). The very Japanese waiter also seemed relieved not to have to speak German. Alles klar, ウエイターsan! At this point, it officially became one of those days: French in the morning, Dutch (or Flemish if you swing that way) at midday, German in the afternoon, and Japanese in the evening.

(We went back for more German at night by downing a bunch of Altbier at Brauerei Uerige.)

By the time we were making our way to Dortmund late at night – hooray for 24-hour train service – my brain nearly hit language overload whilst overhearing some passersby speaking Farsi.

Beer of the Universe
Our Dortmund-based friends Alex and Thomas were real champs for hosting us, as well as Amanda and Tara who'd come over from California and Canada, respectively. We got a little sleep after a (very) late night chat session – something at one point dubbed a "DM Pajama Party" by one of our motley, sleep-deprived crew.

The next day saw us getting up early (well, noon is early when you get to bed at 5:30 in the morning) so we could get back to Düsseldorf for lunch. The mission: Meet up with more of the Black Swarm for a pre-concert session at the local Brauerei.

The venue was Braueri Im Füchschen, the beer was Alt, and the Leberkloße was pretty damn good. (All the food deets and pix can be found here.) And I never thought I'd say this regarding a trip to Germany, but the service was – at all points during our sojourn in the Rheinland – warm and friendly. Germans have a reputation for brusqueness, and it can definitely come across that way, but I can see right through that facade, dammit. Well, at least *I* think it's funny when you order a Coke and the waiter repeats it back as Amerikaner Champagne. But maybe I've already become a haughty Frenchman at heart.

As most of the group made their way to the concert venue to snag good seats, a handful of us walked through the Aldstadt and to the Rhine, taking in the glorious sunshine and the surprisingly magnificent views.

Before this trip, all I knew of Düsseldorf was that Augustus Gloop, the fat boy in Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, was from there. And he's not even real. After strolling the old town, Japantown, the fashion district and the waterfront, I'm now sure I want to come back and explore a little further.

Naturally, the abundance of beer and sausages is a bit alluring, too.

As much as I could've spent all day and all night trying to immerse myself in Düsseldorf, we did have a concert to catch.

The Depeche Mode concert was the focal point of this trip, as it was the raison d'être of pretty much all my non-business travel in the last year. It's something I find a bit shameful. Here I am, a travel junkie living in one of the world's greatest jumping-off points for all kinds of adventure, and what drags me out of my Parisian hermit cave? A freakin' band I've seen a gazillion times since the 10th grade.

But in all, I think it's a good thing. After over two years of being beaten down by French bureaucracy, adjusting to life in a new country and culture, and having little to no "fun money," it was good to have a motivator to get out and do what always brought me so much joy, and to share it with my wife. So what if they practically never change their setlist? Who cares that over the last three tours, we've seen essentially the same show day-in, day-out? My favorite band going on tour gave me the push I needed to get back on the proverbial travel horse again. A show goes on sale, I buy my ticket, then I worry about how I'm getting there.

And it turned out really well. Our first show of the tour was the band's first, too: The warm-up gig in Luxembourg. On the home front, we saw them at the ridiculously huge Stade de France, and then made our first trip to the Alsace region for the show in Nancy with a busload (literally) of French (edit: and South American and English and East European...) fans. The sudden addition of a charity gig in London made for not only the best Depeche Mode show ever (with insane surprises and actual setlist changes), but also helped me fall back in love with London after a few years of discord. And the Düsseldorf trip only happened because the re-scheduled gig became the last one of the entire tour. This made it a special night for the band, the culmination of a tour that at the beginning started to bear the nickname "Tour of the Uni-curse." It was also a very special night for the fans, who were treated to the band's most energetic performance ever, on a stage uncommonly loaded with humor and emotion.

Though it was exhausting (and I only went to a handful of dates!) and though I'd gotten more than my fill, I was, as the picture might indicate, a bit bummed that it was all over. Because as with all the bands I follow religiously and with all travels on which I embark, it's never so much about the activities as it is about the people.

Depeche Mode could break up tomorrow and I'd be upset because it'd mean fewer opportunities to meet and commune with the fans I've come to know, love (and sometimes loathe) over the years. It's like a really big, often dysfunctional family that see each other every few years when a new album comes out and we figure out which shows we can attend, who can crash where, and which will be the "special" must-go gigs. We're like Deadheads, only we have jobs.

It may be the music of Martin, Dave and (I suppose) Fletch that bring us together, but when I play back all the tour experiences in my mind, it's the folks on this side of the stage barrier I think of most. So thanks to the Tour of the Universe, I'll be looking back at memories of Alex, Thomas, David, Robert, Jean-Baptiste, Christian, Jan, Tara, Amanda, Mike, Sandy, Carsten... you get the picture.

Most of all, I'll remember one night at the Royal Albert Hall, hearing an unfamiliar voice, and turning to my left to see my wife. I felt like a proud father. Or perhaps a successful cult recruiter. Because there she was, singing along to every song.


Just before the start of the Düsseldorf show, I tweeted this photo and message. I'm not sure if Alannah got how sincerely I meant it. Putting up with my travel jones (and often punishing pace) is one thing. She knew about that coming in. Finding out your husband is an obsessive fanboy and accompanying him to shows, waiting in lines, getting crushed amongst fans, walking home from venues that let out well after public transit has closed... Well, that's just a sign that I've truly found the "Somebody" that Martin Gore sang about (with Alan Wilder on piano, of course).

Monday, March 01, 2010

Everybody's Jumping Everybody Else's Train

Legroom (on the Thalys
from Köln to Paris)
Several years ago, I was interviewed for a USA Today article about why I prefer flying over taking trains within Europe. Young, single, impatient me expounded the virtues of speed and price. Less time in transit meant more time to drink the local libations, after all.

Fast forward to 2010. I'm older. Married. And wiser, though that's debatable. What's not debatable is that flying sucks, almost without exception. If it's not the airlines nickel and diming you, it's the security establishment mocking your sensibilities by putting you through its theatrics.

The 45-minute flight from the aforementioned article now takes at least 4.5 hours door to door, will cost you at least triple in hidden fees and surcharges, and will generally be an unpleasant experience. The 5-hour train ride it was compared to may still be slow despite the greater number of high-speed services, but nowadays, it will likely cost less, make it on time, and allow you to get on board with all of your luggage, your own lunch, and your dignity.

Furthermore, with most rail services being nationally owned (or at least government subsidized), there's little chance you'll be left high and dry by a bankruptcy. You know, like when a group of you book tickets to a bachelor party on a discount Slovak airline, and due to said airline's bankruptcy, leave the bachelor and the best man high and dry in Bratislava. (True story. Ask the assholes at SkyEurope.)

Beyond all that, as I mentioned in last week's post on Hungry Amateurs about eating in London, trains are bringing glamour back to travel. Maybe even a little romance.

A first-class ticket on a high-speed train is certainly nice... Our Eurostar trip to London in late 2008 was an absolute pleasure, however brief, with champagne, lunch served with proper silverware, and chatting with a few dozen of our newest Welsh geezer friends.

Being on a Belgian train network
means big Belgian beers.
But you don't need all that to have a relaxed, comfortable, and leisurely ride through Europe. If you're looking to move about freely, chit chat with other passengers, and even get a little boozy with your honey bunny, I've got two words for you: Bar car.

Not that anyone doesn't know about the bar/snack train that's available on just about every main line in Europe... But on this past weekend's trip from France to Germany and back, we found serious bliss in the bar car.

First, there are often (as is the case on Thalys trains) four sets of quad seats on the bar car. If you can get these seats (and don't mind a bit of noise and passers-by around you), take them. Being with a maximum of 15 other people in the car – and likely no snotty kids – you're better off than even the 60 people per car in first class.

Even if you can't land these seats, don't worry. Hang out in the bar car anyway. If you're paranoid, you can bring your luggage with you, and if you're somewhere in between, you can leave your luggage in the rack at the end of the car, looking up from your Duvel or Leffe or champagne once in a while to make sure it's not gone.

The clusterfuck at Cologne (Köln) Hauptbahnhof after
most regional trains were canceled due to Atlantic
storm Xynthia on 28 February.
Of course, train travel isn't without its share of headaches. While they don't get up in the air, they're also subject to delays and cancellations during storms, what with trees falling on tracks, building materials flying through windows, and snow shorting out entire trains.

Yesterday, for example, our scheduled 4-hour trip from Düsseldorf, Germany to Paris, France (via Cologne, Germany and Brussels, Belgium) took somewhere in the neighborhood of seven hours.  This was due to the massive storm raging all over western Europe, as well as unrelated delays caused by the previous week's head-on commuter train collision in Belgium.

On a plane, this sort of delay would've been a nightmare, an irritation, and a royal bitch all rolled up into one.  But thanks in no small part to the bar car, it was still a pleasure – more time to spend with my squeeze, and with some good beer.

Of course, it was exhausting, so you'll have to wait 'til I recover a bit if you want to know any more about the trip itself.