Friday, March 5, 2010

Blogging post-absentia, with such generalizations and obvious statements

So it's come to this. No shirt, no pants, still in bed at 9 in the PM with a full bottle of scotch, a pair of fake aviators and a case of the German stomach flu. The readership may find themselves asking: Why so unclothed, Simon? 9pm is very late, why do we find you in such a state and bedridden? Where did these miscellaneous items come from? For that matter, where have you been the past 9 days? How come you haven't seen fit to update the blag of late? Is there a god? Have I left a turkey/my gasoline collection/any number of younger siblings in the oven? Why do kids love the taste of Cinnamon Toast Crunch?!?

Before you lose all direction in life, wallow in self-pity and buy a Ferrari/breast implants, rest assured that I can and will answer all of these questions in what will surely prove to be a blog post of extreme length and minimal practical value.

All of this started last Friday, typically a day full of mythology classes and man-about-towning. But this Friday was to be like none other. I did my laundry at literally the last minute possible, threw all of my worldly possessions into several burlap sacks affixed to sturdy branches, stuffed my bandoleer with as many brews as it could stow and struck out into the night. My destination? Frue Plads, to meet the tour bus for my imminent departure to Germany on a 7 day study tour with the teachers and peers of my core class, European Culture and History: Memory and Identity (Germany). With a 10 hour bus ride on the horizon, I knew that I would need everything in my arsenal to make it through the next 36 hours.

This trip would prove to be an epic poem of love, loss, tragedy, faith and learning. Even the bus ride there, normally a thing relegated to the same category of experience as sleeping naked outside in the cold or being relentlessly clawed by badgers, was unusually full of fire and verve. But, like fire (and most but not all verve), it can also burn as it warms. Well past my stock of beverages and working on more acquired at a local 7-11 before the bus took off, I knew then that if nothing else the bus ride would be interesting. I was to prove myself right to the utmost degree.

To sleep soundly on a bus requires a certain kind of fortitude that one doesn't come by easily. Very few people possess it inherently, and billions around the world are forced to acquire such tenacity through artificial or unsavory means. I chose a combination of sleep deprivation and inebriation, and promptly slept through that night's entertainment (an Oscar-winning movie that I'm sure I would have loved) and, blessedly, most of the bus ride.

The exception to this miraculous and beer-induced sleep was to be presented by Jeff Lauer, a peer of mine on the trip. Whether or not you realize it at this juncture, you all know Jeff Lauer. Maybe not by his given name, but perhaps hearing his colloquial moniker your memory will be jogged. Jeff is known to one and all as "That Guy." He embodies not just the namesake, but the very essence of what it is to be That Guy in every way.

He is a shameless partier, dresses as a gentleman should, strikes out on adventure at every turn and always comes back with a Conquistadorean story of interactions with the natives or some new species of water-dog found in the caves of Zanzibar. He also makes decisions that lead to unforeseen and often humiliating consequences, all of which he bounces back from with remarkable grace and unmatched fervor. In this case, his inappropriate choice was eating a sandwich on the 45-minute ferry ride between Denmark and Germany. Host to any number of uncatalogued parasites and heretofore undocumented hostile organisms, this sandwich like the soldiers let past the gates of Troy laid waste to his digestive system and resulted in him vomiting, one row of seats behind me, no less than 5 separate times over the course of 8 hours. Now it's impossible to say that it's his fault for being stricken as such, but this is exactly what makes him such a paragon of That Guy-ness -- he is awash in a sea of terrible import with only a crude sextant and the stars to navigate by, all of which lead him to the same tragic cove of pirates which seek to rob him of his social dignity.

Yet he sails on.

And here we have reached a prosaic peak, a literary vantage point from which we may survey the lay of this land and glimpse the rolling hills and dense thickets of the verbose landscape to come. Looking back on the path we have traveled, I can count 7 paragraphs and a line to describe a single bus ride. We haven't even made it to the first day of the trip. The author acknowledges the arduous nature of the task ahead for both writer and the written-to, meaning bailing, napping, stretching or grabbing snacks is excused and even encouraged. Noting that, the fact that the bus ride there warranted so much text is also an indication in and of itself as to the epic and fundamentally bad-ass nature of the pursuant week. Let's see about the first day.

We officially began our journey, after driving through the night, in Dresden, Germany, site of the infamous Bombing of Dresden. Now a triumphant story of resilience after its utter and terrifyingly complete destruction, the city's restoration efforts have revitalized nearly every major cultural site and then some. The history of the place is visible in its every stone -- a special kind of stone typical of buildings in the region that accumulates a hard shell of oxidized iron as it ages, turning it jet black at its full realization. The new stones used in rebuilding, freshly reaped from the same quarries as their ancient brethren, are therefore a startling white contrast to their time-singed predecessors. Since many of the original stones and buildings were left partially intact or reusable in some way, this creates a checkerboard of history and memory on the facade of every church, palace and memorial in the city center.

The city of Dresden was bombed in 1945, when many surmised the war was already irreversibly won, by Allied forces to ease the approach of Soviet soldiers to the capital. A controversial act of war in any regard, the only unambiguous thing about it is that it was incontrovertibly badass in its scope, implementation and devastating effect. The object of the bombing of Dresden was to create a firestorm that would absolutely annihilate it. To this effect, a mix of high-explosive and incendiary materiel was dropped on the city, bombs totaling in the hundreds of thousands. The explosives would level city blocks, removing structural elements to create wind channels that would facilitate the dropping of incendiaries over the same path. This combination of incredible explosive force, readily combustible material and a high-speed oxygen supply creates a literal firestorm. This firestorm raised the outside temperature of Dresden to over 1,000 degrees centigrade. At this temperature, the structures made of wood were literally evaporated and those of stone were heated to such impossible temperatures that they exploded. Aside from the two atomic bombings in Japan executed months later, this is probably one of the most impressive, morally dubious and downright terrifying displays of the destructive capabilities of the collective human will and the devastating machinery it has created for use on ourselves.

Now almost fully restored, this city is home once again to some of the most striking churches, opera houses and gardens of Dionysian debauchery. We went on a tour with an alarmingly chipper guide and learned many mundane facts about the stunning sites around us. I am always struck by how the information about most buildings is far less majestic or even relevant than the actual structures themselves. This was certainly the case, as evidenced by the fact that I could describe to you in intimate detail what these buildings looked like but supply probably no more than a tidbit or two about their historical background.

That night we struck out in small groups and explored independently. This night wasn't as interesting as it could have been, but was still fruitful and fun in many ways. We stumbled upon a great biergarten owned and operated, so it seemed, by just one person. We had authentic German cuisine and enjoyed fine beverages for a delightful 3 hours, then went off in search of the real night life. We ended up at two bars, one place that was up so many flights of stairs (and decorated in such a way) that it may as well have been in space, and another owned by a potentially Indian man who was so shocked that we were both American and in his bar simultaneously that he gathered his whole staff to gawk at us as we socialized.

I say it wasn't as interesting as it could have been because apparently a block from where we were was a Big Lebowski bar. I won't even go into detail here because it should be evident from that sentence alone the opportunity I missed by not finding that place.

The next day we went to Wiemar, a stupendously boring yet quaint and important town in German history. We got a tour from a guy who had nothing much to say, and what he did have to say he said in broken English. That day we also got a few hours to tour the grounds of Buchenwald, one of the most famous concentration camps of the second World War. One would expect a profound sense of despair, grief and depression to arise from such a visit, but I left there with only deep, deep anger. The way they had arranged the exhibits around the camp and the painfully apparent lack of effort placed into the whole design of the place as a memorial and educational site was so painful to me that it took me most of the day to get over it. The recording for the audio tour was disorganized and filled with irrelevant information arranged in a confounding order. To top that off, it was narrated by a person who spoke neither German nor English as their first language and sounded like a flamboyant lisp put through a Lithuanian blender and poured over a toasted loaf of shit. I came out of the camp several miles more tired and no more informed than when I entered, much to my dismay.

That night, to make up for the disappointment at Buchenwald, we had a pleasant dinner and some nice scotch. The waitress made the foolish mistake of serving Johnny Walker to me in a ridiculously cool Bulleit Bourbon glass, which common decency dictated I liberate from the premises. Seeing as it was a Sunday night at this point, the only place we could find to continue our festivities was a local place named like Mittle's or something like that, which was a hilarious time. We walked from that bar back to our hotel...entirely backwards. Miraculously, I was the only one to fall down after tripping on some stairs 20 feet from our hotel. I was the shame of that excursion, something that I'm still grappling with emotionally. My left buttcheek was severely bruised the next day, a traitorous mark I was to bear for the rest of the trip. Pun intended.

Something I should note about Germany, especially the Eastern parts we were in, is that nobody speaks English. One of the more hilarious moments of trying to negotiate the language barrier was when a friend, Gil, was trying to find a money clip in a department store. When we asked a clerk where the wallet section is, she looked at us blankly until I pulled mine out and pointed to it. She turned to a younger-looking patron who was able to help her out, pointed to the wallet and asked him a question. He searched for the right word for a second, and then looked up at her and exclaimed "Oh, put-money!" To which she replied, "Ooooohhhhh. Put-money." This is decidedly not the way that Germans say wallet, not even a very good transliteration, but it is a hilarious way to think about nouns. We then decided that every noun in German would be described by what was put into it. Therefore a mouth would become a put-food, a toilet becomes a put-crap and the oral presentations we had to do on the trip became put-bullshits.

Then, after a mundane visit to the Bauhaus school in some town, we made it to Berlin proper. I have to say right here that this city, while home to some great feats in architecture and some of the most significant cultural sites of the 20th century, was really underwhelming. I had really never considered it before this trip, but the Berlin wall that separated the city so absolutely between East and West fell only two decades ago, and while the process of reconciliation is largely complete in the cultural sphere it has yet to manifest physically in many ways. Our hotel was in East Berlin, and the garbage-and-dog-shit littered sidewalks were my first indication that this wasn't quite the city I had expected.

By day we gawked and ogled our way around the city proper, and by night we roamed within what seemed like an entirely different place. We ate a nice dinner in a restaurant that doubled as a ballroom, meaning we got a free show with the meal. Unfortunately this show was a dance class consisting mostly of a bunch of stodgy Krauts club-footing their way around the dance floor with their wives, who almost certainly coerced them into attending by threatening to take away their kurrywurst privileges. Kurrywurst? Don't ask. It doesn't make any more sense even if you know what it is. Hilarious anecdote about this restaurant (other than me and 6 other people thinking that the appetizers were the whole meal and positively gorging ourselves before the entrees even made it to the table):

There is one girl in our study tour group who is really quite annoying. I'm not talking amateur shit here, I'm talking big league Wreynold's Wrap levels of cling. Paraphrased from the words of jazz great Mose Allison (not you Moze), her mind is on vacation but her mouth is working overtime. This isn't really a normal vacation either, seeing as in the case of a normal vacation people have a tendency to, I don't know, return from it. This is more like a voyage, the kind that Eskimos take when they have outlived the ability to support themselves, floating out to waste away amidst the vast floes of the sea. I could go on with this metaphor, but suffice it to say we tried our hardest to stay away. I'm referring not to subtle misdirection or other such subterfuge, but rather actual documented plans of escape and evacuation contingencies. So, a large group of us stealthily, or so we thought, slipped out of the restaurant. This was a group dinner, meaning the school settled the bill before we even got there, so we knew we could leave any time we wanted to. About a block and a half down the street, giggling and giddy with the success of our covert operation, we were almost run over by a man on a bicycle. While that was shocking enough, the first words out of his mouth were even more so: "Are you skipping out on the bill?" Apparently this disheveled man on a bicycle was the restaurant owner who had seen us leave and thought that, like other teens he was to tell us about, we were attempting to dodge paying for the meal. We were as confused as I was taken aback, but we explained ourselves sufficiently and he let us go on our way (to the bars). The night and those pursuant were to be filled with similar shenanigans and artful dodgeries. It put that little bit of sport into the whole adventure that made it that much more satisfying.

We saw important cultural sites, got a tour by an exceedingly intelligent Danish ex-pat that lasted a little bit too long in weather that was slightly too cold, ate wienerschnitzel -- the whole 9 yards (8.2296 meters).

I am having the damnedest time writing this thing. I'm going to leave it here for now and pick up with our second night in Berlin, prominently featuring me spouting diatribes on the topic of my literally interminable loathing for British youths.


  1. Your blogs are great...

    'Portemonnaie' is the German word for 'wallet', so that's probably what you heard them saying.

  2. this has not yet been sufficiently absorbed into my put-information.

    can't believe i made it.