Coming into German, I get what I expected.
I just boarded a Eurolines bus at Brussels North Station that’s bound for Duisburg, Germany, around four and a half hours away. I paid nine Euro for this ticket, which I i believe was a promotion and not typical. Other fares were in the range of thirty to fifty.
I tried to go to Frankfurt yesterday but didn’t make it. At the station I received an email from the guy I wanted to meet there informing me that he was in Vienna. I was trying to squeeze in this interview anyway, as I was kind of just hanging out between engagements in Rotterdam and Duisburg. No real loss, but it made me realize that I had no good reason to go to Frankfurt — and I was enjoying Brussels.
Getting a ticket proved arduous anyway. I showed up at 7:30 AM and the early Eurolines bus had already departed. The next one wouldn’t be until 4:45 PM. It was also over fifty Euro. I inquired about a train: 130 Euro. Frankfurt is only a few hours away by rail. I looked online for other tickets, and it became apparent that they would all get me there too late at night to make a rec trip worth it.
I have no idea why newbie travelers aim to warm up to travel in Europe. This region isn’t an easy intro, it’s the most difficult region in the world for the traveler. This doesn’t mean that it’s particularly hard, just harder.
Travel everywhere is not an extremely difficult thing to do in and of itself: as far as methodology is concerned, it’s ultimately the same show in Manhattan or Mauritania.
But the idea that over-developed regions are easier for travel is false. The more developed, wealthy, car-dependent a country is the more difficult it is for moving through. In the under-developed spheres of the world, where everybody is taking public transport, where there is an endless amount of flophouses, travel is easy. You just follow the crowds. Up to a certain point, the less developed a place is the better — if you want to go somewhere in these places just stand on the side of a road that leads there… somebody will pick you up.
Although the conditions of traveling in an over-developed country cannot be argued against. Traveling in Western Europe is nice. The trains are spotless — nobody is shucking peanut shells all over the floor or spitting out sunflower seeds everywhere — the buses have seats that are not torn and actually still recline and rise back up as they’re supposed to. The hostels are the best in the world — a “hotel traveler” could stay in them and be comfortable. You can drink the water directly from the tap and the food from the restaurants generally doesn’t come with a very high risk of making you sick. Although this niceness generally takes you out of the game in terms of observing WTF scenes and moments were the windows a culture are pried open, you really can’t complain.
The Eurolines bus to Germany has been…perfect. It left on time, I have two seats to myself, there is a toilet, and nice, big, clean windows. Unfortunately, I slept for most of the ride, not really taking full advantage of what was offered. But perhaps I could be forgiven, as some moron in my dormitory last night thought it would be socially acceptable to be hanging out in the room at two AM, rustling about, using her computer with the sound on.
But that’s the price you pay for paying sixteen rather than sixty Euro for a place to sleep.
I woke up to Germany. I missed the frontier — if there even is one anymore.
These German highways are fast. It sounds cliché, with all the talk of the Autobahn and all that, but it still came as a surprise to see racing-type motorcycles flying by beneath my window on the bus at at least 150 mph and cars and trucks passing so fast that my 60 mph moving bus seemed stagnant.
Every once in a while you experience this odd sensation in travel when coming into a place for the first time where everything seems too “as expected” to be real, such a stereotype of itself that you can’t believe it.
This has only happened to me a few times in the past sixteen years of travel, and each time I remember distinctly.
Stepping off the train into Guangzhou’s central rail station in 2005 and seeing China for the first time: tens of thousands of people in a single view, street vendors grilling up tofu, hawkers howling, and people rushing in every direction carrying big loads of stuff. It was exactly the China that I thought I’d see.
Or walking into Varanasi later on that same year. I screwed up and got off the train at the wrong station and had to walk over a huge bridge into the city. I can remember the streets being packed with people, cars, cows, everything; faces popping in and out in rapid succession like in a strobe lit room. I remember a friend pulling me out of the way of a funeral procession carrying a casket that came very, very close to running me down. I remember a monkey sitting on top of a telephone pole shaking it as hard as it could, making the entire thing wiggle. It was the Varanasi you expected to see, and something about the confirmation that it really existed in this state made it seem unbelievable.
Another time was today, stepping off the bus into Duisburg, Germany just before eleven AM. I walked into the central station passed a group of young guys wearing matching bowling team shirts who were standing in a circle, pumping their fists into the air, singing along with the chorus of some Oi, skinhead-ish punk song they had blasting over a radio they had with them. To my left were two giant men pounding giant mugs of beer. Right before me was an advertisement featuring no one other than David Hasselhoff himself On the other side of the station was a giant statue of a nude man who was painted flesh colored, complete with a bristling bush of blond pubic hair. It all seemed too “German” to be real, but it was.
Entering into a new place isn’t always like this.
I took a room at the Hotel am Kantpark. It is run by a Chinese family. I listened to the language the receptionist used to yell something at someone in the back. It was Mandarin. When she returned to me I switched language. If speaking Mandarin often surprises people in China, doing so in Europe is enough to blow minds. It won me a new best friend…and a free room upgrade.