Written by Concrete on . Posted in Denmark, Germany, Team Fail

Stuck in Szczecin with far fewer options than we’d expected, it became time to do something extreme. What it was, we weren’t quite sure, as we frantically Googled and asked around for any possible ways out of there. It seemed from what the information booth would tell us, that the only ways out of the airport itself were on a plane further east, on a train further into Poland, or in a cab, so we called one, and bought yet another bottle of cheap whisky at the duty free despite it being only 11am, chugged a few shots each, and hoped for the best.

About an hour later a cab showed up, and the driver knew there would be a train heading in our general direction – one problem, it’s leaving in 25 minutes, and the station is a 40 minute drive away! So the driver takes a swill of vodka, slams on the accelerator, and we’re off! We even offered him an extra zl. 100 if he could make sure we made our train, making him drive even faster, and straight through a speed camera – KURWA MAĆ! – at almost 200 km/h.

We make the train with plenty of time to spare, almost every second of which is spent on trying to get a ticket from a domestic station that clearly doesn’t see many tourists, and babble-fishing our way through the transaction with Google Translate, and more than a few incredulous questions of “train go to where?!” as the ticket office rightly thought the train was an absolutely ridiculous way to get to Stockholm.

We picked up a few źapiekanky for lunch, got on the train, and the journey began, rather too uneventfully, into Germany, a land apparently festooned with Dr. Seuss trees.

Where are all these solar panels in America?

Of course, it doesn’t take long for the trouble to return. We end up on the regional Re-Bahn, a network that could courteously be described as provincial, and worse yet, it’s a Sunday, so half the trains aren’t even running, and those that are, take leisurely routes to every stop in every tiny village.

And that wasn’t all – not having enough wrong already, DB also had major track works going on, and trains only ran one piece of the route at a time, with connecting buses in between where the single track was torn up. So we circled through the state of Mecklenburg-Vorpommern one piece at a time, from Szczecin to Angermünde to Päsewalk to Neubrandenburg to Greifswald to Güstrow to Bützow, and finally to Rostock, where we missed the train to Copenhagen by a full three hours.

The only positive about all this was the view – we truly saw the Germans’ Germany, which actually looked curiously like upstate New York, just with more abandonments.

We asked for directions at the station, and the only thing leaving Rostock that night was a Fußballzüg, a special party train bringing hundreds of fans out to an away match, in this particular case FC Hansa 3. supporters on their way to Schwerin. But Schwerin was a slightly bigger city, and quite a bit closer to where we were going (or so we thought – it never occurred to us that there’s a quick and easy ferry crossing from Rostock to Malmö!) so we got on the train, and did our best to get Eurotrashed on the hour long ride, polishing off the bottle of Scotch and picking up a few 1€ beers from the train bar.

From Schwerin, we actually caught the more or less right train to Hamburg, with a chance to make it to Copenhagen… of course, arriving in Hamburg, that one was sold out, and it would cost us 220€ each (first class, since that was the only seat left!) to get to Copenhagen in the morning. So we booked a hostel in Hamburg, and didn’t go much farther than the nearest bar, having no logical options but to drown this night in Erdinger, not even caring enough to check out the Reeperbahn.

In the morning, we got on the packed and expensive train to Copenhagen to do it all over again, on an international express this time. Shortly after Lübeck, they made an announcement in German that I was sure said we had to get off the train and onto the boat. Ben didn’t believe me, but when everyone else did the same, we followed, and realized that we were, in fact, on a train on a boat, about to set sail across the Kattegat.

It’s a train! It’s a boat! It’s a … troat? That’s it! We’re #troating! He’s on a troat, motherfuckers, don’t you ever forget, we’re going fast and (we’re on a troat)!

Soon enough, the troat parts ways, and the train goes on to Copenhagen while the boat sits in Odense without us. At least we had a long enough layover in Copenhagen to get some smørrebrød before the train to Stockholm… I’ll never have enough smørrebrød, and unfortunately the ingredients are even too weird to make them at home, let alone start a food truck selling them!

By this point, we’re both pretty much sick of the road and ready to get home, especially with our Team Fail luck, which Stockholm only delivered more of! We checked in at the hostel no problem, but trying to get dinner was nothing short of maddening, with no one accepting our credit cards, and the ATMs (Bankomats) spitting out our cards with some error message in Swedish. We finally convinced someone on the street to take out 500 krone for us for 80€, a terrible exchange for us but we were pretty much screwed otherwise, and hungry enough that we went to the first kebab shop we could find and bought an irresponsible amount of food.

Yesterday morning, we saw as much of Stockholm as we could with a plane to catch and still absolutely jaded… the highlight of it was lunch at a little cafe with Swedish-style smörgåsbord, a (nominal) salad with about eight different kinds of seafood on top, which was delicious!

Even the flight home was surprisingly challenging. Swedish customs gave me trouble about being born in 1955, a clear confusion arising from sharing a name with my dad, and refused to issue my boarding pass until they could contact him and clarify that he wasn’t in Europe and his son was. I have no idea why they needed to do that, because I clearly had a passport, MY passport no less, but they did, and it was a bit of a close call making the flight.

The flight, as most trans-Atlantic flights are, was long and boring, and I spent most of it writing for this blog.

Once we landed in New York and cleared customs, Ben went his own way to meet a friend in Brooklyn, and I went on to the JetBlue terminal for my flight home, and one last EPIC fail…

I got on the plane without incident, seated in seat 22D of a regional jet – window seat, last row before the lavatories – for the flight back to Rochester, just short of an hour of air time.

After takeoff, I noticed that something REEKS; a realization shared by nearby passengers, who complain, at least two of them, to the flight attendants, pointing in my general direction. They assume it’s me; the smell wasn’t exactly that of dirty backpacker, but it could be said there was some resemblance. Rotten cheese mixed with concentrated fart juice, left to marinate in a soaking wet hiking boot, might have been a better description. And I knew my feet did smell from two weeks of walking around rainy Europe, but they couldn’t be that bad…

As we’re crossing Long Island Sound, one of the flight attendants approaches me with a respirator mask and rubber gloves, and tells me that due to my odor, the flight might have to divert to Binghamton (remember, the entire flight should only take 54 minutes anyway) to deplane me, and if that were the case, I would need to find an alternate way home.

I try to explain to them that I barely have a sense of smell (caught a bad cold in Berlin) and still know how bad this is, and I maintain that it is NOT me, and they never would have let me fly Stockholm-JFK in coach smelling like this. She leads me a few rows up, and presumably noticing that the other passengers aren’t wincing in disgust as I walk by, takes off her mask, and agrees that the stench is not mine.

To placate the rest of the passengers, though, the flight attendant orders me locked in the bathroom for the remainder of the flight and tells me not to leave until the plane is on the ground and the jetway doors are open. At this point, I have to wonder if I’ll get a ride home from the airport in a police cruiser – and whether we will in fact be diverted to Binghamton to add insult to insult – but I more or less accept my fate, and ride out the rest of the flight in an airline bathroom. Luckily, it was a cold, clear night with no turbulence to be found… probably the one positive out of this experience.

The flight lasts as long as it should, a reassuring sign that we weren’t diverted.

Eventually, the seatbelt sign goes on, and I try to perch above the toilet just in case the literal shit hits the fan. When the plane lands, the flight attendant lets me out of the bathroom, and starts apologizing profusely.

It was in fact, partially, my backpack that unleashed the epic stink. But only because someone’s forgotten bag of Asian food stuff from weeks ago, including a burst bottle of something resembling fish sauce, and possibly “stinky tofu,” had been stuffed up and behind the last overhead compartment, and its contents had formed a semi-liquefied congealed mess all over the compartment, and apparently no one with a large carryon had sat in 22D for a while.

The flight attendants brought me to the gate, and after some arguing, agreed to give me a $100 voucher for the inconvenience. Not, mind you, for being stuffed into the lavatory for a flight back from NYC. Only for partial compensation for the damage to my backpack and its contents. But anything was welcome at that point…

By this time, I was just about the last passenger left at the airport. As I approached the taxi stand, the dispatcher shut the window in front of me, and said, “sorry, closed for tonight!”. I tried asking the cabs directly, since there were still about 6 lined up at baggage claim, and they responded that they couldn’t pick up airport passengers without a fare card from the dispatcher. The last one in line finally told me the obvious, that I’d stink up the cab.

While I argued, the last bus out of the airport left too, without me on it.

I got to enjoy a rather long, refreshing walk back from the airport last night.

Even if it was a constant cavalcade of fail, it really has been the adventure of a lifetime, and I would do it all again without a doubt! And maybe without all the fail this time, with a better idea how it works. Only this time, there better not be a general strike or fish sauce on the plane!

Auf Wiedersehen, Berlin!

Written by Concrete on . Posted in Germany, Team Fail

After we finished exploring, we spent the rest of our brief visit to Berlin on the tourist trail seeing some of the actual landmarks, starting from the Alexanderplatz to Berliner Dom, a cathedral nearly destroyed during the war and rebuilt back to its original Prussian glory:

Opposite there was a museum of some sort that we didn’t have time for, but should probably have gone to… but our destination, if we could even find it, was the Berlin Wall.

Crossing back into the former West Berlin, we passed through Checkpoint Charlie. First, a picture from 1964, when my mom was a military brat stationed in West Germany:
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And now, what it looks like surrounded by modern Berlin with no wall anymore… I must say this is one landmark I’m glad is gone!

After a while longer, we found the one preserved piece of the wall, surrounded in Easternesque tourist traps like this one, ‘celebrating’ the infamous Össi car, the Trabant, the only new car available for the duration of the DDR regime.

Another look at East Berlin – these Communist concrete block buildings would have been the face of the East looking out over the Wall.

And the last of the wall itself, optimized for tourist viewing

Not far from there is the Holocaust memorial, with stone columns symbolizing every day of the atrocities

Finally, we passed through Brandenburger Tor, returning to West Berlin.

Crossing the River Spree brought us to the Hauptbahnhof and our train to Stettin/Szczecin, just over the Polish border, the one place we could find a cheap flight on to Oslo from!

After a two hour train ride, we arrived in Poland, and it became abundantly clear that we were in a completely different country. It seemed that no one spoke English, and we had no idea how to get to our hotel. Even trying to use the ATM in the train station to take out zloty, we were apprehended by Polish soldiers, who looked at our passports with some confusion, and went about their business.

Eventually, we flagged down a cab, with a driver who spoke some English, and seemed to know where the Marina Hotel was. He told us, quite insistently, about the local nightclubs, asking us after each one, “Taxi go to club???” as we circled around Szczecin. After taking half an hour to go what should have been only a mile or so, looking back at the map, he dropped us off at the hotel, and gave us a business card.

In the morning, we got a different taxi, who would not go to club, to go to airport. On the way there, we learned a few Polish swears, as he seemed to miss exits (and squeal the brakes and pull somewhat violent U-turns) as a matter of course, accompanied each time by at least “Kurwa mač!” and sometimes more.

We finally get to the airport 40 minutes before takeoff, and things are oddly quiet. For one thing, it’s a tiny airport, with only two gates. But, as we quickly learned, the real problem was the pilots’ strike had made it to Poland too, and nothing was flying north or west, just the Eastern airlines were still running!

Don’t Fence Me In

Written by Concrete on . Posted in Germany, Institutional, Team Fail

Once I got back from my Beelitz adventure, Ben was ready to see the city, so we got on the U-bahn and went to Charlottenburg for dinner. After a little bit of going around in circles, we decided on (delicious) Vietnamese food, then circled around some more looking for a massage parlor that made themselves nearly impossible to reach, “Good China Massage”. We both tried multiple times to call and make an appointment, but neither their English nor my German came anywhere near understandable, and all she would do on the phone was repeat “Güüte China Maßßadge” at us (we KNOW!) and hang up. Eventually Ben found the place, and I got to experience that German wonder, the Erdinger beer truck, while I waited for his back to get straightened out. Yes, beer trucks are just what they sound like – kind of like ice cream trucks here, but instead of crappy popsicles and tinkly bells, there’s cold Hefeweizen and (recorded) oom-pah music.

We spent the rest of the night looking all over for any possible jazz clubs, hopping around from one closed venue, or shitty rock band, to another, looking for islands of wifi in between to find a map of where to go next. We never did find any jazz, but we got the accidental tour of East Berlin and did see the Alexanderplatz, the Fernsehturm and the Holocaust Memorial along the way, so it wasn’t all in vain…

The next day, we decided to give exploring a try together, with another place the internet told us would be easy, Krankenhaus an den Weißensee, an East German children’s hospital closed in 1991. Getting there was a bit of journey, using all three Berlin transit systems, the U-, S- and M-bahne, then when we got there, we found the FENCE. Scheiß!

But I didn’t come all the way to Germany to get stopped by a little fence. We found a tree stump in the back, got over the fence (awkwardly for me), and into the hospital, which had its share of smashing and tagging done to it, but still has quite a bit of character.

This layout in the wards makes me imagine a warden standing at this end, looking down the line making sure no one tries to sneak out of bed. Probably just my preconception of what life in a Communist state was like, but the architecture lends itself well to my imagination of authoritarianism.

The hallways on one floor were painted in sheet music. I would never expect as much from an American tagger. Unfortunately I have no idea what the song might have been.

And despite being so omnipresent, the graffiti compares well to most buildings in America that I’ve seen.

That was even before we started finding Cory Arcangel-like rooms of repeated spray-paint leitmotifs

For a burned-out, trashed, well known place, this was getting to be pretty awesome!

Unexpectedly satisfied, spending most of the day at our first exploring destination, we decided to skip the rest and see the touristy stuff before we had to leave Berlin!

Betreten Verboten!

Written by Concrete on . Posted in Germany, Institutional, Team Fail

Just as one should expect by now for Team Fail, things were off track even by the time I woke up. Ben was sick and not really planning on going anywhere, and it was supposed to be our exploring day. I normally can’t stand exploring alone, not in the least because it’s never gone well for me before, but he insisted I give it a try, so I did, going to the easiest place I knew of, Beelitz-Heilstätten.

Beelitz is about an hour away, for one thing, in more or less middle of nowhere Brandenburg, but with this being Germany, it still had its own train station, so getting there wouldn’t be too much of a problem. And, from everything I could find about it online, walking around the grounds was legal, and going in more or less tolerated (which is the case for most abandoned East German sites, since they fell out of any ownership after reunification).

There was quite a bit of graffiti to watch from the train. Most of it went by too fast to get a good picture of, but I got this at least. I have no idea who these people are, but it seemed important.

Once I got there, it seemed obvious what to do. Go toward building, go in building, explore? Easy, right? This looks a little too good though, doesn’t it?

This can’t possibly be abandoned? But I’m standing right on the GPS coordinate from the UER database…

As it turned out, I was right. I found an open door, and walked right in on about 20 construction workers having lunch, and a foreman having a few choice words for me. And getting yelled at in German is just as effective as you might imagine… even only understanding half of it!

So I wandered around a bit more, and got to a shabbier, longer abandoned section. This time, there were more open doors, and the only people around were obviously explorers, although they seemed to only speak Russian. But they also looked like they knew their way around, so I followed them into a building.

This wasn’t the Beelitz everyone else got to see, but it was much better than nothing.

I’m pretty sure this is a Trabant. It’s also one of the most photographed abandoned cars on earth.

After that little bit of success, I was ready for a bigger building.

I get up to the roof, take one picture

…and then there’s a drone buzzing outside the window… It flies through the open window, oblivious of me, bonks me in the back of my head, and falls to the floor. I look outside, and the Russians are standing there confused. I bring their poor broken drone back down to them, and I can’t tell if they’re grateful, pissed off or both. They took the remains of the drone and worked on fixing it, and I moved on to another less awkward part of the complex. After all, this is the iconic building anyway…

And it was also fully, and freshly, boarded up. Again, of course it would be. I would be the one who would go all the way to Germany to find buildings that were boarded up probably only a few days ago, considering the construction crew was still on site boarding up the rest of the place!

Even walking around the outside was almost interesting enough though. It was my first time seeing a Communist statue – not quite a statue of Lenin but close enough.

But with only two days in Germany I decided I’d be better off going to something I could get in, so I went back to the train station. Which is just as abandoned as the rest of the complex, but still has two trains every hour!

I’m not 100% sure about this, but I think this is an advertisement left over from East Germany, promoting the various Eastern Bloc cities that it would have been possible for an Össi to travel to, with Berlin’s Brandenburger Tor and Fernsehtürm in the center?

Once I got back to Berlin, I stopped for some Currywurst and beer at a street cart, looked up another place to go (supposedly a children’s hospital), and tried to go explore that.

Something got lost in translation. The coordinates led me here, one block off the Kurfürstendamm, to a very not abandoned block in a very expensive part of town.

And that was well more than enough frustration for one day exploring alone!