Tuesday, May 25, 2010
One of the frustrating aspects of finding people for swinging is the phenomenon of people flaking out. Many attractive couples will express interest and then suddenly disappear. The cause of that cannot usually be traced back to any one thing. Pictures are normally one of the first things exchanged. Physical attraction is always determined first in the process. Most people also clearly articulate what sort of swinging interests them in the beginning. So both of these things are generally not cause for people flaking out. In some cases, we expect it’s that the “couples” are not really couples at all, but single males posing as couples. There are lots of these. They basically just want pictures and a few dirty emails. In the same category, you’ll find lots of married men whose wives aren’t 100% on board with their swinging endeavors, and they also disappear once they get a few dirty pictures and emails. There are also a lot of cheating boyfriends and husbands out there who want to meet discretely without their significant other’s knowledge. It’s a bizarre guessing game, rife with dishonesty. You’ll also find a few couples who seem sincerely interested, who I suspect just lose their nerve when things get too real. People can flake out and lose their nerve at any point in the event, and it’s best that it happen when you’re still in the preliminary stages. It’s strange and uncomfortable when you meet and have to back out for any reason, or if you get all the way to the bedroom and have to grapple with an eruption of last minute morality or jealousy issues. These can often be overcome to some extent, but they’re unpleasant snags in what could otherwise be a righteous good time.
A few weeks ago we had a couple cancel on us the morning of the day that we were supposed to have an evening date with them. They claimed that the male portion of the couple was cleaning the gutters, fell, and was grievously injured. They promised to reschedule once he recovered, and never have. We were supposed to travel a short distance to meet up with another couple this past weekend. We planned the date for about two weeks, and then they canceled three days before the date citing, health issues. Apparently the male developed a last minute case of strep throat. Hmm, fancy that. They’ve picked a new date about a month away, and we’re mildly optimistic that they’ll keep it. If I were a gambling man, however, I wouldn’t put money on it.
Surprisingly, at the last minute another couple from a nearby town popped up very quickly. They contacted us initially. A few emails were exchanged, and a date set up to meet them instead, on the very same date, in place of the previous couple.
It all came together remarkably well. My wife is a relentless pessimist and skeptic. She was convinced that this wouldn’t go well, but simply went along with it to humor me. I think she was still a little gun-shy from our experience with the Germans. Regardless, we met this couple at another one of our favorite restaurants, this one actually within the city of Pittsburgh.
They were immediately very warm, open, stable, attractive people. He was somewhat tall, head shaved down to skin, very fit, goatee, 36. She was lovely, Italian-looking, 35, about 5’ 5,” average build, and very well endowed. Conversation got off to a great start. He was originally from Sacremento, California. They had met somehow while he was in the Navy, got married, and moved to western PA. We talked about our jobs, food, fitness, and traveling. My wife and I have an abort signal that we use when we’re meeting with couples. It’s very simple. If either she or I determine at any point that we’re completely unwilling to fuck the people we’re meeting, we will just start tapping the other on the thigh. It’s not a specific number of taps, but just a rapid burst. In essence it means, “This goes no further than dinner.” I had been nervously waiting for this signal from her, but it was wonderfully absent. About halfway through dinner I knew that things were going to work out well, and we’d all get to know each other much better during the next step of our date.
There was one additional, though very mild, hurdle to be addressed. We hadn’t selected a location. In my absent-minded optimism, I had told these people that we could just have them over our house if things reached that point, without conferring with my wife first. It’s funny that she has no problem with me fucking other women, so long as they don’t see our house looking untidy while it happens. Fortunately she and I had discussed this on the way to dinner, and she had said that if we decided to fuck these people, that it would have to happen in a hotel. Makes no difference to me. So, after dinner, I explained this all to them with an apologetic air. They thought that it was all very funny, and they agreed to let us select a hotel. They would just follow close behind us as we drove them to one.
After a relatively short drive, we arrived at a hotel about five minutes away from our house. It was awfully convenient. I’m sure the people at the desk thought it was hilarious. The shameful moment of booking a hotel room for four laughing people late at night is something I’ve gotten remarkably accustomed to. The fact that it was a five minute drive from the address on my driver’s license could have only elicited further inferences from the staff as to what we were all doing there. My wife and I hit the hotel bar briefly to grab a couple drinks. Our new friends were actually both recovering alcoholics. While they had explicitly stated that they weren’t bothered by our drinking, they couldn’t drink at all. So they got a few sodas to take up to the room. We all sat and talked for quite a while. It’s a difficult thing to make the transition between simple Platonic conversation to group sex. Alcohol makes it much easier. They didn’t have that crutch, and it also happened to be their very first time swinging. The male portion of the couple didn’t seem to be nervous at all, though his wife clearly was. She kept making frequent calls to their babysitter to make sure their kids were alright. It was funny and charming, though a little bit of a dampener.
Sex got started gently. There were two beds in the room. My wife and I started playing around on our bed, and they started playing around on theirs. Once it seemed like everybody was sufficiently comfortable with that, I blurted out, “Anybody wanna trade?” This was greeted with laughs and unrestrained confirmation. The women both got up, and switched beds. I had no fears at all about my wife and this guy getting along alright. As soon as she left the bed with me to go to him, I smiled at her and said, “Have fun!” She smiled back and went to him. They got started very smoothly and easily. His wife came over to me with an adorably nervous enthusiasm. She was 35, though the expression on her face was that of a girl about to lose her virginity: excited but terrified. I watched her approach very attentively. She was wearing a very elaborate corset and garters. It looked really good on her, though it seemed totally unnecessary. She really didn’t need it. Corsets are nice to look at, but they’re really complicated to get open. Moreover her panties were under the garters, where they usually go, so they couldn’t really be removed without removing the garters first. Not wanting to take the liberty of ruining her ensemble, I had to do all of my work with her panties simply pulled to the side. That was the only way that I was going to be able to get to the important parts. She was like a giant candy bar with an infuriatingly complex but splendid wrapper. I could tell that this woman didn’t want to be totally unwrapped. I’m not sure why, though I could guess. She certainly wasn’t fat, and her breasts seemed pretty firm, like they could easily support themselves. It must have been something else, something pertaining to carrying or delivering children. I got started very gently with her, taking brief looks over at the other bed to check in on my wife and this woman’s husband to make sure that everything was going well. It was. With that, I got much more aggressive with her. I could tell that she was enjoying the experience, despite her nerves. She just needed my guidance. She began to approach orgasm, and I could tell that she was fighting it. This was the first clue that I got that her nerves were stemming from moral issues. She was totally comfortable with the experience as long as she didn’t enjoy it quite that much. She must have been Catholic. I understood completely. I accepted this as a challenge. One of the things that I enjoy most in life is making women cum against their will. I’ve encountered that sort of thing before, with married women in swinging situations. They can rationalize away any sort of sexual playing with other people if it’s just playing, but an orgasm is a pretty concrete thing. An orgasm means you’ve clearly done something. So as I felt her trying to suppress it, I formed a tighter seal with my mouth, sucked a little harder, and wagged my tongue faster. I felt her let go, and as it washed over her I enjoyed my favorite moment of the evening. For better or worse, I enjoy indulgences of my ego more than those of my id. That’s probably pathetic, but I am what I am. She was also very orally talented, and I too had been desperately trying to avoid climaxing. However, my restraint wasn’t at all moral. It was practical. I didn’t want to lose my erection yet. I still had a strong desire to fuck. I asked her if she wanted to, and didn’t really get a response. Not anticipating resistance I got up and grabbed a condom from my coat, thinking that would more solidly convey the idea to her. Her husband saw this, and was visibly excited. He approached me to get one too. I started to hand him one. On the other bed, my wife looked pretty ready for what was coming, and then his wife blurted out, “Are you sure we want to do all that?” It was a ridiculous question, as clearly everybody did. It was also my second clue that her reservations were moral in nature. I had really thought that first orgasm would have sufficiently defeated that impulse, but I guess I’d miscalculated. Apparently my tongue isn’t quite as magical as I had previously thought. Fuck. Everybody played it very gently, and obeyed her wishes. There was a bit more inter-couple playing, but it was all just oral. We switched back to our own spouses to actually fuck and finish off the first round. Some time elapsed, and everybody remained more or less naked, and we all talked a bit. Her husband made gentle attempts to cajole her into fucking me. It was always in the form of rationalizing arguments and light jokes, and it was all very funny. Everybody laughed, and I recall she made some kind of comment about needing to go to church the next day.
At this point she needed to go outside and smoke. She did this, and her husband accompanied her. My wife and I talked about everything that had happened up to that point. We confirmed that we were each having a really good time, and that we really wanted to get past this “no actual fucking” rule. When our new friends returned, they both seemed excited to be back. It seemed that both women were tired. My wife decided to run back down to the bar and buy a few more sodas. She returned with a sack full of Red Bull energy drinks. She had bought all they had left. We each pounded a few while we talked, recharging for the second round. The other woman’s husband told us stories about the Navy. His service had taken place in the late '90s. The best story involved a sex show that he said he had seen in France. He said that he’d gone into these sorts of establishments with moderate frequency when they’d pull into a port, and they would be filled with other servicemen. This particular establishment was half bar and half sex show. In the very front row were a bunch of Marines, “jarheads,” as he called them, each with beers. He sat a few rows back with his navy buddies, all with beers. On the stage a woman was fucking a donkey. Donkeys have huge dicks. Apparently she couldn’t really fuck the thing completely or very effectively, so that portion of the show was relatively short-lived. She got out from under the thing, and began jacking it off, to finish it off and complete the show. Apparently the donkey came really hard, because when he did, one of his rear legs buckled. As his leg buckled, his rear hips dipped, and the woman lost control of his dick. As a result, when he came, he showered the entire front row of Marines in donkey cum. They were covered, and their beers were ruined. He and his navy buddies laughed their asses off, and so did we. It was a great story to hear while naked on a bed amid the ruins of the first round of an orgy, preparing for the second round, jittery from energy drinks.
The second round of sex started much more abruptly than the first had, and was all done in one giant pile on one bed instead of two separate beds. It was much more natural and intense than the first round. We started the thing off by having my wife eat the other woman to climax, while her husband and I each kept her hands and mouth busy. I was very careful not to kneel on her long brown hair. It was spilling out around her head like a cloud across the pillows, and I knew that it would really hurt if I carelessly pulled it by kneeling on it. I was proud of myself for dodging that faux pas. I like to think that she appreciated it, though I doubt she had any idea. She voraciously loved this arrangement. Women love having that much to do in bed. After she came, she switched spots with my wife. We kind of did the same thing for her. Then we all changed positions, and fucked and sucked in different configurations, all in one giant pile. We made the beast with four backs. It must have been a spectacular thing to behold. I’m pretty sure we did everything except vaginal or anal intercourse with each other’s spouses or any sort of male/male interaction. We ended the thing by having each man cum in the mouth of the other man’s wife. The whole situation came together with such precision that one might have thought it was choreographed.
The whole thing ended around two in the morning. Everybody was crashing again. My wife and I had to get home to take care of our dog and get to bed. They were going to remain in the room, sleep for a bit, and then start their drive home in the early morning. They lived about an hour away, and wanted to be able to have their kids ready for Church by 9am. Church. Somehow that’s supposed to make sense. We all hugged in the cold November night in front of the hotel. They lit up cigarettes, and waved to us as we walked to our car. Five minutes later, we were home.
Appropriately, I’d been reading Henry Miller’s Tropic of Cancer during the preceding week. I just finished it off this afternoon. I don’t pretend to write that well, and I don’t pretend to live that well. As a matter of fact, though I’m glowing from my fantastic, life-affirming experience from the previous night, I can’t help but feel a little bit stupid and humiliated. From reading Henry Miller’s novels, I get the sense that recreational sex used to be something much more pure. It seems like people used to fuck like people – more impulsively and naturally. The sex in his novels is always very organic and never forced. All of the experiences my wife and I share with other people are achievements of planning. They always feel like the product of an elaborate Human Resources screening process. They’re victories over our social conditioning, won with great effort. They’re oodles of fun and very satisfying, but they’re also all of those other things first.
Often I think that the fact that my wife and I met at 18 is what drives this need for artificial promiscuity. If we were to have been perfectly monogamous from 18 onward, we’d be depriving each other of a great number of important, life-enriching experiences. We love each other immensely, but we’re human. We’ve got appetites for things that have to happen with other people. If you’ve got a desire to learn about different types of culinary experiences, you’re not going to get them all from the same restaurant. You need to eat at different places. Beyond that, it tempers your relationship in much the same way that that putting glowing hot steel in a bucket of cold water tempers it. It’s a more complete way to know each other. Unfortunately, it’s an activity outside of most people’s range of experience. So it’s a difficult thing to orchestrate.
Wishful literary comparisons aside (as I wouldn’t dare flatter myself like that), Henry Miller lived like a wild animal, and I’m living like a domesticated animal pretending to be wild. We’re not free, we’re aping freedom. We’re eating raw meat fresh from the butcher, and pretending it’s right off the bone of a felled beast which we just killed ourselves. Either way it does taste very good, though it’s easy to confuse one thing for something else. Nonetheless, it’s satisfying in the belly, and I do feel some degree of triumph in at least understanding my failure. In some sense I feel a sense of superiority, however. His conquests were a series of forgiven indiscretions and forgiven infidelities, magnificent but stolen. I take some pride in the fact that my wife and I can have these experiences with each other’s full knowledge and consent: all cards on the table. What we sacrifice in freedom, we gain in honesty.
Monday, May 24, 2010
Our trip to Germany happened right in the middle of a massive and terrible project that consumed all of my time at my job. In the weeks preceding our trip I was working a fair amount of overtime. In the weeks following it, I was working an even heavier amount of overtime. This was a difficult thing for me to swallow, especially in the context of all of the satiated people whom I had spoken with overseas. They all had copious amounts of vacation time. Most Europeans get between four to six weeks of vacation per year. As an American I get two. On top of that, all of the overtime that I had to put in before and after the trip turned out to be greater than the amount of time that I had taken off. That is objectively shitty. That is a failure of our American culture. The meager vacation time to which you’re entitled cannot even be used unless you put in that time beforehand and/or afterwards in the form of overtime. It’s not really time off at all, it’s simply a displacement of time. Yes, they pay more taxes, but it looks pretty fucking worth it to me. They get more in return. Americans have attached great stigma to the word “socialism” as a result of the Cold War, but we’re going to need to defeat our prejudice of the rhetoric and dysfunctional ideals that have demonized that word if we’re going to improve our way of life. These weren’t new thoughts to me. I had grasped them conceptually before our trip to Germany, but the firsthand experience made them incredibly vivid. It was the most valuable thing I learned on the trip.
This might all sound like a lot of bourgeois whining. Very likely it is. These are the gripes of a man with a well-paying salaried job. Many other Americans’ situations are much more difficult than mine. Regardless, I hate working. Reading, drinking, making art, listening to music, and fucking are all so much more rewarding.
That giant unpleasant project finally ended about a month after our return from our trip. It had been a terrible thing to work on. It felt good to be done with it, and as my work routine receded to a more realistic and manageable level I regained my desire for insanity and decadent behavior. It had been a while since my wife and I had done any swinging, and I was hunting for new candidates online. It’s a very frustrating and tricky game, finding good candidates for anonymous sex. We’ve come to a point in our swinging, through years of experience, that we are really only interested in other couples. Singles just don’t work out as evenly. Think about how difficult it is to find a person with whom you click sufficiently well and are physically attracted to. Then multiply that difficulty by four. Everybody has to click. Everybody has to be attracted to each other. It’s difficult.
After a bit of digging online, I found an attractive looking couple. All communications from them were very articulate and intelligent. They looked great. We decided to set up a meeting. When I called the number they provided, a very jovial man answered the phone with a heavy German accent. I already new his name, which was French, however I hadn’t assumed that he was actually European. We spoke briefly and happily, though with great difficulty. His English was good, but hard to understand over the phone. I explained that my wife and I had just been in Germany, and he was elated. They were both natives of Berlin. It seemed like it was meant to be. We’d certainly all get along famously, and fuck like rabbits. I was excited. My wife was optimistic, but only cautiously so. She can be such a realist at times that it’s kind of deflating. They lived about two hours north of us. So we made an appointment to meet them for dinner at a favorite restaurant of ours about an hour north of us. The place was called North Country Brewing. It was a brew pub, and it would be a perfect halfway point, geographically. The excellent food and craft-brewed beer would be a wonderful complement to an evening that would certainly end in gratifying, mind-bending depravity.
My wife and I showed up a little early and each had a beer on the front porch of the place while we waited for them. We didn’t have reservations, and the wait for a table was long. So we stood and drank and enjoyed the air. We’ve done enough of this sort of thing to not get bad nerves about it, but you still get some anxiety. We immediately identified them as they drove past to park their car. They were driving a giant Volkswagen, which seemed appropriate, albeit a little funny. As they got out of their vehicle and approached, they smiled and waved. Good people. They looked a little bigger than in their photos. Another interesting thing that we had learned during our trip to Germany was that when Germans switch to an American diet they tend to gain weight. Germans love to eat, and they do lots of it. American food is more heavily processed, and thus more calorie-dense. So when Germans try to eat American food the same way that they’d eat German food, they tend to gain weight. A burger is not a burger. Regardless, their weight-gain wasn’t prohibitive, at least not from my perspective. The female portion of the couple was still within my weight limit. She was tall, beautiful, and thoroughly Aryan. He looked a little heavy for my wife’s taste, but I was hopeful that his personality could sufficiently compensate. Sadly this quickly proved not to be the case.
I attribute most of the following dissonance to simple cultural differences, not his personal flaws. He was a wonderfully open and generous man. The ensuing experience was, however, about as consonant as fingers raked across a chalk board. His pink shirt was unbuttoned down to the top of his belly. I’m sure this was supposed to be some sign of his being a hedonist and sensual man of the flesh. However it just read as obnoxious and embarrassing, especially in the context of his lack of physical conditioning. Even if he’d been incredibly fit, it would have read as self-absorbed and crass. My wife was mortified. I could see how badly she wanted to simply button just two more of the buttons on his shirt. He also had grown a complex and immaculate goatee. My wife hates facial hair. I couldn’t necessarily fault him on that particular point, as I don’t see anything wrong with facial hair. It was undoubtedly another strike against him, though. It was also dusk, and he was still wearing sunglasses. This is yet another misstep. If it’s clearly not bright enough to necessitate the wearing of sunglasses, you shouldn’t be wearing them. It’s not something that I’ll hold against you, but my wife will. I could tell immediately that this wasn’t going to go the way I had hoped. So I resigned myself to the expectation that this would simply be a fascinating cultural experience. No, it wouldn’t be an experience. It would be revenge! I had just spent a week running around his country being analyzed and judged as an outsider. Now he was on my turf. Western PA, motherfucker! It was a like a little piece of Germany had made the mistake of following me home. I’m not usually one to be consumed with nationalistic fervor, but I felt possessed of the strength that comes from a home field advantage. I would silently damn and be judgmental, and I would enjoy every petty, malicious moment of it, even if the situation was a little embarrassing.
North Country Brewing is located on the campus of Slippery Rock University, so there is always an abundance of college kids around. We had to cut through an army of them to get to the bar. By the time we had fought our way back there, I had finished my first beer. I was ready to order a second, as was my wife. The Germans didn’t know what to make of the huge beer selection. They just couldn’t grasp the concept of all of it. I decided to let my wife flounder in her attempt at trying to explain the beer menu to him. I then walked off with his wife to get a better look at the menu. Her English was better than his, and she was a much more reserved person. She listened attentively as I explained all of the different styles of beer. I explained that if she preferred a more German-styled beer, they had a hefeweisen and a pilsner on the menu. There weren’t any lagers or alt-biers, and since it wasn’t quite October yet, they didn’t have the Octoberfest beer on tap. She was relieved and grateful for the explanation. This phenomenon would persist during the rest of the evening. She would listen and learn and be congenial. He would be defiant and try to be magnanimous. When we returned to my wife and her husband to see if they had made any progress, we learned that they hadn’t. He wanted “the homebrew,” and my wife was trying and failing to convince him that all of the beer on the menu was “the homebrew.” When I repeated this to him no differently than my wife had, he understood immediately. I suspect that he needed to hear it from a man before he could believe it. I provided him the same explanation of the beer styles, and made a selection. Unfortunately, he caught sight of one of the locals drinking from a fancy mug. People can pay a membership fee to the bar for a slightly larger mug that’s theirs exclusively and gets its own peg behind the bar. The membership mugs were fancy, and caught his eye. He wanted one, and I tried to explain how they worked. He didn’t believe me. He asked the bartender. The bartender was really busy trying to sling beers at the army of college kids at the bar, and he really didn’t have the time or patience to listen to this guy insist in broken English that he wanted a “membership mug.” All the while servers were rushing into and out of the kitchen behind the bar, carrying trays heavy with food and beer. He was unapologetically standing in the way. They careened around him angrily, and I, my wife, and his own wife all tried our best to coax him away from his quest for a “membership mug.” Eventually we got him to give up and simply drink from a pint glass like the rest of us. We also got him to retreat with us to a waiting area that was relatively unoccupied. I’m sure the bartender and servers were appreciative. We talked. The conversation was awesome and sprawled all over all sorts of interesting subjects. I had completely surrendered any of my earlier hopes of getting laid, so I just turned it into an interview. I pelted this motherfucker with questions about Germany, and I hid barbs in my questions that I knew he wouldn’t detect. My wife chuckled at this, and his wife seemed politely oblivious. He explained that I was wearing too many clothes, and if we had gone to a good sex club in Berlin they wouldn’t have admitted me on that account. I took note, with more than a little regret that my wife and I hadn’t encountered any such establishments while in Berlin. We mentioned our time in Amsterdam, and he promptly launched into a dissertation on all of the drugs he enjoys. I do always enjoy listening to people speak passionately about something they really enjoy. It was a nice little relief from his unrelenting egoism. We talked about food and beer and public transportation. It was all very funny, and eventually our table was ready.
Getting seated was hilarious and painful. They sat us at a table right beside an air vent. My wife and I sat on one side of the table. He and his wife sat on the other. Previous to this date, his wife had promised to show up without panties. She was wearing a dress, and had apparently made good on her promise. She also had the misfortune of picking the seat right over the air vent. To my chagrin, her dress didn’t billow up like Marilyn Monroe’s. However, once she sat down, the draft was understandably too much for her to tolerate. It was the only pleasantly sexual moment of the evening. I would have loved to have fucked her. She asked her husband switch her seats. He did this, and asked if she was still cold. She said that she was, slightly, and he offered her his shirt, thankfully in jest. He pantomimed ripping it off, and we both cringed and laughed politely. When the waitress arrived, he pre-empted any formalities by asking if they could turn off the air vents. She explained that they couldn’t, and suggested just dropping any extra menu on the vent. A great idea! He just wouldn’t have it though. I guess it was too hackneyed and imperfect a solution to the problem. He asked if we could get a different table. We had already waited about an hour for this one table to open up, and he really thought that they’d be able to just move us to another one at a whim? Fucking ridiculous. My wife and I were embarrassed. The waitress conceded to “see what she could do.” Then when she asked what beers we’d like, since all of us had finished our previous ones, he revisited both the debate about wanting “the homebrew” and the membership mug. My wife had begun mouthing silent apologies to the waitress, which she said the girl saw and acknowledged. When she returned with our beers, she moved us to another table without an air vent. We all ordered food. The conversation proceeded painfully, and further interactions between the Germans and the staff at North Country brewing were mercifully minimal and brief. The food was incredible, as always. It provided a much-appreciated excuse for diminished conversation while we all ate. We got separate checks, and my wife and I did our best to tip very heavily as compensation to our server. It is our favorite restaurant, and we really hope to go eat there again one day. It seemed like the Germans knew that sex, or any further interactions, were out of the question. We walked down to the door with them and wished them a good evening. We smiled, hugged them, thanked them for a wonderful evening and bid them a safe journey home. When my wife and I reached the car we burst into cacophonous laughter that didn’t cease until we got home. The experience was so bracing and funny that the disappointment at the lack of an orgy was totally painless.
Sunday, May 23, 2010
We checked our bags with a short-lived feeling of relief and satisfaction. As the woman at the desk checked in my wife’s bag, she asked how we’d like to pay the overweight surcharge for her bag. It was six pounds over the weight limit. The surcharge was 50 Euros. My wife didn’t want to pay it, so she took out one of the Belgian beer samplers and put it in her carry-on. The crisis was seemingly averted.
Moments later at the security desk, they went through my wife’s carry-on and explained to her that she couldn’t bring liquids on the plane. She was frantic. I was already through security, waiting for her and pissed off. She asked if she could go back to the luggage desk and check in her carry-on. They said that she could, and so she did. My wife is a woman, and thus her carry-on bag was actually a bag of bags. She simply put the Belgian beer sampler in its own bag, and took that back to the woman at the desk. They were kind enough to jump her to the front of the line, and she got the bag checked. She returned to security to an ovation from the whole staff. She smiled and I wanted to choke her. We raced off toward our terminal with barely sufficient time to stop at a vendor and eat a croissant before boarding our flight.
The return flight was much nicer than the initial flight. Given that it was in broad daylight, I was able to look out the window at the ocean and various land masses as we passed them. I took pictures and read my Leonard Cohen book. It felt good to be on my way home.
Saturday, May 22, 2010
The hotel breakfast was good and very comprehensive. By this point we had gotten accustomed to the giant continental breakfasts. My wife and I checked out, leaving our bags with the attendant.
Our primary objectives for the day were The Ramones museum and the Berlin Wall. In two short free subway trips we made our way to the Ramones musem. We found it easily, though unfortunately it was closed. There was a hair salon next door. The door was open and the stylist woman saw us poking around dejectedly. She said, “Sorry, they closed back in January.” We were crushed. Fortunately we had seen quite a few cool record stores on the way there, so we just went back to them.
It wasn’t difficult getting to the Berlin Wall. It was a cool thing to see. Since the wall has come down, they’ve erected a facsimile of Checkpoint Charlie. There were two actors, playing the parts of American and Soviet, soldiers standing in front of it. The checkpoint was in the middle of the street like it would have been during the Cold War. Even though it wasn’t the real checkpoint, it was an intense thing to see. We walked down an adjoining street to see a section of the wall that had been put back up for tourists. We walked around and saw all that there was to see.
At one point my wife had to pee. We found another museum nearby that had free public restrooms. She went in while I stood out front and took more pictures of statues and other things that looked historically relevant. A young Middle Eastern-looking man came up to me and asked me something in German. I laughed and said, “Sorry man, I only speak English.” He laughed and said, “You’re an American?” I confirmed with a smile and a nod. He said, “I’m from Iraq.” The United States had been forcibly occupying Iraq since March 20, 2003. I winced and exclaimed, “Jesus! Sorry about that! How do you feel about...” I paused to think of a polite word for “rape,” and he mercifully finished my thought for me by replying, “…the situation?” I was grateful. I said, “Yes.” To my surprise, he said, “It’s good. Much better. Things were very bad up until 2006, but since then things have improved. There are many fewer explosions and bombings. Things are much more stable. I’ve been going to medical school here in Berlin for a good portion of the occupation, but I’ve stayed in touch with my family and visited a few times. Things are definitely improving.” I said that I was glad to hear it. It was one of those rare occasions upon which I have no words. I really didn’t know what to say, and I’m sure he could sense that. I wanted badly to apologize. It was the only time on the trip that I had honestly wanted to apologize for being an American. I wanted to clarify that I hadn’t voted for George W. Bush either time. I was glad that the war in Iraq seemed to sit well with him, but I wanted to make clear that I understood that we Americans had no right or even a good reason to invade and occupy his country. I was sorry that it had happened that way, but I had nothing to do with it. It seemed like it could be the beginning of a long, heavy conversation, and I don’t think that either one of us wanted that. He was incredibly friendly and good-natured. My wife emerged from the museum, so I shook his hand and said that it had been a pleasure to meet him, but I had to be going. We wished each other well, and went our separate ways. I felt terrible and great all at once. I hadn’t had any plans of experiencing anything that heavy when I’d gotten up that morning.
After a pleasant lunch, we headed back towards the main Berlin train station.
My wife’s cousin hijacked our plans to make a swift, safe return however. She talked us into a brief stop at a Vietnamese café to have some cocktails with some friends of hers. She had talked about wanting to see them, which she could have easily done on her own time. It’s not that we didn’t want to meet them. We just had other priorities. We conceded to meet them, and they were great. They were a married couple. She was very pregnant and German. He was a tall lanky Italian from a small town just outside of Venice. We made small talk, and my wife and I began to get nervous about making the train back to Düsseldorf. They re-assured us that they’d give us a ride, which they did. We all piled into their BMW 3 series convertible and took off like a rocket across Berlin. It was late afternoon, and everything was beautiful. We made it to the train station, raced for our platform, and boarded our train with two minutes to spare before it pulled away. My wife, her cousin and I spent the first two hours of the return trip in the dining car, drinking beers. We spend the second half of the ride in first class. My wife slept, and I read. Expecting that I would finish Crime and Punishment before the trip ended, I had also packed a book of Leonard Cohen’s lyrics and poetry. I read that with my headphones on, occasionally looking up to watch the sun descend over the German countryside. It was beautiful. We weren’t home yet, but the adventure was over.That evening back at my wife’s cousin’s apartment, we packed up all of our things. We went to sleep early so that we’d be ready for our early morning trip back to the airport. My wife had the foresight to leave room in her luggage for the things that she knew we’d buy. Her one oversight was that she failed to account for the weight of the things that we’d buy. Our souvenirs primarily consisted of beer. Beer is heavy.
Friday, May 21, 2010
The train ride wasn’t unpleasant, though it stopped frequently. Berlin is the capital and thus a very popular city. Many people want to go there. I suspect the train ride wouldn’t have taken nearly so long if it hadn’t had to stop every ten minutes to let more people on.
When we arrived at the main train station in Berlin, we were immediately terrified at its complexity and vertiginous height. There were at least 100 floors. I don’t understand how they had trains coming in that high up, but they certainly did. Some trains arrived on raised tracks. The escalators that took you up and down from one floor to the next traversed the main atrium. You could see straight to the bottom all the way up from the top. It was terrifying and difficult to find the platform for our connecting subway train. Our hotel was very decidedly not within walking distance of the train station. We found the right platform and started moving.
There was a second connecting subway train that we had to take, which we did. Once we got off that one, we still had about half a mile to walk to our hotel. As it turns out there were other public transportation options that could have gotten us closer to our final destination, but we were out of patience with public transit. We walked.
The sun and heat were terrible. We arrived at the hotel in a terrible, exhausted mood. The man at the desk spoke good English and the hotel was nice. We really didn’t care, though. It was mid-afternoon, and we had to get moving.
My wife had assembled a plan. After one tram ride and two subway trains, we’d be in the particular part of the city that we wanted to explore. Her plan worked without flaws.
The first thing we did was hit a couple of art galleries. They had some big names on display. Richard Serra was one of them. The place was full of really good contemporary avant-garde stuff. There were even some smaller galleries near it. We hit a couple of those too. Most were crap. There was one really compelling installation at one of them, however, involving a very elaborate dress with dripping candles hung over it, dripping wax down onto it. There were a few cool-looking stores around, and we found a nice shirt to bring back for my sister at one of them. We also found an absinthe shop, and bought a small bottle (not for my sister) to bring back home. We had our quick fill of art and shopping, and decided that dinner and alcohol were next.
In the travel guide, my wife had found a place called White Trash Fast Food that we really wanted to hit. The previous evening, my wife and her cousin had been discussing it. Her cousin has been to Berlin numerous times, and was familiar with the place. She was continually trying to discourage us from going there, claiming that it wasn’t nearly as cool as it used to be. My wife and I are very stubborn people. We’re not easily swayed by the admonishments of other people. Our fortitude was richly rewarded. White Trash Fast Food is owned by expatriate New Yorkers. Likely this was why my wife’s cousin didn’t think it was cool. It wasn’t authentically German enough for her cultured palate. We’re not cultured though, so we thought it was great. With the exception of two guys who seemed to be the owners or managers, and did in fact have New York accents, everybody else working there was German. The place looked like it used to be a very ornate Chinese place that had been ransacked by tacky Americans who broke stuff and filled it up with junk. The restaurant was Germany’s loving critique of American white trash culture. The food was all excellent greasy diner food. They had Guinness. The music playing was generally good. The patrons were all very young and tattooed. There was a band setting up. We actually felt very at home.
My wife’s cousin met us there. She had caught all the right trains, dropped her bags off at the hotel, and found her way to the restaurant pretty quickly. We had already finished eating, and sat and drank more while she ordered and ate. It was just nice to be someplace trashy with loud music, good beer, and good food. It was nice to be somewhere that I didn’t feel like I stuck out.
When we finished eating and drinking there, it was time to start bar-crawling up the street. Apparently a bunch of my wife’s cousin’s favorite Berlin bars were on that street. There was a place that she raved about just down the street. I don’t recall its name, but it was apparently owned and run by Italian anarchist punks. Once inside, it looked like a cross between a beer hall and an Italian villa. The place was packed. We sat down at a long table. There was a “Reserved” tag on it, and we just pushed it down to the other end of the table. There were only three of us, and the table looked like it could easily accommodate a dozen people. The irony of anarchists running a restaurant that accepted reservations wasn’t lost on me. Anarchists are always funny for exactly that reason. They always talk about their spite for laws and other forms of social control, but they like paved roads and the ability to make reservations at a restaurant. Funny. We waited patiently for a server to find us. After ten minutes had gone by, my wife’s cousin managed to get the attention of one of them. She was a lean, tall, beautiful Italian woman who looked to be in her early 30s. I was excited. My wife’s cousin tried to ask for menus, and she replied, “No English.” We tried again, and got a nastier, “No English!” My wife and I decided that it was time to leave. We got up and walked out with my wife’s cousin following, trying to convince us to give the place a chance. Nope. In Germany (and the rest of Europe too, it seems), servers get paid a regular living wage and don’t depend on tips the way they do back in America. Thus there’s no incentive for them to serve you well. It’s nice because you’re only supposed to tip 10%, but the service often sucks. I believe that our way is superior. Regardless, we weren’t about to sit around this place any longer. The crowd looked lame. It was a bar with an identity crisis, and I didn’t feel like participating in it.
Less than a quarter of a mile up the road, we found a nice quiet outdoor café, and we all sat around a table and had beers there. It was relaxing and easy to talk. My wife’s cousin had been using her iPhone relentlessly the whole time we were with her. It seems like most people with iPhones are utterly addicted to them and flagrantly obnoxious and pretentious about showing them off. I don’t even know what she was doing with it, most likely searching for more bars in the area, checking her email, or blogging about something. I don’t know or care. I’m not really a Luddite, but I took the opportunity to argue from that side of the fence. I really enjoy being contrary and argumentative sometimes, and this seemed like a great opportunity. Oddly, my wife’s cousin has really taken web technology to heart and believes in the wild proliferation of media and social networking sites that have choked our world with self-consciousness and vanity. It was fun to get her ire up. I love arguing. I don’t really hate the Internet at all, quite the contrary. I just think that it became lame and pointless as soon as big business got their hands on it and turned it into a commodity. Big money and advertising make things stupid almost 100% of the time. I blasted away, and she defended these strange, intangible, imprecise, abstract notions about people connecting and sharing ideas with technology. I explained that really brilliant ideas tend to come from individuals, not groups. I said that people in groups are how wars get started. I know it’s a wild over-generalization, but I just wanted to frustrate her. It worked. My wife watched in amusement, and occasionally chimed in to add weight to my side of the argument. At that point the argument ceased to be about technology and became about “the individual” versus “the group.” I really enjoy being drawn into these sorts of ideological debates. I don’t believe that individuals should have the power to control, dominate, or take advantage of large swathes of people. At the same time, I don’t believe in peoples’ collective right (as a society) to dictate the rights of an individual, as long as that individual isn’t hurting anybody. The objective of a civilized society is achieving the correct balance of rights for the “individual” and society as a whole. It seems like a very moderate stance to me. Essentially, I argued from this perspective. She took a far left stance, and argued on behalf of all things communal. The argument ended when I said that I was a big fan of Ayn Rand’s The Fountainhead and asked if she had ever read it or any of her other books. She hadn’t.
Next, we hit a place called 8mm. It looked cool and had a slightly older, more sophisticated crowd. There was a DJ playing loud, uninteresting music that I didn’t love, hate, or recognize. Their beer selection was pitiful. I don’t recall seeing any women who excited my fancy. The place was very okay, not bad but not great. Fashionably, mildly raw, yet thoroughly safe. It seemed to be the sort of place that a slightly more intellectual, mature, cultured, literate, yet still mildly gritty, counterculture liberal crowd would hang out. It seemed like a place for very cerebral degenerates to hang out without fear of being mugged. I love these kinds of people as I’m essentially one of them. However, they’re not the liveliest bunch on earth. My wife and her cousin started talking about something, and I couldn’t hear any of it. I pretended to listen. I nodded a lot. It was tiresome. If I’d have been able to talk to somebody I’m sure I could have loved the place. It wasn’t meant to be. We moved on.
Around 11pm my wife saw a place that looked like exactly her cup of tea. It was called Last Cathedral. There was a faux finish all over the front of it that made it look like it was made out of stone. They even had a wrought iron gate. It was immediately apparent that my wife would need to go in. She loves these kinds of places. It was overflowing with the obligatory goofy-looking goth kids. They’re not a bad bunch, just kind of sad and predictable. I wasn’t exactly psyched, but we proceeded.
The place was packed, and seating was very limited. Remarkably, a table opened up, and we laid claim to it quickly. I said that I’d hold the table while my wife and her cousin went to the bar to get the drinks. Almost immediately, the two pretty young girls at the table behind me spun around and introduced themselves to me. Things were looking up. It was clear by their accents that they were Irish. That excited me. It seems like, when traveling abroad, people who speak English natively seem to band together. It’s always easy to identify people who speak the language naturally. They both looked good, and were sisters. That excited me even more. I was beginning to feel the effects of a long evening of drinking. I don’t recall exactly how many beers I had consumed at that point, but it was substantial. I told them I was an American, though I knew it was an unnecessary thing to formally declare. I explained that my wife and I were on our first trip to Europe, visiting her cousin. One of them asked me how we had liked Germany so far. I think I said something like, “Baby, we should have gone to your country.” I explained that many of my favorite things in this world come from Ireland. I could see their bullshit reflex was, understandably, triggered. I immediately qualified my statement with a list of awesome fucking things that came from Ireland: Thin Lizzy, The Pogues, Guinness (and thick stout beer in general, which likely made me visibly weepy), Bushmills (and blended Irish whisky in general, which was a mild fib as I prefer bourbon), shepherd’s pie, and my mother’s mother. I think I was counting on my fingers as I listed these things, and I laughed at myself for doing so. They laughed at me too. I topped off my display of Irish-itude by declaring, “…but fuck Bono!” I had it locked up. In that moment I knew that I was about to bed the two of them, my wife, and her cousin. The ensuing depraved orgy would be legendary. Things were looking good.
My wife and her cousin returned to the table. My wife was overjoyed that I’d made some new friends. I introduced everybody. Apparently my wife was carded at the bar. My wife is 29, but doesn’t look a day over 12. The drinking age in Germany is 16. She was complaining about this to the group, and the Irish girls laughed. The older Irish girl was 26. Her younger sister was only 17. I was a little startled and almost felt badly for having such lascivious thoughts about a 17 year old. It passed quickly. The age of consent in Ireland is 17, and in Germany it’s only 14. I was in thoroughly safe legal/moral territory by either standard, and she seemed like a very mature young woman. If you’d told me she was 21, I wouldn’t have doubted you. The younger Irish girl had been carded too. She explained that the drinking age in Ireland is 18, and she can’t drink in bars back home in Ireland. I was shocked, and queried, “There’s a drinking age in Ireland?” They laughed.
Things took a somewhat different turn as all of the women started talking and cackling in turns. Apparently they both had boyfriends back home. I couldn’t really hear most of the conversation. The music was generally terrible. My buzz was beginning to fail and I didn’t feel like fighting my way up to the bar for another pint of light fizzy German beer. I just didn’t feel like spending money on it or drinking the calories.
The three guys from Denmark must have seen that there was a table of four good-looking women and only one man, so they came over to talk. They all appeared to be in their late 30s. Unas was the leader. There was also a guy named Pietro, and an Asian guy whose name I don’t recall. They were all from Denmark and desperately trying to get laid. They had made the Denmark part explicit, but not the getting laid part. None of them looked like anything my wife would be interested in. She immediately clung to my arm, and explained that she was married to me. The Irish girls each produced cell phones with pictures of their boyfriends from back home on them. It didn’t seem like either of them were into the Danish guys either, though it seemed funny to me that pictures of boyfriends from far away adequately discouraged these guys. My wife’s cousin had no such easily available excuse, though she generally kept quiet and hid behind the rest of us. It was easy to see the three guys from Denmark recalculating their odds. They were all very drunk, and eventually they all ended up talking to me. They seemed like really good, intelligent guys. I could easily identify with them and their plight. Unas gently began in on a various cultural indictments against America. He was right on all accounts, so I offered no resistance. I verbally agreed with him, and at that point he decided that we were indeed brothers. Eventually I ended up talking to Pietro. The Asian guy whispered something to him that seemed to alarm him. Pietro abruptly said, “What?” The Asian guy repeated more loudly, “What Unas is saying is that we should leave all of the women with Jay.” Pietro smiled. The Asian guy laughed. Unas laughed. So did I. They told us what bar they were headed to next, and departed. We all waved. It was 2:30am, and I clearly wasn’t getting anywhere. My wife and I decided to leave. The Irish girls laughed and said we had better get to bed. All of the women exchanged email addresses, and posed for a group picture. After taking the picture, we went upstairs to leave, and my wife’s cousin resolved herself to stay out later. She said that she was going back to 8mm and not to wait up for her. We asked her if she was sure, and she said, “Yeah. I’m going to try to meet up with some friends.” Fair enough. She’s a grown woman, and I don’t think that Berlin has much violent crime. We weren’t really all that concerned. We felt somewhat lame going back to bed so early when there was still fun to be had. However, we only had half a day to spend in Berlin the next day. We didn’t want to have to spend it sleeping. Returning to the hotel to sleep was clearly the right thing to do. We walked back, and went to sleep pretty quickly. Her cousin never came back.
Thursday, May 20, 2010
We resigned ourselves to the fact that our Brussels experience was kind of lame, and headed back to the train station. We took a different route back to it than we had initially taken when we arrived. Our gamble was rewarded as we found a lovely pocket of stores selling Belgian chocolates and beers. We bought a substantial volume of expensive chocolate and a small sampler of various excellent beers. Once back at the train station, we were excited to board our train and get the fuck out of Brussels.
Once we returned to Düsseldorf and back to my wife’s cousin’s apartment, my wife wanted to rest some more. Her cousin was still at work. So I sat and read. By the time I had finished Crime and Punishment, my wife was ready to head out into Düsseldorf for another evening of light shopping, gallery hopping and dinner.The last stop on our trip was going to be Berlin. We were headed there first thing Friday morning, and we’d be returning Saturday. Sunday morning our flight back to the States would be leaving. My wife’s cousin is very fond of Berlin, and decided to use half a vacation day on Friday to accompany us to Berlin.
Wednesday, May 19, 2010
As we stood on the platform, we saw another train boarding and ready to pull out that looked like it was headed to another city just beyond Brussels. It seemed safe to assume that it would make a stop in Brussels. So we considered boarding it in a hurry, though we hesitated for fear of the potential mess that deviating from our plans could entail. The attendants all blew their whistles, indicating that the train would be leaving imminently. Hearing that whistle meant that if you were going to board you should have done so by the time you heard it, though they’d still let you on if you moved quickly. My wife panicked and ran up to one of the attendants. He was a slightly older-looking gentleman. She immediately began pelting him with questions in English. “Is this train going to stop in Brussels? Is it too late to get on? Do we need reservations?” He really did not like this. His expression turned angry in an instant, and he fired back, “This is Germany! We are Germans!” What my wife did was rude, no doubt. The whole time we were in Europe, I was careful to politely ask people if they spoke English before speaking to them in it. If they agreed, I would proceed with the fevered question asking. In her haste, my wife had skipped the first step. It was easily understandable, given our generally sleep-deprived state. Though I could understand his irritation, it seemed to me that the hostility of his response was disproportionate to my wife’s transgression. He had to know that by lecturing my wife on the etiquette of speaking the native tongue of a place when you’re visiting it, he was making us miss the train. My wife is never one to back away from a verbal exchange. As she was gearing up to shout, “Fuck you! And Fuck your country!” back at him (I can read her mind), I pulled her away by her right arm, and we disappeared into the crowd. It’s one of the reasons I love her. I generally don’t mind it, as she often saves me the trouble of getting shitty with people by doing it for me, but in this particular situation it didn’t seem like a good idea. She can be a fiery woman, and it’s charming even when she’s wrong, as in this case. My heart smiled.
Fuck him and his country, indeed. I had generally liked what I’d seen of Germany thus far, and hitherto I hadn’t met a German whom I hadn’t liked. They’d all been very kind and helpful. This guy was just a passive-aggressive redneck. We have them at home too. They’re the same people who don’t want Spanish taught or spoken in Florida or California, and they have “These Colors Don’t Run” stickers with American flags on their pickup trucks. Germans don’t like excitement. They don’t like it when the polite and efficient habitual social patterns fail. They get unhinged easily. Days ago, when I’d sat on the concrete lion, the guard had lost his cool, as if I could have somehow hurt the concrete lion by sitting on it. If you had dropped me out of a plane onto the concrete lion, I couldn’t have hurt it. The train attendant blowing his whistle and guarding the door obviously spoke English, as evidenced by the fact that he was able to lecture my wife in it. Germans just don’t know how to handle commotion. Then again, we may have been assholes for bringing our uniquely poisonous brand of American dysfunction with us across the Atlantic to infect the land that had given the world the Third Reich, light fizzy beer and extremely well-engineered cars. The fact that we were spending our American tourist dollars in his local economy quickly assuaged any feelings of guilt that I had almost felt. Yes. She was right. Fuck him and his oversensitive country. Off to Belgium!
When the train that we had planned on taking arrived, we boarded it. Our passes were first class, and we ran to the first available private room that we could find and sat in it. These rooms are one of the nicest aspects of the high speed trains that run around all over Europe. They’re well worth the extra expense. Each room generally contains four or six plush leather recliners, all positioned around a heavy wooden table, all enclosed by two heavy sliding glass doors. We threw our bags down and sat in the opposing window seats of the first room we found. It is somewhat wasteful that two people should be the only ones occupying a room made to accommodate six, but nothing prevents anybody else from coming into your room and sitting with you. They’re equally entitled to it. Shortly after we had settled in, a family of three came in and sat with us. There were two females and one male. I couldn’t tell if they were all siblings or if the eldest female was the mother. She was, however, clearly the one in charge of their little group. Once we heard them speak it, was clear that they were very English. I know that there are subtle dialects and variations of English accents, though I’m not familiar with them. All I could tell is that it was English. We all started talking. They were great people, and it was refreshing to speak comfortably with strangers without being concerned about speaking too fast for them. My wife retold the story about the angry train attendant, and the lead English woman exclaimed, “That cheeky bastard!” I laughed hard, and nearly blurted out, “Holy shit! You people really say that!” I restrained myself as I feared that it might be taken the wrong way. I was somewhat delirious from my lingering jet lag and mild sleep deprivation. They left the train before we did. We wished them well, and they returned the gesture. Wonderful people can be found anywhere.
We arrived in Brussels early in the afternoon and it was ungodly hot. I had arrived in Brussels possessed of the irrational notion that it was slightly north of our point of origin and thus would be of slightly cooler temperature. I was very wrong. It felt no different than August back home.
We began our 45 minute walk to the hotel. The man at the front desk of our hotel spoke excellent English, and got us squared away with a deluxe room very quickly. All of the rooms in the hotel were themed for different countries all over the world. We got the India room. It was really incredible, and not very expensive, considering the ornate interior. The closet door was hand-carved with images from the Kama Sutra. I took pictures. We left our bags and headed right back out in search of our first destination in Brussels.
The Cantillon Brewery makes a variety of very specialized beers in very traditional Belgian styles. These people have elevated the production of beer to a level of sophistication rivaling fine wines. There was an old man at the desk who spoke decent English and gave us a brief explanation of how the self-guided tour works. We paid him. He gave us a sheet of paper with information to be read at each stop on the tour, and he sent us on our way though the brewery. My wife played tour guide. Breweries are cool. We’ve toured a bunch of them back home, and this one wasn’t very different except for the fact that it was much older. It struck us as funny that the tour was conducted without supervision. Aside from the potential risk of us stealing trade secrets, the legal liability of turning people loose seemed egregious. We could have easily fallen off of the ancient spiral staircase and mangled ourselves. It seemed apparent that Belgians must not be nearly as litigious as Americans. They probably have a more common-sense legal system that wouldn’t tolerate those sorts of shitty, opportunistic lawsuits aimed at nothing but extracting money for irresponsible personal behavior. Good for them. We were careful to use the railings and not touch anything. The brewery was beautiful and old. At the end of the tour, the old man brought us samples of their beer and it was incredible. Whereas I don’t really enjoy fruit beer very much, my wife does. She loved it. I didn’t love it, but it was markedly better than any fruit beers that I had tried at home. We bought a small sampler containing a variety of the different styles they made there.
After we left the Cantillon Brewery, the trouble began. Neither one of us was drunk, but we hadn’t eaten in quite a while. We were very hungry. The extreme dry heat amplified this. I don’t know exactly what part of Brussels we were in, but it was like a ghost town. Just about everything was closed, and there weren’t people around anywhere. We made an effort to look for a food place that seemed worthwhile and authentic. Quickly we realized that this was out of the question. We found a small quaint-looking deli that had sandwiches and beer. It was family run. We cautiously asked the woman at the counter if she spoke English. Not a word of it. She didn’t even know how to say “No.” She just smiled bashfully and shook her head. My bullshit meter is pretty sensitive, and I could tell that she wasn’t lying. She did, however, motion for her son to come over. He looked to be about 13, and he did speak a little English. We had no cash, and he explained, thankfully before we ordered, that they don’t take credit cards. Thus started our next hunt: we had to find an ATM. This took a good half hour. It would have been impossible if not for our GPS. Once we had money we returned to the deli, ordered, ate, and each had an excellent Belgian beer. Belgian beer is arguably the best in the world, and in Belgium it really is cheaper than water. The food was good, but not incredible. We didn’t care.
Once lunch was over, we embarked upon our next adventure, still limping from the first one. We were headed for the main art museum in Brussels. I love art museums. We hunted vigorously, and even took a subway to save ourselves some of the trouble of walking a great distance. The subways in Brussels run on the same honor system that they do in Germany, and once again lacking honor, we rode for free. Thanks, Brussels. Strangely, the subway trains all smelled like horse manure. I didn’t exactly understand how that was possible, since horse manure is a specific and unmistakable scent. It didn’t seem likely that anybody had brought any horses or their waste onto the trains. There wasn’t much time to wonder about it. After some mild navigational difficulties, we made it to the museum, just in time for it to close. We were utterly out of patience, and just decided to return to our hotel room to regroup. When we got to our room, we both fell asleep on the bed for a solid two hours.
After our nap, my wife prepared herself for an evening out. We planned on taking it easy, as she was beginning to feel unwell. I was beginning to get paranoid about all of the stealing of public transportation that we were doing. I determined that we should get subway passes. We went down into the station and over to the kiosk. I asked if he spoke English. He replied, “No.” He was lying, but I didn’t care. I held up two fingers, and asked for two passes. He responded in French, the official language in Belgium, with the total money we owed for them. I didn’t understand. My wife actually had four years of French in high school and a semester of it in college. She quickly interjected that she spoke a little French, but could he please slow down a little. He repeated himself with the same cadence he had the first time, only just a little bit louder and more annunciated. My wife still couldn’t understand him. He could tell this immediately, and he began counting on his fingers in French. He made it to the number nine. Then he repeated it, and said something else afterwards that must have been the change. I gave him a ten euro note, and he gave me some small change in return.
There was one particular bar my wife had really wanted to find to eat dinner in. After riding the train to the correct part of town, we began looking for it. We failed, but persisted for a while in looking. We must have been in the very touristy part of town, because there were tons of restaurants. Each one had a maître d’ standing out front, calling to passersby, and they were all extremely loud and pushy. Eventually we gave up searching for the bar and began walking through the maze of restaurants and cafés, looking for something suitable. There were lots of places selling crepes. We like crepes. So we picked one. The crepes were good. My wife’s situation was beginning to worsen, though. She was feeling sicker, and suspected that she was developing a urinary tract infection. We resigned ourselves to just head back to the room after finding some cranberry juice.
This proved impossible. Apparently cranberries aren’t very readily available or popular in Europe. We even looked for a pharmacy, where we hoped to find something that might be helpful. We failed and just went back to the room. There was a vending machine in the hotel lobby where we would be able to get my wife plenty of water. That would have to be enough.
The gracious man at the front desk was no longer there. Instead there was a very attractive-looking woman who looked to be in hear early 40s. I considered making a comment to my wife on that point but decided against it. We approached her and explained my wife’s problem. As it turns out, her English was every bit as good as that of the man who had been there earlier. She understood completely. She had a remedy for it that she kept at her home, but didn’t have handy. She said that she would call her husband. He would drive it over, and she’d send him up with it when he arrived. She was easily the nicest, most helpful person we met the whole time we were in Europe. He brought a few tablets of something that looked like a simple over-the-counter medication and provided instructions for taking it. We thanked them both profusely. My wife took the tablets as instructed. We spent the evening in the room watching TV and eventually went to sleep early.
Tuesday, May 18, 2010
Prior to the trip, some friends had warned us not to try to bring any drugs back from Amsterdam onto the train. On our way back to the station we realized that we had a surplus of weed and some herbal ecstasy capsules remaining. Given that I was raised Catholic, I have a very strong reflex that prevents me from wasting anything potentially useful. My wife wanted no part of any of the remaining material. She needed to stay straight to ensure that we successfully made it onto the correct train and found our way back to her cousin’s place. So I ate everything that we had left, which entailed just about a gram of weed and eight capsules of herbal ecstasy. It wasn’t unpleasant. When you eat weed it affects you more slowly and gently than when you smoke it, but for a longer period of time. It was a nice way to ride the train.
When we got back to Düsseldorf it was late afternoon. We dropped off all of our things in her cousin’s apartment and headed out. We didn’t have any really strong plans. We just went to walk around the shopping and drinking area. We weren’t licking our wounds, we were just gathering energy and strength for Brussels, Belgium. That was the next day’s destination.
Monday, May 17, 2010
Once we had arrived, we immediately checked in at a hotel. High Times had rated it very well, and we had selected it as our first choice based upon that. We lacked reservations, but didn’t suspect that we’d need them on a Monday. We were correct in that assumption. The place was called The Greenhouse Effect. It was on a small street in the red light district. There were actually three separate places that all comprised The Greenhouse Effect. They had a bar, a hotel, and a coffee shop where they sold weed and hash. The various rooms of the hotel all had unique names. I forget what ours was called. If the stairs leading up to it had been any steeper, they would have been a ladder. Fear seized upon me as I thought about what it would be like negotiating those stairs later, when I wouldn’t be nearly so sharp. The walls in our room were blue and orange and had those strange Dutch wooden shoes nailed to them. Conveniently, the coffee shop portion of the hotel offered a discount on weed and hash (I forget the percentage) if you showed your room key.
The first thing we did was go to the coffee shop, split a pot brownie, and buy a gram of weed to carry us pleasantly through the afternoon. It was cheap and fresh, and the quality was very good. Another wonderful convenience was the menu. All of the various strains of weed and hash were broken down by type, and explanatory text outlining the different properties of the various strains was provided. This was especially useful given the fact that back home, this degree of specificity is entirely unavailable unless you’re growing your own. Back home you’re lucky if you can find any at all of decent quality. Regardless, we made our selection. They had free rolling papers just lying around. So we made our purchase and were on our way very quickly.
Amsterdam is tacky, and makes no illusions otherwise. It’s relatively small and quaint, but almost entirely neon-lit and overflowing with souvenir shops. Everybody speaks English here, because there’s such a large volume of American and English tourists. After a quick look around, we stopped into an Argentine beef restaurant for lunch.
After lunch was finished, we went straight back into the red light district to see a sex show. We decided that we had to do this with the full knowledge that it would be an overpriced let down. My wife and I have had our share of group sex, so we’re quite familiar with the site of two people fucking in front of us. However, we had never seen paid professionals do it. The prospect of seeing something unusual or learning something new was sufficient to snare us. Moreover, seeing it done on a stage would likely be kind of surreal. In the broad afternoon daylight, we canvassed every street in the red light district. Most of the prostitutes weren’t out yet. There were just a few in the windows who looked like they were getting started early. The sex shows all looked the same from the street. They each had a carny of sorts in front of the entrance trying to gather people and free them of their money.
I believe that we paid 30 euros for the show that we saw. It was comprised of three parts. First there was a stripper. She wasn’t what I’d call “fat,” but she was above my weight limit. I wasn’t really turned on at all, but being a connoisseur of strippers, I was curious to see what she was going to do to distinguish this from any other strip routine that you’d find anywhere else in the world. It was generally uninspiring until she went down into the audience and grabbed a young man who appeared to be about 20 years old. He was with friend, wearing sweatpants, and obviously not aroused. Sweatpants betray that sort of thing very completely. She walked him up to the stage, and made him put on a strap-on dildo over his pants. Then she ordered him to lay on his back. He did all of this without objection. Then she squatted above him leaving her gaping vagina vulnerable about six inches above the tip. She instructed him to thrust up into her. He did this. The dildo must have been nearly as big around as a pop can, and it went in without any visible resistance. After the head and about half of the shaft was inside her, she stood up a little, and he courteously descended back down to a resting position. She raised herself about another six inches and requested that he penetrate her again. He did this, albeit with a little more effort, given her increased height. At the same depth of penetration she raised herself another six inches, and again he descended. This repeated a couple times until she was standing at her full height and he could not reach any longer by simply arching his back.
The second stripper was in much better shape. Her routine was much the same as the first, except at the end of it. As her routine was ending, she sat on the edge of the stage with her legs spread wide, and began pulling out the string of beads that had been up inside her the whole time, one bead at a time.
The couple came out right after the second stripper finished. The female half of the couple was the first stripper. The male was an older guy. Surprisingly, their routine started out with a slightly theatrical bent. They were standing at the center of the stage. He was dressed like a monk of some sort, and she was dressed as a nun. Almost immediately, she got down and began idly sucking his dick. Eventually all clothes were shed. They didn’t go through many positions, and the show ended with him laying on his back with his feet towards the audience, with her sitting on top of him, riding him. At no point was any of it sexy.
The sex show had been a let down. We had known it would be, so it wasn’t a shock. It was, however, disappointing. The whole thing must have been about half an hour long. So far our arrival in Amsterdam had entailed a pot brownie and some weed, a few beers, a tour of all the prostitutes, a sex show, and a few of the goofy novelty shops. We decided to go back to the hotel room and do a bit of screwing of our own to work off the energy. We did this, though I’m not sure that it did anything to release tension. To the contrary, I think it amplified it.
When we emerged, we went down into the hotel coffee shop and ate another pot brownie each. Immediately afterwards we went into one of the head shops and bought some packets of herbal ecstasy. Real ecstasy is illegal in Amsterdam, along with other hard drugs like heroin and cocaine. The herbal formulas that roughly approximate it are legal, however. They were actually easily available in the US until some point in the mid-1990s. I’m not 100% certain whether or not it’s currently legal in the US, but it’s impossible to find back home. It’s relatively safe, unless you’re allergic to any of the ingredients. Basically it provides a mild euphoria and energy rush. So we gobbled it all up and went on our way, looking for dinner. The weed high from the brownies and the early effects of the herbal ecstasy were gently creeping up. Though we were still fully functional, we weren’t exactly thinking clearly. All of the food options in Amsterdam seemed unacceptable, and it came into our heads that we needed to find an Irish pub. We scoured Amsterdam for one for a good hour, walking briskly. Eventually we got lost and gave up. A decent-looking pizza place presented itself, so we went in and ate.
A good smoking session was in order immediately following dinner. We did that, and decided to just spend the rest of the evening strolling the red light district, looking in the windows at the prostitutes. They were out in much larger numbers than they had been earlier that afternoon. With daylight gone, all of their windows were lit up red. Given the physical characteristics of the performers in the sex show we had seen earlier that day, I had assumed that the vast majority of the prostitutes in the windows at night would not be all that appealing. I was wrong. Just about all of them were gorgeous. They came in all varieties of race, age, shape, and size. We were both kind of shocked. We had seen a few out in the afternoon, and they generally looked good. These ones were actually somewhat amazing. Also surprising was the sort of vaudeville performance quality of the experience. There were legions of tourists and a whole lot of prostitutes in bright red windows. The windows were actually doors and generally very standardized. They were all lit red, of course, and led into a room that appeared to be about ten feet deep and maybe eight feet wide. It was like a winding parade or a giant coiling snake of tourists strolling casually around, admiring the women. None were nude. They almost all wore extremely skimpy bikinis, but they were all covered. I never saw so much as an errant nipple. They would occasionally open their windows and step out onto the street to shout things into the crowd. One shouted to us, “I do couples!” with a big grin. As we walked away she shouted, “Where are you going?” and laughed. There was a lot of this sort of thing going on. Sometimes they would pretend to bicker back and forth with each other. Many of the male tourists got out cameras and tried to photograph them. This was not allowed, and the prostitutes each had their own ways of dealing with it. First they would try waving a finger in disapproval. Then if the guy persisted in setting up his shot, they would simply pull their curtains shut or duck back behind the wall in their window space. On only one occasion did I actually see a girl come out of her window and start yelling at the guy in the street. We didn’t see many men actually approach the girls. When this happened, the guy would walk up to the window. The girl would open it, and they would presumably discuss business. Surprisingly, it seemed like the whole transaction and sex act took place in the window. Each window had a padded table in it, and a curtain that could be pulled shut. My wife really wanted me to fuck one. She kept pointing out ones that she knew I would like. My palate is pretty broad, and I can appreciate most persuasions of women. My wife is very in tune with the subtle things that I especially like, however. She was completely willing to spend the money on it. She just really felt like watching me fuck one. It was a tempting proposition. The prospect of fucking an attractive stranger behind a curtain in a street-level window, and then leaving without strings, was an appealing prospect. I don’t really get hung up about money, but it just didn’t seem like a good idea. Diseases are one of my phobias. I expressed this to my wife and she conceded, though she persisted that perhaps I should “just buy a blow job?” She tried to assure me, “Certainly that must be safer?” She was pretty high, and she can be remarkably persistent when she’s in that state and aroused. The final surprise point pertaining to the neon and red light parade of red windows, girls, sex shows, porn stores, and coffee shops was all of the drug dealers in the streets. Shady guys would dart out between buildings and approach random tourists muttering, “You need something?” Many were so forward as to just name the drugs they were selling: “E? Coke?” Despite Amsterdam’s general tolerance of most mild, naturally occurring drugs such as weed, hash, mushrooms and such things, hard drugs are still not legal there. So they can’t sell them openly in the stores or coffee shops. I don’t know just how illegal those things are, but I wasn’t about to find out. I really didn’t need to get arrested on drug charges while on vacation on the other side of the Atlantic. Beyond that, I have no experience with such substances and wasn’t in the mood to engage in any dangerous experimentation. We managed to find our way back to our hotel room without me fucking a prostitute or buying any hard drugs. I don’t recall what time it was. We fucked furiously on the bed and passed out.
Sunday, May 16, 2010
We got breakfast in a small café. Knowing that we’d end up drinking a lot that day, my wife and I both decided that we’d get the healthiest thing possible for breakfast to diminish the caloric damage done by all of the impending drinking in the afternoon and evening.
After walking around and exploring Düsseldorf for about an hour or so, we began to head towards the beer festival. It was a subway ride and short tram ride away from my wife’s cousin’s apartment and where we had eaten breakfast. The festival was very similar to some that we had attended back home. These were a little more family friendly. There was less variety of beers, and more variety of foods available. After a while, we wandered out towards downtown Düsseldorf.
On our way we saw a goofy-looking mansion. It looked incredibly out of place in Germany. It was pink, very ornate, and had beveled edges on its roof. Germans only make things stoic, gray, and with perfect right angles. So this place stood out like a drag queen in a redneck bar. I later learned that it was one of Napoleon’s homes. Other people were wandering over in droves to look at it, so we went along with them. At the top of the front steps there was a pair of concrete lions flanking the steps. I immediately climbed up onto one, sat down on it, and raised a fist victoriously over my head while my wife’s cousin took a picture. From a healthy distance, a security guard yelled something at me in German. I got down immediately and he lost interest. We wandered around the mansion some more, posing with things and taking pictures. Once it had ceased to be funny, we left.
The bar scene in Düsseldorf is amusing, to say the least. Germany has no open container laws at all, so you can drink in the streets without being concerned about any legal repercussions. However, you’re not allowed to smoke in any bar. Bars have gotten around this by handing out waivers at the door. You can’t get into the bar without signing the waiver to allow other patrons to smoke in your presence. Good shit. Very funny. Likely that’s where things are headed back at home anyway. So my wife’s cousin took us to one of her favorite local bars. She said it was the nearest thing to a punker bar that they have. We entered, sat down, and puzzled at the music playing over the stereo. It was some very bad 1980s cock rock, and the décor looked very country-western. A server came to our table with our waivers. We signed them and ordered. There were only two options. This bar really reinforced my theory that Düsseldorf is in fact just a satellite of Pittsburgh. Oddly, the server kept track of our orders by making tick marks with a pen on a cardboard coaster. This was another comical expression of the honor system at work in Rheinland. Nothing prevented us from throwing out the coaster, taking a new one off the pile, and making our own tick marks- in substantially lesser quantity. We didn’t do this, tempting as it was. Eventually we moved on to other bars, dinner, and more bars. We planned the next day, which would be Amsterdam.
Saturday, May 15, 2010
Once at Düsseldorf Hbf, we were utterly terrified and confused. There were lots of trains (both subway trains and large high-speed ICE trains), leaving from a variety of platforms, headed for lots of different places. There were screens with up-to-the-minute train schedules on them, with not a word of English anywhere. My wife was rested from her sleep, but I hadn’t slept a wink and was groggy and irritable. We bought a very cheap cell phone and loaded it up with a few prepaid minutes. Before leaving on the trip, my wife had confirmed with our phone company back home that our phones wouldn’t work in Europe. We tried her cousin again on our new cell phone, without luck, and walked out of the train station, where we saw a field of trams with different numbers running up and down different streets. My wife recognized the number on one of them as being the number that her cousin had mentioned that we’d need to take. The tram traveled in two directions. Her cousin had mentioned something about one direction going to a University, and said that we’d need to go the other direction. We did this. Once on the tram, we were again baffled to find nobody to pay and nobody to check our tickets. This tram was supposed to drop us off right in front of her apartment, a few short blocks away. All we knew was that her apartment was above a pharmacy. So we each kept our eyes peeled. When we saw a pharmacy that resembled her cousin’s description, we got out and called again from our new phone, with a reasonable degree of anxiety. Success! Her cousin answered. She had just awakened. We informed her that we weren’t at the airport or train station any longer and were in fact standing in front of her apartment. Within a few short moments she came down to greet us and guide us up to her place to unload all of our bags, which I had been carrying.
Düsseldorf in August has almost exactly the same weather as Pittsburgh in August, just about 90 degrees Fahrenheit. Coincidentally, it’s a very similar city. It’s certainly a real city, though not a very major one. I believe it also used to be similarly industrial. So in a strange way, my wife and I had just flown 12 hours from Pittsburgh to Pittsburgh. I felt pretty gross, as I had sweated completely through my clothes from carrying the luggage in the heat, and it was a new day despite the fact that I hadn’t slept. I was still wearing the same things that I had worn the previous day. So I showered and changed into a fresh t-shirt and shorts. While my wife freshened up and hatched plans with her cousin, I napped. It lasted about half an hour.
We left the apartment to go eat lunch and catch a train headed for Fulda. It’s a small and somewhat remote town in Germany, about two hours away from Düsseldorf by ICE train. There we would see the band In Extremo performing in the courtyard of a 200 year old castle. They’re one of my wife’s favorite bands, and they never play in the States. So our time in Germany would be the perfect opportunity to see them live. She had planned it months in advance of the trip. Before boarding the train to Fulda, we got lunch at a nice restaurant with café-style outdoor seating. It was very nice, and her cousin brought us up to speed on a few important things. Nobody uses credit cards anywhere in Germany for anything. They operate almost strictly on cash unless you’re buying a car or a house. The subways in Germany aren’t free, but they operate on the honor system. Since we’re Americans and thus lack honor or morals, they were effectively free for us. We laughed riotously at the notion of such a system being implemented in New York City. My wife's cousin said that in the year that she’d been living in Düsseldorf, she had only ever seen people checking tickets on three occasions. She said that the ticket checkers are very conspicuous, and there are automated machines on all of the trains. So when you see the ticket checkers approach, you can just rush over and buy a ticket. On all three occasions she was able to do this and avoid being fined. We made note. Lunch was excellent. We all had beers, which were oddly very small. They were also very cheap, cheaper than water actually. Refills came very quickly. Lunch itself was pretty great. My wife ordered the blood sausage, because she’s occasionally given to fits of insanity. Oddly it was very good, though very bloody, as you could imagine. I tried a little, and she ate most of it. The potatoes were awesome. We were paid cash and left for the Düsseldorf Hbf via the subway. There we would catch a train to Fulda.
We had six days’ worth of “all you can ride” first-classs ICE train passes. They were very big, expensive, complex train tickets that required you to show your passport each time you used them. Unlike the subway trains, the ICE trains had abundant attendants. They did not operate on the honor system. However, the attendants didn’t check your tickets until you were already on the train, and it was moving. Apparently, if you get caught riding without a pass you would be given a hefty fine. We had no desire to find out. We rode in a dining car for most of the two hour train ride to Fulda. We all had beers on the train. Once we arrived in Fulda we explored a little bit, though there wasn’t much to see. We killed some time exploring, and it was time to eat again. So we did. I had pizza and more beer. The beer in Germany is all of excellent quality, though Germans are incredibly narrow in the variety of beers they have. Essentially they like pilsners, hefeweisen (wheat beer), and something called ‘alt-bier.’ I still don’t know exactly what alt-bier is, but it tastes like a pilsner, only slightly maltier. Germans basically like their beer light and fizzy. They don’t enjoy or tolerate any sort of stout, porter, ale, or barley wine.
Dinner was good, and the show was good. We’ve seen tons of shows in our time, and they’re not really any different in Germany than they are back home. The evening was essentially uneventful except for the crushing fatigue that began to seize upon me. I nearly fell asleep standing upright a few times. Once the show ended we raced back to the train station to catch the very last train out of Fulda that day. We caught it by mere seconds. The ticket checker took a look at our ticket and stamped it. No problem.
At about 1am we arrived back at the apartment, and I slept like I was dead.
Friday, May 14, 2010
The flight from Atalanta to Düsseldorf was long and cramped. In front of me sat the only motherfucker on the whole plane who felt like he needed to recline back as far as his seat would allow. He was German. I was already pissed off with the locals and I wasn’t even there yet. I’m 6’ 2” and thus I scarcely fit in most plane seats anyway. My knees were thoroughly crushed when this inconsiderate jackass reclined completely. My wife had secured a prescription from her doctor for some sort of sedative to knock her out for the flight. She took one, and it worked. She clocked out almost immediately. I got out Crime and Punishment, put on my headphones, and started reading. The flight went without any real incident, and we arrived in Düsseldorf at 7:20am local time. The total time spent from our departure in Pittsburgh to our arrival in Düsseldorf was about 12 hours, and we lost 6 hours to time zones. 18 hours total.