Saturday, May 15, 2010

August 2, 2008

To our amazement, our bags had made it across the Atlantic with us. Everything was there. The fact that we heard no English being spoken anywhere in the airport was immediately unsettling, though most people whom we had bothered with questions had spoken very good English without objection. We had made firm plans to call her cousin from the airport upon our arrival. We did this from a pay phone, and weren’t at all surprised when she failed to answer. My wife left her a cheerful message announcing our arrival. We knew that we needed to get to Düsseldorf Hbf (the main train station in Düsseldorf), where we were supposed to meet her cousin. From there, she was supposed to guide us back to her apartment. We found our way through the airport to the subway platform and boarded the correct train, planning on trying to phone her again from the train station. We made certain that we bought subway passes for our ten-minute subway ride to Düsseldorf Hbf. We were a little confused to find nobody there to take or check our tickets, but we paid no mind.

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.

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