Germany and Belgium

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September 7, 1994. I have read many travel articles where the author was running late and nearly missed a train or a connection but, of course, I never thought it would happen to me! Last night I stayed out until 1:30am, even though my ferry was leaving at 8:00am. I should know better. I set four separate alarms on my watch and slept through every one of them. I woke at 7:25am, thinking that the alarms had not yet gone off. When I looked at the clock, I panicked. My ferry was leaving the port in 35 minutes. I hadn’t packed, I still needed to check out of the hotel, my car was in the parking lot a block from the hotel, and the port was a 15 minute drive away. I laid back down and gnawed over my options.

My choices were either to throw away my US$300+ ferry ticket and make reservations for another day, or throw away the ticket and spend two or three days driving to Germany through Poland, or run like hell and try to catch the ferry. In two minutes I was out of bed, frantically dressing and stuffing things into my suitcase.

I called the receptionist, told her I had overslept and was running to catch the ferry. I asked them to check me out while I finished packing. When I got to the reception desk, my bill was 1130 EEK, but I only had 900. I threw in 100 DM and she quickly calculated the exchange rate and gave me back 578 EEK. Then I walked as quickly as I could with my luggage to the parking lot down the street. I made it to the port at 7:52am. The guard was a little irate that I had arrived after the 7:20am check-in time, but he examined my passport and auto registration, and ushered me on the ferry. I made it!

The best news of the morning is that, although I reserved a bunk in a three-person cabin, expecting to share it with two other passengers, I have the entire cabin to myself.

The trip from Tallinn to Travemunde takes 36 hours and the entire ferry is constantly vibrating. This makes my bunk sort of like Magic Fingers with an unlimited supply of quarters. I am sleeping in the belly of a giant purring cat.

Three Sailors Went to Sea Sea Sea

The ferry ride is dull beyond description. I spend most of my time in my cabin, since the only entertainment the ferry provides is video poker and foreign movies in the bar. Also, I’ve caught a cold and I’m feeling generally miserable.

On the second day of the trip, a couple of hours before docking, I overhear a young man and woman speaking English in the cafeteria, so I ask to join them. His name is Yvan and he is from Belgium. She is from Hamburg and her name is Ulriche (pronounced ool-REE-keh). She has been studying at the university in Tartu for the last year and, as she speaks, she frequently lapses from English into Estonian.

Yvan has been traveling for three weeks and has run out of money. He plans to hitchhike back to Belgium. Ulriche says she is not sure how she will get from Travemunde to Hamburg. After 36 hours of solitary confinement, I feel gleefully selfish offering them both a ride to Hamburg.

In Hamburg, we drop Ulriche at the Hauptbahnhof (the central train station) and, after getting hopelessly lost searching for the campground/hostel where Yvan plans to stay, he and I end up sharing a double room at the Hotel Terminus. I’m not happy with the name of the hotel, as this was also the name of a documentary film about the Nazi war criminal Klaus Barbi. Nevertheless, the Hotel Terminus is in a convenient location and, at 90 DM a night (about US$60), the rooms are inexpensive by German standards. I think the term “flophouse” applies.

Don’t Fear the Reaper

Boy am I dense! If you have ever seen a bottle of St. Pauli Girl beer, you probably remember the buxom young fraulein on the label, cheerfully toting a pair of frothy mugs. I always pictured her as a symbol of wholesome innocence, like the Dutch milkmaid on a bar of chocolate. Wrong. The young woman immortalized on St. Pauli Girl’s label is the prostitute of the Reeperbahn, the main boulevard in the Hamburg district of St. Pauli.

Reeperbahn is described as the “world’s most sinful mile.” World’s sleaziest mile would be more accurate. In truth, it is nothing more than a lot of peep shows and dildo shops. Venturing off the Reeperbahn, however, you wade knee-deep into sin with a capital “S”, resplendent in all its carnal glory. Although on Reeperbahn there is nary a hooker in sight, St. Pauli’s narrow side-streets have so many streetwalkers you can hardly wangle past as they aggressively vie for your business. This scene you might expect to see in Bangkok or Amsterdam but, to me, it seems oddly out of place in affluent and conservative Hamburg.

The most surreal street in St. Pauli is the infamous Herbertstrasse. This tiny thoroughfare, just one block long, is closed to cars, children and women. You see, Herbertstrasse houses nothing but brothels. Wearing sexy white lingerie and bathed in fluorescent black-light, Hamburg’s most beautiful prostitutes line the front windows, beckoning you to come sample their wares. The strange dreamlike quality of Herbertstrasse evokes a couple of vivid images for me. The first is of the Haunted Mansion at Disneyland, with its grizzled animatronic ghosts awash in fluorescent green and violet. The second is of beef and sausages hung in the sidewalk windows of a New York butcher shop; here in St. Pauli sex is just another business.

Art for Art’s Sake, Money for God’s Sake

After a nice long sleep at the Hotel Terminus, Yvan and I go out in search of breakfast. Restaurant prices are so high that we opt for some fruit and bread from a local market. I should mention that I offered to give Yvan a ride to Koln, since it’s about halfway to Munich and close to his home. He said that if I wanted to see Belgium, I could stay with him in Liege. (In Germany, Liege is called Luttich. I’m not sure what it’s called in English.) Koln is nearly on the Belgian border, and Liege is only 50 km on the other side, so I accept.

Next we plan what to see in Munich. My guidebook recommends the Kunsthalle as one of the finest museums in Germany, so we decide to check it out. The Kunsthalle is showing an exhibit of 19th and 20th century paintings and sculptures from the Guggenheim in New York. The exhibit includes works by Picasso, Kandinsky, Miro, etc. I dig the Kandinskys, but my favorite piece at the exhibit is a triptych called “Three Studies for a Crucifiction” by Francis Bacon. Although these paintings are abstract, there are recognizable human forms that have been vivisected and disemboweled; it strikes you with tremendous emotional force. I tell Yvan it makes me feel like meat. He agrees.

Liege is about 600 km from Hamburg but, at 150 km/hour or faster, it is a reasonable drive. I’m glad now that I bought the BMW. Even at 180 km/hour (about 110 mph), it’s quiet and comfortable.

We stop in Koln so Yvan can call his parents and let them know we are coming. He has been gone for three weeks and we will be arriving at 11:00pm, and he doesn’t want to surprise them. My guidebook recommends the Koln Dom Cathedral as one of the sights worth seeing. This is an egregious understatement. Admittedly, there are a lot of magnificent cathedrals in Europe, and maybe I just haven’t seen enough of them to become jaded, but the Koln Dom is a jaw-dropper. It is like an enormous cavern turned inside-out, with massive stalactites becoming great spires; like some extrordinary drip sandcastle that took hundreds of years to build. The inside is supposed to be equally impressive, but we are here at night and the cathedral is closed. If you ever get anywhere near Koln, you must come see this building.

On the Border

When we cross the Belgian border I am surprised that there are no border guards, no passport check, no customs. It has been this way throughout the European Community for two years now. Today, traveling among western European countries is much like going from one state to another in the U.S.

Yvan jokes that the two man-made structures you can see from outer space are the Great Wall of China and the Belgian highway system. There is more than just a little truth in this joke. At night, the highways in Belgium are lit up like daytime. They use those yellow, low-power sodium vapor lamps every two meters or so, the entire length of every highway. The only way it could be any brighter would be to switch to white lamps.

We arrive in Liege on the weekend of the 50th anniversary of the liberation of the city by American troops. There are Belgian and American flags flying together throughout the city. We spend Saturday afternoon exploring Liege, and Saturday night we join his parents at home for dinner. Also there is a woman who is celebrating her 69th birthday, a friend of the family. Most of the conversation is in French and I do my best to follow it. Yvan occassionally tells me what’s going on and he translates when I want to interject something. Yvan’s mother is a superb cook, the conversation is edifying and, despite the language difficulty, I have a wonderful time.

Sunday morning, I heft my bags into the car and thank everyone for their hospitality. I promise Yvan, who will be studying in Spain next semester that, if I make it to Spain on this trip, I will come see him. And now I’m on my way to Munich.

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Copyright © 1994, Kenn Nesbitt