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Europe Notes, Part 2: Paris, Amsterdam, and Berlin

Catacombs in Paris, France. Photo by Clay Duda.

What follows is part two of a four-part series of journal entries I typed on my iPhone during a month-long trip across Europe. Read more about our itinerary here, or just read on and learn as you go. That’s kind of what I did. (Also see part 1, part 2, part 3, part 4)

Europe Day 7, June 16, 2015:

Paris is kind of dirty, at least compared to Oslo. It reminds me a lot of New York City, but I can’t understand what anybody is saying, or even order a baguette with out acting a fool. I need my German tour guide back.

We spent the afternoon trying to get to our Airbnb reservation in the 19th district near the Parc des Buttes-Chaumont in the northeast of the city, and then we played with the metro lines to figure out how to get to the Eiffel Tower and back. The good thing is there are so many metro lines you don’t even really have to plan. You just keep walking and when you’re ready to hop a train you look around and voila! There’s a metro entrance.

We grabbed a few sandwiches and drinks from a bakery near our flat (ours for the next two days, at least) and ate a late lunch in the park. Then we made for the city’s biggest lightening rod and watched the sun set behind the throngs of tourists wielding selfie sticks.

Now, for the last hour and a half, I’ve been on the phone with AT&T tech support trying to figure out why my phone will not text anybody, or at least some of the people I need to get in touch with in different countries. The tech support gal is supposed to have called me back already by now after doing yet another restart on my phone. To paraphrase: “well, we don’t know what’s going on, so just try restarting it again.” Not exactly how I planned to spend my first night in Paris, but I can’t say I’m surprised.

The Louvre in Paris. Photo by Clay Duda.

Europe Day 8, June 17, 2015:

It’s now after 2 a.m. Wednesday morning. I’ve spent more than 2 hours on the phone with AT&T and my issue still isn’t even close to being addressed. Around 1 a.m. I was told to restart my phone and they would call me back in 5 minutes. That never happened, so after 40 minutes I called again and was put on hold. They can’t connect you with the same person, or course, because accountability is far too much to ask from these clowns. After 30 minutes on hold  the tech guy came back and said he was transferring me, then prompted disconnected the call. I guess I’m coming back for blood, but it will have to wait until the morning.

My feet hurt. Paris is huge. We crammed three days worth of stuff into one 12+ hour day hoofing it from the Louvre to Notre Dame, and then on to the Catacombs on the south side of the city. We shopped and ate along the way.

We took a recommendation from our Airbnb host, Ophelie, and grabbed lunch at Pasta Linea down in the fourth district. I had three different kinds of pasta and all were delicious, but none compared to the vegetarian lasagna. If you’re going to shop, even at second-hand stores, Paris is the place to do it. I also recommend Portland, Oregon.

The Louvre was simply amazing, but there’s nothing simple about it. We journeyed through some of the finest art churned out by us humanoids over the centuries and gawked at tourists gawking at the Mona Lisa. She looked nice, but I enjoyed the time and intimacy many of the other works afford.

Hats off, again, to our German tour guide we last saw in Oslo. Instead of waiting in the hours-long queue at the main gate we snuck in through the Lions Gate entrance, which only had 2 people in front of us and happens to be in the same wing as the Mona Lisa. Talk about a pro trip.

The 6 million dead people in the catacombs greeted us with a smile, but as with most attractions the throngs of tourists tamped down what could have been an excellent experience. Over all I came away feeling like I had just toured an amusement ride instead of a museum, although there were definitely some interesting points, like the quarry work and some of the history that went into the cavernous south side of Paris. Still, we didn’t do the guided tour or hire a tour guide, which may have made for a more fulfilling experience.

Now it’s 10:30 p.m. and we are gearing up for our first leg of train travel tomorrow. Paris is the only city that requires reservations to make your getaway, and we screwed around and waited until after 8 p.m. tonight to get down to the station and make ours. All nonstop trains to Amsterdam tomorrow were booked up, but the nice lady did find us a connecting train through Brussels and also booked our seats for our next leg to Berlin on Friday. So off we go.

We’ve had things somewhat planned out up to now with places to stay and such, but now our freeloading ways have caught up with us. I must go now and research so we actually arrive where we need to be tomorrow.

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Couples dance near the Eiffel Tower at dusk. Photo by Clay Duda.

Europe Day 9, June 18, 2015:

We made it from Paris to Brussels on €1.70, or at least we could have. That’s the price of a one-way ticket on the metro in Paris. In theory you also need a €10 ticket to make it to the Aeroport de Gaulle and an actual train ticket with reservations to make it out of town. But nobody ever checked any of our forms during the first leg of our journey aimed for Amsterdam. In the train terminal at the Paris aeroport, after figuring out we didn’t actually need the two metro tickets we paid a total of €20 to get where we are now, I gave them to a bewildered couple from the U.K. for a €10 donation. (I told them to just take the tickets since we couldn’t use them, but they insisted to give something. Good chaps.)

While it was a hassle to get reservations on a train out of Paris, once in Brussels the lady at the ticket counter truly didn’t understand our concerns. “Just get on the train and find a seat. All you need is your EuroRail pass,” she said.

Well ok then. That’s more like it. Now we’re Amsterdam bound on a sparsely populated train with plenty of leg room.

Tons of bikes parked at Amsterdam's Central Station. Photo by Clay Duda.

Europe Day 10, June 19, 2015:

The Dutch know how to party, or at least milk tourists looking to party. Overall, our night in Amsterdam was a lot of fun, to say the least. It was our first night in a hostel, a place called Hans Blinker close to the Red Light District and super cheap compared to pretty much every other place we found. If you’re looking for a no-frills place to crash (basically a bunk bed and a restroom) I’d go with the Hans, though I’m sure your experience largely has to do with the other guests staying in your six-person dorm. It cost €45 total for both of us.

We kind of blew our budget here, which we’ve arbitrarily set at $100 a day, including accommodations, for me and wifey. But the food was exquisite and the spirits high. We had dinner and sampled a wide selection of high-octane local brews at De Brabantse Aap, a bar and restaurant near Spui and Nieuwejids Voorburgwal just up from our hostel. I have to recommend the home marinated spare ribs and a Belguim Barbàr beer. Grab a seat by the window or out on the street and watch the hundreds pedestrians and cyclists breeze by.

The city’s transportation system probably best sums up the Dutch approach, at least in Amsterdam. The cobblestone roadways and sidewalks blend together with no curves or barriers in some sections, and it’s basically a free-for-all of zigzagging bikes, tourists, mopeds, cars, and trams whizzing in all directions. But somehow it works.

Now we’ve just made our train for Berlin, which is a six-hour ride away.

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Europe Day 11, June 20, 2015:

Our old friend Claus greeted us at the train platform last night in Berlin with a bottle Berliner Luft, a peppermint liquor that gives Listerine a run for the money. Not far outside we saw the TV tower, one of Berlin’s most famous attractions.

It’s so interesting jumping from city to city in such a short period of time and taking in the differences in architecture, people, and the general vibe. Berlin is a larger city than Paris I believe, but it has much more room to breath. The mix of east and west architecture lends to a soviet feel at times. The lines seem much harder and more rigid than I remember in Paris, and so does the demeanor of some of the people. But German can be a harsh language on the ear, especially if you don’t know what is being said.

Claus is living in the eastern part of the city in a happening neighborhood called Friedrichshain. We spent our first night eating sushi at Mikoto Sushi in another trendy neighborhood nearby, then a drink or two at Zu Mir Oder Zu Dir (Your Place or Mine), a laid back living room bar Claus says is his favorite. Finally we took the “party bus” 10 tram back to the apartment to wind down the evening. He has also been working and entertaining clients most of the week, so we all just wanted to chill and catch up on life.

Tomorrow we will try to do some of the tourist stuff around the city, but we must see how the weather holds. The forecast calls for rain.

The Berlin skyline seen from Klunkrrkranich. Photo by Clay Duda.

Europe Day 12, June 21, 2015:

We made it to a rooftop bar, Klunkrrkranich, on top of a shopping mall in Karl-Marx-Strasse (Neukōlln) yesterday evening and had a panorama of all the places we visited spanning across the city, from the Eastside Gallery to the Holocaust Museum and Brandaburg Gate to Alexander Plaza under the TV tower to the neighborhoods of Kohbusser Tor (Kruezberg) and Brenslauer Berg (Schöneberg).

Today we started late in the morning along what remains of the Berlin Wall, where for some Euros a ‘guard’ dressed in a soviet uniform will stamp your passport to enter eastern Berlin — it’s just for fun. Some currywurst is a must-have while in Berlin I’m told, so we grabbed a dish there at Curry One, a shop right next to the wall.

From there we went to Alexander Plaza and tried to make for the not-so-well-known rooftop bar on the 37th floor of Park Inn hotel, but because of the weather it was closed for the day. The grey clouds gliding overhead finally caught up with us as we arrived at the holocaust monument and museum. We waited in the rain for half an hour to hear the stories of those lost in the genocide of the Second World War. What a somber and wrenching experience. The Führerbunker, Hilter’s holdout, is now a gravel parking lot next to a tourist hole renting Segway tours and selling scraps of the Berlin Wall.

It turns out this week is gay pride in Berlin. The U.S. Embassy had a teddy bear Statue of Liberty wearing a rainbow flag in its front window. With our host last night we went to a festival in the Nollebdorfplatz in Schöneberg on the westside of the city and then to an alt dance club, Dunker, in Brenslauer Berg. There people let loose, throwing down on the dance floor to hard rock, some oldies, and what I consider general alternative rock. I liked the music, but I couldn’t quite find my groove to give it a go myself.

We met up with some of Claus’ friends at the festival and drank glasses of sparking wine in an elegant, old second-story apartment overlooking a stage as a swing band tooted its own horn. Thanks to Lars and Martin for making us feel welcomed in their home. By the time we left there around midnight the streets were starting to slow down, but the party was still going in the subway. We finally made it home about 3 a.m.

Spreepark, an abandoned amusement park in Berlin, Germany. Photo by Clay Duda.

Europe Day 13, June 22, 2015:

It’s already 6 p.m. and I kind of forgot to recap our previous afternoon before falling out last night or hitting the town again this afternoon.

Yesterday we got a pretty late start after our night out partying, but around 1 p.m. We headed east to Treptower Park to visit Spreepark, an abandoned amusement park with a ghostly vibe. They’re quite serious about security these days because someone lit the wreckage ablaze last year, so we didn’t enter. Despite the ‘beware of dogs’ signs some kids did skirt the security fence and made it inside. Maybe a few years younger and I would have done the same, but I have a goal of not going to jail this trip. The old park is flanked by the River Spree. Abandoned Dinosaurs, concession stands, and circus tents are now tangled in the undergrowth and wrapped in weeds. The old Ferris wheel still moves in the wind.

From there, we headed over and waded through the flea market at Mauerpark. There were tons of stalls, knickknacks, clothes, and other goodies. Sunday also happened to be Fete de la Musique, a massive music festival with stages spread all over the city. We ordered some Gössers, an Austrian beer that tastes like its mixed with Sprite, and sat up on this hill to watch a hip-hop performance. Later we hooked around the block for some swing music in an old, now-repurposed brewery.

Overall it was a pretty laid back day, which was great. We wound down the evening with schnitzel and a Berliner Pilsner at an old-school Berlin establishment near the foot of Claus’ apartment building.

Today we took it even easier. Claus was off to work this morning and Melissa and I slept in, did some laundry, and went to the market. We needed a recharge day, though we did spend a few hours wandering around the four-story mall at Alexanderplatz to pick up a few souvenirs for our families.

Tonight we may go grab a bite, and tomorrow we head for Prague.

>> Continue on to Part 3: Prague, then Budapest

Fete de la Musique 2015 at Mauerpark in Berlin, Germany. Photo by Clay Duda.

Love is in the air at Fete de la Musique 2015 in Berlin, Germany. Photo by Clay Duda.

>> Continue on to Part 3: Prague, then Budapest

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Clay Duda is a freelance journalist specializing in investigative reporting, feature writing, editorial photography, and digital media.