Thursday, 26 May 2011

Drinking Horseradish with God

About one hundred kilometres south of Berlin is a cute, little village called Lübbenau. It's the sort of place that old people go to on coaches for the day, walk around for ten minutes before realising that ten minutes is all they really needed, and then spend the rest of the day in the pub forgetting that there's no toilet on the coach for the two hour journey home.

Lübbenau has some peculiar obsessions. For a start it has a cucumber museum. I don't think I've ever seen a statement that has demanded the question 'Why?' as much as that one. It also has several shops claiming to sell eighteen types of mustard and ten types of horseradish. And they're not talking about Dijon or anything as mundane as that either. No, here you can buy, for reasons known only to its manufacturers, raspberry mustard. Hang on, maybe that one requires a 'Why?' even more.

Now I could have sampled some fruit-flavoured mustard for my International Eat Something Daft challenge but I'm already doing fairly well in Germany on that front. In Berlin I had Sülze, which is cubed pork snouts in a red sauce but looked like the stuff that oozes out of the stomach of a roadkill cat. Then I had sucuk, a nicely spiced Turkish sausage, which was really quite yummy. And then today I had something that I'm still unsure of until I google it later. The menu said Grützpinkel, a brand new German word to me. I was especially attracted to the final two syllables because in my childhood home, and in no other house in the world, the male member was known as a 'pinkle'. Perhaps my dad had imported the word subconsciously from a German holiday. Or perhaps he'd been a Nazi spy during the war. That's unlikely given that he wasn't born until 1939. I know they recruited 'em young but informant toddlers can't be up to much. Sorry, I'm waffling.

So I asked the waitress in German what a Grützpinkel is and, beaming slightly mentally, she replied, "It's a Grütz sausage, of course!" with a tone that implied only a knob doesn't know that and now don't you go asking me what a Grütz is, you big bell end. So I didn't. Minutes later they arrived, two great, fat, grey wangers, on a bed of spuds and sauerkraut. I tucked in. Well, I tried to tuck in. My fork bounced off the first sausage's protective sheath. When I finally penetrated its rubbery outer, the innards spilled out revealing the contents of a baby's nappy. But it tasted alright, a bit black puddingy, but gooier. I've never written the words 'puddingy' or 'gooier' before. Neither looks quite right. Anyway I quickly polished off the phalluses. The discarded, inedible sausage skins, covered as they were in brown gunk, looked dangerously like something you might find on the floor of a homosexual porn set. That's an image that might stay with you for a while. If so, I'm sorry about that. Anyway, I finished up, paid my bill and scored me a photo of God. OK, let me explain.

Cor, just look at the size of my pinkel!

The Lovely Nina's challenge for Germany involved photographing God, or at least someone who looked like Him, on account of Germany's beautifully atheistic mindset, just to prove that He might actually still be here. For ten days cycling through the country, Jehovah hadn't crossed my path but then I found Him in Lübbenau. I put the camera away satisfied with a task well done and then, in the space of a minute, saw three even better Gods just walking around the place like then owned it. Well, if one of them really was God then maybe He did. Without the camera ready for action, their presences had to go unrecorded. You'll just have to make do with the shit God I actually managed to capture. Now I look at it again I think I may have just photo'ed Captain Birdseye.

God, earlier today

After the cooked pinkles and the encounter with a pantheon of Gods I decided to go for a beer and, just as I was leaving the place and about to pay, I saw that the bar had taken their horseradish obsession off into a much more agreeable direction. They were selling small bottles of horseradish schnapps. Obviously, I bought one and, I have to say, it's freakin' magnificent. Imagine drinking a chilled shot of vodka and then being smacked in the face with a fistful of horseradish. That's what it's like. In a good way. If anyone out there is in the alcoholic beverage import-export trade, please come here and buy it up. It's got Saturday night in Macclesfield written all over it, especially the being hit in the face bit.

So, in short, Lübbenau is a bit mad. Let's hope it continues. What will I find in the next village tomorrow as I keep heading southwards through Germany? A brussel sprout activity centre, cakes shaped like vaginas, bottles of pickled onion wine? Who knows? But it sounds like my kind of town.

Monday, 23 May 2011

The Kingdom of Quirkiness

Berlin, welcome to the top of my favourite cities list. This is an amazing place. I'd expected less. Cycling through northern Germany had been a little ordinary, with uninspiring scenery and unexciting villages. Then I hit former East Germany and it picked up a bit. The larger towns had something about them, like Stendal, Brandenburg and especially Potsdam, a little shabbier but also quirkier. But Berlin is something else. It is King of Shabbiness in the Kingdom of Quirkiness, at least in Kreuzberg, where we stayed. Other districts are tidier but duller as a result.

There's too much to do. Rather than five days, I could have stayed five months and still not experienced all of it. We saw the Jewish Museum. We had to. There is a strong suspicion that The Lovely Nina's grandma on her mother's side was Jewish. If Jewishness is matrilineal then Nina wanted to connect with her people. As well as the usual sickening holocaust stories, the museum offers some interesting spaces-as-art. One of them, the Exile Garden, is a perfectly symmetrical seven by seven grid of rectangular concrete towers topped with olive trees. The weird thing is that the ground is cobbled and slightly sloping and so while you wander between the blocks surrounded by all this precision you feel disorientated. You have to find your own interpretation. Never employ a German builder, perhaps. There are lots of other stuff like that. It's a museum you come away from with a memory of feelings rather than facts.

We also saw the Stasi museum, housed in the old Stasi headquarters, a massive complex of dozens of utilitarian tower blocks, a monument to time wasted in the name of population control. The museum houses a funky collection of espionage toys, like bugging devices. There was also a secret camera built into a watering can so that people could be spied upon at cemeteries, and a oil drum with a similar device so that it could take pictures of people in parking lots. Bonkers. If they'd spent half as much effort in dealing with their economy as they did spying on their own folk, their socialist dream might not have all gone tits up. It must have been awful living in East Germany during that time, with your every move under scrutiny and everyone desperate to find some intelligence. You must have felt like Katie Price.

When we had our three days in London we rented an apartment. It's about the same price as a hotel but you feel like you're actually living in the city. And importantly you've got a decent kitchen at your disposal, vital in London where a very ordinary meal can cost you up to one kidney. We did the same here in Berlin but, for a capital city, eating out was ridiculously cheap. We've had sushi, thai and Turkish meals for just a few euros. We even ate some German food I think.

And this has been the cheapest place to drink on my ride so far. A lot of minimarts put a picnic bench or two outside their shop. You can pop in, buy a beer from their fridge at normal shop prices and sit outside and drink it chatting to your mates. It seemed to be the way that a lot of the locals in this area socialised. It's certainly cheaper than paying three pounds fifty for a pint of fizzy shite from your local in the UK.

So, in conclusion, I feel like at some point after this ride is over I'll have to live here. It's got too much going for it not to. Kingdom of Quirkiness, let me in.

Wednesday, 18 May 2011

Berlin, Love and Sausages

I'm excited. It's easy to take for granted those you love. Y'know, you see 'em every day and they are just there, being themselves, but still just there. But if you go away for a while you realise just how important they are to you. That shouldn't have to happen. You shouldn't need the distance, but that's how it seems to work out. It sharpens the mind. I haven't seen The Lovely Nina for about six weeks now but, come lunchtime tomorrow - my birthday - we will be reunited, provided she's got on the right bus at Berlin Schönefeld airport and got off at the right stop in Berlin's Kreuzberg area. If not, then by the time you read this she may be stranded in some distant suburb of Berlin with no German and a tiny bag of underwear.

Northern Germany has been very average. It has had the Netherlands' lack of contour action but without its quirky prettiness. The cycle paths have tended to stick close to busy-ish main roads rather than take you off down quiet, canal-lined lanes and - not really Germany's fault - the weather hasn't been quite so sunny. On the other hand, the choice of sausage has improved markedly.

The switch from former West Germany to former East Germany was a fairly sudden and obvious switch just east of Wolfsburg. Suddenly, all the villages became a little more unkempt and the petrol stations that had kept me supplied with Lion Bars dried up. But for all that, the place became more interesting to look at. It felt more like I was travelling somewhere exotic, which is strange really because the eastern towns had a more rundown, Blackburn feel to them, in that everywhere seemed to have suffered a distinct lack of recent investment and variations on the shell suit became a not uncommon sight. And just like Blackburn, every male over twelve looked like he could take my face off without weaponry.

But it's Berlin I've been looking forward to. I'm here for a mini-holiday for five days. Once I've rescued The Lovely Nina from the suburbs we've got some exploring to do. I've done very little research. All I know is that there was once a wall here or something. OK, I know more than that, but not much. But whatever happens, it'll be great to spend these days wth a special person and to really appreciate the time with them. I was going to make some crass joke involving sausages here but if you've stuck with this blog so far you're all capable of doing that for yourselves. Gute Nacht!

Friday, 13 May 2011

Chips 'n' Drugs and Kroket Rolls

It's nice to have a recommendation when you visit a new country, especially when it comes to food. "In the Netherlands, try a Kroket," I was told, "they're awful." I spent hours searching for one in Amsterdam but none was to be found. It seemed they'd been replaced as the Dutch snack of choice by felafel and kebab, which is probably a good thing. In the end I gave up on my search and decided to employ a fallback position. If I couldn't find a Kroket for the Disgusting Food challenge I'd buy some drugs instead.

If my Mum's reading this, then she's probably just fallen off her chair. Get back up, Mum, and let me explain. As you know, I need to try something I've never had before, and I've never had drugs. Well, there was that one time on my 21st when my girlfriend at the time scored me some sort of 'special' cigarette. It was just a pity I'd already had a skinful of lager by the time I had a pop at it because all it did was make me throw up for an hour and a half. Happy birthday!

And later the same girlfriend decided we should try Ecstacy. Fearing the bad press it had recently had, for our first go we decided to share a tablet just to be safe, like a regular Sid 'n' Nancy. I remember the cloak and dagger negotiations that went on down our town centre as she dabbled in the dark world of narcotic procurement. We took the pill but it did bugger all. That's not true actually. It cleared up my headache. So there you go. My total combined drug experience was a typical night for a bulimic and twenty quid on half a paracetamol.

But this time I'd get it right. I was in Amsterdam, the drug capital of Europe, for god's sake. I located my man. I approached nervously, putting on my shades as I shuffled towards the dealer - best to remain anonymous, I thought - and did it. A sizeable amount of cash changed hands. I now had it in my sweaty, little fist - 30 grams - well, 35 if you counted the wrappers and the sticks. OK, I'd bought two marijuana lollipops. Yes, so it wasn't even Space Cake. I'm a big coward, alright? But I was a big coward who now had two 'special' lollipops - one green one and one purple one - in his coat pocket. I was Howard Marks. I was Bob Marley. Alright, I was Kojak, but Kojak who was possessing.

I cycled out of Amsterdam the next day, still holding the stash, awaiting the sound of police sirens at every turn, but nothing. They were playing it clever. Very clever. Eighty kilometres later and still nothing. They were waiting to catch me unawares. But a fugitive has to eat. I found a cafe and decided to order a snack and what should appear on the menu? Go on, have a guess. Yes, a bloody Kroket and fries! Fantastic! Drugs and shit food, my life was looking up. So I ordered it and was terribly disappointed. It really wasn't bad at all, a slight curry taste with some kind of meat chunks floating in a moist slurry centre of a deep-fried, battered roll. It was a lot like a Findus Crispy Pancake, and for four years from the age of nine I lived on those things. Oops, my Mum's fallen off her chair again. Sorry, I shouldn't have mentioned that. Ah, but maybe this Kroket was a posh one. But no. Only two hours later, in the snack bar of the campsite I saw yet another Kroket. Surely this one must be dire but again it wasn't. Not as good as the first but it was very edible, just like Findus Crispy Pancakes aren't.

Back at the tent I realised I still had the fallback position to go through with, the lollipops. I unwrapped them, wondering what haze-filled experience, what hallucinogenic fantasies were about to unfold. Would I wake up three days from now in a cold sweat, imagining dead babies crawling across the roof of my tent, hooked on lollipops after only one hit? I popped them, one after the other, into my eager mouth and sucked. And sucked. And waited. And waited. Nothing. Fuckin' nothing! I may as well have snorted a Chupa Chup. Another half-arsed drugless episode comes to an end. Thank you, lollipop dealer. I hope you choke on my two euros. Next time I'll get it right.

Hmmm, I wonder if you can smoke a Kroket.

Saturday, 7 May 2011

Amsterdamned 2 - The Red Light District

Top of today's list of things to do is to visit Amsterdam's famous Red Light District. To reach it from my hotel I have to cross the main shopping area, full of the same brands you see everywhere, but repeated more often than in most places. It gets a bit dull. It won't be long before a Euro-wide trip like mine is entirely pointless, each capital city being an identical copy of the one before, a result of globalisation.

Once you reach Porntown everything feels a little incongruous. Despite the quaint streets and the little canals everything suddenly becomes a little more Channel X. Smoking cafes replace the bistros, and suddenly I'm not being sold shoes and jeans from the shop windows but female flesh, all pouty and winking. How do they manage to stay in alluring mode all day? In most service industries it's hard enough to maintain a smile. Strangely, for every shop offering gimp masks and whips, there's a Chinese restaurant. I feel like I'm in a sunlit version of Bladerunner.

The prositutes comes in all shapes and sizes. Some are gorgeous, but lots aren't, and one or two seem to be catering for blokes with a Popeye fetish. Those were the ones that seemed to come on to me most strongly. Obviously I'm that type of bloke, or maybe they just have to try harder, I don't know. But it makes you think about the decision that put those women on to the other side of that glass showcase. What makes you wake up one day, decide to put on a pink bikini and sell your holes? Is it a career choice or a last resort? I'd love to know, but I suppose I'd have to pay for that sort of information.

I wander around and get disorientated. It's easy to do. I realise I've walked down the same dodgy little alley three times in about twenty minutes. Those girls must think I'm weighing them up, making a conscious decision where to invest my euros. Now I'm feeling like a genuine punter, like the groups of British lads over for the weekend, rather than a tourist, here for the viewing experience only. I finally find an escape route.

Out of the Red Light area and into the shopping area again, I realise that things aren't that different here. It's still sex that sells everything, from the bikini-clad woman in the Jack Jones window to the sexy, young things in the Zara display. Even the Big Macs look sexily fulfilling. But over here, it's all lies. You're buying a dream rather than a reality, the dress and not the body, a squished cow offal wafer on a bun and not a succulent beefstack skyscraper. At least over the canal, they deal in truths, even if they're slightly sordid ones. Whether you're buying noodles or 'cuddles' you know exactly what you're getting and you get what you pay for. And at least those who work the meat, whether it's the chef in the Chinese kitchen or the woman behind the grubby curtain, are getting the profits directly, rather than some fat cat in a corporate office in London or New York. Give me the honesty of the Red Light District any day.

But walking around between the sex shops and porn theatres I decide that this flesh isn't for me. I decide to watch a different bunch of pussies get screwed over. My team, Blackburn Rovers are playing West Ham this afternoon and it's being shown in one of the Red Light District bars. It's a must-win game if Rovers don't want to go down. The players should come here. At least they'd be certain of scoring.

Amsterdamned - Terror in the Cycle Lanes

Never have I seen such a contrast between a nation and its capital. In rural Netherlands, things don't get much more laid back. Very little seems to get done. Some sizeable villages can't even be arsed to have shops. "What, you need food? Try the next town, mate." I'd spent the last three days enjoying a life of ultimate pootling: perfectly flat landscapes, a sun continuing to shine against all probability and, while not breathtaking views, damn pretty ones. And I shared the bike paths that criss-cross the country with a handful of others, many of whom cycled beside me and chatted, asking me what I was doing.

Then I hit Amsterdam and it's mental. The town is heaving. It's Friday afternoon rush hour. I've done another Brussels - turned up at a silly time. On this occasion there's no fish festival. It just happens to be a national holiday instead. The bike lanes are stuffed full of people trying to go in all directions, zipping this way and that, but now there are others to watch for. Mopeds are allowed in cycle lanes. And the pensioners' shopmobility machines turn the lanes into a geriatric Death Race 2000. I saw two accidents in the first couple of hours. Some old fella was sprawled on the floor, presumably a victim of a hit and run, or at least a hit and pedal. Or maybe he was just off his tits on space cake. Then a young lad came off his bike. Being considerably more handsome he got a lot more offers of help.

And they are an attractive lot. All of 'em. The women, the men, the young and the old. And cycling must be working for them because everybody is slim. I spotted a few morbidly cuddly types walking down the street but when I passed them they had either British or American accents.

For a city of this size, it's light on cars, but that shouldn't be a surprise when the bicycle is king. But what happens on a bike when you see a friend in the street and she's going your way? You have a bike, she doesn't? A simple backer system works. The second human climbs aboard the rack at the back. There are two popular seating arrangements - the normal one-leg-each-side or side-saddle. Occasional you see a more daredevil approach, with the passenger stood on the rack like some sort of motorcycle display team. They then cycle around town trying to find a ring of fire to jump through.

The bikes themselves all seem to have been made in the 1920s, black and built from iron. They clunk and creak but they usually have a comfy-looking saddle. No one has an expensive bike. Theft is a problem here. Each bike comes complete with a couple of feet of chain, not a normal bicycle lock, but the sort of stuff you would use if you were devising a live stage show that involved velociraptors.

So, I have another day here. There are things to do. I've been told to hunt out a Kroket, on account of its horsemeatiness, there's a Nina challenge in a Buddhist temple and then, to recalibrate the spirituality, there's the Red Light District to have a look around. But I'm doing it all on foot. I'll leave the cycle lanes for those looking for slightly more danger.

Tuesday, 3 May 2011

European Statues Condemned by the Daily Mail No.1: The Mannequin Pis

Memories are funny things. The last time I visited Brussels, back in 1990, the weather was being very English. I remember it as a miserable, grey, corporate world. The old buildings were grand but dour; the new were indentikit office blocks. But the Brussels I see today is a world away. In fact, it doesn't feel like the same place at all. That can't just be that the sun's shining, can it?

With the help of an A-Z map of Brussels, I found a beautiful, and beautifully quiet, route in via cycle lanes and leafy suburbs. I must have been only a kilometre or two from the centre before the traffic kicked in. And so like any normal bloke I hunted out a small statue of a little boy having a piss. And boy, is it small? The statue, that is. The Mannequin Pis apparently has hundreds of different outfits - a sort of urinating stone Barbie - including an Elvis one, but today he seemed to be decked out in the attire of a medieval Japanese warrior, although I'm not sure why.

Me and the pisser

My big problem was accommodation. Brussels was full up, full of humans and full of fish. Some international festival of seafood had taken all the rooms, even those in the normally cheap and cheerful hostels. I'd suspected this beforehand when, three days earlier, TripAdvisor's best deal was €230 per night - no, thanks - but it was confirmed by the tourist office. I had to get an internet connection and fast. Before I'd left Luxembourg I'd Facebooked a couple of the people I was meeting here to see if they had friends in Brussels with gardens in which I might be able to camp. It was a long shot. So I asked the tourist office about the nearest WiFi connection. "Out of the office, turn left, down the street, turn right after 100 metres, then turn right and there's a place that usually has internet." OK, I said. There's nowhere closer? "Oh yes, you can use WiFi here." What, here in the tourist office? "Yes." Mmm, yes, here seems closer. So, I did. No one knew anyone with a garden. My only option was to cycle out of the city and hope that there was space in a campsite an hour and a half away. But I'd already cycled for eight hours and my legs were pooped.

Just in case the campsite was full and I couldn't make it back to the city, I contacted Jo, fellow OU student, to see if I could pop around and pick up the replacement tent pole that Hilleberg had sent to her address for me. I don't know if I looked like I was dying when I arrived at her place but she immediately said that if I didn't mind the floor I could crash there. My saviour! After the possibility of a long and fruitless ride on weary legs, a floor, the very luxury of it!

So I had found another star. Jo's a cheerful soul and good company, and she's doing a lot of the same courses as I am, maths and astronomy. And she's been living here for fourteen years and so she knows a bar or two. We went out and grabbed something to eat and I got a chance to sample a few more Belgian beers - a top evening! Thanks Jo, you really helped me out.

Jo and a beer

So now I'm sat in a park typing this and awaiting another appointment, with another OU student, Mike, in a couple of hours. Like London and Paris and Luxembourg, Brussels really is worth a visit. I suspect I'm going to be saying that for everywhere I go on this ride. Just make sure the sun is shining when you visit.