Berlin by bicycle

July 26, 2015 § 8 Comments

  A&O Hostels are great. All-you-can-eat breakfast for 5€. Free if you pretend you’ve paid. #dogbait #filds #winemaker #dustyevsky

German high school bus tours drink, smoke, and are well-behaved. American college students act like apes, pick fights, can’t handle their liquor.

It’s great being surrounded by youth and a few old people pretending they’re not cheap. A father berated the cafeteria staff this morning for not having the 4,000-gallon tankard of coffee ready at 7:00 AM sharp. “We must travel 850 km today and cannot wait!” Then he sat around with his finger up his nose for half an hour.

The hostel has a guest kitchen where you can store food for other guests to steal.

Boxhagenstrasse is the global center of hipsterism. Hundreds of awesome cafés, bars, clubs, and restaurants in a tiny area. There is a place called “White Trash Fast Food” and a tattoo convention going on.

Ice cream shops every ten feet.

You can ride a bike everywhere. 30 minutes to the city center, and it’s super safe if you go slow. 15-20 minutes if death is an option.

The coffee you get at cafés is great but it costs 2€, which is pricey when you drink six cups a day. Solution? Jar of instant, 2.99€, makes about 30 cups and has that unbeatable “bargain” flavor. Grab two fistfuls of creamer capsules at breakfast and you’re set.

I hate to admit it but cigarette smoke doesn’t really bother me here.

The best fast food in the galaxy is the Turkish “doener.” It’s like a burrito, in the sense that sushi is like a tuna sandwich.

Anyone who wants to do more than one museum a day is mad. The German Historic Museum is fantastic.

The chocolate aisle at a German supermarket is the world’s most dangerous place.

When you buy groceries you have to bring your own bag or buy one and they aren’t cheap. We’ve been using the same plastic bag for ten days now. I’m starting to feel like a bag lady, as I snatched a plastic bag out of the trash in case mine ever breaks.

Recycling-reuse is big here especially the way people shatter their refundable beer bottles on all the streets and sidewalks so that you can patch and reuse your inner tubes.

The shopping carts are all chained up and in order to get one you have to insert money which is returned when you re-chain the cart. We didn’t know this and couldn’t figure out how to unchain the carts so we stood around waiting for a shopper to return one. When I tried to take a cart from a lady who was returning hers but before she’d chained it and gotten her coin back she thought I was trying to steal her coin. I tried to explain but it came out something like “Your cart is attractive to me, may I put my hands on you?”

Germany closes on Sunday so buy your food on Saturday or face extreme hunger.

Street art here in Berlin is alive and well, but most of the graffiti (99.9999%) is like graffiti everywhere: Ugly and simple-minded.

  
Hot chocolate on a cold morning does wonders for the attitude.

  
  
  
  
They are EVERYWHERE!

  
  
  

A little bike safety. Very little.

July 25, 2015 § 9 Comments

  We set out on our first full day in Berlin to tour the DDR Museum. Biking Berlin is pretty easy as long as you understand a couple of concepts:

  1. Always take the designated bike route.
  2. The designated bike route will kill you.

However sketchy it is navigating the city on bikes, taking a car is infinitely worse because all the city is under construction all the time. We had hosteled with the hostile youth in Friederichshain, in East Berlin, which is an interesting place.

Somewhat new buildings stand next to renovated buildings stand next to burned out windowless hulks stand next to giant excavation pits. If it has been in one place for more than an hour it is covered with graffiti. The sidewalks are crowded and everyone has four nose rings, twelve tattoos, a fixie, and a pierced clitoris, even the men. Christian C. would not stand out here.

Tour guidebooks, if I had one, might describe our area as “eclectic,” but I would say it’s more of a “don’t carry anything larger than a twenty” neighborhood.

During the day the hostile youth are at the Brandenburger Tor taking photos to prove to their parents that they got some culture stuff, so that is a great time to sleep at the hostelry. Beginning at four-ish the youths trickle in, three longnecks in one hand and a fistful of condoms in the other, so I hope you’ve gotten your beauty sleep by then. Public intoxication is encouraged and the legal drinking age is six.

We pedaled downtown using Koepenickerstrasse, which is a mouthful, and at 6:30 AM there was an all-night doener shop at the subway exit where the old DDR Kultur Klub used to be, and there were at least a hundred hostile youth lined up for grease and meat to dilute the effects of their all-night raging. It was inspiring to see so many starving obliterated youth who were too drunk to fuck but not too drunk to stand up.

Berlin sidewalks are divided into pedestrian and bicycle halves to separate bikes from the cars but they are too narrow, end with no warning, and force you to dodge pedestrians who have wandered over into the bike lane, often clutching a beer bottle and a pram or both, and wrong-way cyclists who are supposed to be on the other side of the street but who forgot which hand was the right and which the left, all resulting in so much chaos and confusion that it’s often wiser to ride in the street pinned in the door zone getting passed by delivery trucks with inches to spare and last-second airhorn blasts up your shorts.

The bike infrastructure is further complicated by separate traffic lights for peds, bikes, and cars, including separate signals for bikes going left. Your first instinct is to be an orderly German and figure out which lights mean what until you realize that no one else understands them either and you simply look both ways and sail out into the intersection and pray.

We only saw one guy get hit by a car but he was wearing a helmet.

Of course there is a very easy solution to all this nonsense: Slow down. If you ride at 10-mph or less it’s like slow motion and totally safe, but ain’t nobody got time for that.

We got to the DDR Museum, which was packed thirty minutes after opening and cost 7€. If you subscribe to this blog and ever plan to visit Berlin your subscription will now pay for itself: Don’t waste your time or money at this junkhole. Instead, visit the German History Museum nearby or McDonalds.

We pedaled over to Alexanderplatz where we found one and had a Happy Meal to go with our SPY Happy Lenses. Then Woodrow stopped for ice cream and the lady gave him two scoops of chocolate in a cone and didn’t charge him.

“This ice cream tastes different,” he mused. “It’s really good.”

“That, my boy, is the incomparably delicious taste of free.”

  
Room with a view!

  
Marx-Engels-Davidson.

  
East Wall installation.

  
Uh, sure …

  
Lunch and dinner for Sunday when Germany is closed.

  
But until then … street pizza!

Hard travelin’

July 24, 2015 § 8 Comments

When someone tells me, “I love to travel!” I always tell them, “No, you don’t.”

“Sure I do! Last year alone we went to Maui and China!”

“Only crazy people love travel. What you love is destinating.”

“What?”

“Destinating.”

“What’s that?”

“It’s the act of quickly reaching your destination so you can enjoy yourself, which mostly means eating things you’d never eat at home for prices you’d never pay.”

It’s normal to despise travel, and I do. “Travel” derives from the Old French root of “travailler,” which today means “work” but originally meant “suffering and hardship.”

Okay, I made that up.

But I didn’t make up the fact that people hate travel and love destinating. Stand in an airport or a highway rest stop and count the people who are happy to be there.

THERE ARE NONE.

Travel, which is miserable, is a means to an end, destinating, where we can do fun things like eat cake for breakfast. Travel is so miserable that to shorten it we invented airplanes, but then went straight back to square one without passing “Go” or collecting $200 by inventing airplane food. Travel is so awful that we invented cruise ships so we could arrive without ever leaving.

People hate travel so intensely that they will pay thousands of dollars to get out of economy class even though it doesn’t shorten the trip and only changes the label on the liquor that stupefies them enough to endure the trip.

Nor can travel ever be pleasant, since by definition it bombards you with uncertainty.

“Are we going to miss our flight?”

“Are we lost again?”

“Where’d I put my passport?”

“Am I really going to have to pay four euros for a cup of coffee?”

“How much is a euro, anyway?”

“Is that really our hotel and why is it on fire?”

“Do we tip here?”

“Is that a bedbug?”

“What is this rash?”

“What’s that smell?”

“Why won’t this fucking Internet connection work?”

“Do I get off at this stop? Or the next one?”

“Is that guy a pickpocket or a bike thief?”

Etc.

Destinating, however, is joyous. For example:

“No, we’re sleeping until noon.”

“More cake, please.”

“Order room service.”

“We can diet after we get home.”

“Make it a double.”

“YOLO.”

See? Destinating is awesome and traveling is for shit. There’s a reason we have the clichéd phrase “weary traveler” but not “weary vacationer.”

Yet there’s a paradox: The quicker and less miserable the travel, the less fun at the destination. I don’t know why this should be so, but it is. Maybe it’s because once you get through an ordeal you’re not too picky about the scent of the bath soap and are deliriously happy to be off your bike and prone in a bed, not a ditch. Maybe it’s because arduousness reorders the hierarchy from “worry, spend, complain” into “shelter, food, rest,” in that sequence, and there is no room for “My Alfredo sauce could use a touch less garlic.”

In any event, when we rode through the Brandenburger Tor yesterday it was surreal, surrounded on all sides as we were by destinators already worried about whether the lighting for their selfies would be right, whereas we were desperately happy to have even found the fucking thing, to have survived Berlin traffic, and to “only” have five more ass-chewing miles to reach the hostile youth who, as Jack from Illinois (not his real name) pointed out, are the only youth you can trust anyway.

I suppose you can make a cult out of misery, or you can justify cheap travel as somehow more virtuous (next up, my 2016 Tour: Crossing the Mediterranean with the Syrian Boat People), but that’s not my intent. Hard traveling simply makes a sweeter destination.

Just ask Woody Guthrie.

  
Only five miles left!

  
Synagogue in Luckenwalde gutted by the Nazis.

  
Old facade in East Germany.

  
Nicest hotel of the trip … with a bathtub!

  
Sunny skies on the way to Berlin. What hardship???

  
Abandoned DDR station in Schoenefeld.

  
Bike route replete with roots, cracked pavement, overhanging vegetation.

  
Trabi style! Ostalgia!

 
  

Arc of triumph

July 24, 2015 § 39 Comments

  
We made it in fits and starts and with various modes of conveyance, but we made it! Here are some things I learned, and re-learned along the way.

1. The son is the father is the son.

2. Love is all you need, and a valid credit card.

3. The ride is inside you.

4. It’s all true, especially the parts I made up.

5. Cake for breakfast, yes.

6. Do it while you can.

7. The tortoise beat the hare.

8. Bathing is overrated, but not by much.

9. Doing beats saying.

10. When a man and his son endure together and laugh together they are changed forever.

Let’s go to Luckenwalde, Texas …

July 24, 2015 § 11 Comments

The room was spotless. The shower had unlimited hot water. The pillows were fluffy and the window looked out on a bucolic pastoral landscape where a fat, sweaty German farmer shoveled manure into a cart wearing a tank top and boxer shorts.There was only one problem: the housefly from hell. Each time he’d alight on an exposed toe or arm I’d swat him, miss, and drive him over to Woodrow’s bed. We batted him back and forth all night until it was time to get up, which we did, thirteen hours later, as tired as when we’d gone to sleep.

“You didn’t have any dinner,” I said. “You must be ravenous.”

“There wasn’t any dinner.”

“Sure there was. Black bread and jam and raisins. And water. We had tons of water.”

Woodrow stared glumly at the breakfast spread which was identical to the dinner spread. “I’ll pass, thanks.”

“You can’t pass. You have to eat to keep pedaling.”

“I’m done pedaling.”

“What’s that supposed to mean?”

“I’m exhausted. Let’s take the train to Luckenwalde, spend the night, and then ride to Berlin.”

“We can’t.”

“We can do anything we want.”

So I gave him The Lecture: “It’s easy to grin when your ship comes in and you’ve got the stock market beat. But the man who’s worthwhile is the man who can smile when his shorts are too tight in the seat.”

“I’m taking the train. You can bike to Luckenwalde, Dad, and we’ll meet at the station.”

“Son, today is the most important day of the trip.”

“What are you talking about?”

“It’s the time when you’re done, when you’re cracked, when you can’t go another single step that you have to dig deep and overcome adversity. Today is the day we’ve been waiting for. Let’s do it.”

“Are you serious?”

“I’ve never been more serious.”

“That highway is death. You’re so tired you can barely get out of bed. This isn’t a scene from ‘Spartacus,’ Dad.”

“Let’s go.”

Unwillingly, Woodrow followed. The next town, Bad Herzberg, was 13km away. Five minutes into the ride I felt worse than the last fifty miles of the 2012 BWR. Woodrow was fine, and dropped behind me to take over the job of truck-calling so we could hit the ditch each time a freight truck passed. After the tenth ditch run I was barely turning the pedals.

“You okay, Dad?”

“Yeah. Just. Need. Coffee.”

After an hour we reached Bad Herzberg and pulled into the Penny grocery store.

“The coffee will do the trick.”

Woodrow shrugged and ordered a small salami sandwich with orange juice. We went back out to our bikes.

“Hey,” I said, “would you be terribly disappointed if we took the train to Luckenwalde? It’s another 30 miles from here and the coffee isn’t working.”

“Of course it isn’t. You’re really old and really tired. You need some serious rest, not another all-day endurance test. Come on, Dad. The station is over this way.”

We reached the station, which had a giant “Train Station for Sale” sign on it. I wondered what one did with one’s own train station. We bought our tickets and sat down to wait. A group of ants had gathered around a dead comrade and we began following the entire path of various ants, marveling at their speed, unerring accuracy, and sense of purpose. We speculated about their home lives and what they did in their free time. We put little pebbles in their path and watched them climb over. Just like kids.

After an hour the train came and we were very happy. We settled in until the conductor checked our tickets. “You can’t take the train to Luckenwalde. You must get off at the next station and take the bus.”

“But what about our bikes?” I asked.

She shrugged. “That is a problem, yes.”

Fortunately the train ride had whittled off 15 miles of the ride, and more fortunately there was a bike path the whole way. Most fortunately the town square had about eleven gelato shops. The one we chose had a family at the next table chain smoking, even the three teens, one of whom looked to be about twelve.

But we didn’t care. We were one day away from Berlin.

  
Dinner AND Breakfast!

  
Train awesomeness!

  
Bargain station!

  
… with Woodrow and Wanky and the boys.

  
Rollin’!

  
Out in Luckenwalde, Germany, ain’t nobody feelin’ no pain!

  
NOBODY!

So near, so far

July 21, 2015 § 34 Comments

We are only two days from Berlin but it might as well be two hundred. It’s 4:36 in the afternoon and Woodrow is sound asleep. We checked in fifteen minutes ago. Our room is at the intersection of two farm roads, nine miles from the nearest town. We have no food for dinner or breakfast other than the leftovers I brought from Leipzig: a few slices of black bread, some raisins, an apple, and half a jar of jam.Today should have been easy, a 40-miler over gently rolling farm land with a whipping tailwind. It started perfectly with a huge hostile youth breakfast buffet and a quart of coffee. The forty or fifty bites we had from the bedbugs were a minor issue.

We were on the road before seven and within the first half hour the day went sideways and kept on spinning as I made a very wrong turn at a construction detour.

In a car when you go an hour out of the way you flip the car around, scream “fuck” a few times, and endure your wife’s 37 gentle reminders about how she told you to go left and why didn’t you stop and ask?

On a bike it’s all that except you have to pedal back the way you came and if you’re with Woodrow you feel doubly shitty because he’s still cheerful and says “It’s okay, Dad, everybody makes mistakes.”

We got back on the road to Torgau and the problems refused to take the day off. First we had a massive construction detour and then before Eilenburg we got kicked off the highway because it was suddenly for cars only. We sauntered into town, had chocolate croissants and coffee, and remounted.

For a long while things went great. Woodrow pulled down long stretches of bike path and if there is something better than sitting on your son’s wheel on a sunny day abroad I don’t know what it is.

Just before Torgau we hit another detour and it almost proved catastrophic. The already narrow road became narrower and suddenly we were being passed by dozens of giant freight trucks with inches to spare. At one point Woodrow got hit hard by the wind being shed by a passing truck and almost got sucked under its wheels. He instinctively leaned hard and steered for the ditch, which saved his life. We were scared shitless, miles from town and with no other road and no option but continuing.

Then it occurred to me–WWMSD? What would Manslaughter do? He’d fully utilize his MTB, that’s what.

“Ride in front,” I commanded, “and I’ll keep a rear lookout. When a truck comes, I’ll yell ‘truck’ and we’ll hit the ditch and keep pedaling until it passes, then hop back on the tarmac.”

“Ok,” Woodrow said, and for the next five miles that’s exactly what we did, zigzagging from road to ditch and back again. Nothing ups your off-road skills as quickly as the threat of death.

The adrenaline and effort from riding in the ditch wore us out, but we had no more close calls and in Torgau we got lunch and ice cream, and if your adventure ends in ice cream, how bad was it, really?

Unfortunately our hotel room was nine more miles up the road and we resumed ditch-and-tarmac riding after lunch.

Suffice it to say we hate the village of Torgau, but not as much as we’ll hate tomorrow’s stretch to Luckenwalde, which is 40 more miles of the same nonsense. The German drivers are respectful and skilled beyond belief, but the civil engineers definitely consider cyclists third class citizens. Sound familiar, CABO?

Unless you’re on a designated tour route, the bike paths are completely random and stop as abruptly as they begin, which is frustrating when you almost die but which adds to the challenge and therefore the satisfaction. I’m sure that was the engineers’ intent.

The perpetual raw ass from riding in shorts and moldy underwear could have been alleviated with bibs. WHO KNEW???

And …

WHY DIDN’T ANYONE TELL ME?

On the other hand, the manliness of crossing Germany by bike with cheesegrater ass is a kind of high water mark in roughing it.

Well, it’s almost six p.m. And the snores next to me have only gotten deeper. His face and arms are tanned with the color you only seem to get after days and days on a bike. Better have a slice of black bread, smear on some jam with my finger, and call it a day.

 

  

 

 

Beat by the slows

July 20, 2015 § 43 Comments

Today I finally cracked. Or rather, Woodrow cracked me. He didn’t do it with speed or strength or endurance, though. He did it with the slows.

Simply put, my son is the slowest rider on earth. The first day I chalked it up to having never ridden more than ten miles in his life and suddenly doing fifty miles uphill into the wind on an MTB with a backpack.

The second day I chalked it up to exhaustion from the day before plus brutal climbing. But as he got fitter and never seemed tired I began to wonder. Was he missing a quadriceps or a lung?

I tried all manner of tricks to speed him up. YOU KNOW THESE.

“Stay on my wheel!”

“Stay ahead of me!”

“stay even with me!”

“Find an easier gear!”

“Find a harder gear!”

“Spin!”

“Lower cadence!”

And of course “Arrrrrrrrrgh!”

All to no avail. Woodrow had his speed, singular, and it was slower than a tooth extraction. There was only one time that he let himself be cajoled off his 9-mph pace, and that was between Gotha and Erfurt. We were passing a pasture and a swarm of horse flies descended on his bare legs. Woodrow hates bugs.

I didn’t know what had happened; all I heard was a yell followed by a near-fatal swerve followed by a 22-mph pace. I leaped to catch on and he drilled it for fifteen solid minutes.

“Damn!” I said. “How come you won’t ride like that all the time? We’d be in Berlin by now.” But he just smiled and notched it back to 9-mph.

It was that deathly slow pace yesterday from Weimar to Weißenfels after so many consecutive days of snailing that did me in. We reached the Sport Tourist Hotel to find it empty and the door locked. After a few phone calls the manager answered and drove over to take our money and give us our room. Booking.com had assured me, of course, that mine was the last room so Hurry And Book Now! I laughed at my foolishness while we waited in the rain to enter the empty dorm.

Woodrow was untired and unfazed. “Awesome room, Dad! And the bathroom has soap!”

I lay on the bed wondering how I’d go out and hunt dinner on Sunday night in this tiny town in the middle of Noah’s second flood when everything was closed especially the grocery stores.

We finally found a Turkish place in the Altstadt and wolfed down the cheap cuisine. I noted a familiar pattern: Woodrow immediately recharged after food whereas I, like an old battery, never got back to the place I’d been the day before.

Fortunately our next leg, to Leipzig, was a mere 40km. We climbed out of Weißenfels and then hit the long effortless downhill tailwind all the way to Leipzig. Woodrow even notched it up to 11 or 12-mph, but the damage was done: I was crushed and could barely turn the pedals.

Ten kilometers from town we got lost and ended up on a Jay LaPkante dirt track along a fully graffiti-ized gas pipeline and when it dumped us out on the street we were hopelessly lost.

“Ask those two old ladies where the bike path is,” Woodrow said, pointing to two women in their forties.

“Excuse me,” I said in my best German, “can you direct me to the bike path?”

“I’m sorry,” the woman answered in perfect English. “But I don’t understand Polish. Do you speak English or German by any chance?”

At that moment a granny on a clunker came pounding by at a solid 20-mph. “C’mon, Woodrow! She looks like she knows where she’s going!”

“But Dad!” he protested, “She doesn’t know where we’re going!”

Despite the reasonableness of his objection we chased after her. She looked back. “Do you want something?”

“Yes, ma’am! The way to Leipzig!”

“Follow me, junger Mann, I show you the fast way!” Her previous pace was as nothing. She flexed her big legs and shot forward.

What followed was a combination between following Manslaughter down a cliff and Surfer Dan through stacked Santa Monica traffic and Wimberley through a crowded hairpin.

This old Frau was a hammer and she went over curbs, through muddy tracks, blew through orange lights, and passed other cyclists like a crit champ. Her legs were blocky and powerful and she railed the wet cobbled corners on her clunker with total confidence.

“Here we are!” she said, braking beneath the huge tower at Leipzig University. “You and the boy go well.” She put out her hand. “Christa Rothenburger.”

“You’re joking.”

She laughed. “No I’m not. Nice riding, really.” Then she blasted off on her clunker loaded with shopping bags. I wondered which one of them held her Olympic medals.

Woodrow had no idea who she was, he only knew it was the fastest he’d ever imagined riding on a bike and surviving.

We got to the hostile youth, checked in, and I collapsed. It was ten a.m. and all I could think was that the next day’s 50-miler through vales and up hills wasn’t going to be pretty.

  
  
  
  
  

  

  

  

  

  

  

  
 

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