Wednesday, April 16, 2008

I thought San Francisco was a bike-friendly city...

Then I visited Barcelona. As I cruised seamlessly from site to site, modern city into the old, from wide Passeig d'Gracia to Placa de Espana to cobblestone narrow age-old streets, from "home" to wherever my wheels would take me that day, I thought "Now this is a city with biking done right." Imagine my surprise then, to arrive in Berlin, and to discover the most bike-friendly city I've ever experienced. Bike lanes are abound, paved in red, separated from traffic, from parked cars, from pedestrians, yet also interwoven with all three seamlessly. They cover east and west Berlin, through beautiful Tiergarten, and all the way out to Potsdam (and beyond?) where we discovered an amazing walking/hiking/biking sanctuary near the lake Wannsee. Bicycles even have their own dedicated traffic lights there (and some where artfully decorated by passers-by; the red light shone in the shape of a heart, the green as a star).

I'm getting ahead of myself. This trip wasn't all about biking (though I think every vacation I take from here on out will have to have a bike involved somehow). I left San Francisco at 4am on March 29th headed to NYC. That afternoon, I arrived at JFK and made my way to downtown Manhattan, met up with my friend Kate (who I've known since my New Zealand days) and walked south to lower Manhattan, through the financial district (where I walked right by Jon Stewart who was playfully chasing his daughter (?) on the sidewalk), through Chinatown (as crowded with people and interesting smells as any other), and eventually ended up at the Bourgeois Pig, a tiny, tucked-away fondue and wine bar where Kate and her sisters all work. After a bottle of red wine and a serving of fondue fit for a king, we sat digesting for a while before heading back out into the brisk late-March NYC air.

From there, we made our way to Brooklyn to where my friend Win (from Bike and Build) recently moved. Inside, I met Katie, Jackie (both from B&B), Bridget's roommates (who ironically was in SF while I was NYC), and a bunch of Win's other friends from NC. Win was hosting a housewarming party. Not that I had any doubts, but Win's hosting/party-throwing skills are top-notch. (Thanks for the pigs-in-a-blanket).

From Vacaciones Ma...

The next morning, Win and I went for a nice walk in the park near his house where cyclists, walkers, runners, and even horses were abound. We made the small climb up the only hill in sight and got a nice view of the city around us. I had forgotten how nice slow morning walks (or bike rides!) can be. Later, I met Jackie, Katie, and Kate again for brunch at the Popover Cafe (long wait, but well worth it!) where I learned exactly what a popover is. Yummyness. That's what it is. We spent the rest of the day wandering through Central Park, through Strawberry Fields and up to Belvedere Castle.

That night, I met up with my cousin Cassidy who I hadn't seen in years. It was great to see him, even if for just a few hours. I met him at an apartment in Brooklyn. I couldn't help but feel like I'd walked right into a scene from a movie, or a scene from the past, or something special. It was dimly lit, there were high ceilings and a myriad of people (most of which were musicians or dancers) ranging in age from probably 7 or 8 to ... 50s? There were food and drinks and conversation and everyone as an audience for the little jam sessions happening in two big rooms. I think it was a party the way a party's meant to be.

The next was spent entirely in transport. Actually, the next two days really. I woke up and left Win's and headed to LaGuardia where I had an afternoon flight to Philly to connect to a flight to Paris. LaGuardia is kind of on the outskirts in terms of public transport, so a rainy day combined with two trains and a busride made for a long trip to the airport. I got there in plenty of time though and decided to have something to eat and relax while waiting for my plane. Well, bad weather in the area started causing delay announcements, and eventually it got to the point where I was going to miss my connection in Philadelphia. So, as it turned out, I had only one option if I wanted to fly that day - go back cross-town to JFK and catch a flight on a different airline. I had one hour and 15 minutes before DEPARTURE. Can I make it? The United guy told me I could. Told me it would be 15 minutes cab ride too. Twenty bucks. Forty five minutes and almost as many dollars later, I ran into JFK and approached the Delta attendant with a look of desperation only to be shot down. "You can't get on that flight. International flights strictly close 1 hour prior to takeoff." After trying (politely?) to plead with her, she told me, "This is not a Delta problem, ma'am, it's a United problem. You'll have to go back to LaGuardia and get them to reimburse you for the cab and deal with them." "??!?!?!!??" might approximate the look on my face. Ugh. Though as she walked away she said, "Hold on." There was still hope. And, long story short, a miracle happened (or at least something happened and she made me feel like she made a miracle happen). Either way, I was rushed to the front of the security line, swabbed and patted down, and let to run through the halls towards this escaping flight as if I knew exactly where I was going. Well, I made it, and didn't have to wait at all to get on the plane. After sitting down, we took off almost immediately.

Six hours later, after a bit of sleep and brief conversation with the guy next to me about deli scales, we arrived just after 6 a.m. in Paris. Following instructions from my brother's printed email, I made my way from Charles DeGaulle to Gare de Lyon where I bought an expensive train ticket headed for Dijon. With the time I had to spare, I walked around the blocks surrounding the trainstation admiring the many different sizes, shapes, and colors of bikes locked up outside.

On the train, I was confronted with my first memorable language-barrier experience (of which there would be many). A man stopped by my seat with a sheet of paper with signatures on it. It looked to me like a sheet everyone had to sign to acknowledge being on the train or something, so I took it and signed. After I handed it back to him, he said something as if he were asking for something more. He then pointed to the column labeled with a Euro sign and said something to me in French. "Ten more euros," I thought? This train already cost three quarters as much as my flight from SF to NYC. I started reaching for it and then had the "Wait a minute, moment..." After trying to discuss/argue/understand him for almost 10 minutes, he finally walked off in disgust. From what I gather, he was collecting money from people for some cause (disabled veterans?). No one else in front of me seemed to donate so I didn't feel as bad. Once I got to Garrett he told me that was very typical - the pushiness and the possibly fake cause facade. But anyway, I moved on, and after all that travel had made it to my brother in Dijon!

Where we had lots of fun:

Dijon was fun. It was great to hang with Garrett again. I hadn't seen him since last May or June. So we had a fair amount of catching up to do. I met his new friends. He showed off his not-so-new-found French skills. We ate baguettes and cheese and wine. The mustard was good. The beer wasn't. His apartment had a cool balcony overlooking a plaza. The same plaza where we watched a "parade" of protesters pass through the next day. I guess it's a pretty common thing to do in France - go on strike and walk through the streets chanting. I would guess by it's frequency that it's not the most effective way of bringing about change...but...I guess we haven't fully learned that in the U.S. yet either.

Next stop: Paris.
Garrett and I left Dijon on a Thursday morning headed for Paris. We spent the day walking rather briskly along the Seine to get in as many of the "must-sees" as possible. The three big ones were the Notre Dame Cathedral,

the Louvre,

and the Eiffel Tower.

I guess I should give Paris another chance, seeing as though I was only there a matter of hours, but I think the most fun part of the day involved finding a place to pee (the details of which I will save for a personal conversation).

That night, we stayed at Garrett's friend Nathalie's apartment in Paris since we flew out early the next morning to Barcelona (well, actually to Girona). After a nice homemade dinner, we slept a few hours, woke up at 4 a.m., took the first train to the city center, came above ground while Paris was still dark, RAN across some parking lots, grass, streets (I don't quite remember because we were in such a rush) to make it to the bus station where we boarded a bus that would take us to Beauvais, an hour outside of Paris, where we would catch our 9 a.m. flight to Spain.

Once in Girona, we met Garrett's girlfriend Marianna who had flown in from Bremen that morning as well. We took a bus from there to Santa Susanna where he and Marianna had booked a hotel for the week. Santa Susanna is a northeastern Spanish coastal town on the Mediterranean, unfortunately loaded down with hotels and tourist traps, but, we made the best of it. I walked along the beach and also took a long hike away from the water and more into the residential area to explore what the place was "really" like. Most of the houses were situated on a big hill (which reminded me a lot of San Francisco). The higher I climbed on the hill, the bigger and nicer the houses were. Their view was pretty great, but the beach was totally blocked by these big hotels. Some shots from that day:

That night, after a walk along the beach, we attended a unique pub quiz at the hotel bar. Mind you, this place wasn't too different from Florida in mid-winter. We were in the minority being less than retirement age. Nonetheless, it was really fun to watch all the older couples having fun dancing and shouting out answers in various languages. The quiz was delivered in 4? maybe 5? languages.

That was my last night staying with Garrett and Marianna, and the next day I took a 45 minute train ride into Barcelona where I met Adela (who, if you don't know, is a good friend of mine from Boston, now living in Barcelona). The first night, we went to a rather interesting party in an old warehouse, somewhere on the outskirts of town. Saw some stuff there that I'd never seen before, which is always a good thing.

Most of the rest of my time in Barcelona was spent exploring by bike, which was such a joy.

The bike lanes there were aplenty and lights seemed to be timed for bikers' speed. It was so easy (and fun!) to bike from the newer parts of the city into the older, narrower streets of the old city center. I did and saw so much there that it's hard to summarize. Overall, I liked the friendliness of the Spanish people, the colorfulness of the city, the ease of biking, the weather, and having a great tour guide! She showed me the must see spots but also places that go overlooked by most tourists, like a locals' rock climbing paradise heading up to Montjuic. This is us heading down...

A second memorable spot was Montserrat (west of Barcelona). Adela and I braved the cold and rain (which we would encounter again in Berlin) to tour this monastery set in the mountainside. It's famous for a few things, one of which being the setting it's in which was unfortunately covered in fog while we were there. It's also got a statue of a black Madonna and is home to a world-renowned boys' choir which performs daily at 1pm. We were lucky enough to catch a performance and surprised to find that most of the boys looked to be under 10 years old. It made me wonder what their life was like - a 10 year old boy living and studying at a monastery. How different from most other 10 year old boys. What would his life become? Things I pondered while their youthful and high-pitched voices filled the otherwise silent cathedral.

Also memorable in Barcelona is Parc Guell, previous home to famous Spanish architect/artist Gaudi. The park is filled with colorful tile, Gaudi's signature curved lines and contours, fantastic buildings, and strangely natural looking designs. One of Gaudi's philosophies was that straight lines do not exist in nature, and therefore he never incorporated them into his work.

Other places of interest included La Sagrada Familia (another Guadi) looming behind me,

the Cathedral, inside which I took this shot looking down into the crypt,

the statue of Cristobal Colon,

and of course, my brother on the Mediterranean.

Not long after this, Adela and I left Barcelona for Berlin. We arrived on a cold, rainy morning and made our way to Patryk's house in the southeast part of Berlin. Before getting there, though, our first Berlin stop was in search of Döner Kebab! The first place we found to get one of these tasty treats was unfortunately inside the train station where we felt ourselves somewhat torn. Do we go for the döner here, where its quality is probably compromised (but do we even know the difference yet)? Well, hungry we were, and try it we did. As we walked up to the counter to order, the man behind motioned for us to "come in." "Come in?", we shrugged? Yes. Come in. Behind the counter and through the door, lo' and behold, was a full bar, a few gaming machines, and a room full of smokiness but empty except for a couple of really serious looking German men and one old woman eating meat, something fried, and drinking a beer. Alone. It was a strange situation to walk in on, especially as our first real contact wit ze deutsche. But ultimately our goal was reached, and surpassed. Döner in belly. And yummy döner it was.

Next up, we met our host Patryk who lives in a colorful neighborhood. All the apartment buildings looked exactly the same but apparently with renovations a few years ago they painted all of them a different bright color -red, yellow, blue, get the picture. It was bright even in the dreary rain. So Patryk took us in and welcomed us with warm tea. Not long after that, we hopped on the bus, got off a few stops later, picked up a couple beater bikes Patryk had stashed at the train station, and took them to a little bike workshop in Prenzlauerberg. Adela and I felt a lot like the outsiders we really were there (in a bike shop among comrades speaking in tongues we didn't understand). But, we managed to get our bikes up and running and off we went in the dark and cold to Velomat, a vegetarian co-op in Friedrichshain where we paid 1 or 2 Euros and got a three course meal. It was very welcomed after the cold bike ride.

The next couple of days were spent in a minor state of hypothermia as we pedaled around Berlin exploring. Luckily just about every time we stopped we were able to fill up on warm döner kebabs. So those first few days, we saw the Brandenburg gate (which separates East/West Berlin),

the Wall,

the Holocaust Memorial,

the Lego Museum,

the facade of an old train station,

and many, many bullet holes.

Luckily, not long after this, the rain stopped, and we jumped for joy.

Next came Oliver. Oliver is a friend of mine who I met in Boston when he stayed with me on his first trip (from Copenhagen) to the U.S. We've kept in touch and on word that I'd be in Berlin, he booked a flight to meet me there. The three of us spent some fun time together, from currywurst the first night,

to laying on the map,

to breakdancing in front of this kick-ass graffiti (which we later found out was not graffiti at all, but cute mice painted on the side of a preschool - oops),

to biking to Wanssee,

(and eating more kebabs),

to playing frisbee

and badminton in Tiergarten,

to piggyback rides,

and everything that came in between.

I spent one of the days in the midst of this whirlwind tour mostly alone, exploring as much as I could by foot.

View Larger Map

It was then that I saw Tacheles, a huge open gallery inside an old warehouse. Berlin itself was pretty covered in graffiti, and Tacheles was no exception. There were 5 or 6 floors of galleries/studios, and every space in between was filled with tags or notes or paintings of some sort.



That same day I also wandered into another live/work space type of building. Being in a foreign place sometime makes me a little more exploratory. Once I stopped inside, it seemed like you either belonged there or you didn't. But, I was curious so I poked around and took a few pictures. If I could read German I could tell you exactly what it was...interesting graffiti, nonetheless.



In the midst of Tiergarten there is a 100m (?) tall tower with a golden angel statue on top. I've heard there's a nice view from up there, but that day I was just enjoying moving through the city, and decided to forgo the climb but felt fortunate to catch a sight as the sun passed down and clearly delineated east and west.

(Looking west)

(Looking east)

The next thing I headed for was actually a very anticipated sight, but I found myself rather disappointed upon arrival. Kaiser Wilhelm Gedächtniskirche was a church bombed during WW2 yet left to stand as a kind of memorial.


What I was disappointed about were two things. First and foremost, the entire area surrounding the church has become incredibly commercialized. It stands at one end of the major shopping strip in Berlin, Kurfurstendamm. At the base of the church were vendors selling everything from bratwurst to trinkets that just seemed to cheapen the experience for me. Also, the bombed portion of the church seemed to have been partially mended, to the point at which it didn't really look like it had been bombed but rather had been constructed to look as if it had been bombed. Maybe it was just the end of a long day, but I wasn't as impressed to see the church as I had hoped to be. What I did find impressive and memorable, though, were close-up looks at all the buildings left with bullet holes in them. Seeing that really helped me imagine the terror of war, which, if you can imagine, is something I really do want to try to understand.


So, I guess that about covers the bulk of the European festivities. Overall, I had a great time seeing my friends/family and enjoyed and learned a lot from being in a place where I didn't understand the language. It was good, too, to be exposed to all that history. It's something I've never been able to grasp, but I hope in touring such historical sights, the history that has only even been a story to me will become real.

Since being back, I've taken a slightly new approach to things. After all the biking I did over there, I decided I needed to get back to having it as a bigger part of my life. I've missed being outdoors and in the saddle. So, instead of working away within the walls of a sweaty gym, I've been focusing on more mid-distance rides. Once or twice a week I'll try to get out before work and ride north across the Golden Gate Bridge and back. Funny story actually...

"There's no such thing as Good and Evil in this world. There's only Love and Apathy; you either care or you don't." --Jackson from Sebastopol. I encountered him on an early morning ride around the Marin Headlands. I was on the returning end of the loop when I saw a cyclist up in front carrying a guitar on his bike. He was riding a tandem; he was riding alone. I took out one of my earphones to say, "Good morning, how are you?" and he replied, "Good morning. Can I ask your opinion on something?" And so started a 10 minute exchange where we rode at the pace of snails while Jackson informed me that he was on his way home to Sebastopol after being on tour in Santa Cruz. "This is so Nor-Cal," I thought. He had the voice of a story teller, and a demeanor that suggested he lived his life as if it were one long story. He was concerned about the moral obligations of elders to youth. He asked my opinion and after a quick response he said, "Women are smarter than men." "Well, that depends on how you define smart," I said. "Sure, but in general, when given a big set of parameters, women are able to come up with a quick solution. They are able to digest a lot of information and offer a solution very quickly. Men, they know, it's like a woman will say, "I like this car except for the color" while the man will say, "What does color have to do with it? It's a good car no matter what color it is!" I started to get a bit impatient at this point, because I could see he was digressing quite a bit. But, I couldn't help but ride next to him and listen, if for no other reason than remembering what it's like to go hours, days without conversation with anyone but yourself. Ride safe, Jackson.

And in addition to those early morning rides: by the suggestion of Chris (another XC biker who I've been hanging with lately), we took off from work on bikes on Tuesday night of this week (don't worry - back for work in the morning!) and headed for Tennessee Valley carrying camping gear and a thermos full of warm beef stew. We arrived to find no one else there except a bobcat that scurried off on sight of us. We also witnessed the most curious clan of pheasants, one of which walked (didn't fly at all) along the top of a zigzagging fence. I decided I wanted to be more like that pheasant; I think he would be of the sort of stop and smell the roses.

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