BrandonZahl.com

The Long Haul

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In the last post, I talked about my first day in shop– this post is going to talk about the many, many more days I spent there. It ended up being about 130 hours in total over the course of 7 weeks. Rather than focus on the step-by-step process, I think it’ll be more interesting if I talk about how it felt to tackle a project like this and the bigger lessons I learned along the way. If you’re also interested in the step-by-step, check out this post

Probably the biggest thing I encountered while working in the shop was my mindset towards the work and how much that needed to change. I started the work with a mindset developed from my time designing software. Working with software is so fundamentally different than working with wood. With software, you’re building and working with structures and mechanisms that only exist at the conceptual level. In a way, it’s like building an imaginary city that’s only constrained by its own internal set of rules. Ultimately, the software should be usable by a person and run efficiently on a computer but the things you can do are only limited by your ability to think.

Contrast that with woodworking, which is entirely limited by the physical realm. Sticking to the imaginary world of what you think should happen will get you into trouble. You need to constantly be observing what’s going on with your project so you can adapt your plans to what is possible and to ensure that the details are coming together as you had planned. You don’t get to freely translate what’s in your head to what happens in reality. You have to pay attention to things like how the router bit is cutting the wood or if your board is lined up correctly on the saw. It seems like these straightforward things should simply work as expected but so many times there’s a little thing wrong that needs to get caught before it messes up the project. Other times, the approach just isn’t going to work and you need to back up and try something else. The wise words of my dad came to me many times– “Let your work teach you.”

Another thing that challenged me mentally was my expectations for quick progress. Having never worked much with wood before, I let my unfounded expectations for progress drive up anxiety levels and reduce my ability to focus on those ever-important details. It’s so easy to imagine a short road to a happy ending but that ultimately makes the real road harder to travel. Many times I was awakened to a building tension in my body and a growing rift between my thoughts and what was happening with the project. I would force myself to stop, breathe and try to let go of the need to accomplish something. The project could only proceed at its own pace and fighting that reality only made things slower, due to the inevitable mistakes that the anxiety caused.

Despite the challenges, I did have fun. Mainly just being around John, the guy who ran and owned the shop. He’s a good-natured but quirky person. For example, he’d be working in the shop and just start muttering to himself in what I initially thought was broken English. Turns out it’s a creole language called Gullah which is spoken by some African-American populations living in the South. He listens to weekly podcasts on the language. We also had interesting conversations on his fancy ying-yang shaped garden he is building and how he plans to balance its ecosystem with biodynamic gardening practices. Biodynamic gardening is a type of organic gardening focusing on the holistic health of the plants, soil and animals involved. For example, his plan to control the slugs that plague most gardens around here. Instead of applying slug-repellent chemicals, he was planning on planting flowers that attract hummingbirds, which will also eat slugs. Biodynamic practices are a very interesting way of getting nature to balance itself out and avoid having to manipulate it artificially.

John is one of those guys that’s deeply interested in doing the right thing for the environment and the community. In fact, he started this shop mainly as a way to give back to the woodworking community and wants to use the shop as an incubator for micro-businesses started by his renters. For example, one of his renters was planning on making ornate Native American-inspired wooden boxes to sell and he was enthusiastically helping get the project off the ground

He did show me some of his own unique and awesome projects too. For the Fremont Solstice parade one year, he grew a bunch of long ornamental grasses and wove them into a set of suits for him and some friends. They danced down to the street to the beat of a drum, enacting a mythical story he had devised. Here’s John in his suit, though this was the following year’s parade and it had dried up.

grass suit

Isn’t that cool?

Here’s a picture of one of his woodworking masterpieces. Simply amazing.
masterpiece

The other fun part of working in the shop was talking with the other renters. There’d frequently be several other people working in the space and so we’d talk about each other’s projects. Coincidentally, I met two people who worked in the audio business. One person ran a pro-audio shop in Bellevue and the other used to work on electronics design for a local speaker company. Crazy who you meet in a place like that and it ended up giving the place a cool feel.

So while my time in the shop was long and challenging, it gave me some cool opportunities to experience a new style of work and to be around interesting people. All in all, this phase of the project lasted from the end of February to the middle of April. So much for finishing it in one day, like I originally thought! Next post, I’ll talk about the final phases of my project– doing the acoustic testing and applying the finishing touches on the speakers. Thanks for reading!

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July 5th, 2015 at 5:11 pm

Posted in Uncategorized

Shop Day

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Let’s talk about my first day in the shop. Where the rubber met the road. Where the wood met the saw. It was a big day for me– I had stayed up late the night before, finishing a step by step plan on everything I needed to do. At $100/day for shop time, it would be painful to waste any time. Plus, I was excited to blast through this and get to enjoy the final product. I directed my energy to planning every aspect of the shop day. All the cuts were calculated and written down, each assembly step and test step noted precisely, all the supplies and materials listed. It was going to all go off smoothly, right? I’d be ready to have a speaker listening party the next weekend, I was sure.

So I showed up at the shop with a Home Depot rental truck loaded up with big sheets of wood and other supplies. I found John and got unloaded. I walked him through my plans and drawings. He’d ask a question at some points and then nod at others. Then he just said straight up that he didn’t think it was going to work. The ground fell out beneath me and I couldn’t believe what he said. I started feeling indignant. How did he know? He’s never built something like this before. People had used this same technique before and it worked for them. I’m glad I just shut up and listened though.

John’s counter-proposal was that instead of bending big sheets of wood along the curve, we would cut long, square wooden sticks and line them up vertically along the curve, like a curved fence. I imagined all the gaps in between the wood sticks and cringed at the potential of sound leaking out through them. I felt sure he was missing this key point but he was making other good points about the sheets of wood I was trying to bend. They were just too floppy and even if we clamped it down with straps to bend, there would be places in between the straps where the wood would bow out again. Those guys on the internet seemed to make it work, but the curves they were bending weren’t as tight as mine. Plus maybe they did have imperfections that just didn’t show up in the photos. My plans were starting to unravel.

I still remember exactly where I was in the shop as my head tried to make sense of what to do next. My stomach clenched and my thoughts felt clumsy and detached. It was so hard to abandon the plan that I’d meticulously put together, but it was starting to seem foolish in the light of John’s expertise. He’d spent his whole life woodworking but did he have any expertise with sound? How could I have confidence that these wouldn’t be musical sieves? Was it worth abandoning a plan that people on the net made seem simple and successful?

Finally, I figured out we could fill the gaps between the sticks with Bondo (autobody repair putty) to prevent the sound energy from leaking out. I didn’t know how much it would help. It wouldn’t be as good as solid wood because of the inevitable gaps where the Bondo didn’t reach but would that really matter? Would the tiny gaps filled with air cause some kind of vibration? I wish I understood physics a lot more but I figured this was worth a shot.

So I agreed with his approach and we scrapped my plan. Part of me reeled as those words came out of my mouth but after that moment, it was too late.

Thankfully we didn’t have to abandon the whole plan. The construction of the frame that the sticks would attach to was the same and so I had all those steps lined out. I was glad to start out on something more straightforward and John helped me get familiar with the tools and procedures I’d need to use.

We started out cutting the large pieces necessary for the fronts of the speakers and for the subwoofer (almost forgot about that, right?). He was trying to explain the difference between different types of cuts on the saw and showing me the right techniques but it just wasn’t soaking in. I think a combination of lack of sleep and stress from the plans getting scrapped had rendered me dumb. Thankfully he was patient and made most of the cuts himself. This is all part of the other service he offers– his mentorship.

To riff on that a bit– the hands-on mentorship approach is what makes his shop, IsGoodWoodworks, unique and what kept my project on the rails. From his re-write of my flawed design, to his patient instruction of tool usage and all the little tricks he showed me along the way– his mentorship was invaluable to this project. I had his lifetime of experience at my service and I probably wouldn’t have turned out much without it. Thank you, John!

So I came to appreciate his mentorship pretty quickly that first day. We didn’t end up making it very far, but I did leave feeling like I was in good hands. Which was great because the project had more twists and turns to throw our way. This design hadn’t ever been done before and there were unseen problems lurking down the road. More next time!

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June 10th, 2015 at 10:47 pm

Posted in Speaker Project

Forming the Plan

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Ok, so in my last post I talked about how hard it was for me to lock in on a speaker that would sound good. Eventually though, I found at least a basic, well-tested framework of what makes speakers sound good. Hooray! Armed with this information, I felt confident that I could get a good value for my money and not fall prey to marketing hype or personal opinions. Plus, I could probably save enough money to buy a couple solid silver USB cables! :)

So my approach relied on getting specific acoustical measurements on each speaker. Turns out that manufacturers don’t actually publish detailed data on this. It’s just too much information for the average buyer to take in and most likely they don’t want to make people second guess their carefully crafted marketing message. Some speaker review sites publish this data but then you’re at the mercy of what speakers they want to review.

Instead of scrounging for data on mass produced speakers though, I ended up turning to a do-it-yourself design. A guy by the name of John Krutke had been testing and designing speakers for decades as a hobbyist. One of the designs he had come up with caught my eye, as it touted to be “a couple of the best performing speakers at any price” and he had the measurement data to back that up.

The little lines are the frequency response at different angles, varying from dead-on to 60 degrees off center. I’ve never seen a plot that has looked this good.

So it’s called the Zaph ZRT and it had glowing reviews from other people on the net. Reading those good comments helped, even with my confidence in the research study I talked about last post. The DIY guys like to get maximum value for their money and so if the ZRT wasn’t any good, they wouldn’t be afraid to critique heavily.

One problem with going this direction is that I’d have to go in blind (or should I say deaf?). I’d be paying for them without hearing them. That’s completely opposite from the way most people recommend buying speakers and it was putting my faith in the research study to the test. Should I throw all that conventional wisdom out the window and bank on what these guys at Harman said? Was I ready to put down all that money, simply based on the measurement data? There wasn’t any turning back once I got the kit and assembled it– no returns, refunds or exchanges. I could try reselling but I’d lose over half the money I put into it, not to mention all the time I’d spent building it. If this didn’t turn out, I would be back at square one and need to take an entirely different approach.

Maybe it was more the engineer in me than the music lover that decided to take risk. If the principles are solid, there’s no reason for an engineer to doubt the results of his project. Somehow those skyscrapers do hold up in real life, like they do on paper. While the laws of acoustic perception are still much fuzzier than laws of physics, I decided the Harman research and measurement data from the ZRT was solid enough to commit to. Late one night, I pulled the trigger and bought the kit. Now it was real and the project had begun.

While I was waiting for the kit to come in, I started planning the woodworking details. See the kit just came with the electrical components necessary to build the speakers– the boxes (cabinets) these parts go into was up to me to procure. The cabinet plans were all drawn up, but I had never done any serious woodworking so I started by looking at pre-made cabinets. I wasn’t really happy with the looks though and started reading stories of how other’s built their ZRT cabinets. Essentially it was just a long box with some holes cut into it, but to me the biggest challenge appeared to be getting the pieces cut exactly the right dimensions. Anything off and you’d get an ugly and perhaps under-performing speaker cabinet.

So I established a test project for myself — building a subwoofer. Subwoofers are the black square boxes that play really low notes. And they’re the lovely things that wake up the neighborhood at 2am when some punk drives by. Building a sub wasn’t nearly the time or resource commitment required to build the speaker cabinets and if it turned out a little wonky, that was fine. It’d be hidden in a corner of the room anyway. If it turned out really bad, then I’d fall back on the pre-made cabinets for the ZRTs.

I also had to figure out where to build these things. I had run a table saw in my apartment to build some stairs but that ended up coating everything in a nice layer of sawdust. I’d need much more than a table saw for this project and so finding a real shop was a must. I Google… err Bing’d (Binged?) for wood shop rentals and found IsGoodWoodworks. They are a co-op woodshop that rents out their space and expertise to the public. It seemed a bit spendy ($100/day) but that was the only option and I figured I could get it done in a day (haha!). Plus they offered mentorship so I’d have somebody to help teach me the basics of woodworking.

So I thought I had it all figured out. I had my plans for the shop day all written down and my Home Depot shopping list ready to go. But as I waited for the kit to come in, I started getting bored. Bored of the boxey cabinet design. I’d be living with these things my whole life and I wanted something that would be cool to look at year after year. The commercial speakers look much better than these DIY designs and that started sinking in. Those beautiful B&Ws from that day back in college had set the bar not only for sound but for looks.

What I really wanted was a curved speaker. Curved along the sides and rear, just like the B&W 803. The desire gripped me and took me off the charted course. I searched the net for DIY curved designs and came up with some decent examples. None of them were like the 803s but I figured I could use the techniques. Essentially their method was to build a skeleton with curved shelves along its length and then bend thin sheets of wood on top of that.

Speaker of my dreams, the B&W 803!

Here’s how I planned on getting that sexy 803 curve!

So I updated my plans for a curved cabinet instead of a box (monkey coffins, as they’re sometimes called). Even though they were more complicated, I figured I could still get the parts cut out in a day and then assemble it at home. I was even more excited now that I knew they would both look and sound awesome.

So now that everything was planned out, it seemed like it was just a matter of getting to the shop and cutting out the pieces. Little did I know that these plans would be scrapped almost immediately when I got to the shop, sending me into the unknown. You’ll find out all about that in the next post!

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May 25th, 2015 at 3:52 pm

Posted in Speaker Project

Audio Genesis

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Let’s start back at the genesis of this whole project. Like way-back “In the beginning…” style. So yeah: Big Bang, buncha stuff, and then I was in college checking out a place to live. It was a place being rented out by my friend Jeff’s older brother Tim. After the tour was done, he showed us these new fancy British B&W speakers he just bought and I was blown away. I had never heard music sound that good before and didn’t even knew it could sound that way. Something magical had just been revealed and I wanted to spend hours just listening. It didn’t even matter what — it was all so good.

So I wanted those B&Ws pretty badly but didn’t have the space or money, so I just thought about them and listened to things in the $100 and under category. Usually with an itch to to go back to that magical place again.

Fast forward to this year, where I had some money and was ready to board the train to wonderland. I started the search like any other purchase decision– see what’s popular, read reviews on the web, you know the drill. Normally this works great and a landscape of clear options quickly comes into focus. Then it just becomes a matter of whether you really need that extra 8GB of memory or something that was designed in Switzerland by people with expensive glasses.

The problem is that speakers are indeed magical music boxes and there’s no way to describe in an Amazon-style 5 point bulleted list what you’re getting. There are plenty of reviews and opinions but the more you read, the less sure you feel about getting the right thing for you. Somebody says this $1500 dollar speaker sounds as good as this other $5000 speaker and then other people trash it for being junk and say you have to spend at least $3000 to get something that sounds good. What do you do with that? There’s no list of features either– just a bunch of nebulous words like “transparency” and “richness”. Speaker manufacturers know shoppers are looking for something more concrete so they try to help out with a semi-scientific term “Extended Wide Bandwidth soft dome tweeter” but there’s no standard set of terminology and each manufacturer wants you to think they’ve got the most advanced product out there (wouldn’t you like to have have dual 5-1/4″ CMMD high-output woofers for powerful, low-distortion bass???)

So I quickly discovered that the world of audiophiles (the gang of nerds who are looking for the ultimate magic music box) has no consistent framework for determining value in a speaker. Without listening, you just can’t really tell anything about the speaker and once you do listen, its really hard to describe what you hear and even harder to get a consensus on that. Your experience is also influenced by myriad factors all outside the actual speaker itself– things like the room you’re in, the amplifier, the wiring between the amplifier and the speaker, the quality of the source signal. Put this all together and it means that reading somebody’s glowing review of a speaker is even less reliable than reading a Yelp review for that new restaurant you’ve been wanting to check out. And we all know how crappy Yelp food reviews are.

Because there is no consistent framework for what makes speakers sound good and so many factors that affect it, there is a lot of “woo-woo” type stuff. Browsing thru that is both fun and a bit morally offending. Stuff like a “shootout” of $600 USB cables (hello, it’s a DIGITAL signal) and site selling 4″ thick maple blocks hand-planed by Amish craftsmen to ward off vibrations from entering your precious audio equipment (I’m not making this up). Inciting the placebo effect has got to be a multi-million dollar business here!! Even in something as simple as the wire connecting the speaker to the amplifier, you have people who think anything above $20 is overkill and then you have cables with an asking price over $20,000 (AudioQuest Everest)! For a fun read, check out the Amazon reviews for this $6,000 power cable. Anyway, this is the only area I know of where people are willing to spend so much money for things that nobody really can prove makes a noticeable difference or not. It’s madness.

Oh wow, we’re six paragraphs in already. Hopefully you’ve been entertained. I am probably coming off as overly dramatic but this area really is crazy and what I desperately wanted at the time was to cut the crap and get to something real.

Thankfully, I found a nugget of gold amidst the mountains of glittering nonsense. Back in 2004, a researcher at Harman International (parent company of audio brands like Harman-Kardon, JBL, Infinity) did a large double-blind study on hundreds of people where they correlated acoustic measurement data from 70 different speakers with the preference ratings of participants. From that data, they developed (and patented) a model predicts how a trained listener would rate a speaker’s overall sound quality on a scale from 0 to 10. Their model predicted preference with an amazing 86% accuracy and more importantly, they solidly established a set of basic principles that quantify what makes a speaker sound good.

Turns out that the magic isn’t so complicated after all. What they disclosed of their formula (remember the full thing is patented) is that there are three main factors driving listener preference. The first is called frequency response which basically means that if you ask the speaker to play a single, very short note, how loud is that note when it comes out of the speaker. It doesn’t matter really how loud it is by itself, what matters that it the loudness is even from the lowest notes all the way to the highest notes. If it’s not even, then you get things like the high notes sounding too loud and thus a drummer’s cymbals sound harsh or maybe the mid-range notes being too quiet and a singer’s voice not coming out clearly. Makes sense.

The second thing is that this frequency response needs to be even not only for the sound waves coming straight out from the speaker but for the sound coming out at angles. This sound bounces off the walls in your room and gets back to your ears and so if it’s uneven in loudness, you have the same problem as before. And the third thing is how low the bass goes. You want a speaker that can play the canon shots in the 1812 Overture or the epic Skrillex bass drops.

So that made sense to me and was enough for me to lock in on a speaker. Which one I locked in on and why… well that’s for another time. Let me know if you liked this story and I’ll get that yarn a’spinnin.

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May 17th, 2015 at 1:16 am

Posted in Speaker Project

Piano Lessons!

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Thought it might be interesting for some of you to hear my latest adventure. No, I’m not going overseas to do another epic journey. This time, my adventure is back to music! It’s been over three years since I’ve seriously played piano and it’s been on my mind to get back to it. I’ve dabbled a little over the last year and even invested in a good digital piano but haven’t seriously started practicing again. Until now.

As any other musician out there knows, there’s no way to get you to practice like having an upcoming lesson. I really did need the structure and expectation that enrolling back in lessons would give me. So here about two weeks ago, I started lessons with an instructor by the name of Debbie Dewey. She came highly recommended and I even had taken a few lessons from her when she was substituting for one of my professors.

I had a lot of fun starting back up again and things were different this time around. I should probably save some of this for another post, but I found any kind of practicing very enjoyable and centering and inspiring. It’s like there was a part of my brain that had gone dormant and was finally being re-awakened. Once I focused in, I entered a new world. The world was challenging and inspiring, full of emotions and beauty. I truly enjoyed the practicing leading up to my first lesson. It was like my musical self was being reborn.

The first lesson went well. We spent a lot of time just talking and getting Debbie up to speed on my background and intentions with music going forward. It was fun recounting all the pieces I’d played in high school and college, and I was surprised how even still I could play the opening passage from a lot of them. Debbie was great about making me feel relaxed and focusing on the beauty of the music, rather than the myriad of self-doubting thoughts and distractions that could easily wreck it.

Anyway, I left the first lesson inspired to keep practicing and bring back the piece in even better shape. I had two weeks before we planned to meet again. For the curious, the piece I was learning was a Prelude by Rachmaninoff, Op. 32 No.2. A haunting and beautiful piece that reminds me of the frigidity and depression of some person’s life in Russia. It was like a bent over flower, just poking out of the snow and just barely making staying alive.

I’d been practicing a good amount since the lesson and today Debbie held a group lesson at her house. Both her young and adult students would be playing their pieces, in whatever shape they were in. We had a crowd of 10 or so. It was fun just watching the little students, their faces lit up with excitement to play and enjoy the music. It was interesting to think of myself once in their shoes, just playing a simple song and barely reaching the pedals. It gave me a lot of respect and appreciation for all the hard work I’ve put in (and pushing from my parents) to make it this far. I am so glad to get started again and continue enjoying and developing this wonderful skill!

Anyway, I ended up playing for the group. My piece wasn’t nearly in performing shape but since everybody else had given it a shot, I decided to also. I did want to share that beautiful piece with the group, it’s just that I could’ve given a better rendition of it had I waited longer. But I decided to give it a shot anyway.

The nervousness came rushing back at me, just as it always had in my former life as a musician. The cold fingers, the tingling in the forearms, the feeling that you’re never getting a full breath. I tried calm myself down but no logic would calm the beast of fear. It raged on inside me as I tried to remain cool and calm for the rest of the group.

Debbie said some words to introduce me to the group and then I told them the piece I was going to play. I made some comment about them hearing the music despite the wrong notes, as a way of letting myself off the hook. Part of me was eager to play the beautiful music for them while the other part was just trying to keep myself from visibly trembling. The nerves were ridiculous and totally unwarranted. I think it was just because I hadn’t played for strangers since my recital in 2008 and had lost all my resistance to stage fright. So annoying.

Anyway, I thought I played it fairly well. My arms were weak but I was focused on the music and bringing out the beauty of it and I think that carried me through the rough sections. Some things lept up as stumbling blocks that I never had trouble with before but I played on, just wanting to maintain the overall sense of musical phrase and idea.

And before long, it was over. People clapped and seemed to have enjoyed it. I was glad I played and had enjoyed it as well, all though there was the part of me that was embarrassed for making so many mistakes with the notes. Oh well, that really shouldn’t matter to most people anyway. Plus I’m still learning the piece, so that’ll go away.

We chatted some more after that and then the other adult students played. I liked both of their senses of musicality. It’ll be a good group. Next month I’ll have this piece in way better shape and maybe even another to play for them. I’m looking forward to it. That’s all for this post. I’ll write more as I have the inspiration. Thanks for reading!

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October 2nd, 2011 at 7:19 pm

Posted in Uncategorized

The Last Day!

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The journey was long but somehow the tale was even longer! Hopefully there’s a few of you out there reading this still. You deserve something special for making it this far, checking for updates and reading all the posts. Thanks!

Anyway, let’s get on with the story.

I opened my eyes on that last day and was so happy to be going home. The trip was so much fun but I was ready to be back in the states and enjoy the comforts of a normal home. I took a picture just to commemorate that moment of joy. I didn’t have a whole lot to do that day, just grab a few souvenirs and take the bus to the airport. The flight left at 12:30 and I wanted to get there with plenty of time to spare. A transatlantic flight is not something to be missed. And if I’d learned anything from 6 weeks of travel, it was to expect the unexpected and give yourself plenty of buffer time.

I got packed up and toted my stuff down the main streets of Dublin. Tried to soak up as much as I could in that brief walk, but really I shouldn’t even claim to have visited that city. I found a good souvenir shop and got some last minute gifts. I didn’t have a whole lot of money left, but thankfully it was enough to get what I wanted: a polo shirt, a cool Guinness mug shot glass, and a keychain.

I found the bus stop and hopped on board. Suprisingly, there were two other Americans on board. One was from Seattle. Crazy! It was always nice to meet a fellow American on the road but running into another Seattleite was incredible. I think she was a student at Seattle Pacific University. Anyway, I chatted briefly with them on the way over to the airport and before long we were there. Not much interesting happened at the airport, as far as I can remember. Oh, except some jerk US Customs agent who asked where I had gone and so I started rattling off the countries, he stopped me at Rome and said “I would’ve taken Italy” with a strong air of annoyance. Thanks, bud. To top it off, he stamps my passport, waves me through and then says “Good luck” in some snide tone of voice. Yup, that’s an American for you, I was coming home.

I was just so glad when I got on the plane and settled down to head back. Thank god there were no adventures on that last critical step of my journey. It was a 6 hour flight back to JFK airport. It felt good coming back to the US and seeing all the familiar signs. No more fumbling to communicate or understand what’s going on. This was my kingdom, man.

The adventure wasn’t over yet though. My connecting flight to Spokane was the next day and had I wanted to save money so I decided I wouldn’t get a hotel. Sleeping in the airport couldn’t be that bad I thought. So after I got my bag, I went over to Terminal 5 with it’s blissfully free wifi and convenient AC outlets. Called my parents to let them know I’d made it ok and then started trying to find info on the best place to sleep in the airport. The flight was leaving out of La Guardia, so I started reading about people’s experiences there. Some had done it, but others said it was a hard place to sleep and they got bugged by the security guards. Not one to seek confrontations, I started re-thinking my plan. I did have enough money to afford a hotel room for the night, but it’d barely be worth it, since my flight left at 6:15am the next morning. It wasn’t worth $110 to sleep for 5 hours.

But then I remembered there was a much better, cheaper option: that hostel where we’d stayed at the beginning of the trip. It would mean I would take the subway at 3am but would be only $35 for a room and a bed. That was worth it in my book, so I called them up. They had one free spot, so I hurried over there. It felt good to be back in that familiar spot and end where it all began. They got me booked into a room and I went up there for a blissful shower and unpacking. I hadn’t showered in a while and it felt great. Plus this hostel was cleaner than almost any I’d stayed in for a while so it was nice.

Met one of the roommates who woke up from a nap and we chatted for a while. If I remember right, he was a Swiss PhD student visiting New York for a conference. I told him I’d just come from a big European trip and was nearly broke. We talked about Switzerland a bit and his background. We ended up going out to Subway for dinner and he bought my sandwich, very nice of him. Every penny counted at this point and it was nice to see such kindness in a near stranger.

So we went back to the room and I decided it was time for bed. I think it was around 9pm by then. So I tucked in for the last time to a hostel bed, turned on my airplane white noise and fell asleep. Of course I double checked to make sure my alarm was set correctly.

It woke me up at 2:40am and I was ready to go. Grabbed my stuff and walked out the door. I was a little scared to be walking around a rough area of Manhattan at that time of night, but I had to do it. It was about a 6 block walk but I didn’t really see anybody out, and even then, nobody that looked menacing. Grabbed a couple 25 cent bananas from the street vendor and headed down into the subway. I was early and waited on the bench right in front of the security guards office, just to be safe. I was still sleepy but a little on edge and still physically tired. I just had to keep pushing to the end. The subway came eventually and I boarded.

Once at the airport, I checked in my stuff and got on the plane. This was the final leg– a 9 hour trip with a layover in Salt Lake. It went much faster coming back then when I went. It was hard to believe that 7 weeks had already passed. The time really flew.

It felt like an eternity, but I eventually made it into Spokane around 9am. Weary and with less than $10 to my name, I had made it back home. Victorious! Made the trip of a lifetime and lived to tell about it. It was an incredible experience and one I’ll always look back on fondly.

And that’s the end. Thanks everybody for reading!

P.S. I’ll be posting more pictures of the entire trip later.

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December 19th, 2010 at 8:41 pm

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Amsterdam Day 2

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So we’re coming down the home stretch now– this was my last full day in Europe. I was sad that things were coming to an end but looking forward to seeing family and friends and live the comfortable life back in the states. The main agenda for the day was to buy souvenirs. Since my trip was almost over, I could load up with gifts and not have to pack them much longer. So I got all packed up and checked out of the hostel. I was going to take my bike into town for some shopping, so I went over to it and… what the heck?! Somebody had locked their bike through mine and to the metal railing. Knowing Amsterdam, the dude was probably nowhere near his right mind when that happened so I just laughed it off. No problem, I’d just walk 100 yards over to the bike shop and get them to unlock it with a spare key. So I went over there and asked for the spare. They said, “We don’t keep spare keys.” Whaaaat?! How could you not keep spare keys? What if somebody loses theirs? They said that the spare keys are kept at the central shop and they’ve been waiting a couple days already to get a spare key for a different bike. Well, what was I going to do now?

So I thought of having the hostel call the guy who checked out the bike and luckily he answered. He said it was his friends and he’d be right down to unlock it. Phew! So I stood out by the bikes and waited. And waited. And finally after about 20 minutes of my anger building, some guy finally came down and unlocked the bike. I was ready to berate him for locking up my bike and then making me wait so long, but he apologized profusely so I figured he was already sorry enough. He said his friend meant to lock it to another friends bike but messed up– makes sense, cause all the bikes from that rental shop looked the same.

So a little delayed but calmed down, I rolled off down the street. Went down to the flower market and shopped for bulbs and delft. I was happily surprised to see the delft prices here were much more reasonable. No doubt it wasn’t the same level of workmanship of the $500 pieces but it’s better than nothing and looked good still. Plus I was nearly out of cash– I mean dead broke– and I still wanted to eat for the next two days. I’d carefully calculated my remaining stash and I was just barely going to make it.

Finished with the shopping and though I wanted to visit the Van Gogh museum, which I’d bought a ticket for, I just wouldn’t have the time to thoroughly enjoy it. That was fine, the front desk person had told me I could return it if I didn’t use it. I pedaled my way back to the hostel– a 15 minute journey– and returned my bike. Went to return the ticket and there was a different person who refused to give my money back. What’s their deal? The other lady who told me I could return it was there too and I said “well she said I could return it.” So they argued a bit and then decided that there was no way they could tell if I’d used it or not. Well that was a fair argument, but they also should’ve stood up to their word. I angrily left the desk, later wishing I’d argued with them more and mentally rehearsing different play-by-plays. Of course, that always helps you calm down. Not.

Anyway, I took various trains and got to the airport. For once, my schedule was not crunched and I even did a last bit of shopping at souvenir shop in the terminal before heading to the gate for an Aer Lingus flight to Dublin. It was just a short 45 minute flight and I’d be there at 5:50, just enough time to get to the Guinness storehouse before they stopped doing tours at 7:00. So I waited at the gate for a while, making small talk. They said the plane was running a little late, so I got a little stressed. Waited for a bit and then saw our plane pull up to the gate. Yay! Passengers got off that flight but they wouldn’t let us board. Hmmm. They announced that the plane was having mechanical difficulties and that a mechanic was coming immediately. They’d keep us updated on the new departure time. Great! Glad they discovered the problems while they were on the ground, instead of us blowing up in mid-flight.

So we’re all waiting and watching and then they announced it’d be a 2 hour delay because they had to get parts from some warehouse offsite. Noooo!! It was cutting into my precious time in Dublin. Way too much hassle for a simple 45 minute flight. So I waited patiently for the two hours, mostly typing blog posts on my phone. So as the two hours were getting close to being up, they came on the intercom again and said that the flight was cancelled all together. At this, my heart dropped. My flight from Dublin back to NYC left at 12:30 PM and there was no way I could miss that flight. I thought of all the other ways I could get to Dublin– but they were all complicated by the fact that there were two large bodies of water along the shortest path. A combination of ferries and trains would’ve just taken too long. I could be screwed.

So they announced there was another flight that they could pack high-priority passengers onto. Women and children and frequent fliers first. Felt like I was on the sinking Titanic, packed into the 3rd class dungeons with no hope of survival. I didn’t even try to plead my case with them. Other people were saying that this happened to some of their friends on other Aer Lingus flights and was a known problem with the planes. Guess that’s what you get when you go with a super budget airline. So I sat there for a while in a panic, but then they announced that they were sending a replacement plane from Dublin that would be here in another hour and take the rest of us back. We were saved, yay!

I felt a nice wave of relief as I realized I was going to make it home the next day after all. My plans for Dublin were hosed but at least I wouldn’t miss that flight back to the states. They gave us free meal coupons– up to $12 to spend anywhere in the airport. So I took that and went on a fast food spending spree. I went to the McDonald’s and stood in front of their menu like a king. Anything my heart desired and more could be had without a penny out of my own pocket. I loaded up—-Chicken Sensation, McKroket, McFlurry, Large Fries and an OJ. Came out just a squeak below $12– perfect!

The McKroket was the weirdest sandwich I’d ever had. I think it was a local specialty but it just tasted like a breaded and fried slab of gravy with weird meat chunks and pickles in it. Not something I’d have again. Nonetheless, I happily wolfed it all down. Any anger that I felt towards Aer Lingus and their shoddy aircraft maintenance plan was dissolved by the simple delight of a McDonald’s meal. Of course I was regretting it about 30 seconds after the last bite, but I still remember that feeling of sheer delight to this day.

Finally I was back at the gate again and eventually boarding the plane. This was the moment we’d all been waiting for. I don’t think anybody had ever been happier to get on a plane. We were off before long and after a short flight, touched down in Dublin. I took a bus from the airport to downtown Dublin and got a cab from their to my hostel. I think it was about 11:30 by the time I wearily reached the front desk.

The place was alright– a little on the shabby and old side, but it felt good to be there nonetheless. I found my room a complete mess, thanks to the other three girl roommates, who were out at the time. After dropping off my stuff, I figured I should just go talk a walk around and see what was happening. It was after midnight by this time and surprisingly almost everything was shut down. Just the usual tipsy groups of people walking and yelling down the street. It was fun to hear everyone’s Irish accent.

Ended up finding one bar that was open. Thankfully! I’d had one hell of a long day and it was time to relax over a pint of Guinness. And the Guinness here doesn’t get any better– after all, it’s brewed in the same city. So maybe I was too tired or anxious or something, but I didn’t taste much difference from the American variety. They say the Irish stuff is completely different because they don’t have to add as much hops to keep it fresh, but my palette didn’t detect the difference. Not like I’d noticed with the Heineken in Amsterdam.

Finished up my pint and wanted to take the glass home as a souvenir. I asked the bartender if I could buy it and she just laughed. Take it, she said. The Irish are truly nice people! So I washed it out and then left the bar, happy to have checked that off my list.

Ten minutes later, I was back in my room. The others still weren’t back yet but that was just as well. I was ready to hit the sack and I hit it hard. There ends another day, the last full day I’d spend in Europe.

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December 11th, 2010 at 12:45 pm

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Amsterdam Day 1

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The day began on the early side– up by 7:00am so I could make the most out of my only full day in Amsterdam. Had breakfast in the hostel’s nice cafeteria. Even saw a family with kids who was eating there and must’ve also been staying the night. A hostel is an interesting place to stay for a family vacation. Luckily ours wasn’t one of the wild ones.

After breakfast, I headed out to find the streetcar that would take me into the Museumplein, aka Museum Square. I was headed to the Rijksmuseum, one of the great European art museums. Had a few troubles as usual trying to get there, but eventually I was at the gates. Turns out the musuem was under construction and only a small part of it’s collection was open for viewing. That was OK, I didn’t have a ton of time to devote there anyway. Before I took my place in the ticket line, I stopped to get a hotdog from a guy with a very funny t-shirt. Put a pic of it up but I had to blur out part to keep things classy around here. Apparently the guy’s friend had made the shirt after hearing him complain that so many people would talk to him in whatever language they felt like and expect him to know it. Being amongst so many foreign languages and desperately yearning to hear English for the last 5 weeks, the shirt totally struck a note with me.

Anyway, after I finished laughing and eating my hot dog, I got in line and went into the museum. The first piece there was an amazing huge group portrait done by Bartholomeus van der Helst called “Banquet in celebration of the Treaty of Munster”. I was stunned at the level of detail and the lifelike expressions on each face. You could not only tell exactly what was going on in the scene, you could also tell what each character was thinking by the look on their face. Simply amazing. I included a picture from their website, since I wasn’t allowed to take pictures of my own. Again, I think it was a trick to get you to spend money on their picture books in the gift shop.

After the Van der Helst, I saw some collections of fine home furnishings, stuff like Delft pottery, elaborate furniture, and even these incredibly detailed doll houses. For a period, wealthy women would commission doll houses to be made and furnish the houses with exact scale replicas of things like real porcelain dishes from China, custom artwork and furniture. Everything was created like it would’ve been in the full scale, except for in miniature. The women treated decorating their doll houses as a serious hobby and ended up with these finely detailed and complex houses. It was an expensive hobby too. The one I looked at reportedly cost the owner between twenty and thirty thousand dollars, way back in the 1700’s. That was enough money to buy a real house!

After that, I saw a lot of paintings. The ones by Rembrandt were especially amazing. He captured light and texture and emotion like no one else I’d seen and the result was astounding. A couple of them I liked were Old Woman Reading and Night Watch, one of his most famous works. All of his pieces were stunning and captured a state of reality more intense than a photo ever could. Another work I enjoyed was Jacob van Ruisdael’s Landscape with Waterfall. I’ll include pictures of all these at the end, though so much of the detail and impact is lost in a photo.

So when my tour of the Rijksmuseum was over, I decided to just walk around and explore the city. My memory gets a little fuzzy here because I didn’t take enough pictures. I remember running into an open air market and buying a cool lapis ring as a souvenir. I also walked around the red light district a little bit, although it wasn’t quite the same place during the day. This area was definitely the most crowded and touristy of the city. I’ll talk more about the place later on.

At some point, I also decided to rent a bike to help me see more of the city. Amsterdam is not a very car friendly city but for bikers, it’s paradise. The city is pretty compact and you can get anywhere within 15 minutes if you’re riding. They have dedicated bike lanes pretty much everywhere and always a place to lock your bike up. It was fun sailing up and down the canal streets on a bike.

Hunger kicked in at some point, so I opened up my guide book to find a good place. I decided to go to this place called Restaurant-Cafe in de Waag. The place was originally built in 1488 as a weigh house for one of Amsterdam’s city gates. It has served many uses since then: fencing hall, furniture factory, fire station, and many more but now it’s primary use was for the restaurant. The interior was classy but a bit medieval since the structure was all stone and the interior was lit solely with candles and window light. Pretty cool to be eating in a place like that. I thought it’d be the last fancy meal of the trip. The food was absolutely delicious too. I don’t remember exactly what everything was but see the pictures for more detail here.

I couldn’t linger too long at dinner, so I finished up and paid the bill. My next mission was to check out a source of inexpensive Delft to get a few souvenirs. I’d seen a piece for sale in the gift shop of the Rijksmuseum but the thing cost €564, so it wasn’t quite in my price range. For those who are unfamiliar, Delft is white porcelain hand painted with blue designs, usually floral. It was originally created as a substitute for Chinese porcelain when they were unable to import any more. Since then, it has grown into its own style completely and is coveted by many.

I found a place selling official Delft but unfortunately, they were closed. Tomorrow, then. My next stop was the Anne Frank House. I’d heard that lines could be hours long, so I’d planned to go late in the evening. I think the plan worked, because I didn’t have to wait more than 15 minutes before heading inside. No pictures allowed, as usual. Sad. The experience was well orchestrated– they handed out portable audioguides and you walked along the house, every once in a while running into a TV screen playing a small clip of an interview or reading from Anne Frank’s book. It was cool to see the actual place they had stayed in but I had a hard time feeling sorry for them being cooped up there. I know it was a bad thing compared to the way that they had been living before, but compared to the many who were shipped off to concentration camps, they had it pretty nice. It was amazing to hear Anne’s perspective on the matter and they had pulled some of the incisive quotes from her diary to display in the exhibits. Being in that same place where her family had lived and she had written the diary was pretty awesome too. It was horrible hearing about the fate they all ultimately suffered, though.

By the time I got out of the Anne Frank house, it was dark. My only agenda item left for the day was to check out the famous Red Light District at night. I don’t think my descriptions will be able to do it any justice, but I’ll at least try. The center of the Red Light District is an area about 4 streets wide and 8 blocks long. It’s crowded with coffee shops, neon-lit stores, and of course the famous red lit doors showcasing scantily clad women. Most people just roll on through the area, gawking and laughing amongst themselves. Every once in a while, you do see somebody talking with a girl in her doorway and then going in. As you walk by, the women start tapping furiously on the glass to get your attention. It was weird and a little creepy at first but eventually the ridiculousness of it all just made me smile.This place made Vegas look like Bible Camp.

So after my time in the RLD, I decided to call it a night. It had been quite a sight to behold.

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November 21st, 2010 at 12:04 pm

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Berlin Day 4

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Hey guys, long time no post. Sorry for that– things have been busy for me and I haven’t been good about doing my blog. It’s fun after I can make myself sit down and start writing. After all this time, it’s amazing I can still remember so much. I think the memories are growing even fonder in my mind.

Day four in Berlin started with a big to-do list of things I had to finish before leaving the city. Mainly, I wanted to do a bunch of souvenir shopping and I also had postcards from the last three or four cities to mail. It was time to finally get those suckers sent because I’d already put Austrian stamps on most of them but couldn’t find a damn mailbox near the train station in Vienna and forgot about them in Innsbruck. Funny how little stuff like that can get you– and these stamps weren’t cheap either.

So I checked out of the lovely Industriepalast hostel at 9:30 and had a quick meal. They let me leave bags there for free, so I dropped them off and went to go on my errands. It was hard deciding whether to go north up to the area around the sticker museum where I had seen some other clothing shops or down south, where I knew a “street apparel” store was. Ended up deciding to go north first because the street apparel store was open later on this Saturday. Anyway, the air was cool and the sun was bright as I walked up there. I went by the shops but they were all opening at 11 so I killed some time at a local sidewalk cafe sipping on some coffee and reading my guidebook.

When 11 rolled around, I went up to this one place that had tons of shirts in a full rainbow of colors. I was looking for some shirts done by Berlin artists. Found a few good looking ones there but didn’t buy them then- I wanted to shop around a bit first. Next stop was the sticker museum to check out a few of the shirts I saw they had before. The owner was there this time and so I talked to him briefly. Really nice guy and he was even cool with me asking what other shops I should visit to buy art shirts. I bought a shirt there and kept chatting with him about his stickers and the art scene in Berlin. I asked him if there was any way I could get some Berlin street art magazines back in the states and he said that most of them in Berlin are locally produced “fanzines” that never make it out of the area. But he took my email address and said he’d get in touch when some came in and ship them over to me. That was so cool of him to offer! I’m actually still waiting on that to pull through but he did email me months later to ask if I was still interested. Emailed back and now I’m crossing my fingers on that one!

So I got a picture with him and thanked him a bunch and then left the store. He had marked a couple nearby places on the map for me to visit, so I headed up that way. One of those places was a really cool art gallery/merch shop and I loved the prints the guy had on the wall. There was some really cool and tempting pieces to buy but I didn’t think I could get it home safely and was also running low in the money department. Next time…

Since I didn’t see anything really good at those places, I went back to the first place and bought one of the shirts I’d found earlier. Fit great and has a really cool design! Time was running a little short but I still had errands to do. I found a place selling stamps and bought another $20 in postage to finally get those postcards sent. Had to sit down and write about 12 more for the places I’d bought postcards but never finished them. Got the whole stack written and posted and sent– relief!

Timing was almost perfect and I started heading back to the hostel to pick up my stuff. I wished I had time to go to a few more places, but things had just taken too long. But as I was walking back, another shop caught my eye with its clever title– Yack Fou. I still had to get a souvenir for a friend, so I popped in there to quickly buy something. Found a great shirt but they only had a medium and I needed small. Asked the clerk for a small but she said she’d get back to me after finishing with this customer. Anxiety levels started rising as I realized that I was starting to run behind schedule. Eventually she came out to me and said ok, I’ll get a medium printed right now. “printed?” I didn’t realize this shop made their shirts! So now it was too late to back out as she was warming up the transfer machine. Waited nervously as she put the design on the shirt, clamped down on it with the hot metal plates and let it melt into the fabric. Finally, the thing came hot out of the machine and into a bag. I paid and headed out the door.

It was getting so late that I had to start jogging. What an idiot, I thought to myself as I jogged down the sidewalk with my bags of shirts. Oh well, I’d never see these people again. Made it back to the hostel and picked up my gear and booked it back out the door. No time to lose now and I was in a quick jog as this point. Just have to make it to the s-bahn. Pant pant, lungs burning. Rushed to the station, down the stairs and out to the platform. Less than a minute later and the train pulled into the station and I got on. Phew, that was quick. But I still wasn’t out of the woods yet. My train to Amsterdam left in like 20 minutes.

I mentally flogged myself for always repeating this behavior. Why do I always cut things so close?! Too much stress for a person to put them selves under. Rolled into the main train station with like 7 minutes to spare and I ran down to the main level to see the departures board and check the platform number. Ok, got it. Ran back up a couple flights of stairs with my big bag on and found the platform. Had about 2 minutes to spare as I got on and took a big sigh of relief. Wow, that was way too close! But I couldn’t help grinning a little bit.

The train ride was long and I don’t remember much happening. There was a bunch of kids my age who came on with a case of beer bottles and cause a bit of a ruckus with their train party but thankfully they left after about an hour. Probably spent most of that time blogging on my phone. I didn’t know how to get to my Amsterdam hostel but I figured I could easily get to a nearby internet cafe to look it up. That’s one thing you can rely on in any large city.

The train actually didn’t go all the way to Amsterdam. Forgot what city I had to transfer in but it was close to Amsterdam and I found an internet cafe there. Looked up my new hostel and got the directions. This planning thing was finally getting a little easier. Hopped on the train and within an hour or so I was at my new place– the Stayokay Amsterdam Zeeburg. It had clean feel, good rooms and wifi (albeit expensive) in the lobby. Not too bad. It was 10:15 and I was getting pretty hungry. Asked the clerk for a recommendation and he pointed me towards a nearby main street with a couple options.

I ended up at this Italian place– weird, I know. But they were open and so I walked in. The place was empty, save for a few employees and their friends hanging out near the bar. They were prompt and pleasant with their service. Spoke in English to me– thankfully. I heard the Dutch know many languages, especially English. Good. Had a Heineken beer, which surprisingly tasted so much better than any Heineken I’d had in the states. The beer is made right there in Amsterdam, so it was super fresh and didn’t have any extra stuff added to make it last the trip to the states. Mmm, delicious!

Anyway, I had some salad and pasta– typical Italian meal. From what I remember, it was good. When they brought my check, it came in a little wooden chest. Inside, was the slip of paper and two little mints. How cute! I took a picture and am proud to share it with you all. Fanciest presentation of a bill I’d ever gotten. After that meal, I felt pretty tired and so I headed back home. Oops, forgot to say what the buildings were like. They were all rectangular brick buildings with brown roofs and plain exteriors. But they had the look of security and I liked that. The neighborhood was quiet and clean, felt like a typical suburb. Weather was overcast and cool but not raining. Ok,that ends the day.

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November 6th, 2010 at 4:38 pm

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Berlin Day 3

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Slept in a bit this day, since I’d been out so late the day before. Of course it wasn’t perfect sleep because the roommates were up and rustling around much before I wanted to get out of bed. After I rousted myself and got ready for the day, I went downstairs and had their paid breakfast. Typical hostel breakfast– couple cereals, meat and cheese tray (not the good kind), hard boiled eggs, bread, and strawberry yogurt. Enough to fill you up but nothing to get excited about.

After breakfast, I rode the tram over to Alexanderplatz to meet a group for a tour called the “Alternative Berlin” tour. We were going to see popular urban art, cultural spots, and other grunge not covered in the typical Berlin tour. I was excited to get on this tour because I’d been loving the graffiti in Berlin and wanted to see more. The tour company also led a graffiti workshop with actual Berlin street artists teaching it but that had already happened for the week. Put that on the “next time” list.

Anyway, I chatted with a few people in the tour group and oddly enough, ran into two people from the “Anti pub-crawl” group last night. It was cool to actually see some people I’d met before! It was a walking tour and we went through neighborhoods, looking at good street art while the guide gave us some background on the artists and art scene. Pictures are the best way to describe things at this point.

One stop we made was at this cool hangout spot called the “Youth African Art Market.” Probably half the size of a city block and mostly sand, the YAAM had a basketball court, skate park, benches, tables, an outdoor bar, and more that I didn’t get to see. We took a break there and sat down. The spot was right on the river too, so it was an awesome hang out spot. I’d definitely go there often if I lived in Berlin.

After that, we checked out the longest still standing stretch of the Berlin wall. It’d been decorated with art and was quite a popular spot with tourists. The art wasn’t too great in my eyes but whatever. I found a funny picture that somebody had painted on top of the art that elegantly summarized my feelings toward it. Wonder why they couldn’t tap into the great street art culture to paint the wall. Politics, I’m sure. Well, they’re taking it over anyway.

One of the coolest parts of the tour was the squatters settlements. These people had been living illegally in abandoned lots since the communist days. There were many more settlements like this under the communist reign and since the wall fell, almost all of them have been dismantled. The squatters embrace counter-cultural, communal, anti-capitalist, pro-art values and I think it’s a pretty cool thing to have, even if I don’t agree with everything they’re doing. Capitalism has a way of stripping raw, vibrant culture away and painting it over with glossy nothingness. These people, though maybe not producing anything of monetary value for society, still add a richness to the overall culture and it makes me sad to think that eventually they will all be forced to disband.

The next place we stopped was a bombed out train depot from WWII– the same place where I had been clubbing last night.  I learned the the complex had a bunch more than just a club. Indoor skate park, martial arts studio,  beer garden, outdoor movie theater, even the set for West Coast Customs Europe. We checked out the skate park. It felt kind of dumb to be in a group of gawking tourists but still cool to see the skaters. Lots of younger kids who must’ve been playing hookey. Way cooler than I ever was at that age.

Walked around after that, checking the place out. It was another place I’d definitely hang if I lived in Berlin.

After that, we went to the world’s first and only sticker museum. It was a small place but the walls and counters and cabinets were filled with stickers. Apparently it was only like 10% of the owner’s collection and they were currently looking for a bigger place. See the pics for some of the cool ones I spotted. No admission fee either, simply survived on donations. Neat.

So after the sticker museum, we took the train to Hackescher Markt. It used to be a grungy, artsy place but now it’s been gentrified. Except this one little tunnel and courtyard area where we were going. The area was filled with cool art and graffiti, even a giant metal sculpture under construction. There was a bookstore/art shop there and I got a book with tons of photos of the street art in Berlin. It’d be a great coffee table book for when I got back home.

The next and final stop on the tour was Tacheles, the place I’d been on the tour the day before. I was glad to go back though because I could get some pictures this time. Forgot to say before that Tacheles had a lot of tables and an outdoor bar and even a music stage where bands play frequently. They also had an organic garden but that was recently shut down because some of the plants growing there weren’t exactly legal…

After the group disbanded, I grabbed a quick dinner at a Vietnamese place. It wasn’t the best but filled me up a little. They had a clock in there, which was nice because I finally had a way to tell what time it was. I was shocked to see how late it had gotten and actually had to rush to finish because there was another tour leaving in less than an hour. Stress level was rising as I walked quickly back to the rail station.

The tour was given by Alternative Berlin, the same company that gave the other tour today and also the anti pub-crawl. Called the “Twilight Tour”, this one promised an edgy look into the Berlin nightlife, including graffiti raids and “mindblowing urban exploration of abandoned relics.” A reservation was required and they never emailed me back, so it was a long shot. I didn’t even know exactly where they were meeting but the website said “Alexanderplatz” (where we met earlier today), so I thought I’d be able to find them. Got there a little after 6 and went straight to the Starbucks where we’d met earlier. Hmmm, not there. Tried to check my email to see if the guy had mailed back. Of  course this Starbucks did their wifi different than every other Starbucks in the world and it only worked for T-Mobile customers or something. Lame. Walked around the area, looking for any group of people, but found nothing. Sigh. Either they left right at six or had a secret meeting place. I was bummed out to miss that awesome tour but oh well.

So I walked around the area for a bit, wondering what to do. I ran into a Japanese busker (street musician) doing an awesome set where he played various mouth instruments (like the mouth harp), recording, looping and re-recording until he built up a funky techno song. Actually bought a mouth harp from him and had fun playing around with it. They sound really twangy and are tricky to play right. You hold the thing between your lips and then flick this little metal piece that vibrates. Your mouth amplifies the vibration and you can control the pitch by moving your tongue closer to the instrument. The guy got some really cool sounds out of it. Check out a YouTube video of him playing it here.

Also saw some other dance troupe doing stunts. One of the guys in their group was super flexible and distorted his body in gross ways. The most unbelievable one was where he wrapped his body around the torso of some other guy, holding his feet under his chin. See the pic, it’s nuts.

Eventually, I decided to rent a bike and explore Berlin a bit on my own. It was like 15 euro until 11pm so that was a good 4 hours of riding. Rode down into the Kreuzberg area, which is supposedly the most hip and edgy part of town. Of course my bike was hard to ride but complicating things more was the fact that the headset was loose, making it so that my handlebars would turn without actually turning the bike tire and resulting in me having to steer right just to go straight because it would get out of alignment. Not too safe and I didn’t even have a helmet. Guess I like living dangerously.

Saw some cool buildings but then heard some loud rock music coming from a building down the street. Looked like an old high rise apartment complex so I curiously pedalled my way down the street. Got to the building and realized it was a squatter’s settlement. I was scared to go in because the tour guide earlier said they don’t like tourists taking pictures and that we shouldn’t even talk too much when we’re going by. But, he also said that Berlin has an open-door policy and their gate was totally open. What they hay, I thought, and walked in.

My heart was pounding as I walked past the metal gates and into the heart of the beast. It was super grungy all around, with tents and wooden boxes and old Soviet trucks used for shelter. The building had an open courtyard and there were about 10 people loitering around, all punked out with body peircings, tattoos, crazy hairstyles and tight black clothes. Some were standing and smoking, others sitting on the ground or in shopping carts drinking beer, half-watching the musicians.  Of course I stood out like Liberace on an Amish farm but I figured I could stay a few seconds without causing trouble. Next to the guys playing guitar and drums was some dude with a pink mohawk grinding away on a chunk of metal, throwing a rooster tail of sparks behind him. Plastered all over the building was colorful graffiti and art. It all was so freakin’ awesome. This was the universal center of all things grunge and punk. I wanted so badly to take a picture but wanted to make it out alive, so I tried my best to capture it all mentally.

I’d say I was there a total of two minutes before walking out. Never got a look from anybody, amazingly. Still was pretty scared the whole time and jittery after I exited the gates. But the rush made everything even cooler. Tried to take a picture then but my hands were too shaky and they turned out blurry.

After that, the rest of the ride wasn’t so intense. Saw a cool park next to the river, some interesting architecture, and enjoyed the city like a local would. Eventually, I stopped to get some food. Of course it was some kebap place. By the time I finished, the sun was setting and I pedalled back to the hostel. On my way, I ran into some huge, awesome street art pieces and also the filming of some kind of tv show. Their backdrop was a 6 story tall mural that covered two buildings, so I could understand the choice of location.

So I stopped back at the hostel for a bit, but forgot exactly what I did there. Oh that’s right, I changed out of my shorts into jeans. They’d be better for enjoying the nightlife in style. Dropped off my bag and coat and then headed back to return the bike. Tried to make it back to Alexanderplatz without checking a map and I almost did it. Just cause I was running low on time, I had to check to make sure I was going the best way. I would of made it eventually (hard to miss its 1200 foot tv tower) but didn’t feel like paying a late fine on the bike rental.

So I turned that road hog in and found myself looking for stuff to do. I wanted to go see the bombed out church tower so I headed down there on the s-bahn. Looked up the place online and followed the directions to find myself walking through a big dark park called the Tiergarten. Spooky, but I found the church on the other side.  This one looked perfectly fine though… Hmm. A quick check of the guidebook revealed that I’d gotten the name slightly wrong when I looked up the address. I wanted the Kaiser-Wilhelm-Gedächtniskirche not the Kaiser-Friedrich-Gedächtniskirche. Those damn German words are just too long. Back onto the s-bahn and before long I was looking at the shattered tower of the Kaiser-Wilhelm Memorial church. It was all lit up against the black night sky and I imagined snipers standing up in the towers during the war. Too many hours spent playing Call of Duty.

Anyway, I wandered around there for a bit. Picture record shows I went back to the hostel, though I can’t remember why. Got a few drinks from the nearby convenience store and decided to hit up the Berghain. It was only like 2am but I didn’t have much else to do. I got all nervous as I walked up there, as I stepped up to the ultimate test of cool. I figured if I didn’t open my English-speaking mouth, I might stand a chance of getting in. If the bouncer tried to speak to me in German, I’d be a goner.

This time, there was a crowd gathered outside the entrance as I rolled up. I nervously took my place in line, probably 60 people ahead of me. Lights and music pulsated from the tall windows of the four story warehouse. This was it– the clubbing mecca of the world (or so said the guidebook).  I watched some people get in– yes!– trying to gauge what got them the OK. Other people were unceremoniously rejected, forced to take the walk of shame back along the line. The bouncers looked evil, like soulless beings who took delight in ruining people’s self-esteem. One of them looked like a satanic pig on stilts– his fat greasy face and bloated belly teetering over a pair of black skinny leg jeans.

The intensity grew as I got closer to the door. Groups of English speaking people were turned away immediately, some returning to protest, always with no success. I saw the look of disappointment and defeat in their eyes as they walked back, trying to laugh it all off. They’d blown it with their drunken laughing even before they got to the door. Amateurs. Not me, I was a stone cold pillar of cunning and strategy.

The bouncer was speaking to each guest as they stepped up to the door. I panicked at first but figured out he was just asking how many were in the party. Easy enough– “eins”. My lack of German wouldn’t be the weak spot tonight. Just a few people left ahead of me and my heart was pounding– louder than the bass booming from behind the doors. A single guy ahead of me stepped up, replied to the bouncer’s question and was immediately turned away. My turn.

I stepped up confidently to the platform where he stood. I stared into his cold steel eyes as he surveyed me up and down. Never had I seen a man who looked this evil.  It seemed as though the only pleasure he took in life was in denying others of happiness. My fate lie in his hands and I could tell he would take no mercy in dealing judgment. He issued a quick flick of the wrist, pointing me away and to the side while muttering something in German. The hammer had fallen and I was not welcome there.

Disappointment mixed with relief and a chuckle of irony as I walked away. What I’d worried about the whole time– being a non-German speaking tourist– hadn’t even played a role in my dismissal. I had made no mistake yet I was still turned away. For some reason, it was easy to get over that. Those guys were just impossible to please and it wasn’t my fault at all. I was still disappointed that I didn’t get in but not crushed. The place had a reputation and I learned why.

So that’s my Berghain story. I exaggerated a bit about it being the epitomy of cool and crushing those who didn’t get in, but it still would’ve been a ton of fun to see. I had other clubs on my list and had been mentally preparing to go to them in the likely event I wouldn’t get into the Berghain. The first was a club right across from the hostel that was housed beneath the railway station so I walked there. Paid the cover and danced for a bit, but it just didn’t have the right feel so I left. I was looking for something like club last night, which just felt like a lot of people just having fun instead of trying to impress girls and ending up being creepy.

Next club on the list, Watergate, was only a couple blocks away. Despite it being 3 am, the sidewalks were alive with all kinds of people. The place was bumping with people and the club actually had two different levels with different music on each. There was also a cool waterfront deck that looked out on the river. I probably stayed there a couple hours and had good fun. But after that I was pretty beat and headed back to the hostel.

And that’s a day.

Written by admin

October 16th, 2010 at 1:15 pm

Posted in Uncategorized