Global Hit Squad
Ah Paris, the most romantic city in the world. Not a bad place for us to cosy up and see out our final days in Europe.
After Oktoberfest we hopped on a train bound for France, knowing all too well that in a matter of days we would be hauling ourselves on to a flight to Asia...leaving Europe in our jetstream. Our days in Paris were spent with huge amounts of mixed emotion – absolute wonder at the city, mixed with this looming sense of dread that a huge part of our trip was coming to an end. Personally, for the last few years when I have thought about this trip it was mainly about Europe, with the bits on each end more of a "get there and back" type affair. Add to that the fact that I have absolutely fallen in love with parts of Europe, and all of a sudden a month in Asia just didn't appeal quite as much as it had when starting to plan the trip. Nonetheless, we had a few days to soak it all in, and if I were to pick any city to end a European trip on again, I think it would be old Pari'.
We only had a couple of days to do the city – nowhere near enough to do it justice, but that's just how it panned out. Being the crafty planners we are, we split our time in two – day one would be the cultural and sightseeing experience, and day two would be spent reflecting and relaxing around the town. A pretty perfect mix for a pretty perfect city.
Opting for the free walking tour was a great call for our first day out and about. Weaving past Notre Dame, along the Seine and ending up on the Champs Elysee, we got a good chunk of history fed to us by our Dutch guide. Paris has seen a lot of action, from Napoleon Bonaparte through World War II and a couple of influential trade fairs, the history drips off the buildings, so it was pretty brilliant to have someone give it to us so eloquently, and with a bit of humour. By chance it was also Paris Fashion Week, so weaving through catwalk models and fashionistas wasn't exactly a downer either.
When day two rolled around we were truly ready to leave Europe in style and with a bang. A trip to the local wine store and bakery (not just the supermarket - *shock, horror*) gave us the appropriate supplies for our "park crawl". From the hedges outside the Louvre we wound our way towards the Eiffel Tower, sipping red wine and devouring French bread coated in delicious cheeses. And there we said our final sober goodbyes to Paris, and to Europe. As the sun set on the Eiffel Tower, and it was lit up in that amazing orange glow that you see on postcards, we lay back and contemplated the last few months. From the flamboyance of Spain, through the relaxation of the Mediterranean and the pure enjoyment of the centre of Europe it has been an exhilarating few months. The memory banks are well and truly full now, and we will all look back on Europe fondly. We will be back...we definitely be back.
Somewhere between the loincloth and tapered jeans, a genius of a man (at least I presume it was a man) sat in his fashion laboratory and devised the greatest piece of clothing to grace this fair earth. This upstanding gentleman thought to himself "breasts are good and a skinny waist is even better...I know, why not create a fashion accessory that enhances both whilst providing optimum comfort to the wearer". And so the corset was created. Offspring of this glorious breast plumper are seen all over the world, and for the last week - in Munich - we have been soaking in its influence on German fashion as the dirndl reigned supreme at Oktoberfest.
For those out there who don't like beer, delicious meat, rollicking good times or long-lasting traditions, Oktoberfest would probably be a bore. For everyone else, I'd warrant it would be the experience of a lifetime. Take the AMP show, inject it with 8 million litres of beer, supersize the rides, swap the live pigs for delicious pork buns and insert gorgeous Germans and tourists dressed to the eyeballs in traditional dirndl and lederhosen and you are starting to get the picture.
Wandering into the entrance you are greeted by a kilometre drag of beer "tents". The Germans aren't great with sarcasm, but whoever labelled these warehouse-size beer halls "tents" certainly had a grin on his face. Outside the tents, hordes of families and drunken revellers share the streets, not a fight or lout in sight, with adults enjoying the carnival rides as much as their kids.Inside the tents everyone is euphoric. Beer is guzzled at an astonishing rate (the 1-litre stein lends itself to grandoise "cheers" gestures), friends are made instantly and German folk songs are ingrained in the memory of all. It really is an experience everyone should try to get under their belt at least once, and in the interests of accurate, grass roots journalism, it's only fair I share a couple of our own yarns from the week.
Once again the "if I change the name, no one will figure out who it possibly could be" rule will be put in play. So, I'll jump back to the start of most of our beerfest days with "Hans", "Johan" and "Frederik" in the Queen's Park sipping away 25-cent 500ml beers in the perfect German sunshine. This pre-game ritual was primarily aimed at saving our precious pennies, but provided deep emotional chats and raucous laughter at some of the more unexpected happenings. Take day 1, for example - here we were, wandering through the biggest and busiest park in the centre of Munich when Johan queried whether "that man had any clothes on". Bemused, we looked around a little closer and it became apparent that "that man" did not have any pants on....and nor did half of the park. Where the river cuts the grassy park in two, an invisible border is acknowledged: on one side you may swing your schlong around like a dutch dye factory, while on the other, clothes are the accepted norm. It was a laugh for sure, and something that kept us entertained for most of the week.
But no nudity could create the amount of laughter that was generated by one particular elderly German man. On Day 3 in the park, while every German who owned a dog took it for its daily poo in front of us, a rather peculiar sight slipped on to the horizon. There, dressed in tight green latex lederhosen that formed what can only be described as a G-string between his buttocks, emerged a greying, sunbaked geriatric, striding along on his (I sh*t you not) scooter. Not an electric scooter, no - a scooter you would find down at the local skate park, complete with rollerblade wheels. And so he whizzed by, sending us into more and more fits of hysterics as we realised that all those years pumping away on his scooter had done nothing to stop the buildup of cellulite below his raisin-tanned buttocks. Germans, eh?
It takes a lot to surprise us these days. We've had car crashes, naked volleyball, limo rides in Boston and hookers providing us shelter from the rain. Albanian drivers have tried to murder us, Mexicans have served us bugs on tacos and the French tried to bankrupt us with road tolls. We've seen a lot, done more and usually know what's around the corner. Then Amsterdam happened.
I guess we shouldn't have been surprised. Amsterdam's reputation does precede it....a city that has XXX as its "logo" was always going to be an eye opener. Everyone knows about the red light district, and everyone knows that you can wander down to a cafe and purchase any number of plant varieties. It's the reality that's the surprise. As we wandered into the red light district we were immediately enveloped by that distinctive smell of weed. It's like some sort of invisible, nostril-filling barrier that you have to break through to get to the "goodies" of the district. A moat of hallucinogens that separates the locals (who don't really go anywhere near the red light) and tourists out to break the rules... without breaking the rules. We laughed really - it's not like shrubbery for smoking is hard to come by in New Zealand - but some tourists just go crazy for it.
After busting through the haze, we popped out on to another canal-lined street, just like any other in Amsterdam. We knew our host was taking us toward the hookers, but I had just assumed they would be out toting their wares on the pavement as in every other self-respecting slum in Europe. Amsterdam, though, has class. As we walked around one particular corner, I recoiled from the shop frontage into Si at the sight which stared back at me. There, in what I can only assume was supposed to be lace (but which could have a curtain or parachute) stood a gigantic, fat, black, face like a burst a**hole, hooker. Si has just told me that I should delete the word black from that sentence, but I can't, because I am reciting fact; I am not trying to be funny, or condescending - what I just described was exactly what stood staring back at us. It was one hell of a sight, completely unexpected.
If I were to compare it to something in New Zealand, it would be like Hallensteins, Glassons, and all those other consumer shops replacing their clothes dummies with hookers. It was nothing like what I thought we would see. Up and down alleys were little shops, with great big windows, displaying scantily clad ladies of the night. Behind them were sparkling white rooms, complete with instruments of the trade and an oh so enticing bed. Should anyone feel like curling up with one of these fine ladies, they simply needed to enter, hand over a 50 euro note, and draw the curtains. Surreal. Add the hundreds of tourists zipping up and down the alleyways, and it was unbelievable to fathom that men actually went into the booths. But they did. Some of the better-looking girls (and there were some stunners) basically operated a revolving-door policy of slighty ashamed-looking punters entering, and horribly embarrassed (but satisfied) customers running out as fast as they could. I will never understand how some of those gorgeous creatures end up winking the night away, but I guess that's the beauty of coming from New Zealand. That stuff does surprise us on the whole...and long may it continue to surprise me.
Amsterdam is of course not just about hookers and dope. We stayed with our mate there who was studying in the city, so gave us a great insight into the world outside the red light district. But even that part of the trip held a few surprises for us. The "laugh out loud" moments seemed to always come at mealtime, and really showed the differences that can exist between two fairly similar cultures. To put it most simply, the Dutch play opposites when dining. First up, it's cheese, ham, bread and (get this) chocolate sprinkles (!) for breakfast. That's not too unusual: pretty much all of Europe seem to want to have a slice of pig and a bit of cheddar at the top of the morning. The real laugh came when our host promised to cook us a "traditional Dutch meal". He didn't tell me any specifics, so I had in mind some delicious, sausagy feast, on a plate overflowing with gravy - or something similar. Instead, after hours of anticipation as pots and pans clanged around the kitchen, our host emerged with a gigantic plate of...pancakes. For dinner. I could have rolled off the chair laughing, but hey, who are we to judge? When there are hookers toking up with tourists a few hundred metres away, why not slam back some pancakes for dinner? Just don't ask for chocolate sprinkles - then you won't have anything to top your brekkie.
Air, plane, train, foot, bike, ferry, yacht, RV, donkey, zorb...we have just about knocked off every way there is to get around this amazing world of ours. We figure that between us by the end of the year we will have used over 20 different airlines, countless bus companies and walked a distance more than the last 25 years of our lives put together. An impressive assortment of transportation modes for sure, but nothing quite matches the splendour of the humble car.
Here I should launch into an eloquent spiel about the efficiency and speed that the automobile has provided - Top Gearish guttural statements about MOOORRREEE POWER. But instead, I'm going to be a little more pathetic. Our car is our baby. It's no Ford Mustang or Shelby Cobra, it doesn't have a blowoff valve or a muffler to deafen European ears. In fact we have struggled to get it up to 180kmh on the Autobahn. But what our beautiful, amazing diesel mistress does have is five seats, a spacious boot and a stereo that plays exactly what we want it to. It doesn't break down. It doesn't use much gas. It is plain. It is simple. It is glorious.
It actually pains me to write this, being a bit of lad when it comes to cars. But our Peugeot 308 has been an absolute godsend in Europe. We tracked the car down through the New Zealand arm of Peugeot and paid a very reasonable NZ$4000 to use it for three months in basically all of Europe. The brilliant part of the deal is that Peugeot has sold us the car for that down-payment of four grand, and guarantees buyback (forgiveness of the rest of the sale price) at the end of those three months. What that means is that we got a brand spanking new car (10km on the clock) with full roadside assistance and total insurance cover for sweet F-all. Add to the fact we paid for the car before we left NZ, and our wallets are wearing sizable European grins at the moment.
Some seasoned campaigners out there will be quick to say that a Eurorail pass would match that cost, or that we could buy a second-hand car for that amount. It's true. But the price isn't the only reason we love car. While Eurorailers go only where the railways take them, car takes us wherever we want to go...whenever we want to go there. While our "buy the car" mates truck around worried about breakdowns, we put the foot down with absolute confidence in our stallion. And when we are too lazy to book ahead and arrive at a tourist hotspot with no rooms free - car becomes hotel, and a cosy night's sleep can be had. The car is our transport, backup accomodation and a vault on wheels wherever we go. Car is fast, efficient, comfortable and ours. Did we mention we love car?
I suppose every theory needs a good example, so I'll chuck in yesterday's little adventures to show car's worth. Since blogging last we headed to Amsterdam for a couple of big nights with our Dutch mate Wim (more on that later). With time up our sleeves and Wim heading to work for the week, we decided to get out and about around Holland, to see more than just Amsterdam. If we'd been going by public transport we would have needed to walk/taxi/tram to the train station with all our gear, hop on a train to the city we chose (let's say The Hague), find a hostel, get there with our gear, book in, dump the gear, check out the city, then do it all again to get back. But instead...we have car. We walked out the door, placed our pack in the car and hit the road. The GPS told us The Hague was half an hour a way, so we thought bugger it - let's go to Belgium. Antwerp sounded nice, so we headed there first, wandered around, decided it wasn't quite our scene, so hopped back in the car and by 5pm we were here - in Bruges. And what a place Bruges is. A beautiful old city, with that quintessential European feel about it: old buildings...canals...and Belgian beer on offer. Today, we hop back in car and head to The Hague on the way home - pretty stoked in the fact that car let us see a part of the world that wasn't necessarily on our to do list. Thank you car, you continue to amaze us.
So apparently there is a little rugby tournament going on in NZ at the moment. Its pretty hard to miss...what with Rugby Heaven moving in ahead of World and National news as stuff.co.nz's headlining act. Yet here we are in the middle of the Czech Republic, a world away from winter and rugby and everything else that comes with having a major sporting tournament in your homeland.
When we first planned this trip, I remember several discussions occurring over the fact that the RWC was going to be on in NZ in the year we took flight. None of us would be called rugby heads, but we do all love our sport, and so it was with genuine concern that these discussions took place. In the end we decided that a year later, or a year earlier, just wouldn't fit with our travel plans, so bit the bullet and decided to give the RWC a miss.
It's a decision I have never really regretted – our view was that it would be incredibly cool supporting a Kiwi tournament while abroad...but now we are living the reality, it is a little gutting not to be under the long white cloud. While we hear reports of everyone bouncing around with World Cup excitement in NZ, our World Cup experience has been rather more muted. Either we cram around a stumbling, streaming link on the laptop, or we crowd around a TV with a handful of Aussies in the big cities. In the parts of Europe we are in at the moment, the World Cup is little more than something to amuse us foreigners first thing in the morning. I'd bet that most of the people you run into would have no idea there was a World Cup on. It's amazing being so far removed from rugby-mad New Zealand.
So, for the next few weeks, our daily routine will be wake up, watch some footy, feel a little bit homesick, then get out and about to regain our travel enthusiasm. In Budapest, it was about Hungarian baths and all-you-can-eat feasts for 10 euro. In Cesky Krumlov, it was about snaking through cobbled streets, past sleeping bears in moats, to visit a castle decorated by paint, not stone. And now, in Prague, its been about an overrated five-storey club, incredible architecture, and one of the most breathtaking skylines in Europe to date.
Our trip continues to be amazing, but there will still be a little part of us that will long to be in New Zealand lapping up an amazing event. There may be hiccups, some people might not love rugby, but I'll always be of the opinion that an event like this is incredible for the country. From miles away we can see that the mood in New Zealand has lifted - tourists bring their dollars into the economy, and we can all sit back and be proud of putting on an event that everyone enjoys. Forget the dollars and figures - the RWC is a great thing. Enjoy it while you can...we sure wish we were there.
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