The Geometry of Genocide: Triangles and Tales from a Concentration Camp

While I was trying my best to avoid the typical tourist scenes and experience the more authentic culture of Berlin, there is one historical aspect of the city that is simply impossible to ignore. So on Wednesday I set off on the S-Bahn heading north to the Sachsenhausen Memorial Museum, located on the site of one of the “model” concentration camps where prisoners were taken in WWII. It was located approximately an hour north of central Berlin, and it took me even longer after getting lost in the surrounding suburban streets, but the trip was worth it – ‘enjoyable’ isn’t exactly a word use can use to describe a visit to an old concentration camp, but it’s definitely a moving experience that you come away from with more of an appreciation of your life, and of life in general.

The cute little suburban German streets I wandered through while getting lost on my way to the museum.

The cute little suburban German streets I wandered through while getting lost on my way to the museum.

***

The entrance to the Sachsenhausen Memorial Museum.

The entrance to the Sachsenhausen Memorial Museum.

When I visited the Killing Fields near Phnom Penh in Cambodia, Laura had described the place as “harrowing”. I still feel like it’s the best fitting adjective to describe a visit to a location tainted with a grim history of mass genocide. While the Killing Fields were particularly morbid, with broken skulls and bones depicting the barbarity of the Khmer Rouge clearly visible in their monuments, Sachsenhausen Memorial Museum was a little more refined as a tourist attraction. After passing through the main entrance and picking up an audio guide, and listened to the history of the camp as I wandered down the same path that hundreds of thousands of prisoners were brought down during the Second World War. As I waled through the wrought iron gates, I noticed there were words – a slogan, or a motto – worked into the metal: Arbeit Macht Frei. Translated into English it reads ‘work will set you free’, something that is hard to mistake as anything other than cruel irony given how things ended up for most of the prisoners who walked through these gates. In the courtyard I sat and listened on the audio guide to testimonies of people who had been hit, kicked and beaten when they were down, right at this very spot. It was almost too overwhelming to listen to, and I moved on before hearing them all, already feeling a little depressed as the scenes were visualised by my imagination.

Main gate through which prisoners were escorted.

Main gate through which prisoners were escorted.

Metal inscription on the main gate.

Metal inscription on the main gate.

This concentration camp was opened in 1936 as a model design for other camps, although it ended up being much more than just an example – Sachsenhausen become a fully functioning concentration camp and prison. The architecture was designed to symbolise the subjugation of prisoners and the absolute power of the Nazi regime – the triangular design was built in a way that meant while in the grounds, prisoners were unable to escape the gaze of the guards in the watchtowers. Most of the barracks that were the prisoners quarters have been levelled, so now the area has an even eerier feeling, with so much open space between yourself and the watchtowers. There’s obviously no armed guards in there these days, but it still managed to recreate that sense of vulnerability the prisoners must have felt. Other features of the camps design included a security system which included a ‘death strip’: an electrified pathway and fence that took the lives of prisoners who made fleeting attempts to escape. Some of the barracks remain standing and have been converted into museums, showing the daily lives and conditions of the camps prisoners with a little more tangible depth, and you could also see the site of the gallows in the middle of the main triangle, where troublesome prisoners were routinely executed in front of large assemblies in order to create and example for the remaining prisoners.

The grounds of the camp are now vast and desolate.

The grounds of the camp are now vast and desolate.

Part of the security system at Sachsenhausen.

Part of the security system at Sachsenhausen.

The barracks that do remain have been transformed into smaller museums.

The barracks that do remain have been transformed into smaller museums.

Barracks 38 is one of the few that remain standing.

Barracks 38 is one of the few that remain standing.

The Execution Trench - the morbid name is self-explanatory.

The Execution Trench – the morbid name is self-explanatory.

In a building that used to be a garage for Nazi vehicles, there was now a museum that showed the history of the camp, and had numerous artefacts on display. Included in these was one of the uniforms that the prisoners were required to wear – the pink triangle sewn into the shoulder indicating that this particular prisoners crime was being a homosexual. The Nazis imprisoned anyone who disturbed their regime, whether they were political opponents, or those who were deemed by the National Socialist ideology as racially or biologically inferior, and were later joined in 1939 by captives from countries which Nazi Germany moved to occupy, such as Austria and Poland. Though historically famous for the persecution of people who were Jewish, the Nazi regime would happily have beaten me senseless and locked me up to starve simply because of my homosexuality – this uniform, now sitting behind a glass cabinet looking as innocent as a pair of striped pyjamas, was a chilling reminder of that. More than 200,000 people were imprisoned in the Sachsenhausen Concentration Camp between 1936 and 1945, with tens of thousands of them dying from starvation, disease, forced labour, malnutrition, and brutal, systematic murders. It’s a lot to take in as you stand upon the scene of these crimes, especially considering this is just one camp, where only a fraction of the atrocities committed during the war were committed.

The memorial obelisk.

The memorial obelisk.

The pink triangle resonated with me strongly during the time I was at the Sachsenhausen Memorial Museum, but weeks later, at the time of writing, it’s truly terrible to realise that some parts of the world are still stuck in some of these barbaric ideologies. I’m referring, of course, to the horrific state of affairs for LGBT people in Russia. The newer, even harsher homophobic anti-propaganda laws came into place after I left Germany, but right now it’s something that I can’t just ignore. Having been to Russia and met a couple of very lovely gay men, it absolutely breaks my heart to see what is going on over there, to think that they might be suffering.
In the middle of then main triangle at Sachsenhausen, there now stands a forty metre high obelisk adorned with 18 red triangles – the symbol the Nazis gave to political prisoners – on each side, the number representing each of the European nations where prisoners at the camp came from. It’s a monument of memorial, but right now all it makes me think of is the European nations that are in such close proximity with Russia, and hoping that something might be able to be done before the persecution reaches a level of homosexual Holocaust. I never had the intention of using this blog to voice political opinions, but that was just one thing that I couldn’t let slide.

***

It had been a long hot day wandering around Sachsenhausen, and I was sweating profusely by the time I’d walked back to the station in the afternoon heat. “It’s not a heat wave”, Ruth would later tell me, fending off the claims of some other Berliners. “Thirty degrees is a normal summer day for Berlin – winter just lasted so long that most people forget about it, and are just shocked when it’s actually hot!” Nevertheless, even for an Australian I was feeling the heat. On the train home, I messaged Eva to find out what she was up to – the two of us had been sharing a key, since there weren’t enough for both of us to have one. She would be going out before I got home, but Simon would be around for a little while longer. When I was back into the heart if Berlin, I got a phone call from Simon.
“Hey, where are you?”
“I’m nearly home… Do you need to leave now?”
“Well, sort of… I’m going to the pool to meet Ruth, I was gonna ask if you wanted to come?”
Swimming sounded exactly like what I needed. Donatella had had to head out of town today for some work commitments in Munich, so she wouldn’t be joining us, but Simon said he’d grab my swim shorts and towel and pick me up from the U-Bahn station I was at.

What I didn’t realise – either because he didn’t say so or I didn’t listen – was that he was not picking me up in his car, but on his motorbike. A surge of panic ran through me – I hadn’t been on a motorbike since the horrific afternoon in Phnom Penh, and I still bore the mental and physical scars. However, I had to reassure myself that I’d since ridden quad bikes in Siberia and navigated the bicycle traffic of Copenhagen, and had come out unscathed, and I also wouldn’t even be driving this time. It would be just like catching the motorbike taxis in Bangkok, and so I put on the spare helmet, climbed on behind Simon, and we took off onto the roads of Berlin. We passed a few other bikies done up in their full leather gear, which I guess was to be expected in Berlin, and whizzed our way through the traffic until we finally reached the pool.

The place rented deck chairs from Simons vodka company, so we got to skip the queue and also got in for free. The place was really cool – the water in the Spree River and the adjoining canals is not something you’d ever want to go swimming in, so this place had designed a way around the problem. There was a large pool that was built on the river. The ground all around the edge was covered in sand so it felt as though you were really at a beach, and then off the wooden jetty the swimming pool itself sat just off the edge of the river. Of course, given that today was an extremely hot day for Germany, there was a long line to actually get in the pool. After finishing a beer from the beach cafes inside the complex, Simon and I joined the queue to go for a swim. After the long day I’d had walking around the old concentration camp in the hot sun and learning about all the horrors of history, it was definitely worth the wait – the swim was exactly what I needed. And so the end to an otherwise slightly depressing day was spent cooling off, kicking back and putting my feet up with my new Berliner friends.

The riverside pool where I ended my day.

The riverside pool where I ended my day.

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From Tourist to Traveller: Berlin Sightseeing

After an exhausting weekend that nearly destroyed me, I decided to take some time out of the crazy Berlin party scene and do a couple of touristy things. Of course, I needed at least a full day just to receiver from the messed up sleeping patterns and diet that consisted almost solely of booze and currywurst. But on Tuesday, when I finally felt human again, I set off in the morning to do a self-guided Trip Advisor walking tour of Mitte, the central district of Berlin, also known as the Government Quarter.

But before I begin that recount, I need to do my obligatory rant, or rave, on the public transport situation for a new city. And I have to say, notwithstanding the train delays on my journey to actually get into Berlin, I am in love with their local train services. There are two kinds: the S-Bahn, which runs above ground and are actually integrated into the national rail system, and the U-Bahn, the underground trains that are essentially the German version of a metro. Trains on all lines come frequently at regular intervals, and between these two highly integrated networks, it’s possible to get almost anywhere in Berlin with relative ease, although there are so many different lines and interchanges that it can be a little difficult to wrap your head around at first. The only real issue I had with the U-Bahn and S-Bahn was the price of a ticket: €2.80 for a single trip seemed a little steep in my opinion, but then I guess I had still be paying student fares in Sydney right up until I left – welcome to the real world, kid. Although there’s one tip I can offer that you won’t read in any Lonely Planet book – there’s no barriers at the stations for which you need a ticket to pass through, and checking for tickets on board the train is very infrequent. Now I’m definitely not condoning fare evasion, but… there a few short trips I make where I felt it was worth the gamble. So for a system that is well-established, efficient, and if you can’t get away with it, free, Berlin public transport gets a general tick of approval.

***

The first stop on my walking tour was the Brandenburg Gate. The most famous of all the east-west crossings of the Berlin Wall, it’s a symbol of the division that once ran through the city, though during my time in Berlin I’d learn that while the wall came down in 1989, distinctions and differences between East and West Berlin are not unrecognisable. Visually, the gate is probably the most iconic feature of Berlin, so I posed for a photo before continuing through. The time I was in Berlin also coincided with a visit from the US president Barack Obama, and so Pariser Platz, the square in front of the Brandenburg Gate, was full of security guards and scaffolding, as some type of arena seating was erected in the clearing. I passed through the arches of the gate from east to west to find the Tiergarten stretched out before me, and turned right to head towards the Reichstag, the German parliamentary building. According to my Lonely Planet guide book, there was a popular and impressive view of central Berlin from the glass dome ceiling of the Reichstag, and that it was free to go and see. What the guide book failed to tell me was that you needed to make a booking prior to your visit in order to secure your spot on the viewing platform. Slightly disgruntled but not really that bothered, I left the bustling tourists to their lining up and headed back towards the Tiergarten.

Gate

The Brandenburg Gate, with just a suggestion of scaffolding.

In front of the Brandenburg Gate.

In front of the Brandenburg Gate.

The Reichstag, the parliamentary building which I unfortunately didn't get to enter.

The Reichstag, the parliamentary building which I unfortunately didn’t get to enter.

The Tiergarten is a huge expanse of greenery right in the centre of Berlin. I don’t know much about it historically, other than it being the name of a Rufus Wainwright song, but it was beautiful place to stroll through a park and lose yourself in the gardens. I made an arching route in and out of the Tiergarten, admiring some statues along the way, before emerging at the haunting piece of artwork that is the Holocaust Memorial. The memorial is a collection of 2711 pillars, all evenly spaced apart across 19,000 square metres, and which appear to be of a roughly similar height. However, as you walk into the grid you begin an unexpected descent, and discover that the ground is uneven and awash with hills. When you enter the grid, the pillars come up to your knees. After a few moments, they’re towering above you, and the only thing you can see in all for directions are long corridors created by the towering monoliths, and the occasional other person who crosses your path along the way. As I emerged from the memorial, I took a seat for a moment and reflected on the reason it was there, and who all the pillars represented: the victims of the Holocaust. Each one was the same essential structure, a homogenous collective, yet each pillar was also individual in its unique height. I’m not sure if that’s the actual rationale behind the memorial, but it struck me as somewhat symbolic. Afterwards I took a photo with the memorial, as a tourist souvenir – only afterwards was I told about a website that makes fun of men who use such photos taken at the memorial as their profile pictures on online dating sites – there happens to be quite a lot of them! That was a little embarrassing, but I just made sure to never upload the picture to my Grindr profile.

Lion statue in the Tiergarten.

Lion statue in the Tiergarten.

Holocaust Memorial: view from above...

Holocaust Memorial: view from above…

... and the view from below.

… and the view from below.

After the memorial I headed back east and eventually reached Museums Island, a block of land that is surrounded by canals, so technically an “island”, and is home to a cluster of art museums. I had a wander around, admiring some of the beautiful buildings, but decided I wasn’t really in the mood for museums. I continued along the path, looking at a few churches and stopping for a photo with the Karl Marx stature – the sociologist in me just couldn’t resist. Eventually I arrived at Alexanderplatz and the TV Tower. It’s not a particularly pretty building, but it is tall, so I went inside and took the elevator to the top. The TV Tower is one of the few sky scrapers in Berlin, and by far the tallest building, so it provided a complete panoramic view of the city, although it was so high up that so many of the sights were minuscule and almost unrecognisable – even the Brandenburg Gate looked no higher than a couple of centimetres from up there. There was a fancy rotating restaurant at the top of the tower, but I decided to save my euros and eat at Hackescher Markt, a nearby market down on the ground. I think there might have been more of the Trip Advisor tour, but the day had involved a lot of walking and I’d found myself rather exhausted. For something that’s isn’t really extremely exciting, sightseeing can be exhausting. I finished my lunch and jumped on the U-Bahn to head back home.

Berliner Dom, the cathedral on Museums Island.

Berliner Dom, the cathedral on Museums Island.

The Karl Marx statue.

The Karl Marx statue.

The Rotes Rathaus, or Red Town Hall, near Alexanderplatz.

The Rotes Rathaus, or Red Town Hall, near Alexanderplatz.

TV Tower.

TV Tower.

View of Berlin at the top of TV Tower, from the Tiergarten to Museums Island - essentially, what I'd just walked.

View of Berlin at the top of TV Tower, from the Tiergarten to Museums Island – essentially, what I’d just walked.

***

The only other touristy sightseeing I did during the week was a few days later when I visited Checkpoint Charlie, where you can still see the sign that “You are now leaving the American sector”, a remnant from the days of the war. However, with the men in uniform trying to sell you pictures with them, it’s all a little gimmicky and so full of tourists that I could only bring myself to stay for a short time. I would have visited the Jewish museum, but the weather had gotten so hot over the past few days I could bring myself to walk the rest of the way. It was there at Checkpoint Charlie, though, that I reached something of a turning point within myself: I made the conscious decision that I wanted to be a traveller, not just a tourist. I didn’t want to just check off the list of sights listed in the guidebook and take photos in front of the famous monuments – I wanted to experience what the city was really like, meet the locals and see things from their perspective, and see what Berlin was for them. Being a tourist can be exhausting, with the weird pressures you can feel from people to “do everything” and go to all the “must see” sights. For me, being a traveller is all about doing whatever you wanted to do, and going places that you actually want to be. I’d seen some of the wild and crazy sides of Berlin, and if was looking for more of that, I definitely wasn’t going to find it in a Lonely Planet book.

Checkpoint Charlie.

Checkpoint Charlie.

Welcome to the Jungle: Beginning Berlin

After another full day of travelling from Groningen, with brief changeovers in Leer and Hannover, I finally arrived in Berlin. It wasn’t without a delay of over an hour – central and eastern Germany had recently experienced a bit of flooding, which had caused lots of problems for the trains – but not even that could quell my excitement. “Spend at least a week in Berlin”, my friend Dane had told me on one of my last nights in Sydney. “We had a very tight schedule when we went. We were only there for a few days, and it was definitely not enough.” He’d let out a sigh and stared past me reminiscently, eyes glazed over with memories. “You’re gonna have such an amazing time. And the men! They’re going to eat you up, Robert.” Dane was just one of many of my friends who had expressed such sentiments about Berlin, so I was brimming with anticipation as I stepped onto the platform at Berlin Hauptbahnhof.

I was picked up at the main station by Donatella, an old family friend from Australia who, apart from a brief reunion in Sydney back in January, I hadn’t seen in at least ten years. We’d got on rather well at our most recent meeting though, and I was excited to meet up with her again here in Berlin, where she now lived. “You should stay with Donatella when you’re in Berlin,” her father had told me last year when I was telling him of my travel plans. “She’s queen of the clubs over there, she’ll look out for you and make sure you see everything you want to see.” I’d taken it easy during my week in Groningen, partly in anticipation of a crazy weekend with Donatella. And I was in no way disappointed – though I don’t think there was anything that could have prepared me for what Berlin was about to throw at me…

***

I threw my bags into the car as I greeted Donatella, and was briefly introduced to her friend and housemate Simon, who was driving, and then headed back to the apartment. It was an old style building with large towering walls, and huge rooms that seemed too big for their inhabitants, given that half the rooms only seemed half full with furnishings. “I think there’s like… five people who live here? Maybe six? I don’t know, anyway, here’s your bed.” Donatella had warned me that I wouldn’t have a room to myself – which, after all the hostels and train cabins, I assured her was no problem – so I was introduced to Eva, a Kiwi girl who had been living in Melbourne for a few years and had now just relocated to Berlin, who I was sharing a room with. “Everyone else will be back later after work, except some of the boys who are away for the weekend.” Donatella was a little quirky but very laid back – I’d only been in the city for a matter of hours but I could tell why she enjoyed living in Berlin.

Before I’d arrived in Berlin, Donatella had also issued me a slight warning. “Just so you know… Things can sometimes get a little crazy around here. Like, not all the time and not that often, but there’s always the all-nights and crazy benders where people are up for three days straight. But only ever on weekends – everyone still has jobs, so you know… It’s slightly normal.” Bring it on, was all I had to say. I was no stranger to partying, and if even Donatella was telling me that it was crazy, I could be sure it was a force to be reckoned with.

After settling in and having something to eat, I was introduced to more people as they arrived at the house. Firstly there was Ruth. “Ruth is an original Berliner – born and raised,” Donatella had informed me. “You don’t find too many of them still living here anymore.” Berlin was a city with a very cosmopolitan vibe, thanks to the artists and creative types that came from all over the country, as well as all over the globe, to be a part of what was becoming one of the big places to be within Europe. Ruth worked as a burlesque dancer – of course she did, this was Berlin – and it was during my conversation with her that I discovered why I’d had such trouble trying to find a place to stay in Hamburg the previous weekend. “Yeah, there was a big biker convention. All the leather men were there, Reeperbahn would have been very busy,” she had said. “It’s a shame you didn’t get to see Hamburg, it’s a really fun city,” though after that she shrugged her shoulders. “But hey, you’re in Berlin now,” Ruth said with a smile. It was that very logic that had drawn me straight here rather than attempting another stopover in Hamburg – I’d heard the stories and I just couldn’t wait any longer to discover them for myself.

The last person I met at the apartment that evening was actually an ex-housemate, a woman named Lola. She was also a burlesque dancer – never mind that she was older than my mother though, because she looked amazing! She arrived looking like a pin up girl who had just stepped out of a sailors shoulder tattoo, complete with her waist cinched into a corset. “You said you worked in a fetish store, right?” Donatella asked me. “Lola will be able to tell you all the places like that around here.” And she was delighted to – she rattled off the named of retailers, bars and saunas faster than I could have ever hoped to remember them after a few vodka tonics, though in retrospect I think I checked most of the boxes she listed during my time in Berlin.

Eva had already headed out to meet some other friends, and Donatella had taken leave of our company for a short while – to study, or nap, or something, I’m not sure – so I was left to converse with these three crazy Berlin personalities I had just met. “So where else have you been? What are your travel plans?” Simon asked me as he ashed a cigarette into the tray on the table. I retraced my travel steps, right back to Singapore, and then outlined the rest of my intended itinerary – the plan was to continue further into Eastern Europe: Czech Republic, Slovakia and Hungary. “Yes, you have to go to Budapest!” Simon had exclaimed. “I’ve got a friend who lives there. She is crazy, I swear will get you wasted every night! But definitely let me know when you’re going so I can set you up.” I was excited to already be making connections.
“And how long are you staying in Berlin?” Ruth had asked, almost ominously. He question hung in the air while I had to consider my answer – after all, Dane had told me at least a week.
“Well… I’m not sure yet. I don’t have any set plans, so it’s flexible… I’m thinking at least a week.”
All three of them shared a rather knowing laugh, and Lola reached over to put a hand on my knee and looked at me with a grin. “Oh darling, that’s what they all say. You’re never going to leave.”

***

When it came to the weekend, there really had been no exaggeration – it was wild. At close to midnight I headed out with Simon and Donatella to a bar and club called Prince Charles. Donatella knew someone, so we didn’t wait in line. Once we were in, the night progressed into a blur of drinks and people and music and making friends in bathrooms, the memory of which only exists through photographs. Eventually the sun began to rise as I sat around the courtyard telling straight men how attractive I thought they were – and then getting overly excited at the simple fact that they didn’t care, and were completely indifferent to my homosexuality. “That’s so Berlin!” I remember telling one of them. “If I was pulling this shit in Sydney I’d probably be dying in a gutter somewhere.”

Making friends.

Making friends.

Eventually Donatella rounded me up and we headed home – with at least 6 other people from the club who I’m not sure anyone had even known before that night. I’d heard of the after party culture in New York, but I figured that anything was possible in Berlin. Because of the early sunrise, it was actually quite bright and well into the morning by the time we fell out of the taxis outside Donatella’s building. I might have had a few more drinks, I don’t remember. The only clear recollection I have is sitting on the floor of the bathroom with some guy I’d never met, trying to have some deep conversation while he asked me to explain all of my tattoos. At that moment, whatever buzz I was feeling died. I looked around the bathroom with… well, not sober eyes. But you know what I mean. “Ugh,” I groaned as I pulled myself off the floor. “Sorry dude, but I didn’t even know you. And I live here, so I’m going to bed.” I stumbled out of the bathroom, into mine and Eva’s room – she was no where to be seen – and crashed on my mattress on the floor.

I woke up at noon. My new friend from the bathroom was lying comfortably on the kitchen floor. Half the people who’d come back from the club with us were gone. They’d been replaced by people who I didn’t recognise, who seemed to be only meeting the permanent occupants of the house for the first time too. I have no idea where they came from, but I just rolled with it. There was a boy and girl, around my age, and I spoke to them for a while.
“You mean you’re not drunk anymore?” the guy had said when I’d recounted my night to him. “How the hell are you still dealing with us right now.” I honestly wasn’t sure if I was dealing with them, but for someone who’d been awake for 36 hours this guy was actually able to hold together a coherent conversation.
“How do you do it?” I’d asked.
“Do what?”
“These benders! People stay awake for, what, three days straight?”
“Oh,” he laughed. “Drugs.” I guess it was obvious, but I hadn’t expected him to put it so simply. We spoke a lot more though, and while I can’t recall his name or anything else about him, he seemed like an alright guy. Like Ruth, he was a born and raised Berliner – it was like discovering an endangered species.

“Berlin needs more people like you, man. Your travels, man, you’ve seen the world! You know what it’s about, what makes Berlin such a great and crazy place. Right now it’s filling up with too many just… Germans!” I laughed at that. “No, but seriously. You should stay in Berlin! It’s an international city, full of people like you from all over the world! Berlin needs you.” At the time, his words seemed like cute drunken ramblings, but by the end of my time in Berlin they would feel like a foreshadowing, the beginnings of a very persuasive argument this city was going to lay on me.

The Good Ol’ Days

After my stressful afternoon in Hamburg, and then having to catch another three trains because there was not a single hostel bed left in the city, the feeling of relief when I stepped off the train at Groningen station was almost overwhelming. It was after 11:30pm and Groningen was the final destination on the train line, but as my few fellow passengers spilled out onto the train platform, I saw a familiar face through the sparse crowd. I dropped my bags to the ground so I could give Gemma a huge hug when I finally reached her halfway up the concourse. Gemma and I went to high school together, and she had been my best friend for years, but now she lived and studied over here in the Netherlands. She’s still quite easily one of the best friends I’ve ever had though, and after the afternoon I’d had there was nothing quite so comforting as collapsing into the arms of an old friend whom I hadn’t seen in years, and discovering the embrace was just as familiar as though I’d seen her yesterday.

After the emotional greeting at the station, Gemma and I caught the bus back to her house. The main feature of Groningen is the university there, and so the city has become somewhat well known for its large population of students. Gemma’s share house can usually accommodate four people, but at that time there were only two people living there. Still, I couldn’t exactly take up an extra room without paying rent, so I would be sleeping on the couch in Gemma’s room, which was actually the spacious attic of the house. She’d added her homely touches to it, with magazine covers, letters from our friends and other decorations covering the walls, and furnished in a way that reminded me of her room back home. It’s such a strange sensation, to have such a familiar feeling in an undeniably new place.
“I hope you still like Coke Zero and Doritos,” Gemma said as she followed me up the extremely steep staircase to her room, as I tried not to overbalance with my huge bag and fall back down. Gemma had run out to do a bit of last minute shopping when I’d told her I was coming a day early, and she’d even remembered all my favourite snacks from the countless movie nights and sleepovers we’d had when we were teenagers. We sat up for a few more hours, watching Geordie Shore on TV, eating and drinking and catching up, telling Gemma all about my journey so far, and her telling me all about Groningen, what to do and what to expect, but also just hanging out, shooting the shit and talking about pointless stuff to make each other laugh. It’s a testimony to our friendship to go so long without seeing each other and still be as comfortable as though not a day had passed since we’d last been together. Sitting there on the couch with her, I think I was actually glad that things hadn’t worked out in Hamburg – right there, I couldn’t think of a better way to spend my Saturday night.

After 12 hours and 3 counties, we were finally reunited!

After 12 hours and 3 counties, we were finally reunited!

***

The majority of my time in Groningen was spent in a similar fashion: hanging out with Gemma, cooking tacos and pasta and all our favourite foods, watching movies and chatting and just enjoying being in the same city for the first time in almost a year. We also played a lot with Gemma’s cat Ananas (which means ‘pineapple’ in Dutch, and actually a lot of other languages too), who was a little bit crazy but incredibly cute. It was the beginning of Summer in Europe so Gemma didn’t have any classes – just one exam on the Tuesday morning – and the only times we couldn’t hang out was when she was working. However, my string of good luck with the weather suffered a lapse when I was in Groningen. It had been all smiles and sunshine in Copenhagen, but there was only one particularly sunny day out of the five full days I spent in Groningen. This worked in our favour, though – Gemma works as a waitress on the outside terrace of a bar in the city centre of Groningen, but if the weather isn’t very nice then people tend to not sit on the terrace, in which case her shift is sometimes cancelled. While that is probably really annoying somedays, it was great for this week because it meant we got to spend more time together.

Cuddling with Ananas in bed.

Cuddling with Ananas in bed.

Ananas by the window.

Ananas by the window.

I’d arrived late on a Saturday night, and would be returning to Germany for the following weekend, but Gemma had assured me that being a student town, some of the best nights to go out in Groningen were week nights. A lot of people travelled back to their hometowns and families on the weekends, and there was generally more people around during the week – though she did warn me it might not be too busy since it was currently exam time for most people. If they were anything like the students I knew in Sydney, though, there would still be plenty of people out and about. So it was a Wednesday evening when Gemma, her boyfriend Atze – whom I’d also become good friends with – and myself set out for some of the nightclubs in Groningen. First and foremost, drink prices were substantially lower than they were in Scandinavia, so the night was already set to be either much cheaper or a lot trashier. Our first stop was a pretty popular bar and club called Ocean41, which is actually the establishment that Gemma works at during the day. When we arrived we discovered that Atze was friends with one of the bartenders, and therefore we enjoyed half a dozen cocktails at an extremely competitive price. I wasn’t too sure how I felt about the nightclub itself, though. I’m generally not really a fan of straight clubs at all – too many wasted white girls who step on your feet with their heels, and guys who either can’t dance or just wait around the dance floor staring down everyone else.

“Be careful of guys who look really young,” Gemma leaned over and said into my ear as I was scanning the room. “You can get into some clubs when you’re sixteen here, so some of them don’t look young, they are young.” I laughed, feeling confident that I wasn’t going to find anyone in the club of any age group that swung my way. After a while we took off to another bar called Chupitos, where the specialty was all kinds of fancy and gourmet mixed shots. “You have to try the marshmallow one,” Gemma had insisted, “and the one ‘Harry Potter’!” The marshmallow one was a sweet shot that you downed after you’d eaten your toasted marshmallow – yep, they actually lit a small section of the bar on fire so you can cook the marshmallow so it’s nice and gooey. The Harry Potter one was similarly spectacular – they lit the bar on fire around the full shot glasses, which had slices of orange on them, and then sprinkled the fire with cinnamon so that it flared and sparkled. It was really cool to watch, and after you downed the warm shot you sucked on the slice of orange – almost like a tequila shot with a deeper, sweeter twist. I got to pick the third shot the three of us would have – the menu board only had names, not ingredients, and I randomly selected one called the Flaming Asshole. It was a colourful layered shot that was also lit on fire, and then drunk through a straw while it was still on fire. My lack of knowledge of physics left me terrified that I would be sucking up a mouthful of fire, but it actually had a really nice taste, and Atze, Gemma and I left the bar a little more drunk and feeling pretty satisfied.

Toasting our marshmallows over the bar.

Toasting our marshmallows over the bar.

Sparks over the Harry Potter shots.

Sparks over the Harry Potter shots.

We visited a couple more bars, the next one being a place called Shooters. “I got refused entry to this place once, I was so drunk,” Gemma laughed as she narrated her personal history of the bars and streets as we hopped our way along. The air in Shooters was heavy with the smell of cigarette smoke and it was completely packed, so we didn’t stay for too long. We then visited another bar called Het Feest, which had the interesting feature of a rotating bar. I imagined that such a device would get extremely confusing the more intoxicated one became in a crowded bar, but fortunately the crowd was pretty thin that evening. We put it down partly to the exam excuse, and partly because it was also raining that night. After Gemma and Atze had shown me the bars, we headed back to the first night club to collect our jackets and head home. “But first you have to get something from the wall! You’re hungry, right?” Gemma knew me too well. I’m not sure if its a thing throughout the Netherlands or just in Groningen, but in the centre of town there is a fast food shop that makes croquettes, sausages, burgers and other greasy post-drinking snacks. However, instead of over the counter service, there is a wall that acts as a sort of vending machine. There’s rows of tiny compartments, most of them filled with some kind of snack, and all you have to do is put in a few euros and you can open it to get the food. I helped myself to a few croquettes while Atze lined up to get some chips – which we ate with mayonnaise, in true Dutch fashion – and then we walked home through the rain. It had been a fun and fairly inexpensive night, and it had been nice to see the kind of things my best friend had been getting up to on the other side of the world.

Scoffing down my snack from the wall.

Scoffing down my snack from the wall.

Gemma and I probably enjoying ourselves a little too much.

Gemma and I probably enjoying ourselves a little too much.

***

The rest of my time in Groningen was a little slice of normality in the life of travel and organised chaos I had been living. Gemma and I went to the movies and saw The Hangover: Part 3, went shopping for some cheap clothes for me at H&M, and I also got a much needed haircut. On our way back from the movies we walked down one of the few red light streets that existed in the small city. “I guess it’s a Dutch thing, but it’s not like in Amsterdam. A lot of these girls are just normal girls, probably some foreign girls, and even students.” Gemma pointed to one of the windows, where a girl dressed in her sexy outfit was sitting with a laptop, tapping away at the keys. “She’s probably studying or doing her university homework, or something.” It was an interesting thought, I suppose. The whole thing didn’t seem that sexy to me, and not because the windows were just full of women. “Wait until you see Amsterdam,” Gemma said. “The girls there are… it’s all just really different.” I wasn’t due to hit Amsterdam for nearly two months, so for now I would have to take her word for it.

After my desperately needed haircut.

After my desperately needed haircut.

On my last night in Groningen, I crawled into Gemma’s bed with her, and we stayed up late talking about our lives – hopes, fears, dreams, secrets: all those things we still talk about, but never feel the same way over WhatsApp as they do in a face to face conversation. Gemma knew me so well, knowing exactly what to say to calm any nerves or fears I might have about travelling and my uncertain future, and it made me realise just how much I had missed her while she’d been away, and probably how much more I was going to miss her now that I was leaving again. It was a little sad that night, but when we had our emotional goodbye in the morning it was actually a really positive moment. It was a little uplifting and affirming, knowing that we were still the best of friends after all this time, and that even though we weren’t sure when we’d be seeing each other next, that we could still be just as close next time our paths crossed, wherever in the world that might be.

Humbug, Hamburg

The next destination on my European tour was the German city of Hamburg, a port town on the Elbe River that was known for, among other things, having particularly wild red light district that has even been compared to the likes of Berlin and Amsterdam. I was actually heading towards the Dutch town of Groningen, where I would be meeting my old high school friend Gemma, but I decided that I couldn’t miss the opportunity to party in Hamburg during the weekend that I passed through, and discover the reputation for myself. After having a quiet night in with Esben on my last night in Copenhagen, I was definitely ready to make up for it on the Saturday night.

***

The journey itself to Hamburg was a little strange. I took a seat on the train and put my headphones in, listening to my music as I watched the countryside roll by. After a few hours, there were announcements throughout the train, either in Danish or German, and a lot of confused looking tourists. I paused my music to listen in on some conversations – there was a lot of talk about a ferry, and having to get off the train. Eventually there was an English announcement, asking passengers to disembark from the train because we weren’t allowed to travel in the cargo hold… wait, wait? That definitely hadn’t been in the guidebook. It all became clear pretty quickly though – rather than a bridge or tunnel, the train was transported from Denmark to Germany via ferry, along with a bunch of private cars and other passengers. I have to admit, it was a little nice to break up the journey with a 45 minute ferry ride – a smaller adventure within a journey within a bigger journey. I followed the crowds and listened to the announcements, and it all went up without a hitch. Soon enough we were back on the tracks and on our way to Hamburg.

***

I arrived in Hamburg in the afternoon, and immediately set out on the U-Bahn (German underground metro system) towards some of the hostels I had looked up in advance, which were within a reasonable walking distance to Reeperbahn, the street in Hamburg that was famous for being the hub of all things sexual and kinky. I should probably take a moment to explain why I have such a fascination with places of such a nature: my old work – the one that sold Tom of Finland t-shirts – was a fetish store. In my year of working there I learnt and saw a lot of strange and crazy things, and discovered that the world and community of sexual fetish is a broad, complicated and intriguing thing. I had learnt so much about that world in a theoretical sense, since I needed to know how to explain products to customers, but so far I was yet to see what any of it looked like when put into practice. In a trip that was all about discovering new things, I couldn’t pass up the opportunity to take a peek into the world that I supposedly knew so much about.

However, when I arrived at the hostel, I was a little taken aback when I was told they were completely full.
“Sorry – you can use the Internet on the computer there if you need to look for somewhere else.” The receptionist sounded sympathetic, but there was nothing else she could do. I dumped my bags onto the floor and logged onto the computer, cursing myself for not bothering to book ahead. It had never been a problem in South-East Asia – it hadn’t really occurred to me that walking into a hostel and asking for a bed on the spot might not be so simple in Europe. But hey, no big deal, right? There’s plenty of other hostels around, surely there’ll be room in one of them?

Wrong. I trawled all the search websites, and every single one told me that there was no accommodation that fit my criteria – that being “one bed in budget accommodation” and “tonight”. First I started searching for areas around Reeperbahn, but even searches for hostels in the city at large proved unsuccessful. I jumped onto Couchsurfing and found the group for “Emergency Couch Requests in Hamburg” and sent out a few messages, but I didn’t know how long I could wait for a reply. Things were looking pretty desperate. I logged onto Facebook and sent a message to Gemma in Groningen, who also joined me in the online accommodation search, but to no avail. The only available places we could find were well out of my price range.
“Maybe I could just hire a locker at the station and leave my stuff there while I party all night?” At the rate this was going, even if I did find a place to stay, I wouldn’t be staying there so much as I would be dumping my bags and going out to enjoy the nightlife.
“That could be cool! You’ve done crazier things,” was Gemma’s reply, and I was already thinking how maybe that would make an interesting blog post. Though I was already a sweaty mess from walking around with my bags in the afternoon sun, and quite frankly the stress of not already having a place to stay was making me kind of exhausted. In my mind I weighed everything up, including the fact that I hadn’t even been feeling so well the night before, and suddenly this night out in Hamburg sounded like a huge effort that might not be worth the way I would feel when it was all over. I consulted the Eurail App for some train times before messaging Gemma.
“You know what? Screw it. Is it okay if I arrive a day early?”

***

And so I found myself back on a train, heading to Bremen, where I could changeover at Leer, which would then take me the rest of the way to Groningen. I had an hour to get from the hostel back to the station via the U-Bahn, but because of the way my Eurail pass worked, I was able to take as many trains as I wanted on my recorded travel days. So essentially it didn’t cost me any extra to jump on a few regional trains, even if it did mean arriving in Groningen at 11:30pm. It was a stressful and exhausting afternoon that eventually worked out well in the end – I would miss out on having a wild night in Hamburg, but I was definitely excited to be on my way to see Gemma. Though above all, it was a lesson in planning. For so long I’d had the spontaneous and unplanned approach to my travels, making things up as I went along and choosing destinations on the day before I decided to travel, sometimes even on the day of travel itself. Tourism in South-East Asia and tourism in Europe were producing a vast number of differences with every passing day – the price was the most obvious, but this was the beginning of my learning the importance of booking ahead, even for the most budget accommodation, or risk being left out in the streets. In retrospect it seems so obvious – who in their right mind would travel to a foreign city where they knew absolutely no one with no place to stay? But I had managed to scrape through in Stockholm, so I thought I might have similar luck in Hamburg. Instead, I learnt this lesson the hard way.

The night out in Hamburg was the price I had to pay, in this scenario. However, I would be passing back through Germany on my way to Berlin – who knows, maybe an overnight stopover in Hamburg wasn’t completely off the table yet?

Conversations in Copenhagen: what we have, what we want, and what we really need

After spending some time riding our bikes through Christiania and grabbing a bite to eat, Esben told me that he had another appointment that evening. He was playing billiards at a local pub with a few of his friends, a regular meeting that happened every week, and Esben said I was welcome to join him or go and do my own thing, if that was what I preferred. I had no idea what I would have done if I’d gone wandering by myself, so I accepted the invitation to join Esben and his friends – after all, the spirit of Couchsurfing was to get to know your hosts and to see how the locals live their day to day life.

So that evening I found myself in a small room that was thick with cigarette smoke in the back of a small, inconspicuous bar whose name I never took note of. There we met Esben’s friends, who had already started a game without him. As I watched them play, I discovered that billiards and pool or snooker are actually two completely different games – Esben’s friends explained the rules of billiards and the use of the tiny wooden poles in the middle of the table, and after a while I even joined in on a few of the games, though my recently acquired snooker skills were no match for a bunch of weekly practitioners. I sat down with a beer and told a few stories of my travels while they played – mentioning the Trans-Siberan always gained an amusing reaction, a combination of curiosity, amazement and disbelief. Even when I mentioned that Esben and I climbed the tower at Vor Freslers Kirke, one of the women exclaimed with a gasp. “Wow! How was it? I can’t believe I’ve lived here so long, but I have never been up there!” I assured her it was a beautiful view, and then just laughed, smiled and shrugged my shoulder. “It’s okay – if there’s one thing I’ve learned from all the people I’ve met along my trip, it’s that people usually never take the time to be tourists in their own city.” For myself, it would have been applicable to say my own country. I have a lot of international friends who have seen much more of Australia then I ever have. I guess when you grow up on the island continent, the rest of the world over the vast seas and oceans seems a little more exciting then the unfathomable expanse of nothing in the desert in the centre of the country.

Esben was in his late thirties, and most of his friends were either of a similar age or even older, so it was a slightly different crowd to my usual company – no binge drinkers or party animals – but it was a nice chance of pace. Eventually we had to clear out of the room to make way for another group who was using the game table, and most of the group went home when that happened. In the end it was just Esben, myself, and a woman named Tot. Tot was a lovely lady, as sweet and gentle as Esben – perhaps that’s why they were such good friends, but I was beginning to suspect it was a common quality among most Danes. We talked more about my travels, and I told stories about South-East Asia and some of the incredible culture clashes I’d seen. Tot listened keenly, and I could see the sincere and genuine compassion in her eyes as I described the kind of poverty I had witnessed during my stay in Thailand and Cambodia.

She voiced some of her own thoughts and concerns when I mentioned the fact that I hadn’t been able to drink the tap water all the way from Bangkok to Moscow. “It’s incredible how much we take things like that for granted, isn’t it?” Tot said as she sank back into her seat, shaking her head with a solemn look on her face. “Things like just going to the tap and being able to get a glass of water.”
“Yeah, but even in a lot of those places I was still able to walk to a corner store and buy two litres of water, you know?” I added.
Tot nodded in agreement. “But then there’s places in Africa where they can’t even do that! Even the most basic things that we take for granted would be such a luxury to them. It really makes you appreciate the things you have. Not enough people really see that.” There was a strained sadness in her voice, a beautiful soul that sounded so desperate to see a change in the world, yet unsure how to go about it. It reminded me of myself in a lot of ways, and the way I’d lived my life up until very recently: ideas without action, or goals without a plan. I told Tot that even the water in St Petersburg was undrinkable – that was quite a shock for her, I think, to bring what seemed like such a foreign problem to the European First World – but we remained on the topic of quality of life and the appreciation of ones own circumstances for quite a long time, and the conversation turned into quite a profound moment for me. For the first time I was beginning to consciously appreciate not just the amazing opportunities and experiences I’d had in the places I’ve travelled to, but also what I’d had in the life I’d left behind, and after this journey is eventually over, in the life I’ll be able to return to.

***

There’s only so much world philosophising one can do in an evening before the whole thing just becomes overwhelmingly depressing, and eventually Tot had to go home. “If you like, we can ride home past some of the gay bars so I can point them out to you,” Esben had offered after we had bid farewell to Tot. He had to work the following evening, but it would be a Friday night and I had expressed an interest in checking out some of what the nightlife in Copenhagen had to offer. So off we went on our bikes, until we reached what could be considered the ‘gay area’ – a stretch of several blocks where some of the most popular gay venues were located. Esben stopped outside one called Jailhouse CPH. “This one is more of a bar then a nightclub,” he said.
“Is it any good?” I asked.
Esben just shrugged his shoulders, and made a short noise that was the definition of impartiality made audible. “It’s okay. Depends of what you want to do, I guess.” I wasn’t sure if he meant it, or if his Danish nature meant he didn’t enjoy being too critical of even a simple bar, but then he said, “We can go in for a drink now, if you like?” Wary of the beers I’d already consumed, and the fact I had ridden a bike into town, I accepted the offer, deciding that familiarising myself with the setting could only be a useful thing to do.

Once inside, Esben and I sat at the bar and ordered some drinks. We’d been so busy riding around and sightseeing during the day that it was the first time we’d really been able to sit down and have a decent discussion. Something I’ve found about most naturally quiet people is that they often have the most thoughtful and interesting things to say, and Esben was no exception. We talked a lot about travelling – me about the Trans-Siberian trek, him about his smaller journeys throughout Europe, as well as his experiences at Burning Man in the USA – and our lives in general, with an overall more upbeat tone then the conversation with Tot. Throughout the night one of the guys who worked at Jailhouse, who was also an acquaintance of Esben, came over to us and told us he was taking photos for the bars Facebook page. They had an offer where if you tagged yourself in the photo on Facebook, you received a free shot. Needless to say, I had connected to the free WiFi in moments, and Esben and I were throwing back tequila shots. Following that, I decided it was time to head home, given that I still had to get there via bicycle.

“I think I might have to get the bus into town tomorrow night”, I said to Esben as we left the bar and headed for our bikes. “I won’t be able to ride my bike after I’ve been out drinking.” Even now I was stumbling a little as I mounted my bike – thank God I still had Esben there to lead the way home.
“Oh, you can still ride your bike home,” he’d said rather simply. “I’ve done it many times… some times very drunk. It’s not really a big deal.”
“No,” I said with a chuckle, “it’s not that I won’t be allowed. It’s that I physically can’t ride a bike after I’ve been drinking. Or at least as much as I will probably be drinking tomorrow.” Although I somehow managed to follow Esben’s lead and make it home that evening in one piece. On the way back I tried to make mental notes in my mind, in the event that I was brave enough to take my bike out the following evening – I was still unsure, but I would cross that bridge when I got to it.

***

Esben had a funeral to attend the following morning, and then work in the afternoon, so I said I would do some more sightseeing in the morning and swing past Christiania in the afternoon to say hello. So after consulting my Lonely Planet book and studying a few maps, I set out to see some of the other more well known sights of Copenhagen. I rode through the city centre, past another sightseeing boat trip that I had decided to forego, and up along the bank of the canals until I reached the strip that was scattered with a range of statues both great and small. There were some impressive fountains, some smaller depictions of angels and fairytale creatures, and of course the famous Little Mermaid. The statue itself seems rather underwhelming when seen up close in the flesh… or… in the bronze? Whatever, despite that I still played my tourist card for the city and climbed down on the rocks to get a photo with it, managing to get my own photo without the throngs of other tourists in the way, something that even impressed Esben. The other highlight was the impressive Gefion Fountain, a sprawling masterpiece that really makes yiu wonder what the hell is so special about the Little Mermaid at all. A Disney reference? It’s all a bit strange, but nevertheless, it made for an pleasant bike ride in the warm Copenhagen sun.

The Danish flag.

The Danish flag.

Lamp post ornaments.

Lamp post ornaments.

A bronze replica of Michaelangelo'a David.

A bronze replica of Michaelangelo’a David.

Gefion Fountain, which depicts the goddess Gefion ploughing the Danish island of Zealand with her four sons... Yes, her sons are oxen.

Gefion Fountain, which depicts the goddess Gefion ploughing the Danish island of Zealand with her four sons… Yes, her sons are oxen.

Close up of Gefion and her sons.

Close up of Gefion and her sons.

Angel statue called Søfartsmonumentet, or 'Shipping Monument', a tribute to fallen sailors of WWI.

Angel statue called Søfartsmonumentet, or ‘Shipping Monument’, a tribute to fallen sailors of WWI.

With the most famous of all the statues, the Little Mermaid.

With the most famous of all the statues, the Little Mermaid.

I biked around the city for the rest of the afternoon, exploring the streets and just really taking it all in. With all the canals, it felt like a more spacious version of Stockholm, although maybe that’s because I ended up seeing far more of Copenhagen than I ever did of Stockholm thanks to the bike I had access to. Later in the afternoon I visited Christiania again for a beer in the sunshine, but I’d decided that I was going to head back home to change and maybe have a nap before heading out again. I’d started to get the sniffles, and what looked like the beginnings of a cold, so I figured a little extra rest would be necessary if I was going to explore the nightlife later.

I was half right – the nap was definitely necessary. However, I never made it back to Jailhouse CPH, or any other bar for that matter. I’d told Esben I was heading home for a little while – I managed to pass out on my blow up mattress and only wake up when he arrived home just after 10:30pm. It seemed like the excessive amounts of beer and vodka over the last couple of weeks and the constant travelling and most likely not enough sleep were all finally catching up to me, and my body gave out. So I spent the Friday evening at home with Esben which, I can honestly say, was probably a lot more enjoyable than heading out to any bar would have been. I remembered back to my time with Allistair in Vietnam, telling him how I was looking for more in my life than just partying, and the mindless nights of purposeless drinking weekend after weekend. Esben made some dinner and we shared a bottle of wine, and we talked more about our lives, the world, and the future. I went to bed with a richer soul, and a body that was (hopefully) less likely to bail out on me during a period where I needed to be healthy for my travels. Cutting back on some (but definitely not all) of the partying wasn’t just a desire – if I was going to survive this long haul journey, it would almost be a necessity.

The next morning I packed my things, bid Esben farewell and thanked him for his generous hospitality, and hit the train tracks towards my next destination. I was leaving Copenhagen with new friends, new perspectives, and terribly sore muscles in my butt from all that bike riding! It must have been several years since I’d last ridden a push-bike – the charming little city knows how to leave a lasting impression.