Published: June 23rd 2009June 23rd 2009
So, I have finally gotten around to creating a blog to let everybody know what I have been up to so far. I'm currently staying with friends in Lille, France and am lucky enough to have my own room in a beautiful 3 story house to collect my thoughts and recount my travels to this point. Philadelphia, PA/Mt. Laurel, NJ - June 3rd - June 7th
I started my trip by visiting with my buddy Jeremy who owns one of the promotional staffing agencies that I have done a lot of work for over the past several years. We became pretty good friends during this time and I thought it would be fun to visit with him on the way to New York. We spent most of our time in Philadelphia and Mount Laurel, a New Jersey suburb that is about 25 minutes from downtown Philly.
The first place we visited was South Street in Philadelphia where we went for cheese steaks at a local favorite called Jim's. The traditional Philly Cheese Steak is prepared using only meat and Cheese Whiz with onions being optional. They were a little pricey but definitely worth the money!
I spent most of my days just hanging out around Mount Laurel as Jeremy had at least a little work to do each day but did manage to do the tourist thing for one afternoon. We went to see the Liberty Bell as well as the Independence Hall where, among other things, the Constitution was created. Most of our evenings (ok, all of them) were spent at various pubs where we enjoyed some local brews and Phillies baseball. It was a little strange watching games that started at 10pm (the Phillies were in San Diego with 7pm PST start times) but I actually kind of liked it. Anyway, after 4 days with Jeremy, I hopped on a train bound for New York's Penn Station! New York, NY - June 7th - June 11th
I arrived at Penn Station at around 10:30 on a Sunday morning and was picked up by my friend Melisa, who I would be staying with. We went back to her apartment on 135th and Broadway to drop off my things before heading out for the day's activities. While Melisa was getting ready, I hit the streets in search of a deli. I ended up
at a place called Santiago's where I purchased one of the most delicious sandwiches that I have ever tasted! I guess all of the things that I had heard about NY's culinary specialties were true! Next, we went down to the East River where there was a free outdoor festival that was providing free beer and food for the first hour. We met up with a few of Melisa's couchsurfing friends (couchsurfing.com is a website where you can meet fellow travelers that I also ended up joining...it has proven to be a great way to meet people in all of the cities I have been so far) and enjoyed our free lunch before taking off on a walking tour of the city. The tour included a few stops at dive bars for pitchers of beer and appetizers before ending up at a fancy Mexican restaurant in Greenwich Village where we had fresh guacamole and $14 margaritas...they were good but not that good!
We did a bunch of walking around on Monday and I was able try my first slice of NY pizza which was also very tasty. That evening we met up with a former Geography professor from community
college that has become a good friend along with his girlfriend that I also knew from the Bay Area. They had moved east to Staten Island earlier in the year when he was offered a position at one of the local state schools. We ate at a Korean restaurant in one of the villages (I think!) and capped off the evening with drinks at a pretty cool bar that, amazingly, wasn't too expensive.
Melisa wanted to show me all of the tourist sites the next day but I was content to simply hang around her neighborhood for most of the day. I quickly learned that I am not a typical tourist in that I don't really care too much about museums or typically crowded tourist spots; I prefer to take it slow and focus on meeting locals while enjoying the local food and drink! Anyway, while Melisa went to the DMV to replace her CA license plates with new ones from NY, I went to a Puerto Rican barbershop for my bimonthly haircut. The guy that cut my hair did an amazing job but it took awhile to complete as he was on the phone the whole time with
one girl and would duck out to chase others that were walking by at various times as well. He would also pause to watch the TV that was blaring right above my head every few minutes and even took a snack break when some lady brought him an empanada smothered in ketchup. I didn't really mind though as he was doing a good job on the actual haircut and I wasn't in any sort of hurry. After he finished up I hopped on the subway and headed downtown to meet up with Melisa and look for a pair of walking shoes for Europe. Although I was unsuccessful in this endeavor (I hate shopping!) we did end up seeing some sites. We walked by the Empire State Building on our way to Grand Central Station where Melisa snacked on oysters (I'm not a big fan, especially at these prices) at their world famous oyster bar and we both had a glass of wine. Next, we headed to Times Square, which was absolutely stunning, before ducking into a restaurant whose name I can't recall for a huge slice of NY cheesecake. It also lived up to the hype! Later that night we
met up with more of Melisa’s friends and had a great time at a Sangria bar before heading back to her apartment where we joined her roommate and his friends in Absinthe and conversation until the wee hours of the night.
Overall, I really enjoyed NYC and will definitely return for another visit at some point. I didn't think people were as rude as they are made out to be; I actually found most of them to be quite friendly! Berlin - June 11th - June 16th
My flight from JFK took off an hour late at around 7pm EST which pushed back the ETA to about 10:30am local time in Berlin. I had planned on taking a couple Tylenol PM's so I could sleep on the flight and wake up refreshed in what would be the morning in Berlin. However, these plans were tossed aside when I was seated next to a pretty Russian girl that ended up being very friendly and eager to chat. We ended up talking for most of the flight and even shared my headphones to watch Russell Peters stand-up comedy show which she had saved on her laptop (it was the
only non-Russian video she had). We parted ways in Dusseldorf where I waited about an hour for my connecting flight to Berlin. I passed through customs at this point and wasn't asked a single question about my visit or how long I planned to stay; the officer simply stamped my passport and sent me on my way. The flight to Berlin was only an hour and I passed out for most of the trip as fatigue began to set in.
Upon exiting the plane, I experienced real culture shock for the first time: all of the signs were in German, everybody was speaking German, and I had no idea where to find the bus that I needed to take to my friend's place. After a few attempts, I managed to get directions from an airport worker and eventually found the bus stop. According to the detailed instructions that my friend Justin had provided, my next move was to buy a ticket for the bus that would also be good for the U-Bahn, Germany's version of NY's subway or the Bay Area's BART. This sounds easy enough but is actually pretty hard to do when the machine speaks only German
and people are waiting impatiently in line behind you. I suddenly had an appreciation for the plight of newly arrived immigrants attempting to navigate the streets of the Bay Area! I was eventually aided by a German guy with a huge mustache and sent on my way. According to my instructions, I needed to get the ticket validated by a machine that was "always" right next to the ticket kiosk. Of course this was the one location that lacked one! I decided to just follow other people onto the bus and ask the driver how to proceed. No help there as he simply grumbled something in German and didn't seem interested in any further conversation. Thankfully (as you will soon see why), it turned out that there were validating machines onboard the bus. It turns out that these machines timestamp your ticket and provides you with 2 hours of travel on any bus or metro train in Berlin. If not for these timestamps people could simply buy one ticket and continue using it forever. Once I transferred from the bus to the U-Bahn, I sat down and felt very much out of place with my big backpack that was clearly
in the way of other passengers attempting to pass through the aisle...not much I could do though. So I just put on my Ipod and stared at the floor...haha. A few minutes later I looked up and discovered a gentleman with his wallet out displaying some sort of ID. Turns out that he was not simply proud of his drivers license photo and wanting to share it with fellow passengers: he was a U-Bahn officer checking that people had valid tickets and not were surreptitiously hitching a free ride. Good thing I had my ticket stamped on the bus or I would have been out $30 Euros, the fine for such infractions (although I would later learn that a lot of people never pay for the metro and have never received a ticket. One girl explained that even if she did receive an occasional ticket, the savings would still be significant considering the number of free rides she received).
I arrived at my destination at around noon and had 90 minutes to kill before Justin's girlfriend Sarane would be arriving to let me into his flat (Justin was to be out of town for the duration of my visit
but was nice enough to let me stay at his place nonetheless). I was very tired and wanted nothing more than a place to lie down but I would have to stay awake. I found a cafe/bar on the corner a few blocks from Justin's flat and figured some food and a few beers would do me some good. This was to become my favorite place for breakfast and coffee as well as nightcaps...a true full service establishment that opened early and closed late (by American standards anyway, 4am is actually rather early for Berlin!). I was greeted in German by the Jamaican hostess who quickly switched over to understandable English when she realized I was a foreigner. I quickly scanned the bar for draught beers and saw a label that read "Berliner." I moronically proceeded to order a "Ber-line-er" which I imagine to be the equivalent of ordering a "San Fran-sice-ker" in San Francisco. Nobody seemed to notice, but still a silly start to my visit to Berlin! I eventually made my way through the rain to the flat and waited for Sarane's arrival. When she was 15 minutes late and not answering her cell phone I began to
worry. I didn't know anyone else in the city and didn't want to shell out a bunch of money for a taxi (I was so tired at this point that another U-Bahn trip was out of the question...besides I had no idea where I would go anyway) and a hotel. Thankfully she arrived a few minutes later before I started panicking and turned out to be a very sweet woman. She showed me around the flat and provided instructions for using the shower (you need to flip a switch to heat the water before showering and then there is another one to drain the water once you’re done) before putting clean sheets on the bed and leaving me to get some rest. I slept from around 2pm until almost midnight when decided to explore the neighborhood and look for some dinner. I found a Turkish burger joint that was empty save for a few girls speaking Spanish of all things. Thankfully the guy working spoke a little English and, like most other people in Berlin, was eager to practice with a native speaker. The burger ended up being phenomenal and when I told him this he said it because he
"loved his work and this love can be tasted in the burger!" Try getting that at McDonalds! After eating, I returned to the corner cafe/bar that I had been at earlier and met a delightful Swedish bartender, Bettina, who taught me a little German while I was enjoying more Berliners. I ran into two recent high school graduates from Texas that were celebrating in Berlin and trying to order screwdrivers from the bar. Bettina had no idea what they were talking about but ended up giving them a shot of vodka and a glass of orange juice :) I'm not sure what the legal drinking age is in Germany but I don't think it's enforced very often.
As I mentioned earlier, I joined this thing called couchsurfers.com. I took a look at the Berlin message board when I woke up on Friday morning and noticed that there was an event planned for that evening at a bar not too far from where I was staying. I decided to spend the day resting up and trying to shake the jet lag before going out that night. It turned out to be a relatively quiet event but I did meet a couple of really cool guys that I would end up hanging out with every night for the remainder of my trip. That night I also learned that you are allowed to take your bottle of beer with you pretty much anywhere you go in Berlin, even on the metro. Matter of fact, the locals call bottles of beer "walking sticks!" This city was made for me!
More to follow but at this point I need a break from all of this writing! As a side note, I just went to the supermarket in Lille and purchased the following: 2 bottles of wine, 1 large bottle of Belgian beer, a baguette, a pack of sliced Gouda cheese, a block of Maroille cheese, a pack of sliced ham, and a jar of Dijon mustard. Cost? 10 freakin’ Euros (about $13.50USD)!!! Why does decent food and drink cost so much in the US and Canada?
Anyway, I will continue this story at a later date, hopefully sooner than later!