I thought it would be nice to have a place to stay right near the festival, so when I got into town, I went straight there to have a look around. There wasn't much though. Just the metro stop, the university, a big office park ("Brainpark"), and a highway. The area seemed designed for cars, and everything else nearby was far away.
I was surprised there wasn't a hotel around to service the big office park. Surely all those companies would have visitors, but maybe they all rent cars. I thought about walking into the nearest one, Novotel, and asking the receptionist, but I figured any hotel I couldn't see wasn't going to be close enough for my needs, and I'd be better off staying a short walk from some other metro station.
That was yesterday. I'm happy where I ended up, but I had a good laugh today when I learned that there is a hotel in that neighborhood and that Novotel is not a telecommunications company.
Rotterdam was leveled during WWII and they decided to use the opportunity to experiment with architecture. As a result, the city has a much more artistic feel to it than any other city I've been in. The cube houses are extreme and famous examples, but really there's stuff like this all over town.
Each house has 100 square meters of hard-to-use floor space. I'm told they go for about 200,000 euros, and that it's a normal price for that part of town. The one I toured (a "show cube"; the others are inhabited) seemed surprisingly spacious and quite livable given the size. Residents can't use much standard furniture because of the weird wall angles, so personalizing the space is difficult, but I thought it had a baseline beauty far above that of most houses.
It's been nearly a week and I'm still in Groningen. Even though I can't speak or read Dutch, life is easy here, and I haven't thought of a good enough reason to be anywhere else.
Just as I finally get to the best spot in the park and take off my shoes, Olivier calls me and tells me where and when I can rendezvous with him for a cookout. I have just enough time to get back there. (Oh, the harried life of a pedestrian in a bicycle town. There's a bike I usually borrow, but it was busy.)
The party is outside town a bit, so we'll get a ride in a car and stay the night. Should he bring me anything from home? I pause a moment and think. No, I have pretty much everything on me I could imagine needing in the next couple days. Sunglasses, a book, devil sticks, a bar of chocolate, a jacket. What else does a person need, anyway? My toothbrush and fresh socks might be nice, I guess, so Olivier grabs those on his way out the door.
There are just six of us, plus a resident menagerie: three goats, a coop full of chickens, three cats, three tiny kittens, a heron watching from the field next door, and a din of frogs in the canal between this yard and the next one. We're a fifteen minute drive from town, and we're somehow in the middle of nowhere.
Lots of excellent wine, food, conversation, and fire juggling later, it's 5am, it's light out again, and we go inside to sleep (and to play with the kittens, who are each small enough to fit in one hand).
We wake up a few hours later, have a nice breakfast outside, and Olivier and I get a lift back to town. He has to be at Santelli, the local circus school, bright and early to go teach a circus skills workshop to some kids somewhere. I don't have plans beyond sleeping and showering, so I figure I might as well put those off and tag along.
We load the truck full of circus gear and four of us drive 40km to some little town just this side of the German border. We set up the walking globes, the tightropes, and the rola-bolas in the gym, but Olivier and I get to spend the day outside (yay) teaching various juggling things: balls, rings, diabolo, and devil sticks.
The kids are 6-12 years old, so coming up with stuff they can do is challenging. I get schooled in how hard it is to teach without using language and how easy it is for gestures to be misinterpreted. "Make that thing do what my hand is doing now" becomes "do this with your hand." It's not like getting a room at a hotel or using at ATM where everyone involved knows how the conversation is supposed to go and what information will be in it.
It's also interesting how the younger kids don't seem to grasp the idea that I can't understand what they say. I drop plenty of hints, like responding to everything with helpless shrugs and a confused face or with a long English sentence. Some of them get it. Every now and then I do manage to understand something in Dutch and that confuses the ones who already figured out that I don't understand anything. But I did learn that "hocus pocus" is the same in Dutch and English.
Somehow the kids are still interested and having fun after three hours. I think this is mostly due to switching activities every ten minutes, but it's still impressive. Some of them have even learned to do some impressive things. They put on a haphazard show for some parents, and Olivier and I close it with a few easy juggling and devil stick moves. (It's all about managing expectations.)
For my benefit, we took the scenic route home. Holland sure is flat.
With my local friend leaving town, it might be time for me to leave Frankfurt too. The weather is great, but the city is overrun by the world cup, and while I could try to find a place to stay, it seems unlikely, and I might as well just go somewhere else. But where?
Options are endless. A few seem better than the rest, but finally I decide I've had enough and I'll see if I can just change my flight and go home. I get the number for the airline, but something is wrong with my phone service and I can't make any calls. What I've learned about phones and international travel is this: your phone will start and stop working mysteriously, and no one can explain why. The only proposed remedy that has any hope of working is to buy new phone service for every country you visit. Fine for limited visits, absurd for serious vagabonding.
So I figure I'll just go to the airport and do it in person. These things are always easier in person anyway. I traverse the airport, wait 45 minutes in line for the ticket counter, and am finally told that the sign lies, that airline only has an airport presence in the morning, but the people there (who work for a different airline) are very helpful and give me the phone number I already have.
Some long distance trains go through the airport, but by now it's too late in the day to go where I actually want to go. Instead I should go to a city that's vaguely in the right direction and has good train connectivity. I'm mindful of the last time I did this sort of thing and how little I enjoyed it, but maybe I've learned something since then. Unfortunately, the train folks at the airport don't have a rail map of Germany. I saw one back at the main train station, just ten minutes away on the subway, so back I go.
Back at the Hbf (the train station), I decide to go to Köln just in time to watch the perfect train leave. Twisting the blade of irony further, its next stop is the airport, where I just came from. The next intercity train is in 45 minutes. I could take the subway back to the airport and do my waiting there, safely in place to make my connection, but I've spent enough time in the airport today, and I'd spend half time walking between the subway and long distance train platforms both here and there. I'll have ten minutes to make my connection there, which is plenty of time even if things go awry. Unless of course, awry includes a broken train, which they should have fixed in about fifteen minutes, sorry for the inconvenience.
There are later trains to Köln, but I'm already planning to get in pretty late, and I still have to find a place to stay. Ah, but when I ask someone on the train what the announcer just said, I'm told there's a train 12 platforms away leaving in three minutes, and that it goes to a couple cities I don't care about, but I think I also heard the announcer say the word for "airport". I've got nothing to lose, so I go for it. At a run, I just make the train, and indeed it is going to the airport. I get booted out of first class and then from the dining car because German train conductors won't cut me any slack for a ten minute journey. Hmph.
I do the math and am prepared for a mad dash so I can at least have given it a good try before missing my connection. But it's not necessary. We pull into the perfect spot, right across from the train I want to catch. As we slow to a stop, I have a great view of it pulling away. Gaahh!
Disconsolate, I check the schedule to see when another train goes to Köln. Hm. Just six minutes later. Not bad. And it's leaving from track seven. Wait a minute, it's the train I just got off! I dash back, verify with the conductor that this train goes to Köln ("Of course!", which I guess is why he kicked me out of first class), and manage to find another seat on what's now a crowded train.
Köln also turns out to be overrun with sport enthusiasts (people with airhorns, drums, flags, and painted faces), but I'm that much closer to being in a country that isn't hosting the world cup. (It also turns out that Köln, which I hadn't heard of and figured must not be a big place, is also known as Cologne, which I had heard of, and which is the fourth largest city in Germany, which explains the good train connectivity.) It was just a 90 minute ride from Frankfurt, but I arrived seven hours after deciding that I ought to go somewhere, and a mere four hours since I picked this destination. Let no one say travel is easy. On the bright side, I have plenty of clean socks, and the cathedral here looks amazing.
The thing I love most about hotel breakfasts, even more than the infinite supply of scrambled eggs, is watching other people eat. Not the chewing and swallowing, which they do pretty much the same way I do, but the selection and construction of the meal. With even a modest array of food, there's a wide range of possibilities.
It might be interesting if people pursued all potential combinations, up to and including mashing up fruit and eggs, stuffing them inside a croissant, and dipping it in their tea, along with more exotic options I'd rather not try to imagine. But I think it's more interesting to watch what choices people do make given that they're not going to make all of them. It's a wonderful illustration of cultural variety, and it makes me happy, even if that guy did use way too much salt on his open-faced sandwich of hard boiled egg slices over something I couldn't see.