The Tone in Dresden, Part III

As we worked our way through the suburbs of Dresden, the view was less than inspiring. All around us was the rusting wreckage of Soviet era industry. Dilapidated buildings full of frozen machinery simply walked away from by its workers once the State no longer existed to prop it up. My memory of much of the ground that showed through snow appeared in rude shades of red and yellow, mirroring the shades of the forgotten steel trusses and tanks, now sitting disused and fenced off from hapless passers by. It was obvious that it would take years to clean up. If any one could do it well however, I had faith in the ability and efficiency of the Germans.

Once the outskirts had been successfully pasted, we drove to the heart of Dresden. Well, Perhaps, “heart” isn’t quite right… The lungs, then. We had to meet up with Carla’s friend, Laura. The place scheduled for our meeting was one of the beautiful stone churches that punctuated the cityscape. Old and massive, our meeting place loomed against the grey skyline and we piled out of the car, unfolding long bent legs and backs.

“So, where are we meeting her exactly?” I asked.
“Hmmm.” Carla thought for a moment. “I didn’t ever really specify a place. I just told her to meet us at the church.”

I can see how this could sound like a good plan but there is one thing to consider. These churches are huge! Dozens of people milled around the square in front of the church and since our new travel companion wasn’t quickly spotted, we decide to go looking. Mountain Man had met Laura once and so I went off with him while Carla went off alone to search. True to form, once Carla was out of sight, Mountain Man threw me a curve ball.

“I don’t really remember what Laura looks like.”
“Eh? Then what good are we going to be? There’s not much we can do, then.” I retorted.
He looked back at me with his big, goofy smile. “Let’s just ask around. One of them must be Laura.”

So, the two of us walked around the church asking young woman if they were Laura. In retrospect, I’m more than a little amazed that we didn’t get questioned by the police. After only a little while, we were rewarded for our persistence when we did, in fact, find Laura. Well, actually, it was “a woman named Laura”, but not “OUR” Laura. A brief and somewhat confused conversation with the indulging lady and we figured out that she was not the Laura we were looking for. Just as we were completing our apologies and goodbyes with Laura #1, Carla appeared with Laura #2. The correct Laura had been found.

After a round of introductions, and a brief flurry of chitchat in auf deutsch, Laura noticed that I wasn’t joining in the conversation. Once informed that I didn’t speak German, she quickly switched to a very nice, upper class British English. As it turned out, that was no hardship for her. She was, as it turned out, English. Her father was in the British military and had been stationed in Germany, where the family lived during most of her young life. Later on she explained that she’d actually spent more time here than she dad in England.

Carla knew of a place we could all stay for cheap in the out skirts of the city. Technically, it wasn’t even in Dresden but in a town called Pirna. As we passed back through some of the old industrial wreckage, Carla told us about the way it was when she grew up here.

“The city was still a mess. There were bombed out buildings everywhere, left over from the war. The Russians didn’t foster fixing the old buildings, too much. Most of the programs were about new construction. Giant apartment blocks and manufacturing complexes. For fun after school, my friends and I would go and dig through the old ruins, looking for treasures. All the industry made the air here filthy. My father worked in one of these plants and I, for one, am not sad to see them closed. They were awful.”

As the story ended, we pulled into a parking lot. Looming over us was the quintessential Soviet era hostelry. It was a mustard colored block with windows and a door. Once inside, the décor did not change much. The best parts were the goodies being sold at the check in counter. They were still trying to sell off the last of their DDR flavored memorabilia. Key chains, patched and stickers did their best to evoke pride in a cast off and failed system. Happily, I bought some to stick on my truck and confuse folks back home.

After check in, we stowed our stuff and headed out on the town. This is where things start to get fuzzy for me. It was late in the day by now and we were getting hungry and thirsty. The hunger was taken care of at a Chinese restaurant that Carla knew of. The thirst was taken care of at a variety of venues. As the evening wore on, Carla informed us that she was going to be heading along. This wasn’t a surprise. She had told us earlier that her mother lived in Dresden and she was going to be spending the night with her. We wished her good by and made plans to meet tomorrow. As she walked away from our little group, I increasingly became aware that none of us left knew what to do next. Laura didn’t know Dresden very well and Mountain Man and I, not at all. So, we did what we could. We had another beer.

Once we realized that we needed to get back to the hostel and had completed a chilly “sober up” walk, we encountered another problem. None of us were sure where Pirna was. After a quick and lively discussion, we started to drive in the direction of consensus. It was not a sure thing, by any stretch. Three sets of eyes swept the road signs in the hopes of finding the breadcrumbs that would lead us home. Nothing… Not good.

“A-Ha! There we go!” It was Laura.
“What? Where!?” Mountain Man and I shot forward in our seats and scanned the dark roadsides.
She triumphantly declared, “The car in front of us! They’re from Pirna! We’ll just follow them!”

Either she was joking, had an unbelievable memory for cars or knew something I didn’t. Which ever it was, I wasn’t the one driving so the choice to take the next exit wasn’t mine. At least I had the back seat to my self. That would be comfortable enough to seep on.

Next, I actually get to the city!

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Valhalla in Salzburg, part III

Now, as I have stated before, I was, repeat WAS a picky eater and though I had a very long “I no eat” list, I was also raised to be polite. I would never have turned away an offer so generously given. Especially since I had already started ingesting it. Besides, it was obvious that it wasn’t going to kill me. After all, the plumber was still alive. I was also, at this point, ¾ in the bag. Something that happens quite infrequently and it no doubt helped with my “Eh. What the hell” attitude.

I took another bite from the pile on my napkin.

*Chew, chew, chew.*

Mountain Man, knowing the normal depth of my pickiness, looked at me quizzically.
“What does it taste like?” he filially added. I pondered this between bites and finally replied, “It’s kind of like… well… It tastes like… boiled, shaved cow’s cheek I guess. Want some?”

With out a moment to consider, he reached over and took a few slices off the stack. I have no doubt in my mind that my friend would eat a live trout if presented to him. The guy is like a garbage disposal. For him, this was nothing. Someone had even killed it first and cut into bite sized pieces.

When my napkin was empty and we could see the bottom of our steins, we decided that rather than going up for a fourth pint, it might be a good idea to get some fresh air. Sloppy “Danke Schone”s were given to our plumber and we staggered off on our merry way. First to the facilities and then out to hopefully walk some of this off.

“Beer as sustenance” had some flaws. The first is the rapid deterioration of the fine motor skills. The second is that once you have made your first stop at the loo, you seem to have to go again and again every few minutes. Aren’t kidneys and livers amazing things? All I can recall for certain about the bathroom was just how amazingly full of white tile it was.

Another problem with “beer as food” is that it shuts down the majority of your higher brain functions and instead gives control over to what apparently is a five year old who lives in your head; lying dormant until the opportunity arises. Both Mountain Man and I were wowed by what was, in all honesty, 4×4 plain white tile. Then we were wowed by a stone wall, then were were wowed by streetlights. What was in that beer?

As we wobbled out in to the night, one of us had a brilliant idea. We should call home to the States! We found a phone boot standing out by its self in the center of a little garden. I was first into the booth and managed to get my pre-paid phone card into the slot.

I don’t recall the actual phone conversation I had with my folks back in New Hampshire. It was probably along the lines of “DIS ISH GREAT! WERE HASHING SCHO MUCH FON!” Though the dialogue of the call is forgotten to time, I have been assured by my parents that I seemed to be having a good time, and that the beer breath was palpable through the telephone connection. Though they didn’t approve of drinking to excess, they have both told me that they were cracking up for a good half hour after that call home.

Mountain Man was next and I remember him taking a nonchalant pose in the booth and talking. And talking. AND TALKING. Good Lord! I started to wonder if we had phoned the UN with some new ideas about a solution the Arab-Israeli problem or something. Then, the Hefeweizen started to call again…

I looked around for some place to deal with the issue but there was nothing. The only thing big enough near to hide behind was the phone booth. Even the shrubs in the garden were about knee high.

A quick aside here about my luck. I know my luck well enough to realize that the second I start to do something naughty, a policeman or nun or a Grandparent will come by and see me doing it. I don’t know if it’s karma or what, but that’s the way my luck runs and to say that it makes me a cautious person is an understatement at times. If this were not the case, I might have been “watering” the azaleas at this point, but I know my luck better than that.

As I started to get more and more urgent messages from my bladder, I watched Mountain Man for any sign of getting off the dang phone. None was forthcoming. After a few more minutes of waiting I finally pulled a wrapper out of my pocket, wrote a note on it and pressed it to the glass of the booth for him to read…

I don’t know who “some of us” were, but I can only assume I was referring to the royal “we”. Or possibly, a royal “Wee”.

After the badly needed “Pinkle Pauser”, my friend informed me of an English language movie house. near by. Without hesitation, we were off! By this point, memory starts to fail me. I can recall sitting in the almost empty theater and that the movie was “Wallace and Grommit in A Close Shave” which alone, is a great little movie and quite funny. After a trip to a beer hall and three liters, it’s difficult to stay in your seat because you’re laughing so hard. Again, it’s the five year old taking control.

I don’t remember anything after the movie. Not getting back to the hostel, not the kids staying there, not the stinky bunk room or even how I managed to get into an upper bunk that was mercifully vacant.

Epilogue.

The next morning was a little… tender. We both were moving slowly and painfully, though to our immense pleasure we found lots and lots of very hot, very black coffee in the cafeteria. The hostel was a pit to be sure, but Mountain Man did come through on one point about it. The breakfast was amazing. You ordered it by country preference.

English= toast, yoghurt, weetabix and baked tomato
German/Austrian= cold meat, bread, butter, fruit
Australian= kangaroo and muesli… or something
American=2 eggs, scrambled, toast, homefries, sausage and bottomless black coffee

It was like heaven. We ate slowly and drank enough coffee to power three city blocks. Most of the day was spent café surfing and admiring the passers by. It was a wonderful way to observe a beautiful place like Salzburg. We ate out at a restraint that night. The beer was great, if no tin smaller quantities and the food wasn’t boiled, though it might have come from a cow.

Our train left early the next morning and I slept quite deeply, my last night at Delta House, Salzburg. While Mountain Man had been getting breakfast that painful next morning, I had slipped out to the front desk… and reserved the private double on the top floor. The experience of bunkhouse had loosed me up a good bit, but I still had standards.

Valhalla in Salzburg

“Where the heck are we going?”
“You’ll see! It’s going to be great!”
“You’re not going to kill me and stuff my body in a trash bin, are you?”
“I can’t promise that. It’ll depend on your behavior.”
“Great.”

The lower city of Salzburg twisted away from us as we climbed, as my good friend bounded ahead in a dubious looking direction, trying to remember his way in the dark of the sleeping architecture.

That spring, I was visiting a good friend of mine (I’ll call him Mountain Man) who was living Germany. He was there on a Fulbright Scholarship, teaching english at a gymnasium in what was until very recently, East Germany. The Wall had come down only a few years before he went over and it was a great time to be there. Every one felt positive, everything seemed to be getting better and most importantly of all, you could now travel all over what was once forbidden territory. We were having a blast.

This particular night though, we had traveled back to one of his old haunts. We spent a day traveling and another punch on our euro-rail passes and had arrived in Salzburg, Austria.

Mountain Man knew Salzburg. It was his old stomping grounds, having spent a year studying abroad in this charismatic city. I had only been there once before on one of my family’s epic en-mass vacations. Traveling with the family meant nice hotels, meals at meal times and package style tours with guides. Mountain Man most defiantly had other plans and to be fair, we were doing this on the cheap.

I will freely admit, that the traveling with my family (my WHOLE family, including parents, aunts, uncles, cousins and grandparents) had made me jaded. Growing up and traveling en masse, I never had to think about where we would stay, eat or go and look at the local pile of ancient rubble. It was all planned for me and though we didn’t travel opulently, we did travel comfortably.

This trip would be different. This was where I really learned how to travel.

We had arrived in Salzburg by train and immediately headed into the city to secure lodging. It was early evening and Mountain Man was afraid that the hostel that he had in mind would be near full capacity by now. He had gone on and on about how popular it was as were their breakfasts. Warning lights should have been going off in my head with the mention of the word “popular”, but foolishly, I had equated it with the notion of it being due to its fine rooms and beds. How wrong could I be? Ohhh. Very, very wrong.

I actually could hear it before we saw it. The music was thumping out into the darkening streets and the yellow light of the foyer poured out from the open doors almost as powerfully as the cigarette smoke. As we walked in, I was immediately taken by two things. First was that the place was packed by what looked like fourteen year olds, all holding ¾ empty beer steins and smoking what must have been four to five cigarettes a piece. The second was that Mountain Man was asking the clerk for a couple of beds for us.

“No! I don’t care if we have to sleep on benches in the park, but we aren’t staying here!”

Mountain Man looked at me thought the blue smoke and smiled sheepishly. “Well, that’s about our only other option. At this hour, we’re lucky that they have any room at all. By the time we get to the next hostel, the chance of finding space is just about nil.”

I looked around at the plastered and partying highschool age patrons and sighed. “Fine, but do they at least have a double room or something. Just so we don’t have to be in the bunk room?”

He winced again. “Nope. We’ll be in a room with 32 beds.”

Great.

After securing our packs, we fled the hostel looking for an activity that didn’t involve drunk teenagers and tobacco. Mountain Man, in an attempt to make up for my obvious disappointment in our lodging situation, promised an experience that would be second to none. He wouldn’t say what it was, but that it was just “going to be awesome.”

A bit suspiciously, I followed. What else could be done?

We climbed out of the lower city and up towards the less traveled areas. It was getting late now and the only light was from the street lamps. With hardly anyone else out walking and all the shops closed, it felt a lot like trespassing. The roads we took turned into wide alleys and the alleys into open stairs, punctuated by small parks and paths that appeared sporadically as we ascended. This was when I had posed my question to Mountain Man.

We had climbed for quite a while and I was sure we were lost. “This it it!” Mountain Man had stopped at a set of massive, studded, dark oak doors on an unmarked wall.

“Are you serious?”

He just smiled. I looked around to check for empty rubbish bins, just to be safe.

More later…

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