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Stuttgart

Stuttgart is not the cheapest city to stay in Germany. Yet it has so much to offer, something I did not fully appreciate on my first visit two years earlier. Firstly, the walk in mid November. Although the trees had variously lost their flame and yellow leaves there was still enough of the wondrous majesty of a seemingly endless forest. 

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The weather was perfect, at least for one day. Passed a number of people, either walking alone, in a couple, some joggers. No dog walkers (which makes a nice change from the UK). Never quite sure if I should say hello/guten targ. The few times I did it was barely a mumble. There’s no reason why these passing encounters should be awkward, but many of them were. I always am listening to something, in this case it was 5live streamed – as I find it difficult to break links with my home country; comforting when you’re alone, even though the discussion was mostly centred around Brexit (that nagging and seemingly unresolvable issue of 2018). Well, it’s no surprise that German 4G is exemplary even deep in the woods.

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I kept going for miles and miles until eventually I reached some arbitrary point (at the bottom of a hill) where I decided it was time to turn back. Afterwards it seems ridiculous not to have kept some track of my distance. But this is something I never do. Maybe to know will only make me feel more tired.

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Had to think about the following night. The following night was when it was going to happen. I had to keep something in the tank. Did not want to feel like last time, where I was just too knackered. Stopped off at Aldi for essential supplies, including a 70cl bottle of my usual, trying not to care about the mature woman cashier’s probable disapproval. Fact is, I don’t hope for a warm greeting at these budget places; the staff are surely not paid enough to be friendly.

The night didn’t go quite to plan…

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Cologne, Pt 3: the days after…

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Cologne in a warm sunny June is invariably going to seem like a fine place to holiday – and so the 5 mile walk to my next hotel in Marsdorf, despite being loaded with luggage, was pleasant. I sensed the serenity of others.  Even motorists were careful to slow near pedestrian areas. This felt like such a contrast to the freneticism of neighboring Düsseldorf – though that was well into the autumn.

And so I continued on, along the canal paths and peripheral tree-lined routes, stopping at a bench. There were two close together with few people passing so it didn’t occur to me that anybody would want to sit on one. But as I got up to leave a woman stopped, off her bike, to sit on the adjacent bench. I was listening to music on earbuds so wasn’t sure I heard her say hello to me. But anyway said hello to her and she responded in kind. Well, as I’d already got up to leave I did the predictable thing and kept to that plan. So had I missed the one opportunity to meet my ideal partner? That’s the question that stuck with me, just the vague possibility that I had. Assuming she was German there might have been a language barrier. I’ve got passed the stage where small talk – especially when it is limited by the language barrier – serves any use. No, if I’d been bold enough (aided by a good amount of my leftover vodka) maybe I’d have cut to the chase. After all it was fairly obvious I’m single, with all my luggage. She seemed about my age or a bit younger. And here I am typing this (first draft) in my hotel with its twin bed, wondering if I could have dared to tell her where I’d be staying, give her my phone number. Could I have chanced she’d have been that desperately in need of someone? Would I have seemed desperate or just so smitten that I’d be prepared to risk a knockback? I’m not the gambling type – I don’t believe in trying my luck such as it often seems lacking. And yet sometimes it feels there is such a thing as fate that deals a useful hand. Now rapidly approaching middle age, I don’t feel these opportunities will in future be so forthcoming. So: what if? Always the question, isn’t it, that bugs most of us; that lack of courage, of decisiveness. I should have got passed the fear of embarrassment by this stage of my life. People think there is a way to game the odds by using dating sites/apps, but my fear has always been the check-list credential comparisons, subject to which I’d fall short, I feel. Maybe that’s just my cynical outsider view. I’m sure most women, like men, have ideals but are prepared to compromise. After all, isn’t that what deep and meaningful relationships are about? Well perhaps I’m not really qualified to answer such a question….

Final day, the weather was sunny, just bordering on hot. Way too early just to head back to the airport.

I stepped off a tram – the only way to get back from Marsdorf – at Köln Lindenthal Melaten. I didn’t actually plan or know that it was a cemetery until stepping through an opened gate. There a network of paths leading through grand iconographically religious graves, rich in flowers bordered profusely with trees. It was almost overwhelming. The beauty, the serenity – for the grieving, for the dead, but maybe more than just by design.

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I was completely sober at the time. Had I been drinking, maybe it would have all been too much. It felt like something profound was trying to break through to my slightly hungover psyche, and I thought if I let it I would just break down. Only the sporadic presence of other people – visitors and grounds staff – kept me on an even keel, it seemed.

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Stepping out onto a main street surrounded by students brought me back to a normal state of vigilance. Had to find somewhere for lunch, so I went back through the park I’d become familiar with. It was crowded. When I found a metal picnic bench it was too near a path – a feeling of being noticed as the loner. Eventually found a similar bench near an empty playground. Lots of people nearby, a gathering of five or more who seemed more my age. I started on the leftover vodka, listened to an Unexplained podcast, hearing about phenomena most people have hardly time to consider but enough time to dismiss.

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More relaxed now I could head back to the station. It still felt too early. Evening flights are cheaper, but it always feels like there’s so much time to kill. I never understand why most holiday travellers drag along those wheelie cases. Surely they must be restrictive. Or is there somewhere safe they leave them on that final day?

At Cologne (Köln Bonn) airport I predictably set off their version of a body-scanner, more of an arch than a chamber. This time I was only wearing shorts and a t-shirt; hardly anything metal other than a zip and button (although it could be the alien implant). Still the guy there didn’t bother with the full pat-down.

Once through I didn’t think I had a whole lot of time, and started to hurry to the gate. I needn’t have worried. A storm was forecast to approach. And about twenty minutes before the flight was due to depart, the first flash of lightning. People had already been standing in line. Then came the delay announcements. Then came the thunder. These departure areas are well soundproofed for obvious reasons, but when the storm came overhead, it was loud enough, near after the flashes of forked lightning to know that this was a serious storm! No time was given for estimated departure. People began to disperse. The storm was right overhead, with no sign of moving away. I imagined someone joking: “Is this divine punishment for one of us who has sinned?” The mind wanders with so much time. Ever waited for an indefinitely delayed flight? You feel like your sanity is becoming increasingly fragile.

Away after nearly 3hrs delay, the relief and even happiness of other passengers was palpable. Except I was faced with the sobering prospect of a long and difficult journey home. There were more delays, disruptions. To be honest, I really felt I was losing it by the time I got back to London. But I made it home eventually.

On reflection, it was a holiday I will remember fondly. I’m sure one day I’d be tempted to go back. But perhaps I should resist that temptation.

Edited version from Sin Cities: an alternative explanation of Europe, by Aiden Rykat.

Cologne, pt2

Cologne (Köln), part 1

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Cologne, pt2

 

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First day I was tired. Too hot, not enough sleep in a hotel without air-conditioning. Yet the town, especially near the water, was ok. Not the humidity you often get in Britain. Had that been so I would have truly felt unsafe to be out in the town. As it was I felt liable to some mishap. Maybe chancing a crossing, not seeing a car in time. Or more likely a bike, swerving round a corner. Something you learn to be more vigilant of in continental Europe. But funnily enough I witnessed a cyclist trying to chance a red crossing and being hooted at. And then there’s that schadenfreude and a release of tension after the shock of seeing another transgressing the seemingly orderliness of a German city, as everyone else appears to be so careful. There was one road, though, were the crossing was red but the traffic had stopped. I needed to cross but hesitated. When it turned green I started crossing, but now cars were turning towards me as if the lights were out of phase. It’s a dilemma: keep to the rules or judge safety by what is or not approaching. Generally motorists allow for this.

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I stopped at Aldi for the requisite vodka. The assistant said guten targ. I always feel there’s no point greeting in the native language if you’re not able to continue in it. With his hipster beard he looked in any case like the type who could speak good English.

Anyway a sense of relief to get back safely to the hotel ready to start on the drink. Well, I was hoping for further relief that night. Before that – as it was only about 3 or 4pm local – a chance to get some sleep. Had a few units of vodka but it still took a while to drift off but was surprised to have managed almost two hours. I often find taking more than a ten minute nap in the day not the best for mental sharpness, unless – as in this case – I was feeling totally knackered and not fit to have been out anywhere. Well, I was never expecting to be mentally sharp that night, given the level of drinking I was embarking on, but there’s drunk and there’s stupidly blind drunk – and I’ve made the mistake of being the latter too many times.

This post is an extract from Sin Cities

Sin Cities (US)

Cologne (Köln), part 1

Whenever I approach security at airports I get nervous. It’s not that I (knowingly) have anything to hide that will set off the alarm, or trigger a positive on the body-scanner, it’s just that it tends to happen anyway – as if I have an alien implant near my nether regions that had been inserted during some memory-erased abduction. Even at Stansted, where security is not quite at the paranoid levels of Gatwick or previously-mentioned German airports, I was stopped, recalled. Here we go again, I thought. Admittedly, though, I’d made the classic error of not removing my belt before the metal detector. So, belt removed along with shoes I gingerly entered the bodyscanner, then after the scan completed I noticing the woman supervisor give a muted sigh. I never get used to the pat-downs, and perhaps never will, frankly, when they’re done by a man – who I’m sure does not particularly like having to do them. I remonstrated, pointlessly of course. He pointed out on a graphic where the machine had detected this hidden alien implant, or whatever it was that’s undetectable by hand or visual inspection (though at least it didn’t get to that stage). I did actually consider the other possibility – that the bodyscanners are not as accurate as the manufacturer or airport authority claim them to be. But given how often they have gone off (it happened at Cologne) perhaps I should stick with the alien implant theory. After all, if they really were so inaccurate and unreliable there’d be more complaints, resulting in the damn things being recalled. Right?

After an only slightly delayed flight I reached the airport train station, where I was possibly robbed of an airport-priced bottle of orange drink from my rucksack holder by someone speaking to me very fast in a language I didn’t recognise. He sounded in a desperate state so would have anyway been welcome to the drink.

I should have known this but, in my tired and slightly stressed state, I didn’t feel certain. I nevertheless got on the train, asking the first passenger I passed. “This the train for Cologne central, isn’t it?” He didn’t understand the question but, fairly sure I was on the right train, I said “It’s OK. Don’t worry.” But it turns out the locals tend not to use the Anglicised name but know it as Köln, which perhaps explains why it’s difficult to find on a large-scale map, compared to neighbouring Düsseldorf. Anyway there was the automated announcement that it was the next stop, but then the guy approached me after the driver had made an announcement that the train announcement was wrong, to give me the English version. Confused? I was for a moment. People hate to have failed to be of help, as I regret putting someone in that position to fail, and so here was a chance to resolve that mutual unease. But then the driver repeated in English, so neither of us had needed to say anything in the first place. I just had a case of first-journey dubiety.

I exited Köln Hbf into a very warm early June night.

The old (central) town is not known for being cheap, but I got a reasonably priced hotel it seemed. Requested a late check-in, got a set of instructions that even the proprietor admitted seemed complicated. Standing outside the hotel, I was confronted with three unmarked buttons and two intercoms. I stared at them thinking it must be obvious which one to press, and that in my tired state I just wasn’t seeing it. A familiar scenario though. But amazingly the door buzzed open. My presence was detected.
He gave me the option: the large room with outside facilities, or small with en-suite. I chose the small room. On entering I wondered if I should have asked for specifics. Perhaps there are people of restricted growth who might have felt comforted in such extraordinarily small dimensions.

Still, I’d made it. The town that held so much promise!

An extract from Sin Cities: an alternative exploration of Europe.  SC US

Madrid, pt 2

The next morning I awoke early after a sleep-deprived night. The heat perhaps. Still tonight was going to be The Night regardless of how tired I felt, as it would be the last. I ventured onto the train to Principe Pio. A bewildering, bustling town to my tired and slightly hungover eyes. Not just me feeling disorientated: got asked for directions for which I was, unsurprisingly, no help.

There were vast walking trails through Casa de Campo. Needed to cross some busy roads to get to it.

First: lunch. A public garden – the vast grounds of a palace. I sat facing a large fountain surrounded by vivid floral colours. Very few people about. Perfect.

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Afterwards I looked for a way out that was nearest the de Campo walk. Going back through the way I entered meant a circuitous route. My map showed what looked like an exit. So I made for that end of the grounds. Unfortunately the only exit gate was locked. So back to the main entrance. And there stood what I would describe as local security personnel. The guy called me over. He spoke in Spanish, gesturing towards my bag – a flimsy little rucksack. I played incredulous, which didn’t take much acting. He jabbed at my bag still on my shoulder. Me: genuinely astonished. And making that clear. The language barrier didn’t matter now that his suspicions were made obvious. But if he really wanted to see what was in my bag but not speak English he’d have to be really explicit about it. OK, so I was tired and a bit cranky now. This security guy was becoming especially miffed, as I was voicing my astonishment that he could believe I could possibly be concealing something that would be harmful to – well, I had to give this some careful thought, as I was not (nor had any intention) of entering the central building but was heading for the exit. Had there been a report of my suspicious behaviour. Anyway, as his sign language became exaggerated to the absurd, I finally opened my bag to reveal what bit of lunch I’d saved for later and a bottle and a half (I think) of drinks. What I carried clearly wasn’t heavy or bulky. I was quite angry by this point, and he gestured for me to calm down. But that was not going to happened. It seemed as if I’d been suspected of carry explosives. And so as he led me out, his colleague arrived, who also didn’t speak a word of English. Imagine the number of English-speaking visitors to the capital of Spain, and those employed to deal with them… The British have, perhaps rightly, garnered a reputation for bad behaviour on Mediterranean holidays. Then what would be topping the list of abilities an applicant needs for the job of protecting important tourist sites? OK, so I’m labouring the point. But I was annoyed. Of course terrorists come in all shapes, sizes and colours. And maybe I do look young for my age, or I dress more as a young person. But it was odd to feel discriminated, and singled out as a suspect. Fine to be subject to that in an airport, or even upon entering a museum. You’d normally grin and bear it, right?

After explaining (pointlessly) I only wanted to get to Casa de Campo, that’s where I headed. I entered via a car park, and couldn’t seem to find an easy way to get to its tourist centre so ended up sliding down an embankment. My near-white shorts slightly tarnished, I reached the visitor centre. It was everything most people would expect: a sprinkling of cafés, fast food stands, all surrounding a large lake. Very warm, bordering on hot, there was an air of serenity. It was a separate thing from what I currently felt: still wound up, a quiet anger bubbling away. Perhaps I had been feeling somewhat keyed-up if not stressed, keeping in mind what I planned for that night. Of course there was no reason I had to have that as a plan, but it became an obsession – the thing that had to be got out of my system. Well, I guess most people have an itinerary on holiday; they set themselves a list of activities, which, if any are not achieved results in a sense of failure. Holidays have a way of making people uniquely miserable because of this. They arrive with their expectations of enhanced pleasure, where even the familiar activities – eating, going for a walk, sunbathing – have to be better there on holiday (especially anywhere more exotic than the UK, some fantasy of an idyll. Then it just takes one thing to go wrong. None such hell as paradise tainted – didn’t some wise traveller once say?). For many, so much depends on those few days, or however long; it is the escape from the banality of normal life. For me there is one unfamiliar activity that becomes the focus. And if it goes badly then I carry with me the failure until the next chance – which is often months.

After sitting facing the lake, eating the remainder of my lunch I headed out on one of the walking trails, but as I approached a sign to a metro station it seemed the sensible thing to make my way back.

I was, after all, tired. And there’d likely be plenty more walking that night.
Back at the hotel I tried to sleep. Needed to sleep. But sleep would not come. Maybe I hadn’t shed the residual anger from earlier, or some kind of apprehension about my intention for the night. Or simply the heat.

Finally after about two hours of no sleep, I resolved to go through my exercise routine, and then eat and start on the vodka.

Read the full version: SC US   SC UK

Part 1 below…

 

Madrid, part 1

Taken from Sin Cities, daytime in Spain’s capital.

Part 1:

Next morning I had to get out by 10:30 (or 9:30 UK) for the room to be cleaned. It really didn’t need cleaning, or any towels changing. But I’m British so I just accept the protocol. Got a suspicion they just wanted me out; maybe to check the room, to check I’m not in there – alive or dead. I’d already heard the busying sounds of other rooms being cleaned, anticipating a knock on my door at any moment. No surprise then, on my way out I had a slightly awkward encounter with the girl as she was pulling all her cleaning paraphernalia out of a room. I always feel lazy and mildly embarrassed in not having vacated my room before their arrival on the floor. In Hamburg that embarrassment was intensified by the mere fact of my being there.

In the local supermarket I felt again like the conspicuous tourist, struggling to find what I needed (anything vegetarian and nutritious). Too early for buying the vodka (which would have been conspicuous!) or for lugging it about, as I’d not be going back to the hotel for a while.

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I went for a walk into the hot dusty scrub-land beyond the city’s suburb. Actually there was a park near the stadium, swathes of lovely violet flowers. The sun and heat can make a lot of unexceptional things beautiful. Few people about too – and I consider that a good thing, unless I’m in the city. Here you can play spot the single lady. Only that involves no more than a furtive glance. In the city such an activity brings with it connotations of a structured mate selection with all its parameters. What I mean is you are more bound by the well-established rules of the urban environment. There is no idle glance in a shopping precinct; less so on a train. It is simply more intense, more significant, perhaps because it’s more likely to be observed by others. Here, where few pass my path, I am probably more acutely aware of being alone. Even though they say you can feel more lonely in a crowd, I think that’s only true if you visit the busy places you used to with others. As traveller in a tourist hub, I don’t allow myself the chance to feel lonely, despite being alone. There is far too much sensory information, coupled with one’s own thoughts about where to go and what to do in the next few seconds. Ah, yes, the constant planning. I hardly ever structure my day in a new city beyond finding a place to eat lunch, find the right shop to buy that bottle of vodka.

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So really I only ended up on this walk, occasionally glancing at my phone map. With so much time, you can allow yourself to become lost. Well, I ended up leaving the park trail after it became increasingly desolate and found myself on a main road near an industrial estate. Still way too early to think about heading back, I eventually found a safe place to cross over and headed towards the station I considered alighting from the previous night. This may sound silly but I wanted to prove to myself that it wouldn’t have been so bad if I had, that I could’ve walked from there to the hotel with ease (allowing for the extra weight in luggage). And it was a relatively easy journey. But of course it was daylight, I had plenty of time, with no heavy load on my back.

My memory of that evening is patchy and probably not worth recalling. Suffice to say, I bought the obligatory 70cl bottle of vodka, drank about a third of it, and stayed in my room.

Part 2 to follow soon.