Tuesday, November 23, 2010

My European Adventure - Part III: The Train Ticket Story

So who wants to hear the train ticket story?? Some of you have had the absolute pleasure of hearing me tell this story in person, so please feel free to skip this post if you want. But this story is so awesome, I am betting most of you will sit through it again....

Are we ready? Nice and comfy?

Okay, so you know how we took the train from Berlin to Amsterdam? Well we also planned to take the train from Amsterdam to Brussels 3 days later. As soon as we got off the train in Amsterdam, Dee and I booked it to the ticket counter to purchase the tickets to Brussels. We were at a smaller train station, the Amsterdam Zuid, so the ticket counter was just a little booth with two men inside. Dee and I entered in a whirlwind tizzy, dragging our suitcases behind us.

We explained to the attendant that we needed four tickets to Brussels for Thursday. Ubes and I had purchased the tickets to Amsterdam for all four of us, so Dee was going to pay for the tickets to Brussels. Except she had a limited amount of cash and the guy behind the counter said we could not pay with a credit card. The tickets were 160 Euro, so Dee and I split it and agreed to work out the details later.

I watched Ticket Guy put two pieces of paper in a red envelope and slide it across the counter to me. I grabbed the envelope and walked out, leaving Dee at the counter waiting for her tickets. I handed the red envelope to Ubes, asking him to put it in my backpack so I wouldn't lose them.

Fast forward three days.... We got up early Thursday morning. We planned to check out of the hotel, grab a quick breakfast and head to the train station to catch the next train to Brussels. According to Ticket Guy, a train left every hour. So before we went down to the lobby to check out, I went through my checklist: Passport, wallet, iPod, camera . . . train tickets.

I pulled the red envelope out of my backpack for the first time since I purchased the tickets. I opened the envelope and pulled out the two pieces of paper.

Wait a minute.

What is this?

These do not look like train tickets. They look like a photocopy of . . . something that sort of looks like a train ticket. All of the train tickets I have ever had before looked like boarding passes for an airplane. The same size, color, etc. This looked nothing like the train tickets I was used to.


I opened the envelope again. Empty.

I opened my Kipling backpack and peered into it. I started pulling out everything. Magazines, brochures of museums, my travel wallet, camera case, my jewelry pouch, the clear cosmetic bag I used for chapstick, tylenol, hand sanitizer and gum, my book. I opened up all the magazines and shook them out, then did the same for the museum brochures, I sorted through receipts, scrap papers, napkins, etc. I went through my wallet, too.

Nothing. No train tickets.

I went through my suitcase, pulled everything out and sorted through our travel books and all the documents we brought with us with all of our flight and hotel info. Nothing.

I asked Uberman if he had opened the envelope and he said no. He had put it in my backpack and that was the last he had seen it. I sat on the floor of our hotel room thinking. I started feeling sick to my stomach. I had never opened the red envelope. It had been sitting in my backpack in the room since we arrived. I walked three doors down the hall to Kenny and Dee's room and knocked on the door.

Dee answered quickly. "We are almost ready," she said. "We'll meet you in the lobby."

"Is this what your train tickets look like?" I asked her and showed her the pieces of paper I had.

"I haven't looked at them," she said. "I have to find my envelope. I honestly thought you had all of them."

"No," I told her. "I only got mine. I thought he gave you yours separately in another envelope."

"I don't remember," she said. "I'm sure I have them. I'll dig them out and show them to you in the lobby."

I walked back to our room. Something wasn't right. I could feel it.

Ubes and I went down to the lobby, where I proceeded to argue with the girl at the front desk about a 30 Euro telephone charge we did not make. Finally she agreed to remove the charge from our bill, and I had the great big giant coconut balls to pull out the red envelope and ask "Can I ask you a question? Do these look like train tickets to you??"

Front Desk girl looked at the photo copies and immediately made a face.

"No," she said, her Dutch accent was faint. "Those are not tickets. They are photocopy of receipts for reservation."


Dee came into the lobby with a panicked look on her face. "I don't have a red envelope, April," she told me. "I looked everywhere. I don't think he gave me one." We had been teasing Dee the entire trip about her George Costanza wallet. It was stuffed so fat with papers and receipts. We had watched her go through it a million times trying to find her public transport tickets that she thought she had lost every time we were getting on a subway or bus. I rolled my eyes at her thinking to myself "Oh my God this girl loses EVERYTHING!"

I looked back at Front Desk girl. "What do you think we should do? We purchased tickets, I don't think he gave them to us."

"Do you have your credit card receipt?" she asked.

"No," I said. "He said we had to pay cash."

She immediately made a face that made my heart fall into my stomach.

"That's very odd," she told me. "I don't understand why you had to pay cash."

"Great," Dee said. "He screwed us!"

"No," I said. I was getting irritated. "Let's stay positive. We'll figure this out. We have to."

Front Desk girl spent about ten minutes trying to make phone calls for us, but couldn't get any answers. Finally she advised us to go to Centraal Station, the main station in Amsterdam and plead our case to the Euro Rail people.

"We didn't purchase the tickets at Centraal Station," Deanna told her. "We purchased them at Zuid."

"Centraal is bigger," Front Desk girl said. "You might have more luck getting help because there are more agents there."

"And if they can't help us?" I asked.

Front Desk girl looked at us and shook her head. "Then I am sorry. You might be fucked."

I looked at Dee with my eyes wide. "Did she just say . . ."

"Yes," Dee nodded. "She said we are fooooked."

Kenny and Ubes were sitting in the lobby shaking their heads. I could tell we were all on edge about his, all of us worrying we had been taken advantage of. Ubes and Dee both wanted to go back to Zuid because that's where we purchased the tickets, but I thought Front Desk girl might know what she was talking about and insisted we go to Centraal Station because it was bigger. So off we went, the four of us, again dragging our suitcases behind as we rushed off to catch a tram to Centraal Station.

Centraal Station is huge. Enormous. Busy and full of people. We were directed to the Euro Rail area and were still stunned to walk into a GINORMOUS waiting area where we were given a ticket and told to have a seat until our number was called. It was basically just like the DMV. Fifty million people waiting around for their number to pop up on TV screen. They were on number A34. Our ticket was C53. Awesome.

We sat for what seemed like forever, but was more like 45 minutes. Finally our number popped up and Dee and I rushed to the counter with our number flashing above it.

The woman at the counter stood in front of us, sipping a cup of coffee and looking totally uninterested as we showed her the red envelope and told her our story.

"Why did you pay cash?" she asked between gulps.

"He told us we had to," I told her. She rolled her eyes and waved her hand dismissively.

"Why didn't you check the envelope before you left the station?"

"I didn't know to do that, ma'am. I am sorry but we don't travel by train in America. We have never had this problem before. I saw him put these slips of paper in the envelope and I just trusted he did his job." I was doing my best to hold it together. To stay positive and to stay polite.

She rolled her eyes again and sighed heavily. "Wait here," she snapped. And walked off.

"She's not going to help us," Dee said. "I mean look at her. She doesn't care. She's more interested in her coffee."

We waited. And waited. And waited. Finally she came back.

"I'm sorry," she said. "You have to go back to Zuid."

Dee glared at me.

"Ma'am," I took a deep breath. "We have to go back to our husbands and tell them we have wasted our entire morning and now have to go back to Zuid. When they originally wanted to go to Zuid but we were told you could help us here because there were more ticket agents. Please promise this is going to end in our favor."

She smiled at me, finally showing a touch of empathy. "I'm sorry. But they sold you the tickets, they are the only people who can figure out what happened to them. I am not sure if they will be able to help you, but because you didn't buy the tickets here, there isn't anything else we can do for you. They are waiting, they know you are coming."

Ubes and Kenny were PISSED. And everyone was losing faith this situation was going to end without us shelling out more money for more tickets. We rode the Metro in silence to Zuid. I felt nervous and sick, but still wanted to believe we could work this out. When we arrived at the ticket counter, I was so excited to see Ticket Guy, the same ticket guy, already waiting for us.

"Hi!" I called to him. "You sold us tickets on Monday, to Brussels. Do you remember us?"

"Yes, of course," he said. He looked nervous. We explained the issue to him, that we did not have the tickets, that we didn't think he put them in the envelope. He went through his process for us.

"I print the tickets and then I staple them to the receipt. I fold them together and stick them in the envelope," he said.

"We don't have anything that looks like a ticket," Dee told him. "What does a ticket look like?"

He picked one up from his work station. It was a small gold colored card, about the size of a credit card, maybe a little bigger. I had never seen anything in all of my belongings that looked like that.

"We don't have them," I said, shaking my head. "And there are no staple marks in the receipt." He pulled a report to make sure he printed the tickets. The report indicated the tickets had been printed. He made some phone calls to see if loose tickets had been turned in anywhere.

"Can't you just reprint the tickets?" I asked.

"No," he said. "I am sorry. That is not a possibility." We were starting to get upset. Frustrated. Irritated. A supervisor came over to find out what all the fuss was about. He explained to her in Dutch that were stupid and were accusing him of swindling us. I don't know if that is what he really said, but I don't speak Dutch so I am just guessing.

She turned to us and made some snippy comment about them not being responsible if we lost the tickets. By this point I was pissed.

"We didn't lose the tickets," I glared at her. "You didn't give them to us."

Kenny jumped up and turned to Ticket Guy.

"Sir," he said in his nicest Reasonable Guy voice. "She has looked through all of her stuff. We don't have the tickets. We have spent the entire morning trying to deal with this. We had our hotel calling for us. We went to Centraal Station and waited there, they sent us back here. We would not be wasting your time and our time and our entire day if we had the tickets. Please. Is there anything you can do?"

Ticket Guy got on the phone again and started speaking Dutch. Dee, Kenny and I crowded at the counter watching him. Ubes sat in a chair with his head in his hands. The minutes ticked by. It was almost 1:00 in the afternoon. We had wasted our entire day dealing with this. Ticket Guy kept talking on the phone, waving his hands and looking frustrated.

"I don't think he is going to be able to help us," I said. "We are going to have to buy our tickets again. And now they are a lot more money."

"April, you checked your backpack, right?" Kenny asked.

"Yes!" I snapped at him. "I emptied the whole thing. I don't have them."

"Maybe you should check again," Kenny said.

"Ken! I checked it!" I was totally exasperated.

Kenny looked at me and said firmly, "Check it again. Please."

I rolled my eyes and stalked away, exhaling loudly. I threw my backpack on the chair next to Ubes and shot Kenny a dirty look as I opened it. I started pulling everything out. My wallet, camera, magazines, cosmetic bag. The only thing left at the bottom was my book, The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo. Have you seen the paperback version of this book? It's yellow.

Almost goldish.

The color of train tickets.

And if there had not been a light, directly over my head, shining down into the depths of my black Kipling backpack . . . I never would have seen the light reflecting off the tiny corners of four gold train tickets sticking out of the book.

I stood. Frozen. Staring down into the backpack.

Briefly contemplating whether or not I should just throw everything back into the backpack and say "Nope. Don't have them."

But Ubes, sitting next to me, immediately reacted to my silence. He looked up at me, and he knew. He could see my face was completely white.

"Son of a bitch," he said quietly as he put his head back in his hands.

I reached into the backpack and pulled the tickets out of my book. I held them above my head and looked sheepishly over at Ken and Dee. Ken just turned around and wouldn't look at me. Dee looked like she was going to bust a gasket.

"Get over here!" she yelled through clenched teeth. In the 25 years I have known her, I have never seen her so angry. Kenny took a deep breath, banged his fist on the counter and said quietly, "Let's go."

He grabbed his suitcase and walked out of the ticket area, Dee and Ubes following him, me sulking behind them.

Ticket Guy followed us out the door breathing a huge sigh of relief.

"I am so happy you found them!" he said, wiping sweat from his brow. "I didn't know how to tell you you would have to buy new tickets." We all talked over each other, apologizing.

"I'm so, so very sorry," I told him, blinking back my tears. "I am so embarrassed. Really. Humiliated. They must have fallen out of the envelope and slipped into my book. I don't know. I am just really, really sorry."

"It's no problem," he laughed. "I am just so relieved. I felt so badly for you. Can I buy you a cup of coffee?"

We laughed, all of us in shock that he was being so kind to us after all of that. We politely declined his offer and asked him to direct us to the next train. Then we hauled ass to the boarding area.

I was devastated. Embarrassed. I wanted the floor to swallow me whole. I could not believe what I had just put everyone through. Especially after I INSISTED I did NOT have the tickets. We stood in silence, waiting to board the train as I contemplated throwing myself in front of it. We got on the train, and to my horror, discovered we were sitting in a foursome of seats with a table in the middle, two sets of seats facing each other. Awesome. No avoiding them. Super.

We sat down, taking off coats and scarves and digging out reading material and iPods. Ubes leaned back and closed his eyes, Dee started flipping through a magazine, and I stared out the window, feeling like a complete moron. I was exhausted and humiliated. I couldn't stop the tears from flowing down my cheeks. Kenny reached across the table and took my hands.

"Sweetie," he said. "Tell me the exact thing that went through your mind the moment you saw the tickets in your bag. Walk me through everything that you felt." He smiled his big smile at me, sticking his tongue out a little so I knew he was teasing me.

"It's too soon Kenny," I shook my head and sniffled. "I don't want to talk about it."

All three of them giggled a bit. Dee waved her hand absently at me as she flipped pages in her magazine. "Aw, it was no big deal," she said. "It could have happened to any of us."

Five minutes before, they wanted to kill me. And now it was funny and no big deal. But it wasn't funny to me.

It's hilarious now. But I was the only one not laughing then. But we are family. One minute we want to kill each other . . . and the next we are on a train to Belgium talking about waffles and beer and how lucky we are to be on such an adventure together.

But needless to say I'm not allowed to hold the train tickets anymore....

Friday, November 19, 2010

My European Adventure - Part II: Amsterdam

We arrived in Amsterdam Monday afternoon after a 6 hour train ride. I was completely overwhelmed by this city as soon as we left the train station. The traffic, the bicyclers, the amount of people.... It was a lot to take in all at once.

I guess I had just pictured quiet little canal streets like this:

And to be fair, there were plenty of those. But I wasn't prepared for how congested the city was. I mean as soon as you step off the train there are sights and sounds . . . and smells.... It can be overstimulating to an exhausted traveller.

Our hotel was located in Leidseplein, which is a busy and lively area. We got a little lost trying to find it at first, which is very easy to do, so wandering aimlessly, dragging my luggage behind, was not making me feel less anxious. But needless to say, we found the hotel, got checked in and immediately went back out to explore our new city.

We spent the afternoon and early evening wandering the streets, walking in and out of shops, and of course, trying to avoid death by bicycler. We ended the night with a stroll through the red light district. Which in all honesty, was no big deal. Just a bunch of slightly unattractive older women sitting in a window in their underwear looking bored and underwhelmed. I personally think most of them could use a Zig Ziglar course in effective sales techniques, but whatever.

The next day we visited the Anne Frank House, the Dutch Resistance Museum and the Jewish History Museum. I have wanted to see the Anne Frank House since I was 13 years old. Although it was a very moving experience being there, and reading everything her father Otto went through to open the Museum in her honor, I was a little disappointed in the bookstore. The store carried the Diary of Anne Frank in every possible language, as well as other versions of the story, including a comic book. Really? A comic book? I don't know. It just felt icky.

My favorite by far was the Jewish History Museum. I loved every single thing about this amazing place. It walked you through a history of the religion and explained the persecution these people have gone through for thousands of years. I am so fascinated by other cultures and religions, so this museum really spoke to me. But Uberman said we could not convert because of that teeny tiny detail about believing Jesus is the son of God. Bummer.

Regardless, I think everyone should live by the words above. Your life should have meaning. Make each moment count. And do your part to make the world a better place. These words stuck with me. Our last day in Amsterdam was spent touring the Heineken Museum and walking along the canals.

And looking at all of the bicycles...

And admiring the architecture...
When we first arrived, I think I judged Amserdam too harshly. I was so overwhelmed, I allowed the chaos to cloud my view of this city. But it was beautiful. My favorite part was walking along the canals at night. I loved how peaceful and elegant this crazy, bustling town became.

I am sad we missed out on the amazing art museums this city had to offer. But we'll go back... Some day....

Thursday, November 18, 2010

My Eurpoean Adventure - Part I: Berlin

When I was a little girl, I used to dream of seeing the world. I would sit on the floor of my room paging through a world atlas, looking at all the countries I wanted to visit. I spent hours reading about the history and different cultures. I made lists. Lists upon lists upon lists of cities and sights. Of foods that I would try. Of souvenirs I would buy. I could hardly stand it.
My great aunt Rosie was a fortune teller. She used to read our palms when we were little. We would sit around her feet, my cousins and I, and hold our palms out to her and beg her to tell us about our futures. I'll never forget her holding my hand in her hers, tracing a line in my palm with her long red fingernail. She would look at me and smile as she squeezed my hand in hers.
"You are going to travel the world, my girl," she said. "You are going to have many adventures. And you will marry a man who loves you with his whole heart."
Now that I am a grown up, I am not sure if she was just telling me what she thought I needed to hear, or what she really believed to be true. But her words have stayed with me for my entire life. And I think about her every time I am standing in front of one of the many sights I couldn't wait to see.
A few weeks ago, the man who loves me with his whole heart took me on an exciting adventure to Berlin, Amsterdam and Brussels.
The funny thing is, never in a million years did I ever want to go to Berlin. I thought it was like the Detroit of Europe. And I mean no offense to anyone from the greater Detroit area. I just mean that I always envisioned it to be depressing. Growing up during the time when communism was the overwhelming threat of the world, the images we saw of Berlin were the wall, armed soldiers and sad people. It just looked so grey and industrial.
Needless to say, Berlin surprised me. In the absolute best of ways.
Does this look depressing, grey and industrial? No. I think not.
We arrived on a Friday morning and stayed until Monday. We spent three nights at Pension Peters. The hotel was amazing. It was more like a bed and breakfast. Each room was "pristine clean" as Kenny says, and the whole place had a comfortable, homey feel. Breakfast came with price of the room, and it was always delicious. The location could not have been more perfect. We were within walking distance of the main shopping street, Kuhrf├╝rstendam, or KuDam as the locals call it.
This street was full of fabulous shops and cafes, and of course chic, beautiful people. Europe is supposedly experiencing many of the same economic troubles we are here in America. We saw no evidence of this on the KuDam. It was a whole bunch of ooh la la's.
On Saturday we took a walking tour of the major historical sites of the city. We saw the Berliner Dom . . .
the Reichstag (German Parliament)(and FYI, the dome is clear at the top to give you not only a beautiful view of the city, but also a view into the main hall of parliament. It is a reminder to the people of Germany to keep an eye on their government leaders) . . .
Humboldt University (Albert Einstein taught here, and also the site where the Nazis burned more than 20,000 books in 1933. Now there is a used book sale every weekend across the street at one of the other university buildings) . . .
Checkpoint Charlie (I was so disappointed in this. I thought it was real, but it's not. It's all for show and all touristy. They should just take it down instead of leaving it as such a joke). . .
the Wall . . .
the site of Hitler's bunker (I can understand why they didn't keep the bunker, but build apartments and a parking lot on top of it?). . .
the Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe (the bottom picture is my favorite. I loved how peaceful it was inside the memorial and how every block was a different size and none of them were perfect. Deep inside the memorial you felt very alone, but you could always see there was a way out. I'm not one of those people who appreciates modern art, but the meaning behind this memorial was so moving. . .)
and the Brandenburg Gate.
Sunday we took off on our own and explored Potsdamer Platz, the Pergamon Museum and the German Historical Museum. I think this was my favorite day. We just kind of walked around on our own time schedule and took in everything there was to see...

Coming from a city with no change of seasons, this was breathtaking. I loved the smell of the leaves and the way they crunched under my feet. If this is what fall looks like to you, you are so lucky.

.This is me (on the right) and Dee (on the left) walking along the river Spree to Museum Island. It was cold but we were so happy to see the beautiful fall colors.

Berlin was amazing and my most favorite city of the three we visited. Walking back to the hotel Sunday night, I felt sad that we were leaving so soon. I absolutely can't wait to go back.

I left a little piece of my heart Unter Den Linden.

Tuesday, November 2, 2010

Guess who's on vacay???

So I totally planned on doing NaBloPoMo again this year and I blew it. But I have a good excuse. I am currently in Amsterdam!!

We left 10/28 for Berlin and were there for three days before moving on to Amsterdam on 11/1. Day after tomorrow we head to Brussels. We are having an incredible time with Dee and Kenny. The "that's what she said" count is in the high thirties and I have only almost peed my pants four times.

In other news, I have lots of items to check off my bucket list. I feel very lucky. And lucky to be alive. Amsterdam is a straight up freakshow, y'all. I have almost died at least 7 times. No joke. Either by train, crazy bicycle rider, freakishly steep-ass stair cases, or abnormally uneven cobblestone streets. I am certain I will meet my death in one embarrassing way or another.

And even worse, I'll die with bad hair. The weather in Amsterdam is drizzly and cold. My fine, limp hair is not amused. And I feel frumpy enough. The women here are beautiful!

Oh and did I tell you I almost slipped on a used condom in the park? Yeah. That happened. Totally want to burn my new boots. And possibly even my feet. At least the bottoms. They'll heal, right?

I promise to upload photos when I get home. I can't do it now because I am stupid and don't know how. Oh how I wish I were kidding.