Seeing Berlin with Sandeman

We slept late the next morning, and took our time waking up and preparing tea. There were only a few biscuits left from the day before that we made our very meager breakfast. Neither of us felt any real urgency to get the day started. Peter would be at work until that afternoon, and there was nothing Mom and I had our hearts set on seeing that day. Without Peter we felt rather lost. He had, however, mentioned a “free” walking tour that took you around a bit of the city and showed you some of the bigger landmarks and tourist hotspots.

We were too late for the 11 o’clock group so we planned to get a late breakfast and catch the 2 o’clock group instead. After getting cleaned and dressed we walked through the park to the bahnhof and took the U-Bahn into town. We got off at the Brandenburg Gate. It was from here the tour would be leaving. Before we went off to find breakfast, we found the red umbrella that marked the ticket line. We waited our turn and got our numbered tickets before we started walking down the street looking for a place to eat breakfast.

Unlike Fort Collins, and Edinburgh to a degree, Berlin did not have a coffee shop every ten feet. There were, however, two or three within a few minutes of the Gate. I made some arbitrary decision as to which one looked best. A minute later we were walking into Einstein’s Koffee. The place was alive with early morning energy…or was it the lunch rush by then? Anyway, Mom and I stood in the doorway for a few minutes, scoping the place out and looking for a table. There was no hostess stand and no one approached us to seat us. Mom tried to ask someone how things were supposed to go but she didn’t really get an answer. So as soon as we saw a table open up we snagged it.

The dishes from the last customers were still on the table. It took several minutes for our waitress to come and clear them and bring us menus. She seemed to be having a bit of a day so I wasn’t going to hold it against her or give her a hard time (something I rarely do anyway). At one point she came over and said something to us in German. Mom responded with a friendly, “Okay.” As soon as the waitress was out of range, I looked at Mom incredulously. “You have no idea what she just said. And you agreed to it.” There were only so many things she could have said, of course, given the situation, but it was just funny to so readily agree to something you couldn’t understand.

The menu at Einstein’s was not the least bit vegan friendly so we went with a Parisian breakfast. If you’re not familiar with the Parisian breakfast it is basically bread, bread, and more bread…and some jam. Mom got tea while I ordered hot chocolate, which was served in the most unusual way. It was a three-part deal. There was an empty cup on a saucer along with a saucer for the whipped cream, and the actual chocolate itself in a small porcelain pitcher. It was still delicious but just came with more parts than I was used to.

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The breakfast was enough to keep us full through the tour, but after two hours of walking we were going to be ready for more. We paid and left Einstein’s, heading back to the Brandenburg Gate with a few minutes to spare before our tour would begin. There was a sort of plaza in front of the Gate, and we had been told to meet there for the start of our tour.

In twos and threes and fours people began to congregate on the plaza. A man in a tan coat came over with the red umbrella we had seen early to indicate the meeting place. Soon another man joined the group, a tall fellow with brown hair and a knee brace. This was Paul and he would be our guide. He said a few words about the time span of the tour as well as how much walking would be involved. He welcomed questions at any time and gave a short list of some of the places we’d be seeing. After that we were off.

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We crossed to the left side of the street and moved a bit closer to the Brandenburg Gate. This was our first stop. Paul started to tell us about the history of the Gate as well as that of the statue perched high atop the columned structure. At the same time, a man at the center of the plaza began giving a speech through a loud speaker. This made it rather difficult to make out all that Paul was saying about the Gate. Talk about bad timing, eh? Some big marathon was taking place the following day so there were all sorts of pre-marathon events going on the day of our tour.

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Here’s something I do remember Paul telling us. The Gate used to be a symbol of a divided Berlin. From here, citizens of East Berlin could catch a glimpse of the world outside their own, see that there was still light on the other side of the Iron Curtain. The Gate’s meaning changed after the reunification of the city, shifting from one of division to one of unity. It has undergone a couple restorations and reconstructions, both after the War and after it was officially opened to traffic in December of 1989.

The Quadriga sitting at the top of the Gate is a representation of the Goddess of Victory. Originally it had been Eirene, the Goddess of Peace. But then the statue was stolen in 1806 as a Napoleonic spoil of war. After its recovery in 1814 it underwent a redesign, a task undertaken by Karl Friedrich Schinkel. The Brandenburg Gate now serves as a Prussian triumphal arch, with the Goddess Victoria, equipped with eagle and iron cross, looking down from on high.

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After the Brandenburg Gate my order of events goes out the window so I’ll just tell you about the things I remember. We left the Gate, and the annoyingly loud presenter, behind. Go figure that once we left he finished speaking and silence reigned again on the plaza. C’est la vie. We moved into a part of the city where the buildings lining either side of the street were much closer together compared to the large open area in front of the Gate. Throughout the tour Paul continued to point out to us the two-wide strip of bricks set in the pavement that marked the location of the Wall. It ran throughout the city wherever segments of the Wall no longer stood.

We stopped at a small square of grass just outside an ordinary strip of apartment buildings. This, Paul told us, was were Hitler’s bunker was located, the very one where he killed himself, his wife killed herself, and I’m pretty sure he also killed his dog there. Hitler wanted to make sure he was good and dead so not only did he ingest a cyanide capsule but he also shot himself in the head immediately after taking it. One of Hitler’s fears was what would happen to his body were it found by the Allied Forces, so he gave orders for his men to destroy his body once he was dead and make sure it wouldn’t be found. His men did succeeded in burning Hitler and his wife’s bodies, and then buried them in a shell crater. However, in early May, the remains were discovered by the Soviet Army and moved, one of many relocations to corpse would experience.

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We turned up more streets, visiting former Nazi buildings, seeing various embassies, including the U.S, U.K, Russian and French ones. We took a stop at the Gendarmenmarkt, one of Berlin’s most well known squares. It boasts a trio of beautifully constructed buildings. Two cathedrals, one French and the other German, flank the square and at its center is Schinkel’s Konzerthaus, or concert hall, if you couldn’t guess. The square was part of King Friedrick the first’s plan for the emerging quarter of Berlin called Friedrickstadt. Today it plays host to a Christmas market and ice rink from the first of Advent to the New Year.

We traded one square for another as we walked to the university and the long rectangular plaza where the book burnings took place. This stop had particular significance to me. I’ve made clear my love of books and the written world throughout my journey. To stand on those stones and think of all the pages that shriveled and burned at the hands of madmen struck me at my core. Today, it is a place of learning and knowledge, and to see that gave me hope that with time we could overcome our troubles and misunderstanding and live together in some semblance of harmony.

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A memorial to the books lost had been constructed in the square. The memorial was inaugurated in March of 1995, and is the creation of Israeli artist Micha Ullman. The piece is called “Library.” If you weren’t looking, you would miss it. It is hidden underground and can only be seen from the surface through a small, square window. There were shelves. Enough shelves to hold up to 20,000 books. The same number of books burned by the Nazi’s in 1933. The works of journalists, philosophers, writers and scientists were burned for the mere fact they threatened the Nazi ideology; they were burned for how they “undermine the moral and religious foundations of our nation” and because they acted against the German sprit.

It was a terrible thing to do, and I think the quotation set into a bronze plaque at the memorial sums it up best.

That was only a prelude, there


where they burn books,


they burn in the end people.

-
Heinrich Heine 1820

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Let’s move on to something less depressing, shall we? My favorite thing on the tour is a toss up between the site of the book burning and the memorial to the Jewish people murdered during the war. Did I say less depressing? I lied. I did a bit of reading on the memorial once I returned home and found that there is a good deal of controversy surrounding it. Half of the people that visit seem to be disappointed by it, not really understanding what it is supposed to mean or represent. Others find it is a disrespectful way to honor the lives that were lost and think it could’ve been done better. Still others find it moving and thought provoking.

The memorial sits on a plot of land not far from the Brandenburg Gate, and is located right in the city administrative centre. It is constructed completely of large gray slabs of concrete set up in a grid pattern. Every slab had the same dimensions, varying only in height as they move down the slopping plane. The area lacks any sort of symbolism or marker as to what it is. To the uninformed observer it is just a field of 2,711 gray rectangles in the middle of Berlin. After picturing this scene in your head you can maybe see why some people have a dislike for the memorial.

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The memorial’s architect, Peter Eisenman, says that the pillars are designed in a way meant to create an uneasy and confusing atmosphere, with the aim of the entire sculpture being to represent a supposedly ordered system that has lost touch with human reason. That is not how my experience of the memorial started. On the outer edges, where the blocks are set low and the air around you is clear and open, the place feels like a picnic spot or a very unimaginative playground. People were all about, sitting on blocks, have a quick bite; children were climbing on the blocks. Then I began to descend.

Paul set us loose in the pillars, saying we would meet up on the other side. I drifted away from Mom, trying to find isolation where I could in the crowded memorial. The ground slipped away so subtly I didn’t really become aware of it until the shadows began to press in around me. The air grew colder the lower I went. People suddenly began to disappear. All I could catch were brief glimpses of them as the appeared from behind one block and vanished behind another. I flinched whenever I nearly bumped into someone around a corner.

I kept turning, never walking in a straight line for very long. The pillars towered overhead. Many were streaked with thin tendrils of moisture, some faint, just ghosts in the concrete, others dark like blood from a freshly cut wound. I wasn’t entirely sure what I had felt down in the maze, I’m still not really sure today. The whole place had the feeling of a graveyard, the pillars great stone coffins set on top of the earth rather than buried below it. It was disorienting, unnerving, the way people were there one second and gone the next. The progression down to the bottom of the hill and back up again felt like the rising and fallings of life itself. And always hanging in the back of my mind was the great loss this place represented, the stinging injustice that is still felt today. People can think what they want, that was Eisenman’s intent when he built the thing, but I will always remember the profound effect it had on me.

The tour ended on Museum Island, which is exactly what it sounds like. It is home to a collection of five world-renowned museums. Mom and I wanted to visit the Pergamon museum, home of the Market Gate of Miletus, an ancient city that existed in what is now Turkey. This giant marble gateway was excavated in 1903 and piece-by-piece brought to Berlin where a building was quite literally built around it. Sadly, we were there just before it was about to close for a five-year renovation, and we didn’t have enough time to get there after the tour finished. Guess we’ll just have to come back in five years! The island is also home to the Berlin cathedral, a massive stone building accentuated with soft teal statues and domes and topped with a gleaming gold spire atop the highest dome.

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Paul gave his last history lesson before thanking us all for choosing Sandeman’s Tours. After a quick round of applause the group dispersed. A few people stayed to ask Paul some questions or say their thanks. Mom and I pulled out about 15 euro to give Paul and we said our thanks as well and how much we enjoyed the tour. We stepped away from what was left of the tour group, and a minute later Peter called. He would be leaving work shortly and wanted to see where we were. I told him we had just finished up on Museum Island, and that we were both ready for a good meal. We made plans to meet at this street market that was roughly half way between ResearchGate and Museum Island, and from there we would head to Burrito Baby.

With one last look at the behemoth buildings all around us, we left the island and walked the few blocks to our meeting place. The afternoon was slipping away into evening. The many buildings were splitting the rays of the sun, and most of its light was muted, setting the streets in a dull gray light. This made the market place a bit of a shock when we finally turned the corner on it. It was contained within a moderately sized square and flanked by rows of retail shops. Most of the stalls were constructed of sturdy looking wood and each was filled with a multitude of items. Some had fudge, others had strands and strands of kielbasa and other meats; there was also popcorn and other stalls with knickknacks and trinkets of all kinds. At the center of it all was a fountain we could only see parts of, and bright yellow lights hung over the whole scene. It was a splash of vibrant color and sounds after a drab street canvas.

Mom and I crossed to the far side of the square to a couple of steps outside the entrances to the adjacent shops. It was nice to sit after those long hours of walking on pavement. I passed the time waiting for Peter to arrive watching people come and go and half listening to the conversations of people sitting nearby. I was mid-zone when Peter swept in from my peripheral vision on a city bike and hopped off the petals to a stop in front of us. We walked back the way we had come so Peter could return his bike before we all boarded the U-Bahn.

We took seats (if we could find them), and Peter commented his surprise that the tour had taken us so long. Paul had mentioned he had gone a bit long by taking us onto the actual island but the timing seemed to have worked out well. If it had been any shorter, we would’ve been waiting that much longer for Peter to get off work. The train started to move. Peter nudged my shoulder and pointed down the length of the train. I leaned forward to look. The other day Peter had mentioned there was a train that wasn’t made up of separated cars but instead was one long continuous car. This made for a very mesmerizing U-Bahn experience. You can look down the center aisle and watch the whole train bend and curve with the tunnel. I know, doesn’t sound that great but it is actually a very neat sight.

After the train ride we walked through darkened Berlin streets to the second tiny restaurant I visited during my stay. Burrito Baby was bigger then Oases by far but it still didn’t allow for a whole lot of patrons to sit in and eat. Seating wouldn’t have been a big deal if it was just Mom, Peter, and me, but we were also meeting up with Peter’s friend Emma. It was probably a good thing his friend Jakob couldn’t meet up with us until later or one of us would’ve had to stand and eat.

It turned out a couple of people were leaving just after we ordered so we snagged their booth and an unused seat from another table and squeezed ourselves in. Emma showed up a few minutes after we did and Peter introduced us. I, and Mom to a degree, was rather quiet both before and after the food arrived. This was mostly due to fatigue. All we’d had to eat that day was our Parisian breakfast. Peter and Emma were chatting about this and that, so I was happy to just listen while Mom asked the occasional question.

Once I had a burrito in my hands all bets on talking were off. Peter had wanted to bring us here, one, because he said it had fantastic food and two, because it was vegan friendly. It was a good burrito. I kind of wished I had been paying more attention as I shoved it into my face. I’m not a foodie by any means, so I wouldn’t have gotten that detailed about a burrito any way, but it was just what I needed that day. When we were all finished we stood up to pay then filed out onto the sidewalk.

Peter was back on his phone trying to get in touch with Jakob and see where he was. He turned out to not be that far away so we waited around outside Burrito Baby until he showed up. It couldn’t have been more than a few minutes we stood waiting but it was chilly that night and my long sleeved shirt and zip-up hoodie weren’t quite doing the trick. At last a lone figure in a gray jacket appeared down the sidewalk. We had introductions again and quick deliberations about where to go get a drink before setting off. Mom and I, being the foreigners as it were, were simply along for the ride.

Don’t ask me what the place was called. It was a bar, that’s all I know. We grabbed a table that was a bit closer to the door than I might have liked, and of course I took the seat closest to the door, but it wasn’t bad unless someone came in and didn’t pull the door shut behind them. Thank goodness for Jakob. He was very good about getting up and closing it when the new arrivals didn’t. Drinking in a new place, even drinking at home to an extent, is always a bit of an adventure. You have no idea what the beer is like or how good a brewery is. Heck, I couldn’t even pronounce half of the drink list!

All the beer was fine though. Peter is my fellow beer enthusiast, so if he was drinking it, it wasn’t going to be that bad a beer. It was a night out very much like a night out at home would be. We sipped our drinks and talked and laughed a cheers’d, only in Germany you say “prost.” Some live music started in a side room a short while after we arrived. We could hear snippets of it drift out the slender entryway and over the chatter of the bar. The first round was finished and Mom and I found ourselves scrapping for more cash. We managed some but Peter offered to spot us the money for a couple more drinks.

I hadn’t thought about how many beers I’d actually had until Jakob commented that I didn’t seem that drunk. I remembered then that I was drinking much closer to sea level. Had I drunk as much back home I would’ve been too far-gone to drive or walk very straight. Regardless of my newfound drinking abilities, I didn’t have more than three drinks, though a couple of them were larger than your typical pours back home.

The night was going just fine up until the moment I had to go to the bathroom. Going to the bathroom in a new place always give me a bit of anxiety but going in a place where I felt sure I wouldn’t see “Men” and “Women” on each respective door was even worse. The only person I could admit my fear to was Mom. Luckily, she had already gone so she had the scene scoped out. I tapped her leg under the table, leaned over and admitted my rather silly concern. She laughed, of course, that was fair and expected. She told me it was the door on the right. Now that I was prepared, I could walk to the bathroom in confidence.

Apparently, though, my brain was just drunk enough that I decided to make something that should’ve been easy and straight forward complicated again. As soon as I was outside the two doors, my brain whispered in my ear, ‘Did she mean right when you’re facing the doors or when you’re facing away? Eek!’ So I opened the one on the left. Fortunately no one was in there. I came face to face with a sink, a stall, and a urinal so I was pretty confident that wasn’t the right one (ha, get it?). I moved over to the door on the right, just like Mom had said. I looked down and noticed, among lots of other graffiti, large blue letters spelling out “Boys fuck everything up.” How did I not realize that was the women’s bathroom?

With that crisis dealt with, I returned to the table with a happy bladder. When one in the morning began creeping closer we decided it was best to leave the bar and move in the direction of bed. We parted ways with Jakob at the bar. His night was going to continue. The four of us walked towards the U-Bahn station. Conversation had all but died out on the journey home. We said our goodbyes when our stop came up and wearily shuffled the short distance back to the flat.

~Ren

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Four Day Berlin Dance Party! Go!

(Okay, we didn’t really have a four day Berlin dance party. It’s just a funny thing I recall Peter saying once. Oh, Peter…here’s what really happened.)

Getting packed and out the door the next morning was a seamless process. Most everything had been put away last night so it was really just a matter of getting dressed. Rhona was up early for work so we got to say our goodbyes to her before we tiptoed down the steps and out the front door to the waiting taxi. The driver got out and helped us with our luggage before we all piled into the car and headed off.

The Glasgow airport was only a 15-minute drive from Rhona’s flat. When we arrived, we followed a stream of other early morning travelers into the terminal to check in. We found the orange EasyJet signs and took our place in line. When we got up to the counter, the woman helping us said we would have to pay 30 pounds to check our bag. In the grand scheme of things it wasn’t the biggest of deals. It had been so long since I booked the flight, and we hadn’t been sure if we would be checking a bag or not, so we could’ve been hit up with a fee regardless. I think there is just something about bullshit airline fees that piss you 0ff no matter what the circumstances are.

So we paid the fee, even if we didn’t like it, and moved on to security. They didn’t make us take our shoes off, which always throws me a bit. Until I’m safely through I just keep expecting someone to yell, “Psych! Get those shoes in the X-ray tunnel!” But thank goodness that’s never happened. We reached the other side of security with 20 minutes or so before boarding for our flight started. I checked the Departures board and saw that our gate had not even been listed yet. That just seemed to be a trend for us the whole trip. It was even more nerve-wracking because of course we had no idea what the layout of the airport was and therefore no concept of how long it would take to get to any given gate. I was also starting to stress because I was beginning to notice just how fat my backpack had grown (mostly due to books) and was beginning to worry that it might not fit under the seat, leaving me to fight for overhead bin space, which might all be taken.

But there was nothing we could do about either of those things except wait. So instead of freaking out, we went into a coffee shop across from security to get ourselves some tea and something to eat. I left Mom at a table with all of our stuff and got in line. No sooner had I returned with breakfast did they post our gate. We collected our things and began navigating our way through the airport.

EasyJet seemed to be the ugly stepfamily that children of divorce like to pretend doesn’t exist, and our gate was the most obnoxious of the stepchildren. The EasyJet gates were all in the basement. It was a long hallway with orange and gray walls everywhere. The lighting was poor and the whole place seemed like it was bordering on abandoned and derelict. Our gate was at the very end of the terminal, in the corner of the room. It wasn’t the most welcoming terminal I’d ever been in but we made it with minutes to spare. We first found a couple of seats along the wall a short distance from the gate. Then a family we had made the walk down with caught up and took the seats next to us. One of the boys was playing one of those Leap Frog Learning games or something and it was annoying as hell, so I told Mom we had to get up and move. We found a couple seats right next to the gate and planted. This is when the morning went from mediocre to complete disrepair.

While we were sitting there, I set my chai on the ground by my feet so I could get something out of my backpack. But I had set the chai too close to my bag so when I opened it and the front fell forward a bit, it bumped the cup. Luckily I was able to grab it before it tipped all the way over and there was only minor spillage. But when I set it back down, I didn’t set it far enough away not to get knocked again when I sat back and the base of the bag shifted again.

There was chai everywhere.

(Chai: before and after.)

I’m sure all the people sitting around us were watching the entire scene unfold. But I was too busy bemoaning the fate of my chai and laughing at what a klutz I am sometimes. I chose to laugh about it rather than feel mortified (though I did feel a little mortified). There was only a shallow layer of chai left in the white, chai-stained cup. The rest of it was slowly being absorbed in the carpet. We hadn’t grabbed any napkins and there wasn’t even a bathroom nearby for us to run into and grab some paper towels. I glanced over at the people standing by the ticket counter. If they had seen the spill, they were acting like it hadn’t happened; either that or they were completely indifferent to the beige amoeba that had appeared on the carpet, happy to leave it for the cleaning crew later.

I sighed, feeling defeated. I just wanted to be on the plane, flying to Berlin, forgetting about the chai that never was. I had barely gotten two sips out of it before it met its untimely end. I could only hope the day would get better from there. And it did. Soon people began to queue, even before they had officially started boarding. Mom and I sat and watched the line lengthen, thinking everyone was a bit foolish for getting up already but admiring them for their ability to form an actual distinct line. We just get this blob of people back home that shuffles to the counter in some sort of order.

At last we were on the plane, and my bag did indeed fit under the seat. The flight was more or less the same as flying to California back home. It took us about two hours. Once we had landed and walked through the airport, we found ourselves having the same feeling we did when we arrived in Edinburgh. We hadn’t had anyone rifle through our stuff so of course we were feeling a little apprehensive. That worry was short lived, however. We had bigger fish to fry. We had just arrived in a country where English is not the primary language. Our first obstacle to overcome was the ticketing machine for the trains.

Peter, who is a fantastic host and very well prepared, had sent us very detailed instructions on how to get tickets and which trains to ride and how to get to his office. But despite his help, we still approached the machine with some degree of anxiety. The other people waiting behind us didn’t help either. We moved forward and made one attempt before getting halfway through and panicking that we had picked the wrong option. So we stepped aside and let the group behind us go. They proceeded to take forever, but once they had left we tried again. Maybe we were just temporarily blind that day but we couldn’t see the ticket option Peter had told us to get. We gave up and went over to the ticketing desk to be helped by a human being. At this point, I should mention that when we stopped at the ATM earlier to get cash Euros, all the machine gave us were 50s. WTF, ATM?

A thin-faced, gray-haired, stereotypically stern-looking old German woman was sitting behind the desk. I went up and told her what we wanted and she gave me a total. I set one of the 50 Euro bills on the desk. She mumbled something I couldn’t here and didn’t take the bill. I realized she must be asking if we had any other bills we could pay with so I said, “The ATM only gave us 50s. Sorry.” She waited another moment before she took the money from the desk and began making change. She muttered something else under her breath that I couldn’t make out, then handed me the change and our tickets. We thanked her and left.

That was probably the most unpleasant experience we had our whole time in Berlin. I don’t even know what the big deal was. She had plenty of bills to make change with in that drawer. It’s not like we were going to clean her out. Whatever, I’m sure she had her reasons, even if they were silly. We left the airport and began following a long, gently curving sidewalk that took us to the train station. It was here I first really started to pay attention to all the signs I couldn’t read.

People were both coming and going. This was clearly the main fairway to and from the airport. How nice it must be to have public transportation that would take you straight to the airport. *Sigh* A girl can dream. Anyway, we reached the station and took a left down a long ramp. This brought us to another long passageway lined with openings leading to all the different platforms.

I checked Peter’s directions again for the platform number we needed. The numbering system was a bit weird but about halfway down the tunnel we found our number and hiked up another long ramp to the tracks. The platform, and most of those around it were still pretty empty. More and more people began to show up as we waited. Riding the trains, at least when we weren’t with Peter, was always an interesting experience. They announced stops just like they did in Edinburgh, but we had no idea how to pronounce most of the words. So we had to rely completely on recognizing the names of places to know if we had arrived or not.

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A long, boxy red and yellow train soon pulled into the station. We stepped on board and began looking for a spot where our bag and we would fit without blocking the walkway. It was a pretty nice looking train with big comfy seats. I referred to Peter’s notes again so I could show Mom the name of the stop we wanted. Our host couldn’t meet us until after 5 o’clock so first we were going to Peter’s office.

We had one transfer to the U-Bahn to make (we started out on the S-Bahn). The switch was made at the Natural History Museum stop and they had this kickass big picture of guys dusting dinosaur bones hanging on the wall over the tracks. How cool of a job would that be? The U-Bahn took us to our final destination. Peter had given us directions right down to which direction to turn out of the train. Which was good because even though we had finally gotten 3G back in Scotland it was completely useless in Berlin, and I hadn’t gotten set up for Vodafone’s Europe plan so all our trust was in Peter.

And he did a wonderful job! We left the bahnhof, walked a couple of blocks, passed through some major construction and found the ResearchGate front door. We pushed the buzzer and waited. In a few seconds, that lanky, blonde-headed Peter kid showed up and opened the door. “You made it!” he cried. We stepped inside and each gave him a hug. He quickly introduced us to the woman sitting several feet away in the reception area and directed us to a small storage cupboard where we could stash our luggage for a bit.

We then followed him from the reception area back through the dining hall, which still had a few people finishing up lunch, and into a room at the back of the building with nothing but a ping pong table in it. About seven people were running around it and maintaining a constant volley between ever-changing opponents. I was already jealous of Peter’s new job. I mean, he’d already been there for over a year but it is still the newest job he’s had.

We had another quick introduction to people whose names I wouldn’t, and don’t, remember before we left the ping-pong match behind and left for lunch. Back out on the street, Peter began making some suggestions for lunch. One was Middle Eastern and another was Asian. The restaurant names respectively were DaDa and DuDu. We went with DuDu.

It took us a couple blocks to leave the construction behind. Peter told us it was expected to go on for a good while longer, and how they never really seemed to make any progress. Whenever they did, he said, they ended up having to tear it up and start over again for some reason or another. We walked and talked the whole way; Peter did most of the talking though. Which was somewhat harmful to his walking skills. He was ahead of us at times, and would look back over his shoulder and go a bit crooked in his path. One time he almost ran into a woman coming the other direction and she expertly pulled off a well timed, “Allo!” to let him know he better watch himself. We laughed and made jokes about it for most of the trip.

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We also saw these out walking around. It’s funny, but probably only to me and a few others. 😉

It started to rain when we were still a few minutes away from the restaurant. Just drizzly rain, nothing much, but still more than we had seen in Scotland. We attempted to find a spot under the awning out front but no matter where we tried there was a little dribble sneaking through the cracks. So we took a table inside. I had Peter help with my pronunciation of the dish I was going to get and a few other phrases I saw in the menu. I didn’t want to be that obviously American.

We finished lunch, which was quite delicious, and walked back to ResearchGate. Peter took us on a tour of the whole place. We walked back through the dinning area and saw the ping-pong table again. Mom made a quick stop in the bathroom so Peter and I grabbed a couple of paddles and had a few volleys. He kicked my ass, but it seemed a bit unfair, since he got to practice at work and I didn’t. After that we saw the Relaxation Room (no, I’m not kidding) and all the various offices spread throughout the building. Peter showed us the floor he used to work on and then took us to his current office. His two officemates, (whose names I also don’t remember) were in there working when we walked in.

We spent a bit of time in there while he explained to us the work he was doing and what his job was in maintaining and modifying the site. I was glad to see Peter had settled into his new job, and new home, so well. Sure it had been a year, even more, since he had arrived, and you might expect anyone that had been in a place that long would have adjusted. But Peter felt like he belonged there, he’d really become a part of the city; you could see how comfortable he was, and I was glad to see it. Sure, I still missed him like hell back home, but we all have to move on with our lives eventually.

It was finally time for Peter to get back to work, so he walked us back down to the entrance and told us the way to the Berlin Wall Memorial Park a few blocks away. I listened carefully so I could recognize the street names later, and we went off to kill the last couple of hours before we could check in. The park wasn’t too far away and was easy enough to spot that we didn’t have any trouble finding it. There were smalls clusters of people already walking around between the various informational pillars scattered across the plot of grass.

Mom and I didn’t talk much as we made our way further into the park. Places like the park always flood you with information, which I appreciate and find interesting, but I always walk away feeling more or less the same as I did when I arrived. A decrepit section of the wall still stood between the street and the park. It was covered with splatters of graffiti, and it was riddled with holes and crumbling bits. The park was located in what would have been the no man’s land between the inner and outer wall. Low walls had been constructed around the old remains of building foundations that had once belonged to guard houses and watch towers. Rusted steel cords reached up out of the ground like tentacles, all that remained of a light post. More segments of the wall had been placed inside the park, disassembled into single pieces, all collected together and overgrown with trees and shrubs.

Between the wall and the sidewalk snaking through the park was another kind of wall, a memorial to all those people who had tried to escape East Berlin and, sadly, failed. I was horrified to find out some people committed suicide after failing to make it across to the other side. So many terrible things happened her, not just on the strip of land I walked across but in this entire city. The more time I spent in Berlin the more I heard about how much of it had been destroyed and rebuilt into something unrecognizable from its former incarnation. It is a truth that is very unfortunate.

And that’s the feeling I get, a sort of sinking sensations when I think about how unfortunate and horrible so much of our past is. Memorials like the Berlin Wall are always very sobering places to visit. I’m always baffled when I leave; I marvel at how humans allowed such atrocities to happen, and how we still allow them to happen today. Allow isn’t exactly the right word, not in every situation anyway. The fact that some humans commit hideous and terrifying acts knowingly is all the more baffling, and I sometimes find it hard to reconcile that fact with myself. That some people sit by idly and let it happen is a nasty side effect.

We left the park feeling less elated than when we had left ResearchGate. But soon we would have more important things to worry about, like how the heck to get to our accommodation. It was no problem finding the U-Bahn station again. We made it to our stop, Ostbahnhof, without any trouble but once we got off the train the trouble started. Peter had given us directions on how to get there from the station; we even talked to him once we got off the train. But none of that really matters when you exit the station in the wrong direction, making everything you were told completely null and void.

Coloradans, or at least Mom and I, are completely clueless as to the cardinal directions when we aren’t in Colorado. We have no mountains as reference! Don’t use cardinal directions with us outside CO because we will have no idea what that means in this new place. So yeah, we left the station in what we thought was a northwesterly direction but apparently it was a northeasterly direction. For a second I thought I saw the street name Peter had mentioned but I was just being delusional. We kept walking, asking almost everyone we passed if they knew where Andreasstrasse was, yet no one seemed to know with any great deal of confidence.

Eventually we asked a woman who was nice enough to take out her phone and look it up. Sure enough, she pointed us back in the direction we had come. We thanked her and followed the street back until we came to an intersection with a sign proclaiming ‘Andreasstrasse’ hanging over it. At last! We took a right and in a block or two came to a tall, bland building set apart from all the other surrounding buildings at the edge of a park.

When we told Peter where we were staying he had laughed and told us it was called a Plattenbau. It was a boring, nondescript building that had become a popular style back during the war. It is a style constructed of large, prefabricated concrete slabs and is relatively quick and inexpensive to make, hence its popularity in war-ravaged Berlin. It was essentially nothing more than a big gray box. He wasn’t wrong. The whole building was painted two different shades of gray and had no other ornamentation on the outside except for the windows and the front door. The inside looked no different. Gray walls, no carpeting, the whole thing echoed like a dungeon. The actual apartment we stayed in was much nicer. It actually had some color and personality.

We pushed the button with Kati’s name next to it outside the door and she buzzed us in. I hit the button to call the elevator and was surprised when the doors slide open to reveal a bright pink inside. It shot us up to the sixth floor in a second and we stepped out into the barren hallway. As soon as I was clear of the doors I voiced my concern that we didn’t know which apartment was Kati’s. It reverberated back at me, and it was no surprise that Kati heard us and walked over. I mean, I’m sure that was her plan anyway but the echoing certainly helped to announce our presence. I apologized for being a bit late and told her we had gotten turned around at the station. I felt a little bad because we had also taken our time at the park, and I hadn’t really given much thought to the fact Kati would have to sit and wait for us to show up once she had finished her test.

She didn’t hang around long, just gave us the key, asked if we had any questions and then wished us a nice stay. When Kati was gone, we did the obligatory look over of the place. We opened up the cabinets and the fridge; we located all the light switches, did a sweep over the bookshelf and tested out the bed. It was a small place but just the right size for one or two people. When we had finished snooping, Mom plopped herself down at the table while I made us each a cup of tea and dug the last of our biscuits out of my bag. We spent the next hour and a half this way, just waiting for Peter to get off work and come entertain us.

The biscuits were soon spent and the last of the tea gone so we continued to sit motionless at the table, moving only our thumbs and forefingers as we continued to pass the time on our phones. You know, writing about my travels makes me realize how much time I actually spend on my phone sometimes. I’d like to think it isn’t quite the same at home because there I have more things that require my attention, but that’s probably only half true. Anyway, at last Peter called me and said he was on his way out. I told him which buzzer to hit and what floor we were on.

That turned out to be pointless act since Peter ended up calling me when he was outside saying he couldn’t find the buzzer. So I went down and let him in myself, and we went back up to the flat together. We all spent several minutes up there talking about tomorrow’s plans and ideas of what to do that night for dinner and such. Mom ended up deciding to have a night in to rest while Peter and I went out. We said goodbye and offered to pick her up anything to eat if she wanted, and then we were off.

Our first stop was Peter’s flat. The only real reason for stopping here first was so Peter could drop off his bag, I think. But it was also so I could see Peter’s new digs. It was an equally exciting and exhausting trip to make. Peter’s building is older, and as a result has no elevator. In addition, he also lives on the top floor of a, oh I don’t know, seven story building? I’m sure you can guess what that means: lots and lots of stairs. At least it wasn’t like in Edinburgh that first day where we had all those stairs to climb, and all of our luggage to carry. It was a still a pain in the ass, legs and knees though.

Now sweating profusely, I reached the top. The battered front door opened onto a single hallway with several rooms branching off on either side. Immediately to the right of the front door was the bathroom and next to that was the toilet. Yes, the toilet had a room all to itself. Past that was the kitchen. On the left side of the hall were the bedrooms. The first belonged to Caroline (I think her name was), one of Peter’s flatmates. His was the next, and at the end of the hall was Ben’s room, Peter’s other flatmate. I quickly poked my head into the bathroom and kitchen before following Peter into his room.

It was longer than it was wide. He had a loft bed, sitting high above everything else, with a rack of clothes beneath it. At the far end of the room were a desk, some shelves and a tattered couch with a glass coffee table in front of it. The best part of the room wasn’t even in the room. It was the balcony just beyond the large swath of windows at the end of the room. It didn’t reach far out over the street, but there was enough room for a chair and a few potted plants, and really, what more do you need? I was just impressed that Peter had plants.

I spent a few minutes standing out in the crisp night air while Peter moved around the room busying himself with this or that. I squeezed back through the mildly obstructed doorway into the room just as Ben entered. Peter introduced us and we spent a few minutes talking, telling Ben about our plans for the night. Ben had plans of his own to keep or else I imagine he would’ve taken Peter’s offer to join us. After that we left the flat and headed to get some dinner.

Peter was taking me to this tiny little whole-in-the-wall place that served excellent falafel. And I am a fan of falafel. We took the U-Bahn to another part of town then walked the couple of blocks to Oases. He hadn’t been exaggerating about the size. There was barely enough space for the two of us to stand comfortably and order, let alone the two other guys there waiting for their order. I stood to the side and let Peter do the ordering. It was a curious sensation, standing there and one, watching Peter carry on a conversation in German, and two, having no idea what either he or the gentleman behind the counter was saying. It may have been equally unnerving because food was involved and I’m already extra paranoid about that since I’m vegetarian/vegan on a good day. Peter only turned to ask me a few questions before we both sat down to wait.

I spent a good deal of time gazing up at the community bulletin board on the wall and found myself thinking how interesting it was that I took more notice when I couldn’t read something than when I could, mostly considering I was in another country and I would think it would’ve been the other way around. But the brain is funny like that I guess. Our pita wraps came up one by one. The pita was stuffed to just the right girth. Peppers, falafel and greens stuck out the top, and it smelled fantastic.

I took my first bite. It may have been the fact that this was only my second really good meal eaten during the course of a very busy day that made it so tasty, but I like to think it was just really tasty. Just writing this scene made me crave falafel the other night! Anyway, we sat in the tiny shop and ate our scrumptious wraps before snagging some baklava for take away. We were on our way now to a bar called Hops and Barley. I remember I kept wanting to call it Hops and Berries, which is the name of a brewing supply store back home. Peter had wanted to try it out for a while and I was up for anywhere as long as I could get a beer.

We passed the package of baklava back and forth as we walked. Peter continuously pointed things out to me as we walked and talked about life in Berlin. I listened and chewed my baklava, looking around, getting accustomed to the city. Finally we came to a storefront with one short and one long table set up on either side of the door. Most of the space outside was already occupied. It was a busy night at Hops and Barley. Peter and I stepped inside to check out the seating situation. No openings to be found. There had been just enough room at the end of the bench at the long table outside so we squeezed in there.

We waited a few minutes, and when a waitress walked by a couple times without asking us for our orders we realized we must have to order at the bar. We got up and pushed our way towards the bar. It was then Peter noticed the back room. There was one small table just inside the entryway, so we ordered and sat there instead. I was thankful because it had been a little chilly outside.

We passed the time talking about anything that came to mind. The occasional loud cheer from the neighboring table punctuated our conversation every time the rowdy group took a shot. Peter felt sure it was a stag party. One of the guys was wearing a sash. It wasn’t a big deal. The whole bar was noisy and hazy with cigarette smoke. That was something that perplexed me for a moment. Nowhere back home could you smoke indoors unless it was your own house or some designated smoking area type thing.

Noise aside, I was just happy to be sitting, sipping a beer, and catching up with my good friend. For a long time, I was always super nervous about spending time with Peter, or our other friend, Collin, when it was just the two of us. The three of us hadn’t always been as close as we are now. Peter and Collin were really David’s friends, but as we grew up and David and I began to spend more time together, Collin and Peter and I grew closer. Now, I don’t worry so much about holding a solo conversation with either one of them.

We called it a night after one beer. I was tired from the trip and Peter had work the next morning. I mean, he had mentioned that he was in at about ten everyday so it wasn’t like he was going to have an early morning. But still. We stepped out of Hops and Barely onto the near empty streets of Berlin. The air still held a chill and I wrapped my arms around myself to conserve what heat I could. It was just turning midnight when we reached the bahnhof. Peter took me as far as the stairs down to the tracks.

There we said our goodnights and goodbyes and I got out my anxiety at riding public transportation by myself in a foreign country where I couldn’t read any of the signs. Peter laughed at me and assured me I’d be fine. I smiled at him but still walked with a little extra stiffness in my spine down the steps and onto the train. Once I was back at Ostbahnhof, there was only a short minute where I wasn’t sure which direction to go, but I came down the stairs to see the familiar park that was between the station and our flat. I walked quickly. No one was around but I still felt a bit paranoid.

I rode up the pink elevator and walked as quietly as I could to the door and slipped inside. It was dark inside but Mom had left the bathroom light on so I could at least see a little. As quietly as I could I slipped off my shoes, brushed my teeth and changed into my pajamas. I switched the lights back off and crept over to the bed, taking care not to stub any toes on the way. I said goodnight to Mom but only received a garbled reply from the pillow next to me.

~Ren

Review: Coraline by Neil Gaiman

CoralineGaiman strikes again with his trademark creepiness!

Slowly but surely I will make my way through Gaiman’s massive collection of works. Next on the list happened to be Coraline because it was cheaper(ish) and didn’t have many pages. (I’ve been working desperately to catch up to my reading challenge.)

If you want to give Coraline a moral it is, plain and simple, be careful what you wish for. Coraline is  unhappy with her parents. They don’t always pay her much attention, they don’t always buy her what she wants, and all those other classic kid complaints. She learns though that the grass is not always greener on the other side, in this case it is a door in the drawing room. She is also given a chance to see and learn what real love is.

I’m not a person that likes horror films or thrillers or things like that, generally speaking. But Gaiman has the amazing talent of making things creepy and unsettling and disturbing without going over the top, making you jump or have nightmares for weeks (okay, maybe not always that last one). Everything is so subtle. It is just off kilter enough with the reality you know that it freaks you out. I mean, buttons for eyes? Not that different, not very gross or gory, but if you really think about it, that shit’s messed up.

And speaking more broadly about Gaiman’s work, he just writes a good story. Simple, with a good theme, believable characters, all that. He does a very good job of capturing a child’s innocence, as well as the way they think, and makes it obtainable for the adult mind that probably forgot a lot of it on the way to growing up.

Fun, quick read, with the right amount of creepy. Now time to watch the movie!

~Ren

The West Coast

Man, I’m good at titles.

I was up early the next morning. Reception was still closed when I dropped off my key and loaded up my car in the dim glow of the first morning light. My ferry to Picton left at 9:30, and I had an hour drive to get there. This was going to be a wholly new experience for me. I’d been on ferries before, and specifically this ferry back in 2012. All those times before I was just a passenger, but now I was a passenger with a car.

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I mean, okay, it’s not that interesting of an experience. Instead of walking onto the boat, you drive your car on, park it, and then walk up to the passenger deck. Big whoop. But dammit! This is a trip full of me doing new things so it’s a big deal if I say it is! That being said, it totally wasn’t a big deal and was super easy to do and my biggest complaint is that it was expensive. Moving on.

I passed the three hour ferry ride talking to my Mom, reading, and listening to music. When we arrived, I first went to the wrong car deck as I made to exit the ferry, but one more flight of stairs and I was back in my car and driving onto the roads of Picton. If I didn’t have such angst about parking and driving around new places when I had no direction, I would’ve stopped and gotten a proper meal. All I’d had that day was a few slices of bread while I waited to board the ferry.

Instead, I soldiered on, stomach grumbling, off to Nelson. I was making a short stop over here so I could catch up with another chum from Hobbiton before meeting back up with Hannah and Luke. She was WWOOFing at a chicken farm up in Motueka, about 45 minutes outside the city centre. I wouldn’t be seeing her until the next day, though.

So my first night back in Nelson I was flying solo (for the most part). I got into town and found my way to The Bug Backpackers, which Carly had recommended to me. It was a tiny place, only 15 minutes walk out of town. I parked across the street and went to check in. This was my first stay in the last few weeks where I actually had roommates. The three other beds in my dorm were occupied by three young Asian women, roughly my age (I guess).

I immediately felt claustrophobic and restless, so once my stuff was put away in the room, I left. I have to break the narrative a bit here, travelers, because I’ve been wracking my brain trying to remember what I did once I left the hostel. But honest to goodness I have no flipping idea. So let’s just jump ahead to when I stopped into Sprig and Fern for a beer.

Now I’ve grown accustomed to doing things alone while traveling, so grabbing a beer by my lonesome was not a new thing. I had my book with me so I was entertained. But sometimes, you just want some company dammit, and it can move you to make some not-so-wise decisions. Mine was inviting Hannah (different Hannah) out to join me for a drink.

Hannah was another former Hobbiton co-worker. We got on well enough but were never super close. But like I said, I had a weak moment and took whatever company was available. Things started off pretty well. We chatted and drank and ordered a pizza. But then the conversation took a turn onto a topic I should, with certain people, never discuss while drunk. So at an appropriate moment, drunk Renee deployed her go-to move when she’d had enough of a shitty situation.

I got up and left.

So the first night was kind of a bust. But I did have a couple of tasty beers, so it wasn’t totally lost. The next day was better, even though again, can’t really remember what I did. There was laundry done at one point, and some grocery shopping. I undoubtedly stopped into the bookstore at least once, or at least walked by and stared longingly at the long line of book-filled shelves. Once evening rolled around, I headed to East Street to meet Carly for dinner.

I was the first to arrive, so I took a seat at the table and began to peruse the menu while I waited. Carly arrived just a few minutes later. There was a quick hug before she sat down and both of us began to deliberate about what to order. At last we both decided, and when the food was brought out, we were both very happy with our choices. The conversation was sustained through the whole meal. It was good to catch up and hear about what one another had been up to, as well as what future plans were in store.

When we’d finished at East Street, we walked down the street to Sprig and Fern. That night’s drinking experience was much better than the last. We took our drinks from the bar to a table just across the room. The room was dimly lit. The surrounding tables were occupied by groups of people talking and laughing. A single candle flicked on our table. Carly and I chatted more while we sipped our drinks, and before the night was finished we took the first of several pictures that would mark our Ren and Stimpy adventures.

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We parted ways after that, with the promise of reuniting when I returned to Nelson later that month. She went off to her car to make the drive back to Motueka, and I began my walk back to the hostel. I took my time getting up the next morning. I was meeting Hannah and Luke at a retreat just outside of the town of Punakaiki. They had stayed at the retreat before, and Hannah assured me I would love it. I was sure I would too, but I had no idea what to expect.

The west coast of New Zealand is an amazing drive. I felt like I was on King Kong’s island (in the Peter Jackson version), and when I told Hannah about my feelings later on she compared it to Jurassic Park. The road is a winding ribbon that hugs the coastline. On one side of you is the ever churning and frothing sea, beating against rough cliffside. The other side is high hills covered in thick bush. There are barely any buildings to speak of, and just as few cars sharing the road.

I found the place, called Te Nikau Retreat, easy enough. It was certainly unlike any other backpackers I’d ever stayed at. Te Nikau is nestled right in the bush off the highway. A few cabins sit right near the reception building, but others are only reached by walking down a dirt path through the trees and ferns. The retreat was completely isolated, and the cabins of the retreat isolated from each other. Hannah was right. I did love it.

I was the first to arrive (again). I checked in and carried my stuff into the bush and found our cabin. We were in a dorm situation, and there was one guy who had already checked in. It was a little awkward. He didn’t say hi or anything when I arrived, just went back to his own thing. I picked a bed and ignored him back, pulling out my book to pass the time until Luke and Hannah arrived. I napped for a little while, and when I checked the clock, a couple hours had passed since I arrived. I was starting to get anxious.

For a little while I went into worry mode, wondering if something had happened to them on the drive down. I went to buy some wifi so I could try to get in touch and make sure everything was okay. It was. I was just being overly cautious, like I usually am. They had stopped to pick up some groceries on the way down. Soon the two were pulling into the parking lot in their newly acquired Subaru.

They checked in and I showed them the way to our cabin. We stayed long enough to claim a couple more beds and drop of their luggage before they were leading the way to the beach. It was about a ten minute walk through the trees. We were just in time to catch the last bit of the sunset. The clouds hung too low to really see the sun slip below the horizon. But the scene was still dominated by an orange glow and an increasingly inky sky above.

The three of us followed the steps of the path down to an alcove. The waves crashing up onto the beach were massive. At the base of the stairs was a wide, gently slanting slab of stone. We all pulled ourselves up onto the crest of the rock and got comfortable to enjoy the setting sun and the waves.

When nearly all the light had faded, he walked back up the path to the cabin to make some dinner. We were sharing the kitchen with our stoic, and presumably German, roommate. Hannah cooked up lentils while Luke heated up something from a can, and I prepared my sweet potato. That night I introduced Luke and Hannah to the awesomeness that is a sweet potato served with maple syrup, butter and sugar. It wouldn’t be the last time we prepared it on our travels together.

It was a spread that couldn’t rival the ones we’d made in National Park, but it was just right that night. Back upstairs, as we prepared to get into bed, we did some minor rearranging so we could all be up in the loft. Before lights out, the three of us spent a bit of time reading. Which, if I’m honest, really made me happy. Obviously reading is a very solo activity, but there was something really nice about sharing a reading moment with friends.

Anyway, the next morning, we had some breakfast and enjoyed the wifi before setting off to the Pancake Rocks. For a moment, I wasn’t sure I saw going to be able to pull out of the parking lot with out taking out part of the building behind me or hitting the car next to me. After executing a seven-point turn though, I made it out. The Pancake Rocks were all of 10 minutes away. I’d seen them before on my last visit, but it was only a short stop during our much longer bus drive.

We parked and crossed the road. It was a rather dreary day out. There was no sun to speak of, and there was a steady drizzle of rain. Not the nicest for walking around in, but it did make everything feel more moody and dramatic. The only people about left as we walked down the path. We sought out the blow holes, and stood mesmerized by great waves filing and draining from a great stone pit.

Lucky for us, we finished our walk around the rocks just before a tour group was dropped off. We found our walk back up the path and crossed the street back to our cars. From here we would make the trip down to Hokitika, where we’d stay for another night during our trip down the west coast.

~Ren

Circumnavigating Uretara Island

Our journey down the coast continued the next morning. We said our last goodbye to Amelia’s husband before we left Tauranga behind and drove down the Pacific Coast Highway towards Whakatane (that’s Whak, pronounced Fak). We wouldn’t be spending the night here, but part of the morning and afternoon would be spent kayaking out in harbor-enclosed sea waters.

My time in New Zealand has seen me double my time spent in a kayak compared to what I’d done back home. This was my first time kayaking in the ocean. I mean, technically it was the ocean. But the water that day was a bit rough, so instead of taking the Coastal Tour I’d originally booked, I arranged with our guide to kayak inside Ohiwa Harbour. Still the ocean, just not as choppy.

The clouds had begun to break up some since yesterday and the sun poked her head out every now and then as we drove. Bright flashes would flare off the top of the water when we were fortunate enough to see the sun and shifting surface meet. I’d never been down the coast this far. The towns were small, people were few, and the beaches were near untouched. Dad commented that they reminded him of how Florida looked years and years ago before all the beach houses and shopping malls took over.

Our meeting place was actually outside of Whakatane and closer to Ohope. The closer we got, the more nervous I was about finding the right place. The night before when Kenny, our guide, had called to reschedule things, I was in the process of navigating through the streets of Tauranga to meet up with a few mates. During the whole conversation, my GPS kept blurting out directions and cutting Kenny off mid-sentence. But by the end of it I was fairly certain I knew where to go.

It turned out I did. We followed Harbour Road all the way down until it dead ended. There was a boat ramp and a short stretch of beach at the water’s edge. An information sign stood beside the paved parking area. There was no one else there, so I figured we had beat Kenny. Just to be sure I was in the right place, I gave him a call. He confirmed things for me and said he was only a few minutes away. Dad and I leaned against the car to wait, enjoying the sun while we did.

A few short minutes later, a silver truck pulling a trailer loaded with kayaks turned the corner and parked opposite us. An older chap stepped out, and Dad and I walked over to introduce ourselves. I knew right away by his accent that Kenny wasn’t a Kiwi but a charming Scotsman. We spent a little time chatting and getting acquainted before Kenny sent us each off with a pair of wetsuit shorts to change into.

We stowed our personal effects, like phones and wallets, in a dry bag provided by Kenny. I left my heavier winter coat in the car but made sure I still had a few layers on to help keep out the wind. One by one we moved the kayaks over to the water’s edge. I was the first to board my kayak. I stepped from dry sand into sand covered by a few inches of water, and my foot and flipflop were immediately sucked into the muck.

I pulled my foot out, dragging my shoe with it, and passed both flipflops to Kenny to strap to the back of my kayak. I paddled out onto the pulsing water. Dad and Kenny followed a few minutes later, and we began our journey around the island. We fought wind and waves for a good while, at the same time carrying on the conversation started back in the carpark. It didn’t take long for my arms to start feeling the strain of fighting the elements. Kenny kept saying we’d catch the current soon and things would get easier. I’m sure he was right about the current, but it didn’t make things easier.

Uretara Island loomed dark and bush-clad to our right, and off to the left was the edge of the harbor. A few houses could be seen up amongst the trees, and Kenny told us his house was up there somewhere. He told us about Uretara Island, how it was owned by the DOC but they had little money to maintain it. One gentleman had taken it upon himself to rid the island of some pest (maybe possums or rats? I can’t remember). He also told us about a family who used to live on the island, and how the father had left his wife to take care of some ridiculous amount of children on her own.

At last we made it to the far side of the island and the wind all but died down. We kayaked right up to the rim of the island. Knotted and weathered tree limbs reached out over the water, some hanging so high we could paddle right through them. On one branch, Kenny pointed out a colony of mussels hanging in the water below. Soon we left the island’s edge behind and were off to navigate our way through the mangroves.

Picking my way through the thick underwater plants was a new kayaking experience. It wasn’t a huge challenge, just tedious, and it really tested your steering skills. Dad and I both knocked into quite a few mangroves. But they’re resilient plants, and bounced back easily. When we were safely through the field of mangroves, we kayaked to the edge of the harbor opposite the island and stopped for morning tea.

Kenny had brought along some muffins, a few fruits (I tried my first persimmon, and it was pretty good, and Dad tried his first feijoa) and a thermos of tea. The three of us stood in the long grass of the shore, sipping our tea, peeling persimmons and scooping feijoas. At this point, our journey was half over. When we’d all had our fill, Kenny repacked his bag and we carefully climbed back into our kayaks (I nearly tipped over, but saved it at the last minute).

Since we’d now come about to the other side of the island, our lovely wind shield was no more, and we were back to struggling against the gusts blowing out of the north. Conversation ceased here. The wind was too much and we were all too far apart to share anything but the occasional call of, “Alright back there?” I put all my focus into my paddle strokes, trying to achieve the optimal propulsion distance to energy expended ratio (that’s a thing, right?).

The final stretch saw us turned out of the head wind, and the going got easier. Our trio regrouped and we shared a few words as we closed the gap between us and the shore. At last, the bottoms of our kayaks were scraping on sand once more. Just before we pulled in, though, Kenny wanted to get one more photo of Dad and me. As Dad reached out to pull our kayaks closer together, he pulled a bit too hard a nearly flipped himself out of his kayak, and tried to take me with him! It made for a really great picture though. Kenny caught us both mid-laugh.

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Dad and I helped Kenny get the kayaks back onto the trailer before changing back into our clothes. We exchanged our sodden wetsuit shorts for wallets, keys and all the other things we’d packed into the dry bag. We thanked Kenny profusely. It might not have bee the most ideal weather day for a kayaking trip but both Dad and I had a great time out on the water. We shook hands with Kenny one last time before getting back into the car and starting our trek down to Taupo.

~Ren

If you are interested in taking a kayak trip with Kenny, I would highly recommend it. He is very friendly and personable and was gracious enough to take pictures for us during the trip. Also, don’t be afraid to mention if you have any dietary requirements so you’re sure to enjoy morning tea. Check out the website here.

Review: Brief Interviews With Hideous Men by David Foster Wallace

downloadOh gosh, what to say about this book. Well, this is my first David Foster Wallace book. I’ve known people who think he’s brilliant and then I’ve also talked to people who are not so fond of him. I’m not going to form an opinion off of one book, though.

Brief Interviews had its moment of brilliance for me. Some of the stories, and sometimes just parts of stories, really worked for me. The collection was meant to explore the difficulties men and women have when it comes to communicating and all the sexual frustrations that can stem from there. But it never took the issue too seriously, at least not on the surface.

I got the feeling that while Wallace is writing these stories to highlight or make fun of those frustrating and confusing interactions that take place between men and women, he wasn’t doing it just to make light of the issue. It seemed to me it was more to point out the sheer ridiculousness of these interactions. To try and condemn this behavior, make us feel foolish for it, to try and set us on the path of not being a bunch of school children.

Is there a difference between the way men and women communicate? Sure. But there are better and healthier ways of handling it than constantly bitching to our friends or therapists (another topic that plays a heavy roll in the book). There’s a lot that will need to be worked on to get over this weird, flirtatious, coy, manipulative way we all seem to have taken up when dealing with the opposite sex. Things like how men and society view women, how women view themselves, and at a basic level, good communication skills.

Alright, feel like I went off a bit there. Anyway, it wasn’t my favorite read, but it was interesting and made me think about a lot of different things, even if that maybe wasn’t the “author’s point.” But the author doesn’t get to decide how a reader reacts to their work.

~Ren

Weta Workshop, The Paths of the Dead, and Wacky Welly Driving

Further south we go, travelers!

The three of us were finally out of National Park. Hannah and Luke had sorted out their plan, now it was just a matter of getting it done. Before our little group headed over to the South Island, we were spending a few days in the Wellington area. I was giving into nostalgia and staying at a hostel Mom and I had stayed at during our  first visit. Hannah and Luke were staying in the heart of Wellington. Nostalgia wasn’t my only reason for staying up on the Kapiti Coast. The other was avoiding city traffic. More on that later.

I enjoyed the drive as much as you can when you have to stay on the road but are also trying to sightsee. Even though I’d been around both islands before, it was so long ago now. This time everything felt new, it felt different. I saw the streets and towns differently, more like I belonged to them and they belonged to me. I pulled off once to get gas before making the final stretch to Paraparaumu.

Once I turned off the main highway, things began to look familiar. The hostel was right along the coast. I pulled into the drive and turned onto the grass to park. There were only a few other cars out front, at least one or two I assumed belonged to the hosts, which didn’t really surprise me since it was the off season. I went up without any of my things to check in. The former hosts, Bill and Aorangi, had since moved on, but the place was now being run by a woman named Barbara, who was living there last time I stayed.

Like the last few places I’d stayed, I had the dorm room all to myself. The place was near deserted, liked I’d expected. It was nice, but I was also getting a bit lonely, and was already missing Hannah and Luke. It was slipping from afternoon to evening when I finally had all my things in the room. I wasn’t feeling inspired to go out anywhere, so instead I crossed the street and went for a short walk on the beach. There was the tiniest bit of light still clinging to the horizon, turning the coast and Kapiti Island into a dramatic landscape of blues, blacks and oranges, topped with a glowing crescent moon.

After snapping a few pictures and admiring the view, I turned in and waited for tomorrow to start. The morning started off slow. I had breakfast in an empty kitchen. I killed some time in the room reading and scrolling through my Facebook wall. But then I was off to Wellington proper. Hannah, Luke and I (them more so than me) were going to spend the day at Weta Workshop and the Weta Cave. I had been to the Cave once before with Mom. I’m not sure they were running tours of the actual workshop three years ago. They certainly are now though, so it was worth the return visit.

Now, I mentioned crazy city driving earlier. That didn’t take place on the way into Wellington. That drive went just fine. It was post-Weta Cave things got scary. I found my Hobbit cohorts in a cafe just down the street from Weta. I sat with them while they finished their tea, and then we walked the few blocks to the Weta Cave, where we were greeted by Tom, Bert, and William. Luke and Hannah, who had been there longer than me, had already taken some photos. I’d seen Bilbo’s trolls before at the premier, but I did get a fantastic shot of a curious Hannah checking to see if the sculptors at Weta had made their creations anatomically correct (assuming they knew troll anatomy).

We poked around the shop while we waited for our tour to begin. I picked out a few postcards to purchase after the tour and debated shortly on whether I needed another keychain to add to my carabiner. Lego Bilbo continues to suffice as my LOTR-themed keychain, for before I had the chance to add another item to the collection, our tour guide was outside and ready for us. I feel bad because I don’t think I ever got her name, but she was really cool and easy to talk with, and was also a total nerd like Hannah and me.

If you’re reading this and are discovering for the first time that you can actually tour Weta Workshop, I’m gonna tell you to slow your roll for a second. If you’re like me and are a super-mega-ultra fan and are happy to see even the smallest of things, you’ll like this tour and will pay to take it. If you’re someone that has unrealistic expectations about everything, you probably won’t want to go because you’d likely end up walking away feeling like you didn’t get your money’s worth.

Surprise! You don’t actually go in the honest to goodness workshop. Duh. People are working in there! Working on gobs of different movies, and movie makers like to keep things secret and tight under wraps (hence no pictures). However, you are directly adjacent to the workshop. There are several spots with windows that look through into different departments. I even caught a glimpse of famous swordsmith Peter Lyon through one!

The tour takes you around a fair-sized room that is filled with props, miniatures, weapons, armor, and costumes from tons of movies Weta has worked on over the years. Our guide talked us through the steps the creators take when they are approached with a new movie, everything from concept to finished product. We learned about the different processes and materials they use to bring these fictional creations to life and even got to handle a few of the pieces.

It’s amazing the amount of talent and creativity that is packed into one workshop. The tour was proof that a fair amount of things made at Weta do survive once the movie is done shooting, but the saddest irony of the movie making business is that an incredible amount of time is put into making everything look real and authentic, and it only spends a fraction of a second on screen or is ultimately destroyed. Like I said though, there was still plenty to see on the tour.

Luke and Hannah had booked the tour through Hobbiton, so they’d gotten to go for free. Me, I got to tag along. They had to change their booking anyway, so when they did that they asked if they could add one more person. They had also been asked if they wanted to go on the Thunderbirds tour. I had no idea what the Thunderbirds were, but it was free, so what the hell? Turns out, the Thunderbirds, or Thunderbirds Are Go, being the full title, is a TV show that first aired back in the 60s. It’s now been revamped and remade by Weta.

I won’t go on too much about this tour, but it was really cool to see all the miniatures they’d built for the sets. We saw the model of the full island where the Thunderbirds live, the close-up models of the house and the launchpads and the evil baddies lair. We saw the moving parts and learned how they moved (the swimming pool was opened up by two very small Weta employees pulling the platform back) and saw how convincing a set can be even when it’s made up of things like mattress foam, batteries, and old school lemon juicers.

Okay. Now it is time for wacky Wellington driving. After seeing and buying all we wanted to at the Weta Cave, we were off to grab some dinner back in the city centre. Earlier, Hannah had informed me it was Luke’s birthday and she wanted to sneak off and get him a cake. So before she and I met Luke at our chosen dining locale, I made up some excuse about getting a new bra while we were in the city and we instead made our way to New World for some cake and candles.

As soon as we were in the thick of traffic, at night while it was raining, I felt bad for Luke that he didn’t have anyone to be his navigator. Not that that really mattered. At one point Hannah and I ended up in bus only lane (that was a blast). And it took us ages to find a parking garage. Getting the cake was pretty simply, getting to dinner was the hard part. We did eventually get parked up and made the walk to the restaurant, and we all enjoyed a much needed meal, letting the stress of the drive roll off our backs.

When the meal was finished and we were left sipping on drinks, Hannah excused herself to the “bathroom” to get the cake ready. I went off a second later to make sure she had it all sorted, and then we both emerged from behind the wall and began singing Happy Birthday. Other people in the restaurant even joined in with us and clapped at the end, and the restaurant staff was nice enough to bring us plates. With our bellies full and cake on our plates, we were all feeling much better.

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Back at the Weta Cave, Luke had mentioned a street festival that took place in the evenings off Cuba Street. We went off in search of this after dinner but instead found a used bookstore, which I can never resist. While I was deep in a back room, browsing the general fiction, Luke and Hannah were up front talking with the clerk, where they found out the festival takes place on Friday, not Thursday. Oh well. I was happy to end the evening at a bookstore. And yes, I did buy a book. Two, actually.

After the bookstore we called it a night. It was getting late, and already dark, and I still had to drive back to Paraparaumu. Hannah and Luke saw me back to my car and we said our goodbyes. The next day was very chill for me. Hannah and Luke were spending the day taking in as much of Wellington as they could before heading back to the South, and I took care of a few things in Paraparaumu.

It was nothing very blog-worthy. I ran a few errands, like picking up an ice scraper I knew I might be needing soon, and sent a few more postcards. The thing I was most excited to do was to stop by the library and check up on my good friend Aldo. Back in 2012, Mom and I had stopped at the Paraparaumu Library to deliver a few books, thus bringing the library’s Aldo Zelnick series up to date. I wanted to see how the books had been doing in the years between my visits. There were only two on the shelf, a good sign in my eyes, and when I went to ask a librarian, she told me they had all been doing fairly well, more so at the main branch. Coincidentally, the woman I talked to was the same woman who had received the books all those years ago.

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Aldo arrives! 2012

Let’s get back to the fun stuff now, shall we? Our last day together in Wellington was spent exploring and taking gobs of pictures of the Putangirua Pinnacles. For my fellow LOTR fans, this is where they filmed the scenes of Aragorn, Legolas and Gimli riding to find the Paths of the Dead. These pillars of ancient sediment and gravel are an amazing geological site. They are the remnants of the eroded Aorangi Range, exposed over thousands of years by the Putangirua Stream. Man, were they cool.

Hannah, Luke and I hiked up the stream bed until the trail dead ended in narrow fissures of rock, too treacherous to traverse. The place had that eerie, decrepit feel to it, very Paths of the Dead, but the sun was out and the green of the trees was vibrant, and the stream bubbled happily at our feet. It was an interesting juxtaposition of sounds and feelings. Once we came to the trail end, we spent quite a while taking pictures from every direction, posing under precarious pillars of half crumbled stone, and shouting really loud so we could hear the echoes.

We left the pinnacles behind and stopped in Featherston for a feed before Hannah and Luke were off to the ferry. Now, I’m pretty sure I’ve mentioned that Hannah and Luke are from the UK, but if I haven’t, or maybe if you didn’t believe me, here is undeniable proof these two are so British.

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So British.

Again, we parted ways, the last time for a while. I gave them each a hug, wished them safe travels and luck with getting the new car, then climbed into my own car and drove back to Paraparaumu. I was catching my own ferry early tomorrow morning. After a long day of hiking and driving, I spent a quiet night in the Barnacles. The whole stay was bittersweet. The place was empty of people, but it also made me feel empty. I felt like I was haunting the place, there trying to grab hold of memories and moments that had long since faded away. But it was also a reminder. A reminder that things change, and people move on. It’s exactly what I had done, and what I had still to do.

~Ren

Good Morning Glasgow

Breakfast the next morning consisted of cold pasta, which was a whole new experience for me. Surprisingly enough, it wasn’t that bad. It was our last chance to get rid of the rest of our food so we powered through our less than conventional breakfast. We managed to see Maya and Malc before we left and we thanked them again for watch our stuff while we were gone. Then we were on our way back to Haymarket Station.

There was still plenty of time before our train left. In fact, there was more than one train we could’ve taken, so while we sat and had a cup of tea in the café on the platform, we deliberated about which would be the best to take. We went back and forth, weighing our options and the benefits, but in the end we decided to stick with our original time. It would work out best for our meeting time with our host, Rhona. She had been kind enough to meet us on her lunch break so we could get into her flat instead of having to kill several hours in Glasgow while she was at work.

We passed most of the time on the train to Glasgow playing cards again, but this time there were no epic battles between spades and clubs. An hour later we alighted the train onto the platform and climbed up to the street level. It took me a moment to orient with the street and my phone once we were outside the station. A few turns and a short walk later we were outside the large department store Rhona had said she’d meet us in front of. On our way, we walked by the equestrian statue of the Duke of Wellington. As some Tumblr post had promised me, a traffic cone was perched on top of his head. The act of placing a traffic cone on the Duke’s head has been a long-standing tradition, and despite efforts to stop it, the cone remains.

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We planted ourselves next to a short stone pillar outside the store and waited for Rhona. I kept up a watch for anyone that remotely resembled the person I could only see half of in the AirB&B picture. In the end Rhona spotted us. She handed over a key and a slip of paper with some directions scribbled on it. She walked us through the steps of which bus to catch and which stop to get off at and was then off to enjoy the rest of her lunch.

The walk to the bus station took us by a bookstore, so we had one thing we knew we’d be doing when we came back into town. We actually stopped in before we went to Rhona’s but that was just because Mom needed to use the bathroom. I have rarely been in a bookstore like it. It had at least three floors, maybe more! I didn’t even see them all. It was insane! There was no way we weren’t coming back.

The bus ride took us out of the heart of the city and into a much quieter suburb. Glasgow has a much different feeling that Edinburgh does. I could feel it as soon as we stepped off the train. Everything is much more industrial and not nearly as cultural and historic. The buildings feel newer and have substantially less personality. The history feels like it started in the Industrial Revolution. But Rhona’s place was far enough away from it all that it felt peaceful again. I didn’t learn this until we were in Berlin, but Glasgow was actually a target for the German’s in World War Two, for the simple reason that it was an industrial center. Edinburgh, for the most part, went unscathed.

We had a bit of trouble actually finding Rhona’s place. We got off at the right stop and turned down the right street and came right down to the street she lived on. But the numbering on the buildings threw us for a loop. I can’t even really explain how anymore. I can’t quite remember why the numbers confused us, it was something like, the numbers in both directions from the first house we saw went up, or one way the numbers went up numerically and the other way they made large jumps, I don’t know. We asked two people if they knew where this mysterious building was, and neither of them were very sure.

Finally we were smart and just walked down the street a bit further and found number 62. No sooner were we inside the building, however, we started fighting with the lock on Rhona’s door. It turned out the door was just a little snug in the frame and took a bit of muscle to push open. Having overcome the last of our obstacles, we shrugged of our bags and relaxed for a bit inside our new accommodations.

It was a nice sized room, big enough for two people to move around in comfortably. The window overlooked the street and park below and the sun cascaded in and spilled onto the floor. We poked around the rest of the flat a bit. It wasn’t big at all but felt the perfect size for one person to live in. The bathroom was tiny and the shower had no curtain to it, which I thought would make for an interesting experience when I showered later that night. The living room was cozy and had lots of personality. There was a large window in here that made the space feel more open and inviting.

After we had regained some momentum, we left the flat and walked back down to the bus stop. We hadn’t had anything to eat since out breakfast of pasta so we were headed to a place called The Flying Duck. It was another restaurant Happy Cow had recommended to us. They hadn’t been wrong yet so why should they be now? They weren’t wrong, but they also weren’t the best about telling you the place was undergoing renovations and that to enter you had to go down some sketchy-looking alley and a stairwell that made you feel like you were walking into a horror film.

No unexpected stabbings took place, however. We ambled into a dimly lit space with an assortment of tables and chairs. The bar was across the room from us and next to a hallway that I think lead to the kitchens. There was only one other person there that I could see. The whole place felt very similar to a 24-hour café that was back home. We crossed the room to the bar and the woman behind it greeted us. Mom asked if they still served vegan food. I imagine she wanted to confirm just because the whole excursion had not gone quite as expected and she wanted to be sure we would be getting what we had been promised.

The woman told us they did indeed have a vegan menu. We each ordered a different kind of veggie burger and a cider from the bar and took a seat. When we had finished eating, we finished our ciders as I flipped through a book of pub trivia, quizzing Mom on biology, movies, and music. When we had exhausted all of the good trivia topics, we left the bar to explore more of Glasgow. We walked to a street a few blocks away from The Flying Duck in hopes of locating a bar that Darren (the waiter) had recommended we visit. He told us they made a knockout cocktail that was definitely worth a try.

I couldn’t get the place to come up on Google and we didn’t see a sign for it anywhere along the street. It was probably for the best we didn’t find it though. The street seemed very high end and posh for us and I’m sure the drink would’ve cost us way more than anyone should ever pay for a drink unless it was served in the Holy Grail or something. When we came to the end of the shopping strip, we turned right and discovered there was some sort of open-air street fair taking place. It looked a bit like our New West Fest that we celebrate back home.

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We also saw a red version of the TARDIS!

We were just window-shopping, that is until we came to the giant display of fudge. I had never seen so much fudge in my life, and in so many different colors and flavors! They were most definitely not vegan but we had to try a few. It was too tempting a display not to! We picked out four different kinds, a banana and chocolate, one with Bailey’s, orange crunch, and ginger. As we began back down the other side of the street, we came across a French Artesian Bakery stand. We caught a few words of French from the woman helping customers and took the chance to go practice our dismal amount of French and get a baguette. Our last purchase at the fair was something called a Clootie dumpling. We mostly got it because it had the word clootie in it and we had really enjoyed the Clootie Well. If you’re not familiar, a Clootie dumpling is kind of like a fruitcake, only probably better than most fruitcakes.

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We came to where we had started, now loaded down with lots of edible goodies. It was still early but we were starting to slow down, so we headed back to the bookstore called Waterstones. Most of the bookstores we had been in up until Blackwell’s and now Waterstones were nothing like my bookstore back home. They dealt exclusively in used books, most of which had been published many years ago. Waterstone’s was all new books, so many of the things I saw I knew I could get back home. Though some books did have slightly different names. Like one, called The Intern’s Handbook in the States was called Kill Your Boss in Scotland. So that was cool.

Anyway, we started off meandering through the many tables that occupied the ground floor. There were so many more shelves here than back home and books I had never seen before. The place was brightly light and explosively colorful. The kids’ section was shelf upon shelf of red, blue, green, purple, and orange spines. There were displays of puzzles and games and mugs and notepads. Mom picked out one that had a Highland cow peeking over the bottom of the page. I was still on a mission to find something else unique to Scotland, something by a Scottish author that I could not easily obtain in the States. I went to ask the clerk behind the counter.

He suggested a few authors I was already familiar with and some that I could get back home. I thanked him for trying and went back to browsing on my own. A short while later, however, he came and found me and told me a girl named Emma had some other suggestions that matched what I was looking for. A girl with brown hair pulled back in a ponytail and who was a few inches shorter than me came over and asked if I was the one looking for Scottish fantasy writers. I said I was and she motioned for me to follow her upstairs.

This is where the fantasy and sci-fi books were. She showed me several different books, all that sounded very interesting, but there were two that really jumped out to me. One was the first book she showed me. She pulled a bright yellow book off the shelf. The cover had a black island city in the middle of the ocean on it with a fading sliver of moon hanging high above it. The title was The Moon King. She explained that the setting of the book was in a fictional city called Glassholm, and that the emotions of the city’s inhabitants were connected with the waxing and waning of the moon. The author was from Glasgow and a small press published the book. Sale number one.

Emma showed me a few others and finished with JD Oswald’s Dreamwalker. It tells the tale of Benfro, the first male dragon to be born in hundreds of years. She needn’t have continued past ‘told from the dragon’s point of view.’ I was going to read it. The book was part of a trilogy, and they had the second one there so I was tempted to pick it up, just in case I couldn’t get it back home. But I didn’t, I was trying to not go completely book crazy. Then guess what I discovered upon my return home? I couldn’t get it! You’d think that you could get a book published by Penguin over a book published by some tiny press but nooo, that would make too much sense. Oh well, if I need to I can order straight from Waterstone’s. In your face, Penguin.

I thanked Emma for her help and then Mom and I left before we bought half of the store. We walked the short distance to the bus stop and headed back to the flat. Rhona was home when we got there. She was in taking a shower so we went into our room and started on our Clootie dumpling. After Rhona finished her shower, she came in and asked us how the rest of our day had gone. We told her about The Flying Duck and the street fair. She wasn’t sure what the fair was for but it wasn’t really important to know.

Rhona offered to make us some tea and of course we couldn’t say no. The three of us stepped across the hall and Mom I stood in the entrance of narrow kitchen while Rhona busied herself making tea and dinner. She filled a frying pan with tomatoes and sausage and noodles while we talked about what she did for a living and how our trip had gone so far. I asked about her cat, which she had mentioned in her AirB&B posting, but sadly Sammy had passed away a few months ago. We offered our sympathies. Mom and I both had cats at home we were missing and also new how hard it was to loose a pet.

With her meal fixed, we all moved into the living room to keep chatting. We admired some of Rhona’s art projects she’d done and then began talking about books, which I always love to do. When Mom and I retired back to our room, Rhona came in a bit later to show me a book she had said she really enjoyed. It was going to be an early morning for us tomorrow. Our flight left just after eight in the morning so we would be leaving the flat in the neighborhood of seven. But I was in need of a shower, so I finally plucked up the courage to go and shower in a shower with no curtain to speak of.

It was an interesting experience to say the least. It was one thing to shower with nothing more than a panel of glass half the length of the tub to shield you but it was another entirely to shower with nothing at all. The feelings of vulnerability and exposedness were overwhelming. I kept watching the door, afraid that Rhona or Mom would, for whatever ridiculous reason, come walking through the door and see me there in all my wet, pale glory. I was staying as close to the wall as I could without touching it and receiving a small jolt if cold down my spine.

I finished my unconventional shower experience without getting too much water on the floor, and without anyone walking in and seeing my bare bottom. I dressed with some difficulty in the cramped space, my clothes sticking to my damp skin and the twisted towel on my head wobbling dangerously. At last, I was clothed and had brushed my teeth. I went back to the room and told Mom it was her turn. Before we both got into bed that night Rhona came in and told us she had gotten our taxi booked. We thanked her again for all her help and hospitality before switching off the light and going to sleep.

~Ren

Life on the Coast

The next morning Dad and I left the comfort and familiarity of the hills and pastures of Matamata and exchanged them for the thick bush and beaches of the Coromandel Peninsula. Our plan was to do some snorkeling around Hahei beach and see Cathedral Cove. However, the weather wasn’t fully on our side. The day was quite gray and dreary, and as we drove the windshield was speckled with intermittent showers.

Things hadn’t improved when we reached the Cathedral Cove Dive and Snorkel shop. We parked along the side of the building and wandered around to the front. The shop was small, or at least the retail side was. There was diving and snorkel gear everywhere, making the already small place feel cramped. Beside the counter was a door leading into a large garage. There was no one inside so I called out. “Hello?” Nothing. We heard a noise just as we were stepping back outside and a man appeared from inside the garage.

We spent a few minutes talking with him about what we’d hoped to do. His response to us was, “Well it depends on what your expectations are.” Now, I at least didn’t have any expectations, having never snorkeled before (though usually when I imagined it, it was on some white sand beach with the sun shining in some tropical place like Hawaii). But what he was really saying, in fewer words, was probably something like, “Well, I think you’d be crazy to go out when it’s like this, but it’s your choice.” He suggested we walk down to the beach and test out the water, then decide.

So we did that. Hahei isn’t a very big place so the drive only took about a minute. There were a couple other cars in the car park, but one was about ready to leave. Dad and I rolled up our jeans, ditched shoes and socks, and descended the steps down to the beach. I gave a small shiver at the feel of soft cool sand between my toes. For all the wind and spray it wasn’t very cold outside. We moved closer and closer to the water. I don’t think I’ve ever come to a beach with bare feet and not gotten my toes a little wet. So even though I was sure the water was going to be cold, I marched straight down into the wet sand and let the foam splash up over my feet.

With the bottoms of my pant legs now soaked, Dad and I moved further down the beach towards a jagged outcropping of stone. We passed a small tide pool, stepped over numerous shells and bits of seaweed until we came to a swing. I say swing, but it was really just a small piece of driftwood tied to a thick rope and hung from a tree jutting out from the cliff (which by the most basic definition is a swing, I suppose). We noticed steps worn into the rock face, and we spent a few minutes trying to decide just how the swing was used. The rope wasn’t long enough to reach out over the water, but it could’ve been low tide. And it was just too short to take up the steps and allow you to get the swing between your legs, unless you got close enough to the tree roots.

Whatever the locals used it for, Dad and I had some fun pushing each other around on the thing in large circles and pulling each other into tight spins near the end of the ride. We hit a dead end after that, so we walked back the way we came and up to the car. Snorkeling was the furthest thing from our minds now. We were both just happy to enjoy the beach and the moody weather. Back in the car, we drove back down the road and took a right at the sign for Cathedral Cove.

A short drive down the winding road brought us to a long car park. I pulled in next to a big camper and the two of us stepped out, still barefoot. I gingerly walked across the rough car park to the sidewalk and down to the information placards. After examining the signs, Dad and I decided it would be good to put our shoes back on. It was a bit of a walk to Cathedral Cove, and I was already struggling with the car park.

With our appropriate footwear, we went down the staircase to the main footpath and began our trek down the coast to Cathedral Cove. I’d been meaning to get to the cove for a while. Several of my Hobbiton fellows had been, and the pictures looked amazing. Of course, they went in the summer, but Dad and I still had fun. It took about 30 minutes to reach the beach. It was at the bottom of a long line of stairs, which we grumbled about having to climb up later.

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The sandy expanse at the bottom was mostly empty of people. There was a couple sitting about half way between the water and the cliff behind, and one guy hanging out in the trees at the bottom of the stairs. Dad and I removed our shoes and socks again and walked beneath the towering stone archway to the far side of the beach. This side was completely empty. In the distance was the large, sail-shaped slab of rock I had seen in so many photos. To our left, set far back from the water’s reach was a garden of cairns in all shapes and sizes.

We spent some time here, taking photos, enjoying the gentle crashing of waves on sand, and examining the many cairns. We began to wander down to the other end of the beach just as a few people wandered under the archway. At the far end was a small water fall dribbling into a pool. A few more minutes slipped away before we ventured back towards the dreaded stairs to retrieve our shoes.

With shoes back on our feet, we perched on the low-hanging branches of the trees and took one last look at the beach. Then we turned and began the arduous climb back to the car. The walk back from anywhere always seems shorter than the walk there, so we were soon back at the car park. A large, lime green bus at the end of the lot confirmed my suspicions that the large group of 20-somethings that arrived on the beach just as we left was indeed from Kiwi Experience. (A remnant from my days at Hobbiton. It wouldn’t be the last time I saw one of those buses.)

Both Dad and I were getting rather hungry so when we stopped for gas we picked up a few things in the shop to tide us over until we got to Tauranga. After that is was back in the car and down the winding coastal road. I’ve gotten used to Kiwi roads during my time in the country; many of them are like the canyon roads I’ve driven back home. But it can still be an exhausting thing to do, with the back and forth and the breaking and the shifting. The sun had disappeared by the time we made it into town. We found our host house easy enough though. There was a spot of trouble when we tried to drive up the preposterously steep drive. Major crisis was averted though and we just parked on the street.

Our host, Amelia, wasn’t actually home yet, so we just dropped off our things then went back into town for dinner at the Fly Burrito Brothers. Many months ago, my first month in the country actually, I had gone out on a date at the FBB. I’d been given a coupon when I paid the check, but of course it could only be used at the Tauranga location. It took a while, but I finally got to use it. Dad and I were starving by this point so there wasn’t a whole lot of talking once the food arrived. It was wonderfully delicious. Just what we needed.

Back home, we met Amelia and the rest of her family. They were all very nice and easy to talk to. We spent a bit of time chatting and taking some suggestions from Amelia of things to do during our stay, then we both grabbed a shower to clean the sand off of us, and went to sleep.

The next morning we slept in a bit. We grabbed breakfast and a cuppa in town before I drove us over to The Mount. The Mount is probably what most people think of when you mention Tauranga. It’s an extinct volcano right at the end of a narrow peninsula. It’s a singular peak that towers above the rest of the coastal town. There are a couple things you can do on The Mount. You can walk around it, which I’d done once before, and you can climb to the top of it, which everyone told me I had to do. I personally didn’t feel like climbing to the top, especially when I only felt I had to do it just because everyone told me I had to. Dad seemed happy to do either. The kibosh was put on our climb to the top when the path we had decided to take was closed. So we just scraped the whole idea and enjoyed the walk around.

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We crawled out on a cluster of rocks being battered by the waves. I stood so close to some of the furrows that were I any closer the waves would’ve blasted forth and soaked my pants. We clambered back to the path and kept walking. Near the end of the walk, we came to a beach that was made completely of shells. Walking on it felt like walking on a mix of sand a pebbles. All the shells were cracked and broken, their former inhabitants pecked out by seabirds long ago. It was like walking on a bed of corpses. We poked around the rocks here, and at last Dad finally saw what he wanted. A small, brightly colored crab was clinging to the side of a rock we were standing on. He was gone a second later, but not before we had both caught a glimpse.

We checked The Mount off of our things-to-do list and walked back to the car to make some lunch. Peanut butter and jelly with a banana and some water. It’s basically a traveler’s bread and butter…when they aren’t eating bread and butter. It was a bit windy sitting there beside the beach, but it was good to put some food in my belly. When we’d both finished, we walked back down the road, back to the beach and up the narrow path to Moturiki Island. Now, when I first read about Moturiki Island, I thought it would be an actual island connected to the beach by a man-made bridge. This is incorrect. It is a teardrop-shaped bit of land connected to the beach by a narrow land bridge. Not quite as cool as I imagined but it was still fun to explore the place.

We walked all the way to the far end. The “island” ended in a bulbous, rocky cliff. Dad and I claimed the spot right at the top of the rocks and as far out as you could go. It was completely quiet here, if you don’t count the constant movement of the ocean as noise. It’s white noise, the kind of noise the helps unlock your brain a bit. It lets your thoughts drift off to things it might not have in absolute silence. Absolute silence can be stifling. I don’t know how long we sat there, it could’ve been 15 minutes, it could’ve been half an hour. A handful of people showed up after a while and we took that as our cue to move on. Before we drove back home, we stopped at the nearby New World and picked up something for dinner. It was pasta. Another staple of the traveler diet.

I got the pasta going once we were back home. Amelia was still out so Dad and I had a nice talk with her husband while I got dinner ready. Amelia showed up a little while later and the four of us talked while Dad and I had our dinner. We told stories of trips we’d taken and talked about things going on back in the States. Conversation moved from one topic to the other and soon we were out of pasta. We talked for a while longer until the events of the day started to pull me towards sleep. We said our goodnights and our thank yous (this was our last night) before walking down the hall and getting into bed.

~Ren