San Gimignano, Italy

San Gimignano, Italy

 

When I woke up from my nap it was dark out. I slept a little longer than I wanted to but it was ok. I was hungry, though, so I left the hostel and ventured out back to the city center, a little excited to see it at night when I wasn’t stressed out. It was a nice night as I walked and I seemed to be the only person walking into the center as I passed couples and older people walking past me towards the exit. My shoes clacked on the misshapen bricks and I listened to them in juxtaposition to the ancient medieval architecture that inhabited the city.

 

I emerged in the Campo to find it quiet still, but not without its stray diners sitting outside drinking wine. It was about 10pm. I wasn’t starving, but I was hungry so I was happy to see that the pizza place I went to earlier was still open and I got a slice and a bottle of beer that was 9% alcohol. I took it outside and sat on the edge of the scallop and had a really great time just sitting there.

 

I didn’t linger that long because the next day I had to be up and at the bus stop, where I’d met Rocko that morning, to meet with another tour guide and other tourists for a tour of San Gimignano (Jim-een-yahn-oh) and a wine tasting in Chianti country. That was at about 1pm but I wanted to get up early and go to the top of the Tor, the huge tower that stood at the opposite end of the Campo as you enter it, which sports a giant clock and bell that can be seen for miles. With a soft buzz from the one beer, I began to walk back and soon found myself caught in a drizzle. By the time I got back to the hostel I was pretty wet so I took a shower. Before I went to sleep I read and reviewed what I’d written before my nap and I think I was pretty happy with it. I went to sleep and thought about one thing or another until I started trying to fall asleep, but about 10 minutes later something really succinct came to me about my time in Europe that was brought about by thinking about my parents. I turned the lamp on and fumbled for my black book I’d been writing in and wrote what is the best monologue in my London film. Some of the best stuff comes when you’re just lying in bed thinking at night and me, a real dumb sucker for anything “romantic” or thematic or archetypal, got a real kick out of writing something that encapsulated the whole film alone, at night, in the middle of Siena.

 

The next morning I made sure to get up early and get to the breakfast, but it was little more than cold cuts and small croissants (Europe, am I right?). I had some nifty expresso though, after which I traversed back into town via the public transport bus I still didn’t pay for. It was about 9 or so I reckon and I spent the first hour of my day just walking around the city in the morning. It was a vastly better day than before and I was eager to see Tuscany from the top of the clock tower. But first I got some gelato. I forget what flavor, but I went back to the Campo and sat down against something you tie your horse to and basked in the day. I noticed some locals making fun of me for eating ice cream at like 9:30 in the morning and it only made me feel a little self conscious.

 

Indulgences aside, I headed for the Tor and paid the 6 euros or something it was to climb to the top. There are three levels that offer astounding views of the surrounding countryside, and each are accessed by walking up extremely narrow, ancient, dark stone staircases. When I got to the very top the view was really spectacular. The city of Siena below me looked like something out of a children’s book, the medieval stone and shingles of the roofs joined with the twisting serpent of the streets made the whole place look timeless. The country outside of the city was equally rustic and a sight to see. Rolling hills, shades of green and all that great stuff abounded. Vineyards and olive trees dotted the pastures as far as the eye could see, I’m not kidding. It was Italy.

 

When I climbed down from the Tor the day had gotten even better and because it was still early, the Campo was relatively sparse. I found into an outdoor restaurant and sat in a table overlooking the Campo and got an eggplant parmesan and a glass of Chianti, which was a really really great. I finished and went to find my tour. This time proved more fruitful, for as I waited by the same cafe I was at the previous day, I noticed a big white van on the street a few feet away from me with three or four people crowded around it. I watched it curiously for a few minutes before I decided to go over and see if it was for the tour. Sure enough it was and I was greeted by the leader of the expedition, whose name I can’t remember. He was a short, genuine little Italian man. Jovial and quick to laugh (mostly at his own jokes), he had a thin layer of black hair, a black goatee and glasses. He was an expert on the history of San Gimignano and he knew his wines and olive oil also. I was the only one there so far, but he informed me two others were coming. There were, however, three more Italians behind him, who I learned were training to be tour guides. They were coming with us on the trip. I hopped in the van and awaited our other passengers, happy to be where I had to be. There were only two other people who were to accompany me on the trip: a young married couple where were American also. They were nice and the whole van talked happily throughout the trip.

 

We set off and left Siena to drive through Tuscany. The countryside was beautiful to look at and as we wound up and down the hills our guide pointed out vineyards and olive trees and the Americans and I learned about Chianti wine and olive oil. We stopped a few times on the road and got out to take pictures and our guide kept insisting that he was our paparazzi for the day. We drove to a very small town and got out to walk around. We passed through a tunnel that housed wine casks centuries old and we were receptive to the guides’ history lessons about Siena and Florence. The other Italians didn’t talk much, but their English was far inferior. After the brief but bona fide visit back in time to ancient Italy, we got back in the van and continued our trek. Before San Gimignano we were to stop at one of the oldest Vineyards in Chianti country and attend a private wine tasting.

 

Once we arrived to the vineyard we were introduced briefly to the owner and our guide called him by his name. The main bar area of the inside of the wooden house was rustic and quaint, but we didn’t stay long before we were guided through heavy wooden doors behind the bar to descend a few steps to a back room. A large wooden table was waiting with plates full of cheese, crackers, fruit and salad as well as seven or eight empty wine glasses. Then a woman came from an opposite door and introduced herself and the history behind her wines. She was maybe 30 and pretty with blond curly hair and a rich accent. She instructed us on how to hold wine glasses properly, how to appraise them before tasting and how to taste them. She gave us a blank piece of paper and told us to try each wine with each of the bits of food and write down what we thought best paired with what we drank. She filled our eight glasses with eight different wines about 1/5 of the way up the glass and the tasting began. It was interesting and each wine was more different than the last. After a while she left and the two Americans and I were left to enjoy the rest of the wine. There wasn’t a lot in each glass but by the end of the sampling I was definitely a little drunk, as was the woman I was with. The wine instructor came back and gave us sheets of all the wine we drank, including an original white truffle oil brand that we had tried as well (which was delicious – white truffles are only legally allowed to be harvested by official people who make truffle oil and they have to use dogs to find them in the ground) and she told us if we wanted to buy any of what we just drank, simply fill out the card (including a wine we sampled that, our instructor said, she gave us just because we were a good crowd – yeah right – that cost $400/glass). Nice move asking us to buy things after eight glasses of wine. I bought a bottle of the truffle oil for my folks and the other two bought some wine and we exited the back room to rejoin our guides in the main bar room. I was drunk and we weren’t even in San G yet, but we left and we were on our way.

 

En route our guides pointed out scenes of interest including a town that was home to one of the Italians in the back. They explained to us that San Gimignano used to be the cultural center and the crossroads of Italy. It was known for its saffron, I think. We got closer as the roads twisted and turned and eventually we pulled into the town just as the last of the clouds were leaving the sky. We got out of the van and walked around, going into wine, cheese and taxidermy shops. We went into what our guide said was the best gelato place in Italy, and there was a picture of Judie Dench and Maggie Smith. I got gelato with saffron in it to see just how reputable the towns cash crop was. It was good.

 

The town wasn’t overly exciting but it was quaint and, as far as I could gather from my short time thus far in the country, very Italian. We were there for only about an hour and a half until we left, back for Siena. The sun was setting as we drove back and it was dark by the time we rolled back into the place I had met our guide. I said goodbye to everyone and promised to keep in touch with the other adventurers and walked back into the city of Siena to have something quick to eat. I was getting a little late but I made a point to sit in the Campo for a little and soak it all up before heading back to my hostel. The next day I had to catch a train for Florence at 10am or so.

 

The next morning I had to get in touch with Alexa, the girl who I was to be staying with in Florence, to remind her of what time I’d be getting there. I managed to use the computer at reception to get on facebook and message her back and then I headed out on foot the the station. It was a beautiful day and I walked down the hill the city was perched upon down to the train station through a mall mid way between the hostel and the city center. I looked up at the train arrivals and departures and realized I could take an earlier train. Confident that that was what the information actually meant I hastened outside to get the train waiting and felt more confident in y decision as I hear “Firenze” over the load speaker accompanied with the platform I was on. So I sat back in the empty car and waited to be whisked off to Florence.

 

Siena, Italy

Siena, Italy

 

Spring Break was to last for ten days and I wrestled with where I wanted to go for a long time before that. Ireland was a big contender. Bruges in Belgium was a big draw for me and I was looking into Norway for a while. I knew I definitely had to go somewhere in Italy, though, but I didn’t know where. My grandfather, as my mom told me, went on and on about Siena when he heard I was trying to decide where to go. I talked to my friend Brando, who lives in Verona, where he recommended and he mentioned Venice, Verona and Siena. As the break drew nearer and I became more serious about booking my flights, trains and hostels, the reality of my financial disposition became more illuminated and I decided to spend the whole of the week in Italy. I would fly to Pisa, where I would take a train into Siena and stay for three days, and then I would take another train to Florence, where I would spend the rest of my break. A girl I knew from high school, Alexa, was studying abroad there and she agreed to let me stay with her at her flat while I was there.

 

The Thursday before break came and with it a day full of classes. British Comedy in the morning and European Cinema in the afternoon. The next day my flatmates left, most for Barcelona, leaving me alone in the apartment until early Monday morning, when I’d leave. I spent that weekend going on a bus tour of London and catching up on a few things. It was a relaxing couple of days.

 

When I got up at 4 something on Monday morning the Oscars were still on in the US, but my British television didn’t get it. I checked who was winning on IMDb, then closed my laptop to head for the bus that was to take me to Baker street, where I’d catch my easyBus to Stansted airport. I didn’t experience any hiccups and the plane took off and landed easily. I was excited for the trip and excited to observe how I dealt with myself for a week alone. What a grand romantic adventure I was embarking on, but when the plane landed there was no time for any kind of emotional indulgence. I don’t speak a lick of Italian and catching pre-booked transportation stresses me out. I drank in the Pisa airport and observed the restaurants it had and the Italian on the walls, but I hastened to find where to catch the Pisamover, a tram that would link me to the rail station. I found it after navigating the signs and wandered outside to find the station where it would pick me up.

 

As I rode the Pisamover through Pisa towards the rail station (only about a 10 minute ride) I very clearly remember being struck by the poverty I saw. The houses were square and cream colored, the shop fronts were worn and scraggly, the people moved slowly and the general aura felt a little…jaded. This may have been due to the fact that it was overcast out that day.

 

I found my way around the railway station and manipulated a ticket machine to print out my ticket to Siena. Then I went into a restaurant area inside the station and got a slice of pizza, which was normal to the eyes but it certainly did taste more fresh. When I was reading up on Italy I was warned gypsies and beggars and that they were not only ubiquitous, but also sometimes aggressive. I was never harassed for money, but I was approached by these people about five times in the space of the half hour I spent at the train station. My ticket to Siena instructed me that my train didn’t leave for another 45 minutes or so, but I saw on the departures screen that there was a train I could take in about 5 minutes, so I decided to find that platform and find that train. I was nervous about having my ticket checked. I hadn’t done anything dishonest, but I think one always feels a little nervous, perhaps for no reason, when someone checks their train ticket, or subway card or boarding pass. I would soon learn that I didn’t have to worry because no one ever did. I hardly saw any Trentalia employees at all, furthering my absolute perplexity of European public transportation. First Berlin, now Italy? Do people here just trust that people pay for trains?

 

The Italian countryside was beautiful as I looked out the window on the train. The short hills rolled and lapped into themselves and homegrown vineyards curled up massive lawns and snaked upward in the foreground of olive trees. When we passed little towns the houses were all yellows and reds and had an overall rustic palate. Pastel is the best world to describe them. A few days later I would learn from a tour guide that Tuscany passed a law, maybe in the ‘90s, saying that buildings, including houses, cannot be changed whatsoever, in order to protect and perpetuate the lands history. Even if a homeowner wanted to add another window into a house, it wasn’t allowed. This explained the archaic charm of Tuscany.

 

The train rolled to a slow stop at the Siena train station and I got out and found my way to the main terminal. Train stations in smaller places like Pisa or Siena aren’t what you’re thinking of, if you’re thinking of things like Victoria station in London or equivalents in New York. The train stations I departed from and arrived at are very small. There are maybe 5 sections of track separated by medium sized platforms, and the inside the terminal you only find an information desk, a souvenir shop and a cigarette store. These are not bustling places with a great sense of purpose. They’re world weary and efficient.

 

The moment I stepped into the train station in Siena to the time I arrived at my hostel some four or five hours later can be described as hell.

 

In my notebook I had the address and phone number of the hostel, but before I left I didn’t bother to find it on Google Earth or anything like that. I realized this as I was on the plane, and it didn’t come with panic or terror, more just confusion and surprise. I literally had no idea how to get to my hostel and it was really weird that I didn’t look that up before I left. As I was en route to Siena I just sort of shrugged and put that problem aside for future Dan. Poor future Dan.

 

The train station isn’t in the city center, where I knew my hostel was close to. So I had to figure out how to get to the city center. Luckily before I left I had had enough sense to find out how to get to the center from the station. I had to exit the station and go into the mall directly across from it, ride the escalators all the way to the top and buy a bus ticket for a ride to the center that would leave from right outside the train station. So I went into the mall and walked straight into a grocery store. I like to go in foreign grocery stores just to see what kinds of foreign stuff they have. Everything I’ve heard about Italy and wine I found to be true when I bought a bottle of red wine for the  equivalent of $2. I also got some chips.

I put the cheap wine in my bag and the weight it added was quite substantial, but I figured I could power through it because really, how long could it possibly take me to find the hostel? I found the escalators and rode all the way up but couldn’t really find where to buy a bus ticket. The view was incredible from up there though, and I took a few pictures of Tuscany from above the mountain I was on. I had walking directions from the train station to the city center as well, so I decided to just walk back down and walk. Days later I would discover that it was only a short, straight walk from where I was at the top of the mountain to my hostel.

 

I left the train station and walked into the city, on the side of busy roads, and followed the signs for Centro. I was nervous I would get lost but the directions I had written down in London seemed easy enough to follow. And just when I was beginning to become extremely discouraged (I had been walking for about 20 minutes uphill and my whole body was killing me because of the bag) I rounded a corner and saw giant, ancient walls with a huge gap in the middle where I spied hinges with old wooden doors swung open. This was the entrance to the city center of Siena – or really the only interesting part of Siena. I smiled both in reassurance and awe as I looked upon it. The gates alone are something out of a period piece and the sight was awesome, but I also figured it was a mark that my journey was almost over. I crossed the street and went through the gates.

 

I didn’t know much about Siena, but I knew that the Piazza del Campo was right in the center of the city, so I figured I’d go there and collect myself. It was also, I knew, the place where the office of tourism was. I walked and walked and followed signs for the Campo. I was in a rush. I was starting to get discouraged again because I really didn’t know where I was at all. It was getting dark and the absolute last thing I wanted was to be alone in Siena at night with all my luggage and no idea where I was or how to get to any kind of shelter.

 

The city center of Siena is extremely beautiful. It is an ancient maze of thin, cobblestoned roads just barely big enough for cars to snake through. It’s hilly and close together and the buildings are something out of a dream. I would learn later that a law was passed in Tuscany making it illegal to chance any of the architecture for the sake of preserving history. Therefore all the buildings are the original stone and shape that they were hundreds of years ago. It is unlike anywhere else. The roads wrap around the city in a huge circle and the Campo was as the heart of it all. I made my way closer into the city. It was bigger than I expected and it took me some 15 minutes to get from the gates to the center. Once I did and walked down a narrow, downward slanting alley to come out into the wide open area of the Campo, I was met with a great sight. The center of Siena is huge. There is a great semi circle of restaurants, gift shops and alleys hugging once far side of the center (the side I came out on) and directly opposite the center was the great Tor and clock tower. Right in the middle, with no shops or anything – completely open, is a giant, downward slanting, red cobblestoned scallop shell of ground. Siena is famous for the Palio – a magnificent horse race that takes place every summer in the square that I found myself in. Siena is and has forever been divided into 17 different “Contradas,” or something similar to neighborhoods. Each Contrada has their own different home or territory within the center of Siena and each Contrada has its own insignia.  The Eagle, the Snail, the owl, the dragon, the panther, etc. You can walk around Siena and you’ll find different insignias for the different Contradas slapped on the concrete of the walls, marking the territory. The Contradas have been around forever and each ranges from very rich to very poor. The Palio is a horse race that has features 17 horses and riders – one from each Contrada. I think generally the richest Contrada usually wins, but the Palio is a big deal. The center is swarmed with people every year and they watch from their houses and cram into the scallop square. The horses race around the scallop. So it was quite a place to be.

 

I took in the sight and walked around the square on the site of the race. I was looking for the tourist office but couldn’t distinguish it anywhere in the Campo. My arm was killing me. I walked into a gift shop and tried to ask the proprietor in broken Italian but she couldn’t understand me so I left. I left the Campo the way I came and happened upon a police officer. He spoke English and I asked where the tourism office was (I was trying to find it so I could ask where my hostel was) and he directed me to a church further up than the Campo. I walked through the center again and this time kept going and stumbled upon the great church. I found a security guard near where you purchase tickets to get inside and asked again, as I didn’t see the office there either. He told me it was in the Campo. I was crestfallen.

 

With no knowledge where to find information about how to get to my hostel and no one, seemingly, to ask, I decided to slow my pace and walk easily back to the Campo to take it easy for a few minutes and conserve my energy. I think it was something like 5pm at this point. I saw someone pass me with gelato and I wanted to get one. This was my first day in Italy and I hadn’t really had any authentic Italian food, so I found a gelato place (there were a lot of them there) and got a chocolate one with whole nuts in it. I took it back to the campo, put down my bag and sat on the edge of the cobblestoned scallop. Night was falling fast but I was so exhausted I put aside my worries of ever finding shelter and let myself enjoy where I was. The square was pretty empty and I listened to the sounds it offered of the kids playing near the Tor, the restaurant forks and knives clinking against wine glasses and the clack of heels on the cobble stones behind me. It was beautiful and it was a shame I had to be introduced to Siena under these stressful circumstances. I hadn’t had time to register how I felt about being alone in a foreign country or anything profound like that. But I would.

 

After I finished my gelato I slowly hauled myself back up and began walking out toward the exit of the Campo. I had a new mission now. I remembered passing a sign for public telephones and I figured since I couldn’t find the tourism office I might as well find a pay phone and call the hostel. It took me a while to find it. The sign was a ways away from where the actual phone was. But I find a small nook in the side of a building where there were phone stands and I went into try and figure out how they worked. It took me a while to figure out as well because, you know, everything was in Italian. Eventually I figured it out and I dialed the number for the hostel, which I had at least bothered to write down before I left. The voice on the other end instructed me to take a specific bus from the bus stop near the Center of Siena to a stop called La Terreza or something that sounded like that. Apparently the hostel was right there off that stop.

 

I hung up and began the second half of my journey, or the worse half. It was good that I knew where to go, but there was the problem now of finding where the bus stop was and waiting for the right bus. I think it was the #9. I retraced my steps in order to leave out through the main gates of Siena, thinking I probably passed the bus stop on my way up to the Center hours before. I turned out retracing my steps was harder than I thought because of the layout of the city. As I said it sort of revolve around itself and the streets snake and twist in weird directions. So it took me about 20 minutes to find my way out and by this time, full on night had fallen. I timidly crossed the street and walked back down the street where I came, but soon found that this probably wasn’t the right place to go, as the twisting, narrow sidewalk ahead of me just led into darkness back down towards the train station. I turned around and decided to walk the other way, past the gates to the Center, a way I hadn’t gone before.

 

I kept on going and going but I didn’t come across anything. I walked until I saw a bus approaching me and figured that there must be a stop if I kept walking, which there wasn’t. I walked for maybe a solid 15 minutes in this direction, growing more tired, upset and hurt until I turned around, in a horrible mood. I walked back to the gates with the idea of asking someone in there how to find the bus station. After another 15 minutes I came upon them again and entered once more, looking for a police officer. My only break of the night came now, as I walked straight the way I’d gone before and happened to look to my right a few minutes in. There, down an alley I saw what looked like a bus terminal where the alley opened up on the other side. Sure enough, after some investigating, it was. I went in two buses and asked a couple drivers if this was where the #9 bus called at and they both said yes, just stay here. I found a stone slab and sat down, grateful at having finally found where I had to go but I also had to pee pretty bad at this point so there was no time to relax. I waited and waited and started to panic and give up hope that the bus would ever come but eventually it rolled in and I got on board through the center doors. Like Berlin, I had no idea how to pay for public transportation so I…just didn’t do it. I did notice that there was a little con machine that dispensed tickets on the bus but I didn’t bother with it. I rode the bus and listened intently at every stop for what the automated voice had to say but I didn’t recognize anything resembling “La Terreza” after about three stops. I approached the bus driver and asked in broken Italian if he stopped at that stop and he seemed to register my speech and said yes. So I sat back down and trusted him. I looked out the window at Siena in the dark and started to panic a little as the bus drove quite a ways past the train station where I started my journey. After two or three more stops I asked the bus driver again, to make sure he knew I was still there. “We passed it,” he said. I guess I looked noticeably crestfallen because he then added that he would let me know when we were there. So that was nice. It took about another 10 minutes until we stopped and he said “La Terreza.” I sprung up and headed for the center exit. “Grazi.” “Prego.”

 

I got off the bus and stepped into a pitch black night. The bus roared off and I looked around but everything around me opposite the street was dark and closed. I began to panic and think that my hostel must be somewhere adjacent to this place when I turned around and noticed a building I’d seen in pictures as my hostel. Words can’t really describe my relief and utter sense of joy as I almost ran there. I got in and saw a lone man sitting behind a small desk in the small, though nice looking, lobby. I checked in and he gave me my key and all the information I needed and I went upstairs and found my room.

 

I won’t say the room was worth all the horror I’d just experienced, but I suppose it came close. You can’t really describe this place as a hostel. It’s more like a hotel. I had a two bed, one bath hotel room all to myself with a television, mini bar and private shower. It was a hotel with hostel prices and it was way too nice for a lone, broke student traveler to inhabit by himself. But I did and the stay was really nice. I went to the bathroom and flopped on the bed, utterly and ridiculously exhausted. I laid there for I don’t know how long before I unpacked what I needed from my carry on. I was tired but I was also starving and one of the great thing about this ho(s)tel  was that it was right next door, attached actually, to a pizza place. It was late but I walked next door and tried to order a pizza. It was a restaurant but they did take away. As I said, it was late and also a little crowded and the girl behind the counter asked if I wanted to eat in or take away and after I said take away she looked really worried and said it would be like 45 minutes. I told her that was ok and she went in the back and brought out another girl, who took my order and charged me. I think she thought I was cute and she said it would be 5 minutes. Sure enough, I was back up in my room with an honest to God Italian pizza in under 10 minutes. It was good but I think my body was so full of fatigue and stress that all I did was take a shower and go to bed. I still didn’t have time to process my feelings about my whole situation, but I would the next day. The next day I had a walking tour of the city center and I had to be there by 10:30.

 

When I woke up the next day I went down stairs to the basement, I guess, to find that I was mistaken that I thought breakfast ended at 9:30, it having ended a half hour ago. The owner said I could still squeeze some coffee out of the machine if there was any left and damned if I didn’t try. He also told me my mom called the hostel trying to see if I was ok. I had my London phone with me but since I was out of the UK it was useless, and I didn’t have access to the internet. So I didn’t blame her and since I was completely alone in a foreign country I was only the slightest bit embarassed. I asked which bus to take the the city center and relaxed fully for the first time since I got there when I heard it was the same bus I took to get from the Center to the hostel.

 

I went outside and was embraced by daylight and appreciated more than ever as a tool for survival after the Godless affair that was the night before. The only thing was that it was sort of a crappy day. The sky was grey and the ground was wet from rain while I was sleeping and it was actually a little chilly. I was grateful for my situation: for how amazing my living situation turned out to be, for the new knowledge of the bus system and for a plan ahead of me of what to do with my day. But I was still tired and I was still alone. I was excited, don’t get me wrong, but it was still day two of six in Italy by myself and the things I would have to do and the responsibilities I’d have to take care of in those next few days were always sitting dormant within me and looming over my head. I learned a lot about romanticizing things on this trip, and a lot about realism and responsibility. But I’ll get to that later, because I didn’t sit and thing about it fully until later in the day.

 

I got on the bus and went back to where I’d gotten on the bus the night before. The instructions I had said to wait by a cafe and I recognized it immediately when I got off the bus. The cafe was next to an alley way that led into the twisting core of the city, and here I waited for my guide, or for a group of people that would be waiting for the tour as well. I waited and waited but I still appeared to be along. There was a couple in front of me sitting at a table. The woman was smoking and they were both smiling at each other. I think the man was telling a story or something, but I’ll be damned if that wasn’t one of the most beautiful women I’d ever seen in my life.

 

Just when I was starting to think that I was in the wrong place or no one was going to show up, I heard someone say “hi, excuse me, are you here for the walking tour?” The slight German accent I heard belonged to a woman who appeared to be anywhere in her thirties. She had a kind face, a warm face and she was pretty, I would say. She looked like a mom and I would have said this anyway even if she didn’t approach me pushing a baby stroller forward with a little chubby baby in it. I would later find out the baby was called Rocko. I told her yes, I was here for that, assuming she was a customer as well and she was seeking solace in the fact that she wasn’t alone to wait. But it turned out she was actually the leader of the tour and I was the only one scheduled on it. Not what I had in mind and I was afraid the whole thing was going to be really awkward, but she seemed nice enough and I figured I would learn more, it just being myself.

 

So we ventured on, just the three of us. I learned that my tour guide, whose name I’ve unfortunately forgotten, was German and from Berlin. I told her that I went there and went the Berlinale and we hit it off from there. She moved to Tuscany with her boyfriend and lived about an hour from Siena. She was nice and I liked her. But unfortunately almost as soon as we started walking, little Rocko started to cry. He cried and cried and the poor woman tried everything she could to keep him quiet. I did manage to learn about the Contradas from her and that all the richest people in Siena come from old money. As we all awkwardly stood in an opening off a main street while Rocko wailed and individually disturbed the peace of the Italian morning, my tour guide quickly stopped whatever information she was telling me and apologized on behalf of Rocko. She a lot of things in quick succession as she maneuvered the baby out of his stroller. The next thing I knew she propped the kid on her lap and started breast feeding him. Right there in from of me, her only paying customer. My heart went out to her though because I’m sure she was beyond mortified that she had to do that. And even that ended to no avail, as Rocko continued to cry for the duration of the walking tour. She took my picture by the Campo and still Rocko cried. We snaked through the streets in the drizzling rain and still Rocko cried. She got us tickets to go into an ancient awe inspiring cathedral and Rocko’s cries reverberated off the walls and the marble floors until she breast fed him again in one of the pews while she informed me of the particulars of the architecture. When his cries crescendoed to a screech she had no choice but to apologize profusely and end the tour, wishing me well and dragging the little lad out of the church. I liked her a lot, and I learned a lot. I hope Rocko isn’t still crying now.

 

I stayed in the church a little and looked at all I could. It was gigantic with a wide variety of marble statues depicting the stations of the cross. Ancient paintings dominated another room depicting the same thing. I left and the drizzle hadn’t gone away. I walked out and back into the streets, trying to decide what to do. I felt that I’d seen enough of the city in the day and a half I’d been there, to be honest. Siena is very small, but it was only about noon. I decided to go back to my hotel. I didn’t do this because I was tired or bored. The rain didn’t help, but mainly I wanted to go back to write. Leaving for Italy, I had it in my mind that I would get a lot of writing done on the film I planned to write about my experiences in London and Europe. I anticipated being alone in Italy for a week to yield some great results, and thus far I hadn’t had a chance to sit down and thing of anything. I figured this was as good a time as any to start. Plus I was a little tired and I still had half a bottle of wine there.

 

Back at the hotel, the immense silence that comes with being indoors alone at noon engulfed my room and brought with it, like that sort of situation does, a small tinge of guilt. I shook it off as I prepared my little table with my black book that used to contain this blog and a sheet of thin paper that came with my pizza the night before that I’d written a poem on, and my trusty pen that I’d been using the whole time since I’d been abroad (it was a Millennium Gloucester Hotel pen I’d gotten at the hotel during my first week in London – a pen I’d use to write with for the duration of my time abroad and a pen that still sits safe in my room now) and I re opened my wine. All set to do some writing, I sat there, motionless. This was the first time since I’d gotten to Italy that I was totally, completely unencumbered by immediate plans. It was 12:30 or so and I didn’t have to be anywhere until the next day at 10:30 when I had to be back where I’d found tour lady and Rocko, to get on another tour, this one a wine tasting, of the nearby medieval town of San Gimignano. I didn’t write for a long time because the thoughts of my situation were coming to me new and interesting. I was lonely. So far the grand romantic pilgrimage to Italy alone for a week, to be met with cultural immersion and never before seen sights and sounds and people and experience had brought upon more real world stress than I’d ever experienced, rain soaked clothes and groping around in the dark with no place to go but somewhere I didn’t know how to get to. I don’t think it had been scarring so far, but it certainly wasn’t romantic. Maybe it is now that it’s over, but when I was happening to me it was the worst. There were times the previous day where I had a chance to stop and look out over Tuscany and marvel at the Campo and things like that, but they were all bordered by the underlying notion that the clock was ticking down the daylight and I had no idea how to get to shelter. I hope I don’t sound ungrateful, but this was the reality of the situation. And it was really an interesting thing to be feeling considering where I was. But now that it was over, now that I was safe and in control over what I was doing next, I had the opportunity and the ability to take those negative experiences and render them into something creative and something to say about reality in the midst of paradise. And because of where I was and the beauty of where I was physically I had the opportunity and the ability to take those aspects of my trip and render them into something creative to say about romance and beauty and all the positive things Siena had given me so far. What I had gone through sucked, a lot. But because I went through them I had the power to take these good and bad aspects and marry them together and comment, through my film or poetry or anything, about, what I said I’d strive for in my very first blog post, romance and responsibility. And then I wrote.

 

(and then I drank and then I took a nap).

Young Americans

Let me first say that it’s been quite a while since my last post. I’ve been back in America for one month and this last month has been very busy. I do still plan on finishing the blog and concluding my tale abroad. I’m almost finished writing about Siena, Italy and next after that will be Florence, Stratford, Oxford, Paris, my last night in London and my last post, Virgin Atlantic: Part Two.

Very recently I finished my latest film, “The One And Only Billy Shears,” based on The Beatles song, ‘With A Little Help From My Friends.” You can watch it under the “Short Films” tab on this site. (PASSWORD: RINGO)

I say this because this brings up the topic of films. Weeks ago I mentioned in my of my posts that I’d abandoned my original idea of writing a story in pubs in favor of writing and shooting a film in London. This post is an update on that.

The end of my time in London was starting to creep up on the horizon and I still hadn’t started writing the film. This was in late March. I still was experiencing the issue of not knowing exactly what to write because I wanted to see how my own story would unfold. I was getting nervous that I wouldn’t have time to shoot it, though, so I resolved to bang out a full first draft during St. Patrick’s day weekend, where I would be alone in my seven person flat. I didn’t have as much free time as I thought I would because I ended up entertaining a friend for a good part of the weekend, wink, but on that Saturday I had the whole morning and afternoon ahead of me to think and write. What followed was typical of me as a writer.

I’m not a huge idea man. I’ve met some people at school who have an endless arsenal of ideas. Energetic hyper realists who constantly pitch things to their friends. I’m not like that. At any given time I probably have about two ideas sitting in me. What I do with these ideas, once I get them, is sit on them for a long time. I got the idea for Billy Shears in October 2012 and didn’t write it until the following April. I don’t like to rush in to things like that because I’m a big believer in the idea that if you let something marinate in your subconscious for a long enough time it’ll make the end product better and easier to produce. This was the case with this London film. I’d been thinking about it for months nearly every day, gathering information and collecting and recording my observations and experiences into potential story, dialogue or plot fodder.

I’m also, I’ll admit, a procrastinator and a little arrogant. I’ll admit it. Whenever I have an idea I plan to write and I’m in that in between period between thinking about it and writing it, first of all I procrastinate (because writing is hard, albeit fun) but I also sort of have the mindset that it’s ok, when I do sit down to write this thing it won’t take me that long. This was my exact disposition with this film.

But as I say, I was getting nervous, and enough was enough, I decided, it’s time to sit down with nothing but my thoughts and no other distractions and get the thing done by the end of the weekend. This always happens to. I eventually get so frustrated with the process of procrastinating, sitting down to write because I feel like it’ll be easy, ultimately and inevitably becoming perturbed when it’s NOT easy, and then quitting, dejected, that I say enough is enough and finally sit down and spend a good four or five hours of nonstop thinking, planning and writing and at the end of that time I’ll usually have the script at least 25% done with a clear idea of what to write next. This, sure enough, happened with this film.

I sat on my couch and talked out loud to myself, with my computer’s photo booth recording for about 40 minutes: talking about the characters, where the plot should go, how to write it, how the relationships will affect the plot and so on. I got some good stuff and found some great discoveries in that dedicated time and wrote a lot down. Then I re played the video and listened to what I’d said and wrote some more stuff down, having not remembered every bit of it.

After this barage of brainstorming, I wrote. I didn’t finish the script that Saturday, but I got pretty far. Far enough to go out and get a bottle of Jameson to celebrate Jameson being on sale and the fact that I had a clear idea of where the script should be going and what exactly I needed to write in the next scene. I went to bed content but lonely that night, the other six of my roommates being away.

The next day was Sunday and I got up and started writing again. By the time my roommates got back from Ireland in the mid afternoon I had about six or so pages left. I didn’t get much else done that day because even though I missed them and I was lonely, I find it extremely difficult to be creative in a cramped space with so many people like that.

 

A few days later, as I had more time to think in class, before bed, on the tube during my work commutes, I finished the film. It was a first draft, and the coming weeks would prove it would be the first and only draft. I was and am very proud of it.

I started shooting right away, enlisting help from my roommate Josh and some other people. The film was shot in and around London and Paris, where I met up with Dan Doran, who helped me out and played a role in the film. I spent a lot of my final days in London organizing, worrying over and shooting the film, but I got it completed with maybe one or two days to spare before my flight left on April 30th. The next step is editing the picture together, and then spending a very good chunk of time in Ithaca doing dialogue replacement for the main cast, the audio quality on the camera I shot on being poor (though the video is good). This being said, the film won’t look like Billy Shears and it won’t represent what I can do visually to the best of my ability. There’s a chance it might look amateur and there’s a chance, even after extensive ADR, that it might not sound as good as I’d want it too. But I truly believe that due to the quality of the writing, the story/content and the fact that it is about an American student studying abroad coming to terms with his future and the discarding of his past being made by an American student studying abroad coming to terms with his future and the discarding of his past will make up for its technical insufficiencies. I really believe that.

Anyway, I’m excited for it and I’m excited to share it and it will be my next film and hopefully one of two films that I’ll be coming out with this coming winter.

As for the title, from January until about three weeks ago I could not, for the life of me, think of a name for this thing. It was always “Untitled London Film,” and that’s what it still says on the cover of the script. I heard a song for the first time on the radio, though, when I got back and though the lyrics don’t support what the story is about, I really liked the song and the title of it inspired me. It was one of those “of course” moments and now I can’t imagine calling “Young Americans” anything other than that.

Geneva, Switzerland

Geneva, Switzerland

 

I don’t really know why, but for some reason I’ve always been interested in going to Switzerland. I just think it seems like a beautiful country and I think its history is interesting. Of all the countries I wanted to visit while I was abroad, Switzerland was one that took a little more precedence over most of the others. When all my flatmates and I arrived in London and settled into our flat, we inevitably talked about all the places we all wanted to go over the course of our three months in Europe. I think I was the only one who mentioned Switzerland, and as the weeks went by, my Switzerland trip turned into our Switzerland trip, and as January wound down, all of us in the flat save for two people bought plane tickets to Geneva for Valentine’s Day weekend. As far as the “my” trip turning into “our” trip, I don’t say that bitterly or regrettably – I’m glad people wanted to come with me.

When I think back on it now, I’m still not really sure why we chose Geneva. Aside from Berlin, where the itinerary of my activities was pretty self explanatory and pre-determined with the film festival, Geneva was to be my first trip from a purely tourist point of view. I guess we figured it was famous by name and there’d surely be enough to do there. Not to say that we just picked a place at random. We did look it up and found some things that looked cool to do there. I think mainly we chose it thought because the airline we were flying with only really flew into Geneva and Zurich. Anyway our flight was for something like 6:30am so I just ended up staying awake all night until we had to leave at like 2:30.

Now listen Caleb, I can’t talk about Geneva without mentioning this, but I won’t go into any explicit detail. Ok, anyway, Caleb was supposed to come with Alyssa, Amanda, Emily and myself on the trip, and at around 12:30 or 1am, Caleb came home positively inebriated. This was about an hour or so before we all had to leave to catch our bus to the airport. Without going into detail, we had to leave without him. The girls and I made our easyBus on time and arrived at the airport an our later. Caleb had phoned Emily saying that he got a cab and he’d meet us at the airport. After going through security we found him sleeping in a chair underneath the departures screen. It was quite the morning.

Now before I go into the meat of Geneva and explain what we did and how my experience was, I want to say a few things first. As you will find, I didn’t particularly care for Geneva. I had fun and it was nice to be somewhere different, but on the whole I was disappointed. It’s our own fault for not going somewhere different, but be that as it may, it was a very fickle trip. I say this now because I don’t want it to seem like I may be complaining later. Because even though I didn’t like it that much, I’m still glad I went and I’m still glad I have the experience of being let down by a trip, as strange as that might sound. I know in the future to plan better and all that kind of stuff, so it’s not like I didn’t learn anything from the whole endeavor.

 

Because I didn’t bother sleeping that night, I was really tired on the flight and fell asleep. When I woke up we were about 20 minutes away from landing and the sight outside the plane was incredible. The alps stretched to meet us below and there was snow everywhere. The plane dipped a bit and soon we were flying pretty low over a huge lake, turning sharply eventually to get to the airport. Switzerland is famous for several things, but one of the biggest is watches/clocks. Rolex is here and their clockmaking history is pretty staggering and impressive. So when we left the plane (filled with a bunch of people with skiis) and went into the airport, I wasn’t surprised, but I was, I don’t know, rather charmed by the amount of watch ads that were littered all over the place. It was crazy. Rolex this, Rolex that. The watches advertised looked incredible, though.

Once we collected ourselves, we had to figure out how the heck to get into the main part of Geneva and how to get to our hostel. But first Amanda and I had to exchange our money from pounds to Swiss francs. The franc is cheaper than the pound but more expensive than the dollar. The exchange rate is $10 = 8.74 francs, and 10 pounds = 14.5 francs. I detail this because one of the main reasons why the trip was a disappointment and also rather limiting and restrictive is because Switzerland is expensive. New York is expensive, London is expensive, but as a tourist visiting Geneva, Switzerland was, to be honest, so expensive it was uncomfortable and kind of offensive. I wouldn’t realize the full extent of how expensive it was until later that night, but I got my first clue when Amanda and I were at the exchange desk. I exchanged my money and thought I got a pretty good deal. Tens and twenties and a fifty or so. I was complaining. But when Amanda exchange hers, she got a 100 franc note included in her bills. She figured it was too large and probably didn’t want to go through the trouble of having to break it awkwardly somewhere, so she asked if she could have it in two fifties instead. The exchange person urged her not to. “The 100 franc note isn’t the large bill here,” he said. “The 1,000 franc note is.” He then told her that its not uncommon to buy your coffee with the 100 note. What did that mean? I guess we’d find out.

After we got that sorted we fumbled along and pantomimed our way communicating with people until we were directed to a train that would apparently bring is to the city. The swiss people are french speaking and Geneva is right on the border of Switzerland and France, so I guess they’re pretty much french people. I don’t know if they would get offended over that or not. Once we got to wherever the train ended up, we got out and figured out where we were. It would be way too expensive to buy a public transportation pass, but we figured out our hostel was pretty much in walking distance to where we were, so we just had to figure out where to go. I took either three or four years of french in high school, so I took it upon myself to try and communicate with a worker at the train station. We knew the road the hostel was on, so I just asked where that road was. I managed to have a broken conversation with the worker and understood enough to know where to go from the station, so we all left and, to my delight, ended up exactly where I thought the worker told me to go. We found the hostel rather easily about ten minutes later. We couldn’t check in yet though so we left our luggage with reception and went to walk around.

Our hostel was about a 4 minute walk from Lake Geneva and we could see the Alps in the distance, which was very cool. The big claim to fame in Geneva is the Jet d’Eau, which is just a really big jet of water shooting up into the air. Apparently it’s the biggest man made water jet in the world, or in Europe. But I mean…….it’s water. Anywho we walked around, took in some sights and went to a grocery store to get some lunch. It was really cold out so we didn’t venture far and eventually we wound up back at the hostel to check into our room, which was pretty nice, about on par with Berlin.

We left the hostel to go out and explore some more. We took the trolly/cable car around and we went to a watch museum. This was one of the highlights of the trip. Geneva, as I said before, is known for their watch and clockmakers. The museum was really fascinating and the amount of supremely old watches and clocks in there was really amazing. There was some artisan clocks from the 1800s that looked like old guns, but when you pulled the trigger a clock came out. They had stuff like that and it was really cool. The amount of wealth in that place was staggering.

After the museum we were hungry for some dinner and we wanted to get some famous Swiss fondue and we read of a small place that supposedly had good fondue. We found it inside a little tent in the city. Herein comes the best example of the fact that Switzerland is ridiculously expensive. I guess the tent just opened because there was no one there. It was pretty big and well heated with a little fire place in the middle and tables making up the circular inside. We sat down and looked at the menu. The staff spoke mostly French but we awkwardly communicated enough obtain some menus in English. Fondue is, as you would expect, simply a pot of boiling, melted, creamy cheese accompanied with bread and dried meat to dip in the cheese. That’s all there is too it. The fondue was 35 francs per person. So expensive that we all literally sat there talking amongst ourselves if it was worth it to eat here for about a good solid 10 minutes. The staff kept looking at us and were obviously getting annoyed at our indecision, but eventually (and, to be honest, reluctantly on my part) decided to get it. It was good. Not great, I don’t think, but good. The cheese was unlike any kind of cheese I’d ever had. It sort of melted and dissolved in your mouth as soon as it gets in your mouth, which was interesting and unique. The meat they gave us, though, I wasn’t a big fan of. Certainly not worth 35 francs per person. Highway robbery, am I right?

After the restaurant I think we walked around a bit more until we wound up back at the hostel. We were all dog tired and welcomed sleep like something clever welcomes a good simile. The next day we planned on going to the top of an Alp called Mont. Blanc. Except it was something like 100 francs so we decided not to. It was shaping up to be a nice day, so instead we walked by the lake and took a water taxi to the other side, where we played with some swans and walked further into the city on the other side. The city on this side was nicer, I thought. There were more little shops and unique storefronts. We got some quick lunch at a cafe (I ate a whole baquet) and we walked up further, towards the mountains. At this point I wanted to walk further and go towards the mountains (deceptively far away, I’d soon discover) but the others (Alyssa, Amanda, Emily and Caleb) wanted to go do something else. So I ventured on alone further up towards the alps. I kept walking and walking up to the mountains but I didn’t seem to get any further. I passed a road sight that pointed to “France” but kept going straight. I went into a local Coop and bought some Swiss chocolate and turned around there, giving up my quest to follow the sign to France. When I found it again I turned right and kept walking on the sidewalk of a busy double road. I had to meet back up with everyone at 5 and it was only about 3 at this point, so I wanted to walk as far as I could. I continued for about an hour until I suddenly saw a sign announcing I was in France. I poked around for a little and then turned back. So I walked to France. That was cool.

I got lost on the way back to the hostel but I eventually found it and after taking it easy for about a half hour, we all went out to dinner at what seemed like a sort of bar and grill type place. Alyssa, Amanda and I tried a five beer sampler and I got an interesting hamburger that was rather good. Afterwards we went back to the lake area and took it in at night before going back to go to sleep. Some of us resolved to get up early and see the sunrise over the lake

I think that usually when it’s crappy out in the morning it’ll turn into a nice day later, and vice versa. I think that’s true most of the time. Unfortunately when we woke up at 6 it was rainy and we couldn’t get a good glimpse of a sunrise, but we went out anyway and the morning air was really refreshing. It was a nice thing to do before we left at about 11. We didn’t have any trouble getting to the airport like we did coming from it, and we got into London on time. Like I said above, I’m grateful for this Geneva experience but certainly wouldn’t go back or recommend it to tourists or travelers. My next excursion to Siena and Florence would prove much more fruitful.

Berlin, Germany and the Berlinale – Part 2

Part Two: Prologue

 

The trajectory of Dan Doran and mine’s friendship is interesting, I think. I met him freshman year of college in a special topics film class, the subject of which I forget. I just know we watched movies like Belle du Jour and Chop Shop. We did a project for that class together when we didn’t know each other too well that had us watching Clerks in his dorm and making a presentation about it. When I was a freshman in college I was a nervous little shit. I’m an introvert and I used to be a lot more closed off and shy than I am now, but going into college was obviously a big deal and the added pressure of trying to make connections and establish new friendships was intimidating, alright? Anyway I feel like I didn’t connect with that many people, in the friendship sense of the word, initially because of my psychological reservations. I know this now and I knew it then, but sometimes it’s easy to know what to do but hard to do it or let yourself follow your own advice. Anyway, I think we probably got an A on the project.

Dan is a good filmmaker, and his freshman film was one of the best in our year. Flash forward to Sophomore year and his next film was again, one of the better ones to screen from our class. He’s a good photographer, he has a good eye and he’s practical. I’m very proud of the film I made that year and it even got into two festivals in the middle of the country. I came into the year with a script I wanted to shoot, however, but it turned out to be too ambitious to make with the time I had. I was approached by one of my friends to collaborate on a film and I wrote what became our Sophomore film in a the span of about two or three weeks. I’d never written a film that fast with no prior knowledge about it before, so it was a struggle and something I was initially hesitant to do. It was for that reason that I decided to make another film the following semester with a script I’d written almost a year previously. I approached someone in November to shoot it, but he said he’d need a while to figure out what he was working on. So I then asked Dan, who read the script and agreed. The film was The Classics and it was fun to make and probably a terribly important part of my undergraduate film life. I directed it and acted as the sole producer so the ship was all mine and the experience I took away from it was tremendous and it certainly has made me a better filmmaker.

Ithaca slushed and rained for a few months but summer started to haze its way across campus at the end of the semester. I had just finished the first draft of the script I was to make the following fall, The One And Only Billy Shears, and Dan was on his way to my dorm to give me his thoughts. We both wanted to continue working together after The Classics. He brought over a couple beers and we talked about the script. It was 30 pages and I reassured him I’d cut it down – but we agreed to work together again and planned for an early October shoot. This was the end of the semester, as I said, so this was one of the last interactions we had before leaving for the summer. We corresponded in the coming months as the script was honed further and when we came back as Juniors, we talked a lot about the visuals and how we’d shoot the film.

I’ve always been this way and it was only until a few years ago that I consciously realized this and started thinking about and analyzing it, but I honor relationships in an almost…restrictive way. That is to say, for the most part, if someone is older than me, even one year older than me, I never loose the thought that they’re older than me and therefore that, by default, informs the way I feel or think about them. And I don’t mean to say that I treat people differently because of it or even that I consciously think about it. It’s very subconscious, but I’m old enough to be able to recognize it. I will say here that I was more like this when I was younger and I do feel myself growing out of it. Not that it’s a terribly negative thing, but it makes me respect things like hierarchies. On a film set that’s both important and dangerous because you need to be aware of people’s jobs and you need to know when to shut up and just do as your told, but it’s also important to have some sort of presence and personality. I talk about this because the relationship between a director and his DP is very important and something I cherish, really. Being a filmmaker is a vulnerable and intimate thing, especially if you write your own stuff too, which I do. You write something alone in the quiet of your room and you make it about the things you love and hate and wish could or would happen and it’s extremely rewarding but it’s also very personal. And you know the goal is to share it with as wide an audience as possible, but it’s also your job to communicate to a lot of people what you were feeling and how you think it should be expressed visually. And the DP is in charge of how the film looks and you have to trust that he understands you and the story and will honor it and tell it the best way he can. And for the most part I do trust Dan and we work well together. He works fast and he has a great knowledge of light and technicality which I lack very much. He’s practical and tells me when I’m being stupid and he doesn’t take any shit. Anyway he was studying in Paris and was meeting us in Berlin.

 

Part Two

Dan was flying from Paris and he was staying at the same Hostel we were. Josh and I didn’t exactly know when he was getting in, but wondered if he ever would, based on how hard it was for us to find it earlier. We were walking back form  getting beer and were about half finished with them as we got back to the hostel. We went up the stairs and into the lobby and rounded the corner to use one of two computers that were situated on a table at the end of the hall to see if Dan had messaged us. He was sitting at the table.

We shook hands and greeted each other and immediately told him of The Grand Budapest Hotel. He asked if we knew a good place to get beer and we went out of the hostel to go back to the convenience store. We all caught up a bit as we walked through the night, which was very empty, and talked about the films we were seeing. We walked back to the hostel and drank in the shabby kitchen. Josh went to check something on the computer and Dan and I talked about Paris and London and films we were trying to do. In a past blog post I mentioned the film I wanted to make while abroad, and I told him about it and was very open to helping to shoot it if I went to Paris, which I’m going to do in April. By this time it was around midnight and I had gotten up at 1 am to start this journey the night before, so I was beat and went to bed. We agreed to meet at around 9 the next morning in the lobby. Josh and I only had one film to see the next day, and that wasn’t until 7:30 at night. Dan was going to try and get tickets for the same show but other than that he didn’t have anything all day either, so we decided we’d spend the day seeing those famous Berlin sights.

I set my alarm for 9 but somehow Dan got into Josh and mine’s room (it locks from the inside) and woke me up a little before then. I woke Josh up and the three of us got some breakfast at a little cafe thing owned by the hostel. I got a sandwich and a coffee. We walked to the underground and rode it a couple stops until we got to the place where Josh and I mistakenly thought our hostel was the day before. We wanted to go back because the buildings and the square we saw there were really beautiful and we wanted to explore. We walked around for a bit and took some photos before returning to the subway and going back to Checkpoint Charlie to walk along a section of the Berlin Wall. The part of the wall that was close to our hostel also had parts of basements that used to be SS headquarters during WWII. Josh knew of another place in East Berlin that had a bigger section of the wall, so we hopped in the U-Bahn and transferred a couple times until we ended up more east, by a river.

As I said before, Berlin is kind of cold and industrial and being here didn’t change my opinion of that. The Wall was very cool, though. It was graffitied on for miles and some of the art was very good. We all signed our names on it and walked along, taking pictures and admiring it for about a half hour. Walking to the river, we passed a genuine schnitzel place so we decided to get some lunch there. The inside of the place was small but very cool. Very German and hip. We each got schnitzel that came with fries and a salad. Schnitzel is just either chicken or a different type of meat that’s fried a certain way. It was great. We all got beers but I got this thing that was half beer half lemonade, which is apparently a thing other places too, but I’d never heard of such a thing. The guy behind the counter made fun of me because the one I got didn’t have as much alcohol as the ones Josh and Dan got.  It was good though.

We sat outside and ate and talked for a long time until we decided we’d go back to the Friedrichstadt Palast so Dan could see if he could get tickets for The Grand Budapest Hotel before the film he was going to try and see with us later that night. Budapest was showing again and he wanted to see it badly. By the time we got there, there was already a lot of people lining up to get into the palace for another showing of some film. We were about an hour and a half early for the possible second set of Budapest tickets. Josh and I agreed very easily that if Dan got tickets we would try to see it again. There was another large queue outside the box office for advance tickets. I don’t think any of us really thought we had much of a chance but we were going to try anyway. Dan and I got in line and inched our way up and were almost past threshold of the door when I heard him say “oh shit” in front of me while he was looking in the Berlinale magazine of film listings. He’d made a mistake and read the days wrong. The 8:30 showing, or whatever it was, he thought was tonight was actually tomorrow night, and tonight’s showing of Budapest was happening an hour earlier – at a theater across town. We had enough time to get to the other theater and get in line for those tickets, but we had to leave now. Dan and I booked it from the line, ran towards the subway to find Josh, collected him from the pub he was at and raced down underground to the train.

We figured out where we needed to go and patiently sat and enjoyed the ride. I liked this. This was cool. Racing around Berlin, chasing after film tickets at different Berlinale theater venues with two good people without knowing how the night would turn out. It was cool. I was also still shit tired. Running around a city without having gotten that much sleep the night before does that. I was wiped. I knew where we needed to go but all of a sudden I noticed we were past the point where we needed to get off. I told them both to get off the train and we did. We had diverted somewhere and I honestly had no idea how we missed it. I guess I was more tired than I thought. I mean it was spooky, I had no idea how we got to where we were, because the train had to have turned somewhere or something. Anyway, we figured out we needed to get on another train and transfer two stations up and take a train from there to where we needed to go. Easy enough, but the clock was ticking.

We got on the other train and rode it two stops to our transfer point and hopped off. We descended further underground and discovered the platform looked a little hazy and it smelled like fire. We couldn’t tell what was going on but based on the way people were meandering toward the exits and the German voice over the loudspeaker, we realized no trains were going to come to this station. We exited the underground and asked some kind of employee how to get to the street we had to get to. It started to drizzle down on our heads as we walked to the end of the block to look at the street signs. We recognized the one we were on as the one we had to be on and crossed the street at a run in the direction of the other street that the theater was on. It was pretty much a straight shot to the road we had to turn on, and after some deliberation at an intersection, we made a right down a quiet street off the main road and soon the red and white glow of the Berlinale signs welcomed us with their luminous familiarity.

This particular theater wasn’t as grand as the one Josh and I had been, but it was more homey and comfortable looking on the outside and it was tucked away off the road in an area with grass and trees and a small gravel parking lot in front of the doors to the lobby. There was a queue of medium length lined up and we joined at the end to wait until tickets were to begin being distributed. Now I wanted to see Budapest again, no doubt. And when it comes out in wide release on March 7th I’ll be seeing it a handful more times. But since I’d already seen it the night before, I wasn’t really worried or nervous we wouldn’t get any tickets. This put my disposition at an advantage and allowed me to soak up the night and enjoy my sense of being. I ducked inside to see where the line was and investigated the lobby of the place. Not as big as Friedrichstadt, as I said, but it was nice, with a bar at the end of the long room with small seating. I looked around and then left to sit outside against a tree, about 50 feet away from the line and the building. It was a nice night with a little breeze and it was good to take it all in from a distance. It was a good night.

The line started to move and after about ten minutes we were about 20 people away from the box office. Dan was getting excited but, sure enough, about 15 people out they announced there were no more tickets. We stuck around for about five minutes afterward, hanging on to a false sense of hope, until we decided we should just go back to Friedrichstadt so Dan could try and get Caravaggio tickets and see it with me and Josh in about an hour and a half. We knew the way back by heart now, so we took our time riding the subway back the way we came. When we arrived, Josh and I hung out outside while Dan went into the familiar box office to get tickets. I decided to go in after him, just to see if he got them or not. He was the only one in there and he was talking to the woman behind the counter. Dan retreated from the glass enclosure, confused, and said to me that Caravaggio wasn’t playing at this theater. I instantly realized what the outcome of this conversation would be as I pulled out my ticket and examined it more closely. I guess I had just assumed Caravaggio was at Friedrichstadt for some reason I don’t really know. I was probably too excited about Budapest the day before to care where Caravaggio was, but as I looked at my ticket I smiled, because it was funny. “Where’s the theater?,” Dan asked. “Where do you think?” I smiled and rolled my eyes. We went out and told Josh we were going back to the same theater we came from and he couldn’t believe it. I was too amused to be angry or annoyed as we, the kings of the subway, went back on it and rode to our other theater. It was amazing we hadn’t been caught for taking advantage of the subway system yet.

We got back to the homey theater and of course Dan got Caravaggio tickets, because what the hell is Caravaggio, and we had about 40 minutes to spare, so we went and bought beer at a convenience store and found a diner type of German place to get some dinner. When we sat down, we each ordered food (this is important). We each ordered food, and then Josh politely asked the waiter if he had a bottle opener for his beer. Now I can see where the waiter was coming from, refusing to open the bottle, because we hadn’t paid for the beer at the restaurant. But he threw a big stink over the thing. He could barely speak English and he was so confused and beside himself that Josh would ask for a bottle opener. He turned to another waiter and said something in exasperated German, which I can only gather was something like “I’ve never been so enraged and confused in all my life.” Josh, Dan and I all looked at each other, not knowing what to do, as the waiter just stood there. “Ok, what should we do with them?” Josh asked. “I don’t know,” the waiter said. I took my beer from the table and tried putting it on the ground by my feet, but this didn’t please the waiter either. “Should we put them over here?” Josh asked, indicating a ledge on the wall that was flush against our table. “I don’t know. I don’t know, this is the center of Berlin!” Umm……..what? This would prove to be a great joke for the remainder of our trip. “This is the center of Berlin!” As if that statement made any difference or carried any kind of relevance whatsoever. Eventually we just ordered three cokes and the waiter left. A few minutes later he came back with our food and patted me on the back, as if in truce and mutual respect that two alpha males grow for each other, and we ate our meals and left. I still drank my beer when he wasn’t looking.

We hurried back and dove through the doors to the theater and took our seats in the balcony just in time for some guy in a tuxedo to come out on stage and introduce the movie. Now this movie Caravaggio came out in I think either 1983 or 1986, and it was Tilda Swinton’s first movie. Sean Bean is in it too. And the reason they were showing it here was because it was the premiere of a new 2k resolution print. The film is the story of the painter, Caravaggio, and it follows his life as a boy through his death. It’s, um……..bad? It’s set in the 1600s but also the 1980s but the characters don’t change and people die but they die for different reasons and it’s generally pretty hard to make sense of pretty much everything. For these reasons its a good movie to make fun of, though, and since we were all friends having a good time in Berlin that’s just what we did. It was rough to sit through for most of it, but when it was over we just kind of turned it into a punch line.

 

By this time it was about 9 and I was still really tired, but we wanted to see if we could go out and get a beer or something before going to sleep. We all had early movie the next day. We went back to the hostel and changed and checked our messages and lied down for five minutes before asking the person behind the desk at the hostel if he knew where there was a good place to find a pub or something. He pulled out a map and pointed us in the direction of, I guess, the more happenin’ part of Berlin, which was about three U-Bahn stops away. When we got to the subway station I was so tired I sat down on the ground and started to nod off until the train came. When we got out, we followed the crowd and headed in the direction of the most lights in the distance and eventually came to an intersection. Nothing really looked like a pub or bar or anything, so we asked these two guys if they knew of a bar or something we could go to. They pointed across the street to a place called “Cake.” So we went to Cake.

 

The place shouldn’t be called Cake. It was a small, kind of average bar, but past the bar there was a small dance floor where a bunch of German youths were dancing and grinding and groping and having fun. There were some small tables lining the wall to the opposite of the bar, which were crowded with people as well. There wasn’t a cover charge, but we had to have our hands stamped with a little red stamp that said “Cake,” which was, I don’t know, not the kind of thing I think you want advertised on your hand. Anyway it shouldn’t have been called Cake because, first of all there was no cake I guess, but also it was just a regular kind of loud, crowded bar. Everything was bathed in red, though. All the lights were red, which made for a pretty cool atmosphere. The other thing about this place was that you could smoke inside. That’s illegal everywhere else I’ve ever been, so that fact was pretty unique. Dan, Josh and I got some beers and found a little pseudo booth next to the bar and sat down. We had a smoke to indulge in the novelty (I don’t smoke, mom, it was just a thing to do here). We stayed for about an hour, had another round, and then left. It was about 2am at this point, and we had no idea how to get back. Luckily, Josh came out from a store with, he proclaimed, good news, and said that he just found out the subways run 24 hours a day on the weekends. This should be a thing everywhere. We rode home and I set my alarm for 8:30 because Josh and I had a film at 9:15 the next morning, as did Dan, but a different film at a difference place. We went to sleep, each of us in our ten person room. I slept in my jeans with my wallet and passport in my front pocket the whole time I was there. I didn’t take any chances with those things.

 

My alarm went off the next day at the time I had set it. I forced myself awake and reached under the bed to get my watch (my watch is my prized procession, folks). Here began a long, tiring day. I noticed the time on my alarm clock and the time on my watch didn’t match up. I’d forgotten to set my alarm an hour ahead to compensate for the time difference. We had 20 minutes to get to the theater before the movie started and they wouldn’t let anyone else in. I got up frantically and woke Josh and the both of us were dressed and outside in 5 minutes. Because of the previous nights back and forth and our time traveling for the past two days, we were pretty well oriented with Berlin, so we knew our route to Friedrichstadt like the back of our hand. Poor Dan had to go see a movie a the Zoo Palast, which, like it sounds, is at the zoo. Groggy, Josh and I raced to the theater and made it with a couple minutes to spare. Our seats were pretty good and we settled down to watch a German film called “Jack,” which was in competition. It would prove to be the best film we were to see at the festival (aside from Budapest). Jack is about a young boy, Jack, who is about 10 or 11 years old. He has a younger brother who is 5 or 6 and his mother is only about 25. I thought she was his sister at first. The story is about Jack and how he has to be a man and look after his young brother because his mother is too young to realize how to take care of her children. The whole story revolves around the mother, who has just dropped Jack off at a kind of orphanage for a few weeks, disappears. Jack escapes the orphanage and goes to claim his brother, and the two of them search for their mother for two or three days. They sleep in an old car at night and try any lead they can to find their mom. You probably won’t ever see it, so I’ll just say that eventually they find their mom and the mom doesn’t realize how worried the kids were. Jack discovers that the mom didn’t bother to look and find any of the letters he left her asking where she was, and the film ends with Jack taking himself and his brother back to the orphanage, knowing that they will be better off without her. It was a great film. Josh was of the same opinion as me.

 

It was about 10:30 when the film let out, and it was a beautiful day. Our next film wasn’t until about 3pm, and it was a movie called “’71,” a fictional war film about the IRA and the British struggle in the 1970s. It was the movie Dan was seeing at the zoo while we were seeing Jack. Josh and I headed back to the hostel to meet up with him, and as it happened we arrived at the same time he did. Dan wanted to go back to Potzdamer Platz and see if he could get a ticket for a documentary he wanted to see the next day, so we all went back to the nervous system of the Berlinale. He said ’71 was intense, but a good film. When we got to Potzdamer I bought a Berlinale hat and poster and Dan got his ticket. We were all starving so we ventured across the street to see if we could find a place to eat. We found a good old American style diner.

The diner was great and they were playing the winter Olympics, so that was cool. It was 12:59 and they stopped serving breakfast at 1, so Josh and I got breakfast and we got a pitcher of beer for the table. I stole my beer glass because it had the Berliner Pilsner logo on it. This was a nice break and we enjoyed talked about the films we saw, the experiences we’d had so far, and each other. Dan’s next film was at a theater right in Potzdamer Platz, so after lunch we bid him a temporary goodbye and Josh and I made our way to our Berlin home of Friedrichstadt and got there with plenty of time to spare before ’71 started. The film was another great one. It was the story of a British soldier who is fighting the IRA in Ireland amidst all the terror and confusion of that struggle. He gets separated from his unit and passes from the care of a young boy to a old man and his daughter and eventually into the hands of two people who turn out to be double agents. Its a great film under the war genre. There one shot where the main character is sitting in a pub, gets up, goes outside, the pub explodes, he’s thrown to the ground, and he gets up and goes back to the rubble to see if someone inside the pub lived – and it’s all one shot. Good movie.

 

I think Dan was still in his movie by the time ours ended (around 5) and our next movie wasn’t until 9 that night, so we went back to the hostel. One of our roommates, ALYSSA, arrived in Berlin a day later than we did. She’s not into film and wasn’t there for the festival, but she was meeting a friend she had from high school and they were going to to touristy things together. We didn’t see each other the day before and we honestly didn’t know if we’d ever see her, but when we went back to the hostel we had a look in the common area they have there and there she was with this naval fellow named Bob, who is apparently covered with tattoos, although we only saw a couple of them. Man, Alyssa is just great. She’s really just everything anyone could want in a woman. I guess you could say she’s the apple of my eye (omg are you happy now Alyssa?). Bob was either studying abroad in or was stationed in Sicily so he’s been in Europe for a while. We sat here and decompressed and talked a little with old Bob for about a half hour until we decided to go out and get some food. We crept up to the reception desk and asked the guy behind the counter if he knew of a good place us kids could get something to eat. He immediately suggested we go across town to this kebab place, that, as he said, had the best kebabs in the world. So we obviously went there.

 

Around three stops on Das Bahn later, we were wandering around the streets looking for this place, called Moustafas, expecting to find a restaurant. What we found wasn’t a restaurant, but a little tent/booth/counter propped up on the sidewalk with a huge line in front of it. We didn’t have anything else to do and it was a nice night and we all liked each other so we got on the back of the line. Josh and I got some beers at an adjacent convenience store and enjoyed the freedoms Berlin had to offer and drank them in line while waiting. We all talked and had a good time, but by the time we got to the front of the line I think it’d been an hour. And literally right as we got to the front they ran out of the huge shank of lamb or whatever that meat is that they carve off with a scimitar sliver by sliver, and we observed the process of putting another, frozen one on. Luckily there was still enough excess meat they had previously shaven off the other shank to use for our kebabs, so we delighted in the pleasure of having THE BEST KEBAB IN THE WORLD. This was the first time I’d ever had a kebab, so I really had no way to know if that was true. Anyway, it was amazing. And since that night, I’ve had maybe 6 or 7 kebabs since. I’m nuts for them now. They’re very European, I guess – I see kebab places everywhere here. And boy let me tell you, there’s nothing like casually moseying down the street with two hands wrapped around a good kebab.

 

I’d brought a DVD copy of Billy Shears (the latest film I made, if anyone doesn’t know) with me just in case the planets aligned and I found myself face to face with Wes Anderson or anyone with some clout in the picture business, but of course that didn’t happen. So, right before Josh and I left Alyssa and Bob, I decided to give Billy Shears to Bob. Alyssa told me he’s a huge Beatles fan and I of course like to spread my films around as much as possible. So Billy Shears is floating around Sicily somewhere as we speak. I hope you liked it, Bob.

 

The last film for Josh and I was a Forest Whitaker vehicle called “Two Men in Town.” Apparently it’s a remake or a reimagining of a foreign movie of the same name, I think. It’s about a man with anger issues who is newly released from prison and his unassuming, strong willed female parole officer and how both follow the trajectory of Whitaker’s mood swings. On that morning I tried to et Budapest tickets in London (and failed), this was the only movie I bought tickets for online. I really only got them because Forest Whitaker was in it. Anyway, unfortunately (because it was our last movie and we were leaving early the next morning) the film was terrible. It was too simple and straightforward and the main character doesn’t have any redemption – which is the point of the film but it was still executed rather indifferently. The best part was the actor who played the parole officer, but here character’s story didn’t resolve. Ah well. Still the best weekend of our lives.

 

We got back to the hostel and found Alyssa, Bob and Dan and hung out with them for a little while and had some beers. We talked a bit and I think I made loose plans to meet Dan in Paris in April to shoot some stuff and Josh talked of visiting in the summer as well. We shook hands and said see you later (Dan was staying all day the next day, where he would see either three or four more films, including The Monuments Men). I remembered to set my alarm properly and the next morning we met Alyssa in the lobby and took Das Free Berlin U-Bahn for the last time to a stop where we would transfer to the overground (the S45 train – underground starts with U and overground starts with S there) to the airport. We had some final dramatic moments waiting for the train, which seemed like it would never come. We had to ask two conductors where the heck it was. We finally made it and with some time to spare. In Berlin itself I didn’t see any real tourist shops or place to get souvenirs, but of course at the airport there was all the classic, authentic German stuff you could ever want there. I didn’t have any money at this point so I didn’t get anything. We sailed home on our economy flight and arrived back home in London to a very nice day. Thus ended the best weekend of my life.

 

Berlin, Germany and the Berlinale – Part One

Prologue

          It was January 6th and I was due at the airport in five hours to fly to London. The idea of going abroad for 4 months was exciting but vastly overwhelming. I, like everyone else in the program, wanted to do everything and go everywhere. I had a few countries I was interested in going to, but the only place I knew for a fact I had to go to was Berlin, Germany, and I was getting anxious to book the flight, a month from then. I love history. I was almost a history minor and Germany is one of the best places in the world to go to for a history lesson. This wasn’t why I needed to go, though. On February 6th-14th, Berlin would host the 64th annual Berlinale, the Berlin International Film Festival – the second biggest festival in Europe and among the top five on the planet.

Being in Berlin and being able to get some tickets for some of the films would be an amazing experience in itself, but the main reason I had to be there was because Wes Anderson’s The Grand Budapest Hotel was having its world premiere. Wes Anderson is my favorite filmmaker for a long list of reasons I could talk about for pages and pages. Every one of his films are spectacles and marvels of filmmaking and storytelling and I’d been waiting for his new film since I left the theater after seeing his last film, Moonrise Kingdom, for the first time. If I was in Europe and I had a chance to see the world premiere of his new film, I had to be there. London Stansted > Berlin Schonefeld. Berlin Schonefeld > London Stansted. I bought the plane ticket on January 6th.

Part One

On February 3rd I woke up at 8AM, nervous. The week before The Berlinale announced its official festival program as well as when advance online ticket sales were. The world premiere of The Grand Budapest Hotel was on Thursday the 6th. The tickets went on sale online on February 3rd. Germany is one hour ahead of London and the sale started at 10AM, which meant I had to get on a computer at 9 sharp if I wanted to try and get tickets. I dressed for my internship, which I had at 11, packed up all my things I needed for work and head to the London Center, where I could get on a completely reliable computer with completely reliable internet. I was on the Berlinale website by 8:30 and kept refreshing the ticket page every two seconds starting at 8:55. If we couldn’t get tickets online I was very doubtful that we would at all. We would be getting into Berlin after the public ticket booths opened and what tickets one could buy there in person I was sure would sell out as soon as it was open. For all I knew, this was my one and only chance. It was 8:59.

All of a sudden, after hitting refresh, the little icon that meant online ticket sales was open turned from gray to pink, and I immediately clicked on it. I was taken to a “waiting room” with a countdown icon saying I would be taken to the purchase page in 30 seconds. I figured this wasn’t the worst sign in the world, so I patiently waited. The 30 seconds wound down and I was ready to do whatever the next page told me. At the end of 30 seconds, 30 more seconds loaded and I had to keep waiting. Not good. I had no choice but to keep waiting until I was able to get in. Wes Anderson is a respectably famous filmmaker and not only was his new film opening the festival, but I was sure it was by far the most sought after ticket of the whole festival. While I was in the waiting room, people were getting their tickets. When I finally broke out of that limbo page, I was taken to the purchase page. I scanned it frantically to find out how I went about buying tickets, but my eyes finally landed on some text saying that there were no more tickets for the time I wanted. I was devastated, but I guess not all that surprised. After trying a few more times and going back to discover that literally all the other showings of the film were sold out as well, I bought some tickets to a couple of other films that I’d never heard of. They were in competition though, so I was glad I would be able to see some of the films competing for the Golden Bear. After this I printed out the receipts and vouchers to claim my tickets in Berlin and left to catch the tube to my internship.

 

On February 6th Josh woke me up at 1:30 AM. Josh is a film student as well, for those of you who don’t know, and in passing one day a few weeks ago he said how much he wanted to go to the Berlinale. I told him I was going and suggested he come. He bought his plane tickets almost immediately. Our flight was for 6:25AM at an airport an hour away from us, so we booked an EasyBus – a cheap mode of transportation to and from London airports, for 3AM, which would get us to the airport about 2 and a half hours before the flight left. I hadn’t traveled within Europe yet, so I wanted to make sure we had enough time to get where we had to go. We woke up at 1:30 because we had to take a night bus from Earl’s Court station at 2:07 (thank you TFL journey planner) that would take us to Baker street, where the EasyBus would pick us up.

We collected our things and went into the living room, where most of the flat was still up from the night. We grabbed our good ol Gregg’s sandwiches and left into the night where we walked down the street and up an alley to an Earl’s Court bus station. We waited there for about 15 minutes with two other guys who took turns ducking around the corner to probably do some blow until that N74 via Baker street lazed up to our stop. I was excited so I wasn’t quite as exhausted as I would come to be about a day later. We came to Baker street with about a half hour to spare until the bus came. It was cold out but I didn’t really care, it’s good to be early and I hate being late.

At 3AM our EasyBus rolled up and we got inside. It isn’t really a bus, more like a big van/shuttle type of thing. I tried falling asleep on the hour long ride but it was actually pretty uncomfortable and I was still sick. Oh yeah, I was sick. I woke up two days before feeling very sick to the point where I had to call in sick to work and book a doctor’s appointment. I was on antibiotics though and there was never a point in those past four days when I didn’t have tylenol in my body, so I was hoping I would get over it. But at this point I was still feeling kind of sick.

Stansted Airport is an economy airport that mainly serves the cheap airlines like EasyJet and Ryanair. It’s a pretty big place, regardless, and once we checked in with Ryanair we went to the main passenger terminal, which was like a mall and for 4AM, it was packed. There were a few things that stood out, like there were more pretty girls in this one place than I’d seen in once place for a long time. Weird, I guess. There was also this nice car in the middle with advertisements saying you could win it if you did something, like I see in malls sometimes. There was a middle aged woman, obviously affiliated with whatever company was sponsoring the car, standing next to it waiting for someone to inquire about the context. She was wearing a uniform and had more makeup on than I’d ever seen anyone wear. It was 4AM, I felt really bad for her. Josh and I found some seats and tried to sleep for an hour until our gate was announced. When it was, we took a shuttle to the gate and got in a long queue before we boarded the Ryanair jet.

Ryanair is actually a very nice airline. I’d never flown on a cheap economy plane that wasn’t a bigger brand before, but it was a nice experience. The flight was an hour and a half and I fell asleep for most of it. We landed on the outskirts of Berlin to a gray day at the tail end of a raining. I didn’t have any trouble getting past customs and Josh and I entered the terminal with ease. I expected more English in Germany. I don’t really know why, I guess, but there was very little English anywhere so it was all very confusing very fast. A few years ago I would have been panicking, being in a new place with no knowledge how to get to the city center in a country that doesn’t speak English. I wasn’t, though. For the most part I’ve gotten over that part about myself. You can always just ask someone and they’ll answer your questions in a second. It’s not really a big deal, I guess. Anyway, we asked someone at tourist booth and she gave us a subway map and told us to take the S45 train from the airport to a stop called Templehof, and then from there transfer to the underground (S means overground in Berlin) and ride it to another place. It was actually very simple, you just have to pay attention. We transferred our pounds to euros, went out to find the train platform and took the S45 to Templehof, which took about a 40 minutes. We followed the tourist person’s instructions and rode the underground from there a few stops up to the place she told us our hostel should be. We went above ground to look for it.

We were lost. We walked around for a few blocks but couldn’t find the street the hostel was supposed to be on anywhere. Luckily it was a really beautiful day out and while we were trying to find the place, we stumbled upon a very large square with two beautiful buildings in it that I think were museums. We found a bench and sat down – I was going to try and call the hostel. While we were siting, two deaf people came up to us and tried to get us to sign a petition or something and donate money. Who knows if they were actually deaf. We didn’t give them any money.

I discovered my phone didn’t work out of London and Josh discovered that he lost his phone somewhere in between the plane landing and sitting on the bench. We decided to go into a nearby Starbucks and ask the fine employees if they knew where our street was. Their English was broken and they were a little rude, but they gave us a map of all the different Starbucks locations across Berlin. It didn’t help. We supposedly had tickets for a film that morning that started at 9, so when we walked around a little bit more to no avail, we decided to get back on the subway and go to the place where the center of the Berlinale was to try and make the screening on time. We rode Das Free Subway to the Potsdamer Platz station.

It would take us about a day to become familiar with the radius of Berlin we would become close to, but at that moment we were totally lost. Strangers in a strange land, am I right? (ugh). We asked some fellow how to get to some mall that our online ticket receipt said was the place where we had to claim our physical tickets. He pointed us around the corner. Around the corner we were greeted by a huge building with an inexplicable giant mound of earth in front of it. We walked past the dirt and into the building, where the ticket place ought to have been. We were lost. The receipt said ground floor, so we got in an elevator with an old German man and went down to the ground floor, which turned out to be some weird industrial hallway that was “only for the crew,” as the German begrudgingly told us. We returned to the first floor with furrowed brows when suddenly we saw, out of the corners of our eyes, an elevated glass enclosure with a red Berlinale standard. We looked around for an entrance and found two doors leading up and around to the area.

The place we entered was a ticket office of some sorts, but there was also a sitting area where people were eating and talking. The room wasn’t big at all and there were only two small stands that had anything to do with the film festival. We approached one of the booths and asked the young woman behind it if this was the correct place to exchange our internet vouchers for tickets. Her English was broken as well but she managed to tell us that we had the wrong place and we had to go to a mall which, apparently, was just next door down a thin alleyway. We couldn’t miss it, she said. Well it turns out she was right. We went down the incredibly steep steps toward the dirt mound, hung a left and saw the alleyway clear as day, it being the day, and the mall was right to the left in a square just out of the alley. Red Berlinale bears were everywhere. The ticket area we wanted was a few steps into the mall and there was a large double line ahead of us. A television monitor propped above the ticket kiosks listed all the films playing over the ten days of the festival and if there were still tickets available to buy. The films on green weren’t sold out yet while the ones in red were. The yellow films we weren’t sure of, the language being German, but we came to a conclusion shortly.

Anyway there were two places to get tickets: this place right in front of us, and the internet ticket counter. Josh and I exchanged our receipts for physical tickets (beautiful, large pink tickets with a golden Berlinale bear on them) and then we waited in line to buy other tickets. We found out that the film we thought we had at 9 Josh got for 9 the next weekend by mistake, so we didn’t have anything to do until that evening. At that moment in time, we had tickets for Friday morning (the next day) at 9:30AM for a German film in competition called Jack, a film Saturday afternoon called ’71, also in competition, and a film that Saturday night called Two Men in Town, with Forrest Whitaker, also in competition. We wanted a film for Friday night, though, and we wanted to see if we could get tickets for The Grand Budapest Hotel. We looked at the monitor showing what films were available and, all of a sudden, when the days reset to the present day, Budapest changed its color from red (sold out) to yellow (what did yellow mean?!) We both freaked out. We were about ten people away from the booth and we were eager to ask what the yellow meant. The plan was to try for Budapest for that night and also to get tickets for a restored version of a film called Caravaggio for the following night. The line kept moving.

When it was our turn, Josh went up to the booth and frantically asked if we could buy tickets for Budapest. I didn’t hear the exchange, but once we bought Caravaggio, we huddled together and he told me that you can’t buy tickets for a film the same day the film is screening. What the yellow meant was that an hour before the screening, you could line up outside the box office of the theater the film was showing at to see if you could get any unclaimed tickets that people didn’t come to collect. There was usually a couple tickets available like this for every film. We made a new plan. Get out of here, find the hostel, drop our stuff off, get something to eat, and camp out where ever the film was showing for hours so ensure we could get tickets. We were excited: we might actually get to see the world premiere of this movie.

The mall where one could pick up tickets was situated in close proximity to the biggest theater of the Berlinale: The Berlinale Palast (located on Marlene-Dietrich Platz). We knew for a fact that the red carpet premiere of the Budapest was going to be here that night, and we walked out to see the theater and ask where one had to start lining up to get any extra tickets for that night. It was a grand venue replete with festival logos and statues. Outside there were already a lot of security guards and workers setting up barricades and girders and stuff like that. We asked a security guard where the line started for extra tickets but he didn’t know. We resolved to come back as soon as we dropped our stuff off and stick around until we found it.

With the whirwind excitement of getting tickets and soaking up the main center of the film festival behind us, we sobered down a little bit and adopted the problem of having no idea where our hostel was. We walked back the way we came and found a Ritz Carlton. We went in to seek out a concierge (two shit tired Americans with backpacks and hand luggage wandering into the Berlin Ritz Carlton – it was funny.) The concierge was actually extremely helpful and nice. I handed over my journal and pointed out the address of the hostel and he took out a map and drew some circles around landmarks to guide our way. He informed us that we could walk there and he even talked outside with us to point us in the right direction. We looked like the biggest tourists in the world trying to find this place, but when you’re in a situation where you have no idea where you are in a place whose street names look like they were written by someone having a stroke, it’s ok to look like a tourist. Our walking path took us past a giant formant hot air balloon, a lot of bears (Berlin is nuts about their bears) part of the Berlin wall and Checkpoint Charlie. After what felt like a long time (it was a beautiful day though, so it didn’t really matter) we found the hostel and checked in.

This was my first experience in a hostel and it actually really wasn’t that bad. Hostel’s have a connotation associated with them, but if you do a little research and find some good ones then it’ll make for a pretty nice experience. We were in a ten person mixed dorm with five bunk beds and lockers. Neither of us had locks, though, so we had to trust no one would steal our stuff the whole time we were there (no one did). We dumped our stuff, changed, and left almost immediately to find some place to get food. We retraced our steps and found a little German cafe that looked good so we went in. I got a brotwurst, a pretzel and this other dessert pretzel thing that wasn’t that good, though the other stuff was. It was cheap, too. We had a nice time sitting down to catch our breath and relax, but once we were done the mission of the day arose again and we ventured back to the mall to ask some Berlinale employees where the line would start for any extra tickets for The Grand Budapest Hotel.

After talking to two people and getting some confused looks, we found out something we didn’t expect then but should have, I suppose. There’s a red carpet premiere of the film, which has the filmmakers and cast in attendance, and then there was a public premiere that took place one hour after the red carpet premiere. The Wes Anderson/famous people premiere was at the Berlinale Palast at 6:30. The public premiere, the one that we wanted (no one could get into the red carpet premiere), was at 7:30 at a place called the Friedrichstadt Palast. By then it was around 3 o’clock, so we had a lot of time to get over there and get in line. We asked where the heck this other palast was and promptly left to go find it underground.

The Friedrichstadt Palast is located just a short distance away off of the Oranienburger Tor U-Bahn stop. From the outside it looks like a grand palace and, I mean, it is. The box office for this particular theater was right next to it, tucked away in the palace’s shadow. It’s a very small box of a place and the area outside looked deserted save for two people waiting outside, not really on any kind of line. We asked if they were and they said yes, but there aren’t any tickets left. I was both relieved and worried. Relieved because if this was the line, we were exceptionally early for it and might be able to get tickets. Worried because I guess I didn’t understand what he meant by “there’s no tickets left.” I knew that, but maybe he was referring to another set of tickets. We went in to find out.
The lady behind the glass was very nice and told us that yes, this was where one could start to queue up for extra tickets but that she didn’t have any. We asked what the chances were that there would be any extra tickets at all, and, like music, she said that there’s normally anywhere from 10-40 extra tickets for a film like this. I asked if there was a minimum she could expect and she said she didn’t know. We left the box office and regrouped outside. We decided to leave and get some food for just a few minutes and then come back and spend the afternoon online. When we came back, the two people had moved inside the box office and we found them seated at a little bench to the side of the room. We joined them. Josh and I were number three and four in line. Josh was sure that we’d get tickets but I still thought it was a little too good to be true, although I guess we did everything right. It was just such a momentous thing to be so close to, I guess I didn’t believe it. We sat down against the wall and tried to sleep. It was 4 o’clock. Whatever tickets that might be coming would be there at 6:30 – one hour before the screening.

Josh fell asleep almost immediately, but I couldn’t. I was nervous. As we sat, waiting, more and more people kept coming in and approaching the glass, asking about The Grand Budapest Hotel. Some people left after hearing what the woman had to say, but some stayed to wait with us. I started to get nervous because those that did decide to wait started taking seats ahead of us on the bench. I was nervous that once it came time to line up for tickets, they would transfer their spot ahead of us to the line and we would go from numbers 3 and 4 to 15 or 16. This kept going on for about two hours. I went up to the box office a couple of times and politely voiced my concerns, but the woman reassured me that she’s never seen such a thing happen and people are usually polite when it was time to line up.

It came to be about 6:15 and there was about 20 people in the place when we started to line up. Sure enough, the people who were ahead of us went behind as we sorted out who got there first. From one of my talks with the box office lady, I found out that there were indeed tickets on the way. How much, she didn’t know. But at least they were coming. We waited in line and talked about movies for about 15 minutes until I saw the woman behind the glass pick up a phone. The line started to move. We started to move. Now we didn’t know how many tickets were going to be available. For all we know they only got maybe five or ten. So my intense excitement temporarily gave way to nervousness when the first person in line asked for four tickets – and got them. I guess I hadn’t considered the fact that the three people in front of us could ask for multiple tickets each, to buy for friends or something. We got up to the box office window and there was this dormant franticness in me, if that make sense, and I asked for two tickets for The Grand Budapest Hotel. I had this sense of being on the edge of something. I was holding my breath, I think, and I was watching the woman behind the glass to see if I could notice any kind of physical tell that she had run out of tickets before she had a chance to tell me. Even now as I write this two weeks later, I don’t look back on this anxiety and think it was silly or overly dramatized. It could be seen as that and people can think that if they want. But this was important to me and this is my thing. It was special and momentous. We got the two big pink tickets for cheaper than we thought they’d be and I was happy. Really, really happy.

One important thing to know about the tickets we got. After that night, Josh and I saw four other films in the Berlinale program, and all four of those films – three of which were in competition – didn’t have assigned seating. When you arrived at the theater, it was first come, first served for the best seats. For The Grand Budapest Hotel, you had an assigned seat. We didn’t even think about what kind of seats we were going to have because we were just so unbelievably beside ourselves that we got tickets in the first place. The Friedrichstadt Palast is a great big theater, and we could have potentially had the worst seats in house but we didn’t care.

We had an hour and 15 minutes to kill before the movie started, so Josh and I ran across the street to grab some quick dinner. We walked out of the box office past a huge queue of people trying to get tickets and down the short steps onto the sidewalk in front of the Palast, where a red carpet lay in between barricades underneath theatrical lights. People were starting mull around and occupy the space. We crossed the street and spied a little cafe type place on the corner opposite the theater and went in. Josh got some meat kind of thing and I just a waffle desert thing, which was incredible and actually very filling. We ate excitedly and couldn’t believe we were apart of the night outside.

We crossed the street and got on queue to enter the theater. The name of the palace was lit up above us and we inched slowly toward the door. The ushers nodded at our tickets and directed us up the nearby stairs. The inside of the Friedrichstadt Palast is massive. I mean, it’s a palace. There’s two bars on either side of the first floor room, and a grand staircase leads you up to the second floor, which is another great, open floor with tables lining the railings that look over down into the first floor. When we got up to the second floor, we had our first hint at what was to come. When you reach the top of the stairs, you turn right and there’s a door leading into the theater. Past that door to the right is a long corridor that leads to two other sets of doors, also leading into the theater. There was a line to get into the first set of doors, right off of the stairs. There was a velvet rope next to this line, making it seem like you weren’t allowed to go further to the other sets of entry ways. There was a smartly dressed woman standing outside of the middle entryway, past the velvet rope, and we recognized the letters above the doorway she was outside of as the ones we were supposed to go through for our seats. We ducked under the rope and went to try and go in. The woman said that these particular doors don’t open for another ten minutes. There were several small tables to the opposite of these doors, so we went to sit down and collect ourselves. We observed the line to get into the other doors and noticed that, on our side of the rope, there was no one there, just us. We started to get the feeling that we might have stumbled upon two great tickets. The advance tickets that we got and were in line for are just tickets that people bought and never claimed, so it was possible that they were actually good seats. Why someone wouldn’t come get their tickets in time is beyond me. We dwelled on this for a few minutes before going to the bathroom. When we came back, we went and tried to get through the doors. There was still no one on our side of the rope, but the woman looked at our tickets, opened the door, and extended her arms through the entryway into the theater. We couldn’t believe what we saw.

The door we walked through was the door to the floor of the palace. There were probably about 50 rows of seats in this place, going all the way from the first row, about five feet from the stage (apparently this place has the biggest theater stage in the world, if I remember that right), curving up higher to the top. The seats were divided into several sections: the first 15 rows, then a walkway, then the next 20 or so, then another pathway, then more seats, etc. The big line of people at the first set of doors outside came into the theater more towards the top, but as we walked down the floor of the theater it became more and more clear that we had come across, by absolute chance, a great pair of tickets. We followed the letters on the hand rests and kept walking down to finally stop at the first row of the second section of seats. Josh and I kept saying ‘oh my God’ and when we found where our seats were we looked at each other in kind of amazement. I’m not being biased and I’m not trying to exaggerate this story when I say that our seats were the absolute best seats in the house. They were right in the middle of the second section of seats, so we were very close to the screen but had the leg room of being right in front of the walkway. Once the movie started, we wouldn’t have anyone’s heads in front of us to distract us. It was incredible.

By this time it was about 20 minutes until the movie was supposed to start, so we just chilled out and soaked up the moment. We were really besides ourselves. Now, because this was the world premiere, our showing had the added bonus of having the red carpet event (that took place at the Berlinale Palast less than an hour before we took our seats) streamed before the movie. Just before the ceremony was going to begin, a man in a tuxedo got up on stage to introduce it and the movie. At the end of the introduction, he mentioned to all of us in the audience that there was a small chance we would be getting some “visitors” at the end of the film. This obviously meant Wes and or some other people from the cast. While this was obviously tremendous and insane news to hear, I honestly wasn’t all that surprised to hear it. Wes and the others were just about ten minutes away anyway, and this was the world public premiere of his new film. If I were a director and I was in that position, I would totally come over and say hi and enjoy the film. But there was no time to dwell on that. The lights dimmed and the opening ceremony began. We were taken on screen to the Berlinale Palast, were we saw Wes Anderson and the cast of the film seated, watching the host do her thing. It was neat. It was a nice thing to see and cool because we knew that all those people in that theater were still there at that moment, watching the film we were about to see.

What we didn’t expect was to be watching this opening ceremony for an hour and 20 minutes. It was treated like the Golden Globes or something. The host had a long speech and she was funny, but then she went up in the crowd and talked to a lot of people, and still that was fun to watch. She approached Bill Murray and said that she saw him drinking something earlier and asked what it was. “It was clear and it was painless,” he replied in that dry, sardonic, yet harmlessly endearing way he speaks. But then she went on about German politics and there was a band that played two sets and it was like, come on man we just want to watch the movie. Anyway, it finally ended an the whole audience was, I think, a little annoyed because I don’t think anyone imagined it would be that long. We squirmed around and started talking and the whole theater was whispering to each other and started to anticipate the movie, when all of a sudden a man came running on the stage from stage left. It took me a second, but all of a sudden I recognized him as that man I saw in the opening ceremony – the president of the Berlinale. That’s pretty cool, he was just on the s- OH MY GOD WES ANDERSON IS 30 FEET IN FRONT OF ME AND BILL MURRAY IS BEHIND HIM. Wes came running out like an excited kid, waving at us and smiling, and Bill Murray trotted after him with a similar expression. The crowd went insane and I was in a state of shock and awe. The man is a hero of mine, it was surreal.

Bill Murray did all the talking, more or less. Bill Murray said that through the miracle of television, they were there, and through the miracle of cinema, were about to see the best film that this man has ever made, referring of course to Wes. Wes was embarrassed, I think. For such a damn great filmmaker he’s a very humble man. It’s really interesting, because I think when you watch interviews with Bill Murray or see him in ceremony settings, like the one we had just seen, he appears to be kind of stoic, emotionless and a little detached and maybe lethargic. But when he was up on that stage in front of all of us, he was so lively and cool and funny. You could really feel his energy and the whole crowd was with him. Afterward, Josh said that man, he really knows how to handle a crowd. And he does. He’s a comedian and great actor and I think that’s what he thrives on. It was very telling of him, and I loved that I got to see it. Wes talked for a little while and said how much he hoped we all enjoyed the film. He’s such a great guy. Right before they left, Bill Murray mentioned that he knew we all wanted to watch the movie, so he looked up ahead of us to the projection booth and said “Mr. Projectionist, [German word I don’t know], baby.” It was so cool and funny and after than we went nuts and they ran off smiling off stage. It was really like they were two excited kids, eager to share what they made and happy to to see us happy. Man it was so cool.

We were elated and vibrating from the rush when the lights went down and the film began. I won’t give a proper review of the film, because that’s not what the blog is about. But I will say that I loved it to death and I think it’s his best film yet and it’s one of the movies that you watch and it just takes over your whole body because not only is it so damn good, but you’re just proud to be a living person because the man that made it is also a living person and it makes you happy that people can make such great things. It’s one of those. Go see it. It’s incredible.

We were still reeling from the experience when we left the theater and stepped out into the Berlin night. We talked about the film as we walked to Das Free Subway and kept on marveling over it as we rode back to Checkpoint Charlie, which was the closest stop to our hostel. We walked up and down the streets, looking for a pub or a beer garden to go to but we couldn’t find any. I think we were just in a bad place in Berlin to do that sort of thing. We continued walking a ways down one quiet stretch of road until we saw a convenience store in the distance. We walked in and got some beer and drank it on the way back to the hostel. There are no open container laws in Berlin.

To be continued in Part Two

An update

Hello all.

For those of you who peruse my grand adventures I’d like to talk briefly about what I’ve been doing and what you can expect in the next few weeks.

Last weekend I was in Berlin, Germany for the Berlin International Film Festival. I went with one of my flatmates, Josh, and it was, I think, the best weekend of my life. A very lengthy blogpost is forthcoming and I hope to have it written and posted in the next couple of days.

This past weekend I went to Geneva, Switzerland with most of my flatmates. It was not the best weekend of my life. A blogpost for that will arrive in due course as well.

I’ve been spending a lot of thought on an endeavor back home in Ithaca, New York that I’ll be talking about as well as some apprehensions and personal discoveries I’ve found so far in my time abroad. At the moment I’m trying to coordinate a week long solo trip to Italy for my spring break. Once again, more on that later.

In my first blogpost I wrote at the airport before coming to London, I mentioned it was one of my goals to write a short story only in pubs across London. During my first week here, I think, I found that that would be impossible. Pubs are small, loud, crowded and expensive. It was a good idea on the surface, but sometimes the reality of things shatter its romantic illusions. So, unfortunately, I won’t be pursing that goal.

However, I’ve replaced it with something else. I haven’t told many people about this because I think a part of me thinks that if I tell everyone it won’t happen. But on the other hand, now that I am telling everyone, I’ll have to make sure it absolutely does happen. I decided to write a film about an American student studying abroad in London. It will surely be semi autobiographical and probably rooted in fact, but it won’t be a documentary of any kind. I make movies so I can live out my fantasies, and I fantasize a lot. I don’t think the idea sounds all to captivating, but I’ve become really fascinated with the themes of growing up and becoming more worldly, and self discovery and all that. I think writing a film about a young man at the tail end of his career as a student and how he deals with the thought of a structureless life will be very interesting. Add to that supporting characters in his friends, a romantic interest by someone who would probably act as a foil character and, especially, the backdrop of London and Paris and what those “foreign” landscapes mean and do for the story, I think there’s quite a story in there.

This being said, I’ve been thinking about this subject every day for probably around three weeks and I haven’t started writing yet. In a way its terribly difficult to do so because a part of me is waiting to see how my own life and my own story unfolds while I’m here in London. I know I can’t do that though, because by the time I figure it out it’ll be too late. Recently I was in a situation at work that was probably the most interesting thing to happen to me in London, after which I thought I had enough material to start writing. I still think that and I hope to begin the script by this weekend.

I have a camera here with me that by no means looks like a film camera. However, it does take very high quality, gorgeous, really, pictures and video images. I plan to shoot the film on that camera in April and have production done, save one scene I’ve decided on, by the time I come back to America in May. I’m dead set on doing this and, if I complete it, this will most likely be my Thesis film.

Stay tuned for some international blogposts and always, thanks for reading.

-Dan

Poem #2 (The Square) and Poem #3 (The English Countryside)

The first poem I wrote while in a square in Bath, with a cathedral on my left, the Roman Baths behind me, a street musician in front of me and two friends beside me. The second was written on the bus from Bath to Stonehenge.

Poem #2 (The Square)

She twisted herself away in an unconscious attempt at dissonance
that colored his brow with worry, confusion.
The ancient awnings of the cathedral captured his periphery
and stole his interest from her disinterest.

The sky shook with sudden breath and he missed
the English pigeons escape through the afternoon.
He looked up and she was gone.

The street musician ahead of him rang a
consonant harmony and the smile he’d been
hoping for seduced the fading light of day
to slowly sink to twilight.

Children squeaked hunger to their parents and he listened.
The wind picked up as men tucked in their scarves, and he watched.
The cathedral laid its shadow across the brick and he thought
of last night’s rain and last night’s mud and last night’s beer and last night’s bed.

The guitarist ran his dancing hands up the neck of his instrument,
squeezing his strings and singing his ecstasy
through the hollow wood of his livelihood.
He climaxed with a jerk of his head and a finality of his hand
and left the square in an acoustic vibrato.
The backlit cathedral moved with the sun and engulfed the square in shadow.

He squinted in the night and quivered in the cold and warmed his hearth with coffee.
He had nothing to keep him here and nothing to carry him away,
which is the greatest gift of present.
The children cleared and the temperature sank with the British sun.

The church bell rang to mark the hour, though which one, he couldn’t say.
The coffee disappeared in his veins and cooled against his blood.
The silence warmed him and he stayed to soak the square.
He wouldn’t think of her again.

Poem #3 (The English Countryside)

The sheep dotted the countryside like
summer rain on a window,
inching lazily onward until they stopped:
propelled by hunger and habit.

The haze on the noontime horizon outlined the
distant hillside in a pastel-like cream,
promising weather I couldn’t foresee.
I was still a tourist.

Salisbury, 23. Southampton, 17.
We hummed on; embracing the vibrations of the bus,
absorbing them into our tired bones.
My contented heart negotiated with my body
to fulfill the urging of my brain, which wished
to keep awake with wonder.

These ancient hills, this country grass
did well to free my artistry from the clot of the city,
however beautiful it is.
The hills keep rolling like well spent laughter.
There are no shepherds, only sheep.

Weekend Trip to Bath, Stonehenge, etc.

The Ithaca College London Center (ICLC, or as Bill’s facebook relationship status says ‘Elsie”) sponsors a few trips throughout the semester that us kids can elect to go on. The first of these trips was this past weekend as it was to Avebury, Glastonbury, Wells, Bath and Stonehenge. All but one probably sounds familiar but they were all extremely interesting places.

The adventure was to take place from Friday morning to Saturday evening. All of my flat went so we were all up at 6am together. After a trip to good ol Gregg’s (Gregg’s is like the working man’s Pret-A-Manger. If you don’t know what Pret-A-Manger is oh my God just google it). We entered the bus (“coach”) and sped off out of the city to drive along the English countryside. Some delightfully inaudible quips from Bill made for a pleasant morning cruise until we arrived at a rest stop, where I bought some chocolate milk because it was cheap and I guess I was thirsty and it was Sainsbury brand and I wanted to try it. We hoped back on the coach and waited to leave. The first stop was to be Avebury.

Avebury: Our stay in Avebury was short, because there’s really only one thing to see. Avebury is the site of the “largest neolithic henge monument in Europe,” according to the brochure Bill handed out. It was impressive because at the time of its creation, it is estimated that there were about 650 standing stones, the same size and weight as the ones at Stonehenge, making it indeed far larger and, in this way, impressive than Stonehenge. What’s more, the inner circle of the Avebury henges are about 300 years older than the stones of Stonehenge. This means that the engineering process of transporting the stones and getting them to stay in the ground (for 5,000 years) was probably pioneered at Avebury and then utilized when Stonehenge was being built. You can also touch the stones at Avebury, which is very much so not the case at Stonehenge.

It was neat to see but, as Bill says, Stonehenge far surpasses Avebury in the amount of PR its gotten, so it was, admittedly, far less interesting to be at then Stonehenge was. That being said, I was glad to learn about it and experience it for myself.

After our visit to Avebury, we got back on the bus after an hour or so and made moves to Glastonbury, which would prove to be my favorite part of the trip.

Glastonbury: There’s a lot going on at Glastonbury. The Holy Grail is supposedly buried here, King Arthur and Guinevere were supposedly buried here, there is (actually) the remains of an ancient cathedral that was overtaken and sold off by Henry VIII in the 16th Century. In the 14th Century, Glastonbury Abbey was only surpassed by Westminster Abbey in terms of wealth and prestige. It was interesting touring it and seeing the remains. There’s a plaque that says something to the effect of “In 1191, King Arthur’s remains were discovered at this site.” There’s also a very old tree that, according to legend, sprouted from the walking stick of Joseph of Arimathea, Jesus’s uncle. These facts were interesting but what I loved most about Glastonbury was the Tor.

The Tor is simply a giant castle-like chess rook perched on top of a very large mound. It’s 521 feet high and can be seen for miles. It is said that Guinevere was imprisoned on top of the Tor and Henry VIII had the last ruler of Glastonbury Abbey hanged here. A few friends and I left the Abbey remains and ventured out of town to walk to the Tor. It was a very English day and the walk was slippery, wet and muddy but the whole thing was like a scene out of Lord of the Rings so I was having a great time. From the Abbey to the top of the Tor it was about a 25 minute walk as we got closer to the foot of the mountain, I got more excited and walked faster than the rest until I was basically alone. You have to walk up a cobble stoned side street, up a hill and through a wooden gate out into a field in order to get to the bottom of the hill.  Once there, the makeshift path winds in a circle for a while until you walk through another wet, wooden gate to follow the path directly up the mountain. There are sheep on either side of you as you climb the man made steps and twist up the mountain, getting a broader and broader look out at the world the higher you go.

When you reach the top of the mound and finally get to the Tor, the view is incredible. Glastonbury stretches out for miles ahead of you until English mist and haze dissolves the horizon. The cloudy day made everything seem more colorful, though. It was marvelous to see. We stayed up here and took photos until we had to leave to catch the bus to our next destination.

Wells: There was little to do in Wells and there were only a few places of interest. Mainly we went inside a giant cathedral that housed one of the oldest clocks in the world. We saw it chime on the four o clock hour though, which was cool. We were in Wells the shortest amount of time so all we had time for was the cathedral, a drink at a pub and one other thing. The other thing we saw were swans swimming around a moat. Doesn’t sound too great but the thing with these swans is, there’s a gatekeeper inside the little castle the moat is around and she let out a bit of rope attached to a bell and the swans would swim up to the rope and tug on it with their mouths, which rang the bell. They would then be fed. Conditioned swans. Pretty neat. We saw this briefly, but in Wells there is also the oldest continuously inhabited street in all of Europe, and it kind of looks it. It isn’t very long but the cobble stones are very worn and the houses lining the road are all kind of antiquated. It was archaic in a charming way.

Bath: The longest bus trip was from Wells to Bath and I think I fell asleep for part of the journey. We got there and it was dark already. I think it was 5 o clock but it felt like 11, we were so tired. It was rainy and really kind of miserable but we were with friends in a new place so it was alright. We got off the bus and followed Bill to the YMCA. It was hard to take in Bath properly because of the time and weather, so the whole night I was innocently unimpressed. We checked into the Y and I was in a 12 bed dorm with Caleb and Josh. Once we put our stuff down we immediately met up with the girls again to find some place to eat. We were starving. Half of us went into a place called Belushi’s Cafe and the other half, including myself, Josh, Caleb and Alyssa, went into a pub that claimed to be one of the oldest in Bath. We got drinks and I go a Big Ben Burger, which I later saw on menus elsewhere in London, so I guess it’s a thing. Almost all of the Ithaca kids on the trip wandered into the pub so it was crowded, but the food was good and the company was good so we had a good time.

After this, Bill was having one of his historical walks. I didn’t really feel like going because he was giving the same walk the next day and I was tired and it was raining but we didn’t have anything else to do so we went. It was interesting enough, the parts I could decipher anyway, but as I said, it was dark and raining so the full effect of Bath was lost on me that first night. After the walk, a few of us went to a bar but Josh and I didn’t feel like drinking so we talked outside together before going back to the Y and going to sleep. Although the dude below me snored like a foghorn so it was slow going falling asleep. I mean he literally snored so loud that he woke himself up. I mean he choked on his own snoring and it jolted himself awake. It would have been hilarious if it wasn’t so abrasive.

Anyway, the next morning we woke up, had free cereal (The Y, am I right?) and left to put our stuff on the coach before walking with Bill to the Roman Baths museum. Now, I know a little about Bath because I was forced to read Northanger Abbey by Jane Austen in Sophomore year (ugh), but apparently Bath is famous for these Roman Baths. There’s a spring that erupts with hot water and empties out into a huge rectangular bath that people used to bath in way back during the time of the Romans. The spring hasn’t stopped flowing since then. It was really very interesting. There were sectioned off rooms that used to be dedicated to other functions, such as getting your body acclimated to heat, cooling off after a bath, depositing your clothes, etc. All this was inside of a gigantic stone building and it was centered around the one central bath. There’s history everywhere in England, like there is in America, but this is ancient history and as a result, its quite breathtaking. I bought a souvenir coffee mug.

After the Roman Baths tour we had free time to do what we wished for about two hours before the bus left for Stonehenge. A bunch of people, including my flatmates and some other friends, went into a tea shop for some proper tea. I chose not to go. I needed something stronger and I was getting an itching to write something so I walked around for a bit. I came upon a street market and bought a breakfast pasty from a vendor and a coffee from another. I mostly walked around and looked at things and took in the day. It was a beautiful day, a sharp contrast from the previous night. There are moments when I get very pensive and I guess introspective and usually those moments ends with me writing something, either poetry or parts of a film. Doing that kind of writing when I’m in those moods expels something in me and is an avenue for whatever intangible mood you call that to go. Before I sat down and wrote I walked into a toy shop and looked at the toys. I don’t know why but they were playing Sam Cooke so it was really great. After this I walked to a square right outside the Roman Baths and a cathedral and sat on a bench next to one of my friends I saw there and wrote a poem, which you can read below. Josh joined me and filmed the guitarist in the square and I wrote and drank my coffee. It was my favorite moment on the trip.

When this was over we hopped on the coach and rode it to Stonehenge. All my friends were on the other bus and there wasn’t any more room for me so I was alone on my bus. It worked out, though, because it gave me a chance to really observe and appreciate the English countryside, which was gorgeous in the sunny afternoon. I wrote a poem about it you can read below.

Stonehenge: Stonehenge is a strange place. The visitors center, cafe, gift shop, bathrooms etc is about a mile from the actual site of Stonehenge. We all got there and we queued up for a shuttle that would take us there, but once I found out you could walk if you wanted, I did that. It was still a nice day and I met up with a new friend, Michelle, and had really a great time walking up with her. I had just rode through the country side and it was nice to walk through it. We go to Stonehenge after about 15 minutes of walking and it was exactly like all the pictures look. There’s a stone pathway that leads to a circular perimeter where you can observe Stonehenge and another pathway that leads straight to another, singular stone that’s separated from the main landmark of Stonehenge. Stonehenge was put together in 2300 BC. Because of that, it was literally impossible for my 21 year old brain to comprehend the significance and awesomeness of it. And I guess that was the first time in my life that I was in the presence of something so famous and something I’ve seen pictures of so much in my life. The effect of being there in person was very, I don’t know, anticlimactic. It was sort of a “wow, so there it is” feeling. And I don’t mean to sound like I didn’t think it was cool or special or I didn’t appreciate it, because I did. It was just real life, and it was very accessible and sensory and live in a way that made it almost fake. I guess there are certain things that are too famous for their own good. That being said, it was humbling to be there and very worthwhile.

The wind at Stonehenge was some of the strongest and fiercest winds I’d ever been in. It almost blew me over a few times. It was prehistoric and wild and appropriate, I guess. The weather started to turn bad and I got in a shuttle just time time for the real cold to start coming in. We all got on the coach and rode back to Elsie. I tried sleeping on the coach but I don’t know how long I slept for. I was wet and exhausted and hungry – but it was a terrific weekend.

A Birthday Abroad

January 14th was my 21st birthday. Because of the month it’s in, I’d never spent a birthday away from my family before. We celebrated before I left for London and it was a great time. I’ve never been big on birthdays, though, to be honest. I’m not one to relish attention or go out of my way to be the center of things. That’s my personality, I suppose. Those who know me will attest to that and, objectively, I think it makes sense – my wanting to spend a life behind the camera.

January 14th was a Tuesday and I woke up early to explore a bit of London by myself. I had one class at 1:45 and I think I ventured out at about 9 or so. I went to Oxford Circus, a bustling strip of road with plenty of shops and worthwhile architecture. I went into a store equivalent to the American FYE and bought a Hobbit coffee mug with the justification being that it was my birthday (I collect coffee mugs and am a total sucker when it comes to them). I continued walking and thought I was lucky that it was such a beautiful day. I went into a clothing store and looked at the ties. I found a very unique one for only 5 pounds and as I bought it, I said cheers at the same time the cashier did. I walked on a little and a van sped by me blasting Hello Goodbye. It’s little moments like those, folks.

I got lost in Soho during my wandering and panicked only for a little as I tried to find the Oxford Circus tube station. I got to my class in time to have tea beforehand. The class was Drama and the London Theater, where we watched most of Kenneth Branagh’s “Henry V,” which I really loved. I’ve read some Shakespeare, but not that one. It is a great film and Branagh’s performance captivated me in the way few performances do.

That night was dedicated to me because my flatmates are wonderful people. I told them I wanted to get dinner at a local pub called The Blackbird and then go to a jazz club I read about in Soho called “Aint’ Nothin’ But…” and by God, that’s what we did. London pubs are (according to the guidebook I perused before coming) trying to (are they already?) become known as much for their food as they are for their beer on tap. It was a fine meal, though expensive (London, am I right?) and I got a beer that was 8.5% alcohol, both because I wanted to get drunk (it was my birthday, mom) and because I’ve never heard of such a thing. It was kind of gross but it performed as advertised.

We went back to the flat after dinner, took a few shots of whiskey Caleb’s friend Mike brought over (thanks Mike) and had some cake the girls got me (love you guys). We then meandered to the tube to head to Soho. The only thing I knew about this jazz place was from what I’d read about in the guidebook. I’m not one for contemporary music and live jazz sounded pretty rad so I was eager to check it out, not really knowing what to expect.

Ain’t Nothin’ But is situated in an inconspicuous side street in Soho and we only found it because Emily, bless her, asked a street vendor for directions. It was loud from the outside and two security guards ID’d us before we went inside. When we stepped in I was nervous because the place was very small and very crowded. It was one room big and maybe 30 feet from end to end. There was a bar on the right and steps on the left leading down to a basement bathroom, four or five small tables and a small makeshift stage where a live band (The Astrojets) were wailing together. It was well lit with reds and yellows and decorating the walls were portraits, showbills, clippings and reviews of old jazz and blues personalities. If I had been there alone I would have loved it immediately. As it happened, it took me a little longer than that to do so, because I was worried none of the others would like it. Out of this sensitivity I told Emily we could leave whenever everyone wanted to. She’s a good friend, though, and dismissed that idea immediately.

We stood for a while, as the place was so crowded, and listened to the music. Caleb and Mike got some beer, I think. After maybe 15 minutes a table cleared up and Emily and I captured it. I got a beer and sat down, inches away from the band on stage. They were incredible. Pounding out old American rock and roll blues expertly with such rhythm and soul it took all of me not to erupt with shouts of encouragement, like music does to me sometimes. There was a guitar, a bass, a singer, drummer and saxophone and Jesus could the sax player wail. Sitting in the rough wooden chair with the band in front, friends in back and beer by the side, it was a transformative experience replete with head nodding and incessant smiling. The saxophone solos killed and I heard someone yell “blow man blow!” and realized it was me. I wish you could have been there, it was one of the best moments I had had in a long time. Rhythm and blues live by a good band is some serious soul stirring stuff.

After a while, two other friends came – girls from our program that are great fun. We all got up and danced. When I dance I stick to a few simple moves that I only know how to do, but when I drunk dance I let everything go with a sort of reckless abandon I don’t apologize for because it’s the most fun thing to do. There’s a lot of twists and jerks and glazed eyes and indulgences I always enjoy sinking into so, I don’t know, there.

After about 20 minutes I noticed Caleb talking to the singer of the band in between one of their songs. I didn’t think anything of it, probably because I was drunk. He came up to me after, though and ecstatically told me that the singer said I could go up and sing a song with them. I was mortified. Harkening back to the personality thing earlier, it was the last thing I wanted to do. Caleb was insistent though, saying the band already knew and was welcome to the idea. I had no idea what to sing and I was too drunk, I said, to remember any words to anything. After some prodding from Caleb (thank you, Caleb) I agreed, much to the delight (genuine delight, they’re good people) of all my friends. I went up to the singer and he asked me if I wanted to do it now or in their next set, in about 20 minutes. Absolutely next set, I said, and asked if the band knew Sweet Home Chicago (I knew it from The Blues Brothers, which I love). He said they could swing that and went to go finish the set. During the interim, I looked up the lyrics on my flatmate and good friend Amanda’s phone. I was terrified, but excited. I went to the bathroom and came back to look over the lyrics again. The room was quieter now that the band was on break. Everyone was looking forward to me singing.

The set started and they played maybe three or four songs and I tried dancing and forgetting about the fact that at any minute they’d call me up. At the end of one of the songs I heard the singer say something like “we have an American here who’s birthday is today” and Caleb and the rest erupted with shouts and cries of my name. My feet carried me up to the stage and I smiled at the singer and looked at the musicians. I looked out at the crowd and didn’t feel that scared any more. I loved the song.

The guitar began and I went into the song, shedding all trepidation and worry and sinking   into Sweet Home Chicago. It was so much fun. I think everyone fantasizes (it can’t be just me) of singing in a band up in front of a bunch of people who love you. And that night, on my 21st birthday in London, it was real. The song finished and everyone clapped and it was great. Everyone said I did a great job and after looking at the video one of them took, I think I did ok. A woman came up to me and hugged me and said happy birthday and I was told a lot of people danced to the song. After two or three more songs we left at about 1:30 or 2 and took the night buses home to Kensington.