I'm writing now from Williamsburg, New York, in my friend Jamie's apartment, on a frosty January morning with three alarmingly enormous cats lolling about next to me. It's been a month since my last update. This post will take me through to Berlin, after which I headed to London for a predictably wine-drenched couple of weeks with my brother and mate Liam, and a whole crew of friends living there. Now, with two days left before the horror of a 23 hour flight home, I'll write what I can.
From Budapest, a scenic train journey transported us to Vienna in the late afternoon (although in separate compartments – the distracted ticket woman booked us in adjacent seats, a carriage apart). While waiting for Basti (my old school mate and generous host) to finish work, we found a dinky little pub near his apartment. The owner was overwhelmingly friendly, presenting us with 'welcome to Austria' shots of rocket fuel, and kindly directing Basti to the exact location of the pub in a series of increasingly confusing phone calls (when I tried to give him the name, I was actually reading a sign that said "hot food served", and I suspect the owner had a few 'welcome to work' shots before we arrived, as she appeared far drunker than we did). Last time I stayed with Basti in 2001, he shared student digs with a collection of friends from art school – his current apartment is an impressive step up for him, and us. We spent a couple of days visiting art galleries and Christmas markets, one of which had 8 varieties of mulled wine, but none quiet as good (or potent) as the original Krakow mix. The main market featured artwork displayed in the windows of the Town Hall, with one artwork revealed every day in December, turning the building into a huge advent calendar. Every Xmas market has its specialty food, and Vienna provided us with a wild-boar meatloaf served in a doughy white roll, which was only slightly less terrifying than Basti's favourite "kase kreiner". Kase Kreiner: a hotdog magically injected with liquid cheese. Firstly, why, and secondly, how? We ate it on three separate occasions.; the things are sold on almost every street corner, and in bulk at the supermarket. After a very late night of pub and club crawling, we checked our bags into the bus station and slothed around until a night bus (never, ever again) delivered us, grumpy and unkempt, to Berlin at 5am and minus hell degrees.
BERLIN (mark one)
After a couple of days R&R in a hostel in Mitte, another great school friend Nadine generously put us up in the apartment she shares with her boyfriend, Sacha, directly across the road from the hilarious Americana-kitsch White Trash Fast Food bar. The first night we met them there, the 'hillbilly' band on stage was lead by a scrawny 30-something dude from Missouri with a pair of pistols tattooed across his chest, and the place was crawling with seriously dedicated rock-a-billy kids. They have their own tattoo parlor downstairs, and if you have "White Trash Fast Food" somewhere within the tat, they will do it for free. No, Mum, I didn't. Sacha and Nadine's huge apartment and two painfully cute kittens made me instantly want to stay in Berlin forever. We spent a great couple of days eating and drinking well, and even managed to get in some spa time – though if I thought the Hungarians were confident people, the Germans take the cake. The Badeschiff is an outdoor pool on the edge of the river (one of the many that cut up Berlin), used for parties in summer, and covered over with a gigantic plastic membrane in winter to encapsulate the two saunas and cover the icy pool. It looks a little like an oversized version of the plastic tunnel they used to quarantine E.T. at the end of the film. Inside, it was a cross between a sci-fi and a porn film – co-ed naked sauna, not for the self-conscious, but when in Rome...
Nadine was heading back to Indonesia for Christmas, and conveniently leaving the day my parents arrived in town for Christmas, so we moved straight from one apartment to the next.
BERLIN (mark two)
Mum and Dad had just finished a 6 week river cruise from Amsterdam to Budapest, with a visit to the UK thrown in for good measure. Stefan flew in from London after a seriously stressful stint at work, so we had a full house of exhausted people. Twelve days in an apartment over the Christmas period could have ended poorly, but we managed to make it through with little physical or emotional scarring. We'd somehow ended up smack bang in the middle of the gay district, so the only local pub that allowed entry to punters without leather chaps was a Scottish bar down the street. The 'kids' spent a few fairly raucous nights putting The Eagles and Dolly Parton on the dukebox (it was slim pickings, and incidentally, Roxette appears as popular in Germany as they were in Eastern Europe, despite the fact their last album was released on cassette tape). It was a little like Cheers Bar, but nobody knew our name and the fat guy was wearing a red tracksuit which may have actually been pyjamas, in what I can only hope was festive spirit. I'd saved most of the gallery hopping for 'family time', and we saw some great exhibitions. On Christmas day, the Bauhaus archive, a short walk from the apartment, was open and we took a festive outing between the series of huge meals we consumed (starting with champagne and croissants, as all Christmases should). It was supposed to be a no-present Christmas, due to the fact we'd all shelled out some serious cash to be in Berlin, but after a whiskey or two (and some red wine and beer) Stefan and I thought it would be better if there were some gifts under the tree. We gift wrapped the (raw) turkey for Kat, Dad's satchel for him, and the incredibly expensive but inefficient potato-peeler for Mum. The turkey smelled a bit funky when Kat unsuspectingly had it on her lap in the morning, and for a second I had the fear that our hilarious late night caper might actually ruin Christmas, but Mum insisted raw turkey just smells funky, and it all turned out ok.