The sky is dark and the boat rocks methodically back and forth as it passes over waves. I think back to all the travelling so far leading up to this point. There was the plane to Malaga, Spain, then a few hours later a bus ride along the Coast of the Sun. Costa del Sol for the Spanish speakers out there. This stretch of coastline is a magical wonderland of fun for tourists, and happened to bridge our airport to the harbor where a boat would be taking us across the Strait of Gibraltar. The bus’ diesel engine whined as we passed over a large hill and proceeded towards a sharp bend in the road ahead; I could see the setting sun illuminating both the water and spinning wind turbines on the left hand side. The graceful sweeps of the massive blades cut through the air and reminded me of how beautifully nature and modern technology can exist at times. The view alone was enough to once again rejuvenate my spirits for the next few hours of travel until we reached our destination. The bus hugged the coastline for this leg of the journey, providing some spectacular views of bright blue water as backdrop and in drastic contrast against pristine white houses stretching upwards out of green trees and red rock. The beauty of this region attracts money, I can tell by the upscale houses and private hideaways. In fact, if my memory serves me, this coast line used to be a gangsta paradise for British mobsters. But, no time to reflect as we finally near our destination.

Finally the boat pulls into the Tangier harbor; we have made it to Africa. While trying to exit the boat a man blocked our path and insisted we must wait on ship until our passports were verified and stamped. The man stamping passports had already left the boat and dock yard; he would have to be called and brought back on board because of our error. “They requested this step be done before the ship docked in Morocco” the small, skinny, black-haired stamper man yells when he arrives 20 minutes later, “over the boat’s public address system in three different languages.” But this angry man’s words really meant, “How could you be so dumb!? Do they need to add a fourth language-idiot- for groups of Amerikaners like you who apparently cannot understand their own language, Spanish, or Arabic?” Face red, pupils dilated, he slams down his laptop, multiple stampers, and ink pad making his anger at having to return after leaving work even more clear. As if his outrage was missed to begin with. As if his continuance of a charade aimed at making us feel like idiots, will actually make us feel like idiots and not just tourists who made a mistake. He obviously did not know us very well. His 24 thumping stamps, 12 for the ink pad and two each for the six passports presented before him, were exclamation points to further highlight his anger.

After disembarking the water vessel Moroccan culture bombarded us. Their very friendly demeanour made you question if Moroccans are really so hospitable or just want to lull you into a false sense of security before robbing you or cutting out your kidney to sell for 1,000 dirhems on the black market. They are a disarming nice not often experienced by westerners, who hail from where genuine niceness is often lost to pleasantries and social protocol. Our culture causes us to ,when we meet someone who is authentically nice, initially distrust them all the more and search for ulterior motives because of the rarity their authenticity represents.

“5 euros for us and our luggage.” “No, ten” says the taxi driver. After a bit more haggling we both agree on a reasonable price, the way it should be. We both start our journey to the hostel feeling as if we got a good deal. Our parade of two taxis weaves in and out of the night traffic, down side streets, and past groups of youngsters on the sidewalks. Finally we arrive. Unfortunately our point of contact for our hostel check in is unreachable. Sweet, four girls (squirrels) and two studly dudes (including myself of course) stuck outside in a city we know very little about. Finally our Moroccan “friend” reaches the hostel owner and we gain admittance to our sleeping quarters. Through the white-painted, metal door with an inlaid crosshatching pattern over a glass window we trudged with backpacks, then up two sets of creaky stairs and through another door leading into our room for the night. A hostel big enough to hold six people comfortably, and decorated with colorful pillows, wall ornaments, mini chandeliers, and rugs. After settling in, and the night still being young, we set out to find ourselves some Moroccan mint tea, a Moroccan speciality.

Our one-tracked minds, meaning Kyle’s and mine, were easily distracted though. Before we even got a block away from our hostel we ran into a group of youngsters playing soccer in the street. We slowed our pace, enough to show interest in their game. One kid, who would one minute later introduce himself as “The football machine” and fifteen minutes later prove it by making Kyle and I look like we have never played soccer before by turning us in circles with his ball control skills, beckoned us over in Spanish. While the girls we were with declined to join, even though some of them knew how to play soccer and had even played in college (cough, cough schla…I mean Heather), Kyle and I eagerly jumped at the opportunity to play soccer in the streets of Morocco with some Spaniards and Africans. (Northern Morocco was heavily influenced by both the Spanish and the French in past decades, so even today there is a strong presence of both along with the Berber culture) So, not only had we digressed from our mission of finding mint tea, but Kyle and I spent the next twenty minutes getting worked over by this group of soccer players while the girls we came with stood on the curb taking pictures of us getting owned and batted their eyelashes at the group of young males flirting with them.

After ending our game, and preparing to leave, several of the young kids excitedly led us to the doors of a nearby building. Inside were sheep, probably five or six, just eating and baaing away. Our minds were boggled by the sight; luckily the questions would be satiated a few hours later during the morning of the following day. But for now, we continued our search for tea. Finally making our way to a busy street we cruised down the sidewalk looking for an open restaurant. Having no luck at this time of night we opted for a shop where we could buy the necessary materials to make our own tea instead. After paying mere pennies for what we needed, running into a man high out of his mind, and being followed by a kid part of the way back we arrived at our hostel.

The tea we made was great, even better after the long day. Settling in for the night, with the help of our bouncy ball for entertainment, I wondered what would be in store for the rest of the trip… and already began musing on how many blog entries this trip would take to fully explain. One sure in hell is not going to be enough.

I am posting to offer some truth about the popular movie Oktoberfest. For those that have seen it, they may remember the obscene amounts of beer, ridiculously drunk people, funny looking outfits, and massive beer tents packed with humans as tightly together as sardines in a can may have stood out. The real Oktoberfest is all of this and more. This fest is the original, the one that inspired copycats worldwide. This fest is not for weak drinkers, if you are a lightweight you might as well find a seat in the corner or stick to rides like these. This fest is one of the things I was excited about months ago in conversations with Eric Wagner. This fest can be summed up with thispicture. The man pictured was so drunk he stumbled to one of the hills on the outskirts of the Oktoberfest grounds in the early afternoon and passed out. Guys and gals fill the hills by mid afternoon, and in one instance we even saw a young kid trying to walk up the hill to meet his friends fail miserably and tumble all the way down to the bottom. At this point I think it is about time to grab a cold one, “Prost,” and explore Oktoberfesting (v.- The art of consuming profuse amounts of alcohol and food at Oktoberfest) with me.

One of the largest fairs in the world this event brings in people from all over for 16 days of drinking, rides, food, and Bavarian culture. The brainchild of the 1810 five-day public marriage ceremony between Kind Ludwig I and Princess Therese this dirndl wearing, lederhosen sporting event started out as a great horse race. Today the only horses around are the majestic Clydesdales that pull in wooden beer kegs on opening day. The idea of this festival has, in many ways, evolved greatly over the past two hundred years. Today Oktoberfest sports carnival rides, roller coasters, fun houses, and a so many beer tents that you couldn’t make it through all of them in one day. Nor would you want to.

Tents are themed, and some are so packed that you cannot even find a seat. Come early for the best chance of finding a wooden bench, without your real estate you cannot get a beer. That would be a travesty, come all the way to Oktoberfest for the beer and not even be able to get one. Needing a seat means on certain days you have to morning drink, which not only makes for a long day but possibly causes you to find a hill. Hills are like landmines in minesweeper, end up on one and it’s pretty much game over for you. Forget about getting the high score, and say goodbye to your dreams of ever being a true Deutscher capable of drinking like a fish.

But even with all this evolution and strategy the basic concept remains the same- consume mass amounts of beer, interact with others from around the world, and try to remember how to find your way home when you stumble out of the fair grounds at the end of the night. This year, I am proud to say I did my part in helping set a new world record for beer consumed! At this year’s festival 7 million liters of the delicious golden beverage was consumed! That’s an increase of 500,000 liters from last year’s festival!

The Dutchmen that shared our table outside the Hacker Pschorr tent have done their part for the past two years, as this was their return trip. I cannot blame them for the repeat visit. After spending hours riding roller coasters, eating crepes and schnitzel, and guzzling down specially made festival beer I hope a return visit is in my future as well someday. Traveling from everywhere Oktoberfesters crash upon this field that stands empty except for these 16 days a year, and leave learning a bit more about those that share their tables. This festival is a coming together of people, and just like at Lambeau field in Green Bay you get to know your seatmates well. Elbows in the back from the bench behind you, and cramming more people than can fit comfortably into a bench (personal space is often given up for a fellow beer drinker to have some real estate- remember no bench, no beer) is the normal at this large get-to-gether.

This event started out as a wedding celebration, and while the married couple is long dead their celebration lives on. People continue coming together over a liter (or five) of beer. Rooted in Bavarian tradition this festival celebrates a spectacular beer drinking culture and shares it with people the world over. There was the Swedish woman screaming next to me on the atomic drop. The Dutch graduate student who treated wounded soldiers in Afghanistan and talked my ear off about stars being the gateway to seeing the past in the present. The young German who was pretending to be T-rex and roaring outside the beer tent. Finally, the group I journeyed there with. This guy . Him in the middle . And her. Creatures such as these make the event what it is. They create memories not just of beer consumption, but beer consumption with old and new friends. In the end, you know it was a good night when you wake up the next morning with a pounding headache and can still say: “Damn, that was so worth it.”

Of all the trips I have taken none have been more suited for great blog entries than the ones in which I have ventured forth as the solitary male among a group of women. Last time, at the beaches of San Sebastian, it was not being able to check into or find our hostel, getting lost in the subways of Madrid, and wandering around in a vain search for “The Cave.” Before that, Austria, we proceeded to get lost and wander back and forth down the same streets in the rain (with a brief stop in a roundabout to climb a tree and get yelled at in German by an Austrian woman) until we finally found the “Old Town.” Let me just clarify at this point by interjecting with the disclosure that these trips were not at all bad trips, the journeying companions were great, and the memories lasting. But, I have never had so many moments that make you just want to laugh at their sheer absurdity then when travelling with all women. This most recent trip, with Rachel, Sam, and Kaydee, had its own set of said moments.

With a few days off of work, and the travel monkey needing a release from her cage I agreed to travel to Lake Bled, Slovenia with a group of girls. The plan was driving the five hours there and camping for two days right near the lake. I knew this trip was headed in the right direction when, a half-hour before we were ready to leave, we did not have tents. But even before this I was worried when I was given the “OK” to drive. Now, I am not a bad driver by any means. The only problem is that I am extremely inexperienced when it comes to driving manual. I drive for work, yes, but only a very short distance. So short that the combined mileage of driving manual over the past two months probably equaled the mileage we traveled in the first ten minutes of the trip. Factor in that I did not know all road signs yet and this was bound to be a fun ride from the start. With no one else to drive, and honestly wanting the practice, I put the girls through an extremely sketchy drive to Slovenia in which I killed the car multiple times at the worst possible moments (like in an intersection or going through a toll), struggled with hill starts (especially on sketchy narrow gravel roads in the middle of the night), and at times made the car shudder like a patient in a hospital ward prone to random seizures. So I thank the girls for putting up with my driving, and am proud to say that if there was any redeeming quality in my driving it was that the ride back home was relatively smooth.

Photo via Kaydee

So, back to the tent situation. Moral of the story-we brought one, two person tent for four people. This was not a major problem. I love the outdoors, and was actually looking forward to unrolling my sleeping bag under the clear sky and stars. I had looked up the weather online before we left and found that the weather would be favorable all trip. Unfortunately this was not to be the case. The first night I did get to sleep out under the stars, and right behind the “Camping” sign OUTSIDE of the campgrounds. Who would have guessed that arriving at 12:30 a.m. is past campground quiet hours and results in a refusal of admittance to actual camp grounds? “Don’t worry,” said the Slovenian late night camp attendant, “I show you where can sleep tonight” as he walks and points to the open field in front of the main office and gated campground area. I had one word in mind at this point: awesome. That one word was the summation of this thought: “basically we just drove five hours to lay down sleeping bags and set up a two person tent, in an open field, in Slovenia, under a tree and on a massive root (no one would let me move our site), next to a “Camping sign.” Well at least night two we would be inside the campsite, right?”

Yes, but night two brought rain. I’m not talking just a little drizzle. I’m talking a lightning brightening the sky downpour from 9 p.m. until, well it never stopped raining the next day. The plan of sleeping outside under a clear sky: shot to hell. Rachel and Kaydee were smart and slept inside the car from the get go. Sam and I went to the tent, and woke up freezing and wet around 5 a.m. from sleeping in a puddle of water, as water had soaked through the bottom of the tent. The car now looked like a better sleeping option. Moral of this drawn out story is that we paid to camp at a campsite where we slept outside the campsite one night and in a car the next. We could have found a ditch on the autobahn and slept outside for free day one, and a vacant parking lot to park and sleep on day two.

So now the big question: Did I even have fun on this trip and would I have changed it or my travel partners? Yes, the trip was extremely fun. In between trying to keep my sanity we made time to go canyoning (Think hiking upstream and then going back down by jumping off cliffs into water), hiking to a castle (in which we bottled our own wine in the cellar), and visited an island church. The people were pleasant, and from everywhere. The campsite was impressive, and the workers more so. Their ability to speak at least three languages put my English speaking American self to shame. Secondly, no, I would not change how everything worked out or change travelling with these three women (except maybe cut out Rachel; during the second night she attempted to get in a fight with me. Her rational was not believing I had any knowledge about jui jitsu Bad call. Although I am also pretty sure that I was the one who ended up in a puddle.). While writing this post, I caught myself at least half a dozen times already just laughing out loud to an empty room at the absurdity of our situation. Some of my greatest memories from this trip will be from our youthfulness, something no one should ever lose. Such things as road trips with half formulated plans (which by their nature always fail) are the things lost as we get old. What I mean by this is that the reckless abandonment and fly by the seat of your pants attitude is lost with age. The energy for adventure, challenges, and happiness often vanish among the clutter of a mortgage, car payments, a job, and family. We find ourselves losing the little boy or girl inside each of us who so innocently viewed life as an action of limitless possibilities. The world which used to be a place where one risked it all on every adventure now becomes a breeding ground of insecurity and safety nets. We regress from the back flips off the high dive to wallowing in the kiddy pool. Responsibilities weigh us down, happiness gives way to just getting by, and we accept limitations not potentiality as the path before us. Long-held dreams never actualized. We turn old and gray and find something from our lives was missing. We lost a key we once held to a special door. The answer is simple really, and the key easy to find. It is three words we start out holding but drop along the way: “Lebe Deinen Traum” (Live The Dream)

Tradition and a modern way of thinking

Posted: August 10, 2010 in Travel

In a recent skype conversation with earlier social media boss Eric Wagner and alleged paintball champion Billy Falk the request was made to blog about the city I live in. Since I enjoy writing what others want to hear about I’ll write a quick post, even though it will not be as exciting as running with the bulls it will be as interesting.

Garmisch-Partenkirchen. Two cities once divided and then united (kind of) by the 1936 Winter Olympics, which is still clear throughout the city today. Although these cities are joined by name they still hold tightly to their individual identities, so much so that one can look at a map of the area and see where the distinction lies between the two cities. But the typographical difference is not the only one. For example, local beer festivals make this most clear, as locals drape themselves in lederhosen and dirndls passed down from generation to generation. Authentic lederhosen for the Garmisch-Partenkirchen region have a distinguishable deer on the front. On Garmisch lederhosen the deer jumps up, while on Partenkirchen lederhosen the deer is jumping down. This is just one of the small points of cultural pride that has led to many late night beer tent fights.

Combined, the town is a small resort getaway swaddled at the base of the Zugspitze, Germany’s tallest mountain at over 9,200 ft. above sea level. Stampeding through part of Austria and into Germany through Garmisch is the Loisach River. Depending on the rainfall this river can actually cause flooding in nearby cities.

A unique feature of the Bavarian region is the small wooden huts that dot the farming landscape. These huts bring back distant memories of a time long ago when farmers would store crops in multiple locations as a security feature. Instead of putting all of one’s crop in a single place farmers would spread their crop over miles of farmland. If a fire happened to burn down one of the huts, all the crop was not lost. Today modernization has made these huts obsolete, and the only thing keeping them alive now is the Deutschland government which actually shells out subsidies to these farmers as a way to keep up the tradition and heritage of the region.

The people here are simple living, they are farmers, country folk. They have not shunned modern technology, as evident by the solar panels clinging to red clay roofs, but rather have learned to live simply. They close their stores when business is slow, bike more than they drive, and never open on Sundays. Their wealth lies in the world around them; the hiking trails that cut vivid paths through the mountains, crystal clear glacial ponds, and bike paths stretching endlessly through fields and farms. The overalls, long beards, print dresses, and horse-drawn carriages make this place stand still in a fast-moving world. This pause from reality makes one forget things of the modernized world, such things as cell phones, cable tv, big houses, expensive suits, and fast cars, and instead focuses on enjoying life through oneself.

Everything has a purpose beyond the status symbol it represents, and those attempting to grasp the symbol without the purpose become controlled by their possessions instead of the other way around. Instead of material things defining who one is, these people define the material things. Seeking the recognition of what these items mean without actually knowing we lose ourselves in or world of material goods and never find ourselves. We go through life expecting a suit to make us a lawyer forgetting that it is the lawyer who makes the suit. Modernization is meant to make our lives easier, not more complicated, but because we define ourselves through possessions and not through the person we are our lives are empty. We expect a car to bring happiness, but it does not. We expect a nice house to take over the responsibility of living and coast on the status symbol it represents. Strip away the material and you find yourself. You find what brings happiness, and what makes life worth living for. This is what the people in Bavaria have succeeded in doing, they have realized that the plow does not make the man but only his ability to use the plow to feed himself.

Encierro. That Spanish word just sounds voilent. Up until this point the trip to Spain had been mellow, a lead up to the unmatched intensity that was to happen next. These upcoming experiences are the kind that make you fly on home, lay in bed after taking a cold shower, and reflect on your life.

Leaving the beautiful beaches of San Sebastian and taking a bus the hour to Pamplona we were immediately greeted with the festival. From the sea of white outfits and red sashes on the bus to the droves of people walking the extremely humid streets of this exciting city we were cast into a brand new world with culture and unmatched energy. A bit of history, running with the bulls (Encierro) is a time-tested tradition. While today the festival seems to be just that, a huge multi-day festival where risk takers pound sangria after running with 2,000+ pound killing machines, it didn’t start out that way. Rumored to have started out as a game/ display of manliness farmers and herders would try to outrun their bulls as they headed towards their destination. Encierro means “penned in” and the bulls would be run from where living quarters to the penned in area where they would die.

Somewhere along the line this turned into a one week festival where foreigners invade this city of 100,000 people, enjoy the side shows and cultural spectacles, party, and take part on some level in Encierro. The streets are packed at night, elbow to elbow, with people celebrating who knows what. These streets are the same ones that, come morning, the bulls will come lumbering down. Sangria and beer seems to flow endlessly, and sometimes, somehow onto your whites. Hopefully, come ten o’ clock the next day the only scars you carry from the past 12 hours are the sangria stains on your once pristinely white clothes and dirt from dancing around the arena with bulls.

After finding a nice, grassy round about to spend a few hours sleeping, we woke to go enter the gated off area for the running. Here, you stand for the next 45 minutes, nerves going crazy, still feeling groggy from the night before, wondering why you hear every language around you but Spanish. Then you remember that everybody, from Spain, whom you talked to gave the advice “Don’t run.” At this point you call yourself an idiot, wonder what on Earth made you want to do something so foolish as run with a pack of bulls down slippery cobblestone streets and narrow corridors, and realize that you are already committed. Then the first rocket, you begin to walk, knowing that the gate is now open. Your insides flip as you know that you are only seconds away from running for your life. The second burst, and the bulls are out of the gate and heading your direction– it is time to pick up a bit of speed. Every once in a while you glance back to see if the bulls are flying through dead man’s curve yet. Almost as bad as actually running is waiting for the bulls to come. Anticipation for the outcome makes your pulse raise even before you start sprinting. The third rocket and the steers are right behind the bulls keeping them together and moving forward.

At this point you look back to see faces filled with fear, eyes looking as if they have met the grim reaper himself and suddenly know what death looks like. The world seems to go silent, the chanting and laughing vanishes in an instant as the thundering bulls bring to fruition the full seriousness of the situation. Sprinting, jumping over the fallen, and falling this wall of fear cascades forward and crushes eventually upon the arena. Your only option is to sprint as fast as you can and not look back. Then, if you are “lucky,” you make it into the arena where six “baby” bulls are release one by one to charge through the crowd and destroy anyone in sight. In a fury they charge forward and jump over the men curled up in the fetal position at the gate. With corked horns they proceed to throw, headbutt, and trample humans.

The day I went one guy got gorged while running, and two others were seriously injured. Another man got kicked in the head by a bull in the arena, and I believe was later pronounced dead. Running with the bulls is making a bet with your life, while there are many factors you can control about the experience placing your physical nature up against that of a bulls’ is a deadly gamble. So why do we feel the need to take part in such a showy display of masculinity? Why, when you look around the arena do you see young men, some even under the age of 18 and illegally there, risking their lives to touch or jump over a bull? What makes a young male willing to risk his life in the crowded streets and packed arena?

There is a certain manliness in running with 2000 pound creatures of pure muscle who sport foot and a half long horns that come to deadly points at the end. Acts such as this are a right of passage, a step for the thousands of kids below the age of 26 towards manhood. In a world where avoiding risk is easier than encountering it, where we can easily settle for the continuity and security of modernization Encierro is a step away from safety and a move towards finding one’s identity. (Anything status quo seeks to render originality and individuality obsolete through conformity) These boys, finding no other way to seek their personal male identities in society today, enter the picketed off wooden fences and leave a few minutes later finding that being a man requires courage in the face of adversity. When faced with the ultimatum of hiding or running these boys ran and found that by taking action with the fear they were experiencing they had risen above all of those who sat behind the slots in the fence, peeking through wondering “what if?”

Choosing to take part in acts like Encierro comes from the same reason we idolize James Bond’s “live fast and dangerous” lifestyle. Encierro is a modern-day example of nobility, a man out there putting his life on the line for a noble ideal. In the case of running with the bulls the ideal upheld is courage in the face of possible death, bravery under extremely risky circumstances. When that first rocket is fired a fraction of a second exists where one can choose to hop over the barrier to safety. The choice to face mortality and accept it requires a great deal of courage. Stand up to fear and run and one is worthy of the gladiator like applause received in the arena. If only for a few minutes, all who take part feel as if the crowd is cheering in acknowledgement of the death you have just wrestled with. One feels like a king receiving a hero’s welcome. This praise seems fitting, as we step away from the safety of perfectly constructed modern worlds and seeming immortality of cities, and come face to face with nature through a life-threatening danger that exposes us to mortality. Those in sangria drenched and dust-covered white clothes participating in Encierro find themselves exposed to the basic premise of nature– life or death. Nature forces you to either work for your own survival avoiding the bull’s horns or to give up and face the bull head on. The sudden clarity, rush of coming close to something so life-threatening, and feeling of nobility are the reasons one dons the white and red for such an old rite of passage.

Spain’s current run for the world cup has been just as interesting to me as the past few days spent actually in Spain. The 90+ degree weather, sunny beaches, never ending night life, sangria, and oh yeh– San Fermines in Pamplona. I am a believer in setting goals, of having the ability to always live with purpose filled action. One of my “must do’s” has always been checking out Encierro (Running of the Bulls) in Pamplona, Spain and participating in the ancient sangria, cerveza, and bull fighting festival. When the invitation came along, from two new world travelers Jessica Smith and Rachel Walker, to join an expedition into Northern Spain for a few days I could not say no.

Taking an uneventful flight to Madrid, Spain we found ourselves with a few hours to spare (8 to be exact). Not wanting to waste a single night in this new country, we found a place to check our bags at the airport (via communicating in broken Spanish with airport security). Luckily, the airport is situated about 12 miles from the center of Madrid and easily accessible through metro. When I say easily accessible I mean by getting lost underground two or three times and finally finding our way to some of the main piazzas after a half hour of below ground travel which should have taken about ten minutes. Having spent the past four hours either on a plane, train, or in an air conditioned airport we were oblivious to the weather conditions. As it turns out, bringing sweatshirts with us into the night was not a necessity in July. Bad call on that one. So trudging the humid, well lit, streets of Madrid at midnight we, after eating dinner at an outside restaurant, found ourselves amidst a young crowd of party goers. Sweatshirts in hand we must have stood out like a sore thumb, for every block we were bombarded by people attempting to convince us why we should enter their bar, club, or pub crawl. None even attempted to speak Spanish to us, but started out in English. Do we really look that American? Or just not at all like Spaniards? Our whole goal in entering the city of Madrid that night had been to find a place called “The Cave.” Let me tell you, this was the most elusive, unobtrusive place ever. We were met with blank stares when we asked, “Donde esta la cueva?,” as not a single person we spoke to knew where it was or had even heard of it. Finding this place was like trying to find Bigfoot, you casually throw out the name in conversation hoping that someone will point you in a general direction of him but nobody seems to have a clue where he’s hiding. We never did find “La Cueva,” but did manage to find a few other places as substitutes. Eventually, when city personnel began to hose down the piazza we were sitting in, we made our way back to the airport and settled in for a bit of sleep before the last leg of the flight to Bilbao, Spain.

BIlbao was where the real fun began, from the airport we hopped on a train and traveled an hour to a beach side city known as San Sebastian. Clean streets, palm trees, and sunshine all led down to the multiple beaches dotting the coast of the Atlantic Ocean. Our hostel was located 10 minutes from both the casual and surfer beaches. We were in a prime spot for hours of relaxation in the sun, watching the Spain v. Germany game at one of the many pubs along the cobblestone streets, and meandering on the main boulevard. The only problem was that we could not find the point of contact for our hostel, and hence check in. This was only escalated when two guys left the building that we needed to enter and told us they were supposed to check in last night but had to camp outside for the night because no one had answered the door. So here we are sleep deprived from the long layover in Madrid, sick of having backpacks strapped to our backs, without a place to sleep for the night, and still not at the beach. The wonderful plan we had was now destroyed by the surfer dude too laid back to even show up at noon when he was supposed to check us in. We gave up the idea of checking into our hostel now, bent on trying later, and found somewhere to change for the beach. In a last ditch effort before heading to the crystal sand and clear water we stopped by the hostel once more. By some unknown stroke of luck we ran into the surfer dude just walking out the door. Before even seeing the surfboard in his apartment the shoulder length black hair, tan skin, capris, reef flip flops, and uber chill attitude gave his surfer lifestyle away. Now his being TWO HOURS late to our check in made sense. Finally thinking we were in the clear, we were thrown a twist when he no longer had any rooms open in his hostel but assured us that we would have a room at a cousin hostel two blocks down the street. At this point we really had no choice but to trust that he would indeed have a room available somewhere for us in a few hours. One of the scary parts of travelling is trusting people you have met for the first time, and having to hope that morality and common decency will be in your favor. Sometimes these things fail you, as you get robbed, cheated, and betrayed. But other times, you luck out and have your trust in the good nature of human beings strenghtened. We lucked out. After a 7 hour ordeal, having been moved to a hostel a few blocks away, and initially given a set of keys that would not let us back into the apartment complex we had beds to sleep in and a place where we did not have to see the black sky when we looked up. All was right with the world, and all it took was a few things.

This was a big night too, Spain played Germany in the quarterfinal World Cup Game. Here we were in Spain getting to experience the best of both worlds. If Spain lost then we would be back in Germany for the World Cup, but if Germany lost we were in the winning team’s country. We were deceived. Walking down the street, trying to find a suitable establishment to watch the game, we saw Spaniards wearing German soccer jerseys. Initially, the thought this was an exception and not the rule. In the bar we finally choose to put up shop everybody was cheering for Germany!? When Spain won there was no celebration in the streets, no honking car horns, or waving flags. As it turns out, in the Basque region, where we happened to find ourselves, many are separatists and want to form a country independent of Spain. Even the language they speak is a variance of the Spanish spoken in other regions. There was no party on the beach, just a few Aussies newly arrived from running with the bulls in Pamplona and celebrating their victory and continued lives over the stampeding bulls.

As the wee hours of the night began to creep upon us on the beach front walk we meandered through the dying streets and closing bars to our hostel. This is where the journey up to Bilbao ends and Pamplona begins. A story so jam packed with events, experiences, and people that it best be left for part two.

I present Mr. and Mrs. Barbier

Posted: June 21, 2010 in Travel

Last week I did something that would make my past priests shutter in excitement; I flew to Paris to officiate a wedding.  Disclaimer, even though I enjoyed marry Josh and Jennifer the priesthood is still not an option.  Sorry fathers, but I just don’t think being a pastor is on my agenda despite all of your convincing.

About two months ago, when I found out I was coming overseas, I got in contact with Josh because I wanted to attend his wedding in Paris.  Little did I know that a week before the ceremony he would ask me to marry them!  Being the opportunity seizer that I am, I couldn’t pass up this chance to check “Marry a friend” off my list of things to do before I die (even though it wasn’t on the list until I got the email requesting that I officiate).  I just couldn’t pass up the chance to play padre under the Eiffel Tower.

The plane ride to Paris was uneventful, and the extensive public transportation system made getting anywhere a cinch.  In no time at all, about 4 hours, I was in France and seeing similarities between French people, Italians, and the crowded, busy streets.  The dense, fast flowing traffic is akin to the style of driving in Rome.  This old city is thickly populated with apartment complexes and little shops, these buildings that look like they have been around for ages make the city feel as if it was born a diverse city at ease with its identity.  The people are a testament to this, as they span the city blocks wearing designer pants, top of the line shoes, and perfectly maintained appearances even if the style borderlines on bizarre at times.

After meeting up with Josh and getting ready for the big event, we took the subway to the Eiffel Tower to prep for the wedding.  By the curious looks from many, and the whispered comments to one another I venture to guess that despite all of their style not many are used to seeing a man in a tux carrying 3 dozen roses riding in the underground subway.  Upon arriving at the spot where the magic was to happen we spent the next hour laying out roses in an aisle-like formation leading up to the spot where they would get married.  With all the pieces finally in place we were ready to begin.

Now mind you, I know Josh from high school but have never met his lovely bride Jennifer before.  We introduced ourselves when she was standing in her breathtaking wedding dress next to Josh after walking down the aisle.  But, knowing Josh, how much he’s talked about her, and his ability to generally not be stupid when it comes to big decisions in his life I felt confident giving them my blessing as officiator.  The inability of either to stop smiling throughout the ceremony was a testament to their love for each other, and the indomitable spirit that often comes out at weddings.  The bride and groom, holding hands, look as if they can conquer the world together.  This special moment is their initiation into a life together, and their smiles are an implicit acknowledgement of their ability to give each other life and find happiness in the experiences they share.

Intrigued and moved by the wedding ceremony going on people began to gather along the outskirts of our aisle listening and taking pictures.  After I pronounced the couple “Mr. and Mrs. Barbier” everyone gathered began clapping and cheering.  This is exactly as it should have been, for the beauty of this moment and the love expressed transcends languages.  I had a few British women talk to me after the ceremony, when the bride and groom were taking pictures, and compliment the wonderful ceremony.  They were in awe that Josh would fly his, at the time, soon to be bride to Paris so she could have her dream wedding.  Their smiles let me know that our little ceremony had made their day, just as it had made the day for the couple getting married.  I mean, who comes to Paris (The city of Love) and honestly expects to see/ be part of a wedding ceremony underneath the Eiffel Tower!?  That’s a fairy tale story, the kind that seem to only exist in movies and books.  Who would have thought a small town kid from Wisconsin, and a girl from Florida would ever end up together in Paris giving their lives to eachother.

The celebration came to finality with dinner inside the Eiffel Tower.  The exquisite dinner of juicy pink smoked salmon, scallops drizzled in a tantalizing white sauce, and bubbly champagne provided the necessary end to an extravagant wedding ceremony.  Looking down on the city lights, which blazed like little torches, and seeing the lego-sized humans strut across concrete made dinner all the better.  After toasting the night away, laughing, and enjoying each other’s company the five of us parted ways at the end of the night.  This city is known for love because of events like this.  The city doesn’t have some magical power to possess and give love, but rather people from all over the world come here and share their love with this city.  Paris becomes intertwined with love stories, memories, and story recalls (like this one) that immortalize Love with this city.  Paris becomes a destination of love through the people, such as Josh and Jennifer, that share their love with the city.  Without people like them, and stories such as theirs, this city would just be another city located somewhere in the world.

Soccer, A Universal Language

Posted: June 17, 2010 in Soccer, Travel

Earlier this week, I found out that Joel frequents martial arts classes at the local gym.  Well, I convinced him to let me tag along the next time he went.  Today was that day.  Here I am walking into a Brazilian jiu jitsu club, having never taken any sort of martial art class in my life, surrounded by 8-10 local German and Russian guys who were not only in better shape than me but much more muscular as well.  Needless to say I wondered more than once what on God’s green Earth was I thinking a few nights ago when I had told Joel I would like to go because it sounded fun.

Suddenly three or four guys start kicking a ball around, just a warm up before I get tossed all over the mat like a rag doll.  Before I knew it a small sided soccer game burst out; a short but stocky man leans over and says in English with a thick German accent “Do you know the rules?”  Even though this guy could probably put my in a triangle choke hold ten different ways I burst out laughing and said “like the rules for soccer?”  He smiles, says “there are no rules here” and walks away.  At this point, I’m excited and ready to play the greatest sport in the world, despite the fact that I couldn’t understand half of the people there.

But these men have it spot on, as they laughed, put each other in head locks and holds, used their hands almost as much as their feet, and danced around a white ball like a ritualistic Indian pow wow ceremony around a fire.  In the 30 minutes we played soccer to warm up I was able to connect with these locals through the only thing that we shared a common connection about at the time.  For some this might be the only connection I share, as the language barrier often makes communicating difficult.  But for now, we were sharing in a sport we all loved, regardless of our cultural upbringings and our ability to communicate.  No matter where you are from the game of soccer is the game of soccer.  The concept is the same, the basic strategies apply whether you are in Uzbekistan, Germany, or the United States.

This “ice-breaker” made the rest of the training (such things as mounts and guards) much less awkward, as we had already come to an understanding through soccer.  Brazilian Jiu Jitsu is a style of ground-fighting where participants attempt to primarily use chokes and joint locks to subdue an opponent.  Flori, the man I worked with today, described it as “chess with every part of your body.”  Of course he forgot to mention that I would be dying by the end from how intense of a workout it is.  After going over some moves to use against an opponent the rest of the time is used practicing techniques.  Learning through action, practicing grappling with others, allows for development of technique and exploration of moves as one attempts to adapt to the situation.  Essentially, only in throwing yourself into the mix can you ever become better.  This is much like being abroad in general, as you go where ever with the chance to be any person that you want to be.  The change in culture lets you meld an identity similar to the one back home, very different, or somewhere between.  The pressure of living up to expectations of others or your culture is lifted, as your foreign-ness creates no expectations except the ones that you prescribe.  This is how life should be, everyday should be an opportunity to be whoever we want to be.  By throwing oneself into new experiences one finds that he/she can become a completely different person from whom they were back home, for good or for bad.

This small group of locals comes together a few times a week to practice their fighting skills, they are nothing more than just a small group of men adamant about sharing their knowledge of something they love with others.  The ones who teach do so not for money but because they want others to find enjoyment out of something they find enjoyment out of.  Just like soccer brought us, and brings together so many who would normally not interact, martial arts is a universal language that steps over the bounds of human differences and creates lasting bonds among people.

Yesterday morning I woke up at about nine o’clock with a check list of things to do in my head. I rolled out of bed, grabbed my computer and got to work. First was booking my flight to Paris for this weekend. A good high school friend, Josh, is marrying his sweetheart fiancé Jennifer. After that trip a blog post will follow to give my amateur review of the wedding, and detail the special role I feel honored to play. So, plane tickets are ordered and it’s about 10 o’clock. The next two things on my agenda go hand in hand. I now have two hours to run an errand that will take about an hour and a half round trip, check on tickets to the rafting trip, and load the bus for the trip if I’m successful in snagging a last minute place on the trip.

Here I am, red backpack on my back, 75+ degree weather with dry air, power walking to work so that I can get my errand taken care of. Now let’s picture this, a Wisconsinite able to deftly manage below zero weather but not heat. I can only imagine what I looked like, sweat running down my forehead from the sun, heart a racing, and just dying inside from the overall warmth that doesn’t come around Two Rivers, WI until mid July. I must have swooped into that resort looking like I just spent the last three days walking through the Sahara desert without water, sunblock, and a shower. To make this easier here is a play by play of the next hour and a half:

10:35- At the front counter inquiring about tickets for the rafting trip to Austria that leaves at noon. I somehow managed to squeeze myself and a friend onto the trip.

11:15- Errand completed and back at the front desk requesting a taxi to drive me back to where I started the day. I knew there was no way in hell that I was going to be able to power walk back home, change, and pack in time for noon. Sometimes you just gotta know when it’s worth paying a bit of extra money to avoid looking like you took a bath in sweat.

11:27- High-fiving people because I was able to make the trip

11:49- Packed and munching on a homemade tomato, egg, salami, cheese sandwich because I haven’t eaten all day.

12:00- I made the bus!

So, after my run around I was able to enjoy a nice hour and a half ride through the mountains to our destination. At feel free we shimmied into wet suits that made you stop for a second and think ” I wonder whose sweaty body has been in this before me?”  Only for a second though, because we were already back on the bus, all suited up in helmets, life vests, and wet suits, to head up river.  Finally getting to the point where we put in, our raft guide James went about teaching us some basic paddling and rafting techniques.  I took it upon myself, to take a front seat so that I was closer to all the action.  The added benefit was that the others had to follow my paddle strokes and mimic their leader.  So here we are, me in the front, having never rafted before in my life, and hockey Dave in the front seat next to me.  Hockey Dave has been here since 1999, and his bushy brown beard makes him look borderline homeless.  Luckily this character has been on this trip a few times.

So we put in and headed up the front of the raft entourage as we headed down the river.  The first rapid was sketchy, as almost everyone in the raft forgot about paddling in a myriad of screams and frenzied thoughts about drowning in swiftly flowing rapids.  But, this slow start was soon to be turned around as we were able to recover and end pretty strong.  The river took us past the infamous paramount mountains, displayed below:

This was only the beginning, though, as we were bombarded with picturesque views of bluffs, cities near the water, and tumbling rapids that we would have to ride through.  Before I knew it the rafting ride was over, and we were once again pulling our raft to dry land.  After getting some dry clothes on we boarded the bus again for feel free’s new campground, and I literally mean brand spankin’ new.  They still had contractors working, putting some of the final woodworking pieces together.  We spent the afternoon here grilling out, drinking German beer, and enjoying both the mountains from the valley in which we were situated and the sun beating down on us.

The chaos that began the morning was an adventure in itself, and only made the actual adventure all the better.  One of the frustrating, but cool, things about living in another country is having to adapt to another lifestyle.  This day had both of these pieces, as I had to deal with the limitation of walking everywhere.  Such a slow pace is contrary to the American lifestyle of instant gratification; I had to adjust to the fact that I couldn’t just hop in a car and have my errand taken care of or pick up a phone and reserve seats for the rafting trip.  But the cool thing was that I had an experience, both the pre-adventure and actual adventure that will remain a good memory for quite some time.  I was able to undergo an experience I can think back on down the road and smile at.  So until Paris, live the dream

Wasting no time putting on the exploring shoes, busting out the lonely planet guide-book, and hopping on a train with no particular plan in mind Monday was spent heading south across the German border to Innsbruck.  Located in the Tirol region this city of over 100,000 people masterfully incorporates the old with the new, as the soft blue, green, pink, and yellow colored buildings, cobblestone roads, and “old town” give way to a bustling center of construction and modern looking buildings. Leaving the train station with no particular plan in mind we headed to the triumphal arch, commissioned by Empress Maria Theresa in honor of her son’s wedding and as a mourning for the death of her husband around the same time, small baguette and coffee shops line the streets. Salt and peppered throughout this area the touristy nature of this city comes through, as small souvenir and gift shops find homes. This street from the train station runs perpendicular to the street that takes you to the heart of the city’s medieval section, which makes getting lost without a map difficult.

The constant on, off sprinkling of rain was enough to cover the surrounding Alps in a haze of fog that censored the peaks from our view. Heading into the heart of town, a mere 15 minute walk, we found ourselves in the pedestrian area looking up at the over 2,500 copper tiles that form the Goldenes Dachl, a balcony built in honor of Emperor Maximilian I. Maximilian I was a holy Roman Emperor that reigned in the early 1500′s. His tomb monument can also be found in this town, surrounded by copper statues that are forbidden by law to be touched. Stopping into the Goldenes Dachl for lunch, we found a warm environment and delicious food. Having the tirolean specialty (don’t ask me how to say it, I just pointed to the menu and a dish with sauerkraut while hoping for the best) I found myself face to face with a fatty dish of pork, bacon, potato, egg, and ham. A behemoth of a dish with horseradish sauce on one side of the plate and seasoned potatoes on the other sandwiching three pieces of tender meat and a dumpling centerpiece, which was positioned squarely on top of sauerkraut. The juicy meat drenched in pungent sauerkraut juice was just as delicious as the dark German beer, and left me both sleepy and bursting at the seams. The last five bites of the dish and couple swigs of the beer bordered between discomfort from being so full and a desire to continue enjoying the deliciousness served before me. Ultimately my appetite won out, as I finished off my dish and we headed out into the crowded streets once again.

The rest of the afternoon was spent walking the brick streets, entering a variety of churches, climbing trees, and popping in and out of quaint souvenir shops. The streets in the “old town” were filled with guided tours, which made me wonder around which corner the massive tour buses were parked. Finally catching a train home the mountains flew by once again, and we passed the many sheds dotting the farm landscapes when the mountains did not hug the tracks. These small, wooden constructed hay sheds blanket Bavarian country as a reminder of the rich tradition and heritage this area still clings to. Bavaria, like many parts of Germany has a unique personality that can better be described in a new post. So until next time, enjoy the journey, and live the dream.