Where Berlin Meets the Pacific Northwest (and has coffee)

Flat whites and fruit tart at St. Oberholz in Berlin

Paris is a place I long for, but Berlin is a place I can more reasonably see myself ending up. To me, it’s like Seattle meets Olympia meets any beautiful, beleaguered city in Europe, which means it combines several things I like very much with a financial feasibility that’s hard for an American to find in a European city.

Let me explain.

In Berlin’s friendliness toward tech and startups, its beautifully and quirkily shod young people, and its abundant coffee shops, I see Seattle.

In its often cash-only economy, its abundant and generous public art, and its stunning parks, I see Olympia (or any college town, really – I originally wrote “Bellingham” up there).

And in its long and difficult history, its resilience, and its centuries of beauty and struggle, I see Europe. It’s something that no American city can possibly have, and it’s something I admire very much.

So it was funny to be in the mood for a coffee and inadvertently end up enjoying flat whites and a fruit tart at the most Seattle-ly place I saw in Europe.*

Saint Oberholz is one of many startup-friendly establishments in Berlin. (You could argue that Berlin itself, or Germany as a whole, is a startup-friendly establishment. And win.) They self-publish a guide to making your own damn Berlin startup, in fact.

I ended up there about a week into my November trip to Europe. And it was there that I realized, surrounded by blue-faced zombies staring into laptops, delicately picking my way across trailing power cords, that I felt more at home there than I had in the previous several days.

I’m still figuring out whether that speaks well of it or not.

Also up in the air: whether I should dedicate my scanty spare time to learning French or German. Feel free to make your case to me in person if you have an opinion on it.

 

*And that includes the Microsoft store in Berlin – though I later found out that it wasn’t officially sanctioned by Microsoft! I was in an off-brand, third-party Microsoft store in bloody Germany that mimicked the branding perfectly – down to the cheery “Hello!” someone called out in relatively unaccented English when we walked in. The only reason I know it wasn’t officially sanctioned is because, several months later, I had a conversation at a party with someone who has worked in opening stores like that for the last several years – and Germany is an untapped market. Huh.

The Warmest Welcome, the Enduring Oasis

A cup of hot wine at Place de Tertre in Paris

When I am at loose ends with things, my mind goes to Paris (and hopes the rest of me will follow).

I know Paris is not a sustainable kind of situation for me, or at least not at this point in my financial and professional life, and a sustainable kind of situation is what I need these days. I need to find somewhere that I can plant myself for a year or two, avec mes chats, and spread out a bit. Paris is attainable for only a few days at a time, here and there, when I am both lucky and plan well.

But, even knowing that, I still go there in my mind when things are hard. And they are right now, so there I am.

Because the memory of beautiful days can outweigh the incredibly difficult reality that surrounded said days.

Because readily available vin chaud can feel, over and over, like the world is welcoming you home.

Because sitting, warmed by heaters and overlooking the Place du Tertre in Montmartre, watching the artists pack up and the coat-clad tourists slipping by, waiting for onion soup (the French is implied, of course) and tipping just enough sugar into your hot wine can be enough to obscure (if not actually erase) the 12-hour travel ordeal proceeded it, as well as whatever unfortunate reality prefaced or followed it. Warm and comfortable and on the cusp of an adventure, an hour or a meal can stand out as one of the handful of perfect moments that we get to keep and hold in a life, if we are very lucky indeed.

And so, when things are hard, it’s easy to long for moments like that, because they stand out, independent of context. Were things perfect then? Before or after? No, of course not. But just for that moment, that hour, my needs were met, and things were good, and the future stretched out ahead like infinite possibility – or I could at least pretend that possibility was infinite.

There will always be Paris. And there will always be me. And the only thing to do is to try to recreate that feeling wherever I end up.

It could be vin chaud in Paris. But it can also be just the right dinner from my own kitchen in a clean apartment. Pulling over on the 101 to look out at the seeming infinity of the ocean, knowing I have what I need to get wherever I’m going. Warm arms around me and nowhere else to be. And these are better things to aim for, because although I will have vin chaud in Paris again, it won’t be the moment when I took the picture at the top. So better to aim for a multitude of perfect moments; the inevitable failures will be fewer and easier to take if I’m looking to augment rather than recreate.

Still, these days, the vin chaud is the thing that calls to me. Autumn seeps into my room at night now, and I can feel the equinox approaching. Times are hard, and I am me, and I treated myself to this book this weekend. I just bought brie and a crusty loaf at the grocery store, which I will enjoy by Lake Merritt in the next couple of days. I do what I can, and I try not to envy my past self too badly.

And I trust there will be more perfect moments ahead. Because I am lucky, and because I plan well.

Other People’s Childhoods: On Visiting Fairyland

The entry sign to Oakland's Fairyland

My first time in Oakland, I biked past Lake Merritt with Amy. Trailing behind her and freaked out about the passing cars, poor cyclist that I’ve always been, I only just managed to catch the sign for Fairyland, unlikely colors glowing over the lake’s rippling surface. I thought quickly of Breakfast of Champions*, which only made the sight weirder. When we stopped later, I asked her, out of breath: what – no, seriously, what – is this Fairyland that’s on the edge of this lake in the middle of Oakland, a town I was only just starting to dispel my stereotypes about.

As I remember, she said, “Oh, that,” with a little smile. “We’ll go next time you come.”

I was here once more before I made it there, but made it there I did.

A cottage at Oakland's Fairyland

Here’s a thing about Fairyland: adults can’t come in without a kid. This is for safety, I’m sure. However, it also keeps it an entirely earnest venture, I think. And that’s part of both its wonder and wonderfulness. I wandered Fairyland for a couple of hours on a darkening August night, and it wasn’t enough. I want to, as I have joked/”joked” many times this summer, borrow a child and get to spend a little more time there.

Reading library at Oakland's Fairyland

There’s a natural echoing feeling between Fairyland and Disneyland, but Fairyland came first in this chicken-and-egg situation: Walt Disney toured it and several other theme parks when seeking inspiration for his own, a million times bigger and grander than Fairyland could ever be on its own little plot of lakeside land. But Disneyland’s size means it can never have what makes Fairyland so wonderful to me. Amy told me that there’s an annual painting party to keep it up. And that surprised me – considering the nature of most attractions trafficking in fiberglass and cartoon characters, I expected something a little rundown, illuminated for others by the light of their memories of beautiful days when they were five or six.

But no. Fairyland was, is, and remains beautiful, and beautifully devoid of irony. It is what it is and does so earnestly, which is something I admire a great deal in both people and places.

The chapel at Oakland's Fairyland

I got to go to Fairyland without borrowing a child for an afternoon. It turns out that my season in the Bay Area was perfectly timed: almost perfectly in the middle of it was Fairyland4Grownups.

Three hours, once a year. Money goes to keeping admission low for local kids; attending adults get to wander the park and enjoy complimentary beer.

The annual adult’s night is a Thing. A wonderful, wonderful thing. And so is dressing up for it.

Revelers at Fairyland4Grownups

I was fortunate enough to notice this tradition as I walked by the line on the way home from school. Doubly fortunately, I brought something costumey to wear in my tiny travel trousseau: my Auntie Mame caftan cape thing, all flocked peacocks and beads and fringe. I got to join in the fun at least a little bit. I didn’t bring as much joy to the world as the woman in the purple feathered headdress or the full-on ren faire-clad folks, but I brought a little fabulousness to Fairyland. Not that it needs my help.

Mushrooms at Oakland's Fairyland

When you walk through Fairyland, you get to be submerged in something a little magical.

Wizard of Oz puppetry at Fairyland

Like seeing dozens of adults quietly, respectfully watching this wee puppet show, acted out by small felt figures to a recorded soundtrack. They change the show once a season. Someone’s job is to make or revive a season of shows, four each year.

Playing card guards at Fairyland

These guys. Painted every year. They are perfect.

Fairyland path

And then, to my regret, night started falling. Fairyland is only open to grownups between 7 and 10, and I hadn’t gotten there until 8. So I took as many pictures as I could in the fading light, the place becoming absurdly pretty during that quick blink of the magic hour.

Smoregasms

But I found a way to console myself.

Smoregasm menu

Because this is an event in the Bay Area, by law there must be food trucks. I started with this – it’s actually Multiple Smoregasms, but I only had one because 1. there are diabetics in my family, and one can only muck about so much, and 2. $6. I had red velvet, dark chocolate, and Guinness + chocolate. Small; mighty; worthwhile.

Smoregasm constructionAnd each made to order by people who’d gone to some length to make every aspect of this as beautiful and perfect as possible. (They do weddings more often than events, they told me, but do this night at Fairyland every year.)

Dessert dispensed with, I walked past piles of fried chicken, tacos, and succotash only to end up getting… pizza. I was hungry, it was ready, and I was very happy for it. I also got in a half-hour line for stroopwafel, one you could fortunately wait in via text. I felt my own insta-nostalgia of being in Amsterdam in November, where the stroopwafel comes in packs of ten in crinkling cellophane bags, and you place it atop your steaming tea so the caramel inside becomes soft and gooey. It is perfect, and when I saw the sign, I immediately knew I would be giving them money too.**

This was a little different than my beloved Amsterdam convenience store multipacks, but not nearly as much as I expected. They let me sub cheese for bacon in their Figgy Piggy, making it a Figgy Cheesy, and so, once I’d finished my dinner and hung out in the grass with friends for a while, I was summoned to pick up my fig-cheese-caramel stroopwafel, something which sounds mildly abhorrent but is actually exquisite. I talked to the guy making it, enjoying both his top hat and his (in this area) unlikely southern accent, and he kept remarking, with some admiration, “This is gonna be decadent.” It was.

I dispensed with my third course of the night fast, and then I was mildly nauseated and ready for another wander.

Fairyland bait shop

Where the light allowed, it was even prettier at night, particularly at this tiny village.

oakland-fairyland-laundry

I wandered along winding sidewalks that threaded between tiny houses, few of them much taller than my knee. A complete labor of love.

Tower at Fairyland

This melancholy fellow was well above me, though. If it’s Pinocchio, he gets punished more at Fairyland than in the usual telling.

Looming statue at Fairyland

And some of it grew wonderfully eerie at night, minus sunlight and full context.

Dragon at Fairyland

Earlier in the evening, I watched a guy trying for a good minute-plus to get just the right selfie with this dragon near the entrance. Inside its nostrils were two plasma balls; its eyes moved when you pulled the tongue-strap back and forth.

And then it was ten, and the nostalgic drunks by the whale and on the astroturf-covered hill and dancing to incongruous music among Wild West-style buildings had to go. The staff looked a little wild-eyed as we left, finally done once again with this weird annual ordeal. Apparently beer-fueled adults are more daunting than throngs of ecstatic children. I’m not sure I’d agree, but I haven’t had a job corralling people in a long time.

Fairy and constellations at Oakland's Fairyland

This fairy and these constellations were tucked in the ceiling next to the ticket window, impassively watching as yet another group exited. And, to my amazement, I didn’t hear a single sly word: no one trying to be clever, no shitty irony. Just people quietly filing, figuring out what to do next en route to the parking lot or their awaiting Lyfts. Like the park, the crowd was surprisingly earnest. I saw and heard nothing that made my soft heart feel hurt on the place’s behalf.

Fairyland isn’t something people feel lukewarm about. Shortly after getting to the Bay Area (nearly two months ago now, wow), I went to roller derby and spotted a surprisingly large tattoo of the Fairyland logo on a woman, right where her neck met her shoulders, the colors and lettering vividly and accurately depicted. And when a friend visited recently (hi, Amity!), we were talking about the part of her childhood she spent in Alameda. I asked her about Fairyland, and she sighed and smiled. “Fairyland,” she repeated back to me, her voice dreamy. Fairyland is serious business.

I still want to borrow a child and go back to Fairyland, ideally a patient one who doesn’t mind me stopping and taking a million pictures, the way my company that night allowed me.

And so now, when I pass the part of the park where the trees are a little thin and I can see a brightly painted, 10-plus-feet-tall stack of books peeking through the leaves, it won’t just seem incongruous. It will seem wonderfully unlikely, lovingly kept, and a well-regarded beacon of memory to the many, many joggers circling the lake.

I get it. And I’m grateful I got to go.

P.S. They only do this particular event once a year, but there are other adults-only/adults-allowed events here and there. Another one is coming up on September 25: Drawn Together, which combines local art and Fairyland, SIGH. I won’t be here. If you can, though, I really hope you go.

*I tried to find the illustration Vonnegut did of the FAIRY LAND in the book, but it is apparently a vastly less popular scan than his asterisk asshole illustration from the same book.

**When I travel in a regular way, my non-lodging money mostly goes to museums, postcards, and food. In my time in Oakland and San Francisco, it’s similar. I bring my lunch to school most days, so on the odd occasion that I want to eat something beautiful without feeling like a bad unemployed person, I usually go for it. Examples include San Francisco burritos, a fine veg burger at 21st Amendment on a very hungry day, and Thai noodles for lunch about once every two weeks. It helps that I get at least a couple quite good free meals each week at tech meetups. Tech meetups: never buy t-shirts or dinner again.

I Didn’t See the Auction at Tsukiji Fish Market in Tokyo

A big giant fish head in a case of ice at Tsukiji Market

But you know what? That’s ok. I still saw plenty.

A thriving street and crowd in Tokyo's Tsukiji Market

This is the crowd at about 8 am on a Sunday in April at Tsukiji Fish Market. (Say “tskEE-jee.”)

I had arrived the day before and barely managed to make myself wander Akihabara before calling it a night. The thing to do, per every guide and every person who has been to Tokyo or maybe heard of it once, is to get up ass-early (that’s any time between 3 and 7 am, per my body’s clock), somehow get yourself to Tsukiji even though the trains aren’t running yet, and register for the tuna auction audience, for which only 3.5 seats are available*, and, and, and…

I set an alarm for 3:30 (sorry, hostel-roommates), just to see how I felt. I woke up, still fully dressed, underwires pressed into permanent grooves on my ribcage. (Woe to the person who thinks they’re just going to lie down for a quick nap at 7 pm after flying across an ocean, for thou art fooling thyself.) I squinted at the streetlight coming through my window, said a very quiet yeah no, Houdini’d my bra out from under my cozy wrap dress, and rolled back over.

I woke back up at 6:30, the first time that has ever been considered late for me. I took a shower in possibly the nicest hostel shower on earth – not fancy, but immaculately, reassuringly clean, and so needed after my 10-hour flight the day before. I shuffled out by 7:30 for a quick breakfast (ordered from a picture menu, of course) before I hit the train for my first proper Tokyo outing.

Octopus posters in a window at Tokyo's Tsukiji MarketMy first job was at a farmers’ market, when I was 14 and new and being paid under the table. (Soulard Market, I still adore you, never question.) I’ve had an affinity for open-air food markets ever since. Tsukiji is a mix of things in the way that happens when a market is both functional and a wildly successful tourist attraction: dizzying tables full of beautiful, intricately painted sushi dishes; tanks of beautiful, doomed fish; readymade food stands; and crowds and crowds and crowds. Still too shy and jet-lagged to make the most of things, I instead wandered through like a wraith, ducking down narrow alleys with counters with a scant five or six stools, peering into knife shops, and marveling at the mix of locals and tourists. (You can tell the latter from the former by their ability to maneuver a corridor or any other straight shot of pedestrian thoroughfare. This is a universal language; these days, I navigate Union Square in San Francisco five days a week, and my ability to tell a tourist at 50 paces has grown even sharper.)

This is my favorite near-miss picture:

Crabs and crabs at Tsukiji Market in Tokyo

Still getting used to my new camera, I knelt before these crabs and fiddled with settings for a moment before I was ready to take this one. In the moment before the shutter opened, an older man ducked down, knelt into frame, and gave me a quick peace sign and a giant, cheesy grin. He then leaped up and apologized profusely, even though I laughed and tried to ask him to do it again. It’s easy to get bitter at tourists when you just want to buy your damn fish and get home to make lunch; to see someone take the piss in such a good-humored way was a good way to start the trip.

I also didn’t go to the most famousest ramen place. I will let you figure out why.

Ramen line at Tsukiji Market in Tokyo

Not all of this is the line, but more of it is than you might think.

After I roamed the narrow hallways and alleys and streets, taking in my first bit of Japanese morning, I went to the more industrial area of the market. These pictures are fewer because I had to make sure to, well, stay alive.

Tsukiji Market don'ts and don'tsThis is all really good advice with not a bit of overstating present.

Once you emerge from the market aimed at individuals, you find yourself in a lively shipping yard, threaded by small, screaming trucks, one seat wide with a tiny flatbed behind, which zip around and by you in a somehow flawless ballet while emitting the most appropriately eerie high-pitched whine. No drunk indeed – you’d be street pizza.

I ended my trip with a few oysters, pulled from running saltwater by a man standing sentinel between two tanks, patiently weathering tourists taking picture after picture. I just gave him money and took these to the little eating area across the way. I couldn’t find chopsticks, so I just tipped them into my mouth, scandalizing someone, I am sure.

Oysters from Tsukiji Market

So: Tsukiji Fish Market. I shaped my plan with Lonely Planet and a featureless amalgam of “So you’re going to Tokyo” to-do lists on various travel blogs – I found them remarkably consistent. Maybe you’re more patient than I am and are game to wait in a long-ass ramen line, or maybe you’re willing to get up at ass-early and take a wildly expensive cab across town. But the way I did it was just fine too – wading through crowds, gawping at fish, dodging certain doom via people just trying to do their job ok thanks. A fine welcome to Tokyo, and a good introduction to the very particular kind of keeping on my toes that I found crucial while I was there. Plus oysters.

Lanterns at Tokyo's Tsukiji Market

*Ok, it’s like 40 or 60, but every recommendation drips with doom at the LIMITED SEATS and YOU ARE GOING TO MISS IT no really GET THERE AT FOUR, GET THERE THE NIGHT BEFORE AND CAMP OUT LIKE YOUR SAD BUDDY DID FOR THE PHANTOM MENACE, oh god you’re already blowing it, it’s too late.

Entering Ueno Park in Tokyo

Ginger at at Ueno Park in Tokyo
Here’s a thing about traveling a good amount in a shortish period of time: wherever you go, there you are. And you get to find out exactly what that means.

I have a cat tendency. I spot them, I study them, I follow them, and when I come across them, I feel I’ve intersected with the actual life of the place. (Other repeated things I enjoy: coffee, outdoor food, pastries, popular city parks, walking tours, and cemeteries. These constants give me some easy, interesting comparisons between the places I go. Coffee in Japan is much different than coffee in Paris, for instance. I love them both.)

In Ueno Park (which I will get into more soon), this was the second cat I saw. The first was grey and soft and gently misted over by the day. An older lady was kneeling next to him, opening a carton of milk and then pouring some into a bowl. The cat dug right into it. I considered taking a picture, but I decided to observe and leave it be, imagining she was doing a daily or weekly ritual of giving this cat a little treat.*

Real estate is tough in Tokyo, and I understand that pet-friendly housing is exceptionally hard to come by, hence the explosion of cat cafes. So to see a woman doing a bit of gentle caretaking for this furry friend in the city’s most popular park felt like getting a glimpse into how people stay sane and balanced in a place of such extremes. Furthermore, there was a particular beauty to  a private moment taking place within sight of what I immediately named the Selfie Tree, a red bud tree so profusely blooming that 1. it was a solid, searing tree-shaped field of magenta, and 2. it was perpetually surrounded on all sides by singles and groups selfieing in front of it. Behold:

Selfie-ridden red bud tree in Tokyo's Ueno Park

If I hadn’t also spent a morning at Shinjuku Gyoen, I might declare this the most-selfied flowering tree in Tokyo. I grabbed a snack from one of the nearby tents so I could munch while watching people take pictures in front of this tree, over and over again, delicately keeping the shoulder-to-shoulder hordes out of frame. I wonder where the pictures go, whether they’re only for social media or if they get printed and added to some more permanent archive. I wondered this while biting off Hello Kitty’s waffle head.

A paper bag full of Hello Kitty-shaped waffles

Twenty of these for ¥500 (about US$5 that day). A bargain at any price, though, to be honest.

Ueno Park was my first day setting out alone in Tokyo. This trip happened when cherry blossom season was about 60 percent past, which meant that while I was scouting cherry blossoms, so was most of Tokyo. We didn’t plan the timing this way, but I recommend it, and not just for seeing blossoms. The flowering trees there are lusher and bigger than the ones in Seattle, so I found them worth seeing for that reason. But to visit a country at the same time that the locals are marveling and flocking to see the area’s natural beauty with the same fervor as someone who crossed an ocean to do it – that’s a special thing. While I never felt of Tokyo (hard to do when you’re a 5’8″ white lady with some pink hair), in that moment, I felt brought along for something special that Japan has been rejoicing at for centuries. I do love some flowering trees, to the point that they’re among my favorite things in Seattle. But to see locals picnicking on tarps, feasting and sitting and watching and taking picture after picture, all of us thrilled to be there, all of us so glad at that moment? That’s worth crossing an ocean for.

*Once, years ago, when my small cat was sick and had trouble taking in calories, I tried giving her cream, hoping the nutrition in it would outweigh any lactose-intolerant effects. Later, cleaning diarrhea off the side of the litterbox, I apologized profusely. She was unimpressed. But then she is always unimpressed.

I Loved the Atomium in Brussels Just as Much as I Thought I Would

We first saw the Atomium from the high viewpoint next to the Palace of Justice in central Brussels. Just an angular speck on the horizon, faintly silver in the late-afternoon light. Victor, our Brussels Greeter, pointed it out. I gazed at it and thought, I am coming to you.

There are two things that brought me to Brussels.* The real reason I ended up there this summer is because Tom is a uniquely determined kind of person and searched and searched until he found us an awesome deal on American that used miles we’d received from a credit card deal earlier this year. We knew we wanted to go to Europe, and he found a way for us to get there for a mere $375 each, round trip (and the return leg was business class, mmmmm). That’s almost reason enough to go anywhere.

But the seed of wanting to go to Belgium was planted some time before. I have friends who are also lucky enough to travel, and last year, they went to Paris and Brussels. They’re also engaging enough to be able to propose a thoroughly worthwhile slideshow night to show their trip pictures. I was enraptured by their many photos of Paris, of course, but the showstopper was some silver angular thing that looked like it had fallen out when someone gave the 1950s a good shake.

“What…” I began to ask. “What is that thing?”

That thing was the Atomium, Brussels’ version of the Space Needle. Made for Expo 58, the 1958 World’s Fair, the Atomium is an iron crystal model 165 billion times larger than the real thing. It is huge and shiny and immediately, undeniably absurd, and I saw it and immediately thought: I want to go to there. Nay, I needed to go to there. But at the time, I put it in the back of my head with the other 150,000 places I want and need to go. It’s not rare for me to feel that pull of I HAVE TO BE PHYSICALLY IN THE SAME PLACE AS THAT SOMEDAY.** I’m pretty practiced with filing these impulses away for the right time.

But when Tom suggested Brussels for our big summer trip, and I accepted, my pre-trip research yielded a grand thing: the Atomium and I would be together at last.

To get there, take the Brussels Metro about 30 minutes north of downtown. You’ll emerge in what seems like the most unremarkable suburbia, until you turn around and…

1_atomium-from-afar

Oh. Hello.

I didn’t think it would be possible, but I was even more taken with it in person. There are two qualities that can make me love something almost immediately:

  1. The thing is a model of something else.
  2. Said model is much larger or much smaller than the original.

How could I not be besotted? It’s a big, absurd relic of a strange time. It’s like it was made for me.

Brussels' Atomium, slightly closer

Things like this mess with one’s perspective in the most beautiful way. This towering, unlikely object, gradually…

Brussels' Atomium, gradually filling the frame

…filling…

Staring up at Brussels' Atomium from the ground

…your entire field of vision.

(A note: I have dozens of pictures like this, because this thing is photogenic and reveals new angles every few steps. However, part of being a good writer is being a good editor, and so I have spared you. You’re welcome.)

At the base, though, the whole thing briefly devolves into the worst of Belgian tourism. A person being paid to sullenly collect 30 cents from everyone who has the misfortune to need to pee. Spendy tickets. Children running hither and thither in the not-fun way. This was our last day of the trip, and my back hurt, and I was already a couple days past my usual isn’t-humanity-neat good humor deserting me. So all I wanted – all I wanted, more than anything – was to just get my audio guide and get up in that thing and be one with the Atomium, ok.

First, this:

Security scanner in the bottom lobby of the Atomium

Apologies for the poor picture. I am American and therefore become remarkably unbrave when faced with superfluous security screens because I assume they’re staffed by unkind people on power trips.

Fun fact: the symbol for “security screen” seen here is the same one they use outside for “pickpockets gonna take your stuff.” Make of that what you will.

Once through (and once we had our picture taken with a guy in a big-headed character costume of a redheaded cartoon bellhop, something we wouldn’t begin to understand until we hit the Belgian Comic Strip Center later that day), we encountered a long, long, winding line leading to an elevator. Next to them was an escalator with no line at all. Thinking myself very clever indeed, I suggested we head up the escalator and beat the ridiculous crowd.

The elevator takes you to the exhibits, which are basically catnip to my particular kind of nerdery. 50s-style concept illustrations, the cute outfits the Brussels ambassadors (read: pretty young women, go figure) wore, the various concepts for the Atomium, and press clippings galore. Here’s a thing I learned this trip: did you know that the world does not agree on how many continents there are? Fact! The Brussels World Fair insignia is a five-pointed star, “representing the five continents,” the accompanying card breezily informed me as I leaned over, squinting at badges with the fair’s insignia in embossed relief.

I stood straight up, pressing my audioguide wand to my ear. “Five continents???” I hissed to Tom, who was a couple display cases away. “Did you know we haven’t settled this bet yet?” He was unaware as well. This basic fact, this elemental thing we teach tiny children to let them feel that they can quantify the world and hold it in their hands even a miniscule amount, this is something we can’t agree on. We have regular trade talks with countries that inventory the earth differently. God, I love traveling. This is not the kind of stuff that comes out in casual conversations with people you’ve known forever.***

The interior at this point was perfectly 50s-innovation thematic, original to the event. These stairs are so charming you’d practically dance on down them to your basement nuclear shelter.

Awesome mid-century Atomium stairs

But after that, it got perfectly… wonderfully… weird.

The Atomium's Cylon escalator

The lights dimmed. People grew quieter.

And suddenly… we emerged into this.

Pulsing red lights and LEDs in the Atomium

Hold on

More of the Atomium's Cylon room

No, let’s discuss this

The core of the Atomium's Cylon base

Ok, what the hell is that?

Along with the sudden switch in décor, which moves from Tomorrowland’s rich pastels to an angry teenage nerd’s bedroom as decorated by Cyberdog and Spencer’s Gifts, the sound changes. It’s an immersive experience, this thing, with throbbing bass and enough moving staticky sounds to leave you feeling quite off-kilter.

And then we ascended one more escalator and found an explanation. It was a two-month art installation, an experience based on a short story about a ship’s AI system fighting off an invading virus while ending up unavoidably changed.

Oh.

Here’s something I like about Europe: there are so many old, wonderful things there that they can do things like this in stride. It’s not that the US doesn’t do out-of-the-ordinary things with our Approved Historical Landmarks and Such, but I can’t imagine the White House covering a room in mirrors and simulating rain. I can’t even imagine the Space Needle, the philosophical sibling of the Atomium, attempting something like this. Yet the Atomium harbored a Cylon rave, and, last year, Versailles welcomed a variety of modern art, including lining the wall of one stately room with a 12-foot-tall brick of fallen leaves encased in chicken wire. They’ve existed long enough that they know that most ordinary things clean up just fine, in the end.

And then that’s the conclusion of part one of the tour. The audioguide informed me that it was time to head back downstairs… to the elevator line.

Shit.

On the way there, winding down stairs (there are quite a lot; the Atomium is hard on people without a lot of mobility), we glimpsed this through locked glass doors.

The Atomium's adorable nap room for lucky children

In addition to I will someday share physical space with that thing, I occasionally get flashes of That is a thing I will do or have if I ever possess a ridiculous amount of money. I experienced that here. You, I thought at these little pods, you will someday be where I rest my eccentric, rich, weary head.

This is their daycare. Because the Atomium has a lot of spheres, and some of them are conference space. This is true.

Back at the ground level, we joined the elevator queue. Standing still did my back no favors, so I leaned on Tom as I pulled my heel toward my bum, hoping that stretching my angry, tightening muscles might get me through the rest of the day. I weighed whether it made sense to stand in this line, to go to the top of some tall thing that overlooked stuff I wasn’t familiar with. I have a resistance toward tall things; people spend their valuable vacation time going to the top of them without weighing whether it’s really the most interesting thing to do.

And then came a new piece of information:

The Atomium, glimpsed from inside through a rain-covered window

We’d been lucky enough to have pretty great weather throughout the trip. It had felt a little close and humid out earlier, but I’m still jaded by 18 years of Midwestern summers. It turns out that I don’t recognize the indications of an oncoming European torrential rain.

“Will it even be worth it to get up there?” I whined. “What are we even going to see? We’ll be inside the thing I want to look at.” The first part of me that gets chased away with pain is my sense of casual sure-why-not adventure.

It took about an hour, time I was afraid would be better spent looking at artifacts from the Belgian comic book industry.

But in the end, we made the right choice by staying.

We crammed into an elevator like Vienna sausages, and the guide blithely told us about how fast it was and how impressive it once was… in about six languages. As Belgians do.

And then… oh.

The rain had stopped, but the sky was still thick, grey, and surly. The rest of the world was left with the intensified colors a good dousing can give them.

The Atomium over the Belgian landscape

At certain angles, the Atomium’s spheres and their recently added steel plates blend in with the horizon while still reflecting and distorting it. It’s a beautiful thing – and genuinely, absolutely worth seeing from within. It may be nearly 60 years old, but it’s still capable of inspiring awe.

The Atomium, blending into the horizon

Also of inspiring weird little neighbors.

Mini-Europe from above

May I introduce you to Mini-Europe? Part of a neighboring complex of attractions meant to inspire tantrums in the children of visiting families, Mini-Europe is the centerpiece of a property that also includes a waterpark. Tom and I leaned over and identified the various places represented. We identified the Arc de Triomphe and the Coliseum, but we got stuck on “some airport, I guess?” and “is that a prison?”

I love miniature things, but I don’t understand the desire to pay 14 euros to walk around small buildings that are within a couple hours’ drive or train ride. I contain multitudes.

One last fun fact: the US Pavilion is one of the last buildings left from Expo 58.

The US Pavilion in Brussels, seen from the Atomium

And the US was kind enough to make a building that’s worth seeing, even more than 50 years later. The grandeur at most World Fairs was equaled only by how incredibly temporary and disposable the attractions were generally made to be. (Read The Devil in the White City for some insight into this, or consider the strange missing Ferris wheel axle from the 2004 St. Louis World’s Fair. Things were built to dazzle but not to last for very long, an interesting shared quality for events that were meant to showcase the future.

So it was good to see that the Atomium had company, and that it shared an origin with me. And it was good to see the Atomium at all, to spend part of my last day in Belgium at the first glimmering thing that had attracted me to it. Even if you don’t like novelty and relics as much as I do (a high bar to meet), it’s worth a stop. Particularly if you follow it with Belgian comics and one last beer outing, as we did.

I didn’t love Belgium. But I swooned for the Atomium, and so I ended my trip on a very satisfied note.

 

*Who am I kidding. There’s also number three: BEER. But more on that another day.

**Other recents: that green inflatable buttplug in Paris, the Santa Claus holding the black buttplug in Rotterdam, Mont St. Michel. I don’t lack.

*** A quick Google tells me that six or seven are the most common answers. Lots of people (quite reasonably) lump Europe and Asia together. Belgium, at least at that point, considered the Americas to be one long, spindly continent too. Fair.

Moments in London

mirage pub, kensington, london

This pub is deep within Kensington, and on that day, on the long walk to fetch my bag, winding through neighborhoods and trying to add fun to an unwanted errand, it looked like a mirage, a beautiful invitation to seriously, no, really, just stop and have a beer, nothing else is that important right now. In the middle of all of these stately homes, this perfectly manicured, flower-edged vision sat. Someone lives next door to that. They can saunter a few steps and sink deep into a pint, in this beautiful yard, among those beautiful houses, whenever they like.

That reminds me of one of my other favorite moments in London. We were taking a walking tour of Westminster, hence some of the earlier pictures, and we walked through an area where lots of politicians live, as it is roughly within the shadow of Parliament. We stopped to look at this light and that house and this former home of a major political party, and I lingered for a moment. A woman was walking in and out of her house, loading up the trunk of her expensive but sensible SUV with kid supplies for what I imagined was a few days away at a grandparent’s house. The pricey car, the much-coveted address, and her ensemble of a tastefully transparent white button-down shirt over a tastefully opaque white bra, matched with impeccably fitting jeans… I wondered what she thought of these tromping groups of tourists wandering up and down the street, and how unlikely it was that she and I had shared a block for a moment at all. She was the picture of a certain kind of assured, casual wealth, far removed from any group of tourists who’d saved up for months to take a trip to London, who found nine pounds for a history-based walking tour of British government to be a very fine deal indeed, who would probably commemorate the outing with the most British of Britishy pub experiences they could find within a few minutes’ walk of where we would leave off, Big Ben towering above us, ringed by the iconic and historic.

I loved the buildings and hearing all they’d been through. But really, I travel because of the unlikely crossing of paths. A politician’s wife and a writer from Seattle. Or, later, a Belgian film archivist. Or a Spanish chef in Brussels. A Russian housekeeper, handling the AirBnB her French artist employer rents out. I love art museums and walking along winding rivers, but what I love the most are the moments that could happen nowhere else, that required both the place and the person to be complete. Victoria Station and me, strange and inverted enough to stand among thousands of people but decide to stare up at a pigeon. That sort of thing.

It’s the situations and the curious alchemy that get me. Here are a few of those moments, none quite enough to merit an individual blog post, but something larger on their own, I think.

Magic hour by the houses of Westminster, with a do not enter sign

I am making a habit of taking pictures of do not enter signs at the magic hour. There are worse things.

ghoulies on Westminster Abbey

I enjoyed the waffle-looking trellises at Westminster Abbey, but I preferred these guys.

Tea at the Cellarium at Westminster Abbey

This does not seem like a formidable amount of food until you get to that second scone. Also: did you know that you can have tea at a building connected to Westminster Abbey? It’s true! None of the guides told us such a thing existed. My smart cousin found this, and I’m so glad she did.

Yes, more magic hour.

A view from the building behind Westminster. The legs of Queen Anne’s stool, gone all rosy in the slowly setting sun.

Super cute tea shop near London Bridge tube stationI made more Harry Potter references to Tom while we were in Versailles than I did in London, for unknowable reasons. But every now and, I saw a ludicrously cute (and sadly closed) tea shop…

Westminster building with excellent windows…or this house, which surely is one gateway to Diagon Alley, and it feels like I should be in a long robe, carrying a broom. One of the things I enjoyed most about those books was how comprehensive a feeling they gave. Even though most of the locations were fiction, there was a reality of atmosphere that elevated all of the books.

And I am a trite American who goes to London and thinks on this no small amount.

hump signs, London

And has a sense of humor with good, sophisticated highs… and wonderful, wallowing lows.

Snog frozen yogurt, London

Though sometimes London met me halfway on that. I mean, come on, look at their domain!

Train station pigeon, London

But then there are these fine moments, like this indoor pigeon peering down at me from within Victoria Station. I’m sure this dude will be the main character in a children’s book very soon.

Kensington house with zigzag stairs

And the little girl in that book will live in this house with these wonderful front stairs.

And thus ends my London scrapbook. Next up: tumbling deep into Brussels, with all the good and bad that entails.

P.S. I wrote this post while participating in Hugo House’s 30/30 challenge. I’m writing at least 30 minutes a day all month. I post my favorite sentences of the day on Twitter. Please donate! I’ll keep writing regardless, but you’ll be encouraging me and supporting a great Seattle institution.

Voyage to the 32nd Floor of the Shard

the two-button elevator panel at The Shard in London

We heard there was a bar at the top of the Shard in London.

As the Shard is 87 floors, and the bar is on floor 32, that is not precisely true. But 32 stories up is enough to give you a view of London Bridge, the Thames, and everything else at enough distance that it all looks a little remote and magical. I think that happens at about 20 stories up. You can’t see the people anymore and, especially at night, you only see this glittering, shadowy shape of humanity. I especially like it in a place like London, where people have lived for so very long. Even viewed from an uber-modern glass skyscraper, the shape of more than a thousand years of people is still plain around you.

Even if you’re in a swanky bar made to house the beautiful people, or those who would like to pretend to be them for a bit.

An aside: here’s a suggestion, from me to you, on your trip from the US to Europe. Even if you don’t think you’ll want to go to the fancy afternoon tea or out dancing or whatever people who are better shod than I usually am like to do, bring one mildly formal outfit. A non-casual dress, or a dress shirt and nice pants. Something like that. And, perhaps most crucially, shoes that cannot be mistaken for sneakers in any light, at any time.

I had reclaimed my bag earlier, and I gleefully changed from my train station-bought clothing into my clothes, from my bag of my favorite stuff that I’d packed specifically to feel a little fabulous in Europe. So, despite it having been a day of wandering dustily through Kensington Garden and Hyde Park and then hunting for Sherlock Holmes, I was wearing ballet flats and a dress with a surprisingly subtle print of cats.* One of the few handy things about being a woman who tends femme is that dresses can be fake fancy very easily, even though a lot of dresses are basically large shirts.

Tom and I looked ourselves over to see if we’d have any concerns with a possible dress code at a possible fancy bar. The sole questionable element was his shoes, which were far from the big white trainers of nightmare Americans, but still had laces. “Just stand behind my bag,” I said. “You’ll look all chivalrous, carrying my bag, and it’ll be FINE.”

After the days of wayward bag, I felt like the universe owed me a break. I wanted to have an elaborate, overpriced cocktail in a bar with a view with someone I loved. That was all.

But the real gravity of all of this was unknown to us at this point. At the entrance to the elevator pictured above, a man and a woman in black suits and Secret Service-style earpieces were standing guard, and their entire purpose seemed to be to conduct a sartorial review of everyone who entered. I, in my girly camouflage, barely merited a glance. But they saw right past my incredibly clever bag ruse and promptly began a surprisingly involved debate about said shoes.

“I don’t know if they’re going to allow it.”

“They’re kind of like trainers.”

“But different.”

“But you know.”

“Yeah.”

“Well, let’s leave it to them up there then.” And, just like that, we were directed to an unknown higher authority. A tribunal for overly comfy Americans.

That is how we ended up, just the two of us, in the elevator with two stops. We giddily talked about what might await is up there and how we might be judged.

It was, we agreed, a lot of to-do over cocktails.

Another aside, after so many uninterrupted paragraphs: it is both good content design and my own preference to fill posts like this with lots of pictures. This one is an exception (though not the only one) for a few reasons. First, as you might guess by the conversation above, it wasn’t a situation where brandishing a camera felt either smart or natural. I was too busy wondering if we were going to get to do the thing we’d shaped the later part of our night around. Second, once we got into the elevator and emerged into the dramatically lit hallway on floor 32, I just wanted to… be.

When I was in Paris last summer, I deliberately didn’t buy a camera to bring with me. I took occasional pictures with my old iPhone 4, and I very occasionally borrowed Tom’s camera to take a picture of something especially good, but mostly I wanted to be in the moment, and I chose to observe and record only in my journal.** I prefer to take pictures now, because of this blog and because it’s fun, but now and then, such as when Tom and I emerged from the elevator onto a frosted glass balcony that was empty except for a beefy guy in the same doorman drag as his ground floor counterparts, I prefer to just… be.

We began to ask about the shoe matter, knowing that this solo sentinel would also see right past my clever bag ruse. He stopped us.

“Aqua Shard is closed.”

Now that my bag was back and the need for compartmentalizing had passed, I was able to fully feel things like disappointment and frustration again. My stomach twisted; it was our last night in London before going to Brussels, and our second time attempting the bar at the Shard. We’d come by the night before, only to find a series of closed, darkened doors.

He considered this for a long moment. “Oblix is open, though.”

I stared at him, waiting for clarification. Finally, I asked, “What’s Oblix?”

“Bar around the corner.” He pointed past us at a hallway lined in textured cement that gathered the light from the LED “candles” embedded along the floor to create millions of thin, dancing shadows. “You’re good for there.”

And we were. We checked my bag with two extremely dressed-up young women and walked down a long, L-shaped hall, to…

…the bar.

20-plus stories of distance renders most things observed more magical than they are. But that, plus night, plus floor-to-ceiling windows, and suddenly just the act of seeing becomes something special and rare. Even though we were sharing the bar with about 30 of our closest friends and a  jazz band, it felt like secret access, like the perfect, picturesque end to a weird, frantic, fun three days in London.

We settled onto a loveseat, next to one of the overpowering windows, London Bridge and the Thames like miniatures next to us. Finally, suddenly, it seemed like a long, odd, good day was going to have a sweet ending.

Oblix is serious about their cocktails, to the point of being a little fun and easy to tweak. For instance, here is what Tom ordered:

The Betsy Theory

One of the many legends told of the origins of the ‘cocktail’ is
that of Betsy Flanagan: In the 1700s, during the English occupation
of northern Virginia, she had a tavern frequented by French and American
soldiers. Betsy was renowned for her alcoholic concoctions. To show her
support of the rebels, she decorated her drinks using tail feathers from
roosters, stolen from the British Commissary. The name cocktail was
born as a drink for rebels and a cry for freedom by the oppressed.
As the actual ingredients she used are unknown, the
Betsy Theory is inspired by her story.

Bulleit Rye Whisky,
tobacco, cacao liqueur
with mint & peach bitters

Crafted as a julep and served in a silver plated cup over carved ice,
garnished with the feather of a cock’s tail.

I will point out that there was no feather to be seen. Indeed, when I looked up the menu, I wondered if perhaps they’d since removed the feather reference. No; still there. It’s a good drink (though curiously free of tobacco flavor), and worth it just for the spectacle of the cup. I ordered something with egg white. If it’s possible, I always order something with egg white. It’s an approach to life I recommend adopting, if you have the slightest inclination.

And then, we… sat. We canoodled, I suppose, because that’s what you do when you’re on a sofa overlooking one of the most famous cities in the world, when you’re a couple days into a trip you’re thrilled about, and when, once again in possession of your toothbrush and boots, you’re able to think that things might just work out after all.

We stumbled down a while later, caught the last train back to my friends’ flat in Balham, and woke up the next morning to wind our way under the Channel to Belgium.

*That’s right.

**Which I feel was the right decision in the moment, but sometimes I think of the street art I saw in Montmartre and wish so badly I’d recorded it, because I’m sure it’s turned over by now, and what I loved has been replaced. I won’t make the same mistake next month.***

***That’s right. 😀

P.S. I wrote this post while participating in Hugo House’s 30/30 challenge. I’m writing at least 30 minutes a day all month. I post my favorite sentences of the day on Twitter. Please donate! I’ll keep writing regardless, but you’ll be encouraging me and supporting a great Seattle institution.

Baker Street Is Made of Misdirection

Sherlock Holmes tile in the Baker Street Underground station

It starts in the Baker Street Underground station.

221b Baker Street sticker on the back of a street signYou get another quiet little hint once you emerge on the street.

Sherlock Holmes cafe sign on Baker StreetThe surrounding businesses are only too glad to contribute clues.

Sherlock Holmes has an official dry cleaner, it seems.Seems legit. You don’t want to wash your deerstalker on permanent press, after all.

Sherlock Holmes cafe and beveragesBaker Street is basically a celebration of finite copyright.

221b Museum sign on Baker StreetBut could we be getting close?

The Sherlock Holmes Museum on Baker StreetSort of. But that isn’t 221b.

There doesn’t seem to be one.

This is the building that stands between 219 and 231.

The possible 221b Baker Street?

Curiously unnumbered.

What must it be like to pay millions of pounds to live at what may be one of the most famous addresses in the world… but to prefer to keep it on the DL? Is it a curious pride, or just irritation that the building in your price range with the amenities you like happens to have literary significance that keeps tourists gawping at your front door all year round?

The woman in this story probably has some idea.

This series of pictures, and this weird, unplanned little investigation, brought to you by fish and chips restaurants with a BYOB policy and a Tesco in easy walking distance.

P.S. I wrote this post while participating in Hugo House’s 30/30 challenge. I’m writing at least 30 minutes a day all month. I post my favorite sentences of the day on Twitter. Please donate! I’ll keep writing regardless, but you’ll be encouraging me and supporting a great Seattle institution.

London’s Albert Memorial: Grief as Religion

A fuller view of the Albert Memorial in London

We approached the Albert Memorial unknowing, towing my recently rescued bag on a scenic walk through Kensington Gardens. I was tired and relieved, and so I didn’t see signs for the memorial before I saw it beginning to tower above the trees before us. I wondered what saint or martyr or other person fallen in defense of the common good it commemorated.

But it wasn’t a glory to god or a representative. Instead, it was an expression of grief.

Part of the Albert Memorial in London

What is it like to have a larger part of the riches of the world available to make your grief solid? How is your grief shaped if your every dictate must be heard and obeyed?

Part of the Albert Memorial in London

Queen Victoria’s legacy suggests it doesn’t help it digest. The memorial was 14 years in the making.

London's Albert Memorial from behindBut if you could write large the greatest hurt of your life, with a dominating part of the earth’s resources behind you, can you say for sure that you wouldn’t? If you could make your love a permanent, towering part of the landscape of one of the most famous parks on earth, would you be able to resist?

I bear my hurts quietly, but I can’t say no.