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Across Northern Europe: I Traveled Europe Without a Watch

I traveled Europe without a watch.

No one uses watches now and my cellphone doesn't work in Europe so when the sun woke me in Iceland it might have been noon. But when I scrambled out of my tent and checked the clock at reception it was half past three in the morning.

In Berlin breakfast ended at 9:30 so I put my jeans on and went out to the street to find a parking meter with the time on it. Barely 8:00. (In Brussels they don't want to serve you breakfast so they close the kitchen at 9:00 and you wake up at 9:10.)

At a flea market in Berlin I finally bought a five euro watch in need of a battery. But the battery seller couldn't get the watch open so I returned it and soldiered on with a loose sense of time.

Across Northern Europe: Couch Surfing Europe

Europe is the world's great couch surfing destination since so many travelers everywhere call the continent home. On my around-the-world trip I theorized you could spend 80% of your European nights crashing with friends you'd met elsewhere. On this trip, which ends today, I've spent just over half my nights sleeping gratis. But the last night riding the wave of others' kindness had to be the most interesting.

I met Lonnie and Tania on the bus from the airport in Rio de Janiero. They thought I was French and a bit forward but they didn't know where they were going so they got off the bus with me at Calle Nove and we spent a week at the Wave Hostel playing cards and drinking acai together. A couple months later they had an apartment in Buenos Aires with a spare couch. It was a small couch to be sure, so I found a folding chair to position at the end of the couch and rested my legs on it when necessary.

Across Northern Europe: A second thought on museums in Amsterdam

You should never agree with yourself too often, at least that's what I'm thinking today, so I'd like to mention a few museums that are worth all of our time. Some readers may remember an anti-museum post a little while ago, though more readers may have stopped reading after that one and are missing out on this mea culpa.

There are plenty of very good museums in Amsterdam, but the three I visited were Van Gogh's, Rembrandt's, and Anne Frank's. Museums dedicated to one person tend to be really interesting; Picasso's museo in Barcelona may be my favorite anywhere with work spanning from his childhood to old age.

But in Holland's capital I first stopped into Van Gogh's temple with work spanning seven of the ten short years he worked. In contrast to my experience with Picasso, I came away from Van Gogh's museum with less awe rather than more. The work we always see from Van Gogh (Starry Night, the sunflowers, the self portraits) hews to a familiar and wonderful style. But a fuller sampling of his work revealed a scattershot, groping attempt to find that style. One portrait looked like a rough Rembrandt, many like so-so Seurats. But they also helped you understand the steps he took to reach his own iconic style. Most striking to me was Pietà (naar Delacroix), a painting of Mary and Jesus with a pallet so identical to Starry Night that it had to be put to canvas with the same physical paint (both were completed in 1889 but that's as far as my scholarship goes on this one).

Across Northern Europe: A Coda to Travel Love in Amsterdam

Sometimes I walk to the southeastern corner of Central Park and watch the tour buses respire tourists. I walk by slowly and try to pick up an accent or language. For a while I thought of stopping and offering to show them the city, to take them for a drink or walk through the park. But I never did.

One nice thing about New York is that there are always plenty of travelers to watch and I like watching them more than I like looking through my own photographs because they are living something current and exciting and photos only remind me I was doing that at some other time but not now.

If there is one honest to goodness reason not to go on a long trip it is because coming home is so impossible. A married friend of mine e-mailed me while I was away saying how much he still misses that time in his life - now fifteen years in the past - when he went traveling in Asia. At film festivals, after the Q&A, someone always comes up to tell me about the trip they took two years or two decades ago and still think about always.

I've sometimes compared travel to a dangerous drug, which makes you feel high in a new and fabulous way and then becomes necessary just to feel normal. And I think that's true.

But just now I'm thinking that high is more like a first love.

Across Northern Europe: Two to a bed in Bruges

There are many ways to end up sleeping with someone in a hostel bed but this was a new one for me.

Bruges, Belgium is a little city of 117,000 with about five million tourists on every cobblestone street so I was happy to find shelter at a hostel in the north part of town. My friend and I claimed beds in dorm room 10 and headed out for a long day of beer reconnaissance. Our exploration was as thorough as 8% alcohol levels will reasonably allow. It had been a good nine hours of diligent effort when we made it back to room 10.

Room 10 was darkened and filled with sleeping bodies, including one in my bed. My guidebook -- which had been on top of my bed to hold the place -- was now on top of my bag which had also been moved to the door. Naturally, reception was closed.

Across Northern Europe: Authentic Belgian Beer

Belgium is home to the EU, many very fine restaurants, important art and beautiful architecture. But it is also a tiny country with a giant selection of excellent beer and if you like beer and live in New York (where Belgian beers are fairly scarce and cost close to $10 with tip) you can easily justify a trip to Belgium simply to drink beer.

If I'm being honest I'll admit to having done that. If I'm being really honest, I'll admit to having done it twice.

Across Northern Europe: Terror in Berlin

I'm in Belgium now but I have a word more about Germany because simply being a tourist in Berlin will get you thinking. I'd love to take a history class on the last century in Berlin: WWI leads to Hitler leads to WWII leads to the DDR leads to the fall of the Berlin wall. How's that for a syllabus?

A couple days ago I was at the Topography of Terror, an outdoor museum that lost funding before it was completed. The exhibit stands where the Gestapo and SS once set up shop and is complete enough in it's telling of terrible things.

"World history sometimes seems unjust, but in the end it reveals a superior justice." That quote was translated into English on one of the displays from the WWII period and it reminded me of Martin Luther King Jr.'s hopeful formulation that "the arc of the moral universe is long but it bends towards justice."

Across Northern Europe: The Elusive Dutch Drivers License

I met Ella, Hilde and Amber in a Stockholm hostel two years ago this summer just after they went to the Roskilde music festival. They were roadtripping from their home in Rotterdam, Holland and we got along famously. So famously, in fact, they invited me to drive south to Denmark with them in Hilde's sister's tiny car. It was an act of generosity, yes, but also one of convenience: I could drive.

Though all three were well into their 20's, only Hilde had her license. Driving in Holland just isn't so simple.

Across Northern Europe: Globians Film Festival

If you're in Berlin and have a few free hours this weekend skip down to Potsdam, about 20 minutes away by express train. You'll find the Globians World and Culture Documentary Film Festival presenting films which are especially geared to the global tastes of Gadling readers.

This weekend's slate of films focus on Asia: from Indian call centers to Tibetan orphanages to Chinese suicides to Japanese gigolos.

Director Joachim Polzer created a thematic program, starting with general long-term travel last Saturday (full disclosure: my film opened the festival) and following with nights devoted to Latin America, the United States, Europe, Africa and other less geographic themes.

The festival began in 2005, some 15 years after one of Polzer's interview subjects told him, "We are all Globians."

Across Northern Europe: A Perishable Feast

The difference between traveling and vacationing is a favorite topic of longterm travel writers. It's not hard to see which group they hold in higher regard or believe they belong to. I try not to be competitive when it comes to travel -- it's so terribly tacky -- but I'm sure I fail sometimes.

For me though there is a real and important difference between a short trip and long trip and I'm reminded of it now in the middle of my not-so-short, month-long jaunt. For me, you only truly feel like a traveler when you can't see either end of your trip. When you can count how many days you've been away or how many you have left you are on a "vacation" from your life. But when you're lost in the middle of it, it IS your life and you can inhabit the road like a new apartment. That's the feeling of travel we get addicted to.

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