Somewhere over Europe
October 26th, 2010

I’m writing this on a RyanAir flight between Berlin and London. I’ve flown budget airlines before, but this really takes it to a new low. The interior of the plane is plastered in advertising, the PA speakers are used to advertise the delicious beverages you can purchase to quench your thirst (they actually said “quench your thirst”) and right now the flight attendants are trying to hock lottery tickets. There’s also no assigned seating, which is the natural order of things in a movie theatre, but which makes a plane feel more like a bus.

I saw Chris off at Tegel Airport this morning, on his way back to Australia. The fellowship is broken. “I can’t believe the trip is ending like this,” I said. “This is lame.”

“Well, come back to Australia and we’ll start a new trip,” he suggested. “With bikes.”

I’m certainly tempted to, but at the same time I’m committed to London. Whatever I decide to do is irrelevant to this trip and to this blog, however. What I’m trying to do now, in this final post, is reflect on the trip that changed so very, very much from how we envisioned it. You have probably gathered, if you’ve been paying attention, that it did not go to plan.

We are perhaps the only backpackers I have ever heard of who don’t enjoy it. I find it difficult to say whether or not I would have enjoyed it more had I not been with Chris, who is rarely satisfied with anything and who certainly wasn’t satisfied with most of this trip. I don’t mean that in a bitter way; I genuinely don’t know if it would have changed things. Perhaps I would have been happier without him; perhaps I would have been exactly the same. I suspect it’s the latter, but I won’t know until I try travelling alone or with someone else (and, for it to be a fair experiment, try it in Asia).

It’s difficult to reflect on our experience, because it’s such a tangled knot of feelings and reactions that I’ll be sorting through for many years to come, and which is tied into the larger knot of what I want to do with my life. Part of it was that I dislike Asia and Asian culture; part of it was that I dislike any young and drunken party scene, which is what so much of South-East Asia is; part of it was that I like my comfort, and any trip involving squat toilets and twelve hour bus rides needs to have some damn good redeeming features; part of it was that I, like Chris, loathe relinquishing my freedom.

I’ve mentioned before that travelling the world seems to be the very epitome of freedom; but ironically, it is not. In a foreign country you do not understand what is happening most of the time. You are a guest of the government, dependent on a visa and the whims of the local authorities. There’s a decent chance you’re in a dictatorial police state. You do not speak the language, which means you are often reliant on the kindness of strangers. You must devote effort to eating three meals a day and finding a bed to sleep in every night. Your entire life is contained within your backpack, which you will often be lugging around for many kilometres in sweltering heat and rubbish-strewn streets with no idea of where you’re going while people grab your arm and try to sell you things. Somewhere amongst these myriad problems you must try to enjoy yourself.

Compare this to home, where I could drive my car wherever I pleased, where I had a kitchen in which I could cook my own meals, where I spoke the language and always understood what was going on around me. I’m not saying I expected those things – I’m not stupid – but it does puzzle me when people use the word “freedom” to describe travel. Independent travel involves many things, some good and some bad, but freedom is not one of them.

Neither, of course, is organised travel – we went on a guided tour in Ha Long Bay and loathed every second of it. Tourists in general give up a lot of their freedom. Backpackers like to think they’re much more adventurous than package tourists, yet they all read the same Lonely Planet and thus stay at all the same hostels and eat at all the same restaurants.

I’m not trying to disparage group tours either, though. If you’re happy being told what to do and when to do it, that’s great. Good for you. Something I cannot abide – and something which seems to be disappointingly common amongst travel writers, and indeed all people who travel and discuss their experiences in any way – is a certain amount of contempt and arrogance directed at all other travellers. You’re not doing it right, they say. You’re not experiencing the culture, they say. You simply have to do this or must see this. (Closely tied to this attitude is the unparallelled level of reverence accorded to The Locals – as though subsistence farmers below the poverty line are somehow inherently better people than us.) The level of contempt backpackers direct towards package tourists is incredible, and has to be seen to be believed. I don’t know whether package tourists have their own attitudes. I doubt it, since they don’t make a lifestyle of it the way so many backpackers do. I do know that many expats are even more arrogant; just take a look at all the comments during our feud with the Vietnamese crowd, and all the subtle criticisms therein. “Most people couldn’t handle Vietnam,” they sneer, as though they have accomplished something special. (This attitude is discussed here, by a more well-adjusted expat.)

These are observations I made a long time ago and opinions I’ve held for a while now, but it’s only now occurring to me as I write this that perhaps the reason I dislike many other travellers is that they’re a subculture, a clique, just like goths and emos and hipsters and Australian bogans and racist nationalists. They’re people who are desperately clinging to a group identity rather than forging their own.

And I suppose, to some extent, I was one of those people – let’s call them the Lonely Planet crowd. For the last, say, three years I’ve been thinking of nothing but travel. And because I’m a voracious reader, that means I’ve been reading a lot of things on travel – books, Lonely Planet articles, blogs and forum posts.

The LP crowd raves about travel. They talk about how wonderful it is to see the world, to experience other cultures, to “live life untethered.” Without ever having travelled myself, I began to agree with them. In fact, I began to do as they did, and look down at people who simply worked at jobs and lived in their own countries – I even looked down my nose at people who merely travelled to “safe” destinations like Europe, North America and Australia.

Here’s the thing I wonder about travel: what do you get out of it? There are truly some amazing things to be seen, and I’m certainly not trying to discourage people from doing it. But when you go back home – whether it be to Perth, or Liverpool, or Moose Jaw – how have you changed? Because to be quite honest, going to Cambodia and seeing a bunch of dirt-poor orphans sitting around because they have nothing better to do and no employment prospects does nothing but make me think, Phew! Glad I was born in the first world! Can’t wait to get back there!

I’m not criticising travel in and of itself. I’m criticising the concept that travel is essential, or that it somehow makes you a better person, or that travellers are far more intelligent and cultured people than those who never venture beyond their own borders. This is an attitude that is, as far as I can see, completely unchallenged – never spoken aloud, yet acknowledged by anybody who posts on the Thorn Tree Forum or starts a travel blog. It is arrogant, pompous and detestable, and is probably held by a good share of people who never even realise it. It is an attitude I used to hold myself, before I actually went travelling and learned some sharp lessons.

My advice to anybody who considers travelling overseas is to think long and hard about why you want to do it. You want to go to Thailand and get pissed? Awesome, have a great time. You want to go see all the Bhuddist temples and ancient ruins and stunning landscapes? Also awesome, you’ll take some great photos and get some good memories.

But sooner or later the trip has to end, and you have to go back to the real world. Don’t assume that a backpacking trip will change your life or grant you an epiphany. Maybe it will, but don’t bank on it.

Having said all that, I’m not done with travelling. I certainly don’t feel like working again yet. But I doubt I will ever again cram myself on a bus for twelve hours or hop from town to town along the coastline of South-East Asia. In fact, like Chris, I highly doubt I will ever travel again without my own means of transport.

The other way I’ll “travel” – comments about expats aside – is by living in a place. This is by far the best way to experience somewhere. You never stop being a tourist until you live and work in the place you’re visiting, and that’s why I’m forcing myself on to London rather than going home.

But the thing about travel, as I said earlier, is that it’s not the be-all and end-all of life. If I were confined to Australia for the rest of my years, I’d be very disappointed, but it certainly wouldn’t ruin me. If you can’t live a full and happy life in your own country, you can’t live a full and happy life anywhere (unless, y’know, you live in Burundi or something). This probably sounds stupid to almost everyone reading it, but bear in mind that Chris and I had been planning this trip for three years and expected to be on it for two. This was our life. This was everything, and we had nothing more than vague ideas about what we’d do afterwards. The events of the last few months have turned that around and left both of us at fairly directionless, but I guess sometimes you have to learn the hard way.

This has been a very educational six months.

Berlin, Germany
October 21st, 2010

Today is my 22nd birthday, a fairly unremarkable age, and although I’m not generally one to get excited about birthdays, this iteration is particularly bleak. I’m not going to pretend that I’m not depressed about Chris’ departure, and not daunted by the prospect of moving to a new city completely alone.

Everything that we’d been dreaming about – having our own apartment, working on our respective creative ventures, riding motorcycles to Glastonbury, going skiing in Switzerland, and just generally going back to living our lives, something we mistakenly thought backpacking was – all that has been swept away by the pen of a government bureaucrat in Dusseldorf. I’ve said it before: fuck Worldbridge.

I was torn between following him back, or pushing on to London alone. Every bone in my body was screaming at me that I should go back, that it’s sheer lunacy to try to start a new life from scratch in a city fifteen thousand kilometres away from everyone I know and love without a friend to support me. But going back isn’t really an option. In fact, although I was and am tempted, I knew I’d never really do it. If I don’t try London I’ll regret it.

It scares the shit out of me, to be honest. I found going to Korea much easier, though perhaps that was because I didn’t have anything calling me back to Australia. Now Chris is there and Mike’s there and Kristie’s there. Since Chris is going to Melbourne to live with our friend Jamie, and Kristie will also be heading to Melbourne next year, that’s undoubtedly where I’ll head if London doesn’t work out.

The thing about all this is that it brings up something I’ve been avoiding looking in the eye for a long time, which is that I have no idea what I want to do with my life, and that I have a strong suspicion that the “just go out there and have wild adventures” solution offered up by so many inspirational quotes is not quite as fulfilling as you might think. I strongly suspect, in fact, that the meaning of life lies in cultivating your relationships with others. Every meaningful relationship I have is currently in Australia. Which, as I have also learned this year, is a much finer nation than I previously gave it credit for.

I’m going to write more about travel reflections later on, probably for the final post. This one here is about me and Chris and what we’re going to do with our topsy-turvy lives in this big confusing world. What I was getting at is that I can feel my life moving on its fulcrum; the early twenties are a critical age. The counterpoint to RELATIONSHIPS is CAREER/ACCOMPLISHMENT. I’m going to London to seek a job in the writing industry but there are so many different things I want to do. I could end up working for magazines, or publishing houses, or newspapers, or – more likely than any of those – be forced to settle for something that I don’t enjoy doing at all, like copywriting or sales and marketing. (Jesus Christ, but I swear I could type in any combination of letters and get 1000 results for “sales and marketing.”) I was reviewing my resume today and realised how much of my professional life I’ve wasted away. I spent far too long working in a supermarket. I may as well have subtracted a certain number of hours from my life in exchange for money for all the good it did me and all the enjoyment and experience I got out of it. I would have liked to work in a bookstore, but that time has passed. If I do that now it will also be a waste, because I sure as hell don’t want to build a career in retail. Five years from now, will I be looking back on my London jobs with the same regret?

I don’t want to fuck this up. I have a terrible vision of myself living in a studio apartment throughout a drizzly England winter with a job that I find as deadening and pointless as I did my internship at the City of South Perth. And even if I give up on it and go back to Australia those problems aren’t solved. I’m frightened of not having any marketable skills. I’m frightened of being someone who’s talented but too lazy or unconnected to ever accomplish anything of worth. I’m frightened of just aimlessly drifting through my twenties, and my life.

That’s what this trip was, like Korea and university were before it: a way of postponing life. There may be some third way I’m not thinking of, some way of finding myself a career and a life that I find worthwhile and fulfilling without having to slog through eight years of existential crises, but if I could think of how to do that I’d be doing it already.

Maybe I overthink things.

Summary: Upper-middle class 22-year old white kid with European and Australian citizenship, a university degree, $14,000 in savings and the freedom to do whatever he wants bemoans his miserable plight.

October 20th, 2010
Berlin, Germany

Monday, 18th October 2010, at the WorldBridge office, Berlin.

“I’m here for WorldBridge.”

“Oh, WorldBridge closes at 4pm, sorry.”

“It’s 3.45pm.”

The stupid bitch shrugged her shoulders.

Take two: Tuesday, 19th October 2010. Once again at the WorldBridge office, Berlin.

“Hey, I’m here for WorldBridge. Do you speak English?”

“Yes, what can I do for you?”

“I applied for a UK Tier 5 Youth Mobility Visa almost a month ago and I’ve just read online that it’s currently enroute to the listed address. My listed address is in Australia and I specifically asked the man I handed my application to to keep it here at this office so I could pick it up. You know… so it doesn’t get sent back to Australia… when I’m here… in Berlin.”

“OK, what is your name sir?”

“It’s Christopher Cody.”

He fucked about behind his desk for a minute or two.

“Well it appears we’ve got your passport right here, Mr. Cody.”

“What? How long has it been here?”

“Since the seventh of October.”

“That’s more than a week ago.”

“Did no one email you?”

I refrained from tearing his head off. The bastard looked down in an attempt to avoid my empty stare. He then said:

“I have to ask you now to open the parcel here to determine whether it all went OK.”

I tore it open not thinking much of anything at all and went for the passport, flipping through it to see if the visa had been set in place; the clerk went for the accompanying documents. I’d been through a lot to get this far: the endless hours online, the verbal and written battles, the broken links on the WorldBridge website concealing vital information and now the cherry on top of the big seathing mass of fuck-up-let-Chris-down cake, the notification, or lack thereof, of my passport ariving back in Berlin. I had been dealt a bad hand time and time again but I’d stuck it out. And in the whole month we waited, not once did I really consider the possible outcome after submitting the application that I’d be refused.

I was refused.

After nearly six months of living and traveling together, it’s over. Mitch will continue on to London, where he would be and has always been more likely to be happy, and I will come home, but as of the 26th of October, the Gentlemen Of The Road will cease to be.

It’s been at least three years since Mitch and I started planning this adventure. Only last year did we both decided to finally get the fuck on with it. I worked up north in the Kimberley for six months earning a rather attractive sum, while he shipped himself off to Korea for God knows why. We worked hard and planned even harder for nearly a year straight. I left thinking we’d travel the whole world in a single hit, spanning maybe two or so years. From Australia to Asia to Europe to Africa to South America and then up through the States to Canada. Three weeks into the trip our idea of travel and the “backpacker life” had changed dramatically. The biggest lesson I learned was right there in the beggining: don’t stick to something just because you said you’d do it. If it isn’t fun, stop doing it. I mean, we had like forty-something thousand dollars between us.

It has always been apparent that Mitch has enjoyed the better part of the trip somewhat more than I. And despite his constant banter and complaining, you’d be right to assume so. He’s incredibly adaptable and contrary to all of those back home who still treat him like the twelve year old he once was, he’s done more than most of you have with your lives and he’s done it quite well if you ask me thank you very much. I on the other hand have struggled. Struggled in many ways I’d never have dreamed of when we were back home. Many times throughout the trip, we came dangerously close to renaming the blog Gentleman Of The Road. Even in the early stages in Cambodia. Then again in China and Mongolia and even here in Berlin. For Mitch this was an adventure, a better look at the world. For me, it was an expensive escape route. But instead of leading to the wonderful ending I’d hoped it would, it made me realise you can’t just fuck off to the other side of the world and expect everything to fix itself. To this day, I belive I went on this trip for all the wrong reasons, and I have paid the price for it.

Although, I do not regret it.

Thank you Mitch for carrying me as far as you did.

(You’re still a pig though.)

October 19th, 2010
Berlin, Germany

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October 16th, 2010
Berlin, Germany

Autumn is in full swing in Europe, and as somebody who comes from a topsy-turvy land where the leaves stay on but the bark falls off during winter, I find this tremendously pleasing. Some subconscious part of me – probably the part developed during a childhood of American cartoons – knows that Australia is a bizarre and alien frontier, and this is what the real world looks like.

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It’s even cold enough some nights to wear gloves. Mercy! I bet November is the bleakest month, though, when all the leaves have disappeared and you just have bare skeletal trees without the compensation of Christmas cheer and a chance for snow. Oh, snow. I hope it snows in London this year.

Apparently it was recently the twenty-year anniversary of German reunification, which seemed to pass without much fanfare here, I guess because trendsetting Berlin did it in 1989. I finally got around to seeing some of the Berlin Wall, a spot called the East Side Gallery. I assumed there’d be quite a few bits of the wall kept up around town for posterity’s sake, but tearing it down was, after all, the entire point.

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While riding the subway on the way back I wondered how they dealt with that, since Berlin still had a pretty extensive underground metro back in the 60′s. Apparently West Berlin retained most of the lines that weren’t clearly separate, but the trains were not permitted to stop at the stations on the eastern side, though they did need to slow down to pass through. This meant western passengers peering out the windows were treated to an eerie glimpse of dimly lit “ghost stations” that were barricaded and patrolled by East German guards. History does not mention whether two separated lovers briefly met eyes as the train passed and were suddenly struck with the personal level of cruelty inevitable in the separation of an entire nation, their pensive eyes representing the anguish experienced by an entire generation, so of course we must assume that they did.

Aside from these spontaneous outbursts of tourism I’ve been happily slotting back regular life, even though we’re technically still on the trip, albeit in a holding pattern. I like going to sleep in the same bed every night, and eating home-cooked meals, and not living out of a backpack, and owning more than four shirts and one pair of jeans, and not having diarrhea every second day. It’s great.

We’ve also been visiting motorcycle dealerships, so Chris can lead on earnest young sales reps. (He would happily buy a bike, if not for the uncertainty regarding driving in Germany on an Australian license, and importing it to the UK.) He currently has his heart set on a Yamaha something-or-other, and after some deliberation about having a test ride be worth the expensive repercussions if he dropped it, he took one out for a spin in the carpark behind a dealership. There came a moment when he stalled the bike and the back tyre slipped out, and our hearts all leapt into our throats, but he recovered it. A good thing, too, because I wasn’t filming at the time and I would have hated to miss the YouTube opportunities of “Man drops 6,000 Euro bike during test ride.”

Berlin - Yamaha XT660Z Tenere Test Ride (5)

Life is pretty good here at the moment. We don’t have jobs, but we do have lots of money, and I’m a lazy man, and Berlin is fairly cheap. I’m racking up rejection letters from literary magazines (at least Aurealis spelt my name right this time) and spending time in the finest of Germany’s high-class drinking establishments, by which I mean hipster bars where a beer costs three euros (staggeringly cheap compared to an Australian bar; incidentally, Perth has climbed the rankings to become the fifth most expensive city in the entire fucking world).

Living with our new flatmates is great, because it dilutes the five-month-straight ordeal of being with your best friend 24/7. Although this apartment is definitely too small for four people; whenever we’re all in the kitchen together it’s like a game of Twister. Actually it’s too small in general. The fridge is the size of a minibar and lacks a freezer, so we have to go shopping every day, and the bin might be suitable for a secretary’s desk in a small office, but is most certainly not suitable for dealing with the deluge of rubbish four people produce. We generally have a pile of full rubbish bags in the corner. It’s like living in Korea all over again!

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Here is our flatmate Essi, taking photos of Chris’ tattoos for her blog Fashion Overdose, which gets about 1000 hits a day. Gentlemen of the Road sometimes manages a few hundred, during peaks of Vietnamese outrage. Also she gets sponsored for it and has an internship at a magazine. Also she has accomplished this despite being younger than me. I AM NOT JEALOUS.

She also has a delightfully hilarious Finnish accent, where her tone randomly wanders up and down her sentences to the amusement of all. She pronounces “no” with about four different vowels in it: “Nooaaueee!” It’s the most similar real-life accent we’ve come across to our fake Italian accents: “I cannot-a read-a the passaporta! There is-a too-much-a spaghetti sauce on it! (Peers at passport.) A… Mario? Luigi? It must-a be either one or t’e other-a!”

Ruth, on the other hand, has a meat-and-potatoes Canadian accent, despite insisting that she’s not Canadian. I don’t know why anyone would want to disassociate themselves with Canada. Who doesn’t like Canada? Such insolence earned her a room-barricading yesterday.

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Chris and I, of course, have Australian accents, which are world-recognised as the epitome of dignity and grace.

Chris’ visa hasn’t come through yet, by the way, though we’re now past the ten-working-day estimate we were given. We don’t know when he’s getting it, therefore we don’t know when we’re going to London. Stop asking. Also stop asking me what kind of job I am planning to get in London (mayor).

October 3rd, 2010
Berlin, Germany

Chris’ appointment with Worldbridge went more smoothly than expected. The guy who did the interviews was a lot more helpful than the woman at the front desk, and reassured Chris that most applications he receieves are from people without six-month residency or properly signed bank letters. He doesn’t know if they actually get accepted or not, but it seems more reassuring than the alternative.

Of course, to get there, he had to get past the woman at the front desk.

“We need your application form.”
“I filled that out online.”
“You need to print that off as well.”
“What? I submitted it online.”
“Yes, but we need a hardcopy too.”
“…Why? What is the point in doing it online if I have to give you a hard copy as well?”
“That’s just how it is.”
“Well, can I use your printer?”
“No.”

Fuck Worldbridge. Fortunately there was a Ritz-Carlton across the street that promptly let him use their printer free of charge even though he wasn’t a guest. Now that’s how private enterprise should be!

I’ve mentioned this before, but if you ever find yourself in government, please do not privatise services that are natural monopolies. I cannot stress that enough.

Now we’re just waiting “an average of 10 business days” for it to come through. We’re mostly just huddling in the apartment, since early October in Berlin is as cold as a Perth winter, but occasionally we’ll rouse ourselves to go do something touristy. We went to the history museum a few days ago, which was interesting. Several people in historical portraits looked uncannily like contemporary actors Sean Penn and Robert De Niro.

It was also amusing to find examples of prejudice randomly scattered throughout the informational plaques. “Jews were not permitted to own property… Jews were not full citizens… as knights sailed for the Crusades, many Jews were slaughtered in celebration.”

“Man, what did the Jews do to piss everybody off?” Chris wondered.

“I think they killed Jesus,” I said. But, hey, that guy had it coming.

The World War II section was obviously the money melon. Germany – unlike SOME Axis countries, not naming any names – doesn’t shy away from admitting that it was the bad guy in World War II. It’s disturbing to watch Hitler gradually rise to power, but at the same time, Year 12 History wasn’t that long ago and I found myself skimming over a lot of it.

More interesting to me is the aftermath – not the Cold War stuff, but the way a society comes to terms with what it just did. According to polls taken during the postwar trials, most Germans wanted to just forget about it and move on, which I suppose is understandable but also just a tad cowardly. Similar to, say, not prosecuting your presidential predecessor for establishing a worldwide network of kidnapping and torture.

We also went to the natural history museum, which had dinosaur skeletons and such.

We’re getting pretty bored here.

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Well, Chris is. It takes a few weeks for me to get cabin fever, as long as I have books and Internet access.

He left his underwear hanging on the balcony the other night and both pairs fell off. One was irretrievably lost to the sidewalk, the other landed on the sattelite dish belonging to our downstairs neighbour.

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He managed to rescue this pair using a coathanger tied to his laptop charger, to the great amusement of myself, Essi, and the assorted crowd sitting outside the bar across the street.

Essi is one of our new roommates, and the only Finnish one – the other, Ruth, is actually Irish-Canadian. Since their arrival I’m once again bunking in a tiny room with Chris. Why, it’s just like being on the road again! Except even Vietnam had better bathrooms than this place (refer to previous post for detailed bitching).

Now that we’re living in our own apartment we’re cooking our own meals, by which I mean Chris is cooking our meals. (I am also forbidden from food shopping, after I returned one day with a hunk of frozen vegetables and some nearly-expired sausages that tasted like I imagine a dead body to taste like). Every night at dinner we watch an episode of the Simpsons for old time’s sake. Last night, particularly nostalgic, I cued up the Channel 10 News theme on Youtube directly beforehand.

Not that I’m particularly homesick or anything. I mean, it would be nice to feel the warmth of the sun on my skin, but I don’t really miss Perth. I visited the opinion section of the West Australian yesterday and was reminded of what a provincial backwater Perth is.

This is the only daily in a state of two million people. Here is a summary of the ten most recent opinion articles:

1. Teaching
2. WHATEVER WILL WE DO ABOUT THIS MINORITY GOVERNMENT?!
3. Australia’s Next Top Model
4. A meandering review of a paperback thriller, the writer referencing Sartre and randomly discussing his cats
5. Mining
6. Mining
7. Right-wing Alston cartoons
8. AFL
9. Canada should host the Commonwealth Games on account of not being a shithole
10. A collection of Youtube music videos

God strike me dead if I am making those up. I presume all the talented journalists flee to the eastern states. Or the UK.

September 25th, 2010
Berlin, Germany

We’ve moved into our temporary apartment, which has been all ours this week. This is my bedroom, for now:

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Chris and I had a best two out of three chess tournament to see who gets it (because we’re so cool). Amazingly, I won, so I get the luxury of two big windows and chairs and high ceilings until the girls move in. We haven’t actually discussed who gets the better room, but we assume it’s them because they’ll be living here longer. Also because gallantry is back. Drink Boags. (I’m serving time in obscure reference hell for that one.)

It’s great to once again be living in a home rather than a hostel or a hotel or, very briefly, a ger camp. And as I mentioned before, it’s great to be back in Europe. You know, all the way through South-East Asia and China, while I was hunkered down above their bestial Oriental squat toilets with my pants off, robbed of all dignity, behaving like a common troll, I consoled myself by thinking, hey, at least Europe will have proper toilets NOPE!

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On the first day we were here, Chris emerged after taking a dump and said, “Dude, you have to come check this toilet out. It’s so badly designed.”

“Haha, you mean the angle it juts out from the wall? Yeah, I thought…”

“No. Go look at the bowl.”

As you can see in the image above, the German toilet has a shelf smack-bang in the middle of the bowl. Your turd drops about five centimetres and then just sits there, uncovered by water, uncomfortably close to your ass and cheerfully pumping its odour into the surrounding airspace.

We puzzled over this design for quite some time, as our regard for German engineering slowly slid down the ladder from first place. I mean, it’s obviously preferable to an Asian squat toilet, but I least I understood the squat toilet. This was just baffling. I could not for the life of me figure out why anyone would decide to put a platform in the middle of a toilet.

A few days later we were discussing this with Chris’ old friend Lara, a German girl whom we quite coincidentally bumped into in Bangkok and then again randomly met at a subway station in Berlin. Uncanny! She defended the toilet on the notion that you can see your shit, and therefore better determine your state of health, and said that her Dad would have died of bowel cancer had he not caught it in time thanks to the trusty poo shelf.

I did some research online and discovered that this is indeed the reason for it: Germans like to inspect their shit. There you have it. I thought they were cool, you know? After five months in Asia I was relieved to be among Westerners again. Now I’m sitting on the subway looking at their faces and knowing their terrible secret: they’re a nation of shit inspectors.

Outrigger defences of the poo shelf include the concept that it’s more water efficient and that toilets with proper bowls splash water on your ass. Regarding the first point, no it isn’t. Chris and I now flush twice, because you have to exile your shit ASAP before it stinks up the joint (since the shelf is not submerged in water). In any case, does Germany really have a problem with water supplies? Why aren’t these abominations installed across water-starved Australia, then? Regarding the second point – yeah, okay, that happens, but only like one out of every fifteen shits. And I’d much rather have water splashed on my ass than have my own faeces lurk dangerously close to it.

To sum up, German poo-shelf toilets are stupid, and destroying every one of them should have been a mandatory requirement for any nation joining the European Union, just like abolishing the death penalty. Certain practices are barbaric and have no place in a modern, civilised society.

Now, before we leave the bathroom, there’s another complaint I need to express: what in the world is the idea with having no shower curtain and no drain on the floor? The omission of one of those things is forgivable. The omission of both means that after every shower you have to spend ten minutes mopping up the floor. Honestly, what the fuck? It’s a water-oriented room. How did the architect not realise this would be a problem? I’ve come across more efficient bathrooms in Vietnam, and that’s saying something.

Apart from that, mind you, the apartment is fine. (Well, it also lacks a freezer and an oven, but I find that less irritating). I have this lovely, big, high-ceilinged, sunlit bedroom to myself for one more night before the girls arrive tomorrow and I have to bunk with Chris again.

Chris has his appointment with Worldbridge on Tuesday, and we’re crossing our fingers for that because there’s literally nothing else we can do. No phone numbers to call, no email address that sends anything other than a template, no physical office to visit unless you have an actual ($250) appointment. Just a thought, but maybe privatisation is a really fucking bad idea if it’s in an industry that is a natural monopoly. I never thought I would come across people who care about their jobs less than those who work in the visa section of any given nation’s consulate, but apparently by selling something to the private sector you can always make it worse.

The two hurdles are the fact that he doesn’t have a signed letter from his bank proving that he has enough funds to support himself (just a printed scan, since an actual letter would take too long to get here) and that he is applying in a country in which he is not a resident. Supposedly you need to be allowed to remain in the country for more than six months to be considered a resident (he just has the standard three month Schengen visa), but he was permitted to apply online anyway. It would be swell if we could maybe ring somebody up and ask them about that, but we can’t, because Worldbridge are a useless gaggle of incompetent wastrels.

What else is happening? Well, we went to the Berlin Zoo. I hadn’t been to a zoo in about ten years, and while it’s lost the magic it held for me when I was a child, it nonetheless delivered us to the glory of the MANBIRD:

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It also had quite a fascinating layout. At Perth Zoo, virtually all the enclosures are either on the other side of glass or in sunken pits. Berlin Zoo had quite a number of enclosures that were on the same level as the viewers, and which had nothing between us and the animals except a very shallow ditch filled with water.

“How do they stop them running away?” I wondered. “A donkey could jump over that easy.”

“Maybe they’re terrified of water,” Chris said. “Maybe the zookeepers drowned one of the donkeys in front of the rest of them.”

We also saw a REAL swan:

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Other than that we haven’t done much. Well, Chris bought a guitar. And we went to the movies. And I went to the laundromat, which was tedious. And we got caught by the Berlin transit guards (undercover, sneaky!) for riding without tickets, which is 40 euros each we shan’t see again. And Chris has started exercising and going for jogs. And we’re going food shopping basically every day since we don’t have a freezer and therefore can’t buy meals more than a few days in advance.

I did feel the need to get our of the house today, and wandered east awhile, towards an English-language bookshop and open-air weekend market. It was a very drizzly day, though, which I imagine the next six months will be like. Don’t Europeans get tired of being damp all the time?

September 18th, 2010
Berlin, Germany

Turns out we’re going to be in Berlin until the end of October. This is because of how shockingly time-consuming and difficult it is for Chris to apply for a British working visa. Earlier this year the British government, in its infinite wisdom, decided to privatise the visa application process and hand it over to a company called Worldbridge. We’d already tried to figure out the Worldbridge application process on their website back in Beijing, but finding that it was akin to getting blood from a stone, figured we could just go talk to someone face-to-face at the consulate in Berlin. Instead we found ourselves rebuffed by the guards out the front, told to go apply online.

“You should write something up about Worldbridge for the blog,” I said a few days later, after Chris had spent most of his time in Berlin clicking through their labyrinthine website, or making phone calls to dead numbers.

“With pleasure,” he said.

If I were to describe them in one sentence it would be this: “Unbelievably, incomprehensibly, impossibly, unfathomably shitting awful.” I’m confident we all know who I’m talking about; that’s right, Worldbridge, the chosen contractor of the United Kingdom Border Agency.

I’ve spent more than twenty fucking hours of my time in Berlin fighting this Chaos Snail with barely anything to show for it. It is easier to get into fucking Russia you stupid stupid dick of a company. The web layout is that of an overconfident twelve year old whose daddy gave him the job because the previous graphic designer died the day before; the so called ‘help’ section is as informing as a drunk Vietnamese hotel manager; the contact numbers and email addresses are no-numbers and dead ends and the ten or so questions asking if I am a terrorist were just frankly a waste of everybody’s time. I wouldn’t be a very good one if I just fucking told you would I? I mean seriously, ‘Are you a terrorist?’ ‘Do you think that you are a person of good or bad character?’ ‘Oh yeah I’m actually thinking of shooting the Queen, soooo… can you let me in now?’

I have completed the Online Application – nearly killing myself in the process – and have scheduled an appointment and biometrics test on, get this, the 28th of September. That is a whole two weeks from the day we landed in Berlin. That’s two weeks until just the interview. And then, only then will they send my application and documents and passport off to the UK to be processed. Once they’ve been sent off, I have to wait a further three working weeks until I get a reply; a reply that could either be well deserved yes, or a big, wet, heavy slap-in-the-face no.

I cannot express how difficult it has been to get as far as I have in this visa clusterfuck. I’m still yet to compile the required documents for the interview. But here’s the real kicker: the list of required documents link is broken. It is a dead link. I literally cannot get this visa without the correct documents, and yet the incompetence of the company whose sole purpose is to help people get these visas is preventing me from getting the information I need. I turned helplessly to the ‘contact us’ section. And after wading through swamps of thick red tape, I eventually found an email address to some legal department.

‘To whom it may concern. My name is Chris and I have a problem. I have an appointment booked on the 28th of September 2010 for a UK Youth Mobility Visa. In order to gain this visa I need to provide the correct documents. I have found the link that is supposed to provide me with a list of these documents but it is broken and does not lead me to any answers. Why do you have to make things so hard? What did I do wrong? It’s like I didn’t leave Asia at all. Are you trying to push me to the edge? Are you all evil dinosaur monsters from hell?’

I totally said that.

I’m still waiting on a reply. Until then I am stuck up shit creek without a paddle… or a boat. And by shit creek I mean lovely Berlin.

Googling around, it seems clear that Worldbridge has frustrated many a prospective immigrant, and I agree with this fellow who argues that Woldbridge is designed to prevent people with credit cards and internet access from getting a visa. But the fact that it has generated only this small amount of outrage is mind-boggling. As far as I can tell it’s been rolled out across the board, in every country, for every type of visa. And the amount of people who apply for British working visas every year must be at least a hundred thousand. Maybe it’s just the Berlin office that’s a bunch of incompetent idiots who sit around all day throwing pencils into the ceiling, but even then, the website is a staggering black hole of customer service. I thought the point of privatisation was to make things more efficient? I’ve a good mind to write an angry letter to the Home Secretary.

So anyway, Chris’ appointment is on the 28th, and he won’t even get a visa for weeks afterwards, so we’re in Berlin for quite a while. We were trying to find a decent hostel that wasn’t booked out when it occurred to me that we could just rent a short-let apartment.

We applied through two different English-language real estate agencies, and fired off emails to about ten ads on craigslist, which I have now discovered to be a festering swamp of con artists. I’ve receieved no less than three emails from separate charlatans who claim to be living in London or West Africa, and who for some reason have the apartment keys with them, but will mail them to us as soon as they receive payment. They’re sorry we can’t see the apartment first, but they can give us the street address so we can go look at it from the outside. I have replied to every one of these emails with a query about how many suckers per month they manage to fool, because I’m genuinely curious. Seriously, what the fuck? Even if they were legit, are we supposed to just sleep in the hallway until the keys arrive?

We did go see a genuine apartment offer today, but two Finnish girls were moving in at the beginning of October. We were therefore going to have it for just one week and move there tomorrow (because it beats a hostel, even if it’s just for a week) but Chris emailed the Finns and asked if they’d be okay with sharing for an extra three weeks. They are, so on the plus side we have an apartment and will be saving a lot on rent (750 euros a month, split between four) but on the downside we’ll still be sharing a room. Hey, at least it won’t be as bad as the hallway-sized room we have at this hostel, with a bunk bed that squeaks like a hammock made out of rusty paperclips.

In the meantime we’ve been exploring Berlin. It’s wonderful to once again be in a city that’s a pleasure to simply walk around in. By my Australian sensibilities it’s fairly cold most days, despite only being the first month of autumn. I can’t imagine what January must be like. In any case I love it – you all read my bitching and moaning about the heat in South-East Asia.

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There’s a lot of graffiti in Berlin, some of which is actually very good public art. And this cool little plaza, which was like a funhouse attraction:

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Edit, September 30: Chris came into my room a moment ago after talking to one of our roommates and said, “Dude, you know that funhouse thing? The big tall pillars that we climbed up and messed around in?”

“Yeah, why?”

“It’s a Holocaust memorial!”

At which point I shrieked in horror. Turns out it is indeed the Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe, and we are deeply sorry for treating it like an amusement park. In our defence, all the other tourists were too, probably because (as Wikipedia points out), “Nowhere inside the memorial, or around it, does it say what it commemorates.”

These swans are the wrong colour!

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We wandered through a park, saw a squirrel and some statues, enjoyed the brisk weather.

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Here’s the Reichstag from the other side of ther river, where you can’t see the ranked buses and crowds of elderly tourists:

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I’m sure we’ll do a lot more exploring in the many unemployed weeks to come.

September 15th, 2010
Berlin, Germany

Despite being fairly well-travelled for my age, I’ve only ever flown north/south – to Bali, Japan, Korea and Singapore – never east/west. So today is my first experience with jet lag. It’s tiring, especially given that I got three hours of sleep last night and had an early start to begin with.

Our plane left Chinggis Khan International at 7.35 am, so we organised a car for 5.00 am and I got out of bed at 4.30, after going to bed aroound 1.00. Chris hadn’t slept at all, and it was still pitch black outside.

“Zaya’s going to think we trashed this place,” Chris said, as I finished the last of my packing. When I’d tried to shut the curtains the previous night, a screw had popped out of the rack and and the whole thing had half fallen out of the ceiling. Combined with this was the missing pieces of wood from the door, which had flown off when Chris had to force it open with his shoulder after it jammed.

“Whatever,” I said. “It’s all the apartment’s fault. I can’t wait to get to Berlin and have things just work.” (I remember an ad where people would build elaborate Rube Goldberg contraptions and the voiceover guy would say “Isn’t it nice when things just work?” but I don’t recall what it was selling. Clearly advertising is ineffective.)

We went downstairs to find the driver waiting for us, and had an uneventful twenty-minute drive through deserted streets. When we got out of the car at the airport, a hideous stench of faeces assaulted our nostrils. “Urgggh,” I said. “Why did they think it was a good idea to build a sewage treatment plant next to the airport? Where they welcome people to their country?”

Questionable zoning aside, I’m bummed that we missed out on Mongolia. I don’t know about Chris, but I plan to return sometime in the future – just not on a horse.

Both of us fell asleep for an hour or two on the plane, although it was something like a six hour flight. Turns out SU is Aeroflot, the Russian national carrier. Our flight attendent looked like Chloe from 24 – in fact all the flight attendents were surly and dour, and when we arrived in Moscow the ground crew were no different. The majority of the Russian staff we interacted with while passing through customs were gloomy, surly and generally looked like they wished they were dead. Also still planning to do the Trans-Siberian someday, so if that’s true of Russians in general it should be a hoot.

There was a thick cloud layer over nearly all of Eastern Europe, but as we approached Berlin the plane descended below it, and Chris and I peered out the window at the patchwork of fields and villages below.

“The air is clean.”

“I can see below the water in that lake, because it’s clear.”

“These buildings look good.”

At immigration I got to crack out my Irish passport for the first time, and was quickly processed through the EU line. The woman at the desk scrutinised it for a while and then waved me through without stamping it or anything. That feels kind of weird. As far as international migration authorities know, I’ve left Mongolia and then… disappeared. It also feels weird that I can stay in Germany for the rest of my life if I so choose – or, like, 30 other countries. A lucky bit of ancestry (and a lot of paperwork and money in 2008, I guess) is all that separates me from Chris, who had to spend twenty extra minutes in the foreigner queue for a three month Schengen visa.

We grabbed our bags and left the airport (add Berlin to the list of airports that just let you waltz out without checking your baggage claim tickets – actually Sapporo is the only airport I have ever been to that does) and then began the arduous process of catching a train into the city. For a moment, though, I want to note what we saw as we were walking from the airport to its attached train station: a stretch of lush green grass. Just a little patch of land that wasn’t being used, but instead of dirt and rubble, which is what you’d see in Ulaan Baatar or Vietnam, or concrete, which is what you’d see in China, it was cultivated and green and lovely. It was a reverse culture shock moment, and a good one.

We spent some time trying to puzzle the train lines out, since unlike Korea and Japan and China, Germany doesn’t write everything on its metro line in English as well. Which is fine – it was very courteous of East Asia to do that, but we have no right to expect it. Eventually we managed to get the ticket machines to work, and Chris received about 10 euros worth of change in coins. “Come on, I think it’s in a few minutes,” I said.

“Yeah, hang on,” he said, scooping coins out of the machine. “I just got to collect my treasure chest.”

The train was double-decker, which was groovy. We looked out the windows as we rolled into the city, drinking up the picturesque splendour of Europe. It felt very, very weird to be surrounded by nothing but white people again. And I don’t know if it makes me racist that I’m not particularly attracted to Asian women, but seeing beautiful women everywhere was marvellous. “I think that girl caught me staring at her,” Chris said. “I’m sorry, but… you don’t know what I’ve been through.”

We slid past crazy modernist architecture, and canals with cruise boats chugging up and down, before being deposited at a station called Zoologischer Garten Station, which my superb linguistics skills enabled me to translate into Zoological Garden Station. German is going to be a breeze after Chinese and Mongolian, since half the words are similar. Ah, Europe!

It’s hard to articulate how good it feels to be back in a first-world Western country after five months of foreign third-world countries. Even though it’s a different language and all that, coming to Germany feels like coming home. So I can’t even imagine how much like home the UK will feel. “I fucking love the first world and I never want to leave it again,” I said, as we stood on a subway platform. “I’m going to spend the rest of my life in Europe, North America, Australia and new Zealand. And Japan. Those are the countries for me.” I don’t really mean that, but at the same time I am gloriously happy to be back. It’s certainly possible to live a first-world life in a third-world country (many people subconsciously hold the notion that it’s not), but I have no intention of ever doing so. A visit of a few months – maybe a year, tops – and then back to the cleanliness and comfort and beauty of the first world.

When I was craving the first world, I was only thinking of comfort and cleanliness. I’d completely forgotten about beauty – simple things like the grass at the airport. Cities like Hanoi and Beijing and Ulaan Baatar don’t give a flying fuck about aesthetics, and fair enough in the case of Hanoi and UB, since they have more important issues to deal with. But I know which part of the world I prefer, and it isn’t Asia. It’s also quite nice that I can walk down the street in Europe without constantly looking down to avoid stepping in spit, shit or piss.

We eventually arrived at our hostel, after walking down some leafy side streets lined with six or seven storey buildings. We got lucky with our room – I’d thought from our Hostelworld booking that we were sleeping in a four bed dorm, but it’s actually just two beds, so it’s effectively a private room, for 11 euros each. Chris flopped down onto the bottom bunk and yelled “Yes! That is how you make a bed, Europe!”

“Fuck yeah!” I said. “Out of soft things! Not out of wood, Mongolia! And China! And every other Asian country, because you think it’s good for your back!”

“Which it totally isn’t,” Chris said. “I have back problems now. I’m 21 years old, and my back hurts when I get up in the morning.”

I had to buy some soap, so I went to a supermarket. I couldn’t find any on the shelves, so I asked one of the workers, who didn’t understand a thing I was saying. I’d sort of subconsciously assumed that all mainland Europeans could speak enough English for basic communication (and indeed, many of them can) but this was of course not the case. I’m not indignant about that – it’s their country – but it was a bizarre feeling to talk to a white person who couldn’t understand me. I’m completely accustomed to miming and drawing and pointing when communicating with Asians, but when I do it with Caucasians it feels like I’m belittling them. Which is silly (come to think of it, I felt the same way when I first went to Japan) but unavoidable. It passes in time but it’s an odd feeling while it lasts.

On the way out to the supermarket, by the way, I passed a group of young Germans who were energetically dancing in the corridor to loud techno music. And now – maybe it’s the same group, maybe not – loud techno music is being blasted through the hostel from one of the upper levels. “It’s hilarious that this is actually happening,” Chris said.

We went out for a walk to get dinner (which cost a reasonable eight euros each… at least I think that’s reasonable… I should probably check the exchange rate) and noticed, as we had all day, a number of men wearing Mario plumber overalls. And we saw our third accordion busker of the day, which is also the total number of accordion buskers I have seen in my entire life.

And there are motorcycles here. Gorgeous motorcycles everywhere, a good number of them BMWs. Chris is in heaven. We bought some fruit from a Persian street vendor on the way home, as the belltower in the church across the street started chiming. It was a perfect temperature and the sun was setting over old tiled rooftops. “I love Europe,” I said. “Fucking love it.”

“Yeah,” Chris said. “Those bells were a nice touch.”

The bells kept chiming as we walked down the street, and didn’t stop. “Okay, seriously,” Chris said. “That’s enough. Are they commemorating every year that has ever passed?”

It’s just all the little things. I can flush toilet paper here, and the doors work, and everything is pretty, and the beds are soft, and IF THOSE FUCKING GERMANS WOULD SHUT THEIR TECHNO SHIT OFF IT WOULD BE GREAT.

I feel like this is a pretty rambling and disjointed entry, but I am pretty exhausted. It’s still light out but back in Ulaan Baatar it’s 1.30 in the morning, and I got up at 4 am, so that’s nearly 22 hours without sleep. And only 3 the previous night. But that’s okay, because I can go to sleep on this soft bed anytime I want. I LOVE THIS CONTINENT AND I NEVER WANT TO LEAVE! ONTO CHRIS!

Chris

The streets are clean, even cobbled in some parts; trees line the sidewalks, traffic lights command respect, the people are orderly, busy, each invested in their own particular tasks. A church breaches above the treeline in the distance, sounding it’s bells. We’re back. We’re back in the first world and it is fan-fucking-tastic.

After becoming diagnosed with pneumonia, I became further disillusioned with the idea of the two weeks camping. As Mitch stated previously, I was frustrated that horse riding had turned out to be rather dull. You just sit there and turn the horse when you need it to change direction, calling ‘Choo’ every so often to try to convince yourself that you have some control over the stupid farting eating machine on legs. But essentially, the horse does it all and I got bored just after three days. Hell, I was bored after the first six hour ride.

As the pneumonia worsened I had to take a new set of antibiotics along with the first batch. These did not sit well with my body. I slept poorly enough as it was without those damned pills. Things were looking grim trek-wise and eventually lead to our largest trip decision yet: cut it short and head to Europe. Four days later here we are. Fantasmic Germany. I was happy to see the back of Mongolia. It was one of the only countries on the list that I was actually dreaming about before we left home. Although I’d wisened up to potential let-downs and expectations being dashed in a heartbeat, I still foolishly held high hopes for Mongolia. Surprise, surprise, yet another monumental misjudgment. But hey, if you don’t try you don’t know right?

I left with Mongolia with a serious chest infection and a large kink in my pride, but with a new home so close around the corner, it has been hard not to get excited. I am literally dreaming of our new apartment: our two bikes out the front, my piano by the window, a TV and Xbox hooked up infront of an old couch in the living room, and our own bedrooms.

The time zone here in Berlin is six hours behind Ulaanbaatar. Unlike Mitch, I didn’t end up going to sleep the night before our depature yesterday because the taxi was picking us up at 5am and I had only been getting to sleep at this time the previous nights. This leaves me now with roughly fourty hours on no sleep. It is currently 7:40pm Berlin time. That is 1:40am tomorrow morning back in UB. We spent seventeen hours travelling today, from Mongolia to Russia to Germany, and yet we only seem to have seven hours to show for it. It has really thrown us both off. We only really realised it when we stumbled into a resteraunt at 4:30pm asking for dinner.

We like it here very much already. Even peering out from the train, this city is beautiful. Maybe to others it may not seem this way, but after what we’ve seen, it is like peering through the gates of heaven. It is also the same with the women. Oh the glorious, beautiful women.

September 14th, 2010
Ulaan Baatar, Mongolia

A year and a day ago, I was sitting on my bed in South Korea in the middle of the night with my bags packed, waiting for some ungodly hour of the morning to flee my school building and make my way to the airport, to board a plane and go home. Now, on the anniversary of my arrival home, I am again sitting on my bed in a bleak city in North-East Asia, waiting for an ungodly hour of the morning to make my way to the airport and board a plane.

The comparison breaks down there. I’m not “escaping” Mongolia, just leaving it (with the intention of returning someday), and I’m not going home, I’m going to Berlin, and I’m not alone, I have my best friend by my side. Also this time I’m not doing anything sketchy and possibly illegal. But still, I thought it was an odd coincidence.

We’re flying to Germany because we’ll have to wait around a while as Chris applies for his British working visa, and Germany is apparently one of the cheaper countries in Europe. Berlin is, for some reason, one of the only cities with direct international flights from Ulaan Baatar, but we actually have a connecting flight in Moscow. I’m not sure what carrier we’re with; for both flights the code is “SU,” which I dearly hope isn’t a budget airline.

Fortunately we managed to get our passports back from the Russian embassy, after being ushered through several layers of barbed wire fencing. We had to sit around waiting for half an hour, but that was okay, because for some reason the Russian embassy was full of amusing weirdos. There was a hippie backpacker wearing fisherman’s pants (you’re a long way from the Gulf of Thailand, buddy), a stern consular official wearing a pastel shirt buttoned all the way up to the top (but with no tie) and an incredibly tall man with overly large shoes, trousers an inch too short and a brush-like mustache. “That man looked like a broomstick transformed into a human,” Chris said. “Even the mustache, that was the broom part. And he constantly had his head down, like he was always ducking under doorways so he decided to just settle it there, like a vulture.”

After we got the passports back we went to a flight centre to book the plane tickets. Then, with the few remaining hours in the day, Chris went to the British embassy to talk to an actual human being about Tier 5 visas (and had no luck), while I went to the train station to refund our tickets. It took forever to find, because the international ticket office is actually in another building across the street and down some alleyways, but I made it in the end and was pleasantly surprised to find that we could get 90% of our money back. They wanted to see Chris’ passport, though, so we had to go back again today.

Later in the afternoon someone tried to rob me. I was walking back to the apartment after mailing some postcards, down crowded Peace Avenue, when I felt a tugging at my backpack and whirled around to see everyone looking nonchalant and carrying on with their business, except one guy who ducked down an alleyway and into a doorway. I thought I’d imagined it, but then I realised my bag was open. I had nothing valuable in there except my shitty camera, but even that was untouched. I guess he aborted when I turned around. Better luck next time, butterfingers.

The Germans left on the weekend, so for our last few days in Ulaan Baatar we’ve had the apartment to ourselves again. It was weird how, after a week of living here, we’d come to regard this place as belonging to us and viewed them as intruders. “I was sitting there on the couch and they were making spaghetti in the kitchen,” Chris said, “and then one of them opened the curtains, and I was just thinking ‘What are you opening my curtains for? Did you ask if you could do that’?” That later become a running joke – Chris would open the curtains wide and say, “Hey Mitch, who am I?” before pausing and adding, “They were actually very quiet and didn’t bother us at all.”

They did, however, vaccum the living room floor and clean the other bathroom. I find that completely baffling. They were here for three days. Even if I were here for a month, it wouldn’t even occur to me to do that. Who walks into a hotel room, or any kind of short-term, daily-payment accommodation, and decides to clean it? Weird.

The thing about Germans is that, for whatever reason, they long ago became the butt of many jokes between Chris and myself (certainly at least as far back as Day 7). It’s partly the language, which we think is just inherently funny, and I’m sure its original basis was the ending of the Simpsons episode “Raging Abe Simpson And His Grumbling Grandson In The Curse Of The Flying Hellfish,” in which a rich young German party animal is concerned only with his CD stacker and getting to a Kraftwerk concert on time. The basis of the joke is that Germans are never-ending techno fiends who dance to house music 24/7, usually with random German words thrown in, most of which are complete gobbledegook, like “ein schassenhauser” or “oppel schlostengeister.” This was further reinforced when we met a young German named Matthias in South Vietnam, who said in Mui Ne, “I am a little worried, because it has been a few weeks since I have had ze party.” DJ Matthias hence became a long-running in-joke between us, Max and Jess.

I mention all this because we are now flying to Berlin, the heart of Ze Funky German Techno Zone, and I think we’re going to have trouble keeping straight faces. If the title of every single blog post I make while we’re there is some nonsensical gibberish pseudo-German phrase, I hope you’ll understand.

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