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Bern-ed out and Amster-damned

Eyeopener news editor stumbles across Europe in search of history, culture and potent weed

By Tom Gierasimczuk

The summer of 1995 was not the best time to be a Canadian frolocking in the great beyond known as Europe.

The loonie was plummeting faster than you can say souvlaki, and the pseudo-war between Canada and Spain over fish meant the country I most wanted to see was now conducting body cavity searches on anyone ending their phrases with “eh.” Alas, my longtime pal Steve and I decided to give political rhetoric the finger and follow the path forged by many a university student; the path known as “backpacking Europe.”

Armed with nothing more than our backpacks, train pass and an insatiable hunger for European weed, we were off. Our quest was charted by an alternative travel guide I stumbled across while cruising the internet. I bought it and for the entire trip, Let’s Party Europe was our bible. Our cross-Atlantic exile would last 2 ½ months, in which we were to invade London, Greece, Italy, Switzerland, Spain, Portugal, France, Holland, Germany, Poland and the Czech Republic.

We left Toronto on May 3 and after a pricey trip to London, we flew into Athens. We quickly took an eight-hour ferry to the island of Ios, a tiny speck in the middle of the Aegan Sea. White and blue Greek buildings hygge the side of a mountain range that formed the island’s spine. This paradise was cradled by a royal blue sea that looked more stunning every time I peed in it. And what utopia is complete without a raging nightlife? Ridiculously cheap beer and Greece’s native liquor — Ouzo — flowed like water here, complemented by the island’s 130 bars and clubs. I later discovered that Ios is the Cancun of central Europe and at high season — between June and September — ferries are refused access to the island’s port because the party can’t handle any more fuel.

Fortunately, we arrived early in the season and thus avoided any beer-bellied, testosterone-powered American frat boys (they caught up with us in Portugal). Topless beaches and horny backpackers from around the globe make this place a social mecca and popular field trip for anyone wishing to engage in the study of nocturnal madness. The main town houses bars and clubs in a maze of alleys that provide the perfect classroom. The island has very few cars and only one main road (the only paved one on the island). No subways, no airports, no attitude. After 21 years, I had finally come home.

We hesitantly left Ios and arrived in Athens, meeting up with Anik, another bud who would only join us for Greece, Italy and Switzerland. Athens, despite the praise it got in the Hercules cartoon and various Greek plays I was forced to read for English Drama class, sucked. Rude people and pollution that you could chew had us spending just a wee four hours in the cradle of human civilization. Despite the crippling headaches we got from inhaling toxins outlawed even in Chernobyl, we had to see Athens’ main attraction — the Acropolis, or “high city.” This site, built in 600 BC, is actually an entire city, consisting of various temples built on a rock face that rises out of the middle of modern-day Athens. Just walking around a city where Socrates and other old Greek leftists once frolicked got us all philosophical. Steve wanted a joint.

We left for the northern Greek island of Corfu shortly afterwards. After a horrible 15 hour trek, we arrived at the Pink Palace, a resort-style backpacker hostel. Every young person from every country in the world was there. Hell, after several Ouzo shooters I could have sworn I met a couple of Star Fleet Academy grads taking some time off before the inevitable career in the Federation. Not surprisingly, the concentration of international hormones under one roof resulted in interesting breakfast chatter… “Hey, Howie. point out the one I was with last night… Oh sweet Jesus in heaven above, how come I didn’t see her beard last night?”

However, despite the wholesale beef at this meatmarket, the Pink Palace was definitely a penny pincher’s oasis. For $25 a night, guests got a room, food, cheap booze, sports equipment and a cheezy-but-bearable nightclub. 

Our next victim was Italy. We stopped briefly in Cassino, a small town south of Rome, to visit an exchange student we knew from high school. After downing our first home-cooked meal in almost two weeks, power bathing and taking a biologically-necessary break from nightly boozing, we were ready to hit Rome.

Rome, like London, is massive. However, where London has grand boulevards, Rome has tiny alleys darting in every direction. The fact these alleys are only a few feet wide and crowded doesn’t stop wacky Romans from using these slivers of pavement as runways. In fact, my fondest memories of Italy’s oldest city are ones of diving to avoid oncoming traffic scooters and giving local daredevils the finger. But, if you survive the walking, Rome is one of the most historically rich cities in all of Europe. Her past is on full display for swarms of visitors who want to capture the town’s legendary essence. Rome’s past is divided into three stages: ancient, Christian and modern-day. This basically means scoping some ruins, seeing the Vatican’s impressive collection of fat white guy paintings, and breathing smog. There. A bit of Rom from every millennium.

Venice was our last Italian destination and my God, what a town. Even though I learned everything I knew about Italy from Acura and World Cup commercials, Venice was exactly what my ignorant mind imagined Italia to be like: town squares, statues, and colossal churches on every block, winding alleys and cafés bordering on canals. Even though I laugh at the concept of a city being “romantic,” something in Venice grabbed me. Maybe it was the canal fumes affecting my reasoning, but Venice was by far the most “I-wish-I-had-that-someone-special-to-share-this-with” city on our European tour. 

I don’t care if you’re the Elephant Man; if you take anyone to Venice, you will get laid. The city is stunning enough even if you don’t check any “sights” out. Wandering around scoping doors that are only inches above water level will blow your mind just as much as any museum.

Steve and I pressed into Spain, a country our native land was at war with. We were forced to fork out $30 for a Spanish visa and heard horror stories of Canadians being hassled and even beat up. We soon learned that Canadians were as loved as ever and the turbot we brought with us as gifts of goodwill weren’t necessary. Barcelona was our first stop in this exotic land. This city was still radiating from the 1992 Summer Games. The clean up it received, combined with the history of this ancient port town, made it the most stunning city in Spain. Beautiful people and beautiful architecture made walking here a pleasure.

Barcelona’s funkiest buildings were designed by the city’s native son, Eusebi Guell. This cat dedicated his life to drawing future generations of tourists to his city. He gave Barcelona the most insane, visually bizarre cathedral in Europe. Its 18 towers look like something from Dr. Seuss and its walls appear to be melting. I asked Steve if he had slipped me any acid that I didn’t know about over the last several hours. He assured me it wasn’t us, and this was the way this thing was built. 

Besides trippy buildings, Barcelona has one hell of a nightlife. Unfortunately, we couldn’t remember where we went, what we did, or when it all finished. While in Spain, we took a week’s excursion to Lagos, in southern Portugal’s Algarve province. This place is hell to get to and therefore not popular among North American exiles. However, the trek is not just worth it, it’s absolutely necessary. Life here consists of hanging at the world’s best beaches, with towering eroded cliffs as a backdrop, preparing for a raging nightlife that includes nocturnals from Europe, Australia, North America, and nearby Africa. Because of Lagos’ south-western location, the sun doesn’t set until 10:30. We were instantly addicted to the cheap booze, the slow pace of living, the $10-a-night pad and the readily-available hash from Morocco. If that wasn’t enough, we found a couple Aussies who took us surfing. For that week, we had achieved Nirvana. 

We left the Eden in southern Portugal and took an overnight train north to Madrid. Unlike most European capitals, Madrid doesn’t have a famous ruin on every block. In fact this city looks very North American. However, what Madrid lacks in history, it makes up for in metropolitan efficiency.  The subway goes everywhere, there are numerous city parks and the people are friendly and willing to show their city to lost, hung-over backpackers. Part of the people’s pride stems from severe competition between Madrid and Barcelona, each claiming to be the heart of this incredible country. 

Maria and Brid, two local senoritas we met in a drunken stupor, proceeded to give us a city tour and talk Spanish politics. Brid had been to the U.S. and spoke English very well. She confirmed what we already knew about the American education system, telling us that, with limited English and little American background, she scored higher on her SATs than 90 per cent of her classmates. 

Our Madrid experience ended when we took in a bull fight, the traditional Spanish face-off between matador and bull symbolizing class over brutality. Despite the fact that over 10 idiots and a horse work the bull to exhaustion before the matador even steps into the ring, I guess that wacky Spanish still consider it a fair fight. 

Next up was Paris and this city blew my mind. We didn’t party here, or really meet anyone, but something about the city of lights put me in a trance as soon as our train pulled into the station. There were so many legends to see here. I’ve seen Paris painted, written about and sung about ,but to actually be there blew my mind. 

The Eiffel Tower, the Notre Dame cathedral, the winding Seine River, Jim Morrison’s grave. All legends, all living in the same unreal city. Despite being enchanted by Paris, we knew the promised land was but days away. 

Amsterdam was next. Every backpacker we talked to on the Paris-to-Amsterdam train was wearing a grin. As we walked out of the Amsterdam train station, we could smell the sweet waftage of burning spliffs dancing over from groups of youths scattered around the exterior. However, my view of A-Dam as the capital of good vibage was quickly shattered. As we were checking into our hostel, an American girl ran in screaming that she’d been robbed at knife-point. As we trekked around town, we encountered coke dealers and seedy men peering through the doors in the red light district at the predominantly fat, old hookers behind the glass doors. Regardless, we walked into a coffee shop and bought a gram of Super Skunk for $10. We smoked half a joint between us and were immediately Amster-damned. Luckily, our hostel had the cartoon network and we spent the rest of the giggling. 

Our routine for the next three days was get stoned, watch cartoons, wolf down munchies, get stoned, watch cartoons, etcetera. While in A-Dam, we expanded our indulgence to include space cakes (brownies with pieces of hash) and space shakes (‘nuff said).

Our next destination was the recently-combined metropolis of Berlin in Germany. We knew we were in Deutschland when the 10-year-old sitting beside us on the train asked his mother for a beer…and got it! Upon arrival we concluded that Berlin employs more construction workers than the entire western hemisphere. The sky is blocked out by colossal cranes trying to repair in months what communism had done to East Berlin for decades. 

Berlin really is two different cities. Although the wall doesn’t exist anymore, except for an 80-foot memorial, if you cross from one ot the other, the difference will hit you like an allied bomb. Where the western part of the city has sprawling shopping plazas and parks, the east is a graveyard of condemned buildings not repaired since WWII air raids. In search of cool souvenir, Steve and I tried crawling into a bombed-out abandoned warehouse. We were quickly met by some Euro-trash punk telling us that this skeleton of a building was hosting a rave that night. Indeed, this is the East Berlin of today; trying to sprint towards a western existence while chained to old communism institutions. 

After being reminded what a home-cooked meal was by my grandmother in Torun, a small town in central Poland where Nikolas Copernicus and I were born, we were ready for the last leg of our tour. After spending several days kissing family members I never knew I had, we escaped to the medieval city of Krakow and to the nearby Auschwitz Concentration Camp, the largest of Hitler’s death camps.

Auschwitz’s horrible past is on full display. No one under 13 is admitted and rightfully so. The camp’s museum houses disturbing photos of freshly-hung prisoners and babies undergoing experimentation. The Auschwitz experience made me wonder how the epidemic of ignorance that is Nazism actually exists today. A trip to the camp should be mandatory to anyone who isn’t sickened by the sight of a swastika. 

Next up was Prague, or Praha, in the Czech Republic, my favorite city in Europe, hands down. Unlike most European cities, it wasn’t damaged by either war, and houses centuries of architecture as proof. The streets are filled with youth gone wild, fuelled by talented street buskers, outdoor concerts, and disgustingly-cheap beer halls. The beer halls, although hidden in tiny back-alleys, are worth the search. They consist of little more than a bar, several picnic tables and recycled beer coasters. But shit, who cares when a pint goes for 70 cents. 

Prague’s visible energy, new-found liberation after the Commies left and in-your-face street existence makes it like no other city in Europe. For this reason, the city is saturated with westerners and is quickly becoming an American colony. 

While in Prague’s awesome medieval sector, we walked into a gorgeous square tucked away in a little alley. I thought we had discovered a deserted little corner unfamiliar to other tourists when,to my disgust, I noticed the golden arches on every wall. It seems Mickey D’s had bought out the entire medieval square. 

After Prague, we made a couple pit stops in Germany, Switzerland, and Paris on our way to what Europeans describe as the biggest party of the year…Pampalona’s San Fermin Festival in Spain, also known as the running of the bulls. After meeting Scotty and Dwayne, two fellow Canucks from Kindersley, Saskatchewan, in Paris, we had our party entourage set. 

Pampalona’s train station was filled with backpacks, Tevas and hangovers. 

Getting a room in this town during the festival was impossible because Spaniards make reservations up to a year in advance. As a result, every free piece of park land or grass patch is considered a bed. Walking through Pampalona during the running was a scene from Outbreak. Bodies littered the streets as future blackout victims wandered aimlessly looking for more wine to keep the party going. Meanwhile, spur-of-the-moment parades were started and continued well into the night. 

This carnage lasts from July 6-12, but we remained for three days. We dropped our packs off at the baggage check and for 72 insane hours wore the same wine-stained clothes. The highlight of the festival was our entrance of the Canadian Bull Running Team for this year’s running. We came to the Pampalona with one objective: to run. Well okay, to get ripped out of our mind, party like mad…and maybe run.

On that fateful morning of Saturday, July 9, I proceeded to wake everyone up and dragged their wine-stained, still-drunk asses to the starting gate. “I don’t think I should run, I’m still fucked,” Dwayne whined. Before he could sober up, we were climbing into the 12- foot- wide alley that sandwiched the runners. The sprint was a kilometre and a half. People were everywhere and the alley felt like a mosh pit. Up until that point, I was too excited to be scared but about thirty seconds before the gates opened for us to run, I asked myself a very reasonable, logical question that, for the life of me I couldn’t answer: why the hell was I doing this?

Before I could give it another thought someone screamed that the bulls were on their way and our gates dropped open. The running had begun. I couldn’t move at first because of the human traffic. Soon after the runners spread apart and I had the chance to haul ass. As soon as I caught full stride, the gates in front of us closed again. “What the fuck!” I yelled. “Dee bulls are not cloz enough,” a Spanish gatekeeper told the sprinting masses. “Isn’t that the point you asshole?” I screamed, slowly slipping into a panic. I ran like a madman for a reason, and now this idiot was flirting with my life because I wasn’t providing enough drama for him?

The gates dropped again and I could see the bull ring. I made a point to look up while running, and noticed that people on balconies watch the run and toss everything from confetti to vegetables at the runners below. After ducking a tomato, I ran into the ring, embraced my fellow teammates and then proceeded to throw my sorry ass over the stadium wall to await the six bulls. 

The adrenaline rush would last for the next week and well after my return to Canada. After Pampalona, we headed to Lagos, Portugal again and then back to the Great White North. The cross-Atlantic voyage had ended and I was a changed man. I now demand red wine with dinner, cringe everytime someone says “bullshit”, and hug the Mcdonalds’ cashier when she doesn’t demand $10 for a Big Mac combo. Oh yeah, and I’m going back next summer to do it all again.

Tom Gierasimczuk has recovered from his European odyssey, and now spends his time boring the hell out of everyone with his obviously fabricated tales of sexual conquest. 

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