Hague

Although Amsterdam is the capital of Holland, Hague is its seat of government and residence of the royal family. Interestingly, postcards showing the Dutch royal family can be found in Hague but not in Amsterdam.

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Hague is more spacious and relaxing than Amsterdam.

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Amsterdam

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Amsterdam was quite disappointing to me. The houses were crammed. There were too many people (a lot of them were tourists). The streets were narrow and parked with too many bikes and cars. Although there were canals in the city center, but I could not find any trace of leisure and tranquillity. In a word, a hectic city. However, to some people, Amsterdam was an energetic city. For example, a Belgium I met at my hotel told me he liked Amsterdam because Brusssel where he lived was too quiet and sometimes you could not find anybody on the street.

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Among the Dutch people I met,  some were friendly and helpful but some were not. In one day alone, I was approached by two men separately, both of about 40 odd years old. They were very “friendly” to me, but I knew they were unusally “friendly” with bad intention.

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The Dutch seemed to be proud of their three well-known national policies which were the popular themes in the postcards sold there: (a) Holland is the first country in recent history to have legalized gay and lesbian marriages; (b) prostitution in the Netherlands is legal and common; and (3) although illegal in law, possession and production of cannabis are tolerated. Prostitution and “coffee shops” (selling cannabis) were open to everyone. Amsterdam can be a heaven to one person but a hell to another.

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The red light district seemed to be a popular place: at least there were situated Amsterdam’s oldest church and the China Town.

In China Town, I went to a Chinese restaurant to have dinner and met a Hong Kong guy who worked there. He was a typical Hong Kong person. I asked him how was the business. He said, “no matter how good the business is, the boss will always say the business is not good.”  That restaurant offered buffet (you could eat as much as you liked in one hour for Euro 8,5). Every time a customer entered the restaurant, he would say “hallo”. Then his next sentence would be “pay first” (even without “please”). He was working there alone leaving his family in Hong Kong. In his words, “for living, no choice.”

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I went to Kurkenhof Garden (half hour train from amsterdam and then a 20 minutes bus) to see the tulips. It was a huge garden displaying many species of tulips, narcissus and other kinds of flowers. Wonderful flowers!

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Berlin

In 1999, the federal government of Germany moved to Berlin, the new capital of the reunited Germany.

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Consequently the parliament was refurbished. The new cupola to the parliament designed by Norman Foster was no doubt a masterpiece.

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New development projects were carried out, including the famous project in Potsdamer Platz. The camping ceiling of Sony Centre was an excelent piece of architecture.

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Sanssouci Park in Potsdam, with Sanssourci Palace and its extensive gardens is a World Heritge site.  The Sanssourci Palance, the former summer palace of Frederick the Great, King of Prussia at Potsdam, is a masterpiece of the rococo style of architecture (an art of exquisite refinement and linearity). The New Palace in the same park is also magnificent, in particular the Grotto Hall with walls encrusted with shells, stones, marble, quartz and semi-precious stones.

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The Chinese House (see the pictures below) in the park looked funny nowadays with a weird combination of what they thought to be the Chinese style and the western style.

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In Berlin, I stayed in a big hostel which was popular for teenagers. Before midnight it was quite noisy as the teenagers ran along in the corridor.  One evening, when I was taking the shower, a group of teenager boys ran inside the ladies shower and toilet room, turned off the light and made noises there. Fortunately, they still knew they should not open the door of the shower room inside (I was taking shower there but the door could not be locked). After finishing my shower, I ran out of the shower room, but found no one in the corridor. Nevertheless I shouted out to the corridor. After a while, I went out to the corridor again. This time I found the stupid boys “hiding” at one end of the corridor in darkness (they had turned off the light in the corridor). One boy was even hiding behind a door in the corridor. I was not angry but still scolded them to let them know this was not right. I was not sure they understood my words in English because they were Belgium. I met their coach in a lift one day before and knew they came to Berlin for a football match. Later I reported this to their coach but I doubted whether he could control them as teenagers like making mischief. I felt relieved when I left the hostel.

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The greatest achievement I had made in Berlin was to have my hair cut, for Euro 15 only! It was one fifith of the charge in England. Unlike Hong Kong, the charge for hair cut in Berlin depended on the length of hair: about Euro 10 for short hair,and about Euro 15 for long hair. The hair cut  in Berlin was a new and interesting experience to me. The charge included hair wash and cut, but not blowing dry. My hairdresser was about 40 years old with a handkerchief wrapping his head. Firstly, he made a big (palm height mug) coffee for me (for free!). During the course of cuttting, he had stopped two times to ask me to have coffee. He was very efficient and finished the wash and cut in half hour only. Unlike Hong Kong, the hairdresser (not the junior staff) in Berlin was responsible for washing customer’s hair. While having my hair washed, I had to sit (not lie down as in Hong Kong) on a chair and bend my neck backward. It was not comfortable at all. However, I was satsfied with his service and my new hair.

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I heard from the German girl I met on train that some Germans ate rabbit for celebrating Easter (I find it difficult to understand that although Easter is a festival of revitalization and the rabbits represent revitalization, people kill and eat rabbits to celerbrate Easter. Is it not self-contradictory?). Therefore I had been looking hard for a restaurant offering rabbit meat (not every restaurant offered rabbit meat even during Easter). Finally at my last evening in Berlin, I had found one. Before the dish arrived, I had no idea what that dish was. I only knew there was rabbit meat because I found the German word of rabbit in the menu. The dish turned out to be a salad with roasted rabbit meat (see the picture on the left most below). No wonder it was so cheap, just Euro 9.5 (rabbit meats were expensive).  The rabbit meat tasted like chicken, not bad, but not my favourite either. I tried the “Berliner” beer (see the second picture from the left below) as well, pretty good.

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In Germany, you could find many “hotdogs” as street snacks (see the second picture from the right above). It is a particularly good snack when you feel cold. Some street vendors even carried the whole equipment (including the gas) on their body (see the picture on the right most above).

Another popular fast food is doner (Kebab) with choices of salad and meat (chicken or lamb). It was juicy and tasty (at least for chicken).

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Dresden

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Dresden is the capital city of the German Federal Free State of Saxony. It is situated in a valley on the River Elbe.

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It has a long history as the capital and royal residence for the Kings of Saxony, who for centuries furnished the city with cultural and artistic splendor.

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While your were dazzled by the architecture of the opera house, the fortress, the palace and the museum buildings, one might not be able to imagine that much of them had been levelled down during the Second World War and were rebuilt afterwards. Behind the glamour, there was a horrible human history.

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Volkswagen’s Transparent Factory (see pictures below) was an architectural work more than offering the public a chance to see through its production. The only floor of production which was allowed to be seen by the public was only a showcase of finished products – you saw people dressed in work uniforms hanging around the finished cars.

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Leipzig

The German Democratic Republic (GDR or East Germany), was formed in 1949 in the Soviet-occupied zone of post-Nazi Germany. Leipzig was the second-largest city in East Germany and also the symbol of the 1989 Peaceful Revolution.

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Since 1982, people had been gathering at the St. Nicholas Church (see the two pictures at the left most below) in the centre of Leipzig every Monday to pray for concerns of both a personal and political nature. The Monday prayer services soon transformed into political protests on the square. The number of protesters peaked on 30 October 1989 with 300,000. The Monday demonstrations spread to other cities and caused the entire government to resign to appease the people which turned out to be too little, too late. Soon after, as a result of a miscommunication, East Germans were permitted to pass freely through the Berlin Wall. The GDR had come to an end. In 1990, East Germany and West Germany were reunited.

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Now the Augustusplatz (see the two pictures at the right most above) is quiet but during the days of the 1989 Peaceful Revolution, every corner of it was filled up with thousands and thousands of people shouting “We are the people!”

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Some buildings built at the GDR era were being demolished. Everyone paedestrian stopped and looked up (see the pictures below).

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What is the change since the unification of Germany? Some clues to the answer may be found in what I heard in east Germany.

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When I was in Leipzig, I was a bit fed up by the complete absence of English words everywhere, even in the museums or the hot sightseeing places Everything was in German. (Some museums were a bit better in the way they could give you a few pages of handouts in English buy they would charge you for the handouts because they called such handouts “guided tour in English”) Most of the people could not speak English. (Interestingly, despite my typical Asian tourist appearance, I was one time asked about the directions in German on the street!) When I visited the Transparent Factory of Volkswagen in Dresden which was open to international visitors, I found their notices and instructions and their open guided tours were also in German only (although their video programs displayed inside had multiple languages)! I complained this to the receptionist there. The lady there explained that East Germany had returned to the open world for 17 years only and it would need more time to make it international. But it was changing. Before there was no English films and all menus were in German, but now there was one English film a week and it was possible to find one or two restaurants providing menu in English.

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On the train leaving Dresden for Berlin, I met a twenty-year-old university student studying in Dresden. She came from East Germany. She was too young to experience the German reunification. Although lots of factories had been closed down, her parents while continuing their jobs, had no problem with the change of era. On the other hand, her grandparents had difficulties in adjusting to the new era. Finally, she remarked, “being a East German, I am still prejudiced.” The political and physical reunification did not came easily, but the reunification in people’s mind may be proved to be even more difficult.

I took the Ryanair from Stansted Airport in London to Altenburg Airport which was about one hour bus from Leipzig city centre. As Altenburg Airport was the airport for cheap flights, there was scarcely any facilities. People could watch their friends or family leaving the airplane through the fence of wire – the intimacy you could never find in modern airports.

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Leipzig was also once the home to Bach, Wagner, Mendelssohn and Goethe.  Bach spent 27 yeas in St. Thomas Church (see the pictures below) as the choirmaster of its boys choir.

 

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The most impressive place was the Stasi Museum (see the pictures below) – the former headquarters of the East German secret police. Not too long ago (just 17 years ago), people living in the East Germany were living in the world like the one depicted in Goerge Orwell’s “Animal Farm” – secret surveillance and ideological brain wash. It happened in our modern world!

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An interesting scenario happened when I was visting the Stasi Museum. An east German guy wanted to talk to me but he was not good at English. I could only guess his meaning from his simple English words and his gestures. He kept stressing to me he was very young, only 12 years old when he came to Leipzig. He hurt his back while doing the work in somewhere. No matter how much he made the actions or the sounds, I still could not guess what that place was about. He said it was for young people. So “a school?” I asked. “No”. Finally he checked with another German for the correct English word. The answer was… “prison”! No wonder he kept stressing he was young when he was there. He had been in a prison! Besides a school, there are other places for young people – a prison! It was never an easy riddle.

I had a soup in Maggi restaurant (see the pictures below). Of course the soup was the Maggi soup, but not too recommendable unless you like the atmosphere of the Maggi world.

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Unlike the U.K. and Hong Kong, people going the supermarkets were not given free bags in Germany. Usually there were machines in supermarkets for receiving the used bottles and giving out the receipts for refund (see the picture at the right most below).

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