- New on the list of "do not bring": meat and cheese. I got an official warning letter about my little package of beef jerky; they let the cheese curds in after inspection, but seemed kind of iffy about them.
- Many of the more complex ticket machines are now touch screen and have multiple languages available.
- Many/most of the train ticket vending machines now have PASMO/Suica/ICOCA/etc "IC" cards; no more having to ask "スイカは買いますか？" of random kiosk dwellers.
- Data SIM cards are now widely available! You can't make phone calls or send SMSes, but you can at least have internet data. (BrasTel claims to have a VOIP app you can use with their SIMs to call locally, but I haven't tried it.) I suggest buying from Yodobashi Camera or Bic Camera rather than from one of the airport kiosks or vending machines; they're far cheaper, and depending on your particular model of phone, some networks may have many more usable bands than others. (I got the IIJ SIM, 1GB/30 days, for around 2200円. One big caveat is that while you can recharge the SIM for more data, you can't extend the time period.)
- If you don't want to get a data SIM, there are lots of free WiFi points around... but you have to register with them each and every time; it's supremely annoying, and bad enough that there's even a "Japan Wi-Fi" app that automates things slightly.
- The little map books are now less useful, since everybody uses their smartphone or navitime or whatever, and the curation of landmarks on the maps seems to have gotten worse. This is especially unfortunate, because...
- Gmaps can be really really sketchy, especially if your phone isn't set to use Japanese by default. In Kyoto, things seem to be extra bad. it randomly boops around your location AFAICT (even if you have local data and WiFi). Even worse: by default, about half the Japanese map entries are transliterated into English, but sometimes they're wrong. For instance, gmaps told me to exit at Karasuma Mujo Bus Stop. That's all well and good, but it's actually Karasuma Rokujo Bus Stop; in Japanese, they would both be written as 烏丸六畳 - but gmaps only shows the English for me, not the Japanese.
In addition, searching in maps in English can be very problematic. If you search for a generic thing (e.g. "coffee") sometimes it'll get the category of shop wrong, whereas searching for the term in Japanese (i.e. "コーヒー") is much more reliable. Sometimes businesses will show up with localized or transliterated names; sometimes they won't; sometimes they'll use "kunrei-shiki" so they won't appear at all like you expect. An example of the last one: there's an onsen in Kyoto, 天翔の湯. This would most often be transliterated as "tenshou no yu". What gmaps shows is "tensyonoyu" - which is both a combination of kunreishiki and wrong - proper kunreishiki would be "tensyounoyu".
Entering the specific address is still the most reliable method, alas.
- Japanese maps are often Not What You Think. I've previously mentioned about how the orientation of the map is usually "the way you are facing is up on the map", but that's usually pretty straightforward to figure out. The more complex situation is that of multiple connected buildings and maps of those. Usually, if there's a map it'll only list out the businesses/spaces that are in the particular building owner's area. So, if you're in an underground area where the subway abuts a shopping mall owned by one company and a second mall from another, the map may a) depict all the physical concurrent space but only show the shops for the current area; b) only show/list the building owner's space; c) show the current building AND the subway train area; d) some other variation. You are expected to know what the delineation between areas is, and many times that isn't obvious at all.
- Drugs and electronics are still absurdly expensive. Either buy them at home, or you might be able to get them for cheaper on amazon.co.jp.
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My sister had her first kid in May, so that's nice. She'd mostly given up hope of having any after IVF hadn't done anything, so quite the surprise for her. She and her husband haven't disclosed what their work situations will look like, but Mom has volunteered to babysit come September or October (as the practice where she'd been working for the past thirty-odd years is finally shutting down around then.)
Last night, the second person my age I've known personally died from cancer. "New normal."
The urge to GTFO Chicago is increasing. It's nice and all, but it's still incredibly midwest-conventional, and I miss having large amounts of freaks around. And while the city is great when it ain't winter, that's still five-ish months out of the year for now. (The S2 spreadhsheet in this PLOS ONE paper says that by 2050, Chicago will have roughly the same weather that St Louis does now - and St Louis doesn't get regular amounts of snow, so I'm told - but that's cold comfort in the short term, ho ho ho.) LA sounds like the most intriguing place right now, as the other places I would actively prefer to be (Berlin, Tokyo) have extremely difficult and possibly insurmountable logistical challenges (language, healthcare, other stuff).
I still don't know wtf I want to do career-wise, either. Maybe some combo of infosec/"the responsible adult" role, as classic unix sysadmin seems to have pretty much died from the combo of devops, systemd, and cloud computing. No certs and no direct job in that field, either, although in practical terms about 25% of my last job was infosec and infosec coordination.
A complete lack of motivation coupled with extra-heaping amounts of anhedonia is pretty much No Fun.
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Managed to have just enough cash on my OV-chipkaart to get to AMS Centraal, although I was worried that I was going to be cutting it a bit close. (The DB train was 10-15m late in departing; in retrospect, I should have gotten better food at one of the little shops in the station. The restaurant car was a joke, sadly.) The train to Berlin was pleasant and pretty quiet, although the PA system did warn about pickpockets a few times. And lo, I arrived at Berlin Hauptbahnhof, to encounter my first challenge: the BVG (Berlin-Brandenberg Public Transit) ticket machine! Yes, it had English - but it's not obvious which tickets are for what, and it refused to take my US credit card (with chip). Thus started my experience with the German love of cash over plastic.
I got to my East German-themed hotel, the Ostel Hostel Berlin in Friedrichshain (where Lenin greeted me every morning) to find that they only take German credit cards, and could I please pay in cash? (I later found out that quite a few businesses in Berlin - and presumably elsewhere in Germany - are only set up to take debit cards from Maestro networks. I don't think I've seen an American ATM/debit card on Maestro in 20 years, so be prepared to bring cash if necessary.) This led me to the wonderful world of scummy ATMs: some of them offer to give you a special selected exchange rate instead of worrying about what your bank will give you; this was almost always about 10% worse than what my credit union pegged the USD/EUR rate at. So, yeah, always withdraw directly in euros.
The choice of hotel (selected on a whim by a pal on Facebook casually mentioning it) was actually pretty fortuitous: they only did housekeeping when you specifically requested it, it was all of 150m from Ostbanhof, there was a grocery store 50m away, and it's extremely convenient to central Friedrichshain. The area reminded me a lot of 1990s San Francisco: lots of murals and graffiti and street art everywhere, punks of all ages (including those my age!), funky little shops and bars and restaurants, tons of nightclubs, and fairly cheap rent. There's a former railroad workyard, RAW, that has a ton of little tiny galleries, a water tower converted to a climbing gym, and art as far as the eye can see. I'm told that it's getting gentrified pretty quickly, though, so I don't know how long it'll last - but it was an immensely refreshing sight. Alexanderplatz was nearby, too, and had some decent shopping and is close to Museum Island.
There's the Topography of Terror and "Remains of the Berlin Wall" in Kreuzberg; the ToT chronicles Hitler's rise to power in a methodical, structured way, and the remains have crumbling bits of walls, buffeted by black and white photos expressing the gravitas of the whole situation. But - they both seemed pretty removed from reality, not like they were actual artifacts that people dealt with. The East Side Gallery in Friedrichshain, on the other hand, has a continuous stretch of The Wall where it stood - maybe a kilometer long - decorated by various artists with their takes on the Wall, Berlin, and unification. I found it infinitely more compelling and personal than the coldly pristine and graffiti-free sections at the ToT.
It turns out I spent most of my time in the former East Berlin; I also stayed in Charlottenberg, which was nice enough, I suppose - but didn't have the sense of vitality or urgency that East Berlin had. This isn't to say that there aren't pleasant, quiet parts of East Berlin; up by the Stasi museum is pretty and unhurried, for instance. It still had a difference in atmosphere, though I can't say quite what the difference was.
Speaking of the Stasi museum - if you've read up on the history of the Stasi, you're not going to learn much of anything new. Seeing the 1970s office furnishings was interesting, but they didn't put much into context. The tour guide didn't note that the statues of Dzerzhinsky and Marx in the front office area had their plaques in Russian (although they did offhandedly mention that the Stasi was based on the Cheka), or how under the thumb of the KGB the Stasi was. They also didn't mention much of anything at all about the storming of the building, the destruction of documents, how much of the Stasi infrastructure was quietly absorbed by the FRG, etc. I think my tour guide might have been about 30 and raised in the DDR - but still seemed oddly ignorant of it all. On the other hand, if you go and tour the Stasi prison at Hohenschönhausen, they really know their stuff, and gave much better insights as to not just the mechanical workings of the Stasi, but why they did what they did. Unsettling, but well worth visiting.
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European sizing. Oh god, it's fucking awful. Some clothes are nice and have a listing of D/NL/IT/FR/UK/USA sizes; many do not. Some don't have tags at all. It's worse for women's clothing than for men's, but still pretty uniformly awful. I have no idea if the euro sizes have undergone the same inflationary measures that US sizes have, where 16 from 1970 is 10 or 12 now. Some tips for dealing with sizes and labels:
* get or bring a tailor's tape measure (in german: Schneider-Maßband); several of the Euroland (continental equivalent of dollar stores) or discount stores have them, but I wasn't able to find a retractable one anywhere.
* Bookmark/PDF/whatever a good conversion guide; I found this one to be the most helpful.
* baumwolle = cotton. Most of the other textiles are either easily guessable or almost the same as in English.
There aren't all that many out-and-out charity shops (e.g. Oxfam, Goodwill) that I saw anywhere; most of the businesses were commercial. The Oxfam stores in Berlin were rubbish. In both A'dam and Berlin, "clothes by the kilo" were much more common, had better selections, etc. Some of the flea markets/other open air markets had some decent stuff for really really cheap, but results were mixed at best.
* Waterlooplein open-air market had all sorts of interesting stuff, and is open during the week!
* Albert Cuypmarket had a bunch of cheap stuff, but it looked mostly like the same crap you get from China as anywhere else in the world.
* IJ-Hallen is a once or twice a month huge flea market type thing; it wasn't open when I was there, though.
* The "Episode" chain was mostly crap, IME. Overpriced, small, etc.
* Kiloshop was a very good 'clothes by the kilo' chain; the one near Waterlooplein was good, the one down by the Pijp was OK. But....
* If you're willing to go somewhat afield, there's a Kiloshop outlet by the Electric Tram Museum that's even cheaper than the rest and had a good selection. And furthermore, it's right by...
* Mevius, which was a giant thrift shop of... stuff. All sorts of random shit which changes a lot. When I was there: a lot of clothes, a bunch of housewares, random liquors (??), a gigantic box of leather pants for EUR5 each (!!), a bin full of booty shorts (!?), a huge rack of crappy tourist souvenir T-shirts for EUR5 each. It was cool to wander around in, if nothing else.
* And if you're going to the previous two, you may as well also go to the Butcher's Tears brewery nearby; great, reasonably priced beer, and a nice view of the tram yard. (You do have to go back and around, past the museum, and down Karperweg to get there, though - even though you can see it from the Kiloshop, you cahnt get theiya from heiya.)
* The Oxfam stores are crap, alas. Tiny and overpriced. The few items they had seemed nice enough, but also quite pedestrian.
* The Humana shops are generally pretty good; they seem to be roughly equivalent to Goodwill, in both the good and bad aspects. (I've seen some criticism that they pay their leaders too much, don't give back as much as they should, etc - almost exactly the same things as I've heard about Goodwill. Caveat lector.) The one at Frankfurter Tor is particularly good (and near Friedrichshain, an all too cool area), as is the one by Alexanderplatz. Some stores are tiny and meh, though.
* Picknweight seems to be the dominant per-kilo chain in Berlin, although I think they tend to be somewhat overpriced. Alexanderplatz has a cluster of three shops all pretty close to each other which are decent. The best one is south of Merhingdamm off of Bergmannstr.; not only is the regular per-kilo part large and pretty good, they also have fixed-price and bargain-basement sections in the back which are generally a *lot* cheaper than their regular inventory.
* The RAW Flohmarkt in Friedrichshain on Sundays is particularly good; not only is it just a cool area to wander around, but it's a lot of people selling their own stuff as opposed to a standard retinue of professional sellers. Good idea to brush up on your German if you're going to go there, though.
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Amsterdam was fun. It was my second time there, so I had a better idea of what to expect. More and more, it reminds me of a European version of Las Vegas, where loads of chavs and Europeans go to smoke pot and gawk at the hookers and generally make asses out of themselves. The vast majority of shops seem centered around the tourist trade, and I didn't meet anyone at all who didn't speak excellent English. (Still some interesting gaps; I asked what the 'turnover' was for businesses in the area, and that was a word that they hadn't encountered before.) I also got to meet up with my erstwhile coworker Peter and his wife, which was really quite nice; I hadn't seem them for at least five years. Didn't get to talk to them for nearly long enough.
I'm still trying to get to grips with the population distribution of Amsterdam - i.e. where do the native a'damers actually live? There were far more grocery stores than I expected around in such a small area, so I'd guess that more of them are living near the city center than you'd think - but the city only has a population of around 900k, about the same as SF. Some of the other larger cities - e.g. Haarlem - are only about half an hour away by train, so it forms part of a larger conurbation; I'd guess that the people who don't live in A'dam itself are those who don't want to, not those who can't.
Hotels in A'dam are usurious, even in the shoulder season (i.e. when it starts getting cold), but it looked like most other costs - transport, food, etc - weren't that bad. The food was OK, but I wouldn't call it a gourmet wonderland. Having easy access to Belgian beer for cheap was really quite nice, though.
Overall, the people seemed generally pretty nice, if a bit blunt; the big exception is when they got on their bicycles, where many of them turned into gigantic flaming assholes. I didn't get to chat to many native Dutch folk, but they were pretty warm once they got into the conversation and had more of a sense of who you were. (After a nice conversation about San Francisco, amongst other things, one of the shopowners said to come back for a coffee if I were in the area again.) I also got the impression that - again, like Vegas - very, very few people asked about what it was like to be in a so amazingly tourist-heavy area. One of the barkeeps said that many Dutch folk will initially speak to most waitstaff in English, as they don't expect that they'll necessarily be or speak Dutch.
So, overall, A'dam was nice; I liked Arendsnest for beer, the Van Gogh museum for Van Gogh, and the the Stedelijk museum for modern art. (I wouldn't bother with the Rijksmuseum unless you really, really like Golden Age Dutch portraiture or reaaaallly want to see Rembrandt's Night Watch in person.)
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Also, my flight for AMS/BER leaves in twelve hours, and instead of packing I am farting around on the internet.
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I should write up a 'state of the moof' post, too; it's been a while.
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