Saturday, August 08, 2015

Frankfurt Diaries

Truth is stranger than fiction. On a Saturday night at 11 pm, I sat in a bar right in the heart of a red-light district, sipping on orange juice, and working. I had a bus to take back home in two hours, and it made more sense to be indoors than outdoors. This area is right by the Hauptbahnhoff, the central station. I had a few more hours to kill, and it made sense to work, and watch guys pick up girls, amid glasses of beer and other alcoholic beverages.

Europe is amazingly open-minded this way. In India, I wouldn’t even dare walk close to the red-light districts, even during the day. Even in the US, these areas always had a bunch of cop cars flashing their blue lights, letting you know that these areas are not trouble-free. In Europe, no one cares. No one bothers you. There are no cops. People, families, pets, and kids walk around without any hesitation, even as late as after midnight. No one will do anything to you (unless you want something to be done to you). This area I was staying at is infested with sex shops, strip clubs, blue film theaters, and what not. And right next to those were ice cream shops, the Indian grocery store, an all-vegetarian South Indian restaurant, a Starbucks, and what not. It seemed like the pimps, prostitutes, strippers, call girls, drug addicts, devout vegetarians, traffic police, beggars, restaurant owners, and tourists, all co-existed together in the same neighborhood. That is so remarkable, and truly the mark of a progressive society.

Traveling is always enlightening. It shows me things that are unimaginable. And Frankfurt is by no means anything like the tiny city I live in, where I get to see mostly Germans. Ever since I left the US, I have missed seeing demographic diversity. Never before have I been in a country that is a melting pot of so many people, so many cultures across everywhere in the world. Living where I live now, Germany looks very German, very White. But Frankfurt is more cosmopolitan. This is the only city I have seen in Germany that looks closest to the US.

Transportation in Frankfurt is also something to be admired (true in most big European cities). The neighborhoods of Frankfurt are extremely well-connected. There is a thick network of lines for the trains, buses, metros, and trams. One could reach any corner of the city in no time. The metro is marked U with numbers (U1, U2, etc.), and runs every five minutes. A daily pass costs €6.80, giving one access to any train, bus, or tram (basically, anything that moves). People compare Berlin to Washington DC (country’s capital), and Frankfurt to New York City (the financial capital, also known as the “Main”hattan, because the river Main flows by Frankfurt). I can totally see why.

Picture: The Frankfurt Skyline.

I spent some time walking around the city, by the river Main, touring the Goethe University campus, riding the trains, climbing churches, and generally taking in the sights and sounds of a new city. I have been flying via Frankfurt for the last nine years now, but never before did I visit the city. There was a visible skyline of tall concrete buildings in the downtown area. Although much smaller compared to the major US cities like New York City and San Francisco, this is the most American looking set of concrete buildings I have seen in Germany.

I stayed in a hostel (as always) on Kaisserstrasse. The neighborhood is very red-light, like I said, but nothing that makes you feel unsafe. The plus points: It’s a five minute walk from the central station, the neighborhood is full of restaurants and stores, and this place is within walking distance from any major tourist attraction. In short, you cannot go wrong with the location. The neighborhood was alive and throbbing with activity even at midnight.

The hostel was clean, functional, and promised what it offered for the amount it charged. I love to travel on budget and live in hostels, so this was great. If you like to travel in luxury, this is not the place for you. If you do not want to spend extra money, carry everything with you. What you pay for is a bed in the hostel, and access to showers and bathrooms. Beyond that, they charge you for everything: Towels, soap, shampoo, breakfast (€4.50 for all you can eat), and padlocks for your locker. The strange thing is, they charged me €5 extra because it was Friday night, although eight out of the ten beds in the room were empty that night. My bus was 13 hours after the checkout time, and the good thing is that they let me wait in the common room, and then at the bar for that long. The internet is free, although the connection is not superb, and you have to refresh your connection every three hours. I was there for three nights, and there was a constant inflow of traffic in my room. The interesting thing is that I shared a ten-bed female dorm, and every single person other than me was Asian. Well, technically, I am from Asia too, but not Asian.

Do not miss eating at Saravanaa Bhavan on Kaisserstrasse (no free internet, the staff is really friendly and gave me extra helpings of sambar and chutney all the time, desi kids are a pain and made a mess at the table) and the Hyderabadi Biryani in Ruchi (Ludwigstrasse; internet is free, kids continue to make a mess, making the table look like a war-zone). The ice cream shops along the area (€1/scoop) were pretty good too. The other nice thing was huffing and puffing while climbing up the Frankfurt Cathedral (€3-4). My biggest advice is, travel Europe while you are physically fit. Because Europe means a lot of churches. And that involves climbing on top of them to get panoramic views. Many of these churches are old, do not have elevators, and involve climbing up hundreds of flights of steps in roundabout stairways. Sometimes, all you have are railings and ropes to hold on to. And when someone is descending the same way, all you can do is tuck in your tummy, stop breathing, and hope that you do not trip and fall.

I am beginning to realize that most big European cities are structured similarly. There will be rivers and canals, with many bridges to walk by. Some of those bridges will be weighed down by locks the lovers leave after inscribing their names. There will be a few churches you can get on top of to get nice panoramic views. There will be food districts, and red-light districts. Hamburg, Frankfurt, Berlin, Dresden, Copenhagen, Malmoe, Paris, Geneva, Luebeck, Prague, the cities look similar. Perhaps Lisbon and Sintra (both in Portugal) are the only two cities that looked a little different.

My next trip will be a tri-capital trip. Helsinki-Tallinn-Riga. The capital cities for Finland, Estonia, and Latvia, respectively.


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