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"Guest Books" by Jesper Soerensen

The fact that we had arrived in the free-spirited city of Amsterdam became clear to us the moment we opened the door of our vacation rental. Written on the message board in the hallway was a note from the caretaker saying, “The water is safe, but drink beer!” An unnecessary suggestion but still appreciated. It was a typical Amsterdam apartment in being long and narrow and wedged (all buildings in Amsterdam are wedged) in between the lively (brace yourself) Reguliersdwarsstraat – the most famous street of Amsterdam’s flourishing gay scene – and the canal where the city’s famous flower market is located. As the sounds of these two different features of the city blended together, we immediately felt the urge to go exploring. Before leaving the apartment, we decided to give the guest book lying on the coffee table a quick glance in the hope of finding a restaurant recommendation. There were several of those, but the book contained much, much more. We became so engrossed in the funny stories written by former guests that we read the whole book in one sitting. Especially one contribution from an older (judging by their names) Danish couple named Hertha and “Buller” made us roar with laughter. It was so funny and well-written that it deserves to be quoted directly: 

   “We were quite surprised, when opening the bedroom curtains on Sunday morning, to see a ‘drak [sic] queen’ in red feathers on the roof right outside our window. It was a show! She was being photographed for more than 15 minutes doing all kinds of poses and clearly enjoyed the moment as much as we did.”

   How could anyone describe the Amsterdam experience better than Hertha and her “Buller”?


Since our trip to Amsterdam, we have been obsessed with guest books and have now read enough of them to fill a Victorian gentleman’s library. Not only are they treasure troves of useful information, they are also highly entertaining, and we are quite in earnest when we recommend them as literature. In Berlin, for example, each new group of vacationers had been terrorized by a pugnacious downstairs neighbor through such a long period of time that their individual reports read like a serial that could be titled “The Goblin Downstairs.” Since Berlin is a popular destination, we had two guest books plus a newly begun third one at our disposal. They were jam-packed with great tips to a great city, but featured most prominently and darkly in their pages was the downstairs goblin. 

   Apparently, the downstairs neighbor had been utterly exasperated with the weekly arrival of a new pack of tourists with trolleys rumbling through the courtyard. This led to some unpleasant encounters, and several guests recorded harassment and even vandalism. There were stories of the air having been let out of the tires of their rental bicycles, and one person had even found a piece of paper saying “Tourists go home” pinned to the bicycle seat with a needle. Several people writing in the guest book solemnly declared that they had been quieter than could be reasonably expected of anyone, and still they became the objects of wrath from the goblin. So many were the recorded incidents between the guests and the amiable downstairs neighbor that we began to perceive him as the troll in the fairy tale Three Billy Goats Gruff roaring, “Who’s that tripping over my bridge?” 

   It was clear from reading through the Berlin guest books that the downstairs neighbor’s fame had grown a little out of proportion and taken on the character of an urban legend. Perhaps that is why one guest decided to take the air out of the whole thing in his contribution to the guest book. His text, in its entirety, read as follows: “What grumpy neighbor?”

   The troll under the bridge was not the only thing to keep us amused. One of our favorites was this controversial statement, which the writer denied all responsibility for when she noted: “Frank says he misses the Berlin Wall and the tensions of the Cold War.” With that one sentence, we can hear the whole discussion, and we feel we have known Frank since kindergarten. A different Frank appeared in the same guest book as “man overboard” after having met a beautiful Italian girl at a pub the night before, and not since resurfaced. He was actually referred to as “El Franco” by his two friends, which we took to be a hypocoristic alteration of the name Frank. Before we close the book on Berlin, this comment, written in the hand of a teenager, deserves an honorable mention: “Berlin is a BIG city: my mom has gained 9 pounds.”


In a vacation rental in Italy, two young girls named Charlotte and Christine left the most instructive essay we ever read on the subject of where to find a party. Through several closely written pages, the girls chronicled a meticulous day-to-day (or, we should say, night-to-night, for Charlotte and Christine are nocturnal creatures) account of their adventures. Although highly edifying, it is too long to quote here, so the readers will have to settle for a brief summary of their experiences. 

   Their first words are a warning that the local nightlife is not much to boast of, as they discovered on the eve of their arrival. The apartment is located in a small town about 30 kilometers south of Rome by a lake that is a popular retreat for Romans wanting to escape the masonry barbecue that is the capital during summer. It had all improved on the second night when the girls got dressed up and took the train to Rome with a bag full of beers. They minutely describe the route they took when exiting the Termini railway station: You go to the back of the station, turn right, and walk along the chain link fence on a sidewalk that will turn into a narrow dirt road running parallel to the train tracks. Keep going although the road gets darker and darker, and after three-quarters of a mile, you will find the place where the young squatters hang out. Charlotte and Christine had quite a night – highly recommended, Hertha and “Buller” – as they hung out around a bonfire with this autonomous tribe until the early morning when they could take the first train back to the apartment. 

   The rest of Charlotte and Christine’s contribution to the guest book is a well-researched, expertly written topography of dive bars and unofficial youth festivals in a 20-kilometer radius, complete with timetables, hand-drawn maps, and flyers inserted. 


We hope you enjoyed these fine examples of literature that informs and entertains at the same time, and if you read nothing else on your next vacation, let it be the guest book.    


Jesper Soerensen is from Denmark and now lives in Colorado with his husband and their two dogs, Charlie and Nora. His first book, Charles Dickens: The Stories of His Life, is out now from Olympia Publishers. 


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