paris, pt 3: ego-tourism, notre dame, and vinyl nerds

it was time to leave paris.  i had a few hours that i could kill before i needed to catch an overnight bus up to northern germany. luckily, before i had left the US, a friend of mine named kristen had tried to  connect me with some friends of hers in paris.  she had lived in the city for 2 years before eventually returning to the US last year.  the last minute nature of my arrival had not done me any favors in meeting up with these folks, as they were busy with work and their lives, but luckily for me, one of these contacts had made a little bit of time for me on my last day to grab some lunch. 

i met david right as i exited the corvisart metro train stop in the 13th arrondissement.  i stepped out of the doorway and looked at my surroundings. it felt nothing like the rest of paris that i had been to.  this neighborhood was quiet, and almost hidden, except it was up on a hill.  i got the feeling that this sort of an enclave off the beaten track, and david confirmed this for me.  i was immediately engaged.

we parked on a steep hill and walked up to a crowded little café called gladines.  there was no seating except a small 4-seat table that was already occupied by 2 women. david humorously and conspicuously hovered over one of the seats and said something to one of the girls in french and charmed his way into getting permission for us to share the table.

david is one of those guys you want to have on speed-dial in a pinch, in case you need something cool to do next weekend, or you have a girl you want to really impress and want to take her somewhere really cool, because he always has the lowdown on everything.  if it’s a cool underground concert or an off-the-beaten-path coffee shop, or some badass burger joint (harder to find in europe than one might think) that people don’t know about yet, david knows about it. coming from chinese descent, he has a self-deprecating sense of humor but not without a sharp wit and a confident sense of his own style.  david has a deep love for vinyl (another thing he can help you find a hotspot for), and he has a fashion style that hints “casual hip-hop,” which enables him to always wear a hat without looking like a douche.  think less like pharrell and more like mos def.  to put it coolly:  david is cool without being “too” cool.

we talked a bit about my experience in paris, but eventually the conversation started straying more into where i was headed next, since i was bound for germany in only a few hours.  david lit up like a christmas tree when i mentioned berlin, stating that it very well might be his favorite city in europe.  about a year ago, david had been considering a move to amsterdam (obviously we connected on this topic as well, since we both love that city), as he was ready for a new location, ready for a change, etc.    as he was starting to prepare for this relocation, he took a quick trip to berlin to check out the scene and almost overnight he fell in love.  i’ll spare the details for now because berlin will be a future topic for this blog, but for david it appeared that he now had a bigger decision to make:  amsterdam or berlin? 

unfortunately, that decision is still up in the air, as some opportunities presented themselves to his consulting business in paris and they have prevented him from leaving.  but someday, it sounds as though berlin may be the city that steals david away from paris.

david enthusiastically gave me about 10 places to go check out, including burger joints, coffee shops, vinyl shops (even though i don’t have the capacity to take records with me right now), cool unknown bars, and lastly he awakened me to the gloriously delicious doner kebap.  i’ll explain what that is in later posts, but trust me, it’s a cheap street eat that is worth every cent you spend on it.

eventually david had a meeting to get to and I had a bus to catch.  but first, i decided to try and squeeze one final sight in before i left paris. david volunteered to drop me off at the cathedral at notre dame.  i thanked him graciously for everything and promised we’d keep in touch, especially if it was possible for me to pass through paris again.

i didn’t have much time so I was in “hurry up” mode while i systematically made my way around the historic cathedral.  The structure is magnificent. construction began on the building in 1163 and has been in all sorts of conditions, as one can imagine after nearly 900 years (its hard for an american to even fathom this, as my country has been in existence for roughly 28% of the time the cathedral has), but today it stands brightly and majestically above the senne river, nestled neatly in the 4th arrondisement of paris.  

i didn’t have much time, so i hastily made my way around the grounds, snapping photos at anything that caught my eye.  out back behind the cathedral is a quiet and quaint garden that i recommend anyone whom is looking for a break from the city check out.  i would have enjoyed drinking a glass of wine and sitting on the lawn for a few hours.  very relaxing.

 

the side of the cathedral at notre dame smiles back on a sunny day
the side of the cathedral at notre dame smiles back on a sunny day

 

no man, the cathedral is over there. idiot.
no man, the cathedral is over there. idiot.
flowers behind notre dame resist the autumn weather urge to wilt
flowers behind notre dame resist the autumn weather urge to wilt

an hour later i was on my bus, bound for bremen, germany.  it was going to a long ride, 11 hours, but it was an overnight journey and i was saving money by not renting a hostel bed for the night.  as the bus pulled out of the station, i began thinking of my travels so far, and my experience in paris.

paris had been a little difficult for me.  it was the first time i had been truly tested with a real language gap.  on most of my travels, even before europe, i have been able to get by with broken spanish, or other locals have spoken enough broken english for us to communicate.  but whether by spite or by apathy, paris had not embraced me as a traveler the way other places have.  and why should it?  i’m just a tourist,i am gifting nothing to it other than my visitor money, and for a short period of time at that.  i am only traveling on a selfish errand, to take in the sights and experience things for myself.  at worst, i add to the congestion of the city, i am taking someone’s place on the metro who uses the train every day for commuter purposes, i am sitting in someone’s seat at a café, i am clogging the beautiful gardens all around the city and subtracting from their attractiveness simply by being there and snapping photos. and i do all this without speaking a word of their language, forcing their everyday lives to be interrupted and making them go out of their way to accommodate me.  it is a very selfish thing that i do.  my good friend, micah, has a term for this that he coined.  it’s sort of a tongue-in-cheek witticism, but it fits:  ego-tourism.   when you are an “eco-tourist,” it means that you are staying in environmentally friendly sleeping arrangements, your activities all do their best to minimize their impact on the environment around, and you are conscious of the footprint you leave behind.  but when you are an “ego-tourist,” you are going about your trip in a mindless consumer fashion, where everything you do is about your experience and what you can take back with you.  to be clear, an ego-tourist is not the opposite of an eco-tourist, as the two are not mutually exclusive, but these two terms focus on different things.

nevertheless, i am aware that i was an ego-tourist while in paris, and therefore, it makes sense that i should feel a little lonely about my time there.  luckily in my last 24 hours, i had two parisians in david and anaelle who helped me feel a little more comfortable and understanding of the culture, for if not for them, i would have no desire to come back.  but they awakened my eyes to the layers that paris has, layers which cannot be peeled back in such a short time.  and were it not for the lack of time that i have, i certainly would have allowed myself to try and give back to paris in some way, that i might connect with it on a deeper level like i had with amsterdam and iceland.

i will return to paris someday and i will do things very differently.  i will rent a flat in canal st. martin, i will sit on a sidewalk café, i will drink white wine and eat bread and cheese, i will watch carelessly as people walk this way and that, and i won’t have a damn thing to do.  And it will be perfect.

as these thoughts did laps around the inside of my mind, i had a sudden desire to have one last look at the city of lights.  to glimpse the man-made wonder of paris, but alas, this bus had been rolling for at least 20 minutes, and had already departed from the outskirts of the city.  i franticly looked out the window, searching for anything recognizable off in the distance, a structure, an arc, a tower, anything.  but i couldn’t see anything.  i settled back into my window seat and settled for the streetlights along the highway, minorly depressed that this was how my parisian holiday was ending.  i sat in disappointment for a few minutes when suddenly the bus changed trajectories, following the road as it winded to the side and climbed up a small hill.  i was still dejectedly staring out the window at the large wall and lights lining it unexpectedly dropped away and revealed a long, lazy view of the urban sprawl of paris.  Surprised, I refocused my eyes and gazed out into the twinkling expanse in the twilight.  and there it was.  among the darkening sky rose one monolithic bastion of the romance of the city, finally extending a tiny grace to me in a way that only i could hope for:  the eiffel tower stood glowing and shimmering far off in the distance, barely perceptible among all the other illuminated structures, but still standing firmly as if to simultaneously bid me adieu and tease me at the same time.  What a perfect farewell from paris.

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 today’s track is a little late to be appropriate for it’s namesake, but it’s a fun little jam to throw on before you venture out for some fun.  priory hails from portland, oregon and boasts a fun electronic sound with a folksy base for songwriting.  enjoy…

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paris, pt 2: secret entrances, climbing stairs, and bob dylan narrations

the next morning i ambitiously set off on my goal of taking down the louvre in one day.  for the record:  this is not really possible.  either you will run out of time, or the louvre will simply wear you down. The louvre always wins.

nevertheless, i arrived at the louvre first thing in the morning, in time for the doors to open.  i was intent on trying to enter thru one of these “famous only on the internet” secret entrances to the louvre, so rather than line up with all the other tourists, i headed for the “porte des lions,” a small door just a little south and west of the famed pyramid entrance that has become an icon across the world.

as i approached the entrance i felt proud of myself for doing the work the night before so i could cleverly and smugly skip all the lines and have the louvre to myself for a time until the throngs of other tourists caught up to me.

porte des lions location at the louvre

but as soon as i tried to enter the small revolving door, i noticed that it wasn’t revolving.  not sure if i was pushing hard enough, i started to increase my effort when i noticed someone inside sitting at a desk waving his hands in the air, shaking his head frantically side to side with a look on his face as though he had just ingested spoiled milk.  to verify he was signifying that i was not allowed to enter here, i silently made an inquisitive face and drew my hand horizontally across my throat making the “off with his head” gesture (and now that i know more about the history of paris and its relationship with the guillotine, i realize that this is probably not a good gesture to make in this city).  he didn’t change his behavior and just kept waving his hands and shaking his head until I turned around and walked away.  time to wait in line. (and for the record, i looked it up later. this entrance is frequently closed according to other travelers online. you need to call the day before to ensure it will be open. so if someone else has had success with this entrance, please let me know about it in the comments section. i’d be very curious how it works).

the louvre graciously poses for a pic on a blue sky day in paris
the louvre graciously poses for a pic on a blue sky day in paris

the wait ended up only being like 10 minutes because i had gotten there so early in the morning (alternatively, you can pay extra and buy a ticket that lets you skip the line. definitely worth it if you’re leisurely strolling up around lunchtime, see below for info), plus standing in line next to that big glass pyramid is actually pretty cool.  it wasn’t a part of the louvre until 1989 when it was completed after president mitterand controversially commissioned it.  the most popular and biggest museum in the world still only had normal doors at that point, so the key french officials and curators came together to think in a more advanced fashion than parisians typically do (it seems to me that the parisians never want anything to change, they always like things the way they are.  doesn’t matter if the change is good change.  Any change is bad change to them. I think this is endearingly funny. then again, you could make the same case about a lot of my fellow americans).  So they came up with a way to “go big” in the typical french fashion and created the pyramid entrance, dramatically reconstructing the internal center of the louvre.

the louvre stares back at itself through its reflection.  paris, france
the louvre stares back at itself through its reflection. paris, france

anyway, if you visit the louvre, do not attempt to just wander.  you’ll end up losing your mind in there and you’ll leave feeling like you wasted your time getting lost in a maze of meaningless art.  instead, do what i did.  create a list of the top 20 things you’d like to see.  do some googling to see what the internet says are the noteworthy pieces and then try to prioritize those.  then, you can download the louvre app for $2.99 and you’ll have a little tidbit of audio info when you find each piece in the museum (at least for the main ones).  then just work your way through the museum and locate things from your list, leaving yourself time to view other things that grab your attention (and other things will indeed grab your attention) that weren’t on your list.  also, for the love of god, don’t take pictures of everything you see.  take a few here and there, but

  1. make sure you’re appreciating the art as intended, spend some time trying to notice details about the piece, and leave your phone in your pocket, and
  2. if you must snap a pic, ask yourself “why?  what will i do with this photo?”  remember that a straight-on photo of the mona lisa has been seen by every person in the world, even if not in real life.  nobody gives a damn that your cellphone was 20 feet away from it.  plus, everything you see in there can be found on google images.  If you need to show somebody back home what you saw, use that.

in other words, when you’re in the louvre, spend your time wisely and in all other cases, just keep moving.  this is also good advice in case of a zombiepocalypse.

 

after about 5 or 6 hours of the louvre, i felt my eyes popping out of my head and my feet were going to fall off, so i got out of there.  as i exited, i could see the arc de triomphe looming off in the distance (not the small fake one right across the way from the louvre pyramid, the actual one a couple miles away, straight down the champs-elysees), and decided to climb it.

this was a much more ambitious plan than i had realized.  my feet were hurting and it was further than i had realized.  this is because that arc is so damn big and nothing around it is even close to its height, so it looks a lot closer than it is.  i just kept walking and skipping the subway stations because i thought i was almost there for about 20 minutes.. i wanted to amputate my own feet when i finally got there.  And then I couldn’t figure out how to get across the major roundabout to climb the arc once I got there.   You see, not only is the arc so massive, but the chaotic roundabout that surrounds it serves as an incredible moat with completely insane french motorists jockeying for position and madly

the arc de triomphe supervises the insanity at the roundabout below in paris
the arc de triomphe supervises the insanity at the roundabout below in paris

running each other off the road to get to the next exit from the turnstyle.  let me save you the trouble.  if you are approaching the arc from the champs elysees in the east, the entrance is on the other side of the arc, the west side, on the northern sidewalk.  there is a little staircase leading underground which will take you under the roundabout and up into the arc.  you’ll need a ticket to ascend the 280 stairs to the top, but I think it was less than 10 euros, so it’s worth it.  the view from the top is spectacular, mainly because paris is so expansive, and the weather was perfect.  As with everything in paris however, there are always crowds to fight, so beware.

after i had finished taking in the view, had to run across town over to the canal st. martin area to meet my friend anaelle, whom I had met in iceland.  anaelle was one of the self deprecating french friends that I made in reykjavik whom had been very insistent that I come visit them in france. as exhausted as i was from all my traversing all over the city those 3 days, i was very eager to have a full conversation with someone.  even though i had been getting around and productively seeing all the main sites, all my interactions with people in paris thus far had been limited to pointing to things and hilariously trying to pronounce french words and failing miserably.  the most in-depth conversations i had been in so far had been with ticket agents.

anaelle and i had agreed to meet in the neighborhood of canal st. martin, at a mcdonalds, because if there’s one thing an american knows how to find, it’s a mcdonalds (i actually play a game when i travel internationally. every time i see a mcdonalds i proclaim “found it!” these are the kinds of things you develop to keep you sane when you’ve been traveling alone for too long). i arrived about 10 minutes late, but anaelle didn’t mention it.

when i had met anaelle in reykjavik, my friends gregory and thomas had introduced me to her and i awkwardly failed on the greeting.  i’m not completely sure how it works, but i believe that when men and women meet in france on an informal basis, it is customary to do one of those kiss the right cheek, then the left cheek things, instead of in america where you would shake hands, or if you’re more comfortable with the person you just give them a hug.  i could google this and instruct you properly, but i’m writing this from a train with no internet connection, so i’ll just settle for once again looking like an ignorant fool.

anyway, in iceland i extended my hand to shake anaelle’s hand when she was already moving in close, so i assumed she was giving me a hug. so i changed my approach and gave her a light hug, locking her awkwardly onto my right cheek and then releasing her, realizing she had kissed my cheek.  the end result was total confusion between both of us as to what had just happened. i sincerely wish i had that moment on video, because even now when i think about it, it makes me laugh out loud.

so this time when i met anaelle, i executed the proper french greeting between a male and a female. outside the mcdonald’s.  how ironic.

anaelle is an attractive student in her early-mid 20s with a sweet smile and a friendly, happy-go-lucky disposition.  when she speaks, it is through a thick french accent, but i’d be lying if i said it wasn’t one of the sexiest accents i’ve ever heard; i told her to never improve her english, just speak exactly the way she does forever. she originally had met my friends gregory and thomas at the airport departing for iceland in the security line.  they had all been late for their flight and were hurriedly trying to make the gate before it closed when they all realized they were going to the same place.  they became friends, and eventually i met her on their last day in reykjavik, near the beginning of my trip.

anaelle did not know me very well, but she somehow intuitively knew that what i had craved most from paris was authenticity and something a little more in between the extremes of how i had been experiencing the city:  evenings in the ghetto and daytime at the luxurious tourist traps.  so rather than head straight to a restaurant or a bar, she suggested we walk around a little and let her show me the neighborhood.  despite my aching feet, i gratefully agreed.

rare tranquility in paris is found at the canal st. martin
rare tranquility in paris is found at the canal st. martin

we walked for about an hour around the bastille neighborhood, up through republique, and over to canal st. martin, and it was here that i knew i should have been spending my time. this was the area i had imagined in my mind would be my paris.  i was torn. i was so happy that it did in fact exist, and that it wasn’t just some fiction in my mind, but i was sad that i had only just now found it, and it was almost time to head to germany.

anaelle explained to me that this was more of an artist community.  lots of artists and musicians and aspiring fashion designers and students live in this area, creating a culture of creativity and progressive free-thinking. it sounded marvelous.  we walked along the canal, finding small grass lawns and parks where people were sitting on blankets and drinking wine, eating bread, talking.  she explained to me how lucky i was with the weather.  apparently it had been raining every day for like a month straight, and then suddenly right when i arrived it stopped and was nothing but clear skies.

we stopped and found a patio overlooking the water to have a beer and rest my aching feet.  we talked for another hour before anaelle had to leave to meet someone else that she had made plans with before i had contacted her.  we left the patio and she helped me find a restaurant where i could get some decent food.  we said our goodbyes and i earnestly thanked her for taking a little time to hang out with me.

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today’s noise poetry is a gem from the new basement tapes.  music junkies everywhere are eagerly awaiting this release, as it is not your garden variety new band or new album bringing something to the table, no this release is a very interesting one.  this album was born from a collection of abandoned bob dylan lyrics that never made it into song form which was recently discovered and given from bob dylan to legendary producer t-bone burnett.  t-bone then invited a handful of musicians to collaborate on writing music to the lyrics.  these musicians include jim james, taylor goldsmith, elvis costello, rhiannon giddens, and marcus mumford.  the album is called “lost on the river” and is set to release november 11th.  in the meantime, we have this song to hold us over.  it’s called “when i get my hands on you.”   enjoy…

paris, part 1: changing the gameplan

i hadn’t spent enough time preparing for paris, so unfortunately i paid for it a little.  i had been having so much fun with my new friends in amsterdam that i hadn’t bothered to do any recon on where i was going next.  i had originally planned to go straight to germany after, but last minute i had decided on a quick jaunt of paris.  i simply booked a place run by Hosteling International (an organization i’m a member of which had treated me well in Iceland, and which gives me a discount when i stay at their hostels) and then i hopped on a train.  as soon as i arrived, i realized that this was going to be one of the more difficult places for me to travel, and I really should have done more on the front end to make my life easier.

The first problem was that I had chosen a hostel in the near the main train station at the north side of paris, gar du nord.  I had chosen it because I wanted to be somewhere with easy access and that was easily walkable from my arrival point.

word of advice:  this is not a good way to travel.  don’t choose your headquarters simply based off it’s proximity to a travel point.  surely, this will be a factor, but if you are staying somewhere longer than 2 days, this won’t be as important, especially if you are using public transit like subways and trains which are more than adequate and safe in europe.  better to pick a neighborhood that will inspire you and will be near all the things that you want to partake of or experience while you are there.  that way you won’t have as many factors that take you out of the moments that are building your memories.

the problem with my hostel is that it was basically located in a fairly run down part of paris.  Somewhere in the 18th arrondissement (paris is broken up by 20 districts that start in the middle and spiral outward like a snail shell around the city), i was staying right in the middle of little algeria and little india.

okay, it does kinda look cool at night though..
okay, it does kinda look cool at night though..

i have nothing against algerians or indians, and i’m sure there are plenty of cool local cultural experiences that one can partake of in this area, but that’s not what i came to paris for, and i can get indian food anywhere in the world when i want it. i came to paris to experience brilliant architecture, amazing art, good music, good wine, and sidewalk cafes filled with snobby french people smoking cigarettes throwing baguettes at each other (okay so i think the french are too apathetic about everything to ever throw a baguette at someone else.  plus they’d never waste a good baguette).  this neighborhood didn’t really have any of that going on (at least that i could find).

after doing a few laps around my neighborhood for a couple hours and failing to be allured by anything nearby, and also silently cursing myself for not being more diligent in my prepwork, I decided to change the gameplan.

literally, all i had wanted to do in paris was find a café with some local live music and hang out there, drink wine, meet some locals, maybe meet a french girl, eat a ton of pastries and gain at least 10 pounds, etc.  and if i didn’t go to

the eiffel tower at dusk
cars speed by the eiffel tower at dusk

a single museum or protected structure, i probably would have been fine with it.  i wanted to try and just become part of a neighborhood, but that wasn’t going to happen here, so instead i decided to go into super-tourist mode.  i was going to “checklist travel.”

right away i found a bicycle tour of the city i could jump on and get the lay of the land.  charl and kim from amsterdam had strenuously recommended “fat tire bike tours” as a must-do, so i located their office and went straight there.  it was a fantastic tour.  our guide, a pocket-sized belgian girl named “rabine” was a little ball of commanding energy that safely and comically guided a group of over 20 through the maniacally busy streets of paris, viewing a number of key landmarks like the eiffel tower, the louvre, the jardines de tuleries, and a number of important historical buildings originating from french kings louis the 14th – 16th, and some points of interest related to napoleon bonaparte.  It was a great way to spend 4 hours of your 1st day and figure out where everything in paris is at.

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the next day i arose early and went straight to the palace of versailles, the residence of louis the 14th’ located outside the city.  i wasn’t expecting much more than a bunch of overrated touristy french history, but actually this place is worth a stop on your trip.  versailles is a 30 minute train ride outside paris and once you see it, it magnificently grabs your attention (plus, if you’re like me, i can only be in a city for so long before i need an escape. this is an easy escape from the city).    louis kinda had a complex and he wanted the entire world to know of his legacy, so he commissioned building after building in his own honor throughout paris, but for his house, a simple castle wouldn’t do;  he built himself a small town.  the entire residence is seriously bigger than some of the towns i’ve been thru in europe now (honestly it’s so big that i don’t have any photos to really share of the property because they just don’t capture how grandiose this place is.  imagine ceasar’s palace in las vegas and then multiply it by like 100 and then use the rest of the vegas strip as a backyard.  now you have versailles).  it’s ridiculous, but the best part is easily the expansive gardens out back from the chateaux.  after a quick run through the palace, i had to get away from the crowds so i rented a bicycle and tried to get as far into the gardens as possible.

i rode for 30 minutes around the canals before finally finding a quiet spot to sit down and enjoy my own little picnic.  okay, if i’m totally honest, i also tried to take this crappy little mountain bike rental off the road and down a small trail into the trees.  I was doing well until I pulled my gopro camera out to try and record it and then hit a pothole and flew over the handlebars.  luckily the only thing bruised was my pride.  i’m a dumbass.

a bee mid-flight looking for pollen paydirt
a bee mid-flight looking for pollen paydirt

all in all, the gardens at versailles are a great place to spend a lazy afternoon if the weather is right.  i can see why the megalomaniac louis had the place built (mainly to hunt, actually), because i would spend all my time there too if I was a king and didn’t have to actually work all day.  he  also had a lot of cool side gardens built that you can just get lost in, like some beautiful labyrinth full of botanical splendor and random sculptures spread throughout.

that afternoon i headed back into the city to try and find a cool neighborhood to wander around.  i got off at the bastille metro exit and started walking.  eventually i found a small café with a sidewalk and snobby french people with tattoos and trendy haircuts smoking cigarettes out front.  i walked by the place at least 4 times, trying to muster up the courage to just go in and sit down.  i don’t think anyone was paying attention, but if they had been, i’m pretty sure this is exactly what they would have thought of:

eventually i walked in and grabbed a table and ordered a beer.  I stayed there for 4 hours, just people watching.  At least I had been able to capture a small window into my previous ambitions of just absorbing the parisian lifestyle.  content, I found my way back to the metro and wandered back to my poorly located hostel and slept soundly.

important info:
hostel not to stay at:  hostel yves robert.
to get to versailles:  take the RER C line (or yellow line) on the subway/metro in the direction of versailles-rive gauche, and take it to the end of the line.  it’ll cost less than 10 euros if you don’t have an unlimited tourist pass (if you have an unlimited ticket, make sure it’s good for 5 ZONES.  i saw people getting ticketed because they didn’t know about the zones)
fat tire bicycle tours:  https://paris.fattirebiketours.com 

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today’s tune is a slow burner from the new album from caribou, “our love.”  if you’re not familiar with caribou, this album is a very easy entry into founder daniel snaith’s brand of spacy electronic dream pop, as every track stays low to the ground and easy on the ear (read as:  “our love” doesn’t try to go crazy and blow the roof off any house parties. it’s something you put on if you want to relax on your back porch with a bottle of wine and a book, or if you’ve been blogging on a bus for 10 hours straight trying to catch up on your travelogue).  today’s song is the 2nd track off the album, “silver.”  it’s a slow, brooding track that goes to a place for those that have gone without.  dripping with unrequite and angst-filled sadness, if you’ve ever loved and lost, you’ll love this song.  enjoy…

 

street eats and countryside treats. a farewell to amsterdam

the next day sam & jenna were heading out to france for a little weekend getaway.  my time in amsterdam was coming to a close.  this was also the end of the scheduled part of my journey.  my theory at this point had been to head to germany and then just go from there, but i had made no arrangements and had no real plan of what to do.  i had previously reached out to another old college friend named daniela who has been living just outside of hamburg, germany and asked if she’d be interested in meeting up, and she had unexpectedly and excitedly agreed, but the timing wasn’t working out, so I had to make some decisions.  It had entered my mind that I could easily jump to paris for a few days and then continue on to germany to meet daniela for a time that would align more easily with her schedule, and the more i thought of it, it just made sense.

big red bikes in the dami delayed on booking anything, mainly because i wasn’t entirely sure what I actually wanted to do.  I had really enjoyed Amsterdam and honestly didn’t want it to be over yet, and sam and jenna had even graciously offered to let me stay in their flat while they were out of town, but i felt sort of awkward accepting someone’s hospitality in their absence.  esther-hanna had all but sold me on joining on one of her street food tours of amsterdam, but i was still struggling with the timing, especially if i was going to paris, i wanted to make sure i would be giving paris enough time to appreciate.  but then something great happened.

mark, from the expat gathering a few posts before, reached out to me via email and asked if i wanted to hang out over the weekend.  I had had such a great time with him previously that it was too good to pass up.  i could do the food tour with esther-hanna’s company, Hungry Birds, and then I could hang out with mark the following day.  I informed sam & jenna I’d be staying on for another day or two in their absence.

a cheese vendor in the albert cuyp market hands an eager customer her treats
a cheese vendor in the albert cuyp market hands an eager customer her treats

i will spare all the details of the food tour, lest i give up the trade secrets that Hungry Birds has to offer, but if you are planning on visiting amsterdam for any amount of time in the future, i heartily recommend this afternoon food tour (http://www.hungrybirds.nl).  it’s about 4 hours long, and starts near the famed albert cuyp market near downtown.  we sampled all manner of foods that I had never had the privilege of trying, and the flavors wandered from the spicy to the deliciously sweet, with even some good salty treats thrown in.  some of my favorite highlights include sampling the national dish of the dutch, raw herring (definitely not something I would have ever eaten on my own, and also definitely not for the faint of heart.  Think of sushi, but without all the window dressing of a roll, and a little more than your basic sashimi.  it’s also salty.  Do yourself a favor and force yourself to try it!), as well as a fantastic little cookie shop with fresh-out-of-the-oven treats right as we walked in. i also loved the tasty fried snacks “bitterballen” and “kroket.”  these things are addictive, and the perfect compliment to a beer while watching the game. i would get fat eating these things if i lived here.   but the best of the event was wandering back through an old
antique shop into the back courtyard where the owner served us an authentic private indonesian meal surrounded by a small flower garden.  trying getting that experience on your own.

esther-hanna enjoys a light snack along the hungry birds tour
esther-hanna enjoys a light snack along the hungry birds tour

esther-hanna expertly and enthusiastically led us through at least 9 or 10 different destinations with delightful treats at each stop, and by the end of the tour there wasn’t an empty stomach.  She brought a personal touch to the tour as well, as not only is she from Amsterdam, she’s also half Indonesian, so she had the background on many of the local spots and would share it with us while we enjoyed the eatables.  She is also on a  first name basis with all of the purveyors, so if they weren’t busy, the owner would often spend a little time with us to provide a friendly introduction or provide the backstory behind the business.  It was both inspiring and charming.

esther-hanna sneaks a sniff of a beer on the Hungry Birds food tour of amsterdam
esther-hanna sneaks a sniff of a beer on the Hungry Birds food tour of amsterdam
freshly baked cookies adorn a small bakery window in amsterdam
freshly baked cookies adorn a small bakery window in amsterdam

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

the next day i met up with mark.  i braved the bicycle lanes again to ride across town to mark and marije’s flat.  a couple other friends of theirs (and sam & jenna’s, of course) were already there:  charl and kim.  we quickly fell into the same agreeable and fun-loving pace of conversation that had been everpresent in the dinner party the weekend before.  charl and kim were also from south Africa (i’m beginning to wonder how many south africans live in amsterdam at this point), and both have a very fun and intelligent nature to them.  charl is a very smart guy with a well-informed wit to him and a light sarcasm that is far from lost on me.  if i remember correctly, i believe he runs his own dentistry practice, and also is apparently a very talented baker, though i never got to sample any of his confections.  meanwhile, kim has a sweet smile and a gentle nature about her.  she’s one of those people you can tell just doesn’t have a malicious bone in her body, and when someone is talking, she’s listening. i was immediately comfortable with them both.

sunset over the canal
sunset over the canal

that night we had a little barbecue up on the roof of mark & marije’s flat.  some tasty burgers mark had prepared, as well as some delicious side dishes that marije had whipped up, we ate well and then the boys again retreated back to the rooftop for mini cigars and whiskey.  we talked for awhile about all manner of things, as guys drinking whiskey and smoking cigars are known to do, the topics straying from science, sport, government, and obviously the differences in culture within all these topics.

one really cool thing we talked about was wine.  i’ve always loved wine, but I’ve never known much officially about regions or aging, or specific grapes or processes, etc.  i just know what i like.  mark was a little more educated than I was on the subject and shared some of his knowledge, particularly with spanish wine, which is something i’ve always been curious about.  i know a little about california and south america, as well as australia and new zealand, but the european wines are a little more daunting, so i’ve never ventured into those regions.  mark had mentioned he knew a little about this because one of his companies was doing some work with a vineyard in the region of priorat with a pretty prestigious wine, so he necessarily learned a little about it both by preparation and exposure.

charl had just returned from a long trip to canada, so he was a little exhausted and ended up falling asleep.  after mark and I joked briefly about messing with him a little, we did the respectful thing and layed a blanket on him so he wouldn’t catch a cold in the night air.  then mark opened up a really nice bottle of wine from the vineyard in priorat he had been talking about and poured me a glass.  I was shocked, but didn’t want to make a big deal out of it since he was offering (plus, i mean, i definitely wanted to try it).  it was fantastic.  i wish i could remember what it was, and if i am able to figure it out, i will update this post with the name.  but suffice it to say that the wine was perfect for the occasion and mark and i stayed up til 4am finishing the bottle and going back and forth with funny stories and experiences of things we’ve learned.  it was a great conversation, and i really valued it.  mark is a wealth of old-world wisdom that you just can’t find in a book and you definitely won’t find it on a tv show or a facebook post.  you have to go through things the hard way to get this kind of experience and wisdom, and i endlessly and curiously pestered him with questions about all kinds of things, seeking answers to what?  i don’t know, but you don’t come across people like that very often and i refused to let the opportunity be wasted.

when all was said and done, mark offered me one of their guest bedrooms, as it was simply too late to try and find my way back to sam & jenna’s place.  i graciously accepted.

windmills in the dutch countryside
windmills in the dutch countryside

the next day i was the last to rise.  everyone was ready to go, but to where?  i wasn’t sure.  marije and kim hopped on bikes and disappeared, while mark, charl, and I got into a car and headed for the dutch countryside.  we escaped amsterdam and sped down windy roads through green fields filled with happy cows, freely grazing without a care in the world.  It was another beautiful day in the netherlands.

we eventually found our way to a really cool barn-like structure where a small market was called lindenhoff.  the main room had farmers market quality vegetables everywhere.  the back room was filled with designer cheeses and wines. And finally, the side room was a giant walk-in freezer room, where whole cow and pig carcasses had been butchered and prepared for sale.  i’m not talking in such a fashion where you go to your grocery and see the packaged rib-eye cut in a cellophane parcel for you to take home.  i mean, the animal’s body was hanging from a transparent, well lit locker.  you point to what part of the animal you want to take home and feast on, and they cut that part off and prepare it and wrap it for to take home and feast.  i felt like i was in a scene from Dexter, the show.  this place was a lab and the butchers were all very friendly, excitable dutch people who expeditiously and efficiently used their massive torture instruments to expertly cut enormous pieces of choice meat for customers.  mark looked at me and said “what should we get?”

i’m no expert on meat.  but I can eat a steak.  i pointed at the largest, reddest, best marbled cut I could see.  It was easily enough steak for like 10 people.  mark didn’t even hesitate, and neither did the quirky dutchman behind the counter with the massive blade of death in his hand.

That night we ate like royalty.  corn on the cob, fresh vegetables, bread (europeans love bread. I can’t even try to describe it), good wine, and the biggest, juiciest, farm-fresh steak ever.  i went to bed extremely happy, both for the food i had consumed and the company i’d had the pleasure of keeping over the last 48 hours.  i could only pray that the next couple months could even be half as engaging as amsterdam had been.  the next day I said goodbye to amsterdam and sam & jenna (after they returned from dijon, france), and hopped on a train bound for paris.

 

—————-

today’s song is stuck in my head and won’t get out.  i blasted this at full volume a lot when i was driving in iceland, on multiple occasions i almost crashed because i was rocking out so hard.  it’s an infectious electro dance beat from aussies “the griswolds,” and if this song is any indication of there talent, these guys could be in for a successful career.  give a listen and i dare you to not dance.  not possible. enjoy…

truth, honesty, and observation

okay, it's not the cafe citroen, but this is the view from its patio.
okay, it’s not the cafe citroen, but this is the view from its patio.

wednesday night arrived in amsterdam with a light rain.  i had spent most of my day sitting in a pleasant little “cafe” called “café citroen,”  writing and editing video and photos (a tip for the uninitiated: in amsterdam, a cafe is a coffee shop, where you can buy coffee.  a “coffee shop” on the other hand… well that’s where you go to buy and smoke marijuana. why they do it this way i have no idea, but if you want play a joke on your significant other, don’t tell them this before they go out for a cup of morning joe) .  jenna had informed me that they would be having a dinner party that night as part of a small group they regularly host for their church.  they had offered me the escape route if i wasn’t interested in attending, and if I’m completely honest, it had been my intention to find something else to do.  but as the sun descended and the rain clouds moved in, i had not, in fact, found anything else to do and i realized that i preferred to spend time with my friends instead.

i got back to the apartment and started to help jenna and sam prepare a curry she was readying for the group of about 10.  always considering myself a better sous chef than actual chef, jenna handed me a knife and instructed me to get chopping.  i’m surprised i didn’t chop one of my fingers off because I was so preoccupied with how I was going to approach the church group atmosphere that was quickly approaching.

i won’t go too far into detail, but i have a complex past with the church and with modern christianity and all the conflicted opinions that go with them.  my family was one of those very religiously conservative families growing up, that on paper and in public always seemed to have everything together, but behind closed doors there was a lot of anger, pain, and chaos.  the duality of the lifestyle always really confused me, and unfortunately i never had many role models in my life (neither in or out of the church) that i could reference as positive examples or influences to draw from).  i then went to a very conservative christian university in search of answers and peace, and while I did eventually find some answers, they weren’t the kind that jive with what typically is preached on sunday morning at the pulpit.  these weren’t destinations i arrived at lightly, as they are the types of slow-burning battles that are fought internally over time, intensity, frustration, confusion, and ultimately release.  But suffice it to say that i understand now that i am older that everyone has their journey and their struggle, and no one man can claim to know the truth, for absolute truth has not been granted to us.  nor can one man truly tell another that he is wrong in his belief, for that is not for us to decide.

so with that being said, my general plan of attack was to basically keep my mouth shut and be a silent observer.  the last thing i wanted to do was somehow influence someone else’s spiritual journey, especially when my own has been littered with so much… well, litter.

the people in the group arrived and everyone was very nice and polite, conversation was very casual for about an hour while food was enjoyed and a couple bottles of wine were shared by the table.  eventually the discussion began, the topic being “transformation.”  jenna led things with the wisdom and grace that i had only come to expect from her, but i noticed quickly that the group was rather shy at first. and then before i knew it, i found myself speaking up to just try and get the wheels greased on the machine.  the silence had made me uncomfortable.

eventually people started chiming in while I silently chided myself for opening my mouth. but as the night wore on, i was finding myself increasingly struck by the candidness with which the people in this group were sharing from.  the conversation slowly evolved from the host topic and started straying to a more personal level for the people of the group, as they shared from more honest and more “real” places than many of the “bubble gum” church experiences i had experienced so much in my life.  i found myself occasionally offering small tidbits of advice to people in some of the real life experiences that they had presented.  i sensed that many of the group was relatively new in their faith, as compared to someone like me who had been wrestling with belief since as far back as i can remember (this is not to say that these individuals hadn’t also, but this is merely a feeling I got from the atmosphere in the moment).  my state of mind began to change during the night from one of “i should stay out of the way so that i don’t lead someone from their own path,” to a mentality of “i recognize many of these themes and have dealt with them long, long ago. i can help,” and so i began re-entering the conversation.  soon sam and i were actually helping create makeshift “game plans” for how to approach some of the issues that were being presented by individuals in the group.

there were 2 people who were particularly striking within the group, and i hope they don’t mind me chronicling any of this in the blog.  for their privacy, i’ve tried to remain as vague on the subject matter of the conversation, but if not for these two and their soul-baring honesty within the conversation, i probably would not have even opened my mouth the entire night, save for the occasional social nicety.  one of these two was named elze.  elze had a delicate but confident nature about her.  She was from south africa (so many south africans I met in Amsterdam!), and she had been working as an auditor of some type for some company that she had been somewhat bored with for awhile, but was excited about a new opportunity she was starting the following week.  elze is one of those people who is very intelligent and probably very good at what she does, but she doesn’t feel the need to parade that around to everyone’s attention, which made me like her immediately (i’m not always good at that.  sometimes I’m too eager to please others, so i pointlessly brag about something to prove myself.  it’s stupid).  she was also interested in stocks and investing, which is something i’ve been interested in for about a year, so we talked shop a little about that and shared info on some companies to check out.

the other person was named esther-hanna.  esther-hanna has one of the coolest jobs of anyone i know.  a year ago, she and one of her friends started their own business in amsterdam where they take tourists on local street food tours with tiny locations that an out-of-towner would definitely not find.  i was so intrigued by her profession that i immediately had started talking with her during the early part of the night about the food tours (i’m a foodie, i couldn’t help it), and we hadn’t really talked about her at all.  so i was taken aback when later she began sharing so openly with such a large group of people and a stranger present among them.  esther-hanna has a piercing gaze that seems to look straight into your soul, but instead of this being an intimidating thing, if you are paying attention you notice that she, too, is allowing you to look into her soul.  it is so refreshing and unique, but also can be off-putting if you’re not ready for it, because most people in this world don’t operate with that level of intimacy in conversation.  needless to say, I live for these types of interactions.

at the end of the night, there wasn’t a single person in the group that I wasn’t impressed with, and this doesn’t usually happen to me.  My cynical self usually finds a way to discount something within gatherings like these or the individuals within them.  But every person at this dinner was beautiful in their own unique way, and I appreciate my presence even having been tolerated.  I didn’t have any grand spiritual realizations, none of my questions about life and the universe and spirituality answered, in fact I still find myself in the same place as I was when I was chopping potatoes only hours earlier.  But I think the experience did assuage a little of the apprehension and mistrust I often have toward organized religions and subsequent gatherings.  I’m glad I took part, and I thank the group all humbly in retrospect.

————

today’s song is a new instrumental piece from Odesza, an EDM duo from the US.  only clocking in at 2:15, this seemingly inconsequential track is actually the most interesting of a top-to-bottom solid album.  for those of you who are not fans of electronic dance music, give this album a spin.  it breaks away from the often repetitive obnoxious formula that seems to define edm these days by keeping fun off-beat rhythms mixed with chopped up vocal melodies and subtle supporting layers of unexpected dreamy pop sounds, all without being afraid of slowing the beat down and getting quiet at times.  this is crucial for grown-ups like me who don’t want a neck-ache the morning after listening to my music.  i’ve been listening to this album for about a month now and i have yet to get sick of a single song.  enjoy…

we are all a van gogh

over the next few days, I was left to my own devices while all the working folk attended to their day jobs.  and by “own devices,” I really mean that I was sleeping in til noon and then trying to figure out how to do something with my day so that I didn’t feel like a waste of a human that evening when sam or jenna got home and inevitably asked me “so what’d ya do today?!”

night watch
rembrandt’s “night watch”

I made sure I went and saw the rijks museum, named after the brilliant and famous rembrandt.  A massive place with lots to see, I budgeted about 3 hours but could only handle about 2, as I often start getting claustrophobic or severely annoyed when I’m around museum tourists too long.  Or just people.  People in general can really chap my ass too.  After finally making my way to rembrandt’s “night watch” masterpiece, I made a quick double check to make sure I hadn’t missed anything of grave importance and then quickly got the hell out of there.  (it’s a great museum though, and I do recommend it for anyone out there looking for a useful way to kill a few hours taking in fine art.  Don’t take my cantankerousness to suggest otherwise)

I exited out the museum into the beautiful park that lay just behind it.  It was a very nice day out. The plan on the day had been to double down on museums and hit the van gogh building once I was done with the rijks, but now I wasn’t sure if I could stomach another couple hours of jockeying with idiots squaring up their cameras to take a photo of a piece of art they could easily google later at home to point to and say “look, I saw this!”   I seriously don’t get it.  Also, one of my biggest gnaw-at-the-inside-of-my-brain-as-i-slowly-lose-my-sanity things in life is when people are completely oblivious to what’s going on around them.  I call these people “Darwin defiers,” and museums seem to be a safe haven for them.  This is how they defy Darwin.  Because if they weren’t all hiding in museums all the time, they would have all been hit by buses or eaten by bears in the real world by now and we wouldn’t have to complain about them in blogs.

Anyway, travel guilt eventually got the best of me and I got up from my seat in the green grass in the park and forced myself to go sprint thru the van gogh museum so that I wouldn’t feel guilty about it later.  I walked around the corner and entered the museum.

The van gogh museum is the coolest museum I’ve ever been in.

I’ve never really been a big visual art kinda guy, as it relates to painting and drawing.  I get it.  I know why other people are, but I just really haven’t been struck by a painting before and been moved emotionally as I often am with music or film.  It just doesn’t speak to me on my wavelength.  I don’t know if that’s an ignorance thing or a generational thing, but it’s something.

The van gogh museum, for the most part, is arranged in a 4 story upwards funnel where you circle around a floor and then walk up to the next and repeat, with each floor representing a season of van gogh’s work in a chronological fashion.  this provides a very intricate and I think unprecedented window into a truly genius mind.

There is a theory out there, popularized in recent years by Malcolm Gladwell in his book “the tipping point,” also referenced by Macklemore in one of his songs, that claims that you need about 10,000 hours at something in order to truly master it. And when I say “master,” I mean you have arrived at a point in whatever you are doing where you are completely in control of what you are doing, you need no assistance, you are creating, and at this point, people may start to refer to you as “a genius.”  Think bill gates programming, miles davis playing jazz, bo Jackson playing sports, Donald trump being an asshole… you know, those levels of greatness.

And this is what is crazy to me about Vincent van gogh.  There’s almost no way that he put in 10,000 hours before he became a genius and posthumously stamped his place in the art world over the next 200 years, becoming an icon and a part of every art history book on the planet.  The man  had never studied art and didn’t decide to paint until he was 27.  27. He also spent his 1st two years learning about other styles and studying the craft before venturing down his own creative path.  And he did this with absolutely no success the entire time.  Nobody would buy his paintings. No one paid any attention to him.  The only person that believed in him was his brother, who funded vincent’s work and often housed him when nothing else was falling into place for him.  And then he killed himself at 34.

First of all, it takes huge balls to just walk away from whatever it is that you’re doing at 27, especially at a time when that very well may be more than 50% of your life that has passed (life expectancy is much longer now than it was in the 1800s), even if you weren’t doing anything cool before.  And then to go do “art?”    ummmm, wat?

most guys don’t need much in life.  They want a girl to think they are awesome, they want to get laid from time to time from said girl who thinks they are awesome, they want to watch sports and drink beer, and they want to be at least marginally good at one or two things that make them happy and that other people appreciate.  And they also want a couple buddies to do these things with or talk about them with while drinking said beers.

So for Vincent van gogh to decide halfway into his perceived adulthood “yeah, now I’m gonna paint!”  to me is beyond comprehension. It’s like when a wealthy family sends their son to Harvard to be a lawyer and he then tells them that he has decided to major in philosophy.  Those thanksgivings are never fun.

Anyway, back to van gogh. He struggled and failed mightily, making no money, not even being able to sell his paintings in what I would compare to modern day flea markets, but worked tirelessly to hone his craft and shape his own style. And he was very prolific, painting more and more the better he got.  Eventually, in the last 6 months of his life, he was churning out a painting a day, and these are all now considered priceless masterpieces.  In fact, the style he is famous for, the impressionist style with the magnificent colors and the blurry, dreamy style that we know him for didn’t really start rounding into form until his last 2 years.  That’s how patiently devoted he was.

These impressions slowly made their way onto me as I slowly navigated my way from floor to floor, watching the styles evolve and trying to put myself where Vincent was during each period of his life.  I started to realize that i identify with him, in many ways. It was a weird feeling for me, as I always thought historic art was kinda boring stuff. Stuff you were forced to learn in high school in college as filler, that would never have an impact on your life.  But here I was.  And finally, I got to the section of the museum where he really came into his own.  His paintings were declaratively showing themselves to the world, as if to say “this is what I am doing and I don’t care if the rest of you tell me that this shit,” each work was a statement.

And then I had my first real “art moment.”  It was similar to my moment before in the airport.  I came upon one of his self portraits.  Van gogh used to paint himself because he couldn’t afford to pay models to sit in for him (these days you just paint using a picture of something, but remember that this wasn’t something people had back then.  The artist was creating the picture).  I stared into his eyes and I felt like I could see his soul.  I could see the hope, I could see the pain, I could see the determination, I could see the futility.  I could see it all.  I took a step back and had to take a deep breath.  My eyes were watering a little.  The greens and blues, yellows and oranges were screaming at me and I couldn’t process them.  I must have stood in front of that painting for at least 10 minutes before moving on, completely hypnotized.

“tree roots” – van gogh’s final painting

I looked to the left, searching for the next work of art to move on to and admire, but there was nothing there.  A few feet further was a giftshop.  The exhibit was over, the collection complete.  I felt cheated.  I was only just now starting to understand him, understand art, and he was gone, leaving nothing behind him but a trail of beautiful breadcrumbs that slowly told his story without needing so much as a word. Just these simple paintings.

 

 

I find encouragement in his story.  Not in the part how he died.  How he slowly deteriorated mentally, tormented by his seeming failures and whatever else was going on in his life, eventually taking his own life by shooting himself in the chest and bleeding out for the next two days under his brother’s care.  That’s the tragic part.  The encouraging part isn’t even what it is that Vincent van gogh accomplished with the volume of his work.  The encouraging part is that he stood up and decided to change what he was doing with his life.  He found a purpose, even if it made sense to no one else.  And he didn’t just become amazing.  He studied.  He worked at it.  He vigorously trained and committed and struggled. But eventually, he was amazing.

It’s encouraging because I think there is a little van gogh in us all.  We all have the ability to do something amazing, we just have to realize our potential, and then chase it down.  Whether that is being a devoted husband or father, or mother or wife, starting your own business, writing a novel or a song, or just realizing that you’re in the wrong career and quitting to go travel the world.  Everyone’s life deserves something amazing in it, but it’s up to you to go find it.

———–

today’s song is from the new shakey graves album that just came out last week, “and the war came.”  solid album from top to bottom, this guy was already getting really hyped from his sxsw performance this year, he will undoubtedly blow up the radio and the internet for the next year.  enjoy the song, it’s the lead track from the album…

canal boats, dad jokes, and an expat gathering, part 2

…a few hours later we were back on the bikes again.  a quick 5 minute ride over to a friend’s house for a dinner party.  I made sure I wore the only collared shirt that I currently have, as I didn’t want to make a bad impression on sam & jenna, because apparently most of their friend group would be here tonight.  I put forward my best “friendly face” (many of you know that isn’t always easy for me…) and ascended the stairs to the dinner party.

at first, I really just wanted to observe the scene.  there were a lot of big personalities here and I didn’t really want to offset the balance.  I often consider myself a bit of a chameleon socially;  I can become whatever the conversation is lacking.  If there’s no firestarter, I can be the one who gets things going, if there’s no funny guy, I can tell the jokes, if there is no quiet contemplative listener, I can shut my mouth.  so I was waiting for my self-designated role assignment when I realized that this group really had balance.  everyone in the group was smart, witty, funny and fun. they all had different perspectives and opinions that were never horribly off-base by any means.  ahh screw it, I thought, just jump.table 1

the person i immediately got along with most easily was one half of the evening’s hosts, mark.  he and his wife marije have a wonderful, spacious place on the top floor of a really badass building with a rooftop patio that overlooks the city and, you guessed it, a canal.  I immediately fell in love with their place, but anyone would.

anyway, mark has a larger than life personality with a very perceptive whip to boot.   never one to let an opportunity to laugh go by, he garrulously facilitates any conversation he’s in with a patient energy that provides a wide open landscape where one need not worry they’ve overstepped their boundary

pierre hams it up while mark is engaged in other conversation
pierre hams it up while mark is engaged in other conversation

with a topic, but you better believe that if you speak arrogantly or incorrectly he will call you on it.  Just my kinda guy.  mark is actually an american expat who is a successful entrepreneur/venture capitalist with a very shrewd business sense.  Not much gets by him.

His wife marije perfectly compliments him.  She has a slightly more delicate nature about her and a very subtle (at first) sense of humor.  You don’t see it right away, but eventually you can tell she’s paying attention, waiting.  Being the only real native dutch person in the group, and if I’m being perfectly honest, I really just thought she kind of quiet at first.  But then right when I thought I had her figured out, she drops a hilarious joke in mid conversation that immediately got everyone’s attention in the party and had us laughing for what seemed half the night.  Eventually I talked with her a little more, learning that she was extremely well traveled and had lived in quite a few places all over the world, and also had some entrepreneurial ambitions of her own.  She also can COOK.

marije looks on in the background as her delicious appetizers are served
marije looks on in the background as her delicious appetizers are served

Oh my god, I don’t think I will eat as well at any other point on this trip as I did during my time with mark and marije.  she made us a three course meal that culminated in a ugandan stew she learned to cook during some volunteering she did for a few months with a small village down there previously.  when asked, mark modestly shared some stories with me of some of the ways they made a difference with this village, chiefly by purchasing a cow for them which drastically changed the future for these people by stimulating their local economy and food production through dairy and producing more cows, etc.   truly way more ingenious and affective (effective too, I suppose) than donating money or just doing vacation bible school for the kids, like most churches do when they perform “missions work.”

riordan points a finger after a typical mischievous pierre joke
riordan points a finger after a typical mischievous pierre joke

I also met riordan and Justine.   Super fun people, I got to hang out with riordan and chat enthusiastically about the virtues of the gopro camera.  Riordan and justine were also both from south Africa, and he was a surfer.  So he has a much more practical need for a gopro than my nonsensical videos that I produce.  Riordan has a really fun energy with a great appreciation for laughter as well.  He has the ability to go on tangential jokes where you can just take a scenario with him and he’ll play it out with you til it gets to its most ridiculous point.  We had a couple good laughs on the rooftop of the house while mark barbecued.

pierre was also there (whom you know from the previous post on the boat canal ride), but there was also charlotte, yet another south African who shared some stories with me about Budapest when I mentioned I was thinking about going there.  She got really excited and then told me she had some transit coins that I could use when I go there.  She made a note to bring them to me before I left Amsterdam, which was very kind, considering she had only just met me.  We also

charlotte tells a story while justine and riordan listen intently
charlotte tells a story while justine and riordan listen intently

chatted a little about how she had spent some time living down in Houston, texas.  It had been awhile since she had been there, and unfortunately I’d only been there once for a wedding last year, so really all I could joke about was how hot it was down there.

But overall, I was struck by how open this group really was.  None of these people had known each other before Amsterdam and now here they were, sharing food at a house together, not bothered in the least that a stranger was amongst them.  I drifted along with the ebb and flow of the conversations listening to the stories, enjoying the laughter, trying to soak in each person as they spoke.  eventually the boys escaped to the rooftop for drinks and cigars and stories of ridiculousness, while the ladies stayed down inside and most likely talked about much more civilized, classy things.

the dam crewEventually the night had wandered off into the dark, and people began heading back to their own homes.  We thanked mark and marije graciously and headed back to sam & jenna’s, surrendering for the evening.

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staying with the theme from the previous post, we’re staying with the barr brothers.  if the first track i posted hasn’t convinced you, this one will.  enjoy…

canal boats, dad jokes, and an expat gathering, part 1

the next morning I awoke to an eager sam & jenna.  they were ready to go already.  they had a surprise.  we headed for a local grocery and picked up some juice and fruits, some fresh bread, a few deli meats, tomatoes, lettuce, and mustard.  never forget the mustard.  groceries into the carriage box on the front of jenna’s tank of a bicycle (this thing doesn’t need a bell on it because you can hear it coming from a mile away), and we were on our way again.  10 minutes later we pulled up to a little dock, locked up the bikes and stepped out onto the water.  we had rented a canal boat for the morning.

glassy canals in amsterdamone of sam & jenna’s friends, pierre joined us after a couple minutes and then we were on our way.  we cruised around, lazily motoring up one canal and down the next, watching the maze of moored boats tied to the canal walls drift by, admiring the diversity of style among them all.  pierre, sharing my enthusiasm for capturing the moment on film, joined me in obsessively snapping photo after photo as we made our way along.  the sunshine was perfect with nary a cloud above, providing ample opportunity for viewing and exploring.  eventually I put down the camera and decided to just enjoy the moment.  I swung an arm out and hooked it over the side of the boat and took a deep breath.  I didn’t really ever want to exhale.

smiles on the seaafter a couple hours we returned the boat and stopped at a cool little bar in the area that sits right out over the water called “mata hari.”  instead of a parking lot for cars, this place has about 5 spots where boats can pull up and get a beer.  well, the passengers can, I’m not really sure why a boat would be drinking beer.

and I’ve just worked my first “dad joke” into a post.  check that one off the list.

as we sat on the comfortable patio furniture, I got to know pierre a little better.  A soft spoken gent from south africa, pierre managed some sort of logistics or something or other for a company here in amsterdam.  he had a gentle approach toward conversation, never needing to be the dominant personality and always patient to hear what you were saying.  as the day wore on he became more comfortable with me, I could see his sense of humor slowly making its way out as he got more and more goofy and enjoyable.  I could also sense that he was loosening up a little throughout the day because he was actually going on his own vacation the following day to greece.  I expressed my jealousy.

after the, we parted ways with pierre and planned to meet up with friends later over dinner.

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today’s audio gem is from my favorite band right now:  the barr brothers.  their new album, “sleeping operator” just came out yesterday and it is a solid album, top to bottom.  their first album is also incredibly underrated and i highly recommend it as well.  they’ve got a great rootsy americana sound, complete with slide guitars and mandolins and rusty background sounds, accompanied by thoughtful lyrics and catchy melodies.  enjoy…

welcome to amsterdam: land of low-key

After my quick jaunt of londontown, I hopped on a quick flight (quickest flight ever.  $55usd got me there in less than an hour on easyjet.com, compared to a 3 hour train ride for 180 euros. That’s a head scratcher) to Amsterdam to see my great friends sam & jenna.

I really didn’t know what to expect from Amsterdam.  Depending on who you’re talking to, it’s either a cultural icon that has produced 2 separate generations of groundbreaking visionary painters, as well as generations upon generations’ worth of knowledge and expertise on the topic of water engineering (seriously, the dutch were called upon by new Orleans for help to set up a better system after katrina.  Venice has also been ringing them in recent years for help with how to save their city), and a general sense of incredible business efficiency orrrrrr… they are a haven for those who are prone to all manner of sinful vice, like legal prostitution or legal marijuana, and just a general attitude of apathy toward how someone wants to live their life, making it perfect for someone who wants to pursue somewhat questionable moral behavior.

And there’s also the canals.  And the bicycles.  We’ll get to those in a minute.

My plane landed almost before I could even get comfortable on the flight.  I had zero chance to write (which is why there was a good week or so of silence on the blog. Sorry fans – all 3 of you who read this, including my mom and dad).  I breezed through customs and waiting right in the sunlight were my friends sam & jenna, looking just as fashionable as they always do.  Jenna with a sweet smile and a big hug waiting, and sam with a wry grin that almost makes you think he knows something he’s not telling you.  It had been almost 2 years to the day since they left Denver in a whirl, leaving almost before anyone had noticed when sam had jumped at a chance to work in Europe. They handed me a metro card and we hopped on a train.

i amsterdam I met jenna in my orientation group in college.  We went to a very small private Christian university in Arkansas called john brown university, and their orientation was obnoxiously like summer camp for church youth groups all across the US.  Don’t get me wrong, I really did enjoy the weird relay race games that included hula hoops and potato sacks and team cheers, but I also really wanted to think that I had finally broken free from my childhood and was now a “man,” and men don’t play childish games.  I also really wanted to look cool for the new college chicks I was meeting, and a “man” couldn’t possibly be bothered with such silly games.  I had a lot to learn.

Anyway, jenna and one other girl named Emily were the only cool people I really identified with in my orientation group, and we would remain acquaintances for awhile until a year later when sam would arrive, sweeping jenna off her feet and simultaneously removing a preciously sought commodity from the jbu dating scene.  Sam and I became fast friends when, according to multiple sources, I was apparently a bit of an intimidating character for all the RA’s at the jbu dorms, and the only person who was a regular “prayer request” item without an actual reason.  I guess I was a bit of a dick in those days.  Except sam got it.  From day one.  I was a caricature.  My behavior was a filtering mechanism for who I should and shouldn’t spend time on/with, and sam never batted an eye.  He could always reply with a quick retort, usually faster than I could even think what my next quip would be.  He’s probably better at the game than I am. Anyway, he was never intimidated by me and we got along famously, always on the same intramural sports teams, always down to sit around and shoot the shit.  Sam’s “in tune” and so is jenna.

Sam and jenna both have very strong business minds and would continually bail me out of anything that involved an accounting or finance exam or project, while I could usually be counted on to show up for a presentation of some sort and rock it with nearly no preparation.  I’m not sure if I should be bragging about that.

Sam & jenna were also two of the people who really helped me get thru some of my tough times when I moved to Denver and things didn’t really pan out for me the way I had hoped.  We played for a couple years on a competitive volleyball team (along with another close friend, leah) that would really be a therapeutic outlet for me.

They also have one of those really balanced relationships where both parties truly seek out the other, both challenging and helping in ways that just wouldn’t be possible for one to be as great without its counterpart. Suffice it to say that they truly are incredible people and I could never say enough about how I look up to them.

Anyway, sorry, you want to hear about Amsterdam, not some sappy love affair among two jerks living out a daily romantic fantasy in Europe.

We wasted no time at all.  As we pulled away on the metro, I noticed a tri-level parking structure thingy for thousands – literally thousands – of bicycles.  I’ve never seen so many in my life.  Until the tram pulled into sam and jenna’s neighborhood.  I stepped off the train and immediately almost lost my life to a gaggle of ruthless bicyclists barreling their way down the street to some life-or-death situation which I’m sure demanded their ability to run anyone off the road in their pursuit of whatever crime they were trying to stop or baby they needed to save from a burning house.  I quickly forgave them with a few choice phrases under my breath and followed my friends to their place.

The modest apartment boasts a fantastic top level view over a beautiful canal intersection with a nice hotel across the street with a patio across the way, providing a scenic backdrop that one might only see in dreams if they never ventured out.  I really didn’t have time to enjoy the view, however, as sam tossed me a set of keys to the apartment and beckoned me come follow him and the wife to go see my wheels for the next couple days.  We hopped on bikes and headed out

sam & jenna didn’t let me become intimidated by the biking system in the dam, they simply forced me into it immediately.  Luckily I had them to follow around, because I was a little on sensory overload trying to figure out when to go, when to stop, who had the right of way, when to watch for a train, when to watch for pedestrians, when to not ride straight into a canal (well, you should probably avoid that at all times, really).

But seriously, I think this is something that people are unaware of.  I knew people rode bikes here, but I didn’t realize how dominant it is as a transport system.  EVERYONE bikes here.  It’s inspiring.  Even bike city havens like Portland, Denver, and others in the US can’t even come close to how heavily adopted the dutch are into the biking culture.  And none of the bikes are these flashy contraptions for show that might show off in some fashion.  the bikes in Amsterdam are mainly for function, lest it gets stolen or someone accidentally kicks it into a canal, there’s no pragmatic reason to spend a boatload of cash on a bike so people just keep it straightforward.  in fact, if there’s a word i’d choose to describe the dutch in my experience, it’s just that:  pragmatic.

We arrived at a tiny cocktail bar that only fit a max of 12 (my estimate) people and had been in the family for over 7 or 8 generations called “the doctor” (or T’doktor, locally)  Seriously, this place is awesome.  I have no pictures of this place, you’ll just have to take my word for it.  Great cocktails, and the guy who runs it is this old man who is retired and does it for fun.  He makes time to talk to his local patrons, so when sam and jenna arrived, he came over to chat for about 5 minutes before shuffling on to his other guests.  We then headed over to some pizza place for a pie and some beers, and then eventually also went to “Winkel 43” (which just means “store 43.”  remember what i said about pragmatism?)  for some delectable apple pie, as jenna knows I never say “no” to dessert.

On our way home, the night air was crisp but not cold as we glided thru it, around tight turns down narrow cobblestone streets and up arched bridges over reflective canals, bouncing the moon’s light off the water and back up onto the old buildings around us.  Just before we reached the apartment, I had a sudden pronounced inkling that I was really going to like this place.

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this week for your musical arrangement, we have an obvious selection from Wilco frontman Jeff Tweedy’s new side project with his son on drums, “Tweedy.”   i love this song, and the recently produced music video directed by nick offerman is both quirky and hilarious.  listen to this whole album, it is excellent.  aptly titled “low key” for this blog post (okay, it’s the other way around), enjoy…

for godsakes, just take the tube…

noon on the thames, londonLondon went by quickly.  I really only had 3 days to spend in the city, as my first and last days were spent traveling.  I elected to take the tube as little as possible and try and walk everywhere. The thought was that I would see more of the city above ground than below, and this would really enable me to see what London was all about.  I don’t know why I fall in love with these romanticized ideas sometimes, but this plan proved less fruitful for my intentions and more painful for my legs. I walked so much that I couldn’t enjoy the sights as much because I was too busy compensating for the pain in my feet.

I don’t know why, but I hiked long 15 mile hikes in Iceland and my feet hurt less than this. I think it was because I was now navigating a concrete jungle, and since there was no real climbing or ascending, the muscles I was using were pretty limited.  Nevertheless, I soldiered on with the plan and set about exploring.

Unfortunately I made a very bad decision early on.  My second night, I decided to participate in a pub crawl organized by my hostel.  I figured it would be a good opportunity to meet some other travelers, go to some local pubs, and hopefully meet some local people.  I was wrong.  I met a fellow friendly American early on in the night and we had elected to stick together and be “wingmen” on the night.  We would help each other meet women.

Here’s why this was a bad decision:  this isn’t really why I came to Europe, mindlessly partying my ass off. Certainly I would not be upset in the slightest if I met some mysterious female from another country that swept me head over heels and convinced me never to return to the US, but going out “hunting” while I debaucherously imbibe drink after drink and carelessly attempt to meet some floozie over the obnoxiously loud music and ridiculous behavior of a bunch of drunks is certainly not an elegant or intelligent way to invest one’s time abroad.

I woke up the next morning, nursing a hangover and a marginal amount of shame that I had thrown away a night on irresponsible behavior with nothing redeemable to show for it.  I hadn’t met any cool locals, I didn’t have a feeling that I had really had a cultural experience, and I had probably spent a lot of money.  I had basically had a normal night in los angeles.  Which is why I moved to Denver.  Oh well, what the hell.  Old habits die hard.

I got up around noon and decided to be productive, I found a place called “the juice well” in soho and got a fantastic smoothie and decided to walk down to the thames river to see big ben, the house of parliament, the palace, and everything else I could find down there.  And luckily, right before I left, I checked my email and noticed that I had an email from andy, a Briton that I had met earlier in the year when I was in peru.  He wanted to meet for a pint after he got off work. Excellent.  I could make up for last night by actually hanging out with a local.

london street vendor

I met andy after I had settled into a hostel in the middle of the desert in central peru. I was hours from anything. There was an ocean and sand dunes, so you had to really be adventurous if you wanted to have fun out there, and I made the most of it. The hostel was an absolute dive, the room that my stepbrother and I stayed in was literally 4 sheetrock walls and no roof with 2 beds (thank god it never rained out there in the desert), and you could tell that not very many people stayed at this place on purpose.  The town was paracas, and it was clearly a place that you stop on your way to somewhere else if you haven’t budgeted the proper amount of time to get there.  One of the nights andy and his girlfriend lou had been hanging out in the front lobby at night and I had wanted to make some traveler friends, so I took my laptop and made my way to a table and started editing video, hoping that I could get into a conversation.  That night there were a group of rowdy Brazilians whom had brought their own alcohol and wanted to party.  They came into the lobby and were hoping to recruit some followers, but they were met with harsh looks and annoyed responses.  They weren’t welcome among this crowd.

It was actually amazing, because you could see something slowly and then quickly happen to the room.  There were the two brits, then the two americans (stepbrother gert and myself), then a nice swiss couple, a quiet, intimidating german girl, a canadienne, an Argentinian, and I think one or two other forgettable europeans. Every single person in the room had seen this scene unfold before.  The obnoxious partiers come in and take over the atmosphere and the quiet vibe that you had going becomes lost and you have to retreat to your dorm room for peace in quiet (where you’re likely just greeted with some snoring instead. Not sure what’s worse). But this time, slowly each person in this room realized that they were in fact the majority this time, and that if we banded together we could scare them away.  And scare them we did.  And after they left, a few of us started laughing and talking, and before you knew it, the whole room of people was trading stories and friendly conversation.

If you’ve read previous posts of mine, you know that I am particularly drawn to these types of magical  interactions.

Andy and Lou’s story was the most fascinating. Andy had grown to dislike his job and was a little disenfranchised.  He needed change, but somewhat luckily enough for him, the employment had come to an end and he had a modest severance package.  He and Lou could consider buying a home together (or similar) or they could do something crazy and go backpack south America for 7 months.  They chose the latter.  Andy’s story would eventually be one of my sources of inspiration for my own journey.

I met andy near “monument,” near the financial district. I showed up about 10 minutes late but he didn’t say anything of it.  We shouldered our way up to the bar and ordered a pint.

Two things I’ve noticed about the drinking culture here:

  • Irony: you travel halfway around the world and resolve to try for the most authentic local experience you can, and you immediately see that half the beers on tap are from Colorado. Go figure
  • This is a true drinking culture. I thought coloradans liked to drink, but they could learn a thing or two from Londoners. A Briton gets off work and goes straight to a pub. Not like a pub in the US.  I mean a pub. They serve beer there and that’s it. No food (or if they do it’s just fish & chips or similar variations), hardly any seating, and you’d have to search to find cocktails behind the bar.  Not only that, these places are ALL PACKED. The patrons are all spilling out into the streets (something you can’t do in the US typically), just hanging around with a pint in their hand, talking away.  All of them. The entire city is at the pub every day from 5pm – 9pm.  And then everything SHUTS DOWN.  Every bar in the city is closed by 11 during the week. It’s crazy.

nights at the london pub

Andy is another one of those individuals that’s “in tune.”  He is a genuinely good person, with good humor and a good nature, and he cares about important things, and he has good perspective.  He works for a nonprofit.  Lou is an artist of some sort, I’m not really sure, just from what I can derive from her facebook posts of cool fashion shows or music events.  They’re the kind of people you want in your life because they bring color and substance to it and they don’t just regurgitate things they’ve heard on the tv.

Andy and I joked about all manner of things before eventually starting into a more serious conversation about life and adjusting after a major journey like he’d gone on, and the one that I was on right now.  We talked about the difference between Americans and Britons, we shared ideas and observations all across the board.  One of the interesting theories that he shared is that he thinks that americans tend to obsess more about their sense of identity and purpose and meaning in life than brits.  He said that brits tend to not worry about those types of things so much, whereas americans can’t not think about it sometimes.  A fascinating theory, and I jokingly told him he had me pegged.

We talked about the narcissism that is seemingly being driven by social media, that digital connection is luring people into a hibernation that prevents authentic interaction and exploration and curiosity.  We then laughed at the irony of meeting previously in the middle of some random desert and then connecting on facebook, and now nine months later we are criticizing the very medium that made this interaction even possible.

Eventually we parted ways, but not before I realized that andy had saved my London trip.  Outside of that meeting, I felt incredibly lonely during my time in London, even with so much history and culture.  I really struggled to find meaningful connection with people amongst so many options and opportunities. Every passerby was a potential new friend, but I couldn’t break through.  I began trying to make eye contact with everyone on the street, but everyone was too busy commuting or being on their mobile phone.  Even in the pubs, people were busily chatting in their cliques.  I couldn’t get in.

This isn’t a knock on the Londoner culture, but more a realization of modern technology and also of the timing and brevity of my visit.  I realize I was only there for 4 nights and I was there during the week, not on the weekend.  Luckily I likely will return there before I return to the states, so my travels in the UK are not over.  but andy gave me a window to experience and connect in the way that i wanted to.  i didn’t just want to be a tourist, and he helped me escape that.

oh, and one sidenote, andy recommended a fantastic museum that i will pass on to you:  the john soane house.  john soane is one of the chief architects of london, and his influence is widespread and obvious once your eyes are open to it.  for example, he designed the red telephone booths that you see all over london.  this museum is actually just his house, and it is a fantastical building.  known as the master of architectural space and light, soane specialized in efficiently managing small spaces with taste and style, and it is very evident in the way he designed his home.  no space is wasted, and he also has a very eclectic and eccentric art collection.  and it’s a free museum.  trust me, it’s worth your time.

and lastly, you’re noise pollution for the weekend…