Tag Archives: backpacking

Switzerland: what the hell is a fondue?

halstatt lakefront
hallstatt, austria on a clear day from a distance

 

i had seen halstatt.  it was one of the things on my list that seemed a little more niche and extravagant, and i hadn’t been sure if i was going to pull it off, especially considering all the adversity i had encountered.  but i now had a strong sense of accomplishment and pride in myself for surviving the day, as silly as that sounds.  i had faced a number of my biggest fears about solo backpacking all in the same day, and i hadn’t panicked.  things had somehow just worked out, which was something i had heard people say before, but the paranoid planner in me had never believed them.  i’ve always come from a place that the prepared mind is the one who is granted fortune, which i think still is often true, but i knew there was romance somewhere in the no-man’s-land of spontaneity, and one of my primary goals before i set out on this trip was to force myself into that abyss.  it had been uncomfortable, stressful, comical, and… wonderful.  i didn’t understand it yet, as i was still decompressing and dissecting the day’s events in my mind, but the seeds of experience had been planted in my mind, and i knew that i was already beginning to change and grow from it. Continue reading Switzerland: what the hell is a fondue?

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Austria, pt. 2: the hitchhike

 

old cemetary in salzburg, austria
old cemetary in salzburg, austria

i made it to salzburg, austria, but i was still a 2 hour train ride from my destination in the austrian mountains in hallstatt.  i still am not completely sure why i was so hellbent on getting to this remote mountain town, but i had seen it pop up enough times on those stupid links that people pass around on facebook titled “20 places to go before you die,”  that i think i was beginning to become afraid that if i didn’t find this town, i might actually die.  and so here i was.  but once i had found a hostel to stay at and dropped my bag and set off in search of a decent meal, i quickly realized that salzburg was a beauty in its own right.  once again, as had happened a half dozen times already on this trip, i lost my appetite and started ambling up and down narrow cobblestone streets, wandering with no direction and no purpose and only the desire to let my eyes consume as much as they might.

salzburg is not a very large town, so i was able to cover the entirety of the old downtown area in only a few hours. a few bridges, a couple clocktowers, a cliff-dwelling majestic castle, and plenty of narrow, foot-traffic-only streets with charming buildings keeping watch for hundreds of years, all these things make for quite the quaint and unexpectedly enjoyable experience.  i picked a damn good place for a stopover.

after hunger eventually got the best of me, i started searching for a place to eat.  i eventually settled salzburg castleon a place that claimed to be mozart’s favorite place to eat (and they wouldn’t lie about that, right?) .  that was significantly intriguing, so i decided to grab a seat.  there was no room so i had to settle on a place at a tiny empty bar in the corner of the room, which was more than fine for me.  i order some grilled veal with potato dumplings and a beer to wash it down.  i had never tried veal before, but after seeing it on just about every menu in austria, it was time to give it a shot. the meal was incredibly delicious.  it was so good that i decided to double down and see how the dessert was.  i had never tried austrian apple strudel before so i ordered some, and that was even better.  i think it may have been the best dessert i’ve ever had in my life.  similar to an american apple pie, it was a little smaller than your average slice, but the apple filling was less sugary and the crust was baked to perfection.  there was a dollop of cream on top, but not the overly sweet, sugar-infused cream we used in the US.  this was just pure dairy cream that offered a perfect compliment to the already perfectly-sweet applestrudel.  if there had been more room in my stomach, i would have ordered another, but i’m sure my wallet is grateful i did not.  i headed back to my hotel and went to bed early so i could get a start on trying to figure out how to get to hallstatt.

the next morning i arose early and walked to a bus stop nearby.  i boarded a regional bus headed for a neighboring town called bad ischl.  from there i would catch a train that would take me to the small town across the lake from hallstatt named obertraun (everytime i hear the name of that town i imagine it’s not a town and is just a giant transformer hiding in the austrian alps).  from obertraun i would take a boat across the lake right into the center of the small town of hallstatt.  my plan was to spend a couple hours photographing the town and just enjoying it’s atmosphere.  i would then head back into obertraun where i could take a cable car high up into a high mountain face above the town to a pair of ice caves located deep within the mountain.  if there was time i would ride all the way to the top of the mountain to the 5-fingers viewing platform, a sky deck with 5 different platforms stretching in different directions with visibility for ages.  from there i’d jump back on the train and head back to salzburg by sundown.

none of that happened.

i arrived in bad ischl to learn that the section of the tracks heading into obertraun was under construction, so i would need to board another bus that would take me directly into hallstatt. that didn’t seem to be a big deal, but i was slightly concerned about the lack of notifications with which this all was going down. the machines didn’t tell me this when i was buying the tickets, the bus & train operators weren’t saying anything, and i barely had any time in between transfers to figure this stuff out and get to the right mode of transportation.  i was worried about getting back.

hallstatt juts out into it's watery shoreline
hallstatt juts out into it’s watery shoreline

nevertheless, 30 minutes later i landed at hallstatt and what i sight had reached my eyes.  the town has a population of less than 1,000 occupants and is situated right in between the mountain and the lake that adorn the landscape.  and when i say “situated” i mean that if you live in hallstatt, your house is either on the water or it’s in the side of the mountain.  and the houses are small. each one seems like it is practically built on top of the other, but they are constructed in such a charming, connected way that it doesn’t feel overly crowded.  it feels like more of a community.

the air moved ever so slightly with that cool, crisp mountain nip, not windy, but also not still.  i gratefully drew deep breaths of freshness after 2 hours of stale oxygen on a bus.  as i wandered the streets of the quaint village, i started to wonder what the history behind this place was, and how it came to be.  it was not likely to have been a weekend getaway for wealthy city-folk or royalty;  it was too old and too small.  the architecture was too intricately simple and functional, as though constructed lovingly by craftsmen who would then stay to appreciate their creations, instead of left to be appreciated by the masses.  i snapped as many photos as i could, but i honestly couldn’t find an adequate way to capture the soul of the city.  unsatisfied with my photos, i elected to climb higher up the walking paths carved into the mountainside between homes.

hallstatt swans bathe by the waterside
hallstatt swans bathe by the waterside

eventually i had seen about all you could see in a few hours.  it really isn’t a large town.  i decided it was time to find my way over to dachstein and see what the ice caves were all about.  i was dismayed, however, when i learned that another side effect of all the transportation chaos was that the buses were not running according to normal schedule as well.  i asked someone nearby and they said they were pretty sure the next bus wasn’t coming for another 2 hours, and the day was already half over.  that wouldn’t give me enough time to explore the caves and make it back to salzburg to my room.  i consulted the map and surmised it was only 6 kilometers to dachstein.  i decided to walk it.

…after 2 km, i realized that this was kind of dumb.  it still would not leave me enough time to explore the caves and i also wouldn’t know the pick-up point for the bus because i hadn’t seen the drop-off point.  but now i was too far.  if i went all the way back, i would have to admit defeat and i wouldn’t see the caves.  if i pressed on, i ran the risk of not even making it home that night, and there was no accommodation that i was aware of that was available in this remote area.  i was paralyzed with indecision.

halstatt dock reflection
i stuck my thumb out and waited for a ride.

i’ve never hitch-hiked before, and in most parts of America, this is illegal.  we are told from a very young age to never do this, because it is very likely that we will be kidnapped and chopped into little pieces.  i don’t know what the likelihood of that actually is, but nevertheless the possibility is real, so hitch-hiking has never even been an option for me before, but here i was.

the first car approached, and i put my hand back in my pocket immediately.  i was struck by an inexplicable and unreasonable fear.  convinced i was being a coward, i shook my head at myself and stuck my thumb out again after the car had passed.  i’ll get the next one.

the next car approached and i hid my hand behind my back this time, still consumed by this undefinable and irrational fear.  i laughed out loud.  “for godsakes, you pussy, just man up and do it!” i said to myself aloud.

as i extended my thumb out to the road again, a pickup truck rounded the bend.  it was a toyota hi-lux, a really cool pickup with a functional ruggedness that is inexplicably unavailable in the US.  i was too busy admiring it to notice that i still had my thumb out when the truck came to an abrupt halt and an austrian man in his early 40s peered over at me, waiting for me to enter the vehicle.

“oh,” i thought, “is this how it works?  what do i do?  do i wait for him to open the door?  do i just hop in?”  i realized that everything i knew about hitch-hiking was from watching movies.  i had been so preoccupied with the thought of even working up the courage to do it that i had not even thought what to do after i actually did it, or if i would even be successful.  i laughed internally at myself and the situation.  after a few seconds (which felt like an eternity) of watching the man’s face silently evolve from “sure i’ll give you a ride” to “well are you getting in or not?”  i grabbed the door and swung it open, pivoting my backpack from back to front so i could hold it in my lap. i hiked one leg up into the cab of the truck and hopped in from my other leg, landing in the seat and staring right down into the long barrel of a huge gun.  i hadn’t noticed a large rifle laying up against the seat, the butt on the ground and the barrel in the air.

i have no idea what my face looked like, but there is no way it was anything more stoic or polite than full-blown panic.  in my mind’s eye, i imagine i looked like “ham” from the movie “sandlot” when the beast gets a hold on the vacuum during mission “retrieval suction,” right when their scheme is going perfectly to retrieve the ball signed by babe ruth.  except i (thankfully) didn’t scream like he did.

i hate guns.  not in the political “we-need-immediate-gun-control-you-should-give-up-your-freedom-immediately” sense of things (though if i do feel that debate does have some merit and my country does need to begin having that discussion sooner rather than later, regardless of what side of the issue we all find ourselves on), no my hatred of guns stems from painful personal experience.  i grew up in a rough neighborhood in southern salifornia during the turbulent 90s, where gang violence and police corruption were fueled by racial tensions and spilled out onto the global stage when rodney king was beaten unconscious by four police officers and it was all caught on tape.  while my parents did their best to shelter my siblings and i from what was going on, i wasn’t blind, and i saw what was happening all around me.  my brother, sister, and i managed to stay away from the worst of the neighborhood violence and gang activity, but there was no way to completely avoid it.  from police stand-offs in the empty fields near the neighborhood to gang members showing up to my brother’s little league baseball game and shooting out the outfield lights in the 4th inning, these things were enough to make a curious young mind wonder “what would the world be like without guns?”  my thoughts on the subject were sealed when, at 13 years old, one of my baseball buddies was shot dead only blocks from my house by my sister’s friend because her mom kept a loaded shotgun in the house and she thought threatening him with it might get him to stop teasing her.  say what you will about gun safety, but i don’t care.  guns still make me nervous and i don’t like being around them.  regardless of the circumstance.

so there i was, frozen for a moment, half in and half out of this pickup truck with the good samaritan on his way somewhere, now wondering why the hell he’d stopped for a hitchhiker when austrians reputedly never stop for hitch hikers.  i looked at the man’s face and quickly decided he didn’t look like charles manson, so he probably wasn’t going to cut me into a thousand pieces.  i got into the truck and we sped off.

and speed, we did.  this man drove like he had a wife on the verge of giving birth in the passenger seat.  i quickly grabbed the frame handle between the door and the windshield (affectionately nicknamed the “oh-shit! bar” by my redneck friends back in arkansas) and held on for dear life.  i kept staring at the rifle like it was a jug of nitroglycerine, ready to explode at the slightest nudge, and tried my best to keep my leg from brushing up against it.

“where going?” the man asked in very broken english.
“dachstein ice caves” i replied cheerily, trying to mask my nervousness.  he looked at me hesitantly for a moment, as though i had gotten the answer wrong on a quiz show but he didn’t want to tell me yet.   it was quiet again for another minute and then he persisted.
“where from?”
“united states?” i said to him in question form, as if to ask “have you ever heard of it?” i was so nervous about hitch-hiking for the first time that i was completely losing my composure, and i was now talking to this guy like he was mentally handicapped instead of just having a language barrier.
“yes? yes?”  he said, gesturing his hand in a circular fashion and trying to get me to elaborate.
“oh, Colorado, Denver.  Rocky mountains?”
“ahh yes, yes. Colo-rado!”  he exclaimed, enthusiastically.  the more we talked, the more convinced i was that i was not going to die.  but i also wondered how much further we could go before i reached the end of this man’s limited english, and what would happen then.  “i like rocky mountains! you like austria?”
“yes, very much.  your country is very beautiful, and so nice.”  i offered.
“you like…” he took both hands off the wheel for a moment held both his hands up in fists parallel to the ground and made a shaking gesture. he didn’t know what the word was.  i sat trying to figure out if he was trying to ask me if i like jackhammers.
“…mountainbiking!”
i’m not really a mountain biking enthusiast, but who doesn’t like mountain biking?  “yes, i like mountain biking.”
“okay!”  he said confidently and then pulled over the truck to the side of the road. he popped the truck out of 2-wheel drive and shifted to 4-wheel drive and then proceeded to pull the vehicle completely off the road and into the trees.  i was now scared for my life again.

hallstatt solitude
hallstatt solitude

we bumped and bounced down a barely perceptible path through the forest while I tried to make a mental survival plan for what to do if this guy tried to make a move and bury me alive in the woods.  suddenly we ground to a halt and he pointed across me into the woods.  “best mountain bike in all europe!”  i looked to my right, and sure enough, there was a huge mountain biking course, clearly defined and well marked.  i was genuinely surprised, not only because he still wasn’t trying to kill me, but because he legitimately had a mountain biking course here in the middle of nowhere, and it really did look like something you might see on the x games.  they had competitions out here occasionally, he explained to me as we continued to drive alongside the massive course.

eventually we popped out of the woods right into a parking lot next to a cable car lift that takes people up to the ice caves.
“okay my friend, enjoy dachstein!” he said to me.  i hopped out of the truck, thanking him gratefully externally for the ride and internally for not burying me in the woods and using my skin as a lampshade. he pulled away and i walked up to the front door.  there was nobody around.  i didn’t know what i needed to do to go up in the cable car, but it wasn’t running.  i poked around a bit before finding a sign that said in english:

due to recent snowfall, the ice caves are closed.

now i was in trouble.  the public transportation in this region was already completely sideways, and now i was nowhere close to a pickup or drop-off stations. if you had given me a map, i wouldn’t even have been able to navigate my way back to hallstatt due to the creative detour my friend had taken.  and i damn sure wasn’t going into those woods by myself.  i was going to have to hitch hike my way back but, beside the fact that my heart might not be able to take the stress of such an event again, the parking lot i had been dropped off at was the end of the line.  it was a dead end, no cars were coming this way.  i was stranded alone in the woods.

i walked out to the road and stood for a couple minutes, angry at myself for even attempting something so stupid without a backup plan.  iI tried to console myself with the fact that none of the websites i checked had hinted that something like this could happen.  this is just one of those moments that all the famous poets and writers and travelers and deadbeats romanticize and say that this where the real journey begins.  well, i thought, the “real journey” sucks.  i want to sleep in a bed tonight.

before i could get too morose, a truck rounded the bend and pulled alongside.  it was my austrian friend again.  i felt like one of those dogs in the videos of army servicemen or marines coming home from war after years abroad, where the canine keeps yelping so loudly you can’t tell if he’s happy or if he’s dying and his tail is wagging so much he keeps knocking himself over.

he opened the door and yelled to me “i think caves closed maybe.  i ask for you?”  i shook my head eagerly.  he left the truck running and walked over to a booth i hadn’t seen where an attendant was inside.  after a couple of exchanges in german, turned to me and confirmed that nothing was working today, not even the lift to go all the way to the top and see the viewing platform at the top of the mountain.

i was visibly disappointed. had i come all the way out here for nothing?  “what you want?” he asked.  “you like i take you to hallstatt?”
“yes, please.  thank you very much sir!”  i was sad that my plans had gone awry, but i was at least grateful that i wouldn’t be sleeping out in the cold tonight (and it was indeed getting cold).  i still can’t believe he came back for me.  he must have known the caves weren’t running to begin with, and that must be why he gave me the weird look at the beginning of the ride.  still, he had given me a ride and owed me nothing and he came back for me anyway. i still couldn’t believe it.

on the way back to hallstatt he started to speak a little better english, believe it or not.  i think he just didn’t speak it very often, so he was out of practice.  but he was very enthusiastic the whole time and where i had before been on edge and scared, i was now completely relaxed and having fun.  amazing how a few minutes can completely change your perspective.

on the way out of dachstein we had taken a different route back.  my friend introduced himself as gerhardt, he had lived in obertraun his whole life.  he had a gun with him because he is a hunter, and he was on his way to find something to hunt.  this was the best weather they’d had in a month, he explained to me, so he wanted to make good use of the clear blue skies and sun.  he asked me if i wanted to see a traditional austrian house.  “sure!” I told him. why not?  i didn’t have anything else to do for the rest of my day and i didn’t even know how i was getting home yet.  plus, that seemed pretty cool.  we turned down a road that went the opposite way around the lake that we needed to go and we headed into old obertraun.

as we drove the people in the small town were all out and about, some working in their gardens, others working on their roofs, we passed some bicyclists, while i saw others herding some sheep in an expansive lot behind their house.  everything was very green, and whenever we passed, people waved to gerhardt and he waved back.  everybody knew everybody.

he pointed out a few minor points of interest, as well as a house he used to live in when he was married to his first wife.  he explained that this wife was very demanding and they were both not happy, and that he preferred hunting, so they got a divorce.  i found that kind of funny, and i think he meant it to be as well, so we shared a laugh over that.  eventually we pulled up to a modest little cottage on a green plot of land.  he got out and beckoned me to come inside.  i walked through the low doorway and into the small house.  it looked like something from “little house on the prairie,” like a small hunting cottage out in the woods for weekend hunters.  gerhardt stooped his large frame low to enter the doorway.  he was too big for this house.  “this my house” he said with a large, proud smile. “almost 500 years old.”

i was stunned.  500 years?!?!  this house was older than my entire country. and it’s founders.  i didn’t even know how to associate a value to that.  it must have shown on my face because he started laughing.  i looked around, there was another room behind the main room, which was a combination of a kitchen, dining room, and living room all merged into one large-ish room (nothing in the house was “large” really).  a woman emerged from the other room and gerhardt introduced her as his wife, and a shaggy pointer hound followed her out as well, gerhardt’s hunting dog.

we headed back out to the truck and drove back to hallstatt, gerhardt’s wife and the dog sitting quietly in the back seat bench of the truck cab. neither of them spoke english, so it was just gerhardt and myself stumbling through our interaction together.
“you want to see hallstatt salt mines?”

one of the things i had read about while researching hallstatt was that it had been a mining community long before austria was even “austria.”  i had been mildly interested touring the mines, but ice caves sounded more badass, so i had planned for them instead.  knowing i had a few hours to kill before i could find a bus back to salzburg, i told him yes.

we pulled into a parking lot on the edge of hallstat and instead of saying goodbye, gerhardt left the vehicle once again.  he walked with me up to a short line of about 10 people and strode directly to the front of the line.  he interrupted the transaction taking place and addressed the clerk.  everyone in line glared at me as if to say “really?  who do you think YOU are?”  i apologetically looked back and shrugged. i honestly had let go of the reins an hour ago, and i had no idea what was going on anymore.  after a minute, gerhardt turned to me and handed me a piece of paper.  it was a tram ticket to the top of the mountain, roughly a 20 euro value.  he gave me an affectionate slap on the cheek, smiled, said “enjoy!” and then got back into his truck and drove away.  i was in shock.

hallstatt viewing platform, with obertraun in the distance
hallstatt viewing platform, with obertraun in the distance

i boarded the cable car and tried to process everything that had just happened in the 5 minute ride to the top.  at the top was a narrow viewing platform that resembled a diving board, extending out over the cliff and peering down a few hundred feet onto the town of hallstatt below.  it was already small up close, but from up above it looked like one of those architecture models you see in the lobbies of important business buildings in big cities.  i took some photos and then continued up the mountain path toward the salt mines.

i’ll save the details of the mining tour, but i can summarize it all up by saying that it is an hour long tour with thoroughly interesting history and a few cheap thrills (you actually get to go down a couple rather large slides in the mines which are surprisingly fun, especially when you see young kids alternating with 60 year old grandparents doing it, you can’t help but smile) but at a the cost of a high price tag (unless you got it free like me) and some built in cheesiness.  its great if you’ve got kids with you, otherwise it’s forgettable.

view from the salt mines. a house stands watch over the towns below.
view from the salt mines. a house stands watch over the towns below.

the history of the town and mines, however, is fascinating.  the salt mine can be dated back 7,000 years ago.  that’s right, you heard me.  there were miners digging salt out of a hole in the side of the austrian mountain before the roman empire. that is crazy, mainly because in western society we tend to look at the roman empire as the benchmark for when the modern world began, but if you think about what salt mining alludes to, it alludes to other advanced societies that knew the value of commodities and trade, which then hints at economics and wealth, and if you look at the mines themselves, you can tell this mining community was a fairly advanced operation.

and this timeline isn’t an estimate or a guess, not only have they found mining tools down there dating back thousands of years, in the mid 1700s, a body was found that was thought to be from a couple hundred years previous.  It was only in the 1900s when modern science and documentation was able to determine that this body was from a miner back around 1,000 bc who had gotten trapped down there during an earthquake.

these salt mines were one of the things funding the wealthy lifestyle of the austro-hungarian royalty in their heyday, and people would come hundreds of miles, journeying for weeks on foot in order to work in the mines.  these workers would rarely get days off and working conditions were harsh, to say the least.  miners had to apply to get married.  not for a license, but for permission.  marriage was viewed as a potential distraction from work, and every worker was easily replaceable, so unless you were a big producer with a good tenure, you marrying your love in the middle of the night meant you were likely losing your job the moment anyone at the mine found out.  hallstatt only really exists now because it was the place at the foot of the mountain where everyone slept at night, and generation after generation preserved or added to it, giving it the intricate and charming nature that it has now.  ironic that something rooted in such a tough lifestyle with seemingly little beauty can now be known really for just it’s beauty and charm.    make no mistake though, the founders and workers of the salt mines and of hallstatt were a proud and dedicated group, and it shows in their legacy.

eventually the tour ended and i found my way back down the mountain.  i found the bus stop in hallstatt just as confusing as it was when i left it, with buses coming and going and nobody knowing what was going where and nothing labeled well and no one there to help make sense of it all.  i struck halstatt lakefrontup a conversation with the only other fellow standing around with a beard as long as mine.  he was from barcelona and he spoke about as much english as i spoke spanish, so we found a way to meet in the middle.  i relished the challenge to get a head start on practicing my spanish before i even got to spain, and we talked for a couple hours and agreed to try and figure out how to get back to salzburg together (i am convinced that these types of temporary partnerships are the cornerstone of traveling solo. it truly has saved my ass so many times from getting on the wrong train, staying at the wrong hostel, purchasing the wrong ticket, etc.).  we found out we were staying at the same hostel, so this arrangement worked out even better than either of us could have expected.  i had many questions for him regarding barcelona and catalonia and its complicated relationship with the rest of spain (a topic i’ll save for when i get to spain), we talked about futbol and how “el clasico” was being played that night, the game between fc barcelona and real madrid, the two premier teams in spain and how it is actually a good representation of how the tensions between catolonia and spain are tolerated in daily life.  i was thankful to have met eloi, especially when we had to switch from a bus to a train, and only had about 60 seconds to figure it out, as well as which train to be on, which also did not leave us enough time to purchase a ticket.  eloi and i quickly sprinted across the platform and jumped onto the train just as it was about to pull out, without tickets, and we watched in a weird mix of relief and sympathy as a brazilian couple we had also met didn’t make it, leaving them stranded on the platform.  i yelled to them “come on! it’s leaving!”
“we don’t have tickets!”
“neither do i!”

and then the doors closed and they were gone.  eloi and i guessed that another train might be by again in a couple hours, but it was getting cold out and darkness had begun its descent. i did not envy them at all.

eloi and i made it back to the hostel and found a cheap dinner for a few euros.  we were both departing in the morning for different destinations, so we agreed to meet in the lobby and exchange information before leaving.

————————————–

it’s a new year, so i’ve started a new playlist for 2015 for you to follow, if you so desire.  the first song chosen for the new year is one that i’ve been trying to work into the blog for months now.  i love this song, and the accompanying album is one of my favorites from 2014.  “Field Report” hails from milwaukee, and the band’s name is an anagram of the front man’s surname, chris porterfield (so there’s that).  listening to this song, you’ll love the subdued, worn nature of the singer’s voice, and the beauty of the lyrics.  enjoy…

 

and by the way, i’ve spent a little time creating a playlist of all my favorite 2014 songs that, for one reason or another, never made it onto the blog.  basically the leftovers.  i’ll publish that this weekend for your earholes to be assaulted by.  have a good week!

prost! austria, part 1: elegance and romance in vienna

autumn trees stand naked in vienna
autumn trees stand naked in vienna

our arrival into vienna was a dreary affair with rainclouds, which actually wasn’t all too unwelcome of a sight considering the luck i had been having on the trip so far.  everywhere i had been so far had produced sunny, cloudless weather with the extremely occasional afternoon shower.  so when a little rain settled overhead, i wasn’t too bothered by it, especially when it only lasted for a day.

again avoiding the hostel circuit, robert and i had opted for an airbnb apartment in a nice part of the city near all the

key areas downtown and in a safe location.  it was actually my first time to use airbnb and i must say, it is truly a brilliant concept.  it really takes the middle man out of hospitality, allowing property owners to rent out their properties to tourists for cheap, and providing a plethora of options to the traveler.  i really like this idea, and if i am traveling with others in the future, i will definitely be using airbnb again.

vienna would prove to be a tricky destination for me.   not because i didn’t like it, and not because i had any bad experiences there, but for reasons much simpler.  i just really didn’t connect with it.  vienna is a stunningly beautiful country, rich with tradition and culture and art and architecture to match even the finest destinations in the world.  but i think that may have been part of the problem for me, is that maybe it was just a little too rich for me.

i realize it sounds like i’m being a little diva-ish and unreasonable but stay with me here, the point i make here is not

st stephens cathedral vienna
st stephens cathedral vienna

one of criticism of the amazing city of vienna, but merely one of personal preference.  when i travel, i like to get a little dirt under my fingernails.  not too much dirt, mind you (lest you see me tromping around the streets of iraq), but enough to where i feel like i didn’t simply see all the museums and statues in the city and then move on.  i like to venture down backstreets and find old buildings that look like they’ve seen better days.  i like to find old and new faces standing around, that make you unsure if you can trust them, i like to find graffiti that isn’t “commissioned” but is still creative nonetheless.

these things weren’t always easy to find in vienna.  instead, vienna was incredibly well maintained, a beautiful marvel of perfect architecture, art, and living all fused together.  the streets were remarkably clean at all times, the citizens always well dressed and put together, as if they were all ready should a last minute business meeting be called.  the vienna sculpturesstreets were impeccably manicured, cobblestones carefully placed, graffiti usually painted over or removed, vienna is just a perfectly high class city, and unfortunately for me, i am just not in a high-class state of mind in my current place in life.

and to illustrate the difference with which someone can find within a destination, one could look at how both robert
and i thought of vienna after we left.  after 4 days, i was slightly bored and ready to leave, yet robert was in love with the city and wouldn’t have minded staying longer (in fact he would return later after we went separate ways later in the trip).  robert explored more of the city than i, and each day when we would meet back at the apartment, he would always have recommendations of great places i needed to check out that he had discovered.  sometimes i would check them out, and sometimes i wouldn’t.  it just wasn’t a place that had truly excited me at the time.  i’m sure someday i will return here and be completely blown away by everything my eyes were closed to at the time.

regardless, it was still a beautiful place to visit.  one of the recommendations i had gotten from robert was a royal palace a little outside the main area of town called schonbrunn palace.  i hopped on a train and entered the property. not really wanting to spend any money, i found that the gardens were not only free, but quite expansive.  i spent the afternoon just wandering around and snapping photos.  i suppose it would be a wonderfully romantic place to have a picnic with a significant other, but i enjoyed myself thoroughly as i walked the gardens and up the hill overlooking the estate and the rest of the city.  it really is a magnificent place.

one night, i had been very keen on finding some sort of connection with the high classed fanciness of the city, so i had searched for some expensive cocktail lounges.  i settled on a place called “ebert’s” on gumpendorfer st.  i got as dressed up as i could (i only had 1 collared shirt packed on this trip, so i wasn’t exactly prepared for a city like vienna, nor was i really “dressed to impress”) and then trekked across town and located the establishment.

on a relatively uninteresting block with no other places open at that time of night, ebert’s stood out with large windows and curtains drawn back halfway, allowing you to glimpse inside and see the poshly decorated interior.  knowing i was still a little underdressed for the place with my nikes, jeans, and untucked black collared shirt, i straightened my collar, took a breath, and then entered confidently.

i looked around and noted first that the place looked even nicer once you were inside, and then noted that there was nobody there, save for a bartender and a barback.  i took another look around the room and decided that rather than sit in the corner by myself and make them wait on me, i would sit front and center at the bar and have a little conversation with them if they were willing.

i was greeted cordially by mo, a well dressed man with darker skin and thick-rimmed glasses and bulging muscles from his toned physique.  i joked to myself about how the place must save money on employing bouncers because mo can easily double as one while also tending the bar.  mo had a thick french accent but spoke very good english as well as german (a couple other austrian patrons trickled in and out for a drink during the time i was there and i overheard the interactions) and was a very good bar conversationalist.  at first, the idle talk was simply surface level, but as it became apparent to mo that i wasn’t going anywhere for awhile and i wasn’t meeting anyone there, he decided to drop whatever other prepwork he was doing behind the bar and focus on me.

knowing that this was a proper cocktail bar when I had selected it, and upon seeing their expansive liquor and whiskey & bourbon collection, I had quietly tested mo with my normal litmus test with the whiskey old fashioned.  i’ve been using this test for about 6 years now to determine if a bartender is worthy of my time, cash, and trust.  the reason for this is because drinks with bitters in them are fairly easy to screw up, and if a bartender can serve you a drink with bitters and not take away too much of the bourbon taste, you probably have someone on your hands who understands the balance of taste in a cocktail.  so all that to say that mo passed with flying colors.  once i appreciatively thanked him for the wonderful drink, we started talking whiskeys and bourbons and after a few minutes mo took a step back, looked at me wryly out of the side of his glasses and said in his thick french accent “you know, i love when americans come in here because they understand whiskey properly.”  it’s probably the best compliment a barkeep has ever given me.

we continued to chat about whiskey topics both old and new (like the new “whisky stick” that you can buy and put in a bottle of cheap whiskey and within 48 hours it will make your whiskey taste like a finely aged spirit.  I’m not linking to it, because it’s an appalling idea and it’s totally a hoax, but idiots out there are still buying it), but eventually the conversation wandered to other topics like mo’s background.  mo was born in africa but moved with his family to paris where he grew up.  he then moved to hamburg, germany when he became an adult and studied and eventually became a bartender.  he had only moved to vienna 6 months earlier at the request of an old colleague of his who was managing this bar and needed help with a proper “A+ level” barman who could help raise the bar, so to speak (heh.  heheh.  i love obvious jokes).

schonbrunn wall ivyafter a couple hours of good conversation and tastebud tantalizing temptations made by mo, i encouraged him to dream up his own concept bar and open it somewhere outside of vienna.  a guy like him belongs in a different style of city with a little bit of a rougher edge around it and he deserves to have his own place.  he lit up when i said that, and then started to share with me some of his ideas.  we excitedly went back and forth, and i could tell that it was something he needed to hear.  he struck me as the kind of guy who had really only moved to do a favor for a friend, and while things were going well at the bar, it might not have been as fulfilling as what he had hoped for. perhaps he was struggling with building a network or support group of people around him that helped push him forward or provided positive reinforcement.  i think it may be possible that hearing someone like me intuitively pick up on that and then communicate it to him without a hint or a prompt may have been meaningful to him.  i hope it was.

leaves falling on vienna benches
leaves falling on vienna benches

at a certain point in the night after mo and i had covered a lot of conversational ground, a couple had slipped in and quietly made their way to the rear corner of the room.  they had kept to themselves for awhile, but at a certain point they had joined the conversation.  mo and i were glad to have a few good souls along to help give the night a little life, and james and slavka were more than happy to make some friends.  before long, i think mo knew he had more than just a few casual drunks in the establishment that night, because the conversation was so rich and in-depth, and everyone was really enjoying each others’ company.  every person in the room was my kind of people.  they were “in tune.”

mo, feeling the atmosphere and positive vibe, started making up drinks off the menu.  he was getting creative, and his drinks were getting better.  eventually mo’s wife actually came in and hung out for a bit.  it was closing time before we knew it, but mo told us that he was going to make one more drink for each of us and lock the door, allowing us to take our time and finish our drinks while he cleaned up and closed down before we all left.

james and slavka were completing a storybook romance honeymoon in Vienna, and 5 days later they were to return to england as husband and wife.  they had met 6 years earlier in london on a bus when james had sat down next to slavka and struck up a conversation.  james was actually living in cambridge, about 60 miles away so after the initial sparks had flown, they settled into the long distance thing for a couple years.  when they finally tied the knot, they chose to have the special day in kosice, slovakia, slavka’s hometown.  james’ family and friends all flew down for a traditional slovakian wedding celebration that lasted 4 days.  after the celebration, james and slavka made their escape to vienna, where i met them, before returning home and starting their new life together.

as james retold the story to me, i found myself getting simultaneously sentimental and hopeful.  i listened intently, allowing myself to get caught up in the magic and let the story come alive.  it was nice to be the listener instead of the storyteller for a change, especially when the content was so enthralling.  too often in my former life, the person i had grown to be was a very cynical person who would not allow myself to be too impressed or surprised by anything, so when i might hear a great story like james and slavka’s, i would still actively and politely listen, but i might reserve emotion or expression in order to preserve the image or character that i was portraying forward.  or worse, the greater cynic in me might mentally dismiss it as another “story” and not even allow myself to entertain such fantasies of love and magic and emotion.

vienna sidewalks
lonely vienna sidewalks

as i’ve gotten further along in this journey of mine, i’ve tried to identify when the bad habits i’ve picked up along the way in my life have crept back up.  particularly with my own romantic connections which have been marked by a string of failed relationships and unrequited love, i had become increasingly jaded and this skepticism had taken a strong root in my life, like weeds choking out a rose garden.  and so i’ve tried to find the things about my personality which stop me from experiencing emotion and joy and i’ve tried to deactivate them.  these mechanisms of cynicism and sarcasm which normally serve as a wall of protection from being taken advantage of or being the “sucker” do serve their purposes but there is always a consequence, and for me that consequence is that some of the more elemental and basic joys of being a human get blocked.  they become forgotten about, and my world had become grayer because of it.

so when i was enthusiastically talking with this wonderful pair, i caught my instinct to “play it cool” and i quickly shut it down.  i listened, i got excited, i expressed my enthusiasm, i asked for elaboration.  it was fun, and they were a fun couple.  james’ witty british humor made the retelling of the story easy to want to join in on the ride, and slavka’s periodic additions or corrections helped provide balance and accuracy to the story, as shared stories between brits and americans are wont to stretch a bit when there is whiskey involved. it was fun to watch them interact with each other, and i could tell that they were a great pair, one that would definitely last.  they appreciated each other, and more importantly, it was obviously that they truly did enjoy hanging out.  there was chemistry there, but there was also that “partner in crime” element that i don’t always see in couples.  especially after traveling together with no other normal distractions to occupy them.  often times in those couples i see something different:  exhaustion.

at around 3:30am, mo had finished all his closing duties and made the fateful announcement that it was time to headvienna palace gardens home.  james, slavka, and i all profusely thanked mo for the perfect night.  we all exchanged information, finished our drinks, and ducked out into the night, going our separate ways and vowing to stay in touch.  i smiled to myself as i walked home under the evening streetlamps, thankful for having met james and slavka.  couples like that always give me so much hope and optimism, that i might one day be able to find that perfect balance of attraction, friendship, partnership, and fun.  i promised myself that, despite the whiskey drinks and the hazy head, i would remember that evening i spent with james and slavka in the hopes that i might one day more easily recognize that “thing” that they had if i were to one day find it with someone else.

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today’s jam is one reflective of my thoughts about james and slavka’s story.  it’s a song full of hope, energy, romance, and as the title reflects, “magic.”  featuring disco guitar legend nile rodgers, whom had re-emerged onto the pop music scene after being featured on last year’s daft punk rise from the dead (notably on the mega hit “get lucky”), and brandy, another pop artist who has been absent from the scene for years, this new track by luis dubuc’s electronic pop act “mystery skulls” is one that just gets into your veins and starts pumping blood without the need of a heart.  but when you listen to the lyrics, your heart can’t help but join in.

“magic” is good clean fun, but if you can stomach a few bad words, i highly recommend you check out the full album from mystery skulls, which just came out about a month ago.  it is just good fun from start to finish, with incendiary synth tracks and catchy melodies.  enjoy…

and of course, if you’re following along on spotify, here’s my “we philistines selections” playlist, with all the songs i’ve featured on this blog.

na zdraví: Prague, part 1. castles, cheap beer, and street jazz

prague square at night
prague square at night

robert and i had some time to kill before leaving berlin and we both had some minor items we’d wanted to pick up from a large city like berlin before heading into some of the smaller places that might not have the shopping selection options one could enjoy in a massive city like berlin.  we split up and agreed to meet later.  my feet had begun to seriously hurt me on this trip now, to a point where the pain was almost unbearable after walking for 4 hours.  i had begun to get sharp pains in specific points of emphasis under the knuckles of my feet, as well as my arches.  robert had explained to me I likely needed orthotic shoe liners, as my current shoes were not giving me any support.  he confirmed this for me when i told him it didn’t hurt me when i ran, only when i walked for a long time.  having had similar issues in the past, he offered a lot of well-researched information on the subject and so i set out in search of some insoles that could cure my woes.

i didn’t find any, so i found a boutique shoe shop and i bought some nikes, confident that this would fix the problem.  it didn’t, but at least i look hip now.

eventually we met back up and boarded our bus for prague.  it was to be a 4 hour ride, during which i had meant to write as much as possible.  i was successful for however long it took us to get to the Czech border, but once we

warm sunshine blankets the czech countryside
warm sunshine blankets the czech countryside

crossed, i became enthralled by the breathtaking czech countryside, dancing by under a doting sunset, as if the sun and the czech republic were aware that we were arriving, and wanted to roll out the red carpet to their new guests.

we passed by a few very small towns with a little river running through the middle of them.  a castle on the side of the mountain, overlooking the water and the small houses below with the sun setting in the background, it all seemed very pedestrian and unspectacular to everyone else on the bus and probably to anyone living there, but i couldn’t get enough.  i put my computer away and set aside my camera and let my eyes drink in the scenery.

after a few hours we had arrived in prague, and we made our way to our hotel. before we had left, robert had researched accommodations, as he is a little more particular than i am, and after having not been incredibly excited about any of the immediate options, he looked up quizzically and asked me directly “how would you feel about staying on a boat?” i didn’t even hesitate. “book it. don’t care if it sucks. i want to say i stayed on a boat.”

and so we stayed at a place called the “botel albatross,” (how clever) situated right on the river on the north side of old-town prague where the river bends.  it wasn’t particularly incredible, but it was about as affordable as it gets on short notice and it was easy to find.  also, it’s a hotel on a boat on the river, so it needs no further justification. the novelty of it was great.  after checking in and getting settled, neither robert or myself were ready to turn in for the night, so we immediately set out in search of a few cheap sights and more importantly, something to eat.

neither of us really knew anything about prague, other than everyone always saying “oh prague is awesome!” so we weren’t sure what we should be looking for (i think this has become the theme of not only my travels, but my life).  we decided to head for the main square.  within 2 minutes of leaving, we were already impressed by the quaint nature of the town, with cobblestoned streets and narrow walkways that seemed to go whichever way they pleased, all under the careful watch of centuries-old buildings with spires and clocktowers on seemingly every structure (seriously, I’ve never seen so many clocktowers in my life).

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…and now I'm in Prague.

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everything was lit up like a movie set.  every building that needed to be seen was clearly visible at night, with floodlights placed strategically on opposing rooftops and any other vantage point that would give the most flattering view of whatever needed to be shown off.  prague knows it’s beautiful, and it knows how to show off.

telling time in prague square
telling time in prague square

none of this was more impressive than the old town square.  a wide open space with people walking to and fro, brisk in pace or slow with head directed up and marveling at the architecture on display, people were mingling this way and that, musicians were busking, trying to impress enough to earn some change from anyone who would listen, the asian tourists were busily taking photos with their selfie sticks, and british stag parties were loudly consuming beer from large mugs on patios on the sideline.  i saw few cities so easily accessible and interactive in europe as prague was. it was clear to me almost immediately:  i like prague.

after we had gawked enough at everything to see, robert and i realized we had both gotten extremely hungry.  we also had trouble finding anything that looked palatable and non-touristy, or that wasn’t going to take forever to be ready to consume, so we settled on a pizza place a modest distance away from the plaza.  it was decent enough, and the owner there was clearly italian, so we justified not eating something inherently “czech” by assuming the pizza was “italian enough.”  plus it had free wifi.

the next day, robert and i made for the other side of the river, on the north and western banks of the river bend. our goal was to explore the neighborhood and eventually make it up to the castle, crossing 2 different bridges in the process.  we first made for the charles bridge, and were a little dismayed by how many people were already there.  we knew that to truly enjoy the bridge without the throngs of tourists, you had to get there early.  apparently 8:30 – 9am is not early enough.  nevertheless, we slowly made our way through the crowds and the vendors, stopping briefly to enjoy a couple musical performers, including one guy who was a maestro on the accordion, and a folk trio complete with a banjo player, a guitar player with a harmonica, and a percussion player playing the spoons and the washboard.  they were all quite good.

as we made our way through the streets, i was amazed at just how picturesque the city was.  every direction i turned my head looked like it should have a frame around it and be placed above someone’s fireplace.  it might be the most photogenic city i’ve ever seen.  we ascended into the hills, heading in the general direction of the prague castle, but we were generally avoiding the main thoroughfares that the large crowds were following along.  whenever one of us would see some small alley or side street that looked interesting, we’d motion to the other to signal we were deviating from the path in search of something less trodden.  this behavior eventually led us to a large “tv tower” on the western hillside that sported, in my opinion, the best view of the entire city.  these tv towers are indicative of most significant cities in central europe and east, particularly anything that at one point was under soviet control.  imagine an air traffic control tower that you might see at your airport, then imagine it looking a little more like it was from the jetsons, and now you have a tv tower.  these things served as watchtowers that one could see incoming threats and send/receive radio transmission for 360 degrees.

so robert and i paid 5 euros to enter and climb the 200 or so stairs to get to the top and take in the view.  it was magnificent, and totally worth the cost.

the prague riverfront on a hazy morning
the prague riverfront on a hazy morning

after snapping photos and taking enough video, we descended and made our way to the castle.  on our way there, we wandered by a centuries-old underground monastery that now had a restaurant friendly towards tourists (how nice).  i insisted we stop inside so i could sample some of the “blueberry beer” advertised on a chalkboard out front.  i ordered a bowl of goulash to balance out the beer and enjoyed the cave-like structure around me.  it was dimly lit with rounded and arched ceilings that seemed to follow no rhythm except whatever the earth had given the constructors to work with whenever the place had been built.

after the monastery, we wandered by a cathedral and crossed a few more small squares before finally finding the prague castle.  by the time we got there, it was closing time, so there was no opportunity to ascend into the towers or enter into the structure, but i was okay with that.  typically in my experience, when you get to the top of the biggest, coolest point of interest within a city, you lose your ability to appreciate the biggest, coolest point of interest within a city.  i was much happier having found the tv tower earlier (actually a little taller than the castle, but not nearly as impressive looking) and having paid significantly less for my ascension to the top.

that night robert and I found somewhere to eat where robert made a very annoying observation.  well, it was very annoying for him, but for me, it was one of my favorite things about my time with robert.  he became visibly frustrated that, at every single place we had been to in prague (which was probably 5 or 6 restaurants at this point), water was more expensive than beer, usually by at least a euro.  i started laughing joyously.  finally one of my vices was paying dividends instead of costing them.  robert good naturedly picked up on the humor of the situation and this scenario became a ritual of every place we went in prague.  we’d pick a restaurant and he would immediately find the beverages section on the menu and would let out a sigh of exasperation and would read the cost of a water versus a beer aloud, to which i would appreciatively laugh.

robert had tracked our steps that day with a pedometer app he has on his iphone 6.  he mentioned we had walked somewhere around 20 miles that day.  that explained why my feet hurt so bad (coupled with the issues i was starting to develop with my arches).  i had wanted to go find a jazz bar that night after learning that the czechs really like jazz music, but i could barely stand to be on my feet anymore so i elected to do that another night.  on our way back to our

alley jazz in prague
alley jazz in prague

botel, however, we encountered by chance a tiny restaurant down a back alley where a little jazz trio was playing for a small group of patrons.  led by a violin, a guitarist and standup bassist accompanied in the background, robert and i elected to stand and watch for about a minute before i asked if robert minded if we grab a seat for a nightcap and watch them finish their set.  robert acquiesced and we sat down.  i ordered a couple fingers of whisky and focused on the music.

three generations of jazz in prague
three generations of jazz in prague

we were able to watch them play for about 5 or 6 songs, and they did not disappoint.  to this point in my trip and beyond, i haven’t heard anyone quite as talented as these 3.  the violinist was clearly the star of the show, as he stood front and center and adeptly maneuvered up and down the neck of his violin maniacally during each song, never missing a note and channeling gypsy maestros from the 20s and 30s with remarkable ease.  this man could have easily been playing on a large stage or at a city hall with an orchestra, but here he was playing in a dimly lit patio for a few tourists with his bandmates.  i actually think there was a good chance these three were all different generations of the same family, as they all bore a resemblance to one another.  the guitarist being the youngest and the bassist being the eldest, they were all very familiar with each other and knew exactly when the music called for a change-up or someone else to hop in and improvise.  it was excellent jazz, and i was vocal about it, clapping appreciatively or responding audibly after an impressive solo.  no one else in our crowd seemed to understand that this is how you appreciate gypsy jazz, by letting the performers know that you enjoyed whatever it is they just did, rather everyone else sat quietly, waiting to be entertained.  after the first time i offered praise, you could tell the band was immediately glad that robert and i were there, as they began to orient themselves a little more in our direction, and they would smile and nod every time we offered applause, or whenever one of them was about to do something cool in improvisation.

when the performance had ended, the guitar player came over and attempted to engage in conversation with us but his wnglish was extremely limited and both robert and myself and i speak absolutely zero of his native tongue, so the conversation didn’t go very far.  we thanked him profusely for the music and offered a few euros as compensation.  they gratefully accepted and we made our exit.

we wandered through the illuminated streets and crossed through the main square again on our way back to the “botel,” as one can never get enough of looking at those buildings.  eventually sleep’s pull was too strong however, and we turned in for the night.

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today’s tuesday tune is a song that’s been kicking around my spotify account for a couple months now (check me out over here if you’re following along:  
and i just can’t get enough of this song.  its what i listen to when i’m feeling happy go lucky.  if i’m wandering a city and i want a break from the sounds of the city, i pop my headphones in and put this song on, put my hands in my pockets, and happily stride down the street.  plus it feels appropriate to to suggest a song called “emperor” when we’re talking about a city like prague, where there are castles and royal looking buildings everywhere.  give a listen to this one when you get a chance.  enjoy…

guten tag: germany, pt 1. the ‘burg, beers, and a song from yours truly

i arrived in bremen, germany at 5:30am with a start.  i hadn’t been able to sleep for most of the overnight trip on the bus, so i elected to furiously write as much as I could throughout the night.  but eventually exhaustion caught up with me and i was able to collect a couple hours of slumber during the back end of the ride.  when i exited the bus, the streets were empty, and the only inhabitants were small, roaming groups of drunk teenagers stumbling their way back to the train stations after their debaucherous night at the clubs.  i quickly located the train station, or “hauptbanhof,” and boarded a train.

as my connection pulled into oldenburg, i began searching for the mcdonald’s I was supposed to be meeting my friend daniela at (sarcasm aside, meeting at mcdonald’s is actually pretty practical.  you can always find that golden arch when you need to).  in my sleep-deprived morning blindness, I somehow walked right by the mcdonald’s and out onto the street.  daniela’s directions had been perfect up until now regarding the bus and the train connections, so after walking around for 10 minutes before figuring out that it was indeed my error, i was now worried that daniela had gotten tired of waiting for me and returned home.  the obnoxiously drunk students wandering aimlessly around the station weren’t helping my growing anxiety either.  eventually however, daniela turned up and found me.  she’d had a late night with her friends as well (it apparently was a holiday in Germany that granted most people a free friday), so she was a little late.  i didn’t care at all, i was just happy to see her.

daniela pulls off the look better than i can...
daniela pulls off the look better than i can…

daniela and i went to school together at john brown university for our undergraduate degrees long ago, and she was always a joy to spend time with.  daniela was an international scholarship student from panama who had earned a generous scholarship and decided to study in arkansas, of all places.  her english hadn’t been great when she arrived in the US, so not only was she faced with the adversity of studying abroad, she also had to learn the language while she learned the subject matter.  nevertheless, daniela’s magnetic personality wouldn’t let that get the best of her, as she had no problem making friends at a modest place like jbu.  daniela stands a commanding 5’2” (at most) and is an infectious ball of comical energy.  she has dark features and deep brown eyes that many a helpless man have gotten lost in, and when she speaks she has that intoxicating latin american rhythm to her speech that just draws you in and reminds you how fun life can be.  when she finished school in the US, she returned home to panama for a couple years and then took an opportunity to go work and study further in the northern german town of oldenburg.  She’s been there for the last 3 years.

daniela had graciously allowed me to set up camp in her guest bedroom.  she lives in a modest 4 bedroom house with 2 other roommates, 1 of whom i got to meet whose name is nikky.

having both been up late all night, daniela and i agreed it would be best to catch up on a little sleep before we headed to a friend’s birthday party that she had invited me to.  i retreated to my guest bedroom and disappeared from consciousness for a few hours.  when I awoke we made way to the party on bicycle.

after getting briefly lost on barely lit streets, we eventually found the place, and the party was lively.  There was about 30 people in attendance and a mountain of german beer to consume, along with 2 tables loaded potluck-style with german food.  wasting no time, i grabbed one of everything so i could sample all these new flavors.  i also swiped a beer and sat down somewhat nervously, aware that i was sticking out a little bit and no one knew me.

as daniela made her rounds and exchanged pleasantries with her colleagues and friends, a guy named jan eventually rescued me from my exhile.  he introduced himself and we quickly got to talking about all the usual subjects that come up with travelers, your differences in this, similarities in that, etc.  jan was a funny guy, i really enjoyed talking with him, and apparently other people did too, because it was only a matter of time until half of the party had gathered around, some participating in conversation, but mostly just listening and laughing at the ridiculousness of the comical back-and-forth between jan and i.  I’m sure the beck’s beers we were eliminating probably added to care-free manner with which we were exchanging stories, so thanks to germany’s finest for that.

eventually the beer ran out and the clock ran late, causing the party to dwindle.  we returned home.  the next morning daniela and i changed our plans to travel to hamburg, and elected for a quiet day in, allowing me to catch up on some photo-editing and laundry.  that afternoon I met daniela’s roommate, nikky.  nikky towers over people at around 6’4” (at 5’9” all i can do is guess how tall mountains are) and wears thicker glasses that give him a very intelligent look, and this look is deserved, as nikky is definitely very intelligent.  he studied linguistics for his undergraduate degree and is now in a postgraduate program and working as a professor at the university in oldenburg.  nikky has a very meticulous nature about him, and he commits himself completely to whatever it is that he is learning or doing, relentless in his task until he achieves a perfect result (something I’ve begun to notice about the germans in general.  They don’t half-ass anything.  it’s pretty inspiring, actually).

i found nikky to be profoundly interesting.  very well educated and well informed, i could tell that he didn’t arrive at opinions without thoroughly researching things to make sure he had all the facts, ensuring that he could make balanced, logical decisions.  we talked for hours before eventually we discovered a mutual love for music.  but not just in listening.  also in creating.

nikky had previously been the guitarist in a band, and he enthusiastically shared some of the tracks that they had recorded.  the audio quality was outstanding and the songwriting clever, i really enjoyed it.  it was only a matter of time before i was sharing some of my old recordings, and before long we had grabbed a couple of his guitars and turned the living room in to a practice studio.  we played for a couple hours, figuring out how to play a couple old weezer tunes and some coldplay throwbacks and then performed them for daniela when she wandered downstairs to hear where the noise was coming from.  even threw a little tom petty in the mix before improvising and making up a couple of our own blues jams.  It was so fun, and nicky was a surgeon on his guitar.  any time i gave him the nod to take a turn at improvisation his fingers would fly into an incendiary flurry of musical activity.  fitting with his personality, he was almost perfect, never missing a note and always knowing just how long to go before throwing it back over to me.  I was playing a 12-string guitar of nikky’s that hadn’t been getting much use lately, so needless to say my lead improv attempts were somewhat limited by the burden of having twice as many strings to manage, so I typically focused on rhythm and vocals.  it didn’t sound particularly amazing, but it was a blast.

eventually we got hungry and started preparing our feast for the evening.  we bought steaks, vegetables, bread (always bread with germans. Never take their bread, lest they start a revolution) and wine.  nikky handled the steaks, electing to slow cook them over the stove, while daniela and i handled the chopping and cutting of the vegetables and salad and bread.  When the food was ready, we ate like royalty.

at the end of the evening we retired well-fed and well entertained by a quiet day in oldenburg, germany.

the next day was a quick one, daniela and i boarded an afternoon train bound for hamburg.  during the train ride we caught up on life, what we’d both been doing the last 8 years since we’d last seen each other, we talked about the future, what she plans to do long term, if she’d be staying in Germany, etc.  she tried to teach me some german, which I hilariously could not get a grip on for the life of me.  it’s not an easy language.

eventually we got to hamburg, but it was already getting dark and it was a sunday night, so there wasn’t really much going on.  one problem i had realized with our friendship is that we both like to sleep in, so all 3 days i had spent with daniela had gotten extremely late starts because neither of us was in a rush to get up at any point.  and if someone lets me sleep… I’ll sleep.  and sleep.  and sleep.

anyway, we wandered the streets, searching for the neighborhood where the beatles cut their teeth before they changed the world with their well-honed signature sound.  we poked our heads into a couple bars but were disappointed to find them basically empty.  nevertheless, it was a fun city to walk around in, and one that is also well known for having rather loose laws as it relates to vices.  we walked by the sex shops and strip clubs, snickering at the creepy old men who would linger by the front doors, then glance around furtively to make sure no one familiar was watching, and then dart inside, in search of something unholy and carnal.  eventually we found an old pub with a female bartender and a security guy who were laughing loudly, careless that there was absolutely no one in their bar.  we decided to be keep them some company.

after a couple rounds, the bartender sent a couple more drinks our way, courtesy of the bar.  people started to filter in and then a local acoustic act set up shop in the corner and began playing music for the small crowd that had gathered.  It was decent music, but the volume was way too loud, so eventually we left.  it had gotten late, and i was headed to berlin the next morning.  time to go.

i thanked daniela for the hospitality and the fun, it had been a truly enjoyable weekend, and she had helped set the foundation for what would prove to be a very fun time in germany

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this episode’s music selection is a little different.  i had mentioned in the beginning of this blog that i would be getting back in touch with my creative side, and i didn’t just mean writing prose.  before i left on this journey, i had a sudden surge of inspiration and started writing some music again for the first time in 5 years. i then did my best to record as much as i could before i left for iceland.  the following is a rough recording i put together using my own instruments and cheap recording equipment at home over the course of about a week.  it is far from professional, but very personal, so i want to share it with anyone whom is following me on this journey these past few months.  feel free to offer feedback if you choose or pass along to others if you enjoy it or think someone else might enjoy the message.  or if they just like a good song with harmonica in it…

Why Europe?

last night i was having a drink with someone and we were having this wonderful wandering conversation, drifting from one topic to the next without any specific direction or goal.  it was a refreshing interaction for me, and one that surprised me.  over the last 5 years i’ve allowed myself to fall into a sort of manic style of conversation that you get when you’re trying to arrive directly to the point of the interaction.  you cull the talking points, distill them down to actionable directives, and then you try to do the same for whatever your takeaways from the meeting should be so you know what productive actions should come from the interaction,  all in the interest of saving time and boosting efficiency.  this is extremely important in the corporate world, but the effect this habit produces on the rest of your interactions is similar to removing the color from a painting;  it’s all still there, but you’ve likely lost the very thing that made it beautiful.

as we were talking, we aimlessly drifted to the topic of my upcoming travels. the type of trip i’m taking tends to draw a general routine of questions to which i have my normal “canned” responses.  but this time around i was asked a different question that no one had asked me yet:  “why europe?”

the funny thing is, when someone says they’re going to europe, there’s never a question of “why?”  among most modern, intelligent, forward-thinking americans. i think it’s just generally understood that most people would like to go to europe some day, so when someone says they are going, we just sort of look at them and think “man, that lucky bastard is taking my vacation.”  and then we carry on with the conversation and communicate how jealous we are and how excited we are for them.  but the person i was speaking with likes to play devil’s advocate and challenge opinions to test the strength (something i usually do) of statements, so when i said europe, she challenged me. not in any rude way, but the implication was that europe might be an easy destination for someone to go on a soulsearch, and if i was indeed looking for experiences and answers to specific questions mentioned earlier in the conversation (something i won’t go into detail in this post) then my mission might be better served on a different continent.  and it is a good point.

but the fact is that there is a lot more than history and art that i hope to explore in europe.  and europe is actually something that i’ve passed up multiple times for other destinations, other relationships, other opportunities that in retrospect never really amounted to much but they seemed like the responsible thing to do. the fact is the older you get the more reasons you can find for not doing something outrageous (in my case, going on an extended backpacking trip), and so you handcuff yourself to duty and responsibility, and you find other distractions or other things to spend your money or time on that are easier and safer.  And it’s not until much later in your life that you start counting your regrets, and often by that time, it’s too late.

so part of this journey is reclaiming something that i’ve wanted to do for 10+ years.  i want to see where the civilized world started, and what people are doing with it now.  i want to see how people live their lives, how they appreciate the things around them, or even learn what  they appreciate.  i want to learn, i want to be overwhelmed, i want to be the stupidest guy in the room.  i want to watch a play in Shakespeare’s Globe. i want to stare at a real Michelangelo ceiling and be crushed by a true labor of love.  i want to wander a Prague street after drinking a few too many pilseners.  i want to trek all day to see an active icelandic volcano and be awestruck by the naked power that doesn’t even care if i exist. i want to dance like a fool (and look like one too) in barcelona.  i want to see the things that were in my history books and on my tv, and i don’t want to see them from a facebook post.  i want to experience it all in the 1st person.

and somewhere along the way, i hope it changes me.  i leave for Iceland in 6 days.  i do not have a return flight.