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songs are stories with a melody

hello friends, i apologize for not having a suitable story out to you yesterday.  i am currently roaming the irish countryside and have not had a wifi connection for awhile.  in fact, my current signal is very weak and i can’t upload any photos, so instead of a story today, i will leave you with another new song i recorded just before i left on my journey.  again, it is modest, without any professional equipment, just a microphone and some instruments in my bedroom.  all instruments performed by me, and the song is an original as well.  i wrote this for someone i cared deeply for, but i never got a chance to share it with them.  so instead, i share it with you.   i hope you enjoy it, feel free to share it with others if you so choose.  i’ll get you a story online as soon as i can manage it!

a lonely bench in plitvice national park, in croatia in winter
a lonely bench in plitvice national park, in croatia in winter

egészségedre! budapest, pt 2: it’s the people

budapest parliament

i had been exploring budapest without much of a plan. i had basically been picking a direction and just setting off and taking in whatever i stumbled upon, and while fun and easy, i’d gotten the sense that i was missing some key things i probably didn’t want to miss.
luckily, before i’d left the girls’ apartment from the incredible first night, i’d exchanged information with each of them, and ironically enough, the quietest one of the night, gabby, had been the one who had maintained most contact. i hadn’t wanted to stop hanging out with them because they were such a fun group, but they all had jobs and classes to go to, so i knew that wasn’t going to be realistic. but when gabby had reached back out to me, i humbly asked if she’d be interested in meeting up again for a drink and maybe a walk around the city to show me some things i might not have encountered on my own. i was so happy when she agreed.

to describe gabby as simply “shy” wouldn’t really be fair to her. when i first met her, we were in a verytower on the buda side loud environment, and not one that was necessarily conducive to meaningful conversation, unless you enjoying shouting at your friends. so granting that, the other thing i didn’t realize was that gabby probably spoke the least English out of the group, and i think she was a little intimidated by the skill levels of her friends. during the conversation that first night, it was difficult enough for gabby to keep up with all the snarky back-and-forth between me and the others (these girls are all legitimately hilarious, i laughed hard that night), but to ask her to translate her thoughts and then shout them into the conversation in a timely fashion was probably asking a little too much. i know exactly how she feels, as that is pretty much my experience every time i am around Spanish speakers. i can understand generally what is going on or being said, and i can usually think of something i want to say, but by the time i figure out how to say it in spanish, the conversation has moved on, leaving my comment irrelevant.

so i adopted a slower pace of speech to make it a little easier on her. gabby was volunteering her own time to hang out with me and show me around a city that i honestly knew nothing about (other than where it’s located on a world map), and this is something that, and let’s be honest here, most tourists will never get this kind of experience. no, your tour guide you booked through a travel agent does not count. a real life person who lives here every day, taking you to their favorite places, showing you how things are done like a local. this is traveling, and something that i crave everywhere i go, but seldom find. people like gabby are the good Samaritans that help turn a vacation into an adventure, and without them, traveling just wouldn’t be as fun. i like to call them “coyotes,” because in america that’s what we call people south of the mexican border who get paid to help smuggle people across into the USA illegally. okay, it’s an ugly comparison at best, but it makes me laugh. anyway, if gabby budapest buildingswas going to be my guide for the day, the least i could do was help her with her english a little.
we had agreed to meet at a location that was only 5 minutes walking from my apartment, but i got lost anyway. since i don’t have a working cellphone, gabby didn’t have a way to contact me and almost gave up, but after 15 minutes of waiting i arrived with a sheepish apology. we first found a small café to have a light dinner at. gabby had already eaten, so i had to embarrassingly speed through my meal while she sipped a drink patiently. in between bites, i tried to keep the conversation easy and light so gabby would feel comfortable exercising her english muscles. at first she was very self-conscious, and i could tell that she was holding back, whether because she was embarrassed about trying to pronounce certain words or because she just didn’t know the words in english, i don’t know, but whenever i could sense hesitance, i would encourage her and coax the words out of her, reminding her that this was the only way she was going to get better. giving a shy smile, she would eventually start constructing the sentence, and usually she would surprise herself, as she would get the point across perfectly and i wouldn’t even have to help her.

after i had finished eating, we started walking, heading down all sorts of wonderful looking streets as the day began to fade into the night. as we made our way down to the riverside, gabby’s confidence had grown considerably, and there was no more encouragement needed; we were having a full conversation in english without any hesitation anymore, and i was really starting to get a sense for who gabby is. i was impressed, but i didn’t say anything because i was enjoying the conversation and i didn’t want to derail it.

gabby stands at about 5’ 7”, thin, with beautiful pale skin and dark brown hair and big brown eyes. she has a very effeminate nature, and i don’t think she has an aggressive bone in her body, though if you prod enough, you can eventually find subjects that will get her riled up and show a little of that hungarian passion. but normally, she has a passive style of conversation and just likes to laugh at things, making her a thoroughly enjoyable person to be around.
now when i think of gabby, i think of this look that she would get on her face after i had said something ridiculous, or when i would tease her about something she had said or done. basically anytime i was being myself, she would look at me with this not-quite-disapproving but also not-quite-approving look where she would tilt her head ever so slightly to the side, purse her scarlet red lips together, raise one eyebrow and give a half-smile, as if to acknowledge whatever I had said but also to let me know I better watch myself, in a playful way. i could try and explain further her personality, but it almost doesn’t seem fair to try and condense someone’s essence down into a paragraph, so i prefer to hold onto these small moments instead, which help me remember who someone is better than any grouping of words ever could.

but i think my favorite thing about hanging out with gabby was just getting to see the metamorphosis that took place before my very eyes over the course of just a few hours. i saw her go from being a quiet, shy, stoic introvert, content in merely being present, to this confident, opinionated, and complex woman, all in one day. it was fascinating and fun, at the same time, and while all of this was taking place, i was getting to see some really great parts of the city. the waterfront was beautiful, but the main bridge that crosses it, the széchenyi chain bridge was breathtaking. as was the view of the parliament. we also passed a number of statues, that really made it quite apparent to me that budapest really deserves more credit and attention from americans as an architectural wonder of europe. people don’t talk about it enough, and they really should.

after a few hours, our feet had grown tired from all the walking, and we had grown a little weary as well. luckily the crew from the other night had all finished work or whatever else they had going on that day, and they were meeting at another local ruinpub. Gabby and I made our way over and rejoined the group.
i actually enjoyed this ruinpub even more than the previous one. more simplistic than the other one, this one was a little smaller with a patio with lots of bench seating and a large retaining wall that was decorated with a huge painted mural of the ocean, with a huge blue whale taking the centerpiece. hanging from the ceiling were dozens of lamps with modified coverings meant to make the lighting look like a school of multicolored, illuminated jellyfish, drifting all about the covered patio. the effect was fantastic, as it really provided a unique ambiance to the place.

kuplung ruinpub in budapest
kuplung ruinpub in budapest

it was a monday night, so the already cheap drinks were now basically free by european standards. i couldn’t believe it again, so i offered to buy all the girls a drink, to which they happily obliged. they joined me at the bar. as i approached i was immediately taken aback by their menu. the bar was about 50 feet long, and above it was a large chalkboard stretching from end to end, divided up into sections of available cocktails by the base liquor in each of them. vodka, gin, whiskey, tequila, rum… each liquor had at least 20 drinks to choose from. it was pretty impressive, but i quickly and skeptically assumed that any of the whiskey drinks wouldn’t be of the caliber that i normally pay top dollar for. so i settled for a whiskey sour and watched amusedly as the girls all indecisively quibbled back and forth over what new drink they were going to try. lilla tried to order something basic like a vodka tonic or something, but i quickly intervened and forbade her from ordering something “usual.” i insisted that she try something weird or crazy sounding to her. after enough snarky remarks and sarcastic retorts, she conceded and ordered something with rum in it or similar, i can’t remember but i know it was something i wouldn’t have ordered, and i offered my approval but i’m sure she didn’t care much what  thought anyway. She did enjoy it, whatever it was, but on the next round she went right back to whatever it was she was drinking before.

i joked around with lilla for awhile because i knew she was leaving early that night. lilla is an engineering student in budapest and i can tell she gets high marks because all joking aside, she takes her studies seriously. not much gets by her either, as she is very perceptive and has a very quick wit. she’s a short little thing, at around 5’3”, but it would be unwise to hold her lack of height over her head (see what I did there?!), as it wouldn’t be hard for her to find a way to enter into a battle of wits and sarcasm, which would surely be a losing battle for the other person. lilla is also a very talented photographer, and one of the ways she spends her spare time is with the occasional wedding or special event, or just a casual day out and about with the camera, catching whatever catches her eye and committing it to digital immortality. she had shown me some of her work, because obviously i was curious, as i am quite new at the photography thing, having never taken any photos with the camera, only extremely amateur videos (i am using a canon rebel t3i ), so any chance i get to look at other people’s work, i try to get inside their mind so i can improve my own picture taking – or video, for that matter – skills. by the way, if you’re interested in seeing any of my previous videos, you can check them out at www.vimeo.com/brandonmiq but fair warning, some of my older videos are horrible. i’ve been learning this stuff as i go.

anyway, my favorite thing about lilla is that she is easily the mischievous firestarter of the group. she is always game for a prank or a joke, she’s always the first person in the group to jump up and do something or try something new. these are the people who make life really fun, and i think that every interesting group of people needs one of these. i can think of friends at home like micah or travis who are always coming up with unique ways to interact with the world around them, and always looking for opportunities to involve people creatively. these people are the movers of the world, the networkers, the conduits who connect people to each other and make the world around them stronger and more alive.

when we returned to our seats, we found that another group had taken them. unfortunate, because the room was now quite packed, and there weren’t any other suitable tables for the 5 of us. luckily, one of adrienne’s ex-boyfriends happened to be sitting in a small group nearby with a little bit of room available. he offered to allow us to squeeze in around the table and we gratefully accepted. i don’t remember his name but he was a really nice guy, and had remained good friends with adrienne over the years. they reminisced about different travel stories, notably one time when they had gone to washington dc together and gotten a little drunk and a lot lost. it was a funny story, and fun to listen to them recall how they experienced the american culture through their eyes, a unique perspective that i’ll never be able to possess.

the conversation waxed and waned, bouncing back and forth from english to hungarian, and when it would drift to hungarian i would wait patiently for it to drift back to english or for someone to interpret for me so i could contribute, but i was mostly just enjoying the atmosphere. it was the same as your normal bar, just like anywhere else. and yet it was also different, in a way that i can’t quite specify. there seemed to be an air of familiarity in the place, as though everyone here was supposed to be here, and everyone knew that everyone else was supposed to be here, so everyone was just comfortable. nothing to prove and nowhere to be, but only to enjoy this drink and the people around.

budapest at duski listened to adrienne and her ex speak for awhile longer before we eventually got into a debate about politics and then cultures, which is something i typically try to avoid, but for some reason this time seemed particularly tempting. they had told me a little about how the relationship between the US and hungary was a little strained at the moment due to some sort of paperwork issue with a hungarian diplomat where he was then refused entry to the country or something. this was in combination with a couple other foreign policy things that i was unaware of which made americans look kinda like assholes, which i obviously didn’t feel good about so i apologized (i haven’t had to do that as much as i anticipated when i was preparing for this trip. with all noise that people and the media make about how the rest of the world hates us, i am surprised i even left my house. to the contrary, my experience is that just about everywhere i’ve gone in europe, people love americans. yes, they admit we can sometimes be a little too loud or unaware/ignorant of local custom or social appropriateness for some people, but we’re generally very polite and we tip like idiots, so what’s not to like?!), and then the conversation started winding around into other areas that i can’t quite recall, but there was a moment in the conversation where i felt i was able to see straight into adrienne’s soul, and see everything that she was, and it was beautiful. we were talking about differing types of people to some degree, the type of conversation that is wont to make broad, sweeping assumptions about groups of people unfairly (probably about the different types of “travelers” you find in the world), usually for the sake of humor, but one that is unfair all the same. the ex-boyfriend and i were agreeing about something humorously and adrienne had gotten quiet, listening patiently, when suddenly she took a hard stance out of nowhere and refused to agree with anything we were saying on the topic. not in an angry sort of way, because mind you, this was a harmless conversation over beers, but i could tell that we had just touched on something that was against adrienne’s nature. i asked her to elaborate, and she tried, but i could tell she was frustrated. she couldn’t articulate exactly why, but she just knew we were wrong.

the ex-boyfriend casually dismissed it, but i persisted, and eventually i realized that adrienne is onebuda cathedral at sunset of those rare souls that just genuinely believes in the good in all people, and means it, down to her very core. i think she’s one of the only people i’ve ever met that so fervently holds these beliefs, that there’s not a thing anyone could do to change her mind, no matter what. i tried to shake the tree a little, providing hypotheticals or proposing dilemmas, but there were no peaches falling, she was completely unshakeable. it was no wonder she had drawn such a clear line in the sand, because this was the foundation of her ethos. i started to piece together all of the stories she’d shared with me in the short time i’d known her, and they all started to fall right into line with her personality. it was one of those rare moments of clarity in life where you see a person’s heart, made increasingly rare by the fact that this heart in particular was so pure and honest, and willing to defend or find the redemption in anyone, regardless of crime or sin.

it made me feel a little guilty about myself, and just how jaded i have become in my life. have i really been through so much pain, loss, or failure that i’ve gotten completely lost from the concept of hope and faith in the world? how beautiful it must be to always see roses, even when others only see thorns. it is a sad state when skepticism has taken root and choked out the light in a room. and while i wouldn’t go as far as saying that i have no faith or hope in people or this world, when you meet someone like adrienne, it puts into perspective just where your own ideals lie and sometimes that illumination can be a little painful or even embarrassing. suddenly i wanted to be a better version of myself, for no one other than myself, because that type of optimism is truly what brightens the world we live in. those people are the visionaries, the builders, and the caretakers.
all in all, i was extremely grateful for meeting this group of funny, quirky, and fun girls, and especially in the manner in which it happened. they helped create memories for me that i will always take with me, and it was actually budapest that would prove to be the lynchpin for my own liberation in my future travels, helping put at ease some of my minor anxieties about traveling or being alone. that night i said my goodbyes to the girls, i knew i would miss them.

the cloak attendant of budapestthe following morning i met back up with robert and we visited a unique site just south of budapest called “memento park.” after the soviet union had been kicked out of the central european countries, many of the main cities went through minor makeovers, where they burned and melted down the icons and statues the soviets had installed and replaced them with art more representative of the local people. budapest was a little different, however. rather than just trash everything, they shipped many of their statues and bronzes and installations out to a graveyard of sorts, called memento park. i’m not sure who had the foresight to do this, but in my opinion it is a brilliant preservation of the greyed out world that a system like communism creates. the effect this park achieves is a quirky, often humorous look at just how bad communist art was, and how the budapest natives felt about it. it only took about an hour to make our way through the whole thing, and i actually really enjoyed seeing this unique look at a forgotten aspect of the hungarian history.


once we had finished with memento park, it was time to depart. robert and i were splitting up, as he was heading back to vienna and i was headed for the mountains. up until this point, i had spent a majority of my time in europe in big cities, and they were starting to take their toll. i needed a chance to escape to the deafening silence of nature. i needed to walk, think, and appreciate something other than buildings and crowded city centers. i had heard from a few different people about a place called zermatt, switzerland, where the mountains were breathtaking and the hiking easily accessible. i didn’t take much time to research, i simply booked a cheap flight to salzburg, austria (not wanting to retread areas i’d already traversed) and had decided to try and work my way west from there.

my goodbye with robert was relatively unremarkable, just a handshake and a hug with an accompanying expression of gratitude, but i really was thankful of my time with him. we had spent 3 weeks tramping around some of the most incredible places in the world, and he had shown me his way of exploring those cities. while we didn’t always share the same ideas of fun or the same desires on things we wanted to see, i learned and stole a lot from him in the way of exploration methods. he taught me how to wander intelligently, rather than just blindly stumbling around a city without a goal or idea. he taught me how to find an interest that takes you to places in the city you might not see otherwise (for him, it was the search for the perfect cappuccino and the third wave coffee shop. for me, it was bourbon and music). we had a lot of great conversations about life and meaning and purpose, and everything that fits somewhere in between, and i always respected robert’s practical and utilitarian perspective on things. without my time with robert, the rest of my time in europe may have been very different.
i took the metro train to the airport, took one more long breath of the crisp autumn air, and stepped onto the plane, vowing to return to hungary someday.

———–

for today’s soundtrack, we’ve got a quieter, subdued, and sadder song.  the type of song that takes a little beauty and mixes it with a little melancholy nostalgia, creating a perfect bittersweet winter song.  “dreams/my rope” is a perfect track from portland artist “st. even.” this song was released in 2011 but earlier this year st. even released a new album that deserves a lot more attention than what it received, as it really is a perfect relaxed rainy day album.  if you get a sec, have a listen, and if you’ve got an hour, listen to the whole album.  enjoy…

and if you’d like to listen to all the song selections for this blog, here’s the spotify playlist:

 

egészségedre! budapest, pt 1: ruinpubs

a quick note:  after thinking a little about the quality of content and the volume of the content deficit that i am in now, relative to how much travel i’ve done so far, i’ve decided to start posting once a week.  if this post is any indication, you will get much longer, more content-rich storytelling, but they just won’t be as frequently posted.  this will enable me to tell you better stories instead of more stories that are a little more watered down for the sake of “just getting something up on the blog,” and will give me a “deadline” so i have something to reach for each week.  to make up for less stories, i’ll still be posting little tiny bits here and there with plenty of musical recommendations as well.  this way you’ll never be out of music to listen to.
also, i’d like to make a shameless plea.  if you enjoy my stories and like what i’m doing here, please share the blog with friends or family.  while i mainly write this blog for myself and my friends to follow along, i’d like to see if it is possible to grow an audience, and i can’t do that without you, the people who already like the writing.  thanks again for clicking!
budapest's parliament shines in the sun
budapest’s parliament shines in the sun

a few days later i found myself stepping off a train and onto a platform in the outskirts of budapest.  i was a little nervous upon arriving because i didn’t know much about hungary but in the 10 minutes that I’d been in the country, i was already completely flummoxed by the language.  at least everywhere else i’d been in europe, i could make some kind of logical sense of some of the local tongues, no matter how different they sounded from english.  hungarian might as well be klingon to me.  it seriously sounds crazy, like some imagined language made up of all the sounds that babies make when they are first beginning to experiment with imitating their parents by forming consonants on improvisation and creativity.  but it certainly did make it fun to listen to.  if someone would turn and say something to me, i would just start laughing, completely clueless how to communicate with them.

after navigating a bus and a metro train, robert and i were able to successfully locate the airbnb apartment we had taken out on the pest side of the river.  budapest is actually the result of 2 separate cities merging, buda on the west side of the danube river and pest on the east side, with a third city that was basically just ancient buda, into one big super city in 1873.  the history before then is fairly complex, but it’s even more volatile after, particularly when the austro-hungarian empire collapsed after world war one, and hungary was essentially dismantled into a third of its previous size.  things got even more intense when, in world war two, sections of the city were reduced to dust and ashes by american and british airforces trying to eradicate german positions in the city.  heavy civilian casualties were recorded, nearly 40,000, which you never learn about in american history classes.  even later still, during the hungarian revolution, 3,000 people were murdered by soviet forces with tanks, brutally crushing the rebellion.  needless to say, budapest has a very painful and complex past, and you can still see hints of this just by walking the streets.

after we got sufficiently settled in, we took to the streets, ready to do some brief exploring.  robert actually had a friend in budapest that he hadn’t seen in a few years, so he had plans to meet her for dinner, leaving me to my own devices for the evening.

i had done a little reading on my kindle app about the locale of budapest on the train ride in, so i knew roughly the area i wanted to wander around in.  up near the 7th district is the “jewish quarter” area, where there seemed to be a lot of cool restaurants and coffee shops that were popular with the locals and tourists alike (and robert was excited about a few places in the area so i knew it had to be a good area), so i assumed it would be a relatively easy place to walk around and find something.  i was right.

as i wandered the streets, i started to fall in love with budapest.  i couldn’t help it.  coming straight from vienna, it was impossible not to compare the two, and i felt the two had many similarities.  i started to feel like vienna and budapest were sisters, and vienna was the taller, prettier blonde one who went out with the captain of the football team, always photographed well, and people always talked about.  meanwhile, budapest was the sister that never seemed to get as much attention, but
was so much more interesting in other ways.  budapest was the brown haired younger sister with a little bit of a rebellious streak and a quick wit and a biting sarcasm.  budapest knew how to find the party, how to appreciate the beauty in the strangest of places.  budapest was the girl who kept a straight face and didn’t necessarily smile as much as her sister, but there was a fierce passion and a dazzling display whenever that smile did surface.  budapest’s architecture and sculptures are just as fancy as vienna’s but the difference is that budapest wears its age in plain view, while vienna looks like it has gotten a facelift every ten years (that’s not to say that vienna’s beauty looks fake.  it doesn’t.  it’s amazing.  but in a sort of “i’m afraid to touch anything” kind of way).  There’s nothing wrong with either, but for my particular tastes, i prefer the worn look a little more.  in budapest, you can see every conflict, every struggle, every celebration on its streets and on its buildings, and you need nothing more than to walk a few blocks to see them.

when i finally found the old jewish district, i picked a direction and started walking.  after wandering up and down a few uninteresting streets, i came upon an alley with an illuminated marquee that displayed the “gozsdu udvar.” under the marquee was a busy alleyway with all sorts of different colored lighting throwing multicolored shadows left and right, like some sort of kaleidoscope bazaar.  throngs of people were milling about and there were tables and chairs under covered patios with seated patrons drinking beer and eating food, loudly conversing amongst themselves.  i figured if i was going to find a place to people watch, this was it.  i walked straight into the promenade.

as i strolled along, i did my best to look inconspicuous, but I’m sure that only made me look even more suspicious.  i hadn’t shaved since i left home, and that was over 6 weeks ago.  my facial hair had gone from peach fuzz to gq sexy scruff to minor beard, and was now crossing over into the major beard territory.  strong shades of bright red were starting to become visible.  there’s a good chance that i looked like a scottish homeless man as i walked down the alley.

after passing a dozen coffee shops and just as many bars, all of which were packed full to the brim budapest buildingswith people, i had reached the other end of the 2 – 3 block busy stretch of the gozsdu udvar.  my flyby was complete and it was now time to choose a spot for some food.  i didn’t want to be so obvious, so i circled the next block to make sure i wasn’t missing anything over there, discovered i was not, and then re-entered the walkway.  i got about 2/3 of the way back through the market before selecting a place called “spiler.”  I entered and asked for a table for 1, the matre d paused, tilted his head slightly – as if to ask me “are you sure?”, then motioned for me to follow him.  the place was packed and i didn’t see any available seats, but he managed to find me a small high table segregated from the rest of the main room behind a large pain of glass.  at first i was reluctant to sit because i was removed from all the action, but i was also happy to have received a seat under such busy conditions, so i climbed into the tall chair thankfully.

almost immediately, i became aware of an awkward situation brewing.  the high table i had just been seated at was pressed up against a window which also had another table pushed up against it on the other side of the window.  this one was at a normal height, significantly lower than mine, and had two semi-attractive females seated at it.  if my table had been lower, it would have been like we were at the same table, but with a large transparent obstruction to block whatever was said.  i caught the eye of one of the girls and gave a sheepish grin to acknowledge the situation.  she smiled briefly and quickly looked away.  i laughed aloud and shook my head.  instead of being inconspicuous and sitting in the corner people watching, i was now in the most obvious and visibly awkward location in the entire restaurant.

making the best of it, i ordered a negroni and some food.  the negroni was average, but the food was good.  i devoured it quickly and nervously ordered another negroni.  at this point i had noticed a couple people looking at me casually from the other side of the glass and I was starting to feel like an imprisoned zoo animal.  all that was missing was a couple annoying kids tapping the glass and making funny faces at me.  the restaurant staff had attempted to seat a few different parties at the 3 other high tables situated in my area, but all of these groups had declined to sit there after seeing the location.

eventually an older group of 4 people sat and stayed at the table right next to me, and i was at least thankful to not be the only one on display anymore.  i started to eavesdrop on the conversation and quickly determined over the dull roar of the music that they were americans.  after listening to the conversation for awhile and determining that they were probably pretty cool people, i struck up a conversation.
“where in the states you from?”
“california!”
“oh cool, whereabouts?”
“southern.  orange county area.”
“nice, i went to high school in san clemente.”
“no way, small world!  we all live in laguna niguel.  pull up a chair!”

the group was comprised of two couples.  one couple had darker features, dark hair and dark eyes, and the other couple had lighter features, graying blond hair and bluish eyes.  they were all in their early 50s and all had very cheerful dispositions.  both couples had recently sent their youngest kids off to college and had decided to plan a vacation together rather than wallow in the throes of an empty nest.   one of the women had basically planned the entire thing and everyone else had happily joined and followed along.  they had started in berlin and moved along the same path I had taken, down to prague, vienna, and now budapest.  they were leaving tomorrow.

after trading stories for awhile, they asked me what my story was.  i told them how i had decided to buy a one way ticket to iceland and snake my way across europe without a plan rather than look for a job back home and keep up with the status quo.  they began to excitedly ask me questions about where i had been and what i had done, and they congratulated me on my decision.  they made me feel really good about myself, almost like i was some kind of famous person or something they had met in a chance encounter.   it was a nice change from the anonymity that often comes with backpacking alone.

eventually they asked if i had been to any of the ruinpubs in budapest.  having seen this phrase briefly in my lonely planet guide but not paying much attention, i was vaguely aware of the term.  i acknowledged that i had not been to any, hoping they would elaborate a little more.  they enthusiastically told me about how a the jewish sections of the city, mainly district VII, had been vacated during world war II during the holocaust (okay they weren’t enthusiastic about that part) for obvious and sad reasons, and then had become an area of the city that had languished and fallen into neglect in the decades since.  some areas fell into soviet control during the cold war and had subsequently been abandoned and cordoned off after the soviet empire had regressed back to Russia.  these structures remained empty all this time until only a few years ago, when the buildings had begun to be reopened and made available for businesses again. rather than demolish the buildings which had fallen into disrepair, some enterprising owners had decided to go with the themes these buildings provided.  so like an artist and his art, the building became the canvas and the bar owners became the artists, and the ruinpub was born.  a ruin pub is a bar located in one of these centuries-old buildings, which typically have a very eccentric and atypical design or decorative theme throughout the establishment.  some of the larger ones, like szimpla (sorry, their website is terrible), are known for having up to 5 or more floors, with each floor having a different decorative theme, and providing a very cool and unique atmosphere to meet some friends for a drink.  some people call these places hipster havens, but i call them excellent.  but then again, i have a massive beard now, so people probably assume i’m one.  such is life.

so after a thorough explanation and another round of beers, we left the restaurant and headed in the direction of the ruinpub they had been at the day before.  but first, they paid my bill without telling me.  i was shocked and extremely grateful, and i wish i could remember their names because it was such a kind gesture for a stranger.

we walked for about 10 minutes and turned into a courtyard that was completely empty, with a handful of unattended bar counters.  my new friends turned and looked at me with an embarrassed look and promised that it had been hopping with people the night before, and that i might just need to wait a couple hours before things get going again (at this point it was probably only 9pm).  i laughed and thanked them, unsure if i was going to hang out a couple hours for people to show up. before i could make a decision, they apologized and informed me they wouldn’t be waiting around since they had to catch a flight back to the states the next morning.  we said our goodbyes and they disappeared down the dimly lit backstreet.

i stood alone in the courtyard, wondering what my next move would be.  i hadn’t even had the intention of going out that night, and i felt stupid just standing by myself there, and i sure as hell wasn’t going to wait around by myself for 2 hours, so i decided to just head back home.  this decision didn’t hold up long, because i had walked less than a block when i strolled by another courtyard ruinpub gate, this one surprisingly busy and also heavily guarded, with 4 very large men standing watch at the entrance.  as i slowed my pace during my walk-by, i peeked inside nonchalantly and saw how busy it was and how interestingly it was decorated.  i was suddenly struck by the urge to go inside, but my brain was already committed to going back to the apartment.  my body did a sort of awkward sidestep in mid stride, and i’m almost positive i made some sort of noticeably stupid convulsion, as my body and brain were momentarily at war with each other over what they each wanted to do.  i stopped in the middle of the street for a second so that i could grant myself a moment’s peace to come to a logical conclusion about what to do.  i really did want to sleep, as i had been traveling that day and had already walked a good distance in the city.  on the other hand, this place looked really cool, and i was teased by the possibilities of what might be in a new city.  plus i was already here.  what was the harm in one quick beer to see if i liked it?

i became aware of the fact that i was frozen in the middle of the street, and people were probably looking at me.  i defaulted my decision to going back to my initial decision to return home.  i made it about 20 feet before a small group of really attractive girls speaking hungarian passed by me, and suddenly i was in doubt again.  i turned around to watch them go, humorously re-enacting a scene in my mind from dumb & dumber where jim carrey melodically exclaims “goodbye, my loooooooooooove!” after saying goodbye to mary swanson at the airport.  i watched as they turned and entered the ruinpub i had been torturously belaboring over.  i reconsidered my position and then decided to go in for one beer.

after gaining entry, i slowly approached the scene and cautiously tried to gather as much information as possible.  in a square courtyard with tall buildings surrounding on all 4 sides, there were three trees with large trunks in the center of the area, and tables and chairs strewn all about.   on each side of the square was a bar with a different name, décor, and style.  in the building opposite of the entrance was an open lobby-like room with a ping pong table and a foosball table with some couches surrounding and some bathrooms in the back.  there appeared to be some stairs leading up as well, but I never made it up that far. back outside, the walls were covered in a growing ivy plant that had already climbed up about a third of the height of the building.  the ivy cast complex shadows around itself and the wall, backlit by small floodlights spread around the courtyard in strategic places.  wired lights looped and stretched from the building walls onto the trees and then wrapped up the branches and into the night, providing a dim but perfect luminescence for the scene below it.  people were milling all about, standing in groups or congregating at tables, laughing joyously and talking loudly with beers in hand, careless about anything that might be happening outside the walls of the ruinpub.

i was enthused by the place and its positive energy.  what a great concept and what a great place to interact.  i walked up to a counter and tried to inconspicuously get a beer.  i did well enough, but it was painfully obvious that i wasn’t from around here.  trying to remain unphased, i turned around and decided to loop around the area and try to locate a place to sit or a person to befriend.  i walked slowly and casually, taking only small sips and trying to hone in on any opportunities.  nobody was speaking english again, so i was at a loss for a game plan.  there also wasn’t any seating available, as they were all taken by large groups of friends that were steadily growing.  this was definitely not one of the tourist ruinpubs, it was a locals one.

i ambled about the courtyard and walked up to a group of young people speaking unmistakable american english.  i felt the instinctual desire to try to jump into the conversation since it was the only thing i could understand around me, but i internally scolded myself for taking the easy way out.  i didn’t come to hungary to meet other americans.  i sidestepped the group and continued walking slowly around the room, confident something would happen.

after doing 2 laps and nothing happening, not even being able to make eye contact with anyone, i began to humorously get distressed.  i was starting to border on being that creepy guy that just leers

not a ruin pub i went to, but szimpla is the mother of ruin pubs

at everyone in the bar and no one talks to because they’re afraid of being followed home later.  i looked over and noticed a bench that could fit about 5 people snugly, but was currently occupied by a couple who looked like they might get up soon.  rather than sit down and cramp the guy’s space, who was clearly trying to get the girl to go home with him, i decided to wait around for them to go and then i would take their place.  while i was waiting, i noticed a table with 2 girls sitting by themselves.  i was tired of being the awkward loner, i wanted to make some friends.  instead of wait for the bench, i decided to go talk to these girls, even if they couldn’t speak english, regardless of consequence.

i started to approach the table, the girls hadn’t noticed me yet.  2 more steps, still nothing.  another 2 steps, the couple at the bench started to grab their things.  2 more steps, the girls at the table were aware of my approaching presence.  1 more step, the couple at the bench had stood up and left the bench.  suddenly my brain broke in mid step.  1 more step, i deviated from my path and now was facing the tree trunk that separated the bench from the 2 girls at the table.  i looked at the girls at the table who were now looking at me curiously.  shit.  abandon ship.  i turned to the bench, only to see that a group of 4 girls were just sitting down and making themselves comfortable at my seat.  damn!  this is getting worse.  i looked back over to the 2 girls at the table, who were now looking at me like i was some kind of undiscovered monkey species.   i set my jaw and stubbornly decided to take my seat that had been stolen from me by the 4 intruders on the bench.  i looked down and noticed that the last girl had left room for half of an ass cheek.  i abruptly sat down.  i now needed a drink from the beer that i had been gingerly sipping for the last 30 minutes.

as i pulled the glass to my lips, i felt a sharp sensation in my head, like 8 knives were being pressed into my temple.  a hole was burning and boring into the side of my skull.  completely perplexed, i searched for what might be the cause. i couldn’t place it.  i eagerly took a sip of the beer and then glanced to my right.  there, leaning outward in a domino effect, kind of like how scooby doo & the gang used to peer around corners, one head above the other, were 4 pairs of eyes staring right at me, emotionless, cold, unforgiving.  the 4 girls that had stolen my bench were now unwavering in their collective gaze, looking right through my soul.  i froze in a panic.  refusing to back down, i let out a lone nervous laugh and then lifted the beer back to my lips and downed the whole thing.  the girls all erupted simultaneously in laughter.

they had sensed my awkwardness and could tell i was a foreigner.  one of them, lilla, the troublemaker, had quickly organized the group staredown, and in my neuroses i had been completely unaware.  we all introduced ourselves and i gratefully and excitedly began to get to know the group, glad that i was no longer creeping around the room.

lilla and adrienne spoke the best english, so they led most of the conversation, while dora, gabby, and i were along for the ride.  obviously i was the new commodity, being an american in Budapest, so much of the conversation centered around me (something i have absolutely no problem with), but it quickly became apparent to me that this was going to be one of those nights that i would probably remember for the rest of my life, partly for its outlandishness and also for it’s hilarity.  as the night progressed, i bought the next couple rounds of drinks for the girls, partially to thank them for rescuing me from my own prison, but also because i think buying drinks for people who’s company I enjoy is my love language.  in my life, i’ve had some of the most ludicrous bar tabs ever, and i’ve had to learn how to let other people buy their own drinks.  but in hungary i couldn’t believe how cheap the drinks were, it was shocking. it was even cheaper than prague!  i could get a beer for a euro, or i could get a cocktail for 2-3 euros. for the cost of one cocktail in vienna, i could buy a whole round of beers for 5 people.

as the music started to get louder, the drinks were flowing, we got more comfortable with each other as a group, and eventually we started a dance party in the middle of the courtyard.  It was only a matter of about 5 minutes before a group of about 15 people had joined in with us.  it was fairly obvious to many of the single guys in the ruinpub that i was over-reaching on my quantity of women and they thought they could pluck one or two of them from me, so as the night wore on, guys would repeatedly come over and begin hitting on each one of them.  i started to pick up on the fact that they weren’t enjoying it, so at one point i decided to intervene.  an italian guy with a preppy geek-chic look had been mercilessly harassing adrienne for 10 minutes, and she had started to make funny disgusted faces whenever he wasn’t looking. i walked over and put my arm around her and said “hey babe, you want another drink?”  he looked at me funny and then back at her.  realizing what i was doing, she quickly acted the part, and eventually the guy went away.  i did this at least 2 more times during the night, once for gabby, and I think for lilla once, and it started to become a funny thing that we were waiting for throughout the night.

as the night crept steadily closer to the following morning, our group decided it was time to call it a night.  gabby had started dancing with some persistent guy who thought he was fred astaire, and she couldn’t escape him.  she gave me a long, pleading look, hoping I would come save her.  i realized she was too nice to break this poor guy’s heart, so i happily did it for her.  the poor guy couldn’t believe that his moves weren’t as gold as he thought they were and that she was not interested, as he kept speaking to her in Hungarian as we made our way as a group to the exit, finally giving up once we walked through the gate.

as we walked, it struck me that I’d had a little too much to drink, and i now had no idea how to get back to my apartment.  normally when i go out with women at night, i insist on walking them back to their car to make sure they got there safely, so by force of habit i insisted on escorting them to wherever they were headed, despite the fact that i’d never been in this city before, and as i would find out later, we were walking directly in the opposite direction that i needed to go. since i didn’t know how to get home, i was in no rush, so i walked the girls home.  i got extremely lucky when lilla offered that i could sleep on the couch since i had apparently convinced them i wasn’t a murderer.  i gratefully accepted, and i think i was asleep before my head even hit the pillow.  what a crazy first day in Budapest.

my girls from budapest
my budapest girls. from left, adrienne, lilla, dora, and gabby

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today’s groovy groove is an ancient classic by this blog’s normal standards.  it’s a song called “dancing in the moonlight” by a band called king harvest, released back in 1972.  the band’s core members were made up of 4 american expats living in paris, so i really couldn’t think of a good reason not to use this song on the blog.  put a smile on your face, grab a girl or grab a guy, and take a spin around the dance floor.  enjoy…

visual feedback: iceland

i’ve been taking a little break in nice, france between posts to rethink a little of my format and content in posts.  over the next couple weeks i’ll be writing a few posts sporadically that talk more about state of mind and observation as opposed to destination-based.  during this break, i had a chance to throw together a video of my time in iceland, where the whole trip started.  have a look and enjoy the amazing scenery.  watch it full screen to get the full “hd experience!”

 

skogafoss

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.

Vienna, you are passively stunning. I will see you another time. #Austria #vienna #hyperlapse

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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.

—————————

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).

…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.

————-

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: welcome to germany, pt 3. speakeasies and auf wiedersehen

reighstag in the wind
the reichstag stands strong as winds blow overhead in berlin, germany

during my time in berlin, i stayed at a hostel by the name of pfefferbett hostel up in the mitte neighborhood.  As I mentioned before, the mitte neighborhood is one that appears to be a little yuppie-ish, it’s very clean-cut and extremely safe.  it’s the kind of neighborhood that has the types of upscale bars that are more expensive than i can afford on a traveler’s budget, but too good to resist.  they are the kinds of places where you can find a bartender who knows the value of a strong whiskey pour into just the right mix of ingredients to create a completely new and complex concoction that loosens the screws and lightens your load and just might help you find an interesting conversation or make you a friend or two, whether on your side of the bar or the other.  these are the places with a specific sense of style, where the purveyors know that the environment is just as important as the libation being served. because if i can’t enjoy myself while drinking the cocktail, then i can’t enjoy the cocktail.

so while in berlin i had read of/heard of some bars in the area that were of the “speakeasy” variety, which i found to be particularly interesting.  the reason i find this interesting is because the “speakeasy” is something that is uniquely american.  it calls back to the days of the prohibition era in the US, when it was illegal to consume or possess alcohol.  alcohol was then imported into the US through smuggling operations via Canada and the atlantic coast, as well as sourced locally from bootlegging operations in places like kentucky, tennessee, and virginia.  once the alcohol (most popularly, whiskey and whisky – yes, there’s a difference based on that wandering “e”) was in the borders, people needed a place to consume it in secret.  speakeasies starting popping up in metropolitan locations all over the country, most notably (or notoriously) in places like new york and chicago.  a speakeasy is a clandestine or secret establishment where alcohol is served, often accompanied by music or other forms of entertainment like gambling.  popularized by the movies and typically shown as the type of place that has a secret door or a nondescript entrance point, establishments typically had a “member’s-only” type of regulation where only trusted and proven patrons were allowed entrance.  it was all very hush-hush and fancy, which is why one can see why there has been a re-emergence of such types of establishments in recent years, despite the fact that the volstadt act was repealed decades ago.  people really like themes, people really like ambiance, and sometimes a body wants a little more out of their bartender than someone who can pour beer into a cup and collect your dollar.

Fernsehturm tower stands watch over berlin. almost looks like a jetsons home.
Fernsehturm tower stands watch over berlin. almost looks like a jetsons home.

so you can see why I was intrigued when i heard there was a speakeasy culture in berlin. i had to check it out.  i had a dilemma, however.  despite the fact i had met my friend robert and was no longer wandering alone, robert doesn’t really drink, so there was no way i was going to be able to convince him to accompany me to a place that might charge 10 euros for a cocktail when robert usually pays zero euros to drink none cocktails.  i also have a specific rule for myself that basically says i don’t drink alone.  i don’t ever want to get to a point where i am addicted to alcohol for any reason and in my opinion drinking alone is where this starts.  i merely enjoy this vice as a form of meaningless escapism; a way to enjoy flavor, and taste, and the art that can be created when watching a craftsman construct the perfect spirit.

luckily for me, i made a local friend in berlin.  when i had first checked into the pfefferbett hostel, there was a delightful smiley face working behind the reception.  she was frantically helping about 4 different guests at the same time and i was quite impressed with her ability to keep a positive attitude and an uplifting energy about her during something that would have made me simply get angry and wonder why I was the only one behind the desk during what i’m guessing is “rush hour.”  over the next week while in berlin, whenever i wasn’t sure about what i should be doing or might be missing out on, i’d stroll up to the desk and ask yolanda for her opinion.  it wasn’t always easy, as she could get pretty busy up there, and often times it seemed to be in the times whenever i wanted to talk to her, there would be some huge group checking in after we were about 2 minutes into our conversation (actually this is the only gripe i have about pfefferbett hostel:  they book large groups of kids in the hostel.  and I don’t mean college kids.  i mean pre-adolescents on school trips.  at one point during my stay, there were five different groups of 6th and 7th grade kids staying in the hostel, and each group was at least 30 kids and had no more than 2 or 3 chaperones.  these kids would stay up all night unsupervised running up and down the halls banging on doors and speaking loudly with no regard whatsoever for anyone else sleeping at 3am.  you know, the kinds of things i definitely would have been doing when i was their age.  but i’m not their age and i like to sleep.  so after a couple nights of hearing this even with my earplugs in, i furiously jumped up and ran out into the hall and yelled a few obscenities and told the kids to shut up and go to bed immediately or they’d never see their parents again.  they looked at me like i was a crazy person and immediately retreated into their rooms.  i knew there was a good chance many of them didn’t speak “angry half asleep american english,” so that probably accounted for the weird look they gave me.  or it may be been that the only thing i was wearing were these ridiculous blue-with-pink-trim quick-dry boxer briefs that i’d gotten a good deal for on amazon before i left the US.  they don’t leave much to the imagination.  oops).

a fierce owl in graffiti keeps watch over his street near hackescher markt in berlin, germany
a fierce owl in graffiti keeps watch over his street near hackescher markt in berlin, germany

eventually yolanda and i got a chance to hang out off the clock, and now i had a buddy to explore some of these local cocktail haunts that i’d wanted to sample.  yolanda is originally from the canary islands, off the coast of morocco and a territory of spain.  she is a native spanish speaker who moved to berlin while in school so she could improve her german and work in an exchange program while she studied hospitality for her degree.  she liked it so much that she stayed and has been there for three years now.

yolanda has dark brown eyes and a beaming smile that lights up the room.  she has a huge quaff of extremely wavy hair that she sometimes pulls back tight, but when she lets it loose it expands into a lion’s mane that seems surely impossible to tame.  one of the funniest things about hanging out with yolanda is that sometimes she mixes the three languages she speaks.  sometimes she is speaking english and she will just wander off into german for a couple sentences before she sees the confused look on your face and then explodes into laughter, realizing what she’s just done.  she speaks english fairly well but with a fun accent and i have no idea how her german is since i speak none.  but i never saw her have a problem with delivery or communication any time we were out, so my guess is she is pretty adept.  regardless, i insisted on speaking spanish a majority of the time we hung out.  i jump at any chance i get to improve my spanish, and i’ve realized that where i used to get a little stressed out that i was unable to communicate exactly what i was feeling, now i enjoy trying to construct a phrase in another language.  it’s like trying to put together a jigsaw puzzle, where you know what the end result is supposed to look like, but it’s up to you to make all the pieces fit.

anyway, yolanda was one of my favorite people i met on my journey so far.  she has an ability to put anyone at ease, and she sort of floats effortlessly in and out of social interactions with such grace and enthusiasm that i sometimes found myself envious of her social prowess.  normally i have to amp myself up to turn on the charm, and then i can interact with the world.  this just came naturally to yolanda.  other times i would find myself slightly internally annoyed because i don’t always have the patience to deal with people, like a frustrated 3 year old that doesn’t want to have to say things like “please” in order to have the piece of candy being dangled in front of them.  but once again, this was just my own persnickety cantankerousness making its way to the surface.

one of my nights out with yolanda, she wanted to show me a few of the things i hadn’t had a chance to see yet.  berlin is a really big city, and one can’t possibly hope to overturn every stone in only a week.  one place I had been itching to walk around in was the hackescher markt, in the

elaborate graffiti adorns a random alley in berlin, germany
elaborate graffiti adorns a random alley in berlin, germany

middle of the city.  in my week there, i had gone all around this area but never actually walked around in it. originally a marshy wetland just outside the city walls, in 1750 king frederick the 2nd of prussia ordered a market be installed.  it wasn’t a particularly nice place to be until the reunification of germany, where it has since become a cultural and  social centerpiece of berlin.  due largely to its late night scene and its farmer’s markets on sundays, it is now a place to see and be seen, and one can always find something to do in hackescher markt.

we wandered around for a couple hours, poking our heads into a few bars for a drink, but mainly just wandering the streets, admiring graffiti and people watching.  we shuffled over to the bebelplatz, which was another thing i had wanted to see but hadn’t made time for.  bebelplatz is the small public square area where hitler and the Nazis would hold book burning parades.  since childhood, anytime I think of bebelplatz I think of that scene from “indiana jones and the last crusade” where harrison ford stumbles into the square during a nazi rally and accidentally bumps into the führer himself, obtaining an autograph from ol’ adolf in the process.  that scene was humorously being reenacted in my mind as i strolled through the square (not to make light of the history, as there’s nothing funny about any of the nazi history in germany, but on the other hand it is too easy to get lost in the sadness of what has happened in berlin, so one must find a way to not become depressed about it.  indiana jones is what i recommend) and happened upon one of the most clever memorials i’ve ever seen.  in the middle of the plaza next to the large cordoned-off area due to the neighboring opera house restoration project (half of berlin is always under construction, I’m told.  yolanda had this hilarious song she kept singing, written and improv’d by her with degrees of variance every time, where the lyrics went something like “welcome to berliiiin, where everything is always under constructionnnnsss” – to be read in a thick spanish accent of course), there lays an illuminated window looking straight into the ground.  furnished with thick-paned glass, one can stand on it without worry and peer directly into the hollowed out room below and see the long and large empty bookcases that line all four walls of the empty space. this room symbolizes a grave in memoriam to the countless numbers of books that were burned on the ground just above it decades ago.

eventually, after wandering around a few more neighborhoods, over some bridges, passing by “museum island” (yes the main museums in berlin are on an island on the spree river. top that, world.), and venturing to the top of a hotel to for a fantastic view of the city, we eventually headed out for the main event:  speakeasy time.

beckett's speakeasy looks more like a random apartment in an unsuspicious neighborhood
beckett’s speakeasy looks more like a random apartment in an unsuspicious neighborhood

i had around 7 places marked out that i had found or read about on the internet, and while i knew there was no way i would be able to make it to all of them, i really was happy to just get to one of them.  we started at a place called “beckett.”   we only had two clues in order to find this place:  we knew what street block in the mitte neighborhood it was in, and we knew that the face of old “beckett” himself would be staring back at us when we found it.  despite such nebulous hints, we eventually found it.  after walking past the place, yolanda pointed out that, in an otherwise darkened storefront shop with a blacked out window, an old man’s face was backlit on the window itself, plain as can be.  It’s the kind of thing that you notice when you’re not looking for it, but when in search it is nowhere to be found.  nevertheless, we approached the accompanying door and rang the buzzer.  after a few short moments, the door cracked open and a friendly face  peeked out and patiently waited for me to say something.
“beckett’s?”  i queried.  the door opened and a thin, friendly man let yolanda and me in, ushering us to 2 seats at the corner of a small bar.

it wasn’t very busy, which was fine by me, and the bartender and the manager busied themselves crafting expert cocktails, only engaging in conversation when they were first engaged by a patron, which i happily obliged.  whenever a new person came to the establishment (which didn’t happen many times) and rang the buzzer, there was no sound made, but a red light near

beckett's "playbook" is just a front for a menu of contraband cocktails
beckett’s “playbook” is just a front for a menu of contraband cocktails

the door illuminated to let the manager know someone was waiting.  the whole operation was extremely well orchestrated and not too over the top like often happens in the US, where managers and owners often get lost in the details and forget that the drinking experience is actually more important than making sure your staff is wearing period-accurate-suspenders or that the imported leather chairs are the correct shade of dark black cherry.  after awhile i began to discuss this topic with the manager and i was shocked to learn that this bar had been open for years, and was mainly just a locals-only place (and it would have to be, because it’s not near any other bars) which hoped to maintain the quiet atmosphere and loyal local customer base, and didn’t need to appeal to the masses.  usually places like this in the states will keep up the façade of a “hush-hush” atmosphere for a couple months, but eventually the need to make money wins over and what makes the bar special fades, leaving nothing but a bar where the staff wears costumes.  not at beckett’s, the manager took great pride in the fact that they make a point of preserving the concept and the clientele that they attract.

after a couple fine whiskey concoctions, yolanda and i decided to try and fit one more location into the night.  we headed south for a place called “the butcher.”  literally hidden inside and behind a restaurant, this one was a little more fun to find.  you enter a small restaurant called “fleischman’s” and instead of walking immediately left where the seating area is, you head right and walk toward the bathrooms.  there you can find an old, red, british phone booth.  in the phone booth is a pile of magazines and papers piled on top of a button which rings someone to let them know you’re waiting.  after a minute, a small slot opened in the middle of one of the walls in the phone booth and a pair of eyes stare at you quizzically for a moment before the false wall swings open and reveals an unexpectedly large room modeled like a large walk-in

meat locker.  we walked to the corner and found a seat on a sofa and marveled at our surroundings.  dimly illuminated in low red lighting, the bar area was actually quite large in an L shape in the corner.  instead of having an impressive selection of alcohols all stacked up on high shelving, this place had every bottle of the strong stuff hanging from meat hooks on chains, and it looked really cool.

the butcher admittedly had a less personal touch to the place than beckett’s, and the barkeep at beckett’s was much more talented, but on the other hand the butcher could accommodate way more customers and also had a livelier atmosphere.  it really just depended on what you were looking for in an evening.  all told, i really enjoyed my time at both establishments, and if i lived in berlin, they would both be in the rolodex.  okay, I don’t really have a rolodex.  but i wish i did.

the night had gotten late and yolanda and i had both hit our limit for the acceptable number of cocktails consumed.  we walked the empty streets of berlin in the night air and retired for the evening.  i said my goodbyes, thankful that yolanda had been open to spending some of her time on a friend with an expiration date of sorts. i was extremely thankful for the time that i had gotten to spend with her, as she had a large part in helping shape my experience and cultivate my newfound love for such an unexpectedly amazing city.  berlin had suddenly become what would prove to one of my absolute favorite cities in europe.

but alas, it was time to move on. the next morning robert and i pointed ourselves to prague, czech republic.

a couple girls take a picnic on an exposed water pipe arching over the spree river in berlin

a couple girls take a picnic on an exposed water pipe arching over the spree river in berlin

———-

for today’s audio jam, it’s only appropriate to pick something as uplifting and happy as the person much of the story was about.  this new song from walk the moon is so infectious, i can’t get it out of my head.  or my headphones.  try this on if you’re having a down day or if you just want to jump up and down.

guten tag: welcome to germany, pt 2. berlin, reunification, and graffiti

the days following hamburg and oldenburg flew by.  berlin is truly a unique city, one that views like a good book reads, where each successive chapter continues to build and surprise, and just when you think you’ve seen it all, it surprises you again.  when i had initially started outlining last summer what countries i wanted to visit on this trip, berlin was just a city that had made the list because it was simply on the way to other places I wanted to go and it would have seemed idiotic to leave out.  i knew that i would be interested in the history, but i didn’t really know why else i was going. this thought occurred to me on the train over from hamburg.

an old friend from my youth had seen some of my instagram photos pop up on his social media account and, having a few weeks for himself to do some traveling, decided to join me for a couple weeks.  he chose berlin as the rendezvous point. i suppose reuniting with an old friend after more than a decade seemed only appropriate in a city like berlin, but that comparison is probably eye-rollingly obvious. i was more than grateful for robert’s arrival, as i was still a little shell-shocked from the language barrier/loneliness issues from paris, and i was worried of a repeat performance in germany (now that i was truly out on my own and had no more options of meeting up with old acquaintances and friends from my past).  plus, when you’re exploring new places, it’s always more fun when you have people to explore those areas with.  you get to share the experience with someone else, see the things they see that you missed, see the world through their eyes, get their perspective.  you also have the added benefit of external opinion.  one of the toughest things about traveling alone is, ironically, decision making.  i thought this would be the easiest thing, because i am a decisive person and i do not have to worry about accommodating anyone other than myself.  but on the contrary, the problem is one of surplus of choice:  you have too many options. sometimes having to appease someone else’s wishes and desires is actually really nice, because making the decisions (or even caring) can often be a daunting task for yourself, especially if you don’t always know exactly what you want.  game-planning is something i have always been good at, but when you’re doing it all the time, it gets exhausting.  arriving somewhere new and trying to figure why it is cool and what you need to go see, what you need to eat, what you need to drink, who you need to meet, and trying to fit all that into a window of three to six days becomes a juggling act in a revolving door.

so i was glad to have a friend along for the ride.  robert and i became friends through a long-disbanded group of buddies that all used to play a particular computer game together.  it was called “delta force:  blackhawk down” and it was a 1st person shooter that mimicked the types of battles fought by troops in the crisis in mogadishu in the 90s (made famous by the movie of the same title).  our group had a “clan” which we’d cleverly (read as:  immaturely) named “cleavage.”  each member of the team had a code name or “call sign” that fit within the theme.  an exclusive club, we really only had 2 criteria for membership:  we had to know you personally and you had to be funny.  some examples of “call signs” on the cleavage clan were as follows:  left breast, right breast, perky breast, saggy breast, fake breast, etc. et al.  the members of our team would log on together from our own computers at home, join the same team, and then we would wage war against other doritos-eating-mountain-dew-downing-teenagers until the wee hours of the morning.  and we were good.  our team members had different roles to play within the team, and we played them well.  rarely would we lose, thanks to aggressive domination from the likes of core members andreas, terry, ardy, Robert, cody, and myself.  it was good clean fun.  mostly.

robert on kgb patrol at the brandenburg
robert on kgb patrol at the brandenburg

anyway, robert is a complex individual with a firm grasp of who he is in the world and what he likes.  a coffee enthusiast, he’d modestly tell you that he’s only just learning how coffee really works since he’s only been in search of the perfect “flat white” for a couple years now.  but in the time I’ve been traveling with him, i’ve learned more about coffee than i ever desired to (i don’t really drink coffee, i know that will cause me to lose touch with a couple readers.  sorry. i am what i am) in just a handful of conversations with him at cool coffee houses that he somehow locates with some sort of coffee bean sixth sense.  he also knows more than most people i know who drink starbucks religiously.

robert is a front-end software engineer who has found his way into freelancing as a way to help him balance out his need to travel off the grid from time to time, but still stay connected to the tech world in silicon valley and beyond that his career has tied him to.  i’m a little envious of skills and abilities in programming as I think if I was able to “freelance,” i’d probably live the rest of my life on the road, rambling from town to town, only stopping to work whenever I found a reliable wifi signal and a contract i liked.

i'm clearly a spy. at checkpoint charlie
i’m clearly a spy. at checkpoint charlie

we met up at a little hostel in the mitte neighborhood of berlin.  it’s a cool and clean neighborhood that some might call “yuppie-ish,” and they’d probably be right, but it’s got a great charm to it.  it’s pretty safe and is handily located next to a few metro stops so it is easy to get to and from.  once we got our bearings, we wasted no time at dissecting the city, knocking out tourist mainstays like the brandenburg gate, the reichstag building, and checkpoint charlie within the first couple days.  when we were done with those, we would wander for hours through random neighborhoods that robert had found while searching for his hipster haven coffee shops.  while i don’t really partake of this pursuit of his, i’ve been thankful for it because it has often led me to places i probably would not have found on my own.   often times while in search of a cappuccino shop that robert had seen good reviews for, we would wander down some random wrong street and find some ornate clocktower that wasn’t visible from the main walkways.  Or we would see some really cool graffiti that one would have no clue was there had they never left beaten path.

speaking of graffiti, berlin has to be the best city in the world at embracing its graffiti.  they don’t even fight it.  in the US, if graffiti ends up on a wall somewhere, it’s rarely clever or intelligible, and it is usually covered up or painted over expeditiously, and the eyesore is gone before you know it.  in berlin the graffiti is EVERYWHERE, and often times it has a very clever message about consumerism, or it pokes fun of itself, or even makes you think deeper thoughts about your own existence. 

Berlin has the best graffiti #Berlin #CheckPlease

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everywhere i went, i found myself really enjoying graffiti even more so than some of the sights.   i even began to notice some of the taggers’ calling cards.  i could tell which neighborhoods belonged to which artists.  and when a commissioned piece had adorned a wall in giant mural fashion, there seemed to be a respect among the taggers.  they would usually leave those walls alone.  or, if that wall was tagged, it would be tagged around the mural, so as not to disturb the art, and the new tagger would only hit an area that was empty and unoccupied by paint.

East Berlin space program. #BerlinGraffiti #itsnotreallyspaceyouguys

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my guess is that a lot of this acceptable culture comes from the acceptance of living with a giant wall running right down the middle of the city for 30 years. the amount of decoration and graffiti that came to adorn this monstrosity likely spilled over into the rest of the city as years wore on, and now its just a badge of pride.  but that wall is something else.  i can’t even describe how i felt as i walked along segments of it during the week i was in berlin.  trying to put myself the shoes of someone living in this city during the soviet reign made my head spin countless times.  the thought that i could be living on one street corner one day and the love of my life might be living on the other side of the street, and the next day a giant wall went up between us and i might never see her again… this scenario kept resurfacing in my mind for days, until i saw the following scribbled on a section of the wall near checkpoint charlie:

heartbreak at the berlin wall
“to astrid: maybe someday we will be together”

i knew that it had happened to someone at some point;  it had to.  but the reality of loved ones being separated during this conflict suddenly became real to me when i saw a heartbreaking message scrawled onto the wall with the words “to astrid: maybe someday we will be together.”  i stared at the message for at least 10 minutes while the light rain fell around me.  i was overcome with sadness, despite the fact this tragedy had occurred decades ago.  eventually i moved along, but this moment has stayed with me during my trip.

this city grew on me every day that i was there.  if a trip to europe was a march madness college basketball tournament, berlin was the dangerous 14 seed that was starting to upset all the mainstays and work deep into the tourney.  berlin was the darkhorse.

berlin wall madness
berlin wall madness

i think one of the things i liked about it so much was that everywhere you looked, there were old remnants of painful memories of the city:  the past was never far.  just like people, i like them better when they have a story to tell.  especially if that story hasn’t been all sunshine and rainbows.  the pain of berlin no longer holds its citizens back, but it is always lurking in the shadows warning just how far a city or a person can fall if they are careless with the world around them.

or maybe that isn’t the message waiting to be interpreted.  for the life of me i couldn’t decipher what the history and identity of berlin was.  was it the powerhouse city of the north that was a haven for the nazi empire that crumbled and has been slowly rebounding ever since?  or was the city a victim, that had been subjugated by a radical aggressor in the nazi party and was then taken advantage of by another meddling power in the soviet union, which then suppressed and abused the people and city for decades, and now they were finding their way out of the dark?

or is the identity something completely different altogether?  perhaps berlin is a place that, through ages of darkness and consequence, knows the weight of action and reaction, and now uses that knowledge to its advantage to help shape its future and rebuild a brighter and more prosperous outcome (which it is easily succeeding at)?  surely this is the identity, and the longer i spent in the city the more confirmation i received.  berlin is a bastion of hope, and one need nothing more than to walk its streets for a day to see why. it exemplifies that no matter what happens, no matter how grave the circumstance or the situation, nothing is completely beyond saving.  one need only the will, the discipline, and the desire to restart from the bottom, and any height can be achieved.

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today’s ear candy is a new single by zola jesus, and i. love. this. song.  can’t get enough of it.  this girl can sing, but she has this brooding, deep baritone pipes that just strike a chord in all the right ways for me, probably because she sounds so different than most singers out there in pop music.  i first heard her sing on the first track of the m83 album “hurry up, we’re dreaming” that blew up the whole world a couple years ago but i confess i never really sought her out to see what she was doing on her own.  i can tell you now, however, that her new album is fantastic from top to bottom.  enjoy the video…