i woke up the next morning sorer than i had in months. it was the good kind of sore, the kind that reminds you that you had earned it, and any other unhealthy foods you could get your hands on. but i was also inexplicably restless. after i had gotten home from the previous day’s hike, i had been looking forward to a couple beers and a good in-depth conversation with my new french friend, jean, about life, love, his adventures in colorado, and everything in between. i was disappointed however when i returned to find his bunk empty and a note on my pillow with an apology on it, informing me that he had a received an urgent call from home and he’d left switzerland early. i crossed my fingers and hoped everything was okay, and lamented that i would likely never see him again. another casualty of the wander. it was something i was still learning how to deal with, even after being abroad for 2 months already.
i started to re-evaluate what my gameplan was. it was october 29th, and i was up on the alps in a ghost town. this was what i had wanted. i had wanted an epic hike in the alps and i had wanted to escape the hustle of the city, and i had gotten that, but now for some reason my feet were beginning to itch for a new destination again. the quiet solitude had quenched my wanderlust for only a day. Continue reading spain, pt 1: barcelona; minding my misconceptions→
i’m sitting here in the london airport, 4 hours early for my connecting flight to new york, coming from scotland this morning. my trip as it stands in this segment, is effectively done. i am leaving the continent that i began this soul search on, where i began to learn so much about myself, and the way the real world actually is when it’s not being experienced from behind a desk and a salary. i’m leaving, and i’m not entirely sure why, or if i’ve even accomplished anything at all. i know that i achieved the simple, surface level goals that i had set for myself before i set out. ultimately meaningless goals like time (i wanted to make it 2 months of wandering before coming back – i assumed i wouldn’t even make it that long. when all is said and done, i’ll have been just a week shy of 5 months) abroad and an idea that i could land somewhere without a plan and survive, these things seemed like big challenges to conquer at the time, but now in retrospect they seem so… sophomoric. and this is only because they stand in the shadow of the greater, looming challenge of “what next?”
i’ve been self-indulgently telling my own story for 5 months now, basically when i first set foot on this path, initially not knowing exactly why i wanted to tell my own story for any reason other than self-documentation. so that i could have a time capsule that i could look back to someday later in my life and remember this one incredible, beautiful, outrageous, dangerous, chaotic, colorful thing that i did with my life that prevented it from being a total waste. so that i could see and know exactly the lessons i learned and grew from and not forget them. the writing gave me purpose, and it became the only stable thing in my life. while everything about my life was scrambled into a mess of vagabonding and wandering, itinerary-less adventuring and an existence devoid of accountability and responsibility, i formed a routine with the writing, giving myself deadlines and outlining topics and ideas and coining my own terms and saving them for later use in future posts. i generated motivation by telling myself that “my readers need something new,” and that if i didn’t get something out there regularly, people would stop reading. the obvious irony here is that i didn’t have any readers, other than my mom (hi mom. thanks for reading). i wanted to feel like what i was doing was important, even if it wasn’t really helping anybody other than myself, so i constructed an imaginary world around my travels and worked as hard as i could to play into the fantasy. things that brought me down or discouraged me, i ignored. i remember eagerly checking my site statistics to see how many hits i had gotten on my first few posts, and being disappointed at how minuscule the traffic i was getting. so i stopped checking (now my traffic has grown to a modest 1,000 hits per month, and i’ve done nothing to advertise or monetize it other than just post weekly updates on my personal facebook wall. thanks to you all for sharing the posts with your facebook friends. it really is flattering and greatly appreciated. please keep doing it!). i only focused on things i could actually do something about, which was traveling and writing. so i traveled more and i wrote more. i got criticized by “friends” on my own facebook and nstagram posts, so i removed those people from my contacts and my life, trying to prevent their negativity from poisoning my desire to create. the writing became the gasoline in the engine, and i did almost anything i could to protect that.
and explore, i did. while the blog content is about 2 months slower than reality, if you follow my instagram handle, (wePhilistines) you’ve seen what i’ve been doing.
i’ve been wandering. truly. just enjoying the peace of mind of having no ultimate destination and no definite purpose or itinerary. a friend i made on this journey asked me a few weeks ago “so what are you going to do once you’re done? you’ve had like 5 months to think about it.” to which i replied, “i’ve had 5 months to notthink about it.”
and now, here i sit. in an airport waiting to return home, writing a very tarantino-esque-out-of-order ending to a story that i hope hasn’t ended. i still have over 2 months and 10 countries more to cover on this blog (so don’t worry, i still have lots of stories to share), but i am now stuck in a weird, parallel purgatory where i’m retelling the past, looking blankly into the future, and standing paralyzed in the present. one foot forward and one foot back, i don’t know where I’m supposed to be at the moment, or where i’m going, and i know i can’t live in the past. i’m not sure exactly how i’ve changed, other than the obvious things like having a beard longer than it’s ever been and a newfound ability to sleep anywhere. but somehow i know that i’ve changed.
i’m not the same. in ways i can’t clearly define yet, i have noticed that i don’t talk to people the same way anymore. i don’t look at the world with the same cynicism i used to (i’m still cynical, just a less negatively dismissive version of it). i’m more curious about the world. i don’t endeavor to prove something to it like i used to, and now i’m more content to just be in it. i don’t have an intention to impress people any longer, a desire to control others’ opinions or regard of me by showing them how interesting or accomplished or knowledgeable i am, and instead i am now confident to just sit back and take things as they come, (relatively) free from worry about being viewed as attractive or talented or desirable.
and therein lies the crux of my fears. in the midst of the metamorphosis, amidst all these positive things i’ve begun to learn and develop in, i am now stepping onto a plane to take me back to everything i left behind, everything i ran away from. some people are happy when they return from a long journey, happy to see the people they’ve missed, happy to eat the food they’re used to, happy to sleep in their own beds, and happy to return to the life they put on pause when they stepped away. i can’t say that i’m exactly “happy” to return to the life i left behind. to be sure, i’m looking forward to seeing all my friends and family whom i’ve missed dearly, and i’m looking forward to sleeping in my bed, and i’m REALLY looking forward to having some new york pepperoni pizza when i step off that plane for a short visit to the city (sorry, but nobody makes it as good as new york. and it’s not even close), but i’m scared of falling back into the rhythm of complacency and materialism and safety that had taken control of my life. i’m scared of falling into the same bad habits that got me into that rut, i’m scared of living an unremarkable and risk-free monotonous life, and i’m okay with admitting to myself that i don’t know exactly what’s going to happen when i get back.
but i do have ideas and hopes. they are longer term ideas and shorter term solutions, with a few world-weary wisdoms to keep me at least semi-confident that i can survive just about anything that life can throw at me now. much of that involves creating. creating music and creating videos and getting better at photography and writing. always writing, never stopping. i refuse to ever allow my creative muscles atrophy again the way i did before i took this trip. so don’t worry friends, the story lines continue, though the timeliness may be off. i will continue writing and capturing, creating and sharing, and i will keep you informed of all of it. i’ll be back home in denver next week, if you’d like to get a coffee or go snowboarding or just walk around the park and hang out, just reach out. I know the key to preserving these new perspectives i’ve gained is to remain open, waiting for the world to extend itself, and for me to respond in kind.
i’ll pick up the story next week where we left off in austria, headed for breathtaking switzerland, where i met some people with amazing life stories, and even found myself guiding a little expedition of other tourists into the wilderness surrounding the matterhorn. i think you’ll enjoy it. i also promised another playlist to you guys which i did not post last weekend because i was wandering the scottish highlands and did not have a reliable wifi signal. so i will post that this weekend with a brief write-up of the songs. i think you’ll enjoy it as well.
for today’s musical magic i have a song i’ve been saving for… well basically since the trip started. i don’t know what it is specifically, but this song by australian duo “luluc” gives me a peace that i can’t quite describe, and given the subject matter of today’s post, it’s a peace that is desperately needed. the title “winter is passing” has a special significance for me, considering the season of life i am in at the moment, so i find it very a-propos. the entire album, “passerby” is fantastic, and full of subdued delicate beauty that you can leave on for hours on repeat without getting tired. i suggest a spin or two. enjoy…
i made it to salzburg, austria, but i was still a 2 hour train ride from my destination in the austrian mountains in hallstatt. i still am not completely sure why i was so hellbent on getting to this remote mountain town, but i had seen it pop up enough times on those stupid links that people pass around on facebook titled “20 places to go before you die,” that i think i was beginning to become afraid that if i didn’t find this town, i might actually die. and so here i was. but once i had found a hostel to stay at and dropped my bag and set off in search of a decent meal, i quickly realized that salzburg was a beauty in its own right. once again, as had happened a half dozen times already on this trip, i lost my appetite and started ambling up and down narrow cobblestone streets, wandering with no direction and no purpose and only the desire to let my eyes consume as much as they might.
salzburg is not a very large town, so i was able to cover the entirety of the old downtown area in only a few hours. a few bridges, a couple clocktowers, a cliff-dwelling majestic castle, and plenty of narrow, foot-traffic-only streets with charming buildings keeping watch for hundreds of years, all these things make for quite the quaint and unexpectedly enjoyable experience. i picked a damn good place for a stopover.
after hunger eventually got the best of me, i started searching for a place to eat. i eventually settled on a place that claimed to be mozart’s favorite place to eat (and they wouldn’t lie about that, right?) . that was significantly intriguing, so i decided to grab a seat. there was no room so i had to settle on a place at a tiny empty bar in the corner of the room, which was more than fine for me. i order some grilled veal with potato dumplings and a beer to wash it down. i had never tried veal before, but after seeing it on just about every menu in austria, it was time to give it a shot. the meal was incredibly delicious. it was so good that i decided to double down and see how the dessert was. i had never tried austrian apple strudel before so i ordered some, and that was even better. i think it may have been the best dessert i’ve ever had in my life. similar to an american apple pie, it was a little smaller than your average slice, but the apple filling was less sugary and the crust was baked to perfection. there was a dollop of cream on top, but not the overly sweet, sugar-infused cream we used in the US. this was just pure dairy cream that offered a perfect compliment to the already perfectly-sweet applestrudel. if there had been more room in my stomach, i would have ordered another, but i’m sure my wallet is grateful i did not. i headed back to my hotel and went to bed early so i could get a start on trying to figure out how to get to hallstatt.
the next morning i arose early and walked to a bus stop nearby. i boarded a regional bus headed for a neighboring town called bad ischl. from there i would catch a train that would take me to the small town across the lake from hallstatt named obertraun (everytime i hear the name of that town i imagine it’s not a town and is just a giant transformer hiding in the austrian alps). from obertraun i would take a boat across the lake right into the center of the small town of hallstatt. my plan was to spend a couple hours photographing the town and just enjoying it’s atmosphere. i would then head back into obertraun where i could take a cable car high up into a high mountain face above the town to a pair of ice caves located deep within the mountain. if there was time i would ride all the way to the top of the mountain to the 5-fingers viewing platform, a sky deck with 5 different platforms stretching in different directions with visibility for ages. from there i’d jump back on the train and head back to salzburg by sundown.
none of that happened.
i arrived in bad ischl to learn that the section of the tracks heading into obertraun was under construction, so i would need to board another bus that would take me directly into hallstatt. that didn’t seem to be a big deal, but i was slightly concerned about the lack of notifications with which this all was going down. the machines didn’t tell me this when i was buying the tickets, the bus & train operators weren’t saying anything, and i barely had any time in between transfers to figure this stuff out and get to the right mode of transportation. i was worried about getting back.
nevertheless, 30 minutes later i landed at hallstatt and what i sight had reached my eyes. the town has a population of less than 1,000 occupants and is situated right in between the mountain and the lake that adorn the landscape. and when i say “situated” i mean that if you live in hallstatt, your house is either on the water or it’s in the side of the mountain. and the houses are small. each one seems like it is practically built on top of the other, but they are constructed in such a charming, connected way that it doesn’t feel overly crowded. it feels like more of a community.
the air moved ever so slightly with that cool, crisp mountain nip, not windy, but also not still. i gratefully drew deep breaths of freshness after 2 hours of stale oxygen on a bus. as i wandered the streets of the quaint village, i started to wonder what the history behind this place was, and how it came to be. it was not likely to have been a weekend getaway for wealthy city-folk or royalty; it was too old and too small. the architecture was too intricately simple and functional, as though constructed lovingly by craftsmen who would then stay to appreciate their creations, instead of left to be appreciated by the masses. i snapped as many photos as i could, but i honestly couldn’t find an adequate way to capture the soul of the city. unsatisfied with my photos, i elected to climb higher up the walking paths carved into the mountainside between homes.
eventually i had seen about all you could see in a few hours. it really isn’t a large town. i decided it was time to find my way over to dachstein and see what the ice caves were all about. i was dismayed, however, when i learned that another side effect of all the transportation chaos was that the buses were not running according to normal schedule as well. i asked someone nearby and they said they were pretty sure the next bus wasn’t coming for another 2 hours, and the day was already half over. that wouldn’t give me enough time to explore the caves and make it back to salzburg to my room. i consulted the map and surmised it was only 6 kilometers to dachstein. i decided to walk it.
…after 2 km, i realized that this was kind of dumb. it still would not leave me enough time to explore the caves and i also wouldn’t know the pick-up point for the bus because i hadn’t seen the drop-off point. but now i was too far. if i went all the way back, i would have to admit defeat and i wouldn’t see the caves. if i pressed on, i ran the risk of not even making it home that night, and there was no accommodation that i was aware of that was available in this remote area. i was paralyzed with indecision.
i stuck my thumb out and waited for a ride.
i’ve never hitch-hiked before, and in most parts of America, this is illegal. we are told from a very young age to never do this, because it is very likely that we will be kidnapped and chopped into little pieces. i don’t know what the likelihood of that actually is, but nevertheless the possibility is real, so hitch-hiking has never even been an option for me before, but here i was.
the first car approached, and i put my hand back in my pocket immediately. i was struck by an inexplicable and unreasonable fear. convinced i was being a coward, i shook my head at myself and stuck my thumb out again after the car had passed. i’ll get the next one.
the next car approached and i hid my hand behind my back this time, still consumed by this undefinable and irrational fear. i laughed out loud. “for godsakes, you pussy, just man up and do it!” i said to myself aloud.
as i extended my thumb out to the road again, a pickup truck rounded the bend. it was a toyota hi-lux, a really cool pickup with a functional ruggedness that is inexplicably unavailable in the US. i was too busy admiring it to notice that i still had my thumb out when the truck came to an abrupt halt and an austrian man in his early 40s peered over at me, waiting for me to enter the vehicle.
“oh,” i thought, “is this how it works? what do i do? do i wait for him to open the door? do i just hop in?” i realized that everything i knew about hitch-hiking was from watching movies. i had been so preoccupied with the thought of even working up the courage to do it that i had not even thought what to do after i actually did it, or if i would even be successful. i laughed internally at myself and the situation. after a few seconds (which felt like an eternity) of watching the man’s face silently evolve from “sure i’ll give you a ride” to “well are you getting in or not?” i grabbed the door and swung it open, pivoting my backpack from back to front so i could hold it in my lap. i hiked one leg up into the cab of the truck and hopped in from my other leg, landing in the seat and staring right down into the long barrel of a huge gun. i hadn’t noticed a large rifle laying up against the seat, the butt on the ground and the barrel in the air.
i have no idea what my face looked like, but there is no way it was anything more stoic or polite than full-blown panic. in my mind’s eye, i imagine i looked like “ham” from the movie “sandlot” when the beast gets a hold on the vacuum during mission “retrieval suction,” right when their scheme is going perfectly to retrieve the ball signed by babe ruth. except i (thankfully) didn’t scream like he did.
i hate guns. not in the political “we-need-immediate-gun-control-you-should-give-up-your-freedom-immediately” sense of things (though if i do feel that debate does have some merit and my country does need to begin having that discussion sooner rather than later, regardless of what side of the issue we all find ourselves on), no my hatred of guns stems from painful personal experience. i grew up in a rough neighborhood in southern salifornia during the turbulent 90s, where gang violence and police corruption were fueled by racial tensions and spilled out onto the global stage when rodney king was beaten unconscious by four police officers and it was all caught on tape. while my parents did their best to shelter my siblings and i from what was going on, i wasn’t blind, and i saw what was happening all around me. my brother, sister, and i managed to stay away from the worst of the neighborhood violence and gang activity, but there was no way to completely avoid it. from police stand-offs in the empty fields near the neighborhood to gang members showing up to my brother’s little league baseball game and shooting out the outfield lights in the 4th inning, these things were enough to make a curious young mind wonder “what would the world be like without guns?” my thoughts on the subject were sealed when, at 13 years old, one of my baseball buddies was shot dead only blocks from my house by my sister’s friend because her mom kept a loaded shotgun in the house and she thought threatening him with it might get him to stop teasing her. say what you will about gun safety, but i don’t care. guns still make me nervous and i don’t like being around them. regardless of the circumstance.
so there i was, frozen for a moment, half in and half out of this pickup truck with the good samaritan on his way somewhere, now wondering why the hell he’d stopped for a hitchhiker when austrians reputedly never stop for hitch hikers. i looked at the man’s face and quickly decided he didn’t look like charles manson, so he probably wasn’t going to cut me into a thousand pieces. i got into the truck and we sped off.
and speed, we did. this man drove like he had a wife on the verge of giving birth in the passenger seat. i quickly grabbed the frame handle between the door and the windshield (affectionately nicknamed the “oh-shit! bar” by my redneck friends back in arkansas) and held on for dear life. i kept staring at the rifle like it was a jug of nitroglycerine, ready to explode at the slightest nudge, and tried my best to keep my leg from brushing up against it.
“where going?” the man asked in very broken english.
“dachstein ice caves” i replied cheerily, trying to mask my nervousness. he looked at me hesitantly for a moment, as though i had gotten the answer wrong on a quiz show but he didn’t want to tell me yet. it was quiet again for another minute and then he persisted.
“united states?” i said to him in question form, as if to ask “have you ever heard of it?” i was so nervous about hitch-hiking for the first time that i was completely losing my composure, and i was now talking to this guy like he was mentally handicapped instead of just having a language barrier.
“yes? yes?” he said, gesturing his hand in a circular fashion and trying to get me to elaborate.
“oh, Colorado, Denver. Rocky mountains?”
“ahh yes, yes. Colo-rado!” he exclaimed, enthusiastically. the more we talked, the more convinced i was that i was not going to die. but i also wondered how much further we could go before i reached the end of this man’s limited english, and what would happen then. “i like rocky mountains! you like austria?”
“yes, very much. your country is very beautiful, and so nice.” i offered.
“you like…” he took both hands off the wheel for a moment held both his hands up in fists parallel to the ground and made a shaking gesture. he didn’t know what the word was. i sat trying to figure out if he was trying to ask me if i like jackhammers.
i’m not really a mountain biking enthusiast, but who doesn’t like mountain biking? “yes, i like mountain biking.”
“okay!” he said confidently and then pulled over the truck to the side of the road. he popped the truck out of 2-wheel drive and shifted to 4-wheel drive and then proceeded to pull the vehicle completely off the road and into the trees. i was now scared for my life again.
we bumped and bounced down a barely perceptible path through the forest while I tried to make a mental survival plan for what to do if this guy tried to make a move and bury me alive in the woods. suddenly we ground to a halt and he pointed across me into the woods. “best mountain bike in all europe!” i looked to my right, and sure enough, there was a huge mountain biking course, clearly defined and well marked. i was genuinely surprised, not only because he still wasn’t trying to kill me, but because he legitimately had a mountain biking course here in the middle of nowhere, and it really did look like something you might see on the x games. they had competitions out here occasionally, he explained to me as we continued to drive alongside the massive course.
eventually we popped out of the woods right into a parking lot next to a cable car lift that takes people up to the ice caves.
“okay my friend, enjoy dachstein!” he said to me. i hopped out of the truck, thanking him gratefully externally for the ride and internally for not burying me in the woods and using my skin as a lampshade. he pulled away and i walked up to the front door. there was nobody around. i didn’t know what i needed to do to go up in the cable car, but it wasn’t running. i poked around a bit before finding a sign that said in english:
due to recent snowfall, the ice caves are closed.
now i was in trouble. the public transportation in this region was already completely sideways, and now i was nowhere close to a pickup or drop-off stations. if you had given me a map, i wouldn’t even have been able to navigate my way back to hallstatt due to the creative detour my friend had taken. and i damn sure wasn’t going into those woods by myself. i was going to have to hitch hike my way back but, beside the fact that my heart might not be able to take the stress of such an event again, the parking lot i had been dropped off at was the end of the line. it was a dead end, no cars were coming this way. i was stranded alone in the woods.
i walked out to the road and stood for a couple minutes, angry at myself for even attempting something so stupid without a backup plan. iI tried to console myself with the fact that none of the websites i checked had hinted that something like this could happen. this is just one of those moments that all the famous poets and writers and travelers and deadbeats romanticize and say that this where the real journey begins. well, i thought, the “real journey” sucks. i want to sleep in a bed tonight.
before i could get too morose, a truck rounded the bend and pulled alongside. it was my austrian friend again. i felt like one of those dogs in the videos of army servicemen or marines coming home from war after years abroad, where the canine keeps yelping so loudly you can’t tell if he’s happy or if he’s dying and his tail is wagging so much he keeps knocking himself over.
he opened the door and yelled to me “i think caves closed maybe. i ask for you?” i shook my head eagerly. he left the truck running and walked over to a booth i hadn’t seen where an attendant was inside. after a couple of exchanges in german, turned to me and confirmed that nothing was working today, not even the lift to go all the way to the top and see the viewing platform at the top of the mountain.
i was visibly disappointed. had i come all the way out here for nothing? “what you want?” he asked. “you like i take you to hallstatt?”
“yes, please. thank you very much sir!” i was sad that my plans had gone awry, but i was at least grateful that i wouldn’t be sleeping out in the cold tonight (and it was indeed getting cold). i still can’t believe he came back for me. he must have known the caves weren’t running to begin with, and that must be why he gave me the weird look at the beginning of the ride. still, he had given me a ride and owed me nothing and he came back for me anyway. i still couldn’t believe it.
on the way back to hallstatt he started to speak a little better english, believe it or not. i think he just didn’t speak it very often, so he was out of practice. but he was very enthusiastic the whole time and where i had before been on edge and scared, i was now completely relaxed and having fun. amazing how a few minutes can completely change your perspective.
on the way out of dachstein we had taken a different route back. my friend introduced himself as gerhardt, he had lived in obertraun his whole life. he had a gun with him because he is a hunter, and he was on his way to find something to hunt. this was the best weather they’d had in a month, he explained to me, so he wanted to make good use of the clear blue skies and sun. he asked me if i wanted to see a traditional austrian house. “sure!” I told him. why not? i didn’t have anything else to do for the rest of my day and i didn’t even know how i was getting home yet. plus, that seemed pretty cool. we turned down a road that went the opposite way around the lake that we needed to go and we headed into old obertraun.
as we drove the people in the small town were all out and about, some working in their gardens, others working on their roofs, we passed some bicyclists, while i saw others herding some sheep in an expansive lot behind their house. everything was very green, and whenever we passed, people waved to gerhardt and he waved back. everybody knew everybody.
he pointed out a few minor points of interest, as well as a house he used to live in when he was married to his first wife. he explained that this wife was very demanding and they were both not happy, and that he preferred hunting, so they got a divorce. i found that kind of funny, and i think he meant it to be as well, so we shared a laugh over that. eventually we pulled up to a modest little cottage on a green plot of land. he got out and beckoned me to come inside. i walked through the low doorway and into the small house. it looked like something from “little house on the prairie,” like a small hunting cottage out in the woods for weekend hunters. gerhardt stooped his large frame low to enter the doorway. he was too big for this house. “this my house” he said with a large, proud smile. “almost 500 years old.”
i was stunned. 500 years?!?! this house was older than my entire country. and it’s founders. i didn’t even know how to associate a value to that. it must have shown on my face because he started laughing. i looked around, there was another room behind the main room, which was a combination of a kitchen, dining room, and living room all merged into one large-ish room (nothing in the house was “large” really). a woman emerged from the other room and gerhardt introduced her as his wife, and a shaggy pointer hound followed her out as well, gerhardt’s hunting dog.
we headed back out to the truck and drove back to hallstatt, gerhardt’s wife and the dog sitting quietly in the back seat bench of the truck cab. neither of them spoke english, so it was just gerhardt and myself stumbling through our interaction together.
“you want to see hallstatt salt mines?”
one of the things i had read about while researching hallstatt was that it had been a mining community long before austria was even “austria.” i had been mildly interested touring the mines, but ice caves sounded more badass, so i had planned for them instead. knowing i had a few hours to kill before i could find a bus back to salzburg, i told him yes.
we pulled into a parking lot on the edge of hallstat and instead of saying goodbye, gerhardt left the vehicle once again. he walked with me up to a short line of about 10 people and strode directly to the front of the line. he interrupted the transaction taking place and addressed the clerk. everyone in line glared at me as if to say “really? who do you think YOU are?” i apologetically looked back and shrugged. i honestly had let go of the reins an hour ago, and i had no idea what was going on anymore. after a minute, gerhardt turned to me and handed me a piece of paper. it was a tram ticket to the top of the mountain, roughly a 20 euro value. he gave me an affectionate slap on the cheek, smiled, said “enjoy!” and then got back into his truck and drove away. i was in shock.
i boarded the cable car and tried to process everything that had just happened in the 5 minute ride to the top. at the top was a narrow viewing platform that resembled a diving board, extending out over the cliff and peering down a few hundred feet onto the town of hallstatt below. it was already small up close, but from up above it looked like one of those architecture models you see in the lobbies of important business buildings in big cities. i took some photos and then continued up the mountain path toward the salt mines.
i’ll save the details of the mining tour, but i can summarize it all up by saying that it is an hour long tour with thoroughly interesting history and a few cheap thrills (you actually get to go down a couple rather large slides in the mines which are surprisingly fun, especially when you see young kids alternating with 60 year old grandparents doing it, you can’t help but smile) but at a the cost of a high price tag (unless you got it free like me) and some built in cheesiness. its great if you’ve got kids with you, otherwise it’s forgettable.
the history of the town and mines, however, is fascinating. the salt mine can be dated back 7,000 years ago. that’s right, you heard me. there were miners digging salt out of a hole in the side of the austrian mountain before the roman empire. that is crazy, mainly because in western society we tend to look at the roman empire as the benchmark for when the modern world began, but if you think about what salt mining alludes to, it alludes to other advanced societies that knew the value of commodities and trade, which then hints at economics and wealth, and if you look at the mines themselves, you can tell this mining community was a fairly advanced operation.
and this timeline isn’t an estimate or a guess, not only have they found mining tools down there dating back thousands of years, in the mid 1700s, a body was found that was thought to be from a couple hundred years previous. It was only in the 1900s when modern science and documentation was able to determine that this body was from a miner back around 1,000 bc who had gotten trapped down there during an earthquake.
these salt mines were one of the things funding the wealthy lifestyle of the austro-hungarian royalty in their heyday, and people would come hundreds of miles, journeying for weeks on foot in order to work in the mines. these workers would rarely get days off and working conditions were harsh, to say the least. miners had to apply to get married. not for a license, but for permission. marriage was viewed as a potential distraction from work, and every worker was easily replaceable, so unless you were a big producer with a good tenure, you marrying your love in the middle of the night meant you were likely losing your job the moment anyone at the mine found out. hallstatt only really exists now because it was the place at the foot of the mountain where everyone slept at night, and generation after generation preserved or added to it, giving it the intricate and charming nature that it has now. ironic that something rooted in such a tough lifestyle with seemingly little beauty can now be known really for just it’s beauty and charm. make no mistake though, the founders and workers of the salt mines and of hallstatt were a proud and dedicated group, and it shows in their legacy.
eventually the tour ended and i found my way back down the mountain. i found the bus stop in hallstatt just as confusing as it was when i left it, with buses coming and going and nobody knowing what was going where and nothing labeled well and no one there to help make sense of it all. i struck up a conversation with the only other fellow standing around with a beard as long as mine. he was from barcelona and he spoke about as much english as i spoke spanish, so we found a way to meet in the middle. i relished the challenge to get a head start on practicing my spanish before i even got to spain, and we talked for a couple hours and agreed to try and figure out how to get back to salzburg together (i am convinced that these types of temporary partnerships are the cornerstone of traveling solo. it truly has saved my ass so many times from getting on the wrong train, staying at the wrong hostel, purchasing the wrong ticket, etc.). we found out we were staying at the same hostel, so this arrangement worked out even better than either of us could have expected. i had many questions for him regarding barcelona and catalonia and its complicated relationship with the rest of spain (a topic i’ll save for when i get to spain), we talked about futbol and how “el clasico” was being played that night, the game between fc barcelona and real madrid, the two premier teams in spain and how it is actually a good representation of how the tensions between catolonia and spain are tolerated in daily life. i was thankful to have met eloi, especially when we had to switch from a bus to a train, and only had about 60 seconds to figure it out, as well as which train to be on, which also did not leave us enough time to purchase a ticket. eloi and i quickly sprinted across the platform and jumped onto the train just as it was about to pull out, without tickets, and we watched in a weird mix of relief and sympathy as a brazilian couple we had also met didn’t make it, leaving them stranded on the platform. i yelled to them “come on! it’s leaving!”
“we don’t have tickets!”
“neither do i!”
and then the doors closed and they were gone. eloi and i guessed that another train might be by again in a couple hours, but it was getting cold out and darkness had begun its descent. i did not envy them at all.
eloi and i made it back to the hostel and found a cheap dinner for a few euros. we were both departing in the morning for different destinations, so we agreed to meet in the lobby and exchange information before leaving.
it’s a new year, so i’ve started a new playlist for 2015 for you to follow, if you so desire. the first song chosen for the new year is one that i’ve been trying to work into the blog for months now. i love this song, and the accompanying album is one of my favorites from 2014. “Field Report” hails from milwaukee, and the band’s name is an anagram of the front man’s surname, chris porterfield (so there’s that). listening to this song, you’ll love the subdued, worn nature of the singer’s voice, and the beauty of the lyrics. enjoy…
and by the way, i’ve spent a little time creating a playlist of all my favorite 2014 songs that, for one reason or another, never made it onto the blog. basically the leftovers. i’ll publish that this weekend for your earholes to be assaulted by. have a good week!
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 very 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 was 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.
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.
i 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 one 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 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:
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!”
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
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 streets were impeccably manicured, cobblestones carefully placed, graffiti usually painted over or removed, vienna is just a perfectly high class city, and unfortunately for me, i am just not in a high-class state of mind in my current place in life.
and to illustrate the difference with which someone can find within a destination, one could look at how both robert
and i thought of vienna after we left. after 4 days, i was slightly bored and ready to leave, yet robert was in love with the city and wouldn’t have minded staying longer (in fact he would return later after we went separate ways later in the trip). robert explored more of the city than i, and each day when we would meet back at the apartment, he would always have recommendations of great places i needed to check out that he had discovered. sometimes i would check them out, and sometimes i wouldn’t. it just wasn’t a place that had truly excited me at the time. i’m sure someday i will return here and be completely blown away by everything my eyes were closed to at the time.
regardless, it was still a beautiful place to visit. one of the recommendations i had gotten from robert was a royal palace a little outside the main area of town called schonbrunn palace. i hopped on a train and entered the property. not really wanting to spend any money, i found that the gardens were not only free, but quite expansive. i spent the afternoon just wandering around and snapping photos. i suppose it would be a wonderfully romantic place to have a picnic with a significant other, but i enjoyed myself thoroughly as i walked the gardens and up the hill overlooking the estate and the rest of the city. it really is a magnificent place.
one night, i had been very keen on finding some sort of connection with the high classed fanciness of the city, so i had searched for some expensive cocktail lounges. i settled on a place called “ebert’s” on gumpendorfer st. i got as dressed up as i could (i only had 1 collared shirt packed on this trip, so i wasn’t exactly prepared for a city like vienna, nor was i really “dressed to impress”) and then trekked across town and located the establishment.
on a relatively uninteresting block with no other places open at that time of night, ebert’s stood out with large windows and curtains drawn back halfway, allowing you to glimpse inside and see the poshly decorated interior. knowing i was still a little underdressed for the place with my nikes, jeans, and untucked black collared shirt, i straightened my collar, took a breath, and then entered confidently.
i looked around and noted first that the place looked even nicer once you were inside, and then noted that there was nobody there, save for a bartender and a barback. i took another look around the room and decided that rather than sit in the corner by myself and make them wait on me, i would sit front and center at the bar and have a little conversation with them if they were willing.
i was greeted cordially by mo, a well dressed man with darker skin and thick-rimmed glasses and bulging muscles from his toned physique. i joked to myself about how the place must save money on employing bouncers because mo can easily double as one while also tending the bar. mo had a thick french accent but spoke very good english as well as german (a couple other austrian patrons trickled in and out for a drink during the time i was there and i overheard the interactions) and was a very good bar conversationalist. at first, the idle talk was simply surface level, but as it became apparent to mo that i wasn’t going anywhere for awhile and i wasn’t meeting anyone there, he decided to drop whatever other prepwork he was doing behind the bar and focus on me.
knowing that this was a proper cocktail bar when I had selected it, and upon seeing their expansive liquor and whiskey & bourbon collection, I had quietly tested mo with my normal litmus test with the whiskey old fashioned. i’ve been using this test for about 6 years now to determine if a bartender is worthy of my time, cash, and trust. the reason for this is because drinks with bitters in them are fairly easy to screw up, and if a bartender can serve you a drink with bitters and not take away too much of the bourbon taste, you probably have someone on your hands who understands the balance of taste in a cocktail. so all that to say that mo passed with flying colors. once i appreciatively thanked him for the wonderful drink, we started talking whiskeys and bourbons and after a few minutes mo took a step back, looked at me wryly out of the side of his glasses and said in his thick french accent “you know, i love when americans come in here because they understand whiskey properly.” it’s probably the best compliment a barkeep has ever given me.
we continued to chat about whiskey topics both old and new (like the new “whisky stick” that you can buy and put in a bottle of cheap whiskey and within 48 hours it will make your whiskey taste like a finely aged spirit. I’m not linking to it, because it’s an appalling idea and it’s totally a hoax, but idiots out there are still buying it), but eventually the conversation wandered to other topics like mo’s background. mo was born in africa but moved with his family to paris where he grew up. he then moved to hamburg, germany when he became an adult and studied and eventually became a bartender. he had only moved to vienna 6 months earlier at the request of an old colleague of his who was managing this bar and needed help with a proper “A+ level” barman who could help raise the bar, so to speak (heh. heheh. i love obvious jokes).
after 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.
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.
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 head 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.
the next day i awoke early from my jazz hangover and left the boatel. robert and i had agreed to split up again, as i was interested in a bicycle tour to a castle in the czech countryside, while he was interested in seeing some of the lesser explored neighborhoods of prague.
after a little googling, i decided on going with praha bike, a local bicycle tour company, as i was interested in a tour they offer that takes you out of the city and into the countryside to visit karlstejn castle, the former king’s vacation home. i walked over to the bicycle shop early, as i didn’t have a reservation but i knew they were running a tour that day because i had emailed and gotten a reply, but had not confirmed a booking (i wanted the option to not go without losing money in case i stayed late at the jazz club). i got there about 20 minutes before any staff arrived so i had to wait in the cold morning air before someone opened up and helped me finalize the transaction.
the group was led by our tourguide, sasha, a slovenian guy in his mid 20s with a welcoming smile and an amiable disposition. he quickly walked us through the basics of the tour and we set out. after passing through prague square, we made our way to the riverfront and crossed along the southernmost bridge and slipped away into the countryside.
our destination was about 40 kilometers outside of prague to the village of karlstejn. our group had 12 people not including myself, all couples from various different countries all over the world (yes, i was the only solo attendee again, haha), and during the ride our guide did a great job of personally interacting with each rider individually, dropping back in the pack at times when there wasn’t much deviation from the path and didn’t require a leader. I made a little small talk but I mainly kept to myself on this day. i would ride ahead and scout out good photo opportunities, stopping to snap photos as the group passed me by, then hopping back on and catching up to the pack a few minutes later. i did this all day long, and I could see sasha preferred that i didn’t out of caution that i might get left behind or something, but he eventually accepted that i was in shape enough that i caught back up quickly each time so he never actually objected. plus i think he knew i was going to do it no matter what, so he let me be.
after a couple hours and a few scenic stops, as well as a beer break (no kidding, out in the sticks someone had set up a bar off the side of the dirt cycling path. cycling appears to be popular in the czech republic) we made it to karlstejn castle, a large gothic castle established in the 1300s by king charles IV, the king of bohemia at the time. it was known to be a vacation spot for him and has also housed the crown jewels for most of its existence (currently kept elsewhere).
situated up on top of a hillside inside a canyon with really only one entry point, it has a pretty fair height advantage on anyone approaching for nefarious reasons. as we ascended the road leading up to the castle, i tried to put myself in the shoes of the people who had lived here in the days when royalty actually took their holidays here. it seemed like such a surreal world to live in. the town was only founded after the castle was built, so there wasn’t really anything there before, and you have this one monarch and his court and his family that comes into town and suddenly there is a big “to do” about everything. and then he’s gone, and you go back to your normal life. and what is your normal life? you have a small garden in your backyard, or a café on the corner that the neighbors come to everyday? i guess it’s not that strange, but i have never lived in such a life, or anything similar for that matter. i looked at the people working the cafes as we walked by. basically every business there was geared toward tourism now. i suppose the king’s greatest gift to the people really was building his summer home up in the hills there, as he gave the gift of the tourist dollar for centuries to come.
we finally reached the city gates and we entered into the castle walls. we walked around inside the compound, we leaned over the walls and looked down, we craned our necks up at the towers. sasha, our guide, told us that if we wanted to enter into the actual castle itself and see the rooms and living spaces, we would have to pay an extra sum of money to enter and then go on an hour long tour which he was not allowed to lead (i guess that is somebody else’s job onsite). i suppose no one in our group felt like paying more money (or perhaps we really just liked hanging out with sasha. seriously, he was a fantastic guide and made the whole experience more than just a bike ride out of the city. a tour like this can go wrong really easily if your guide sucks, but sasha was perfect), because we all elected to stay with sasha and head back. i declined only because i’m not really a big museum guy and i really was only on this tour so i could be on a bicycle and get outside of the city to see something different. seeing a castle was a bonus!
we exited the castle walls and sasha took us out a back exit that circled around to the other side of the castle that apparently none of the other tourists knew about because we basically had the road to ourselves. And this side was incredibly more scenic, the views of the castle profile were more spectacular than anything on the main approach. We were all thankful to see this side, especially as the sun had begun to set and the light was hitting the castle walls really well, making the castle extremely photogenic.
after enough photos, we headed down to the karlstejn train station and boarded a train back to prague. apparently the ride back was too long to make it back before dark, so when we had chained the bikes up before our walk to the castle, the owner of the tour company had come and picked all the bikes up in a truck and carted them back to the city.
20 minutes later we were back in the city. i thanked our guide and exchanged goodbyes with all my tour-mates and walked quickly back to the boatel. time to pack. time for vienna.
today’s ear wax comes from an artist we’ve already heard from on this blog, but this song is such a perfect soundtrack for this day that i couldn’t ignore it. from tweedy’s new album “sukieray,” this is my favorite track from the offering. “flowering” features subtle acoustic guitars, a muddy lead guitar melody, muted vocals and a mellowed out drum track, this is the kind of song you put on after you put your sunglasses on and go for a walk in the sun.
and here’s the link to the we philistines song selections on spotify:
after having a taste of prague jazz, my appetite for it became insatiable. i began wandering the streets looking for buskers and performers and would stop and listen for as long as i could before it was too obvious that i was just trying to enjoy a free show. eventually i decided i should find a proper place and pay to go for an actual concert.
after some googling, i ultimately ended up deciding on a place located in the southern end of old-town. i had wanted to avoid something that was too fancy and proper, as i don’t really have the appropriate attire. i also have a mind that good jazz, realjazz, should be an informal and dirty affair. jazz was born out of poverty and emotion, not martinis and evening jackets. additionally, my search had led me to understand that proper czech jazz had similar roots, being born and raised up in dirty, musty basements and halls before making its way into more popular circles. so i wanted to try and have an experience of the former variety, and not the latter.
after surveying my options, i decided on “the blues sklep” (click for info) mainly because it was in a legitimate old basement in old-town. after looking at some of its reviews on trip advisor and google and seeing how some tourists had been unhappy with the place because of the cramped environment or having seats with obstructed views, or just general complaints about there being too much smoke in the place, i decided this was exactly what i wanted. something perfectly imperfect.
located on a small side-street near a few semi-popular czech pubs and restaurants, the place wasn’t overly difficult to find but i did walk by it afew times due to its decidedly modest and somewhat uninviting appearance. i entered into a dimly lit hallway where two other restaurants were also located, and i found a third doorway that was only marked by a small standing chalkboard announcing the performer and the door charge cost. i entered the unmanned door and followed the walkway immediately right and down a steep flight of stairs. i made it about halfway down the stairs before becoming suddenly paranoid that i was actually entering into a kitchen for one of the restaurants or, worse, someone’s house. before i could turn around i saw a few feet shuffle past the end of the stairway and i reassured myself that this was definitely a nightclub. i finished my descent and entered into a very tiny and crowded room. on the left was a small bar with a barkeep behind wearing an old fashioned hat and tie. he gave me an emotionless nod and i approached. i spoke slowly, not knowing how much english was understood here, and asked to pay the cover charge and for a glass of whiskey with ice. he obliged and handed me a glass of jameson and a glass of ice with tongs. i had never been served in such a fashion so i smiled, thanked the man, and moved away from the bar and into the adjoining room to locate a seat before the concert.
i immediately understood what negative reviewers on trip advisor had been complaining about. the room was a musty old brick basement with low ceilings and the room could probably accommodate no more than 40 people, and that was pushing it. by my estimation, around 50% of the seats had an obstructed view due to the thick arched brick pillars that had been keeping the structure up for hundreds of years. space was extremely cramped, there was no standing room allowed, and instead of having rows of seats for you to choose from, there were tables with chairs and then chairs that lined the walls. the room was in an L shape, and the short hook to the left actually had no view at all (save for a tiny space between a half arch of pillar and wall which one – maybe two – people could peek through), so all you could hope for if you were sitting over there was that the music would be really good, because you weren’t going to see anything at all. the place was completelyfull of smoke, as everyone had a cigarette lit and there was no ventilation at all, so the cloud just sort of grew larger and larger as the night wore on.
i loved it.
i looked for a seat, i was definitely the only person flying solo tonight and i wasn’t exactly early, so most of the room was full already. all the seats with a clear view were completely filled, so i had to move into the short section of the “L” hook with no views. there was a small table for 3 that was unoccupied which i sat down at somewhat reluctantly, but i noticed that if i positioned myself up against the wall and then leaned forward over the table and looked around the corner, i could see half of the stage. i dropped a couple cubes of ice into my whiskey and took a slow drag from the glass. relax, i told myself.
i casually glanced around the room and tried to eavesdrop on conversations. there wasn’t a single interaction going on in english, only czech. i wasn’t really bothered by this, but it did leave me feeling a little exposed, especially as the room became completely full and the only two remaining available seats were the ones at my table without a view. three different people approached and asked me in czech if they could sit there, but after hearing my reply that the seats were available and accompanying apology for not speaking czech, they would give a puzzled look for a second before realizing i was a tourist and then they would retreat to the other room, content to watch from the bar and enjoy the view through the doorway. i couldn’t blame them, the view was probably better back there and there weren’t likely to be any outsiders there either.
the band made their way through the middle of the narrow smoke filled room and crowded onto the stage. a five piece sporting a piano, trumpet, tuba, an accordion, and a lead singer pulling double duty with a clarinet and a baritone saxophone, they struck up with a lively waltz tune. it was decent but not great jazz, as you could tell that the lead guy playing 2 instruments and singing was the one carrying the group, and easily had the most talent. the really unexpected moment, however was that after the first song with no vocals, i had settled into the expectation that this was just going to be an instrumental group with no singing. that changed when the second song started in and johnny, the lead singer, belted out the opening lines in a huge, operatic, bass-heavy voice that filled the entire room and shocked the audience. it made sense. these countries in central europe love their opera and symphony, so a broken, worn down louis armstrong voice wasn’t something that would work out here in prague. no, the male lead vocal was something that needed to soar commandingly, evoking strength and volume that could dominate over all the other instruments that people were used to hearing in live music.
but i hadn’t expected it, especially judging by the appearance of the guy. johnny seemed to be a caricature of the archetypal 1930s jazz musician in europe. sporting worn slacks with suspenders and a white collared shirt with the sleeves rolled up, he wore an old fashioned bowler cap and was very skinny. probably around 30 years old. he sat at a chair in the middle of the small stage with the others crowded around him. the entire concert he had a cigarette lit which was hanging from his lips while he sang into the microphone, or if he was committed to his sax or clarinet, he would hilariously tuck the filtered end of the cigarette into his ear, leaving the lit end to dangly out freely and making it look like he was smoking through his ear while he was playing. he must have smoked an entire pack during that concert. it was impressive, especially considering how dominant and strong his voice sounded. i couldn’t help but wonder what he would sound like in 15 years.
the only other person i could see from my narrow vantage point was the trumpet player. he was definitely the baby of the band, as he was the most nicely dressed of the group and was a little chubby with a near bald shaved head. a couple times between songs they appeared to tease him a little (in czech) about his energetic youth and his baby face (again, i have no idea what they were saying, i can only guess based off their actions and the reactions of the crowd’s laughter). at one point they stopped between songs to all do a shot together, i think to celebrate his recent birthday or something. actually they stopped for shots a couple times. and they had beers alongside them the whole show as well.
i would love to be able to describe the other members of the band, but I couldn’t see them, and they weren’t really as fun to watch anyway. all the talking was done by these two into the single mic onstage, and by listening to the solos from everyone in the band, they were the only two who were really worth watching. but the trumpet player was probably the funniest. whenever he would get really excited about a part in the song but wasn’t blowing into his trumpet, he would start bouncing excitedly and snapping his fingers off-beat, both hands swaying up and down in opposite motion, as if he was running. it never got old, and i laughed every time he did it, which was basically every song. you could tell he was just one of those kids that loved life and loved music, and he wasn’t afraid to show it even if he looked goofy in the process.
after about an hour and a half, the band broke for an intermission. they all made their way outside. i’d say they were going for some fresh air, but i saw them smoking up there as well, so i guess they just wanted some different scenery behind the glow of that cigarette. the crowd rose and lined up behind the small bar, ready for another drink and to stretch their limbs from their temporary imprisonment in the prison-like venue. i evaluated if i wanted another drink and if i thought my lungs could make it another 90 minutes without coming down with emphysema, and decided that i was content with my experience already, so i decided to leave. i quietly made my exit, up the stairs and down the alley into the night. the brisk evening air tried its best to liberate the smoky stench from my clothes, but the odor clung tightly as i walked down the streets of prague.
as i walked, a feeling of pride in myself welled up. even though i consider myself a bit of a lone wolf in life, i have always had a slight fear of doing things or going places by myself. i’ve never had a problem being by myself in private settings, in fact i often need “me time” in order to recharge my batteries, but being out in the world and being seen alone has always been an insecurity of mine. i’ve never known exactly why i feel this, but i think it is a mixture of a deep hatred of feeling out of place – and it is easy to feel out of place when alone – and that widely accepted notion that experiences are so much better when you have someone special to share them with. in the words of the controversially canonized chris mccandless, “happiness only real when shared.” and so it had been in my life up until this trip. in my 31 years on this amazing planet, i had repeatedly postponed or canceled trips or vacations to exotic places if whatever girlfriend i had at the time was unable to go, or if i was single and unable to convince any other friends to go with me. i had been putting my entire life on hold, watching it slowly pass me by while i waited for the perfect woman to come into my life and finally grant me the ability to go do what i wanted to do.
i think we humans do this a lot, particularly americans. maybe not with our romantic relationships, or our travel, like i do. but i think we too often think that we are not great enough in our current capacity to go chase what we want, and so we defer happiness for a later day. we think “if i can just improve in this one area, then i’ll be right where i need to be in order to get what i want” and so we wait, inactive, and we tell ourselves to be patient, hold out, be confident that what we seek will find us when both we and the universe or god or our boss has determined that now is the time. sometimes we wait years. sometimes we wait a lifetime. and then one day we wake up and wonder what the hell happened to ourselves. we’ve changed. we’ve grown complacent. after getting passed over for that promotion multiple times or after repeatedly wimping out on asking out that person you like, after giving yourself excuses like “i’m still working on this area of my life,” we eventually create a safe haven for ourselves which shields us from being able to improve or grow. and now, a perceived weakness has become a debilitating illness that we have no idea how to recover from.
i’ve never been a very good student, nor have i ever had very good focus when devoting myself to improving my knowledge through traditional study and learning. i am one of those dumb fools who will ram my head into every part of the door til I find the knob that opens it, rather than study the door first to find out how it works. or i’ll just give up and jump out the window.
but if there is one thing that i have learned thus far in my often turbulent life, it is this: we never learn anything new in this life by doing what we already know how to do. if we want to improve our lot in life, we must put ourselves into a position of uncomfortable growth, where we are challenged, pushed, and in over our heads, and that is when our light shines brightest. our eyes are open, our brains absorbing, and our muscles strengthening, and even if the end result is something less than remarkable commercial success, your own personal success will have been realized and you will have something that you can walk away with. to put it in simpler terms: it’s better to go down swinging than to leave the bat on your shoulder. It’s better to ask that girl out and fail miserably than to sit idly and watch as some other douchebag takes your girl out right in front of you. it’s better to insist on interviewing and get turned down even if you’re underqualified. because now you know. not knowing is a paralyzer. paralysis is death. don’t live your life on the sidelines. go. do. now.
then again, all i did was go to a smoky jazz bar in prague by myself and leave early. i guess it depends on how you look at it.
i seem to have painted myself into a corner with today’s musical selection after writing a thousand words about jazz. so to keep with the theme, i’ve picked out a soulful jazzy little number that came out this summer and landed itself on a small npr feature about the “top 10 songs we can’t stop listening to,” or something to that effect. this song definitely isn’t the big czech jazz that i heard in prague and it’s not going to headline any jazz compilations, but if you happen to be one of those souls stuck in unpleasant weather out in the states somewhere right now, pop this one into the tape deck, light some candles and open a bottle of red, and snuggle up next to your significant other. this one will having you feeling romantic before you can finish your second sip. enjoy…
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
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).
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.
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.
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
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.
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…
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.
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.
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.
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.
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:
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.
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.
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…