looking back on my time in croatia, montenegro, and bosnia & herzegovina, it was a strange time, but a wonderful one. i was traveling with a friend, which i had not had the luxury of for most of my trip, so i was never alone during these weeks. but before that, i had just begun to grow accustomed to being alone, and was starting to enjoy the introspection that came with it, and the peace of mind that had started to evolve and emerge from my thoughts. nevertheless, traveling with my friend dave, who was not a seasoned traveler, forced me to take command of situations with more authority and efficiency than i had ever needed to, and exposed to me just how far my development had come since my early days in london, paris and berlin, of following other travelers i had met like a lost puppy. i was now the veteran, and it took me by surprise.
putting together this video was really fun, not only because i wrote and recorded the sountrack, but also being able to re-live the scenes and memories. the balkan states are fascinating, co-mingling the hope of the future with the tragedy of the past, there are few places i’ve been where both sides of that story were always nearby, and i still regret not being able to make it further into the balkans to explore all the other interesting countries in the region. i will return. someday.
i’ve been periodically working on a new song over the last couple months whenever i could find time between the job, raising a puppy, and having too many hobbies. i finished it last week and just hadn’t had a chance to publish yet.
it’s a brooding track, and not particularly light-hearted, but these types of emotions and thoughts are wont to be evoked during the cold winter up in the rocky mountains of colorado. bundle up and enjoy…
i arrived in florence the next afternoon amid a contemplative daze. so many questions about my past and my future had been raised, and it was too easy to take the bait and wander down tangents of useless what-ifs and might-haves. i wanted to sit down, focus, lock myself in a room somewhere and hash everything out like it was some kind of math problem, but i was old enough to know now that this was not how it works. there was no quadratic equation to one’s problems or happiness. there was only awareness and progress, and every life, no matter how short or long, was just a process of evolution or devolution. i needed to focus on the present and keep moving. besides, i had exited the train and wandered directionless while my thoughts had run free in an oblivious daydream. now i had no idea where i was.
i was indeed in florence, one of the artistic and cultural icons of the world, home to the powerful medici family (so powerful they were able to get two of their family members to be elected pope), birthplace of the italian rennaissance, and home of such historic titans like machiavelli, the poet dante, galileo, michaelangelo, raphael, donatello, leonardo da vinci, and master splinter (ninja turtle joke ftw!!!!). as soon as i was paying attention again, it didn’t take long for the ghosts of greatness to begin lingering in every shadow and corner of this magnificent city. Continue reading an existential crisis in florence, italy→
good monday to all, i hope your weekend was wild. i’ve been hard at work here trying to finish this batch of new songs to share with the internetz, and i’ve just completed another song. please give this a spin and share with your friends. enjoy…
hey friends, brandon here. i’ve been working on some of my own music lately and i wanted to share a little sketch of something i was recording last week for practice purposes. there are no lyrics yet and there are definitely some mistakes in here, but i wanted to share it with you all. the song is called “my wandering mind” enjoy!
i had seen halstatt. it was one of the things on my list that seemed a little more niche and extravagant, and i hadn’t been sure if i was going to pull it off, especially considering all the adversity i had encountered. but i now had a strong sense of accomplishment and pride in myself for surviving the day, as silly as that sounds. i had faced a number of my biggest fears about solo backpacking all in the same day, and i hadn’t panicked. things had somehow just worked out, which was something i had heard people say before, but the paranoid planner in me had never believed them. i’ve always come from a place that the prepared mind is the one who is granted fortune, which i think still is often true, but i knew there was romance somewhere in the no-man’s-land of spontaneity, and one of my primary goals before i set out on this trip was to force myself into that abyss. it had been uncomfortable, stressful, comical, and… wonderful. i didn’t understand it yet, as i was still decompressing and dissecting the day’s events in my mind, but the seeds of experience had been planted in my mind, and i knew that i was already beginning to change and grow from it. Continue reading Switzerland: what the hell is a fondue?→
one of the first ideas i got when beginning to write this blog was to buffer some of the more heavy elements of the things i was writing about with simple music recommendations. music has always been an integral part of my life, providing a soundtrack to the legion of thoughts running through my brain at any moment, and helping me define emotions and life experiences with corresponding sympathetic tunes of artistic expressions of pain, guilt, loss, elation, love, regret, and a thousand others. i used to love sending special people mix tapes, which later turned into mix cd’s, which in turn has given way to playlists (ah the hurried joy of technology), and while i still miss the tactile sentimentality of a mix tape, spotify really has made my life a lot simpler and easier as it relates to finding and sharing new music.
i realize it takes a little patience for some of you to wait for a slow building playlist over the course of months in a year when only 1 song gets added per week, so for that reason, i’m going to work on trying to get out lots of little extras each month. things like seasonal playlists, new artist spotlights, and even playlists for specific occasions will start being sent out on the semi-regular. just make sure you have a spotify account and you are following me (brandonmiq or brandon miquelon if your account is connected to facebook), and you’ll have free access to anything i put out there. if you don’t have spotify, well then i can’t really help you. i’m working for free here.
so here’s our first freebie of 2015, my wePhilistines honorable mention of 2014 list. these are all the songs that were basically “leftovers.” great songs that i really enjoyed listening to throughout the year, but was just unable to find a way to fit them in to any of my posts. these genres range all over the board and the artists vary wildly in exposure and popularity, but i’m sure you’ll be able to find more than a few songs from artists you were previously unaware of that make your audio nerve tingle. as always, i say “listen first, talk later,” so here’s the playlist first, and if you’re interested in my thoughts about what makes it a great song, i will list 1 thing i love about each song after the jump…
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:
a quick note: after thinking a little about the quality of content and the volume of the content deficit that i am in now, relative to how much travel i’ve done so far, i’ve decided to start posting once a week. if this post is any indication, you will get much longer, more content-rich storytelling, but they just won’t be as frequently posted. this will enable me to tell you better stories instead of more stories that are a little more watered down for the sake of “just getting something up on the blog,” and will give me a “deadline” so i have something to reach for each week. to make up for less stories, i’ll still be posting little tiny bits here and there with plenty of musical recommendations as well. this way you’ll never be out of music to listen to.
also, i’d like to make a shameless plea. if you enjoy my stories and like what i’m doing here, please share the blog with friends or family. while i mainly write this blog for myself and my friends to follow along, i’d like to see if it is possible to grow an audience, and i can’t do that without you, the people who already like the writing. thanks again for clicking!
a few days later i found myself stepping off a train and onto a platform in the outskirts of budapest. i was a little nervous upon arriving because i didn’t know much about hungary but in the 10 minutes that I’d been in the country, i was already completely flummoxed by the language. at least everywhere else i’d been in europe, i could make some kind of logical sense of some of the local tongues, no matter how different they sounded from english. hungarian might as well be klingon to me. it seriously sounds crazy, like some imagined language made up of all the sounds that babies make when they are first beginning to experiment with imitating their parents by forming consonants on improvisation and creativity. but it certainly did make it fun to listen to. if someone would turn and say something to me, i would just start laughing, completely clueless how to communicate with them.
after navigating a bus and a metro train, robert and i were able to successfully locate the airbnb apartment we had taken out on the pest side of the river. budapest is actually the result of 2 separate cities merging, buda on the west side of the danube river and pest on the east side, with a third city that was basically just ancient buda, into one big super city in 1873. the history before then is fairly complex, but it’s even more volatile after, particularly when the austro-hungarian empire collapsed after world war one, and hungary was essentially dismantled into a third of its previous size. things got even more intense when, in world war two, sections of the city were reduced to dust and ashes by american and british airforces trying to eradicate german positions in the city. heavy civilian casualties were recorded, nearly 40,000, which you never learn about in american history classes. even later still, during the hungarian revolution, 3,000 people were murdered by soviet forces with tanks, brutally crushing the rebellion. needless to say, budapest has a very painful and complex past, and you can still see hints of this just by walking the streets.
after we got sufficiently settled in, we took to the streets, ready to do some brief exploring. robert actually had a friend in budapest that he hadn’t seen in a few years, so he had plans to meet her for dinner, leaving me to my own devices for the evening.
i had done a little reading on my kindle app about the locale of budapest on the train ride in, so i knew roughly the area i wanted to wander around in. up near the 7th district is the “jewish quarter” area, where there seemed to be a lot of cool restaurants and coffee shops that were popular with the locals and tourists alike (and robert was excited about a few places in the area so i knew it had to be a good area), so i assumed it would be a relatively easy place to walk around and find something. i was right.
as i wandered the streets, i started to fall in love with budapest. i couldn’t help it. coming straight from vienna, it was impossible not to compare the two, and i felt the two had many similarities. i started to feel like vienna and budapest were sisters, and vienna was the taller, prettier blonde one who went out with the captain of the football team, always photographed well, and people always talked about. meanwhile, budapest was the sister that never seemed to get as much attention, but
was so much more interesting in other ways. budapest was the brown haired younger sister with a little bit of a rebellious streak and a quick wit and a biting sarcasm. budapest knew how to find the party, how to appreciate the beauty in the strangest of places. budapest was the girl who kept a straight face and didn’t necessarily smile as much as her sister, but there was a fierce passion and a dazzling display whenever that smile did surface. budapest’s architecture and sculptures are just as fancy as vienna’s but the difference is that budapest wears its age in plain view, while vienna looks like it has gotten a facelift every ten years (that’s not to say that vienna’s beauty looks fake. it doesn’t. it’s amazing. but in a sort of “i’m afraid to touch anything” kind of way). There’s nothing wrong with either, but for my particular tastes, i prefer the worn look a little more. in budapest, you can see every conflict, every struggle, every celebration on its streets and on its buildings, and you need nothing more than to walk a few blocks to see them.
when i finally found the old jewish district, i picked a direction and started walking. after wandering up and down a few uninteresting streets, i came upon an alley with an illuminated marquee that displayed the “gozsdu udvar.” under the marquee was a busy alleyway with all sorts of different colored lighting throwing multicolored shadows left and right, like some sort of kaleidoscope bazaar. throngs of people were milling about and there were tables and chairs under covered patios with seated patrons drinking beer and eating food, loudly conversing amongst themselves. i figured if i was going to find a place to people watch, this was it. i walked straight into the promenade.
as i strolled along, i did my best to look inconspicuous, but I’m sure that only made me look even more suspicious. i hadn’t shaved since i left home, and that was over 6 weeks ago. my facial hair had gone from peach fuzz to gq sexy scruff to minor beard, and was now crossing over into the major beard territory. strong shades of bright red were starting to become visible. there’s a good chance that i looked like a scottish homeless man as i walked down the alley.
after passing a dozen coffee shops and just as many bars, all of which were packed full to the brim with people, i had reached the other end of the 2 – 3 block busy stretch of the gozsdu udvar. my flyby was complete and it was now time to choose a spot for some food. i didn’t want to be so obvious, so i circled the next block to make sure i wasn’t missing anything over there, discovered i was not, and then re-entered the walkway. i got about 2/3 of the way back through the market before selecting a place called “spiler.” I entered and asked for a table for 1, the matre d paused, tilted his head slightly – as if to ask me “are you sure?”, then motioned for me to follow him. the place was packed and i didn’t see any available seats, but he managed to find me a small high table segregated from the rest of the main room behind a large pain of glass. at first i was reluctant to sit because i was removed from all the action, but i was also happy to have received a seat under such busy conditions, so i climbed into the tall chair thankfully.
almost immediately, i became aware of an awkward situation brewing. the high table i had just been seated at was pressed up against a window which also had another table pushed up against it on the other side of the window. this one was at a normal height, significantly lower than mine, and had two semi-attractive females seated at it. if my table had been lower, it would have been like we were at the same table, but with a large transparent obstruction to block whatever was said. i caught the eye of one of the girls and gave a sheepish grin to acknowledge the situation. she smiled briefly and quickly looked away. i laughed aloud and shook my head. instead of being inconspicuous and sitting in the corner people watching, i was now in the most obvious and visibly awkward location in the entire restaurant.
making the best of it, i ordered a negroni and some food. the negroni was average, but the food was good. i devoured it quickly and nervously ordered another negroni. at this point i had noticed a couple people looking at me casually from the other side of the glass and I was starting to feel like an imprisoned zoo animal. all that was missing was a couple annoying kids tapping the glass and making funny faces at me. the restaurant staff had attempted to seat a few different parties at the 3 other high tables situated in my area, but all of these groups had declined to sit there after seeing the location.
eventually an older group of 4 people sat and stayed at the table right next to me, and i was at least thankful to not be the only one on display anymore. i started to eavesdrop on the conversation and quickly determined over the dull roar of the music that they were americans. after listening to the conversation for awhile and determining that they were probably pretty cool people, i struck up a conversation.
“where in the states you from?”
“oh cool, whereabouts?”
“southern. orange county area.”
“nice, i went to high school in san clemente.”
“no way, small world! we all live in laguna niguel. pull up a chair!”
the group was comprised of two couples. one couple had darker features, dark hair and dark eyes, and the other couple had lighter features, graying blond hair and bluish eyes. they were all in their early 50s and all had very cheerful dispositions. both couples had recently sent their youngest kids off to college and had decided to plan a vacation together rather than wallow in the throes of an empty nest. one of the women had basically planned the entire thing and everyone else had happily joined and followed along. they had started in berlin and moved along the same path I had taken, down to prague, vienna, and now budapest. they were leaving tomorrow.
after trading stories for awhile, they asked me what my story was. i told them how i had decided to buy a one way ticket to iceland and snake my way across europe without a plan rather than look for a job back home and keep up with the status quo. they began to excitedly ask me questions about where i had been and what i had done, and they congratulated me on my decision. they made me feel really good about myself, almost like i was some kind of famous person or something they had met in a chance encounter. it was a nice change from the anonymity that often comes with backpacking alone.
eventually they asked if i had been to any of the ruinpubs in budapest. having seen this phrase briefly in my lonely planet guide but not paying much attention, i was vaguely aware of the term. i acknowledged that i had not been to any, hoping they would elaborate a little more. they enthusiastically told me about how a the jewish sections of the city, mainly district VII, had been vacated during world war II during the holocaust (okay they weren’t enthusiastic about that part) for obvious and sad reasons, and then had become an area of the city that had languished and fallen into neglect in the decades since. some areas fell into soviet control during the cold war and had subsequently been abandoned and cordoned off after the soviet empire had regressed back to Russia. these structures remained empty all this time until only a few years ago, when the buildings had begun to be reopened and made available for businesses again. rather than demolish the buildings which had fallen into disrepair, some enterprising owners had decided to go with the themes these buildings provided. so like an artist and his art, the building became the canvas and the bar owners became the artists, and the ruinpub was born. a ruin pub is a bar located in one of these centuries-old buildings, which typically have a very eccentric and atypical design or decorative theme throughout the establishment. some of the larger ones, like szimpla (sorry, their website is terrible), are known for having up to 5 or more floors, with each floor having a different decorative theme, and providing a very cool and unique atmosphere to meet some friends for a drink. some people call these places hipster havens, but i call them excellent. but then again, i have a massive beard now, so people probably assume i’m one. such is life.
so after a thorough explanation and another round of beers, we left the restaurant and headed in the direction of the ruinpub they had been at the day before. but first, they paid my bill without telling me. i was shocked and extremely grateful, and i wish i could remember their names because it was such a kind gesture for a stranger.
we walked for about 10 minutes and turned into a courtyard that was completely empty, with a handful of unattended bar counters. my new friends turned and looked at me with an embarrassed look and promised that it had been hopping with people the night before, and that i might just need to wait a couple hours before things get going again (at this point it was probably only 9pm). i laughed and thanked them, unsure if i was going to hang out a couple hours for people to show up. before i could make a decision, they apologized and informed me they wouldn’t be waiting around since they had to catch a flight back to the states the next morning. we said our goodbyes and they disappeared down the dimly lit backstreet.
i stood alone in the courtyard, wondering what my next move would be. i hadn’t even had the intention of going out that night, and i felt stupid just standing by myself there, and i sure as hell wasn’t going to wait around by myself for 2 hours, so i decided to just head back home. this decision didn’t hold up long, because i had walked less than a block when i strolled by another courtyard ruinpub gate, this one surprisingly busy and also heavily guarded, with 4 very large men standing watch at the entrance. as i slowed my pace during my walk-by, i peeked inside nonchalantly and saw how busy it was and how interestingly it was decorated. i was suddenly struck by the urge to go inside, but my brain was already committed to going back to the apartment. my body did a sort of awkward sidestep in mid stride, and i’m almost positive i made some sort of noticeably stupid convulsion, as my body and brain were momentarily at war with each other over what they each wanted to do. i stopped in the middle of the street for a second so that i could grant myself a moment’s peace to come to a logical conclusion about what to do. i really did want to sleep, as i had been traveling that day and had already walked a good distance in the city. on the other hand, this place looked really cool, and i was teased by the possibilities of what might be in a new city. plus i was already here. what was the harm in one quick beer to see if i liked it?
i became aware of the fact that i was frozen in the middle of the street, and people were probably looking at me. i defaulted my decision to going back to my initial decision to return home. i made it about 20 feet before a small group of really attractive girls speaking hungarian passed by me, and suddenly i was in doubt again. i turned around to watch them go, humorously re-enacting a scene in my mind from dumb & dumber where jim carrey melodically exclaims “goodbye, my loooooooooooove!” after saying goodbye to mary swanson at the airport. i watched as they turned and entered the ruinpub i had been torturously belaboring over. i reconsidered my position and then decided to go in for one beer.
after gaining entry, i slowly approached the scene and cautiously tried to gather as much information as possible. in a square courtyard with tall buildings surrounding on all 4 sides, there were three trees with large trunks in the center of the area, and tables and chairs strewn all about. on each side of the square was a bar with a different name, décor, and style. in the building opposite of the entrance was an open lobby-like room with a ping pong table and a foosball table with some couches surrounding and some bathrooms in the back. there appeared to be some stairs leading up as well, but I never made it up that far. back outside, the walls were covered in a growing ivy plant that had already climbed up about a third of the height of the building. the ivy cast complex shadows around itself and the wall, backlit by small floodlights spread around the courtyard in strategic places. wired lights looped and stretched from the building walls onto the trees and then wrapped up the branches and into the night, providing a dim but perfect luminescence for the scene below it. people were milling all about, standing in groups or congregating at tables, laughing joyously and talking loudly with beers in hand, careless about anything that might be happening outside the walls of the ruinpub.
i was enthused by the place and its positive energy. what a great concept and what a great place to interact. i walked up to a counter and tried to inconspicuously get a beer. i did well enough, but it was painfully obvious that i wasn’t from around here. trying to remain unphased, i turned around and decided to loop around the area and try to locate a place to sit or a person to befriend. i walked slowly and casually, taking only small sips and trying to hone in on any opportunities. nobody was speaking english again, so i was at a loss for a game plan. there also wasn’t any seating available, as they were all taken by large groups of friends that were steadily growing. this was definitely not one of the tourist ruinpubs, it was a locals one.
i ambled about the courtyard and walked up to a group of young people speaking unmistakable american english. i felt the instinctual desire to try to jump into the conversation since it was the only thing i could understand around me, but i internally scolded myself for taking the easy way out. i didn’t come to hungary to meet other americans. i sidestepped the group and continued walking slowly around the room, confident something would happen.
after doing 2 laps and nothing happening, not even being able to make eye contact with anyone, i began to humorously get distressed. i was starting to border on being that creepy guy that just leers
at everyone in the bar and no one talks to because they’re afraid of being followed home later. i looked over and noticed a bench that could fit about 5 people snugly, but was currently occupied by a couple who looked like they might get up soon. rather than sit down and cramp the guy’s space, who was clearly trying to get the girl to go home with him, i decided to wait around for them to go and then i would take their place. while i was waiting, i noticed a table with 2 girls sitting by themselves. i was tired of being the awkward loner, i wanted to make some friends. instead of wait for the bench, i decided to go talk to these girls, even if they couldn’t speak english, regardless of consequence.
i started to approach the table, the girls hadn’t noticed me yet. 2 more steps, still nothing. another 2 steps, the couple at the bench started to grab their things. 2 more steps, the girls at the table were aware of my approaching presence. 1 more step, the couple at the bench had stood up and left the bench. suddenly my brain broke in mid step. 1 more step, i deviated from my path and now was facing the tree trunk that separated the bench from the 2 girls at the table. i looked at the girls at the table who were now looking at me curiously. shit. abandon ship. i turned to the bench, only to see that a group of 4 girls were just sitting down and making themselves comfortable at my seat. damn! this is getting worse. i looked back over to the 2 girls at the table, who were now looking at me like i was some kind of undiscovered monkey species. i set my jaw and stubbornly decided to take my seat that had been stolen from me by the 4 intruders on the bench. i looked down and noticed that the last girl had left room for half of an ass cheek. i abruptly sat down. i now needed a drink from the beer that i had been gingerly sipping for the last 30 minutes.
as i pulled the glass to my lips, i felt a sharp sensation in my head, like 8 knives were being pressed into my temple. a hole was burning and boring into the side of my skull. completely perplexed, i searched for what might be the cause. i couldn’t place it. i eagerly took a sip of the beer and then glanced to my right. there, leaning outward in a domino effect, kind of like how scooby doo & the gang used to peer around corners, one head above the other, were 4 pairs of eyes staring right at me, emotionless, cold, unforgiving. the 4 girls that had stolen my bench were now unwavering in their collective gaze, looking right through my soul. i froze in a panic. refusing to back down, i let out a lone nervous laugh and then lifted the beer back to my lips and downed the whole thing. the girls all erupted simultaneously in laughter.
they had sensed my awkwardness and could tell i was a foreigner. one of them, lilla, the troublemaker, had quickly organized the group staredown, and in my neuroses i had been completely unaware. we all introduced ourselves and i gratefully and excitedly began to get to know the group, glad that i was no longer creeping around the room.
lilla and adrienne spoke the best english, so they led most of the conversation, while dora, gabby, and i were along for the ride. obviously i was the new commodity, being an american in Budapest, so much of the conversation centered around me (something i have absolutely no problem with), but it quickly became apparent to me that this was going to be one of those nights that i would probably remember for the rest of my life, partly for its outlandishness and also for it’s hilarity. as the night progressed, i bought the next couple rounds of drinks for the girls, partially to thank them for rescuing me from my own prison, but also because i think buying drinks for people who’s company I enjoy is my love language. in my life, i’ve had some of the most ludicrous bar tabs ever, and i’ve had to learn how to let other people buy their own drinks. but in hungary i couldn’t believe how cheap the drinks were, it was shocking. it was even cheaper than prague! i could get a beer for a euro, or i could get a cocktail for 2-3 euros. for the cost of one cocktail in vienna, i could buy a whole round of beers for 5 people.
as the music started to get louder, the drinks were flowing, we got more comfortable with each other as a group, and eventually we started a dance party in the middle of the courtyard. It was only a matter of about 5 minutes before a group of about 15 people had joined in with us. it was fairly obvious to many of the single guys in the ruinpub that i was over-reaching on my quantity of women and they thought they could pluck one or two of them from me, so as the night wore on, guys would repeatedly come over and begin hitting on each one of them. i started to pick up on the fact that they weren’t enjoying it, so at one point i decided to intervene. an italian guy with a preppy geek-chic look had been mercilessly harassing adrienne for 10 minutes, and she had started to make funny disgusted faces whenever he wasn’t looking. i walked over and put my arm around her and said “hey babe, you want another drink?” he looked at me funny and then back at her. realizing what i was doing, she quickly acted the part, and eventually the guy went away. i did this at least 2 more times during the night, once for gabby, and I think for lilla once, and it started to become a funny thing that we were waiting for throughout the night.
as the night crept steadily closer to the following morning, our group decided it was time to call it a night. gabby had started dancing with some persistent guy who thought he was fred astaire, and she couldn’t escape him. she gave me a long, pleading look, hoping I would come save her. i realized she was too nice to break this poor guy’s heart, so i happily did it for her. the poor guy couldn’t believe that his moves weren’t as gold as he thought they were and that she was not interested, as he kept speaking to her in Hungarian as we made our way as a group to the exit, finally giving up once we walked through the gate.
as we walked, it struck me that I’d had a little too much to drink, and i now had no idea how to get back to my apartment. normally when i go out with women at night, i insist on walking them back to their car to make sure they got there safely, so by force of habit i insisted on escorting them to wherever they were headed, despite the fact that i’d never been in this city before, and as i would find out later, we were walking directly in the opposite direction that i needed to go. since i didn’t know how to get home, i was in no rush, so i walked the girls home. i got extremely lucky when lilla offered that i could sleep on the couch since i had apparently convinced them i wasn’t a murderer. i gratefully accepted, and i think i was asleep before my head even hit the pillow. what a crazy first day in Budapest.
today’s groovy groove is an ancient classic by this blog’s normal standards. it’s a song called “dancing in the moonlight” by a band called king harvest, released back in 1972. the band’s core members were made up of 4 american expats living in paris, so i really couldn’t think of a good reason not to use this song on the blog. put a smile on your face, grab a girl or grab a guy, and take a spin around the dance floor. enjoy…