the new year tends to be a very polarizing event for most people, and it’s no different for me. when i was a high school kid, my new year’s eves were typically spent trying to find ways to raise mischief at little house parties that i may or may not have been invited to, often by crashing parties dressed in stupid outfits or running through parties screaming stupid phrases wearing only my underwear with women’s leggings over my face to conceal my identity, quickly escaping into the night moments later. i wish i could say i was lying about that, but i’m not. what a jackass.
anyway, as i got older, i had my fair share of standard new years parties for college-aged kids, usually semi-responsible affairs with mostly-irresponsible amounts of alcohols or substances, and those behaviors continued on for most of my twenties, some a little rougher than others, but mostly forgettable. i remember always having this sense of hope that the new year would bring some sort of genuine experience or meaningful memory that would somehow help me find purpose or direction in my next go-round the sun. unfortunately, that never seemed to materialize and i’d usually spent the night drinking and dancing my way into idiotic oblivion, and by the time the central moment of the night came and passed, my attention span was paper thin and the brain cells holding any memories were long dead. i always awoke with a headache and a taste of disappointment.
in my last few years of life, i’ve resorted to less-crazy and/or booze-fueled holidays, and opted for more private affairs; small gatherings with close friends and games. or last year, when i spent the new year watching fireworks on the beach in peru. these smaller groupings take a lot of the focus off the need for “something big” to happen and they opened up room for self-reflection and authenticity. and that’s something i’ve learned about myself, is that these are 2 things that i desperately need to make time for, or i become restless and unhappy.
and so i find myself back here for the 31st time in my life (in this blog’s 31st post, how clever), new year’s eve, in the charming city of amsterdam, the first city that made me feel at home and comfortable in my own skin here in europe. the first city that i wandered in europe without knowing where the hell i was going or what i was supposed to be doing. the first city where i didn’t speak the language and was legitimately scared to interact with people. the first city where i was visibly disturbed by a local food custom (mayo on the fries?!?! NO!!!). the first city to give me an eye-opening appreciation for visual art (the van gogh museum). the first city where i met a community of locals that happily accepted me and invited me places. this place holds a special spot in my heart, and i am happy to be back here among friendly faces, ready to ring in the new year.
but before the fireworks pop and the bubbly flows, before the music bumps and the sky glows, i take a look back on the year that was. what i thought it was going to be and what it became. and everything i learned in between.
i learned how to express my feelings instead of bottling them up. i learned how to deal with loss. i learned how to accept that i wasn’t happy with my life, and i learned what it meant to do something about it. i learned what it meant to actually be in love with someone, and how to let go of them when you knew they weren’t coming back. i learned how to move on. i discovered my own self worth, and what i am & am not. i learned how to let go of the wheel, how to stop trying to control everything (okay this one is a constant struggle). i learned how to search for new horizons. i learned the importance of “do,” and the danger of complacence. i learned how to jump without a parachute. i learned that its okay to not know exactly where you’re going.
i saw so much of the world. i met so many amazing people. i cried. i laughed. i lived. i made dreams come true. i lived life in the present, instead of the past or future. i took deep breaths. i stopped being afraid. i listened instead of competed. i walked. i stopped planning.
and as the day descends into night over the sleepy canals of the vibrant and pulsing city above them, and i count down the minutes until midnight, when i stand with one foot in the past and one in the future, desperately trying to maintain a grasp on the present, i want to impersonally thank every single soul that has graced my presence this year. regardless of the interaction or its significance, i assure you it contributed in some way to a life-changing year that no amount of words could ever capture. but i will keep trying, every week, and i will continue to thank the stars that someone out there is even interested in what i have to say or see. thank you, every single one of you. you’re all beautiful.
i thought long and hard about writing some sort of “year in review” section for the music portion of the blog, but ultimately decided against it. mainly because i feel that the most important aspect of music these days is how it makes the individual feel, not the “message” that it’s trying to send or the movement it’s trying to start. there are legions of blogs out there whose sole purpose is to explore such topics, but the music component of this blog tries to take a more simplistic appreciation of music. songs are the soundtrack of our lives, and all our lives have a different path. what a song means to me is different from what it means to you, so instead of talking about it til we’re blue in the face, let’s just listen to it.
so that being said, i’ve chosen the last we philistines song of 2014 carefully. it’s a newer song from an old sentimental favorite of mine, ben harper, and the lyrics sum me up pretty well at this stage of my life. it talks about learning how to accept who you are, faults and all, and being okay with each new day being it’s own step to climb, no matter the past or the future. while some might find this song a little depressing, i find it to be comforting. enjoy…
and the we philistines 2014 playlist. tomorrow we’ll start a 2015 playlist if you care to follow along. i’ll share that in the next post…
happy christmahannukwanzikaa everyone. people lately have been asking me how i can travel during the holidays? don’t i miss my family? what about all the fun christmas parties? and the christmas feasts? what do they eat where you are? do they even celebrate christmas? what do they call santa claus? don’t you miss the presents?
it’s weird for me sometimes, and difficult to explain. it’s not that i don’t miss all these things, and it’s not that i don’t care about them. and i would be lying if i said i didn’t want a christmas feast tomorrow, especially after traveling abroad for the last 4 months and missing our other american celebration of gorging yourself, thanksgiving. god i miss pumpkin pie. i miss sweet potatoes. and roasted turkey and cranberry sauce. and gravy. oh god, gravy.
but there are certain trade-offs you accept when you decide to leave on an extended trip, especially one during the world’s most sacred of times of the year. the trade-offs vary for each person, and they can be both insignificant and meaningful, depending on the person and their situation in life. for me, it’s a bit of both.
for the insignificant, it’s the simple things. the desire to do something different, the need to use up vacation hours before they expire at the new year, the wish to escape the in-laws. or the unruly children of relatives. these are all easy things to think of that push somebody over the pond to the great wide open.
but then there’s the meaningful the things. the obvious and most glaring trade-off is the search for the new. the hope and the dream that something exciting and different is waiting beyond the next horizon, that new incredible experiences lay like buried treasure, waiting to be discovered, and that a whole new world might unfold before your very eyes, unlocking the truths of the universe. or at least the meaning of your own life. this indeed is the allure of travel in general, but making these decisions is more difficult during the holidays, so the wandering soul is tested with a decision that weighs harder than it normally might, and must prove just how badly the desire to explore truly is.
for others, maybe they run away from things. maybe they don’t have a family, or maybe their family is broken. no judgment here, i’d say there are minor elements of both those things at play within my own trip. or maybe they just want to see how they decorate the eiffel tower at christmas. whatever the reason, it’s not really the business of anyone else. if the reason is meaningful enough to you, you do it and don’t look back.
but then there is inevitably a moment or two that you feel the weight on other end of that decision, and you might wish you were home instead of wherever it is that you are. it’s never the big moments that come back to you, it’s always the little ones. like watching home alone with your siblings like you’ve done almost every year since you were a kid and laughing inexplicably hard at the moment when kevin is walking home from the grocery store and the bags break, dropping all his items onto the sidewalk. you’ve seen it a million times, but for some reason just now its the funniest thing ever. or decorating that damn tree & finding that one hideous ornament that somebody gave you one year when you were 9 that always gave you the creeps, but now after all these years you just look at it and smirk. or having a glass of wine (or three) and sitting back and watching the complete chaos of your large extended family losing its mind between the food, the conversation, the presents, everything. and the sheer exhaustion that eventually descends on you after about 30 minutes of enduring this.
but it’s these things that really don’t mean anything that suddenly mean everything when you put them all together and see that these are the things that make up the whole picture of your life. like standing up close to a van gogh and seeing all the dots, not really sure what you’re looking at. but then you take a few steps back and see the greater beauty. and just when you’re starting to wonder whether or not you made the correct decision to leave what you know during the most valued time of the year for a land far away where you don’t speak the language and you don’t recognize anything they’re eating, you realize that this trip is not a mistake, nor is it even a trade-off. it is merely another dot (or ten) on the canvas. and hopefully, as you walk the foreign streets of whatever far-off land you might be in, you can enjoy the moment you are currently in without any pause or hesitation or confusion that you might not be where you’re supposed to be. instead, you can take some small pleasure that you are indeed experiencing everything you had hoped to on your trip, and next year, just maybe, you’ll have an even deeper and more intense appreciation for all those little things that you never noticed before.
happy holidays to anyone in the cosmos that stumbles upon this blog, and hopefully something resonates with you. if it does, i raise my glass (of woodford reserve) to you as i sit here on the couch in a cheap airbnb apartment in croatia, watching a likely illegal version of home alone on an ipad. trust me, wherever you are right now, you’re where you’re supposed to be.
sorry folks, i don’t do christmas music. i’ve been told for years that makes me a scrooge, and so be it. but nevertheless, i’ve got a harmless easygoing jam for you today on the day before christmas (some of you may need it once you get surrounded by your families and the political convos start flying around). the topic of the blog today was about all those little things you can get nostalgic about, and this song is completely rooted in it. anybody too young will likely not have quite the appreciation for this, but the opening notes of this song kick-started my time machine to back in the day (i’ve always driven old cars. i don’t believe in buying new) and just builds and builds. it takes something that used to cause me to pull my hair out and transforms it into an infectious, head nodding gem that i never saw coming. enjoy…
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…
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…