looking back on my time in croatia, montenegro, and bosnia & herzegovina, it was a strange time, but a wonderful one. i was traveling with a friend, which i had not had the luxury of for most of my trip, so i was never alone during these weeks. but before that, i had just begun to grow accustomed to being alone, and was starting to enjoy the introspection that came with it, and the peace of mind that had started to evolve and emerge from my thoughts. nevertheless, traveling with my friend dave, who was not a seasoned traveler, forced me to take command of situations with more authority and efficiency than i had ever needed to, and exposed to me just how far my development had come since my early days in london, paris and berlin, of following other travelers i had met like a lost puppy. i was now the veteran, and it took me by surprise.
putting together this video was really fun, not only because i wrote and recorded the sountrack, but also being able to re-live the scenes and memories. the balkan states are fascinating, co-mingling the hope of the future with the tragedy of the past, there are few places i’ve been where both sides of that story were always nearby, and i still regret not being able to make it further into the balkans to explore all the other interesting countries in the region. i will return. someday.
it was dark, and we hadn’t seen a street sign, a building, even a streetlamp in over an hour. we had seen nary a clue that we were even traveling in the right direction, but had seen no other roads headed in this direction on the map, so we pressed on faithfully into the night, expecting any minute to find a sign.
the roads toward the interior of croatia were much smaller and more narrow than the decidedly more oft-traveled corridor of the adriatic coastline, thusly making it more difficult for me to progress toward my destinations at the breakneck (and slightly illegal) pace that i had grown accustomed to in rural europe. despite my frustration, i found a silver lining in the intricacies of the winding country roads, and the fun that came with the need to test my maneuvering skills at a high degree of mastery. dave, on the other hand, didn’t share my navigational enthusiasm.
eventually we found the turnoff we had been looking for and made our way through a tiny town with few amenities or notable attractions. a light snow was now falling and the ground had accumulated a sheer white layer, making it almost difficult to look directly at with the bright headlights of the car beaming directly onto it. i approached each turn with a degree of caution, conscious of the fact that i had turned down the rental company on their offer of all-weather tires only a week ago.
dave guided us to a house, seemingly in the middle of nowhere, that he had found on airbnb. as we pulled into the designated parking space, i humorously remarked, “…and this is how it ends. in the pit of some croatian farmer’s barn, never to be seen again.” dave laughed and exited the vehicle, walking into the house of the property owner to handle the check-in duties while i gathered the bags. a few minutes later we were claiming beds in our apartment for the night and unwinding from a long day of driving.
it was a homely little apartment, but it was just what we needed. it was quaint and quiet, and removed from any hustle or bustle of a normal city. very different from the place we had stayed the night before in the oceanside town of zadar. a self-proclaimed “design hostel,” it was clean and minimalist with eccentric aesthetics. we were the only ones staying in a place that had capacity for at least 80, and our shared-bunk dorm felt like a sick mix between a hospital and a room from charlie’s chocolate factory. tall ceilings, narrow spaces, the walls were candy-striped with disturbingly contrasted orange and white and the bunks had stiff shutters that could close off from the outside world, allowing the sleeper to create a cocoon. i wondered if i had missed the part where they assigned me a straightjacket before locking me in the room.
zadar had actually been a pleasant surprise, and i had found myself wishing that i’d been able to stay there longer than the twelve hours i gave it, especially if i could come back some day in the summer. that
evening, as i walked along the harbor admiring the sunset, i stumbled upon the Morske orgulje, or “sea organ,” an architectural object and experimental musical instrument that produces sound through a series of pipes inset the marble ground i walked upon, powered by the waves of the ocean that brushed up against the side of the marble and into the pipes, pushing air out and producing the unpredictable chorus. it was truly one of the most uniquely creative things that i had seen on my travels, and also one of the most unexpected.
after a few minutes of unwinding, a knock at the door sounded. it was the daughter of the property owner with a gift: homemade rakija. dave and i both expressed our deep gratitude and accepted the gift, but when we closed the door, we exchanged more knowing glances.
“oh man. good thing they only gave us these small glasses, this stuff smells stronger than the cherry stuff we had the other night,” dave warned cautiously.
“it is!” i spat out as i coughed down my first sip. “way stronger! i think this is peach flavor too.” we did our best to finish the drink (which i estimate to have been about 2.5 shots worth of alcohol), but neither of us could make it all the way through. apparently this was the old man’s special recipe, and he distilled it right there on property. impressive, but not for the faint of heart.
the next morning we arose early and set out to find plitvice lakes national park. after a 20 minute drive, the windy snow-covered road led us to a parking lot that seemed out of place with the rest of landscape that we had grown accustomed to seeing. we deduced that this must be the place.
following an oddly unnecessary footbridge over to what appeared to be an empty visitor center, a tourist bus pulled into the lot and parked while we attempted to figure out where to go and how to pay for whatever it was we were supposed to be seeing. i laughed as 5 people got off the bus that could hold probably 50. eventually we found a walking path and assumed that if there was a pay booth somewhere, clearly no one cared if we paid or it would have been more obviously located. we started down the path perplexedly defiant.
three minutes later we were staring down a cliff surveying a wintery panorama of emerald blue rivers and lakes fed by icy white waterfalls. i had never seen anything like it. like a croatian iguazu, we had found a legitimate natural gem in the harsh balkan cold, and there was no one around to spoil our enjoyment of it. dave and i excitedly bound down the switchbacks until we were at the water’s edge, walking on man-made wooden planked walkways across the water and staring up at the looming waterfalls.
the ice and frigidity of winter had obviously restricted the water flow, somewhat muting the normally powerful display of water in nature in this protected croatian landmark. but we knew we were getting to see a very different side of an oft-photographed sight, and the narnia-like effect that the white winter had on the place gave the atmosphere an eery yet striking touch that made me forget about the bitter cold and enjoy the moment.
dave and i separated for a while, wandering toward different parts of the park and periodically meeting back up in different areas to make sure we weren’t lost. during that time, i tried to focus on being present, enjoying the moment and not worrying about the future or the past, or letting my mind wander too far along pointless reveries. i was getting better at this. i remembered back to the beginning of my journey, being a total mental mess, worried about where i was going in my future, sad and victimized by my past, and always paranoid and conscious of the strangers around me and what they thought of me. rarely did i have these concerns any longer. occasionally i might be aware that i was out of place in a situation, or i might want to impress someone appropriately, but seldom did i have any social anxiety about my foreign status or my ragged appearance. i just didn’t care anymore, and i felt liberated. and nowhere more did that carefree comfort truly reveal itself than when i was
away from congested society and out into the raw of nature. the worries of life and society seemed to fall by the wayside whenever i wandered a dirt trail among the trees and the rushing water and an unending sky. a light snow and fair breeze coerced the water gently from its course atop the cliff to the basin below, transforming a calm stream into a drifting cascade. it was peaceful here, and i never wanted to leave.
dave and i reconvened aboard a ferry that carried us across the main lake and to a new section of the park for us to explore for a few more hours. eventually the cold won out, however, and dave and i decided it best to seek warmer temperatures.
The next day we were on the road again, and before long we were slipping and sliding our way through the streets of zagreb, the capital city of croatia. a heavy, wet snow had been falling for hours before we arrived, and still fell, as we searched for parking near our hostel. we checked into yet another modern “design hostel,” impressively marked with comfortable yet minimalist furniture, modern decorative art, and clean lines throughout the architecture. croatia knew how to put together a solid hostel.
we spent another pair of days exploring the old and new in a city that dates back at least a thousand years. exploring old churches and cemeteries, and a few bars in between, zagreb seemed to be a large city without much of the draw that tourists journeyed to the adriatic coast for. but there was charm in that. it was a different side of croatia, more business-like, more straight to the point, and the unassuming nature of it put one at ease. it was easy to go about your day and take the city in without feeling the pressure to make sure you had checked off all the necessary boxes to prove to yourself it had been worthwhile.
our time came to an end however, and dave and i said our goodbyes to croatia. we rose early before the sun and city, and sped hurriedly to the airport. in our early morning haze, we pulled up to the front gate of the departures section and began preparing to offload our luggage. we both sat uncomfortably for a moment, not sure what was wrong. suddenly, it hit me.
“damn! this is a rental car! where’s the rental office?!” i exclaimed, suddenly wide awake. dave looked back at me blankly. panic set in, we were already likely late for an international flight, and we had forgotten to return our rental car.
dave turned on his iphone, hoping he could locate the rental office nearby, while i pressed the gas pedal, determined to find it the old-fashioned way.
“i don’t get it. google maps says we’re on top of it,” dave said, perplexed. we both looked around. nothing. i drove to the end of the airport road. nothing but office buildings, no rental lots. i turned around and went back to the entrance of the airport loop. dave kept poking at his phone screen with futility, much like he had the entirety of our time in the balkans. google maps didn’t have as high an adoption rate here as it did the rest of europe and the US thus far, hence the wild inaccuracies we had experienced almost everywhere we had gone.
after a few minutes of driving around in a panic and yelling obscenities at dave’s iphone, i hooked my head left and searched east, across an empty field and down what appeared to just be a service road. i whipped the car illegally across traffic and sped down the road without saying a word. dave, recognizing that i was in one of my zones, said nothing and held on for dear life, trusting that i knew what i was doing. i barreled into a parking lot and up to the front door of the europcar rental office. dave stared at me incredulously.
“how did you see this?!” he exclaimed as we walked briskly to the door. i didn’t answer, frustrated as i realized that no one was at the office yet. someone was late to work. annoyed, i repeatedly rang the bell and pounded on the door, unconcerned that no one could hear it.
a few minutes later another car entered the lot and 2 men in ties rushed in to open the office. embarrassed, he was aware that i knew he was late. i said nothing and noticed that he was working at a pace faster than what he normally might. he processed our paperwork and drove us back to the departure gate. dave and i grabbed our bags and sprinted through check-in and security, barely making our flight.
as the plane climbed into the morning sky, i exhaled deeply, relieved. dave began laughing, unprovoked, and it was only a matter of seconds before i was laughing with him.
“i don’t ever want to fly with you again” i said jokingly, and our laughter grew even louder.
i would miss croatia. and bosnia and montenegro as well, and the mysteries of what lay beyond the boundaries that dave and i had pushed haunted me. i would be back someday, to explore sarajevo, and bucharest, and albania, and macedonia. to sail from the northern tip of croatia all the way down to the southern isles of greece, when the summer sun beats down upon the blue sea and is cooled by the mist on the skin and the tradewinds blowing through the hair. i would most definitely be back someday.
but now i returned to amsterdam, to celebrate the new year with the dutch, at the party of a lifetime.
today’s song has been out for a few months now, but the more i listen to it, the more it becomes a part of me. it’s called “dark bird is home,” and it’s by the tallest man on earth. it’s a song about separation, and learning to grow and cope with change and loss. this song makes me feel so many emotions when i hear it, and it has earned a place on my eternal rotation. tallest man will be performing in denver, co this summer and i plan on attending. feel free to join me.
the following night, dave and i touched down in croatia and were wandering around an empty, unlit terminal searching for a rental car company in the dark. when we finally found the right bungalow, it was apparent that the guy running the office had been waiting for us for awhile, his final customers of the day. his demeanor was very gruff, cold almost, but not rude. there was a measured indifference in his voice, and i could tell that he was ready to go home for the day. i surmised that there was a good chance that i would experience this ‘measured indifference’ again during my time in croatia.
the dubrovnik airport is located about 20 minutes south of the city, so i had a little time to get comfortable with our volkswagen golf on the darkened highway, pressing the accelerator to the ground a couple times and hugging a few turns, making dave nervous in the process. getting a reaction to my driving from him was becoming one of my favorite things about traveling with dave.
we pulled into the outskirts of dubrovnik and began searching for the apartment we had rented from airbnb, making a few wrong turns and getting slightly lost. the apartment seemed to be located somewhere between the two roads that had forked off of the main highway we had been traveling, one going high up along the mountainside, and the other down below, closer to the walled city and coastline, and we couldn’t locate any actual roads that could get us anywhere between the two. in this area of seemingly un-navigable land lay rows of old houses and high-reaching walls that all gradually made their way further up the mountain. we needed to get in there somehow. i found a narrow alley, barely wide enough to fit a car, and pulled the tiny vw into the tight squeeze. i drove slowly for a minute while dave checked the map on his phone, and the alley widened ever so slightly. there was an SUV parked tightly up against the wall on the right and i inched the car alongside and past the SUV, leaving a mere inch on either side of the car.
“how did you do that?!” dave exclaimed. i laughed, proud of my navigational skills. i pulled the car ahead of the parked obstacle and began creeping forward again as the alley began to narrow again, searching desperately for an address or a street sign in the dark that might give us a hint of where we were going or where we were.
suddenly two bright headlights came rushing down the alley from around the corner and stopped in front of us, the two cars staring face to face, nowhere to go. dave and i froze, staring blankly ahead, unsure of what to do and hoping that the other car would back up into some magic parking lot behind them around the corner that obviously did not exist. the men in the other car began waving their hands directing me to get the hell out of their way. okay, i thought, i’m the person who doesn’t live here, i need to go back.
“shit. okay here we go man.” i said to dave and shifted into reverse.
“okay, but, wait! watch out for…!” dave panicked as i quickly backed the car back into the extremely tight space between the wall and the parked SUV. i was going backward faster than i had gone through forward before. i frantically swiveled my head back and forth, checking my mirrors repeatedly as i eased the car backwards past the SUV and back out into the alley, down the narrow, winding alley, and back out into the main street entrance, the exiting vehicle impatiently following me the whole way, then making a quick pass once they had a chance, escaping out into the night. i shifted into park and slumped back into my seat, letting out a big sigh of relief. i looked over at dave. he was staring at me with eyebrows raised and his mouth agape.
“i’ve seen you do some crazy things, but i think that was the most impressive. how did you not wreck the car into that wall?!?! you were going WAY too fast!” he started laughing nervously.
“what just happened? i blacked out.” i joked. honestly i had no clue how i had escaped the situation unscathed either.
we eventually were able to locate the apartment, and after being welcomed by the owner, andres, we ran quickly down into the walls of the old city, about a 15 minute walk. the city streets were empty but very well lit, and the white polished stones in the walkway projected the lights overhead back upward, giving an ethereal mirroring effect that made you feel like you were walking on an ancient mirrorball. after wandering around for a few minutes, we located a small restaurant that we had read about in online, known for great local croatian cuisine and wine. tucked away in a little nook of the city and built into the great outer wall of the city, the place looked empty and closed. undeterred, i poked my head inside anyway and found three people sitting on barstools at a small counter in the front, and a waiter on the other side who looked up to see us with a surprised and welcoming smile.
“hi, are you still open?” i inquired.
“yes, please come in my friend! welcome to my restaurant, the bota sare!” he ushered us to the corner, bringing us waters and menus. the place had a very elegant but simple feel to it, white stone from floor to ceiling. the menu was full of local ingredients and seafood, made into sushi arrangements. also oysters. lots of oysters.
“i’ll have a dozen oysters and a bottle of a local white wine. whatever you recommend that is reasonably priced,” i instructed politely. dave placed a large order of sushi and we elected to share. the rest of the establishment was empty, so it was only a short time before our food arrived. as we feasted, we couldn’t help but listen in and appreciate the 3 locals at the bar who were extremely drunk. i couldn’t help myself as i listened to their clumsy conversation, bouncing back and forth between croatian and english, slobbering and stumbling every step of the way. there were two men and one woman, all three of them were tall. they kept ripping through bottle after bottle of wine, and the restaurant owner tried to dissuade them from ordering more, but they persisted. at one point, one of the men fell off of his stool and flat onto the stone floor, where he lay unconscious. it wasn’t a violent fall, more of a slow slump, so when his friends began laughing at him raucously, i couldn’t help myself and began laughing as well. the owner looked at them disapprovingly, embarrassed that they were causing such a scene, but when he looked over to see david and me laughing appreciatively, he smiled in relief. the woman stumbled over to us while the man woke his friend up and encouraged him to drink more.
“where y’ from?” she managed to blurt out.
“the US,” i replied with a smile. she turned around and motioned to the owner.
“shots! rakija! for our american friends!” she demanded, not out of rudeness, but more out of the brain’s necessity to focus solely on essential words after speaking becomes a labor and politeness and prepositions become an afterthought. the owner brought around some shotglasses and poured 4 shots of a clear liquid.
“what is this?” i asked curiously.
“rakija. a croatian brandy made from fruit” the owner informed me. okay, here we go, i thought to myself, trying to prepare for what might turn into an all-out binge.
“Živjeli!” said the locals, and we knocked the shot back. for about .5 seconds, everything was fine. suddenly a wave of disorienting aromatic sweet and sour tingling came rushing up my esophagus and down the inside of my nose. the sides of my tongue began throbbing with a strong cherry tart flavor. the croatians all began laughing as dave and i attempted to recover and salvage some dignity. i actually liked the rakija, but i prayed to god they weren’t going to offer me anymore. i didn’t want to binge drink tonight, i wanted to a restful sleep. luckily the drunk woman slapped dave on the back and laughed heartily, then returned to her drunk friends and eventually left.
the owner explained to us that they had all been friends since primary school, and that typically in the tourist off-season (december, january) the city is completely empty, so the locals will often times to go the places they don’t normally go when they are crowded with tourists. we informed him we weren’t bothered at all by drunkenness, if anything it made the otherwise quiet night more enjoyable. i then began asking the owner about his life in dubrovnik. there were no other customers in the restaurant, so the owner pulled up a chair and poured himself a glass of wine. he began to tell us about how beautiful the summers were and how wonderful croatian people were. we began to drift backward in time, i started asking questions about the war in the 90s, unsure if he would be willing to talk about it with us. after a little hesitance, he started sharing openly, telling us that he had been in this very building as a child when the first bombs had hit the walls of the city, fired by serbia. dave and i listened with wide eyes as he recounted the horrors of the war, and we smiled with him when he
spoke proudly of how the thick and sturdy walls withstood every shell and missile fired, never collapsing or failing. he admitted that shells had obviously hit inside the city,
and he informed us that if we walked enough within the right areas of the city, we would still see the craters and demolished buildings. we asked him how things had changed over the years, and we asked him about current relations with serbians. he admitted that he had a difficult time accepting serbians because of the atrocities that he had witnessed and the friends and family that he had lost at their hands in the war. as he shared with us, i found myself minorly shocked about how different his childhood was from mine. we were roughly the same age, i had been through my own tragedies and warzones (i grew up in gangland southern california during the early 90s race riots. those were fun), but nothing like what this man had seen. his city had been bombed by another neighboring country, and had undergone a horribly pointless war for 3 years, simply because his countrymen had wanted independence from the mess of socialist yugoslavia. i felt fortunate that i had never had to experience something so conflicting and awful. but i also was appreciative of this man’s willingness to share with us openly about his experiences. at the end of the night we thanked him and went on our way.
the next morning we arose early and elected to pay a few euros to walk up onto the city walls and walk the perimeter of the whole city. it was a beautiful, blue sky day, without a cloud in the sky, and the sun shone brightly over the sea on the other side of the castle walls.
old dubrovnik was quite a sight indeed. the walls alone were incredibly impressive, standing 80 feet at its tallest and 20 feet at its thickest, i tried my best to imagine just how difficult it would be to build fortified walls like that. how many layers of stone blocks is that?!? the modern walls that you see now were initially built starting in the 12th century, and is considered to be the greatest defensive fortification of the middle ages, as the walls have never
been breached in open combat. i gawked at every new angle i could find from atop the walls, looking down the outside from the top edge, appreciating the way the walls sloped down and out, wider at the base to protect from any lean or tipping. the city had also done a great job of staying updated with the times, as the defensive purposes had not been necessary in almost 20 years, so the cosmetic work that had gone into preserving and beautifying the city and it’s famous walls had been extensive, and the work had been effective. dubrovnik was perhaps one of the most uniquely beautiful places i’d ever been in my entire life.
as we completed our lap around the city, i found a tower in the northern corner of the walled city, what looked to be the most strategic defensive position of the city with the best view of the entire city. i climbed to the top and looked out the tiny window, surveying the man-made wonder around me, paired with the natural beauty of the mediterranean sea just beyond the city walls. directly below of the tower i was in was an elevated basketball court with high fences and a great view that a group of young boys were playing in. after watching them for a few minutes i decided that they were playing basketball on the best court in the entire world. no nba court in the US could compare with the beautiful simplicity and unique backdrop that these young croatians had.
“hey man, we should get a move on if we want to make it to make it into montenegro before dark.” dave had caught up to me. i descended the tower and we exited the great walls of the city. i would definitely be back some day.
this week’s musical selection is actually not a new song, but it’s new to me and i can’t stop nodding my head to it, so i’m sharing it with you. hailing from tacoma, washington, motopony’s song “seer” sports a dirty little acoustic guitar riff as the spine, and a solid rock n’ roll backing that builds an anthem with muddy pianos and guitars, a soaring organ, and quirky vocals that give just enough bite to keep you wanting more. enjoy…
i took a break from writing last week to write and record a brand new song. the inspiration came when i was finishing up my video on italy and youtube wouldn’t let me use a Tweedy song for the soundtrack due to copyright infringement. they tried to force me to use some mediocre royalty-free songs which i hated, so instead i used my own music, and then i immediately turned around and wrote this. i hope you like it, it’s a bit of a departure from the folky stuff i normally write. if you’d like to use this for a video project or something you’re doing, just contact me and i will send you the file for free. enjoy…
had a chance to do some editing on a song i wrote right before i left on this little journey and really captures my state of mind before i left. have a listen and maybe follow my soundcloud account if you like what you hear. enjoy…
i’ve been working obsessively around the clock lately on new we philistines original material, and am happy and excited to announce the first of a new batch of newly recorded songs which i will be sharing over the coming weeks!
it has been a long road toward getting back into this season of life for myself, as i bitterly gave up music 5 years ago and rarely touched my guitars since. but now that i’ve returned from my wander, writing music is something i have decided to prioritize again. i hope you enjoy this, i have poured my heart and soul into it, recording every instrument you hear within the confined space of my tiny “recording room” in my house.
so turn on your nice stereo, turn it up loud, and if you like it, share it with your friends and facebook world. thanks so much for listening and reading. enjoy…
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…
i’ve been taking a little break in nice, france between posts to rethink a little of my format and content in posts. over the next couple weeks i’ll be writing a few posts sporadically that talk more about state of mind and observation as opposed to destination-based. during this break, i had a chance to throw together a video of my time in iceland, where the whole trip started. have a look and enjoy the amazing scenery. watch it full screen to get the full “hd experience!”
our arrival into vienna was a dreary affair with rainclouds, which actually wasn’t all too unwelcome of a sight considering the luck i had been having on the trip so far. everywhere i had been so far had produced sunny, cloudless weather with the extremely occasional afternoon shower. so when a little rain settled overhead, i wasn’t too bothered by it, especially when it only lasted for a day.
again avoiding the hostel circuit, robert and i had opted for an airbnb apartment in a nice part of the city near all the
key areas downtown and in a safe location. it was actually my first time to use airbnb and i must say, it is truly a brilliant concept. it really takes the middle man out of hospitality, allowing property owners to rent out their properties to tourists for cheap, and providing a plethora of options to the traveler. i really like this idea, and if i am traveling with others in the future, i will definitely be using airbnb again.
vienna would prove to be a tricky destination for me. not because i didn’t like it, and not because i had any bad experiences there, but for reasons much simpler. i just really didn’t connect with it. vienna is a stunningly beautiful country, rich with tradition and culture and art and architecture to match even the finest destinations in the world. but i think that may have been part of the problem for me, is that maybe it was just a little too rich for me.
i realize it sounds like i’m being a little diva-ish and unreasonable but stay with me here, the point i make here is not
one of criticism of the amazing city of vienna, but merely one of personal preference. when i travel, i like to get a little dirt under my fingernails. not too much dirt, mind you (lest you see me tromping around the streets of iraq), but enough to where i feel like i didn’t simply see all the museums and statues in the city and then move on. i like to venture down backstreets and find old buildings that look like they’ve seen better days. i like to find old and new faces standing around, that make you unsure if you can trust them, i like to find graffiti that isn’t “commissioned” but is still creative nonetheless.
these things weren’t always easy to find in vienna. instead, vienna was incredibly well maintained, a beautiful marvel of perfect architecture, art, and living all fused together. the streets were remarkably clean at all times, the citizens always well dressed and put together, as if they were all ready should a last minute business meeting be called. the streets were impeccably manicured, cobblestones carefully placed, graffiti usually painted over or removed, vienna is just a perfectly high class city, and unfortunately for me, i am just not in a high-class state of mind in my current place in life.
and to illustrate the difference with which someone can find within a destination, one could look at how both robert
and i thought of vienna after we left. after 4 days, i was slightly bored and ready to leave, yet robert was in love with the city and wouldn’t have minded staying longer (in fact he would return later after we went separate ways later in the trip). robert explored more of the city than i, and each day when we would meet back at the apartment, he would always have recommendations of great places i needed to check out that he had discovered. sometimes i would check them out, and sometimes i wouldn’t. it just wasn’t a place that had truly excited me at the time. i’m sure someday i will return here and be completely blown away by everything my eyes were closed to at the time.
regardless, it was still a beautiful place to visit. one of the recommendations i had gotten from robert was a royal palace a little outside the main area of town called schonbrunn palace. i hopped on a train and entered the property. not really wanting to spend any money, i found that the gardens were not only free, but quite expansive. i spent the afternoon just wandering around and snapping photos. i suppose it would be a wonderfully romantic place to have a picnic with a significant other, but i enjoyed myself thoroughly as i walked the gardens and up the hill overlooking the estate and the rest of the city. it really is a magnificent place.
one night, i had been very keen on finding some sort of connection with the high classed fanciness of the city, so i had searched for some expensive cocktail lounges. i settled on a place called “ebert’s” on gumpendorfer st. i got as dressed up as i could (i only had 1 collared shirt packed on this trip, so i wasn’t exactly prepared for a city like vienna, nor was i really “dressed to impress”) and then trekked across town and located the establishment.
on a relatively uninteresting block with no other places open at that time of night, ebert’s stood out with large windows and curtains drawn back halfway, allowing you to glimpse inside and see the poshly decorated interior. knowing i was still a little underdressed for the place with my nikes, jeans, and untucked black collared shirt, i straightened my collar, took a breath, and then entered confidently.
i looked around and noted first that the place looked even nicer once you were inside, and then noted that there was nobody there, save for a bartender and a barback. i took another look around the room and decided that rather than sit in the corner by myself and make them wait on me, i would sit front and center at the bar and have a little conversation with them if they were willing.
i was greeted cordially by mo, a well dressed man with darker skin and thick-rimmed glasses and bulging muscles from his toned physique. i joked to myself about how the place must save money on employing bouncers because mo can easily double as one while also tending the bar. mo had a thick french accent but spoke very good english as well as german (a couple other austrian patrons trickled in and out for a drink during the time i was there and i overheard the interactions) and was a very good bar conversationalist. at first, the idle talk was simply surface level, but as it became apparent to mo that i wasn’t going anywhere for awhile and i wasn’t meeting anyone there, he decided to drop whatever other prepwork he was doing behind the bar and focus on me.
knowing that this was a proper cocktail bar when I had selected it, and upon seeing their expansive liquor and whiskey & bourbon collection, I had quietly tested mo with my normal litmus test with the whiskey old fashioned. i’ve been using this test for about 6 years now to determine if a bartender is worthy of my time, cash, and trust. the reason for this is because drinks with bitters in them are fairly easy to screw up, and if a bartender can serve you a drink with bitters and not take away too much of the bourbon taste, you probably have someone on your hands who understands the balance of taste in a cocktail. so all that to say that mo passed with flying colors. once i appreciatively thanked him for the wonderful drink, we started talking whiskeys and bourbons and after a few minutes mo took a step back, looked at me wryly out of the side of his glasses and said in his thick french accent “you know, i love when americans come in here because they understand whiskey properly.” it’s probably the best compliment a barkeep has ever given me.
we continued to chat about whiskey topics both old and new (like the new “whisky stick” that you can buy and put in a bottle of cheap whiskey and within 48 hours it will make your whiskey taste like a finely aged spirit. I’m not linking to it, because it’s an appalling idea and it’s totally a hoax, but idiots out there are still buying it), but eventually the conversation wandered to other topics like mo’s background. mo was born in africa but moved with his family to paris where he grew up. he then moved to hamburg, germany when he became an adult and studied and eventually became a bartender. he had only moved to vienna 6 months earlier at the request of an old colleague of his who was managing this bar and needed help with a proper “A+ level” barman who could help raise the bar, so to speak (heh. heheh. i love obvious jokes).
after a couple hours of good conversation and tastebud tantalizing temptations made by mo, i encouraged him to dream up his own concept bar and open it somewhere outside of vienna. a guy like him belongs in a different style of city with a little bit of a rougher edge around it and he deserves to have his own place. he lit up when i said that, and then started to share with me some of his ideas. we excitedly went back and forth, and i could tell that it was something he needed to hear. he struck me as the kind of guy who had really only moved to do a favor for a friend, and while things were going well at the bar, it might not have been as fulfilling as what he had hoped for. perhaps he was struggling with building a network or support group of people around him that helped push him forward or provided positive reinforcement. i think it may be possible that hearing someone like me intuitively pick up on that and then communicate it to him without a hint or a prompt may have been meaningful to him. i hope it was.
at a certain point in the night after mo and i had covered a lot of conversational ground, a couple had slipped in and quietly made their way to the rear corner of the room. they had kept to themselves for awhile, but at a certain point they had joined the conversation. mo and i were glad to have a few good souls along to help give the night a little life, and james and slavka were more than happy to make some friends. before long, i think mo knew he had more than just a few casual drunks in the establishment that night, because the conversation was so rich and in-depth, and everyone was really enjoying each others’ company. every person in the room was my kind of people. they were “in tune.”
mo, feeling the atmosphere and positive vibe, started making up drinks off the menu. he was getting creative, and his drinks were getting better. eventually mo’s wife actually came in and hung out for a bit. it was closing time before we knew it, but mo told us that he was going to make one more drink for each of us and lock the door, allowing us to take our time and finish our drinks while he cleaned up and closed down before we all left.
james and slavka were completing a storybook romance honeymoon in Vienna, and 5 days later they were to return to england as husband and wife. they had met 6 years earlier in london on a bus when james had sat down next to slavka and struck up a conversation. james was actually living in cambridge, about 60 miles away so after the initial sparks had flown, they settled into the long distance thing for a couple years. when they finally tied the knot, they chose to have the special day in kosice, slovakia, slavka’s hometown. james’ family and friends all flew down for a traditional slovakian wedding celebration that lasted 4 days. after the celebration, james and slavka made their escape to vienna, where i met them, before returning home and starting their new life together.
as james retold the story to me, i found myself getting simultaneously sentimental and hopeful. i listened intently, allowing myself to get caught up in the magic and let the story come alive. it was nice to be the listener instead of the storyteller for a change, especially when the content was so enthralling. too often in my former life, the person i had grown to be was a very cynical person who would not allow myself to be too impressed or surprised by anything, so when i might hear a great story like james and slavka’s, i would still actively and politely listen, but i might reserve emotion or expression in order to preserve the image or character that i was portraying forward. or worse, the greater cynic in me might mentally dismiss it as another “story” and not even allow myself to entertain such fantasies of love and magic and emotion.
as i’ve gotten further along in this journey of mine, i’ve tried to identify when the bad habits i’ve picked up along the way in my life have crept back up. particularly with my own romantic connections which have been marked by a string of failed relationships and unrequited love, i had become increasingly jaded and this skepticism had taken a strong root in my life, like weeds choking out a rose garden. and so i’ve tried to find the things about my personality which stop me from experiencing emotion and joy and i’ve tried to deactivate them. these mechanisms of cynicism and sarcasm which normally serve as a wall of protection from being taken advantage of or being the “sucker” do serve their purposes but there is always a consequence, and for me that consequence is that some of the more elemental and basic joys of being a human get blocked. they become forgotten about, and my world had become grayer because of it.
so when i was enthusiastically talking with this wonderful pair, i caught my instinct to “play it cool” and i quickly shut it down. i listened, i got excited, i expressed my enthusiasm, i asked for elaboration. it was fun, and they were a fun couple. james’ witty british humor made the retelling of the story easy to want to join in on the ride, and slavka’s periodic additions or corrections helped provide balance and accuracy to the story, as shared stories between brits and americans are wont to stretch a bit when there is whiskey involved. it was fun to watch them interact with each other, and i could tell that they were a great pair, one that would definitely last. they appreciated each other, and more importantly, it was obviously that they truly did enjoy hanging out. there was chemistry there, but there was also that “partner in crime” element that i don’t always see in couples. especially after traveling together with no other normal distractions to occupy them. often times in those couples i see something different: exhaustion.
at around 3:30am, mo had finished all his closing duties and made the fateful announcement that it was time to head home. james, slavka, and i all profusely thanked mo for the perfect night. we all exchanged information, finished our drinks, and ducked out into the night, going our separate ways and vowing to stay in touch. i smiled to myself as i walked home under the evening streetlamps, thankful for having met james and slavka. couples like that always give me so much hope and optimism, that i might one day be able to find that perfect balance of attraction, friendship, partnership, and fun. i promised myself that, despite the whiskey drinks and the hazy head, i would remember that evening i spent with james and slavka in the hopes that i might one day more easily recognize that “thing” that they had if i were to one day find it with someone else.
today’s jam is one reflective of my thoughts about james and slavka’s story. it’s a song full of hope, energy, romance, and as the title reflects, “magic.” featuring disco guitar legend nile rodgers, whom had re-emerged onto the pop music scene after being featured on last year’s daft punk rise from the dead (notably on the mega hit “get lucky”), and brandy, another pop artist who has been absent from the scene for years, this new track by luis dubuc’s electronic pop act “mystery skulls” is one that just gets into your veins and starts pumping blood without the need of a heart. but when you listen to the lyrics, your heart can’t help but join in.
“magic” is good clean fun, but if you can stomach a few bad words, i highly recommend you check out the full album from mystery skulls, which just came out about a month ago. it is just good fun from start to finish, with incendiary synth tracks and catchy melodies. enjoy…
and of course, if you’re following along on spotify, here’s my “we philistines selections” playlist, with all the songs i’ve featured on this blog.
the next day i awoke early from my jazz hangover and left the boatel. robert and i had agreed to split up again, as i was interested in a bicycle tour to a castle in the czech countryside, while he was interested in seeing some of the lesser explored neighborhoods of prague.
after a little googling, i decided on going with praha bike, a local bicycle tour company, as i was interested in a tour they offer that takes you out of the city and into the countryside to visit karlstejn castle, the former king’s vacation home. i walked over to the bicycle shop early, as i didn’t have a reservation but i knew they were running a tour that day because i had emailed and gotten a reply, but had not confirmed a booking (i wanted the option to not go without losing money in case i stayed late at the jazz club). i got there about 20 minutes before any staff arrived so i had to wait in the cold morning air before someone opened up and helped me finalize the transaction.
the group was led by our tourguide, sasha, a slovenian guy in his mid 20s with a welcoming smile and an amiable disposition. he quickly walked us through the basics of the tour and we set out. after passing through prague square, we made our way to the riverfront and crossed along the southernmost bridge and slipped away into the countryside.
our destination was about 40 kilometers outside of prague to the village of karlstejn. our group had 12 people not including myself, all couples from various different countries all over the world (yes, i was the only solo attendee again, haha), and during the ride our guide did a great job of personally interacting with each rider individually, dropping back in the pack at times when there wasn’t much deviation from the path and didn’t require a leader. I made a little small talk but I mainly kept to myself on this day. i would ride ahead and scout out good photo opportunities, stopping to snap photos as the group passed me by, then hopping back on and catching up to the pack a few minutes later. i did this all day long, and I could see sasha preferred that i didn’t out of caution that i might get left behind or something, but he eventually accepted that i was in shape enough that i caught back up quickly each time so he never actually objected. plus i think he knew i was going to do it no matter what, so he let me be.
after a couple hours and a few scenic stops, as well as a beer break (no kidding, out in the sticks someone had set up a bar off the side of the dirt cycling path. cycling appears to be popular in the czech republic) we made it to karlstejn castle, a large gothic castle established in the 1300s by king charles IV, the king of bohemia at the time. it was known to be a vacation spot for him and has also housed the crown jewels for most of its existence (currently kept elsewhere).
situated up on top of a hillside inside a canyon with really only one entry point, it has a pretty fair height advantage on anyone approaching for nefarious reasons. as we ascended the road leading up to the castle, i tried to put myself in the shoes of the people who had lived here in the days when royalty actually took their holidays here. it seemed like such a surreal world to live in. the town was only founded after the castle was built, so there wasn’t really anything there before, and you have this one monarch and his court and his family that comes into town and suddenly there is a big “to do” about everything. and then he’s gone, and you go back to your normal life. and what is your normal life? you have a small garden in your backyard, or a café on the corner that the neighbors come to everyday? i guess it’s not that strange, but i have never lived in such a life, or anything similar for that matter. i looked at the people working the cafes as we walked by. basically every business there was geared toward tourism now. i suppose the king’s greatest gift to the people really was building his summer home up in the hills there, as he gave the gift of the tourist dollar for centuries to come.
we finally reached the city gates and we entered into the castle walls. we walked around inside the compound, we leaned over the walls and looked down, we craned our necks up at the towers. sasha, our guide, told us that if we wanted to enter into the actual castle itself and see the rooms and living spaces, we would have to pay an extra sum of money to enter and then go on an hour long tour which he was not allowed to lead (i guess that is somebody else’s job onsite). i suppose no one in our group felt like paying more money (or perhaps we really just liked hanging out with sasha. seriously, he was a fantastic guide and made the whole experience more than just a bike ride out of the city. a tour like this can go wrong really easily if your guide sucks, but sasha was perfect), because we all elected to stay with sasha and head back. i declined only because i’m not really a big museum guy and i really was only on this tour so i could be on a bicycle and get outside of the city to see something different. seeing a castle was a bonus!
we exited the castle walls and sasha took us out a back exit that circled around to the other side of the castle that apparently none of the other tourists knew about because we basically had the road to ourselves. And this side was incredibly more scenic, the views of the castle profile were more spectacular than anything on the main approach. We were all thankful to see this side, especially as the sun had begun to set and the light was hitting the castle walls really well, making the castle extremely photogenic.
after enough photos, we headed down to the karlstejn train station and boarded a train back to prague. apparently the ride back was too long to make it back before dark, so when we had chained the bikes up before our walk to the castle, the owner of the tour company had come and picked all the bikes up in a truck and carted them back to the city.
20 minutes later we were back in the city. i thanked our guide and exchanged goodbyes with all my tour-mates and walked quickly back to the boatel. time to pack. time for vienna.
today’s ear wax comes from an artist we’ve already heard from on this blog, but this song is such a perfect soundtrack for this day that i couldn’t ignore it. from tweedy’s new album “sukieray,” this is my favorite track from the offering. “flowering” features subtle acoustic guitars, a muddy lead guitar melody, muted vocals and a mellowed out drum track, this is the kind of song you put on after you put your sunglasses on and go for a walk in the sun.
and here’s the link to the we philistines song selections on spotify: