Tag Archives: photography

a winter wander in plitvice, croatia

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.  

whitewalkereventually 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.

@davegurley can't figure out how to use his bed at this B&B… #YoureDoingItWrong

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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, croatia
zadar at night

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

sea organ zadar, croatia
the sea organ

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.

bird's eyethree 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 plitvice walking on waterthe 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, roundaboutworried 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 plitvice down in the valleythought 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.

A duck relaxes comfortably in the frigid Croatian winter in Plitvice National Park.

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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.

colorful rooftopsour 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.  

cemetery walls“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.  

little yellow houseafter 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.

zagreb cemetery“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.
keeping warm by Brandon Miquelon
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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.

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a walk on the walls of Dubrovnik, Croatia

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 old man and the seathe 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 streets of dubrovnikhighway 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 spirescar, 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.

the streets of king's landing
the streets of king’s landing

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.

free parking“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.

terrace by the sea“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 old dubrovnik town centreonline, 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.

croatian sushi“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 croatian winea 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.

ocean view“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.

farmers marketthe 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
a window with no barswill 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 collapsible courtyardsin 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 where is my mind?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
down broadwayneighboring 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.

tower guard davethe 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.

drive thruold 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 kings landinghow 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 dubrovnik lovefrom 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 basketball in dubrovnikbelow 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.

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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…

and for those following along on spotify…

spain, pt 3. madrid: the seeker, and a few tapas

fountain with a viewthat night martín and i readied our things so we could simply get up and leave the next morning. we had to be on the other side of town by 730am, so we needed to be up early. we also made sure to leave the bars a little earlier to allow time to pack, because you never want to be that guy that wakes everyone up in the middle of the night to stuff his clothing back into his backpack. so we weren’t overly surprised to find that the other 10 beds in our room were completely empty. it was actually a minor relief, not only because i didn’t want to have to tiptoe while packing, but also because in the week that we had been staying in this dorm… martín and i had both agreed that we had some really weird roommates.

to start, there was the strange finnish couple who had not spent a day sober since we got there. every time we saw them there was a handle of vodka or rum very nearby and halfway empty, and they offered to share with anyone who would listen. admirable for sure, but when someone is so drunk they can barely stand, sharing a drink with them isn’t always the most attractive invitation. i rarely saw them leave the hostel, and if they did it was to go buy more booze. they would spend most of their days smoking cigarettes or marijuana on the balcony patio and washing it down with alcohol. they also hung their laundry to dry all over the patio, effectively and unintentionally condemning it for anyone else to use or enjoy. i felt a little schadenfreude when a heavy morning raincloud had breezed by the city and soaked all their laundry that they had forgotten to remove the day prior. these two were a mess, and they disgusted me.

then there was a group of american students from southern california, studying abroad in granada, and taking an extended weekend in barcelona. they meant well, but they were just obnoxious. one larger, jolly fellow with three materialistic, typical california girls who were consumed by fashion and status, and generally didn’t really care about anyone other than themselves. they would come back from the bars extremely late and extremely drunk each night, after everyone else had gone to sleep (or passed out, in the case of the finnish), and they would turn the lights on in the room and loudly talk and laugh and careen around the room like pinballs as they got ready for bed. these types of hostel roommates are the worst, especially if you’re staying in a “quiet hostel,” instead of a “party hostel” (yes, there is a distinction in europe).
then, there were a trio of guys from somewhere east, i couldn’t be

the bon moustache hostel, barcelona

sure. i wanted to like them, as they seemed well-intentioned enough, but two of them simply cost me too much sleep, as they were both heavy snorers and had been positioned on opposing sides of my bed, creating an amplified stereo chorus of suffocation each night i laid my head down to sleep. when traveling, i always pack ear plugs, which normally will drown out 90% of noise. but in certain cases, bigger weapons are needed, which calls for my noise canceling headphones and ipod. these two guys were so loud that i failed to drown them out with my backup plan, and i ended up tossing and turning and trying to choke myself out with my pillow in an attempt to find some semblance of rest. nothing worked, hence i could not be friends with these assholes.

let me clarify: i understand that many people suffer from snoring and sleep apnea. it’s an un-fun and involuntary condition. but if you are a chronic snorer and you are wanting to sleep in a common room with other people, you owe it to your roommates to either seek some kind of treatment (there are mouthguards that limit the noise and make it easier to breathe, as well as sprays that can lubricate your throat and make it easier for air to pass into your windpipe, etc.) or pay a little extra for the private room. it’s just common courtesy.

and then lastly, and probably martín’s and my favorite of the group: el vampiro (the vampire). after martín and i had been in the bon moustache for a few nights, we had gone out to buy some provisions so we could cook ourselves a cheap meal at the hostel. as martin was preparing the rice his special way that he really likes (sticky and slightly overcooked, but with a tasty seasoning), he suddenly looked up at me with a start and exclaimed “OH MAN!”
i looked back at him with concern while i prepared a large salad (which he refused to eat. martín apparently doesn’t eat vegetables. he swore he would begin eating them when he returned home after i issued him a stern lecture on why vegetables are essential to his health), wondering if we had forgotten a key ingredient in his rice dish.
“did you hear the guy next to me last night? HE SCARED THE SHEET OUT OF ME MAN!” martín managed to get the words out amid a confusion of anger, excitement, and laughter. the last guy in our hostel had been a very reclusive dark-skinned guy from paris, france. he wore eccentric clothes and had a very effeminate nature and was extremely thin, to the point of wondering if he was malnourished. probably not the case, as his clothes were clearly not cheap, but every day we would get up and as we were leaving, this guy would come back to the hostel and go straight to bed. when we would return at the end of the day and begin getting ready for sleep, he would just be getting up and getting ready to go out. by the time i had brushed my teeth, he would already be gone. but the previous night, he had stayed in, for some inexplicable reason, and just kept sleeping. we don’t know. he never talked to anyone, wouldn’t make eye contact with anyone, really. very strange.

“it was in the middle of the night, maybe at like 3 am, and this guy, he just screams at the top of his lungs, like ‘AHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHH’ and i got so scared man. wow, i fell out of my bed!” we started laughing. everything martín said in english was just enhanced by his accent. it made things even funnier, and his delivery was perfect in its casual effortlessness.

“I am scared of heem, man. Como un vampiro…” he trailed off and i started laughing even harder. it was the perfect description. a vampire. for the rest of the week, whenever we would see el vampiro, i would shoot a quick glance over to martín and show him wide, terrified eyes, or i would flash my teeth, as if to suggest an old-fashioned, vampiric neck-bite was coming. it was definitely not my most mature of behaviors, but sometimes when you’re in the middle of the circus you just gotta have fun with the clowns.

needless to say, despite how much we really did like the bon moustache hostel, we were ready to leave our roommates. we awoke the next morning, mounted our packs atop our backs and stepped out into the street, just as a torrential downpour descended upon the city. i’m sure somewhere, karma was laughing at me.
high alleys in la latina
7 hours later we were in madrid. we’d saved a lot of money by taking the bus, but the train would have been about 4 hours quicker. these are the tradeoffs you make when backpacking. we arrived and went straight to the metro to ride the train to the tribunal station, in search of a hostel that martín had found on a useful app that he had been using called “hostelworld.” collecting all the relevant hostels, guesthouses, b&b’s, and campsites within a city or area, the hostelworld app allows you stat-rank all your potential accommodations by price, location, availability, and user rating, and it does so at no additional cost to you, the user. after meeting martín, i used this app to find every single accommodation for the rest of my trip.
this was to be martín’s final stay before returning home to uruguay, so he had selected the highest rated hostel in madrid, a newer place called room007 chueca, located in the chueca and malasaña neighborhoods, which would become my favorite neighborhoods in spain over the next week. i remember thinking the name of the hostel seemed a little cheesy, but the pictures had looked pretty cool so i went along with it. when we arrived however, i changed my mind. this place was great.
room007 chueca is a modern urban hostel with a cool, fashionable design, and a comfortable and clever use of space. the rooms aren’t overly crowded and have a very clean atmosphere that makes it easy to relax. there is also a terrace on top of the hostel with a kitchen, a big tv, large bean bags to sit on, and an outdoor patio that looks out on the city below. within minutes of checking in, martín and i were already in awe of the place. but we were also starving.

we went down to the woman working the front desk, a woman in her early to mid 20s with brown-rooted blonding hair and eyes whose depth seemed to reach for leagues beneath the sea of blue. she had a light dusting of freckles that gave her a girl-next-door look which she had tried to cover up a little with makeup, but thankfully they still shined through. i was spellbound, so martín did the talking.

“excuse me…” he began in english before quickly realizing he wasn’t speaking to me, so he could speak his native tongue much quicker with a spanish girl. they spoke for a few minutes in a speed that i failed to follow along with, and when martín had obtained the information he was after, he turned to me and woke me out of my trance. there is something enchanting about listening to spanish women speak. we americans will often poke fun at the way they pronounce the “s” but the way women and men do it in spain is different. men power through the “s” (as men do tend to do in most things. we muscle our way through things rather than utilize technique), often letting their tongue push up against their teeth and even separating their top teeth from bottom while making the sound, creating a “th” sound. meanwhile women gently play with the “s” on the tip of their tongue and roll it around, never really making contact with the teeth or the roof of their mouth, giving the sound a breathier effortlessness that i found intoxicatingly sexy.

“due! come on! i’m starving man!” martín doesn’t ever pronounce the second “d” in “dude,” and i was lost in a reverie of blondie’s “s” pronunciations. i snapped out of it and sheepishly backed away from the desk and out the door as she flashed me a confused smile. rejoining martín on the street, we made a beeline for a place called “el tigre del norte,” or “the tiger of the north.”

if you have friends whom have been to spain before, one of the things they undoubtedly have talked about is tapas. tapas, for the uninitiated, are quite simply, little plates of food. there are myriad variations/preparations/varieties out there which i won’t go into because i honestly don’t know them. i just like to eat them. but they are a perfect way to sample a lot of different things at a restaurant rather than commit to just one plate, which is something that i often have a problem with.

tapas in el tigre

one of the coolest things about tapas in the originating country of spain, is that traditionally served, they are a free accompaniment of your drink order. wine or beer, historically you would receive a plate of food at no extra charge with a variety of different cheeses, breads, cured meats, olives, fried snacks, sometimes hot, sometimes cold, and always delicious. additionally, when at a more traditional tapas bar, patrons are not seated like they would be at a normal restaurant. they are standing up, milling about, socializing and interacting in this most social of environments. it’s always a lively and energetic atmosphere, and one that america routinely fails to replicate when a new “tapas bar” pops up in your neighborhood.

unfortunately the “free” part of tapas has gradually disappeared across most of spain. most places charge separately for the drink and the food now, and if you want a place that will still serve you food for free along with your beverage, you have to search for it (the further into andalusia you get, the easier it is to find these types of places). luckily, our lovely front desk woman had pointed us in the right direction, as el tigre del norte is one such place.
martín and i didn’t exactly know what to expect, but we wanted a cheap tapas place, and if i’m being honest, we didn’t really believe that the food would be free. we had planned to go into el tigre, get a beer, try some tapas, then go find a place to get a real dinner, and then go out and hit the town, find some dive bar with cheap beers and good people watching.

el tigre is a stripped down place with mounted animal heads on the walls and next to no seating. there are large barrels standing on end which you can stand next to and use as a makeshift table to rest your beverage and small plate or napkin of food. we leaned up next to one and signaled for a couple beers. the waiter came around a few minutes later with drinks and asked us if we wanted tapas. we both eagerly said yes, and a few minutes later we were brought plates full of bread, cured meats, and cheese. it was a messy but delicious concoction. martín and i looked at each other, surprised, and then immediately devoured everything on the plate. a few minutes later, the waiter came by again and laughed that we had already eaten everything. “quieres mas?” (want more?) he inquired. martín and i looked at each other again with surprise and looked back at the waiter “si!” he brought us another plate full of food and killed it again within minutes.  we hadn’t even finished our beers yet.

the waiter brought us the bill and we were shocked to find out that we had only been charged for 2 beers total. we had obliterated 4 plates of food, and the beers hadn’t even cost 2 euros each. this place must be heaven. we ordered another beer each, mainly out of guilt for consuming so much food and paying so little. but i was full now, and i couldn’t even finish my beer. eventually we left, in search of more adventures in the vibrant madrid nights.

we drifted down into the malasaña neighborhood, taking in the soul of the place. according to locals, the summer had stretched into autumn, and madrid had been extremely warm… until today. The temperature had dropped considerably and the night air was cold, but it was hard not to let the energy of the city get into your bones in a positive way. sporadic, short rains would attack the streets, so our walk was punctuated by short sprints where we would seek shelter until the cloud passed. the rain eventually won, however, and martín and i ducked into an interesting little watering hole where we could get a drink and maybe meet some madrileños.

the place was dimly lit but smartly decorated. this was not a dive bar. the beers were a little expensive but they were at least large. the patrons were decidedly all locals and were of the young professional variety, and everyone in the place seemed to be directly engaged in conversation with someone they had met there purposefully, so martín and i accepted the fact that we were not going to make any new friends here, and engaged in casual conversation amongst ourselves.

IMG_0657
drinks with martín

after a beer and into the second, martín and i had already laid waste to a couple appetizers and bowls of bar nuts, i had been very curious about martín’s decision to take this trip. it had occurred to me earlier in the night that i had been traveling with him for over a week now, and i didn’t actually know that much about him. sure, we’d had a lot of great times already, and he had become a great friend in such a short time, but i didn’t know anything about him from before our chance meeting on that bus in barcelona. before “the road” had taken over. so i began peppering him with questions about his past, his work, his future, and as always, he responded with a patient enthusiasm, that someone else would be taking an interest in him, but also a shyness that i had come to expect from martín whenever he talked about himself. martín is a very humble person, and i loved that about him. it wasn’t long before the conversation had gotten into a very dark and moving place, when martín had begun to share with me his reasons for traveling.

now that i had been traveling for an extended period of time, one of the things i had forced myself to learn to do is make friends, no matter how short the shelf life of that friendship would be, i would do it because i had to. i am a social animal, and i need to socialize (even if i paint myself to be a curmudgeonly loner, and i do value my personal time, i still crave social interaction). and now that i had done it enough, i had begun to become a little more selectively specific with who i would make friends with. i’d started to notice patterns or behaviors in others that i recognized in myself. it’s usually in the eyes. they say the eyes are the window to the soul, and this is never more true than in the eyes of a traveler. some travelers are adventurers, they are fearless, they haven’t a worry in the world and their energy shines bright with a twinkle in the eye. while other travelers are merely tourists, and they take everything in with a wide-eyed infancy and a temerity that most seasoned travelers can identify quickly, and either are enthused by it and want to help that person along in the journey by showing them things they may not have the courage to see on their own, or they are annoyed by it, and try to avoid the tourist altogether (in this journey, i have been both the tourist and the seasoned traveler. i’ve also been both the helper and the avoider as well).

colored boxes over the square
this statue looks like a seeker…

the type of traveler that i am drawn to and identify most with, however is the seeker. the soul searcher. the aimless wanderer, seeking to understand greater mysteries about his own existence and the world around him. he (or she) does not seek to place labels nor assign blame, but instead he only asks. to learn more about nature and his fellow man, that another’s story might provide a better understanding of his own, this is the seeker’s engine, and the wondrous destinations of the world are the fuel. and one need not hear a word from the seeker’s mouth to uncover his disguise; they need only look in his eyes. it’s all there. a seeker has seen the world for what it is, bad and good. he has seen how beautiful life is, but he has also experienced pain and loss, and he walks a tightrope delicately somewhere in the middle, the weight of both heavy upon his shoulders. he knows joy and he knows sadness, but he does not know one without the other, for they are both of the same. and his conflict is visible, though barely perceptible, at the eye of the seeker. only another seeker can see it, because the seeker is adept at blending in with the world around him, so he has learned to hide the complexity of his nature, because the world doesn’t like complex. it prefers simple. and so the seeker hides in plain sight. but his search for authenticity is never dormant.

martín was a seeker, and i had known it within minutes of talking to him, but i had never pressed him for detail. and that detail was now being shared with me in a raw, soul-baring way. martín had come from a happy family, loving parents and an older brother who all cared for him. martín had finished school and become an accountant in vibrant montevideo, uruguay. he was tall, handsome, amiable, and people liked being around him. he had a girlfriend he cared deeply for, and everything seemed to be lining up for a perfect life, when the unthinkable happened. martín’s mother was diagnosed with an aggressive cancer in both her liver and pancreas. she underwent chemotherapy treatment, but it was too late. within 8 months, the cancer took her life. the family was devastated.

martín had been clearly shaken. his mother had been the glue of the family, and now she was gone, leaving martín to question a lot about his own life and purpose. he didn’t know what or where the answers were, but he wasn’t finding them at home. he had honest conversations with his girlfriend and family, then quit his job and bought a one-way ticket to spain. over the next 4 months he traveled all around europe, from the northern reaches of germany down to the southern beaches of italy, martín wandered aimlessly, but with purpose, unsure if he’d ever be able to explain his journey to anyone and have them truly understand it to its core. but travel, he did, and he was now at the end. his return to uruguay was in 2 days.
i didn’t know how to respond. in the last few weeks, i had met some of the most incredible people and i had heard some of the most moving stories, but this one was the most shocking. i couldn’t possibly place myself in martín’s shoes, so i didn’t try. i just sat there dumbfounded and sad while martín shared his story with me. i listened intently, unconscious of the bar around us. a group of four had moved into the table next to us and they were shouting at the top of their lungs at a level disproportionate to the noise level of the rest of the room, but i didn’t care. it struck me that martín wasn’t sad anymore. he seemed to be at peacewith his journey and with himself.

“so did you find what you were looking for?” i asked him earnestly. “yeah I did man. i think this is what my mom would have wanted me to do.” i didn’t dare ask him about the thing that he had been searching for. i knew better. each seeker’s journey, destination, and discovery is completely different, and there’s no real way to explain it to another person. even if martín tried, i still wouldn’t be able to comprehend it in a way that was as meaningful to him, even if our stories were exactly the same. it’s why the journey was his, and why i had my own.

we left the bar and headed back to the hostel. i was conflicted about everything. i now felt like i really understood martín, but it’s not like we had solved any major mysteries, we hadn’t brought his mother back, and we hadn’t found the key to happiness. and what’s more, i felt stupid for having traveled with martín for such a significant amount of time and only just now learning this very crucial and defining thing about him. i wasn’t sure if it was because i had been too occupied with myself or if the timing for such a conversation had just never lined up. i looked at martín. he seemed to have a peace about him that i wasn’t sure if i’d ever possess. i knew it was a product of his travels and i hoped that it was something i might one day grasp at the end of mine, but i wasn’t confident in that possibility. either way, i was grateful for having been even a speck on the horizon of martín’s story. there were so many questions I wanted to ask him, but i didn’t even know how to put them to words.

as we neared the hostel, a sudden truth struck me that brought a clarity to my confliction. martín was not a collection of the tragedies he had endured any more than i might be a collection of the joys i may have experienced. we are not the things that happen to us. but we do find small definition in the way we react to the events of our lives. much the way a beautiful sculpture is not formed with a single blow from the hammer, the artist carefully guides the stone from one shapeless mass to a beautiful masterpiece. one strike at a time, the hammer to the chisel, the chisel to the stone, we are formed. martín wasn’t a man who had lost his mother, he was a man who was living a full, magnificent life, a life which happened to have a tragedy along the way. but that tragedy had only been one small part of the greater impact of a mother whom had guided him to a beautiful existence for more than 2 decades of his life before her own journey had come to an end, leaving him to continue on his own. and this is how her memory lives on. as not one strike in the sculpture of martín, but many.

and so the seeker seeks on, thankful for the gift of time he had.

—-

this week’s track comes from a brand new collaboration out of chicago, called “monakr.” the song “diamond” was written after founding member saam lost his uncle to cancer, and it is now the lead single for the project.  i found this song to be particularly appropriate to today’s story, and i hope you enjoy…

and for those following along on spotify

spain pt 2: barcelona; love, and its tempered disguise

arc de triomf

spain lulled me into siesta the next few days. i had been running around from place to place all over europe, and i was now struck with a travel fatigue.  my friend micah in denver had warned me of this.  he had told me there would come a point where i would just be tired.  tired from exploring, tired of searching for a place to sleep, tired of adapting to a new language with new customs, tired of figuring out what the “must-see” attractions are of a new place.  just…tired.  i was tired.

martín had told me that he had come back to barcelona to finish off his trip so that he could relax on the beach and do nothing for his last week in europe, and that is exactly what he did. every single day i would ask martín what he was doing and he would respond with a big goofy grin and say “oh man, eets reeeallyy nice outside, man.  i’m going to the beach!”  and so i went with him, in need of “throwaway days,” as i like to call them, where i had absolutely no expectations for myself.

after a few days in the city, i received an email from an old denver friend named amy.   Continue reading spain pt 2: barcelona; love, and its tempered disguise

prost! austria, part 1: elegance and romance in vienna

autumn trees stand naked in vienna
autumn trees stand naked in vienna

our arrival into vienna was a dreary affair with rainclouds, which actually wasn’t all too unwelcome of a sight considering the luck i had been having on the trip so far.  everywhere i had been so far had produced sunny, cloudless weather with the extremely occasional afternoon shower.  so when a little rain settled overhead, i wasn’t too bothered by it, especially when it only lasted for a day.

again avoiding the hostel circuit, robert and i had opted for an airbnb apartment in a nice part of the city near all the

key areas downtown and in a safe location.  it was actually my first time to use airbnb and i must say, it is truly a brilliant concept.  it really takes the middle man out of hospitality, allowing property owners to rent out their properties to tourists for cheap, and providing a plethora of options to the traveler.  i really like this idea, and if i am traveling with others in the future, i will definitely be using airbnb again.

vienna would prove to be a tricky destination for me.   not because i didn’t like it, and not because i had any bad experiences there, but for reasons much simpler.  i just really didn’t connect with it.  vienna is a stunningly beautiful country, rich with tradition and culture and art and architecture to match even the finest destinations in the world.  but i think that may have been part of the problem for me, is that maybe it was just a little too rich for me.

i realize it sounds like i’m being a little diva-ish and unreasonable but stay with me here, the point i make here is not

st stephens cathedral vienna
st stephens cathedral vienna

one of criticism of the amazing city of vienna, but merely one of personal preference.  when i travel, i like to get a little dirt under my fingernails.  not too much dirt, mind you (lest you see me tromping around the streets of iraq), but enough to where i feel like i didn’t simply see all the museums and statues in the city and then move on.  i like to venture down backstreets and find old buildings that look like they’ve seen better days.  i like to find old and new faces standing around, that make you unsure if you can trust them, i like to find graffiti that isn’t “commissioned” but is still creative nonetheless.

these things weren’t always easy to find in vienna.  instead, vienna was incredibly well maintained, a beautiful marvel of perfect architecture, art, and living all fused together.  the streets were remarkably clean at all times, the citizens always well dressed and put together, as if they were all ready should a last minute business meeting be called.  the vienna sculpturesstreets were impeccably manicured, cobblestones carefully placed, graffiti usually painted over or removed, vienna is just a perfectly high class city, and unfortunately for me, i am just not in a high-class state of mind in my current place in life.

and to illustrate the difference with which someone can find within a destination, one could look at how both robert
and i thought of vienna after we left.  after 4 days, i was slightly bored and ready to leave, yet robert was in love with the city and wouldn’t have minded staying longer (in fact he would return later after we went separate ways later in the trip).  robert explored more of the city than i, and each day when we would meet back at the apartment, he would always have recommendations of great places i needed to check out that he had discovered.  sometimes i would check them out, and sometimes i wouldn’t.  it just wasn’t a place that had truly excited me at the time.  i’m sure someday i will return here and be completely blown away by everything my eyes were closed to at the time.

regardless, it was still a beautiful place to visit.  one of the recommendations i had gotten from robert was a royal palace a little outside the main area of town called schonbrunn palace.  i hopped on a train and entered the property. not really wanting to spend any money, i found that the gardens were not only free, but quite expansive.  i spent the afternoon just wandering around and snapping photos.  i suppose it would be a wonderfully romantic place to have a picnic with a significant other, but i enjoyed myself thoroughly as i walked the gardens and up the hill overlooking the estate and the rest of the city.  it really is a magnificent place.

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

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one night, i had been very keen on finding some sort of connection with the high classed fanciness of the city, so i had searched for some expensive cocktail lounges.  i settled on a place called “ebert’s” on gumpendorfer st.  i got as dressed up as i could (i only had 1 collared shirt packed on this trip, so i wasn’t exactly prepared for a city like vienna, nor was i really “dressed to impress”) and then trekked across town and located the establishment.

on a relatively uninteresting block with no other places open at that time of night, ebert’s stood out with large windows and curtains drawn back halfway, allowing you to glimpse inside and see the poshly decorated interior.  knowing i was still a little underdressed for the place with my nikes, jeans, and untucked black collared shirt, i straightened my collar, took a breath, and then entered confidently.

i looked around and noted first that the place looked even nicer once you were inside, and then noted that there was nobody there, save for a bartender and a barback.  i took another look around the room and decided that rather than sit in the corner by myself and make them wait on me, i would sit front and center at the bar and have a little conversation with them if they were willing.

i was greeted cordially by mo, a well dressed man with darker skin and thick-rimmed glasses and bulging muscles from his toned physique.  i joked to myself about how the place must save money on employing bouncers because mo can easily double as one while also tending the bar.  mo had a thick french accent but spoke very good english as well as german (a couple other austrian patrons trickled in and out for a drink during the time i was there and i overheard the interactions) and was a very good bar conversationalist.  at first, the idle talk was simply surface level, but as it became apparent to mo that i wasn’t going anywhere for awhile and i wasn’t meeting anyone there, he decided to drop whatever other prepwork he was doing behind the bar and focus on me.

knowing that this was a proper cocktail bar when I had selected it, and upon seeing their expansive liquor and whiskey & bourbon collection, I had quietly tested mo with my normal litmus test with the whiskey old fashioned.  i’ve been using this test for about 6 years now to determine if a bartender is worthy of my time, cash, and trust.  the reason for this is because drinks with bitters in them are fairly easy to screw up, and if a bartender can serve you a drink with bitters and not take away too much of the bourbon taste, you probably have someone on your hands who understands the balance of taste in a cocktail.  so all that to say that mo passed with flying colors.  once i appreciatively thanked him for the wonderful drink, we started talking whiskeys and bourbons and after a few minutes mo took a step back, looked at me wryly out of the side of his glasses and said in his thick french accent “you know, i love when americans come in here because they understand whiskey properly.”  it’s probably the best compliment a barkeep has ever given me.

we continued to chat about whiskey topics both old and new (like the new “whisky stick” that you can buy and put in a bottle of cheap whiskey and within 48 hours it will make your whiskey taste like a finely aged spirit.  I’m not linking to it, because it’s an appalling idea and it’s totally a hoax, but idiots out there are still buying it), but eventually the conversation wandered to other topics like mo’s background.  mo was born in africa but moved with his family to paris where he grew up.  he then moved to hamburg, germany when he became an adult and studied and eventually became a bartender.  he had only moved to vienna 6 months earlier at the request of an old colleague of his who was managing this bar and needed help with a proper “A+ level” barman who could help raise the bar, so to speak (heh.  heheh.  i love obvious jokes).

schonbrunn wall ivyafter a couple hours of good conversation and tastebud tantalizing temptations made by mo, i encouraged him to dream up his own concept bar and open it somewhere outside of vienna.  a guy like him belongs in a different style of city with a little bit of a rougher edge around it and he deserves to have his own place.  he lit up when i said that, and then started to share with me some of his ideas.  we excitedly went back and forth, and i could tell that it was something he needed to hear.  he struck me as the kind of guy who had really only moved to do a favor for a friend, and while things were going well at the bar, it might not have been as fulfilling as what he had hoped for. perhaps he was struggling with building a network or support group of people around him that helped push him forward or provided positive reinforcement.  i think it may be possible that hearing someone like me intuitively pick up on that and then communicate it to him without a hint or a prompt may have been meaningful to him.  i hope it was.

leaves falling on vienna benches
leaves falling on vienna benches

at a certain point in the night after mo and i had covered a lot of conversational ground, a couple had slipped in and quietly made their way to the rear corner of the room.  they had kept to themselves for awhile, but at a certain point they had joined the conversation.  mo and i were glad to have a few good souls along to help give the night a little life, and james and slavka were more than happy to make some friends.  before long, i think mo knew he had more than just a few casual drunks in the establishment that night, because the conversation was so rich and in-depth, and everyone was really enjoying each others’ company.  every person in the room was my kind of people.  they were “in tune.”

mo, feeling the atmosphere and positive vibe, started making up drinks off the menu.  he was getting creative, and his drinks were getting better.  eventually mo’s wife actually came in and hung out for a bit.  it was closing time before we knew it, but mo told us that he was going to make one more drink for each of us and lock the door, allowing us to take our time and finish our drinks while he cleaned up and closed down before we all left.

james and slavka were completing a storybook romance honeymoon in Vienna, and 5 days later they were to return to england as husband and wife.  they had met 6 years earlier in london on a bus when james had sat down next to slavka and struck up a conversation.  james was actually living in cambridge, about 60 miles away so after the initial sparks had flown, they settled into the long distance thing for a couple years.  when they finally tied the knot, they chose to have the special day in kosice, slovakia, slavka’s hometown.  james’ family and friends all flew down for a traditional slovakian wedding celebration that lasted 4 days.  after the celebration, james and slavka made their escape to vienna, where i met them, before returning home and starting their new life together.

as james retold the story to me, i found myself getting simultaneously sentimental and hopeful.  i listened intently, allowing myself to get caught up in the magic and let the story come alive.  it was nice to be the listener instead of the storyteller for a change, especially when the content was so enthralling.  too often in my former life, the person i had grown to be was a very cynical person who would not allow myself to be too impressed or surprised by anything, so when i might hear a great story like james and slavka’s, i would still actively and politely listen, but i might reserve emotion or expression in order to preserve the image or character that i was portraying forward.  or worse, the greater cynic in me might mentally dismiss it as another “story” and not even allow myself to entertain such fantasies of love and magic and emotion.

vienna sidewalks
lonely vienna sidewalks

as i’ve gotten further along in this journey of mine, i’ve tried to identify when the bad habits i’ve picked up along the way in my life have crept back up.  particularly with my own romantic connections which have been marked by a string of failed relationships and unrequited love, i had become increasingly jaded and this skepticism had taken a strong root in my life, like weeds choking out a rose garden.  and so i’ve tried to find the things about my personality which stop me from experiencing emotion and joy and i’ve tried to deactivate them.  these mechanisms of cynicism and sarcasm which normally serve as a wall of protection from being taken advantage of or being the “sucker” do serve their purposes but there is always a consequence, and for me that consequence is that some of the more elemental and basic joys of being a human get blocked.  they become forgotten about, and my world had become grayer because of it.

so when i was enthusiastically talking with this wonderful pair, i caught my instinct to “play it cool” and i quickly shut it down.  i listened, i got excited, i expressed my enthusiasm, i asked for elaboration.  it was fun, and they were a fun couple.  james’ witty british humor made the retelling of the story easy to want to join in on the ride, and slavka’s periodic additions or corrections helped provide balance and accuracy to the story, as shared stories between brits and americans are wont to stretch a bit when there is whiskey involved. it was fun to watch them interact with each other, and i could tell that they were a great pair, one that would definitely last.  they appreciated each other, and more importantly, it was obviously that they truly did enjoy hanging out.  there was chemistry there, but there was also that “partner in crime” element that i don’t always see in couples.  especially after traveling together with no other normal distractions to occupy them.  often times in those couples i see something different:  exhaustion.

at around 3:30am, mo had finished all his closing duties and made the fateful announcement that it was time to headvienna palace gardens home.  james, slavka, and i all profusely thanked mo for the perfect night.  we all exchanged information, finished our drinks, and ducked out into the night, going our separate ways and vowing to stay in touch.  i smiled to myself as i walked home under the evening streetlamps, thankful for having met james and slavka.  couples like that always give me so much hope and optimism, that i might one day be able to find that perfect balance of attraction, friendship, partnership, and fun.  i promised myself that, despite the whiskey drinks and the hazy head, i would remember that evening i spent with james and slavka in the hopes that i might one day more easily recognize that “thing” that they had if i were to one day find it with someone else.

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today’s jam is one reflective of my thoughts about james and slavka’s story.  it’s a song full of hope, energy, romance, and as the title reflects, “magic.”  featuring disco guitar legend nile rodgers, whom had re-emerged onto the pop music scene after being featured on last year’s daft punk rise from the dead (notably on the mega hit “get lucky”), and brandy, another pop artist who has been absent from the scene for years, this new track by luis dubuc’s electronic pop act “mystery skulls” is one that just gets into your veins and starts pumping blood without the need of a heart.  but when you listen to the lyrics, your heart can’t help but join in.

“magic” is good clean fun, but if you can stomach a few bad words, i highly recommend you check out the full album from mystery skulls, which just came out about a month ago.  it is just good fun from start to finish, with incendiary synth tracks and catchy melodies.  enjoy…

and of course, if you’re following along on spotify, here’s my “we philistines selections” playlist, with all the songs i’ve featured on this blog.

na zdraví: Prague, part 3. that castle life

prague castlethe 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.

karlstejn homes czech republicour 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).

karlstejn from below
karlstejn from below

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.

karlsteijn kolorswe 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 karlstejn's rear guardmore 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.

karlstejn castle poses photogenically in the sun
karlstejn castle poses photogenically in the sun

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.

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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:

na zdraví: Prague, part 1. castles, cheap beer, and street jazz

prague square at night
prague square at night

robert and i had some time to kill before leaving berlin and we both had some minor items we’d wanted to pick up from a large city like berlin before heading into some of the smaller places that might not have the shopping selection options one could enjoy in a massive city like berlin.  we split up and agreed to meet later.  my feet had begun to seriously hurt me on this trip now, to a point where the pain was almost unbearable after walking for 4 hours.  i had begun to get sharp pains in specific points of emphasis under the knuckles of my feet, as well as my arches.  robert had explained to me I likely needed orthotic shoe liners, as my current shoes were not giving me any support.  he confirmed this for me when i told him it didn’t hurt me when i ran, only when i walked for a long time.  having had similar issues in the past, he offered a lot of well-researched information on the subject and so i set out in search of some insoles that could cure my woes.

i didn’t find any, so i found a boutique shoe shop and i bought some nikes, confident that this would fix the problem.  it didn’t, but at least i look hip now.

eventually we met back up and boarded our bus for prague.  it was to be a 4 hour ride, during which i had meant to write as much as possible.  i was successful for however long it took us to get to the Czech border, but once we

warm sunshine blankets the czech countryside
warm sunshine blankets the czech countryside

crossed, i became enthralled by the breathtaking czech countryside, dancing by under a doting sunset, as if the sun and the czech republic were aware that we were arriving, and wanted to roll out the red carpet to their new guests.

we passed by a few very small towns with a little river running through the middle of them.  a castle on the side of the mountain, overlooking the water and the small houses below with the sun setting in the background, it all seemed very pedestrian and unspectacular to everyone else on the bus and probably to anyone living there, but i couldn’t get enough.  i put my computer away and set aside my camera and let my eyes drink in the scenery.

after a few hours we had arrived in prague, and we made our way to our hotel. before we had left, robert had researched accommodations, as he is a little more particular than i am, and after having not been incredibly excited about any of the immediate options, he looked up quizzically and asked me directly “how would you feel about staying on a boat?” i didn’t even hesitate. “book it. don’t care if it sucks. i want to say i stayed on a boat.”

and so we stayed at a place called the “botel albatross,” (how clever) situated right on the river on the north side of old-town prague where the river bends.  it wasn’t particularly incredible, but it was about as affordable as it gets on short notice and it was easy to find.  also, it’s a hotel on a boat on the river, so it needs no further justification. the novelty of it was great.  after checking in and getting settled, neither robert or myself were ready to turn in for the night, so we immediately set out in search of a few cheap sights and more importantly, something to eat.

neither of us really knew anything about prague, other than everyone always saying “oh prague is awesome!” so we weren’t sure what we should be looking for (i think this has become the theme of not only my travels, but my life).  we decided to head for the main square.  within 2 minutes of leaving, we were already impressed by the quaint nature of the town, with cobblestoned streets and narrow walkways that seemed to go whichever way they pleased, all under the careful watch of centuries-old buildings with spires and clocktowers on seemingly every structure (seriously, I’ve never seen so many clocktowers in my life).

…and now I'm in Prague.

A post shared by Miq (@wephilistines) on

everything was lit up like a movie set.  every building that needed to be seen was clearly visible at night, with floodlights placed strategically on opposing rooftops and any other vantage point that would give the most flattering view of whatever needed to be shown off.  prague knows it’s beautiful, and it knows how to show off.

telling time in prague square
telling time in prague square

none of this was more impressive than the old town square.  a wide open space with people walking to and fro, brisk in pace or slow with head directed up and marveling at the architecture on display, people were mingling this way and that, musicians were busking, trying to impress enough to earn some change from anyone who would listen, the asian tourists were busily taking photos with their selfie sticks, and british stag parties were loudly consuming beer from large mugs on patios on the sideline.  i saw few cities so easily accessible and interactive in europe as prague was. it was clear to me almost immediately:  i like prague.

after we had gawked enough at everything to see, robert and i realized we had both gotten extremely hungry.  we also had trouble finding anything that looked palatable and non-touristy, or that wasn’t going to take forever to be ready to consume, so we settled on a pizza place a modest distance away from the plaza.  it was decent enough, and the owner there was clearly italian, so we justified not eating something inherently “czech” by assuming the pizza was “italian enough.”  plus it had free wifi.

the next day, robert and i made for the other side of the river, on the north and western banks of the river bend. our goal was to explore the neighborhood and eventually make it up to the castle, crossing 2 different bridges in the process.  we first made for the charles bridge, and were a little dismayed by how many people were already there.  we knew that to truly enjoy the bridge without the throngs of tourists, you had to get there early.  apparently 8:30 – 9am is not early enough.  nevertheless, we slowly made our way through the crowds and the vendors, stopping briefly to enjoy a couple musical performers, including one guy who was a maestro on the accordion, and a folk trio complete with a banjo player, a guitar player with a harmonica, and a percussion player playing the spoons and the washboard.  they were all quite good.

as we made our way through the streets, i was amazed at just how picturesque the city was.  every direction i turned my head looked like it should have a frame around it and be placed above someone’s fireplace.  it might be the most photogenic city i’ve ever seen.  we ascended into the hills, heading in the general direction of the prague castle, but we were generally avoiding the main thoroughfares that the large crowds were following along.  whenever one of us would see some small alley or side street that looked interesting, we’d motion to the other to signal we were deviating from the path in search of something less trodden.  this behavior eventually led us to a large “tv tower” on the western hillside that sported, in my opinion, the best view of the entire city.  these tv towers are indicative of most significant cities in central europe and east, particularly anything that at one point was under soviet control.  imagine an air traffic control tower that you might see at your airport, then imagine it looking a little more like it was from the jetsons, and now you have a tv tower.  these things served as watchtowers that one could see incoming threats and send/receive radio transmission for 360 degrees.

so robert and i paid 5 euros to enter and climb the 200 or so stairs to get to the top and take in the view.  it was magnificent, and totally worth the cost.

the prague riverfront on a hazy morning
the prague riverfront on a hazy morning

after snapping photos and taking enough video, we descended and made our way to the castle.  on our way there, we wandered by a centuries-old underground monastery that now had a restaurant friendly towards tourists (how nice).  i insisted we stop inside so i could sample some of the “blueberry beer” advertised on a chalkboard out front.  i ordered a bowl of goulash to balance out the beer and enjoyed the cave-like structure around me.  it was dimly lit with rounded and arched ceilings that seemed to follow no rhythm except whatever the earth had given the constructors to work with whenever the place had been built.

after the monastery, we wandered by a cathedral and crossed a few more small squares before finally finding the prague castle.  by the time we got there, it was closing time, so there was no opportunity to ascend into the towers or enter into the structure, but i was okay with that.  typically in my experience, when you get to the top of the biggest, coolest point of interest within a city, you lose your ability to appreciate the biggest, coolest point of interest within a city.  i was much happier having found the tv tower earlier (actually a little taller than the castle, but not nearly as impressive looking) and having paid significantly less for my ascension to the top.

that night robert and I found somewhere to eat where robert made a very annoying observation.  well, it was very annoying for him, but for me, it was one of my favorite things about my time with robert.  he became visibly frustrated that, at every single place we had been to in prague (which was probably 5 or 6 restaurants at this point), water was more expensive than beer, usually by at least a euro.  i started laughing joyously.  finally one of my vices was paying dividends instead of costing them.  robert good naturedly picked up on the humor of the situation and this scenario became a ritual of every place we went in prague.  we’d pick a restaurant and he would immediately find the beverages section on the menu and would let out a sigh of exasperation and would read the cost of a water versus a beer aloud, to which i would appreciatively laugh.

robert had tracked our steps that day with a pedometer app he has on his iphone 6.  he mentioned we had walked somewhere around 20 miles that day.  that explained why my feet hurt so bad (coupled with the issues i was starting to develop with my arches).  i had wanted to go find a jazz bar that night after learning that the czechs really like jazz music, but i could barely stand to be on my feet anymore so i elected to do that another night.  on our way back to our

alley jazz in prague
alley jazz in prague

botel, however, we encountered by chance a tiny restaurant down a back alley where a little jazz trio was playing for a small group of patrons.  led by a violin, a guitarist and standup bassist accompanied in the background, robert and i elected to stand and watch for about a minute before i asked if robert minded if we grab a seat for a nightcap and watch them finish their set.  robert acquiesced and we sat down.  i ordered a couple fingers of whisky and focused on the music.

three generations of jazz in prague
three generations of jazz in prague

we were able to watch them play for about 5 or 6 songs, and they did not disappoint.  to this point in my trip and beyond, i haven’t heard anyone quite as talented as these 3.  the violinist was clearly the star of the show, as he stood front and center and adeptly maneuvered up and down the neck of his violin maniacally during each song, never missing a note and channeling gypsy maestros from the 20s and 30s with remarkable ease.  this man could have easily been playing on a large stage or at a city hall with an orchestra, but here he was playing in a dimly lit patio for a few tourists with his bandmates.  i actually think there was a good chance these three were all different generations of the same family, as they all bore a resemblance to one another.  the guitarist being the youngest and the bassist being the eldest, they were all very familiar with each other and knew exactly when the music called for a change-up or someone else to hop in and improvise.  it was excellent jazz, and i was vocal about it, clapping appreciatively or responding audibly after an impressive solo.  no one else in our crowd seemed to understand that this is how you appreciate gypsy jazz, by letting the performers know that you enjoyed whatever it is they just did, rather everyone else sat quietly, waiting to be entertained.  after the first time i offered praise, you could tell the band was immediately glad that robert and i were there, as they began to orient themselves a little more in our direction, and they would smile and nod every time we offered applause, or whenever one of them was about to do something cool in improvisation.

when the performance had ended, the guitar player came over and attempted to engage in conversation with us but his wnglish was extremely limited and both robert and myself and i speak absolutely zero of his native tongue, so the conversation didn’t go very far.  we thanked him profusely for the music and offered a few euros as compensation.  they gratefully accepted and we made our exit.

we wandered through the illuminated streets and crossed through the main square again on our way back to the “botel,” as one can never get enough of looking at those buildings.  eventually sleep’s pull was too strong however, and we turned in for the night.

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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…