Tag Archives: pub

na zdraví: Prague, part 2. jazz in a basement

busker jazz band in old town prague square
busker jazz band in old town prague square

after having a taste of prague jazz, my appetite for it became insatiable.  i began wandering the streets looking for buskers and performers and would stop and listen for as long as i could before it was too obvious that i was just trying to enjoy a free show.  eventually i decided i should find a proper place and pay to go for an actual concert.

after some googling, i ultimately ended up deciding on a place located in the southern end of old-town.  i had wanted to avoid something that was too fancy and proper, as i don’t really have the appropriate attire. i also have a mind that good jazz, real jazz, should be an informal and dirty affair.  jazz was born out of poverty and emotion, not martinis and evening jackets.  additionally, my search had led me to understand that proper czech jazz had similar roots, being born and raised up in dirty, musty basements and halls before making its way into more popular circles.  so i wanted to try and have an experience of the former variety, and not the latter.

after surveying my options, i decided on “the blues sklep” (click for info) mainly because it was in a legitimate  old basement in old-town.  after looking at some of its reviews on trip advisor and google and seeing how some tourists had been unhappy with the place because of the cramped environment or having seats with obstructed views, or just general complaints about there being too much smoke in the place, i decided this was exactly what i wanted.  something perfectly imperfect.

located on a small side-street near a few semi-popular czech pubs and restaurants, the place wasn’t overly difficult to find but i did walk by it afew times due to its decidedly modest and somewhat uninviting appearance.   i entered into a dimly lit hallway where two other restaurants were also located, and i found a third doorway that was only marked by a small standing chalkboard announcing the performer and the door charge cost.  i entered the unmanned door and followed the walkway immediately right and down a steep flight of stairs.  i made it about halfway down the stairs before becoming suddenly paranoid that i was actually entering into a kitchen for one of the restaurants or, worse, someone’s house.  before i could turn around i saw a few feet shuffle past the end of the stairway and i reassured myself that this was definitely a nightclub. i finished my descent and entered into a very tiny and crowded room.  on the left was a small bar with a barkeep behind wearing an old fashioned hat and tie. he gave me an emotionless nod and i approached.  i spoke slowly, not knowing how much english was understood here, and asked to pay the cover charge and for a glass of whiskey with ice.  he obliged and handed me a glass of jameson and a glass of ice with tongs.  i had never been served in such a fashion so i smiled, thanked the man, and moved away from the bar and into the adjoining room to locate a seat before the concert.

i immediately understood what negative reviewers on trip advisor had been complaining about.  the room was a musty old brick basement with low ceilings and the room could probably accommodate no more than 40 people, and that was pushing it.  by my estimation, around 50% of the seats had an obstructed view due to the thick arched brick pillars that had been keeping the structure up for hundreds of years.  space was extremely cramped, there was no standing room allowed, and instead of having rows of seats for you to choose from, there were tables with chairs and then chairs that lined the walls.  the room was in an L shape, and the short hook to the left actually had no view at all (save for a tiny space between a half arch of pillar and wall which one – maybe two –  people could peek through), so all you could hope for if you were sitting over there was that the music would be really good, because you weren’t going to see anything at all.  the place was completely full of smoke, as everyone had a cigarette lit and there was no ventilation at all, so the cloud just sort of grew larger and larger as the night wore on.

i loved it.

i looked for a seat, i was definitely the only person flying solo tonight and i wasn’t exactly early, so most of the room was full already. all the seats with a clear view were completely filled, so i had to move into the short section of the “L” hook with no views.  there was a small table for 3 that was unoccupied which i sat down at somewhat reluctantly, but i noticed that if i positioned myself up against the wall and then leaned forward over the table and looked around the corner, i could see half of the stage. i dropped a couple cubes of ice into my whiskey and took a slow drag from the glass.  relax, i told myself.

i casually glanced around the room and tried to eavesdrop on conversations. there wasn’t a single interaction going on in english, only czech.  i wasn’t really bothered by this, but it did leave me feeling a little exposed, especially as the room became completely full and the only two remaining available seats were the ones at my table without a view.  three different people approached and asked me in czech if they could sit there, but after hearing my reply that the seats were available and accompanying apology for not speaking czech, they would give a puzzled look for a second before realizing i was a tourist and then they would retreat to the other room, content to watch from the bar and enjoy the view through the doorway.  i couldn’t blame them, the view was probably better back there and there weren’t likely to be any outsiders there either.

the band made their way through the middle of the narrow smoke filled room and crowded onto the stage.  a five piece sporting a piano, trumpet, tuba, an accordion, and a lead singer pulling double duty with a clarinet and a baritone saxophone, they struck up with a lively waltz tune.  it was decent but not great jazz, as you could tell that the lead guy playing 2 instruments and singing was the one carrying the group, and easily had the most talent.  the really unexpected moment, however was that after the first song with no vocals, i had settled into the expectation that this was just going to be an instrumental group with no singing.  that changed when the second song started in and johnny, the lead singer, belted out the opening lines in a huge, operatic, bass-heavy voice that filled the entire room and shocked the audience.  it made sense.  these countries in central europe love their opera and symphony, so a broken, worn down louis armstrong voice wasn’t something that would work out here in prague.   no, the male lead vocal was something that needed to soar commandingly, evoking strength and volume that could dominate over all the other instruments that people were used to hearing in live music.

but i hadn’t expected it, especially judging by the appearance of the guy.  johnny seemed to be a caricature of the archetypal 1930s jazz musician in europe.  sporting worn slacks with suspenders and a white collared shirt with the sleeves rolled up, he wore an old fashioned bowler cap and was very skinny. probably around 30 years old.  he sat at a chair in the middle of the small stage with the others crowded around him.  the entire concert he had a cigarette lit which was hanging from his lips while he sang into the microphone, or if he was committed to his sax or clarinet, he would hilariously tuck the filtered end of the cigarette into his ear, leaving the lit end to dangly out freely and making it look like he was smoking through his ear while he was playing.  he must have smoked an entire pack during that concert.  it was impressive, especially considering how dominant and strong his voice sounded.  i couldn’t help but wonder what he would sound like in 15 years.

  the only other person i could see from my narrow vantage point was the trumpet player.  he was definitely the baby of the band, as he was the most nicely dressed of the group and was a little chubby with a near bald shaved head. a couple times between songs they appeared to tease him a little (in czech) about his energetic youth and his baby face (again, i have no idea what they were saying, i can only guess based off their actions and the reactions of the crowd’s laughter).  at one point they stopped between songs to all do a shot together, i think to celebrate his recent birthday or something.  actually they stopped for shots a couple times.  and they had beers alongside them the whole show as well.
i would love to be able to describe the other members of the band, but I couldn’t see them, and they weren’t really as fun to watch anyway.  all the talking was done by these two into the single mic onstage, and by listening to the solos from everyone in the band, they were the only two who were really worth watching.  but the trumpet player was probably the funniest.  whenever he would get really excited about a part in the song but wasn’t blowing into his trumpet, he would start bouncing excitedly and snapping his fingers off-beat, both hands swaying up and down in opposite motion, as if he was running.  it never got old, and i laughed every time he did it, which was basically every song.  you could tell he was just one of those kids that loved life and loved music, and he wasn’t afraid to show it even if he looked goofy in the process.

after about an hour and a half, the band broke for an intermission.  they all made their way outside.  i’d say they were going for some fresh air, but i saw them smoking up there as well, so i guess they just wanted some different scenery behind the glow of that cigarette.  the crowd rose and lined up behind the small bar, ready for another drink and to stretch their limbs from their temporary imprisonment in the prison-like venue.  i evaluated if i wanted another drink and if i thought my lungs could make it another 90 minutes without coming down with emphysema, and decided that i was content with my experience already, so i decided to leave.  i quietly made my exit, up the stairs and down the alley into the night.  the brisk evening air tried its best to liberate the smoky stench from my clothes, but the odor clung tightly as i walked down the streets of prague.

as i walked, a feeling of pride in myself welled up.  even though i consider myself a bit of a lone wolf in life, i have always had a slight fear of doing things or going places by myself.  i’ve never had a problem being by myself in private settings, in fact i often need “me time” in order to recharge my batteries, but being out in the world and being seen alone has always been an insecurity of mine.  i’ve never known exactly why i feel this, but i think it is a mixture of a deep hatred of feeling out of place – and it is easy to feel out of place when alone – and that widely accepted notion that experiences are so much better when you have someone special to share them with. in the words of the controversially canonized chris mccandless, “happiness only real when shared.”  and so it had been in my life up until this trip.  in my 31 years on this amazing planet, i had repeatedly postponed or canceled trips or vacations to exotic places if whatever girlfriend i had at the time was unable to go, or if i was single and unable to convince any other friends to go with me.  i had been putting my entire life on hold, watching it slowly pass me by while i waited for the perfect woman to come into my life and finally grant me the ability to go do what i wanted to do.

afternoons on the avenue in prague
afternoons on the avenue in prague (has nothing to do with jazz)

i think we humans do this a lot, particularly americans.  maybe not with our romantic relationships, or our travel, like i do.  but i think we too often think that we are not great enough in our current capacity to go chase what we want, and so we defer happiness for a later day.  we think “if i can just improve in this one area, then i’ll be right where i need to be in order to get what i want” and so we wait, inactive, and we tell ourselves to be patient, hold out, be confident that what we seek will find us when both we and the universe or god or our boss has determined that now is the time.  sometimes we wait years.  sometimes we wait a lifetime.  and then one day we wake up and wonder what the hell happened to ourselves.  we’ve changed.  we’ve grown complacent. after getting passed over for that promotion multiple times or after repeatedly wimping out on asking out that person you like, after giving yourself excuses like “i’m still working on this area of my life,” we eventually create a safe haven for ourselves which shields us from being able to improve or grow.  and now, a perceived weakness has become a debilitating illness that we have no idea how to recover from.

i’ve never been a very good student, nor have i ever had very good focus when devoting myself to improving my knowledge through traditional study and learning.  i am one of those dumb fools who will ram my head into every part of the door til I find the knob that opens it, rather than study the door first to find out how it works.  or i’ll just give up and jump out the window.

but if there is one thing that i have learned thus far in my often turbulent life, it is this:  we never learn anything new in this life by doing what we already know how to do.  if we want to improve our lot in life, we must put ourselves into a position of uncomfortable growth, where we are challenged, pushed, and in over our heads, and that is when our light shines brightest.  our eyes are open, our brains absorbing, and our muscles strengthening, and even if the end result is something less than remarkable commercial success, your own personal success will have been realized and you will have something that you can walk away with.  to put it in simpler terms:  it’s better to go down swinging than to leave the bat on your shoulder.  It’s better to ask that girl out and fail miserably than to sit idly and watch as some other douchebag takes your girl out right in front of you.  it’s better to insist on interviewing and get turned down even if you’re underqualified.  because now you know.  not knowing is a paralyzer.  paralysis is death.  don’t live your life on the sidelines.  go. do. now.

then again, all i did was go to a smoky jazz bar in prague by myself and leave early. i guess it depends on how you look at it.

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i seem to have painted myself into a corner with today’s musical selection after writing a thousand words about jazz.  so to keep with the theme, i’ve picked out a soulful jazzy little number that came out this summer and landed itself on a small npr feature about the “top 10 songs we can’t stop listening to,” or something to that effect.  this song definitely isn’t the big czech jazz that i heard in prague and it’s not going to headline any jazz compilations, but if you happen to be one of those souls stuck in unpleasant weather out in the states somewhere right now, pop this one into the tape deck, light some candles and open a bottle of red, and snuggle up next to your significant other. this one will having you feeling romantic before you can finish your second sip.  enjoy…

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for godsakes, just take the tube…

noon on the thames, londonLondon went by quickly.  I really only had 3 days to spend in the city, as my first and last days were spent traveling.  I elected to take the tube as little as possible and try and walk everywhere. The thought was that I would see more of the city above ground than below, and this would really enable me to see what London was all about.  I don’t know why I fall in love with these romanticized ideas sometimes, but this plan proved less fruitful for my intentions and more painful for my legs. I walked so much that I couldn’t enjoy the sights as much because I was too busy compensating for the pain in my feet.

I don’t know why, but I hiked long 15 mile hikes in Iceland and my feet hurt less than this. I think it was because I was now navigating a concrete jungle, and since there was no real climbing or ascending, the muscles I was using were pretty limited.  Nevertheless, I soldiered on with the plan and set about exploring.

Unfortunately I made a very bad decision early on.  My second night, I decided to participate in a pub crawl organized by my hostel.  I figured it would be a good opportunity to meet some other travelers, go to some local pubs, and hopefully meet some local people.  I was wrong.  I met a fellow friendly American early on in the night and we had elected to stick together and be “wingmen” on the night.  We would help each other meet women.

Here’s why this was a bad decision:  this isn’t really why I came to Europe, mindlessly partying my ass off. Certainly I would not be upset in the slightest if I met some mysterious female from another country that swept me head over heels and convinced me never to return to the US, but going out “hunting” while I debaucherously imbibe drink after drink and carelessly attempt to meet some floozie over the obnoxiously loud music and ridiculous behavior of a bunch of drunks is certainly not an elegant or intelligent way to invest one’s time abroad.

I woke up the next morning, nursing a hangover and a marginal amount of shame that I had thrown away a night on irresponsible behavior with nothing redeemable to show for it.  I hadn’t met any cool locals, I didn’t have a feeling that I had really had a cultural experience, and I had probably spent a lot of money.  I had basically had a normal night in los angeles.  Which is why I moved to Denver.  Oh well, what the hell.  Old habits die hard.

I got up around noon and decided to be productive, I found a place called “the juice well” in soho and got a fantastic smoothie and decided to walk down to the thames river to see big ben, the house of parliament, the palace, and everything else I could find down there.  And luckily, right before I left, I checked my email and noticed that I had an email from andy, a Briton that I had met earlier in the year when I was in peru.  He wanted to meet for a pint after he got off work. Excellent.  I could make up for last night by actually hanging out with a local.

london street vendor

I met andy after I had settled into a hostel in the middle of the desert in central peru. I was hours from anything. There was an ocean and sand dunes, so you had to really be adventurous if you wanted to have fun out there, and I made the most of it. The hostel was an absolute dive, the room that my stepbrother and I stayed in was literally 4 sheetrock walls and no roof with 2 beds (thank god it never rained out there in the desert), and you could tell that not very many people stayed at this place on purpose.  The town was paracas, and it was clearly a place that you stop on your way to somewhere else if you haven’t budgeted the proper amount of time to get there.  One of the nights andy and his girlfriend lou had been hanging out in the front lobby at night and I had wanted to make some traveler friends, so I took my laptop and made my way to a table and started editing video, hoping that I could get into a conversation.  That night there were a group of rowdy Brazilians whom had brought their own alcohol and wanted to party.  They came into the lobby and were hoping to recruit some followers, but they were met with harsh looks and annoyed responses.  They weren’t welcome among this crowd.

It was actually amazing, because you could see something slowly and then quickly happen to the room.  There were the two brits, then the two americans (stepbrother gert and myself), then a nice swiss couple, a quiet, intimidating german girl, a canadienne, an Argentinian, and I think one or two other forgettable europeans. Every single person in the room had seen this scene unfold before.  The obnoxious partiers come in and take over the atmosphere and the quiet vibe that you had going becomes lost and you have to retreat to your dorm room for peace in quiet (where you’re likely just greeted with some snoring instead. Not sure what’s worse). But this time, slowly each person in this room realized that they were in fact the majority this time, and that if we banded together we could scare them away.  And scare them we did.  And after they left, a few of us started laughing and talking, and before you knew it, the whole room of people was trading stories and friendly conversation.

If you’ve read previous posts of mine, you know that I am particularly drawn to these types of magical  interactions.

Andy and Lou’s story was the most fascinating. Andy had grown to dislike his job and was a little disenfranchised.  He needed change, but somewhat luckily enough for him, the employment had come to an end and he had a modest severance package.  He and Lou could consider buying a home together (or similar) or they could do something crazy and go backpack south America for 7 months.  They chose the latter.  Andy’s story would eventually be one of my sources of inspiration for my own journey.

I met andy near “monument,” near the financial district. I showed up about 10 minutes late but he didn’t say anything of it.  We shouldered our way up to the bar and ordered a pint.

Two things I’ve noticed about the drinking culture here:

  • Irony: you travel halfway around the world and resolve to try for the most authentic local experience you can, and you immediately see that half the beers on tap are from Colorado. Go figure
  • This is a true drinking culture. I thought coloradans liked to drink, but they could learn a thing or two from Londoners. A Briton gets off work and goes straight to a pub. Not like a pub in the US.  I mean a pub. They serve beer there and that’s it. No food (or if they do it’s just fish & chips or similar variations), hardly any seating, and you’d have to search to find cocktails behind the bar.  Not only that, these places are ALL PACKED. The patrons are all spilling out into the streets (something you can’t do in the US typically), just hanging around with a pint in their hand, talking away.  All of them. The entire city is at the pub every day from 5pm – 9pm.  And then everything SHUTS DOWN.  Every bar in the city is closed by 11 during the week. It’s crazy.

nights at the london pub

Andy is another one of those individuals that’s “in tune.”  He is a genuinely good person, with good humor and a good nature, and he cares about important things, and he has good perspective.  He works for a nonprofit.  Lou is an artist of some sort, I’m not really sure, just from what I can derive from her facebook posts of cool fashion shows or music events.  They’re the kind of people you want in your life because they bring color and substance to it and they don’t just regurgitate things they’ve heard on the tv.

Andy and I joked about all manner of things before eventually starting into a more serious conversation about life and adjusting after a major journey like he’d gone on, and the one that I was on right now.  We talked about the difference between Americans and Britons, we shared ideas and observations all across the board.  One of the interesting theories that he shared is that he thinks that americans tend to obsess more about their sense of identity and purpose and meaning in life than brits.  He said that brits tend to not worry about those types of things so much, whereas americans can’t not think about it sometimes.  A fascinating theory, and I jokingly told him he had me pegged.

We talked about the narcissism that is seemingly being driven by social media, that digital connection is luring people into a hibernation that prevents authentic interaction and exploration and curiosity.  We then laughed at the irony of meeting previously in the middle of some random desert and then connecting on facebook, and now nine months later we are criticizing the very medium that made this interaction even possible.

Eventually we parted ways, but not before I realized that andy had saved my London trip.  Outside of that meeting, I felt incredibly lonely during my time in London, even with so much history and culture.  I really struggled to find meaningful connection with people amongst so many options and opportunities. Every passerby was a potential new friend, but I couldn’t break through.  I began trying to make eye contact with everyone on the street, but everyone was too busy commuting or being on their mobile phone.  Even in the pubs, people were busily chatting in their cliques.  I couldn’t get in.

This isn’t a knock on the Londoner culture, but more a realization of modern technology and also of the timing and brevity of my visit.  I realize I was only there for 4 nights and I was there during the week, not on the weekend.  Luckily I likely will return there before I return to the states, so my travels in the UK are not over.  but andy gave me a window to experience and connect in the way that i wanted to.  i didn’t just want to be a tourist, and he helped me escape that.

oh, and one sidenote, andy recommended a fantastic museum that i will pass on to you:  the john soane house.  john soane is one of the chief architects of london, and his influence is widespread and obvious once your eyes are open to it.  for example, he designed the red telephone booths that you see all over london.  this museum is actually just his house, and it is a fantastical building.  known as the master of architectural space and light, soane specialized in efficiently managing small spaces with taste and style, and it is very evident in the way he designed his home.  no space is wasted, and he also has a very eclectic and eccentric art collection.  and it’s a free museum.  trust me, it’s worth your time.

and lastly, you’re noise pollution for the weekend…

minding the gap: welcome to london

My final reflections on Iceland I think were pretty obvious.  A magical place of outdoor wonder and beauty beyond compare.  A place with colder temperatures but warmer experiences, it sometimes felt like i may as well have been walking on the moon. I often felt that the Icelandic culture had a quirky sense of humor, but it was not always easily detectable, as the personalities of the local people I met were usually reserved and on an “even keel.”  This could probably be misinterpreted by travelers as “cold” or “unwelcoming,” but I don’t think that is the case.  I think the culture is just a little more straightforward and practical than what an American might be used to.  Their sense of humor is quirky and playful, if you can get to that level of comfort with a local.  The food wasn’t always mindblowing, but I never had a meal that made me lose my appetite.  Plus, you don’t go to Iceland for the food.  You go there to get outside, to see breathtaking spectacles of natural, untouched, ever-changing elemental earth.  I met quite a few people in Reykjavik who had 3 or 4 day weekends in Iceland planned with no intention of venturing outdoors and were content to just explore the city.  If this could be you, let me save you the trouble: don’t bother.  You will be doing Iceland wrong.  Bring a pair of hiking boots and at least take a guided bus tour of the “golden circle,” which takes you around the pingvellir park, the famous geyser, and beautiful waterfall gullfoss.  Even if you’re not outdoorsy, you can handle this 5 hour loop by bus with minimal physical activity.  Trust me.  Also, sack up and stop being such a baby.  Learn to go outside and appreciate the world you live in!

here are a couple final pics from iceland, taken by a writer/photographer friend i made on the eyjafjallajökull volcano hike, named jonathan vandevoorde.  a very talented and fun guy to hike with, and very knowledgeable about getting outside and back into the wild…

2014_IJsland_099 courtesy of jonathan vandevoorde

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London would prove to be an entirely different beast. I think it definitely tested my resolve and emotions in different ways, especially because it would prove to be the polar opposite of Iceland for me in experience.

When I arrived in London, I was a little weary, but I still had a lot of excitement built up.  I had always been interested in the history of this great city and had always wanted to visit. I landed at heathrow, collected my bag, breezed thru customs and then began stumbling around trying to figure out how to locate the correct subway train, colloquially known as “the tube,” to get to my hostel.  I am supremely convinced that new york has the most chaotic and difficult subway system (but also the most useful when you consider how many people it services each day and how effective it is) in the world, so I felt confident that if I could figure out that one, I could figure out London’s. I purchased my ticket and wandered around a few tunnels before finding the appropriate platform to board my train.  I had around 20 minutes to wonder what to expect and hope to god that I could wander aimlessly to find my room in the soho neighborhood.  Unfortunately this time I was navigating completely blindly; I had no map, no gps, no navigation, and only a vague memory of the google map I had tried to commit to memory before my flight left from Iceland.

The longer I rode the train, the more I began to worry about how I was actually going to find my hostel.  It was getting late.  It was now 10pm, and while London isn’t exactly Iraq, there most certainly are areas you don’t want to be stuck in after dark.  And I didn’t know how to avoid them. Furthermore, I didn’t even know what stop I needed to exit on.  I had simply guessed when I was looking at the map, but once on the train, I realized it wasn’t that simple.  I didn’t know the directions from any of the 5 train stations that were seemingly equidistant to my hostel, and to get to all of them I would need to switch train lines.  I didn’t know if that meant I would have to buy another train ticket, but I wasn’t interested in paying more so I resolved to just get off at the next stop and find my way on foot.

i started off on my obstinate pace and immediately walked down the wrong tunnel, going the wrong way to exit. great start.  i turned around and decided to just follow everyone else.  as i was laughing at the irony of finally being back in a country where I spoke the language, and still not being able to get around adequately, i had been slowly ascending the stairs when I was met with a blinding light that knocked me back, honestly putting me off balance on the stairs with my heavy backpack eagerly trying to drag me end over end back down the flight of stairs.  I regained my footing and looked back up:  I had just exited at the Piccadilly circus station in the middle of what I could compare to times square in nyc.  Bright lights, theaters with rolling marquees, people hustling and bustling by, I had randomly chosen to exit the train at seemingly one of the busiest intersections in London.  Welcome to England, brandon.

I wandered and wandered, no longer caring about whether or not I was going to find my hostel.  I was too busy staring at the lights.  Watching the frenzied pace at which people were scurrying down the streets, in a rush to get to or from somewhere, phone in hand and held high enough to be able to read their facebook notifications and simultaneously use their periphery to prevent themselves from an introduction with a pole or telephone booth (yep, there’s still plenty of red telephone booths around London. very cool) or oncoming car. it was actually quite impressive. Not that I was envious. i listened to all the conversations around me in 3 second increments, picking up whatever I could before the person passed me and the story was gone forever. But the dialect, the british accent, made everything sound so much more elegant. Everything seemed more interesting, no matter how mundane the tidbits of conversation I could pick up were.

Eventually, after a couple hours of stumbling aimlessly, my pack was getting heavy and my shoulders beginning to hurt.  I asked a couple for directions and eventually settled down in my new home for the next 4 nights.