we had been driving for hours in the southwest of bosnia without running into anything noteworthy. it was winter, and anything resembling a plant was dead. the rolling hills were a flat brown throughout, and the further into the country we got, the more desolate everything looked. occasionally we would drive by a tiny village or a bombed-out house on the side of the road, clearly a remaining casualty of the genocide committed here 20 years ago. a somber silence would sporadically settle in upon our car as we passed the remnants of past atrocities. even the border patrol was scary and depressing. large men with official military uniforms and big automatic weapons with menacing dogs patrolled the area around our car, and the guards took forever to run our papers, as though they were just waiting us out, convinced we would get nervous and make a run for it. when the man returned with our passports and then searched our car and our backpacks, he finally asked us one final question: “why do you come to bosnia?” as if in disbelief that a couple of americans would ever want to visit this place. i replied with an optimistic “we want to experience your culture and see your beautiful country!” but he only rolled his eyes and shook his head as he waved us by. this random detour from our croatian holiday was suddenly much heavier than the adventure-filled traverse through the balkans i had envisioned. Continue reading “why do you come to bosnia?”
it was only about a two hour drive down the coast to reach kotor, montenegro, but dave and i had been so enraptured with dubrovnik that we had spent too much time wandering the walls and hadn’t left until sunset. by the time we reached the border crossing, it was dark, and dave and i pulled into the passport inspection trepidatiously, unsure of how it worked or if we were proceeding correctly. i had never driven across a border before, and most of europe’s borders are open, due to the schengen agreement (schengen is an agreement throughout a majority of european countries that states that all internal borders among countries are open and allow travelers to move unencumbered without having to produce documents to enter or exit countries. the only enforced borders are external borders, or borders from the countries on the outer boundaries of the schengen zone. when entering into through those ports -or airports, obviously- you go through a security zone where documents are checked, passports stamped, and then your countdown begins for allowable time spent in the zone starts – for americans this is a total of 90 days allowed spent in europe during a 6 month period. once your 90 days are up, it’s time to leave the schengen zone), but montenegro’s border is secured entirely by the montenegro government, as they are not part of the schengen agreement. as we approached the gate slowly in our vw golf rental
car, i was reminded of all my favorite cold war era spy movies, where you drive into a cleared out area, approach a gate with heavily armed guards and official-looking military uniforms that command attention. i started joking with dave about what his spy name was and then suddenly snapped to attention when we pulled up by the guard station. i rolled down my window and held out our passports and rental car paperwork. i was surprised when the guard emerged from the window, revealing herself to be a very attractive woman in her late 20s. she smiled politely, said hello, and then sat back down in the booth, checking to make sure everything was in order. i looked back at dave to make eye contact and silently mouth the word “HOT!” to him. he smiled and nodded and we looked back.
without looking up from her work, the woman addressed us. “why do you come to montenegro?”
expecting the question, i didn’t hesitate. “we want to see beautiful kotor!” i said cheerfully.
the woman glanced up and then held her gaze. time froze for a second, just long enough to wonder if i had just said the wrong thing, and suddenly she burst into a cute, relaxed laughter. confused, i smiled in relief and waited for some sort of explanation.
“guys, you can relax.” she said through a giggle. i looked back at dave, who had the same confused smile i had. we were both leaning forward and looking up at the guards with almost uncomfortable curiosity and intensity. we had been so on edge and so intent on making sure we didn’t mess this up that we looked like a couple of overeager schoolboys on the first day of class.
“is only montenegro,” she said with a knowing smile, “welcome and enjoy.” she returned our papers and the arm of the barricade lifted up. we slowly pulled out of the border control zone, laughing at our own silliness.
we drove the winding roads in the dark for another 15 minutes before passing through the first major town, herceg novi. it was dimly lit, with sparse street lighting that cast a shadowy atmosphere over the city. it appeared to be more on the industrial side, with few things attracting passersby or tourists. we passed by a few graffiti decorated buildings and a couple sections of roadside with broken up sidewalk with weeds growing up through the rubble, and people walking along, not too far from the road.
“yikes. this seems a little shady.” dave expressed a little concern. it was then that i realized that this was probably the closest to “unsafe” that dave had ever experienced while traveling. we certainly hadn’t been anywhere in italy or dubrovnik that was off the beaten path. i smiled, unconcerned with any potential danger. i knew exactly what dave was feeling, but it had been awhile. i actually missed the feeling a little. the light fear of the unknown, the inexperience of a new culture, the insecurity of the new. i had been traveling long enough now that this was my new norm. suddenly i got excited. i was going to get to watch the evolution of dave. i would get to be front and center as dave interacted with new cultures and became exposed to different worldviews, and i would get to see how his thoughts would expand and change, just as mine had over the previous four months.
we finally reached kotor, after driving all the way around the bay. everything was dark, so we hadn’t been able to see the giant body of water we had been driving alongside, but as we approached the city, we stared in awe at the dimly lit compound that loomed high in the mountains above the city. it was the medieval fortifications of the city from ancient times, preserved now with rebuilt walkways and steps and leading all the way up to st. john’s castle at the top of the mountain. the hazy, dull orange glow from the streetlamps illuminated the perimeter as it rose high above the city. dave and i agreed we would hike to the top the next morning.
we found parking and located our hostel after entering the walled old town center and wandering around for 10 minutes trying to figure out how to get around when none of the avenues were labeled. the old town was a small area, so it was easy to memorize if one was so inclined, but for a first time arrival, it confused us a little. when we finally arrived at our hostel, the property manager, kokolo, greeted us cheerfully and took us on a tour of the city.
“you can leave the hostel? but what if someone needs you?” i asked earnestly.
“there is no one here! there is only 4 japanese students staying here this week other than you two, and they don’t talk to me or anyone else. they are kind of boring, so i don’t think they will need anything from me” he said with a laugh. he was happy we had arrived.
as we walked around the old city, kokolo pointed out important historical buildings and the significance, happily teaching us about the history of his city and his country. he stood about 5’8” and had a big, toothy grin that always adorned his face, even when he was listening passively to someone else speak. he had short black hair and thick eyebrows that sheltered his dark, honest eyes. he had started to allow his beard to grow in thick, as the winter of december had begun to set in over the balkans, and he wore a hoodie sweatshirt and a jacket to combat the cold.
dave began to get more inquisitive and curious about this individual who had lived a wholly different life from him on the other side of the world, but was really very similar in interests and style of conversation. i tailed from a distance, snapping off photos and listening attentively as dave and kokolo interacted. neither dave nor i had known much about montenegro or its history, so it was really interesting not only to get a private tour of kotor, but to be able to get the local take on things without the tourguide spin. kokolo was studying tourism in school, but he wasn’t practicing being a tourguide with us, he was genuinely interested in us and wanted to share his culture. we asked him questions about managing the hostel, about life in montenegro, and eventually about the conflict in the 90s. he shared with us freely, and we enjoyed every minute of it.
as we returned to the hostel, a young cat crossed our path casually (are cats ever not casual?) and kokolo excitedly scooped her up. we had noticed quite a few cats throughout the old city, often picking through garbage bags left in back alleys, ready to be disposed of the next morning. but this particular cat was one that kokolo was familiar with. she affectionately cuddled up against him as he held her, and he enthusiastically informed us that he had been feeding her semi regularly until about a week ago she had
stopped coming by. this was the first time he’d seen her since.
a little later, dave and i left the hostel to find some dinner. we found a small local restaurant and had an unremarkable meal that filled us up and did its job. after dinner i suggested we venture out again into the night and explore some of the areas that kokolo hadn’t taken us. dave seemed unsure at first, but caved easily once i pressured him.
we wandered away from the well lit areas and explored into the darker alleys and walkways. the further i pushed into the dark, the more uneasy we got, but it was fun and exciting to be extending into the unknown. i found a steep staircase that i excitedly ran up, and found myself along one of the fortified walls. i wanted to see what was on the other side, but there were no windows, only tall stone walls. i found a small garden area with a small door in the corner where there clearly was a small apartment that someone must have lived in.
“dude i think we’re in someone’s front yard. we should get out of here” dave suggested.
“hah. cool. okay we’ll get outta here, but let me just look down here first.” i walked to the end of the walkway toward an archway that was in disrepair. i poked my head in to find only darkness. there was no roof, so the night sky hung low over the clearing i was now standing in, but i couldn’t see anything around me. to my right, about 50 feet away, was the silhouette of a low portion of the wall. on the ground below, a floodlight bathed the outside of the wall in illumination. i turned to approach the edge and look out, but suddenly i heard a noise. it was heavy breathing. i froze. i definitely should not be here. i heard steps, growing louder and louder. it was a faster pace than just casual walking.
“dude, let’s go!” dave whispered violently. i turned around and began to retreat when my eye caught the silhouette of an old man jogging near the floodlit wall. he drew near to me as i made my way back the way i came, and suddenly i could see him better. he muttered a phrase to me i couldn’t understand repeatedly and gestured for me to come in, come in, come in. he passed by, not really caring to see if i actually would. strange, i thought. i turned back around and strode confidently into what appeared to be a courtyard area on the top of the wall. i walked up to the edge of the wall and looked out. a paved road ran underneath me, leading to i don’t know where, but the view was quite nice, if unspectacular, only due to the visibility as opposed to the darkness i’d been standing in. i turned around as the strange old man lumbered by me, completing another lap of the courtyard. in that moment, i felt a sudden comfort, and i wanted to stay and meet the old man, and explore more of this mystery area i’d discovered. but the old man was getting his exercise in, and had merely detected that i was just a curious tourist and had wanted me to see this rather than retreat in fear. i waved to the man, who didn’t see me, and returned to dave. we retired for the night.
the next morning we awoke and consulted with kokolo about the best way to find the trailhead to climb the mountain to st. john’s castle. he directed us accordingly and then asked us about our plans. earlier on, before dave had arrived in italy, we had agreed to only focus our energies on croatia and montenegro, but i had been very eager to explore bosnia. eventually i had ceded that we would be trying to squeeze too much in if we were going to make it to amsterdam for the new year. we were up against a deadline, but i couldn’t help myself. whenever i had found myself up against time constraints while traveling, instead of relaxing and focusing attention on one particular place like most people, it seemed to have an opposite effect on me. i always tried to squeeze as many destinations and activities as humanly possible.
“do you think we have enough time to get to bosnia?” i asked kokolo. the tourguide in kokolo lit up, and he began telling us of the wonderful things to see in the country that a typical tourist might never even know about. my eyes began to get big. kokolo showed us a picture of an ancient arched bridge in the town of mostar that i immediately wanted to visit. i looked at dave, pleadingly. dave clearly wasn’t interested in bosnia. he was looking forward to getting back to croatia.
“or should we stay here? should we stay longer in kotor?” i asked him, weighing options.
“well… you are here in offseason. there is not much to do here now, and no people to hang out with. i think you should go to mostar. and then you will be halfway to sarajevo! and this city is amazing!” i was sold. i wanted to go. i pleaded with dave as we packed our bags and checked out.
“okay fine. let’s go to mostar and if we don’t like it, we’ll just go back to croatia,” dave compromised, “but first let’s do this hike.” i was ecstatic. we made it to the trailhead and ascended the stone switchbacks at a breakneck pace. we now needed to get up and down and on the road quickly if we were going to get to mostar before dark.
there was no one else on the trail, almost as abandoned and forgotten as many of the thousand-year-old ramparts and fortifications that we passed alongside on the path. by the time we reached the top, we were exhausted. the view was incredible. the bay of kotor reaching all the way down the channel with the hills stretching up to create a perfect green and brown contrast to the deep blue of the water. the city below was small. a light breeze drifted along the top of the ruins of st. john’s castle as we ate sandwiches and energy bars. we had the place to ourselves. it was a perfect place for a perfect moment. a tiny swallow landed a few feet from me and stared curiously at me for a moment while i basked in the sun and allowed my pulse to return to normal.
after 30 minutes dave and i agreed it was time to get moving. we stowed our garbage into the backpacks and began our descent. we ran the entire way down, taking stairs two at a time. i almost fell twice, but the adrenaline rush was coursing through my body as my blood pumped wildly, sweat escaping my pores. we got to the bottom and reentered the city in a breathless, sweaty mess. a few old women sitting nearby looked at us funny and then began giggling.
we made our way back to the hostel, collected our belongings, bid farewell to kokolo and thanked him for his advice, and then went on our way. next stop, bosnia.
this week’s musical magic comes from seattle electro pop quartet beat connection. featuring fun little synth touches and a light dusting of guitar funk, the soft melodies of song “so good” will leave you swaying to the beat and relaxing in moments. enjoy…
and for those following along on spotify…
the following night, dave and i touched down in croatia and were wandering around an empty, unlit terminal searching for a rental car company in the dark. when we finally found the right bungalow, it was apparent that the guy running the office had been waiting for us for awhile, his final customers of the day. his demeanor was very gruff, cold almost, but not rude. there was a measured indifference in his voice, and i could tell that he was ready to go home for the day. i surmised that there was a good chance that i would experience this ‘measured indifference’ again during my time in croatia.
the dubrovnik airport is located about 20 minutes south of the city, so i had a little time to get comfortable with our volkswagen golf on the darkened highway, pressing the accelerator to the ground a couple times and hugging a few turns, making dave nervous in the process. getting a reaction to my driving from him was becoming one of my favorite things about traveling with dave.
we pulled into the outskirts of dubrovnik and began searching for the apartment we had rented from airbnb, making a few wrong turns and getting slightly lost. the apartment seemed to be located somewhere between the two roads that had forked off of the main highway we had been traveling, one going high up along the mountainside, and the other down below, closer to the walled city and coastline, and we couldn’t locate any actual roads that could get us anywhere between the two. in this area of seemingly un-navigable land lay rows of old houses and high-reaching walls that all gradually made their way further up the mountain. we needed to get in there somehow. i found a narrow alley, barely wide enough to fit a car, and pulled the tiny vw into the tight squeeze. i drove slowly for a minute while dave checked the map on his phone, and the alley widened ever so slightly. there was an SUV parked tightly up against the wall on the right and i inched the car alongside and past the SUV, leaving a mere inch on either side of the car.
“how did you do that?!” dave exclaimed. i laughed, proud of my navigational skills. i pulled the car ahead of the parked obstacle and began creeping forward again as the alley began to narrow again, searching desperately for an address or a street sign in the dark that might give us a hint of where we were going or where we were.
suddenly two bright headlights came rushing down the alley from around the corner and stopped in front of us, the two cars staring face to face, nowhere to go. dave and i froze, staring blankly ahead, unsure of what to do and hoping that the other car would back up into some magic parking lot behind them around the corner that obviously did not exist. the men in the other car began waving their hands directing me to get the hell out of their way. okay, i thought, i’m the person who doesn’t live here, i need to go back.
“shit. okay here we go man.” i said to dave and shifted into reverse.
“okay, but, wait! watch out for…!” dave panicked as i quickly backed the car back into the extremely tight space between the wall and the parked SUV. i was going backward faster than i had gone through forward before. i frantically swiveled my head back and forth, checking my mirrors repeatedly as i eased the car backwards past the SUV and back out into the alley, down the narrow, winding alley, and back out into the main street entrance, the exiting vehicle impatiently following me the whole way, then making a quick pass once they had a chance, escaping out into the night. i shifted into park and slumped back into my seat, letting out a big sigh of relief. i looked over at dave. he was staring at me with eyebrows raised and his mouth agape.
“what just happened? i blacked out.” i joked. honestly i had no clue how i had escaped the situation unscathed either.
we eventually were able to locate the apartment, and after being welcomed by the owner, andres, we ran quickly down into the walls of the old city, about a 15 minute walk. the city streets were empty but very well lit, and the white polished stones in the walkway projected the lights overhead back upward, giving an ethereal mirroring effect that made you feel like you were walking on an ancient mirrorball. after wandering around for a few minutes, we located a small restaurant that we had read about in online, known for great local croatian cuisine and wine. tucked away in a little nook of the city and built into the great outer wall of the city, the place looked empty and closed. undeterred, i poked my head inside anyway and found three people sitting on barstools at a small counter in the front, and a waiter on the other side who looked up to see us with a surprised and welcoming smile.
“hi, are you still open?” i inquired.
“yes, please come in my friend! welcome to my restaurant, the bota sare!” he ushered us to the corner, bringing us waters and menus. the place had a very elegant but simple feel to it, white stone from floor to ceiling. the menu was full of local ingredients and seafood, made into sushi arrangements. also oysters. lots of oysters.
“i’ll have a dozen oysters and a bottle of a local white wine. whatever you recommend that is reasonably priced,” i instructed politely. dave placed a large order of sushi and we elected to share. the rest of the establishment was empty, so it was only a short time before our food arrived. as we feasted, we couldn’t help but listen in and appreciate the 3 locals at the bar who were extremely drunk. i couldn’t help myself as i listened to their clumsy conversation, bouncing back and forth between croatian and english, slobbering and stumbling every step of the way. there were two men and one woman, all three of them were tall. they kept ripping through bottle after bottle of wine, and the restaurant owner tried to dissuade them from ordering more, but they persisted. at one point, one of the men fell off of his stool and flat onto the stone floor, where he lay unconscious. it wasn’t a violent fall, more of a slow slump, so when his friends began laughing at him raucously, i couldn’t help myself and began laughing as well. the owner looked at them disapprovingly, embarrassed that they were causing such a scene, but when he looked over to see david and me laughing appreciatively, he smiled in relief. the woman stumbled over to us while the man woke his friend up and encouraged him to drink more.
“where y’ from?” she managed to blurt out.
“the US,” i replied with a smile. she turned around and motioned to the owner.
“shots! rakija! for our american friends!” she demanded, not out of rudeness, but more out of the brain’s necessity to focus solely on essential words after speaking becomes a labor and politeness and prepositions become an afterthought. the owner brought around some shotglasses and poured 4 shots of a clear liquid.
“what is this?” i asked curiously.
“rakija. a croatian brandy made from fruit” the owner informed me. okay, here we go, i thought to myself, trying to prepare for what might turn into an all-out binge.
“Živjeli!” said the locals, and we knocked the shot back. for about .5 seconds, everything was fine. suddenly a wave of disorienting aromatic sweet and sour tingling came rushing up my esophagus and down the inside of my nose. the sides of my tongue began throbbing with a strong cherry tart flavor. the croatians all began laughing as dave and i attempted to recover and salvage some dignity. i actually liked the rakija, but i prayed to god they weren’t going to offer me anymore. i didn’t want to binge drink tonight, i wanted to a restful sleep. luckily the drunk woman slapped dave on the back and laughed heartily, then returned to her drunk friends and eventually left.
the owner explained to us that they had all been friends since primary school, and that typically in the tourist off-season (december, january) the city is completely empty, so the locals
will often times to go the places they don’t normally go when they are crowded with tourists. we informed him we weren’t bothered at all by drunkenness, if anything it made the otherwise quiet night more enjoyable. i then began asking the owner about his life in dubrovnik. there were no other customers in the restaurant, so the owner pulled up a chair and poured himself a glass of wine. he began to tell us about how beautiful the summers were and how wonderful croatian people were. we began to drift backward in time, i started asking questions about the war in the 90s, unsure if he would be willing to talk about it with us. after a little hesitance, he started sharing openly, telling us that he had been in this very building as a child when the first bombs had hit the walls of the city, fired by serbia. dave and i listened with wide eyes as he recounted the horrors of the war, and we smiled with him when he
spoke proudly of how the thick and sturdy walls withstood every shell and missile fired, never collapsing or failing. he admitted that shells had obviously hit inside the city,
and he informed us that if we walked enough within the right areas of the city, we would still see the craters and demolished buildings. we asked him how things had changed over the years, and we asked him about current relations with serbians. he admitted that he had a difficult time accepting serbians because of the atrocities that he had witnessed and the friends and family that he had lost at their hands in the war. as he shared with us, i found myself minorly shocked about how different his childhood was from mine. we were roughly the same age, i had been through my own tragedies and warzones (i grew up in gangland southern california during the early 90s race riots. those were fun), but nothing like what this man had seen. his city had been bombed by another
neighboring country, and had undergone a horribly pointless war for 3 years, simply because his countrymen had wanted independence from the mess of socialist yugoslavia. i felt fortunate that i had never had to experience something so conflicting and awful. but i also was appreciative of this man’s willingness to share with us openly about his experiences. at the end of the night we thanked him and went on our way.
the next morning we arose early and elected to pay a few euros to walk up onto the city walls and walk the perimeter of the whole city. it was a beautiful, blue sky day, without a cloud in the sky, and the sun shone brightly over the sea on the other side of the castle walls.
old dubrovnik was quite a sight indeed. the walls alone were incredibly impressive, standing 80 feet at its tallest and 20 feet at its thickest, i tried my best to imagine just how difficult it would be to build fortified walls like that. how many layers of stone blocks is that?!? the modern walls that you see now were initially built starting in the 12th century, and is considered to be the greatest defensive fortification of the middle ages, as the walls have never
been breached in open combat. i gawked at every new angle i could find from atop the walls, looking down the outside from the top edge, appreciating the way the walls sloped down and out, wider at the base to protect from any lean or tipping. the city had also done a great job of staying updated with the times, as the defensive purposes had not been necessary in almost 20 years, so the cosmetic work that had gone into preserving and beautifying the city and it’s famous walls had been extensive, and the work had been effective. dubrovnik was perhaps one of the most uniquely beautiful places i’d ever been in my entire life.
as we completed our lap around the city, i found a tower in the northern corner of the walled city, what looked to be the most strategic defensive position of the city with the best view of the entire city. i climbed to the top and looked out the tiny window, surveying the man-made wonder around me, paired with the natural beauty of the mediterranean sea just beyond the city walls. directly below of the tower i was in was an elevated basketball court with high fences and a great view that a group of young boys were playing in. after watching them for a few minutes i decided that they were playing basketball on the best court in the entire world. no nba court in the US could compare with the beautiful simplicity and unique backdrop that these young croatians had.
“hey man, we should get a move on if we want to make it to make it into montenegro before dark.” dave had caught up to me. i descended the tower and we exited the great walls of the city. i would definitely be back some day.
this week’s musical selection is actually not a new song, but it’s new to me and i can’t stop nodding my head to it, so i’m sharing it with you. hailing from tacoma, washington, motopony’s song “seer” sports a dirty little acoustic guitar riff as the spine, and a solid rock n’ roll backing that builds an anthem with muddy pianos and guitars, a soaring organ, and quirky vocals that give just enough bite to keep you wanting more. enjoy…
and for those following along on spotify…
this is my final post on italy. it was one of those places that i knew i needed to go, but wouldn’t be surprised if i found it overrated. i didn’t. it surprised me with every new location i explored, and i truly did wish that i could have stayed there a lot longer. but i will be back. someday i will explore the southern half, and i’m sure that it will sweep me off my feet just like the northern half did. i have one more fun little story about rome below, but before you read that, enjoy this little video i put together of my time in italy with my good friend dave. also, one last special note. this is the first time one of my videos features music actually written by me (the first half). let me know what you think…
i woke up the next morning a little hazy and thick in the head. there was definitely a point in the night where ceasing to drink would have been wise, it was probably right around the time dave had ordered a pitcher of long island iced tea, but we had breezed straight through that and now i was suffering the consequences.
we only had a few hours to kill before our flight to croatia, so i woke dave up and we groggily walked nearby to the colosseum. we had only passed by it at night previously, and now that i had a little time, i wanted to see inside. i initially balked at the ticket prices, but once i realized i could also get into the roman forum with the same ticket, i handed over the cash and we sprinted inside, hopeful that we had enough time to see both historical attractions. Continue reading false farewells in rome
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
our arrival into vienna was a dreary affair with rainclouds, which actually wasn’t all too unwelcome of a sight considering the luck i had been having on the trip so far. everywhere i had been so far had produced sunny, cloudless weather with the extremely occasional afternoon shower. so when a little rain settled overhead, i wasn’t too bothered by it, especially when it only lasted for a day.
again avoiding the hostel circuit, robert and i had opted for an airbnb apartment in a nice part of the city near all the
key areas downtown and in a safe location. it was actually my first time to use airbnb and i must say, it is truly a brilliant concept. it really takes the middle man out of hospitality, allowing property owners to rent out their properties to tourists for cheap, and providing a plethora of options to the traveler. i really like this idea, and if i am traveling with others in the future, i will definitely be using airbnb again.
vienna would prove to be a tricky destination for me. not because i didn’t like it, and not because i had any bad experiences there, but for reasons much simpler. i just really didn’t connect with it. vienna is a stunningly beautiful country, rich with tradition and culture and art and architecture to match even the finest destinations in the world. but i think that may have been part of the problem for me, is that maybe it was just a little too rich for me.
i realize it sounds like i’m being a little diva-ish and unreasonable but stay with me here, the point i make here is not
one of criticism of the amazing city of vienna, but merely one of personal preference. when i travel, i like to get a little dirt under my fingernails. not too much dirt, mind you (lest you see me tromping around the streets of iraq), but enough to where i feel like i didn’t simply see all the museums and statues in the city and then move on. i like to venture down backstreets and find old buildings that look like they’ve seen better days. i like to find old and new faces standing around, that make you unsure if you can trust them, i like to find graffiti that isn’t “commissioned” but is still creative nonetheless.
these things weren’t always easy to find in vienna. instead, vienna was incredibly well maintained, a beautiful marvel of perfect architecture, art, and living all fused together. the streets were remarkably clean at all times, the citizens always well dressed and put together, as if they were all ready should a last minute business meeting be called. the streets were impeccably manicured, cobblestones carefully placed, graffiti usually painted over or removed, vienna is just a perfectly high class city, and unfortunately for me, i am just not in a high-class state of mind in my current place in life.
and to illustrate the difference with which someone can find within a destination, one could look at how both robert
and i thought of vienna after we left. after 4 days, i was slightly bored and ready to leave, yet robert was in love with the city and wouldn’t have minded staying longer (in fact he would return later after we went separate ways later in the trip). robert explored more of the city than i, and each day when we would meet back at the apartment, he would always have recommendations of great places i needed to check out that he had discovered. sometimes i would check them out, and sometimes i wouldn’t. it just wasn’t a place that had truly excited me at the time. i’m sure someday i will return here and be completely blown away by everything my eyes were closed to at the time.
regardless, it was still a beautiful place to visit. one of the recommendations i had gotten from robert was a royal palace a little outside the main area of town called schonbrunn palace. i hopped on a train and entered the property. not really wanting to spend any money, i found that the gardens were not only free, but quite expansive. i spent the afternoon just wandering around and snapping photos. i suppose it would be a wonderfully romantic place to have a picnic with a significant other, but i enjoyed myself thoroughly as i walked the gardens and up the hill overlooking the estate and the rest of the city. it really is a magnificent place.
one night, i had been very keen on finding some sort of connection with the high classed fanciness of the city, so i had searched for some expensive cocktail lounges. i settled on a place called “ebert’s” on gumpendorfer st. i got as dressed up as i could (i only had 1 collared shirt packed on this trip, so i wasn’t exactly prepared for a city like vienna, nor was i really “dressed to impress”) and then trekked across town and located the establishment.
on a relatively uninteresting block with no other places open at that time of night, ebert’s stood out with large windows and curtains drawn back halfway, allowing you to glimpse inside and see the poshly decorated interior. knowing i was still a little underdressed for the place with my nikes, jeans, and untucked black collared shirt, i straightened my collar, took a breath, and then entered confidently.
i looked around and noted first that the place looked even nicer once you were inside, and then noted that there was nobody there, save for a bartender and a barback. i took another look around the room and decided that rather than sit in the corner by myself and make them wait on me, i would sit front and center at the bar and have a little conversation with them if they were willing.
i was greeted cordially by mo, a well dressed man with darker skin and thick-rimmed glasses and bulging muscles from his toned physique. i joked to myself about how the place must save money on employing bouncers because mo can easily double as one while also tending the bar. mo had a thick french accent but spoke very good english as well as german (a couple other austrian patrons trickled in and out for a drink during the time i was there and i overheard the interactions) and was a very good bar conversationalist. at first, the idle talk was simply surface level, but as it became apparent to mo that i wasn’t going anywhere for awhile and i wasn’t meeting anyone there, he decided to drop whatever other prepwork he was doing behind the bar and focus on me.
knowing that this was a proper cocktail bar when I had selected it, and upon seeing their expansive liquor and whiskey & bourbon collection, I had quietly tested mo with my normal litmus test with the whiskey old fashioned. i’ve been using this test for about 6 years now to determine if a bartender is worthy of my time, cash, and trust. the reason for this is because drinks with bitters in them are fairly easy to screw up, and if a bartender can serve you a drink with bitters and not take away too much of the bourbon taste, you probably have someone on your hands who understands the balance of taste in a cocktail. so all that to say that mo passed with flying colors. once i appreciatively thanked him for the wonderful drink, we started talking whiskeys and bourbons and after a few minutes mo took a step back, looked at me wryly out of the side of his glasses and said in his thick french accent “you know, i love when americans come in here because they understand whiskey properly.” it’s probably the best compliment a barkeep has ever given me.
we continued to chat about whiskey topics both old and new (like the new “whisky stick” that you can buy and put in a bottle of cheap whiskey and within 48 hours it will make your whiskey taste like a finely aged spirit. I’m not linking to it, because it’s an appalling idea and it’s totally a hoax, but idiots out there are still buying it), but eventually the conversation wandered to other topics like mo’s background. mo was born in africa but moved with his family to paris where he grew up. he then moved to hamburg, germany when he became an adult and studied and eventually became a bartender. he had only moved to vienna 6 months earlier at the request of an old colleague of his who was managing this bar and needed help with a proper “A+ level” barman who could help raise the bar, so to speak (heh. heheh. i love obvious jokes).
after a couple hours of good conversation and tastebud tantalizing temptations made by mo, i encouraged him to dream up his own concept bar and open it somewhere outside of vienna. a guy like him belongs in a different style of city with a little bit of a rougher edge around it and he deserves to have his own place. he lit up when i said that, and then started to share with me some of his ideas. we excitedly went back and forth, and i could tell that it was something he needed to hear. he struck me as the kind of guy who had really only moved to do a favor for a friend, and while things were going well at the bar, it might not have been as fulfilling as what he had hoped for. perhaps he was struggling with building a network or support group of people around him that helped push him forward or provided positive reinforcement. i think it may be possible that hearing someone like me intuitively pick up on that and then communicate it to him without a hint or a prompt may have been meaningful to him. i hope it was.
at a certain point in the night after mo and i had covered a lot of conversational ground, a couple had slipped in and quietly made their way to the rear corner of the room. they had kept to themselves for awhile, but at a certain point they had joined the conversation. mo and i were glad to have a few good souls along to help give the night a little life, and james and slavka were more than happy to make some friends. before long, i think mo knew he had more than just a few casual drunks in the establishment that night, because the conversation was so rich and in-depth, and everyone was really enjoying each others’ company. every person in the room was my kind of people. they were “in tune.”
mo, feeling the atmosphere and positive vibe, started making up drinks off the menu. he was getting creative, and his drinks were getting better. eventually mo’s wife actually came in and hung out for a bit. it was closing time before we knew it, but mo told us that he was going to make one more drink for each of us and lock the door, allowing us to take our time and finish our drinks while he cleaned up and closed down before we all left.
james and slavka were completing a storybook romance honeymoon in Vienna, and 5 days later they were to return to england as husband and wife. they had met 6 years earlier in london on a bus when james had sat down next to slavka and struck up a conversation. james was actually living in cambridge, about 60 miles away so after the initial sparks had flown, they settled into the long distance thing for a couple years. when they finally tied the knot, they chose to have the special day in kosice, slovakia, slavka’s hometown. james’ family and friends all flew down for a traditional slovakian wedding celebration that lasted 4 days. after the celebration, james and slavka made their escape to vienna, where i met them, before returning home and starting their new life together.
as james retold the story to me, i found myself getting simultaneously sentimental and hopeful. i listened intently, allowing myself to get caught up in the magic and let the story come alive. it was nice to be the listener instead of the storyteller for a change, especially when the content was so enthralling. too often in my former life, the person i had grown to be was a very cynical person who would not allow myself to be too impressed or surprised by anything, so when i might hear a great story like james and slavka’s, i would still actively and politely listen, but i might reserve emotion or expression in order to preserve the image or character that i was portraying forward. or worse, the greater cynic in me might mentally dismiss it as another “story” and not even allow myself to entertain such fantasies of love and magic and emotion.
as i’ve gotten further along in this journey of mine, i’ve tried to identify when the bad habits i’ve picked up along the way in my life have crept back up. particularly with my own romantic connections which have been marked by a string of failed relationships and unrequited love, i had become increasingly jaded and this skepticism had taken a strong root in my life, like weeds choking out a rose garden. and so i’ve tried to find the things about my personality which stop me from experiencing emotion and joy and i’ve tried to deactivate them. these mechanisms of cynicism and sarcasm which normally serve as a wall of protection from being taken advantage of or being the “sucker” do serve their purposes but there is always a consequence, and for me that consequence is that some of the more elemental and basic joys of being a human get blocked. they become forgotten about, and my world had become grayer because of it.
so when i was enthusiastically talking with this wonderful pair, i caught my instinct to “play it cool” and i quickly shut it down. i listened, i got excited, i expressed my enthusiasm, i asked for elaboration. it was fun, and they were a fun couple. james’ witty british humor made the retelling of the story easy to want to join in on the ride, and slavka’s periodic additions or corrections helped provide balance and accuracy to the story, as shared stories between brits and americans are wont to stretch a bit when there is whiskey involved. it was fun to watch them interact with each other, and i could tell that they were a great pair, one that would definitely last. they appreciated each other, and more importantly, it was obviously that they truly did enjoy hanging out. there was chemistry there, but there was also that “partner in crime” element that i don’t always see in couples. especially after traveling together with no other normal distractions to occupy them. often times in those couples i see something different: exhaustion.
at around 3:30am, mo had finished all his closing duties and made the fateful announcement that it was time to head home. james, slavka, and i all profusely thanked mo for the perfect night. we all exchanged information, finished our drinks, and ducked out into the night, going our separate ways and vowing to stay in touch. i smiled to myself as i walked home under the evening streetlamps, thankful for having met james and slavka. couples like that always give me so much hope and optimism, that i might one day be able to find that perfect balance of attraction, friendship, partnership, and fun. i promised myself that, despite the whiskey drinks and the hazy head, i would remember that evening i spent with james and slavka in the hopes that i might one day more easily recognize that “thing” that they had if i were to one day find it with someone else.
today’s jam is one reflective of my thoughts about james and slavka’s story. it’s a song full of hope, energy, romance, and as the title reflects, “magic.” featuring disco guitar legend nile rodgers, whom had re-emerged onto the pop music scene after being featured on last year’s daft punk rise from the dead (notably on the mega hit “get lucky”), and brandy, another pop artist who has been absent from the scene for years, this new track by luis dubuc’s electronic pop act “mystery skulls” is one that just gets into your veins and starts pumping blood without the need of a heart. but when you listen to the lyrics, your heart can’t help but join in.
“magic” is good clean fun, but if you can stomach a few bad words, i highly recommend you check out the full album from mystery skulls, which just came out about a month ago. it is just good fun from start to finish, with incendiary synth tracks and catchy melodies. enjoy…
and of course, if you’re following along on spotify, here’s my “we philistines selections” playlist, with all the songs i’ve featured on this blog.
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.
i think we humans do this a lot, particularly americans. maybe not with our romantic relationships, or our travel, like i do. but i think we too often think that we are not great enough in our current capacity to go chase what we want, and so we defer happiness for a later day. we think “if i can just improve in this one area, then i’ll be right where i need to be in order to get what i want” and so we wait, inactive, and we tell ourselves to be patient, hold out, be confident that what we seek will find us when both we and the universe or god or our boss has determined that now is the time. sometimes we wait years. sometimes we wait a lifetime. and then one day we wake up and wonder what the hell happened to ourselves. we’ve changed. we’ve grown complacent. after getting passed over for that promotion multiple times or after repeatedly wimping out on asking out that person you like, after giving yourself excuses like “i’m still working on this area of my life,” we eventually create a safe haven for ourselves which shields us from being able to improve or grow. and now, a perceived weakness has become a debilitating illness that we have no idea how to recover from.
i’ve never been a very good student, nor have i ever had very good focus when devoting myself to improving my knowledge through traditional study and learning. i am one of those dumb fools who will ram my head into every part of the door til I find the knob that opens it, rather than study the door first to find out how it works. or i’ll just give up and jump out the window.
but if there is one thing that i have learned thus far in my often turbulent life, it is this: we never learn anything new in this life by doing what we already know how to do. if we want to improve our lot in life, we must put ourselves into a position of uncomfortable growth, where we are challenged, pushed, and in over our heads, and that is when our light shines brightest. our eyes are open, our brains absorbing, and our muscles strengthening, and even if the end result is something less than remarkable commercial success, your own personal success will have been realized and you will have something that you can walk away with. to put it in simpler terms: it’s better to go down swinging than to leave the bat on your shoulder. It’s better to ask that girl out and fail miserably than to sit idly and watch as some other douchebag takes your girl out right in front of you. it’s better to insist on interviewing and get turned down even if you’re underqualified. because now you know. not knowing is a paralyzer. paralysis is death. don’t live your life on the sidelines. go. do. now.
then again, all i did was go to a smoky jazz bar in prague by myself and leave early. i guess it depends on how you look at it.
i seem to have painted myself into a corner with today’s musical selection after writing a thousand words about jazz. so to keep with the theme, i’ve picked out a soulful jazzy little number that came out this summer and landed itself on a small npr feature about the “top 10 songs we can’t stop listening to,” or something to that effect. this song definitely isn’t the big czech jazz that i heard in prague and it’s not going to headline any jazz compilations, but if you happen to be one of those souls stuck in unpleasant weather out in the states somewhere right now, pop this one into the tape deck, light some candles and open a bottle of red, and snuggle up next to your significant other. this one will having you feeling romantic before you can finish your second sip. enjoy…