i arrived in florence the next afternoon amid a contemplative daze. so many questions about my past and my future had been raised, and it was too easy to take the bait and wander down tangents of useless what-ifs and might-haves. i wanted to sit down, focus, lock myself in a room somewhere and hash everything out like it was some kind of math problem, but i was old enough to know now that this was not how it works. there was no quadratic equation to one’s problems or happiness. there was only awareness and progress, and every life, no matter how short or long, was just a process of evolution or devolution. i needed to focus on the present and keep moving. besides, i had exited the train and wandered directionless while my thoughts had run free in an oblivious daydream. now i had no idea where i was.
i was indeed in florence, one of the artistic and cultural icons of the world, home to the powerful medici family (so powerful they were able to get two of their family members to be elected pope), birthplace of the italian rennaissance, and home of such historic titans like machiavelli, the poet dante, galileo, michaelangelo, raphael, donatello, leonardo da vinci, and master splinter (ninja turtle joke ftw!!!!). as soon as i was paying attention again, it didn’t take long for the ghosts of greatness to begin lingering in every shadow and corner of this magnificent city. Continue reading an existential crisis in florence, italy→
that night martín and i readied our things so we could simply get up and leave the next morning. we had to be on the other side of town by 730am, so we needed to be up early. we also made sure to leave the bars a little earlier to allow time to pack, because you never want to be that guy that wakes everyone up in the middle of the night to stuff his clothing back into his backpack. so we weren’t overly surprised to find that the other 10 beds in our room were completely empty. it was actually a minor relief, not only because i didn’t want to have to tiptoe while packing, but also because in the week that we had been staying in this dorm… martín and i had both agreed that we had some really weird roommates.
to start, there was the strange finnish couple who had not spent a day sober since we got there. every time we saw them there was a handle of vodka or rum very nearby and halfway empty, and they offered to share with anyone who would listen. admirable for sure, but when someone is so drunk they can barely stand, sharing a drink with them isn’t always the most attractive invitation. i rarely saw them leave the hostel, and if they did it was to go buy more booze. they would spend most of their days smoking cigarettes or marijuana on the balcony patio and washing it down with alcohol. they also hung their laundry to dry all over the patio, effectively and unintentionally condemning it for anyone else to use or enjoy. i felt a little schadenfreude when a heavy morning raincloud had breezed by the city and soaked all their laundry that they had forgotten to remove the day prior. these two were a mess, and they disgusted me.
then there was a group of american students from southern california, studying abroad in granada, and taking an extended weekend in barcelona. they meant well, but they were just obnoxious. one larger, jolly fellow with three materialistic, typical california girls who were consumed by fashion and status, and generally didn’t really care about anyone other than themselves. they would come back from the bars extremely late and extremely drunk each night, after everyone else had gone to sleep (or passed out, in the case of the finnish), and they would turn the lights on in the room and loudly talk and laugh and careen around the room like pinballs as they got ready for bed. these types of hostel roommates are the worst, especially if you’re staying in a “quiet hostel,” instead of a “party hostel” (yes, there is a distinction in europe).
then, there were a trio of guys from somewhere east, i couldn’t be
sure. i wanted to like them, as they seemed well-intentioned enough, but two of them simply cost me too much sleep, as they were both heavy snorers and had been positioned on opposing sides of my bed, creating an amplified stereo chorus of suffocation each night i laid my head down to sleep. when traveling, i always pack ear plugs, which normally will drown out 90% of noise. but in certain cases, bigger weapons are needed, which calls for my noise canceling headphones and ipod. these two guys were so loud that i failed to drown them out with my backup plan, and i ended up tossing and turning and trying to choke myself out with my pillow in an attempt to find some semblance of rest. nothing worked, hence i could not be friends with these assholes.
let me clarify: i understand that many people suffer from snoring and sleep apnea. it’s an un-fun and involuntary condition. but if you are a chronic snorer and you are wanting to sleep in a common room with other people, you owe it to your roommates to either seek some kind of treatment (there are mouthguards that limit the noise and make it easier to breathe, as well as sprays that can lubricate your throat and make it easier for air to pass into your windpipe, etc.) or pay a little extra for the private room. it’s just common courtesy.
and then lastly, and probably martín’s and my favorite of the group: el vampiro (the vampire). after martín and i had been in the bon moustache for a few nights, we had gone out to buy some provisions so we could cook ourselves a cheap meal at the hostel. as martin was preparing the rice his special way that he really likes (sticky and slightly overcooked, but with a tasty seasoning), he suddenly looked up at me with a start and exclaimed “OH MAN!”
i looked back at him with concern while i prepared a large salad (which he refused to eat. martín apparently doesn’t eat vegetables. he swore he would begin eating them when he returned home after i issued him a stern lecture on why vegetables are essential to his health), wondering if we had forgotten a key ingredient in his rice dish.
“did you hear the guy next to me last night? HE SCARED THE SHEET OUT OF ME MAN!” martín managed to get the words out amid a confusion of anger, excitement, and laughter. the last guy in our hostel had been a very reclusive dark-skinned guy from paris, france. he wore eccentric clothes and had a very effeminate nature and was extremely thin, to the point of wondering if he was malnourished. probably not the case, as his clothes were clearly not cheap, but every day we would get up and as we were leaving, this guy would come back to the hostel and go straight to bed. when we would return at the end of the day and begin getting ready for sleep, he would just be getting up and getting ready to go out. by the time i had brushed my teeth, he would already be gone. but the previous night, he had stayed in, for some inexplicable reason, and just kept sleeping. we don’t know. he never talked to anyone, wouldn’t make eye contact with anyone, really. very strange.
“it was in the middle of the night, maybe at like 3 am, and this guy, he just screams at the top of his lungs, like ‘AHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHH’ and i got so scared man. wow, i fell out of my bed!” we started laughing. everything martín said in english was just enhanced by his accent. it made things even funnier, and his delivery was perfect in its casual effortlessness.
“I am scared of heem, man. Como un vampiro…” he trailed off and i started laughing even harder. it was the perfect description. a vampire. for the rest of the week, whenever we would see el vampiro, i would shoot a quick glance over to martín and show him wide, terrified eyes, or i would flash my teeth, as if to suggest an old-fashioned, vampiric neck-bite was coming. it was definitely not my most mature of behaviors, but sometimes when you’re in the middle of the circus you just gotta have fun with the clowns.
needless to say, despite how much we really did like the bon moustache hostel, we were ready to leave our roommates. we awoke the next morning, mounted our packs atop our backs and stepped out into the street, just as a torrential downpour descended upon the city. i’m sure somewhere, karma was laughing at me.
7 hours later we were in madrid. we’d saved a lot of money by taking the bus, but the train would have been about 4 hours quicker. these are the tradeoffs you make when backpacking. we arrived and went straight to the metro to ride the train to the tribunal station, in search of a hostel that martín had found on a useful app that he had been using called “hostelworld.” collecting all the relevant hostels, guesthouses, b&b’s, and campsites within a city or area, the hostelworld app allows you stat-rank all your potential accommodations by price, location, availability, and user rating, and it does so at no additional cost to you, the user. after meeting martín, i used this app to find every single accommodation for the rest of my trip.
this was to be martín’s final stay before returning home to uruguay, so he had selected the highest rated hostel in madrid, a newer place called room007 chueca, located in the chueca and malasaña neighborhoods, which would become my favorite neighborhoods in spain over the next week. i remember thinking the name of the hostel seemed a little cheesy, but the pictures had looked pretty cool so i went along with it. when we arrived however, i changed my mind. this place was great. room007 chueca is a modern urban hostel with a cool, fashionable design, and a comfortable and clever use of space. the rooms aren’t overly crowded and have a very clean atmosphere that makes it easy to relax. there is also a terrace on top of the hostel with a kitchen, a big tv, large bean bags to sit on, and an outdoor patio that looks out on the city below. within minutes of checking in, martín and i were already in awe of the place. but we were also starving.
we went down to the woman working the front desk, a woman in her early to mid 20s with brown-rooted blonding hair and eyes whose depth seemed to reach for leagues beneath the sea of blue. she had a light dusting of freckles that gave her a girl-next-door look which she had tried to cover up a little with makeup, but thankfully they still shined through. i was spellbound, so martín did the talking.
“excuse me…” he began in english before quickly realizing he wasn’t speaking to me, so he could speak his native tongue much quicker with a spanish girl. they spoke for a few minutes in a speed that i failed to follow along with, and when martín had obtained the information he was after, he turned to me and woke me out of my trance. there is something enchanting about listening to spanish women speak. we americans will often poke fun at the way they pronounce the “s” but the way women and men do it in spain is different. men power through the “s” (as men do tend to do in most things. we muscle our way through things rather than utilize technique), often letting their tongue push up against their teeth and even separating their top teeth from bottom while making the sound, creating a “th” sound. meanwhile women gently play with the “s” on the tip of their tongue and roll it around, never really making contact with the teeth or the roof of their mouth, giving the sound a breathier effortlessness that i found intoxicatingly sexy.
“due! come on! i’m starving man!” martín doesn’t ever pronounce the second “d” in “dude,” and i was lost in a reverie of blondie’s “s” pronunciations. i snapped out of it and sheepishly backed away from the desk and out the door as she flashed me a confused smile. rejoining martín on the street, we made a beeline for a place called “el tigre del norte,” or “the tiger of the north.”
if you have friends whom have been to spain before, one of the things they undoubtedly have talked about is tapas. tapas, for the uninitiated, are quite simply, little plates of food. there are myriad variations/preparations/varieties out there which i won’t go into because i honestly don’t know them. i just like to eat them. but they are a perfect way to sample a lot of different things at a restaurant rather than commit to just one plate, which is something that i often have a problem with.
one of the coolest things about tapas in the originating country of spain, is that traditionally served, they are a free accompaniment of your drink order. wine or beer, historically you would receive a plate of food at no extra charge with a variety of different cheeses, breads, cured meats, olives, fried snacks, sometimes hot, sometimes cold, and always delicious. additionally, when at a more traditional tapas bar, patrons are not seated like they would be at a normal restaurant. they are standing up, milling about, socializing and interacting in this most social of environments. it’s always a lively and energetic atmosphere, and one that america routinely fails to replicate when a new “tapas bar” pops up in your neighborhood.
unfortunately the “free” part of tapas has gradually disappeared across most of spain. most places charge separately for the drink and the food now, and if you want a place that will still serve you food for free along with your beverage, you have to search for it (the further into andalusia you get, the easier it is to find these types of places). luckily, our lovely front desk woman had pointed us in the right direction, as el tigre del norte is one such place.
martín and i didn’t exactly know what to expect, but we wanted a cheap tapas place, and if i’m being honest, we didn’t really believe that the food would be free. we had planned to go into el tigre, get a beer, try some tapas, then go find a place to get a real dinner, and then go out and hit the town, find some dive bar with cheap beers and good people watching.
el tigre is a stripped down place with mounted animal heads on the walls and next to no seating. there are large barrels standing on end which you can stand next to and use as a makeshift table to rest your beverage and small plate or napkin of food. we leaned up next to one and signaled for a couple beers. the waiter came around a few minutes later with drinks and asked us if we wanted tapas. we both eagerly said yes, and a few minutes later we were brought plates full of bread, cured meats, and cheese. it was a messy but delicious concoction. martín and i looked at each other, surprised, and then immediately devoured everything on the plate. a few minutes later, the waiter came by again and laughed that we had already eaten everything. “quieres mas?” (want more?) he inquired. martín and i looked at each other again with surprise and looked back at the waiter “si!” he brought us another plate full of food and killed it again within minutes. we hadn’t even finished our beers yet.
the waiter brought us the bill and we were shocked to find out that we had only been charged for 2 beers total. we had obliterated 4 plates of food, and the beers hadn’t even cost 2 euros each. this place must be heaven. we ordered another beer each, mainly out of guilt for consuming so much food and paying so little. but i was full now, and i couldn’t even finish my beer. eventually we left, in search of more adventures in the vibrant madrid nights.
we drifted down into the malasaña neighborhood, taking in the soul of the place. according to locals, the summer had stretched into autumn, and madrid had been extremely warm… until today. The temperature had dropped considerably and the night air was cold, but it was hard not to let the energy of the city get into your bones in a positive way. sporadic, short rains would attack the streets, so our walk was punctuated by short sprints where we would seek shelter until the cloud passed. the rain eventually won, however, and martín and i ducked into an interesting little watering hole where we could get a drink and maybe meet some madrileños.
the place was dimly lit but smartly decorated. this was not a dive bar. the beers were a little expensive but they were at least large. the patrons were decidedly all locals and were of the young professional variety, and everyone in the place seemed to be directly engaged in conversation with someone they had met there purposefully, so martín and i accepted the fact that we were not going to make any new friends here, and engaged in casual conversation amongst ourselves.
after a beer and into the second, martín and i had already laid waste to a couple appetizers and bowls of bar nuts, i had been very curious about martín’s decision to take this trip. it had occurred to me earlier in the night that i had been traveling with him for over a week now, and i didn’t actually know that much about him. sure, we’d had a lot of great times already, and he had become a great friend in such a short time, but i didn’t know anything about him from before our chance meeting on that bus in barcelona. before “the road” had taken over. so i began peppering him with questions about his past, his work, his future, and as always, he responded with a patient enthusiasm, that someone else would be taking an interest in him, but also a shyness that i had come to expect from martín whenever he talked about himself. martín is a very humble person, and i loved that about him. it wasn’t long before the conversation had gotten into a very dark and moving place, when martín had begun to share with me his reasons for traveling.
now that i had been traveling for an extended period of time, one of the things i had forced myself to learn to do is make friends, no matter how short the shelf life of that friendship would be, i would do it because i had to. i am a social animal, and i need to socialize (even if i paint myself to be a curmudgeonly loner, and i do value my personal time, i still crave social interaction). and now that i had done it enough, i had begun to become a little more selectively specific with who i would make friends with. i’d started to notice patterns or behaviors in others that i recognized in myself. it’s usually in the eyes. they say the eyes are the window to the soul, and this is never more true than in the eyes of a traveler. some travelers are adventurers, they are fearless, they haven’t a worry in the world and their energy shines bright with a twinkle in the eye. while other travelers are merely tourists, and they take everything in with a wide-eyed infancy and a temerity that most seasoned travelers can identify quickly, and either are enthused by it and want to help that person along in the journey by showing them things they may not have the courage to see on their own, or they are annoyed by it, and try to avoid the tourist altogether (in this journey, i have been both the tourist and the seasoned traveler. i’ve also been both the helper and the avoider as well).
the type of traveler that i am drawn to and identify most with, however is the seeker. the soul searcher. the aimless wanderer, seeking to understand greater mysteries about his own existence and the world around him. he (or she) does not seek to place labels nor assign blame, but instead he only asks. to learn more about nature and his fellow man, that another’s story might provide a better understanding of his own, this is the seeker’s engine, and the wondrous destinations of the world are the fuel. and one need not hear a word from the seeker’s mouth to uncover his disguise; they need only look in his eyes. it’s all there. a seeker has seen the world for what it is, bad and good. he has seen how beautiful life is, but he has also experienced pain and loss, and he walks a tightrope delicately somewhere in the middle, the weight of both heavy upon his shoulders. he knows joy and he knows sadness, but he does not know one without the other, for they are both of the same. and his conflict is visible, though barely perceptible, at the eye of the seeker. only another seeker can see it, because the seeker is adept at blending in with the world around him, so he has learned to hide the complexity of his nature, because the world doesn’t like complex. it prefers simple. and so the seeker hides in plain sight. but his search for authenticity is never dormant.
martín was a seeker, and i had known it within minutes of talking to him, but i had never pressed him for detail. and that detail was now being shared with me in a raw, soul-baring way. martín had come from a happy family, loving parents and an older brother who all cared for him. martín had finished school and become an accountant in vibrant montevideo, uruguay. he was tall, handsome, amiable, and people liked being around him. he had a girlfriend he cared deeply for, and everything seemed to be lining up for a perfect life, when the unthinkable happened. martín’s mother was diagnosed with an aggressive cancer in both her liver and pancreas. she underwent chemotherapy treatment, but it was too late. within 8 months, the cancer took her life. the family was devastated.
martín had been clearly shaken. his mother had been the glue of the family, and now she was gone, leaving martín to question a lot about his own life and purpose. he didn’t know what or where the answers were, but he wasn’t finding them at home. he had honest conversations with his girlfriend and family, then quit his job and bought a one-way ticket to spain. over the next 4 months he traveled all around europe, from the northern reaches of germany down to the southern beaches of italy, martín wandered aimlessly, but with purpose, unsure if he’d ever be able to explain his journey to anyone and have them truly understand it to its core. but travel, he did, and he was now at the end. his return to uruguay was in 2 days.
i didn’t know how to respond. in the last few weeks, i had met some of the most incredible people and i had heard some of the most moving stories, but this one was the most shocking. i couldn’t possibly place myself in martín’s shoes, so i didn’t try. i just sat there dumbfounded and sad while martín shared his story with me. i listened intently, unconscious of the bar around us. a group of four had moved into the table next to us and they were shouting at the top of their lungs at a level disproportionate to the noise level of the rest of the room, but i didn’t care. it struck me that martín wasn’t sad anymore. he seemed to be at peacewith his journey and with himself.
“so did you find what you were looking for?” i asked him earnestly. “yeah I did man. i think this is what my mom would have wanted me to do.” i didn’t dare ask him about the thing that he had been searching for. i knew better. each seeker’s journey, destination, and discovery is completely different, and there’s no real way to explain it to another person. even if martín tried, i still wouldn’t be able to comprehend it in a way that was as meaningful to him, even if our stories were exactly the same. it’s why the journey was his, and why i had my own.
we left the bar and headed back to the hostel. i was conflicted about everything. i now felt like i really understood martín, but it’s not like we had solved any major mysteries, we hadn’t brought his mother back, and we hadn’t found the key to happiness. and what’s more, i felt stupid for having traveled with martín for such a significant amount of time and only just now learning this very crucial and defining thing about him. i wasn’t sure if it was because i had been too occupied with myself or if the timing for such a conversation had just never lined up. i looked at martín. he seemed to have a peace about him that i wasn’t sure if i’d ever possess. i knew it was a product of his travels and i hoped that it was something i might one day grasp at the end of mine, but i wasn’t confident in that possibility. either way, i was grateful for having been even a speck on the horizon of martín’s story. there were so many questions I wanted to ask him, but i didn’t even know how to put them to words.
as we neared the hostel, a sudden truth struck me that brought a clarity to my confliction. martín was not a collection of the tragedies he had endured any more than i might be a collection of the joys i may have experienced. we are not the things that happen to us. but we do find small definition in the way we react to the events of our lives. much the way a beautiful sculpture is not formed with a single blow from the hammer, the artist carefully guides the stone from one shapeless mass to a beautiful masterpiece. one strike at a time, the hammer to the chisel, the chisel to the stone, we are formed. martín wasn’t a man who had lost his mother, he was a man who was living a full, magnificent life, a life which happened to have a tragedy along the way. but that tragedy had only been one small part of the greater impact of a mother whom had guided him to a beautiful existence for more than 2 decades of his life before her own journey had come to an end, leaving him to continue on his own. and this is how her memory lives on. as not one strike in the sculpture of martín, but many.
and so the seeker seeks on, thankful for the gift of time he had.
this week’s track comes from a brand new collaboration out of chicago, called “monakr.” the song “diamond” was written after founding member saam lost his uncle to cancer, and it is now the lead single for the project. i found this song to be particularly appropriate to today’s story, and i hope you enjoy…
i had seen halstatt. it was one of the things on my list that seemed a little more niche and extravagant, and i hadn’t been sure if i was going to pull it off, especially considering all the adversity i had encountered. but i now had a strong sense of accomplishment and pride in myself for surviving the day, as silly as that sounds. i had faced a number of my biggest fears about solo backpacking all in the same day, and i hadn’t panicked. things had somehow just worked out, which was something i had heard people say before, but the paranoid planner in me had never believed them. i’ve always come from a place that the prepared mind is the one who is granted fortune, which i think still is often true, but i knew there was romance somewhere in the no-man’s-land of spontaneity, and one of my primary goals before i set out on this trip was to force myself into that abyss. it had been uncomfortable, stressful, comical, and… wonderful. i didn’t understand it yet, as i was still decompressing and dissecting the day’s events in my mind, but the seeds of experience had been planted in my mind, and i knew that i was already beginning to change and grow from it. Continue reading Switzerland: what the hell is a fondue?→
i’m sitting here in the london airport, 4 hours early for my connecting flight to new york, coming from scotland this morning. my trip as it stands in this segment, is effectively done. i am leaving the continent that i began this soul search on, where i began to learn so much about myself, and the way the real world actually is when it’s not being experienced from behind a desk and a salary. i’m leaving, and i’m not entirely sure why, or if i’ve even accomplished anything at all. i know that i achieved the simple, surface level goals that i had set for myself before i set out. ultimately meaningless goals like time (i wanted to make it 2 months of wandering before coming back – i assumed i wouldn’t even make it that long. when all is said and done, i’ll have been just a week shy of 5 months) abroad and an idea that i could land somewhere without a plan and survive, these things seemed like big challenges to conquer at the time, but now in retrospect they seem so… sophomoric. and this is only because they stand in the shadow of the greater, looming challenge of “what next?”
i’ve been self-indulgently telling my own story for 5 months now, basically when i first set foot on this path, initially not knowing exactly why i wanted to tell my own story for any reason other than self-documentation. so that i could have a time capsule that i could look back to someday later in my life and remember this one incredible, beautiful, outrageous, dangerous, chaotic, colorful thing that i did with my life that prevented it from being a total waste. so that i could see and know exactly the lessons i learned and grew from and not forget them. the writing gave me purpose, and it became the only stable thing in my life. while everything about my life was scrambled into a mess of vagabonding and wandering, itinerary-less adventuring and an existence devoid of accountability and responsibility, i formed a routine with the writing, giving myself deadlines and outlining topics and ideas and coining my own terms and saving them for later use in future posts. i generated motivation by telling myself that “my readers need something new,” and that if i didn’t get something out there regularly, people would stop reading. the obvious irony here is that i didn’t have any readers, other than my mom (hi mom. thanks for reading). i wanted to feel like what i was doing was important, even if it wasn’t really helping anybody other than myself, so i constructed an imaginary world around my travels and worked as hard as i could to play into the fantasy. things that brought me down or discouraged me, i ignored. i remember eagerly checking my site statistics to see how many hits i had gotten on my first few posts, and being disappointed at how minuscule the traffic i was getting. so i stopped checking (now my traffic has grown to a modest 1,000 hits per month, and i’ve done nothing to advertise or monetize it other than just post weekly updates on my personal facebook wall. thanks to you all for sharing the posts with your facebook friends. it really is flattering and greatly appreciated. please keep doing it!). i only focused on things i could actually do something about, which was traveling and writing. so i traveled more and i wrote more. i got criticized by “friends” on my own facebook and nstagram posts, so i removed those people from my contacts and my life, trying to prevent their negativity from poisoning my desire to create. the writing became the gasoline in the engine, and i did almost anything i could to protect that.
and explore, i did. while the blog content is about 2 months slower than reality, if you follow my instagram handle, (wePhilistines) you’ve seen what i’ve been doing.
i’ve been wandering. truly. just enjoying the peace of mind of having no ultimate destination and no definite purpose or itinerary. a friend i made on this journey asked me a few weeks ago “so what are you going to do once you’re done? you’ve had like 5 months to think about it.” to which i replied, “i’ve had 5 months to notthink about it.”
and now, here i sit. in an airport waiting to return home, writing a very tarantino-esque-out-of-order ending to a story that i hope hasn’t ended. i still have over 2 months and 10 countries more to cover on this blog (so don’t worry, i still have lots of stories to share), but i am now stuck in a weird, parallel purgatory where i’m retelling the past, looking blankly into the future, and standing paralyzed in the present. one foot forward and one foot back, i don’t know where I’m supposed to be at the moment, or where i’m going, and i know i can’t live in the past. i’m not sure exactly how i’ve changed, other than the obvious things like having a beard longer than it’s ever been and a newfound ability to sleep anywhere. but somehow i know that i’ve changed.
i’m not the same. in ways i can’t clearly define yet, i have noticed that i don’t talk to people the same way anymore. i don’t look at the world with the same cynicism i used to (i’m still cynical, just a less negatively dismissive version of it). i’m more curious about the world. i don’t endeavor to prove something to it like i used to, and now i’m more content to just be in it. i don’t have an intention to impress people any longer, a desire to control others’ opinions or regard of me by showing them how interesting or accomplished or knowledgeable i am, and instead i am now confident to just sit back and take things as they come, (relatively) free from worry about being viewed as attractive or talented or desirable.
and therein lies the crux of my fears. in the midst of the metamorphosis, amidst all these positive things i’ve begun to learn and develop in, i am now stepping onto a plane to take me back to everything i left behind, everything i ran away from. some people are happy when they return from a long journey, happy to see the people they’ve missed, happy to eat the food they’re used to, happy to sleep in their own beds, and happy to return to the life they put on pause when they stepped away. i can’t say that i’m exactly “happy” to return to the life i left behind. to be sure, i’m looking forward to seeing all my friends and family whom i’ve missed dearly, and i’m looking forward to sleeping in my bed, and i’m REALLY looking forward to having some new york pepperoni pizza when i step off that plane for a short visit to the city (sorry, but nobody makes it as good as new york. and it’s not even close), but i’m scared of falling back into the rhythm of complacency and materialism and safety that had taken control of my life. i’m scared of falling into the same bad habits that got me into that rut, i’m scared of living an unremarkable and risk-free monotonous life, and i’m okay with admitting to myself that i don’t know exactly what’s going to happen when i get back.
but i do have ideas and hopes. they are longer term ideas and shorter term solutions, with a few world-weary wisdoms to keep me at least semi-confident that i can survive just about anything that life can throw at me now. much of that involves creating. creating music and creating videos and getting better at photography and writing. always writing, never stopping. i refuse to ever allow my creative muscles atrophy again the way i did before i took this trip. so don’t worry friends, the story lines continue, though the timeliness may be off. i will continue writing and capturing, creating and sharing, and i will keep you informed of all of it. i’ll be back home in denver next week, if you’d like to get a coffee or go snowboarding or just walk around the park and hang out, just reach out. I know the key to preserving these new perspectives i’ve gained is to remain open, waiting for the world to extend itself, and for me to respond in kind.
i’ll pick up the story next week where we left off in austria, headed for breathtaking switzerland, where i met some people with amazing life stories, and even found myself guiding a little expedition of other tourists into the wilderness surrounding the matterhorn. i think you’ll enjoy it. i also promised another playlist to you guys which i did not post last weekend because i was wandering the scottish highlands and did not have a reliable wifi signal. so i will post that this weekend with a brief write-up of the songs. i think you’ll enjoy it as well.
for today’s musical magic i have a song i’ve been saving for… well basically since the trip started. i don’t know what it is specifically, but this song by australian duo “luluc” gives me a peace that i can’t quite describe, and given the subject matter of today’s post, it’s a peace that is desperately needed. the title “winter is passing” has a special significance for me, considering the season of life i am in at the moment, so i find it very a-propos. the entire album, “passerby” is fantastic, and full of subdued delicate beauty that you can leave on for hours on repeat without getting tired. i suggest a spin or two. enjoy…
hello friends, i apologize for not having a suitable story out to you yesterday. i am currently roaming the irish countryside and have not had a wifi connection for awhile. in fact, my current signal is very weak and i can’t upload any photos, so instead of a story today, i will leave you with another new song i recorded just before i left on my journey. again, it is modest, without any professional equipment, just a microphone and some instruments in my bedroom. all instruments performed by me, and the song is an original as well. i wrote this for someone i cared deeply for, but i never got a chance to share it with them. so instead, i share it with you. i hope you enjoy it, feel free to share it with others if you so choose. i’ll get you a story online as soon as i can manage it!
happy christmahannukwanzikaa everyone. people lately have been asking me how i can travel during the holidays? don’t i miss my family? what about all the fun christmas parties? and the christmas feasts? what do they eat where you are? do they even celebrate christmas? what do they call santa claus? don’t you miss the presents?
it’s weird for me sometimes, and difficult to explain. it’s not that i don’t miss all these things, and it’s not that i don’t care about them. and i would be lying if i said i didn’t want a christmas feast tomorrow, especially after traveling abroad for the last 4 months and missing our other american celebration of gorging yourself, thanksgiving. god i miss pumpkin pie. i miss sweet potatoes. and roasted turkey and cranberry sauce. and gravy. oh god, gravy.
but there are certain trade-offs you accept when you decide to leave on an extended trip, especially one during the world’s most sacred of times of the year. the trade-offs vary for each person, and they can be both insignificant and meaningful, depending on the person and their situation in life. for me, it’s a bit of both.
for the insignificant, it’s the simple things. the desire to do something different, the need to use up vacation hours before they expire at the new year, the wish to escape the in-laws. or the unruly children of relatives. these are all easy things to think of that push somebody over the pond to the great wide open.
but then there’s the meaningful the things. the obvious and most glaring trade-off is the search for the new. the hope and the dream that something exciting and different is waiting beyond the next horizon, that new incredible experiences lay like buried treasure, waiting to be discovered, and that a whole new world might unfold before your very eyes, unlocking the truths of the universe. or at least the meaning of your own life. this indeed is the allure of travel in general, but making these decisions is more difficult during the holidays, so the wandering soul is tested with a decision that weighs harder than it normally might, and must prove just how badly the desire to explore truly is.
for others, maybe they run away from things. maybe they don’t have a family, or maybe their family is broken. no judgment here, i’d say there are minor elements of both those things at play within my own trip. or maybe they just want to see how they decorate the eiffel tower at christmas. whatever the reason, it’s not really the business of anyone else. if the reason is meaningful enough to you, you do it and don’t look back.
but then there is inevitably a moment or two that you feel the weight on other end of that decision, and you might wish you were home instead of wherever it is that you are. it’s never the big moments that come back to you, it’s always the little ones. like watching home alone with your siblings like you’ve done almost every year since you were a kid and laughing inexplicably hard at the moment when kevin is walking home from the grocery store and the bags break, dropping all his items onto the sidewalk. you’ve seen it a million times, but for some reason just now its the funniest thing ever. or decorating that damn tree & finding that one hideous ornament that somebody gave you one year when you were 9 that always gave you the creeps, but now after all these years you just look at it and smirk. or having a glass of wine (or three) and sitting back and watching the complete chaos of your large extended family losing its mind between the food, the conversation, the presents, everything. and the sheer exhaustion that eventually descends on you after about 30 minutes of enduring this.
but it’s these things that really don’t mean anything that suddenly mean everything when you put them all together and see that these are the things that make up the whole picture of your life. like standing up close to a van gogh and seeing all the dots, not really sure what you’re looking at. but then you take a few steps back and see the greater beauty. and just when you’re starting to wonder whether or not you made the correct decision to leave what you know during the most valued time of the year for a land far away where you don’t speak the language and you don’t recognize anything they’re eating, you realize that this trip is not a mistake, nor is it even a trade-off. it is merely another dot (or ten) on the canvas. and hopefully, as you walk the foreign streets of whatever far-off land you might be in, you can enjoy the moment you are currently in without any pause or hesitation or confusion that you might not be where you’re supposed to be. instead, you can take some small pleasure that you are indeed experiencing everything you had hoped to on your trip, and next year, just maybe, you’ll have an even deeper and more intense appreciation for all those little things that you never noticed before.
happy holidays to anyone in the cosmos that stumbles upon this blog, and hopefully something resonates with you. if it does, i raise my glass (of woodford reserve) to you as i sit here on the couch in a cheap airbnb apartment in croatia, watching a likely illegal version of home alone on an ipad. trust me, wherever you are right now, you’re where you’re supposed to be.
sorry folks, i don’t do christmas music. i’ve been told for years that makes me a scrooge, and so be it. but nevertheless, i’ve got a harmless easygoing jam for you today on the day before christmas (some of you may need it once you get surrounded by your families and the political convos start flying around). the topic of the blog today was about all those little things you can get nostalgic about, and this song is completely rooted in it. anybody too young will likely not have quite the appreciation for this, but the opening notes of this song kick-started my time machine to back in the day (i’ve always driven old cars. i don’t believe in buying new) and just builds and builds. it takes something that used to cause me to pull my hair out and transforms it into an infectious, head nodding gem that i never saw coming. enjoy…
our arrival into vienna was a dreary affair with rainclouds, which actually wasn’t all too unwelcome of a sight considering the luck i had been having on the trip so far. everywhere i had been so far had produced sunny, cloudless weather with the extremely occasional afternoon shower. so when a little rain settled overhead, i wasn’t too bothered by it, especially when it only lasted for a day.
again avoiding the hostel circuit, robert and i had opted for an airbnb apartment in a nice part of the city near all the
key areas downtown and in a safe location. it was actually my first time to use airbnb and i must say, it is truly a brilliant concept. it really takes the middle man out of hospitality, allowing property owners to rent out their properties to tourists for cheap, and providing a plethora of options to the traveler. i really like this idea, and if i am traveling with others in the future, i will definitely be using airbnb again.
vienna would prove to be a tricky destination for me. not because i didn’t like it, and not because i had any bad experiences there, but for reasons much simpler. i just really didn’t connect with it. vienna is a stunningly beautiful country, rich with tradition and culture and art and architecture to match even the finest destinations in the world. but i think that may have been part of the problem for me, is that maybe it was just a little too rich for me.
i realize it sounds like i’m being a little diva-ish and unreasonable but stay with me here, the point i make here is not
one of criticism of the amazing city of vienna, but merely one of personal preference. when i travel, i like to get a little dirt under my fingernails. not too much dirt, mind you (lest you see me tromping around the streets of iraq), but enough to where i feel like i didn’t simply see all the museums and statues in the city and then move on. i like to venture down backstreets and find old buildings that look like they’ve seen better days. i like to find old and new faces standing around, that make you unsure if you can trust them, i like to find graffiti that isn’t “commissioned” but is still creative nonetheless.
these things weren’t always easy to find in vienna. instead, vienna was incredibly well maintained, a beautiful marvel of perfect architecture, art, and living all fused together. the streets were remarkably clean at all times, the citizens always well dressed and put together, as if they were all ready should a last minute business meeting be called. the streets were impeccably manicured, cobblestones carefully placed, graffiti usually painted over or removed, vienna is just a perfectly high class city, and unfortunately for me, i am just not in a high-class state of mind in my current place in life.
and to illustrate the difference with which someone can find within a destination, one could look at how both robert
and i thought of vienna after we left. after 4 days, i was slightly bored and ready to leave, yet robert was in love with the city and wouldn’t have minded staying longer (in fact he would return later after we went separate ways later in the trip). robert explored more of the city than i, and each day when we would meet back at the apartment, he would always have recommendations of great places i needed to check out that he had discovered. sometimes i would check them out, and sometimes i wouldn’t. it just wasn’t a place that had truly excited me at the time. i’m sure someday i will return here and be completely blown away by everything my eyes were closed to at the time.
regardless, it was still a beautiful place to visit. one of the recommendations i had gotten from robert was a royal palace a little outside the main area of town called schonbrunn palace. i hopped on a train and entered the property. not really wanting to spend any money, i found that the gardens were not only free, but quite expansive. i spent the afternoon just wandering around and snapping photos. i suppose it would be a wonderfully romantic place to have a picnic with a significant other, but i enjoyed myself thoroughly as i walked the gardens and up the hill overlooking the estate and the rest of the city. it really is a magnificent place.
one night, i had been very keen on finding some sort of connection with the high classed fanciness of the city, so i had searched for some expensive cocktail lounges. i settled on a place called “ebert’s” on gumpendorfer st. i got as dressed up as i could (i only had 1 collared shirt packed on this trip, so i wasn’t exactly prepared for a city like vienna, nor was i really “dressed to impress”) and then trekked across town and located the establishment.
on a relatively uninteresting block with no other places open at that time of night, ebert’s stood out with large windows and curtains drawn back halfway, allowing you to glimpse inside and see the poshly decorated interior. knowing i was still a little underdressed for the place with my nikes, jeans, and untucked black collared shirt, i straightened my collar, took a breath, and then entered confidently.
i looked around and noted first that the place looked even nicer once you were inside, and then noted that there was nobody there, save for a bartender and a barback. i took another look around the room and decided that rather than sit in the corner by myself and make them wait on me, i would sit front and center at the bar and have a little conversation with them if they were willing.
i was greeted cordially by mo, a well dressed man with darker skin and thick-rimmed glasses and bulging muscles from his toned physique. i joked to myself about how the place must save money on employing bouncers because mo can easily double as one while also tending the bar. mo had a thick french accent but spoke very good english as well as german (a couple other austrian patrons trickled in and out for a drink during the time i was there and i overheard the interactions) and was a very good bar conversationalist. at first, the idle talk was simply surface level, but as it became apparent to mo that i wasn’t going anywhere for awhile and i wasn’t meeting anyone there, he decided to drop whatever other prepwork he was doing behind the bar and focus on me.
knowing that this was a proper cocktail bar when I had selected it, and upon seeing their expansive liquor and whiskey & bourbon collection, I had quietly tested mo with my normal litmus test with the whiskey old fashioned. i’ve been using this test for about 6 years now to determine if a bartender is worthy of my time, cash, and trust. the reason for this is because drinks with bitters in them are fairly easy to screw up, and if a bartender can serve you a drink with bitters and not take away too much of the bourbon taste, you probably have someone on your hands who understands the balance of taste in a cocktail. so all that to say that mo passed with flying colors. once i appreciatively thanked him for the wonderful drink, we started talking whiskeys and bourbons and after a few minutes mo took a step back, looked at me wryly out of the side of his glasses and said in his thick french accent “you know, i love when americans come in here because they understand whiskey properly.” it’s probably the best compliment a barkeep has ever given me.
we continued to chat about whiskey topics both old and new (like the new “whisky stick” that you can buy and put in a bottle of cheap whiskey and within 48 hours it will make your whiskey taste like a finely aged spirit. I’m not linking to it, because it’s an appalling idea and it’s totally a hoax, but idiots out there are still buying it), but eventually the conversation wandered to other topics like mo’s background. mo was born in africa but moved with his family to paris where he grew up. he then moved to hamburg, germany when he became an adult and studied and eventually became a bartender. he had only moved to vienna 6 months earlier at the request of an old colleague of his who was managing this bar and needed help with a proper “A+ level” barman who could help raise the bar, so to speak (heh. heheh. i love obvious jokes).
after a couple hours of good conversation and tastebud tantalizing temptations made by mo, i encouraged him to dream up his own concept bar and open it somewhere outside of vienna. a guy like him belongs in a different style of city with a little bit of a rougher edge around it and he deserves to have his own place. he lit up when i said that, and then started to share with me some of his ideas. we excitedly went back and forth, and i could tell that it was something he needed to hear. he struck me as the kind of guy who had really only moved to do a favor for a friend, and while things were going well at the bar, it might not have been as fulfilling as what he had hoped for. perhaps he was struggling with building a network or support group of people around him that helped push him forward or provided positive reinforcement. i think it may be possible that hearing someone like me intuitively pick up on that and then communicate it to him without a hint or a prompt may have been meaningful to him. i hope it was.
at a certain point in the night after mo and i had covered a lot of conversational ground, a couple had slipped in and quietly made their way to the rear corner of the room. they had kept to themselves for awhile, but at a certain point they had joined the conversation. mo and i were glad to have a few good souls along to help give the night a little life, and james and slavka were more than happy to make some friends. before long, i think mo knew he had more than just a few casual drunks in the establishment that night, because the conversation was so rich and in-depth, and everyone was really enjoying each others’ company. every person in the room was my kind of people. they were “in tune.”
mo, feeling the atmosphere and positive vibe, started making up drinks off the menu. he was getting creative, and his drinks were getting better. eventually mo’s wife actually came in and hung out for a bit. it was closing time before we knew it, but mo told us that he was going to make one more drink for each of us and lock the door, allowing us to take our time and finish our drinks while he cleaned up and closed down before we all left.
james and slavka were completing a storybook romance honeymoon in Vienna, and 5 days later they were to return to england as husband and wife. they had met 6 years earlier in london on a bus when james had sat down next to slavka and struck up a conversation. james was actually living in cambridge, about 60 miles away so after the initial sparks had flown, they settled into the long distance thing for a couple years. when they finally tied the knot, they chose to have the special day in kosice, slovakia, slavka’s hometown. james’ family and friends all flew down for a traditional slovakian wedding celebration that lasted 4 days. after the celebration, james and slavka made their escape to vienna, where i met them, before returning home and starting their new life together.
as james retold the story to me, i found myself getting simultaneously sentimental and hopeful. i listened intently, allowing myself to get caught up in the magic and let the story come alive. it was nice to be the listener instead of the storyteller for a change, especially when the content was so enthralling. too often in my former life, the person i had grown to be was a very cynical person who would not allow myself to be too impressed or surprised by anything, so when i might hear a great story like james and slavka’s, i would still actively and politely listen, but i might reserve emotion or expression in order to preserve the image or character that i was portraying forward. or worse, the greater cynic in me might mentally dismiss it as another “story” and not even allow myself to entertain such fantasies of love and magic and emotion.
as i’ve gotten further along in this journey of mine, i’ve tried to identify when the bad habits i’ve picked up along the way in my life have crept back up. particularly with my own romantic connections which have been marked by a string of failed relationships and unrequited love, i had become increasingly jaded and this skepticism had taken a strong root in my life, like weeds choking out a rose garden. and so i’ve tried to find the things about my personality which stop me from experiencing emotion and joy and i’ve tried to deactivate them. these mechanisms of cynicism and sarcasm which normally serve as a wall of protection from being taken advantage of or being the “sucker” do serve their purposes but there is always a consequence, and for me that consequence is that some of the more elemental and basic joys of being a human get blocked. they become forgotten about, and my world had become grayer because of it.
so when i was enthusiastically talking with this wonderful pair, i caught my instinct to “play it cool” and i quickly shut it down. i listened, i got excited, i expressed my enthusiasm, i asked for elaboration. it was fun, and they were a fun couple. james’ witty british humor made the retelling of the story easy to want to join in on the ride, and slavka’s periodic additions or corrections helped provide balance and accuracy to the story, as shared stories between brits and americans are wont to stretch a bit when there is whiskey involved. it was fun to watch them interact with each other, and i could tell that they were a great pair, one that would definitely last. they appreciated each other, and more importantly, it was obviously that they truly did enjoy hanging out. there was chemistry there, but there was also that “partner in crime” element that i don’t always see in couples. especially after traveling together with no other normal distractions to occupy them. often times in those couples i see something different: exhaustion.
at around 3:30am, mo had finished all his closing duties and made the fateful announcement that it was time to head home. james, slavka, and i all profusely thanked mo for the perfect night. we all exchanged information, finished our drinks, and ducked out into the night, going our separate ways and vowing to stay in touch. i smiled to myself as i walked home under the evening streetlamps, thankful for having met james and slavka. couples like that always give me so much hope and optimism, that i might one day be able to find that perfect balance of attraction, friendship, partnership, and fun. i promised myself that, despite the whiskey drinks and the hazy head, i would remember that evening i spent with james and slavka in the hopes that i might one day more easily recognize that “thing” that they had if i were to one day find it with someone else.
today’s jam is one reflective of my thoughts about james and slavka’s story. it’s a song full of hope, energy, romance, and as the title reflects, “magic.” featuring disco guitar legend nile rodgers, whom had re-emerged onto the pop music scene after being featured on last year’s daft punk rise from the dead (notably on the mega hit “get lucky”), and brandy, another pop artist who has been absent from the scene for years, this new track by luis dubuc’s electronic pop act “mystery skulls” is one that just gets into your veins and starts pumping blood without the need of a heart. but when you listen to the lyrics, your heart can’t help but join in.
“magic” is good clean fun, but if you can stomach a few bad words, i highly recommend you check out the full album from mystery skulls, which just came out about a month ago. it is just good fun from start to finish, with incendiary synth tracks and catchy melodies. enjoy…
and of course, if you’re following along on spotify, here’s my “we philistines selections” playlist, with all the songs i’ve featured on this blog.
the next day i awoke early from my jazz hangover and left the boatel. robert and i had agreed to split up again, as i was interested in a bicycle tour to a castle in the czech countryside, while he was interested in seeing some of the lesser explored neighborhoods of prague.
after a little googling, i decided on going with praha bike, a local bicycle tour company, as i was interested in a tour they offer that takes you out of the city and into the countryside to visit karlstejn castle, the former king’s vacation home. i walked over to the bicycle shop early, as i didn’t have a reservation but i knew they were running a tour that day because i had emailed and gotten a reply, but had not confirmed a booking (i wanted the option to not go without losing money in case i stayed late at the jazz club). i got there about 20 minutes before any staff arrived so i had to wait in the cold morning air before someone opened up and helped me finalize the transaction.
the group was led by our tourguide, sasha, a slovenian guy in his mid 20s with a welcoming smile and an amiable disposition. he quickly walked us through the basics of the tour and we set out. after passing through prague square, we made our way to the riverfront and crossed along the southernmost bridge and slipped away into the countryside.
our destination was about 40 kilometers outside of prague to the village of karlstejn. our group had 12 people not including myself, all couples from various different countries all over the world (yes, i was the only solo attendee again, haha), and during the ride our guide did a great job of personally interacting with each rider individually, dropping back in the pack at times when there wasn’t much deviation from the path and didn’t require a leader. I made a little small talk but I mainly kept to myself on this day. i would ride ahead and scout out good photo opportunities, stopping to snap photos as the group passed me by, then hopping back on and catching up to the pack a few minutes later. i did this all day long, and I could see sasha preferred that i didn’t out of caution that i might get left behind or something, but he eventually accepted that i was in shape enough that i caught back up quickly each time so he never actually objected. plus i think he knew i was going to do it no matter what, so he let me be.
after a couple hours and a few scenic stops, as well as a beer break (no kidding, out in the sticks someone had set up a bar off the side of the dirt cycling path. cycling appears to be popular in the czech republic) we made it to karlstejn castle, a large gothic castle established in the 1300s by king charles IV, the king of bohemia at the time. it was known to be a vacation spot for him and has also housed the crown jewels for most of its existence (currently kept elsewhere).
situated up on top of a hillside inside a canyon with really only one entry point, it has a pretty fair height advantage on anyone approaching for nefarious reasons. as we ascended the road leading up to the castle, i tried to put myself in the shoes of the people who had lived here in the days when royalty actually took their holidays here. it seemed like such a surreal world to live in. the town was only founded after the castle was built, so there wasn’t really anything there before, and you have this one monarch and his court and his family that comes into town and suddenly there is a big “to do” about everything. and then he’s gone, and you go back to your normal life. and what is your normal life? you have a small garden in your backyard, or a café on the corner that the neighbors come to everyday? i guess it’s not that strange, but i have never lived in such a life, or anything similar for that matter. i looked at the people working the cafes as we walked by. basically every business there was geared toward tourism now. i suppose the king’s greatest gift to the people really was building his summer home up in the hills there, as he gave the gift of the tourist dollar for centuries to come.
we finally reached the city gates and we entered into the castle walls. we walked around inside the compound, we leaned over the walls and looked down, we craned our necks up at the towers. sasha, our guide, told us that if we wanted to enter into the actual castle itself and see the rooms and living spaces, we would have to pay an extra sum of money to enter and then go on an hour long tour which he was not allowed to lead (i guess that is somebody else’s job onsite). i suppose no one in our group felt like paying more money (or perhaps we really just liked hanging out with sasha. seriously, he was a fantastic guide and made the whole experience more than just a bike ride out of the city. a tour like this can go wrong really easily if your guide sucks, but sasha was perfect), because we all elected to stay with sasha and head back. i declined only because i’m not really a big museum guy and i really was only on this tour so i could be on a bicycle and get outside of the city to see something different. seeing a castle was a bonus!
we exited the castle walls and sasha took us out a back exit that circled around to the other side of the castle that apparently none of the other tourists knew about because we basically had the road to ourselves. And this side was incredibly more scenic, the views of the castle profile were more spectacular than anything on the main approach. We were all thankful to see this side, especially as the sun had begun to set and the light was hitting the castle walls really well, making the castle extremely photogenic.
after enough photos, we headed down to the karlstejn train station and boarded a train back to prague. apparently the ride back was too long to make it back before dark, so when we had chained the bikes up before our walk to the castle, the owner of the tour company had come and picked all the bikes up in a truck and carted them back to the city.
20 minutes later we were back in the city. i thanked our guide and exchanged goodbyes with all my tour-mates and walked quickly back to the boatel. time to pack. time for vienna.
today’s ear wax comes from an artist we’ve already heard from on this blog, but this song is such a perfect soundtrack for this day that i couldn’t ignore it. from tweedy’s new album “sukieray,” this is my favorite track from the offering. “flowering” features subtle acoustic guitars, a muddy lead guitar melody, muted vocals and a mellowed out drum track, this is the kind of song you put on after you put your sunglasses on and go for a walk in the sun.
and here’s the link to the we philistines song selections on spotify:
after having a taste of prague jazz, my appetite for it became insatiable. i began wandering the streets looking for buskers and performers and would stop and listen for as long as i could before it was too obvious that i was just trying to enjoy a free show. eventually i decided i should find a proper place and pay to go for an actual concert.
after some googling, i ultimately ended up deciding on a place located in the southern end of old-town. i had wanted to avoid something that was too fancy and proper, as i don’t really have the appropriate attire. i also have a mind that good jazz, realjazz, should be an informal and dirty affair. jazz was born out of poverty and emotion, not martinis and evening jackets. additionally, my search had led me to understand that proper czech jazz had similar roots, being born and raised up in dirty, musty basements and halls before making its way into more popular circles. so i wanted to try and have an experience of the former variety, and not the latter.
after surveying my options, i decided on “the blues sklep” (click for info) mainly because it was in a legitimate old basement in old-town. after looking at some of its reviews on trip advisor and google and seeing how some tourists had been unhappy with the place because of the cramped environment or having seats with obstructed views, or just general complaints about there being too much smoke in the place, i decided this was exactly what i wanted. something perfectly imperfect.
located on a small side-street near a few semi-popular czech pubs and restaurants, the place wasn’t overly difficult to find but i did walk by it afew times due to its decidedly modest and somewhat uninviting appearance. i entered into a dimly lit hallway where two other restaurants were also located, and i found a third doorway that was only marked by a small standing chalkboard announcing the performer and the door charge cost. i entered the unmanned door and followed the walkway immediately right and down a steep flight of stairs. i made it about halfway down the stairs before becoming suddenly paranoid that i was actually entering into a kitchen for one of the restaurants or, worse, someone’s house. before i could turn around i saw a few feet shuffle past the end of the stairway and i reassured myself that this was definitely a nightclub. i finished my descent and entered into a very tiny and crowded room. on the left was a small bar with a barkeep behind wearing an old fashioned hat and tie. he gave me an emotionless nod and i approached. i spoke slowly, not knowing how much english was understood here, and asked to pay the cover charge and for a glass of whiskey with ice. he obliged and handed me a glass of jameson and a glass of ice with tongs. i had never been served in such a fashion so i smiled, thanked the man, and moved away from the bar and into the adjoining room to locate a seat before the concert.
i immediately understood what negative reviewers on trip advisor had been complaining about. the room was a musty old brick basement with low ceilings and the room could probably accommodate no more than 40 people, and that was pushing it. by my estimation, around 50% of the seats had an obstructed view due to the thick arched brick pillars that had been keeping the structure up for hundreds of years. space was extremely cramped, there was no standing room allowed, and instead of having rows of seats for you to choose from, there were tables with chairs and then chairs that lined the walls. the room was in an L shape, and the short hook to the left actually had no view at all (save for a tiny space between a half arch of pillar and wall which one – maybe two – people could peek through), so all you could hope for if you were sitting over there was that the music would be really good, because you weren’t going to see anything at all. the place was completelyfull of smoke, as everyone had a cigarette lit and there was no ventilation at all, so the cloud just sort of grew larger and larger as the night wore on.
i loved it.
i looked for a seat, i was definitely the only person flying solo tonight and i wasn’t exactly early, so most of the room was full already. all the seats with a clear view were completely filled, so i had to move into the short section of the “L” hook with no views. there was a small table for 3 that was unoccupied which i sat down at somewhat reluctantly, but i noticed that if i positioned myself up against the wall and then leaned forward over the table and looked around the corner, i could see half of the stage. i dropped a couple cubes of ice into my whiskey and took a slow drag from the glass. relax, i told myself.
i casually glanced around the room and tried to eavesdrop on conversations. there wasn’t a single interaction going on in english, only czech. i wasn’t really bothered by this, but it did leave me feeling a little exposed, especially as the room became completely full and the only two remaining available seats were the ones at my table without a view. three different people approached and asked me in czech if they could sit there, but after hearing my reply that the seats were available and accompanying apology for not speaking czech, they would give a puzzled look for a second before realizing i was a tourist and then they would retreat to the other room, content to watch from the bar and enjoy the view through the doorway. i couldn’t blame them, the view was probably better back there and there weren’t likely to be any outsiders there either.
the band made their way through the middle of the narrow smoke filled room and crowded onto the stage. a five piece sporting a piano, trumpet, tuba, an accordion, and a lead singer pulling double duty with a clarinet and a baritone saxophone, they struck up with a lively waltz tune. it was decent but not great jazz, as you could tell that the lead guy playing 2 instruments and singing was the one carrying the group, and easily had the most talent. the really unexpected moment, however was that after the first song with no vocals, i had settled into the expectation that this was just going to be an instrumental group with no singing. that changed when the second song started in and johnny, the lead singer, belted out the opening lines in a huge, operatic, bass-heavy voice that filled the entire room and shocked the audience. it made sense. these countries in central europe love their opera and symphony, so a broken, worn down louis armstrong voice wasn’t something that would work out here in prague. no, the male lead vocal was something that needed to soar commandingly, evoking strength and volume that could dominate over all the other instruments that people were used to hearing in live music.
but i hadn’t expected it, especially judging by the appearance of the guy. johnny seemed to be a caricature of the archetypal 1930s jazz musician in europe. sporting worn slacks with suspenders and a white collared shirt with the sleeves rolled up, he wore an old fashioned bowler cap and was very skinny. probably around 30 years old. he sat at a chair in the middle of the small stage with the others crowded around him. the entire concert he had a cigarette lit which was hanging from his lips while he sang into the microphone, or if he was committed to his sax or clarinet, he would hilariously tuck the filtered end of the cigarette into his ear, leaving the lit end to dangly out freely and making it look like he was smoking through his ear while he was playing. he must have smoked an entire pack during that concert. it was impressive, especially considering how dominant and strong his voice sounded. i couldn’t help but wonder what he would sound like in 15 years.
the only other person i could see from my narrow vantage point was the trumpet player. he was definitely the baby of the band, as he was the most nicely dressed of the group and was a little chubby with a near bald shaved head. a couple times between songs they appeared to tease him a little (in czech) about his energetic youth and his baby face (again, i have no idea what they were saying, i can only guess based off their actions and the reactions of the crowd’s laughter). at one point they stopped between songs to all do a shot together, i think to celebrate his recent birthday or something. actually they stopped for shots a couple times. and they had beers alongside them the whole show as well.
i would love to be able to describe the other members of the band, but I couldn’t see them, and they weren’t really as fun to watch anyway. all the talking was done by these two into the single mic onstage, and by listening to the solos from everyone in the band, they were the only two who were really worth watching. but the trumpet player was probably the funniest. whenever he would get really excited about a part in the song but wasn’t blowing into his trumpet, he would start bouncing excitedly and snapping his fingers off-beat, both hands swaying up and down in opposite motion, as if he was running. it never got old, and i laughed every time he did it, which was basically every song. you could tell he was just one of those kids that loved life and loved music, and he wasn’t afraid to show it even if he looked goofy in the process.
after about an hour and a half, the band broke for an intermission. they all made their way outside. i’d say they were going for some fresh air, but i saw them smoking up there as well, so i guess they just wanted some different scenery behind the glow of that cigarette. the crowd rose and lined up behind the small bar, ready for another drink and to stretch their limbs from their temporary imprisonment in the prison-like venue. i evaluated if i wanted another drink and if i thought my lungs could make it another 90 minutes without coming down with emphysema, and decided that i was content with my experience already, so i decided to leave. i quietly made my exit, up the stairs and down the alley into the night. the brisk evening air tried its best to liberate the smoky stench from my clothes, but the odor clung tightly as i walked down the streets of prague.
as i walked, a feeling of pride in myself welled up. even though i consider myself a bit of a lone wolf in life, i have always had a slight fear of doing things or going places by myself. i’ve never had a problem being by myself in private settings, in fact i often need “me time” in order to recharge my batteries, but being out in the world and being seen alone has always been an insecurity of mine. i’ve never known exactly why i feel this, but i think it is a mixture of a deep hatred of feeling out of place – and it is easy to feel out of place when alone – and that widely accepted notion that experiences are so much better when you have someone special to share them with. in the words of the controversially canonized chris mccandless, “happiness only real when shared.” and so it had been in my life up until this trip. in my 31 years on this amazing planet, i had repeatedly postponed or canceled trips or vacations to exotic places if whatever girlfriend i had at the time was unable to go, or if i was single and unable to convince any other friends to go with me. i had been putting my entire life on hold, watching it slowly pass me by while i waited for the perfect woman to come into my life and finally grant me the ability to go do what i wanted to do.
i think we humans do this a lot, particularly americans. maybe not with our romantic relationships, or our travel, like i do. but i think we too often think that we are not great enough in our current capacity to go chase what we want, and so we defer happiness for a later day. we think “if i can just improve in this one area, then i’ll be right where i need to be in order to get what i want” and so we wait, inactive, and we tell ourselves to be patient, hold out, be confident that what we seek will find us when both we and the universe or god or our boss has determined that now is the time. sometimes we wait years. sometimes we wait a lifetime. and then one day we wake up and wonder what the hell happened to ourselves. we’ve changed. we’ve grown complacent. after getting passed over for that promotion multiple times or after repeatedly wimping out on asking out that person you like, after giving yourself excuses like “i’m still working on this area of my life,” we eventually create a safe haven for ourselves which shields us from being able to improve or grow. and now, a perceived weakness has become a debilitating illness that we have no idea how to recover from.
i’ve never been a very good student, nor have i ever had very good focus when devoting myself to improving my knowledge through traditional study and learning. i am one of those dumb fools who will ram my head into every part of the door til I find the knob that opens it, rather than study the door first to find out how it works. or i’ll just give up and jump out the window.
but if there is one thing that i have learned thus far in my often turbulent life, it is this: we never learn anything new in this life by doing what we already know how to do. if we want to improve our lot in life, we must put ourselves into a position of uncomfortable growth, where we are challenged, pushed, and in over our heads, and that is when our light shines brightest. our eyes are open, our brains absorbing, and our muscles strengthening, and even if the end result is something less than remarkable commercial success, your own personal success will have been realized and you will have something that you can walk away with. to put it in simpler terms: it’s better to go down swinging than to leave the bat on your shoulder. It’s better to ask that girl out and fail miserably than to sit idly and watch as some other douchebag takes your girl out right in front of you. it’s better to insist on interviewing and get turned down even if you’re underqualified. because now you know. not knowing is a paralyzer. paralysis is death. don’t live your life on the sidelines. go. do. now.
then again, all i did was go to a smoky jazz bar in prague by myself and leave early. i guess it depends on how you look at it.
i seem to have painted myself into a corner with today’s musical selection after writing a thousand words about jazz. so to keep with the theme, i’ve picked out a soulful jazzy little number that came out this summer and landed itself on a small npr feature about the “top 10 songs we can’t stop listening to,” or something to that effect. this song definitely isn’t the big czech jazz that i heard in prague and it’s not going to headline any jazz compilations, but if you happen to be one of those souls stuck in unpleasant weather out in the states somewhere right now, pop this one into the tape deck, light some candles and open a bottle of red, and snuggle up next to your significant other. this one will having you feeling romantic before you can finish your second sip. enjoy…
robert and i had some time to kill before leaving berlin and we both had some minor items we’d wanted to pick up from a large city like berlin before heading into some of the smaller places that might not have the shopping selection options one could enjoy in a massive city like berlin. we split up and agreed to meet later. my feet had begun to seriously hurt me on this trip now, to a point where the pain was almost unbearable after walking for 4 hours. i had begun to get sharp pains in specific points of emphasis under the knuckles of my feet, as well as my arches. robert had explained to me I likely needed orthotic shoe liners, as my current shoes were not giving me any support. he confirmed this for me when i told him it didn’t hurt me when i ran, only when i walked for a long time. having had similar issues in the past, he offered a lot of well-researched information on the subject and so i set out in search of some insoles that could cure my woes.
i didn’t find any, so i found a boutique shoe shop and i bought some nikes, confident that this would fix the problem. it didn’t, but at least i look hip now.
eventually we met back up and boarded our bus for prague. it was to be a 4 hour ride, during which i had meant to write as much as possible. i was successful for however long it took us to get to the Czech border, but once we
crossed, i became enthralled by the breathtaking czech countryside, dancing by under a doting sunset, as if the sun and the czech republic were aware that we were arriving, and wanted to roll out the red carpet to their new guests.
we passed by a few very small towns with a little river running through the middle of them. a castle on the side of the mountain, overlooking the water and the small houses below with the sun setting in the background, it all seemed very pedestrian and unspectacular to everyone else on the bus and probably to anyone living there, but i couldn’t get enough. i put my computer away and set aside my camera and let my eyes drink in the scenery.
after a few hours we had arrived in prague, and we made our way to our hotel. before we had left, robert had researched accommodations, as he is a little more particular than i am, and after having not been incredibly excited about any of the immediate options, he looked up quizzically and asked me directly “how would you feel about staying on a boat?” i didn’t even hesitate. “book it. don’t care if it sucks. i want to say i stayed on a boat.”
and so we stayed at a place called the “botel albatross,” (how clever) situated right on the river on the north side of old-town prague where the river bends. it wasn’t particularly incredible, but it was about as affordable as it gets on short notice and it was easy to find. also, it’s a hotel on a boat on the river, so it needs no further justification. the novelty of it was great. after checking in and getting settled, neither robert or myself were ready to turn in for the night, so we immediately set out in search of a few cheap sights and more importantly, something to eat.
neither of us really knew anything about prague, other than everyone always saying “oh prague is awesome!” so we weren’t sure what we should be looking for (i think this has become the theme of not only my travels, but my life). we decided to head for the main square. within 2 minutes of leaving, we were already impressed by the quaint nature of the town, with cobblestoned streets and narrow walkways that seemed to go whichever way they pleased, all under the careful watch of centuries-old buildings with spires and clocktowers on seemingly every structure (seriously, I’ve never seen so many clocktowers in my life).
everything was lit up like a movie set. every building that needed to be seen was clearly visible at night, with floodlights placed strategically on opposing rooftops and any other vantage point that would give the most flattering view of whatever needed to be shown off. prague knows it’s beautiful, and it knows how to show off.
none of this was more impressive than the old town square. a wide open space with people walking to and fro, brisk in pace or slow with head directed up and marveling at the architecture on display, people were mingling this way and that, musicians were busking, trying to impress enough to earn some change from anyone who would listen, the asian tourists were busily taking photos with their selfie sticks, and british stag parties were loudly consuming beer from large mugs on patios on the sideline. i saw few cities so easily accessible and interactive in europe as prague was. it was clear to me almost immediately: i like prague.
after we had gawked enough at everything to see, robert and i realized we had both gotten extremely hungry. we also had trouble finding anything that looked palatable and non-touristy, or that wasn’t going to take forever to be ready to consume, so we settled on a pizza place a modest distance away from the plaza. it was decent enough, and the owner there was clearly italian, so we justified not eating something inherently “czech” by assuming the pizza was “italian enough.” plus it had free wifi.
the next day, robert and i made for the other side of the river, on the north and western banks of the river bend. our goal was to explore the neighborhood and eventually make it up to the castle, crossing 2 different bridges in the process. we first made for the charles bridge, and were a little dismayed by how many people were already there. we knew that to truly enjoy the bridge without the throngs of tourists, you had to get there early. apparently 8:30 – 9am is not early enough. nevertheless, we slowly made our way through the crowds and the vendors, stopping briefly to enjoy a couple musical performers, including one guy who was a maestro on the accordion, and a folk trio complete with a banjo player, a guitar player with a harmonica, and a percussion player playing the spoons and the washboard. they were all quite good.
as we made our way through the streets, i was amazed at just how picturesque the city was. every direction i turned my head looked like it should have a frame around it and be placed above someone’s fireplace. it might be the most photogenic city i’ve ever seen. we ascended into the hills, heading in the general direction of the prague castle, but we were generally avoiding the main thoroughfares that the large crowds were following along. whenever one of us would see some small alley or side street that looked interesting, we’d motion to the other to signal we were deviating from the path in search of something less trodden. this behavior eventually led us to a large “tv tower” on the western hillside that sported, in my opinion, the best view of the entire city. these tv towers are indicative of most significant cities in central europe and east, particularly anything that at one point was under soviet control. imagine an air traffic control tower that you might see at your airport, then imagine it looking a little more like it was from the jetsons, and now you have a tv tower. these things served as watchtowers that one could see incoming threats and send/receive radio transmission for 360 degrees.
so robert and i paid 5 euros to enter and climb the 200 or so stairs to get to the top and take in the view. it was magnificent, and totally worth the cost.
after snapping photos and taking enough video, we descended and made our way to the castle. on our way there, we wandered by a centuries-old underground monastery that now had a restaurant friendly towards tourists (how nice). i insisted we stop inside so i could sample some of the “blueberry beer” advertised on a chalkboard out front. i ordered a bowl of goulash to balance out the beer and enjoyed the cave-like structure around me. it was dimly lit with rounded and arched ceilings that seemed to follow no rhythm except whatever the earth had given the constructors to work with whenever the place had been built.
after the monastery, we wandered by a cathedral and crossed a few more small squares before finally finding the prague castle. by the time we got there, it was closing time, so there was no opportunity to ascend into the towers or enter into the structure, but i was okay with that. typically in my experience, when you get to the top of the biggest, coolest point of interest within a city, you lose your ability to appreciate the biggest, coolest point of interest within a city. i was much happier having found the tv tower earlier (actually a little taller than the castle, but not nearly as impressive looking) and having paid significantly less for my ascension to the top.
that night robert and I found somewhere to eat where robert made a very annoying observation. well, it was very annoying for him, but for me, it was one of my favorite things about my time with robert. he became visibly frustrated that, at every single place we had been to in prague (which was probably 5 or 6 restaurants at this point), water was more expensive than beer, usually by at least a euro. i started laughing joyously. finally one of my vices was paying dividends instead of costing them. robert good naturedly picked up on the humor of the situation and this scenario became a ritual of every place we went in prague. we’d pick a restaurant and he would immediately find the beverages section on the menu and would let out a sigh of exasperation and would read the cost of a water versus a beer aloud, to which i would appreciatively laugh.
robert had tracked our steps that day with a pedometer app he has on his iphone 6. he mentioned we had walked somewhere around 20 miles that day. that explained why my feet hurt so bad (coupled with the issues i was starting to develop with my arches). i had wanted to go find a jazz bar that night after learning that the czechs really like jazz music, but i could barely stand to be on my feet anymore so i elected to do that another night. on our way back to our
botel, however, we encountered by chance a tiny restaurant down a back alley where a little jazz trio was playing for a small group of patrons. led by a violin, a guitarist and standup bassist accompanied in the background, robert and i elected to stand and watch for about a minute before i asked if robert minded if we grab a seat for a nightcap and watch them finish their set. robert acquiesced and we sat down. i ordered a couple fingers of whisky and focused on the music.
we were able to watch them play for about 5 or 6 songs, and they did not disappoint. to this point in my trip and beyond, i haven’t heard anyone quite as talented as these 3. the violinist was clearly the star of the show, as he stood front and center and adeptly maneuvered up and down the neck of his violin maniacally during each song, never missing a note and channeling gypsy maestros from the 20s and 30s with remarkable ease. this man could have easily been playing on a large stage or at a city hall with an orchestra, but here he was playing in a dimly lit patio for a few tourists with his bandmates. i actually think there was a good chance these three were all different generations of the same family, as they all bore a resemblance to one another. the guitarist being the youngest and the bassist being the eldest, they were all very familiar with each other and knew exactly when the music called for a change-up or someone else to hop in and improvise. it was excellent jazz, and i was vocal about it, clapping appreciatively or responding audibly after an impressive solo. no one else in our crowd seemed to understand that this is how you appreciate gypsy jazz, by letting the performers know that you enjoyed whatever it is they just did, rather everyone else sat quietly, waiting to be entertained. after the first time i offered praise, you could tell the band was immediately glad that robert and i were there, as they began to orient themselves a little more in our direction, and they would smile and nod every time we offered applause, or whenever one of them was about to do something cool in improvisation.
when the performance had ended, the guitar player came over and attempted to engage in conversation with us but his wnglish was extremely limited and both robert and myself and i speak absolutely zero of his native tongue, so the conversation didn’t go very far. we thanked him profusely for the music and offered a few euros as compensation. they gratefully accepted and we made our exit.
we wandered through the illuminated streets and crossed through the main square again on our way back to the “botel,” as one can never get enough of looking at those buildings. eventually sleep’s pull was too strong however, and we turned in for the night.
today’s tuesday tune is a song that’s been kicking around my spotify account for a couple months now (check me out over here if you’re following along:
and i just can’t get enough of this song. its what i listen to when i’m feeling happy go lucky. if i’m wandering a city and i want a break from the sounds of the city, i pop my headphones in and put this song on, put my hands in my pockets, and happily stride down the street. plus it feels appropriate to to suggest a song called “emperor” when we’re talking about a city like prague, where there are castles and royal looking buildings everywhere. give a listen to this one when you get a chance. enjoy…