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:
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…
the days following hamburg and oldenburg flew by. berlin is truly a unique city, one that views like a good book reads, where each successive chapter continues to build and surprise, and just when you think you’ve seen it all, it surprises you again. when i had initially started outlining last summer what countries i wanted to visit on this trip, berlin was just a city that had made the list because it was simply on the way to other places I wanted to go and it would have seemed idiotic to leave out. i knew that i would be interested in the history, but i didn’t really know why else i was going. this thought occurred to me on the train over from hamburg.
an old friend from my youth had seen some of my instagram photos pop up on his social media account and, having a few weeks for himself to do some traveling, decided to join me for a couple weeks. he chose berlin as the rendezvous point. i suppose reuniting with an old friend after more than a decade seemed only appropriate in a city like berlin, but that comparison is probably eye-rollingly obvious. i was more than grateful for robert’s arrival, as i was still a little shell-shocked from the language barrier/loneliness issues from paris, and i was worried of a repeat performance in germany (now that i was truly out on my own and had no more options of meeting up with old acquaintances and friends from my past). plus, when you’re exploring new places, it’s always more fun when you have people to explore those areas with. you get to share the experience with someone else, see the things they see that you missed, see the world through their eyes, get their perspective. you also have the added benefit of external opinion. one of the toughest things about traveling alone is, ironically, decision making. i thought this would be the easiest thing, because i am a decisive person and i do not have to worry about accommodating anyone other than myself. but on the contrary, the problem is one of surplus of choice: you have too many options. sometimes having to appease someone else’s wishes and desires is actually really nice, because making the decisions (or even caring) can often be a daunting task for yourself, especially if you don’t always know exactly what you want. game-planning is something i have always been good at, but when you’re doing it all the time, it gets exhausting. arriving somewhere new and trying to figure why it is cool and what you need to go see, what you need to eat, what you need to drink, who you need to meet, and trying to fit all that into a window of three to six days becomes a juggling act in a revolving door.
so i was glad to have a friend along for the ride. robert and i became friends through a long-disbanded group of buddies that all used to play a particular computer game together. it was called “delta force: blackhawk down” and it was a 1st person shooter that mimicked the types of battles fought by troops in the crisis in mogadishu in the 90s (made famous by the movie of the same title). our group had a “clan” which we’d cleverly (read as: immaturely) named “cleavage.” each member of the team had a code name or “call sign” that fit within the theme. an exclusive club, we really only had 2 criteria for membership: we had to know you personally and you had to be funny. some examples of “call signs” on the cleavage clan were as follows: left breast, right breast, perky breast, saggy breast, fake breast, etc. et al. the members of our team would log on together from our own computers at home, join the same team, and then we would wage war against other doritos-eating-mountain-dew-downing-teenagers until the wee hours of the morning. and we were good. our team members had different roles to play within the team, and we played them well. rarely would we lose, thanks to aggressive domination from the likes of core members andreas, terry, ardy, Robert, cody, and myself. it was good clean fun. mostly.
anyway, robert is a complex individual with a firm grasp of who he is in the world and what he likes. a coffee enthusiast, he’d modestly tell you that he’s only just learning how coffee really works since he’s only been in search of the perfect “flat white” for a couple years now. but in the time I’ve been traveling with him, i’ve learned more about coffee than i ever desired to (i don’t really drink coffee, i know that will cause me to lose touch with a couple readers. sorry. i am what i am) in just a handful of conversations with him at cool coffee houses that he somehow locates with some sort of coffee bean sixth sense. he also knows more than most people i know who drink starbucks religiously.
robert is a front-end software engineer who has found his way into freelancing as a way to help him balance out his need to travel off the grid from time to time, but still stay connected to the tech world in silicon valley and beyond that his career has tied him to. i’m a little envious of skills and abilities in programming as I think if I was able to “freelance,” i’d probably live the rest of my life on the road, rambling from town to town, only stopping to work whenever I found a reliable wifi signal and a contract i liked.
we met up at a little hostel in the mitte neighborhood of berlin. it’s a cool and clean neighborhood that some might call “yuppie-ish,” and they’d probably be right, but it’s got a great charm to it. it’s pretty safe and is handily located next to a few metro stops so it is easy to get to and from. once we got our bearings, we wasted no time at dissecting the city, knocking out tourist mainstays like the brandenburg gate, the reichstag building, and checkpoint charlie within the first couple days. when we were done with those, we would wander for hours through random neighborhoods that robert had found while searching for his hipster haven coffee shops. while i don’t really partake of this pursuit of his, i’ve been thankful for it because it has often led me to places i probably would not have found on my own. often times while in search of a cappuccino shop that robert had seen good reviews for, we would wander down some random wrong street and find some ornate clocktower that wasn’t visible from the main walkways. Or we would see some really cool graffiti that one would have no clue was there had they never left beaten path.
speaking of graffiti, berlin has to be the best city in the world at embracing its graffiti. they don’t even fight it. in the US, if graffiti ends up on a wall somewhere, it’s rarely clever or intelligible, and it is usually covered up or painted over expeditiously, and the eyesore is gone before you know it. in berlin the graffiti is EVERYWHERE, and often times it has a very clever message about consumerism, or it pokes fun of itself, or even makes you think deeper thoughts about your own existence.
everywhere i went, i found myself really enjoying graffiti even more so than some of the sights. i even began to notice some of the taggers’ calling cards. i could tell which neighborhoods belonged to which artists. and when a commissioned piece had adorned a wall in giant mural fashion, there seemed to be a respect among the taggers. they would usually leave those walls alone. or, if that wall was tagged, it would be tagged around the mural, so as not to disturb the art, and the new tagger would only hit an area that was empty and unoccupied by paint.
my guess is that a lot of this acceptable culture comes from the acceptance of living with a giant wall running right down the middle of the city for 30 years. the amount of decoration and graffiti that came to adorn this monstrosity likely spilled over into the rest of the city as years wore on, and now its just a badge of pride. but that wall is something else. i can’t even describe how i felt as i walked along segments of it during the week i was in berlin. trying to put myself the shoes of someone living in this city during the soviet reign made my head spin countless times. the thought that i could be living on one street corner one day and the love of my life might be living on the other side of the street, and the next day a giant wall went up between us and i might never see her again… this scenario kept resurfacing in my mind for days, until i saw the following scribbled on a section of the wall near checkpoint charlie:
i knew that it had happened to someone at some point; it had to. but the reality of loved ones being separated during this conflict suddenly became real to me when i saw a heartbreaking message scrawled onto the wall with the words “to astrid: maybe someday we will be together.” i stared at the message for at least 10 minutes while the light rain fell around me. i was overcome with sadness, despite the fact this tragedy had occurred decades ago. eventually i moved along, but this moment has stayed with me during my trip.
this city grew on me every day that i was there. if a trip to europe was a march madness college basketball tournament, berlin was the dangerous 14 seed that was starting to upset all the mainstays and work deep into the tourney. berlin was the darkhorse.
i think one of the things i liked about it so much was that everywhere you looked, there were old remnants of painful memories of the city: the past was never far. just like people, i like them better when they have a story to tell. especially if that story hasn’t been all sunshine and rainbows. the pain of berlin no longer holds its citizens back, but it is always lurking in the shadows warning just how far a city or a person can fall if they are careless with the world around them.
or maybe that isn’t the message waiting to be interpreted. for the life of me i couldn’t decipher what the history and identity of berlin was. was it the powerhouse city of the north that was a haven for the nazi empire that crumbled and has been slowly rebounding ever since? or was the city a victim, that had been subjugated by a radical aggressor in the nazi party and was then taken advantage of by another meddling power in the soviet union, which then suppressed and abused the people and city for decades, and now they were finding their way out of the dark?
or is the identity something completely different altogether? perhaps berlin is a place that, through ages of darkness and consequence, knows the weight of action and reaction, and now uses that knowledge to its advantage to help shape its future and rebuild a brighter and more prosperous outcome (which it is easily succeeding at)? surely this is the identity, and the longer i spent in the city the more confirmation i received. berlin is a bastion of hope, and one need nothing more than to walk its streets for a day to see why. it exemplifies that no matter what happens, no matter how grave the circumstance or the situation, nothing is completely beyond saving. one need only the will, the discipline, and the desire to restart from the bottom, and any height can be achieved.
today’s ear candy is a new single by zola jesus, and i. love. this. song. can’t get enough of it. this girl can sing, but she has this brooding, deep baritone pipes that just strike a chord in all the right ways for me, probably because she sounds so different than most singers out there in pop music. i first heard her sing on the first track of the m83 album “hurry up, we’re dreaming” that blew up the whole world a couple years ago but i confess i never really sought her out to see what she was doing on her own. i can tell you now, however, that her new album is fantastic from top to bottom. enjoy the video…
i arrived in bremen, germany at 5:30am with a start. i hadn’t been able to sleep for most of the overnight trip on the bus, so i elected to furiously write as much as I could throughout the night. but eventually exhaustion caught up with me and i was able to collect a couple hours of slumber during the back end of the ride. when i exited the bus, the streets were empty, and the only inhabitants were small, roaming groups of drunk teenagers stumbling their way back to the train stations after their debaucherous night at the clubs. i quickly located the train station, or “hauptbanhof,” and boarded a train.
as my connection pulled into oldenburg, i began searching for the mcdonald’s I was supposed to be meeting my friend daniela at (sarcasm aside, meeting at mcdonald’s is actually pretty practical. you can always find that golden arch when you need to). in my sleep-deprived morning blindness, I somehow walked right by the mcdonald’s and out onto the street. daniela’s directions had been perfect up until now regarding the bus and the train connections, so after walking around for 10 minutes before figuring out that it was indeed my error, i was now worried that daniela had gotten tired of waiting for me and returned home. the obnoxiously drunk students wandering aimlessly around the station weren’t helping my growing anxiety either. eventually however, daniela turned up and found me. she’d had a late night with her friends as well (it apparently was a holiday in Germany that granted most people a free friday), so she was a little late. i didn’t care at all, i was just happy to see her.
daniela and i went to school together at john brown university for our undergraduate degrees long ago, and she was always a joy to spend time with. daniela was an international scholarship student from panama who had earned a generous scholarship and decided to study in arkansas, of all places. her english hadn’t been great when she arrived in the US, so not only was she faced with the adversity of studying abroad, she also had to learn the language while she learned the subject matter. nevertheless, daniela’s magnetic personality wouldn’t let that get the best of her, as she had no problem making friends at a modest place like jbu. daniela stands a commanding 5’2” (at most) and is an infectious ball of comical energy. she has dark features and deep brown eyes that many a helpless man have gotten lost in, and when she speaks she has that intoxicating latin american rhythm to her speech that just draws you in and reminds you how fun life can be. when she finished school in the US, she returned home to panama for a couple years and then took an opportunity to go work and study further in the northern german town of oldenburg. She’s been there for the last 3 years.
daniela had graciously allowed me to set up camp in her guest bedroom. she lives in a modest 4 bedroom house with 2 other roommates, 1 of whom i got to meet whose name is nikky.
having both been up late all night, daniela and i agreed it would be best to catch up on a little sleep before we headed to a friend’s birthday party that she had invited me to. i retreated to my guest bedroom and disappeared from consciousness for a few hours. when I awoke we made way to the party on bicycle.
after getting briefly lost on barely lit streets, we eventually found the place, and the party was lively. There was about 30 people in attendance and a mountain of german beer to consume, along with 2 tables loaded potluck-style with german food. wasting no time, i grabbed one of everything so i could sample all these new flavors. i also swiped a beer and sat down somewhat nervously, aware that i was sticking out a little bit and no one knew me.
as daniela made her rounds and exchanged pleasantries with her colleagues and friends, a guy named jan eventually rescued me from my exhile. he introduced himself and we quickly got to talking about all the usual subjects that come up with travelers, your differences in this, similarities in that, etc. jan was a funny guy, i really enjoyed talking with him, and apparently other people did too, because it was only a matter of time until half of the party had gathered around, some participating in conversation, but mostly just listening and laughing at the ridiculousness of the comical back-and-forth between jan and i. I’m sure the beck’s beers we were eliminating probably added to care-free manner with which we were exchanging stories, so thanks to germany’s finest for that.
eventually the beer ran out and the clock ran late, causing the party to dwindle. we returned home. the next morning daniela and i changed our plans to travel to hamburg, and elected for a quiet day in, allowing me to catch up on some photo-editing and laundry. that afternoon I met daniela’s roommate, nikky. nikky towers over people at around 6’4” (at 5’9” all i can do is guess how tall mountains are) and wears thicker glasses that give him a very intelligent look, and this look is deserved, as nikky is definitely very intelligent. he studied linguistics for his undergraduate degree and is now in a postgraduate program and working as a professor at the university in oldenburg. nikky has a very meticulous nature about him, and he commits himself completely to whatever it is that he is learning or doing, relentless in his task until he achieves a perfect result (something I’ve begun to notice about the germans in general. They don’t half-ass anything. it’s pretty inspiring, actually).
i found nikky to be profoundly interesting. very well educated and well informed, i could tell that he didn’t arrive at opinions without thoroughly researching things to make sure he had all the facts, ensuring that he could make balanced, logical decisions. we talked for hours before eventually we discovered a mutual love for music. but not just in listening. also in creating.
nikky had previously been the guitarist in a band, and he enthusiastically shared some of the tracks that they had recorded. the audio quality was outstanding and the songwriting clever, i really enjoyed it. it was only a matter of time before i was sharing some of my old recordings, and before long we had grabbed a couple of his guitars and turned the living room in to a practice studio. we played for a couple hours, figuring out how to play a couple old weezer tunes and some coldplay throwbacks and then performed them for daniela when she wandered downstairs to hear where the noise was coming from. even threw a little tom petty in the mix before improvising and making up a couple of our own blues jams. It was so fun, and nicky was a surgeon on his guitar. any time i gave him the nod to take a turn at improvisation his fingers would fly into an incendiary flurry of musical activity. fitting with his personality, he was almost perfect, never missing a note and always knowing just how long to go before throwing it back over to me. I was playing a 12-string guitar of nikky’s that hadn’t been getting much use lately, so needless to say my lead improv attempts were somewhat limited by the burden of having twice as many strings to manage, so I typically focused on rhythm and vocals. it didn’t sound particularly amazing, but it was a blast.
eventually we got hungry and started preparing our feast for the evening. we bought steaks, vegetables, bread (always bread with germans. Never take their bread, lest they start a revolution) and wine. nikky handled the steaks, electing to slow cook them over the stove, while daniela and i handled the chopping and cutting of the vegetables and salad and bread. When the food was ready, we ate like royalty.
at the end of the evening we retired well-fed and well entertained by a quiet day in oldenburg, germany.
the next day was a quick one, daniela and i boarded an afternoon train bound for hamburg. during the train ride we caught up on life, what we’d both been doing the last 8 years since we’d last seen each other, we talked about the future, what she plans to do long term, if she’d be staying in Germany, etc. she tried to teach me some german, which I hilariously could not get a grip on for the life of me. it’s not an easy language.
eventually we got to hamburg, but it was already getting dark and it was a sunday night, so there wasn’t really much going on. one problem i had realized with our friendship is that we both like to sleep in, so all 3 days i had spent with daniela had gotten extremely late starts because neither of us was in a rush to get up at any point. and if someone lets me sleep… I’ll sleep. and sleep. and sleep.
anyway, we wandered the streets, searching for the neighborhood where the beatles cut their teeth before they changed the world with their well-honed signature sound. we poked our heads into a couple bars but were disappointed to find them basically empty. nevertheless, it was a fun city to walk around in, and one that is also well known for having rather loose laws as it relates to vices. we walked by the sex shops and strip clubs, snickering at the creepy old men who would linger by the front doors, then glance around furtively to make sure no one familiar was watching, and then dart inside, in search of something unholy and carnal. eventually we found an old pub with a female bartender and a security guy who were laughing loudly, careless that there was absolutely no one in their bar. we decided to be keep them some company.
after a couple rounds, the bartender sent a couple more drinks our way, courtesy of the bar. people started to filter in and then a local acoustic act set up shop in the corner and began playing music for the small crowd that had gathered. It was decent music, but the volume was way too loud, so eventually we left. it had gotten late, and i was headed to berlin the next morning. time to go.
i thanked daniela for the hospitality and the fun, it had been a truly enjoyable weekend, and she had helped set the foundation for what would prove to be a very fun time in germany
this episode’s music selection is a little different. i had mentioned in the beginning of this blog that i would be getting back in touch with my creative side, and i didn’t just mean writing prose. before i left on this journey, i had a sudden surge of inspiration and started writing some music again for the first time in 5 years. i then did my best to record as much as i could before i left for iceland. the following is a rough recording i put together using my own instruments and cheap recording equipment at home over the course of about a week. it is far from professional, but very personal, so i want to share it with anyone whom is following me on this journey these past few months. feel free to offer feedback if you choose or pass along to others if you enjoy it or think someone else might enjoy the message. or if they just like a good song with harmonica in it…
last night i was having a drink with someone and we were having this wonderful wandering conversation, drifting from one topic to the next without any specific direction or goal. it was a refreshing interaction for me, and one that surprised me. over the last 5 years i’ve allowed myself to fall into a sort of manic style of conversation that you get when you’re trying to arrive directly to the point of the interaction. you cull the talking points, distill them down to actionable directives, and then you try to do the same for whatever your takeaways from the meeting should be so you know what productive actions should come from the interaction, all in the interest of saving time and boosting efficiency. this is extremely important in the corporate world, but the effect this habit produces on the rest of your interactions is similar to removing the color from a painting; it’s all still there, but you’ve likely lost the very thing that made it beautiful.
as we were talking, we aimlessly drifted to the topic of my upcoming travels. the type of trip i’m taking tends to draw a general routine of questions to which i have my normal “canned” responses. but this time around i was asked a different question that no one had asked me yet: “why europe?”
the funny thing is, when someone says they’re going to europe, there’s never a question of “why?” among most modern, intelligent, forward-thinking americans. i think it’s just generally understood that most people would like to go to europe some day, so when someone says they are going, we just sort of look at them and think “man, that lucky bastard is taking my vacation.” and then we carry on with the conversation and communicate how jealous we are and how excited we are for them. but the person i was speaking with likes to play devil’s advocate and challenge opinions to test the strength (something i usually do) of statements, so when i said europe, she challenged me. not in any rude way, but the implication was that europe might be an easy destination for someone to go on a soulsearch, and if i was indeed looking for experiences and answers to specific questions mentioned earlier in the conversation (something i won’t go into detail in this post) then my mission might be better served on a different continent. and it is a good point.
but the fact is that there is a lot more than history and art that i hope to explore in europe. and europe is actually something that i’ve passed up multiple times for other destinations, other relationships, other opportunities that in retrospect never really amounted to much but they seemed like the responsible thing to do. the fact is the older you get the more reasons you can find for not doing something outrageous (in my case, going on an extended backpacking trip), and so you handcuff yourself to duty and responsibility, and you find other distractions or other things to spend your money or time on that are easier and safer. And it’s not until much later in your life that you start counting your regrets, and often by that time, it’s too late.
so part of this journey is reclaiming something that i’ve wanted to do for 10+ years. i want to see where the civilized world started, and what people are doing with it now. i want to see how people live their lives, how they appreciate the things around them, or even learn what they appreciate. i want to learn, i want to be overwhelmed, i want to be the stupidest guy in the room. i want to watch a play in Shakespeare’s Globe. i want to stare at a real Michelangelo ceiling and be crushed by a true labor of love. i want to wander a Prague street after drinking a few too many pilseners. i want to trek all day to see an active icelandic volcano and be awestruck by the naked power that doesn’t even care if i exist. i want to dance like a fool (and look like one too) in barcelona. i want to see the things that were in my history books and on my tv, and i don’t want to see them from a facebook post. i want to experience it all in the 1st person.
and somewhere along the way, i hope it changes me. i leave for Iceland in 6 days. i do not have a return flight.