good monday to all, i hope your weekend was wild. i’ve been hard at work here trying to finish this batch of new songs to share with the internetz, and i’ve just completed another song. please give this a spin and share with your friends. 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.
after having a taste of prague jazz, my appetite for it became insatiable. i began wandering the streets looking for buskers and performers and would stop and listen for as long as i could before it was too obvious that i was just trying to enjoy a free show. eventually i decided i should find a proper place and pay to go for an actual concert.
after some googling, i ultimately ended up deciding on a place located in the southern end of old-town. i had wanted to avoid something that was too fancy and proper, as i don’t really have the appropriate attire. i also have a mind that good jazz, real jazz, should be an informal and dirty affair. jazz was born out of poverty and emotion, not martinis and evening jackets. additionally, my search had led me to understand that proper czech jazz had similar roots, being born and raised up in dirty, musty basements and halls before making its way into more popular circles. so i wanted to try and have an experience of the former variety, and not the latter.
after surveying my options, i decided on “the blues sklep” (click for info) mainly because it was in a legitimate old basement in old-town. after looking at some of its reviews on trip advisor and google and seeing how some tourists had been unhappy with the place because of the cramped environment or having seats with obstructed views, or just general complaints about there being too much smoke in the place, i decided this was exactly what i wanted. something perfectly imperfect.
located on a small side-street near a few semi-popular czech pubs and restaurants, the place wasn’t overly difficult to find but i did walk by it afew times due to its decidedly modest and somewhat uninviting appearance. i entered into a dimly lit hallway where two other restaurants were also located, and i found a third doorway that was only marked by a small standing chalkboard announcing the performer and the door charge cost. i entered the unmanned door and followed the walkway immediately right and down a steep flight of stairs. i made it about halfway down the stairs before becoming suddenly paranoid that i was actually entering into a kitchen for one of the restaurants or, worse, someone’s house. before i could turn around i saw a few feet shuffle past the end of the stairway and i reassured myself that this was definitely a nightclub. i finished my descent and entered into a very tiny and crowded room. on the left was a small bar with a barkeep behind wearing an old fashioned hat and tie. he gave me an emotionless nod and i approached. i spoke slowly, not knowing how much english was understood here, and asked to pay the cover charge and for a glass of whiskey with ice. he obliged and handed me a glass of jameson and a glass of ice with tongs. i had never been served in such a fashion so i smiled, thanked the man, and moved away from the bar and into the adjoining room to locate a seat before the concert.
i immediately understood what negative reviewers on trip advisor had been complaining about. the room was a musty old brick basement with low ceilings and the room could probably accommodate no more than 40 people, and that was pushing it. by my estimation, around 50% of the seats had an obstructed view due to the thick arched brick pillars that had been keeping the structure up for hundreds of years. space was extremely cramped, there was no standing room allowed, and instead of having rows of seats for you to choose from, there were tables with chairs and then chairs that lined the walls. the room was in an L shape, and the short hook to the left actually had no view at all (save for a tiny space between a half arch of pillar and wall which one – maybe two – people could peek through), so all you could hope for if you were sitting over there was that the music would be really good, because you weren’t going to see anything at all. the place was completely full of smoke, as everyone had a cigarette lit and there was no ventilation at all, so the cloud just sort of grew larger and larger as the night wore on.
i loved it.
i looked for a seat, i was definitely the only person flying solo tonight and i wasn’t exactly early, so most of the room was full already. all the seats with a clear view were completely filled, so i had to move into the short section of the “L” hook with no views. there was a small table for 3 that was unoccupied which i sat down at somewhat reluctantly, but i noticed that if i positioned myself up against the wall and then leaned forward over the table and looked around the corner, i could see half of the stage. i dropped a couple cubes of ice into my whiskey and took a slow drag from the glass. relax, i told myself.
i casually glanced around the room and tried to eavesdrop on conversations. there wasn’t a single interaction going on in english, only czech. i wasn’t really bothered by this, but it did leave me feeling a little exposed, especially as the room became completely full and the only two remaining available seats were the ones at my table without a view. three different people approached and asked me in czech if they could sit there, but after hearing my reply that the seats were available and accompanying apology for not speaking czech, they would give a puzzled look for a second before realizing i was a tourist and then they would retreat to the other room, content to watch from the bar and enjoy the view through the doorway. i couldn’t blame them, the view was probably better back there and there weren’t likely to be any outsiders there either.
the band made their way through the middle of the narrow smoke filled room and crowded onto the stage. a five piece sporting a piano, trumpet, tuba, an accordion, and a lead singer pulling double duty with a clarinet and a baritone saxophone, they struck up with a lively waltz tune. it was decent but not great jazz, as you could tell that the lead guy playing 2 instruments and singing was the one carrying the group, and easily had the most talent. the really unexpected moment, however was that after the first song with no vocals, i had settled into the expectation that this was just going to be an instrumental group with no singing. that changed when the second song started in and johnny, the lead singer, belted out the opening lines in a huge, operatic, bass-heavy voice that filled the entire room and shocked the audience. it made sense. these countries in central europe love their opera and symphony, so a broken, worn down louis armstrong voice wasn’t something that would work out here in prague. no, the male lead vocal was something that needed to soar commandingly, evoking strength and volume that could dominate over all the other instruments that people were used to hearing in live music.
but i hadn’t expected it, especially judging by the appearance of the guy. johnny seemed to be a caricature of the archetypal 1930s jazz musician in europe. sporting worn slacks with suspenders and a white collared shirt with the sleeves rolled up, he wore an old fashioned bowler cap and was very skinny. probably around 30 years old. he sat at a chair in the middle of the small stage with the others crowded around him. the entire concert he had a cigarette lit which was hanging from his lips while he sang into the microphone, or if he was committed to his sax or clarinet, he would hilariously tuck the filtered end of the cigarette into his ear, leaving the lit end to dangly out freely and making it look like he was smoking through his ear while he was playing. he must have smoked an entire pack during that concert. it was impressive, especially considering how dominant and strong his voice sounded. i couldn’t help but wonder what he would sound like in 15 years.
the only other person i could see from my narrow vantage point was the trumpet player. he was definitely the baby of the band, as he was the most nicely dressed of the group and was a little chubby with a near bald shaved head. a couple times between songs they appeared to tease him a little (in czech) about his energetic youth and his baby face (again, i have no idea what they were saying, i can only guess based off their actions and the reactions of the crowd’s laughter). at one point they stopped between songs to all do a shot together, i think to celebrate his recent birthday or something. actually they stopped for shots a couple times. and they had beers alongside them the whole show as well.
i would love to be able to describe the other members of the band, but I couldn’t see them, and they weren’t really as fun to watch anyway. all the talking was done by these two into the single mic onstage, and by listening to the solos from everyone in the band, they were the only two who were really worth watching. but the trumpet player was probably the funniest. whenever he would get really excited about a part in the song but wasn’t blowing into his trumpet, he would start bouncing excitedly and snapping his fingers off-beat, both hands swaying up and down in opposite motion, as if he was running. it never got old, and i laughed every time he did it, which was basically every song. you could tell he was just one of those kids that loved life and loved music, and he wasn’t afraid to show it even if he looked goofy in the process.
after about an hour and a half, the band broke for an intermission. they all made their way outside. i’d say they were going for some fresh air, but i saw them smoking up there as well, so i guess they just wanted some different scenery behind the glow of that cigarette. the crowd rose and lined up behind the small bar, ready for another drink and to stretch their limbs from their temporary imprisonment in the prison-like venue. i evaluated if i wanted another drink and if i thought my lungs could make it another 90 minutes without coming down with emphysema, and decided that i was content with my experience already, so i decided to leave. i quietly made my exit, up the stairs and down the alley into the night. the brisk evening air tried its best to liberate the smoky stench from my clothes, but the odor clung tightly as i walked down the streets of prague.
as i walked, a feeling of pride in myself welled up. even though i consider myself a bit of a lone wolf in life, i have always had a slight fear of doing things or going places by myself. i’ve never had a problem being by myself in private settings, in fact i often need “me time” in order to recharge my batteries, but being out in the world and being seen alone has always been an insecurity of mine. i’ve never known exactly why i feel this, but i think it is a mixture of a deep hatred of feeling out of place – and it is easy to feel out of place when alone – and that widely accepted notion that experiences are so much better when you have someone special to share them with. in the words of the controversially canonized chris mccandless, “happiness only real when shared.” and so it had been in my life up until this trip. in my 31 years on this amazing planet, i had repeatedly postponed or canceled trips or vacations to exotic places if whatever girlfriend i had at the time was unable to go, or if i was single and unable to convince any other friends to go with me. i had been putting my entire life on hold, watching it slowly pass me by while i waited for the perfect woman to come into my life and finally grant me the ability to go do what i wanted to do.
i think we humans do this a lot, particularly americans. maybe not with our romantic relationships, or our travel, like i do. but i think we too often think that we are not great enough in our current capacity to go chase what we want, and so we defer happiness for a later day. we think “if i can just improve in this one area, then i’ll be right where i need to be in order to get what i want” and so we wait, inactive, and we tell ourselves to be patient, hold out, be confident that what we seek will find us when both we and the universe or god or our boss has determined that now is the time. sometimes we wait years. sometimes we wait a lifetime. and then one day we wake up and wonder what the hell happened to ourselves. we’ve changed. we’ve grown complacent. after getting passed over for that promotion multiple times or after repeatedly wimping out on asking out that person you like, after giving yourself excuses like “i’m still working on this area of my life,” we eventually create a safe haven for ourselves which shields us from being able to improve or grow. and now, a perceived weakness has become a debilitating illness that we have no idea how to recover from.
i’ve never been a very good student, nor have i ever had very good focus when devoting myself to improving my knowledge through traditional study and learning. i am one of those dumb fools who will ram my head into every part of the door til I find the knob that opens it, rather than study the door first to find out how it works. or i’ll just give up and jump out the window.
but if there is one thing that i have learned thus far in my often turbulent life, it is this: we never learn anything new in this life by doing what we already know how to do. if we want to improve our lot in life, we must put ourselves into a position of uncomfortable growth, where we are challenged, pushed, and in over our heads, and that is when our light shines brightest. our eyes are open, our brains absorbing, and our muscles strengthening, and even if the end result is something less than remarkable commercial success, your own personal success will have been realized and you will have something that you can walk away with. to put it in simpler terms: it’s better to go down swinging than to leave the bat on your shoulder. It’s better to ask that girl out and fail miserably than to sit idly and watch as some other douchebag takes your girl out right in front of you. it’s better to insist on interviewing and get turned down even if you’re underqualified. because now you know. not knowing is a paralyzer. paralysis is death. don’t live your life on the sidelines. go. do. now.
then again, all i did was go to a smoky jazz bar in prague by myself and leave early. i guess it depends on how you look at it.
i seem to have painted myself into a corner with today’s musical selection after writing a thousand words about jazz. so to keep with the theme, i’ve picked out a soulful jazzy little number that came out this summer and landed itself on a small npr feature about the “top 10 songs we can’t stop listening to,” or something to that effect. this song definitely isn’t the big czech jazz that i heard in prague and it’s not going to headline any jazz compilations, but if you happen to be one of those souls stuck in unpleasant weather out in the states somewhere right now, pop this one into the tape deck, light some candles and open a bottle of red, and snuggle up next to your significant other. this one will having you feeling romantic before you can finish your second sip. enjoy…
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…
during my time in berlin, i stayed at a hostel by the name of pfefferbett hostel up in the mitte neighborhood. As I mentioned before, the mitte neighborhood is one that appears to be a little yuppie-ish, it’s very clean-cut and extremely safe. it’s the kind of neighborhood that has the types of upscale bars that are more expensive than i can afford on a traveler’s budget, but too good to resist. they are the kinds of places where you can find a bartender who knows the value of a strong whiskey pour into just the right mix of ingredients to create a completely new and complex concoction that loosens the screws and lightens your load and just might help you find an interesting conversation or make you a friend or two, whether on your side of the bar or the other. these are the places with a specific sense of style, where the purveyors know that the environment is just as important as the libation being served. because if i can’t enjoy myself while drinking the cocktail, then i can’t enjoy the cocktail.
so while in berlin i had read of/heard of some bars in the area that were of the “speakeasy” variety, which i found to be particularly interesting. the reason i find this interesting is because the “speakeasy” is something that is uniquely american. it calls back to the days of the prohibition era in the US, when it was illegal to consume or possess alcohol. alcohol was then imported into the US through smuggling operations via Canada and the atlantic coast, as well as sourced locally from bootlegging operations in places like kentucky, tennessee, and virginia. once the alcohol (most popularly, whiskey and whisky – yes, there’s a difference based on that wandering “e”) was in the borders, people needed a place to consume it in secret. speakeasies starting popping up in metropolitan locations all over the country, most notably (or notoriously) in places like new york and chicago. a speakeasy is a clandestine or secret establishment where alcohol is served, often accompanied by music or other forms of entertainment like gambling. popularized by the movies and typically shown as the type of place that has a secret door or a nondescript entrance point, establishments typically had a “member’s-only” type of regulation where only trusted and proven patrons were allowed entrance. it was all very hush-hush and fancy, which is why one can see why there has been a re-emergence of such types of establishments in recent years, despite the fact that the volstadt act was repealed decades ago. people really like themes, people really like ambiance, and sometimes a body wants a little more out of their bartender than someone who can pour beer into a cup and collect your dollar.
so you can see why I was intrigued when i heard there was a speakeasy culture in berlin. i had to check it out. i had a dilemma, however. despite the fact i had met my friend robert and was no longer wandering alone, robert doesn’t really drink, so there was no way i was going to be able to convince him to accompany me to a place that might charge 10 euros for a cocktail when robert usually pays zero euros to drink none cocktails. i also have a specific rule for myself that basically says i don’t drink alone. i don’t ever want to get to a point where i am addicted to alcohol for any reason and in my opinion drinking alone is where this starts. i merely enjoy this vice as a form of meaningless escapism; a way to enjoy flavor, and taste, and the art that can be created when watching a craftsman construct the perfect spirit.
luckily for me, i made a local friend in berlin. when i had first checked into the pfefferbett hostel, there was a delightful smiley face working behind the reception. she was frantically helping about 4 different guests at the same time and i was quite impressed with her ability to keep a positive attitude and an uplifting energy about her during something that would have made me simply get angry and wonder why I was the only one behind the desk during what i’m guessing is “rush hour.” over the next week while in berlin, whenever i wasn’t sure about what i should be doing or might be missing out on, i’d stroll up to the desk and ask yolanda for her opinion. it wasn’t always easy, as she could get pretty busy up there, and often times it seemed to be in the times whenever i wanted to talk to her, there would be some huge group checking in after we were about 2 minutes into our conversation (actually this is the only gripe i have about pfefferbett hostel: they book large groups of kids in the hostel. and I don’t mean college kids. i mean pre-adolescents on school trips. at one point during my stay, there were five different groups of 6th and 7th grade kids staying in the hostel, and each group was at least 30 kids and had no more than 2 or 3 chaperones. these kids would stay up all night unsupervised running up and down the halls banging on doors and speaking loudly with no regard whatsoever for anyone else sleeping at 3am. you know, the kinds of things i definitely would have been doing when i was their age. but i’m not their age and i like to sleep. so after a couple nights of hearing this even with my earplugs in, i furiously jumped up and ran out into the hall and yelled a few obscenities and told the kids to shut up and go to bed immediately or they’d never see their parents again. they looked at me like i was a crazy person and immediately retreated into their rooms. i knew there was a good chance many of them didn’t speak “angry half asleep american english,” so that probably accounted for the weird look they gave me. or it may be been that the only thing i was wearing were these ridiculous blue-with-pink-trim quick-dry boxer briefs that i’d gotten a good deal for on amazon before i left the US. they don’t leave much to the imagination. oops).
eventually yolanda and i got a chance to hang out off the clock, and now i had a buddy to explore some of these local cocktail haunts that i’d wanted to sample. yolanda is originally from the canary islands, off the coast of morocco and a territory of spain. she is a native spanish speaker who moved to berlin while in school so she could improve her german and work in an exchange program while she studied hospitality for her degree. she liked it so much that she stayed and has been there for three years now.
yolanda has dark brown eyes and a beaming smile that lights up the room. she has a huge quaff of extremely wavy hair that she sometimes pulls back tight, but when she lets it loose it expands into a lion’s mane that seems surely impossible to tame. one of the funniest things about hanging out with yolanda is that sometimes she mixes the three languages she speaks. sometimes she is speaking english and she will just wander off into german for a couple sentences before she sees the confused look on your face and then explodes into laughter, realizing what she’s just done. she speaks english fairly well but with a fun accent and i have no idea how her german is since i speak none. but i never saw her have a problem with delivery or communication any time we were out, so my guess is she is pretty adept. regardless, i insisted on speaking spanish a majority of the time we hung out. i jump at any chance i get to improve my spanish, and i’ve realized that where i used to get a little stressed out that i was unable to communicate exactly what i was feeling, now i enjoy trying to construct a phrase in another language. it’s like trying to put together a jigsaw puzzle, where you know what the end result is supposed to look like, but it’s up to you to make all the pieces fit.
anyway, yolanda was one of my favorite people i met on my journey so far. she has an ability to put anyone at ease, and she sort of floats effortlessly in and out of social interactions with such grace and enthusiasm that i sometimes found myself envious of her social prowess. normally i have to amp myself up to turn on the charm, and then i can interact with the world. this just came naturally to yolanda. other times i would find myself slightly internally annoyed because i don’t always have the patience to deal with people, like a frustrated 3 year old that doesn’t want to have to say things like “please” in order to have the piece of candy being dangled in front of them. but once again, this was just my own persnickety cantankerousness making its way to the surface.
one of my nights out with yolanda, she wanted to show me a few of the things i hadn’t had a chance to see yet. berlin is a really big city, and one can’t possibly hope to overturn every stone in only a week. one place I had been itching to walk around in was the hackescher markt, in the
middle of the city. in my week there, i had gone all around this area but never actually walked around in it. originally a marshy wetland just outside the city walls, in 1750 king frederick the 2nd of prussia ordered a market be installed. it wasn’t a particularly nice place to be until the reunification of germany, where it has since become a cultural and social centerpiece of berlin. due largely to its late night scene and its farmer’s markets on sundays, it is now a place to see and be seen, and one can always find something to do in hackescher markt.
we wandered around for a couple hours, poking our heads into a few bars for a drink, but mainly just wandering the streets, admiring graffiti and people watching. we shuffled over to the bebelplatz, which was another thing i had wanted to see but hadn’t made time for. bebelplatz is the small public square area where hitler and the Nazis would hold book burning parades. since childhood, anytime I think of bebelplatz I think of that scene from “indiana jones and the last crusade” where harrison ford stumbles into the square during a nazi rally and accidentally bumps into the führer himself, obtaining an autograph from ol’ adolf in the process. that scene was humorously being reenacted in my mind as i strolled through the square (not to make light of the history, as there’s nothing funny about any of the nazi history in germany, but on the other hand it is too easy to get lost in the sadness of what has happened in berlin, so one must find a way to not become depressed about it. indiana jones is what i recommend) and happened upon one of the most clever memorials i’ve ever seen. in the middle of the plaza next to the large cordoned-off area due to the neighboring opera house restoration project (half of berlin is always under construction, I’m told. yolanda had this hilarious song she kept singing, written and improv’d by her with degrees of variance every time, where the lyrics went something like “welcome to berliiiin, where everything is always under constructionnnnsss” – to be read in a thick spanish accent of course), there lays an illuminated window looking straight into the ground. furnished with thick-paned glass, one can stand on it without worry and peer directly into the hollowed out room below and see the long and large empty bookcases that line all four walls of the empty space. this room symbolizes a grave in memoriam to the countless numbers of books that were burned on the ground just above it decades ago.
eventually, after wandering around a few more neighborhoods, over some bridges, passing by “museum island” (yes the main museums in berlin are on an island on the spree river. top that, world.), and venturing to the top of a hotel to for a fantastic view of the city, we eventually headed out for the main event: speakeasy time.
i had around 7 places marked out that i had found or read about on the internet, and while i knew there was no way i would be able to make it to all of them, i really was happy to just get to one of them. we started at a place called “beckett.” we only had two clues in order to find this place: we knew what street block in the mitte neighborhood it was in, and we knew that the face of old “beckett” himself would be staring back at us when we found it. despite such nebulous hints, we eventually found it. after walking past the place, yolanda pointed out that, in an otherwise darkened storefront shop with a blacked out window, an old man’s face was backlit on the window itself, plain as can be. It’s the kind of thing that you notice when you’re not looking for it, but when in search it is nowhere to be found. nevertheless, we approached the accompanying door and rang the buzzer. after a few short moments, the door cracked open and a friendly face peeked out and patiently waited for me to say something.
“beckett’s?” i queried. the door opened and a thin, friendly man let yolanda and me in, ushering us to 2 seats at the corner of a small bar.
it wasn’t very busy, which was fine by me, and the bartender and the manager busied themselves crafting expert cocktails, only engaging in conversation when they were first engaged by a patron, which i happily obliged. whenever a new person came to the establishment (which didn’t happen many times) and rang the buzzer, there was no sound made, but a red light near
the door illuminated to let the manager know someone was waiting. the whole operation was extremely well orchestrated and not too over the top like often happens in the US, where managers and owners often get lost in the details and forget that the drinking experience is actually more important than making sure your staff is wearing period-accurate-suspenders or that the imported leather chairs are the correct shade of dark black cherry. after awhile i began to discuss this topic with the manager and i was shocked to learn that this bar had been open for years, and was mainly just a locals-only place (and it would have to be, because it’s not near any other bars) which hoped to maintain the quiet atmosphere and loyal local customer base, and didn’t need to appeal to the masses. usually places like this in the states will keep up the façade of a “hush-hush” atmosphere for a couple months, but eventually the need to make money wins over and what makes the bar special fades, leaving nothing but a bar where the staff wears costumes. not at beckett’s, the manager took great pride in the fact that they make a point of preserving the concept and the clientele that they attract.
after a couple fine whiskey concoctions, yolanda and i decided to try and fit one more location into the night. we headed south for a place called “the butcher.” literally hidden inside and behind a restaurant, this one was a little more fun to find. you enter a small restaurant called “fleischman’s” and instead of walking immediately left where the seating area is, you head right and walk toward the bathrooms. there you can find an old, red, british phone booth. in the phone booth is a pile of magazines and papers piled on top of a button which rings someone to let them know you’re waiting. after a minute, a small slot opened in the middle of one of the walls in the phone booth and a pair of eyes stare at you quizzically for a moment before the false wall swings open and reveals an unexpectedly large room modeled like a large walk-in
meat locker. we walked to the corner and found a seat on a sofa and marveled at our surroundings. dimly illuminated in low red lighting, the bar area was actually quite large in an L shape in the corner. instead of having an impressive selection of alcohols all stacked up on high shelving, this place had every bottle of the strong stuff hanging from meat hooks on chains, and it looked really cool.
the butcher admittedly had a less personal touch to the place than beckett’s, and the barkeep at beckett’s was much more talented, but on the other hand the butcher could accommodate way more customers and also had a livelier atmosphere. it really just depended on what you were looking for in an evening. all told, i really enjoyed my time at both establishments, and if i lived in berlin, they would both be in the rolodex. okay, I don’t really have a rolodex. but i wish i did.
the night had gotten late and yolanda and i had both hit our limit for the acceptable number of cocktails consumed. we walked the empty streets of berlin in the night air and retired for the evening. i said my goodbyes, thankful that yolanda had been open to spending some of her time on a friend with an expiration date of sorts. i was extremely thankful for the time that i had gotten to spend with her, as she had a large part in helping shape my experience and cultivate my newfound love for such an unexpectedly amazing city. berlin had suddenly become what would prove to one of my absolute favorite cities in europe.
but alas, it was time to move on. the next morning robert and i pointed ourselves to prague, czech republic.
a couple girls take a picnic on an exposed water pipe arching over the spree river in berlin
for today’s audio jam, it’s only appropriate to pick something as uplifting and happy as the person much of the story was about. this new song from walk the moon is so infectious, i can’t get it out of my head. or my headphones. try this on if you’re having a down day or if you just want to jump up and down.