Book Review: The Hidden Life of Trees

The Hidden Life of Trees: What They Feel, How They Communicate – Discoveries from a Secret World by Peter Wohlleben

My rating: 3 of 5 stars


It wasn’t bad, for fanfiction about trees. I just couldn’t figure out a practical way to use this book. That said, the ideas Wohlleben presented were interesting, and I learned a lot. He anthropomorphizes the hell out of the trees, but in trying to frame the forest as a superorganism that communicates chemically and, to a lesser extent, verbally, through its roots and through fungal messengers, you would sort of have to.

Verbally is a stretch, but not only do trees generate their own bioacoustics, they can “hear” other frequencies operating at 220 Hz and grow toward them. Trees stick together. They’re a cooperative bunch. Wohlleben would undoubtedly call them social organisms, if nobody stopped him. He talks about a tree stump in one of the forests he rangers in, chopped down and unable to maintain its biological processes for hundreds of years, yet still alive due to the life support provided it by neighboring trees transfering over nutrients through their interconnected root system.

He goes into great detail about various “behavioral patterns” of different trees, and this is where he started to lose me, since I don’t have enough background knowledge of trees to appreciate it. He holds forth about the wacky hijinks of birches as compared to the more sedate beeches for 40 pages of translated German and I don’t have the context to shake my head ruefully like “oh, those kooky birches”. For that reason, I suspect this book would get a better than 3-star rating from real naturalists, long-time Boy Scouts, and native German speakers.

It’s an awful dry read for a book that draws on so little empirical science, but it’s illuminating in its scope. We think of trees as inanimate objects, the same way we think of walls, or the structural metallic garbage we huck everywhere. Trees are alive, and not just alive in the way bacteria are alive. We have skin, and trees have bark. We have blood, and trees have sap. If you cut through the bark, they lose sap, and become susceptible to infections and parasites. Trees will fight to survive, will attempt to scab over the wound, will deploy poisons and tannins and, sometimes, mercenary fungus to fight off the potential threats to their life. Not only that, they will communicate to the trees around them that they’re under attack using chemicals and acoustics, shooting through what’s functionally an arboreal internet of connected root systems that encapsulates whole forests, and the trees in that vicinity will respond to their “warning” by bringing their own flood of tannins to the surface of their bark in preparation for the coming attack.

It talks a lot about tree competition too, and the slow races to the top of the canopy to maximize photosynthetic potential. Mother trees dropping seeds and then limiting their growth by choking off their access to light, forcing the young trees to focus on strength of trunk and bark thickness for a hundred years before the mother tree finally dies, opening a hole in the canopy for her offspring to access the rest of the light, even as they draw on the decay of her trunk for nutrients.

The Hidden Life of Trees is ideal if you’re a hippie, some kind of deep anprim, or an absolute dweeb about plants. For the layman or hobbyist, it’s not hugely accessible, though not for the usual reasons. Still, I don’t regret the time I put into it. At least now I know that the psilocybin was telling the truth.



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Berlin, Germany: The Voyage Home

December 6, 2017. Berlin, Germany.

It was an hour bus ride to the airport. A British redhead sitting across the aisle was reading Musicophilia by Oliver Sacks, which I’d slogged through last year. I asked her what she thought. She said it was interesting, but Oliver Sacks couldn’t write worth a damn. That might sound like an opinion, but it was actually objective fact. May he rip in peace.

I slithered through security easily enough, conscious as always of the pound of Turkish Delight I had in my backpack. I expected someone to confiscate it every time I went through a turnstile. If I were airport security, I’d think they were drugs. The German airport didn’t seem to care.

I will say this of the Schoenefeld airport: it was by far the least efficient I’d ever flown from, and I started this trip from Philadelphia. Desk-workers and security personnel alike acted like they were working the night shift at Wawa. The security check lines were so long that I had to join a small exodus that took us outside into the snow, for some reason, then into a different building where we waited for a different disaffected German twentysomething to glance disinterestedly at our passports than dismissal-wave us through.

I knew they wouldn’t let me convert my small change Euros back stateside so I blew as much of my jingle as I could on a grim airport ciabatta roll sandwich, which I grazed on as I saw the sights offered by Berlin’s cheapest, worst airport.

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I, too, liebe Büüüücher. They had Sapiens, which is my favorite nonfiction book, but nothing else really noteworthy and certainly nothing I was willing to spend the asking 30 Euro on.

I kept wandering and found the liebe didn’t stop there.

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“Colorful mascot,” I said out loud in the restroom. Even if everybody speaks English in Germany, no one’s going to talk to the American murmuring to himself at the condom machine. “We could learn a lot from the Billy Boy company, I think.”

Truly, the Berlin airport provided all amenities.

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i knew i forgot to pack something

Something for everyone.

I left the bathroom and my eye was forgivably caught by this:

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This is an ad for sunglasses. Germans. Go figure.

Here’s a recurrent problem in my life. I equate “survivable” with “favorable”. The short-notice plane ticket from Germany’s worst airport back to the piss-stinking ’90s underground sci-fi dystopia of PHL only cost me $300, but that was because of all the extra stops and layovers. All told, I would be spending 48 consecutive hours either on planes or in airports. I looked at that and said, “That’s only like two nights of sleeping on benches. And indoors, too! I’ll take it.”

It was highly survivable, but I don’t recommend it for your next vacation.

I flew out of the weird, sexy, lazy airport to the north, where the cold lives, landing in the frozen but beautiful taint of Norway via the Oslo Airport.

Friends, mark me well. If you ever plan on going to Scandinavia, don’t. You can’t afford it. A meal is like $25 and it’s impossible to go anywhere without hiring a driver. Instead, just go see the Oslo Aiport. Athena, it was dazzling.

It was warm, clean, well lit. Everyone looked uncomfortable, but that’s just Scandinavia. Everyone I met from the Nordic countries was reticent and awkward right up until you fed them liquor, at which point they became… I think the best word for it is raunchy. Suggestive, but not necessarily following through. More like a bunch of middle-school boys at the cafeteria table, making dick jokes.

They didn’t seem to be imbibing at the airport. They mostly seemed to be pacing around and frowning. I thought about buying something to eat, but I’d need to convert my money to Norwegian kroners, and I had no desire whatsoever to deal with a fifth type of currency that would become useless to me within an hour. I decided I’d starve.

I wandered around the fish-smelling airport, admiring the Home Alone 2 christmas displays and the strange tourist traps. One of them had a taxidermied polar bear in front. I don’t know why.

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certainly a different sentiment than in Berlin

It was only a couple hours at Oslo before I got jettisonned back to good ol’ LIS in Lisbon, Portugal. I’d had a layover here earlier on in my quest, and I was starting to feel a little guilty for passing over the Portuguese twice in a row. A German friend told me that it the Portuguese were almost American in their passion for deep fried meats covered in cheese then deep fried again on top of other meats. That artery halter might be worth the price of admission alone, but I didn’t take advantage of my 12 hour layover to go investigate.

For one thing, it was the middle of the goddamn night. I’d arrived around 9 PM local time, and everything in the airport was closing down. In theory I could have tried to catch a bus into Lisbon proper, maybe found a bar that kept serving food until late on a Monday night, but that sounded expensive, time-consuming, and kind of risky since I had to be ready to run the security gauntlet at 6 or 7 AM.

Instead, I ate a bocadillo, drank some kind of porter, then fell asleep on one of the three benches that existed in the airport, right next to the McDonalds.

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our scruffy and weatherbeaten hero on a tiny Portuguese airport couch

I managed a solid eight hours, which is a rare occurrence for someone of my temperament even with a real bed. Maybe I was designed to sleep in corners. Maybe I should give up this ridiculous charade and ride the rails, sleeping under bridges and eating out of coffee can stew pots, a gentleman hobo at long last.

When I woke up, I had the exact same meal as last night, only this time it was breakfast.

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breakfast of champions

I finally recrossed the Atlantic and returned to the purple mountains majesty.

Perhaps an exaggeration. I flew into Miami. There were no mountains, and there was certainly no majesty. It was 80 degrees outside. At long last, customs took me aside to rifle through my belongings and investigate my Turkish Delight.

I had waited for this moment, but I still didn’t know how to play it out. The box was sealed in plastic. Would they cut it open? Would they bring drug-sniffing dogs through? Would they be good boys?

A series of security guards on a sliding scale of surliness squinted suspiciously at my supplies. They interrogated me on the countries I’d been through, how long I’d stayed in each, and how many drugs and guns I brought back. After writing my answers (“a bunch”, “a while”, and “not too many”) on a notepad, they dumped out my backpack, rifled through my dirty laundry (literally speaking), then told me I was good to go. I unfucked everything they fucked up in my pack and wandered into the Miami airport proper.

It was as close to the opposite of the Oslo airport as you can get. Small, cramped, smelly, absolutely hideous, and hot. This was my new home for the next 15 hours.

I wasn’t as tired, and I had Real Money now, so the world was my oyster. Unfortunately, the world as of now was in Florida. I did a search of anything worth doing in the vicinity, and the only hit that even remotely struck my fancy was a reverse zoo called the Monkey Jungle. The premise was that the monkeys and apes got a whole reservation to frolic and play and do whatever they wanted (some would call it monkeying around but that is way beneath me), and the human customers remained in a long, caged tunnel. I don’t like zoos because, as both a big dumb animal and a tired, poor, huddled mass yearning to be free, the concept of captivity pisses me right off. But this sounded close enough to a “natural habitat” situation that I wouldn’t get a bad taste in my mouth.

Unfortunately, it was a 7 hour walk.

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So much for that. I did a lot of writing that day, instead.

I had a grand design to sleep on the couches outside the Margaritaville, but that fell apart when I discovered those couches were a special lounge reserved for the people staying in the ritzy-ass hotel built into the airport. There were no other couches or benches, of course — if there were, why would anyone stay in the airport hotel? — so I wound up sleeping on horrible, vaguely triangular benches next to the door, which was next to some highway or the other.

They were shaped like the Mercedes logo, a foot and a half wide at the broadest point and tapering toward the ends. An old man was curled up on a different one, but even with all the weight I’d lost in Europe, I still had at least sixty pounds on him. I managed to balance my tremendous corpus on the giant, three-legged starfish, one leg running down either point, torso on the other. I folded my arms across my chest like a Dracula and slept until a couple of security guards started shouting at one another in Spanish for no reason aside from to be dicks. At least, that was the best I could surmise.

I’d gotten four hours. I could get four more.

I gathered my stuff and wandered toward the bathrooms, which I discovered, had become a sort of hobo jungle. See, the hallway leading up to the bathrooms were carpeted, so even though it was very loud (due primarily to the other obnoxious security guards, also shouting in Spanish), everyone had decided to sleep on the floor here. I found an empty space and joined them for my remaining four hours, then boarded the plane for home, where some motherfucker would not stop touching me with his elbow. There’s an unspoken rule about even division of space on airports, and he had no intention of observing it, no matter how any times I elbowed him. We’re not talking subtly, either. I was throwin’ some serious ‘bos. If I’d been on WWE, they would be accompanied by an announcer screaming “OHHHHHHHHHHH” or maybe “FROM THE TURNBUCKLE!” My seatmate was not phased.

The crew lied about our arrival four or five times in different directions. They didn’t know what they were talking about, but hoo lordy, did they love to talk. Every six minutes or so the shrillest, most obnoxious voice you can imagine screeched through the cabin to pepper us with “VERY friendly reminders” and other nauseating, unnecessary pleasantries. The pilot had never landed a plane before, and took his time to fuck that up. I was considering walking up there and doing it myself.

When we were finally on the ground, I threw one last elbow for good luck, collected my contraband, and officially returned to Pennsylvania.

Now, onto the next great adventure.

Love,

The Bastard

Berlin: Ich Bin Ein

December 4, 2017. Berlin, Germany.

The first thing I learned was my normal strategy of walking everywhere is of no use here. Berlin is too big. It’s because there used to be too many Berlins, and once Reagan hulk-punched that wall down it became a single, titanic Berlin.

Hostels were in short supply, but I managed to get my hands on a nice $13 a night dealie right off of the Landwehr canal, called the Grand Hostel Berlin. Their delusions of grandeur didn’t stop at the name. They were under the mistaken impression they were a party hostel, and wanted this party to center around what they called the Gin Library.

Now, ordinarily, those would be great things better together, right? Peanut butter and jelly. Peanut butter and chocolate. Peanut butter and whatever arbitrary nutritional asceticism I’m inflicting on myself at present.

No such luck, beautiful reader. It was most assuredly a library a la Ron Burgundy, leatherbound books and rich mahogany, but it also had bar no one ever wanted to tend, obnoxious techno music that kind of disrupted the whole “library” mystique, and a fucking disco ball.

Do you know why most libraries don’t have disco balls? It’s because you need light to read.

When I entered the Gin Library, there were four people sitting around a coffee table, talking over the bad music in various accents about what their favorite types of alcohol are. Pretty standard cultured frat-boy hostel fare. The girls were middling attractive, the boys were “traveler chic” with whiteboy dreadlocks and dated facial piercings.

Laboring under the mistaken impression I could get some reading done in the library, I stood at the bar and tried to order a beer during happy hour. It didn’t work for a few minutes. I went to reception and said, “Hey, think I could get a beer?” The receptionist smiled, nodded, and shouted rapid German at no one in particular.

I went back to the bar and waited for another couple minutes, then decided the hell with it, I didn’t need one that bad, and started back to the corner seat to chip away at a reread of Stephen King’s It.

It wasn’t until then that one of the girls at the table, still squawking something about how Oh she LUVES tequila, deigned to stand up, approach the bar, and say, “Did you want a beer?”

“You work here?” I asked.

“Yeah.”

I narrowed my eyes. “Are you sure?”

She smiled, thinking I was flirting. I corrected this misconception by deliberately stiffing a service worker on a tip for the first time in my life.

Sorry baby. West Berlin’s always been a capitalism.

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I started at the Brandenburg gate, one of Germany’s most famous monuments despite its relative youth, at least by European standards. Berlin had been a defensible fort with a sequence of unpronounceable names since Germany was Prussia, but the Brandenburg gate didn’t show up until around 1790. For America, that’s all of relevant history, but for countries like Italy or England, that’s basically yesterday.

I hadn’t done a lot of Nazi-centric sightseeing because the weather is depressing enough and I like to have fun, but considering the Germanic bent my recent journeys have taken, it’s not avoidable. The Memorial to the Murdered Jews in Europe is about a block from the Brandenburg gate, rising from a concrete lot like a time-lapse cemetery. Catchy name too, huh? It’s got a beat and you can dance to it.

Concrete slabs of varying heights shoot haphazardly from the ground with no inscription, pattern, or real rhyme or reason. Some look like tombstones, some like coffins, some like tiny Brutalist skyscrapers. The architect, a dude named Eisenman, claims that the blocks are supposed to create a confusing atmosphere indicative of a highly ordered system gone wrong, then in the same breath says that the memorial has no symbolic significance. Sounds like your confusing atmosphere worked better than planned.

The designer’s contradictory Zen-koan babbling doesn’t stop visitors from their interpretations, though. Popular opinion is that entering the monument proper was isolating. The concrete absorbed the sounds of traffic and life coming from Berlin, leaving you in this cold, spooky hallway. The alienation, the echoes, and the imposing bleakness of the corridors reminded me of a slaughterhouse, but I’m not the best central tendency metric for this kind of thing.

Some people call that vague feeling of visceral unease the heebie-jeebies, or something comparably cute. I call it draggin’ ghosts, and I felt them like a physical weight on my shoulders as I walked out of that bleak little grid. At the same time, I was reining in an almost irresistible urge to jump from block to block. That was something I liked to do in graveyards when I was young, until someone saw me. Never met anyone who was thrilled about that.

I turned the corner and a giant brain-blimp shone down from a wall.

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“Oh, good,” I said aloud. Berlin’s got a reputation for art, and a lot of what I saw was pretty cool, but we’ll save that for its own post.

I turned another corner.

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agreed

I doubled back to the hostel and sat down for a while since I’d somehow managed to walk four or five miles, thanks to Berlin’s comical immensity. Der Hunger was setting in. I asked a spindly blonde receptionist where I could get some food, and she helpfully said she’d tell me in ten minutes.

She didn’t get the chance. A dude who sounded Ukrainian was scribbling a sort of city-overview to the stoner kid I mentioned yesterday and a middle-aged Japanese couple, and I eavesdropped on that until he circled the areas where “all the best restaurants are”. I leaned in, snapped a picture, and disappeared into Germany’s perpetual freezing rain.

What he meant by “all the best restaurants” was “places you could conceivably locate food”. This walk was only a mile, though, so that was… better? The street was called Bergmannstraße, it was itself about a mile long, and it had nothing but Asian food, one italian restaurant, one Mexican restaurant, and a kebab shop. I didn’t come to Germany for any of those things, but my choices rapidly became branch out or starve. I ate Indian two days in a row, from two different restaurants right next to each other. The first, called India, was bad. The second was incredible. I don’t remember the name.

There were a smattering of tourist shops along Bergmann, and one of them stopped me dead.

Now, my German is not what you would call spectacular. Any doubt about that, ask any of the Austrians or Germans I’ve befriended in my travels; they invariably mock my awful accent and I demand they answer for “feuerzeug“.

I delight in the German language because of the kindergarten way they just staple short, existing words into monstrous yet inexplicably precise Frankenwords.

You’re sick? Du bist krank. Welp, if you’re sick enough, we gotta get you to the hospital. That’s the krankhaus. How we gonna get you there? We’re gonna load you into the krankenwagen.

Absolute poetry.

In my Duolingings, I ran across the suffix –zeug, which essentially just means “stuff”. Your toy? That’s spieltzeug, literally play-stuff. How about a tool? Werkzeug. You can noodle that one out.

Then you got Fahrenzeug which means “driving stuff” and refers to a car. Uh, okay, I guess. But Feuerzeug is exactly what it sounds like, fire-stuff, and it means “a lighter”, and that makes me absolutely furious. You go TOO FAR.

German grammar is a disaster rivaled only by English grammar and their idioms are, as one would expect, deeply nonsensical and often sausage-themed. Every German I’ve encountered has argued they don’t have that many sausage-themed idioms, forcing me to point it out to them when they invariably use one within the following two hours.

These magnets, for those of you who didn’t quite catch up with the bus somehow, are word-for-word English translations of German turns of phrase. I reveled in them, grinning like an idiot in the rain for five minutes, then made the first and last legitimate souvenir purchase of my trip.

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I also encountered this gem.

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Trump halts maul. Well, it didn’t sound complimentary, but it did sound like home. The last I’d heard of the German opinion on Donnie was when the Morgenpost referred to him as… well, as thus:

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“please not the Horror-Clown!”

Well, I had to wait until I got back to the rad library party hostel to solve this particular mystery, but I giggled when I did.

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It reminded me of one’a my favorite twitter threads.

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Although, in fairness, the t-shirt’s not wrong.

That’s all I can do for today, if I type for too long WordPress’s busted-ass text editor starts flinching away from me every time I hit the enter key like a beaten puppy. Talk to you tomorrow, boys and girls.

Love,

The Bastard

Berlin: German “Cuisine”

December 3, 2017. Berlin, Germany.

I arrived in the arctic Prussian wasteland of Berlin, mapless due to both the brutality and consistency of FlixBus’s cold-blooded infidelity.

Don’t just avoid them. That’s not enough. Molotov them in the streets. I will not rest until nothing remains of those lying transit bastards but twisted wreckage and burnt-out husks in lime green and, apparently, sometimes, unmarked red.

Berlin is mighty stingy with its free Wi-Fi too, and it was only by chance that I snatched a handful of internet from one of FlixBus’s competitors (yeah eat a dick bud Eurolines RULES) and discovered that there was, in fact, a difference between Berlin Central Station and Berlin Central Bus Station.

That distance is four miles. You know, for a people with such a reputation for linguistic and engineering precision, that’s a pretty loose definition of “central”.

Obviously, I couldn’t try to navigate across this new city in the sudden dead of winter without a Google map. First of all, it’s current year. Paper maps are relics for nerds and pirates. You hang them on the wall to look cultured, you don’t actually try to utilize them. What, you have a compass watch too? Keep your money in your sock? Shut up.

Secondly, I have no sense of direction, whatsoever. I rationalize it away with cute, pithy, middle-aged-woman yard sale sign aphorisms like “Wherever you go, there you are” and “Not all who wander are lost” but make no mistake, I’m always wandering and it’s always because I’m lost. If it weren’t for GPS, I definitely would have kept wandering south in Turkey and wound up on the other side of the country, dodging active gunfire. And even then, my doofy blithe ass would be like, “They shoot their guns in open fields all the time too! Just like home!”

I snarled a bunch, hissed swears in a colorful assortment of unrelated languages, then slipped into a skeevy American-style diner that had the worst pinup drawing I’d ever seen next to the second worst motorcycle drawing I’d ever seen. The menu was endless. I ordered a currywurst.

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a little intimidating

Take a good look, beautiful reader, because this is the last German food you’re going to see for the duration of the trip. Currywurst is a delightful little concoction accredited to the most German sounding woman I’ve ever heard of, Herta Heuwer, in 1949. Up until this point, I’m pretty sure Germany had been subsisting entirely on boiled sausage and fried potatoes. The British troops gave Herta ketchup, worchesterhsiehchihriehshcishire sauce, and curry powder, and she just kind of chucked them all on top of a bratwurst and changed the face of central European cuisine as we know it.

The Germans were flabbergasted. “Heinrich! Zis powder, it TASTES!”

“Was, like sausage?”

“Nein! Well, ja, but like other things as well!”

Heinrich furrows his brow in confusion.

“Was meanst du, ‘other things’? Like… weak beer?”

“Nein, Heinrich. Halt maul und smeckst das.”

Heinrich put the ketchup-sodden powdered hot dog in his maul and gesmeckt. His Augen bulged. Lars had been telling the truth. It tasted neither like sausage nor like weak beer, and he spent the next half hour in a fetal position, screaming, in a state of catatonic sensory overload.

When Heinrich calmed down, he and Lars immediately dialed India long-distance and demanded answers. India shrugged, explained that they’ve been doing this for as long as they can remember, my friend. Heinrich and Lars tapped the impressive German national coffers, presumably swollen as they are from how much Volkswagen parts cost from the manufacturer, and imported thousands of Indians.

And that, boys and girls, is why it’s a physical fucking impossibility to find any German food in Berlin. Every restaurant is an Indian restaurant, broken up with occasional Japanese, Vietnamese, and Shisha places. And kebab stands, of course, but you can’t get away from kebab stands in Europe, they’re like roaches in New York.

Listen to me. This isn’t comic exaggeration. I walked a total of fifteen miles over three days, all through different parts of town, looking for authentic German cuisine. It’s gone, man. They globalized it away. Alex Jones was right all along. The Germans realized cooking wasn’t their strong suit – DESPITE sauerkraut! – and handed the keys to India, then shifted their focus to more traditional pursuits, like talking quietly accented but grammatically perfect English in every hostel I’ve ever been in, or being tall.

I asked other travelers.

“Did you find any German places to eat?”

“Naw, dude!” the stoner kid said, throwing up his arms. “There weren’t any!”

“You either, huh?”

“I’ve been all over town! There are no German restaurants, unless you count the currywurst stands!”

“I don’t,” I said. Stands are not restaurants.

“Neither do I!” he continued yelling and flailing. He was a very excitable boy. “Yo, do you mind if I roll a spliff in here?”

“Follow your heart.”

I did find a bar/restaurant that alleged to serve traditional German food, but the dude running it was most assuredly Indian. Go figure. I still had the Leberkäse, which, as far as I could tell, was some sort of… bologna loaf. I know how that sounds. It was described as a meatloaf, but while you or I would imagine meatloaf to be hamburger with bread crumbs in it, the Bavarians conceptualized a ground pulp of pork, beef, and liver rendered into a pudding then poured into a loaf pan and baked. It tasted like what Spam aspires to be, but still good because it was served over (surprise!) fried potatoes.

In parting, let me show you what happens when you ask for the menu “dark beer” in Berlin.

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Love,

The Bastard

 

 

Dresden: So It Goes

December 2, 2017. Dresden, Germany.

FlixBus is a bunch of filthy, mouthbreathing animals. They talk a big game about their bus internet, but once you get onto it, you learn it’s an elaborate German ruse. For some reason, the trap didn’t spring until I got into Germany, but I think FlixBus had been plotting it the entire time I was in Europe, earning my trust by degrees. Toying with me. Then, once I was in for a ten-hour bus ride, the unwashed, skulduggerous, drug addict hyenas that orchestrate these bus routes like some dark and deviant god pulled the plug on the so-called “bus internet”.

Ten hours, I rotted in that cell on wheels! Ten hours I languished in an Amish diesel nightmare, not so much as a scrap of Wi-Fi to be found. I didn’t even have the map downloaded. You want to take a guess how long I tried to download the map?

I’ll find the miserable, hoary, addled son of a bitch who did this to me one day, and I swear before all the saints and angels that I will dance in his blood.

Anyway. Deutschland. Ja, das ist fuckin kalt. It wasn’t nearly as kalt in Budapest, so fool that I was, I thought I’d be fine in just a t-shirt and coat.

I was not.

Fortunately, Dresden is presently devoted wholly to Christmas, and you can’t walk ten meters without hitting a Christmas Market. I’m sure we have these stateside — we do love markets — but never anything like this. It reminded me of the church picnics that would paralyze the townships of my childhood and herd all the adults into parking lots to drink beer and eat pierogies, but pierogies were conspicuously absent.

(I know pierogi is the plural, shut your goddamn mouth)

Instead, there were brats. This would be a running theme throughout the whole of my stay in Germany. No matter where you went or what you did, your only hope for food was some form of wurst. It was usually currywurst, but sometimes, specifically in Christmas Market times, it was bratwurst. And oh, the glühwein! It flowed like… well, like you’d expect.

Tremendous MacBeth cauldrons of the stuff, manned by grinning German men in hokey holiday dress, the whole square stinking of cinnamon and cloves. Glühwein is a Germanic holiday drink, mulled wine everywhere else. You take red wine, you heat it up, you slam-dunk whatever incense your grandma smelled like in there, and then you drink it in the cold. Immediately, you’re warm. It’s a Christmas miracle. Ein Weihnachten Wunder. +30 Frost Resistance, effective immediately.

The other stands sold fried dough covered in sugar, as did every other building everywhere in Europe. They love baked goods so much it’s uncanny. There were also souvenir stands, weird little trinkets with city or religious significance, and a distressing number of puppets.

This is something that isn’t talked about often, but central and eastern Europe are absolutely nuts for marionettes. You can’t get away from them. You’ll want to, believe me. They’re freaky. Freaky and omnipresent and watching you, judging you, with their bulging, painted, sightless eyes. Wooden demon’s eyes.

In typically understated German fashion, there was also Der Goldenerreiter, a dude made of gold riding a horse, also made of gold, in the middle of the town square. His name was Augustus the Subtle.

Strong, sorry. Augustus der Stark.

It was a scenic river overlook of four buildings, churches and municipal dealies with breathtaking architecture that I couldn’t get a picture of because it was dark.

I wound up in a brauhause, hopeful that what I’d heard about German beer was true. Dark news, kids. The weizen is the best you can hope for. See, the Germans, strong traditionalists, have had this grim law in affect since 1516 called the Reinheitsgebot. In English, it’s something along the lines of “The German Beer Purity Law”, and it stated in a tone that brooked no argument that the ONLY ingredients that could be in beer were water, barley, and hops.

Absolutely brutal. Just like that Harry Chapin song about the teacher who won’t let the kid color flowers anything but red.

Don’t worry, they’re not that draconian. They modified the law in 1993(!). From Wikipedia:

“The revised Vorläufiges Biergesetz (Provisional Beer Law) of 1993, which replaced the earlier regulations, is a slightly expanded version of the Reinheitsgebot, stipulating that only water, malted barley, hops and yeast be used for any bottom-fermented beer brewed in Germany.”

What I’m trying to communicate here, friends and neighbors, is that I’m an American boy, born and bred, and I’m used to exciting shit in my beer like frosting and cranberries and whatever else they had lying around the microbrewery. I like stouts! They’re full of chocolate and espresso and smoke. That’s the trifecta, infinitely better than that hyper-bitter quintuple IPA crap everyone pretends to like.

In Germany, what you get is lager. Sometimes the lager tastes more like wheat, sometimes it tastes a little darker and heavier, but at the end of the day, it’s nationalist PBR and I’m not out here for it. Still, when in Rome, gladiate, and when in Germany, drink beer until it’s not cold anymore.

Unfortunately, it was cold. Forevermore. I tried to do the sightseeing thing the following day, but everything was way too far from everything and I could feel my bone marrow freezing. Less than ideal tourist conditions. I eventually found a restaurant that would let me steal WiFi, and I ordered what appeared to be a giant bowl of cheese.

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The menu assured me it was a traditional Dresden dish. It was sort of like a French onion soup thing, only instead of French, German, and instead of onion, pork. But it was warm, and calorically dense, and you best believe I inhaled it.

I was on the first bus to Berlin the next morning. Dresden was nice, but even the locals I knew warned me that it was not, perhaps, the ideal portrait of Germany. “The most racist city in Germany” was how it was described to me, due to the massive refugee population. The refugees themselves seemed nice; they were piss drunk in the streets, blasting reggae and dancing as though it weren’t 4 degrees out. More power to them.

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Be A Bandit, my hostel insisted on the morning of my departure. Well, I do try.

Love,

The Bastard

Vienna: Phallic Fixations

November 25, 2017. Vienna, Austria.

There’s really no missing the Pestsäule. The 60-foot baroque monstrosity juts up out of the center of the Graben like an ornate middle finger to God. It’s actually emperor Leopold I delivering on his side of one of those pleading prayer bargains we’ve all done. Leo’s was “Please, let the plague stop. I swear I’ll build you a really dope art phallus right in the middle of the city, just stop killing everyone.”

The Plague Column is also called the Trinity Column due to its three sides, each one presumably representing some aspect of the tripartite God.

About a block away is the Stock im Eisen, or staff in iron. That’s misleading, it’s not a staff, it’s a tree trunk full of nails, kept in a tube that makes it totally immune to photography.

I did what I could. Now, you might be asking, “Why is there a protected chunk of tree, full of nails, on a street corner in Vienna?” Good question. I’d love to answer it, but it doesn’t seem like anyone can. Every website has a different interpretation of the Stock im Eisen‘s history, and the locals who were attempting to explain its significance to their visiting friends were telling conflicting stories.

Here’s what I’ve pieced together. In the Middle Ages, nail trees (Nagelbäume) were used by craftsmen, or anyone else with nails, for good luck. This particular nail tree had something to do with the Devil. There’s a ballet about it by Pasquale Borri, so if anyone more sophisticated than me can check that out and report back, I’d appreciate it.

There was a locksmith who wanted to marry his master’s daughter, or maybe he just wanted to be the greatest locksmith who ever lived. Dude shot for the stars. So he calls Mephistopheles out of Prague, who shows up on a FlixBus a few hours later. The locksmith sells his soul in exchange for just a really, fuckin’, top-notch padlock. It’s amazing. He puts that on the tree and issues challenges to either his master in exchange for his daughter’s hand in marriage, or to all the locksmiths of the world in exchange for World Locksmithing Supremacy. Since the Devil made the lock, nobody could crack it, and he lived happily ever after until he burnt in Hell. The tree remains with a lock on it to this day, and also full of nails, for some reason.

This is confirmed bullshit. They looked into the padlock and it’s empty, there’s no tumblers or anything in there. It would pop right open. Maybe that’s why the whole thing’s behind the bulletproof glass.

Well, that was most of center city, barring museums and palaces. I sidled all the way across town to the Freud Museum.

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they only serve sausages

I thought it was interesting, but Freud was what got me through college. I’d read the bulk of his debunked wackadoo theories long before I got “higher educated”, and since every class in undergrad wanted to beat both Freudian and Pavlovian dead horses as much as possible, I got to recycle the same paper, with subtle stylistic changes, something like ten times.

My favorite, bar none, was a History and Systems project where we were required to adopt the persona of our chosen theorist and have an open debate with the rest of the class. We got extra credit for accents, props, and convincing portrayal. I shaved my scruff into an approximation of his beard and showed up to class with a grape White Owl in my mouth and a baggie full of flour smeared around my nose. The only Austrian accent I’d ever heard at that point was the Terminator’s, so that was how Freud talked. I sat next to B.F. Skinner, as portrayed by a gorgeous little ghoul with dichromatic eyes, and we became a vitriolic tempest of condescending reductionism, laying waste to anyone fool enough to have chosen a humanistic or positive psychologist. The Carl Rogers surrogate got the worst flaying. I think he might still be institutionalized.

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speaking of my college

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hoo i heard that

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Siggy’s personal necromancy cabinet. easily puts mine to shame, but the museum did keep repeating that his three great passions were “traveling, smoking, and collecting”

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I laughed so hard and so inappropriately at that adorable picture of Carl Jung. Look at him go! With his little hat, and his little disapproving frown!

I love Jung, I think his work is interesting, if convoluted, arcanist rambling, but I wasn’t prepared for this. From here on out, I’m never gonna be able to think of Freud and Jung as anything but Germanic Rick and Morty.

On my way back to the hostel, I located the only grocery store in Vienna (I’d been looking) and picked up a box of juice brand named “Munter und Aktiv”. Well, I got half of that. I asked Google Translate and it said Munter means “blithely”. I recognized this as impossible. I activated my German field agent and she told me it’s a mixture between happy and awake and active. Well, we already have active. I asked the lady at the hostel desk, planning on averaging all these translations into one definitive Munter.

“It is like waking up with coffee in the morning,” she said. “Like chipper.”

“All right, thank you.”

She asked me if I still had my key card. I said I did.

“Good work,” she told me. She seemed serious, but she may have just been possessed of the Wiener Grant.

“Do people lose them a lot? Is that a big problem here?” I asked, blithely. Munterly.

“No, no problem. We don’t have problems here,” she said, then she honest to God slapped the table and shouted in the thickest, most Germanic accent I’ve ever heard, “VE HAVE ZOLUTIONS!”

She laughed after and clarified that she was just kidding, but I was deer-in-the-headlights frozen. One of those disbelieving grins, you know? When what’s going on… can’t be what’s actually going on.

I know we have a sad little Nazi party movement in America, but realistically that’s like 40 lonely dudes with bad haircuts who get way too much media coverage. In much of Europe, they seem mighty sorry for World War II. The Mahnmal in the heart of Vienna is a good indicator, but there’s more going on than monuments, culturally. The aforementioned German girl is currently crossing eastern Europe and self-inflicting a sort of guilt tour (or Schuldtour). Warsaw and Auschwitz, that I’m aware of. Die Madchen ist haunted.

(As a quick aside, I looked up the German word for ‘haunted’, and, unbelievably, it is spukt. Go ahead. Say it out loud. Spukt. This fuckin’ language, man.)

In the Athens flea market, after divulging her nationality to an antique dealer for reasons I will never understand, he rolled out a bunch of old Nazi medals.

“You want?”

She literally backpedaled, shielding her face like a tall, rigid vampire from an iron cross. But she went on to tell me that there are people back in Germany — in America, we’d call them hicks — that love that kind of thing.

The modern nationalism necessary to breed either sentiment is lost on me, but I don’t think that’s because I’m an American. I’m just not much of a joiner.

A final, weird note, and the last Hitler point I plan on making: the Indian guy told me that Hitler is sort of fondly remembered in India and China. In the course of the war, Germany did a lot of damage to Great Britain, and India is still carrying a pretty understandable grudge against their former imperial taskmasters.

I sat down and collected myself until my chronic and intractable antsiness returned, then I figured I’d go check out the craft beer bar half a mile away. I hadn’t eaten in six or seven hours, so that seemed like the ideal time. They had a Bier dem Wochen flight for the cost of a regular half-pint, so I got that. They brought me 4 beers, all from Anchor Brewing, which I learned from a hipster’s t-shirt is in San Francisco.

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welp

The Steam beer must be called that because that’s what it tasted like. The stout was palatable, in a cream soda kind of way. I downed it and ordered a local imperial stout called Der Schnittenfahrt from a company called Brauwork. Hilarious though that may sound, it means “cut drive”, and washing down a flight with it on an empty stomach was perhaps ill advised.

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“schnittenfahrt” tho

The bar was very excited about rugby. Ireland vs Argentina. I didn’t know who they were rooting for, but they were rooting for them with all their heart. I went to the bathroom and laughed so hard I scared a dude.

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now that’s opulence

That was enough for one night. I had a bus to catch the next morning. I stumbled back to my hostel and passed out. I slept like a rock, except for at around 3 AM when I was awake just long enough to see the dude in the opposing bunk sit up like a mummy, slam his face into the wood support of the bunk over him, and release a long, low-pitched, closed-mouthed moan. It was sort of like a cow mooing, but in slow motion. Absolutely fantastic.

The next morning I threw all my stuff into my bag and wrote in the kitchen until my Brazilian DJ friend rejoined me, looking much worse for wear.

“Bunch of bastards,” he told me out of nowhere.

“Huh?”

“The club I played at,” he spat. “Didn’t pay me a DIME. Bastards. Didn’t even give me free drinks. I had four beers, and they charged me.”

I shook my head. “Animals. Well, chalk it up to experience, I guess.”

He made a vague allusion to being all about peace and love. I shook his hand, wished him well, and headed for the door.

Oh, right. The bus was to Bratislava, and hoo boy, do I got some stories for tomorrow.

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heard yo mama in the movies

Love,

The Bastard

Vienna: Empires, Ashes, and the Mysterious Wiener Grant

November 25, 2017. Vienna, Austria.

The Chinese food had only mildly poisoned me. It’s unbelievable that I needed to experience it to give this advice, but listen: Don’t eat the Chinese food in Austria. I was down, but not out, and I decided that only a coward would let some mild food-poisoning interrupt a travel, especially a Bastard one. I hit the gloomy, perpetually moist streets of Vienna.

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when did herbie come thru

 

India from the Metro had been backpacking on the fly. He tailed me to the hostel and booked a room there, then asked if I wanted to head into town together. I was leery. I travel alone. There are more opportunities that way, I don’t have to be double-checking if my co-pilot wants to do this thing, or if they’re comfortable hopping a fence, or if they’re too soft-spoken and respectable to blithely ask the locals dumb questions in lazy American English. But, he came along for part of the morning, and he was utterly transfixed by the palaces.

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Europe is filthy with palaces. You can’t throw a rock without hitting one, and each is ostentatious in its own way. The Austrian baroque style is big into imposing white rock, ostentatious statuary, and just enough gold that you have to do a double-take and say, “shit, is that gold?”

For my own part, I’d had my fill of palaces. I’d been too long away, I was tuning into the old gutter frequency again. I wanted to get lost somewhere seedy and low-profile. Instead, we peeped a couple unpronounceable palaces.

 

He found another palace that I didn’t think warranted photography. It had been repurposed into the brick-and-mortar arm of a QVC jewelry magazine. It was plenty opulent, if you’re into that sort of thing. All my belongings are made of wood, leather, and stone, so…

 

We were trying to get into the city center by way of Albertinaplatz. It was a snarl of foot traffic and odd monument sculptures.

For those of you whose German is even worse than mine, Mahnmal gegen Krieg und Faschismus means “monument against war and fascism”. This chunk of the city is a way of apologizing for Hitler without having to mention Hitler. More on him later.

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this hideous bronze dog is an absolute steal at $3000

I found the Hungarian house, where Countess Elizabeth Báthory harvested her victims in . The story runs deeper than the factoids we got in grade school. Lizzie split her time between her husband’s Hungarian house and Cachtice castle. Eventually she had to flee to the latter full-time after arousing too much suspicion. Everyone knows she bathed in and drank the blood of these virgin girls, but that was the endgame.

She’d send her servant Ficzkó into the market to collect likely peasant maids for employment at the Hungarian house and the castle. Being as they were hired servants, it wasn’t that unusual that she flogged so many of them and left them naked in the snow. It started getting a little more unusual when the servants were walking around with fingers torn off and flesh bitten from their faces. You could hear the screaming echo through the Hungarian quarter at night, but nobody dared question the countess. Government, am I right? The estimated head count was 600 virgins, but there’s obviously no documentation.

From History Today:

“She believed that drinking the blood of young girls would preserve her youthfulness and her looks. Witnesses told of her stabbing victims or biting their breasts, hands, faces and arms, cutting them with scissors, sticking needles into their lips or burning them with red-hot irons, coins or keys. Some were beaten to death and some were starved.”

A Lutheran minister told Hungarian authorities, and by December of 1610 the countess was “arrested”. She wasn’t tried, of course, because she was a countess, but she was locked in a single room of her castle until she died four years later. She dropped off real quick after she stopped getting her blood baths. Maybe she was onto something.

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Unbelievably, they’re still using it as apartments. For Hungarians, I assume. It’s a closed house, no tours or anything, so the best I could do was take a picture of the unassuming door and soak up as much of the aura of 400-year-old evil as I could. It’s a pretty busy street, though. Not terribly conducive to reflection on Renaissance atrocities. Probably why she chose it.

Then I stumbled upon the Kaisergruft, the Austrian Imperial crypt. My travelling companion dipped out at this point. We had both expressed how tired we were of museums, but our definitions of “museum” appeared to differ.

I’ll say this about the Austrians: they knew how to die.

 

 

 

 

 

Even at Sedlec, you didn’t see death glorified like this. Death was incidental there, a sort of means to an end dedicated specifically to the art and then, as an afterthought, Jesus. These crypts were a full embrace of death, a momentous momento mori emblazoned with crowned skulls and gargoyle heads and every kind of Imperial seal, crest, or design you could imagine. I couldn’t help but be awed. All this time, money, and labor, for a suitcase full of bones.

Brings to mind a Marcus Aurelius quote.
“Death smiles at us all; all we can do is smile back.”

Well, Imperial Austria was, and continues to be, grinning like Schwarzenegger.

I made my way out of the crypt and, after the only affordable breakfast I could find in Vienna, I crossed the street and discovered this burrito place.

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Wiener Grant! What the fuck could that mean? Is it that guy? Why is he so mad? Why is his tattoo so incredible? I needed to know more.

I barged into the burrito store without a moment’s hesitation and asked the poor, unsuspecting counter girl.

“Who, or what, is Wiener Grant?”

She looked at her hipster coworker then said, “Was?”

I wasn’t fooled. She spoke English. 75% of the Austrian population speaks English, and it’s a damn certainty that a Viennese girl in her twenties will.

“Outside, on the sign. Over that painting of the dude in his shorty-shorts, it says ‘A burrito a day keeps Wiener Grant away’.” What is Wiener Grant? Is there any other way to avoid him?”

“It is… hard to explain,” she said. Well, yeah, I knew that already.

“It is like…” the hipster said, gesturing. “Vienna is… grumpy?”

“Viennese are cranky people,” the girl said, making a demonstrative face. “Wiener Grant is when you feel blahhhh. Cranky, because you are Viennese.”

“So it’s not a guy.”

“No.”

“Well, that’s a relief. Thank you.”

There’s more to this chronicle, but I have to catch a bus soon. I’ll have another post later today.

Love,

The Bastard

 

 

 

Kutná Hora: The Bone Zone

November 24, 2017. Kutná Hora, Czech Republic.

Trains aren’t so bad once you get used to them. By the time I finished this morning’s existential blogging I only had a half an hour before the train left, and it was a 25 minute walk to the station. Pretty standard odds. I skedaddled across Prague, got yelled at by the lady at the bus line and sent down the metro line where a much nicer lady sold me a $5 ticket to Kutna Hora and said, “Platform 4”.

Welp, I found platform 1, went toward it, went away from it, went toward it again, then stopped at a money changing booth and asked the lady there where Platform 4 was. She said, “Just keep going straight”, and I did, and- ahhh, okay, so it’s not like an airport.

Seats were at a premium. I tried to slip into a six-seater booth that only contained one old white woman, but she told me in Czech that it was reserved. It’s reassuring to know that old white women are like that no matter where you are.

I eventually found a seat in the cattle car section and spent the ride staring out the window and thinking about bones.

bones

A smooth hour later, I got off the train in the middle of nowhere. Since there were no roads in the middle of nowhere, hence, nowhere, I had to walk down a set of train tracks. Talk about nostalgia.

In the halcyon days of my youth, everything was a minimum four miles from everything else, and much of it was only connected by highways and bypasses. If you couldn’t drive, and you wanted to go somewhere, you took the train tracks, and you hoped there were no railway police, hallucinating junkie hobos, or Leatherface murder-hicks with the same idea.

After a few blocks the tracks ran parallel to a paved road so I had to hop a shoulder-high fence that was, as far as I could tell, made wholly of rust.

Kutna Hora was silent. I didn’t realize it at first, but for the past month I’ve been dipping from one major city to another. Traffic, noise, low-level metropolitan chaos was a constant, and the only respite I’ve got are these Wal-Mart earplugs which, realistically, are not long for this world. A car would pass, and then I could count breaths and heartbeats before another one came. You don’t realize how much you miss something like that until you don’t have it.

I basked in the quiet until it was disrupted by three Australians behind me, pointing blithely at anything with a steeple and saying, “Is that it?” On the third time, I asked if they were headed to the bone church.

“Is that it?” they repeated.

“Nope,” I said, “Around the corner, couple blocks up. I was wondering what brought ya’ll to this hub of tourism.”

They said they were studying in Prague, then asked the usual battery of questions you ask to anyone in Europe with a backpack: how long you been out, where have you been, how long will you stay out, etc. We reached the cathedral and separated before we could finish the song-and-dance.

Before we get to the good stuff, if you don’t know what the Sedlec Ossuary is, let me give you a quick rundown.

In 1278, an abbot named Henry was sent by a Bohemian king to the holy land. Pilgrimage complete, he scooped up a handful of Jerusalem’s finest dirt, then brought it back and scattered it around the abbey cemetery. Boom. Transubstantiation. That was no longer secular bohemian land, but rather, hot new Holy Land, and everybody in Europe wanted to be buried there.

Many of them would get their wish within the next hundred years, because that’s when the Black Death hit. The bodies business was booming. Then, early 1400s, the Hussite Wars make the cemetery even bigger.

The local Roman Catholic diocese responsible checked out the plot of land and said, “You know, all these consecrated bodies are great, but what we could really use, right here, in the center, is a Gothic church.” So of course they built one. Problem is, that takes a hell of a foundation, so they had to exhume a lot of the bones of the buried faithful, beplagued and slain, then just kind of… tossed ’em in the basement. No harm, no foul.

None of this was decreasing demand to get buried in the Holy Land away from Holy Land, so the bodies were still, literally, piling up. The church, in their infinite wisdom, assigned a partially blind monk the task of exhuming more bodies and stacking the bones. That was his job. Until he died, and presumably joined them.

1870 rolls around, and House Schwarzenberg is now the owner of the largest pile of bones in Europe, containing the remains of between 40,000 and 70,000 dead people in the same way that a Boston cream contains its filling when you squeeze it as hard as you can. Something’s gotta be done, so they hire a wood carver, for some reason, to put the bones in order. Little did they realize this wood carver was nuttier than squirrel shit, and lo, the Sedlec Ossuary was born.

It was incredible. It was also the first time I’ve ever touched a real human skull sans skin. They’re surprisingly tiny, but that might have been because most people in medieval central Europe were like 5’0″.

I puttered around oohing and aahing at all the upcycled dead people until the selfie brigade started to grate on me, then I went to the only restaurant in Kutna Hora and ordered what I hope wasn’t traditional Czech food from a surly, bottom-heavy waitress with eyes dead enough that she could’ve also come right from the Ossuary.

20171124_115414.jpgIt was an unseasoned chicken breast with reduction of Cream of Spinach soup on top. I didn’t realize Kutna Hora catered to bodybuilders. I ordered the potato pancakes as a side mostly for their German name, Kartoffelpuffer. Teehee. Kartoffel means potato in German, but that’s from the Italian tartufulo, which refers to a truffle, but originally both came from terrae tuber, or earth-bulb. Puffer is both self-explanatory and pretty funny.

Well, I saw the bone church, and I ate. According to tour offers, I could spend the next 6 hours in Kutna Hora learning about a medieval silver mine, but that sounded boring and awful, so I caught a train back to Prague and slithered on to a connecting FlixBus. I couldn’t order the ticket online, so the bus driver made a big deal of saying, “It will be 150% more if you buy from me now.”

“You mean, 50% more?”

“150%.”

Well, it was about 15 Euros for the ticket online, and I wound up giving him 20, which was almost all of the Czech money I had left anyway. I have another 200 or 300 CZK left in my pocket (around $25), but I’ve been on this bus for a couple hours, and I’ve got to be in Austria by now.

You know, considering my track record, you gotta wonder how many ghosts I dragged with me outta that well-stacked pile of bones.

Love,

The Bastard

Rome: Slowin’ it Down

November 4, 2017. Rome, Italy.

I read that it was Madrid’s night life that really shines, and since I had to catch a bus to the airport by 5 AM I opted not to book a hostel and spend the night homelessly bar-hopping. I spent an hour in Museo Chicote, Hemingway’s “best bar in Spain, certainly” and had his recommended daiquiri. I imagine when he was there the lighting was less fish-tank neon and they played fewer techno remixes of Sweet Dreams, but I could be wrong. Maybe that’s why he liked it.

I walked down a street grabbing tapas and beer at each place until I felt full for the first time that week, then chased it with a coffee to make sure I’d catch the bus. This proved to be unnecessary, since the entirety of Madrid closed by 2 AM. I don’t know where all these travel writers are getting the idea of “Madrid goes hard until at least 4 AM”, but I imagine probably the on-season. There were, however, so many insistent prostitutes who literally chased me up the Gran Via, trying as hard as they could across several language barriers that I had just happened to discover a stone-sober, sexually liberated young woman who found me irresistibly attractive, and that in this part of the world “how about a blow job?” is a common icebreaker.

“I just feel like it’s too early in our relationship,” I told the first.

“Only one night! One night relationship,” she clarified.

“Tell me, sweetheart, this relationship. Does it cost money?”

“Not even that much! Not even much money!”

I caught the 2:30 bus and slept on the airport floor and a sequence of planes until I arrived in Rome, where they tried very hard to convince me that the only way I would get to my hostel was by $50 taxi.

I explained to them that I could easily just take a $6 bus to center city and walk the half mile to my hostel, but they insisted that it was impossibly far, and my only chance of survival in the unnavigable maze of Rome was to take a taxi. I told them thanks, and took the bus, settled into my hostel, showered, shaved, took a nap, then went down and had free pasta dinner cooked by an immensely outgoing receptionist named Doniella. At dinner, I got drunk off $2 wine with a German med student and a 700-year-old American named Herbie, who extended me this sage advice:

“You gotta slow down. You’re taking this too fast. It’ll all be there, you’re not gonna die next month.”

“You don’t know that,” I said, because I’ve never been able to project myself more than 2 days into the future.

“That’s true, but you’re probably not. You can’t keep rushing around like this or you won’t enjoy anything. Take a week. Really see Florence. You should take at least two if you want to see everything in the countryside, but maybe that’s another trip. You have time.”

I fought him every step of the way during the conversation because my pastiche of personal philosophies draws heavily from zen and existentialism, both of which are really specific about “This day will not come again.”

“You didn’t come all the way across the world to not spend the money,” he chided, which was weird because we hadn’t talked about money. “Slow down, take your time. There’ll always be more time and money. Learn the Greek alphabet. Go to Istanbul!”

His advice became a little meandering from that point on, but it was the thought that counts.

“You don’t have to rush. Just go out, see everything. Then you can die.”

“Hear, hear,” I said, and we clonked (it wasn’t a clink) our plastic cups of grocery store wine.

Then, after a moment, “Welp, the wine’s gone. I’m going to bed. See you all tomorrow.” And off he went.

I was good and drunk and still tired because it turns out sleeping on planes in 1 hour increments is not the same thing as a night’s rest, so I stumbled upstairs and went dead to the world for 10 hours. But as I did, I internalized what Herbie said. I fundamentally disagree. I don’t have time. None of us have time, life is too short to not Go For It, whatever the present It happens to be, but I think he’s right in that I’ll enjoy myself more if I slow my roll a little. You can Go For It strategically. It can be a plan.

I’m going to reread the Stoics while I’m here, I think. Marcus Aurelius was always my favorite, and seeing his colossal, melon-shaped head in a marble bust at the Prada brought his Meditations screaming back to me. I’ll wrap this up with what seems like an unrelated Epictetus quote, but just replace “books” with “travel”, or “making money”, or anything else people collect like Pokemon cards as though the collection is enough.

“Don’t just say you have read books. Show that through them you have learned to think better, to be a more discriminating and reflective person. Books are the training weights of the mind. They are very helpful, but it would be a bad mistake to suppose that one has made progress simply by having internalized their contents.” 
 Epictetus, The Art of Living 
Love,
The Bastard

 

Barcelona: It’s Exactly Like in Tony Hawk

October 25, 2017. Barcelona, Catalonia, Spain.

Let me start by saying Barcelona is nothing like in Tony Hawk. I’ve seen like 2 skateboarders, tops. Lots of bikes. It’s more like the BMX game in that respect, but no other, really.

After my airplane didn’t burst into flames I wandered aimlessly around the airport after being instructed to go “down, left”. What she meant was turn the corner, find the elevator, take it to the ground floor, then locate the correct bus. On the right, coincidentally. Fortunately, airbus or buslift or airwolf has an apparent monopoly on all of Europe, so I climbed on the same bus I did in Dublin and hoped it wouldn’t take me back.

It dropped me off a half hour later next to a gorgeous set of multicolor water fountains. The streets were flooded with humans, moving in a throng, mostly college-aged but some older folks and children, everyone totally amped to be next to the fountains in Barcelona. I found my hostel and attempted to conduct my business in Spanish. We made it about halfway. They charged me an extra 2 euros for bedsheets, but that’s how they getcha. (For those familiar with my conversion rate, that’s approximately 9.32 chicken nuggets).

Realizing I hadn’t eaten that day, I went to forage. Every other shopfront was a tapas restaurant, which I learned means “about 3 bites of food for next to no money”. Conceptually, I can get behind that, but in practicality, it’s a good thing I’m not lifting because 220g of protein are not happening through tapas.

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I found a likely looking place that promised cervezas and something called a “meat bomb”. They ushered me in and when I ordered it, the waiter assured me in rapid-fire, heavily accented English that they were out, but I could order meatballs and bravas. I assumed these were most of the components to the meat bomb. Not so much.

Three meatballs later, he puts this monster in front of me:

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It turns out this meant patatas bravas, which I’ve been struggling with the translation for since. In Spanish Spanish, brava means” “brave. In Mexican Spanish, it means “a fight”. In Italian, brava means “well done” or “good”. They were good patatas, I guess, but linguistically challenging.

And surprisingly plentiful. I found out this is because I somehow ordered like $10 worth of patatas bravas. That’s also how they getcha, but Mama ain’t raise a quitter, so I plowed through ’em and went on my merry way.

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good thing, if they’re gonna keep giving me three pounds of potatoes every time I try to order food

I made the tragic mistake of trying to find a brewery in Barcelona. Google assured me that “Cervezeria 100 Montaditos” was a brewery, and only a half mile from my hostel, so that was my next stop. Montaditos, for the record, are simple sandwiches made by cutting a half a loaf of twisty Spanish baguette in half and jamming it full of meat. This is distinct from bocadillos, which are the same thing but with standard baguettes — and they would go on to save my life.

Regarding the bar: Imagine a high school pep rally. Now take it out of the gym, and put it in a 2-story bar, and that was 100 Montaditos. Thousands of children, all shouting, all drinking the Spanish equivalent of Natty Light, a flavorless amber concoction called “Cruzcampo Glacial”, made by the Spanish branch of Heineken and receiving a whopping 12% on ratebeer.com. But they were also 1€ each. I ducked into a corner to evade all the screeching, downed it like a frat boy, and retreated to my hostel for a long-deserved shower.

The bathrooms were a shared affair. Three shower stalls, three sinks, two stalls. Standing in front of the mirrors were two middle-aged men. One was a tall, stocky German man, discernibly a dad and discernibly nonplussed with the conversation he was having with a hunched French philosophy professor who shared Sartre’s perspective, both due to his metaphysical beliefs and his lazy eye. The professor was trying his damnedest to convince the dad that he had to take things less seriously, because all of life is a derision. The dad did not know this word, and clearly wanted to just get out of the conversation and go to sleep, but couldn’t due to manners.

“All of life is a joke!” the professor insisted, laughing like a maniac. “Is a joke! None of it is real! It is a derision! You take too serious!”

The dad made a face and said, “How do you know this about me? You cannot know me.”

“I know you! I know you, you have a wife, two children. They could have been girls, you know! Is all a derision!”

“Oh, okay,” I interjected, because they were both trying to cross entirely too many language barriers here. “He means a delusion.”

The German made the same face.

“It’s like in a dream,” I said. “Something you think is real, but it’s not. And you have no way of knowing.”

“No way to know!” the Frenchman said. “I cannot trust!”

“Yeah, you’re talkin about Descartes,” I said. This helped no one.

“You mean… illusion?” the German asked me. I considered, then nodded.

“Yeah, basically.”

“Then he should just say illusion!”

The dad considered the professor distastefully for a moment, then motioned to me and said, “What about him? You know this about me, can you tell also about him?”

“Is prollity,” the professor said, and I tried to interject “probability” but they weren’t having it.

“Or are you,” the dad continued, looking at me for the word, “How do you say… psychic? Mind-reader?”

The Frenchman considered me critically for a moment.

“How about him?” the German demanded again. “Does he have family and kids?”

“No. He has no family. He is alone.”

There was a beat of silence, and the dad started laughing nervously, I imagine because he had to do something to vent his discomfort. I grinned and said, “But aren’t we all, really?”

At this point a Ukrainian teenager entered the bathroom and politely tried to figure out which shower was okay for him to use. The dad said, “This one is fine, but you must be careful, or you will be trapped for 15 minutes talking to him!” He nodded at the professor, who had removed his shirt and was now trying to explain that he had hair on his shoulders because he was “once a monkey”. I didn’t know if he meant evolutionarily or in a past-life sense, and I did as much deciphering as I was ready to that night. I bid them goodnight, took my damn shower, and went to bed.

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I really like Barcelona.

Love,

The Bastard