London: The Broken Clock

September 26, 2019. London, England.
Soundtrack: Ghost – Monstrance Clock

Fortified by fine English porter, I leapt majestically over a puddle and then diverted my attention to another gaudily overwrought imperial legislation building. Despite my incredible agility, catlike poise, and natural grace, this led to me not looking where I was going, and I tripped on a loose cobblestone.

Just a little stumble. Not even a tumble! I never lost my footing due to the aforementioned podracer reflexes, even GABA inhibited as I was.

Still, this temporary loss of face was enough to send a couple of fancy lads behind me into screaming hysterics. Real middle school hours, right in their mid twenties! Could this be hooliganism?

I whirled on them, equilibrium restored.

“Hey,” I said. “Where’s the big clock at?”

“Wot?” one said, in the same voice and tone I use for peasants in D&D.

“The big clock?” the other asked. “You mean Big Ben?”

“Unless there’s another one.”

“Right there,” one pointed. We were mates now. “It’s under construction, though.”

“Cheers,” I said.

I turned the corner and gazed upon the legendary Big Clock, the iconic building that serves as Britain’s biggest tourism draw.

My laughter was perhaps a little mean-spirited.

I stood on the bridge over the Thames and looked at the big broken clock. I admit to being mildly raucous. Raucous enough for a local to overcome the nation’s stereotypical self-reservation.

“It is what it is,” she told me without slowing her pace. “Whole country’s under construction, innit?”

“So I see!”

(The words you can’t make out are “scenic vista of the mighty Thames”).

I also checked out a big ferris wheel which, I was told, is also a big draw to London. I’d never heard of the big ferris wall until I was in the city and Google Maps told me it was a landmark. I guess it’s been pushed up to number 1.

Just messing with you. We all know there’s only the one reason to go to London.

I was well and fully cashed on this particular city. The Mayflower was making more sense by the second. I got one last eyeful along the river and headed back to my hostel.

Love,

B.

London: Empires and Ashes

September 26, 2019. London, England.
Soundtrack: Flogging Molly – Tobacco Island


It was unusual, how silly I was after three glasses of beer. I even looked up the elevation to see if that was the issue. It was 36′ above sea level. In retrospect, I recognize it as attributable to malnutrition; I was down to a meal a day and, tragically, today’s had been fish and chips. And I skipped the chips.

Off I went, into the gloomy and actively darkening city of London to see what there was to see.

There was this sick monument to the Great Fire of London. Nowhere in the plaque did they specify if they were for or against it.

I crossed the Thames and it turned out that I was outside of Parliament. See, Parliament meets in Westminister.

I didn’t take a picture of the palace itself because who wants to see another boring palace? I was still a little irritated by the — (get ready I’m about to use a real British word) — hullabaloo over the Crown Jewels back at the Tower of London. Yeah, real fancy, got it.

Although, Black Rod’s secret trapdoor should have given me a hint, but who can decode this daffy (that’s another one) political system? Lords and Commons? Get outta here.

The pig hid his face in shame as I took the picture, as pigs should. I turned the corner and encountered an Imperial shitton of scaffolding around a statue of King Richard the Lionheart.

If that’s what you’re into, go to town, I guess. Richie was a big crusader and conqueror, which tends not to reflect well in the totality of time, but crusading was in vogue back then. What, you’re gonna tell the Pope “no?”

There was also that prickly little matter of him declaring the Purge on all of London’s Jews, then saying “oops jk” after the murderous riots got a little too expensive, but that’s no reason to take down a statue! Those were the times! Jefferson was a slaveowner. Skeletons abound, I’m sure.

Yeah, I was doing some mental gymnastics trying to give the benefit of the doubt until I turned the corner and saw the statue celebrating Cromwell.

If you’re an American who went to public school, you don’t know who this dude was, unless you listened to Flogging Molly, or had a brassy Irish grandma.

Cromwell was the Puritan son-of-a-bitch who masterminded what amounted to an Irish ethnic cleansing in the 16th and 17th centuries. The Penal Laws passed after the Reformation turned Catholics into bags of expendable meat. They weren’t even criminals, since all the rights were revoked. You could do whatever you wanted to them. This led to a lot of instantaneous robbery and murder, though you couldn’t call it robbery since they weren’t people anymore.

Now you might have heard of a guy called Saint Patrick. In America, he has a day. You drink green beer and perpetuate fun racial stereotypes. Patrick catholicized Ireland about a millennium earlier, so the majority of the country was Catholic (read: disposable). As of 2016, the whole country is still 82% Catholic. Old habits die hard.

But not for Ollie’s lack of trying! Cromwell had quite a Roundhead for business, and decided to monetize this genocide. Like Colombus!

Thus came transportation, or “Barbadosing”. If you were found guilty of Catholicism, or Irishness, you were packed up and shipped to Barbados to work the tobacco and sugarcane plantations. Or maybe to Australia. Or maybe to some other English colony! Christ (the Puritan one) knows there was no shortage.

The final fun little twist was all the opportunities available for indentured servitude. If you committed a different, non-Catholic crime, you could also get shipped off for seven years. The Irish took this with good humor, and wrote a number of tasteful folk songs about how much it sucked.

Finally, you opt into seven years transportation in exchange for freedom and wages, paid on completion of indentured service, unless you had an accident the day before and, say, died in a mine shaft.

I goggled at the statue of this highly celebrated genocidal slaver for a few seconds. The Irish are still mad about this. They live like, next door.

There was cold comfort in the fact that all this imperial detritus seemed so desperate. Remembrance of times when England was great, by the standards of the time, dragged screaming into a future that absolutely does not recognize those standards.

Like Propagandhi said: Today’s empires, tomorrow’s ashes.

I’m not linking that one, though. There are already two punk songs in this post, and I never got into Propagandhi.

You ever read that poem, Ozymandias?

Love,

B.

London: Fish and Chips

Thursday, September 26, 2019. London, England.
Soundtrack: Primus – Fish On

I just finished re-reading a masterpiece of anti-agricultural thought called Against the Grain, and the sordid history of the potato? Absolutely bonkers.

Nothing is more British than fish and chips, except maybe atavistic royalty and losing control of colonies. The question is, why is fish and chips so British?

Potatoes are and always have been poor person food. That sounds classist, but it’s a fact. You can grow potatoes on a 5-foot square plot, they’re calorically dense, and you don’t even need an oven to cook them. You just throw them into a fire and then eat them after. Bone apple teeth.

England hated potatoes and loved bread. Their devotion to tradition ensured it was the mainstay of their meals for most of their history.

So Ireland would make the wheat, and the British would take the wheat, and kick Ireland in the ribs for good measure. Trendsetters as they were back in the 19th century, most of Europe considered the potato food fit only for livestock and the Irish. The French thought it was poisonous.

It got so bad that this zany reverse-correlation developed where it was popularly believed that eating potatoes made you poor, sick, and dirty. The people eating the potato were the ones who couldn’t afford anything else, so of course they were poor, sick, and dirty.

Another reason Ireland leaned so heavy on potatoes was England clear-cut all of Ireland’s forests, and they had no fuel left. To make bread, in addition to wheat, you need a place to mill it and a place to bake it. The Irish poor had neither. They didn’t even have coal; they were burning peat. That narrowed it down.

Here’s how narrow. The Irish had a saying: “The sauce of a poor man is a little potato eating with a big one.”

In the beginning of the 19th century, populations were booming everywhere and England had more poor to contend with than they ever had before. Not even just in Ireland, either! Domestic poor. There wasn’t enough bread to go around, so they gradually began adopting potatoes, though nobody was happy about it.

And now enters the colorful little edict of “enclosure”. In the early 1800s, subsistence farmers in Ireland and England were booted off of farmlands taken for the aristocracy. It bankrupted Ireland, inasmuch as Ireland could be more bankrupted, and almost certainly played a role in the potato famine.

So these peasants aren’t peasants any more, because they lost all their fields. They had become wage workers for the nobles who scooped up their farms. No place to grow your food, and not enough money to buy it… what’s a boy to do, Jean Valjean?

The English poor started growing potatoes in what was left of their backyards. The “lazy root” was back on the table.

In industrial English tenements, there were no cooking facilities whatsoever. Industrialization sucked up all the land, and a package of calories that could be speed-cooked on the literal street became very attractive.

Now, here’s where it gets interesting.

Factories in England didn’t have anything resembling a concept of “worker’s rights”, and so paid their expendable machine fodder underclass in one lump sum. “Split it amongst yourselves. Shoo.”

The workers would take the wages down to the public house to split it up. The pubs did a decent business with drinks as it stood, and now everybody was coming in at least once a week with all of their money.

Well, all the people had was potatoes and occasional fish. So that’s what they cooked up and sold, on the spot, every payday and throughout the week.

And thus, fast food was born.

Appetizing, isn’t it?

I’m going to level with you; the fish was so greasy I barely made it through, and I am an insatiable human vortex. I didn’t eat any of the potatoes. They make you poor and dirty.

Another proud, closely held tradition.

Love,

B.

 

London: The Tower of London

Thursday, September 26, 2019. London, England.
Soundtrack: Blind Guardian – The Bard’s Song (The Hobbit)

The Tower of London was less of a tower and more of a squat, broad fortress. I’m sure a thousand years ago, a four story building was the cutting edge of tower technology. It would’ve proved insurmountable to anyone who wanted to pick a fight with William the Conqueror, considering that your typical early Middle Ages Anglo-Saxon peasant could not dream such luxury as ladder ownership.

The tower would be repurposed throughout the ages, from fortress to prison to wife disposal and dead prince storage.

It was a beautiful old fortification. There are many who define success as a life of leisure and freedom to pursue their dreams. My own definition is regular access to a strategically defensible position. Siege warfare soothes me.

The torture room was real downplayed. They only brought in three replicas of torture instruments, and devoted the rest of the compound to largely anticlimactic British history.

Here we see the scavenger’s daughter, heralded as “totally worse than the rack” on that little info thing. You fold a dude up in it then keep tightening it down until he breaks his whole business on his whole business. Truly, we are our own worst enemies.

The centerpiece that really pulls any torture chamber together, the rack. You don’t need a blow-by-blow of the rack, do you? It’s 2019. Read a book.

There’s something to be said of simplicity. Manacles are wide, unsexy handcuffs that fasten around behind you, then a member of the Catholic church hoists you up, lifting your arms behind your back and really frigging up your whole rotator cuffs until you admit that heliocentricity is false and heretical.

The White Tower was the first building and the one for which the tower is named. It served as Willy the Conq’s main keep, and parsing these agonizingly long-winded and self-congratulatory Wikipedia articles has brought to my attention that it is the largest keep in the Christian world, and a “donjon par excellence”.

There was also what I can only describe as a raven yard in the castle courtyard. Some goofy old prophecy predicted that, should the ravens ever leave the Tower of London, both the keep and the country of England would fall.

This strikes me as a very specific and arbitrary prophecy. Probably just some crazy guy yelled it once, but that was all it took. The keep’s keepers began a long-standing tradition of clipping the raven’s flight wings on one side to keep them in the courtyard, feeding and breeding these large, noisy, functionally useless creatures. For centuries.

They just keep doing things for centuries.

Dressing like this, for example. Those are the official vestments of the post. Imagine what kind of national pride you’d need to put on that outfit every day and go to work caretaking these giant, ineffectual carrion scavengers in observance of an entirely arbitrary bit of divinatory bird magic dating back over half a millenium.

Look at these Masterpiece Theater clowns trying to conscript me. God save the queen? God save bofa.

England in particular, and Europe in general, has a morbid fascination with treasure in concept that I can’t quite grasp. I went through one of the main fortifications to check out the Crown Jewels; photography was expressly forbidden, so you’ll have to take my word for it. There was a kind of cool ceremonial sword, but aside from that, it was just shiny Party City costumery.

They packed the halls with gold and jewels, an absolute Tolkienian hoard, and I breezed right past all the elderly Brits and Spaniards who were gawping like the displays were going to do tricks.

I’m an American, honey. Money is the second cheapest thing, after talk. Where do you think all that gold came from?

1d8+Dex, now we’re talking. I tried to wind it but the bastards nailed it down, presumably to prevent open insurrection. Cowards.

They set up a number of modern art knight sculptures doing cartoonishly stylized castle things throughout the tour.

There was a room about the tower’s role in World War I. It boiled down to “it was a fortress”. Wow.

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What heinous sentence construction. And that’s coming from me, compulsive preposition stacker, hamfisted infinitive surgeon, and irredeemable parenthesaiyan. I can’t believe they invented the language.

This fuckin’ guy. He just goes stomping around, to and fro. Me and the legions of Asian tourists were standing there, watching him go. To what end? Who knows?

“Hey, we need this guy to march in a circle every hour, on the other,” someone said, six-hundred years ago.

“QUITE RIGHT SIRE! ASTUTELY PROPHESIED”

The place was filthy with history, and I can’t go into all of it here because:

  1. I’m coming up on 1000 words, which is my cutoff.
  2. I don’t get paid enough.

If you want to know about the dead prince bones squirreled away in the basement, or any of the other political prisoners they disposed of, or Henry the VIII’s pro-gamer move wife trade-in, google’s got your back.

I made my way out of the Tower of London, which was simpler than you may have heard.

Are you British, or a Britain enthusiast, boiling with frumpy rage at my assessment thus far? Let’s fight in the comments below! Or, if you want to take the fight to social media, pick a link from the left. Bring your whole crew.

Love,

B.

Book Review: How the Irish Saved Civilization

How the Irish Saved Civilization: The Untold Story of Ireland's Heroic Role from the Fall of Rome to the Rise of Medieval Europe How the Irish Saved Civilization: The Untold Story of Ireland’s Heroic Role from the Fall of Rome to the Rise of Medieval Europe  by Thomas Cahill

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Copying books.

Now that that’s out of the way, let’s get to the boiled beef of the issue: Early Irish literature was essentially Conan the Barbarian with more dick jokes.

Noisiu, Irish warrior and protagonist, is rattling over the bogs when he runs across Derdrui, a certified hottie who is promised to some old king. Even the king’s druid has commented on her thiccness:

“High queens will ache with envy to see those lips of Parthian-red opening on her pearly teeth, and see her pure perfect body”.

Noisiu knows she’s pledged, and cursed, but he can’t help himself, and hits her with the oldest pickup line in the book:

“That’s a fine heifer going by.”

Take note, fellas.
Dedriu, not a swooner, fires back:
“As well it might be. The heifers grow big where there are no bulls.”

You called her a cow and she’s still game! Better seal the deal, Noisiu.
“You have the bull of this province all to yourself — the King of Ulster.”

It’s a bold strategy Cotton, let’s see if it pays off for him.
“Of the two, I’d pick a game young bull like you.”

And then they bang it out, presumably in the middle of the road.

That was the flavor of the early literature. Here’s another go around, featuring Cuchalainn, alleged to be the Irish Achilles, and Emer, the girl he’s come a-courtin’:

“May your road be blessed!” cries Emer on his approach.
“May the apple of your eye see only good,” says Cuchulainn,
presumably reciting a wood graving his mom has hanging over the front door. Then, peering down her dress: “I see a sweet country. I could rest my weapon there.”

Z-z-ZAMN! Emer plays hard to get by rattling off a list of obscure, murderous deeds a man would have to perform before winning her sweet country.

“No man will travel this country until he has killed a hundred men at every ford from Scenmenn ford on the river Ailbine, to Banchuing… where the frothy Brea makes Fedelm leap.”

“In that sweet country, I’ll rest my weapon,” says Cuchulainn.

“No man will travel this country until he has done the feat of the salmon-leap carrying twice his weight in gold, and struck down three groups of nine men with a single stroke, leaving the middle man of each nine unharmed.”

“In that sweet country, I’ll rest my weapon.”

“No man will travel this country who hasn’t gone sleepless from Samain (Halloween), when summer goes to its rest, until Imbolc (Candlemass/Groundhog Day), when the ewes are ilked at spring’s beginning; from Imbolc to Beltaine (Mother’s day) at the summer’s beginning and from Beltaine to Bron Trogain, earth’s sorrowing autumn.”

“It is said and done.”

Remember that old “mayor of tiddy city” sketch? The whole of the Tain cycle can be summarized with: “Long story short — dong on tiddies.”

Fabulous. Now, the Irish were functionally still barbarians at the time of this writing — shocker, I know — but they had a fledgling culture developing, characterized mostly by these outrageous pre-adolescent campfire stories about celtic Hercules (and celtic Xena, considering how many brassy female leads wound up in their stories), along with the Iron Age moral code of “generous, handsome, and brave”. What set them apart from other Iron Age hero-worshipping civilizations from Mesopotamia right up through Greece was the casual brutality and monstrous metamorphosis they loved sticking to their protagonists. Berserkergang’s Irish cousin was called the “Warp-spasm”, and when the battle rage hit the Irish they would full-on mutate into demons. The descriptions played out like something out of Spawn. Let’s have a taste:

The first warp-spasm seized Cuchulainn, and made him into a monstrous thing, hideous and shapeless, unheard of. His shanks and his joints, every knuckle and angle and organ from heat to foot, shook like a tree in the flood or a reed in the stream. His body made a furious twist inside his skin, so that his feet and shins switched to the rear and his heels and calves switched to the front … On his head the temple-sinews stretched to the nape of his neck, each mighty, immense, measureless knob as big as the head of a month-old child… he sucked one eye so deep into his head than a wild crane couldn’t probe it onto his cheek out of the depths of his skull; the other eye fell out along his cheek. His mouth weirdly distorted: his cheek peeled back from his jaws until the gullet appeared, his longs and his liver flapped in his mouth and throat, his lower jaw struck the upper a lion-killing blow, and fiery flakes large as a ram’s fleece reached his mouth from his throat… The hair of his head twisted like the tangle of a red thornbush stuck in a gap; if a royal apple tree with all its kingly fruit were shaken above him, scarce an apple would reach the ground but each would be spiked on a bristle of his hair as it stood up on his scalp with rage.”

That’s the hero of the story. That’s Irish Batman.

From there, the book follows the trajectory of the Roman empire dealing with these and other barbarians, its eventual fall, and what became of classical learning from that point.

Up until the 4th century AD, books were academic third-person affairs, even fiction. Enter our boy Augustine, virtually inventing the concept of written self-disclosure and, functionally, psychotherapeutic journaling:

“I carried inside me a cut and bleeding soul, and how to get rid of it I just didn’t know. I sought every pleasure — the countryside, sports, fooling around, the peace of a garden, friends and good company, sex, reading. My soul floundered in the void — and came back upon me. For where could my heart flee from my heart? Where could I escape from myself?”

Not only did he introduce narrative stream-of-consciousness, he blazed a trail that would be travelled by goth and emo teenagers for millenia to come. His escape would eventually come in the form of God, surprise surprise, but not before he changed the whole landscape of literature.

Meanwhile, another saint, by the name of Patrick, was becoming a particularly prominent figure in the Catholic church. He was yoinked from Britain and enslaved by the Irish for ten years, then escaped, then decided he liked the Irish more and went proselytizing all over the Emerald Isle, adopting them as his people. The Irish went absolutely bananas for this. The BALLS on this guy! Everywhere Patty went, he left a cluster of churches in his wake, with the Irish trading their arbitrary clubfights and whatever for the hoo-rah tough guy mystique of hermitage. The druids transformed seamlessly into the Green Martyrs, since nothing really changed, aside from God being brought into it.

And like every good barbarian hero in fiction, once the Irish learned about books proper, they were hooked. Irish monks in particular could not and would not stop copying every scrap of paper they could find into increasingly complex codices, which they added embellishments to in classically overdramatic Irish fashion.

Meanwhile, the world burned. Rome fell, and with it classic literature. Anything Latin was systematically destroyed, pillaged, and burned. The world screeched to a halt, then tumbled into the Dark Ages, where it stayed until the renaissance. The renaissance, as made evident by its etymology, was “REbirth” because the initial birth had been the classical age. That knowledge had been rediscovered.

It was available for rediscovery because of all the compulsively meticulous Irish monks who copied thousands upon thousands of freehand codices and passed them down through their families. The book wraps up with a report of a farmer in Cork County in the mid 1800s who was reading his own familial codex on the train.

It was an excellent and thorough, if somewhat meandering book. I’m looking forward to the rest of the series.

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Book Review: The Reign of the Greyhound

The Reign of the GreyhoundThe Reign of the Greyhound by Cynthia A. Branigan

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

A thorough, historical love letter to man’s pointiest friend.

I learned a lot, mostly how greyhounds were revered as angular, embarrassed gods due to their artificially selected ability to run stupid fast and catch rabbits real well. (This is called coursing).

They come from Egypt, which I kind of knew, but I didn’t consider the implications. Sighthounds are dogs with vision as good as ours, and it’s what they use to hunt, as contrasted to most dogs who follow their nose. Greyhounds are the prototype sighthound, and Egypt, Greece, and Rome were so content with them that they never bothered making more than slight modifications; most of these modifications resulted in making the greyhounds slighter (Italian greyhounds and whippets).

In Afghanistan they brewed up an Afghan, which is like a greyhound on a Pantene commercial. It’s also a little hardier and better at hurdling, since the mountains are rocky and cold. These weren’t considerations out on the Sahara, which is why greyhounds can work their way up to 45 mph in open flat land. You know, like a desert is.

The Irish, in their fashion, decided to make them huge and train them to fight. Not each other, of course. What kind of barbaric, antiquated, ass-backward cultural mores would promote dogfighting? They’re man’s best friend! It takes a special kind of sociopath to make their best friends fight for their amusement, and they should be shot repeatedly and fed to said dogs. No, the Irish trained their increasingly monstrous highland greyhounds to fight wolves.

This selective breeding, combined with hill-sprints, a chillier climate, and a presumable diet of potatoes and stout, led to the creation of the Irish Wolfhound, a 200% scale model greyhound that tops out around 200 lbs of hoary, active, and unflinchingly vigilant muscle.

Same, tbh.

Unfortunately, the stars that burn biggest burn fastest or something, because irish wolfhounds only live six to eight years. That’s like getting a giant, shedding goldfish that could kill you, but would never. Unlike cats. Don’t get me started.

Greyhounds are mostly comprised of muscle and knees, and are living every bodybuilder’s fantasy of not even having a subcutaneous fat layer. They never need a cut. Permanent contest-readiness. The issue is that fat serves biological functions, like insulation and joint protection. A mastiff, nature’s perfect lardass, can plop down on any surface up to and including those anti-homeless spikes and grab a quick 36 hour nap because they are their own sofa. The life-critical portions of a mastiff are ensconced in an envelope of blubber, like a loveable square-head walrus. Mastiffs can do this in virtually any climate, although it’s very rude to expect a short-hair mastiff to sleep outside, what the hell is wrong with you, he deserves better, you also deserve to be shot and fed to him.

Sorry. Sorry, dogs are just… so much better than people. I digress. Greyhounds have no fat, and their skin is so thin that they need to sleep on a couch or in a special doggie bed or they’ll get skin lesions from the floor. They also can’t go outside without a stupid doggie sweater when it’s cold or they’ll catch pneumonia. A stupid doggie sweater would rob another breed of their joie de vivre, but greyhounds are innately majestic, and the accessories only complement their swagger.

When I was a lad, one of my classmates was very pro-greyhound and, as a result, vocally anti-greyhound racing. For most of my life, I put racing in the same category as dogfighting, badger-baiting, and what the PETA videos say about meat-packing plants. This book claims the racing industry has come a long way in the past 20 years. The kennels provided for the racers are as spacious as a “kennel” can get, and positive reinforcement is the new coin of the realm since it works better than beating the everloving piss out of animals.

(Protip: This is statistically true of most humans, too. Although I admit some people really need to get the everloving piss beaten out of them.)

The racing industry has also partnered with greyhound rescue organizations, of which there are presently over 300, and they ship retired greyhounds out to become superfast couch ornaments for loving homes as soon as they turn 2. These pups are still twitchy, but I’ve fostered and adopted a lot of rescue dogs in my time, and racing greyhounds don’t sound nearly as traumatized as most of them were at the get-go.

I was hesitant about getting a greyhound because I am a ruff-n-tumble dude and wanted a dog with matching temperament. However, that would require getting a shepherd or retriever, bred for ADHD presentation, and that wouldn’t be fair to put in a city apartment, any more than it is for me.

But Alexander the Great had a greyhound named Peritas that attacked an elephant. That’s about as ruff-n-tumble as it gets. The elephant won, sure, but Alexander held a huge doggie funeral, then had a statue of Peritas built and named a city after him.

I don’t see any cities named after that elephant.

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Budapest: The Maze of Darkness

November 28, 2017. Budapest, Hungary.

It’s your boy Theseus here, giving you a punctuated play-by-play of Budapest because things are too densely crowded and chaotic to do this chronologically. Today’s bit starts both in the Castle District and in media res.

I went up to the Castle Bazaar, I was under the impression that a “Bazaar” is a sweet flea market, like every bazaar in Turkey was. I’m good on palaces for a minute, but I did need some blank t-shirts so my screenprint souvenir dealies don’t immediately out me as a tourist. I know five words in Hungarian now and that’s more than enough to fake my way through two conversational exchanges. If they see me standing there in a cheap, ill-fitting Athens shirt, they greet me in English. Contemptuously.

As it happens, sometimes a bazaar just means a large, boring courtyard. This was one of those times. Disappointed and chilly, I decided to forage up lunch somewhere in the castle district, and that’s where I discovered the Labirintus.

I’m a sucker for mazes. I’ll be it has something to do with my total lack of a sense of direction, some sort of compensatory reaction formation mechanism, like closet-gay homophobes, or Catholic schoolgirls. Plus, it was a real, live dungeon, underground, where people were imprisoned and tortured.

It’s like they left me no choice.

Budapest is built on an elaborate system of caves. Ten million years ago, most of central Europe was submerged under an enormous body of water called the Pannonian Sea.

pannonian sea

Four million years ago, it had shrunk to Lake Pannon, which still covered the majority of Hungary. As the flora and fauna lived and died in the water and the ecosystem shrank down, the salts and minerals became concentrated.

The capitol of Hungary is also famous for its thermal springs, which were long thought to possess supernatural healing powers because of their own weird mineral concentration. When the Pannonian water soaked through the soil and met with the miracle-water of the geothermal springs, it turned slightly caustic and, over millions of years, carved out a tremendous complex of caves. Tectonic shift drained Lake Pannon and the groundwater below it, and Budapest, being on the fault line demarcated by the Danube, was left with a sprawling natural cave system thought to be more than 62 miles (100km) long.

Terrible place to build a city what with all the sinkholes, but what are you gonna do.

Throughout its entire history, Budapest used the caves for strategic superiority. Buda proper was built around 1250 when King Béla IV of Hungary got tired of being sacked by Mongol raiders, so he moved his kingdom 200 meters away, to the top of a hill, and built a wall around it. Walls, being the only Mongolian weakness, effectively deterred them, and medieval Buda thrived.

citywok

From that point forward, whenever Buda was threatened by siege, the soldiers (and in the case of Fisherman’s Bastion, also the fishermen) would man the walls and the rest of the population would shuffle into the caves like mole people. The strategy worked so well that Budapest used it to survive the Soviet bombings of World War II.

The Labyrinth was divvied up into four sections. The first was a wax museum based on an opera that was, in turn, based on some drama that took place in Buda Castle. The second was the eponymous Maze of Darkness. The third was the cell where King Mathias kept Vlad the Impaler imprisoned for 14 years as punishment for eloping with his adolescent daughter. The fourth was, inexplicably, a bunch of posters describing other caves in the world.

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I did the Maze of Darkness first. You don’t really appreciate how dark it can get. All the darkness we experience in civilized society is disrupted by street lamps, refracted glare, cell phones, moon and starlight. Even when we close our eyes we have something that resembles darkness, but it’s not real, true, black-as-pitch darkness.

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The Maze was deep enough under ground that there was nothing. They left a rope running along a wall to guide you through, but that was it. Without it, it’s so dark you’re not sure if your eyes are open.

I’m a big dude. I don’t rattle. But when you’re in that kind of dark, it makes you realize that if there’s anything down there that can see even a little bit better than you, it’s over. You don’t have a chance. A chihuahua with light-amp goggles could have ended my life.

Obviously, it was too dark in the Maze of Darkness to see the realized nightmare at the end, so I took a picture with flash before strategically retreating into the Straightaway of Electric Light.

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why do it

After I stopped crying, I looped around into the fog where they kept Dracula.

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pretty sure this is a sliding floor puzzle that unlocks a secret treasure room

In getting to Dracula, I scared the shit out of everyone by accident. Nobody else seemed to want to wander around a foggy, haunted dungeon alone, for some reason, so when I’d pass couples or clusters of girls in the corridors, there was nothing I could do to warn them. I’d lumber out of the mist and they would freeze or, in some cases, actually scream, and I’d just smile indulgently and keep on goin’. Not a lot to be said at that point.

I checked out the cave exhibit but it was really sad. With Dracula at large and those horrible blue children still lurking around somewhere, I bade the labyrinth farewell, got lost three times, then found my way to the exit where I overheard a British couple discussing reading of signs.

“There, see?” the dude said. “No photography allowed. Nearly missed that one, that’s important.”

“Oops.”

So don’t tell nobody.

I emerged into the frozen Budapesti day and went to find food that would, hopefully, not be sausage.

(It was sausage.)

Love,

The Bastard

Athens: Large Food, Graffiti, and the Handle Feud

November 9, 2017. Athens, Greece.

Here’s where I’m sitting right now, as I type this.

It’s a coffee shop next to my hostel that, as far as I can tell, is based on Neil Gaiman’s house after a recession. They’re pretending that 5 euros for a coffee is reasonable. I assume you’re paying for the… ambiance. Though the slightly out of tune violin-and-organ spooky halloween CD they have playing is a nice touch, what really emphasizes the element of danger is the old man on top of  latter outside the entrance, grinding away at the upper metal balcony and throwing a shower of sparks you have to time your way through like a Koopa Keep in Super Mario World.

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this airport doesn’t know how to party

The bus ride over was uneventful, but I stood up for an hour and it gave me time to come to terms with the fact that I really don’t understand Greek at all.

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i think this is how many points we get if the bus hits them

I got off into a monsoon, of course, but I have an umbrella now and it’s not like Zeus is gonna do me any dirtier than Jehova did in the Vatican. The first thing I saw was another protest.

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I didn’t know what it was about, and it was too early and soggy for me to ask. Is it me? Do they gravitate to where I go, like parents with screaming toddlers, or is all of Europe just presently in unrest? I forged ahead.

I crossed the street and found a large sign that advertised “George’s Breakfast”. George knows how to live; an omelette with bacon, toast, tomatoes and cucumbers, coffee with refills, and “free juice”. Juice is a big deal in Greece. I walked in and asked the lady at the counter how I can get the breakfast on the sign.

“Go upstairs and order!” she said. “Is nice!”

I went upstairs and tried to order. The waitress told me that sign was for another store, but they have omelettes here.

Grand.

I bitterly ordered an omelette and was pleasantly surprised to find it enormous.

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I ate this enormous egg pancake and the little scooch of balsamic salad and headed off to the hostel, where I passed out briefly before returning to wander the modern day Agora: a constant flea market that’s right outside.

I’d say I was walking through for about 5 minutes when I was ambushed by a lithe Greek girl in a pencil skirt with very red lips, thrusting a long-stemmed rose at me.

“Here!” she said. “A gift for you!”

“Thank you, but I’m okay,” I said, trying to push it away.

“Is free!”

“I really don’t have any place to put a rose right now, but I really do appreciate it,”

“Is a gift for you! There is festival right now, this is part of it!” she said. “Here, take!”

I was holding the rose now, uncertainly.

“Thank you, but-”

“Is a rose for you because you are very sexy,” she explained. “Very sexy boy, have rose. Here, have two.” And she thrust another rose at me.

“While I agree, I really can’t,” I said, trying to dodge away. “Thank you though.”

“Can I have something for roses?” she asked. “Just one Euro. So hungry.”

“Ah, there it is,” I said. I handed the rose back to her, having to physically close her hand around it. “Thank you. But I don’t want it. Best of luck.”

“Not even one Euro?” she said, outraged, and I was impressed by the range of emotion that played across her face. She was certainly the most convincing actress I’d encountered since the dude in Italy who asked for change and then stared at the side of my head in crestfallen disbelief for thirty seconds when I said I didn’t have any.

Bastardo!” she hissed as she sashayed away. I called, “Hey, how did you know?” after the unsubtle swaying of her hips, sort of like an angry pendulum, but I wasn’t the mark she was after and we were done conversing.

Roseless and exposed, I drifted like the dude from Firewater into a peynirli place. Pedi peynirli is Turkish (whoops) for “bread with cheese), but sweet Athena, it was so much more than that. I ordered the Bolognese because meat has been hard to come by for most of my stay in Europe, and they packed this huge pizza boat full of mincemeat, goat cheese, vegables and an over real-easy egg. Like, potentially raw easy. I was not ascared though, I’m of barbarian stock, I’ve permitted the masquerade of raw eggs in a glass as “breakfast” before.

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I finished and paid for the 6 euro monstrosity with a 20, and the shifty-eyed waitress gave me back 4, which allowed me to finally understand why her eyes had been so shifty. I rolled up to her at the counter and gently explained her “mistake”, too softly for her coworkers to hear, yet. She returned the 10 euros to the stupid, lone American tourist without making a scene.

Back to the hostel, a long-deserved shower and a quick nap. When I woke up I decided to go up to the roof bar for the daily Happy Hour, which I was, of course, an hour late for. A pint of local Greek lager was still only 4 Euros, and two of those were enough to get even my unreasonable Constitution modifier feeling pretty good.

I made friends with a Chilean medica, a student/soldier from South Korea, and a graffiti artist from Austria. We poisoned our bodies extensively and proceeded into the streets to find a dance club the little 25-year-old doctor had read about — or rather, read the tags about. We knew it played “alternative rock” and “electronica”, but everything else was in Greek.

The artist told us that a lot of the graffiti in Athens was really good, although Berlin was sort of the epicenter for the arts in Europe as of now. He pointed out a lot of pieces that I would’ve missed otherwise.

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His own were excellent, but I forgot to grab his details. We made plans to meet up again tonight, though, so I’ll try to get some samples of his work for you tomorrow.

In our bastard travels, we discovered the salvation of the Greek economy: Handle Row. Five consecutive stores down one particular alley, all showcasing the most beautiful doorknobs, sinks, and cupboard handles you had ever seen. Competition was alive and well in Handle Row, and at a glance, the economic Darwinism was evident. Truly a triumph of capitalism.

“There are the most incredible handles I have ever seen,” the artist said.

“We’re witnessing history right now,” I confirmed, nodding. “This is the new Renaissance.”

“I think I’m going to buy one tomorrow,” he said. “For a souvenir.”

“You’ll want to have proof. You’ll want to show your grandkids the artisan Greek handle one day, and tell them, ‘I was there’.”

“It’ll be worth thousands of Euros, one day.”

We slunk back to the hostel at 1 AM and went our separate ways.

All right, that’s enough chronicle for now. I’ve got to go see all these temples.

Love,

The Bastard