Dublin: The Irish Won’t Stop Singing & The Monster Club

September 28, 2019. Dublin, Ireland.
Soundtrack: Headstone Horrors – Monster Club

The hostel was a collegiate Skinner box labyrinth with a grim, cafeteria style dining hall, faux bars full of noisy Australian teenagers, and a “hammock room” full of hungover chrysalises that stank like feet. The walls were covered in elaborate murals celebrating copyright infringement, and I practiced the path back to my 24-bed military dorm by quietly muttering to myself, “Right at C3P0, down the stairs, left at the Titty Elf, door 19.”

I didn’t spend much time there. I dumped my stuff and headed back out into my first weekend in Dublin.

I’d seen the city before, but it had been the launchpad of my first sojourn into bastardly travel, and I was yet a boy, unwise in the ways of the world. I booked the worst hostel money could by and spent the weekend hiding in it from the relentless, oppressive rain.

This time around the weather was as nice as it gets in Ireland, and the whole of the country had gathered in the bars, or in the streets, to sing. There’s nowhere in the world as thoroughly pervaded with music as Dublin on a Friday. The pubs were filled to bursting, and every one was playing live music, and everyone in the audience was singing along with the live music, whether they knew the words or not.

In the streets and walkways were interlocking circles of spectators clustered around buskers playing guitars and horns, doing DJ sets and tooting away on bagpipes.

It was uncanny. There was a college town weekend vibe, if the college town specialized in performing arts and spanned miles in every direction.

I had a coffee stout at an overfull microbrewery where everyone was singing alt-rock from the 90s. In America, ours tend to stick to the Tony Hawk soundtrack. I had as much Third Eye Blind as I could stand, then hiked twenty minutes through the musical chaos and found Fibber Magees.

It was easily identifiable. Punks look like punks, no matter where you are in the world. The battle jackets leaned more toward the Adicts and GBH than I was used to, but I was still able to track the concentration of studded leather to the bar entrance.

I met up with the horror punks from the ferry. They had with them a lanky Irish metalhead who had many recommendations for me, both about metal bands and about how to improve the political climate in America.

“Ye don’t understand,” he told me. “Ye run all of it. Th’ world economy relies on ye. When ye make a decision like electin’ Troomp, the entoire warld suffers, because our leaders just blindly go along with whatever ye say.”

“The problem with my country is they don’t consult me,” I confided in him.

“How’n the hell did ye wind up with Troomp, anyway?”

I was used to fielding this one. I explained that the overwhelming majority of America is made up of People of Wal-Mart. Their terrifying biomass is barely contained by their 4XL Tweety Bird t-shirts and they highly prize family values, which means maintaining two household shrines, one to Jesus and the other to Dale Earnhardt.

“They outnumber the Americans you see on TV or talk to on the internet 100 to 1,” I said. “They are the deciders of the election.”

“Jaysus,” he said.

“And the world mourns together.”

Speaking of mourning, the first band went on.

We went outside and stood in the beer garden shared by four different bars until that ended. When it did, four oldheads went up and played some solid post-punk.

“What’s post-punk?” the horrorpunk drummer asked.

“Punk, but the drums are slow.”

He nodded his spiked head a few times.

“You’re right. None of our songs go this slow.”

The Headstone Horrors set up and the metalhead approached me, slurring heavily.

“I’m goona start a fookin’ pit fer ’em,” he said, holding onto my shoulder for balance. “These guys desarve it.”

It got silly. A bunch of fookin’ taarists or badly confused locals wandered up to the front of the edges of the pit with full glasses of beer. Of course they wound up spilling it all over the place. I was on the wrong side of a few of these unfortunate yet unavoidable accidents, and they looked on me with baldfaced shock. One nearly escalated to violence, but I smiled disarmingly even as I continued to be a hulking tower of American meat.

It got wild. One of the mutants from that first band tried to pick a fight with an elderly skinhead by hissing at him and trying to punch him, and other assorted middle-school anime girl shit. He maintained his composure, which is more than you’d expect from a skinhead.

They tore the place apart, and it was one of the greatest experiences I’d had overseas. Certainly the greatest in the United Kingdom.

They finished up, I finished my beer, and bade a fond farewell to my new friends. They cautioned me again about a fortified Scottish wine; the name escapes me, but they talked about it like it was a combination of Boones’ Farm and tequila.

The only resident Irishman in our little party grew maudlin, as they are wont to do.

“Ya’re leaving? Already? I thought we could grab a few marr drinks. Well, that’s the way it goes, I s’pose. Maybe… in anudder life… anudder time…”

I clapped him on the shoulder and thanked him for his metal recommendations, then congratulated the Horrors on their set again and made for the door.

“Wait,” the singer said. “Thanks for coming, and for dancing. Here, take this.”

And she produced their album from one of their duffel bags, on CD. I didn’t know where I would play a CD, but the gesture was magnanimous. I thanked them again and made my way back to the hostel.

And that brings the tale of my most recent overseas jaunt to a close.

Epilogue: After an uneventful return to America, I discovered that the Girl brought a stereo system from the 90s from her parent’s house. It could play CDs. And since the only CDs in our possession in this, the year of our lord 2019 were the Headstone Horrors LP and what I’m told is a collection of “marimba classics”, I set the stereo up in the kitchen and kept those spooky little punkers spinning whenever I was cooking something.

After the move, the stereo went into storage, so now I stream them on Spotify, but I keep the album in a place of honor out of a Celtic sentimentality that four-hundred years of Americanization hasn’t yet pounded from my blood.

As of this writing, we’re in the midst of a pandemic, and it might be a little while before I go on another trip worth recording.

But I’m still here, and I’ll find something to fill up the digital pages.

Thanks for reading.

Love,

B.

London: Live Action Harrumphing

Thursday, September 26, 2019. London, England.
Soundtrack: Dropkick Murphys – The Gauntlet

England was a trip, man. I’ll need a few posts to get through all this, so I’m going to break this down into bite-sized pieces.

I survived the Ryanair flight, narrowly, and after the pilot landed the plane like a dribbled basketball I stepped out to the sweet solid ground. This particular solid ground, however, was British soil.

My last name is English. It’s not something I think about very often. I’m an American boy, and that’s as much heritage as I was ever given, beyond Ma’s painfully Irish complexion.

Now, I’m a firm believer that America is the greatest country in the world, despite our leadership, outrageously overpriced health care, disastrous system of cultural values, police brutality rates, test scores, lagging literacy, carbon emissions, obesity rates, car-centric comfort culture, academic debt slavery, intellectual cowardice, pop culture exportation, and humiliating representation on the global stage. I’m a patriot, and we’re still mad about the Revolutionary War.

I say this because it turns out, we modern Sons of Liberty aren’t the only ones.

The rest of the survivors and I were herded out into the little cattle chutes that led into the Southend airport, then divided into two groups: those with an EU passport, and those without. I was the only one without, and stood alone, like the cheese, until I was… regarded.

It’s said that the English take queueing (which is a special Metric system word for “waiting in line”) very seriously. I wasn’t prepared for quite how seriously.

It’s hard to picture this, but imagine a huge, open room with those little cloth bank turnstiles forming a maze. On one side of the room is everyone. On the other side of the room is me. I was being scolded for standing alone ten feet (that’s about 3 meters) of where I would otherwise be standing alone.

“How long are you planning on staying?” he asked, once he decided I wouldn’t experience the appropriate level of shame and started doing his job.

“Definitely not long,” I said. “I’m flying home from Dublin on Friday.”

“Enjoy your stay,” he said dryly, and stamped my goddamn passport already.

I left that charmer behind and found an ATM, withdrew a bunch of regal Monopoly money with one or more queens on it, then caught the train to the Tower of London (see next post). Then, I headed to my hostel, which was in a pub.

My first impression of London is that very few people there seem to be English. I mostly overheard Spanish. All the food stands were run by people from India or the Middle East. Both bartenders I encountered on my walk to my hostel were from Spain.

The people who ran my hostel were really nice, and really English. I chalked Angry Santa up to a fluke. In fact, all the English women I met on my trip were really nice and uniformly exuberant.

Four beers later, I discovered I was drunk! These are the dangers of eating one meal a day, friends. Man cannot live by a single burger alone.

The pub was starting to fill, and had collected a large number of Lads. I had been prepared for the Lads; I was informed that they would be raucous, perhaps cheeky. I did not anticipate them all being in their mid-thirties, or sitting at a table ten deep.

They were all ladded up, though, crowding the booth,shouting. I figured, if this was the rule, it must be real discomforting for British women. Maybe that’s why they were all so demonstratively bright and chirpy.

But that’s just at a glance. I would gain greater understanding of this great nation in the coming days. It was too noisy and ladly now, and I was full of beer. I slung my pack over my shoulders and stumbled out to sightsee.

Love,

B.

Barcelona: City of Dreams

Monday, September 23, 2019. Barcelona, Catalonia, Spain.
Soundtrack: The Libertines – The Man Who Would Be King

Our new hostel promised authentic paella cooking instruction and all-you-can-eat while supplies last at 9pm. The empanadas would not bear the weight. A pregame dinner was in order.

In Spain, you don’t eat meals. That’s why everyone’s slender and 5’5″, and why I feel like some sort of yeti Gandalf in swarthy Hobbiton. You eat tapas. Tapas are sixish bites of food that you eat at one place, then move onto the next; the theory is you stretch the act of eating into an evening-long graze that you also spend drinking responsibly and socializing.

In Barcelona, this is easy, since every other door is a new and exciting restaurant. A butcher half a block down served more “ham scratchings” on baguette for next to nothing, which was exactly what the doctor ordered to hold us over.

We did another lap around the city and discovered more plazas that just emerged from nowhere. Every alley had one and they were all ideal. It boggles me, coming from a place like Philadelphia, that a city can be so effortlessly serene and pleasant and clean.

Clean especially. Not once did I see human shit on the sidewalk. Sidewalk shit is Philly’s principal export.

Back at the hostel, they were gearing up for the authentic paella experience. The rules were simple: you help cook, and you clean your dishes. The California girl working at the hostel explained that authentic paelle was made by pouring frozen seafood, rice, and canned vegetables into a big pot with fish broth, then covering it for twenty minutes.

We ate at a long table, like the Last Supper. The kid next to me was in Spain on some ritzy scholarship, parsing data for meta-analyses of schizophrenic treatment options. I tried to talk shop, and he complimented my “terminology” but wouldn’t go into details aside from the fact the he shows up drunk sometimes and has a reputation as a “party kid”, which he is not.

He did teach me, however, that the hostel was selling wine for 3 Euros a bottle. He was saving his for his head. I bought a bottle and split it with Ladygirl and a British weeb.

The paella was good, probably. I don’t know. The wine was potent. I didn’t take a picture. I’ll take a picture next time I make it.

Night fell, and the entire hostel emptied out to go on the 15 Euro pub crawl. I don’t like guided fun, and Ladygirl had an early flight the next day, so clubbing until 4 AM wasn’t in the cards.

We decided to go out and grab a drink, maybe another tapa. Little did we realize it was La Mercè, an excruciatingly Catholic feasting festival spanning four days. It’s undoubtedly related to lent in some way, but I refuse to research how.

This was sitting right behind the Arc.

I had a half bottle of wine sloshing around in my head. What?

We continued down the park and came upon a labyrinth made of lit-up bags of recyclables. It wasn’t a statement. It wasn’t the amount of recycling in a given period of time or anything. It was just “an art installment”, and that was as much information as was provided.

I was at a loss. What did this have to do with a feast day? What did this have to do with anything?

Barcelona was unperturbed.

“This is like a music festival,” I said, wonderingly.

We made a lap to City Hall, but nothing was set up there yet. It would be the next day. It was still filthy with humans, but they were the general Monday night Barcelona party crowd.

Unfortunately, I would only find out the exact nature of that set up secondhand. The 24th was going to be a fire festival described to me as “the devil parade”. I already got my ticket to Balbao. You can imagine my disappointment.

Ladygirl ate some sort of chocolate covered waffle and we returned to the hostel, withdrawing from the communal dream and dropping into a more individual set.

To be interrupted by the girls in the bunk across the room, who kept snoozing their max-volume alarm from 6 to 6:30 AM, as though there were no other people in the world.

C’est la vie.

Love,

B.

Barcelona: La Sagrada Familia and Park Güell, or Gaudí’s Greatest Hits

Sunday, September 22nd, 2019. Barcelona, Catalonia, Spain.
Soundtrack: Bad Religion – Slumber

We made it to the airport with time to spare and were then loaded through a plastic tube, not unlike at the MacDonalz playplace, into a cozy little Vueling that doubled the leg room of Icelandair. I fell asleep sitting up almost instantly, as I tend to on red eyes. I wish I could fall asleep that easily under any other circumstances. It’d especially come in handy at hostels.

A nonstop from Reykjavik to Barcelona turned out to be 4 hours and 20 minutes. That’s as much sleep as I got that night. It was 5 AM in Barcelona, and check-in wasn’t for 10 hours.

I’d never seen the Arco de Triunfo in the dark. It was right next to my hostel, and I used to go there first thing in the morning, when no one was hovering around but the joggers, and stare at it until I wanted coffee.

 

 

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Even the joggers weren’t out this early.

Well, there was nothing else to do. Even the chain sandwich shops weren’t open yet. It seemed as good at time for Park Güell as any.

Last time, I made the egregious error of hiking all the way up Park Güell. It’s a three mile climb, steeper as you get higher. I learned nothing, and made the exact same error this time.

On the way to my folly, we swung wide to look at La Sagrada Familia.

 

The Basilica de la Sagrada Familia is the brainchild of Antoni Gaudí, architectural golden boy and patron saint of Barcelona. His influence can be found on virtually everything, and it tends to be hard to miss, all bendy and emblazoned and vajazzled as it tends to be. The gods are cruel and his name is a pun on his style.

We made it to Park Güell with nothing in the tank, so we wound up doing a whole lot of resting.

It was well and fully morning, and the tourists were out in droves. With them came hockers and grifters, all desperate to move their bottled water or back-of-a-truck refrigerator magnets.

Park Güell was originally set to be a little neighborhood for the embarrassingly rich as a means of repurposing the barren hilltops, exploiting the access to fresh air, and making use of the spectacular vista. Count Eusebi Güell deicded this was a goldmine waiting to happen, and contracted everybody’s favorite Catalonian architect to design the citadel.

Gaudí was deep into his naturalistic period at the time, and wove together a gorgeous arboreal tapestry shot through with winding staircases and serpentine walkways, complete with plazas for taking a break, having a smoke, and appreciating the sprawl of Barcelona, stretching seaward beneath your feet.

Then they started building the villas proper. Count Güell moved into one to lend further legitimacy to the project. The second was a showhome to field all of their buyers.

Except there were no buyers.

Well, Count Güell didn’t take it too hard. He was an industrialist and a count, and the proud new owner of a Catalonian mountaintop dragon hoard. They pulled the plug on the villa. The count convinced Gaudí to move into the showhome, where he lived for the next twenty years with his family.

Güell sold the plot to the city, and it has since become a World Heritage Site.

We soaked up the ambiance of this monument to failed capitalism for about an hour, then toddled back down the mountain until we found a restaurant where we could gorge on tapas and morning beer.

Olives, fried bread, and brandy and rosemary chorizo. They gave us more olives than you could get at a grocery store.

Heartened and reinvigorated, we made our way to our hostel, Sant Jordi Gracia, and arrived with too much time to spare. We were sleepless and filthy. We sat in the common room in the corner, staring at the floor like catatonic refugees until the dude at the desk said, “Hey, do you guys wanna shower while you wait?”

We did. Oh, god, how we did.

Everything in Gracia cost half of what it costs in the real world. It was phenomenal. After I took a three-hour death nap, we went up to a swank Syrian restaurant and housed like $100 worth of food for twenty Euros.

I hadn’t seen chicken in a week. They haven’t discovered it in Iceland yet. I wept at our reunion.

Love,

B.

 

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

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

Budapest: The Descent

December 1, 2017. Budapest, Hungary.

I had to face facts. I wasn’t realistically going to go be healed in the mineral baths. Public bathing sounded time-consuming and expensive, and all the local residents I’d talked to about it confirmed that it’s very much a tourist thing. I already had my FlixBus booked. The clock was running. I had to figure out how to kill another 24 hours in Budapest.

The answer came from a pamphlet I was forced to look at while the girls running my hostel attempted five minutes of math in order to give me my change.

“Sick of partying and sightseeing?”

“Yeah,” I said out loud.

“Want something more EXCITING?”

“Yeah, dude.”

They looked up from their calculations, but only momentarily. I can’t imagine they’re paid enough to deal with whatever I was doing.

“Try some fuckin’ uhhhh adventure caving.”

“You know, I just might.”

“Are you okay?” one of the girls asked.

I pocketed the pamphlet and collected my change, then went back to my little canvas bed-cubicle and did some Serious Internet Research. Apparently, there were two kind of tours: Weenie Hut Jr. Old People Cavewalk, and Mountain Dew Code Red EXTREME CAVER Spelunk. The latter was obviously twice as expensive, but since money isn’t real in Budapest is barely broke $10.

Unfortunately, the cave was 3 miles from town. The website assured me that a bus runs up to it, and when I disembarked to find this bus, I discovered the bus stop was also 2.5 miles away.

Welp.

I tied on my highly fashionable scarf (which I haven’t lost yet) and trekked up the mountain. It was an hour and a half of walking, nothing too terrible even after I’d gotten enough altitude that the sidewalk was a sheet of ice.

When I arrived, the guy at the desk asked if I was here for the Old People walk.

“No, I’m trying to do the one that warns you about being physically fit.”

“Do you have a reservation?”

On the website there was no phone number or e-mail, but there was an Angelfire-style late 90’s guestbook that said “Contact us!” about six page-scrolls under the words “Make a reservation or pay at the desk!”

Exclamation points are, as we know, extreme.

“I was just gonna pay at the desk.”

“You need a reservation,” he said. “Another company does the caving tours. If you want to contact them now, they usually get back very quickly, and we have hot chocolate.”

I passed on the hot chocolate and told their guestbook, “Hey, I’d like to make a reservation for today. When will you be here?”

Fifteen minutes later, I got an e-mail saying, “The High Voltage Maximum Overdrive Cannonball Spelunking Melee is at 3:30, but you need to make a reservation.”

I paused to rub my temples, then sent them a reply saying, “Yes, I’d like to make a reservation. For today. How do I do that?”

Another fifteen minutes and, “Here is your confirmation code for your reservation today!”

Well, that gave me three hours to kill on top of a mountain. I walked a mile in the wrong direction, ate an entire pizza, then walked back and dicked around on my phone until everyone arrived.

My group was 10 other people, led by two slight, enthusiastic Hungarian men in their late thirties. They gave us jumpsuits and hats. It was the best I’ve ever looked.

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felt like a ghostbuster

The reason I went caving is because I didn’t remember if I was claustrophobic. I know I get edgy if I’m packed into a room with a big crowd, barring the occasions that include mosh pits, but that probably has more to do with deep-seated misanthropy than phobic reaction to forfeiture of personal space. I can vividly remember a nightmare I had when I was young, where there was a subterranean river that ran under a mountain and I dove in and, breath held, fought my way up the current in the dark. The river was so narrow I could feel it brushing against my shoulders, and I reached out and grabbed the sides, used them to push myself along.

Now seemed like a good time to see if I still had that fear. Besides, if there’s a collapse and I die, it’ll happen really quick. I probably won’t even notice I’m dead. I’ve accomplished most of the things I’ve set out to do. Getting crushed into paste would mean I don’t have to draft a new bucket list.

The tour was pretty cool, in all honesty. You had to duck and crawl and shimmy around things a lot, a lot of climbing, hoisting, and maneuvering. It was fun, and made me feel like I’m in better shape than I could possibly be, considering how much of the past month I spent consuming poison and not exercising.

“Sporty” is the preferred European nomenclature. In America, we call it athletic, but in Europe they ask if you’re “sporty” before commenting about how you look like you go to the gym. You’re goddamn right. I’ll squat everyone you’ve ever loved.

As the lumberingest behemoth in the group, if there was a spot that was excessively tight, the tour guides would say, “Bastard, you’ll probably fit. And if not, we have knives.”

“I’ve been meaning to lose weight on this trip anyway,” I said.

There was only one truly close call.

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You’ve got no scale from that picture, but rest assured, what you’re looking at couldn’t be more than a foot high. The only way for a dude with my skeleton to wedge himself in was what they called “Supermanning”. You put one arm straight up in front of you, turn your head toward the arm you have down, and writhe on belly, pushing along with the tips of your toes and whatever your hands can grab.

I made it through most of the 50-feet of clay snake tunnel without incident or bitching, but when I popped out of the other side like a gopher, I got stuck at the thickest point in my chest. Not a little stuck, either. I couldn’t go forward or backward, not that backward was really an option anyway.

You know that phrase, “stuck between a rock and a hard place”? That was my ribcage. I could feel limestone jutting between the slats in my ribs.

“Welp,” I said, “I guess I’ll stay here.”

“You stuck?”

“Real stuck. Come back in a couple days, I’ll slim down.”

“Move toward the right,” they suggested.

The right was slightly back up the tunnel, and it took a herculean effort to unjam my torso, but I managed to push myself back into an area that gave me an extra inch of clearance. That was all I needed. I wormed out and dusted off.

“Whew!” I said. “All right. Not claustrophobic anymore, as it turns out.”

That was the narrowest point on the tour, which is good, because I wouldn’t be typing this now if there were narrower. The guides showed us fossils, gypsum crystals, and formations with wacky names like “The Sandwich”, “The Theater,” and “The Birth Canal.” The Sandwich was where I got stuck. The birth canal was roomier than you’d expect.

I mimicked the guides as best I could as we flung ourselves around the cave like characters from Donkey Kong Country. It was basically the fun parts of hiking — the jumping, climbing, balancing — but underground.

When we surfaced I walked back to civilization and realized the to-and-from definitely burnt off the entire pizza. I needed to fuel up. I was getting pretty sick of meat by this point, so I went to the restaurant by my hostel and ordered the stuffed cabbage.

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Now, the casual observer may look at this and say, “Bastard, where is the cabbage?”

An understandable question. It was wedged between the kielbasa and what I think was a deep fried pork vertebra, with an entire pork chop pulled over the top like a blanket.

I didn’t die in the cave. I guess that’s cause for celebration. I ate, drank, be’d merry, then called it an early night so I could catch this bus.

Dresden is the next stop. Don’t worry, I’m prepared.

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This cartoon bird says I can speak German.

Love,

The Bastard

Prague: Architectural Anarchy

November 22, 2017. Prague, Czech Republic.

There are different kinds of surreal. Barcelona was a psychotropic fever dream, everything outsizedly absurd, the kind of ridiculousness that even dream logic can’t slip by you. Fifteen-foot tall matadors burst from an alley to the sound of spirit flutes and you stop and say, “Wait, this is a dream. Obviously. Okay.”

Prague is different. It’s cooler, more refined and lucid in its creeping abnormality. It’s easy to understand how a place like this churned out a mind like Kafka. The city carries an overtone of dread, the subtle but implacable discomfort that comes in the strange vision quests that too much NyQuil gives you.

Don’t get me wrong, it’s a beautiful city. It’s just, when you walk through it, you feel like it’s being made up as it goes along. The architecture is eclectic to the point of the random. You can stand on a single corner and look around a square and see three, four, five different styles of building, ordinarily separated by centuries, now jutting against one another.

That’s what’s so unsettling about Prague, I think. That’s what gives it the static buzz of a medicated dream.

Think about your last nightmare. You’re running down a hallway, maybe a childhood school or something, you get to the staircase, you run up the steps, two at a time, you throw open the doors to the roof and you’re suddenly in the middle of the woods.

It’s like that every time you turn a corner. The same jarring sense of something being wrong.

Good thing morbid absurdity is my bread and butter. I’ve been bumbling around Prague for two days now, fending off a chest cold in the rainy, 30 degree weather. I walk into a Baroque alley and come out a Gothic one. Roman churches suddenly give way to municipal buildings covered in arabesques. Down another alley, which gets so narrow that you can barely fit two people through it at once, and I walk out into an expanse of Soviet Brutalism that goes on for as long as my vision does.

I caught a snippet of an interview on a TV screen in some museum or other, a local architecture teacher was saying, “Builders just kept coming. We had some from Germany, we had some from France, we had many from Italy, from Portugal, from Spain, from the East, all these builders came to add something to Prague.”

Well, mission accomplished. It felt to me like a weird echo of the Great Bazaar, jumbled miscellany writ large and rendered permanent.

I crossed the bridge out of Old Town and climbed the hill toward Prague Castle, a standing complex that had been restored (and, in keeping with their whole theme, remodeled) since the 1300s. That’s where I found the crown jewel, a Gothic masterpiece called the St. Vitus Cathedral.

The pictures don’t do it justice. It was like a factory that mass-produces religiously themed nightmares. It’s like the Devil made a church as a joke, and it was so over-the-top that they decided to keep it. The whole big bastard looks like a 2-page insert from a gritty early 90’s Batman comic. I was so awed by it I didn’t even mind the Asian families doing noisy selfie-stick gymnastics next to me.

I climbed to the top of the South Tower. Allegedly 287 steps. Bull. 283. I counted.

It didn’t start to really suck until step 140, but that was probably just the chest cold. Probably.

I made my way back down the hill and discovered a “Medieval Tavern” with a row of blackened skulls across the door.

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Welp, my hands are tied. I went in, figuring that I’d grab something to eat here.

It was nearly pitch black inside, lit only by candles. Lots of rough-hewn stone, lots of weird haunted house decorations like skulls, chains, robed mannequins. I don’t know how prevalent robed mannequins were in actual medieval times, but I have to imagine they used more lighting and fewer bones in general tavern decor. Maybe it was a special dungeon-themed tavern. I wandered down some winding stairs into some dark, empty rooms, and then eventually into a well-lit modern kitchen, which is when I knew I’d gone too far. I wandered back up the stairs and sat at the head of a table, looked over the menu.

After maybe 10 minutes of alternating between looking at the menu and a candle, a beautiful blonde skeleton appeared and asked what I wanted to drink. The menu said “Home made beer with love”, so I ordered that. She slam-dunked it on my table on the way past and either didn’t hear my attempt to order food or ignored it.

 

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It was a porter, and it was okay. Nothing to write home about. Not particularly strong. A little light and hoppy for my tastes, but beggars and choosers; I hadn’t gotten my hands on anything darker than a lager since Ireland, and even that had just been knockoff Guinness.

Well, I finished it, and she never came back. Guess I was gonna eat somewhere else. I paid my 25 ckz (about $2) to a dour-faced young man in a shirt that was, for some reason, full of holes. Maybe it was supposed to be a peasant throwback, but the effect was ruined by the visibility of the Calvin Klein logo on his boxers.

I guess a porter is a lunch. That’s around 200 calories. That’s 2 bananas. Or 3 eggs. 3 eggs could, arguably, be lunch. I drifted through the spontaneously rendering streets calculating how much actual food could have taken the place of that mediocre beer with love when I happened upon a “Ghost Museum”. Well, those are some of my favorite things, and it had a student discount, so why not?

The upper floor was a collection of badly but wittily translated ghost stories printed on single sheets of giant fake scroll paper that was then pasted into giant fake books. The downstairs was advertised as “a walk through the ghost-haunted streets of the underground”, but was more of a long basement full of cheap haunted house decorations. I wonder if this part of Prague has a guy. Like, a Party City wholesaler, so they just wound up with all these lame Halloween decorations and went, “All right, what can do we do with this?”

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I found my way to the surface and walked the mile or so back to my hostel, then down the street to yet another pho place. I’ve been subsisting mostly on pho in Prague, partly because both hostels I booked have been in Little Vietnam (it is not that little, considering they’re a mile and a half apart), partly because pho is basically chicken soup and that’s as close as I can get to eating healthy here.

Here, let me walk you through Czech cuisine real quick.

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anywhere else it would be reasonable to assume “tatar sauce” is a typo

So far, I’ve only had the opportunity to sample 2 totalitarian classics in Prague.

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This one was right after I got off the bus, before I understood how much Czech money was worth. This was the first and last time I would pay $15 for three mouthfuls of deer meat and some tater tots.

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This monstrosity was much more reasonable, something like $7 all told. On the bottom, it’s around a half lb of chicken breast and all sorts of delicious peasant vegetables, broccoli, tomatoes, green peppers, onions, the usual. And then also, giant fried potato wedges. Then cheese. It’s like shepherd’s pie without any broth, and then instead of mashed potatoes, a gallon of cheese. It was called Žižkov, after a popular student district. It was cheese fries gone out of control.

I’ve done more than I’ve written since arriving in Prague, but since everything has felt so haphazard and disjointed, that’s how I’m going to tell the story, too. I’ll tell you one thing for damn sure, though, I’ve got to find a better place to get breakfast.

This morning I opted for the $6 hostel breakfast. “English Continental”, he said.

“Yeah, but what’s in that?” I asked. “I’m from the States, When hotels say continental breakfast, they usually mean coffee and a danish.”

He looked at me strangely, possibly because he was, himself, Danish, then showed me the list. Lunchmeats, bread, milk, eggs, omelettes optional, just ask the cook. I forked over some of the Czech currency and he said, “Okay, now go outside, across the courtyard, through the gate, to the other hostel on your left, and give them this voucher.”

Uh. All right.

I did that, and the man at the door was obviously displeased to see me. That seemed to be a recurrent theme in Prague, truth told. No one has seemed particularly excited to see me, but I’m trying not to take it personally. The dining room was full of three lazy German shepherds, which I approved of for reasons more moral than sanitary.

The spread. Ah, the spread. Three types of stale bread! It was great, if you ate around the mold.

Canned eggs, served chilled. Ice-cold, perfectly circular eggs, their yolks a distressing and unnatural orange color. A pinch of parsley had been applied to the top, presumably to simulate “preparation”.

Wet tortillas rolled up with apple jelly. Just like Mom used to make, during her psychotic breaks.

Some sort of single-serving spreadable ham.

Small, sad apples, their skins all withered and pruny and generally looking like grandpa testicles.

I looked at the angry Czech men. They glared back at me, as if daring me to ask for an omelette.

I ate an entire plate of tomatoes and lunchmeat, then more tomatoes, then a quantity of bread and butter that even I found sort of alarming. Feed a fever, starve a cold? Feed a cold? Then I went back to the hostel, where the possible Dane asked, “how was breakfast?”

“Fine,” I lied, then passed out for another 3 hours. I think that was more immune system than food, though.

If I get to the Kafka museum tomorrow, I’ll double it up and tell you about my Adventures in Communism!

Love,

The Bastard

 

 

Istanbul: Fleeing the Scene

November 20, 2017. Istanbul, Turkey.

I’d seen the day life of Istanbul, and that was a carnage of rug sales pitches. I’d seen the night life, and it appeared women were endangered. As much fun as another night trying to gather the personal space necessary to shuffle-dance in the epicenter of a room full of sweating dudes sounded, it seemed about time to move on. I bought a pound of Turkish Delight for all the people stateside who I’ve abandoned and caught a plane to Prague.

Here’s a quick retrospective on Istanbul that didn’t make it into my other posts:

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a tame corner of the Grand Bazaar

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oof i don’t think so dude, ima try the place where i can’t recognize any words in the name

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there we go. My boy Canada warned me to avoid the food, but i think the issue was he didn’t go to the place where they give you thirteen pounds of pickled vegetables. it had digested itself before it even hit my stomach

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ermergerd

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when you know the OC you made is hot fire and you’re waitin for the likes to roll in

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manti. it’s like lamb ravioli with yogurt and tomato sauce. the crazy bastards actually did it

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this would be the ideal Turkish pickup line if they hadn’t hunted all the women to extinction

All right, that’s my pictures folder. Everything else is from Prague, and that’ll be tomorrow’s, when I give the place a fair shot. I’ve been here since 2 PM yesterday and somehow managed to find only defunct Soviet blocs and Chinatown. Just as well, though; it was like 30 degrees and raining, and jet lag gave me a cold. Or quitting coffee. Or quitting cigarettes. Probably a combination thereof.

I’m not a smoker back home, but in Turkey it was unavoidable. Men, women, children, even the cats had adorable little Winstons hanging out of the corner of their mouths. I spent last night taking down a pack of Halls in the worst hostel I’ve ever been in, which I shared an Australian McMurray.

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oi there ya cunt

He told me he’d just got citizenship, then said he was staying at this hostel until he got himself settled.

“Congrats, but I don’t know if I’d choose this one long-term,” I said. There were 2 power outlets in a room with 14 beds. The room was 90 degrees, and the window wouldn’t open without falling in and shattering.

“Why? I love this place!”

“Everything’s broken here, man. As soon as I touch something, I don’t even have the chance to break it. It’s been broken.”

“You should’a seen it the other night!” he mumble-howled. “It was just packed full of people, right outta prison. Tear tattoos and knife scars and everything. Full-on predators, mate, they all just got released at the same time. One dude had to switch to another room because he got here, his bed was full of rat poison.”

“Maybe that’s it,” I said. “You’re an Australian. It makes you feel at home when everything is trying to kill you.”

He laughed, then broke one of the power outlets.

All right, that’s enough for now. I’m at the only breakfast place I could find, and the woman running it is obviously not thrilled that I’m here. I don’t know if she’s angry in general, or angry with me, but the turn of phrase that jumps to mind is “worn down”. I’ve been done with breakfast for 15 minutes, and if I stick around much longer I think she’ll turn up the awful 90s club music again.

Until next time.

Love,

The Bastard

Istanbul, Turkey: Zen and the Eye of the Storm

November 17, 2017. Istanbul, Turkey.

When I was a hood rat fresh out of high school, all combat boots and band shirts and tongue ring, I tempered my aggro hypervigilance by one-shotting it through every Zen book that Barnes and Noble had, and shoplifting those that required further examination. We called it “heistin'”. To the untrained eye, these may seem like diametrically opposed ideals, but the beauty of Zen is its comfort with contradiction. Keep pressing me and I’ll show you the sound of one hand clapping.

When trawling the gutter got stale, I ran the gates out of my hometown like all those pop-punk singers claimed they would. Difference is, I did it. Another difference is, I’m not a statutory rapist. I got a couple degrees and a big kid job and lost all the ways I used to vent the constant high thrum of anxious madness building in my skull. The adrenaline rushes of creepin’ and heistin’ and scrappin’ and breaking everything in this room were gone. I was a goddamn therapist! And when you lose one wing, the center can’t hold. My Zen dropped away just as surely, leaving me a tension battery.

Well, now that I’m on the road and enfolded in a perpetuity of chaos, it seemed like time to get it back. One side of the scale isn’t empty anymore. Let’s balance this bitch.

Couldn’t have chosen a better place to recalibrate. Istanbul is a vortex of spastic activity.

It was a two mile walk from my hostel to the Hagia Sophia, which would compel most to take a train, but I’m inherently distrustful of trains. Especially those with timetables in a language I don’t speak. Besides, walking is still honest.

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okay good start

I made my way to the bridge that spanned the Bosphorous inlet. It was filthy with humans. Rule 1, the Slide-Up, but they were all much too distracted with the views of the river and Old City. The guardrail was lined by fishermen, all of whom seemed to be doing pretty well for themselves. The gallon jug full of fish especially blew my mind. So tidy and space efficient!

 

I was watching the fisherman drop deposit another little fish in the jug like sliding a coin into a piggy bank when I heard a familiar voice say (mercifully, in English), “Hey, what’s going on!”

My boy Canada, from the hostel back in Athens, was coming the other way across the bridge. Big continent, small world. We caught up briefly, talking about the happenings of our past few days.

“Have you tried the taxis yet?” he asked.

“I avoid them like the plague,” I said. “Haven’t used one since I got to Europe.”

“Good call. I got ripped off by one coming from the bus station. I’d been on a plane all day, then on a 2 hour bus, and I just wanted to get to my hostel, so I call a cab. I got in and he kept saying, “Traffic is bad, so we’ll take a shortcut”.  I kept telling him, “No, just take me the normal way”. Then he turns the meter on and I see it jumping up and up and up, and I say, “Forget it”, and I go to get out of the car. He starts saying he’ll give me the ride for 55 lira.”

(that’s about $14).

“So I count out my money — I have a 50 and a 5 in my hand, I looked at them — then I give it to him. He takes it, turns away, puts it in the little money pouch, then turns back and says, “Oh, you gave me two 5’s.” I said I didn’t, and then he demanded another 50, and I told him no, and he started yelling in Turkish so I said “Fuck this” and got out, walked the rest of the way. Like, you hear about it, but I’ve never had it happen to me, you know?”

“Yeah, I hear that.”

“You eat any of the food yet?” he asked.

“Naw. I drank too much beer in Greece, so I’m laying off the calories until I feel less squishy and useless.”

He shook his head. “Be careful, man. I got in and ate a doner, one of those kebab gyro things? I was fine until I woke up at 4 AM and just threw up in the hostel bathroom for like an hour.”

“Oof. I heard that kinda thing about the tap water,” I said.

“I’ve been drinking bottled. It was definitely the food. I’ve been eating McDonalds ever since. It’s not like Greece, man.”

He certainly had that right. We made plans to meet up the next day and I continued toward the capitol of three or four empires that had historically changed hands like a game of Hot Potato.

Let me say this for Old City: It is the most defensible place I’ve ever been. The hills are insanely steep, the streets ridiculously narrow. It’s difficult not to imagine how you could funnel footmen into an ambush, or trap them on unfavorable ground.

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I approached the Hagia Sophia and got an ambush of my own in the form of a cloying little Kurdish man in a used car salesman jacket. He shook my hand, told me about his family and how American half of them are, gave me a guided tour while insisting he wasn’t a tour guide and “it’s all for free!”

He would not leave me alone.

“Here, I take you to the line!” he said. He guided me toward it.

“Thanks, but I was gonna sit for a second.”

“I sit with you!” he said, and did, offering me a cigarette that I refused. His face was twisted around a central point like a Picasso painting and his cauliflower ear was badly infected. Two red flags for a career brawler. I was twenty years his junior and had fifty pounds on him, but that’s still not how I wanted to spend my afternoon.

After he told me his extended family tree and how much he loved Manhattan, he bought a ticket from a scalper with a minimum of words exchanged and rushed me through the entry line. I paid him the 40 lira to him after he pointed the price out on the sign. “See? Is 40! Is 40!”

My bullshit detector was wailing like a siren. They’re in cahoots. Why are they in cahoots?

“Very old building,” he began, scanning himself through the gate with a ticket of his own and gesturing at the Hagia Sophia. “Very old, much history. Seat of many empires!” He started rattling off numbers.

“Listen,” I said, “I don’t mean to insult you, but why are you doing all this for me?”

“Is free! I’m not a tour guide!”

“Are you sure? This seems a lot like a guided tour.”

“I have a gift shop, just down that dark sketchy alley,” he said. “Maybe after, I take you there, give you business card, maybe I sell you a scarf or some jewelry.”

“I appreciate the offer,” I said, “But I really prefer to wander on my own. Tell you what, how about you give me the address and I’ll swing by after I’m done here.”

“No, no, no!” he said. “Is fine, is fine! I go through with you, then I take you there.”

“You don’t have to do that,” I said. “I’d like to see it alone. Why don’t you just give me a business card?”

“I don’t have them with me.”

I squinted at him.

“You don’t carry your business cards with you?”

“They are at the store. I’ll wait for you at the exit, then I show you!”

“You don’t have to do that, but sincerely, thanks for all your help. Teşekkür ederim,” I said, then ghosted into the old mosque.

It was enormous and beautiful, but much less gaudy than the places of worship I’d come to expect from my experiences in Rome and the Vatican. It felt ancient, enduring, less concerned with all the religious fripperies. It was closer to a fortress than a palace, and closer to a palace than a temple.

I took off my Wanderhut and threw a curve into my spine, pulling my shoulders down and dropping into lockstep with the tall Asian man ahead of me. I saw my friend with the checkered coat, but he didn’t see me. I got a reasonable distance away then dropped the Peter Lorre act and headed around the fountain, toward the Blue Mosque.

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I got turned away at the door by a serious looking man in a nice coat.

“My friend,” he said, and the hackles went up. “It is prayer right now, you cannot enter the mosque.”

“That’s all right,” I said.

“Perhaps you are hungry? I have a shop just around the corner, do you prefer spices or Turkish delight?”

“I’ve never had either,” I said. “Thanks anyway though, but I have to go.”

“Where are you from?”

“United States,” I said, walking away as he started to talk about his cousins in the United States.

“Where are you going!” he called after me. “I take you to my shop, free samples!”

“I’m really all right,” I yelled back. “Gotta meet somebody, thanks anyway.”

“Don’t you trust me?!”

This gave me legitimate pause. I stopped walking for a second to process this question. Granted, it was obviously a ploy intended to make me feel guilty — barking up the wrong tree on that one, bud — but more to the point, why the hell would I trust him? What reason has he given me? A punctuated summary of his fictional family tree? A limp handshake and an invitation to literally take free candy from a stranger?

“It’s not looking great,” I told him, and then faded into the crowd, bound for the Great Bazaar.

To be continued, beautiful readers.

Love,

The Bastard