Book Review: Deep Work

Deep Work: Rules for Focused Success in a Distracted WorldDeep Work: Rules for Focused Success in a Distracted World by Cal Newport

My rating: 1 of 5 stars

I’m not a fickle man by nature, so I was surprised to look up the other Studyhacks plug vehicle I read and discover I’d given it five stars. That’s a four-star differential! If he had it, how did he lose it? How could he fall so far?

The problem with Deep Work is it featured more of the author as an individual, and less of his research. This was manifested by his constant, breathlessly verbose academic masturbation. Yeah, I think he’s a self-aggrandizing, circumlocutionary wad. Me. The guy who just used half a thesaurus to call him long-winded. I think that.

The author, as an individual, is unlikeable. Even putting aside his relentless boasting, his sloppy dual-hand shaft-massage of “innovative” CEOs and middle managers is equal parts embarrassing and grotesque.

Deep Work is a clunky propagandist how-to that attempts to convince you there is no life beyond your work, then gives helpful hints on how to drain all the vibrancy, adventure, and joy from your life in pursuit of more work, more promotions, more money so you finally make enough to consider yourself successful.

The motivational stories are harrowing. A dude who was working data-entry, getting like $60k a year, decides that he’s had it with that life and strikes out in pursuit of something more. He drops out of everything and obsessively teaches himself to code, working eight hours in his garage with fifteen different programming manuals over the course of a few months. When he wraps up this self-imposed asceticism, he enrolls in a master’s level accelerated course that “several doctorate students failed out of” and of course is the top of his class.

Ready for the payoff?

He gets certified and hired as a top-tier code monkey, making $100k a year, almost double. Newport states that he has, unequivocally, succeeded. He continues to work twelve-hour days, which begin at 5 AM, because he wants to focus his concentration and get his “deep work” in those essential four hours before everyone else arrives to disrupt his concentration.

Imagine that life. That successful life.

The book is replete with examples of these ubermensch “knowledge workers” (his term, and I cringed every time) reinventing paradigms by putting a lot of people in the same room at work, or isolating them in little cells, or whatever else. His description of the Facebook office is nothing short of sycophantic.

The book is filthy with business jargon and academic self-importance, and also business self-importance and academic jargon. It’s the worst of all conceivable worlds. I’ll give in an example, but I’ll summarize and paraphrase the lead-in; Lord knows somebody has to.

He talks about trying to classify daily work tasks into either deep or shallow work. Deep work requires sustained periods of deep concentration, pushing you to the limit of your abilities, often conjuring the flow state. Shallow work is answering e-mails and having meetings. Some things fall in between, and he attempts to establish a metric of “How long would it take a smart, recent university graduate to learn how to do this?”

Here comes the verbatim:
In the example editing a draft of an academic article that you will soon submit to a journal: Properly editing an academic paper requires that you understand the nuances of the work (so you can make sure it’s being described precisely) and the nuances of the broader literature (So you can make sure it’s being cited properly). These requirements require

— is that what those requirements do —

cutting-edge knowledge of an academic field – a task that in the age of specialization takes years of diligent study at the graduate level and beyond. When it comes to this example, the answer to our question would therefore be quite large, perhaps on the scale of fifty to seventy-five months.

Seventy-five months to be worthy of proofreading your academic paper? Are you high?

As you can see from that logorrhea, he’s absolutely unreadable.

It wasn’t a total wash, or I wouldn’t have finished reading it, though my iron resolve just kept on flagging. He name-drops Neal Stephenson several times, since he only had maybe ten examples of successful deep workers throughout the book (and one was Mark Twain, so maybe not firsthand report). Here’s what Neal had to say.

If I organize my life in such a way that I get lots of long, consecutive, uninterrupted time-chunks, I can write novels. [If I get interrupted a lot] what replaces it? Instead of a novel that will be around for a long time… there is a bunch of e-mail messages that I have sent out to individual persons.

Well, that’s certainly true. But if the best line of your book is someone else’s, it might benefit you to gather up a “work block” for some self-reflection.

Another Geneva Convention-caliber violation is the concept of “productive meditation”. I’m a shrink by trade, so allow me to be your matador and draw your attention to the biggest, reddest flag: meditation is already productive. That’s why you do meditation. It defrags your brain and strengthens the orbitoprefontal cortex, improves your capacity for stress management, lowers your blood pressure, deepens sleep, enhances creativity, the whole nine yards. It makes you a better human being across every domain.

So the initial suggestion that Newport has discovered another, more productive means of meditation that has eluded the bodhisattvas for the past two millennia is opaque megalomania. He goes on to suggest that whenever you have “extra time”, such as when you’re walking somewhere, or showering, or eating, you should decide and hyperfocus on a specific “professional problem”, and think about nothing else for the duration of your activity.

Let’s see his own words again:
Fortunately, finding time for this strategy is easy, as it takes advantage of periods that would otherwise be wasted (such as walking the dog or commuting to work), and if done right, can actually increase your professional productivity instead of taking time away from your work.

Walking the dog isn’t a waste of your time, you fucking automaton. It’s a daily opportunity to connect with an animal that considers you its entire world.

It’s hard to slog through 300 pages of this and not interpret it as an attack on the human spirit. Your performance algorithm doesn’t allow for freedom, Cal. You’re running yourself into the ground and clocking 2 hours a night with your family because you’ve sold your soul to an outmoded notion of success, and these papers, these books that you turn out so assiduously are private little shrines and idols, designed not only to convert those who haven’t yet seen the light, but to prove to the skeptics, and to yourself, that it was worth it.

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New Jersey: The Hatelands

February 2nd, 2018. Cherry Hill, New Jersey.

You want horror? I’ll give you horror.

New Jersey is a real place, though I don’t know why. No one benefits from it. A Canadian philosopher once told me, “Pennsylvania is just New Jersey but brown and rusty.” I would agree, but with a slight modification: “Pennsylvania is New Jersey but brown, rusty, and not an above-ground sewer that eats the life force of any who wander into it like a rancid, 4th-generation Italian will-o’-the-wisp.”

Do not mistake me. Pennsylvania is incredibly brown and rusty. I’ve lived in this coal crater my entire life, and I didn’t learn about the color “green” until I was a man (which, in the Frozen North, occurs when you bite your first coyote to death, around age 7 or 8). But if you ever enter New Jersey at night – god forbid – you’ll see everything has a faint yellow cast to it. I privately think of it as “piss smog”, though I don’t share that with anyone unfortunate enough to be in the car with me when caught in New Jersey’s event horizon.

In the Art of War, Sun Tzu delineates nine types of ground you’ll happen upon in battle and the strategic applications of each. The final, and most severe, is “desperate or deadly ground”, where no tactics can save you. You burn your possessions, you tell your troops to abandon all hope, you put your backs to the wall, and you fight. As interpreted by the enormous herbalist and military advisor Li Ching:

The country is wild, destitute of water and plants; the army is lacking in the necessaries of life, the horses are jaded and the men worn-out, all the resources of strength and skill unavailing, the pass so narrow that a single man defending it can check the onset of ten thousand; all means of offense in the hands of the enemy, all points of vantage already forfeited by ourselves:—in this terrible plight, even though we had the most valiant soldiers and the keenest of weapons, how could they be employed with the slightest effect?”

It’s like Sun Tzu penned their tourism pamphlet.

Obviously, this isn’t going to be a chronicle of tourism. I was in New Jersey once by choice, five years ago. It was because of a redhead, as are all of my lasting life mistakes. I went to the Jersey Shore, not yet realizing that beaches are a waste of time, and I did what I could to ignore the fact it was basically a salty, wet landfill. Here are a couple of action shots featuring my chunky yet funky youthful incarnation making the best of it.

This was shortly after a carnie solicited that I “throw a free dart at the balloons!” I did, and popped two.

“Oh snap,” I said (it was a different time), “What do I win?”

“You have to pop at least three balloons to get a prize,” he said. “$5 to play.”

I decided I didn’t need a bootleg stuffed Garfield that bad and started on my way. The dude came roaring around the side of his booth, flailing his arms like an early Jim Carey and j’accuseing me of “NOT EVEN CARING ABOUT THE SHORE!”

“Correct,” I assured him. He seemed to get more upset, even despite my validation.

I did get a fetal shark there, though. His name is Formaldehoward and he has been the best roommate a dude could ask for.

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he’s gotten wrinklier, but who among us hasn’t?

When I escaped Jersey, I solemnly vowed to never return. I was doing well for half a decade.

I’m newly transplanted to Philadelphia, where I’ve burrowed into a seaside cave to ride out the coldest parts of the winter. Never fear, beautiful readers, I’ll run up the Rocky steps, look at statues of Benny Frank’s fat ass, and lambast the local beer as soon as I can go outside without the mucous membranes around my eyes freezing solid. If it were up to me, I’d hunker down and hibernate until I could bang through a long run without my sweat turning to shards of frost before fully escaping my pores. It’s like being stabbed by hundreds of tiny icicles.

Sadly, it’s not up to me. Enter another redhead, this one with $150 in Bed, Bath, and Beyond gift cards. The nearest Bed, Bath, and Beyond is in Cherry Hill which, for the record, featured neither cherries nor hills. It should be called Garbage Crater.

It takes a while to cross the Ben Franklin Bridge, but you can tell when you hit New Jersey because this potent ennui settles around you like a dark cloud of piss smog. Your phone will also chime, and Google Maps will tell you, “You’ve just entered New Jersey. Jeez.” and then autosuggest Suicide Hotline numbers.

The third surefire way to tell whether you’ve crossed the border is how the people around you are driving.

Are they driving like stupid assholes? Odds are good that you’re still in Philly.

Are they driving like stupid assholes who have a personal vendetta against you, and  their genitals are being mauled by wolverines, and also everyone involved is rabid, and on fire? Got some bad news for you, my friend.

After narrowly surviving some merges that would qualify as American tragedies if they’d happened in a NASCAR arena, we pulled into Bed, Bath, and Beyond in search of, apparently, a multitude of wooden cutting boards, each about an inch bigger than the last.

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i’ve got about a dozen punchlines for this one, but they’re beneath us both

If you want a pictorial summary of the Jerseygrant, it’s right here. Don’t look at it too long or you might think about it.

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We narrowly escaped with our lives (and a George Foreman Lean Mean Grillin’ Machine, which was my prime motivation for braving this outdoor dungeon). On the way back, I stopped for gas and discovered most of the t-shirts advertised Philadelphia. At the time, I wrote it off with “Well, I could understand why”.

Then, back across the Ben Franklin Bridge. Entering New Jersey is free. There are signs all over the bridge that say, “NO TOLL THIS WAY”.

But escaping costs $5.

It was a eureka moment for me, the slow-dawning realization that the only reason this enormous seaside diaper-pile can afford what it so courageously calls its infrastructure is by tithing the dumb suckers from Philly, out to visit the only nearby beach.

I slammed my mouth full of the worst chocolate covered peanuts I’ve ever had (how do you even fuck those up?) and vowed, once again, to never return to these blighted hatelands.

But I didn’t leave empty-handed.

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precioussss

Contrary to what deceitful boxes may tell you, the George Foreman Lean Mean Fat-Grillin’ Machine does not, in fact, remove 42% of the fat. It’s closer to 0% of the fat. It’s just a sloped panini press. If losing the juices from a burger removed the fat, wouldn’t every burger cooked on an open-grate grill be fat free?

However, it DOES cook hamburgers indoors in the dead of winter, providing me valuable iron so I’m not constantly covered in bruises trying to navigate my giant, stupid body through the trappings of civilization. One could say this trip was my paying the iron price, and one wouldn’t be wrong.

But what a price it was.

reek

Love,

The Bastard

Berlin, Germany: The Voyage Home

December 6, 2017. Berlin, Germany.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Truly, the Berlin airport provided all amenities.

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i knew i forgot to pack something

Something for everyone.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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certainly a different sentiment than in Berlin

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

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

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

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our scruffy and weatherbeaten hero on a tiny Portuguese airport couch

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

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

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breakfast of champions

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

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

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

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

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

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

Unfortunately, it was a 7 hour walk.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Now, onto the next great adventure.

Love,

The Bastard

Berlin: Outsider Art of the Anne Frank Zentrum and East Side Gallery

December 4, 2017. Berlin, Germany.

After the Panoptikum, I tried to head into the nearby Monsterkabinett for reasons that I feel should be self-evident. I’d later find out it was a little more Muppety than I’d have liked, but I still didn’t get the chance to investigate thoroughly since it’s open like 3 hours a day starting at 8pm and I wasn’t about to stand in the rain for six hours.

In order to get turned away from the Monsterkabinett entrance, you need to go down a sketchy alley full of hipsters and white dreadlocks, the walls themselves cacophonous with unrelated graffiti and half-finished or sabotaged murals. The centerpiece is a slightly cockeyed reimagining of Anne Frank.

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man, you can almost hear “Oh Comely”

She was flanked by a couple of anatomically correctish statues.

Nearby is a door that neatly encapsulates whatever the hell is going on here.

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An appreciable warning, considering.

They got sort of a thing for cyclopes.

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no idea what was going on here, but i instinctively hated it. “entfuhrt” means kidnapped. unhelpful

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here either, but i hated it less

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“keep the buttons open”

I took this sage advice from the terrible minion and faded out of the alley, into a sort of plywood tunnel that led past several different construction areas on the road to East Berlin. The inside was also decorated, though less imaginatively.

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it was here i discovered Guaranteed Value Flight of the Conchords. at the time and based on the posters i thought they were advertising for a community college, but it turns out they’re refugees fleeing a war. whoops

The delineation between West and East Berlin is just as clear now as it was before the fall of the wall. Stop on a corner and look around. Do you see any Indian restaurants? Do you see any restaurants or stores at all? If the answer to these questions are “no”, you’re in East Berlin, where the specter of communism is spanging at the stoplight because there are no businesses for it to hang out in front of.

The exception being a single depressing Subway restaurant built into the bottom of a brutalist office building. I tried to take a picture of it, but my camera started weeping.

After walking for entirely too goddamn long in the rain (as discussed, Berlin is impossibly huge and I really should’ve made more of an effort at figuring out public transit), I arrived at the crumbling remnants of the Berlin wall, alias the East Side Gallery.

There were tons of pieces along this ridiculously long wall, but most of them didn’t warrant documentation. I photographed the best ones whenever I could get the relentless selfie patrol out of my way. You’d think they would be dissuaded by the rain, the cold, the lack of available nutrition, and my low, guttural snarling, but they didn’t even care, man. They’re like the fuckin’ mail. Rain, sleet, or snow, their IG posts must go through.

I slipped through and checked out the other side as well. It was less ornate.

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haha gottem

Well, that was enough for me. I hadn’t eaten in a day or two, and it was starting to get to me. All this slightly hunched rainwalking was killing my back, too. I made my way back toward West Berlin.

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you and me both, bud

It was pretty easy to tell once I’d crossed back into West Berlin.

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even if your German’s not real strong you can noodle this one out

I didn’t get a Salat though. Instead, I found my way to what looked like a traditional German restaurant, named something like Grunstein’s Essen. I was cracking my spine in the warmth and relative dryness when the grinning Indian man behind the bar told me “anywhere you like, my friend.” Must’ve been Grunstein. He served me Leberkäse, which can be most accurately described as “spam loaf”. At the time, it was mana from heaven.

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I turned the corner from this sweet castle bridge and saw a mural that blew most of the approved pieces in the East Side Gallery clean out of the water.

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For all the surrealist nightmare art I’d come across in Berlin, nothing did more to my psyche than this terrifying poster.

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who are they even marketing to with this

I hobbled back to the hostel and spent my final night in a room full of obnoxiously snoring strangers. The next day would begin my long voyage home. And long it was. 48 combined hours between planes and airport layovers. But that’s a grim tale for another day.

Love,

The Bastard

Berlin: The Designpanoptikum

December 5, 2017. Berlin, Germany.

In the heart of Berlin, there’s a dungeon scrapyard exhibition overseen by a delightful and charismatic Russian who’s definitely a serial killer. Google assured me that it would be a “surreal museum”, but neglected to mention how similar it would be to that awful J.Lo movie The Cell. The similarities were only emphasized by the fact that I, too, am a thicc bilingual headshrinker, though she is admittedly a better dancer.

Panoptikum is a German word, meaning Panopticon. Helpful, right? Well, the Panopticon was a decidedly Lawful Evil brainchild of social theorist, philosopher, and institutional bastard Jeremy Bentham. Boiled down to its essence, it’s a big round building made of glass, with a spot for a guard in the middle, enclosed by one-way mirrors. The inhabitants of the glass cells have no privacy. They can see each other, but they can’t see the guard, who obviously can’t be watching all of them at once… but you never know where he is looking, behind that smoked glass.

Bentham, sweetheart that he is, suggested the Panopticon could work equally well for a prison or a school. He described it as “a mill for grinding rogues honest”. As reasonable as it might be to want to flying dropkick the dude off a rope bridge, his figuring isn’t wrong. It’s been common knowledge that social expectation and the old “what will people think” instinct is a deep-rooted and effective behavioral modulator, but it’s on such a hair trigger that even the suggestion of being watched can promote a sort of bastardized honesty. A Newcastle study put coffee and tea out for their department with an honesty box next to it with a little note, “Please pay for what you take!”. On the rear wall behind the box was a poster, rotated weekly; either a bunch of flowers, or a pair of eyes. On the eye weeks, the researchers found a lot more honor-system money than on the flower weeks.

Of course, that might not generalize to all people, it might just be that college students are more inclined to feel anxious about being stared at, or eye contact in general. You ever met college students? They love to feel anxious.

When Bentham named the Panopticon, he was making an allusion to Argus Panoptes, a giant from Greek mythology with a hundred eyes. Panoptes translates to “all-seeing”, and that he did, right up until Hera assigned him to guard Io to make sure Zeus didn’t knock her up while she was a cow. Long story. Ultimately ending with Hermes getting recruited by Zeus to sneak up on Panoptes (how that happened is unclear), cast a god-tier Sleep spell, then brain the poor doofus with a rock.

None of those things gave me any inkling of what Berlin’s Panoptikum was gonna be about, but I’m a sucker for anything surreal, probably as compensation for all the ADHD and disdain for sleep.

All alone, with nobody holding my hand through it, I figured out how buses worked. Turns out, they’ll take you in different directions depending on what side of the street you board. The bus numbers will be the same regardless! You just need to know the incredibly German name of an area near wherever you’re going.

Well, I didn’t, so I took the first bus a half mile in the wrong direction, then leaped off and grumbled my way back to the bus stop. It started to rain, because of course it did.

The correct bus eventually dropped me off in central Berlin, a little more than a block from the Panoptikum. I was greeted by an enthusiastic Russian in flawless, German-accented English, who then explained to me that a heavy Russian accent was part of his shtick until 6 pm. He lapsed into it and started giving an overview on the Panoptikum as I marveled at his terrifying sculptures.

25371171_1149915838478054_937305132_o “Form and function,” he said. “Once, they are the same thing. Once, form was secondary consideration. The product of the function. Now everything is so artistically designed and… and… ergonomic, so all of these things must be beautiful as well as functional, but they don’t look like anything. Certainly they don’t look like what they are for. But we have come so far from that, that we no longer recognize things by their functional form. Take this, for example.”

He held up an odd looking metal clamp, sort of like two L-shaped pieces of steel with a long bolt running between them. The steel slid freely, if noisily, along the threads.

“Do you know what this is?”

I shrugged. “Metal?”

“A good guess,” he said, “And technically correct. But this is something specific. This has a function. I ask everyone this question, no one has ever gotten it right. Take time, look around, think about it. I will ask again before you leave, after you see museum.”

I looked at it again. It wasn’t a clamp. There was no way to tighten it. Still looked like giant metal pincers, about a foot and a half long.

“You use it every day,” he assured me. “You have to. You wouldn’t be here if you didn’t.”

Then he set me loose in the grown up version of Sid’s room from Toy Story.

The basement had that cloying, stale grease smell of a disused garage.

“Do not go to the museums,” he warned me. “Not if you want to see art. You want art, go to the junkyard. Art everywhere. Costs much less.”

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“Form and function. Do you know what this is?”

I looked it over as he crouched down and slapped the thing. A low-pitched BONG sound echoed through the eerie silence of his subterranean trophy case.

“Well, I was gonna say a land mine, but I guess not.”

“Close!” he said, opening the hatch. “Washing machine. Back when they were first invented, only rich people had them. You put the clothes in, the motor shakes them up, cleans them. No motor now, of course, so now it’s just… this thing.”

He was insistent I take selfies with his zany assortment of hats from the dump. I didn’t want to wear the deflated punching bag on my head, although he was really pulling for it. 25383075_1149915881811383_2081062368_o

We compromised on the World War I helmet. I’ve since learned it’s called a Stahlhelm.

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“Do you know why the helmets had those little horns?”

I did not.

“It is not like a viking thing, and it is not like they came to terms with being the bad guys, dressing up like devils. It is an example of… German overengineering. Germans are a very efficient people, and sometimes they get too focused on it, and they lose sight of what’s practical.”

“I know,” I said. “I used to have a Jetta.”

“See, the steel helmets were good for protecting against shrapnel, but back in the trenches, you would just poke your head up and shoot. The metal was not thick enough to stop a direct hit from a bullet. But the scientists at the time, they thought, what if we installed a plate that was thick enough to stop a bullet? Their trench fighters would be almost impervious to gunfire, then! So they manufactured these heavy steel plates that click into the little buttons on the side of the helmet, protecting the head. This did not work for three reasons.

One, it was very, very expensive. That’s a lot of steel, and you need to give one to everyone in the army. Germany ran out of steel.

Two, it was too heavy. People running around with 2 kilos (4.4 lbs) of steel on their head, it interfered with their balance. The helmets would also slip down over their eyes because it’s so much heavier in the front.

Three, in the instances when the plate did actually stop a direct hit of a bullet? The force of the impact would break the soldier’s neck in 80% of cases anyway. So for all that money, and all that effort, and all that steel, they’re only saving one out of five direct hits, which are rare enough to begin with.”

It hearkened back to something he’d said earlier when we were looking at an old iron lung.

“See, in America, life is precious. In Russia, Asia, the Middle East, life is cheap. I get Chinese tourists in here, I tell them this woman lived sixty years in this iron lung, and they are incredulous, they ask me ‘why not just die’? Well, because she was an American. They had the resources, so she lived in that iron lung, she did university from her hospital room, and she eventually became a depression counselor. Helped a lot of people. But not everyone could have done that, I don’t think. Most people would rather just die.”

I was reflecting on all this when I turned the corner, caught sight of this little number.

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“Don’t worry, it’s not a sex doll,” he assured me.

“That’s not what worried me.”

“That is part of typewriter,” he said. “Sort of a duality thing, you know? Because of the mouth, and the typewriter, and both of them use words, both of them are for words.”

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“That’s Yuri Gagarin,” he said. “You know who that is?”

I laughed. What a Russian thing! “Yeah,” I said.

“First man in space,” he told me, even though I just said yeah.

“So is that how they did it? Dr. Strangelove style?”

He grinned. “More or less.”

We made our way back to the front door and he picked up the weird metal clamp thing again.

“So! Any guesses?”

I squinted at it, then nodded.

“Is it a doorknob?”

“It is!” he said. “It is a doorknob! And hopefully, your time here at the Panoptikum opened some doors to some new ways of looking at things for you. Thank you much for coming.”

“Thank you,” I said. “This was incredible.”

“You got it right, here,” he said, “Take one of postcards, for free. Whichever one you want. Go ahead.”

I decided on the one that he had explained in the gallery as representing the German spirit.

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Refreshed and disturbed, I walked back out into Berlin’s perpetual rain to find the lauded East Side Gallery.

Next time.

(If you liked the crazy bullshit you saw here, there’s plenty more where that came from. If that site is too hard to navigate [and it fuckin’ is], there’s also a Facebook page. It’s in German, so if you like it, everyone will think you’re cultured.)

Above board, the guy who owns it and gave me the tour is an artist and photographer named Vladimir Korneev. I’d love to link to his gallery or something, but he shares a name with a Russian songwriter so there’s way too much foreign-language smokescreen for me to find anything.

I strongly encourage you to hit up this headtrip if you’re ever in Berlin. He’s probably not a serial killer. He didn’t serial kill me! But they never really seem to.

Love,

The Bastard

 

 

Budapest: Budapest (Budapest)

 

November 27, 2017. Budapest, Hungary.

The bus itself was a trial. FlixBus is a European bus company that goes from major city to major city, one of the cheapest ways to travel internationally across the continent. Big ugly green buses, say ‘FLIXBUS’ on the side, you can’t miss them. If it’s more than five hours a way, it would probably cost the same to just grab a plane, but for that to work you need to book the tickets in advance. With FlixBus, you walk in and throw a handful of peanuts at them and they’ll take you to Budapest.

That was the working theory, anyway. According to the ticket that I got on this stupid app I downloaded to streamline their awful online purchase process, my ride was the 901, departing for Vienna at 11:40. An hour transfer onto the 902 at the good ol’ desolate Erdberg station and I’m in Budapest. Not bad for $20.

The 901 showed up to the station at 11:45. The bus driver didn’t speak English, but he did speak angrily. I showed him my ticket and he said, “Not Budapest. Table.”

“What?”

“Table,” he said, pointing.

“Yeah, still not getting it.”

“Table! Table!” he yelled, jerking a finger at the windshield.

“Oh, table! Of course!” I said, then leaned in close enough that he wouldn’t yell at me like I was a fucking child and said, “Still not getting it. I’m going to Vienna.”

“I come from Vienna,” he said.

“Awesome. 901? Like my ticket says?” I show him my ticket again, then point at the giant 901 on his windshield.

He points to a red coach bus in front of his. “They go Vienna.”

“The plain red bus. That’s a FlixBus?”

“Yes,” he said irritably. “FlixBus.”

“Grand.”

I board the sketchy unmarked bus. The driver of this one was a kindly old Austrian with a ridiculous walrus mustache.

“We going to Vienna?” I asked, showing my ticket.

Ja! Ja, Wien! Vienna!” He was merry about it. It was infectious.

Unlike most FlixBuses, this one had no Wi-Fi. Probably because it wasn’t a FlixBus. How did anyone else know? How did the other six passengers just guess at the correct giant red bus in the station full of giant red buses?

At the Erdberg station, rather than kill an hour standing in the filth and shivering, I took a walk to try to find something to eat. Realistically, it would come from a kebab stand. Everything in Vienna costs 4x as much as it does in the real world. I need to try Wiener schnitzel, but I don’t need it $15 bad. It’s just lightly fried meat. I would have been charged a nickel for that in Turkey.

There was no food near Erdberg station. People in that part of the city didn’t eat. I wandered back into what looked like an abandoned shopping complex to discover it was only semi-abandoned. There were bathrooms that you didn’t need to pay 50 cents for, which was a refreshing change of pace (I don’t use bus station bathrooms on principle. Half a dollar to take a piss, get outta here), and a sketchy textile store called Kik that sold discernibly rough-looking clothing for next to nothing. I considered an ugly $4 hoodie but ultimately decided on an ugly $4 beanie to help me weather eastern Europe’s winter and to fill the void in my heart left by the tragic loss of my Wanderhut.

Four hours, beautiful reader.

Four hours is how long I owned the new hat before my stupid ass left it behind on the bus.

Two days. Two hats. Two buses. Perfect score.

The realization of my own staggering incompetence launched me into a depressive spiral. I’d been laboring under the delusion that I was a smart dude, for most of my life. A pillar of my self-concept had fallen like a free-standing 2×4 whacked with a claw hammer and I didn’t know who I was any more.

Look at this! Lumber analogies! I should get a fucking trucker cap and do freelance deckbuilding frm the ’93 pickup I live in by the river.

I had such potential. Once.

In Budapest I learned they used yet another different kind of money, which means adding another layer of useless paper to my wallet. I’m still carrying Turkish lira, Czech koruna, and a fat stack of Euros, not to mention the $10 American taking up space in my backpack. You can rob me if you want, but if you want it to be worth your while you better be ready for the hike.

Hungarian forints, they’re called, and 310 of them makes a Euro. 260 makes a dollar, which is a far starker contrast than 1 Euro = $1.21. Armed with this new knowledge, I started peeking through windows for something to eat.

Most of outer Budapest seems to be if Fallout 3 had been utopian, instead. Every kind of disorganized junk shop you can imagine. Battery shops, camera shops, tire shops, light bulb shops. The whole 3 km walk from the Kelenföld was like tracking a wounded Radio Shack to the Danube.

I spotted a restaurant full of old, fat Hungarian men. The window menu was indecipherable except for the word Heineken, which was 100 forints.

That’s like 35 cents European. Couldn’t be more than 50 cents in real money. I’m a grown man so I’m obviously not about to drink a Heineken, but I’d just picked up the economic lay of the land.

I went into a restaurant and a moonlighting supermodel said something to me in rapid-fire Hungarian. I try to make a point of learning ten or fifteen words in every country I visit so I’m not that meme about the cultured frat boy, but it had been impossible to steal Wi-Fi since I got off the bus, so I opted for a half-wattage winning smile and a dopey “Hi!”

“English menu,” she said. It didn’t sound like a question.

“Oh god please.”

It was a ruin pub, which is a beautiful Hungarian concept that red tape would forbid in America. It works like this: Budapest is overburdened with abandoned buildings as a result of ambitious Nazi and Soviet infrastructure plans. The proprietor-to-be will rent out one of these worthless buildings, give it a quick clean, and call over a bunch of local artists and designers to distract from the crumbling walls and safety code violations. This renders it a rom kocsm, literally “pub-in-a-ruin”, the preferred social hotspots in Budapest. This one looked more well-established, and the menu was pricey by comparison to the 30-cent beer I saw on the way. Still, each of the “Main Dishes” were like 5 Euros. I hadn’t eaten that day, and expected them to be small. I ordered two.

The waitress seemed baffled by my decision.

“Two? Are you… sure?”

“Please.”

“At the same time?”

“Sure. Naw, actually, let’s do the dumplings first.”

She doubted my powers. Honey, I’m an American. Overeating is our national pastime. We have a holiday devoted specifically to it, and I wasn’t there. I’m making up for lost time.

Still, I came to understand her hesitation. They were not small.

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The Sztrapacska was supposed to be “Hungarian dumplinks” with ewe’s cheese and bacon. I thought it meant dumplings. Apparently, dumplinks is some sort of code word for mac and cheese. It was phenomenal, which was appropriate, because delicious is finom in Hungarian. After housing that, the waitress returned, cautiously.

“You want the other?”

“Let’s do it,” I said. I’d rationed my stout out, I had another half liter to go. I could do this. I’d been training for this moment my entire life.

“Hungarian cured sausage”, they said.

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I was awed by the tenacity of this people. They just have a mountain of sauerkraut and pickled peppers for dinner? You just set four sausages afloat in a sea of spicy mustard? And BREAD? How can that bread even enter this equation?

I dug deep and cleaned the… well, it wasn’t a plate. It was more of a wooden circle. Which I cleaned.

The dinner for two and half-liter of craft beer came to like $12. I decided I was going to enjoy my time in Budapest.

I took the scenic route to my hostel in an effort to walk off some of the trillions of calories of pigfat I’d just put down.

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Scenic it was. Budapest is a beautiful city, except for all the damn cops. Everywhere I went, more cops were sitting outside their squad cars, holding assault rifles and wearing those adorable Russian hats you see in cartoons.

I tried to cross the bridge nearest my hostel and they stopped me. Everyone was speaking Hungarian, but with the gestures it was pretty obvious that nobody was allowed on the bridge. A girl on a bicycle was much more dismayed than me, which seemed silly. You’ve got a bicycle.

I started walking toward another bridge, recalculated the distances, then about-faced and headed toward a third bridge that might have been slightly closer, as the crow flies. As I was about to pass the off-limits bridge, I saw the armed guards part to let a bicyclist through.

I pointed at myself, then at the bridge, raised my eyebrows inquisitively. The guard nodded and waved me through.

Huh.

I asked the girl at the hostel desk what the hell was up with all the cops. She looked baffled for a moment.

“What cups?”

“The police,” I said. “They stopped me on the bridge.”

The bafflement turned to alarm. “Why?”

“I was hoping you’d know. They wouldn’t let me cross.”

She processed this for a moment, then her eyes lit up.

“Oh, I know!” she said. “I know, I know! One… one second.”

She was obviously ordering the words in her head. I do it in Spanish pretty much every time I need to say a sentence with more than six words.

“He is the Chinese president, is visiting Budapest,” she said. “So they are doing everything to keep him safe. They are shutting down bridges and roads because if he is on them, no one else can be on them.”

“Okay, good. I was thinking, ‘it can’t be like this every night’. It’s a Monday.”

“Noooo. Budapest is very safe.”

I thanked her and checked in, then headed up to my room to phonetically learn some phrases and maybe watch a documentary, get a little background on the place. She gave me a pamphlet as I walked away..

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Truly, something for everyone.

Love,

The Bastard

 

Bratislava: Enter the Labyrinth

November 26, 2017. Bratislava, Slovakia.

What you must understand about Bratislava is it is a machine powered by ghosts and built by the devil. You know will-o-the-wisps? Those lights that appear in swamps and lead men to their doom? They keep those in the streetlamps.

The city is a 4-dimensional M.C. Escher tesseract clusterfuck. Stairs lead to nowhere, walls barricade nothing, tunnels lead to dead-ends, sidewalks dissolve without warning. Every road is five lanes, there are no traffic lights, and there might be one crosswalk in the city, somewhere. God knows I couldn’t find it.

I got off the bus into a rogue arctic storm and made my way along the side of the highway until there stopped being a sidewalk. A sign with a pedestrian on it was posted on the bridge, but there were no sidewalks, no walkways, and about two feet of space between the active lanes and the 60-foot drop into the ice river.

“That can’t… there’s no way,” I said to the cars that blew past me. “What if there’s someone with children? Or in a wheelchair? Or both?”

I hopped the guardrail and climbed down a steep, grassy hill that would also prove challenging for a wheelchair, then found my way to a bike track that wound around another bus stop and to the strange concrete underwalks of the highway bridge.

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It was passing this bus stop that I froze and yelled “FUCK!”, startling the bejesus out of everybody waiting in line.

My hat. My Wanderhut. I left it in the luggage rack on the FlixBus.

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My skull was cold, but at least I didn’t look like a communist any more. I called up Epictetus’ cup speech. For those who don’t know it by heart:

“With regard to whatever objects either delight the mind, or contribute to use, or are tenderly beloved, remind yourself of what nature they are, beginning with the merest trifles: if you have a favorite cup, that it is but a cup of which you are fond, – for thus, if it is broken, you can bear it; if you embrace your child, or your wife, that you embrace a mortal, – and thus, if either of them dies, you can bear it.”

Or, more digestibly:

I popped my collar like a Dracula to get some of the wind off my exposed, delicate skin, then tried to navigate my way back onto the bridge again. And that’s about when I noticed the UFO.

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The hell?

I got closer.

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Yeah, no, there’s just a whole H.G. Wells situation up on the bridge.

After careful consideration, I decided to day drink in it.

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It’s called the UFO Tower bar and restaurant for reasons that should be obvious. You cough up 7 Euro and a terrifyingly fast elevator shoots you like in the Jetsons almost 300 feet (85m) into the air, whereupon you have three options:

  1. Go to the roof deck and die in the wind
  2. Go to the slightly overpriced bar that’s still cheaper than anything in Vienna
  3. Go to the “fine dining” restaurant and get like three mouthfuls of burnt exotic cheese or whatever

Two outta three ain’t bad.

They had exactly one beer on tap, so that’s what I got. It was their national beer, as is standard in Europe, but Slovakia broke the mold by having beer that was kind of good. It was like a lager that had been hanging out with a lot of Weißbier.

I took the rocket tube back to the ground and fought my way over the highway and into the endless, horrible maze that was Bratislava. At first, I had grand aspirations about hiking up to the ruins of Devin Castle, about 5 miles outside of town. I hadn’t eaten since yesterday though, and the cold was starting to set in. It wouldn’t be a hike so much as fives miles of attempting to navigate the Hogwarts-ass shifting walkways that line a major highway. I tossed it into the “maybe tomorrow” column and went looking for food.

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the duality of man

Instead, I found a surly Russian girl who was just as baffled by the “infrastructure” as I was. She was reticent, undoubtedly due to the beautiful weather, so it was only begrudgingly that we joined forces and found our way to Bratislava Castle. A mountain she insisted on climbing in boots with 6-inch heels. We all suffer for our art, I suppose.

That, and iterations of that, was my view for around 45 minutes of uphill climbing. I understand completely how Bratislava Castle has been standing for so long. It’s utterly impregnable. Assuming you somehow bread-crumb your way through the disastrous snarl of a city, you have to untangle the snarl of dead-end paths and unnecessary staircases that loop around Castle Hill, which was, mercifully, open.

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called the Vienna Gate. guess why

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The castle itself now serves as a museum, which was closed, but I wouldn’t have gone in anyway. The courtyard was nothing but high white walls and a well. I tried to take a panorama of it but it turns out panoramas don’t work great with perfectly square vistas.

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calm down Dali, nothing is round

I thought about eating at the Hraz Restaurant (hraz means Castle in every language I don’t speak), but a 15 Euro foie gras didn’t even sound appealing. I just wanted some carbohydrates, man. I’d been running all day on a half-boxtle of Munter und Aktiv.

I climbed down the mountain and dropped back into Bratislava Centrum, aka Behind Lucifer’s TV, and tried like hell to find anything. Food. An open store. A beer. My way. Anything. It wasn’t meant to be. I meandered aimlessly for another frozen half-hour before finding the city’s only crosswalk, crossing, backtracking to Old Town and discovering it was not, in fact, a commercial hub like every other Old Town in every other city in the world, but rather, some weird sculptures and a Subway restaurant.

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the hell are you winkin at

I couldn’t find a single restaurant. I found a minimart, but I wasn’t about to eat Pop Keks for Meal. After orienting myself, I charged through this aerial view circuit diagram directly to my hostel.

The girl behind the desk was as tall as me. My fury dissipated like Bratislava’s sidewalks. I’d heard tales of this, but I’d never actually encountered such a thing in the wild. But she wasn’t built like an Amazon, she was reedy and thin. How could this occur? Isn’t this a natural impossibility, like bumblebee flight or whatever?

“And if there’s anything else you need, we are open 24 hours.”

“I need food,” I said. “So badly.”

She scribbled on a map, alternating between Slovak words I had no chance in hell of reading, let alone pronouncing, and misspelled English words. Turns out, hidden in the catacombs of Centrum, there was a traditional Slovak restaurant (that looked like an abandoned factory) and a craft brewery (that was actually built into the basement of a hotel). I thanked her, dumped my backpack, and scurried back into the night.

Traditional Slovak food saved this trip for me. I got a booth to myself. For some reason, they were playing Alien Ant Farm. I ordered sauerkraut soup and something that was described as “chicken leg and vegetables (served in pan)”.

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The soup was incredible. The sauerkraut took a backseat to the barbecue taste, and I was almost through the bowl by the time I realized it tasted like liquid kielbasa. The fact that disks of kielbasa were floating in it only amplified this effect.

Then came the alleged chicken leg.

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All right, first of all, that’s not veggies, that’s cheesy potatoes and bacon. The chicken was in there, but so were huge cubes of ham, and more kielbasa. How you gonna use kielbasa as a seasoning?

I barely finished it all. Nearly weeping, I requested the bill.

6 euros.

In Vienna, 6 euros won’t even buy you air.

I paid, wrote at the hostel for a while, then opted to check out this microbrewery. The stout was too many colors, and tasted too fruity, but the price was right.

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I staggered back to the hostel and slept with only mild interruption from solipsist mouth-breathers turning on the overhead light. I waited until they started rooting around in their little lockers then climbed down and shut the lights off.

It’s 3 AM. There are other people, you prick. Use your bed lamp or phone light like a human being.

I woke at the crack of dawn, stealthed into the hallway bathroom, and spent a half hour skinning my face with a disposable razor. It was an absolute bloodbath. More blood in the sink than water. But hey, I don’t look like Davos Seaworth anymore. Now I look like a teenage knife fighter who isn’t particularly adept at knife fighting.

I saw the rest of Centrum on my way to the bus station. It was like all other tourist traps. The food was price-gouged and for some reason the t-shirts were 15 Euros. Do they know the beer is 3 Euros? Do they know how many beers equal a t-shirt? In America, it’s a 2 or 3 beer to 1 t-shirt equivalency exchange. Ridiculous. I didn’t want to commemorate my half a day that badly. It’d be like spending 90 chicken nuggets on a souvenir for the Deep Freeze in Mario 64.

 

 

deepfreeze

i went to Bratislava and all i got was lost and pneumonia

So long, Slovakia. Thanks for all the cholesterol. Next stop…

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Love,

The Bastard

Bastard’s Bible: 8 Indispensable Travel Rules

It’s time for you to fly the coop, but you’ve never flown a coop before. You’re scared and confused. Don’t worry. I gotchu. It can be tricky out there, and if you slip up, you’re suddenly broke, or dead, and your travels are over.

Stick to the Bible and you’ll come out of this smelling like a worldly, jaded rose.

Rule 1: The Wingspan Test

Everyone wants your money. Always have that in mind.

If you’re in a crowd, and you put your arms straight out to the sides of you, would you be touching anyone? That’s too close. They’re close enough to snatch your shit and take flight like a bat out of hell. Off with your headphones, it’s focus time.

At the same time, you can’t avoid every crowd in the world or you won’t be doing a whole lot of traveling. Just do the Slide-Up.

The Slide Up: Keeping your wallet (or phone) in your back pocket is like exposing your throat to a wolf. You’re advertising your confidence that nothing will happen, right up until it does. Slide them up to your front pocket. You might look like a dork, but you’ll look like a dork who still has money.

Rule 2: Be Cautious of Friendliness

There’s normal friendliness, and then there’s red flag friendliness. You’ll know the difference, unless you’re absolutely beautiful and kind of dumb, in which case it’s time to learn the difference.

Normal friendliness: Simple conversations about the weather, an event, the location of something. Names won’t be exchanged unless deep in conversation.

Suspect friendliness: Profound interest in where you’re from, bodily contact, relating to you about your families. Names are immediately exchanged. Also, you may be told you’re very attractive.

The second group are always, always grifters. They’re putting their little grabby hands on you to get at your money by building a fake friendship and locking you into a sense of social obligation. 

No one can make you feel anything. This is invasive and worthy of contempt. Rebuke them gently at first. If they get pushy or try to guilt trip you, it’s okay to get mean.

Rule 3: Nothing is Free

My boy Epictetus had it that “Nothing can be had for nothing”. As true now as it was then. If somebody comes up and gives you something, anything at all — a flower, a drawing, a postcard, a friendship bracelet — they’re going to demand money from you. They’ll be real friendly before they do it. You’ll know each other’s names, where you’re from. They probably love America.

“No thanks,” as soon as it’s thrust into your hand. “Got no place for it. Got no money. Have a nice day.”

Rule 4: Don’t Follow Strangers

This should be pretty obvious, but maybe you’re drunk, or stupid, or both. Someone friendly is trying to bring you to something you really want. Maybe that’s a hot locals-only bar, maybe it’s an underground weed cafe, or maybe she’s just a goth prostitute with reasonable rates.

You’re gonna get mugged. As soon as you go down the alley to wherever seedy locale they just advertised, three or more giant dudes are going to take your wallet and probably kick the shit out of you for good measure. They might need your kidneys, too. The booze, weed, or sad purchased sex, even if real, doesn’t justify the risk.

Rule 5: Three-Star Minimum on a Hostel

I know the 2.5 star hostels are cheaper, but there’s a reason for that, and that reason is bedbugs. Pay the extra $3 for clean sheets, hot water, and walls that don’t have permanent bloodstains.

Rule 6: Look Like You’re Doing Something

No matter what you’re doing or where you’re going, look like you’re on a mission. If you’re wandering around wide-eyed and open-mouthed with a map open in front of you, murmuring “Woooow” every few seconds, everyone will know you’re a mark. Hell, I might pick your pocket on principle.

Head up, eyes level, walk like you’ve got somewhere to be. You can look at your phone, but don’t make it too obvious you’re doing Google Maps, and for Athena’s sake, don’t do it when you’re surrounded by people.

Rule 7: Character Select

Be yourself, always, but wheel out different aspects of yourself depending on the circumstances. Most of the time, you’re gonna be striding around with purpose, scoping things out, smiling at strangers. Most times, there’s nothing to lose by sticking out in a crowd.

But then there are times when you’ll stumble into a protest that’s becoming violent, and you’re gonna want to make yourself scarce. Now’s not the time for swaggering. Fade into the crowd. Go ghost.

Maybe cops are blowing whistles, or a particularly insistent hustler has promised that he’ll wait for you at the exit to take you to his candy store. Take off your hat and hunch forward a little, change your gait, fall into step behind the tall dude in front of you until you’re out of the line of fire.

It might feel dishonest, but it can’t be. If you can fake these little variations in persona, then they are a part of you. They are you. Use that.

Rule 8: Just Say Hi

If you follow the first seven rules without the eighth, then you’ll be the safest hermit abroad.

Don’t worry about language barriers, although a perfunctory “Hi, do you speak English?” in their native tongue is a nice gesture. Just walk up and say Hi. If you’re in a hostel, you’re guaranteed to be friends immediately. You have everything in common or you wouldn’t both be staying in a hostel.

If you’re talking to a local, probably the same deal. Everybody likes attention, and you singled them out to talk to, stranger in a strange land as you are. Locals are proud of where they live (probably why they’re still locals), and they’re usually more than happy to tell you some of the secrets of their town.

Don’t google everything. That won’t be a problem if, like me, you’re not paying for data overseas. Just find someone who looks bored and ask them your stupid question. It’ll work out. But make sure to check your new friend against Rule 3 and 4 before doing anything silly.

Use these rules, and your common sense, and you’ll be untouchable. Happy trails, kids.

Love,

The Bastard

Vatican City: Narrative Conflict: Man vs God

November 6, 2017. Vatican City, Rome, Italy.

Christendom loomed ahead, sacred and caked with bird shit. The sacrosanct vendors on the street waved selfie-sticks at me in perfect beatitude. My shins hurt, but that’s an important aspect of pilgrimage.

I’m a reformed Catholic. I ran the catechism gauntlet right on up to first holy communion, where I ate the blessed cardboard Necco of Christ and sat in a closet where I told a priest everything bad that a 12-year-old did. Although, even at the time, I remember not telling him about the masturbation. Older now, and wiser, I realize it was for the best. Statistically safest to keep that manner of imagery out of that population’s mind. After I stammered something about “uhh I lied and did other bad things”, the priest said “All right, 3 Hail Marys and 5 Our Fathers”, to which I responded “You too!” and left. Turns out, in order to get that good absolution, you needed to recite the aforementioned prayers.

You know Locke’s concept of tabula rasa? I’m the opposite of that. I was never forgiven. I’m dragging every sin since day one, including the original one which I really had nothing to do with. That’s probably why my skin started to crackle and smolder when I set foot in Vatican City proper, but that was only the first of several tricks that perfidious scumbag Yahweh had up his sparkling omniscent sleeve.

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bird finna poop on an angel

You know the Sistine Chapel? I know you know it, because it’s the most famous church in the world. That’s the reason I went into the Vatican. I’m past redemption, I just want to see what Michelangelo did to the roof of the most famous extant church.

As an aside, Michelangelo is my second favorite Renaissance painter as well as my second favorite Renaissance ninja turtle. Leonardo is my first of both. Raphael comes in third, and I think we can all agree Donatello can be done without.

I digress. Remember the ultimate church, in God City, Italy?

Closed on Sundays.

Take all the time you need with that.

“Fuck you, buddy,” I hissed skyward, as I have many times before and no doubt will again. “I didn’t come here for nothing. I’ll see the museum. See some of the indulgences or whatever.”

“Museum’s closed too,” God said in a voice like thunder. “Eat a dick, bro.”

I believe I articulated something to the affect of “graaaAAAAAAAHHH” then pointed at the sky and bellowed, “Fine! Then I’ll wait in line for your lame-ass basilica! See if I don’t!”

It was at that point the sky parted and it rained for forty days and forty nights, directly on me while I stood in line to get into the 2nd runner up consolation site. All the good Christians looked at me from under their umbrellas. None offered, which was good. I wouldn’t have accepted. At least it stopped my skin from emitting black, sulfurous smoke.

“My friend!” a grifter said. “Rain slicker! Oombrella! Five euro!”

“Never!” I said, thrusting a sodden finger at him. “This is between me and God!”

“What?” he said, fairly.

“He’s gonna break before I do!”

I don’t need to describe his expression of discomfort as he sidled away, it’s already in your head.

God stopped the line, of course. As soon as I got into line, it stopped moving, because that was the only way He could get me to stand in the rain. Driven by pride. For is it not written in Proverbs that “Pride goeth before torrential rainfall”?

It is. And it did. Once I was soaked to the bone and convulsing in the first cold weather I’d experienced in the Mediterranean, I pointed to the sky, shouted “THIS ISN’T OVER YOU FUCK” and retreated into the comforting arms of science in the form of the Da Vinci Museum Experience.

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pic marginally related

Turns out, Leonardo da Vinci built a whole bunch of stuff out of wood. Who knew? The nice Roman mom let me wring out my shirt in the bathroom and blow-dry my hair on the hand dryer, deeply amused by what I’m sure she internally termed as however the hell you say “my shenanigans” in Italian. She even gave me a discount on entry to the museum because I was so soggy and charming.

Once that was squared away, the storm had broken, I presume because God is a coward at the end of his power. I returned to the basilica. No line now. Why would there need to be? There’s no rain for me to stand in. I walked into the big ol’ church, though not the big ol’ church I wanted to go into, because it’s closed on Sundays.

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it was a big ol’ church all right

 

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pretty sure this was God, dipping thru to taunt me

 

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some sort of sacred butthole, I guess. also pictured: a dude who definitely watched the Ring video

I asked if I could sit in a pew and pray. The guy looked puzzled and offered to let me sit in on mass, but I told him my best mass days are behind me, and I was hoping for a more private conversation. He waved me through because, realistically, they don’t pay him enough to deal with me.

I sat in the chair, folded my hands, and really let that big bastard have it. The kind of stuff that would guarantee we’d have to fight at the flagpole after school. I even threw in a “Richard Dawkins rules”, even though everyone knows that’s not true.

My peace said, I squelched out of the Vatican, pausing to be judgmental of statuary on the way out.

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see, this is why we shouldn’t have let them get away from the Greco-Roman style of sculpture. you think tits look like that? they don’t. you obviously just sculpted a dude and stuck vaguely spherical chunks of rock onto his chest. and like, not even where they go. did Picasso sculpt this?

I got back to the hostel quicker than I expected and grabbed a nap. My dreams were eldritch, and I woke up with images of a glowing underwater cave where siren voices warped in the water, somewhere between ecstatic and terrifying. It turned out that’s because a pair of Brazilian girls were in the common room playing acoustics and wailing. I went down and sat next to the wise old buck who told me to slow down. The proprietor handed me a guitar, and for the rest of the night he, the girls, and I drank $1 boxed wine and played acoustic covers of grunge songs while old Herb tapped his foot and occasionally said, “I don’t like rock ‘n’ roll, but I like this.”

Love,

The Bastard

 

Barcelona: Círculo del Arte

October 26, 2017. Barcelona, Catalonia, Spain. 

The first Arte you gotta know about was the magnificence you’re gonna encounter as you make your way through the cramped pigeon warrens that surround the Gothic quarter.

Simply breathtaking.

Hold on. Do you know about bocadillos? We should talk about bocadillos.

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They’re this European miracle where you give someone like $3 and they give you a baguette jammed full of… something. In this case it was tuna. Since discovering them, I’ve eaten almost nothing else. The chorizo one was incredible, but I had a hot one full of garlic sauce, onions, and chicken breast called a “pollastre” that changed my life.

So, eat your bocadillo, then try not to get divebombed by pigeons. If you’re lucky, on your way to the Picasso Museum, you might happen upon the skeevy back alley that leads into the Museo Europeano de Arte Moderno (MEAM), or as I like to call it, the Font of Madness.

The museum was empty, which is to be expected considering the platform 9 3/4 situation you had to go through to find the entrance. I was going to pass by, but there was really no ignoring the creepy bondage poster.

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$8 with the student discount. That’s like two bocadillas! Which is like half a hostel! Totally unreasonable, but I was in too deep to turn back now.

TWO DISCLAIMERS: I’m not sure what the rules are on posting pictures of museum exhibits in public, and I couldn’t find them online. If I’m stepping on toes, I’ll take them down. If I’m advertising… you’re welcome, I guess? Either way, they belong to their artists and the museum, all rights reserved, etc.

Also, there’s gonna be a lot of naked ladies and death imagery ahead. I’m not sure if how much of both I saw says more about the museum or about me.

semillas

This was the first one that really shook me. It’s called Semillas (seeds) by Tenaya Sims. Attached to the card is a somewhat dissonant story about when the artist was a child, he accidentally lit a ballpoint pen on fire, then spilled the burning ink onto the ground and tried to stamp it out, which just spread it around. He said that’s what inspired this. I guess art is mostly in the interpretation, because this painting gave me genuine pause. Towering over me, wreathed in burning debris, what I saw was the goddess that brought down the sky.

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The card said something about growth and propagation in this one, but I saw a whole lot of carcasses going on.

This was called Laura, I can’t find the artist but I wish I could. The realism was stunning. I really thought she was going to start smirking while I gawped up at the detail in the face, in the individual eyelashes, murmuring “shiiiiiiiiit”.

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This one from Miki Chart stands on its own, but it becomes truly devastating with the explanation card. Forgive my paraphrase, but it was something to the effect of:

“Here’s we have a mandolin, a traditional instrument that very few people play in this day in age. Atop it we see a canary. Though we may have forgotten the melody, it has not, and it is by its echoed song that it’s kept alive. It’s a reflection on importance of remembering the past.”

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I’m working on a fantasy novel, and I wrote almost this exact scene the day before I saw this painting. The dress was a different color, it was only one guard, and the presence of death was more an implication than Death the Physical Dude, but otherwise, identical to what’s going on here. Same girl, same build, same eyes, same season, same dagger. That, I assure you, is a jarring experience.

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You don’t realize how surreal this one is at first. At least, I didn’t. The longer I looked, the more weirdness happened. In my ever humble, that’s what art should be for.

20171026_075438.jpgThis is where I started to doubt my own ability to interpret art, because I know nobody else is gonna look at this and see Regina Spektor jerking the earth off onto a pile of skulls. That… couldn’t have been the artist’s goal. It’s a knife. Right? It’s a knife? It has to be a knife.

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Here we what’s left if you drive a stake through Tom Waits‘ heart.

After that, I went upstairs to the paranoid schizophrenia floor. I’m not going to try to interpret what happened here. Remember that awful movie The Cell with J. Lo? It was like a better version of that, in real life.

That about did it for me. I staggered outside, Slav-squatted against an alley wall next to turquoise merchants, and stared at my hands for 20 minutes.

If you ever get the chance, you have to check this place out. It’s like drugs. It’s like being inside drugs.

Love,

The Bastard