Vienna: Phallic Fixations

November 25, 2017. Vienna, Austria.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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they only serve sausages

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

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

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speaking of my college

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hoo i heard that

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

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

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

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

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

“All right, thank you.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“You want?”

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

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

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

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

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welp

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

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“schnittenfahrt” tho

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

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now that’s opulence

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

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

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

“Huh?”

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

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

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

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

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heard yo mama in the movies

Love,

The Bastard

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