Berlin, Germany: The Voyage Home

December 6, 2017. Berlin, Germany.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Truly, the Berlin airport provided all amenities.

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i knew i forgot to pack something

Something for everyone.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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certainly a different sentiment than in Berlin

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

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

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

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our scruffy and weatherbeaten hero on a tiny Portuguese airport couch

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

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

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breakfast of champions

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

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

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

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

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

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

Unfortunately, it was a 7 hour walk.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Now, onto the next great adventure.

Love,

The Bastard

Berlin: Ich Bin Ein

December 4, 2017. Berlin, Germany.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“You work here?” I asked.

“Yeah.”

I narrowed my eyes. “Are you sure?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I turned another corner.

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agreed

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Absolute poetry.

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

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

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

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

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I also encountered this gem.

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

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“please not the Horror-Clown!”

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

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

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

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

Love,

The Bastard

Istanbul: Grand Bizarre

November 18, 2017. Istanbul, Turkey.

After being turned away from the Blue Mosque by a man who desperately needed me to buy a rug, I made my way to the Grand Bazaar. It was a city in itself, labyrinthine and squirming with humans like maggots on trash can chicken. I didn’t want anything (minimalism has its perks), so I just drifted around and took it all in.

The main hallway was El Dorado. Every store sold diamonds and gold, and every step brought a dizzying kaleidoscope of lens flares into your eye, no matter where you looked. Men in exquisite Armani suits stood at every doorway, posing like Lucky Luciano, occasionally leering and strongly encouraging you to come in because “special price”.

The meandering side hallways were labeled in Turkish, which didn’t help orient me. To the right was the leather bazaar. To the left, antiques. The antiques section had all the beautiful junk you can conceive of: old bronze helmets, gramophone pieces, magic rocks on strings, rusty spears, decorative horns, more fancy glass lamps than I believed possible, and of course, the rugs. Millions of rugs. A city of rugs. In between were ATMs, cash changing kiosks, designer clothing shops, and the unavoidable tourist trap gift and t-shirt shops.

Eventually, the siren song of rampant capitalism became too much for me to resist, and I splurged on a $4 mincemeat peynirli creatively entitled “Turkish bazaar” and a cup of Turkish tea. Turns out, tastes a lot like other tea.

It occurred to me that I was low on clothes. My dirty laundry had been stolen at the last hostel for some reason, and I was out 3 pairs of socks and both my Barcelona t-shirts. I bought two Istanbul shirts from two separate vendors for 20 Lira each. They both started the haggling at 40, but let’s be real, dude. This is the Grand Bazaar. No one’s gonna pay $10 per t-shirt and we all know it.

Outside the Bazaar were where the real deals happened, and I bought 3 pairs of socks for 5 Lira each (totaling about $3.75). I turned the corner and found a tasteful 6-pack of men’s argyle socks for 15 Lira total. Bastards.

I dipped out of Consumerism and made my way to the square with all the obelisks, where I was accosted once again by “My friend! I remember you! You are American, you were too busy to see my shop before!”

I tried unsuccessfully to discontinue the conversation with him while I snapped these pictures. The Serpentine Column came from the Oracle of Delphi. The Constantine, or Walled, Obelisk was apparently built in the square but nobody knows when. The Obelisk of Theodosius was hauled in by, surprise, Theodosius from Egypt in the 4th century AD.

When I finished, he was still buzzing around me like a tall, foul-smelling mosquito, and I actually caught him staring at the bulge of my wallet in my pants.

“Okay, gotta go though, meeting a friend,” I said, squeezing onto a bench next to a Turkish college student in headphones. The grifter made an effort to sit between us, realized there wasn’t enough room, and shuffled off to find a new mark.

“Thanks,” I said to the guy.

He nodded, then murmured, “You have to be careful around those fuckers, man.”

“Yeah, I know. I’m a tourist, but not that much of a tourist.”

I made my way back to the hostel where I was destined to be social. My roommates and I swapped travel stories and piecemeal philosophy in the room, then proceeded up to the rooftop bar to look at the Hagia Sophia and drink cheap local beer.

As it happened, there was a pub crawl that night, and since I’d been a slackass re: nightlife since I’d arrived in Turkey, I tagged along. This was a mistake for a number of reasons, the foremost being I am absolutely terrible at structured fun.

Fun happens spontaneously. You can’t arrange for it. The best you can do is put all the ingredients together, shake them up, and hope fun occurs. I avoid guided tours and anything “all-inclusive” for the same reason. Don’t tell me what to do.

The first surprise was that the pub crawl cost 45 Lira. I was leery, but I converted more than I needed and it’s not like I can take it out of Turkey. They also promised me 3 free shots. This would be half right.

The second surprise was, none of the friends I’d made on the rooftop bar were going to the pub crawl. Uh-oh. Gotta make new friends, fast.

The third surprise was the shuttle van parked in front of the hostel. That’s not so much a pub crawl as a pub… delivery. A pub exodus. We packed fifteen people into the van and took off for Taksim square two miles away which is, tragically, right next to where my previous night’s hostel was located.

The fourth surprise was that none of the pubs were pubs! It was a club crawl.

And surprise number five: There was no return shuttle. We make our own way back.

We were brought to another rooftop bar, this one in a weird cage where they were blasting Eminem’s greatest hits from the early 2000s. As to the crowd, Flight of the Conchords summarized it far better than I ever could.

The place was so packed you couldn’t move. I’ve seen people trampled at roomier metal shows. I breaststroked through a sea of Turkish men to the bar. No one would (or could) get far enough away from it to allow the hostel free-drinkers in, so they lit the bar on fire.

That did the trick. We took our shots and danced, in the same way that you can describe sardines as dancing when tut shake the can.

I danced in the vicinity of a girl and in so doing besmirched someone’s honor. A stout bald man who looked like Turkish Pitbull gave me a gentle three-finger shove on the shoulder. Confused as to why this 45-year-old man was even at this club, let alone interacting with me, I leaned down to ask him, “What’s up?”

He responded in Turkish. Not surprise number six.

“I don’t speak Turkish,” I told him. He nodded and walked away. I drifted around the dance floor drinking my beer and got polished to a fine sheen by the bodily friction around me, a lot like a rock tumbler. Around half an hour later, somebody tapped my shoulder again.

I turned and looked down on a scrawny hipster with a Macklemore haircut (disgraceful) and a Tormund Giantsbane beard (kind of cool). His eyes were bulging and wild. He looked terribly upset. He was yelling something at me.

“What?” I asked.

He repeated himself, but still in a language I didn’t understand. I shrugged and said, “Sorry, man. No Turkish.”

This made him even angrier. He adopted a highly curious posture.

Take your right hand and raise it next to your head, palm out, sort of like you’re going for a high-five. Then, angle it 45 degrees to your left. Now adopt a bug-eyed, furious expression.

I could tell it was a threat, but it was just such a dissonant, ridiculous threat. Was he going to slap me? On the forehead? Did he have the reach? I laughed out loud, he moved forward, and then we were all being jostled around by security.

The girl I’d danced with reached around a bouncer’s arm and grabbed me by the face, pulling my head to hers.

“You did nothing! Don’t worry,” she yelled, “He is just crazy! He is just crazy!”

Ah, mystery solved.

“I really wasn’t,” I assured her, then couldn’t stop myself from winking.

The girl from hostel reception appeared at my side. “What happened?”

“Something pretty silly,” I told her.

“If that little man bothers you again, I will beat him!”

She was maybe 90 lbs soaking wet, but I’d give her even odds. I grinned at her as Daft Punk climbed onto the bar.

While that was going on, they sprayed us with what felt like foam, but smelled like feta cheese.

The next two clubs were better, but admittedly less interesting. The dude from our hostel was trying to wrangle all us drunken foreigners through the narrow streets of Istanbul. It was like herding cats, which he accidentally did because there are so many cats in Istanbul.

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At the third club, shots were distributed from a tray. I did one with the toast, then I was handed another, which I downed immediately. Then we were going to toast again, so I did a third. Sort of a buy-one-get-one on the pub crawl cost.

By the time they had started playing Johnny B. Goode, it was 4 AM and I was getting bored. I ghosted back toward the hostel. Not a bad walk, I’ve done it every day since I arrived in Istanbul. Two miles. More challenging when you’re tired and staggering a little, but, eh.

Then it rained, of course. On the way I joined up with a pair of local teenagers heading in the same direction. The English they spoke was obviously just what they had picked up in a high school class. I remember knowing the same general phrases in 10th grade Spanish. Still, they were delighted by the opportunity to talk to a real, live American, presumably because of that recent visa embargo the U.S. and Turkey had (and I’d just barely dodged). We crossed the bridge and parted ways, and I stumbled into my hostel where the water was broken, for some reason. Okay. No shower or toothbrushing. That’s fine, there’s a water cooler. I drank three consecutive bottles of water and passed out for five hours, then stumbled blearily into the kitchen for the free breakfast.

Tomatoes, cucumbers, carrots, feta cheese, and hardboiled eggs.

Bless.

I ate 4 eggs, a half lb of cheese, and enough assorted vegetables to feel okay about the half lb of cheese, then slept until 3 PM. I was fully recovered when I returned to the common room of the hostel, but it was clear I was the only one.

I leave you with an image of my co-author for this piece, my best friend, Zaman.

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He sat by my side the entire time I wrote this, offering sage counsel. The pink on his forehead is lipstick. My dude was patrollin hard last night.

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

Athens: Making My Escape

November 16, 2017. Athens, Greece.

I spent my last day in Athens wandering around, drinking Weißbier instead of the refreshing sparkling water that was Greek beer. I had discovered the potency of Greek wine the night previous, however, and let me just say, for 8 Euros a vase? Whoa nelly.

Outside the National Archaeological Museum, I stumbled into yet another enormous protest in a language I couldn’t understand. This time the anarcho-communists were well represented, as were some incorrigible teenagers in motorcycle helmets and facemasks who had jumped a spiked fence and were presently involved in occupying a university building.

Here’s something I’ve noticed in my years tightroping it across the fringe: If you give someone a mask, they will stare you down, 100% of the time. Doesn’t matter if it’s a gas mask, a bandanna, or Halloween. With faces concealed, balls triple in size like that scene in the Grinch.

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like this, but with the testicles and a Call of Duty LARPer

I asked my Greek correspondent on political uprisings and good restaurants what the deal was. Apparently, there’s a yearly national celebration that pertains in some way to Greek independence, though no one either could or would give me more information than that. In the late 60’s and early 70’s, there was a military coup d’état that the students protested. They were, perhaps unsurprisingly, gunned down. The junta broke in 1974 but particularly radical left-wing students have carried on a proud tradition of occupying universities, lighting things on fire, and breaking shit ever since.

(This is a gentle paraphrase of how it was described to me; I’m thinking my source might lean a bit right. That’s more common for university students in Greece than back home, for reasons you might be able to intuit.)

They were carrying around lead pipes and blasting Greek rap music out of what looked like a pretty nice guitar amp, and being the intrepid journalist I am, I decided to document the occasion.

This was not well-received.

“They were saying, ‘close your phone’,” she told me.

“Yeah, kinda figured it wasn’t a brunch invitation.”

Some local Suicide Girls were sitting on the gate in front of the occupied university quad / masquerade mosh pit, and I asked them what was going on. They looked at each other and giggled, went back and forth in Greek, then turned back to me.

“ἀναρχία,” they said, and that’s how it sounded when you heard it. It sounded enough like “anarchia” that I got the gist.

“Yeah, got that,” I said. “Me too. But like, what are they doing dancing and glaring in there?”

“Video?” one said, pointing at my phone.

“Video!” the other said excitedly.

“Probably not gonna happen again,” I said. “Already didn’t make many friends with that.”

“Video,” one said, persuasively, making a recording motion. I grinned.

“Okay, I get it. Thanks, ladies.”

I waved, they laughed again, and I got out of there before I had to fight a bunch of teenagers like that Norwegian statue, “Man Attacked by Genii”.

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you know the one

The museum was impressive, especially if you’re big into pottery. I am not, but they had a lot of statues and the crumbling remains of statues, both of which I am big into. I got lost in there for three hours, then had to scamper out to a cat-infested terrace where they fed me build-your-own gyros and carbonara.

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just how i like my women

The next morning, Athena blasted me with another thunderstorm, sensing that I was trying to get out of Athens. I’m probably one of her most vocal modern keepers of the faith, and she obviously wanted me to stay. I absolutely would have, if it were possible to make money there.

Athens is my favorite European city by far. Everything in it was beautiful. Everything in Barcelona was also beautiful, but that was a deliberate, maintained beauty. The Athenian beauty was sudden and bursting and chaotic, the difference between a conventionally cool attractiveness with expertly applied makeup and wild, unhurried naturalité, its only accentuation flashing eyes and playful snarling.

I loved Barcelona for its poise, but I’m in love with Athens for its honesty. No matter what Diogenes might have said.

Still, couldn’t stay forever. I think that hostel might have had bedbugs. Time to go. I weathered the storm, taught myself how 2 Metro, and caught a train to the airport.

On the plane, I sat behind a dude who smelled powerfully of an unwholesome cheese. Of course. Of course I did. I had every intention of writing on the 3 hour flight, but the classical conditioning I’ve instilled in myself runs too deeply and I fell asleep as soon as we got in the air, laptop open in lap, brim of doofy but essential Wanderhut pulled over my eyes.

Turbulence woke me up shortly before the landing, and I looked out the window to see a city of ghosts. Fingers of mist trailed over the barren hills like prowling animals. My plane dropped out of the sunlight and into the massive wraith cloud, and I haven’t seen pure, natural light since. When we broke through the bottom of the cloud cover, the coffee-colored hills dropped away into the Bosphorous, which is as beautiful and imposing as you may have heard. The fog on the other side opened, and the metropolis of Istanbul sprawled as far as my admittedly poor eyes could see, the peculiar architecture of the skyscrapers warping and waving like an acid trip. 

End purple prose. The airport had no Wi-Fi, which I had been warned of.

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I’d made all my plans in advance, except my plan for a visa, which I learned was a thing.

IMPORTANT: If you roll into Turkey from pretty much anywhere, they’re going to make you pay extra money to be there. It’s sort of like driving out of New Jersey, but in reverse. I took a steep 25 Euro hit (the cost of 10 pork gyros in Athens) from a guy who spoke virtually no English. Obviously, I went to the ATM and pulled out the money in lira, because this is Turkey, and that’s the radically inefficient money they use here. My pockets have been heavy and jingling with 5 and 10 cent pieces since I arrived, even though a single coffee is 7 or 8 Lira, which equates to roughly 1.60 Euros (not quite $2).

I tried to give the guy 150 Lira (25ish Euros) and he just repeated, “25 Euros.” So I had to go withdraw more money, only this time it’s a kind that I can’t spend in this country. Now I’m walking around with 75 Euros that I can’t do anything with, and of course most of it is in coins because Europe cannot get enough identical silver-and-gold coins for some reason, so my first night was trying to pay out for my toothpaste and soap from a Scrooge McDuck pile of varying but visually similar coins while the dude at the market, who speaks no English, looked on in disgusted bemusement.

Still, Istanbul is gorgeous. My hostel attendant is always on a great deal of cocaine, but it just makes him friendly. Beats the alternative.

For most of the time I’ve been writing this there was a wailed call to prayer being amplified through the streets. It’s the kind of thing I would voluntarily listen to on Pandora. Too bad I’m a heathen.

Before I forget: Jeff Homscheck correctly guessed my new location. He is the best of us, and he will be remembered as such long after this world becomes a smoking crater.

See you tomorrow, beautiful readers.

Love,

The Bastard

Athens: Large Food, Graffiti, and the Handle Feud

November 9, 2017. Athens, Greece.

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

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

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this airport doesn’t know how to party

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Grand.

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

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

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

“Here!” she said. “A gift for you!”

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

“Is free!”

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

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

I was holding the rose now, uncertainly.

“Thank you, but-”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Love,

The Bastard