Friday, November 20, 2009

Swimming with Bazaar Sharks

Note: There are no pictures of the rugs yet, they were boxed and shipped immediately and no one back home has sent me pictures yet for this blog. I have had this post for over a week so I am just going to put it up. Instead you get the Hagia Sophie and a Bellydancer named Marlena.

My misadventure in Hamburg with the hookers has been, apparently, about the most memorable thing I have written on here. I am not ashamed of my temptation but it is kind horrifyingly amusing when you find out that not only did your Mother read it, but your Father, and Grandmother, and everyone else. I am sure that I shall hear of it for many attended family gatherings to come. What still bugged me about that night was not that I was drunk, alone, sensuality heightened by a night of loud music and dance and therefore susceptible to the siren song of beautiful bodies for sale. No. What stuck with me was that I was so thoroughly schooled and beaten when it came to shrewd negotiation. I stumbled into the situation blindly, and naively and it made a mark of me. Prostitution never bothered me as a moral thing (obviously), since it could be argued that dating itself is often a subtle form of it. However the idea of sex with you being someone's shitty job just turns off the motor, which I was reminded of in my experience in a most unforgettable and humiliating way. The whole ordeal did leave unfinished business, not what you're thinking...heh, but the idea of losing so badly in a contest of business. I got hustled and my nature finds it unacceptable and I have since been looking for some redemption.

That redemption came to me in Istanbul in one of the many Bazaars. There are roughly a zillion rug salesmen and stores in Istanbul. I do not pretend to know exactly who has the best stuff but I did research slightly before my trip. Learning ways to tell if the merchandise is authentic, so that I would know if someone was trying to sell me garbage. If you are unwary and not firm you could be bilked of hundreds or thousands, you could be grabbed off of the street. The entire carpet hustle is based on movement, speed, to make you rush along with them. I recognized it immediately when I found myself in a warehouse near the Blue Mosque.
I was walking around to take in the city at night and a man in a suit stopped me and asked me if I was American. If someone on the street asks you if you are American unbidden, it will be about money. Every single time. "That's right. I said. I am the famous zeppelin racer Dennis M. Boehm."

"Zeppelin? Like bleemps?"

"Nevermind all that. What is it you want?"
He wanted to show me his business, he said, and asked if I would come. One rule I have been espousing to everyone I meet on the road is that you should at least stick your head down every rabbit hole that presents itself. So I followed him. We walked a winding path into an unmarked building that put me on my guard. I was worried that I was being taken to some sex dungeon, the man started to look to me like a pimp. We rounded one last corner down some stairs and I was confronted with walls of carpets. There were twenty some odd Turkish men milling about and the man took me into a show room after offering me a Turkish apple tea, which I refused. Which they brought anyway. He started to show me the double knot rugs and doing the tests I had read about to ensure the quality of material, he lit and singed the edge of one of the carpets and the burn wiped away. This test proves that there is no plastic in the wool or silk. I examined the threads very closely and when I stood up a new man had enetered the room. He was wearing a tight shiny button down, three buttons were undone and his hair was immaculate. The man who had led me into the room, the man in the suit who I never got a name from slipped out a back door. Clearly this new man was the salesman. During the tests I realized why they had rolled out so many rugs on the floor for me to examine.

"Which is your favorite?"
I pointed to the red and white one that I eventually bought.

"Where are you from my friend?"

"The States."

"I love America! Would you like more tea?"

"No thanks."

"Have tea! Bring him another cup." One of the young kids jumped to his feet and left the room.

"You like this merchandise?"

"It's very nice. I really don't plan on buying a rug tonight."

"I make good price for you! Because you did not plan to buy!" I think he fills in that sentence with whatever is convenient. I make good price cause I love America. I make good price because you planned to buy a rug and deserve it. Whatever. He said some instructions in Turkish and more rugs were rolled out. "Do you prefer the double knots? They are nice yes. This one you like, I make special price, 2600 dollars. Usually it is as high as 5000."

"Well that is very kind, but no way."

"We have very nice carpets that are under 1000, if you prefer."

"Oh. I'm not worried about money at all." My tea arrived, as I bluffed. "But I saw another place that had a really nice silk double knit, really pretty, and he had a much better price."

"What was he asking?"

"He only wanted twelve hundred. So anyway, thanks for the tea."

"My friend, you know you will not be cheated (sounded like "shitted") here. These are best quality, if he was asking so low he was giving you trash... all respect my friend. I do not want to see you cheated (shitted). I will make prie for you...2400!" At each offer, imagine his hand jamming nearly into my own, a fast and agressive handshake to make it official. Around you rugs are rolled out and up, kids scurrying by with trays for tea and many looming swarthy skinned anymous spectators watching. I felt as though the salesman was a master teacher and they were all waiting for him to con the American mark. The thought made me slightly angry and caused the competitive nature in me to demand satisfaction.

"I thank you for your concern about my being cheated." There seemed to be a courtly way of going about this task. Like diplomatic negotiations, you heap praise and declarations of honesty and friendship upon one another while trying wring them and fuck them out of every last lira, euro, dollar, spit of land, or treaty. "And I believe very much that you have my best interests at heart. Where was the rug made."

"In Turkey! We have many contacts in villages, this is Kurdish make. I am Kurdish." He sounded proud.

"Excellent. That sounds very authentic, which is what I want. My question is, how much does it cost to manufacture this excellent merchandise? It seems to me that the weavers are not paid as handsomely as 5000 per rug, which is what this one is clearly worth." I indicated my rug. "It seems like the profit margin is very large, and you could afford less of a markup."

He laughed, and laughed. He took my hand. "You are a very wise American man. What would make you happy?"

"I think we should start over, from 1500, and then really negotiate. Otherwise I wish you happiness."

"I do it for 1500!" The hand again. "You have credit card?"

"I have a debit card. I am not paying 1500 for this rug."

"My friend. I will add gift for you, a modest kilim." Kilim is a rug style that is very smooth and has slits in the fabric. In ancient times they were used for the nomadic tents, to allow for air circulation.

"Excellent, lets pick a Kilim." Eventually I chose a green one, with the idea of sending it to my Mother. As soon as I had indicated my intertest in selecting one the room burst into movement again, small table cover kilims were presented to me. I felt like I was doing well. I was having a lot of fun.

"More tea?" I asked. The man spoke in Turkish and a boy slipped quickly out of the room. I really did enjoy that apple tea they make there.

"1500 yes, for the kilim and this..." He indicated my rug.

"No no. I told you I am not paying 1500. I thought the kilim was simply a gift because we are such friends." He squinted. "Clearly I misunderstood." I patted his shoulder. "Thank you for the hospitality." I turned to leave and then I was grabbed. When they smell a sale they will not let you leave, you have to be downright rude to escape. Shoulder off of their hands, ignore their smiling faces, fill your bearing with resolve. It's not unlike breaking up, or telling someone who is manipulative "enough".

"My friend my friend." He laughed. "I like you very much. 1200!" He shouted it as if it were a dramatic happening, and I made my only mistake. This time I shook his hand, total blunder. By the time I had realized what I had done there was somehow already a credit card machine in the room and he was seated at a luxurious looking couch in the room ready for the transaction. I chastised myself via inner monologue.

"Hang on." I said. "What about shipping."

"Shipping is 120 dollars. Your credit card please?"

"No no." I shook my head. "You pay for shipping."

"My friend, please do not dishonor me by backing from this deal. You shook my hand in faith." He was correct of course, but fuck him, I thought. I remembered walking back to my hostel at the Reeperbahn, my belt undone, feeling the humiliation of a wretch and resenting how such a fun night had become such ann unpleasant lesson in the sharp teethed business of separating tourists from their money.

"I shook your hand, yes, but please do not take offense or think for a second I had meant to be discourteous to you. 1200 is a fair price, but I had no considered shipping." I sat next to him. "I understand if we cannot do business, I will leave here thinking well of this place." He eyed me. "What are these?" I indicated the hanging small looking round rugs that hung from the walls, they were paper thin.

"Cushions. Do you like them?"

"I do."

"My friend, I will give you two cushions and shipping for 1200." I looked at him, holding eye contact and pursing my mouth." We shared the sense we were close to a deal. It was the final sprint.

"600" I said.

"I cannot."

"I know. But I will shake your hand and give you my card for..." I trailed off and he laughed.

"You are a very difficult customer." I think he meant it as a compliment. "1000."

"1000." I nodded. "Deal." I shook his hand and dug through my wallet.

Of course this debit card had a maximum withdraw per day and it was Friday and I suddenly realized I might not have a 1000 US dollars at my disposal until Monday. In fact I was $125 short and had to return the next morning to pay the balance. The rug men all smiled, I think perhaps they considered it a good show and me a worthy adversary. I know that I left a little woozy from spending so much, but also energized and pleased and warmly towards all of them. It had taken three hours, several cups of tea, and a beer at the end where we toasted eachother and our health.

When I left I considered I may have gone lower, perhaps 800. But ultimately I felt good, more than two and half times less than the initial offer, with shipping, with a gift for my Mother and cushions to boot. I wanted to find a man on the Reeperbahn and offer to negotiate his encounter with the whores for him. The extra two hundred was worth the feeling of redemption. I would hang that carpet on my wall like a pelt, just as soon as I got home, and I knew it would be on the walls of my relatives for two hundred years. The carpet was magic, not that it could fly, but that it gave enough of a hint of the future that you felt you could nearly see.

Thursday, November 12, 2009

The one where I fly over 10k miles to win a bet

On Sunday night, I found that the Turkish government had banned all international video streams. Its no doubt an attempt to curb the proliferation of porn. In this case however it was barring me from watching the mighty Cincinnati Bengals kick the hell out of the Baltimore Ravens which would have been made even sweeter by the presence of a native of Baltimore staying at the Bahaus Guest House, nestled a block from the massive Blue Mosque to the north and the Black Sea to the south. Where I slept, you would be awakened by the prayer call from the minarets at 530 am, you would also hear the occasional screech of a seagull.

Because there would be no football game that night, I walked down to the sea with two Aussies, two canadians, and two Irish gals. We sat on the giant rocks at the foot of the shore and watched the old men fish with their long poles with neon green tips. The Fishermen eyed us and said little to eachother in soft voices. Our vantage showed us the low lights of the Asian side of the city, connected by one high bridge of a multitude of ferry boats that run through the night. The shipping traffic was quiet for the evening and ready to ramp up in a few hours and we swapped stories for a few hours until we walked back. I had earlier in the night told some people I was considering a quick trip to New York to kidknap a friend who was supposed to met me in Amsterdam previously, and by the time I reached the common room on the top floor of the hostel he was drunk and smoking a waterpipe with apple flavored sheesha.

"This guy says he might go to New York tomorrow and then Athens. Or just Athens." He pointed at me. He hadn't believed I had the means and will to do such a trip. "Just going to get a mate."

People stared.

"That's right." I nodded. "Might as well give me a travel show."

He laughed. The hostels of Europe are full of Australians, and Canadians with giant Mapleleafs on their bags so no one mistakes them for American, they are nearly all extremely good natured.

"Why not just call the friend?" Someone else asked.

"Cause. Peer pressure."

"That's more a romantic thing. I mean, if you were doing it for a girl it'd be romantic...but just a mate?" Piped in an English girl, from near Nottingham (I recognize subaccents now. I am that awesome).

"That would be romantic." I agreed. "But honestly, if I feel like it I can fly to Maine for lobster or Chicago for a hotdog."

"You'd fly to Chicago just to eat a hotdog?!" He sounded dubious.

"Sure why not? It'd take about the same time as the train ride to Athens from here."

"Wicked. So why don't you?"

"I don't like hotdogs THAT much."

"I knew it, mate." He laughed and I felt my eyebrow cock.

"You wanna bet I will?"

"Bet what?"

"You going to Athens next?"

"Bet a gyro. They cost a euro." I pronounce these words the same way.

Six hours later I was on a van to Ataturk airport in Istanbul. I got a better view of the sprawl of that amazing city. The real part, I suppose, where they did not have nightly kebap carts where for four lira you see the man take your marinating skewer and place it on the grill and chop vegetables. This is where the buildings show wear, layers of old paint and cracked stone and laundry hangs desperately onto rusty balconies a few feet from the satelite dishes. Istanbul is the 5th largest city in the world, which I did not know. More than any other city I know it has the terrain to reveal itself to you. You can walk or drive and find suddenly a surprising panorama of some new sprawl of the city. I really loved it there and made a note to myself to return soon, and explore Ephesus, Gallipoli, Troy, and Kappedocia.
Twelve hours later I was standing in the terminal of John F. Kennedy airport back home. I texted and called nearly everyone on my phone, just to say hello and be a pleasant surprise.
Four hours after that I was in O'Hare airport in Chicago. The chargrilled tube of processed cow hearts with peppers, dill pickle spear, mustard, onions, and cheese tasted like victory laced with heartburn. I took the picture of the dog with the day's paper and my salute.

I stayed an extra night in Wisconsin because a friend of mine from the undergrad working in a bookstore days was interviewing for a job in a small town there.

On Wednesday morning I caught a flight from O'Hare to Kennedy, to Athens which is where I am writing this right now. There is no sign of my vanquished foe, but two people I had met in Romania walked in the door and greeted me warmly. The thing about the road, and the traveler culture is that these meetings are not uncommon. You find people again weeks later and are happy to see them. The sun is out here, and it is warm. From the roof you can see the Acropolis, and the very very attractive Canadian girl who is working reception is playing from her list alt rock from the mid 1990's as if she is beckoning me and knew I was going to be here.

Nothing is out of my range. Not these days.

Tuesday, November 3, 2009

The most horror on Halloween did not come from the Vampires

Brasov Romania was one of the few places here allowed to keep its soul during the worker's revolution. It is surrounded by the Silver mountains with some of the best skiing in Europe, and the very best hiking. In the fall there are clusters of cloud like oranges, and yellows, with flecks of red and even purple that frame the Hollywood style BRASOV sign that sits high above the city where the peaks get snowy. The center retains its Gothic roots, wide cobblestone streets, church spires that reach into the sky with menacing points and weaponlike barbs. The locals are hearty people who wear simple clothing and often have blue eyes, they cross themselves thrice each time they pass a church walking or in an auto. It is a scrap of what this nation has been and precious because so much was needlessly destroyed. Such as it was in Bucharest which was raped repeatedly by the previous Dictators in favor of blocks of unadorned housing, which now is filled with rubbish and a plague of stray dogs who follow you about, with grimy fur, scars from battle, and the wary eyes of the feral. Romania is a place of invasion, and the people are non confrontational but passively independant and cynical.
This is Transylvania. A place of wolves and supersitious peasants that fear Vampires. It also has fingers of modernity, flashing lights, and Kentucky Fried Chicken and young people who want to add you as Facebook friends who also consider Vlad Tepes to be a national hero. Vlad of course being the historical basis for Count Dracula. Vlad the Impaler, the Prince and three times King of Wallachia and the bane of Sultan Mehmed and his Turkish armies and would be Moorish crusanders with their eyes on Rome after the fall of Constantinople. Romanians speak with pride of the defensive war they fought against a reboudtable and bottomless enemy, considering it a service to all of Europe. Prince Vlad was obviously very valorous and ruthless, and even young people speak wistfully of how his simple system of justice (you were impaled for any offense. Any offense.) made life simple and peaceful. One of the stories is that Vlad would place a cup made of gold in the city square for each year he was King and no one ever dared to steal it, though it was not guarded.
Brasov was not the seat of Dracula's power, but he doubtless crossed through here often. Nearby Bran castle is likewise not any place he ever lived, though may have been a prisoner there briefly. The castle was Bram Stoker's inspiration for the castle where Jonathan Harker encountered perfect evil. Bram Stoker's Dracula had the seductive combination of wild and refined, a savage predator dressed in a Gentleman's trappings and a honeyed tongue. An unnatural addition to the very top of the food chain armed with the confidence and conceit of old money. Unlike today's vampires who guess they want your blood, but are more interested in your girlfriend and whatever sexual fetish. Eternal beautiful teenagers with feelings who act more like eternal humans with tortured uncertainty and insecurities. Not Vlad and not his literary alter ego. Brasov and Bran seem to reluctantly embrace this legacy if only for tourist dollars. However their ambivalance is obvious, Dracula is a demonization of a hero, people coming to celebrate a legend that went sideways and turned a considered courageous defender into a monster who sucks blood, changes form, and cannot hardly be stopped. It is a matter of perspective. I did not see anyone dressed as a vampire, and I suppose expected for there to be barrels of free plastic fangs.

Halloween simply is not as big a deal to Europeans, and I suppose in the Romanian mountains Vampires are not thing to make light of. There were parties however, and a good time was easy to find. The biggest partiers were the guests, after a walk through the city, seeing a few parties where the respective bar staffs painted things on their face in mascara and considered it a costume, I returned to the Hostel where people were making a night of it. One thing about Brasov and Romania in general is the fantastic affordability of things which are half the price of most places in Western Europe. An entire large pizza is 3 euro (15 Lei) if you get all the toppings, and two liters of beer are 2 Euro. We were well appointed with strong drink and the residents of the full hostel had all found their way to the basement common room, where chips and mulled wine were provided. I flitted around the room and met and conversed with nearly everyone, Fer from Mexico City who used to be a financier and now was a good humored and foul mouthed relgion Teacher who very much appreciated the female from. In my room I had befriended two cousins from Vancouver called Casey and Brooke, and three more friends from the Charlottetown, the oldest Canadian was 21. There were several American students from Georgia who were studying in Italy, a group of English ladies in their mid twenties who took a long weekend and were enormous fans of Edward Cullen from the Twilight series, a sweating and wisecracking Aussie named Dave who danced and danced and amused himself and the others endlessly with his antics. The Hostel was largely not cliquish, but for two American girls and their gaggle of five admirers constantly jockeying for position and awkwardly materializing immediately if someone outside the circle engaged one of "their" girls in any conversation whatsoever. There are always always douchebags.

It was a fun, typical party. I found it very surprising when the fight broke out.

Brooke looks a lot like Miley Cyrus more on the good side, and she is out of the country for the first time with her older and more travel savvy cousin. She was also obliterated. What happened next is a matter of great speculation. Whether her intent was theft, or being drunk, or being a dumb kid, Brooke picked up a cell phone that wasn't hers and put it in her pocket. She also had been wandering the hostel and put on a coat that belonged to someone else from a room that was not hers. The phone belonged to one of the clique girls who called when Brooke was standing near her and it rang from her pocket. Which is when all of hell broke loose. I was upstairs and I could hear people screaming, I ignored it. An American girl named Jess, the friend of the person who's phone had been taken, had gone ballistic. Earlier Jess had told me her dream job was to be an editor, not copy editing, but correcting grammar... if that tells you anything.

I didn't realize what was going on until the fight moved upstairs as one of the English girls was escorting a shaking and hysterical Brooke upstairs, which raised Jess' ire on that whole group. Anyone showing Brooke any mercy was immediately an enemy, who seemed completely unaware that her militancy and self righteousnes was actually making her come off worse than the person who was caught red handed with someone else's phone in her pocket of a coat that also was not hers. When the fight moved upstairs I was filled in on the argument. The receptionist had not acted decisively so Jess had called the police (heh) and was keening about how Brooke would be in Romanian jail. Brooke alternated between pleading that she didn't mean to, and apologies, to screaching rage filled insults that were answered in kind. Bitch. Ho. Fuck you. Bitch. Don't take my shit you bitch.

Ultimately the owner of the hostel appeared and Brooke would be out. Which meant her cousin who had been in bed for about two hours and was now wearily backing her travelmate only to be shouted down by the poison filled American girl who was only backed at this point by her knobbish groupies including a wussy looking Kiwi guy who insisted she was a reasonable person because he had known her two days. There was no engaging Jess in any dialogue, you were with her or an idiot. Brooke didn't help by shouting things at her and otherwise giving her a steady stream of things to respond to. It nearly came to blows about four times over the whole 2 hour event. It ended in my room, where Brooke was packing and Jess was insisting she see all of her stuff to make sure she hadn't taken anything else, but mostly it was to humiliate a sobbing 18 year old. It was bullying and there was no stopping her short of physically moving her, the hostel owner stood by passively and shrugged when I told him get these two apart. The best I could get out of him was the assurance that the two girls wouldn't be thrown onto the freezing street at 3am, they would be put up for the night at staff housing and referred to another nearby hostel the next day. Jess was a vicious person, and very much the stereotype of the ugly American.
When it was all over this nauseating girl was on the phone looking for validation and to gloat. I was gratified to see her tear up when an annoyed friend called her out for phoning at such a crazy hour and not leaping immediately to her point of view. And later that night when I was finally going to bed she was standing outside of my door talking to the man who's jacket had been taken. It was the same spiel, how she wouldn't let people get away things like that, and that's the problem with the world is people let folks get away with it, and blah blah and completely unaware that enjoyment of the domination of the weaker is much worse than simple petty theft and much more emblematic of problems in the world...especially from an American perspective. I stuck my head out the door.

"Hey." She looked at me. "It's four in the fucking morning." Her face crinkled, and she laughably tried to stare me down with a dirty look. "If you want to gloat on your victory over a drunk 18 year old, do it downstairs...we've heard you talk enough." I shut the door and she responded with something inane. Needing the last word. I saw her form linger behind the curtain over the window on our door for a moment and leave. The story she will tell will be of her defense of a friend and what is morally right but to those who saw it, she had belied her base instinct of savoring too much an opportunity to dominate someone else. Jess was the worst person I have met so far on this trip, I am sad she is from where I am from.

There were no good guys in our spontaneous and free Halloween dramahorror. Initially I found it kind of entertaining until it got out of hand, and now I am brooding on it two days later. I should have been more forceful in stopping it, likely I was the only person there who could have. Jess' groupies couldn't physically intimidate me, and though I probably couldn't have shut her up I could have done more to shield the girl she was bullying, whether that girl was guilty or not.

Friday, October 30, 2009

How I got robbed

When I travel, especially at night, I take steps not to look like a tourist. I keep my camera in my pocket, and when I check a map I do so surreptitously. I do not carry much with me. I do not have shopping bags. Mostly this keeps me out of trouble, even the people that hand out flyers to tourists ignore me. However, my first full day in Budapest I didn't do much of that, and it cost me 17,000....forint.
It was a little after 11AM local time, it was a cool morning and bright with the sun. I had set about exploring the Buda side of Budapest. Budapest is actually the joining of two cities, Buda and Pest, creating a massive sprawl to this city. From the top of St. Stephen's you see that the city fills the horizon on all sides but the East where the mountains lay. Budapest is spectacularly attractive, byzantine domes, neo classical architecture, Roman ruins, lights everyplace along the river which is guarded on all sides by high rocky hills. It is also cheap, the hostel where I stayed was 9 euros a night, it was clean and comfortable.

Listening to my ipod I was cutting across a park near where I thought the Parliament building must be. I was mistaken. My awareness was very cut off from the music I was listening to, and I stared at a map for several minutes trying to figure out which way I had gone. Generally I have been carrying my laptop bag and it is filled with all the things I consider to be too essesntial to never have locked up or guarded, laptop, ipod, wallet, passport, and since my camera was stolen in Helsinki I have been extra careful. Having consulted the map, I realized I needed to head back the way I came. The park was seemingly empty, cars would drive passed occasionally but it was a very sleepy corner of the city for nearing midday. The first person I saw in the park was a girl who was of a very young age but impossibly to pinpoint, she could have been fifteen or twenty five. Her left cheek had a smudge of grime on it, and she had very dark brown eyes, I saw her walking towards me and I stopped and waited. I knew she was going to want change, and I actually started to reach into my pocket for spare forints that I wouldn't need anyway. I also turned down my ipod but did not remove the buds from my ears.

As she reached me with her had out she was speaking very fast in Maygar, and I shook my head to let her know I didn't understand. She repeated herself and I leaned forward to see if I could pick any word and that was when I felt the point of a knife against the back of my neck.

I have been followed a few times, and I have thwarted many germinating robbery attempt on me in my life. As I write this, I am frankly annoyed that these are the idiots that finally got me.

I think he said "Your wallet." But honestly I can't recall very well. It was very fast, and I didn't have time to be afraid. Outraged is more a good description, or enraged. I pulled my wallet and when he grabbed at it I pulled it away, and so he pushed the knife slightly harder so that it broke skin. I pulled the notes out and handed them back to him. He reached for the wallet again and I said "No." I was ready to fight him over everything else. I had the sense he was unsure and nervous and so I was less so. The girl had run off and she was shouting something, and then he ran as well. It might have gotten more confrontational at night, but they were scared and hurried due to the good light. I found a cop, and filed a report, he seemed bored and it took way longer than I would have liked.

It was abrudpt and not nearly as exciting as it sounds when you simply say "I was mugged with a knife." Everytime I thought of it through the day I would get angry, not at the money which was little, but the violation. The humiliation of having something forcibly taken from you, it didn't sit well with my pride and so in the night I walked back to the place where it happened and looked for them. I wasn't there for what they had taken in a material sense, but emotionally. I saw him when he ran, he would be no match for me.

They were not there, but the park had filled with sleazy looking people and so I left and resolved to let it go. I do not feel unsafe in Budapest or anyplace else, I think what happened was a confluence of circumstances that ended up being unfortunate for me. I looked up crime statistics, its not really a problem here, the wrong couple people got the drop on me because I was basically walking around with a big 'T' on my forehead for tourist and I wasn't aware of my surroundings.

What I am saying is, for the all the times I have heard people reminding me to "be safe", I am assuring you that despite this...I very much am.

Sunday, October 25, 2009

Voodoo graceful

In Haiti when they have voodoo ceremonies, people dance and dance for hours and say they are ridden by ancestor spirits called loa. The benevolent loas are called cool, and the malevolent ones are hot. Believers dance and hope that they are chosen, and when they are chosen they find that they can do things that they cannot do. Those ridden can eat glass, or dance in fire, and they move so savagely and beautifully that even people who think it's all superstition think it may be possible that some primeval spirit from the creation of Earth is doing the driving. This concept is one of the many I have pondered to explain what happened last Saturday night in Vienna at a place called Club Cubana. But before we jump right in, there is a little prologue leading up to what will go down as one of the most fun nights of this entire trip.

My crew was composed of the following: Myles, an Englishman and adventurer who is riding his bike from London to Istanbul for many familiar reasons. He is my age, we were immediately friends who recognized eachother as fellow travelers. Alex and Jen, two best friends from Australia who are super organized, have been scrapbooking as they go, and never seem to disagree on anything of substance. Kurt, the aforemenioned hilarious Canadian kid. Bec, another Aussie who I liked immediately as she was reading a Tennessee Williams biography, Hammer, Dan from Toronoto who makes his living teaching Ballroom dancing, and James a local who tends bar at the Hostel.

Last Monday (10/26) is a national Holiday in Austria which celebrates the withdrawl of the Soviets. On the Saturday before the Austrian military had set up for 4PM a large scale dance with local women, apparently an attempt to break the world record for most people salsa dancing ever in one place. I had been told it was happening and 6 and I had recruited nearly everyone at the Hostel to go. So when we arrived the thing was over, and I still don't know if they broke the record.

James, who has lived in Vienna for two years, took us to an underground wine bar. It was not a tourist establishment, which I appreciated. When I went to the counter to order food, I just pointed as there was no English spoken here. I got pork stuffed cabbage rolls, which were clearly the best entree, though I admit I only pointed at it because there was bacon on them. As we drained bottles of wine we started to get increasingly loud, and as we were surrounded by mostly senior citizens who were slightly alarmed we were hustled into the room where there was live music. The live music consisted of a chubby Austrian man doing a lounge act in German.

As we were leaving, James was leading us out as the place was something of a maze, the music stopped as a table of ladies were talking about what a cute boy he was. The woman who had noticed him was a lean blonde with thin rimmed glasses and excellent posture. I rarely notice posture on the good side, and so my immediate impression was that she was very rigid, she was also blshing furiously as clearly James was not meant to hear any of this. Because he had been hanging out with me, and I had been casually adding people to groups my entire stay, he invited her. At first she demured, but her smiling friends urged her on and she grabbed her coat. I looked at Myles who raised his eyebrows, we were both surprised.

Her name was Melanie, she was from the south of Austria bet had lived in Vienna for 8 years. Mostly I spoke to her, because James seemed to have buyer's remorse after inviting her. She was clearly a very intense woman who did not allow herself to have much fun, I also found her to be a little thin skinned, but she was clearly excited to be doing something so out of character, and she bought me drinks in honor of my birthday nearly three weeks ago; so my opinion was favorable. The next few hours were bar hopping and drinking, which I will glaze over to get to the good part.

Around 3am everyone from the Hostel was going home. Myles needed to get up early for his ride to Bratislava, the girls were tired, James was hammered, and Dan had already left before the subway stopped running. That's when Melanie and I went to the dance club and I caught a loa.

I am a horrible dancer. Awful. Clearly I was built for power, no grace, and rough movement. I dance like an uncooked turkey thrown down a rocky hill, make no mistake, I am very aware of my weaknesses. However. I was well buzzed, and I was not ready to pack it in, so we climbed the steps down. The walls were a rich magenta and South American music thumped the walls below, there were three large doormen, but no trouble, and at the bottom of the winding stair was the dance floor which was in front of a giant television screen which played the music video of each song that blasted through the unseen speakers hidden in the darkness above us. On the bar a beautiful latino woman danced in a way that can only be described as softly in her bare feet and white form fitting dress. The place was not crowded, nor was it not not crowded. The sides of the walls had mirrors like a gym, where sweating people took their cigarette and mojito breaks.

I have never salsa danced. So what happened next can either be described as a drunken savant moment, a loa, or something else mysterious. Because I knew EXACTLY what to do. My steps were perfect, I grabbed Melanie's hip with my right hand and my left hand met hers. We stepped. She sensed my confidence and allowed me to lead her as I wished, the first time I spun her she laughed in surprise. I don't even look like I could be a good dancer, too brutish.

I only needed to see it done around me once, and I did it. We joined hands and spun eachother, I back away and made her follow me, and this uptight Austrian lady laughed and laughed having probably the best time in her entire life. Now that I had a few songs under my belt, I suddenly started doing things I wasn't seeing on the floor. I spun Melanie towards me, grabbed her hips and threw her into the air. She squealed, in the second she was up, I turned out and stepped forward so that I was standing beside where she would land facing the same way, I caught her with one arm into a dip.

I did that.
People noticed, two older men were cheering me, I suddenly kind of had an audience. Now, before, I mentioned that for what I lack in physical grace I am paid out in full and more in physical power. I moved her all over the floor, I picked her up when I wanted, spun her when I wanted, everything led into everything else as a natural progression. I even did the obnoxious affected head turns you see in Julia Styles movies. I was channeling Patrick Swayze with Donkey Kong strength and the arrogance of everything beautiful. I have no idea how it happened, but the club belonged to me. I have commanded many rooms, my stories and loud voice and words make people listen, but I had never done this in a place where words meant nothing. I was most satisfied.

I didn't stop for two hours when they finally closed the place. None of the pictures turned out except the one of me sweating my ass off with Melanie whispering filthy things to me. I danced with everyone, a woman of 60, giggling girls, and my de facto date would wait looking sour. At the end, at 5AM, my feet hurt and I was soaked. When whatever had possessed me left, I was exhausted. I bid Melanie goodnight and did not share the cab with her, or come see her "Edvard Munch prints at her place", I walked home for an hour hobbling at the end as my legs and feet had revolted. I was freezing from the dry sweat. When the Loa left I was exhausted, and ecstatic. I was puzzled. I was also immensely pleased, because someday when the great scorer adds it all up he can note that at least once in his life this blocky tank of a man was the most graceful person in his district for a whole sweaty two hours and twenty minutes.

And I will happily take that. It's mine. I am keeping it.

Friday, October 23, 2009

Nageln: The drinking game that involves swinging hammers, what could go wrong?

I can't seem to get out of Vienna.

This is not because I particularly love this city, I don't. It's okay. However the Ruthensteiner Hostel seems to yield up new and interesting and fun people every day. It is very clean and large, it is very comfortable. They also have their own bar until 11pm which serves cheap drinks including a local still fermenting wine call "sturm". It is kind of the perfect place to pre buzz and then saunter into the night. What has tended to happen is that you meet up with people there, and decide to explore the night together. This is how I met Macgyver, Suzie, Nacho, Calgary, Whizkid, Kurt, and Hammer.

Macgyver is realy named Gary and he is an extremely youthful looking 39 year old tatoo artist from Frankfurt. His mother was Chinese so he has large dark almond colored eyes, he is into rockabilly and wears his hair wet with a modest pompadour. He is called Macgyver because is earnest and organized and seemingly prepared for anything. For a tatoo artist his visable tattoos are modest, half sleeves on the upper part of his arms, asian characters and koi and the AC/DC fly. He has a policy at his shop to not give neck and face tats to anyone under 25.

Suzie is really named Suzie. She is 21 from Wisconsin on a work visa in Frankfurt, a visa that will end in January and end her relationship with Gary. She has insanely long eyelashes, an easy smile, and is the only vegetarian I have ever met from cattle country. She wants to be a nurse.

Nacho is a hilariously forward lothario from Argentina. He can play guitar a little and all he knows how to play are panty droppers, talks out his ass constantly, and flucuates from being an over the top douchebag you want to slap, and being admirably charming in a stubbornly foolhardy way. Probably he and I share this trait, only he is more unscrupulous.

Calgary is really name Micala, she is very beautiful and every guy at the Hostel has tried to hook up with her except me. The reason I have not is because when I first arrived I had a dire bathroom emergency that came from a 12 hour train ride in a compartment with six people having eaten two Bratwurst at Munich station before I left. I got to my dorm ran in, and made horrid and terrfying noises. When I finally came out, she was sitting on her bunk nearest the toilet door and say "Hey." I have not tried anything. Also she has a boyfriend anyway, what am I? Nacho?

Whizkid is from Chicago, and studies Philosophy at Dartmouth. He is very serious and his hand eye coordination is not the best. Don't joke with him that philosophy is a worthless major even if you studied it too.

Kurt is a very tall, very hilarious kid from Vancouver. He was walking on cars after awhile and inviting anyne we passed to join us, especially he sketchiest and scariest characters we saw. Probably he is going to be coming with me through Slovakia, Hungary, and Romania.

Hammer is also Canadian, he looks exactly like the third friend from Swingers, loves to talk technically about hockey, and clearly was an athlete because of his reaction when suceeding in bar games.

Hostel Ruthensteiner, as I have mentioned has guitars on the walls for public use, as well as a hand drum and a piano at the bar. Calgary had been getting free lessons from the guys who could play even a little the whole time she was here. Really only one person in the whole place was any good, but he was Costa Rican and so he didn't know many pop songs. Which is how we got stuck with Nacho. I had taken Macgyver and Suzie up the street to show them the best pizza/kebab place amongst the sea of them on the main road. By and by, a popular pizza in Austria is salami and corn. Macgyver was also on a mission to find some Strongbow cider, as it was his favorite, and he has a tendency to get very single minded. In fact he ran off and left me and Suzie so he could find some, while we got falafels.

By the time we had gotten back the bar room in the Hostel was full, everyone sitting in a circle, Miles the cyclist who is also coming to Hungary with me, a couple from Brazil, an Israeli who had just gotten out of the army, probably fifteen people, and Nacho was playing "Don't Look Back in Anger" and everyone was singing, which I of course joined immediately, they enthusiastically made space for me and we were on. For two hours people would look up tab, or from the Beatles songbook and then we'd play, in between there was a lot of conversation and laughing and cheap good beers. By 11 oclock when the lame bartender made us leave, I had monopolized all the ladies Nacho was trying to get the atention of (Because no matter how much I grow up, I am still ridiculously competitive), except Calagry. I think I was talking stupid shit about Edvard Munch to Suzie and these two Aussies called Alexandra and Jen, I kept trying to get Macgyver to hang with us but he was discussing an army tattoo that the Israeli soldier wanted.

The awesome vibe evaporated in the short migration to the next room. It simply was not situated for the big circle, and immediately half the people went to bed and the rest had to segregate into groups. By now, there was no one that wasn't well buzzed or out and out intoxicated. This is when the crew described above decided to go to Travelbar which was very close. Inside people were dancing lasciviously on the tables, and Gary went straight for an odd tree stump with a ton of nails driven into it. He had taken a hammer and stuck several nails in te stump, very straight and precise. Suzie explained to me we were about to play nageln, which is where drunk people use the thin backside of a hammer to try and drive their nail into the stump. You swing once and pass left, last one to drive their nail buys shots for everyone. I looked at Kurt nervously and he nodded and seemed to understand the implication of the look.

Again. The drinking game is using the THIN part of a HAMMER to VIOLENTLY drive NAILS into WOOD. While DRUNK and still DRINKING. This is not beer pong, in Germany/Austria they do not play beer pong. I don't suggest you even mention it.

The secret is to make your arm completely straight and to not bend your wrist. Some people swing hard like the hare and some soft like the tortoise. Macgyver told me horror stories of what he had personally seen go wrong, but he assured me it was very rare. Afterall he was letting Suzie play and he was clearly very much in love with her. This game took an hour, and the bar started to close around us. In the end the Gary had won, obviously, and Nacho was annoyingly second. I was slightly ahead of Suzie and Kurt who would moan whenever I actually hit my nail, obviously most of the time you miss you glance off of it. Whiz Kid was doing so badly that Calgary was sweetly putting her head on his shoulder for comfort, which immediately brought over the kid from Argentina. Hammer though, was the worst, he had not even hit it when he reared back and hit the nail so directly that a spark flew and he was immediately tied with me.

Hammer roared like a linebacker who had just knocked the helmet off of a receiver over the middle on 3rd down. He flexed and exulted and we cheered him. I was happy for him because he had been kind of embarassed. Except Kurt, who was threatening to kill Hammer with his thumbs, somehow.

Me: Your thumbs?

Kurt: Yes. I am a Navy Seal.

Me: You're Canadian.

Kurt: You're next.

Honestly, I love Kurt.

I came in forth, just behind Hammer who hit one of his John Henry blows again a few minutes later. By this time the bartender had turned off the lights and Macgyver had pulled a mini flashlight from somewhere and was shining it like a spotlight on the stump. Whiz Kid came in last by a lot, but did not have to buy drinks. Calgary had adopted a drunk American girl who had been forgotten and left in the restroom, she did not know where she was staying.

It was now nearly 3am. Kurt wanted to stay out and was very vocal, Calgary agreed and Nacho was going where Calgary went. The Hostel clerk told us about a couple places that would still be operating, but he didn't give them high praise. We didn't care, and said good night to Gary and Suzie and went back out.

The bar/nightclub as unmarked. Which usually means great things, or terrible. We kicked it open and immediately were assailed by the strong scent of marijuana. There were no women here, and the men were filthy, and laughing, and shouting at eachother in mirthful tones in languages I didn't understand. The walls were lined with soft and disgusting leather couches. In the morning after being here when I finally took a shower, even my underwear smelled like smoke. We warily took seats the end of the bar and scrounged up the coins for four more beers. The man to my left was drumming along with the hard rock that was playing, and I was forced by Nacho into yet another "Denny defends America" discussion. I have gotten very adept at this, and soon had him backtracking and espousing his respect for my homeland. Though he did make a few decent points, such as I refer to myself as "American" and he also is an American, as well as the two Canadians with us. Also, apparently the US is the only country in the world that teaches there are seven continents instead of six, which I suppose implies arrogance for holdng ourselves apart.

Calgary announced she was headed to the restroom and Nacho excused himself shortly after, and Kurt and I rolled our eyes at eachother.

Kurt: I'd totally go after her, but she's out of my league.

Me: Nonsense. She likes you more than Nacho, she keeps talking about how funny you are.

Kurt: It's amazing how your standards change after six weeks. That sort of chubby busty girl that was in the Hostel with her family... I mean she has a head like Stewie and I was like, in my head "I could tear that up, I just gotta get her Mom away." What's wrong with me?

Me: Her sister is there too.

Kurt: Yes! Oh My God...she's a monster!

He was referring to Lena and Corlena, two severe faced sisters who were Austrian and yet staying in the Hostel. Lena had been wearing a heavy jacket and yet somehow there was a nearly obscene amount of cleavage.

As we were speaking, suddenly there materialized a stocky blonde German man, with long blonde dreads, and a lazy eye. He, more or less, looked right at me and said : "What are you doing here?"

The conversation was off, me telling him I loved the established history, something we Americans couldn't compete with. Laying it on thick, because this man was part of a large group and seemed dangerous. Next to him was a little Austrian man with rotten teeth who only knew pop culture English words and tried to use them as insults and weapons.

"Fuck Arnold Schwarzenegger. HAHAHAHAHA."

He also, oddly, had a very good knowledge of Red Hot Chili Peppers lyrics. He wanted to fight, he kept demanding I punch him.

Now, in Europe, the best diplomacy and easiest way to make friends is to know the biggest soccer star in the country where your assailant is from. In this case, Germany, and the player is midfielder Michael Ballack. If you plan on traveling I suggest watching the World Cup this summer. As soon as I started dropping the names I know from my rudimentary knowledge of the sport. Soon, all but the rotten toothed flea fan were my old friends, Kurt was impressed and we saw Calgary leave looking upset. Nacho followed soon behind. We both knew what that meant, we also knew we had to finish these beers that had been bought for us, either way I was now enjoying this talk with these professional drinkers. I was telling them they didn't want us in the US to ever get serious about soccer, with our size and resources and will to win. They agreed, and when we parted they were all insisting I visit their respective homes, leaving mobile numbers and email addresses.

I fell into my bunk at 6AM. Nacho was still rowing against the current downstairs. The kitchen was locked so I could not hydrate and knew the hangover was coming, and fast. I would be staying in Vienna one more night.

Thursday, October 22, 2009

Memento Mori

The most interesting thing about Vienna is the confluence of the oldest, the old, and new. In the oldest sense Vienna has as stunning a historical district as anyplace, and large. There always seems to be another spire to wander towards, and the Parliament building and Royal Palace sort of hint at the possible granduer of the temples of Greece when civilization was more like an idea. In fact the Parliament building has a series of statues depicting the labors of Hercules, for some reason, mostly his notable defeats of monsters like the Hydra, Nemean Lion, and Cerebus. They are beautiful buildings despite my current bout of Cathedral/Castle fatigue. There are also blocks and blocks of worker apartments from the days of the Warsaw Pact which look to me like an American strip mall would look to Nikita Kruschev, and finally there are shopping districts to rival near anyplace, the elegant avenue leading towards the palace has a Gucci, and Tommy, and Burberry, and Chanel. It is a place with multiple personality disorder. Always an art loving cultural center and yet an enthusiastic participant in Hitler's purges.

In the evenings around 11pm the prostitutes start to wander, its legal here as well, more or less. These women I am told are from poorer countries like Slovakia. In fact in the news there was a story about a group of women who are nurses from that country that moonlight because they make so much more cash selling their bodies rather than helping to keep the bodies of others healthy. Human traffic is also a much more common occurence here. I had heard that many of these women come thinking they are to receive unskilled labor jobs and are then manipulated into selling their bodies and led to believe that all the police are paid off and there is no escape. So, last night when I mentioned to a particularly aggressive lady that she could get help if she wanted and she didn't need to do this, she spit at me and called me a faggot. So I suppose she was local. I have seen a lot of spitting women here.

Near the train station is an underground Synagogue, the only one that survived the purge. And last year they finally saw fit to raising a monument dedicated to the people that helped thousands to escape. Sometimes in this part of the world it still feels like the war is being fought, and it is easy to forget historically speaking how recent all of these events actually were.
The very end of the U3 line you can find the Zentralfriedhof, which is a massive cemetary that holds the bones of Beethoven, Brahms, and every notable Viener for three hundred years. The place is so large that three consecutive tram stops on line 71 stop in front of the gates. The avenues are wide and well kept and lining the streets are family crypts that seem to get more elaborate. There are hundreds of angels and people scultped in stone and metal for their eternal mourning, central steps leading the Patriarch's selpuchre, and large flat heavy stones to cover the stairs down into the vault where ancestors and beloved family members molder. The graves are as the 18th century and yet flower beds before all the markers are well maintained, watered, weeded, cared for. I was the youngest person there by twenty years and I felt guilty taking picures, at one point I walked forty five minutes without seeing another living soul. It was a very quiet and dignified and crowded place. It made me think of how we all need to make do with one life, even though it is not nearly enough, and the vital importance of shared experience. If modern life expectancy holds up I am nearly half way to one of those these quiet green places and repose, and I could never see and touch everything without the help from everyone I know who could report back to me what they have seen and what they have touched. Ironically the quiet and the calm of the massive cemetary made me want to hurry and never sleep, and yet... it made me want to sit on a bench and stare at the inscrutable face of another bust of an Austrian Doctor who died a hundred and thirty years ago and feel time wash over me and gradually push me in its current towards an urn or vault or coffin. Part of life is finding peace, and you can't find it if you hurry overmuch. The part of life is living, and you can't do it if you have too much peace. There are no answers, not really, and there never were, we just do our best.
I am sitting in a hostel and it is starting to rain here. At a table next to me a man going through a divorce is planning his next route on his bike on a quest to ride across Europe, two Aussie women are scrap booking from their four month long trip together and a girl sits drawing or writing in a moleskin notebook. Elsewhere an American is strumming one of the guitars that they have hanging on the walls, he is singingly softly to himself and it sounds very country, near him a guy from Montreal is drinking a beer and looing for something to do, and beyond him are groups of kids on laptops laughing and drinking tea. Last night I closed a bar with these people, and the next day many are gone, and the day after that so will I be gone. If this seems like an elaborate metaphor, that's because it is, but it is also all true.

Being on the road you struggle with the urge to squeeze every last drop of every day. Quiet moments seem like a waste. Like we are willing to let so many so called normal days pass but have this intense need to die on every hill in Cancun, Disneyworld, or Vienna. More and more I have been less driven to drink from the fire hose, and I have started to lose track of time. It takes longer than it should.