New Site!

•February 7, 2013 • Leave a Comment

Hello friends! I’ve moved!

As lovely as my time spent being loquacious and lyrically lilting has been, it’s time to move on to greener pastures of blogging.

Which really just means I’m still using WordPress, but it’s in a shiny new coat at a URL with my name in it. Some of my short films are featured there and in the future there will be a lot of other truly mind-blowingly awesome things.

So here’s what you need to do:

1) Go to jon.forisha.com.

2) Fall in love with it.

3) Subscribe!

Many thanks. See you on the other side.

And by that I meant at the other blog. I’m not dying or anything.

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A Lot of TV Talk

•January 20, 2013 • Leave a Comment

I haven’t written a blog post since last year! Wowza!

I wish I could recount more travels all over this fine world, but not every month can be a worldly excavation. As it so happens, I still find myself without employment. I’ve gone through cycles of being depressed about it, being upset that no one responds to my many emails, and then getting empowered and deciding I should take it in to my own hands and stalk companies on LinkedIn. At the moment I’m staying optimistic that my current course of action will result in a steady paycheck again.

The funny thing? I don’t at all regret quitting my comfortable job in a corporate office. It helps that I’m young and single, with no pets and little debt. I happen to be good at rationing money, and over time that resulted in a comfortable bank balance. I think, as a creative type with an English degree that dreams of making movies for a living, I’ve always expected ridiculous financial hardships. My current situation is entirely my own doing, and living in Nashville is definitely easier on the wallet than many cities would be.

What have I been doing with this ungodly amount of free time? You name it, I’ve probably done it. Unless what you’re thinking of involves putting saddles on wild animals while they slumber. That’s still on the to-do list.

I’ve watched a lot of TV and movies. A lot a lot. In our age of digital media, it’s almost stupid easy to become absorbed in a show and watch the days fly by, but I’m at least indulging with a bit of self-restraint. It helps that TV is an area I would love to work in someday; it sort of feels like I’m doing career research when I write out the plot points of an episode of The Sopranos.

Since quitting my job, I’ve devoured all of Friday Night Lights, both seasons of Homeland, the first season of American Horror Story, and am now up to my neck in season three of Battlestar Galactica.

Friday Night Lights is amazing and is one of the most true to life shows I’ve ever seen. Brilliantly written and acted, along with an unconventional style of shooting unrehearsed scenes with two and sometimes three cameras. It makes it feel almost like a documentary. Being a native Texan, I can relate to a lot of elements of this show’s characters, despite the fact that my hometown is actually quite large and cultured in contrast to Dillon’s tiny redneck feel.

I went home to Plano, Texas, for a week and a half for Christmas (one perk of unemployment is being able to go home for long periods of time) and took advantage of my parents’ cable to watch both seasons of Homeland. The show deals with suspense better than any I’ve seen. As a die-hard Mad Men fan, I initially felt that I owed it to Don Draper to hate Homeland for breaking the Emmy streak, but upon watching that impeccable first season, I understand how it did it. In my opinion the second was just as good, though the central romance got a little annoying (that tends to be the case with me, though. Buffy and Angel never did it for me either. What does that say about me?).

But here’s what I really wanted to talk about: American Horror Story. Season 1 spoilers follow.

*

On Reddit a few months ago, when American Horror Story first came to Netflix, someone posted asking if it was good. I thought that was silly, since how easy is it to sit down and watch it when you already have access to it? Upon watching it, though, I found myself wondering the same thing. Is it good?

I love the horror genre. Combine it with comedy and you get gems like Shaun of the Dead and Slither. On its own you can get fun social commentary in the form of shambling zombies. Or you could make slasher films blatantly condemning teenage promiscuity. Or you could just have a good old-fashioned monster movie. I’m a big sucker for monster movies.

Despite my interest, I had missed American Horror Story when it first aired on TV. When I discovered it was on Netflix I thought I should give it a go. What resulted was a frustrating experience that led to me swearing off any subsequent seasons. After the pilot had me yelling “NO!” at the TV, I thought I had better keep notes on why it bugged me so much. As I pointed out, my watching TV feels like research into the minds of people doing jobs I want to do. So why not learn from what not to do, even if it’s not nearly as much fun as what to do.

First of all, it was created by the guys that made Nip/Tuck and Glee. I never watched Nip/Tuck and have only seen enough of Glee to know I’m not a “gleetard” (worst name for fans ever?). These guys decided they would make a horror show, and they thought they would be so ballsy as to call it “American Horror Story”. It’s a bold title. It says that 1) they’re telling a uniquely American story 2) horror is the defining characteristic of this story and 3) it’s vague enough that it fits perfectly with the point of the show, which is that each season is its own little horror mini-series. That’s a great idea, I love that idea.

It almost seems like because these guys made Glee, they feel like they have so much cred in the gay community that they can then just be downright hateful towards gay people on this, their new show – even though season 1 takes place in Los Angeles. Connie Britton is one of the stars of this season, and since I’d just come to it from Friday Night Lights – where Connie Britton portrays one of the best TV mothers ever – I was excited. My elation soon subsided as I realized they were wasting her talent. They also managed to bastardize a lot of famous horror movies into their show in an attempt to stay true to the horror element. You could say they’re paying homage, but it never felt that way to me.

Tate, the kid that sits around with Vera Farmiga’s painfully-emo younger sister, shot up a high school and then killed himself in the house, meaning he’ll live forever within its confines. But he doesn’t know he’s dead, and also he’s a friendly ghost that just wants to cheer up young Farmiga. So basically his character is Bruce Willis in The Sixth Sense combined with Casper. He doesn’t remember the school shooting because it’s too painful, but killing countless inhabitants in the haunted house is totally cool by him.

There are countless instances of weird things happening and then we cut to a different scene and no one follows up on what happened. A nurse gives Connie Britton an ultrasound, only to find that the baby in her belly has hooves. So the nurse, instead of saying anything, faints. A few episodes later we see the nurse again, who’s quit the hospital and now sits in a giant Catholic church, because what she saw was just that scary. Except that Connie Britton and her husband didn’t see it and apparently the nurse that completed the ultrasound didn’t find it odd either. Also, that sub-plot is The Omen.

It’s not all horrible. The music, I thought, was pretty good throughout. The opening intro is pretty cool, with a weird use of music and giant fonts. The Halloween episode was fantastic, which might be expected considering the horror. They managed to avoid the use of cliched creepy kids through most of the season, even if two red-headed kids from the 70s kept annoyingly appearing just to bounce balls and stare at people with their mouths open.

Okay. I’ll stop ranting.

My point in doing this is that I feel like the Glee guys don’t respect the genre, and you can feel it. It’s all silly goofiness to them, especially sub-plots like Modern Family’s Eric Stonestreet appearing as an idiotic version of Bloody Mary (called “the piggyman”. Goodness that’s dumb). I’m not saying showrunners have to treat genre TV with a deathly seriousness, but explanations of the supernatural elements so haphazardly tossed around is always appreciated.

The season ends on an oddly happy note. In fact, it ends very happily. The whole family is dead, doomed to live in the house forever, but they don’t care because at least they have each other. Their stupid ghost brains seem to have forgotten that at that point there were 11 episodes recounting how much the three of them don’t get along and actually hate each other.

Now I’m watching Battlestar Galactica. Since I’ve long been the guy proselytizing for people to read The Forever War and similar intelligent sci-fi, it’s kind of absurd that it took me this long to watch BSG. Let’s just say, even though I’m not yet to the end of the series, it is amazing. It treats the sci-fi genre just how it should be treated, as a way to remove us from our time and tell stories that pertain to us as humans despite the otherworldly setting. There aren’t whole episodes talking about making the evil Cylons because who cares? Just like how Looper skips over the intricacies of time travel in favor of the story’s momentum, the sci-fi elements set the stage for our characters to move and talk and do things. Because good stories are about characters.

Ron Moore, the creator of BSG, clearly loves sci-fi, but he also loves his characters. The Glee guys don’t love horror, and I guarantee they don’t love their characters. No one could love those characters.

The Trip Back to Nashville

•December 5, 2012 • 4 Comments

Again traveling on my own, I boarded the plane from Budapest to London, and it was a fairly uneventful few hours. This trip was my first time going to Europe, and I’d never been to London, so once I touched down in the London airport, I was amazed by what I saw.

Given London’s international economic importance, it shouldn’t have been that surprising, but I really didn’t expect to see such a massive assortment of high-end retail stores. Nor did I expect for said retail stores to already be fully-decked out for Christmastime, since it was only November 9. I had to remind myself, though, that even in America, where Thanksgiving exists, most retailers are incredibly eager to jump from Halloween costumes to Christmas ornaments.

IMG_7338When I purchased all of my flights, the website I booked through repeatedly warned that I had less than 2 hours’ connection time between legs of my journey. As I said in a previous entry, the recommended connection times are way too liberal and resulted, more often than not, in me sitting around in an airport twiddling my thumbs. The flipside of that, however, is the last time I flew home to Dallas, arriving at the Nashville airport with only 20 minutes until my flight was supposed to depart. I’m sure the security people were impressed by how quickly I tossed my stuff through the machines, yelling like a madman.

In London I had about 1 hour, 50 minutes until my flight to Chicago was supposed to depart, and on the terminal-announcing board I was informed that my flight did not yet have a terminal. So I decided to walk in large circles, acting like I was interested in expensive perfume, looking at high-end electronics and fancy bottles of liquor, all while being occasionally asked if I needed help by the various employees decked out in friendly Santa hats.

The chosen book for my European journey was Kraken by China Mieville. Though I’m still not finished, it’s been a wonderful read full of the kinds of imaginative insanity that I’ve come to expect from Mieville. He’s British, and the novel is set in London, and there are quite a few mentions of people knowing what part of London each other are from just based on their accents. I heard a lot of accents in that airport. Most of them were lovely, but there’s no way I could place the parts of London they were from.

I’ve always been intrigued by the idea of accents in other languages. When I was learning Japanese they would tell us that saying it one way is very Tokyo whereas saying it another way is very Kyoto. There were extremely subtle differences, but to a native speaker it would be easy to pick out. If I spoke a language fluently and was speaking over the phone to a native, they would probably immediately know I was American despite how well I spoke their tongue. Accents are odd like that, a brand you can’t easily erase.

My wait-time in the airport finally over, the board spat up my terminal number and I headed that way, going through a large series of hallways before arriving at what felt like the end of the airport. It was a high-security terminal, one in which three different attendants checked my passport before I was permitted to serve the last 30 minutes of my sentence.

They were speaking one-on-one with foreigners, filling out all kinds of papers for them, and I guess that’s the norm for international flights into America these days. Contrasted with the incredible lax attitude of the EU airports I’d been in, it was pretty jarring, but then again EU countries never had a 9/11.

The plane was big. I was seated alone at my window seat, perfectly happy with the Universe for gracing me with an empty seat for a neighbor, but then, through a weird series of events that I didn’t quite understand but which involved 1) a baby 2) the quick changing of seats 3) a Russian rock band and 4) the jolliest flight attendant ever, this French guy ended up sitting next to me.

He was a happy guy that seemed to quite enjoy reading a very dry pediatric medical textbook. We made occasional conversation in which I didn’t try to guess where he was from (the resulting sting of my asking the Mexican guy if he was French on the way to Paris was still fresh in my mind). He told me France, and then I told him I’d just been to Paris for the first time. “France is totally different than Paris,” he said humorlessly. I got the feeling he didn’t particularly like The City of Love, like an American hating that their whole country boiled down to the Statue of Liberty to some foreigners.

IMG_7254A majority of our plane was occupied by the members and crew of some Russian rock band. They were on their way to New York via Chicago, and they were energetic and loud. As the flight wore on, the fact that they were always standing got rather annoying, as did the fact that the guy in front of my French neighbor (who I learned was the drummer) would not stop moving forward and backward in his chair, causing my French neighbor to harumph like a Frenchman and look at me like WHO DOES THIS GUY THINK HE IS?

The saddest flight attendant in the world was hurrying down the aisle and happened to trip over the drummer’s outstretched foot. She fell to her knees, causing audible gasps to escape from those of us who saw it, and from then on she was visibly upset every time she had to walk past that guy.

There was a baby in the middle of the plane. Everyone looked at it like it was a bomb that could detonate at any moment, the source of a potentially grating sound that would drive us all mad. Hurtling through the air in the same cylinder of metal as us, the baby’s screech would be inescapable. We’d probably lose any sense of humanity, resort back to our basest behavior and eat one another in a feeble attempt to stop the sound that was forcing blood to shoot, in a sickening projectile arc, from our ears and eyes.

But no, the baby didn’t make a peep. It was incredible.

I feel silly saying this, but I’m continually amazed by airplanes. I’m aware they’ve been around for quite some time now – and have even been available for the common man to utilize in his everyday travel – but they’re still pretty incredible. I step on to this big metal contraption and then we fly through the air in the most unnatural form of travel we humans can yet muster, and then, in but a mere few hours, I arrive in my intended destination. How absurd is that? People used to have to take boats. You know how long that took? People died traveling from Europe to America. And here I am hanging out with a Russian rock band thousands of feet above the Atlantic.

The airplane food wasn’t bad, and pretty early in the trip the flight attendants announced that they were out of beer and wine. We all looked at the Russian band and scowled. Even after the announcement, one of the Russian guys asked one of the attendants if he could have some wine. I thought he was kidding, chuckled a little, and then, realizing he wasn’t, turned my chuckle into a sound of disbelief.

By the time we landed in America, they’d played the Customs video a dozen times. The movies on the return flight were really not good, either. We had Madagascar 3 first, followed by A Better Life, a sappy film about a Mexican guy in LA trying to give his son A Better Life. He doesn’t, really, and then they cry and I ended up watching everything but the last 10 minutes. It’s got to be a pretty awful movie to keep me from even caring about the last 10 minutes.

In my checked baggage was a bottle of absinthe from Prague. I read every guideline for bringing alcohol back into the US and was ready to combat whatever BS the customs officers threw my way (in my imagination the customs officers just really wanted some absinthe and would do whatever they had to to steal it from me). The bottle couldn’t contain any hallucinogenic paraphernalia, nor could “Absinthe” be the brand name. It had to contain 10mg or less of Thujon, the allegedly-hallucinogenic chemical that gave absinthe its enviable reputation.

I had all of this stored away in my brain, ready to fight. On the declaration sheet for customs, I even put “liquor” instead of “absinthe”. Not technically a lie, I figured I’d just try to side-step any potential fight, prepared though I IMG_7454may be.

So then I get up there to the sleepy customs officer, and what does he do? I don’t think he even glanced at my sheet. He stamped it and sent me on my way. I grabbed my checked baggage, then got in line for another attendant. Ah, I thought, this guy is the one who will check it more closely.

Stamped, I got sent on my way again without another glance. I could have brought a Budapestian pig into the States. I could have stocked up on an assortment of volatile weapons from Prague. No one really cared what I had, I guess, because I had an American passport and, wait a minute, isn’t that a whole band of Russians behind you? They‘ve got some stuff on them, you go ahead, we’ve got to tear their suitcases apart.

Waiting in line to go through the scanners, I overheard the conversation of the two Army people in front of me. It sounded to me like they were on the first episode of a new show and were trying their best to have a normal conversation while casually tossing in all kinds of vital information – exposition to let the audience know the context of the flight they’re about to take.

By the time I got on the plane, I was so tired that I didn’t even say anything to the guy next to me. He just sat there watching Dodgeball on his iPad before falling asleep in a really unflatteringly position. In my fatigued state, I felt like everyone else was similarly tired. The flight attendants rarely came by and no one seemed to so much as glance at one another.

I landed in Nashville, snatched my bag, and climbed into Brit’s car, arriving back at the house just after midnight.

And there it is, the end of my trip.

I kind of sort of quit my deceptively-comfortable office job to be able to take this trip, and now it’s been almost a month since I returned. A month of unemployment. Do I regret quitting? No, not really. Having a flow of money sure is nice, but not when every day feels like it’s sapping your soul just a little bit. I recognize that working in an office job might be unavoidable for someone wishing to exist in middle-class America, but things just seemed to line up and the Universe insisted I take the opportunity and see some of the world I’d heard so much about.

IMG_7570It was a good trip. A billion things could have gone wrong but very few actually did. I’ll admit that my style of traveling (looking up a lot of cool stuff and then just setting out and meandering) works a lot better in English-speaking cities than it does in foreign lands, but it still makes for a fun time. As my former Creative Writing professor put it, traveling overseas doesn’t take magic sky wizards and doesn’t necessarily cost a million dollars.

In fact, my whole Europe adventure only set me back a few grand, a huge majority of that being my flights. If I’d stayed in just one city or had friends to stay with for free, my trip would have been even cheaper still.

Since returning, I’ve applied to 5 grad school Screenwriting programs. I won’t know if they love or hate me until about March, and while I’m doing my best to stay reasonable about the incredibly slim chances of my getting admitted, the prospects of it happening are intoxicating. I settled on this filmmaking goal of mine comparatively late to others my age, and with me being in a place like Nashville, with a respectfully tiny budding film scene, it’s not super easy to meet like-minded people. Being back in school – a place I rather like – with classmates who would happily engage me in my Die Hard rants sounds like a grand thing indeed. But we’ll see.

I got a job as a barista at a mall across town but then had to quit it before my first day when I was told that none of them were permitted to take time off for Christmas. Preferring going home for Christmas to a job serving coffee to strangers on Christmas, it was a pretty easy decision. I’ve been writing a lot, will have some more videos up soon, and watched the entirety of Friday Night Lights, which is a superb show.

The next entry probably won’t feature me talking about Europe, but it sure will be a ball of fun. See you soon, blogoverse.

Budapest: Hungry in Hungary

•November 29, 2012 • Leave a Comment

It’s been a while since we traveled through Prague, dear readers, but now it’s time for Budapest. I blame the delay on Thanksgiving, which featured Brit and I successfully cooking a turkey for the first time. But now I’m back and, equipped with a playlist of songs featured in one of my all-time favorite novels, American Gods, let’s go to Hungary.
Maggie and I arrived in the Budapest airport ready to roll. You see, it was our third country in less than a week, so we were fully prepared to figure out yet another currency and just how we would make it to our hotel. Perhaps it’s just the size of the cities, but it seemed like all of the European airports that we visited were really far removed from the metropolitan areas. As a result, it always felt weird when going to or from the airport since we were invariably seeing the least attractive parts of the cities first.

After standing in a long line for the single functioning ATM, we stood in another long line to get bus passes, then we rode on a bus that had a robot voice verbally tell us each stop, which would have been fine if Hungarian wasn’t complete madness to a non-native speaker. Finding the train station was easy enough, but then only 2 of the 6 or so stops we had to ride through even had signs telling you what they were.

Leaving the train station, we walked in one direction past a totally weird-looking hospital (a Holocaust museum was nearby and my mind kind of merged the two, creating a nightmare building that I didn’t want to think too much about), then realized that was the completely wrong direction. So, yet again, we walked for a very long time.

Turns out the hotel was right next to a big mall, and it was the only 4-star hotel we stayed in during our European travels. It was definitely the most spacious, even though they had no wi-fi in the room, which I have to say is unacceptable for 2012. We’re supposed to have hoverboards now. Surely wi-fi should be an assumed thing.

It was about 6pm at that time, and for Europe that means it was pitch black outside. We walked around the mall – which is pretty much just like any mall anywhere – and got some pizza-like contraptions from a kebob fast food place in the food court. The food smelled so good but we just got enough to tide over our furious digestive systems.

The concierge at the hotel used me to practice her English, circling a number of things on a map and telling me all about them, who founded them, how clean their restrooms are, etc. We headed toward the river and spotted
our first awesome Budapestian building on the way.

Hungarians enjoy roofs. I can say this with certainty. There were many buildings that we saw that, with admittedly impressive architecture, wore the most extravagantly tiled roofs my eyes have ever feasted upon. This first building, which is currently a museum of some sort but is probably many hundreds of years old, had a tile arrangement of green and yellow that was dazzling even in the 7pm twilight.

Turning a street just where the concierge told me to, we were suddenly in an area that was either very touristy or just upscale. Probably both. It was a cold night and the Budapestian restaurants figured that if they stuck attractive hostesses outside holding menus, people would be enticed to come in and feast. It didn’t take much to convince us, though, so when one woman started saying in fragmented English that her place was simply the best for classic Hungarian foods, we took the bait.

We were led into a basement, and from the get-go I didn’t trust our waiter. He handed us menus, then handed me a separate menu of Bavarian beers. Having heard that the beer was still cheap in Budapest, I was shocked to see $5 listed as the cheapest price, but then I realized what he’d done. He handed me the imported beer list, with cheaper options resting ever-so-slyly on the backside of the other menu.

On a nearby wall were several beer posters, one of which touted itself as the recipient of the World’s Best Ale award at a recent festival. I happened to order that one, and it was indeed delicious, but it took about 20 minutes for our deadbeat waiter to fill two glasses from the tap that rested only 20 feet away. Maggie tried to distract me from my annoyance with other things (Look at those guys with their giant beer funnel! Is that women’s basketball on TV? (It was.)), and finally we were able to order.

Our classic Hungarian cuisine was pretty similar to Czech cuisine. Maggie got a beef ghoulash stew and I got a pasta dish with an incredibly complicated name (it was one instance among many that I just pointed to the menu helplessly). It was big pasta noodles covered in sour cream and some kind of meat and potatoes and other things. It started out really great and then reduced itself to merely good by the end.

After another 20 minute absence from our waiter, we had paid and left and decided to stroll toward the city center. One funny thing about Hungarians speaking English is that, regardless of their grasp of the language, they almost always say “Yes please” in response to things. It didn’t matter the situation, nor the question we asked. A woman walking by us in a market? Yes please as she slides past. A waiter setting down a plate? Yes please.

We found our way past some construction and lying before us was suddenly the Danube River, the most international river in the world. It touches 10 countries in total, with 11.6% of its water being in Hungary. It’s a big, big river.

We crossed the Liberty Bridge, an interesting green bridge from 1896. Halfway across provided us a good view of the Buda side to our left and the Pest side to our right. The concierge had made a point to tell me about The Citadel, the highest point in the city. Even if she’d said nothing there was no way I would have missed it, since even in the darkness the top is marked with a large illuminated statue that looks out over the city like a faithful guardian.

At that point my face had become a frozen facade of its old self. My ears were about to jump ship, and even as I tried to convince my mouth that smiling was natural and that it maybe shouldn’t be so numb, we decided to head back to the hotel.

It was an odd time of day, really. We had been traveling, and even though it was only about 8 or 9pm by that point, we didn’t feel like going through the effort of decoding the public transportation and going downtown. From what we’d seen in Paris and Prague, most places close by 9pm anyway, unless it’s a bar you’re looking for.

So then we stopped at a bar. Instead of stools at the counter, they had rope swings. Two guys sat in them, lightly swinging and looking around as if it was totally normal. We jealously watched them from our boring conventional chairs and drank beer that was certainly not as cheap as Prague but still pretty cheap. After chatting for an hour or so, we again took to the cold and traveled a few more blocks, thinking we’d stop if another bar looked particularly inviting.

None did, so we hung out in the hotel until sleep snatched us away. The next day was our only full day in Budapest, so we made the most of it. In Europe, that means walking a lot. Or at least it did for us.

We gorged on the hotel breakfast (the best we had during our trip), then walked past the restaurant and bright-roofed museum from the night before. The concierge had circled a building on my map and, I’m pretty sure, described it as “having really good fruits.” I was unclear as to why I would be in the market for fresh fruit, but we were walking right by the building anyway so decided to step inside.

Turns out the building was the Great Market Hall, the largest indoor market in Budapest. It was massive and had a lot more than just good fruits. We spent an hour just walking around and looking at all of the individual stands, some of which were really interesting and some of which were really touristy, then we bought some paprika (one of those things you’re supposed to buy in Budapest), and left.

We crossed the Liberty Bridge and began ascending The Citadel. The problem is, it’s on a truly massive hill. There was a cool castle-like structure at the bottom that ended up just being full of trash (not sure why that trash deserved such a grandiose resting place), and then there was a neat functioning cave church a little above that, but then there was only a long winding path going straight up.

Following the trend of our trip (walk first, ask questions later), we eventually made it to the top, giving us a beautiful panorama view of the city down below. Like Prague and Paris, Budapest is pretty uniformally short, so when you’re up on a big hill like The Citadel with a telephoto lens, you can pretty much see everything. There were quite a few old people up there sightseeing, and for a moment I felt stupid, with a light post-hike sheen of sweat on my brow, but then a bus drove up to take them back down and I realized they’d taken the easy way up.

In addition to tall statues, The Citadel had a restaurant and, oddly enough, a wax museum. It was also the first time we saw remnants of Soviet occupation in the form of giant mortars. Prague seemed very eager to destroy all of their Communist memorabilia once the USSR fell, but Budapest seems to have just stored it away for safe-keeping. Even in the Great Market Hall, there were old Soviet gas masks and hats for sale.

We had a considerably easier time coming down the hill, and lackadaisically made our way over to Castle Hill, where Buda Castle sits. Buda Castle encompasses a huge area, part of which is taken up by a museum that we didn’t necessarily want to go in to. We ended up walking around the perimeter of the place, Maggie constantly checking her iPod to see how far away a place with authentic strudels was.

Back when we’d had wi-fi, we read about how there are tunnels under the whole castle. As we walked, a modest sign announced that this particular doorway led to the tunnels, so naturally we had to go. It was eerie and silent inside, but after our excursion into the dungeon beneath the Prague Town Square, nothing could scare us off.

At the end of that tunnel was the entrance to another wax museum (look, I don’t know why, but Hungarians love wax museums), and two incredibly bored guards. They watched us confusedly back away as if they were Best Buy employees at the end of a long shift and we were another indecisive couple absently strolling through the TV aisle.

Popping out of the other end of the tunnels, we figured we’d be even farther from strudels than we initially thought, but – miraculously – we were only one street away. It was the happiest mistake we made during our trip. We were in rather poor spirits at that time, and had for quite awhile been walking in boring areas of Budapest, just a district or two away from the really great sight-seeing spots.

Well, we finally found them. We ducked into a tiny shop – the very one Maggie had found online (it’s so nice when the internet and the real world match up, especially in foreign lands) – and a pleasant woman got us both strudels and espressos. We took them to a bench that overlooked the Pest side of the city, the extravagant Parliament Building lying almost directly ahead of us across the wide swath of the Danube.

There we sat and ate, next to the Matthias Church, another building with a beautiful tiled roof. A homeless man offered to sell us a pamphlet of his, and it was one of those situations where the language barrier is just such that we understood what he was doing but have no idea why or what the pamphlet was even about.

In what looked like a tiny reproduction of the Great Wall, there was a long stretch of castle wall that provided what has to be the best view in the city. It was littered with tourists, naturally, and after downing the last of our coffees we joined the throng of people, snapping all kinds of pictures of all kinds of things.

The wall had a few spires along its length and the color and design very much looked like a sand castle. How odd it is that, as Americans, all we can compare the architecture to is something made of sand.

Coming down from the wall, the sun was starting to set. We stopped at an empty restaurant and got mulled wine and a cheese plate. It ended up being the best snack of our travels, the cheese plate consisting of several kinds of cheeses, lots of bread, apple and cucumber slices, and olives. The chill from outside was effectively staved off by the hot red wine and we took our time eating there, trying to figure out how and what to do next.

With only a day in a major city like Budapest, it becomes a challenge how to see a little bit of everything as opposed to seeing few things very intimately. One of the things I for sure was interested in was a thermal spa, and after winning Maggie over, we decided to ride the metro up to one that was fairly nearby. After a long line and two metro rides, we got off and walked north until we entered the courtyard of what looked to be a hospital. It was supposed to be the place, so we hesitantly wandered inside.

Situated atop thermal springs, Budapest has long been known for their medicinal thermal baths. There are two huge ones, the Gellert and the Szechenyi (the largest public bath in Europe), but we didn’t go to either of those. The decision to go to the Lukacs Baths instead was based mainly on the fact that the others separated males and females. We were already going into thermal baths with people that didn’t speak our language; doing it solo wasn’t particularly appetizing.

The problem, however, with not going to one of the bigger ones is that Lukacs apparently doesn’t get many tourists. We walked in at 6pm, 2 hours before they closed, and the woman at the front desk looked at us like our spaceship was outside behind us.

Only one woman spoke English, and she was quite helpful in walking us through what to do – until a point. “There’s where you change,” she said, pointing upstairs. When we looked back, she was gone. “Wait,” I said to no one. “I have so many more questions.”

Unsure of whether or not men and women had separate changing areas, we both wandered upstairs, where a Hungarian man with a mustache spoke non-stop Hungarian at us. Reminding me of the Prague train conductor who seemed to care nothing for the fact that we were speaking different languages, the man in the spa seemed to think that if he kept explaining things in Hungarian, something would click and we’d suddenly become fluent.

We changed into our swimsuits, which Maggie had been lugging around all day in her huge purse, but we had no towels or any place to put our stuff. The mustachioed Hungarian then took us to lockers, motioned for us to put our stuff inside, and pulled out a keycard. This is where it gets interesting.

See, I expected for him to wave the card over the electronic locks and bind them together, then hand me the card or something. But he didn’t. Instead, he took out chalk – chalk! – and wrote “200” on the inside of my locker. He pointed to it, said some stuff (not like I could understand him), and made sure I saw it.

Then on the outside he wrote “f 67” with an arrow pointing up to the number of the locker, which was 255.

He did a similar ritual to Maggie’s locker and made sure she saw it, too, before he kept the keycard and walked away. WHAT.

Maggie still had on clothes over her swimsuit, and when she asked the man about towels, he just shook his head, motioned at her clothes, and said, “Bikini?” I think that was supposed to make towels appear, but it didn’t. We didn’t know we were supposed to bring our own.

Feeling very cold indeed, we made our way downstairs, where there was a big outdoor pool with steam rising off of it. We got in and waded around for a while. It felt wonderful. The reason the place looked like a hospital is because a portion of it was actually an in-patient facility. The thermal baths were medicinal and supposed to be great for joints and stuff.

We eventually got out of the pool – a very difficult thing to convince your body to do when it knows you don’t have a towel – and frantically looked around for a sauna. I was pretty sure I’d read about there being a sauna on their website, and, after asking an attendant, it turns out I was right.

This was the first time I’d been in a sauna. It was pretty wonderful. We stayed until we were nice and hot, then hopped back in the thermal baths and lounged like sea lions.

10 minutes before the baths closed, we again hopped in the sauna in an attempt to dry off enough that the cold night air wouldn’t kill us when we got back outside. We stayed so long that we weren’t sure if the water streaking down our bodies was sweat or bath water, so we exited and found our mustachioed man.

There was no chalk quiz. He simply waved the keycard, unlocked the lockers, and let us be. I wonder if he was just messing with the foreigners, eager to use a strange chalk trick so he can tell his friends about it later. I think it’ll forever remain a mystery…

Back out on the Budapest streets, the air felt considerably warmer than it had before. Yes, my hair was wet, but somehow everything felt lighter and warmer, and there was a spring in my step as we again crossed the Danube
River, taking the Margaret Bridge this time. We got a nice view of the city at night as we crossed, going right into a rather crowded restaurant and ordering some kebob sandwiches.

The food wasn’t stellar but good enough to keep my stomach on speaking terms with me, and then we decided to buy some wine. Twenty minutes later we’d purchased Hungarian Black Currant wine and, with the bottle tucked in Maggie’s massive purse, we took off across the city. It was about 9pm at this point and most stores were already shut down.

For some reason we were again unwilling to hop on public transportation, and we actually ended up walking all the way across the Pest side of the city. It’s a sizable distance, but the food and the baths had reinvigorated us. The knowledge that it was our last night in Europe, and our last together, made our walk go by fairly quickly. We found ourselves in a wealthy retail district, one of few places that still seemed to be crowded at that time of night.

We saw a few more big churches, one of which had a large congregation just leaving, and we had to guess aloud just what they were doing in there. Inevitably the conversation led to animal sacrifice of some sort, and by the time we were back in our hotel room, the black currant wine sounded like a really good idea.

Thankfully it was tasty (it was about $6, so you never know), and, since it was black currant wine, it had an interesting flavor to it. We finished the bottle and I soaked in the Europeanness of everything, trying to stock up on it until I could come back.

Maggie had a last-minute freak-out when the airline she would be flying with back to Germany emailed her to notify her that if she didn’t print her own boarding pass, there would be a fee of 40 euros. The lazy concierge pointed us to a computer we could print from and I browsed reddit and laughed at animal pictures while Maggie became mortal enemies with a computer.

She figured it out and everything was resolved fairly painlessly. Back upstairs, the last night of European slumber went by like a fruit fly across a television screen.

Friday morning came and we chowed down for the last time on the hotel breakfast, bid the hotel goodbye, and marched to the metro, from the metro to the bus, from the bus to the airport, and then went to check-in to our respective flights.

At the desk for my airline, I handed the attendant my passport, she typed some stuff in to her computer, and then she verified my flight, headed for Heathrow Airport in London. Then she looked at her computer some more, turned to her supervisor, spoke Hungarian to her at dramatically-increasing speeds, and then made a phone call. At that moment I was fairly glad I didn’t understand what they were saying, because it appeared to be bad. Had zombies finally become a thing, with the outbreak starting on my flight?

She got off the phone, printed a ticket, tucked it into my passport, and handed it back to me as if nothing happened. I asked what that was about and she replied that I was the last seat on the plane. They oversold the flight and I had the very last seat. WOO!

I met up with Maggie again, who was freshly flustered because her idiot airline decided that yeah, the flight was scheduled for 12:30 but maybe they would just go ahead and leave at 12:05 for absolutely no reason. We rushed through security and she had to board her flight almost immediately, making a prolonged goodbye impossible.

OKAY BYE we shouted to each other as the stoic stewardesses dragged her away. Don’t fly that airline. They’re insane.

So then I waited alone for the first time in a week, sitting next to a British couple who kept talking about bagels for some reason. I boarded the flight and headed for London, my European trip of three countries in seven days having officially come to a close.

It was a raucous good time, and in a few days’ time I’ll make a follow-up post to recount all the madness that occurred on my long trip home. You know you want to find out what I mean by that!

Prague: The Fairytale City of Brutality

•November 19, 2012 • 1 Comment

The journey continues!

We arrived at the Prague Airport at about 4pm. Europe seems to be much like Nashville in the winter in that, once you reach 4pm, the sun has already donned its jacket and hat and is riding the subway back home for the day. Because of this, even though it was 4 in the afternoon, it felt like about 10 at night.

After going through nonexistent customs (I guess EU countries just really trust each other?), we sat on some chairs near the entrance and gathered our assorted Prague City Maps to try to figure out how to get to our hotel. On the chairs behind where we were sitting, there was perhaps the smelliest man I’ve had the displeasure of coming across.

He was lying down across a few chairs, his hair so long that I wasn’t entirely sure if he had a face. A few Czech policemen came over and said incomprehensible Czech things to him, but all it did was get him up for a minute before he came right back to the same spot and laid down again. Him moving meant that his horrific body odor was further coaxed into the air that I happened to be trying to breathe.

But enough about smelly guy.

We got some new money (the Czech Republic, while being a member of the EU, has yet to adopt the Euro. Same goes for Hungary, so all three of the countries we visited happened to use their own currency), then hopped on a bus that took such a meandering route to the metro station that we started to wonder if we’d ever really see Prague.

With it being so dark and us being so far outside the City of Spires, we joked that the flat plain surrounding us looked an awfully lot like Texas. A few days later, on our return trip to the airport, we laughed at how incredibly wrong we had been.

Took the metro to a stop we thought was pretty close to our hotel, and then walked for a REALLY LONG TIME. Lugging my suitcase wheels over pavestone streets and sidewalks made the walk feel even longer, so by the time we finally got to the hotel I really just wanted to melt into the sheets despite my incredibly vocal empty stomach.

During our walk, Maggie kept talking about getting Indian food, which struck me as a scrumptious idea. After decompressing a bit, we left the hotel in search of some Indian, and by some weird happenstance (being tired), we instead ended up at the restaurant directly next door. It was eclectically-decorated with all manner of decor (lamps, antlers, picture frames of everything, a few old instruments, etc.), and the only people inside were two guys sitting at a table.

It was then that we realized we didn’t know the first word of Czech, so we stood trying to mime eating and eventually got them telling us that we could indeed eat there. Staring at a menu of complicated Czech, we did some math and realized one of the truly great things about Prague: the beer is cheap. Really, really cheap.

A half-liter of Pilsner Urquell (a Czech pilsner available practically everywhere) will run you about $2. I saw a Happy Hour sign saying you can get the same thing for under a dollar US. Later someone told us beer’s cheaper than soda in Prague. It’s glorious.

With a beer and wine in front of us for a measly $4, we then split what was essentially just a plate of meat. Like I said, we were both very hungry. There was ham, a delicious sausage, some dumplings, some kind of chicken, and sauerkraut.  It was extremely satisfying and we made very quick work of it.

Back in the hotel room, we planned what our next day would consist of and drifted off into sleep.

We woke up, ate hotel breakfast, then called to make reservations for an all-day guided tour of the city. It was roughly $60 per person but included lunch, a boat ride, and 6 hours of a guided tour through the city. While I would prefer to see things on my own, with only a few days in the city it just made more sense to take a tour.

A van came and picked us up, then drove all over Prague picking up other people who were going on the tour. There was only one couple in the van when they got us, and when we started talking to them, we found out they’re originally from Vermont, but now live in Hong Kong. The woman was very forthcoming about how much she despises Hong Kong.

Driving around Prague is a noisy affair due to the pavestone streets everywhere. Once the car’s rolling at a healthy speed, it’s almost too loud to have much of a normal-volume conversation. At the designated start point we waited on our tour guide, and in the meantime I noticed that one of the (very large) pigeons nearby was hurt.

It seemed to have a broken leg, and while we stood there watching Czechs walk by and notice the hurt bird, I kept expecting for one of them to stop, take pity on the animal, and then reach down, pick it up and snap its neck, before calmly putting its body in a bag. They’d look at me, say, “Welcome to Prague,” in a gruff voice, and then walk away happy that dinner was so easily taken care of.

Of course, that didn’t happen. Czechs aren’t so different from Americans despite how much we all like to go on about our differences. American culture has so seeped into other societies – while also readily absorbing those societies’ unique viewpoints and ways of life – that it’s sometimes hard to tell where one begins and another ends. That’s the very reason Czech is even still spoken, of course, since even though it’s not very internationally-useful, there’s a certain modicum of the Czech culture that’s preserved in their language and killing it off is to kill off a certain element of their unique Czechness.

Our tour guide having arrived, he led us down some streets and showed us the old Jewish Quarter of the city, which is one of the oldest parts by far. In the attic of the old synagogue – Europe’s oldest active synagogue – there allegedly rests the golem, an anthropomorphic being created by the rabbi to defend the town against attackers. It’s a famous story and one that seems easy to verify or refute; simply go into the attic!

We walked by the Kafka Museum, the first of many Kafka-related things we would run across in Prague. The famous writer lived in Prague and created some of his best stuff there, so it’s no wonder they’re so enthusiastic about tying their city’s history to him.

It was then that we first walked into the town square of Prague, a ridiculously picturesque area resting in the shadow of the Church of Our Lady Before Tyn, which I think is the coolest building I’ve seen in person. It’s ornate and gothic with big looming spires that reach over the city like the eye of Sauron. Just now I read that Tycho Brahe is buried inside.

The rest of the square consists of a very old statue and quite a few other very old buildings, spotted with touristy restaurants with welcoming heated and covered patios. A short distance from the church is Prague City Hall, which houses the infamous Astronomical Clock, a crazy clock that outlines the lunar cycle and essentially made Prague the place to be many centuries ago. We watched the hourly clock show (consisting of lots of bells and a trumpeter), then walked down a crowded narrow street, passing the Prague Torture Museum, and found our lunch awaiting us in the belly of a medieval restaurant.

We sat with the Americans from Hong Kong and our tour guide, who insisted that the restaurant was actually medieval, which kind of blew my American mind. It was a stone basement lit only with candles and decorated sparsely with metal chandeliers and snakeskins.

It was at this point that the American couple began to truly be annoying. You see, my first impression of them was that they were world travelers, the kind of American privileged and savvy enough to be able to move through international cultures and absorb interesting facts, bringing all of the worldviews together to form a wholly new and worldly one. In short, the kind of traveler I’d like to be.

What they actually were was the kind of American tourist that annoys foreigners, the kind that, even while living in Hong Kong for 3 years, can’t stop talking about how great America is and how lonely and lousy the Chinese weather is. During lunch, the guy wouldn’t eat his bread and his wife kept insisting he should eat it. Good golly gosh, you’re in a medieval Czech restaurant and all you can talk about is whether or not to eat the bread?

The food was pretty great – beef ghoulash for me – and was definitely accentuated by the beer (duh there was beer) and the atmosphere of the place. There was a sign outside for a medieval show – basically Medieval Times but for real – and I imagine all they even need to do is dress in tunics and dresses. The restaurant and food is authentic enough.

We talked with our tour guide, who studied English in Ireland and didn’t particularly love Czech society. This was the first of several conversations we’d have with Prague residents telling us Czechs are naturally cynical and depressed people, and that it started long before Soviet occupation.

After lunch we walked through narrow streets of tourist shops and found our way to a boat beneath the fabled Charles Bridge. The Charles Bridge is dotted with ornate statues that each have their own story, a few of which we heard on our boat ride down the Vltava River. Our boat captain doubled as the tour guide, and proved to have a very dry sarcastic wit.

He told about the giant Stalin statue that used to stand over a hill just outside of the city, and how they spent more money packing it with dynamite and demolishing it than they did to build it. He held up a picture of another statue erected in the same place and said anyone who can name who the statue is of deserves a beer. I named it almost immediately (Michael Jackson), and I think it freaked everyone out because the picture was of him from behind. I never got that beer, either – though, during our boat ride, we got our choice of coffee or beer (naturally).

We then hopped in vans again and rode to Prague Castle, the largest castle in the world. The castle is comprised of several buildings and several ancient churches, one of which, St. Vitus Cathedral, we went inside of. It was constructed in the 9th-Century, and, whether admiring its dark gothic exterior or the enormous interior, it’s pretty easy to see how people became such religious fanatics. If you only worked on a farm your whole life and you visit the newly-constructed St. Vitus Cathedral in the 9th-Century, you’d have to believe in a higher power. How could mere humans build that?

Walking out of the Castle, we saw a spot that Obama gave a speech in 2009, a speech that drew so many Czechs that the courtyard was flooded with people. We walked to an overlook and saw a gorgeous view of the whole city. Our tour guide pointed out the fact that the only tall buildings in all of Prague were secluded to one area, a creation of Soviets who cared nothing for the city’s rich history.

He also pointed out the area where all of the international embassies were, the American one being the largest and highest on a hill. At this, the American man started proudly smiling and rocking on his heels, caring nothing for how cocky and stereotypical his gloating looked, nor that he hadn’t lived in the country for years – and, when asked by our tour guide if the American economy was recovering, said, “I dunno, I guess.” Moron.

 We walked through a neighborhood that led to the Symphony Center, then past another super-old church, then saw the John Lennon Wall. Originally the wall featured a portrait of Lennon, but it’s lost under layers and layers of graffiti. It’s the only place in all of Prague where graffiti is legal, so the messages and images change every day.

Then we made our way back to Charles Bridge, where the tour ended as the sun was setting behind Prague Castle. The bridge was crowded, and while I took pictures and video of the sunset, punctuated by the river and the church and castle spires, with Charles Bridge’s ancient statues making their way surreptitiously into each shot, a Czech band started playing. They were very cheery, and quite good, and did their absolute best to make us feel like we’d just fallen into a to-be-made Woody Allen movie. They succeeded.

After listening to the band for a while, we stopped in a bar for some drinks and to figure out what we were doing. We bought some touristy things and admired the town square at night, the light bouncing off the pavestones with the grace that car tires could never accomplish.

We walked quite a long way back to our hotel, hoping to encounter some place for Prague Absinthe along the way, but our search ended fruitlessly. 

We stopped in a bar across the street from our hotel called Tiki Tavi that insisted they were Prague’s only tiki-themed bar. The decorations were layered and intricate and I began to get the feeling that that was the Czech way of doing things – just keep layering it until a certain eclectic flavor emerges. It was a dark and comfortable bar.

Went to sleep, woke up, ate, and then hopped a train to Kutna Hora, a city of 21,000 people about an hour’s train ride away from Prague. Since our tickets were only in Czech and we guessed which cabin we were supposed to be in, we ended up being wrong and a stern Czech conductor made sure to tell us that. He said it all in Czech, not caring that we were saying, in English, that we didn’t know and that we’d move.

Kutna Hora was an old silver mining town and used to be the second-largest city in all of the Czech Republic, but now it’s rather small and uneventful save for a few truly extravagant churches. We arrived with no plan and stupidly made none, just deciding to walk despite the rather bitter cold.

The first church was big and ornate but not very impressive after we’d been so spoiled by Prague’s cathedrals. The second church, however, was the reason we came to Kutna Hora. The entire interior of the Sedlec Ossuary is decorated with human bones.

The remains of 40,000 people are inside. There are four pyramids constructed of human skulls, along with a chandelier featuring every bone in the human body. It was a truly eerie place, and below it were the remains of 12 other nobles. A whole lot of death was there. It was especially creepy that a few of the skulls still had some teeth in them and you could imagine that those same teeth once chomped down on food when the skull was covered in muscle and skin and sat atop an actual functioning human body.

We left thinking we’d just walk until we could find a bus stop, but for some reason no bus stop ever came along, so we ended up walking a very long time. In the distance were some of the darkest European clouds that would threaten us on our trip. Frustrated and tired, we stopped for lunch at an empty Chinese restaurant that ended up being delicious. We set out again in the misty rain, determined to see St. Barbara’s Cathedral, yet another beautiful and ornate gothic church.

By the time we found it, the threatening clouds were right over us. I snapped a few pictures and we made our way to the door only to realize it was just past 4pm and we had been warned, upon first arriving at the bone church, that the Kutna Hora churches closed at 4pm.

Almost immediately after we realized that, the clouds let fly their rain. There were no bus stops and we had very little Czech money left. Miserable and wet, we ducked into a restaurant and got some drinks while we figured out what to do.

After getting some money from an ATM and being turned away by a hotel clerk (she could give us the taxi’s number but couldn’t call it for us since we didn’t stay in that hotel), we went back to the Chinese restaurant we’d had lunch at. Thankfully that woman was kind enough to call a taxi for us, and the taxi driver drove us recklessly across town back to the train station.

I refused to pay for the restroom, so instead I just peed in some bushes at the side of the road. The bush directly in front of me started to shake when I was halfway through the deed, and just as I was imagining what I would do if a man emerged from it, a bird chirped and flew off.

Back on the train, we both drifted off, tired and cold.

Back in Prague, we doubled up on clothes (it was very cold at this point) and made our way back to the town square. We bought tickets for the Prague Ghost Tour and spent our 20 minutes until it began by eating authentic Czech kolaches. They were delicious.

Our ghost guide was an American with a strange accent who’d been living in Prague for 8 years. The tour consisted of him, us, and two girls from Florida. He wore an old-fashioned black hat, a long black coat, and carried a lantern. It set the mood well.

He told us ghost stories that practically every Czech kid hears when they’re young. They consisted of: the creator of the Astronomical Clock having been blinded with hot pokers before breaking the clock with his dying breath so that the town of Prague might lose their extravagant mascot; a gate that leads into the catacombs of Prague (which we sadly were not taken into) and which they would haphazardly toss people into many hundreds of years ago; an anatomy professor that liked an assistant’s bone structure so much that he wanted to experiment on his skeleton; and a headless Knight Templar that occasionally rides through the streets.

In between his stories, he would tell us things about Czech people. They’re all depressed, eerily witty, and unfaithful. He told us at length about the Czech girlfriend he just broke up with, and while Maggie pretty obviously hated hearing about it, she chimed in near the end to inform him that he could remove her from his gmail chat list. He was very grateful for that knowledge.

He ended the above-ground portion of the tour by telling us that the white Xs on the pavestones in the square were to mark the 14 prisoners that were executed right there. Up until their execution, he said, they lived underneath the city hall, in the dungeon.

Then we went into that dungeon.

A special guard had to let us in, then locked us down there with only three LED lanterns for the five of us. It was pitch black and creepily quiet. Once we got to the bottom of the stairs, with only a dark hallway ahead of us, our tour guide started telling us about all of the creepy things that have happened to him and other tour guides as they walked around down there. It was at this point that it really felt like we were at the beginning of a horror movie and that there was some kind of killer or monstrous creature lurking in the darkness. Locked down there, we would have no form of escape.

It’s hard to say if the guide was telling the truth or even if he believes in this stuff (according to him, he didn’t believe in ghosts until 14 months ago, when he spotted one down there), but he was a passionate storyteller and played the part well. And besides, that place was so authentically terrifying, with such a history of torture and imprisonment, that it doesn’t take much to make you feel uneasy as you shuffle from room to room.

We were all on edge and I could tell Maggie was particularly freaked out. The guide told us about a shadow person tapping past guests on the shoulder, a little girl that he himself saw walking from one room to the next, a general moaning sound, teeth gnashing behind a wall, and other scary things that you don’t necessarily want to experience.

He showed us the pit into which they would starve people to death (it was very deep), and while we admired a different trash pit, we heard a moaning sound. It was from a set of pitch black stairs behind us, and it surely could have just been sounds drifting down to us from the busy square, but there were no such sounds up in the square and those were the only ones we heard.

Of course we were all pretty unnerved by the sound, but the guide moved on quickly. Maybe he was pressed for time, but it felt like a perfect moment to milk that terrifying dungeon for all the pants-peeing horror it was good for.

We came up out of the dungeon and went our separate ways. It was about 11pm and Maggie and I really wanted to go to Cafe Sklavia, a famous cafe that allegedly serves great absinthe (we were obviously quite intent on getting some absinthe). They closed at 1230 but the metros stopped running at midnight and our imaginations were turning our fellow street-walkers into pretty unsavory types.

We decided instead to head to the hotel, went to sleep, woke up, and rode the metro to where the Dancing House was supposed to be. A big weird-looking building created by Frank Gehry, we walked around a bit aimlessly but never found its organically-flowing structure.

We rode the metro to the airport, boarded our plane, and left Prague behind. It was a beautiful city with castles and churches like I’ve never seen. Somehow the brutal past of torture and communism makes a weird kind of sense when juxtaposed with its current beauty. I’d like to go back for sure, maybe to work as a ghost tour guide (probably not, but that would be cool).

The conclusion to my Europe trip is coming soon. Stay tuned for Budapest!

 

Art and Rain in Paris

•November 15, 2012 • Leave a Comment

And now we continue the story of my European adventure.
Much has been said about the city of Paris. Allegedly waiters hate Americans there, French people are rude, and there’s lots of stinky cheese and wine. A few of these I can confirm. Consulting the list of Global Alpha cities, Paris finds itself sharing the Alpha+ stage (the second tier) with the likes of Chicago, Dubai, Hong Kong, Shanghai, Singapore, Sydney, and Tokyo. It is, simply put, important both economically and culturally. And you know what? I understand why so many people fall under its spell and proclaim it the greatest city in the land.

There are cities that once were enormously important but no longer are (as we would later discover in Prague), and there are many that are now important but don’t have much of a history to speak of (hello every American city). When I say no history, I mean in the global scale. New York City has plenty of history, as do Chicago and LA, but no one’s going to talk about that land during the 9th-Century. There aren’t medieval castles still standing, and there aren’t art museums so famous that they house historical paintings featuring themselves as the focal point.

Paris has managed to stay relevant for a very long time, much like London. There are no skyscrapers, only a few medium-tall buildings (by American standards) lurking in the distance, and the city has so many gorgeous and intricate historical churches that many of them aren’t on city maps, just standing proudly and inconspicuously waiting to be happened across, as we did more than a few times.

After Maggie and I met up and I recovered from my brief stint as a complete buffoon in a foreign land, we boarded the metro and headed for the Louvre. Before I left the States, she and I had kept a spreadsheet of things we should do in each city, so we had a general idea of what we wanted to accomplish. What we hadn’t accounted for was the incredible line at the Louvre.

We showed up, walked all around the iconic glass pyramids, wondered just how long it would take to usher that many people inside, marveled at the French soldiers inexplicably patrolling with rifles, and then decided to maybe come back later.

It rained almost the whole time we were in Paris. It was always  either raining or had just stopped raining, and while it only got heavy once during waking hours, the city had a general melancholy feel to it. That’s what I get for visiting Europe in early November, but I didn’t mind.

We just started walking. In Paris you can pretty much walk from one major tourist destination to the next without a map by just looking for the herd of people with cameras and merging with them. We saw a very cool old church, wondered why there was a dramatic Superman and Batman statue in front of it, saw our first bridge with locks (called Love Padlocks), and then saw the Notre Dame Cathedral.

In front of the cathedral is a very aged statue of Charlemagne. There’s also a geographic marker on the ground that proclaims that spot, right in front of Notre Dame, to be the exact center of Paris. The cathedral itself is an ornate Gothic creation, and is especially famous for its reliquary, which allegedly includes the crown of thorns and one of the Holy Nails.

We walked by the cathedral and didn’t even attempt going inside due to the enormous crowd slowly shuffling their way into and out of its extravagant doors. Continuing on, we stopped for a moment and contemplated the River Seine. We had thought of taking a boat ride on the river, but rainy November weather wasn’t very convincing in insisting that we wouldn’t freeze and die in the process.

The paths along the river are where a good portion of Before Sunrise took place. I love that movie – was partially inspired by it to write the screenplay I just finished – and seeing the Seine in person added to the mystique of Paris. It’s an iconic city, one that, like LA or New York, you sort of feel like you’ve already visited just because of all the movies and TV shows that are shot there. Every night we would look around for a car from the ’20s to arrive and take us to meet Hemingway, but it never happened.

And here’s when the hard rain happened. With the umbrella safely in the hotel room and my expensive camera in my probably-not-waterproof backpack insisting that it would smoke and burst into flames at the first droplet of water, we obliged our growling tummies and ducked into a restaurant. They only sort of spoke English and we didn’t really sort of speak French, so communication was fun. I got spaghetti and Maggie got a sandwich and we sat in their cozy patio laughing at the people who were getting soaked outside. We pointed and laughed. It was so fun.

Next we happened across Hotel de Ville. Given its massive size, happening across it is pretty likely when wandering the city. We stood with a lot of other people, just admiring its grandiose architecture, and still couldn’t figure out what its purpose was. Finally, after admitting to a foreign couple that we didn’t know, we realized it’s the Parisian City Hall. It’s just a little cooler-looking than the Nashville City Hall.

We wandered down a street with a lot of cool local shops, then stopped in a classy bar to have a drink. The waiter, when asked if he spoke English, replied, “Yes, but I’m French and you’re in France and I expect you to try to speak French because I think France should rule the world. But, if you don’t feel comfortable, yes, I can speak English.” He sort of raised his voice during this, as if provoking the other French patrons to stand up and join in. No one did, but for a moment I expected an all-out “Speak French when you’re in France!” argument to ensue. He was kind of half-hearted in his delivery, and, after asking me if I was Italian, said nothing else confrontational.

Maggie and I were hardly the kinds of tourists for which America gets a bad rap, and while, no, we didn’t speak French (or Czech or Hungarian), we sure tried to say the easy stuff in their language. After all, English is the lingua franca. Let’s stop acting like all languages have the same importance; there’s a reason most Europeans have to learn English in school. I agree that it’s absurd that the multilingual education of Americans is so lax, but it’s also because we can get away with it. Not an excuse, but English is a powerful thing. I didn’t major in it on accident.

I ordered a negroni, something I’d never even heard of before. It’s a cocktail made of gin, vermouth, and Campari, and it was tasty. Maggie got mulled wine, a warm wine that she heard was big in Europe but which the waiter kind of acted like he’d never heard of, before he brought out exactly that. We sat by the window, sipping our drinks and watching fashionable French people walk by, the occasional dog walking by without a leash. Europeans don’t use leashes. This is a thing I’ve learned.

We walked all the way down past the Louvre again, seeing everything at night and making mental notes of the restaurants that looked particularly great – which was hard because practically every French restaurant is extremely charming and inviting, with their closed-in patios and ample heaters spreading a cozy orange glow that says you know you want to come in you know you do.

Rode the metro, got back to the hotel, fell into a deep slumber. Woke up the next morning, partook in a satisfying breakfast buffet, and greeted the rainy morning with another metro ride to the Louvre.

We were determined this time. The line wasn’t as long (still incredibly long) and the guards with rifles were no longer present, and after about 30 minutes of watching multiple boys play with red balloons (so quintessentially European!), we entered the glass pyramid and were ushered into the belly of the Louvre. The Louvre is, without a doubt, the most international place I’ve been. Standing in one of the longest hallways of paintings, I heard more languages than I knew what to do with.

The Louvre is an interesting building. It has its own storied history, of course, but at times I wasn’t sure if I should be admiring the priceless artwork or the ornate ceilings. I chose a combination-approach, generally just walking around with my brows furrowed and my mouth open. To call it simply an impressive collection is unkind to the art. We saw the Mona Lisa (much smaller in person), the Winged Victory statue, the Great Sphinx of Tanis, Venus de Milo, and a ton of other incredible paintings that I wish I had the ability to create.

We were there for five hours. This is not even a particularly long stay at the Louvre, but it was long enough to put Maggie into an overwhelmed stupor, both silent and indignant. Just as Brit and I got lost whilst trying to escape the Art Institute of Chicago, it took Maggie and me about 30 minutes just to navigate the maze and find the exit of the Louvre.

To pull her from her art coma, we ate at Cafe Benjamin, which proved to be a wonderful thing. They had free wifi and the waiter was accommodating, telling us in accented English that today was his first day on the job. “Are we your first English-speaking patrons?” I asked, to which he replied in the affirmative. I read an email from my creative writing professor telling me, too late, to stay away from the Louvre because it sucks time like no other (a fact that Maggie enthusiastically agreed with), and that I had to visit the Rodin Museum.

Sitting there on our phones, we concocted a post-meal plan that included 1) finding and drinking the famous Parisian absinthe and 2) finding and eating pumpkin gelato, which is apparently a thing in the fall in Europe.

Absinthe is a licquor made from wormwood, which has long had a history of causing hallucinations and making men lose their minds. It was banned in America for quite some time, and most of its long history points to Paris as being the place to drink up and join the ranks of Oscar Wilde and Van Gogh while you lose your sanity to the “Green Fairy” that is the drink’s hallucinogenic muse. Most likely, absinthe’s bad rap is the result of jealous wine-makers with clever marketing campaigns, but who knows?

Well, we wandered around an awfully long time (having wifi only in the restaurant, we simply loaded some maps and began walking. Perhaps not the best option), and ended up empty-handed. We found the absinthe shop we were looking for, but the guy inside told us he didn’t do tastings, only sold bottles, so we left. The shop itself, however, was in a back alley and felt like the place you might have a knife-fight in front of. I recognized it immediately as the absinthe shop that Anthony Bourdain went to in the very first episode of No Reservations.

Pumpkin gelato never showed its (delicious) face, so we gave up and rode the metro across town, arriving at the Eiffel Tower at about 8pm.

After standing in a long line, we took an elevator to the 2nd observation point, took some pictures, and then I stood in a long line for the restroom. We boarded another elevator, went to the tippy-top of the tower, and took a ton of pictures of the city and the incredible height we were at. It was only 324 meters – again, not huge by American standards – but when your city is as uniformally short as Paris, 334 meters feels really tall. Not to mention there was a healthy gust and standing on one side of the tower meant that we got whipped with a brutally cold wind that, in my mind, threatened to topple the tower.

Gustave Eiffel built the tower in 1889 as the entrance to the World’s Fair, and is the most-visited paid monument in the world. Eiffel would use the tower to broadcast radio signals and, later, TV signals, and had scientist friends that would do all sorts of experiments along the tower’s frame. In the top he had a private apartment, which you could see into, in which he met with people like Thomas Edison. No big deal, just hanging out on the Eiffel Tower and looking out over Paris with Thomas Edison.

The lights along the tower sparkle every hour past sunset, and we were there so long we saw it sparkle four times. We nearly froze to death while waiting for the elevator to take us back down, then stopped at a shop when we returned to earth and ate some celebratory pie.

We returned to the hotel and again fell into a slumber. The next morning was our last in Paris, and we planned to visit the Rodin Museum, but the time of our flight and our distance from the airport started stressing us out. Instead we decided we would ride out to Montmartre, the neighborhood featuring the Moulin Rouge. On the way, we realized we again wouldn’t have enough time, so we got off in Bellevue and saw a very strange side of Paris.

Flea markets on the sidewalk, going on for several blocks. Men and women selling absolute junk. VCRs and old VHS tapes of crappy movies that even the people involved hadn’t seen. Scuffed-up shoes. Porcelain statues of wizards and cats and bobble-head dogs. Weird, weird stuff. Why would anyone want that? It reminded me of American flea markets in sad little towns, except this was right here, a ten-minute train ride from the bumpin’ part of Paris.

We walked past all of that, bumped into another extravagant church, then found a vast cemetery housing the remains of Jim Morrison, Comte, Chopin, and many others. We barely saw any of the graves, though, because time was pressing down on us.

We hurried back to the hotel, grabbed our bags, hopped on the train, and stood packed in with a lot of other people riding to the airport. There were many nervous glances at our watches during that train ride. We seriously thought we wouldn’t make it and our stomachs and legs were getting quite upset with the sudden rush.

Remember what I said about being there two hours early for international flights? We made it with barely an hour to go, but we happened to  be flying out of the most relaxed terminal in all of the massive Parisian airport. Security was lax and no one seemed worried for us, so we gradually calmed down. Waiting for the plane, Maggie bought us some wine and we sat there drinking and talking until the bus came to take us away.

We boarded the plane and our Czech airline flew us out of Paris and into Prague, where I’ll pick up in the next entry. Stay tuned!

Leaving The Country

•November 13, 2012 • 2 Comments

Aha! My misleading title will hopefully confuse many of you! You’ll come and check on me in my basement dwelling just to make sure I’m not upset about Romney’s loss or something.

In reality, this is the first in my four-part Europe blog series. So when I say leaving the country, I just mean on vacation.

As was recapped in the previous entry, I quit my job and decided to go to Europe for the first time, because, well, I didn’t really like what I was doing, and the timing on all of it made sense to me. And so I went and met up with Maggie, who’s currently an au paire in Germany. As stressful as the meeting-up part of the plan was, it wasn’t even the most stressful part of the journey. But more on that later!

Allow me to set the scene. It’s Thursday November 1, and the previous day was Halloween, the greatest of all holidays. The granddaddy of celebrations. The reason for the season.

Leading up to All Hallow’s Eve, I’d attended three Halloween parties. At the first, a quasi-housewarming party for the new house, I tried to be a werewolf.

Look, werewolves are incredibly underutilized in today’s pop culture. We had Teen Wolf (the movie) and American Werewolf in London, but then Twilight and Teen Wolf (the show) did their best to ruin everything. And now vampires and zombies have their cool franchises, but poor werewolves are kind of neglected.

So I did my best, but putting fake fur on your face and making it look like it’s actual fur is really difficult. I ended up going as a guy who’s about to turn into a werewolf. I was just bit. Like, maybe only moments ago. I had fur on my arms to show the beginning of my transformation – which ended up being really painful to remove and left small bare patches on my otherwise quite hairy forearms.

At the second party I was a character from The Warriors. It was lazy, and I’m not proud.

At the third party, I wore a sweatband, a skinny black tie, a blue button-up, dress pants, and black suspenders with my trademark life-size headless doll tucked in. What was I? I have no idea. But I sure made people feel like they should know.

Anyway. So it’s November 1. I wrote that last blog entry, ate Chicago Style Gyros with Brit (a new weekend staple. Seriously, that place is scrumptious), then Brit drove me to the airport. Over the course of my Europe trip, I took seven plane rides. For international flights (of which five of my seven were), they say to arrive two hours before departure. I kind of think that rule is ridiculous and unnecessary, but it completely depends on the airport and time of day.

Well, I did show up two hours early, and at noon on a Thursday no one is at the Nashville airport. So I walked around aimlessly until finding a random jazz quintet performing in the food court. Watched them for awhile, then hopped on the plane and went to Chicago.

This first flight was lovely because there was no one next to me and it was only an hour and forty minutes long. Landed in Chicago, had to wait around for another two hours. I bought some cashews and Sour Patch Kids to appease Maggie (she claims Europeans don’t have Sour Patch Kids anywhere). The flight from Chicago to Paris was oversold and they were offering to give people credit if they agreed to take the same flight the next day.

I talked to Maggie on the phone for the last time before we’d see each other in person. The plan was kind of insane because neither of us would have phone service once we got to Paris, meaning we each had an address for our hotel and were just planning on meeting there, despite our lack of French skills.

I don’t quite understand how airlines oversell flights, but I guess when you have people buying tickets from a number of different sources, it can get confusing. As a result, I knew I wouldn’t have the same luxury as my previous flight of having an empty seat to spread my body onto. I ended up with a window seat (DUH I’M WATCHING THE WORLD BELOW ME) and had a stern Japanese woman next to me. I was not her biggest fan.

Any time I’ve been on really long flights (three times in my life now), the Asian passengers suit up as if they’re going to war. When I went to Japan two years ago I watched with fascination as a Japanese couple took off their normal shoes, put on more comfortable slippers, divvied up pre-rationed snack food, and shunned the airline-provided blanket in favor of their own fleece ones. They were pros.

The woman on my Paris flight did much the same thing, but then was just weird. When eating the airplane dinner, she didn’t eat her roll or drink her water, so she put them in a bag for later. Except the bag was the barfbag. Something about eating food out of a bag meant to house your vomit really made the food less appetizing to me, but she didn’t seem to mind.

So Japanese woman has a Japanese friend right in front of her and they’re constantly talking in quiet Japanese (I remember enough Japanese to piece together what they’re saying, but they were talking soft like only Asians can), and next to the Japanese friend is this weird guy. Like, real weird. I know I just called my Japanese neighbor weird, but this guy’s like way weirder.

When he sat down he looked all around the plane about a hundred times, like he’d been alerted there was a terrorist and all he needed to do to dissuade the guy was to make eye contact with him. I don’t know if he ever found the terrorist, but he definitely made eye contact with me a few thousand different times. Making direct eye contact with a complete stranger is uncomfortable, especially when the back of their head is never out of sight for the next 9 hours.

He was confused about the light above him and I notified him that the button for it was on his armrest, and apparently that meant that he would smirk at me the whole plane ride. We became buds because I told him about the light button. We had a shared history.

Halfway through the flight I went to the restroom, and he happened to go too. As we waited in line, he started talking to me about flying and I noticed he had a really thick accent, then I asked him if he was from France and he said no, Mexico. Then I felt like an idiot, because those accents aren’t even close to the same. “I couldn’t place your accent,” I said, as if that made up for the fact that I just thought a Mexican was a Frenchman.

When I flew to Tokyo, every seat had their own screen and they could watch whatever they wanted (I wasted that power on Book of Eli and Ghost Writer, both of which I disliked). This flight instead had the more cost-effective screen for every few rows of seats, which meant we all had to watch the same thing.

The first movie was The Amazing Spiderman, which I hadn’t seen yet. I watched it and was thoroughly underwhelmed. Look, I get it, it’s grittier, and Andrew Garfield and Emma Stone are great, but it felt like the differences between it and Sam Raimi’s Spiderman were only present to justify rebooting it so soon after that disaster that was Spiderman 3. The way Spiderman’s uncle dies (hardly a spoiler) is almost exactly the same in both movies. Yeah, they’re staying true to the comics, okay, but the giant lizard man was just boring.

The next movie was Hugo, which I like quite a lot. I watched the last half of that again, which was interesting because it takes place in Paris and I was about to be there.

The flight finally over, I land in Paris and have four hours before Maggie will arrive by train. Four hours to get across Paris to the hotel. EASY.

Except not. Actually incredibly, brutally difficult.

Everything’s in French, and while French isn’t really that far removed from English (I would later encounter Czech and Hungarian, both of which are practically UNUSABLE), it was different enough to confuse me greatly. After a long struggle and talking with both the helpful Information Desk girl and the less-helpful Currency Exchange girl, I had a few euros and a train ticket and I was riding into town. Who do I encounter on the train? Why, that weird guy from the plane. And what does he want to do? Make eye contact. Always making eye contact.

I ride the train forever, finally get to the stop that’s supposed to be close to the hotel, and then get caught in the rain with my luggage, feebly reading off French street names and trying to orient myself. I walk in the wrong direction until I find the street I need, but end up going behind some big manufacturing area and looking like SUCH A TOURIST.

So then I was frustrated and wet when I finally found the hotel and checked in. I tried to relax in the lobby and wait for Maggie to show up, but she hasn’t emailed me anything saying she arrived in the country, and I have no way of knowing if or when she’ll show.

Twenty minutes pass in which I sit there on the couch staring at a French magazine like I can actually read it. Finally Maggie walks in and we’re able to decompress and try to figure out how to keep all of France from hating our freedom-loving souls.

Stay tuned for more pictures and words!