The art of being Californian, it seems, is to cultivate a loose-limbed insouciance while secretly working away like a frantic ant.

--Richard Fortey The Earth: An Intimate History

Wednesday, October 21, 2009

I Make Them Write Write Write

And then I make them read.--Taylor Mali

Which may be the problem with most of today's writers: they are disproportionately write, write, writing to their reading. Possibly this is why Poets and Writers laments that while the number of those who want to write is increasing, the number of those who actually read is going down (for further articles of this ilk go here and here).

I wouldn't think that reading would be something writers wouldn't have time to do. It seems like a no brainer: you want to write so you must love words, you must be engaged in the textual conversations that are ever-present in this (semi)literate society, you must read all the time. Come on, it's like two sides to a coin. You can't write well if you don't read, and read broadly. But apparently, we have a generation(s?) of writers in MFA programs or whatnot whose mantra is "I'll read in the summer when I have time." Hmmmm, three whole months? Wow. And who's to say you'll have time in the summer for reading? Life happens. Further, what are you doing in the off-reading months? Writing? Writing in a vacuum does not produce great works as I can attest from many of the pieces submitted in the fiction writing MFA class I am crashing.

Yet these writers?/kids?/whattheheckdoIcallthem? have no idea. They spend so much time reading each others' shoddy solipsistic works that they have no concept of what real (and good) writing looks like.

Saturday, August 22, 2009

Something New Every Day

Well, I learned three new things today.

1. Potato plants can and will grow from eyes cut out of store-bought spuds.

2. What said plants actually look like.

3. Don't pull up the aforementioned plants, thinking they are weeds. You will both be pleasantly surprised at the find and hit with viceral remorse that you've just killed a food-bearing part of your family.

And in other news, the watermelons and serrano chiles in my garden are doing fantastically well (why I felt the need to plant no less than 5 serrano plants is beyond me--I can cook spicy but not that spicy).

Tuesday, August 18, 2009

We'll Call This a Lesson Learned

I've just returned from an extended weekend at Mammoth. Because airline service isn't provided from San Diego to there yet (but it is coming), the trek must be done via automobile and done through either the snarl that is Riverside/San Bernadino or vortex that is LA. Either way, it is one long-ass car ride.

Or better: road trip. See, I have a secret rule that any car ride that last longer than five hours is actually a secret road trip. And the seven-hour joyride from San Diego to Mammoth easily qualifies.

I hate road trips. It may be the sitting still for so long or the absolutely unchanging and uninspiring scenery through the Adelanto (also known as the city of unlimited possibilities) corridor of hell, but I just can't handle it. The stale air from the airconditioning, the growing numbness in my right leg, the crick in my neck, the same black road over and over and over and over and over. But really, I've said all of this
before, so enough of my hatred of being trapped in zooming piece of metal for hours on end.

This trip, I decided to read as much as I possibly could to distract me from my motionless misery. I brought seven books and set the goal of reading at least five of them before I returned to San Diego.

Besides wanting to have dedicated time to read, we journeyed to Mammoth to visit with friends and family and drink much wine while listening to music in an outdoor setting. In other words, this weekend was Mammoth's wine
Festival. Wineries from all over California pushed their fermented grape juice as the sound of guitars wended its way through the evergreen trees. The festivities started Friday night with a little pretasting in the Village.

That night I learned an important thing about myself: do not buy "art" while inebriated at high altitude just because it happens to stimulate your mind to make interesting connections. It isn't the "art," it's the altitude. Your mind would make interesting connections at the nearby, overpriced children's store but you aren't going to buy a $75 tee-shirt.

Or maybe you would if you hadn't already bought said "art" and were already experiencing intense buyer's remorse.

I am still upset at myself though the weekend wasn't an entire bust. I did get another piece of art that is indeed just that. It is beautiful, speaks to me even at sea level, and is already up on my wall.

The other one? Ummmm, maybe I can salvage the frame.

*Did I get to my five-book goal? Oh, hells yes.
Books read:
John Berger's King: A Street Story
Novella Carpenter's Farm City: The Education of an Urban Farmer
Steve Dublanica's Waiter Rant
Jesse Ball and Thordis Bjornsdottir's Vera and Linus
B. Traven's The Bridge in the Jungle

Monday, July 13, 2009

Timing is Everything

Last week contained one of those days where I operate on the razor's edge of hysteria. Where I wonder if I'm actually pulling off normal since my nerves are so frayed that the slightest bump is going to cause them all to snap and recoil at extreme velocity into my skull. Part of me welcomes this break because then maybe I'll get a few moments of peace until the people around me figure out that something is wrong. Part of me fears it because maybe I'll end up like Humpty-Dumpty and never be put back together again. I've worked so hard for so long on this me, years really, that I don't know if I want it all in pieces.

Anyway, I digress.

Sunday, July 5, 2009

(n)Ever Changing

I kind of like how the moon is a constant amidst the sparkle (and fade--hee) of fireworks but is actually a huge variable force in the natural world (and here I'm talking about cycles not about inconsistencies).

More about my white trash (sorry dad) Fourth later.

For now, enjoy the moon (if not all my qualifiers).

Thursday, June 18, 2009

Before a Fall

I have a thing for heels. Being 5'2" on a good day and with most of that height made up of forehead, I rarely wear flats as they reveal exactly how misproportioned my body really is (think giant torso and forehead with squat baby legs). Instead, I employ a variety of open-toed shoes that give me anywhere from 4 to 7 inches of extra leg length.

However, despite my constant use of these items, I have never really mastered the art of walking gracefully in heels. I have a nasty habit of falling (yes, actually falling) off my shoes.

In an attempt to mitigate this trait, my go-to shoes are tall, foamy flip-flops and my "dressy" alternative is almost always some sort of wedge. However, despite my precautions, combine my natural clumsiness (I fall out of bed, people) with a permanent limp and I am begging the universe to strike me down. Still, this inability to be effortlessly mobile in my footwear of choice hasn't stopped me from braving the most ridiculous heights (literally) in an attempt to appear tall.

Even when it more often than not bites me in the ass.

Case in point: a few days ago I chose to accompany my "Greek goddess" electric blue dress with a pair of light tan, 6-inch wedges. The combination was (if I do say so myself) amazing. I looked freaking awesome. And--obviously--I knew it.

Sadly, the confidence that comes with knowing you look slamming can often lull you into a false sense of shoe security.

I strutted.

I sashayed.

I moved with a grace and magnetism that is only exuded by an actual Greek goddess.

This effect was heighten by the fact that my boss offered me something he hasn't offered me in months: lunch.

I AM a goddess. A marvelous blue goddess of science!

In all my cosmic azul glory, I journeyed with him to the faculty-staff club for a little al fresco dining and science talk.

We filled our beverages and moved to the outdoor patio to claim a table (preferably one that fulfilled our mutual love of being the center of attention) before getting our actual meals. To get to the patio, you have to exit the indoor dining space and travel down about four shallow steps. These steps are situated to be the central focus of every table on the patio.

Perfect for my grandly divine entry.

Beverage in hand, fully aware of how stunning I looked, I stepped down the first step. Attracted by the azure glare of my dress (no doubt like the sky after a storm), eyes began to turn to me. I pretended I didn't notice and stepped down to the next step.

Suddenly, the weight of my head got to be too much for my stubby little legs to endure. Already straining to support my body on thin blocks of wood, my poor, overtaxed legs gave out between steps three and four.

As I went down, I made an executive decision to sacrifice my legs (those Judases) to a) save my beverage and b) prevent my dress from flipping up and treating the entire faculty-staff club to a shot of my striped underwear. This decision resulted in my bad foot somehow wrapping itself around my shoe.

A collective gasp arose from everyone on the patio (if I didn't have their attention before, I sure did now). In his dramatic haste to come to my aide (too late I might add), my boss spilled his beverage over his arms and a nearby table and commenced shaking the excess fluid off, creating a kind of lemonade soak zone in his immediate vicinity. One man (a P.I. from another lab just down the hall from mine--someone I see everyday), called out, "Are you okay?" Many asses half rose from their seats, ready to either avoid the airborn droplets of lemonade or assist me in calling an ambulance and picking up my shattered pride.

"I'm fine," I replied.

"Are you sure? That looked really bad."

Yes, it did look really bad. That's because it was really bad. I could feel my ankle swelling and pulsing as it let me know in its own special way that it hated my guts.

However, I wasn't about to let any of these voyeurs know I was hurt; what were they doing looking at me in the first place? Can't they just mind their own business and eat their stupid lunches (I had conveniently forgotten that in the previous moments I had been willing every eye on me)? Why is it when we publicly hurt ourselves, we always try to play it off if we can? Do we think that appearing to be unharmed will make the situation less embarrassing?

I don't really have an answer for that last question. I just know that I would have rather died at that moment than admitted I was hurt.

There was a problem with this scheme, however. I managed to twist my left foot. The same foot that has already suffered some serious damage, leaving me with a permanent limp. The question screamed through my mind, "how can I play this off if I already have a limp?"

The answer--of course--is to make a public general announcement to a huge group of concerned strangers.

"I'm really fine. But I will be walking with a limp because I have a permanent limp already."

"She's already got a limp, folks." The P.I. repeated just in case my announcing that fact to the club wasn't foolish and humiliating enough (BTW, nothing kills sexy faster than a limp).

At this comment, I arose, limped into the buffet line and upon returning to the steps of my ego demise, gingerly--gripping the railing the whole time--made my way to my table and full beverage.

It's eight days until my marathon. My foot is swollen and bruised. I haven't been able to run on it yet.

And I wore those same wedges with jeans today.

Monday, June 15, 2009

This Weekend I

used a flashlight to set up a tent under a moonless parachute-sky punctuated by a careless spill of stars

comforted a small child who determined that the quiet creak of bat cries

drifting down from the towering rocks above us signified that "danger lies everywhere"

woke up to the moon rise

woke up to early morning chill because small child had taken all the blankets

woke up to the sunrise

watched the light go from blue to pink to red to orange to gold

huddled with a steaming cup of coffee by a campfire of small sticks and charcoal, trying to eke whatever warmth I could get until the sun's heat struck the desert in a single fierce instant

hiked barefoot up hot red rock cliffs and through warm gold rivers of sand

sipped cold Chardonnay and read while small child played Star Wars vs Transformers in the breeze-blown tent

heard the cry of an actual wind-up bird, winding up the spring of the world

pretended that small child wasn't serious when he claimed to have to go to the bathroom and subsequently had to change small child's wet shorts

fished on the Kern river using a tree branch for a pole, dental floss for a line, and Boba Fett as a lure

failed to actually pop Jiffy Pop over the camp grill

picked up human feces with a baggie

managed to drive from the 14 merge with the 5 to Anaheim and completely missed seeing downtown LA

placed a filthy yet angelically sleeping small child in his bed and then passed out, equally filthy, in my own

continued to be amazed at how much love, beauty, sweetness, and joy exist in this world.

Tuesday, June 2, 2009

Gangster of Love

So, a few weeks ago, I felt the urge to read in the sun. It was one of those perfect days where the bay shimmers sliver and gold, and the sailboats look like bright leaves moving in an intricate dance dictated by wind and current.

I chose one of my favorite reading spots and settled in for an hour or so with a book I have fallen completely and irrevocably in love with. During this time, I lounged on my raised vantage point, oblivious to the cars that passed me on their way to the 5. That is until one car came to a stop parallel to my position.

It's funny how you can ignore crowds of people or things until one encrouches on your space. By stopping just a few feet away from me, engine still idling, this car claimed my attention. However as it became apparent, I did not have its driver's attention.

Puzzled (and not a little unnerved) as to why this four-door, dark sedan would fail to actually pull over to the side of a fairly busy street when it was obvious its driver had no intention of leaving soon, I watched the woman in the car, trying to determine what exactly she was doing.

The driver appeared to be fumbling with something shaped like a small bowl. A few twists of her hands and the very signature tapping motion soon revealed that she was emptying a dainty glass pipe. Pleasantly stunned, I kept telling myself, "No way is she going to smoke a bowl right here." Until she proceeded to fill her pipe and indeed smoke a pretty fat bowl right there.

Remember, she's idling in the middle of a street that gets a fair amount of to-the-freeway traffic.

Perhaps she loves the bay view as much as I do.

As I watched her smoke, I debated whether it was worth getting my camera to record this occasion.

Me: It would be so perfect to have a picture of this for the blog I'm going to write about this.

me: Really, you're already planning the blog you are going to write? What happened to living in the moment and not viewing things solely as something to relate to others? What happened to just making memories rather than recordings of memories?

Me: You're right. But still! This is amazing! How do I not want to tell others? . . . I have an idea! How about I go down there and ask her for a hit? That would make an even better story.

me: There you go again. Doing it just for the story. If you honestly wanted a smoke with her that would be one thing, but to do something purely for the story you'll tell later . . . Come on. Live life.

Me: Okay, fine. No camera. No interaction with smoking girl. I'll just sit here. And watch. Jeez.

me: You could just enjoy the unusal moment instead of pouting about it.

Me: Whatever, memory maker lady. Who are you even kidding. You know we have a terrible memory. We'll forget this within a week. But go ahead, enjoy your "moment."

It was about this time when the driver proceeded to remove the contents of her first bowl and packed a second.

Me: Holy Shit!

me: Fine, get the camera.

Monday, June 1, 2009

sing your heart out

So, those of you who know me know that I have a tendency to spontaneously burst into song at random times. It's as if the volume of the constant music stream that plays in my head gets too loud and I have to release some of it out into the wider airstream.

Most of the time when this release occurs, I am safe within my circle of friends or the privacy of my own home. However, there are moments when I break into song in public settings like walking down the hall in my lab's building or while in line at the grocery store.

Today, it happened not once but two times.

1. While running, I hit a particularly inspirational moment in Regina Spektor's "On the Radio" and just had to belt the line out. Much to the surprise and amusment of the woman getting in her car not more than two feet on my right.

I didn't need to wonder what it would be like to slip into her skin. Her laughter followed me down the block.

2. I called my friend to discuss a mutual attendance of an upcoming music venue. I got her voicemail. Somehow between her recorded message and the tone that signals my cue to record my message, I forgot that I was on the phone.

I know. I know. How does that happen? Do I just forget that the small black thing I'm holding to my ear is an actual working phone? Is my arm so used to being in that 90 degree bend that holding it like that just feels natural? Is my attention span really that short?

Possibly. Possibly. Definitely yes.

Anyway, at some point shortly after the tone, I started to sing, unaware that my friend's voicemail was recording my dulcet tones for posterity. After a few bars, I suddenly realized that I was leaving a musical message and transitioned to a flustered spoken statement. I didn't know what else to do. She would know it was me who had called and sung to her. I figured that acknowledging the act and leaving my initial intentions on her voicemail was as better than hanging up.

Later, my roommate informed me that all I had to do was push the pound key, and I could have erased my tune.

But did I really want to do that?


Have you ever made eye contact with someone and, in that brief moment, wondered what it would be like to slip--just for a second--into his or her life? What is he feeling right now? What motivates her?

That happened to me on my run today.

What motivated the rockabilly guy outside Starlight Lounge to dye his hair with that red skunk stripe? Does he love how his face looks surrounded by all of those carefully sculpted curls?

Why does the lanky man padlocking the gate outside the Budget Rental Car lot, his styrofoam cup of soda topped with a plactic-wrapped croisant sitting at his feet, look so defeated?

How did the sandy blonde pushing the stroller in skinny jeans and high-heeled boots on the corner of Grape and State get to be so happy at that very moment? What makes her beam at her nondescript blue-eyed child with so much joy?

Where is the guy in the knitted, yellow beanie on the corner of India and Vine going? And why is he so obviously avoiding my eye?

When did the two men smoking on the back of their giant pickup on Reynard Way meet that they have such an easy comraderie?

What prompted the group of three pony-tailed women, joints and plastic glasses of white wine in hands, to gather? What is so interesting in their conversation that causes the youngest of them to excitedly wave her joint (the one smoked down the farthest) around in the air?

How would it feel to slip into any of these people's skin and know their life? Their soul? How would it feel for just an instant to have another person not be so alien. So other.

Tuesday, May 19, 2009

Full Circle

I woke up this morning to discover that somehow, as I slept (fighting off zombie hordes in my sleep yet again because of this book) and while they lay quietly on my stack of bedside books, my glasses had managed to lose a stem.
After a frantic, half blind search for the missing limb (the present piece of my frames perched half-cocked on my nose, the intact stem clinging to my left ear so as to keep the whole ensemble balanced on my face), I located the striped piece wedged between A Moveable Feast and March 2006's Poetry magazine.
It seems this stem has a penchant for the Left Bank and metered lines.
Finally reunited if not joined, my glasses have posed a dilemma for the day. Do I buy a small eyeglass kit to replace the missing tiny screw? Or do I do it right and actually schedule the eye exam that I've needed for the last two years and replace these 5-year-old frames altogether?
The problem with either is that I really have no time. I don't have time to search out an eyeglass kit (who has those? Ghetto Vons? Henry's?), and I really don't have time to devote to obtaining a whole new eyeglass ensemble.
Besides. I love these glasses. They have been my favorite pair since the moment I chose them out of the kids' section of Lenscrafters and removed the Pokemon sticker that was affixed to their lens. I don't want to let these guys go just yet.
How telling is it that the first repair idea I had was to merely tape the stem back in place? Which I would have done. With no sense of the ridiculousness of that action had my adult and aware me not kicked in just then and offered the other above solutions.
*For those of you who knew me back when: once again, I am going to be that girl with the cracked, broken, and taped glasses. It's amazing how life takes you full circle.*

Sunday, May 17, 2009

The Secret

You wanna know the secret to people thinking you are the most amazing thing ever?

Here goes.

SHHHHHH. Come closer. Closer. Swear you won't tell?


First, you have to think long term; this is a five-year plan. Go and get knocked up or knock someone else up. You need a kid for this plan.

During the next five years while the plan incubates, you need to read and listen to anything and everything that has ever been written or sung. I'm not kidding. Fucking everything. It could help if you have a graduate degree in literature or music, but that's not necessarily vital to the plan.

Now, after the five years are up, you need totally switch whatever career you've been doing and go and do research on a bug that has a lot of media attention. Like MRSA, HIV, the flu, or hepatitis C. You get to pick. It doesn't have to be good research; just make damn sure that the "scienc-y" thing you choose has a lot of media coverage. People need to know what you are talking about. Weird, obscure coral fungi have no place in this plan.

Okay, are you ready? Here comes the work part.

Start a blog or sell a short story or do something freaking literary. Simultaneously, you need to be doing non-stop scientific research for that ever-so-sexy bug. Also, develop a taste for wine (beer works too but to a lesser degree). Learn all about it. Talk authoritatively and knowledgeably (not mutually exclusive) about it at random dinner parties. Drop the science stuff every once in a while to establish that you are serious. Not just some drunk hedonist. Drop the part about how you have a kid. How you play with Tiny every Thursday at the park. Every Thursday. Without fail. You are a Conscientious Parent.

We are ever so close . . . .

Now, go buy a canvas. Not some pansy, Nancy-boy 12x14 canvas. I'm talking the full Monty, the 36x48 canvas (and these are in inches not wussy centimeters). Buy some oil paints. Ignore the fact that you have no idea how to paint with oils. That they intimidate you beyond belief. Just. Freaking. Buy. Them.

Put some music on. Put something obscure and awesomely new on. If you can't summon that up, just put your computer on random. Surely some of the music you've stolen with abandon from others will be obscure and awesomely new. Now, open a bottle of wine (or beer) that you know is admirable. Invite others to share in your bottle opening but play it off as if they've unexpectedly arrived just when you were about to drink amazing wine and PAINT.

Kiss your child lovingly but firmly and place him or her in front of the TV for the rest of the evening.

Now, while chatting with the carefully planned guests begin to paint with those intimidating oils you bought on that freaking huge canvas you proudly own. Claim the piece is a tribute to some literary genius you "love." Do "crazy," "artsy" things like wipe the canvas down with paper towels. Talk about hue and value and composition so that those who are drinking your amazing wine think that you are just as amazing.

Don't forget to mention that you do science as well as art. Being well-rounded is part of the plan.

As the sun sinks amber/gold into the marine layer, place your sleepy and "independent" child into his or her bed, barely missing a beat in the ever-so-stimulating conversation that has been inspired by your art.

You. Are. Amazing.

Saturday, May 9, 2009

Euroromance: Day 7: Amsterdam at Last

*disclaimer: Even though I had a wondrous time in Amsterdam, you really never want to go west of the Dam. Stay away from the Jordaan. It is too special and amazing to be spoiled by random people who read this blog’s going there.*

Today, I woke up in Amsterdam!!!! The open window, full of the grey sky, signaled that my travel weather karma was still on suspension. But nothing daunted, I was determined to enjoy a café day come what may.

I began my day at Café De Prins. A small café on the edge of the canal by the Anne Frank house. From there, I could see the tourists (note how already I have clearly demarcated between them and me) line up to enter the silver-plated building that poses as the location of that famous domicile.

This prime location was perfect for reading and people watching while eating amazing soups (tomato AND African lentil!!) and drinking La Chouffe (magic chouffe!).

After that bit of reading, a bit of wandering was in order. I crossed the Prinsengracht, heading towards the Boekenmarkt off the Spui; they hold the book market on Fridays (I’d missed it) but today there was a small art market in the space. I meandered through the booths, taking in the Dutch spirits of art and commerce. Once through the market, I continued wending through small alleys that were colored a soft spring green by moss growing on the grey stone buildings.

I kept getting disoriented in Amsterdam
because of the circular nature of the streets and canals. My usually stellar sense of direction (no one who knows me is allowed to laugh here) deserted me here and I had ditched my maps, so I had to just let go of my desire to be somewhere and just be where I was, knowing that eventually I would be able to find the canal my hotel was on and thus get home at some point. While this strategy is not conducive for seeing specific sights in a city, it is very good for seeing the city. Ultimately, I ended up spending most of my time walking up and down the Prinsengracht with only a few detours like the above to the Spui square. I stayed mostly in the Jordaan district, and with the exception of my first travel day, never crossed the Dam.

One of my detours on this morning’s promenade, took me down a tiny alley, past a wall of brightly-colored shoes, into a quiet grassy space surrounded by houses. I’d wandered into the Begijnhof
. Originally, an outdoor space surrounded by the houses of pious women who didn’t want to go all the way and become nuns (but still were not allowed to have booze, men, or chickens), this grassy courtyard was a bastion of religious tolerance and love.

This area exemplifies one of the many things I love about Amsterdam: though one of the most densely populated cities in the world, it still is able to provide shared open space that offers true respite, sometimes literally a step away, from the hordes of bikes, growl of motor engines, and rush of the pedestrian crowd. I was continually surprised by these spaces of peaceful community. And each surprise held a moment of wonder that people—that a huge city—could make such places a priority.

I exited the Begijnhof through the “secret” door that opened back out on the boekenmarkt square, pausing to listen to the sounds of singing from a service that was in progress at the tiny chapel adjacent to the green courtyard. Once again, a moment of community and peace.

All that peace leaves me parched for both liquid refreshment and a good long reading session. So I returned to the Prinsengracht and the cafés that lined its walls. My next reading choice turned out to be my favorite café of the trip: Café ‘t Smalle

To enter ‘t Smalle was to leave a world of grey, green, and stone and enter a golden brown space. It has the interior of Vermeer era house (with parceled spaces and interlocking views and shadows and wending light), converted into a bar, whose leaded windows bend and shape the light into something warm and alive. Its chocolate wood panels, bar, tables, and chairs perfectly complement the yellow-gold walls and copper taps and bands on the barrels that hung above the rows of glasses and bottles behind the bar.

I chose a seat on a wooden bench near the front window that afforded me a distorted view of the canal through the glass panes and a clear view of the bar and its patrons. To my left an elderly gentleman played chess with the bartender, espressos steaming on the counter beside them.

To order, you just call your orders to the bartender from wherever you were sitting (yes, the space was that “smalle”), and he would make your drink and place it on the bar. The bartender looked like Colin Farrell but with more Dutch good cheer and chose to ignore or serve you based on the intensity of the chess game at the moment as well as his general opinion of you as a customer. Since I was quietly reading, my customer present was benign: I got my ‘Chouffe with little to no issues (the ease of which may have also resulted from the multi-colored stripey knee socks and grey wool skirt. . .).

Tourists filtered in and out of the bar, ordering some sort of apple cake thing and Heineken. Whenever this happened, much shuffling of chairs ensued because ‘t Smalle has an inordinate amount of chairs per table. Or maybe, if you are of this line of thought, they have a lack of tables to chairs. One man rushed in, took frantic pictures of the bar with his all-too-large-I’m-compensating-with-this-lens camera, and hurried back out, intent—no doubt—on getting in line for the Anne Frank house. Another man sat at the bar. Ordered a double of milk and proceed to down the white substance while casually playing (almost but not quick picking) his nose. All which the bartender took in stride. At one point, the chess man’s wife showed up and asked when he’d be home. He responded with a gesture that internationally meant, “Woman, after this game. Now go home and make me a chicken pot pie.”

After she departed both he and the Colin switched from espresso to beer.

As the afternoon progressed, an apparent friend of the bartender arrived. He and Colin had an intense discussion about the friend’s wounded hand. And indeed it was worthy of some talk. In the center of his palm, the friend had a large, open, and incredibly deep gash. After much gesticulating, the friend left and returned a few moments later with his hand completely and professionally bandaged. How did that happen? Where did he find a triage room amidst the houses and boats of this canal? Is the Dutch healthcare that good? And furthermore, how did he get an injury like that in the first place? I’m not kidding; that wound was intense. It was as if someone had tried to cut a second mouth in the palm of this guy’s hand. Any second I expected it to start the Hamlet soliloquy. Anyway, now that hand was cared for, Colin poured his friend a Heineken, swirling the glass as he filled it to create a larger head.

Quick digression: They love head in Europe. Head on beer, that is. Everywhere I went for a brew, the bartenders seems engaged in a secret contest to be the one to make the absolutely biggest head ever on a pint of beer. It took some getting used to, receiving a glass of beer that was half foam. I know that eventually the foam will settle into beer, but who wants their first few sips to result in a foam-stache? And some of those glasses are just dang hard to drink around the foam. Especially the kicky goblet-y ones that La Chouffe comes in.

However, as much as I had an issue with head in Europe, one of the things I love about how beer is served in Europe (and that seems to be catching on in bars I don’t go to in the US) is the specific glass for a specific beer. If you order a ‘Chouffe, you get a ‘Chouffe glass; Charles Quint, Charles Quint glass; Jopen, corresponding glass. I am obsessed with proper drink receptacle and beverage pairing. I used to have a favorite red wine glass that was the only glass I would drink red wine out of (until my son kicked a ball at it, causing it to explode in a colossal burst of red wine and glass shards—may or may not be one of the few times I have seriously chewed my son out in blind fury). If I switch to or from white wine, that gets an entirely different glass. I have problems drinking wine, beer, or coffee out of plastic. I can’t drink water out of metal. I have a coffee cup that is the sole surviving piece from my parents’ wedding china that I prefer drinking out of. So much so, that I bring it with me to places where I know I will be sitting and drinking coffee. Drinking any liquid is so much more than just imbibing. It is about the proper handfeel for the beverage—the appropriate merging of mouthfeel from liquid and chalice. So, this glass pairing in Europe makes a person like me feels as if I were in heaven. Simply divine.

As happens when one is drinking, I needed to attend to various matters of a more personal nature. However, the ladies room was occupied. And since I am not a line-waiting type of person, I opted for room b: the men’s bathroom. Having successfully relieve myself, I emerged to be greeted by puzzled and a not just a little mocking looks from the bartender and friend with the gashed hand. I acknowledge my slightly unconventional behavior with a shrug and used the opening to question the friend about his gashed hand (“lost a fight with a vodka bottle”).

Apparently, gashed hand is a DJ who goes by the name Dirk Diggler
. We got to talking about the dj scene in Amsterdam, and I may or may not have dropped a comment about my small love of dancing.

DD: Really, I’m doing a show tonight at the Melkweg
Me: Oh, I’ve heard a lot about that place. I was thinking about going there while I’m here.
DD: Well, it’s a sold out show. But if you give me your name, maybe I can get you on the guest list.
Me [rifling frantically in my purse for a pen and my “HELP!” post-its
before he could change his mind]: Here.

Exchange made, we both returned to our respective activities. Mine: reading. His: chatting with people he actually knew.

After a bit more reading, I decided it was time to change venues. This time to a place a good friend of mine had told me about: Café Gollem

Finding this place took a bit of maneuvering (and again, a lot of random city seeing since it is off the Singel and not the Prinsengracht), but I eventually found it and settled in for a read and a Jopen.

It was during this reading segment that I got to personally know my first bar cat. This is another thing I love about Amsterdam: the cats. They are everywhere. Every place of business has one. And just like cats anywhere else in the world, they are snooty, entitled, and most definitely NOT declawed.

Gollem cat made himself at home on my lap and proceeded to do the cute little purr + knead thing on my thighs. Except his claws and my bare legs were not a winning combination. I gritted my teeth and tried to tolerate the intense pain radiating up my legs as each razor claw clutched a tiny piece of tissue and pulled. The flattery of being chosen by a cat (only cat people will understand that sentiment) warred with the searing agony I was going through. Ultimately, the pain won, and I brusquely deposited said feline on the bench next to me. He gave me a piercing stare that said, “Okay, you want it that way? You are dead to me.” And moved away to a darkened corner of the bar where he could scope out his next victim—ahem—I mean, object of affection.

Gollem is the close to the perfect brown bar: burnished wood everywhere, wall space choked with empty bottles on shelves and chalkboards advertising the beers on tap and in (full) bottles, and soft brown light, leaking through the windows.

From the windows, across the narrow, cobbled street, you can see the Cracked Kettle
, the most perfect beer store in the entire world. I decided after my Jopen to buy a few bottles for the hotel and watch the sunset from the comfort of my hotel window.

The Cracked Kettle is no joke. Broken bicycle in front, wooden basket filled with bottles. A tingly bell at the door announces your entry. And then shelves and shelves and shelves filled with bottles. It’s like a library for beer. The owner is no joke either. Dedicated to the pursuit of only the finest brew, he’ll travel the world to get beers that you can only find “locally” or at the brewery. The find of the week on the day I visited: Port Brewing Company. The owner had flown to San Diego, gone to the brewery in San Marcos, and brought back the entire Port line, including the Lost Abbey Belgian style brews. I’d never seen such a complete selection of these beers ever. And I live in San Diego. In addition to SD represent, the store also carried the entire Flying Dog (Colorado) line (again, brews from that brewery I’d never seen), Rogue (Oregon), and a few other US beers that are indeed high quality.

I was stunned and said as much to the sales clerk. “Yes, Port Brewing is very good. Would you like to buy some?” But I wasn’t here for the beers of my home country (slightly snotty, “no thanks, I live there. I can get Port Brewing beers any time.”). I wanted brews I couldn’t get in California. I wanted obscure Trappist beers, Dutch beers, beers of Northern Europe. With his advice, I chose a few bottles and wasabi peanuts(! Holy Crap. Why don’t they sell these in California? Sweet yet nasal-clearing. Genius!), then wandered my way back to the hotel with a brief detour to an Albert Heijn for some picnic essentials (goat cheese, bread, tomatoes, basil).

In the deepening evening, I sat in my open window (heater on full volume—I think it went to 11) and watched the canal below. Sipping my beer, tearing bread and basil, slicing cheese and tomatoes, I watched the drama in the canal unfold below.

A couple, let’s call them Thom and Nancy, had decided to do a sunset cruise on the Herengracht. At some point, their rowboat started to sink. Scrambling over the canal walls, Thom had enough aplomb to hook a rope to the boat and tie it to their car to prevent the boat from sinking further.

As Nancy stood, arms crossed to resist the cold, Thom began to pull and maneuver the rope attached to the boat. To no avail. Soon they were joined by two friends who managed to hook two more lines to the boat. They tugged and shifted their weights. To no avail. They then magically conjured up a large wooden plank that was used as a sort of lever or spatula to raise the boat. To no avail.

Nancy looked on in the increasing dusk, growing colder by the second as the canal started to turn Van Gogh blues and golds.

At some point during this epic struggle, another motorboat puttered up to the scene. This one contained a Good Samaritan who offered his help which was accepted as evidenced by the transfer of dog and daughter from boat to dry land.

Heineken cans all around suddenly appeared.

You have to love the Dutch sense of conviviality combined with industry. A potentially frustrating situation was just turned into a reason to socialized and imbibe and just spread good cheer in general. To join in—albeit a bit vicariously—I opened another beer; spread a healthy amount of goat cheese on a piece of bread; topped that with a cucumber, basil, tomato, and greens; and took a bite, mentally offering a toast to the Thom and Nancy show.

As the Good Samaritan took over the boat rescue, Thom’s good cheer grew as did the empty cans of Heineken. Sadly, this festivity left the Good Samaritan doing most of the work on his own. At one point, Thom and his two friends peered down from the side of the canal—beers in hand—at the Good Samaritan's bailing out the sinking boat, equipped only with a tiny, pink plastic pail (his daughter’s no doubt). After about ten minutes of futile bailing, the Good Samaritan indicated to Thom that is was his turn to actively participate in boat rescue. To which, Thom lowered a 5-gallon bucket down on a rope and commenced long-distance bailing. Laborious, but hilarious.

Soon the boat was floating and Thom’s two friends as well as the Good Samaritan and family disappeared into the evening gloom. But Thom and Nancy weren’t done with their adventures. Oh, no. They were going to do a dusk boat ride no matter what.

Thom left Nancy to guard their recovered craft and ran around the canal to my side, with plank in hand, where he entered a house (I tried to figure out later which house was theirs, but couldn’t tell without serious snooping). He soon emerged carrying a small outboard motor. After jogging back to the waiting Nancy (Thom does not lack energy—that may be his appeal to Nancy), he attached the motor to the boat and began vigorously pulling the string to start the motor.

To no avail.

Still Thom wouldn’t give up. Oblivious to Nancy’s impatient gestures, he kept performing the Lawn Mower to that tiny motor as if intense techno music were pounding inside his skull.

Finally, Nancy just walked away. Thom may have admirable energy, but apparently, he misplaces it. Shaking his head, Thom pushed the motor over the side of the canal and scrabbled up after it. Their evening was done.

By this time, I needed to get ready to explore the possibility that I might have access to a live show at the Melkweg. After donning black skirt, tank, and boots, I was ready to be a Goth vampire and take to the night.

The Melkweg is in the Leidseplein, the clubbing/nightlight square complete with the infamous Boom Chicago and Paradiso. In my usual distracted fashion, I almost missed the entrance. After asking a bouncer about the guest list, I discovered that not only was I on the list but my ticket had also been paid for!

Inside, the Melkweg is similar in set up to 4th and B in San Diego: bar to one side of a large, high-ceilinged, open space. Lots of black paint and exposed metal struts. After checking my coat (I love this about Europe. There are places to put your coat everywhere. I didn’t once have to plan for a cold walk to avoid having to lug a coat around in a too-warm interior like I do in San Diego), I found Dirk spinning near the stage.

I had arrived during the space between the opening act and the main event. In Amsterdam, the opening act is preceded by a DJ playing dance-ish music, the interval between acts is filled similarly, as is the time post main show. So you sort of get two events for the price of one: a dance dance dance revolution as well as a more traditional band experience.

Dirk and I exchanged greetings, and I passed on my thanks for the ticket. He then went back to work, and I claimed my space on the floor. Delineating dance + show-watching space in a crowded venue is a tricky bit of work. You have to firmly establish to the growing and pushing crowd that you are not going anywhere while at the same time refraining from discourteously jabbing those around you with flailing arms while you dance (not that my arms flail in any way). The difficulty was compounded by two other factors:

1) I am short and the Dutch are generally very tall. So many people just didn’t see me hanging out somewhere around their knee level.
2) The band was a Scottish band called The View
(apparently, they also get a Wikipedia article), and they were punk. To quote Dirk: “They are like the Beatles on speed.”

I moved and danced and banged with the best of them, trying to avoid the mosh pit’s push and shove as wells as flailing arms and legs from the crowd surfers. Luckily for me, since I was surrounded by (they might be)giants, most of the dangling appendages were well above head level.

This evening may be my most street cred moment of the trip. Not only was I at a live music venue, I had attended it as the guest of the DJ—for free. Amazing.

As the show ended, I said my thanks and farewells to Dirk, and we made plans to exchange no contact information and never see each other again. Perfect.

Thanks again, Dirk Diggler. You were indeed a big, bright, shining star on my trip.


Tuesday, April 28, 2009

Euroromance: Day 6: Crossing a Continent

What I thought was going to be one of the biggest wastes of a day—traveling to my next destination—turned out to be a truly enjoyable day.

Those who know me, know that I hate road trips. I really hate traveling in general. To me the point is not the trip but the destination. Why would I spend hours or days traveling to a place when I could just get there quickly (aka flying) and spend all that extra time getting to know my fixed location.

Combined with my impatience is my unavoidable car-associated narcolepsy. When I am in a moving car for over thirty minutes, I will fall asleep. Whether I am the one driving or not. This habit has pissed off many a fellow road-tripper as well as has endangered my life many times. So now I spend the extra money and fly pretty much everywhere I need to go in the U.S. that isn’t within a few hours’ driving distance.

I figured train travel would be the same. It’s a moving vehicle, right? And I get whole rows of seats to stretch out on instead of the one cramped seat of the car (oh, and if that seat has a steering wheel in front of it, its even more uncomfortable and cramped). Of course I was going to sleep the day away and wake up in Amsterdam refreshed and unconscious of the continent I’d crossed.

That determined, I found a compartment in the first class (my Eurorail pass was first class. I highly recommend that choice. Almost the entire time I traveled by train, I had an entire compartment to myself) car of the train in the Prague station and proceeded to make it my own in order to deter my fellow travelers from joining me (suitcase across the door, coat on the hook, books strewn at random, flip flops off and smiley face toes proudly displayed (Euros hate bare feet, I’ve learned)). I had a 5- or 6-hour ride to my transfer in Berlin, so I pulled out my pillow, snuggled across three seats, and promptly fell asleep.

Then something happened.

I woke up.

And then,

I didn’t want to go back to sleep. Instead, I wanted to look out the window, enjoy the Czech and later German scenery. I wanted to write. I wanted to engage with the world I was seeing and the trip I’d had so far.

I thought about my time in Germany and the CR. I pulled out my Amsterdam travel book and looked at the Dutch language guide in the back. I practiced saying “please,” “thank you,” and “excuse me” in Dutch. I then said these things (and the piddly number of other words and phrases I’d picked up) in Czech and German. It is very difficult to do three different countries with three different languages in one trip. Your mind is constantly trying to reshape itself around the new symbol paradigms just as your lips and tongue are twisting and sliding over unfamiliar sounds and word shapes. To compound that problem, I have absolutely no base in Czech or German (Dutch is closer to English). So this trip was not like traveling to Spain or France (or even Italy), where I could have faked my way through language 101.

As I entered Germany, I began to see the ubiquitous windmills that dot the countryside. It seems that the Germans love alternative energy as much as they love exclamation points and excessive consonants (I am not joking about the consonants. They seem to need to put an extra “t” or whatever in everything. Even Czech words, which suffer from no dearth of consonants in and of themselves, got a few extra ones in for good measure. And then words like “greek” that only need three, get—like—17 (“Griechisch”: or 7)).

The tiny houses I’d seen on my way to Quedlinburg began to appear again. About the size of a medium-sized shed, these little “play” houses mobbed along the tracks. Each had a yard (that was often bigger than the house) with meticulously maintained gardens and lawns. At times, I saw people sitting out on tiny bistro tables enjoying the sunny day, looking so much like toy figures glued to the board of a model railroad set (“look, Ma, that one has a tiny PBR in his hand!”). I couldn’t figure out these little places. It was obvious that a thriving community was going through its day-to-day here, but set against the backdrop of the more expected, larger European houses, these tiny cottages just didn’t make sense. Was this Europe’s equivalent to a trailer park? And why clustered so close to the train tracks? Were they squatters on the railway’s easement property? Ultimately, I let it go and allowed that in Europe, as far as I could tell, if residences were ordered in Starbucks sizes, they would only come in two versions: short and venti.

All too soon, I arrived at the Berlin Station. I had about two hours before my next long train ride into the Netherlands, so I wandered the station looking for a market like the awesome one I found in Dresden, so that I could duplicate my picnic feast.

The day outside of the station was surprising warm. As I walked past the open main entrance, I was hit with a blast of heat that beckoned me to enter that huge city. But I resisted the urge to exit the (too)cool station and continued my search amid the songs and shouts of drunken futball fans (apparently there was a big match that day).

Berlin’s Hauptbahnhof is indeed a wonder. A huge edifice made of glass and steel that cuts a grid across the sky. I kept thinking “way rad” throughout my meanderings around and up its floors (incidentally, I’ve learned that “rad” means “bicycle” in German, so now I know that everything is “bicycle” to me. A good preparation for the Dutch transportation obsession, I guess).

On my wanders, I passed a couple of men with shaved heads, dressed entirely in white. A younger man and an older one. They became prime people watching fodder as I attempted to guess their story and their relationship. They obviously deeply cared for each other, evidenced by their intense embraces. But these embraces were punctuated by the younger man’s pulling away (though the older one kept a firm grip on the lad’s hand that the young man never tried to release). There seemed to be some sort of discussion going on that the older man didn’t like at all and the younger was trying to end with frequent shoulder shrugs and gesticulations with his free hand. I imagined they could be father and son with the son’s desiring to leave for the war (okay a little melodramatic) or school or a girl and the father’s reluctance to let go. Or they could be lovers. And the younger one is trying to end the relationship because he wants to live life a little before settling down.

I never did resolve their story. I left them in a tearful embrace and attended to more urgent (for me, at least) matters at hand: the search for a WC (oh yeah, that I’ve been calling in my head “water cooler” the whole trip) and that market.

I did indeed find both: a pay-by-use WC and a store that sold reasonably proper items for my picnic. I then headed to my track to wait for my train, journeying down the length of the platform to the one sunny spot. As I rolled up the legs of my pants, slipped off my flip flops, and stripped down to my tank top to welcome the warm embrace of the sun, I noticed that I was alone in my worship of that golden orb. It seems that unlike the Irish (who strip down to their skivvies as soon as the temperature reaches 70 degrees F), Germans (and Czechs) maintain a staunch denial of the climbing mercury, fastening their coats even tighter, scarves firmly in place, defiantly bundled up (“It’s still March, dammit!”) despite the audacity of the blazing sun.

In addition to impromptu sunbathing, I also learned the second of my favorite German words (the first being “abschicken”): abfahrt (departure).

My train arrived, and I again found an empty car and set up my picnic. I’ve learned a few things about myself on this trip, three of them being I don’t like Budweiser (Budvar) in any country, European me doesn’t comb her hair—ever (hey, in my defense, it seems that no one here combs their hair or has ever heard of a straightener), and—as I opened one of the monk beers from Prague—I can drink warm beer . . . and like it.

As I feasted on bread, goat cheese, tomatoes, cucumbers, maiche, and warm beer, I contemplated the increasing cloud cover. It looked like my good weather vacation karma might be at an end.

I am not lying when I say I have the best weather karma on vacation, ever. You want to go on vacation with me. It will guarantee that you have sun pretty much the whole time. No. Matter. Where. You. Go. Examples:

1. Vacation in Ireland for two weeks: we had 80 degree F weather with not a cloud in the sky the whole time. The radio stations were calling it a heat wave and drought, encouraging people to drink more beer to combat dehydration (you have to love that). People were lolling around in their underwear. This weather lasted my entire time there. The day before I arrived and day after I left: rain, cold.

2. Vacations (many) in Seattle for varying number of days: sunny, in the 70’s, with a light mist in the mornings. I have to keep reminding myself when I am there that this is abnormal weather for this part of the North West or I’d move there for the farmer’s market alone.

3. Vacations (again, more than one) in San Francisco (at various times during the year): we’d have the famous marine layer in the morning and after the sun set, but the day in between was like a fuzzy, warm, gentle lamb. The chill of the marine layer was more of a treat for me to see because it acts like a living, breathing thing—clawing over the bay and through the buildings—than actual bad weather.

4. (and to bring us up to date) Vacation in Northern Europe in March: sun, sun, sun, warm, warm, warm.

I rest my case.

Now that I’m done bragging, back to my karma ending with grey, angry clouds arriving. The closer I drew to the Netherlands, the more upset the day seemed to get. I wondered, as I read in the ever-deepening blue light, if I’d actually get serious use of that awesome wool coat I had brought.

You know you’re in the Netherland by a) the train change (so cute, rust corduroy seats and green walls) and b) the flatness of the terrain. Sean Condon says that in Amsterdam, you can see a man in Belgium standing on a step ladder waving, and I believe him. It makes sense. When you literally create your country out of thin water, there isn’t much time to make frivolous stuff like hills or mountains. In fact, it seems like the Dutch were so busy reclaiming land that they didn’t even have time to design a flag: they just took the French flag and turned it on its side.

Also, you know you are in the Netherlands by a new (Dutch) conductor coming in to check your ticket. This man looked exactly what I thought the quintessential Dutch man would look like: tall, willowy, narrow face with a tiny pinch of the nose exactly where the bridge of eye glasses would sit, sparkling blue eyes, and a winning smile. He said good evening in Dutch, and I responded with my newly learned reply. Spotting my wine bottle and glass, he made a joke about giving him a glass too. We both chuckled, me more so with pleasure that I had just gotten a joke in another language (I ignored the fact that the specific understanding of the wording he used was hazy and focused on the joy of communicated meaning.).

And then he said, “Mumbly kueky bloo blah?” To which I panicked and responded with a distinctly English (and American English at that), “huh?” Realizing I didn’t understand him, he restated in perfect English, “Where is your final stop?”

I answered, and he left the compartment. It was only as I was watching his receding form weave its way down the length of the car that I realized, he didn’t know that I had gotten his joke. He thought I didn’t understand and that I was just laughing because he was laughing. Suddenly, I couldn’t sit still. Someone thought my bright moment was actually one of uncomfortable ignorance. My skin crawled, my hands shook, my feet twitched. It was literally all I could do to keep myself from running out of my compartment, finding the conductor, and explaining that I really did get his joke.

Sooner than I was ready for, I arrived—full circle—back at Centraal Station. What a truly amazing and surprisingly perfect experience. I’ve decided that I love train travel. It’s like watching TV, but it’s the world going by and not some canned and planned situation.

With a few mishaps (like taking the tram the wrong way—luckily the tram lady let me ride for free to the next stop where I got off, paid to take a tram back to the station, was ordered to get off again, five minutes later reboarded same tram, bought new ticket, and was on my way to the Spui and my hotel), I hauled my bags across more cobbled streets (again, a few more wrong turns) to my hotel.

As I sipped my Dutch beer in one of the many ubiquitous brown bars (chosen at random post hotel check-in), I thought, I’ve finally arrived! I’m in Amsterdam!


Friday, April 24, 2009

another brief interlude

And no, I'm not just trying to buy time while I write up more travel stuff . . . as far as you know.

Yesterday, I went with two wonderful friends to SDMA's Culture and Cocktails event.

Apparently, the dress I wore was a magic dress. No less than four people (three of them men) actually sought me out to complement me on the dress. And two of them complemented me twice in the evening. And then some vodka representative wanted to take a picture of the three of us (though I'm willing to allow that the photographing event could have occurred because my friends are H.O.T.T. and not because of the dress).

This dress happens to be about 10 or 11 years old. I'm amazed that these people thought it was worthy of remark.

I'm secretly convinced that they could see my underwear lines.

Wednesday, April 22, 2009

a brief interlude in my travel recount

So, I am training for a marathon. Not only is this my first marathon ever, it is also the first time I've seriously run in almost 11 years (because of foot injury) and am running for myself and not for a cross-country team member boyfriend. So this is no joke.

But somehow isn't as bad as I thought it would be. An interesting dichotomy.

I am still having trouble with the distances. The problems aren't being winded or tired but just straight up being in pain (foot and many other places) which happens, I'm told, regardless if you have a prior injury or not (in fact, I've been informed that this training can give you new injuries) or just straight up being bored. So I am always looking for a way to quit.

That said, I was running about a 10k today and had the following conversation with myself.

Me: Just run to the end of the block, then you can walk.

me [relieved]: Oh yes. Thank you. . . .

me: Wait a second. You are just saying that. You won't really let me stop. You'll trick me into keeping running.

Me: No. this is isn't a trick. You can really stop . . . if you want to.

me: See. It's that "if you want to" crap you always pull. Of course I want to. I didn't want to run in the first place. But you made me. Now you are going to guilt me if I quit and walk.

Me: I won't guilt you. You are amazing for even being out here and running in the first place. Here you go: end of the block. But wait! Isn't this a great song! Why don't you just run to the end of the next block and listen to the song.

me: Yeah! I love this song too! Okay, the next block. But then I am walking.

Me: Or you could keep running to the end of the song . . .

me: I could. This beat is awesome. WAIT A MINUTE! You just tricked me into running farther.

Me [smarmy little smirk on my internal face]: I did? Wow. Look you're almost home now. Why don't you just run it out?

me: You always do this to me. It's not fair. What about what I want? I am hurting here.

Me: But look how tough you are. Here, stop. You did it. Now aren't you proud of yourself.

me: Stop patronizing me. You're a jerk. But you are right, I am awesome for running all that way.

And that, with a few variations from time to time, is pretty much what goes on in my head for the duration of the run. Oddly enough, I told this to my roommate, and she confessed that she too talks to herself when she runs. But rather than cajoling herself into running farther, she berates herself for being weak and wanting to stop: "You weak bitch--keep running, pansy-ass."

It must be a West Coast/East Coast difference.

Monday, April 20, 2009

Euroromance: Day 5: Everyone loves a Kutna Hora

Today was the day, I resolved. Today I would actually do the things I’d promised myself I’d do on this vacation. Namely, run in the stupid cold and then see some historical places.

So I actually (gasp!) set an alarm. And then I actually (gasp! gasp!) got up when it went off. And then I actually left to run without showering first (gasp!^3). But before running, I started a pot of coffee brewing (I had stopped yesterday during my rambles and bought ground coffee (which may or may have not been embarrassingly from Starbucks (and which I may or may not be regretting that I am admitting this sad fact)) and tulips for my apartment).

With my reward for running in the stupid cold percolating, I set out to do an easy forty-five minutes that would take me (finally) across the bridge and through old town and the Jewish quarter.

Did I mention that it was stupid cold?

The first thing I need to clarify is that running on cobblestones is no joke. Especially running on cobblestones when my bad foot is already protesting the last few days’ walking activities. I have mad respect for those women who wear stiletto heels on these streets as if it were nothing. I must have looked like some sort of gimpy hunchback recently escaped from the nearby cathedral with my askew gait and sloooooooow pace. But I did it. And after a few minutes (read: 25) of running, I settled into something that actually resembled a run. I moved through the streets of Old Town, ever toward the main square and the astrological clock, trying to time my arrival with the 7am hour change. I got there with 5 minutes to spare and congratulated myself that unlike the throngs of tourists who would arrive later in the day, I would gaze upward, mouth agape, in the discreet solitude of the early morning.

But apparently, 7am isn’t a real hour change. Much to the amusement of the men setting up the Easter fair in the middle of the square, I stood, growing ever colder, staring at the clock. Waiting. Waiting. Waiting. Come on little skeleton, do something. But the skeleton would have none of it, and apparently the apostles weren’t about to emerge in the stupid cold. So I returned to my run (this time mostly to just get warm again) and the bridge to watch the sunrise.

I have determined in this weird air here, that watching the sunrise and sunset directly is not as amazing as watching its effects on the landscape in the opposite direction. In this case, I faced west towards the castle and Malá Strana. At first the buildings and roofs began to gleam a faint pinkish-orange. This glow intensified and was punctuated by sharp glints of silver where the sun hit the skylights and windows. The blue hills began to shift, still ever hazy but the haze morphing from blue to green to red. The scribbled shapes of skeleton trees became more and more distinct as the sky continued to lighten.

I may love this city.

And there was coffee waiting when I got home!

Today was my day trip day. I had decided to take a short train ride to the towns of Sedlec and Kutná Hora. The attraction of these towns is the infamous bone church. A structure decorated entirely with the bones of over 40,000 people (the current arrangement is very new--from 1870. But the bones are much much older, some dating back to the mid 14th Century). You have to love Europe and its awesome sense of macabre.

After spending a full day in the Czech Republic, I was more comfortable with navigating public transportation (and I didn’t have my huge suitcase). Taking the metro to the main station was a snap. As was finding my train to Kutná Hora. The ossuary was a bit of a walk from the station but it was cool to see what a tiny Czech town looks like.

I made it to the church just as two tour buses disgorged their load of American tourists. I quickly moved into the building so as to a) not be associated with this boisterous group and b) be able to see a few minutes of the church before the locusts descended. I was joined by über-cool backpacker couple who also wanted to beat the crowd. We paid our entrance fees (damn it! I forgot my student id!) and descended into the cool ossuary.

Über-cool backpacker couple was all business (I can imagine their having a brief where they synchronized their watches, allotting 7 minutes for this site before moving on to the next historical place: “we’ll get there exactly at 1301. The tour buses arrive at 1303. We will have two minutes for pictures while simultaneously listening to the tour guides dispense information. We can fill in whatever gaps we have by reading the information card and be out of there by 1308. Move out!”). They took a series of flurried pictures then crouched in the corner, intently reading the yellow information card before shouldering their packs and leaving. It did literally take about 7 minutes.

Despite the fluster of the backpacker couple and the bluster of the tour group, the ossuary was truly like nothing I’ve seen before. In the four corners of the main room, pyramids of sculls and other bones were stacked in layers. The center of the ossuary was dominated by a large “chandelier” comprised of (yup) bones. The walls had decorations created out of artful arrangement of certain bones: jaw bones formed the shape of flowers, a grouping of pelvic bones made a halo around a skull, smaller bones formed words. There was even a coat of arms that featured a rook eating the eyes out of a Turkish soldier (done all in bones naturally). Honestly, I have no cultural meme for this expression of faith. To openly display the dead to point to the kingdom of God (according to the yellow information card) is just something that isn’t done in California or anywhere in the US really. To be able to acknowledge death as a necessary and normal function of life is more foreign than the Czech language. To consider death as starkly beautiful. . . that is something I need to think about.

Of course the lighting in the chapel was also something to write about. The air in the ossuary was so cold I could see my breath and the bone-white light seemed to soak up the cold. It thinned and spread over everything like a sheen of ice.

The warm air outside after the bone-cold interior of the chapel was like being enveloped in a thick blanket. Combined with the more socially “normal” treatment of death in the cemetery surrounding the chapel, it was like the part of my psyche that had been exposed in the chapel was being re-enshrouded in comfortable familiarity. The church is surrounded by tombstones of various ages. Some dating back to the 1800’s; others, much, much newer. Many had been erected in 1945. These stones varied in size and style though many featured photographs of the interred. Keeping with this culture’s willingness to confront death, most of the graves were well-kept and had flowers or various trinkets on them. The maintenance made it obvious that these dead were still active in their families’ lives if only in memory.

The sound of the emerging tour group, drove me from the cemetery and to the larger town of Kutná Hora. About a 20 minute walk from the church, Kutná Hora is a gorgeous town. Set in the hills about a river valley, its cobbled streets and plastered houses meander and flow up and down the terrain.

In my zest to avoid the crowds, I stumbled on to the old church. It is an imposing structure, all heavy stone with none of the fanciful Gothic touches that grace the palace further up the hill. As such, it gives the feeling of being firmly grounded. Forever placed in its spot, unmovable, unshakable, protective. In contrast to the palace’s flying buttress—dripping with curlicues and spires, calling the eye and spirit to fly up—the church, though immense and tall, squats. Reminding its people that life on earth isn’t just fancy frivolity but about enduring faithfulness.

Tucked down a small street beside the church, I found one of the things that makes traveling truly amazing: the perfect place to eat and while away the afternoon.

Supposedly built on the site of a skin flint’s house (who walled his daughter up in the cellar so that he wouldn’t have to pay a dowry for her marriage), V Rutharrdce is situated on the side of a hill with a view of the river valley below and the castle above. In the distance, the hills across the valley recede into the blue distance, the silhouetted skeleton trees softening the line between hill and deep blue sky.

Today was the perfect day for sitting outside. After discretely losing some clothing layers, I found myself, feet up on the back patio, in a sundress and flipflops. To those of you who claimed I would not be able to sit in the sun and read this vacation goes one big giant HA! This day was sunny, warm—almost hot—and I read the shit out of it.

The back patio is a little walled garden. To the east, the grounded stone church oversaw the kitchen’s outdoor grills. The castle perched to the west, just visible over the stone wall and through a curtain of about-to-flower trees. The bistro tables were old-fashioned sewing machine stands complete with working wheels. The service was casual and friendly. Both servers wore Birkenstocks with socks and used any free moment to steal not-so-covert kisses from each other. Neither of the servers spoke English well, but their grasp of my language was much better than my grasp of theirs. Between us, I managed to order a pils, the soup “at the chef’s whim,” and a pork dish. The food, I think, was the most traditional Czech food I’d had so far: pig, potatoes, mushrooms, and root vegetables. And it was fresh and freaking amazing. It was like the Czech version of Texas barbeque but without the sauces and heavy nastiness (sorry y’all).

In the distance, I could hear the laughter of roving tourists, but here it was only me and some under-aged locals, sipping beer and smoking like chimneys while they texted people a few tables away. We were in a sanctuary of easy camaraderie. Two men near me spoke in low voices as they unlaced their heavy work boots and gratefully drained their pils. A small family finished their lunch, and dad took the tiny pre-toddler (just on the verge of walking) on a tour of the garden as the family dog followed while the mom finished her voda (water) and shouldered their groceries for the trip home. The most animated of the under-aged smokers/drinkers (a small girl with dark bobbed hair that had a shock of amber/red dyed in, skinny black jeans, tight shirt, and a cell phone that cried “dookie” (from South Park, I think) when it signaled a text had arrived) wandered around the restaurant, calling to the servers, giving kisses to various other diners, and flipping off another table when she found their text to her not to her liking.

I could have sat there for many more hours, but unfortunately—the story of my life, it seems, I had a train to catch . . .

On my way to the train, I meandered up to the castle. From the top of the hill, I could see over the town and the valley. A picturesque scene of blue hills, jumbles of trees, red-tiled roofed houses with brightly-colored facades, gardens, stone streets, and off in the distance . . . smoking factory towers. Indeed, we’re still seeing aspects of the Soviet Union.

Realizing, I’d taken in the view a smidge too long, I began another hurried movement to the train station. It’s amazing the muscles you work in your legs when you are speed walking in flip flops. Tendons tightened, muscles in my shins tore, calves bulged as I grimly double-timed it down the street. I arrived at the train station in time to see the train I needed pulling away from the station. With a sigh and an hour to kill before the next train, I walked back into Sedlec. The last site to see was a cathedral that used to be a part of a convent. The church was, in a word, cold but otherwise unremarkable. It was very spare and empty. Seeming like the space of the church was designed to merely showcase the few church artifacts that they had. Cold concrete interspersed with the warm wood of an “authentic baroque confessional.” The remarkable thing, the thing which I think is worthy of remark, about this site is that the convent’s been taken over by Philip Morris. So the beautiful grounds and main living quarters of the nuns were off limits. Possibly because the evil cancer merchant empire is afraid that tourists will discover their latest campaign to market cancer stick to infants.

Or maybe they’re as annoyed by the buses of tourists as I am.

After getting back to Prague (a trip that included an inexplicable train change in Kolin for a train that was 20 minutes late), I decided I needed a break and some hard core tourist watching. So I walked up from the train station to the main square in Old Town, Staroměstské náměstí. On the way, I got to see the huge Jewish synagogue. Very brightly colored.

Once in the square, I quickly determined the best seats for people watching and sun. I did have to do some mad table work. Namely, I claimed a table in the area that was prime viewing turf but wasn’t an A-grade table. Then, after establishing my presence by ordering a beer, I intended to quickly shift to a table front and center of the action once the occupants had moved. Positioned perfectly, nonchalantly eying the family at MY table as the wife/mother insisted she finish her wine while husband/dad not-so-patiently dealt with over it children, my mad skillz became apparent to one and all as I outmaneuvered a tourist couple for the prime table. The female component of the interloper couple was about to mouth to wife/mother “are you leaving?” as I gracefully slid into the open seat, spilling nary a drop of beer. The female nicely conceded defeat with a shrug and a smile, and the couple took a table in a less desirable place.

Now, in the perfect spot, I let mad people watching commence. The best part about people watching in Europe is that the tourists are from all over—not just Arizona. And frankly, Prague has to be one of the best places to people watch. I played many little games with myself like guess who’s from the US or how short can that skirt get. As well as just soaking up the general atmosphere of joviality. At one point two little “Russian” divas appeared, dejected and tired with their token “Prague Drinking Team” shirts (I kid you not, everyone had these. I don’t understand that. It’s not like Prague is PB with the overt “drink yourself stupid” credo). They trudged aimlessly around the square before plopping in the stoop of a closed business, apparently waiting for an end-of-day-shopping rescue. At another point, I saw two boys stroll by. One in a “Save the Ales” shirt and the other in a pot-leaf printed hoodie. Convinced I’d just seen some fellow NorCal-ers. I may or may not have leapt from my table, hunted them out of the crowd, and asked where they were from. Confused by my US accent, they replied (in perfect English, I might add) that they were from Slovakia. Nothing daunted, I began to grill them about the shirt, convinced the wearer had gotten it from the North Coast Brewing Company in NorCal. Nope. They got it in England. Apparently, saving the ales is a worldwide value.

The sun had just started sinking behind the buildings in the square when I decided to take myself to Karlovy Most. The bridge is indeed an impressive affair. Studded with large, aging statues on both sides along its length, Karlovy Most’s sturdy stone construction gives it a sense of permanence. None of that whimsical baroque/Gothic flimflam for this bridge. The Charles is firmly grounded, straddling the sides of the Vltava with great aplomb. Tourists do indeed throng it though the two times I crossed is (one being very early and the other after sunset), the crowd was either non-existent or easily navigated. It was a slight disappointment that both ends of the bridge were under repair, so the statues in these areas were veiled behind a mesh of scaffolding.

Honestly, I wasn’t completely taken with this bridge. The guide books’ accolades of its beauty and the amount of statues gracing its sides left me feeling much like a tourist does after seeing the Alamo: sure it’s great, but . . . I thought it’d be much bigger. Unlike the bridge south of it, I did not feel like the Karlovy Most was Most Legit (a joke that sadly continued to play out in my heard over and over this trip (actually the bridge is called most Legii)).

But whatever, who am I to judge the significance of a bridge that has endured not only religious conflict (a battle between protestants and Catholics played out on its stones) but also the Velvet Revolution?

No one at all.

After a brief respite in my apartment, I headed up to the Strahov monastery (Strahovsky klaster) for some home brew. Yesterday, I began my pilgrimage to this lauded place but ended up calling it off on account of the lateness of the evening. But tonight, my last night in Prague, no matter how tired, no matter how much I’d packed into the day, I was determined to pay my respects to this bastion of faith and brew.

Again, the light of the monastery called to me, but this time it beckoned, not distracted. I headed toward the blue-green light and the brew from heaven. Or at least brewed by those interested in bringing heaven to earth.

The interior of the monastery grounds at night was composed of an insinuating blue and green and white light. The brewery overlooked the color-soaked square. I sat at a table as close to the color spectacle as I could, forcing myself to sit in the ever creeping cold in order to view the light. Next to me was a table of two men. One a backpacker, the other an overtly self-styled “native” of Prague. I eavesdropped on their jovial conversation while I waited for a server to acknowledge my need for a brew. Noticing my not so subtle interested in their conversation, the “native” graciously spoke to me as they left, telling me that though the service might be lacking here, the pivo (beer) and jídlo (food) was beyond expectations. I became determined to wait things out.

And then I was rewarded. With an amber brew of exceptional quality it could almost make me cry. Almost.

The brewery makes two brews at a time: light and dark. Both are exceptional. Both are the best I’ve had in this part of Europe so far. But really the amber is the one that was truly from some other dimension. Sweet yet not cloying. The perfect amount of amber color combined with a sharpness of hops. Oh yes, my friend, this truly was the brew of God.

Since this was my last night in Prague, I couldn’t just call it quits after a religious experience. I had to visit the other two pubs of my affection.

I ended the night with a brew at both Vu U Zavěšenýho Kafe and St.Nic’s before retiring to get some much needed rest before my train day on the morrow.

Tomorrow I cross a continent. . .