Tuesday, March 30, 2010


Really, if you think about it, "blog" is such a disgusting word. I never feel right saying it; it sounds like the kind of thing I might say if I were still in third grade, trying to gross out some girls.

But all the same, I have yet to receive my golden scepter in the mail, conferring upon me the right to remake the English language as I see fit. I've been waiting a long time, but I'm beginning to think some unscrupulous mailman stole it, and is now using it to wreak havoc in the form of asinine neologisms.

I have digressed before I've even started.

Readers will note that, while I have posted many times since I made my resolution to post at least once a week, it hasn't exactly worked out that way. Of course, I have made a handful of good posts amidst all the dreck and nothing, and I rather like most of the dreck, too. Such is the benefit of being a blogger: complete editorial freedom, without having to worry about whether your self-indulgence is affecting either revenue or circulation, as you have neither. Wait.

Self-indulgence factor one of late has been my much delayed Europe journal, which is unfortunately being delayed one final week, for the simple reason that I cannot justify sitting down and finishing it either tonight, tomorrow, or the night after that, or the night after that. I have two papers and a web assignment due in the next three days, along with a presentation, and I need to be in school for most of the day on Wednesday and Thursday. It would be irresponsible to waste any time talking about Europe, and if there's one thing the Wave Function Junction does not, stand for, it is irresponsible behavior.

Readers familiar with my schedule may now be thinking the following: "David just got off a week-long spring break, during which he did not travel further than three miles from his apartment, had precisely one important appointment to keep, and made plain in all forms of communication that he intended to do no schoolwork. Why didn't he finish the damn journal then and be done with it?"

Well you see, it's very hard to write when your friends are sitting on your couch for days on end playing Final Fantasy XIII, quite possibly the shiniest bit of shiny I have ever seen. You try being productive after letting something that shiny into your home!

For the record, I would let it into my home again, and again.

I did get some of it done, though. About half of it, actually. It's sitting in the Blogger-Netherworld as a draft, where some hacker could easily finish it with fanciful tales of stuff and nonsense (actual hackers, please don't do this). If I read the tea leaves correctly, I don't see why I could not finally make the post some time next week. Unfortunately, my tea leaves all come pre-packaged in tea bags, which are notoriously illegible.

Speaking of incoherent bags of tea (and otherwise), it is to my great satisfaction that Health Care Reform finally passed Congress, in spite of the best efforts of the Reactionary (as opposed to Revolutionary) Tea-Partiers of America. I like to call them the "R(aotR)TPA." Back in December, after the Senate passed its bill, I said on this blog that reform was basically a done deal, one that could only be stopped by determined shinobi assassins. Let it be known, I have learned to never count my chickens: you just never know when a Republican will win a Senate race in Massachusetts.

The R(aotR)TPA now intends to punish Congress for defying the will of the people, by which they mean their own will. Democrats will likely lose seats in both houses, which is shameful, but largely unavoidable. That's just how midterm elections go, unless you're FDR. I intend to do my part, by voting for the Democrat on my ballot. I might even register in Eugene, rather than waste my vote trying to dislodge the Duncan Hunter Dynasty again. I go where I am needed.

Now it's back to work on surviving grad school, hopefully bettering myself in the process. As a bonus, I will leave you with a few items from my current reading list, to let you know the sorts of things I'll be thinking about in the coming weeks/months. Some of them are quite a doozy:

  • Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus, by Ludwig Wittgenstein
  • Either/Or, by Søren Kierkegaard
  • Alice's Adventures in Wonderland and Through the Looking-Glass, by Lewis Carrol
  • Charlotte Brontë: A Writer's Life, by Rebecca Fraser
  • The Road to Middle Earth: How J.R.R. Tolkien Created a New Mythology, by Tom Shippey
  • Master and Commander, by Patrick O'Brien
Should be fun, if I ever find the time.

Wednesday, March 17, 2010

Poetry Jam #3: The Munich Poems

At long last, I'm nearly done with my efforts to publicly document my European vacation, a project long delayed and marginally relevant so many months past. Revisiting the experience has been, for me, a source of inner smiles and fond memories. I don't happen to have a view of the Alps from my window, so it was wonderful to have occasion to dwell on the vistas impressed upon my brain. Describing natural beauty is not, unfortunately, my greatest strength as a writer, and so the images remain mostly in my head, and the words of my memoirs are written mostly to serve as a trigger for them. One day they will invent a cyborg enhancement that allows me to project my memories directly into the reader's head, and on that day, I shall duly blow your mind.

If I want to be a completist (and boy do I ever) then I really should include all the writings I created on that fateful trip. It's time for the five poems I completed in various moments of inspiration to see the light of day, and take their place in the David Miller Canon.

It is very exciting to get to decide what goes in my own canon.

The poems are called The Munich Poems, which like all great names is partially inaccurate. The first was written in Greece, and the fifth was written in Paris. The middle three, however, were written over the course of two days in my hotel room in Munich, and the third of these was set down in the midst of an actual "psychotic rage-a-thon," as remarked upon elsewhere. In spite of the disparate geography, it always seemed to me that "The Munich Poems" would be a great collective title, and since I do not often come up with great titles, it seemed pretty obvious what I had to do.

All five of them, sad to say, are downers. The truth is, I have never made much effort to write happy poems, because happiness is self evident in nature. When you're happy, you can't say why, and you haven't done anyone any good by trying. On the other hand, I have long been convinced that all great works of art are always somehow melancholy: indeed, it is sorrow that is the foundation of creation. That's not to say there isn't plenty of room for joy in beautiful poems. Just not in these ones.

As always, I'll give a little bit of analysis and self-critique at the end, for those who are into that sort of thing. Mostly myself, I guess.

Ionian Dream

I want to tell you, darling
What I'd lost, I almost found
Standing right before my eyes,
And then again, to no surprise,
It was gone
And I barely even cared

So let me tell you, darling
What a wreck you've made of me,
With your softly laughing eyes
And your unintended lies,
It was wrong
And I barely even cared

What you gave to me in all those times
And what you took from me,
What you said to me in all those nights,
Look what it's done to me,
I still talk about you when I think about her
When I think about you
When I think about you,
I still can't get over
What you did to me in all those nights
And why I'm lame today,

I want to tell you, darling,
I've been close so many times,
Been rejected out of hand
And then again, to no surprise,
I think of you
And I barely even care,
What kind of way is that to love?

לעולם לא עוד

When people died by bloody hands
We said, "never again,"
We worked so hard with all our hands
To make the killing end,
We held trials, we made speeches,
We laid wreathes upon their graves,
And the bravest stormed the beaches
On the longest summer day

When people turned their heads away
It happened once again,
Until it seemed like every day
A million lives would end,
But the monuments and ruins
Are still standing where they stood,
Humble monuments and ruins
Of decaying, painted wood

When people carved memorials
They said, "never again,"
And when they carved them on the walls
They prayed, "never again,"
And the prayers went to heaven
Where they echoed in the sky,
But the people kept on dying
And no one could tell us why

When people walked the ancient road
And saw those words again,
And even further down the road
The flowers in the sand,
What could any do but shudder
At the number that was lost?
Feeling guilty for our brothers
And the dreadful lines they crossed


I see with my internal eye the secrets of a man
And hear his thoughts like whispers in my brain,
There's nothing he can hide from me, I'm sure you understand,
So make this easy, make your secrets plain,

It's only my obscenities, my skeletons,
You'll find when you are deep within,
You're better off as ignorant, indifferent,
And trust me when I say I love you,
I can keep you out of here
There's nothing there for me to fear,
And you'll be happy for my wall, my barrier,
You'll only hurt yourself in trying,

You underestimate my skill, my power over you
Cannot be kept, no matter how you strain,
If you love me you'll be honest, or I'll force it out of you
So listen, listen, please, just let me in your brain!
I am tired, you are tired, there is nothing gained by fighting,
And I love you, so you mustn't keep me out,

You'll only hear my horrid thoughts, my darker self,
If I should let you come inside,
And while you are omnipotent, to other ones,
I have the strength to keep you distant,
I can keep you out of here
But even so I want you near,
So don't endanger our romance, your sanity,
You'll only hurt me when you're crying,
Baby, please stop trying,

I cannot be denied, my love, to know just what you think,
But if you must, then surely I will die,
And even though the sun will rise I know my heart will sink
As your attitude is nothing but a lie,

I would never lie to you, but I cannot tell the truth,
Not the whole truth, but a part of it, to you,
I know you are not satisfied
But I'm ashamed of what I am inside,
I'm scared to let you in my mind,
I'm scared of losing you,

I'm scared of losing you.

Psychotic Rage-A-Thon

I felt like a fool in the crack of hell
With manic brain, and fevered brow
And the impulse of a frightened child
To run from all the monsters' smiles,
Singing songs that made me scream
In pitches high and imperceptible,
I was unable to be seen
Or heard, I was a rotted vegetable
In a slowly stinking gourd,
I tried so hard to pray the Lord, but
I felt like a fool in the depths of hell,
And all for that infernal smell,
And damn myself for going there,
Damn myself, myself, myself, myself.

Broken Wing

I met a broken little bird I couldn't keep from dying,
Because she didn't know she couldn't fly
Like the other little birds
In the trees and in the sky,
It broke my heart to see the bird and watch her trip and fall

I thought that I would take her home, I put her in a box,
And carry her back to her mother's nest
With the other little birds,
But her mother wasn't there;
I looked and saw that little bird, and saw her breathe no more
In the corner of the box

I met a broken little bird, I couldn't save her life,
Because she didn't know she couldn't fly
It was her destiny to die.

Hoo boy, where to begin?

The Ionian sea is really very beautiful, as seas go. I found myself there in somewhat surprising circumstances, with substantially more time for self-reflection than I had expected, and an Ionian dream was the result. I imagine we all long for timeless things, and the world transpires to make them impossible in the end. At least the sea will always be there.

The title of the second poem is "Never Again." I had it translated into Hebrew, and I don't know how it's pronounced, and I like it better that way. I think it speaks plainly for itself.

Poem number three is actually a spontaneous manifestation of a story that's been bubbling in my head since 2005 or so, concerning two people with super human powers and profound insecurities. Having meant to write it for years, I was seized suddenly with the desire to write one particular scene, and thought I might experiment by putting it in verse form.

I set the fourth poem in a different font because, in my journal, it appears in drastically different handwriting, with heavier, slanted letters and a few stray scribbles. It looks out of place because it is: unplanned, unwanted and almost purely emotional. The result is a mostly unorganized line blob. If I had to guess why I'd written it, I'd say I wanted something to feel ashamed about; something to hit me across the face and remind me that my life wasn't that bad, so quit whining already. I remain convinced, however, that hell is full to the brim with drunken Germans and tuba bands.

The last poem was inspired by a person I met on the tour, quite possibly the single most self-destructive personality I have ever known. If there was an awful, awful decision to be made, given enough time (ten minutes?) and enough wine (not a lot, and yet so much) she would make it. Nobody wants to see a stranger in such a state, and whenever our paths would cross I'd find myself amazed she'd lived as long as she had. I think she thought of me as a friend, and I can't say I wasn't, but I also knew I had nothing to offer her.

Tuesday, March 16, 2010

Who Wants to See Something Cool?

One thing I originally intended to do with this blog was to give a mini-micro-shout-out to nifty pieces of art that came my way. It's an aspect I haven't really paid much attention to, owing mostly to my general state of woeful neglect. The truth is, you don't have to go far out of your way on the internet to find something that makes you go "O_o," so I haven't felt much pressure to point them out.

But then again, I love to blather, and what better to blather 'bout than trivial things that chance to come my way? It's a time-honored* internet tradition.

*On the internet, three years counts as an honorably long time.

In any event, I'm going to proceed with significantly more than 140 characters, because everybody knows that more is, in fact, more.

Today's web curiosity came to me via an e-mail from my mom, and Lord knows from where it came to her. As far as I can tell it was made by a Russian person, and it is an animated sketch of a woman, drawn from the inside out.

(That's the link you're supposed to click.)

Pretty neat, eh?

It's worth going over the technical stuff for a bit, though I don't know a thing about drawing. Suffice it to say, it's a fine bit of sketch-ery, with an obvious focus on accurate anatomy and all those other things artist types think are important. At least, I think they think they're important. I've never really known what they're thinking.

I really like watching this thing for the tansformative theme it suggests. What starts as an anatomical exercize veers momentarily into eroticism, and just as quickly metamorphosizes into urbane sophistication. A sharper eye than mine might perceive more stages than these; what I felt fairly sure about seeing was a collection of several "women" within the single woman depicted. It could be a commentary on gender roles or female nature, or perhaps merely a clever way of phrasing the old truth that when it comes to human beings (male or female), "there's more than meets the eye."

What I really like about this particular type of presentation is the way it integrates the process of composition and construction into the final image. Most works of art are not accessible to most people beneath their outward appearances; we might imagine, for instance, that Da Vinci simply sat down and painted the Mona Lisa, when in fact a great deal of arduous compositional work was done, and at various stages of its actual construction, the painting would have barely resembled the image that now adorns everything from postage stamps to ironic T-shirts. Watching an artistic image actually come into being is dull for outsiders, but speed it up as an animation, and it becomes nearly miraculous to behold.

None of this has anything at all to do with anything, of course. I just thought we all might enjoy that. If you'd like to see more, there's a whole bunch of them to be found here.

Saturday, March 13, 2010

Dutch Adventures

Does the naming system I've devised for these five weeks of my life have any significance whatsoever? Of course not.

After all, the first two days of this week finds me and my increasingly impatient comrades still in German-speaking lands, and the last day finds us in France. To make matters even more distressing, I could not for the life of me think of a suitable synonym for "Dutch." Netherlandic? Hollandic? None of these are real words! You can tell because they underlined in spell check.

So we're all stuck with Dutch, which is a little boring; my apologies all around.

One more thing: To make things interesting, I've gone back and added a convenient Google Map to each journal post, showing the route we took across the continent. Peruse at your pleasure!

Day Twenty Two: Nuremberg, Heidelberg

We boarded once again our bus bound from Prague to Amsterdam, which geographers will note are about five hundred and fifty miles apart from each other. On a slow-moving bus, this distance amounts to approximately one infernal eternity, and nobody wants that. There's a whole country in the way! Fortunately, the Powers That Be, in their wisdom, granted us a few more German stops on our itinerary. Germany's a beautiful country to drive through, even for five or six hours a day, and at least I had more time to catch up on my book.

We stopped for lunch and a mini-micro-tour of Nuremberg, a city that, apart from its role in the Nazi era and the post-war trials, I knew next to nothing about. As one might imagine, the city was all too eager to show me its less controversial aspects, but lacking a guide, I mostly had to tease them out myself in a few short hours.

There's a medieval-looking castle, the Nürnberger Burg, on a hill that gives an excellent view of the city, though the climb is pretty steep for a hot summer's day. The castle is very old, having been a residence of the Holy Roman Emperors from the year 1050 to 1571. Along with a healthy collection of churches and statues, the castle confirms that the city does in fact have an extensive history pre-1930, and is actually quite well preserved from the good old days, despite a wave of ruinous Allied bombing. As is usual in this part of Europe, the churches are very, very pointy.

I had lunch with my sister and a few of her friends at a Thai place, though I probably would have preferred a good schnitzel. If you have difficulty ordering Thai food from an English menu, imagine my frustration at trying to decipher one written in German. Mustering all of my linguistic skill, I managed to order something pretty decent, though I have no idea what it was called. We stopped for refreshments at Starbucks, which is a terrible cop out for tourists; but in all fairness, it's probably the nicest looking Starbucks I've ever seen, with a charming patio view of the Pegnitz river.

My sister did a little further snooping around the city, where we found an upscale shopping district. Intriguingly, we discovered a small monument dedicated to a brigade of Nurembergers who fought in World War II. I wish I could have found out more about it, but a quick glance at our watches confirmed that our two hours were nearly up, and further exploration was necessarily limited. Before we left, we did have time for a little souvenir shopping: I bought a nifty German nutcracker for my mom, and some golf balls for my little brother. Because he likes golf, you see.

We made it back at the appointed time, but the bus still managed to leave ten minutes behind schedule, due to the tardiness of three dudes who carelessly "got lost" on the way back. Castigation was given, and well was it deserved!

A few hours later we arrived in "Heidelberg," only it wasn't really Heidelberg, but a small industrial city called Ludwigshafen am Rhein. Together with Mannheim and Heidelberg, the cities form a single metropolitan area, so I suppose it's close enough on a map. Ludwigshafen, however, does not presently have much to recommend it to tourists.

With nothing better to do, a few friends and I set out in search of food. What we found were scores of restaurants with closed doors and blinds, with unusually early closing times posted outside. If I had to guess, I'd say the recession had hit this place like a ton of bricks. We found one open Greek place which worked out pretty well, and on the way back to the hotel we hit up "Penny Market," a wondrous place of absurdly good deals. Is twenty cents for two liters of water too good to be true? Not at Penny Market!

Day Twenty Three: Heidelberg

Jacob and a couple of the girls did not accompany us on this tour, due to a sudden attack of acute illness; instead, they took a trip to a local hospital. Leaderless, two compatriots rose to the challenge in Jacob's place, which was much appreciated. However, rumor was spreading that Jacob was infected with the dreaded Swine Flu, and if such were the case, we'd all end up quarantined in God-forsaken Ludwigshafen. Perish the thought!

Rather than a tour, we had tickets for free exploration of the grounds of Heidelberg Castle (Heidelberger Schloss). It's pretty neat! I didn't care enough to cough up the euros needed for a tour of the most exclusive inner chambers, but I still had plenty to see. The "back porch" has a sweet view of the river; an unhelpful local told me it was the Rhine, but I found out later that it was the Necker, one of the Rhine's tributaries. The castle is in ruins and the turrets and bailey may not have been exactly safe, but they were still fun to sit and climb in.

In the basement was a former mad alchemist's laboratory (I imagine), which today houses a fascinating micro-museum about the history of German apothecaries. Inside were antique medical equipment, powdered drugs, potions, chemistry tools, and a reconstruction of a typical laboratory in a mostly-roped-off chamber.

Heidelberg Castle has one other major attraction for tourists: it claims in its wine cellar the world's largest wine barrel. Nobody intends to contest this claim, because the barrel is enormous. How big is it, you ask? According to Wikipedia, the Heidelberg Tun, as it is known locally, has a capacity of 220,000 liters, or 58,100 gallons. That, my friends, is a lot of wine. However, the barrel is empty today, because it's a little bit leaky. These days it's just a barrel: an unnecessarily big barrel.

The rest of the afternoon was spent exploring the city of Heidelberg. As near as I can tell (we again lacked a local tour guide), the biggest attraction outside the castle is Heidelberg University, a school that has been in continuous operation since the fourteenth century (Go Fighting Heidelbergers!). The campus is very nice, though it's a little urban for my tastes, with Medieval buildings embedded right in the heart of the city with nary a tree or a lawn for relaxation purposes. There's a lot of good shopping and restaurants in the surrounding streets, plus some bars, so you know the students always have something to do. I got some schnitzel at a little beer garden with the girls (how I shall miss German food!), and then wandered the streets in search of the elusive ATM, which may be an endangered species in Germany.

After further adventures with pastry shops, pigeons, and navigational snafus, we relaxed at the river for a while, where a few people even rented rowboats, and others watched the larger watercraft float by. The bus took us back to Ludwigshafen at the appointed time, which for once came precisely soon enough for my tastes. On our return, we were relieved to learn that nobody had the flu, and all would proceed as planned the next day, whatever we managed to catch in close quarters on the bus.

After a pizza dinner, I elected to spend the evening in a more solitary fashion, listening to music and intently reading. Solitary as I hoped to be, I couldn't help being drawn into some seditious conversations. A revolt against Jacob seemed to be in the works, on the grounds that he was lazy, incompetent, unhelpful, discourteous, and ate children, or something. The murmurings had been there at least since Italy, and seemed to increase as Jacob became sicker and sicker, a fact I found frankly disgusting. I'm much too easy on people as a rule, but if someone wants to volunteer to lead fifty American kids with high expectations across a vastly multilingual continent, and catches some ungodly disease in the process, I'm inclined to cut the man some slack.

My words of moderation being largely ignored, I went to sleep and steeled my mind against the madness about to unfold in...

Day Twenty Four: Amsterdam

(Please Note: Nothing happened. NOTHING! Please skip ahead to Day Twenty Seven)

Feeling unproductive, and with six-plus hours of nothing to look forward to on the bus, I resolved to finish the Bhagavad Gita before we reached the hotel. I had only about a hundred pages of dense, dense prose to work through, and I managed to pull it off in about five hours, to my great satisfaction.

I would recommend the book, not only to people interested in Hinduism, but to anyone who wanted a better understanding of God, religion, or life. It is a very high-level work of theology (requiring careful, close reading), and most, if not all, of its principles I found meaningful to my understanding of religious issues. It's also very philosophically demanding (making the usual holy book claims of infallible revelation), and it didn't leave me bursting with the urge to chant Hare Krishna, but I felt just the slightest bit wiser for having read it, which is as much justification as I really need.

Halfway through the drive, we stopped at a McDonald's restaurant for lunch. Absorbed as I was in the book, I hadn't noticed that we'd entered the Netherlands; my first indication was the sudden appearance of Dutch words on the overhead menu. Not much happened here, with one tragic exception: I accidentally dropped my soft-serve ice cream cone on the floor, just after sitting down to enjoy my food. I will mourn you forever, ice cream cone!

Onward we drove, and I finished the Gita somewhere in Holland. Holland looked pretty much as I expected it would: very flat, with lots of grazing cattle, little rivers, and canals. Yes, of course, there were windmills, but the ones I saw were the enormous, modern, white monsters you see on so-called "wind farms," not the quaint wooden structures you see in old paintings. Interesting.

The Amsterdam hotel was another highlight, as hotels go. There was a pillar in the lobby with a marking that indicated the sea level: it was approximately six meters above the floor. Crazy upside-down country!

We didn't stay at the hotel long, because the stoners and libertines among us had had quite enough of waiting, and were now tingling with anticipation. A highly disorganized bus trip into the city was immediately arranged, and we were dropped in the city center to fend for ourselves.

What happened next is kind of a blur. We started in the middle of what was called the "Green Light" District, and group unity was quickly dissolved: we split into smaller groups, and rushed hither and thither into Amsterdam's famous "cafés." With ruthless efficiency, the most experienced pot heads acquired their long-denied weed (favorite quote: "it feels like the first time!") and immediately set to rolling, distributing and smoking. Just like every college party I'd ever been to, I sat on the sidelines, laughing at their silly jokes and looking askance at the sketchy guys in the corner. Well, that part was different, but not much else was.

Wandering the streets of Amsterdam, the group became progressively smaller (as certain members became more prone to distraction). Collective navigation became easier, but I was struck with feelings of concern for my very baked friends. Fortunately, there is probably no city in the world better for a stoned young person to wander around, and everything turned out alright for them.

We inexplicably found ourselves inexplicably in another café, this one specializing in so-called "special cakes." Feeling adventurous, and extremely peer-pressured, I ordered one and consumed it quickly, for it was very small. It tasted alright, with a bitter element that I assumed was the marijuana, having no experience with such things. I expected a more or less immediate effect, but none was forthcoming; I was then told it would take at least a half an hour. After two hours passed, I was fairly certain I'd been ripped off. There's nothing special about these cakes, no matter how tie-dyed they come!

After further exploration, we found ourselves in the infamous Red Light District. Setting all the rational arguments in favor of legalized and regulated prostitution aside, there is something very, very wrong about that place. The stories are true: scantily clad, surgically enhanced girls stand on display in glass windows, plying their trade at a rate of fifty euros for twenty minutes. The streets are lined with shops selling pornography and sex toys, theaters showing everything from peep shows to live stage performances (that is exactly what it sounds like), and some sort of otherworldly condom-themed art and sculpture shop. Now, for the ultimate bit of mind-fragging madness: the Red Light District is a residential neighborhood. Little children walked down the street with whom I hoped were their parents; flocks of water fowl swam serenely in the canal, oblivious to the human degradation that surrounded them.

Eventually, a determination was made that the group would attend a live sex show. Being a young man, I am of course susceptible to certain temptations and weaknesses. However, I felt within myself an acute crisis of conscience, and decided in the end that I simply could not go through with it. Watching a pair of trained professionals do the nasty right in front of me, surrounded by people I had to share a bus with for another week and a half, was just too far outside of my comfort zone.

Plus, the show cost fifty euros. Fifty euros!

Anyway, a similarly gun-shy girl also backed out of the expedition into Amsterdam's heart of sleaze, so the two of us joined forces and went in search of more wholesome entertainment. We took the short path to Dam Square, where by lucky chance we encountered another friend of ours, looking extremely disoriented by the World War II memorial. She too agreed to join our party, and a plan was made: to find live jazz, and to listen to it.

We set out for the Alto club, Amsterdam's oldest jazz music establishment, located in the happenin' quarter of town known as Leidesplein. Armed with a map and a small brochure from the hotel lobby, we charted our course, and found that we needed only to follow the tram tracks. I suggested actually taking the tram, but the concept flew over someone's head; in any event, we could use the walk. By this time night was falling, and I started mentally calculating our escape route from the city.

The Alto is indeed a groovy club, but it's extremely small, and there weren't enough seats for all three of us, with the crowd already at overflow capacity. We stood inside for a while and listened, waiting for something to open up, but it never did. There was a pretty good local band playing, with a typical horn-sax-piano-bass-drum combo, but I wasn't particularly impressed by them. I've heard better live jazz on several occasions in Eugene, Oregon, but it was still good music and a good time. When it was apparent we would never get good seats, we split for better spaces.

After that, through no fault of mine whatsoever, we got lost. Fortunately, Amsterdam's street plan essentially comes down to a series of concentric circles, so it was not terribly difficult to navigate (you try making a plan with stoned people!). Once I confirmed our location at the intersection of a main thoroughfare and one of the three principal canals, I could easily plot a course out to the metro line. First, however, a midnight snack was required, at a good old fashioned Amsterdam sandwich shop.

I should mention that our arrival in Amsterdam, by accident or by design, coincided with the eve of the annual Gay Pride Parade, the biggest such event on the continent. Gaudy pre-parade festivities were taking place all over the city, centered around the three largest canals and extending into the city center and Red Light District, with loudspeakers blaring well into the night. God bless the Dutch for their tolerance, specifically their tolerance for thump-thump music and awful karaoke. A deep-voiced Asian man, who might have been George Takei if I didn't know any better (truth be told, I didn't know any better) was butchering "More Today Than Yesterday;" in the distance, a woman sang a pronoun-reversed version of "It's in His Kiss," and I wondered why they didn't just give the song to a dude.

In spite of mutinous questions raised concerning my navigational abilities (entirely groundless), I located the metro around midnight or so, and managed to get myself and the girls back to the hotel for a good night's sleep. The score is 1 to 0, Amsterdam!

Day Twenty Five: More Amsterdam

At breakfast I encountered the attendees of the previous night's erotic revue, seemingly huddled together around the table for comfort. A brief survey revealed deeply traumatized souls, shattered minds, and deeply confused feelings, along with disturbing accounts of "audience participation." We're not even going to go there.

Our guide for the walking tour was one of the best guides yet, thanks largely to her crystal-clear American accent (she was, in fact, an ex-pat from the good old USA). We started out in a fancy neighborhood amidst the three principal canals, named for the local aristocracy, the Holy Roman Emperor, and the Princes of Orange ( in order, the Herengracht, Keizersgracht, and Prinsengracht). Our guide knew quite a bit about the history of the Dutch and their maritime empire, as well as some of the peculiar practices of the city's residents. For example, Amsterdammers are accustomed to leaving their windows open at all times, as a sign of openness to the rest of the world. Nothing can deter this symbolic gesture, even when, say, a flotilla of gay pride boats should come blaring thump-thump music up and down the canal. God bless their open minds.

We next found ourselves in the old Jewish quarter, featuring a house once inhabited by Rembrandt van Rijn, who was not a Jew but really liked to paint them. Sadly, the Jews of Amsterdam were even more thoroughly destroyed by the Nazis than those of Prague. With the Jewish quarter depopulated and the city starving under blockade, locals further ruined the area by dismantling houses for firewood. Most of the buildings that stand there now are modern constructions, like museums and concert houses.

From there we wound our way to Nieumarkt, an area near the center of town with a plethora of shops, bars, and restaurants, as well as a conspicuous old guard tower that was once part of the city's original wall. Nieumarkt, I could tell in the light of morning, was where the bus had dropped us the night before, and I was pleased to see the scattered bits of geography I'd acquired begin to make sense. Soon, I would know Amsterdam like the back of my hand!

After Nieumarkt, we were led back into the Red Light District, which is even more profoundly unsettling in the morning hours, when the "premiere" prostitutes are off duty. The guide confirmed my worst suspicion, that the district was in fact a residential neighborhood; as a matter of fact, when she first moved to the city, her apartment had been situated directly upstairs from a brothel. She told a funny story about some "regular customers" that probably does not need to be repeated.

There is a Cathedral located in the district, built there on the logic that patrons of the world's oldest profession should have a place handy to confess their sins immediately after committing them. This is just one example of pragmatic Dutch planning: the whole idea of having a section for legalized prostitution was apparently thought up by a Catholic priest, in order to prevent the horny incoming sailors from terrorizing the poor citizens. The depths of sleaze being what they are, the church is now abandoned as such, but I'm sure they still use it for something or other.

Behind the church is a small monument dedicated to all of the proud sex workers of the world. If that wasn't funny enough, a weird little bronze relief of a woman's torso being groped by a male hand can be found on the ground nearby. I can't help but wonder if it was placed there by malicious Protestants.

We exited the district via the narrowest street in town, only just barely wide enough for two-way foot traffic, and lined on both sides by a gauntlet of girls in windows. Somebody, peeking through a door, witnessed something unspeakable; I kept my head down and scurried to safety.

After a brief rest and history lesson in Dam Square, we set out in search of the city's cleaner attractions. In the city center we saw various historic and government buildings, including a royal palace, though the Queen currently makes her official residence in the Hague. The tour concluded at the house where Anne Frank lived and wrote her famous diary, one of the best preserved sites from the war period. We intended to take a group tour of the house, but found an hour-long queue at the entrance. A decision was made to end the tour there, and for each to do the House tour on his own time, to be reimbursed for tickets by the tour company. Thus liberated, we set out in search of pancakes, for we were starving.

It's a well-known fact that the Dutch make the best damn pancakes in the world, and we ate them for brunch, living the dream as we were. The restaurant was really more of a pavilion than a building, and seemed to have been converted from an a giant carousel, which is to say it was really cool. After those delicious, delicious sugar pancakes, a friend and I decided to hit up the Van Gogh museum for some cultural edification. On the way there, we passed through the midst of the Gay Pride Parade, which was now in full swing and swollen to consume the city in ways that I never thought possible. As it happened, no one had seen Jacob all day; because he was gay, we jokingly assumed that he could be found gyrating amongst the teeming masses, but in actuality he was probably still sick in his room.

More peaceful conditions were to be found in the south part of the city, in the district known as the Museumplein. The area features a a lovely reflecting pool and public park, where dogs run free (and don't seem to mess up the grass too much), and museums line the sides of the enormous square. Largest of all is the stately Rijksmuseum, a public gallery that is home to paintings by the masters of the Dutch Golden Age. Spending just a little bit of time there left me in love with the city, hookers and all.

The Van Gogh Museum was wonderful, of course. It holds the largest collection of Van Gogh paintings in the world, which is not really surprising at all; it also has a lesser number of works by his friends and contemporaries. Being unfamiliar with the breadth of his work, I was fascinated by some of his late-period paintings, including some that were influenced by the style of classical Japanese woodcuts. However, my absolute favorite painting in the building was an early one, a still-life of a Bible (playfully juxtaposed with a small edition of Le Joie de Vivre), that for whatever reason appeared absolutely amazing to me in person. All in all, we "completed" the museum in about an hour and a half.

My friend was ready to head back to the hotel for a nap, but I had one more (depraved) item on my agenda. Though I am not and have never been a smoker, I was determined to purchase a classy-looking pipe as a souvenir, and keep it on my mantle for the purpose of freaking out my parents and amusing my friends. I have an odd sense of humor.

Not knowing exactly how one procures such paraphernalia, I trekked back amidst the chaos to Dam Square, then looked for a head shop in the Red Light District. I found a few, but each was decidedly the opposite of classy, and the souvenirs tended toward the ridiculous and obscene. Ultimately, I lost my nerve and headed for Nieumarkt, away from the girls who saw I was alone and stared just a little too intensely at me. Back in safe territory, I saw a comic book and Manga shop, and I was delighted to find that their products were printed in English: this was one indulgence I was unashamed to pursue. I bought the latest volume of Fullmetal Alchemist, which had not been released in America since I had been abroad, and left the store a very satisfied customer.

Near the metro station I saw a very classy head shop (named, appropriately enough, "The Head Shop,") filled with very classy-looking wares. My nerve had momentarily returned, and I marched boldly inside, announcing my intention to buy a pipe I never intended to use. I eschewed a fanciful glass piece, as they were expensive, and instead selected a modest wooden pipe. Flushed with libertine excitement, I proudly hid my prize deep in the bag from the Manga shop, walked straight to the metro station, and went home, making eye contact with no one.

I spent the rest of the afternoon at the hotel, reading, relaxing, and showing off my pipe to anyone who cared in the slightest. Not wishing to pay for a second metro ticket, I had dinner at the hotel restaurant, which was decent, except for the music. Before bed, my roommate and I turned on the TV to find, of all things, a biographical documentary about world-famous porn star Ron Jeremy, because Amsterdam is the weirdest city in the world.

Day Twenty Six: Even More Amsterdam

One of our few male companions left the group this morning, flying back to the States in order to attend a wedding, of all things. His departure marginally improved the already grossly lopsided male to female ratio, as if that was doing anyone the slightest bit of good. He will be missed.

I must confess, after two days in the city I was feeling both lazy and cheap; I've never been good at money management, so cheap-skating was my last and best line of defense against pauperism. The natural result was that I spent most of the day in the hotel room, listening to music, reading, and napping. By late afternoon I was feeling both guilty and hungry, but I did not relish the thought of eating at the hotel restaurant two nights in a row.

So I thought, and I thought, and I thought some more, and I remembered a place in Nieumarkt that seemed like a good bet. It was called the Cotton Club; if I remember my jazz history well enough, the original Cotton Club was a famous establishment in Washington, D.C. where luminaries like Duke Ellington got their start. "This place," I thought, "is likely a franchise of the original Cotton Club; it will have live jazz, drinks, and probably some good food; I will gather my friends, and there we will go." It also had the advantage of being about fifty feet from the metro station, and thus easy to find.

So I gathered my posse and boarded the train, flush with excitement at the thought of a lively evening out. Alas, all my hopes were shattered upon arrival: the Cotton Club was merely a bar, with only recorded jazz playing through speakers. I endured a well-deserved chastisement, and we went in search of a real food outlet. Nieumarkt is pretty well set up, so fortunately we did not have to go far.

My dinner that night was mashed potatoes mixed with Kale, a vegetable I'd never heard of, but which is basically like very bitter spinach. It was good, especially with gravy, but I think it would have been good of the place to inform me that there was more Kale than potato to be found in the mixture (I jokingly wondered aloud if I was being fed a plate of marijuana). You never know in this town.

As we ate, a baby was crying noisily in a stroller by a nearby table. I turned and made eye contact with the child, locking directly into its gaze. After a few hypnotic faces (mostly just blinking a lot) I permanently calmed him down, and thus discovered my latest super power: instant infant pacification. Nobody else thought it was a very impressive power, but clearly none of them have thought about having kids.

After dinner, we took one last stroll through the Red Light District, because we are all horrible people. We ran the narrow gauntlet a few times for kicks, feeling like aliens on a planet of vice and neon lights. We then returned to the Cotton Club for drinks and pool.

The drinks were good (the native Heineken is probably my favorite beer), but the pool table was a ramshackle affair. The table was only fixed to the floor by one leg, and was light enough that leaning on it would make it rotate, and cause the balls to roll completely out of place. There was no chalk and only one usable stick, the other being grossly crooked, but in spite of it we made a tournament out of our misery, and had the bar mostly to ourselves. I went two for four, along with one of my compatriots, which essentially makes us even. Hopefully, if we ever get a bar to ourselves like that again, a tie-breaking match will decide the championship!

Day Twenty Seven: Bruges and Brussels

I said farewell to the hotel room, particularly to the picture hanging on the wall. It was one of the oddest decorations I'd ever seen: a black and white sketch of an owl-themed super hero (or maybe a feathery park ranger?) seated on a table with, of all things, an owl. Anyone who has any idea what the hell this could be, please let me know. As depraved as the city had made me, I even thought of stuffing this bizarre treasure in my bag. Farewell, Owl-Man of Amsterdam!

In an hour or two we entered Belgium, which is a lot like the Netherlands both physically and culturally, except that the signs are all bilingual (Dutch and French), because the Belgians cannot make up their minds. French signs, at least, are fairly easy to make sense of, but I always pronounce them with caution.

Our first stop was in Bruges, a city about which I knew nothing apart from its recent appearance in the movie In Bruges, which I did not see. As it happens, Bruges is a surprisingly old-fashioned place, with very pleasant old-time architecture, and a lively market area at its core. My sister and I had lunch in the main square, which includes among other things the requisite pointy Cathedral and gargantuan clock tower.

After lunch, we went "souvenir shopping" at a chocolate shop, sampling some of the country's famous sweets (which were molded into some pretty hilarious shapes). Since we had extra time on our hands, the two of us went exploring around Bruge's canals, where we saw horse-drawn carriages (drawn by some pissed-off horses, judging by the impatient stomping)and the usual flocks of water fowl. Bruges, like Amsterdam, is one of many cities that calls itself the Venice of the North, seemingly on the basis that it has some canals. None of these cities should kid themselves; they're all much too clean to be Venice.

Quite by accident, we crossed over a little bridge and found ourselves wandering around in a convent. It was, as you might expect, very nice and peaceful inside, perhaps like a sanitarium, and several signs posted on the grounds instructed visitors to be silent. Even so, we had to laugh when we saw a pair of nuns climb into a hybrid and speed away. Nuns drive cars!?

By the time we reunited with the group, they were already walking back to the bus, because they are traitors. Miraculously, the group hasn't stranded anyone anywhere yet, as thoroughly improbable as it may seem given our relative lack of organization or group cohesion. I doubt they would have really left us, but they sure didn't mind telling us that they would.

Our sleeping spot in Brussels was a hostel, orders of magnitude beneath the one in Steinach in terms of quality. The rooms were barer and much more cramped, and the bathrooms bordered on abominable; some rooms reported roach infestations. The front door was also an inconsistent affair, seeming to open only upon the performance of some arcane ritual dance. We only had one night to stay there, and for some people that was far more than enough.

Now, if you're reasonably aware of things, you'll know that Brussels is not only the capital city of Belgium, but also the headquarters of the European Union, makers of the euro coins we'd all grown to love. If you are also a complete geek, like me, you will know that Brussels is a major center of comic book art, being in effect the capital of European comics. There is, in fact a comic book museum located in the main prt of town, which I had very much looked forward to seeing. Distressingly, the museum was already closed by the time we reached Brussels, and though I would have gladly traded half a day in Paris for half a day in Brussels (I am really that big of a geek), there are some things I cannot change. I went into town with a group of geekily-inclined girls, thinking that at the very least, we might see the museum's exterior.

To make a long story short, we never did find the museum, although we did find several of the city's famous comic strip murals, depicting works by reknowned artists such as Hergé, the creator of Tintin. Along the way we discovered a rather excellent pizzeria with some rather excellent pizza. We also found found the city's main square, which is perhaps the most unnecessarily gilded open space I have ever seen. And of course, we saw Mannekin Pis.

What's Mannekin Pis, you ask? Brussels' lost inexplicable artistic landmark, Mannekin Pis is a life-size statue of nude toddler urinating into a fountain. In case it's not absolutely clear, I'd like to emphasize that the statue is actually passing water from its wee parts into a basin, twenty four hours a day. It is adorable, obscene, and a great source of pride for the locals, who not only sell commemorative key-chains but ENORMOUS CHOCOLATE REPLICAS of Mannekin Pis (which, mercifully, do not actually urinate chocolate). The statue is considered a symbol of peaceful coexistence between French and Dutch-speaking Belgians, and that's just weird.

Other group members informed us that, if we would look a little harder, we would find statues of a urinating girl and a urinating dog. I did not think that was necessary.

Once again I was given the task of navigating our way home, and this time I really did get us lost. A man at some sort of café-bar gave us accurate directions to the hostel, and then started plying one of my companions with beer. Being the type of girl who consistently makes very poor decisions, we devoted all of our efforts to extracting her from what was probably a bad situation, and eventually we succeeded.

Crushing disappointments aside, Brussels is a fine city, with lots of modern buildings and good art to recommend it. I don't know why the Powers That Be did not grant us more time here, because it certainly seems to warrant it.

Day Twenty Eight: Paris

One thing I've noticed a lot in this part of the continent is the relative prevalence of nuclear reactors in the countryside. I guess it's not too surprising that France is way into the alternative energy scene, but I have some serious reservations about the use of nuclear power, due to the dangers posed by its waste products (not to mention the legacy of Chernobyl). I have no idea if radioactive waste is a soluble problem, but every time I see a reactor I shudder, because it hasn't been solved yet.

Our Paris hotel (simply named "Paris XV") was tucked behind some office buildings in a very remote part of town, so our expectations were not high. Appearances can be deceiving, however: our rooms were equipped with couches, kitchens, working air conditioning units, and free, unrestricted WiFi. When I realized there were even washing and drying units in the basement, I wept for joy, as I hadn't had a chance to do laundry since I was in Florence. Paris, you do alright.

Before we arrived, Jacob gave us some unexpected (but unsurprising) news: he was leaving the tour due to his illness, and hooking us up with a new tour guide, a French fellow called Eric. My first impulse was to think that, since he'd been getting better, he could have toughed it out one more week; Lord knows it hadn't been an easy trip for anyone at every point. But sick is sick, of course, and I can't say he didn't go further than I might have. A cloud hung over his departure, with rumors that he'd been fired on a complaint from someone in the group, and I wouldn't be surprised to learn it was true, given the amount of backbiting that tended to go in all directions. I, however, always believed he was doing an acceptable job.

Eric, however, was a clear improvement in terms of geniality and enthusiasm, and I took to calling him "Jacob 2.0." After we were settled in our rooms, he took us on a short tour via Paris' sophisticated underground metro system, and we stepped off at the Place Saint-Michel for a bit of free time. St. Michel is centrally located on the Seine river in the most historic part of town, just a few blocks away from the famous Notre Dame Cathedral. Its centerpiece is an impressive fountain, featuring a statue of the Archangel Michael in his traditional victory pose, stompin' on Satan for eternity. Nearby are a series of tourist-friendly market stalls, positively stuffed with glowing miniature Eiffel Towers.

A big group of us took advantage of our free time to have an early dinner at a small outdoor restaurant, the kind of classy setting with a live pianist (supplemented by Europop songs during his breaks). I didn't know much about French cuisine, except that it featured snails and was very expensive. This meal, however, was a revelation: though I ordered a humble plate of chicken, olives, and mashed potatoes, they may possibly have been the best chicken, olives, and mashed potatoes I had ever had in my life. If there's a secret to French cooking, it seems to be taking perfectly ordinary food and turning it into a quasi-religious experience. Or maybe it's LSD.

After regrouping, we made a pilgrimage to the city's most unquestionably famous monument, the Eiffel Tower, which is a ridiculously tall building. It hasn't been the tallest in the world for over a hundred years, but it is still the unquestioned master of the Paris skyline, and its old-style modernism gives it the look of something out of a Jules Verne book. As afternoon turned to evening, the tower lit up like a Christmas tree, and it was time to ascend to the top.

To be clear, I am very afraid of heights. It's not that I think I might fall; it's that I know I would fall if some catastrophe should befall the structure, and that is completely outside of my control. The fact that the tower looks like the bare skeleton of a normal building, with its grated floors, gusting winds, and crowded walkways, does not make me any more confident in its structural integrity. Though the tower has stood unchallenged for over a century, and is widely regarded as an engineering masterpiece, does not make me feel any better about what would happen if the floor gave way. Upon reaching the topmost observation deck I posed for pictures, admired the charming cityscape and the ascendant moon, and was the first one to go down again.

At this point we were turned loose, and as it was late in the evening I went in search of a Metro station. This took much longer than it should have, because I didn't have a map and had paid close to no attention to geographical landmarks. Even collaborating with friends, it took nearly an hour and a half to get to the right station, and once we reached our destination we wandered around the neighborhood for another half an hour. We might never have made it home were it not for the help of a kindly local bicyclist; back at the hotel, I started poring over maps in hopes of avoiding a similarly embarrassing failure in the future.

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Monday, March 8, 2010

WFJ Book Club #3: Hard-Boiled Wonderland and The End of the World

Of all the arts, the writing of prose carries the greatest potential for raw, nuanced expression, for the artist to expose as much of his teeming sea of neurons to his audience as humanly possible. It is beholden to fewer formal rules than poetry or music; it is more transparent than painting or sculpture; it is less relentlessly practical than cooking or architecture. The prose author is allotted indefinite pages to tell his story however he wants, to pace his rhythms and his themes at whatever speed or scale strike his fancy, and to put as much or as little of himself into the ink as he may please.

Is it any wonder so much of it is exceedingly awful? As attractive a medium as it is, it is a haven for unfortunate hacks, who nonetheless may consider themselves quite fortunate if their woefully inadequate novel (or "nonfiction" nonsense) lands them a steady income, or a book tour, or a (shudder) movie deal. What does it say about our culture if even the book, as ancient a symbol of wisdom, sophistication, and intelligence as can be found, is so thoroughly commercialized and debased?

The point of this rant is to give some idea of the extent to which I hate novels. This may seem like an absurdity, and from one point of view it is. I count many novels among my favorite books: I thrill at the writing of the masters of the form, and Tolkien will forever remain the north star in my literary universe. But my love of beautiful, powerful writing is met at par by my distaste for the pedestrian paperbacks that line the shelves of America's consciousness, and that is because I am an incurable snob. So I live my literary life as a hermit in the quasi-academic realm of histories and biographies, where no novel can find me without a an unquestionable pedigree and a sterling reputation on the part of the author. I expect a lot from my prose, and deny myself even more as a result.

Enter Haruki Murakami, a modern Japanese literary superstar, and his unaccountable brilliance. His books come stuffed with allusions to culture high, low, and every step along the way where meaning can be found. His style is both ironic and bizarre, and even he can't help but compare himself with Kafka. Murakami is an author with something to say, and I crawled out from under my rock just long enough to hear him out.

His break-through 1985 work, Hard-Boiled Wonderland and the End of the World, fell into my hands recently after a conversation I'd had with a friend about genre. Genre can famously be limiting, and its conventions can grow atrocious with the passage of time, but I instinctively felt that genre was as legitimate an artistic aspect as any other, and that in the hands of a true artist, a work could draw from all the strengths of a genre without belonging to it. My friend must have teased that sentiment out from somewhere in my incoherent ramblings, because the book he gave me is as much an affirmation of that approach as I could have hoped for. Best of all, it strives for its goal armed with a heaping handful of weirdness, an approach I can always get behind.

Hard-Boiled Wonderland and the End of the World has elements of science fiction, magical realism, technological thrillers, and detective stories, but it cannot be said to be any of those things. For one thing, it is a seamless hybrid from chapter to chapter, borrowing from such and such style in such a way as to keep any one genre from dominating the structure. The real reason that no genre encapsulates the whole, however, is because the book contains two separate narratives, and if either could be said to belong to a genre, than neither one belongs to the other. The story is divided roughly in half into odd and even chapters, and treated for all intents and purposes as thoroughly distinct from one another: even the small print in the heading changes. Both are set up from the start to appear completely as non sequiturs; then gradually, they begin to reflect, anticipate, and finally consummate one another in unexpected ways.

After a few back-and-forth exchanges, a pattern emerges. Hard-Boiled Wonderland concerns a thirty-five-year-old information trafficker who carries encrypted information in his head, à la Johnny Mnemonic. Known only by his profession as a "Calcutec," he keeps himself sane with an endless stream of mundane observations in the style of the great "hard-boiled" detectives of yore; rather than chasing down a crooked bookie or femme fatale, however, he finds himself faced with the weirdest of weird science, and subterranean monsters to boot. The End of the World, on the other hand, is relaxed, mysterious, and highly symbolic. It moves more slowly, written in the present tense instead of the past, and its chapters are generally shorter, more like vignettes. The setting is not the Tokyo metropolis but a self-contained town with simple, simply-named features. The protagonist is known in the town as the "Dreamreader,", and like a dreamer his memory is spotty, while his sense of identity is uncertain at best after he experiences the separation of himself from his shadow. Neither protagonist is given a name (and neither is any other character, for that matter), but it becomes increasingly obvious that they are the same person.

Given its laid back style, it's easy to ignore The End of the World at first. The kinetic energy of the tale is almost all contained in the story's other half, and so is the danger. In its place is a pondering mystery, which slowly changes to an ever more sharply defined existential dread as the Dreamreader more clearly understands his circumstances, and recovers more memories about his previous life. His rediscovery of music, his growing affections for the town's demure librarian, and the persistent warnings from his dislocated shadow about the town's unnatural existence put the story on a slow burn to an unconventional conclusion.

The book's other half is in some ways more accessible and pleasurable to read. Unlike the broadly archetypal characters of The End of the World, the ones in Hard-Boiled Wonderland are idiosyncratic and humorous in their construction. The Professor, a daffy old man, possesses knowledge and expertise of impossible science that still performs exactly as he expects; his precocious seventeen-year-old-granddaughter, a chubby girl dressed entirely in pink, is absurdly competent in a variety of skills, from music to spelunking; the librarian, with whom the Calcutec enjoys a brief affair, is an attractive young widow with a taste for mystery, sex, and seemingly endless quantities of good food.

The Calcutec is a lonely divorcée in what should be his prime, gainfully employed and proud of his work, but mostly interested in imagining his far-off retirement, spent in peaceful relaxation learning to play the cello and speak Greek. In the meantime, he occupies himself with keen observations and an expansive good taste in films, books, music, and whiskies. As his path leads him closer and closer to his day of reckoning, he takes greater and fuller enjoyment in the simple pleasures of life, from Johann Bach to Bob Dylan; his dénouement brings him a kind of happiness that belies its tragedy. He never quite unravels the mystery of all that happens to him, but in spite of the suffering he endures, the resolution still seems just right.

As I mentioned before, the heroes of the two stories are ultimately one and the same person, and they share the same terminal fate, a crisis truly befitting the name "End of the World," at least as far as one man is concerned. But what I found most interesting about the conclusion was the way the "two" characters faced their doom. The Calcutec is matter-of-factly informed of his destiny, and after the briefest of outbursts, resigns himself to the inevitable with his characteristic detachment. The Dreamreader, on the other hand, is given a clear choice between escape and oblivion: at the very end, he chooses the latter. It makes perfect sense, except that it doesn't; as plainly as it's stated in the text, it's not entirely clear who's really doing the choosing, or whether anyone chose at all.

The English translation is provided by Alfred Birnbaum, who renders Murakami's Japanese in a style consistent with the author's reputation: hip, modernist, and alive with semi-autobiographical voice. Apart from place names and the distinctive behavior of certain characters, the book does not come off as overwhelmingly "Japanese," and it leans heavily on western cultural and generic references. It reads as a truly internationalist artwork, which defies characterization in convenient cultural boxes.

The real joy of reading Murakami is that he so cheerfully resists cliches. Pastiche and homage are another matter, the natural consequences of an author who is widely read and cognizant of the techniques of his mentors and influences. It's a detective story where the mystery is never solved, a science fiction story with minimal emphasis on either technology or the future, and a quasi-Jungian symbolic work with deeply ironic undertones. It's literature with a capital "L," a respectable book even in paperback. Best of all, it challenges its readers, but never leaves them in the dust, concerned as it is with the true art of the story. Hard-Boiled Wonderland and the End of the World hints at a complicated world of secrets, insanity, and conspiracy, then abandons that thread for something more interesting and mature: a meditation on life, death, and the mind. A book like this is as close as one can get to swimming in another person's brain cells, an experience as eerie and thrilling as it sounds.

If I sound like a convert, I really am: I recognize in Murakami's work much of what I hope to accomplish in my own. A teacher once told me that a great work of art is something you hold to be greater than yourself, and like all my heroes the latest has me beat. Arigato, sir, for one more star to chase.

Thursday, March 4, 2010

Germanic Adventures

Today's journal title is a little misleading, because it only partly describes events in Germany. In fact, astute readers will recall that we haven't even made it out of Italy yet. But you know what? I committed to this naming scheme a long time ago, buddy. I'm not changing it.

This entry contains a very serious section about the Holocaust, an subject which deserves to be considered separately from what is otherwise a frivolous account of fifty American kids running around looking for good times. I've kept my brief thoughts on the subject in their original context for the sake of continuity, but separated them out from the rest of the text in order to emphasize their gravity. There is nothing to say about the Holocaust that has not been said by wiser, more experienced people, but I will do what I can.

Apart from the first day, all of these entries took place in countries where German was either the primary language, or otherwise widely spoken. When you get settled into one foreign tongue, however, switching out can be difficult. I don't know how many Germans, Austrians, and Czechs I said "grazie" to, but I would like to apologize to them all. Now, without further ado...

Day Fifteen: Venice

We had an early morning ferry scheduled to take us into the city, in order to beat the crowd and get our official tour in fast. Unfortunately, our scheduled wake-up call either did not occur, or was simply too quiet; in any case, nobody was awoken by it. By lucky chance I stumbled out of bed ten minutes before the appointed meeting time, and quickly roused my roommates, who then roused the others.

Miraculously, we all managed to assemble in time and make it to the local port. There we boarded a small open-deck ferry (groan) and set out for the famous Venetian lagoon. The city of Venice is actually built on a number of small islands in the lagoon, and as you approach them the city gives off a romantic, quasi-Atlantean feel. As there is very little evidence of a natural coastline, the effect is much like buildings rising directly out of the waves. It's unsettling but pretty, in a classical sort of way.

We disembarked and took a short walk to la Piazza San Marco, Venice's historic main square. There's a clock tower there, which shows not only the time of day but the phase of the moon and the current part of the astrological year. It's similar to the clock inside Florence's main cathedral, but absurdly bedecked in sculpture and other decorations.

The two most important buildings in the square are the Doge's palace and the Basilica San Marco. The palace is not too exciting from the outside, looking mostly like a big box of...Doge? The Basilica of St. Mark, on the other hand, is tacky by comparison. The exterior is completely covered in columns of different colors and materials; the spoils, we were told, of the sack of Constantinople during Fourth Crusade. I have to wonder what the current residents of Istanbul think of The Venetians' continued flaunting of such ill-gotten gains.

Our local guide led us through the streets, where I was struck by the complete absence of cars. Motor vehicles are obviously impractical on such a crowded island, but they're such a common sight in other European cities that it still comes off as odd. Fortunately, the guide told us, Venice proper is only about twice the size of Central Park; everything is in walking distance, unless you choose to go by gondola.

We saw yet another cathedral, this one devoted to Moses, (unusual for a Catholic Church), and built in the Baroque style, making it several centuries younger than the medieval St Mark's. Across the square from the Moses Cathedral is the city's famous Grand Canal. I must be honest, I found it underwhelming, as it was neither very wide nor very ornate. Not that impressive!
Our tour ended at a glass blower's shop, where we saw first hand the process of blowing and shaping glass. Much like the leather studio in Florence, we were given the opportunity to shop for discounted glassware. The choices were all extremely expensive, and in any event I didn't relish the thought of transporting delicate, precious glass.

Afterward, Jacob set about organizing gondola rides for the group. Even with his super-guide-powers, he could only talk the man down to sixteen euros. Sixteen euros, for a ride through fecal-green waters bearing the cat-sized corpses of rabid rats. I decided to set out and see the rest of the city on foot.

My plan was to walk the perimeter of the primary island, but I soon found it impossible, because there is no road that conveniently encircles the city. The buildings are built right up against the water along most of the coastline, so I had to retreat inland, into a complicated maze of side streets. At one point I came across a spectacular wooden bridge leading to the secondary island. I climbed up to its apex, but decided not to cross over, lest I get completely sidetracked and lost.

After passing through some lovely squares and parks, I found myself entering a narrow-laned residential zone, packed so tightly I thought I was in some sort of sketchy lower-class Whoville. Fearing the prospect of getting shanked, I abandoned my mad schemes of circumnavigation and made a beeline for the Piazza.

By the time I got back, the city's famous pigeons were out in full force, flocking to and fro to eat from the hands of bird lovers from all around the world. Rich folks were dining outside the grand museum/arcade, being entertained by an orchestra and looking disapprovingly at people desperately looking for shade. I decided to check out the interior of St. Mark's.

The inside had an atmosphere like a grotto, as though it were carved out of stone like a sea cave, which was pretty awesome. In one of the side chambers, a ceremony was taking place that might have been a wedding, or something else. As in the Sistine Chapel, there were thick-headed boors taking pictures in spite of strongly-worded prohibitive signs. I wondered how they'd like it if I walked around through their churches taking pictures.

Denied from seeing the Cathedral's more secretive (and expensive) corners, I took a peak at the Doge's palace, which is actually fairly swanky on the inside, and has a number of noteworthy features. There were the famous golden stairs, an impressive looking armory (swords and halberds everywhere!), and the old city council building, which a sign informed me was one of the largest rooms in all of Europe. Interesting if true! There was also a connecting passage to the old prison building, which another helpful sign informed me was one of the first stand-alone prisons in European history. Way to go, Venice?

Mostly, the palace was a fine museum of the city's municipal and national history, along with a few excellent artifacts, like the Doge's own gondola in the courtyard. I was disappointed to find out later that most of the group did not also do the palace tour, but I'd grown used to their philistine ways.

The other big museum in the square, stuffed with Venetian art, was neat, mostly for its own sake, apparently having been built in the days of Napoleon when he was busy conquering cities of immense cultural value. I finally ran into some group members at the entrance, and together we toured the galleries, with all their old books, maps, weapons, statues, etc. Upstairs was a portrait gallery, mostly consisting of images labeled "Madonna with Bambino." You would be very surprised to find the number of variations on this theme that exist - perhaps more so to see the number that involve breastfeeding.

With the museum conquered, I had nothing interesting left to do, and two and a half hours to do it again. Desperately bored, I did a complete second run through of the art museum with some girls. After some more aimless wandering, we spent the rest of the time sitting by the dock, eating delicious gelato and agitating for more reasonable departure times. In fairness, however, Venice is a special case among European cities, and if we were anywhere else, we could have easily called some taxis.

Back in Jesolo, we bade goodbye to our trusty Italian driver, who gladly loaded and unloaded our bags every day like a champ, and in conversation usually came across as significantly less creepy than the average European male. His "creep factor" rose slightly when he joined us for drinks and a quick dinner, but why emphasize the negative?

A word about Venice: I honestly would not be surprised if it were not abandoned within the next one hundred years. Yes, it's lovely, but strictly in the abstract. Putting aside the filth of the celebrated canals, it's sinking into the lagoon, a situation that global warming is not going to help. To top it all off, the population is collapsing due to an unbearable rise in the cost of living. I can't believe that a city like that can be maintained forever without a massive engineering endeavor, and as the population shrinks further, it will become exponentially less practical to keep it up.

Another word about Venice: I took one hundred and twenty dollars to a currency exchange in St. Mark's square, and was thoroughly ripped off, receiving only sixty three euros back. Regardless of what you may have heard, the conversion rate is not two to one, or at least it wasn't when I was there. That's crap.

Day Sixteen: Austria - Into the Alps!

Two countries in two weeks? Clearly it's time to pick up the pace. In the morning we met our new driver, contracted to haul our lazy asses all the way to Amsterdam. We drove north to the famous Alps, bound for the Tyrol region of Austria.

It was one of the longest drives yet, almost seven hours by my count, long past the time when headphones begin to make our ears feel like they're going to fall off. The latter half of the journey was spectacular, however: if the German language signs didn't tell you you were in Austria, the majestic green slopes of the mountains would. They are, without any question in my mind, the most beautiful mountains in the world, and no picture you've ever seen could do them justice.

To make a dreadfully long story short, we reached the river Inn for what turned out to be a dynamic highlight of the tour, white water rafting. Rain or shine (rain, as it turned out), we would brave the chilling waters and jagged rocks in blatant disregard for safety or sanity. Conditions necessitated wetsuits, which were neither comfortable nor flattering. It was not my finest moment.

I got a seat on the forward-left part of the raft, owing to woefully misplaced gender stereotypes concerning upper body strength. Paddling left handed did not make matters any better. Having been on the Kern river in California only a few weeks prior, I knew I could do better than that, but my companion on the right side wouldn't switch with me until the very end.

Our guides were a merry band of Scotsmen (and Scots-ladies) who, while thoroughly competent boaters, seemed suicidally preoccupied with making obscene paddle gestures at one another and pulling innocent people from other rafts and into the water. I was nearly pulled in myself, but held tight, defending myself with some furious oar-work. When I wasn't being endangered by crazed Scots, I marveled at the scenery, which looked all the more rich and green under the rainy grey sky.

In spite of my left-handed deficiencies, we made it through some hairy rapids with minimal death and dismemberment. The river tour lasted only about an hour and a half, but it was still great fun, though the same cannot be said for the soggy shuttle ride back to base.

Still soggy despite all best efforts, we got back on the bus and drove to Steinach am Brenner, a very small skiing town near Innsbruck. There was no snow, of course, but there was a surprisingly awesome hotel (with free Wi-Fi, for heaven's sake!) and some excellent local restaurants. I had my first dinnertime experience with a German dish known as "Grillteller," which can best be described as a pile of meat. Italian food, you say? How quaint.

Being in a remote mountain town (and with the moon conveniently in its "new" phase), we had a spectacular stellar view that night. Sometimes, even the sky seems better abroad.

Day Seventeen: Munich and Dachau

Scrambled eggs for breakfast!? Forever, I will love Steinach.

The Alps in the morning, shrouded in clouds and mist, are even more evocative than the in afternoon, flagrantly defying the label of "picturesque" by being impossible to render in any medium known to man. Really, I was quite impressed; at times, daydreaming through the windows, I thought of the Misty Mountains of Middle Earth, feeling like I'd finally seen them in a meaningful way.

It only took us three hours or so to enter Germany and the city of Munich, the capital of the old state of Bavaria. Officially, we had a free afternoon, which didn't sit well with most of us, as we were passing within a few miles of a Nazi concentration camp, with no official stop planned. A few group members took the initiative and organized a special trip to the Dachau camp on short notice.

Before we left, I took a short walk through the city, seeking an ATM to replenish my desperately dwindling supply of euros. When I finally found one, it was stashed behind some market stalls, dusty and obviously underused. I hesitated at first, not convinced that it wouldn't eat my debit card, an outcome of truly devastating proportions. But I took a leap of faith, and everything turned out alright.


The Dachau memorial site is located in the town of Dachau, a short distance from Munich. The setting is leafy, green, and lovely like a college campus. The camp itself is mostly preserved on site, and resembles a military barracks. Most of the old buildings, however, no longer stand, particularly the prisoners' housing and infirmaries; only foundations remain in place. At the far end from the camp headquarters are two churches, one Protestant and one Catholic, and a Jewish memorial structure. Outside, a tour group from Israel was gathered, paying their respects. To the left, a small bridge over a canal leads to the infamous gas chambers and crematoria. Visitors can walk the same path that the prisoners did, with one stunning difference: they can walk out again, and contemplate what they have seen.

It was like visiting an ancient crime scene, obscured by careful landscaping and the passage of time, but horrible in its depth. It was more arresting and numbing than any memorial I had ever seen, as I realized the extent to which I knew everything, and nothing, about what really transpired there. I strolled the grounds with my sister, discussing history and philosophy and speculating about the precise function of various structures; we avoided our other companions, and took few pictures.

I was unsettled in the pit of my stomach by a deep sense of identification, which cut me in harsh and uncomfortable ways. When we are taught about the Holocaust, we are taught first and foremost about the suffering of the Jews and other people imprisoned and murdered in the Nazi camps. It is perhaps a credit to our species that we cannot help but identify with those who suffer, because we all suffer. Behind the barbed-wire fences, it's not difficult to imagine yourself a prisoner. It is extremely tempting to do so.

It is not that simple. As palpable as the presence of the past is, the here and now is unmistakably close at hand. The old headquarters is packed with exhibits and information, modern impositions on old walls which speak for themselves. The religious memorials have flowers and other offerings. Somber, yet disturbing, sculptures can be found at various points, and of course there is the famous plaque, reading in many languages "Never Again." Dachau was home to the sufferers, and it is now home to the mourners, and the camp solicits us to join their ranks. "Never Again" was inscribed with proactive intentions, but in light of recent as well as distant history, it almost rings hollow. We identify with the mourners: powerless to help, trying vainly to preserve, trying hopelessly to prevent.

And it gets worse. We have not truly understood Dachau, or Auschwitz, or any such place, until we have identified with the Nazis as well. Just as we suffer, and mourn, we inflict: humanity has terrifying capacity for cruelty, hate, and moral blindness. The cruelty of Adolf Hitler was not the work of the Devil, but the work of a man; the construction and the administration of the death camps was the work of many such human beings, no different in substance from you or I.

At Dachau, our capacity to endure suffering comes face to face with our capacity to cause it, and how is anyone supposed to feel about that? I don't have the words to guess. But I know that we who are like the Jews are also like the Germans, and likewise they were always all like one another. That is the tragedy of genocide in today's world, that humans would destroy themselves, and thus be destroyed.


That night, in search of levity, we took taxis downtown to the famous Hofbräuhaus am Platzl, perhaps the most tourist-friendly of the city's historic beer halls (Why are they historic? Let's not get into that now). Do you like huddling around big wooden tables with intoxicated strangers who shout and sing so loudly, you can scarcely hear your own thoughts? Such is the essence of Hofbräuhaus. The key to surviving such insanity, is as it turns out, at least two liters of beer. You can guess how that turned out.

Feeling disoriented upon departure, I asked my roommate to lead me back to the hotel. He agreed, but (he being equally drunk) instead led me to a strip club. I might have forgiven him, but there was a ten euro cover charge, and we weren't even in Amsterdam yet! I had better luck finding my way home in the company of some girls, where I promptly passed right out.

Day Eighteen: Munich, Neuschwanstein

We had another guided tour this morning, this one mercifully conducted by bus: Munich is a very large city, and its significant sights are spread far and wide. Admittedly, it was tempting to fall asleep and miss what the local guide had to tell us about this and that unpronounceable structure, but we had the benefit of a robust speaker system, and we covered a lot of ground.

The most impressive stop on the bus tour was Schloss Nymphenburg, the summer residence of Bavaria's former royal family, the Wittelsbachs; although the building is open to the public, it technically remains an official residence of the Wittelsbach family. Is it typical for deposed monarchs to keep their castles? These dudes have a pretty sweet deal. Wikipedia also tells me that the current Wittelsbach-in-chief, Duke Franz, is also heir to the thrones of England, Scotland, France and Ireland, according to the Jacobite succession. So, he's got that going for him too.

Other buildings built by the Bavarian Kings, state houses and the like, were present on the tour route as well, but to be honest, I don't remember most of them clearly. More memorable were the under-construction pavilions for the upcoming Oktoberfest; it being late July, I wondered just how long it took to build a pavilion. Finally, we left the bus and proceeded on foot to Munich's famous Rathaus-Glockenspiel, arriving just in time to watch the wooden figures dance to the music at eleven o'clock in the morning. In this instance, "dancing" refers to "spinning slowly in a circle." Whoopee!

Back to the hotel, then back on the bus for an optional excursion to what nobody could help but call "Sleeping Beauty Castle," the world-famous Schloss Neuschwanstein ("New Swan Stone Castle"). The castle was built in the 1880s by King Ludwig II, noted opera enthusiast and probable homosexual (Quoth a friend: "No wonder his castle's so pretty!"), and was the aesthetic inspiration for the castle design in Walt Disney's classic Sleeping Beauty.

Neuschwanstein is situated on top of a tall hill, backed by a lushly forested ravine. As a result, access requires a thirty minute hike up a relentlessly steep grade. Fortunately, desperately needed water was for sale three quarters of the way up; by the time I reached it, I was seriously dehydrated, and felt sick to my stomach. The whole group needed a fifteen minute break at the top before we felt ready to enter the castle itself.

Belying its gorgeous exterior, Neuschwanstein is not actually finished, construction having halted upon the king's death. Ludwig was (probably) murdered, along with his psychiatrist, shortly after being deposed on highly suspicious insanity charges; the pair drowned on the small Alpsee lake in the glamorous castle's "back yard." In any event, the guided tour led us through all of the rooms that had been completed, which were certainly impressive enough.

Two themes dominate Ludwig's castle: Swans and Richard Wagner. Swans are everywhere, from doorknobs to bed posts to chair backs. Meanwhile, nearly every room is painted with scenes and motifs from Wagner's operas; Ludwig even installed a performance chamber designed specifically for Wagner's use. Finally, the throne room, which is complete except for the actual throne, is in a glittering, Byzantine/Greek mosaic style, with a huge portrait depiction of St. George slaying a dragon. The man certainly had his taste. Neuschwanstein is often described as a "fantasy" or "fairy tale" castle, and it's easy to see why: when you're surrounded by swans and gold and forests and paintings of ridiculously attractive Nordic-types, it's easy to forget that it was technically somebody's house.

Another interesting fact: along with several other of Ludwig's construction projects, Neuschwanstein was one of the first buildings in Bavaria to be built with electricity. The king took great pains to electrify his realm, alongside a general modernization plan, perhaps in an attempt to go down in history as the most fabulous monarch of all time. He's got my vote!

Way down below, from the castle's lofty swan-perch, you can see the town of Hohenschwangau, a small village whose sole purpose appears to be as a tourist service center, with excellent sausage restaurants. On the other side of the village is Schloss Hohenschwangau, a castle built by Ludwig's Father Maximillian II on the ruins of a 12th century fort. Before we left, I took a peek at it, but did not find it nearly as impressive. Like the Nymphenburg castle, Hohenschwangau is still technically a Wittelsbach residence, while Neuschwanstein is owned by the state. Comparing the two, it's plain that Bavaria got the better deal.

Exhausted from the demanding walk, I had every intention of having a light dinner and staying in for the evening back at the hotel, to catch up on my journal, read my book, and regret none of my choices. God, it seems, had other plans for me that night. A gaggle of girls asked me to accompany them again to Hofbräuhaus; being constitutionally incapable of saying no to females (a policy that is clearly wise and effective), I soon found myself back at that devilish place.

It turns out that crowded beer halls are even more obnoxious, loathsome, and idiotic when you are sober. After imposing a one-liter limit on myself, I drank it as quickly as humanly possible; but if I was to feel any liberating effect from it at all, it was surely canceled by the swiftly swelling, anxious rage I felt as the evening wore on. It wasn't one thing, but many things: the general sensory overload; the tuba band; the obnoxiously smiling, singing patrons who surrounded us on all sides; the smarmy German assholes who "shared" our table; and especially the fact that it took over forty five minutes for the thick headed waitress to settle down and agree to take my order for some mother loving schnitzel. I felt like a colossal idiot for allowing myself to be dragged there, and I spent the majority of the time with my hands covering my face, paralyzed, praying to hear my own thoughts. Most of the girls were too busy drinking to notice my silence.

I left with four of them at the first possible opportunity, desperate to save face and get the hell out, but I only seemed to get angrier and angrier on the cab ride home. To my regret, I curtly said goodnight to the girls who had enabled my escape, and impatiently retreated to my room. Once there, I exploded, punching the door and walls, throwing objects on the floor, and kicking furniture. If my roommates had been there, I probably would have screamed my head off at them. I had not been less in control of my emotions in a very long time, and I was so distressed that, upon later reflection, it seemed I had come disturbingly close to a full-blow nervous breakdown.

Not knowing what else to do, I put on my headphones, cranked the volume up, and listened to Pinkerton. At the very least, it calmed me down enough to go to sleep. I'm disappointed to report that this night, which had begun on such clearly positive note, became the undisputed emotional low point of the summer, and even of the last year.

Day Nineteen: Regensburg and Prague

In the morning, I felt crummy and sick with myself, and I had to take a walk around a few city blocks before I felt alright getting on the bus for the Czech Republic. I was feeling distinctly un-talkative, and probably looked like a wreck, too. What a nightmare it was.

Our usual pattern on long "traveling" days was to stop for a quick lunch at some godawful truck stop, but this time we had a better deal: two and a half hours to do what we would in lovely Regensburg, a city of significance for some reason or another. I had lunch at a Chinese restaurant with my sister, who I told of about my recent state of extreme distress. I feel extremely lucky to have had her there, because she understood me much better than anyone else there, and did a great deal to help me cheer up and get back in a positive state of mind. The restaurant itself was pretty good, too: I had a roast duck in some kind of miraculous wonder-sauce, and even the mushrooms (which I typically hate) went down well.

We didn't get a formal tour, apart from a few brief sentences from Jacob about the history of the city, so the two of us decided to do our own brief bit of independent sight-seeing. Since we didn't have very much time, we made the local cathedral our priority. In spite of the structure's formidable size and pointiness, it proved difficult to actually find amidst the sea of buildings and narrow streets. We found it, and then we found the best deal on gelato I had ever seen. Success!

Rolling across the border, Jacob (a native Czech) did us the honor of singing the national anthem. It was nice, as anthems go, but the song (along with the abrupt change in the readability of the street signs) drove home the realization that getting a handle on the Czech language would be tough. In Germany, I at least had a rough idea of how to pronounce all the words I didn't know the meaning of. Czech signs, however, are even more obscure-looking than Greek ones, and at least Greek signs are usually bilingual.

Prague is a beautiful, joyful looking city. You can appreciate its distinctive, "whimsical" architecture from quite far away, and I wish I knew nearly enough about the art of designing buildings to discuss it intelligently. I saw a large number of people doing some recreational boating on the Vltava river, which looked like a lot of fun; give me a week in Prague, and it's something I'd love to do at least once.

Our newest home base, Hotel Ibis, ranks as one of the best hotels of the tour. In addition to huge rooms with unprecedented floor space, it has free and unrestricted Wi-Fi, and is conveniently located a block away from both a tram and a metro station. The rooms also had working TVs, another comparative rarity in our journey. Flipping through channels, I found the European version of MTV, which against all odds still plays videos.

In particular, I watched an oddly captivating video of a German folk-alt-rock singer, singing a song which seemed to be about leaving the city behind and chilling all day in a sweet little cabin by a lake. Sadly, within fifteen minutes, I'd forgotten not only the melody, but the name of the song and the artist. I can only remember that the title and chorus ended with the German word "See:" anyone who can identify this song for me will have earned my eternal gratitude.

Some of my companions noted how odd it was that the windows in the hotel did not open fully, but merely twisted at an angle to let air in. I speculated that this was to prevent further defenestrations. Nobody got it.

That night, a few adventurous souls set out to see the local puppet theater, but I hunkered down and played it cool, checking my e-mail, reading my book, and having dinner at an Italian place across the street called Vesuvio. I had a ham, corn, and pea pizza, a combination of toppings which by all rights should not exist, but I'd be lying if I said it wasn't tasty. Without thinking, I accidentally left my trilby hat on my seat when I left, and didn't miss it until just after the place closed. Fortunately, the man inside recognized me, and deduced from my frantic waving at his door that I wanted my hat back. What a nice city this is!

Day Twenty: Prague

The first stop on the morning tour was Prague Castle, which is supposedly the largest castle complex in the entire world. Many of the buildings within the complex are currently being restored to their original, more colorful appearance, after decades of Communist ideology called for a more muted palette. At least, I think that's what the guide said; he had a very thick accent and was prone to rambling. There were a lot of sweet classical/medieval looking buildings there, and the roads leading in and throughout were made with cobblestones, so it feels like a setting right out of the middle ages. The upbeat troupe of jazz-playing troubadours near the entrance was a little bit incongruous, but that's just the kind of place Prague is.

Guarding the castle's gates are a pair of soldiers who, much like their British counterparts, will neither move, smile, nor acknowledge you in any way, no matter how much like a raging goof you act. We were also fortunate enough to arrive in time to witness a changing of the guard ceremony, and we marveled at this most proud, dignified display of synchronized silly walks.

Inside the complex is a massive Cathedral, properly dedicated to St. Vitus, but also named for two other saints: St Wenceslaus (of Christmas carol fame, and the patron of the Czech state), and some obscure dude called Adelbert. This was the first gothic cathedral I'd had the opportunity to enter, so it was pretty exciting.

St. Vitus' Cathedral is actually a composite building, with the older part built in the gothic style, and the newer part built in neo-gothic style (no, I couldn't tell the difference). Little chapels are arranged all along the walls, and each one is decorated with statues, paintings, and spectacular stained glass windows, each done in a variety of styles for which Prague is famous. There's also a crypt in the basement, but unfortunately it was closed that day for "technical reasons," which I presumed to be official jargon for "vampire infestation." Finally, jammed in the midst of of the pews is the tomb of a Habsburg ruler from centuries back (or something, I have no idea what the guide actually said). Apparently, his last wish was to have really good seats at church?

The next stop in the complex was "the Golden Way," which I utterly failed to see the significance of. All I understood from the guide was a snippet of an ancient legend about an alchemist who promised to turn all of the stones in the road into gold. It sounded like an awesome story to me, but between the hustle and bustle and the Czech accent, I couldn't make it out. My most significant memory of the Golden Way will probably remain the extraordinarily creepy sculpture of an enormous skull sitting on the back of a prostrate man. WTF, Prague?

Re reconnoitered outside the local Toy Museum, which was hosting a 50th Anniversary celebration of Barbie. Pink playhouses aside, it sounded like a fun place to explore, but there was no time; we were en route now to the Charles Bridge, the most popular historical bridge in the city.

Unfortunately, the bridge is so popular (read: crowded) that our group was roughly split in half by the teeming masses. To make matters worse, half of the bridge's width was closed for renovation, creating a crushing bottleneck and pick-pocket's dream come true. Trapped on the bridge for a while, it took us a while to realize that the rest of the group had already crossed the river, and we had to catch up quickly. This meant passing by the scores of local artists selling caricatures and other souvenir works, a scene for which the bridge is very well known.

The tour ended in Old Town Square, ground zero of all things whimsically Prague-ish. There's a monument to Franz Kafka, the great Jewish writer, in one corner; in another stands an impressive looking church dedicated to St. Nicholas. There is also a Starbucks Café.

The tour disbanded for an afternoon of free time; I had a pleasant lunch with my sister and some other girls, at a restaurant with tofu that is apparently so good, it tastes exactly like meat. At least, that's what the vegetarians said. When it came time to pay, however, I realized that I still had not acquired any of the local currency. The Czech Republic is one of the few EU members not to have yet implemented the euro; they will take it, but they will mark the price way the hell up.

I sprinted out of the restaurant to a nearby ATM, and pulled out a thousand Czech crowns. Why so many? The conversion rate is kind of screwy: it takes about eighteen crowns to make a dollar, and twenty four to make a euro. A thousand crowns, then, works out to be around fifty bucks. A nice novelty, but these guys should really hop on the euro-train.

After lunch, I split off to do my own thing, which turned out to be a trip to a small-ish art gallery in the square, hosting the work of one Salvador Dalí. Since I am a great fan of the artist who once declared "I do not take drugs, I AM drugs," I enjoyed the collection very much. In addition to the paintings, there were also sculptures, prints, and several (thoroughly bizarre) photographs of the artist himself. The centerpiece of the show seemed to be a series of small, mostly abstract paintings and drawings, depicting scenes from Dante Alighieri's Divine Comedy. There were of course plenty of grotesque images from Inferno, but I was equally fascinated by, and more attracted to, the gracefully odd pictures representing Paradiso.

I have to admit, however, that my favorite piece in the exhibit was a small green replica of the Venus de Milo: up close, you could see little bureau drawers with little handles, which could be pulled out from certain (read: hilarious) places on her body. It sat behind glass, to keep sophomoric types like me from getting carried away, but let's be honest: getting carried away is precisely the point of any Dalí exhibit.

Back outside, I saw three guys with acoustic guitars on a bench, singing "Bike," from Pink Floyd's first album. An obscure Syd Barret-penned song in Prague is one of those things that is simultaneously out of place and absolutely, one hundred per cent right. Shortly after they finished playing, a large truck drove through the square, spraying water into the air in huge rainbow-arcs, which people would run and play under. I don't know if that's what it was for, but it was a fantastic idea, because it was getting quite hot. After chilling in the square for a bit, I decided to pack it in.

To my dismay, I realized at the tram station that I had absolutely no idea which tram to take. Rather than risk getting on the wrong one and ending up on the far side of the moon, I took my chances and elected to walk back, in what I assumed to be the general direction of the hotel.

After walking for about forty minutes, I was out of water and thoroughly lost in the weird borderlands between suburban and quasi-industrial parts of the city. It was time, I decided, to hire a taxi. I flagged one down, but more complications arose when the driver informed me, in barely adequate English, that there were actually FOUR Hotel Ibises in Prague. I had a sinking feeling that before I got back, the man sitting next to be would be about a thousand crowns richer, or worse.

After an elementary conversation concerning the hotel's whereabouts, we managed to find the right one. It turned out that we weren't very far from it at all; if I'd known which way I was going, I probably could have walked there in another ten minutes. Still, I was immensely grateful for the lift.

I had it in my head to see a classical music concert that night, but I changed my mind; partly out of laziness, but also partly because the larger group was arranging a trip to a show the following evening. The "official" plan for that night called for a pub crawl, but I was still raw from Munich, and was having absolutely none of that. Instead, I grabbed dinner at a quiet little pan-Asian restaurant, and spent the evening indoors.

Day Twenty One: More Prague

In all honesty, my prior knowledge of Prague was sparse compared to my knowledge of Western Europe's great cities. However, one story of legend from the city's history had always fascinated me: that of Rabbi Loew and the Golem. For readers unfamiliar, Rabbi Loew was a Jewish leader from the 19th century, reputed to have had magical powers. As the legend goes, he built the Golem out of clay from the Vltava river in order to protect the Bohemian Jewish community from anti-Semitic persecution. With magic, Loew brought the creature to life, until at last the security of the Jews was guaranteed, or else the Golem went insane and went on a crazed killing spree (sources vary), and the Rabbi turned him back into clay. Cool story, eh?

So I bought an all-day metro ticket and train-hopped my way to the Jewish Quarter of Prague, and I didn't have to wander very far before I found a ticket office, selling admission to a set of museums, cemeteries, and synagogues. The district itself is largely a tourist attraction, as most of the Jews of Prague either fled or were deported or murdered by the Nazis during World War II.

The first synagogue was a memorial to the members of the community lost in the Holocaust. Thousands of names in black and red were written on the interior walls; it was a solemn place, which momentarily brought me back to the contemplative mood I'd experienced in Dachau. I didn't make an effort to remember any names, not knowing what exactly I would do with them; it was enough to see that there were a lot of them, and that the list was far from complete.

The next spot on the tour was the Old Jewish Cemetery. This was not a relic of the Holocaust (the Nazis could hardly be bothered to give their victims a proper burial), but rather goes back several centuries. In fact, it dates to the time of Rabbi Loew, and I saw his tomb (or what I assumed to be his tomb, as I cannot read Hebrew) standing prominently among the headstones. The stones themselves are all crammed together tightly, and they show their age. Many of their inscriptions are worn down to illegibility, and most of them are twisted or leaning from their original positions. The profile, as it were, of the graveyard is jagged and sharp; this plot had clearly been filled to capacity and beyond.

Outside the graveyard, a kiosk was selling ceramic golem statuettes. I bought one, in spite of my usual hesitancy toward souvenirs, thinking it would make for a great story. I did worry a bit, concerned about breaking it in my suitcase before I reached the USA, as it looked quite fragile (thankfully, it remains in one piece to this day).

I visited another synagogue, this one filled museum-style with artifacts, treasures, and information about local Jewish history and practices. It was painfully obvious that the "synagogue" was no longer actually used as such, owing to the severe depopulation of the Jews. It was, however, meticulously maintained.

Since the "tour" was not guided, I decided to go inside only one more big spot: Prague's famous Spanish Synagogue, billed as "the most beautiful synagogue in Europe." This building actually stands apart from the rest of the Jewish Quarter by several blocks. Like many of the local churches, it hosts classical music concerts in the evenings. That evening's program was Gershwin, which would have been sweet to watch, but I already had entertainment plans for the evening. In any event, the interior was very beautiful, with lots of gold leaf and other ornate decorations. It is interesting, however, to note that Europe's most spectacular Jewish house of worship is easily dwarfed in magnitude and opulence by the average Christian cathedral.

Back at the hotel, I whiled away the mid-day hours by checking my e-mail and showing off my new golem. This meant relating the ancient legend to my compatriots about four or five separate times, as few of them had ever heard of such a creature. What a shame!

Finally, it was time for the big outing: an evening at one of Prague's black light theaters, the TA Fantastika. "Black Light Theater" is a traditional local stage style, with the stage divided by a series of black curtains and screens, with very precise lighting apparatuses and UV-lamps allowing for the creation of elaborate optical illusions, like floating objects and dancing fires and lights. What better way to bid adieu (or "sbohem!") to such a quirky city?

On the way to the theater, Jacob showed some clear signs of being seriously ill. Most of us (myself included) had been battling coughs and sneezes all month, but Jacob was doing worse by far that night, and only hung around long enough to buy us our group-discounted tickets, after which he retreated to his hotel room.

The show that night was called Aspects of Alice, a psychedelic and unsubtly Freudian interpretation of Lewis Carrol's Alice books. It wasn't a straight adaptation, and didn't really have much of a plot at all, partly because it was performed almost completely without dialogue. It was basically a sequence of fantastical dream sequences, illusions, and vignettes, culminating in Alice's eventual transformation from a naïve, innocent girl into mature young woman. I can't say the form was a revelation to me: as my eyes adjusted to the darkness, some of the illusions got easier to see through, and it detracted from the "magical" experience. Furthermore, the soundtrack was appropriately mysterious and unsettling, but could have stood for more diversity. I did, however, greatly enjoy the show, though the segment with the dancing evil clowns was perhaps a little overlong.

On the way home I bought a water bottle and a cup of gelato, finally using up all of the paper crowns I had. I kept some coins for the sake of souvenirs, as it would be a waste to try exchanging them for euros. Fortunately, I did a pretty good job of estimating the amount I needed, so I didn't waste much. As for the walk home, I must say that if downtown Prague is lovely during the day, its appearance is positively dreamlike at night. One might even call it "whimsical."

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