The Grey Pen Goings

Navigation through a World that's Wild at Heart and Weird on Top.

Saturday, December 30, 2006

Austro-Hungarian Empire Revisited

Traveling solo is certainly its own experience. It’s like a quiet secret you can’t reveal. No one else is taking quite the same path, no one is there to keep track of you or roll their eyes at you or laugh with you.

I’m a pretty secretive person anyways, I suppose, and the incessant candle you hold only to yourself can be alternatively illuminating and disturbingly revealing. Left alone with your actions and thoughts, devoid of excuses or people to blame, your days (for better or worse) are entirely dependent on you.

In this sense traveling alone can feel like throwing yourself to the wolves and hoping you can fend them off. Or it can be a drinking binge. Or anywhere in between. It can be unnervingly up to you. Observe:

With all my friends departed for the holidays, I took four days to peruse the capital cities of the former Hapsburg Empire, Budapest and Hungary. The initial night train was not the most favorable of starts. I nestled into my own compartment only to find that the heating didn’t work. Well shit. I figured the heating was out for the train until I was asked to move compartments (they were splitting the train) and the new one’s heater was stuck on full blast. Well shit.

The Portuguese girl across the way was sweating bullets from under her goth get-up, but I told her I was a Texan and welcomed some heat.

That is, until the Hungarians came.

A man tapped on the door asking if he could enter, to which I nodded assent. Only it was him and his wife.

And their teenage son and 5 year old daughter.

And Grandma.

And Grandpa, struggling on his cane, liable to go down like a house of cards at any moment.

Bloody hell. The room that was 80 degrees surged up to unfathomable discomfort. Add to this that Grandma over there decided that the lights need to come on. Grandma, it’s 5:45—go to your deathbed sleep, damn it! But Grandma proceeded to work on fixing her coat’s zippers for the next two hours. Ye Gods and little fishes!

I should mention here that I was using my buddy Tim’s “Rick Steves’ Best of Eastern Europe 2006” as a guidebook. Tim calls it his baby and it really does go a long way towards telling you what’s unnecessary, what’s overpriced, when to get the audioguide, etc. But one thing that I realized is that the book is certainly geared towards middle-aged American tourists. When it says Budapest is huge and unwalkable, that means if you’re an SUV-driving-upper-middle-class-fat-ass then it will indeed be difficult to cross a bridge on foot. If you’re an Avimaan, well. Did some one-armed Goddamn pushups on that bridge, then I kissed my biceps. At least I’m pretty sure I did that…

But anyone who strays from the path can tell you that walking across cities is a far, far better way to pick up its pulse than only hitting up the main attractions. In both Budapest and Vienna I started feeling sort of overwhelmed and unattached until I just hit the streets.

You’re never really going to feel a city till you live there, I guess, and I think I’ve learned that the key to any vacation is to give yourself time and freedom. When I first got to Budapest, for example, I found that two of the places I wanted to visit were closed on account of the holidays. So I wandered around till I started heading up Gellert Hill, the highest peak of the city. It was a darn good look and it was a damn gorgeous day, and I never planned to do it. It’s really funny how easily you can forget you’re on vacation and supposed to have fun, you know?

The “Budapest Card” was a great extension of this mindset: the card provides you with a two day travel pass and gets you in free to a lot of museums and exhibits around town. With my trip to the House of Terror cancelled in the afternoon, I was meandering around the vast City Park when I came upon a mammoth rock structure fenced off from the street. On investigation, I found it was the zoo. Did the Budapest Card cover the zoo? It did.

(Half-second Pause)

I’m going to visit the zoo. And for a half hour, it was a root-tooting good time. Three thoughts from the Budapest Zoo:

1. Of all the animals I’d ever wished being, I never really considered the seal. But what other animal gets to do barrelrolls just for the hell of it? Seals are show-offs and love to swim, and they’re either doing one or the other or both. Or snacking on some fish. I like seals.

2. They had an American bald eagle in a tiny, tiny habitat. Aren’t we, like, supposed to have them? Why does Budapest have one? What?

3. Pro-Timberwolf over here. These guys kept hoofing it around this long, rocky track the whole day long. Other animals sit around and arbitrarily lick their genitals clean. This is why those animals are prey and the timberwolves hunt them down. Yeah, T-wolves and seals moving up Avimaan’s Big Board.

After the zoo and some roasted corn, I decided to hop into Budapest’s main attraction, its natural baths. Although the air was frigid outside, the water was hot and relaxing. I floated about for a couple hours, idly watching the old men play chess while floating. I think it’s nice that the “must-do” event in Budapest involves hanging out in a steaming pool and looking at beautiful Europeans and fat tourists. Good times.

That night I went to a restaurant that Rick Steves called the “best Indian food on continental Europe.” I haven’t had any since I’ve been here; there’s an absolute dearth of Indian restaurants in Prague unless you want to drop 50 bucks. I’ve been missing Saag for much, much too long, and though their texture was creamy than my mother’s, it was sure nice to get a taste of something from back home.

The next morning, after conquering the Great Market Hall that had been closed on the 26th and munching on some tasty langos (think funnel cake sans powdered sugar), I took a shuttle bus to a place just out of town called Statue Park.

Now, ok, clearly this place involves a park of statues. But they’re all commie statues from Hungary’s time as a Soviet satellite country. They were all constructed as part of the communist propaganda machine and I have to say, that machine knew how to churn out some pretty sweet statues. Here's one of the highlights.

Upon returning to the city, I dawdled in a Pest café before trucking back over to Buda to see the castle. Well, by dawdling I mean that I waited thirty minutes to get a flipping sandwich that I could have made myself in two minutes. That kind of dawdling.

The inside of the Matthias Church was the highlight of the castle complex, its wall vibrantly covered in crests and crosses making it decidedly more Eastern than any of the other inspiring churches I’ve seen in Europe. The other highlight was the giant statue of a mythical bird said to have helped the Magyars come to power in the tenth century.

Time for Vienna. Well, time for me to panic about potentially missing my train to Vienna. Cause I got on the metro, got off at the train station, looked around and recognized nothing. I was at the train station on the other end of town…Shit. Shit shit shit—and only 25 minutes to go. Lucky for me Budapest’s trains were running late, so I arrived with 2 minutes to spare—technically: the train didn’t actually leave for another 35.

I arrived in Vienna in the late evening and headed straight for my hostel. While my hostel in Budapest was no-frills, Wombat’s in Vienna was a through and through backpacker’s hostel. After a shower I hopped down to the bar for the free beer every guest is afforded and to mingle with these, these…

Backpackers and the backpacking culture is strange, y’all. These young travelers thing they’ve found i-t IT, you know, that while everyone else is slugging out a job or in school they are L-I-V-I-N.

It’s mainly the superiority factor that gets to me—look, these people have just as little clue as to what the hell they’re doing with their life as their more settled contemporaries, only they have a credit card (or more often a parents’ credit card) to allow them to get shit-faced every night in the beautiful bergs of Europe. All they have more of is dirty underwear.

I’m not trying to discredit traveling, or traveling to gain experience about the world. Clearly that’s a part of what I’m doing. It’s just these backpackers think that the drunken adventures they’re having far away from home are the end-all be-all. Hell, maybe for them, twenty years from now, maybe it actually will be. As for now their smugness smacks of misappropriated arrogance.

I struck up a good repore with a couple from Seattle and a loud-mouthed Kiwi girl until I decided to pass out.

So: Vienna. The thing about Vienna is that it just bleeds money out of you. There’s heaps of worthwhile museums and they’re all ten euros a piece—after the relative cheapness of Prague, I was losing cash everywhere. “Et tu Kunsthistorisches Muzeum? Et tu Haus der Musik? Then fall Avimaan’s wallet!”

There’s too much to list here from the museums, but Vienna is certainly a music lover’s hotspot. One exhibit housed musical instruments from the middle ages and Renaissance, with an accompanying audio guide that would play samples. If and of y’all want to get me a belated Christmas present, I really, really, really want a hurdy-gurdy.

The Haus der Musik was also really amazing not only for its in-depth look at Viennese composers (you know, Mozart, Haydn, Strauss, Beethoven [sorta]), but for their analysis about how we experience sound and music. One exhibit used a special scale to explain why we naturally hear common intervals instead of less common ones ( hearing A and B as a root and major 2nd as opposed to a root and minor 7th, for example). Another exhibit showed how technology allows us to combine sounds based on their sonic qualities, so I could recite a Shakespearean speech that was half my voice and half a swarm of bees. Good times. I’ve always thought of myself as half-Indian and half-swarm of bees anyway.

All during my time in Budapest it had been exceptionally cold. I mean, I was used to Prague’s low 40’s, but that had been very manageable. I hadn’t once needed my gloves. Suddenly I wished I had them every damn moment in both cities. Where did this come from? In fact, when I came strolling out of the Great Market Hall in Budapest I was initially confused by this fine white dust whirling about me. Snow what?

But wait: there wasn’t a cloud in the sky. Doesn’t snow, like, come from clouds? Can we get a ruling on this? Eventually a foggy smear of clouds seemed to form, almost as if the snow had been sucked up in reverse.

That same barely-there snowfall continued in Vienna until the second night of my stay, when I exited the Haus der Musik into a winter wonderland. Vienna under two inches of snow…I bought a Doener Kebap (the German/Austrian equivalent of a taco, so to speak, since it’s Turkish), and strolled the gardens. I still needed gloves, so I got the next best thing—hot wine. Hot wine is like an alcoholic pair of mittens.

But that night, after another inch or two—I used to call certain plays in Ultimate Frisbee “premature ejaculations.” This is when a guy would only need to make one smart throw to set someone up for the easy score, but instead went for the blaze of glory…and, well, went for it too early. This befell Vienna and its snow. Europe has been pining for snow for months now: the skiing industry’s been put over the rack due to the complete lack of snow up till now, it’s been dry as a bone for a while.

And it was as if Vienna was trying to will its winter magic out, to save the ski season. But by midnight the snow had regressed to a freezing rain. It could not be sustained. Vienna had shot its messy white load out too early, and by the next morning most of the snow was gone.

In conclusion, traveling alone is like cooking for yourself: you can add whatever ingredients you want, you can follow the recipe, you can be an absolute mess. Eventually I wished someone like Tim was there so the jokes I made were to someone else instead of to my own brain. Oh well. My brain always thinks I’m funny at least.

Monday, December 25, 2006

Home (Well, Abroad) Alone

I didn’t tell anyone about my 22nd birthday. It was the last day Winedale ’05 was in England, and people were tired from the night before’s performance at the Swan, or busy shopping for souvenirs, or getting gussied up for the banquet that night. I figured I had known a bunch of the folks for over a year and if they remembered my birthday great, and if they didn’t they didn’t.

I thought of my birthday precisely three times that day: right when I woke up, while I was writing a poem in Covent Gardens around 2:30, and right before the banquet as I sipped on a Guinness. And it was a marvelous day without centering it around myself.

So I felt like I could weather the storm of a holiday passing by myself. Christmas is Christmas, but (A) They celebrate it here on the 24th, not the 25th, and (B) There’s too many bizarre rituals surrounding the Czech celebration to make me really feel like I’m missing out on something. For example:

In the week proceeding Christmas, dozens of little stands selling carp bubble up across the city. Not ready-to-go carp (the traditional Czech Christmas cuisine), that wouldn’t be tradition. Instead they have blue plastic ponds with fat, pea-brained carps swimming one foot laps endlessly. Endlessly, that is, till someone chooses said carp for said Christmas dinner. Then the carp is fished out with a net, weighed while it struggles in the horrible freedom of air, then whacked to death with a blunt piece of wood. Sometimes a stick, or a club. But really any piece of wood hefty enough to brain a carp will do.

Grace and I were standing six feet away watching this spectacle and were rained down upon by bits of debris at the gory death. Debris of what, I’m not sure. Messy shards of carp. Good fun.

But soon this Christmas became truly solitary since all the people close to me here left single-file down the calendar. Tommy to Toronto on Thursday, Tim to Buffalo Friday, Grace to Nottingham on Saturday, and Avimaan alone by Sunday. Well Baaaaaaaaaaa Humbug, y’all, I could manage.

Sunday I walked through a large, forest-like park while listening to the whole of my Winter Mix (see below), then planned my upcoming trip. Read some, wrote some, followed football games online. My friend Rach called. And Kveta, precious and kooky Landlady Kveta, brought a giant Christmas plate meant to feed three (because she didn’t know my roommates had left).

And Monday morning, when I woke up, I was unsure whether it was Christmas or not. Was it yesterday or today? Turns out it didn’t really matter to me that much. Though it might sound sad, if you turn your back to the holiday season you don’t miss it too much. Most anything can be inflated with all the world’s importance or deflated to meaningless.

Alright, maybe that’s getting a bit philosophical on this here Christmas day, and I ain’t looking for that. I set off this evening for a four-day tour of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. Look out, and Merry Christmas to people who actually celebrated it.

Thursday, December 21, 2006

Wintry Mix for 2006

Winter is probably the easiest of the seasons to identify sonically: it's brooding, or somber, or baleful, or crystalline, tinged with yearning and longing for days and love past.

So on this, the Winter Solstice, when I had already taught a whole two-hour class before the sun rose, I give you my Winter Mix for 2006. It's surprisingly uptempo for its wintry ways, if not upbeat. The first three songs in particular are a relish to listen to in headphones, and the Hartford/Leadbelly cover of Maggie's Farm is up there with the bees' knees.

I parred this down to a CD friendly size, cutting the likes of Beck, Styx, more Joanna Newsom, and, unsurprisingly, a bunch of Hartford. The fact that only about a fifth of this mix is John Hartford is an achievement.

If you haven't heard of some of these artists, do give them a listen.

Winters Love 4:55 Animal Collective
Dear Prudence 3:56 The Beatles
Big Country 5:30 Bela Fleck and the Flecktones
Don't Stop Believing 4:10 Journey
The Greatest 3:24 Cat Power
Maggies Farm 2:48 John Hartford & Leadbelly
Daughter 3:50 Pearl Jam
Fairytale of New York 4:32 The Pogues
Sadie 6:02 Joanna Newsom
Red Right Ankle 3:29 The Decemberists
Hold My Hand 4:15 Hootie & The Blowfish
Landscape Grown Cold 2:20 John Hartford
Love Love Love 2:48 The Mountain Goats
Sample In A Jar 4:39 Phish
Crown Of Love 4:42 The Arcade Fire
America 3:37 Simon & Garfunkel
Howard Hughes Blues 3:01 John Hartford

Saturday, December 16, 2006

The End of the Line

So one of the wonderful things about Prague is its full transportation system, replete with three underground lines, twenty-six tram lines, and a plethora of buses. They're fairly clean, they run often, and they get you where you need to go...

Sorta. there's also strange gaps in the system: I can travel across town in 25 minutes, which is great, but to get from a spot in the Northeast to the Southeast might take an hour, which I could just about do walking. And if you hit the peek hours of human traffic, ye gods if the damn cars aren't packed to the gills! You'll get jammed in tight, the stench of humanity rife all around you.

(That stench being somewhere between sour vomit and feces, roughly.)

Trams do run all night, though, and that got me into a bit of a pickle last night. Having attended the Caledonian School Christmas party on the west side of town, I staggered out to catch a night tram to take me home. The 59 drops off about a mile away from my flat, so I got on.

Promptly after falling into a plastic chair I realized how heavily drunk I was. I'd been up since 7 and it was 2:15 now, and I had more than a few beers in me. Drunkenness sloshed weightily against my innards, and I pressed my eyes closed and leaned against the window to steady my mental ship.

I remember us crossing the Vltava, still 8 stops and 15 minutes away from Ruska, my stop.

The next thing I knew the conductor was shaking me awake and forcing me off the tram. I'd fallen asleep. Spent 50 boozy minutes bouncing through Prague, through its beating heart and filthy Center, through the close suburbs, into the outskirts then past them to, to, to...

I had no idea where I was. The stop said Nadrazi Hostivar, a far off outpost and minor train station. Train tracks randomly crossed in front of me. It was 3:20 and only a couple shady men where around. Frost sparkled on cars in the pale gleam of a streetlight. I shivered. Civilization was somewhere above the high-walled bridge in front of us.

Eventually a tram rattled up to us. The conductor fussily asked to see our travel passes, guessing rightly that the other two men were homeless shifters only looking to cruise in warmth. They were barred entrance but I got on wobbily, reeling more from exhaustion than alcohol at this point (though in truth, it was hard to tell--alcohol and exhaustion are indeed a potent mix).

There are so many strange facets to Prague, so many corners and neighborhoods and ins-and-outs that there's no way you'll ever see them all. English teachers actually get to see a fat lot more than most native Praguers, since we're scuttled all over the city to teach. And it was a bit strange to see this new strip of Prague, an undeveloped roar of the East, under the cold glow of a starless night. But by gum, I saw it. And I managed to stay awake for the subsequent 30 minute tram home. And managed to walk the uphill mile home. And made it to my stiff old bed. And as soon as I could, I crashed.

The moral of the story, if there must be one, is probably something like this: Night trams might seem like your friends, but sometimes they'll leave you drunk and in the middle of nowhere at three in the morning. Friends like that you can only trust up to a degree.

Tuesday, December 12, 2006

The Things Canadians Don't Know Shocks Me

Unfamiliar to them are douche bags and Bisquick.

Really. It's like I have to teach them English too.

Update: And swingers! Who are these people?

Sunday, December 10, 2006

Christmas Craziness in Chechia

"So I have question for you on Christmas," Hana Vrbkova, my student and a gynecologist's assistant asks me. "What day is Christmas on?"

She smiles at me slyly, like she knows she's going to get to say her punchline. "The 25th," I say.

She laughs and shakes her head. "No. Christmas is twenty-four." (Hana is a pre-intermediate student).

"Well, some people celebrate on the twenty-fourth in America, but...," I search for proof why I am right, because, clearly, I am right. "Aha! Christmas is a celebration of Jesus' birthday, which is on the 25th, so--"

"No," Hana interrupts. "Jesu was born on 24."

I try to placate her. "Like at midnight?"

"No. Between eight and ten."

As an English teacher you learn to let things slide if your students insist on them. Case in point, a student of mine insisted that the Czech alphabet was the same as English's. "It's sort of the same," I try to concede. "But you have six more characters, so it's not quite the same." Marek shakes his head. "No. They are the same." Whatever Marek. I don't care if you think 32 equals 26. Christmas, though, is more important. I look at Hana's calendar. They get off the 25th and 26th as well.

"What are those holidays then, Hana?"

"The 1st and 2nd day of Christmas," she says assuredly, and I decide to give up the argument. If you believe there is a second day of Christmas two days after your official Christmas and one day after actual Christmas, well, I don't know what to tell you.

On a related note, last Wednesday was St. Nicholas Day, an unusual combination of holiday and child torture here. This is the basic premise:

St. Nicholas goes around to every house to find out if children are naughty or nice. If they're nice they get chocolate and fruit, and if they're bad they receive coal or a potato. Not too unfamiliar to American Santa Claus, right? Well--

St. Nicholas is accompanied by an angel and the devil. The devil's sole job is to scare the crap out of kids. Which he does with an incredibly high success rate. Children are scared to high hell about the possibility of the devil putting them in a sac and taking them to Spain to do God knows what.

Absolutely no one has good memories about St. Nicholas' visits when they were kids. This is the Dresden Firebombing of a Czech toddler's life--announcements of the impending St. Nick causes explosions of tears, excrement to be accidentally released, children to hide for cover. And the only reason they keep doing it is because "My father did it to me, so I will do it to my son."

Adults and older children dress up as the threesome of holy figures and go to parties. Fine. But the importance of St. Nicholas' Day isn't parties, it's causing some poor 4-year-old to wet their pants.

Saturday, December 09, 2006

The God of Small Things

My father told me I should only bring two books with me to the Czech Republic: books are bulky, uneconomic for packing, and you'll only use them for short periods of time, like extended literary prostitutes.

I heeded his advice. I only brought nine books. And feeling a little out of sorts this weekend, unable to delve into the explosive obtuseness of Gravity's Rainbow just yet, I busted out my ace in the hole. For the fourth time I read The God of Small Things.

Arundhati Roy's novel is one of those rare stories that gives you more and more each time you search through it, since its first reading is so...well, new. The language of The God of Small Things is like no other book's, incredibly unique and poetic. I know some people might find it overwrought or a little cutesy at times, but each time I go back I'm blown away by Roy's dynamic choices with words and structure.

This is Roy's only work of fiction and in my head I equate it with John Hartford's first album, where the talent is brimming but he's more outwardly ironic, not overcharged but at least noticeable. I feel that about The God of Small Things as well.

I quake with rage at the third to last chapter every time. I'm full of deep, "What's wrong with the world?" sighs. And I see the beauty in the small things. That's why Roy's book gets an unprecedented 11 on the Avimaan Recommendation Scale ( Interviewer: But Avi, why don't you just make ten the best and have The God of Small Things score a ten? Avimaan Syam: [pause, blank look and snapping chewing gum] This recommendation scale goes to eleven.)

Tuesday, December 05, 2006

So After a Few Months, Is Europe the Shizznit?

Not bad, not bad.

I have a Flickr site here, with some pics from travels and old school alike. Pretty hodge-podge, really. And I do consider it on some level ironic that I'm writing a novel told through rolls of film and with treatises on photography when I am in fact a pretty mediocre photographer. The thumbs you see here are mainly my roommate's though--freaking Tom Thumb.

I'm waiting for it to snow and get postcard pretty to take more photos of Prague. And of course, Europe has many nice hot alcoholic drinks, like mead and grog, which can turn a not bad day into

A Thumbs Up Day!

300 pages (Officially today, Hiya!) into a novel of photographs has made me think about the subject a lot. Take the two photos above: Does one look candid? The other forced? Do you know where they are? You might know who one thumb is, but what about the other? What's in his glass, what does his shirt say, who/what/when/where? Whoa doggies--I've thought about that shite so long my mind is in need of redeveloping.