NEW ADVENTURE: Cycling across Japan, TBD 2015

7.29.2014

So often, we take our dreams and stuff them into pipes; we say one day or some day, I wish or I hope, maybe or perhaps. I've been a victim of it, too, this aspirational musing; after all, it took me a quarter of a century to turn my one day into a this day and make it to Europe.

I started this blog to help others build a tiny house; it's wound up helping me build an examined, deliberate life. It's given me a place to put my unplanned adventures at their moments of inception, to write them down and share them with whoever cares to listen, to etch them into digital stone and be held accountable for making them happen. And with that in mind, here's another:

I was in the British Museum yesterday, here in London, up on the top floor away from the stair-scared crowds, and found myself ambling about a small exhibit on Japan. How lovely, I thought. You know, I've always wanted to visit Japan.

A place like Japan is to be explored slowly, carefully, quietly. I've crossed a continent on a scooter, crossed another aboard rusty rails ... I think it's time to take my bicycle out for a spin. And with that in mind, on the fifth floor of a great housed heap of stolen artifacts, I hatched a plan: next year, I'll cross the Land of the Rising Sun on two human-powered wheels.

I've traveled a lot these past two years, and though I aim to spread love and learn love wherever I go, I can't help but feel a little selfish as I wander, as I plan another trip for me to experience. So this time around, I'll be doing it for charity: asking pledges per mile and donating half the sum to the Homeless Children's Playtime Projectan absolutely wonderful local non-profit helping homeless youth in DC, an organization I've had the privilege to volunteer with for over two yearsand the other half to a still-to-be-chosen non-profit over in Japan.

I like to name my adventures; it makes them feel real, inevitable. Puns and unclever wordplay are my weapon of choice, and this one's no different: chari is the colloquialism for bike in Japanese, and so I shall chari for charity: chari(ty). Groan, I know.

I don't yet have a date for this one, nor do I know whether it'll precede or succeed my upcoming island adventure. It'll be about a month, I know that much; these longer travels have begun to wear me thin. And it'll be this upcoming year.

And most importantly, it'll only happenlike every great adventure I've had since this little blog was bornwith your support, with your encouragement and your urging and your asking: hey, so what's the latest on that trip to Japan?

So thanks, in advance, for that.
And thanks, in the here and now, for everything else.

<3,

Jay
London, UK

Hamburg, Copenhagen, Gothenburg, Oslo (Days 68, 69, 70, 71, 72)

"To the States or any one of them, or any city of the States,
Resist much, obey little,
Once unquestioning obedience, once fully enslaved,
Once fully enslaved, no nation, state, city of this earth, ever
Afterward resumes its liberty."

— Walt Whitman, Leaves of Grass ("To the States")

Hamburg was a sensible stop on my journey ever north, a final watering hole before I left the European mainland and entered Scandinavia. I was behind on journaling, at least a two-week lag, so I thought I'd stop for one full rotation of the earth and spend two nights in the German metropolis. Hostel pickings for back-to-back beds were slim, though, and I ended up settling on a poorly-reviewed budget dormitory right off the Reeperbahn, Hamburg's sprawling red light district. It wasn't ideal, it wasn't even that cheap, but it was a bed.

I arrived in Hamburg around six and found the city entirely unimpressive for the whole stretch of it between the train station and the Reeperbahn, which was more or less the whole stretch of the city. It was industrial, and crowded, and full of ugly steel buildings all glinting with uninspired glass, and the waterfront was one endless construction site, built right atop the largest harborside warehouse in the world. The Reeperbahn was a different sort of tasteless: it was still too early for the red lights to be seen in the bright sky, but I knew I'd arrived after catching a glimpse of the floor-to-ceiling pin-ups of naked models curtained against the empty stripclubs, by the signs advertising Sex! 39 Euros! jutting out into the street.

The hostel would be a nice place to write, I thought. The hostel wasn't a nice place to write. It was a dirty, weathered ruin of painted concrete that had probably served as a brothel in its prime, now put out to pasture as a derelict dorm for drunken stag parties. The air was humid and the common room atrocious and the atmosphere unfriendly, so I stowed my thingsafraid of my bag being carried away by equal parts vagabonds and roachesand headed to the first falafel shop I could find with a good book.

I read for a while, watched the sun go down, filled my stomach and then headed back toward the hostel for sleep. Along the way, prostitutes would leer and jeer and come up alongside me with a hasty introduction and an indecent proposal. Oh, no thank you, I'd say, no blowjobs for me tonight, but they'd continue, they'd pester. "Why not?" they'd ask. It was a fair question, but I didn't have the heart to answer it, to say that I just didn't find them attractive, the whole lot of them with their pounds of make-up and too-tight skirts and, ugh, cigarettes fuming like little toxic exhaust pipes from their rose-red lips. And beyond all that, the true reason they just didn't do it for me: they were capitalists.

Though I hadn't the least desire to sleep with any of them, I was and am an avid supporter of Germany's approach to prostitution, which is to allow it to exist in a secure, regulated, worker-friendly way, which makes the whole enterprise wildly safer, and more empowering, for those actually doing the work. In the States, we pretend prostitution doesn't exist, because we'd like to think it doesn't, and so it's forced into dark corners and back alleys where women are abused and assaulted and taken advantage of in every sense of the word, with no legal recourse or way out ... but hey, at least we can still call ourselves a Christian nation. Undoubtedly, the females have it better off on the in-your-face Reeperbahn. And the males too, if they're visiting for some pay-for-play fun. I, on the other hand, felt uncomfortable and objectified and targeted: women following me, women making little kissy noises, women commenting on me or my body or what they'd like to do to and for and with me. Women looking me up, looking me down, looking me all over. I felt exposed, vulnerable, and in that short walk from the falafel shop to the hostel, I'd come to cross the street when I saw a sole woman standing alone on my side of the sidewalk, sex worker or not. It was unnerving, sure, but it was revealing tooas I got back to the hostel and settled in for sleep I realized: this is what it must feel like (in some moments) to be a woman.

***

The next morning, I canceled my second night and headed to a nice parkfinally, something nice in Hamburg!for a little reading. The first train to Copenhagen left early afternoon, so around one I walked to the station and boarded the hot, crowded car and found a little nook on the floor where I rested as the coaches rode the rails north toward Scandinavia.

Denmark is a nautical nation, diced up by bays and rivers and isthmuses into peninsulas and islands and archipelagos. I assumed we'd be making a long arch along lengthy bridges connecting its broken landmass, but nothe conductor came over the PA system and announced to all passengers: "Please gather your belongings; in five minutes the train will board the ferry and you must exit before the ferry embarks." Certainly a mistranslation, I thought. Wrong again: five minutes later, just as he promised, the gorgeous seaside vistas outside the train window became dark, metal views of a ferry's undercarriage, and then we stopped, and then we were simply on the ferry.

We grabbed our things, as told, and exited the coach, which sat on rails that had linked up with the rails back on solid ground. The train was parked below deck, and we weren't allowed to stay on it in the event of a sinking ship, so instead we herded ourselves upstairs to lovely sun-soaked decks and, for the indoorsy type, restaurants and bars and a veritable shopping mall at the interior. I, an outdoorsy type with an indoorsy tablet, compromised for a bright sunroom where I got a little writing donebut just a little, for within an hour we approached Denmark's easternmost island and were ushered back down to the parked train. Back on the coach, lots of clinking and clanging as the ferry dropped anchor, and then we smoothly rolled in reverse, right off the boat and onto land, and we continued our beeline for the Danish capital.

The train arrived in Copenhagen around six; I walked across the small city and arrived at my hostel by 6:15. The hostel was a thumping place, live music and young crowds and taps flowing, but I was a bit tired from the long day of travel, so instead of joining the party I found a nice little corner to writestill, still trying to catch up on writingand called it a very early night. I met a Swedish bunkmate upstairs, we talked a little about things to do and see in Scandinavia ("it's terribly boring" was his summary), and then we headed to sleep.

***

I was feeling a little more social the next morning, so I joined about a dozen others on yet another free walking tour, always a great way to meet fellow travelers. The tour itself was uninspiring: I had been so excited for Copenhagen before I left the States, but found it a tad dull upon arrival, and the tour duller still. It's not that Copenhagen itself was boringno, it was lovelyit's just that I'd seen it all before: in the biking masses of Amsterdam, in the modest buildings of Belgium, in the deep wharves of Bruges and in the same charming streets and statues of all of Europe. I wasn't disappointed by this failure to awe; if anything I was elated: I had come to Europe to see its cities and learn from its cities, and diminishing returns meant that there was less left to learn.

I met some folks and a few of usRob from New York, Raphaela from Viennaditched the tour and wandered on our own. We talked philosophy and politics and the limits of libertarianism on our way to the Christiana Free Town, a self-proclaimed independent nation in the heart of Copenhagen, once famed for its liberal, creative spirit. I found my argument dealt a hefty blow when the libertarian-minded town ended up being nothing more than a sad, capitalist-stained shell of a once-great ideal, and we left quickly. We sat by the water, talked more, walked more, separated for a few different pursuits. I had booked a new hostel for my second night: the first seemed great, but was about twice the price on weekends, and this new hostel was a city-run affair, which I had always wanted to try. It was a different experience, the city hostel, something like the Spanish-run hostels along the Santiago pilgrimage trail from what I've heard. It mimicked the layout of a minimum security prison, I suppose, endless cubes of four-bed bunks partitioning their way through a small auditorium space. It didn't feel like a prison, of course, just a place for people looking for the cheapest way to get by in Denmark, so the atmosphere was a little lacking and I headed back toward the first hostel to meet up with Rob.

We grabbed drinks with a few others from the walking tourAllie and Hugh, fencers from Londonplayed cards, ate pricy nachos.  Later that night, I was meant to meet up with the Danes I'd run into outside that heating plant-turned-nightclub in Berlin, but our plans fell through at the last minute, so instead I passed the remainder of my second evening in the lively hostel where I'd spent my first night, and then as the clock struck midnight, I walked back across town to the public hostel to sleep away my second.

***

I left early the next morning for Sweden, a stop in Gothenburg recommended by a Swede back in Prague ("All of Sweden is boring," he'd agreed with his fellow Swede that I'd met in Copenhagen, "but Gothenburg is okay"). He was right: the scenery on the way into town was just nice, the town was pleasant, clean, yet wholly unremarkable. Okay.

There was an art gallery on the far end of townan art gallery set up in an old power plantso I strolled about an hour east toward that. The venue was cool, well-worn and industrial and splashed with graffiti all over the facade, but the exhibit was simply awful. I walked around aimlessly, admiring bad art in good space, shuffling my feet and pivoting about with a head craned toward the tall ceiling, and then

Ouch! I had nearly tripped over something at my feet; steadying myself, I banged my leg hard against it: a giant roll of barbed wire. I looked down. Blood trickled from my right ankle. Who the fuck leaves a bale of barbed aluminum in the middle of a museum?

Of course, it was part of the exhibition (I'm not sure why it was part of the exhibition, but it was) and so I backed away and watched my steps carefully and rushed to the restroom to halt the bleeding and clean the cut, a little amused that after all my urban exploration and reckless climbs along forbidden grounds, my first real injury in Europe had come from a neat roll of barb in a Swedish art museum. We never know how we'll meet our grisly ends.

***

I walked along the waterfront of Gothenburgyes, lovely, yes, boringback to the station, marveled at a still-operating video rental place I found along the way, and caught a mid-afternoon train to Oslo. At least, I thought it was a train to Oslo, and I found myself inexplicably excited when I found out it was actually a bus, positively enthralled by something new. As it turns out, the bus was just a bus, which is to say that it didn't really live up to its hype. It also didn't take me to Oslo, just about an hour north where we all quickly hopped off and transferred to a train which shepherded us the rest of the way.

I should probably mention that somewhere between Hamburg and Gothenburg, prices had gotten a touch out of control. If something was rotten in the state of Denmark, with its sixteen-dollar nachos and nine-dollar beers, then it was positively rank in Sweden, all seven-dollar coffees and three-dollar apples. But nothing prepared me for Norway (not even Switzerland): ten-dollar bags of chips, seventeen-dollar Subway foot-longs, eight-dollar muffins and twenty-five-dollar cocktails. Vacant hostels, of course, were upwards of a hundred dollars, and hotel rooms maybe three times that, so rather than waste away my travel funds on unrewarding creature comforts, I'd resolved to rough it through Scandinavia, to catch my sleep in train stations and city parks and quiet alleysafter all, it'd been nearly a month since my last vagabonding adventures.

The sun was still up, though, so no sleep yet. Instead I went for a stroll through the city's center, climbing the gorgeous sloping opera house, which rose like a floating glacier from the placid harbor, watching a little live music from its pleasant peak. My stomach grumbled, and my phone echoed with a rumble of its own: I could use a bit of food, and maybe a place to charge my devices before bed (well, "bed"). I knew it'd be a pricy endeavor, not the best way to start off a low-budget tour of Scandinavia, but I figured an inaugural feast was only fairlet's start my stomach and my batteries on full and watch them drain to a sorry nothing from there.

I found a cafe, ordered a coffee and a plate of roasted vegetables, sat there a while and read, paid a groan-inducing forty dollars when I got up to leave. By that point it was beyond midnight, yet the sky still glowed gold: far north as I was, it was a summer of white nights. No matter; I walked the dusky-dawny streets back to the opera house, once more climbed its sloped roof to a quiet perch by the peaceful bay, and settled down on the cold concrete with a scarf over my eyes.

***

I woke an hour later. The wind had picked up and I was victim to its full force on that exposed peak, so I stood and hurried down from the roof with a slight shiver. Still the south sky glowed in brilliant amber, still the north and east and west sat saturated in a magnificent royal blue. Still I needed sleep. I walked around town looking for a niche in the cityscape, was amazed by the crowds of Norwegians ambling about. A snapshot of the scene could have passed for an ordinary twilight, so bright and busy it was. By the time I found a quiet bench down by the water, the sun had once again begun to climb in the sky, a simple reversal of its retreat earlier that night. I laid down, closed my eyes, tried for sleep, even caught a little. I woke up again, it was 4AM, it looked like noon. I headed back to the train station.

Back in the station, which had just reopened for the day, I rested my tired body on a little curved bench, stuffed my bag under my head, and again wrapped the scarf around my face to block out the light. And then in the tranquil station, I rested once more.

***

Noise, footsteps, the dull roar of a station's worth of early morning travelers. I pulled the scarf from my head and it was as though I had woken in the middle of Times Square: all around me, hurried herds rushed to and fro on their way to the trains. I sat up, rubbed my weary eyes, checked the time. It was already seven.

Norway's train timetables were oddly excluded from the interrail application on my phone, so I knew neither the best time nor way to get to the country's western fjords. But an 8AM train left for Bergen, and that seemed like a safe bet, so I woke myself up with a begrudgingly expensive little muffin and a ludicrously costly bottle of juice and took off for platform eight with heavy legs and heavy eyelids. Time creeped by and it took all my strength to keep standing, to keep rooted to the earth with two feet and not crash down upon it in a heap of exhaustion, but finally it came, first the rattle of loose pebbles on the iron tracks and then the thunder of the train and then the great big locomotive itself, and I rushed aboard and folded my scarf into a neat little pillow to place against the window and before I could even take my pass out for the inevitable conductor, I was asleep beside it.

Sachsenhausen Concentration Camp (Day 68)

7.28.2014

"Seen backwards, the story went like this: American planes, full of holes and wounded men and corpses, took off backwards from an airfield in England. Over France, a few German fighter planes flew at them backwards, sucked bullets and shell fragments from some of the planes and crewmen. They did the same for the wrecked American bombers on the ground, and those planes flew up backward to join the formation. The formation flew backwards over a German city that was in flames. The bombers opened their bomb bay doors, exerted a miraculous magnetism which shrunk the fires, gathered them into cylindrical steel containers, and lifted the containers into the bellies of the planes. The containers were stored neatly in racks. The Germans below had miraculous devices of their own, which were long steel tubes. They used them to suck more fragments from the crewmen and planes. But there were still a few wounded Americans, though, and some of the bombers were in bad repair. Over France, German fighters came up again, made everything and everybody as good as new. When the bombers got back to their base, the steel cylinders were taken from the racks and shipped back to the United States of America, where factories were operating night and day, dismantling the cylinders, separating the dangerous contents into minerals. Touchingly, it was mainly women who did this work. The minerals were then shipped to specialists in remote areas. It was their business to put them into the ground, to hide them cleverly, so they would never hurt anybody ever again." — Kurt Vonnegut, Slaughterhouse Five

This was the Europe I knew: charming streets that bubbled with life, railroads that carried happy travelers like myself to happy new adventures, porous borders, peaceful countryside and friendly countrymen, buildings duly preserved since the early ages.

This was the Europe I knew to exist not very long ago: controlled streets that ran red with blood and broken glass, railroads that carried living and breathing men and women and children to forced labor and death, deep trenches and tall walls, gunfire in the mountains and gunfire in the cities and great big incendiary bombs dropping everywhere, buildings blown to bits by those beastly things.

These two Europes were incompatible. The Europe I learned about surely existed, but surely not here. Surely the dates were wrong, or maybe the places. Surely it wasn't that Paris that was occupied in the forty-third year of that century. Surely it wasn't this old rusty rail that was used for those terrible things. Surely it weren't these friendly Swiss elders who turned Jewish refugees away at the border in the name of "neutrality." And surely this Germany, so lovely and green and friendly, is the wrong one; surely there's another somewhere full of terrible people who do terrible things and should be terribly punished.

It hurt to learn of the Holocaust and the great war that followed when I was little; it confused me endlessly. Why would people do that? When I was older, it hurt in a different way: how could people do that? And I grieved it and I hated it in the way we all grieve and hate those terrible things that happen far, far away. But being in Europe and seeing the people and the places wretched by that terrorit was no longer a dull phantom ache; it was a sharp searing burn. Suddenly the textbooks and the essays were complemented with big bright images: people and places in the third and realest dimension. Suddenly, my fingertips were tracing gentle lines over the jagged scars of Europe.

It gladdens me that things have gotten better. It saddens me that we still have so far to go. Never again, we said in 1945, and yet it happened again in 1993, when we sat idly by as Bosnians and Croats and Serbs did awful things to each other, and it seemed what we really meant was "never again will we let Germans massacre Jews and gays and communists and gypsies." And so we added more protected classes to our listthe Bosnians, I supposebut not the poor Muslims of Serbia, for we'd let them be chopped to bits just a year later. Never again, we repeated, and we hoped to wash the blood off our hands by widening that statement to "never again will we let white people be massacred," but brown people were still fair game, and though maybe we've now moved beyond that, though maybe we've made great strides in putting down our machetes, that never again is only really limited to slaughter, right? Indeed, it's still perfectly acceptable for some people in some parts of America, and Iran and Uganda and Russia, to stand up on soapboxes and scream out that homosexuals are destroying the country, and that their rights should be curtailedthat they shan't marry and shan't adopt, shan't be protected from wrongful terminationand we elect these people to our government with their hateful speech and backwards ways, and so really, how far have we come?

And even still we slaughter. The Germans could only kill six million in their terrible crusade; we kill a billion each year. We perform experiments on them, we sterilize them and we load them into boxes and ship them on rails of our own across the country. We send them to camps and make them labor, our beasts of burden, we squeeze them into close quarters and watch them die, and maybe scoop the corpses out every once in a while to make soap or some other household item with, and when we trust they've served their purpose, the purpose we've deemed for them, we arrive at the final solution: we slit their throats or we put a gun to their head and pull the trigger, and a nine-inch nail shoots into the soft grey tissue of their craniums as their skulls crack and they try, futilely, to back away, and then that bloody nail retracts right back into the gun for use on its next undeserving victim: why waste a bullet on just one life?

We don't call these slaves "Jews," we call them "animals," we call them "cow" and "pig," and "deer," and really we don't even call them that; we prefer to turn a blind eye like the Germans we so often judgekeep the smell of those burning bodies away from the towns, pleaseand we instead call them "beef" and "pork" and "venison." We forget: a life is a life, and when we begin elevating the importance of one being's life over another, whether on lines of religion or race or gender or species, our inner evil prevails. Equality, tolerance: these are the only hopes of salvation. Love.

***

I left Berlin and headed north to the Sachsenhausen Concentration Camp with a heavy heart. I arrived midday, found the visitors' center, wandered inside and requested an audioguide. "Just one?" the man behind the desk asked.

"Yes, just one."

"All alone?"

"Uh, yeah, just me."

"Ah, so sad," he replied.

I cocked my head, narrowed my eyes. Was it? I didn't say anything, didn't feel it appropriate to argue in such hallowed ground, but was annoyed and offended by his statement (I also simply disagreed). I grabbed the audioguide, thrust three euros in his direction, and walked away without a word.

The Sachsenhausen Concentration Camp was the prototype and administrative center for all others. The Nazi leadership deemed it a perfect camp: easy to build, easy to patrol, a radial with rays of barracks spoking out in all directions. I followed the suggested audiotour from the visitors' center to the guards' barracks to the warden's home, and found it all peaceful, pleasant, idyllic even. And then I approached the gates between the imprisoners and the prisoners and it all changed. Work shall set you free, a sign read in iron German above the gate. Inside: barbed wire, thick walls, watch towers and the dreary remains of about a dozen ranch houses for "workers."

The audioguide had begun to annoy me, all concerned with facts and figures and names and dates and not the very essence of the camp before me, so I stowed it away in my bag and continued unguided, wandering in and up and behind the plain buildings. I turned down a set of unmarked stairs and emerged in a tiled basement, air musty and damp. My spine tingled, my torso trembled. I felt blanketed by a sudden malaise, felt like all the air had been sucked out of the subterranean room. I don't believe in lingering spirits or haunting ghosts, but I felt a darkness and a sadness there that I can't say I'd ever felt before; I felt disoriented, suffocated, a crushing pressure all around me. The room was barren, but I knew what it was: a morgue for all those poor souls who had died there not so long ago.

I needed to leave. I rushed up the stairs and sat in the grass, the grey skies over Sachsenhausen mirroring my melancholy mood. I wandered a little more, reached the outer rim of the camp and explored a little enclave built by the Soviets after they'd captured Berlin, after they'd liberated the Jews from the camp and filled the barracks instead with German prisoners of war, where tortured became liberated and liberators replaced torturers as torturers just the same; two wrongs, no rights.

I walked a long arc around the curving outer wall, reflected. I reached the incinerators, where scores of tourists surrounded a tour guide and oohed and ahhed and oh-myed at what they saw, and then discussed dinner plans with each other as they shuffled from incinerator to mess hall. This is just the place to be all alone, I thought; what kind of experience is to be had here in a group—what kind of honest introspection?

I kept my thoughts to myself as I returned my audioguide and left the visitors' center, kept all those thoughts and more tumbling painfully around my head as I walked back to the train station, circled back to Berlin, and caught a connection northwest to Hamburg. I mourned the Jews, and the gypsies and the gays and the handicapped and the blacks and the non-Aryans the world over, but the Germans too, who fell for the hate of that angry little man on his petty little soapbox, for I knew that their hate was nothing more than an equal and opposite response to the hate of the Brits and the French in the wake of the Great War. I mourned for the Brits and the French, who hated only because they'd had hate cast on them, hate and violence and ugly, ugly death from a hate too, rippling from afar; I mourned for all those who have ever caught the ricochet or the shrapnel of an ever-rebounding hate, a hate as old as us, maybe.

"Darkness cannot drive out darkness," Martin Luther King, Jr. once said, "only light can do that." And so too, "hate cannot drive out hate; only love can do that." If we ever want to become better, we need to stop hatingretaliating, revenging, reciprocatingagainst one another; we need to start loving and lighting even in unimaginable darkness. We need to stand for something: love in all its endless iterations, every last one for every last one ... because if we don't stand for something, we'll fall for anything.

Berlin, continued, continued (Days 66, 67, 68)

"I have told my sons that they are not under any circumstances to take part in massacres, and that the news of massacres of enemies is not to fill them with satisfaction or glee." — Kurt Vonnegut, Slaughterhouse Five

Berlin slept in late that next morning. I, on the other hand, had city to explore.

It was Monday, day four in Berlin, and yet I still hadn't really seen much of Mitte, Berlin's historic and touristy center. And so I did a little sightseeing while the city slumbered: to a gorgeous island of museums (unlike so much of Berlin, conventionally pretty) in the middle of the Spree River, to a space-defying and awe-inspiring memorial for all those victims of war in all times and all places, to the now-quiet Brandenburg Gate and the oft-quiet Berlin War Memorial. I found a marvelous cemetery with hundreds of garden beds built atop well-maintained graves, lovely flowers and new life literally rising from the death below. I headed into the Tiergarten and located a bold, beautiful memorial to gays persecuted and killed during the Holocaust: a large stone rectangle much like the ones at the Jewish Holocaust Memorial, only larger, with a small window to peek through and a small screen inside that hollow rectangle that played a never-ending loop of person-to-person love, a black-and-white montage of same-sex couples kissing, laughing, loving, but hiding too, seeing scorn in the faces of others and retreating into the nooks and crannies of city and society for safety.

For a city that must cope with such a sordid, sorry past, the Berliners handle their memorials magnificently. Us Americans, we're all about men and horses, about riflers lurking in the depths of a manufactured Korea; even the subtle Vietnam War Memorial has a few sculpted guards with guns to sully the peace. We don't confront our evils: no national monument to slavery, no national memorial for the hundred thousand we massacred indiscriminately in Hiroshima and Nagasaki, no front-and-center reparation for the terrible imprisonment of tens of thousands of Japanese-Americans, or the systematic genocide of millions more First Nations people. We don't want to call attention to our skeletons, just our victories, and so we litter the National Mall with false tales and pathetic propaganda, stone soldiers at the ready, but never an honest apology.

Figures don't feature prominently in the memorials of Berlin; the wounds are too fresh for a petrified procession of Jews marching down a German street. But what they can't sculpt concretely they symbolize so splendidlythose stone monoliths, those empty rooms, that zig-zagging Jewish museum arranged in the shape of a broken Star of David. It's something to behold, those many monuments (yet others disappointed terribly, I'll admit; Checkpoint Charlie had been transformed into a beach bar with a few perfunctory posters; it sold stamps for one's passport that made a mockery of the terrible trials those trapped in East Berlin withstood for decades).

***

After a long, taxing day in Mitte, I met up with Tash for dinner. With Steven gonewell on his way back to Miami, I'd hopedwe decided to check out the abandoned amusement park, which had fallen into disrepair about ten years prior when the owner was arrested for attempting to ship several million euros worth of cocaine to the States in the interior of some bumper cars. Old zoning laws mandated that the land remain an amusement park or the next fifty years, so the grounds were actually for sale by the government, at least to anyone looking to give theme park ownership a whirl.

It was a long walk to the park. Eventually we found the fence, eventually we found a hole in the bottom of the fence and crawled through. We beat back brush and trudged through mud until we hit railroad tracks, the kind that would carry a trainful of kids and patient parents from one side of the park to another. We walked along the rails, thick with weeds after a decade of neglect, and emerged alongside what remained of what we imagined to be some sort of log flume. It was gorgeous, eerie: algae-crusted waters so perfectly placid they looked like carpet you could step on, rotted tracks across which we carefully traversed the silent lake, a dark tunnel we tip-toed through with a mindful eye toward the littered ground. We emerged from the tunnel to find a giant tiger's face swallowing up a roller coaster track, one of its massive sabre teeth laying at our feet like a warped canoe. Onward we went, past mustachioed and monocled golf carts just abandoned at random in the middle of the woods, past one of those old medieval facades you might find where a theme park's ice cream and souvenirs are typically sold. We found a moss-ridden cafeteria, all broken windows and desperate vines, a decapitated swan paddleboat and a more fortunate one, still sporting a head. We heard rusty creaking, pained cries for oil, grease, anything. We followed the noise across a rotted-through bridge and a capsized Viking ship; we found an old ferris wheel towering above us, its cars swinging and sighing solemnly with the wind.

We walked in great circles, exploring at will, but always quietly, always carefully. Toward the south end of the park, I spied a portajohn about ten meters ahead, and a shiny little trailer right next to it. I stopped in my tracks, grabbed Tash by the arm, pulled us both behind a bush. "Hey, so I think there's a guard station just ahead ... let's just creep by really quietly."

I stared at the window of the trailer from around the shrub; unless a guard was staring directly out of it, the angle was in our favor. We abandoned our cover, scurried across the gravel path toward the other side ...

Shit! The guard wasn't inside the trailer; he was sitting on a chair about two meters in front of us, seat facing ever so slightly in the other direction. We stopped midway across the path, sneakers scuffing against the stones, reversed directions back toward the bush making all kinds of noise. He must have heard us.

He must have been plenty bored, too. He must have been tired of getting up from his seat, day in and day out, to chase down kids just hiking harmlessly around the ruin. He must have been giving us a break, or so I hoped, as we huddled silently behind the plant, him just a few feet around the other side. We waited ... nothing. I motioned to Tash; we scurried across again, broke out into a run once we cleared his line of sight. Safe, it seemed.

We headed back in the direction we'd come, exploring a little longer and then emerging from our hole underneath the fence at twilight as a few joggers ran by, puzzled by our sudden appearance and dirty knees. We stood, brushed off, got back onto the trail, walked back west, back to the land of the living.

***

I didn't have a hostel for the night. Tash thought she did, but had ended up booking it for the wrong night. It was slim pickings that late in the game, with the World Cup victory parade just twelve hours away. My plan was just to head back to the bunny hostel, curl up on the couch in the common room, get a little rest and hope the staff didn't disturb me. Tash liked the plan and asked if she could join. Sure, I said. We got a few drinks in the hostel bar and waited for it to get late, then we headed to the common room and stretched out on the empty couches. We closed our eyes, and we slept.

For a bit, at least. It was noisy downstairs, and the couches were leather, so we stuck to them and made all kinds of sticky smacking sounds as we turned, us-skin separating from cow-skin. Around 3AM, one of the staff came upstairs, woke us up, asked us if we were staying at the hostel. No, we admitted, but we had, and we'd be leaving early in the morning. He seemed fine with thisthat hostel was amazing!and let us rest in peace. Or as peaceful as it could be with vacuums cleaning all around you at 5AM, I suppose, but who were we to complain? At nine, he woke us again, told us that guests were starting to get up and we'd have to free up on the common room. Of course, we said. Thank you. I couldn't believe we'd slept until nine.

We were in desperate need of showers, so we headed down to the pool like the freeloaders we were and used those. Then we dressed and left for downtown, once more joining millions at the Brandenburg Gate. Again a Berlin wall had been erected, and again we were shepherded around and around the main square toward an entry point that would close down, move, close down again. Tash was determined to get inside, and I didn't care much one way or the other, but followed along for a good half-hour as we followed the crowds.

Eventually, I called it quits, told Tash I was going to find a quiet bit of park somewhere to rest. I left her looking for a way in, and meanwhile I set off looking for a way out, which was more difficult than I may have thought. The Tiergarten was west of me, actually beyond the Gate, and certainly beyond the little Berlin wall, and so I headed north and tried west, northward more and then west, and each time I turned I found myself still following that damned fence. People lined the streetsmillions, easilyand whenever a tour bus would pass they'd cheer in jest, tourists peering awkwardly from the windows.

The actual tour bus carrying the actual German champions arrived in time, I'm sure, but I was long gone by that point, snaking along the river and settling down in the enormous park, a whole lovely meadow to myself. I sat in the shade for hours, read, slept. Woke up again, figured it was safe to head back into town. Indeed, the crowds had dispersed, the wall had fallen once more.

I picked up a new pack in Berlin. My old one was doing just fine, great support and more than enough room, but after two months of traveling through Europe, I was tired of looking the part of a backpacker, tired of strained shoulders and a sweaty back, tired of always having to remove my pack to pull anything from it. So I got a messenger bag. I knew it was probably an unwise choice, that throwing all my pack's weight onto one shoulder was a terrible idea, but I loved the simplicity of it, how small and light it was. I loved how I could swing the bag around toward my front to grab my camera without breaking stride. Satisfied, I sent the old pack home, and blended into the traffic of Berlin like a regular local, little bag swinging ever so slightly by my side.

***

I found a new hostel for that last night in town, a pleasant affair out by the abandoned airport park. Emerging from the train station, skipping across a busy intersection, checking in and heading upstairs, I showered, then did it all in reverse: dried off, redressed, headed down the stairs and out the door to grab dinner from a nearby takeaway. But the outside corner was markedly different than the one I'd seen just ten minutes before: sirens blaring, ambulances everywhere, police roping off a great cross around the intersection.

A bodybag rested heavy on the asphalt in the distance. Onlookers hung close to the police tape, peered at it morbidly, curiously. A pedestrian had been killed, I heard. Hit by a car crossing the street. This was the second person who had been killed outside my hostel in the span of three weeks, struck down by a carno, a driver. It infuriated me. Again: that's awful, the people would say. So it goes.

Every day in the United States, one hundred people are killed behind the wheel, or in front of the wheel, or under the hood of a car or stuck in its underbelly or flung through its windshield; each year, over thirty thousand people die so motordom can live. We must go fast, we say, and we never consider the cost: forget one hundred per day, thirty thousand per year, consider this: since Henry Ford opened Pandora's box and unleashed his plague of industry onto the world, more than 3.5 million Americans have perished in our collective pursuit of automotive speed.

When a plane crashes, we mourn. We hold investigations and we erect memorials and we say never again. We change laws to make us safer, we figure out what went wrong and we look to fix it. We do what we can to ensure those deaths were not in vain. And yet, when a pedestrian is killed in an urban center, we do nothing. The driver doesn't even get a ticketover ninety percent of vehicular manslaughter perpetrators don'twe call it collateral damage of cities, an inevitability every now and again. We shrug our shoulders. So it goes.

Cars don't belong downtown. I don't fault the driver of today for using one to traverse the urban plain, for we've ruined our citiesno, they've ruined our cities, AAA and Firestone, Standard Oil and General Motors. They've torn up streetcars and lobbied against pedestrian walkways and commuter taxes, they've perverted the very notion of jaywalking into a civil offense. It's always been about moneyit always ismore cars sold, more tires bought, more oil burned. They've tarred our cities in black slimy substance and made them too difficult to navigate in any other way, and so we drive. And sometimes we drive too fast, and sometimes we kill, but we don't have to. There are ways to fight back: cancel your AAA membership, sell your car, find a bike, get used to walking, use public transit. Make driving in the city an unpleasant experience for others: amble and jaywalk and when the sidewalks overflow, take to the streets, for the streets are the commons and the commons belong to all of us.

***

I ran through the commons the next morning, bare feet smacking against the ugly asphalt we've lain upon our precious soil. My soles produced an unnatural smack instead of an earthly thud, but no matter: the morning was all pretty and crisp, the streets quiet and the cars asleep. I ran to that old airport, centered myself on the runway and raced down the long strip as it grabbed for the horizon, lifted off with elation toward its end as that familiar dose of dopamine and adrenaline flooded my system. I felt better. Sweat poured from my pores as I rounded the park, and by the time I returned to the hostel some kilometers later, I was red and parched and sore and drenched, and it was sublime. I showered, checked out, headed around the corner to the train station. And in the middle of the intersection, a small crew was powerwashing blood from the pavement, cleaning the road so the cars could rip across it once again.

Berlin, continued (Day 65)

7.22.2014

"Ale-colored sunshine and pale sky and whorls of cirrus so high they cast no shadow ... Look around you. The horizon trembling, shapeless. We are all of us brothers." — David Foster Wallace, The Pale King

I had only booked the hostel for two nights before coming to Berlin, and with the World Cup Championship that evening, every last bed in the hostel had been booked up. Every last bed in every half-decent hostel had been booked up, really. That left me with the quarter-decent hostels and the indecent hostels, and I reluctantly booked something in the middle. I showered, said goodbye to the bunkmates (Christina, who had gotten back at noon the day before, was still recovering), then took off to drop my bags at the bunny-less, soulless establishment I had settled for.

It felt something like a laser tag arena, that hostel: all shiny chrome and futuristic design, but futuristic in the way people of the 1980s thought the future might look. It was overrun by tour groups and packs of high school students, and it was damp and smelly. The cheap mirrors in the bathrooms warped more than those outside the mirror maze back in Prague. I hated paying a dime to such a business, but I had little choice. I dropped my things and set back into town.

I visited the East Side Gallery again, walked the murals, passed a Russian shuffling three little cups along the sidewalkmonty, is that what they call it?with a little ball underneath one of them. Shuffle, shuffle, shuffle, stop. An onlooker shoved a fifty-euro bill toward him; he grabbed it, turned the cup over, revealed the marble, handed it back to her with another fifty-euro bill for the win. Shuffle, shuffle, shuffle, stop. A man pulled out fifty of his own and handed it to the monty man; the better placed his foot on the cup he thought had the ball. Are you crazy? I thought. Didn't you see the ball peek out of that other cup during the last shuffle?

I was right. Opened cup, empty cup. The crouched man kept the bill; the standing man offered a disappointed "gah!" Play resumed: shuffle, shuffle, shuffle, stop. It seemed very easy, if you kept your eye on the ball. And indeed, the onlookers were making wins, all few of them, but losses too, silly losses that were so utterly obvious. I don't really believe in betting (I don't really believe in anything that "creates" new money from old money without putting some good into the world), but were I a betting man, I reckoned I could have made five hundred euros in about ten rounds. The monty man was not very good.

He caught me watching. Shuffle, shuffle, shuffle, stop. "Hey, you," he called in rough English, "which one?"

I shook my head. No thanks. He insisted, "just point, which one?"

I pointed. I was sure I was right. "Here," he said, "put your foot on it." The woman next to me, the one I'd seen win fifty euros, urged me forward. "Go, go! I think you're right!"

I found myself with my foot on the cup, with the fellow onlookers cheering me on. Found myself withdrawing a fifty-euro bill of my own from my pocket. Found the monty man moving to grab it, to pair it with one his own and form a ready kitty. "Yes, yes!" The woman cried through thick Russian. "You'll win it!"

I closed my fist. It was too easy. The fellow onlookers were too supportive. There were also too ... Russian. It occurred to me that I was the only non-Russian among them, that their wins and losses were too well-ordered, taken too lightly, taken in practiced turn. East Berlin was not a rich place, and yet fifties flew from their pockets. I was aware the whole time that the thing felt a little scammyI guess all of gambling is a scam; it's just a question of degreesand I cared much less about winning fifty euros than about how I could lose fifty euros. The marble was, beyond a doubt, under the cup under my foot. How could he possibly move it with me staring right at it? Would he just pretend I had gotten it wrong, with his witnesses to back him? I was so curious!

Curious, but not stupid. I pried the man's constricting fingers from my fist, that monty python. I pushed past the woman and walked away. The cup lifted somewhere behind me. The marble rolled. "See, you would have had it!" she called.

And then the game resumed, shuffle, shuffle, shuffle, stop. I'll never know.

***

I killed time doing nothing, had a little barbeque-smoked sweet potato magic at the same vegan place from the day before. I sat and read, walked the east side, and then as noon became afternoon, I headed toward the Brandenburg Gate with the rest of Europe to watch Germany face off against Argentina in the World Cup finals.

Millions were projected to be there, coming from all across the continent for the spectacle, and I was just lucky enough to find myself passing through, neither intending nor realizing the serendipity until only a few days before. I joined them on the subway, a writhing sea of red and black and yellow, and moved with the herd as we exited, wriggled west, shuffle, shuffle, shuffle, stop.

The crowd piled up against each other as the front of the herd came to a halt. It seemed that the city had constructed a wall right down its center, hip-high fences dividing east and west, us and the game, and were we to want entry, we'd have to follow the wall two kilometers around toward a sole Checkpoint Charlie.

I did; we all did. We packed the sidewalks and spilled into the streets, we stopped for pretzels along the way or otherwise kept moving, we pushed ourselves ever closer to the chants and cheersall hype and practice at that early hourand then we came to a choke point far around the bend. An absurdly few number of guards were checking purses and packs, and we waited patiently, some of us at least, as they rifled through each and every one. It was hot, people were antsy; I recalled the tragedy at the Love Parade some years back when too many excited Berliners were packed too closely in cramped corners. I grew a little anxious.

Eventually I got in, but I'd brought my anxiety in with me. It was still four hours before the game started, and yet the crowds were drunk and boisterous and everywhere, hardly room for a seat anywhere inside the gates. That, and the clouds made it clear that rain was on its way. Everyone was going to be there at some pointKelly from Prague, the Danes from the heating plant, Tash, and a half-dozen others I'd met in Berlin or roundaboutsbut the cell networks were jammed and I had little hope of finding them as the crowd thickened. I drank a beer; I left.

It was cooler and calmer outside, and I sighed in relief. I wandered to an odd assortment of three thousand rectangular stone columns swelling from the uneven ground, learned it to be the city's Holocaust Memorial. It was beautiful, equal parts subtle and powerful, literally immersing as you wandered deeper toward its center and the columns climbed, until you found yourself in a dark, disorienting maze so surely symbolic of those dark, disorienting times.

I laid on a column on the edge; it was exactly the size of a sarcophagus. I thought about the terrible things we do to one another sometimes. I'd been thinking about that a lot lately. I cried a little, and the sky cried with me, heavy teardrops raining down onto me, the memorial, the millions crammed inside the gates. I let the cool rain wash over me, just for a moment, then left for an umbrellaed patio around the site's perimeter. I ordered a coffee and a falafel sandwich.

Tash messaged me and said the gates were closed, that three hours before kickoff the sprawling park had already reached absolute capacity. Just as well, I thought, imagining the puddled, huddled masses bumping into each other with drippy umbrellas inside. The drizzle had turned into a pour, and Tash suggested I join her at a coffee shop on the other side of Brandenburg, and it was one of those no-Maria-you-come-over-here situations where we both settled to stay warm and dry in our respective corners of central Berlin, at least until the rain let up.

It didn't, not really. I passed a few hours sipping coffee, then beer, and the small patio filled in while the game neared. I liked it there: prosaic as the restaurant may have been, it was family-run and homey and intimate, and as the clock counted down the minutes until the match began, the owner, a Turkish immigrant, grabbed a table right in front of the television while one of his sons brought him whiskey and water and the other passed out blankets to the guests. Shoulders rubbed, blankets got shared once the stock was depleted. It felt like a family gathering, twenty or thirty relatives all crammed into the living room of their Turkish-German grandfather. First kick! We all cheered.

The game was long and tense, and dare I say a bit boring as well, zero-zero after the first ninety minutes, the breaks few and far in between. I realized why soccer isn't a main sport in America, why it never would be: no room for commercialstoo little for advertisers to sell. But there was a short one as we headed into overtime, and the waiter hopped up from his seat next to his father and asked if anyone wanted another round, and more glasses clinked on the cosy patio, and then the game was back on, everyone on the edge of their seats, a good play by the Germans, and then ... goal!

The patio shook as fans flew to their feet, beers spilled and no one really cared. Hugs and high fives and howls toward the moon; German cheers broke out from nearby bars. Shhhh!, the elder shushed ... there was still game to be played. Everyone sat, everyone quieted, everyone waited nervously as the seconds ticked bycould the Germans hold the lead for another seven minutes?

Yes, yes they could! The clock hit zero and the celebration continued; it amplified and even the owner was now on his feet. Strangers embraced, I was embraced, that little Turkish eatery exploded in joy. The sky too: whistling rockets detonated colorful bombs of victory overhead, the fireworks heard 'round the world. For the first time since the reunification of East and West Germany, the Germans had done it: they'd won together.

It was hard not to be happy for Germany that night. The rain had stopped so I left the bar, found the little Berlin wall had fallen, saw people spilling out from all sides of the Brandenburg Gate. Millions shared the same song; it crested through the crowds like jubilant waves. Men painted the colors of Germany waved the flag of Germany high overhead, cars drove by with heavy hands on the horn and flags of their own flapping out the windows. Deutschland! they would yell, and Deutschland! we'd yell back.

I headed to Alexanderplatz. I hadn't actually been to Alexanderplatz, didn't even really know where it was, but I figured it couldn't have been difficult nor unwise to locate the main pedestrian plaza of the capital city of a country that had just, moments before, been named champions of the world. I was right: the center was alive, teeming with energy, a mass dancing and chanting around nothing in particular, just each other and their own collective excitement. Someone toward the center would jump up, start a chant, and the crowd would follow, call and return. He'd lower, we'd all lower, and he'd count down in words I didn't understand but didn't need to, for when he hit zero the masses would jump high in the air, calls to the stars, a beautiful bouncing blob.

Congo lines broke out, naturally. We raced around the square, hands on shoulders. We tired of the square and moved to the streets, an eight-lane thoroughfare running up against Alexanderplatz. We shut it down. The cars didn't seem to mind. People poked proudly through moon roofs, danced on the back seats of convertibles, thrust hands out of open windows and slapped fives with whomever was passing by. The crowds surrounded the first car in the line, placed palms anywhere they'd fit, shook it with gusto.

They'd shake it, it'd grunt and groan on its shocks, and then with a tap on its rear they'd let it go, the seas of spectators parting in front of it and drumming on its fiberglass as it crawled by. Next car, same routine. I worried that I was witnessing the makings of a riot, that this was too much victory for a people to handle, that cars and pedestrians in such close quarters was never a good idea. And then I looked inside the vehicles and saw the smiling faces bounce back and forth on suspended rubber and I realized: the cars, they want to be shaken.

So I joined them. A car would roll up and I'd squeeze in with the rest of Deutschland and give it a good heave, and I'll admit, it was good fun! I excused myself for a beer cart a little ways down, drank a Carlsburg, resumed the car-rocking, found it even more fun. Shake, drink, repeat. A few meters away, two men climbed atop a pair of buses, bus drivers just sitting inside smiling and shrugging. They unfurled a huge German flag and let it blow in the wind between them. The crowd erupted, caught them as they climbed off the buses and carried them away. I met some fellow Americans and we shook cars together. I lost the fellow Americans in the mob and I shook cars alone. I joined the thousands around me in the songs of the night, sang proudly and loudly for a people that deserved a victory. Ole, ole, ole ole ole, super-Deutschland, super-Deutschland, super-Deutsch ole ole.

***

It wasn't all pretty, I'll admit. There was that time a police car rolled through and the crowd gathered around, daring to shake it, that tense moment when the cops said you'd better not and the crowd seemed to consider pushing their luck. There was all the broken glass, lots of it. There was the guy who fell from the hood of a moving car and smacked his head onto the asphalt, hurried away in a daze. There was 4AM, when everyone was well past drunk and the police no longer willing to let the remaining throngs shut down the street. Go to sleep, they said.

And that's exactly what I did.

Berlin (Days 63, 64)

"Works of art are of an infinite loneliness and nothing can reach them so little as criticism. Only love can grasp them and keep hold of them and be just to them. Always trust yourself and your own feelings as opposed to any such analysis, review, or introduction; if you should be wrong, then the natural growth of your inner life will lead you slowly and in time to new realizations. Allow your judgments their own quiet, undisturbed development, which like all progress must come from deep within you and cannot be forced or hastened by anything ... That alone is to live an artistic life, in understanding, as in creating. — Rainer Maria Rilke, Letters to a Young Poet

The ride to Berlin was long and hot and delayed. I was excited to see the cityso excitedbut tired too, tired and sweaty and smelly, so I first caught a train to my hostel for a little freshening up.

The hostel was tucked away in East Berlin, just a few meters from where the wall once stood. It was a beautiful, sprawling complex, larger than the homey hostels I generally favor but with a really good energy about itand amenities too: it had a pool, it had a sauna, it had bunnies. Its lush courtyard was filled with cubist sculptures and artsy metalwork, and a little hut of an art gallery right in the middle where four artists-in-residence showcased their pieces (the hostel owners offered them beds and gallery space at no cost; they just want to support local art). The rooms were spacious and the showers enormous and the bunks tall and sturdy, and after having a look around the place and setting down my things on the bunk, I took a long, hot shower in the cavernous bathroom.

I emerged some time later and one of my bunkmates was in the room: his name was Alex, he was a mature nineteen, he was from the States but was just wrapping up a three-month work-abroad in Europe. I got dressed and we headed out for a bite and a drink, just a quick stroll down one of East Berlin's graffiti-blanketed boulevards. On our way back through the lobby of the hostel we bumped into our other two bunkmates, whom Alex had met earlier: AJ and Christina, a brother-sister pair from Melbourne. They were heading to dinner with a few friends in a bit and asked if we wanted to join. We'd just eaten, but saw little reason to pass up another round of drinks with fellow travelers.

The friends arrived: young, pretty, boisterous girls Christina knew distantly, but even distant acquaintances become good friends when you're on the road. We all headed out for a Mexican restaurant, and the margaritas were poor and the guacamole lacking, but the company was stellar and the outdoor patio superb, and we passed a few glorious hours chatting amongst ourselves and watching East Berlin hustle and bustle past our table.

Darkness fell. The girls were eager to go outBerlin's nightlife was legendary, after all. The thing is, Berlin's nightlife doesn't really begin until around 3AM, which gave us a good five hours to kill before the party even started. Alex and I looked at each other. We were old souls. AJ seemed a little tired, too, but the girls were all about it, and we agreed to do our best to keep awake.

10PM, back at the hostel. We cleaned up and changed and had another round of drinks, took a quick trip to the liquor store at got some whiskey. Waited, rested, left for the girls' apartment. AJ grabbed the bottle of whiskey and we stepped outside the hostel into the crisp Berlin air as he said loudly, innocently, "okay, so all we need now is some Coke!" The drug dealer's eyes five meters away lit up.

We found our Coca-Cola, to the dealer's disappointment, but perhaps coke would have been a better choice: by 1AM, half the whiskey bottle empty between the seven of us, I was teetering to stay awake. I called it a night, and Alex seized the opportunity to join me on a sleepy return back to the hostel. By two, still a good hour before the girls and AJ would even head out, we were resting soundly on our soft mattresses, far away from the noisy oontz-oontz-oontz of thumping Berlin.

***

I woke around ten. Alex had already taken off for the day and AJ was just stirringhe'd continued on to wait in line for their first club but gotten tired and headed back around threeand Christina and the girls were still out, presumably. The two of us washed up and got dressed and grabbed breakfast down the street (at a vegan bakery-cafe-grocery establishment right across the street from a vegan supermarket ... ah, Berlin). There was an alternative walking tour around eleven, the kind that skipped all the standard touristy staples and instead carried us through back alleys and side streets to gorgeous graffiti and edgy street art. It sounded like my kind of tour; AJ and I joined the masses in the lobby right before they set off.

We met others, we met Berlin. We saw the Berlin Wall at the East Side Gallery, a long chunk of it tiled with political paintings and marvelous murals. We passed through old squats and barracks that had been repurposed into the most wonderful mish-mash of things: part climbing gym, part cafe, part outdoor bar and music venue, part hipster flea market, part yoga studio, part nightclub, all graffitied, all beautiful well-worn, the whole complex shaking and swelling with creative energy. Ah, the creativity. The freedom of it all. No surface went unpainted, no acre unused. Urban infill everywhere, everything reclaimed, everything put to good use. As the Soviet Union crumbled and the facades of East Berlin with it, the people had simply taken what was no one's and made it theirs, no permission sought and no questions asked ... how refreshing, to find a community with such agency.

We stopped at a beach bar along the river, sand and lounge chairs and all, with reggae wafting through the air and the spicy scents of West African fare, too. We ate tall plates of delicious curry, had a few beers, continued on. Through an old warehouse, now an art gallery-bar-theater. Past a giant face plastered on the side of an apartment buildingoh, that? The street artist likes to cover the wall with gypsum, line the features of the face with tiny explosives, and pull the detonator so that his art appears all in one fell swoop, a visage emerging from the surface. A giant cosmonaut towered on the firewall of a four-story building nearby; he floated on the white brick, right arm outstretched. At night, our guide offered, the shadow of a flag from the traffic circle at the end of the block hits the wall just so, right into his fisted hand. The flag's not missing; it's just waiting for nighttime.

Our tour ended there, and the crowd broke apartsome back to the hostel, some to lunch, some off to the airport or the train station. AJ and I and a few others we metTash, Stevenwere discussing afternoon plans. Tash mentioned an old abandoned amusement park she'd heard about; maybe we could figure out a way into it. Steven said no.

Actually, he said hell no. Actually, a word about Steven. Steven was from Miami, which is just fine, but he was the kind of guy from Miami who, when the tour guide asked the thirty or so of us international travelers to tell everyone else where we were from, would interrupt all of the Brazil and Finland and America and Germany and Egypt and Korea and Canada and Guyana with a big dumb Miami!, as though it's simply too important to mistake for, I don't know, a less interesting part of the United States (if one exists). Steven was the kind of guy who made frequent mention of "those Japanese tour buses" and thought sampling sausage was the height of experiencing German culture, and, yes, balked at the idea of checking out an abandoned amusement park because he didn't want "to get shanked by some crazy homeless guy."

I tried to explain the relative safety of urban exploration, of how to recognize the occasional dwelling amidst a ruin and just respectfully steer clear of it, but he whined and whimpered, so we relented and decided upon an abandoned airport instead. The airport, to be fair, wasn't still abandoned; it had fallen to ruin during Berlin's divided years and had only recently been transformed into a park, but still with all the markings of an old airport: a cracked runway and rusted planes and a still-standing terminal. He agreed to check it out.

The four of us trekked south through East Germany's busy, beautiful streetsobjectively ugly, sure, but beautiful in that gritty graffitied sort of wayand eventually reached the park, which like everything in Berlin, was land of a million uses: petting zoo, community garden, lawn space here for sports, trees on either side of that small valley there with long slack ropes tied between them and well-balanced Germans treading cautiously atop the ropes. Deeper in, we found the main runway, flanked by tall golden grasses, lit by a setting sun, and we sat right in the middle of it, lay down on the asphalt, talked of things, anything.

We got up, taxied down the runway on our two feet to the far end, found another community garden, a sculpture hall, miniature golf. Ordinarily I wouldn't be impressed by putt-putt, but this was no American putt-putt with its tried and trite plastic windmills and goofy faces painted all glaring orange and yellow. No, this was Berlin putt-putt, which meant it was just as organic and artsy and downright creative as the rest of that incredible city, each of the eighteen holes commissioned by a different artist, each a work of art on its own, balls and clubs aside, fantastic and imaginative combinations of wood and steel and grass and iron, just as fun to look at as I'm sure to play. Salvaged materials made into something beautiful, in a salvaged airport made into something beautiful. 

We exited the airport park by a tiny Shaolin templewhy not?and headed back to the hostel, where we went our separate ways for a bit. I hung in the common room, hoped to write ... as usual, couldn't manage it. A girl entered, had a little trouble with the wifi, asked if it was working for me. I said it was, but so slowly it was hardly worth trying for it, and from there we just started chatting instead. Her name was Rachel, she was from Michigan, she had been doing a short work-abroad in Germany for a few weeks and was flying out of Berlin at five the next morning. This is the traveler's introduction, always, unfailingly, and I reciprocated with mine: Jay, DC, two out of three months down on a European excursion. We talked about DCRachel had been thereabout the city and its sky-high rents and different neighborhoods, and I mentioned having built my own house, a topic I've learned to avoid but which seemed inevitably vital in our ongoing discussion. "Really?" her eyes lit up. "Is it a tiny house?"

I was shocked. I feigned offense at her guess. "It is a tiny house. Do I not seem capable of building a real-sized house?"

She was a tiny house enthusiast. I love tiny house enthusiasts, of courseI just hated talking to them about tiny houses. After the first two thousand times, it's a little hard to find uncharted grounds. But it had been months since I'd spoken to anyone about it ... backpackers don't care what kind of house you live in, just what kind of pack you travel with. So I indulged her; I talked all about the house and the community and its construction and its design, and she shared her own plans for a house of her own, someday, about her possession purges of present and her exciting and newfound quest for minimalism. A woman after my own heart. It was late, and she was hungry, and I could use a bite too, so we headed down the street to an Indian restaurant and ate a big, hearty, spicy meal, and with an early morning flight to catch, I walked Rachel back to the hostel. I thought about turning in as well, but I felt surprisingly energetic, and the weather outside was gorgeous, and it was Saturday night and it was Berlin and I had nowhere to be in the morning. I went for a stroll. I walked down empty streets dark and quiet and busy streets bright and bustling, I walked with neither direction nor purpose. It was still early by Berlin standardsmaybe just 2AMbut I could feel the city gearing up for quite a night.

I passed an old heating plant with a long queue out front and a faint oontz-oontz-oontz pulsing from within. I had absolutely no desire to experience Berlin's nightclub scene, thought waiting in line to be packed into a chaotic discotheque dungeon a tad ridiculous, but I was curious to see what a heating plant looks like when its entrails are reclaimed by the MDMA crowd. I paused next to the line, pulled out my phone for a quick search of the club's reviews, as though that would somehow make my decision easier.

"Excuse me," a voice called in Scandinavian-twinged English. "Is this the queue for the club?"

I turned; three guys were headed my way. I nodded. "That's crazy!" he said. "I didn't realize there would be lines like this!"

The guys were from Denmark, and had come for the World Cup Championship the next day, and thought they'd sample some world-famous Berlin clubbing the night before. They seemingly hadn't done their research, though, so I filled them in on the basics that I'd gathered during my time in town: not only was that the line, but it was the line for selection. Berlin clubs are notoriously exclusive, and partygoers almost make a sport of starting out the most exclusive, getting denied entry, and then heading to the next queue as they relive their rejection"oh man, we almost had it that time!"

You get rejected for all kinds of reasons: for being ugly, for being fat, for being poorly-dressed, for being a tourist, for not speaking German, for speaking German too loudly, for speaking any language too loudly, for being in groups of more than three, for being a man, for appearing drunk, for appearing high, for looking a little too much like someone the bouncer doesn't like. I don't care much for exclusivity, and I certainly didn't care to idolize it, yet I realized as I was talking to the trio that we had been absorbed into the line and were slowly trudging forward. They wanted to make a go of it, and they seemed nice, so I stayed in queue and chatted with them as we waited, very indifferent to whatever fate may have awaited us at the entrance. They were Danish, they lived in Copenhagen, and I mentioned I was headed to Copenhagen soon and they told me all about it. We marched forward. They asked about the States, about its great cities, about biking there. I shared what I knew. We marched forward.

As we neared the front, mouths in front of us closed, chins turned down. No one made eye contact, no one did anything that might offend the doorman or give away non-German nationality. We followed suit, a subservient people to the whims of pomp and trend.

The bouncer was actually a very friendly guymore thin hipster than muscled machismoand I had my skinny jeans working for me. "How many?" he asked us. I had told the Danes that going in four was a terrible idea; that four guys would never get in. I told them we had better odds if they tried it with just them, or as two pairs of two, but those great Danes were so gallant: no man left behind. "Four?" we asked.

Sure, enough, the bouncer said we were fine to enter, but only two of us. We could pick the two. Of course, they weren't going to leave one of their own out from a night of clubbing, and it would have been bad form for me to tell them tough luck and head in solo. So instead I left the line with them, all four of us led to the side, where we watched the lone man behind us dismissed with a quick no. Too old, too bald, shorts.

Oh man, we almost had it that time!

Prague (Days 62, 63)

7.20.2014

"The most important thing I learned on Tralfamadore was that when a person dies he only appears to die. He is still very much alive in the past, so it is very silly for people to cry at his funeral. All moments, past, present, and future, always have existed, always will exist. The Tralfamadorians can look at all the different moments just the way we can look at a stretch of the Rocky Mountains, for instance. They can see how permanent all the moments are, and they can look at any moment that interests them. It is just an illusion we have here on Earth that one moment follows another one, like beads on a string, and that once a moment is gone it is gone forever." — Kurt Vonnegut, Slaughterhouse Five

I chewed the mushrooms, swallowed them all in one gulp. Mmm. They were delicious.

I waited. Sky misty, ground cold, wet. Fifteen minutes ebbed by. Thirty. Forty-five. I had a chocolate bar. Back in Amsterdam, the smartshop owner told me dark chocolate would heighten the experience. My stomach rumbled. I ate the whole thing.

More waiting, an hour now. Scarf drenched, back soggy, all cold everywhere. I stood to leave.

Up on my feet, it hit. I knew the feeling; it was the same feeling I'd get right before salvia would take over my senses for five, ten glorious minutes. This one was for longer, of course. Less dramatic, too. Not as visual. Sure, things weeble-wobbled, but they didn't fall down. Mountains didn't talk, trees didn't turn into mischievous little children. No, this was all more cerebral. I felt all of my consciousness creep up into my skull, my body no longer me, just a clunky vehicle driving my head to and fro. I saw things through distant eyes, and I felt removed from what I saw, like maybe I wasn't really there, like maybe I was just watching it all from far, far away.

I was separate from it, but I loved it all. I found everything beautiful. The trees, their branches ... such angles! such colors! The people! The Prague below me transformed into the most fantastic landscape I'd ever seen. Those dark clouds above were no longer ugly, ominous; they were a gorgeous grey.

I played musicmelodies never sounded so amazingthrough my earbuds. I walked. I wandered through ramparts and walled couryards, gardens, wide lawns high up in that park. Time drifted away from me. The ship of the future and the ship of the past set sail, and I was left on the tiny island of the present. I couldn't conceive of tomorrow; it made little sense to me. I'll be in Berlin tomorrow, I thought; what does that mean? I discovered days for myself, reasoned that tomorrow meant one sun-up later, that yesterday was one sun-up before and the past was just a whole lot of laps the sun ran and nothing more, that if we didn't spin in our little worldly twirl then yesterday and tomorrow would cease to exist.

There was nothing but the present, and there would never be anything but the present. The future would never arrive and the past would never come back. Every moment that would ever be, they all resided on the very same tiny little island on which I now stood. Oh, what a lovely thought.

I felt perfectly capable of walking into town. I walked into town. I got an email from Peter; he said there was a kaleidoscopic theater and mirror maze in the old town and he imagined it'd be quite a trip while tripping. I headed to the kaleidoscopic theater and mirror maze. I was a walking, rolling cliche.

I passed people nearby, and they were close and distant and I knew them and I never could know them. I looked into their eyes and felt I could read their souls, their fears and their sins and their good bits too. Over there, avarice. Here, vanity. Her, dazed. Him, confused. Some of them frightened me. Anger. Power. Ambition. Others saddened. Loneliness. Loss. And others, love. Kindness, compassion, sacrifice, so much love. It spilled from the eyes of the best of us.

I hadn't opened my mouth since swallowing the truffles, and I worried if I'd be able to carry out enough of a conversation to get a ticket to the theater and maze. Ah, perfectly simple. My mouth worked, my voice worked; I reached in my pockets for a few dollars and handed them to the woman behind the counter. She gave me a stub, gloves so as not to smudge up the mirrors. I thanked her, using my words and everything. She was one of the beautiful people.

I, the Great Cliche, entered the mirror maze as psilocybin played silly games with my mind. Those mirrors did, too. I turned a corner and I was in the way. Sorry, I said to myself. Oh, pardon me. There were dozens of me, all fumbling awkwardly in the maze, all knocking into each other and apologizing and turning and doing it right over again. They stopped, wondered if our little clan shouldn't just give up on reaching the other side. What was the point? It was so very pleasant inside there, and what was on the other side anyway? Maybe we just stuck around; maybe we became the Mirror People.

Eventually, voices from behind echoed through the maze; soon we'd be in the way. We'd ruin all the fun for the little boy or girl headed in our direction. We turned all at once and some of us disappeared, another few turns and more of us got lost in the cracks between the mirrors, and then a pivot here and a pivot there and I was all alone, deserted by my own clan.

No matter. I, the Great Cliche, continued on toward the kaleidoscopic theater. A small door brought me into a dark colosseum, hundreds seated in a circle, dozens of mezzanines from floor to ceiling. A giant orb floated in the middle, a diameter of fifty, seventy, maybe a hundred feet. It glowed like the sun in deep space and all along its surface moving images furled and unfurled upon each other. Bees crawled through honeycombs and snowflakes melted on glass slides and lava oozed from blackened holes in the ground, and each would start somewhere on the wide surface of the orb and within a moment be everywhere, and then just as soon it'd be gone, the honeycomb freezing into a snowflake and the snowflake melting into hot lava and the hot lava hardening into the next thing: a mountain peak or a marble or, hey, the sun itself.

I have no idea how long I stayed in the kaleidoscopic theater. It may have been five minutes, or it may have been fifty. I don't remember the images ever looping, but it was hard to keep track. In time, I began to notice that many of the audience members would get up to leave at the same moment, that others had stuck around just as long as I had. That every time I adjusted in my seat, they did so too, every fourth or fifth individual on every row mimicking my every move. Ah, the Mirror People had returned.

In retrospect, I realized that the theater was maybe two rows of four seats each, eight seats total, and that the giant orb was just one rectangular screen cleverly reflected over and over. I wondered how apparent this was to the theater's sober visitors; I wondered why someone would go to the theater sober, anyway.

A minute later or an hour later or a day later, I emerged into the bright sunlightthe rain was letting upand walked some more. I wondered if I was done rolling. I forgot what it felt like to not be rolling. Is this what I always felt like? I couldn't remember. Eventually, I remembered. Eventually I returned to a more lucid state, and things became a bit less vibrant, and I realized I could no longer see people's souls. The trip had come to an end.

***

It wasn't the psilocybin experience LSD virgins make it out to be. It didn't change my life, that truffle trip. Truffles are a little more subdued, I've heard. Maybe that was it. I don't know. I think I understood the great realization I was supposed to come to. I think I couldn't feel it because I had already felt it and you only get it once, already lived the words many use to describe their first time on shrooms, already had been blessed with that experience a year ago, as I scootered my way out of Joshua Tree, suddenly sobbing, after a month on the open road. That beautiful, crushing sense that something incredible is happening, that the landscape is whispering the secret to everything in your ear in a language you understand but can't translate ... I'd been there, and I was so grateful for it. Everything after that was just extra, I had said.

Just for fun.

***

I met up with Peter and we got dinner. I checked into a third hostel for my final night in Prague and met a few great bunkmates: a Swede, a Norwegian, an American named Abby! We headed out to an underground jazz bar in a building that probably predated the Magna Carta. We sang along, we drank, we stayed up late and walked home drunk. We were the citizens of the present.

The next morning, a little zephyr rowed up from the sea of the future to my bunk of the present. Let's go to Berlin!, it said.

Okay, I said. Let's go to Berlin.

Villach, Cologne, Weisbaden, Nuremburg, Regensburg, Prague (Days 58, 59, 60, 61, 62)

7.18.2014

"Swift wind! Space! My soul! Now I know it is true what I guessed at;
What I guessed when I loafed in the grass,
What I guessed when I lay alone in my bed ...
And again as I walked the beach under the paling stars of the morning.

My ties and ballasts leave me; I travel, I sail,
My elbows rest in the sea-gaps,
I skirt the sierras ... my palms cover continents,
I am afoot with my vision."

— Walt Whitman, Leaves of Grass

***

I sat at the Portschach am Worthersee train station and watched fireworks paint the sky in the distance. With the World Bodypainting Festival over, I was untethered: one month left in Europe, still so much to see, and blissfully, not a place in the world I had to be. North, maybe?

I chatted with an artist on the platform. She was from Villach, and had come to the festival to sell her paintings. We were joined by a musician, also from Villach; he made dubstep and asked if I wanted to listen. Sure, I said. I put his bullky headphones on my ears and spent the next twenty minutes on the train listening to the oft-pleasant, oft-jagged futuristic rhythms, watching artist and musician converse in unheard German.

Then we were in Villach, and they headed toward their cars and bikes, and I had two hours to kill until the next Germany-bound train arrived. It was nearly midnight, so I walked the silent city like the last man on earth. And satisfied with what I'd seen, I headed back to the station to write, to charge my devices, to sit. I found a nice spot on the floor in a far corner and plugged my phone into the wall. Once more, knuckles cracked. Once more, fingers at the ready. Once more, interruption.

A drunken man stumbled into the station and I caught his eye. He dragged himself in my direction and made some poor excuse to flop down next to me and asked where I was from, always with the where I was from, and this led to a very one-sided conversation about a whole unintelligible host of things. Some of it was intelligible. Some of it was about how I should stay in Villach for a few days, how he had a buddy and he was going to call that buddy and the three of us were going to hang out, because they loved Americans, and especially because "us black guys need to stick together."

Puzzled, I asked him to elaborate. There aren't many black guys in Austria, he said. You and me, we need to stick together.

Hmm.

***

We didn't stick together. The train was still an hour away, and he kept falling over me, leaning up on my shoulder, calling me handsome, telling me just to stay, to spend a few days in Villach. Telling me he was going to call his friend. I told him I was going to find a bathroom, and instead scurried off to my platform. I felt bad, but it was late, and I was cranky. And sooner or later he was bound to take a good look at me at discover I was actually white, and I feared that might just break his heart.

An hour later, a Munich-bound train arrived. I hopped onboard, bunked with a fellow Munich-bound American, slept strapped into narrow couchettes through the wee hours of the morning. We woke, descended into the station, said our farewells. I hadn't a clue where I was going, so I looked at the flipboard. Koln—Cologne. Sure, why not.

Three hours later, I was deep into west Germany. The scenery was nice, I suppose. Cologne was pleasant, I suppose. Yet I found it boring, a stale sort of energy thick in the air, and after roaming the city a few hours and finding nothing to tie me there for the night, I headed back to the station looking for something different. I went to Weisbaden: perfectly charming, nice Old Town, unique geothermal fountains. A few hours, then onward. To Frankfurt: not so charming, loud, tall, like a so many drab American cities. Barely a pit stop, back on the train.

I hadn't intended to cover west Germany in under a day and a brief paragraph; I thought a whirlwind tour might take a week. And yes, perhaps I'm being harsh—it'd be unfair to write off an entire half of the country after a few hours spent in three of its larger cities. I'm sure there's plenty to love and enjoy if one searches hard enough. But here's the thing: I'd been to Munich, and I loved Munich. I didn't even have to try. And then there was Berlin, and Regensburg ... east Germany was calling to me, and it seemed silly to resist its song.

The rails swung me like a pendulum back from west to east; I'd started my morning in Munich, seen noon near Luxembourg, and then I was back again my sunset, a bit north of Munich in a little placed called Nuremberg. I knew nothing about Nuremberg beyond its infamy, its contentious hosting of the Nazi war tribunal many years ago, and so I expected little, particularly after such a disappointing day.

But oh, what a place. I exited the station as the sun doggy-paddled along the horizon and splashed great waves of pink and blue across the sky. In front of me stood a wall: tall, brick, browned and blackened with the ages, stretching left and stretching right and just hugging the whole little city, surrounding its perimeter with little interruption. Actually, there were two walls, interior and exterior, all the better for defence. In between them was a deep, wide trench—the kind that maybe was once a moat—and this trench was now a park, a lush green band with bike trails and running trails and endless wall to lean up against while having a picnic, lush with little towers and simple grasses. I crossed from the exterior wall to the interior wall, right over the sunken park, on a narrow footbridge. Statues everywhere, artful sculptures. Thirty mighty pillars outside a museum, each inscribed with one of the thirty universal declarations of human rights. Cobbled streets, more blackened wall. It was all so beautiful.

I checked into a nice hostel just feet from the wall, then took a dusky walk around the quiet neighborhood. I stopped for sushi and ate it on a patio, I walked some more, and then, exhausted from criss-crossing Germany in a day, short on sleep from my train the night before, I went to bed.

***

The next morning, I ran for the first time in ages. It was already hot by the time I woke, so I dripped sweat onto cobblestone as my bare feet carried me across Nuremberg's smooth streets: everything cobbled, everything gorgeous. I found more marvelous statues and circled simple churches and sped through the sprawling old town, then sighted the wall and ran toward it and followed its perimeter until it dropped me back at my hostel a few kilometers later.

I showered and checked out, set off to see Nuremberg at a slower pace. It's a small town, so a walk from the southern wall to the castle on its northern end took almost no time at all. The castle grounds were lovely, varied and aged and free to the public, and I walked through majestic rooftop gardens and wide fortress overlooks. Gleefully, I caught sight of some deliberately charred siding, the same kind I'd clad my house with back in the States. Then more sculptures, more parks abutting off the sides of the castle and spilling into the town.

I wanted to stay another night in Nuremberg, but my hostel had no vacancy and neither did the few others in town. Just as well, I suppose, for the sky had threatened rain all day, and by mid-afternoon it had begun to sprinkle. I hopped a train to Regensburg, a lively student hub with an intact medieval aldstat—the entire downtown a UNESCO World Heritage Site. I crossed a thousand-year-old bridge, then recrossed it. The rain had followed me to Regensburg. I tried to find a hostel for the night, but again no luck, so in a wildly last-minute decision, I took off for Prague.

***

The night was long: a late, delayed train, a wet midnight walk to the hostel, a shoddy six hours of sleep. But I was happy to be in Prague. It was about 10AM by the time I got showered and dressed and ready for the day, and a walking tour was departing the hostel a few moments later, so I decided to tag along. I knew little about the sites of Prague, and the tour seemed a good way to czech them out.

The tour, like so many in Europe, was a free walking tour: free not in the sense that you don't pay anything, but in the sense that you don't have to pay anything; you take the tour without any obligation and at the end, you give whatever it was worth to you. If only all things ran so honesty ... why, maybe we'd have a capitalist system that actually worked.

Though I love donation-based services, I've never cared much for sightseeing tours. A city can't be seen in its seven or seventy wonders, to paraphrase Calvino, but in its sidestreets, the faces of its residents, the way the cyclists and the pedestrians and the cars fight over passageway and the way the children choose to pass the summer days. Here's a famous statue, here's a famous palace, here's a famous bridge ... it bored me.

Yet the guide was friendly and the tour itself a great way to meet fellow travelers. At the end of the three-hour walk—these are long tours, I should mention—I took off in the same direction as a few others, and we congealed into an international trio and climbed the castle of Prague. Peter was from Connecticut and Kelly was from Paris, and they were both lovely people. Kelly used to live in Ljubljana!

We talked and we wandered. After the castle, we headed to a biergarten high above the city and ate a hearty lunch while we drank in great views and cheap beers. Then more talking, more walking. As twilight approached, Kelly retreated to the hostel to take care of a few errands and Peter and I grabbed another meal at a Czech hole-in-the-wall, where we met a few Polish girls at the next table over. We invited them to join us for the World Cup game a few hours later—meet at that biergarten by the river at nine? Sure, they said.

I had booked a second hostel for that second night in Prague, so after dinner I headed out alone to check in and drop my bag. I crossed the gorgeous Charles Bridge just as the sun ducked down behind the castle, and golden rays shot out in all directions, marvelous ambers shining above, the river a reflected stream of honey below. A faint mist hung in the air, and a nearby statue on the bridge, blackened with centuries of soot, smiled with a cocked head as if to say: not bad, eh?

A quick check-in at the hostel, and then right back over the bridge—all dark now, but still just majestic—toward the biergarten to rendezvous with Peter, Kelly, the Polish girls. Halfway there, I got a message from Kelly that the place was closed due to the rain (it was barely raining), so we set a new meeting point at a little Czech pub. Without any way to reach our new friends from Poland, it was once again just the three of us.

I'd been in Europe for the entirety of the World Cup, and hadn't once sat through an entire game. Oh, I'd caught halves, and lots and lots of quarters and eighths; I'd slapped fives with cheering fans in the street after late-night victories and I'd heard the roar of applause as I tried to rest in open-windowed dorms. As far as sports go, I think football—European football—is one of the best ... it's just that I get easily bored by watching men run back and forth on a television set for several hours, and couldn't even imagine tracking such folly from day to day. But with the championship just a few nights away, I was determined to immerse myself in the craze of Europe—it was the semi-finals, after all.

Argentina and the Netherlands. A round of beers for me, Kelly, Peter. A whistle, cheers in the pub, cheers on the tube. Lots of kicking, some left, some right. More right, even more right. Now left, left again, right, left, right, right. Ninety minutes of this, the kicking and the kicking back. No goals. 0-0. The clock ran out, and there was maybe an overtime. Maybe more kicking back and forth; I can't remember. Maybe another thirty minutes of it? I was bored.

But then: a shootout! I don't know if they're actually called shootouts, but it was that final tiebreaker, where the teams line up by the goal and take turns kicking balls in, or trying their damndest to, and the team that scores the most out of five would be in the finals. I liked the stakes and the suspense of it, every kick mattered, and found myself rooting for the Netherlands along with the rest of the bar—I'd been doing this the whole game, of course, clapping when everyone else clapped and following along like one might in church—but now, like, actually rooting, genuinely willing the Hollanders to victory.

They lost. I was heartbroken. Sports is a cruel game.

***

I'd been lugging those magic mushroom truffles with me ever since Amsterdam, and their ten grams weighed heavy in my pack. I wasn't sure what I was waiting for. I'd meant to try them in Paris, then Switzerland, then Bratislava or Budapest or Veliko Tarnovo, but no place every felt quite right; I never felt I had the time. I had stuffed them in my pocket when I went to the World Bodypainting Festival—what a trip that would be—but decided against having my first psilocybin experience in a crowded festival with frightening hydraulic cyborgs and alien fetuses and men towering on stilts with ukuleles ... the whole place already seemed hallucinogenic enough.

So it was the following morning, and it was Prague, and I figured why not. Granted, there was a great reason why not: the weather was terrible, cold and rainy, and as I slogged through the wet park near my hostel, I couldn''t help but feel that a sunnier day might be worth postponing. But I was tired of postponing. I sat down under a tree in the gardens of a hilltop fortress, laid my scarf down on the damp grass and lay down atop it, and popped eight or nine little chunks of mushroom into my mouth.

And then, I waited.

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