Wednesday, June 29, 2005

European Vacation Part Five: Prague 2

When last we left our intrepid adventurer, he had just landed in the beautiful medieval city of Prague, in the Czech Republic, formerly Communist Czechoslovakia, of the former USSR. You can still smell the stagnation of those days; still see Russia's bloody Stalinist footprint on the foreheads of the older folks boarding the bus in the bleak Soviet-Era outskirts. But in the city center these days, it's all about tourism.

There I was, surrounded by breathtaking thirteenth-century architecture -- housing American fast-food franchises and souvenir shops, mostly. Ah, how Capitalism has begun to flourish in the sixteen years since Communism collapsed there. It would bring a tear of joy to my eye, if I were one of those True Believers in the so-called American Way (TM). But alas, I'm...not. It's bad enough that we've turned the entire North American continent into one big ugly homogenous strip-mall-infested suburb; I really hate to see it happen to the rest of the world.

Oh, I know what some of you are thinking. 'If you're not with us, you're against us.' Blah blah blah. Jesus Herbert Walker Christ, how I grow weary of American Simpletons and their sound bites. Read my lips: NOTHING IS THAT SIMPLE. Got it? No? OK, I'll say it again, slowly: N-O-T-H-I-N-G--I-S--T-H-A-T--S-I-M-P-L-E. In the typical us-versus-them mentality that permeates our culture like an antibiotic-resistant bacterial strain, there always seems to be a simplistic black-or-white dichotomy to EVERYTHING. So-called 'good' versus so-called 'evil'; so-called 'Communism' versus so-called 'Capitalism'; left versus right; red versus blue; 'tastes great' versus 'less filling.'

The irony is that Americans are known far and wide for demanding options; for wanting it all -- when in reality a large percentage of people in this country prefer very simple choices, handed to them by the equivalent of a benevolent dictator. That's why they elected George Bush -- hell, the guy's a simplicity machine; feed him the most complex global problem and within minutes he shits out a simplistic dogma consisting of five mispronounced words or less.

But I digress. Where was I? Oh yeah. Prague.

The city -- at least the old part of the city -- is magnificent. I highly recommend the place, though it was probably much cooler to visit back in the nineties, before it became such a huge tourist destination. It's a bit like Disneyland at this point, except that the castle is real and there are crucifixes everywhere.

Yeah, Prague was once an important center of the Holy Roman Empire, so there is an endless procession of Dark Ages-and-beyond iconography of the often morbid, always Catholic variety. Much of it is extraordinary, from an artistic and historical perspective. Religion gives me the heebie-jeebies, though, so while admiring the beauty and history of the ancient stone statues and images, I kept wondering how impressive it would all seem if I were a peasant about to be burnt at the stake for some trivial transgression against the One True Church...

Ah, Bri...can't even relax while on vacation. Sigh. Anyway, after a large dose of wandering the musty stone canyons of the old city, Rachel and I were getting hungry. So where do we end up? A steakhouse. With maps of Texas on the walls, and other assorted pseudo-Americana scattered here and there. This wasn't on purpose; I don't normally even eat red meat. But once we were in there, we decided to stay and have a bite. It did smell good.

Rachel had a steak smothered in some kind of mushroom cream sauce; I had some chicken with the same sauce. Not exactly exotic and certainly not the least bit Czech, but both were actually pretty delicious. On top of that, the prices were a welcome change from Western Europe -- I'd paid around 20 bucks for a sandwich in Paris, but this entire meal was less than that for the two of us, including several glasses of Pilsner. Beer is dirt-cheap in Prague; in fact, it's cheaper than water. They don't serve tap water in the restaurants there; you have to buy bottled, which is still pretty cheap but since beer is only around a buck for a decent-sized glass, most people quench their thirst with beer.

Not being a big alcohol drinker, I kept a couple bottles of water with me -- but I still ended up drinking a lot more beer than I ever do at home. I mean, damn, it's almost free!

Speaking of alcohol, this brings up a wacky little story that those of you who know me will consider absolute vintage Bri. OK, so over the past year I got inspired to explore a bunch of anachronistic, Victorian-era vices just for the hell of it. Had a few interesting adventures, to say the least (ever smoke opium? drink laudanum or coca wine?); perhaps I'll write about them in another post at another time. But this particular story is about Absinthe.

Absinthe is an alcoholic beverage made with a bunch of herbal ingredients including wormwood, a substance that has been used medicinally for millenia, but can be toxic in large doses. The wormwood imparts a powerful chemical known as thujone to the drink, which creates an entirely different effect than that realized by consuming alcohol alone.

Absinthe was banned throughout the Western world about a hundred years ago, mostly due to paranoia and the beginnings of the movement that would culminate in the US with the disastrous policies of Prohibition (and continues today with the expensive joke we euphemistically call the War on Drugs). The ban was later lifted in many European countries, but even though alcohol prohibition in the US ended in 1933, Absinthe remained illegal to be sold in the US, which it still is today. Interestingly, it is not classified as a drug and is thus not illegal to possess or consume -- just to sell, because thujone is classified by the FDA as a poison. Of course, alcohol itself is technically a poison -- as are nicotine, caffeine, sugar and mayonnaise, for the most part.

Anyway, with the advent of the Web, you can pretty much get anything shipped to you, so I decided to give the evil drink a try. Experimented first on myself, then introduced friends to it, and the bottom line is that this stuff has quite a kick, but nothing that remotely justifies it being banned. It's a nice high, much nicer than being drunk in my humble opinion (it's pretty high in alcohol and you COULD get quite drunk on it, but the thujone hits you way before the alcohol does -- and thujone doesn't give you a hangover). The only problem is that it tastes absolutely like shit.

If you like Pastis, or Sambuca, or Jaegermeister, you might like it -- or at least not hate it. The taste has a very strong licorice quality that comes from anise, one of the herbs used along with the wormwood to counteract the latter's bitterness -- but to me, it just adds a sickly-sweet edge to the mostly bitter flavor. It makes me gag; I have to suck it down quick and chase it with something, which really only only dilutes the taste so that I don't throw up. But I like the effect enough to deal with the nauseating taste.

Ok, so why tell this story about Absinthe? Well, because it's legal in Prague, and in fact has become somewhat of a novelty for tourists -- there are window displays everywhere with a zillion different bottles of the stuff prominently displayed. Thus I was eager to try the local varieties, and having talked up the stuff to Rachel, she was eager to give it a shot too. So we went around trying to find someone who knew something about the beverage, who could recommend the best of what was available locally. This proved to be a fruitless task; while most people we encountered in Prague spoke English, for some reason the liquor store owners did not. So we just looked around at all the various brands and took a guess.

Rachel wanted to go for the one with the coolest bottle, but I knew better. If the stuff's good, they don't have to distract you with a pretty bottle. On the other hand, the cheapest one with the plainest bottle is probably no good either. So we opted for something in the middle. They had a few different sizes, including those cute little bottles you get on airplanes, so we grabbed a couple of those. Picked up a bottle of Coke and some chocolate (together, in my experience, a fairly decent chaser for this noxious fluid), and put it all in our hotel room for later.

Fast-forward to nighttime. Downed the works. Waited a few.

The verdict? Tasted just as shitty as the French stuff I had originally, but the effect was MUCH weaker. Definitely felt it a little bit, but nothing like I'd felt before -- and of course, Rachel hadn't tried it before so she was rather unimpressed. We decided to try a different brand. Found a little sidebar in the Timeout guide that talked about it, and a specific brand was mentioned as being the best the Czechs could muster. So we ran all over town trying to find it. No dice. Bought some other stuff, which was just as lame as the first batch. Bottom line? Czech Absinthe sucks.

So what does one do in a situation such as this? Why, one goes and gets some gelato, that's what one does! And the place for gelato in Prague is called -- I kid you not -- Cream & Dream. Now, I don't know about YOU, but the phrase 'Cream & Dream' doesn't immediately conjure up images of ice cream cones -- or at least it didn't before I went to Prague. But if you can get the Nocturnal Emissions images out of your head while you're ordering up a waffle-coneful of gooey creamy sweetness, the place is pretty good. I just think they're gonna have to re-evaluate their branding strategy if they ever decide to open a shop here, unless they put it in the Castro...

(For those of you who don't know, the Castro District is the neighborhood that gives San Francisco its reputation as the Gay Mecca of the US. Not that there's anything wrong with that...)

Another potential branding issue was parked across the street from our hotel. Yes, Mazda apparently sells a wildly popular, little car in Europe that it calls the Lemon. You do enough traveling, you pretty much see everything...

Speaking of seeing everything, I was surprised to learn that Prague is, like Amsterdam, a bit of a European Bangkok -- that is to say, there's a whole lotta bangin' goin' on. The town has hookers and sex clubs galore, and it's all legal, at least as far as I could tell, since I didn't actually partake in any of it. No, really, I didn't. But I DID pick up a couple of brochures, just in case I ever go back...

One brochure of particular interest is for a place called 'Club K5, the Special One in Prague.' Inexplicably, the logo for K5 consists of what looks like the silhouette of a young boy standing in profile, with what appears to be a cloud coming out of his ass. Don't believe me? Well, see it for yourself. What did I tell you? I don't make this shit up.

There are so many things wrong with that logo, I don't even know where to begin. It could be the logo for Neverland Ranch, except that not even Michael Jackson was ever accused of having a flatulence fetish. Ugh. Don't get me started.

Anyway, regardless of the mysterious logo, the brochure happily contains no reference to little boys with irritable bowel syndrome. In fact, it claims that Club K5 has a 'restaurant, cocktail bar, sauna, steambath, massage, manicure/pedicure, solarium, 15 rooms, stripshows AND girls, girls, girls escort service!' And -- get this -- everything's on camera. You heard that right. There are video monitors throughout the place, showing what's going on in all the rooms for all the voyeurs in the house. Seven of the aforementioned rooms are 'theme rooms' such as a 'sultan's harem', 'the mountains', and my personal favorite, 'the igloo', which includes a real, gigantic, stuffed polar bear with bared fangs overlooking the bed. Um, yeah. If god forbid I ever suffer from erectile dysfunction, it's going to be because of a huge polar bear looking hungrily at me while I try to fuck some Czech hooker on camera in a club with a sick little boy for a logo...

Speaking of sexual depravity, our next stop was the Museum of Sex Machines.

Unlike the Sex Museum in Amsterdam, this one was not crowded. In fact, very few people were there at all, and no giggling could be heard -- except for ours, of course. And while the Amsterdam museum had mostly cheesy porn from other eras and even cheesier displays of broken mannequins engaging in sordid and sometimes questionable activities, this one actually had the goods. Everything from a collection of antique vibrators to a whole bunch of homemade mechanical devices from the Victorian Era, there in all their stupefyingly prurient glory. Some of the machines were not to be believed -- some had completely incomprehensible functions, and others were a thing of beauty, pure genius, ingenuity far ahead of its time. There were old chastity belts that seemingly defied any kind of hygiene; there were anti-masturbation devices that adolescent boys were forced to wear, looking and operating like something from the Spanish Inquisition. There was a gear-and-spring-operated teeter-totter with a dildo protruding from each seat, found in a barn in England and dating from the late 18th century. We were amazed. And all this for the Czech equivalent of five bucks for the two of us.

We had accomplished a great deal that day. Satisfied, we wandered through the charming cobblestone streets; Prague is the most beautiful at night, the old buildings aglow with lights, window displays of blown glass, original paintings and beautiful green bottles of crappy Absinthe all lit up to tempt the cash-laden visitor into a return in the morning.

That morning came, and, bright-eyed, bushy-tailed and free of hangovers, we opted to pretend we were typical tourists and do a few of the standard tourist things. The obvious first must-see was Prague Castle, which towers imposingly over the city like the Eye of Sauron. Our hotel was located at the foot of a long and winding road that ascends toward several ornate buildings at the top of a high stone precipice. The first of these is guarded by a pair of impressive-looking chaps dressed like Donald Rumsfeld's wet dream, standing perfectly still just like the guards at Buckingham Palace but without those silly fur hats. All I could think of was what a lousy job that must be, standing there all day. Try to picture it: you're a trained military man; you've endured rigorous combat exercises and succeeded at countless difficult tasks in order to get such a prestigious assignment, guarding the castle that symbolizes your country's rich history. You must get up every morning before the sun rises to make sure your body is taut and ready and your uniform is crisp and perfect. And then you must stand perfectly still in the heat or cold, rain or shine, all day long, while stupid tourists take pictures of each other posing next to you with big grins on their fat gelato-smeared faces. Ooh, sign me up.

Much of the original thousand-year-old castle is gone, destroyed and rebuilt a hundred times, and what is left is preserved in a museum that is part of the castle itself. Most of the existing structure is only a couple hundred years old, with older segments here and there in the walls, floors, doorways, and grounds. The main cathedral seems to have more of its older structure intact than the rest, though it has obviously been restored as well. Like most European cathedrals, it is magnificent; like all European cathedrals, it gave me mixed emotions. After all, these places were designed to inspire awe, and their historical significance only increases that sense as the centuries go by. One doesn't have to be a believer to appreciate the beauty of such an amazing work of art, built in a time long before modern machinery. But then again, one who knows his history can't help looking at all the breathtaking, ornately carved woodwork covered in gold, the acres of stained glass, stonework, mosaics, lush fabrics and other lavish riches and wonder how many poor believers starved to death in its shadow, or suffered under its oppressive dictates and punishments.

It was then that I knew I had to see the crypt under the cathedral, where the kings and the priests are buried with all their worldly shit. Death, the great equalizer. No matter how high and mighty or holy and righteous you think you are; no matter how many people are forced to bow at your feet while you breathe, in the end they throw dirt on you like everybody else. That's why they had to invent the concept of Heaven and Hell, so people wouldn't come to their senses and kill all the priests.

The crypt contains the earliest remaining walls of the castle, originally wood but rebuilt repeatedly of stone; various centuries are represented by various wall segments dating to Roman times. At the end of the winding passageway is a stone vault, protected from visitors (there were only a few of us down there) by a locked gate, wherein lay several metal coffins -- yes, metal. Apparently the remains of King Wenceslas I and a few other long-dead Czech bigshots were relocated there in recent times, and new coffins were built for them. This was a weird thing to see; usually the crypts under ancient cathedrals are filled with equally ancient stone coffins where rulers of church and state spend eternity as icons and tourist attractions. One older visitor was more confused than I; he kept asking his tour guide over and over again, 'Are there skeletons in there? So what you're saying is that if I opened that coffin, I would see a skeleton?' After about the fifth time asking this same stupid question, the tour guide was visibly annoyed and I could picture her saying, 'Yeah, old man, not only are there skeletons in there, but it won't be long before one of them is YOURS. Now shut the fuck up!'

I've been to a few European castles and have been amazed at what has survived the centuries in some of them; Edinburgh Castle being a superb example. I expected to see more of this one, as it looks pretty impressive from the town below. But most of what towers over the town is the cathedral, which is truly massive. The rest of the castle is mostly long gone, replaced by eighteenth and nineteenth-century structures, which by European standards might as well be brand-new. It's still awesome, but it didn't take very long to see all there was to see. We ambled down a beautiful path that brought us back down to city level. In front of us was an Asian couple that had apparently bonded with several baby ducklings, which followed them down the path. The mother duck was nowhere in sight, and the couple kept trying to shoo the ducklings away but they just kept following them, peeping sweetly. I was suddenly filled with horror. What was going to happen to these poor little orphans? Where was their mother? Why had they imprinted on a human couple? And was it significant that they were Asian? After all, everybody knows what happens to ducks in Chinatown...

It was at that moment that I remembered eating the baby duck hearts in Paris. This had the curious effect of horrifying me even further, while at the same time making me ravenously hungry. I turned to Rachel, and her eyes told me all I needed to know. We put the poor doomed baby ducks out of our minds and made a beeline for something to eat.

Amusingly, Prague is wall-to-wall pizza places (perhaps thanks to the old connection to Rome?), so we grabbed a slice. It was underwhelming. Didn't taste bad, but neither did it taste good. Pretty much like a big cracker. So much for Prague pizza.

Our next stop was the Museum of Communism, ironically located between a McDonald's and a casino, in a very ornate and beautiful building that the Communists surely would have labeled 'decadent.'

The museum was interesting enough; it contained specifically a history not of Communism itself, but of Soviet occupation of the country since WWII, with a short background of the Russian Revolution thrown in for context. Czechs by and large never did quite accept the ideology of the USSR, but they didn't have much of a choice until the Prague Spring of '68 (a short-lived but glorious moment of populist reform that was subsequently crushed by Russian tanks) and then the collapse of the USSR in '89, which they took advantage of immediately. The museum contains all sorts of Soviet-Era mementos, from propaganda posters to military uniforms and even a jet engine from a Soviet MiG, all accompanied by written placards in several languages, documenting events and describing objects to form a big-picture view of what life was like under the Communist regime. The only problem is that the English reads almost as badly as, say, a George Bush speech. Spelling and grammar are a complete mess, and it's hard to understand what they are trying to say in several passages. When it IS understandable, it sounds like a third-grader wrote it. I wanted to volunteer to rewrite all their signs, but I thought better of it.

Went back across the beautiful Charles Bridge, passing all the various buskers playing bad music, and the beggars bent over in mock supplication with their heads on the ground and their hands holding cups in front of them in the hope you'll put something in it. Those guys just creep my ass out; I'll give a beggar a buck now and then, but if he's gonna get all disturbingly dramatic like that, I'm gonna take a pass. Jesus, man -- it ain't India; it's Europe. Eat a goddamned pigeon.

Don't remember if I described the Charles Bridge before, but it's the main bridge across the river between the oldest and second-oldest parts of town, and aside from all the buskers and bums, it's lined with some of the most detailed and amazing religious statuary I've seen. Saints and nuns and angels and Christians and infidel Turks are everywhere, frozen in their sometimes mystifying poses that used to mean something to everyone who crossed the bridge. Most of them are blackened by pollution dating from the earliest days of the Industrial Revolution, and some of them are beginning to crumble from the acid rain brought by modern pollution. There is an almost life-sized crucifix, with a morbidly suffering Christ haloed by a gold-plated inscription in Hebrew. Curiosity drove us to look this up; apparently at some point in history a Jewish man was convicted of showing disrespect for the graven image, and his penalty was to pay for the golden inscription, praising Christ and written in Hebrew so that everyone would know it was from him. Now, I'm not a big fan of Christianity (or Judaism or any other organized Ponzi scheme), and surely there was some anti-Semitism involved here somewhere (the guy was probably guilty of nothing other than being a Jew) -- but all other things being equal I have to say that, in the spirit of letting the punishment fit the crime, this was a master stroke. It beats being broken on the wheel, anyway.

Well, for the rest of the day we took in the sites, wandering aimlessly and relishing the amazing beauty found unexpectedly around every corner. Accidentally came upon the John Lennon wall, a cool little tribute to John and all things Beatle, covered in colorful graffiti-painted lyrics, several portraits of Lennon, a huge yellow submarine, and various other related images in a secluded, lovely setting next to the river and beneath some ancient overhanging trees. Found a pub around the corner that the guidebooks recommended for authentic Czech food, and this being our last night in Prague, we decided to go for it.

The pub was a very cool place, with a grotto-like atmosphere lent by Roman-style brick vaulting inside. Long communal mahogany tables filled the room, and a fire roared in the fireplace. Altogether a perfect ambiance. Drank a few one-dollar pints of decent dark beer, ordered a few exotic-sounding items to share off the very affordable menu and enjoyed a relaxing, uncrowded evening (the place was off the beaten tourist path, slightly tricky to find). What did we order? Well, let me see if I can remember...ah yes: potato pancakes with cream, deer meatballs with some sort of strange sauce, and a whole roasted duck with dumplings and cabbage. Sounds interesting, eh?

Well, it wasn't.

The potato pancakes weren't bad; I've had better, but they were tasty enough. But it was all downhill from there. The deer meatballs had no taste whatsoever. Kinda like the pizza earlier in the day. They didn't taste bad; they just didn't taste like anything. And the thing is, I generally don't eat mammals. I stopped eating beef, pork, lamb, all that stuff a few years back. I DO eat poultry and fish, and I don't like tofu or wheat gluten or any of that fake meat crap. But when traveling, especially in Eastern Europe, I will temporarily suspend my eating preferences rather than be a prima donna, and eat whatever. But all I could think of was that here I'd done this rare thing and ordered friggin' DEER; some poor forest creature had to die so I could eat something that for all its lack of any taste whatsoever, might as well have been tofu, or styrofoam for that matter. Ugh. There goes my karma, for NOTHING.

And the duck was all dried up. It was like duck jerky, or vulcanized rubber. I practically choked on it, no matter how much beer I swigged with it. And then it hit me, all of a sudden. Karma. Ducks. Of course. The universe was in perfect order; everything made sense now. We had eaten the baby duck hearts. Then the lost ducklings came along, and we had our chance to redeem ourselves. We could have at least TRIED to help them find their mother; the Asian couple wasn't going to do it. But we didn't. We just left them there, and went for tasteless pizza.

And now the universe was paying us back with styrofoam deer and rubber duck.

Well, at least the beer was good...and oh so cheap. Ah, Prague, I will always remember you. But not for the food.

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Sunday, June 26, 2005

European Vacation Part Four: Prague 1

After hearing about a thousand times how Prague was this amazing pristine ancient city untouched by all the wars, yada yada yada, I became convinced that I had to go there. So that became the third destination on my whirlwind trip.

Thus after an uneventful train ride back to Paris from Amsterdam, followed by another lovely but expensive day in the City of Lights, Rachel and I boarded a swissair flight to the Czech Republic, with a quick stopover in Zurich.

It must be said here that, unlike on the typical American-based flights I've taken where they come around once with a measly little bag of pretzels, on swissair flights they bring you chocolate bars every five minutes and you can grab as many as you want. Therefore swissair can have a link from my blog any day of the week. They freekin' ROCK.

Anyway, at first I was a little peeved that we had to spend a few wasted hours at the Zurich airport waiting for a connecting flight, but I'd never been to Switzerland before, and the scenery out the airplane window was worth the layover. The Alps and then the lush green rolling hills, followed by an impeccably clean city -- what a beautiful place. I don't know much about the Swiss, but their chocolate and their cheese are pretty damn good, and those Swiss army knives are a thing of beauty I remember from my boyhood. The cuckoo clock thing aside, I can't say one goddamned bad thing about Switzerland. OK, well, there's that little unresolved matter about collaborating with the Nazis when they were supposed to be neutral and all that, but why let the horrors of history spoil my little reverie, eh? After all, I don't wax so euphorically positive very often; why not enjoy it?

While waiting at the gate for our connecting flight, I found myself bemused by the arrival of a very large man in full cowboy regalia. He wore a gigantic cowboy hat, a western-style pale orange gabardine shirt, a silver cow-skull bolo tie, Wrangler jeans, a ridiculously oversized and overdecorated oval belt buckle, and of course, cowboy boots. Everything but a pair of sixguns. To reiterate, we were in Zurich, Switzerland. In the airport.

The man approached the check-in counter, and I heard him say, in a deep, rumbling, throaty twang, that he was from Texas.

Well, of course he was from Texas. Duh. I could have guessed that; from where else could he possibly be? But the absurdity of it all was just too much; when one encounters such a walking stereotype, such a hollywood-perfect, over-the-top insipid cliche, one cannot help but be awed by the perfection with which nature provides food for the comedians of the ecosystem.

I mean, is it really necessary, Hoss, to dress up like the Lone Fucking Ranger wherever you go? Isn't it bad enough that you wear your ridiculous little outfit to drive your Ford Expedition with factory-installed gun rack around the Dallas suburbs? Do you really have to embarrass normal-looking Americans in airports the world over with your inner five-year-old's Western fantasy ensemble?

Luckily there was also a statuesque Teutonic blonde in a mini-skirt and gogo boots to look at. Rachel was convinced that the woman was a hooker, but I insisted that she was probably another Cheese Rep, handing out free samples of poisonous cheese (see Part Three).

The flight to Prague was quick and easy, aside from the extra-chunky American woman who spoke quite loudly to her equally-chunky child the whole trip. Hey; at least the kid wasn't screaming.

Hopped on a bus from the airport to the Prague metro (along the way, horrified and fascinated by the proliferation of American gas stations and fast-food joints lining the roadway), took the metro a few stops and from there took a tram into the center of town; then began to search for our hotel. Wandered aimlessly for awhile, and then suddenly some guy walked up to us and said, 'Hey, is your name Rachel?'

This, as one might assume, freaked Rachel out a bit. But, as we quickly discovered, the guy's name is Chris, and he works for the hotel we were looking for. How he found us at that exact moment in a sea of wandering tourists when we hadn't even called to announce our arrival, we may never know. It was like something out of Harry Potter. But anyway, he proceeded to lead us to where we needed to go. Luck be a lady tonight.

Aside from having to climb about eighty flights of stairs and unlock several different doors, our hotel room was decent; and certainly a LOT cheaper than the one in Amsterdam had been. Had to share a communal bathroom and shower, which was annoying, but still better than many of my travel experiences, let me tell ya. We were both eager to drop off our stuff and get to exploring this medieval city, eat some local food and drink some ridiculously cheap beer.

The guidebook said that the best way to get started in Prague was to take one of the trams, which wound around most of the more picturesque sights and would help us get the lay of the land, so to speak. So we climbed aboard Tram 22 and sat down, filled with anticipation. The tram took us over one of the many ancient bridges and past some extraordinary buildings from the eleventh through the sixteenth centuries; then the architecture started getting newer. Seventeenth century. Eighteenth. Nineteenth, with more and more graffiti marring the charm (ugh -- graffiti on historic buildings; don't these little Czech gangsta-wannabe bastards have any self-respect?). Oy. Soon we were getting a glimpse of Communist-Era Prague, outside the old city. Cinderblock buildings, mostly cheap utilitarian housing. Concrete everywhere; no trees anywhere. Graffiti -- and not even the artistic kind -- covering everything. It got uglier and uglier, until just one word came to mind: Bleak. Like the nastiest parts of Detroit. Just Bleak.

We came to the end of the line. We were all alone on the tram. All around us was post-Communist Bleakness. It was kinda scary. And it was the end, where the trams turn around and go back, so we had to get off and get back on. We decided to go back on a different tram. That turned out not to be the brightest of decisions.

Yes, Prague is beautiful. Old Prague, that is. But outside of the old city center, I'm sorry to say, it's ugly as hell. Did I say Detroit? It's uglier than Detroit. It's ugly in the way only a former Soviet satellite can be. It's Chernobyl-fucking-ugly. And there's a lot of it. The second tram took us in a completely different direction, deep into Bleakville, as we affectionately named it. We kept our fingers crossed that at some point things would start to get all pretty and charming again, and we could get off the tram without thinking we would encounter any depleted uranium or old friends of Stalin.

Eventually the architecture started to get interesting again, so we took a chance and hopped off the tram. After walking a bit, we managed to make it back to the Prague of the postcards and calendars and snowglobes. I doubt that Bleakville will be showing up on any postcards anytime soon...

To be continued...

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Friday, June 24, 2005

European Vacation Part Three: Amsterdam

There we were. Sitting in a Paris train station, hot and sweaty from running in vain to the train we were supposed to be on as it pulled out on its way to Amsterdam. Luckily there was another Netherlands-bound train leaving a mere 4 hours later, and, luckier still, it had available seats. We could have wandered around Paris some more while waiting, but we had all our bags and the lockers in the station were like a zillion euros an hour. So we just hung out.

People-watching in a train station is always interesting, and Paris is no exception. There were all sorts of dramas playing out around us, from the 'stranded' guy hustling money for a 'return trip home' (isn't there ALWAYS one of those guys?) to the bald-headed eyebrowless evil-scientist-looking man who never blinked, to the woman with the gigantic silver sunglasses who looked like a big housefly and who constantly kept changing seats. I could swear she was making buzzing noises under her breath as she moved closer and closer to us, sending a chill up my spine and prompting me to wonder if I had unwittingly ingested some sort of mushroom. Finally the time passed and we got on a train, just in time to avoid the fly woman, who proceeded to feast on the living juices of some poor girl who had fallen asleep next to us in the waiting area. Or at least that's what it looked like to me.

After a brief stop in the middle of nowhere because of some protest on the tracks or something (we never quite figured out what it was, but there was some sort of strike going on, as there usually is in France), we were on our way. The landscape from Paris to Amsterdam is rather unremarkable; I'm sure there are interesting things to see in Belgium, but you don't see them from the train.

By now my jetlag was wearing off and I started to feel somewhat human, so I knew something bad was going to happen. By now you should know my life well enough to understand why. That, however, didn't stop me from eating the cheese.

At some point -- I think it was somewhere in Belgium -- a couple of tasty-looking EuroChix from some cheese company's promotions department boarded the train and handed out free samples of packaged cheese. Gotta love Europe for stuff like that; it just wouldn't happen here unless you're a doctor and they're pharmaceutical reps. Anyway, since we had planned to be on the earlier train, we hadn't eaten much in awhile and I was famished. So I woofed down the whole package of cheese, which was actually quite delicious. I think there were six jumbo slices in there -- not bad for a free sample.

Too bad it was poisonous.

OK; well, maybe I'm exaggerating. Nobody else seemed to have a problem. But within an hour we were pulling into our destination and I was looking a little on the purplish side with a tinge of green around the edges. I couldn't breathe very well, and I felt uncomfortably edgy and anxious, like I was having a heart attack or something. So all I can think of is that I had an allergic reaction. Don't have them to food very often; probably only a couple of times in my life, but this was definitely one of them. I was sure I was going to pass out, as I staggered out of the train and the station and into the cold, wet air of Amsterdam in the Spring.

Cheese has never bothered me, and if it did, I would expect it to be more of a digestive thing -- but this was definitely tweaking my cardiovascular system, and of course I couldn't tell just how bad it was going to get. As Rachel and I climbed aboard a bus to the vicinity of our hotel, I could barely get air into my lungs and my hands and feet were feeling all tingly. I've often thought Amsterdam wouldn't be a bad place to spend my final days, but I had hoped to actually get to see the place first.

Somehow made it up to the hotel room, which was up about 20 narrow flights of stairs, wheezing and gasping the whole way like it was Machu Picchu or something. I'm sure Rachel was wondering why she had opted to travel with this pathetic invalid as I coughed out, 'I'm not g-gonna make it; b-better go on without me. Save yourself.' Surely she had read what had happened to me in Madrid?

Took some antihistamines. Crashed on the bed for awhile. Color came back. I'd live another day.

Still don't know if it was the cheese or what, but I can't think of what else it might have been. But I was rather sniffly for the rest of the trip, thanks to some unfamiliar pollen or whatever flying around. I don't know what planet I'm from, but I seem to be overly sensitive to this one. Jesus. I wanted to be Ernest Hemingway and instead I turned out to be Woody Allen.

The hotel was a decent little place right in the center of town, above a headshop and a Chinese restaurant that proudly offered 'ALL YOU CAN EAT IN ONE HOUR' for 7 Euros or so. The restaurant was devoid of conversation; all you could hear from the doorway was slurping and chewing, as the patrons tried to cram in as much food as they could in the allotted timeframe. I figured they were probably Americans. I saw lots of people with Canadian flag stickers recently applied to their backpacks; I figured they were probably Americans too.

Amsterdam was beautiful despite the weather, which started out partly crappy in the morning and progressed to mostly shitty by mid-afternoon. the cold and wet were not particularly conducive to sightseeing, so as a result we spent most of our time in the -- ahem -- coffeeshops. If there could possibly be any of you who as yet aren't familiar with this terminology, go ask one of your pothead friends, who will probably just laugh at you. Let's just say I don't generally drink coffee.

Our stay in The Netherlands was thus a hazy one, spent floating and/or stumbling around in a perpetual daze, wandering around quaint cobblestone streets and looking for warm places to hang out. There being a coffeeshop every fifteen feet or so, we managed to visit quite a few of them, striking up interesting conversations here and there that both of us only vaguely remember. One guy looked like a pirate. He kept mumbling incoherently to us, and we acted as though we knew what he was talking about. One time a pair of identical twin females, both rather husky and with crazy big-ass kinky red hair out to here, dressed alike and each looking a bit like a cross between Carrot Top and a Viking, came in and started playing checkers while sharing a gigantic joint. I looked at Rachel, who nodded as if to say, 'Yes, there are two of them. I see them too.'

We decided that it would be prudent to visit some museums, so that when people asked us later, 'Did you visit any museums?' we wouldn't have to say, 'No, we just wandered around stoned.' So we wandered around the Van Gogh Museum stoned -- which was not advisable since they had an Egon Schiele exhibit, and his stuff is just too fucking miserable to look at while high. I mean, I'm no fan of the guy anyway, but with a potentially semi-paranoid headful of Northern Lights, he's just way too disturbing for words to describe. We wandered around the Tropenmuseum stoned -- which was hilarious, because that has got to be one of the saddest, tackiest little excuses for a museum I've seen yet (with the possible exception of the Roy Rogers Museum, on the way to Vegas from L.A.). The current exhibit of note was called 'Het Kwaad,' which means 'All About Evil' in Dutch. And evil it was indeed. Kinda like a haunted house at an elementary school. Amid backdrops made of cheaply-painted cardboard and aluminum foil, there were all sorts of representations of 'evil' from throughout the centuries displayed, from ancient gargoyles to pictures of goth fetish models. Ooh, scary. My favorite was an obviously cobbled-together five-foot mannequin of Darth Vader, complete with black rubber rainboots -- yes, rainboots -- and an undersized head that obviously originated on a much smaller model of The Dark Lord himself. The overall effect was as if Zippy the Pinhead were seduced by the dark side.

Upstairs in the same museum was the Permanent Collection -- a disjointed and confusing walk through Dutch colonial history, with strange wax figures of Dutch colonialists engaging in various indecipherable activities, along with all sorts of items of questionable origin and even more questionable value. There was a life-sized re-creation of what looked like an Apartheid-era African township. No, I'm not kidding. Mistaken, perhaps. But kidding? No. At any rate, it was one sorry-ass exhibit.

Didn't go to the Rijksmuseum. As an artist and former art student, I've seen enough Rembrandt and other Old Masters to last a lifetime, thanks. But we DID go to the Sex Museum, which was mostly anticlimactic coming from a place like San Francisco, but I can see how it would be shocking if I were from, say, Kansas. The real fun of that place was watching everybody else get all giggly and embarrassed at the goofball displays. You just haven't lived until you've watched a middle-class Japanese family pose for pictures next to a giant fiberglass erect penis.

Speaking of erect penises, I guess I expected the prostitutes in the red light district to be skanky. Man, was I wrong. They have certain streets designated for legal hustling, and they're lined with these sliding-glass doors all lit up with various colors of neon, mostly red and pink. Standing behind the doors were some of the most gorgeous girls I've ever seen, all regulated, taxed and supposedly disease-free. I was taken aback, to say the least. Never thought of myself as the sort to consider paying for some action but to be completely honest, I must admit that the thought crossed my mind. Must have been the dope. Yeah, that was it.

Anyway, rather than give Rachel the dubious choice of waiting outside or joining in, I kept my lascivious fantasies to myself.

Instead, we went and found a nice, warm...coffeeshop.

To be continued...

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Thursday, June 23, 2005

European Vacation Part Two: Paris

Landed at Charles deGaulle Airport without incident. It's a quick flight from Heathrow; low altitude, over the English Channel and then the beautiful French countryside. I imagined myself part of the D-Day invasion in a B-24, looking for Nazi tanks to annihilate below, but the quiet empty beaches of Normandy ruined the illusion. At least I THINK it was Normandy...

Descended rapidly to the runway, thus ending my fantasy of being a young, dashing bombardier in 1944 France. And the sexy French whore who was about to hide me in her armoire after I was forced to eject behind enemy lines turned back into, well, the one cute stewardess on the plane. Sigh. The captain turned off the fasten seat belt sign and everyone stood up. A woman right behind the first class curtain stood up and slammed her head into the plastic overhead light assembly. Hard. That had to hurt.

Once again, the International Bureau of Airport Ineptitude was on the job, and we were herded into a passageway that spiraled around and opened into the passport control area. But unlike in London, there were no lines. Just a mob. The signs ordered us to stay behind the yellow line, but there were no lanes to queue up into -- just a single open passport window, with about 400 people crammed together trying to get in front of each other but behind the aforementioned yellow line. I heard obvious profanity being exclaimed in about thirty different languages, including a few I even recognized. I didn't wish to enter France as the stereotypical loud, pushy, Ugly American, but I was quickly getting shoved further backwards in the crowd by people with gigantic bags, dogs, children and beards -- so finally I angled my slender bod in such a way as to form a wedgelike warhead, a human torpedo, and I forced my way through the swearing, sweating, wildly gesticulating masses until I plowed smack into the broad back of a large Arabic gentleman with hands the size of ceiling fans. I knew if I stayed right behind him in his wake, I'd get somewhere -- nobody was pushing HIM around.

After jostling around this way for a good 20 minutes with no sign that the Frenchies were going to open another window, I finally made it to the front and was welcomed to France with a grimace from the obviously unamused Passport Control Gendarme. Wound my way around to the huge waiting crowd where my friend would hopefully be waiting to escort me away from this ghastly place; luckily she spotted me, and we ran off toward baggage claim together. Ah, my vacation begins...

My friend Rachel is originally a New Yorker, but she's lived in Paris for five years, teaching English and translating and such. Her French is perfect, while mine is nonexistent, so besides babysitting my ignorant ass and giving me a place to stay, she was a great resource in oh-so-many ways. She lives right where the Bastille used to be, which is pretty dang cool if you ask me. We went on all kinds of little sightseeing trips, and I took all kinds of crappy pictures with my brand-new digital camera. Yes, I said crappy pictures. Either this camera sucks, or I do -- and since the camera can't defend itself, I'm blaming IT.

OK, so I met a bunch of Rachel's friends, who were all interesting and nice, including the charming British expat Ralph Fiennes type who collects sports cars and Classic Rock Memorabilia and who had just bought his cute blonde American girlfriend a pair of Gene Simmons panties on EBay. Not sure what they thought of me, since I spent my first few days in a complete coma from jetlag; hadn't been able to sleep on the plane and had thus lost an entire night's worth of shuteye and didn't really catch up until Amsterdam (see Part Three). But together we ate a bunch of expensive bar food made even more expensive by the appalling value of my 21st-century American Dollar against the Euro, to my dismay. I could maybe afford to live in Paris for about three months, and that's if I sold my car. And the food's good, but I have to say that in all my travels, Paris included, I haven't found a city that can touch San Francisco for food quality, variety, and (compared to Western Europe) even price. Besides, as good as the food might be in Paris, it might as well be dogshit with all the smokers puffing away at every table in every restaurant. My face was a lovely shade of green the majority of the time, and my food usually ended up tasting like the Marlboro Man's pillowcase.

Ah, but Paris is beautiful. The Seine, the ancient architecture, the magnificent history, the willowy, pouty-lipped girls clicking around everywhere in high heels over ankle-destroying cobblestone streets...

Paris is the only place you could get me to eat a duckling heart. Yeah, a cute little baby duck heart. We had a handful of 'em. Tasted like metallic bridge mix. Here I would be ashamed to eat that, but there I was just glad it was less than a hundred bucks for dinner. Actually my normally somewhat politically-correct dietary leanings became completely violated, obfuscated and nearly obliterated on this trip, as you shall see later in the story -- but that's one of the things traveling does to you. Makes you eat weird shit, and be okay with it. Kinda like being Catholic; I eat something I would normally never consider, but then I say a few 'hail marys' to my inner Buddha and all is forgiven.

I found out in Paris that a 'suzette' is a lollipop, BUT it is also, appropriately enough, slang for 'blow job' -- a fact I relayed excitedly to my friend Suzette just yesterday. But for some reason, she wasn't as amused as I was by this delightful bit of trivia. Go figure.

You hear a lot about how rude French people supposedly are, especially to Americans, but I didn't experience this. Either they weren't rude to me at all, or else they were rude in French and I didn't understand them. They could be saying the French equivalent of 'Your face looks like an orangutan's ass with smallpox' and I would respond with something like 'Oui madame, the croissants smell excellent.' I guess one could say that the beauty of not understanding a language is being immune to its insults. Makes me wish that sometimes I couldn't understand English.

In fact, one such time was when some American tourist with an East Coast-ish accent stopped us and asked if we par-layed eeng-less, and if we knew where the 'Emily' cafe was. I was baffled for a moment until I remembered we were in Montmartre, where the film 'Amelie' was shot. The girl in the film works at a little cafe; apparently it and many other of the locations in the movie have become tourist attractions simply by virtue of being featured in it. Hey, it's a great little film and I like it a lot -- but come on, people. Jesus.

Wandered aimlessly around Paris for awhile, taking in all the sights, navigating the Metro, eating out too much and resisting the temptation to buy a tiny metal replica of the Eiffel Tower. Checked out the cemetery where my heroes Proust, Wilde, Jim Morrison and Leopold Fucker are buried, which is one huge cool crazy spooky place, let me tell ya. Repeatedly passed incarnations of the Tex-Mex restaurant chain known as 'Indiana.' Why anyplace ostensibly serving 'Tex-Mex' food would call itself 'Indiana' remains quite beyond my comprehension. Maybe 'El Paso' was taken?

I'm thinking of opening up a French restaurant here in town and calling it 'Scotland.'

OK, so I could talk all day about Paris and how great it was -- except for the weather, which tended to be rather chilly for June, even by San Francisco standards -- but anybody who's been to Paris knows how fab it is, and anybody who hasn't ought to get their ignorant lazy American asses out of the barc-o-lounger and do some traveling, for Christ's sake! The world's bigger than Michigan, Bucko!

To be continued...

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Wednesday, June 22, 2005

European Vacation Part One: Getting There

Ya know, a vacation is a funny thing. You go because, well, you need a break. All work and no play, blah blah blah. But then you come back, and you're tired as hell, and you have work piled up into a menacing heap. Within a day and a half, you need another vacation. And another. And soon you descend into the spiral of Vacation Addiction.

OK, I'll admit it. I'm a Vacation Addict. And I'm not in the least bit upset about it. But then again, I haven't gotten my credit card bill yet...

OK, so between vacations and out-of-town guests and catching up on an insane workload, I haven't had the chance to regale you all with my latest tales of adventure until now. But here I am, back on West Coast time and wishing I were lounging carefree in an Amsterdam coffeeshop but alas, I must morph back into the white-collar slave to the dollar that this particular human epoch has assured I will be for awhile.

But for a moment, just a few short weeks ago, I was soaring high into the friendly skies in a United Airlines seat that was only slightly bigger than a baby's carseat, not a care in the world other than poor circulation, muscle cramps and the strange smells that appear out of nowhere in the recycled air of a pressurized cabin.

The flight took ninety-seven hours, or so it seemed. I brought drugs to knock me out but they didn't work. Yeah, I knew the expiration date was sometime in the mid-nineties, but I figured they'd do SOMETHING (greedy pharmaceutical companies with their planned obsolescence). Bastards. So I read 2 books, watched some horrid inflight movies (that godawful sequel to 'Bridget Jones' made the first one, which I also saw on a plane, seem like 'Citizen Kane' by comparison), squirmed around, and tried in futility to sleep. No dice. The ever-present constantly screaming baby made my earplugs useless. Why don't they have special flights for people with babies, huh? And while they're at it, they should have special rows for fat people too, with just one big seat and no armrests. Fit 'em in there according to ass size, like in a church pew, as many across as needed for ballast.

So anyway, what's REALLY nice on international flights now is that they have those little video maps and timetables you can check periodically, so that you can see that five minutes has passed since the last time you checked it. It's like your inner child going 'are we there yet?' in your head every few minutes. Maddening. And they encourage this.

OK, so after weeks in the air, landed at Heathrow Airport in London for a three-hour layover. Yeah, that was all I could get. Three hours (or so I thought) to wait for a one-hour flight across the channel. Not only that, but Heathrow, like many airports all over the world, is run by complete idiots. Yes, even though airplanes come and go day in and day out from all over the planet, it seems that when the employees of Heathrow go to bed at night, they forget all about just exactly what it is that they do, and they have to start over each morning.

There were signs pointing in opposing directions, saying the same thing. There were crowds of arriving passengers completely confused as to where to go next, and no one to tell them. I could swear that nobody worked there at all. The atmosphere was one of complete chaos. A recording kept playing over the intercom, apologizing in a female voice for the confusion, but not explaining why. But there were no flesh-and-blood humans to be found, other than travelers trying desperately to figure out why the single line they were forced to stand in that snaked through the entire airport was not moving at all. Several people in line with me missed their connecting flights while standing there; it was then that I became grateful for my 3-hour layover. Turns out they were short-handed, with one security checkpoint for ALL arriving flights, and nobody to tell anyone the situation. Lovely. Three hours later, I barely made it onto my connecting flight to Paris.

To be continued...

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Tuesday, June 14, 2005

Did ya miss me?

Hey folks -- I'm back in town. Went to Paris, Amsterdam and Prague; had a great time but now I'm jet-lagged and cobblestone-footed. I'll post all about my trip as soon as I get my internal clock back in gear and get my brain to remember what the heck I've been up to during my adventures. Besides the timezone thing and the 12-hour flight home, I think I'm still pretty hazy from Amsterdam, if you get my drift...

In the meantime, had an absurd crazy dream last night I thought I'd share. Not sure what the heck it means if anything, but I'm sure some shrink would have a field day with it. OK, here goes:

First I seem to be in the desert at Burning Man, only I apparently didn't expect to be there since I have NO supplies, food or water or anything. So I'm desperately running around from camp to camp, begging people to give me some water. Quite weirdly, I'm carrying around a female mannequin's hollow leg and asking for it to be filled with water -- I'm extremely thirsty, but nobody will give me any. OK, so this is all pretty bizarre, right? Well it gets better. Suddenly I'm in a different dream, like changing the channel on a TV. I'm living in a tiny, crumbling apartment somewhere with a pregnant wife -- I don't recall who she might be or what she looks like, but suddenly she starts giving birth. To triplets. Yeah, three of them, all girls. I was prepared for one, but three freaks my ass out. I say to her, "OK, now I'm really gonna kill myself." Probably not a good thing to say to a woman while she's giving birth to your kids, but whatever.

Anyway, so as if all that weren't weird enough, it gets weirder. One of the kids doesn't cry -- instead, every time the bottle falls out of her mouth, which seems to happen a lot, she starts screaming "fuck! fuck! fuck!" until I pick up the bottle and give it back to her. Then she's fine.

Another one of the children doesn't seem important to the dream; she just sits there quietly. But the third one, who looks like a toddler version of Nicole Kidman -- yeah, really -- sits on my lap in a reclining chair, while she and I spin around and take turns pointing out all the crappy things about the tiny apartment. The place is disgusting -- the paint is peeling off the walls; the floor has big holes in it. It's a complete slum. But she and I are laughing about it. Weird, eh?

Right about then I woke up.

Not sure I wanna know what sort of garbage is going on in my head to explain this fucked-up dream, but anyway, there it is. Maybe I need some medication or something. Bueller?


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