Archive for July, 2011

Ok Go

Photo by KlesieSo now that I’m a graduated Assistant Stage Technician, I am supposedly at the beginning of a lifelong career. A flourishing career, if I am to believe my teachers on our last day.

My first paid job was a real challenge. I know how a PA system works and how to make it if it doesn’t, but being put responsible for the construction, deconstruction and operation during one of the biggest folk festivals in Europe, is a big weight on the shoulders.

It’s actually a former teacher that got me in. Most of the class had applied for the job but I’m the one who got it. Needless to say, this guy rather digs me.
He’s been at it for years and years, though. He works with festival-size systems, using digital PA tables that are smarter than you and I combined. For him, 6 active speakers with a 1990 Soundcraft table attached is nothing, so I don’t think he really knows what the big deal is.

Me, I’m a 26-year old kid who just learned how a mixing desk works. It may look like it, but when I’m building this thing, I don’t really know what I’m doing. When seven musicians climb on stage and I’m supposed to mic, wire, test, problem-solve and mix that bitch by myself, I don’t really feel like I can handle it. So, I always take a moment to tell myself “Chill. You can do this.” and get busy.

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The Ache

All disguised beneath the smile of the temptress,
Siren, Evil Child,
The Devil’s sweetest whore.

I told myself not to, but I’m gonna do it anyway.
This one’s between me and my archives.

All through puberty I had a girlfriend, and my mentality was that the whole world didn’t really matter, as long as I had her. This worked both ways- All I had to do was tell her that I’d still love her if she failed, to relieve her of the stress for the upcoming exams.

I can tell you, with my hand on my heart, that I never even looked at another girl the whole time I was with her. I am so certain about that because when we broke up and I began doing just that, a whole world of booty opened up for me. A bittersweet revelation.
I had always seen other girls as a threat to my relationship. All a chick had to do was hit on me, to make me walk the other way after a snide remark or two. It took me years to lose that habit, after the day I had to conclude that my girlfriend’s ethic code apparently wasn’t quite as strong as mine.

This means that I was 22 when I really started noticing girls. My relationship had carried me through puberty like a piggyback ride, and suddenly the whole game of flirtation and casual sex was no longer beneath me. Quite the contrary, it was way beyond me- out of reach. I couldn’t properly talk to any member of the female race to save my life. Desperate, harsh attempts to change that tendency failed and what followed were a few miserably failed attempts to function normally in the few watered-down relationships that followed. It’s hard to love someone if you deem them a threat to your “real” (non-existent) relationship.

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Milestone 5

“Every time I go hiking, I come back a different person. It takes a certain mindset to tackle large challenges- Setting goals for yourself, accepting that things might not go as planned, and the conviction that whatever you got yourself into, you chose for it and you choose how it ends. These are things I take home with me.”

The end of July is nearing and I’m wondering where it went. One moment I’m on the highest mountain on Sweden with zero visibility, the next I’m in a skate park in Prague shooting pictures. Then I blink and I’m in my home town, mixing live bands for a couple hundred folk music lovers.

These couple days are the first where I can take it easy, though that doesn’t mean I don’t know what to do. I still have paperwork to fill in for the payment of my last job (more on that later) and I’ve had several direct and indirect job offerings I need to contact people for. Working on the internet? It boggles the mind.

The city is still shaking from the Ghent Festival. A few days after I came home from my trip, 10 days of music, binge drinking and miscellaneous cultural events were unleashed upon our medium-sized town and 48 hours later, they’re still cleaning the mess up. If there’s anything this organization is good at, it’s keeping the city clean.

For tourists it’s a phenomenon to be witnessed, for the locals it’s either a grave annoyance or a keen opportunity to find a job. Many of my friends found some position or other as volunteer security or bartender and I too was lucky enough find work: Sound technician.

Holy shit.

I was trained as “assistant stage technician”, so I could find work at a cultural venue or land me a dead-end job with some audio company. What I was not prepared for, was carrying the responsibility for tens of thousands of euros worth of equipment, building it up and breaking it down every single day, and doing it by my fucking self. But yeah, I pulled it off rather well.

Because I’m usually so involved with the technical side of the festival, and because it is the climax of social interaction throughout the summer, every festival stands as a lighthouse in the locals’ lives and makes an easy mark to look back on the past year. It’s like new year’s, but without awkward long-lasting hugs from single drunk uncles.

It also highlights the situation and condition as it is each July. The first year I really started “doing” the festival, I was a bike taxi driver in the middle of a break-up. The next, I was owner of a free youth hostel (or so it felt) and was merrily enjoying my next relationship for the couple days that it lasted. Last year I was a carpenter in a dance school and translator for Canadian friends who got arrested, and this edition..? Sound tech with an attitude and unhealthy obsession for anything female.

Pretty much every waking moment that I wasn’t hauling subwoofers or experimentally pushing buttons, I was hanging over some bar with my tongue out or skipping after groups of chicks way too big for me to handle. I had no less than four girls sleeping over for the second half of the festivities, and had about 2-3 more that I saw on a daily basis. I went out every single night, buying love with free drinking tickets and getting up early to share some intellect on top of high monuments. With chicks, obviously.

Something, somewhere, went terribly wrong.

There was a time when I didn’t have the gall to approach women and talk to them- at all. That time was, in fact, the past 26 god damn years. There were times when I wanted to reach inside my mind through my ears and manually bust whatever obstacle was keeping it from working properly; that’s how much it bothered me. It feels like some mental handicap and after going through several painful extremes trying to beat it out of myself, I gave up and went to Lapland. This was like, last month.

On my way home through Eastern Europe, I was noticing some significant changes. Where last time solo travelling wore me down alarmingly quickly, I now felt more confident than ever. I was talking to people, smiling, flirting with Polish chicks. I don’t know what Sweden-bound parasite nestled itself in my brain but even if he’s eating away at my temporal lobe, I don’t really mind.

Gah. I don’t know if I should be relieved or worried. Relieved that finally, I stand a fighting chance in this war they call social interaction, or worried that this is, in fact, the road to insanity or I’ll end up scaring people. I got a couple strange looks already and one or more are definitely on to me.

I was relieved to notice it’s not just some hormonal flux or a case of virginity growing back- My whole way of interaction is shifting. I smile more. And I hug.
I’ve had situations where I was convinced I had gotten more hugs than the rest of my single life combined, but I think this year’s edition of the Gentse Feesten, I broke the record of giving them. Short, tight, “I’m glad you’re here” type hugs that are starting to mean a lot to me. I’m even beginning to understand why people seem to believe I am allergic to those, and am calmly trying to work on that, as well.

All in all, I think I’m becoming a much more extroverted person, but it’s hard to see if this is just one more step in whatever process I am swept up in, or a revolutionary change triggered by my trip northeast or some event before that. As often happens in the case of positive change, I’m going to go and not give a shit. I’m going to go with the most plausible, which is that my efforts are paying off. After this long, I think that calls for a fucking celebration.

I did not get laid, did not get thanked repeatedly for my work (but paid instead), did not find my purposefully vague obsessions satisfied, but I still think this year’s “Gentsche Fieste” were a great success.


Tjupie

[emo whining]

After visiting my old room and seeing footage of my mother from a few months before she passed away, and mentally responding with nothing more than a bland “Oh”, I didn’t think there was anything from my youth that could really get a hold on me, anymore. There was nothing else that I could think of, that had some emotional impact on my youth as much as these things did.

I certainly didn’t see it coming when a few days ago, I held my old teddy bear in my hands and its eyes stirred something reaching deep, like a wick pulling things to the surface.
It’s a monkey actually, just about the most asymmetrical little thing you ever slept with. Its hands are off, its ears are misaligned, one eye hangs out and its crooked grin has all but faded completely. I swear to god, it’s like looking into a mirror- Imagine seeing your younger self before you: It’s the exact same sensation.

unIMG_1162My mother gave him to me and as a child would, I named him “Tjupie” [CHUP-pee] and we were inseparable ever since. He had a little bed in the corner of my own, and my mother made him wool clothes that he still wears. He has a knot in his tail that “grew in” and behind it, the rubber band of an exploded balloon. He is hand-made and remarkably strong, with real leather and stitching that survived much abuse.

He spent his first night outside my bed when I was 21 and moved out of the parental house. He knows me like none other: He was there waiting for me the first night after being told I wouldn’t see my mother again. He stayed home when I left for boarding school. He watched me fuck my first girlfriend (creepy, now that I look back on it) and the 8.000 times after that, heard the fights inside the house.

All this time, he was there for me. We went through some seriously fucked up times together (I’m sure you had your own, I’m not going to bother and describe) and to squeeze the life out of this inanimate animal brought a comfort nothing else could. Shrinks, stepmothers, girlfriends, no one knows what this monkey knows about life’s pitch black moments, when the world ends at the edge of your bed. There, he would act like a sponge, patiently absorbing hugs, tears and whatever demons loomed over.
Until I felt like I was growing ‘”too old” for him of course, and he ended up in a box.

A friend stayed over a few days back, so she wouldn’t have to walk all the way home on sore feet, to an empty bed, since her boyfriend is gone traveling. As a joke more than anything, I gave her my old teddy bear, knowing he did the part quite well. Immediately after I physically gave it to her, I asked it back and spent the next few minute staring at it with open mouth.
Anyone else would just see a scabby little stuffed monkey, but I can’t even imagine what others will make of it. What I see in its face are decades of the world’s scariest ghosts, because the only times when I really needed him were when I was at my worst.

I noticed him in the double bed last night, which I don’t use. I pulled him with me as I went to sleep, and I have to say: I don’t think I’ll do that ever again. Talk about an evil little thing; Every time I turned around and felt him under my touch, I was that scared little kid again. I think I’m going to return him to my kitchen rack and let him sit there until someone else might need him.

So here’s what I make of it: It seems like I took all that emotional baggage and dealt with it somehow. A lot of it got dumped inside Tjupie’s stuffing, and what was left I probably gave my ex to deal with, and yes I do feel like going on about her yet again, fuck you very much.
Since cramming emotion into something is physically not possible, I somehow have to fit all this inside my psyche, which would mean that there’s a lot that I somehow repressed. To use a technical term, I think I compressed the whole period, flattening peaks and lows, and kind of sterilizing the entirety. By tying large chunks to things like girlfriends and teddy bears and then leaving them behind, I suppose I disconnected from it somehow and it now just sort of lingers below the surface.

Everyone is shaped by his past, there’s no denying that. But it seems like I subconsciously found a way to “move on” somehow, without the conventional years of therapy. The actual result of my past is absorbed in my life today, and its emotional baggage disconnected and repressed. It seems a dangerous thing to do, but in some way, I’m grateful for it.

Not that I had such a bad childhood, mind. I had lots of friends to play with and being raised a catholic, everything was taboo and thus all the more exciting to discover. It’s just that certain things, at certain times, reached the point of desperation and hopelessness, to where you’re pretty much just better off without the emotional memory of them. I’d hate to call them “traumas” because I’m not a psychiatrist, but truth is I like them right were they are: Tied to a monkey’s tail and forgotten in the corner. If that comes at the cost of memories of happier memories, I can live with that- I am doing well enough making new ones.

[/whining]


Lull

IMG_0378

 

This is the house I grew up in, shot from the back yard. When I tell people I was raised rich, they usually don’t believe me. I can hardly believe it myself, in general I just assume it true because I don’t have any other memories to substitute.

I went back there the other day, because the necessity arose- I never go there out of my own free will. I took the time to wander through the backyard and take a good look at the place I spent years, with different eyes.

I found it strange to notice that I didn’t really have any emotional response. I have it when I see my father or sister: you just relate them subconsciously to a certain feeling, a certain mindset. Not with this house: It feels like a totally new place that I just happen to know like the back of my hand. Bits and pieces of my youth come back to me, but as if I actually managed to turn my back on them (I didn’t realize I ever tried), they just didn’t mean much to me. I almost didn’t seem to mind forgetting about them.

Moments after this shot was taken, my sister showed me a video on the home computer there. Apparently, my father had managed to digitize old video cassette tapes (he enjoys that) and the file that she opened, showed a holiday we spent in France with friends, and… our mother.

I sat down and continued to watch. I recognized places vaguely, said names spontaneously that I thought I had completely forgotten. But when my mother entered the frame…I drew blank.
My first reaction was shock, although it didn’t last very long. I looked at this woman fascinated, as if I was told this was my mother, for the first time. Something inside my brain did not connect, because I grew up without it.

My mother passed away when I was 10, old enough to remember her. My younger sister remembers her more vividly though, I think she was more emotionally connected in the first place. I get the impression, though she doesn’t really tell and I don’t really ask, she really studied our mother when she was gone. She read her diary, made notes, kept photos, and even dug deeper in her relationship with our father. She still sees things, makes connections that I don’t.

Lately I’m starting to feel like I had no childhood at all. First, let me tell you that I don’t really mind: While most people are terrified of the idea of losing memories, they lose them daily and don’t feel any different- And neither do I.

Still… A child’s memory of his mother. Of his emotions linked to her. Simply forgotten? Common sense tells me it’s a tragic thing, and I do feel troubled by it. My present-focused living apparently came at the cost of something I initially considered a holy thing, and I didn’t realize until it was too late.
It was intriguing to see our mother. She was a beautiful woman but she didn’t dress very flattering. On the tapes, she doesn’t smile at all, just calmly looks around as if she was told to do so, the whole tape long. Some strange woman. My mother.

Painful truth is, I probably wouldn’t even recognize her if I saw her on the streets. I carry a picture of her in my wallet but she was a girl when it was taken.
What am I supposed to make of this? Was it the three other women in our house that destroyed the term “mother” as something positive? Did I betray her somehow by consciously wanting to distance myself from my weaknesses as a child?

This is my mother, for crying out loud. And what’s worse, those words probably mean a lot more to you than they do to me.


Disclaimer: I wrote these two entries with about 4 weeks in between.


So yeah, pornography.

Just like prostitution, it’s extremely hard to voice an opinion about it without seeming suspicious, because to admit that you have any knowledge about it is to suggest that you partake in it. They’re trying to pass a law here in Belgium that makes it illegal to visit a brothel (although prostitution is technically legal) and who dares to oppose it?

Back when the internet was on the rise, my girlfriend at the time wouldn’t have any of it. Not because “she should be enough” or it’s somehow immoral, but because it’s “woman-unfriendly” since they “never have orgasms”. And who was I to disagree? I was a good bitch and kept my mouth shut.
I don’t know the exact numbers but I remember reading somewhere that porno takes up 50% of the internet, and even more of its traffic. It’s a multi-million dollar business and obviously, it’s here to stay.

Who here can claim they have been successfully avoiding it all these years? Who can claim that they do in fact, know nothing about the whole concept? Not too many, I suspect, and most of that percentage will be women, although that’s an assumption on my part. It’s rising from its marginal image and nowadays, psychologists state it’s a normal part of our psyche and if a man gets caught with it, he should be patted on the head and given a cookie or something.

Seriously though; If we happen to be working or hanging out together, I will most likely respect you but that kind of stops where you start talking about your porno habits. I know it’s socially acceptable and in some circles even encouraged, but I rather do not know about your masturbation rituals. Don’t recommend me any sites, don’t blurt out pro terms whenever reminded, and do. not. explain your favorite genre to me. In fact, and this is disturbing, I will mind less hearing about your actual sexual exploits than your online ones, perhaps because then, I feel less involved in them.

What we do lack, is some research about the long-term effects of pornography. I remember reading about a case of Russian mineworkers who had to work away from home months on end. For entertainment, they were given porno mags. When they came home a year or so later, their wives didn’t know what the fuck was going on: They had never heard of the things their husbands had grown accustomed to. Imagine the horror. And the comedy.

I am quite sure I know more about sex than I would have if I didn’t have internet, although arguably I might be getting laid more then (worth testing). So what’s going to do this to our children? As we speak, there is a generation of children growing up who can satisfy every single bit of curiosity towards sex –and then some- without even having to come near each other. I mean, I’m relieved I won’t have to break out the hand puppets when my kid turns 14, but has anyone considered what this might do to their development?

Also, and I suppose I’m in the yellow zone saying this, there’s some seriously conflicting situations when putting fiction and reality side by side. Some things might seem perfectly normal for internet users but are way “out there” for those not involved with porn. Recently there was this woman on Ted.com, author of  makelovenotporn.com (semi-sfw and very funny) listing a whole series of things that might not come across as awesome as it looked on yesterday’s porn vid.

Back into the comfort zone!
Now that sex is sold more than ever before, it’s getting harder yet still surprisingly easy to ignore.
And where am I in this discussion? That’s for me to know and for you to google.

Oh look, a different subject.

nom-nom-nom


Tripping

I am home.

Not a moment too soon, either. Travelling is fun but if you’re on a tight schedule and plans change on a regular basis, it gets exhausting and I feel it’s time to head home.

I’m going to be an ass and work backwards, splitting the whole thing down in two sections and keeping the hike through Lapland for last. The reason is that I don’t have the pictures yet, and it will take me forever to process them anyway. So don’t hold your breath on that one (in case you would), but I promise it will be worth the wait.

IMG_9677So in a nutshell, these are the numbers:

Route:
Stockholm, Sweden
Riga, Latvia
Kaunas, Lituvia
Warsaw, Poland
Cracow, Poland
Prague, Czech Republic
Frankfurt, Germany

On this trip, I traveled by plane, boat, train, car, bus and by foot, had conversations in 4 languages, paid in 6 currencies, covered about 7.000 km (if I were to do it all by car), spent €810 on the road (this includes transportation!), and was 21 days from home.

I don’t feel like being too elaborate about it (what’s this? Maarten grew some modesty?) so here’s the highlights.

IMG_9639Stockholm

I was pleasantly surprised to see Stockholm has kept much of its authenticity. The officials managed to combine growth with heritage rather well. The building structure and materials are different from what I’m used to, so the whole city felt as foreign as it is. You can sense there’s a lot going on, and something is bubbling under the surface. Sadly, I failed to find it.

IMG_9659What I did find, after some searching, were some “alternative” (hate that word) clothing shops (hate that word even more) to re-arrange my travel gear. I gave my outdoor stuff with my friends and instead, bought me some pants and a tee shirt. You see, when you’re hiking, you’ll want to be as light as possible so spare clothing is a definite no- with all due unpleasant consequences. Not to mention, my gear was made for winter conditions, and Stockholm has a surprisingly warm climate.

IMG_9701I stayed with a couple in the outskirts of the city. Neither of them seemed very impressed with me, so I just did my thing while they minded their own business. Not that they were unfriendly- They allowed me to use the shower and washing machine, which were both a luxury I had nearly forgotten about. Also, they made some insanely good dinners- a welcome change from 10 days of camping grub and fast food.

IMG_9682One thing that did bother me about the city was how damn confusing it was. Some parts really looked alike, and sometimes I found myself thinking I was walking away from the water, only to see the docks make some kind of S-curve and ending up in an almost identical spot. Bridges over bridges and streets folding back on themselves- Escher would be impressed. I lost count on how many times I got lost, though I don’t really mind that.

IMG_9727I booked my overnight boat to the mainland too late and I had the choice: Either I would have to cough up the equivalent of €200, or “only” €100 for a romantic cruise. Those sadistic bastards can just smell you’re on a tight budget. I saw the most mind blowing sunset from the deck, though- it single-handedly made the whole ordeal a positive one. Just barely.

Riga

IMG_9801The only reason why Riga didn’t strike me as extremely dull is because I couldn’t get over the fact that I just set foot on former Soviet territory. On the boat I had already heard the Latvian language and it was hard not to link it to a certain stigma. Unlike Swedish, it is entirely impossible to understand and is somewhat similar to Polish, which apparently has some negative connotation in my brain. Huh. I never knew I was a racist.

IMG_9859I had requested a couch with another couple but the guy in question was out of town, so it was just me and this chick in a pale apartment. The walls were bare and everything was very simplistic. No wooden furniture at all, and some sort of cots to sleep in. It made the impressive computer system, with a screen big enough to call for Batman, all the more striking.

When I told her that I am rarely interested in the old town centers where all the tourist tend to huddle together, she was so friendly to take me on the guided tour around the city. And by that, I do mean around: We must have walked 10 km and all the time, I could see Riga in the distance. It took us most of the afternoon and now and then I would ask myself, “Where the hell did I end up now” but some parts were very interesting indeed.
IMG_9833It’s funny, half the city looks like a Paris ghetto, but isn’t. The people there are just as nice and there’s nothing to worry about, even though chunks of rotting cement are falling from the bridge you’re standing on. There’s just simply no money to rebuild it all, most of it was passed down from Soviet times when the government had better things to bother with than safety and aesthetics, so now they’re kind of stuck with a failing infrastructure.

In the local Occupation Museum I saw a whole bunch of Soviet symbols and badges on display, and found myself wondering if they would have them for sale anywhere. Especially the “Young Pioneer” badge, which shows Lenin’s ugly face on a red star with flames behind it, really caught my attention and I was curious if I could find one anywhere for a reasonable IMG_9869price. They didn’t have it in the museum shop so I set out, looking for Soviet gadgets in souvenir shops.
And here’s what I found: 
Fucking nothing. It’s like they’re in denial. Here in Belgium you have to walk around blind if you don’t want to see Che looking your way with those handsome eyes of his, and sooner or later you’re bound to find some commie dipshit sprouting comrade slogans of some sort. But over there? Nothing. And I looked hard.
In fact, I noticed there is a very active neo-Nazi organization there, with slogans on the subway walls. It’s funny how that seems to make more sense to these people than even admitting to the tourists that you were Russia’s bitch for a couple decades.

IMG_9968Kaunas

Lithuania is the only country I stayed at, which capital I did not visit- called Vilnius. My bus actually drove through, as part of a very retarded detour, and the whole time I sat by the window with my mouth open. This had to be the most depressing city I had ever seen, and yes I’ve been to Charleroi. Everything was broken. Construction yards were deserted; buildings as big as stadiums left to rot halfway through the building process.

Luckily this wasn’t my stop, and I was dropped off in the next town, named Kaunas. Pronounce: ka’-OON-ahs.
I already wrote this down on location: I had the privilege to stay with a student in political sciences, in the Soviet “sleeping district”. Any question I had was answered, and I could feel first-hand how it is to grow up in this concrete jungle like my host did. It was scary and inspiring all at the same time, and in general, an enlightening experience.

IMG_9888That’s a good thing too, because Kaunas itself was fucking boring. It didn’t really have a tourist center to speak of, and I didn’t see much of the “real” city because I spent most of the day in bed with a hangover.
Yes, Hangover. They kept nagging to me to go out clubbing with them and I figured, if I wanted to have some actual fun in a strange place with strange people speaking a strange language, I’d have to get seriously shitfaced. So I did, and I had fun, but not because of the liquor. What a ripoff.

IMG_0003Warsaw

Warsaw was the first place where I felt the weariness of being away from home so long. This was for a large part because I was having problems finding a place to stay and the two-city couchsurfing buffer I had built up was now gone. I had to use the emergency forums and ended up staying with yet another couple. Judging from their profile, they seemed like great people with loads of travel experience. They opened a bed and breakfast recently and let me use a room for free, and I could hitch a ride to the city center in the morning. Combined with the fact that they saved my lily white ass last-minute, I should be eternally grateful to them. Problem is though, that’s right where the awesome stopped.

IMG_0034Communication was difficult and I felt actively ignored most of the time. On the second evening I suddenly had to grab all my belongings because we were “moving” to a different apartment of theirs, where they had enough room for another friend of theirs to stay over. They told me he was a photography teacher so I was looking forward to it, until I noticed he didn’t speak a word of damn English and I sat around listening to them cracking jokes in Polish all night. The only thing close to a conversation I had was me understanding what “Testes Kurva” means. No sir, not a great stay.

IMG_0075Warsaw itself was cool, though. It’s a very photogenic city and I had great fun with my camera there. The birds on the old town square were so tame they almost came to sit straight on my lens, and behaved unlike anything I had seen before from pigeons.
Great architecture all around, subtle but cheerful colors, and an usually tolerable kind of tourists wandering about. I’d love to go back and stay for a couple days to focus on photography a little more, preferably with someone else. Who knows…

IMG_0208Cracow

Cracow…

Every once in a while, you encounter a situation, a glimpse of what could have been, might have been if only things were different and could have, would have and should have.
Cutting to the chase: After needing the emergency forum once again, a girl invited me to stay at her place. A petite blonde, surprisingly clever and… yeah whatever. Suffice to say, we clicked rather well and even though Cracow was pretty awesome in its own right, I didn’t care much as we sat and talked.

IMG_0193Couchsurfing is very dangerous, in that respect: It has the tendency to romanticize the situation you’re in. It’s a classic desert island scenario and it’s very easy to get carried away. Luckily (?) I had things to do at home, and I had no choice whether to move on or not. ‘sides, she’s going to Finland for a year.

So yeah. Moving on.

IMG_0210As stated above, Cracow was sort of awesome, too. Lots of cultural heritage but by that time I was growing rather tired of it. It started to dawn on me that those “old town” city centers were actually the most modern thing in the whole city: Buildings were renovated, streets fixed, and everything kept clean and spotless. Compared to the rest of the city, it just doesn’t strike me as very “real” at all. All in all, I was starting to care less about those tourist traps and promised myself to follow my own advice a little more and physically get lost to see what’s “beyond.”

IMG_0236Because of my reluctance to leave the city, I missed my train and thus my connection. It was a matter of seconds and the international connection had already been booked, and what’s worse, paid for. No refunds. As I was being informed, a man beside me told me he was headed in the same direction, and noticed my problems to cope with this financial setback. I didn’t have enough cash on me and would have to withdraw an amount much more than what I actually needed. Since no exchange office takes Polish currency, this was all quite literally money down the drain. Money I don’t have a lot of.

IMG_0239This man actually paid for most of my ticket and a couple drinks on top of that, and kept me company as we both endured hellish temperatures and an unbathed, smoking family of fat Poles. It was nice being able to talk to someone, share some traveling ideas, and even co-ordinates in case we would ever want to visit. Did I mention the guy’s Australian? Anyone want to come? It’s as good an excuse as it gets.

IMG_0249Prague

I can’t remember how many times people recommended Prague to me so obedient as usual, I made a point of it to drop by while I was in the neighborhood. And yes, it was nice. Lots of fancy buildings and um, fancy buildings. Problem is though, I’m just not that into fancy buildings as the next tourist and to be honest, I doubt too many of us really are. It’s just what you do as a tourist, you know?

IMG_0256If you disagree, answer me this: Have you ever bothered to visit the churches and cathedrals in your own city (if it has any)? Ever taken a photo of your city hall? Of course not, you’re not traveling so you don’t give a damn. No one gives a damn, they just think they do. Of course, it’s possible to see the beauty of it when you stand still and take the time to look, but you can do that anywhere. You don’t need an old city center for that, or a foreign country for that matter.

IMG_0281So it wasn’t long before I put my map in my back pocket and wandered off in some random direction. I knew there was a river close by so I decided to follow that, soon ending up in a park atop a hill overlooking the city. There was a terrace made of marble or something like it, for a large part torn apart by skaters who made ramps and grindbars from the slabs. The rest of the park was huge, an odd thing to find so close to the center in a post-Soviet country. A kinetic sculpture stood by the edge, celebrating the working class with a pendulum-like system that swung a mast back and forth.

IMG_0301My host (a guy for once) declared me crazy, but this is what I look for in a city: Some character, some spirit. To know what makes it stand out as a city to live in, “we have old buildings” doesn’t count.
Even in this respect though, Prague did not disappoint. There was plenty to discover, for a large part because it’s such a big city, and there was still a lot that my host pointed out I had missed. I suppose this is another city I’ll have to go back to sooner or later. Takers are welcome.

By the way, this is also the city where I finally found my commie badge. If I had known it was only €2 (50 koruny sounds like a lot more) I would have bought several.

Frankfurt

I arrived in Frankfurt by train (that I had to catch at 6am), without knowing where I would sleep that night. Around 2 o’clock I strolled out of the bus station and looked up- way up, because Frankfurt is basically just a series of skyscrapers. Also, I wanted to avoid eye contact with the “locals,” an army of drunks and marginal dickweed living at the base of these metal towers. I’m all for “alternative lifestyles” but walking around with a bottle in your hand, yelling at strangers, is not what I call a lifestyle.

It took me one hour flat to realize that I was tired of this city already. After spending 3 weeks in places where no one speaks a language you know and having to think where you will sleep and how you will eat, I had just about had it. It cost me some serious cash but I grabbed the next train straight home, which happened to be stopping in…

IMG_0358Cologne

or Köln for the lovers.

For the hour that I stayed there, I learned that there would be a fireworks festival later that night, and even without the city was infinitely more entertaining than Frankfurt. All sorts of cool things were around and going on, and I felt sorry I had already paid for the train home, or I’d focus my effort on finding a place to sleep there.

Street musicians, flashmobs and spontaneous theater still couldn’t beat the prospect of home (and not throwing €100 out the window) and before long I was on my merry way again- home after 17 hours in and out of trains.


Grey and Red

At the time of writing, I am staying with a hipster kid in Kaunas, Lithuania and am preparing to catch the bus to Warsaw, Poland tomorrow. There, a young couple with kid are so friendly to welcome me even though I probably won’t make it there before midnight.

I finished my time in Riga sharing a table with a Russian drunk out of his skull, at a folk club, for the occasion turned karaoke bar. True story. We didn’t understand a word of what the other was saying but frankly, I had the time of my life. If I were to imagine a drunk Russian, he would be the guy. To the minute detail. It was awesome. Something to tell my kids.

Since my fascination with the Soviet legacy only grew, I couldn’t have imagined my current host any more fitting, either: A master student in political sciences, living in -get this- the “sleeping district” of Soviet apartments. Looking out the window to my left, I can see the exact same buildings as this one copy-pasted all over the place. It’s eerie almost, but somehow it doesn’t have the psychological impact on the locals as one might expect. From talking with them, it seems that they don’t define the buildings by what makes them stand out, but by the memories they have tied to them. It’s their own life that ultimately adds color to the concrete, and injects some sort of identity in each repetition.

My host, a proud Lithuanian, insists that the Soviet influence in these parts is very superficial and waning. “This is not Russia!” He gave the example of his own room, where nothing is even remotely Russian, but I pointed out that his very room was built by them.

This block is an example of  a blueprint used all over the former Soviet Union. The organization, infrastructure, building materials… All replicas of one design. There are examples of people traveling thousands of kilometers, only to find the same school and building block as they grew up in. Every type of building had a few designs, and these were repeated until a better model was developed.
This whole block, consisting of a dozen apartment buildings, was built in one year. While they look like shit, you can’t deny the efficiency. It’s a regime I passionately dislike but I have to admit that to a certain extent, it worked.

Many of the people here too, actually lived through both regimes and the drastic change in between. There is a great difference in opinion between generations: Those my age are thankful for the new ways but their parents, and grandparents most of all, seem to miss the old days. When they finished studying, the state had already decided what they would be doing and how much they would be making. My host, and I take his views serious because of his education, says they got so used to this lack of decision taking that they got lazy in that respect; and that is exactly why they’re having such a hard time changing along with the system.

All in all, it makes me wonder who is closest to the truth and I try to imagine how it must have been like. I’m so obsessed with my personal freedom  and individualism, that I can’t possibly fathom how I could grow up here- Let alone long back to the regime now that it is gone. It’s easy to say that “it worked” but I doubt that in those days, I’d have it so easy coming here and discussing politics in public, or writing about them.