I woke up to an empty bed, sans girlfriend. I worked late the night before, she spent the night, now it was early afternoon and my room was empty. I was a bit confused, as we had plans for the day, but I didn’t dwell much on the idea, just made my way to the kitchen to make some eggs. I’d been watching old Julia Child videos on YouTube and got this idea of a perfect omelet stuck in my head. So, each morning I’d wake up, crack some eggs, make sure not to add salt, add them to the hot pan and try to perfect the wrist movement intended to create the ideal fold while plating. Normally I’d coax any flatmates nearby into joining me, trying my eggs and giving me feedback, but no one was around, so I ate the one I burned back in my room.
My first instinct was to grab her with both arms. I hadn’t thought this through, too much bourbon I suppose, but it was a terrible idea. I wrapped my arms around her, grabbed hold, and we both flew across the back of the van towards the doors, falling on top of the meat slicer. The back of her head hit the door as my chest met her forehead and I fell on top of her. The first foot I placed broke the glass of a picture frame, the next something in her bag.
I lie in bed and stare at the back of my eyelids waiting to regain muscle control. An obfuscated reality waits patiently in the distance as a lucid yet unremembered dream slowly dissipates. I’ve been in this situation before, I’m ashamed to say how often: I don’t know where I am. I consciously heighten my senses, searching for clues. I listen attentively to a muffled hum through the wall, I notice it’s the pattern of a language I hope I’ll soon recognize. It’s Arabic, spoken loudly by someone over fifty on the phone; this volume is clearly identifiable in any language. Where am I that would speak Arabic? My eyes are ready to open. I see a mirror, a desk, my jeans, and my wallet. The mirror reflects natural light, so there must be a window behind me, if only I could convince my body it’s worth moving to see.
So here I am, the central train station of Toulouse with three hours between me and departure. I find myself in a café surrounded by the usual pleasantly laconic staff and unremarkable clients drooping in chairs of chipped black paint and pleather. Yet another locus of transport, just as emotionally and aesthetically insipid as the rest. Thirty minutes earlier I was roused from the first comfortable bed I’ve slept in for months, I now sit at a small table with my tiny cup of burnt coffee and my usual travel companions: my thoughts, my bags, and a few coins on my pocket. Then there is the two other passengers who accompany me on most of my voyages: the general anxiety that lingers like a pink noise, humming away deafening me to the more subtile of emotions, and a stultifying mental lassitude, one of the sapping side-effects of a life of constant self-inflicted displacement.
As I sip my coffee I picture myself a few hours from now bounding down the sidewalks of Paris with all I own in this world attached to my body, condemned a tourist by the many outward-facing patrons of the street-level cafés. I often walk with a gait indicative of an impatience normally associated with those late for an important rendez-vous. Though, I often arrive at my destination only to pass a few hours waiting to depart again, to scurry across town and catch another bus or train. These days I seem to spend most of my time en-route or wishing I could sleep, hence the optimistic tone of my writing.
This is the local I’ve chosen to recount the last few months of my life.
Roughly six months ago I left Montréal after a party that ended with us drunkenly strewn about the flat saying our goodbyes. I really enjoyed seeing everyone there. The next morning I made my way to the metro, stumbled down the stairs with my bags in tow, and spent the next few hours fixing my gaze on various patches of gum and graffiti adorning the walls as the pieces of my mind reluctantly dislodged themselves from the streets and places I’d known in the various neighborhoods of this town and stuffed themselves back into my head to be carried away to some far off place.
Later that day Krista and I caught a bus full of Asians to Toronto where we spent a few days couch surfing with a strange yet friendly Irish man. He lived in a house full of brightly colored rave-goers who spent most of their time either in a k-hole remote viewing the kitchen downstairs or resting on their haunches with their face inches from the oven door patiently observing a plate of MDMA boil to remove the impurities. We made some hummus, walked around town quite a lot, and got in an interesting debate with one of the room mates who was a sex-worker and enjoyed discussing it’s advantages. 48-hours later we were spotted bracing ourselves against the icy wind on the side of some highway holding out our thumbs until they turned into small ice-cubes attached to our hands where our thumbs used to be.
A few days later we found ourselves in Detroit, which was depressingly more dilapidated than I could of imagined, and shortly thereafter Chicago. What a great town that is. I’ve never been much interested in architecture but in a city like that you just can’t help but to walk around awestruck and neck craned. Each building more massive than the last, they appeared to carry an enormous weight as if they were in fact dormant giants made of heavy stone, whose bodies were only temporarily holed by ambitious humans blissfully unaware that one day one of them may simply wake unannounced, and tromp off destroying half of downtown in it’s stride. We spent almost a week there visiting a friend of Krista. I ate a hot dog from a shop Obama has visited, so they boasted; it was as delicious as it was encumbered by condiments.
Soon enough, however, we were on the road again. This time a ride share with a unpleasantly bigoted man on his way to an oil field in Alaska. This was the first time I’ve heard someone speak of the Tea Party or Sarah Palin in a non-disparaging manner without sarcasm. Despite having to endure hours of Fox News on the radio, the van was large and equipped with a mattress in the back, much more pleasant than many a car I’ve found myself in while crossing great distances. Our destination was Portland, though a few hours in Krista decided to see stop short to see a love interest in Idaho. She would get out in Montana where they would meet and ride back together.
A pit-stop at a Pizza Hut in small oil town in North Dakota called Nelson offered a glimpse into the joys of the fast and dirty money of the lower-rungs of the oil industry. We were greeted at the entrance by the manager, who appeared a bit shaken up, as he informed us that despite the hours posted on the door they were currently closed. While he explained this in two or three words my eyes quickly darted to the broken chair in the far corner of the room and followed the trail of mud on the floor leading up to a very large bearded man with bruised knuckles and a rather unpleasant disposition. As I further examined the scene I noticed the broken glass scattered around the room and the teen-aged employees taking cover behind the counter. We hopped back in the car and were informed by our driver that he had decided not to get a prostitute for the day thus we could in fact leave this town right away.
I offered to take the wheel and drove all night. Fifteen hours later we arrived at Krista’s final destination where we cheerily said goodbye as her and her lover drove off south towards Idaho. The mood quickly changed as I got back into the van and noticed a very stark contrast in the atmosphere. No females present, this was his cue. We had a brief unsavoury conversation that left me feeling nauseous although I was able to maintain a smile and continue nodding. He offered to take over the wheel as I spent the past fifteen or so hours driving and couldn’t keep my eyes open. I crawled over the chairs, removed my shoes, and left out a long sigh as my back finally relaxed it’s muscles and my body sunk into the foam mattress. After five minutes of studying the holes in the fabric that lined the ceiling trying to comprehend my situation I gave up, closed my eyes, and was out cold.
Twenty minutes later I awake to a hand gripping my toes and vigorously shaking my foot. The fuck had pulled to the side of the road and informed me this is my stop. “Change of plans” he says. He’s decided to head north into Canada instead of continuing west and wants me out of his van. I stare him down for a minute or so as I try to think of something to say. Nothing comes to mind. He hands me a box of Milk Duds, a bottle of Gatorade, and a piece of cardboard to write my destination on. I step out into the snow, walk a few paces to an on-ramp where I spend the next five hours dancing in place to stay warm and begging the passersby to show some mercy. A trucker takes me across the pass to Spokane, a small town in Washington on the border of Idaho.
Alright, it’s been a bit since my last update. I’ve kind of been busy. I don’t think I can catch up with everything I’ve done and seen since the last update, so I’ll go over it briefly for the sake of getting up to speed.
Our last few days in Paris were splendid just as the first few. Eugie, Magi, and Margi made our time in that lovely city just incredible. Without them Paris would’ve been an expensive mess as it was the last time around and I probably would’ve left with that same feeling of being overwhelmed and broke. No good. But thanks to my dear friends we saw a Parisian’s Paris and in a very short time got a real feel for living in the city. Our last days had a good amount of staying up to see the sun while dancing in our underwear. Always an adventure. I continued scoping out street art and I’ve posted some photos on my Flickr of what I found. Belleville, around the 10e Arr. was a great neighborhood and was exactly what I was hoping to see of Paris. Small cafes, away from tourists, and close to the canal. We didn’t exactly go out to many more clubs, mostly some bars, some restaurants, more bike riding, and more staying up to see the sun.
After one or two ride shares fell through we finally settled on a stop in Amsterdam. We both wanted to see the city and it was not much more expensive to spend a day or two there. We found out we were leaving at 7am the evening before, no big surprise there. We spent our last night at a wonderful bar called ‘In the Garden’ in the 11e Arr. Morgan and I were feeling particularly broke but the friendly bartender offered us some tastes of his favourite Belgian beers free of charge. We bought our little scoop of ice cream with the 1.50 € we had left and enjoyed every bit of it. We said our goodbyes to our new friends, wandered back to our apartment and passed out knowing we had a big day ahead of us.
The next morning we enjoyed a brief breakfast of coffee and croissants with Eugie then hopped on the metro to the bus station. The bus took us through Belgium in two maybe three hours. This idea of traversing a country by car in a matter of a few hours still blows my mind. I could cross through four countries in the time it takes me to drive from northern to southern California. Strange indeed. Anyway, we passed through Belgium with a brief stop in Brussels, just enough time for the nostalgia to kick in; I need to see that city again. Before we knew it we were dumped off somewhere in Amsterdam and it was all Dutch all the time. We walked pass the random gangsters CRIP walking in front of the station and were met with a sign “Benji & Morgan” and some strange jelly candy shaped like a pig. Friends of Morgan from back in San Louis Obispo were there to meet us at the station and offered their parents place for our stay.
This city moves by bike. I know Portland does, yeah yeah. But this isn’t some progressive movement here it’s just the way of life. From a young age your bike is your transportation and the first thing you notice is they have he right of way. Over cars, pedestrians, over all. Watching hundreds of bikes fill the lanes along the canals pulling along children, dogs, and groceries, it was like some strange European version of Ladd’s Addition in Southeast Portland.
We settled into our new digs in quite a fancy neighborhood with an amazing view of the canal. By far the most comfortable lodgings we’ve had yet. Most of our time in this city was spent in a gay bar called Taboo. Don’t ask why, it just was. Morgan met a nice silver fox and the beers were cheap. For one day in I feel like we got a good idea for the feeling of the city. We saw the canals, the redlight district (where a woman in a window grabbed my hat and twirled it around, turning me bright red). The night before we left we met with an old friend of mine I met while hitchhiking from to San Fransisco a few years back. From Sweden originally and raised in Barcelona she had moved to Amsterdam a few years back to study here and was housesitting a nice flat in yet another nice neighborhood. She invited us for dinner and we spent the night chatting over beer and wine with her Dutch friends. We realized it was getting late and made our way home only to spent the next two or three hours locked out.
By the time we got in we had about two hours before our ride. We napped, grabbed our bags, and traversed yet another city in search of our means of transportation. Another ride share, this time to Berlin. We got lost at the station and had no phone. We set our bags down next to a large Argentinian and started a brief conversation when I noticed he had a guitar and asked where he was going. ‘Berlin’, he replied. He was sharing the same ride as us and had a phone. You’d be surprised how often things work out in such a manner during my travels. It’s become so regular that I almost rely on things simply falling into place. It may sound a bit silly or, if you know me well, it probably just irritates you thinking about how often I fail to make plans, but I swear by this method. Although I’d soon learn a few lessons long overdue on my adventures in Prague. I’ll write about that soon. Oy.
So we all piled into an unimaginably small car and sped around Amsterdam looking for a way out. The Argentinian was awfully big, kind of loud, smoked a lot of pot, but was all around friendly. He plugged some small speakers into his laptop and starting blasting random Argentinian rock groups or the Doors, whom he loved very much. He swore by Jim Morrison and sung along to every song. As the hours passed by the day got a bit hotter and hotter. With one hour of sleep the sun took it’s toll. I spent those seven hours trying to keep my eyes open and my head up.. to no avail. I don’t remember much else of the ride other that the feeling of sitting completely still, stuck in traffic, and feeling each bead of sweat form on my forehead and back of my neck. All the windows were rolled down but without wind we baked. Seven short hours later we finally arrived in the much fabled city of Berlin. We drove past the wall, the tower in Alexanderplatz, and were dropped off near a cafe. We said our goodbyes, put our bags back on our backs, and set off to find some wifi and coffee.
It almost goes without saying but up until this moment we didn’t know where we were sleeping that night. We plopped down at the cafe, got some drinks, and I checked my email. Once again saved at the last minute, Jaqi had responded and could host us that night, We were just three metro stops away and within a few hours time we were sleeping comfortably in a bed in our new city. Welcome to Berlin!
Brief aside: The more Parisians I meet the more I understand the mentality that is so often mistaken for rudeness. One thing in particular comes up each time I have a conversation on this topic: the French often find themselves frustrated with Americans who will smile and nod politely with a cheery disposition when they are in fact not satisfied at all. Where the French would normally simply say ‘no’ when they find something disagreeable, an American might hesitate or try to tip-toe around a direct answer in an attempt to be polite. While it seems both sides have the same good intentions, I think this is something often overlooked that causes more tension that it should. If I ask someone from France for an opinion, I expect to get a direct and honest answer, I appreciate that.
Anyway, back on topic: adventures in Paris.
Our second day in Paris began as it would each day thereafter: a cup of coffee in front the cafe, four of us sitting around a small table, and some fresh croissants. From there we hop on our bikes and ride along the canal on our way through the city to a park in the 19e Arr. We arrive lunch in tow, meander a while, and find a nice spot in the sun. Parc des Buttes Chaumont is full of steep hills littered with Parisians enjoying one of the first really sunny days of the summer. Laying in the grass with the warmth of the sun and a full picnic spread wasn’t what I imagined Paris to be from previous experiences. My last time here, a few years before, was marked by being overcharged for a room of a friend we expected to be free, missing the New Year’s countdown while being stuck in the metro, and being told not to butcher the French language by the locals. A few hours pass as we chat, nap, and snack while sharing bottles of wine.
We spent the afternoon lounging in the park as friends came and went and the sun slowly sank lower in the sky. Our plans for the night include a party in the 16e Arr. which is known for being the most expensive area in the city. We’ve been prepared for the party since Friday, when Eugénie sent me a link with video from the previous year. It’s called Die Nacht and is held in an abandoned swimming pool covered in graffiti in the center of the city. The space has been used as a venue since the 60’s and this is one of the last parties before it’s torn down for some fancy hotels or something of the sort two weeks from now. We rode to the venue and waiting outside we could hear the thumping of the electronic music that awaited us on the other side of the tall concrete walls. Upon entering and walking through a series of large loading-dock style doors we find ourselves confronted with a four-story high concrete space with an olympic-sized swimming pool for a floor. The entrance is just behind the DJ booth which overlooks the massive crowd revealed periodically by the white flashes of the strobe lights.
An hour or so passes and the crowd gets a bit overwhelming. We decide we’ve had our fun and would like to see something else of the Parisian nightlife. Our next stop: Social Club. It’s a night club in the 2eme Arr. and is much better suited for our tastes. Eugénie comes through again and upon arrival we skip the long line waiting out front and walk right down the stairs leading into the multiple rooms that lead to the dancefloor. I later learn the cover is pretty pricey, and the wait is fairly long, but at the time I didn’t think much of it. After a few hours of dancing we finally get to meet the man who made the night possible, a friend of Eugénie’s who works sound at the club who goes by Chicken. Or, Poulet to be more accurate. We meet him when he greets us with a large bottle of expensive vodka on ice and two carafes or cranberry juice. I know I won’t be able to recreate this night, so I should take full advantage of it, and I did. We drank and danced and made our way out of the club sometime around 6am. Upon leaving we realize no one knows where Morgan is. We search the empty club thinking he must be asleep in some corner but to no avail. After ten or so minutes of worry and frustration Maggy spots him in the distance happily bouncing towards us completely unaware. He had wandered outside for a smoke and couldn’t get back in so walked around and found some food. We all gather around and consume what was a gigantic crepe that tasted exactly like lasagna in a matter of seconds. Bellies full we stumble off into the metro and make our way back to the apartment. We get in bed, put on some music, and slowly fall asleep as the rest of the city starts their day.
Our last days in London were wonderful thanks to some great company. We finally met with a friend of mine I hadn’t seen in two years who has been living in here for some time now. She works every day and didn’t have much time but it was great just to see a familiar face and see her side of the city.
We went to an art party in the upper-crust hilly area called Hamspstead. Supposed to be a photography exhibit but it seemed more like a social fashion parade. But hey, free beer and some photography, I can’t say no. It was also a good opportunity to get to know our new friends. I overhead these two brothers joking about the crowd there and joined in. They are both from just outside of London and the younger brother invited us to visit his work in Hackney. Shoreditch is out, Hackney is in.. or so I learned. That night and the next we went out and saw the London scene.
Bar to bar, bus to bus, we explored the nightlife. Nothing too spectacular, but we just enjoyed each others company and had a good time. One of the new friends we had made invited us to stay at her place in Hackney the night before we left. She lives in a loft space she uses as a studio for her photography and shares it with a few other artists. We chatted with her roomies a bit and when we returned later that night they had made us beds and left a note with directions to the airport. Good folks.
The next morning started at seven, the previous night ending around three. It would be another one of those long days. Navigating the metro and busses of London can really take it out of you. So, we stuffed ourselves in one tube after another and made our way out the Heathrow. Security is a breeze, and we have the aisle to ourselves. An hour or so later we land in Paris. Bienvenue a France.
Another afternoon landing in another country to take a train into town. The metro here smells a bit more of urine, but it seems to be much more efficient. We find our way in and to where we will be staying. A dear friend of mine from back in Montréal set us up with a friend of hers here. We meet my friend in a park nearby and rent some bikes. Soon after arriving we find ourselves on bike riding through the streets of Paris with some good friends. We stop at a cafe for some drinks and take in the scenery. We talk a bit and go over our plans for Berlin. Who knows where this trip is going, eh?
We hop back on bikes after picking up some picnic gear at the local store. Ride around Paris a bit more, avoiding the crazy drivers who fill these streets, and make our way to the canal running through the 10eme arrondissement. All along the canal we hear music and see one picnic after another. The usual staples of wine, wine, wine, and baguettes can be seen as we make our way down to meet friends for a picnic of our own. We arrive and make a place next to the water. Each person arrives with their own bottle of wine and the conversation grows louder with each pulled cork. The sun goes down, the lights on the river come on, and the merguez vendors come out.
When it gets cold, a bit after midnight, we hop back on bikes and make our way home. My last visit to this city didn’t go as well as these first few hours, I’m really looking forward to Paris, take II.
So here we are. After saying goodbye to Montréal, hitching across the States to spend a few months in Portland, then two weeks in Los Angeles with the family, we finally cross the Atlantic. Our flights arrived at separate airports, mine Gatwick, his London Heathrow. We’re to meet at King’s Cross station in central London and rendezvous with an old friend of mine. Two days prior to our arrival, in my usual fashion, we had no idea where we would be staying for the week. But plans fell into place at the last minute, as they tend to with my travels. A girl I knew from a coffee shop of my teenage years back in Pasadena offered us a place to land for the night, and the Greeks got back to us on Couchsurfing for the following few days. Hurrah.
We spent our first day as zombies in this new city halfway across the world. We kept ourselves propped up, holding onto consciousness as long as we could before we passed out for the night just before the sun went down. Though we did get to spend the day exploring Highgate, tried some delicious Turkish food (gözleme and lahmacun, both incredible), and took the bus around to get a feel for the neighborhood. If you visit London, I recommend getting a bus pass instead of riding the Underground. It may take a bit longer, and be a bit more difficult to navigate, but the view from the upper-deck as you pass through the city compared to the tube.. not to mention the difference in price, is well worth it.
Our hours are all sorts of crazy. We wake up around five in the morning, talk for a minute, then try to go back to sleep only to end up laying wide-awake until around eight.
We spent a good seventeen hours Sunday wandering around town, exploring. Our first destination was St. Paul’s Cathedral. We had just arrived at our new hosts’ and our first bit of advice was to see central London. Now, I’m not one for tourist areas, but every once in a while you do have to see the sights, right? So we hop on a bus down to the cathedral, get off, and walk around a bit. Halfway over the millennium bridge and back, avoiding the street performance of Pachelbel’s canon, we stand in front of the enormous cathedral littered with tourists and ponder. Is this really where we want to be? The day before we had asked the old friend of mine about an area we heard of called Shoreditch. It’s supposed to be the artistic center of the city. You know where you find the musicians, galleries, street art, etc. all gloriously gentrified. She and her room mate warned us of the high hipster content, said it was best to stay clear. But we’re from Portland, we’re professionals, we can handle this.
Five or so seconds of staring at the tourists like ants covering the square, Pachelbel still to be heard off in the distance, we agree to give in, skip the tourist crap downtown, and head to Shoreditch. All we really want is some decent coffee and a place to sit and people watch, get a feel for the city.
We arrive and explore; walking for hours on end. The first spot we get to is Brick Lane. We later found out we missed Shoreditch by a mile or so, but this area is just as interesting. We found it by following the trail of hipsters. No, really, we just walked towards where they came from, it was that easy. Brick Lane is a few city blocks covered in vintage clothing vendors. It was a Sunday afternoon and incredibly crowded, but we found our way through. Past the vendors is a gigantic warehouse filled with all sorts of cuisine. We were told this area is known for the Indian food though we didn’t try any. Just past the warehouse is the entrance to a closed off area of back-patios and bars, filled with hundreds of people drinking. We went around the corner to the liquor store, got some beers, and joined them sitting on the curb to get in some much needed people watching.
An hour or so later, while waiting for bathrooms, we met some locals who showed us around. We grabbed some beers and walked back up Brick Lane drinking. I asked if it’s legal to drink in public, as we were in plain sight holding tall cans and stumbling. They said no, but don’t worry about it. I shrugged it off. Halfway through my beer I realize I have a pretty good buzz, and it came out of nowhere. We’re drinking Carlsberg, a pretty common beer around Europe, but this is the “Special Brew” weighing in at 9%. Ah, that would explain the dizziness. One of the englishmen kindly explains that drinking this beer will make me wish I were dead the following morning. Lovely.
We say our goodbyes, exchange info, and head off to check on a piece we saw going up a few blocks back. There’s an amazing artist who we spotted all around town, and we saw him painting a piece across from a liquor store. In fact, he’s the one who recommended we check out Brick Lane. We head back and he’s made progress. There are a few Irish guys hanging out while he works, they paint too. Morgan and I make conversation, exchange info, and stumble off an hour or so later as the sun is going down. Around nine at night, mind you. A few bus stops later we find our ride, wait half an hour, and jump on. We both fall asleep but I somehow manage to wake up just after our stop. We get off, retrace our steps and I crash on the couch. Out cold.
I awake the next morning feeling like hell. In fact, I’m sick. I suppose seventeen hours on your feet and a 9% beer that has a reputation for destroying you body will do that to you, eh? The day is spent in and out of consciousness as my body recovers. Morgan went out on the town to meet a friend while I stayed on the couch. Stepping outside for a few minutes gives me the chills and I head back inside to drift off to sleep again. That night my host returns and we wander around the local neighborhood (Angel, Islington) looking for food. After being accosted by a few servers standing in front of Indian restaurants we settle of Chicken Cottage, and go for the Mountain Burger. I could have done worse. We go back and I call it a night. We have a street-art tour and an art show the next day, I need my rest.