Thursday, August 13, 2009

Aaaah Yes.

I can't see that far
but I swear I won't tear your eyes out when you start crying
in fact I'll be right there by your side
crying my eyes out,
but not for the horror,
about to take place,
but more so because we have all be touched by the unexplainable,
godly grace.
And I'm so glad to know you.

-James Miska

It's shockingly beautiful during the golden hour in Berlin, both in the AM and PM varieties. I've been awake through both today, life is incredibly good. Wandering around under the train rails in Kreutzberg I've seen a giant Blu piece, a Keirin Cafe filled with as nice of frames as those in Chari and Co, and eaten a perfect Berlin Durum Donor kebap for 3 Euros, my only foreseeable expense today. In the last 24 hours I've seen the largest Bauhaus exhibition in history and sketched my head off, I've visited a massive squat 5 stories tall with pirate punks hanging out the windows on a Wednesday night, and now I'm staying with a beautiful gay DJ girl, decked out in piercings and full of fire. Last night I was up until 6 AM passing out fliers for her upcoming show, going to clubs for free, getting hit on like crazy by every gay 20 year old in Europe. Apparently the haggard, unshaven, ill-fitted-and-stinky-clothed biker look is in right now. One of the most insane and notable places we went was another 5 story squat, this one reserved exclusively for all things nightlifey and artistic. Going out in Europe is a completely different deal than in the states. The people are cool, the places are amazing, it's actually... fun. Weird. The plan for me on Saturday night is to go to Jasmine(cute dj)'s monthly Gold Lion party and stay up all night, heading straight to the Mauserpark for the flea market in the morning. Then I'll crash for a while, and prepare for a all-night-inverted-schedule bike ride to Hamburg, about 150 miles northwest. I'll arrive just in time to meet up with David, have a good dinner, box up the bikes, buy some candy, and fly on home. Life could be better, but not by much.

I don't think I'm bragging too much though :). I really think I've earned it. We've been biking like mad-beasts for the last 2 months. My brand-new Salsa is covered in scars, a beautiful rash across its leather saddle. I bear similar scars, and sleep like closing credits every night. Even more constant is the social interaction that makes this trip so astonishing, an all-day hustle that leaves me exhilarated and drained. This social interaction is one of my main passions I think, and I love observing and recording the ways it makes magic happen across languages, cultures, religions, and nations. Social interaction is really so adaptable, and depends so heavily on your core emotions. I'm as of yet a terrible actor, and it's amazing to me how my honest communication of how I see the world either nets me great possibility or complete crap, directly depending on my mood. For example, the day after David went to Poland I slipped hard-core into solitary traveller mode. I didn't say anything all day, only walked and observed and took pictures, maybe uttering 3 sentences in German the whole time. I immediately recognized a snow-like stillness to my outlook that was utterly familiar to me, a direct re-visit of the most alone times of my previous trips in eastern Europe. Some excerpts from that day:

For breakfast and lunch I bought 3 rolls at 15 cents apiece and a chocolate croissant for 90 cents. I reveled at the fact that I tripled the price of my meal for one croissant. On the rolls went cheese and nutella (separately). I had 2 oranges for dessert. I am just now having the other orange, and a bar of chocolate. I spent an hour reading in the park, fixing a flat, and adjusting my bike, I'll spend another hour now writing and doodling with the bike further. My rear wheel is so shot it's out of true every morning, and it's broken 4 spokes on the trip. I can't decide what to do with it when I get home: turn it single speed and stick it on a cruiser, put it on Jessica's first road bike, try to resuscitate it with a new rim, or throw it against a wall. When sitting by a fountain, working on a tube, a wasp persistently tried to eat something off one of my little sandwiches. I could wap at him and wave my hand furiously but he still came back. I waited until he landed on my hand and expertly flicked him under the chin, as hard as possible. The wasp sailed off in a perfect arch, landing 2 meters away in the midst of a flood of sparrows eager for my sandwich as well. The wasp twitched disfunctionally, appearing to die. Really it was just re-setting its circuits, like a little computer program, fixing all the shorts in paralyzed jerks and then stillness. Soon he got up and crawled around in perfect little circles the size of a quarter, pausing for a moment and then furiously taking to the sky, zipping everywhere at once. I followed his frantic flight for a minute then never saw him again.

Now I'm in the mauerpark, a huge, sprawling, desolate place that reminds me of a hypermagnified Palais de Tokyo that used to be green. It appears to be an abandoned soccer stadium that's become overrun by debris, beer bottles, and graffiti. No one here is over 20, except Berlin's specific breed of leathery cold-war homeless, whom have generations of hard living written on their skin.

The speed with which this attitude took over astonished me. I had to laugh at its effects, and soon I shook it off, getting back into the pursuit of new friends and adventures with an unstoppable, charismatic spirit.

The contrast there really underlines the drastically different experience this trip has been. I've traveled the world before, sometimes for twice this long, yet long swathes of time would be filled with the verve, this still contemplation of my place in the world that has its own internal music. This trip has been non-stop extroversion, a kind of outpouring that has been incredibly rewarding. The reflective verve only pops through for a second or two, warning me how much I've learned and how mentally strong I've become as a result of this journey.

Some concrete examples:
Since last we spoke we've biked 500 km back to Amsterdam from Paris and taken a train to Berlin. We met a thousand cool people in between, and not being blessed with total recall I hope to do all that's passed some justice in this post or soon. But for now I'll take us back to Paris. In Paris we were staying in an absurdly cool place (as a result of people we met), going to free beautiful concerts every night in the oldest church in the city (Chopin, front row. The music director clasps our hands, "You must come again. As my guests!"), and being treated like biking locals as a result of meeting Leny, the coolest fixie kid in the city who acted as my guide and co-pilot during the alleycat (right at the beginning of the race, not knowing what to expect from him, I see him launch into a whipping hockey skid inches from the back of a van, controlling it between two cars, his hands casually placed right by the stem on his handlebars. He was a worthy companion). Then we meet up with Lamya Salami and her family, family of my friend Adil from SLC. These guys not only welcome us into their home for a Moroccan dinner, but Lamya invites us back to her place a second night to learn to cook from her and takes us for Japanese food later. She's an excellent chef and a chocolatier, allowing us to indulge in fantastic tastes which beat the hell out of our noodles-and-veggies concoctions (getting better, though!). I have never been more at peace than the Salami family made me, wandering around the most culturally bristling of European cities. We experience the same hospitality in Reims, where Kamal and his girlfriend usher us in after a mind-boggling rainstorm in which all our things fill with an inch of water, lightning turning the french farming countryside into a purple arena of laughing chaos. My two favorite biking days so far have been to Reims and from Reims to Chimay, because these rolling French fields have so much variety between the kilometers, and the storm was no different. Kamal doesn`t let us pay for a thing for 2 days, he's an air-traffic controller who lives simply and enjoys his job, his girlfriend, and his time off, having travelled everywhere and being very modest about it. At one point we get into a very big conversation about his feelings about appearing a certain way as a minority in Europe. His family is Algerian, and we talked a lot about people's expectations regarding him. White Europeans, I've witnessed, are even worse than Americans (in relation to Latinos) in their built-in generalizations about Northern Africans and Turks. He rides a crappy bike and plays down his high-paying and technical job, preferring people respect him for who he is not what he does. But he gets tired of being treated like a sketchy, second class citizen by people who are less educated and make less money than he does.

These two examples are in sharp contrast to the conversations I´ve had with liberal, open minded Dutch women in their thirties who see Moroccans and Algerians primarily as a threat, as men and boys who are raised to treat all women like dirt and approach European women like whores. The problem with this situation is there are real precedents and experiences to support their feelings, just as some white Americans feel unsafe around low-income black and latino neighborhoods because of their high crime rates. But the pervasive thing I hear in Europe is that the differences are irreconcilable, that young middle-easterners are raised with fundamentalist viewpoints that isolate them and embattle them against European society.

I was thinking about these issues and the interlinked social aspect as we sat in the park with Els and her sister in Amsterdam. Everything I'd experienced so far on the trip reaffirmed my notion that people are not only basically decent, but absurdly welcoming and interested in other people given the right set of introductions and communications. As we were sitting in the park, with 3 good looking girls in bikinis, I start watching the way two Turkish guys nearby are checking out our companions. These guys look like typical European jocks, strong-built guys in bright clubwear with greased up hair and absurd sunglasses. I can't get past the way they're leering at the girls, so predatory, without any respect. They catcall and elbow each other and eye David and me, like they're wondering whether they can knock us out and pillage our harem... At this point I've pretty much decided these guys are scum. I look at their faces and their clothes and think that I've got them totally figured out. This view of mine somehow totally gets turned around when one of them asks for a light, however, in a way that I understand but can't yet totally describe. Smokers have an automatic in-road to conversations with other smokers that is incredibly delicate and powerful, and in this situation the guy had every opportunity to turn his request into a jeering, lewd power play like the stuff we had witnessed earlier. But he didn't. He was totally cool, i knew in a second, just from the way he asked her. It wasn't anything special, but decent, and with no strings attached. Huh. Then the guy's friends started arriving and I really cracked up, and started to straight up adore them. First up walks a curly haired little guy, like the Turkish Bill Gates, hairy and buck-toothed and totally awkward. Then comes an engineer looking fellow also completely un-cool. But they are cool in this crowd, treated with total respect! It totally transformed the scenario, somehow. Here, before my eyes, the idle, leering euro-jocks with their menacing gazes transformed into a group of mixed and hilarious barbecue-ees enjoying themselves in the park. And from there I thought about my own experiences. If I go into every situation expecting to find human connection and a positive outcome, the simple way I carry myself lets people know that I'm not here to judge them, and great things come from that. Being an outsider in the European socal network I can observe impartially the way people treat each other based on generalizations and hopefully use them to be less judgemental when I get home. To me, Lamya and her crew are just as Parisian as anyone else in that multi-faceted capital, but I wonder how often I meet a Spanish-speaking cook at my restaurant in Salt Lake and think of him as a representative of our shared culture. All food for thought.

All I know is by being consistently open and consistently adventurous the greatest things happen. For no reason at all a Gert Jan stopped us on the street and helped us find Peter's place in Utrecht, and a month later he took us on an all-day boat ride through the canals of the city, finally giving us the boat for 2 hours so we could pretend to be dutch pirates. Again it was totally sublime, running around European streets barefoot in cutoff shorts in a tiny little rowboat, demanding the sluice gate operators go through the laborious and time-intensive process of lowering the water levels so we can cruise the city. Many nights walking home I am amazed by the pure weight of things that can happen in one day, even a laid-back one. Here're some random journal entries to give you an idea of some of the gaps I've left out in my poor coverage of our trip:

7/12/09- Paris
Heady Chateau night
lit by candles reflecting off French steel.
Each new stage brought on by a curving glass.

7/20/09- Paris
Paolo Callari de Veronese's Jesus in Les Noces de Cana is the kind of Jesus I can understand. Lost, singled out, confused by his power, not relating to this world of excess.

7/23/09- Reims
I hide in a doorway in Reims as the rain pours down. The streets empty as water pounds the city. Soon the area will be alive again, umbrellas spread, groups jostling about as they shake off the storm, but for now it's the shelter and the people are stacking up. Water begins flooding down the corridor we stand in and I balance on my toes at the base of a pillar, like a rat. In front of me stands a woman so perfect I can't bear to take a photo of her. She is devastatingly ugly. A solid form, gumdrop shaped. Thick wrapped ankles the size of small telephone poles, or traffic barricades. Too thick to lock a U lock around, anyway. Descending into boatlike shoes like cartoons, ready to split open at their heavy beaded seams. She wears a snakeskin-print dress and carries 2 canes, craggy turned-out lips over the wreckage of brown matchstick-thin teeth. One eye is lazy, her hooked nose more direct than her stare. Before I see all this we regard each other as people in a doorway in the rain might, her half-gaze investigating me blankly, and I smile a bit, unaffected by what later reveals itself to be incredible ugliness. She relaxed at my smile and was comfortable with herself. As the water rushed through the doorway her feet got wet.

7/26/09- Chimay
Fell off my bike
handlebars entangled with David's bag
saying something without consequence.

Drinking Belgian beers
trappist made and super cheap
passed out by the abbey
rain and thin trees
bikes and tent in the mist.
So damn lucky.

8/2/09 - Utrecht
My legs are tired from pedaling, I hop on the bike and go slow, too slow, like an old man on a cruiser set on a routine started after the second world war. The old women generally whip around on ubiquitous dutch city bikes, but the guys seem to take their time. Seeing a fashion conscious young couple on a scooter, or sullen teenagers on elegant cruisers, just getting around, an impersonal relationship to their vehicles, takes some getting used to. The girls who care about looks like that wouldn't be caught dead on a scooter in the states, let alone a bike. Funny how elastic the concept of 'normal' is.

I have all these great things locked in my head and they must spill out or be lost forever, I feel an obligation to record them as I start a good book, an example of how observations can be turned into great things. But they will tumble out, linked but achronological, until my brain calms.

First there was biking yesterday from Den Haag to Utrecht. I had known a small town would lead us to the most direct route, but it wasn't on any signs, so we just wandered like zombies until it started to rain, asking each other's opinions on things and responding with only a grunt. We had seen dutch masters in the Maritshaus museum in Den Haag, which I actually really appreciated by by obsessing ad nauseum on the one painting I didn't see David made me feel like I missed the point of the whole place, which I didn't like. Once we found the connecting road from Boyoken to Bodegraven the sun broke through the clouds right on cue and we were trundling through these beautiful farmlands that gave way to quaint little canal houses. We stopped and just stared around taking pictures of the grass and each other, dumbfounded foreign lumps on the landscape.

Once we got to Utrecht we biked through graffiti tunnels and down bike-infested streets in the dusk, there were great people waiting for us with lasagna and all was well.

The day before we met two Canadian bikers coming from Turkey over the last 2 months, our trip seems small by comparison. But they biked every day and didn't seem to connect to too much along the way. Watching them bike by earlier was certainly a sight though, like two tan javelins, Homeric warriors of speed. They used to be semi-professional triathletes. We took them to a barbecue we were headed for and they seemed to appreciate that. That day held 3 bike tunnels and 1 suspension bridge, they're amazing.

Our trip has held so much music! We've met 2 accordions personally and many more impersonally. Piano players everywhere. Evening concerts in Paris, Bremen, and street performers waylaying us on the way to more organ concerts after listening to the organist practice in the Brussels Cathedral, riffing over and over the hardest sequences of every triumphant and fearsome catholic musical bombardment. That was probably the best performance, though others have come close.

8/4/09 - Utrecht
We went with Geert and Peter to swim on the river, Geert took his track bike out for the first time and fell in love with it. I swam farther than I ever have in my life, maybe 300 meters. After trying unsuccessfully to fish we found an eel that was dried by the sun and tried to cook it on a fire that someone put out the night before, revived by Geerts patient magic. The eel actually tasted really good but we were scared we would die so we used it to try and fish some more. I got to ride the track bike back for a couple miles and it was pure pleasure, 0 resistance and strong. Made me miss home. Geert and I picked up groceries in our messenger bags, his huge and mine heavy. I was on Peter's beater bike with a crank falling off and no brakes, terrifying. Geert and I bonded over experimental cooking, he explained his rationale about shopping by kilogram, aiming to spend around a euro per kilo and around a euro per person per meal. We carried about 30 kg of food for 30 Euros and it factored into about 1 euro apiece for dinner. Well done po' bastard zen master.

Today we finished our dual bike trip in Amsterdam, the city is humming. We're staying with a girl named Els, whose yellow walls and green accessories reflect her environmental spirit. Pictures on the wall and fossilized shells breathe 'madagascar.'

We've reached the heart of darkness for this trip, or as David puts it: 'There's a good kind of adrenaline that comes from rolling with the punches.' Only bones can break, our hearts won't fail. This is where the trip gets good. Our bikes are not allowed to go to Prague but we have non-refundable tickets and we need to get to the other side of Europe somehow. So we'll get on the train and ride it as far as we can. Maybe nowhere, maybe Berlin, Dresden, Warsaw, Copenhagen. Then set out, without a plan, without a destination, just to explore.

Cruising through the countryside on a sleeper train with a stack of a dozen oranges. David rounded his off with a sleeping pill and will soon be out. The Spanish girls in the next car are singing along, bad karaoke style, to Moulin Rouge and other sappy love hits. I barged in during a chorus of 'Roxanne' and roared off the verse, they loved it. I'm laid back without a plan, just cruising along. It may mean some cold nights soon, but that doesn't bother me much.

The train stops and a disco drives by. Eeh? I wake up to the sound of thousands of roaring young people at speed. David does something dysfunctional below, wallowing out of an ambien coma. Our train is stopped alongside another train, also grinding down. It's 11 at night. The other train is totally partying.

"Whoa! Who the hell are you people?"
"We're going to a 7 day festival in Budapest! Where are you going?"
"Berlin, or um, Prague, or somewhere"
"Boo Berlin! Come PARTEEE!"
"I'm not wearing any pants!"
"Climb over to this train!"

And so on.

The hordes of cute dutch girls across the rails are going nuts. There's actually a disco several cars up. It's a 14 hour train with no sleepers. They're ALL going to this festival, some 300000 people exclusively trained in from all over the continent. The laughing, social kids across the way loosen up our train, and we all poke our poke our heads out the window to say hi to them, to one another. I toss an orange to a girl across the way, she gives me some raisin crackers and some licorice. The trains take off eventually and everyone high-fives as we go by. Several hours later we're having our own party in the Spanish girls' cabin, wisely deciding not to sleep. They smoke and set off the fire alarm, sending us all hiding in our cabins. It's incredibly loud. I stick my head out the window, the rush of air kills the noise. I fall asleep listening to Radio Lab and David and I jacknife off the train at 4:30 am in Berlin, having sucessfully smuggled our bikes in the Warsaw car. We celebrate with breakfast, biking through the sunrise delierious in our lack of sleep and success.

That's all for today folks, probably my last post, home in a few days. See you soon!

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