I Moved to Germany

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Actually, this is Denmark.

It’s been a crazy month, but I am here and slightly settled. New country, new city, new job. I wasn’t happy at my last job. It felt an awful lot like spinning my wheels. I don’t think anyone ever loves their day job unless or until their day job and their pipe dreams finally convene. But that one was a pretty bad fit.

So about a month ago I accepted an offer from a company in Germany that I had been talking to about writing games for back when I lived in Boston. I packed my bags, said goodbye to my LA homies and Jiu Jitsu friends, took a road trip up the California Coast with my beautiful girlfriend, even squeezed in a snowboarding trip to Lake Tahoe, and then I moved abroad… again. This was the second time for me moving to Europe for a long-term job. Counting shorter-term gigs, it is actually the fourth (or fifth…? Who knows).

Driving up the 1.

Big Sur coastline, home of a rare specie of alpha predator man-eating squirrel.
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She’s Heavenly.

Anyway, I flew out of SFO and stopped in Denmark for a day on the way over. Copenhagen is awesome. I walked around, ate a bunch of herring, had a drink by some boats, and overall felt Danish as fuck. Hamlet was Danish and that guy was a way more badass white dude than Iron Fist. I have not seen Iron Fist but I hear it has martial arts and Loras Tyrell is  straight now. Whatever.

Beautiful Copenhagen.
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Home of gender-neutral metal vikings.

And gargantuan gingerbread.

I got to Germany about two weeks ago. I am in a nice city in the south with a beautiful old town, and a lovely crystal-clear river flowing through the city center with white, stony beaches where I plan on swimming and reading books every day during summer. There are a few Brazilian Jiu Jitsu schools I need to get my ass over to check out, and most of all, many delis serving the dankest of small sandwiches.

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Great city for biking.
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Or walking.
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Or ordering spaghetti with a schnitzel.

My first impressions of the new job are decent. My co-workers are cool and there is beer in the fridge. My last job had beer too, but they kept it under lock and key until the monthly sanctioned company happy hours, because having fun at work is not allowed in America unless you work in porn. I have never worked in porn, so it’s refreshing.

And on the subject of beer, this is where the famed German efficiency truly shines. I went to a beer festival the first Friday I was here. Hundreds or maybe thousands of people in traditional clothing dancing and stomping on tables and smashing liters of strong beer together was what it looked like at 8:30PM. You don’t want to know about closing time.

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Put on your dirndl, we’re going to get turndl.

Anyway, there is no real point to this post other than to say hello and give a quick update on what I’m doing. My next book comes out in two weeks. Be sure to check it out.

Also gotta say I really missed kebabs.

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Picture credit Google.

Tales from Being Car-less in Los Angeles, Pt. 1

I usually yawn at these bullshit holier-than-thou types of rants about this that or the other thing, but this was very funny to me, so here we go. I don’t have a car (by choice) and usually take the bus to work. I haven’t owned a car since I moved to Europe in 2013. I moved to LA earlier this year, but despite the ease of travel a car provides, decided to stick with the challenging, weird lifestyle of being car-less for a few reasons. I used to have a nice car, an Audi A6 that was luxurious and fun to drive, and you know what? I never saved any money, because maintaining that thing was more expensive than a small country, and I always got parking tickets. Besides, the Northern Californian in me doesn’t like smog and if I can do my tiny little part to make sure my kids and their kids grow up in a world with redwood trees instead of a scorched post-apocalyptic wasteland, that’s cool, too.
 
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“Dehydrate!”
 
Practically, public transportation is better for cities than massive loads of commuters all driving their own vehicles, anyway, so why not use it? It reduces traffic on the roads, lowers pollution, and if buses and trains are consistently full it gives the city a reason to build and run more of them. And personally, I think riding public transportation at least for a work commute is simply a lot less boring. If you’re going to spend a huge chunk of your day sitting around waiting, would you rather do it in your own vehicle where you have to drive a few feet every five or ten minutes, or someone else’s, where your hands and eyes are free to read a book, play Super Mario Run, or look at dank memes?
 
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The face of a man who wishes he could be battling King Koopa but instead must listen to NPR.
 
So I was walking to my bus stop today and there was gridlocked traffic all up and down Sepulveda Blvd as far as the eye could see. My bus was five cars past the stop and not moving. So I said frog it I’m walking to the next stop. Four stops/two miles later, the bus is still behind me and I’m listening to the Devil Makes Three bobbing along the sidewalk with my coffee and a smug smirk on my face while a bunch of pissed-off ladies give me dirty looks from their BMWs, some of which are plastered with Democrat or pro-environment bumper stickers. Some of whom are angrily scrolling on their cell phones probably blasting some friend or family member on social media for having the wrong opinions. Some of whom are at that very moment writing Facebook essays about how the Republicans are going to ruin the planet.
 
Turns out the traffic was unusually bad this morning due to a messed up traffic light, which is why I was able to walk farther in an hour than the entirety of the Hermosa/Manhattan Beach section of Sepulveda Blvd was able to drive. But still. Forget about daggers. Some of those folks were staring glaives.
 
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Now, my beliefs on politics these days are pretty open and I mostly try to keep them to myself. Seven billion people, seven billion realities. But. And this is a big but. The car issue has dimmed my view somewhat about the “open-mindedness” of others. Specifically certain people I’ve met since moving to this great city of sun and sand, the vast majority of whom have been awesome, but a small segment of whom have, upon learning I don’t drive a car, given me that not-so-subtle smirk to quietly inform me they think I am subhuman. Let’s not even mention the run-of-the-mill blonde BMW ladies who rocket around right turns on a red light when the walk sign is on and almost kill me on a regular basis then flip me off and yell at me even though their windows are up, like being a pedestrian is some form of cancer.
 
What’s up? And why here, of all places, where anyone who has been stuck in traffic all of once can recognize that the future of Los Angeles needs to look beyond the automobile as a primary mode of transportation?
 
C’mon. Guys. You will talk until you’re blue in the face about how those BAD PEOPLE are sooo going to destroy the environment… but am a crab-person for not driving when it is literally faster to walk?
 
Hmm.
 
Hmmmm.
 
That’s interesting.
 
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One star.

The Berlin I Remember

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This is the Berlin I remember
A glowing winter flame
Where open hands and steaming wine
Lay stones upon old pain.

 

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When I think of Berlin,
There’s only one that I recall
Not the one of sorrow and blood
But the light that’s growing tall.

 

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Don’t send them empty platitudes
Or Facebook prayers or snark;
Instead become that winter flame
That banishes the dark.

Fiction: The Girl in the Blue Dress

This letter is for the girl in the blue dress. You know who you are and that I’ve wanted to contact you. My name is Rider. My handle on the BrickLog is RK466. You can contact me at #1107381980085.

However, since I know this letter will have far more readers than just you, the following is for all those who are not the girl in the blue dress. Blue, you can skip to the end.

Everyone else, I want to tell you a story. It’s about love, and longing, and the childish games Watchers play—at least one in particular—in the service of those first two things. I’m hoping my story will convince you to help me with something, because I desperately need your aid.

The first time I saw her was in Pompeii. She was walking towards me, up the sloping street, wearing a blue dress. She carried a basket of olives on her hip, which was swaying, her eyes locked on the mountain behind us. When she noticed me noticing her, she recognized me instantly as a Watcher, like herself, and asked me: “Are you enjoying the show?”

I said “Yes”.

“Me too,” she said with a smile. “This one’s my favorite.”

That city in its prime is more beautiful than you can imagine without seeing it firsthand. It’s an old Schwarbrick (sorry, Schwarzschild-Kubrick Show, if that wasn’t clear), so the ticket only costs a few dozen seconds. The streets are vigorous, still brimming with life, hundreds of people all passing along their kinetic energy in a crashing, haphazard fashion. And when the mountain finally blows, and the jet black streams darken the sky in an instant and that sound—oh God, that terrible sound—penetrates you so deep it could bury you, you know why we do this, why those few dozen seconds of our lives are nothing for the joy of witnessing a Schwarbrick like this.

You think: This is why we watch.

The advertisements all push the war shows these days, but I prefer natural disasters. The heroics are better, more organic. If you’ve never seen one of the Natural Crisis ‘bricks, you don’t know what you’re missing. I consider myself an addict. It used to be because of my morbid fascination with all the blood, the fires and the suffering. But these days it’s because of her.

I won’t give up searching until I find her.

During every great catastrophe in human history there has always been someone standing by, laughing. And when I first laid eyes on her, loitering up the stony road in Pompeii with her basket of olives towards the place at the top of the rise where she would have the best view of Vesuvius, the vantage clearest of vineyards and tombs, I knew she was the type to laugh, not out of sadism, but because to her this really was just a show.

Then the caldera cracked and my eyes were drawn away from her to the eruption rising to cover the sky with obsidian dust, and by the time I thought to look for her again, she was gone.

The next time I saw her was in Rome. It was 217 AD. Most show-goers watch in marathons: a week in Ancient Rome, a week in China, a day or two on a certain stretch of the North Atlantic of a silent, iceberg-laden night, because buying ‘bricks in bulk is cheaper, costing only a few minutes for each show rather than the hours or days they would cost to purchase tickets for individually.

She was watching the Rome shows this week, same as me. It was the evening of the Coliseum fires.

We were both exploring the hallways outside the arena as workers prepared for a gladiatorial match that was to take place the following day. A low blanket of charcoal clouds belched murmurs of thunder through the dimming sky.

I don’t recall how many people died that night, if there was even a record. But I recall their faces well, so placid and unaware.

I found myself walking suddenly behind a woman whose stride and swaying hips seemed familiar. But I couldn’t place exactly where from.

Then I saw the blue dress; the same she was wearing in Pompeii.

She strolled casually, not making much effort to fit in, because she knew she didn’t have to. She was still carrying her basket of olives. I assumed it was her immersion prop, to make her presence in times that were not her own more convincing. Mine is a pair of rope sandals, uncomfortable as a plague, but they fit well (enough) in most historical ‘bricks.

The girl looked back at me and smiled. She had vibrant freckles, amber hair that fell in slow-moving curls, olive skin so smooth it appeared oiled under the torchlight. I knew it was her as soon as our eyes met.

She kept pace with me and eventually said, in a language distinctly not Ancient Latin: “Hey, you. Fancy seeing you here. You like this type of ‘brick, huh?”

I told her I did.

“Natural Crisis week is my all-time fave,” she said. “When you’re done here, though, you should skip the Titanic and check out the S.S. Sultana instead. It’s a much better ‘brick, and a lot less crowded.

I saw her wink as we entered the glow under a lantern. I stopped, taking her arm gently. “You know, these are always more fun with another person. Would you like to watch this one together?” I asked her.

A sudden snap of thunder spooked a pack of hyenas in one of the cages nearby. A crowd of people gathered to watch the handler desperately trying to sing them calm again. Non volo! He cried. Non volo! Non volo, non volo

“No,” she said over my shoulder. “Sorry, but I like to watch alone.”

When I looked again, she was gone.

We all saw the finger of lightning and heard the deafening cries. It was no surprise for me, as I knew it was coming. But when the bright flash licked down against the top of the Colosseum, and the flames budded from the wood supports and spread and scattered, it was suddenly as if the whole world had ended.

I felt a hand brush my back, soft and reassuring. A flash of blue passed my peripheral vision. But when I tried to find her, I could not.

I went to the S.S. Sultana next. I was young, could afford to shave a few more days off my life to buy another Schwarbrick ticket, and it was one I had never seen.

I stood on the main deck and brushed her shoulder with mine. She looked stunning. She wore a fur coat over her blue dress, for the night was frigid and the surface of the Mississippi caked with drifts of ice.

It’s a short show, the Sultana; only a few minutes to view. We didn’t have much time.

She smiled at me and took my arm, said, “Boom,” and pointed toward the boiler. We were knocked apart as the true sound of the explosion split the frosty night, and somewhere among the din, I heard her laughing.

“That always gets me!” She chuckled as we found each other again amid the chaotic screaming of the crowd. She propped herself steady on the rail as the deck tilted and people began jumping overboard, screaming.

“This is great!” I said, shouting over the noise. “I’ve never seen this one before!”

“I know!” she said, and grinned.

The fireball ascended above us like a beacon, and in that crimson light I saw something about her I hadn’t noticed before: she had a scar tattoo of a star under her eye that bunched up as if it was twinkling when she smiled.

“Let’s go to the Egyptian Plague,” I said.

“What?”

“The Egyptian Plague!” I repeated. “Come on! It’s great!”

She left my arm, turned and made fast for her extraction line on the second deck. “I’ve gotta go,” she said.

“Wait! What’s your name?”

Then my own extraction point out of the Schwarbrick opened, and I exited back into the present, disappointed, but still flying off the feel of her touch. Many centuries in the past, the Sultana’s second deck began to sink beneath the lapping freeze of the rough-and-tumble Mississippi.

I didn’t see her in Egypt, nor in Babylon. I snuck up on someone I thought was her in California at Donner Lake, hiding in the snow drifts behind a thermal shield, but I was mistaken. That watcher was an older woman, brunette and irritated I’d crashed on her show. She made a joke that this was a bad time to be sneaking up on people, and that if I’d done it to the wrong party I would probably get eaten. We started talking and ended up getting along, shared a bowl of soup and watched the cannibals devour each other.

When I finally saw my girl again, it was in the Anasazi Famine of 1299. She was walking among the corpses, holding a fox skin over her nose. The sweet smell of rot lingered like an echo over that doomed city. She was wearing her blue dress. I could see it from all the way across the dust-bitten valley, like a single drop of color on a gray, apocalyptic canvas.

Neither of us spoke. She only took my hand, and we walked in silence among them, an entire civilization dead to starvation. The few Anasazi who were still alive picked through the ruins and the streets in a last desperate attempt to find food. The dead offered no complaint.

History has come to know them as The Old Ones. That is what Anasazi means, a name they surely did not call themselves. Their language is lost and cannot be learned even by the most dedicated Schwarbrick aficionados—one of the few such languages the fandom has yet to crack (I know, because aside from being a Watcher, I’m also a Cracker; meaning, I dedicate the vast majority of my free time when I’m not ‘bricking to solving the lost languages of the past we hear in the ‘bricks; it makes the experience richer).

But in their places, dead or alive they looked no older than us—smaller perhaps, rougher, harder—but no older.

I didn’t see it as a good time to ask for a second date. There would be another time, I told myself. There always is.

I now must apologize, dear reader, if I have misled you thus far. Even thinking about her makes it difficult to write. I’m writing all of this to you because I need your help. What I ask is simple: if you see her, you must show her this letter. I need to see her again.

You must give her this letter. She’ll know who I am by reading it and, I hope, will seek me out, since my efforts to find her have been haphazard at best, and most of the time, altogether fruitless.

I’m not some creep in the bushes, you see. I know my feelings are mutual, even if she does play hard-to-get. I’ve known ever since she kissed me above the flooded valleys of the Yangtze in 1931 AD, the last time I saw her.

Three million people died that year in the floods. She came to the show drunk. She sat close to me on the hillside, her arm entangled in mine and her soft head resting pleasantly on my shoulder. We both speculated on the horror of losing one’s home to the rising black waters, or one’s family, then suddenly, she kissed me.

Her lips tasted of wine and the gray, forgotten future. When she pulled back she had rain in her eyes and a smile caught between her dimples.

“I know we’re not supposed to interfere when we watch,” she said. “But haven’t you ever wanted to?”

“What’s your name?” I said.

“That would be interfering.”

She slid a finger along the top knuckle of my right hand, softly wiping away the raindrops gathered there.

“We’re not interfering at all! And who cares? You some sort of BrickLogger?”

“Loggers aren’t the only ones who care about all the innocent people who get killed when we interfere.”

“How do you know anyone does? All that’s been proven is it creates a failed timeline.”

She squeezed my hand and stood up on her heels, kissing me deeper than before. “I gotta go.”

Someone screamed on the river below, a man clinging desperately to a raft made from doors wound together with chicken wire, the pregnant black waters fighting to pull him under.

When I looked up again, she was falling back through her extraction point into her own time.

“Wait! How can I contact you?” But she wasn’t there.

And again, after our picnic at Fort Point in 1906, as we watched San Francisco collapse to the malicious arithmetic of the quakes; and the bombing of Hiroshima; and the time we stood with hands clasped tight as the women buried their children at Wounded Knee.

She’s playing games with me.

You must find her, dear reader. Whoever, whenever you are, there is a significant chance she is nearby. I know, because she told me this week is her favorite. I’ve left copies of this letter in every ‘brick currently being shown.

She isn’t hard to recognize. She wears a blue cotton dress, a simple garment that could fit easily anytime, anywhere. Sometimes she carries a basket of olives as an immersion prop. Her hair will be done up in whatever style is trendy in your time. She will be close to wherever you find this letter. She always knows where to get the best views.

In return for your help, I will help you. I know I am only a stranger to you—some words written on a piece of paper. But have you not also loved and longed for one who toyed so indecisively with your heart? Would you not do anything to secure their love, so you might be happy?

If she isn’t there, the advice I’m about to give you will still be useful. By law and the terms of the Schwarzschild-Kubrick Show user agreement, I must be purposefully vague in what I am about to say. But it is monumentally important that you listen, and listen well. Your life depends on it.

For My Blue: Call me already. I’m running out of time and can’t keep chasing you around through the ‘bricks like this. I know you’re in just as much time-debt as I am. You’re being childish by pretending to be interested; either you’re interested, or you’re not. If so, just call. I hope your answer is yes.

For everyone else: Very soon, you should put down whatever you’re doing and start to run.

*First published in Nonlocal Science Fiction, December 2015

(Want to read this story on your Kindle? Download it here)

How to Know a City is Dead

Maybe in seeking authenticity, we destroy it.

Prague, AKA every city visited in the American film “Eurotrip”

I visited Prague again with my parents and girlfriend in the summer of 2015. We rolled into Praha hl.n. around mid-afternoon, after six hours aboard the brand-new LEO Express from Krakow, a ride plagued with internet loss, dad snores, Hannah sneakily stealing bites of my crappy train sandwich, and the inevitable onset of swamp nuts.

It was my second time in Prague, a city of unparalleled beauty, which I’ve since described as Disneyworld Eastern Europe due to the swarms of tourists clogging the pristine old city. It had only been a year since my last visit, but enough time had passed for me to recognize that Prague – which already had many of the problems I am about to describe – had changed for the worse.

The stones of a city rarely move, barring violent phenomena like bombs, revolution, hostile corporate takeovers, or incompetence with heavy machinery. But the character of a city can change overnight. Depending entirely on who is there, and how those people behave, a city can turn from a quincunx of open, inviting streets begging to pull you in and show you their wonders, to an artifice of crowded no-ways leading to nowhere because every local is dead behind the eyes, and every tourist carries a god-given entitlement to act like an asshole.

We Americans didn’t begin the practice of day drinking, but goddamn if we aren’t going to end it.

1. TOURISTS HAVE THE WRONG INTENTIONS

We all indelibly leave our mark on the places we visit, and that mark is inscribed by our intentions. The wrong intentions, whether they are posed consciously or subconsciously as one steps off the train, plane, car, or bus, look something like this: I want to be an asshole here, and disregard everyone, especially the locals, drink my weight in everything, leave my vomit on the streets, be rude to waiters, be rude to other tourists of nationalities I don’t like, wear socks and sandals, use a selfie stick, and ride a segway.

Let’s call this the Taker Mentality. Chances are, if you’re someone who reads articles about travel destinations changing due to asshole tourists, you’re probably not a Taker, but I will still include the following for posterity.

This is a good alternative series of questions to ask yourself when you feel the urge coming on to act like a two-scroop dickscream cone in someone else’s city, what I will call the Leaver MentalityDo I want to leave it better than I found it? Do I want to blend in as much as possible, and not make a scene/a mess/a shitshow/a negative stereotype out of myself? Do I want to be a good, or bad ambassador for my country? 

Off-topic, but these Celts can shred.

2. THERE ARE MORE TAKERS THAN LEAVERS

This rule probably applies as much to long-term residents of a city as it does to travelers, but since this is a ranticle about travel, I will state this: when the takers visiting a city outnumber the leavers, you can stick a fork in it, because it’s done.

The physical beauty of the buildings may remain, perhaps for centuries or in perpetuity, but the experience – that golden, untouched quality of authenticity, that once gave visitors from abroad irreplaceable feelings of joy, wonder, and novelty – has been irreparably blemished. It has been overrun with the wrong kind of tourists, who will do everything in their power to sap the authenticity from your – and everyone else’s – time there.

Some authenticity may remain, still lurking in the corners far off the beaten path. But it’s going to be hard to find, and old timers will tell you that those golden moments of unforgettable happiness that were once so abundant they could be plucked from the streets, now cost €15 and are shipped in bulk from Taiwan.

I have no idea how good Prague actually used to be, only how bad it got. I first visited the city in Spring of 2014, and even then it was chock-full of Eat Pray Lovers, English Stag Parties, Russian new money, and Kaiju-sized tour groups from East Asia.

Yes, those are stereotypes. But do not misunderstand what I’m saying, here. Prague belongs to everyone, as does every other city in Europe, and the world, at least as a place one should be able to visit, taste the food, and see the sights. The groups I am stereotyping, I am stereotyping specifically because they most consistently live up to their bad reputations for ruining the experience of other travelers.

Maybe things I do bother them, too, like not getting screaming drunk and throwing up everywhere, moving in a timely fashion and minding my space in a crowd of people, not blocking other people’s pretty pictures, and patiently waiting my turn in line rather than cutting others off or rubbing my crotch in someone’s ass. Maybe I just have bad information, and the old crotch-ass rub is actually how most of the world wants to wait for their turn to order at Starbucks. But I doubt it.

Don’t go to the Czech Republic on a cut, brahs.

3. THE WORST KINDS OF TOURISTS FLOCK THERE

The pattern is always the same: an article gets posted on Buzzfeed with some pretty pictures, and the assholes come swarming. Omg, Prague looks a-maze-ing! 2016, betch! We made it! Or the weather gets nice and Ryan Air starts flying with regularity, and the stag parties swarm, hyped-up visions of slender Slavic women, cheap beer, and public urination dancing like sugarplums in their heads. Fookin right ya fookin pansies Riga 2016 mate Prague 2016 mate Krakof 2016 mate we’re from fookin ENGLAND not BRETIN! Or the travel agencies put a sweet package deal together with a nice, 30-hour flight/bus ride from Coldasfuckistan, and the irritable post-Perestroika New Money swarms. вы не можете остановить нас. Радуйся, Путин.

Again, these are stereotypes. But in my experience, stereotypes about how people travel should not be offensive, because they’re describing a behavior, not something a person didn’t choose, like ethnicity, sex, gender, or having curly hair. Behavior can change if people have a will to change it, and the lack of that will usually comes from a lack of self-awareness as much as it does from culture. Self-awareness is something we should all encourage. So relax your instinctive coil of butthurt and instead try to think critically about what I’m saying.

It’s just as true with the stereotype of the Ugly American: a poorly dressed, low-class yokel who travels abroad and acts entitled and obnoxious to everyone he/she/it meets. I was an Ugly American before I realized I was one, and made a conscious effort to change the way I acted. I’ve seen these people in the flesh, more than I wanted to, in every city in Europe, my own countrymen, acting like tubby, French fry-vacuuming buffoons, and it absolutely disgusts me. They come from all races and genders, and from all walks of life. 100% of the time, these people could be classified as Ugly Americans for one reason: they didn’t stop to ask themselves, Am I being an asshole? 

To be honest, though, Ugly Americans are not as prevalent now as they probably were during the Bush years… at least, if my time in Europe is any indicator. Most of the Americans I’ve met in the roughly three years I’ve lived here (sum total) have been college students on starship voyages of magic and self-discovery. These days, college kids tend to be hyper-aware of not offending people, to the point of actually being embarrassed about the color of their passports, and are more concerned with getting some European strange than being chodes in public.

(but, do you.)

Authentic Jewish cuisine delivered straight to your table by a hunky Golem.

4. YOU KNOW YOU NEED TO LET IT GO, BUT YOU CAN’T

As I left Prague, I was thankful. Thankful for my beautiful girlfriend, and the joy she gives me. Thankful for my parents, and that I was there to see their faces as we explored one of my favorite cities on Earth. Thankful that I was fortunate enough to travel, and feel such happiness and fulfillment, when there are so many people on Earth who can’t. Thankful for the Czech people, who, after suffering through a brutal and bloodsoaked 20th century at the hands of the Nazis and then the Communists, still somehow manage to receive foreigners in their country with a mostly hospitable outlook, even if many in the Old Town have gone a bit dead behind the eyes from dealing with so many tourists.

But the thankfulness I felt was balanced equally by sadness, because a place I had fallen in love with only a year before had changed. I couldn’t shake the feeling that the place I loved was gone forever. Yes, to an extent, this was only my rose-colored glasses coming off. But I don’t think that was all of it. Experience changes places like it changes people. In the internet age, a city’s economic growth, touristic attractiveness, cultural philosophy, and treatment of visitors can shift in the blink of an eye. A place that can feel like the world’s best-kept secret one year can feel completely different the next, and yet it is that ethereal experience of feeling like you are part of something authentic that many people seek when they travel, myself included.

Prague has never been a secret to the West… it’s one of Europe’s oldest and most beautiful cities. I’m just waxing around a point, and the point is this. Maybe I’m wrong, and authenticity isn’t actually a tangible resource depreciated by overexposure to outsiders. Maybe it doesn’t actually exist, and is all a pretty lie swallowed by hipster travelers addicted to falling for the illusion, like a dream which quickly vanishes after waking up. Maybe in seeking authenticity, we destroy it. If that’s true, I’m as guilty as the next.

I don’t know. But I do know the feeling I had watching Prague roll away under gray summer skies as the 4:05 express departed for Krakow, the feeling that something irreplaceable – a part of me, or of the city itself – had been lost; something many other places had, too, but that they might not have for very long.

Deep is the toilet / Of humanity’s cruelty / Pensive duckface pose

The Abandoned Plague Asylum on Malta

It was on the way to that old lookout tower, just beyond the main ridge of the island where the hotel slipped from view behind the moribund cliffs, that we found the abandoned plague asylum.

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I recently took my girlfriend to Malta for our summer holiday.

I hadn’t seen her in three months. We lived on different continents, but she was moving to Europe to be with me at the end of the semester. The distance was long, cold, and bitter. I thought the sunshine would never come.

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Malta is a small country of just 400,000 people, made up of several islands in the Mediterranean Sea, to the south of Italy. We stayed on Comino, a sparse, barren island with no people except for the resort hotel, and the tourists who come in by boat for the day to swim at the famously picturesque Blue Lagoon.

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My girlfriend and I spent our days swimming in the crystal-blue waters and our nights gorging ourselves and getting drunk on liters of cheap house wine at the hotel’s all-you-can eat buffet. The food was good, but old-fashioned; like everything else on the island, from the janky bungalows to the cracked, peeling deck chairs, it hadn’t changed in probably thirty or forty years. It was like a dream being on that beautiful, secluded island with the woman I loved. We kissed and held each other close as much as possible to make up for all the time we spent apart. We took evening walks along the dusk-lit cliffs, where she would rest her head on my shoulder and say how happy she was to be there with me.

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We went for an evening run our last night on Comino, out to an old watchtower on the far side of the island. Malta was invaded by every naval power in the Mediterranean throughout its history, so a few hundred years ago, a perimeter of defensive towers was built to repel attacks from enemy ships. Comino’s watchtower was a thirty minute run from our hotel, up a winding dirt road lined with scrub brush and breathtaking views of endless sandstone cliffs falling away to the turqoise-tinged sea.

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It was on the way to that old lookout tower, just beyond the main ridge of the island where the hotel slipped from view behind the moribund cliffs, that we found the abandoned plague asylum.

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A commemorative plaque said the asylum had been used by the French Army to isolate victims of plague during the 18th century. At some point later on it turned into a boarding school for boys, then a soldiers’ barracks, and was eventually decommissioned after World War II.

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The immediacy of the facility’s abandonment was clear around every corner. We wandered the grounds and ruined halls, marveling at this peeled-back corner of forgotten time. The walls were caked with grime and old smoke, still wearing the wallpaper they had been seventy years ago. The shutters on the windows still hung open, paint flaking and the hinges frozen with rust. Ancient cars with no engines lined the outer walls. A stilted boat in the courtyard named the Graziella waited for repairs that would never come. Weeds and creeper vines seized every opportunistic crack in the old stones, their patient branches slowly erasing what man had so quickly left behind.

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We were passing the last room of the last wing of the asylum on our way back to the trail, when I heard music softly playing through one of the open windows. I froze, squeezing my girlfriend’s hand as my blood turned to icy sludge. It was old-time 1940s jazz playing on a radio.

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The window was on the second floor, too high for us to see inside. I noticed a fluttering movement just beyond the horizon of my sight. I squinted hard, shielding the dying sunlight from my eyes. It was clothes drying on a clothesline. Someone still lived there.

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My girlfriend and I both exchanged nervous glances, then slowly, silently, turned and walked away, back up the trail to our hotel. I felt eyes boring holes in me the entire way, but every time I looked back over my shoulder, the window was empty.

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After dinner, we returned to our bungalow and went to bed. My girlfriend fell asleep as soon as her head hit the pillow, but I stayed awake for a long time, feeling the soft weight of her head rising and falling against my chest. I watched the still, black shape of the Mediterranean through the gap in the curtains, which weren’t quite long enough to close. Maybe I was just being stupid, or my masculine instinct to protect the girl I loved was shot into overdrive from the feeling that someone had been watching us explore that abandoned old asylum, making me imagine things that weren’t really there.

But I couldn’t shake the feeling that somewhere outside, in that infinite darkness, someone was still watching.

A City of Ghosts

Prague is a city of ghosts.

11402592_10101844140978558_421260025907632887_o Prague is a city of ghosts. Old stones whisper under your heels as you stroll through the spider-web of narrow, medieval streets, craning your neck to look at the dichotomy of garishly painted and smoke-blackened building fronts.

They say: The King threw us out of the windows for our dissent. It happened so often, they gave it a word still used to this day: defenestration.

Defenestration-prague-1618 They say: The Nazis hung swastikas from our towers and murdered anyone who didn’t possess documents proving they weren’t a Roma or a Jew. We tore down their signs in Wenceslas Square, and they shot us for our dissent. 

Czech-2013-Terezin-Theresienstadt-Arbeit_macht_frei They say: The Communists made us disappear, erased us from the earth. American celebrities like Philip Roth tried to help our academics escape, until the secret police stopped him, and told him if he returned he would disappear, too, for his dissent.

philip-roth_custom-4dda9907a6cd146b73bfc39995317d935c8c7756-s6-c30 Now cameras flash, promoters hound their party packages and strip club fliers to hesitant passersby, stag parties swill and shamble drunkenly from one pub to the other, excusing their monkey behavior with two magic little words, “Czech Beer”, with little regard for History’s less photogenic artifacts.

11539014_10101844116288038_2370410741508385354_o “Dark Tourists” may visit a church made of bones two hours away by train, leaving awestruck if not a little disappointed when they find the dead chose to be buried into that church’s walls as an act of religious devotion.

xfeat3-Sedlec-Ossuary1 Yet Prague’s ghosts are still there, in every nook, crenelation, and graduated spire; in every eat-pray-loving American girl’s new Tinder profile picture and every Russian or Chinese tourist’s stick-assisted selfie as they lag behind the tour group to get that perfectly uncrowded shot, Prague’s ghosts linger, hidden, but not forgotten. And that is their ultimate dissent.

1425460_10101844121642308_2350490820979016704_o They say: Be wary of beauty, because sometimes the most beautiful facades conceal the worst things imaginable.

11406246_10101844123289008_873263056877609752_o They say: Be wary of those who overlook ugly truths in favor of pretty lies, because they are the ones who empower evil.

11233569_10101844125679218_2836654687149515031_o They say: Be wary of the past, because if you are not, you are doomed to repeat it.