Wheels on the Bus*

December 10, 2010

[Thunderous applause]

Thank you. Thank you. It’s an honor to be here. Thank you.

[Lingering whistles; audience is seated]

Thank you all for joining me on this very special evening. Many of you have gone to great lengths to be here tonight – battling bright computer screens in the midst of cruel hangovers and jeopardizing billable hours or otherwise valuable time. Your sacrifices do not go unnoticed, and let me be the first to say that I am deeply grateful for your presence as I celebrate my 28th hour of non-stop Eurolines international auto-bus travel.

[Applause resumes; woman faints]

This international journey would not have been possible without the help of countless Madrid Air Traffic Controllers and other airline personnel dedicated to performing a strike of monumental proportions: May a closed airport and 250,000 stranded and/or rerouted passengers be the bargaining chip for which you have long labored. Together you have proven that no national military can successfully scab the wound of your absence. As a wide-eyed witness to today’s events, I am proud to report that luggage conveyors can hold the weight of hundreds of sleeping human beings; that customers will still wait in line despite closed ticket counters; and that, yes, grown men do cry.

Thirty-six hours ago, I was but one of the many commuters making the two-and-a-half hour journey from Salamanca to Madrid. I fell asleep dreaming of my upcoming schedule: a flight from Madrid to Zurich followed by a train to Innsbruck. As any traveler knows, a seamless itinerary is the strongest sedative. Two hours later, I awoke to a police officer boarding the bus with an urgent message. Half asleep in a strictly Spanish-speaking situation, the odds of understanding were against me, but the cries and curses of my fellow-passengers snapped the language barrier with remarkable ease: airport closed, flights canceled. The trilingual woman in seat fourteen informed no one in particular that all the hostels, hotels, and rent-able flat surfaces within Madrid city limits were full. The bus driver, having stumbled into an exciting day at the office, proposed a vote with unsettling enthusiasm. With a little help from my high school Spanish days, I was able to determine that democracy was at a stand-still – it was “no” versus “no.” Seat fourteen helped translate the details: unless we were an empty taxi, we were not getting anywhere near the airport. Our choices were to dropped off here [in the abyss of maze-like airport ramps] or at a bus station south of the city. The passengers opted for anarchy and chose to phone a friend. Meanwhile, in the midst of dialing my rational self, the authoritarian clouds parted, and our bus began to move towards the heart of the airport.

It is within this war-zone of a transportation hub that my twenty-eight-hour bus baby was conceived. It may come as a shock to many of you that this bundle of adventure was unexpected; fate, as I have learned, knows no contraception. Like a lone sandbag in New Orleans, requests via loudspeaker to “please leave the airport” were drowned by an endless flood of panic, apathy, and anger. People everywhere seemed to claim their territory with sharpened elbows and greased suitcase wheels. The sight of one particularly sleepy gentleman, face-pressed and drooling against the slack-line normally used to structure the cue, rendered me motionless with the fear of impending doom. A Japanese tour group capitalized upon my moment of weakness and funneled me towards the far wall. I quickly gathered myself and weaved my way towards the bright light of a travel agency.

This brings me to my second round of acknowledgments: Corte de Ingles Viaje – the booking company that ultimately nominated me for this once-in-a-lifetime travel cameo. Special thanks to the out-of-uniform travel agent who insisted that I “act quickly!” and book one of the only remaining overpriced seats on the overnight bus from Madrid to Zurich. It was a sixteen-hour bus ride arriving just in time to catch my scheduled train to Innsbruck. After a few ferocious taps of the keyboard, this frantic woman sent me running down the stairs to catch a bus to the city station. As I waited in the appointed terminal, I could still feel her voice, sharp and unforgiving, like the lingering ache of an index finger poking my rib cage.

For one hour, I waited patiently. For five gruesome minutes, I panicked tremendously. It was 2:30pm and the bus that never arrived was scheduled to depart. Sandwiched between backpacks, I pin-balled from non-English-speaking bus drivers to non-English speaking tourist information desks. You see, in order to stand in front of you today, I had to first become that traveler. I was the stress-monkey it pains you to look at. You know the type: cutting in front of lines, hands shaking, palms sweating, voice cracking, tears forming. That instinct is in all of us, and it surfaces with a vengeance. So thank you, bilingual mystery man, for emerging from the crowd and matching my panicked pace. If you’re out there tonight, please know that I am infinitely grateful for the grace with which you helped me shuffle the stiff cards of bureaucracy. You were my translator and you were my friend. It was your kindness that reserved me a spot on the next bus to Barcelona. Thank you for literally pointing me in the right direction. Thank you for repeating my itinerary to me three times. Thank you for the kind look in your eyes as you said: “There might be a bus for you there.” For all of this, I thank you.

My next shout-out goes to my seatmate on the Barcelona bus. You know who you are. It is you who politely corrected me when I stated an incorrect arrival time. It is you who, ever so gently, broke the news that I would have approximately six minutes to locate my next bus and approximately eight hours to let that anxiety fester. You were also sideswiped by the Madrid Incident, but you still had the energy to hide your panic when I told you that I didn’t exactly have a ticket for that bus. Thank you for accepting my invitation to share headphones and watch sad movies about sad people with sad circumstances. Because of you, comrade, I was sad but not lonely.

Eight hours later, I let loose on the Barcelona bus station, running up and down several flights of stairs and waving sweaty papers in the air. Three minutes and no progress later, I approached the bus with nothing but a backpack and a pathetic plea for help. Fortunately, the bus driver was fluent in desperation, and he waved me on board at exactly 12:29am. Sixty seconds later, we were Zurich-bound. I spotted an old woman stretched out in the back seat, and I knew immediately that we would be instant friends. Together, the two of us spanned no less than five seats and three generations. She flashed a smile and tucked me to sleep with the news that Zurich was still another twenty hours away. At that moment, I realized that I would live to experience twenty-eight continuous hours of bus travel. I dozed on and off for eight hours, waking only to a 3am passport check and the soft brush of my elderly friend’s stockings against my wool socks.

That bus became my home. My whole world boiled down to fifty-seats and a box on wheels. I felt strangely content, but wary of new passengers and border control officers. During the eighteenth hour, a drug dog boarded the bus followed by two uniformed passport agents. I steamed the window with interest as I watched two of my passengers dump their belongings onto the icy pavement. White packets and white powder hit the ground, and our bus moved forward, two bodies lighter.

The twenty-second hour brought a leaky ceiling that dripped eerily onto the empty seats of the accused and departed. The sun slipped behind the snowy horizon, momentarily painting the whites and grays and browns a shade more hopeful. A semi-pornographic film flickered its way through the twenty-third and twenty-fourth hours, and two Polish men made my twenty-fifth something to remember with a cup of hot coffee. I rounded the bases of the remaining three hours in a jittery, caffeinated state juxtaposed by Oscar Wilde’s calm descriptions of Dorian Gray and the demise of his aging –

[Music Sounds; Ushers Appear on Stage]

Oh, my – how embarrassing – I’ve lost track of time! My twenty-eighth hour has come and gone, and it’s time to trade this bus for a train. Thank you again for being here tonight. To all those listening back home, I’ll be on the alm without internet through January 6th, but I hope to find a way to post a time or two. Until then, I wish you –

[Curtain drops]

*Written on December 5th, 2010



December 1, 2010

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It’s the last day of November and the sun is pouring through Lisbon like an accidental spill of wayward rays sloshing over unsuspecting scarves and cold-footed pigeons with a glow intended for warmer climates. A woman battles a chameleon-like sweat, taking off her coat to calm the itch of boiling glands only to throw it on again at her goosebumps’ request. There are clouds rolling in from the west with gray apathy and the heavy resentment of a clean-up crew destined for better things. A mix of cars, taxis, fast-paced pedestrians, and yellow trolley cars circle Praça de Luís de Camões with a forceful repetition that carves the plaza into an elevated place of rest and stagnancy. Tables outnumber trees with a ratio of 13:11 but Lisboetas seem to flock here with back-to-nature urgency. Every last branch of shrubbery is cloaked in holiday lights, turtlenecking the trees into unflattering daytime outfits – oh, the bullying ways of a shoulder-chipped city.

In truth, Lisbon feels like the urban runt of the prestigious Western European family. Its graffiti-stained buildings linger like neglected crumbs on the outline of Lisbon’s youthful mouth, and a replica Golden Gate bridge decorates the city like a stretched-out hand-me-down. But, spoken like a true youngest child, I absolutely love this city. I’ve spent the past four days here traveling solo, pounding the pavement and leaving no coffee shop unturned, hell-bent on one last urban binge before hanging my city boots in the Austrian Alps for a month. Truth be told, I couldn’t have asked for a better urban smorgasbord to fill my cheeks with, and after a couple of days of fasting on the hot breath of self-reflection, I’m relieved to turn my spectacles outward for a less foggy view.

For a city with a population of 2.4 million, the streets are strangely empty, and – based on Portugal’s frail economy – I have a hard time believing that all the locals are at work. Instead, winter’s cold hand seems to have chased everyone indoors, leaving riverside sunsets and hilltop castles strewn about like Cinderella slippers throughout the city. Despite the absence of warm bodies, the fax-ice skating rink failed to freeze and the twisting corridors of the Alfama Moorish quarter refused to loosen their firm grip. With a sky like Lisbon’s, this city needs no mortal company. Even as a quasi-ghost town, Lisbon somehow manages to feel alive and full. The fountains flow, the carousel turns, and the echoes of Christmas music add depth to the streets, but its the glimmer and crunch of broken glass between cobblestones that best resembles urban vibrancy. The simplicity of shattered glass accomplishes what post-modern artists spend a lifetime trying to achieve: an intentional vagueness that forces onlookers to make meaning of the meaningless. Broken glass looks like violence and smells like celebration. On Lisbon’s streets, I feel reminiscent and cautious, and I think about the accidents and intentions behind the sharp edges of city life.

With the exception of a stint in the Swiss Alps and a couple of brief stays in rural France, my trip is a tale told almost exclusively by cities at a time when so many of them are becoming the same. For that reason I am relieved when the street’s shiny splinters send my thoughts fracturing in so many different directions. I think of Madrid’s tobacco factory-turned-squat house where forty ounce bottles balance between high heels and hiking boots; and live music falls indiscriminately on the ears of dread heads and little kids on the shoulders of big kids-turned-parents. I think of the lingering bullet holes and shattered windows that make Bosnian faces look so much older than their ages. I think of the carefree smash of German steins on concrete and the clinking of cañas over 10pm dinners. I think of Amsterdam’s neon-lit glass, thin but thicker than the legal rights of the women dancing and staring and sitting behind it. I think of the pulsating windows drawing late-nights lines fifty-people deep outside of Berlin techno clubs. I think of all of this life out there and the strange way that cities manage to simultaneously contain, break, and fill it.

And then there’s Lisbon – yet another, but not just any other, city where a wandering woman can stretch her thoughts. I’m on the train back to Salamanca now, but that doesn’t make one bit of difference to that Portuguese city. Redhead or no redhead, the fountains flow and the carousel turns. For an overly anxious kid, that’s part of the appeal, really. Cities break the illusion of self-importance before it gets too big. So, humbled and happy, I’m ready to return to a place where my presence is counted, for another short stay with my long-time friend. The lights of the big city are behind me for now, and I’m thankful for the backlight that warms my path toward a different kind of adventure. Whitney is busy testing the Austrian snow for me while I bid farewell to urban life and make room for the city’s alter-ego.

While I plan to write again before my return to Austria, there’s no time like the present to introduce to you my home and workplace for the month of December, Juifen Alm.

Eid al-Adha: Sheeps!

November 23, 2010

It’s 5am, and I’m wide awake studying the sharp slant of the ceiling and listening to the guttural purr of a stray cat in heat. The sharp moan of distress and yearning cuts through the winding alleyways of the medina and collides with the faint crackle of a nearby loudspeaker. A sound like the acoustic version of stiff bedsheets shuffling fills the air and ignites into the impassioned cry of call to prayer. After a few days in Istanbul and Marakesh, the wail of mosque music has become just another street sound, blending into the mix of revving motorcycles and the pushy shouts of shopkeepers. But this call, this morning, is refusing to compromise. This call is ripping through locked doors and slipping beneath windowpanes, arriving at every bedside with unmistakable clarity. This call is replacing every dream with the image of a man in rapture, eyes squeezed tight, arms outstretched, voice rushing from a body with the force of pure divinity. This call makes me certain that I am but one of millions lying awake in silent awe of Islam in pious heat. This call marks the beginning of Eid al-Adha, an important religious holiday celebrated by Muslims worldwide to commemorate the willingness of Abraham to sacrifice his son as an act of obedience to God. Thanks to the good grace of the new moon, I’m here to witness Fez celebrate, one sheep at a time.

It’s 5:15am, and the call to prayer has finished. As a non-Muslim, reverence quickly gives way to humor. I pull back the covers, place my feet on the cold tile, and mumble something about a call to “pee.” On my way to the bathroom, I notice that Whitney is alert enough to recognize blasphemy. She rolls to the side of the bed and smiles, curls her body in prayer pose, and faces east in reparation.

It’s 8am, and I’m walking in disbelief down the empty artery of Fez’s main drag where, on any other day, locals and tourists pump through the street as if fueling the heart of the city via critical mass. Today Talaa Kebira looks more like tumbleweed territory with hundreds of shop gates pulled tight against the cobblestone. My mom, Whitney and I walk shoulder to shoulder, breaking the single-file strategy we adopted with Darwinian urgency during our first day in Morocco.

Waiting for Sacrifice

There are no donkeys; there are no food carts; and, aside from the occasional man, grinning and running with multiple knives in hand, there are no people. A few meters down the road, we pass a straggler pushing a cart with a sheep on board. We’re not from around here, but we know enough to recognize that, in a non-Muslim neighborhood, this would be the poor sucker stringing his holiday lights on Christmas morning. But, like any other man in a gandora today, this fellow is teeming with joy. He notices us, stops, and widens his eyes. Like an eager school boy answering a rhetorical question, he raises his voice, and draws an imaginary line across his throat with his thumb:“Sheeps!” he blurts.

Yes, today is the day of the sheeps! This word – with the excited tone and the sharp pronunciation, the abrupt hand gesture and the poor grammar – has become something of a greeting between tourists and locals during the days preceding Eid al-Adha. I’ll admit it: I even said it to myself while pulling on my pants this morning. It’s catchier than a pop song on repeat.

“Yes, Happy Eid!” we reply in unison, and the baa of the sheep is lost beneath hurried footsteps, leaving my mom, Whitney, and I with only time to kill before tuning into the local TV station at 9am. According to our landlord, the king is in town to kick off the big day with a televised throat slitting that is meant to open the blood gates for the rest of the city.

It’s 8:30am, and I hear it before I see it: a waterfall…a waterfall in the city…a waterfall of blood gushing from the city wall. Eight feet to my left and fifteen feet above, there is blood projectile-vomiting from a fist-sized hole overhead.

The Waterfall

There are mixed chunks of unidentified origin pounding down like hail, staining the concrete wall before making a grand finale in a foamy crimson pool in the street’s gutter. Had I not known about the sheeps! I might have gone into shock. But I know about the sheeps!, so I am not paralyzed by fear. I am laughing out loud because someone doesn’t need the king to celebrate.

It’s 9:05am, and there’s still no king on the TV. The three of us are sitting in a cafe full of Moroccan men. We are white, and we are women. The only other white woman in the restaurant is Katy Perry who is quite literally crawling across the TV screen, and I notice that I’m blushing. There is a loud clatter of hooves followed by a dozen men on horseback with blood-stained shirts. They are shouting and singing their ways through the streets.

Celebrating on Horseback

A police officer arrives and begins to joke with the men in the cafe. He is waving a foot-long knife like a baton conducting the laughter of the group seated before him. A shuffle ensues, and one man is pushed forward and tucked under the police officer’s arm. The knife is drawn, and all parties are smiling like their lives depend on it. Thank goodness we are not sheeps!

It’s 9:30am, and we are walking back to the riad. According to Moroccans, a riad is a traditional house with an interior garden or courtyard. According to ex-pats, a riad is a sure-fire financial investment with a marketable location. A strange phenomenon is occurring in Morocco, and riads are at the center of it. Thanks to the steady stream of tourism, low-to-middle-class Moroccans can sell their homes to foreigners in exchange for a bigger house in a more affluent neighborhood. In short, Moroccans are getting the hell out of dodge so that tourists can vacation there. The swap seems to work out nicely for all parties. Our Australian landlord, however, needs to brush up on his facts. The king, as it turns out, is not in Fez this morning. Although one of the king’s wives is from Fez, he is choosing to celebrate Eid al-Adha in Rabat where he will be televised at 12pm not 9am. Purchase a riad! [Cultural knowledge not included].

It’s 9:45am, and lambs are roasting on an open fire. King or no king, Talaa Kebira is peppered with fire and smoke where coal and wood burn beneath mattress frames.

Make-Shift Grilling

These makeshift grills are used to cook various sections of dismembered sheep: most notably, the head and the legs. The chefs appear to be teenage boys. Some are laughing and some are what the pun-minded might describe as deathly serious. Mood aside, these boys have a routine, and because they fit the age-range of the young people I used to work with, my mind regresses to office mode and spits out a job description:

The Street-side Chef is responsible for all or part of the following duties:

– Poking sheep heads with a stick;
– Rotating sheep legs until blackened;
– Securing heads and/or legs between foot and ground;
– Scraping charcoal from bone with sharp knife;
– Removing horns from head;
– Repeating the above tasks until all buckets are empty.

My eyes begin to water, and I question whether or not I have the qualifications. The fire burns on, and we climb the stairs up to our riad for an aerial view.

It’s 10:30am, and I’m looking out on a smoky skyline of minarets, satellite dishes, and antennas. Stray cats and laundry lines connect the hundreds of terraces that form Fez’s crowded medina.

The Fez Skyline

Eid al-Adha is in full swing, and depending on where I look, sheeps! are alive and tethered, dead and skinned, or squirming in some sort of unpleasant purgatory. The rooftops are bustling with action which makes spectating strangely easy. Religious traditions are exposed as if the ceilings were torn off for viewing pleasure. For a religion built on veiled privacy, I feel privileged to witness the openness of today’s sacrifice. Allah may be looking in, but so are we, and everyone seems to appreciate the extra eyes.

It’s 12pm, and the family across the alley seems to be one of the few to wait for the king’s call. A black cat prowls above the scene, and birds are flying in mechanical circles, overwhelmed by the endless possibilities of fresh meat.

The Lone Sheep

The laundry is hanging limp on the clothesline waiting to dry, and the sheep is tethered by a green rope waiting for slaughter. Two little girls chase each other on top of checkered tiles the color of dirt. The little girl waves at us because, in her world, we are more of a surprise than the fate of the sheep. For a moment, there are three women on each side of the alley, creating a sense of symmetry in the midst of great contrast. My mom, Whitney, and I continue watching as a young boy and two men step onto the scene.

It’s 12:20pm, and the sheep has just been flipped on its back. A small wall obstructs our view, but we can see one of the men mouthing a prayer, and we know that the knife is drawn. Blood flows silently onto the terrace, and the grandmother begins to sweep. The sheep kicks and lets out a gargled baa, and the men shake their head at what should have been a faster kill. Two snaps of legs breaking, and the sheep is tied by its feet. The children are jumping rope, and the men are skinning the carcass. The skinning process reminds me of pulling off pants that are two sizes too tight in the dressing room. It’s easier to think of it that way at least. Once the skin has been removed, the sheep is slit down the middle, and the intestines and internal organs are removed. The stomach lining is hung to dry which does not seem all that unusual given its resemblance to a torn rag.

The Stomach Lining

The sheep is untied and placed in the arms of one of the men. The shape of the animal is still in tact, and its held in a way that makes the sheep look tired after a long day. I can’t blame it. The twisting of my stomach is calmed by the intentionality and appreciation with which the man carries the carcass. He is purposeful, he is thankful, and he is proud.

It’s 2pm, and we’ve been wandering the streets for an hour looking for food. Trucks and carts are filled with sheep skins, and we are careful to step over the occasional pile of intestines and discarded bloody clothes. After much searching, we succumb to the fact that McDonalds is the only restaurant open today. I make a meal out of french fries and ice cream, and I think about all of the death and all of the life that I just watched. The sun is not close to setting, but I’m exhausted after witnessing and processing the existence of yet another world that is so entirely different than my own.

It is 2:05pm, and I am speechless.

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Being Free

November 10, 2010

The concept of “being free” has run like a smooth seam through the course of my travels. Four months ago I toweled off my toes, wet and prune-like, from a two-year dip in the career pool and submersed myself in a sea of options. I began, quite literally, pointing at a map and taking myself there. Thanks to several extensions of the index finger, I have puddle-jumped through sixteen countries and forty-one cities. Sources depending, I have spent the past seventeen weeks doing nothing at all and everything at once.

I am technically more free than I have ever been and, quite possibly, as free as I will ever be.

But, if I’ve learned anything from the books I’ve been reading during this free time of mine, it is that freedom comes in more shapes, sizes, and colors than the entire human race. Freedom is Hunter S. Thompson on a wild drug binge in Las Vegas. Freedom is Johnathan Leffem’s attempt to break from his Fortress of Solitude; and Milan Kundera’s submission to his own Unbearable Lightness of Being. Freedom, according to Kafka, doesn’t even exist.

However, in the words of my Serbian host: freedom is an American passport. Indeed, my little blue book – computer chip and all – has granted me the privilege of fumbling around in the dark for freedom’s illusive bra-strap; and when the lights come on, I always find myself with two handfuls of good fortune. Metaphors aside, I am so fucking lucky. The foundation of my luck lies in the heart and mind of parents who introduced me to the possibility of travel; parents who set up my savings account and encouraged me to roll my pennies, nickels, dimes, and quarters. The privilege spawns from there.

Most people that I meet out here ask me why I decided to do this. Why travel? Why now? My answer errs on the side of simplicity: “a desire to see the world while I’m young – before I find a career or have kids or grow up.” While that’s all well and good and true, it still feels a little dishonest. The driving force in my decision to troll around the world lies in the humbling truth that I really had no idea what to do next. I graduated college. I got a job that I hoped would turn into a career. It didn’t. The months rolled on in a slow, passionless haze. I wandered around my office building in search of inspirational strays – cubicle to bathroom, bathroom to lobby – hoping to trip over my calling, to hear the words: “I’m sorry, I think you dropped this,” and find my future career in the outstretched hand of a stranger. I literally twirled around in my rolling chair, head to the LEED certified lights, thinking: “I could install those things. Maybe that would be a better job for me.” I taped a small basketball hoop to the side of my cubicle, and tossed a Nerf ball through the net – each shot taking the psychological bend of a detention assignment: “I like to work with people. I like to be constantly learning. I like to change locations. I like to write. I like to make things.” My buzzer shot was supposed to link all of these things together with the swish of a tangible career but the whistle always blew too soon.

There were parts of my job that I loved. I loved working with teenagers. I loved the challenge of making a minimum wage job seem more attractive than after-school make-out sessions. But, at the end of the day, it was my job to stuff them into Burger King uniforms, to mold them into Subway “Sandwich Artists,” to place them in the same uninspired position that I was fighting tooth and nail not to abandon.

But, when the two-year mark of my life as an Employment Specialist neared, I heard the words of my former manager at the Lake Oswego Rite Aid: “I was just like you, kid – a summer employee. But, hey, time goes fast, and now I’m getting ready to ring in my twentieth year in this vest.” He celebrated this statement with a sigh of resignation that just about blew the mustache off of his upper lip. So, in honor of Phil and his facial hair – in honor of all of my employed minions in their Team Member best – I typed out my own resignation and booked an international flight. Clearly the preparation was more extensive than I make it seem, but the point remains the same. I had no idea what I wanted to do for a living, but I was more than inspired by the idea of putting an ocean in between any job and I.

So here I am: twenty-two trains, twelve buses, six planes, and five ferries away from staff meetings and fax machines, happily enjoying the world’s longest lunch break. I’m the kid reading a book at the coffee shop at 2pm on a Tuesday – a member of the anonymous sea of mid-day loungers you pass en route to the office – the ones who make you think, “What the hell do they do for living? Who are these people?” But don’t get me wrong. It’s not always easy out here on the cafe patio. There are moments when the caffeine hits a little too strong and a hedgehog named Panic begins somersaulting in my chest. Suddenly, the pants of “being free” are around my ankles, and the temporary ways of my vagrant ways are inescapably exposed. At these moments, I can hear the tick of every passing wristwatch reminding me that the escape from my vocational indecision can’t last forever.

So, in an attempt to stay present, I take a deep breath and return my attention to the book at hand which is by no coincidence titled: How to Be Free by Tom Hodgkinson. Truth be told, this book is awful. Hodgkinson is a privileged white guy pumped up on the thrill of his paradoxical identity as a bourgeois anarchist. He encourages his readers to laugh in the face of poor credit and sky-high bills by insisting that “debt doesn’t really exist.” Hodgkinson recommends “sticking it to the man” by driving without insurance, canceling credit cards, and foregoing workplace competition. His encouragement for a life of rebellion is akin to preaching nudism to Eskimos. To be honest, he makes me a little bit embarrassed to be exercising my own privilege so flamboyantly. But, after diluting the potency of his manifesto, Hodgkinson’s formula becomes slightly more palatable. At the heart of his writing, he encourages his readers to slow down and consider the possibility of pursuing their passions:

And how do you find your vocation, your gift? The answer is simply to do nothing for as long as you possibly can. In the same way that wise gardeners advise that the first step when taking over a new garden is to do nothing for a year, in order to see what grows there and only then to design your own unique useful and beautiful garden, so I would advise taking a few months off, or even a year, if you can manage it. Most of the time we are too busy to step back and find out what we would like to do. Create some time for yourself and things will gradually become clear. Above all, strop trying. Career is a try-hard notion. The free of spirit have stopped trying and instead let things happen.

Again, tell a single parent to “stop trying” and see how “free” their spirit becomes. But, in theory, Hodgkinson is on to something. He urges us to, both literally and metaphorically, unearth what already exists. For me and many other recent college graduates without a fulfilling “plan,” the best advice just might be to stop working so damn hard to map it all out. Doing what we hate, or doing what we think we should be doing [for example, the uninspired nine to five], only magnifies the sense of occupational doom that haunts us. During my first salaried year, I put my head down and plowed forward, fueled by the belief that my first half decade in the work-world was supposed to be filled with torturous monotony. When that plan failed, I worked harder. I signed up for the GRE’s and lost myself in a distracting swirl of arithmetic and vocabulary. It felt good to solve problems and accomplish things. The test came and went with great success, and, there I was, a warrior in full armor, sweating in midday heat with no battles to fight. I bought the costume before being invited to the party. So, instead of running to the metaphorical mailbox every afternoon, I decided to stop searching. I figured that if this concept of a “calling” does exist, I have to, quite simply, free my lines. That is the full story of how all of this came to be.

Truth be told, I still have no idea “what I want to do with my life.” But, the good news is: I feel a whole lot better about that. It has taken several months of wandering to wake the confidence that laid drooling beneath the hum of florescent lights and computer screens. Somewhere between Budapest and Belgrade, I remembered that I am strong and creative and passionate enough to feel comfortable with “not knowing.” By skipping town, I forced myself to abandon the plow and neglect my field of expectations. As a result, I’ve seen 127 days go by, and I can vividly recall every one of them. When I return, I’ll take a look at what’s grown, and scatter a few of the seeds I’ve picked up along the way.

Touchy-feelies aside, here’s the current count of what’s sprouted:

Days: 127

Weeks: 18

Months: 4.5

Countries: 16

Cities: 41

Beds: 48

-Hostels: 7

-CouchSurfing Hosts: 19

-Hotels: 9

-Homes: 3

-Campsites: 5

Trains: 22

Buses: 12

Planes: 6

Ferries: 5

Happy Halloween!

Growing older: the days drip into buckets, overflowing into months, and meeting in a depth of years that I can wade around in, kick against, and dive into. By twenty-four, my little tide pool has expanded, and I have enough beneath me to float, face up on the good days, down on the bad – suspended by the continuity of the “times” and “periods” and “phases” that, at one point, felt disjointed and jumbled, determined never to coagulate. Benefiting from the privilege of growing older, I can look back and shake my head at all of the outfits I’ve slipped into over the blip of my two dozen years. Flip through the still frames we accumulate, and all of us can be found hopping around ankle-deep in a messy dressing room throwing on and off the threads of martyrdom, virginity, arrogance, naiveté promiscuity, doubt, confusion, and confidence. Mismatched or coordinated, we’ve worn it second-hand and steam pressed: giver, taker, asshole, train wreck, confidante, liar, perfectionist, idealist, nihilist, closet case, and spokesperson. At some point, it fit, we bought it, and we wore it as a nightgown or a party shirt. Pluck people from our past, and they’ll have a mental, emotional, and, Christ on a cracker, maybe even a physical photograph of the fashion that we willingly brought through check-out at one time or another. In an experimental shuffle of my own identity deck, I came up with my nineteen year-old-self driving home from college with hairy legs and a dog-eared book called: “Cunt.” In one hand I can hold five, six, seven versions of my former self before having to fold out of amusement, embarrassment, or utter disbelief. We all can.

So, instead of delving deeper into some sort of psychological fashion show, I’ve decided to focus on costumes of a more traditional, annual, and tangible design: Halloween. On the eve of this fine holiday, Whitney and I are sitting on an overnight ferry eating oregano flavored potato chips and compiling a list of our past Halloween costumes. In the midst of a boat-full of Greeks, our holiday seems insignificant and imperative all at once. What these worry-bead tossin’, stubble sportin’, futbol watchin’ men don’t know is that we were not always backpack carryin’, picture takin’, ferry commutin’ tourists. Truth be told, the two of us combined celebrated this spooky evening as a:

lady bug, bumblebee, grandmother, ghost, clown, cow, witch, pterodactyl, troll, mummy, and waitress.

Yes, on our home turf, we have been known to transform into:

Bill Clinton, Pippi Longstocking, Cat Woman, Cousin It, Tigger, and…a backup dancer for Limp Bizkit.

Today, however, no costumes were needed to add to the absurdity of carving vegetables on the front steps of our host’s apartment. After thoroughly scouring the grocery stores of Mytilene for pumpkins, Whitney and I settled for two eggplants and an unknown vegetable bearing melon-like qualities. Warm weather and an Istanbul shoe thief may have forced us into unseasonable sandals, but we were determined to hollow out and personify an edible item. In the process of acting on this deep-rooted urge, we managed to attract stray animals and stop an old Greek woman in her tracks. As a result, three little monsters now sit on top of a Greek windowsill to the puzzlement of neighbors and pedestrians alike.

The day has just now ended. It’s 12:15am on November 1st, and Halloween 2010 is already a drop in the bucket. In a few minutes, I will close this laptop and lay my sleeping bag down on the floor until the boat hits the Athens shoreline a few hours from now. All this talk about identities and costumes has me hyper aware of my current attire: the jeans that double as my makeshift napkin, and my more abstract identity as a dirtball backpacker. Both are fleeting; both bring me happiness beyond belief; and both constitute the shape of my malleable being at age twenty-four – a card I very much look forward to adding to the deck.

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Scoot Scoot Riot

October 29, 2010

Shortly after moving to Chicago in the summer of 2008, my life, as it felt at that tender time, was in shambles. After signing a lease for a third floor apartment in Wicker Park, I became an official resident of the Windy City, and consequently exhausted the only item on my post-college life-list. Each weekday morning, I wrestled myself into business casual, grabbed leftovers out of the fridge, and weaved my way through five miles of construction to arrive at a job that I absolutely detested. Any reprieve normally derived from [Casual] Fridays was cloaked beneath a company polo that managed to simultaneously reach both my knees and my elbows. I was literally swimming in misery.

Liz, my best friend and roommate, was also buckling under the reality of the work world; and, together, we radiated enough self-pity and disillusionment to render apartment 3A inhabitable to sage-burners and optimists alike.

The First Few Lonely Months

Through gritted teeth, we distracted ourselves with survival-themed songs (“I am gonna make it through this year if it kills me”) and relentlessly pasted our apartment walls with images of better days. Despite our best efforts, social isolation was taking its toll, and the results were anything but pretty. Liz sought solace in perma-pajamas and reality television, while I, quite literally, chased down strangers in the name of friendship.

On one particularly pathetic evening, I curled up on the couch and began to compose a life-list with the purpose of peppering my seemingly bleak future with no less than 101 things to do, be, or have before I die. Like moth to flame, Liz sensed something desperate happening in the living room and planted herself next to me. After several minutes of mild pleading, Liz begrudgingly conceded and began to scratch down a goal or two of her own. It is this image – the two of us scheduling our future highs in the midst of our present lows – that came to me while putting money down on a rental moped in Croatia two weeks ago.

Needless to say, the dream of “backpacking through Europe” has been gathering dust on my life-list since early high school. As a liberal white kid with privilege to boot, this goal is neither surprising nor inventive. In the evolution of kids like me, an oversized backpack and an international plane ticket seems to fall somewhere between a college diploma and a recognizable career path. One sizable tug on the string of foreign adventure, and you’ll send our chins shooting into the air with puppet-show synchronicity. But, as is often the case, no cloud of clichés can stop the sun from shining on the promise of poor choices gone international. It is with this logic that I rationalized the addition of ‘moped rental’ to the list of subcategories that have long accompanied my desire to backpack through Europe.

Adventure Beckons!

As a result, the thought of traveling abroad has always produced an aerial view image of my little body ripping around foreign territory on two wheels of terror. So, on October 15th, 2010, rip I did.

In exchange for a few crumpled Kunas, I received the literal key to my dreams from a man with enough oil in his hair to fuel my moped for weeks. Despite my near inability to hold his jalopy of a scooter upright, this slippery fellow made no attempt to disguise his utter indifference for my physical well-being. Remarkably enough, he remained unamused from the moment I searched for the gas pedal right up to the second I screeched my way into heavy traffic.

Prior to take-off, Whitney had informed me of the dangers of “driving scared.” In response, I employed the wise words of a Therapist of Counseling Past: “Does the matador strut because she’s confident, or is she confident because she struts?” With wind whipping and cars honking, the question quickly became: “Does the amateur lurch because she’s scared, or is she scared because she’s LURCHING!” Before the question could be answered, Whitney and I pulled into the local gas station.

Muscle Mountain

Unsurprisingly, our mopeds were loaned to us sans gas. As a born and raised Oregonian, self-service gas stations are anything but home turf; but, with two years of Chicago living under my belt, I like to think that I can get by relatively unscathed. Whitney, on the other hand – quickly tapped into her matador instincts and strutted her way to the gas pump. Before I had even managed to access the tank on my own speed racer, I heard the dreaded words: “We have problem.” Whitney’s lack of grammar had me momentarily confused. Then, the reality of the situation became painfully clear when I heard the same phrase repeated by the portly gas station attendant. Coming from the same phonetic family as weasel and evil, I have never had a good experience with the word diesel. That trend was not about to change. Fortunately, the twisted snarl of the Croatian employee softened with relief as he noted that Whitney had not yet started the contaminated engine of her motorcycle. While I hypothesized the number of monetary figures that this innocent mistake could potentially produce, the gas station attendant called roadside assistance and untangled a blackened plastic hose.

Then, quite literally, came the rain on the parade. To the tune of a giant thunderstorm, I attempted to fill my own motorcycle with gas. Blame it on the weather, but I somehow: a) attempted to open the hood of the motorcycle with my hostel key; and b) momentarily mistook the oil tank for its more gaseous neighbor. Thankfully, I caught these mistakes before subjecting my scooter to any form of misuse.

Bobble Head

Unfortunately, the gas station attendant sees all. Needless to say, it didn’t take long for the color of my cheeks to match the deep red of my bobble-head helmet. As if the burn of humiliation wasn’t strong enough, our mechanical man capitalized on this moment of vulnerability by asking where we were from. Having already reaffirmed several stereotypes about our sex, Whitney and I were not about to add our nationality to the mix. “Canada,” we replied.

Twenty painful minutes later, blue skies appeared in tandem with roadside assistance. A slightly more friendly employee of the scooter company teamed up with our gas station guru and, together, siphoned the diesel from the tank and into the roadside drain connecting Dubrovnik’s public waterways.

Waa Waa...

As we pulled away from the gas station that afternoon, the whip of the wind felt more like a relentless pummeling from the hands of environmentalists, feminists, and Canadians alike.

Despite a humbling beginning, the evening held more promise than the afternoon. After finding our scooter-legs, we curled around mountain ridges and glided along the coast of the Adriatic Sea – all amongst the backdrop of a phenomenal sunset. A few dozen kilometers later, I was feeling confident at eighty kilometers an hour, with a smile that could have spanned continents.

Neither speed nor satisfaction slowed the following morning when Whitney and I hopped back on our bikes at 9am. We had a full morning of scootering to do, and only an empty gas tank could stop us…twice. From the beginning, it was no secret that our bikes were not only horrendously cheap but also poorly maintained. A failed kickstand [user error acknowledged] sent the handle of Whitney’s scooter straight through the plastic grille of my bike. One particularly graceless start sent my moped horizontal – a tumble that resulted in the mechanical equivalent of a dislocated shoulder. The most significant problem,

Thank you, Kickstand

however, belonged to the lying eyes of our gas meters. Fortunately, Whitney and I had worked out a highly sophisticated communication system via the “meep meep” of our scooter horns: 1 honk: Turn off your damn blinker; 2 honks: Let this giant parade of cars pass; 3 honks: STOP.

It was with much disappointment that I sounded the wail of three somber horn honks when I discovered that my moped had shut off on a particularly impressive downhill stretch 15km outside of Dubrovnik. Thanks to the kind and highly confused owner of a small bakery shop, we phoned roadside assistance for the second time in fifteen hours. With a meter boasting a third of a tank of gas, I coasted downhill, side by side with the repairman, his foot guiding my stranded self to the nearest gas station.

It was Whitney’s bike that dealt the biggest blow of betrayal, running out of gas with a meter reading half-full – a cruel deception that nearly knocked the optimist right out of her. For reasons of pride and frustration, both of us agreed that the third time would not be the charm for roadside assistance. Whitney sat seaside while I raced off with a mission suited for cape-wearing and sword-carrying. In reality, I was a small foreigner on a moped equipped with no more than one word of Croatian (Nazdravlje: Cheers!). In the first fifteen minutes of my quest for gas, I trapped myself in no less than four one-way streets and unsuccessfully Charaded my way through several elaborate scenarios. After finding myself in the mist of obscene gestures involving imaginary tanks and hoses, I cursed the small gas-stationless town, and headed in the last direction I was pointed.

After ten minutes of buzzing along at sea level, I turned a bend and spotted a sign for gas. A woman on a moped in Croatia is a curious sight to begin with, but an English-speaking motorcycle maiden is a whole different set of cards. By no means was I in danger…I was just weird. After a lot of pointing and a few

Adriatic Sea

broken words (“friend,” “stranded,” “no gas”), the attendant sent me away in confusion. He mentioned something about a different station, a seemingly secret station, just a few meters down the road. So back I went, retracing my tracks, and waving at the small smattering of folks who seemed to in the process of recovering from the shock of my earlier appearance. Right up a gravel road and left down a dirt path, I found a mysterious little gas station operated by a man who had twice the age and half the language proficiency of the previous attendant. To my luck, a patron of this strange establishment understood enough of my ramblings to pull a weathered plastic water jug from the trunk of his car. From there came celebration in the form of fist pumping – an unexpected gesture that fortunately only had two witnesses. I was then directed back to the former gas station for reasons that are still beyond me. The water bottle received two thumbs up from the attendant, and I filled that gallon like it was water in the desert. With enthusiastic waves from my new friend, I placed the jug between my feet, and soared – lurch free – towards Whitney and her dehydrated moped.

On the way back, I couldn’t help but notice the yellow lines on the road beneath me running right through the middle of a fulfilled adventure. Those early days of desperate dreaming in Chicago laid the foundation for my little wheels to turn. In between then and now sits some of the very best days of my young life. More proof, I suppose, that it always, always gets better.

Rumor has it that Greece also rents a mean moped. Wish me luck.

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I’m looking out the window, and everything that is good is rushing towards me with rhythmic speed. Somewhere between twenty minutes of sleep and seventy kilometers of bus wheels turning, an absolutely utopian state of mind has nuzzled against my bones, and the spin of the world feels slow and soft. It’s a feeling that suddenly has me concentrating, with unbreakable focus, on impossible tasks like hopping from one cloud to another; a feeling that tricks me into planning such impossible adventures in the greatest detail. In moments like this, the perspectives that I have been exhausting myself to find are willingly throwing open trap doors and pealing back face-paint to reveal themselves one at a time; and the surprise of their nearness knocks me at an angle that, finally, makes me breath all the way out. I feel, quite literally, like the luckiest person in the world; when, in reality, nothing at all has actually changed. Every object in the tornado of my mid-twenties is still wildly in flux, and yet everything feels perfectly in its place.

A mood like this can never be called upon, but when it arrives, it feels familiar, like a visitor I’ve been subconsciously waiting for; and that’s when the rushing begins. Something in the world tilts, and distant memories slide at my feet. Images of friends, parents, and fond acquaintances materialize with vivid clarity. Wrinkles beneath cheek bones, flecks of eye color, movements of eyebrows, and the exact curve of facial expressions play with slide-show-like sentimentality before me. My present world begins to transform, making the people that I adore so deeply, the ones I haven’t seen in months or years, appear in unmatched likeness. It’s in the midst of moments like these that I believe in traveling thoughts and the possibility that the last breath I took came to me, perfectly preserved, from the mouth of someone I love. I begin to think that maybe, just maybe, the wrinkles on the lake outside this window are a product of some sort of cosmic aftershock of the good memories that happened days and weeks and years ago.

At this moment, strangers are coughing and gasoline is leaking somewhere outside, but I’m hearing the sound my dad makes when picks me up from the airport; I’m taking in the smell of sweat and alcohol hanging on the clothes of my friends in our college days; I’m seeing the sleep-puffed morning eyes of a certain someone even as she’s sound asleep in this dark night bus. And, in a way, that’s the best way to describe the grip of a bliss like this – it’s remarkably close to the peace felt when watching a loved one sleep. Someone, platonic or romantic, who falls out of the world and into a place where friction stops, and life in its truest sense slowly, rhythmically continues, one breath at a time. In their stillness, they come to life, and the sheer miracle of their specific being – the way they talk, the way they express themselves, their habits – endearing or otherwise – all of these things are highlighted by the contrast of rest. As witnesses to a private moment, we are granted the privilege of reflection and the sheer joy of appreciation.

So, in light of that comparison, it’s no surprise that a mood like this tends to visit during quiet hours. When my life slows down, like it has for the past six hours of this bus ride from Dubrovnik to Sarajevo, I am occasionally lucky enough to gain access to the stretch of land where the best of my memories are fast asleep. At this juncture in my life, the memories are happening rapidly – so when I catch them sleeping, the power of that contrast hits heavy, and I am left with the uncontainable joy of watching them at rest. I’ve never grabbed a laptop, or a even a pen for that matter, when this type of euphoria sets in. The elation feels strong enough to paralyze yet fragile enough to break at whim – a combination that typically leaves me relatively motionless. But tonight I worked up the courage to make a record of my appreciation for the slumbering memories before they wake. Tomorrow, after all, holds a new country and another day. With speed like this, I can’t afford to miss a single opportunity.

From bunk beds to storage rooms, the great adventure of sleep continues. While CouchSurfing hosts continue to provide the majority of my sleeping surfaces, I have occasionally ventured outside of cost-free shelter. Most notably, I was welcomed back to the world of monetary exchange on the train ride from Brussels to Prague where, for three digits worth of Euros, I inherited a white sleeper-car blanket decorated with a black hair of unmistakable origin. Needless to say, my belief in “getting what you pay for” was initially crippled by CouchSurfing and ultimately killed via EuroRail. Based on my personal experiences with the kindness of strangers and the cold cut of the tourist industry, you can now find me shopping exclusively from the top of the “free” shelf.

As a result of standing on my tip toes, I was able to reach Bruck, my sixth CouchSurfing host, in Innsbruck, Austria. Despite the impersonal nature of internet communication, Bruck managed to bring the romance back by meeting us at the train station.

Bruck's Flower Hat

As promised in our last online exchange, she was the one in the flowered hat, smiling and waving as if welcoming her children back from their first summer at camp. Her own kids, however, were on holiday with their dad, leaving Whitney and I to slumber party in vacant bunk beds.

Soon after arrival to Bruck’s apartment, the cooking commenced almost immediately with the slicing of pumpkins. Strangely enough, we found ourselves carving edible portions rather than scary faces. Contrary to popular American belief, there is a lot more in store for pumpkins than the wrinkled demise of front porch decay. While ‘Swallowing Pumpkins’ doesn’t quite have the same ring, my stomach was the only thing smashing vegetables that evening.

The adventures, however, didn’t stop in the kitchen. From the comforts of her living room, Bruck introduced us to the art of story-telling. As a social worker by day, and a professional story-teller by night […and weekends], Bruck has a mental inventory of traditional folktales by the hundreds. With gigs varying from weddings and birthday parties to retirement homes and campfire gatherings, most of Bruck’s freelance work takes place inside a snow, wind, and water-proof tent that she hand stitched on the floor of her apartment. She does not exactly fill auditoriums nor does she aspire to. Bruck is simply a humble, modern-day hero straightening out the mess that Disney has made of traditional stories. Needless to say, Whitney and I were thrilled to receive a private performance.

Story Telling Tools

From the modest stage of her bed, Bruck began her story by sprinkling a handful of tiny gold stars on top of our heads. “This,” she insisted, “helps everyone listen.” The magic continued when Bruck unfolded her antique wooden sewing kit, revealing a dozen or so swaths of cloth. Each colorful piece of fabric held small bottles of fragrances which she uses to further activate the senses at varying points in her stories.

[Sidenote: I am currently typing this post on a train from Ljubljana, Slovenia to Zagreb, Croatia where there is a passenger to my left clipping her fingernails from her seat. The revolting nature of this distraction merits an equivalent interruption in this post.]

Together, the scents, colors, and gold stars work to set the mood for each particular fairytale. Just moments before its telling, Bruck individually selects a story depending on the demographics, personalities, and overall feeling of the audience. Whitney and I must have exuded something special to receive a story about goats and childbirth that evening.

Despite a night filled with story time and bunk beds, Whitney and I somehow managed to pull on our

Back to Bunk Beds

adult pants the next morning in order to join Bruck for a day of work on her friend’s farm. The mission? Wood piling. After six hours of willing labor, Whitney and I had organized thousands of logs into two expansive woodpiles that covered barn walls and filled a stairwell alcove. Under Bruck’s guidance, we were becoming the Renaissance women that our liberal arts colleges could only dream of producing.

Never, in all of my wildest traveling fantasies, did I imagine I would spend a day piling wood on a farm tucked away in the foothills of the Austrian Alps. Then again, I also never expected to have my twenty-fourth birthday ushered in by an Austrian mother and child singing ‘Happy Birthday’…but that happened too. With sore arms and a big smile, I woke up on September 5th to find Bruck and her son holding a homemade birthday cake with candles. Wishes came true one after the other for the rest of the day, starting with ice cream for breakfast and ending with a bottle of wine on a cobble-stoned street. In between, I spent most of the day hoisting my [nearly] quarter-of-a-century self up and down an eye-poppingly beautiful stretch of the Alps. As if marching over waterfalls and through moss-covered forests wasn’t enough of a birthday present, Bruck gave me yet another once-a-year gift by indulging me with conversations about historical feminism in the age of matriarchy (I told you wishes were coming true).

View from the Alm

Our final destination that day was Juifen Alm – a farm and restaurant owned by two of Bruck’s female friends. By the books, ‘alm’ is a German word used to describe the high ground in mountainous regions where farmers take their cows to graze during the summer months.  It is not uncommon, however, to find alms that also function as a restaurant for trekkers [or sledders] looking to cool off [or warm up] depending on the time of year. Juifen Alm operates exactly in this fashion. However, in the heavily Catholic and highly traditional Tyrol region of Austria, it is extremely rare for two women to own and operate a business where the winters are cold and the farm equipment is archaic. Throw in the fact that these two women are romantically involved, and you have yourself a progressive little establishment. During our visit, Whitney and I were not only lucky enough to meet these ladies, but we also had the opportunity to talk to them at great length.

Over a hearty lunch of fried cheese and stinging nettle casserole, we learned that Juifen operates with an average staff of four, making the work hard and the days long. Surprisingly, winter is the high season on the alm, and even standing room can be hard to come by in the restaurant.

Lunch at Juifen Alm

Keeping in mind that, on a farm, humans are not the only mouths to be fed, the work tends to pile as high as the snow over the holidays. It is at this point in the conversation that the bells and whistles of opportunity began to sound. Unbeknownst to Whitney and I, Bruck had already informed her friends that we were looking for temporary work; and, given our recent performance with the woodpiles, we had proven ourselves to be reliable work-horses. Somewhere between talk of Judith Butler and The L Word, the verbal tides turned to hourly wages and job responsibilities. Before we knew it, we were old friends and pending employees of Juifen Alm.

Whitney and I will return to Innsbruck on December 6th where we plan to wash, serve, and cook our way through the holiday season. On Christmas and New Years Eve, you will find us holed up in the snowy Alps, speaking broken German with a small handful of co-workers. Three to four hours of work per day earns us room and board, with hourly wages for every hour of additional work. Since busy days are known to include twelve hours on the clock, we may even be able to earn back a molehill of our mountain’s worth of travel spending. More importantly, I will earn a notch in my service-industry belt – an accessory that may come in handy when stumbling back Stateside jarred and jobless in January. Most importantly, time at the alm will provide the perfect bookend to what will end up as a six-month adventure. Staying stationary for the last month should give my thoughts enough time to catch up to my body. At this point, thirty nights of sleep in the same location seems like enough to give me bed sores. On the other hand, a little bedtime consistency may be just what I need to start dreaming of life back home. Until then, my head will be hitting pillows in at least five more countries.

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Tourists Gone Wild

October 7, 2010

Be it an open map or an open mouth, tourists possess less subtlety than almost any other species. Even in moments of silence, tourists somehow manage to emit pheromones of improper pronunciation and poor navigational skills. After three months of camera snapping, I know from personal experience that there is simply no camouflage advanced enough to disguise a wide-eyed traveler. Sleeping on the stained futon of a Prague native does not diminish my desire to eat fried cheese; nor does sharing a meal with a Dutch couple prevent me from squinting my way through Amsterdam’s coffee shops. Truth be told, I’m 3,505 pictures deep. With an average of forty photographs per day, I may have reached the photographic equivalent of Segway tours and mosquito-proof clothing. To celebrate this remarkable display of tourism, I have assembled a slide show containing raw footage of the awkward, clichéd, and shameless side of my travels. Let the cringing begin.

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A Toast to Prost

October 3, 2010

Two weeks and thousands of brain cells ago, I postponed penny-pinching, relinquished responsibility, and swore off sobriety in honor of Oktoberfest. The abrupt transition from Berlin alternative to Munich traditional was a shock to the system that only liter beers and face-sized pretzels could fix.

Oktoberfest Pretzels

Steins and oversized snacks, however, are merely accessories to the Bavarian wardrobe. On September 18th, the diapered and the dentured alike stepped into the streets of Munich dressed in their dirndled best.

Like most non-English vocabulary, it took countless tries before my mind registered “dirndl” as an actual word. After several slaps on the brain, I finally managed to keep myself from inserting words such as “dingle,” “dradel,” and “doodad” when referring to the traditionally German woman’s attire. Varying by age and cup size, a dirndl transforms its wearer into the unlikely lovechild of Dorothy and Lady Guenevere. With such characters appearing by the thousands, the streets of Munich took the form of a soft-core porn set featuring busty broads and laderhosen lads. Thanks to a fashion forward college friend, I arrived in Munich well aware of the existence of German overalls. Shin warmers and knee socks, however, were a pleasant surprise. Had I the money (traditional garb tends to run well into the $200 range) or the patience (think: dressing room mayhem magnified by a language barrier), I would have gladly jumped into a shiny new laderhosen – particularly after catching the Oktoberfest spirit in one of the many beer tents.

On the surface, Oktoberfest appears as little more than an adult amusement park fueled by the spontaneity of shattered beer steins and impulse buys.

Beer Tent and Street Scene

Underneath the keg-shaped hats and gingerbread hearts, however, lies an incredible amount of planning and strategy. Construction of the elaborate beer tents, for example, begins four months in advance. Double this time frame, and you may still have a shot at reserving a spot inside. Needless to say, Whitney and I did not have reservations. We did, however, have the good fortune of patience and persistence. Thanks to a side door and a determined hostess, we were sipping on nine Euro liters of beer with 1,500 booze-hounds in a matter of minutes.

It is at this point in the blog that I had hoped to insert a homemade video featuring a 360 degree panorama of clinking glasses, friendly strangers, and a live band. While the experience was undoubtedly priceless, posting videos on this website evidently require a monetary upgrade equaling 6.5 liters of Oktoberfest brew. So, instead, I offer you the image

Beer Tent

of green, yellow, and red streamers hanging from the rafters; hundreds of wooden tables crowded with the inebriated slurs and shouts of half a dozen languages; the smell of bratwurst and sweaty waitresses.* Like most white people jazzed up on booze and tradition, several enthusiastic attempts at starting the “party train” occurred almost hourly. Such efforts were thankfully hijacked by the distraction of pedestrian table dancers, poorly timed toasts, and Bavarian drinking songs. Unfortunately, also lost among this chaotic atmosphere is most of my memory of the evening. Oktoberfest now feels more like the disconnected pieces of a hazy dream featuring candied cashews, Australians with permanent marker mustaches, and excessively long bathroom lines. I woke up smiling at the thought of my misplaced memories and took comfort in knowing that my forgotten fun is out there somewhere, mingling with two hundred year’s worth of Oktoberfest mayhem in what must be one of the world’s largest mental ‘lost-and-found’ bins.

*Oktoberfest waitresses are rumored to make enough money during this two-week festival to live comfortably for the remainder of the year. Judging by the speed at which these ladies move, I do not doubt these claims.

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