Swedish Thor and the Quest for Water

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thor-cookie-jarSometimes, when traveling, one encounters a person with a name that is impossible to pronounce. In the Philippines, there was a guy from Finland that everyone called “Rusty” because his real name was too challenging; in Paris, there was a Turkish gentleman that we all, quite cleverly, referred to as “Turk.” The same thing happened to me in Hong Kong, where I met a young fellow from Sweden whose name was as hard to say as some Ingmar Bergman films are to make sense of.

“Just call me Thor,” he sighed, mercifully, after I’d butchered his name badly, leaving it disemboweled and beheaded.

“Thor?” I asked, wondering if that was really any better than calling him “Swede.”

“Yes.”

“Okay, Thunder God,” I said. He looked down at the floor, as if by shifting his attention, he could erase the bad joke from ever having happened.

It’s a little known fact that Hong Kong, a small sovereign island off the southern coast of China, is actually the second most expensive place in all of Asia to visit (the first being Japan). The cost of living in Hong Kong, believe it or not, is higher than that of New York City. Thor and I met because we were both staying on the 7th floor of the Chunking Mansions, block D, the cheapest place in all of Hong Kong to stay. At fifteen bucks a night, we’d found ourselves in a room about the size of handicapped bathroom stall, with two bunk beds, one power socket, and two other men who, like us, did not possess enough money to stay anywhere better.

There was little doubt that all of us were broke. Early on, I’d decided that I’d save money by eating only ham and salami sandwiches, storing my modestly priced sandwich meat in the otherwise unused communal refrigerator that sat in the hallway. The others ate cheap curry sold on the first floor of the building. One day, Thor entered the room excited, a bottle of water in his hand.

“Hey guys!” he said. “There’s a water fountain in Kowloon Park. We won’t have to pay for water anymore! We can fill our bottles up for free!”

It was brilliant. I quickly headed over to the park with two empty water bottles of my own. I’d heard the park was lovely, filled with things to see, but I didn’t care. I was there for the free water. I rushed past a group of Chinese people doing Tai Chi, down a walking path lined with statues of famous Anime characters; I blew by a scenic pond populated with tall pink flamingos. None of it caused me to take pause. All I was focused on was the elusive water fountain. I’d been searching for around forty minutes and the only water I’d seen was being slurped up by flamingos. I felt like grabbing someone by the shirt collar and yelling, “I’ve been told of the free water! Where on earth are you hiding it?”

Then quietly adding, “Thor sent me.”

Thankfully, I found it, right outside the restrooms, where I would steal toilet paper to use as tissue. “What’s happening to me?” I thought. It was like I was turning into my depression-era grandfather, who used to steal napkins from McDonalds and magazines from the dentist’s office. Upon returning to my room, I found the rest of the guys lounging around, drinking from their water bottles.

“How was the park?” one of them asked, taking note that I had two water jugs stuffed under my arms. The four of us laughed, as though we’d discovered some magical oasis, Ponce De Leon and the Fountain of Penny Pinching. Once in awhile we’d meet a new person in the hallway and we’d always nudge each other, nodding, telling the person of our secret water supply.

Then one morning I awoke to discover that someone had eaten all of my salami. This was a nightmare come true. The community fridge had been raided. “That motherfucker!” I said out loud to the empty hallway. “What kind of bastard steals a poor man’s salami?” To add insult, the person had left the empty package there, not even having the manners to throw it out. The ham was untouched, which confused me. “Who takes the salami and leaves the ham? I’ll tell you who – a fucking fool who doesn’t know how to make a proper sandwich, that’s who!”

I sat down on the bed in despair. My efforts to get by on as little as possible had been wasted, destroyed by pilfered lunch meat. It seems that for every cheap person in the world, there’s an even cheaper person; for every guy swallowing his pride to take water from the public park, they’re someone shamelessly stealing that person’s salami.

A few hours later, Thor and the others checked out. I looked at the twenty full water bottles we’d accumulated. “I’m not telling anyone about this,” I said to myself. “Those bastards can thirst to death for all I care.”

Or, I suppose, they could pay.

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Did You See the Modern Art, Or Were You Too Busy Having Sex?

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blog artAt some point in my life, I made the decision that I would buy into modern art hook, line, and sinker. It didn’t matter what the genre was – abstract or pop, land art or performance art – it would inevitably knock my socks off and have me screaming “genius!” from the rooftops. Pollock, Breton, Ernst, Man Ray – these men were all masters, even better than those old people from Italy. Later I would discover conceptual art, and it would put my mind in a perpetual state of blown.

This is the story of how I visited the MUseum MOderner Kunst – or MUMOK – in Vienna, Austria, and had a profound experience there. Yes, it centered around horny teenagers, but it was profound nonetheless. Its memory still echoes in my intellect whenever something reminds me of art, like someone says a word that begins with “neo” or “post” for instance.

blog mumokIt only took about two minutes inside the MUMOK for me to be impressed. There was brilliance, brilliance everywhere! One painting hung on the wall at the height of my knee; the description next to it explained that the purpose was to challenge the way people view art, our expectations, the assumption that paintings must always be displayed at eye-level. I nodded, approving. That was excellence, right there, adjacent to my kneecap. Another piece could best be described as a monitor on the wall, a black and white image flickering on it, showing some random items. Again, I turned to the description. This artist was also challenging the way galleries display art. He had gotten permission to bury his artwork under the floor of the museum, and was broadcasting it in via video camera.

“Holy shit!” my internal voice shouted. “That’s ingenious! I’m looking at the art, and at the same time, I’m STANDING ON IT!”

But it was at a different exhibit where the truly profound incident would occur. I found myself standing at the entrance to a pitch black hallway, loud sounds bursting from within.  I was a little bit afraid, scared to enter, as if some artist was waiting in the shadows, ready to leap out and yell “Dada!” But the description of the exhibit sounded interesting, something about projected images together with non-synchronized sounds, and so I walked down the dark hallway, until I reached a small room where a projector cast bright pictures onto the wall opposite.

There was a man standing in the corner of the room, and he caught my attention. He was in his mid-forties, and he looked anxious and uncomfortable. The man glanced at me, then quickly turned his head away. I wondered why he was in the corner, and why he seemed so awkward. I shifted my attention to the front of the room, and that’s when I saw it.

There were two teenagers, probably highschoolers, a boy and a girl, sitting on the bench in the front of the room, making out heavily. They were really going at it, attacking each other’s mouths, their tongues twirling together like colors in a candy cane. I looked back over to the other guy, just in time to see him flee the room. There was no way anyone could assess the art with this going on. They were impossible to ignore. It felt embarrassing to be in there, the two lovebirds were so into each other they were oblivious to any onlookers, and suddenly I felt like a peeping tom. It was as if I was the one behaving inappropriately, a dude in his thirties, standing in the back of a dark room, trying not to stare at two kissing kids and failing.

So I did what my predecessor had done, and I shuffled myself out of the exhibit. It wasn’t until later that the magnitude of it hit me. By coincidence, I had experienced something incredibly singular. Of all the people that would view that exhibit, how many would encounter the same thoughts and emotions that I had? Instead of analyzing something about the congruence between sound and picture, I had undergone a real life experience. So many things went through my head, about age, love, intimacy, innocence, envy, curiosity…those fuckers and their hormones had taken that art piece and shaken it up, flipped it on its head, replaced something cerebral with something purely evocative. They might not have known it, but clearly they were brilliant.

blog light mumokNow my mind was going. Every second, anyone in that gallery had the ability, if they wanted, to alter the reaction to the works on display. What if I stood next to one exhibit all day and just danced, did the electric slide or something? That would change perspective, wouldn’t it? The sensibility of the viewer, break the connection between person and idea. Especially if the artist put me there, if it was the artist’s idea for me to moon walk around their sculpture.

I left the MUMOK convinced that there was great meaning to what had just happened, although I wasn’t sure what. As I walked away, I wondered if the couple was still there in that dark room. I imagined going back, stepping inside, finding them curled up on the floor together, sharing a cigarette and discussing baby names, while random pictures and sounds spread out all around them.

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8 Uncool Things I Won’t Miss About Korea (Cause They F**kin’ Suck!)

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blog drunk koreanKorea really is a great place. That said, all great places have uncool elements. Think about Oz for instance: awesome midgets, very colorful, flying monkeys. Those were all great things, but then there was the wicked witch, and she sucked. In essence, every place on earth has its own wicked witch. Korea is no exception. Here are 8 things from the Land of Milkis and Kimchi that I certainly will not miss:

blog cab driver1. Cab Drivers – Not as if cab drivers in other countries are the bees knees, but I particularly disliked the cabbies in Korea. They’re all old and grumpy, and if you’re with your friend and having a nice pleasant conversation in the backseat, the cabbie will pump the radio up really loud because he doesn’t dig English and is trying to tell you to shut up. Also, cabbies are so nice, they treat foreigners (when they’re desperate enough to stop and pick them up) to the lovely scenic route to whatever the destination is. On the meter, of course. Which makes for more conversation, and hence louder Korean traditional music.

blog cass2. Cass/Hite/Max – Korea has three staple beers, and they all taste like watered down versions of Coors Light. What’s that you say? Coors Light tastes like water to begin with? Exactly. Just imagine drinking Coors Light, urinating it out, then drinking the Coors Light-urine-toilet-water mixture. That is about what Korean beer tastes like. Perhaps that’s a bit of a gross analogy, but if it frightens anyone away from Cass, then it’s okay because it’s served a greater good.

blog breaking news3. Breaking News at Work – In Korea, any information at your job is always breaking news, delivered at the last possible minute. Have an extra class added? They will tell you this two minutes before it begins. When will winter and summer camps be held? Don’t bother asking, nobody knows until the answer is ‘tomorrow.’ Korean schools just really, really love surprises. Especially when they involve you getting extra work.

blog plastic4. Plastic Surgery – Call me old fashioned, but I just can’t get behind plastic surgery. It’s very common in Korea, where advertisements for it are ubiquitous. For every subway car in Seoul, there’s at  least one plastic surgery advert. And forgive me for liking ugly people too much, but I find the idea of plastic surgery icky and depressing. Yes, she looks better in the after picture than the before one. I don’t care. I don’t want to sleep with the post-op transsexual, and I don’t want to kiss any lady who runs the risk of transforming into Korean Joan Rivers.

You don't wanna read! You want rockin' abs!

You don’t wanna read! You want rockin’ abs!

5. Han’s Deli – I could rip on Han’s Deli because the food is inedible and it’s one of the worst restaurant chains in the universe (it makes the 7-11 hot dog kiosk look like fine dining). However, I choose to go a different route. I loathe Han’s Deli simply because it is not a deli, as its name would suggest. They serve spaghetti and pork cutlets. Where are the sandwiches? Where’s the pastrami and the mesquite smoked turkey breast? Nowhere. It would be like if I opened up a store called “Bill’s Book Store,” and I only sold Taebo DVDs. Please, somebody take Han on a trip to New York, so he can learn what a deli is.

The ice toilet is pretty cool though.

The ice toilet is pretty cool though.

6. Ice – Currently, all of Seoul is covered in one thick sheet of ice. Korea seems to have no idea how to handle ice. There’s no salt, sand, or kitty litter being used to combat it’s slippery power. Instead, there are hundreds of girls in high heels falling. And if they aren’t gorgeous, men won’t help them up, but instead will give them a great shove, so they will slide in the direction of the nearest plastic surgery center.

blog bip7. Having an Alias – Yes, names can lead to cultural confusion. When I received my Alien Residence card back from immigration, I was a little concerned that I had been registered as “William Robert.” Robert is my middle name, but, as it would turn out, pretty much all Korean institutions would make the same mistake, believing it was my last name. Bank account – William Robert. At the doctor – I was again the singular Mr. Robert. Not Roberts, with an s, like Julia or Bip. Robert. It wasn’t a big deal; I took it as Korea’s revenge against the western world for thinking they all have ‘Kim’ for a first name.

blog gangnam8. Gangnam Style – I know, I know, it’s inescapable everywhere. Gangnam Style will go down in history as proof that North Korea waited to long to drop its nuke. Sure, it would’ve caused misery and devastation to many…but if it rid the world of that song and that ridiculous horse dance…just press the red button and make sure Psy isn’t in a bomb shelter.

Ah, Korea, I shall always love thee. If I could marry you, the whole country, I would. Without any doubt. I would be proud to have you on my arm, my one and only Kim Robert.

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8 Cool Things I Will Miss About Korea

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korea milkisThis coming Tuesday, I will get on a plane and leave South Korea, where I’ve spent the last 2 1/2 years. All in all, they’ve probably been the most important years of my life, as I’ve grown into a better, stranger person, and I’ve met all kinds of interesting and unique people. Looking back on my time here, I compiled a short list of 8 essential things that I will most certainly miss when I leave the land of Milkis and Kimchi.

korae pomato1. Pomato – Pomato is like a little Korean fast food chain with restaurants all over Seoul. It’s awesome. For four bucks, I can get a wicked bowl of tofu soup. Pork cutlets, kimbap, pig intestines – you name it, Pomato got it. Plus the staff of unfriendly middle aged ladies gives it a good atmosphere.

korea smoking2. Smoking – Despite violent anti-smoking protests like the one pictured to the left, there’s smoking all over the place in Korea. Everybody smokes and cigarettes are super cheap. In December, an anti-smoking ban was passed, outlawing smoking in certain places (like large establishments), but I was out last night, and as I chain smoked in the warmth and comfort of several bars, I saw no difference between now and the way things were pre-smoking ban. That’s good, because it’s really cold and I would not want to go outside and compromise my health.

korea heated toilet3. Heated Toilet Seats – They might have these everywhere, but I never experienced one before moving to Korea. It really is like sitting on a thrown, and the feeling of having your badonkadonk warmed is vastly underrated. I hope everyone one day gets to use a heated toilet seat – as soon as I realized my school had one, I knew exactly what I was doing during break time.

korea dong dong ju4. Dong Dong Ju – This is a Korean liquor that is served in a big cauldron with a scoop.  It’s quite strong and tastes a bit like Milkis (carbonated milk drink). They make it from rice and a white person like me gets to feel hip and cultured drinking it while sitting on the floor in an Asian establishment.

korea animal5. Korean Animal Words – Knowing how to say the names of animals in another language is fun! “Go yang ee” means cat; “Kang a gee” is puppy. “Saja” is lion; “Nakta” means camel. My favorite is “Toki,” which means rabbit. Furthermore, cats go “yowng yowng” instead of meow, and dogs say “mung mung.” On another note, Jesus is not called Jesus, but “Yay Su.” That’s good to know, in case you’d like to use the Lord’s name in vain in multiple languages.

korea black noodle6. Korean Chinese Food – It’s delicious. Absolutely delicious. The typical Chinese dish consists of noodles in a black bean sauce served with sweet and sour pork. Odd sidebar: There’s “Black Day” in Korea, which is like Valentine’s Day for single people, and the tradition is that people eat Chinese black noodles to celebrate how miserable single life is.

korea bunny bow7. Ridiculous Head Ware – Korean girls like to coordinate. Super short skirt? Check. High heels? Check. Bunny ears? Oh yeah. Check mate. Bows, ear hoodies, lamb hoodies – these are the tools Korean girls use to find a man and avoid having to eat the dreaded black noodles.

korea north korea8. North Korea – Just because they’re funny.

That’s today’s list of awesome things that I will miss. Tune in next time, when I will present my grouchy list of things that I will be glad to escape!

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4 Bottles of Red Wine in Montmartre

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montmartreOn my third night in Paris, I met a heavy metal dude from Scotland. He had long hair that covered the top third of his Iron Maiden t-shirt and hand rolled his own cigarettes. I’ve always secretly wished to be a heavy metal guy myself, to say “screw it all!” and walk around looking like I was in a Motorhead cover band. This guy I met in Paris was super cool. Laid back, with an intensely thick accent. We sat in the hostel bar and ordered bottles of red wine. One, two, three. The wine was causing us to be loud. It was after two in the morning and the hostel kicked us out, shoeing us off. We bought another bottle of wine and staggered down the streets of Montmartre. It was raining, lightly. The metal dude took out his phone and started playing “Surrealistic Pillow” through its small speakers. The music was soft, like we were in the parking lot of a Jefferson Airplane concert in 1968. We drank and sang. Ohhhhh you’re my, best – you ARE my best friend – we slurred the lyrics and swayed. Nobody else was out on the streets and it was dark. He smoked another cigarette and then he sat down on a bench and starting vomiting. I swigged from the bottle and told him it was okay. Halfway through the bottle, drunk as hell, I sat on the bench myself and puked wine all over the street. The metal dude laughed and we drank until the bottle was empty. I talked about going to Scotland. Why not? I’d always wanted to go to Scotland. And I’d have to see my new best friend in the whole world, the metal guy, couldn’t abandon him. He was thrilled. We started making plans. The rain picked up a little bit and we began walking back to the hostel, holding each other up. The next morning my head pounded, wine slamming my brain against the walls of my skull. The metal dude was leaving Paris, and he wrote his email on a little slip of paper, gave it to me, and about twenty minutes later he was gone and so was that little slip of paper because I’d lost it.

Ah well. Friends always seem to fade away, I’d just accelerated the process by losing his contact information. I didn’t even remember his name. I’ve had a lot of friendships drift apart after two, three years…this one was kaput after two days. Is there really that much of a difference? It occurred to me that I wouldn’t be going to Scotland, but damn, that was a hell of an exciting trip to plan. I went and saw Rodin’s Thinker and then the Eiffel Tower, and when it got dark, I sat in the hostel bar and found new people to drink with.

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Monday Night Snow Fall

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snow 2I’m meeting Y, my girlfriend, in the subway station at 6:45. It’ll be the first time I leave the apartment today. Y broke the door off the cabinet last night and I was supposed to fix it. I couldn’t. I figure I’ll say it’s because there’s a screw missing. Find that screw, and I’ll have the door back on no problemo. Two minutes, tops. Yeah, the screw is my scapegoat, and I’m thankful for it. I know that Y will see right through this, but I figure I’ll say it anyways. I must have some sort of excuse. It’s expected of me.

When she comes out of the subway station, I’m waiting for her. She looks lovely. Outside, Seoul has gone cold, winter jacket mean. Y’s face is reactive; she turns it away from the wind and scowls. I haven’t had my hair cut since September and we walk to a barber shop. There’s a spinning barber’s pole outside the place, pink and yellow, cartoon girls with big eyes going round and round. The lady inside sits me down and asks Y what she’s supposed to do to me. Y tells her something in Korean, relaxing in the seat next to me, and soon there’s hair falling from my head. I hate getting my hair cut, having to look at myself in the mirror, practically forced to, my heinous image inescapable; when it’s mercifully over, the lady asks me if it’s okay, and I, in turn, ask Y.

Afterwards, Y takes me to a restaurant where she orders us Canadian eel. We put the long, thin eels, dressed in red spices, onto a grill and cut them to shreds with scissors. The meat is chewy. Y’s ponytail has come undone; it’s losing its sense of order, a long strand of hair going down the side of her face. She’s got a yellow shirt on and a necklace with big white plastic pearls. I don’t think she’s ever looked more beautiful. We eat the eel with mint leaves and garlic cloves. I tell her she looks beautiful and she laughs.

Which, while not the intended response, is okay, since it emphasizes my point.

On the way back, it starts to snow. This is the first snow either of us has seen this year. Sure, it’s freezing cold and dark outside, but that’s all background noise. I feel so proud walking next to Y. I want to kiss her. It’s only a short walk home, and the snow falls softly down on her black hair.

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Won Seok Wonka and the Krazee Kimchi Factory

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I remember that time. It still exists in my head, kept well, the memory’s shelves dusted and lawn trimmed. Everything was bizarre. Fan death, the idea that an oscillating fan could steal your breath and kill you in your sleep. Double eyelid tape, butt pads, skin whitener. Ordering a live octopus and having it cut up with scissors, then chewing up the severed tentacles as they wiggled around like inchworms. Hooker karaoke, intestine soup, black goat tonic. Men who looked prettier than some of the girls I’ve dated, and women who wore super short miniskirts in snowstorms. Rice wine, soju, neon lights and vomit on the street. Electronic music – Fantastic Baby! – and schools that required students to bring their own toilet paper.

This was the Korea I stepped in to. One second I was on a plane, listening to Boston’s Greatest Hits (favorite track: Peace of Mind), the next minute I was in some anime dream sequence, like I’d pulled a golden ticket and was shipped off to Won Seok Wonka’s Krazee Kimchi Factory. If an orange-faced-green-haired midget approached me in a bar two weeks after I’d gotten to Korea, I don’t know that I would’ve batted an eye.

“Oompa Gangnam Style!” the Korean Oompa Loompa would have shouted, and I would’ve just nodded and gone with it. The place was fun and freaky. They buried live pigs and ate dogs, got surgical procedures to increase the slope of their forehead and committed copy-cat-suicide if a favorite celebrity took his or her own life.

But lately, shit just ain’t the same. I walk around a Korea that hasn’t changed one bit since I arrived here over two years ago. It’s drab, depressing. Things like rampant alcoholism, which seemed real rock ‘n’ roll when I got here, now seems sad. Like it’s not a good thing. Even all the beautiful girls bum me out. They’re doll-like, manufactured, assembly line. The neon lights don’t seem so bright anymore. It rains a lot and nobody looks at each other on the subway.

Two years might do that to a place. Korea, it seems, has lost its weird appeal. The place seems downright normal. We’ve spent lots of time together and I’ve seen it without its make-up.

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Every now and then I go to the bank and wire money back to the USA. My girlfriend asks me why I do this. It’s actually not a bad question. “Well,” I’ll say, “that’s my main bank account. I’m sending money home.”

Home. The use of the phrase is a turn-off, like how most women react to the dreaded c-word. She makes a good argument. I haven’t been to the US in over two years, and I don’t plan to return any time soon. I don’t have anything there, no house or home or friend’s basement where my record collection and blow up doll have been keeping each other company for the past 800 days. Nothing’s waiting for me, with the exception of some bill collectors, and I’m in no hurry to finally meet them.

The thing is, I try to tell her, I have to have someplace to belong to. I don’t want to think of myself as transient, nomadic, a man with no home like Marco Polo or Woody Guthrie. And it feels funny to refer to the US as something other than “home.” It’s sort of similar to when I was 19 and living in an apartment with four of my friends. On Sunday mornings, I’d jump in my car and tell them I had to go “home,” and when I said that, I meant my parents’ house. The apartment was temporary. I still had a room dedicated to my existence at my parents’ house, and as long as that room was still there, not being used as a library or a shrine to the Buffalo Bills, then God damnit that was the place I’d call home. Sure felt more like it then the mattress on the floor I slept on in the apartment.

But the room in my parents’ house eventually let go of me – I was replaced by a new computer.  It seems like my American bank account is the new version of the room I grew up in. It’s what makes the US still my home. My parents kept my Elvis Costello poster and my suit, the only one I owned, a blue ensemble that I would call on once or twice a year, and the bank account keeps all my money for me.

It’s about the same, just slightly less sentimental.

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I’ll never call Korea “home.” I could live here for the next 20 years (which is a ridiculous notion – I’ll never live that long) and I still wouldn’t feel like anything other than a tourist. Which, after some thinking, I’ve decided is mostly by my own choosing.

For all my plans to avoid the US, I still know what’s going on there. I read Huffington Post and other similarly slanted news sites daily and make too many political posts on Facebook. I watch the Oscar movies every year. I know what’s on the Billboard charts and get nervous when bad storms hit New York. In short, I still care about what’s happening in the USA. I’m interested.

And Korea? As groovy as the place is, I just don’t care that much about what happens here. The presidential election is this month, and I have no idea who’s running. I don’t even know what the issues might be. I don’t study the language and I avoid the entertainment like it’ll give me angina. I’m bored with hearing about the culture. I have no clue as to what’s happening in the news. Why? Because, bottom line, I don’t give a shit.

Home might be where the heart is, but it’s also where the head is. Wait, let’s change that – it sounds dirty. Home is also where one’s interest is. You would think, logically, that when the weirdness wears off a place, when things stop being polite and start getting real, that it would be a signal you’ve found a place to call home. But it doesn’t always work that way.

There’s a different feeling after the novelty is gone, I guess. I might not have a home, but I’m not really lost. This place, conversely, has lost me.

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Europe Is Funky and Full of Neat Shit

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Okay, it’s been awhile since I’ve posted anything, since I’m in the throes of one of my depression spirals, and so, in an attempt to cheer up, I’ve decided to look back at my Euro-trip and reminisce on some of the highlights. And by highlights, I mean goofy stuff that sets my heart a flutter.

Big Baby Heads, Madrid, Spain: The train station in Madrid is the bomb and, apart from the Prado Museum, maybe the most awesome thing there. First, there’s a huge turtle rain forest inside the train station itself. And secondly, once you exit, you’ll encounter two enormous baby heads randomly placed outside. I like randomness, and hence the train station in Madrid is easily my favorite train station in the world.

 

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Manneken Pis, Brussels, Belgium: For reasons I’m too lazy to research, Brussels is all about statues of things urinating. There’s apparently a squatting girl, a dog lifting its leg, and the most famous one of all – the “manneken pis” – which is a boy taking a tinkle. It’s one of their big tourist attractions and I spent about an hour and a half trying to find the thing. Each day it’s dressed in a different outfit; the day I was there, it had hip-hop clothes on and there was a real boy breakdancing on cardboard in front of it. Now that’s what I call culture!

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Opera Toilet, Vienna, Austria: Vienna is famous for its opera houses…so famous, that they have the charming “Opera Toilet” located in the subway station near the State Opera. For a Euro (I think, I could have the price wrong), you can go into a fancy cubicle constructed to look like an opera balcony seat and do your business, enjoying opera music as you relieve yourself. I did it, and it was a classy experience. I even washed my hands afterwards.

 

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Jack the Ripper Walk, London, England: Nothing says fun times like taking a stroll around London, stopping everywhere Jack the Ripper cut up a hooker. That’s exactly what you do during a Ripper Walk. It was actually really interesting and informative. I kept expecting something crazy to happen, like someone to jump out of the bushes and attack us, but sadly all the violence was contained to the stories the tour guide told. Despite the lack of real action, I recommend taking the tour; it definitely makes you want to live back then, in a time where getting away with crime was far easier.

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Disturbing Puppet Shops, Venice, Italy: Having seen Don’t Look Now more than once, I knew Venice would be creepy. And it sure is. One of the more delightful things to do is to walk around at night and peek into the weird mask and puppet stores that are everywhere. These gift shops are seriously horrifying. Don’t believe me? Take a look a Pinocchio and his terrifying rabbit friend!

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Obama Bar, Barcelona, Spain: Nothing brings out my American patriotism like a live music venue named after the president himself, Barack Obama. Inside, you’ll find cover bands and extra strong San Miguel beer. You’ll also find lots of African stuff. So what does it have to do with Obama? I’m not sure. There is, though, a life sized Obama chilling out at one of the tables. So when you get drunk (off that extra strong San Miguel) (which the Spanish seem to claim as their own despite my understanding that San Miguel comes from the Philippines), you can go up to Obama and hang out. In closing, here I am with the president, the beer going to my head, believing that it would be funny to put a hoodie on him and stick a cigarette in his mouth.

I’m so sorry, Mr. President. No disrespect, O Dog. Anyways, on that note, Happy Thanksgiving everybody! Cheers!

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The Third Man Ferris Wheel vs. The Crazy Weird Vienna Pony Carousel

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“You know what the fellow said – in Italy, for thirty years under the Borgias, they had warfare, terror, murder and bloodshed, but they produced Michelangelo, Leonardo da Vinci, and the Renaissance. In Switzerland, they had brotherly love, they had 500 years of democracy and peace – and what did that produce? The cuckoo clock.”

-  Harry Lime, The Third Man

The truth was goofy; I’d traveled a long way for a Ferris Wheel. But this wasn’t any damn Ferris Wheel, a city’s underwhelming version of the London Eye, which, I hear, is underwhelming itself; this was THE Ferris Wheel, the one Orson Welles made his famous cuckoo clock speech on in the classic film “The Third Man.” Welles ad-libbed the speech during filming, and as it turned out, was completely erroneous – the cuckoo clock was invented in Germany. But ask anyone who has a passion for black and white movies where the cuckoo clock comes from, and I’ll bet you a hundred bucks they say Switzerland.

So when I learned that The Third Man was shot in Vienna, Austria, I decided I had to make a pilgrimage out there. On my last day in Vienna, I went up to The Prater, Vienna’s oddball amusement park, with my heart set on riding the Ferris Wheel, which is called the Risenrad. And I did. I bought a ticket, and I rode it.

And that’s it.

There’s no story here. Nothing. I’m not sure what I expected to think or feel. What were my expectations? Did I think I’d be transported back in time a la Midnight in Paris, so I could go and have schnitzel with Joseph Cotton?

I wasn’t sure and, to be honest, I don’t even like schnitzel or Joseph Cotton all that much. After riding the Risenrad, I felt satisfied. “Okay,” I said to myself. “I can say that I did that.” I had nothing else to do all day, and I lazily walked around, looking around the Prater for nothing in particular.

It was after some time that I stumbled upon something I’d never seen before. Passing numerous amusement park rides, suddenly my nostrils flared with the strong odor of manure. “Jesus!” I thought. “Where is that coming from?” The smell led me to a carousel. A big green sign stood atop the structure. “That carousel smells like shit!” I keenly observed to myself. I walked closer, got a good look, and instantly figured out why.

Instead of wooden horses, the “Wiener Ponny-Caroussel” had real ones. About six horses stood there, harnesses on them, hooked up to a big wheel. I looked at my watch and saw that it was two o’clock, the middle of the day. There weren’t many people at the park. Luckily, a married couple and their son happened to come by while I was standing there. The boy apparently wanted to ride the Pony Carousel, and so they paid and he was put on one of the horses. The corny organ music fired up, the boy looked around confused, his parents watching him with bored looks on their faces. The horses didn’t move. A few seconds passed, and then the man working there took a whip and smacked the boy’s horse right in its ass, hard, and that got the animals to start going around and around. The horses looked miserable, and so did the boy. I left before the ride was over, wondering if the Pony Carousel actually makes any money.

“Business has been slow,” the owner might say to one of the horses. “I’m sorry, but we can’t afford to keep you here. It breaks my heart to do this to you, but we’re going to have to set you free.”

And then the horse runs around joyously, because it’s the happiest day of its life.

I left Vienna the next day. I’ve told some people about how I rode the Ferris Wheel from The Third Man. Truth be told…nobody seems too impressed. I’ve also told people about the horse carousel, and how they had to whack the horse on its butt to start the thing. People typically laugh and seem interested.

For those keeping score, that’s Third Man Story 0, Horse Carousel 1.

That’s cool. The outlying details in a day are typically more interesting than the main activities anyways. Just like how riding a wooden horse, sometimes, can be more magical than riding a real one.

*

An Awkward Conversation with Leo

Standard

All day long I’d been hearing about Dicey’s – not directly as I would have liked, but instead from a distance, from the next room or from someone who would assume that I’d (of course) heard about Dicey’s already, as seemingly everyone else on the planet had.

“Going to Dicey’s tonight?” a big German guy asked me when we found ourselves brushing our teeth next to each other. “Two Euro beers, I heard.”

“Yeah,” I said, bitter that this was the second or third time I’d been sort-of-invited by someone who was invited by someone else. Never by the organizer, whoever that mystery man was, that cool-ass mofo, emphasis on ‘fo’ as opposed to ‘friend.’ “I’ll probably go. Sounds fun.”

“What time are you going to head down?”

I had no idea. I brushed my gums so hard I spit out blood, angrily. I didn’t even know where Dicey’s was located. It was the place to be, decided by someone who knew where the hell it was and what time to go. Who did the tall German guy think he was talking to? He had mistaken me for being someone in the loop, a member of the in group, someone who gets the secret notes from the President that the inconsequential masses aren’t privy to. In other words, his level of judgment was completely off.

What was I supposed to do? Confess? Say, “Actually, nobody has directly invited me yet, and thus I have no idea what’s going on. Although I’d desperately like to be invited, so if you could pass that along, it would be appreciated.”

Of course not. I said I wasn’t sure what time everyone was going, spit out more blood, and changed topics by asking the guy lots and lots of questions about Germany, nodding to indicate that I was pretending to listen to the answers.

*

On the way down to Dicey’s, I met Leo and Rachel. Leo was from Germany (it’s a coincidence; don’t think everyone backpacking in Dublin is from Germany) (they’re actually all from Brazil and cook delicious pork dinners out on the hostel balcony) and Rachel was American. There was a whole group of people from our hostel walking down the dark streets in a quest for two-Euro-beers; I still hadn’t technically been invited, but due to the enormous number of people I was able to latch on without looking too suspicious. During this long march, I learned that Leo and Rachel were close friends and were traveling together. At this point, I should probably mention something about their looks. I’m sure that’s what you’ve been wondering (if you’re male, at least). Let’s start with Leo…it isn’t that she was bad looking – she wasn’t – she was just, well, very clearly inferior to her friend Rachel, who was ridiculously good looking. And that is what would lead to the trouble later on.

Poor Leo. I could relate. I’m the type of person that knows where he stands; that won’t talk to someone of the opposite sex if she’s too good looking; that has to believe in the notion of ‘types,’ as in maybe, by the luck of the Gods, some girl will be more interested in my messy ass than a guy who is traditionally attractive and has things like muscles and a strong jaw-line and more than two pairs of jeans (we sure rely on this notion of types heavily, don’t we?; “Well, I know I’m not Pet Sounds or Revolver or Songs in the Key of Life…but maybe this person is more into Floored by Sugar Ray”) (I can be Floored by Sugar Ray); when I make a male friend, I ask myself if, should the situation occur where we’re going for the same girl, there would be any chance that she would choose me (and, if I feel she would go with my friend, I secretly start looking at him with jealous animosity). So, although it didn’t dawn on me yet, I felt for Leo. It’s never much fun to be the lesser of two friends, the buddy in the cop movie, the Supreme that isn’t Diana Ross, the Golden Girl that isn’t Blanche (y’all know what I’m saying).

When we finally got to the bar, I found myself drinking with an Irish musician named Kiernan. As I believe I mentioned earlier, a beer cost two Euro, and a deal like that can only end in chain smoking and liver damage. The night wore on and, at some point after midnight, we looked over to see a very sad scene. There was Rachel in the midst of what appeared to be a brilliant conversation with some big muscle guy, and while this happened, poor Leo stood there by herself, her back turned towards them, watching the band, swaying oddly to the music as though she wanted to dance but had forgotten how to.

“Esh,” Kiernan said, “look at that, will ya?”

“That’s really uncomfortable, isn’t it?” I said. “When you go out with your friend and he hooks up, and you have to stand there alone and pretend that you’re having a good time.”

“It’s the worst. You’re searching around the bar desperately for somebody to talk to, and you can’t get in on the conversation with your mate and the girl, because then you’d be cock blocking.”

“Exactly,” I said, shaking my head, watching Leo purposely-not-watch Rachel getting macked on. “I’m gonna go over there and talk to her. We can’t let her suffer like that.”

I suppose I did all that I could. I went over to Leo and did my best to help. Problem was, I had absolutely nothing to say to her. I racked my brain fruitlessly, searching for some possible topic of discussion. It had gone blank; I had cracked under the pressure. All I came up with was, “So, you’re from Germany…”

“Yes…”

“That’s cool…been in Dublin long…have you seen The Book of Kells?”

It was hopeless. I went back over to Kiernan and drank more. When the time came to go back to the hostel, Rachel was missing.

“Where’s Rachel?” Leo asked frantically. “Has anyone seen Rachel?”

“I think she left with some bloke,” Kiernan (unhelpfully) chimed in.

“WHAT??? Who? Where are they? We have to find her!!!”

I scratched my head and checked my gums for bleeding. “Anyone want another beer while we look for her?”

Then Rachel, the elusive one, reappeared. Not two seconds later, some new guy came walking over, offering her a drink. Kiernan shook his head.

“It must be hell being a girl,” he said to me. “They never, ever, get left alone.”

Or, when they did, like Leo, it was even worse. I nodded in agreement. We were lucky, really, that no girls came up to talk to us, and the beer was cheap.

*