Pedro Ávila

Last week, standing in a tree on a ziplining platform forty feet above the St. Lucian rainforest, I let my mind drift between the chopping winds of the Atlantic Ocean and the calm waters of the Caribbean Sea.

“Would it be at all funny,” I asked Laura, “for some American stand up comedian to do a bit on carbon dioxide and deforestation?”

“On what planet,” she leered, “would that be funny?”

“I was thinking something along the lines of American attitudes. You know, ‘we’re producing all this CO2 and the trees are the ones benefiting,’ kind of a thing. Then they’d say something about cutting down more trees to discourage the trees from using so much of the CO2 we produce. Like, ‘that’ll learn ‘em‘. Could that be funny?”

She looked at me for few seconds, and as she started shaking her head the guide pushed her off the platform.  She let out a short yelp of surprise and careened on the zipline down to the next tree while I felt a breeze wind its way through my sweaty helmet. The vibrating sound of the zipline faded out over the forest canopy until I could hear the birds again. Then they strapped me in and I followed, flinging myself out into the jungle.

Not a week later now, back in the city and hounded by taxes, car commercials and obnoxious ringtones, I’m faced with the raw and brutal truth of reality; that embarassing fist in the gut that explodes in your throat when you think you’re in the middle of telling a savage joke but it turns out that there is no joke. You’re living it.

“It’s plant food,” Rep. John Shimkus said at a House Subcommittee on Energy and Environment. “So if we decrease the use of carbon dioxide, are we not taking away plant food from the atmosphere?”

No way, I thought. I was just kidding. And besides, when I said ‘comedian’, I certainly wasn’t thinking of the House of Representatives as a Monday night comedy club.

…though, now that I just wrote that it occurs to me, why not?

Rep. Shimkus (R-IL) is among the many half-mad greedheads that try to argue that the United States doesn’t need a cap-and-trade system to limit CO2 emissions in the atmosphere. Frankly, cap-and-trade is not my tag line — I’m alright with just ‘cap’. But as an issue, my general position on it is that we have bigger fish to fry.

In any case, I was struck dumb by the terrible babbling that continued. Is it possible that this cheap clown on television is just that ignorant and stupid? Or is it the usual evil, pushing through a failing agenda, even at the cost of common decency?

Is there any way to know? Can we continue to laugh, or was Mohammad Ali right when he said, “there are no jokes. The Truth is the funniest joke of all”?

Dylan Cormack

“My Kingdom will survive only insofar as it remains a country difficult to access, where the foreigner will have no other aim, with his task fullfilled, but to get out.” - King Abdul Aziz bin Saud, c. 1930

Boy, if that was true back in 1930 then I’ll venture to say that in the almost 80 years since then they must’ve been working tirelessly to perfect their finely honed objective in Saudi Arabia…

Protectionism. What an ugly word. It strikes a tone of anxiety in a song of fear, conjuring images of caged rats, each lashing out individually in frightful fits, ultimately helpless when pitted against a striking viper. A pointless endeavor, especially in the world of the 21st century, where connection is everything and everything is connected. In today’s world, a state and a people left to grow only from within will develop as well as a Star Trek geek playing World of Warcraft in his mother’s basement.

We’ve gone too far with our urges for interconnectedness to slam on the brakes now. As the world becomes more mobile and global, access will be paramount to development and obstacles to connectivity should not be tolerated. It’s disturbing then, to see that so many travel hubs like hotels and airports still try to charge complicated fees for internet access.

It used to be that you could tell how much a person travels for work by their mileage accounts, or their hotel points, or if all else failed, the wrinkles and bags under their red, sloppy eyes. However, you can now tell who’s been around by looking at the list of wireless networks to which one has connected, or attempted to connect.

And if wireless connections were whores at port, I’d be a goddamn sailor.

And speaking of whores, let me get to the point of this little rant. Even as times are changing, outdated notions of a quick profit are being attempted in the spirit of capitalism and Adam Smith’s fucking invisible hand.

There was a time not too long ago that in order to compete for the business of business, hotels offered their corporate guests free internet connections with either a DSL line in the room or in some cases even a direct T1 line. But you’d be connected – on the grid, as it were. You know — in the parlance of our times.

But then came T-Mobile. And Swisscom. And, fucking, Joe’s corner WiFi, or whatever. Like a wildfire it spread. Today, in hotels across Europe and North America you can get a whole box of exotic teas, coffees, water bottles, towels and even a nice desk set, if you pack efficiently. Just for checking in. I’m not advocating theft of hotel property, you understand — I’m just saying it’s an easy option.

But you can’t get free internet.

Which is weird. You can get it in hostels. You can get it at bed & breakfasts. You can get it at mom & pop cafes, though not at places like Starbuck’s. And of course, god bless the few and the proud who still keep their wireless signals open and blissfully unencrypted to those wandering on the streets, unafraid to check for good souls.

Obviously there is a dollar to be made by letting a single company have exclusive ownership of your wireless real-estate. But there’s something about free WiFi that can keep people lounging in a place indefinitely and I’m not sure why these large hotels and café chains aren’t on board with the concept yet. It’s the reason why I can sit in a dingy, grimy dark pub in London that smells of greasy sausages and spilt ale and have breakfast, lunch and tea while I work. It’s also why no matter how nice the scene from a café on the Zürich waterfront, if they’re going to charge me 80 CHF for the day, I’ll be moving on, thanks.

I’m not normally optimisitic for the future, but in this economy, I can’t help but hope that there will be massive investments into infrastructure, like there were in the 30’s after the Great Depression. They built highways and bridges and I hope that in a way, so will we. There is a lot of work that needs to be done to the current internet infrastructure and we are due for a a revamp of the hard lines if we are going to advance in this endeavor. Otherwise we’ll be stuck with Al Gore’s invention and Orin Hatche’s tubes for another few decades.

Dylan Cormack

Even when growth is steady and prosperity seems to lurk around every bend for anyone willing to take out a mortgage being given them, there is much amiss in the world.

Imagine then, what things can be like in times like these?

That’s right, folks, we’re crossing the Rubicon. Things have gotten into some serious muck and there’s little that can be done to turn this car around with any kind of haste. I find myself feeling an unexpected sense of glee – an elated feeling, not of vengeance or righteousness (we’re not quite there yet) but rather an excitement of the unknown, much like the thrill of hearing sirens when you’re the one flipping the switch on the fire truck.

By now you’ve all heard of or seen the whole CNBC thing with Jon Stewart. Ho ho! Some of you might have been following the thing from its inception, and a few of you I know for a fact saw the whole thing coming. You’re the ones who don’t get your news and commentary from a fake news show (no matter how much harder it nails things than the mumbling muppets that precede it, running for hours at a time without saying anything of note. Not to mention the muppets making prank calls that comes before the Daily Show. Or was that CNN? Wait, which channel was that?)

In any case, how could you have missed it? It received as much attention, even in the mainstream media and its seventeen or so live hours of television, as if Kelly Clarkson had been caught using some kind of performance enhancing drug. And while many tuned in and were entertained, probably changing the tax bracket of most Daily Show writers, some people had actual analysis of their points, which were godd ones.

MSNBC, for its part, tried to stay unbiased – but, hey. It was never really fair to expect much from them on this one, being one of the sibling stations at the heart of the whole affair. That said, at least David Gregory did an interesting job in trying to get a panel of “experts” to say something. Nothing happened, of course, because all of his “analysts” had their own agenda to tout, their own talking points they would stick to. But he did a better job trying, I think, than did most of his colleagues. And in the end he repeated his question enough times that if you were waiting for an answer, at least you would remember the question and the fact that it went unaddressed. That’s better than the typical cud that sleazy jackass, Eric Cantor (R-VA), was fed the cameras.

Other stations did their thing and said their piece, paying lip service to the fact that it was a story they couldn’t ignore. But the NBC station’s reactions were, naturally, the most interesting because they had a stake. CNBC, for instance, didn’t react much at all for a whole week, prompting Jon’s ridiculous use of Viacom’s name for the first time since I can remember. And then they made the terrible call of letting Jim Cramer go on the Daily Show and act as pseudo-knee-jerk spokesperson for the network, which worked heavily against all of them and made Cramer out to look like a 3rd grade bully confronted by the 7th grade brother of a kid he’s been harrassing.

But I was disappointed.

Even in the runup to the show, Stewart’s interview with Cramer had become so touted, so polarized, as things are want to do in America, that it boiled down to looking and feeling like a trial of Jim Cramer’s picks and sound effects, what with the multitude of clips. It left one almost wondering what show we were watching. Maybe that’s what CNBC wanted all along and we have to give that serious thought. If they’re that organized about their image, they could be well-organized enough to have pulled off some of the dubious deception that Jon accused them of during his talk with Cramer, though I doubt that very much.

But I digress. The only thing still worth noting where this mess is concerned are two point made in the interview by Cramer and Stewart themselves, respectively.

One is what Jim Cramer said, that in today’s dynamics of journalism politics (is that a new term? Can I call it?) a reporter can’t interview someone and then report that he lied his balls off. It would be access suicide. Cramer spoke of these boundaries that journalists can’t cross, a point I agree with, however reluctantly. It’s true. If you do that as a journalist, you’ll never get another interview.

But the reason for that is that we, as readers — as an “informed public”, I guess I can say — have allowed leaders to get away with the notion of “no comment”. We’ve turned our “right to know” into a privilege they’ll give us so long as we don’t ask questions they don’t want to answer, or insist that we be told the truth.

I want to blame Nixon, but I suspect he only started the ball rolling. Reagan’s the real monster in all this and one day soon, I’ll explain how.

Don’t get me wrong though — I’m all about privacy. For individuals. But once you’re in the hot seat man, you owe me. You’re accountable. The idea that statesmen can turn down an interview from The Press when they carry a badge is as mindless as the notion that you could refuse to be arrested by a cop. Dammit, man, there are rules.

The second point is what Jon Stewart said, that we hope that these same journalists who report on the interviews they conduct at least don’t take everything their subjects report to them at face value. One of the reaons The Press is “trusted” is because they are trained professionals, studied and experienced in finding the story, fact-checking it and smelling out the lies. And if you can’t get the guy in the seat accross from you to tell the goddamned truth, that’s when the real work starts. Research. Investigation. Questioning. Not rushing to print what the man wants you to say. Otherwise, you’re just turning The Press into a PR firm.

This lack of ownership of the financial news is very familiar and if you think back to 2003 you’ll remember why. Running up to the onset of the invasion of Iraq we had similar symptoms, and we failed just as miserably today as we did then when reporters interviewed state leaders, took their word for gospel and printed it for all to see. No one seriously challenged what sounded flimsy, investigated what sounded suspect and straight up called the liars out on what were clearly false statements. That The Press committed these omissions so reliably and consistently shows, at best, incompetence, and at worst, malice.

And today’s mess is just a different tone of odd. How long, oh lord – how long?

Oscar Bjørne

A blur of spectacles flash before me every day, be it sirens in the distance, flash blizzards from the North East or the homeless. The sirens never seem to die, even as they approach the horizon, and the snow is torrential, heavy and undiscerning. The hopelessness of the homeless, who utter things like “have a nice day — and a better tomorrow” as they drag their feet past you, shaking an empty plastic frappuchino cup with about eighty cents in nickels and dimes is something I’ll never be ok with, no matter how many different cities I see it in. And it’s always worse on the metro, which they call subway here. I’ll have to remember that.

I sustain myself on a diet of bread and cheese, seemingly unable to break off from my European customs. Also, the coffee sucks, which complicates things. With such restlessness my darker thoughts form cohesion. My anger gives me focus. And then I open the wine. En vino veritas.

And all is forgotten.

Rambling down 6th ave on an icy night that bites and gnaws on any exposed flesh gives me more perspective than I care to have. The Avenue of the Americas, Times Square, Little Brazil, all the way down from Columbus Circle at the park. The people, their indifference to each other, bumps on the sidewalk here and there – I think somehow I’m already a part of this mob, inasmuch as I can ever be.

I’ve been walking among them like a zombie now for days. Still working on European time, I wake up at 2 am and go through the day on 3 hours of sleep for a couple weeks at a time, stopping for a few days between projects to explore the dark, to exercise, and run through my German language CDs. It’s the price I pay for leading a life with a foot on each side of the pond.

A friend of mine told me once that when you’re dealing with the Middle East, there’s no such thing as “staying on the fence”. There’s a parallel here, I just know it.

But I’m somehow outside of it all, it occurs to me. I stumble in between office environments in my line of work, jumping from meeting to meeting, from client to client. Never belonging anywhere I go, always carrying a visitor’s badge. Really what I’m doing is wandering through people’s lives, observing, noting…occasionally judging. I can’t help that — it’s an occupational hazard of life on the go, of those who live on the road. We may covet the sense of normality that most people have, but we judge the mediocrity of it. We may occasionally seek the comforts of stability but we always yearn for the excitement of spontaneity. We want to have our cake and eat it too.

But at some point we’re going to have to come to terms with the fact that not everyone will have a normal life. Not everyone is capable of it. We will have to accept that the moment has come and gone many times to go down the familiar road that others do — a road that leads to routine, to tradition, to recognizable successes and failures. And we must remember that at every juncture we have chosen to veer from that path, even if it was at the last minute.

Should we ask ourselves why?

Of course. But when you start discussing reasons for things like that, you start getting into very ugly territory and people do not easily forget that kind of talk. You have to answer questions about what it would be like to feel like a part of something, even if it was something that a part of you hated, and leaves open a lot of flaws of a lot of people. Because then you’d have to put up with things like computer desktops with cats looking back at you, cups with stupid things written on them, like “Hello Monday”, and blurry pictures of people’s mediocre-looking children. You’d have to completely forget the idea of warming your feet on the radiator while drinking whisky out of a mug on a cold snowy Tuesday. You’d have to have a sense that clients and coworkers are more than just faces on a calendar week.

…and how is that worth my frequent flier points?

But maybe this problem is not entirely outside my scope of expertise. As it is I have a problem with the way I’m doing things, or the way I perceive them. I need to fix the way I’m doing things, or else find a new way to do it. In terms of what I would tell my clients, I’m spending too much time trying to re-engineer a bad process, as I often blame them of doing. Maybe it’s time to find a new process. Maybe it’s time to take some of my own drugs.

Sometimes you recognize wisdom in the most unlikely of places. Like, for example, Turkish digital projectors.

At a meeting in Istanbul I sat back in my chair and took a deep breath, my mind fighting to keep the lights on and the lids up. The voices in the room droned on and on about something I couldn’t have been less interested in but needed to be. I am, after all, a professional.

As the speaker wrapped up and the pace changed a bit I started coming to, my senses resharpening in the expectation that soon I’d be on a flight out of that place. But not before I noticed something on the screen.

The projected image was flickering and people were bothered by it. The speaker checked her notebook for a bad connection, and someone else checked the projector, smacking it lightly like a misbehaving child.

Very technical.

I noticed that no one had bothered to read the white text on the blue background of the shutdown screen that was flickering, which read: “The Lamp is getting old. Buy a spare lamp.”

Huh, I thought. I think I might be on to something.

Pedro Ávila

“That’s a great book,” said the dark haired stranger sitting across the hall. Dylan looked up from his copy of I, Claudius, literally holding together its three distinct parts by the binding that had all but fallen apart. Robert Graves would have shrieked in panic to see his masterpiece as loosely bound as if it had spent a New York winter on the windowsill over a radiator.

“Yeah,” Dylan said, not wanting to stir too much conversation, and tried to go back to his reading of the Roman imbecile.

“Robert Graves is a bit effusive with his plot, though,” continued the stranger. “I trust historical fiction much more to the capable hands of Gore Vidal than the verbose rantings of an English poet, know what I mean?”

Dylan heard banter but he didn’t look up. “He’s a doozy, alright,” he said, with a hushed exhale that reeked of gin to the old lady sitting on his left of the waiting room bench. He tasted it in his own breath, even at eleven in the morning.

Who cares? he thought. I’m a freelance political columnist and I’ve been up writing about horrible things since 2 in the afternoon yesterday. Of course I reek of gin.

“You here to see Mr. Rabban?” The black-haired man asked, interrupting him a third time. Dylan looked up this time and brought his book to his lap. The vinyl chairs made a lot of noise when he moved so he wasn’t in the mood for any unnecessary shifting in the cramped heat of that dingy basement in the Lower East Side. He answered softly, hoping it wouldn’t go beyond meaningless chit chat.

“Aren’t we all?”

“I guess,” the stranger replied, thrusting his chin down and his shoulders up like Dylan had asked him the most bizarre question. “Short stories?” the guy added.

“Freelance political commentator,” Dylan fired back, still holding his book open. It seemed they were both there to see the same person, but for different reasons.

“Nice,” said the stranger, “no competition, then.” Dylan nodded.

“Are you from around here?” the stranger asked, sitting back in his vinyl bench now, making all kinds of ugly squawking noises. Dylan cringed a bit.

“I’m from a lot of places,” Dylan responded, seeing that this was going to go on until they called out his name to see Mr. Rabban, the editor of the small magazine based out of a basement office in the East Village that he was there to showcase his articles, hoping for a staff position.

“Anywhere in particular?” The guy asked.

“I don’t really like to talk about it,” Dylan said. “I’m a man without a country.” The guy across the way smiled a coy smile.

“That must serve you well as a political commentator,” he said.

“Of course” Dylan said.

“Never seeming biased – it must be a good thing for unbiased commentary.” the stranger said.

“Yeah,” Dylan thought for a moment, “I guess it is. I don’t know. I’ve never given it much thought why I don’t like to talk about it but that must be close to it, I guess.”

He thought some more.

“I’m always moving around so much. I think I just never had a chance to call anywhere home, and I’m not sure I have much of a yearning for it. Quite the opposite, actually,” he finished.

“I know just what you mean,” the stranger said. They looked at each other for a moment, Dylan checking out the stranger’s handbag at his feet and the stranger looking down at Dylan’s, both wondering what this other guy had to say for real…

“Dylan Cormack,” the secretary’s voice could be heard resonating through the hallway. Dylan arranged his things and got to his feet, the stretching vinyl making ugly sounds.

“Good luck, mate,” the stranger said from his seat.

“Cheers,” Dylan replied.

The door opened in Tor Rabban’s office, the weather stripping on the bottom of the door rubbing against the short carpet the whole way. Dylan Cormack walked in and stood motionless for a moment, taking in the editor’s decor.

“Have a seat,” Mr. Rabban said, motioning to the only other chair in the cramped room. The desk was an old one, made of sheet metal and reminiscent of the computer labs at Dylan’s old university. Something definitely out of NASA from the 70′s, when pencil sharpeners were still bolted to office walls. There was no decoration on the bare white walls save for the gold-plated plaque with Arabic inscribing, which Dylan had never learned to read. The off-green desk offered most of the color in the windowless room aside from the calendar of cats sitting by the door and still turned to February of ‘92.

“Thanks,” Dylan said, sitting slowly, wanting to make his presence in the room very much felt.

“Sorry about the wait,” Mr. Rabban said. Dylan noticed his darker skin and large nose, the protruding bridge screaming of Syria or Lebanon. The truth, though, is that he could’ve been from anywhere between Istanbul and Baghdad. “We’ve had so many people show up today with articles on the Middle East that I feel like exhuming Yasser Arafat’s rotting corpse and giving him this job.”

“I hope you’ve sent them all packing,” Dylan said, smiling but with all of his confidence. He still sounded condescending and he knew it. Oh, well, he thought. Keep up the appearances.

“Yes, well,” Mr. Rabban said. “We’ll go through the motions, yes?” Dylan didn’t like how that sounded. It was commanding but it still had a hint of patronizingly methodical bureaucracy that made him uncomfortable, as if the room had just become smaller and the fluorescent lights had been dimmed. Also, he sounded unerringly foreign, which made Dylan very self-conscious in a local magazine office in the Lower East Side of Manhattan.

“Are you from around here?” Tor Rabban asked Dylan.

“Well, sir, I’m really from a lot of different places…”

Doh, I’ve heard that before,” Tor Rabban cut him off. “Journalists are just like consultants,” he said. “You never want to commit to either a fixed location or a specific point of view.”

Dylan looked at Mr. Rabban straight in the eye now, as he’d read so much about doing from his interview books.

“Which is exactly what people hate about reading the papers,” Mr. Rabban continued, “they want to see and understand what the reporter who was there was thinking at the time. Facts aren’t enough – they can get facts from CNN. We offer them something more.”

At this Dylan pounced without thinking, heading for the strategic angle he’d planned on from the beginning, “But that’s biased and unprofessional,” he said, sounding much like his professors. “It’s like…” He paused, wanting to be steady on the topic, “…it’s like Gonzo journalism,” he said. “Trashy narratives that veer from the topic at the writer’s pleasure.”

“True, true,” Tor Rabban said, nodding gravely. “But people eat it up. And besides, there’s a lot of gonzo out there. Shitty, yes, but that increases the volume of good stuff that comes in every now and again. Don’t be fooled into thinking that just because the good doctor is dead that it doesn’t mean that the style doesn’t deserve credit in other worthy hands.”

Dylan didn’t know what to say. He hadn’t expected the editor of a non-political magazine to like Hunter S. Thompson’s work, let alone advocate for it in his publication. He’d spent his entire journalistic education learning that Gonzo, though fun for the writer and entertaining for the reader hadn’t been an acceptable form of journalism since Hunter Thompson tasted the steel and gun powder of the bullet he put through his head. He’d learned that the only people who even tried to emulate the style had been eccentric bloggers and unemployable correspondents, to say nothing of doing well.

“I’ve seen people come and go in this business,” Tor Rabban continued, “but the most consistent piece of knowledge that I’ve learned from this line of work is that the general public is at the reading level of the New York Post – a vocabulary of 6th graders.”

“Yeah,” Dylan agreed, smiling genuinely for the first time, “that sounds about right.”

“Look, remember that bit about the Danish newspaper that published a cartoon of the  prophet Muhammad?”

Dylan nodded, “Why not? Danish flags burning in Damascus? It was a fiasco. Everybody remembers it.”

“Right,” said, Tor Rabban. “I remember it well. I was part of that Danish paper and…”

“Really?” Dylan asked suddenly. “What were you doing at a Danish newspaper, if you don’t mind my asking?”

“I’m half Danish,” he said, “and for all the ridiculous arguments that were made at the time, including my own in the defense of my paper, it occurred to me later that the whole thing was unavoidable.”

“Why?” Dylan asked, despite himself. Mr. Rabban leaned back in his chair, putting his fingers together in meaningful thought as he spoke.

“Because the people who want the drama are the ones that are buying the newspapers. We can never get around that.”

Dylan sat motionless again for about ten seconds, digesting what Mr. Rabban had just said. But Tor Rabban didn’t give him too much time to ponder.

“So,” he said, shall we get to it?” he asked, rhetorically.

“Yes, let’s,” Dylan responded with confidence, snapping out of his reverie.

“I’ve looked at your piece on the Middle East,” he said, looking down at the clippings in front of him on his desk. “It has a lot of balls, I must say, and I admire that. Have you been to Iraq?” he asked Dylan, point blank.

Dylan raised his shoulders and filled his chest. “Yeah,” he said, “I have. A friend of mine, an Army Captain in the Rangers…” Dylan recalled the face of the Captain, the tall, broad shouldered human torpedo that stormed into many a firestorm with pure courage and no brains at all. “I spent a month with his battalion stationed just outside of Fallujah and later in Rutbah, near the Jordan Junction.” Tor Rabban nodded but didn’t show any signs of being impressed. Dylan continued.

“I did most of my data gathering under the guise of a CNN reporter who’d been shot in the neck while standing next to a humvee. He unknowingly left me his credentials. I spent a lot of time under fire and I have a renewed sense of faith in our troops after it all but…” Dylan took a deep breath.

“But what?” Asked Mr. Rabban, still leaning back on his chair.

“But I still have a lot to say about this war,” Dylan said while exhaling.

“I see,” Mr. Rabban said, and Dylan saw his lips purse a bit. A moment passed while Mr. Rabban considered his next move. Then his face straightened out into a serious tone. “To be honest with you, it needs a lot of work.”

Dylan had seen this coming. This was, after all, a local magazine that featured one or two political commentaries as a way to diversify the reader’s knowledge a bit and he would not be a focus of the publication. But his in, he thought, was going to be to offer Tor Rabban political articles that he would normally have to pay syndicate fees to get from the likes of the Washington Post or the Boston Globe, and instead, he’d have an exclusive on these major stories. Dylan, in turn, would get his own political column in a magazine he believed would soon have a complete New York audience. He did his best to remove all signs of expression from his face. Tor Rabban continued.

“Your experience is interesting, and your facts are impeccable as they are thorough. But you don’t take the reader anywhere. Your articles don’t make me want to know how the story ends.”

Dylan sprung into his rhetoric. “Mr. Rabban, if what you want is a story that leads the reader to a predefined position, then there are a couple of old ladies outside your office who’ve been talking local politics incessantly in the hallway. Across from them is a short story writer who looks like he’s been out of work for long enough to have read all of Joseph Heller’s books, including the ones he didn’t steal.” Tor Rabban’s left cheek showed the faintest sign of a smile, but Dylan didn’t catch it and went on.

“What I’m offering you is exclusive access to Boston Globe and Washington Post quality, unbiased political columns for your magazine.” Dylan leaned forward in his chair, looking for a response, and Tor Rabban’s smile grew all over his face.

“What makes you think I like the Washington Post?” He teased Dylan, whose shoulders sank a bit. “Look, kid, like I said, it’s got balls, and your experience is interesting. I admire your stamina for coming in here like this today, with no credentials and a hell of a fish-story about Fallujah and some town I’ve never heard of. I’m just telling you I can’t publish any of this kind of thing you’ve given me. It needs a lot of work.”

Dylan’s deep breath left him slowly as his hands fell to his lap and his swollen chest deflated. But he had a plan B.

“Look, Mr. Rabban, with all due respect, I’ve heard these words of rejection before – develop it further; try us again some time; it needs more content and all that – but that’s not why I came here today. I’ve been writing about politics for a some time now, enraged, furious and still managing not to froth on the page and turn out decent, unbiased and logical journalism that can be digested and discussed. But nobody seems to want that anymore. Editors tell me left and right that their readers don’t have the attention span for what I’m writing, that people want to read things they already agree with, that they’re not interested in being presented both sides of the issue and that that’s why we have FOX news and MSNBC.

“And there have been the occasional few outlets that still publish news in a raw enough format that an intelligent person can imbibe it without throwing up all over the page. But I’m not experienced enough for them. I need to start out small, they say. So here I am. And you need someone good. I think I’m your guy. You want me to rewrite it? Fine. You want me to put more juice in the words, moisten them up a bit? Sure.

“But I need to know that some part of this is worth it. I need to know that you’re the slightest bit interested in any of these words. I’ll develop it, I’ll toss them around, I’ll starve over the words, rolling them about in my head if you want me to. But I need to know that there’s some valid reason I’m even trying. I need to know that someone in the industry thinks that I can hack this. That I shouldn’t give this up.”

Dylan lied. This was only the second magazine he’d gone to with his articles, but he’d heard the stories from other writer friends and he reasoned that his imagination could go farther than most, and he tried to imagine what a veteran out of work journalist would be saying, hoping to snag Tor Rabban’s attention with another angle.

“Is it interesting to you?” He asked Mr. Rabban one more time.

Tor Rabban thought silently. Who am I, he thought, to tell this kid what to do with his life? If he said no, the kid might quit, and fewer writers is never good for business. No, the more shit is out there, the more it becomes a buyer’s market, and that meant easier dollars. Fewer agents. God, I hate those lawyers, Tor Rabban thought. Besides, the kid wasn’t hopeless. He just couldn’t tell a story.

“Yes,” he lied, reasoning that more effort on the kid’s part would cost him nothing. “Yes, it’s interesting to me. Send me someplace with this story of yours. Come back next week with more – ahh, juice, as you say.”

“Fine.” Dylan said. “See you next week, then.” He stood up and leaned over the desk to grab his clippings, figuring the editor would offer to shake his hand when he did so. But instead of reaching for his hand, Mr. Rabban put his open palm face down on the papers on his desk.

“Leave these here,” he said calmly, and then added, “if you don’t mind.”

Dylan looked down at the Mediterranean-looking man square in the eyes. “First we try, then we trust,” he said with a coy smile. “You don’t think you’re the only editor I’m querying about these articles, do you?

Tor Rabban lifted his hands slowly and Dylan took his clippings and started to turn for the door. “Do come back next week,” he said, and as Dylan’s hand touched the doorknob he added, “and Dylan…” Dylan stopped. “The biggest mistake people make when discussing the Middle East is trying to stay on the fence. Take me to one side, or take me to both. but don’t try to stay in the middle. There is no middle.”

Dylan nodded, and opened the door.

Dylan walked out into the white hallway, his steps muffled on the blue carpet. He pulled the door shut, almost closed, stopping it just before it clicked.

“See you around?” came a voice from near the doorway. It was the guy from before. Dylan turned around and looked at him, really looked at him for the first time. Newly enthused by the recent good news that his stories had interested someone he let his excitement get the best of him and he smiled at the stranger.

“Yeah, sure,” he said, standing at the doorway still. “Say, what kind of stories do you write anyway?”

“Travel pieces, mostly. But not travel writing. That’s the lowest form of literature, man.”

“Yeah?” Dylan asked, not remembering the last time he even bothered reading a travel article.

“Yeah. I like to write about the stories as I travel, guide the reader a bit into my own adventures, you know? Especially when they’re not entirely factual. I guess it’s kind of like Gonzo writing, in a way,” the stranger said. “Have you read Fear and Loathing on the Campaign Trail ‘72? That fucker will knock you on your ass. Twisted piece of work man, and heavy.”

“No, I like to stick with facts. No raving for me – it clogs the arteries. There’s enough weirdness out there in politics to nearly drown a man. I don’t need the drug-induced distortions of some out-of-control journalist who just couldn’t get a grip, know what I mean?”

“I guess so. But you’ll have to delve into it sooner or later in your line of work, man.”

Dylan thought about it. “Why not? The pigs will stuff me with bullshit one way or another, right?”

“Right. You might as well have a handle on it.” Dylan chuckled and the stranger put out his hand. “I’m Oscar, by the way” he said. “Oscar Bjørne.”

“Dylan Cormack,” he said, shaking it, then turning towards the exit. “Good luck with your stories, Oscar.”

“See you in another life, brother,” Dylan heard his voice echoing down the empty stretch of fluorescent lighting and drywall. Sure, he figured. Why not?

Pedro Ávila

It was snowing steadily in that early morning, and from my window I could see large white hands whirling down on an air cushion outside. Like maple leaves, the snowflakes fell gently through the air. It was wet though, which made the snow heavy and dense, and the flakes didn’t fall aimlessly over the roads and cars and trees, but rather plopped themselves down and proceeded to melt where they fell. Amsterdam is a city of moisture and it’s difficult for snow to pile up high enough here before it melts.

Disappointing, but fine. It didn’t change my plans in the slightest, nor did it affect the situation on the ground. The forces were steady and in our favor.

The House was in order in anticipation of the mass of friends on their way from many corners. A list of flight numbers and arrival times was posted on the black refrigerator at the bottom of the stairs so that some sort of order could be maintained. The troops were landing and one by one the flat was filling up with a sense of fun and impending awesome.

Clair had arrived the night before with a bag that looked like a potato sack, having schlepped from the US all kinds of spices and ingredients that we weren’t sure we’d find easily in Amsterdam. She’d also brought her own measuring spoons and what not because she’s serious about her baking. A little scary, I thought, but we were headed for the intensity of the home stretch just by the fact that she and the others were there so it was no time for fear or judgment.

Also, I’m not averse to perfect yams and fresh pies, so I kept my mouth shut. Besides, it was late already when she arrived so instead of doting on the size of the luggage and the necessity of the weight she had already carried with no winging at all, I prepared a mild dinner that I’d learned to make when Seth and April were here: fried sausages doused in beer. Seth is a man who’d spent some time in the Basque Country with Paul a few years ago and he knew a thing or two about preparing for impending awesome. The Basque style sausage seemed easy and delicious enough.

We didn’t get much sleep that night because Paul and Bryce arrived at ungodly hours the next morning. There was enough time in between their arrivals to watch the snow fall and grab a small nap, a sort of final dessert before the rampage would begin. See, in addition to the Amsterdam crew (Katie, Jo and Sophie) we were still expecting Geoff, Laura and Tyler, and the mission involved a week of rambunctiousness, action packed and stuffed with hilarity and Thanksgiving to boot. Think of our unstoppableness as the drippings of a juicy turkey marinated in bacon and bourbon. What naturally comes out of the situation, you suck it up in a tube and squirt it right back on.

We are the sauce of awesome that must be BASted.

On the way to breakfast we ran into Jo and my flat mate, Sophie. My other flatmate, Saori, wouldn’t be joining us because her friends were going to be in town and they were going to do their own thing.

I tried to introduce Clair, Paul and Bryce to the Amsterdam crew on the way to my favorite breakfast place, but they ended up doing that themselves since Jo and I were busy arguing about whose breakfast place we should take them to.

“Prince Heerlijk has better coffee than your place,” I reasoned with her. “And these people need coffee right now – it’s Sunday morning in Amsterdam, for god’s sake.”

“Coffee? They have their own jam at my place.”

Jam? I thought – who cares about jam?

“They don’t serve eggs at your place,” I reminded her.

“Who doesn’t have eggs?” Paul asked from somewhere.

“And Merinda makes whatever you want exactly the way you like it if you tell her. She even makes fun of the touristy morons who try to use dollars in her place.” Which is true. Merinda is reason enough to go to one place over another, if only for sheer entertainment value. Not to mention her coffee is the best in Amsterdam. Or did I already say that?

“We always go to your place,” Jo whined, “and Sophie and I were going to my place anyway…”

“…also, your place doesn’t have me.” Heheh. Two can play the guilt game.

“I want eggs,” Paul stated.

“Me too,” said Bryce. Jo looked at me with her chin down, her lips frowned and furrowed in faux anger and her eyes looking up with deep disapproval, but I won that round so we squeezed into Prince Heerlijk.

After a small breakfast we toured Amsterdam for a few hours. We were getting hungry and I thought it’d do them some good to get out of the city and see some real Dutch landscape. I showed them where I keep my car, 24 metro stations away, and we hit the Dutch back roads, bound for a magic burger in a town some fifty kilometers away.

On the way there it started to snow.

The Magic Burger is a culinary delight of ham and bacon, pineapple, and secret sauce on a freshly baked roll of deliciousness. Oh, and there’s a hamburger in there somewhere too. Given that Dutch food is an affront to pleasure, either the owner of the Cozy Brasserie is a foreigner or else the concoction is some kind of accident that Katie and I happened upon one lazy Sunday afternoon when we were headed back from Ikea and decided we weren’t ready to go home yet. We’ll just keep on driving, we thought. It’s a good thing Katie had me pull over in Hoorn for a bathroom pit stop that day or we might have driven straight into Hamburg. Holland is a small place.

After driving across half the country for a hamburger and then driving back, parking the car, walking through a kilometer of snow, and then taking the metro 24 stops back to the center we chilled with some beers and a few games of pool in the red-light district. In anticipation of Geoff’s arrival the next day and the added confusion that he would add to the mix, we took it easy and found a hookah bar instead of getting trashed at some Irish pub filled with horrible tourists. And easy night followed.

Before he arrives, what you should know about Geoff is that on our cake of awesome, Geoff is the icing; he’s the harmony to our melody, the vermouth in our martini – the nipple on our breast. Geoff is an eclectic pool of raw talent and weirdness, an easygoing blend of culture and energy, a cosmopolitan renaissance man of titanic proportions. He plays the saxophone like it’s a tamed beast and his hoodie is a Boba Fett helmet. He beat-boxes sporadically and occasionally says some very strange things. But he’s a man who’s been around, and in a strange place like Amsterdam, where some of the most awful things can be waiting around any corner, you learn to value the kind of familiar weird that you can expect.

Oh, and he loves a good fart joke. Or a good fart, for that matter.

So when we found ourselves between rest and sleep in the late morning after Geoff’s arrival, lounging around in our long underwear in a living room littered with used tea bags, books, magazines, cigarette paper, empty bottles of gin, bags of marijuana, beer bottles, guitars, harmonicas and apple computers, Geoff made a stand.

“We should do something, guys.” Powerful words. “Talk about it – quick.”

“We figured you wanted to rest, man.”

“Nah. Baby Dragons,” he said. “Let’s go see this city – let’s get some bikes.” I assumed he didn’t mean that he wanted to go steal bicycles from junkies. It’s an option in Amsterdam, of course, what with the sheer volume of junkies and their preferred mode of scoring their next hit being bicycle theft. Just the same, I took them to the Mac Bikes rental place on Waterlooplein, figuring that would cause less mayhem and provide one fewer points in this story that could lead to arrests and an international police record.

Guided by a combination of experience, natural instinct, a dinky little map given to us by the bike shop and Google Maps on Bryce’s iPhone we found our way to the ferry terminal and took our bikes into Amsterdam North. We stuck mostly to the bike paths that permeate the city sidewalks, only veering occasionally to cut through an industrial chemical factory and then hug a ship yard. Both excellent ideas that a sane person would shy from, but not us.

We were headed for Durgerdam, a small village on one of the west banks of the IJ meer, the man-made inland sea on which Amsterdam lies. I’d been there before while on a day sailing lesson and I knew that there was an inn with a good cheese plate, cold beer, a smooth Irish Coffee, and a view that was worth the 2 hour ride. The village is picturesque in its setting, lying on a single kilometer stretch. Just one street of Dutch homes on top of a dijk facing the inner Dutch sea. Behind it is a spread of green farmlands that stretches all the way to the real ocean.

We stayed at the inn until dusk, working up a healthy buzz that would last us the length of the bike ride. We might have stayed longer but once Geoff came back from the loo with his eyebrows raised and a look of pride and pure satisfaction on his face it became apparent that staying would be imprudent. Paul and Bryce immediately caught on and got up to go look and I followed in close quarter. One glimpse of the thing was enough to make the decision to leave unanimous.

We left in an orderly fashion as to not arouse suspicion but giggled the whole time. The inn manager must’ve been dense to not see the action going on in the front room, but then again, he’s probably not used to degenerates like us.

We rode off into the sunset.

“Why did we leave,” came the question from Clair, eventually. It was dark on the ride home and she was a few meters behind my bike. I waited for her to catch up.

“Let’s just say that I hope the innkeeper isn’t responsible for clogged pipes.”

“Why? What’s clogging the toilette?” she asked. I hesitated because girls normally hate that boys do this kind of shit. They don’t really appreciate it for what it is. But I figured Clair could handle it.

“A turd the size and shape of a broken baseball bat.” Which was true.

Clair laughed so hard her bike started wobbling and she had to stop to avoid falling off.

The next morning the weather was showing signs of good sailing conditions. Cold, but doable, and we didn’t think we’d get another shot at it.

We gathered the stroopwaffles, the coffee and the bourbon and took off for Vinkeveen. The Vinkeveensee is a lake a couple dozen miles south of Amsterdam and in my Dutch wanderings I’d learned that the harbor there is friendly to green sailors. I also learned that if you call ahead, they’ll stay open any day of the year unless the lake is frozen, which is the personification of flexibility. What this meant for us is that if you were retarded enough to go sailing in barely positive degrees, they’d let you.

The guy who taught me to sail told me once that it’s better to be on the dock wishing you were out on the lake than out on the lake wishing you were on the dock. Wise, but he was a family man with a Laser and we were hooligans with a keel boat naar impossible to capsize.

Mind you, the Wit Voetje, a 6.5 meter vessel with a Dutch double-boom rig is a boat I’d taken out many times before in all kinds of weather from doldrums to squalls. It’s a sturdy little rig with few worries and on a good northwesterly, and with plenty of heel it can really move if you keep a firm grip on the sheets, correct your weather helm and mind the shores.

What I had no experience with, however, was snow. When that mist dropped and the wet flakes started falling on my bare fingers poking through my gloves I thought for sure we were making for world’s end.

“Fetch me that scotch, there, mate,” I said to Paul. “I have a yearning for some fire in my throat.”

“What are you – captain Pete? Why are you talking like that?” someone said. Probably Bryce.

“It’s pirate talk,” Clair opined, trying to defend me no doubt. It only aggravated the situation.

“Aye, that it tis,” I replied. “But you’ve still not passed me the grog.”

“The what?”

“Just give me the goddamn liquor,” I snapped.

Pirate talk is less fun if people think you’re retarded. “Yarrghh…” I mumbled under my breath.

“What’d you say, Pete?” Bryce asked me from the helm.

“Nothing,” I lied.

On the way back to harbor we suddenly felt a violent surge that felt like Bryce had hit the brakes. Of course, sailboats don’t have brakes like that, which meant that we’d run aground.

“Dammit!” cursed Bryce, who was skippering the vessel and was the only sober person on board. He looked down over the starboard side of the rig and saw the soft mud we were in about 3 feet below the surface. “Now what?”

Paul and Clair had apparently eaten the remnants of some funny mushroom and were discussing the beauty of surface tension and the meaning of the colors that the wind-swept waves seemed to exchange when they rippled against the mist. Or some other damn thing.

“Rock the boat!” Geoff and I shouted, raising our whisky high in the air and getting jiggy with it to no music but our own. Heavy into the sauce for the last hour, and in that bitter cold of snow-laden northwesterlies, we’d gotten to the point where we were all, for one reason or another being less than helpful.

“Guys! I need some help here,” Bryce insisted.

“Rock the boat!” We repeated, still laughing like idiots. Bryce thought about it and in a moment decided that as stupid as it sounded, it might actually work. Gathering his wits about him and what help he could get from the delinquent crew, he started bouncing on the deck.

“He’s rocking the boat!” Geoff guffawed, and started doing it too.

It rocked us loose from the mud and then Bryce pushed the sails against the wind, taking us full astern and into open waters. After that, I think he tuned us out again and just enjoyed the brisk feeling of the cold air with the faint murmurings of the drunken hands on deck.

On Thursday the madness started. Due to some shirked responsibilities and less than stellar planning we were still short on supplies for the feast. Some people had wavered on their decision to join us until the last minute while others had canceled with much the same timeliness, turning any planning done around the numbers into a meaningless mush.

At least we were still expecting two more members of the full TG crew. We’d been able to send a list of still-needed items to Laura and Tyler in time for them to get it before boarding their planes. Since they’d be arriving just before the feast the timing would have to be perfect. We’d have to have things ready so that when they arrived their ingredients could be added to the mix right away. With this in mind we got an early start that Thursday to get the cooking machine underway.

Clair took over the kitchen table with her mulled spices, measuring spoons, graters and other instruments while the boys left to pick up the final ingredients. While I love a good run to the outdoor market for fresh vegetables and herbs, the real fun was picking up the turkey, which we properly molested in the red-light district before preparing it for consumption.

But now was no time to lose our wits. There were many items to be procured, time was short and people were counting on us.

“We need to maintain a rhythm,” Bryce was telling us, ever the level-headed one of the group.

“Right,” Paul said. “Keep it steady. Maintain. This is the home stretch so we have to be in good form. I don’t want to have to fish any of you jackasses out of canals today.” A fair point, I thought. “I think two beers per hour ought to do the trick.”

“What about liquor?” Geoff asked.

“Never mind the liquor,” I told him, pointing to my back pocket. “I got this in Scotland so you know it’s good. What we need to worry about now is getting fresh yams in this country. The market near my place has never heard of a yam so we’ll have to hit the immigrant side of town.”

“Bless those immigrants,” Bryce said. “Do you think they’ll have fresh cranberries?”

“We’ll have to hope for the best or else eat from a can. Now drink up and let’s get moving.”

“A plan,” said Geoff.

Suddenly the phone rang.

I need a pin roller,” Clair had called to say.

“Clair says she needs a pin roller, guys,” I informed them as we walked between the Nieuwmarkt and the Waterlooplein.

“Tell her to use a wine bottle,” Paul suggested.

“Use a wine bottle,” I snapped at her.

Are you guys drunk?” She asked me.

“Clair, don’t be ridiculous. There’s no time for that now. You need yams and fresh cranberries and we must come through.”

I also need a pin roller to make the pies.

“Alright, Clair. You need to calm down and see the big picture. As your friend, I advise you to take several large chugs of that bottle of Wild Pig in the corner by the microwave. It’s a red wine that’ll really get you thinking.”

“Wild Pig…” she repeated.

“You’ll understand,” I told her.

And I hung up. She’d figure it out, I was sure.

Thanks to a combination of quick feet, strong discipline and well-stocked Moroccan markets we made it back with fresh yams and cranberries, and even a few bonus items like mushrooms of all shapes, sizes, colors and questionable origins. We felt an unerring pride in our ability to obtain exotic ingredients, even in a place as foreign as the west side of Amsterdam, even when those ingredients were things as simple as yams and cranberries.

But we were a little overwhelmed and a bit out-done when we opened the door to my flat. In addition to the Kelly Clarkson that was playing from somebody’s iPod, there was also a noise that permeated the kitchen even though it seemed to have no source. It was a thing of high-speed and little pause, a mish-mashed gibberish of voices and laughing, indiscernible one from another. I noticed the bottle of Wild Pig, completely empty by the recycling corner and spotted on the kitchen table a newly opened bottle of the triple-distilled Russian Vodka I’d found in Oslo. I also saw a bottle of Dooley’s coffee cream liqueur, which meant Laura had arrived.

In our absence Sophie, Jo and Katie had joined Clair in the full frontal assault on the kitchen and with Laura’s arrival the scene had apparently completed its transformation from a busy kitchen into a frenzy of female chatter and madness the likes of which only women can handle. Men seem to have no capacity for 10 conversations between 5 people.

Not to mention the multitasking. Even while engaged in all of their conversations each one was madly efficient, rolling pie crusts, mixing batter, stirring sauces and cutting things. We stood at the door in awe and mild disbelief, stunned by the virility of the scene.

“Did you guys get the yams and cranberries?” Laura asked me.

“Yeah,” I mumbled. “It was really hard.”

“Great,” Jo said, snagging the bags from my limp hands and going straight to the sink with the cranberries and barely a pause.

“Hon, maybe you can get started on cutting up the yams, eh?” Said Katie.

“Great to see you, babe,” Laura said, giving me a big hug that sort of ruffled me out of my stunned state. “Now get cutting – we have food to make,” and she scurried back to the table, mixing flour and other things I don’t understand. “We’ve put the rest of the beers in the fridge for you guys and there’s a new bottle of Jack Daniels on top of the fridge that Clair brought from the UK.”

“Indeed!” I said.

“I love you guys,” Paul said to the girls, giving them all hugs and then ambling off towards the fridge for a new beer.

“When’s Tyler getting here?” Geoff asked.

“Soon, I hope,” said Bryce. “We’ll need the numbers.”

Amidst the smells of rosemary and thyme, butter and bacon, bourbon and wine, the turkey had just gone into the oven when the buzzer rang. The final member of TG08 had arrived.

Paul and Bryce had been having some trouble with the first mini-keg we’d tried to open and the issue had been resolved by ripping open the canister with a can opener and drinking it straight up, man style. This lip of serrated edges and sharp points we presented to Tyler at the top of the stairs as an entry requirement to the party.

Tyler didn’t even flinch.

He came in with the final ingredients and Laura got started on a signature recipe for stuffing that made me reconsider the need for any of the other dishes. By that time Paul had done us the favor of switching iPods so there was no chance we’d be listening to crap. A series of Billy Joel songs came on and that seemed to appease just about everyone and the mood really mellowed. I was no longer concerned with the nationality of my drinks and neither was anyone else, for that matter. Things were cooking now.

With the turkey just a few minutes away from being ready by the look of the Bryce-Geoff BASting committee, the front door opened and 4 large dudes poured into the flat, accompanied by my other flatmate.

“Happy New Year!” One of them announced, clearly slurring and making a true fool of himself.

“The redcoats are here! The redcoats are here!” Another one screeched.

“Oy,” I heard Laura mumble under her breath somewhere by the kitchen sink. Katie, always embarrassed by her drunken countrymen, immediately curled up into a fetal position under the table. The kitchen fell into silence.

It was not the time for old rivalries to resurface and for random people to show up at my house. It was time to eat a bird and the four schmucks that had wandered into our mess had some explaining to do. Would they stay? Did they expect to eat?

“Saori, who are these people?” I turned to her, louder than I should have been.

“Oh, these are my friends from London – you’re totally going to love them. Especially Tote. He’s a writer too, and he’s hilarious. Taylor over there,” she pointed to the one wearing jeans, an Abercrombie shirt and leather flip-flops who’d been yelling ‘happy new year’ to everyone. “He went to San Diego with me. He’s a surfer too! And he totally plays guitar!”

“Yikes,” I said.

They’d been drinking, but not like us. British drinking is serious business and they don’t take their time or enjoy their inebriation. They start off strong, talk a lot of tough stuff and then they hit the sauce. Some of them go all night and will drink you under the table and fuck you up right along with themselves. Others just go for it and swallow their pride. No sense of self-preservation. Able or not, they will not lose to an American – their sissy-ass, positive-talking, have-a-good-day-wishing sissy cousins from across the Atlantic. They will go right for the gusto, pounding copious amounts of alcohol and taking pride in their ability to stand for as long as possible.

And these lads in our kitchen were poised to collapse at any moment as if that had been their goal all along. I looked over at the one I thought was Tote, the tall Pakistani one with short curly black hair and a beard that was probably the source of the body odor I was suddenly aware of in the room. He had a stupid smile on his face and a green polo shirt to match. A jitter ran through him occasionally as if a chill had just flooded the room. His eyes would occasionally glaze over and he would reach for something in front of him that wasn’t there. If he’d snapped out of it faster I would’ve suspected a salvia junkie on our hands but the man was on something much longer-lasting. Maybe a combination of drugs, I thought. Maybe mescaline. He rummaged through a green canvas sack and pulled out a medium sized glass bong with Rastafarian colors all over it.

Ahh, I thought. As far as bongs go, it was a nice looking one, but the potential of having drunk Brits on our hands moments before thanksgiving dinner was horrible enough. If they were to start tripping out on mushrooms and salvia right there in my flat, I realized I was going to have an ugly scene.

“I don’t want to be an ass,” Bryce told me in a low whisper, “but these guys are only going to cause trouble here. Everyone’s thinking it, but it needs to be said.”

“Don’t worry,” I told him, putting a hand on his shoulder. “I’ve been to England many times. I’ll take care of this.”

I turned right to Saori’s face of childish anticipation. “Saori, I’m all for peace on Earth and unity and love for your fellow man and all that, but you don’t just show up for thanksgiving unannounced – it’s bad form,” I told her, and watched her jubilation deflate right out of her. “These guys can’t stay here.”

Her whole expression fell silent as my words slapped her fun. Her shoulders sank and the gleeful spring of her cheeks fell limp with my attitude. It was unfortunate, but what could I do? Drunk British boys I can handle but salvia was another story, and I wanted to no part in that.

“Besides,” said Paul, now coming over to where we were standing, “we don’t have enough food…”

Saori and I both looked around and were not buying it. The kitchen table was overcrowded with ingredients and we silently did the math in our heads. We might have been a little conservative on dinner but there’s a lot you could feed with five pies. Four drunk Brits was fairly under that limit.

“What’s the matter with you guys,” Clair said, lifting up the yams in one hand and picking up the spoon from the pan that held the cranberry sauce with the other. “Four bowls of stuffing not enough for you?”

“Make that six bowls of stuffing and a large turkey,” said Tyler. “Of course we have enough food for everyone, guys. We’ll all make do. It’ll be a Thanksgiving miracle!”

“Happy New Year!” Mumbled Taylor, slouching in the corner by the front door now, making Katie cower even further under the table while Saori and I began discussing what could be done.

Tote had started to stumble his way over to the oven where Geoff was inspecting the turkey. His arms flailed wildly and his legs barely managed to stay under his torso as he waddled towards our turkey. Intensely focused on the BASting, Geoff did not see him coming and was startled.

“Aahh!”

“Aahh!” Tote mirrored, clearly nervous about something.

“Sweet baby Jesus, homes, don’t creep up on a BASter like that.”

“There’s a face in your turkey,” Tote said to Geoff with a clear and confounded tone.

“Really? Well, we all did put our faces in the turkey this afternoon, so…”

“No, no… I see the face of a man hovering over your turkey’s ass, man – a young man, with a goatee and short hair…he’s got a charming smile and…”

“Dude, Saori,” Geoff called out, “your friend here is tripping on my turkey, man. You’d best get him out of here before he starts something crazy, yo.”

“He’s dripping on your turkey? Gross, Tote!”

“No,” Paul corrected, “he’s tripping, TRIPPing on the turkey. What’s your friend on? Colombian Mushrooms?”

“Nah,” Taylor said, “it’s some Indian thing we found. He’s been quiet for a while now.”

“He’s such a pretty face!” Tote said to himself. “Say something, turkey man.”

“You guys into that Shaman stuff?” Geoff asked them.

“What’s shakran?” Taylor asked.

“Never mind,” said Geoff. He was about to close the oven door and turn off the flames when Tote mumbled something about the turkey man’s voice being really low.

“Balls! What did you say?” Geoff asked the Pakistani kid.

“I said it’s an eerily low voice he’s got,” he replied.

A pause occurred to each of us.

Ers?

Tyler interrogated the kid again. “You said he had short hair and a goatee?”

“Uh-huh,” he replied.

“It’s Ers, guys! It’s gotta be!” Tyler shouted with his hands out to his sides. And then he paused: “Or his spirit, or something…this is bizarre…”

“Well,” Geoff started, looking in Laura’s direction, “we’ll have to de-Ers-ify this bird before we eat it, of course.” I could tell he had an idea but I couldn’t tell what it was. But I knew Laura would figure it out.

“I’ll get you the ceremonial head wear,” she said to Geoff.

“And if you have extra jewelry, that’ll be helpful too,” Geoff added. Laura looked down at her fingers, covered in 14 different rings, and just nodded and tilted her head in ironic agreement before going upstairs to her suitcase in my room.

“A turkey face is usually hampered by cheap jewelry,” Geoff commented. I’ve seen this kind of thing before.”

“You have?” Tote wondered out loud.

“Well, seeing Ers is a little out of the ordinary, but I guess that just means he really wanted to be here,” Geoff explained. “The turkey spirit is farther reaching than most other animals. That’s basic Shaman knowledge.”

“What the hell is this shaman business?” Taylor asked.

“Ahh, a novice,” Geoff exclaimed. “See, the Shamans were the witch doctors of the Aztecs,” he professed, “great wizards of terrible powers. Kings feared them and riches were lain at their feet to appease their fickle tempers.” I looked at Bryce, who was shaking his head at me.

“Many of them perished with the ills brought on by Cortés but their wisdom survived the ages through the infusion of knowledge into animal spirits. I just didn’t know Ers knew how to do that,” he said, sort of to himself.

“Can you get him out?” Paul asked Geoff. I wasn’t sure if he was in on it or not, but it worked in infusing a little more fear and confusion in our guests.

“There will be some resistance on his end if he’s learned enough to come this far into the turkey,” Geoff pondered. “But they taught me a lot in Zihuatanejo. I’m sure I can get him out if I spank it hard enough.”

The Brits looked terrified.

Just then Laura came hobbling down the steep Dutch-style stairs carrying a turban-looking thing she’d made from scarves, a couple of shawls, 2 or 3 large necklaces I didn’t recognize and a box of tampons.

“You can use my rings if you like but don’t lose them,” she said to Geoff.

“Don’t worry about the rings,” he assured her. “It’s the necklaces I’m worried about. He could choke on those things and Ers is my friend. I just want him out of my turkey!” he said with a soft smile.

“What the devil are the tampons for?” Tote remarked, apparently snapping out of his trance.

“Oh good, you brought those too,” Geoff said to Laura. “Excellent. What, these?” he turned to Tote. “Well, you don’t want him coming out this side, do you? That’d ruin dinner quick, wouldn’t it?”

“I was thinking the tampons would do roughly the same thing!” Tote snapped.

I was really enjoying this now.

“Geoff, if you want to do your Shaman thing, I don’t mind spanking it for you,” Paul offered.

“How long is this going to take?” Saori asked Geoff.

“Oh, a couple hours,” he said. “One if it’s his first time. And don’t worry – we’ll still be able to eat the turkey, though the tampons will take a lot of the flavor out of them.”

“OK GUYS! I think it’s time we headed out for some fish-n-chips, eh?” Taylor suddenly announced with a sheepish smile on his face, gathering all of his belongings as Geoff had started wrapping the turban around his forehead. “We can hop on over to that pub around the corner – whaddya say? Eh? I’ll get the first round…eh?”

They agreed and left in a hurry, the last one closing the door as Geoff stood over the turkey on the door of the oven, shouting great obscenities at our bird and waving his arms in the air while holding a wooden spoon.

We brought Katie out from under the table and stroked her hair until she calmed down. And then we had Thanksgiving dinner.

The next day started late but when I walked downstairs into the kitchen, all of my friends were sitting around the table, devouring stuffing and cranberry sauce with candied yams for breakfast, and Tyler and Paul where fighting over who would get to fill up their beer first. The fun never ends.

Until it does. After a lazy day of lounging around we hopped on a train to Utrecht for a day of wandering, but nothing came of it. We were slow to react and our bodies needed to digest horizontally so we returned to the flat and watched Pirates of the Caribbean laying down. That’s always fun.

As the departure times listed on the refrigerator came and went, the friends started thinning out. School beckoned, work and responsibilities were screaming and some people were just exhausted. At the end were left just Laura and Geoff, and as I felt like driving around that day, we took my car to take Geoff to the airport.

“Geoff,” I stopped him, as he was starting to walk to the terminal. He stopped.

“Yeah?” he said.

“They’re Mayan, right, not Aztec?” I asked him.

“What? The Shamans?” He asked.

I nodded.

“Every major culture has had Shamans, dude, even the Aborigines in Australia. It’s just a question of which one do you put more faith in.”

“You mean like us with Obama?” Laura asked.

“Exactly,” Geoff said, “I think. Be good, you guys. See you on the other side.”

And with that, he left too.

Laura left a few hours after Geoff and after I dropped off my car at the office I walked slowly back to the metro to go home.

The air was thin but even where the snow had been able the pile up it was now melting and making an awful mess of things. I buttoned up my coat and walked through the mud anyway.

There was a lot on my mind and mud was not at the forefront. Soon I would be leaving Amsterdam, the flat and moist expanse that had taught me so much about the world. Such mixed feelings I had about the place, and while it had never felt like home in any way other than that’s where the pillows smelled like me, I had started to get comfortable. Whatever it was, it was mine. It was something I’d survived through; made my own. And it was Europe. Europe can be such an enticing place for someone like me.

Squish, squoosh, squish, squash, went my feet as they moved through the soggy foot path that led across wet the train tracks. Whatever, I thought. I’ll think about that on the window sill when I get home.

Pedro Ávila

PROLOGUE

In Xanadu did Kubla Khan a stately pleasure dome decree…

Sam Coleridge said that; and good for Kubla. I hope it was worth his trip. See, I had been traveling too, and had found a stretch of sand all to myself in Tarifa, Spain. It was my own Xanadu, my own refuge by the edge of the mindless Atlantic, and that was a fine thing too. A long beach, a lot of time, soft sun and no wind at all is a dangerous combination of circumstances for a mind with no responsibilities that is bound by nothing. You go places, you scheme, you imagine and if you don’t mind your feet, there’s no telling what kind of foot prints you might leave behind.

I know this, of course, and the dangers that go along with it. These things happen to me all the time and are just another of my many occupational hazards. That doesn’t stop me though, from doing things that lead me to skip town on a train bound for the south of Spain, so far south that I could see Africa. Which is a fabulous thing to do, as far as sporadic weekend trips go. Think of it; I spend 5 hours on a train with strangers and weirdos and at the end of the ride I reach a point of land that, when I get around to standing at its tip, I can no longer get any further south and still claim to be in Europe. And I would argue, as you might guess, dear reader, that if you can stand on a piece of land where simply by standing on the tips of your toes you can see Africa, you’d be some kind of noxious fool, hell-bent on failure and general life-suckage to NOT jump on a boat and actually GO to Africa.

Because why not? It’s the right thing to do after you spend a night filled with electro-Brazilian remixes, Moroccan tea infused with strange liquors and beautiful German women who smell of clean sheets, sun-dried in fields of soft jasmine. It’s the right thing to do when you sleep with her easy smiles and then wake up to bathe in the ocean with the grit of sand and the smell of salt and the sway of the waves. And if a thing like that is worth doing (and it is, it IS), then it’s worth doing right.

The beaches of Normandy the night before never meant so much; but that’s exactly what Tarifa was on the night I arrived. Full of meaning and metaphor, foreshadowing and hubris… a magical place to be in, for sure. The 1940′s French coast must have had an aura around that time, eh? And we’ll get to all that soon enough because that’s literary stuff.

But before we do that we’ll rant a bit… this is a strange life I lead. The constant travel and the lack of anything resembling routine is sometimes unnerving in its lack of stability. The possibilities and opportunities for reflection and contemplation run dangerously deep, and sometimes a bit too often. That these times of contemplations and reflections come while I’m mostly alone is more a matter of my present working conditions than anything like actual loneliness or even depression. Honestly, I don’t have time for that. But in reading that last paragraph I realize that I still have to watch what I write – if I’m not careful I might end up talking to myself, or preaching, which is worse. And only a jackass would do that, so what’s the point?

Right – there is none, so let’s get back to the story, which is a nice one, I think. It’s got train rides with bar encounters on the train, which are great and always very different and special. It’s got lesbians and drunk poets, Spanish-Brazilian competition, Irish politicians, Moroccan markets and metal tea bags, haggling with mosquitoes over rugs and drugs, long walks on the beach, successful sexual relations, interesting situations in foreign pharmacies, narrow streets, insufferable siestas, variable wind conditions, lots of whiskey and what might have been the touch of God.

Like some of the stories I tell, this has some elements of truth. Also like those stories, I won’t tell you what those elements are, unless I feel like it. So don’t ask. Besides, at this point in time the thing hasn’t been written yet, though some of the pieces are floating around in my head, which is a mess right now. And usually, too.

Kurt Vonnegut had a wreck of an apartment, as I understand, and would say to his guests, “You think this is bad,” and then tap on his index finger to his temple, “you should see what it’s like in HERE.”

I gotta say… that’s comforting.

Also, on that tangent: in his office, my Grandfather has a portrait of Albert Einstein that I’ve always really liked, of Einstein giving a lecture on the nature of the universe, which is something most people don’t even bother trying to understand. Very intimidating, you know, the nature of the universe – like writing something good, only on a totally different scale. Anyways, this is what is written on the portrait: Do not worry about your difficulties in mathematics; I can assure you that mine are still greater.

This is also comforting.

But this doesn’t change the fact that I haven’t – at the time of this writing – written this story yet and that I’m here, talking about it, somehow. As far as details you should know before I get started, there is only one: before any of this happened, I didn’t know the Spanish word for “condom”. Needless to say, I learned it. This part is true.

Ok. Quid pro quo. The story…

PART 1 – ESCAPE FROM MADRID

The nightmare wore on.

In that drab conference room the minutes moved slowly. On that Spanish afternoon, surrounded by suits of unimaginably bad taste, he felt his pulse slow to a crawl and his lungs become almost apneic. Jesus, he thought, even my vital signs seem to be shutting down. Oscar clutched his knuckles tighter and tighter and they turned white with his frustration that his day was being wasted in a stale government office in a concrete building from the 70′s in downtown Madrid. He’d been sitting through hour after hour of tasteless executives who couldn’t recall their own childhood or even how to open excel documents on their own. Old farts who excelled at spending public money, they sat at a dark mahogany table, bored and dressed as if it were still 1974, like the picture of King Juan Carlos that hung on the wall from about the same time, when the old ball-buster still had some color to his hair.

“And if you’ll bear with me as we transition into slide 24 of this presentation, I’d like to talk about some of the industry trends concerning IT savings initiatives…”

Oh my god, thought Oscar, I don’t know if I can handle this.

He looked at the carpet under his tan leather shoes and noticed it was tightly woven, almost not carpet at all. A faded light brown, it darkened the room much more than was aesthetically acceptable and made the whole place feel like a casino bar at 2 in the afternoon. Seriously.

A government building is almost always guaranteed to have ugly insides; I know all about it. I have worked in the city and state halls of Kansas City, Los Angeles and Columbus, Ohio, and I have an intimate knowledge even of the interior broom closets of the San Francisco City Hall for reasons I can’t disclose until some statutes of limitation expire.

This part is true.

But this place was too much. Aside from the creepy little men who waddled its hallways wringing their sweaty, greedy palms and twisting mustaches while mumbling giddy IT chuckles, the place was made up almost entirely of plastic walls and vinyl made to simulate fake wood, of metal desks that recall old NASA buildings and industrial pencil sharpeners built into the walls. The walls themselves, raw concrete that dampened the air, were painted a matte white, sometimes with a green stripe. This was perfect for reflecting the fluorescent lighting that flooded the hallways and could leave you with cataracts within weeks. Strewn everywhere was aging electronic equipment from a time of Atari controllers, when we as a species hadn’t yet figured out human-computer interfaces beyond a cube-mounted stick. The corridors were dark and beige and the elevators took forever; they were painted orange inside and the glue from the mirrors that had been missing for a long time was still caked on the wall, along with the lint of hundreds of unsuspecting jackets.

Oscar could barely stand it. Sure, he understood that kind of ugly; it is foul, tasteless and smells very strangely of the bottom of old men’s shoes. He also understood that changing the decor of a government office is no quick matter and requires crossing enough red tape to stain your skin.

But it was the people that were simply too much for Oscar. The assistant to the minister of public affairs could be seen at one of the corners of the table in a bright blue tie on a sky blue shirt of mysterious stains and a purple suit made of various strange polymers (all of which repel flames, I’m sure) with lapels that recall the fins on a ’59 Cadillac. Is that kind of assault on decency necessary? Oscar applauded the gall but wondered if the man didn’t have anyone in his life to stop him from walking out the door looking like he has the visual equivalent of Tourette’s Syndrome?” It was abhorrent, all of it, and Oscar wanted out. Now.

And in as much as they were responsible for it dragging on and on, these men in strange fibers of strange colors were just itching to leave that meeting too, if only so they could go sign papers or whatever men like that spend their afternoons doing. But Oscar was on the verge, and it is not with these lizards, Oscar said to himself, that I intend to let my afternoon die. Nooooosssir.

No one really noticed that when the final words were spoken Oscar shook a hand or two furiously, gathered his things and headed out the door in a fit of despair, frantic and charged.

He bolted, stopping only by an unoccupied office to grab his books and disappear into a cab in Madrid…

PART 2 – ON THE TRAIN

Oscar resurfaced from the metro after making it to his hotel where he had changed rapidly out of his suit and stored some bags for the weekend. He intended to be back Sunday night. He had to work on Monday morning, after all, and Oscar was no degenerate slacker. But he was tired of the bullshit.

At the Atocha station, the main exit point located in east-central Madrid, Oscar looked around for the ticket booth, or some way to determine train schedules. With beach clothes in his bag, he had a mind to head to Lisbon and score him some surf. Yet there in the train station, he heard ominously telling things from a Dutch-sounding guy.

“… yeah, man. Dani said Biaritz was as flat as your mom. Crazy, uh?” The second guy had replied, strangely enough, with an Irish accent:

“No shit, mate. I told you there was no swell anywhere in the North Atlantic this week. There won’t be surf anywhere between Casablanca and Galway Bay. Balls; you know what we should do is go to Tarifa. There’ll be girls in Tarifa.”

Good enough – thought Oscar, I’m good with that.

South it was, then. The train bound for Algeciras near Gibraltar was going to be leaving shortly and Oscar made the quick decision, dashing up to the ticket counter when he saw it left in 10 minutes and he didn’t yet have a ticket. Thankfully for Oscar, he was in Spain and timeliness is not a Spanish priority. He bought his ticket, pausing only to ask the girl at the ticket booth if the weather in Tarifa was any good and if the train would leave on time.

“Hombre, she said, accusingly, this is Spain.”

“Right,” Oscar said, smiling at her and turning away. He walked impatiently through the security check and then dashed for the platform, arriving just on time.

Naturally, the train would be leaving 15 minutes later.

“Balls,” Said Oscar, understanding what the girl had said.

When the train for Algeciras left he was on it, car 4, seat 8D, headed south and facing that same direction. Personally, I’ve never understood how some people can travel 5 hours facing backwards without wondering that they’re not going in the wrong direction.

Success, he thought, I’ll be at the southernmost tip of Europe in time for drinks.

But with no comfort in the seats and a 5-hour train ride ahead of him through enough Spanish country-side colors to put an Adobe Photoshop ad to shame, I was thinking Why wait?. Oscar thought this too, apparently. A sociable venue would be needed though, and he thought that he could surely find something more talkative and interesting than the seat next to a middle-aged accountant studying for some kind of test. Given the foul mood that those purple-suited old lizards had put him in throughout the afternoon, the bar on car number three seemed like the right place for him, even if it was the ONLY place…

PART 3 – THE BAR: CAR 3

As he stumbled into car number 3 he was initially let down even though he wasn’t surprised. And why should he be? Oscar and I share the same fantasies and the gap between those fantasies – of being the bold and single business traveler with an expense account the size of Andorra’s economy – and reality, has been made very clear, at least in my professional years since college. Oscar had – no doubt – picked up on this by now.

The main difference being that there are females in these fantasies. Pretty females. Attractive females. Accessible females, on average under, let’s say, 45. Not the case in this so called reality. At least not often, in any obvious way or with any regularity. What a sham! You know those stories of the young suit on the management fast-track, ear-marked for 80-hour weeks for the next 20 years and all the young succulent secretaries and flight-attendants he can fit in after the red-eye and before the early-bird, or even in between the bulkheads on said flights?

Lies.

Oscar had been becoming steadily more aware that roughly 75% of flight attendants are sour, bitter or unsalvageably unattractive; 10% of them have already or are about to lose their jobs; at least 10% are gay men from Houston. The rest are mythical beings, at best. At least, that was Oscar’s observation on his airlines. I tend to fly more of the newer low cost flights where the newbies begin and are therefore at least younger, if not hotter. But given the livestock-esque treatment some of these airlines provides to the cattle it herds, I don’t see much glamor or high altitude fashion forthcoming. There’s only so much you can do with a brown/orange t-shirt, fast peanuts, no signature scarf and only about 40 minutes of flight time over the L.A. basin or from Munich to Geneva. In fact, I think I only know one cute young flight attendant and she works on an airline I never fly, on a route I’d never touch as it comes far, far too close to L.A. to be worth the chances. It’s a very large risk to take. Not the flying, mind you – just being over anything south of Ventura and north of San Onofre without having your hands on the controls yourself is accepting a certain level of risk that I find a little beyond me.

No. The traveling exec-to-be, knowledgeable, experienced, multi-lingual, under 35, with all his teeth and no significant childhood traumas is the corporate world’s answer to dancing albino tiger cubs. Flamenco-dancing albino tiger cubs. With rainbow whiskers. And chocolate tails. The corresponding female colleague is, then, very much like Lance Armstrong’s second nut, which is to say, not there at all.

So you can see that it’s a very lonely road that people like Oscar and I walk. And while at least he does it well enough, it’s not for everyone, and even I look around sometimes and wonder how I got here or why I persist. But the loneliness is also a constant reminder of how different I am from most of my peers, how far I’ve strayed from the flock. And that’s often validation too.

Oops; speaking of straying, this is not all that related to our story, so let’s not go all crazy here like a drunk poet on a train that has had no alcohol – let’s focus. The bar, remember, that’s where Oscar was just walking into.

So the bar was a let down, and I wasn’t surprised and neither was Oscar. It was filled with men and two largely unattractive bartenders.

Oh well, thought Oscar, I’m here for a drink and surely these old bags can provide THAT. His spirits were lifted a bit when one of the drunks started talking politics and the other hopeless crazies decided to get in on the fun.

“Just because I’m a drunk Irishman doesn’t mean I’m not RIGHT, dammit!” he babbled at a Spaniard, who had half a finished brown bottle of beer in front of him. The name of the label looked unpronounceable to me. “This shit with explosions in Pakistan is just like what’s happened in that African country…” he trailed off.

Qual?“, barked the Spaniard, his tan Mediterranean skin toned as if he was constantly being basted in olive oil, a sharp contrast to the gibberish-spewing, pale-faced Irishman, who was so white he could have been an iPerson.

Heheh. iPerson.

… Sorry.

Qual?“, he asked after a moment of total silence from the Irishman, whose head was down, his chin on his chest and his hair blending into his beard. Since Oscar was sitting with his back to the Irishman’s and wanted more entertainment, he shoved him between the shoulder blades, getting an elbow right in the crack between the blade and the muscle. It’s a classic move on the rotating stools in the computer engineering lab during finals at university. That really freaks out the Computer Engineering kids and Oscar figured, why not? How’s THIS guy different?

Right – he wasn’t. So Oscar shoved the medial side of his olecranon process just under the Irishman’s right scapula (he hit him in the back with his elbow) with an upward motion that stings like anyone’s business but doesn’t do much damage.

“Whwwooooo SHIT!” He jerked his neck back and his eyes popped open the size of dinner plates, from what I could see of his reflection on the car’s window.

Qual?“, the Spaniard shouted again.

“A… ALL of them, you insensitive fuckgrgrrgrrgrgrggrgrgrgr!” He retorted – kind of – and went right back to sleep, this time with his forehead fully on the bar. Classic. It wasn’t even 6 pm yet, and here this Irish dude is passed out on the bar in car 3: the bar car. It was almost cliche, I think. And that was that. It was enough entertainment, in any case, and at least good enough for Oscar to stare out the window for the next 20 minutes or so to admire the long rolling hills of olive trees, dry brush and ruins of stone farm houses on deserted hilltops that guarded nothing but rich colors for a long time in any direction.

Then came the next batch of trouble. Oscar was still staring out the window when they walked in. And his thoughts – oh I saw how they stuttered! He was thinking of clean beaches that stretched for miles in both directions with no human in sight, and an island out in the water, close enough to swim to. But their presence stirred him like sudden sunlight reflected from an eyeball and his daydream warped and twisted, the mental equivalent of water up his nose.

He continued to look at their reflections on the window which he faced. He followed them until they sat at the bar and his line of sight was blocked by a large white guy who might have been Hungarian, based on his accent. Or not; what do I know? Hell, he might have been a line backer on the Raiders or a Russian hit man; one thing is certain; his mustache was definitely from Texas. There are always out-of-place strangers on a train that all the weirdos ride.

And thanks to the encouragement of Jack Daniels, who seldom lets down his friends in their time of need, he turned his head to look directly at them instead. One of them, it turned out, was plain as all plain can be; mousy brown hair in a boring brown bun that did NOTHING for her and glasses that matched the fashion ideals of a 9 year-old boy. Her outfit hid any redeeming features she might have had and she wasn’t aware of anyone in the bar but her friend.

And neither was anyone else, for that matter. Who could blame her? Her friend was a stunner with jet black hair, a mouth of snow-white pearls in a row, olive oil skin with green eyes like the widest of fields, and she was not being modest about the body she put that head on. There were strategic curves everywhere on that girl, and Oscar thought the train would derail. Frankly, I did too. She wore a shirt that said, “Eat me, I’m tasteful” and had a lip ring to boot. Her tits were mindless invitations for the eyes of men and Oscar enjoyed the moment of voyeurism as much as I’m sure she was enjoying the attention. Everyone got a real good look at her since they seemed to be ordering and not aware of any curious eyes.

Which turned out not to be true at all! The cunning little foxes, they were looking at Oscar on the reflection after he’d turned to look at them directly. It took me a while to figure out why they were pointing at the window, staring for a while and then smiling and tossing their hair whenever Oscar looked back their way. I’m kinda slow like that sometimes. I’m a very innocent man, you know?

But Oscar is not. Soon enough he was walking towards their end of the bar in need of another drink and absolutely positive that he was dealing with a sure winner here. Flirting via bar car reflections around large white Hungarian men is not something to be done lightly and he figured this girl must mean business.

Un Jack Daniels con yielo, por favor,” he ordered, right over the girls. The plain girl stood back and gave him a tight-lipped, “I’m impressed” look with one eyebrow raised, then looked at her friend, who remained mostly expressionless for a few seconds.

Oscar can be a pretty cool guy. From his standing position, he looked down where they sat, both staring up at him; his right hand on the cash in his pocket as he ran the other hand through his longish crew-cut hair. He smiled with one side of his face.

What are YOU drinking?” he asked them, purposefully avoiding the eyes of the pretty one with the tasteful shirt and the sparkly things on her jeans.

Oh, she’s having tea…” he looked over at the hottie for a moment and she smiled for the first time, “… and I’m just having a coke. How can you drink that stuff PURE?”

He let his smile remain, but he didn’t say anything, nor did he make any attempt to explain it with a shrug or a look. It was starting to look easy.

What’s your name?” Asked the cute one.

Jesus, thought Oscar, this is going to be TOO easy. Then he answered. He ONLY answered. And his drink arrived.

Gracias,” he thanked the lady in Spanish, and handed her a blue-ish green-ish bill. The plain one turned her back to the bar.

Are you going to Algeciras too?” She asked him. Oscar inserted a pause, but continued.

No, Tarifa. For the weekend.” He turned to the pretty one. “You’re going to Algeciras?

Yeah. She lives there and we go to school in Madrid.

Home for the weekend?” Oscar replied, with what I thought was a little too much interest in his voice. The plain one answered.

She’s coming to stay with me and meet my family. We have next week off.” This instantly brought a thought to my head: no wonder those chums at the train station thought there’d be girls in Tarifa this weekend – school vacation… interesting.

Sounds like a real hoot,” said Oscar, oblivious to what that meant. And so much for cool; even I had noticed how strange that one sounded. “Meet my family?” Ah, spare me, Oscar; pay attention!

But no. He turned back to the pretty one. “So, is it as windy in Algeciras as Tarifa? They say it’s the wind capital of the world.

Not as much,” she said, suddenly, all her smiles gone and most of her interest fading. Oscar was confused. The plain one finished her coke.

What do people do for fun in Algeciras?” he asked, losing his track, wondering why he wasn’t the center of attention any longer. They looked at each other in response to his question. He didn’t notice, and pushed his luck.

I mean, where would I go in Algeciras to find fun people and run into you?”

He was in a bog of trouble and it would take him too long to climb back out.

The girls looked at each other. The plain one looked back at him.

Well, we’re together, so, you know, we don’t really need to go out.” Oscar felt the whole train shudder. He’d missed a step, or at least, he thought the train did.

I see.” But then the pretty one finished her tea and stood to go.

We’re going back to car 4 now.

Bye,” cooed the pretty one, leaving Oscar with his unfinished whiskey.

He finished it.

They’d meant business alright! And HO, HO! What business, indeed.!

Look: I have been had by lesbians before, but Oscar’s Jack Daniels hubris really took a hold of him there. It all occurred to me way after it all started of course, and by the time I understood what was going on, they had already confounded Oscar and had their fun, like kittens unaware that the mouse they’d just batted around for 10 minutes had better things to do and places to be like the other end of the bar; like staring at the sun setting, fast and hard on the right side of the south-bound high-speed train moving across the Spanish landscape.

After they dismissed themselves Oscar had plenty of thoughts to go back to until the next interruption, and many minutes passed. The next interruption came after it was dark, when it no longer mattered out which side of the train Oscar stared.

Two very intoxicated Scotsmen who had clearly not even been to their seats in the last 4 hours noticed that Oscar was writing and they wanted to contribute. I know how that sounds, but let me assure you, he had it under control. He was not going to let it turn ugly like I had in Barcelona only a few months before.

They had been drinking gin, they said, which is a vile thing to drink straight up and by itself, sin nada. It’s an Englishman’s drink, a lonely man’s drink for dark times by a gray stone bridge, or the edge of a marriage on the rocks, which is the same thing. In any case, they had lost all sense of reason but they were at a sentimental stage, very docile and very focused. They really wanted nothing from him except to let them write a poem in his notebook, to which Oscar conceded.

I wish, dear reader, I wish I could write here what that drunk wrote. I really do. The words I caught when he read it sounded like they fit so well together, bits of black and white, like chess pieces on a checkered board, soulless demons falling into their rightful punishments in the dark red blackness of hell, screaming flamenco angers, clapping passions and castanets, beating rhythms onto the hard wood like the clickety-click of our train on the rails in the dark Spanish country-side. Tch-choon, tch-tchin, tchchoon, tch-tchin, tchchoon, tch-tchin… and so on.

But the poor kids were so drunk and unable to tell the train’s swaying from their own that their talent was lost as scribbles on the page. One of the them felt energized from the hopeless gibberish he wrote and sprinted to “get the guitar.” His more coherent friend told Oscar (with surprising clarity) after the poet had left, “don’t worry. He doesn’t play the guitar. We don’t even have a guitar and this is our stop anyway.” The he finished his gin and went to go find his reckless friend. After the Scotsman left, with a strange suspicion on his mind, Oscar smelled the gentleman’s glass. It reeked of water and ice, but certainly not alcohol, or gin, for that matter. For some reason, Oscar had been had. Again.

Why does this keep happening on this train? he wondered…

PART 4 – THE ARRIVAL

People on trains are usually interesting to a fault. I have such a hard time squeezing my life story or even an executive summary of it into the 40 seconds or so that it takes to properly introduce yourself to the attention of train people and yet they do it with such ease. Oscar had this problem too, and hadn’t understood it until then. The distinction is this:

They are all lying.

Oscar reasoned that that must be it. It’s the only explanation that both fits the facts and still passes the statistical taste test of unbelievable bullshit. And while I can’t speak for Oscar here, I’ll tell you how I feel about this, which is: I’m fine with it.

Yeah, that’s right. Smile and enjoy the stories, I say. Recount them to your peers and colleagues if you must. Hell, you might even pass them off as your own, if you’re into that kind of thing and can get away with it. Just don’t believe what these train freaks tell you; not for a minute. Things are not what they seem. Or what they say.

The train passed some more towns: Cordoba, Rondo, something else he didn’t remember. Some of these towns had dark and uninviting concrete pillars at the station; damp corners and dark and empty platforms. No one got out and I didn’t see anyone get on, which weirded me out a bit. In places like that I often get dragged off the wagon, sinking into nerdy philosophy surrounding stories like the Matrix, and wondering if there aren’t other corners of our world or our universe that aren’t accessible to most, but within reach of some. I get to wondering what would happen if I had been the only one who stepped off the train there, in that place, and walked into the unforgiving darkness with swagger and purpose, and only a small bit of fear. What would I find and what dangerous adventures would I be dragged into? Though the answer to that is probably a whole lot of nothing, the thought keeps me focused. Like Oscar was after such a strange day that still wasn’t over. Like the view of the Mediterranean near Tarifa.

And soon the train was in Algeciras and even in the scurry for out-bound transport he managed to catch a cab. There must’ have been 120 people hailing 20 taxis at that otherwise empty train station in the south of Andalusia, but with a sharp whistle, a keen finger and a cold stare, Oscar motioned for the taxi to stop right in front of him and it did. He’s quite a guy sometimes.

The ride from Algeciras to Tarifa might have been mildly uninteresting except that Oscar could see lights on the other side of what was obviously – even in the pitch black of the moonless night – the Mediterranean Sea. It was Africa. Oscar had already panicked once but he was much calmer now and besides, there was no one to call. He was on his own.

But on top of that, the cabbie had the news on the radio and though it was in Spanish, Oscar could understand all of it. I was surprised to note that I was hardly paying attention to what language was being spoken. And there were some pretty big haps: apparently the King of Spain, good ol’ Don Juan Carlos, had sort of lost his composure in an economic summit of Latin-speaking nations and interrupting the obnoxious platform ramblings of Hugo Chavez, the King asked the Venezuelan Dictator why he wouldn’t just shut up. “Por que no te callas?” he’d asked. Good drama.

When he arrived in Tarifa, Oscar still needed to find a place to sleep. He circled the town with the taxi driver, who made some suggestions about where to stay and what not. All uninteresting places, with no class and no character, and just crawling in magazine adds and reeking of international chain. Oscar wasn’t feeling it no matter where the cabbie took him. It’s possible that Oscar just didn’t want to “get taken” somewhere, I don’t know. Given his penchant for the dramatic and a flare for independence and “freedom from the establishment” (as Oscar says, sometimes), it makes all kinds of sense that he wanted to find something on his own; that he wanted to struggle a bit. He liked to figure things out on his own; it makes sense to him. Oscar suggested to the cabbie that he drop him off in the old town and let him fend for himself, even though it was approaching eleven at night and getting pitch black with no sense of direction.

Are you mad?” the cabbie asked Oscar in Spanish. “This place is packed with degenerates and drug-crazed hooligans. You need rest.

Nonsense,” Oscar told him,” I’ve had all the rest I need. I just got off a 5 hour train ride with drunks, politicians, lesbians and other such lying scum. I can handle it. Besides, they can’t touch me here; I’m one of them.” Here Oscar paused and watched the driver get the fear, the mad suspicion that he was carrying a hooligan, a degenerate that could, at any moment start spewing anti-government dogma, talking of free Basque states, support for the ETA and the madness coming from Catalunia in those days. His knuckles turned white with a furious fear and he gripped the steering wheel with angst and anticipation of what would come next.

This is fine here,” Oscar finally told him with a dismissive wave of his hand. He’d let the cabbie fill himself with enough raw tension and hoped the driver would relax his death grip on the steering wheel. He couldn’t afford to have a cardiac patient on his hands, and there was no need for that kind of behavior; he’d had his fun and saw no reason to drive that man to the brink of ditching his cab outside the Tarifan city limits and run yelling into the Andalusian brush as if driven by frightened fire ants out of the suspicion that Oscar was one of them. Besides, he had things to do. Oscar gave him a twenty and some coins but he didn’t watch the cabbie leave, lest he driving away at obscene speeds. He had nothing but a book, a journal, a change of clothes, a toothbrush and a mind for fun. He had things to do…

PART 5 – THE GIRL

Oscar walked towards the most visible building in the old town, the church. That’s often a good place to start in ancient towns like that, especially in Europe. It was a dark night, no moon in sight and the lights from the town plaza were shrouding any faint stars that might have peaked through the blackness. Strangely, the air was hardly moving at the wind capital of the world at the mouth of the Mediterranean. It was even eerier than Oscar realized at the time, and I’m not sure if he later found out that there was no wind at all anywhere on the Mediterranean that night. Think of that.

At the church, Oscar went left, heading up a narrow alleyway that was well lit but no more than 4 feet wide. There was a bright light about 40 feet down the tight-fitting street coming from some kind of wooden door that was swung open. All kinds of raucous laughter could be heard coming from the space and it picked Oscar’s curiosity. It was past eleven at night but that is early in Spain and there were very few people out, except, apparently, in this place. In Spain people don’t usually leave the house at night until sometime after eleven, assuming they’re in for an early night. Also, it was Thursday so the outside crowd wouldn’t be arriving until tomorrow, and this explanation satisfied Oscar for why the town seemed so still except for whatever light was at the end of this narrow tunnel of a dark street.

For the time being Oscar was stuck with the weirdos – locals and regulars who came for a break, who stayed for the rest and later couldn’t leave for various reasons that are, frankly, beyond my ability to explain. It turns out, as it were, that they were not as bad as the other strange folk from both my and Oscar’s travels, like gambling freaks from small silver mining towns in Nevada or queer drunks from Catholic weaving towns in rural Brazil. Or people from Florida, for that matter. No, no – these freaks were friendly and good natured and meant well.

Take Juan Luis Jr., Bar proprietor (est. 1968) and self-proclaimed “regular guy”, as burned onto a plank of driftwood that he hangs over his bar. A fat man who mocks his own mass (a comfortable 280 lbs.), he will cook, serve and entertain all of his guests, all 8 of them, which is all he can fit into his establishment. He’ll accomplish all this without missing a smile, and probably a hearty laugh as well. He serves up some of the best wine (and chicken) in the city and this is one of the many signs that hang on his wall (I’ve done my best to translate it from the Spanish):

We serve delicious free-range chicken; very wild
With legs like Ronaldinho,
Thighs like Jennifer Lopez,
Breasts like Elsa Pataski,
and the attitude of its creator, Juan Luis Jr.

That’s a hell of a sign. A bit crass, but you know: small town.

He had dusty bottles of wine on the 3 inch shelf on his wall, and judging by how level it isn’t, he didn’t hire anyone to do it. He had memoirs stapled everywhere, a kitchen the size of a small KIA and a bar made of unfinished raw Gaulish Pine. Wines with names like “Azpilicueta“, “Prado Rey“, “Oriza” and a homemade label of “Criado Alhambra“. I wondered about that one, but did not doubt. The liquors this man had were unheard of and dustier than the wine. Pictures of torreiros were hung on the wall next to the garlic and the onions. In short, there washad oodles of charm and character in that place.

I can handle this, thought Oscar.

It’s usually guaranteed, 100%, when Oscar tells someone that he’s Brazilian, that the reply will go something along the lines of “aaaahhhhhhh… Ronaldiiiinnhho, eh? Very good Futbol. Veeeerrrrry good, Ronaldinho.” And so on, referring to the Brazilian star that plays for Barcelona. It changes over the years, from Pele, to Romario, to Ronaldo, and now the new phenom. In a few years it’s sure to be “aaaahhhhh, Robiiiiiinho, eh? Very good Futbol, that Robinho, yes, very good.”

100%.

Juan Luis Jr. was no exception. But Oscar didn’t mind. The food was spectacular and just listening to the fat man make fun of himself, tell six jokes a minute and cook at the same time made it all worth any cringy sentiments he had towards people’s most natural reactions to his ethnicity. After eating half a chicken and drinking some of the man’s wine, Oscar took further notice of a sign with a journalist’s picture and her email. She was Dutch, he noticed, and Juan Luis noticed him checking it out.

She’s a good friend of mine,” he said in Oscar’s direction in a friendly Spanish tone.” She travels the world and writes stories and mentions me sometimes,” he said with some pride.

What kind of writing does she do? Is she a novelist or more of a journalist type?

She’s done both, but usually she works for the New York Times. Says that’s a very good newspaper.

Is that what she says?” Oscar couldn’t hide his smile.

What’s your business here this weekend?

What makes you think I’m here just for the weekend?

Please. I’m Juan Luis Jr. – did you see the sign?” Oscar smiled. “I have the attitude that makes this chicken. And you have it written all over your face.

What? The chicken?” Oscar said, only half-joking. Juan Luis liked it.

I had to get out of Madrid for a little while. Too much, you know?

Selah, my friend, Selah.Yikes, thought Oscar.

How about some port?” Asked Juan Luis, insistingly. Oscar did not refuse.

Is it okay if I write down her email? I’m a bit of a writer myself,” said Oscar, and The Proprietor conceded. “But tell me, why do you have her email address on the wall?

So that people ask me about her.” The proprietor smiled coyly. “Drink up, friend. Your drink is on the house.

After his drink he thanked The Proprietor, who wished him well, and then Oscar wandered off in search of a temporary abode. He headed back towards the church, and once on the main street, just in front of the crumbling church, he turned around. He’d heard the eight footsteps of the people behind him; two guys and two girls. Oscar assumed they were together; after all, these were twenty-somethings, kids; no older than Oscar. They must’ve been two traveling couples, or something. They were hipsters minus the scarves; people on their parents’ dime with no particular mission other than fun, distraction and perhaps some political complaining, though it would never escalate into a discussion. Company that Oscar could hardly relate to, but could certainly use: besides the occasional glaring hypocrisy, they were nothing like the suited lizards back in Madrid. Oscar noticed a Brazilian accent in the English of one of the guys in the group of four and decided to talk to them, to hell with the fact that he himself looked menacing and weird, a lonely guy walking around the old square by the church at almost midnight with no sense of direction and nothing but his torn and worn backpack from 8th grade. No – there was no time to worry about things like that.

The Brazilian was from Belo Horizonte, it turned out – a central Brazilian town which I neither know from personal experience nor is it high on my list of destinations. It’s right down there with Detroit, Des Moines or Utica. I’m sure it’s a fine city in the middle of nowhere in a Brazilian state in which I have very little business. But it’s just not a priority, you know?

But so much for all that. The Brazilian guy, whose name was Gabriel, directed Oscar to a hotel by the church and invited him to meet up with their group once he’d settled in.

“We’re going to a place called Raizes, which is just across the street from the place I told you about,” he told Oscar. Foolish, but nice, as far as protocol goes.

Let me explain: it was a group of two guys (Brazilian and Spanish) and two girls (both German). Oscar had no bad intentions, mind you, nor did he suspect mischief of any kind from any front, including his own. All he saw was an opportunity to not spend the night alone, which was optimal given his ongoing state of social-hermit. But if that Brazilian guy had any intentions with those German girls – and I suspect he did – he should have sent Oscar to Tangier fast and forceful.

But he didn’t.

Naively, Oscar got himself a single room and quickly went to the bar they’d all mentioned, Raizes, which is a small place, well-run by a dude who is high pretty much twenty hours a day. At least. The rest of the time he’s asleep, which is when I imagine he sobers up a bit since it’s hard to sleep and smoke at the same time. Given the guy’s demeanor, it’s a good life for him, I think.

In any case, he made them all caipirinhas and the next thing Oscar knew he was deep in conversation with one of the German girls. Jana, pronounced with a ‘Y’, which makes a guy like me weak in the knees. She explained to Oscar that she and her friend had just met Gabriel and the other Spanish guy, with whom Oscar never spoke, nor did I learn his name in any other way.

And why should Oscar have bothered himself with the Spanish guy? He had the attention of a beautiful German girl with a name that makes a Euro-crazed man mortal and whose accent, particularly when she pronounced his name, made Oscar behave like a controlled epileptic, shivers running down his back and all kinds of impulses being held back. So who cares what the Spanish guy’s name was?

Right. No one in this story does. And when she told him that they’d just met these guys, that these were not boyfriends and that these were free-wandering girls with all the rights, privileges and possibilities entitled, all kinds of lights and bells went off in Oscar’s head. It looked like a riot in there, with police beatings and sudden mayhem when he realized that this amazing creature – with a smile that softened hard surfaces; with eyes… no, not just eyes, but a look that dented perceptions and a wild flirtatious laugh that could captivate your attention even in high winds and rough seas – that this girl was available. To boot, she seemed to be honing in on him. What was he going to do with this?

“Let’s go to that bar that has Moroccan tea in the metal chain mail,” suggested Jana’s friend, which seemed to excite Jana as well. Oscar was down, and finished his caipirinha.

Somewhere between walking to the next bar and the narrow alleyway the two of them found themselves alone for a few seconds. Her friend and the other guys were either ahead of them or behind, Oscar wasn’t sure. But he and Jana had stopped walking while waiting for the rest, and found themselves in between a closed boutique and a dark alleyway with only a park bench visible anywhere in the surrounding 3 meters. It looked like a scene out of a Carey Grant movie where the lamplight is showing you only what you need to see and the darkness is covering everything else in the scene. No distractions. Oscar caught both him and her staring at each other from head to toe, enjoying the fact the other was looking too. She let him finish taking in her neck lines, the soft lick of her lips and her shockingly blue eyes and then she leaned in and pressed her lips to his. He returned the gesture, still surprised that things had taken this turn. She pulled back and licked her lips without smiling. She looked at him and her eyes said, in every language I know, “what the hell are you waiting for?

Then Oscar got over his moment and wrapped one hand around her slim waist, bringing her hips closer to his own, and kissing her as a girl with eyes that blue deserves to be kissed, leaned back and held tightly while the other hand slipped from her face to her neck. Between them was barely enough room for the warm breeze that was picking up in that dark night with no moon.

Sure, Oscar had nothing to fear; but that’s never been what makes a man fearless. Doing what he does with some benefits along the way, Oscar has no anchor; no worry to slow him down. But I tell you, since I know: he would’ve kissed her just the same. He’d do it again in a snap.

And it seemed to last 20 minutes, that kiss, that moment. A moment broken off from time. A moment that was theirs, and even the city, the coast, all of Spain might as well have been deserted, as there was only the two of them, held tightly in each other’s arms in that smallest and most hidden of cobblestoned squares.

Eventually the rest of the crew caught up to them or came back for them or whatever. They went to the place called Casablanca, which I thought was a stupid name for a place that close to Morocco. There, things quickly became a blur. It was a series of moments clouded by a haze of mojitos and Moroccan tea and drunken kisses in dark corners filled with the apprehension of who would make the next move and what it would be. I know that Gabriel and the Spaniard left Oscar with the girls at some point in the night, but I couldn’t say if they were pissed at the momentum they’d lost or if they were just too tired and too drunk to carry on the charming fight. And who cares? Oscar owed them nothing and if those two dudes lost anything there that night it was their failure, not mine, not yours, and certainly not Oscar’s.

Oscar settled onto the seat with Jana flirting mischievously between him and her friend, who often got up to got get more tea. The pace of things quickened. The tea was sweet and the music was loud and Jana’s friend, in an effort to secure a man for the night was doing shots of some French liquor that smelled like it was sweet but she claimed tasted like Kentucky

“How is it that a lovely German girl gets to know about Kentucky bourbon?” Oscar asked, tactlessly. Jana didn’t seem to notice anything hostile in his voice but her friend sure did. She stopped showing any sign of fun and got up to get more tea.

Oscar was pushing some kind of limit, being awake and smelling French liquor infused with Moroccan tea… things have boundaries, he tried to remind himself, but Jana was too enticing and the tea was too sweet, and he let the blur take over for a while. At least until Jana’s friend suddenly appeared and cleared up all the cloudy haze of comfort and anticipation, saying she wanted to go home.

What a ball-buster, man. Jana had no choice. He cursed her silently, but a part of him thanked the heavens for an out for sleep. Something good would come of all this, at least.

“I’ll walk you two home, if that’s alright,” said Oscar. Jana’s eyes lit up, and to her friends’ detriment, Jana said it would be lovely.

After the scene mellowed and the exhaustion set in Oscar took the girls to their hotel, his own body pleading for rest. They directed him to the blue door on the steep street up the small hill from the old church. Oscar bid Jana’s friend goodnight and they all exchanged phone numbers but Jana wasn’t done with her moment. The night stretched before them like a black rubber band under tension wrapped in no silver, and neither of them wanted to let go and have it come snapping back. They snagged the moment mischievously.

“Are you sure you have to follow your friend into that blue door?” Oscar asked her. She casually closed the door to the hostel and stayed on the street, with her elbow on Oscar’s shoulder and her forearm behind his head, her fingers playing with his hair. Between kisses she managed to tell him she didn’t want to sleep behind her own blue door. After making out with her on the steep cobblestone street outside her hotel for a while, afraid she was going to head for that blue door, Oscar let a smile crawl up his face and while she kissed his neck, he guided her back towards his hotel with his hand around her small curvy waist. She made no attempt to suggest otherwise, asked him which way to walk and didn’t return to those blue doors until the next morning… bourbon.

PART 6 – THE NEXT DAY

In the morning there was much noise and commotion outside of Oscar’s window. It started early, way before it was time to open the shades and let the light flood that small single-bed room. A bread market, it seemed, had formed (cultivated?) right outside his flat, and since sleep was impossible in that heat and that haphazard noise, Oscar and Jana made good use of their time in that most secluded of rooms, knowing full well that so long as they stayed in that room, there wasn’t a person in the world besides the inn-keeper who know where they were.

She left after all was said and done with no promises, no commitment. Just an expression of the desire to continue later what they had started the night before and that morning. Oscar was fine with this.

“Maybe I see you again tonight?” Jana asked with a smile, her eyebrows lifted in anticipation of Oscar’s boyish ‘yes’.

“I’d be terribly disappointed if you didn’t,” he said. Then he saw her change her complexion.

“Have some condoms tonight, eh?” She scolded him, pouting her cute lips and pretending to be mad. He put his head down and pretended to be submissive. She liked it and stroked his hair. Then she grabbed her things and left.

But she’s right, Oscar thought to himself, why don’t I have condoms? A mission, he decided.

Oscar had come here looking for surf but without a swell, well, what is a man to do? It’s not like there’s any sense in moping about the town with sad looks and griping about the lack of surf. This makes especially little sense if you’ve woken up next to a beautiful woman who has no agenda other than fun and still smells like she did the night before of freshly washed sheets that were sun-dried over fields of jasmine. I’ll say this: CK and Davidhoff have yet to come close to creating a fragrance that soothing.

I don’t know how many men have woken up to that marvelous a creature in that marvelous a place. How many, I wonder, have followed the whole affair with the simple pleasure of toast and coffee and a strong breeze in an ancient port city square, more alone and less lonely than any man before conceived, only to run off to the beach with nothing but a book in their bag and all the time in the world. I doubt many have shed all their clothes and bathed in the ocean using nothing but cold brine and sand to cleanse the pores on their body. Beyond, a vast ocean and behind, a vacuous beach that stretched for kilometers in both directions with naught but a fisherman every so often. Glorious. I doubt that more than a few, and far fewer than some have splashed and awoken their faces with the cold waters of the Mediterranean, taken from where it meets the unforgiving Atlantic to purge them of woes and corporate filth while retaining the touch of a woman’s skin that still danced lightly on the surface of their fingertips. Gaea is an amazing thing indeed and we are reminded of it mostly at times like that.

Well, if it’s anything to anyone… Oscar has.

So he walked up and down that beach, reading from Kurt Vonnegut and wondering things when the wet lick of the waves would touch his toes. He did not have a concept of time in his mind. I lost track of it myself, to tell you the truth.

He walked north-west for many kilometers, crossing some rivers that splashed the cuffs of his pants. Occasionally he would stop and listen to the wind that was picking up in gusts, and would settle down for brief intervals. It stroked his ear lobes, and brought a salty taste to his lips. He thought of all the waves and on all the beaches he’d ever surfed at. He tried to remember all the solid moments with all the girls he’d been with, the wet kisses, the first touches, a hand slipping beyond where it was expected but finding, instead that it was welcomed there. He thought of these as conquered moments, victorious drafts of a fate as yet unwritten. He smiled for much of this time. Sometimes he forgot, but that’s only because he was too busy watching a wave break, too awed by the whitecaps in the distance, too anxious by the lick of the wind on his face.

After a few hours of this he discovered that he was hungry and that it had all been enough of this silliness. He needed food and probably drink as well, and for that he would need to head back to town.

… well. Tarifa had another thought for him.

As he approached the town from the ocean like so many breezes before him, a strange and eery feeling came over him that something was wrong, or at least very different. There were no people on the streets. Nothing was open. Everywhere he turned there were closed shops and cafes with signs reading “closed from 2-5″ or “Back at 6.”

Back at 6? he thought. What the hell is going on here? Does the whole town have, like, afternoon plague or something? What could knock out an entire town? Toda la ciudad? All of it? And just until 6?

And then it hit him: siesta. Duh. You’re in Spain now, Rube.

But this wasn’t just an afternoon nap, you understand. This was serious. Everyone was out. Even the plants and the trees seemed to slouch a bit. He searched the narrow streets but found nothing there but soft sunlight, where sound doesn’t carry well and is muffled by the soft stucco on all the curves and corners of so many white and off-white buildings. The whole thing had kind of a religious intensity to it and creeped him out a little bit. Even the indecent hours between 3 and 7 in the morning when the madness stops and the bullshit sleeps aren’t this still, this dead. For Oscar, it was like being the last person on Earth. What a drag it was to be a writer then instead of a musician!

After last night’s series of events, for which Oscar was grossly unprepared, nothing was more important than that by dinner-time that same day he have on him at least a few condoms. Oscar, is not, after all, stupid.

But as the town was seemingly deserted and all the pharmacies he’d seen so far were utterly and inescapably closed, the situation was grim. He went into a slight panic, roaming the narrow and shaded streets of the town like a rat in a labyrinth, looking for a hunk of cheese, or in Oscar’s case, a pack of rubbers. It seemed that every corner he turned he could see 2 or 3 pharmacies, their green neon crosses, international symbol for chemists, were hanging over the shops by the streets; but all of them were closed. He began to suspect foul play as nothing could be this bleak. Remember, he was also hungry.

After about 10 minutes of aimless and panicked wandering, Oscar found a green cross that was turned on, illuminated, surely the likeliest place to buy condoms. It looked small and conservative but Oscar had never had any reservations about purchasing condoms. He’s walked right into any of many LongR#8217;s Drugs stores and in front of 7 perfect strangers inspected the condom rack to carefully make his selection. He’s proceeded to the checkout, maybe with a couple other items, maybe not. He’s stood in front of another handful of perfect strangers and waited for the checkout person to ring him up as if he was buying milk, vegetables or socks. Instead, the name of his product of choice has clearly shown up on the cash register’s green screen for all to see: CONDOMS – 6 PACK.

Oscar really didn’t care about any this. He’d look right at the clerk when handing him/her his cash/credit card. They both (we all, actually) knew what that thing he/she’s handling is for, and probably where it will be eventually, possibly even soon.

And so what? None of this has never bothered Oscar. He figured he’d walk into this Spanish pharmacy, find the condoms, pick them out, hand the clerk some Euros, walk out of the place with his head high and ready for the night; mission accomplished, done with the whole affair.

Mind you, Oscar didn’t know the word for “condom” in Spanish at the time, and neither did I. I think I’ve mentioned this somewhere. Well, here it is: this is almost the point in the story where you get to watch him learn it. Because how hard could it be to use his broken Spanish to describe the simple device? How complicated could a situation get that Oscar, the brave, the bold Oscar couldn’t handle it in Spanish?

The answer is: complicated, indeed.

As Oscar walked under the green cross and through the pharmacy doors, the first thing he noticed was the small size of the store. With standing room for about 6 people on the customer side of the cash register, there wasn’t much looking around to be done. He looked around and became worried since he saw no signs of condoms on any of the racks. Suspecting that they were kept behind the counter, Oscar prepared himself mentally for the task of asking the pharmacist to fetch them for him.

That’s when Oscar saw the old ladies. They congregated in that store of medicines and creams, pills and ointments and all kinds of cotton balls, latex gloves and band-aids. Just no goddamn rubbers.

There were 3 of them, hunched and gossiping over the counter, stirring all kinds of nonsense and moving their arms erratically as they spoke.

Walking purposefully into a Longs Drugs or a Rite-Aid and picking out condoms amongst a sea of strangers is one thing… but interrupting the only three people in a pharmacy the size of a small bathroom, the only three people not sleeping in a catholic town to ask for sexual protection in the dead of the afternoon siesta is something else altogether.

But Oscar is not one to falter without at least trying, and he approached the counter, speaking in frightened and slightly broken Spanish. I was afraid for him.

Buenas Tardes, sir. How is everything?” asked the dark-haired middle-aged lady on the other side of the counter. She gave him a strange look.

Ummm… necesito… I mean, I need… ummm… I don’t know the name for it, but it’s… ummm…

Is it a well-known brand?

… ummm, it’s not a brand. It’s, ummm… gosh, this is hard…

Is it for head aches?

“[smiling] no, it’s not for head aches…” Oscar looked around and met the old ladies’ gaze with frustrated tension. “It’s, um, for protection… uh…” He wanted to say ‘sexual protection,’ but he didn’t know why he couldn’t. It should be said that he had no idea what kind of reaction that was going to provoke from the Shakespearean witches in the corner. What if they’re nuns? he wondered. And when are they going to wrap it up and leave?

What kind of protection? Like, for stomach?

Jesus!, Oscar thought, wondering how much more uncomfortable a situation could get, and considered that he may have to resort to pointing to his crotch in order to get his idea across.

Is it protection for your joints, like knees and elbows?

[long exhale] Christ. Way off.

No, no, it’s… oh, sweet lord, this is hard.” Oscar was starting to get nervous and drawing a blank. Curses; more stares from the ladies who now huddled and payed attention to nothing but this painful exchange. Oscar couldn’t take much more of this and wondered if he should crawl back out to the street like a defeated rat and search for a larger, more open place where he could be more anonymous. I thought that was silly of him; “how much more anonymous can you get, Oscar?” I remember thinking. “I mean seriously… a hole in a wall pharmacy at the tip of continental Europe, 600 km from anyone who even knows your name, let alone who you are. Who cares what they think?

But Oscar wasn’t seeing this reason; it was enough to be flustered from the lack of vocabulary and fluid speech, to say nothing of the specific and very dire need he had of getting his hands on a stupid pack of condoms. And all he could see and all he could feel was the pounding stare, the prodding and judging eyes of the catholic grandmothers some footsteps away from him, soaking up his humiliation like it was the only excitement they’d have for the week. It was making it impossible for him to act, to be indifferent to the situation and the surrounding people; he felt like he was 8 again, a second-grader standing in line at the cafeteria and wanting to ask for ice cream, knowing full well that the money he’d been given was for milk. All he had to do was ask for ice cream and he’d get it, but the consequence is that everyone knew he’d have asked for ice cream, and they would judge him and probably his mother would find out and then the jig would be up. He wanted to leave with some dignity, while he still had it, and he formulated a plan.

Can you give me a moment? I’ll be right back; I’m just going to ask my friend outside what it’s called…” and he took off up the street, trying to get out of ear and eyeshot of the ladies and the pharmacy and get his thoughts together, and in English.

Jesus, what happened in there, he wondered. And what now?

Oscar walked in the general direction of his hotel, hoping for an answer and planning to just sleep and handle it later if none came up. But he stumbled across a red metal shack, a magazine stand, and blessed purple jesus, it was open. Inside was an old gentlemen. Oscar grabbed his opportunity.

Good afternoon, sir, is all good?” Oscar is fluent but sometimes he still translates and between you and me, it sounds silly in Spanish the way foreigners sometimes sound in English.

The old man looked up from his newspaper, already worn and frayed around the edges from being folded and unfolded all day long in that tiny booth. His pipe lay on the counter carelessly, still warm and smelling of aged tobacco. He smoked so much that his fingers stained the newspaper, not vice-versa. The pages were white still, fresh from that same day but covered in yellow-brown blotches from where his fingers had held tightly all throughout the day.

Yes, yes, all is very well.

Please, perhaps you can help me with something… I can’t [for the life of me] remember the word for something I need to buy.

There was a short pause.

Right, Oscar thought to himself, best not dilly-dally.

At the pharmacy; what do you call the thing for sexual protection?

Blank stare. Shit.

“You know? The rubber thing you put on yourself for safe sex?” Oscar was nervous now. But the old man smiled.

The rubber thing YOU put on yourself for safe sex, kid,” and he let out a loud noise that sounded like cross between clearing his throat and a single laugh. “I never worn one of these condones in my entire life! Back in my day we didn’t have none of them problems you kids have and now? Well, now, the wife is out of commission (if you know what I mean) and it’s not like I’m running around the neigborhood and can’t nobody tell who I’ve been with, you know? Bah, as if I could even leave this little booth if I wanted to! Heh!

Oscar laughed with the old man, and asked him to confirm the word for the accursed rubber.

Condone,” repeated the old man. Oscar smiled with a sigh of relief, thanked the old man and made tracks back to the pharmacy. He was confident that he’d face their angry catholic stares with witty and heartfelt indifference now, and send them back to their boiling pots and their gossip potions or whatever. Stupid hags.

But when he got back to the pharmacy some 3 minutes later, the green lights were off, the iron curtain was down over the door and the old ladies were nowhere to be seen; the place was totally closed with only a sign on the front door behind the iron grill that had come down over it: “Back at 6 – home for rest”.

Fuck this place, thought Oscar.

Eh. Bob Dylan said that you might never beat them but you don’t have to join them… Oscar, however, saw no harm in that – he was hungry and tired and he knew that when he woke up there would be food and place for condones, and if he played his cards right, a beautiful German girl. So be it, he thought. Back at 6, indeed.

When he awoke he was still hungry and stepped into the first decent looking place he found, which was easy. He solved his hunger problem with a swordfish steak and a fine and full-bodied Spanish wine. After Oscar paid the bill, however, he understood that he was hungry for something else. It too, was full-bodied and went well with meat. In this case, though, Oscar would have to entice it with a fine Moroccan tea at the Misiana Lounge.

A phone call and a couple of text messages later, Oscar was looking at her again through the bottom of his glass of Moroccan tea. She was smiling eagerly…

PART 7 – AFRICA

He lost himself in her body and her scent. His mind was left at the door and the night was navigated with lust and instinct. The anticipation of what they’d denied themselves the previous night was put to rest the moment Oscar locked the door to his room. What little sleep they got lasted until the first beam of light sneaked past the wooden grill on the window, and just about the time that the bread market was taking shape outside again, with enough noise to drown out their moans of pleasure and orgasm. She, pleading him not to stop; he, grunting like so many grizzlies in California. They made love again to the sound of people on the street who were buying bread and fruit at the market that bloomed so naturally on the street below.

The warm morning was barely noticed since they’d sweated the night away in each other’s arms, but when he could no longer function as a human being she left him in that bare room alone with his thoughts. He slowly came back into himself and remembered that he had things to do. Africa was waiting only 35 minutes away.

With enough time and lots of money, any task can be accomplished, any place can be reached, any person can be found. Oscar had the rest of the day and a ticket to Africa was only 55 Euros, so that part was easy and far from dramatic. Except for the posters of the wanted members of the ETA terrorist group… Oscar paused at it and looked hard.

Something about it didn’t move right to him, didn’t find a place in his stomach in which to settle. The six faces he saw posted, the six names, they seemed familiar to him, like neighbors he could relate to. He knew nothing of their plight, had no knowledge of their cause. It had something to do with cultural continuity and self governance… probably more complicated than that and Oscar certainly didn’t have the facts. Still; they looked like actors in a movie. Not quite a GAP commercial, mind you, but good looking and brimming with emotion. It was hard to label them as terrorists, especially without knowing what they’d done, and who was accusing them and under the light of what sovereignty…

Excuse me,” Oscar asked one of the guards at the passenger terminal, “but what are these people wanted for?

Ah, si, senor – these people… well, they planted bombs in cars all over the country-side and blew them up, know? and they also participated in exploding those trains in Madrid in 2004.

Really? These are the Madrid train bombers?” Oscar asked him skeptically. He felt the man wasn’t saying the whole truth and he wanted to give the GAP models a chance.

Well, no, ETA did that. These people are part of ETA, see, and they must be caught.” He said the last part as if his boss would be proud that he was so adamant about his own attitude. “They each each planned separate attacks that killed 2 or 3 people each.

Oh,” Oscar mumbled. “You mean they don’t even know each other? Are you sure they’re not, like, a band of poor kids of Basque farmers, rising up to protect the lands and ways of their forefathers?” Oscar asked naively.

The officer chuckled. “They’re not innocent, or excusable, senor, if that’s what you mean. It’s easy to get caught up in the plight, even if you understand it. But these people killed other people so that the rest of us would be afraid. Don’t joke with yourself: they must be caught and answer for their actions.

Oh,” Oscar mumbled again, very disappointed. “You mean you’re sure they’re not actors? They really look like it.

Sorry to disappoint you, senor.” Oscar thanked him, but he was pretty sure the man was at least partially lying. There had to be a story there with those faces, those Basque names…

Once he passed all of the terrorist screening points and all the posters of his characters, Oscar climbed on-board the ship and found a place on the deck where the wind was already blowing – and man, it moved! Towards Africa, the boat then stirred.

With Spain and Europe behind him and Africa in front, there was nothing else to do for that moment but put his head down on the port side rail of that ferry, soaking in the Mediterranean spray, look to the distance and feel whatever he felt.

The spray was as thick as it was inconsistent and much of the time Oscar was tempted to get back inside where it was warm and where many of the questions that confounded him out there were never asked. He resisted.

Some time passed and a lightness fell over Oscar.

When the boat stopped he stepped off casually onto the asphalt deck and waited for an obvious sign of the guide. An official looking man with a very Moroccan mustache and aviators that reflected even the look of god barred Oscar as he stepped off the ramp, asking for his papers. Passport control, thought Oscar. Either that or the first sign of trouble. Little did he know, it was kind of both.

But he soon spotted another man in a white cloak that went down almost to his ankles. The cloak had a large pointy hood that hung down the back, making the dark-skinned man under it look like Obi-wan Kenobi in a culty kind of way. Weird. But the guy was nice enough, pleasant and all that. He told Oscar his name was something complicated and that he should call him Mr. Danny instead.

Vale,” Oscar told him, which is a Spanish way of saying, ‘okay‘. It was all the same to Oscar and he stood there, waiting for the other tourists in the group there in the hot sun that was baking the asphalt of the parking lot of the dock. Mr. Danny started telling Oscar not to worry about being on time for the last boat, that he would make sure they got there on time. Oscar wasn’t worried. This was exactly what he wanted: to be as far away from the depressing corporate atmosphere he’d been surrounded by all week. To feel distant from those gray men, those old lizards that talked in vague terms with hidden meanings and could never be counted on for any kind of action. There, on the asphalt dock of Tangier, only 35 minutes away from Spain, a good 6 hours from Madrid and with two days of random encounters, calculated risks, passionate mornings, heavy whiskeys and exotic teas, he was immeasurably farther from that reality than he’d been in his whole life. Missing the boat back was the last thing on his mind.

A Mediterranean-looking couple stepped off shortly after that and had a slightly more difficult time with the passport goon than Oscar had had, but they soon were past immigration and had found the guide who called himself Mr. Danny. They introduced themselves as Marcel and Marie-Claire. He was French-Basque, he said, and she was French from the Riviera, somewhere near Nice, I think. He talked easily, shook a firm handshake and said little. He was wearing a decidedly un-Basque Hawaiian shirt when he approached the place where Oscar and Mr. Danny were standing, cargo shorts from Banana Republic or something and leather clogs. He looked like he’d just stepped off a plane from from AspenHilo but was diverted instead to Tangier for some reason. She, on the other hand, was the complicated high-maintenance type. Her neck dripping with pearls, a red and gold shawl over her shoulders, her hair dyed jet black, her face caked in makeup and lipstick and her heels screaming for the destruction of all cobblestone streets. Oscar despised her immediately.

A mother-daughter duo stepped off of the ferry boat shortly after the French couple and had an even harder time with passport control. The mother looked sick to her stomach with fear as the large man shoved his hand out to reach for her passport. Oscar watched them stand there silently as the aviators scanned the documents intently. Aviators are a great tool for inspiring fear. So is a tight .357 magnum held discretely under your fake Armani suit. And that jack had both.

When they came through they were speaking a very Mexican-sounding Spanish, apparently quibbling about the sunglasses the mother had lost on the thirty-five minute voyage across the Mediterranean from Tarifa. The daughter was young, maybe twenty-one, large Chanel-branded sunglasses and dressed as if she had a slim, tight little body. She didn’t, really. And she wasn’t much on the attractive scale either. One less distraction, thought Oscar.

The mother introduced herself and her daughter to Oscar. Maria and Ana, respectively, from Seville.

Seville__?” asked Oscar. “Your accents sound Mexican, no?

We live in Madrid. We’re definitely not Mexican.” Ana said.

What about you?” Asked Maria.

Oscar told them the tale of being Brazilian but growing up in California, learning Spanish from a mix of taking it in high school and dating Mexican girls.

I’d say it’s about 5% classroom learning, 70% Mexican girls and the rest still needs some work,” he chided. Mr. Danny came in to the conversation about then, and said, “Ahh, Brasileiro? Ronaldiiiiiinho, eh?!

Oy – so expected…ah well, thought Oscar. It made him feel at home in that strange place that looked creepily like an Islam version of the port of Santos, between Sao Paulo and Rio de Janeiro.

Mr. Danny attempted to tell them about the route they’d be taking up through the streets of the old and very poor quarter of Tangier but it didn’t make much sense to anyone without being there already, and the asphalt was getting too hot and unbearable. The five of them got on an air-conditioned bus and headed off towards the city, which wasn’t far off. On the hill just west of the ferry station, Mr. Danny wound them through the haphazardly curved and steeply inclined streets of the historic quarter. As in most old cities, strange sights and sounds abounded. People sometimes kneeled in a direction that seemed random to them at first until someone pointed out that they were kneeling on rugs in the direction of Mecca. Oscar though this was pretty awesome.

The whole time he noticed the ornate corners on the buildings, the laughs and cries in the shadows and deep insides of the tightly packed buildings. Some of them were homes, and others were shops selling anything from flat bread to candy to spices, from haircuts and shaves to fake Gucci Jeans – I didn’t know Gucci made jeans; how about that? Adorning the walls and the structures were mixtures of colors that are simply not done where I come from.

Into that decrepitly poor old quarter of the city they climbed, for a wide open view of the Atlantic through a broken city wall where poor children no older than 4 hung around to ask for money. Mr. Danny shooed them off from Marcel, who was having a hard time using his French to tell the kid to bug off. Most people there speak very good Spanish, but the French was hard to come by. Oscar found himself silently trying to ignore the many outstretched hands that seemed to moved along with him, the finger’s strokes like individual prayers that burned his guilty conscience for wanting to help but judging them instead. He didn’t even look at their faces.

Further down the street the begging children were gone, replaced by older boys and young men, peddlers of small trinkets, souvenirs, post cards and anything else that can be carried in small quantities to be sold on foot along the calle. These are not passive people in their charge of offloading as much of their merchandise as they can; they are known as mosquitos and swarm right up to anyone or any group, pushing things like miniature wooden camels, small congo drums, beads, necklaces, sunglasses and a smorgasboard of other possibilities. They hover around and follow you along the streets long after you say ‘no‘, making offers so low it would shame you to accept them in any market. Prices vary and anything can be had for a tenth of the asking price, because they are so poor they will take any margin they can, period. And they are not shy about exploiting the human soft spot for pity, flat-out describing what they need to you, and if only you would buy their camel, then they could eat today.

Oscar heard their pleas, as he’d heard them a hundred times before in a hundred different cities in Brazil, in Thailand, In Vietnam, in Cambodia… There was always this conflict of wondering what was the point of helping one today. It won’t make any difference, and you can’t help them all. Surely it’s better to help one of them, even just for today than to do nothing, but how do you chose which one to help? Oscar was not there to buy, but he felt terrible for these people who were just doing what they do everyday to survive.

What more could he do?

Mr. Danny guided them past a few other markets and into a building from which Oscar could hear the faint wail of Moroccan Flamenco, and realized they were going for lunch. Excellent, thought Oscar.

The place was decorated with white walls, red cushions and gold linings, adorned with ornate etchings on the ceiling and elaborate wooden chair backs. Everything showy was ornate. They were seated next to where the band was playing and the waiter brought them all a small cup of Moroccan mint tea and Oscar got all giddy. He loves Moroccan mint tea. So do I, for that matter. Who doesn’t?

When the soup came like a freight train of colors, the smell of cinnamon could have knocked over a buffalo. A smile creeped onto Oscar’s lips completely without control. Then came the large plate of saffron chicken & cous-cous and the table became so bright & yellow so suddenly that he almost jumped back.

Aaahh!” he started, then suddenly became aware that others were staring at him with reproach and disapproval. He looked around in silence, then stared down at his mouth-watering and alarmingly bright meal and raised both of his eyebrows with a tight-lipped look of confusion as he took in the scent and prepared himself for delicious food. What was wrong with those people? he wondered. I wish I knew. Oscar certainly didn’t.

After lunch Mr. Danny strongly suggested that they tip the musicians and Oscar felt more than happy to do so. He had been completely taken by the mix of sounds and the distinct rhythm of Moroccan flamenco while eating his bright yellow chicken. He lost himself in his imagination, speculating on the exchange of cultures that had taken place between the Spanish and the Moors, the Visigoths and the Romans and everything else in between in this region of the world over the last thousand years. The beat of the music had kept him going and he was fine forking over a couple extra shells for it. Maria and Ana, on the other hand, raised a fuss.

I told the travel agency that I’m a vegetarian,” Ana gripped.

I didn’t much care for the music either… why should I tip them?

Jesus, thought Oscar, lighten up. When in Rome and all that shit, you know?

But they didn’t know. Oscar was always disappointed when he actually came across people who feel that way.

After lunch they were taken into a studio were rugs were sold. I had seen it coming from a mile away, and Oscar had too. I was even starting to wonder when something like this was going to come.

It was called an academy, supposedly to convince tourists like Marcel and Marie-Claire that this is where the artists make the quality products that we’d later be shown, but Oscar could see it was clearly a warehouse and besides, he’d looked behind the rugs that hung on the walls like curtains and he knew what was behind them, backing them up as legitimate artisan craft.

A whole lot of nothing.

As the man talked about the rugs and how they’re made, he spoke of their quality, their fine weaving and the special dyes that have been in use for centuries in Morocco. He touted the stronger selling points, naturally. Oscar listened distractedly, sitting in a corner with a blank notebook, pretending to write so as to avoid being hassled by one of the academy representatives, also known as a rug salesman.

Soon after the speech was over it started, the mosquitos swarmed and the selling started, strong-arming some while sweet-talking others. The head rug guy, stout and unshaven, smelled of a damp cloth that has been left too long in a kitchen sink; he snorted a lot and hardly ever looked you in the eye. He had latched onto a tiny helpless-looking Asian girl, roughly college age. She was standing across the room from him, about twenty feet away and he moved in for the kill, knowing exactly how to attack her. He began by offering her nothing but options, and then moved on to making her uncomfortable. Oscar watched the whole thing with intrigue.

“You tell me which one you like.”

“Oh, no thanks. I’m not going to buy one, I just want to look.”

“No, no, little miss. Not to buy. Just you tell me, I’m curious – I’m curious man; just which one is your favorite?”

“Oh. Well, ok. Um, well, they’re all so pretty…”

“You tell me; choose there which one you like best. Which color? Not to buy; just your favorite. I want to know.”

“Well, um, I guess the orange one is pretty…”

There it is, thought Oscar. That’s step one right there: showing interest. Let’s see how deep she digs her grave.

“Okay, you like the orange one… [Yelling in some Arabic language] – BADR, my son!”

“No, no, you don’t have to…”

“It’s ok, it’s ok, he has strong back, and you must see it if you like it.”

“Ok, but I’m not going to buy it.”

Like hell, thought Oscar. Just you wait.

“You like another one? No, this one you like it. It’s a good price. I do one hundred Euro for you because you’re pretty lady.”

A young boy about 16 appeared, shy and meek, not meeting many eyes. “Get the orange one for her. You like him? This is my son. Badr. It means ‘moon’. You like him? You marry him, take him with you – he give you good life: he never sleeps; lasts all night.” At this the boy rolled his eyes, like this happens all the time. But nobody is paying any attention to the kid. His father’s scraggly beard, like his persuading voice, commands the attention of the entire store.

“I can’t take a rug, sir.”

“Ok, you don’t marry Badr, but you like the orange one, it’s pretty. I give it to you for fifty Euro. It’s a good price.”

“It’s very pretty but it’s too expensive. I’m sorry, I’m not going to buy a rug today.”

“You are traveling, yes? You are a student in America? Where do you study?”

“I go to UCLA in Los Angeles.”

Dear me, thought Oscar. She’s doomed.

“Los Angeles is wonderful place in America,” said Badr’s father, “you are lucky to be study there. I give you the rug for 40 Euro miss. That’s it; no more talking. You give me 40 Euro and you get the rug, Ok.”

She faltered. Oscar saw it. In the meantime he continued to stand in a corner, pretending to write notes in his journal. This saved him from interruptions, much like I was when in Thailand. No one has ever tried to sell me stuff while I’m writing either.

The young girl didn’t marry Badr, but she did become the proud owner of a Moroccan rug. Good for her. As we were leaving the academy she passed Oscar, carrying her rug.

“Nice choice on the orange,” he told her.

“Thanks,” she said, “I paid more than I wanted to for it, but it was my favorite one in the stack.”

“I’m told the price for them on the street is ten Euros,” he told her, testing her reaction.

“I know,” she said. “Actually, he talked it down too fast. I’m trying to spend as much of this money as I can so that my boyfriend knows I didn’t ask for too much and will give me more next time I leave for the weekend.”

Christ alive, I know nothing, thought Oscar. Why do I bother? Why not just assume they’re all lying?

“Don’t you study at UCLA?”

“All I know about UCLA is that it’s in L.A., and if that beard in there thinks he can sell me on ‘Los Angeles is wonderful place’,” she mimicked his voice, “then he’s a bigger tool than that son of his.”

Jesus.

Oscar watched her tour group walk away, amazed at how naive he is when his guard is down and his assumptions are up. Apparently it’s not just train people who are habitual liars. My god, he thought, is there any way to know?

From the rug academy Mr. Danny strolled us through some more narrow and winding alleyways in the old poor quarter, passed some mosques and more children, who looked up and asked for money. Oscar walked straight; he couldn’t handle pleading eyes like that.

They were taken to what Mr. Danny told them was a traditional pharmacy, which Oscar thought was an odd attraction to stage. But it turned out that pharmacy there referred to a place that sells traditional eastern and middle eastern products: herbs and spices, both for medicine and cooking, and possibly other, shadier uses. The lead “pharmacist” was dressed in a white coat and had a mustache resembling Borat’s. In fact, he looked like a cross between Borat and the Seinfeld’s Soup Nazi. His white lab coat wasn’t fooling anyone but his bullshit explanations and products put a smile on Oscar’s face nonetheless. It’s amazing how similar two cultures can be while having so little in common on the surface. He was duping those people in a fashion very similar to how a Brazilian would go about it, throwing arms around shoulders, talking about coffee to lighten the mood, busting the “my friend” this and the “good price” that… bait and hook: classic third-world selling strategies.

The products were things like Roza Mesquita & aloe vera, ginger and ginko biloba, teas, creams, scents from rare trees and their flowers even though the labels all clearly say Lyon, France. Details, man.

His show included Ginseng, which he described as an aphrodisiac as well as a good supplement for memory and concentration. Oscar wondered how on earth that goes hand in hand. Like, when was the last time that you were able to study while horny? How does that work?

Without much time to ponder that a length, Oscar was beginning to become fed up with the bullshit. Ok, he thought, so the tour is a means both to boost sales by bringing the tourists to the parts of town they wouldn’t find on their own, and at the same time educate them about some of the realities of life in Tangier. Fine. But can someone tell me the goddamn truth for once today?

Oscar left the pharmacy, intent on following Mr. Danny only far enough to get him out of the twisted and hidden alleyways of the old quarter and back to the docks. As they rounded the 3rd or 4th bend, there were swarmed by about twenty-five mosquitos and to Oscar’s horror, Maria started asking them how much for a congo drum.

It was a flurry of offering wooden camels and sunglasses, slinkies and knives. I overheard one guy asking if anyone wanted weed. Maria was surrounded and she was going to have to deal with it herself. Even her diva daughter stepped back from the scene.

After our group had paused for even a moment, there was no avoiding the gaze of the mosquitos, no way of walking away from the fact that the seller’s laziness to work is topped only by their refusal to back away from a sale once it’s begun. That phenomenon is both a reason for their poverty as well as their method of survival in it. It all comes out in the wash for them.

But once the attack had begun and escape became impossible, Oscar ducked into a nearby jewelry shop, correctly reasoning that the mosquitos would not enter the place. To compound his nightmare, there was Marie-Claire, trying on more necklaces and haggling in French with the shop owner while Marcel sat idly in a corner, giving her more cash for more necklaces.

Oscar had been sure that she was wearing every necklace she owned on her neck at that moment, but Marcel assured him that “Her Majesty” there owns a great deal more back in France.

“Wait. ‘Her Majesty’? You’re not in on this fiasco?”

“Bah! It’s all an endless nightmare, man, a goddamn pile of fucking bullshit, is what it is. But, kid, you can’t expect a relationship to work on just your principles without making any concessions. You’re not marrying your army buddies, you know.”

“Umm.”

“She likes this shit, and I decided a long time ago that it doesn’t change me for her to like this and occasionally indulge, so I put up with it. The list of my things that she puts up with is much larger. You won’t love someone successfully until you learn that your way may very well be the right way, the best way, whatever. But your principles guide you, not her. Your way is not the way that will lead to the two of you working together. Your way is what keeps you balanced and you follow that for yourself, and she has to understand that. But don’t impose it on her. Remember: you don’t love her because she wears or doesn’t wear rings and necklaces; you don’t love her because she looks sexy in a two-piece or because she can recite pi to fifty digits. All that will go away, she’ll change her tastes, she’ll gain weight, she’ll decide she wants a tattoo on her butt…whatever. But none of that matters because you love her for who she is and what she makes you want to be. And hopefully that’s just yourself.”

“Hmmm. That’s fucking interesting man, that’s fucking interesting.” Oscar thought it was pretty interesting.

“Forty years, kid. You can’t help but be wise if you survive forty years of this.”

“You make it sound like an endurance trial.”

“Heh!” He scoffed. “Shows what you know.”

“Listen, with all due respect, and not to change the subject or anything, but are you mad, ducking in here like this?” Oscar asked him, “she’ll be shopping now until approximately the end of the Bush presidency and we have a boat to get on in thirty minutes.”

“Ah, don’t fret,” he told Oscar, “she’s not as high-maintenance as she comes off.” Oscar was amazed. “Besides, there’s nothing I wouldn’t do for her, and these beads are so simple.”

Oscar waited next to Marcel, putting up with the chatter of the stone beads rather than stepping into the madness outside. He was feeling uneasy. Not just about how the tour of Tangier had been turned into a feeding frenzy for the sharks to sell cheap trinkets to the meek and inexperienced, but more worrisome to him was that he wasn’t feeling like he was as far from those lizards back in Madrid as he wanted to be. He was starting to get the impression that people are the same shades of gray no matter where you go. In fact, the only thing that seemed to matter were the people that had some definition to their tone, and those were scattered in every which way across the globe.

Finally Mr. Danny came in, telling them that they needed to get going for the boat; Oscar was the first one out the door. He knew that they would have to pause for a moment down there and wait for some kind of transport to the docks. Convinced that everyone had to be down there soon, he wasted no time and made no eye-contact with any mosquito on the street, walking full speed ahead. At the bottom of the hill, far from recognizing where he was or knowing how to get to the docks, Oscar looked around. For the first time that day he was seeing Tangier the way it really was; not as a tourist destination, but as a city, distinct from any other but with many of the same highlights and problems. He saw the traffic congestion on the embarcadero off to his left. He noticed the business men drinking coffee and tea in the town’s square off to his right. He saw banks closing, bakeries mopping up to close shop and school children walking in packs. He saw junkies wandering and chatting aimlessly by a statue and a couple kissing on a street corner. A slightly darker tone to the average skin color, a religious institution that was basically the same with a couple of plot variations and camels instead of horses…but mostly very familiar. He was sure that the same horrible aspects of his job existed here too, as far away as he thought he could get from it over the weekend. There was no running from that kind of evil, he reasoned.

He reached into his pocket to make sure the coins were still there. He’d been told that tipping the guide a couple of Euros was a polite way of saying thank you and he was ok with this too. When Mr. Danny got them to the docks, he wanted to be ready without fussing and stumbling over the matter.

As Mr. Danny came strolling down the hill, Marcel and Marie-Claire right behind him and Maria and Ana trailing behind them, Oscar breathed a sigh of relief. _What could go wrong now, righ_t?

When they’d all gathered, Mr. Danny started to give them a story about how he’d love to take them down to the docks but it was time for him to go home and that he had to run, but that if they walked along the embarcadero for 15 minutes, they’d probably still get the boat on time. He made no mention of immigration. Oscar was furious, and left the coins in his pocket. He was about to start when Marie-Claire jumped on it.

“Wait a minute,” she said. “You told us there would be transport. It’ll take us 15 minutes to get down to the boat but there is still immigration we have to cross. There won’t be enough time.” Oscar had no chance to chime in with support to this. She grilled Mr. Danny to no end until he got on his cell phone and called up for another bus, which came immediately around the corner.

Marcel looked at Oscar from the corner of his eye and smiled briefly.

Nothing is what it seems.

There are other ways to drink Johnny Walker on a boat than from a paper cup… but not for Oscar, and not that day. And certainly not on that boat, the thirty-five minute trans-Mediterranean from Tarifa to Tangier and back, his 5 hour African excursion. With Africa behind him now and only the black shores of Spain in the darkness ahead, Oscar finally had a moment to switch off the paranoia and constant vigilance necessary to survive a Moroccan Market. Outside, in the depths of a darkness only possible on the ocean and in the company of Johnny Walker, he let the salt spray do its thing.

In the bar inside where he’d procured said Johnny there had been another Asian girl who’d tried to start a conversation with Oscar but he’d left her for the cold of the deck, not wanting to hear anyone else’s stories that night. Tired of lies, of deceit, of hidden agendas and the effort it takes to keep them up, he contemplated the day’s events and his level of involvement in them. Is there anything at sea as violently peaceful as the collision of the two wakes of a double hydrofoil in black waters on a moonless night, he wondered, lit only by the pure white aft floodlights of a ship’s deck? I think not. I think Oscar agreed. It was, in any case, the only thing that Oscar was sure of at that point.

But it’s calmer than a Moroccan market, that much I will say, and at least you know what you’re dealing with. A market only in the strictest definition of the word, where every alley, every doorway, every corner is a place to peddle; where you can be sold rugs, drugs and a variety of other trinkets whether you want it or not. Getting through it with any success takes an extra level of awareness of surroundings.

But only because you’re constantly guessing what the other person really wants. Why does it have to be this way, he wondered.

Oscar is the kind of guy that needs a spray of ocean mist on his face every so often to calm him down, to distract him from his disappointment in people. Otherwise, things up there can get ugly. Light as a kiss or ardent as a slap to the face, Oscar needs it, yearns for it, and could very well start misbehaving and acting like an asshole if he goes too long without it. He might start knocking people’s hats off, snarling and stepping off of sidewalks suddenly just to see the look of horror on the face of unsuspecting drivers on crowded intersections.

So he was out on the deck of the ferry, alone in the darkness, even though the sign clearly said,” The deck is off limits while at high sea.” In his defense, he hardly thought the Mediterranean counted as “high sea.” And who would’ve thought it even had forty knot winds in the dead of night? Marvelous stuff.

Of which I’ll say this: as much as I love it for this very reason, the ocean is a frightening place at night. It’ll overwhelm a man with its size during the day, sure enough, but on a windy night it needs no mass; it needs no horizon, no vast size or immeasurable dimensions. The dark depths are too deep for comprehension and the fury of the dark winds surpasses even that of a jealous woman. All you can do is let is slap you in the face and pray that it won’t heave you overboard where there are sure to be lot’s of large things that would love to eat you. And Oscar braved it just the same. Because he needed to.

Yeah. Just let the salty tears stream and lick them off, if you can. Johnny Walker is ever a friend in times like that… that should’ve landed in

PART 8 – TOUCHED BY GOD (and the loss of the girl)

Oscar’s feet carried him out towards the docks, past the weathered wharf buildings, the aged stone guard towers. He walked beyond where the asphalt turns to gravel, turns to sand, and finally to a sea wall made of broken boulders and chunks of concrete; the southernmost tip of continental Europe.

Back from Africa a few hours before, he’d been trying to get a hold of her, of the soft-scented German girl, Jana. He wanted more of that blond distraction of light blue eyes. of jasmine sunshine like spring; he wanted more of that feeling of conquest over the night, of surrender in her arms and death in her strong lips. I knew Oscar would not see her again, and though she said she’d call him after she had dinner with her friends, he probably knew the ruse was up as well. Things were stirring all over at the tip of that last of peninsulas.

The wind was already raging by the time he took off his shoes, rolled up the cuffs of his pants and stood facing the mass of air that was blowing almost at hurricane levels, forcing its way out of the Mediterranean through the narrow straight and out to the Atlantic. It rushed into his nostrils and tickled his nose hairs. His eyes watered and the excess cloth of his pants fluttered behind him like a flag in a gale.

The lights of Tangier flickered in the distance. Behind him where he stood facing the sea, Tarifa began to fall silent for the night. A couple of kilometers away a clock near the church gonged twice. Oscar pulled his phone out of his pocket and it confirmed for him: two in the morning. Two am and he had a mass of air to deal with by himself. It was strangely alluring.

He was so frustrated with what he’d seen in Tangier. All of that distance from Madrid to Tarifa to Tangier and back – all of those people from the girl to the ETA terrorists, Mr. Danny, Marcel and Marie-Claire…nobody turned out to be what they seemed. It made him question how he’d been judging the rest of the people in his life, how he’d judged those men back in Madrid, how he’d judged every corporate sleaze he ran into on a regular basis in his life, and all the women he’d accepted, and all the ones he’d refused…

It began to drive him wild with rage and confusion, a loathing of his very core. He was agitated and the whiskey had not yet worn off. And he could’ve just stood there, feeling the wind on his face like ten thousand kisses jostling their lips at him, or ten thousand voices sounding reproach. He could’ve let Africa be just another spot of land across just another spot of water. He could’ve let the five hour train ride be just the traversal of so many kilometers between two Spanish cities. He could’ve let all the people of this story have been just random people that happened to fall short of his expectations…

But that would be so unlike him, wouldn’t it?

He climbed up on the wall and let himself enter a state of anger and frustration fueled infinitely by imagination and fantasy. A momentary dream to end a nightmare; a place where he controlled the next step. He chose a relatively flat rock and pulled up his hood; it blew right off again. He put it back on and held if for a while, turning his head obliquely in the wind so that the hood stayed on. He leaned his body toward the wind and relaxed; it held him up, surprisingly. He leaned out further; it pushed harder. He stood there for what might have been minutes but seemed like hours, and sleep was nowhere in sight. Time froze there and the darkness became penetrating. The wind howled.

“ARE YOU NOT CONTENT?”

Oscar jolted, thinking he was out in the spit alone, and suddenly hearing a yell. He looked around and saw no one. The wind was picking up, screaming furiously now, and Oscar let himself slip into that state again, giving in to his frustrations…

“WHAT DO YOU WANT OF ME?” a voice said in the wind. The sound was quickly carried far out into the ocean. Within seconds it was miles away.

“WHO AM I TO YOU?” The voice said again. It surprised me as much as it surprised him. Oscar realized that the voice was his own.

“WHAT DO YOU WANT TO DO?” the voice asked, which meant Oscar had asked. His stoic silence, callous and sedate was gone from him now, and he became frantic.

Standing there, challenging, pushing, punching the wind with his arms and open palms, with staunchly expressive and passionate words and entirely unrehearsed questions, Oscar delved into himself. He turned inside out, exposed his insecurities to the violent wind and let it do with them what it would. He shouted madness, terrors long forgotten, admitted to crimes and petty offenses. He cooled off his temper in that wind, released old judgments, forgave himself some harsh prejudices and re-stirred old thoughts of world conquest and the invincible feelings of his youth. He let that wind take some of him with it.

He wondered where it would end up, that part of him already on the wind. But it didn’t really matter by then where it went; he was free of it.

I don’t think there are many people who behave this way, who step out on ledges and scream their fears and doubts into a fierce natural force, into the shifting winds of trade, powerful gusts that can knock a man unconscious with nothing but air, and in the unlikeliest of places. I’ve heard of a few, and have known even less than that. People with this kind of inclination, people who have this low an opinion of the status quo are typically not found within the establishment, owning large bank accounts and steering large corporate clients through the IT world, like Oscar. You would not look for them in CPA firms and international brokerage houses; you would not expect them to be mistaken for adults, because the grown-ups we’ve all grown up knowing don’t do this kind of thing; heroes do; crazy and vicious madmen do.

But Oscar does it all the time. He lives and exists in his own definition of the world. He occupies theirs, the other’s, for a large part, but every so often he comes to this… he comes back to this. It re-stirs the sentiments that define him, even if I can’t define them with much surface here.

It added a resolute texture to my life to see that a soul in as dark a place as Oscar could have rounded perdition’s flames and returned to find a foundation in the wind. It adds volume and flavor and it reminds me that I don’t have to define myself through the times when I’m not in that wind, when I’m not in the clutches of the forces of nature, or even the claws of my own heart.

EPILOGUE – THE DEPARTURE

The train had left at seven that morning, an inconvenient time that had Oscar getting out of bed at half five to pack, check out and find a taxi back to Algeciras since, bless them, no buses run that early. He inhaled some toast and coffee at the train station while staring out at the Rock of Gibraltar and barely made the train on time.

As the morning star had risen over the horizon and then faded along with the lights of Africa into the dawn across the straight of Gibraltar, Oscar had sat alone in that empty room of his. So much had happened in those twenty four hours and he was still trying to cope with the whole affair; still trying to make some sense out of the situation. The room’s simplicity was in stark contrast with the rest of the weekend and made it that much more troubling, seemingly exposing every bend and color that the dynamic events had exhibited. He had waited a while the night before, still hoping for her call but it hadn’t come. The pillow still smelled like her soft hair and the sheets of her smooth skin, the faint jasmine getting fainter. Oscar thought of taking them, of leaving his clothes.

Make room for the scented stuff, he thought to himself, but what was the point? It would fade, just as those lights across the straight did now, and he waited.

Across the sunny Spanish country, the colors built up again. The steady and rhythmic chugging of the train distracted his thoughts but focused his ease. Time slowed to a crawl and Oscar did not leave his seat. She was on his mind only as a fading scent, a wispy vapor that barely clung to the curtains of his eyes and whose pheromones were briefly strewn across his mind whenever the curtains were suddenly pulled and the darkness fell for a while. He checked his phone but there were no text messages. The batteries were almost dead now, and would go at any minute. He wrote some words on a blank text message which went like this:

Content we met,
embraced and intertwined,
and when came time to say goodbye,
I, thief, stole hints,
your female scents,
and smiling eyes.

He hesitated. Then he hit send.

I’m not sure how she took that or what she did with it, but what I do know is that Oscar never learned for sure that she even received it.

Sitting at a window seat this time, Oscar pressed the side of his face to the glass. Echoes of the wind outside could be heard as the train tore through it. No songs or voices or any other kind of mystery stirred the atmosphere outside the train. Oscar got up and went to car number three. Empty at this time of morning, he ruled out bourbon, and asked no one in particular for a cup of black coffee.

Under his breath he mumbled, “Pour the bourbon out into the wind.”

- Misiana Lounge, Tarifa, Spain

Pedro Ávila

The trees lining the icy pavement on the avenue two floors below are frozen limbs in the dead of night. A stray pair of feet here and there walk the new streets and do little else but cast shadows over the cold. A new window looms before me; a new unknown. Unfamiliar street names and a horizon that I’ve only recently met as the sun went down on another chapter of my life.

I’ve been away a long time, haven’t I?

So it seems, to me anyway. But this is the new scene, the new vantage for my viewing, the new base for my wanderings. There are no horse hooves clipping and clopping on the cobblestones; there are no cobblestones at all, actually. Just headlights and tires rolling over the thick ice that covers everything. Yes. There is asphalt and there is ice, and over these two layers a fool tries to make his way; tries to find his footing.

Jesus. Over the past two years I’ve been everywhere, man. From Tangier to Prague and from Oslo to Riyadh, I’ve covered Europe and the Middle East. Covered it. Hit the sweet spots, find the juice, move along. That’s been the motto, the driving force. And what a rush. What a mad, fulfilling, fast rush. Like crack but with more airline miles and hotel points.

So I was a bit surprised when I found myself overwhelmed by the buroughs of New York. The whole move started to hit me – the fact that it was happening, that is – much like it hit me when I’d moved to Amsterdam: later than it should have. In Amsterdam it wasn’t until the plane hit the ground that I realized I had no idea what was going to happen next when I got out of my seat and headed out the jet way. For New York at least, it was sometime halfway into the flight from Germany though it only occurred to me because of a situation on board.

Careening over the north Atlantic at 35,000 ft is no place to have a maniac on your hands. The third time she yelled “DON’T TOUCH ME! DON’T TOUCH ME!!” to the flight attendant, I checked the flight monitor and sure enough, flight 4677 out of Frankfurt was somewhere between Ireland and Iceland.

That is a bad place for violence.

I leaned my head back on my seat and turned so my cranium rolled up and out on the headrest to more discreetly look at the large woman in the rear corner of the 777 who was sitting a few rows behind me. She was clearly having a fit of some kind but it seemed there was nothing that could be done but clear the area and give her room to flail around and yell at people. The flight attendants seemed to know enough to form a perimeter around the woman and just hang back until the episode passed and then give her peanuts or something.

“Wow,” I said to the empty seat next to me, “it’s a good thing the professionals know what they’re doing.”

And just as suddenly, I caught myself, realizing how ridiculous that sounded coming from a guy who knows that the only thing that makes an expert is that he know more than the person next to him.

What the hell am I doing?, I thought. I haven’t the foggiest reference for how to make this work.

I thought about this for a while. I might have dozed off for a bit, or maybe just had too much scotch, but the next thing I knew I saw the city come into view from behind the wing.

“Ok, New York,” I said, “here I come…”

A small child walking up the aisle with daddy in tow stopped at my seat and gave me a serene look. I had a moment of thinking that the innocence of that child, that smooth face and soft hair would be symbolic of the city showing me that no matter what tribulations I might pass, what doubts I might have, there was a side of the city that had good intentions, that would put a smile on my face, even if eventually.

Then the kid threw up on the seat next to me.

“Too soon?” I asked the kid.

“Dah!” it said, though I think it meant ‘duh’.__

Thanks, New York. I’m coming anyway.

Even having studied satellite images of New York on Google Maps, I was surprised at the spread of the thing. Another scar on the surface, I had to keep reminding myself that I’d seen bigger, lived through tougher. New York has nothing on São Paulo and Bangkok, even if only for the sheer savageness of those places. But New York has a way of making you forget all that and focus on that Apple. Maybe it’s something in that awesome tap water they have.

Yeah. Unfortunately, I think this is what happens to people who move to New York for the ‘New York experience’. If you’re from a small town or haven’t traveled much, you’re doomed to be eaten alive by the city. Everyone knows that. But even for those who’ve been around, whom come from large cosmopolitan places, who’ve seen the dark corners of the asphalted world, even for them New York offers a unique challenge.

It’s a problem of expectations. People are told that the city will toss them around if they’re not careful. But what’s missing from that is that it’s not a question of being careful. The city will toss you around no matter what. You’ve just got to stay afloat, hang on, get up again.

That’s one of the things about New York. When you live in New York, you’re not in control. The city is in control. Its traffic and its subways are in control. Its crazies and its people are in control. Its size and its attitudes are in control and you are along for the ride. Like the rivers that split it, New York has a current, and if you’re going to use the river to get somewhere, you can’t fight that current. You have to go with it, be prepared to take it and stand up again.

If you haven’t caught on yet, I’d missed a crucial step in preparing for the situation of finding a flat in New York.

Sure, I’m familiar with the housing markets of San Francisco and Amsterdam and have done well in finding housing and good flatmates in both places, but those are villages compared to New York City. Those are straw and mud communes next to the steel and concrete that litters the grid of Manhattan, the industrial complexes of Brooklyn, the immigrant populations of Queens, the ghetto of the Bronx and the trashiness of Staten Island. To say nothing of the other areas around the city.

And if you thought that working in Paris, Istanbul, Oslo, Riyadh, Madrid, Copenhagen, Amsterdam and Budapest all in a matter of a month was a trying thing on the body, you should try to find a flat in New York in 5 days.

Maybe I’ll tell you about it sometime.

Dylan Cormack

I wish there were thunder tonight. The rain that comes in droves, that slashes the streets and the tourists that crawl through them in bountiful numbers is just another pain in the ass tonight without the thunder. A pathetic pitter-patter slipping through the air, nudging my window sill and reminding everyone of an Ernest Hemingway story. Or something.

It would be glorious to be sitting here, writing down whatever will come tonight but have my thoughts punctuated by the smashing of gods running amok in the atmosphere. It would be hearty and wholesome to be shaken to anger tonight instead of being stirred by melancholy and the ambivalent moisture that occasionally falls victim to gravity. It would instantly inspire to be snapped to attention and instantly filled with power by the reverberation of frustration that can fill the cavity of the sky while my words were thrust out on the page like the spatter of paint from a flicked brush, like the crimson tide of a soldier’s bloodied sword at the end of a particularly deadly thrust.

Indeed. But that is not what the weather system that hangs steadily over the UK has in store for us tonight, so we should move on with the grace and the serenity of a losing candidate like Sarah Palin.

What? No. That never happened. It would be foolish and self-deceiving to think such a thing and only a loser would do it. And it’s not what’s on the plate for tonight. You might think that with the campaign over there is little to rage and ravage about on the airwaves and tubes. There are many people that think along such lines but I am not one of them. I have other issues to discuss, and while it’s refreshing to let the politics hang for a while and let the campaign bloat release its grip on the general electorate (and especially the pundits), I’m happy to go back to something closer to home.

Like the fact that Thanksgiving is approaching.

Oh, I know. You’re thinking, “yay, turkey and cranberry, pumpkin pie, mom’s stuffing, et al.” And that’s great. Really. But I’m not talking about “Thanksgiving.”

I’m talking about something Epic. Something that my children will talk about for decades to come, and that your kids will likely have nightmares about when I tell them of it. I’m talking about something that is rallying troops from 2 hemispheres, speaking 6 different languages from 9 different countries. I’m talking about cross-continental grocery shopping, 4 trips to Oslo airport’s legendary duty-free international purchasing center and various expeditions to find outrageous ingredients in the heart of the Dutch capital. I’m talking about unexplained kitchen disasters, mysterious explosions, emergency BASTing, and unknown recipe calculations not for the faint of spirit. I’m talking about baby dragons, I’m talking about unprecedented chilling, uncalled for levels of fun with party favors to boot.

I’m talking about TG08.

That is all ye know, and all ye need to know. For now. Stay tuned.

Dylan Cormack

Yes.

Indeed.