Oscar Bjørne

At the moment I am on my 37th hour of perpetual consciousness following an all-nighter of every museum in Amsterdam and then a red-eye to Madrid. I am sitting at the tiny hotel desk scribbling this note frantically while outside the night is slowly turning to dawn. It’s 5:10 in the morning and decent people are not awake, which is why I am still writing and not running to save my life. A shit storm is about to blow the windows of this room.

I want to get this down fast because I don’t have a lot of time before I have to get out of here. It won’t take long to pack, since all I have on me are the clothes on my back a couple of notebooks, a novel I’ve already read and a violin case with a cheap Chinese fiddle inside. I don’t know why I’m bothering with the violin; it’s not like I play the damn thing. But it’s a perfectly good fiddle and it did cost someone about a hundred euros. My laptop broke down a couple days ago so I didn’t bother dragging it out to Madrid. They lost the rest of my luggage somewhere between Amsterdam and Munich so at least it’s their problem now. I won’t have to carry anything and will just have to figure out how to find it later. With any luck I can get them to ship it straight to me, though not at this hotel… not anymore.

What I could use right now is a little more time and some clarity – I need to think. But I can do that on my way out of here, I guess, which needs to be soon. I could also use a map of the city marking police stations and cheap hotels and perhaps some deodorant. All of these items are, by the way, in my lost bag which is in the capable hands of the Lufthansa ground staff at the Munich regional airport for some inexplicable reason.

The issue of the moment is that they’ve messed up my hotel reservations here and I’ll have to be leaving a day earlier than I’d planned, which is a hassle and and normally they would be forcing me out of the hotel this morning to make room for another paying guest. Normally I’d also get until 10 or 11 am before I had to leave; the typical check out time. But not now.

No, Christmas will come much sooner this year for the strong-armed Spanish bell boys of the NH hotel in Madrid. Those kids will have to do more than just carry luggage today. When they come to check me out of the hotel they’ll be wanting more than just my credit card and signature and if I’m still here I am not going to enjoy it.

God, it’s going to be messy: when they walk into the reception area today and see the bar reduced to shattered martini glasses and peanuts strewn with the shards all over the floor they’re going to have a suspect on their minds and that suspect is going to bear a very strong resemblance to the man in room 403.

I am that man.

There will be a lot of explanations requested and reimbursement required and I want no part in either. I’m a busy man and become very frustrated by having to explain why the bar is destroyed with peanuts on a Tuesday morning, especially this early. And that may be just the best-case scenario, the civilized scenario – and I’m not counting on it. This is, after all, Spain, a nation of hard-headed Catholics, Moorish-Visigoths who run with bulls and stomp on wood. They are people who see ripping the necks off of geese and using the sinewy toughness to slide down a foxline over a lake  as a constructive way to pass the time on a Sunday. What they will do with me here, I can’t imagine.

I couldn’t sleep last night after 4 am. It happens often, especially in my line of work and it’s not altogether a healthy thing, but what the hell? I didn’t decide to be what they call a road warrior for the health of it. I had wandered downstairs, hoping to sneak into the breakfast buffet and get some carbohydrates in me while I read from Kurt Vonnegut’s Slapstick. When I found the place locked and not a soul in the reception to help, I sat at the bar in the hall between the breakfast buffet and the reception desk. The bar was relatively small, mirrored and had several shelves of glasses and only a few with bottles.

The peanut jar was open so without thinking, I grabbed a handful and lined them up on the bar. I started flicking them at the mirror for no reason other than that’s what seemed like the right thing to do to peanuts that are lined up. Like anxious foot soldiers they stood at attention on a bar at four in the morning. I would aim at the bottles that jumped out at me, the blue Bombay Sapphire, the green Tanqueray, the yellow label on the Cutty Sark, and whatever marketing splash Absolut recently dreamed up.

When I hit the first glass and knocked it off the shelf, it very naturally smashed on the floor into a thousand little pieces. I was certain it would have awoken half of the hotel or at least someone who would care enough to storm into that hallway to find out what animal had gotten into the bar and chase it away with a mop. I was sure they’d be shocked but I was also paranoid – as I said, I haven’t slept much in the last two days.

I didn’t hear loud and fast footsteps headed towards me right away with Spanish calls of “what the hell are you doing, you fiend?”,  but I grabbed a bottle of Contreau just the same, reasoning that it would do some good damage with it’s hard angles and rectangular corners, should it come to that. I waited by the desk at the reception, crouched below eyesight and thought up all kinds of stories I could use before I had to get violent.

But nothing happened. Nobody had been disturbed by the shattering and I started thinking of pushing my luck. After a short time I went back and lined up a whole slew of them on the bar, my troops ready and willing. At first I flicked them indiscriminately, more out of anger and spite, content in my knowledge that I had time to flick the peanuts and surprised by my own impulse and unwavering hate, bent on lashing out at a hotel bar in a very dark part of the night. But then I started getting efficient, choosing more solid peanuts, kernels with both halves or else the ones with a slight curve underneath so that I could get my finger under it and provide enough lift to hit the top shelf.

Before long I had improved my aim down to bottle caps and just above the center of gravity of the martini glasses. I was mindlessly destroying the place. It only took about 10 minutes of fun to lay it all to waste. Not complete destruction, mind you, but certainly beyond cheap repair. I’m normally not a violent person but this morning I was pushed over some line for some reason; the feeling was genuine. It lacked a plan, a coherent line of thought, but not enjoyment. This was a truly twisted act that would cause someone a lot of work, a lot of grief, some debt and perhaps some anger, and the worst part about the whole affair is how much I liked it.

I think that I could explain where the desire for hopeless violence came from, especially given their attitude towards kicking me out when the mistake was theirs. I could rationalize it with the fact that I resented being kicked out of their hotel before I was good and ready to leave. But I couldn’t justify the destruction of their bar. That was an act of irresponsible malice that normally should have no business in a civilized society and anyone crazy enough to actually do such a thing should probably be locked up and guarded by rottweilers.

Wait. Whoops. Did I say that?

Well – in any case. It sure felt good.

But as I said, I don’t have a lot of time and soon some poor Peruvian woman will walk into the hotel to vacuum and dust and sweep before the actual staff arrives. Her usual routine will be torn when she sees the disaster this place is in and begins to fear the attackers are still on the premises, which I hope to God that I’m not. She will be filled with confusion, make the motion of the cross on her chest and mumble out a prayer of some kind. But with any luck she’ll snap out of it and start with the vacuuming, getting most of the peanuts, thereby erasing the evidence of my presence down to shards of glass, perhaps seen as a common break-in. They won’t discover that there’s nothing missing but the broken glasses for at least a couple of hours and by then I think I can be at another hotel across town where these guys will give up on me. Madrid is a very large place.

There an obvious lesson in this, but it applies more to them than to me. That lesson is to never leave the bar open with the peanuts out. I’m pretty sure it can be metaphorically applied to a great many situations.

_**Madrid, Spain — November 2007

Alberto Aguillera NH, Room 403**_

Oscar Bjørne

The message came in much earlier, sometime around 22:00 last night but I was somewhere else, maybe watching LOST in Spanish or at a bar, or something. Yeah, that’s it – when her message came in I was at a bar in the casco viejo of Madrid.

The bar was all dark wood, carved by the hands of artists. And I don’t mean just the bar either, like, just a plank of hand-sculpted wood on which to serve drinks. No. The whole establishment was one large cave of mahogany or something. If you farted or your cell phone vibrated, I’m sure the whole place would feel it. I didn’t really realize it until my eyes got used to the dim lights and the Buena Vista Social Club started playing loud Cuban music out of the jukebox. The rusty metal signs were hand-made for sure, bent with pliers and cut with hack saws. Sangria and olive oil was kept consistently within arm’s reach of everybody, probably for good measure, and a smoked leg of ham stood propped on the bar on some home-made stand with its hoof out, like a dog ready to shake paws. It was almost carved to the bone but there were still another couple of hours worth of raw meat from that pork.

But the rafters of the place; they really did me in. I like old rafters the way older men like Buicks and Cadillacs and, in some cases, Volkswagens. The beam was supported by a strange thing indeed, a shape which both terrified me and captivated my eyes and my fantasies. My attention was ensnared and I couldn’t look away. It was, on closer inspection, a wooden sculpture of a sinewy human form, deathless for eons and sickly thin. Like a slave sailor on an old Spanish Galleon, it was positioned hunched over with its feet on the wall about 2 meters up, with the rafter over its shoulders, as if supporting the falling mast of a ship. If the wall had been the floor instead and the ceiling, the figure might have been sitting against a tree trunk with its knees bent, its arms grabbing  the tree behind its head. Dark visions clouded my thoughts and it called into being all kinds of pictures of angel and images of vampires, pale mariners in the dark  and the punished souls of demons. And in a place that full of sangria, it scared the ever-loving shit right out of me.

On the hand-painted walls, poor stucco jobs half-covered images of pistol-toting Mexican mermaids with conch shells covering their tits and dangling from their ears. The stucco was spattered, which had the effect of muffling the shouts of “cerveza” or “sangria: aqui.” On the walls where there weren’t images of flamenco-dancing beauties, lonely Guernikan nights, ancient masts for rafters or Bauhaus-twisted iron you saw things like rusting knights’ helmets, tastefully chosen warm Spanish colors and lots, and lots of vino.

…and I got mixed up in that Basque wine, half French, half Spanish with no identity to speak of and barely an identifiable language with which to associate. But I was under control, which is rare these days. I knew where I was, as I recognized that place from a few months earlier when I had spent a grand total of 16 hours in this city, 4 of which were spent on finding the hotel, 8 of which were spent on much needed sleep after careening around Europe for the last 2 weeks, 2 of them were spent in a movie, leaving another 2 to walk the streets of Madrid. And I recognized it immediately: Plaza Santa Ana. That was where we’d walked, had a Spanish tortilla, where it had all ended for them and started for me.

That’s also where, this time around, I decided that I was done with Madrid, at least for the time being. Having come to Madrid two weeks before, I’d already had my share of adventures and women and drink here. From the bar explosions to the distant clients, from the large city and its smog to the German Mädchen of fresh scents in the Tarifa adventure, I’d had too many fast times in that place. I needed rest.

So long, sucker – I have no more use for you. And all that.

It was off to the hotel in a fast cab, straight past the flirtatious reception girls that I would later take out on a few dates. But not tonight. Tonight was smack into my unfamiliar bed. FLOP! SLAM! Buenas noches.

Right. And here I am again, the sheets tossed around like an angry badger had it’s way with the place, and I’m no closer to sleep than Arnold is to the presidency. It worries me a little, by the way, that he’s even mentioned it, and a lot more that imbeciles talk about it like there was any fact or depth to that story at all. But that’s not what is troubling me tonight. No.

She had sent me a text message, a flirty kind of quick poke, a soft hello. An “I’m here, come and get me” scheme that rolled me out of bed and kept me there for far too long, reminiscing of kisses stolen on narrow streets in the dark, of windy lands far from here, of fast times since past.

It was Jana, the temptress from Tarifa, the sweet-smelling German girl who couldn’t stop saying my name in that weekend that I managed to escape from Madrid to Morocco. In her German accent, I would’ve been fine with hearing it until the sun came up. Now, in the silence of my hotel room, all I had of her was a little SMS icon blinking on my phone screen.

Granted, she was thinking of me, or at least that she had thought of me long enough to invest in some coordinated thumb-punching activities for a few minutes to let me know about it. That’s a sign kids; write it down.

And don’t get me wrong; I’m all for German babes with hot smiles and fast kisses thinking of me when I’m not around, and I was really into this chick. But she hadn’t responded to a message I’d left her 4 days earlier and I’d written her off as another great story and a memory that, while it would take longer to fade than others, would still fade nonetheless. Then that message went unanswered for 5 hours on a train ride through southwestern Spain. Then a day. Then 2. I’d been focused on obtuse clients and maddeningly bureaucratic business processes for the last two days -and now this

Where was the discipline? Where was the commitment to the dour principles of self-discovery, preservation and improvement? Where was the notion that I resent the very concept of girlfriends while my trek is underway? Where was the “Nooosssssssir, no anchors for me, thanks” – and all that?

Well. It almost went to pieces.

Yeah, I responded, and even proofread before I sent the thing. Yes, I sent an SMS back because the girl made me that jittery. I did almost lose my nerve and suggest that we meet up again since Germany isn’t all that far away from The Netherlands and I did have an episode of insomnia over the whole thing and yes, that’s why my sheets looked like a family of possums just had a lot of fun wrestling on my bed.

But I said “almost”. Did you forget who you’re dealing with here? I’m better now, and when I get done writing this, I’ll actually go to sleep, I think.

And why not? I loved it, babe, and you were special in those series of moments. That I was anything at all to you is sunshine on my heart; I never expected even that much. It was all for me at the time, and it was all I could get; there were no calculated risks, no saving anything for later. It was all out there – the way I roll. There was no pacing myself, giving some and taking a sustainable amount. What I saw was for the taking was pillaged and plundered, and I never looked back.

And don’t forget the rum, eh?

But I suspect that you too know something of fleeting moments. In that way we’re both folk of the road; we’ve both shared intimacy with others for extended, almost obscene amounts of time (in many senses of the word) and know that the term “one size fits all” never applied to us anyway. It’s not our bag, kid.

So I feel revived now. I’m glad this has all happened as it has and I think I’ll get a nap in before the next round of storms clears the horizon, or at least enough sleep to hold me off until my flight out of here tomorrow. But rest assured that “honey, I’m home” is far from anything I’ll ever say again without bursting into either gut-wrenching heaves, side-splitting laughter or desperate sobs of woe and fear of what I’ve allowed myself to become.

I’ve still got it.

_**Madrid, Spain — November, 2007

Alberto Aguilera NH, Room 403**_

Oscar Bjørne

I did what I could for them and frankly reader, it was amazing stuff. For them, at least. I’ve seen shit like that a dozen times before but they were verily impressed. What can I say?

Now, I know I’ve said this other times and I reiterate: I will not write about work here… perhaps work-related experiences, but not work. Now that you believe me and trust me, let me tell you about the evening:

So there I was, sitting with my thoughts, sobriety and not a drink in sight. The office lights would occasionally go out since I was the only one still there. And dammit — I was working. Sometimes I don’t move for long periods of time when I’m that focused and at that point the light sensors lose me and out it all goes.

I was working on issues not all that small. In fact, I would venture to say that it was important. But it was work, so it won’t be mentioned here. Suffice to say that it was not trivial and I was goddamn kicking ass at it. Dammit, that’s just how I roll. I am. You think I’d be here if I didn’t rock the hell out of the system? I am, after all, a professional.

Anyways, I was at the terminal, working my innocent little butt off when my Austian host stepped into the dark room and said, “that’s enough real work for today, Pei-dro. We go now and get a bier and some dinner, yeah?”

Could you, reader, say no to that? I couldn’t.

We left that floor and headed downstairs. He was guiding me to the place that is normally the canteen. But when the glass doors opened it was like wandering into some foreign version of Mary Had a Little Lamb, what with all the costumes and strange behaviors. The beats were up-beat, the beer was flowing, and the sausages were wrapped in bacon.


This was Oktoberfest, jack. I’d made it after all. Munich’s Oktoberfest has been an elusive travel target for me for years and this year I’d missed it again, this time due to a combination of work-related excuses, lack of support and enthusiasm for the chase from my closer brethren and backstabbing acquaintances that went without so much as a facebook status alert.

I mean, it’s not like you can go to this thing alone.

But there I was, hundreds of miles from Munich in my own employer’s canteen 5 days late and yet… Oktoberfest.

I won’t tell you who paid for it all ‘cause, really, who cares? Suffice to say that it wasn’t me, and that made it all the more jolly. It took me a few beers, and a few rounds of wettnaglen but I eventually skiddadled onto the dance floor and grabbed whatever pretty and large busted Austrian girl that was willing to dance. Mate, let me tell you, these girls may have a lot to learn about dancing but they are willing! That kind of attitude goes a long way with a guy like me.

Not that it matters; it was enchanting nonetheless. Boyfriends be damned, and I’m sure they were there that night; I just didn’t give a shit – know what I mean?

Wettnaglen, by the way, is the best, the coolest, the most primordial drinking game I’ve seen in my travels, far outweighing  the strange goose-slaughtering customs in the Basque regions of Spain. What they do is find a stump about the height of a bar stool and then get themselves a hammer that has, at the tail end, a straight point, non curving. This is is important so that you can get some angle onto the nail. Then, as they drink their Oktober ales and brews, they hammer away at the nails into the stump with the thin back of the hammer (one swing each). The first one to get the nail beyond “flush” with the stump wins something (gingerbread heart the size of a football) and the loser has to buy the round.

It’s inventive, to say the least, and American children could learn a thing or two from this practice, if for no other reason than that they might learn how to properly uproot a tree stump. And that’s worth knowing whether or not you have a college education.

_**Vienna, Austria — October, 2007

Marriott Renaissance, Montana Room**_

Dylan Cormack

I walked into my hotel room after breakfast and realized the shower was running.

Why is the shower running? I could see the little flashes of lights in my brain, hear the clicking and whirling going nuts in there.

A few hours later at the meeting, wearing a t-shirt under my suit: “You’ll have to forgive my attire today… all of my dress shirts were mutilated by the gods of high humidity and the miscreant behavior of shower heads gone haywire. It’s a natural consequence of staying at a hotel with no iron that forces you to either pay €12 a shirt or hang them all in the bathroom while you run the shower at full heat for 15 minutes. It works well enough, provided you remember to turn it off. So at least until they all dry, you’re getting the best of my undershirts. Enjoy.”

Shit like this actually does happen if you travel enough and stay in enough Marriott Hotels. It’s not just that I’m an idiot… it’s also a statistical thing.

Speaking of idiots, who are these two jackasses that talk “oh-so-naturally” on CNN International to each other? They sound like two Sunday Morning neighbors, shooting the shit across the white picket fence, one watering his lawn and the other taking a break from mowing it, except that they’re trying. They look like two yokel grandparents who’ve decided to become enlightened and read you headlines from other newspapers and then comment about the obvious, and even manage to get THAT wrong.

Her name, by the way, is Colleen McEdwards. I looked it up but who’s the bag of douche next to her? CNN.com won’t tell me. A weekend guy, maybe? Who knows?

I hope this is purely a ratings thing and that they realize how dumb they sound and go home at night wishing someone would give them a real job. After too long trying to watch this ‘news’ I start wondering if there isn’t something more constructive on TV, like porn or maybe American Idol. It’s really the same thing from where I stand, except that porn at least has utility.

It’s not like there’s nothing happening to discuss: not so long ago, Benazir Bhutto returned to Pakistan and that very night in Karachi there were attacks, as if on cue for the networks. Bombs, killing scores of people, injuring a few hundred more, like something out of a script. Without explosions, who in America would care that she is back in Pakistan? Who even knows who she is in this land? It’s a sad state of things, but then, it’s no big surprise when co-workers ask “Oh, is Hilary running for president this year” as casually as if they were asking if I was going to use my little packet of sugar in my coffee. At this rate, it may as well be acid.

But anyway, back in Pakistan, the news networks covered the explosions and made a big scene of it. Not of the explosions, mind you, but of the fact that they were covering it, as if they’d finally received the memo that stuff happens outside the US. To be fair, it was real mayhem, the likes of which we in this country only know from Schwarzenegger movies and Die Hard. Fools don’t even know. Wake up, it seemed to say, ‘cause this shit happens‘. But then it vanished, as if the credits had already finished and people needed to leave the theater to go relieve themselves in dark bushes. Amazing, the short span of attention you people have. That’s why I keep it moving here, or else you’d drift off to…

HEY! here, here, HERE. Look over HERE!

That’s better.

Also, the mess in Turkey with the Kurds in northern Iraq and Cheney’s Revenge: Iraq 2 – The Son of Saddam. Actually, they’re not related at all as far as I know, but to see Cheney talking about the guy, he’s so certain of the guy’s evil you’d think there was shared blood in Ahmadinejad’s veins and Saddam’s. What’s worse is that he won’t offer a shred of proof to the goal. He just keeps on claiming Petreaus’ reports as gospel. Too bad it’s just as unconfirmed or fact-checked. Or maybe it’s not too bad – for him, at least. At least it’s pretty clear that Petreus himself is quite embarrassed over these political talking points concerning his own words. We’ll probably see him join the ranks of other retired generals when he finally leaves this cursed position of power into which he’s stumbled.

It’s an endless cycle. No wonder the hole we’re in is so deep: we dig it a little more every time you people go to the polls. My god, there is so much to rant about.

Oh, and T’s back. Hope remains for some, though not for all. I’m too tired to go on – sooner or later I have to wake up and you know it’ll just start all over again, which is why I think you keep coming back.

Oh well. At least you’re right.

Pedro Ávila

Fortunately, the afternoon was dark and threatened rain on that day when the clocks went back. I went from bar to cafe, from church to lounge, reading my books, writing my words. The body was not hung over, but the mind was acting as if it thought it should be.

Inside an English pub I heard the jeers and cheers that were probably attributable to a football game of some kind. The bright light of a tourist’s camera flashed against a store window and slapped me across the face. The day was not making a whole lot of sense to me but at least it was confounding me in a way that was not insulting, however intrusive. It was letting me know I could keep on walking. I did.

In general, it was a wasted day whose sole purpose was to be wasted, falling into reality, or else climbing back into it, depending on how you judge the debauched fun that our merriment last night produced.

For a party of 8 people, it was one hell of a party. Sure, the Dutch don’t really do Halloween, and sure, they won’t all necessarily come just because you invite them 3 months in advance. And they don’t all dance forro. But I do dammit, and I wanted a damn Halloween party nonetheless. And if I’d had to decorate my own apartment and stock my own fridge and paint my own damn nails black, I would have.

Thankfully, there was help. There was a moment though, after all the decorations had gone up and the nails were black and the costume was ready and a couple of drinks had even already been poured when I stood and waited. Nothing left to do, nothing left to plan, just wondering, doubting, me and the empty living room.

“Well, living room, I guess even if no one shows up, it’s been one hell of an afternoon, eh?” It doesn’t respond, as living rooms hate idle chatter. Also, living rooms can’t talk.

“You know, ‘room, it’s been a strange trip, so far, this moving abroad thing. Why am I doing this? What do I want to get out of it? I can’t really say — getting something out of it was never a goal I’d thought about, you know?” It knows.

“Was it adventure? Was it style? Was it accents? Shit, it could have been for the accents. Sometimes I’m just shallow like that. Yeah, it’s best that you don’t respond to that any how. Pretend I didn’t say that.

“But that doesn’t matter; this move, it was never a means. I wasn’t running, toward or away from anything. I just needed for this to happen or something. The horizon is always my end; it’s always my means too. What does that say about me?”

“You know, living room, you’re a great listener and you hold a lot of answers, but your public speaking skills leave a whole lot to be desired.

“Anyway, maybe I should clarify, because there’s got to be a root cause. There’s always a root cause in informational science and this is definitely informational. Why am I always seeking to be different, to stand out? I don’t like attention; so why do it?

“Now pay attention, because this is the important part. I think what it amounts to is that I like the attention that I give myself. I like the self-admiration that I feel when I do something I know is original. Something that validates – to me – that I’m an intelligent dude and that I know what’s up. Does that make sense? Is self validation a legitimate vice in vanity?”

It’s a good thing the doorbell rang just then, because I wouldn’t have known how to explain it better if the living room hadn’t understood, and then it would’ve gotten awkward.

And after that? After that we danced. My pirate costume was better than ever thanks in no small part to the gloriously cool initiative of my good friend, Clair, who had the insight, the drive and the initiative to consider that most of my pirate gear did not make it onto the “Pete’s Life: Volume I” box in the move to Amsterdam. Not only did she think of this, she then goes out and gets me some pirate gear and proceeds to send said pirate gear clear across the Atlantic.

Clair, are you listening? I had already promised you a beer next time I see you – are you ready for this?

Are you ready?

2 beers.

There, I said it. I give; I’m just like that.

[Clair will have my head for that, so I hope you’re all entertained; it probably cost her, like, 200 mangoes just to ship the thing!]

Seriously, it made my costume come to life. It’s not that I’m not really a pirate, I just have a hard time looking like one. But with a dagger that has phrases written on it like

  • May she carry the swift and the beating heart of worthy men…
  • Bring me that horizon, drink up me hearties, YO HO!
  • We are the beaches of Normandy the night before
  • Douchebag fender-offer

well, then you’re all pirate. Black fingernails and eye-shadow just don’t hurt, know what I mean?

Oscar Bjørne

Holy hell, it was a fast night in Vienna. Too many sudden friends met in lonely hostels, too many beers that I or some Australian kid named Denzel must have bought because zee Germans were not coming through on their end of the bar tab, and the ladies from Seattle simply could not be expected to have that kind of zazz. But the night was fun and at the end of it there was no permanent damage. I managed to stumble upstairs and actually fit the key into the keyhole to gain access to my temporary bed. Nevermind that some misfiring neuron in my head was allowed to make the point to drunk Oscar that the laptop would be safer under my pillow than in the locked cabinet the hostel provides.

Nevermind that. My head convinces itself of strange things on that much beer and jager shots. I was lucky to convince myself to take the laptop to bed instead of leaving it in the hallway and not only make it to the top bunk but to not drop anything on the way there.

Christ, Oscar.

A side note on general Eastern European cuisine is that you don’t always know what it is or where it comes from if you just walk into random places, which I do. This time it was good goulash, as far as that goes, hearty and meaningful on a night like that when the wind bites into your face like langoliers gone wild and the rain dribbles onto the sidewalk. But what I’m saying is that it could’ve been anything. Anyways, I lapped up what I thought was the meat, but left half of the dumpling thing on the plate along with the sauce that looked like the remains of something that had seen a fitting end. The smoke in the dining hall got the better of me in that Austrian bar though, and I went home and looked up what the hell it was that I had just eaten.

The next day, you pay for the goulash, but at least it’s the next day, and you’re back in Amsterdam – where the pillows smell like home.

_**Vienna, Austria — October, 2007

Wombat Hostel, ,Room 211 cabinet 4**_

Oscar Bjørne

In Vienna, you follow the music.

What am I doing here? I’m thinking to myself at the end of an afternoon of walking aimlessly through the old center of Vienna. I’ve somehow made my way to the monastery at the Church of St. Mary of the Angels in the niew market area of the old city.

I am a professional consultant, sent on assignments of quality all around Europe; a business man of tact and tech; a supplier of success… – so why am I in the crypt of a most unremarkable church, staring lazily at old intricate coffins and making occasional soft whispers to freak out the other visitors to the site? It doesn’t make any sense.

Yet here I am, at the Kaisergruft, the imperial vaults near the heart of Vienna, Austria, where lie the earthly remains of most of what is tangibly left of the Hapsburg Dynasty, the hereditary Emperors of the Holy Roman Empire. That to see this collection of morbid decorum I’ve had to shell out four euros is twisting me up inside. Any Viennese cafe won’t charge you that much for a coffee with grappa (cafe coretto) and here I am, blowing cash on rigor mortis. Unbelievable. I am dumbfounded by this show of the dark, of the weird obsession that humans, and particularly Austrian humans have with death and the end and with preserving some kind of mark on the planet. Granted that, among the bodies lain here to rest amidst the hoards of tourists are Emperors and Empresses, dukes and archdukes, Ferdinands, Josefs, Leopolds, Marias, Maria Theresas, and a couple of Karls. Tens of dozens of aristocrats and the hearts and ashes of a few others also lay here, guarded by monks and friars that fiendishly shuffle by occasionally, carrying scrolls and bound for parts unknown. Suspicions of assassin orders and ninja monks fill my mind and make me sweat; it makes the cold newt sliming up my spine colder still; the place is surreal enough, bizarre as anything in Hollywood or on TV. The fascination that the Austrians have with death is vivid and comes alive in the architecture of the plazas, the faces and eyes of the sculptures and busts lining palace facades and in the intricately trestled weavings of fences and gates.

Maybe I should be more impressed, but it’s just too strange. To boot, the place is little more than a collection of memories that belong to someone else. But the arrangement, the decor, the sheer number of coffins lying in that crypt, seemingly without ceremony is eery in a cold political kind of way that makes me suspect that some people have never heard warm songs of Spanish rhythms plucked on the nylon strings of an acoustic guitar in the streets of Barcelona. It seems impossible to me that the two are not mutually exclusive.

…I just gave the matter a moment of thought and realized I have better things to do than surround myself with rusting pots of iron and copper containing rotted human flesh in the basement of an inornate church in a city as rich in culture as it is in hot Austrian women. Vienna is quite a town for both.

So I skedaddle up and out of there and go to see an opera/concert/ballet show I’ve already bought tickets for from a scalper on the street dressed like a pimp lord from 1685. On my way to the show I pass a violinist on the street and I think of how silly it would be to pay 50 Euros and put aside a whole evening of energy for opera and then not give this guy 2 euros and 15 minutes of my time to listen to his solo concerto.

He isn’t the most incredible master of the instrument, but the sound is rich and he puts a huge smile on my face and even shakes my hand for listening. He tells me he’s impressed that I even stopped, and obviously agrees with me concerning the aforementioned absurdity of other people who don’t do the same. He adds that it is ludicrous that Vienna allows people in who didn’t listen.

“Vienna is music!” he blurts. “In Paris, Antwerp (ughh) ok… but Vienna?” He plays another piece but when people walk by without even slowing down he stops playing and walks behind them for a few paces, imitating an ape. I find it a bit crass but he is a performer as well, to be sure. Abraham, if I remember right. From Hungary. I thank him, applaud him again (even though no one else does) and move on to the opera concerto to which I have tickets.

I am a bit concerned for the touristy nature that the show might have given the circumstances of the ticket purchase previously described. But it turns out that the Palais Auersperg is an elegant concert hall, as classy as its acoustics are tuned. As it happens, it is the first hall where Mozart played when he was 6 years old. How about that?
Shhhhhhh. The show is about to start.

What a show! Spectacular, moving, brilliant, and all the credit goes to the lead violinist. How artful is the true musician to whom it’s so second nature! The way you can tell he’s not thinking about the playing, that he’s thinking about the music… the way he smiles as he plays – and the violin is not an easy instrument to play while smiling – the way he tells jokes with his face since he’s having so much fun… it’s sickening how present he is in all dimensions.

No, I’m not high – it’s true.

The instrument, it’s just a coincidence – the music is what’s happening. He feels it and it inspires him. But while you’re listening, he’s not just playing; he’s exuding. And he took the show; he took it right out from everyone’s expectations.

Being alone at an opera, there was little I could do during the intermission but write: but about what?, I thought. About how it was that I had come to be there? Had I touched on that yet? Probably. But it’s not like I wasn’t still wondering it all the same. It seemed impossible, yet there I was: thousands of miles from where I could’ve been had I been less precise in my calculations a few months ago when the critical decision to move to Europe had been made. I’d chased after it and endured all kinds of politics and hidden agendas, suffered fools I would not suffer again, and opted to leave all that was known and comfortable for a life of lonely travel and grandiose dreams. Hmmmmf.

Nothing is impossible, it seems.

But I digress. It was only a 5 minute intermission and I even stopped for a glass of champagne because, you know – why the hell not?
It was a casual opera so I had to check my tuxedo at the door, but opera people are still opera people. Their noses are mostly in the air instead of having their ears to the rails. And while opera, ballet, Mozart, Bach, Strauss and Schubert performed in the Auersperg is something else and entirely classy and impressive, the people – they’re just not my scene – too much zazz and not enough jazz, if that makes any sense.

In any case, it was time to head through the Maria Theresa Platz to the Hapsburg Congress, the ancient royal palace and a major site for any visit to Vienna. Today, it houses the national library and while I stand in the square in front of it and take it in, I enjoy a tent-cooked bratwurst – an inbred cousin of the original hot dog. It’s a far cry from where I had just been, surrounded by suede, cashmere and champagne but let’s face it readers – I’m a street dog kinda guy. It sits well with me; makes the moment last.

As I stand in the middle of the parking lot between the Hapsburg and the Volksgarden my thoughts drift to the size of things. In America, things have a tendency towards the excessive… everything is big, and everyone knows that. From distances to sandwiches and from Texas to Alaska, their laughs, lives, drinks and jives are large. Recently, since, say, the 2000 presidential swearing in ceremony, the scope of these things has widened to include disappointments, which is part of why I left. But who cares? The architecture of Vienna suggests something else is afoot, something more deeply rooted and less superficial; something old and not artificial. By the size of the imperial palace at the Hapsburg you’d think an entire army of giants is housed behind its 4 meter doors. Looking at their gates you’d think Austrian horses are 3 meters tall and proportionally as wide. Being called “a horse’s ass” in Austria must carry so much more weight as an insult.

But the thought I’m having is that the scale of things is different. It’s not just that “things are large” – no. Things are opulently huge, but it’s so pervasive that no one facet of anything draws attention to itself. Much of the grandeur easily blends into the scenery of the cityscape and goes unnoticed: nothing here is a roadside attraction.

Still – that was still one massive hot dog I had to myself.

In the square at the Hapsburg there are tents set up for a festival of sorts so, impulsively, I purchase a ticket. Every museum in town is going to be open, they tell me, until one in the morning and the transportation is be free – “Lange Nacht der Museem”, they call it. At the moment, no one is more thankful about this than my feet, who are jonesing for a stop.

Easy fellas, I say to myself, you’ll get your rest. I plan, however, on lying to them and walking throughout the night, which I proceed to do. I don’t owe my feet any special favors.

I first go into the Museum of War and Armory in the Hapsburg, that previously mentioned overly ornate and inordinately beastly monster that, by the shape of its concave facade seems to swallow every visitor that enters. That is a different crowd, let me tell you. They have a DJ playing in the central focus of the building where, amongst a flourish of freaks examining knight-armor, you can order beer or some blue cocktails to the beat of German house techno. Blades and bumps, chain mail and alcohol, electronically synthesized beats and the shine and gloom of hundreds of stationary Austrian Knights almost push me over the edge. What a trip. But I make it out of there without any great catastrophe, thanks mostly to a very toned-down and rather dull Egyptian and Roman exhibition on the long and large stairs, far enough away from the German House beats that the pull exerted on drunk, blue-cocktail drinking fiends is weak enough to grant them escape.

At the Museum of Natural History, which is an overly ornate but beautiful twin building, at the St. Theresa Platz, I meander – albeit quickly – trying to see as much as I can amidst rooms full of meteorites. You are allowed to touch the extraterrestrials rocks and I give my eyes in to the pleasures of the iron crystal latices; patterns like circuits etched in silicon as it flew in the dead cold of space; fantastic, yet silly, it seems, that the tactile sense makes things more real. But I don’t dwell on that.

I continue meandering and end up wandering into the prehistoric section of the museum and… magic. To see the fossils of so many different species of beasts, majestic giants that once ruled this planet in a way we’ll never be in touch with is something truly…

Oh who am I kidding? I still love dinosaurs and I gawk at them whilst standing next to kids a quarter of my age.

There. I said it. I probably looked like a tool but who cares? I enjoyed myself.

When I leave there I move on to the Albertina, which is a Viennese Musee D’Orsay of sorts, and sit amidst the temperate crowd. It is (the crowd, that is), at least for tonight, artistically inclined. My talus bones ache as if the next step I take will cause them to shoot out the back of my ankles like stones from a 11 year-old’s sling shot.

Note: Chuck Taylor All Stars do not good walking shoes make. Not exactly great cobblestone trotters, you know? Better on the able feet of basketball stars of the 70′s then on a traveler’s treading soles.

In the cubic sketches wing, beautiful Austrian women walk by. I usually find it to be stuffy in art galleries and the Albertina is no exception on a night as packed as the Lange Nacht. But the seat is a reprieve from the walking so I keep to it. An early Picasso cubic sketch hangs easily in front of my face – about 2 meters to be precise. It’s relaxing how it lets the eyes wander separately and I like it. But more than the sketches of Picasso or the dabbles of Mattise, I am eying the people. They are, to me, the real works of art in this place. The elderly peer closer; the young fidget. Some are sassy with the heat; others impatient. In the gallery, they block the paintings from my view as I sit on my bench facing the early Picasso sketch. They offer me blinks here and there through the gaps as a cartoon wheel moving before my eyes, only the images don’t move.

“The Picasso’s are over here, dude!” I hear an Asian guy wearing Greek letters on his sweatshirt call out to another one of the same description. Someone has told them to be here, I’m sure, but he is having his own kind of good time, I guess. A check list is better than no list at all.

“I don’t get it,” sings the other one, who has caught up. With them, a red head of mild looks and an annoying voice misses her chance to be quiet:

“Why are they so weird-looking and trippy?”


… another one a few minutes later: “Duuuude; this is that guy that [sic] cut his ear off, man! … Right?”

Oh man. Too much. What a show these clowns put on. I see a balding man in the corner within ear-shot with wire-rimmed glasses, a thin beard, a black shirt and a black suit grasp his forehead in his left hand while clutching his left elbow with this right hand. Apparently I’m not the only one paying attention to the crowd.

The people – lining up to see paintings they wouldn’t turn their heads to look at on any other day- they amuse me, much like the people in the streets who don’t stop and listen to the musician on the street. Yet these same people pay 50 euros to watch an opera when they can’t tell the difference between the guy on the street and the bard in the show. Weird.

Afterwards, I head to the Urania Observatory by the Danube River and stand in line for what must be days, not really knowing why. I convince myself it’s fine because I just can’t walk anymore anyways. So I wait and wait for some unknown attraction that the crowd apparently had some interest in.

Ooh, wait, I’m going in…

Well. Turns out it was Mars. That’s what they’d been looking at for hours now, following it down to the horizon: Mars. A spec of red I’ve seen a hundred times in a hundred other telescopes. Dammit. What had I expected from an observatory in the middle of a city as bright as Vienna?

“Foolish,” I said in front of all the people still standing in line. “Bahhh…” I moved on, though at that moment, I wasn’t sure how to get back to my temporary abode. I faltered, and made the weak mistake of asking directions from the first person that I heard speaking English.

Travel advice: this is a mistake. If you’re going to ask someone for directions, make sure it’s not just because they speak English unless you’re foolishly desperate.

She was a traveler too, which was the first problem, but she wasn’t exactly my type. Shy and uncertain, disoriented and nervous, she gave me a bad itch that I couldn’t scratch without being a dick. Now I had her as a problem; unwanted company on a night like this, and she didn’t even know where she was going.


I let her tag along, trying the whole way to think of a scheme to rid myself of this problem. I considered some obscure options. Others too, that were practical however shameful, and some downright wrong. I even had some moments of insight when a brilliant idea came to mind but it involved too many mirrors for that time of night and there was no way I could train a parrot that quickly. As lame as it sounds, ultimately I settle on just making up a good excuse for walking in a different direction. My feet were punishing me, appropriately; Lord knows I deserved it after my treachery. But basically, I just kept walking and putting up with her until I got my bearings. At one point we turned a corner and ran right into a huge Mont Blanc watch commercial with nothing on it but Nicholas Cage’s face.

“Aaahh!” I started, honestly surprised by the image. Sorry, but 8 feet of Nic Cage’s face at that horrible hour is not what anyone needs. But it distracted her and while she examined the face, I made a break for it and managed to fit into one of the narrow passageways by the domed church lined with cobblestones that soften the footsteps. There were better ways, I’m sure, but they would’ve involved an investment in time and effort, not to mention caring, and I didn’t have any of those things at the time. The plan I ended up executing worked well enough and I lost myself in the narrow streets of the old Viennese quarter of the Austrian city.

Still headed back to my hostel, I saw him: Abraham from Hungary, by the St. Stephan’s cathedral in a tailcoat and sunglasses. His face was painted white and he had a top-hat to boot on his ridiculous face. He was playing human music box on the street, an act in which he plays the violin for 8-12 seconds and then sort of stutters to a standstill and finally a real-life kind of freeze-frame. He remains motionless until somebody feeds some coins into his box and then he starts up again.

He had more financial success with the act than with just the music and it’s funny how people weren’t listening to the music, even when they did take a moment to notice the show, which is what they wanted. It made sense; they wanted to see the monkey dance; they wanted the clown’s performance for the eyes more than they wanted Mozart to unclog their ears, free them from the burdens and the sorrows of normal existence.

[Sigh]. Some things change between the places I visit. But by and large, people unfortunately don’t. They remain the same dolts everywhere I go. And so be it.

I thought about what Abraham had said to me not all that many hours before. Something about, “Vienna is music!” and that whole rant. He’d sounded so sincerely disappointed about the lack of applause then, so excited to hear mine, even after I had put in my couple of Euros for his show. So there in the square, now, I started clapping in the hopes that recognition and the attention he deserved for playing so well were worth it for him to accept as payment to continue playing – the spiritual equivalent of at least a couple of coins clinking in his box; enough to “wind the music box,” so to speak.

I started clapping, alone and at an immobile man in a tailcoat and a top hat, his face painted white and wearing sunglasses. I started clapping alone at this clown in the crowded mid-day Stephanplatz, the most populated place on a weekend in Vienna. I started clapping alone, hoping he would move, hoping he’d turn on his music box, hoping he had meant what he’d said about people who listen.

I can be so naive.

He stood motionless, an unwound toy, a puppet to the sound of Euros. He was in the game for his own reasons, it turned out. A moment passed and my applause faded; I fell silent. It was a shattering silence, at least for me, since the rest of the people in Stephanplatz carried on with their business of shopping and eating stuff. A small child trotted over to the music box man – Abraham from Hungary – and dropped a couple of coins into the box. Clink-clink.

… and the music played on. Dammit. Never trust street people.

– V –

In my travels I see many cathedrals. The Catholic Church, you know, it permeates society in a way that is best seen through how many churches are in how many cities across how many strangely different countries all over the globe. In my travels I often step into these sometimes beautiful cathedrals; I hear bits and pieces of choirs or sermons… “mass” I guess it is called. I don’t know… the Catholic Church is just shrouded in mysteries to me.

The question I am most puzzled with, I guess, is “why do I do I do this? Why do I stop and listen to this rubbish?” Better yet, “Why do I walk into to random churches in my aimless wanderings and just sit and listen to preachy speeches I fathom to be made entirely of greed and bullshit?” It’s not like I need to hear someone tell me to treat my fellow man with respect and all that sort of thing. Unfortunately in Catholicism, this adage goes hand in hand with “force the word of Jesus, pray on the uneducated and collect as much money and resources for the church as you can in your short lives.”

I may have embellished on that last point, but it’s basically true and I’m mostly right.

I don’t know. I guess I feel a strong connection with the past in such places and history can be a rush if looked at with the right mindset. I find it thrilling to be in a place that is hundreds of years old that is still performing the same pointless rituals from the era. It excites me to hear words that ancient kings from the lore I read have heard, to occupy the same structures they occupied and try to get a sense of what their perspective was like. It’s surreal, at times, what with all the figures of a dead Jesus, and the other not so obvious symbols of an idea gone weird. It’s strange to me how people search for light in places so dark, so musty, so covered in symbols of death and the macabre. It is, in fact, eery as fuck, and you know I like me some eery-ass shit.

But that’s just part of the fun. When I travel, I hear masses in many languages like Latin, Spanish, Italian, French. But Austrian-German? Hearing that in a city as ornate as Vienna is otherworldly screwy and strange in a way that’s just on this side of twisted. I might have been able to handle the priest dressed in all things shiny and pointy, not to mention flawlessly ironed, surrounded by aged must and dark statues faintly lit by candles and the occasional LED. But to hear him shout on in a language I can’t understand, and one as angry-sounding as Austrian-German can be – dude, it’s a bit much to bear on a Saturday afternoon after a perfectly good nap.

As I’m leaving the church I stand by the door and watch people go by. They drop pounds and pounds of Euros into the church collection box just outside the door yet they ignore the beggar crouching by the holy water. I pause and just stare, wondering what to think, and not having the slightest clue what to say or how to react.

Really, people? Really? Just like that? Wow.

I mean, rationalize that all you want, but just don’t try to justify it; it would blow my mind to hear the BS that people spout with regard to that hypocritical mess, and I kind of want to keep my mind where it is for the time being. It would make it all too weird to even try to write about in a place as deathly as this church.

Back in Vienna…

Incidentally, there were two flautists competing with Abraham for the ears of Stephanplatz, though they both had mine. Because, think of that: 2 flautists – are you feeling me on that one? The boys in the audience should know what I’m talking about, if that’s a hint. I mean – Wow. There’s a concept I could get behind… wouldn’t THAT be something! Think of the lips! Sure, one was a bit of a band geek but the other was marvelous in her calm khakis and the sexy black blouse with oh-so-many buttons undone, the sleeves rolled up to her elbows, her auburn hair glowing as if the sun’s very radiation was being taken neutron for neutron and infused into the strands; her grey-blue eyes, silty and stirred, turbid on that brisk fall morning like glacial water from the underside of the Alps.


But it was cold by the stones in the shadow of the church and I got walking, my own music blasting from headphones, and I was lost in it. Then I come up on a stunning image and I gladly take my earphones out of my ears when I see a beautiful young woman playing a violin and dressed in brown, contrasting perfectly with the overcast sky. She plays it classically and with the precise touch and sensual breathing of butterflies making love on a spider web. Mozart & Bach, Strauss and scores of others… she plays with a kind smile – shy but reassuring, like the world isn’t as cold as it seems sometimes. Or as cold as it is right now, for that matter. Maybe the warmth comes from the violin, maybe it comes from her soul, fueled by the notes or whatever. Or maybe it’s the skirt she wears: it’s long and thick, resembling a fall blanket that my grandmother once owned. Her posture is immaculate; the flinch of her wrist, perfect as she guides the bow of her instrument over the tension of the strings with the precision of a skipper holding the main sheet steady from a jibe as he runs with the wind at his stern. The strings vibrate obediently under her lightest inclinations, her softest intentions – her most abstract impulses.

The children, of course, love it. They, at least, don’t behave like stampeding buffalo as they pass the musicians on the streets; they are the civilized and we are not. They clap happily; they wave goodbye as if to a favorite celebrity while their parents wheel them off with longing in their hearts or at least in their faces (who knows of their hearts?). Often it seems they know something we’ve forgotten. Sucks for us.

I applaud the whole thing and then cross my arms again in the brisk evening. I fidget and eventually just sit at the steps of the fountain behind her, freezing my ass off but hoping for a chat when she pauses. There are things about this girl I want to know, but I get more than I had bargained for.

As she’s putting her instrument away, crouching down on the cold stone with her knees together like a proper lady, she looks at me and smiles shyly, though her eyes tell me something else entirely. Without thinking if she speaks English at all, I ask her if I can buy her a cup of tea before she goes.

“I don’t know,” she says with a struggle for the English words under a heavy eastern accent. “… my train, it will leave soon…”

“There are other trains, aren’t there?” I implore, suggestively. She pauses for a moment.

“Just a cup of tea?” she teases.

“Why don’t we just start with that?” I spout, my confidence suddenly brimming. Cool and calm on the outside, I think to myself that for a bumbling idiot, I sometimes do quite well under pressure. And the cold that had been building up, and my having sat still on a flat surface of stone while she played her set with my anxiety mounting certainly counted as pressure.

In any case, her train to Bratislava in Slovakia already gone, she has no choice but to wait another hour. Good. Besides, it’s not like it takes that long to get there. That’s one thing that having lived and worked in the San Francisco Bay Area has given me, is a perspective of the distances of surrounding cities. Hell, I used to commute 2 hours each way from the East Bay to Silicon Valley, or from the South Bay to San Francisco, 5 days a week for months sometimes. I mean, shit, Between Cal Train and MUNI it takes 1.5 hours to get from Mountain View to Embarcadero. Granted, it stops anytime it spots a biker or a ground squirrel (both common enough animals on the San Francisco peninsula). But when you’re studying languages and emergency medicine on the train, the difference is the same. So you can imagine that when I learn that Bratislava is an hour away from Vienna by direct train, it’s hard not to think of it as a suburb of the fair city and not have all that much empathy for commuters.

But there, at the Cafe Europa on the Stephanplatz in Vienna we have our tea and coffee and discuss her violin, which she’s been studying in Bratislava for the last 16 years. Sure, we comment on the difficulty of the violin, and the complexity of the pieces she chooses to include in her repertoire, but it’s refreshing to know that she also understands very plainly what a complete tool John Mayer is, for example. I guess I should’ve expected that from a girl who pays an extra tax just so that she can play Mozart, Bach and Strauss on the cold streets of Vienna for tourists.

She explains to me how, in Vienna, not just anyone can play music on the street. You have to report your earnings and pay taxes on that as well. You have to pay for a license and be registered with the city or you might be fined, or even jailed. Jailed! Imagine that! It sounds overly harsh and unrelenting. I imagine a city with so few problems that their police force can afford to track down musicians that are playing on the street without a license. Must be nice.

Naturally, I’m astounded. I guess it explains where they’re always so well-dressed on the street – they are, after all, professionals at work. But it bothers me, and I tell her this - that it make me nervous that the city feels it must tax music on the street. She doesn’t follow, and counters with the arguments she’s been given, which is that it’s a good way to keep the vagrants off the street and class up the joint. Not necessarily, I start to argue, making points about the externalities of the system and how those most affected might not be the ones that are most in a position to do something about it and so on. I notice I’ve lost her somewhere along the way, but no matter. It was nice to almost have an engaging conversation with someone.

Soon she would thank me for the tea and leave for her train with the cliche style and elegance of a 19th century British person, like something out of a Charles Dickens novel. I will stay there at the table for a short while longer, pondering the descriptions I had just heard of the life of this musician and how her fate (or her chosen path, rather) was already inextricably woven into this city that would soon start to fall under the shadow of night outside. I will sit there pondering all this, not realizing that that I had anywhere else to be and I will ask for some whiskey for my coffee. I will sip it slowly and look around.

Eventually it will hit me.

Just as I burst into the domed cathedral by the Stephansplatz in Vienna, the organs are quieting down, exhaling their last breath in a set of songs. It makes me wonder what I’ve missed while I was out getting drunk, reflecting on my earlier conversation with Patricia, the violinist from Bratislava who I’d let go instead of pursuing.

I’d made the right choice. Initially I’d misread her musical aptitude and ability to play notes with the fervor and passion that drives a good kisser to make out. I had somehow mistaken it for a fiery personality that could’ve made the night fun. And while she’d let me buy the fruit tea she ordered and made pleasant enough conversation, she’d sat with her hands on her lap, knees together and her gaze fixed on my shoulders, avoiding my eyes at all costs. It felt like she thought she was about to be taken home for sex and couldn’t really do anything about it, but didn’t really want to either. I felt like a pervert, sitting there without her gaze, trying to talk to this girl about music while I drank my triple espresso.

It’s not like she wasn’t pretty, and what I said about her before was true; she DID have a kind warm smile, and she DID have amazing posture, and she DID play a mean violin… but that does not a fun person make.

So after she left with a strange and confused look of meek gratitude on her face like I’d just pardoned her for a crime she never committed, she went home to Slovakia, like she does every week. Home to her grandparents and 78 year-old violin master and, according to her, their family goat. No idea why she’d brought that up. I had stayed at the cafe and ordered another triple espresso, this time with Irish Whisky or bourbon; I don’t remember which. They sometimes fill up a deep hole in my chest but that day they were just burning right through layers of sinewy material somewhere between my esophagus and my duodenum.

After a couple more of those and a hundred serious thoughts through my mind I had heard deep gongs in the distance; church bells going mad, followed by the deep hum of an organ being prepped for song. I had looked down at my watch and remembered the pipe organ concert in the church down the street that I didn’t want to miss. I love pipe organs.

I had walked in to this domed church earlier that day but the choir that was singing then had creeped me out and I had wanted to let the feeling pass, which is when I’d gone to wander the streets and listen to sexy flautists and cold violinists. Do you know what a trip it is to walk into a cathedral in Austria with a huge dome, full of dying Christs, baby angels, gold trimmings and swords everywhere only to hear a crowd of foreigners singing “This Land is Your Land” and “When the Saints go Marching in“? In English? Complete with a tambourine and everything as if they were smack dab int he middle of Birmingham, Alabama? Smack Dab. How would that make you feel? How would you react after 3 coffees and just as much whiskey, or whatever kinds of grappa they put in those things in these parts? How should one react?

Me? I’d stepped out in the bitterness of the chilly afternoon that makes you clench your fists and bury your fingertips into the creases of skin of your crossed arms. That was when I’d met Patricia, playing beautifully on the street.

But now I had come back to the church to give it another go since it was on to the pipe organs. These puppies I can handle, especially at loud volumes and on this much coffee and bourbon. But like I said, when I walk in I feel as if I’ve missed something. I am a bit self-conscious when I walk into what should be a booming organ concert but am met instead with dead silence and catholic minions staring ahead blankly at something I certainly can’t see from where I’m standing. It feels like a being a freshman and showing up stag to a sophomore prom. Without pants.

Not good.

“Music!” I say into that silence, casually, but not softly, and my indiscretion echoes freely and resonantly under that finely tuned acoustic chamber filled with images of dying Christs. I repeat it, looking straight at the people looking back at me from the front pew. I say it with more determination and a bit of a subjunctive tone on my voice: “We must have music!”

People turn to look; they seem to think me harmless but insane. They do nothing, make no move to flee or attack, but they do make sure their children are close and their bags are at hand. Could they be right? Am I the crazy one here? After all, they are the ones not clapping for street musicians who work to delight us, basically for free. They are the ones not giving a standing ovation to the sounds of a free organ concert. They are the ones sitting and staring blankly at the top of an ornate church with an empty hole somewhere inside them that even this worthy mixture of powerful sounds and reverberating hums can’t seem to fill. The sounds of that organ, while lacking in beat still makes the chest cavity resonate like the acoustic womb of a guitar. “And I’m crazy?” I say in the center isle, continuing my line of thought out loud. I recognize now that I might have done better to keep my actual comments to myself because admittedly, from an outsider’s perspective, I must’ve been behaving like a drunk degenerate. But dammit, I was right!

Just then, the next piece starts from behind me with a BOOM! that makes me inhale fast and nearly jump out of my socks. I had forgotten that pipe organs are usually plopped at the back of the church where their satanic appearance is less visible and where the acoustic focus works better, given the layout of most cathedrals. The organist does the audience the favor of playing Davy Jones’ theme from Pirates of the Caribbean, which is a fantastic piece full of anger and ravenous sentiment, written for the movie and originally performed by the Prague Philharmonic Orchestra. I am ensnared, still standing in the aisle in between the pews. Of the few people that remained, none are staring at me any longer, and I spread out my arms, taking every tone, every pitch as a shock to the cerebrum. With every change of note I shiver; with every deep touch of the base I twitch. The organist works on me for the next hour, filling me with such deep prongs of music that it dispels all my concerns that people don’t enjoy it enough in a city like Vienna. At least now if they don’t enjoy it, I have so much in me that I can enjoy it for them.

I had asked for music, and music it was that I was given.


Cafe Europa — Vienna, Austria

Oscar Bjørne

Covered in leaves of autumn, Essen, Germany would be a pretty nice town if it didn’t suck so much. Under light grey clouds the thin rain drapes the industrial remnants of the Ruhr region’s once booming economy. There are streets and streets of old people; a plethora of distance between anything resembling a decent bar scene and 10 hours a day of technical training.

Who needs it?

Supposedly it’s become a university scene and so I hobbled off after young coeds. I found nothing but smokestacks, pretty foliage, passing traffic and plenty of parking, none of which is a euphemism for young coeds. Nonetheless, plenty of parking is a rarity where I come from. Amsterdam, that is.

Oh well. I guess it can’t all be Barcelona’s and Vienna’s, right?



Well. It goddamn ought to be. And why not? All I ask for are some steaming hot coeds and a vodka martini – shaken, not stirred, dammit. I know it’s Europe; get yourself a goddamn shaker, Euro-bars. Is that really too much to ask? Eh, Essen?


At least they have good chocolate and the vodka here is cheap. But that’ll only cut if for so long.

So what could I do after the guitar was played and the fingers were calloused? After the work was done and the streets were scoured? With a head of hair soaked in the hours spent in the heavy mist, a slight sniffle and ears tired of rapid German I snuck a peak at the free download just made available: the 1st issue of Transmetropolitan.

Sweet lord, I’ve been waiting for this for some time now. Did you make this happen? It is too late to join your club?

Oh it is? Too much drinking huh? Oh well. At least W. won’t be there either. Oh, he will? Huh. He got back on the bandwagon, you say? Good for him. What about the killing of all those Iraqi’s?

Muslims don’t count? Really? You’ve got to be shittin’ me. Oh, you are. Just playing, you say? I see.

But how about it? He feels really bad about it? That’s it? That’s all it takes? Yeah, I know he’s otherwise incompetent, but so what? So you can plead insanity on Earth and stupidity in the afterlife? That works?

Jesus Christ. No, no — I’m not actually calling him, just… yeah, I know he’s a busy guy. Look, just forget it, ok? Geez.

What about Dick Cheney? Yeah, I thought so. That fucker didn’t have a chance, even with these lax standards you seem to… you what? No, why the fuck should I stop cursing? You already said I’m not allowed in anyways, right? You ain’t the boss of me.

What? Sure you can ask me for a favor. Yeah, it can be off the record (*wink-wink*).

What do you mean by ‘take care of him’? Ok… yeah… oh…


… yeah, I guess so. Oh, sure, yeah, no problem. Don’t worry — I’m screwed anyway. I’ll tear him up real good when I get the chance. Yeah, of course: right upside the jaw; I know the drill. I wouldn’t have it any other way. Just you remember this though, if the two sides ever duke it out and I’m left standing.

The hell You say! I have plenty of scrupples (no, you fix that last typo), it’s just that I have my own set. Look, I’m pretty good with words but you’re the Almighty. You wrote The Bible or something, didn’t you? Well whatever. I’m sure you could have if you’d put your mind to it. Me? I write a blog. Yes, people read it! Jerk.


_Well, anyways, the point is I’m in no condition to argue about this, least of all with you. Yeah, I’m sure we’ll speak soon. Yes, I’ll be sure to watch The Daily Show tomorrow. Yeah. Ok. Uhmmhmm. Yeah, ok. Bye.


Well. At least I’m reading TM now. T and Mo have been talking about this for years, and I finally got around to it. So far so good. Besides, it’s not like a degenerate like me had a prayer’s chance at a wicca gathering to get into heaven anyways. May as well go all the way, you know? Out like a bullet, no control and blind as a bat.

But at least I’ll have read Transmetropolitan.

What did you do today?

Pedro Ávila

I snapped up in bed with a jolt as if hit by the titillating 20,000 Volts of a distributor cap. Disturbed from sleep out of a terrible dream is no proper way to make a man jump out of bed – but boy, is it effective.

The first thing I noticed was how dark it was. Not just dark, but black. Pitch black; not like the night, but like fear — like bad things face down in wet roadside ditches, cold and abandoned. Outside the lamps were still on but their lights seemed to be shut out from illuminating my room. The darkness was so empty it held no memories — it was cold and smelled of fiends and… enemies. My chest was soaked but my skin was dry. My medical training jumped and I checked for gashes and other wounds.

Nope, nothing.

I still clung to the dream, not wanting to forget it yet. It disturbed and vexed me in a way that made me very uneasy. I had perished killing my killer; died bloody in his hands, and he breathless in mine. He’d stabbed me repeatedly as I strangled him in a bright place surrounded by people. It was not a good hour for such thoughts.

I thought back to the day — what was it? I had come home from work dead tired… dead? Could that be it? …nah – too obvious.

Maybe that run… that run yesterday, concentric circles around the 10 miles of the main canals in Amsterdam — it had almost killed me… but no, no. Too much of a stretch.

I thought back to the roda… that was it: that guy. Tall and muscular; a thin face. He wasn’t just dark, like an African American – he was black. Black like emptiness, black like danger. Negro. A pit of confused anger embodied in the color of a man’s skin. Whatever it was, the important thing is that I saw no smile on his face; no white teeth presented themselves. I didn’t like it.

He was angry from the start. There was no playfulness in his attempted take downs, no creativity in his forceful kicks. Who did he think I was? Was he mistaking me for someone else, someone with whom he had a grudge? Had I done something I did not realize? He was coming for me, and there was anger in his face; fury in his exhaled breath.

I dodged, I rolled, and I answered back with my own, but I own no fury like that. I loath nothing that seriously. I’m there for fun.

Then it happened. His arrastao put me on the defensive and I was forced into holding him in a head lock from above; I hate this position. He twisted out of it and instead of putting me in a headlock – which is what usually happens and one of the reasons I hate that position – he pushed me down to the floor. Fuck.

That horrible position on one knee, head down, elbow to the face for protection: completely vulnerable from above. I’ve always had an irrational fear of this position; a trauma of some kind. Maybe a saw a film or something when I was young, but it makes me uneasy. Something akin to that scene where Alex Murphy gets shot in “Robocop” comes to mind. Why the hell was I watching that when I was 7?

Anyway, my enemy close above me, his thigh keeping me down from behind. The position I dread. Then I hear the click of the knife and the air gets cold with the tip of the blade. What? Wait… why? No, wait!

It sinks in easily and the blade under my flesh fills me with fear. As he pulls it out I draw a quick breath out of instinct; a short, pitiful, thin breath that barely whispers any oxygen. I can smell the blood instantly.

In that second I think back to that first time I was knocked down. The friendly mestre who knocked me horizontally five feet into the air (with all his friendliness), and let me fall into the watching crowd. Piles of humiliation. Yeah.

That’s what it was about; humility. It was always about learning humility. And how do you react? Do you try to rid yourself the humiliation by standing up and getting angry? You’d look more foolish and you wouldn’t learn a thing. Do you cower and roll into a fetal position, hoping for pity yet fearing further beating with no defense? Do you just let fear rush in and do it’s thing, settling into a pointless panic? Or do you rise above, learn, and come back with a bit more awareness, your fear fueling your drive and a cool head full of wisdom to drive the strength?

First, I guess — you have to fall well. Then you worry about what to do after the fall. I have fallen many times since then, and have had it with humility. There were other days in which I might have sat still, hoping for action from someone. Help. Pity. No more knockdowns, no more flying through clapping crowds — no more stabbing, please; let it stop here. There were times when I would not have thought to fight back immediately while the strength was still in me.

But not this time.

Before that breath could be drawn in again I stood straight up, my back to his chest, reached back and grabbed his neck, firmed my grip and pulled. I use my hips to push him over and flip him in front of me, on his knees. He never saw this coming. My elbow was already around his throat, squeezing, squeezing the life out of him as I squeezed the hate out of me. I wanted it all gone and I didn’t have much time.

His arms flailed, looking for a hold, trying to tap, trying to scratch, trying to do anything, but I was out of his reach. I didn’t question him. I looked for no explanation; I needed no explanation. He went limp soon enough but I didn’t let go right away. I had more hate still to squeeze out of me and wanted no drop left.

As I thought about this horrible moment in that lonely and new kind of dark, a strange sound rang in my ears. A repeating buzzing, loud and terrible as if it were right next to my ears.

What do I do?

Everything around me was fading, the darkness thinning and I could see an outline of… red lights, numbers…

what is this?

I needed to do something, but what? Suddenly:

Alarm! The alarm clock! Turn it off: Right arm, GO! Reach across; not too far! Remember there was a glass of water there or something…

_No? You’re not working?


Ok, never mind… left arm, swing around over the chest; you can do it old boy! That’s it! Right onto the buzzer button. Snooze — don’t turn it off!

At a kid!


A nightmare. What time is it? Did I sleep enough? What did I do to deserve this? It’s cold outside isn’t it? Fuck.

It’s going to be a long, strange day.

Oh well. At least I didn’t kill anyone last night, and then die in his arms. What with the Patriot Act and all, it’s a bad time for people who do that kind of thing.

Oscar Bjørne

“We must perform the tasks according to the distributed project plan to ensure alignment and break down the silos between the participating entities in the business.”

Blank stares. Mine must’ve been incredulous, because I’ve never felt so much disbelief in what my ears had just heard. It was like listening to mass in Latin through those long speakers they have in cathedrals and the sound gets all reverberated, bouncing off the stones of the church like maddening tennis balls and you can’t make any sense of it.

“Wow. That’s a whole lot of streaming piles of bullshit there,” I told Vincent. “Care to elaborate on that festering turd of a sentence or does it mean any less to you than it does to me?” Our client hadn’t arrived at the meeting yet so that’s how I address him. I’ve been over the fact that he’s my boss and with the formalities out the window, shit can actually get done around here.

“I always wondered,” I told him, “if people just said crap like that or if they actually believed it meant something – you know, if it counted as communication.”

“It’s what they expect.” He said. “Sometimes you just have to, uhhm…” He paused, hesitated. Trailed away.

Don’t say ‘play the game’, I thought to myself. It’ll just bring me one step closer to ditching this place forever.

Thankfully he was interrupted by a phone call and I didn’t have to hear the cringing sentence that I just know will one day make me snap and behave like a cornered wildebeest, foaming at the mouth and knocking over projectors and steno pads like they were coasters in a bar fight.

I sat in that room, full of cold, drying bodies and 3M products. I stared outside, where the skies flow and the air is nice. A twisted irony that my mind can cross windows and vast open spaces while I sit in tepid beige conference rooms with shaggy gray carpet and fluorescent lights. Where rigor mortis is a lifestyle and bright ties are considered exciting.

I know that for every twinkling star in my telescope’s view there is a huge ball of fire light years away, melting gas into plasma and in general turning out a mess of things in the universe.

Still. A company car and an expensive tie do not a successful man make. Anyone who says differently is selling something.