Oscar Bjørne

As the weekday afternoon wears on and out and down, I tend to either get deeper into the tangle of work, turning into a fury of category 5 productivity or else I get further and further from the goal. If the latter is the case, come 6 or 7 o’clock and I’m a mess of ambitious thoughts without a lick of intent.

Guess what kind of day today is?

I sit in my perfect apartment, more perfect than I had hoped for and the prize of a thousand recent conquests, waist deep in political articles I’m too worn out to discuss without sounding like a leftist socialist chimp from south Berkeley. I read Hero’s and Heroine’s blogs that inspire as much as they deflate and listen to a seemingly unending playlist of Bourne Identity-esque soundtracks I’m sure I never bought. With any luck the late afternoon will form that strange lighting effect that photographers love so much, where the clouds are thick enough to darken the sky more than normal while the sun, slowly approaching the horizon will light up their undersides creating vibrant greens on the trees, an unnaturally dark gray sky and eliminating all glare from my screen.

But it’ll probably just rain. Dammit.

In the meantime I let the Bourne soundtrack do its thing. I watch people walk by, some in a terrible hurry, others, not so much. I gaze at the boats that drift by on the canal outside my window and I dream up the possibilities.

“It’s only a matter of time,” I tell myself, “before you end up buying a boat.”

What?” chastises another voice in my head. “You can’t buy a boat. That’s not part of the plan.”

“Shut up, voice. Wait, what plan?”

<span style=“font-weight: bold;“>Mistake #1. Never egg on a voice in your head that’s not yours in some form and wasn’t invited. That’s like hearing a guy in the Red Light District hiss at you, whispering, “coke?” under his breath and you turn around and ask him where you can get a better deal. Not smart.

What happened to retaining mobility and not carrying any anchors around?

I pause and think about this.

<span style=“font-weight: bold;“>Mistake #2. Even if the voice was making sense, you send if off and think later. Don’t give it a chance to get deeper into your head. If possible, find out whose voice it is but don’t dilly dally.

But it was too late. I was already thinking like I needed to move to Zurich or something even though I still have 6 months on my least and I’d just moved to the city. Get a fucking grip, Pete.

The sad thing is that this voice knows me well. Girls who watch too much Sex in the City have a tendency to think that boys have this aversion to commitment — NOT TRUE. They (the boys you’ve dated) have an aversion to commitment towards YOU.

In fact, since this is most likely the only time I will ever mention Sex in the city — ever — let me dispel a few rumors that are somewhat related to what I imagine the show speaks to (I’ve lived with  different girls over the last few years…they’ve all watched the show and one even denied it, but the bottom line is I’ve heard what they talk about, even if I’ve not watched the show:

1) Nice guys finish last.

  • NOT TRUE – Nice guys finish dead last, sometimes they even die for no good reason. You ho’s should pay more attention to the ones that are salvageable. This brings me to the next point:

2) Girls want a bad boy that turns good for them.

  • Unfortunately, true — but girls, this doesn’t make any sense and you can correct it. Do you realize how selfish and inconsiderate this feeling is? consider discussing the logic behind this because I promise you, I will not just laugh condescendingly the next time I hear a girl ask “why is it that all the guys I date turn out to be jerks?”. I will push you into a canal if I hear a friend of mine sputtering out this kind of horse-shit. The guys you date turn out to be jerks because you have bad aim. Just point your horny self at the guy not treating you like shit and you’ll find that you don’t have to put up with the “I’ll do my best to call you after the hockey game” routine. I thought you would’ve figured that one out by now.

3) Good looking women can waltz into a bar, point at a man and have mad sex with him to their heart’s content with no ties.

  • TRUE — But I know you already knew this. I just can’t figure out why it doesn’t happen more often. Scared of rejection, maybe? Get over it.

4) You don’t have to move to NYC to become an amazing sex goddess who is the master of her domain and all the men around her

  • TRUE — There is nothing in the NYC water that makes women the social equivalent of atomic bombs compared to men’s potential to be rocket scientists.Yes, the water in New York is fantastic, but that’s unrelated. There are plenty of lovely women out there. It’s just that more of you need to read Shallon’s Blog.

There’s more but I think this is plenty for now. I will quiz you on this next week, so study up, eh?

Oscar Bjørne

Closer now to the coffeeshops, the canals and the whores, things are starting to get a bit more real. That’s not some analogy I’m stretching either. Living a street away from the Red Light District means I see an assload of all three every day I’m here.

And that’s the tickle under my skin these days – the splinter in my mind. I’ve not yet left this city for others. I’m still here. This was not how things were supposed to go. I was supposed to be all over, putting out fires in distant corners of Europe, traveling fast to both cause and correct the levels of mayhem in the world. I was supposed to be an international man of mystery.


To date, too many tourists have laughed like absurd hyenas under my window; too many drunken English boys on stag parties have sung crazy Irish songs at odd hours of the night. Too many cute prostitutes have winked at me and knocked on their windows as I pass to make my way to buy bread, bananas and milk. And so far, all those notions of gallivanting around Europe with a corporate credit card and a smile as wide as Jesus could spread his arms?

Lies, lies, lies.

So far, anyway. Days go by and with my relocation per diem gone after the official move, I watch my euros – my precious little colored money – the way a freshman watches his stash of beer that someone bought him a month ago. I don’t eat out as often. Afternoon coffee breaks are taken at home, with my 7 euro coffee machine. I can’t go anywhere because I’m at work, but there’s only so many online trainings you can handle, only so many power point slides from June ‘03 I can scroll through alone in my room before my eyes start disintegrating from ennui, pouring out of my face like the sand in a broken hourglass.

And I won’t have it. Not me. Gallivanting is what I do. It’s all I know; it’s my thing.

So things cannot stay this way. The weekend is only days away and I have a car at my disposal. An honest to god CAR. Sure, it’s a European Ford, but it’s got 4 wheels and runs good. That passes for transportation where I come from. So it’s decided then. PKK road trip number one is green for go. Let’s see what kind of plans materialize.

Pedro Ávila

There must be some kind of down-syndromey condition relating specifically to packaging. There just must be. And if there is, I have it.

Seriously. Cereal boxes and FedEx packages are the same thing to me. Without a utility knife it might be Cheerios everywhere. Most of my pay stubs have a whole side torn off because I managed to rip them up as I’m opening the envelope. Bags of M&M’s or peanuts — I don’t even bother anymore, just bite right into them and hope for the best. 3 out of 5 times I completely fuck up milk cartons as I open them.

You know the ones I mean? The ones that look like a house, a box with a roof, and one side of the roof says “Open Here” with a little arrow? I had that shit down in first grade, every time. But since then, I’m awash in milk carton troubles. I don’t know what happened.

Maybe I became an engineer. Things are harder when you’re an engineer, and mostly because you make them harder. Sometimes you don’t want to be an engineer, but you can’t help it. You think of everything as a physics problem, or an algorithm to be described. Things that are not in the set of given preconditions are obstacles to be hurdled. And God’s real name isn’t “Iehovah”, it’s “IEEE”.

So when you get a milk carton and the arrow is on one side, naturally you wonder: “Why not the other side?” You examine the house; the box. It seems symmetrical. Sometimes on the other side it says “open other side”, as if they knew you were too inept to do it right or too curious to follow simple instructions. They were right. But you try it anyways. Guess what?

It works.

You strut with your rebel milk carton. Never, by the way, does it strike you that people don’t strut with milk cartons – but you’re an engineer and you do. You glance at the other fools who don’t know that it can be done this way, that it can be done differently. “Suckers,” you think. You go on with the knowledge that you’ve been to the edge and beyond. Some fools tear tags from mattresses. Others take great risks and fail. You succeeded.

And one day it happens (roughly 3 out of 5 times): you forget to do it the “cool” way and open the correct side. You grab the lapels of the roof lines and pull them outward. You pinch the middle of it to pull out the triangular/rhombus-shaped mouth thing of the beaker like you’re so used to doing. It’s so second nature to you that you don’t even give it your full attention.

But it won’t pinch. Maybe it’s soggy. Maybe there’s a crease that interferes with the cocking action of opening up this carton. Maybe the cardboard was produced cheaply in Sri Lanka or Suriname and it doesn’t have the rigid feel to which you’re accustomed. There are a million reasons in your head, all, to you, legitimate, but now you’re in trouble. Now you have to either pick at the lip with a finger nail while walking down the street, or maybe you stop and make a scene, looking at passers-by (passerbyers?) with a nonchalant, “I don’t want to make a big deal out of this but these fools didn’t get it right” sort of expression… “obviously I know how to open a fucking milk carton.”

Or maybe you go for the gusto. You turn the shit around, open the other side like a maniac, making sure to get it right lest you have a useless piece of paper full of milk that can only then be opened with a box cutter, and that would just be bad form. But you open the other side, making not just a lip but completely opening the house, the box, exposing it to the world. If you don’t have a glass right there you have to drink it from the box, the whole time looking like you know the right way to do it but “I like my way better because you get larger gulps.” Or something.

I can be a real moron sometimes.

Oscar Bjørne

The train tracks were wet and the sky darkened earlier than it should have. The storm they had anticipated last week was as furious as it was late. All around me buses were zooming over the edges of puddles, throwing sudden masses of water in the direction of unaware pedestrians. It looked as though the city were trying to send people home, but no one was listening. All around there was a buzz in the air much like nearby power lines.

I was on my way to the south of Holland for the week. My contacts in the company had directed me to immerse myself in the Dutch language for a couple weeks while the silence of the summer months passed unnoticed. They said this institute, run by nuns, was the finest one around and besides, the European Union reimburses our company for my time spent there, so on our side, it was a win all around. A real good deal, as they say in the business.

And the rhythm was swinging. After all, I was already saying hello to people in Dutch, had gone through 7 online lessons and CDs and even managed to meet some of the local barkeeps, which a great a way to do it, kids. Write that one down. I’m giving you gold here.

I was a little apprehensive about the nuns, though, unsure of what to expect from the old girls. I have no experience with the clergy, but I hear stories. Rumors, anecdotes, maybe even outright lies, but some of them confuse me and many I find terrifying. The details are not necessary but it is sufficient to say that the thought of spending a week in a stone-walled monastery speaking Dutch with sexless women dressed in black robes and strange hats that hide serious faces with a long ruler in one hand and a stern readiness in the other was enough to make me both pale with fear and giddy with anticipation.

Because the river does, you know, runs both ways; they were nuns after all. What would they think, and how would they react to a degenerate writer like me in their midst, toting strange books by even weirder old men, concealing flasks of unknown basque liquors under the battery of his laptop?

I’d planned on walking in to the place in the morning with Songs of the Doomed under my arm, Mein Kampf _duct taped to my left leg and a raw onion on my belt. _Mein Kampf was – you know, for effect. I would speak nothing but Portuguese from the interior, which is sort of like English from the hick south except that it sounds like gibberish even to native Brazilians. I wondered if not swallowing to the point that I would foam at the mouth was necessary, or even appropriate, but as you can see, I was getting ahead of myself. In any case, I expected it was going to be a week worth remembering, and I had no idea what the outcome would be.

I have never been in the gambling business.

Getting to this language institute should have a been a simple matter of fetching the car from the company garage and then driving the rest of the way south. A long but arguably direct shot on a bus to my company’s office should get me to my car, and from there it was all sunsets; I knew where the place was and the roads in Holland are not that difficult to figure out since they follow the rules here. No, the hard part would be getting to where my car was.

The sky was already unnaturally dark when I left the hotel to grab a bucket of noodles and veggies since wok food is so good for walking. By the time I made it to the bus stop the rain had become the stuff of old testament god, and was already heavy enough to hurt small children. It came in no short bursts and thirty minutes later when it finally thinned out a bit, I was still at the station, wondering what happened to “a bus every 5 minutes” like the hotel concierge had told me, those useless gits. As it turns out, on Sundays I have to change buses a couple times and they make sure to not tell you about it. This makes it a learning experience for me, I guess.

Luckily, they at least follow the rules here, and after 3 buses, a couple chapters in Tom Robbin’s Another Roadside Attraction, plenty of noodles and a short walk to the office, I found myself standing in front of a locked building. They follow the rules here so well, in fact, that the rule about it being illegal to work in The Netherlands on a weekend (which no one bothered to tell me, mind you) is followed to the letter. You can’t even go to the office to print something. You can’t get into the building. At all. Not even the lobby. After 23:00 on Friday nights, the entire building becomes an example of total and complete lock-down. Gates are closed, doors are shut, lights are off and key cards don’t work, like everything else in the building. Nao Funciona. Even the intercoms – which are turned off – are useless because there isn’t even a guard in the place, some facility person to talk to. Nothing.

The completeness of the lock-down made me uneasy, especially since at this point on a Sunday it would take an hour to get back to Amsterdam Proper and catch a train south, assuming I could be sure that said train even existed anymore. And I wasn’t.

Thinking quickly, I called my man Steven, a lifeline of sorts these days, and a damn fine one at that. I was looking for a suggestion, a phone number of some weekend security guard, someone with keys, anything that could get my car out of that garage. Hell, a discrete crowbar would’ve been given serious consideration at that point. Nothing was off the table, and my hope was running on fumes. But Steven doesn’t work like that.

Some people are above and beyond kind of people. Lending a hand, suggesting solutions — these aren’t things these people do; these are things they are. Why tell you who to call when they can call them for you? Why tell you where to look when they can show you, even look for you? Why tell you which train to take when they can drive you there even though it’s a two hour drive on a Sunday night?

Steven is this kind of person. A Sunday night hero who speeds out into the night with his wonder dog in the backseat, ready to head straight to the rescue of uninformed expatriates in angst. Usually I’m lucky; today, I’m thankful.

And so it is that in the stillness after the storm that was late by a week, under an ever-darkening sky and a heavy mist I found myself outside the lobby of my company’s headquarters south of Amsterdam, past the industry and the highway, dodging rain drops and gusts of wind, sitting cross-legged on the cold stone floor and using the heat from my notebook battery to keep warm. The anger and frustration eased out of me, dispersing into the evening and diluted by the nonchalance and the sheer Sunday-ness of the evening – it wouldn’t twist anything else today. Soon, rescue would come and it was looking like I’d get to the nuns after all.

Maybe the weirdness can wait a bit.

We’ll see how the week goes.

Dylan Cormack

I stood in line at The Bird, waiting in the street for a take away box of what I’d heard was the best goddamn pad thai in Amsterdam. Outside on the grimy street that was nonetheless full and moving were the tourists of the Amsterdam Chinatown on Zeedijk. It had been ten long minutes since I had given the small man my order but I was in no mood for confrontation so I stood patiently, waiting for my noodles and peanuts.

In my left hand I held a 10 euro note, pink as I was on the day I was born. In my right hand I clutched in eager anticipation Songs of the Doomed, by the Doctor himself, newly purchased in the corner of a small store of used English books. I’d had to bargain the owner of the store to 8 euro down from 12 and I still thought the prick overcharged me, considering I’d found it overturned in a corner of the store beneath a stool he didn’t even know was there.

As far as having the money in one hand and the book in the other, I’m usually self-conscious about filth. I won’t apologize for that. But this time I couldn’t tell which one of the two were dirtier, the euro currency that was mangling the mighty dollar or the twisted gonzo journalist that doles it out to the corrupt and the stupid like they were cheap whores in a red window.

Indeed. I took my pad thai to a point overlooking the canals from one of the 400-something bridges in this town. It was a warm night and the reflection of the light from the old street lamps that studded the narrow roads of the center were being mangled and warped by the un-still water of the canal, moved to ripples by a passing tourist boat. But I saw that the stars were fading and Amsterdam was starting to smell like rain. It will take me some time to get used to the meteorology of this city.

So I headed to a bar nearby where I could get some shelter and a drink. A flat-screen in the corner was showing the latest football match and a band was setting up to play some live music. I wasn’t so sure I could handle the music that night, but I’d wait and see. The day had been sunny and clear but now that the sky had turned grey it seemed my mood had turned with it.

But it didn’t seem to make much sense for me to be anywhere else – the Dutch Ajax was playing the Spanish Real Madrid that night and I had some investment in the outcome of the game. The smoke from nearby cigarettes was pouring towards me without mercy or pause but who cares? This was important.

I found a seat in the dark place and the music was jammin’ so my mind wasn’t all that bothered by the ambiance. I read through the last couple of pages in the notebook I carried; some of it went back a couple months. One of the funny things about being an absent-minded writer is that there are lapses in my memory and in my journals but they don’t overlap. This creates the strange sensation of reading things I don’t remember having written even though it’s clearly my handwriting. Where do I go, I wonder, when my pen is moving, manufacturing such tripe, condemning hard evidence against me? How does that work?

But there was no time for that kind of thinking now. I had my head down and had started scribbling frantically at the pages in front of me, on a mission, urging, needing to finish and not knowing how that would happen since I didn’t even know where I was going. It had been a long weekend with surprises and madness and I hadn’t caught a word of it yet. Tony Snow had called it quits because he was bankrupt and Karl Rove had resigned and managed to leave without being stopped at the gates of the White House by an angry hoard or even be indicted. I hadn’t wrapped my mind around all that I had to say about any of it and apparently the normal media hadn’t either. Two days into it, and still nothing substantial had been said except to find out what Tony Snow’s salary is at the White House (168K) vs what it was going to be at Fox News, where he’s headed (to make much, much more, I’m sure). Then they define for the viewers who is Karl Rove, as if the prince of darkness needed any introduction. Astounding work, ladies and gentlemen of the press. You leave us drunk with anger yet parched for knowledge. You have a gift.

I was absolutely losing it on paper when she walked in. What a contrast to the losers that surrounded me; strawberry blond hair to her shoulders, well kept and beautifully high-maintenance. A co-worker I’d met a few days before, I was leaving the door open for some contact in this country of soft men and indifferent women. But I just know I breathed out deeply and loudly as my writing slowed to a halt.

I had told her earlier in the night where to find me if she needed to but I hadn’t expected her to actually show up. It was a mistake since what I wanted that night was some movement but a little privacy. But it was summer I didn’t know a soul I didn’t work with in that entire country. Usually I’m averse to socializing with people from work but that night I was averse to socializing at all, so I should’ve been more forward thinking, but I hadn’t been.

The temperature of the air hadn’t quite caught up with the season yet and the rains were making a mess of many people’s holiday plans. The chill crept in through the open door and mixed with the hanging smoke that loitered in the bar, purposeless like so many of the patrons. For many moments the bar was so still that when a gust would come and replace some of the smoke you could feel the drop in pressure. So you can imagine what happened when she walked in.

Right away she started talking to me about inter-office politics and lesbianism and the Belgians, so I had little choice but to hit the whiskey, and hard. She followed suit. Soon there was little in there that was making sense. The afternoon had been engulfed in caffeine and wasn’t helping the situation, but what could I do? The bartender and his long hair got tangled up trying to make a vodka martini for some Americans but had given them instead a Martini & Rosso, which is a whole other animal that American’s are not all that fond of. When I saw that he didn’t have a shaker and that things might get out of hand I stepped in and offered my services. Why? To get rid of her?

Maybe. Mostly, I think, it’s because I wanted one too.

Much later now, I try so desperately to pass out in this heavy Dutch air, awaiting a thunderstorm they said would come but never did. A man-child laughs like a hyena outside my window, four floors down…what the hell is so goddamn funny out there?

Who knows? There is too much caffeine and vodka and bourbon in my system to much care at this horrible hour.

Back to politics.

They say that Cheney is a gnat’s tit away from usurping the whole legislative and executive branch while being a part of neither, which begs the question, “what will he do about the judicial?” Things have gotten quite out of hand. Nobody even pays attention to Bush anymore, and he stands close to breaking the record for most vacation days in office (Ronald Regan was away for over a year out of his eight. Isn’t that nuts?). His childish antics have gotten dull and CNN, BBC and the other useless corporate tote boards have lost money trying to put his pony show on the air. The advertisers aren’t even buying it anymore because the American people are dulled even to that. Could this be the low point or is it possible this is the beginning of the real end? They say that the Chinese are threatening to cash out all of their securities in the American Government. It gets me wondering what the hell will happen when both China and India suddenly declare void the copyright of everything ever written in either English or C. The bricks and the concrete will crumble and the storm barrier will give. It’s a terrible thing, too terrible to ponder the ultimate fall of America while huddled in the dark in Amsterdam after so many years of watching the twats claim ignorance through sheets and sheets of Cheeto-crusted ignorance while they drink their Budweisers and watch their sitcoms.

This is not a decent hour to be awake, let along trying to make a point.

What terrible thoughts on such a heavy night. The train grinds its way past the city and the boats in the river below are not shy about their loud two stroke engines. More inexplicable Irish laughing from the pub on the river. Then, loud Americans again. Finish your goddamn whiskey and Guinness and get the fuck out of the bar you fucking tourists. Agur and all that shit. Beat it. Go fix the problems you’ve created when you let that scum run the show. Some of us still have responsibilities. I hope I can remember mine in the morning.

Pedro Ávila

A dark and hidden moon was in the sky tonight, readers. A moon that shone the way to nowhere and illuminated nothing. A selfish and greedy moon, an Artemis who kept all the light to herself. A beacon to nowhere whose usually tireless signal went ignored by the night.

For the second time in the last week, I have found my way home thanks in no small part to my soon to be flat mates, The Katies. The illustrious pair took a liking to yours truly some weeks ago and housing contracts were signed.

Foolish, if you ask me, but then again, you didn’t, and so much for that. Despite what they have learned about me and my tendencies, they have entrusted me, via contract, a collaborative arrangement to share their abode and company for at least the next few months. Mighty fine thing on their part, if you ask me. Mighty fine thing indeed.

Though despite what I say here, readers, they did, between you and me, get the better end of the deal. A drunken cab ride home on the biceps of some random dude you just met has never felt safer for The Katies and such privileges are theirs to enjoy since that’s what flat mates are for in such times. It will be their end of the bargain, however, to introduce me to countless eligible tall, blond, Dutch bachelorettes that aren’t completely useless. I trust they will fulfill their end of the deal as well as I have upheld mine.

Prior to the last couple of posts I’d been gone a long time. Remember that this was for your sake as well as mine. I understand your plight, believe me, but I was not compelled to utilize my resources just because you needed something to read.

But there was good reason for this.

There has been a lot of controversy regarding my recent departure from the place that has been my homeland for some time now. I point you in the direction of the enlightened, in the direction that describes how incidental my home in the US has been. And I tell you that leaving the US for another country wasn’t a matter of choice for me…

It was a matter of time.

And you should’ve seen this coming, so I hope that’s enough on that subject. Maybe not. We’ll see.

Still, even after such time, and even now that the leaving is done, what have I gone and done with my new found time? My fingers are numb with drink and I find it hard to focus. So much the better, I guess. The Good Doctor did say, with some sense still in his head, “Buy the ticket, take the ride.” I guess I’m doing little else other than that these days.

Peruse at your own risk, and good luck with that.

_**Amsterdam, The Netherlands — August, 2007

Skek, Centrum**_

Oscar Bjørne

Songs of the Doomed is a cursed book. For fools like me it affects a writing style like ink spilled on a page. I have to make more notes to myself and remember to get over this shit, where I write differently depending on who I’m reading at the time. Last week I finished Breakfast of Champions and I was writing cryptically and in short bursts. Before that it was Joseph Heller and none of my dialog was making sense. I would like to find some time to read The Curse of Lono but I saw what that fucker did to my friend’s bookshelf and I don’t think I could handle it in this state. My writing might go to pieces, just like his shelf.

For the move to Amsterdam I ended up bringing 2 or 3 HST books that are new to the collection and unread: Song of the Doomed, Fear and Loathing in America, and another that escapes me at the moment. Most of what I brought over is books, so pardon me for not remembering which ones are in my library, exactly. In hindsight, I think I may have to make it a point to not read them back to back. It’s not like I have a relationship at the moment to absorb the dementia of reading multiple HST books in a row, and it’s possible that something might just explode. And I can’t have that kind of mess on my hands at the moment. Think of the children.

Besides, I may be on my own here.

I wandered Amsterdam for hours, looking for a roll of hemp rope. You can find anything in Amsterdam: psychedelic mushrooms, hash seeds, skinny blond 15-year olds tapping on large windows wearing nothing but bits of string. You can also find large African women with no teeth and barely a moo-moo just down the alley from the blond. You can get all manners of leather and metal products shaped like penis shafts and clitori, DVDs and live shows, some of them involving bananas or midgets or both. And that’s just the legal stuff. Hustlers sit on every street corner, chilling on their own across the way from the tourist families, hissing at them and anyone else that passes his spot. If you look at him there’s no telling if he’ll offer you high quality heroin or a human adrenaline gland. And you don’t want to get into that ugly stuff.

But you can’t find hemp. People don’t even know what you’re talking about. After a while I started wondering of the Dutch called it something else. I tried “hash rope,” I tried “weed string,” and “reefer cord”. Nothing.

In the end I went up to the concierge, and feeling a bit defeated, asked him where I could find twine or something similar.

“Will something like this do?”, and the old man with the fantastic curled mustache pulls out a roll of premium hemp rope and just gives it to me.

…some of this will take some getting used to.

_**Barbizon Palace Hotel, East Wing Corridor

Amsterdam, The Netherlands**_

Pedro Ávila

Recently returned from a beach on the North Sea where the pitiful little waves break turbidly and women have an aversion to tops, I sit to read some mail and find myself having to explain why pirates are cool.

“Jesus God,” I thought to myself, “what are things coming to?”

I had never had to think about it too much, particularly since pirates are among the few villains you root for even as a small child. It’s instinctive to like pirates with their hats, their one-shot pistols, their varied accents and their rejection of authority. Rejecting Authority! Think of what that sounds like to small boys.

But I felt that if the question was being asked by someone, it was probably being asked by others. So something had to be done. I ignored the work that was coming in through the pipeline at several kilobytes a second, buried my phone deep under the hotel mattress, opened the blinds out to the Amsterdam populace and got to thinking. It didn’t last long.


It’s about sword fights. It’s about crossing blades with a man you’ve never met, whose intentions, deprivations and desperations are completely unknown to you, and discovering that none of that matters because between you and him there is only sharp metal and it will show you, should you fail, what kind of man he really is.

It’s about the sea, which is open to just about any fantasy or terror you conceal and will force it from you in due time. The ocean is not concerned with memory; The air between land is made of time like the sea is made of brine. In many ways they are one and the same.

It’s about the horizon, and seeing for yourself what’s on the other side of it. It’s the love for swing of the water, the wind on the waves and the mysterious sounds heard in place unseen. Magic.

It’s about the freedom to not conform, to not care about the norm. It’s about the strength to defend that freedom to the death, which is a small price to pay for such a life.

It’s about rum.

It’s about consequences, and while they exist, they are fewer in number and less potent than, say, child-rearing. It’s about the world being a playground where the lines between right and wrong, good and evil have definition but no one knows where it lies. Pirates, anyway, don’t much care. They’re out to get their own, an attitude that most, though they don’t and won’t admit it, envy on some level, but care too much about the consequences to follow through. They cannot maintain in the face of such brash and relentless non-conformity and crazed, senseless violence.

Pirates are villains, no questions about it, but they do what they do with a sense of purpose, and that pursuit is enviable. I prefer it to politics.

De Haven van Texel Amsterdam, NL – August, 2007

Pedro Ávila

I found myself alone in Amsterdam, but only long enough to get the crap stuff involved with relocating to another country out of the way: immigration, tax numbers, bank accounts and that sort of necessary garbage. I would deal with finding an apartment when I came back. I didn’t have time to feel the loneliness sink in, to let the demons find out where I was yet. Soon the family showed up and we got started right away: wooden clogs, windmills, whores and hash – BAM! Amsterdam. There were paintings as well. And drinks. Plenty of drinks.

My family moves fast and the road wasn’t far. We were off in the car over dikes (dijks) and dams, headed straight into the middle of Europe. A road trip through Europe – Amsterdam to Madrid, through Germany, Switzerland and France, in two weeks. Would we make it? The questions were many but the doubts were few.

We hadn’t had a family trip like this in…Jesus, I can’t remember. Colorado maybe? Death Valley? I don’t know. The back seat sure seemed smaller though. Flat expanses spread in every direction but up. Before I had left I had made it a point to ask Beeler what Dutch was like.

“A wookie with a head cold,” he’d told me, and his description rang true every time I heard the stuff or just tried to read a road sign.

It’s a small country, and soon things were in German. In Cologne we saw the Dom, the seat of the Catholic Church in Europe, or at least in Germany. It’s too massive to be only one noun and too complicated to be described with adjectives. It’s one of those “show don’t tell” things, but the locale wasn’t right. Most cathedrals are designed to make God bigger and you smaller. I’ve been to Notre Dame and I’ve seen St. Paul’s…this thing, it reminds you of an ashen-colored limbless tree with roots as deep as hell. When I saw it was surrounded by Fuji film and Samsung stores, I figured my initial assertion probably wasn’t far off. The light and dark contrast of concrete and aged stone reminded me of a massive shark with a white belly and dark dorsal side to camouflage it with the only thing available: the sky. Looking through the grey-toned spires at the church is an accident most can’t expect.

“Why is it here,” I heard someone ask. “Jesus, God,” I thought, “isn’t it obvious? Because it didn’t get bombed like everything else in the war,” and that’s pretty much true. You can tell from the horrible architecture of the 60′s and 70′s that is spread everywhere like a fungus you can’t remove.

The next day we drove south, always about an hour ahead of a cold front that threatened some terrible rain. We made it as far as Baden-Baden in the black forest where we visited the ruins of a German castle, sitting atop a hill, as you would expect from a castle. I caught my mother skipping sometimes, obviously in a land of fairy tales all of her own. Sometimes, staring out into the distant hills and imagining who-knows-what, she would whisper things like, “they’re coming, they’re coming!” This too, was expected, knowing Mom’s penchant for the fantastic.

What we didn’t expect between those ancient walls were the sounds carried by the wind. Whooshing, lingering, humming long low notes. A harmony of sadness that reached and retreated like some ancient waltz stuck in the everlasting memory of stone. If I had to give it a name, I would have called those sounds the echoes of lost souls. If I had to.

Too soon, I looked up. In the midst of the cold front that was finally catching up to us after a couple days, embedded in the walls of ancient stone was a harp – a wind harp – that stood 4 meters tall and hung 5 meters above us. Enchanting. We returned the next morning to see it in proper light only to meet head on the front that unleashed its fury there on that mountain. The sounds from the harp didn’t much care about the storm. Those voices have been gone a long time.

The day on the road was spent mostly under the cover of a blanket of fog that would’ve made San Francisco say, “huh – how about that?” We were supposed to have seen the heart of the black forest and some amazing lakes, but about 5 meters in front of us was about all we saw, and it was largely white. Occasionally a car came from out of the white.

So we lost some altitude and headed for an umleitung in Strasbourg, just across the border in France. Mom and Dad were familiar with this territory and guided us on a brief tour of the city with a warmer, more living sort of version of the cathedral in Cologne. The cathedral in Cologne tried hard to be menacing but you could see it coming, and by the time you were at its feet, much of the mystique of the thing was gone. Strasbourg’s spire was different. Shrouded by the ancient village, the canals and the narrow streets, the cathedral jumps out at you suddenly as you round a market.

“Ahh!”, I gasped. Paul gave me a strange look that seemed to warn me not to do that again. But the thing swallows your attention and your gaze in one gulp. Also, the brown-tinted, one-spired cathedral in Strasbourg rose much more gently than the oxidized blue-gray hadean missile in Cologne. It’s earthy color was warm even more so by the blue sky above it, the village that surrounded it, and the accordion and tuba behind me in the square that played to accentuate it. The church bells started ringing and just when I thought the harmonized pipe-organ notes coming from the spire had filled the ancient church to its brim, the bass notes kicked in, deep and ancient against the gallant stones and poured out over the steeple and into the plaza like bubbling marmalade.

Well played, Strasbourg. Well played indeed.

After some time on the road, the day ended in Freiburg, a college town in the south of Germany with almost no available hotels except the best room in the best one, we found. And by sheer dumb luck. Almost immediately we befriended the large German man who runs the restaurant and guest house with a deep German voice, short army hair and a moustache to be envied by the Portuguese. He reminded me of someone’s uncle.

“All the big people, they like this room,” he said. By “big” I assumed he meant famous, since the room was at the top of about 300 steps that groaned and threatened to snap under us and our meager bags. I hinted at it by asking him if all the pictures signed by David Haselhoff and other people you should never have heard of were guests of his. “Yes, many big guests,” he confirmed. Mom was praising the waitress for helping us with our poor German, already charming the hell out of everyone. Mom has oodles of charm.

“Is this your girl?” he asked Dad excitedly, pointing at my mother. One more friend for Mom. Dad did his best while the neurons fired, figuring out intent and compensating for misunderstanding.

“Yes, she’s my WIFE.” The large German didn’t seem phased by the misstep and continued jovially. He gestured at us now, Paul and me. “Dear God, what’s next?” I wondered.

“Are these your…”

“These are the boys, yes.” Dad said, smiling now, cutting him off and finishing the sentence for him, and sparing me from finding out what new way of referring to offspring Uncle Germany was going to conjure. He was definitely somebody’s uncle. By the time we’d finished dinner, he’d given us a bottle of his local wine.

Just after crossing into Switzerland the next day, we stopped by the Rhine falls on our way to Zürich. The falls offered absurdly blue waters the color of glaciers and a matching blue sky to go with it. It looked as though we were starting to get south enough in Europe to have good weather. Zürich was nice too, in fact, and its river shone blue with the same devotion. I like that in a river.

Zürich, as a town, is charming, vibrant, absurdly clean and civilized. Oh, and expensive. WTF, mate? How do you justify EU$200 for a 5 person Mexican dinner? Fortunately, we met Carol, one of Paul’s friends from his former European life. Her hosting skills were equally matched by her impressive ability to speak 6 languages, which is amazing even for a Swiss person. We spent the next day with her as well and she showed us around the Lucerne area, taking us up some steep Swiss Alps for some sweet Swiss sights.

Cows were on every slope with an incline less than 75 degrees, it seemed, and they all had bells on their necks. How they put up with the racket is beyond reason, but I suspect, from their confused nonchalance about it, that they wonder why the sound is always following them everywhere they go.

No matter. I stood, pretty much above it all up there. Not ruling, not ruled, but free of the bullshit and much of the sorrow that some other things in my head might have had to say. I’d like to imagine that the sheer purity of the water in the lake below, the air around the surrounding mountains and the vast spread of space between them diluted whatever evil sometimes festers inside when the lids come down and the lights go out. But I think the truth of it is that there’s just not room enough in a man’s mind for that kind of peace and the ugly thoughts we sometimes have. My line of sight up there, had I been sailing, wouldn’t have been flush with the horizon, but with 737′s. Houses were mostly roofs and mountains were rock, not trees.

I could see it was raining in Zürich, but what of it? The alps were hidden in the fluffy clouds and though it’s summer, the foothills were lined with what, from up here look like tiny Christmas trees with no lights. A farmer smoked his pipe as I passed his impossibly sloped house. He stared blankly as I wondered how he can exist in this place. I envied him for a moment but it passed, turned to admiration and then a memory. Hunger for a new horizon prodded me along. A light alpine breeze bit my teeth and the shock only made me stare harder at what was out there, to me, just peaks in the distance while it rained in Zürich.

Carol took it all in with us. Charming, like her town, she reminded me of how Paul has an unwavering good taste in friends. Good work, Boy.

The next day saw us on the road again. We stopped for lunch in Bern, another city filthy with charm. Incidentally (or perhaps relatively), where one can view the house of Albert Einstein, sit at the desk where he wrote the theory of relativity. You could argue that it’s just a desk like any other but then you’re stating an absolute, aren’t you?

We got to Geneva in time to still have a drink with Mary, a friend from the Poly days, coincidentally a member of the Regan Clan up the street. (Again, the theory of relativity says that from her perspective, there is no coincidence in this fact at all, but then, I’m the one writing this account, aren’t I?)

We collapsed that night, but the next morning went early to Chamonix, to the top of the Aiguille du Midi, a gondola station near the top of Mont Blanc, just over the border in the French Alps. Glorious views of the Swiss-Franco-Italian border surrounded us and the chill of rising 3000 meters almost vertically was thawed by the fantastic sun that decided to show up that day. Good stuff. Eventually we dropped Mary off in Geneva and headed for Lyon, the heart of southern France.

We had lost track of the calendar time for a little bit there, and were pleasantly surprised by the party the French were throwing over their rivers and ancient Roman buildings in Lyon. It’s a little celebration that puts 4th of July to shame – they call it Bastille Day…every heard of it? It was a glorious and civilized celebration and the party included everyone: 2 year-old munchkins, 15 year-old hormone glands, 25 year-old kids (us), 45 year-old kids (Dad) and respectable people (how’s that, Mom?)

We toured the Roman city but had to continue moving … south – always south. Sometimes a little west, but always south. The day was filled with tiny roads through vineyards in the south of France, mostly through places that can’t possibly have much contact with the rest of the world. We trucked it across most of France but tired when we got to Mont de Marsan, where we opted to spend the night. It was like a ghost town where the few inhabitants didn’t realize how absurd their empty town was. Have you ever seen a town completely devoid of people or open anythings at 9 in the evening when the sun hasn’t set, save for the 3 people conversing at a very lively hot dog stand? Not a light was on in the rest of the town, but those 3 were going like it was still Bastille Day. Maybe that’s relative too.

More driving in the rain the next day, but at least it got us to San Sebastian, a city that you think is filled with character and style until you start seeing the mullets and rat tails. They drink kalimotxos, a vile poisonous mix of wine and Coke, of all the goddamn things to mix with wine. A few kalimotxos into the scene, I began to lose control.

“We’ve got to get out of here before they give us all haircuts,” I told Paul. “They run with bulls, these people. Completely unpredictable. They might be coming for us any moment now.”

“Fool! Get a grip on yourself. Dad and I are bald, you shaved your head less than a week ago and Mom might not even mind.” He was probably right. In Amsterdam, she had wanted to get a tattoo on her shoulder of two armadillos with our names on them.

No matter. The city is charming despite the ridiculous haircuts. The tapas bars, or pintxos are tantalizing, but more because it’s frustrating to leave unsatisfied and head someplace else and then repeat this pattern until you’ve had enough to eat. If nothing else, though, it’s an innovative way to drag out the night, which the Spaniards and Basques do with amazing efficacy, even in pouring rain.

Speaking of Basques, the next day gave us the best of Basque Country, or Euskadia. In Gernika we saw an exhibition of Picasso’s sketches for the famous piece of the same name. Silently walking past the sketches with your hands behind your back and your mind on the edge did little to silence the terrible screams of the victims that were bombed to ruble and splinter by Hitler’s senseless trial run for future attacks. That it was done at the behest of Franco for the sake of proving a point to the Basque people is troubling at best but shows, once again how utterly futile it is to eradicate a culture. In a terrible moment of childish vengeance, two lunatics tried to do away with the cultural heart of the Basque people but it turned out that even the throngs of German Luftwaffe planes couldn’t keep up with Franco’s creepy little hand-wringing. As the painting portrays by the very fact that it exists, the two dingbats failed, and even the Tree of Gernika was replanted on it’s peaceful mound. Touching. Paul continued to guide us through the Basque coast roads until we sighted the Guggenheim in Bilbao. Pure magic, mates. Pure magic.

Swirling curves of light and titanium radiated the sunset in directions unfamiliar to my eyes – probably all eyes for all I know. Later in the dark, the sculptures that surround the place came to a still life in a monstrous sort of way that only prompted more and more pictures. In the morning we toured the inside of the absurd building that seems inside out no matter what your perspective is, and we discovered how full of meaningless ramble and self-gratifying architects can be. They’re sort of like writers, but with a budget and the attention of the crowd. Also, it’s conceivable that they drink less.

On the way out, Paul showed us around Getxo, where he’d lived, where he’d surfed and most importantly, where he drank. It was classic. The dour barkeep, even after another two years of drunken American students in Bilbao, knew that my brother liked oranges in the Heffeweissen he kept in the cellar, just for this crowd. As we strolled casually into the empty bar, he nodded at Paul. There was little dialogue. He called him by name, and remembered his friends. His receding hairline betrayed the sharp lines of his Basque face. His sailor’s chin screamed stories long since exaggerated and outdone in screaming hoots of brawls and ales. The area above his lip and below his nose, large and calloused told of the soft voice, the mumbled Euskadian language that under his breath, I mistook for a Spanish I couldn’t understand.

He walked around the bar and opened the door to a hidden cellar where he kept the Weiss bier, long since forgotten but stocked nonetheless, and then he pulled out two orange slices and served us the best goddamn white beer I’ve ever had. I felt like I had earned it, even though Paul was the one who’d done the leg work in a previous life.

With little time left and much on the calendar, we sped south towards Segovia. There were Roman and Moorish ruins to be seen and the show must always go on.

The Moorish castle on which Walt Disney based his own was what you’d expect from a castle that inspired Walt Disney, and a little disappointing when it was revealed that the whole thing had been rebuilt almost from foundation after a fire took out the whole thing in the 20 century, sometime. Takes a lot of the mystique out of a thing like that. Without the age, it’s essentially a tourist building with a pointy top.

The Roman aqueduct is something else entirely. Through stones aged thousands of years, it screams to the incompetence of medieval people who, for their dependence on religion and a mass populace sheltered from education in the name of the power of a few, could not keep a 1000 year-old marvel of engineering working another 1000 years simply by not touching it with their unworthy hands.

On the topic of worth hands, at the base of the Segovian work of Roman origin I performed a feat that, unfortunately for the posterity of humanity, was not captured on film. On my sanity, it happened as I’m about to describe.

The ridiculously-priced camera was wrapped around my wrist instead of my neck, where it should have been, and where it would have certainly perished had I been more sensible. Luckily, it wasn’t, because I’m not. I was descending the granite steps, used by so many people over so long a time.

Look: granite is tough, but lots of feet over lots of time will beat granite any day. It makes it smooth and slippery, like … well, like polished stone. My feet were already on it when it occurred to me that my sandals were smooth rubber and would not have any measurable coefficient of friction when the two surfaces came in contact. There was very little that I could do at that point in time. Hold that thought.

There is an old saying in capoeira, probably one of the oldest that says, albeit in Portuguese “Capoeira doesn’t fall, but when he falls, he falls well.” Thank god for capoeira.

As my feet escaped the ground underneath them, time slowed significantly and I felt aware of almost all 360 of the degrees around me in all three dimensions. I could see where the camera was in my hand, in what direction it was moving, and realized that I could have it avoid the ground by bringing it closer to my chest and landing on the ground with my shoulder instead as my hips began to spin, inciting my body to begin the necessary twist in midair in order to accomplish the maneuver. In what must have been a split second to observers but was several minutes for me, I had to choose between landing on one arm and the camera lens, or the maneuver I ended up choosing, which was to absorb most of the impact not absorbed by my shoulder with both my knees. It hurt, I won’t lie to you, but that only came later, after the adrenaline rush of landing on my knees with the $1500 camera intact, held up in the air like hunted game out of season. My entire volume of blood congealed and thinned in a matter of microseconds, but when I looked at Paul’s face when I was done with my miracle, I couldn’t tell if he was worried, stupefied or simply amazed.

Later he told me he was very amazed and a little stupefied, but not all that worried, which is fine with me. When time came back to normal for me, I let it soak in and dealt with the pain like a man, allowing the night to continue. In the morning we headed to Avila for a family moment that, because of the city’s inherent touristy nature, existed largely in our heads. Oh well, dammit, we tried. And besides, where else are family moments actually had?

By the time we had made it to Madrid, finding our last hotel for the trip became the one and only preoccupation of the moment. We had found the ad for the hotel in a Best Western magazine that looked defunct but in the European summer, anything you can get is lucky, I suppose. On the lookout for the right roads to take in the complicated mess of asphalt that is Madrid, we kept hoping that it came sooner than later. In the distance lay spread a dusty expanse that harbored the airport and beyond, worse.

The outskirts of Madrid, a cross between East L.A., Reno, and Las Vegas on a hazy day is not much of a place to be, much like the aforementioned places. We drove right past Madrid, passed the Barajas Airport and into the Spanish version of Vallejo known as Torrejon. That the streets are paved in Torrejon was a surprise to us, as we pulled off the freeway and into the slumish sort of growth. You could tell the paving was recent, since they haven’t yet put the equipment away. There was dust everywhere on that hot plain. I could easily have been in Brazil or Mexico. More like Mexico. As we pulled into what turned out to be the hotel’s front lot, a truck’s engine was idling somewhere. We realized that we’d found the hotel we’d just spent the last hour searching for and it sat behind a gas station.

A fucking gas station. On the periphery of Madrid. Shady and dusty as any Lovelock, Nevada, which is another place you don’t want to find yourself having to sleep in.

It was a four star hotel, but only according to the plaque on the front of the building. I wasn’t expecting this when Mom had read to us from the guide book, “A comfortable place, ten minutes from the airport.” It didn’t mention it was behind a gas station in the dust bowl of Spain. Our long trip was almost done and we were sitting behind a gas station. Not expected. Not expected at all. But ultimately, fine because that’s how we roll, and more importantly, that’s how we roll together.

Like most of the trip, I guess. The humidity was picking up in the dark and the stars could no longer be seen. A storm was coming, this I knew, but was there any avoiding it?

The next morning I stood at the crowded Barajas terminal in Madrid, waving stupidly at them as they were in line to board their flight home, the flight I would not catch with them. I had always told myself I wouldn’t do this. Feel it, maybe, but not actually sit there like a fool, waving pointlessly at people to whom you’d already given your goodbyes, prolonging the unnecessary pain and still managing to look like an idiot. I felt six again, at the steps of my first grade class, only I was the one watching them on in. This time, I’d stay behind.

They are my family and for all we do together, it’s never enough. I am because of them.

The cool thing to do would’ve been to turn around and go. The goodbye had been said and lingering was pointless – selfish at best. I should’ve just turned around or backed up into the crowd and proceed to tackling the world in front of me. But I felt I wasn’t that strong. I needed more time. And meanwhile, I was all choked up, keeping my distance so that they wouldn’t see the tears I tried to hold back with little success. Slowly, the crowd between us thickened; I got a nod from my brother, and understood. It was time to do what I had to do.

I said goodbye again, almost to myself, backed up into the crowd and moved on to the next thing that needed doing.

Barajas Terminal 1, Gate C46 — Madrid, Spain

Pedro Ávila

It was a typical Memorial Day Saturday in the East Bay – dry, hot and quiet. One of those days where you can be in the sun or the shade and not really know the difference. At least where I was, biking out in the back roads of the hills between Moraga and Hayward, where the strange folk of the redwoods live.

The hills were starting to get steep there on the Moraga side when a van rounded the bend, headed in my direction. A green minivan, to be exact, and I would describe it later to the police sergeant as, “a typical soccer mom ride.” But I wasn’t worried at that point. The weird communities in the hills that live in the dark shade of the woods and only come out for Bar Mitsvahs, First Communions and 83 cent sales at REI don’t tend to be dangerous people. And besides, I seldom suspect arbitrary people of insanity. But maybe I should.

The vehicle passes me at clocking roughly 50 kilometers an hour. Moments before it did I felt the two wet impacts against my chest like exploding beer cans or worse. BOOM! WHAMMO!

The wind was stolen from me and my orientation disappeared. But my grip on the handlebar tightened with the sudden shock which is the only thing that prevented me from being hurled into the thicket of dry branches and broken thorns on the side of the pavement. I somehow managed to slow the bike down before I stumble off of it onto the poorly shorn weeds between the road and the pit of branches next to it. I collapsed, half of my body still on the pavement. There was a strange, light sugary smell in the air.

What the hell was that? I wondered.

“oowwwwwwwwww,” I said, my mouth continuing the line of thought. And why the hell is everything sticky?

I looked up at my chest and didn’t see red, which suprised me. I’d figured that the wetness of the impact had to be the blood that would’ve been pouring out of my chest cavity after being hit with that shotgun round, or at least with that beer can that exploded on my chest at that speed.

But everything was white. Loads of creamy spillage that made it look like a hippopotomus had just explosively ejaculated all over me. I didn’t even know hippos could explosively ejaculate.

“Aw, what the fuck?” I said to the dry expanse around me. I looked around the rest of my body for any other wounds but found that the pain was focused only on my chest, radiating outwards along with the rest of the viscousy white liquid that smelled strangely of wheat yogurt.

I looked back to the spot where I was hit and sure enough two yogurt containers lay strewn on the road and in the weeds, totally exploded. My bike looked OK except that it was covered in as much Activa Wheat yogurt as I was. The sun is baking the yogurt on me on that black asphalt and the previously pleasant smell was turning sour before my very nostrils.

I peeled my shirt off and examined my chest. A little tender and red, but no bleeding. A ‘Dannon’ logo was stamped just above my right nipple, but I was fine. My breath was returning to me.

“Huh,” I said out loud, “Assault with a dairy weapon.”

I laughed out loud like an idiot on the road. I was still laughing when somebody drove by and tried to offer a hand. I considered the very strong possibility that I am way beyond helping.