Sunday, January 14, 2007

The European Journey (Volume 1)

I've meant to post more frequently since flying out last Monday, but I just haven't gotten around to doing it even though I've had ample internet access.

First off, I do not even want to see my mobile bill because I have been constantly texting people back in the states (35 cents/text). I've made a couple of phone calls, too (99 cents/minute) so you know, it can't be pretty (not to mention the fact that I get charged for every 1MB of emailed content or something), but how many times am I in Europe? Plus, sometimes you just need to share some random observation with those near and dear to you back home.

Let's start from the beginning, shall we? I landed at Heathrow early Tuesday morning. My buddy, Gaz, picked me up. I met Gaz back in 2005 when I interviewed him for a piece in Skope Magazine. We stayed in touch and he offered me a place to stay. I figured I could easily book a hostel if he was truly a freak, but he passed muster and I took up residence in a comfy spare bedroom for 3 nights. Gaz lives with his ex-wife, Sue, and they are absolutely wonderful (And yes, I love the fact that they are divorced and live together). They made me feel right at home and by the end of the first day, I felt is if I had actually been living over there for some time.

Gaz and Sue live in the "suburb" of Harrow, about 20 minutes from London. This was actually pretty cool because when I was in London before, I stayed in the city and never left. We actually only went into the city the second day I was there, which was fine, because I got to see some of the outlaying parts like St. Albans and Windsor. It was definitely a great experience staying with a family rather than a hotel, which I think everyone should get the opportunity to do at least one time when visiting another country.

Gaz let me drive his car for a few minutes. So I can now say I have driven in the UK.

I know Americans suck in many, many ways and instances, but I find it amusing that while we are seen as uncultured nitwits, the British appetite for crap culture consumption almost blows us away. For instance, reality TV stars just don't go away after their 15 minutes of fame are up. They become actual celebrities. And every tabloid rag is devoted to celebrity weight gain and loss. Everyone was talking about Celebrity Big Brother, which also features overnight coverage so you can watch the cast sleeping if you so desire. So while I find it impossible to defend my heritage in most instances, I will have to say that in terms of pop culture, the British have absolutely no right to criticize.

My new favorite slang is "camp". Camp = gay.
e.g., Tom Cruise is so camp.

Tescos and Marks & Spencer Food offer a wide array of takeaway edibles that I wish was available in the states.

On Thursday night, Gaz got me into Reading so I could meet up with Sonia, an instructor for Polestars. I attended a "teaser" pole dancing class in the basement of The Purple Turtle. It was great. I got to show the UK girls some moves and Sonia was awesome. She uses a lot of the same music I do and she taught me a couple of things I need to master when I get home. After the class, we had a beer and talked more pole. The pole dancing has actually proved to be a great hobby to have for more than the obvious benefits. Its enabled me to talk to people all over Europe. I'm actually going to Rijeka (Croatia) and meeting a girl who found me on YouTube and I'll get to attend her pole class on Tuesday night. There is also another woman who I may meet up with in Brussels, too.

Friday morning meant heading back to Heathrow and getting on a British Airways flight to Prague. Ironically, most of the people on my flight seemed to be American and I sat next to a couple from North Carolina. My friend Sandy, from D.C., was meeting me at the airport and her flight got in an hour or so after mine. I sat at an airport bar, listening to Czech radio, and drank a Pilsner Urquell while waiting. We then went over to the Hotel Josef where we've been staying ever since (This place is amazing...and the included breakfast is top notch).

Prague is absolutely beautiful and our hotel is centrally located in the Stare Mesto section of the city (near the Old Town Square and Astronomical Clock, two of those quintessential tourist meccas). At first, you just take pictures of everything because everything is just so exquisite, even if you have no idea what it is. Getting lost is inevitable, mainly because the city is mapped out crazier than downtown Boston and streets frequently change (and the street signs are on building walls). There is also the fact that the Czech language is fairly difficult, so its taken me a couple of days to figure out how to get to places without looking at a map (I was able to do this all day today). I think I can now navigate Stare Mesto and Nove Mesto with little trouble now, of course, I'm leaving tomorrow afternoon.

There are no stoplights so driving is a free-for-all. And it is incredibly cheap to eat and drink here, especially because the portions are huge. Drinking is strongly encouraged and I have definitely consumed my share of Budvar and Bechrovka (this Chai-like liquor that goes down WAY too easy). This final night was spent going back to the hotel early and drinking only Coca Cola Light. Sandy and I lost a good portion of the days because we were slightly hungover. We went to a few different places, the first of which was called U Supa and featured a jazz string quartet that played whatever our requests until the place got busier. We then met an older couple from Norway and then a young British couple who just got engaged on the Charles Bridge the night before. They were fun and we closed the place down with them. We then decide to go into the Casino Palais Saverin, but we never got a drink or did any gambling. But I wish I could have gotten some pictures because this place was great, with that lush velvet dodginess straight out of a Bond movie. This was my first European casino and there is a totally different look (much darker) than any in the states.

After the 10 minute casino visit, we decided we were hungry so we went to McDonald's. We were pretty drunk at this point, so we quickly consumed 2 McRoyal with Cheese extra value meals. What is nice about Czech McD's is that a bottle of water is included with the extra value meals, but Jesus, I feel sort of dirty about eating McDonald's in a foreign country (you know...its just so stupid American of me). After that, we find this place called 120 Days. This bar is notable because on a big-screen television, the same 3 or 4 episodes from the final season of Friends is airing at all times. We went back for a bit the second night and the same damn episodes were on. They are closed captioned in English. I had never seen these episodes because I had stopped watching that show by then, but I think I know these particular episodes line-for-line now.

Perhaps the Czechs have a fondness for American Clinton-Era culture. It seems that way, especially when you listen to the radio. A lot of the music was last heard in 1998, for instance, since arriving on Friday, I have heard that "Let's do it like they do on the Discovery Channel" song 3 times. The mullet remains a popular hairstyle for both men and women. The first night, we turned on the TV after getting home and Dawson's Creek was in all its dubbed splendor for our viewing pleasure.

Tomorrow means getting up early to pack in some more sites before we go. As I said, we were mesmerized by the power of Bechrovka and that led to reduced efficiency on our parts. Tonight, after dinner, however, we did check out the Museum of Sex Machines. I would have preferred a proper gift shop to the measly postcard rack, but how can one complain when they're given the chance to view adult films from the 1920s?

Okay. I'm tired. Will write more tomorrow or when I get to Rijeka. And if any of you get bored, feel free to text message or IM me (if I'm online via the Blackberry) because I'll be on a train all tomorrow night. Yeah, that bill is going to suck but as I mentioned before, its not everyday that I traipse around Europe. I'm curious to see if all these other nations have the same abundance of KFC restaurants as both London and Prague. I had no idea this was a worldwide fast food destination. They really should have confined such nastiness solely to the states because the Colonal's gag-inducing blend of 11 herbs and spices is wrong in any nation.

(The picture is me on the stairs leading up to the dodgy casino, by the way. In case you were curious.)

Sunday, January 07, 2007

What the hell am I doing?

Its around 5:30, Sunday night. A few hours ago, it finally dawned on me that I am leaving the country for 3 weeks. Tomorrow night.

I know I'm flying into London, arriving early Tuesday morning. I was going to fly out to Budapest on Thursday, but now it looks as if I'm going to be meeting up with a couple of grad school friends in Madrid. I guess I'll figure out how I'm getting from Spain to Eastern Europe tomorrow. Or Wednesday.

That was sort of the point of this whole excursion, to be spontaneous, that sort of thing. All I know is that I have to be in Brussels on the 21st to meet Nicole (then travelling onto Amsterdam and Paris). I have a camera, my passport...oh, Melina is lending me her backpack. I'm packing lightly. I'm bringing a scarf and gloves. Maybe an umbrella. And now I'm worrying that my iPod will freak out midway through the trip and I'll have no way to update it. I need to get one of those voltage adaptor things or whatever the hell they are.
This seemed like a really good idea a few months ago. And 3 weeks didn't really seem like that long a time. I think its still a good idea and that 3 weeks probably isn't very long when you consider all the places I'm trying to go. And while it seems crazy that I am leaving work for 3 weeks without pay, I'm looking at this as an investment in my future (I sort of dig the travel writing thing) and well, I've ALWAYS wanted to do this, so...

But you know, you get kind of apprehensive and jittery when you realize you're doing this in about 24 hours. what the hell am I doing?