Thursday, April 13, 2006

Over and Out

I thought I'd be writing this yesterday, but yeah, you've seen how it goes.

I'm now finally home. Thanks to Neema and Sepideh's help, I made the first flight to San Jose this morning, dumped my stuff at my parents' place, and made it in for work.

Typically, I'd be bummed after a trip like this is over, but after the last couple of days of stress, it actually felt really damn good to be back in the office. I was running on just a few hours of sleep, but I sat at my desk wearing a broad grin, both from having had an excellent vacation, and knowing the crappy part of it was all over and done with.

While the end of this chapter of my travels has left a seriously bad taste in my mouth, I just need to think of better tastes. Like the all the fresh beer, delicious food, and fresh air. I need only to think of the 13 better days that outweigh the 2 bad.

I saw my favorite band, front row, at Wembley. I saw another favorite band at the Royal f'in Albert Hall. I danced my ass off in the biggest club in Central Europe. I drank beer from the original recipes that were created before my country was even conceived. I walked a town that has barely changed since the 1300's. I spent quality time with good friends, all the while making new friends.

Screw my wallet and screw the airlines and screw the drama. At this point, I don't want to see another airport lounge, airplane seat, check-in agent, or shuttle bus driver for a long, long time. To them I say na schledanaou.

But I'm sure I'll run into them all again soon. The travel bug is always hungry, and you never know when it's going to bite.

Wednesday, April 12, 2006

Crap III: In 3-D!

Ok, so maybe the final thught in the last post was too optimistic. Sure, my flight boarded on time, but it ended up taking off an hour and a half late. The flight itself was pleasant enough, and flying over Greenland with clear skies and broad daylight was soooo worth having a different flightpath. But being 90 minutes late is not cool. Add to that an extra 20 minutes of taxiing, simply because LAX is Hell on Earth.

No, really. LAX is Hades. London Heathrow and Amsterdam Schiphol are much larger and busier, but so much more manageable and easy to deal with. As far as airports go, Los Angeles International is some torture-obsessed gulag, akin to JFK in terms of pain, hassle, and general air of bad service. Largely because those airports are full of morons. Not just on the employee side, but on the passener side, as well. Nobody jams up a line better than an LAX nimrod, whether it's for passport control, customs, check-in, etc.

You all know what this is leading up to.

Correctamundo! I missed my connecting flight to San Jose. And it took so long to get through the check-in line that I also wound up missing every other flight to the Bay Area tonight. So now I'm scheduled to finally head home at around 7am tomorrow. And then go straight to work, zombie stares and all. This should be fun...

Sleeping at the airport, however, is NOT an option, and I'm so blessed that Neema and Sepideh were close enough to not have to go too far out of their way to pick me up and provide me with a bed, meal, and shower. I'm really starting to sound like a vagrant now, and I can't help but feel a bit of one. Anyway, add my cousin and his lovely wife to the earlier "Thank You" column, for helping me through this mess.

The "coming home" part of the trip is taking two days. That's usually an honor saved for Aussies or Kiwis. Or people visiting them. A trip home from Europe should never take this long. And it all started with that taxi service in Prague. I know who's ass I'm going to sue now..

Crap Part Deux

After I rushed to put up the last post and went to check the departures board, I was most unpleasantly surprised to find that my flight to Los Angeles has been delayed by an hour. That means I'll have to make an extra quick beeline through LAX to make my flight to San Jose. Though I'll still have over an hour and a half, anyone who's tried to clear customs at LAX knows that it's no walk in the park. Or even a pretty minefield at that. It's hell, as far as I'm concerned.

I'm parched and I'm hungry. But I only have £1.10 to my name. A bottle of water, or even a Fanta, costs £1.25 at the airport. The shops won't accept my credit card photocopy (and really, why should they?) and I have at least an hour before boarding.

You may be wondering how the hell I'm able to get on the internet. Well, Heathrow now has these access points that accept credit cards, not by swiping them, but by entering the info. So I've already charged 10 quid to these machines, just as a means to keep my sanity and keep my mind off my hunger and thirst for a little while longer. At least not all is lost.

Well, other than the fact that my phone is pretty much out of juice, and I need to call my dad and tell him NOT to pick me up at SFO this afternoon and to come collect me late at night at San Jose. Maybe some kind soul will lend me their phone, or at the very least, the battery from their Sony Ericsson phone.

Speaking of kind souls, I'd like to thank the three absolute, darling, beautiful angels who have been my lifeline during this final-day ordeal.

Elena: Thank you for being there in the middle of the night to check timetables, make internet bookings, and general moral support. Just don't keep using the credit card info I gave you. Please.

Sarah: Thank you, too, for your moral support and for the generous offer to wire money and get shit done from your end. I know you've had a few bumps on this trip as well, and I hope you get your luggage back soon. Bastards.

Emma: I hardly know you, but you really helped keep my sanity this morning, from the start of the drama in at the Prague Airport to those hopeful moments at the bus terminal at Stansted.

And thanks to everyone else who's made this trip the great odyssey that it's been. Amy, Eva, Briley, Jess, Mo, Carla, Pav, Jens, Mikkel, Michael, Ashley, Janelle, Rich, Mike, and countless other fellow travelers. I killed some time and reviewed all the great crap we did together over the last couple of weeks. The great times you all provided has helped put this hellaciously stressful day in perspective, reminding me that the trip as a whole, albeit bumpy in parts, has been an experience I wouldn't trade for the world.

A while back on TravelPunk someone asked the question, "Why do you travel?" I didn't put up a serious answer, because I couldn't come up with one. There are a multitude of reasons why I hop around the world at every opportunity. But just now it's hit me (yet again, as with every trip) that it's all the people. Sharing the wonders of new places with people from the world over, and getting these great glimpses of local culture that you'd never get watching the evening news or even a show on the Travel Channel. It's all about the people, and sharing the crazy nights, checking out the beautiful sights, and even toughing out the bad times.

I just looked at the departures board. It looks like my flight's going to be on time, after all.


It's 3:10 pm and I'm in London.

Never mind the fact that my flight, the last one of the day to San Francisco, was at 1:50 pm.

You want to know the story, don't you?

After we came back from our mini pubcrawl last night, I packed all my stuff laid out everything I needed for a morning departure, and tucked myself in for a few hours of sleep.

A piping hot shower at dawn, a few chugs of bottled water, and a quick collection of my belongings, and I was good to go. Except for one thing. I no longer had my wallet.

I hit panic mode, scouring the room, the bathroom, the kitchen - everywhere. Nothing. I searched the locker that I'd been using. Gone. I looked in the office where the free internet terminals are, asked the staff, and searched the whole living area again. Fuck.

I mentally retraced my steps from the previous night: Paid for the last round at the bar, put my wallet and camera away in my pockets, walked home, changed for bed, put everything in my locker, went down to the common area in my jammies, went to sleep.

I specifically put my wallet in my locker every night when I take my jeans off, so that's where it should be, right?

Wrong. I remembered that I'd already put everything away before changing for bed, and realized I never had my wallet since entering the hostel. It's a big, white, hulking affair, perfect for carrying enormous foreign currencies, and it hit me that I didn't have it in my back pocket upon returning to the hostel.

What kills me about it isn't the money. I had maybe a couple hundred crowns left, tops, which isn't more than $8. My bank card is useless since I'm broke, nor does my PIN appear anywhere in the wallet, and no Czech business accepts foreign credit cards without scrutinizing the signature, and more often than not, checking ID. So really, aside from the pain of replacing my driver's license, cards, etc., I have little to worry about.

I went downstairs to meet the driver of my 6:15am taxi service to the airport. 6:20 rolled around. Then 6:25. Then 6:30. The receptionist at the hostel called them and demanded to know what was going on - after all, this was a pre-arranged service that I paid for. Apparently, the driver got confused because there was another call to the Golden Sickle for 7:15. Well, 7:15 wasn't going to work for a 7:35 flight. I needed a ride NOW. He demanded that a driver come right away, and so I waited. At 6:45, my Skoda chariot still hadn't arrived. The receptionist called again and the taxi service said they thought he was reiterating the demand for a cab at 7:15. Fuck this, I need to go outside and catch a cab.

Three taxis went by and completely ignored me. One finally stopped and picked me up, and realizing I was in a rush, put the pedal to the metal. Luckily, the hostel had refunded me for the cancelled ride and given me my key deposit back, so I had a little cash to pay the driver. Unluckily, British Airways had closed check-in for my flight.

Jiri, the BA ticket agent, offered to put me on another flight. However, with change fees, upgrade in class, etc. it worked out to 4800 Czech Crowns. Or, in his typically Eastern Bloc style of bilking, US$476. Never mind that that was double the current exchange rate. I need to get home, and I'd have him charge me in Crowns.

Only I didn't have my wallet. And they couldn't just bill me through the card on file for my initial itinerary. He told me to go have a coffee and come back in 15-20 minutes and he'd see what he can do. And so I did. 15 minutes later, he was ready to book me on the next BA flight out of Prague, squarely in time to Heathrow to miss my flight home. Fat lot of good that does!

I went and looked at the departure board. The only flight to London was with EasyJet, and that's just to Stansted. Luckily, they accepted my credit card photocopy as long as I had a passport.

I made it to Stansted and just barely made the bus that would get me to Heathrow on time... Except traffic on the M25 fucked me and I missed check-in for the SFO flight by 10 minutes, even though I'd called BA to have the gate agents ready for my rush through the terminal.

Now I'm running out of internet time, so I'll summarize by saying I'm flying to LA, and then paying a shitload for a United flight to San Jose sometime around 11 pm.

Time to go - the internet terminal's blinking. Time's up. This day is fucked.

Tuesday, April 11, 2006


It had to happen sometime. Never have I traveled Europe without meeting packs of Aussies, a fact bemoaned by some of the locals as mentioned earlier. Well, today it finally happened. Three of my roomies checked in - Mike, Rich, and Brad - and were every bit the image of Aussie lads in Europe. A bit loud, a bit brash, and extremely friendly.

Unfortunately, my other new roomies, a handful of Spanish girls, took the European view of Aussies and were unimpressed by their insistence for us to all go out for a drink. Actually, I can entiendo Espanol pretty damn well, and I deduced easily that three of them wanted to go, while numero cuatro was the designated cockblocker. The pretty one, go figure.

No matter. Mike and Rich and I decided to go out for a few drinks and to give them a little introduction to Prague, now that I was an expert. And a Canadian. They wouldn't acknowledge the fact that there could possibly be a cool Seppo, or to follow one around, at that, so they went by my Whistler hoodie and said I'm Canadian. Oh, the denial.

We walked on over to the Stare Mesto (Old Town), and along the way we were accosted by the many Nigerian barkers outside the strip clubs/brothels. The Aussies were humoring them - much to my chagrin. It's my attitude to just keep walking and ignore the bastards. But they couldn't resist engaging, and the ensuing conversations turned out to be very entertaining. If anything, they were taking the piss out of the barkers, in that uniquely Aussie way that seems like they're acting the fool, only at the end, they've made a fool of you. Good on 'em.

U Radnice was our destination - supposedly a good place to get excellent beer hall atmosphere and top-notch traditional pub grub at locals' prices. It didn't disappoint, and the old Aussie enthusiasm upped the mood for the night. They weren't shy at all about asking how to say "hello" or "thank you" or order beers, and the Czech staff were delighted to oblige. It turns out instead of being the typical piss-up crew, these fellas avoid the laddish stereotypes and go places to soak up the local culture. My kinda blokes.

We moved on to a couple more bars, my last 500 Kc being stretched thinly, but hey, what was I going to do with it?

At our final destination, some Pilsner Urquell-owned joint, we came in loud and boisterous, which worried the bar staff. A couple of minutes later, though, we were friends. The waiter asked if we wanted shots, and I figured we should try the local favorite, Bechrekova. It's some herbal concoction that tastes cinnamonny, not unlike Goldschlager or Aftershock, only not as harsh. In other words, it doesn't taste that much like ass. Then again, the waiter had warned us that it tastes like ass. Rich asked if it tasted like his ass, to which our new Czech friend said "No. But if you want to taste ass, I have the man for you. He's old gay man downstairs, I bring him."

What the fhell? A few minutes later, the waiter produced some more half litres of Pilsner and introduced us to this loud, uhh, festive guy with a big bald spot and a leather apron. Umm, yeah. He told him that Rich wanted to be his boyfriend, and that became the butt of jokes for a good while before another group of visitors wanted a photo with the man. He must be some sort of local legend.

We finally learned how to properly toast in Czech, "Nazdravi!" as well as a few vulgarities which I'm sure I'll forget by the time I'm home. It was definitely a great, short night out, and being in the jovial spirit, I shouted the last round. Then again, where can you get 6 half-litres of beer and three shots for $8???

I'm out and the guys have a few more days in town. Hopefully they'll change some of the locals' views on Australians, the same way I made them think Americans aren't all bad. Nazdravi!

Down and Out in Old Praha

This is it: My final night. I got out at the inconveniently located bus station after a very misty, foggy ride back from Cesky Krumlov. By the time I got out of the Mustek metro station in the center of Prague, it was pissing rain, and somewhere along the way today, I lost my hat. Oh well, I dont think I've held on to any beanie for more than a year anyway.

I tried to do some souvenir shopping since I leave early in the morning, but it was rough. There's very little that looked appealing, and cheesy tourist crap isn't going to cut it. So those of you at home expecting goodies from the Czech Republic, be prepared for disappointment. Short of maybe some odd candies or whatnot. I'm not about to plunk down thousands of crowns for some Swarovski crystal, and there's no way any of the kitschy (but still pretty cool) ceramic beer steins would fit in my luggage. And I doubt anyone short of a hammered Brit on a stag trip would wear a Prague Drinking Team t-shirt. In fact, I've seen more than my fair share of them.

I did get a little shopping done, however. Back at my favorite cheap-ass grocery store, I bought fixin's for dinner tonight, as well as aforementioned candies, and a last couple of bottles of local beer. Besides the taxi money I've put away for the airport tomorrow, I'm pretty much flat broke. I just checked my balance and apparently, all my withdrawals in London sucked the life out of my account like some vampire with an ascot and bad teeth. The Czech Republic has been cheap, but even a week of holiday time in a cheap place can have you spending like an idiot, and that I've done.

So far, these final thoughts aren't sounding too good. Wet, broke, and without much shopping booty, I could really use something positive to write.

Well, here are what I think are cool observations about the Czech Republic.

- They love dogs here. Cute little dogs, in particular, and the fuzzier the better. Long-haired dachsunds abound. The curious thing is how many of them are wearing muzzles.

- As soon as the sun comes out, all the girls come out in short, short skirts. Unfortunately, their fashion sense is stuck in the 70's, and they cover up the legs with really cheap, shimmery pantyhose. C'mon gals, show off those gams. Pasty and white won't get any better if you don't let 'em see the sun.

- Speaking of Czech girls, they tend to walk around arm-in-arm all the time. Kind of like old Middle Eastern men. However, all my hopes of a sudden lesbo make-out session breaking out on the sidewalk have been dashed. Repeatedly.

- People are rude, impatient, and pushy at stores, especially if there's a queue. Sometimes the old Soviet mentality will never die. Note the old fogies always trying to jump the line: That bread isn't going to disappear. In fact, there's more damn bread here than any sane person can handle.

- Czech beer kicks ass. Not that anyone needs reminding, but I keep thinking that to myself every time I have a Pilsner Urquell, Kozel, Staropramen, Budvar (the original Budweiser), Krusovice, Gambrinus... you name it. Of course, you still see morons drinking bottled Heineken, which is beyond me.

- Public transportation, even though some of the parts are relics from the Communist days, is still better here than it'll ever be in the States. It's a sad, pathetic state of affairs that in a place where people were learning the teachings of Marx and Lenin, trains, trams, and buses run with more regularity and reliability than in beacons of capitalism like New York or San Francisco.

- Locals are more annoyed by British and Aussie tourists than Americans. For once, we're not the least popular people drunkenly trashing the place. Then again, other than an expat community and a handful of visitors, there aren't that many of us here. Which makes my occasional use of Czech that much more appealing to the ladies. Har har.

- Internet access is dirt cheap. And fast. And generally pretty abundant. Only the meter is running and I'm trying to save every last crown for later tonight, should I decide to hit the local wine bar to have a last few Moravian reds.

Dobry vecer, friends. By this time tomorrow, I'll be home.

Monday, April 10, 2006

Just What I Needed

I awoke this morning to the sounds of a porno. As Ashley had warned last night, Janelle really does make odd, sexual sounds while she sleeps. Normally this would be kind of cool, but then you remember that she's freakin 17. Ewwww. I felt like a dirty old man.

By 8:30, I was out the door, ready to go take photos of places I'd scouted out the day before. Unfortunately, it's far more overcast this morning, and I'm worried that the film I'm using won't properly capture the beauty of this town. Luckily I've also got my trusty digital with me, but I really wanted to use up my film on Cesky Krumlov. Oh well. As long as I've seen the beauty for myself, I'm happy.

It's about time to check out and spend my last hour or so in town before catching the bus back to Prague. While very mellow and not very exciting, this little break in Southern Bohemia is exactly the type of rest I needed before heading back for my last night in Prague and - ultimately - the last full day of this trip.

But I have to say, if I'm ever in Central Europe again, I'll be coming back here. It's just too damn pretty.

A Day for Recovery

I was having flashbacks to Costa Rica. Hung over and reeking of booze, off on a 3 hour bus ride into a small town in the hills. Mercifully, a country that broke free of Communism only 17 years ago is far more advanced than the most prosperous country in Central America, and instead of a rickety old school bus climbing unpaved roads, I was treated to a remarkably comfortable - dare I say luxurious - coach with ergonomic seats, ventilation, and music from the driver's iPod shuffled throughout the ride.

The weather started turning to shit, and I could feel the bus splashing through inches of water on the motorway. Looking out at the river alongside the road, I could see some of the more minor effects of the recent flooding in central Europe. Some areas had submerged parks, some bridges were practically touching the river. Knowing this wasn't the worst of it, I wondered how people in other, more flooded areas were doing. The whole region's been on high alert for flooding this week, but until I headed down south, I didn't really have any idea of the potential havok the heavy rains could wreak.

Arrival in Cesky Krumlov was easy. I got off at the bus station and crossed the small bridge into the medieval town, with the Hostel 99 just around the corner. I felt oddly like I was in the movie Hostel, most likely because Cesky Krumlov had filled in for Slovakia in it. In fact, when I got to my nice, comfortable room, I found that the view out the window featured the smokestack that figures prominently in the film. Was I going to get tortured and killed?

I walked into town - past the Museum of Torture, by the way - and noticed it was absolutely dead. I know barely anything is open in Europe on Sundays, but this was beyond anything I'd seen. Other than a handful of tourists walking around and snapping photos, it was practially a ghost town. The serenity and solitude were perfect for an afternoon of recovery, as I meandered about the rolling cobblestone streets and winding loop of the Vltava river that so define the town.

The place is magically beautiful. The skyline is dominated by the tower at St. Vitus' church and the pink and gold Renaissance tower of the castle, and there's color around ever corner, whether it's the plethora of red rooftops or the pastel colored facades of the medieval buildings. This place has pretty much looked like this since the 14th Century, and it's amazing how much of it is intact to this day.

Meeting my new roomies at the hostel was an experience. I walked into the room and saw two dreadlocked girls sitting on their beds, and immediately, the Eric Cartman in me came out and I scowled, thinking, dirty hippies, hoping it didn't slip out loud. My kneejerk thoughts of a room filled with patchouli and Dave Matthews Band or Phish melted away when Janelle and Ashley, introduced themselves and were actually very sweet and funny. Further fears disappeared when we started talking about music and they have nary a note of hippie tunes on their iPod. These travellin' teens were sporting Nine Inch Nails and Deftones. Maybe the new generation isn't lost, after all.

We decided to go out to dinner together. I felt kind of weird walking about town with two youngin's, and felt even weirder when, upon ordering drinks, Janelle revealed that she's only 17. Backpacking makes me feel young and reckless, but experiences like these make me feel like an old fart. Oh well. They were very entertaining and we had fun trying to order authentic - no, really! - Mexican food at the Hacienda de Mexico, one of the few open places around. Believe it or not, my fajitas were up to par, the Sangria was about right, and my albondigas soup just about perfect. All for a few bucks.

Hoping to go out and get smashed, we walked by bar after bar and found them to be empty or occupied by old farts. Older than me, even. This town is seriously sleepy. We ended up hanging out and chatting instead, getting to bed early. Something I desperately needed to do. After some reading and internet time. But before saying goodnight, Ashley warned me that Janelle makes odd sounds while she sleeps, as though "she's getting ass-fucked". Right, whatever. Those crazy teenagers.

Sunday, April 09, 2006

What's Czech for 'Hangover'?

I awoke today with a mean buzz. Normally that's good, but not when you realize you've missed your morning bus by an hour. Fuck.

That's the price to be paid for finally having that crazy Czech night out, I guess.

I got my shit together long enough to hit the Museum of Communism, which while small and in some ways disappointing, is full of information about the evolution of Czech politics, as well as a few worthwhile displays from the bad old days. A bit cheesy at best, the museum helps you realize what utter crap political propaganda of any form can be, whether it's pro-communism, pro-fascist, or even pro-American. Just choose your era or regime and apply the principles of brainwashing, and there you have it. The more I travel, the more I learn just about everyone is sick of their government's shit.

Boring political crap aside, I got home and met up with the Danes to go out for dinner, another strange juxtaposition of cultural mores. We went to the former Jewish ghetto of Josefov to go to Chez Marcel, a French Brasserie. Part of the wait staff was Czech, the rest French, so we were interacting in a crazy mix of English, French and Czech. The result? A most excellent meal, with starters and desserts and drinks, costing us less than even a casual meal in the US or Denmark.

We walked off our meals and got back to the hostel for a round of beers and to smoke cherry tobacco out of the boys' waterpipe. Only some drunk Brits had broken it, so we had to fashion a new bowl for it out of a plastic water bottle. MacGyver still lives.

Then it was off on a mini pub crawl as we made our way to the Charles Bridge. We poked our heads into a somewhat chic Mexican restaurant-bar called Bolero and had a few smooth velvet beers, and lo and behold, they had a waterpipe there. The Danes couldn't resist, so we smoked up some apple tobacco while ogling the incredibly sexy waitress and getting shit thrown at us by a group of local girls. Apparently, beaning you in the head with crap off your plate is the national form of flirting. Unfortunately, we didn't have enough velvet to make us want to chuck stuff back at them.

The next stop was a posh, black-lit nightclub with a terrace overlooking the Vltava River, complete with unobstructed view of the castle. The four dollar cover was steep by Prague standards for a place this cheesy, and we bristled at the 2 dollar beers, until we all sort of realized that after nearly a week in Czech, we're pretty damn spoiled. While the view was pretty, as were the go-go dancers, the music sucked ass, so we moved on to the night's final destination.

Karlova Lazne is Central Europe's hugest nightclub, with five levels of dancing and chill-out lounges, plenty of young dance-a-holics, and enough dollar beer to keep the whole nation going if need be. That's about all I remember of it. Dancing, drinking, drinking some more, and then drinking a bit more. I remember us tearing up pretty much each floor, getting applause for nutty dancing in the hip hop room, and passing out in a cab on the way home.

So here I am at an internet cafe in the main bus station at Florenc, awaiting my transport for the day. My burps taste like the croissant and cappucino I had earlier - all for a buck - as well as the 30-odd litres of beer I had last night. It's going to be a brutal bus ride.

Saturday, April 08, 2006

I'm Lovin' It

I slept in today, and after several mornings of waking up by dawn, it felt fantastic. I had offered to help the Danes find the pub where the wallet was lost last night to try and squeeze help from the staff, but they kindly let me be and went about their business as I snoozed away. It was the best sleep I'd had in a week, and even the questionable-looking shower was piping hot and relaxing. As basic as it is, I'm liking this hostel a lot more after one night.

My first order of business was to find the main bus station to get some transit information, a Metro stop away from nearby Mustek at Wenceslas Square. The ticket system confused me a bit, and seeing that I had trouble, one of the few helpful Czechs I've encountered helped me buy my ticket and I was on my way. I remembered to validate my 50 cent ticket before getting on board - plainclothes transit cops like to pop tourists for not validating the ticket, which carries a $20 fine. I can do without that.

Florenc bus station didn't seem like the haven of thieves and thugs that I'd read about, but the way the station staff treats customers, I still felt robbed... of what, I don't know. A poor old English lady on holiday was getting no help whatsoever, and looked sad and confused. Luckily, I was able to extract the info she wanted with my half-assed Czech and got her on her way to Austria. I could use the karma points.

For the second metro ride, I was an expert with the machine, the validation process, and how to get where, so I went a whopping four stops to Karlovo Namesti to check out the famous "Fred & Ginger," aka the Dancing Building. Set at weird, curvaceous angles, the building was designed by globetrotting architect Frank Gehry and a local blueprint-slinger, with the curves allegedly designed so that the people in the building next door wouldn't have their view of the river and the castle ruined. If that's true, that's pretty damn cool. If it isn't, it's still a great piece of architectural design.

Across the river in Malo Strana, I was lost again, this time seeking out help in broken German from a pair of old pensioners from the old days where German was widely spoken in the area. They pointed me to the street I wanted, hoping to find Prague's hippest fashion store, stocked with wares from local designers, Faux Pas. Unfortunately, it's been replaced by some French-themed cafe. God dammit.

My luck finally changed after entering, of all places, McDonald's. In my retarded quest to try Mickey D's in every country I go to, I stepped in to give the Czech version a go. Shockingly, I was not disappointed. I ordered the McRoyal Tasty with Bacon, basically a Quarter Pounder supplemented with some delicious local form of bacon and - get this - Emmenthal cheese. All served up by Monca, the most absolutely stunning fast food employee I've ever laid eyes upon. Sense prevented me from taking a photo, but you guys reading this, just believe me. I've never seen so stunning a creature asking people if they want fries with that. And yes, a gringo (that'd be me) speaking Czech with her made her eyes light up, which made my heart syncopate all that much more. I walked away thinking man, McDonald's isn't necessarily the evil, hideous corporation staffed by retards that I always thought it was. In fact, every employee was well-dressed, button-down shirts tucked in, presentable, and doing everything to keep the place tidy and the customers happy. Who'd ever thought that in the mecca of lousy service and bad attitudes, Mc-freakin-Donald's would be a shining beacon of good employees and friendly dispositions?

That said, I'm still not going back. My body, while by no means a temple, can only take so much.

What a Night

After a much-needed nap, I took a stroll looking for the Museum of Communism to no avail. It's ironically located next to a McDonald's and a Casino, just a block east of Wenceslas Square, but I simply couldn't find it. I decided to console my disappointment with one of the many delicious looking klobasas (hot dogs) found at street vendors all over the square. Apparently, you can't judge a book by its cover. While it wasn't awful, the greasy tube of lips and assholes wasn't nearly as delicious or satisfying as it looked, and the bun was even more disappointing. I ate maybe half of the offending dog and chugged my nearly flat cup of Coke and walked home sullenly.

I met a few more of my roommates, three very sweet girls from the US and Canada who are on spring break from their school in Lancashire, UK. Unfortunately, it's a bible school, so I don't think they're going to be up for much trouble. My other two roomies are a pair of very soft-spoken students from NYU, and judging by their voices I'm guessing they're castrati. They don't seem to be up for much fun, either.

Luckily, the Danish dudes came back, and there's an expression here that basically means "to drink like a Dane." Excellent. We decided a pub crawl was in order, and so we made our way into the Old Town for pub #1, a small basement affair with cheap beer on tap, 80's music videos on the screen, and - asynchronously - hardcore punk rock on the speakers. The place was mostly filled with students, which is always a good sign, and we toasted our Pilsners to the start of a great night out in Prague. To get the juices flowing, a couple of the guys also ordered Red Bull and the local knockoff, Semtex. Yeah, like the explosive. Cool name, huh?

On to bar #2! Just the other day, while looking for a record store, the girls and I had stumbled upon a dark cave of a bar, situated well underground by means of an extremely steep staircase. Alternatiff, it's called, and the music and atmosphere fit the name, with posters from the likes of KMFDM on the wall and a clientele dressed in black and smoking Gauloises to no end. Just the atmosphere I dig. The boys went for some cheap but potent mojitos, while I opted for the original Budweiser (aka Budvar), a brew that puts the globally-dominating American piss to shame. We toasted yet again to a killer night out. This was the making of an epic bar crawl.

Getting up to head for bar #3, Mikkel realized his wallet was missing. Sure, Prague is known for pickpocketry and other unsavory crimes targeting tourists, but this was ridiculous. It was in the zipped inner chest pocket of his snowboarding shell. Panic ensued. Was it at the bar? No. On the floor? No. Did he drop it in the bathroom? No. The bar staff, in a typically Czech manner, was unhelpful. We scouered every square inch of every part of the bar we'd been in and fuond nothing. We went back to bar #1 and found nothing. We even went all the way back to the hostel and found nothing. How could a heavy, easy-to-feel wallet just disappear like that? He'd used it and put it back in his jacket pocket, he swore 100%. Just how good are these pickpockets here? We were dismayed, disappointed, and ultimately mystified.

Back at the hostel, we sat around and expressed frustration in both losing the wallet and having our big night cut short. My half-a-hot-dog-filled stomach was also growling, so while the boys talked of the logistics of canceling Danish bank cards and filing reports, I ran out to the local 24-hour Arab stand and picked up some sort of chicken shawarma platter at around the cost of $4. Not bad for late night eats, but not very tasty either.

Disappointed by street food and robbed of a great pub crawl experience, this evening has NOT been what I wanted, so I'm still looking for that quintessential night out in Prague. It'll have to wait. Hopefully the boys will have luck with the wallet troubles, and we'll be able to put all this behind us. For the time being, that chicken shawarma's asking to get out of my belly. Good night.

All By My Lonesome

For the first time here in the Czech Republic, I was underwhelmed.

Due to sore feet and short on time, Sarah, Amy and I grabbed a cab up to Prague Castle and wound our way around the huge complex, the Church of St. Vitus, took a peek at the Golden Lane, and generally bobbed and weaved through the huge crowds there to take in the gothic and pink architecture. To be honest, I didn't find it all that impressive. Ok, so some aspect of St. Vitus' were pretty awesome, like the pink glow created by purple stained glass, but overall, the castle has more of a cool, fairytale aura from afar, on top of the huge hill overlooking the city. It looks best off in the landscape, as an untouchable fortress where some princess lies sleeping, rather than a jam-packed tourist trap with a horrendous queue for the toilets.

Maybe it was the fatigue, though, because in retrospect, all the ornate masonry and decor about the grounds really were awe-inspiring. I took solace in another classic Czech meal - goulash. My meat smothered in some brown sauce was accompanied by croquettes and another one of many dumplings I've had here, and it was mmmm mmmm good. The 70 cent stein of Pilsner Urquell didn't hurt, either.

We went across the Charles Bridge again, this time by day, where it was full of vendors hawking trinkets, an old-world organ grinder and a few other buskers, and once again, many of the prostrated beggars that each time becomes a more depressing sight. Especially when one of them has a starving puppy with him.

In between all the shopping stops (it's the girls' last day and all) we went inside the Church of St. Nicholas and gawked at the huge, fancy organ that Mozart once played, and which is still in use today. It didn't really sink in right away that there I was, staring at something freaking Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart played, and that it's not in some museum, but used in an actual, live venue daily.

We also took the opportunity to go up the tower that houses the Astronomical Clock, which provided amazing panoramic views of the entire city and a top-down view of the Old Town Square. Prague is spectacular from the ground, but being able to peer across all the brick-red rooftops puts in on a whole new level of wonder.

As late afternoon rolled around, it was time for the girls to head to Paris. I wish I could've joined them, but hey, been there, done that, right? Besides, I'm here to immerse myself a bit and maybe work on my Czech, which has been pretty helpful so far. I bid them adieu at the taxi stand on Wenceslas Square and lugged my backpack down Vodickova Street to the Golden Sickle hostel.

The Golden Sickle's not bad, but it's certainly not the greatest hostel I've ever stayed at. The rooms seem comfy enough and my three Danish roomies are cool guys, but the whole place has this clinical staleness that makes it feel more institutional than communal and fun. If anything, it's probably the first sense of "Soviet Bloc" that I've gotten since I've been here, which is cool. In fact, I was hoping to end up somewhere that'd catch a bit of that zeitgeist, though I never thought it'd be where I'm sleeping.

I'm not sure what to do tonight. There are club and bar options galore, and not all of them touristy, but I'm just not feeling motivated at the moment. Oh well. The night is young - hell, it's a fetus if you want to kill that metaphor. Who knows what I'll get up to... there's beer to be had.

Friday, April 07, 2006

That Legendary Prague Nightlife

I haven't seen it yet. Sure, I've seen the hordes of Spanish and Italian tour groups and English bachelor parties and barkers out in front of nightclubs and strip clubs, but we've just been too damn tired - and our feet hurting too damn much - to give any of that dancing a go.

We've still been living it up, though. After our long journey back to Prague, we put a few more miles on the old feet by doing a bit more treasure hunting, as it's Amy and Sarah's last night in town. They got a good deal of shopping done, so much so that they're out looking for new luggage this morning.

With that mission accomplished, we headed through the Old Town and across one of the many bridges across the Vltava River into Mala Strana, a tony part of town just south of the big castle that dominates the skyline. The sun was setting and the buildings starting to light up, the perfect time to sit at a terrace restaurant on Na Kampa Island, overlooking the river and the city from the west side.

Whoever said Czech food is bland and boring needs to have their head checked. Sure, this wasn't the typical pub fare, but the traditional Czech platter that I had, consisting of roasted duck leg, baked ham, sauerkraut, cranberry sauce, and several varieties of dumplings, was superb. We got the cheapest bottle of Moravian wine, to boot, and it was excellent as well.

Bellies full of meat and dumplings and goat cheese, we walked up Mala Strana toward the castle and Charles Bridge. Sarah was absolutely hilarious and loopz after all the wine, and I probably wasn't helping matters with my over-tired, slurred speech. Finally, a drunken night out. Maybe not in my typical way, but good fun nonetheless.

We crossed the Charles Bridge, which at night is just a thing of beauty. With the castle to the northwest and the huge spires and colorful facades of the city proper to the west, the walk is an ever-changing panorama of lights and colors against a starkly black sky. I felt like I was back in Milford Sound in New Zealand, where the scenery would seemingly change dramatically every 20 meters. I shutterbugged like a mad Japanese tourist, but, like Milford, pictures will never do these views justice. You just have to see it for yourself some time.

Feet? Still aching. Belly? Still full, but in need of a drink! I looked into the guidebook and looked up the nearby Cafe Montmartre. Sure, it's got a French name and motif, but it's the original cafe where the whole Bohemian thing - as in the culture of artists and writers, not this region - all started. This was where the writers and revolutionaries would hang out, drink absinthe, and smoke hundreds of cigarettes in one sitting. Well, there aren't anymore artists or revolutionaries, and the 50 Kč absinthe probably isn't the real deal, but the place certainly still holds all that old cigarette smoke from the early 20th Century. Ventilation anyone??

I ordered a Fernet and a beer. Supposedly, the Fernet here is a cheap imitation of Fernet-Branca, a favorite of mine back at home. I actually found it to be smoother and tastier. I put it away pretty quickly. Sarah ordered grog - hot rum - and didn't find it to her liking. So I put that away pretty quickly, too. Amy stuck with her standby of hot chocolate... although she'd ordered a chocolate milkshake. The legendary reputation of Czech service continues unabated!!

At that point, enough was enough. I'd had enough to drink, our feet were dead, so instead of a big night out, we went home to crash. Either I'm getting old, or I've finally grown up and learned to enjoy a less hectic sort of nightlife. Then again, I move into a hostel today when the girls leave. We'll see...

Kutna Run

It's a 50 minute train ride eastbound to Kutná Hora, but you'd better make extra time to figure out the damn trains. The English language announcements don't help much, and neither do the staffers at the station, even when you try mixing in some Czech. Somehow, we did manage to make it aboard our train and find a decent cabin.

It was my first time sharing one of those European train cabins, and as soon as I noticed that the bearded, middle aged man next to me was reading some sort of porno paper, paranoia struck me that he'd be something like Fred Armisen's bit role in Eurotrip whenever we passed through a dark tunnel. Fortunately, that was not the case. In fact, he was extremely helpful, giving us tips about Kutná Hora and Sedlec. Never mind that he was speaking in Czech with the occasional hand gestures. I knew just enough to get by, but not knowing English, he was filling in words that I was having trouble with in German. Unfortunately, my German's only slightly better than my Czech. As he was walking us to the Ossuary in Sedlec, I finally told him that we're Americans, and he was taken aback by the fact that a Yank had bothered to learn his language. See, we're not all bad!

Sedlec is fascinating. Not least of all because the biggest employer there is Phillip Morris, where they've converted a huge old church into... a cigarette plant. But the real attraction here is the Ossuary, a fantastic little church decorated with the bones of 40,000 deceased. Not just as adornments along the walls or in piles like in the Parisian catacombes, but turned into candleabras and chandeliers! We felt so goth, we had to pose for some cheesy black and white photos. Hopefully they'll come out.

After a few fits and starts, we figured out the local bus system and made our way to the Kutná Hora citz center, home of the Church of Santa Barbara. No, Santa Barbara is not the patron saint of surfers or drunk college students, but of silver miners. Kutná Hora's reputation as the 2nd greatest city in the Czech Republic back in the daz was built on its huge silver boom, and the richness showed in this cathedral. Although I've had ABC Syndrome - Another Bloody Church - for several years now, it's really hard not to be inspired by the ornate work, the fantastic and meticulous masonry, and the huge spires that can be seen for miles around. It's truly a wonderous cathedral, and worth the ride out from Prague.

I'm not sure about the ride back, though. We caught the next train out, which was a slow one, stopping in every town along the way. For 2 hours. All I wanted to do was nap, but every time I put my head down, we'd hit a bumpy section of track and I'd start banging my head like an Orthodox Jew at the wailing wall.

So tired... so hungry... so ready for a nice night out after a crazy day going halfway across the country.

Thursday, April 06, 2006

Keep it Surreal

It was the first time I had a driver waiting at the airport holding a sign with my name on it. The ApartHotel BV provided an airport pickup service, and there was our goofy-looking driver, ready to cart Amy, Sarah and me into Prague in a not-so-shiny BMW 5-series, complete with a stock of bootleg CDs. As we wound our way into town, we were treated to the strains of Van Morrisson, traditional Irish music, cheeseball trance, and the Bloodhound Gang, which made the landscape of gothic architecture and little bridges all the more surreal.

Smoke filled the entryway to the hotel's reception area, just as it does every corner of Prague. We checked in, found our way upstairs, to find a huge, spacious studio apartment filled with Ikea furniture, a nice kitchen area, and - god bless them - a bathroom with a proper tub and a washing machine. Sweet!

While the gals unwound, I made my way to the Albert supermarket, oddly located in the subway station in the middle of Wenceslas Square, or Vaclavskě Naměsti as the locals call it. There I purchased 2 large bottles of water, some fantastic bacon chips, a package of gouda cheese, 3 freshly baked rolls, a probiotic yogurt drink, and 3 pint cans of local beer. All for the grand total of 133 Kč, or just over five dollars. This place is cheap, to say at the least.

Vaclavskě Naměsti is huge and modern and touristy, with a little marketplace selling trinkets and food at the northern end. After browsing the wares, we headed north to the Old Town Square and... WOW. Wowie wow wow. That's all I could think, over and over, looking at the amazing architecture. The ornate astronomical clock rightfully drawing hordes of tourists, the Church of St. Nicholas flouting daily Mozart performances, and - I could go on and on, but my fingers would fall off typing about all the amazing views this tiny little area has to offer. And that's just a very small part of Prague.

Naturally, being with a pair of women, there was a lot of browsing and shopping to be done, and while grocery shopping was cheap, much of Prague's center is full of the same high street stores you'd find in London or Paris, with much the same prices. Bummer. But that didn't prevent us from finding great local stores, full of great Czech wares and remnants of Prague's communist era. Matryoshkas, Soviet trinkets, big fur hats - you name it. Sure, it's all geared toward tourists, but walking around and staring in wonder, I can't help but be yet another tourist completely taken in by the city's charms.

Some uncharming stuff here:

- Computer keyboards are totally jacked, with the Y and Z keys reversed for some reason. And punctuation is nearly impossible to find. I've had to do an insane amount of copying and pasting just to write this.

- Customer service is legendarily non-existent, but as advised by numerous guidebooks, the locals warm up quite a bit when you make any attempt to speak Czech. Luckily, my 2 weeks of learning the language have come in handy.

- There's no way of telling which brands of Absinthe are good, and which are just knockoffs for the tourist crowd. This is going to require some research.

- Beggars prostrate themselves on the street, face down, holding out a cup or hat in front of their down-turned head, not saying a word, in the hopes that someone will acknowledge their shame and throw them some loose change. While absolutely fascinating, it's sad and depressing, and not all that uncommon. Absolutely surreal. If anyone knows anything about this form of begging, I'd love to find out more - click the comments link and fill me in.

Of course, those are only minor annoyances. The city's good points clearly outshine the bad, coming in the form of beauty around every corner, cheap and plentiful beer, and food prices that are befuddlingly low.

At one point, we were feeling hungry and stopped in at a restaurant for a slice of pizza. At roughly 79 Kč apiece, we figured it wasn't an amazing deal or anything, but still pretty reasonable. It turns out each order was for a FULL pizza, some of which is now lingering in our apartment's fridge. Not freakin' bad!

The late afternoon pizza was just a snack, though. After plenty more trekking around, watching an awful Czech movie on TV, and necessary nap time, we walked over to the U Prince restaurant for a ritzy dinner. Carpaccio, Bohemian sirloin steak, two orders of chicken, some fancy mixed drinks and a couple of beers came out to 24 dollars a person. Sky-high in Prague, but a mere pittance at home for the caliber of food and drink we were served. All the while, we were entertained by an authentic Czech jazz band, playing a bunch of, umm, Dixieland standards. Did I mention this place is surreal?

A hot bath this morning did me some good, and here I am at another internet cafe while the girls are - you guessed it... Shopping! How can you blame them, though? There's so much cool stuff, the prices are more than reasonable, and we get a killer exchange rate for once. I'm going to have to dive in and do some myself before the week is up.

They're on a deadline, though. We have to catch a noon train to Kutna Hora and Sedlec, getting away from the throngs of tourists in town to have a little Gothic outing about an hour east of here. Bones and churches and castles, oh my!

Wednesday, April 05, 2006

Londoned Out

Ok, that's it. I'm done with London. I love it like a second home and all, a mistress if you will, but sometimes you just need to get away from the hustle and bustle. I left it like you'd leave a torrid love affair. With one hasty, sloppy, but lasting bang. I got on an open-top tour bus all day and photographed the shit out of her, 'til we were both breathless and spent. It's been nice, baby, but we've done all we can short of moving in together... Maybe if you change your attitude about shacking up with Yanks we can have something, but until then, it's another case of been there, done that.

Of course, I still think of her. That last evening, sliding around underneath her in the Tube, exploring her darkest corners, searching for the spiciest of experiences.

That is, I took the Underground to meet up with Pav at Liverpool Street, so we could seek out the finest curry house on Brick Lane. We found it in the highly recommended Preem, an Indian joint with fresh beer, fresher chutney, and one of the best deals in London: 10 quid for papadams, pakora, tandoori chicken tikka, salad, vindaloo curry, chicken tikka masala, aloo gobi, and palau rice. All at a high quality that even the finest Indian restaurants at home would race to compete with.

I went back early and walked the streets of Kensington and Chelsea before crashing in the mid-evening, warm in the arms of London's toniest neighbourhood, feeling once again that I was home.

I'm sorry, baby. I'll be back. Soon.

Tuesday, April 04, 2006

I'd Be Gutted But...

UCLA lost the national championship to Florida. I didn't stay out to watch the game this time, but Navid was giving me constant updates from home, seeing my dreams of a Bruin resurgence to dominance die, one text message after the other on my cell phone's screen.

To be honest, though, while I take my college basketball pretty seriously, I wasn't all that distraught. First off, I'm in London. Secondly, I just came off the last show of Depeche Mode's Touring the Angel's first leg, and it was a doozy.

Sarah and Amy decided to get to Wembley by 1oo pm to start queuing - we had standing floor tickets, after all. We joined up very well placed in line, and got the best possible spot in the arena, the crook of the barrier where the center of the stage meets the catwalk. This made for an up-close-and-personal view of all the action on stage, and better yet, an opportunity for some brilliant photos. I wish I could post them so you could see how close we were and practically smell Dave Gahan's sweat coming off the stage.

Ok, perhaps not.

Although somehow I'm sure some people wouldn't mind... Right, Sarah?

This trip to the UK has definitely provided one of the best concert outings possible. I saw Depeche Mode from the mixing board in Manchester, from dead center seats the first night in London, and then right up front last night. Throw a raw, innard-shaking performance by the Cure at Royal Albert Hall in the equation, and you simply don't get much better. Unless, of course, there was a Smiths or New Order reunion in Manchester, but even I can't dream that big.

Some things I've learned over the course of four UK shows in the last week:

  1. While the Brits love to sing along, they can be very subdued. It's almost rude to stand up if you're in a seated area, but seriously, how can you not?

  2. Fans from continental Europe are the craziest, loudest, and most enthusiastic. That's all our little Yank crew was surrounded by up front, and they were fun. Except for the drunk Poles who simply wouldn't shut up.

  3. Germans, while orderly as hell in everyday matters according to stereotype, will stop at nothing to get in front, whether it's jumping lines, shoving through the crowd, or beating you with a bratwurst.

  4. Scandinavians are passive, letting said Germans do all of the above.

There weren't any drunken adventures to speak of last night, except for having to create a big water balloon of piss. You see, I'd been drinking beers in the queue, followed by a double espresso, and just before the gates were to open, I was hit by the sudden need to go. Not sure if I had time to run to a nearby cafe to take a whiz, I was eventually convinced by the girls that it's ok to pee in a plastic bag, tie it off, and leave it along the wall for some poor bastard to step on. Or throw it at the German linejumpers ahead of us. Luckily, it seems public pissing isn't a great offense in the UK, and nobody around really said a word. And, as you can tell from above, I maintained my spot in the queue and got right where I wanted to be.

I got up early this morning as Elena had an early afternoon flight home from Heathrow. We made our way to my old 'hood of Bayswater to get a down-home English breakfast and pick up some cheap souvenirs, none of which are to be found around our digs in Sloane Square. In fact, anyone who can relate the words "down-home" or "cheap" with Sloane needs to get their head checked. And wire some funds into my Swiss bank account.

Well, it's now past midday and I was hoping to meet some friends for lunch, but everyone's busy. It's a workday here and all. Lunch sounds really good, though. I'm at the Easy Internet Cafe (once again) on King's Road, and there's a Subway sandwich counter in the same shop. The smell of baking bread is driving me nuts.

I guess I'll forgo the temptations of American fast food chain goodies and go out on some sort of photographic adventure. Hopefully, I'll have some visual goodies to bring back for everyone.

Monday, April 03, 2006

Technical Difficulties

Besides the fact that I haven't been finding internet cafes all that regularly, Blogger seems to be taking a while to publish my posts.

Sorry for any inconvenience.

I Don't Want to Go to Chelsea

Sleeping in feels so good. Your mobile phone ringing to wake you from that sleep is not. Unless it's an old friend from Australia who just happens to be living in London now. Luckily, that was the case. Pav, whom I last saw on my Australian adventure wound up getting a job in London. And all this time I thought he'd moved to Ireland. No matter! We made our way to disgustingly fashionable Chelsea, where this very internet cafe is, and Pav met up with us shortly thereafter.

King's Road is where it's at in Chelsea. All the fancy shopping, restaurants, bars, you name it. Frankly, I don't find much of it charming - I'd compare it to the Marina District in San Francisco, and I think most people understand my feelings about that. But still, it's London so it's different and surprisingly more down to earth. And unlike the humorless Marina types, they do have a sense of fun here. We decided to get some Vietnamese pho noodles at this little courtyard place sporting a big Buddha logo and the name... Phat Phuc. Really.

Besides the silly name and tasty Jasmine tea, Phat Phuc was an oasis. The noodles are fresh, the broth is light and - get this - they give you tons of gently cooked vegetables, full of all the nutrients and flavor that the British Isles were thought to be robbed of centuries ago. So if you're tired of pub food and pre-packaged sandwiches from Sainsbury's or can't have another dodgy curry, go see the Phat Phuc. He'll do ya right.

Naturally, all that healthiness had to be balanced out. So it was off to the Trafalgar, a swanky yet comfortable bar with a great view over the street for people watching. Definitely a great spot to drink a Sunday afternoon away and catch up with a friend. The sun even came out to make it that much more pleasant.

Plans to do a little grocery and drug shopping along King's Road were derailed by the fact that everything closes by 5 on Sunday. And it was well after 5. SHIT! We need to get ready for tonight's show already and get our asses way up north of the city to Wembley. An ordeal in itself, as the Metropolitan Line of the tube is closed, meaning fewer trains... We scooted on over to Baker Street, met with Sarah and Amy for a pint at the Globe, and got on the next train to scuzzy-ass Wembley Central, as recommended by Wembley's web site.

Of course, the web site doesn't tell you that it's a mile from Wembley Central to the Arena, and the show was about to start. Thank god for black cabs. We got into the Arena just in time for the opening strains of the first song "A Pain That I'm Used To," and what followed was yet another terrific show, this time with a really amped up crowd, plenty of singing along and - oh yes - dead center seats. Since London shows are a homecoming for Depeche Mode, the crowd goes off and the band seems more cheery and loose, and for the first time in ages, Dave Gahan and Martin Gore truly looked like a couple of old friends on stage. That was nice.

What was not nice was trying to get on the tube after the show. The Wembley Park station - which it turns out is much closer than Central - was packed to the hilt. Not to mention the last train home. It looked like one of those crazy commuter trains in Tokyo, with people barely fitting into the doors. Fuck that noise! Luckily, we were the first on to the Rail Replacement Bus back to Baker Street, which means we had seats for the longish ride back. Amy and Sarah were able to catch a cab to Shoreditch from there, while Elena and I hopped on a night bus back to Knightsbridge, from whence we had a really nice walk among the eerily empty street full of upper-crust boutiques and, happily, no vagrants or drunks asking for money. Sometimes it's nice to stay in the posh part of town.

Sunday, April 02, 2006

If Only Tonight We Could Sleep

Soft beds. Beautiful down comforters. A comfy fleece throw. All of these lovely appointments are readily available in the gorgeous Sloane Square flat that Elena hooked up for the trip. Of course, you can't really use these things when you're not sleeping.

Shortly after checking in and getting situated in London, we got ready and made our way on the tube toward the neighborhood of Royal Albert Hall. Tonight's entertainment: A very special engagement of the Cure for the Teenage Cancer Trust, a very worthy charity. First order of business, though, was to find the Queen's Arms, a local residential pub - and the only one in the area - to meet up with Sarah and Amy who'd just gotten in from, and Carla, an Italian Londoner whom Sarah and I had met at Coachella a couple of years ago. Confused yet?

Well, Carla was running late, and Amy and Sarah were having serious problems with the tube, so we were left to drink all the beers ourselves at the Queens Arms. Well, ourselves and 600 of our closest goth friends. It was quite hilarious to see this small pub in an affluent neighborhood overrun with all sorts of mascarraed freaks, from teenagers who probably hang out at the UK equivalent of Hot Topic to old farts who've been perfecting their mock Robert Smith hair-do's for decades... not to mention Fat Bob's gut. Truly entertaining.

Peoplewatching aside, the experience was nothing short of fantastic. We wound up meeting Carla in front of the Royal Albert, and Sarah and Amy just made it under the wire for us to get seated and for the show to start.

A-MA-ZING. While the crowd seemed a bit subdued some of the time, there was an energy and magic to the night. Maybe it was because we were sitting smack dab beneath the dome of Royal freakin' Albert Hall. Or maybe it was because the band was only 30 feet away. Or maybe it was because Porl Thompson is back with the band, and that just made everything kick some serious pasty-white, black-clad ass.

For those non-fans out there, Porl Thompson was the (fill in: amazing, talented, mind-bending) guitarist who left the band after Wish, joing - of all things - the Page/Plant Led Zeppelin reunion thingamajig. After kicking out a couple of members last summer, Porl was asked back, and we now have a stripped down but definitely more muscular Cure. The new sound is guitar heaven - and although the lack of keyboard makes some of the songs lose a bit of dimension - the new raw sound and proper guitar work brings out the best of each. And they can finally start playing songs like "The Kiss," "Shiver and Shake," and "Never Enough" again. Bitchin. I really hope they filmed this.

Aaaanyway, enough about the Cure. It's time to post party. Of course, instead of doing the obvious thing and hitting up some goth or indie club, there was more travel/social business to attend to. I'd met Sarah's local friends Jess and Mo last summer, and I was really looking forward to seeing them again. They knew the DJ spinning at SAK in Soho, so that's where we went. After a bit of an ordeal trying to find a working cash machine (there were none) getting in (it's one of those members-only dealies, like the horrible jackets) we were sipping cocktails and bopping around to... hip hop? Ooops, this wasn't the funky house we were promised, but when you're surrounded by great friends and partying in London, who the fuck cares? It was just great to see J&M again and just be hanging out.

Naturally, the night wasn't over. While hanging out with cool London friends is great, there was one more mission for the night: Watch UCLA in the Final Four.

You might think I'm kidding. This guy travels to Manchester to see Depeche Mode, to Liverpool to do a Beatles tour, to London to see an exclusive Cure gig... and all along this musical journey, he needs to see a basketball game!? Hey man, I may be a music and travel dork, but I still bleed blue and gold. And a savvy traveler knows where expats watch ballgames that no one else in the country could give a damn about. And this place is the Sports Cafe in Piccadilly.

Of course, getting into the Sports Cafe can be an issue when you have no cash, their bloody cash machine doesn't work either, and they have a £5 cover. Oh, and they'd stopped serving food at this point, and none of us have eaten. This was not good. I'm with four girls with depleted blood sugar, I'm all aggro because I need to see my boys crush LSU, and none of us have access to cash.

We talked to the bouncers at Sports Cafe and told them we'd be back after locating a working ATM and food. The machine at RBS up the street didn't work. The 24-hour SPAR market nearby had semi-edible food, and while they let me use my ATM card to purchase a sandwich, there was no cash back option. In fact, there was no card back option. I walked back to Sports Cafe and figured I'd use my card to charge each of our covers and open a tab for drinks... but realized the jerk at SPAR had kept my card. So while I left a couple of the girls as collateral, I ran back to SPAR to get my card, ran back, and out of breath thanked the bouncer for keeping the line open for me. (It was just about their cut-off time of 3am by now.) Luckily, Brits can be nice. Not all bouncers are power trippers. So he let us in... for free. Mind you, it's been an hour and a half since leaving the club.

I needed a drink. We all did. So we got some. And it was good. Oh, and UCLA did wind up crushing LSU. In fact, it wasn't even a game. The Bruins put on a clinic and the Tigers were the invalids. Only all they were getting was pain. It was such a lop-sided game, it didn't even seem like the Final Four but some sort of exhibition match. So much so that all sorts of fans who were up late at the Cafe started to leave. But for me, it was worth it. All that running around, trying to find cash, trying to get in, all worth it. UCLA BASKETBALL IS BACK!!

Ok, at the time of this writing I'm excited. But it was 5:30 am by the time I got a cab home after the game. And a down comforter never looked, sounded, smelled, or felt so good.

Saturday, April 01, 2006

A Little Help from My Friends

Liverpool is brilliant.

While Manchester is definitely cool, I can see why the 'Puddle was chosen for European City of Culture for 2008. It's got character, and plenty of it, providing you can cut through the Scouse.

We arrived (via yet another delayed train) just in time to catch the Magical Mystery Tour of Beatles history. Utterly touristy? Yes. But it's a necessary step in this musical odyssey. Unfortunately, the old 1967 Magical Mystery Bus broke down on the way to get our small group, so we were put on a modern coach instead. To make up for it, we were given free beer at the Cavern pub while listening to #5 of only a hadful of Yellow Submarine jukeboxes ever made. (1-4 went to the original members.)

Strawberry Field, Penny Lane, John & Paul's houses, George's birthplace... all were on the tour, amusingly narrated by one of Liverpool's native sons. We ended at the Cavern Club and met up with Briley and Rachel from TravelPunk for a few beers before heading out to catch some pub food at the Rat and Parrot.

While Manchester is modern and hip, Liverpool oozes charm. But that didn't stop Briley from coming back to Manchester with us for a night out on the town. After a misstep or two (let's just say cheesy chain pub/clubs SUCK) Elena, Briley, Eva and I ended up at Sankey's Soap, probably the only Mancunian club I really wanted to check out. Allegedly in an old soap factory, the place hearkens back to the early days of underground clubbing with good beats, reasonable drinks, and a lot of chemically enhanced people. Oh, the halcyon days!

The night ended with chips and curry and donner kebab, which has been affecting my stomach ever since, but damn, it was tasty. Eva ended up coming home at some point, Briley had to take off early, and for us, a gleaming silver Virgin train to London awaits.