Friday, September 03, 2010

One if by land. Two if by sea.

I am in the Büro. Years ago when I came to Germany to visit Johannes I often spent some time using the Internet in whatever office of whatever advertising company he was working for. Now he owns the company.

I am staying on Hufeland Str. in the same flat that we squatted in a decade ago. Now the building and the street is completely restored. The paint has been stripped from the massive wooden doors. The plumbing and electric redone. There is hot water and showers. There is central heat in the winter. The Jungen Stile (Art Nouveau) facades have been restored. These formally grey buildings used to be pocked marked with bullet holes. The bullets are still there, somewhere inside but they have been covered up with fresh plaster and yellow and white paint.

I remember how we used to line up every morning at the yellow phone booth on the corner. This was the only working phone for blocks around. We would meet our neighbors there and plans were made for the coming day.

I came to Berlin yesterday, from Riga by boat and train. I was on a cargo ship filled with Russian truck drivers. There were a handful of people with cars. Mostly everyone is trying to avoid the legendary traffic jams in Poland. I was the only person who walked on board the ship.

I had to go to Vecmilgravja Terminal a heavily industrialized port on the outer fringes of Riga. Yanis offered to drive me there in the middle of the night. We drove through the desolate cargo yards past the gigantic cranes and freighters at 1am.

I had to wait in the shipping office until all of the trucks had loaded. Then at 3:30am a tiny woman, dressed in black with a very official looking orange safety vest and bright red high heels led me to the gangplank of the Baltic Amber. I was impressed at how she navigated the cobblestones and abandoned rail tracks in spikes.

I was the only passenger to walk on board. There must have been close to 200 rooms on the upper decks of the ship. I had a cabin built for 4 all to myself.

I slept for a few hours and woke to bright sunshine. The sea was calm. From the deck one could see for hundreds of miles in all directions. There were banks of low clouds on the horizon, billowing like the sails of ancient ships. I practiced yoga while Russian truck drivers smoked cigarettes. They watched curiously for a few moments. I heard the word Yoga a few times. Then they quickly lost interest.

That night I slept like a baby to the thrum of the massive engines. In the morning we sailed into Travemunde. It looked like a cross between Monte Carlo and Innsbruck. The beach was lined with empty cabanas. There was a lone high rise hotel that also functioned as a light house. From there I hitched a ride with a car passenger to the local train station. Once you are in the German rail system you are home free.

As we sat on the balcony last evening in Hufeland Str. Johannes asked me: Why Riga?

I told him the story.

Monday, August 23, 2010

Warsaw - Ostro Mazowecki - Bialystok - Augustow - Sulwalki - Marijampole - Kaunas - Panevezys - Riga

I am in a coffee shop in downtown Riga. Raitis is chatting like mad on his cell and I'm jittery with my second cappuccino. Ilsa is sitting with her baby and glowing as she breast feeds. They are in a three way Latvian conversation, catching up on all the gossip within their circle while I tap away at the keyboard.

Yesterday I came from Warsaw by bus. I gave up on the train. I would have had to catch a train to Vilnius, the capital of Lithuania and that would have been OK. I could have spent the night there and it would also be nice to check out this city. But from there to get to Riga I would have had to take a train to Rezekne. This is this several hundred km further east, way out of the way. For historical geo-political reasons, all of the Riga trains are oriented to Moscow. But why the Politburo never built a connection to Vilnius is a mystery. This train arrives in Resneke at 10pm. The connection to Riga comes at 4am. I would have had to spend the midnight hours in a train station with a name that sounds like a cheap peach brandy. I chickened out.

The train from Berlin to Warsaw is quite decent. I was a little concerned that DB only gave me 7 minutes to make the connection. But the train arrives at both Berlin West and minutes later at Berlin East on a parallel track. The German train right on time. The Polish one a little later.

For some reason I could not fathom the seat numbering system on the Polish train They ran 21 23, 34 37, 42 45 or something like that. They were not 0dd-even, sequential or even possibly Fibonaccian. It made no sense even if I took into account the opposite aisle. I asked a young Polish girl and she laughed. "That's Poland." I ducked into an empty first class cabin and remained there until I kicked back to second class somewhere near the German boarder.

When I booked my train from Frankfurt to Warsaw DB gave me the option of a room at a five star hotel for only 70 Euro per night. The place looked spectacular and had great reviews. I went for it. Train stations in even the best cities attract a certain kind of smashed face scum that would give anybody pause. I was also nervous about the cab drivers and a concerned gentleman on the Warsaw train had warned me about them. It proved unfounded. While the Warsaw Centrala itself was grim I found a friendly face who helped me find a cab. The driver was so nice he wouldn't take my fare. With hand signs and pen and paper he signaled to me that the hotel was only 200 meters away and within easy walking distance. When I got there I was so impressed I immediately booked another night. See. The only thing that sucks about expensive hotels is that they are expensive. Once that is removed from the equation they are fabulous. Besides, I had been on the road for a few days and it was time for a tune up.

The window in my hotel room was gigantic. It had a panoramic view of Warsaw. Directly across the street was the Palace of Culture. It is kind of a cross between The Empire State Building and Big Ben. It was so intriguing that I asked the concierge about it. He told me that The Palace of Culture was a gift from Stalin. He said that Moscow had seven such palaces. He seemed disappointed. I said that Saddam Hussein built 22 palaces in Baghdad so count yourself lucky you only got one. Then he smiled mischievously.

The website for booking a bus to Riga was impenetrable. But the concierge figured the whole thing out for me. He successfully navigated it and booked me a trip by bus that wound wind it's way through Poland, Lithuania and Latvia.

The next morning I decided it would be pretty sorry to spend the day entirely at the hotel and not even try to see the city. The concierge illuminated a map for me in yellow highlighter for a two hour walking tour. It included the old town of Warsaw which looks like it was designed by the firm of Hansel and Gretel. I spent the entire day blissfully walking around the city.

He had also mentioned that there would be a race downtown. I imagined a March of Dimes event, geriatrics wearing pink t-shirts and lots of balloons. But it was not. It was Formulae One racers roaring through the streets. This would never happen in New York. When it comes to public danger we are a nation of pussies. I picked out a nice spot just beyond a bend where there was a possibility of things going tragically wrong.

That evening I could not resist seeing a film at the Technika Multipex in The Palace of Culture. No expense was spared on materials inside this place. There are enormous chandeliers and grand staircases made with thick oak planks. Huge velvet curtains robed every window and entrance. I chose The Doors documentary , with Polish sub-titles.

After the movie I went to the other side of the complex where there was this cosmonaut style disco. It featured a pulsating light panel floor that encircled a fountain. I knew nobody was going to be dancing at ten pm but I had a plan. I would just dance by myself for an hour or so and then head to the hotel. I had to get up at 5am to make my bus.

I was getting my groove on, doing some nice salsa steps, mixed with hip-hop and disco and a touch of modern dance. The patrons were horrified. Finally a gigantic bouncer with a shaved head grabbed me and ushered me off the floor. "Too much alcohol. I know." he said. "No, I'm just dancing." He was mystified. I turned around and walked out.

I passed the holiday in and there was thumping music coming from the second floor. I could see the shadows of dancers in the multi-colored light bouncing off the window. I would crash it. It was a wedding. I congratulated the bride as I passed her sipping champagne, just outside the dance floor. As I reached the entrance a rather plain girl, dancing by herself, invited me to join her. I did. I spun her around for two or three minutes when another shaven headed bouncer grabbed me. The girl intervened and he turned began shouting at her. Again I walked out.

As I left I passed a group of young women wearing sparkling red devil horns. One of them approached me gesturing and talking in Polish but I had no idea what she was going on about. Down the block I passed another group of women with the same head gear. This time the leader spoke English. She insisted that I kiss her friend. They encircled us while she sweetly kissed me on the cheek. This brought on a round of hysterical laughter.

Friends cautioned me that the Warsaw women are not very beautiful. I disagree. There is great beauty that is distinctly Polish. The classic oval face. The fair complexion. Tiny but full lips. Brightly lit blue and brown eyes. But there are two things they should know. Never wear high heels and blue jeans. Just don't. Especially with a huge belt buckle. Also, there should be a five year moratorium on use of all hair coloring products. It's time to reassess.

I left for the bus at 5:30am giving myself ample time for confusion. This was wise. The cab driver brought me to Warsaw East not West even though I thought I had made that clear. I had to first find out what was wrong then jump in a cab and race across town. Fortunately I made it with 5 or so minutes to spare. The bus was filled with Russians. It must be part of a migration route for Russians working in Germany. It starts in Bern, Switzerland and winds it's way through Germany and Lithuania before ending up in Riga. There it stops and the tribes split for destinations north to Moscow and St. Petersburg. It takes days to make the full journey. They had a video player on board with two screens. We were treated to an endless Moscow meets Vegas style musical review. The acts ran the gamut from tragi-pop to hip hop. This was followed by a mini-series soviet generational epic.

Note to Russian rappers: knit hat so obviously made by your babushka is lame.

There was a menu with not completely horrible food. There was a bathroom that didn't reek and there was toilet paper. We stopped every hour for a bathroom break. I did yoga on the periphery while almost everybody else smoked cigarettes. I saw the great flat expanse of Poland and the ruined cities that still have not recovered from Nazi and Soviet occupation. I can confirm that Coke and McDonalds are indeed everywhere.

At around six pm, one hour early, I arrived in Riga.

Tuesday, August 17, 2010

Grecian Odyssey

I am now in Ermoupolis. The city of Hermes.

It is filled with slender windy streets lined with old mansions. At some point in history somebody sprang for marble roadways. The plazas are lined with cafes and palm trees. There are cement docks off the rocks below and in the morning you can see the old timers bobbing in the clear Aegean.

I am staying in a 200 year old place called Ipatia Guesthouse. It reminds me of The Harlem Flophouse. No air-con, phones or tv, just high ceilings, huge windows, a chandelier and a whirring fan at the foot of my cast iron bed. Oh and wi-fi.

I spent the last week in Kythnos. I was with friends of Maria Elena. She passed me off to my new hosts. I was in the fancy pants Yachting town of Louitra. The hotel was a little expensive but it is high season and there are only a limited number of rooms in this little village. What is nice about it, and has been my experience everywhere in Greece so far, is that even in a little town there will be a main square jammed with cafes and restaurants. Social life includes everybody not just the mating -agers and at 1 am you will still see little old ladies and men on their wooden chairs, talking and smoking, and children running the streets.

There is a dive center in Kythnos. The dive captain is in a wheelchair, due to a motorcycle accident I am told. When there is a dive they make a little parade in their wet suits down the main street. The captain rolling along in front. One evening I went on a night dive. Myself and the other diver Stan, were bare chested our suits hanging at our waist as we made the walk of honor. Because it was night time a little throng of town-folk followed us to old stone bridge at the end of the harbor. They wanted to watch us plunge into the murky waters. Among the others were a group of dirty kids, two little old ladies in house dresses and slippers, a man with a straw hat and a cane and pregnant girl holding a baby. Stan and I were helping each other on with our weight belts, checking our mask, fins, pressure gages, hoses and the like when somebody yelled out "Not even a bride takes so long to get ready."

As in Kea, the preceding island, every day we went to a different beach. I asked Spentzos why this was, every one seemed great to me. He went over the criteria. There has to be shade. The water clear, the beach clean. And most important... there has to be NO people. Whenever we approached a beach descending a dusty rocky road from on up high, if there was even one person, with an umbrella tied to rocks, he would sigh in exasperation. I told him that in NYC if there are fewer than 25 people that counts as nobody showing up. He laughed. There must be thousands of beaches in Kythnos alone so his quest is a life long one.

Every day has also included a new taverna. Each one with its own specialties. We eat late at night ordering numerous plates for the table. Everyone diving in everywhere. There is always a loaf of freshly baked bread. Thankfully also this usually includes pureed fava with fresh green onion sprinkled on top, a plate of warm sun ripened melon, and a spinach like green called horta served with wedges of fresh lemon. There have been tasty empanadas filled with eggplant or capers or cheese with fresh mint, baked stuffed eggplant and tomatoes (just like my mama Thanos claimed) and smoky charcoal grilled pork chops.

Tomorrow I will take the boat to Riraeus and from Athens and then fly to Frankfurt. On Friday I will take the train to Warsaw and spend a night there. Then, according to the rail map, I go to Kaunas in Lithuania connecting to Riga.

Wednesday, March 17, 2010


It began on Wednesday of last week with a flurry of gigantic snowflakes. They looked like goose feathers. My friend Dawn's mother commented as we watched from the window of The Harlem Flophouse, "I've never seen such big snowflakes." She is 75 and has lived her entire life in Massachusetts near the New Hampshire border.

I had picked up Calliope from the hospital that morning. She was not in good shape. She was weak from being caged. She had a bad cold. She had lymphatic cancer. There was no possibility of a cure. The doctor was recommending euthanasia. She purred gently in my arms. I asked if I could take her home for just one night.

I didn't want to get a cat but my place was filled with mice. An endless stream of them. I was killing 10 a week, catching them in glue traps and drowning them in the toilet. Finally I caved and Calliope, a homeless feline from the East Village, was welcomed into my house. It was like the Taliban had rolled into town. For two days there were headless mice everywhere. Since that time. Not one.

I got used to having a pet. I liked it. She was always around and that means something. She used to like it when I made a fire. She would poke her nose up the chimney in wonderment. Then she would jump onto the couch, grabbing the best spot in anticipation of the warmth that would soon flood the room. She also liked acoustic guitar and would curl up on the couch next to me when I played. She appreciated the calm vibrations of a yoga practice, sprawling out on the floor nearby, tuning into the proceedings. But her favorite thing was to be brushed while she ate. Then she purred like a little tigress.

Like any 10 year relationship it was pock-marked with regrets. The first year of her internship she was waiting by the door when I returned home from my summer travels. "Look at that. She knew I was coming." I marveled aloud. Anna, one of my tenants retorted: "She's been waiting there by the door for you every hour for the last two months." Calliope purred contentedly on my lap and then she bit me and walked off. That's how it was. As the years went by she became less forgiving and more aloof after my absences. Weeks after I returned she would stand outside the room starring at me, keeping just out of reach when I went to pet her. She knew disappointment.

On Thursday as the snow piled up outside she seemed to have bounced back a little. She was sleeping peacefully in her favorite spot, by the radiator on her blanket. I put off her appointment for another day.

Friday morning she was worse. She was lying in her own piss and shit even though her litter box was just a few feet away. She was choking on her own mucus. I scrubbed the dried yellow snot from her face so that she could breath. I decided it was time. It had continued to snow through the night. No car would come for me. I cleaned her up as best I could. I packed her into her carrier and trudged out into the snow. She peered up at me and cried as snowflakes fell around us.
Nothing prepares you for that little back room with the metal table. We all must go there some day. That's guaranteed. I held her down while she cried. In a second it was over. A stream of yellow piss her last expression.

That night I went out. I stayed out and danced until 5am. As dawn approached I made my way to the subway. It had stopped snowing. The sidewalks had been cleared by an enormous civic effort, mountains of snow on either side.

Now the house is filled with empty creaks. I used to attribute all of those shifting boards to her. Or maybe it is her footfall I am hearing on the steps. For 10 years she was always here to greet me. Regardless of my worthiness.