Archive for February, 2011

I’ve wanted to go to Japan, basically, forever. I think growing up in America in the 90s, there was this universal sense that Japan was simply ahead, in technology, innovation, education… it seemed like a place where success was boundless, advancement ever-present. Around the age of ten, I discovered sushi, and then I was basically in love — in America, Japanese food is still really quite un-bastardized or homogenized, the way one often finds in other Asian cuisine, and bowls of Udon, whole plates of sashimi would disappear in front of me. My fascination of the place never left — discovering anime, then reading Shogun, then other random history books like Army of the Rising Sun. Bicycles were certainly part of the love affair, as I got to sell and fondle many 3Renshos and Nagasawas and such in my tenure in a quaint little shop where the owner had been a major importer of Japanese goods for over a decade. Takashi Miike movies and other splinters of absurd cinema may have had an adverse effect on others, but to me they spoke of a place almost within its own reality — what the hell, Japan?! Seriously. I need to know.

So now, of course, it’s almost embarrassing to think of what kept me away for so long. I was very close to coming here in 2008, back when I was stuck in Beijing during spring festival, but looking at how far a dollar went simply kept me away. Then last year, I was in Korea, a mere $100 ferry ride away from Kansai, but again, China and Mongolia won out in my head: simple math. $30/day vs $70/day. Stretch it.

In 2008, the exchange rate was around 120 JPY to $1. Last year it hovered around 95. Yesterday, I believe it was 83. Our dollar really needs to get its shit together.

Still there’s no denying one’s own desires. In the great words of Tracey Morgan: “Live every week like it’s Shark Week…”

first impressions: ignorance and bliss

I flew into Kansai airport in the afternoon and basically immediately started fucking up. With no yen in my pocket, I cleared customs with nary a problem, even as the labrador lapped at my heels and circled around my feet, led by a man with white gloves and perfect posture. I stuck my card into the ATM in the baggage claim and struck out: nope, no money for you. Had I previously read that most ATMs in Japan are not friendly to foreign cards, I may have been more prepared for this, but as it happens, my last day in Korea I had mistakenly punched one too many zeros into an ATM to get the bus fare I needed and wound up with 200,000 Won in my pocket, which I immediately changed into greenback… so in my own twisted way, my previous fuck-up had in fact created a perfectly viable Plan B for the Japanese bank card incident: just buy some yen. I decided to change only half of the money at first, as I assumed $80 worth of Yen was enough to last me until I could figure out the ATMs here, and it’s always good to have some USD in your pocket, even if it’s backed by nothing but the Fed’s hot air, and horrendously artificially deflated, and the bills are sort of sticky…

I walked outside to the bus queue to find… well, no buses at all. The man at the ticket counter explained that the buses were shut down for the day due to snow, an odd reason, as there was literally no snow in sight. “Train”, he said.

I waltzed in and asked for a ticket to Osaka Station. The woman was happy to sell me a subway ticket, at a cost of 1,420 yen, about a 1/4 of what was in my pocket. “damn, that is a hell of a lot of money for a subway ticket” was in my head as I absent-mindedly thanked her in Korean. Japanese is my third dialect in 30 days, and in my brain it’s just a damn mess right now. She didn’t seem to mind.

My new friend Sho took me to dinner that night, at a place that greatly resembled a Perkins in terms of decor, though obviously not in fare. I had a bowl of rice with strips of tamago and a large pile of raw toro, presumably the scraps from making sashimi, with a side of udon. It was about 900 yen, $11 or so, which somehow put my mind at ease, as if to say, “well hell, that ain’t so bad…” because a bowl of rice with egg, sashimi tuna and a side of udon is probably about $15 in California. Perhaps my fears were un-warranted, I thought.

We spoke of traveling. Sho had spent two years studying in Vancouver and was dying to get back to North America. A long discussion ensued on the ramifications of working and living in Japan vs Canada. He was very curious about the midwest… I asked him what the snowfall was to shut down all the buses. “About 3cm,” he said, adding “most in 10 years in Osaka!”. I smiled and did some quick math. “Well, we’ve probably gotten about 100cm so far this year…” He dropped his sticks.

After dinner, we headed for an onsen, a public hot spring, something I was really looking forward to. I crammed my shoes in the locker and thought back to Korea and its jimjilbangs, basically bath houses, eager to get clean and soak in a hot tub for a while. It was in the locker room that I noticed an interesting sign, with several poorly drawn cartoons, that said something along the lines of “Those the tattoos are not for the entry”. hmmmm….

“Hey man, does this say that people with tattoos can’t come in?”
“Mmm… you have?”
“Uhh yeah….”
“Really? a lot?”
“Well.. just three…”
“Where?”
I pointed to my ribs and then my legs, wondering how the locations could possibly affect the odds of them being seen, given that you go into the spring butt-naked.
“hmm… I think… here…”

He went and asked a guy who was piling towels in a bin. I saw him point to his side and his legs, and the expression on the towel herder’s face was a mix of uncertainty and modest refusal, pursed lips and an a slight smile as he shook his head.

“No, we can’t come in…”

I like that he said “we” when clearly it was only I who couldn’t come in. “I’m sorry…” I started to stammer, as if I had done something wrong. We got a refund and headed back for the car, a tiny little cereal box of a Honda that I believe was called the Fresh. “yeah… sorry… didn’t really think of that…” We spoke of tattoos, and Yakuza and other taboos, and customs, and manners, and about a dozen other talking points that I was 90% ignorant of. Apparently I had a lot to learn.

On the way back to his house, we stopped for snacks. I found myself noting and chewing on prices, sort of like Michael Douglas in Falling Down. I’d say most food items are just slightly more expensive than in the US, although given the food, it’s a little intimidating… onigiri, which is basically a ball of rice, goes for about 120 yen. That’s three cents of rice for a buck-fifty. This does not keep me from eating them every day. Really, the major expense here is transportation, though I’ll save my thoughts on that for another transmission…

red lights and strange sights

Getting lost in new places is pretty much my favorite thing ever. As long as you don’t have, say, a train to catch, or a heavy pack, it’s sort of like my equivalent of a guided tour, minus the guide of course… indeed, an aimless tour. A walkabout. I was in southern Osaka, near Tennoji station, meandering around Osaka Tower, an eiffel-tower like structure (there are many Eiffel Tower clones in Japan) that is bordered by shopping and restaurants and clubs and all sorts of other places I can’t afford to go in. Belly full of oden and green tea, I put on the ear goggles, turned up the dubstep mix, and set myself out to find the hotel without the use of a map or compass, using only landmarks and memory. People always ask me how I travel so cheap, and this is sort of a dirty little secret… just get lost instead of doing anything that a normal tourist would consider. Not all the time, but sometimes. Go ahead, try it. It’s fun. And free. And you’ll probably see a lot of stuff you didn’t know existed…

I figured with a fake eiffel tower and a half-dozen railways that I had staked out, the mission would be over in just six or eight tracks. This was not the case. Osaka is, for the most part, built on a grid, but many of the streets were apparently designed by mice, and thus, they dead-end, and fork, and swirl, and some simply go off into nowhere. This is not the case downtown, where everything was likely designed by lasers and robots, but this neighborhood is old and weird. The conversation before moving there went something like this:

“Hey Sho, how come all the cheap hostels are in this one neighborhood?”
“Oh… it’s… kind of dirty.” (This is a very relative term in Japan)
“How so?”
“You know, homeless people, casinos, street markets, bars… and… things.” Things. Right.
“Cool.”

So there I was, and I knew I was heading south based on the sun, and it seemed like I was at about the right longitude, but nothing was familiar. The streets got narrower. Graffiti appeared, not an incredibly rare thing here but nowhere near as ubiquitous as it is in, say, any other country. I took a left after the roofed market, no longer really concerned with the hotel at all, just wandering. ‘Chase and Status’ was playing, a track called ‘Eastern Jam’ which is really good, bright samples, but dirty and glitchy and creepy, the kind of beat that makes you slow down so you can walk in step to it. And then I saw them.

It was a woman. Well, two of them, actually, one dressed up, full of make-up and hairspray, sitting on a mat, on a platform, surrounded be space heaters. Her face was… blank. Just completely expressionless. Except for the occasional blink, she could have been a doll. Then, in front of her, an older lady, almost decrepit by contrast, sitting on a stool, smiling wide, gesturing me over. what… the… fuck…

It had stopped me dead in my tracks. I looked a little closer. The place was a storefront, with a lit sign above and red neon lining the window, or what would have been a window: the whole front of the building was open. This is in Osaka in February, around 30 degrees. Except for the lack of glass and the addition of an old lady, the entire scene was really shockingly similar to what you’d see in Amsterdam. I was in a red-light district.

More questions were presented than answered by this realization.

Why the lack of glass? An inviting atmosphere? Good lord, why the old lady? Is a pimp required to somehow not cross over the line of modesty in selling yourself? An old lady pimp?  With a creepy smile? What’s her cut? I simply didn’t know how to react. The contrast to the modesty that Sho and I had talked at such length about was stark, and yet, not… yes, they were clearly selling themselves, but in such a… bashful, almost sheepish way. I guess it fit right in. I kept walking. The old ladies kept smiling and waving me over, surely thinking I had wound up here on purpose. The storefronts were everywhere, and there sure seemed to be a lot of them open for 4pm on a Saturday. The inhabitants looked cold. Most of the mats were of the ‘Hello Kitty’ variety. The outfits on the girls ranged from traditional wear, to more modern, provocative fare (though nothing like what you’d see in Amsterdam). Then there was this one woman. She wasn’t dressed like the others… oh no… can that be…

Yep. A full wedding gown, with the veil and all. On a mat. With an old lady in front of her, the same creepy smile as the rest, gesturing me over. This was too much… I couldn’t help but laugh, though in my head there was another dialog going on….

Now, for a country with the second lowest birth rate in the world (estimates have it going up, which is good, as it was declining for almost 20 years), in a place where they make robotic infants, this was really something to behold… your very own wedding night, without the whole hassle of actually having a marriage. I wondered how anyone could desire such a thing, but supply and demand would dictate that there must be a market for it. About seventy dirty jokes popped in to my head in the span of fifteen seconds.

The ATM could wait: I needed facts. And a beer. I eventually found myself out of the neighborhood and back near a market I recognized. I grabbed a Kirin out of a vending machine with the last 130 yen in my pocket (okay, this has maybe happened once or twice before) and hopped on Google. Turns out this is pretty well documented and discussed, and both Wiki and even the damn WSJ even have posts on this specific neighborhood (favorite random point: all those signs are advertising the “Tobitashinchi Ryori Kumiai”, the name of the “cooking association” that oversees the area). I’ve never paid for sex (or “company” or “cooking lessons”) but I don’t really have a moral high ground about it… if it’s safe and it’s regulated enough to go on like this, let the girl don the wedding dress.  She probably makes more in a night than I make in a week.  Who’s really using whom here?

Anyway, the beer, and my pockets, were empty, my head full of thought. New missions.  More to come…

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I’m a bit obsessive when it comes to finding flights.

Often, I’ll see small patterns emerge from airline to airline, like the price “wave” that occurs as you near the departure date — a sudden increase in cost, then a lull, starting about 5 weeks out and hitting bottom about 10 days out.  These can be unpredictable and sometimes ass-backwards, and as I took something like sixteen flights last year, I probably spent more time than I should have finding most of them… but these days, I find myself trying to search a little smarter, and spending a little time learning the trends has wound up saving me a lot of time staring at prices.

Recently, another of my favorite blogs, Chart Porn, graced my inbox with a nice piece on flight pricing and decoding the seemingly arbitrary way in which it changes day to day. Chart Porn is pretty aptly named; it basically showcases online examples of data, with more of a focus on the design aspect than on the data itself, but with so much data out there, the posts from day to day can range quite a bit, making it a particularly fun blog to be signed up for — you never know what you might learn.

hmm... to buy, or wait?

Anyway, this post includes some great information and tools to help us understand what’s really going on with flight pricing… and, as we might have suspected, it’s at least a little arbitrary. This WSJ Article is an eye-opener into how airlines will change ticket prices throughout the days of the week to promote deals, or, just as often, to match their competitors. It’s interesting to note that a 7% difference in price from Friday to Saturday is, in fact, quite a lot. This farecompare page has a collection of articles that are even more in depth, offering some insights into individual airlines and their respective behavioral patterns.

This got me thinking a bit, about how I use the sites I use, and when. I usually scan the same three or four sites together to look for flights, although sometimes I’ll buy from the airline directly even after finding a deal, as they’ll commonly give you more leeway and flexibility than if you buy from an agent, which can make a small price hike worth it.   Still, for starters, it’s nice to check the major airfare search engines first… so where to start?

1) Kayak
Still the king, in my opinion, though it has some faults to work through. I really like that you can search for a week spread at a time, which will give you an idea of what day of the week to shoot for in your particular journey — and contrary to what we were all taught, it’s often not Wednesday at all. Also, the interface is really lovely for doing matrix-searches — in addition to searching within a whole week, you can specify multiple airports for To and From by simple adding commas between airport codes — so instead of having to search once for LAX to ICN, once for SFO to ICN, and once for SAN to ICN, you can simply enter LAX,SFO,SAN to ICN and see a complete search for

options: you have some

each. You can do this for both the To and From airports in the same search, so if you’re apathetic about your point of departure and relative destination (as I often am), it can save you a ton of time. I give it bonus points for accuracy too, as I’ve rarely hit dead-ends on the deals it finds, which can be common (and horrendously annoying) in the big-box search engines.

And for brownie points, they also have this incredibly bad-ass tool, which will let you literally search the entire earth for flights in a map view, and lets you narrow destinations based on price, temperature, duration, date of travel, etc… so if you REALLY want to do the whole “put on a blindfold and throw the dart at the wall” thing, it might be right up your alley… though I really don’t recommend throwing a dart at your monitor.  If you do, at least videotape the results and email it to me…

2) Skyscanner

This one can be a mixed bag too, although I’ve found some really stellar deals on it, particularly around Asia. It’s also a really fun one to use, as it lets you search entire countries at once, as well as scanning whole months, or even a whole year. It is the only site (that even remotely works, anyway) that I’ve found that will give you this option, to be absolutely as vague as possible in your search. The flip side to this feature is that the wider your search is, the less scrutinizing it seems to be in regards to cost, which would at least partly explain why I’ve had good luck with it in Asia, in smaller countries with fewer international airports. In any case, it’s a fun tool, and one that has saved me a lot of dough in getting from country to country.

3) Graphical Madman Award: Hipmunk

This one seems to show VERY similar results to Kayak, but the interface is, in a word, brilliant. Instead of little boxes showing each flight’s vital stats, you get a lovely graph that indicates each flight by its take-off and landing duration, sorted however you like, including an option called “Agony”, a matrix of price, duration and stop-overs. It also has a nifty “tabbed” system, that lets you have multiple searches open in one window/tab, and shows each search in individual tabs within the site, freeing up your browser’s tabs (and, presumably, your machine’s processing/memory consumption). Very handy if your parameters (dates, destinations) are pretty concrete anyway, and you just want to see everything in a clearer light.

4) Price is Right Showcase Award: Travelzoo

This site basically showcases airline-direct specials, as well as cruise, hotel, and all-inclusive deals (although I can’t really comment on the latter offers). I generally scan it every few weeks to get an idea of the deals that are available, and since for flights, they’re usually airline-direct, the round-trip deals can be amazing: Asia for >$800, Costa Rica for $200ish, New Zealand for $860 — stuff like that. Highly recommended for finding R/T deals that the bigger search engines won’t show you.

5) Eyebrow-Raising-to-Savings Ratio Award: ASAPtickets

These guys are sort of like the red-headed cousins of the guys who run Travelzoo, if those cousins wound up skipping school, joining the mafia, and opening a travel agency in an alley around the corner. Sometimes they can find great deals, though, so they’re worth mentioning. Basically, the site shows all-inclusive prices for R/T or one-way tickets, based on deals that are sometimes pretty specific and sometimes strict in terms of exact dates. You have to call them first (there is no option to book online) and give them your parameters, then they’ll call or email you back with the skinny on what they can do. I’ve never purchased through them before, but one of my traveling friends swears by them, and the prices I’ve heard her quote are usually ridiculously low… so if you’re in a pinch, need the ticket for a departure that’s less than a week out, or just have some extra time, give them a shout and see what they say. Also, of the three times I’ve called them, the name of the guy on the other end of the line is usually something like “Boris” or “Mario”, although they usually sound Latin rather than Eastern European. Who knows…

6) Honorable Mention: Orbitz

Okay, so everyone already knows about Orbitz, and Kayak searches it for you when you use it, but I have a crush on them, so I’m dropping their name anyway. I used to use Priceline almost exclusively for domestic flights, but in the last year I had some major customer service woes with them, one of which almost culminated in me throwing a Molotov Cocktail at a Days Inn in Alameda, so for now they’re on my shit-list…

Orbitz has some pretty nice features to it, the best of which is a service called Courtesy Cancel. Basically, if you want to cancel a flight you’ve purchased within 24-hours of buying it, you press a button on their website, and bam, you just canceled your flight, with no penalty. This is not available on all flights they sell, but I’ve done it twice before, and if you buy a ticket, then find a better deal (on a different flight) the next day, this feature is priceless. Also, if you book a flight and the price goes down on that exact flight, they refund you the difference, automatically. This has saved me probably $300 since I almost burned down that hotel in Alameda.

Alright then! Now you too can spend hours of your time scouring the internet, taking notes, and daydreaming… happy hunting, and please post any tips I might have missed!

I flew in to Taipei around 7:30 and hit the cheapest hostel in town, a surprisingly nice place on the east end of the city called The Meeting Place. The first night lent itself to finding food and taking in the atmosphere, similar to China at first glance but drastically different as soon as you interact with humans here. The first major clue was just outside the airport, after buying a bus ticket into the city. I walked out expecting a mob of people to climb over each other at the first sign of the bus, but instead found a perfect, polite queue to the sign indicating the stop for the #1813 to Taipei Main Station. I was flabbergasted. I kept half-expecting a riot to break out for seats at the arrival of the bus, and I am not lying when I say I was preparing for war at the sight of the bus, shouldering the pack, getting ready to spread the elbows and start pushing like BJ Raji, but it never happened — we just boarded, neatly, in order, and after the seats were full, the next person in line simply stopped, and the crowd behind us began waiting patiently for the next bus.

Now, I’m sure this may not seem very interesting or unique to most people, but to anyone who’s been to China before… well, that shit is fucking incredible. It looks like I’m stereotyping here (and I am), but that would simply never happen in a queue for a bus in China — there would be yelling and climbing and crawling and mob rule and 40 people refusing to leave the aisle after the bus was full, and really, for good reason, or at least justifiable reason. A few days after, I met a guy who’s been living in China for two years, and after mentioning this observation, he smiled with his eyes wide and explained to me that his pictures in Taiwan had almost exclusively been of people standing in line. "I just can’t get over it", he said. "I really can’t believe it… it’s just mind blowing. Totally different attitude." Even the subway queues are more civilized than the ones in Korea, and that’s saying something, as Koreans are really very courteous people. This is a base observation, but it was the starting point…

Taiwan is not China. It never has been. I was expecting this to be less transparent, somehow, but this place is 60+ years ahead of China in a lot of ways… writing this, my thoughts drift back to a bookstore in Beijing back in 2008, when I picked up a Lonely Planet China. There was an odd crease in the binding, and when I turned to it, I found that the section on Taiwan had been ripped out. I picked up another. Same thing, across the whole row of books… they must really not like the LP’s description of Taiwan. Asking students about it later, they were all pretty much in agreement: "Taiwan is China’s biggest island", I remember one saying. "Umm… that’s… not true at all…", I thought. This is really on the minor side of conditioning there, though — I didn’t find a single person my own age in Beijing who knew about what happened in Tienanmen in ’88, and I met quite a few older people who insisted to me that China dropped the bombs on Nagasaki and Hiroshima. That’s simply what they were taught.

Of course, on the surface, you’d almost think the progress was the other way around. I remember reading a few years ago that something like 60% of the construction equipment on earth is in China, with over half of that in Shanghai… and after being there, it’s a pretty believable figure. There is simply very little there that’s over ten years old… here, you can feel the boom has already passed, that the wave broke long ago and rolled back. Besides the Taipei 101, there are only two other buildings over 50 stories in the entire country, both of them built in the mid-90’s, though this may be more to do with the frequent earthquakes (I have been woken up by two since I got here, and there are tremors almost daily). Around Taipei, Kaohsiung and Taichung (the three biggest cities), everything smells like old concrete and rust, which is oddly comforting to me. Besides the occasional mall or commercial building, it’s rare to see new construction. In this sense, the whole place seems closer to Oakland than it does to Kunming…

clubbing: an exercise in alcohol, hormones, and lower mathematics

Night two. A hosteler has invited me to a club with another Swedish guy, says it will be a good time. We head out around 10:30 and subway it to Taipei City Hall, and I get my first view of the 101, dreary and gloomy behind the rain and fog. The club is just a few blocks from it, a basement joint called Babe 18. The cover is $500 NT (about $17) and the club itself is an all-you-can-drink venue — apparently a common thing around here. We grab a drink and sort of meander around… the place is small and just starting to fill up, and the vibe is pretty mellow. We start chatting with random folks around the bar, all very friendly, and besides the three of us, there are maybe only two or three other westerners in the joint.

I’ve honestly never really been clubbing before. I mean, I’ve gone to plenty of places that charge a cover and serve drinks and have a dance floor, and that’s usually great, but when I think’clubbing’, I think of a slightly different scene, a bit more dress-up perhaps, people wanting to be seen, but more than that, a perception of exclusivity, nowhere to sit, a volume level and spacial allotment akin to the engine room of a merchant marine vessel, lines and cordons and shit like that. This place is on the edge of that perception, and I find myself in an anxious comfort of the element for a few minutes…

As it gets later and the place fills up, the lens shifts a bit, perhaps the worse for wear, particularly as the verb "dancing" seems to be gradually become interpreted more and more basely and urgently, denigrating into "hump everything female at random". You know how occasionally, you’ll be on the dance floor, and you’ll spot a group of women, and they’re just dancing with each other, and they’re not just sort of ignoring the guys, but totally ignoring every guy in the joint? I suppose I’ve always interpreted this as transparent code for "Hey look guys, we’re just here to have a good time and cut loose, please don’t fuck this up by humping our legs at random."

Well, these groups are disappearing at an amazing rate as the men are getting drunker and more aggressive, and suddenly there are perhaps four men to every woman, and sure, not all of them are acting like total dicks, but every time I think I see something bad, it’s followed by something much worse. Guys are literally pulling each other off of the women they seem to be hell-bent on dancing with, even pointing fingers, and generally acting less and less like dancing partners and more and more like horny sociopaths. Maybe I’m being dramatic here, maybe I just don’t get it, maybe I’m jaded… but from where I was standing, I couldn’t help but think most of these guys fit into at least the seventh circle, some all the way to the ninth.

I watch and chat with other random people, not particularly enthused but in the melee I’m witnessing but pretty fascinated by it, almost like I’m watching a PBS documentary or something. At some point the Swede walks up with a puzzled look on his face and says "What? You don’t like dancing? You should talk to some girls…" as if these two things are somehow related to one another, when in fact they seem more and more to be mutually exclusive. "Yeah, I’ll do that…"

Around 3am or so, I decide the scene just isn’t really for me, finish my drink and walk out, trying to dissect it a bit more as I do so. A lot of these guys are, in the most true sense of the word, wasted , almost as if they’re trying to drink as much as possible to justify the cover price, something not unfamiliar to me but that seems different, much funnier somehow, in the context of a meat-market. I notice a sign on the wall on my way out that says something along the lines of ‘people who vomit inside club will have to pay $200 NT clean-up fee’, which instantly strikes me as a small price to pay. It must happen a lot.

I see the guys the next morning, drinking my coffee at the hostel. After berating me for leaving early, they tell me their story of the rest of the night, a real head-shaker, about how they left the club with the girls they were dancing with "but they wouldn’t take us home". Imagine that, dancing with a person doesn’t guarantee you sex with them! What a world… "Yeah, I was trying really hard, talking with her outside the club," the Swede says, and I can’t help noticing how "trying really hard to convince her to sleep with me" is neatly packaged the next morning as simply "trying really hard". I chew on my toast and smile, wondering if there’s ever been a study done showing how MTV has effectively set back gender relations by 250 years or so.

not my scene not my problem

Two nights later, I’m walking to a different club, almost begrudgingly, with a fresh crowd of new faces. We had gone for dinner earlier, and cause for celebration has translated into an urge for dancing. Most of them live in Taipei and almost all are Taiwanese born. She senses my disdain. "It’s… not really my speed", I explain. "Maybe I’ll come for a quick drink…"

This joint is called Carnegies and it’s supposedly famous, although it’s hard to see why. There isn’t really a dancefloor at all, but the place is big, spread out, with lots of tables, and a huge bar with enormous brass poles installed across the length of it. It is horrendously expensive, by any standard, and the girls are still 20-somethings, but the median age of the men has increased quite a bit — most of the guys are in their 40s. For the size, it is much too well-lit. We chat for a while, about meat-markets, and Egypt, and traveling, and the variance in attitude towards beer by the Germans and the Belgians, a topic I am almost embarrassingly conversant on. Then we talk some more. I wind up having a fantastic time, actually.

I wake up around noon, feeling a tad groggy but overall pretty solid – indeed, overpriced beer is a good way to keep the poor from drinking too much. I wash my face, run a brush over my teeth with a paste that seems to have been made with green tea and maybe anise. I walk back to be guestroom, or what seems to be a guestroom, I can’t really tell… she’s still asleep, curled up in the comforter, eyes closed and stoic behind waves of black hair… and I cannot possibly describe how beautiful she is. Absolutely gorgeous, just incredible, natural, no make-up or glitter, no haze, no false pretense or atmospheric tinge to discolor or distort the image, just her, still fully dressed, like me, on a dinky pull-out bed with a comforter sized and styled for a child, peaceful and indifferent… my heart pounds faster, short flashes that only exist in an impossible future running through my synapses. I can feel my brow furrowing, not by my own accord, and then the synapses relapse, that sugary substance that normally flows quickly changing to caustic sap… yes, the fact is sharply, horribly clear, and the fact is that I’m never going to see her again, no matter how much we both want to, that the future is as linear as the past, and the reality of the whole thing crashes into the beauty in front of me and shatters on the floor of my gums, leaving a dark stain that tastes like rust… I look away with lazy eyes. My hands are clenching into fists and I don’t know why, like picking a scab until it bleeds and then wondering to yourself how you could ever think that might have helped. I feel a slight peace but something else is trying to break in, something irrational and vague and eager.

She kisses me goodbye and tells me she doesn’t want to see me go and I tell her I feel the same way and we’re both completely telling the truth and it seems to be intended to make each other feel better but it’s clearly doing just the opposite. I hold her tightly, one last time, then walk away, feeling her stare… my eyes are closed and I’m breathing deeply, my steps slow and deliberate and almost cautious. I make the first turn and realize that I have absolutely no idea where I am and immediately decide that it doesn’t matter in the slightest. I notice that my steps are getting faster and faster, almost like I’m being chased by some phantom or something…

Somewhere along the line, I seem to have lost my Eligible Man-About-Town badge and was instead given a Hopeless Romantic purple-heart. Sometimes life holds you close and whispers into your ear that you’re special. Other times it just pukes in your lap. You’d think it’d be easier to laugh at the former and cry at the latter, but sometimes it’s exactly the opposite…