It’s been a really good year for me — I set out quite a few personal and professional goals for myself at the beginning of 2013, and I was lucky enough to accomplish most of them. I did a whole lot of traveling this year, going to Vegas twice (and getting extremely sick the first time, unfortunately), San Francisco a few times, France once, Sweden three times, I took a two week, crowdfunded trip up to Denver and Salt Lake City, and I flew up to Seattle for a business trip last month. I changed jobs in July, and moved from LA down to Oceanside, where things are going really well. I met a lot of new people in the move, and I have done a lot of exciting personal things down here, too, including a whole lot of improv with a local theater.

Every year, I put together a list of what I’ve been watching, listening to, reading, and playing, and here is that list! As usual, I will say that these aren’t the best pieces of media released in this year specifically — they’re just what I’ve been experiencing in the past twelve months that I really like.

Best Movies

I finally watched Gravity the other day, and I think it deserves all of the awards it’s going to get. I watch a lot of movies on my couch, and I usually multitask during them — I play games, or write, or just browse the Internet while the movie goes by. I couldn’t do that during this one, though — it grabs you and pulls you right in with the visuals, the audio, the storytelling, the acting, all of it. Just a great film, a fantastic technical and artistic achievement.

Frozen was really amazing, too. I walked into this not really knowing anything about it (which, it turns out, is probably what Disney wanted), and I was similarly just entranced by the art on display. I don’t know if it feels quite as classic as some of the old Disney films, but it definitely stands out as a magical experience, and it fights hard to be extremely unique, and succeeds more often than not.

Thor: The Dark World was pretty good, but I’m including it here just because at this point I am 100% sold on the Marvel Cinematic Universe. I’ve been a comic book fan for a long time, and I think Marvel is doing it very right lately. From Iron Man 3 to Agents of Shield to all of the Netflix series they have planned, I am in on this thing, and I can’t wait until The Avengers comes back around for another big team-up.

Kick-Ass 2 did a great job, I thought, sticking with its insane brand of comedy, and heightening the stakes enough to make it meaningful as a sequel. Yes it’s gross and weird, but there’s some tenderness there, too. And boy did they luck out with Chloe Moretz — I thought she was great on 30 Rock too, and I think she’s got a big future ahead.

I can totally see how a person would think that This is the End is a smarmy, full-of-itself smugfest of self indulgence, with a bunch of really rich actors laughing at their own inside jokes and making fun of how popular and funny they are. But I had a really great time with it anyway. Maybe it’s just a result of my years in LA hanging out with that actor/party crowd, but I got all the references, enjoyed all the guest stars and the inside bits, and thought that it was impressively well written and produced for what was essentially a home movie. If you don’t get into it, I can see how you’d think it was terrible. But I had a great, fun time.

Best Music

This year I finally subscribed to Spotify, so I honestly don’t know what I’ve been listening to lately. Most of my choices here are pretty average, I know, only because in the past few months, I’ve gone after what other people said is good.

Daft Punk’s Random Access Memories and Kanye’s Yeezus are probably the best overall albums I’ve heard, though I know both of those choices aren’t that shocking. Daft Punk is great, and this is the year, I think, that I finally realized Kanye is probably crazy for real, but he can make a great album.

Eminem’s Marshall Mathers 2 was a fun listen. I don’t think the beats were quite up to par (what happened, Dr. Dre?) but Eminem can still rap like nobody’s business.

Bastille’s Bad Blood is excellent, and I’m surprised it’s a debut. I guess it’s not really, given how much they’d done before, but still. I expect to give this one many more listens in 2014.

The Heist didn’t come out this year, but Macklemore and Ryan Lewis made the album that I’ve probably listened to the most this year.

Finally, 2013 is the year I will publicly say that I actually like Ke$ha. She’s been a guilty pleasure for the past few years for me, but man, she keeps working with people like Iggy Pop and Ben Folds (and the Flaming Lips!), and I think I’m ready to admit that I like her. Timber, the dance club tune that she did with Pitbull, is probably my favorite song of the year. Maybe it’s because I’m just trying to generally be more mindlessly positive and less mindfully cynical lately, but the older I get, the more valid pop music has gotten for me.

Best Television

As I said before, I’m sticking with Agents of Shield for as long as they’ll have it on the air. I agree that the series hasn’t found its pace yet (which is a euphemism for “it’s boring,” really), and the writing and the characters just aren’t that fascinating. The idea is so strong, though, and I just like the thought of a weekly network series that uses Clark Gregg chasing superheroes as the lead. I really hope AoS finds its feet before it gets canceled, because I think there are fun stories to tell here, and if the show does find a following and gets its hooks in fan, we could see a ton of fun tie-ins to the movies from week to week. I agree, it’s not great yet, but I still hold out hope that it could be.

Breaking Bad. Duh.

House of Cards was so good, and that was even after everyone (including my brother) told me that it was so good. David Fincher is so great at the lush darkness of luxury and power, and of course when Kevin Spacey gets a role with some meat on it, he can eat.

Hannibal I actually haven’t watched yet, but it’s next on my list. Bryan Fuller has made some great stuff, and I’ve heard this is very good as well.

Parks and Recreation, for my money, is the best comedy on TV at this point. There are some Community fans who will argue, but that show had a down year (because Harmon was gone), and Amy Poehler is just so much more positive and loving. I’ve had a big year working with improv, too, and I’ve been really impressed with her improv work and everything coming out of the UCB theaters (which she helped found).

Finally, RIP 30 Rock and Eastbound and Down. Oh and Hello Ladies, Stephen Merchant’s new HBO series, hit a lot of sour but familiar notes for me. I wouldn’t say it was the greatest show of the year, but it was good despite being so awkwardly hard to watch.

Best Books

As usual, I haven’t been reading as much as I should. I got heavily into the Warhammer 40,000 universe this year, and the best of those books is the Eisenhorn and then the Ravenor series, both by Dan Abnett. I would recommend you start there if you’re interested in WH40k, except that I did and I haven’t found anything else in the universe nearly as good as those.

I finally read Eoin Colfer’s And Another Thing followup to the Hitchhiker’s Guide series this year, and I have no idea why I hadn’t read it before. It does a fine job of revisiting the tone and humor of the series, but like a Pan Galactic Gargle Blaster, it’s just not as great as the real thing.

Kate Atkinson’s Life After Life was on a lot of the best books lists of the year, and I agree that it’s great. Slow at times, though, especially if you like a lot of action.

Max Barry’s Lexicon was very good, and sort of a return to form for him, because I haven’t liked his last few books as much as the incredible Jennifer Government. Go read that if you haven’t yet.

I also read Chia Mieville’s Embassytown this year. It was a little tough to get through at times, but definitely very brilliant. It’s a great sci fi book, but it’s really more of a story about language and the art of storytelling than anything else. Some critics say all films are about making films, and this book definitely seemed to me to be about making books.

Best Games

I am not doing a full top ten list this year for the first time in a while. For the first time in ever, I actually had a hand in some games that might appear on some folks’ top ten lists this year, so I don’t know if I can really recommend a game that I worked with the developer to make. Still, off the top of my head, here are the games I liked most this year.

Hearthstone is technically still in closed beta, but it’s just such an impressive title. I don’t like that it’s essentially pay to win (every time I see a deck shared online, I go into the game to build it and discover that I don’t have the cards necessary to play it), but as a game experience it’s extremely impressive.

My game of the year, if I actually picked one, is probably Grand Theft Auto 5. This seems like I’m piling my praise onto everyone else’s, and I am, I guess, but the honest truth is that the latest Grand Theft Auto game did things that games are not supposed to do. Xbox 360 and PS3 games especially are supposed to have loading times, and are supposed to drop frames when things get crazy, and are supposed to relegate side activities to noninteractive cutscenes rather than turning them into fully playable and immersive experiences. Rockstar took everything they knew about Grand Theft Auto, added all of their great learning from Red Dead Redemption to it, and created the best capstone the last generation could have ever asked for. Sure, some of the game’s violence got to be a bit much, and the satire occasionally got thick enough to wade through — “subtle” doesn’t seem to be in Rockstar’s vocabulary that often. But still: One hell of an experience, all the way through.

Ni No Kuni: Wrath of the White Witch was great. I thought the battle mechanics were a little rough, but the graphics were so charming, and the story is very powerful. That soundtrack, too!

Bioshock Infinite, yeah, ok. I think the crowd who railed against the title’s rough FPS mechanics had a valid point, and I think the story faltered quite a bit near the end, with a few too many red herrings trying to jump back into the pot before dinner was served. I don’t think this matches up to the original Bioshock, which I still think is a classic. Taking those first few steps into Columbia, however, was just a crazy, crisply designed experience. There are some problems here, but it’s still a one-of-a-kind game.

If you buy only one game on iOS this year, make it Ridiculous Fishing. If you buy two games, get Device 6 too. You might as well get Pivvot and Mikey Hooks and Icycle, too, because you can afford it. On the iPad, I’ve also enjoyed Eclipse and Lords of Waterdeep, both board games that have been brought over to the tablet.

Guacamelee is just a smart, fun game that I don’t think has gotten enough credit for what it is. The next-gen release will help, hopefully. Gone Home and The Stanley Parable are excellent indie games that represent what I think we will continue to see from the indie scene. Animal Crossing: New Leaf got me to buy a 3DS, finally, and it was well worth it (though lately I’ve been leaving my town to rot). I played a whole lot of Spleunky on PC this year, even though it was released last year. Assassin’s Creed 4: Black Flag is the best of the next-gen titles so far, in my opinion. And I haven’t played The Last of Us yet. Yes, I know I should, and I bet it’s good, but I just haven’t gotten around to it.

It’s been a big year! Hope you had a good one, too, and have a great Christmas and a prosperous 2014!

I’ve been thinking about maybe trying to do an advice column some where for fun, or maybe starting an advice podcast. At any rate, I’m in the mood to help people, and here are some people that want my help.

STLTruisms (I’m from STL!) asks, “if I have to choose between money and integrity, which should it be? (I chose integrity last time.)”

My gut says to ask yourself how the last time worked out. If you look back on it without any regrets, maybe integrity is the way to go, but if you consider that it didn’t go so well, maybe give money a try.

Personally, I used to be of the thought that you should always keep your integrity, and of course I still think it’s important. But that doesn’t mean that you shouldn’t take any money at all. Lately, I’m a bit more pragmatic, in that I believe there are opportunities out there to both make money and be respected and dignified. A guy can’t live on respect alone, you know? Also, I’ve found that as long as you’re doing the right thing (which I admit can be problematic to really determine), there will probably be some people who attack you for it, and in general, that’s OK.

Plus, it’s possible to sell out a little bit for cash during the workday, and then work on things that are more personal and passionate in the evenings. I don’t think you should sell out your integrity (you shouldn’t do anything immoral or dishonest, obviously, or anything you really hate). But I do think it’s OK to work for profit and play for fun. Adam Carolla, who you might or might not like, says you should do things either because you love to do them or because you get paid to do them, and if you don’t love what you’re doing and aren’t getting paid what you’re worth for it, you probably shouldn’t be doing it at all.

Ian Parks asks, “I just turned 27, and I’m attempting to get into digital media. Is it worth it? I feel like I’m getting too old to be trying to break in to youtube or a podcast or streaming or something. It’s my passion, and has been for decades (lol), but juggling that passion with adulthood is weird.”

First of all, 27 is not old, and I’d argue that it should only barely be considered adulthood. If 27 is too old to be making digital media, most of the really great digital media out there would probably not exist. So don’t worry about your age on that one.

Second, asking if it’s worth it goes right back to that first question. I don’t think you should do anything solely because you’re trying to “make it,” or because you’re trying to get people to notice what you’re doing, or just to break in to a crazy place like YouTube or the App Store. I think one of the great ironies of life is that people who want power for the sake of power almost never really deserve it. Anyone trying to just go viral will almost never actually go viral.

So what’s the secret? The secret is that you have to want to succeed for some other reason that just being famous on YouTube or a top downloaded podcast on iTunes. The secret is that if you’re creating digital media, you have to just create it for yourself first. Create something you’re interested in, something you want to watch or listen to or read. Create something you enjoy, that you’re proud of, and that you can return to in the future and say to yourself, “Oh yeah, I made this.”

If you can’t do that or don’t want to do that, then sure, move on and do something else — there’s plenty of other hobbies to pick up, and lots that are more enjoyable (and/or more expensive, if that’s what you want). But that’s the key. If you sit there and try your absolute hardest to make people care about what you’re doing, odds are you’re going to fail, unless you’re just really, really lucky. And when you do fail, you’ll be disappointed and you’ll feel like a failure.

But if you just set out to entertain and satisfy yourself, and then you make something (or, even better, make a series of things regularly) that you enjoy and think is worthwhile, you’ll find that other people also enjoy it and think it’s worthwhile. And then, after a long period of time, people just might care about it. I wrote and podcasted online for years and years before anybody cared what I was doing at all, much less paid me for it.

So yes. Do what you want to do, and do it for yourself. If making digital media ain’t it, then do something else. Eventually, you’ll find something that you want to do for your own satisfaction, and then when you do that long enough to get really good at it, someone will undoubtedly come along offering to pay you for it.

Sarah asks, “Would you be willing to reduce your life expectancy by ten years to become extremely attractive or famous?”

Famous? No. Extremely attractive? Probably.

I guess it depends on how attractive we’re talking. The truth is that I am probably more attractive than I think, and I could probably be more attractive with just a little more positivity and a little more discipline (and by that I mean not so much pizza, and a little more exercise). So if the tradeoff is within that range of possible attractiveness, it’s probably not worth it. In that case, I’ll take my extra ten years of life and just keep working on turning down that last slice of pizza.

But attractiveness beyond that limit, where people are just innately drawn to you without even knowing why? I don’t know if I’ll ever have that on my own, and those ten years might be worth it.

Do the ten years come off of the end part, with all of the adult diapers and failing brains? I’d be fine with giving up a few years at the beginning, and maybe a couple more years at the end. But if we’re talking about all of those good years in the middle, maybe I’ll just keep my life as my own.

I’ve enjoyed almost all of the movies out of what is called the DC Animated Universe. I think Crisis on Two Earths was probably my favorite so far, though I wasn’t too big a fan of the last two, Superman Unbound and an animated adaptation of The Dark Knight Returns. I love the graphic novel of that one, but I think the film stuck a little too close to the source material.

The latest film in the series, The Flashpoint Paradox, just showed up on DVD (all of these have been released straight-to-DVD, which I think works well for the company, since they keep making them), and it recaps the Flashpoint storyline which took place in the actual comics a few years back. I won’t spoil the comics story or the animated film here, but suffice it to say that it’s a far-reaching time travel story, involving an alternate universe in which our most familiar heroes (Superman, Wonder Woman, Batman, Aquaman and Flash) appear as twisted up versions of themselves.

These big crossover titles can be very confusing, and I won’t say that The Flashpoint Paradox isn’t. Though there are a lot of fun nods to DC continuity (and even the animated universe — Ron Perlman makes a quick cameo as a character he’s voiced before, and Nathan Fillion gets to play a few different versions of Hal Jordan, which he’s played before also), but you sort of have to recognize heroes to figure them out, and a few of them are even alternate versions that are never really explained.

Overall, though, the very convoluted storyline is portrayed clearly, and all of the different hero versions (which parlayed into The New 52 event in the comics) end up getting outfitted with both their own new costumes and motivations. Batman’s my favorite character in the standard timeline, and though I didn’t really like his portrayal in the Flashpoint comics, I liked the way he was done here. In fact, I wish we’d seen more of him — the rest of his world was only hinted at enticingly, and I think it would have been fun to explore.

But the central storyline of course revolves around the Flash, and it’s a good one. Though things do get very chaotic throughout the film, the producers wisely put Barry Allen as Flash front and center, and are able to put a very human face and a very intimate concern on a far-reaching, timeline-crossing tale. The Flash is the axle on which this whole story turns, and though in the comics he can get a little too silly for my taste, he holds the whole thing together very well. In fact, more than a few moments in his story were actually very touching (even if it was Batman who finally got me tearing up a bit).

After this movie, the animated DC is headed back into a big Justice League story, retelling Geoff Johns’ “Origin” tale (which I already know doesn’t have a happy ending for me). I don’t know if that will be quite as good as this one, however. If you’re not a huge fan of the DC Universe, The Flashpoint Paradox may have you a little lost at times, with all of the lesser known heroes and alternate realities popping up. But it does a great job of fitting one of the more interesting epics about these modern heroes into a very enjoyable 90 or so minutes, and making sure that even if you miss the cameos and in-jokes, there’s a solid set of relationships to follow right there at the center.

Reddit had a lot of fun the other day with horror stories using only two sentences. But horror is definitely not my favorite genre.

Two-Sentence Murder Mysteries

Mr. Body was found murdered in the library with a knife on Saturday night. Everyone was extremely surprised when it was discovered that the butler did it.

A bomb exploded in a public stadium. “Don’t worry, chief, I’ll get whoever did this,” said the cop whose brother turned out to be the terrorist.

Sherlock Holmes said a lot of confusing things and made Watson travel all over London before he finally revealed why the victim died, and how. “Elementary, my dear Watson,” he told the frustrated military doctor.

The dame with the blonde hair and the short red dress came slinking through my office door like wax melting out of a candle. We had sex, but I got punched in the face a whole lot first.

In the distant, far-flung future, a naked man lies dead in front of a holo-computer screen showing only static. A hard-bitten, technophobe bounty hunter will have to explore a lot of dingy bars before finding the android responsible.

A wealthy heiress is murdered while her butler is off on vacation. Everyone was wrong about that, though — he’s the one who did it.

In the middle of World War 2, a corrupt lieutenant disappears under mysterious circumstances. Fortunately, an up-and-coming army officer is honorable enough to dismantle the conspiracy that was actually assembled by an even more corrupt four star general.

I’m the narrator of this story, but some of the things I’m telling you don’t make sense. That’s because I am, wheelbarrow Alcatraz horseradish, a murderer myself!

A woman with a promising future in publishing dies, and the police interview her greedy boss, a creepy guy from her church, and her best friend. Most of the evidence seems to point at her best friend, except for some secret evidence her best friend finds, which proves the greedy boss did it.

The butler was arrested yet again after another grisly murder of an elderly oil magnate. He pleaded with his captors as he dragged away: “I’m sorry, I just can’t stop!”

I finally finished up Fringe the other day. Five seasons of a TV show, all watched after the last episode aired. I’ve found that I prefer to watch shows post-airing — not only am I usually a season or so behind on all of the current shows, but I just like picking and choosing from what people already know is good, rather than going through the gauntlet myself. Plus, I like to know when something is heading towards a satisfying conclusion. I’ve never been great at writing fiction, so I like to watch and pick apart shows I know have a closed end on them. Buffy is a show that I didn’t pick up until after it was all over with (and Firefly, too, come to think of it), and though I wasn’t sure if I’d love that one, I definitely did.

So I started up on Fringe earlier this year, and went through it season by season until the finale the other night. Despite waiting on most shows these days, I had actually seen most of the first season when it originally aired. And back then, I had the same issues with that everyone else did, really. The first season by itself is boring, with too many mysteries and not enough answers, and too much disconnect between the show’s main players. The premise of the show is a good one — it’s basically that a mad scientist (played by John Noble) gets flipped and is meant to be working for good via his son (Peter Jackson, the biggest star on the show when it aired) and FBI agent Anna Torv. The three are assigned to “Fringe division,” an X-Files style government agency chasing monsters, and the first season is generally (and derisively labeled) all about monster-of-the-week episodes, where the team faces off against something strange every single week.

When the show first started, I didn’t care much for it — the early shows were just too disconnected to grab my interest, and I didn’t really care much about the characters themselves. But I did stay, this time, because I knew things would get better. In the second and third seasons, either because the writers started being too sure of themselves or just because the show got some solid contracts rolling, the show starts to trust its own mystique, and this is when things really get good. I won’t spoil it too much in case you want to watch it, but the show dives into “multiple universe” territory and even adds a little time travel into the mix. And while the show’s relationships don’t really solidify until the second season, they almost have to just because the show itself gets so strange. When the world is (literally) flipped over in the second season, the show’s three main characters (four, if you count the lovely Astrid) kind of have to carve their own identities out just to keep everything straight.

Which, of course, makes the acting really impressive after a while. Just by way of the story, Jackson doesn’t get to play around too much with his own character, which is just as well: John Noble and Anna Torv get to jump into lots of different versions of themselves, and this sort of split screen shenanigans is, as far as I’m concerned, the best part of Fringe to watch. Even into the fourth season, the combination of time travel and universe jumping allows us to see all of these characters from quite a few different angles, and that made me a big fan, of both the show, and Noble and Torv (who, by the way, I saw on a late date at a Hollywood bar a few months ago, but decided not to bother).

Unfortunately, the show’s fifth season, as far as I’m concerned, jumps off of the deep end, and moves a little too far away from that core that made the show’s setting so strong there in the middle. It’s worth finishing off the series just to see what happens (and I thought the whole thing wrapped up well), but the writers let the show’s wackiness take a few too many steps away from that great triangle, in my opinion. The last season also wanders off a bit from the show’s pulpy center and, in dealing with bigger themes like “individuality” and “freedom,” loses a bit of the world-bending joy that marks the middle seasons.

As I said, though, the ending is worth it, and the show’s writers smartly steer the plot back around (somewhat implausibly, I’ll admit) for sort of a greatest hits wrapup. I enjoyed Fringe, in general — some episodes were better than others (I enjoyed “Entrada” and “White Tulip” a lot, though the second one is pretty obvious, and I could have done without episodes like “The No Brainer” and “The Equation”), but the series definitely found its way and the producers knew, or at least learned, when to follow that direction.

Next up: I’m going to work through some Netflix titles, I think, starting with House of Cards (I watched the first episode already, and I thought it was terrific). I also hear Orange is the New Black is worth watching, too, so I’ll put that on the list as well.

As you may have heard by now, I’m making a big change this week. I have sort of sprinkled the news out across my various social networks already, but I wanted to go ahead and put a quick note here about it, both for posterity’s sake, and to hopefully explain some of my thinking lately.

For the past seven years or so, I’ve been working for AOL under the blogs it acquired as Weblogs, Inc. many years ago (I believe the group is called Mediaglow now, but it’s hard to keep track — they keep changing it). This all started back when I was in Chicago — I was interning at a newspaper in the evenings and working retail during the day, and when AOL’s WoW Insider blog was hiring, I used some of my newspaper clips to get a part-time job there. I worked at Borders as a manager during the day, and then I would go home and write for WoW Insider at night. After a while, I then got a day job at a PR firm there in Chicago, but I kept my WoW Insider job, and eventually moved up to lead blogger there, so I would write press releases during the day for nonprofits we represented, and then continue to write and lead WoW Insider in the evenings.

Eventually, I heard there was also an opening at TUAW, The Unofficial Apple Weblog, another AOL-owned site that I constantly read and really admired. I approached that site and asked if they needed another blogger, and was invited to come on as a part-time writer there. The combination of TUAW and WoW Insider was enough to make my rent payment, so I left my job at the PR firm, and became a full time freelancer. This was back in 2007 or so (which, remember, is right when the first iPhone was announced, which means I’ve been blogging about it daily since then). I was so excited — writing at the PR firm was fun, but it was about things I wasn’t personally all that interested in, and of course World of Warcraft and Apple were two things I was very personally excited to write about every day.

I loved my job very much with AOL. Ever since I went to college, I had wanted to move back out to LA, and since I could freelance from anywhere, I was able to do just that around 2010. Once in LA, I was invited to step away from WoW Insider, and join Joystiq as a contributing editor, and since I’ve moved out here, I’ve gone to plenty of E3s, Comic-Cons, PAX shows, GDCs, Macworlds, and WWDCs. You name it, I’ve been lucky enough to cover it (with the notable exceptions of Gamescom and Tokyo Game Show — I still plan to visit both of those in the future).

And working with Joystiq and TUAW has put me on what I believe are the best teams in blogging. To a person, the Joystiq editorial staff was and is phenomenal all the way around, and the TUAW team is a terrific, hardworking bunch that it’s been a pleasure to work with. Over the past seven years, I’ve been hugely productive: The content management system we use says I’ve written 3,892,931 words on 9,612 posts over my time with AOL, and I’m very proud of everything I’ve done with the company. From calling out Blizzard for their BlizzCon mistakes to predicting the success of the App Store to giving Diablo 3 my first (and only) five star review, I couldn’t be happier with all the time I’ve put in on these blogs.

Still, as great as working for AOL has been, lately I’ve wanted something a little more stable. I have only ever been a freelance contractor at AOL — I’ve had to do my own taxes and track all of my expenses over the past few years. Medical benefits have been hard to come by, and I’m lucky in that I haven’t had many medical crises, but they’re always a possibility, of course. I’ve had no official vacation time, and I’ve had big stories hit at all hours of the day. And perhaps most importantly, I’ve been a man split between two worlds: I have worked very hard on both Joystiq and TUAW, but I was also the guy on both teams that also did work for another site. This isn’t anyone’s fault but mine — I definitely helped craft the position I was in on both sites, and I’ve enjoyed the diversity and helping the company share workflows and resources. But still, I’ve been looking for the past year or so for a more stable, fulltime position, where I could devote myself to one work goal and work with just one staff and set of procedures.

I also have been interested in the process of game development. I’ve always covered it, of course, but in the past year I’ve been to more than a few developer events, and I’m really intrigued by what it takes to be a game developer, to produce one of these experiences we share. I’ve dabbled in development myself, and I’ve realized that I have a lot of insight and a lot of good ideas, both about how to make games and how to make games better. I don’t have the resume to be a game developer or a game producer at all, but I’m very interested in the field and getting more directly involved in it.

Over the last year or so, I’ve had a few opportunities come up at different times, but until now, they had all fallen apart. Either I was really interested, and the company determined I wasn’t the right fit for them, or an offer was given, but it just wasn’t what I wanted — I was very lucky in that I really liked what I was doing, and money wasn’t really a problem, so I knew that I would be able to be patient and find something that was just right, something that fit my interests and would also allow me to be a real asset for whoever I was working for.

Back in May of this year, I learned about a position at the research firm EEDAR as a games analyst that I thought would be a really good fit for me and my skills. I’ve talked with a few devs already about the possibilities of consulting, and over the years I’ve been offered a few opportunities to do mock reviews (though I’ve never taken them — my position as an objective journalist kept me from working with any developers for compensation, of course). To be honest, because I haven’t yet started, I don’t know exactly how EEDAR works or what I’ll be doing there, so obviously I don’t presume to speak for them, and I don’t yet have any insight on their process at all. But I went through the interview process, heard more about the company and the job, and I figured working in their “Editorial Insights” division would be an excellent fit for my interests in production and my extensive experience covering the game industry. They made me an offer a few weeks ago, and after a lot of personal deliberation and consideration, I decided to finally leave AOL, and take the job.

It’s going to be a change, for sure. For one thing, it’s an office job — I can still remember the day I finally joined TUAW and was able to go freelance, and I was overjoyed on the Sunday evening before that I didn’t have to wake up and go into the office. I was so excited to just get on my computer and write. The difference then, I think, was that I was again working with topics I wasn’t really interested in, but EEDAR is very focused on video games, and that’s a subject I can’t get enough of. I’m looking forward, too, to being in an office full of people I can see and speak with in person, and to separate my work and my home life apart just a bit more than I have in the past.

I’ll also be moving, from West Los Angeles down to Carlsbad, California, which is about halfway down to San Diego, where EEDAR is based. In the wild surburbia of southern California, that may not seem like a big move, but for me, it really is. Nearly all my life, ever since I came out here for a semester in college, I’ve looked forward to moving out to Los Angeles, to living out here underneath the palm trees. This move represents something entirely new for me, something I haven’t planned on since I was 21 or so. I do think the move will do me good — I’ve been thinking about getting a little farther away from the chaos of the city lately, and if I choose the right apartment, this should give me a little more home space to deal with, and I am hoping to find a place that will let me finally get a pet (a dog, probably — I’ve never had one before).

But of course I’m not sure how it will work out. I’m not leaving my friends completely, but I will need to go and find new ones. I went and did laundry at my local laundromat this morning, and even as I said hi to the attendant (a super nice guy who’s helped me out with some extra quarters when I needed some), I realized it would probably be the last time I ever went there. Just like any other move, I’ll be laying my head down in a brand new place, and that’s always a somewhat frightening proposition. I think (I hope) that it will work out for the best.

I want to say thank you to everyone reading this — working for TUAW and Joystiq and WoW Insider was a dream come true for me, and I just plain couldn’t have done it without the support of you, my family, friends, and fans. My new position of course means that I likely won’t be blogging publicly every day, at least on the topic of video games, and for that I’m sorry. I have already had my last days at both TUAW and Joystiq, and it was tough for me to say goodbye to those teams, to those great communities. I’ll still be a part of them, as a reader and a commenter, but I won’t shape the discussions or help lead them any more, and that’s too bad.

I don’t yet know how strict or even what EEDAR’s policies are yet, so I don’t know what they’ll allow in terms of me appearing online, but I’ll follow the rules as stated. If they allow me to appear as a podcast guest or write a column somewhere, you might see me do that, but I just don’t know. And I do have here — while I will probably stay away from the topic of video games here directly (just because I’ll very likely be working with and for specific game developers and publishers), I remain a writer, and I plan to put posts here when I have something to say. I love writing, and I plan to write for the rest of my life, period, whether I’m paid for it or not. I wrote a post here every day for free before I got hired by AOL, and who knows? Maybe I’ll go back to that schedule again. Or maybe I’ll start a new podcast — I’ve been very interested in Magic and CCGs and even board games lately. I plan to live even closer to the beach in Carlsbad, so maybe I’ll take up surfing and start writing about that. A cooking blog, maybe? We’ll see!

At any rate, you can follow me here and on Twitter and all of the other various networks I’m already on. I’m not “Mike Schramm from TUAW and Joystiq” any more, but I’m still me. I still have opinions, and I still love sharing them, and I still love hearing and reacting to yours. Thanks so much for reading all of my work the past few years. I don’t know exactly what this next big step entails just yet. But I can tell you that I am excited to reach out and take it.

The last post on this blog was all about the idea behind Canyon Run, but I realized just the other day that I never actually posted the conclusion: Canyon Run got funded! It didn’t exactly go the way I expected it to go: I ended up getting relatively few big donations from very nice friends and fans of mine, rather than a bunch of little donations from people mildly interested in me. But I was still thrilled, and I can now tell you that the project is up and running. I’ve put in about a week of blog posts across the trip so far (one every day since last Thursday), and I’ve visited places like Fort Collins, CO, the Denver Mint and the Columbine Memorial, and Vernal, Utah.

Here’s a few excerpts for you. This is about my trip up to the top of Mount Evans, one of the highest mountains in the contiguous United States:

There one was moment where I defied death, though I didn’t realize it right away. As I climbed up to the point above, there was one bit where I had to step across a small gap between two rocks, and I didn’t even notice until I stepped over it that the gap below had basically nothing underneath it. Without any harness or even hiking shoes, I had somehow gotten myself about 300 feet in the air. I quickly pushed my foot across, and on the way back I held on extra tight to the rock at my side, stepping back across the gap and then quickly jumping down to the more open flat area. If I’d seen how high that gap was before I went over it, I probably would have thought better.

But fortunately, no one fell, no one got hurt, and lots of pictures were taken.

And here’s a little bit about the top three beers I had while visiting The Mayor of Old Town, a great beer bar in Fort Collins:

3. A mix of Young’s Double Chocolate Stout Nitro, with a splash of Honebrouck’s Kasteel Rouge. The bartender made this for me himself later in the evening, when the New Belgium S’more Porter that I wanted to try had already been kicked. And this was such a great mix, the tasty chocolate stout tempered by the cherry liqueur in the Belgian Kasteel Rouge. I don’t know if I could drink this thing for a whole night, but the small taste I had was just perfect.

2. A Barrel-Aged I’m All Right Jack from Verboten. Verboten is a brewery in Loveland, CO (near Fort Collins), and this is a version of their dark chocolate and caramel cream ale that’s been aged in a rum barrel for three months. This brew was a collaboration between Verboten and The Mayor, so this is basically the only place you can get it, and man oh man it was so good. Imagine rum brewed like beer and mixed with sweet chocolate, and that’s basically what this was. I could not stop smiling the whole time I had this drink.

1. Avery’s 20th Anniversary double IPA. This beer was just brewed at a craft brewery in Avery called Boulder for the company’s 20th anniversary, and congrats to them, because this brew was incredible. I don’t even like IPAs, but I have to admit this was an excellent, excellent beer. Perfect golden color, very smooth drink, and an aftertaste like a mountain meadow. I have no qualms about putting this at the top of my list.

And here’s a nice bit I wrote about family, after attending my cousin’s wedding in Denver:

I don’t know his specifics, but I know the baby, the toddler, the boy, the cousin, and now the man. When we first sit down to talk, things are awkward. “What are you up to lately? Where are you all at these days?” But then there’s a look or a pat on the back, and we both remember, we all remember, that we’re tied together in the strongest ways.

I didn’t choose any of these people as my closest companions, and the truth is, I don’t think I even would. When I think of what my friends are like, the ones I picked out on my own, I realize they’re very different from the people I grew up with, and from the cousins and aunts and uncles and grandparents in my extended family. Both groups of people are lovely, and loving, and generous and wonderful, but my hand-picked selections are much more like me, I think.

I tell Adam about this, later, and he agrees. A family like ours, spread out all around the country, around the world, can be like strangers to each other. “Maybe even more than strangers,” he says to me, “because we don’t always worry about tracking each other.”

It’s true. We don’t worry about what the day to day is, what our current lives are all like, because deep down, we all know we’re family. We’ll all be together no matter what happens or where we end up.

I also wrote a piece about traveling down Interstate 70 through the Rockies, and here’s a small bit of that:

Interstate 70 was the king of the highways when I was 12. It ran right through the city, and it was just far enough away from our house that it had a mystery to it — I only rode on it every once in a while, and I wasn’t sure exactly where it went. The mystery only grew the older I got, too. I remember that, at one point, we took a driving trip up to Pittsburgh, and I asked my dad what the route was. We first would go through Terre Haute, Indiana, then up through Indianapolis, then Columbus, and then Pittsburgh.

“What highway do we take to Terre Haute?” I asked, trying to learn the roads. “I-70,” my dad replied. “And Indianapolis?” “Still I-70,” he said. “Columbus, too?”

“It’s I-70 all the way,” he told me. And my little brain was struck with awe that the same concrete that I played on outside our house every day was the same concrete that ran across the country, that there was an unbroken line of gray stone from our home straight up to Pittsburgh.

Good times! No, in fact: great times. I am having a ton of fun on this trip, and it’s been a blast sharing it all with you.

Well, not all of you. Some of you aren’t funders, I know, which means that you didn’t give money to the initial Indiegogo project. That’s OK, but it means that you’ll never be able to read all of this writing I’m doing, or hear all about my trip while I actually take it.

So for those of you who regret not funding me initially, and still want in on the blog and the trip, I have a deal for you. You’ll never be able to sign up for the postcard or the souvenir perks — those are all already claimed.

But I will offer you this: For a price of $3, you can get access to the blog. That’s $1 more than the lowest funding level on Indiegogo, but you can consider that extra $1 charge an “I told you so” fee for not jumping on when you first had the chance. For $3, I will send you the link and the password to the blog, and you can read about all of my exploits so far, and access the rest of the trip’s posts (where I’ll be headed to Dinosaur National Monument, Salt Lake City, and the salt lake itself). For two weeks of exclusive, interesting blog posts, I think the price of less than a cup of coffee at Starbucks is worth it.

Just send me $3 over Paypal to, and then I will send the link and password to the email address that you used to send the money (so make sure you check it — don’t want to get lost in the spam).

And if you don’t want to pay, no worries. But I can promise you that outside of maybe a few more excerpts, there’s really no other way to read this material, so if you’re interested in me and my writing, and want to come along on this trip with me, this is the way to go. Thanks, everybody!

One final note: As you may or may not have heard, while on this trip I’ve also been doing some career hopping. I’m planning to write about that here later this week, and the result of my job change will likely leave me without a regular home on the Internet. Fortunately, this site right here is my regular home, so once I’m all settled into the new job, odds are that you will probably see more regular writing from me here. It’s just like old times!

Yes, after all of my complaints about Kickstarter and all of the various crowdfunding projects, I have jumped on board the bandwagon at last. I am planning on making a travel blog, called Canyon Run, and I am currently seeking your help to put a (hopefully very humble) amount of funding together for it. If you are the kind of person who wants to give me money to support an idea of mine, you can head over to Indiegogo right now, and contribute towards the total.

Pretty much everything about the project is explained right over there (including what I’m doing and even a little bit about why), but I figured I should also post something about it here, just for posterity’s sake. First things first, I thought it was worth saying that this whole thing a) almost didn’t happen at all, and b) has been cooking in my head for a while.

I’ll cover b) first. I’ve been thinking about crowdfunding and Kickstarter and Indiegogo for a long time now — I think the idea is great, but the practice is very often flawed. I don’t think it works well for games, as I’ve posted before, and I’ve seen a lot of projects that ask for ludicrous sums of money to do something that I think would probably sell through normal channels anyway. But I am fascinated by how these sites build communities, and how a good project idea can earn not just money, but a lot of goodwill and support through these sites. So I tried to think of what I might be able to do, and what might benefit from having a built-in community around it from the get-go.

I definitely wanted to do something temporary and small, and considering how much people liked my blog posts from Europe, I eventually landed on the idea of a travel blog for a short road trip, partially funded by its readers. I have other ideas for crowdfunding (though none of them are games — they’re all finite projects with clear costs, and I don’t think a video game matches either of those descriptions), but this seemed simplest and easiest, a nice test balloon for me to send out there. Who knows — if everyone thinks it’s stupid and it doesn’t get funded, I’ll still make the trip, though I probably won’t write about it much (and I definitely won’t send out any of the perks, obviously).

Now back to a), and how this project almost didn’t happen. First of all, I did originally submit this to Kickstarter, and over there, it got denied. Kickstarter has a pretty strict policy as to what goes on the site (you have to be selling an actual product with a clear end date), and given that they believed this project was simply funding my travel costs, they politely declined to post it. I thought about resubmitting over there, trying to make it clear to them that I was trying to fund this blog as a product rather than just a trip, but I figured it wasn’t worth nitpicking, and took it to Indiegogo, where they’re welcome any greedy lunatic with open arms.

Second, and more importantly, I almost didn’t have the guts to post this at all. I don’t want to be seen as greedy or needy; I’m not here to beg money from other people, or rip anybody off, or somehow convince people to pay for me to have fun. Like I said, even if this doesn’t get funded, I’ll still do the traveling. This isn’t about taking a bunch of money, it’s about making an idea real.

I haven’t really shared this anywhere else online (and I don’t really plan to), but lately I’ve been thinking about my personal value — what I’m worth and what I deserve. In the past, I would have said that this was a nutty project — that no one wanted to pay money for some of my silly thoughts on Dinosaur National Park or my account of a swim in the salt lake. I would have dismissed this project without another thought, so certain was I that my personal insight was worth nothing to other people.

But lately, I’ve been more and more convinced that line of thinking undervalues who I am and what I can do. I’m a clear, interesting writer with strong insights and opinions. I’ve got tons of experience, I’m dependable, and I work hard. I’ve got a good sense of humor, and I can deliver entertainment when needed, no matter what. I’ve been doing exactly that for a long time. Even now, as I write those words, there’s a part of me that says that sounds arrogant, and that I shouldn’t really think that. That part of me, however, is wrong. We’re all good at something, and this is what I’m good at.

So that’s why, even after being denied by Kickstarter, I went to put this project together. Like I said, who knows? Perhaps no one will fund it, and that will be fine, and I’ll still go on this trip, and we’ll all move on with our lives without issue. But the good news, for me anyway, is that I do believe it’s worth it to pay $2 and get two weeks of exclusive, interesting blog posts direct from me. I do believe I have people who will step out and support me when I have a good idea that could use a few extra bucks. Whether this experiment is funded or not, I do believe my work and my ideas are worth something. And though this may be personal to admit here, I’m believing more and more that I am worth something, too.

Seriously, though, you should donate at the souvenir level. I can’t wait to pick out an awesome Native American wolf painting or a few trucker CDs and send them around the world to all of you as gifts. 12 days to hit $1000 (plus a few extra bucks for fees)! Let’s do this!

My Xbox 360 has done a lot for me. It’s connected me with friends, far and near, old and new, over the years. It’s provided me with a lot of scares, some really brilliant movies, and the best gameplay moments of the past five years. It’s been there for me while I explored Rapture, while I nailed high scores in Rock Band, and for every moment of my time in Liberty City during GTA4. It’s been a constant companion, and (ever since my last box RROD’d a few years ago) it’s always been there for me.

But it’s never ordered me pizza. Until now.

Earlier this week, Microsoft announced that it had teamed up with Pizza Hut to create an app for the Xbox 360 console. Apps are big business in consoles these days: Netflix’s apps are used almost more often on game consoles than actual games are, all of the major sports leagues use console apps to keep their fans engaged, and as we head into the next generation of consoles, apps are only going to be more and more important. So it makes sense that Pizza Hut would want to grab a little console real estate, and release an app that allowed you to order a pizza from your console.

I’ll repeat that: This app allows you to order a pizza from your console.

Food delivery and video games have flirted before. Blizzard Entertainment famously joked that you’d be able to order Chinese food while playing World of Warcraft, and Everquest 2 pulled it off, letting you type “/pizza” into the game to be presented with an order window. But that’s a hack, really — it was just a script that opened up a web browser.

No, this Pizza Hut app is something entirely new — a direct connection between the gamer and his food. You can press buttons on a controller, and those buttons will directly equate to someone showing up at your door, with a piping hot pizza pie ready to eat.

This, my friends, is the future.

I had to try it. Not that I need any pizza — in fact, I’m in the middle of a three-month diet, and pizza is probably the last thing I need sitting around my house. But did Einstein worry if he “needed” a Theory of Relativity? Did Franklin worry if he “needed” to find lightning? Did Alexander Graham Bell worry if he “needed” to speak to people person-to-person at long distances?

Actually, he probably did.

But never mind that. No, my diet wasn’t going to stand in the way of science, in the way of the future. Ordering pizza directly from my game console is a very real possibility. And I had to take advantage of it.

The process begins by downloading the actual app — this is a one-time download of about 175 MB for free. The app simply installs itself on your Xbox’s hard drive, to sit there alongside your Netflix or Spotify apps. Installing the app was simple, and took maybe five minutes or so to download and set up.

Once open, the app prompts you that you’ll need a Pizza Hut account. If you’ve already ordered from them online, you can sign into your premade account directly. I hadn’t ordered from them at all (I prefer to eat from non-chain restaurants as much as possible), so I had to go through the process of setting my account, and plugging in my name, address, and my email. This wasn’t exactly easy to do with my Xbox controller, and might have been faster if I’d just walked over to my computer and typed it in there. But no — I was a pioneer, a technological journeyman, and I was going to put my name in using just the Xbox’s buttons, no matter what.

Once your account is set up, the Pizza Hut app brings you to a simple menu where you can choose to order pizza, pasta, sides and drinks, or directly from a deals menu. I browsed through the deals menu, and picked something that seemed reasonable, a $22 deal for a few pizzas, some wings, and a side of something called “Quepapas.” These may be local to LA — I don’t see them on the standard Pizza Hut website, and apparently they’re little fried potatoes that are meant to appeal to the local Hispanic population.

I picked my deal, and then picked my pizzas. This was also very simple — you can pick from a premade type, or do what I did and choose all of your toppings and tweaks manually. I had picked two medium pan pizzas, and that’s what I made: One with chicken and pineapple, and another with sausage and peppers. The menu was straightforward, if a little too pared down — there was no option to make the pizza with extra love, or to ask for something drawn on the box, which is something you’d be able to do ordering your pizza the traditional way.

I ordered my wings hot, with ranch dressing on the side, but then switched that to blue cheese when I realized the Quepapas already came with ranch. My order all lined up and ready to go, I simply hit “confirm,” and just like that, I stepped into the pages of history. I was greeted with a screen saying my order was on the way. I was a bit disappointed by the relative lack of fanfare — I had just ordered a pizza through my gaming console! But I did have the option to share the purchase on my Facebook page, if I wanted to.

I would have! But I wasn’t signed in to that account on my Xbox, and to be honest, I think I forgot the password.

Still, I was proud to join the venerated ranks of innovators as a true technological pioneer!

I confirmed the order right around 2:55pm, and my pizza was given an ETA of 3:38pm, but it showed up early, right at 3:22pm. History had been made. I had been hungry, sat down in front of my Xbox, pressed some buttons into the Pizza Hut app, played a little Assassin’s Creed 3, and 30 minutes later, a kind man showed up at my door with a big bag full of food just for me. I should note that I did plan to pay with a credit card, but the app didn’t let me do that directly — if you want to save a credit card in the system, you need to do it from the web. I had to pay with cash.

That’s right. I didn’t want to have to go across the room to type in my card number. This is the future — I can order food directly from my couch now. We have made it, people. Back in 1877 when Mr. Xbox dreamed about using his little leather-and-wood game board to contact the Hut family down the road (who’d just recently immigrated from Italy) to see if he could bring over one of his “pit-za pies,” he could never have imagined that just a little over a century later, his dreams would become reality. We are living Mr. Xbox’s dream, people. The future has arrived, and all of our lives are better for it.

How was the food? The pizza was the same soggy cardboard I ate as a kid. I ate a few pieces and put the rest in the fridge to save for a hangover. The wings were slimy with grease (weren’t they supposed to be hot?), and the quepapas were little balls of fried bland. I tried a couple of each and tossed the rest out.

When I was younger (around 1992, I think, though it might have been earlier than that), I went away with my brother to a weeklong Boy Scout camp. When we got back, in the middle of the summer, my younger sister had an announcement for us. “We got a cat!”

I remember the topic of a cat had come up at some point before our trip — my parents had a dog right before they’d had any kids, but the dog (which I believe was named DJ) hadn’t played well with babies, so I never got to meet him. Other than a few anonymous goldfish and short-lived hamsters, our family hadn’t had any other pets to speak of, but I do know someone had brought up the idea of a cat, and everyone generally seemed agreeable, with the exception of my parents, who gave their standard “We’ll see” to the idea.

But apparently they’d consented sometime while we were away at camp, and driven down to Farmington, MO, to a farmyard with a few extra kittens for sale. I wasn’t there, but I later heard the story that the cat that became ours was the runt of the bunch, and mostly hid under the barn instead of playing with the other kitties. When my dad and sister showed up to pick one out, I was told, only one cat actually walked up to them to say hello instead of running wildly around the farmyard. So that’s the cat they brought home, and that was the white and black kitty that was waiting for my brother and I when we arrived.

“Its name is Whiskers!” my sister told us, and instantly I knew that couldn’t be it.

“Whiskers” was too standard a name for a cat like ours. If the Schramms were going to have a cat, it would have to be something original, something wild, something magnificent and wonderful. It would have to stretch the boundaries of what a cat name really meant, something that would make the vet raise an eyebrow and wonder if we were even fit cat owners in the first place. No, it couldn’t be Whiskers. I put my little Encyclopedia Brown book-fueled mind to work, and a few days later I came up with something.

The cat’s name, I decided, would be “Kitten Colossus.” The Six Flags near St. Louis had a big Ferris wheel named The Colossus (which was where I’d learned that word), and this cat was so monumental, so phenomenal, that he needed a name that big and strong. My mom quickly went to shoot it down, but wait, I said to her and my sister — this was the brilliant part: We can call him “KC”, or “Casey” for short! That way, you get to call the cat “Casey,” and I get to call him “Kitten Colossus.” My sister relented — “Casey” met her criteria for a cute cat name, and my mom was satisfied with the compromise.

In truth, I don’t know if my mom ever really got behind the “Casey” idea — every time I’ve ever heard her refer to the cat, she’s always said “K. C.”, each letter distinctly. And yes, the vet did indeed not only raise an eyebrow, but also shake her head when I explained what the name meant during a visit later.

But KC was what we named our cat, and he was a great cat. In those early years, he played with us kids like a madman, sprinting around the house sometimes because we were chasing him, and sometimes for no reason at all. We got him catnip once, and laughed as he got high and stumbled around. Most of the time, my parents fed him, waking up early and putting food in his dish as he mewled and meowed. As I got older, when they went out of town and left me alone at home, I occasionally had to deal with his food, and he’d wake me up at the crack of dawn demanding to be fed.

I remember he purred more loudly than I ever heard any cat purr — even the vet commented that he had a motor of a purr. When he was a kitten, you could hear him purring from across the room, and when he’d climb up on your chest and sniff your face, the sound of his purr would fill your ears like a jet. I loved it — it was like he was shouting to us all the time, “I’m happy. I’m so happy, and I’m so glad you’re here.”

We did have our issues, KC and I. When I was the only person in the house, I’d sometimes close the door to my room, and listen to music or read. Eventually, he’d come and find me — first, he’d cry in the hallway outside, and then he’d scrape his paws (he was declawed in the front) on my very resonant door: swipe swipe swipe swipe swipe swipe swipe, one after the other. Sometimes, he’d even put a claw underneath my door, as if I was a mouse he could reach in and grab. Finally, in frustration, I’d open the door to let him in, and he’d just sit there and stare. And after a few minutes of sitting and looking in the room at me, he’d walk back down the hallway, never once entering the room. That drove me nuts.

Maybe he just wanted to confirm that I was there, or that I knew he was there, at least. I read once that cats have no idea that there is a line between cats and humans — they just think we’re all one big species, even if we are bigger and slightly less hairy than they are. That’s why pets get so freaked out when a visitor comes by, or when a squirrel runs around in the yard. There’s everything else out there, and then there’s us, all of us, here on the inside of the house. “He thinks we’re just all ‘Schramms,’” I told my family. And of course, he was right.

As my siblings and I went away to college one by one and then graduated one by one, KC kept my parents company. He didn’t sprint around the house so much any more, but he had his favorite sleeping places and he still meowed in the morning. He stalked and caught crickets in our basement, and he warily regarded all of our visiting friends, sometimes from his spot on the couch, and sometimes right before retreating to the back bedroom for privacy. When my mom would sit and read on a recliner in the evening, a light over her shoulder, KC would climb up and sit on her lap, content to enjoy the company of his caretakers.

About four years ago, my parents finally completed their long thought-out plan of selling the house and buying an RV to travel around the country with, and when they finally did sign off and move into the RV, KC had to go somewhere. I don’t think he was ever offered to us kids, though one of us could probably have taken him in if necessary. In the end, my parents decided to take him along, and so he joined them, in the RV, endlessly driving around the roads of America.

I know at first the experience must have been pretty harrowing for him — after having the run of a four bedroom house, he was condensed into a tiny one bedroom space that constantly shook with road noise and was always surrounded with new smells and sounds. I can’t imagine what he must have thought, or how he must have reacted to a change like that. I can’t imagine how I’d react, with my quiet and content life suddenly uprooted with the constant new and often confusing.

But he handled it. My mother said he was slow at first, but eventually figured out his routine. He found a place on the RV’s dashboard and would sit up there in the sun, first as they were parked in a campground, and then sometimes even as they drove down the highway, watching America go by. KC’s back legs had trouble after a while — we couldn’t remember exactly when we’d gotten him, but he must have been at least 13 at this point, which is a long life, as I understand it, for cats. He kept kicking — he would still climb on my mom’s lap when she read, and when I visited, he would still meow, still come up to me. I don’t know if, by the end, he even remembered me and our life together, but he would still let me pet him, still purr with that rumbling roar, though much quieter than he did as a kitten. My parents would post various updates to us via email or on their blog: “KC is doing fine,” “KC is still going,” “KC got out and hunted a bird but he’s OK.” KC suffered from various health issues and problems, and I remember my parents saying multiple times that this was the last time, that the next time he cost them $300 they’d just have to finally say goodbye. But they never did. They paid the money, and got the pills, and dutifully fed him his medicine, sometimes with a dropper, my dad holding him while he squirmed a bit, my mom feeding him and telling him everything was going to be all right in a soft voice.

He’d get better, and he’d move a little slower, but he kept going. He’d sleep on the RV’s couch, on the dashboard, he’d climb up and sleep on their bed at night. When they went out on daytrips and came back to the RV just as the desert sun was going down, he’d be there waiting for food or just a pet.

And then, today, I finally got the email from my mom, subject: “Our wonderful cat.” KC passed away last night, even as my parents stayed up and watched him, as they have all of these many years. He’s being buried in a corner of the RV park, I’m told, which is probably a fitting resting place for a cat that has traveled so far and done so much.

I’ll miss that cat for sure. He was an anchor in my childhood, a little ball of white and black fur that was always there for me in St. Louis, that was always ready to purr and play with me, whether I was coming home from Boy Scout camp and renaming him something silly, or whether I’d had a tough time in junior high or was coming home late at night from a party in high school. When I moved back home after college, he was there, scratching at my door and making sure I was still around. And when I’d come home from Chicago, or fly out to visit my parents in the RV, he was always there.

I can’t imagine he always knew what was going on, or why these random people kept moving in and out of his life, but there was never one time, in all of those years, that he ever avoided me or turned away or did anything but slink up, quiet or meowing, sniffing my hand looking for the chance to be petted. And whenever I did pet him, no matter how old I was or where I was in my life, he purred, and reminded me that no matter what had happened to him, he could still be happy, always so happy.

Our family couldn’t have asked for a better cat for all of these years. Good bye, Kitty Cat. Thanks for everything.

2012 turned out to be an amazing year for me. In February, I released my first commercial game, after a few years of learning to code. In April, I finally lived a dream and took a trip to Europe for the first time. The middle of the year was full of travel for both work and play: San Francisco, New York, Denver, Seattle, and Florida. In October, I released a second iOS app, and I’m working on getting a third up and running. In November, I ran my very first half marathon, a feat that seemed impossible to me. So in all kinds of ways, 2012 was quite a year. I can’t say it always felt like that while I was going through it, but looking back, I had a great time this past year.

Every year I make a list of my favorite music, movies, and games here on the blog, and so here’s this year’s list. As usual, these are far from definitive (except for the games list, which I originally put together for our best of the year over on Joystiq). It’s just a list of the best stuff I heard, watched, and played in the past 365 days.

Best music (that I heard) of 2012

These picks are probably a little embarrassing — I just looked through a few major top 50 albums of the year lists, and man, I haven’t heard any of that stuff. Honestly, I didn’t keep up with music very well this year — I mostly just listened to bad pop music. But at least here’s some of it that I can recommend.

“Babel” – Mumford & Sons
Case in point: I think most serious critics would say Mumford has moved a little close to cliche at this point, given that the second album sounds almost exactly like the first. But I don’t really care — I love that this guy and his band have gotten so popular with so many audiences not because of special production tricks or big hype, but just because they play good, solid, traditional folk music.

“Theatre is Evil” – Amanda Palmer and the Grand Theft Orchestra
Amanda Palmer weirds me out a little bit, but I think that’s mostly the point. She does make some great music, though.

“Some Nights” – Fun.
Just good times.

“The Heist” – Macklemore and Ryan Lewis
I came late to this party — no less than three people told me how great a song “Thrift Shop” was before I finally sat down and listened to it. But once I did, I couldn’t stop listening, and the whole album is terrific. “Same Love” is such an amazing song, and this album is probably my favorite of the year.

Best movies (that I saw) of 2012

Django Unchained
People say it’s long, but I didn’t care at all. I remember reading interviews years ago where Tarantino would talk about how no one was approaching the issue of racism in films the way he wanted to, and at the time I sort of shrugged it off as creative bravado. But watching this, it’s clear what he meant. Even Roots seems sanitized after the portrayal of slavery in Django Unchained. The belief that you can own people is a terrible, shocking, stupid concept, and not only does Tarantino show just how deeply ingrained it was in the American South, but he wraps that in a genre flick that’s hilarious and awesome as well.

I have some issues with this movie — mostly that none of the characters are really all that likable, and they tend towards the whiny at points. But nevertheless, I really enjoyed this one, because even though the superhero-style festivities eventually go to some crazy heights, the movie never once gives up on its “found footage” premise. Most films like that (hi, Cloverfield) need to compromise at some point, either by making someone carry the camera or cheapening the action we get to see. But Chronicle delivered well on both throughout.

Moonrise Kingdom
You know how sometimes, you’re on a road trip, and you stop at some country gas station with a restaurant next to it, and you go inside, and there’s a gigantic train set, complete with little people in little houses and a working miniature water tower and a little fire station with a red engine and a little dalmatian barking at the train as it goes by? That’s this movie. I watched this film and it made me want to be young and fall in love, which is probably something we all want all the time anyway. But still.

The Cabin in the Woods
I guess this officially came out in 2011, but I watched it this year, and what a crazy movie. I have my problems with the beginning of it, but as you probably know by now (you’ve seen it, right?), it eventually dives into one of the smartest, most original ideas the horror genre has seen in years.

Wreck-it Ralph
I think this is a landmark film, for this reason: Most movies that involve video games in some way tend to either explain to the audience what’s going on (“it’s a game — you play as this guy”), or they just plain get it wrong. But Wreck-It Ralph never bothers with that. It just assumes going in that you know what video games are and how they work, and plays all of its fun Disney magic off of that. I also loved the characters, obviously. Jane Lynch’s character’s backstory was a brilliant little piece of girl power — I wish there was a Halo-like shooter with a female hero like that.

Best games (that I played) of 2012

All right. I actually had to put this together, in order, for Joystiq, so here’s my full top 10. This is as definitive as it gets for me — there are a few games I didn’t get to play yet (most notably Dishonored, probably, though I played it for about an hour at E3, and wasn’t really blown away), but even considering those, these are my picks in order of preference.

1. XCOM: Enemy Unknown
I thought this would probably be my game of the year back when I first played it at E3, and it turns out I was right. Sid Meier famously said that games are “a series of interesting decisions,” and XCOM is exactly that. Right from the get-go, Firaxis offers you choice after choice after choice: Do you build armor for your soldiers, or infrastructure for your organization? Do you keep panic down in North America or Asia? Do you take some easy money, or recruit some more engineers? Do you dash on up to that next piece of cover, or hang back and sit on Overwatch? The game feels like it flies at jet fighter speed from one battle to the next, but in truth, all it does is wait for you to take your next turn, to make that next choice and then live with the consequences, whatever they may be.

2. Journey
There was no more beautiful experience in gaming this year, period. Flower is such a great and wonderful game in the way it wordlessly translates feelings through the controller, and Journey does the same and more. There’s a wonderful setting and world to explore for sure, and that soundtrack is worth all of the praise it gets. But Journey’s biggest triumph is in that anonymous other navigating the world with you. Flower did such a great job, through just sight and sound, of making you care about and connect with a petal. But Journey makes you do the same with another human being.

3. Diablo 3
Haters gonna hate, but I still love me some Diablo 3. This is the first game I ever gave a perfect review score, and I stand by that review, as I’ve said before. This is a terrific game that was worth all of the work Blizzard put into it, and it’s responsible for some of the most polished and fun gameplay I’ve had all year long.

4. Dust: An Elysian Tail
This one came out of nowhere for me at the end of the year. I remember hearing about it when it was first released, but I never went and downloaded it. After playing through Revengeance, though, I found myself craving another action game, and when this one went on sale, I decided to grab it. I’m so glad I did — it’s such a fantastic game, with great art, a really addictive RPG system, and some quality stories, too. The name is so bad, and the voicework and “furry” characters reek of bad anime, I know. But the game is so darn charming and fun despite all of that — don’t miss it.

5. Puzzle Craft
This game, you guys. This game. For most of the year, this was my game of the year, period. It must just be me, because I don’t know if anyone else is as enamored of this one as I am, but this combination of a colorful, grindy puzzle mechanic and a really powerful progression system just taps into something primal in me, something that loves leveling up and earning prizes and building towns and collecting gold. I love this game so, so much.

6. Torchlight 2
Great followup to a great action RPG. Torchlight 2 is on sale today, actually, and my guess is that it will be much more popular in 2013, as it gets discounted and ported around to various platforms. I don’t like it quite as much as Diablo 3, and the two games are indeed very similar. Where Diablo 3 innovates, Torchlight 2 just does the familiar better, and there’s nothing at all wrong with that.

7. Kingdoms of Amalur: Reckoning
If you take the whole 38 Studios saga away from this title, what you’re left with is just a really well-made RPG, paired up with some solid action gameplay. This game will always be remembered for the company that made it, and that’s kind of too bad, because it was a lot of fun to play through. In fact, maybe I’ll go back and play it again…

8. The Walking Dead
Clearly, I’m not as high on this game as a lot of other critics are — I have some fundamental issues with the “adventure puzzle” gameplay (collect objects, use those objects on other objects, rinse and repeat), and my playthrough was also plagued by a few bugs and other problems. But despite all of that, Telltale’s made a groundbreaking game here, one that combines storytelling and interactivity in a way that we haven’t seen before. Not only do I love this game’s little nuances (“Clementine appreciates your honesty”), but like XCOM, the game offers you decisions that must be made and then lived with, no matter what you choose. The game raises some fascinating questions about player agency as well — when you choose to save the life of one character or another, are you making that decision just as a player? Or as Lee? Or are you as a person making that choice as you would in real life?

9. Guild Wars 2
The best MMO since World of Warcraft, and that’s pretty much all I have to say about that.

10. Spelunky
As I say in my Joystiq best of the rest post, Spleunky is the best “gamer’s game” I’ve played this year. All of these other games are obviously great, and they all ask and answer interesting questions about the form of gaming and how it all works. But Spleunky is just pure, solid gameplay: Here are your three hearts and a jump button, now go into that dungeon and get as much treasure as you can. Oh, and good luck. You’ll need it.

I’ve been working on coding and making computer games for a while now — you may remember last year when I made a few game prototypes with various systems, and then later last year I went to a game jam at a conference in Denver and made a prototype, which eventually turned into my very first App Store release, called Antithesis. I released Antithesis earlier this year, and then promptly went to Europe for a month.

As soon as I got back, I sat down to finish an update to Antithesis, though I’ve had a busy summer (and had even more things to do after that). But I did finish the Antithesis update, and then I started to think: What’s next? It turns out that I really, really like coding and development — I heard Adam Carolla say in a podcast recently that whatever you do for a living, you should do something different on the weekends: If you work in a factory, you should go home and create on Saturday and Sunday. Well, I create during the week with my writing, so on the weekends, I’ve found a whole lot of pleasure in coding. It’s like writing, but I’ve found it activates completely different parts of my brain, specifically those parts that need to match numbers and solve problems and graph equations.

So I quickly came up with a list of ideas to work on, and I’ve more or less started in on three. One is not a game at all — it’s a utility, and while I almost had it done for a little while, I later decided it should look a lot better, and I’ve now teamed up with a real designer to work on it. Hopefully it’ll be done soon — it’s taken way longer than expected, but hopefully all the extra work will be worth it. The second idea I have is a smaller game I haven’t started in on yet, but it’s still a filled-out idea sitting in the back of my head. Oh, and I have another prototype from another game jam earlier this year. And, like all developers, I think, I have one gigantic idea that I’ve done a little bit of work on, something pie-in-the-sky that’s really beyond my reach at this point, and will probably take me a few years and a lot more money to actually finish.

All of those projects are good ones, and I’m slowly hacking away at all of them in various ways. But they all will take me at least a few months to finish, and a few weeks ago, I was feeling a little burned out. I wanted to jump in, get to work, and create something — not something that took months or even weeks, but something that took days or hours. After a long, busy summer, I found that I had a few weekends with generally nothing extra to do, so the weekend of October 26, I decided to do my own personal game jam. I’d start a project on Friday, work on it all day Saturday and Sunday, and by Sunday night, I would aim to have something finished and done, something ready to show people, and maybe even release.

That project is what became Benediction. I did work all weekend on it, late on both that Saturday and Sunday night, and then another couple of nights after that making it universal and ironing out some of the bugs. I submitted it to the App Store last Friday, and it’s now available as a free download for iPhone 5, iPhone 4 and 4S, and the iPad and iPad mini.

Here’s a quick video running you through the finished game:

A few people have asked me some general questions about development, and though I didn’t liveblog the actual process of making this game (no time!), I did want to share a little bit about how I put it all together. If you’re not interested in this, you can just skip to a few salient parts near the end of this post, or just go download the game and enjoy it. Because I made it in just two days, I didn’t want to charge anyone for it, though if you want to give me some money, you can buy Antithesis, or my Shape of Teeth ebook. Thanks!

So. I started thinking about the idea for this game a few days before I started coding on it — I have long wanted to make a match-3 game, and I really enjoy relatively simple puzzle games with a fairly long path of progression in them (Puzzle Craft, for example, is probably my favorite game of the year, on any platform). So that was the general goal: Simple puzzle game, with a role-playing or progression system behind it.

For the puzzle game, match-3 is an obvious choice — I had already been working on a match-3 game (that was supposed to be a fantasy dungeon crawler, and maybe I still will make that game someday), so I had some code already to build out the tile board, and select and move pieces around. But a full match-3 game, at least the kind I really like, didn’t seem doable in just two days, so I decided to go easier. I looked through old puzzle games for examples: Tetris, Puyo Puyo, Dr. Mario, Yoshi’s Cookie. Eventually I remembered a game that I know of as Same Game, where you need to simply click on blocks of a similar color, trying to clear out the board as much as you can. I had the idea to combine the Same Game clearing mechanic with a self-repairing board from match-3, and that’s what I went with.

At first, I thought I’d stick with fantasy as the genre, and maybe have the tiles coming down be monsters that you were clearing off the board to fight an enemy, or mana that you were collecting to attack an opponent of some kind. But in my own life lately, I’ve been dealing with some heavy stuff (I’m being purposely vague here — don’t want to bring the game design talk down too much), and I’d been wondering what it would be like to have the powers of God, to just fix things by snapping your fingers, or just tapping a screen. From there, I went to the idea of “answering prayers” from a screen tap, and after thinking about prayer and doing a few Google searches for it, I came up with the name “Benediction,” which I remember from my Lutheran childhood as the last prayer of the worship service, a prayer meant to send you on your way, happy and ready to deal with the world. I had my theme for the game, then: I’d be answering the prayers of supplicants as the player. I’d be the God with infinite power, answering prayers as needed.

The prayers were initially supposed to be a little darker, actually. One idea I had during development was for each color to have a very specific prayer associated with it: Prayers of wanting, or hopelessness, or simple faith. That idea never really materialized, but I did get some good lore into the app description, so I was happy about that. One bit of feedback I got from early players was to have the supplicants sometimes actually say what they wanted, which would have been fun, but I never had the time to code that in.

Anyway, I started up development in Cocos2D, which is the relatively easy game engine that I would say most of the games (especially 2D games) on iOS use these days. I wrote about how to code back when I released Antithesis, but I can run through it here quickly: If you want to learn how to code, you should probably start by learning C++. Objective-C is the language that Apple’s Xcode uses to make iPhone and iPad apps, so you should learn that next. And once you know how Objective-C works, Cocos2D is generally the best platform to use for games, so you should probably grab a book about that as well. I bought all these books and read online tutorials over the past few years, so that’s how I learned to do this stuff. As I’ve said before, it wasn’t easy, but it is doable, so if you have a passion for it, you can figure it out eventually.

It turns out that Cocos2D wasn’t actually what I wanted for this project. I’ve been working on that utility app with Apple’s new Xcode feature called Automatic Reference Counting, and oh man do I love that feature so much. Just a few months ago, developers on iOS had to keep track of every single object they created and make sure it was erased from memory when they didn’t need it any more, but Xcode recently added ARC and made the process automatic, to destroy and clean up objects for you automatically when you don’t need them any more. Pro developers and purists probably scoff at anyone who depends on ARC, and technically I still know how non-ARC apps work. But man, it’s so much easier to code with ARC, in my opinion, just letting Xcode do the memory management for you. Unfortunately, the current build of Cocos2D doesn’t use ARC (though they may have updated it already, and I know there are a few ways to tweak it to work with ARC), but the latest build of a Cocos2D variant called Kobold2D does, so that’s what I ended up using to build Benediction. Kobold2D is a very powerful framework built on top of Cocos2D, and it’s got about 300 extra features that I’ll probably never use. But one of those features is ARC compatibility, so I set it up and installed it and went to work.

Development went pretty easily. I’m trying to think of the biggest bug I had to squash, but I didn’t really have any major issues. The update screen was actually the hardest thing to program, but that’s just because I used it as a learning tool. There are about 25 elements on there, but only five actual buttons, and the coder that I was a few months ago would have tried to initiate and set up all 25 different elements on that screen completely separately. But the coder I am now said that there had to be a better way, and so I actually abstracted all the code there, building all of the elements for one button, and then using a loop to build it out five different times.

If you’re not a coder, you may not have understood that (and even if you are a coder, you might not have any idea what I’m talking about, because I barely do). But the point there is that I really feel like I’ve learned a lot after having done this stuff for so long. I’m figuring out new patterns to work with, and while six months ago I might just have been using Apple-built or framework-included objects to build my apps, these days I’m customizing and building out my own classes, and using cool techniques like metacode and blocks. It’s very fun.

I did have an issue with touching the actual grid, and it may still be in the app for all I know (if people have the same problem, I’ll work more on it and figure it out). The issue is that Apple says in its documentation that touch targets should be at least 40×40 pixels, because people’s fingers are just about that size. But my problem was that I wanted to show as many supplicants on screen as possible, and in the end, they came out a little bit smaller than that recommended touch target. As a result, early players had an issue with touching the right guy on screen — very often, they would miss and hit the guy next to the one they wanted. I think this is just a matter of accuracy, but we’ll see — if it’s a major issue post-release, I may go back and try to tweak it.

Of course, trying something new can cause problems, and that’s why I say that upgrade screen was the toughest to build. But otherwise, the app building went very smoothly. I had the game itself done sometime on Saturday night, and took it out to a Halloween party for beta testing. And then on Sunday I had the upgrade screen and system all working. I beta tested the app myself over the next few days, and showed it to anyone else I happened to run into, on the street or hanging out with my friends. It’s funny — with Antithesis, I could only get people to play for about 30 seconds at first, and then the more I worked on the app, I got that time up to about two or three minutes before they passed the phone back to me. But with Benediction, I actually had to ask for the phone back — they just kept playing, even after they said they’d made their judgments on the game.

A few days later, I took my iPhone 4 and my iPad 2 and worked to make sure it all looked and ran well on all of my devices. And then, once I went back over the code and double checked there weren’t any bugs that I could see, I saved it in iTunes, created my icon and leaderboards, and uploaded the app.

I actually uploaded it twice: There was one major balancing problem I had to fix, in that you used to get 200 points for finishing a game with a powerup meter full, not 20 (as it is in the app now). I found that the 200 points you used to get was bigger than any other reward in the game, so I lowered it back down to 20 — a nice bonus for ending with a full meter, but nothing that would keep you from actually using the powerup.

Anyway, it’s out now, and it’s free, so if you are interested in it (and still reading), then go grab it. I hope you enjoy it. If there are any issues I’ll fix them as quickly as possible, and if you have any feedback, let me know for sure!

And one more thing: It turns out that I really, really enjoy making games. I really, really enjoy writing, too, and that’s my day job, and even if I’m not always paid to write, I will always do it, no question about that. But I sometimes wish I had more time to put towards coding — some days, I finish writing for money, and I just need to get away from the computer for a while, and can’t justify the time coding, because I’m not making any money at it. So I’m also hoping Benediction serves as sort of an audition for me — I made this game with just the two days I had to make it with, and if you like it, I can make more.

I don’t know what that means, necessarily — I doubt I’ll leave my job anytime soon just to work on making games. But I don’t know. If you are a producer or a publisher who wants to work with me on a game idea, let me know. If you’re a developer who thinks it might be beneficial to have me around, helping make your game, let me know. I have very little experience at this — if I put a resume together as a game designer, it would basically have these two games on it so far. So I don’t know what kind of job I’d be good in, or where I’d fit on a traditional team.

But man, I am passionate about this stuff, and I really enjoy doing it. All of my past in writing about games has given me a real insight, I think, into how they work, and my creativity lets me kick out ideas like an assembly line gone mad. I have more ideas that I know what to do with here! I really want to justify putting more of my time into making games, and if you have a way to help me do that, definitely let me know.

Even if not, I’ll still do it. I’m very excited to have made this game in just a few days — it makes me think that I’ll probably have another little personal game jam in a few weeks, and make something else. We’ll see. It’s not like I’m short on ideas.

In the meantime, here’s Benediction. I hope everyone enjoys playing it as much as I enjoyed making it. Thanks again for reading.

Videos! 08.14

Hey guys! I’ve been working on a few things lately (one of which I haven’t actually started yet, and another of which is a secret that I hope to reveal very soon), but one of the biggest things I’ve been doing lately is making some videos.

It’s kind of hard — I wish I could commit to some crazy goal like three videos a week, or even a video a day, but I just don’t have the time to really dive in and make them that often. It would certainly make me much better at making videos, but I’m already doing a lot of things, in between actual work and working out and app development and improv and gaming and everything else I do, so I don’t have a ton of time to really jump in. Too bad!

But I did make a few videos recently, and here they are. First, I got sent a video capture box for a TUAW review, and I pulled it back out and plugged in to try and make a commentary on the XBLA game Fez:

Let me know how you think that went. I know it’s a little long, and I think I wasn’t great at playing it for most of the time. In the future, I might try a game I already know how to play, or maybe commentate over the video not while I’m actually playing the game.

Then, a few days later, someone on Twitter (well, a lot of people on Twitter) told me to try nutella, so I did. BUT ON VIDEO:

Obviously that went great. The reason it looks bad is because I’m just using my MacBook’s camera — I haven’t invested in a real HD camera yet (and I’m not sure that I will or should, since I can’t really commit to making these that often). But it was fairly easy to edit. The music is just from iMovie. I guess if I plan to really make videos regularly, I’ll have to find some store of royalty-free music somewhere. I know there are a few online already.

And finally, The Incredible Podcast of Amazing Awesomeness changed the tech we’ve been using to record, and now we’re (wait for it) ON VIDEO:

That’ll be interesting, because it’s a show we do (mostly) every week, and we’re planning to have some fun guests on, so that should be fairly interesting to watch. Both Turps and I have some fun ideas about what we might do with videos on Tipoaa. And to be completely honest, doing this has helped rekindle my (somewhat flagging) interest in Tipoaa, and my guess is that Turpster would say the same.

So that’s good! I’m a day late to the party on web video, obviously, but it’s about time I got a little more involved in making some of these. Stay tuned! I don’t know if I’ll have time to make more videos, but I definitely have ideas for a few more at least. Hopefully I’ll get around to making more soon.

(see also Broadcast Transmission 001 and Broadcast Transmission 002)

P’lar fought back the tide again and again, and again and again it had crawled forward, crushing him and his ship. He didn’t know how many times the battle had raged since he’d first arrived in whitespace, but he now knew that it kept happening — that every time he pushed the wave of black energy back, it rushed forward. And every time it overcame him, he too flew back into the scene and went back to battle.

Over and over again, this had happened. And his enemy, his companion, his opposite and common warrior, whatever it was had been with him.

It taunted him sometimes, speaking in a voice that struck through to his core, that seemed to know him and possess an alien sense at the same time.

P’LAR, I KNOW YOU, it said, but just as often, it spoke of DEATH and COUNTER ATTACK and DESTRUCTION.

Again and again, P’lar played out this battle, fighting as hard as he could, but always losing. Again and again, he died, and came back, and fought some more, and died again.

CAN YOU FEEL THAT, P’LAR? the voice asked him, once. THE BATTLE IS STEADY. IT GROWS STABLE. And though this was the foe he’d fought against for so long, P’lar reluctantly agreed. The black and white in front of him had grown constant, perhaps even comfortable, to P’lar’s tired eyes. He knew how the energy voids would move, he knew when his ship could catch and return them and when it could not.

YOU MAY FEAR ME, said the voice to P’lar. IN FACT, YOU SHOULD. And P’lar gritted his teeth in silent, calculated rage. BUT EVEN MORE, said the voice, FEAR WHAT COMES NEXT.

It didn’t come, then. Not right away. There were a few more battles to play, a few more cycles to defeat and a few more deaths to be had.

But a few more battles in, a few more times around the horrid astral racetrack, and then …

P’lar first saw it as a flash, and then felt it fly through his ship and then his very being. It was as if the universe in front of him had split, like a cloth dress rent down the middle by a seamstress fed up with the design. There was a rip of sound — or was it sound? It felt for a moment as if the very essence of reality was splitting, was dividing.

IT’S HERE, said the voice. THERE ARE FIVE NOW.

And just as his head recognized what the voice had said, P’lar saw it too. Five realities, five existences. One was familiar — it was the same whitespace he’d entered into however long ago, and the same black energy he’d been fighting for so long.

The second was musical — notes played out across its surface, and tones spread through the vacuum around him in some unexplainable way. The colors — colors! — were subdued, shades of azure in various tints. The third flashed wildly, dynamically painted an insane canvas across creation. It was almost too much for P’lar to even handle.

The fourth was a strange place that rang with sounds P’lar didn’t recognize, and … well, it tasted metallic and spicy, of a flavor P’lar didn’t know. It splashed and spread, oozed and smelled inviting. Baked. Cheesy. P’lar didn’t understand it, but he felt drawn to it anyway, so much so that it echoed in his brain long after he realized it was there.

And the fifth — the fifth was beyond explanation. P’lar didn’t know what to make of the last possibility. It was too much for even P’lar the wide traveller, the battler of the black energy, to comprehend.

Five universes, spun out from each other, in which P’lar would battle against his enemy across possibilities for all time.

GAME ON, the voice said.

Antithesis 1.1 is now (finally!) available for iOS.

“You again,” P’lar replied.

When he’d first arrived here, out in the whitespace, and confronted the oncoming void, P’lar thought that he’d been alone. The only civilization he’d ever known was back home, across the stars, from the planet he’d started on. Out here, under those first attacks, he’d assumed he was fighting against natural phenomena, battling the elements. Whatever this strange corruption was, it felt chaotically natural.

But as the void crept closer and the swirling clouds briefly parted, P’lar saw a form inside. It was white, completely white. And as the void cleared and the energy clouds pulled back, in between the impacts on his own ship, P’lar realized something.

The voice, whatever it was, came from a ship, colored completely white. P’lar’s ship was black, manufactured by the planetary government that he’d left behind, eons (or years, or hours — however long it was) ago. But the ship in front of him, was purely horrifically white. And other than the opposite color, it looked exactly the same.

Exactly the same manufacture, exactly the same specifications and size. It moved in the same way, and P’lar saw, as the horror crept across him, that it too was bouncing back energy bursts, smashing them into its own ship, and sending them right back towards P’lar, and the universe he was protecting with his own ship.

And it spoke.

HELLO, P’LAR, it said, during that first battle. It knew his name. P’lar’s immediate thought was that he’d died. His second thought was that he’d gone insane, and that possibility was still unconfirmed.

He didn’t answer it. Not right away.


P’lar said nothing. Battled on.


P’lar gritted his teeth and continued to maneuver the ship as best he could. If he had gone mad, if the voice was not as alien as it truly sounded in his head, then it was just expressing his own thoughts, his own fears.


P’lar knocked back void after void, hitting away as many of the sources of black energy as he could. And the roiling void again slowly stopped, then changed direction and pushed back from him. The slow progress was excruciating, but the voice went silent. Went silent, at least, until the void pushed back again, and once more that base roar screamed through the vacuum around him, into his ship, into his brain.

ANOTHER CYCLE, P’LAR, said the voice as it returned. PERHAPS YOU COULD USE A NEW WEAPON.

And then, another control appeared in front of P’lar on the ship’s panel. Appeared wasn’t the right word — somehow, it had always been there, in a weird, sub-real sense. But it hadn’t been active before, and now it flashed, pulsed, ready to be pressed.


P’lar smashed down his fist on the control, and suddenly a projectile emitted from the front of his ship. It too was black at its core, powered by black energy, but it was surrounded by orbs lined in white, as clear and clean as the whitespace in the world around him. It fired from the front of the ship and speed in the direction of the white shape in the void.

And when the bullet reached its destination, it exploded — a burst of white spread out across the void momentarily, and P’lar felt his fight push forward, his power grow.

Victory, however, just as before, was only temporary. No sooner than his shot had hit, P’lar saw the first burst of color his eyes had seen since before his arrival. It was a flash of red, spinning out across space, directly towards him. P’lar heard laughter from the voice, dim and echoed.

It hit. The flare hit his ship head on, and P’lar’s vision flashed red for an instant. He knew he’d been hit, and the void in front of him seemed to gain power, to creep ever closer.

TO EVERY ACTION THERE IS A REACTION, the voice said, the dark laughter still hanging on its tone.

P’lar spoke, finally. “What are you?”

ME? the voice asked, as the black tide crept ever closer to P’lar and his ship. It threatened to finally envelop him — he fired off a few more shots when the control in front of him flared, and tried desperately to continue to bounce back the bursts flying towards him.


The void came closer, and P’lar could feel the evil in it, almost hear it now, though its violence toiled outside the ship in pure vacuum. The power of it rang in his ears, inside his mind as he frantically tried to keep it away, to fight back with everything he could.

I AM THE ANTIPOIDAL, said the voice calmly. THE DISCORDANT. The void, screaming, finally reached P’lar’s ship, finally touched it and surrounded him, engulfed in the energy of evil he’d been desperately trying to hold back.



(to be concluded)

P’lar readied himself for another battle.

He didn’t know how long it had been since he had arrived out here. He didn’t remember sleeping, so it could have been only hours. But on the other hand, he couldn’t remember doing anything but this, fighting the Void out here in the middle of whitespace. So for all he knew, it could have been months. Or even years.

His original mission, he remembered, was to explore the very reaches of the universe, to follow the stars as far as they could go. And they took him out here, into this realm of infinite whiteness, in the middle of nothing, an emptiness that felt calm, peaceful, serene.

But it had only lasted so long. At first, he’d just seen one blob out there, one vortex, or field or whatever it was. Purely black, spotlighted against the bright white field around him, and moving, back and forth, towards him slowly. The sensors gave no usable readings when he tried to scan it, but there was no time anyway. He could tell just from looking at it through the viewport: It was evil.

There was no way the attack could ever reach back through the galaxies, back across the stars, to P’lar’s home planet. He had to stop it, in whatever way he could. The exploration ship he piloted didn’t have anything in the way of weapons, and P’lar doubted that the small arms on board would do anything to repel the oncoming vortex.

So he made a decision, calmly and quickly. And piloted his ship right into the path of the blob itself. He made it with a few seconds to spare, and momentarily considered recording a message, writing something, trying to save something that might one day make it back to his home planet, might one day let his people know what he had done for them. But there wasn’t time. He merely steadied himself, held the ship in place, braced for the oncoming impact.

It arrived, and the ship shook. And held.

The blob attacked, smashed into the ship’s front … and bounced off. It spun back the way it had come, back away from P’lar’s universe, back away from the ship, in the direction it had come. P’lar breathed a sigh of relief, ran a diagnostic on the ship’s systems, and glanced back through the viewport.

What he saw shook him to the core. The vortex was back. And it had a twin, bouncing with it in the opposite direction.

Behind it, a huge field of the same black energy pushed on, creeping towards his ship slowly, onward and threatening.

P’lar had gritted his teeth, that first time, and had defended as best he could, placing his ship in the path of blob after blob, bouncing them off and away as quickly as possible. The field itself swirled and threatened ever closer, and P’lar beat back void after void, each one hammering into his ship and bouncing off.

For minutes, or maybe hours, he did this, smashing each bit of evil energy back and away from his home far behind him. And after what had seemed too long, after the huge swirling field had come almost too close, it began to recede. He had to check his sensors to be sure, to confirm his ship wasn’t itself moving backwards, pushed back by the force there. But no — the field that spread in front of him was falling back.

Even that victory was only temporary — a base roar spread out across the volume in front of him, something not felt through sound or air (certainly, all of this took place in an empty vacuum), but through P’lar’s own mind. It rattled in his brain, shook his spine, made his very core tremor. And when it was over, the viewport showed the field marching back towards him, this time coming faster, even as various black voids bounced in their own careful speed in his direction.

This time, however, something was different. There, on the far side of the field, there was a flash of white, then two or three. And there, in the middle … The void swirled out of the way to reveal … a full block of white. P’lar gaped — it was a ship. Just like his — the same dimensions, the same volumes, same shape and size. It was a ship just like his own exploratory vessel.

But it was pure white, standing out from the oncoming energy. And just as the roar had transmitted itself through some medium far outside any science or physical phenomena, so too did the white ship in front of P’lar speak. It spoke, directly to him, in a voice calm and alien.


(to be continued)

So once again I don’t really have time to write a post here — I have to pack for the San Diego Comic-Con yet this evening, and I have a few other things to do as well. But Kickstarter has obviously been an important part of the tech industry lately, and I have a few thoughts about it that won’t seem to stay in my head, no matter how hard I try to keep them in.

As you have seen on Twitter if you’re following me there, I’m frustrated with the whole thing. Kickstarter as a concept doesn’t bother me all that much. Just like Etsy, I see it as a good, if a little costly, way for people who want to start setting up a business and selling cool things to begin. I’ve actually backed two things on Kickstarter — one was the Tim Schafer adventure game that began this whole gaming on Kickstarter fad, and the other was a friend’s project, Randy Nelson’s digital gaming magazine. So I don’t have any problems with Kickstarter in general. If you’re planning to make a product and would rather get your gross profit up front so you can use it in the production, it’s an easy (but costly) way to do so. I say costly because Kickstarter does take a nice chunk of the money donated, and trust me, there are plenty of easier ways to collect money like this on the Internet.

My issue with Kickstarter really lies in the difference between ideas and implementation, which is something that I’ve read about online before. Here’s the thing: Anyone can have good ideas. We all get tons of good ideas all the time. I’ve got them pouring out of my head. When I try to sleep at night, my brain won’t stop coming up with ideas. Ideas, even good and great ideas, are cheap and plentiful, and worth about nothing, because there are tons of good ideas out there, and there will always be more.

Good implementations, on the other hand, are worth everything. Here’s an idea: A microblogging service, which lets individuals share small updates (around 140 characters) with each other over the Internet. Go make one — I’ll wait. It’ll take you a day or two of Javascript programming, less if you have programming experience.

Oh good, you’re done. What’s that? You didn’t make Twitter? No kidding. That’s because the idea of Twitter is much easier to come up with than the actual implementation of Twitter itself. A good implementation depends on a lot of work, a whole lot of talent and experience, and even (maybe especially) lots of luck. Anybody can think of a great game — just combine great games together: Tetris meets Final Fantasy Tactics meets Castlevania: Symphony of the Night! It’s great — you fight turn-based battles around a 2D platforming world whose landscape is constantly changing because blocks keep falling out of the sky! But very few people can take that idea, and implement it well. Well enough to make sense, well enough to appeal to a wide audience, and well enough to make it fun and interesting and good.

And this is why Kickstarter is such a problem lately: Because Kickstarter rewards ideas, not implementation. Ideas aren’t worth anything, but Kickstarter puts a big donate button next to them, and says, “That thing in your head? It’ll be real if only you pay money.”

This is also why video games work so well on Kickstarter. Every gamer has fallen prey to this: You read a preview of a game a month before it comes out, and the developer interviewed promises all sorts of great things. “We’re going to have an RPG system governed by how you feel while playing the game,” he promises, “and our vendor shop system is going to be revolutionary — prices will actually rise and fall according to the whole economy of the world.” And then November comes around, the actual game comes out, and you realize that a) the game doesn’t correctly sense your emotions while playing, because that’s basically impossible, and b) it doesn’t matter how a vendor system is governed if the actual UI to control it is terrible. You fell prey to the hype. You believed in the idea of a game, while the actual implementation left you wanting.

I’m not saying all of these great things on Kickstarter aren’t going to live up to their promises: I look forward to Tim Schafer’s game, I’m sure I’ll be buying quite a few of these Kickstartered games even after they’re released on Steam and in other places, and I am just as excited as every one else about the Ouya (though I didn’t, I will note, put in the $99 to get one just yet). I’m not saying people getting backed by Kickstarter, especially Tim Schafer and Yves Behar, can’t implement ideas well. There have already been some cool things backed by Kickstarter, and there will be more in the future, I’m sure.

I’m just tired of all of the hype of ideas getting treated as actual products. Republique was a huge offender on this. I have my doubts about their background and their experience in creating games, but heck, maybe I’m wrong. Maybe they do eventually make an actual game. Maybe it does have all of the features they promised, and maybe it does even present a really great, action-based experience on iOS.

But one of their promises was to “explore heavy topics, say something meaningful.” What does that even mean?!? Even they use the word “something” — they have no idea what they’re even planning to say! And “push cutting-edge graphics on mobile,” really? What does that mean? Does that mean 60 FPS guaranteed, or does it mean photorealistic graphics, or does it just mean the game will look good? On the basis of these vague, strange promises, these people ran away with over $500,000.

I don’t mean to just pick on Republique (and I look forward to your angry emails and tweets) — there are plenty of Kickstarters out there selling an idea rather than an actual, realistic product. All I’m saying is that in the middle of this Kickstarter mania, it’s worth remembering that these people aren’t yet selling products — they’re selling ideas. And it’s very, very easy (especially when you’re an ad agency — ahem) to make a pitch for an idea look really, really good. It’s a lot harder to actually implement that idea, and that’s what I worry these backers who put hundreds or thousands of dollars into these projects aren’t understanding.

I fully support people who have a good idea and a ready-made plan to put it into action. And hey, I also support people who have nothing but a good idea, and need a few thousand dollars to turn it into a real thing. But these people who come up with nothing but an idea, have almost zero real experience to back it up, and ask for hundreds of thousands of dollars, all the while promising to do things that industry veterans have been trying to do without success for years? That, I don’t believe. That, to me, sounds like a scam. That, to me, sounds like even they are getting caught up in their own stupid hype, forgetting that the whole point of getting money together in the first place was to create something, not just make a lot of money.

Just remember this: If you back something on Kickstarter, you’re backing an idea, not a product. Don’t be surprised when, weeks, months or even years later when you get that product, it doesn’t live up to the idea in your head.

Brett Terpstra, as I’ve said on Twitter recently, is one of the more impressive people I’ve been lucky enough to work with. I first met him while we were both writing on TUAW together, and since then he’s gone full time over to the Blogsmith team (which is the CMS that most of AOL’s blogs, including TUAW and Joystiq, all run on). He’s quite an interesting guy and a prolific indie developer of his own, and a few weeks ago at WWDC, I asked him to do a quick interview with me over email. Here’s the result of that:

Hey Brett! Thanks for chatting with me. How did you get started coding?

I learned Basic on a PC Jr. through trial and error. I spent as much time coding those little programs as I did playing King’s Quest, and I’ve always viewed the challenge and problem-solving surrounding code to be just like solving a game like that, at least for me. I moved on to other languages and other platforms over time, but I still get the same thrill from solving coding puzzles as I did when I was 6.

One of the things I really appreciate about you and your work is that you’re the kind of person who hears an idea or comes up with an idea, and then charges on to make it happen no matter how impossible it seems. I’ve met a few people like this: You mention to them how great it would be if you could send an email to a toaster, and the next day they come back with a web form and a custom-made protocol to order toast via email (with an extra option to buy bread beforehand if you haven’t done that). Do you see this skill in yourself? Do you think that’s something that’s trained or is it intrinsic to who you are?

It’s very much intrinsic to who I am. I have an obsessive personality that thrives on problem solving, so when presented with a problem I tend to focus on it. Once I developed enough of a base toolset to start solving the kind of problems I was running into, it became possible to learn whatever I needed to in order to accomplish a new goal.

My skill set lacks focus; I learn what I need to know to do what I want to do, but am generally a failure at having in-depth knowledge in any area. Jack of all trades.

So if you’re faced with a problem you don’t understand, what’s the first thing you do? Obviously I think this is an enviable skill to have — I wonder if you can codify a bit this drive to make these crazy ideas possible.

The first thing I do is look for someone who’s already solved it. I hate reinventing the wheel. If I can find a solution and it covers the bases, I just dissect it to learn what I can from someone else’s effort. If I can’t find a good, pre-existing solution, though, I stop and try to generalize the problem. If I can backtrack to find a higher-level issue that I or someone else might face in other circumstances but whose solution would cover all of the bases, that’s where I start.

Then I try to envision a way to make the solution as transparent as possible. If I get it right, it should be as if the “problem” never existed, just a smooth surface where there was a hole or a bump before. Then I figure out what tools would be best suited to the task, and teach myself what I need to know in order to use them without making too much of a mess. I still make messes pretty often, though.

Speaking of making messes, you have a lot of animals around your house. Which animals do you have these days, and what appeals to you so much about them?

I like animals better than people, most of the time. Granted, people don’t (usually) poop in my living room and barf up hairballs in my shower, but I still have some antisocial tendencies that just make me feel more at home with furry, speechless creatures. My wife and I have a German Shepherd (Chance), a Pit Bull (Emma), an African Grey parrot (Jasmine), two littermate cats (Yeti and Jezebel) and one Siamese stray (Steve), a 75 gallon fish tank (a Pleco named “The Dude,” and a rotating collection of freshwater fish, one of which is usually named “Socks” because I think that’s funny) and at least one foster at any given time (we run a Pit Bull rescue). If it weren’t for my wife being so wonderful with animals, I’d probably have fewer of them around, but I love them all.

Another thing I like about you is that you (like me, I think) are ruthlessly cynical at times, and often extremely skeptical, but when you find something or someone that you’re really impressed by, you’re able to flip that cynical part off and just fanboy out. You’ve seen and played with a lot of cool hardware and software — what’s one or two of the best things you’ve ever seen?

An app called Found left a strong impression on me a year ago. It was mostly because the task was monumental: building a replacement for Spotlight in OS X. Just the drive and planning in the undertaking impressed me enough that I’ve been an excited beta tester ever since.

Beyond that, there are too many apps that I love to even begin listing them all. Third-party hardware that excites me the way apps do is rare. I love my Drobo, but not the way I love my favorite apps. There’s something about the excitement of some developers that’s contagious. It’s hard to be cynical when you see someone take a great idea and make it a reality.

Lastly, run through the apps you have available — just a little bit about what they’re for and why you made them. And then I’m just wondering what you’re working on next, and what we can look forward to.

The only app I currently have for sale is Marked, the Markdown previewer/exporter with a lot of extra tools for writers. After that, nvALT is popular, and I have an app in progress called Gather (you can find it on My next big project is a secret, but it’s going to hopefully fill a void for many Marked users and expand the audience significantly.

I also have Marky the Markdownifier, a side project I’ve been working with on and off for a couple of years. It basically combines Readability with a Markdownifier, turning any web page into Markdown for reading, clipping or saving. There’s also Promptdown, a web app for turning Markdown text into a teleprompter for screencasting. Then there are dozens of Services, snippets and tools that I’ve built, mostly found on my Downloads page. I keep busy.

He does. Since this interview, Brett has put together this excellent catalog of all his work recently, so browse through that if you want to see some of the great things this guy has put together.

He’s also planning to start a new podcast, and he kindly asked me to be the first guest. We actually talk more about some of the subjects mentioned here, as well as a few other things, so keep an eye out for that.

Diablo 3 arrived today, and I’m reviewing it for Unfortunately, it doesn’t actually work with the version of Windows XP I was running on my PC (because I was running a pirated version, that didn’t have any of the Service Pack updates on it). So this afternoon, I went out and did something I’ve never done in my life before: Bought a real, legitimate copy of Windows. I figured it was time — after more than 30 years of using Windows computers, I probably owed Microsoft at least a little something.

Here’s how you install an Apple OS (which I’ve done a few times now, always legitimately):

1) Spend $29.99 on the App Store.
2) Download the upgrade, which might take about an hour or two.
3) Let it install for about 20 minutes.

That’s it.

The Windows process, however, is a little rougher. Because I’m upgrading from Windows XP, I have to do a clean install — completely wipe my hard drive, erasing everything I’ve got on there, and install the OS anew. Fortunately I have most of my stuff saved in the cloud, and almost everything I run on the PC can simply be re-downloaded and reinstalled.

But the instructions for installing Windows 7 look like a pain. And so, to share that pain with you, I’m going to liveblog the installation. Here goes.

1:28pm Apparently, before I install Windows 7, I need to make sure my computer can run Windows 7, as per Microsoft’s instructions. So I have to download a Windows 7 upgrade advisor from their website, and then run that so it can tell me if I’m good to go or not.

When I download it, I’m also recommended some other “useful software,” including Internet Explorer and the Office Compatibility pack. Keep in mind that I’m already wiping this hard drive, because I have to do a clean install. So thanks Microsoft, but no — even if I wanted to install that stuff, I’d be deleting it right away anyway.

1:30pm The Upgrade Advisor program is actually an installer, so I’m now installing an app that will let me know if I can install Windows.

1:37pm Good news, my computer is compatible! Can’t say I’m that surprised. Windows also tells me that most of my programs are compatible, but there are quite a few that won’t work directly with Windows 7. Not that it matters much, because, you know, I’m wiping the hard drive, but whatever.

The one thing that the Upgrade Advisor doesn’t seem to tell me is what I would like to know: Should I install the 32 or the 64-bit version? It says both will work, so I’m guessing 64 bit is better. I will try that, I guess. Putting the disk in now!

1:49pm Took me a while to get my BIOS to figure out how to boot from DVD. It kept rebooting back into the XP install. “Windows is loading files” now.

1:52pm I have a screen of some kind! There’s just a cursor there now, though. I presume we’ll get a window with install options at some point. Right?

1:54pm Whew! There it is. Yes Windows, I would like English please. There’s an Install Now button, and I just hit it. “Setup is starting…”

2:00pm My DVD drive is spinning and stopping occasionally, so that’s probably the bottleneck here. At any rate, Windows finally asked me whether I wanted an auto or a custom install, so I picked custom. I pulled up my HD partitions, chose the one with XP on it, hit Delete, and boom, there goes all of my files and programs from the past few years. Thank goodness for cloud saves, right?

Suddenly I have about 300 gigabytes of free space on that HD partition, so I choose to install Windows 7 on there, and Windows tells me “That’s all the information we need right now. Your computer will restart several times during installation.” I decide to let it go — back to playing Diablo on my Mac.

2:10pm Restart number one. I haven’t touched it at all, just letting Windows setup do its thing. I’m kind of impressed that it restarted on to the hard drive directly without me having to mess with the BIOS again. There’s a meter at the bottom of the screen, and it’s about at 75%. Keep on rolling, Windows!

Oh hey — it finally picked up on my screen’s actual resolution (1920×1200, I think?). Nice job!

2:14pm: Another restart. This time, I’m pulling up the BIOS myself just to make sure it’s set to boot back on to the hard drive rather than the DVD again. Hopefully, Windows can handle it. I guess we’ll find out.

2:16pm: I ignored a prompt to press a key to boot to DVD… And yes, “Setup is preparing your computer for first use”! Windows has almost won me over just in the last few minutes here — once Setup actually started rolling, it was surprisingly painless.

2:17pm Inputting a user name, a password, and a product key. This is the first time I’ve owned a legit copy of Windows! I guess this means I’ll be able to get upgrades and real support now, right?

I even set it to “Activate when online.” Because I have nothing to hide now!

2:21pm My desktop is being prepared…

2:23pm And that’s it — I have installed Windows 7! I guess other updates are being installed right now as well. Those may take a while, and probably require more restarts. But I am impressed — only about an hour, and despite all that nonsense at the beginning, surprisingly smooth.

In fact yup, it just asked me for a restart due to the updates. Not a problem.

Now begins the long process of reinstalling all of my stuff — browser first (I was thinking of switching to chrome full time, but I will probably install Firefox just for the heck of it, because all of my bookmarks and settings are already saved there), and then drivers, then Diablo 3, and then everything else. Priorities!

So there you go. Relatively painless — not quite as easy as Apple’s process, but what is, really? And from what I’ve seen of Windows 7, it actually runs well — even without my video and sound card drivers in, everything seems to be working. I believe with my last Windows XP install, I actually had to put Ethernet card drivers on a USB just to get on the Internet. So far, so good.

Thanks for reading!

I’m going to put this here, partially because there’s a lot of things I want to tell people about, and partially because I’m just trying to get it all in my head. Here’s what I’m up to over the next few months:

This coming week, Diablo 3 comes out, and I probably don’t have to tell you that I’ll be disappearing into work for a few days after that happens. I’m reviewing it for Joystiq after covering it for years, so stay tuned for that.

On May 20th, I’ll be running the Santa Monica Classic 10k. I’ve been slacking on working out lately, first because I hurt my back earlier this year, and then because I was in Europe, so I don’t know how I’ll do. But I’ve done the SMC for three years now, so I figured I’d have to do it again no matter what.

Later that week, I’m heading up to Cambria, CA for Improv Utopia, a really great camp event over Memorial Day weekend all about improv and comedy. I like it for the improv stuff, but I am also just going for the retreat — it’s a really nice place up there, with great cabins, a nice lodge, and a lot of fun people. I’ll be there through Memorial Day.

The week after that is of course E3, so I’ll be in downtown LA, covering games for TUAW and Joystiq. Always fun — this is my, sheesh, fifth year at E3? Sixth? Can’t remember.

The next week I’ll be driving up to San Francisco for WWDC. I’m not going to the conference (though I am a developer — Antithesis out now in the App Store, iPad update soon!), but I will be in town having meetings for TUAW coverage. If you are going and want to meet, let me know.

Then, a week after that is Nerdtacular, up in Salt Lake City. I haven’t bought a plane ticket yet, and I don’t have any place to stay, but I am told I’ll be going. We’ll see. I would love to go, but obviously I’ll be busy.

The next weekend (ugh, I already feel tired), I have just learned I’ll be in New York City for the Del Close Marathon at the UCB theater up there. Not one but two of my teams are performing, and I’ll be seeing other shows and taking some workshops up there I’m sure. If you’re in New York, I would like to meet up with you. One of my shows will be on Sunday, July 1, at 4pm, I know, but I’m not sure when the other show is, or where else I’ll be performing. But I haven’t been to New York in like ten years, so I do want to hit up Shake Shack, and do some sightseeing and all of that fun stuff.

That week is Independence Day, and the week after that, it’s off to San Diego for Comic-Con — it’ll be my third year down there. Craziness, all the way around.

So yes, that’s my summer. Pretty nuts. I also have improv shows scheduled every week here in LA (obviously I’ll have to miss a few of those), and I have a few other projects to work on, most notably Antithesis and this other app/game I’m trying to put together. I love being busy, though, and clearly that’s exactly what I’m going to be.

After all these years, I am now a European traveler.

It’s been kind of a strange few weeks back. Jet lag did hit me pretty hard — for a while there, I was falling asleep around 10pm, and waking up at around 7 every day, which actually wasn’t too bad (except that I’m usually a night person, and often have to meet people or go out after 10). But the most surprising thing about returning home after a month away was how quickly everything kind of fell back into place. The day I got back, I sat down at my computer here at home to do some work, and I was surprised at how everything felt. It was almost like I hadn’t gone away at all.

That next morning, I was in bed trying to get some extra sleep so I wouldn’t pass out at dinner, and I found myself forcefully trying to go through my memories, to keep in mind what I’d seen and what I thought about it. And this blog has been very helpful — it hasn’t been a chore to remember the fun I had, but I do want to try and learn as much as I can from it, keep it all in my mind as best I can.

A few people have told me that they really liked the blog, but just in case you haven’t seen it, I wanted to quickly round up what I did on the 30 days I was gone, from April 1 to May 1. I blogged every day (without exception, though Internet issues caused me to post some things a little late), and here’s what I saw and wrote about:

Day 1: I flew across the Atlantic Ocean, and saw the sun rise over Greenland. I pondered just how big this world is, and how, on this trip, I was traveling farther away from my life than I’d ever been before.

Day 2: I passed through the UK Border (had to explain myself to the guard, when I personally didn’t even know exactly what I was doing), found my hostel, and couldn’t help myself: Had to go out and have a beer at a London pub, just because I could.

Day 3: I set out into London, visited Parliament and Westminster Abbey, 10 Downing Street and Tralfalgar Square. I didn’t write about it, but this was also the first day that I went into a London supermarket, and was amazed at how both alien and familiar everything was at the same time.

Day 4: I visited Sherlock Holmes’ famous lodging at 221B Baker Street, walked through Regent Park, had lunch with a Tipoaa listener (fish and chips), and then went out for a terrific Indian dinner with a friend and his wife. We saw Bates from Downton Abbey drinking in a West End bar!

Day 5: I woke up early, took the train out to a very large mall in the English countryside, and rode with Tipoaa listener Harvey out to Oxford. We toured a few universities there, and then went back to his country house to have Moroccan lamb with his mother.

Day 6: We walked through Harvey’s town in the morning, visiting an old church and looking at houses that had stood there for hundreds of years. Then, it was back to London, and the Tipoaa meetup — we met at Oxford Circus, and did some bar-hopping, eventually ending up eating some very great teriyaki chicken just as they were closing the place down.

Day 7: In the morning (staying at my new hotel), I went out to meet new friends at Camden Market, eat incredible foods from stands representing the entire world, and then have beers with some of the UK’s best games journalists. In the evening, I took the train down a theater by myself, where I had a really excellent burger and chips, and saw a (slightly disappointing, unfortunately) version of Oscar Wilde’s An Ideal Husband.

Day 8: My plan for this day (Easter, I believe) was to relax, and for that reason I didn’t go to St. Paul’s in the morning, probably one of the only choices during the trip I regret, though not too much. But the afternoon was one of my favorite parts of the trip: I took the train all the way out to Greenwich, and toured the town there and the Royal Observatory, where both time and space have been studied and measured for hundreds of years.

Day 9: Finally, on Monday morning, I got to meet up with my friend Turpster, and we toured the Tower of London together. In the afternoon, we meet up with some more listeners for drinks, and I stayed until everyone had left, then grabbed pizza with Harvey and headed home.

Day 10: I took the train down to Brighton, on England’s coast, and was surprised by how much it reminded me of Santa Monica, in Los Angeles. After visiting the beach, I spent the day shopping, and then had bangers and mash at a pub, one of my favorite dishes on the entire trip, before riding the train back up into town.

Day 11: I woke early and took the train down to King’s Cross, where I had an excellent ham sandwich that costed way too much, and then took the train to Paris. I got into my hotel there early, so decided to go into the city — and promptly fell in love. I had an excellent dinner at a little cafe there, and though I was exhausted from traveling all day, I couldn’t get enough of this city’s streets.

Day 12: This is really the day that made my Paris trip — I must have walked twelve miles, from the Eiffel Tower to the Invalides, up to and through the Musee D’Orsay, across to the Louvre and into the Palace Garden, and then to the Opera House, where I had one of the best steaks I’ve ever had. Quite a day.

Day 13: Another walking day, full of fantastic sights. I took the train into Paris in the morning, walked across the “New Bridge” (actually the oldest bridge in town), and then did two walking tours: One across the two islands in the middle of Paris, where Notre Dame, the Martyrs’ Memorial, and St. Louis’ church are, and then a walk through the artistic and beautiful Odeon neighborhood, where artists and writers worked and ate and partied. I ate so many good things, had such a great time.

Day 14: I saw the Paris Catacombs, where millions of humans’ bones sit in a dank passage underneath the city. I visited my first Paris graveyard as well, and then went north, to join up with a podcaster meetup and my friend Patrick.

Day 15: It was Sunday, so I went strolling along the Champs Elysees, past a rally for a French election, through international retail stores and past French fast food places, all the way up to the Arc de Triomphe. I stayed there a few hours, just so the sun could go down and I could get pictures at night, even as I froze in just a tshirt and my hoodie. And then, after a quick dinner of pizza (not cut!), I walked back home.

Day 16: This is the first day that I really stayed in on the trip — I did a lot of work, only took one short walk over to a mall to see if I could find something to keep me a little warmer. I did buy a sweater in France, but actually have never worn it, not even yet here in America.

Day 17: This day was also cold and rainy — I climbed the tower of the Sacred Heart Basilica, then walked down through the Pere Lachaise cemetary, full of famous graves. In the evening, I went home and tried cooking dinner with food found at a nearby supermarket. Let’s just say the bread I bought was the best thing I ate that night.

Day 18: This was the Louvre, which went from a sight I wasn’t sure I wanted to see, to one of my favorite visits of the whole trip. There was just so much there. I remember falling asleep sitting up in the middle of Near East Antiquities, just surrounded by art and history and culture.

Day 19: This was my last full day in Paris — for most of it, I worked in my hotel room. But in the evening, I went to the best restaurant I could afford, and ate wonderful food. That chicken! That souffle! One of the best meals I’ve ever had, and Paris, I will be back.

Day 20: I traveled to Berlin. This was the first day I entered somewhere that I really didn’t know the language — in France, at least, I knew enough Spanish to help me out with the romance languages. But entering that train station in Frankfurt, seeing the food and having no idea what it was, and reading the signs and not knowing which train I was supposed to be on, was a pretty phenomenal experience.

Day 21: This was the Free Tour, my first introduction to the tourist side of Berlin. I walked with strangers to the Brandenberg Tor, and then saw the famous sights: The Holocaust Memorial, Hitler’s bunker, Checkpoint Charlie, Museum Island. Afterwards, I walked through formerly communist Germany, and came to the realization that because of everything Berlin has been through, the city is almost younger than my own LA.

Day 22: I studied the Holocaust. I learned what it was and what it meant for its victims at the Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe, and then went south to the Topography of Terror display to learn who the Nazis were and how they did what they did. It was a lot to take in on a sometimes tough day, but very important stuff.

Day 23: I visited Ku’damm, as they call it in Berlin, a shopping district with lots of pricey shops and interesting sights. I ate dinner at a Chinese buffet (my second on the trip — weird?), and had to have the proceedings of a mongolian BBQ grill explained to me in two different languages. Also, I ate Kangaroo meat! It was stringy.

Day 24: I took a train out to Wittenberg, to visit the hometown, house, and church of the founder of my family’s religion, Martin Luther. This was a quiet day in a relatively small town, but I walked in the footsteps of someone who’s shaped me and my life from across the centuries.

Day 25: I spent the afternoon visiting the Tranenpalast, the palace of tears, where Berlin has set up a memorial to The Berlin Wall and what it meant for citizens there. Then, on the recommendation of a tour guide, I went to a bar where they had 300 different beers available to buy, and I took a long, proper survey of the best beers Berlin and Germany had to offer. I don’t remember much of the rest of the night, obviously.

Day 26: On my final day in Berlin, I ate at a great restaurant called Max and Moritz, named after an old German folktale. I tried to take in as much as I could of local German culture, and that came with a whole lot of calories as well.

Day 27: I made my way to Prague, checked into the hostel there, and was very confused by the currency. The city was beautiful, however, and super warm, which at first was a nice change from the cold in Paris.

Day 28: This was probably my least favorite day of the trip — Prague was hotter than I expected, and more crowded, and either due to my bad planning or just the vibe of the place, I didn’t find nearly as much history as I expected. I did have a great dinner this evening — potato pancakes and dumplings with some really incredible pork — but the day itself didn’t win any points with me.

Day 29: This was my last full day before I headed home, and Prague was much nicer to me on the second day. I went to visit a castle and a cathedral in the middle of it, walked Prague’s streets and saw Frank Gehry’s Dancing House. I ate dinner over Wenceslas Square, and thought a lot about my trip and what I had learned from it.

Day 30: This was the first of two travel days — I first woke up in Prague, took the train to the airport, and then flew out of the airport on a tiny little plane back over to London. I stayed there in a hotel that was also an Indian restaurant, full of old grubby English guys, all watching a soccer match on the TV and grumbling into their beers.

Day 31: On the final day of my trip, I flew from England back to LA — I saw three movies on the way over (Mission Impossible, Chronicle, and Haywire), and played a whole lot of Junk Jack. I met my friend Rob at the airport, and we had In and Out before I headed back to my apartment at home.

Whew! I’ve been telling people that I haven’t found a good way to really compress my trip into just a few minutes of small talk, but I think that’s about as small as it’s going to get — obviously, I did a lot, and experienced a ton of things. It was certainly worth it. I definitely do want to go back to Europe, to visit Paris, and Greece, and Rome, and probably somewhere up in Sweden and the Netherlands as well — I didn’t get to make it to Amsterdam, unfortunately. But as I’ve said, I think my next big trip will be to Asia, to visit Japan and China and Hong Kong. I will have to save up money, so that might be in another year or two here.

And in the meantime, well, stay tuned. I have quite a bit more to do, even just this summer.

I am flying back to London today. The Prague airport was actually easier to navigate than I expected it would be. The passport checkpoint guard didn’t ask me anything — he just chatted with his partner in the next checkpoint, laughing, gave me a look, and then stamped me out of his country.

At this exact moment, I’m sitting in the Prague airport terminal, about an hour or so before the flight is set to go. And it’s completely empty for some reason — just a few workers occasionally wandering through.

At any rate, I figured that since today will probably be somewhat boring (just heading back to London, going to stay one night there in a hotel, and then take the train to Heathrow tomorrow to leave Europe), I would revisit some of my bests and worsts from the trip while they’re still pretty fresh.

Best Place I Stayed: Dillion’s Hotel off of the Belsize Park London Underground stop was pretty amazing. I had my own room there, a nice desk, relatively strong Internet, and though it was a shared bathroom, everything was clean and well-maintained. It was nice and close to a train stop, and there was a great little window by the desk that I could look out of while working. Add in the free continental breakfast in the morning and the excellent staff (they let me borrow a power adapter for free), and it was definitely the best place I put my head on a pillow.

Staying for a night with my friend and Tipoaa listener Harvey in Oxford was excellent as well — he and his mother were great and kind hosts, and their house, in an old stable on an old English manor, was beautiful.

And I stayed in about three hostels total on this trip, but the best one by far was the St. Christopher’s Inn in Berlin. I had a private room there, and the whole building was very comfy. They had a bar downstairs with cheap drinks and food, a “chill out zone” with quality chairs and Internet, and all of the staff were very friendly and helpful, all for an astoundingly cheap price. I liked it so much that after one night, I booked a place with the same franchise in Prague. That place wasn’t quite as good, but it was also really excellent as hostels go.

Worst Place I Stayed: I’d been recommended by a few friends (which is an Ebay like site where people can post and buy rooms), but the one room I booked there was sketchy as all get out. It was in the worst part of London that I had been, on the top floor of a dirty and scary projects-like building. When I got there (after having to call the guy a few times, which I’m sure cost me a fortune), the guy running the place told me he’d just moved in, and introduced me to another guy who he said was the former tenant, moving out that day. He apologized for not having any sheets on the bed yet — he just had to run to Ikea that afternoon and get some for me. I almost left my stuff there, then I felt like that was a bad idea and turned around in the hallway to take my bags with me to dinner that night.

I was exhausted when I got back to the place, but the guy wasn’t around yet, so I sat on a bed without sheets for a little bit, and then just passed out on it. The guy finally showed up later on that evening, with another friend in tow, and said they were going to drink together and I was welcome, but I just couldn’t do it — he put the sheets down and I closed the door and passed out in my clothes. The next morning, I picked my stuff up, said thanks as I walked out the door, and did not use Airbnb again this trip.

Best Sight to See: The Paris Catacombs, the Royal Observatory, Westminster Abbey, and 221B Baker Street in London, the Topography of Terror museum in Berlin, and the Lutherhaus in Wittenberg were all spectacular, and those sights were the main reasons I went on this trip, to see and learn things that I’ve never had the chance to in America.

But the Louvre has to top the overall list. I was skeptical about going there at all, but it is just so full of history and art and inspiration that I believe it’s the center, as much as there can be one, of Western culture. You could argue that Greece and Rome are more foundational in terms of place, yes, but the Louvre has most of Greek and Rome’s most famous works anyway. For the money and the time, it was the best thing I saw in the past month.

Worst Sites: The trip to Brighton was worth it, and I don’t regret it, but there wasn’t much down there that I really had to see. The Tower of London was kind of jokey, but I got to hang out and make a video with Turpster, so I’ll call that a win.

I’ll say the Prague Castle was probably the worst — it was beautiful to look at, but it was such a pain getting up there, and everything was closed when I got there. On a different day at a different time, it would have been much better. But my personal trip there wasn’t very good.

Best Thing I Ate: Oh man, I ate so many good things on this trip: The bangers and mash I had at a pub in Brighton, England, the pain au fromage I bought from a bakery in Paris, the crepe with nutella from a stand near the Odeon, the homemade moroccan lamb in Oxford, the venison pasty I had in a North London pub, the multiple currywursts I had in Berlin. But I have to say, maybe it’s just because it’s so recent, but the potato dumplings with pork I had near the Prague Castle were life-changing. They just soaked up that creme sauce so incredibly well. I want to get home and try to make some. They were so simple and so incredibly good.

Worst Thing I Ate: I apologize to Harvey and his mother, and I thank them again for their hospitality, but the blood pudding they excitedly served me did not appeal to me at all. I at least gave it a shot.

I also had a terrible chicken sandwich from a Pakistanian place in Paris. And I thought I’d really enjoy a kielbasa from a food stand in the middle of Prague, but I did not. I think it was undercooked, and honestly I have no idea what kind of meat it was.

Best Thing I Drank: I drank a lot, but no question, the Dopplebock I had at the 300 beer bar in Berlin was the best. The best. Such a beautiful dark beer — it’s no wonder monks would live off of that stuff.

I also had a lot of good hefeweizens in Berlin, which are my favorite kind of beer. And in London, I became a fan of an ale called Doombar. It’s a little unfashionable to like, I guess, because it’s sort of a commercial beer rather than a hip microbrew, but it was everywhere and I liked it. The Guinness there, too, is just as good as everyone says, but I’ll have to go to Ireland to get the real thing some day.

Worst Thing I Drank: I don’t really like tea, and when I told a bartender one day that I was extremely thirsty, and I was American, and could I just have like a bucket of soda because I missed 7-11, he told me the best he could do was a big glass of iced tea. It wasn’t bad, but it wasn’t what I wanted at all.

At my first meal in Paris, too, I didn’t know where to go or what to do, so when I finally found a restaurant and sat down and finally deciphered the menu enough to know that I was ordering some pork, the waiter asked me what I wanted to drink. I was in France, so I knew I had to drink some wine, but I didn’t have a lot of money on me and I didn’t know if they took credit cards. So I told him to bring me something red and cheap, and that’s what I got: Wine that was red and really cheap. Tasted like it, too.

Best Women: Maybe it’s just because I was away from home for longer and longer as I moved across the continent, but the women got more beautiful the more I went west: London, Paris, Berlin, and then Czechoslovakia. Czech women are gorgeous, but they’re also annoying: One of the bartenders at my hostel bar, when I told her that I was staying in a room there, said sarcastically, with a Czech accent, “Okay? That’s nice, thank you for telling me that. But it’s still the same price.” Chill out, lady.

I have to say, French women were the nicest to me. They’re all beautiful, and whenever I talked to them, they chatted back with me in that beautiful accent.

Not the Best Women: Sorry, London. You’ve got some good looking women but you’re bringing the average down. The nicest girl I met in London was from Boston.

Coolest Dudes: Berlin. German dudes are awesome. When I was on the train from Paris to Berlin, there was a guy in front of me who looked like he could have been a spy who’d left the trade to join private industry. He was dressed in a great suit and glasses, an older guy, and most of the trip, he chatted across the aisle very animatedly with another guy he’d just met in German. There was a woman behind me talking in Spanish who had an argument with the train conductor, and this guy stood up, walked over to them, and translated and mediated between the two, in perfect Spanish and German, solving the argument. Later, behind him, there was a old couple from Texas riding the train, and he chatted with them, too, in German-accented English, completely charming when he didn’t have to be. I thought he was a superman of some kind — if I grow up to be that guy, life accomplished.

The male bartenders in Berlin bars were awesome as well, always ready with a drink recommendation or change for the train when I needed it.

Least Coolest Dudes: I didn’t meet a cool bartender in England. It’s a shame, because I did meet some cool Tipoaa listeners. But English gents didn’t get along with me very well. I met a nice lady with a great Zelda hearts tattoo, but she shut me down pretty harshly when I complimented her on it.

Best Thing I Got Right: Bringing my iPad was the right decision. I went back and forth on it, because I worried it would be too heavy, it would break, it would get stolen. But I took very good care of all my stuff on this trip, and the iPad was super helpful when I had wifi and just wanted to sit and relax, or when I wanted to play games or read. I would certainly have regretted leaving it in LA.

Worst Thing I Got Right: Yup, it was expensive, like I expected. Really expensive. I don’t really want to share how much this trip costed me, but one dream I had for a little while was that my freelancing gig would basically pay for me to just tour around the world, writing from wherever I happened to be, and this trip would be a test balloon for a life like that. But it’s just not sustainable, either in cost, or in my own sanity. I need to have a local life, with friends and a little regularity. And I need to save back up all of that money I just spent.

Best Thing I Got Wrong: I actually didn’t get this too wrong: I am glad that I didn’t buy a $2000 camera. For one thing, it would have painted me as a tourist way more than I wanted, and for another thing, it would probably have been awkward and heavy to carry. But I thought for a while that I would just need my iPhone for a camera, and eventually my friend told me to take his Panasonic Lumix. This little Lumix has been my favorite piece of tech on this trip — it takes great pictures at a moment’s notice, and has put together an excellent photo collection for me to share, both here on the blog and when I get back in person. I am glad I took my friend Dan’s advice and stole his camera for this month. There were a few days there when the battery on it wasn’t charged, and I had to use the iPhone, and I can tell from those days that just using my iPhone would have been a big mistake.

Worst Thing I Got Wrong: I hate to say Tom Bihn, because they so kindly provided me a bag, and it is a really awesome bag. It’s a solid backpack with plenty of great pockets, and I’m amazed at how much it fits in there — if you need a backpack at all, Tom Bihn is the way to go. But the problem is that I thought I needed a backpack for this trip, and honestly, I didn’t. There were no actual times when I had to tour around with all of my clothes on my back — there was always a locker, or a locked room, or some secure place for me to put my stuff when I went out. The few times I had to transport all of my clothes from one place to another, my rolling suitcase would have worked fine, and actually would have let me fit more in it.

I don’t want to say anything bad about Tom Bihn, as those folks are great. But if I could do it again, I would have just brought my usual rolling suitcase, and saved the backpack for people actually backpacking.

Books Read: The Art of Fielding, by Chad Harbach, Madam Bovary by Gustave Flaubert, Reamde by Neal Stephenson, The Unincorporated Man by Dani Kollin and Eytan Kollin (the only one I didn’t like), and House of Chains and Midnight Tides by Steven Erickson. I did so much reading on this trip — iBooks is the best thing to ever happen to traveling, as far as I’m concerned.

Most Played iOS Games: Fairway Solitaire, Triple Town, Spellsword, Hookshot Escape, and just on the last couple of flights, I am totally addicted to Junk Jack.

iOS Games Made: None, unfortunately. I was really looking forward to this trip as a chance to work on my coding, and I got a few hours of the Antithesis update done on the train to Berlin, but other than that, I didn’t really see it as a very meaningful use of my time. Every time I opened up Xcode and started working, I figured that there was probably something better for me to do. Oh well — once I get home, the Antithesis update is my main goal.

Miles Walked: I have no idea, unfortunately. I know that on my biggest days, walking around London and Paris, I was easily doing ten or twelve miles a day, including three or four hours a day standing in place at museums and in queues. And I’m glad to say that in all my travels, I never took a taxi or a bus — it was all trains or walking. While I can definitely tell my walking has physically improved, I unfortunately ate way too many calories, just because I couldn’t pass up some incredible local delicacies. My legs are super muscular, but I think my midsection has gained a few pounds. Oh well — it was worth it.

Miles Traveled: Over 12,000. Flight to London from LA, lots of riding on the Underground, travels out to Oxford by car and Brighton by train, then down to Paris by train, lots of traveling on the Paris Metro, then over to Berlin by train. Out to Wittenberg and back by train, then to Prague by train. Finally, flight back to London Luton from Prague, to Heathrow by bus, and then to Los Angeles by air again.

Pictures taken: Over 1600. I don’t know the best way to share them — I’ve put quite a few on Facebook, but it didn’t seem like people were seeing them there. Maybe I’ll just put them on my iPad and show them when people want to see them.

Words Written: 62,000 here on the blog. Also worked on Joystiq and TUAW posts over the last two weeks, so I stayed pretty productive.

Best City: This is a tough one. I think I’ve told this story before, but when I was in college, I traveled out to LA, and about two weeks after I got there, I knew it was where I wanted to live. I was sort of thinking that might happen with this trip: That I’d find someplace so awesome that I would have to make it my dream to live there. That didn’t happen — I think I’ll still be more happy in LA than actually living in any of the cities I visited.

But while each city definitely had its charms, and there wasn’t really one I didn’t like (Prague has its issues, but I think it’s mostly because I visited on a busy weekend — if it was quieter and I had more time, I would have liked it much better, I think). Overall, my favorite city was Paris — it’s such an amazing place, just filled with art and beauty and history. The buildings are so long there — block after block of huge windows, long boulevards, and so many incredible cafes and restaurants. The Louvre, I think, is probably the most important single place in Western culture so far. And while everyone warned me about the French, I had no problems at all — they were very gracious hosts, and very nice to me even when we didn’t share a language. I don’t know if I’d want to live in Paris — it’s still a little too far away from the culture and the community that I really love. But of all these cities, that’s the one I most need to go back to: I want to visit a Michelin-starred restaurant, I want to tour a vineyard, and I want to just soak more and more of that amazing, legendary city in.

All that said, however, I’m going to tour Asia before I do that.

Best Moment: That is a tough one. Honestly, overall, I have been happier in the past month than I can remember being so often and so long. I’m not super sad all the time, but my life is busy and complicated, and sometimes all of the things I do drag me down a bit. Life in general can get heavier than I like, sometimes. But this past month, I almost never felt that — usually I was just excited, thinking about what I’d seen that day and what I was planning for the next. That was really nice — to have my goals every day be mostly my own, not dependent on something I needed to do or some commitment I’d made.

If I have to pick one, there was that moment in Berlin, when I was walking around the streets on my second day, looking for the square that honored artist Kathe Kollowitz. I made the decision to travel around in early Spring, and all of a sudden, out of nowhere, a rainstorm appeared. I had of course not brought my umbrella, and so I ducked underneath an awning and decided to wait it out.

It was so beautiful — the sun was still shining through the clouds, the rain came down crisp and clear, and various people from Berlin ran this way and that, trying to get out of the rain. And while I stood there, surveying the scene, it hit 6pm on the dot, and I heard not one but two churches ring their bells at the same time.

The sound and smell of the rain, combined with the gorgeous church bells ringing, and people bustling back and forth occasionally, and me just sitting on this little closed off porch early on an April evening in Berlin? That would rank as one of the best moments I had, on a trip full of them.

My second day in Prague was not nearly as bad as the first.

For one thing, I waited to go out until the sun was mostly down. It was actually a hotter day than my first day in the city, but I had a lot of writing and catching up to do anyway, so I just sat down in the hostel bar and relaxed for most of the day, cleaning up my Internet feeds and making plans for heading back home. I finally booked my last hotel night in London, wrote a few posts and put up some pictures.

I had a late lunch in the bar as well, just some chicken fingers and fries. I get a 10% discount on food and drink here, because I’m staying up in a room, but I haven’t really made much use of that, obviously — there’s better and more local food elsewhere in the city. Maybe I should mention the room, just for posterity’s sake: This is one of the only times during this trip that I’ve had to stay in a shared room, because the private rooms at the hostel were already booked up for the weekend. The first night I was in Prague, I actually had a four bed room to myself, but I still wasn’t able to sleep well: I wasn’t sure, minute to minute, if a group of frat dudes would kick in the door and settle in to the room with me. So as a result, it wasn’t very restful anyway, unfortunately.

Yesterday, when I was clumping around the city angry at tourists, it occurred to me that maybe my lack of sleep had something to do with my mood, so I decided when I got back to the hostel that I would probably have to lay down and grab a nap. But as soon as I got back to the room, I discovered my roommates: Three girls, all speaking something that I would eventually figure out was Hungarian. They were in the room and unpacking, but when I entered, they all sort of clammed up and sat there awkwardly, waiting for me to leave, I guess. I obviously couldn’t nap in a situation like that, so I just dropped my things off, and headed back down to the lobby to read. So yes, maybe some of my crabbiness yesterday can be attributed to exhaustion.

Then, when I finally went up to the room to sleep later that evening, it was still pretty early, so I expected the girls to be out, partying or enjoying the city. Instead, they were fast asleep in their beds already, so I quietly undressed, said sorry a few times (but still didn’t get any English out of them), and jumped into bed. About an hour after I did that, I woke back up again: The girls, all three of them, got up one at a time, showered and dressed, and headed out of the room. This was about 1:30 in the morning. After they left, I sat there confused for a while, wondering what was going on — they hadn’t spoken a single word of English, just chatted and laughed quietly in Hungarian.

At 5am that night, they returned to the room, and I assume they went straight to bed — that’s where I left them when I woke and showered at about 8. When I returned to the room in the afternoon, after I was done writing at about 2, they were gone, so I finally got a nap in, and rested up a bit. I have no idea what happened that night with those women.

I didn’t want to spend the whole day inside, though, so late in the afternoon on Sunday, I headed back out into the city, but this time went south, away from the main crowd of tourists. I walked down and saw Frank Gehry’s Dancing House (it is gorgeous, sitting right on the main Vitava river through town), stopped by the Emauzy Monastery, an old monastery which I believe has now been turned into a school.

Finally, I arrived at another old castle, this one called Vysehrad. This was a serious castle — there were walls maybe 50 feet high around it, and I had to hike up a hill (in the heat again) to reach a get and get inside. Once inside, I found a little fortress of a village, with thankfully only a few tourists and locals sprinkling the grounds.

There was an old cemetery there, with graves dating back a few centuries or so. And there was a church, an old Gothic cathedral that I’d seen coming up the hill. I went inside and paid 30 crowns (maybe a $1.50 or so) to go check it out.

The tourists weren’t swarming in here, but the few inside didn’t help their reputation with me anyway — the poor woman at the door told everyone “No flash” as clearly as she could, and there was a sign at the door that clearly asked for silence, but no one listened. These idiots were all running around the little sanctuary flashing away and chatting with full voices. I didn’t get any pictures of the chumps who took pictures of themselves flexing in front of the altar, but I did get a picture of the guy who ignored all of the art around him to take a picture of his wife in the pew. I also didn’t get a picture of the guy who was carrying a full iPad around, and taking pictures with that. Ugh again.

A few people told me I was harsh yesterday, and like I said, I was going on probably too little sleep. But I do really detest this kind of hit-and-run tourism, where nothing matters but the pictures and the checkbox on whatever list they’re using. There’s so much history in these places — in the back of this church, in a little room full of heritage objects from the church’s history (which people routinely stepped inside, looked around, and stepped right back out again in the 20 minutes or so that I spent in there), there were paintings that dated back to the 1700s, and one bone comb that dated to the 1300s. That’s nearly eight centuries of history, and people were giving it a glance, and then going back out to the gold-leafed paintings. Maybe is wrong for me to judge these people based on a few seconds of our lives, but man, have a little respect, especially for someplace that you yourself have paid to come and visit.

I did take a few pictures, but I never once used a flash in that church, and I did try to sit for a few minutes, thinking about how long that church had been there, and what it must have been like hanging all of those beautiful paintings by candlelight. The priest probably stood there with the artist himself at some point, thanked him again for painting this beautiful work to hang in God’s house, and the artist nervously left it there, left it for God and history to see. That’s the kind of stuff that fascinates me about this places, and if nothing else, those idiots who take a flash picture and then move on sure don’t seem like they’re thinking about things like that. Maybe it’s none of my business, but that’s what I think.

Afterwards, I walked across the fortress walls and back down through the gate down into the city again.

Because it was my last day on this trip (tomorrow, I board a flight to London, and from there it’s back to LA and my usual life again), I tried to think a little bit as I walked about why I did it, and what I got out of it. I’ve always said I wanted to visit London and Paris, so if nothing else, that goal’s been accomplished. But of course there was more to this trip than that. I wanted to go outside of my usual boundaries, try going to a place where I didn’t know the language, and see if I could find my feet and figure things out. I wanted to see what was different in the rest of the world, what I took for granted every day that people in other countries didn’t even know about, or maybe had even come up with something better.

And I did learn some of those things: The English, for example, have red, yellow, and green traffic lights just like we do in America, but while ours go directly from red to green when it’s time to go, in England, they go from red, to red and yellow, and then to green. That way, you get a little heads-up when it’s about time to move again. I don’t know — that probably wouldn’t work in America, as we’d have people revving their engines to go as soon as that yellow light came on. But it’s different things like that I was looking for and found. Things like how bathrooms are called WC here, and how there’s a different word for “Exit” in every country.

And how Prague’s currency actually helps bring tourist money in: 99.- here means 99 crowns, which to us Americans sounds like 99 cents. If you see a hot dog for 99 cents, you’re like yes indeed, that’s a good deal. But 99 crowns is actually almost $5, and it occurred to me that while Prague probably could just scale their money down and make it more even with euros and dollars, that “99.-” is actually a powerful selling tool. And since most of their money is now from tourism, it probably all works out for them just fine.

I would never have known that story, or had that thought, if I’d never left LA. I’m sure there’s lots more thinking I’ll do about this trip — I almost feel like I need to be back in my old life for a day or two just to realize how different things really are.

But I’ve also learned that lots of things are the same. Here, almost buried by loneliness while in Berlin (I haven’t actually had a conversation with anyone I know for a good two weeks now, unfortunately), I just sat myself at the bar and started talking to anyone I could. And while yes, some people just smiled and nodded at the crazy American, most people talked back — they were nice, they chatted, we talked about where we were from and what we thought of Berlin, and what our lives were like and what we wanted to do. It was in a hostel, so people were there from all over: From Germany, Spain, Italy, America, Canada, Australia, and a host of other countries. A couple of other times too, on this trip, I’ve just been bored and started chatting with people around me, which is something I don’t do very much in America at all. And without exception, everyone’s been very nice, been talkative, and we’ve found something in common, something to talk about.

I am looking forward to seeing how that affects me back in America — if I can share this much halfway around the world, how much will I share with people who already have a common language with me, and a common city, and probably common thoughts and goals and ideas? We’ve all got to push to be better people, and hopefully that will help me do just that.

It was about 7 when I finally got back to the hostel, but I didn’t just want to sit in that bar for my last night in town, so I headed out once more into the cool evening to do a little more walking. I went back up to the tourist part of town, and thankfully it was not quite as crowded on a Sunday evening as on a Saturday afternoon. I didn’t concern myself with local cuisine for dinner — I just figured I’d sit down in a place that looked good, and that happened to be an Italian place, which I’ve seen a lot of in all of the countries I’ve stayed in, but hadn’t eaten at just yet.

I sat down, ordered a Kozel, and a plate of gnocchi with chicken and some foccacia bread. My window looked out on to Wenceslas Square, and I watched the tourists going by, people from all over the world, looking up at me with wonder and awe (well, they were looking at the architecture around me, but I was there too). I sat there, read a little bit, ate my pasta and drank my beer.

Eight months ago, last October, I was driving home from my improv theater in LA (Improv! I just realized I haven’t done any improv in a month now), and I decided my life needed a shakeup, that I needed to do something a little crazy. And before I got home, I knew: I would finally take the Europe trip. In fact, I would take a full month, and not only would I see London and Paris, finally, but I’d head off into the continent, see all of the art, the old churches, the historical sites and monuments that I’d always read about but had never seen in person. And now, eight months and way too much money later, I sat, finished my dinner, and sipped the rest of my local Czech beer, looking out onto a busy public square as the sun set over Prague.

Oh, that was such an elegant ending, but I forgot to explain the mystery of the girls Or at least as much (or as little) of it as I uncovered.

Later that night, after a few more beers in the bar, I went back up to my room, and discovered them all asleep in their beds. At least, I thought they were asleep — after I fumbled around in the dark a little bit, one of them spoke out to me, in plain English, “It’s ok — you can turn on the light. We’re all awake anyway.” Another one laughed.

So apparently they did speak English. I said sorry again, and I asked them where they were from. “Hungary,” they said (not all together, but given how dark it was, they might well have just been one person). Are you just visiting? I asked. They glanced at each other. “Yes,” they said, “visiting.”

“And you?” they asked. I said I was from Los Angeles, that I was heading home the next day.

“And you,” they asked, “visiting?” I thought for a second. Yes, I said. Just visiting, too.

I asked them if they were going out again that night, and they didn’t understand my English. Going out, I said more clearly and slowly, tonight, again? “No,” one of them said. “Sorry about last night.” It’s fine, I replied. I just didn’t know what was going on. I don’t know if they understood that last part.

Well, I said, I am going to sleep. Good to meet you, hope you have a good trip. Good night, I said.

“Good night,” one of them said back to me. And with that, I went to bed. They were still sleeping when I woke up at 8 the next morning, showered, and headed out to the Prague airport to fly to London.

I don’t really like vacation.

Well, that’s not completely true. I do like getting away from things, having time to relax a bit. But I don’t like doing nothing at all. I like moving, I like working, I like having a purpose and going to it. Whenever I go back to the open country in the middle of the US to visit family or stay for a while, I’m just done with it after a few days. There’s nothing to do.

And to a certain extent, I’ve approached this trip as a sort of work. A very enjoyable sort of work, to be true, but when I’ve visited these different places, I’ve approached them with the best writer’s eye I’ve got (my right, of course), and tried to really pull some meaning out of them, something I could take away and share, both with you here and with my future self. When people on this trip have asked me how long I plan to be on vacation, I usually have to blink and think about what they’ve said for a second or two: I’m not really on vacation here. I don’t really like vacation.

Prague, on the other hand, is definitely a vacation town. It’s probably a combination of a few different factors (including that the weather is much hotter here, 81 degrees today, and that it’s a weekend), but the streets here are just flooded with tourists. I’ve seen tourists on the rest of my trip, of course, but those have always been manageable. Only once, in Berlin, when I wanted to use a sports bar for writing and a bunch of hooligans wanted to use it for watching a soccer game, was I really frustrated by crowds. All the rest of this past month, I’ve basically wandered the streets and museums in rapt awe, just enjoying the exploration, the discovery, and seeing the occasional group of people with cameras and backpacks was more of a cute distraction that reminded me of LA than anything else.

Until today. Here in Prague, the heat has been stifling to me, and the crowds have been so frustrating. The guy with the way-too-expensive for what he’s doing with it camera who stops in the middle of the street for no reason at all, taking a picture of a building he knows nothing about. The old grandmothers from New York City, who thought they’d come to Prague for fun, and spend their time shopping in the exact same retail stores they do back in America, where only the price numbers are different (and actually more expensive). The idiots who tour down an old Prague street, see a TGI Friday’s and decide to eat there for the night. And the bros — from all countries — who are about nothing at all but dude dude dude fuck dude, where we drinkin’ tonight dawg?

Ugh. Ugh to all of it. And the worst part is that from what I’ve seen, there’s nothing here to make all of this heat and all of these crowds worth it. The architecture is gorgeous, for sure, but unlike the main corridor of Europe, where I’ve been so far, relatively nothing has happened here over the centuries. I saw the sights: I walked through Wencelas Square, where I saw the elegant National Museum — but couldn’t go in due to construction. Then down to St. Henry’s Tower and the Powder Gate, so named because it was used to store gunpowder in the 17th century. I continued down the king’s coronation road, saw multiple really beautiful cathedrals and the Astronomical clock. At noon the sun just became too much for me — I had to head back to the hostel, sit in the cool bar and read for a bit.

And then I headed back out in the evening, and even at 5pm, the sun still burned down, not a cloud in the sky. Across the St. Charles Bridge, the heat was too scorching and the crowds were just too dense to enjoy the statues on either side. And going up the hill to the old Prague castle, supposed to be the crown jewel of the region (not least of which because the crown jewels are themselves held there), was torture. I couldn’t even run to get out of the sun because of the indolent tourists in the way, idiots stumbling along covered in fanny packs and designer backpacks and chattering in various foreign languages.

When I finally arrived at the tower, sweaty and angry, I at last saw a museum that was supposed to be interesting, was supposed to tell the “Story of the Prague Castle.” But of course, on a weekend at 5 in the evening, the woman closing the doors in front told me it was closed. I made my way to the St. Vitus Basilica, and it was so impressive to see from outside — I couldn’t wait to get inside and see what it was like. But no — closed for an organ concert. Fine, I said, how much is the organ concert? 800 crowns — over 40 bucks. I’d seen Notre Dame for free. I’d seen the whole of the Louvre for 8 euros. I passed.

There was a tower to climb for just a few crowns less, and I considered it, but then I saw the sign outside the door. Go ahead and guess the most interesting feature of this tower, the number one thing that they advertise outside the door? You can’t, I bet. Because the most interesting feature of the tower was that it had a bell, put in the tower in the 1800s, that predicted a flood … in 2002. This cathedral was built back in the 1300s, and the most interesting thing that’s happened to it was 10 years ago? I tried to at least see the crown jewels (since I’d already seen the crown jewels of both Britain and France this month), but nope, they’re only shown to the public once every eight years. Makes complete sense to me. Because you know, there’s so many other interesting things to see around. I was livid.

I sat down on a bench in the shade and calmed down. Prague was obviously a disappointment. My sister had warned me away from it, to Vienna, but I figured there was too much to do there in just a few days, and Prague would be much simpler. I don’t know what Amsterdam would have been like, but I thought that I’d probably made a mistake by coming here. This just wasn’t my kind of town.

The last thing I wanted to do during the day was, as I had promised, find some real Czech cuisine to eat. Looking online, I found two targets that I thought would be pretty easy to find. One was called bramboráky, which were some potato pancakes that were supposed to be good. The other was utopenci, which was pickled sausage of some kind. Both, I learned, were supposed to be pretty common in bars, and pretty cheap, so I figured I had a good chance to find them. There were other specialties, including roast pork, potato dumplings, and something called smažený sýr, which was breaded and fried cheese that I’d actually had the day before, when I ate that fried cheese sandwich. But I wasn’t sure if I’d be able to find these at a price I wanted, with all of the tourists hanging around.

The first restaurant I tried wasn’t bad — it was higher up on the hill, near the castle itself. But when I sat down to eat there, the place was completely empty. And checking the menu, they had some czech dishes, but nothing I was looking for. It just didn’t feel right to have this meal represent my time here, so I got up, returned the menu, and went looking for another place.

I tried another restaurant — the menu outside was in czech only, but I definitely spotted my bramboráky on there, and figured I could at least get that. I went in and sat down — and had to wave away a cloud of fruit flies. Well fine, I thought — maybe that will just make this place more “authentic.” But after a few minutes of waving away and swatting at fruit flies, I decided that wouldn’t work, authentic as the place might be.

So not only had I had a terrible day of fighting crowds in the sun, but now I couldn’t find a single decent restaurant. Coming down the hill from the castle, I found one more restaurant. This one had bramboráky on the menu, and it didn’t have my sausages, but it did have some relatively cheap pork on it, in a special local cream sauce I’d read about called knedlíky. I figured with the pancakes and the pork, I could make a meal.

And, as it turned out, the meal was terrific. I got a house pilsner to go with it, and both the beer and the basket of bread I got were quite good (the butter had chopped up peppers in it, which I really liked). The potato pancakes were fantastic — they were served with a salad on a bed of sauerkraut, and the ‘kraut was the best I’ve had on this whole trip, even without any meat on it.

The server recommended that I try potato dumplings, another czech specialty, with the pork, and so I assented — they were a little bit more, but I went for them anyway. Turns out he was exactly right. The pork was amazing, and the sauce was just brilliant; sweet and creamy, a perfect companion to the tender meat. But those dumplings! They were almost like a steamed potato bread, and they just soaked up that wonderful sauce.

This could have been the best thing I’ve eaten on this whole trip. I wanted to call out to the water as I soaked up that sauce with the dumplings. “You have redeemed your city, your country, with this meal, my good man!” I wanted to say. Instead I just ate the last of the sauce, and when he came by, thanked him for recommending the dumplings to me.

Heading back to the hostel, full of that food, I actually felt better — the sun had gone down, things were a little cooler, and I was relaxing. Maybe I do like vacation, I thought. I sat on a bench, read some more, and tried to enjoy myself a little bit.

Unfortunately, the walk back home proved all of that wrong — I ran into crowds yet again, and at night they were even worse, blocking my path and teeming right in front of where I wanted to go. I passed a Burger King and saw it packed with people wearing backpacks and cameras, shook my head and cursed my own kind. I saw drunk guys pushing and shoving each other, bumping into me and others around. I saw people taking pictures mindlessly, and every time I had to walk in front of those inconsiderate morons I threw an angry glance into their camera.

It’s kind of a shame — I had hoped this little stay here would be quiet and simple, a nice buffer between everything I’ve seen, and the big flight and then returning to my usual rhythms back home. But at this point, if I want to get any of that done, I may just spend my day tomorrow here in the hostel bar, writing and reading by myself.

I’ve done three posts now, I believe, about traveling by train, and I’ve probably said about as much about it in the last month as I need to. So instead, I’ll just jump past my train journey today, undertaken from Berlin after checking out of the hostel around 10 in the morning, and tell you that I arrived in Prague at about 6 this evening.

When I first entered France and then Germany, and stepped off the train, I had this weird moment of something like panic that came up. It wasn’t a panic attack or anything nearly that bad, but it was a few minutes of just disorientation — consciously, I knew I was going to enter a brand new country where I didn’t know the language, but unconsciously, I looked at the signs expecting to pick up meaning, and then was a little shocked when I didn’t.

In France, and then in Germany, I was surprised, after even just a week there and exactly zero actual training, at how quickly I picked up the language. Once you know what a few things in each of those languages mean, it isn’t hard to figure out what a lot of the rest means, just from context alone. But sure enough, when I entered the train station here in the Czech Republic, I had that same weird little moment of panic.

The biggest bit of confusion I’ve had here today has been the currency. Euros and dollars and pounds are all pretty close together — they’re only within one or two actual numbers, so I got along pretty well just by adding two or three to whatever I was buying. But one US dollar equates to 18.74 Czech koruny at the moment, so the prices here are all things like 23, 75, or 240 ck, not $1.20, $3.50, or $12.70 (which is what each of those approximately is). So I’ve been doing calculus in my head all day, trying to realize just how much things are worth around here. This beer I’m drinking right now, for example, cost me 50 ck, which sounds super cheap. It was just one coin, and I got change back! But it’s actually $2.70, and for the value and the quality of the beer I’m drinking, that’s not such a great deal.

As for the city itself, once I checked into the hostel (it’s the same franchise as the place I stayed in Berlin, because I really liked it and they had lots of fast Internet and a bar on the ground floor), I just decided to go walking and see what I could find. In the next few days I’m sure I’ll do a few tours and seek out a few sights, but tonight I just decided to dive in. I grabbed a free map from the hostel and started looking around.

I know next to nothing about Prague at all — originally, as you might remember, I was going to go to Amsterdam, and while I didn’t know much about Berlin, I at least knew it was the Nazi capital and the site of the Berlin Wall. Prague, I have no idea. I think there were communists around here somewhere? But I don’t know what happened to them? And just walking around the streets, I could see there was a lot of money in the architecture, so there must have been some sort of king or emperor or kaiser around here somewhere.

The architecture is probably the most phenomenal thing about the city — this truly is Old Europe. Berlin is also old Europe, but it’s been so ravaged by war that most of the buildings are actually pretty new. A lot of the buildings I saw there seemed built around 1950 or 60, which puts it on the same scale as Los Angeles, surprisingly. But Prague seems to have survived the centuries well — everywhere you look, there’s some sort of crazy fascinating old building, that was probably owned by a monarch at some point.

The problem I have with Prague so far, however, is that it’s almost completely a tourist-driven city at this point. At least in the places I’ve visited, I’m hearing way more English than anything else. It’s like the Vegas of Europe — everything is really spectacular, and looks terrific, but it’s all pretty fake, designed to just rake in the tourist dollars, not actually represent anything. Indeed, as I walked around, I saw mostly retail stores (a lot of American chains, though mostly higher end retail places), and a lot of familiar brands: Subway, TGI Friday’s, Burger King, even a Hooters. Honestly, I’ve seen all of these (except for the Hooters) elsewhere in Europe, but they’re usually not in the main town square — they’re sequestered in the tourist-only spots, away from the real history. Here in Prague, they’re right in the middle of it all.

That rubs me the wrong way a little bit, but honestly, I didn’t really come to Prague for the history so much. I just knew I had a few extra days here at the end of the month, and I wanted to try doing something really wacky and different with them. We’ll see what I end up doing.

Tomorrow, I think, I will probably do a few walking tours, and then maybe try to find some local Czech cuisine, whatever that is (I saw a few places trumpeting Goulash tonight, so maybe that’s it). I should say I did have a “fried cheese” sandwich this evening, because it was only 30 ck ($1.50) and I was hungry. It was interesting — like a mozzarella stick patty in bread that didn’t even come close to the bread I’ve had in the other countries so far. But that was just a cheap snack from a vendor. I’ll be sure to give the Czech Republic’s food its chance.

And then Sunday, I don’t know what. That’ll be my last day of touring around in this month — the day after, I fly back to London, and then jump on a plane back to LA. So I’ll have to come up with something good to do on Sunday to mark the end of this phenomenal trip.

I ended my time in France with an excellent restaurant, and so I decided that a good way to end my stay in Berlin (my last “full” weeklong stop on the trip) would also be to eat a great traditional German meal. I asked the free tour guide if he recommended anything, and without thinking twice about it, he told me to go to a place called Max und Moritz.

Max and Moritz, I learned while Googling for the address of the place, are two famous cartoon characters who have quite a history of their own. “Max und Moritz – Eine Bubengeschichte in sieben Streichen” is the title of an old, old German folktale, so old that it has now fallen into the public domain. Parents read it to their children, who read it to their children, who read it to their children a few more times over the years. They’re like Paul Bunyan is in America — nobody really knows where the tale came from, but everyone knows who they are.

Well maybe not quite like Paul Bunyan — Max and Moritz was originally written as a children’s book by a guy named Wilhelm Busch in 1865. He also illustrated it, and both the poem included and the illustrations are quite famous. As you might expect from a German tale, it’s actually quite grim to our modern sensibilities, but of course over here, it’s all in good fun, like the gingerbread lady throwing those kids into her oven.

Max and Moritz are two mischievous kids with distinctive haircuts, who specialize in tormenting the people of a small German town in various creative ways. They pull off a series of seven tricks, which get more and more complicated — first, they tie some ropes to chicken food, and when the chicken eat it, they get all caught up together and killed. The widow whose chickens they were is saddened by this, but she cooks the dead chickens, which are then stolen by fishing down a chimney by Max and Moritz, and the widow’s dog is blamed for the theft.

I started my self-chosen three course dinner at Max und Moritz (the restaurant, not the mischievous kids) with some old German potato soup, complete with both sausage and bacon, and some incredibly tasty bread. I decided that I had given German bread a little too short shrift — it is really good, and it’s only because I had just come from France when I ate most of it that I didn’t really get into it. But their ryes and darker breads are just amazing, and the herbed butter that came with it didn’t hurt that at all.

Given all of the beer I’d had the day before, I really didn’t want to drink beer again — I would rather have had soda. But (and this is probably the thing that’s given me the most issue here in Europe), while soda and water flow freely in the US, Europe for some reason does it all differently. When you buy soda, you get a little bottle, and that’s it. When you order water, it’s bottled only, and that’s all you get. So when I looked at the menu, saw a tiny little bottle of soda for 4 euros, and a huge beer of the day for 3 euros, how could I not order beer? I got the house beer, which was a tasty weiss beer, but honestly, I would rather have had a few glasses of diet coke.

After tormenting the widow, Max and Moritz then turn to the rest of the town’s citizens. To the tailor, they saw cuts in a bridge near his house, and then goad him onto walking on and breaking it, causing him to almost drown. The teacher’s pipe is lit with gunpowder, and it explodes in his face. They put bugs in Uncle Fritz’ bed.

The baker almost catches them — they sneak into his place to steal some bread, but instead, he grabs them and sticks them in the dough, then bakes them in the oven. Max and Moritz escape, however, by eating their way out of the dough.

The main course of the meal was called Konigsburger Klopse, which were German braised meatballs and potatoes in a caper sauce with a side salad. The salad was very interesting — most of the stuff in there was all briny, like sauerkraut. Even the lettuce and tomatoes were brined up a little bit, it seemed. I liked it, but it was very different from a fresh American salad — much more sour. The meatballs were, of course, terrific. The potatoes were boiled, in good German style, and were probably the best part of the meal.

Eventually, given all of the trouble that Max and Moritz are causing, they of course get in trouble of their own. The seventh trick they pull is to cut some slits in grain sacks, so that when they’re carried away, the grain all spills out. But the miller catches them at the prank, and he instead stuffs them in the grain sacks and carries them off to be sold. Max and Moritz are ground up into feed, just punishment for all of their pranks, as far as the townspeople are concerned. And then, in one last indignity, they’re eaten by ducks. The original book shows the grain laid out in the shape of Max and Moritz, being eaten by a couple of very strange-looking ducks.

My last course was dessert. I couldn’t pass up some old fashioned “apfel strudel,” given that I’ve had a lot of really terrible knockoff American strudel over the years.

And when it appeared, it was of course amazing — the creme that was poured over it was basically a very smooth icing, and was incredibly good. At this point, even I was thinking I’d eaten a little much, so I chose not to scoop the creme up with a spoon after I’d finished. But I really wanted to.

As I walked through Berlin back to my hostel room there for the last time, I thought about what folktales like Max and Moritz mean to those who tell and hear them. Obviously, there’s a little morality tale there — kids probably enjoy the pranks as they hear them, but of course at the end, they’re supposed to be scared off by Max and Moritz’ final fate. And of course there’s benefits to reading comprehension as well — Max and Moritz rhymes and it’s easy to read to kids, but it’s also easy for them to start reading themselves once they know the story, and there’s enough variety that they can learn all kinds of important words for a country environment.

Even more than that, stories like this create unity in a people. They create nostalgia, because everyone remembers being told it as a kid, and the sequential nature and the clear identity of the characters and situations makes it easy to remember. It’s also very archetypal, the mischievous pranksters, and so the imagery can be inserted into all sorts of situations. Max and Moritz have existed in all kinds of media around Germany for many years — there are even YouTube videos of a fake Max and Moritz Reloaded trailer, which riffs on the kids’ tale in an adult way.

But most of all, I think, it’s a point of reference for German people who grew up with the story as a kid. It’s home. And the Max und Moritz restaurant certainly felt like home — there were big families at big tables all around me, and lots of little Max and Moritz tchotkes lined the walls, all echoing that feeling that you’re home, you’re safe, you’re in a place where there’s a story that you know and love, where things happen the way you’ve always known them, always remembered them.

I thought about all of this on my walk back to the hostel. And when I got back there, I didn’t go back down to the bar and have a beer, or do any partying. I curled up in bed, just relaxed and read a little bit, and thought about home.

Tomorrow, I take a train to Prague, for a mini-trip of just a few days. And then on Tuesday, I’ll fly back, and I’ll return, finally, to the good old U.S. of A.

I’ve seen pieces of the wall all over Berlin already. There are a few still left standing, though they’re (somewhat ironically) surrounded with fences, as the government is planning to eventually turn them into permanent memorials. There are also pieces hanging in various bars, or posted in galleries and strung up for display. Germans, I’ve found, aren’t really interested in talking much about the Nazis, for good reason. But they’re more than happy to share stories about the GDR and the Wall. They’re almost proud of it, as if it was some mysterious opponent that they all fought and conquered together.

In a way, I guess, it was. After World War 2, the Allied forces didn’t want a repeat of what had happened after World War 1, and the Soviets specifically, as I understand it, wanted to keep all of the land they had fought so hard and lost so many of their men for. So a deal was made: Germany was split into two different parts (West Germany, called the Federal Republic of Germany/FRG, and East Germany, called the German Democratic Republic/GDR), and Berlin itself was split into four parts: Three zones for the British, French, and Americans to control, and one half for the Soviets. Each country kept their own forces there, just to make sure that things didn’t go bad, as they had before.

Of course, just a few years later, the Cold War began, and a different fight started: That between the communist Soviets and the capitalist West. To learn more about the wall, and exactly why it was built (and why it was such a problem for local Berliners), I went to place here in Berlin called the Tranenpalast. In English, it’s called “The Palace of Tears.”

Checkpoint Charlie, which I’ve visited a few times this week, is the most famous of the seven border checkpoints on the Berlin Wall. It’s the checkpoint that went between the American and Soviet sectors, and so it’s where celebrities and diplomats came when they wanted to cross the border, and it’s the site of lots of espionage schemes and Cold War tension. Nowadays, it’s an intersection in Berlin that’s almost as cheesy as Times Square — there’s a replica checkpoint box there, and an actor who stands in front of it who charges a few Euros for pictures. There’s coffee shops on all sides, and a museum that I didn’t bother to visit — it’s a tourist trap of the highest magnitude. There are stories there, but they’re buried beneath all of the tchotchkes.

The Tranenpalast, on the other hand, is the border checkpoint that local Germans used to go back and forth between the two sides of Berlin — it’s based right at the Fredrichstrasse train station, which was sort of the Grand Central Station crossing between East and West. There’s a building there that connects directly to the station with huge, rounded glass walls around it, and that building was built by the communists specifically to serve as the East German checkpoint. Over the years, Berliners have named that building the Palace of Tears, because it’s the point in the city at which they’d have to tearfully say goodbye to each other when crossing over the border.

Today, it’s used as a museum, with a permanent exhibition about the border crossing and what happened there. After the Cold War really kicked off, East Germany found that it was losing citizens. Originally, the borders in Berlin were just symbolic, and you could easily walk back and forth between them, just by crossing over a few streets. The communists, however, were much poorer, and the culture was so much more oppressive than the West that citizens fed up with the government over there just walked over to live in West Berlin instead. 3.5 million East Germans ended up fleeing their homelands to go to the West, before the wall was built.

So to stop this exodus of its citizens, the communists decided to build a wall. (Well, first they denied there were any plans to build a wall, and then they built a wall.) At midnight on a Saturday evening in August 1961, 40,000 troops spread out along the borderline in Berlin, and started laying down barbed wire and planks. A few months later, the wall was completed: There was an outer wall (which most people mean when they talk about the wall), and then a “death zone” (since Eastern guards were ordered to shoot anyone trying to leave the country illegally), and then an inner wall. At the Fredrichstrasse train station, all trains were stopped and turned around from either side, and both the East and the West set up their own checkpoints, with East Germany housing its checkpoints inside the glass building that became the Tranenpalast.

It’s stupid to try and “rate” tragedies — certainly, the Holocaust was a terrible tragedy for Germany and everyone in the world, and the Wall wasn’t without its deaths as well: The numbers are hazy, but records say there were anywhere from 100 to 200 people killed while trying to get out of the country. But the real damage that the wall did was in splitting up and separating families and friends. In the museum, there are stories and interviews about people who couldn’t see family members because they lived on the wrong side of the border, or who couldn’t visit or learn from the other side because their politics didn’t vibe with the communists. Some of the stories were quite emotional: One woman, who was told by the communists that she couldn’t take a historical trip to Sweden because she wore “Western clothes” and had ties too close to the capitalists, tearfully talked about having to sneak out of the country with her mother, leaving her grandmother behind, who she was never able to see again.

And then of course, there was communist oppression in general: At the border crossing, they confiscated Western books and magazines, and put spies and surveillance on anyone seen hanging around the border for too long. In the train station, there was a small cafe, and at one point, 11 of the 19 people employed there were “unofficial” employees, paid to just sit, pretend to read the paper, and try to overhear subversive talk from citizens passing through.

The thing that most fascinated me about the wall itself was that both sides, not just the communists, tried to put out propaganda to cast the other as evil. West Germans, for their part, were very supportive of their Eastern countrymen, smuggling supplies through and over the wall when they could. But even Western media put a spin on what was happening in East Germany. They showed me some newsreels from the ’60s from either side of the wall, and the West claimed that millions of people were “heroically” out for demonstrations on the Eastern side, showing throngs of citizens fighting against soldiers. For the same story, Eastern media claimed the demonstrations were “the work of a few bandits,” instead showing empty streets with broken windows and trashed shops.

The West claimed the communists were trapping and killing their citizens with the wall, and the East said the wall was designed to “keep out the worst of capitalist elements.” It was like two siblings arguing about a fight after it happened, and because history is of course always written by the victors, I had to wonder just a little bit when the Tranenpalast described how terrible the East German guards were.

Not that I’m supporting their actions at all. Of course the Wall had to come down, if for no other reason that it was pointless and cruel to separate families from each other for the sake of politics. Eventually, East and West Germans rebelled and held demonstrations with millions of people around the country in the mid-nineties, all battling for and calling for reunification. The Soviet communists actually calmed down before the German communists did — even when Gorbechov was pushing for change, the Germans were looking to China and its suppression of its citizens as a model. I found it interesting, too, that two of the biggest voices against reunification of Germany were France and Britain — they were both very worried about what would happen if Germany got the chance to reunite.

But those fears were eventually overcome, of course, and in 1989, the wall came down. The troops from various countries, in the various sectors of Berlin, actually stayed until 1994. And today, Germany is completely reunited — I haven’t had my passport (or my politics) checked once while walking all over Berlin.

The Tranenpalast was both the newest museum and the newest bit of history I’ve seen on this trip: I was of course alive when the Wall came down (and I remember hearing about it on TV, back in Missouri, though I didn’t really understand what was going on), and the museum exhibition itself was only opened last September (about a month before I decided to go on this trip, actually). It was a little strange to see such recent history on the walls of a museum, after spending the last three weeks studying what’s basically ancient history. I remembered that jean jacket one of those demonstrators was wearing in a video, I know that band poster stuck up on the side of the Wall ruin.

But for some reason I didn’t feel all that connected to it. Maybe it’s because the divide was largely political — the real enemy was basically just bureaucracy gone terribly wrong. And in the end, while again I don’t want to understate the trauma that the wall caused for those in Berlin, the whole thing was just a stupid mistake, two huge nations that couldn’t settle their differences amicably, and made citizens suffer as a result.

At the back of the Tranenpalast, there used to be a little corridor that led right into the Fredrichstrasse station, which was how anyone who made it past the guards entered West Berlin. That corridor was removed after the wall came down, but you can still see right through there — the back door of the Tranenpalast looks right into the big glass doors on the station. And so I could stand in the museum, near the little replica guard stations stood, with pictures of the wall and German’s history all around me, and look out through the two sets of glass doors, right into the train station.

That’s where I saw people hurrying back and forth, Berliners rushing to and from work and home, some carrying briefcases or dragging luggage right behind them. All of them were, I was glad to note, free to go where they pleased.

After I finished at the Tranenpalast, I had one more task to do that I’d been looking forward to all week. I’ve tried beers here and there in Berlin, but back when I took the free tour, the guide told me about a bar just north of the Fredrichstrasse station that had a beer list of 300 beers, and I decided that, for the sake of science, I would need to go over there and try as many as I could. I found the bar pretty easy, actually — it was a nice and dingy dive bar, with a big gruff German bartender behind it. He didn’t speak English at all (“No English?” I asked him, a few bars in, trying to maybe start up some semblance of conversation. He just shook his head and grumbled something back in German.), but we both spoke the language of beers, so I ordered by reading off and pointing out the beers on the list I wanted to try.

I started with one I knew I’d like. Weiss beers are Germany’s specialty, and my favorite beers, so the Rothaus Zapfel that I ordered was beautifully golden, and nice and sweet and thick.

Next, I wanted to try a “dunkel” beer. I’ve seen them on a few menus around the city — dunkel means dark in German, and while it’s still a weiss (wheat) beer, dunkel beers are thicker and supposed to be a little smoother. The Schofferhoffer Dunkel that I ordered was a little spicier, I thought, however. It was a little much for me, given that my taste is towards the hefeweiss.

I wasn’t sure what to do next, so I turned to Twitter, and they recommended the Aventinus, a stronger wheat beer from Bavaria. This one was excellent, and it took me a while to finish it. The bartender actually rolled the bottle across the table while he poured it, to mix the beer up a bit. It was a high 8.2% alcohol, too, and there was a lot of it, so it slowed me down for sure. I did like sipping it, though — it was actually a little sugary, I thought, kind of the way that barbeque sauce sometimes is.

After that beer, I had to go lighter, so I went to a Krombaucher Pilsner, another Twitter suggestion. Most US beers are pilsners — they’re very light and bitter. I thought this one was a little too light for me. “Need a bit of heft to my beer,” I typed in my notes. It did last a little while, though — it would have probably been better with dinner or some hearty food.

At this point, I was getting a little woozy — I am a big guy, and I can handle my drinking just fine, but I hadn’t had any dinner at all, and now I was four really great beers in. I decided to do one more and finish strong, however, so with Twitter egging me on yet again, I went for the Andechser Dopplebock Dunkel, which was supposed to be an amazing beer in the very strong, very dark dopplebock style. This is the kind of beer, I was told, that monks use as food in place of meat and bread.

And it was very, very good. So dark, so sweet. The bottle said “Seit 1455″ on it, so this beer has been around since even before Martin Luther. “Like a fine steak dipped in caramel,” I tweeted — it was just an amazing beer. And the best part is that the ingredients are three: Water, malted barley, and hops. That’s it. What a beautiful drink.

I stumbled out of the bar and headed for home, but was easily distracted on the way. I wandered into one restaurant to grab a quick bratwurst, and ended up sitting down for about twenty minutes to watch the game with a bunch of Germans. I finished my wurst and wandered on, found another restaurant that looked really good and figured heck, I’d stop in for one more drink and make use of their WC. While there, I had a Jever Pilsner, the best cheapest beer on the menu, and chatted with the bartender, a German lady who told me that she had studied Swedish history in between making coffees and drinks for the people eating there.

I wandered on — stopped in another bar that was crowded with people also watching the soccer game, but the place was so crowded I couldn’t even find a bartender to order from, so I left (thinking back on that, it may actually have been a house party. Hmm.). I found another bar, ordered another beer, and then went and sat down in a little stage area, where a guy on stage, no kidding, started speaking in English. He sounded and looked like he was a New York intellectual, and he was actually hosting a panel, in English, on the short history and current situation of Berlin techno music.

On the panel with him were three German musicians, and the whole thing was very surreal — completely by random, I had fallen into a presentation in English, talking about how Berlin’s techno music has changed since the wall came down.

That finished, and I wandered back out of that bar again, decided I was hungry. A falafel sandwich later, I made it the rest of the way back to the hostel, and headed upstairs to bed. The Internet connection I’ve been using in my room wasn’t working, and it was just as well — I dressed for bed, and conked out right as my head hit the pillow.

Honestly, I am not very religious these days. I wouldn’t define myself as an atheist at all — I still wince when someone categorically says that, “There is no God.” I’m much closer to the spiritual side of agnosticism. I think it’s a little too wimpy to not make a choice at all, and if pressed, I’ll fall back on Pascal’s Wager (disproved as it may be), and just agree that there probably is a larger pattern, and thus a creator, out there. Makes sense, and would the world be that different if there wasn’t?

But I don’t go to church much anymore, partly because it’s early on Sunday morning, and partly because I don’t feel motivated enough to stand and sing with everyone else there. If those people really do believe all of that stuff, who am I to invade their beliefs with my half-realized ideas about God and how it works? I’m sure any priest would tell me that’s not valid, but it’s how I feel.

At any rate, I say “much anymore” about going to church, because I used to go every week. In fact, I used to go a few times a week — up until the seventh grade, I went to a parochial elementary school in St. Louis, MO. The school was Lutheran, and my family is very much enmeshed in the Lutheran faith. My parents are religious, and I have cousins and uncles who serve as pastors and bishops. My maternal grandfather was himself a preacher, and my paternal grandfather and grandmother worked for a church and school and lived on church grounds in a small town. My background is very much in the German Lutheran tradition — I was baptized and confirmed at the same Lutheran church in St. Louis, and I’ve been to dozens of family weddings, reunions, baptisms, and even good old potlucks. I’ve recited Luke 2 with my family every Christmas, sung “A Mighty Fortress is our God” every Easter, and sung hymns along with the rest of the congregation in both English and German verses.

So no — these days, I’m not all that religious. But religion, especially the Lutheran religion, is pretty core to who I am anyway. Ever since I was a kid, I’ve heard these liturgies, these hymns, these stories, these names, these expressions, all straight out of the Lutheran church. The pastor who both baptized and confirmed me was so influential to me growing up, more than even he knew: I loved listening to him speak every Sunday, and soaked in his ability to keep a congregation interested and rapt for 15, 20, 30 minutes straight. It’s those skills, I think, that I try to use in my writing and speaking these days, and I have traced the origin of those right back to all of those mornings spent in the Lutheran church.

And today, here in Germany, I went and visited Wittenberg. Lutherans, of course, are named after a German man named Martin Luther himself. And Wittenberg, about an hour outside of Berlin by train, is where he became a monk, put together all of the writings that came to define the Lutheran (and to a larger extent, the Protestant) tradition, and then eventually died and was buried.

“Died and was buried” — that’s another phrase that comes to me out of the Lutheran service, by the way. It’s part of the Apostles’ Creed, which I could probably recite to you from memory right now. That’s how ingrained in me this church still is. So traveling to Wittenberg is probably the closest thing to a spiritual pilgrimage I’ll ever really undertake in my lifetime. When the ticket price of 60 euros came up on the screen at the train station, it was higher than I thought, but I paid it and boarded the train to go and see where this church that has defined me so much actually came from.

Wittenberg these days is just a small college town, essentially, and as I walked from the train station into the main part of town, I definitely got that vibe. But of course this place is very different from your standard American small town. Not only did most of its history with Luther happen in the mid 1500s (that’s five HUNDRED years ago), but it’s also been through two World Wars, and then was part of East Germany under the Communists for nearly 50 years. It was quieter than most towns in mid-America — these people have survived, but they’ve also been beaten down more than I think anyone in America has quite yet.

I made my way over to the Lutherhaus, which of course is where Luther lived for most of his life in Wittenberg. He wasn’t too beaten down at all — he was the son of a fairly well to-do businessman, and was studying to be a lawyer for the earliest part of his life. At the age of 22, just months after he’d gotten his Master’s Degree, he was caught in a thunderstorm on horseback, and, scared for his life, he yelled out that if the Lord saved him, he would become a monk. Of course he survived, and he considered that vow sacred (two of his friends had also died recently, so obviously he’d been thinking a lot about life and death and what it means). A week later, he enrolled in a Catholic monastery, put his head down, and started studying.

That monastery was eventually disbanded (thanks to his work at reforming the church), and it was eventually sold to Luther himself, who turned it into a household for his wife, children, and students. These days, it’s a museum, and an archaeological site, both for Luther and his life, and the reformations he pushed for in the Catholic church.

As I walked through the museum, I was struck at just how heroic Luther really was (especially in comparison to all of the injustice I’ve seen in museums over the last few days). He was very studious as a monk, and was almost obsessed with the original meaning of the scriptures. He learned Latin and Hebrew, and did everything he could to try to read and take meaning from the original scriptural text of the Bible.

At the time, the Renaissance was booming, and the Catholic Church was running on all cylinders. They had come up with a scheme called indulgences, wherein if you wanted to be absolved of all of your sins, but didn’t actually have time to come into the church and confess them, you could instead pay a donation to the church for a little piece of paper. That piece of paper granted you full and complete absolution of all of your sins for the week, and since the Pope talked directly to God, he could do that sort of thing. Indulgences didn’t cost much, but they sold a lot, and bishops and cardinals were building up nice little fortunes from them.

Luther saw all of this, and he decided it was wrong. He decided that bishops and cardinals, men supposed to work for the glory of God, were instead working for the glory of themselves, and couldn’t be trusted to dole out and describe God’s will to the people. He published a few pieces about this, and also wrote a sermon all about it, but of course the act everyone remembers is the one he carried out on Reformation Day, October 31. He walked over to the university church in the town of Wittenberg, and hammered a list of 95 theses, beliefs in Latin, on to the church’s door. The grace of God doesn’t come from indulgences, said Luther (or Martinus Lutherus, as he called himself in Latin), or from the Pope, or from any human creation. The grace of God, he claimed, comes only by believing in God himself.

This was quite an issue back then — people went to Catholic church all the time, and they were used to the long rituals and sacraments and all of the other hooah and Hail Marys and incense burning that was required to deal with God. Only priests knew Latin, and only priests could read the Bible, so it was up to them to bring the word of God to the people. But Luther said no to all of that: The most important thing in religion, he claimed, is the relationship between God and the man who follows him. All men are priests, Luther claimed. All men should have access to the church, and to the Bible, and directly to the grace of God himself. Anyone who stands in the way of that (specifically, the Pope) isn’t working for God — he’s working against Him, claimed Luther.

As you can see, a pretty big deal. And it also put him in hot water with the Vatican, and government officials and other professors who allied with the Vatican. But Luther’s message rang true to a lot of people (both other Biblical scholars who knew there was no actual mention of the Pope in the Bible, and poor laymen, who were starting to realize that yeah, if God’s love and forgiveness were free, why were they paying for these indulgences?), and so the Pope couldn’t really do a lot to him.

Eventually, Luther was called down to testify at a Catholic meeting called the Diet of Worms (heh) in Worms, Germany, and was publicly asked to recant what he’d said about the Pope, on account of the Pope didn’t like it very much. Luther stood before the meeting (I supposedly saw the actual monk’s robe that he wore when he did it, though I don’t know about the veracity of that), and politely said no. His opinions were based directly on the scripture, he said. “With Christian willingness,” he later wrote, “I offered, if refuted and convicted of error, to recant everything, and be the first to throw my books in the fire and trample them underfoot.” But everything he’d said was true, based on his own direct reading of the Bible.

“Well, it was worth a try,” I imagined the Pope said, and the Vatican then issued a papal bull to have Luther arrested, excommunicated, and have all of his writings burned and ignored completely.

Luther’s popularity in Germany was still on the rise, and government officials there realized that attacking him in this way would lead to more problems. So they secreted him away for a while, where he decided to get started on a translation of the bible into German, so any schmuck off the street could read it and make meaning out of it. Later on, his movement would be called the Reformation, because he’d reformed the Catholic Church into something better. The various faiths his writings inspired are called Protestant faiths, because he protested what they did, and those who followed in Luther’s own traditions and beliefs (I remember reading his catechisms as a kid, which were basically Q&A style descriptions of what he thought about what the Bible said) were, of course, called Lutherans.

I learned all of this (and re-learned most of it) while going through the house there, while also seeing the room where he had dinner with his family, the university dais were he lectured from, a mug he reportedly used to drink beer from (again, this is 500 years ago — almost none of it still exists, and it’s hard to keep track of and verify what does). I was struck by his courage, by his conviction. And I was also fascinated by how insightful he was — two hundred years later, the Protestants (who’d gone their whole lives being told that their faith was in their hands, not the hands of some old authority) would travel across the ocean and create America. Even Luther realized just how lucky he was to come across these ideas at this time: The printing press, which had only seen widespread use just as Luther was finishing college, was instrumental in getting his words and thoughts out to lots of people everywhere, and creating that public opinion that he sorely needed to, you know, avoid being killed for what he said.

Luther wasn’t perfect. I did love the fact that he wrote about “drinking beer with friends in Wittenberg,” as that’s a pastime I can really identify with. And he also pushed to allow priests to marry, and eventually married a former nun, which some of his critics claimed gave him undue motive for tearing the Catholic church apart. There were parts of him I didn’t like at all, though. He was stubborn, obviously, and sometimes far past the point of reason. While he mostly decried violence, he did once call the killing of rebels in a town near him “God’s punishment” (a very Pat Robertson move, unfortunately). When attacking the Pope, he often called the Pope “the Antichrist” — if you didn’t agree with Martin Luther, you were basically the Devil.

And the thing that most disturbed me about Luther was that he was prejudiced in his time and place. Part of his goal at reforming the church was that he had hoped to finally convert Jews to Christianity, and when they still chose not to convert, he grew angry with them. 400 years before the Nazis ruled his country, Luther said about the Jews that Germany would “gladly be rid of them,” and “their synagogues be burned down.” Reading that makes you realize that Luther’s just as fallible as any other man. Fortunately, Luther never asked Lutherans to worship him. It fits in his own thinking that men are fallible and wrong — all of the glory, he’d say, should go to God anyway.

I walked down the street in Wittenberg, down to where Luther’s home church was. I went inside, sat down, and looked up at the pulpit. I’m sure it’s not original any more, but I tried to imagine him up there anyway, speaking in excited German, talking about how men should have a direct line to God, and that it’s by grace alone that we are all saved. I kept walking down historic Wittenberg’s lovely little lanes, and finally arrived at the Schlosskirche, the “Castle Church,” which was the university church where Luther first nailed his 95 Theses. It wasn’t his main church, but he did preach there occasionally, as a member of the local university.

And sure, enough, right there on the side, there were two big doors, only about a ten minute walk down the lane from Luther’s house. That’s where he nailed the writing up, where he started a revolution that led to the Lutheran church, where he began the institution that has had such a profound impact on my life.

Unfortunately, those doors aren’t the doors. The church and the doors burned down in 1760, and they’re lost to time. In fact, it’s possible Luther never really did nail any theses on the door — he had an merchant/artist friend named Lucas Cranach, who also lived in Wittenberg, and Cranach’s thousands of paintings and woodcuts of Luther and his life, in large part, were responsible for spreading the stories of who Luther was and what he did. Without Cranach, in fact, it’s hard to say if Luther would have gotten the attention he did. The nailing of the theses on the door may have just been an artist’s creation, a metaphor of Luther posting his beliefs right on the very church he helped to build.

The doors there now can’t be nailed into at all — even if you could get past the fence, they’re bronze doors, commissioned in 1858, and Luther’s theses are now engraved on there for all time. Inside the church, ironically, almost everything is dedicated to the Reformation. Luther and his fellow Reformational figures stand around in statue form, one of Cranach’s paintings hangs above the altar, and Luther himself is buried there after dying in Wittenberg in 1546. The inscription says he died in his hometown of Eisleben, but even that has changed: The official name of the town is now Lutherstadt Wittenberg.

On the very top floor of the Lutherhaus, there’s currently an exhibition going on about images of Luther over the centuries. Cranach painted quite a few pictures of Luther and his work while he was alive, but Germans have, over time, revered Luther as a folk hero of their own, and in the last five centuries since his death, they have painted and drawn and written about him over and over. He’s their guy, the guy who came from a small German town, and brought down that smarmy Pope down in Italy.

Germany’s many governments have also had to have their own relationships with Luther — the Kaisers loved him, and paid for most of the renovations in Wittenberg. After the first World War, Luther’s popularity dropped off a bit, because the Germans obviously had other things to worry about. The Nazis didn’t quite know what to do with Luther — they did attend a few anniversary events in Wittenberg, but his teachings about how God sees every man equally, and about how God’s love doesn’t require work, just faith, didn’t really vibe with their own (they didn’t jump on his comments about Jews, as far as I know — they decided it wasn’t worth all of the other questions using him as a folk hero would involve). And the communists understood the importance of Luther in terms of the German identity, but they too didn’t really know how to deal with him and his beliefs about individuals. When you combine all of that with the dropoff in religion across the world over the past few decades, Luther isn’t quite as important as he used to be. Wittenberg wasn’t dead — there were a few groups of schoolchildren being led through the museums. But it’s not as lively as it might have been a hundred years ago or so.

As for my own reactions to Luther, I definitely admire him. He was a man who saw injustice, read what to do about it in the Bible, and then stuck to his guns even in the face of persecution and excommunication. He fully believed in the power of the written word and debate. “Let the minds clash, but keep the fists down,” he wrote, and I fully agree with that sentiment. And though he took his vows and his beliefs seriously, he also knew the power of good living, and despite his stubbornness and polemicism, he knew that everyone had to come to their own conclusions, just like he did.

“I will preach, I will speak, I will write, but I will force no one ever,” he wrote, “for faith must be voluntary and unurged. Take me as an example. All the while, I was pursuing, preaching, and writing about God’s Word, nothing else. And yet while I was asleep, or drinking Wittenberg beer with my [colleagues] Philipp Melanchthon and Amsdork, the Word became so active that the papacy grew all weak. Because I cannot push anybody into heaven, not even with stick beating.”

I know Luther through his words and works — I sang his hymns to myself while walking around Wittenberg, because I still remember every note (if not quite every lyric). But it’s that sentiment above all — that each of us has to find his own way and learn his own faith — that I most agree with. In an age where the Pope charged money for forgiveness, it took strength to say that, and I appreciate that strength in Luther very much.

I visited one more site before I left Wittenberg. It’s called the Luthereiche, and it’s just an oak tree in a little park between the train station and the Lutherhaus there in town. When the Pope was getting all angry about Luther and what he was writing, he ordered that some of Luther’s work be burned (another action that echoed what the Nazis did, as I’ve learned this whole week). Luther, as a good German guy who I like to think had had a beer or two, thought that was funny. So the legend says that he walked out to this oak tree, in view of his house, and he burned some of the Pope’s work: The Papal bull that called for Luther’s arrest and silencing.

I didn’t get the exact quote here, so this is a paraphrase, but later he told friends that he did it “because I just wanted to show the Pope how easy, and how meaningless it is, to burn words. They don’t go away just because you burn them.”

I sat there at that tree for a little while, took a few pictures of it. And then I walked over to the bahnhof (train station), and rode the train back up to Berlin, watching the German countryside go by outside my window.

For the past two weeks, I’ve been using Monday as a day to take it a little bit easier on all of the touring around, just to give myself a chance to relax and catch my breath a little bit. And so this Monday wasn’t any different — after consuming and partying heartily the night before, I woke up a little late, and sat down to do work for most of the day.

The hostel I’m staying at here in Berlin is actually very nice — it’s part of a chain of hostels around Europe, all of which have a bar on their first floor. The bar’s been great, and when I showed up they gave me a card for a discount on food and drink down here, so it’s been a nice HQ for me in terms of sitting down and working. The two issues I’ve had are that 1) it’s usually way too warm — the heaters are always on blast for some reason. And 2) the past few nights I’ve been here, there have been major soccer games on, which means the bar fills up from wall to wall, and gets just too loud and crowded for me. When it’s relatively show, however, it’s a great hangout place, and give me some good time to sit down and work.

The burgers are good, too, and the beer is nice and cheap, just the way I like it.

The other task I gave myself on Monday, besides doing actual work, was to get my laundry done. I’ve decided that it was kind of a mistake to do my clothes the way I did: My original plan was to pack light, putting only about three or four days worth of clothing in a smaller bag. That in and of itself hasn’t been bad — I’ve never run out of clothing, and I gave myself enough options that I have been dressed appropriately most of the time. But it’s the bag thing that I may have done wrong — I figured that using a backpack instead of a standard roller suitcase would be easier. Turns out I’ve barely carried the backpack around with me at all: Save for the few times I’ve been transferring from city to city, it’s just been sitting in my room.

So if I did all this again, I probably would just bring a standard suitcase, pack a few more days’ worth of clothing (and a few more collars, fewer t-shirts), and just roll it around when I had to change hotel or hostel rooms.

The benefit, however, to having everything fit in one backpack, is that when I need to do laundry down the street, I can just pile it all up and go. And I can get it all done in just one wash, too. I’ve been lucky in the past — the first laundry I did was at my friend’s house in Oxford, and his mom even kindly oversaw changing it over into the dryer, as we were both out. The second time I did laundry was in Paris, and I lucked out there, too: The hostel I was staying at had a laundromat, so I piled my clothes in, put them in the dryer when needed, and was done.

Here in Berlin, though, this hostel has no such thing, so I had to go down the street to a laundromat. The one I went to had a great name: Waschsalon 115. It was a nice place — it took me a while to figure out how the washers worked with German instructions (you had to put money into a main unit in the middle of the room, and then key in the number for whatever machine you were using), but once I got it, I had no other issues. The place’s owner was a weird, flamboyant German dude who either didn’t speak English or just didn’t like to — I asked him for change, and he understood what I meant, but he muttered something to me in German the whole time. When I didn’t understand the machine, he didn’t help at all, just stood there watching me, and then when I got it myself, he chuckled and said something else in German. Weird dude, but he was nice enough.

Doing laundry only took about an hour or two, so I still had some time in the evening after I was done with all of my tasks for the day, and I poked around online to see what I could do that was fun. What I found was The Kurfürstendamm.

Kurfürstendamm is Berlin’s main shopping area, as I understand it. There’s a mall there called Europa Center, which is supposed to be very popular, and there’s also an “Erotik Museum,” which I was told to visit, but decided probably wasn’t my style. Unfortunately, I got there later in the evening (a fact which wasn’t helped by the fact that Berlin’s U-Bahn train system has a huge construction site in the middle of it right now — not one but two times I had to get off of the train, get on a bus to go to the next train stop, and get back on the train. Very frustrating!), so most of the actual shops were closed up for the night. But I had been sitting and working all day, and I hadn’t really eaten anything yet, so I walked around the district looking for some food.

I was in the mood for some Thai or Chinese food, actually, but most of what I found was actually Italian restaurants. England, France, and Germany really love their trattorias and pizzerias, it seems. Maybe the pasta’s great, but I will say that, as someone who’s lived in both New York and Chicago, the pizza here in Europe is so far universally terrible. I haven’t had any in Germany yet, but I walked by people having it, and it certainly looked like what I had in France and London, and no thanks.

Eventually, however, I came across a Chinese buffet. Given that I was looking for Chinese, and given that I like the option of eating a lot, and given that the reviews on the door were actually pretty good, I decided to pay the fee and check out Lin’s Mandarin 2.

I will say this: It was pretty good, actually. Better than some Chinese places I’ve eaten at in Los Angeles, and that’s really saying something. The highlight of the buffet (which did have, elsewhere, some great sweet and sour pork, some fiery chicken curry, and a lot of really great rice) was the “live cooking station”, where a couple of chefs would take whatever you gave them in a bowl and cook it on the grill to perfection. I didn’t quite figure it out at first, even though I’ve done things like this in America, but one of the ladies there also spoke a few words of English, so together, through a series of pointing and English and German and Chinese translations, she explained what I needed to do. I did have to look up chicken on my phone with Google Translate — I figured as long as I could spot the word “huhn” in the buffet line, I’d figure it out. I put some bean sprouts, mushrooms, cabbage, and chicken breast in a bowl, set it in front of the chef, and it came back to me cooked up great.

That machine decoded, I looked around the “live cooking” area for what else I could cook. They had lots of seafood, and unfortunately, I don’t really like seafood, or else I would probably have eaten some oysters, calamari, and octopus. But they did also have lamb, and duck, and beef, all of which I partook of. And they had something else which I’d never seen before to eat: Kangaroo.

I had to try some of that. I grabbed some, put it in with some veggies and a garlic sauce, and put the bowl in front of the chef. A few minutes later, I had kangaroo stir fry, ready to go.

It was good — kind of chewy, but very tender. It reminded me of buffalo, which I’ve had quite a few times. I don’t know that I’d seek it out again necessarily, but I am glad I tried it.

I finished the meal (and another hefe weissen — so good) with a dessert plate — they had both fried banana, which I am a huge fan of, and “fried apfel” which I recognized from seeing “apfel streusel” earlier this week as apple. The apple was actually better than the banana — both of them had melted down into a sort of mush, so they weren’t the best thing I ate that night. They were also worth eating, though. Obviously, I ate quite a bit.

That feast finished, I made myself walk for another hour or so, just checking out Ku’damm, as the Germans call it, and its shops. I found a “Hollywood Media Hotel” down there, and walked in, sat in the lobby for a bit, reminded myself that I still live in Los Angeles and will be back there soon. This nomadic existence is expensive, and can be a little unraveling (especially during the parts without friends), but it is fun. I have to bring myself back sometimes, and remember that I can’t just go exploring the world forever.

After that, I headed back to the hotel, riding that stupid train system back once again, and doing some more writing before I headed to bed a little earlier than usual. Why? Because on Tuesday, my plan was to go and see where the religion that I was born into and grew up in was itself brought into existence.

When I finally decided to take this trip, back in October of last year, I knew that one of the reasons I had for coming to Berlin was to help figure out something I’ve never understood. I’m talking about the Holocaust.

I understand what happened, of course. Millions of Jews, homosexuals, and other minorities were discriminated against, persecuted, collected up, herded onto trains, and then brought to camps in the middle of nowhere, where they were so mistreated that many of them died, and those who didn’t were simply killed outright, with bullets or gas.

If I didn’t know that before I visited the Holocaust memorial here in Berlin (its full name is the Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe), I certainly would now. Upon walking into the museum itself (which sits underneath the Field of Stelae I saw on the free tour), the first quote you see is from an Italian Holocaust survivor named Primo Levi. “It happened,” says the quote, “therefore it can happen again: this is the core of what we have to say.”

The rest of the museum is dedicated to that sentiment; proving and reminding us, from all sorts of angles, from the human to the abstract, that “it happened,” to and around people who were just like us. After a hallway with a historial timeline, the memorial starts in the Room of Dimensions, where there are private stories and texts directly from people in all stages of the Holocaust itself, from early rumors and rumblings among the Jewish community, through Kristallnacht and the ghettos that the Nazis put the persecuted in to further segregate and humiliate them from the rest of the public, all the way up to (in one case, at least) letters and notes written even minutes before these people were actually murdered and killed.

In the Room of Families, the personal stories of families are told, through photographs, drawings, and video and personal documents. Some of those families made it out, some of them died in the first few waves, and some of them stayed a long time at the camps before being killed, but all of them were profoundly affected by the stupid, inhuman actions of the Nazis and those who followed their orders. I listened to the stories on an audioguide as I walked around: This father and his daughter were taken at different times, killed at different camps. This woman’s family was killed but she escaped by hiding out in various places. This man was last seen boarding the train in a Polish town around 1941, but we don’t know what happened to him since then.

The Room of Names is perhaps the centerpiece of the memorial — it’s a completely dark room with names and dates periodically projected on all four walls, as names and stories are read out through speakers, first in German and then English. “Fredrich Steiner,” the speakers say as that name flashes on the wall, “was born in a small town in Hungary in 1930. He attended school with his two sisters and brother, and was taken to Auschwitz in 1942, where his entire family was killed in the gas chamber. He was 12.” And then the room moves on to the next name, and another short story, in German and English. And then another, and another. The memorial is working with various media organizations to try and catalog all of the six million killed in this way.

Finally, the last Room of Sites, talks about the tragedy from a geographical sense, portraying in a map on the wall just how huge and widespread this campaign of genocide was. This was not something that just sort of happened — a mistake that just escalated into an indefensible act. This was a planned, coordinated, regulated organization. In one of the cases mentioned in the Room of Sites, the Nazis built an entire camp in a small town in southern Germany, shipped hundreds of thousands of Jews and other minorities there to die, and then buried them in a mass grave, rolled the dirt over it, and completely demolished the camp, removing any trace of what had happened. No part of that was an accident, clearly. Those buildings were built to kill Jews, and when they were done, they had no other function.

I was amazed, too, at how clear and complete the documentation was. They knew exactly where all of the people taken had come from, and when they were taken, and even the exact day they were killed. That was a lot of research, I thought, to track down all of these people and know exactly where they were at every step of the way. But then, as I explored this and the next museum more, I realized it probably wasn’t that hard at all: The Nazis kept very clean, very strict records of exactly who was where and when. Not only did they murder millions of minority people, but they signed, stamped, and dated all of the orders as they did it.

The memorial is continuing to document these actions even today — there is a living, growing archive being kept there of various information and testimonies from survivors and their families. The documentation is astounding, and they’re building up more every day, collecting as many stories as they can, not only to prove and show that such a thing occurred, but to make sure the memories of these people and their lives aren’t lost forever, as much as the Nazis tried to make it so. I sat for a bit in the video archive (I happened to be there on the day it was open), and pulled up a few interviews with survivors, saw a lovely Polish lady talk about the last time she saw her mother, and a gruff German man with wired glasses and a nice suit talk about walking past the bodies of hanged Jews when he was a child. “Hanging bodies?” asks the video interviewer from offscreen.

“Oh yes,” the man said. “They had killed them.” And then he sits there, quietly. The interviewer sits there as well, pausing, trying to get him to say more. But he doesn’t.

I was disoriented for a while after walking out of the memorial — I walked down the street in Berlin, found a little cafe, and grabbed a sandwich, a diet coke, and a Berliner jelly doughnut (I had to). Obviously, seeing all of that was very powerful, and the memorial makes it very clear just what happened. But to be honest, that’s not what I came to Europe to hear about the Holocaust. I know all of these things occurred. My question is: Why?

Hitler, obviously, was a maniac. And the other Nazis in his employ are a who’s who of men who should never have been given any power at all: Himmler, Goebbels (if you wrote a book with a villain like Goebbels, people would complain that he was way too evil to be true), Goring, Mengele, and all of the other idiots. But the kind of coordination it took to do something like this — to build whole towns just for the purpose of murdering thousands — takes more than just those few, crazy men. It takes a whole nation, a whole willing people.

So that was my question — why did Germany do this? I’m not here to blame anyone, and certainly, in the few conversations that I’ve had with Germans about the Nazis, I think they give themselves more blame than anyone else ever has. But what makes a group of people follow such evil men, obey orders, see the kinds of things that were happening around them (Jews being humiliated, arrested, beaten, even shot in the streets), and decide that it’s all right?

I found my answers at another museum just down the street, called the Topography of Terror. Germany is very careful not to memorialize the Nazis at all — there are lots and lots of memorials here to all kinds of tragedies that have befallen this country, from World War I to the Holocaust and all the way up to Communism and the Wall. But there are no memorials to the Nazis anywhere. I wrote the other day about Hitler’s bunker and how it is now a car park with one little sign on it, and there is one building that was put up by the Nazis that survived through the war (though of course the swastikas and other insignia have been pulled down off of it since), but other than that, I haven’t seen any signs in the city here that the Nazis used to rule.

The Topography of Terror, however, is the closest thing to a memorial documenting who the Nazis were and what they did. It sits on top of what used to be the Gestapo and SS headquarters in Berlin, and indeed, the ruins are still there, though it’s nothing but a pile of rubble, and Germany plans to keep it that way. But inside a relatively new building on those grounds, there is a free museum to visit, and walking through it provides a good, clear, straightforward look at exactly what I was looking for: How the Nazis came to power in Germany, how they convinced the public of their insane beliefs about race and culture, and how they inspired millions of humans to carry out inhuman actions.

The beginning of the answer, as always, is money. Germany after the first World War was in trouble — they’d lost the war at a huge cost, the population was broke, and the government wasn’t any better. So the US, always opportunists, sent over some big-time loans, and suddenly Germany was flush with money again. In Berlin, they called this the Golden Twenties — the early 1920s were a very prosperous time here, and there were lots of great bars around and parties in the streets. In 1929, however, the stock market crashed back in America, and all of that money the US had sent over had to go back, as bankers called in loan after loan. That left Germany in even worse trouble than after the war — at one point, I have learned, inflation caused deutsche marks to trade for something like millions on the dollar.

So it’s around 1930. The Germans are poor and depressed yet again. Democracy (which had been established after the first war in 1918) hasn’t worked well for them at all, and while in America, democracy is often championed as the be-all, end-all of government, the Germans hadn’t been doing it for a couple of decades, and they were already pretty tired of it.

Hitler, before this, was a precocious, charismatic guy with a dark political side and some strongly held racist beliefs. He’d already been in jail for an attempted coup (which is where he wrote Mein Kampf), and he came along and, with the rest of the National Socialist party, saw all of these terrible conditions. He saw a democratic system that was just about to give out, and decided he could spin it to his own ends. He saw a public desperate for answers and help, that would essentially vote for whatever he offered them. All he had to do was promise a return to the good times that everybody remembered from 10 years ago, get elected into office, and then use that office to carry out his own ends. The people remembered life under their Kaiser, and they were of the opinion that maybe putting power in the hands of one guy wasn’t such a bad idea. Maybe he would save them.

The Nazis themselves, I learned, were politically all about work. Work was the key ingredient in their politics — working is what made a man a man, and working is what made a nation great. They were a Labor party, basically (“National Socialist German Workers’ Party” is their full name) — all about jobs, higher wages, a good life for the common man. And if you couldn’t work, or didn’t work, then well … you weren’t the common man, then, were you? Not such a good life for you. Or, in the minds of the party leadership, preferably no life at all.

This is morbid stuff, I understand — it feels weird to try to humanize the Nazis at all, try to figure out what made them tick and what about them actually appealed to the Germans. I don’t want to sound like I’m sympathizing with them at all — they were evil, and what they did was wrong, maybe the most wrong thing man has ever done to man. But I am fascinated by how the inane can turn into horrible evil, how a simple platform like “work is good” can be turned into “everyone who isn’t like us has to die.”

As I walked through the Topography of Terror museum, I learned that the way the Nazis came to power is the exact opposite of everything I’ve been taught in my education in America. I’ve heard over and over again that all men are equal, but the Nazis trumpeted that “all men are not equal” in their propaganda and papers. Who doesn’t like hearing that they’re better than others?

I’ve heard for years (and in fact, my work depends on the fact) that freedom of the press and freedom of speech are basic rights of man, but the first thing the Nazis did in power was shut down political parties that were opposed to theirs, close any papers or media that didn’t agree with them. The first victims of the Nazi party, even before the concentration camps were built, weren’t Jews — they were writers and artists who spoke out against the Nazi party.

I’ve learned that discrimination of any kind is wrong. The Nazis used tactics like public humiliation (putting signs or stars on people and marching them through the streets), segregation, and intimidation to make sure that anyone different from their ideal was discriminated against.

I’ve learned to speak my mind when I see something wrong. The Nazis required people to salute almost all the time — at rallies, while passing a statue or a flag, and whenever they saw a soldier. Anyone who didn’t, or anyone who went against the norm, was subject to the usual persecution.

I’ve often wondered why there weren’t Germans who said “this is crazy, you can’t do this” while the Holocaust was happening, but one of the stories I read was about a woman, a schoolteacher, who didn’t do the salute at a rally, and told her students they didn’t have to either. She was reported by someone else, and was brought before a police officer, who asked her why she wasn’t saluting. “Because I don’t want to,” she told him, a statement I thought was quite reasonable.

“But you have to,” said the policeman. “Times have changed. This is what we do now. Just raise your hand!”

That story was more insightful, more powerful to me than anything I saw in the Holocaust memorial. The Nazis didn’t do these terrible things by just telling the German people, “We’re going to kill a bunch of Jews right now; you cool with that?” They accomplished these things by first preying on a bad situation, promising food, money, and jobs to people who had just lost those and desperately needed them. And then they systematically made it all right for normal people to agree with their insane platforms.

“Sure, you might not be with our politics 100%, but it’s cool, just do us a favor and raise your hand when we ask. Yeah, it might be a little much to actually parade this guy down the street because he’s Jewish, but look, it’s a fun day outside for you and the kids, and we even brought an oompah band to parade with us [this is true -- the Nazis often brought entertainment to get the public to attend their public humiliation]. Ok, yes, locking the Jews up in a ghetto might not be ‘fair,’ per se, but having fewer people out here makes food, housing, and jobs way cheaper and easier to get. And gee, you know, that ghetto (that we made, and don’t take care of, and made sure was overcrowded) is really a mess — wouldn’t it be better if we just moved those people somewhere else? We’ve got these trains right here — let’s just put them on there and ship them off to the country. Where do they go after that? That’s not your business. Don’t forget to raise your hand!”

Dark stuff. It’s scary, because we’re asked to do things all the time, and most of them are reasonable. But it’s very easy, frighteningly so, to see how reasonable can go to inhuman so very quickly.

The Topography of Terror provides a relatively suitable ending to the story: Eventually, the Americans and the Soviets showed up, and the Nazis were killed, killed themselves, or tried to flee. I was surprised, reading all about it, at how cognizant the top Nazis were about what they were doing — Hitler killed himself with both cyanide and a pistol, and gave orders to burn his body so it couldn’t be used as a trophy (the Soviets actually had no plans to do that anyway — they took what was left of it away, and put it somewhere no one could use it to honor him).

Himmler, who ran most of the day-to-day operations of the Nazis at home, was caught trying to escape as a British prisoner of war, and when it was discovered who he actually was, he bit down on a cyanide capsule. Goebbels, who was responsible for most of the remarkably powerful propaganda that made that slide to inhumanity so easy, also killed himself. These men schemed and planned and worked for years to bring all of this terrible tyranny about, but in the end, even they couldn’t stand by their beliefs and actions. Even they didn’t want to face the rest of the world after what they’d done.

Neither the Holocaust memorial or the museum about the Nazis and their operations gives explicit instructions about how to keep this from happening again. Neither of them preaches at all — everything in both museums is presented as simple fact, and despite all of the deeply disturbing material in the Holocaust memorial, it’s all documented and clearly presented, with no judgment passed at all. So the one thing I didn’t hear is: What do we do next?

And honestly, I don’t have a good answer. Vigilance, I guess. Vigilance of the self, vigilance to keep yourself from doing wrong, from hurting others, from judging or attacking anyone. Vigilance against prejudice, against hate, against fear. The Nazis used all of those things to go from mundane, daily life to inexplicable horror, so it’s up to us to fight those off on all fronts, to make sure it doesn’t, though it can, happen again.

After all of that, I needed a break, so I went to a restaurant I’d been recommended by a Tipoaa listener called Kartoffelhaus No. 1. I ordered three of the most delicious things I’ve had on this trip so far: A Paulaner Hefeweisen, roasted potatoes, and a schnitzel (a breaded pork steak) with mushrooms in a cream sauce. All excellent.

I finished off the meal with a Duckstein, a red beer that was also very good (though not quite as excellent as my hefeweisen). My belly full of good food and beer, I hiked out across Berlin back to the hostel.

I then camped in the bar there for a while, chatting with people from all over the world: A girl from Spain, one from Holland, a guy from Austria, a very nice hockey fan lady from Toronto, and a trio of ladies from Australia. I didn’t do much chatting in France, so it was nice to meet some people.

Because I like this hostel so much, and because there are ads all over the place here for the franchise’s other outlet in Prague, I’ve decided to go ahead and make my last stop in Prague. I’m a little worried about the language (at least French and German share letters with English — Czech looks nothing like it), but everything I’ve heard about the city is that it’s amazing, so I’m looking forward to seeing it. This little change in plans, too, has somewhat justified my lack of planning and booking the trip ahead of time. I was aiming to be much more fluid with my journeys, but there’s been so much to do and see in the places I have been that if I had it all to do over again, I probably would have gone ahead and booked things ahead of time.

But not having previous arrangements in Amsterdam obviously made it much easier to decide to go elsewhere when I found out what a mess Queen’s Day would be. I am sorry that I’m missing it, but that’s all right — I’ll have to come back.

I’ve so far avoided being an actual tourist on this trip. I mean sure, I am touring around, and yes, I’ve gone to some tourist spots, and pulled out my camera and snapped pictures. Guilty on all those charges. But so far, I haven’t actually taken a real-life tour. I’ve followed audio guides and podcasts, and self-guided walking tours. But I haven’t been part of one of those groups I always see around LA, either walking or riding a bus or riding segways or whatever, following one guide who’s lamely following some script and trying to earn his wage.

When I stayed at the hostel in London, the map they give you is put together by a company that runs tours just like that — they’re walking tours around the various cities, targeted at young Americans who don’t know any better. FREE TOUR, the brochures trumpet, and when you read the fine print, you learn that you’re meant to pay for the tours, but only by tipping whoever’s giving them. This usually turns out to be another student, or someone who just happened to know English or Spanish or French or whatever language the tour is given in, who then walks the hostel group around the city in question, going through the script.

In London and Paris, I skipped these completely — I had lists of things I wanted to see, and I already knew more places in those cities than I even had time for. I didn’t want to rush by the sights — I wanted to really dive into those cities and see what they were like when no tourists were around, see how they were different from St. Louis, and Chicago, and New York, and Los Angeles, and San Francisco, and all of the cities I’ve personally spent any serious amount of time in already.

Berlin, however, I know nearly nothing about. Yes, I know about East and West Berlin, and I know there was a wall, and JFK said “Ich bin ein Berliner” somewhere around here. I know Hitler ran his war from here, though before today I couldn’t honestly have told you if he’d spent any time in Berlin (he actually didn’t spent much, though as I’ll tell you in just a bit, the time he spent here was significant. And very final). I wanted to see the city, obviously, but unlike London and Paris, there wasn’t anything I wanted to run out and see. I wasn’t quite sure what to do.

So when I pulled into the hostel last night and saw FREE TOUR yet again, I decided to relent. If only for the sake of comparison, I would give the free tour a shot. I woke up early this morning, grabbed the free breakfast at 8, and then stood outside the hostel to meet the tour guide on time at 10:25.

The tour itself meets in front of the Brandenberg Gate, which as I learned has a history long before the Berlin Wall itself — it was the original entrance to the city, and it’s the entrance that Napoleon paraded through when he conquered the place. It was a quick bus ride over there with a few other people from my hostel, and then after being given a number (ugh, I thought — I’m already being herded), I stood there for a while and was eventually divided off into a group of about twenty.

Our guide was a young English guy, thin, with a crazy mullet. He reminded me of my brother, actually — he’d studied history in London, had lived in Berlin for two years, and when he’s not doing tours, he told me, he’s producing techno music and hitting the great clubs here. He introduced himself to the group, and herded us over to talk about the Gate and the Pariser Platz, the square that it’s in. So named, he also told us, because of Napoleon’s history with the square, and sort of an inside joke about Germany’s long rivalry with France.

The guide (whose name was Zabi, I think — a nickname, I believe) showed us the French embassy, the DZ Bank building (designed by Frank Gehry, who of course I know all about from living in Los Angeles). And then he showed us the Hotel Adlon, told us that rooms there cost 9500 euros a night, and then pointed out the balcony, on the third floor, where Michael Jackson famously held his kid out of the window.

I almost walked away right then and there. All of my worst fears about these tours, confirmed. If I wanted to see celebrity sights, I would go for a walk around my neighborhood at home.

I stayed, though. The guide was half joking with it — even he realized that the group wasn’t here for sights like that. After the quick look around the square, we stepped inside a nearby building, and then got down to business. “I’m going to tell you about 800 years of German history,” he told us, “in twelve minutes.”

And, God bless him, he did. Berlin was originally founded on a swamp. It was eventually owned by the Prussians, who got involved in a series of wars with France — France won, they won, and so on. World War I happened, and Berlin (and Germany) got so poor that inflation was way out of control, and then along came Hitler, charismatic and promising to fix the terrible economy. He didn’t, obviously, and he did a lot of other stupid things as well. Finally, America and the Soviet Union marched into the city, and they decided to divide it up. That’s what led to the famous wall, of course, and then in 1990 (which is one of the very few parts of history that I’ve learned about on this trip that I’ve actually been alive for), the wall itself finally came down.

That’s what probably most struck me about Berlin today while walking around it: It’s still building itself. London and Paris are of course old, mature cities. Paris even moreso than London, but both of them have centuries and centuries of history. Heck, even their history has history — as I’ve said, the Louvre itself is historic for being a museum, and the Tower of London has been a tourist trap almost longer than America as a whole has been around.

But Berlin, because of all of the nonsense that it’s been through, is right in the middle of its history. It’s still trying to figure out what it is. Later, after the tour today, I walked around the Prenzlauer Berg neighborhood, part of the communist East Berlin side, and huge communist bloc buildings built in what must have been the 1960s were situated right alongside the Paris-style houses from the 1800s (most of those got bombed out during the wars, but a few still remain). Berlin almost feels more like Detroit or Portland in the US — it’s got the vibe of a city in transition, that’s had trouble but is pulling on through it as powerfully as it can.

The next stop on our walking tour was the Holocaust Memorial, and I won’t talk much about it today, because I’m coming back later on this week. I will say that our guide asked us, fittingly, I thought, what the memorial made us feel, and one of the members of the tour said it felt “somber.” I can’t think of a better word that that one. More later, probably tomorrow.

Then south, to a little gravel parking lot surrounded by more of those communist block buildings. “You’re probably wondering why I brought you to a car park,” our guide joked. He (or maybe just that script) was very jokey — I had to pick past the silly fluff on the tour, and try to dig down into the real history. The real history of this car park, apparently, is that it’s sitting right on top of where Hitler’s Fuhrerbunker was, and where he killed himself with a cyanide tab and a pistol to the head.

When the Soviets arrived in Germany to end the war, Hitler waited until they were only a few blocks away to die “honorably.” I know all of this, of course, because I’ve seen the German movie Downfall. After they invade and then dynamited the bunker, the Soviets found it was harder to destroy than they thought — some of the walls were three fit thick down there. So instead, they flooded it, and then covered it up with concrete of their own, sealing it off forever. Until a couple of years ago, our guide told us, there was no signifier at all on site that the bunker was down there, and back in 2006, the government finally added a sign on the spot, stating that this was where the bunker was buried, along with a map. It was strange to think of the flooded bunker down there (complete with old maps, Nazi books, whatever else you keep in a bunker that you’re running a losing war from, all sunk in water) in such a tame, mundane environment as that car park.

I asked the guide, while walking to our next stop, what the Germans now thought of Hitler and the Nazis, and he told me they’re still very cautious — history is taught (“sometimes overtaught,” he told me) in schools from an anti-Nazi perspective, and in general, Germans don’t joke about it or take it lightly. The reason the Germans haven’t marked out the car park site with anything more than that sign is that they don’t want to create a memorial to Hitler himself, and in all of the time he’s been in Berlin, he said, he’s never heard or seen of any marker on the site at all — not one flower, one candle, anything. Even the most rebellious Germans, it seems, would rather just have Hitler forgotten.

Next up was the Berlin wall itself, or at least one of two parts of it still left standing for memory’s sake. We saw the wall and the famous Checkpoint Charlie, and this was where our guide really won me over: Everything at Checkpoint Charlie, he told us, is as fake as anything at Madam Tussad’s, just a made up bunch of props to attract tourists. Even the soldiers standing there are actors, like Batman and Spiderman over on Hollywood Boulevard.

But Checkpoint Charlie was of course a real place (named Charlie because it was the third checkpoint in the wall, after Alpha and Bravo), a checkpoint which separated West Berlin’s communist center from the American quarter of Berlin. The wall itself was built to keep East Berliners from escaping the communist regime into the western land of the capitalists (and to keep the evil capitalist influence out of East Berlin, if you listen to the propaganda of the time). Checkpoint Charlie was one of the easiest checkpoints to escape out of (by hiding in a diplomat’s car, or simply driving right through the gate when you could), and it was also the place where most of the tourists came in and out, so it’s become very famous over the years.

We took a quick break in the tour, and I grabbed a bratwust from a street vendor, and oh man, it was so good.

From there, it was back up through the city, towards Museum Island (which, you’ll never guess, is full of museums). We saw the beautiful Gendarmenmarkt Square, where the German Dome and the French Dome buildings compete for attention, and heard about the history of them while a violin busker played Ave Maria in the sunny spring afternoon. We visited the Bebelplatz, where there’s an empty underground library to remember a bookburning that Joseph Goebbels oversaw. “Where they burn books, they ultimately burn people,” says a quote on the plaque there, attributed to Heinrich Heine in 1834, a full century before the Nazis brought their horrible scheme to fruition.

We didn’t get much more than a look at Museum Island, but I will be back there in the future. And then, after sharing with us the story of how the wall actually came down (the communists accidentally read the wrong notes at a press conference, he said, though I have to check the veracity of that one myself), he ended the tour. He did say that yes, the tour was free, but tips were sort of expected, and despite all of the silly jokes, I have to admit the tour had some solid information, and gave a good overview of the city. I wouldn’t depend on it as my only sightseeing, but I figured it was a useful way to spend my first three hours wandering the city. I gave him 15 euros.

There was a Radisson Hotel right there where the tour ended, so I ducked inside, and enjoyed the use of the lobby restrooms and wi-fi for a little bit. I’ve gotten pretty good at making use of big hotel chains in my travels to various gaming conventions, and I was happy to find that even over here in Berlin, my skills translated pretty well. If I’d wanted to, I could probably have walked over to the concierge, told him I’d forgotten my room key, and even scammed my way into a room.

I didn’t, obviously. I instead returned back out to the streets, and started walking around what used to be communist Berlin.

It’s hard to imagine what things would have been like back then. Obviously, communist Russia would be very different, and I won’t have a chance, on this trip, to see what that’s like. But still, as I said, you can tell what it looked like, at least. There were long buildings of rooms all exactly the same, plain and gray and cheap. Today, of course, little restaurants and video rental stores and boutiques dot the landscape (which, again, reminded me of Los Angeles) with a little bit of color. But that’s all just drops in the huge canvas of concrete that make up these blocs.

At the top of Prenzlauer Berg, I found a quiet little neighborhood, full of what you could tell were much older buildings, much more like Paris’ lovely streets. Near Kollwitzplatz (so named for a female artist named Käthe Kollwitz, whose statue sits in the little park there — that’s it above), there were a bunch of little shops full of great German food, and I couldn’t ignore them for long. I went into a bakery, picked up something called a Quarktasche. “Quarktasche, bitte,” I told the cute shop owner, and then asked her, “what is quark?” She laughed at being made to speak English — her English was almost worse than my German. “Yog-hurt? Something like,” she replied. “It’s ok,” I said. “I’ll just eat it.” I did — it was a very good sort of cheesecake-like pastry.

I kept walking, and suddenly, it started raining, though half the sky was still sunny. I ducked into a doorway to wait it out. It was one of those delicious spring rains, that only shows up for a few minutes, so I sat there for a little while, watching Germans ducking raindrops. It happened to be right at six o’clock, and to my left and to my right, each about a mile or so away, there were two different churches ringing their bells in the middle of April showers. The smell was … well, you know the one.

It let up a few minutes later, and I walked on wet streets through a market that had just closed — vendors were pulling back tarps they’d quickly thrown over their wares, loading them all up into vans and trucks, and laughing at chatting in German as they did so. The cafes had tablecloths out in front of them that were still wet from the short showers, but people crawled out of the woodworks fast. I passed a park full of kids, most of them splashing in shallow puddles.

My last stop of the night was a little food stand, across from a former brewery that now serves as a “Kulturbrauerei,” literally a culture brewery. I have heard about curry wurst for years, but never had a chance to try one, so when I walked by this place, I happily payed two euros for one. I was asked if I wanted fries with it (no — I was planning to eat elsewhere later on), and if I wanted skin. I didn’t know what “skin” meant, so I just shrugged, just to say that I would eat whatever. The guy didn’t like me for that one, but he grunted, so I guess he got the message.

The wurst I got did in fact have “skin” on it — it appeared to be deep fried. In fact, here’s how you make a curry wurst: Get a really great pork sausage, or a “wurst,” in German. In this case, deep fry it in a thin coating of batter. Then slice it up into pieces, drown it in ketchup (yes, ketchup), and sprinkle curry powder over it.

Gross? Maybe. Delicious? Very. It’s supposed to be everywhere in Germany, and indeed I’ve seen quite a few places selling it. I thought the curry may have come from some Indian influence (curry is big in Britain, as well, but of course that’s because India has ties to the British Empire). But no, apparently some lady in Berlin got some curry powder from the British, decided to combine it with two things she had a lot of, ketchup and wursts, and there you go. I won’t lie: I will probably have another one of these before I leave this town.

And then I headed back here to the hostel, where I’m typing this up in the bar … while a Barcelona/Madrid soccer game is going on. Every time that ball even comes close to the goal, this place has exploded — my ears have seen better days, and the game has only been going on for about 20 minutes.

In fact, I better close up the computer and grab a drink of my own. Tomorrow: The Reichstag.


Wake up. It’s sunny outside. Gray clouds hover above. Rise, shower, pack. Fold clothes into the usual piles, load them into the backpack’s various pockets. Pick up brochures, clean up room, wrap cables, close laptop, pack it all away into briefcase. Replace the bedsheets, clear the desk. Double check the room, close the door, go downstairs to check out.

Outside, it’s sunny, but cold. Walk to the train, buy a ticket to the city. There’s a little booth in the station that sells bread and pastries, and smell the baguettes, the croissants, the pain au chocolate and the eclairs one more time. The train arrives, board and sit.

Gare de l’Est. Birds fly from rafter to rafter above, huge curving ceilings hanging over small bookshops and a little food court. There’s wi-fi in the air, so buy a small panini and a soda, sit and check email, check Facebook, write something about scanning 3D models with an iPad. The lunch rush isn’t on yet, but there’s coffee, grilled sandwiches, open air circulating in from the train platforms.

On the ground walking out to the platforms, there are bumps, little rails in the sidewalk, an icon next to them of a man with a cane and an eye with a line through it. Realize they’re for blind people, close your eyes and walk along them for a little while, letting them guide you forward, out to the platforms. Get what you think is too far, open your eyes, and take in the station itself: Signs and clocks everywhere, arrives and departes, luggage and baggage, conductors, information, rolling cases grinding across the floor, pulled by businessmen and women, families speaking Russian or Spanish, gentile trainmen trying to explain routes in German and French.

Sit, wait until 13:02, 13:10, 13:15. Platform 3, on the left, backpack and briefcase, haul them down. Search the ticket, show it to a conductor, find what’s probably your seat, and wait for the train to move as passengers sit down around you, settle in with headphones and iPods and magazines and iPads.


Fields, vineyards, a blurry church, a French manor. The clouds whirl by overhead in 3D, smaller fluffs of gray moving quickly in front of mountains of white behind. Recycled air swirls around, and then the smell of food from one side of the train car, and then the coffee brought by the attendant. A woman argues with a conductor — he speaks French and German, she only Spanish. Another man intervenes, helps translate. She needs to “pagar,” you hear, and then put your headphones back in.

Listen to your iPod, tunes from home, and watch the countryside roll by. Soldiers died here, crops grew here, people live(d) here. The sky is blue, the land is green and yellow, and at a hundred miles an hour OH MY GOD THERE IS A TRAIN NEXT TO US AND now it’s gone, head into the European continent, deeper and deeper, toward the dark heart of the great wars.

There’s a stop. The sun goes down deeper in the sky, and the terrain changes from soft, rolling hills to steeper mountain full of pine trees and cedar. There are still towns but they look different — the buildings have roofs that sit steeper, look thicker. Maybe they’re designed to deal with snow. The buildings themselves look more squat, stronger. The language on signs as you pass goes from flowery and light to long, harsh, with lots of consonants and syllables. “Les” and “de” start to disappear, replaced with “-kerdammergirten” and “schausenstauer-”. Urst, ocken, ammer.

The vegetation is thicker now, more wooded. Tunnels and back to the light. Older buildings mixed with new, cheap, concrete blocks, all spin by again and again and again.

Transfer in Mannheim, but in garbled English on the PA you’re told to stay on your train. You question, panic, and then the train starts moving again, and it’s out of your hands. This train ends at Frankfurt. Another hour later, you file off into the station with the rest of the passengers. Hope there’s a train going your direction.

In the train station, there’s a little market, and it’s filled with all-new foods, things you’ve heard about but only ever seen Americanized versions. Bratwurst, schnitzel, currywurst, meat everywhere. There’s bread and cheese, too, but it’s different from the pain and croissants in the Metro station this morning — it’s thicker, tougher, more chewy. You realize that this is food for soaking up bier (not beer, bier), and sure enough, in the little marketplace, there’s weisbier of all kinds, hefeweisen and ale and biers you don’t recognize. It’s a little comfort — you’re lost in a strange station without a train to take, but with that kind of food and drink on offer, how could you be going the wrong way?

Finally, there’s a train for Berlin. Not your train, but Berlin. “Please,” to the attendant, “can you help me?” Try to explain using only place names where you’ve been and where you’re trying to go. “Paris to Mannheim, but no. Frankfurt now. Then, Berlin?”

She looks at the ticket, looks at you, back at the ticket. She rolls her eyes. Wrong, totally and completely wrong, but she’ll fix it. She can do that. “Go in,” she says, gesturing to the train, and you’re grateful. “Thank you,” you say, and then remember. “Danke.” She rolls her eyes again. So wrong.

Night. It’s dark outside, and it might be a tunnel, if not for lights moving far out in the distance, dim and far apart. Read, listen to podcasts, play a game or two. Look out the window now, and there are buildings, a city. Then dark again.

Hours pass. The conductor arrives, explain your convoluted situation not knowing whether he even understands English, and when you’re finally done, he judges your ticket just for a moment and then says, “Ok.” Punches it, moves on.

Is there an “Ok” in German?

More hours pass.

Berlin Hbf. Stands for Hauptbahnhof, means Central Station. The train piles out onto an extremely clean walkway, with multiple floors of shopping and food places above. It’s late on a Friday night, though — the station is quiet except for the recent arrivals, scurrying up the escalators to street level.

There’s the U that you’ve read marks the subway system, but it’s been a long day of sitting, and you’re anxious to get out, move, explore. You check the map — it’s about 4k, but you decide to walk it anyway.

The city is wide and darker than either London or Paris. As cars go by constantly, you realize that this is more of a motor city than either of those two. Still, wary of wandering into any dark alleys, all of your possessions on this continent strapped on your back, you carefully watch who’s around you, and it’s a younger crowd than you’ve seen. Professional men and women, younger people, girls out for a drink or a group of guys looking for a bar. Just like in London, drinking spills out into quiet conversations on the street, and even a few house parties are opened up onto the public strasse.

It’s not loud at all, though here and there music or conversation drifts out of a bar or a club. It reminds you a lot, actually, of Los Angeles — wider streets, newer buildings, a few artsy co-ops and late night food stands that must sell wurst or … no, there’s a taco place, and over there a thai place as well.

You walk through the streets. A few weird looks in your direction, a honk from a car as you accidentally walk against a light. But the weather’s nice, warmer. Enjoy.

At the hostel address, there’s a bar, full of people drinking, watching baseball on the TVs and having a good time. It’s a place called Belushi’s, kind of a weird coincidence, given your history with Chicago. You wander around for a bit, get the distinct feeling that everyone’s looking at you with your backpack on, and knows exactly why you’re here, but nobody’s fessing up as to what you need to do. Finally, you find a registration desk, and check in. Room card, breakfast at 8, here’s the wifi password, no laundry but there’s one down the street you can try.

You put your things in the room and head back to the bar. A beer, tall and cold and delicious. You take it upstairs with your laptop, and the wi-fi is excellent. You sit, in the area labeled “chillout zone”, lean back, and relax.


Today was my last day in Paris. I mostly had to spend the day doing work, since I’d spent the previous day wandering around the Louvre. But I did want to make sure to take one last trip back into town, both to walk around Paris, and because I wanted to cap the trip here with something I felt I really should get: A really quality meal at a Paris restaurant.

Honestly, I wanted to eat at a Michelin-starred restaurant. My gold standard for meals in my lifetime is my dinner at Moto in Chicago, and I was surprised back when I did that to learn that not even Moto, the best meal I’d ever eaten, rated even one Michelin star. So I really wanted to try and have at least a one-star meal while here in Paris. Given that Michelin is based in France, the company tends to be a little biased (no matter what they say) to French restaurants and cooking.

Unfortunately, I just couldn’t work it out. Not only are those restaurants extremely expensive (though I probably would have paid because I believe it’s worth it, if I hadn’t already spent way too much money on this trip in general), but you need to make reservations for them far in advance, and/or know someone at the restaurant itself, and I hadn’t had the opportunity to do either. Maybe if I’d planned it out, I would have, but as you know if you’ve been reading my blog here, I obviously didn’t really plan things out.

So I will have to come back to France, I guess, and I will have to eat at a Michelin-starred restaurant in the future. Maybe after I make my first million. At any rate, I did some poking around, read lots of restaurant review online, and eventually I found a nice, quality Paris restaurant (founded by a Michelin-starred chef, incidentally) that was supposed to have a terrific menu but wouldn’t cost me more than I could afford. The place I found was La Regalade, and I decided to go to the La Regalade on the Rue de St-Honore. That’s the second location of the restaurant, but both were founded by famous Michelin-starred chefs, and the quality is supposed to be equivalent, if not the menus themselves.

I made my reservation for 8pm, and I finally finished work and headed into the city around 3 in the afternoon. I also brought my laptop — the one thing I hadn’t yet done in Paris that I wanted to was sit and write in a cafe, so I found a place with free wifi, and sat down looking at the street, and wrote the previous entry there while eating a small salad (the one about the Louvre). The salad was great and the bread was even better — I have had nothing but incredible bread everywhere I go here in France, with the one exception being the “Quick” fast food restaurant.

After that, I still had a few hours to kill, so I just started walking. I went down to the Bastille to see what was there, but I learned that the Bastille really isn’t any more. I walked along the Seine, because I was in Paris and I could. I found a little courtyard and sat down, and just enjoyed the city (and the warmer weather — the last few days have been cold and rainy, and the sun was very welcome). I walked back down to Notre Dame, and sat for a long while just staring at that facade. When the sun came out and lit it up — I can’t describe how happy I was with the choices I’d made in my life. I walked back up across the Seine, and arrived at the restaurant at 8pm.

I was a little nervous, actually — the other reason I didn’t go to a Michelin-starred restaurant is that many of them have a dress code, and while I’ve already made a resolution to start dressing better when I get back to America, I don’t happen to have any really nice clothes here with me. I did wear a collar, but it’s a warm flannel plaid shirt, not exactly anything you’d wear a tie with (if I had brought a tie to wear). I did take off my hoodie before I entered the restaurant, smoothed my shirt down, and tried to look my best. In the end, though, I shouldn’t have worried. It’s true, I was probably the youngest person in the restaurant, but most of the other patrons were just wearing sweaters and collars — I don’t know if there was one single tie in there at all.

I sat down, and was handed a wine list and a menu. I’m sorry to say the wines on the wine list were mostly out of my price range — at least 23 euros a glass — so I opted for just water. A shame — someday, I will make enough to just tell the maitre’d to bring me something good, and not worry about how much it costs. I tried to do exactly that with the menu, since it was all in French, but the server’s English turned out to be about perfect, so she explained to me the dishes I didn’t understand, and we hashed out the restaurant’s pre fix menu. You get to choose three dishes total from three menus, and those are brought out in three courses. In French, that’s an entree (which means appetizer, actually — it literally means “entrance” — though I think American restaurants use that as the main meal), a plat, and then a dessert. I will tell you what I chose when we get there.

La Regalade famously starts you off with a separate appetizer (an amuse bouche, actually) to begin with: A homemade pate that’s made out of chicken and pork, along with some great French bread to go with it. This is accompanied by a crock of pickled gherkins (the French enjoy their gherkins, I’ve learned) and some sweet and sour onions.

The pate was great, although I wasn’t very dainty with it — I just sort of grabbed a knife and slabbed it on the bread, then chowed the whole thing down. It was excellent, even if a little messy, and for some reason, they hadn’t given me a plate to use with it. I can’t remember ever having a gherkin before, but I did have a couple, and they were fairly good — very fresh despite soaking in the brine, and very flavorful. Again, it was a little messy — without a plate, I just sort of grabbed them and chowed down.

All of this is meant to get you ready for the meal as you chat with your fellow tablemates, but of course in this case, I was alone, so I basically just dug in. I think the servers were a bit worried I’d eat the whole thing then and there, so after just a few bites, they pulled that back away from me, and brought out the first dish of the night.

Unfortunately, I missed exactly what everything in the dish was, so forgive me here — I’m going from my own description, rather than the menu. But it was basically a poached egg form in the center of a sort of foam soup, surrounded by a really tasty, salty ham (serrano, I believe), with a crispy/crunchy baguette draped across the center. I winced a little bit when I cut open the egg and runny yolk came out — it was almost too eggy for me. But the foam was great, and had lentils hiding in the soup underneath. The ham was so incredibly flavorful that I just let it sit in my mouth for a while, and the baguette was perfect at soaking up the rest of that delicious soup.

It was a great dish — probably not my favorite of the three, but as soon as I had some of that ham, I had completely forgotten that they’d pulled the pate away from me so quickly. I cleaned this up, and even grabbed a little leftover bread to sop up some of the soup that my fork hadn’t reached. Probably not kosher, but it was great.

I had worried that La Regalade would be a tourist trap to a certain extent, and indeed, the couple sitting to my left was from Germany, and the couple to my right was from China. But the atmosphere of the place was great, and even though it is situated near the Louvre, it was too small to pull in too many tourists. I showed up at 8, and there were maybe 3 tables taken when I sat down, but within twenty minutes or so, the place had filled up, and I saw the servers turning people without reservations away. Even with a full house, it wasn’t loud or messy. It was really an excellent environment to just sit and chat. Or, as I did, just take in how great the food was.

I thought long and hard about choosing the restaurant’s pork belly for my second dish — it’s supposed to be really great. But in the end, I decided to go with something I’d never eat before, and been told to try while in Paris: Foie gras. Specifically, in this case, foie gras stuffed into a chicken breast, covered with a cream sauce, asparagus, and a few tantalizing gnocchis.

This dish was just marvelous. Again, the sauce was delectable, and I had to time out exactly when to go for the asparagus spears, chopped asparagus, and gnocchi in order to pick up as much sauce as possible with each bite. The chicken was great, and I don’t have a lot of comparison for the foie gras, but I thought it was really, really good. It just fell apart when I cut it, and I had to grab it with the chicken after cutting, but it was very tasty. I tried some by itself, and I don’t know if I’ve quite acquired the taste of just eating it directly. But combining it with the rest of the dish was heavenly.

The one problem here was that I hit a bit of gristle in the chicken at the very end of it — a piece of fat or something that I didn’t really enjoy. But otherwise, the whole thing was great throughout, and the gnocchi were the best I’ve ever had, and I’ve had quite a few gnocchi. They just dissolved when you ate them, and when combined with that sauce and the chicken with the foie gras … oh man.

For desert, I chose the restaurant’s specialty, the Grand Marnier Souffle.

When I ate at Moto, one of the things I noticed and most appreciated about the meal was just how careful it was. At that restaurant, we had three people at the table, and it was amazing how the waiters not only perfectly coordinated what utensils we needed and when, but how they brought the dishes and placed them in front of us at exactly the right time, down to even the temperature of the food.

And while I wouldn’t say La Regulade was quite that impressive, here’s a story that tells you that someone back in that kitchen was thinking about me. When this souffle was brought out, I just marveled at it for a little bit — it’s certainly a strikingly good looking desert. And within 10 seconds or so (no kidding) of it being placed in front of me, it started to deflate just a little bit.

Souffles, of course, are famously only lightly cooked, and they also famously deflate quickly. That means that in getting this dish out to me, the chef and the servers only had a short window of time to place it in front of me, and it was a window that they landed so directly that just ten seconds after it was placed down, the souffle started deflating. Yes, maybe it should have come out sooner, and it would have had more time in front of me before it died (and it certainly died a lot more after I dug in). But just like our servers at Moto, that shows just what quality means in these restaurants — a far cry from the plates that sit in the window for twenty minutes before being served at Denny’s.

Anyway, the souffle was of course amazing. It was light, and fluffy, and tasted just faintly of citrus and cognac. It was almost too hot near the bottom, but I think that’s just because I dove through it so quickly — it was very good. At this point, I was nearly full, given the sizable portions and the relatively heavy food. But even so, I cleaned that little cup out yet again.

And the meal ended with a little treat, poppy seed madelines, nice and crusty on the outside and moist on the inside. They were cold unfortunately, but they were still very good, and well worth what I paid for them.

The meal as a whole was a great value, something that I knew before I went. With my bottle of mineral water (no free water or refills in Europe, I’ve discovered), the whole ticket was under 40 euros, and that was even after I added in a few extra for a tip. The food wasn’t legendary, but it was very excellent, and for that price, I doubt you could eat any better, even in Paris.

It was a great meal to finish my stay here, and afterwards, given that it was still warm and not raining, I couldn’t help myself — I kept walking the streets for another hour or so. I walked over by the Louvre one last time, and then up the Rue de Opera and around the great Paris Opera building, looking in the windows of cafes and restaurants, at patrons and bartenders relaxing on a Thursday night. Paris is a gorgeous, wonderful place. I really loved being here — I loved the food, the art, and those long, amazing boulevards, full of great architecture and great views and great history. I’ll have to be back soon.

Tomorrow, I wake up, check out, and then board the train to Berlin.

So, the Louvre.

I almost didn’t visit the Louvre while in Paris this week. As I’ve said a few times before, I’ve tried to stay away from the tourist spots. Some of them I went to purely just because I felt I had to — the Eiffel Tower (which I didn’t even go up in), 221B Baker Street, Big Ben, and a few others. But I haven’t bothered with the real tourist traps (I didn’t see Buckingham Palace in London, or Moulin Rouge in Paris), and have no interest in doing so. The whole point of taking this trip was to travel a little bit outside my comfort zone, and I figured the Louvre, filled with things I’ve seen pictures of already, and tourists I dodge in LA every day, might just be skippable.

My friends told me I was crazy, that I would have to go. When I met up with Patrick Beja, my local Parisian, he told me the Louvre was required viewing, and would take a least a day. “At least,” he repeated with meaning, giving me a strong look that I took as, “you had better go. Or else.”

So last week I decided that Wednesday, I would go to the Louvre. This place did have a fair amount of meaning for me already, actually. Eichhorn, the teacher whose Europe trip I did not go on in high school (thus paving the way for this one by myself), was a huge fan of the Greeks. She would talk for class after class about how much the Greeks had done for Western culture, how brilliant the Parthenon was, and how the Louvre itself contained priceless pieces, the keys to any number of cultures at all different periods through history. “And you’re going to see it all!” she promised our class. I didn’t. Back then, that is. So I decided, somewhat reluctantly, that I should probably go now.

Originally, I did plan to get up early and go the whole day. But on Wednesday, apparently, the Louvre is open until 9:45 in the evening, and I figured that gave me plenty of time to do it a little more leisurely. Around 10, I woke up and showered, go on the train, and headed down to the museum. I’ve been in the entryway a few times already, so I knew right where the line was. A few people recommended that I duck in a back entrance, but I figured no, if I was going to do this museum, I would do it right, so I wanted in line for about 40 minutes and then entered through the famous glass pyramid.

I thought that I remembered hearing back when I was a kid that the pyramid was being built, and I was right — the pyramid itself opened in the late ’80s, as part of the last major renovation to the museum. IM Pei designed it, and I like it. The pyramid form does fit well in the middle of those classic French buildings, and the ticket lobby below has plenty of room for all the crazy tourists scrabbling to get inside. Wednesdays are supposed to be some of the busiest days at the museum (partly because it’s open late, and partly because it’s closed on Tuesdays, so tourists pile up then), and there were some crowds, but nothing I couldn’t handle. I paid my euros, and got my ticket.

The audio guides at the Louvre are actually game consoles. The museum recently made a deal to use Nintendo 3DS consoles as their audio guides, and so if you want to know more about how that worked, you can head on over to Joystiq and read the post I wrote about it. But that wasn’t the only guide I had ready for me — I also had loaded up a podcast tour from iTunes to take me around the museum, and I scoured the pamphlet they hand out at the front, trying to chart out just the right route.

Eventually, I decided to start with the 3DS guide. It had something called a “Masterpiece Tour” on it, so I hit the button for that and let the audio lead me around the museum for a bit. The Medieval Louvre is the first stop there — the Louvre itself is actually an old French palace (sort of a partner right next to the Tuleries, which you might remember I walked around the other day), and before that was a medieval castle of sorts, used to defend the center of Paris from attack. During those ’80s renovations, the Louvre recreated the castle walls in its basement, and I wandered through those first as I tried to orient myself to the museum.

From there, I was led up through the Greek antiquities wing, and this is where the voice of Eichhorn reappeared in my head. At the end of a long hall of various busts and statues, I saw the Venus de Milo. And that’s when things really started to pick up.

I’ve said before that I’m not a huge fan of museums — personally, I’d rather explore art out in the world, where it speaks for itself with a voice, in my opinion, much stronger than any museum curator could give it. But the Louvre, I have learned, is the exception that proves the rule. The Louvre, as an organization, and a building, and a collection, speaks with quite a voice of its own. And the pieces in it are important not just because they’re the foundation building blocks of human culture, but because they’re in the Louvre itself. The Venus de Milo itself definitely wasn’t the most important statue the Greeks ever made — it wasn’t even discovered by modern culture until 1820, I learned. The Mona Lisa, similarly, got most of its fame from being stolen in 1911 by an Italian who thought it belonged in Italy. But because these pieces are in those classic galleries, and because they were themselves studied by modern culture’s most fascinating artists, and because they are so influential on all of Western art, that’s what really makes them so incredibly fascinating.

I mean yes, the Venus is gorgeous — the proportions are perfect, the sculpture itself is exquisite, and it’s something you could look at and examine for hours. But honestly, that’s true about any number of other pieces, in the Louvre or anywhere else. It surprises even me to express this sentiment, but beauty, I think, is cheap. I’m in a Paris cafe writing this right now (yet another dream I can tick off thanks to this trip), and there is beauty all around me — this espresso I’m drinking is a beautiful brown color, the teacup it’s in is perfectly round and a wonderful ceramic. The street outside is full of beauty — beautiful women passing by, a man’s perfectly tailored coat, that 2012 car that just rolled down the tree lined street, with the sun falling down through the leaves and painting changing patterns on the sidewalk. Even that elderly couple walking together over by the chocolatier — you could probably sit and look at their love and find it full of truth and beauty (along with some ugliness, and some lies, but c’est la vie, as the French say).

The Louvre is certainly full of beauty. But it’s also full of meaning, and importance. The statue of Psyche and Cupid, Diana of Versaille, the gigantic Wedding at Cana painting, the Mona Lisa, Michaelangelo’s Slaves, the Winged Victory at Samothrace, the Raft of the Medusa, reliefs from the Parthenon, and countless works by unknown artists: an ancient Egyptian talisman with three gods covered in gold, a statue of the crazy Ahtonamon, countless tomb decorations and burial art, and commissioned Italian and French and Nordic paintings. I saw all of these, and all of them were just amazing. I saw busts of Roman emperors (from Rome itself!), I saw the French crown jewels in the mind-blowing Apollo Gallery itself, I saw the Code of Hammurabi — the actual piece of stone that’s the foundation of most legal systems as we know them. I walked through the long hallways of the museum for hours looking at all of the art, and listening to all of the various audio commentaries I’d put together.

I got tired at around 4pm — I sat down in Near East Antiquities for a moment, just across the room from the recreated temple from Iraq, where there are two giant impossibly heavy stone statues of half bull men with wings (who actually have five legs — from the front, they have two, but from the sides they’re meant to be walking, so you can see all four there too). I was exhausted, overwhelmed with all of the art I’d seen. I leaned back and closed my eyes, and woke up again a few minutes later. I’d been sleeping in place.

After recollecting myself, I stood back up and kept moving, explored some more Egyptian art, and then went upstairs to see more paintings: the Oak Trees at Apremont (which is literally a potrait of a tree), Durer’s Self Portrait with a Thistle, Van Eyck’s The Virgin and Child with Chancellor Rolin, the two paintings that make up the Father’s Curse (sequential art!, I thought. Comic books!), countless Virgin Marys and child, panel after panel of apostles and saints and people with their hands and arms outstretched in strange ways, holding various attributes left and right. A mirror means sorrow and reflection, a bundle of reeds means balance, a bow and arrow means something else, and a bird in the hand is worth … well, I forget, but it all means something.

There was, to say the obvious, just too much. You could spend a lifetime in there and still not see and know everything there was in that gigantic building. I’m not even an artist, can’t draw to save my life, and even I wanted to grab a pad of paper and a pencil and try to draw those figures, learn from the masters lining the walls, see just how Raphael made the hand look like that, or how that sculptor made those sinewy muscles out of marble. I looked closely at the panels from the Parthenon, and on one of the man’s arms, there were very clear, perfectly portrayed veins. Veins! On a panel that was created, was carved out of marble (or whatever it is, I don’t remember) 2500 years ago.

2500 years ago, someone was making that, and he decided to portray a hand, and he decided that the best way to do that was to carve some veins on it, make it look realistic. That panel done, it was placed on the Parthenon, where it stood for, oh, a thousand years. A thousand years! Empires rose and fell. The Parthenon was used as a temple, a mosque, a marketplace, with that hand and those veins sitting above it the whole time. Through the rains, the sun, the storms, more sun, more rains.

Just a few years ago (well, a couple of hundred, but that’s almost nothing on this scale), someone took that relief from the Parthenon itself, brought it to the British Museum. From there it ended up in the Louvre, and it was hung up on the wall. And here, just now, comes Mike Schramm, the guy from the Internet, to come along and see the carving of the man, see his arm, see the veins. And Mike Schramm then becomes a part of this piece’s story — he looks at the veins, thinks really hard for a while about what it was like for that man 2500 years ago, to decide that the best way to portray this hand was to add some veins just here.

The Louvre is full of things like that, crazy connections that criss-cross all over human history, in so many weird and strange ways it’s hard, if not impossible, to keep track of them all. I certainly couldn’t, try as I might.

And just walking the halls of the museum inserts you, in even just a tiny way, into all of those stories, all of those little threads moving all of the way across time, weaving and intersecting through the historic halls of the Louvre. Here you’re standing where Napoleon was married, and over there is the actual canvas that da Vinci spent hours trying to get right in his old age, or the altarpiece that hung in an old chapel for centuries, and was almost blown apart by the war. The Louvre is dripping with history, and walking through there, you can’t help but soak it all up, come away dumbfounded by just how much there is of it, and how art and money and religion and everything else all works together to create culture, to create life and humanity.

Afterwards, I headed back to the hotel — I still had some writing to do, and it was starting to rain. I couldn’t deal with picking good food any more, so I just sat down at a chain called Hippopotamus, and for the first time in my trip, I just looked at the waitress and didn’t even try: “English, please,” I almost begged, and just ordered a burger with bacon on it, fries, and a beer. I sat there and ate quietly when it came. I looked out the window onto the street as I ate, watching Parisians try to dodge raindrops, my head spinning with the vast width and depth of human accomplishment.

After a day of sitting at home and working (mostly) yesterday, I was anxious to get back out there again this morning, so I woke up early and jumped right on the train to visit the Basilique de Sacre Coeur. I used to live in Creve Coeur, Missouri (a suburb of St. Louis), so even I know that I was headed to the church of the sacred heart. This is an old Paris church up on the hill of Montmarte, a village that was taken over by Paris expanding up to the north.

It was of course a great-looking church — once inside, I sat and listened to the service, which was actually going on as I entered. It turns out that wasn’t too surprising, however: The church has actually been involved in “perpetual adoration,” 24 hours a day, for over 125 years, which I presume means there has been a service going on since at least 1885. That in itself was pretty impressive. I sat for a little while, and watched the ceremony, though when everyone stood up, I felt a little self conscious, and left the pew to look around.

The church was very impressive, but I feel a little jaded — I’ve seen Notre Dame, I’ve seen Westminster Abbey, and as nice as this one was, it just didn’t compare, really. I’d been told by a few friends that I should pay to go up in the tower, however, so I poked around a little bit to see where that might be. After a little looking around, I finally found the entrance to the tower, as well as the entrance to the crypt, and it turns out it cost 8 euros to visit both.

At this point, I almost walked away. It’s been quite cold here in France the past few days (well, like 48 degrees, but as someone acclimated to the Los Angeles weather and only wearing a hoodie, that’s cold enough for me). And today, it was also very rainy outside, so I wasn’t feeling that great as it was. Also, I’ve spent a lot of money already, especially here in France, where I’ve eaten a significant amount of food, and paid quite a bit of money to get around on the Metro (it’s a long story — getting a weeklong pass didn’t mesh with my schedule, so I’ve been buying a few tickets every day to get in and out of the city). So when I was confronted with the 8 euro price, I almost passed it up. I’ve seen these churches, I thought. Do I need to see another one?

As I was walking away, however, I considered just how far I’d come to see this place, and just what kinds of things I’d already sacrificed to get here. Did I really want to leave this city, this country, this continent, knowing I’d been here and passed down something that might be a big deal for just 8 euros? I’d been looking at a hat earlier in the day, and it was only 7.50, and I hadn’t bought that. Wouldn’t 8 euros be worth an experience I might carry around with me forever?

On that, I turned around, and grabbed a ticket to both go up to the tower and see the crypt below.

The tower was first, and though I’d heard it was fun, I wasn’t looking forward to it. My camera started dying on the way up, so I didn’t get a picture of the sign that said it would be 300 stairs to the top — because of GDC, and my back injury, and this vacation, I haven’t worked out in a while, so I’m not quite as spry as I usually am these days at full health. About 150 or 200 stairs in, I was already feeling pretty bad. And as I made my way up the circular staircase round after round after round, I could already hear the wind outside the tower whistling by.

I reached the first tower’s landing, and sure enough, the weather outside was miserable — windy at the top of the hill, and cold, and the rain was falling in big, freezing chunks. I stepped out onto the ledge to make it up the small staircase to the top, and the wind whipped me around. I was doing this for experience’s sake, I thought, so I stepped back inside, secured my belongings deep inside my pockets, locked down my umbrella, and then grabbed the handrail and kept climbing.

Once I got back inside, there were more sets of stairs, so I started up those. I would have a picture for you, but just as I reached the final set of stairs, the camera I brought with me started beeping. The battery had finally died. I wouldn’t be able to charge it until I got back to the hotel room, which mean all of my work getting up to the top of the tower had gone for naught. I wouldn’t be able to take pictures at the top, and wouldn’t be able to share with you the views of Paris down below.

I wouldn’t, that is, if I didn’t have my iPhone with me.

At this point, I’ll remind you that I’m posting all of my photos over on my Facebook photos page, so you’ll (eventually — I haven’t quite put these up yet) be able to see everything I took over there.

All of the photos I took from the top were taken pretty precariously — the wind was extremely biting and cold, and I gripped my iPhone hard with both hands. I had visions of it being swept of my grasp, plummeting down to the streets below. But it didn’t. And though I was cold, and pretty wet, and beat up by the climb, I will admit it was worth going up all those stairs to see the city from above.

The crypt wasn’t bad, either — it wasn’t quite as creepy as the catacombs, obviously, though there were some tombs down there. Most of it was just little chapels honoring this or that saint. There was one big area in the middle that served as a sanctuary of sorts, where I believe they hold concerts from time to time. But the most interesting part about that is that the sanctuary was full of the tombs of priests and members of the church who’d donated largely to its funds, so the size of their memorial was roughly equivalent to what they’d given. At the back of the sanctuary were two large statues of two men looking rather smug.

The other one was even holding a copy of the basilica up to the altar. Elsewhere in the crypt, there was a collection, behind locked glass, of all of the various artifacts and gifts that had been donated by Paris artists and heroes over the years. There were all kinds of things in there — old swords, big paintings, medals of war, looted vases, and all kinds of other old items that apparently Catholics had found somewhere over the last couple of hundred years, and figured it was important enough to belong to God. I wish I knew the stories of where all of those had come from, but unfortunately, they were just on display. Nothing around them bothered to elaborate at all.

After the basilica, I jumped back on the train again, and traveled down to the Pere Lachaise Cemetery. This is the largest and most famous cemetery in Paris. There are six million human bodies buried in the Catacombs, and only three million (including ashes) in Pere Lachaise, but this is a real, above ground French cemetery, complete with graves, memorials, and tombstones both big and small. Everyone who was anyone in Paris is basically buried in Pere Lachaise, so there are plenty of celebrities to find in among the tombstones.

The cemetery itself is called “the city of the dead,” and that name fits rather well — it’s surrounded by a high, vine-topped wall from the outside, but once inside, it’s surprisingly immense. It has its own network of named avenues and rues, criss crossing over the hill that it sits on, and the number and variety of all of the graves makes the whole place look like a disjointed flea market. Except of course that there’s nothing for sale, and everyone in there is dead.

(See if you can spot the black cat in there — I caught him wandering among the gravestones on his own.)

I had a walking tour I found online for this one, so even though it was still raining and cold (and windy — my stupid little 3 pound umbrella from London wasn’t holding up very well), I wandered through the gravesites looking for the last memorials of famous people. Oscar Wilde’s grave wasn’t hard to find — it’s a big yellow block surrounded by plastic that lots of people have come by and written kisses and thank you notes to him on. Edith Piaf’s grave was tiny, but still marked with a couple of flowers and a picture. Jim Morrison’s grave is probably one of the most famous in the cemetery, and it was marked with plenty of graffiti and gum stuck to a nearby tree.

I liked the story I heard about Morrison and why he’s buried here, too: He of course was the lead singer of The Doors in America, but he often escaped to Paris to write, be anonymous, and of course do lots of drugs. When his drugs finally caught up with him, his friends all tried to get him buried in Pere Lachaise, but the director of the cemetery wanted nothing to do with an American rock and roll star, despite the fact that he’d died in Paris. That was until they told the director he was a writer as well. “A writer?” the director replied, and found a spot to bury him.

I also read online that Morrison’s parents have now paid for the cemetery to hold him indefinitely, so despite the graffiti and his narrow ties to the city, he’s likely there to stay.

As I walked among the tombstones and pondered what made people travel around the world to see some and step right over others, I wondered where I might like to be buried. I mean, obviously goal number one is to not die, but we all will eventually — where will I want to go when it finally happens? Realistically, my family has a few plots already — one is in Farmington, MO, where my father’s family is mostly buried, and my mom’s family rests in a small town in Ohio, I believe (she’s been reading these posts, so I’m sure I’ll get an email if I’m wrong). So if I didn’t decide, I’d probably end up one of those, I thought.

But ideally, who needs a grave?, I thought. The whole point of a grave isn’t really to hold your remains — it’s to create one spot, somewhere on earth, where hopefully you’ll always be thought about and remembered. Even if everyone else in their daily lives forgets about you and what you’ve done, the idea, as I see it, is that somewhere, there will be a rock with your name on it. And someone will wander along, see it, and know that you existed, that you were here, and that you left this rock.

Well forget that, I thought. Who needs a rock? I’d rather people remember me for who I am, for what I did while here. I’d rather live on in people’s memories, let them remember what a nice guy I was, or what I did in life, or just what they’d heard about me, good or bad. I don’t need a rock in a cemetery, even if it is Pere Lachaise. I’d rather people think about me, and say, “Mike Schramm? Yeah, I remember him.” Adding “yeah, he was kind of a jerk” afterwards is completely optional.

If that doesn’t work, just have my body flung out into space past Earth’s gravitational field. That would be fine.

I saw Gertrude Stein’s grave, and Moliere’s grave (he was one of the first to be buried in the cemetery, actually), and the real first inhabitants, two people worth reading about named Heloise and Abelard. Chopin’s grave is a subtle affair trapped on a slight curve on one of the cemetery’s trails. Rossini’s grave is there, but it’s actually empty — his body was sent back to Florence in 1887.

And the most intriguing thing I saw was something called the Aux Morts de la Commune. It is a grave, of sorts, but it’s also a real piece of Paris’ history that I didn’t know anything about.

In 1871, France was defeated in the Franco-Prussian War, and the German Empire under the Prussians actually claimed both France and Paris. Parisians weren’t happy with this, however, and as I’ve learned while here, when they’re not happy with their government, they fight back. So a city government was formed called the Paris Commune, and through the month of May 1871, fighting wracked the city, as local Parisians tried their best to fight back against the national government. They fought back on as many fronts as they could, but it was a losing battle. That last week of May is called La Semaine Sanglante, or “The Bloody Week.”

Finally, a group of those helping the commune (who were called Communards, a word that sounds funny to my American ears but isn’t at all), were caught at their last stand right inside the wall of Pere Lachaise, right on the very ground I stood today. There’s a wall in the cemetery that’s been marked out as a memorial to the commune and all of the people who died in that fighting — it’s marked with a simple “Aux Morts de la Commune” and the date of the Bloody Week.

Right on that spot, where I stood alone in Pere Lachaise early today, 147 holdouts from the Paris Commune were lined up against that wall, and shot dead by the Prussians. They were placed right there, in a mass grave.

Today, there are flowers planted along the wall, and Parisians come by every May to remember the dead. I stood there for a while, thinking about where I was and why, and then walked back up the hill, pausing once to look back at the wall, and out over the city down the hill behind it.

The last thing I did tonight, after working on my job, was to cook dinner in my little studio apartment/hotel room here. I haven’t cooked anything since I started traveling, but since I need to save money and since I finally found a supermarket down the street, I decided to do a little cooking. It wasn’t much, just some pasta and tomato sauce, but I thought it worked pretty well.

It didn’t hurt, of course, that I had another long baguette from the supermarket as well. The food is so good here, you guys! I’m eating way too much. And that’s not likely to stop — my last night here in Paris is on Thursday, and I decided to go ahead and book a meal at a real, no fooling Paris bistro. I wanted to book something at a Michelin-starred place, but those apparently need to be booked weeks in advance (not to mention they cost upwards of a couple hundred euros, worth it as that might be). In the end, I decided to go for La Regulade — the reviews say it’s quality enough to live up to the Paris reputation, but it’s not going to completely break my poor, beaten down bank. I’m definitely looking forward to it, and you can expect a report.

That’s Thursday, however. Tomorrow: The Louvre.

For the first two weeks of this trip, I have been fortunate enough that the bosses on my day job at AOL have kindly let me, a contractor there, take a few weeks off of work. As a contractor, I didn’t get paid for that time, but I’ve been able to sort of take a break, and focus on touring around and seeing these cities rather than also working all day long. But that time is over — I need money just as much as everyone else, and so for the next two weeks, I’ll essentially be working from the road, putting up blog posts and working with our remote staffs from wherever I happen to be.

To get back into the swing of things, I took this day off from traveling, so for most of the day, I stayed inside my hotel room here in the Paris suburb of Bry Sur Marne, writing up blog posts and catching up on the news. It’s a weird feeling, going back to work while so far away. In some ways, I sunk right back down into the old routine like a comfy sofa, checking my regular news feeds, and catching up with my co-workers. But on the other hand, it was a little sad to realize just how far away from home I am. Working like this makes me think of home, and going out and driving around, visiting friends and chatting (in English) in bars, and actually knowing the streets around me and knowing what’s around the next corner. Oh, and the Internet — I don’t know if it’s just my hotel or the continent in general, but the Internet in Europe seems universally slow. I miss my bandwidth back home, too.

Not wanting to waste the day entirely, I decided to see if there was anything out here in the surburb that I could see, something I could walk to in the evening to check out. And sure enough, Google Maps showed me something called the Centre commercial les Arcades that was about a 30 minute walk away, so in the evening I set out to see what that was. Turns out that “Centre Commercial” means (duh) “Commercial Center” in French, which actually means “mall.” I’m from Los Angeles, so I know a mall when I see one.

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But it turns out that even in the most banal of settings over here, there’s enough difference from what we have in America that it’s still pretty fascinating to me. Ever since I got here, it’s been slightly colder than I would have liked, so I’ve been on the hunt for some cheap long sleeve shirts to beef up my mostly t-shirt mobile wardrobe. I wandered the hallways of the mall, stopping in various retail stores and trying on a few shirts, but I didn’t really find anything that was in my price range, or (and this was the bigger issue), in my size. I can confirm that French sizes are generally smaller than American sizes — I’ve lately been wearing XL clothes, and in America, that usually works just fine. In France, though, it wasn’t always the case.

Of course, that could be because I’ve been eating a lot of food since I got here — I can’t help it, their bread is just so terrific. And I thought it was because I kept picking up clothes that said “taille” on them. “Oh, these are all ‘tall’,” I thought. “Maybe they’re meant for more narrow people.” The jeans said “taille”, the shirts said “taille,” all of the clothes I saw said “taille” on them. The French must be really tall, I figured. Then I happened to stop in another store, and picked up a package of little cones that looked interesting — it turned out they were cones meant to be used to water plants, little sponge things that you could put on top of a bottle and let water seep out into a flower pot. And on the back of that package, it said the cones came in three “tailles.” “Taille” in French, I realized at that point, means “size.”

Other than the fact that everything was in French, the mall itself was pretty normal — there were not one but two video game stores in there, and an FNAC (the French version of Best Buy, I’ve learned), as well as a few other big department stores. It was refreshing, really — most of the places I’ve been have been very tourist-y, so to wander around an actual French environment was kind of satisfying. And there were quite a few times where people walked up to me and just spoke French, as if I fit in.

Most of the times, I faked it, but usually I’d accidentally say “Oh” (I guess French people don’t say “oh” when they’re surprised) or say some English, and then the French person would kind of give a little smile, and either speak to me in pretty solid English or drop into a sort of pointing/hand language communication. To be honest, it hasn’t ever been that awkward, and while I did have a few eyerolls in the middle of Paris when I revealed that I was a dumb American who didn’t speak French, most people in the country have been very nice. I think the French are just as aware of the stereotype going around that they’re annoyed by Americans, and they’re kind of grateful to have the opportunity to help squash it.

On the other hand, I have been asked directions a few times by Americans as well — at least a couple of people have come up to me, and asked in very stilted French where the bus stop or where the train station is. They are nicely surprised when I turn, point, and say in my midwestern accent, “The train station is over there.” I don’t know if they think I’m French or if they realize that I’m American, but I relish their dumbfounded looks as well.

Finally, I found a store in the mall called Carrefour, and this was the store I’ve been looking for since I got here — it’s the equivalent of Target or Wal-Mart in the United States. Almost anything you need at super cheap prices. Usually, I avoid these places, because I would rather support local shops (and in America, I know where the best prices are anyway). But in France, it just seems easier to follow the big blue signs and pay the cheapest price I can find. I did indeed pick up a sweater (though I didn’t find a good hat to wear — obviously I’ve got a few at home, but I didn’t bring any on the trip at all), and hauled it up to the front right before the store closed.

Checking out in France is very different as well, and maybe this is where Americans get their idea that the French don’t like them. In America, checking out of a retail store has a weird formal pattern — there’s a lot of courtesy involved, even though it’s usually just forced or faked (“Did you find everything today? Great, have a wonderful afternoon!” and so on). In France, though, I have found that there is no such courtesy. In the grocery stores, you need to bag your own food as you leave, and all I’ve ever heard from the clerks is the price I need to pay. Same deal in this Carrefour — the woman (who honestly looked like she hadn’t had that great a day anyway) sat behind the counter, scanned my sweater, and asked for my money. I gave it to her, got back no change (the sweater cost 10 euros, and while in America we’d have to pay sales tax on top of that, in Europe the price listed already includes all that, so the price is what you pay), and she passed me back the sweater. That’s it. No bag, no price tags off, no folding. She didn’t even remove the hangar the sweater came on. I walked out of the store with the sweater looking exactly as it did coming off the shelf.

Now, I’m sure some of this has been the places I’ve shopped at — if I went to a nicer retail store (and if I knew the language better), I’m sure the clerks would be a little more helpful. But the sense I’ve gotten here is that the clerks aren’t there to deal with you — they’re just there to run the store. That’s a slightly different mindset from America, I think, having worked in retail there for a few years. I don’t know if it helps or not, but I do know that the next time I buy something in America, I will be so happy for that courtesy, and I’ll probably spend a few minutes talking to the clerk for the heck of it, just because we both share a language I already know so well.

The last thing I saw on my little excursion in this Paris suburb (I didn’t bring my camera along, so no pictures, I’m sorry to say) I am hesitant to talk about, because I’m pretty sure I’m making assumptions about it that are wrong. But I will tell you what I saw anyway: As I left the mall, there was a small park across the street, and looking into the park, I saw what looked to me like a makeshift village — a few different “houses” put together with cardboard, blue plastic tarps, and other makeshift materials. There must have been at least four or five buildings in there, and I even saw a few kids running around, so it was a fairly significant setup. There was also a fire in the middle that I could see smoke coming off of, but obviously I didn’t walk right in or get too close.

I don’t know — is this a thing that happens in France? “Gypsies” is a racist term, at this point, I believe, and I don’t mean to offend anyone by saying it, but is that what I saw? I don’t know. It seemed strange to me that they could just live there, in the middle of a park sandwiched between a mall parking garage (the mall wasn’t the highest end mall — it did have a Target in it — but it wasn’t really terrible) and what looked like an office complex and a nice apartment building, without someone stepping in to see what was up. But from what I could see wandering around the outside without being too invasive, it was a pretty solid setup.

It was very interesting, and I wish I knew more about it. I walked home, surprised that even going to the mall, something I’ve done so much in my life, can be both the same and so different over here.

Sunday has become a good day for comforts on this trip — last Sunday, I decided to take it a little bit easier and go out later in the day than I usually have, and this Sunday (exactly two weeks into my month long trip, so that was interesting), I also decided to sleep in a little bit. Then I took on a task that I don’t really like doing no matter what country I’m in: The laundry.

My clothing gamble has pretty much worked out — as I described way back when I started the trip, I really only brought about five days’ worth of clothes with me, and my goal was to just wash those as needed. The mix I brought was pretty good (mostly t-shirts and jeans, though I did bring a few collared shirts along so I could dress up if needed). Honestly, though, despite the fact that I’m a traveler on a budget in a strange land, I have felt a little underdressed. I’ve been wearing my hoodie around almost every day, and it’s been a bit cold here. Not to mention that most of the men I’ve seen around Europe have been pretty remarkably dressed — full suit and tie, and in some cases, even a formal three piece suit, along with a bowler. It’s inspired me, when I get back home, to dress even nicer, maybe get some more ties and well-fitting suits and wear those.

In short, if I had it to do all over again, I would probably give up on the whole backpack idea (though the Tom Bihn bag I’ve been using has been great), and just go with a rolling suitcase, as well as a second bag for my laptop and other tech gear. That’s my usual setup for trips to conventions and things, and I didn’t go with that originally just because I figured I’d be more nomadic. But maybe it’s because I’m just too old, or because I found it hostel life just too stressful — I’ve only really made about three moves so far, and I’m only going to make a few more (once to Berlin, and then once to Prague, and then home), so the rolling suitcase would probably have worked just fine.

Oh yes, about Prague. So my original plan was to go to Berlin next and then Amsterdam for a few days. But there’s a holiday coming up in Amsterdam called Queen’s Day that takes place on April 29th and 30th, in which 750,000 people all pile into the city, dress up in orange, and get really, really drunk. When I first heard about this holiday, I figured that it sounded awesome — I would be lucky to see it. But as I’ve thought more about it, and actually looked at some prices for booking travel there, I have decided that it would probably be a nightmare for me. Most of those people come in on train (as I would be coming in), and I probably wouldn’t get any sleep or rest at all (keep in mind this is where I’ll be after a full month of traveling). My original plan was just to see Amsterdam and lazily wander its streets for a bit, but with the city full of revelers, and me trying to get back to London all while this is going on, since my plane leaves on exactly May 1, my thought now is that going to Amsterdam would be way more trouble than it’s worth. That’s too bad, but I think it’s the right decision to stay away. I’ll have to come back sometime later in life.

So the question then came up of what to do for my last few days of the trip, and I eventually landed on the idea of going to visit Prague. I’ve heard great things about the city (though I’m a little worried, to be honest, about how tourist friendly it may or may not be). But I think what I will do after Berlin is ride a train down to Prague, explore the city for a few days, and then fly back up to London (flights are, as I’ve seen so far, pretty cheap). I’ll land in London, probably stay a night there (or just spend a few hours in the airport), and then jump on the plane back to Los Angeles, finishing my trip. So we’ll see — I haven’t booked that travel yet, but I think that’s what I’ll do. The other options are to go somewhere else, like Brussels or Munich, but I think Prague will be easiest and most interesting. I could also stay a few more days in Berlin, but that’s boring, right?

The other interesting thing about laundry in France is that it’s actually much easier than America. I’m not sure if this is because I’m staying in a hotel or because this is how it’s done over here, but the laundry detergent actually comes with the fee for the washer here. You just put your clothes in, pay your money, hit go, and the washer automatically adds soap for you. Very snazzy, and made things a little easier for me.

With a fully clean set of laundry on a Sunday afternoon, I decided it would be lame to waste all day in my hotel room, so I headed back in to Paris to see something that wasn’t originally on my trip plan: The Champs Elysees. Patrick Beja had talked to me about it the other day, and I decided I did want to see the Arc de Triomphe, so I headed over to check it all out. I got off at the station I’ve been using to enter the city, called Chatelet Les Halles, and decided to walk past the Louvre and the Tuleries again to start the Place de Concorde, which is the beginning of the Champs Elysees road, one of the most famous streets in the world.

Right at the Place de Concord (which is really just a big plaza with a monument in the middle of it), I was stopped by a few cops, and a large gathering of people all built up around a temporary stage. There was a politically rally going on, it turns out — the French elections are being held at the end of the month here, and I’ve seen elections posters all over the city this past week. The incumbent, Sarkozy, was either about to have a rally or had just had one, and there were people with his posters all over the streets, and big French flags to wave around. I didn’t stay long to see what was happening, because a) I am obviously not voting in the elections, and b) I didn’t want to accidentally stand in the wrong place, and accidentally get picked up by the gendarmes. I swung wide, but got a few good pictures of the proceedings, and continued on to the boulevard.

I had downloaded a walking tour on my iPhone for this area, but honestly, there wasn’t much to see. The Presidential Palace is right off the road, and I did see the gates for that, and there are a few other old and famous buildings in the gardens off the road, including an old theater, one of the world’s oldest puppet shows, and a few famous statues (including one of a strutting Charles de Gaulle). But the real draw of the Champs Elysees for most people is the second half — there’s a whole row of high end retail and restaurant stores, sort of like Michigan Avenue in Chicago, or Rodeo Drive in Los Angeles (though it’s not quite as pricey as Rodeo Drive, according to what I saw). Normally, I’ve avoided this kind of stuff on my trip, because I’m really here for the history and the culture, but I figured what the heck. Sunday was my comfort day, and at the top of the hill, anyway, was the Arc de Triomphe. As long as I saw that, the day wouldn’t be wasted, I figured.

I did find some fun in those stores, though — in the Virgin Megastore (which I thought didn’t exist any more), I found a bunch of DVDs for French versions of American films, and it was really wild trying to guess what the movies were based off of the French titles. Les Simpsons was one of the funnier ones, but I also saw Edward Aux Mains D’Argent (Edward Scissorhands) and Sixeme Sens (The Sixth Sense). Shame, the recent film with Michael Fassbender about sex addiction, was called Hunger in the French version, and I couldn’t tell if it was because the film was actually about Hunger, or if “hunger” means “shame” in French. I haven’t seen the movie yet, but I’ve heard it’s good. Also, this was the funniest French title I saw:

Well done! There were also some movie theaters along the road, and I really wanted to go and see a movie, but unfortunately, nothing I wanted to see was playing at the right time for me to see it (I had a chance to go and see Battleship, but I decided it would be sacrilege to see that movie in France, a place known for its film history). It’s interesting how the French film industry works, too: They have American movies here, and most of those are listed as “VO”, which stands for Version Originale. That means they’re showing in English, with French subtitles (which would have worked fine for me). Some of the movies are listed as VF, which I believe means it’s a version with French voiceover, and no subtitles.

And there were some French-made movies as well, both some mainstream movies (there was one starring a little cartoon animal called Marsupilami, which I guess is a famous little cartoon guy in French culture created by a guy named Alain Chabat — who also starred in the live action movie? I didn’t quite understand) and some more artsy ones. I would have gone to see one of the art films, but then I decided seeing a movie completely in French probably wouldn’t be worth it, even just to say that I saw a good film in France. I may go out again this evening and try to see a movie, however.

I also tried some French fast food. After last Sunday’s trip to Subway, I promised you all that I wouldn’t participate in any more American fast food franchises while overseas, and I haven’t, especially in France. But there was a place on the road called Quick, which appears to me to be a uniquely French (or at least European) fast food place. The impression I got of the place was that the French were laughing at McDonald’s one day, until one of them actually realized how much money McDonald’s was making off of their countrymen, and decided to make a place of their own. I went in, ordered a Giant burger and some country fries (none of this, save for the word “Giant,” was in English; I’m sparing you the translation), waited for my number to come up (with some difficulty — since I didn’t know what it would sound like when my number was called, I just looked for a meal that looked like mine and then took it when it came up), and sat down to have a look at what they’d made for me.

It wasn’t bad — a pretty good reproduction of a cheap American fast food meal. The fries were the best part — they tasted like curly fries, though they were called something like “rustic country fries” on the menu. The burger was kind of terrible, but good in that fast food, full of fake flavor way. I expected it would be full of pickles or something French, but it actually just had some lettuce, onions, and a secret sauce that was probably some mix of mayo and ketchup. (You’ll notice that I got mayo for my fries as well; when in Europe, my friends.) The meat itself was very cheap, but the bun was my biggest disappointment — you’d think, after all of the great bread they have in France, that they’d come up with something better than a spongey thing that had clearly been frozen and unfrozen a few times. Poor form.

The weirdest thing about the meal was that the soda (“Coke Light” is what they call diet here) had no ice at all. There was room in it for ice, but I didn’t see a machine around — maybe I had to ask for it and didn’t. All in all, the meal was about what you’d expect from terrible fast food, but I ate it, so shame on me. Don’t worry, Los Angeles — with the likes of In ‘n’ Out and Five Guys, we’re still decades ahead on our fast food burger technology.

Finally, I arrived at the Arc, and it looked just as great as you’d imagine. The circle of cars going around it is huge, and the only way to get back and forth to it is by going underground down some stairs. They were charging 9 euros to actually go up to the street level (and you could even climb to the top), but I decided that wasn’t worth it, and I wanted to save the money. I did get an idea, though — all of the time I’ve spent in Paris has mostly been while the sun is out. I wanted to get some good night-time shots of the Arc, so I decided to stick around there until the lights came on, which was about two hours away.

So I walked a little bit back down the Champs to look for dinner. Along the way, I found a Pierre Hermé — I’ve been told by multiple people to try their macaroons while in Paris, and so I did. They were excellent, of course — I had one flavored with vanilla and one flavored with rose petals, and they were both very good. Macarroons are kind of a girly thing to eat, I think, however. I probably would have been better served buying another crepe filled with nutella — oh man that thing was so good. But I did try them, and given that I’ve seen macaroons everywhere, I can at least check that off the list.

Afterwards, I spurned a few high-end retail stores (105 euros for a shirt?!? I did want a few more nice collared shirts for the trip, but not at that price) and big-time restaurants which are apparently frequented by celebrities visiting Paris to go and get some pizza. I’d had some pizza in England and found it less than appealing, so I was interested in giving France their shot. Now, the place I eventually went was basically full of tourists, so I probably haven’t really given France their due just yet — I’ve seen pizza slices in vendor stalls around town, and that pizza is probably a little more local than the one I had. But it wasn’t a bad pie that they brought to my table — the crust was thin but good, there was mozzarella, chicken, and peppers on there, and in general I enjoyed it, along with the big pint of Stella that I got with it.

But there was one issue, the same one I had in England: The pizza wasn’t cut at all. And this wasn’t a personal-sized pizza — this was about a 12-inch pizza, that showed up at my table completely uncut. I had to sit there, with a knife and fork, slicing away at it and ripping it apart to eat it. I don’t know: Are you supposed to ask for them to cut your pizza in Europe? Do they not have pizza cutters here? Is it a gourmet thing? I would have much preferred to have slices rather than what I had. Maybe someone looking to make a lot of money should put up a few European infomercials for a “Cutter de pizza,” because they could really use it here.

And this is when my day went bad for a while: After finishing that pizza (as well as the book I’ve been reading on my iPhone during the trip), the lights on the Arc still hadn’t come on. The sun was down, and the Arc itself sits at the top of a hill in Paris, so it was quite cold and windy up there, and all I had on was my hoodie and a t-shirt underneath. I huddled in on a bus bench, freezing, just waiting for the lights to come up so I could get this stupid picture. I didn’t want to leave Paris without seeing the Arc at night, so for you, dear reader, I stayed up at the top of that hill for another hour, freezing cold, all so I could get this:

I hope it was worth it. Maybe it wasn’t, but at least the story is. On the way down the hill, I grabbed some coffee to keep warm, and made my way back to the station (grabbing a few shots of the Louvre and Eiffel Tower at night, so it probably was worth me staying out) and then home for the night.

If you haven’t seen it yet, Turpster got some video of the trip we made to the Tower of London. It’s over on Youtube for your viewing pleasure right now.

I’ve been in hundreds, thousands of tombs before. I’ve ransacked graves by the dozens, dug up crypts and ossuaries and mausoleums, unburied corpse after urn after sepulchre, and brought light into hundreds and hundreds of resting places over the years. Usually, however, I then have to put down, usually with force, the inhabitants of those graves, or kill the evil demon who’s causing trouble from them, or vanquish the angry wizard who’s claimed the local cemetery. Because, of course, all of the tombs I’ve ever been in have been in video games. Despite all of the zombies I’ve bludgeoned with mighty maces of magic, I had never actually stepped foot inside a real grave, one where real, actual bones that used to belong to living beings were interred.

Yesterday, I went to visit the Paris Catacombs, where not just one human, but an estimated six million human beings’ remains are buried. The Catacombs (as I learned after a line wait of about two hours, the longest line I’ve waited in on this trip — but I really wanted to go in) are part of Paris’ vast underground quarries. The materials for building all of those gigantic houses and palaces I’ve been seeing had to come from somewhere, and of course they were all built before intercontinental shipping had really been developed. So the builders of Paris, hundreds of years ago, went down, where they happened to find a steady supply of limestone, thanks to the region’s 45 million year history as a former sea. There was gobs of the stuff, so they dug down, pulled it all out, and built the lovely Paris that I’ve been touring the past few days.

Unfortunately, of course, that left the city with a big empty space underneath it, which started causing problems when houses began falling into sinkholes and whole city blocks started sinking into the earth. Around 1777, a department was set up to survey all of these underground passages, and great maps were made of all the sites, and pillars were built up in important places to make sure that Paris didn’t fall down completely. The result of this, however, was that Paris still had a big area of open underground space. Thanks to the newly formed quarries department, it no longer threatened to collapse, but it was just sort of sitting down there, with nothing in it.

Right around this time, however, Paris was having another problem: Dead people. The city’s cemeteries were filling up, and one in particular, the Cimetiere des Saints-Innocents, had become a major health problem. Local residents had made the city close it, but for the city as a whole, that was a very unpopular decision. Where were all these corpses going to go?

And so, in what’s so far my favorite ingenious flash of insight in Paris’ history, someone said hey, we’ve got these bodies, we’ve got all of this space — how’s about we put them together. And thus you get the Catacombs, a (very small — it’s only about 1/800th of the total quarry area) section of this underground space that is almost completely claimed by human remains — yard after yard of skulls and femurs and skeletal leftovers.

The journey there is actually scarier than the site. The line’s not scary — it was just annoying, though I brought my iPhone and did a lot of reading while waiting. But once you buy a ticket, you descend down a narrow circular stairwell for what must be a few stories, and then the walk through to the quarry begins.

The passage down below is narrow and dark, and it isn’t made clear at all just how far you need to go to see the ossuary itself. So basically, picture me walking along, into what seemed like an increasingly smaller stone hallway, expecting at any moment that I’d turn a corner and see what I knew was eventually down there: Piles and piles of skulls and human bones.

The walk was long, long enough for me to think about just what I was doing, and just why it was so unsettling. This is when I considered that I’d done this many, many times before, though of course it was only in video games. In video games, you’re usually given the goal of unearthing a grave to conquer a dead baddie, and of course at this point I do it just because it’s what you do. But walking down into a real grave (the mother of all graves — did I mention that six million figure yet?) inspires a whole series of emotions, of which panic is only one.

I assured myself that there wasn’t anything to be afraid of here — unlike in a video game, bones wouldn’t rise up out of the grown and unleash some menacing moan before swinging an axe at me. Workers had been down here for hundreds of years, these bones were placed here on consecrated ground after that, and since then, tourists have been coming down for hundreds of years after that — even Napoleon himself came to visit at one point. Nope, in this case, the fear was all in my head, just the thought of the unknown. That was a fear I could conquer, so I moved on.

Before the ossuary, there is first evidence of the workers from the quarry, both practical and even artistic. There are a few underground wells used for various purposes, with cleanly built stairs going down to them. And there is a set of two fairly intricate sculptures of foreign landscapes, built by a quarryman who apparently had an artistic bent and the time to use it down in the depths. The quarry documents say he was a former prisoner in Minorca, which is what the carvings themselves portray. That’s a wild little story — who allowed him to just carve these things? And what meaning for him! To be imprisoned in a place, learn it from memory so well that upon escaping, you decide to carve it out of the walls of underground Paris yourself.

After that, finally, the Ossuary. At this point, there wasn’t any fear at all — the people who put this place here knew just how morbid it was, so they’ve taken as much care as possible to make it as respectful a resting place as a gigantic pile of bones can be. And yet, the people who built this were also French, so while the tone is reverent, it’s also artistic. There’s an inscription above the door to the entrance:

“Stop,” it says. “This is the empire of the dead.”

After that, it’s nothing but skulls and bones. The stacking is very ornamental, actually — I presume there are other bones down in the piles, but all you can see around the outside are skulls and what I believe are femurs. The years haven’t been too kind to the piles, either — obviously there are signs everywhere to not touch the bones, but various visitors over the years, old or new, have stolen skulls, broken them in various places, and otherwise ruined some of the setups. There are also signs to not take flash photography, so I didn’t, but I gave some angry looks and grumbles to people who ignored the signs and did.

At various points along the 750 meter walk through the ossuary, there are plaques and stones put up with various quotes about the fragility of life. It’s all in French, so not a lot of it came across to me. But I tried to dissect my feelings as carefully as possible while I walked through the twists and turns full of skulls and bones, and what I came up with was “restful.” Yes, morbid — as you’d imagine, a display like this draws some weirdos, and various rituals and concerts have been interrupted down there over the years. In 1897, a group of French noblemen and women were discovered holding a macabre ceremony in one of the galleries, and the two workers who let them sneak in to the place were immediately fired.

But overall, I felt this was a pretty satisfactory place to spend an eternal rest. Almost none of the bodies down here started here — aside from a few people that were buried here during the revolution, most of these remains came from other, overflowing cemeteries in Paris. And there’s certainly an argument (which, honestly, is the one I’d make if pressed) that your body is your body, and your soul is your soul, and after death, your body really has nothing more to do with it. But I didn’t feel that those buried in the catacombs got any worse of a lot in death than anyone else. At the very bottom, at one point when I was completely alone, maybe four stories under the busy city streets of Paris, surrounded by the bones of the dead, I thought it was nice and cool and quiet and safe. When it comes to resting places, what more could you really ask for?

The walk back up to the surface, on the other hand, was much different. You could almost smell the city coming back down at you, and everyone walked quickly at that point, almost giddy to return. You ascend up a staircase of exactly 83 stairs (the signs warn you to take it easy, and there’s a defibrillator at the top, just in case), and then emerge onto a small Paris street, about a half mile and four blocks away from the little door you entered to begin. There’s a gift shop (trust me, as a person who’s been a tourist for two weeks now, I can promise you there’s always a gift shop), but just standing in that street, I can say I felt glad to be alive. I made a mental note to buy a round of drinks for my friends next time we went out, just because I had all of my bones and flesh and could do so. The Paris Catacombs might not be a bad place to spend eternity, but hopefully I’ve got lots of things to do before eternity actually begins.

I did two other things of note today as well. First of all, I finally went to a supermarket.

Here in France, I’ve actually had a hard time finding what you might call the commercial life. Oh, I haven’t discovered any lack of commerce — the streets of Paris are full of little shops and cafes and retail stores and chocolatiers. But in my experience and my travels around the world, those things only go so far. Eventually, you need to come across places where real business gets done. Not places where people can buy breads of all kinds and hand-made soaps and towels, but places where people can buy milk and eggs and the things they actually need, and towels that are probably made in China and cheap, and that you just need because occasionally you have to sop up a spilled dish, not just lay out when company is around.

In short, I wondered if France didn’t have these things, places like Target and Ralph’s and all of those American stores where getting in and out is simple and easy and relatively cheap. In my experience, you need those kinds of places — the little shops and cafes are nice, but at 10pm in the evening, when you just need to make a Target run for some dish soap, the little shops won’t help you.

So I was glad to finally ask the receptionist at my hostel where I might find a grocery. And though I had to walk around for about an hour longer than her confusing directions had told me to, I finally came across a French supermarket, the kind of store that on the West Coast we call Ralph’s, in St. Louis we call Dierberg’s, and on the East Coast they call Wegman’s.

It was my first time really visiting a supermarket in another language, and as I tweeted yesterday, it made me feel dumb. The standard stuff I found easily: Bananas, milk, juice, bread. I know what all of those things look like, and it doesn’t matter what they are called. But I soon found that I didn’t know quite as much as I thought I did. Those little containers look like yogurt, but I don’t recognize that word on them — is it possible I could be buying cleaning products instead? These microwave dinners look a lot like microwave pasta, but I’ve never heard of this brand — what if it’s completely terrible, or even gets me sick in a foreign country? Hey, that raw chicken looks good — wait, is that actually shrimp?

I ended up just going for a few standbys, and abandoning the rest. I decided I would be adventurous back in the cafes, not a supermarket. The final humility was conferred when I went to the counter to check out. The clerk rang me up and then asked me something in French that I assumed was if I wanted anything else from the store — a standard question in American supermarkets, useless as it might be. So I plainly answered no, and stood there for a few seconds. She gave me a confused look, and repeated herself, and suddenly I realized that I heard a “dies” in there. “Dies,” I thought. “That sounds like ‘diez,’ which is 10 in Spanish. Oh! Ten! She’s telling me the price!” She had told me the price, and I had calmly answered “No,” as if she would give me my food for free.

I sheepishly fished out my money, and just sort of gave a little bow and a badly pronounced “merci” as she gave me my food and change and let me go.

The other thing I did was finally get to visit with my friend Patrick Beja. He’s a podcaster, and he was sort of hosting a meetup of podcasters and their listeners in a bar in the middle of Paris, and he kindly invited me along. This was phenomenal — since I’ve been here in town, I haven’t actually talked with anyone for more than 30 seconds or so. Most of my conversations, as I believe I’ve related here already, have basically been like that quick chat with the cashier above.

So it was great to finally talk to Patrick for a while — he of course is way smarter than me, and knows French and English well, so we had a good chat about what we’ve been up to lately. I also got to hang around with he and his fellow podcasters, and I spent a lot of time just listening to them speak in French, discussing — well, I’m sorry to say I mostly don’t know. I didn’t want to bother Patrick talking to his friends, though I did really appreciate being around them, and just feeling like I belonged for a little bit. That sounds pathetic, I guess, but putting myself in a completely foreign country alone for a week may have had slightly more of an effect on me than I guessed it would. I’m not bawling my eyes out, but it’s been educational.

Another thing that’s been educational is trying to speak, even in English, to someone from Paris here. I did have a few conversations last night with people that I met, and even when we did understand each other, I found myself thinking twice about everything I said, working hard to make my meaning clear rather than just talking. As I told Patrick last night, I am a writer. Language is my number one tool. And being deprived of it, or even hampered by it, is an interesting experience for me.

I’ve never been the kind of person to really walk up to random strangers and start talking, even in the US, but I have always prided myself on being witty and urbane when I needed to be. In a foreign country, however, all of that seems to go out the window. My main goal is just understanding, and even that fails most of the time. Riding home on the train last night, I was just putting my ticket into the turnstile, and a girl (French women are almost universally exceptionally gorgeous, by the way) whose ticket had just not worked in the turnstile next to me, stopped me and asked me something in French, pointing at my ticket and then the turnstile.

I thought she was asking me where I got my ticket from — I told her, in English, “No, I can’t help. You’ll have to go to the information booth over there,” and I shooed her in that general direction. She gave me a shocked look, like I was crazy. “Are you serious?” her look asked. I didn’t understand, I apologized again, and went through the gate.

Only later did it occur to me that this pretty and probably very nice woman was asking if she could duck through the turnstile after me, asking if she could jump in on my ticket rather than buying another one. Of course I would have let her — I’ve given the Paris Metro system plenty of money this week, probably way more than I should have. Instead, I pointed her to the local authorities like a chump. I could have been witty, I could have been urbane, I could have shared something with this girl, our own little secret against the (French) Man trying to make us pay for the Metro.

But nope, I ruined the whole thing. Maybe when I get back to the US, if something similar ever happens, I’ll remember this little episode. And instead of painfully rendering myself inexpressible, I’ll get her meaning, give her a wink and wave forward, and lead her on through the gate with me.

Yesterday, as I wrote (twice, actually — Wordpress kindly lost my entry once, so I had to rewrite it for you again), I saw much of Paris’ loftiest sights: The Eiffel Tower, the Louvre’s pyramid, the Tulieries, the Opera House. But as I learned today, most of those works are actually relatively new. With the notable exception of the Louvre, they were built past about 1860 or so. They’re valuable, of course, but they’re mostly display pieces, exhibitions, ways to show off the city to visitors like me.

In short, the people of Paris’ history built those places, but they didn’t live in them. And so on my second day in the city, that’s what I set out to see instead — the streets, the cafes, and the houses where Paris and its past actually existed. I started the day by loading two walking tours on my iPhone: One was set to lead me through the two islands in the middle of Paris (the Île de la Cité and the Île Saint-Louis), and the other was to lead me down through what I’ve read is one of the more interesting shopping neighborhoods in town, Saint-Germain-des-Prés.

The first walk started me out just north of the Seine, very close to the area where I was yesterday. I finally found a cafe with free wi-fi, and made a note of where it was at — I plan to sit down and do some work there sometime next week. I walked along the north bank of the Seine for a while, and then crossed over on to the first island at Pont Neuf. Pont Neuf is French for “New Bridge,” but apparently this is the oldest bridge in the entire city — back in the early days of Paris, much of the city was centered on the Île de la Cité, and this was the main way back and forth from the mainland, so to speak.

I saw a statue of King Henry the IV and then walked over to Paris’ Hall of Justice, which contains both the Cour de Cassation (similar to the Supreme Court in the US), and some historical sites, including the Conciergerie (an old prison where Marie Antoinette was once held) and the Sainte Chappelle. Both of those can be toured, and they sounded interesting, but I passed. I had bigger sights to see around the corner.

The first of these was the Marché aux Fleurs, a huge flower market that’s been going on since the early 1800s. I’m not much for flowers, but this place was pretty beautiful, with plants and little garden displays of all kinds. It struck me that if you want something to invest your money in that won’t ever go out of style, you could probably do worse than a flower shop. People of all walks of life always need them, and they’re probably pretty cheap and easy to sell.

Finally, I continued down a side street, turned a corner, and there was my first big bounty of the day: Cathédrale Notre Dame de Paris. Just like everyone else, I’ve seen this facade in movies, pictures, and television shows plenty of times before, but seeing it in person really reminds you just how gorgeous it is. The dimensions are intrinsically pleasing, which is a weird thing to say, but of course it’s true. It just looks right.

The detail on the front of the cathedral is spectacular as well — there are three doors along with the statues of the Virgin right in front of the Western Rose window, and in each door panel there are dozens if not hundreds of statues, all telling some part of Christ’s story. The art both inside and out has been restored a few different times over the years, but that facade was primarily built in the 1200s, which makes it that much more impressive.

Inside, however, is another story entirely. Entry to the cathedral is completely free, and unlike Westminster Abbey (where I felt surrounded by years and years of political and religious history), Notre Dame still feels like a holy place. That’s despite, unfortunately, the tourists hauling around cameras everywhere, chatting and whispering in front of the signs that continually ask for silence. I went in, sat down in the middle of the chapel, and tried to meditate a bit on what it must have been like to visit this place in the 17th century, what someone who usually lived in dirt and the fields must have thought about entering a church like this. Unfortunately, my reverie was interrupted by an American and his girlfriend, who sat down in front of me and started photographing the church from every angle. I was ashamed for my kind.

I decided then that I wouldn’t take any pictures of the inside of the church — this was God’s house, we were guests, and even if no one else in there would act like it, I would. Unfortunately again, the western window, and the organ below it, were just too beautiful for words. I wanted to remember every detail, so I did snap one shot.

In the end, I decided that God would probably welcome all comers to his house anyway, whether they were boorish and loud or not. But still, I kept quiet and reverent while walking past small chapels thousands of years old, marveled in silence at a crucifix placed by Napoleon and the place where the poet Paul Claudel was converted. A poet converted to religion? This is must be a holy place!

Afterwards, I exited the church, and headed downstairs — there’s a small area underneath the main plaza that shows off an actual archeological dig from old Paris. Down there, I learned the story of how Paris built up from that island out over the years, and saw both the ruins of the “Rue de Notre Dame” (an old road, commissioned by the builder of the cathedral, for bringing in building equipment and material), and underneath that, old Roman buildings and structures. It was hard to tell exactly what was what — after a couple of thousand years of being buried under a couple of thousand years of dirt and garbage, all of the stone blocks essentially look the same, unfortunately. But I read the text in French as best I could, and I’m pretty sure I saw the remains of a roman bath house, as well as pillars that dated back to the fourth century.

That’s the year 350 or so, which might make that pillar the oldest thing I’ve seen on this trip yet. At that scale, I can tell you, the stories don’t even make sense any more. I tried to follow the actual history of Paris, from the invasion of the Gauls all the way up to Napoleon and all of the art I saw at the Musee D’Orsay yesterday, but there is no straight line in there — it’s a jagged bit of half-remembered truths, guesses from archeological sites, and just plain made up stories. I’m not saying archaeologists don’t know what they’re talking about, but I think the human brain can’t even understand a story that long. Paris was taken and held by so many different groups of people, and was built in increments, torn down, and then rebuilt again so many times that there is no one story here. This city is just too old.

I returned to the surface (my pupils scoured by the daylight again), and walked along the south wall of the cathedral, grabbing some amazing shots of the flying buttresses and the south rose window. I made my way over to one of the most moving installations I’ve seen on this entire trip: The Mémorial des Martyrs de la Déportation. This is an installation put up in 1962 to honor the memories of French people deported to the Nazi concentration camps, and remember what I said yesterday about art speaking to me on its own terms? This memorial spoke to me. I’m expecting to see a lot more of this type of history in Berlin, but it had no less a profound effect here.

Entering the memorial, which is literally dug out of the side of the Île de la Cité (the memorial’s creators wanted to make a statement by taking up part of the original island of the city), is in itself a very haunting experience. The entryway (which I had to wait a few minutes to go into, as only a certain number of visitors are allowed in at a time) is a staircase that lowers down into a concrete-surrounded hole, so that the sights and sounds of the city fade away from you, and when you reach the bottom, you can only look up and see sky. Near the memorial, there was a street performer playing accordion and crowds gathered around the Notre Dame, a construction site drilling and a siren going in the background. But the concrete of the memorial deadens all of those noises, and like the victims of the deportation, you feel strangely deprived of all of the life you were a part of just sixty seconds ago. I didn’t want to take any pictures, again, because the place felt holy, but I did want to share with you just how stark it appeared.

The two things you can see are, to the north, a hole in the wall in which a section of the Seine is visible, flowing water just outside a set of bars, clear in view but out of reach. And to the south, a small, narrow passageway, leading to the actual crypt, where remains of French victims of the Holocaust are interred. There are quotes all over the walls in French (including “forgive, but never forget” above the exit door), and there are cells with bars blocking the way, and lights place just outside of view, as if there’s something there that you’re not allowed to see. At the very back of the crypt is a long hallway that you can look down but that’s been blocked with bars, and at the very end, where one unknown victim’s remains are interred, there’s a small light, that’s meant to, finally, symbolize hope at the end of the dark tunnel.

It’s quite an installation, and I was moved. Again, there’s more of this to come, I have been told, when I visit Berlin. I exited back up to the street, and told the attendant as I left “thank you, merci” for what I’d seen there.

I then made my way across the other island, Île Saint-Louis. This one isn’t nearly as full of tourist sites as the first, but it’s also very old Paris, full of narrow streets and little shops and cafes. There’s a church there that I went to see, and a famous ice cream shop (though I thought it was too cold for ice cream). I crossed over the bridge to the south of Paris, and there ended my first walking tour.

The second tour took me around a neighborhood called Saint-Germain-des-Prés, and this is the kind of stuff I’ve been looking forward to in Paris: Little cafes frequented by classic writers, places where the famous novelists of yore sat and had coffee, considered the life of the common man, and then scurried back to their apartments to write about it. I started at a little plaza called the Odéon, and a statue of Danton, who said to his executioner, “Don’t forget to show my head to the people. It’s well worth seeing.” I saw a statue of it, flanked by what I think were two lovely maidens, and it was.

From there it was boulevard after boulevard of little shops and cafes. For the past few days I’ve sat down to two excellent French dinners, but this day I decided to go the portable route, picking up little delicacies I’ve been meaning to try from counters and delis as I passed, rather than sitting down in one place. Here’s what I ate while wandering around today:

  • A salami panini. We have paninis in the US, but this was different — it was a long baguette, sliced open and filled with salami and cheese, and then squished flat in a panini press. It was so very good: hot, greasy, and delicious.
  • A Nutella crepe. I’ve been told to try a crepe in France, and this was just as excellent as promised. It was described as a pancake to me, but I had it as kind of a sweet tortilla, a bit of batter spread flat, and then folded up into a sort of a cone shape. Mine was filled with Nutella before being folded (as that seemed to be the main thing to have), and oh my lord, it was also amazing.
  • A loaf of bread called “pain au fromage” from a gourmet bakery. If you know French, you know that means “bread with cheese,” and that’s exactly what this was — a little loaf of bread with cheese baked into and on top of it. But “cheesy bread” does not get across the deliciousness of what this was — the bread was perfectly crusty and soft, and the cheese was so delicious. I don’t even know what kind of “fromage” it was, but I bought this thing expecting to save it for later in the day, and just tore through it as I walked around.
  • A hot dog. I’d seen these on my first day in France, and have been meaning to try one ever since. This isn’t exactly a New York style hot dog; well, the actual dog probably is — the one I had was two sausages put together. But these are placed in another long baguette kind of bread, and then covered with a bunch of really puffy baked cheese (no, I didn’t eat healthy today, but I’ve probably walked 50 miles in the past week and a half, so sue me). This was good — not quite as good as the other food, but it was definitely worth a try. I will definitely get another panini, but I will probably pass on any other hot dogs.

Needless to say, I’ve enjoyed all of the food I’ve had in France so far.

I walked past the residences of famous writers and the cafes where they ate and drank. I saw a cafe that Sartre claimed he “lived” at, and the street where the poet Arthur Rimbaud once walked down naked. I saw the place where Oscar Wilde lived in Paris, and the place where Serge Gainsbourg spent the last years of his life. I saw another cafe where Ernest Hemingway, frustrated with Zelda Fitzgerald continually complaining about the size of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s manhood, reportedly took the author of The Great Gatsby into the bathroom to compare, and emerged saying that it was, apparently, good enough. I don’t believe this last story, but I did see that cafe.

On the last leg of the tour, I invaded the Ecole des Beaux Arts, one of the finest art schools in Paris. Only students and faculty are meant to be on the grounds (where some very fine sculptures and historical sites, including an old convent, can be seen), so I pulled up my hoodie while walking around the gate, turned inside pretending to be an art student, and made it past the guards without getting a second look. I explored the place pretty thoroughly, but if you want to see it, you’ll have to go in yourself — I was too nervous about being caught to take any photographs.

Finally, I made my way back up to the Metro stop I’d come in on, and rode the train back home, where I promptly fell on my bed and passed out for an hour or so. I’m not even at the halfway point for this trip yet, and already, when I think back a few days, I’m forgetting where I started. It sound strange, but I had to remind myself today, in a way, that I have a life and friends, that I live in Los Angeles and own a car and rent an apartment there.

I’ve moved around the US quite a few times, and I’ve found something weird that happens whenever I pull up stakes and move somewhere completely new: My dreams always tend to go back to the last place I was. When I went to Ithaca for school, I dreamed about my home in St. Louis. When I moved to Chicago, I dreamed about Ithaca, and when I moved to LA, I dreamed about Chicago.

Today, after I returned to my hotel room and passed out on the bed, I had a strange dream about LA, about living there and performing with my friends. I’m not sure what that means, if anything just yet. But if I was waiting for this trip to officially change me, I feel like we’re about at that point.

Tomorrow, I believe, after a morning of rest and a little local food shopping, it’ll be off to the Catacombs. I’ve also been invited along to a podcaster meetup here in Paris, so here’s hoping I’ll get to have my first meaningful conversation since London. That will be nice.

I have just arrived back in my hotel room from my first full day in Paris. And it’s hard to describe just how I feel — I saw so much today that “overwhelmed” doesn’t even begin to describe it. I must have walked at least 12 miles, considering all of the museum hallways and various boulevards that I wandered through. Paris was like a drug for me today — I planned only a few things, and after going all day, my legs hurt, my knees felt like they might give out. But I couldn’t stop. It’s too gorgeous. I had to keep going, see more, take as much of it as I could in.

I started the day with a plan: In the morning I’d see the Eiffel Tower, and in the afternoon, the Musee D’Orsay. I headed out early on the train, and got to the Ecole Militaire metro stop around 10. I walked up and down the length of that building, marveling at its size. And then I turned around, and the Eiffel Tower was just there, in real life.

It’s pretty phenomenal. It’s a massive structure, to say the least, and though it looks big when you first see it at a distance, it keeps rising up as you get closer, until you’re in the center of four massive legs and the tower above you. I never knew there was writing on it — the names of various French notables can be seen around the base. It’s just an amazing monument, and the area around it (like most of Paris, as I learned), is so widely open. I’ve never seen a city with more room to breathe, not in that commercial structure LA way, but just in the sense of having some wide open spaces right in the middle of everything.

Actually, “room to breathe” probably isn’t the best way to describe Paris — some of the buildings in it are just huge, full of hundreds if not thousands of rooms. Some of the structures that line the boulevards go on for a half mile or more, full of exact French windows without variation. London, it occurred to me earlier today, seems like a city that started as a village but grew up into a capital of the world. But Paris seems like it’s been a capital, grown up city all along. It’s not made of makeshift buildings scrunched together and developed in phases over the years. Paris, or at least the parts of Paris that I was in all day today is cut from whole cloth, sewn up into a consistently spectacular garment. It’s beautiful. I’ve said that before, right? I will say it again.

The Eiffel Tower had both stairs and the lifts running, but one of the lifts was apparently down, and so there was a two hour wait. I decided, without too much hesitation, to go ahead and pass. As I’ve said before, I’m not on this trip to be a run-of-the-mill tourist. I’m sure it’d be worth it to go up, but I can look at a panoramic picture online these days and see about as much as I’m going to see from up there. I’m here to see these cities from the ground up, so I started hitting the pavement.

I walked along the Seine, just staring at the buildings and the huge structures around me. Le Grand Palais was so impressive across the river, and the various statues on the Pont Alexandre III (“widely regarded as the most ornate, extravagant bridge in Paris,” I now read on Wikipedia) were amazing, like something out of a fantasy novel. I knew I was headed for the Musee D’Orsay, but I didn’t know exactly where it was, so when I saw a gigantic and ornate building to the south, I started walking that way.

That turned out to be Les Invalides, a complex famous for a series of army museums, as well as the tomb of Napoleon himself. I didn’t stop there but to grab a few pictures (and take one for a couple who asked me to, in English), but I may go back. I wanted to find the Musee, but at this point I also decided to find lunch.

I walked east, passed on a sushi place that looked good, and instead stopped into a little bookstore. It was wild (though obvious) to see everything in French, and even after all this walking, I decided to look for a little book of walking tours in Paris. I found one, but it too was in French, and while I briefly considered just going with it, I passed. There was an English section in the store, but it was full of the likes of Twilight and the Girl with the Dragon Tattoo — no famous Paris walks.

I did grab lunch in a small cafe, just a baguette sandwich with ham and emmental cheese (I thought this might be the French word for Swiss, but nope, it’s an actual cheese called emmental). I tried my best to make the guy behind the counter think I was French, but I dropped a please accidentally, and that gave me away. He was nice enough about it, though, and when I told him what I wanted to drink, I did so in a universal language: “Diet Coke.”

The cafe was right down the street from D’Orsay, so I went there next. I waited in line for about 30 minutes, paid my nine euros, grabbed an audio guide, and entered the museum to a wide open hall full of statues and paintings.

Art. Here’s the thing I have about art: I am picky about it. I’m not really content to just go admire a painting because it’s been put on a wall and thus needs to be admired. I want art to speak to me on its own terms. I don’t really care that the artist was in love with the subject of this piece, or that he was losing his mind while painting it, or that he meant it to challenge a long-lived art movement and it caused quite a stir when first posted. The audio guide did tell me all of this, and sure, it was interesting, but it’s not what I wanted.

I want art to reach out, to talk to me from across the room not because it was hung on a wall or because something unseen happened with the artist or in its history, but because it connects with me the viewer right then and there. Art, to me, hung up on a museum wall, is art that’s been dried out, dissected and displayed. Art is a conversation between the artist and the viewer, and in my view, the museum curator doesn’t have a lot to do with it. That’s not to say that all museums are useless — I walked around the Musee D’Orsay for about four hours today, and saw a lot of great art. I got my money’s worth. But nothing I saw spoke to me as much as the monuments in Westminster Abbey, or the sculptures I later saw in the Tuleries.

After finishing in the museum, I headed out again to find wi-fi, and then decided to keep moving. I walked over to the Lourve, walked through past the golden statue of Joan of Arc, and kept walking. I decided that, as the sun was just about to set, now would be a good time to walk through the Tuleries Garden itself, so I pulled up a walking tour on my iPhone and started visiting statues and displays inside the park.

It was just gorgeous, with the sun setting behind the art, and the vast spaces of Paris sprawling in front of me. Breathtakingly beautiful.

I walked down through the garden, and just marveled at the sights, the sculptures, the architecture, the fact that all of this had been there for a hundred years or more. Words can’t tell you what I felt out there. I resolved that the world was full of awesome, and I resolved that when I got back to LA, to my normal life, I would make it my goal to add as much awesome to it as I could.

I took a quick break when the tour led me down underneath the Lourve to a whole mall. Did you know there is an entire mall underneath the Lourve? I didn’t? I visited the Apple Store, though, and saw Macbooks with weird keyboards, with Q where the A should be and vice versa. I saw a food court down there, and scoffed at it — you don’t eat at a food court while in Paris. You never eat at a food court while in Paris.

I came up on the other side, and emerged into the first courtyard of the Louvre, where the Pyramid is. And I watched the sun go down on the Lourve itself.

I walked in among the buildings, looked up at the statues all around me, the proverbial angels in the architecture. As I entered the Lourve’s second courtyard, I passed a cellist playing for spare change, and in another entry way, a flutist was playing out a separate tune. They weren’t playing together, but somehow, the sound of both of them at the same time made my gorgeous surroundings that much more incredible.

I passed through the arches again to find the Saint-Germain l’Auxerrois cathedral on the other side, and could naught but shake my head at how amazing this city was. And still, I walked. I went north, to the Palais Royal, and the courtyard there with a circular fountain. I sat on a bench, watched the streetlights come on around me. I kept walking — through narrow streets past windows where diners were eating, through an area of Japanese supermarkets and restaurants. I arrived at the Avenue de L’Opera, and walked down it, towards the gigantic dome of the Paris Opera in front of me.

Finally, I found a cafe I deemed suitable, went in and bashfully ordered a bavette d’aloyau (skirt steak) with bernaise, frites and a glass of red wine. It was delicious. I was ashamed I didn’t know French — I wanted to thank the waitress for the wonderful food and for putting up with my terrible mistake of not learning the language. I wanted to ask her when she was done working, if she knew of a good place to get drinks that evening, and if she maybe would want to come with me. I didn’t, though — I just pointed at the menu when she asked me what I wanted, quietly said “thanks, merci” when she brought it. I should have learned French.

The steak was great, though. My legs aching, I entered the Opera metro station, and road the train home, my head full of beauty and wonder and art.

Tomorrow: Notre Dame and the Catacombs.

I am writing this while speeding across the European continent towards Paris, which thus fulfills a long-held dream I have to write something while traveling by train to Paris.

Honestly, the journey isn’t very long at all — my ticket says two hours and change, but everything here in Europe is so close together that it won’t even seem like that. That’s combined, of course, with the fascination that comes with traveling to a new place for the first time. Even now, I can look to my right, and see the French countryside flying by. In fact — forgive me, I just took about five minutes there to watch the fields go by, little villages with brown and white-colored buildings serving as islands in seas of green and tan under a blue sky full of white cloud mountain ranges. It’s pretty beautiful. I can snap a picture with it flying by the train’s clouded windows at over a hundred miles an hour, but I’m not sure my little Lumix will capture it.

At least I tried, I guess.

I’ve traveled to a foreign country for an extended length of time exactly twice before (well, three times, counting this Europe trip). When I was a little kid, my parents once told us three siblings that Christmas as we knew it was canceled — instead, we were all going on a road trip down to Mexico. Not the fun part of Mexico where co-eds frolic on beaches, but the other side of it, where everything is covered in dirt, everyone is poor, and where a family of five with three young kids probably doesn’t belong. Things did not go well — we first got some stomach virus from eating at a hotel together, and then on the way back, all three of us kids decided it was a good time to contract chicken pox.

The other time I’ve spent in a foreign land was much more fun — while going to school in Ithaca, NY, two friends and I decided to drive up to Toronto for the film festival. That is, we decided to go to Toronto while the film festival was going on — we didn’t have any tickets, or money, or even really knew what or where the film festival actually was. It worked out all right, however — we found out that we could legally drink up there, and we holed up in a cheap hostel with a bunch of international college students who also liked to drink. So that was much more fun.

But I say all that — sorry, spent some more time looking out the window there. All of these little towns have tiny little chapels in them, and I’m imagining all of the little stories and histories that must have taken place across these French fields around me. Anyway, I say all that to say that I am very likely woefully underprepared to be in a foreign country by myself. England is one thing — as Oscar Wilde said, England and America are two countries separated by nothing more than a language. But France, and eventually points east, I imagine will be something completely different.

At times I worry that it just won’t work. Already, while staying in the train station and just sitting here on the train listening to the overhead announcements in both English and French, I feel like a barbarian. I chose this day to wear a t-shirt that says “California” on it, and there’s part of me that wants to zip up my hoodie to hide it, to not speak for fear of giving away just who I am. I just finished reading Madame Bovary for the first time while on this trip (I wanted to read something very French that I hadn’t yet), and to be honest, I’m not really a romantic. I’m more the opposite of. Maybe I’ll get there, and find that Paris just isn’t for me.

But of course that’s silly. I’m old enough, now, to know that any place to go and anything you learn is just what you make of it. Even if Paris doesn’t agree with me — if those boulevards and arrondissements don’t inspire something, and if the French language grates in my ears and the food and wine turn my stomach (this last one is probably the most unlikely at all), at least I’ll enjoy looking at the dead stuff. The Catacombs have three million people in them! The cemeteries, I hear, have to be seen to be believed. I have no doubt I’ll find something good in Paris, no matter what happens.

Like, for example, this countryside. Although it seems to be picking up into a more populated area now — maybe we’re almost there. After I get in at Paris Du Nord (which I don’t need a translator to tell you is a train station in the north of Paris), the first task is to grab a metro ticket, and then find my way to the hostel I’m staying at, on the east side of the city in Bry Sur Mame. I hear that’s near Euro Disneyland actually. I don’t have plans to go there, but who knows — if the Eiffel bores me and the Lourve is crowded, maybe I’ll go and visit Mickey instead. I am a barbarian, after all.

I am an idiot, of course.

The train arrived at Paris Du Nord, and I am somewhat ashamed to say I was quickly overwhelmed. Thinking about what a foreign country would be like, but seeing the language everywhere, and having no other options even in a pinch, is something completely different. I walked off the train just marveling at the number of people around me, and for a guy who writes for a living, just navigating from point to point was even extremely hard.

Let’s see — I want the Metro, I think. Is that what that M means? What’s RER? Did that say SPCF? Down this staircase, I guess. Tickets is what I need, but no wait, I’m in France, so what’s the French for tickets? Ticketas? No that’s Spanish. Wait, there — billets. Ok, so billets. Where can I get some billets?

For months, I wanted to be the smooth American that’s nice enough to overcome the legendary French archness, but of course I’m not him — after standing around for a few minutes, I walked up to a security guard, and attacked him with the only language I have. He silently pointed up around the corner, where I found a ticket counter, and I was whisked onto a train heading to my destination.

Wide-eyed, in almost a state of shock, I followed my trains and the signs to the stop for my hostel, and then followed Google Maps to my destination. Even walking up to check in, I had nothing to communicate with but my native language. The receptionist didn’t roll her eyes exactly, but she did check me in, give me a room key and directions, and when I had to turn back and ask again because I couldn’t find the lift, explained things to me as if to a child.

I got into the room before dinner, and my original plan was to just stay in the neighborhood this evening, but how could I? Paris was right there. So I got back on the train, and willed myself past the language. I would walk the streets of Paris this evening, find a small cafe, have some real dinner in a city known for them.

And I did. The streets of the city are incredible, and have a life all their own. London reminded me of an old New York, but Paris is another feel entirely — it’s like Disneyland, with colorful little cafes and gorgeous art and design on every block. The pressure of eating my first meal in a city like this was too much at first — I just walked around, block after block, trying to find what I thought was a reasonable and uniquely French enough cafe to eat in.

The one I found was called Le Petit Chatelet. I walked in, and the waiter looked at me and spoke in French — all I did was point up a finger to tell him I was just one, but I think he knew then instantly that I was American, and thus would need to be babysat. He sat me down and passed over a menu, and said another waiter would take care of me, and could do any translating I needed. I scoured the menu, and found it even tougher than I expected — a little menu I thought I could order from was actually for lunch, and I couldn’t tell if the filet mignon was for steak, fish, or pork.

The waiter kindly told me it was for pork, with a pepper sauce, so I had that, and a glass of wine to go with. I read while I waited for the food, and listened to the whirlwind of French around me. I regretted that I hadn’t tried to learn the language beforehand. And then my food appeared.

It was, of course, excellent. My fears disappeared right away. I am going to have a great time here. Because no matter how much of a language gap there is, no one who loves food as much as I do could ever have a problem with this city.

Tomorrow: The Eiffel Tower, and the Musee D’Orsay.

For my last full day in England, I wanted to finally travel out and see the coast of the country. Whenever I asked anyone in London about this, they all decided that while it would be nice to see a place like Cornwall, that was probably a little too far off of the beaten path for me. That sounded like a challenge I wanted to take on, but given how much I’ve already spent here, I eventually assented. “You’ll like Brighton,” they told me. And though it definitely wasn’t the rustic English coast I was looking for, I did.

Brighton is about an hour south of London — it’s the more or less traditional day trip for Londoners looking to take a break. Just like I found at the Tower of London, even London’s tourism is historic: People have been coming to Brighton to enjoy the beach since the 1800s, and even before that, the royalty came and stayed on the coast as well.

To get there, I got to ride London’s National Rail service, a very impressive series of trains that runs all over the southern half of England. I presume they run over the Northern half as well, but probably not as frequently — most Londoners consider the north of England (unfairly, of course) to be a little backwards, just like lots of urban folks in the US tend to look down on the backwoods South. At any rate, I had been checking prices for the tickets online for the past few days or so, and I was somewhat distraught to see that as I checked them, ticket prices had gone up. First, it was 10 pounds for a day trip either way, then 15 pounds each ticket, and then 20 and even higher than that. Maybe a normal person would have just bought a ticket online right away, but I was curious. It couldn’t be that high for an hour train trip, could it?

So I waited, and planned to just show up at the ticket station, credit card in hand, ready to just ask for the best price. I did, and they gave it to me: I got a two-way ticket for just £15, cheaper than I’d ever seen it online. Feeling good about myself, I checked in for the train, and right on time, we pulled out of the station and headed off to Brighton.

The countryside by train looks exactly as you’d imagine: First, you’re in the dingy, dirty parts of London, with huge skyscrapers looming overhead, and then you start to clear out to the suburbs, with lots of neat townhouses and the occasional big grocery stores and markets. Finally, you hit the country, with big green pastures, rolling hills, and dots of sheep here and there. There are a few tunnels on the way down, and you speed past stations too little for a stop, with commuters patiently waiting on the platforms for their trains.

And then you reach Brighton — it’s bigger than you expect, with lots of cream-colored houses on the hills before you reach the center of town. The train pulls into a huge covered station, and it’s pretty classic: People pour out of the trains, go through the turnstiles into the (luckily sunny — I had good weather for my trip down to Brighton) entry area, and there’s a flurry of greetings from old friends, of excitement for a day out, of being away from the city and out near the beach, near the fun.

There’s about a 20 minute walk down to the coast itself, and Brighton is definitely a tourist town — all the way down, you’re tempted by various stores and deals meant specifically for travelers. It used to be a fishing town (with, in my opinion, the far better moniker of “Brighthelmstone”), and all of the little fishing streets of the original town have been turned into “The Lanes,” a series of little shops and vendors with all kinds of retail products for sale. It wasn’t quite as impressive as the Camden Market I saw (and it was much more mainstream and permanent), but there were a lot of wonderful places to wander in and explore.

My goal was the channel, though, so I walked down to the beach and then out on to the pebbles. Brighton has a lot of similarities to Santa Monica, actually, though of course it’s not nearly as tropical. There’s a carousel on the beach, little bars and ice cream shops lining the waterfront, and there’s even a pier with a sort of Las Vegas feel — there are lots of little arcades and an amusement park to lose a lot of silly money in. The channel itself is much greener than the water I’ve seen in California. But the waves were nicer as well. They satisfyingly crashed in one-by-one, while scads of seagulls flew and cawed overhead. I stood and just appreciated the scene for a while. I was disappointed that I didn’t (though I knew I wouldn’t) see France across the way. But I’ll be there tomorrow, and for a good week after.

Later on, I walked back through Brighton and explored a little bit. There’s a palace there called the Royal Pavilion, built in the late 1700s for King George IV. George liked the Indian style, apparently, and the Pavilion, with lots of minnarets and onion domes, cuts a strange figure in the middle of a bunch of old English buildings. But it did look great. And it was yet another example of something I’ve seen over and over here in Britain: A place literally built for a king, that’s later been handed down into (and used by) the hands of the public. Britain may not put much power into the hands of their monarchs these days, but they’ve definitely taken back a lot of the land.

After the Pavilion, I walked through the many shops, and the narrow market streets in Brighton. There was a candy shop full of sweets of all kinds — Britons definitely love their sweets, I’ve found on this trip. There was an armory, unfortunately closed, but with a window full of various guns and swords from different periods in history. There were bookshops and used clothing stores aplenty. I kind of wanted to buy a hat (I didn’t bring one on the trip at all), and I was on the hunt for maybe an extra shirt or two, but I never pulled the trigger. I’ve heard that things are cheaper in France and Germany, so I decided to wait until then.

There was also a new commercial mall nearby, so I walked over there and through that. Brighton is pretty unique in the places I’ve been in England so far, in that most of the people I heard and saw there were actually English. London is full of Americans and other foreigners — I heard all kinds of accents in the hostel and hotel where I stayed, and even the people out and about are ludicrously familiar to me. One girl I talked to, working as a bartender at yet another pub, was actually from Boston, and here in London studying psychology. And even on the street, just overhearing people go past, I would say that 40% of the people I saw weren’t English at all. Disappointing, almost.

But in Brighton, I heard English accents everywhere. Apparently this was they’d all been hiding out. I stopped by a video game store, a Lego store, and a “99 pence store,” and everywhere I had the annoyingly American thought that it was just like walking around America, except that everybody talked like Hugh Grant.

Finally, for my last dinner in England, I decided to do it up right. The one thing I’d not yet had was bangers and mash (well, I hadn’t had jaffa cakes yet either, so I picked some of those up at the 99p store for the train ride to Paris tomorrow), so I stopped at a Pret for the wi-fi, and looked up a place on Yelp that served some good bangers. The Victory Inn was the pub I found — it was gorgeous, and I just so happened to be there during happy hour, with pints flowing for just £1.50. I ordered a pint and waited for my bangers to come.

And ladies and gentlemen, that dish has saved the whole week of cuisine here. I’ve had some great food in England — a really amazing venison pie, some terrific Indian food, some great homemade Morrocan lamb, and even a presentable fish and chips. But this bangers and mash dish tops the list — the sausages were pork, locally grown, and just bursted with tasty flavor. They were put on a cheddar potato mash mound, and the whole thing was drowned in this red gravy that I wanted to spoon up and finish completely. Everything was topped with what they called “onion shrapnel” as well, little fried onions that were perfectly crunchy. The bartender handed me some Tesco horseradish to go with it, and I was doubtful, but a little sauce on the sausages made the whole thing better. Just amazing. I wanted three more of those dishes, but settled for one more happy hour pint, of a local Sussex ale.

I walked back to the train station full of good food and good memories. On the way home, I had a whole seat to myself, and looked out the window listening to tunes on my iPod. England’s been a whirlwind for me, so much so that I don’t quite know what I think of it yet. And with Paris coming up tomorrow, and Berlin for a week after that, I don’t have much time to decompress. It may be a while before I can really digest everything I’ve seen here.

But I’ve definitely enjoyed it. This is a country built on tradition, a country that trusts its past, and in most cases, for excellent reason. England’s set the standard for so much over the years, and walking the streets of London, you can’t help but come across something classic on every block. The people have been great, in the city and the country, the sights have been awe-inspiring, and the food and the ales have been terrific. I really appreciate my stay here. Though I don’t understand her, I’m sold: God save the queen.

Tomorrow, I get on the train to Paris. God can save me next.

Mark “Turpster” Turpin, I always say, is one of my oldest Internet friends. He and I have been podcasters together for ages now, but we’ve met up only a few times, mostly when he came over to visit BlizzCon in America. So I obviously couldn’t leave England without getting together with him for a day — he was busy last Friday when we did the Tipoaa meetup, so on Sunday we decided to visit one of the tourist sites I hadn’t yet seen: The Tower of London.

Honestly, I was planning to skip the Tower of London while here. It is the closest I would get to a real castle, which I did very much want to see, but it’s also a tourist trap of the highest magnitude — the main attraction is the Crown Jewels, of course, which, as I’ve learned through the past week or so here in London, are basically vain symbols of a meaningless monarchy. The Kings and Queens of England’s past may have had plenty of power, but I’ve grilled the Queen’s modern-day subjects on just what they would do for her if asked, and the answer is invariably not much at all.

Luckily, I had the Turpster as my guide, so the Tower of London opened up history to me in a way I’d never before seen. He showed me the trebuchet outside the Tower, which on any other day I would have considered a fake display, but which Turpster promised me was the actual trebuchet on which they launched Henry VIII into orbit — the first King in Space. Little did I know that the Bloody Tower was actually so named when Edward the Confessor stubbed his toe on it one day, and thus named it the “bloody tower!”

Legend has it that if the ravens ever leave the Tower of London, the Tower and the kingdom it protects will fall, and I did indeed still see ravens in there. But Turpster told me insightfully that their wings are actually clipped, so there’s not much risk in the venture anyway. We saw some old torture devices (and both Turps and I agreed we should get the troops out of a rack as soon as possible), and the Traitor’s Gate, the water-flooded entrance through which many of the tower’s prisoners came (including, as I learned, Guy Fawkes, which I thought was a joke, but it turns out was true).

The Crown Jewels are of course the, well, crown jewel of the tower’s displays, and they were duly impressive — huge and extravagant symbols of the crown’s wealth and importance in the UK (unfortunately, they didn’t allow us to take any pictures of them). But I was just struck by how meaningless all of the pomp and circumstance actually is — if you grill any of the Britons on what it all means, as I did, all it boils down to is “tradition.” As an American, I stand behind my president — especially my current one, because I voted for him, and believe in what he is trying to do.

But the Queen is a figurehead completely — sure, she was dressed up that beautiful golden robe I saw, and given that ludicrously gemmed scepter, orb, and crown to wear. But she means almost nothing, either in the day to day running of the country, or personally for any of her subjects I talked to. I’m just not sure what all of the fuss is about — why not spend all of that time and money on something that makes a difference?

My feeble attempts to sow rebellion did nothing, and Turpster told me to keep it down around the Tower’s guards (who were indeed decked out in their own finery). We also toured the Armory, with various weapons and armor from over the many, many years, and I told Turpster that if America does ever need to take down the Tower of London, a few bunker busters would do the trick. Blow some holes in the walls, send a few tanks through there, put some C4 on the vault, and that’s the end to the monarchy once and for all. I’m kidding, of course, FBI robots trawling this page! The British monarchy can stay. For now.

Afterwards, we met up with some more Tipoaa listeners for lunch (as well as Jem Alexander, a UK games journalist and PR maven and former Joystiq colleague of mine, who lives in Bermondsey and loves dogs, and complained that I didn’t give enough detail about him when I mentioned him before), and I made the ill-fated decision of going to a Chinese buffet for lunch. That’s my mistake, listeners, and I’m sorry. Fortunately, we fixed our lunch choice with a few choice pubs, and a solid afternoon of drinking and chatting.

Finally, I decided to try some pizza in London, and so I went with Harvey (the listener who kindly let me stay with him in Oxford last week) to a chain here called Pizza Express, which serves up a somewhat respectable thin crust offering. The weirdest thing about it was that it wasn’t cut at all — Harvey assured me that England had heard of Pizza Cutters, but the pizza I got was more of a flatbread than anything else. The pepperoni (I got an “American,” which was pepperoni, mozzarella, and there were meant to be tomatoes on there as well but I never saw them — maybe on the sauce) was small but tasty. The whole thing wasn’t bad but wasn’t exactly right either, as if England saw the recipe for pizza somewhere and decided to try and make its own. Harvey claimed that it was closer to the traditional Italian dish but I didn’t really believe that one either.

All in all, a lot of fun. I have one more day here in England — I’m planning to head out of the city one more time, to a city on the coast called Brighton.

John Harrison had a problem to solve.

And it was a good one. Ships were crashing into shores all over the world. Mariners didn’t know their right from their left. Shipping routes were being ruined, and fortunes were being lost. This was exactly the kind of problem that a problem solver like John Harrison loves hearing about. He was a woodworker, liked working with his hands, liked clocks and repairing them. And it turns out this problem, of ships crashing and sinking, was right up John Harrison’s alley. Because it had to do with location. And that had to do with time.

Time and location, as I learned while touring the Royal Naval Academy in Greenwich today, are inextricably linked. And not just in an Einsteinian relativity way, though of course they’re linked in that way, too. No, time and location are linked because time has to do with where the sun is in the sky. If the sun is up, that’s daytime, and if it’s down, that’s nighttime. If the sun is right above you, that’s noon, and time goes on from there. As you travel the earth, then, you’re not just moving in space — you’re also moving in time. That’s why it’s currently 7pm in London as I write this, and 11am in Los Angeles, even though I could call and talk with someone there in real time.

So here’s the problem that John Harrison decided to solve, in order to earn a 20,000 pound prize from the British crown itself: Sailors on ships around the world could look right up at the sun and instantly know what time it was where they were, but they couldn’t tell what time it was where they weren’t. In order to know how far they’d traveled from, say, London, they needed to know not only their own time, but the time from their home base. If they’d left London at noon and it was now noon where they were, just that information was no help. They needed to know that it was now 1pm in London — if that was true, then they’d been traveling for enough distance to put them one hour behind, and that would give them an exact location.

Well, that’s dumb, you might say. All they need is a clock. That’s exactly right: If they had a clock that kept London time, they could just check it against the time given by the sun where they were, and bingo, they’d be able to track their location perfectly. But that was Harrison’s problem: At the time, most clocks were pendulum-based, and a rocking pendulum on a rocking ship doesn’t keep time at all. Other types of clocks just weren’t accurate enough to keep time, and as a result, ships were crashing everywhere. They were misestimating the time they’d traveled, which made them misestimate their distance from shore, and thus they would run aground, costing shippers money.

So the British king and Parliament passed an act offering a reward, asking for a clock that worked on a ship, and was accurate to such a degree that sailors on sea could tell time, and thus their location, from it. Harrison loved clocks, worked well with wood, and really wanted that 20,000 pounds. So he got to work, and made this.

It’s called the H1, and I saw it in person today at the observatory. This is Harrison’s 1st generation iPod, if you will — it’s an astoundingly accurate clock that indeed does work on a ship. Instead of a pendulum, Harrison used two undulating bars with springs pushing them back and forth. There are four dials on the front, for hours, minutes, seconds, and days, and there are large gears inside built out of wood (Harrison, like all good problem solvers, knew how to use well what he did best). This clock went on a maiden voyage and predicted a ship’s movement more accurately than ever before. It wasn’t good enough to win the prize, but it was a breakthrough in engineering.

The H1 wasn’t good enough for Harrison — he got some money loaned to him, and went to work on a clock called the H2. This time, Harrison was a little more savvy — he hired other craftsmen to make parts for him (no wood, this time), and proudly proclaimed on a nameplate that the clock was made with money granted by King George II, not to mention that the clock was made by Harrison himself. The H2 was bigger and more elaborate than the H1, but it still included those two bars. It was an iteration on the first idea, not necessarily an advance on the problem.

The H2 might well have won the prize, except that a few things went wrong. First, Britain went to war with Spain, which put a delay on actually testing the clock out at sea — the country couldn’t send out a high-tech piece of equipment like that with the Spanish Navy wandering around. Second, Harrison himself decided he didn’t like the design: His two undulating bars had issues that he himself couldn’t get past.

So he went to work on the H3, a model much bigger than the other two that never actually got finished. He worked on the H3 so hard and for so long that he actually spawned two major inventions from it that we still use today, a strip made of two metals that bends when heated, and a caged roller bearing, which is a series of small ball bearings used in a joint. But despite all of this, the H3 never worked for Harrison. He himself grew tired of the clock, and got so frustrated with it that he gave up on it around 1750, seventeen years after he started working on H3, and nearly four decades after Parliament first offered the cash prize in 1717.

Before I go any farther, I should probably explain why I think this story is so great. I didn’t go to the Royal Observatory to learn about John Harrison — indeed, this morning I had no idea who he was. If you’d asked me, I would have guessed that he signed the Declaration of Independence or something (not true, being that he was British, not a politician, and died in 1776). I went to the Royal Observatory to see the Prime Meridian line, the exact location at which longitude is defined as 0 degrees. Greenwich isn’t just the home of Greenwich Mean Time, it’s also the home of navigation in general, and the point at which west meets east. It’s the edge of the world, essentially.

I did see that line, and the laser that shoots out of the small building there to mark it off, and the official clock which keeps GMT. I also saw lots and lots of old telescopes, and the buildings and grounds where the Astronomers Royal marked out the stars for the British government, and laid most of the groundwork for the Age of Sail.

But Harrison’s story grabbed me, while wandering through the museum there, because as soon as I started reading and hearing about it, I realized it was actually about something that I love very much: Technology. Harrison was a problem solver, a perfectionist, and, sure, a genius. But I love that he was a man who was handed a problem and just plain figured it out. I’ve done the same things Harrison has while programming, and while writing, and just looking at these clocks on display in the museum (the actual parts he assembled himself!), I was struck by the care he had not just for accuracy and function, but for beauty and concision. Have you picked up on my Steve Jobs comparison yet? I admire Steve Jobs and his work, and as of today, I would put John Harrison right up there alongside him. He seems like a man who loved technology, and, like me, loved coming up with and hearing about new ways to use it to solve problems.

After the H3 and its failure (again, failure in this case meaning multiple legendary inventions), Harrison decided to try a different tack: Pocket watches. Previously, his clocks had all been based on trying to translate larger pendulum clocks to working on the open sea, but since he’d began, pocket watches had gotten better and more accurate, and Harrison decided that maybe lubricating the mechanics with oil, and using smaller, more energetic pieces would do the trick.

The H4 is what he came up with. It’s Harrison’s iPhone, if you will — a completely different piece that broke right through the barriers he was trying to beat, and serves as a masterwork. Though it looks completely different from the H1, 2, and 3 (much smaller and more portable, with obviously much tinier parts), it was accurate enough to earn the prize and finally solved the problem Harrison had set out to solve.

Of course, the Board in charge of awarding the prize didn’t give it to Harrison right away — he had to meet all sorts of extra requirements, and in the end, only petitioning the King himself got Harrison the money he’d earned. That’s another story, and it’s probably more about how troubling bureaucracy is rather than the brilliance of invention.

But Harrison’s work served its purpose. With an accurate enough clock, sailors could tell their distance easily, and the shipwrecks (at least for that reason, anyway) stopped. Other innovators learned to make Harrison’s clocks easier and cheaper to make, and soon everyone could afford to keep a clock on their wrist or by the bedside table.

The problem then became making sure that clock was set to the right time, and that’s what led to the Greenwich Mean Time standard, which was delivered out first by hand, then by telegraph and telephone. Today, most computers actually use UTC rather than GMT, based on the movements of atomic clocks rather than where the sun is over Greenwich. These days, your cell phone gets a time signal automatically, and even wristwatches are accurate to within 10 seconds per year — more than enough to guide a ship around the world without problem. Greenwich still keeps time, and it’s still the name for that area’s time zone, but not too many people use the standard it set way back when.

I love Harrison’s story and its lessons, however. Get a problem, and use what you know to figure it out. When things get tough, back up and try a different tack. Never stop trying. Make things that are beautiful and work well. And when the time comes to claim your prize and land your own little piece of history, don’t even bother with the Bureaucrats. Go straight to the King.

I just wanted to also note that I ate at Subway here in Britain today — obviously, I have been trying to eat locally, because it’s pointless to travel halfway across the world and then eat the same junk I usually eat back home. But it’s Easter today, and I took half the day off just relaxing in my hotel room because it’s been a long week, so when I walked out of the Greenwich tube station and saw a Subway, I figured I might as well go with one of the comforts of home. You know, for research purposes.

Turns out it’s not quite the same. There was actually a Chicken Masala sub on the menu, and I almost wish I’d tried that one, but instead I went with the standard meatball sub, swiss cheese, peppers and onions. The meat was actually way better than anything I’ve had in America from Subway — more meaty for sure. The bread wasn’t quite as sweet though. Maybe no high fructose corn syrup, which was probably good.

If I had to choose one, well, I’d probably choose not to eat at Subway again. And it turns out I instantly regretted my choice — right across from the Subway was what looked like a really good Thai place. But I gave it a shot. A few people have told me to go to McDonald’s in France just so I can order a beer and a Royale with Cheese, but I boycott McD’s in the States already. Most likely, that’s the last I’ll have of American fast food franchises while overseas.

One more thing: The pictures I’m putting in these posts are simply for accompanying the writing. I’m posting all of the pictures I take to my Facebook account. So go over there if you want to see everything. I am not sure if you have to friend me to see them or not, but if you do, I will accept your friend invite. And your friendship.

I’ve seen a lot of amazing things here in England so far, but for the most part, everything I’ve seen has had a parallel back home. I saw 10 Downing Street, for example, and of course that’s similar to our White House. Westminster Abbey is much older than anything in Washington, DC, but I’ve toured old monuments and mausoleums before in the US.

Camden Market, on the other hand, is something I’m pretty sure I’ve never seen before. There are farmer’s markets all over the US, of course — the LA Farmer’s Market is probably the closest parallel I can come up with to describe with Camden Market is like. But even then, I can’t honestly say it comes close. Camden Market was a street market unlike any other I’d ever seen, with just miles and miles of twisty, turn-y passageways full of items for sale, vendors of food and trinkets and clothing and furniture. I’ve been all over America, and I can truly say that America doesn’t have anything like a European market. It was astounding to see.

Not all of the vendors in the many, many (hundreds? thousands, probably) stalls are there all the time — I happened to visit Camden on what Londoners call a “bank holiday weekend,” which is a mythical creature that they all hunt where everyone apparently gets the day off completely. I have heard so many Londoners this week talking about how much they love their bank holidays — more than one reminded me that when the current Queen dies, they’ll get a bank holiday, and they’re more excited about that, I think, than the passing of the monarch. But yes, Camden Market was crowded this weekend, which didn’t bother me at all.

It starts when you get off of the Camden Town tube stop — you see a small gathering of vendors down an alley way, and you walk through that lane to see what they’re selling. It’s mostly junk (well, it’s all junk): London sweatshirts, probably illegal prints of Banksy pieces, used dresses and shirts, plenty of hats and jewelry, and every once in a while, a booth of handmade goods. There’s a small stand selling chicken samosas, four for a pound, so you buy those and eat them while walking around. You reach the end of the lane and decide that Camden market is a charming little place to visit.

Then, you see an entry way to another small store. You figure what the heck, and enter it, only to find that it’s not just one little store, it’s a whole old building, dark and full of vendors, booth after booth of crazy items to purchase. There are shirts that glow in the dark, hash lollipops (that may or may not actually be drugs), knockoff bags and watches by the dozen, leather goods, t-shirts from the obscene to the funny, iPhone cases, knockoff phones, fake DVDs, real DVDs, scarves aplenty, hair clips and hair extensions and wigs, if you have no hair.

After that odyssey, you exit that building and see another, and then another. You make your way down the street — there’s a punk rock shop with a crazy skeleton sculpture above the door, a Chinese restaurant with a life-sized dragon above it, a legendary record store, and stalls everywhere that all lead back into endless dungeons of vendors and their probably illegal wares.

The food! After you cross Camden Lock, you come to another open air market, and you walk through that one for a while, turning corner after corner and finding new tessellations of vendors. There’s huge tubs full of curries of all kinds, sweet and sour and cashew chicken and vegetable noodles, lamb masala, huge pizzas, Persian burgers, pasties, Polish sausages, pad thai, fried noodles, wonton soup, roti bread, huge stalls of homemade doughnuts, dumplings, pies, fruits and vegetables. There’s so much food that vendors are desperate to sell it — they hold out toothpicks of samples yelling at passersby that they’re free, just try one, please. Noodles and dumplings for two pounds fifty, a cup of hot soup three pounds each, pork or veggie bao two pounds or two for three.

You see a hat you might like (given that you didn’t bring one on the trip), and just as instantly as you touch it, a vendor appears with an Indian accent. “You like that hat? I make you special deal,” he says, with the smallest amount of desperation. “Try it on, you’ll like it. Excellent hat,” he says. How much? “Don’t worry about price, I make you special deal,” he promises. “Try it on.” It’s only when you shake your head and start walking away that he quotes numbers. “Good hat!” he yells. “For you, 12 pounds. Special deal for you, sir! What price you want?” He continues until you’ve left the stall, then turns off to the next customer, trying to make a special deal on a hat he got in a crate for one or two pounds.

There are more permanent stores in among the temporary vendor stalls, and they are just as marvelous. Cyberdog is more of a club than a retail store — its walls are lined with clothes and accessories to buy (most of them neon-colored), but the room is dark and a DJ spins club tunes loudly, like something out of The Matrix. On the bottom floor, it turns into a sex shop, with weird corsets and lingerie, and lots of dildos and sex toys. Just off of the food alley above (though honestly, the food is everywhere, anyway), there’s a tiny little room that holds a games shop in a corner, not big enough to spread your arms across fully. It’s packed from floor to ceiling, however, with games of all kinds — board games with the instructions only in German, collectible card games from all over the world, and ancient boxes full of little soldiers and pieces to fight wars with.

The Stables Market is a whole other section, and it’s full of vintage clothing stores and leather shops. Bronze horses stand guard at the entrance, and there is commerce everywhere, commerce that’s been going on for close to a century now.

I attended to my own kind of commerce afterwards — a friend who used to work at Joystiq invited me along to a gathering of UK games writers there at Camden, and we later retired to a pub and bought each other drinks while we talked about what being a journalist was like on either side of the Atlantic. There are shakeups aplenty in our industry these days (not to mention that PAX East is going on right now, and I’m missing it completely), and hearing what they were working on and what things were like over here was fascinating. Unfortunately, I probably didn’t keep up my end of the conversation — my head was still buzzing from all of the markets. But we each bought rounds and shared beers, and it was a nice strong reminder that though I’ve called off of work for these two vacation weeks, the business continues on without me.

Afterwards, I said goodbye and thanks (and promised to get together at E3), and took the train down to a neighborhood called Shoreditch, and the Rosemary Branch Theater. I’d gotten it in my head a few days ago to try and take in a play while in London — the theater here is of course paramount, and London’s West End is widely known for some of the best performances on stage ever. None of those quite matched my price range, though, so instead I thought I’d see a production of Oscar Wilde’s “An Ideal Husband.” The political comedy seemed appropriate for London.

The Rosemary Branch is both a pub and a theater, so I got there a little early and tried a venison burger and chips, along with another beer, while I waited. The play itself was good — I had some issues with the acting, but I had more issues with the seat, unfortunately, which was really uncomfortable for some reason. I’m glad I saw it, though it didn’t really impress me more than anything I’ve seen in Chicago or LA. Maybe I will have to hit the West End for some classic London shows.

And then I walked back to the tube station in Shoreditch, and rode the train back up to my hotel. Tomorrow would be Easter, and I figured that after seven long days in London, I probably deserved a few hours of sleeping in.

It’s going to be a lonely trip at times. I know this. I’ve wanted to travel to Europe for years and years now, and for years and years I told myself that I should wait for the right time, that I should wait until I had someone that wanted to come along with me, a girlfriend or a wife or a family to take. But none of that ever came up, and I decided to go anyway, fly halfway across the world from my friends, family, and life just to see the sights.

Fortunately, it hasn’t been lonely yet — I’ve already met up with a few friends here in London that I’ve known from over the years, and as I said in the last post, a Tipoaa listener named Harvey from Oxford (who I did meet in person at Nerdtacular last year — he’s set to come again this year) kindly invited me into his house there, and he and his mom both kept great company, putting up with my rampant (and probably insulting) curiosity about all things English. While they were making tea for me the other day, Harvey’s mother’s electric kettle made what I thought was a surprising amount of noise and she shook her head at me while I frantically searched Google to find out why (answer: Steam bubbles form in the part of the water that reaches boiling, and then pop as they reach part of the water that’s still cold).

They put up with all my American ways as well — I discovered that I say “cool” and “awesome” way more often than I probably should, and though they kindly assured me that it was no big deal, I felt bad for seeing everything English through the lens of American show business. Oxford’s colleges reminded me of Harry Potter, the mossy gravestones reminded me of Tim Burton and World of Warcraft, and everything I know about cricket came to me through the parody of it in Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy.

After saying farewell to Harvey’s mom and Oxford, we drove back into the city to meet up with his dad for lunch, an actual English barrister (he does indeed have a wig and gown, though he hasn’t worn it in a while, and of course I know what that meant because I’ve seen A Fish Called Wanda quite a few times), at an excellent pub in Hampstead. We ordered up pints of London Pride and three venison pies to eat, and even though the pies came way later than they should have (and were eventually free — apparently our order got lost in the Good Friday pub rush), it didn’t matter. We talked about all kinds of things: The differences between the English and American justice systems, the best places to stay and see in Paris and Berlin, how my generation doesn’t seem to feel the obligation that past generations have, and can thus try and define our own paths in life rather than following some prescribed destiny. I reminded Harvey’s dad that I’m not the only Schramm to chase destiny — my parents are also following their dreams around in an RV.

Afterwards, Harvey’s dad (also called Michael) took us for a ride in his classic 1970s Bristol, just an amazing car. We zoomed around the streets of Hampstead and he kindly delivered me to the hotel I’m staying at for my last five days in London.

I checked in and then got on the train where more good company awaited: I hosted a Tipoaa meetup at the Oxford Circus tube stop. I arrived timidly at the appointed time and tweeted where I was standing, and slowly but surely, listeners emerged from the crowd to greet me. Xav and Jaime were students, Xav a young guy in college (high school for us Americans), and Jaime studying economics in Nottingham. Paymon was a very cool web programmer with an eye for a good pub, and Andy was an airplane mechanic that works at a museum restoring old planes. Later on, Harvey rejoined us as well, and then Jess and Cain, friends of Paymon, and Chris, a guy from Northern Ireland with an awesome (there it is again) accent that didn’t let you forget it.

We started out at a pub across the street from our tube station, and stood in the entryway awkwardly, introducing ourselves and chatting about World of Warcraft. Then it was on to a dingy Tiki bar, where we talked about Diablo and whether you should play Diablo 2 if you haven’t yet before Diablo 3 comes out (Andy is planning to jump into Diablo 3 without having played any of the sequels). There was a good-looking bartender lady at the Tiki Bar, and I noticed that she had three Zelda hearts tattooed on her back. “I like your tattoo,” I told her, and she smiled and said thanks. “Are you a gamer?” I asked. “I was when I was younger,” she answered.

Then we went to a pub called the Glass Blower, and this is where the beer really started flowing. I got to try Guinness, my first in England, and it was as glorious as you could imagine (though still not, as Chris promised me, as good as Guinness in Ireland). I tried some chips (sorry, crisps) that were meant to be flavored like shrimp (though they didn’t actually contain any shrimp at all), and they weren’t bad. Salty, and terrible, but not bad. Despite this face.

We ended the night in a blur, of course, as all great nights out should end. We stumbled through what I was told was Soho, and it was so busy, with tons of crowds everywhere, drunken bars and clubs spilling out into the street. We were looking for a Japanese restaurant, I remember, but we passed one with the same name because we wanted to find a different one. This was the craziest I’d seen of London, with clubgoers everywhere and our little crew, fueled by plenty of beer, navigating through the crowd. Finally, we reached the restaurant and were duly informed by the server that we only had a half hour before close, so we ate our chicken teriyaki quickly. We said goodbye and thanks at the tube stop, and I walked home, my head filled with stories and new friends and excellent beer.

I don’t know what the rest of my trip will be like — I worry that when I do get to lands where I don’t know the language or anyone at all, they’ll be a lot lonelier than this past week. But it’s nice to travel halfway around the world, and find new friends just as willing to share a beer and their lives as much as my friends back home.

London, of course, isn’t all of England. Someone here likened it to New York, in that if you really wanted to see what America was like, you wouldn’t just go to Times Square and look around — there’s plenty more to it than that. So when a Tipoaa listener named Harvey kindly invited to drive me out of the city of London and up to Oxford, England, I gladly accepted.

I exited the stranger from AirBNB’s apartment on Thursday morning — he was nice and I appreciated the bed, given how exhausted I was, but the vibe I got from the place wasn’t great, so I quickly gave my goodbyes and went. I still had a few hours before Harvey and I were supposed to meet, so when the tube took me to Liverpool Street Station on the way out to Shepherd’s Bush, I decided to stop off and see if I could find some Internet to finish up some work on. I did — right in the middle of Liverpool Street Station (a bustling hub for all kinds of travelers, quite a few dogs, and a couple of crazy people), I sat with my laptop and did some writing. It was relaxing, in a way, to see all of that action pass by knowing I was about to escape to the quieter country.

Finally, we met up (at a Westfield mall, no less — Harvey told me it was one of the company’s first forays into England, and was even advertised as an “American-style” mall, which I guess it was), and I got my first taste of riding in a car on English roads. It’s a little nerve wracking, as you might imagine. The first day I was here, I learned not to walk too close to the roads in general — I’d walk on the left side of a road almost in the street, because in America, I could have looked down the road and seen that no one was coming at me. But then a car would come up from behind (because obviously in England, they drive on that side of the road), and nearly demolish me as it went by. In America, despite our bombastic nature, my experience is that motorists are generally forgiving of pedestrians. But the English have no such mercy.

And being in a car is a series of awkward, needless scares here, as if you’re trying to follow a dance that everyone but you knows how to do. The most frightening moments are right turns — your car screams out across the far side of an intersection, leaving you vulnerable, in my mind, to no less than four streams of traffic. But none of them advance on you, of course, because you’ve got the right of way, and you slide into the left side of the road again. Going straight on a normal road feels weird but not necessarily frightening, just like you’re traveling on a special ramp in a parking garage or airport.

The drive out to Oxford isn’t long, but I got a nice good look at the English countryside on the way. It’s, well, gloomy. That sounds like an insult, but it’s more appropriate than anything else — the clouds in the sky give a weird gray pallor to everything, and while the plants are indeed green, they’re sort of colorless as well. Harvey described England’s country as if the saturation had been turned down, the European continent as if it had been turned up, and America as if the brightness had been enhanced. I haven’t been to the continent yet (Tuesday), but I’d agree.

Oxford itself is a university town, in that it’s a town apparently made up of a bunch of universities. It’s also English, in that it was apparently designed over the years on a series of whims. Streets circle around and loop in undefinable ways as you walk them, and they come in all sorts of widths and sizes. There are shops characteristic of a college town, certainly — I saw a Games Workshop store, and even a Gap and a few drugstores, and we had lunch at a sort of asian fusion noodle bar chain called Wagamama (we meant to eat in what was supposed to be an excellent restaurant situated in an old church, but it was unfortunately closed for renovation). But there are also signs of Oxford’s long and distinguished history. We walked through a market in a giant old building, where vendors sold meat pies of all kinds and cuts I hadn’t ever seen before, and a little cake shop that made some just gorgeous creations.

The buildings were also spectacular. Just as I’d seen around London, there are buildings and areas out in the country that have just been sitting there for hundreds if not a couple of thousand years. History doesn’t disappear, it turns out — it just becomes the present. We stopped for a quick drink in a pub called the King’s Arms, a legendary place that was opened back in 1607, and didn’t serve women, says Wikipedia, until the 1970s. I tried to sit in there and imagine pints going out every day for the last couple hundred years, but it was just too much. Having finished most of my Young’s Double Chocolate Stout (one of the best beers I’ve had in England so far) probably didn’t help.

Afterwards, Harvey kindly took me to his family’s house — he’s a student at Nottingham who was home for Easter break. They live in what was formerly the stable house of a full English manor, right next to an old English chapel and a moss-covered graveyard. It was like something out of Downton Abbey or a fantasy setting (the gravestones in the church, especially, reminded me of what I’ve seen in Diablo), but of course it was just history, again, reminding us that it didn’t go anywhere. In the small village nearby (which I walked down a country lane to reach), there was a flower shop called The Blacksmith’s Daughter, likely built in the building that the blacksmith himself once lived and worked in.

We also walked out to the fields around the stable, where rabbits set up camp (an orange cat named Jack who lives with Harvey and his mom will often hunt them, with varying degrees of success), and a horse and a pony live on a small clearing. Out in the fields, where yellow flowers grew in wide swaths and England’s crops made their way up into the frosty spring air, there was definitely a certain peace, a quiet contrast to London’s frantic scurrying.

That night, his mother and he kindly laid out a dinner of Moroccan lamb with couscous for me, and in the morning they served a full breakfast, with bacon, black pudding (which I tried but didn’t quite take to), and sunny side up eggs and fried tomatoes. They were so gracious! I was so grateful. I could get used to this, an English country life.

After waiting in line for a good 20 minutes behind some very talkative French school girls, the young woman dressed up as a maid and the young man in an old police uniform check my ticket and let me go inside. After a coat rack and a few pictures in the narrow entryway, there is a set of stairs, and I count them as I climb.

1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9, 10 — and here there is a landing, where I turn around to walk up the next flight. 11, 12, 13, 14, 15, 16, 17. 17 stairs. Yes. This is indeed the place.

It’s hard to tell you exactly how strong an effect Alexander Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes stories had on me as a kid. Of course it was all of the usual things: I wasn’t very social in elementary school, and I instead buried my head inside as many books as I could find. I was a reader, happier in the library than playing during recess.

But aside from that (which I’ve found characterizes anyone interested in words of any kind), Sherlock Holmes hit me in exactly the right spot. I loved Doyle’s (Watson’s) clear, simple prose, and I loved how structured everything was. A man or woman appears at Baker Street with a problem he or she can’t solve, Watson empathizes and is also confused, but Holmes of course already has it all figured out. He’ll just need a few days or a trip to confirm his suspicions. And by the end of the story, Holmes has gathered his evidence through some climactic scene that has caused the police to come running, and he calmly, nonchalantly explains that it was the butler all along, and indeed, if you had really read the story and seen the details, you would have known that as well. Little Mike Schramm couldn’t believe it — he would frantically turn back through the story’s pages to see what Holmes had seen that he did not, and sure enough, right there, the lady was carrying a red case when she’d earlier mentioned a black one.

I swallowed up these stories as a kid — I digested them, turned them into part of me. Holmes’ direction of “eliminating the impossible” to find the truth, “however improbable” still guides me today. I found a set of tapes in the library of some British actor reading all of Doyle’s stories, and even though I had read them all multiple times before, I listened to all of those tapes for hours, hearing this man (I don’t know who he was) using his solid British accent to tell the stories yet again. And when I was in junior high school, our class was directed to read A Study in Scarlet out loud, with each student reading a line in sequence. After I read my line, my English teacher actually (this is true) stopped the class, and commented on how well I’d read it. He asked me to keep reading, and I read the whole rest of the story out loud to the class, relishing every phrase the way I’d heard that reader do it on the tapes. I was not, obviously, very popular in junior high.

I don’t know when I learned, as a kid, that 221B Baker Street actually existed. I read lots of other books as well, of course (Encyclopedia Brown captured my interest in just the same way, and eventually Lord of the Rings and Douglas Adams also soaked into my bones), but those were all just stories. Sherlock Holmes’ residence, however, actually existed. I had to go. Someday, I thought even as a kid, I would go to London, and walk up the exactly 17 stairs to his lodging.

And yesterday, I finally did.

As you might imagine, the place is a tourist trap. 221B Baker Street didn’t exist in the days that Doyle wandered London’s streets — he apparently picked an address that didn’t have a real door associated with it, because he didn’t want anyone to be bothered by fans. But over the years, various groups and museums have fought to make sure there was a 221B, and eventually London’s government assented. The entire 221B building is now dedicated to Sherlock Holmes and his legacy.

And as real representations of fictional places go, it’s authentic. Holmes’ various implements lay around the small parlor — there’s his deerhunter cap and his magnifying glass, over there a microscope and some Victorian scientific tools and medical journals. I was glad to see that though there wasn’t actually opium lying out, there were spoons meant to dilute the drug. One of my favorite qualities about Holmes is that his meticulous obsessiveness sometimes works against him, usually in the form of unhealthy drug use.

Elsewhere in the building, Watson has his own room, with his famous army revolver and various Victorian medical equipment. Holmes’ housekeeper’s room is filled with newspaper mentions of Holmes and his work, both real and printed excerpts from the stories. And the top floor is taken up with waxwork statues of various characters from the books, including Irene Adler (“the woman”) and the King of Bohemia, the evil rival Professor Moriarty, and one of my favorites, the red-headed man who was hired to copy the Encyclopedia, just so thieves can use his office to rob a bank.

As you might imagine, however, it was less than entrancing. None of it was actually used by Holmes, because Holmes didn’t exist. None of it is authentic, because there is no authenticity to any of it. It’s all icing, no cake. And though the stories were quite meaningful to me, the French schoolgirls wandered through the house chattering away, clearly bored. I actually stood in the parlor for quite a bit of time, maybe 20 minutes, and watched various tourist groups come through, take pictures of the exact same views that I had, and then trundle on. I tried to imagine what it must have been like in an apartment like that back in the 1800s, with horse carriages rumbling outside and Holmes inside, pacing back and forth about a case, occasionally grabbing his violin and playing a few notes.

But of course that never happened. He wasn’t there. I don’t feel ripped off — it was worth the six pounds to go up and see a place that I’d wanted to see ever since I was a kid. It’s satisfying to know that 221B Baker Street is really there, and who knows, maybe visiting it will make some of those French schoolgirls pick up the old books and discover what I discovered.

But that whole place proves that what’s real isn’t necessarily what we can touch or see. Instead, it’s those words I read as a kid, the idea of Holmes, of a man who trusted deduction and reason and used it in such wonderful ways, that provides me with such power. I did enjoy seeing the place for myself, and I got a kick trying on Watson’s bowler in the gift shop, and marveling at all of the Holmes trinkets and paraphernalia. But the real draw and power of Sherlock Holmes and his life isn’t in the collection of fake props in 221B. It’s in the stories, the words I’ve had with me the whole time.

After I left 221B, I took a nice walk around Regent’s Park, seeing the Queen’s Garden and the various John Nash-designed buildings there. I was reminded of Chicago and Lincoln Park, actually, though of course all of London’s great parks were built for royalty, even if they’re now used by the public itself.

I also got to meet up with a fan for a few pints, and my first (and probably last) plate of fish and chips at a place called The Beehive. I am not a fish eater at all — aside from sushi, I just don’t like the taste of any aquatic creatures. But when in London, I figured I needed at least to try some fish and chips, and so I did. It wasn’t bad (it is, after all) fried, just not my speed.

Later on, I went to meet a man I met on AirBNB to stay at his house. It was in the most run-down part of London that I’ve yet visited — I won’t say I feared for my life (I used to live in Chicago, after all), but there was a notice outside the building that I stayed in that told anyone who wanted to read it that police had sighted drug buying and selling in the area and (I’m paraphrasing a little bit for comedy here, but it was so very British) “would you please not do that any more?”

After dropping off my bags at his house (though I tellingly brought my computer back with me), I met my friend Jeff and his wife, from San Francisco, for dinner. We first had drinks at a pub where, no kidding, Bates from Downton Abbey (well, the actor who plays him, but I just called him Bates) actually sat down to have drinks with a friend. I really wanted to go up and tell him how much I love the show, but I figured I probably won’t be representing America very well if I frantically went up to a celebrity trying to get a quiet drink in a London pub. We left him alone.

Afterwards, I ticked off “Have an Indian” from my to-do list with a trip to a restaurant called Sartaj. The chicken tikka masala was excellent, and we had way too much naan — both a gigantic “family” style naan that was huge, and something called “murgi naan,” which was naan bread filled with a really tasty barbecue chicken. After that meal and another drink or two, lacking a few days of sleep, I stumbled back to the AirBNB flat, snuck into the room, and essentially passed out on a stranger’s bed. I don’t know if I will use AirBNB again — it was just a little too weird for me.

Don’t forget: Tomorrow night, 5pm, we’re having a Tipoaa meetup — just come to the Oxford Circus tube station and I’ll be standing right around there with a Tipoaa t-shirt on. We’ll probably go to dinner and then out drinking, so if you’re in London, please do come and say hi!

Living in Los Angeles, it’s sometimes easy to forget that I am almost completely surrounded by the new. Huge billboards on movies not yet due out for months tower over me, the latest cars slide past on the streets, and the latest and greatest gadgets are everywhere. Even our oldest buildings are relics of the ’50s and ’60s, and our oldest history tends to be about movie studio heads who took orange trees and turned them into mini malls. Los Angeles is a city of movies and cars, both inventions from our time, not the distant past.

Westminster Abbey’s latest inhabitant, on the other hand, is an unknown British soldier that was buried in 1920. I literally walked among kings today, explored rooms with walls built hundreds of years ago, and saw a painting, in real life, that was probably put up there 700 years previous.

It’s almost ludicrous how much history there is in Westminster Abbey — the place is literally littered with it, in that there are tombs stacked on tombs, one gorgeous memorial after another, commemorating figure after figure throughout British history. The symbolism is cacophonous: In one corner, here lies a pair of nobles commemorated with life-sized statues placed on a platform being carried by their six sons. Next to that, a tableau of a man fighting with death to save his wife, who passed in childbirth and was buried here.

And across the way is Captain Cook’s grave, and then Henry VII, and the shrine of Edward the Confessor, and the tomb of Mary the Scots. Over here in the Poet’s corner is the statue of William Shakespeare (who’s actually buried in Stratford-upon-Avon, but we thought we’d commemorate him here anyway), and right across from him is a statue of G.F. Handel. He is indeed buried here — along with 3,000 other corpses in a space roughly the size of two city blocks. Everywhere, there are faces of the dead, and symbols and symbols and symbols. Coats of arms, religious symbols, animals that represent Britain or a house or a clan, ornate patterns dating back to medieval times, the Victorian Era, different periods of the monarchy. There’s so much history in the abbey (which “above all,” says a pamphlet, “is a working church”) that even the staff doesn’t know what to do with it. Various unused equipment, chairs and tables, and temporary barricades, is just laying around the church, leaning up against the gold-leafed grave of what’s-his-name, who died fighting for Britain’s honor, and is depicted riding a flying lion, his family’s primary signifier.

That’s not to make fun of the place at all. It’s a holy place despite all of the calamity, and standing there in the Chapter House (with its walls of incredibly detailed stained glass) or the Lady Chapel (with a impossibly crafted stone ceiling) does encourage some reverence. I was dutifully awed at Chaucer’s grave, and I made notes on my iPhone to go and read more about Mary, Queen of Scots and Edward Longshanks after seeing their final resting places.

I felt some of that reverence down the street as well — seeing the Cenotaph and learning the story of Remembrance Day really made me consider what both “the Great War” and Hitler did to Britain specifically and Europe in general. These people haven’t just been through some history — they have good reason to make sure and remember it as well.

And from what I saw today, they do. Churchill stands just east of Big Ben, outside of Westminster. Monty (the general that beat Erwin Rommel) stands outside the Ministry of Defense. And the whole lane there, all the way down to Tralfagar Square, just reeks of tradition. The Horse Guards changing in their prim uniforms. Nelson and his column and his Lions. And all of old buildings, steeped in the tradition of kings’ executions and classic war photographs and press.

I walked that whole lane today, and then over to St. James’ Palace and the Square, and then up through Piccadilly again, where stores that started to sell goods as long ago as 1700 still peddle their wares. In the evening, I went to dinner with my friend Jem, saw the Tower Bridge and Shakespeare’s Globe Theater, had a drink at a pub that’s been around for 150 years.

I’ve been thinking a lot about worldbuilding lately, for various reasons. George R.R. Martin’s world in Game of Thrones, for example, is a complex and textured universe, with plenty of fascinating houses and characters and places to fill it out. Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings trilogy is one of the most well-formed fictional worlds out there, with thousands of years of history that tells an epic story. But these have nothing on the Britain I saw today — the royal tradition is full of rich stories and characters, and wrought with symbols and signs and legends.

The smells of London are something I haven’t come up with a good way to describe yet. They’re probably the most foreign thing I’ve encountered over here — just walking around the city, you’ll get a whiff of something you just didn’t expect. Coming up from the Tube, you’ll grab a note of curry, and wonder where the great Indian place is that you’re missing. You’ll walk down a side street and get a quick puff of stale air, undoubtedly forced up from one of the city’s complex and vast underground systems. Or you’ll be walking down a narrow street, and suddenly smell horses. There aren’t any around at the moment, but then you realize that for centuries, horses and carriages probably wandered this same street, leaving their smell for just as long.

This is a city where history has happened, over and over again. Los Angeles is full of the new — you can’t get away from it. But London is steeped in the old — you see it, you smell it, you feel it. There’s history here, real history, so much so that the years weigh down upon you.

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A collection of work by Mike Schramm. Learn more about Mike and this website. Schramming it up since 2004. A podcast for you to listen to, hosted by Mike Schramm and Luke Lindberg. Pictures, dramatic and playful, in black and white and color.